My first memory ever was of me standing in the doorway of my parent's bedroom, watching as my father motioned to me to come forward into the room. He never spoke much because he would always wind up coughing. He was coughing then but when he stopped there was a smile on his face as if he was about to give me a surprise. After taking a step or two he signaled me to stop and picked up a rifle that was lying on the floor, putting the muzzle under his chin. I remember the sound as it fired and I remember the wall behind him being splattered with blood. I remember screaming. I do not remember being only four years of age.
Next, I remember Monsieur Dosé, one of my teachers, kneeling in front of me in the headmaster's office.
"Édouard, are you feeling better now?"
"Yes, Monsieur Dosé. I feel quite well now. May I go home?"
"We've sent for your mother, Édouard. She should be here any moment," the headmaster said. "What happened to cause this, Max," he asked Monsieur Dosé.
"I don't know, Sir. He was reciting and suddenly went into a trance of sorts. He seemed not to be aware of anything around him but when I took his hand he willingly came along with me here. He seems different now . . . somehow."
My mother arrived, very distraught that someone should summon her to the school. She rushed to my side and sat next to me on the bench.
"He seems to be all right now, Madame Jannot," the headmaster said.
Not trusting his evaluation she quickly looked me over to determine if I had suffered any physical injury, having been told nothing of my condition. She squeezed my shoulders and elbows and felt my head, for I bump I supposed. When she could find nothing apparent she turned to the two men and was about to speak. I stood up and took her hand.
"I'm well now, Maman," I said.
She didn't understand.
"What happened?" she asked them.
"Maman, it's over," I said, smiling. "I'm well now."
Whether Monsieur Dosé and the headmaster knew about my father, I was never certain. I always thought that everybody knew and for some reason they never mentioned him. But my mother now knew my meaning and without a word we left the school and went home. We spoke no more of it. It was October of 1925, one month before my seventh birthday.
My childhood in Saint Mihiel was difficult. The boys my age treated me differently, as though I were different. I was once, but I am no longer as I used to be. The more I tried to be like them the more they thought that I was pretending. After a few years I gave up trying and accepted my . . . I cannot call it isolation; I was never excluded . . . it was more of never being included but being tolerated, still being able to call them my friends. I often wondered how much of this was because of my father's decision to end his life or my reaction to it.
My best friend was my sister Eliane who was born shortly before my father's death. She became aware of how my friends treated me and would often volunteer to keep me occupied when I was left alone. We decided to teach ourselves Latin and went about it quite determinedly until someone who knew that language heard us speak it and informed us of how badly we were pronouncing everything. We gave it up in favor of chess. I constantly told myself how content I was with the way fate was leading my life; Eliane and I could not have been happier with each other. The rest of the world did not matter all that much.
On my fourteenth birthday my mother called me into her bedroom to show me something. From the pages of a book she removed a photograph and handed it to me. It was a picture of a young man in uniform, not a French uniform; at least not one that I had ever seen. He was seated in a chair at an angle to the camera but his face was fully forward. He was very stern looking, a handsome man, clean-shaven with his hair combed flat atop his head.
"Who is this?" I asked.
"His name is Rheinhold Popp."
I stared at the photograph thinking 'So, this is Rheinhold Popp . . . and . . . ?'
"He's your father!"
Just like that she made my sister my half sister. I threw the photograph on the bed and ran from the room. I had nowhere to go so I wandered into the woods until I came to the slope that dropped away from the town on two sides. From this location I could see nothing of civilization except the railroad tracks below. I sat there for a long time thinking about what all this really meant; how it would change anything; how it would affect my love for Eliane. I thought it odd that I was more concerned about my relationship with my sister than I was about which absent man was my father. When I realized that I had a hunger to know more, I returned to the house.
My mother was preparing supper. She heard me come in but did not turn around. I stood there waiting for her to face me but she would not. What anger I had gave way to curiosity. In the end I succumbed.
"May I see the photograph again, Maman?"
"It's where you left it, Édouard."
I was surprised, thinking that she would have hidden it away, never to allow me to see it again because I had reacted so badly. She was forcing the issue; she wanted me to know this and more. I retrieved the photograph and studied it closely, looking at every detail of his face. I went to a mirror to compare his features with mine. With honest impartiality I had to admit that there were similarities. I looked next at a photograph of my parents and saw no such similarities between me and . . . the man next to my mother. I placed the two photographs side by side and returned to the kitchen.
"Are you going to tell me about him?"
"Yes. What do you want to know?"
"Everything! Why did you wait until today to tell me?"
"Where is Eliane?"
"I don't know. She's not in the house."
"I don't want her to know. If you feel that you must tell her, I cannot stop you."
"I won't tell her."
She dried her hands at sat at the table. I sat opposite her. She leaned back in the chair, folding her hands on the table and looked into my eyes. I could not discern any emotion in her voice or on her face.
"Your father. . . Eliane's father was conscripted when it was obvious that war would come; we were married only two months, I was only sixteen years old. Within months the town was in German hands. The first time I met your father was two years later when he came with some other officers to Grand-père's butcher shop. There were other butcher shops in Saint Mihiel but they came here because Grand-père spoke perfect German. Your father was a Lieutenant in the artillery. I spoke German well enough but he spoke very good French . . . the only one of all his comrades. They had been coming to buy once a month; they were very polite and paid in silver. Grand-père didn't mind but Uncle Richard spoke against it. After a few visits he and I would chat about things. He would ask about my life and family and I about his. It was about this time that a wounded soldier, a neighboring farmer, was allowed to come through the German lines; he had lost both his legs. He said that he thought that my husband had died in the same battle, but could not say for certain."
"Suddenly my brother saw my casual conversations with Rheinhold in a different light. He began accusing me of things that were untrue; Grand-père quickly put a stop to it. 'So what if your sister is nice to our customers . . . business is business', he said. A few days later your father came into the shop and Grand-père congratulated him in German because he saw that he had been promoted to Captain. It pleased your father that he understood German, but in speaking with us he had learned that Uncle Richard did not have the same skill. What he didn't know was that my brother hated Germans and refused to learn anything of that language when our father tried to teach it to us. We both remember the stories that Grand-père told us of the hardships that his family suffered after the Franco-Prussian War when they chose to leave St. Avold. When Rheinhold came the next time, Grand-père was sick and had stayed at the house. He asked me in German if he could see me that evening. I didn't answer but I think he knew that I wanted to but was too afraid to say yes. Months went by and he never made mention of it again."
"We all knew that there were several taverns where female company could be had, so I didn't think of him that way. Finally, I wrote a note and kept it with me until he came again. When I wrapped the meat that he bought I slipped it inside. It was late when he came and he left just before dawn. We were together almost every weekend for the next year but after the Americans liberated the city, I never saw him again. I was seven months pregnant but we both suspected that my husband was still alive."
"What did your husband say when he saw me?"
"He thought it no excuse that I assumed that he was dead. He accused me sleeping with one of the farmers that we knew. I denied it and after a few days he chose a different one to accuse. Another denial was followed by another accusation until he had named everyone he knew. I never told him the truth. He had lost a part of his foot in the war and his lungs had been damaged by the gas. It took him a year before he could work again. By then he had accepted you but everyone knew that you were not his."
"Why did he do it?"
"He was in pain every day because of his lungs and often spoke of wanting to die. I thought if we could have a child he would stop all that talk. After Eliane was born the worst of his friends teased him that the mystery father had struck again. He threatened to kill me unless I revealed the name. I was very scared; I believed that he would hurt me. He had turned most of his friends into enemies through his wild accusations. He would go everywhere with his rifle. I showed Rheinhold's picture to him and he just laughed. Five minutes later I heard the shot."
"Why did you do it?"
"I'll tell you anything you want to know about your father but the rest is none of your affair. When you get older you will know the answer."
I stood up. I wanted to know more but right now I needed to be alone. As I was leaving the room she called to me.
"Find your sister; we will eat in fifteen minutes."
My sister, yes, my half sister. That thought took away some of the joy that I was experiencing from knowing that my mother's husband was not my father. How could I tell Eliane how glad I was to learn that the bastard that fathered her was not my father? I wanted to know more . . . about him, about Germany, about being German . . . well, half German. Never again would I share the sentiment that everyone else in this area had, we taught those bastards a lesson, didn't we! But I was still French, this was still my home, these were still my people. W ould there come a time when we could forget all that and live in peace, side by side?
I saw Eliane as she was coming home from her friend's house; I hurried to her. When we were together, I took hold of her hands. She said nothing . . . but then she was accustomed to my showing some sign of affection. Her straight brown hair fell over her shoulders, her bangs framed her face. The few freckles that she had when she was younger were mostly faded away. Her face was a bit long but what one noticed most was the fact that even when she wasn't smiling, it appeared that she was about to. From our features one could not say 'She looks French but you look like a damn German.' We both looked just like everyone else in Saint Mihiel. I still loved her more than any other person in the world . . . except of course . . . no, more than any other person in the world. I put my hand on her cheek.
"Give me a kiss," I said as I knelt on one knee in front of her.
She kissed me politely on the lips and I hugged her.
"What is this all about?"
"I think you are the best sister in the world and I am very happy to be your brother. I love you Eliane."
She gave me another kiss and smiled at me.
"Are you up to something?"
"No," I said and left it at that.
I stood up and we began walking toward the house. I looked at Eliane; she was looking at me. She accepted my answer without another thought or question. She took my hand in hers and squeezed it.
That summer I worked part-time in the shop with Uncle Richard, one of my cousins and my mother; Grand-père was not well. He advised me to continue my education as much as I could and not think about becoming a butcher; Uncle Richard had three sons. In the evenings my mother would take Eliane and me to see her father and tend to his needs. I took the opportunity to question him about the war and particularly about the Germans. I became fascinated with his recollections but was careful not to express any admiration for the Germans or limit my inquiries to them. My mother was aware of what I was doing and how I felt.
When Eliane was elsewhere, I questioned my mother about my father; sometimes asking the same questions days apart hoping to hear different answers or more of what may have been once forgotten information. There came a point when she could tell me no more . . . or decided to put an end to this. It was about the same time that Grand-père died. My cousin Jacques-Henri began to work in the shop full time when I went back to school. Uncle Richard wanted to give my mother only one third of the income but after a heated quarrel they agreed on forty-five per cent.
I took my grandfather's advice and gave up all thought of ever working in the shop. My grades had always been good but now I determined to excel. Eliane and I would test each other on our lessons at the expense of play or socializing with our friends. The boys that had once tolerated me became distant; I had not gained their admiration for my good grades but instead their envy and displeasure. My interest in the war led me to investigate its causes and results and the more that I learned the more I realized that I had to go farther afield to understand the whole story. I became so deeply involved in it that one day I was aware that I had found my life's calling.
When I completed my studies at the lycée, first in my class, everyone was surprised to hear that I had been accepted at the Sorbonne; it didn't surprise me a bit. My mother allowed Eliane to accompany me to Paris when the time came to register. I could have done it through the mail but there was another matter to consider . . . my subsistence. The registration process took only a few hours and then we investigated notices offering assistance that were posted in the hall. Not finding anything decent the first day, we rented a cheap room on the Boulevard Saint Germain. It was two days and many other equally bad situations later that we came to the home of Monsieur Thouvignon. His offer was for a room and meals in return for tutoring his child. It seemed like a wonderful position.
His home was on a busy street, the rue Descartes, with many restaurants and shops. At street level there was a curio shop selling artifacts and trinkets from the Far East and India. We rang the bell and waited; Eliane gave me an encouraging smile. The door was opened by a dark skinned young lady wearing a scarf about her head. I could not determine her origin but thought that her speech would offer some clue.
"May I help you?" she asked in perfect French.
"I would like to speak to Monsieur Thouvignon concerning the position he advertised for a tutor."
"Come upstairs, please."
She gave Eliane a curious look, no doubt wondering why a young girl would accompany me in a search for a position. At the top of the stairs she turned to us.
"Please wait here," she said and hurried off.
Presently a woman came to the door, very fashionably dressed with her black hair held together by many combs. She stood some distance from us and eyed us carefully before she spoke.
"I am Madame Thouvignon. Will this be your first year at the Sorbonne?"
"Yes, Madame. Is the position still available?"
"We have had many applicants but as yet have not decided."
I stared at her mouth. Her pronunciation caught my ear and it led me to believe that she was not French. When she spoke again she was staring at Eliane.
"What is your name and who is your pretty companion?"
"I'm sorry. I am Édouard Jannot and this is my sister, Eliane. My mother allowed her to accompany me to register for school. Neither of us has ever been to Paris before."
"What is your birth date, my dear," she asked Eliane.
"The first of June, 1922, Madame."
"Wonderful! Come along; Monsieur Thouvignon will be home shortly. You may wait in the parlor for him. I will send Laure-Anne down to meet you both. She is two days older than you, Eliane."
We sat on two elegant chairs in front of the windows that overlooked the street. On the walls were several portraits of very well dressed gentlemen-no women. The tables were all topped with marble and the carpet was Persian. Eliane made some hand gestures and facial expressions to indicate that she was duly impressed with her surroundings. Madame Thouvignon re-entered the room.
"I have just discovered that my daughter is not at home. A few phone calls will find her. It shouldn't take long."
She went on about her business and presently the flash of a person went by us in the hallway toward the kitchen. We waited another few minutes until a young girl entered the room and stood before me. I was surprised that she was only fourteen; she looked older. She was not wearing her school uniform but had on a dress that a young lady might wear to some event. Her dark wavy hair fell over her shoulders, front and back, and her dark eyes drew my gaze. She was very attractive but it was her eyes, the way they animated her face that made a lasting first impression on me.
"Nice to meet you, Monsieur Jannot. I am Laure-Anne."
She smiled and extended her hand to me as I got up and we shook briefly. I could not help staring at her; seeing a young woman, not a fourteen-year-old girl. She turned to Eliane.
"I'm so glad that you could come along with your brother, Eliane. Having a brother is a luxury that I miss. You must love your sister very much," she said to me, "to want her with you on your first trip to Paris."
How very grown-up she seemed, in her outwardness and the insinuation that I think she made. I was impressed that she knew our names; I suppose that her mother supplied them. I felt a bit defensive and just smiled nervously in answer to her statement. She asked me which subjects I excelled in and after I told her I asked about those in which she needed the most help.
"All of them," she said unashamedly. "I don't like school."
"Your father expects that a tutor will improve your grades. Do you think so?"
"My father wants me to go to a university but I know that will not happen. It's all so boring. My schedule for the next term requires me to learn German. Who needs that?"
"Really! Me too. I'm eager to learn another language. Eliane and I tried to learn Latin on our own but gave it up. I think German would be easier."
Eliane joined our conversation, recalling those days and the three of us shared stories about our schools. After a few minutes Monsieur Thouvignon appeared and Laure-Anne took Eliane and left us alone. He was quite a bit taller than me and held himself erect, which gave him an impressive air. His suit looked expensive and I had the impression that he had never gotten his hands dirty at work.
"Please sit down, Édouard. Do you drink coffee?"
"I have had some . . . yes. Yes, I drink coffee, Sir."
"Fariza, bring some coffee and pastis for us," he called out to his housekeeper.
"Yes, Monsieur Thouvignon," she answered from outside the room.
He settled into his chair and leaned back and crossed his legs.
"Do you have your bac with you," he asked.
"Yes Sir." I extended my hand with the graduation certificate in it. If he had extended his hand a bit more he could have taken it but he did not make that effort and I had to come out of my seat to reach him.
He looked it over carefully; he could not help but notice that I was awarded the highest honors. With admiration and a bit of surprise, he handed it back to me. He asked many questions concerning my abilities, especially my ability to be effective in my dealing with a fourteen-year-old girl. I mentioned Eliane and suggested that he might question her to determine that. He seemed satisfied.
"And what shall be your field of endeavor, Édouard?"
"I intend to be an historian, a university professor and later a writer. Perhaps, also, an advisor to our government on our relations with Germany."
"Do you have any advice for them at present?"
"Yes. The treaty of Versailles was so harsh that it allowed Chancellor Hitler to use general disdain for it to rally popular support around himself and his Nationalist Socialist Party. He has made known his desire to overturn every one of its provisions and regain every loss suffered by Germany including the re-annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Now is the time to stop him militarily; he will only get stronger if we do nothing."
"Mmmm, very astute, Édouard. I agree with you but I doubt if our government or the British government will have the backbone to act. Do you think a future war will be a repeat of the Great War?"
"No, Sir. Germany has built an all-new military, faster tanks, faster aircraft, and a more mechanized force. We have merely patched and repaired ours and still rely on fixed defenses to keep them in check."
"Do you have a prediction then?"
"The Schlieffen Plan would have worked if von Moltke had executed it correctly. I believe that they will use the same plan with success this time. They will have us in months."
Monsieur Thouvignon was standing at the window with his back toward me. I could not tell if it disturbed him to hear an eighteen year old predict the overtaking of our homeland by a hated enemy in so short a time. He remained silent for minutes.
"What sort of work does your father do?"
"I have never met him, Sir. He was called away near the end of the war, just months before I was born. He was a captain in the artillery; he never came back."
I felt something that I had never felt before; I'm not sure if it was pride or a lack of guilt. I had finally acknowledged my real father.
"A shame, a real shame. My sympathies, Édouard. Too many good men were no more than cannon fodder. I too fear that war will come again. So, then your sister is . . ."
"Her father is Jannot. My mother never told me about my real father until I was fourteen and asked that I not tell Eliane. I have respected her wish."
Fariza returned with the refreshments and was serving them when Madame Thouvignon popped her head in the room.
"Are you finished, Jean-Marie? If so I will join you," she said.
"Yes, we are finished. I think we have an excellent candidate in this young man."
As she was exiting the room he called after her.
"Nathalie, bring Laure-Anne downstairs but don't say anything."
I watched as Monsieur Thouvignon poured his pastis into his coffee; I did the same. We sipped the hot anise flavored brew as Fariza brought another serving for Madame who reappeared directing the two girls in front of her into the parlor.
"What do you think of this one, Laure-Anne?" Monsieur Thouvignon asked.
"He's the most intelligent and least pretentious, Papa . . . and we will both be studying German next term."
"So then, you would like me to choose Monsieur Jannot?"
"I would like you to choose Monsieur Jannot, Papa," she said.
"Very well, Édouard. You have a position here that will last as long as your effectiveness and good behavior does. Understood?
"Yes, Sir. I understand perfectly."
I thought that Laure-Anne's little formality had something to do with a prior understanding between father and daughter but I did not let it concern me. I was elated and Eliane was also, more than obviously. Monsieur Thouvignon had Fariza show me my quarters on the third floor-across the hall from hers. It was not a bad room; about four meters square with windows facing the rear courtyard.
Monsieur Thouvignon insisted that Eliane and I stay at his house until Saturday before we returned to Saint Mihiel. He drove me to the hotel on Boulevard Saint Germain to retrieve our possessions. Eliane shared Laure-Anne's room and I spent a restless night listening to the rain bouncing off the mansard in my new quarters. The next morning, while it was still dark, there was a tapping on my door. I opened it to discover Fariza wearing only a thin cotton nightgown, which the light from her room turned nearly transparent. Her dark curly hair hung almost to her waist.
"Would you like me to call you with the others when breakfast is ready?"
"Yes, if you would, please. Thank you."
She turned to go, stopping half way around, allowing me to see the shape of her breasts through the garment, then turned back to me and stood very close.
"If ever I can do anything else for you, do not hesitate to ask, eh?"
"I will. Thank you Fariza."
I took a slight step backward and folded my hands in front of me to hide my embarrassment. She smiled, knowing what I had done. She turned to go but walked very slowly as if waiting for me to engage her in further conversation. I felt obliged to say something.
"Fariza, is that an Arabic name?"
"It is Berber. I'll wager that an intelligent young man like you will be able to tell me the difference, or perhaps if you don't know you will be curious enough to find out by the time you return," she replied without turning around.
We both returned to our rooms. I waited until I heard her go downstairs before I came out to use the WC and then washed and dressed. Thankfully, others were up and about when I entered the dining room.
My benefactor gave us a tour of Paris on Thursday and Friday afternoons, and drove us to the Gare de l'Est Saturday morning to catch our train. Away from his daughter's hearing he instructed me to keep my opinions and observations concerning a future war to myself, to confine my thoughts to her school's curriculum. Eliane and Laure-Anne had become very good friends-lifelong friends. On the train coming back home Eliane was very quiet and I suspected very sad.
"What is this," I asked, pointing to a small white paper bag that she was clutching.
"Oh," she exclaimed, and her sadness disappeared. In turn she brought out three articles, describing them briefly. "Whole black peppers from Zanzibar, paprika from Hungary and Olive oil from Spain."
"Why do you have them," I asked.
"They are gifts, samples, Madame Thouvignon called them."
I knew there was more to this but could not imagine what.
"Read the bottom of the labels," Eliane suggested.
Printed on each one was the formula 'Imported from …… by Sachs, Thouvignon & Cie.'
"So, he is in the import business."
"That's not all," Eliane gushed. "Madame Thouvignon was born Nathalie Sachs in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Her father is a Jew but Laure-Anne says that her mother never was. Her grandmother was Catholic and also married a Jew but was allowed to raise her mother Catholic because she never had a son."
"Did she tell you why it's Sachs, Thouvignon and not Thouvignon, Sachs?"
"Monsieur Sachs's suppliers were more valuable then Monsieur Thouvignon's markets. Perhaps as part of the bargain he married his partner's daughter."
"Was it an arranged marriage?"
"Laure-Anne says it was but swears that they are devoted to each other."
"Hmmm, how do you like Laure-Anne?"
"Oh, she's very nice. She's like an older sister but she is so considerate. She knows so many things."
"Girl things. Don't bother asking; it's none of your business."
"Oh, those kinds of things. Don't worry; I won't say a word to Maman."
"It's not that! You're getting the wrong idea."
"Well, I suppose then that you had better correct me."
Eliane wasn't fooled by that ploy and just smiled at me. She put a hand behind my neck and pulled my head toward her, giving me a kiss.
"Édouard, you're so . . . You know what you are, don't you?"
"Yes, I'll give you that. But don't let it go to your head; you have flaws, you know."
"Me? No. I'm perfect. You told me so yourself."
"Well, Laure-Anne saw you staring at Fariza and was willing to bet that the girl would have you in bed within a week."
I was suddenly very warm and unable to respond.
"Oh, Édouard! You've done it already?" Eliane exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand as she giggled. She wasn't condemning me; rather she thought it was amusing.
"No," I protested. "I haven't laid a finger on her, I swear."
"Ooooh, how very modern we are! Going to the Sorbonne and having a mistress and only eighteen years old. Maman will be so proud . . . or amused, eh?"
"Eliane, I swear. It never happened."
She looked at me in my distress and believed me. We never lied to each other and she knew it. She patted my cheek sympathetically.
"Well, don't give up hope. It hasn't been a week yet."
I suggested that she write to Laure-Anne as soon as we returned home and ask our mother about spending the summer in Paris next year if it was acceptable to Monsieur Thouvignon. As it turned out, everyone was pleased with that arrangement and Eliane would be permitted to go to Paris if her grades were satisfactory. Her grades were always superior. Our three-way relationship would grow very close; we cared for and respected each other immensely.
By being patient and inventive, I slowly aroused some sense of self-improvement in Laure-Anne and she gradually took interest in her studies. There was not an immediate correlation between interest and better grades however. That next summer she and Eliane formed a bond that surprised yet pleased me. It also proved to be a great benefit to me, one that would have gone unappreciated except for the openness and total honesty that Eliane and I shared. She told me that she had reminded Laure-Anne that I would hold my position only as long as I was effective.
Near the end of my second year at the Thouvignon's, a change came over Laure-Anne. Mostly it was an interest in my personal affairs and a constant desire to know my thoughts on different matters. She convinced her mother to allow her to have her long hair cut to make it more like some of the fashionable dos that were so popular in the cinema. She would ask my advice on personal things which she had not previously sought. Most tellingly she would ask very roundabout questions concerning Fariza which were only thinly veiled attempts to discern the extent of our relationship.
Fariza continued to tempt me with her near nudity, acting as though it was quite normal for mature people to comport themselves in such a manner. After a while it did seem normal and we would talk together most mornings in the hallway, I wearing only my shorts. One Sunday morning Laure-Anne came up to the third floor to get Fariza for some chore (something she was forbidden to do, she should have called to her from the floor below). This morning Fariza was late, which is probably why Laure-Anne was sent to get her. I had already dressed.
"Fariza," Laure-Anne called out as she neared the top of the stairs, "is that appropriate attire to be wearing in front of Monsieur Jannot?"
"It could not be helped, M'am'selle. We both came out of our rooms at the same time," she lied. "I will try to be more careful in the future."
"My mother needs you immediately in the kitchen."
Laure-Anne seemed to dismiss the matter as Fariza returned to her room to dress. I too would have gone back to my room except that Laure-Anne began to question me about her schoolwork. We continued speaking until Fariza started down the stairs. After taking a few steps she turned.
"Does Madame know that you came up to the third floor, M'am'selle?"
"No she doesn't, Fariza, but if she hears of it she shall also hear of what I discovered here. You'd best hurry; she's waiting."
Laure-Anne waited until she was out of sight and then turned her attention to me.
"Is she sharing her bed with you yet, Édouard?"
"She is trying very hard to make it so but I have resisted so far."
"Really? Has she kissed you?"
"She has come very close on occasion."
"This close?" She put her hands on my shoulders and standing on her toes, brought her face very close to mine.
"Closer." I said nervously.
She brushed her lips against mine.
She slid her hands around my neck and pressed her lips to mine. I held her gently until she finished, unable to hide my arousal.
"Wait for me Édouard . . . please. Will you do that?"
"I . . . yes." I did not want to say more; I wasn't entirely sure what she meant.
She quickly descended from her forbidden zone and I waited a bit before joining the Thouvignons for breakfast. I was pleased that Laure-Anne did not act childishly by making little gestures or knowing looks. The talk this morning centered on the intentions of Chancellor Hitler in the matter of Germany's claim on the Sudetenland. I commented only briefly not being able to focus on the subject; I was becoming more and more delighted with Laure-Anne's show of affection. I had no idea what there was about me that could have precipitated such an action.
"What are your plans for today?" Monsieur Thouvignon asked me.
"I thought that I would rummage through the book stalls along the Quai Saint Michel. One never knows what one might come across."
"May I go with him, Papa? " Laure-Anne blurted out, ". . . if you had no other plans."
Madame Thouvignon's face showed instant displeasure.
"I'm sure that Monsieur Jannot would enjoy at least one day a week away from you. Isn't that so Édouard?" she said, almost forcing me to agree with her.
"I don't mind Madame, and besides, we could practice our German for her exam next week."
"No!" Monsieur Thouvignon snapped. "You may go but no German in public."
"Really, Jean-Marie, don't you think that . . ."
Monsieur Thouvignon held up his hand and Madame Thouvignon held her tongue. He looked at her over the rim of his coffee cup but spoke to Laure-Anne.
"And you will insure that Monsieur Jannot delivers you promptly at noon at your grandfather's house. We will be spending the day there."
"Thank you, Papa. When did you plan to go, Monsieur Jannot?"
"We could leave right after breakfast. There is this Greek gentleman who owns a restaurant just a street away from the Seine who tells me such fascinating stories from the war about the Turks and the British and the Italians . . . not to mention the Bulgarians. I think you will enjoy meeting him."
We were on our way in ten minutes, taking a half hour to walk to the rue de la Huchette where my Greek historian had his place of business. Not once did either of us refer to this morning's event. It was only when we were standing in front of the restaurant, deciding whether to go inside or stay in the cool sunshine that Laure-Anne took my hand when she saw the proprietor approaching.
"Ah, good morning Édouard. How's it going today?"
"Very well, Théodore, and you?"
"Well, I think my day will be a bit nicer now that you bring such a lovely companion to my establishment."
"This is Laure-Anne. She is my . . ." I hesitated, thinking which word would best describe our relationship.
"You don't have to tell me what she is. Her eyes tell me. Am I right Mademoiselle? I am, I am; only a blind man would miss it. Come inside, sit!"
We took the table furthest from the entrance; we were the only patrons inside.
"Coffee and . . . coffee?" he said, looking at Laure-Anne.
"No. A panaché please."
"A panaché? You?" I asked, very surprised.
"If you think it is inappropriate I will have a coffee."
"Well . . . no, if that's what you want. What would your father say?"
"He allows me to have a little beer now and then."
I nodded to Théodore and he left us.
"Thank you," Laure-Anne said quietly.
"Are you feeling grown up today?"
"Yes, very mature. Did you notice?"
She glanced at Théodore who had his back to us, then leaned toward me and kissed me, placing her hand on my cheek. I returned her kiss. I was thrilled.
Théodore served us and pulled another chair to the table to join us.
"Did I ever tell you about the time I met this Churchill fellow?"
"Yes, Théodore. Now that you've impressed the young lady, tell me about the Bulgarians and Macedonians and why they got involved in all this?"
Théodore's story lasted for three coffees and two panachés. We thanked him and strolled to the Quai Saint Michel hand in hand. Although we looked at some books, we were for the most part, looking at each other. Later at her grandfather's house we kept a respectful distance lest someone was watching from a window.
"I will be thinking of you all day," she said in German when the housekeeper answered the door.
"Be careful," I warned her in the same language. "Your mother will have me out in a minute if she knew. And I will be thinking of you."
Walking back to the rue Descartes I wondered about the wisdom of this morning's actions. To say that my position would be more secure if none of that had ever happened was obvious but I would not have missed it for the world. What am I to do? Be careful, very careful! I know that I could remain above suspicion in my day-to-day dealings but I had some misgivings as to Laure-Anne's ability to do the same. I must stress to her the many ways in which one reveals one's feelings: unknowingly, unwisely and sometimes with abandon.
On my return to the house I went into the basement, which was beneath the curio shop, where Monsieur Thouvignon maintained a wine cellar of sorts. I found a bottle of Chablis and went upstairs to the kitchen, opened it, took a glass and retreated to my room. I would have to find my own dinner with the Thouvignons dining at his father-in-law's home and Fariza on her afternoon off. I poured a half glass and swallowed it in large gulps. It was cool and very refreshing; I refilled it. I smiled to myself at my unusual behavior. Are you feeling grown up today, Édouard?
It was the warmest day of the year so far, so I stripped down to my underwear and began to compose a subject review for the exams that Laure-Anne would have next week. About an hour later and with nearly half the bottle emptied, I began my own for the three weeks of exams that I would have following hers. There came a knock at my door. It could only be one person.
"Yes?" I called out without rising from my desk.
Fariza entered the room, dressed as any young woman in Paris in 1938 would have looked. She seemed very different, very alluring, and even had on a bit of make-up. She approached my desk and sipped some wine and smiled at me.
"When the cat's away . . ."
"I have permission," I said feeling very smug. "And who are you to accuse me. I didn't know you were permitted to go out in public without your scarf."
She finished the glass without comment and handed it to me.
"May I have more?"
I thought that since we were alone in the house, this might lead to something. I poured the glass full not really believing that what I had just imagined might actually happen but I was a bit curious and was in the frame of mind to play this game with her. She drank half of it and sat on my bed.
"I have a problem, Édouard, and only you can help me."
"What is it?"
"My employment here may end shortly. I have just come from my father's house and he informed me of his intention to have me marry a friend of the family. The man is of the same age as our employer. I know him well and do not like him one bit."
"Will your father force you to marry him?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so; but I have a plan and that's where your help is needed."
"I'll do what I can but what might that be?"
"If I was living in my father's home, his word would be accepted concerning my virginity but as it is . . . the groom's female relatives will examine me to determine that. If I am no virgin there will be no wedding and I will continue here . . . just as I wanted. Do you understand what I require of you?"
I did and was instantly fearful of jeopardizing my relationship with Laure-Anne. I did not want to do this and had only the minimum of sympathy for Fariza's plight. When I looked at her I knew that she could read my thoughts.
"Is there no one else that you know better that would do this?"
"The men that I know better would not dare to do it for fear of being murdered by my father. You are the only one that can keep this misery from me. I need your help, Édouard. Please do this for me."
"I'm sorry, Fariza, but there is more at risk for me than you know. I cannot jeopardize everything. I hope you understand."
"There's no need to apologize. I know that this is a strange request and that you are already risking your position by your involvement with Laure-Anne."
She smiled at me with a knowing look. She came back to my desk and finished the wine and extended the empty glass toward me. I refilled it wondering if she was making a threat. I was not quick to confirm or deny what she implied but sought to glean a bit more from her.
"What makes you think that there is anything improper in our relationship?"
"Ah ha! There is! You would have denied outright if it were not so. So, have you taken her to bed yet?"
"You are totally mistaken. There is nothing, absolutely nothing between us."
"Édouard, I have nothing to lose by making an accusation at the dinner table. I will certainly be let go immediately, but then I would have to give up my position if I married anyway. If there is anything at all, the guilt on that young girl's face will confirm my suspicions. Do you want to risk that?"
I was angry to be played this way. I was afraid to risk her threat of confrontation. I felt so helpless, so . . . pitiful.
"Come on, Édouard. Am I so ugly that you are repulsed by me?"
"No, not at all. You don't understand."
"Ah, you are in love, is that it? She need never know. She will never know."
Fariza slipped out of her skirt and removed her blouse. She stood before me in her slip and put her arms around me, resting her head on my chest. The smell of her hair brushing against my nostrils evoked a strange feeling in me, one of a dashing cinema hero reaping a reward of sorts for some momentous feat. Then there was the feeling of mischievousness for tasting some forbidden fruit. My hands found their way to her buttocks; the slip was all that she was wearing.
With the utmost care I created memories of the way her flesh felt in my hands as I raised her slip, of the unveiled beauty of her breasts as she pulled it over her head, of the taste of her skin as my lips found what seemed to be their natural place. We proceeded slowly, both of us knowing what to do but neither of us having had the experience. It was an afternoon of discovery, of adventure, of pleasure. When we were exhausted we finished what little wine was left and began again. In all that time I never once thought of Laure-Anne.
Later as Fariza and I sat in the kitchen eating our evening meal, the Thouvignons arrived. As soon as I could, I prepared Laure-Anne for her French exam and went over her essay submission. We were very proper sitting in the dining room as her parents listened to the radio in the parlor. When we were finished I rushed upstairs hoping to find Fariza's door open but it was not. I tapped lightly but received no response. I went to bed.
In the morning when Fariza awakened me I sought a bit of amorous play but she would have none of it and wagged her finger at me as if I were naughty. I took it as a good sign for something to come in the evening. My schedule that day was hectic as we prepared for the end of the school year. I arrived home just in time for our meal, having no time to prepare Laure-Anne for her German and history exams on Tuesday. Fortunately those were her best subjects. The conversation at the table turned from the normal politics and business.
"Has anyone noticed a change in Fariza?" Madame Thouvignon asked. "She seemed so cheerful today, almost joyous."
"She spoke yesterday of resolving some difficulty with her father," I volunteered.
"Her father has been dead for four years," Monsieur Thouvignon said. "That was when we took her in; her mother is the Sachs's housekeeper."
"I suppose that I misunderstood her then," I flustered.
My error was overlooked but apparently my expression was not.
"Monsieur Jannot, do you have time to clarify something about Louis XVI's policies before you retire?" Laure-Anne asked.
"It's late, Laure-Anne," Madame Thouvignon chided. "You will have to get by with what you know. History is your best subject; you shouldn't have any difficulty."
"It won't take but a minute, Maman."
They both looked at me and I nodded. Laure-Anne left the table and returned with her lesson book but sat in the parlor. I excused myself and joined her. She placed the book on the table between us so that we both could read what she was pointing out with her finger. It had nothing to do with Louis XVI.
"She tricked you, didn't she?" Laure-Anne asked quietly, rhetorically. "She finally found a way to overcome your resistance . . . and she did overcome it, didn't she?"
I could not answer; I was so ashamed. Tears filled Laure-Anne's eyes.
"What did you think I meant when I asked you to wait for me."
"I wasn't sure. I didn't think you meant this. I'm so sorry."
"Édouard, we have lost something. We can never be those two innocents who discover the beauty and wonder of the act of love for the first time."
I was devastated. I was amazed at how deeply she loved me when for me it was only a pleasant feeling.
"Stand in front of me," she said.
"What? What do you mean?"
"Stand in front of me! I don't want my parents to see me."
I got up and blocked her parent's view of her as she wiped away her tears.
"Thank you, Monsieur Jannot. I understand perfectly now," she said as she rose and retook her place at the table.
I bid them all goodnight and went to my room. The next morning when Fariza awakened me, we chatted in the hallway for a moment as though the events of Sunday afternoon happened to two other people. That evening when I prepared Laure-Anne for the next day's exams she did not once look directly at me. Wednesday evening was the same. Thursday was her final day of school. Eliane arrived on Saturday.
It troubled me greatly to know the hurt that I caused Laure-Anne but I needed to study for my own exams. I was either at school or isolated in my room, sometimes skipping meals or having Fariza bring me scraps after the family had eaten. There was only one day in the following three weeks that I had a chance to be with Eliane and I could tell that Laure-Anne had confided in her because she was very cool to me, the only time in her life that she was like that. When my exams were completed I said good-bye to the Thouvignons and boarded a train to Saint Mihiel. I purposely avoided seeing the girls.
August was hot that year but that was the only time that I had to spend with my mother. She had made a deal with her brother to decrease her share to forty per cent in return for working only five days a week. She also had income from her husband's farm, which she rented to a neighbor. I thought that she would do better in a rented room in town but she could not bring herself to leave the only home she had known for twenty-four years. She made a promise that in two more years when both Eliane and I would be out of school, that she would reconsider my suggestion.
Things were not going well between my mother and Uncle Richard. He was bitter that his oldest son, Jacques-Henri, was taken out of the shop to join the army and my next cousin, Michel, had to take his place. My uncle had hoped that Michel would go on to university but my mother thinks that he did not have the qualifications. It seemed not to matter to him that Jacques-Henri was two years older than me and that I was not receiving any special consideration because I was a student.
The days that I spent at home were boring when my mother was working. I had no desire to visit with my so-called friends and longed to be back in Paris, even if I were not at the Thouvignons. Evenings we would sit in the garden, she, inquiring about my life in Paris and me, trying to learn more about my father. In a week we had run out of conversation and she would increasingly visit her friends while I spent all my time reading. The last Saturday in the month Eliane returned home and, happily for me, she was as warm and wonderful as ever. I did not have an opportunity to speak with her alone at length until Monday when our mother went to the shop.
"Coffee, Monsieur Jannot?" Eliane asked as she sat on my bed, awakening me.
"I'm glad that you are not mad at me still."
"I was never mad at you. I was disappointed that my brother could be such a cold-hearted bastard, destroying the love of someone who lives for only you."
"You know that Fariza tricked me," I said, sitting up and taking the cup from her. "I didn't want to do it, you know."
"Yes, yes, that's what any man would say."
I had no defense, no way to convince her of the truth of my alibi. After allowing my agony to fester a moment or two she patted my cheek sympathetically.
"I believe you, Édouard; I just can't believe that you could be so stupid."
I put one arm around her and hugged her, placing my mouth at her ear.
"Then you wouldn't mind getting me a piece of buttered bread, eh?"
Eliane laughed and pushed me away almost spilling the coffee in my lap.
"If you are typical of the men in France, I think that I shall never marry."
While she went off to the kitchen, I wondered if Eliane's forgiveness was matched by Laure-Anne's. I finished my coffee and joined her, taking a seat at the table.
"Do you think Laure-Anne has forgiven me?"
"I will tell you what I am permitted to tell you if you will answer a question for me. I promise that it will remain a secret between us."
"I need to know. Yes, I will answer anything you ask."
She placed the bread in front of me but put her hand on mine to prevent me from eating it. She looked me in the eye with a great seriousness, real or pretended, I could not tell.
"Did you enjoy it?"
God in heaven, I have been tricked again! I am no match in a contest of wits with a female. All that was left was for my mother to turn on me. I knew that I had to answer and knew also that she would know if I lied. I made her wait while I thought of the best way to reply, reliving that afternoon in my mind. Suddenly I burst out laughing.
"Yes! Yes, dear God, it was wonderful, unforgettable. It was . . . it was . . ."
"Tell me about it," Eliane said with a smile."
"What? Certainly not! Not to my sister!"
"You said one question."
"Yes but you volunteered to answer anything."
"Well, I won't."
"Then I won't tell you about Laure-Anne."
"That's not fair. You promised."
"Did you take all your clothes off?"
"I don't want to talk about it . . . yes; we took all our clothes off."
"Did you kiss each other all over?"
"Enough! Are you perverted?"
"Did you do strange things . . . you know, like . . ."
"It was the first time for both us. We didn't know any strange things. You're terrible, you know. How can you ask me these things?"
Eliane shook her head and made a face that lead me to believe something was wrong. Reluctantly, I disregarded my better judgment and asked.
"What? Why are you shaking your head?"
"It wasn't Fariza's first time. Why do you think Laure-Anne thought that it wouldn't take a week for her to get you in her bed?"
"Oh my God! No wonder she was so good," I moaned.
"Did she have an orgasm?"
"How many times did you do it?"
"Just twice? In two years . . . just twice?"
"What two years? One afternoon! She lied to me and made a fool of me.
"Édouard, look at me! You're not a fool; it's just that women are cleverer than men when it comes to that sort of thing. You will be pleased to know that Fariza is no longer employed by the Thouvignons."
"How did that come about?"
Eliane wagged her finger at me and smiled conspiratorially.
"Let's just say that some women get very protective of their men."
"So, it was revenge then? Has she forgiven me?"
"She told me to tell you that you would be welcomed by all and that when she had a chance to speak with you privately that she would discuss the matter with an open mind. She said that you should not be fearful of such a meeting."
"Did you stand up for me? I know you did. You're so loyal to me; I love you for it. Is there anything more that you can tell me?"
"She . . . no! She is a very strong person. She will get exactly what she wants."
"Can you tell me if . . . "
"No more! I've got to get dressed. I have so much to do before school begins."
Eliane left the room and I ate my bread and had another cup of coffee. I was just going back to my room when she was about to leave the house. She gave me a great hug and kissed me.
"Édouard, you're such a wonderful person. You should think better of yourself. You worry too much."
If that was encouragement, it was very welcome. It was all I had to go on as I returned to Paris the following Saturday. I didn't know what to expect as I entered the Thouvignon's home. I was met at the top of the stairs by a thin woman, about thirty years old, who had a terrible accent. She had been expecting me and informed me that the family would be home late and if I wanted something to eat that I had better let her know now because she had the evening off as well as Sunday afternoon. I informed her that I was hungry and would appreciate whatever she could prepare for me. After putting away my things I came to the kitchen to eat.
"Monsieur," she said as she placed my meal before me, "seeing as we share the same floor and facilities, I will tell you this. I will tolerate no behavior from you less than that of a perfect gentleman. Is that clear?"
"Yes . . . Madame, or is it Mademoiselle? Or would you prefer that we use each other's Christian names?"
"It's Madame. I suppose that we need not be so formal; I am Odète Dumez."
"Édouard Jannot," I said, and stood to shake her extended hand.
"Yes, Madame Thouvignon mentioned your name, your Christian name, but not your surname. I know a family named Jannot back in Picardy. Do you have relations there?"
"No. We are all from Lorraine. So, you are from Picardy? What brought you to Paris?"
She stood there without answering for a moment or two and I thought perhaps that I should not have asked. She sat down opposite me, still without answering as I began to eat.
"My husband beat me once too often and I left him. A man ought to be tender with a woman; don't you think so, Édouard?"
"Yes, absolutely. You did the right thing."
"Are you a tender man, Édouard? I hope that you are; you seem so understanding, so nice."
"I like to think so. I have always treated women with the greatest respect."
"That's very comforting, Édouard. We must speak again about this but at the moment I am pressed to meet a friend. I shall see you in the morning."
"Enjoy your evening, Odète. I'll see you in the morning then."
I finished my meal and went to the cellar and took a bottle of Moselle. I was nervous about meeting Laure-Anne and thought that a good night's sleep would help. With Odète out of the house there was no way for them to know that I had arrived short of coming to my door, and I doubted that any of them would do that. I began to read and sip and when sleep beckoned I submitted. I was asleep in a minute once I lay down. I don't know how long I had been sleeping when I heard my name spoken softly, directly in my ear.
"Édouard, wake up. We must talk." A hand was pushing my shoulder.
"Laure-Anne? Have you lost your mind? What are you doing here?"
I rolled over on my side, propping up my head with my arm. All that I could see of her was the silhouette of her head as she knelt at my bedside.
"We must come to an agreement . . . tonight."
"If your parents catch you here it will be the last time you shall ever see me."
"Then let's get it over with quickly."
"What do you want?"
"Do you think that I'm still a little girl?"
"No, of course not."
"Do you think that I have only an infatuation with you?"
"No, I know it is more than that."
"Do you think that I'm a woman?"
I hesitated. If I say no, she will accuse me of treating her like a child and if I say yes she will . . . what? Before I could answer she stood up and got into my bed, rolling me on my back and partially lying on top of me.
"If you are in doubt," she whispered in my ear, "put your hands on me."
I could feel her bare breasts against my chest. I put an arm around her. She rose up a bit and spoke in a normal tone.
"That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Be quiet," I cautioned quietly.
"Do it," she said, again much louder than I.
I let my hand slide down her back to her buttocks. She turned on her back, pulling my hand until it was between her open legs. She pulled my head down to her breast and I kissed it. She stretched her body out on mine and spoke in my ear.
"Am I a woman, Édouard?"
"Yes, you are every bit a woman."
"I want to make love to you but not tonight. Will you wait for me this time?"
"You promise? A solemn promise?"
She got off me and gave me a passionate kiss. I responded, allowing my hand to explore her breasts. She slid her hand into my shorts and I throbbed at her touch. She giggled and kissed me more passionately.
"Do you know which night I have chosen, darling?"
"No, darling," I replied, mocking her.
"Our wedding night, darling!"
She got out of the bed and put on her nightgown, stooping to kiss me one more time. She would have gone but I caught her hand and she sat next to me.
"Are you going to tell Eliane what happened here tonight? Or does she already know? Oh, my God, she does, doesn't she?"
"Yes and yes. But now I have details to give her. I love you, Édouard, do you love me?"
I didn't answer; I wasn't sure.
"Eliane said that you wouldn't answer that question. Whether it is true or not will you say those words for me, just once?"
I hesitated . . . too long. Laure-Anne put her head next to mine and whispered in my ear.
"You don't have to say it. Your sister advised against forcing you to."
I could feel her warm tears on my cheek. Who was I that someone as wonderful as she should fall in love with me? What were the odds that this would ever happen again in my entire life? I began to weep, silently at first but once seeing the great depth of my feeling, it became audible. My body began to tremble and great sobs came from deep inside me. She put her hand on my mouth to quiet me. When at last I regained control of myself, she removed her hand.
"Laure-Anne, I love you. With everything that I have, with everything that I am, I love you."
Now it was she who could not control herself. I cradled her face against my chest and stroked her hair. When she quieted down I kissed her eyes.
"I should go before I change the night I have chosen," she said with her lips on mine. "I'll do it if you want . . . anytime."
"I will wait. One thing . . . I know that you tell Eliane everything. Don't tell her about this part. Will you do that for me?"
I waited for a reply but there was none. I wished that I could see her face; I couldn't imagine what the difficulty could be.
"At least . . . don't tell her that I cried."
"I would never do anything to hurt you, my love."
She kissed me and rose from my bed and was gone. I waited until I was sure that she was safely back in her own room then turned on my light. I poured a glass of wine and looked at myself in the mirror. I was grinning like a fool. I toasted myself and drank it down at once.
So, Édouard Jannot, a little girl has awakened the man in you. Will you awaken the woman in the little girl or have you already done that?