Belle's Girls

Extract of Women of Verdun, Book two, Belle’s Girls


Chapter 1: June 1916

Collette lived in fear that any second she would hear terrible news from the army. Her beau was in Verdun. She had seen him only twice since the beginning of the year. He was involved in the fierce fighting that had been raging for months in that small French town. Thousands of lives were being lost, and it seemed the Germans were determined to kill many more to achieve total control of the area. Streams of injured soldiers came down the one remaining passable road. These were the fortunate ones. They brought stories of the starvation, death and destruction they had witnessed while fighting and defending the district. Collette could only pray that Antoine would survive the conflict and come back to her.

She wished she could do more to help the soldiers, but she had no stomach to attend the wounded in the hospital tents outside. She helped the army staff, in the kitchens, to feed the hundreds of staff and patients and worked around the clock beside her mother and a team of willing helpers, but it didn't seem enough.

Collette was roused from her thoughts by the lady of the house bustling into the kitchen in a flurry of old-fashioned taffeta and lace. All eyes turned to her, and Collette groaned along with the rest of the house kitchen staff. Elizabeth usually came to the kitchens when she wanted to ask them to do extra work.

‘Belle! Collette! We are to entertain a very important guest this evening. General Nivelle, no less, will be honouring us with his presence. Can we accommodate him? Do we have sufficient stores to put together a dinner party?'

‘Will he be accompanied by a retinue?' Collette's mother asked, wiping her floured hands on her apron.

‘Always one step ahead, Belle. Yes, I expect around a dozen army-type visitors at the table, plus Major Whitmoor and myself. Gaston may have to go away on business later today, so I'll let you know whether my husband will be among the number. If you are free from your duties, I would love you to come, Belle, and you and your sister too, Collette. I thought I'd ask Matron Carter to bring some of her staff nurses along to make up the numbers. We can't have all that testosterone at the table without trying to balance it with a little feminine delicacy, what say you?'

‘Won't the nurses be too busy to attend a dinner party, Tata Elizabeth?' Collette asked. She'd seen how hard the nurses worked and knew they hardly had time to get enough sleep most nights and wouldn't have much time for socialising.

The older woman perched on a chair and waved a lace fan at her cheek. ‘This heat is intolerable. We are only in June, what will the heat be like in August?' She turned to Collette. ‘Oh, my dear! Those nightingales deserve some time off. I'm sure they'll jump at the chance, to eat good food in the big house, as they call it. Do you think you could cater for around twenty-six, Belle? I know it is an imposition on top of everything else you do down here, but this general is very special. We should make him feel welcome.'

‘Perhaps you should check with Matron first?' Collette insisted and received a haughty glare from Elizabeth. ‘Sorry, I only…'

‘Collette, I know you mean well but I think I know best who I should, or should not, invite to dinner.'

Collette glanced at her mother for support, but Belle was concentrating on kneading the dough.

‘I'm sorry, Tata Elizabeth, it was not my place to say anything.'

‘Don't worry about it, Collette. If I am to be your mother-in-law, I hope you will feel you can say anything to me.  Have you heard from Antoine?'

‘No, Tata. Not for weeks, the last letter he sent was from Fort Vaux.' Collette dropped her chin.

‘Let's not be gloomy.' Elizabeth patted the young girl's shoulder. ‘I'm sure no news is good news, as they say, and he was hoping to hear of that promotion was he not? Perhaps he has earned his second red stripe and been moved away from the centre of this particular battle.'

‘I hope you're right, Tata, but I feel sure he would have written to tell me before they sent him away. He would not have left without letting me know where he would be.'

‘Perhaps his letter has been lost. We are at war, child, and these things happen. I'm sure you have nothing to worry about.' Elizabeth patted Collette's shoulder. ‘I have to say your English is improving, my dear. I suppose the time you spend with the nightingales is helping with the language.'

Belle looked up from her kneading. ‘The foreigners have strange accents, Elizabeth, so I'm not sure the Australian nurses are helping too much with Collette's English lessons.' She smiled wryly at her daughter. ‘It is a pity we could not continue your lessons to iron out the nuances of grammar, but you speak English excellently, child.'

‘My American accent can't be any worse, Belle.' Elizabeth's tinkling laugh filled the kitchen. ‘I've always been grateful that you speak my native tongue so well. I'm afraid your pretty language has always proved quite impossible for me to grasp. My aged brain still struggles with the details of your masculine versus feminine words and it is all beyond me, I'm afraid.'

‘Nonsense, Elizabeth, you are not old. Fifty-two is a good age, but you're not ancient yet, my friend.'

Collette turned away to hide a smirk. The two old friends seemed ancient to her, though her mother never acted like an old women. In fact, she often embarrassed Collette with her unladylike behaviour. A woman of her mother's position should not be slaving in the kitchens alongside the army cooks or driving convoys of food carts through battlefields, but Belle had never been one to live a conventional life.

‘Well, I suppose I should make a start on the dining room if I'm to make it presentable for this evening.' Elizabeth turned to Collette. ‘Can you spare two of the kitchen maids to help me?'

Collette made a great effort to keep her eyes from rolling. Her mother's friend could be insensitive sometimes. She'd just given orders for the kitchen staff to conjure a dinner party from thin air while cooking for a camp of three hundred and preparing food for the convoy. Now she wanted to reduce the workforce.

Belle wiped her hands again. ‘Elizabeth, I'm sorry, but we need all the hands we can get today. Perhaps Felicity could help you?'

‘If I can find her.' The American left through the back door. ‘She'll no doubt be making a nuisance of herself with the Australians. I'll see if I can catch the Matron at the same time.'

When Elizabeth left, Collette turned to her mother. ‘Should I go find the Matron before Elizabeth speaks to her? I could at least pre-warn her of the plans for dinner.'

‘Bon! But please hurry back to make yourself useful in the kitchen, Collette. Making dinner for two dozen guests, from nothing but flour, pork fat and greens, won't be easy. We have had no delivery of supplies for some days. Even the army cooks are relying on dried and tinned rations from their store.'

‘Could we ask them for some bully beef? We could make a pie with that and some potatoes?'

‘I can't ask the army to provide for a dinner party for Elizabeth.'

‘Why not, Mama? We'll be feeding their generals!'

‘At the Major's invitation, by the sound of things.' Belle sighed. ‘They may have to make do with the broth I have for the convoy.'

‘I'll ask Norman if he has caught any lapin today, Mama.'

‘Merci, ma cher. Our gardener's hunting skills could save the day. Two or three rabbits will go a long way if I make a pie of them, and they will be tastier than the army bully beef. Try to stay away from the treatment tents when you go in search of Matron Carter. I don't like you mixing with those foreign nurses. They are a bad influence. If your sister is over there, make sure you bring her back with you. She is needed here.'

‘Oui, Mama.' Collette left her mother in the kitchen and went in search of the Matron. She knew she'd find her sister in the triage tent. Felicity was drawn to the carnage like a moth to a flame. Gaping wounds with protruding bones didn't faze her, she had told Collette. She just wanted to help the poor soldiers, so she watched and learned and had become a valuable assistant in the hospital tents. Felicity was a year younger than Collette but seemed much older than her years. She wasn't interested in the kitchen work and would disappear as soon has her allotted duties were completed. She could always be found in the tent village, helping to change a bandage or feeding a helpless young man. The nurses had come to depend on her help, and Felicity thrived on being needed.

Collette was now twenty-one and Felicity had turned twenty just three months ago, but her mother still treated them like children. The war was bringing changes for them both, but Belle could not see the difference in her girls. She seemed deaf and blind to Collette's talk of dreams of a future far away from the chateau.

Her mother lived in the here and now and wouldn't be drawn to talk of a future that might never happen. "You are young, Collette", she would say. "Wait until this war is over before you and Antoine make plans".

Collette knew the war was to blame for the pause in her life. If there'd been no war, she would be planning a wedding now. She and Felicity would be discussing her trousseau and shopping for hats and shoes and pretty lingerie instead of sweating in a hot kitchen or administering sympathy to the dying soldiers. The war had interrupted life and extended Belle's hold over her girls.

If only she could get some work away from the chateau, Collette could break the apron ties, but with this awful war, there was nowhere safe where she could escape. She had considered asking Elizabeth's husband to take her with him to the South of France where the war did not seem to be a problem. He travelled there more and more, and Collette did not understand why his wife refused to go with him.

She'd thought about defying her mother and travelling to England, but she couldn't go so far away from her beau. He was the only person stopping her from carrying out her plans to leave and escape the war-torn country. Antoine was the most important person in her life, but even so, the image of his face was fading in her mind. She'd only seen him twice this year, but she'd relived the memories of those snatched moments of passion many times.

Antoine was the most handsome, thoughtful, caring man she had ever known. He was the complete opposite of her papa. Julien Augustine was a brusque, impatient man, with a quick temper and a fast hand. She missed him, though. He'd been killed in the French trenches east of Verdun in February. He should never have been there. The army had refused to take him because he was too old. Collette had known that her father would not be stopped. He was driven by some inner demon to prove himself. He found a uniform, joined the men at Fort Douaumont, and died with them a few weeks later when the Germans bombarded the French troops for days without mercy.

Horrifying stories were told after the battle. The German soldiers had cleared the trenches using flame throwers, turning French soldiers into human torches. Then thousands of German infantry swarmed over the land, killing all Frenchmen in their path. The fort itself was deserted by the time the Germans entered. She still could not believe her father had suffered in that battle, had lost his life, and was gone forever from her life.

Collette remembered her papa as a man who rarely smiled or said nice things to her. She had to be wary of saying anything to upset him if she were close enough to feel the sting of his slap. She often asked her mother why she'd married her father, but Belle would only say that he wasn't always so angry. Since his accident, when Felicity was an infant, his temper became short, and his friends became fewer. His brain had been affected by the fall in the mill. Whatever the cause of his constant bad mood, it seemed Belle welcomed the chance to move to the chateau, to get away from her husband.

Julien Augustine was described as a perfect soldier by men who fought alongside him and survived. Belle's description of her husband was foolhardy and obstinate, but those traits translated into a vicious and brave fighter. Neither his wife nor his younger daughter shed many tears at his passing. Belle was free from the constraints of an unhappy marriage, and Felicity seemed confused. She'd never been close to her father, but his death widened the hole in her life that he'd never been able to fill. Collette missed him. She was the one he loved most, and she had helped him make sense of a world he didn't fully understand. She had patience with his temper and knew how to calm him. She seemed the only one who grieved for her father and his loss was almost more than she could bear.

Antoine's love saved her. He came home for a few days after her father had been killed. He supported her. He showed her how a man could love and be loved. She knew it was wrong to allow him such liberties, but they were betrothed and would have been married already if the war hadn't interrupted their plans. They had hoped to escape to America where Antoine would work with his mother's Cousin Frederick. Antoine's younger brothers and sister were already there, enjoying the freedom of a neutral country. Her life would be so much different now if the war hadn't come to ruin everything.  She hoped Antoine was safe.

Collette walked into the Matron's tent after scratching on the opening flap and calling out. ‘It's me, Collette, Matron Carter.'

The tent was empty, but Collette hadn't expected the small, wiry Australian woman to be there. She'd watched the sorry convoy of wounded, staggering soldiers heading down the road to the large marquee earlier that morning. She knew that cartloads of desperately injured men had arrived earlier. The nurses would all be busy with the new intake, including the Matron. She was a very capable nurse who liked to roll up her sleeves and help the nurses, despite her rank. She seemed to prefer helping the injured more than giving orders to others to do the work, and sometimes, there were simply not enough hands to do her bidding.

Collette approached the first triage tent with some trepidation. She'd only entered it once before and had seen such butchery that she hadn't wanted to go there again, but she knew that was where she would find the Matron. Taking a deep breath and putting her hand over her mouth, she pushed back the tent flap and stepped into hell.

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