Spring blossomed gently into summer, the late June weather fine and hot, and the villagers and Germans of Bussy found themselves strangely at ease. They were too far removed from the rest of France, from the rest of the world on these lovely summer evenings. Gentle stirrings of warm breezes mingled with the humming of insects, sweetly drifting over young couples as they visited in secret. The Germans and the French were by no means reconciled, and being found out by the rest of the village would create scandal and uproar, but who could resist the sweet intoxication of young love when it called? Especially in these times!
Most of the villagers feigned a blind eye or a deaf ear, should they catch a pair of voices whispering sentiments in broken French and German. The men had been too long away, and so long as the wives remained faithful, who would mind the young girls learning to turn on their charms? The now familiar Germans, who gave candy to the children and acted so courteously and helped with the rations, these boys deserved a break as well from their hard training. So the softer hearts of Bussy claimed, while the harder ones scoffed, yet feigned ignorance all the same.
Matthew was hard at work himself, ignoring everything there was to ignore about the soldier billeted in his own home. Quite a feat, as Lieutenant Beilschmidt had taken up position in the sitting room window once again, commenting from time to time on the niceties of the temperature or the weather. Matthew staunchly refused to give in to even the most neutral of responses, for fear he'd be consumed in another pleasant conversation with a man he was supposed to hate.
And it was getting more difficult to hate this man who shared his home as the time went on. It had begun after Easter. He'd allowed Herr Beilschmidt to entice him into conversation over literature, finding that they had a great deal in common when it came to authors, but a plethora of opposing ideals. Many enjoyable hours were spent picking apart one another's interpretations of classic works, finally coming to resigned agreements on this one, and firm disagreement on that. They had found in one another an intellectual equal.
Literature was not the only area in which the Lieutenant excelled. Mid-May saw the beautifully ornate key to the piano produced, and the soldier had asked for permission to play. Permission! Marthe, who had been previously somewhat appeased with gifts of real (and now quite illegal) white flour for bread, and lard for the pans, and even on several Sundays real meat, barely knew how to react in her surprise at the request. "Certainly, you're the master here," had been her gruff cover, but Matthew had caught the touched look she had given the man. He could have easily treated them much worse, but behaved himself as a humble guest.
Permission granted, he had waited until Matthew was firmly established at work at the account book for the tenant farms (and would therefore have no means of escape from the sitting room, where they conserved the household candles) before he began to play his first tune.
Matthew was awestruck. The soldier's long tapered fingers, which he had so often forced himself to picture holding a deadly weapon or covered in blood, moved across the keys with a natural elegance. The song began soft and serene, in the high notes, now moving to mid range, somber yet still soothing. Matthew's eyes were drawn to the man's expression, how his whole posture, usually ramrod straight, was now filled with emotion. The music pulsed on into something darker and militarian, beautiful and frightening all at once. Deep throbbing notes crashed through the room, piercing Matthew's music starved heart with an unsettling longing.
And then, without warning, the music stopped.
Lieutenant Beilschmidt turned to face Matthew, expression lost for a moment, like a frightened child, before he glossed it back over with an apologetic smile.
"I was carried away. I'm sorry. That was much less pleasant than I intended it to be."
When Matthew did not answer, being at a complete loss for words after such a performance, the soldier pushed on.
"I have not played in such a long time. Would you believe that in the last home I boarded, the family piano mysteriously fell out of repair once I asked to play? Somehow the wires were all cut. All but one key...here." He tapped the highest ivory key at the end, the note hanging in the air between them. The German with his apologetic smile and Matthew with his undivided attention.
"Was that piece just now," the boy breathed, realizing somewhere along the line that he had almost forgotten how, "About...?"
"The war? Yes. And my home, which I have not seen in some time." The German touched the keys gently, making no sound. "That was the nice part back in the beginning. The quiet one. I studied music there, actually. Before all of this. Call it silly, but I had an aspiration of becoming a concert pianist."
Matthew digested the information, feeling sick at the realization that the other man had shared a portion of his humanity with him. He was becoming too much a person, rather than a nameless uniform. His now directionless hate was beginning to go sour in the pit of his stomach.
"But that is obviously not a topic that interests you. I'll put this away. Sorry to interrupt you in the middle of your work." The lid of the piano slid shut, hiding the keys away. Frightened by the sudden discovery of the Lieutenant's humanity and the threat that it might disappear so quickly, Matthew turned quickly away.
"I was just finishing. Continue playing if you wish. It doesn't make a difference to me."
Nearly every night after, piano music could be heart coming from the Williams-Bonnefoy estate.
Still, Matthew continued to run the estate as best as he could, with the restricted resources available. The farmers complained that they did not have enough. The townspeople complained that the farmers were hoarding precious food, and the argument turned back around that there were not enough goods to raise the food they were accused of having.
The truth of it was that everyone was hoarding, and precious few were completely honest about what they had. Government set prices were too low to cover inflation, and there was a thriving "common market", which was more black in trade than common. Illegal goods passed hands among those who feared they had the most to lose, and it was being whispered that even guns were available, if you asked the right person the right questions.
Most common of all, though, was a simple system of barter, made complicated by social hierarchy and second guessing what a neighbor might be hiding for himself. It led to a good number of malicious complaints against neighbors, and an appetite for convicting one another for treason that reminded Matthew more of the histories of the Revolution and guillotines than anything modern should have.
Luckily, the Williams-Bonnefoy name remained relatively clean. Among the villagers, Matthew himself was something of an object worthy of pity. First was the matter of the quarter of English blood on his mother's side. Then, too young to have joined French ranks with his celebrated father, he was left to care for his estate like one of the village women, and subjected to billeting a high ranking soldier to boot, though he was now of age. Certainly his pride had taken a terrible blow!
His manners and conduct of the tenant farmlands were also in his favor, and not too many thought of the quiet lad as being uppity. His seemingly good standing (though not friendly, another point in his favor) with the highly-ranked German in his house was also an asset, and one of the main reasons nobody had tried to talk him into lying about his age and joining one of the growing resistance forces, such as the maquis, who recruited any man over twenty. There was peace in their village, and that was enough. The situation was not so bad. These Germans were bearable.
Against his better judgment, Matthew was beginning to find his soldier bearable as well, and even agreeable at times. It was a thing he was determined to put a stop to.
"It really is something, the weather tonight. It makes a man glad to breathe, being in this garden."
The summer air was indeed as pleasant this evening as Herr Beilschmidt remarked, though the silence he received in answer was frosty. Matthew remained sitting with his back to the open window, straining his eyes to check the bankbook by weak candlelight. If only electricity weren't rationed as closely as flour or petrol!
"I suppose you wouldn't know, though. Being in that room all the time, or at your work talking to the farm people. Books and manure are all you breathe, I guess." He flashed a cheeky smile through the window as he leaned in. Matthew caught the leather polish scent that lingered in any room the soldier had been in. He pointedly ignored it.
"What exactly does someone have to do to make you speak freely? You're worse than a woman, going on like that with...what is it? French pride? Save it for daylight hours." The breezy tone with which the Lieutenant spoke couldn't hide his growing annoyance. "When the sun goes down, all we are is human." It may have been his imagination, but Matthew thought the soldier sounded almost hurt. But when he turned to answer, the man had already moved from the window and down into the garden.
Feeling guilty for having behaved poorly, he snuffed his candle and went to apologize.
The garden at night was fragrant and lush. Garden was a bit of a misnomer, as the land extended for several acres around the estate house, and as the only people left to tend it were himself and Marthe, it had gone fairly wild. There was nothing left to pay a gardener, what with the expense of just living, and it seemed an extreme frivolity in wartime to exert energy growing and tending plants that weren't strictly for eating. As such, a variety of summer blossoms were growing now unchecked in the long grass. There was quite enough moonlight to see by, and that was how he found the Lieutenant, uniform buckles glinting silver by the pond.
A long silence passed between them there on the bank, seated side by side in the lush grass. A willow trailed its branches along the surface of the pond next to them, and all manners of small frogs and nighttime insects called to one another in the stillness.
Just as Matthew began to open his mouth in apology, he was cut off.
"We're being sent home."
The officer smiled, something sweet and wistful hiding behind his eyes and in his smile.
"We got the orders today. By mid-July I'll be in my own home. There's not much point in our being here anymore." He shrugged, as a short apology for France's loss in the war. "The fighting isn't over yet, but even a short while..." Lieutenant Beilschmidt trailed off, but Matthew could feel his relief. He was going back to his own home and family.
"I'm glad for you," he answered, surprised that he actually meant it. "I'm sure you've missed it."
"Well, I have been well taken care of here, don't be mistaken." The German fell back into the sweet smelling grass, making himself comfortable while Matthew felt a creeping warmth up the back of his neck. Mostly from guilt at the poor hospitality the man was praising, but a portion of it was from the praise itself. "If I'm lucky, my brother will have the same time for leave. That would be best. I'm the older brother, but you'd never know it. Ludwig is a full head taller and built like an ox. He was going into boxing before all of this."
They lapsed into silence again, each thinking of family members far away, and whether they were still alive and well.
"And you, young Monsieur Williams-Bonnefoy. What about you?"
"Matthew," he corrected. "Just Matthew is fine, Herr Lieutenant."
"That's Gilbert to you," the officer grinned, feeling his breakthrough to a first name basis. "You're going to miss me."
"I'll miss the extra butter," Matthew answered with some cheek.
There was a beat of silence before Gilbert positively roared with laughter, which proved to be contagious. They laughed as if it were a joke of tremendous wit, both having so little to laugh about recently. Eventually, though, both wiping tears away, the laughter dissolved into hiccups, and then into quiet breathing, exulting in the release.
Lying there together in the stillness, basking in their sudden mirth and the moonlight and hidden in the tall grass, they kissed.
Neither was quite sure who moved first, but the innocent brush of lips soon coursed into a passionate clack of teeth and tangle of limbs. They both understood too well the brevity of life, and how quickly things that seemed certain could change.
It wasn't until Matthew's trousers were halfway off that he came to himself. He shoved Gilbert off him, scrambling back. They were both disheveled and wild-eyed, breathing heavily and half-roused.
"This is a mistake," Matthew murmured, heated and confused. Gilbert could only watch bewildered as he stood and hitched back up his trousers, looking back towards the house. What if Marthe had seen them out here? What they had been about to do was unacceptable. French and German be damned, they were both men, and the village nor the army would forgive them for it. The Nazis carted people off for much less.
"This is a mistake."
Gilbert sat still in the grass for a long while after Matthew had left.