Paris – May 18, 1940
Walter Schwein waited the agreed-upon half hour after Dominique’s departure before leaving their 3rd floor pied-à-terre at 19 Rue Raffet. As usual, she had used the back stairs and side entrance to the narrow Impasse Raffet, the tiny alley that allowed her to go and come without being observed by passers-by on the street.
“Your husband?” he had asked the first time she brought him to the apartment. “Do you think he suspects?”
“Oh la!” Dominique had laughed. It was like the tinkling of bells. “Suspect? He knows. Who do you think pays for this apartment? You Americans — so rigid in your puritan morality that you confuse marriage with love. I don’t complain about his mistresses. I rather like the current one, in fact. He’s just as understanding with my lovers.”
He had met Dominique, the elegant wife of the banker Edouard Beauvert, at a party in the American Embassy five years before, when he was a near-penniless student at the Sorbonne. Even though Walter was living on a tight allowance, his father had insisted he be able to dress properly, and had paid for a bespoken suit from Kilgour, French and Stanley on Savile Row.
At the fitting, Walter’s tailor had been emphatic about the importance of being “correct.” Walter clearly was not the first young gentleman he had sent, properly attired, into society. “Walk over there,” the tailor pointed to the end of the room, “and come back.” Walter did as he was told, fighting the impulse to touch the rich fabrics spread in rolls along either side of the aisle. His tailor assessed not just Walter’s trim, athletic shape, but, Walter thought, his soul. Shit, Walter thought, he probably knows things about me that I don’t know myself. When the tailor spoke, his words were like the whack of a headmaster’s cane. “English drape. Three buttons, Ventless skirt. Braces obligatory.” Walter was wearing a belt. He felt as if had been told an hour into a fancy party that his fly had been unbuttoned the entire time. “We’ll put you Holland and Sherry blue sapphire, with the just the most discrete shadow stripe.” When Walter had looked in the mirror at himself in the finished product, he was at first startled, then deeply pleased. The V-shaped cut — wide shoulders and narrow waist — proclaimed: “Athlete. Quietly confident, but without arrogance. Well mannered, but also quite possibly a bit dangerous.”
His father had also ensured that he could handle himself comfortably in polite society, and his flawless French made him a desired single male at social gatherings. Actually he hadn’t met Dominique; she had selected him as her next lover. He was all too happy to oblige. She wasn’t what one — an American anyway — would call beautiful; her nose was a bit too long and her face a little too narrow for that. But her large, expressive green eyes and wide, dazzling smile made her face one a man would instantly notice and linger over. He guessed her to be close to 40. He couldn’t imagine her doing something so déclassé as exercising, but she had a much younger woman’s taught, supply body.
She was quite demanding regarding how he should use his fingers, hands, mouth and tongue to arouse her. Fortunately, he was an apt pupil. As for the rest, he had the young man’s stamina and rapid recovery that Dominque required. It had taken him longer to get used to their post-coital ritual. Once she had showered and dressed, she insisted they have a glass of champagne together with him still utterly naked. ”I like the look of your hard American body,” she had explained. “Too many Frenchmen I know have just let themselves go.” He thought instantly of Edouard Beauvert. Everything about him was loose, pudgy, and self-indulgent. “And besides,” she added with a laugh, “it’s a lovely twist on Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, don’t you think?” He’d seen Le déjeuner sur l’herbe at the Musée d’Orsay before the French began stripping all the art from Paris’s museums at the outbreak of war to protect it from pillaging Germans. He found Dominique as inscrutable as the naked woman in the painting.
He sat in the alcove of the stone turret jutting from the front of the apartment, enjoying the warmth of the mid-day breeze that ruffled the lace curtains of the tall windows.
Dominique was always self-absorbed when they made love; this time she had been urgent, even frantic. That wasn’t surprising. All of Paris was on edge. A week ago, the Germans had shattered the fantasy of the “Phony War,” the drôle de guerre stalemate that had existed since September. Guderian’s panzers had broken through the Ardennes Forest, the one spot in France’s massive defensive Maginot line that had been left unfortified because French generals thought it impenetrable. The French army had been overwhelmed and the small British Expeditionary Force hurled back in retreat.
Now in the bars, cafés and shops of Paris, rumors swirled like wind-driven paper and rubbish in a storm. The army would regroup and make a stand along the Marne. Or the Loire. Had not the government replaced that incompetent coward General Gamelin with Maréchal Pétain, the hero from the last war who had stopped the Germans at Verdun? Paris would be defended street by street, house by house, even stone by stone.
As she was leaving, Dominique had announced, “I am quite heartbroken, my dear, désolé, but I’m afraid this is our last tryst for quite some time.”
“The war?” he asked.
She looked away for a moment, out the window, as if searching for someone. When she looked back, she smiled, but her eyes told Walter she was lying. “No,” she continued, “It’s not the war. I’m sure our brave soldiers will fight and die bravely to safeguard La Patrie. It’s a matter merely of business and convenience.” He smiled back at Dominique. What crossed his mind was the conviction that Monsieur le Directeur Beauvert, with his access to the highest levels of French government, was making sure his family — and his wealth — were conveniently out of Paris before the Germans arrived.
A half hour later, after he’d showered and dressed, he made his own exit into a neighborhood that now seemed to be emptying of people. The wealthy, well-connected residents of the 16th arrondissement must have had access to the same inside information as Edouard Beauvert. As he walked toward the Porte d’ Auteuil Mêtro station for the trip back to the Odéon stop and then home, he saw the chauffeured, trunk-laden limousines of Paris’s bourgeoisie, along with their children and English nannies, quietly deserting the beaux quartiers of the Auteuil — probably for their country estates in the Loire Valley and Normandy.
Next to the Mêtro entrance’s wrought iron Art Nouveau grillwork was a bench tucked in among brilliant yellow iris. He sat, lit a cigarette, and waited. They would be passing by along the Boulevards des Maréchaux to the Porte d’Orléans. Beauvert’s car was unmistakable, a bright red 1930 Isotta-Fraschini convertible sedan. Walter had waited no more than fifteen minutes when the car appeared, impatiently snaking its way through the snarled traffic. Behind it were two servants and a maid in a more commonplace Citröen, jammed with luggage. He stared at Dominique, sitting in front, willing her to look at him. She finally turned, saw him, then looked away, as if he were no more than just another apparition in a crowd … a petal on a wet black bough.