Rachel, a frequent visitor to A Writer of History and a beta-reader for Unravelled, suggested I post something from a second novel planned for release in March 2014. Thanks for the suggestion, Rachel.
France 1913: The Noisette family consists of Henri and Lise and their three children: Guy, Helene and Jean. Henri’s widowed mother Mariele also lives with the family as does a small dog called Tout Tout.
With a senior role at the War Department, Henri Noisette is convinced that war is imminent and Paris will be Germany’s first target so he decides to send his family to safety in Beaufort, a small town in Northern France. They will stay at his aunt Camille’s house. Henri’s decision is very unpopular with his wife and daughter. The following scene describes their arrival in Beaufort. Guy Noisette, the eldest son, has enrolled in officer training and has remained in Paris.
On a hot July day, humid air pregnant with rain, their train drew in to Beaufort, the screech of metal brakes, hiss of steam and loud cry of a lone conductor marking their entrance. No grand hallway bustling with porters and echoing with footsteps greeted them. No marble arches, no vendors selling croissants, no stylish matrons waiting to go south for the summer, no shoe shine men, no newsboys yelling the latest headlines. In fact, no one at all except a dishevelled looking driver waiting next to an automobile, the likes of which Helene had never seen.
“How will the six of us fit into that?” Helene’s mother said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“I’m sure we’ll manage.” Helene’s father approached the driver. “Gaston?”
“Oui, Monsieur.” The man chuckled. “I’m sure I look much older than the last time you saw me. Madame Lalonde has sent me.”
Papa had inherited the property in Beaufort when his maiden aunt had died six years ago and Helene knew that Madame Lalonde looked after Tante Camille’s house and had prepared it for their arrival.
“Shall we fetch the bags?”
“If Monsieur will agree, I think it best for me to take passengers first and return for the baggage.”
“Hmmm. You’re probably right. What sort of automobile is this?”
“Tonneau, Monsieur. Built in 1903. Your aunt was very proud of it. God bless her soul.”
Helene stood beside her father as he examined the vehicle. It was red, the colour of ripe cherries. And it had no roof. Instead, it looked like a fancy horse drawn carriage without the horse. On the driver’s side a large bulbous horn sat ready to clear the way with a purposeful squeeze and the polished wooden handle of a steering stick protruded where the driver would sit. Brass encased lanterns were mounted near the front wheels and large wicker baskets were strapped to either side. Crude metal springs, positioned above the rear wheels, promised passengers a modicum of comfort.
“Was it always red?”
“Always, Monsieur.” Gaston held out his hand first to Helene’s grandmother and then to her mother, assisting them into the back seat. Helene scrambled in after the two women while her father and Jean sat next to Gaston. “We had best go before it rains,” he said.
“Thank heavens,” Helene’s mother muttered through pursed lips.
Since their train left at 8:03 that morning, they had been up at six, attending to last minute preparations and eating a light breakfast before saying farewell to Tout Tout and Guy. Despite her father’s worries, they boarded the train a full twenty minutes before departure but the long, hot trip had been tiring, leaving tempers frayed and no one willing to accommodate further inconvenience. Only Jean seemed excited.
“We’ll pass through the main square, then head south.” Gaston turned to glance at the women in the back seat. “Beaufort isn’t large, but it’s a pretty town.”
Helene thought the dirt road leading away from the station and crowded with unkempt houses and ragged gardens anything but pretty, however, she held her tongue. The Tonneau continued on past a slaughter house smelling so horrid she held her breath, a farm equipment shop, its front yard crowded with broken parts, and a long, low building with narrow windows and black smoke billowing from each of four chimneys. The only pleasing sight was a windmill, perched on a rise not far from the road, its wide, white sails turning in the breeze.
Soon they turned onto Rue Principale, where cobbled streets lined with squat, red-roofed houses ran perpendicular to the road. Down one lane, Helene saw a group of children playing skittles and an old woman in a black dress sweeping her front step. As they approached the centre of Beaufort, the houses were larger with wide front doors and lace-curtained windows and the shops looked more prosperous.
Gaston talked as he drove, pointing out the doctor’s home, a brasserie known for local beers, the school Helene and Jean would likely attend and roads leading south to Amiens and north to Lille. He slowed the car to a crawl as a horse-drawn wagon drew in front of them.
“This is the main square.”
A fountain dominated the circular space with a central plume of water shooting high into the air, ringed by six smaller plumes, the entire structure enclosed by a stone wall no more than three feet high. A church and its tall belfry anchored the far side and five streets fanned out in all directions, one marked by the statue of a rearing horse.
“Rather quiet today but on Saturdays the shops are bustling. Farmers set up stalls over there well before seven.”
“I remember that,” Helene’s father replied.
Gaston turned down the road next to the florist. “The road will get a little bumpier now.”
After a while Gaston’s conversation stopped under the weight of her father’s curt replies and her family’s silence. Helene felt she should say something if only to be polite.
“How long will it take, Papa?”
“Not too long now. Perhaps another ten minutes.”
Birds scattered as they passed and brown cows lifted their sleepy heads. Rounding a sharp corner, a boy, no more than six or seven, waved at the car. Helene listened to the jounce of springs and the clash of gears as Gaston shifted for each change of speed. Pungent whiffs of summer barnyards and freshly mown hay permeated the air, each one new to her senses, their newness enticing despite her reluctance to be away from Paris.
“There it is.”
Her father pointed to their right where a cluster of low buildings and a winding driveway, bordered by tall oak trees and a hodgepodge of stone fences, came into view. Swans floated on a small pond.
“Who lives over there?”
Helene pointed at a farmhouse with a tangle of bushes on one side and two sturdy outbuildings on the other, wondering if their neighbours might have a daughter close to her age. It was clear that Tante Camille’s house was a long distance from Beaufort and she could not imagine living without people nearby.
“Used to be the Doucet family. When I was little, they raised cows and chickens. And rabbits. We loved seeing the newborn rabbits, as tiny as your little finger. I’ll ask Madame Lalonde who lives there now.”
As they drew closer, Helene saw that the house was larger than she had remembered, made of faded limestone accented with green shutters. Its overgrown gardens were bursting with white hydrangeas, deep purple dahlias and random clusters of yellow lilies.
No one spoke and again she felt the need to fill the void. “It looks charming, Papa.”
“Different than I remember,” he said. “Looks like it needs a few repairs.”
The front door opened and a tall woman with grey hair and large hands emerged from the house wearing a loose fitting dress and white apron. She smiled without opening her lips.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Henri. Mariele, it has been a long time indeed.” Helene’s grandmother inclined her head.
“Madame Lalonde, how wonderful to see you after all these years. May I present my family?”
After introducing Lise, Helene and Jean, he explained that Guy remained in Paris.
“Camille would be happy that you have brought your family.” Another brief smile. “Come in. Come in.”
Smells of fresh bread, cloves and cedar greeted Helene as she looked around the salon, the first room encountered upon entering the house. Windows on the ground floor brought sunshine into the house. Sofas and chairs decked with stuffed pillows offered calm comfort. Two armoires flanked the front window each one painted with simple designs in primary colours. Piles of books and framed photos occupied almost every available surface.
“This is the salon,” said Madame Lalonde. “The kitchen is at the back of the house and the dining room through that door.”
She gestured with her left hand and led the way into the dining room where ten wooden chairs with cane rushing surrounded a rectangular table and several ceramic bowls were stacked on top of a wooden buffet. Helene’s attention was drawn to three paintings set along one wall, each painting a vibrant mass of unstructured colour.
“Tante Camille enjoyed unusual art,” Papa said.
“And their artists.”
“Maman! The children,” her father said.
Helene’s grandmother arched her eyebrows. “Many artists did their painting here,” she explained, “and became friends with Tante Camille.”
Helene did not understand this exchange but was intrigued that her grandmother, normally so reserved, was instead speaking with a light, teasing tone as if unexpectedly released from a gloomy character she had been playing.
Madame Lalonde gestured towards the hall. “Let’s go upstairs. “You’ll want to see your bedrooms.”
The stairs creaked and groaned from years of solitude, but here, as in the main rooms, everything was immaculate, crisp white linens and lavender sachets on each bed, freshly pleated curtains drawn back to let in the light. In the spacious master bedroom a lounge chair was arranged by the window inviting hours of comfortable reading with a view of the garden, fields dotted with poppies and the tall steeple of a distant church.
Helene thought the rooms on the second floor were charming in their simplicity but noticed that her mother had only criticisms to offer—that bed looks lumpy, this window doesn’t shut properly, the floor creaks—while her father attempted to cajole his wife with little anecdotes from the past.
He’s trying so hard, what is wrong with Maman?
“Would you like to see the attic?” Papa said. “We always thought it was a special place. Tante Camille kept all sorts of treasures up there.”
“I think I’ll go downstairs,” said her mother. “I doubt that a dusty attic will be of interest.”
Her father’s smile stretched tighter.
“I’ll come with you, Papa.”
“Me too,” said Jean.
Since the stairs to the attic were steep and narrow, Helene held up the front of her skirt as she and Jean followed their father.
“Humph. It doesn’t look at all like I remember it. There used to be trunks stuffed with old clothes, large hatboxes and piles of books. And a leather case with duelling swords.” He turned around. “We spent hours up here playing, especially when it rained.”
Helene looked around. The attic was a large room divided roughly down the middle by a wall that doubled as bookshelves. On one side was a single bed, covered by a blue and white quilt, a pillow encased in crisp white cotton and a calico cat that raised her head and swished her tail either to acknowledge or protest those who disturbed her sleep. The window next to the bed looked out towards the pond and the ridge beyond.
On the other side of the room two large chairs, one with a matching footstool, were positioned by a dormer window with a view of the garden. A circular table sat between the chairs offering a spot to set a coffee cup while reading and a small chest rested against the far wall.
“Papa, may I have this room?” Helene imagined creating a refuge for herself away from Maman who looked so sad and Jean who always got in the way.
I thought this scene might complement the photos I posted showing the countryside and towns of Northern France.
In 1913 Paris half the city expects war while the other half scoffs at the possibility. Lies Told in Silence is the story of three generations of the Noisette family living through WWI: Henri Noisette who works for the War Department, Guy Noisette who enlists in the French artillery and Lise, Mariele, Helene and Jean Noisette who leave Paris for the false safety of a small town in Northern France. As war unfolds, love and loss, duty and sacrifice and the unexpected consequence of lies affect every member of the family.