Welcome to chapter 25 of heartrending and unashamedly emotional Christobel, and the revelation of the fate of our eponymous WW1 heroine.
If before reading it, and for the avoidance of a spoiler, you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning because you haven’t been following this serialisation, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s the last one on the list) and then read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.
Chapter 25: the journal
11th December, 1918
I’m taking up my pen again for the first time in over three years. It’s exactly a month since the Armistice was signed and it took three weeks for the slow wheels of prisoner-of-war repatriation to grind and my companions and I to be returned to Belgium from that dreadful prison in Siegburg. I’m back at ru de la Culture for the time being, in the loving bosom of my old friends there. They are looking after me wonderfully, although, Heaven knows, they’ve suffered a lot of deprivation too. But not imprisonment and hard labour; everything is relative, I suppose. Well, it’s all over now; I’m free and the dreadful conflict is finished. I can look to the future. And now, after a few days’ rest, I feel able – indeed the need – to resume my journal.
But I must first chronicle those final few fear-filled days following the trial, three years and two months ago. I’ve been too exhausted to write during my time in prison, not that I could have got the materials or would have been allowed to anyway. What a terrible weekend that was, waiting alone to hear whether the powers that held our very lives in their merciless hands would sever the thread for the Sword of Damocles to fall. The constant fear, the heart leaping into my mouth every time the keys in the cell door turned, expecting that it would be the announcement of my fate. It really was cruel, making us wait over a weekend like that.
And it didn’t even come early on the Monday morning: it was the afternoon, about three o’clock, before I was taken from my cell into the central hall of the prison. There, other prisoners, including Henri, who stared at me with such love and concern on his dear face, were standing in a semicircle, which I was made to join. Other prisoners were brought in too until we were all present, anxiously waiting to hear our fates. Then the Prosecutor came in, accompanied by two officers, the German prison governor, an interpreter and in another mockery of decent norms, the solemn-faced prison chaplain. As if his presence would somehow sanctify, legitimise the cruel sentences about to be meted out.
The Prosecutor began to speak in short phrases which the interpreter translated. For Miss Cavell, Louis Severin, Philippe Baucq, Louise Thuliez and Jeanne de Belleville: the death penalty. And for Henri too. For Herman Capiau, myself and several others: fifteen years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Between ten and fifteen years of the same for the other people they regarded as ringleaders. Lesser amounts for many others and acquittal for a few.
Of course my immediate reaction was one of relief – of absurd gratitude to my captors, almost. That was how cowed I was; how low I’d been brought. But then the realisation hit: they had only spared me. Not Henri. It seemed that he had succeeded in convincing our oppressors that he had played a greater part in our “subversion” than I, which wasn’t true at all. I looked at him. He had bowed his head but then he raised it again to stare fixedly at the Prosecutor, as if to dare him to do his worst, with such composure, dignity and bravery. For myself, seeing his courage, I felt something die deep inside, as if all hope was leaving.
As for the others, Miss Cavell seemed equally calm, although her face flushed crimson. Philippe made a despairing cry and looked as though he were about to collapse. Louis, it seemed, had written something down – a plea for mercy, presumably – and he handed it to the officer nearest to him. Louise and Jeanne seemed calm too, although Jeanne did ask the chaplain if anything could be done to save them. He said that they could appeal to the Governor General and Louise asked Miss Cavell if she would do so, to which she replied, “No, it is useless. I am English.”
And that was it. Thus our fates were decided. We were taken out of the hall. Henri and I exchanged final long, despairing looks. Philippe tried to protest his innocence but he was roughly bundled out. Myself, I was in a state of numbed confusion. It was the last I would see of Miss Cavell, Louis and Philippe. And the love of my life: my poor brave Henri.
Those of us who were to be imprisoned spent several more days back in our cells at St. Gilles before being taken to our places of internment. Thierry told me that was because the death sentences of Louis, Jeanne and Louise had been postponed pending appeals for clemency. I’ve now learned that considerable pressure for it was brought by the American legation in Brussels, the Vatican and the King of Spain, and the Kaiser finally bowed to their requests. But it came too late for Miss Cavell, Philippe and my Henri; they were hurriedly executed in the early hours the day after the sentencing.
And so, although Louis was sent elsewhere, Louise, Jeanne and I were taken over the border to Germany to Siegburg Prison to begin our harsh imprisonment. It certainly was, too. The food was meagre: barely more than six ounces of coarse black bread to accompany a vile gruel we called “insect soup”, or “mouse soup”. Goodness knows what it was made from. It didn’t really bear thinking about. But we were so famished all the time, we were grateful for anything. Later, in the last year of the war, we were also given hard military-style biscuits, which had to be soaked for some time in the gruel to render them eatable with our deteriorating teeth. I lost a considerable amount of weight and it’s a shock to see myself in the mirror now. I’ve aged a good ten years.
As for the labour, it was remorseless: fifteen hours per day, seven days per week. We were set to armament manufacture; making fuses for munitions, which would of course be used against The Allies. If I had been mentally strong enough I should have refused to do such work, what with my Quaker pacifism apart from anything else, but I confess that I took the coward’s way out and didn’t. I was too afraid of the consequences if I did rebel. Some of the other women bravely did so and were given solitary confinement for their pains. I could not have endured that, after the lonely, terrifying incarceration during the trial. I crave human company now and will probably always be afraid of solitude.
Then there was the equally frightening typhoid epidemic which struck us in 1917. With no medical assistance offered, we just had to make the best of things, giving our suffering and dying fellow-inmates what limited comfort we could, hoping that it wouldn’t be our turn next; that, having been spared the firing squad, we would escape the disease’s cruel game of chance too.
But it was certainly a wonderful, hardly-to-be-believed day when we were informed on the twelfth of November that our countries were no longer at war, and we would be repatriated as soon as possible. So here I am now; free after three years and two months, not the fifteen imposed upon me by the oppressor. Well, the former oppressor now. Now we must learn to forgive and forget, even though brutal men took my Henri from me, and millions of other innocent lives too.
I can resume my life, perhaps even return to nursing when I’m fully recovered, in the hope that there will be no more disruptive and destructive European wars – or indeed any more wars anywhere. One day, hopefully, Europe might be united in peace and cooperation, rather than its countries still myopically locked in stupid insular nationalism.
18th December 1918
A letter has come from Émilie to say how relieved she is that I am back in Belgium, after I sent her a short note that I was at ru de le Culture. There was an underlying sadness to her letter of course, but she says she is making arrangements to return to Brussels as soon as possible, after the house has been checked over and any essential repairs made to it. She doesn’t know how well it would have fared, standing empty and vulnerable for over three years. I’ve no idea what has become of it, of course (we were obliged to leave it unoccupied in rather a hurry); it might have been requisitioned by the enemy, for all I know. No; I must stop calling them that. But if it had been, I think Émilie would certainly want all traces of their occupation utterly expunged.
And she has passed on a very kind invitation from her sister Lottie to spend Christmas with them. Lottie appreciates that after all I’ve been through, I’m in no condition to organise a celebration for myself, and that I’m probably in need of some intensive looking-after. That’s certainly true; I feel quite tearful at her considerateness. The main thing though is that I’ll be seeing my little Jacques again, after wondering on so many desolate, desperate occasions whether I ever would again. Well, he’ll be not-so-little now; six years old. He must be very different. Oh, it will be so wonderful to see him!
28th December, 1918
15 Potgieterstraat, Amsterdam.
I’ve waited a few days before making another entry because for one thing, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Jacques and for another, I didn’t want to reject Lottie’s kind hospitality with my nose stuck in my journal all the time!
What a wonderful, sweetly anticipatory journey here it was. Yes, poor Belgium has been so ravaged by war and occupation, but already there is a palpable air of optimism, of determination to go forward and rebuild, and once the border (once so impenetrable) was crossed, Holland, which was virtually unscathed by conflict, with its placid flat fields and big skies, was like a country on another planet.
As the train pulled into Amsterdam Centraal station I put my head out of the window to scan the platform. At first I didn’t spot Émilie. But then there she was, standing well back from the edge, holding the hand of a small child. It took a moment for my brain to register that it was my child; my Jacques. She had thought to bring him to meet me! I waved to attract attention but the carriage I was in came to a stop well beyond them, so I had to gather my borrowed suitcase, step down and walk back along the platform to them. Émilie had spotted me too and was making her way towards me.
We met and I took in her sad face but my eyes dropped quickly, hungrily, to Jacques. Yes, he was very different; tall for a six-year-old, as if taking after his Papa already, but with the same curly sloe-black hair escaping from beneath his cap and solemn brown eyes I knew from an eon ago. He looked at me uncertainly. No doubt he’d been told the reason for the exciting visit to the railway station, but perhaps he didn’t remember me. And after all, I do look very different.
Émilie bent to him, said, “Look Jacques, it’s your Mama come home to you. Say hello to her.”
Probably overcome with shyness, my little boy stayed mute. I dropped to my knees too, vision suddenly blurred by wetness, and said (well, croaked), a little inanely, “Hello, darling. It’s me. Your Mama.” I let go of the suitcase and opened my arms, and he hesitantly came to me, and then I had him, had his little body clutched tightly to mine, as my tears came in a torrent and I pressed his cheek against mine. It felt so, so wonderful. I think we stayed like that for quite a long time, until he began to fidget, thoroughly wet, and pulled away.
I made myself give some attention to Émilie and stood to embrace her too and kiss both cheeks. Yes, she looked as though the last three years had not been kind to her either. Her face was drawn, thin, with markedly more wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Like mine, her grief must have been almost too much to bear, knowing how fiercely, possessively, she had loved her only child. But she gave me a brave smile, although she must have been shocked by my appearance, and her reciprocal kisses were generous. “Hello Christobel,” she said, “it is good to have you home. So very good.”
So we set off from the station, the three of us, Jacques in the middle holding both our hands, looking up at me frequently, shyly, catching my eye as I, frequently too, looked down upon him.
The Christmas festivities have been wonderful in spite of the obvious tinge of sadness that one person was missing. Lottie, very different from her sister – as plump, blonde, rosy-faced and jolly as her sister is none of those things – and her quiet husband Lars, who looks a little like Vincent Van Gogh, made me very welcome, Lottie constantly fluttering around me like a mother hen, making sure I was well looked after, compassion glowing softly in her kind eyes. Their two offspring, Ruben and Natalie and assorted grandchildren, visiting for the day, added up to quite a gathering.
The goose for Christmas lunch tasted like ambrosia, and the toast we drank before tucking in could only have been to one thing of course: a peaceful 1919 and many more peaceful years to come. Émilie showed more considerateness again in buying a present, a wooden toy train with two splendidly-painted carriages, for me to ostensibly give to Jacques. I’m afraid that just hadn’t occurred to me; all I wanted was to see him. Not that I had any money for such relative trivialities, anyway. My friends at ru de la Culture kindly bought my railway ticket for me, and Émilie has offered to pay for a boat train ticket to England for Jacques and I to see my own family for the New Year. People are so kind.
And of course it was simply heavenly to spend time with my little boy, getting to know him all over again. He gradually came out of his shell and became quite chatty, as if old forgotten memories of happy times were resurfacing. I’ve had to really discipline myself to allow him to go to bed; I could have happily let him stay up all night, nodding off to sleep in my arms. But there has been the pleasure of reading him a (long, mainly for my own benefit) bedtime story every night, anyway.
He brought up the subject of his Daddy just once, during one of our conversations. Of course, Émilie had had the dreadful task, in more ways than one, of telling him about Henri’s death. I don’t know how well he would have coped with the information at the time – he would only have been three – but he seems to have accepted the situation reasonably well now.
He looked at me and said, very solemnly, as if I might not be aware of the fact – and quite maturely and gently, for such a little boy, as if anxious not to cause me pain – that his Papa would not be coming back because bad people had killed him, but it was all right, because he was in Heaven now. Of course that provoked tears, and I had to hug him again and say that, yes, I knew, but that he had been very brave; a hero. Then I had to try and explain what a hero was, as he lay against my chest and nodded sagely and said, well, he’d like to be a hero when he grew up then.
And so tomorrow we set off for England. That will be an adventure for Jacques; seeing the sea and going on a big ship, and then seeing the country where his mother was born. When I tucked him in tonight he said he was very excited. I can’t wait to see his face!