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Authors: Ward Just

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BOOK: Echo House
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Dressed in wool sweaters and English slacks, they arrived downstairs at the appointed time. The château was damp and chilly despite the fire roaring in the huge hearth. The count was standing before it, staring glumly into the flames. Axel and Fred exchanged glances. Whatever they expected—Louis XIV in a powdered wig, the Marquis de Sade in platinum underwear—it was not what they got. The Frenchman was young, younger even than they were, and half a head shorter. He looked like an American college boy from the Ivy League, handsomely turned out in a blazer and ascot and gray flannel trousers. His hair was short and curly and he was smoking a Gauloise. The war seemed to have done him no harm; he was as plumped and groomed as a pet partridge, and as high-strung. The count had a tremor that was not college-age.

They shook hands and Axel handed him a carton of Lucky Strikes, which he accepted with a nervous laugh. In Europe in 1944 a carton of Luckies could buy you about anything you wanted, even, or especially, the things that were out of reach for a young count with an old château. When he announced that he spoke English poorly and would prefer to converse in French, Axel and Fred agreed at once; the count visibly relaxed then. The servant arrived to ask about drinks, indicating the sideboard, with its thicket of bottles. There looked to be an international selection of spirits, including Kentucky bourbon. They took malt whiskey neat. The count drank schnapps.

You found your way, he said, smiling dryly to acknowledge the absurdity of the question. No one could miss the château.

We had a guide, Fred said.

An extraordinary girl, Axel added.

Yes, he said. She's very beautiful, isn't she? Her name is Nadège. Her father manages the vineyard, as his father did before him, and his grandfather. She helps out in the kitchen while her husband is away.

Where is her husband? Fred asked.

He's a soldier, the count said sadly. She calls him a patriot. He was commander of a Maquis unit, captured near Orléans in 1942 and sent to one of the German camps. He's there now, somewhere in the East. Probably Poland. Isn't that where their camps are? She gets word from him from time to time and she is able to pass messages. The conditions in the camp are dreadful, but he's alive, it seems. They're very close, Nadège and her husband. She's only waiting for his release and then they'll return to their farm.

It won't be long now, Fred said.

Are you certain?

Positive, Fred said.

Why are you positive?

Because Patton's almost at the Rhine. The Germans have had it. Morale is shot. The Russians are slaughtering them in the East. We'll be home for Christmas. So will Nadège's husband, if he's still alive.

Axel listened to this without comment. They knew nothing of the course of the war, and little enough about military operations. Their work in France involved identifying targets for sabotage and then organizing the sabotage. They arranged weapons shipments. The work was dangerous but it involved finesse as much as it involved anything. They had had close encounters but had never been wounded or even shot at. They worked with partisans who were killed, and some who were captured and tortured and their families tortured also. That was a bad bargain and required tremendous fortitude, along with indifference, and they never asked about it. They worked in the shadows, trying to gather intelligence and satisfy London. So Fred didn't know what he was talking about, but that didn't stop him.

He was looking around the room as he spoke, embellishing the strength of the Allied forces. The room was so large and ill-lit that the corners were in shadows. Tapestries concealed the stone walls, and long candles threw little darts of light. The chill was easing, though perhaps that was only the whiskey. They could smell the lamb cooking.

I hope you are right, the count said.

Have no doubt, Fred said.

I'll try, the count answered.

Fred said, Why weren't you occupied by the Nazis?

We are very far out of the way here, the count said. We don't have many visitors of any kind. There would be no reason to occupy this village. We're very poor. There's nothing for them here.

Your château, Axel began.

He shrugged, as if the château, too, was poor and therefore of little interest.

No Germans at all? Fred asked.

The count took a patient sip of his schnapps and looked into the fire. He said, Germans are everywhere in my country. We are a defeated nation, after all. We live day to day. As they say in your country, beggars can't be choosers. A squad of them came here last month, looked around, and went away. They did not bother me. I think they were on the run from General Patton and fetched up here by accident. I believe the people of the village frightened them, so they did not stay.

Came and went, did they? Fred said.

They were wise to leave quickly, because Nadège was planning to kill them all. She was organizing an—ambush. The count raised his eyebrows and laughed his dry laugh.

Would she have?

Oh, yes, the count said. Certainly. She knows all about military operations. She too is what she calls a patriot. For a while she trained with her husband.

Good at ambushes, is she? Fred said. His tone was belligerent, and the count did not reply. She was standoffish with us, Fred went on. Does she dislike Americans, too? Or only Germans?

The count was silent, turning now to the fire and stabbing at it unsuccessfully with a poker. Axel realized then that he was much older than he looked. His skin had an unhealthy pallor and his hands were not those of a young man. His blazer was threadbare and looked to be a size too large. His curly hair could have been dyed.

She knows no Americans, the count said.

Tell us about the Germans, Axel said.

The count paused for a moment's reflection. He said, One of them was injured and I dressed his wounds here. I have had some medical training. The wounds were not serious but they were very painful. Nadège wanted to kill him in his bed but I told her that if she did, the Germans would find out and then discover the identity of her husband and it would go badly for him in Poland. They were just boys in a strange country. Let them go in peace, I said. And she did.

You treated a German soldier?

Of course, he said.

Why did you do that?

He was injured. I was able to help him.

You repaired him, Fred said. Put him back together again.

I did what I could, the count said. It wasn't much. The operation was very painful for him and we had no proper anaesthesia, so we used this. The count held out the glass of schnapps, tilting it back and forth. His hand trembled slightly but it did not seem to be fear, because he was speaking normally, as any man would in his own house with guests.

It wasn't effective, he added. The schnapps.

Fred stepped to the sideboard and filled his glass with whiskey and then turned to face the count. He was flushed with anger and his voice was harsh. Boo-hoo, he said, my heart's bleeding. Thanks to you that bastard is probably back in the line at this minute. That Kraut bastard is shooting at Americans right now.

The count said to Axel, Please, help yourself to whiskey.

Axel said, Surely you must have known that.

He lifted his shoulders and let them fall. He lit another Gauloise.

Shooting at Americans, Fred said again. Probably shooting at French also. Thanks to you.

I doubt that, the count said mildly. I doubt that very much. I had to amputate his hand.

Fred turned away, not believing a word of it.

You said the wounds weren't serious, Axel said.

The count said softly, You would see things differently from the way I do. You would have another point of view altogether. The Germans arrive in my country every few generations. They arrived in 1871 and again in 1914 and 1940, and those are only the invasions within memory. We expect it; the Germans are part of our national life. They are as much a part of French culture as Joan of Arc. The sun makes its transit. The moon rises. The tide goes in and the tide goes out. And the Germans invade. Perhaps it's revenge for Bonaparte; perhaps it's their own disquiet that sends them over their borders again and again. They are a restless and romantic people. They are never satisfied and this is understandable. They are descendants of the horse people. It is in their nature to move violently from place to place. In another thirty or forty years they'll come again, regardless of whether your General Patton crosses the Rhine this month or next month or next year. Or never crosses it. We French think of the Germans as a natural phenomenon, like the mistral. So when they arrive my family does its best to accommodate them, since we know they will return; they always have before. I have had to make my own rules within our particular family tradition. We have properties in the north also. We have a petit château near Sedan that has been a German headquarters in three wars. It is a German headquarters now, unless your Patton has liberated it for his own headquarters. My maternal uncle, who occupies the Sedan château, is a droll fellow. He considered adding a German library to the one already there, cautionary tales like those of Musil and Joseph Roth. Now perhaps we can add an American library, Twain, James, and Melville. Perhaps you too will return in a generation. No doubt you will.

The count poured himself another schnapps and looked directly at Axel, his eyes alive with a bright worldly glint, eyes that found irony wherever they lit. He apparently had chosen Axel as the senior man. He said, We have had a great deal of experience with wounds, my friend. We have seen many hundreds of wounds in the 1871 war and the great 1914 war and this war also. And I am bound to tell you that losing an ordinary hand is not a serious wound, not serious at all, when you consider the many possibilities.

My family has occupied this château for five centuries, the count concluded almost as an afterthought, no doubt to give the Americans valuable perspective on the inventory of wounds, grave and trivial, from sticks and stones to maces and lances and arrows and boiling oil to bullets from machine guns and thousand-pound bombs from planes in the air, each with its specific signature.

Axel looked him up and down, so nonchalant in his soft country clothes, so elegantly threadbare. He thought he had been listening to a relic from the dim past, but now he wondered if the count wasn't the immediate future—worldly, unmoved, sardonic, unsurprised, aloof from the common experience, coolly neutral unless the knife was drawn across his own throat. Axel believed that his generation of Americans would have to be responsible for the Europeans, because the Europeans would not be responsible for themselves. The Europeans had too much to explain to their own children. Of course for the count explanations would be a luxury, superfluous; they had been superfluous for five centuries. He and Fred had had many earnest discussions concerning the moral rearmament of Europe, the better to stand against the Soviets; and had decided they would have more luck with America, for America had so much more to lose. He did not see just then how they could go about morally rearming this count.

Axel poured another whiskey, tipping the glass in salute.

It's good whiskey, he said.

A gift from before the war, the count said. We had English partners.

For your wine, he said.

Our wine was popular in England, he said.

I can imagine, Axel said.

It's ordinary wine, he said. Not too expensive.

Your family is with you here?

My father is with the government at Vichy, the count said. He is a legal administrator. He is what you call a collaborator but he believes in Pétain. He was with the old man at Verdun in the last war, so they are comrades. They share the burden of eight hundred thousand casualties in seven months. Soon we will have General de Gaulle, so I do not know what will happen to my father, but I expect it will be nothing good. I have a brother who is a
He's somewhere in the countryside doing whatever
do, sabotage and assassination, espionage of one kind or another. He likes it. It suits him. He has his own group and excludes no one, not even communists. His wife is with him. And their children are in England. My older brother works in Zurich with the Americans. I have no idea what he does, but I assume that it's unwholesome. He has always wanted to emigrate to America, and now I suppose he will. He wants to marry an heiress and live in California. Do you know any heiresses? He's very attractive. He speaks excellent English.

That would be the way to do it, Axel said.

You've covered all the bases, Fred said in English. And then in French, You're a luck)' man. You're drawing water from all the wells. No matter who wins, you're covered.

Certainly, the count said with a look of surprise. Of course.

Against all odds Axel found himself drawn to the Frenchman, his candor, his fragile dignity, his utter imperturbability. He believed his duty was to survive at all costs, and in this distant region he was landlord-by-right. And you, he said. Monsieur le Comte, what's your role in the family scheme of things?

I am here, as you can see. Someone has to occupy the château and supervise the vineyards. The village depends on this domain for its livelihood. So that is my responsibility while the others are away. We go on as before. We get on as we have always gotten on. It makes no difference to us who is in charge at Paris. It made no difference in 1789 and it makes no difference today. The tumbrils never got this far south. They never will. There is only one road into this village, and you go out the same way. They do not care that we are here and we do not care that they are there. It is our duty to get on as best we can, theirs too. Sometimes it is a struggle, as when the Germans come. But my duty is to preserve and protect what we have and I do in my way what my father and brothers do in their ways. Sooner or later they will return, except for Alain, who I expect will emigrate to America. He has always wanted to be an American. When you have lived on one piece of land for a very long time you become proprietary about it. There is no difference between it and you. So you become stubborn.

BOOK: Echo House
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