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God Speed the Night
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Jerome Ross
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Jerome Ross
All rights reserved.
The harvest time of 1943 was as bitter a season as the people of France had known since the Prussian victory of 1871. The Boche was in total and greedy occupation and too often he was aided, even abetted, by the Frenchmen of Vichy. In the vicinity of St. Hilaire, a small town in the southwest, the orchards were heavy with fruit, the fields turning gold with grain. Many a woman toiling alone with no man left to help her wished the land, and sometimes herself in those times, barren.
That day the peasant women of St. Hilaire worked steadily with scythe and sickle, indifferent to the approach of the noon train from Bordeaux. Once they would have rested while it passed, stretched their backs and folded their arms. They would have nodded to the travelers whose faces swarmed in the windows, and it would have been in their minds to say, Yes! Isn't it beautiful? This land belongs to us and we to it, for their nationality was in the very scrapings of the soil from beneath their fingernails. But the train then squealing through the valley would bring only strangers, fat Nazis, Vichyite officials, and haunted refugees with empty pockets. The women did not look up when it rattled to a stop on high and open ground where a platoon of German soldiers probed the undercarriages for unenumerated passengers; they merely steeled themselves for the racketry of automatic rifle fire and went on working. There was no rifle fire that day.
Some near the road, however, paused and shaded their eyes at the appearance of a conveyance unusual for even those times of transport oddities. From out the hilltop gates of the Convent of Ste. Geneviève came an ancient barouche of faded elegance. A grey-clad novice was perched on the driver's seat, her veil streaming in the wind as she urged the ploughhorse into an elephantine trot. As the barouche passed the women bowed low, for the passenger was Reverend Mother St. Charles, superior of the house. There had been a time when both farmers and townspeople gave to the nuns, whereas today the religious community was known to deprive itself on behalf of the plundered citizens of St. Hilaire.
For her part, Reverend Mother was beset by misgivings for having herself ventured beyond the convent grounds, much less at having brought with her one of the novices who, by strict construction of the rule, should have been shielded from the outside world. But the times were stricter than a rule, she reasoned, and Gabrielle was a sturdy vessel of the Lord. The harnessing of a ploughhorse to a barouche instead of a hayrack would not make her vain. And if it did, the carting of a hundredweight of luggage at the railway station would humble her again. There was this also in Reverend Mother's mind: Gabrielle would study and some day teach history, even as she herself had done, and to Reverend Mother history was to be understood not only in the study of parliaments and tyrants, but in the people of the times, in these very women in their fields to whom she waved, for it was they who would sow tomorrow's seed from the bitter harvest of today.
"Look, Reverend Mother!" Sister Gabrielle turned in the seat, her eyes wide with discovery. She pointed to the roadside shrine, a white cross with a braided wreath of flowers hung on it.
"A memorial to someone in the Resistance," Reverend Mother said, raising her voice above the clatter of the horse's hooves.
"I know," Gabrielle said, and turned her attention again to the road.
Did she know? Or was it a manner of speaking? And how much more would she know before this journey was completed? In the distance they could see St. Hilaire, the spire of the cathedral rising like a hand toward God. Along the road banks before them, the memorials grew numerous. Gabrielle would mark them in her mind and whisper of them to the other novices, and they would pray for the souls of the Resistance fighters as, during Reverend Mother's own noviceship, she had prayed for the unknown soldiers fallen at Verdun. She put her hand to the beads at her side, and at every memorial repeated thrice: Requiescat in pace.
Sister Gabrielle gave herself up for the moment to the delicate maneuvering of the reins along the horse's rump in order to dislodge a fly Poirot could not reach with his slashing tail. To concentrate on such a common thing was comforting. She had always loved the sky, but now there was too much of it, and never before that she could remember had she looked down at crosses. Always up at them. Her first thought when Reverend Mother had told her that she was to hitch Poirot to the barouche and drive her to meet their sisters from the north had been that afterwards she would be homesick again. The homesickness had already come, but not for the house of her father nor the farm of her childhood. No more than a few minutes from its gates she wanted to turn back to the convent. But not for the world would she let Reverend Mother know that. She would be equal to the duty and worthy of the trust—with the help of Ste. Genevieve and Our Lady—for was it not likely that this was a test of her true vocation? As Reverend Mother had said in one of her talks to the novices, extraordinary times impose extraordinary duties. If God tests us, He also gives us courage. Reverend Mother spoke often of the need for courage.
Gabrielle did not hear the automobile approach until almost the moment Reverend Mother called out to her to make way. She pulled hard on the rein in time to turn Poirot's head aside before the car surged past raising a curtain of dust. It screamed to a halt a few meters ahead. The horse balked just as two German officers leaped out and slammed the car doors behind them. Both men started across the ditch and up the bank toward a trio of the memorial crosses, but one of the men, seeing the horse about to bolt, came running back. He caught the bridle in both hands, allowing the beast by the upward thrust of its head to lift him from the ground. When he came down he brought the horse under control with a vicious yank of the bit. He pulled again and again as though he would saw the tongue from its mouth.
Sister Gabrielle cried out, "You don't have to do that!"
He stood for a moment by the quivering animal and grinned up at her. He was a handsome young man with insolent eyes. Gabrielle met them, foregoing modesty in anger. Both were sins: her realization was immediate and she cast down her eyes.
Reverend Mother cried out: "Merciful God!"
Gabrielle and the soldier also looked then to where a peasant woman, her scythe raised, and her voice cracking with rage, lunged toward the German who had torn the crosses from the ground and was in the act of breaking them over his knee. He swung around in time to avoid her, and then with one backward step, he drew his revolver and fired point blank.
Poirot plunged forward again at the sound of the shot. The young officer once more grabbed the bridle. By the time the horse was subdued, the other officer had returned to the car.
The young one called out to Reverend Mother, "Please, madame, continue your journey." Gabrielle turned around.
Reverend Mother stood steadying herself before climbing down. Ignoring the German, she said, "Sister Gabrielle, you will remain where you are." She stepped awkwardly from the barouche.
Gabrielle looked at the soldier.
"God's fools," he said, and saluting her, he ran to the car, slid into the driver's seat and drove off.
Gabrielle reined in the restive horse and watched the converging of other women on Reverend Mother where she knelt beside the fallen one. Gabrielle was ashamed of the trembling in her knees; she feared she could not walk if Reverend Mother called her to come. But Reverend Mother rose and stood a moment praying, and the women stood with her silent through the prayer, then they raised a lamentation like the crying of wolves at night. Four of them bent and lifted the woman in their arms and carried her over the crest of the hill to the house where she had lived. Another of the women, for five of them had come, picked up the scythe and started to follow. She stopped, turned back, and ground the handle of the scythe into the earth where the blood had marked it, and there it stood looking from a distance like a broken cross.
Reverend Mother returned to the carriage, her habit swirling the dust. She climbed in, her face as white as the wimple on her brow. "A walking pace will do from here, Gabrielle. Our sisters will wait in the station until we come."CHAPTER 2
Théophile moissac, prefect of police, ordinarily looked forward to meeting the train from Bordeaux, but that day he would have preferred to absent himself from the station. The Germans had recently taken their own census of the department's able-bodied men, a procedure in which he had necessarily co-operated. The labor conscriptees would go out from St. Hilaire on the noon train. This at the very time the landowners' syndicate was recruiting volunteers for the harvest. He had tried to persuade Colonel von Weber, the Occupation chief, to delay the conscription. To this Von Weber had responded, "My dear Moissac, they are going to Germany to work. The Germans are going to Russia to fight."
Moissac could have found other duties at that hour, but the district prefect of agriculture had informed him that he would arrive by the noon train, and in any case it was Moissac's duty to be on hand. He wondered if it would be appropriate for him to invite the prefect of agriculture to dinner. It was a gesture he particularly wanted to make, so he stopped at home before going to the station to see what Maman could provide.
"It will do you honor," she said, avoiding a direct answer as to what she would serve. She was often mysterious in these matters, and most of the time he preferred it so: she did such wonders on their food coupons. It crossed his mind that the prefect of agriculture might be of the same opinion. He did not want him to be overly impressed. But how to say this to Maman he did not know. He tried to think of the right tack while he got the clothes brush and brought it to her where she was cutting the leaves from a head of cabbage. Maman dried her hands on her apron and took him out into the sunlight where she could brush him properly. She had, now that she was bending with age, to stand on the step in order to inspect his shoulders. She made a little clicking sound with her tongue while she brushed him.
"I am losing my hair. I can feel the sun on the top of my head," he said.
"I can't see where, but I will get more of the tonic."
"Where will you get it?"
"The last you got made it fall out the faster."
"Dead hair. You are healthier without it."
He turned and looked down at her. "And handsomer, maman?"
"Handsomer than most," she said, and he wondered if there were any more conviction in her words than there would have been in his, paying a like compliment to a shriveled old pouch of lavender like herself. Lavender and cabbage, lavender and garlic, lavender and sweat.
"There will be roast pork for dinner, my son."
Moissac almost wished she had not told him. "Butcher's pork?"
"I shall cook it well."
"Which does not answer my question."
"I have answered it," she said. Then, turning back as she started into the house: "Rene brought it if you must know."
He had guessed as much. Having removed Maman from the district of St. Hilaire known as the Old Town when he became prefect, he had thought she would make new friends. She had complained since his childhood—his father had been killed in an accident when Théophile was six—of having to live over a drapery shop. But now that she had the cottage she wanted with a view of the river at the front of the house, she rarely left the kitchen at the back, and the only new friend was Monsignor La Roque whom Moissac himself had cultivated. The only old friend who still came, but never when Moissac was home, was René Labrière, a jack of all trades who presently advertised himself as a photographer. Moissac followed his mother into the house. "I'm not sure René wouldn't poison me these days if he had the chance. Did he tell you where the pork came from?"
She shrugged impatiently. "A pig. He took a wedding photograph. It was his payment. He did not lose money, bringing it to me."
"I wouldn't think he had. All the same, call the registry in my name and be sure there was such a wedding in the district." Moissac knew he was making René and not the unrationed pork the issue. But he knew too that if there had indeed been such a wedding, his own conscience would be untroubled explaining their table to the prefect of agriculture.
Maman said, "Théophile, I cannot live with such suspicion. René was my friend when we lived in the Rue de Michelet. When you were away at school he brought me wood every day."
"That was almost forty years ago, maman. We no longer live on Michelet. René does. I am prefect of police and he is a photographer when practically no one wants to get their picture taken. I will wait until you call the registry."CHAPTER 3
When the train jolted to a halt on the plains above St. Hilaire, Marc Daridan came violently awake. He recognized no one at the instant of waking, not even the woman trying to hold him against her. The eyes upon him were the eyes of strangers, always the eyes of strangers and always fixed on his as though challenging his recognition: it was a repetitive dream that occurred when he was about to waken, the dream of faces, almost literal in its meaning, and this time it merged with consciousness, for the other passengers were staring at him.
"It is all right," Rachel said over and over. Her voice and then her whole presence became familiar, and he knew at once why she was on the other side of the dream: they had married less than a week ago, and the dream had commenced before. "He has bad dreams," she explained to the others in the compartment.
"Who does not?" a man said.
Marc turned to the window. Close alongside the train, their helmeted heads bobbing up and down, the German soldiers moved forward. The tremor of fear ran through him. Rachel said, "They are outside, we are inside."
The man opposite overheard although she had spoken softly. "No, madame. They are inside everywhere."
Marc looked at him: a mournful, sweating face. He was wearing far too many clothes for the summer day. He too was on a one-way journey, Marc thought, and his wife was trying to elbow him into silence.
Another man trod on their feet, trying to climb over the luggage to the window. "What are they looking for?"
Marc looked out again. The soldiers had squatted down, their rifles poised. "For the traveler without an Ausweis," Marc said.
"Inside everywhere," the man repeated.
"We are almost there," the man at the window said. "I can see the spire of St. Hilaire."
"You should have wakened me," Marc said, leaning close to Rachel.
"You never sleep enough."
"Never is too big a word. You haven't known me that long." He spoke lightly, wanting to forestall more tension if he could. He brushed her forehead with his lips.
The color rose to the pale girl's cheeks. It pleased him to see it. It meant her fears were less than his, he thought, and he had mastered his before.
The woman opposite Rachel said, "You are just married, madame—monsieur?"
"No, madame," Marc said. The papers they traveled on showed them to have been married for a year. The fact was their marriage had been a compact in the presence of a witness: there was no public record of it.
"Do not ask questions," the woman's husband said. "Leave the questions to the Boches." He curled the sweat from his forehead with his fingers and whipped it onto the luggage at his feet. The splash of it crawled through the dust like something alive.
The man at the window stumbled back to his seat.
"There is no more conversation anywhere," the woman lamented.
"Soon it will be different," Rachel smiled at her. It was almost impossible for Rachel not to smile, Marc thought, and for just an instant he conjured a picture of what she would be like in the daylight of their lives if that time ever came: a laughing girl who loved the sun.
Excerpted from God Speed the Night by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Jerome Ross. Copyright © 1968 Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Jerome Ross. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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