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Authors: Stacy Henrie

A Christmas Hope (11 page)

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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He eyed the noose again and prayed Miss Lehmann hadn’t come to any harm before she’d left Hilden. However foolish she’d been to openly oppose the proclamation, she didn’t deserve any ill treatment.

“Did you hear we fired her?” the store owner shouted. His words were accompanied by cheers.

“We were aware the school was closed,” Friedrick said with dismissal, “but thank you, gentlemen, for the reminder.” He remained where he stood, though, certain their reason for being there wasn’t to share the old news about getting rid of the schoolteacher.

Joe released an ugly chuckle. “We’re not quite finished, son. Since Miss Lehmann is likely a German spy, we’re visiting all our good German neighbors tonight and seeing where their loyalties lie.”

Anger ignited inside Friedrick at the man’s veiled accusation. He and his half siblings had been born on American soil, same as these men. His father and Elsa, while German-born, were still as loyal to this country as anyone he knew.

He fought to keep his voice calm and even as he said, “We’re American citizens, same as you folks, and we honor the laws of this country.”

“Then how come you ain’t fightin’ over there with our boys?” a man at Joe’s elbow demanded.

Joe glanced at his friend and gave a thoughtful nod. “That’s a good question. What do you say to that, son?”

Friedrick’s growing resentment was making it hard to stand still and breathe normally. Why should he have to answer to the likes of them? “I have a farm deferment. My father is dying, so I run the place now.”

“Looks like your neighbor George Wyatt told us the truth about you,” Joe said.

Hearing the name of his neighbor caused a spark of shock to run through Friedrick. He looked past Joe to see George standing near the fence, hat in hand. His face remained expressionless, but his eyes reflected his sorrow. He and Friedrick had helped each other with their harvest the last few years. Though George’s presence in the mob bothered Friedrick, he appreciated the man’s defense.

“You might not be able to fight, son, but you can surely buy liberty bonds.”

“I bought a fifty-dollar bond last fall. Paid for it in full that day.” Friedrick stuck out his chin in pride. No one could accuse his family of slacking in their effort to fund the war.

“Times like these call for another demonstration of loyalty.” Joe brought his face so close to Friedrick’s he could smell the chewing tobacco resting inside Joe’s cheek. “So what’s it gonna be? You going to be the proud owner of a hundred-dollar bond, as part of our great country’s third loan drive?”

The outrageous sum hit Friedrick like a punch to the gut. His family didn’t have extra money to throw at bonds. His father’s costly medicine and frequent doctor visits had drained them of nearly all their savings.

“And if we decline, respectfully?” Friedrick said with intended sarcasm.

Joe examined the rope in his other hand. “I’ll put it to you real simple. You buy a bond tonight, or you can try this rope on for size. You choose, son.”

Had things deteriorated so quickly for the German-Americans in Hilden that Friedrick must buy more bonds or risk his life? Rage burned hot through his veins at the injustice. He was being treated as an enemy, when he was as loyal and American as these men watching and waiting for his response. Would they have been any less insistent of his family if he’d been fighting overseas?

He pushed such a question from his mind—it was futile. He hadn’t been allowed to fight, at least not on the battlefields of France, but that didn’t mean the war had passed his family by. Friedrick was beginning to see there were battles here, too. Not between trained soldiers, but between townspeople and neighbors. While he couldn’t protect his country, he would protect his family. Even if it mean buying a bond with their remaining savings to satisfy these men and keep them from coming back.

Friedrick schooled his voice once again to hide his fury, though he took great pleasure from being able to look down his nose at Joe. “I’ll get the money,” he ground out between clenched teeth.

Joe nodded approval. “Good, boy.”

He went back inside, though he left the door partway open to keep the men from thinking he wasn’t returning. Elsa and his siblings stood at the parlor entrance. Their expressions reflected concern but also innocence—they hadn’t overheard the awful conversation.

“Everything’s going to be all right.” His reassurance erased some of the tension radiating from the three of them. Friedrick went to the kitchen and pulled an old Mason jar from the back of one of the cupboards. His family followed him.

“What are you doing, Friedrick?” Elsa asked. “What do those men want?”

“We need to buy a liberty bond.” He removed all but one bill—and their $50 bond—from the jar.

“But you already bought a bond.” Her eyes narrowed in on the money in his hand. “How much?”

Friedrick put the jar back and shut the cupboard. “A hundred dollars,” he replied in a flat voice.

Elsa gasped, her hand rising to her throat. “But that leaves us only five dollars. What about your father’s medicine? We cannot—”

“Mother.” Friedrick waited for her to look at him. He was only too aware of how Harlan and Greta watched the two of them with wide eyes. “We will figure this out. I told you everything will be fine. You must trust me.” He didn’t want her coming outside in protest or upsetting his siblings any more than they had been at the sight of the mob. “Please.”

She studied his face for a long moment, then she lowered her head and nodded.

“Stay inside. I’ll be right back.”

He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder as he walked past them into the hallway. A noise from his father’s bedroom made him turn.

“Friedrick?” Heinrich swayed in the doorway. Friedrick hurried to support him. “I heard a noise outside.”

“It’s all right, Papa. Go back to bed.”

“What are you doing with that money?”

Before Friedrick could answer, the front door squeaked open and Joe’s loud voice boomed through the hall. “Hurry it up, son. We’ve got other people to visit.”
More like people to terrorize.
Friedrick strangled the bills in his hand.

“Who is that?” Heinrich asked him, his tone weary and concerned.

“I’ll explain later. Right now you need to let Mother help you back into bed.”

Elsa took Friedrick’s place at his father’s side, her face set in a determined expression. “Come, Heinrich. We must help you lie back down. Friedrick will take care of everything.”

He was keenly aware of all four of them watching him, looking to him for guidance. His responsibility, as man of the house, had never felt so daunting.

“Harlan,” Friedrick directed in a low voice as he moved down the hall, “you and Greta go wash up and put on your pajamas.” He wanted them far away from the men in the yard.

For once, the boy didn’t object. “Let’s go, Greta.”

When the two of them had disappeared up the stairs, Friedrick strode to the open door. He slapped their money into the man’s open palm. “There’s your hundred dollars.”

Joe pocketed the cash. “Now all’s left is to fill out your application.” He withdrew a paper and pencil from his coat and handed them to Friedrick.

Friedrick turned to use the doorjamb as a desk. Every cell in his body screamed at him to rip the application in half and take back his family’s money, but another glance at the noose silenced the urge. He filled in the required information, but he had the pencil pressed so hard to the paper, it tore in one place. Not caring, he thrust the application and pencil at Joe.

The man grinned as he took them in his free hand. “We’ll see this and your money get to the bank. You can pick up your bond there.” He swung the rope over his shoulder. “I knew a smart, patriotic young man like you wouldn’t be needin’ the likes of this. Have a nice night now.” He whirled around and marched down the porch steps. The rest of the mob trailed him across the yard and out the picket fence.

Friedrick watched them from the doorway, making certain every last one of them left before he shut and bolted the door. His hands shook slightly as he removed his boots for a second time. Instead of carrying them to the kitchen, he dropped them in a heap beside the front door. Elsa would surely forgive him if he left them there tonight.

“Oh, Friedrick.” Greta appeared in her long, white nightgown and threw her arms around his waist. “I’m so glad you weren’t hurt.”

Friedrick gave her a tight hug in return. “Me, too.”

Harlan joined them in the hall. Though the danger had passed, their faces were still pinched with worry. Friedrick didn’t want them to go to sleep and think of nothing but seeing their mother upset and their family threatened. “Why don’t you two go wait in your beds? I’ll come up and read you a story.”

Harlan lifted his chin. “Really?”

Friedrick nodded.

The two raced back up the stairs. Friedrick went into the parlor and grabbed the first storybook he found from the bookcase. Before heading upstairs, he decided to look in on his father. He paused outside the door when he heard Elsa talking.

“It will be fine, Heinrich. You’ll see.” The bright tone to her words sounded forced to Friedrick, but perhaps his father was too sick to notice. “Remember how trouble always comes before the dawn, before the sun returns. Friedrick will make things right. You’ll see.”

Friedrick turned away, not wishing to disturb them. There was nothing more to be said at the moment. He started up the stairs but halted halfway up as the weight of what he’d had to do tonight descended with full force upon him.

With his free hand, he gripped the banister tightly, one foot resting on the step above him. They’d skirted the danger this time, but what about the next? He didn’t think for a second the conflict was over. And now he had the added burden of stretching their last five dollars.

He could buy seed for spring planting on credit, but if the crops didn’t produce well…There was the option of selling both bonds for cash, to recoup their money, but he feared Joe and the mob finding out. How disloyal would he and his family appear then?

The weight of providing for and protecting his family pressed down on him, threatening to crush his spirit. He’d given away their money—money meant to help his father—but was that really protecting the ones he loved? Or hurting them? If he’d refused to buy the bond, he might have ended up half-dead, or worse. What would Elsa and his siblings have done then? Whether he fought against the injustice or submitted to it, his family lost something either way.

Friedrick pushed away from the banister and resumed climbing the stairs. Harlan and Greta were waiting for him. But the opposing viewpoints and compromises still squeezed at him, making it hard to swallow. Almost as if he had Joe’s rope around his neck after all.

From a Great War springs a great love…
A preview of
Hope Rising
, by Stacy Henrie, follows.

July 1918

Y
ou’ve become skin and bones since you came here, Evelyn. And no wonder; you eat like a bird.” Alice Thornton waved her fork at the half-empty plate Evelyn had slid aside. “If my mother were here, she’d try to fatten you up. Unlike the hospital cook, apparently.”

Evelyn smiled, despite the queasiness in her stomach. She could imagine Mrs. Thornton—a rotund, matronly version of red-headed Alice—chasing her down with a ladle of stew in hand. Alice talked a lot about her family, particularly her three beanpole brothers who never put on pounds no matter how much they ate, much to their mother’s chagrin.

That wasn’t Evelyn’s problem. The morning sickness that plagued her, even now in the middle of the day, prevented her from stomaching much of any meal. But she certainly didn’t plan on telling Alice that.

Almost of its own volition, her hand rose to rest against the middle of her white nurse’s apron. The tiny life inside her could only be tens weeks along by now, but her own life had been altered just the same. Would anyone else notice her lack of appetite, as Alice had, or her frequent trips to the bathroom?

Alice turned to chat with another nurse seated near them, giving Evelyn a moment to herself. She slipped her hand beneath her apron, into the pocket of her gray crepe dress and felt the letter tucked there. It brought instant calm as she withdrew the folded slip of paper. Though the letter had arrived less than a week ago, she had Ralph’s words memorized. Still, she liked to see the bold strokes of his handwriting and read the reassurance behind the words he’d penned.

I’m still in shock at your news of the baby. I find myself thinking at odd times of the day, even in the middle of a battle, that I’m going to be a father. I am going to do right by you and the baby, Evelyn. Not like my own father. As soon as I get leave again, I’m coming to the hospital there and we’ll get married. I know you’ll be discharged after that, being married and all, but you won’t have to worry about what to tell your grandparents anymore. You can tell them you got hitched in France and came home to have our baby.

I miss you and think of you every day.

Yours,

Ralph

“Did we get mail today?”

Alice’s voice broke into Evelyn’s reverie. Startled, she glanced up in confusion. “Mail?”

Her roommate pointed at the sheet of paper in Evelyn’s grip.

Evelyn quickly folded the letter and shoved it into her pocket, away from Alice’s curious gaze. “Oh, I’m not sure. This is from last week.”

“Is it from your grandparents?”

Though she wanted to answer in the affirmative, Evelyn wouldn’t lie. She hadn’t heard from either her grandmother or her grandfather in several months. Their declining health made returning Evelyn’s missives difficult.

“It’s from a…friend,” she hedged. She steeled herself for more questions, but thankfully Alice accepted the response with a nod.

Evelyn hadn’t yet broached the subject of the baby or her inevitable homecoming in her letters to her grandparents. She’d wait until she and Ralph were married. That way when she told them, she would be breaking the news as a new bride and not an unwed mother. What would that shock do to them? She was hopeful they’d like Ralph—that his charisma would eventually win them over as it had her. The thought of his larger than life personality filling the too quiet house where she’d grown up brought a smile to her lips.

“Better hurry up.” Evelyn stood and picked up her plate. “I heard Sister Marcelle is doing a round of ward visits today or tomorrow.”

Alice frowned and scrambled up from the table. “In that case, I’ll skip the rest. Sister Henriette is likely to tell her that I yelled at Sergeant Dennis good and long this morning. But honestly, the man refuses to rest.”

Evelyn’s smile flattened into a frown as she followed Alice to the kitchen. She’d noticed the way Sergeant Dennis watched Alice. The man was clearly captivated by the younger girl and would go to great lengths to garner a response from her—even if it was a good scolding. Evelyn could only hope her roommate would remain blind to the man’s attention. Alice didn’t seem the type to disregard the rule forbidding nurses and soldiers from fraternizing, but then again, Evelyn hadn’t expected to break the rule herself. Not until she’d met Ralph.

A torrent of French greeted them as they set their dishes beside the kitchen’s enormous sink. The hospital cook stood at the back door, shaking her spoon at a dark-headed youngster.


S’il vous plaît?
” the boy entreated.


Non
pas de pain
,” the cook responded. She slammed the door in the boy’s disheartened face and muttered under her breath. Throwing a pointed look at Evelyn and Alice, she returned to her table and began whacking dough with a stick.

“Come on, Evelyn.” Alice retreated back toward the entrance to the large dining hall. None of the twenty nurses at St. Vincent’s liked spending much time in the kitchen with the cantankerous cook.

“I’ll be along in a minute. You go ahead.”

The moment her roommate left, Evelyn took both the half-nibbled rolls from their plates and discreetly put them into her free pocket. While she might not be able to stomach much food, that didn’t mean someone else should go away hungry. She retraced her steps to the dining hall and let herself out one of the hospital’s rear entrances. A welcoming breeze loosened bits of her dark hair from underneath her nurse’s cap. Evelyn tucked them back and eyed the sky. Gray clouds overhead promised rain.

Before her, the back lawn of the hospital extended long and wide, bordered by forests of beech and oak trees. The hospital itself had originally been a château, rebuilt in the 1860s and bequeathed to the Sisters of Charity. The living quarters for the hospital staff stood to her left in what had once been the orangery and beyond that sat an ancient stone church. Though different from the clapboard building she’d attended as a child, she couldn’t help wondering each time she saw the old building how many weddings, funerals, and services had been held within its rock walls. Would it see another hundred years’ worth of worship and poignant moments or fall ravage to the war like so many other towns and villages?

Out of the corner of her eye, Evelyn caught sight of black hair as the beggar boy rounded the hospital. “Wait!
Attendez!
” she called out as she jogged after him. “Please, wait.”

He stopped so suddenly Evelyn nearly ran into him. Large black eyes peered up at her from a dirt-smudged face. They looked neither sad nor angry, but resigned and weary, though the boy couldn’t be more than six years old. That wizened look constricted Evelyn’s heart more than the other signs of poverty about him—the cuts on his shins and the disheveled state of his shirt and trousers.


Parlez-vous
Anglais?
” she inquired. She hoped he spoke English. Her French was still quite rudimentary, despite the months she’d spent in his country as a nurse.

He cocked his head and nodded.

“Wonderful. What’s your name?”

“Loo-ee. Louis Rousseau.”

Evelyn smiled. “
Bonjour
, Louis. I’m Nurse Gray.”

“Got any coffin nails or chocolate?”

She bit back a laugh at the familiar term for cigarettes. “You learned English from some soldiers, didn’t you?”

Louis shook his head. “
Ma grand-mère
taught me the English. But
ma
mère
takes our vegetables into the market and sometimes the Americans buy some. She didn’t sell much yesterday. I was trying to beg some
petit de pain
off that
tête de chou
. That cabbage-headed cook. But she just say ‘
non, non
.’”

The brief glimpse into the boy’s day-to-day life made Evelyn all the more grateful she’d taken the uneaten food to give him. While she understood the cook and her staff had to keep an entire hospital from going hungry, Evelyn still believed a little kindness in these dark times was equally important.

“Tell you what, Louis. I didn’t finish all my bread today and I’d like you to have it.” She removed the rolls, which were slightly squished now, and held them out to him.

His eyes widened as he stared at the bread, then at her.

“Go on. You can have it.”

He carefully took the rolls from her. One he bit into at once, but the other he held in his free hand. “
Ma
mère
can eat this one.
Merci.

“You’re welcome.”

A flood of emotion filled her as she watched him lean against the hospital wall to eat the meager meal. He was clearly famished, but he ate the bread slowly. Watching him, her thoughts turned to the life growing inside her.

Perhaps the baby would be a boy—a little dark-haired fellow with an impish glint in his black eyes just like his father. She could imagine her and Ralph and their child, and hopefully the other children that would follow, sitting on the porch of her grandparents’ house—
her house
—laughing and sipping lemonade. The loneliness she’d experienced since her father’s death would disappear, and the large, empty house would be filled with laughter and life and people.

She’d always envied those of her schoolmates with large families and two living parents. While she never doubted the love her father and grandparents felt for her, she still used to pretend she had a whole slew of brothers and sisters—a complete family. Soon, that dream would be realized. Once she and Ralph married, she would be a wife and eventually a mother, with a family of her own.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” she asked Louis, reluctant to return indoors. The heat and smells inside the hospital made her nausea worse.

Louis shook his head. “It’s only me and
ma
mère
.”

Did Louis long for more family as she did? “Where’s your father?”

The boy lowered his gaze to the grass. “He was a soldier…but he got killed last year.” His brow pinched with sorrow, the same emotion tugging at Evelyn’s own heart. So many men gone…

Losing her father had been devastating, and she hadn’t been a child. Even now, there were countless moments when she missed him with an intensity that made his death feel as fresh as yesterday. The similarities between her and the young boy poking at the ground with his big toe ran deeper than she would have guessed.

Squatting down in front of Louis, she rested her hands on his thin shoulders. “My father died, too.”

“Was he a brave soldier like
ma
père
?”

“In a way. He was a doctor, so he helped people fight battles of illness and disease.”

Louis lifted his chin to look her in the eye. “How’d he die?”

“His heart stopped working one day.”


Et votre
mère?

And your mother?
Seventeen years without a mother still hadn’t erased the longing Evelyn felt whenever people asked. “My mother died when I was five years old. But she’d been sick for a long time.” The word
cancer
settled on her tongue, but she swallowed it back. The boy didn’t need to know and probably wouldn’t understand the whole ugly truth about her mother’s condition.

Louis’s brow furrowed. “Who takes care of you?”

The inquiry was said with so much seriousness that Evelyn didn’t dare laugh. She chose not to say “myself,” despite its being the truth. She’d been taking care of herself, more or less, since her father’s death. But she recognized what Louis was really asking. Did she have any other family or was she all alone in the world? She cringed inwardly at the thought of having no one. “My grandparents are waiting for me back in America.”

Her answer seemed to satisfy him.

“I’d better go,” he said, wiping the crumbs from his mouth with his sleeve.

Evelyn stood. “So should I. Do you live close by?”

He pointed south. “La Troumont.” Evelyn recognized the name of the nearby village. “
Au revoir
, Nurse Gray.”


Au revoir
, Louis. I hope to see you again soon.”

He grinned, then spun around and darted into the trees. When he disappeared from view, Evelyn retraced her steps to the rear entrance of the hospital. It wouldn’t do to be late to her assigned ward, especially if Sister Marcelle chose today to make her inspection.

Evelyn passed through the empty dining hall. The sounds of her footsteps echoing off the high walls and marbled floors accompanied her as she moved toward the opposite end. The room that now housed long tables and benches for meals had once been a ballroom.

She liked to fancy herself in a silk dress and Ralph in his Army uniform waltzing around the ornate room, her cheek to his stubbled one, his hand firm against her back. He’d murmur funny or complimentary endearments in her ear as he had when they’d danced on leave two months before. The memories made her shiver with yearning and anticipation. Perhaps after the wedding, they could find a place to honeymoon for a few days so they could dance or explore again.

Smiling at the thought, Evelyn climbed the stairs to the wards on the second floor. The stone walls of the old château kept the place from being completely miserable now that it was the middle of summer, but she still felt the air growing warmer as she ascended. At the top, she smoothed her apron. She tried to recall from her days assisting her father how early a woman’s belly began expanding when she was pregnant. Four months? Five? Hopefully Ralph would be the first in his regiment to get leave, so she wouldn’t be showing too much by the time he came for her.

“There you are, Nurse Gray.” Sister Henriette met Evelyn outside the door of her assigned ward. The woman’s face glimmered with sweat beneath her wide, white headdress. It reminded Evelyn of the sailboats she’d seen as a child on Lake Michigan.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Sister. I had a quick errand to do first.”

Sister Henriette waved away her apology. “Sister Marcelle wishes to speak with you.”

“With me?” Something akin to panic wormed its way up Evelyn’s spine and, with it, a new wave of sickness. She hadn’t committed any infractions since transferring to St. Vincent’s six weeks ago. Did that mean Sister Marcelle, the hospital administrator, had discovered her secret?

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