A Conversation for A Place to Call Home

Chapter 14

Post 1

Minorvogonpoet

Chapter 14
Michel

Michel found minor roads out of Agen and they left the town without running into any more check points. At first, Jeannot was fretful and cried a little, but after a while he fell asleep. By the time they reached the farm the afternoon was well advanced. As Michel drove down the track, he saw how well suited it was as a place of refuge. It was not visible from any made up road and the long line of buildings offered a number of potential hiding places. There was room above the cowshed for someone to bed down in the straw. Part of the barn was divided into stalls for a couple of horses, and there was room above these too. The place stunk of manure but that was more likely to deter observers, rather than a family in need of a hiding place. Few visitors came that way and anyone approaching could be seen from the farm. At present, the farm looked idyllic, with blossom still on some of the fruit trees, the wheat green in the fields, and wild flowers in the verges.
As Michel drove into the yard and climbed down from the lorry, Henri came round the corner. The dog Belle, came running up towards him and laid her paws on his legs. Michel stroked her ears. Danielle followed Michel more slowly, Jeannot in her arms.
“I wasn't expecting you today,” said Henri, looking past Michel to Danielle and the child.
Michel hesitated. For the first time since childhood, he had come to beg a favour and didn't know to say so. In the end, he opted for honesty. “I'm afraid we've had to leave our place in Caillac. We got a warning that the police know we've been sheltering people. Refugees. We left in a hurry. We’d be really grateful if you’d let us stay here. ”
Henri was silent for a moment. “Well, you took the decision to join the Resistance.” He looked at Danielle. “You and Danielle.”
Michel noticed how Henri looked at Danielle, as if fighting between lust and anger.
“We haven't got anywhere to go,” Danielle said, coming forward with Jeannot. “We thought you could easily put us somewhere in one of the barns.”
“But I've told Michel before I don't want to get involved,” Henri spat on the ground. “I always knew it would be trouble.”
Michel felt himself growing angry and tried to resist the urge to shout. He opened and clenched his fists “I've done a lot of work for you. I might expect something in return.”
“I gave you meat and milk in return. That was a fair deal.”
“Would you really turn your brother and your nephew away?”
For a moment, Henri was silent, then replied more quietly. “Look, I've got a wife and a child too, you know. I don't want to put them at risk. You can stay tonight but you'd better sleep in the barn. I'll talk to Cecilie and decide whether to risk letting you stay longer.”
Michel felt a wave of fatigue as well as relief. “We would be very grateful for anything. Surely nobody's going to check your barn.”
Henri nodded at the lorry. “You'd better move that, though.”
Michel drove the lorry so it was hidden behind the barn. Then he and Danielle, with Jeannot, followed Henri into the house. There was a scent of something cooking on the stove, and the kitchen seemed warm and welcoming
As soon as they walked in, they saw Cecilie sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, breast feeding her baby. Michel saw a look of dislike cross Cecilie's face as she saw Danielle.
Danielle put Jeannot down on the rug and hurried over to her sister-in-law. “ Oh, little Annette is growing so fast.”
“Yes,” Cecilie said sullenly.
“I've told Michel they can stay in the barn tonight,” said Henri, slowly. “Can we find something to eat?”
Cecilie took her time to draw Annette from the breast, close her dress, and wipe the baby's mouth.
She laid Annette in a basket and crossed to the cooker. “There's some rabbit stew.”
Cecilie set out bowls, knives and forks on the kitchen table, and placed a bowl of stew in the centre. The four adults sat round the table, with Jeannot on his mother's lap, and started eating. At first, little was said.
“You can't stay here for long,”said Henri, after a while. “Do you have any plans for where you go in the longer term?”
Danielle looked at Michel, her eyes full of tears.
“We might head south,” said Michel. The truth was that he had no plans beyond tonight. Although he knew Danielle's father and cousins had made their way south in an attempt to reach Spain, he had no idea whether they had arrived. Besides, he hadn’t given up his idea of fighting for a free France. If he’d been a single man, he’d have taken the chance of hiding somewhere in the countryside and continuing the struggle. His responsibility for Danielle and Jeannot made that impracticable.
“I could call that irresponsible,” said Henri.
“Look, there's a war on,”said Michel with a rising anger. “All sorts of people are on the move.”
Danielle laid a restraining hand on his arm. “For now, we're just glad to be here,” she said.
By the time the meal was over, it was dark. Henri took a lantern and they crossed the muddy farmyard to the barn. Stepping out of the warm kitchen, they were aware that the night was cool and very dark, apart from the moon, that shone remote and silver, and a speckling of stars.
The grey horse, Grisette, gave a whinny of greeting as they entered. There was a pile of manure in the corner and the barn was full of its stench, but Henri ignored her and walked to a rough ladder that led up to the hay loft .
“I suppose it's not what a lady like you is used to,” said Henri with a bitter edge to his voice.
“It's fine,”said Danielle faintly.
Michel put his arm round Danielle's waist to comfort her, and led her to the ladder up to the hay loft. He climbed the ladder and stretched his arms down to take Jeannot from her. Danielle climbed behind him, hitching up her skirts and treading carefully through the hay.
“I'll talk to you again tomorrow,” said Henri. He hung the lantern on a post and walked away.



Henri

When Henri returned to the house, he found Cecilie washing up the dishes from their meal. She had changed since their marriage. She had not lost the weight she had gained during her pregnancy, while she had given up dyeing her hair, which was now light brown. But that was not the worst change. Some of her charm had gone too, as she had become argumentative.
“Why did you let your brother and that Jewish woman stay here?” she asked.
“They're in trouble. The police are after them.” He shut the big kitchen door and leant against it. He was used to seeing the farm as his domain. For a while, he'd been content to share it with Michel but he regarded other comers with a certain amount of suspicion. He was unhappy at the idea of Danielle and their baby staying, risking bringing trouble on them all. “I'll decide what to do with them in the morning.”
Cecilie dried her hands, came close to him, linked her hands round her neck and smiled. As her face dimpled, she was still pretty. “You're too kind. You should have sent them away.”
He shook his head. “I couldn't do that. He's my brother.”
“But it's their own fault. They shouldn't have had anything to do with the Resistance.”
“I know. Michel was always rash. And Danielle would always have been in trouble, because she's Jewish.”
“We should tell them to leave tomorrow.”
Henri shook off her hands and sat down at the table. He was sure his main loyalty was to his farm – not just the buildings, the cattle and the fields but the values it represented. Stability, continuity and family. His family had lived there for generations, farming and taking care of the land. The house was about a hundred years old, and there had been an earlier building there. He’d seen it as his duty to continue the tradition. Now he felt he was being forced to make a choice between his brother and his wife and baby daughter He was conscientious enough to think it would be wrong to turn his brother and sister-in-law away when they needed help. Nevertheless, he felt Michel had deserted him, by going to work in a garage in Caillac. Meanwhile, Danielle, much as he was attracted to her, came from a different class and religion. She didn’t belong here. “If they get caught, it would be partly my fault,” he said and suddenly felt very weary.
“No it won't. It will be Michel's. He's taken too many chances.” She went over to the basket where little Annette was sleeping peacefully. Having picked up the basket, she brought it to the table and set it down in front of him. “Your first responsibility is to us – your wife and your daughter.”
“I know.” For a moment longer, he wavered and thought of finding his gun, which he had wrapped up and hidden in the well. Perhaps he should be prepared to defend the farm from the Vichy authorities. But his dislike of trouble and conflict were too strong. “I’ve done what I can. I'll ask them to leave after breakfast tomorrow.”
Cecilie planted a kiss on his head. “You're a good man, Henri. You're just taking a difficult decision.”


Chapter 14

Post 2

Dmitri Gheorgheni - Post Editor

smiley - applause Good job explaining the reasoning. That went on a lot.

Cow and horse manure? Not so bad. It's chickens and pigs you really don't want to be downwind of. (My view of farm life.)


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