The casket was too small for a man, yet too large for a child. A flag was draped over the bright pine box and it ruffled in the breeze, a burst of colour against the grey mud. Due to the small size of the casket, there was not room for the traditional six pallbearers. They would have been half-stepping back-to-belly, at risk of appearing comical, or worse, scandalous. Thus, the casket was carried by four soldiers, but from a distance their uniforms appeared varied and not of the same nation. The unneeded pallbearers joined the ranks of men in uniforms arrayed around a small open grave. The officiant wore the robes of a cleric and must have said something because there was a long silence, then a burst of laughter.
In the graveyard below the hilltop, Père Durand listened to the laughter of the officers and heard the fear in it. He had been a priest for decades, ministering to the needs of the faithful before the slaughter in the trenches began. Three long years of anointing the shattered bodies of dying soldiers had aged him more than all the years gone before. He knew the sound of terror in a soldier’s voice and he heard that same tone in the false laughter of the officers standing about in three nervous groups.
French, German, or English, it did not matter. One of them had made a terrible mistake. Someone had given the order that landed an artillery shell on top of Henri Moreau’s daughter. Père Durand spoke the truth, that more funerals would follow as swiftly as night follows day. All the officers laughed save one. A young French aide with the girlish face, too young for any war, stared at the open grave as if saying Adieu. The young soldier did not laugh, and Monsieur Moreau would not laugh, not until he had his revenge. The old priest knew that the devil cared nothing for the color of one uniform over another.
A small hillock rose to the east of the graveyard and on the crown of it, amongst the broken trunks of dead trees, two British soldiers lay on their bellies. The morning sun baked the buff khaki of their dusty uniforms and blinded anyone looking up from the funeral grounds. The older of the two, a sergeant, peered through a pair of binoculars while the younger soldier scribbled in a leather-bound notebook.
“About twelve of ours, plus the burial crew, but we know that. I make it ten of the bloody Frogs, three field officers and the rest junior aides. Ah, me! Where do they get these children? One of the Frenchies is so young, I don’t think he’s shaving yet. The Huns are there, too. They’ve managed to slip five over the lines, all officers. Have you got all that?” The sergeant looked sideways at the private, caught his nod, then put his eyes back to the lenses and resumed his commentary. “They’re giving Henri Moreau’s daughter a proper sendoff, leastways what they could find of the poor girl. Don’t matter though, t’will be far short of satisfactory for the father.”
The watcher swatted at a horsefly, then returned his attention to the mourners below. “There’s the Moreau clan standing off to the side, maybe twenty in all. Most of the sons are there, and that battle-ax of a mother, but I don’t see Henri. He’s an odd bird, he is. Even the locals don’t know where he came from. Down south to hear them tell it, but they always tell it quiet. Old Moreau was already here when the war started, serving whores and wine to the French. When the Germans rolled over the town, the brothel stayed open and the wine kept flowing. A year later it was the French and our lot what took the town back. The Moreau place still there, of course, as if nothing changed. The old goat was right there behind the bar, squinting at us with his horrible eye. Enough to give a fella the shivers the way that eye wanders about in his skull. The old women say Moreau can see the angel of death on a bloke’s shoulder, knows which poor bastard is next for the grave.”
The older man lowered the heavy binoculars and turned to the soldier beside him, peered at the unlined face. Blimey, these new recruits were just boys. He saw the disbelief in the young lad’s eyes. “Aye, you can doubt me, Lad, but that’s the tale I’ve heard. Moreau prowls the bar, his evil eye always looking. If he sees the death shadow on one of the poor lads, he catches Madame Moreau’s eye, points the poor bastard out, and that’s that. The rest of the night, the wine and women are free, and no word said as to the why of it. The lad might be a Frenchie, a Hun or a Brit, but the next time he goes back into the lines, his number is up.” A look of horror passed over the young soldier’s face that gave the sergeant cause to regret his words. He reached out and gave the boy’s shoulder a clumsy pat. “Ah, well, don’t give it another thought, Lad. It’s only a local superstition. Just don’t you be lighting any fags up on top of the trenches at night. No sense giving those Hun snipers an easy target.”
The incongruous sound of laughter drifted up from the funeral gathering. The sergeant picked up the binoculars and focused on a group of uniformed men bunched around the figure of an old priest. “Listen to those poor scarecrows. You mark my words, Lad, those popinjays may be laughing now, but they won’t laugh long. Moreau will have his due. And make no mistake, not even old Father Durand can save them.”
* * *
The subprefect’s words trailed off into the silence of the quiet barroom. His mouth opened and closed under a bottlebrush mustache, but no more words issued from it. The little man cast his eyes about as if he might find his own words floating in the air beside the dust motes. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his black hat twisting between twitching fingers. As Henri Moreau watched the nervous little man, he let the silence become long and hard. He enjoyed seeing this pathetic figurehead squirm. Still, there were deeds to be done and little time in which to do them. Henri Moreau raised one hand in the air, held it palm outward to reveal the white welt of a knife scar.
“I have listened to you, Monsieur le Sous-préfet. Please allow me to respond. I am a simple innkeeper; this you know to be true. I am a good citizen, one who believes in our principles of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The tide of war has shifted back and forth over this poor town and my humble establishment. Have I not treated all the combatants fairly? First, my family and I ministered to the needs of the French soldiers. Then it was the Germans, now the French and English. Yes, I treated them all equally, but now they have killed my only daughter. You say this was an accident, c’est la guerre, this is what happens in war. They have buried my daughter with their so-called honors, and they ask that this be the end of it. You request my answer and I give it to you: No, never, not in one thousand years. They have killed my daughter. Since they cannot tell me who has done this thing, I hold them equally responsible. Go now, go and tell them this.” Henri Moreau waved his scarred hand in the air as if he were a conjurer. The subprefect turned away so quickly that he indeed seemed to have vanished.
* * *
Hobnailed boots clattered down stone stairs that led to an arched doorway below the level of the cobbled street. Beyond this portal, soldiers found a winding warren of subterranean rooms filled with laughter and tears, wine and smoke. The Poilu called it La Cave à Moreau. For the British Tommies, it was known as The Cellar. Here, a soldier could drink fear into oblivion or explore every manner of sin before traveling to oblivion himself. And here, on occasion, was where the wayward eye of Henri Moreau would fall on a young recruit fresh to the trenches. A nod from Henri to Madame Moreau, two fingers raised to indicate the recipient, and then wine and women would rain down on the doomed man, all costs borne by the house. The next morning, hungover in the mess, his mates would sidle away from him and he would not know why.
The formidable mass of Madame Moreau stalked the length of the wooden bar. Plumes of smoke parted before Madame and swirled in her unsmiling wake, a serge-clad battleship in search of an enemy. Dangerous at any time, this night her eyes were sharp with anger. A pointed finger and one of Madame’s sharp glances were usually sufficient to quiet any squabble amongst the clientele. On the rare occasion when some fool persisted, one of her grim and silent sons materialized as if from nowhere. Then trouble was made to disappear, most often cast out a back door and into the manure pile.
While his wife kept order, Henri Moreau lurked in his vaulted lair. The arched cellar was lined with brick and the ceiling curved low, all the better to contain the proprietor’s dark thoughts. He remembered the long road that led back to the island of his birth. A poor third son marrying a poor third daughter. No hope of inheriting even a meager spadeful of Sardinian soil. He and Doloretta, married for love so young, nowhere to go but away. And so, they made their way north, to a new country, a new language, invented new names for themselves. They recast themselves as citizens of France, new members of the Third Republic. They supplied the unspoken needs; served the wine, the brandy, the women. Modest beginnings, yes, but it was a start, the first trickles of the money needed to build a family fortune. With the passing of years, the family grew strong and set down deep roots. It was Henri’s singular dream that someday, perhaps long after his death, the family would become something more; something stronger, more powerful, reaching into the future.
The head of the Moreau clan had a bottle of brandy at his elbow and he smoked a black cheroot. The cigar smoke twisted and swirled in the wavering candlelight. Over the decades, he served men drink and he listened with care. Much had he heard. When men were deep in their cups, or deep in the arms of a hired lover, they shared the secrets that weighed down their hearts. They shared their own shame, and the guilt of others, tales of graft and theft on a massive scale. The pompous generals who purloined food deliveries, stole truckloads of boots, plundered whole railcars of supplies. All of it sold on the black market and the money disappeared into their silk pockets. Their theft was monumental, and it was hidden beneath the shining cloth of patriotism. Yes, he had learned enough to bring them to their own well-deserved ruin. Henri knew the darkness hidden beneath the bright ribbons and shining medals, the gleaming stars of their ridiculous uniforms. They would give him the sacrifice he demanded.
The brandy left a thread of fire in his throat and with a heavy hand he poured another. My daughter, my beautiful Collette, our only girl! These craven generals, they ask for forgiveness, for understanding. They do not come themselves but send that pathetic subprefect to plead their case. Merde, what kind of weakling do they take me for? Not in one thousand years will I forgive or forget. The Germans, the French, even the English; they will each give me one of their own. Yes, they will pay the blood debt that is owed to me. They are all jackals, these pompous officers, without honor but not without fear. Their secrets laid bare to the light of day; this is their darkest nightmare. They would kill me, certainement, but doubt gnaws at them. In their doubt, they question each other. Who else has Moreau told? Who else of his black clan knows our business? Henri blew out a cloud of smoke and the candlelight flickered. Secrets, mon Dieu, they are dangerous things.
* * *
The following night, the men of the Moreau clan were assembled in a brick barn on the edge of the town. “It is arranged for the morning,” said Henri Moreau. “Jean-Jacques, you will lead your younger brothers. Start crossing to the German lines at eight o’clock. You know the way to go.” A tall man nodded once, hard-faced and silent. “Both sides have orders to keep their heads down until noon. Four hours for you to cross, collect our debt, and return. After that, they can go back to slaughtering each other. While Jean-Jacques is on the other side of the line, the rest of you know what you must do: One each from the English and the French. And always remember who you are and what family you belong to. We have no need for cruelty; this is not our way. Do what must be done but do it quickly and cleanly.” He saw curt nods around the half-circle. “Only one more thing will I say. No drinking until our work is done. Then we will broach the wine and have a proper wake for our beloved Collette.”
Morning thunder rolled out of a pale blue sky devoid of clouds. Four of the Moreau brothers stood in the shadow of a ruined wall. From north and south, the giant footsteps of the heavy guns pounded and echoed but came no closer. Jean-Jacques Moreau consulted a pocket watch, then scanned the desolation to the east. The sector of No Man’s Land that lay before them was filled with an eerie silence, brooding and complicit. Close at hand, there was no sound of war, not even the flat crack of a sniper’s rifle. The eldest brother pocketed his watch and waved a hand. Without a word, the four men left the shelter of the wall and made their way into the desolation of mud and barbwire. The youngest brother bore a folded stretcher slung over his shoulder.
The sun had not yet risen to noon when the four brothers reappeared on the east edge of No Man’s Land. They were burdened now, their progress slowed by the heavy stretcher they carried between them. The body they bore was that of a tall man, and sunlight fell on the grey-green of a German uniform. The bearers cut a zig-zag course around water-filled shell craters and mounds of broken earth. Their passage was silent save for the squelch of their boots being lifted from the sucking mud. Across the dead zone at last, they passed the ruined wall that had been their shelter and found a waiting wagon. The stretcher was loaded into the wagon bed, reins slapped against the horse’s rump, and the entourage moved into the thin shadows of a skeletal forest.
* * *
Midnight lanterns hung from timber rafters and cast a pool of yellow light over the straw-strewn floor of the brick barn. Henri Moreau stood in the warm glow, one gnarled hand resting on the edge of a rough crate perched atop two heavy sawhorses. The men and women of the clan gathered in a loose circle around him as he began to speak. “Tomorrow, we will dig the only grave these dogs deserve, a pit in the earth, blown open by their own artillery.” He waved his hand over the pale bodies packed head to foot in the rough makeshift coffin at his side; three dead officers, three different uniforms, their throats slit and dead eyes staring. “Yes, we will bury these three in the very same hole where we found our precious Collette. Let them rot there as payment for that which they have taken from us.” Henri Moreau’s words hung in the still air as he stared over the bodies. He saw the muddied boots pressed against each of the gaping dead faces and it pleased him. Turning back to the clan, he pointed to the far wall. Beyond the circle were trestle tables laden with vats of wine and dusty bottles of brandy. “Now, let us drink to the beauty of our little Collette and to the life taken from us. And if we drink into the grim morrow, then these corpses must learn what it is to wait. They will have need of patience and prayer where they are going, but we will offer them only spilled wine and earth.”
The burial party was not ready until sunset. The whole event was rushed and disorganized, lit by flaring torches and wavering lanterns. The yawning maw was more crater than grave. It took eight men to slide and heave the casket to the bottom, where it landed with an ungentle thump. A jeering crowd lined the rim of the crater. If any prayers were said, they were drowned out by the dull thudding of wet clods being hurled onto the casket. The hulking pallbearers laughed as the earth rained down from above. Changed to gravediggers, the men reached for spades and cut into sodden piles of earth. The casket began to disappear beneath the furious rain of dirt, a rough wooden crate too big for one man, but just large enough for the birth of a dynasty.