The bells tolled twelve in the town square and in the bell tower of the church. It was noon on Easter Sunday in Germany, and the great clock set into the wall of Bussy's town hall as well as the one adorning the church reflected that time. However, in the Williams-Bonnefoy household the great grandfather clock in the atrium, with its dark bass tone echoing through the bare hall, was one chime short. Here, as in all the French households, it was only eleven AM, no matter what time the occupying soldiers insisted they were living on.
Matthew counted the hollow chimes, sure that he could feel each one of them reverberating within his heart in the same way they did the heavy mahogany body of the clock. Morning mass had been over for an hour, as the church had no choice but to operate on the time indicated by the Germans, but Marthe would not be serving Easter lunch until noon, punctual to a fault. Any attempt to persuade her to relinquish even a morsel before then would end in dire consequences and a severe dressing down that he was simply not prepared to deal with. Hungry and finding that he had no heart to work on Easter Sunday, Matthew had given himself up to picking through a book in the sitting room while he waited.
Aside from the occasional bustle of pots and pans from the faraway kitchen, the estate was silent, as if holding its breath. The April air spilled in through open windows, warm and damp and carrying the scent of peach blossoms. Stiff in his formals, Matthew could hardly enjoy it, just as he had little taste for the novel in his hands. He had no place to be content in a time like this, he knew. And so he never allowed it of himself, always trying to remember what it was that he was doing, of his responsibilities to his father and his country.
Looking around the sitting room, it was not easy to forget that they were in a war and on the wrong side of it. Marthe had gone through with him, pointing out here and there what needed to be hidden away, what needed to be removed from sight, and what precious family heirlooms must never touch the filthy hands of those Boche that were invading the town this time. The walls were bare, and even the ornaments that nobody had liked in the first place (that ridiculous vase from the mantle with the hideous pastel peacocksa gift from some obscure relative that nobody dared throw away just in case he should visit and remember it, for example) were packed away and hidden with such care that Matthew was not sure they would ever find everything to put back in its proper place again.
Things not easily hidden (the piano, the library), had been locked tight and Marthe had claimed she would defend the keys with her life. But of course, these were the things that their German lieutenant had asked for within his first day in the estate. The library was understandable, Matthew thought, but taking the keys to the piano must have just been a show of power. It had not been played a single time since their soldier had come into the house. And it was just as well. Matthew had about as much taste for music as he did for books and entertainment in these times.
As he always did when his thoughts strayed to the German, the one who could smile just as easily as he could draw himself to military attention, who was polite to the women in the village (according to hearsay), and who was just as often as not playing with the regiment's dog or the village children in his off time, Matthew found himself perplexed. On the one hand, whenever he looked at him, he could only imagine that this Lieutenant Beilschmidt was a decent person. And by all accounts, here in the village he was quite well behavedand even liked by some, grudgingly. But on the other hand, Matthew could just as easily imagine his long, delicate white fingers curling around a trigger, firing a gun at the French soldiers, lobbing grenades into trenches, mercilessly covered in blood and dirt and grime while counting off prisoners of war one by one into a truck...
No. Matthew had to overlook whatever seemingly good qualities this man had. On principle, on what he had done, who he had killed. It was possible that his own father had
Matthew was jolted out of his thoughts, his book thumping to the floor.
"Since I believe it is still morning in this house. I am almost sure I counted eleven strokes just now, but I may have been off," came the rest of the statement, casually said from outside the sitting room window, the owner propped against the sill as if he owned the place. Bitterly, Matthew remembered that he essentially did. It took a moment longer to register that he was being openly called out on breaking a rule.
"Good morning, sir," Matthew replied stiffly, reaching for his book from its place on the floor, the tips of his ears going red at the display and the humiliation of having lost his composure so easily in front of this soldier. The lieutenant, encouraged by the answer, let his smile grow a little wider. It looked to Matthew like a teasing smirk.
"It is a really good morning, actually, what with this weather. Good news for the holiday. I just got in from the square, and I have to say, it is impressive how many people managed to pull out their finery to celebrate, despite everything." The lieutenant leaned against the window sill, and continued on conversationally, as if it were a normal occurrence between them. Matthew resented him more with each passing second. "But I guess there are just as many people dressed finely and holed away in their homes. This really is a surprising village."
Matthew tried to muster up his worst and most poisonous glare, knowing that he must look like a petulant teenager by the other's reaction. It was hardly fair, with such a small age difference between them that it should be that way. But there it was. The only reason he was not a soldier was because the army had considered him a child until it was already passed too late. His soft features, too used to the care of the estate, only accentuated the problem.
"I am just back from the morning mass," he eventually answered, defending himself. He was unsure of why he felt so self conscious. Normally, he would have pointedly ignored any advances in conversation from the other. It must be the spring air getting to his head, causing him to save his reputation from a glorified murderer. "I will be going again to Vespers when it is time."
"Quite the upright Catholic, aren't you? Not that I expected otherwise." The amused edge to the officer's voice grated on his nerves, rubbing him the wrong way. Matthew sat up a little straighter, sending a scathing look through the window over the tops of his spectacles. He hated to admit how very much he felt like a woman, spurning friendly advances like this. But the soldier just would not take the hint that he did not wish to consort with him in any way.
"I notice that none of you soldiers took part in the mass."
At that, the man chuckled. "The iron cross is the only one I need, you know. Orders from above, but a different one than you're accountable for." He chuckled again, propping his chin against the arm resting in the window sill. "You know, I am pretty sure this is the longest we have ever talked before."
Matthew cursed the way that his cheeks tended to flare up with color when startled. Pointedly, he moved his eyes back to the book in his lap, as if staring at it would enable him to absorb the contents. It was obvious his concentration was elsewhere. The lieutenant only seemed more amused, but after a few more failed attempts to coax conversation from the tight lipped boy, he gave up with an easy shrug, not especially discouraged or disappointed. Matthew heard his boots against the garden path as he disappeared from sight.
He did see the soldier again later in the day, as he and Marthe left the house to go to Vespers. It was Marthe that commented on the sight of him racing around with the army dog that sometimes came home with him. It was a lean and muscular creature, and seemed to be well trained, even if it was a mutt. The officer was playing a game, tossing a stick as hard as he was able and the dog would bound off, tongue lolling as he made to retrieve it and start the cycle over again. But it was the cook's keen eye that identified exactly what they were playing with.
"That Boche has snapped a limb from the peach tree! He'll be the death of us, killing our fruit before we can even think to eat it. What won't they take from us...our homes and food. The good linens. If your father were here..."
Matthew placed a steadying hand on Marthe's shoulder as she bit back tears that threatened to well up at the thought of Monsieur Bonnefoy. She had been working in their home for twenty-seven years, and was really as much a member of the family as anyone by now. If not for the portrait of his birth mother, once decorating the wall in the foyer and now carefully tucked into a secret hiding place, Matthew was sure that his image of a mother could be summed up in this woman, red cheeked and a full head shorter than himself.
"Come now," he soothed, trying to put some heart in it, though he really did not believe in much of what he was saying, "This is the third regiment to pass through. He'll be gone soon enough, and then we can get back to our normal life again. Hold your chin up. Father will...will be proud of us when he gets home."
The mention of Monsieur Bonnefoy was enough for her to gain back her fighting spirit. Patting her hair carefully into place, she set her jaw firmly and straightened her skirts. "So he will. Come along now, no more time for dalliance. They won't hold the church for latecomers, no matter what family they may be from."
As they walked on, Matthew could hear the sounds of laughter and barking floating from the garden echoing on far longer than they ought to have.