By John Rolfe Gardiner
At 18, just out of high school, and a bit of a fool about my classmate Heather, I was no longer keen about a summer in France. A few months earlier I’d been Pierre, an eager applicant to the new Youth Abroad program, and accepted as a worthy candidate for cultural exchange. Vouched for by French and history teachers, passport at hand, and awaited by a host family in the Auvergne, I balked and was Peter again.
My parents, once suspicious of a youthful wanderlust, threw my earlier arguments back in my face. The paraphrasing of Kipling: what knows he of America who only America knows? And Twain: cast off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor. I’d pled my case too well. Beyond adolescence, I was ready for the Continent. It was still our duty in those days, only a dozen years after WWII, to reach abroad, to show the young American face, even one with the occasional pimple, to teach and be taught by a transatlantic culture.
Wherever I’d heard all this, in the end, there was no reneging. Equipped with little more than a third year of high school French, I was forced down to the pier in New York, toward the gangplank of a seedy looking passenger liner.
At dockside, I suffered through introductions en français to my travel companions. We gathered around a man, identified by a red bow tie, who passed us on to one of our ship’s junior pursers, our guardian for the crossing. He was to see that the even dozen of us were met in Le Havre by our French tour leader. The others, seven girls and four boys, all older college students, were chatting in an easy French far beyond my conversational skill.
Alarmed at the prospect of a strict French-only summer, I could follow but not really join the two discussions going forward. Among the girls there was talk of our ship’s history, with misgiving as to seaworthiness. The ship, I understood, had once been a troop carrier, had sustained the bankruptcies of several owners, was later called The American Banker, and now sailed under a Greek flag. The girls agreed the dark brown staining on its white-topped hull, nearly obscuring the ship’s latest name—Arosa Kulm—was not reassuring. The boys, meanwhile, were going on about postwar politics in the Auvergne. As we hoisted duffels and climbed up over the dark water, one of those boys, whose voice dominated the boarding party, declared his excitement to be visiting a country thrown into a fascists’ fire, burned to its republican roots, but now blooming again, a flourishing democracy. The French had withstood a terrible onslaught and emerged with their honor intact. We were lucky to be on our way to witness the triumph of de Gaulle.
This, before we were even on the main deck. And when we were properly aboard, resting for a moment beside our luggage, he chose my lowered eyes for a target. “Apres tout,” right in my face. “Pensez de l’affaire Blum. . . . Une debacle pour Vichy. A Riom, n’est ce pas? Comprennez?” Obviously for my benefit alone, in French so slow even I could translate, he explained, yes, Riom, our summer’s destination had been home to the show trial of the three-time Socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum for prewar treason, which became a public relations disaster for the Vichy government.
I disliked this lecturing prig Kevin, even before we’d exchanged names, before a good look at his unfortunate overbite or the roll of fat over his belt could influence my opinion of him.
I knew nothing of the political winds in Riom, past or present. To me Riom was only the town where we’d meet our French families. Turning away, I said, “No!” I didn’t know. Not non but no, already breaking the French-only rule, wondering aloud, in English, where the purser was and who would show us to our cabins.
I was disappointing some of them, but a dark-haired girl, an inch or two taller than I, with a lovely open face, moved to my side, put a reassuring hand on my arm, and introduced herself as Charlie from Asbury Park.
“You didn’t understand,” she said. “There aren’t any cabins for us. Just dormitories; boys’ and girls’.” She explained again that this had been a troop ship, not a luxury liner. The others tried to force me back into French, but Charlie was my immediate ally. If Kevin had been sent to spoil the voyage, maybe she was there to save it.
All the way across the Atlantic, while Kevin and others condescended—“When you have the subjunctive in hand, the rest will fall into place”—Charlie joined me in cheating. The very first night aboard, after a steam-table dinner in the common cafeteria, when our troupe retired to the recreation hall on the boat deck, debating landscapes “après Poussin,” and the bourgeois obstacles to French Socialism, Charlie and I escaped to an upper level. Side by side at the rail, we let our contraband exchange be erased in the breeze.
She did say I’d have to try harder, that I had to get ready for my French family, who might be ordinary country folk without a word of English. But she didn’t wince like the others if I stammered for a simple noun or retreated into English. Very quickly she guessed the source of my further distance from the group.
“Peter,” she said, out of the blue, “by the end of the summer you won’t even remember her name.”
To that end, she took my hand in hers and did a half turn, raising my arm around her shoulder so that we were joined side by side, looking down over the rail at the mystery of the passing sea. I felt no need to pull away, intrigued by her detachment from the group’s mission, her awareness of something unbalanced in our group’s leisure to observe the ordinary French en famille.
She wondered if I was from a wealthy family, as most of the others seemed to be.
No, but comfortable. My father, I explained, was admired among friends as one who’d turned away from wealth to serve the country. He’d been president of the American branch of a British shipping company, knowledgeable about things like the draught lines painted on the hull below us, maritime insurance, and the price of Brazil nuts shipped from the Amazon, but had gone to Washington from New York in 1941 to work for the government in procurement of war materials. From there he’d joined the State Department and, eventually, the Foreign Service. I’d had no answer for his pious farewell: “You’ll be as much an ambassador this summer as I’ll ever be.”
Charlie edged closer, and confessed to a late discovery of her family’s wartime selfishness. She’d always known her parents despised Roosevelt, but had only recently learned how her father had made the most of the war in a shady foreign corner of the rubber market, out of sight of U.S. prosecutors. She said what she knew now could have sent him to jail. Her father’s summertime goodbye had been: “Remember who’s paying for this nonsense. Not the government.”
It wasn’t clear why she’d offer me such damning information, but I was happy to be the spirit-mate of this older girl, whose openness put the guarded high school conversations, the immature dance around sex that I’d left behind with Heather, into sorry relief. On the remaining evenings of our crossing we sneaked bottles of English beer out of the mess, carried them up to the same place at the rail, and took subversive pleasure in our alienation from the group. Opposing confessions, mine of wartime pieties, hers of greed, only strengthened our bond. On our last evening at the rail, we let our empty beer bottles fall on the canopy of a lifeboat hanging below, and watched them bounce off into the sea—renegade bombardiers on a mission of our own.
Let your crew cut grow out, she advised me. Grow some hair on your lip. As it was, I was fit to frighten the Continent with my compulsive American grooming. And go a little easy on the deodorant, or shaving lotion, or whatever it is. Not useful, she said. In France it just works against you. I should keep in mind Napoleon’s note to Josephine: “Home in two weeks. Don’t wash.”
I wasn’t insulted, but freshly in awe, brought up short mainly because there wouldn’t be time for the complete makeover. There were five days and nights of shipboard revelation, Charlie leading me across the water, past the magical worlds of her diaphragm and her period, into shameful secrets of her social diary. With all that, no urgency for consummation between us, and there was none. There might have been, she said, had there been cabins instead of dormitories. But hadn’t our honesty with each other passed common intimacy, as if sex for us was already a take-it-or-leave-it sort of thing? She made it seem exciting that we’d jumped over it with our feet never touching the ground.
It was Kevin, at mealtimes, who led the weightier discussions. Topic A: morality as perceived on the Continent. From him I heard existentialism for the first time, and none too soon for the summer ahead, what with the word being in such currency in the cafés and bars of France. Kevin assumed we’d all been trained against religious convention, that we believed mankind had found its moral code without need of a lawgiving God. As if it were his duty to explain that morality springs from a social conscience taught by the evolution of a thousand generations, his duty to prepare us for the summer ahead, to inoculate us against the superstitions of the families waiting for us in France.
Before we docked in Le Havre, a telegram was delivered from the ship’s radio room. My parents: “Make the most of it, Peter. Heather says no word from you. Why don’t you wire her from the ship.”
We were met by our French tour leader, Monsieur Pettigaud, minister of Riom’s only Protestant Church. He spread his arms like a conductor, and his lips moved from one to 12, counting us over and over again as he led us through customs and immigration. He was behaving like the headmaster of a primary school, but with the exaggerated movements of a man not quite sober.
At the railroad terminal in Le Havre we crowded into two second-class compartments for Paris. Pettigaud closed the doors on us, and went forward to some accommodation of his own. Most of us slept on that first leg to Paris. At some time on the ocean crossing, the de rigeur French summer must have exhausted vocabularies or patience. Or maybe the others needed respite before the ultimate test of their competence in the all-French households of the host families.
Kevin was reading aloud in English from the Paris Tribune, a notice from Auvergne: Venom in the Palais de Justice in Riom. A feud that would not die. Reputations challenged. Two libel suits in progress. Typical of journalism everywhere, Kevin said, making a headline out of trivia. Meanwhile Charlie was preparing me for our separation, explaining how close two people might come, only to touch and bounce apart. She told me not to worry, we’d share news of our summer adventures when we convened with Pettigaud in Riom on the weekends. But the closer we came to Riom, the more she was behaving like an older sister. That week she had licensed my imagination, never my hands. Between Montargis and Nevers she fell asleep against my shoulder.
We changed trains for the last time in St. Germain. Pettigaud, who’d been traveling in dining cars all the way from Le Havre, came through the train to rouse us before we reached Riom. Our air was fouled from Gauloises cigarettes. A preference for the simple, blue packets discovered on the crossing was a mark of the group’s growing sophistication; stronger tobacco for recently informed existentialistes. Pettigaud disapproved. He stood in the corridor between our compartments fanning the smoke away from his nose, directing our gaze to the passing geography, the volcanic mountains of the Massif Central.
At the station we waited to be sorted into two vans and carried to farms in the surrounding countryside. Two of us were being met by hosts who lived close by and could provide their own transportation. Jennifer, one of the shyest of our bunch, was led across the platform and introduced to a Madame Principe and her daughter, Clemence. They stood beside a shiny sedan, surveying our motley of blue jeans, loose sweaters, prim tunics, loafers, and saddle shoes.
The woman was perhaps 45, in a little blue silk beret decorated with two paper roses, her daughter half that age, with no pretension to style, though, like her mother, she had cropped black hair, wore a high-buttoned white blouse, and a skirt of rumpled linen. They seemed hastily dressed, as if for a nearly forgotten appointment. More like inconvenienced bourgeois than the generous provincials advertised by Youth Abroad.
Immediately Madame Principe was arguing with Pettigaud. The Principes, we were told, were last-minute volunteers, taking the place of a family indisposed by a child’s illness.
“We will not have a girl,” Madame Principe told Pettigaud, as if he should have known better, even if he was only the Protestant pastor.
“My son!” she said, by way of explanation. “My husband! My God!”
“It was settled.” Pettigaud insisted. Assignments were final.
“Never,” she said. “Not in my house.”
A little crowd was gathering around, and someone took up for Madame Principe as she came toward us, apparently to see what else was available.
“Let her choose.”
“That one,” she said pointing at me. “We’ll have him.”
There were ultimatums. Voices raised, calmed, and raised again.
“Pierre’s French is weak,” Pettigaud told someone in the gathering audience, as if this might make its way back to Madame Principe’s ear and prejudice her against me.
“He’ll cause no trouble,” she said. “Clemence, help with his luggage.”
It was obvious. I was the youngest, guileless and bewildered, if a little vain at being chosen so swiftly.
Pettigaud was still remonstrating but losing force, and by then the rejected Jennifer had told him she wouldn’t care to go where she wasn’t wanted. Clemence, without a word to me, was loading my duffel into the boot of their car. Charlie pulled me aside.
“Don’t go with them,” she said. Pettigaud hadn’t the authority to make the change, she told me, predicting I wouldn’t be happy with these people. But how could she know that?
Once more the center of the group’s concern, aware of the blood in my cheeks, I was eager to be away, perhaps a little guilty, imagining the comforts in the household of these determined women. Clemence held open the car’s front door for me to sit beside her mother, who drove. I waved to the group waiting for their vans, and we were off to the Principes’ country home, heading south on the road to Clermont-Ferrand.
Putting me in front, Clemence could watch my reactions as she questioned me.
“Americans,” she said, “study foreign languages. Europeans learn them, isn’t that so?” It took her less than the several-kilometer trip to their villa to prove it.
With her mother it was the opposite. Impatient, her English weaker than my French, and on home ground, she expected the struggle to be mine. Madame Principe said living in the country was a great inconvenience. There was little to do, but I would find my own diversions. And to her daughter, as if I wasn’t there, or couldn’t understand: “La! The hair. So short— a picture from the German camps!”
“You chose him,” Clemence reminded her.
The soft crunch of white gravel in their driveway, a fountain splashing over a bronze Winged Victory, the porte-cochère on the restored stone farmhouse; all of these, and my tacit complicity in the sudden right turn my provincial summer had taken, were left unmentioned in a first letter to my family. I did describe the stenciled frieze of rabbit, hound, and hunter under the ceiling molding of my second-floor guestroom. But not the king-size, down-filled cloud I slept on, in the wing shared by Clemence and her brother, Valton.
I couldn’t think why Madame Principe had offered this plush room to Youth Abroad. There was no pretense here of particular interest or welcome. Monsieur Principe, a boss and chief procurement officer at the big tire company in Clermont-Ferrand, had abruptly moved them to the villa from a spacious house in Riom, according to Clemence, to escape the irritations of small-town life, the insults actually, she said, of jealous tradesmen and the like. Introduced to me, her father looked at my proffered hand, nodded, and asked his wife how long she meant for me to stay.
“As long as he wishes,” she said.
The house was filled with ancient furniture, armoires and chests carved with astonishing dates, crests, and family trees, none of them suggesting a Principe provenance. An extra leaf in the oak dining table turned the family circle into an oval for our first meal together, a salmon salad served by the maid, who went about her work silently, looking no one in the eye. With Madame and Monsieur at the ends, I on one side, Clemence and Valton on the other, we made an easily read picture of the new imbalance in the house.
Madame did not slow her French for me. “Of course,” she said, “you have left someone special behind in America.”
I replied something like: “It has passed not yet two weeks, and I can hardly remember to myself the name of her.” And then: “I’d be very content to be acquainted with the butter.”
That first night, after I retired, they argued in the hall outside my room. Monsieur had come over to the children’s wing to open doors, to see the new situation for himself, and Madame followed to argue with him. “You’re never here! Why should you care?”
“What with everything else,” he said in the first English he’d spoken, “I don’t need an American lizard crawling around in my house.” I heard Clemence tell them to go back to their side of the house. A door was slammed.
I wondered if my presence was meant to shake something loose, to turn a testy household into open conflict. It was Clemence who had seen Pettigaud’s notice seeking a last-minute host posted in a Riom pâtisserie.I imagined the mother thought of me as an irritant she was lodging under her husband’s roof, that I was there to provoke some showdown. Each morning, after a sip of coffee, Monsieur Principe was off in his Peugeot to the tire company. His wife was brought her breakfast tray in bed, before dressing and driving off in her own sedan to the longueurs of an unemployed day, who knew where. The children rose at whatever hour they pleased.
The son, Valton, pretended at first to be indifferent to my visit, at least in front of his father. At 15, too young to drive and too old for his bicycle, he was picked up midmorning by a friend from Riom and followed his father’s commute to Clermont-Ferrand, where he was doing research in the region’s history library, adding summer luster to his school record. By his sister’s account, most days he sneaked off to a young people’s café to wait tables, making just enough to smoke and keep a jukebox going.
Clemence, too, went her own way. A little impish, a little dour, when speaking to me she did not hold my gaze. She had her own little car, a Deux Chevaux that sprayed driveway gravel as she came and went. No job, but a checkbook. The one who had favored my visit, she was not ignoring me exactly, maybe holding me in reserve till I might be more useful. I gathered from her phone conversations that she had several young men vying for time beside her in her runabout. None of the Principes liked staying home.
On my second morning there, with Monsieur Principe gone, Valton led me to a garden shed behind the house. “For you,” he said, pointing to the balloon-tired bicycle he’d grown too sophisticated to ride. He described the bike’s three gears, “slow, slower, slowest,” to be used on the hilly landscape on either side of their valley. He sketched a map that would take me in a circle to Riom and home again. Landmarks to note: the shanty of a woman who would walk into the road and stop me for palaver; the benches in Riom where I could sit and watch the municipal workers cleaning the latest graffiti from the walls around the Palais de Justice; and on the road back from town, a black dog, who would give chase for the last kilometer.
It was hard going on the back route to Riom, and the lady from the humble house was standing in the steep road as Valton predicted, with her hand raised against my passing. A crone in a scruffy shawl and black skirt to her ankles, she had only a few things to say, but held my handlebar until she’d finished: “No hair! Lice? Fech! This is the Principe bicycle. Good! Keep it. I could tell you plenty about Principe.” But she waved me off.
In Riom I rested a while on one of Valton’s recommended benches. Again he was right. Men were cleaning painted messages from the walls of the public buildings. Two young men in business suits sat beside me to eat bag lunches. They had questions about the Everly Brothers and Mister Ed. When I asked about the scribble on the walls, I was put off, and when I persisted, the two of them walked off together. On the way home, the black dog I was warned about must have been sleeping.
In the house for the rest of the afternoon, with only the silent maid for company, I went to my room with a pen and a one-piece air letter, addressing Heather, in a pinched hand, thinking my news for her would never fit. By midpage I was writing in an oversized script, stumped, wondering if I had the heart to fill the sheet. I might have guessed a description of Clemence would only be an irritation: “Attractive on the surface, outspoken to her family, though reticent with me. Very spoiled, 23, finished with her education, no job, but her own money and her own little car, in which she comes and goes as she pleases. When criticized by her parents, she retreats to her room. So, you can see, not my type at all.”
Though limited to Valton’s bike for transportation, I did reach several hillside villages. The local folk found my presence amusing, my exertions on the hills especially so, since I was mute and virtually deaf in their dialect and had no apparent purpose in achieving the steep ascents other than to stare back at them. It was a relief when Saturday came and I was driven to Riom by Madame to gather with the other youth abroad. She said I was to disregard Monsieur’s bad manners.
In town, Charlie spilled over with hardships. The night of arrival on her farm, she found she was to be in charge of two boys, five and three, her obligation in return for five weeks’ worth of the family’s barnyard culture offered in a French she could scarcely understand. Then the sharp cries of a rabbit as Monsieur pulled it by the ears from its hutch, slit its throat, and butchered it for a welcoming stew. Her bed, she said, was a cot in a stifling garret. She had bites on her legs from something that might be living in the straw-filled tick.
Most of the others seemed happy in their rustic situations, though Amy had puked after a vinaigrette of roast pork intestines, which her kitchen-proud hostess had made especially for her from a 15th-century recipe calling as well for liver, spleen, and tripe to be fried in sweet grease. She might have held it down, she said, if not made to translate the recipe after eating. It was a minor setback in the party’s week full of farm tradition—introductions to lore and idiom that could not be found in dictionaries. There was an enthusiastic exchange of news, their evenings in the local bar-tabacs.
Apparently, cosseted in my bourgeois family, I was to be pitied again, outside the group’s cohesive bond. The summer went on that way. Charlie came to terms with her mischievous charges, accepted her discomforts, and stopped threatening to leave. Meanwhile, I became more of a regional curiosity in my expanding cycling radius. Valton admired my new calf muscle.
On our third weekend, Pettigaud had nothing more to show us by walking the streets of Riom. We’d done the architecture, admired the basalt walls and red roof tiles; the Palais de Justice, the region’s judicial center and venue of the infamous “war criminals” trial; the folk museum, and a museum of Roman artifacts. It was during that weekend gathering that Kevin pointed me to the faint remains of my host’s name, Victor Principe, where it had been insufficiently scrubbed from a municipal building wall. “A shame,” he thought, the way they would drag peoples’ names into the streets and deface their historic town.
One evening, after a long silence around the Principe dinner table, Madame rolled her eyes back, then fixed them on her husband. “What do you expect us to do? Do you think we are deaf? Blind? Stay here? Are you insane?” Monsieur was livid. Son and daughter stared balefully at their father. The maid finished her serving and made an excuse for leaving the house early.
I woke that night to a chorus of family anger, went barefoot to the top of the stairway, where I heard all four of them below me in the front hall. Husband and wife in a fury, the children pleading with them to stop. Madame attacking, Monsieur on defense: “You think there were heroes?” he said. “You’re dreaming! Heroes are dead!”
“What did you do?” Madame screamed. “Is there more?”
“Heroes?” he said. “Socialists! Communists!”
Madame was sobbing. I went back to my room. The phone rang several times, and then, more shouting and threats, the receiver slammed onto its hook. Some time later I woke to Madame sitting on the end of my bed, stroking my feet through the bedclothes. I sat up; she pushed me back. “Écoutez,” she said. “You are scared?” Half French, half English, eager for me to understand.
Yes, I was nervous, but she was truly afraid, her place on my bed evidence enough of her derangement, already at the heart of some justification, way ahead of herself: “Madame Porte is a bitch! Her husband is a snake!”
I pulled my foot away from her massaging hand.
“What do you take me for?” she said. “What are you thinking? Anyway, you have no idea!”
She gathered herself, and began again.
“Accommodation, collaboration. Could you tell the difference?”
“No! How could you? You weren’t even here.”
I was helpless.
“My husband’s name is on the plaque in Clermont-Ferrand! My sister’s husband was sent East and died in the camp. Now this!”
She reached forward to pull at the sheet I hid behind.
The door swung open, and there was Clemence. She screamed at her mother, “What are you doing? Get off his bed! Get out of his room!”
Madame rose, strode past her daughter, raising her arms in innocent dismissal, as if this were someone else’s problem. Minutes later I heard the front door slam. At my window I could see Madame and Valton walking across the driveway, getting in her car, and driving away, south toward Clermont-Ferrand.
I had settled onto my bed again when Clemence returned to order me out of the house.
“You’re coming with me,” she said. “Put your things in the suitcase.”
She didn’t stay for my questions, but went to her room to pack her own bag, and when she came back I was ready for whatever she had in store, thinking perhaps she was getting me away from her mother, for her own safekeeping. She led me to the Deux Chevaux, we put our bags in the back seat, and off she drove, heading north. I gave no thought to the other youth abroad or to Heather, whose response to my letter, received earlier that week, had been sharp and liberating.
I was obtuse, she’d written, telling me not to restrict myself on her account, that our mutual friend Stephen had been taking her to the pool and the occasional movie. Perhaps we’d talk when I came home. Perhaps not.
Done and done, and the road ahead of Clemence and me went straight through the center of Riom.
“That was our house,” she said, pointing to a massive corner residence. In her mother’s family for generations. “No German ever walked through the door.” She was proud of that. That none of the Bosch army was ever billeted there. She circled the block, stopping on the second pass to look once more at the place where she’d grown up.
“Something did not walk well for you here?” My French still hopeless.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said.
Out of town, she turned to the northeast, following signs to Vichy. It was after 2 a.m. when we arrived at the inn where the keeper, she said, was a friend of her family’s. He was not annoyed, but opened the door and pulled us inside. He listened to Clemence’s whispered explanations, moaning with empathy, and gave her a bear hug of assent when she asked: “Is it possible? Can you make room for us?”
I was close on her heels as we went upstairs behind him, but unprepared for the iron arm that fell in front of me as I tried to follow her through the opened door of a bedroom.
“Non! Q’avez-vous?” Scandalized, he led me to another room and pointed out the bathroom at the end of the hall. I heard Clemence lock the door to her suite, and did not see her till the next morning in the parlor, sitting at the coffee table, licking the flakes of a croissant from her palm. I sat across from her.
“We’ll go for a walk,” she said. “First I call my brother to see what has happened.”
“Then we’ll drive home?”
“You’re in a hurry?”
She made her call, and we set off down the street, a mile or so to the banks of the Allier, then downstream along the river, and she began to talk, just as her mother had: “Madame Porte is a bitch. Her son is a dunce, always behind Valton in school. Her husband is a snake. He takes orders from my father at the tire company, yet uses his parking space,” as if the petty animosity were enough to explain the Principes’ flight from their home in the middle of the night.
I caught her staring at me once, not admiring, evaluating, maybe not sure how much she could afford to tell me. “My father,” she said, “blew up a locomotive that might have been used for exportation. His name is on the Honor Plaque of Clermont-Ferrand.”
She turned us back into the town, and told me it was too soon to go home; we would stay there at least one more night. Familiar with the place, she led us to Vichy’s oldest spa, where she sat me on a park bench and went inside for a full thermal treatment with massage, leaving me for two hours to wander where I would. Afterward, at a café, she ordered for both of us—wine, salad, and a chewy loaf to soak in our snails’ garlic butter.
I made no protest when our visit stretched to a third night. But Clemence was treating me like a simple little brother who had to be taught the score before I made her life unbearably tedious. Her confessions came with plentiful excuses. After all, her father had been a hero of the resistance. Each night the innkeeper came up to see that her door was locked against me.
Before we drove home the damage had been done. Every window in the ground floor of the Principe country home had been smashed, and thrown rocks had found the second-floor glass. The massive front door had been splintered by a battering log that must have taken a half dozen men to propel. There was a rope across the driveway, and a policeman who was staked out there told Clemence she would find her family, though perhaps not her father, at a pension in Clermont-Ferrand.
My escape with the Principe daughter put an end to the Youth Abroad summer. The organization, frightened by my reported absence, wary of legal problems, ordered all of us home. We were rounded up by Pettigaud a week early and driven all the way to Le Havre, to make the Arosa Line’s next sailing. I was ignored in the van; there were asides about thoughtlessness, self-indulgence, a girl’s reputation; the men less censorious than the women, though with nothing to say to me.
I boarded the Arosa Star in the mantel of a careless player who’d had my way with France, though scarcely competent in the language, and was now sneaking home without remorse, without consequence. Kevin couldn’t believe it: “She paid for everything? The room? The restaurants? The spa?”
Two days into the return passage, Charlie softened. She brought her lunch tray to sit beside me in the cafeteria. Her silence was my signal to begin.
“The Principes only had me for protection,” I told her. As if the presence of an American might keep Monsieur’s enemies away from the house. “He had a lot of enemies, who were just then being reminded of their quarrel with him.” Not only Porte, his subordinate at Michelin, the same Porte whom he’d reported for workplace violations, and who, in return, had given him a full-arm gesture in the company parking lot. After that, it was war, past and future.
I didn’t embellish the story, only repeated what Clemence had confessed in Vichy, how Principe named Porte in a libel case after Principe’s name appeared on a list of traitors still at large painted on Riom’s walls. A mistake, because Porte countersued, and other antagonists woke an old story of Principe’s friendship with the Milice, the Vichy regime’s paramilitary, who were hand in glove with the SS during the occupation. It might have died in the whispering, but for the odd discovery of old files in a Riom attic, said to be miscellaneous records that the Vichy puppets failed to destroy.
Charlie wanted the rest to hear this, but when she called them over, only Kevin and a couple of others bothered to move. Most still wanted nothing to do with me.
I began again with Clemence’s story, her lament for her country: Every time a name went up on the French honor roll, someone came out of the past to erase it.
Kevin inhaled deeply on a Gitane, a brand he’d chosen to distance himself from the group’s Gauloises habit, and threw a weary hand into the discussion, as if to say: “France, after all. What can one expect?”
But I had their attention. Principe had been stung by a facsimile reproduction in a regional newspaper, under the heading: “Who Is V.P.?” There had been a penned note in the prosecutor’s record from the Vichy’s aborted show trial in Riom. Barely legible: “V.P. of M. will arrange a company statement against Blum.” The cowards, Clemence had said, wouldn’t dare print “Victor Principe of Michelin.” They let gossip do their merde.
Worse, she admitted, had appeared days before we escaped from her house in the night. More discovered in the same Vichy files, and this time clear enough. “No German officers to be quartered with V.P. of M., who knows local population and will assist us with family genealogy.” This was after German troops had marched into the unoccupied zone. They were demanding laborers for export to Germany, then purifying all of France. Two Jewish grandparents were enough stain to send you to the Drancy camp near Paris. And from there, East in a cattle car.
My story told on the boat made its way through the rest of our group, altering memories of a season with families toiling in contentment. Vexing to learn that their pleasure in the custom and idiom of France had been taken unaware of resentments and retribution burning under the French countryside.
Two days before we reached New York, Charlie, who must have thought the summer was passing her without significant event, tried to coax me behind a bulkhead on a lower deck, to the prospect of a bed of stacked life jackets. No, I was walking the decks of the Arosa Star alone, untroubled by the serial opportunism of my imagination, which had slept that summer with Heather and Charlie too, but for now with Clemence. Was her father still in flight, in search of a new name, a new family, a new country? If all she feared were true, he had seen to it that neither a German officer nor his own wife’s brother-in-law, among others he betrayed, would ever cross his threshold.
John Rolfe Gardiner is a novelist and short-story writer and the author, most recently, of The Magellan House Stories, Doublestitch, and Somewhere in France.
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