Authors: Ward Just
Dusk came suddenly. It did not occur to Axel and Fred to get on with their own journey. General Patton had got almost to the Rhine without them; he could persevere a little longer. Perhaps, if left alone, Patton would be in Berlin by Halloween. They had been in France for so long, they had begun to think of it as home; its fate was theirs also, and they felt entitled to a few hours' leave.
Axel asked for another carafe and they wandered away to the stone bridge. Downstream they heard the murmur of women's voices and the splash of water. They stretched out on the grass below the bridge, growing drowsy as the sun failed. The wine had taken a toll, and this countryside was unimaginably peaceful. Axel lay back, dozing, lulled by the movement of the stream. He wondered if his sense of well-being was an ancestral memory, the de Barquin blood that his father insisted was an Irish fantasy. He thought about Echo House, feeling a tremendous nostalgia for it, its many nooks and crannies and dubious history. Then he thought about his own flat in London with his wife and son, Sunday mornings with the newspapers in Regent's Park and afternoons at the Victoria and Albert or in the country. He knew his son was safe and healthy in Scotland and that the blitz had all but ended. He had not heard directly from his wife in months, and they had not spoken in more than two years. Axel had no trouble remembering the look in her eyes or the way her hair fell or her voice, and their intimate life; but he had been gone a very long time, and people changed, even their voices. Only a few hundred miles and a channel separated them, with the war in between. Axel wondered what she did with her nights, where she went and who she went with and what she did when she got there. And, when she got home, if she still stayed up until dawn composing verses. Sylvia was a beautiful woman, always the life of every party. She would be much in demand, and under such circumstances it would be easy for her to neglect her writing. Naturally he wondered if she had been faithful to him and knew at once that she hadn't been. This was wartime. All the rules were being rewritten and some of them weren't strict to begin with; and they had never bothered much about rules.
Fred stirred and said he was going in search of a place to spend the night.
Good luck, Axel said.
The women dispersed and the countryside was quiet except for the swish-swish of the stream and the far-off call of blackbirds wheeling high overhead. The ground was damp with a locker room's sweat-smell. Axel stretched out flat, the coarse French cloth rough against his skin, a welcome sensation. The birds described great arcs in the pale blue sky, climbing and falling, sliding on the wind currents. Suddenly the world seemed made of flesh and blood, a thick overheated physicalness, things in motion, a kind of silent deluge.
Fred returned with the red-faced mayor. It seemed he had a problem only the Americans could solve. They followed the mayor along the road by the stream until they came to a stone building with a wide wooden door. They could see lights inside. The mayor unlocked the padlock, and the door swung wide, revealing a German staff car. Lanterns hung from the ceiling and in the shadows were three men of the village, evidently the guardians of the car.
It won't run, the mayor said. We thought you could help us. Americans know everything about automobiles.
Where did you get it? Fred asked.
There have been Germans here, the mayor replied.
And where are they now?
They went away, the mayor said.
Where did they go? Axel asked.
East, the mayor said. They said they were going east.
Valhalla, Fred said, and one of the men laughed unpleasantly.
It took a minute to open the hood and another few minutes to arrange the lanterns so that they could see the engine. Fred asked for a wrench and began to hum to himself, testing wires and prodding the engine's parts. While he was working, Axel looked into the interior of the car, but there was nothing of interest. It was just an abandoned scout car, in near-pristine condition. There were no signs of battle on it. Fred was inspecting the carburetor under the light, turning it this way and that. He was humming
and grinning while he tinkered. At last he nodded and tightened a screw and replaced the carburetor. The mayor and the men in the shadows were watching him intently, saying nothing. When Fred asked one of them to start the car, it fired up immediately with a pop-pop-pop, then settled into a low rumble. Fred stepped back and cleaned his hands on a piece of cloth, still humming Berlin.
We are indebted to you, the mayor said.
It's nothing, Fred said.
You were a mechanic in America?
No, Fred said. As you say, all Americans understand about automobiles. Introduce us to your friends.
What is your destination? one of them said.
East, Fred said. We too are headed east.
Where the Germans are, he said.
That's right, Axel said.
I suppose it's necessary, the mayor said. But it's a waste.
Why are you here? said a voice from the shadows.
There was an invasion, Axel said. In Normandy. There are thousands of Americans in France now and more on the way.
Why are you
the voice repeated.
We took a detour, Fred said. What's your name?
Gaston, he said after a moment. Do you have a cigarette for us?
Fred shook cigarettes out of his pack and handed them around and lit them with a Zippo. He took one himself and handed the pack to Gaston.
We must go now, the mayor said nervously.
Where are we going? Axel said.
East, Gaston said. I thought you said you were going east.
The chÃ¢teau, the mayor said quickly. The count insists that you spend the night with him in the chÃ¢teau. You will be very comfortable there. Monsieur le Comte has prepared rooms and a fine supper and is pleased to welcome you, two Americans who have wandered into his domain. It's all arranged.
What do you think? Fred said in English.
Better there than here, Axel said.
It's a piece of luck, he said. A hot meal and a bed. Why not? Do you suppose there's a countess, too?
Probably, Axel said What's a count without a countess?
Maybe there's a little contessa, too, Fred said.
Speak French! Gaston said loudly. This is France. We speak French here.
Axel said to the mayor, What's the matter with your friend?
He's all right, the mayor said. He can't understand what you say and it makes him suspicious. We can go now. It's best that we do.
Goodbyes were perfunctory. Outside, dusk still lingered. The mayor led them back up the road beside the river until they came to the church. When he turned to face them, his expression showed almost fatherly concern.
He said, You are welcome to remain here. It's safer than in the East.
General Patton wouldn't like it, Axel said.
In your blue trousers you look like one of us, the mayor said. And you speak very well, although your accents are not of this region. Alsace, perhaps, or the Jura. Have you ever worked in a vineyard?
Alas, Fred said. Patton shoots deserters.
You shouldn't smile, the mayor said. It's not funny.
Don't you want the Nazis out of France? Fred said.
The mayor looked at him blankly and shrugged. There are no Nazis here, he said. Do you see any Nazis?
We thank you, Axel said. But it's impossible.
The chÃ¢teau, Fred began.
The young woman will show you the way, the mayor said.
And that was when they saw the girl on the bicycle, poised to pedal away up the hill. She was wearing a red beret and a summer dress that looked a size too small. She stared at them with an unfriendly expression that seemed to say, Keep your distance. It was evident she intended to keep hers. Axel wondered what she had heard about American soldiers. In the gathering darkness they could not see her clearly, except for the unfriendly expression. She motioned impatiently.
Before they got the Jeep in gear she was halfway up the hill, pedaling furiously in the direction of the chÃ¢teau, gaunt against the night sky, dull lights within. When they pulled up behind her, she slowed down. The way was steep and the road rutted. Fred banged his hand against the wheel and said something obscene, then reached under the dash and extracted his little Leica camera, squeezing off two quick shots. He had only the headlights to work with, but any photograph was worth the chance. She was a sexy girl but unapproachable, lost in her own thoughts. Still, in a remote village in the middle of a war, her appearance seemed miraculous. She never looked back but stared straight ahead, standing up on her pedals, working hard climbing the last few hundred yards. In the yellow glare of the headlights her dress was transparent, and as she swayed from side to side it was evident that she was beautifully built and supple as an athlete. But she didn't look like a contessa. She didn't look like any of the hungry village girls the Americans had seen in the past two years, girls so lonely they took suicidal risks in pursuit of what they wanted; or so terrified and broken down they refused to take any risks at all.
This girl slowed down and then stopped, leaning forward on her bicycle and sliding off. The back of her dress was soaked with sweat, though she did not seem winded. She stood with her back to them, her head raised as if waiting for a summons; and then she ran her long fingers through her hair, looking into an invisible mirror. Fred turned off the engine and they waited in silence, the girl garish in the glare of the headlights. In the thick night air they could smell the perfume of the vineyards and something else besides, the French girl's ripe sweat.
She parked the bicycle at the base of a wide stone porch, pointed at the front door, and disappeared around the corner of the chÃ¢teau.
'Bye, Fred said.
Don't forget to write.
They waited a moment in the silence and then alighted, carrying their weapons. A servant met them at the door and conducted them to adjoining rooms on the second floor. He said there was hot water if they wanted to bathe and clean clothes in the closets. All normal sizes, he said with a smile, calculating Fred's height. Take what you need, the servant said. Dinner will be informal. The count expects you downstairs in one hour.
While Fred drew a bath, Axel went to the window and looked over the village and the countryside far below, so peaceful in the moonlight, the terrain reminding him of the Blue Ridge near Middleburg. The hills rolled back in various shades of gray and dark blue, fading at the horizon. He listened for the far-off thunder of artillery but heard nothing except the movement of insects and the occasional call of a bird. The birds wheeled and pitched, watched by a hawk circling at great height. A nocturnal spider as big as a thumbnail sat on the edge of its web in the corner of the window casement; and when Axel moved the web it seemed to arch its back, poised for a reconnaissance. Fred said something from the bathroom, but Axel could not make out what it was and did not reply. He was watching the spider, moved now to a defensive position as he continued to tug at the web. All this time the birds rose and fell, pursued by the hawk.
Looking up, Axel saw the battlements of the chÃ¢teau, a sickle moon sitting like a crown on one of the turrets. There were no lights anywhere below. He wondered how it would be to spend the war in this remote village, working the vineyards and otherwise leading a blameless rural life; and later to appear in Patton's tent with a harrowing tale of capture and torture by Nazi SS. No one would believe it, though. They would think it more OSS la-di-da, Behl and Greene finding themselves in a petit chÃ¢teau in ancient Aquitaine, avoiding the war, shuttling between the bedroom and the wine cellar, overseen by comely countesses who were eager to share their bodies while the rest of the Third Army was face down in the mud. There were remote villages all over France that had avoided involvement in the war; they avoided it the way you did the eyes of a surly stranger in a dark alley.
No horseshit from this bastard, Fred said from the bathroom.
What do you mean?
How do we know who he is?
He's Monsieur le Comte.
He's probably a collaborator, Fred said. Living it up in his chÃ¢teau while France burns. A profiteer selling his filthy wine to the German army at exorbitant prices.
Water hot enough for you, Fred?
Fuck you, Fred said.
Plan to give him a civics lesson, Fred? Tell him what's what back in the arsenal of democracy? Because if you do, please save it for after dinner. I think, from the smell of things, that he's serving roast lamb.
Axel went in to bathe, thinking about the girl on the bicycle, the look she had given him before beginning her trek to the chÃ¢teau. She seemed to him to be the pulse of this lost, forgotten, unsupervised province in which so much seethed beneath the surface. Its obscurity gave rise to an excess of imagination, as if they were at the outermost edges of the known world. He and Fred were the law here. They stepped lightly but they took what they wanted. They were guests of the nation but also the advance party of the liberation. They did not take orders. No authority touched them except the alien German authority. The girl's hostile look infuriated and excited him. Surely this was not a random encounter but something fated; otherwise, why were they directed to this place? Axel dressed and returned to the open window. He watched the spider move forward from the margins of its web to the center, sure, swift strides and then a pause. The spider was moving forward like the point man of an infantry company. Axel tugged at the web, still thinking about the French girl and wondering when he would see her again.
It was then that he heard a familiar sound and looked out over the dark village. He watched the twin taillights of an automobile ascend the road from which they had come, hesitate at the top of the hill, then disappear. The night was so still that he could easily hear the rumble of the engine, and he knew at once that it was the German scout car. Greatly uneasy, he wondered where it was bound and why. The car's rumble vanished and he resumed his watch over the spider, now only inches from his thumb. He was remembering the way the girl moved and thinking about the scout car and deciding to say nothing to Fred about either one, when the insect lunged. The spider was quick but Axel was quicker and when next he looked at the web, the spider was gone. The sickle moon had slipped behind the chÃ¢teau, the birds had disappeared, and it was too dark to see the hawk. He was suddenly fatigued. Then Fred was in the doorway, gesturing impatiently at the clothes closet. It was time for dinner.