Bad to worse

Chapter 19 of my anti-war, pro-European novel Christobel. Things are going from bad to worse in Brussels and Christobel and Henri are in increasing danger . . .

If you would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a book chapter.

Chapter 19: the journal

 13th May, 1915

More dreadful news, gleaned from The Times newspaper. There has been a complete embargo on British newspapers in the city for months now, but a few copies, avidly read and passed around, still reach us clandestinely via the Resistance movement, from Holland, although it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cross or post anything across the border, so our guides of the escaping soldiers report. We do have to be very careful not to be caught with them as the penalties for possession (like the penalties for just about everything else) are severe. So they have to be very carefully hidden and once everyone who wishes to read the news from the outside world, such as reasonably accurate and unbiased reports of the progress of the war, has done so, they are burned.

It seems that a few days ago the Cunard Line’s magnificent flagship the Lusitania was sunk by enemy action, which is an outrage as it isn’t even involved in the hostilities; it wasn’t requisitioned for war work but remained a civilian vessel. It was nearing completion of a crossing from America when, a few miles off the coast of Ireland, it was torpedoed by a U-boat. Apparently it sank within twenty minutes, and 1,400 people including many children, they estimate, out of a total passenger list of 2,140 were lost to the cruel cold waters of the Atlantic.

It’s absolutely monstrous and against all the rules of war (insofar as something as cruel and immoral as war can be played by rules). Dr. Depage’s wife was on the ship. She was returning from America where she’d been raising money for their hospital and for the Red Cross. So we fear that she may be one of the victims of this horrific act, which the newspaper is calling nothing less than terrorism. The outrage has become a rallying cry for joining up to serve, and it also, The Times says, puts pressure on America to become involved as many Americans also died in the sinking. As a pacifist I know I shouldn’t say it, but I rather hope it does bring them in, so the wretched business can be brought more quickly to an end.

And meanwhile, the refugee soldiers continue to arrive, seeking our help to make the now very difficult crossing of the Dutch border, and Henri and I shelter them temporarily until false identities for them have been manufactured. There is an increasingly anxious air pervading the city. It’s difficult to know whom one can trust, as so many previously patriotic Belgians seem willing to sell their soul to the Devil and collaborate with our oppressors.

It’s easy to spot the genuine British soldiers turning up at our door because, being English, I can tell from their accents and mannerisms and knowledge of Britain whether they are authentic. But it’s more difficult with men passing themselves off as Belgian or French soldiers. There’s no real way of knowing whether they really are who they say they are, and not spies or traitors. But we have to take them at face value and hope for the best.

 

5th August, 1915

Bad news! Miss Cavell has been arrested. She has been convinced for some time that the Institute has been covertly watched; in fact it has been openly searched too, several times, precipitating urgent burning of any incriminating papers by her. She has said that she feels the net gradually closing, and she is very concerned for the safety of the rest of we nurses (although most are unaware of our subversive work anyway) and the Resistance workers in general, but seems almost sanguine about her own welfare. She seems to have complete faith that good will eventually prevail and things will turn out well. I wish I shared her touching optimism!            

But now she has been taken. Two officers from the German Kommandantur arrived in the afternoon, turned her office upside down (but apparently found little that was incriminating, apart from a completely innocent letter from England) and then she and Sister Wilkins, who has also been party to the “conspiracy”, were taken away. Miss Cavell went with calm dignity, telling the rest of us not to worry; that all would be well. Sister Wilkins was returned later that evening, and the School placed under guard. She told me later, quietly out of their earshot, that she had been interrogated but admitted nothing. She had quite expected Miss Cavell to be released too. She has not been though, and we greatly fear for her.

 

14th August, 1915. 9.35 p.m.

St. Gilles Prison.

Henri and I have been taken too. I am only able to write this because of the kindness of one of the warders, Thierry Rousseau. Thierry was in our hospital last year suffering from a hernia, so he knows me. He is a good patriot, trapped having to work for the Germans on pain of severe retribution if he does not. I told him that I was desperate to make a record of what happens now and he got me a few sheets of writing paper and a pencil. This is allowed for a limited amount of letter writing to family, but not what I want to do, of course. He says he will smuggle my testament out and deliver it to Sam Johnson at the American Legation, as I’ve been doing myself. It’s very brave of him, taking a risk like that. So now I’m writing, very small so as to conserve paper, but only when Thierry is on duty.

This is what has been happening. Two evenings ago a man turned up at our house saying that he’d been sent by the Resistance and needed our help. He said he was French and wanted to flee to Holland and enlist with the British. That in itself was a little suspicious. Why would he want to do that, when he could have made his way back to his own people behind the front line? He looked at us very searchingly, apparently trying to judge our reactions, although neither Henri nor I admitted anything as he hadn’t given any password. We said we couldn’t help him and he left us. Henri said that his accent sounded authentically French as far as he could tell, although if he’d claimed to be Belgian he would probably have smelled a rat.

Then yesterday evening, at nine o’clock, our door was knocked upon and there were two policemen – the German military polizei – there. They forced their way in and searched the house thoroughly, ransacking and making a terrible mess, going upstairs and taking particular interest in the trapdoor into the attic. Fortunately, we had no “guests” at the moment. And Henri had removed the ladder, dropping it over the wall into our neighbour’s garden, so they couldn’t investigate the attic further. But still they took us, saying that we were wanted for questioning on suspicion of “harbouring the enemy”. I really don’t believe that Miss Cavell would have informed on us, although they would probably have tried to make her do so. She wouldn’t do that. So presumably our house has been under surveillance too.

Well, we’ll just have to deny everything. They are keeping us apart, presumably in the hope that under separate interrogation one of us will confess and implicate the other. I’ve been waiting all day expecting to be interrogated at any time, but so far they have left me alone with my anxious thoughts. Miss Cavell might be able to behave calmly and bravely, but I feel neither of those things. I’m very frightened, I confess. I hope that when they do start on me, I’ll have the strength to keep up the pretence of innocence and not break down, incriminating both myself and Henri. I do wish they had not separated us though; I really could do with my dear Henri here with me now, giving me his strength and comfort. But I suppose it’s a case of divide and rule – or divide and weaken us, anyway. Together, at least, we could have supported each other.

That was why I asked Thierry for the writing implements though; I can keep my brain occupied and not dwell quite so much on what the future might hold. And also, I can speak to the future Jacques, when he’s old enough to understand, and the other people of Europe who are yet to come; warn them about the idiocy and cruelty of imperialistic greed, empire-building and hubris. If my words reach the outside world and survive into the future, that is. I don’t know whether they will.

 

15th August, 1915

Well now it’s happened. This morning I was taken to a cheerless room and interrogated by two officers, one military and one a Kommandantur policeman: Lieutenant Bergan, Head of Espionage and Sergeant Pinkhoff who is the Officer in Charge of Criminal Investigation. I was told their names and ranks by Sergeant Pinkhoff as he spoke French and acted as translator. Another sergeant recorded the proceedings. It was a travesty. The Lieutenant apparently could speak no French, so he put questions to me in German, with Pinkhoff translating for me. (No one it seemed could speak English, although I am fluent in French now so that was no problem.) He then translated my replies back into German for the Lieutenant’s and the other sergeant’s benefit. There was no offer of legal representation for me at all, either at the interrogation or prior to that.

First I had to swear to tell the truth on a Bible. I was told that not to do so would imply guilt. It was a parody of proper lawful process, but if Miss Cavell was prepared to bravely stick to her Christian principles and tell the truth, I’m afraid my cowardice got the better of me and I tried to deny everything.

They began by asking standard questions: my name, background, current address, profession, nationality and religion. Of course I was able to answer those points perfectly honestly. And then they got down to the real business. Lieutenant Bergan, with Sergeant Pinkoff translating, said that Émilie’s house had been under surveillance for five weeks and a succession of suspicious-looking men had been observed arriving, usually late in the evening, and knocking on the door to be admitted by Henri or me. They said there had been twenty-six such men. That is simply a lie; in fact there have been eleven during that period. But of course, in a way the actual numbers are immaterial. In their eyes, I would be guilty whatever the number, so it was academic really.

And I had to deny it anyway. Conscious that I was probably blushing, I tried to say as firmly as I could that, no, there hadn’t been that number of visitors; that actually there had been five, but they had been – and I tried to think quickly – workmen arriving to talk about building work we were considering having done. The sergeant repeated my answer back to the lieutenant and he looked at me shrewdly, as if he didn’t believe a word. He said, the sergeant translating, “What sort of work?”

I mumbled, frantically trying to think of something, that it was “floor repairs” and that we wanted to get comparative estimates for the work. There was a toing-and-froing again between my interrogators. The sergeant said, ‘I remind you that you have sworn on oath to tell the truth. Do you still maintain that is so?’

I nodded. The lieutenant eyed me coldly, rose and left the room, leaving the sergeant staring at me intimidatingly as I tried to appear calm and resist wringing my hands in my lap. After what seemed an age the officer returned and resumed his seat. He spoke and the sergeant translated, “Remember, Madame Farley, we are holding both your matron, Miss Cavell, and Doctor Pascal. They both dispute your account. Miss Cavell has admitted that she has been involved in espionage and taking in fugitive soldiers, afterwards sending them on to safe houses before they are escorted to the Dutch border where they make their escape. And Doctor Pascal has admitted that he did indeed harbour many British, Belgian and French soldiers before they were passed along the espionage network in the past few weeks. So it is pointless for you to deny things or lie to us.”

I must admit that I rather cursed Miss Cavell if she had indeed confessed to everything, although I doubted whether she would have said anything to implicate others. But I didn’t believe for a moment that Henri had confessed. He wouldn’t have done that, knowing that I would have been tarred with the same brush. All I could do was say, rather weakly, that I stood by what I’d said.

The lieutenant looked at me scornfully, spoke and the sergeant said, “Very well. But it would be in your best interests to tell us all you can about the espionage network; then the tribunal will deal with you very much more leniently. We are not unreasonable people. So now, for the last time, do you still stand by what you have said, or do you wish to cooperate?”

My voice had failed me and I could only nod. There was a leaden weight in my stomach and I felt physically sick. The sergeant said, angrily, ‘Which; you reiterate your story or you will cooperate?’

“I repeat what I said,” I muttered.

The sergeant translated to his superior, who frowned his displeasure and spoke again. Sergeant Pinkoff said, ‘As you wish. We will prepare a statement for you to sign.’

He nodded at the other sergeant, who waited, pen poised to write, for the lieutenant to begin to dictate. It took several minutes as I sat there, unable to understand what was being said or written. Finally it was finished. The clerical sergeant handed it to the lieutenant, who scanned it briefly. Apparently satisfied, he placed it on the table in front of me. Pinkoff said, “This is an accurate written deposition of what you have told us. I will read the final paragraph, “I confirm that this is a faithful record of my statement and that I will repeat it to the tribunal”. Do you understand?’

I nodded, numbly, but it was a complete travesty. I had no idea at all of what I had supposedly admitted to, but it seemed a great many words to record my brief clumsy attempt at a denial and lie. The sergeant said, “This will be typed and you will then sign it.”

I was then brought back here to sit alone, frightened, with only my dismal thoughts for company. Half an hour later Sergeant Pinkoff came with the typed document on a clipboard, to which a fountain pen was attached. He commanded me to sign it and that was that. So now I have signed I know not what, and my fate is entirely in the hands of my captors and whoever sits in judgement on me, on us,

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About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
This entry was posted in Books, Contemporary fiction, Family and realationships, General fiction, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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