Paris — June 16, 1940
When Walter got back to his hotel, Madame Hortense had a message for him. “This came for you while you were out. A woman. I wrote down what she said.” Madame Hortense handed over the note, holding it by the edge with her thumb and index finger as if it were something that smelled bad. Walter looked at the signature, “Dominique.” That explained Madame Hortense’s disgust. She would have known everything she needed to know about Dominque after listening to a few sentences.
Walter, can you please help me? We were on our way back to Paris and something terrible has happened to Edouard. I’m stranded in Angerville, all alone and quite desperate. The concierge at the Hotel de France knows how to reach me. The number is 44-718. Please, please come. Dominique.
“This is a problem,” Walter said, his eye still on the note. He composed himself to lie as guilelessly as possible before looking up. “She’s an acquaintance. I met her at a party in the Embassy. Not my crowd, really.” He shrugged. Better to say too little than too much. “You know what those people are like.”
Madame Hortense nodded in agreement. “They’ll get what’s coming to them, sooner or later. La punition boite, mais elle arrive. Retribution limps along slowly, but sooner or later it arrives. Well. So the vain little bird gets caught in cow shit and then begs to be pulled out. If she’d asked me, I’d have given her something to cry about. But of course you will try to rescue her?”
“I think I must try.”
“Well it’s what you Americans do, isn’t it?” She paused. “With the roads and the bombings … wait a moment before you go, I’ll see if there’s something in the kitchen I can make up for you.” Then she added with a piercing look, “Entre l’arbre et l’écorce il ne faut pas mettre le doigt. Don’t put your finger in a bad place; it may get pinched.” Walter was pretty sure she wasn’t talking just about his finger.
* * * * *
After calling the hotel and leaving word for Dominique, he was on his way. He’d taken N-2o south out of Paris. A month ago, when one could still buy petrol, Walter had filled four 20-liter jerry cans with fuel and stored them in his garage. He had one strapped in the trunk of the car. Good thing the Germans aren’t strafing cars now, he thought. This car would turn into a torch.
Angerville was about 80 kilometers away. The trip should have taken about an hour and a half; after two hours he’d covered only 20 kilometers to the outskirts of Fresnes.
He was fighting traffic now heading back to Paris — the same people who days before had fled the city. The sides of the road were littered with the remains of that frantic attempt to escape: abandoned suitcases, boxes, clothing, personal belongings — including a children’s doll, lying in the mud, its ceramic head smashed — and mattresses. Every few hundred yards he would pass cars, stranded in the middle of the road or pulled off on to the shoulder at crazy angles. Many had bullet holes stitched across their roofs, hoods and windows; a few were just burned-out shells. The bodies had been removed, but occasionally he drove past fields still littered with the now bloated bodies of horses and cows.
He gave up fighting the mass of people on the N-20 and took a detour at Arpajon on to N-449, swinging to the east. Near la Ferté-Alais the bridge had been bombed, and he had to crawl across the single lane that remained. He passed a detachment of French troops in Malesherbes and remembered de Maupassant’s description of the 1870 French defeat by the Prussians.
For several days in succession, the remnants of a routed army had been passing through the town. They were not disciplined units but bands of stragglers. The men’s beards were unkempt and dirty, their uniforms in rags, and they slouched along without colors or regiments. All of them seemed crushed and exhausted, incapable of thought or resolve, marching out of force of habit, and dropping with fatigue as soon as they stopped.
He didn’t reach Angerville until early in the afternoon. The square in front of the white stucco Hotel de France was jammed with cars, tumbled together like fish trapped in a net. He finally found an opening by driving on the sidewalk of the vegetable market, slowly pushing people out of the way with his front bumper, until he reached a gap in the cars he could squeeze through, scraping both front fenders on either side. A few of the men around him cursed as he forced his way through, but without energy. He parked the car on the lawn of the church and muscled his way through the crowd back to the hotel. He passed a house with a small garden in front. The fence had been torn down and the vegetables ripped out of the ground. At a table on the hotel veranda, a woman, her face streaked with dried blood, sat by herself. She was cradling a baby in her lap. The baby looked dead; so did the woman. No one paid attention to her.
“C’est des conneries! No food. No rooms. Nothing to drink. No fucking anything,” complained an older man as Walter reached the hotel’s entrance. From his grease-stained blue de travail, Walter guessed some kind of mechanic. Walter just nodded as he pushed inside to the reception. Amazingly, there was still someone at the desk, a little man, taken to combing his disappearing light hair upwards to hide his growing baldness.
He sized up Walter immediately. “I’m so sorry Monsieur, we are full up and the kitchen is closed. Perhaps if you want to eat, you might try the café across the street?” Walter had seen the sign, “Café et Tabac.” The metal grille was pulled down over the storefront.
“No, I’m looking for someone. A Madame Beauvert. She left a message?”
“Ah yes. These are terrible times. Still, one must help one’s friends. She is safe. At the house of my sister’s cousin on Rue de Champ de Fiore.”
“And I would find that street…?” Walter began.
“My apologies,” the manager said. “When you leave the hotel, take the immediate right, direction Dourdan, and go up the street to your first left. If you reach the Restaurant L’Angervillois, you’ve gone a block too far. Second house on the right.”
Walter found the house easily. It was trim, whitewashed, with soft green shutters and a front garden the refugees had not yet discovered. The door, and the house were old. He glanced quickly around. Very petit-bourgeoisie. Not Dominique’s crowd either. He lifted the iron knocker and rapped several times on the door. After a few minutes he heard footsteps and a woman’s voice from behind the door.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Tough questions, Walter thought. I’m not sure I can answer either of them right now.
“I’m a friend of Madame Beauvert. I’ve come to take her back to Paris.” I don’t know whom that news will please more, he thought, Dominique or her hosts. He could hear several locks being undone. The heavy door finally squeaked open. When he stepped into the dim entrance, lit by a single ceiling fixture, Dominique was standing next to a very frightened woman. Dominique rushed to him and crushed him in an embrace.
“You’re here! Bless you, Walter. Bless you!”
He stepped back to look at her. She was wearing a Breton striped shirt over a simple, perfectly-styled black skirt and what he knew were Roger Vivier buckled low-heeled pumps, set off with a pink and green Hermès scarf. Jesus, he thought. In the midst of a god-damned war how does she do that? She hadn’t troubled with her hair. It was un-brushed, tousled — a sexy “just out of bed” look. He liked it.
Only when he looked at her face did he see the difference. Her eyes were red with weeping — or fear — or both. There were lines around her eyes and mouth he had never noticed before. The well-tended rose had faded.
They had been led to the front parlor. Dominique collapsed in a chair and Walter sat next to her as the words tumbled out. “It’s been such an awful nightmare. We stayed with Edouard’s cousins in Orleans. That was fine. Then the Germans attacked and began shelling the town and their planes dropped fire bombs. The pompiers were helpless. The Germans blew up the water plant. If the wind hadn’t shifted to the south we would have burned to death. The next day, Edouard said we would head back to Paris. There would be a cease fire — an armistice. The new government would need him. He sent the servants ahead with our luggage. He took the car, saying he would find petrol to get us back to Paris. That was three days ago. I haven’t seen or heard from him since. He sent the servants ahead in the Citröen. I finally got a ride here in a vegetable truck. Quite horrible. Along the way I thought I saw our Citröen alongside the road. It was burned. The truck driver wouldn’t stop so I couldn’t see if anyone survived.” Dominique broke down and started sobbing. Walter saw her patting her pockets for a handkerchief and offered her his own. She blew her nose noisily and wiped the tears away.
“If we are to get back to Paris before the curfew, what with the roads as they are, Dominique, perhaps we should leave now. Have you eaten?” He had saved one of Madame Hortense’s sausage and onion sandwiches for Dominique.
“I’m fine,” she said, looking up at him eagerly. “Let’s go.” It took her just a moment to get her one small suitcase and make her thankful goodbyes to her hosts.
Walter topped off his gas tank and they scraped their way out of the rat’s nest of jammed cars in the square. Walter decided to try N-20 again. This time, they were lucky. He had to weave in and out of stalled vehicles, and stop at times when something ahead brought the procession of returning Parisians to a halt, but they made progress. Dominique was soundly asleep, a car blanket wrapped around her, ten minutes after they left Angerville.
A few days before the Germans entered Paris, Bob Murphy had given Walter two American flags to attach to his front bumper with the thought they might be helpful in navigating German checkpoints. He hadn’t been aware of it on the way down, but now, the people he passed noticed the American flags. Many of them waved, and got out of the way so he could pass. He even heard cries of “Vive les Américains!” and “Quand est-ce qui vous arriverons?”
It was near dusk when he pulled up in front of Dominique’s mansion on Tolstoï Square off Boulevard Suchet. He shook her shoulder gently. “We’re here.” The mansion was dark.
She woke up, rubbing her eyes like a little girl after a nap, then looked around, and let her mind re-adjust itself to where she was. She reached across and took his right hand in both of hers, squeezing hard. “Come in with me,” she said. By the longing in her eyes Walter knew she meant not just her house but her bed. He gently removed her hands and placed them back in her lap.
“I’ll see you in safely, Dominique, and then leave.” She waited for the rest of it. “Do you have money to get by on your own, if that becomes necessary?” he asked.
Dominique nodded towards her suitcase in the back seat. “Edouard left me money…. Yes.”
Walter didn’t know what to expect next — tears, pleading, a difficult scene — Dominique was better than that. “Well. So this is it,” she said, with a small, sad smile. Then thank you, mon chérie, for rescuing me — for everything. You were a wonderful lover.” She leaned forward and kissed him, Parisian style, on both cheeks.
“I won’t forget you either,” Walter said, although he knew that wasn’t what she had meant. “You will survive, Dominique. As for me, I have no idea what lies ahead, but I think it is a road I will need to travel by myself.”
After getting Dominique inside and checking to make sure the house was safe, Walter left without any more goodbyes. There was nothing more for either of them to say. He thankfully reached his garage well before curfew. After the day like this, he had no interest in dodging German patrols in a locked-down city. Before turning off the garage light and shutting the door, he looked ruefully one more time at the dents, scrapes, and smears of different colored paint on his front fenders. I’ll have to check the bolts on the front bumper he thought. It was hanging at a lopsided angle. Now we both know what it’s like to be in a war, he laughed to himself.