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The house at 2129 Wyoming Avenue, NW, stood in all its substantial splendor, its gray stone facade handsomely carved and richly ornate, embellished with a large gold crest and adorned with the French flag, billowing softly in a breeze that had come up just that afternoon. It was perhaps the last breeze Washington, D.C., would feel for several months as the summer got under way. It was already June. June of 1939. And the last five years had gone all too quickly for Armand de Villiers, Ambassador of France.
He sat in his office, overlooking the elegant garden, absentmindedly staring at the fountain for a moment, and then dragged his attention back to the mountain of papers on his desk. Despite the rich scent of lilac in the air, there was work to do, too much of it. Especially now. He already knew that he would sit in his office until late that night, as he had for two months now, preparing to return to France. He had known the request to return was coming, and yet when he had been told in April, something inside him had ached for a moment. Even now, there were mixed emotions each time he thought of going home. He had felt the same way when he had left Vienna, London, and San Francisco before that, and other posts previously. But the bond was even stronger here. Armand had a way of establishing roots, of making friends, of falling in love with the places he was assigned to. That made it difficult to move on. And yet this time he wasn't moving on, he was going home.
Home. It had been so long since he had lived there, and they needed him so badly now. There was tension all over Europe, things were changing everywhere. He often felt that he lived for the daily reports from Paris, which gave him some sense of what was going on. Washington seemed light-years removed from the problems that besieged Europe, from the fears that trembled in the heart of France. They had nothing to fear in this sacred country. But in Europe now, no one felt quite as sure.
Only a year before, everyone in France had been certain war was imminent, although now from what Armand heard, there were many who had buried their fears. But there was no hiding from the truth forever. He had said as much to Liane. When the civil war ended in Spain four months before, it became clear that the Germans were approaching, and their airfield just below Ir[[breve]]n brought them within only miles of France. But even with that realization, Armand was aware that there were those who didn't want to see what was going on. In the past six months Paris had been infinitely more relaxed than before, on the surface at leaSt. He had been aware of it himself when he had gone home for Easter, for secret meetings with the Bureau Central, when they told him that his assignment in Washington was at an end.
He had been invited to a constant round of glittering parties, in sharp contrast to the previous summer, before the Munich Accord with Hitler. There had been unbearable tension before that. But then, suddenly it was gone, and in its place was a kind of frenzied animation, and Paris was in her finest form. There were parties, balls, operas, art shows, and galas, as though by keeping busy, and continuing their laughter and their dancing, war would never come for the French. Armand had been annoyed at the frivolous gaiety he had seen among his friends at Easter, and yet he understood that it was their way of hiding from their fears. When he had returned, he and Liane had spoken about it.
"It's as though they're so frightened that they don't want to stop laughing, for fear that if they do, they will cry in terror and run and hide." But their laughter wouldn't stop the war from coming, wouldn't stop Hitler's slow, steady march across Europe. Armand sometimes feared that nothing would stop the man now. He saw Hitler as a terrifying demon, and although there were those in high places who agreed with him, there were others who thought that Armand had become too nervous in the long years of service to his country, and was becoming a frightened old man.
"Is that what living in the States has done to you, old boy?" his closest friend in Paris had teased him. He was from Bordeaux, where he and Armand had grown up together, and the director of three of the biggest banks in France. "Don't be foolish, Armand. Hitler would never touch us."
"The English don't agree with you, Bernard."
"They're all frightened old women too, and besides, they love to play at their war games. It excites them to think of getting into a row with Hitler. They have nothing else to do."
"What nonsense!" Armand had had to control his temper as he listened, but Bernard's wasn't the only voice he heard raised in derision at the English, and he had left Paris almost in a fury at the end of his two-week stay. He expected the Americans to be blind to the threat facing Europe, but he had expected to hear something different in his own country, and he hadn't heard enough. He had his own views on the subject, views of just how serious the threat was becoming, how dangerous Hitler was, and how rapidly disaster could befall them. Or perhaps, he thought on the way home, perhaps Bernard and the others were right. Perhaps he was too frightened, too worried about his country. In a way, going home again might be a good thing. It would bring him closer to the pulse of France.
Liane had taken the news well that they were leaving. She was used to packing up and moving on. And she had listened to his descriptions of the mood in Paris with concern. She was a wise, intelligent woman and had learned much from Armand over the years about the workings of international politics. Indeed, she had learned much from him, anxious to teach her his views, from the very beginning of their marriage. She had been so young and so hungry to learn everything about his career, the countries he was assigned to, the political implications of his many dealings. He smiled to himself as he thought back over the past ten years. She had been a hungry little sponge, soaking up every drop of information, gobbling every morsel, and she had learned well.
She had her own ideas now, and often she did not agree with him, or she was more adamant than he along the same vein. Their most furious battle had been only a few weeks before in late May, over the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 Jews out of Hamburg, with Joseph Goebbels's blessing, and bound for Havana, where the refugees were refused entry, and where it would seem that they would perish as the boat languished outside the port. Others engaged in frantic efforts to find a home for the refugees, lest they be doomed to return to Hamburg and whatever fate might await them there. Liane herself had spoken to the President, drawing on her acquaintance with him, but to no avail. The Americans had refused to take them, and Armand had watched Liane collapse in tears as she realized all of her efforts, and those of countless others, had been in vain. There were messages from the ship, promising mass suicide rather than agreeing to return to the port from whence they had come. And at last, mercifully, France, England, Holland, and Belgium had agreed to take them, but still the battle between Armand and Liane had raged on. For the first time in her life she had been disappointed in her own country. Her fury knew no bounds. And although Armand sympathized with her, he insisted that there were reasons why Roosevelt had refused to take the refugees. It made her even angrier that Armand was willing to accept Roosevelt's decision. She felt betrayed by her own people. America was the land of rich and plenty, the home of the brave, land of the free. How could Armand accuse their failure to accept those people? It wasn't a matter of judgment, he attempted to explain to her, but of accepting that at times governments made harsh decisions. The important thing to acknowledge was that the refugees were safe. It had taken Liane days to calm down after that, and even then she had engaged in a lengthy and almost hostile discussion with the First Lady at a ladies' lunch. Mrs. Roosevelt had been sympathetic to Liane's anger. She too had been anguished over the fate of the passengers of the St. Louis, but she had been helpless to convince her husband to change his mind. The United States had to respect its quotas, and the 937 German-Jewish refugees exceeded the quota for the year. Mrs. Roosevelt reminded Liane again that all had ended well for the refugees. But nonetheless it was an event that had impressed Liane with the gravity of these people's plight in Europe, and suddenly she had gained a new understanding of what was happening far from the peaceful life of Washington diplomatic dinners. It made Liane anxious to return with Armand to France.
"You're not sorry to be leaving your country again, my love?" He had eyed her gently over a quiet dinner at home, after the incident of the St. Louis had finally died down.
She had shaken her head. "I want to know what's happening in Europe, Armand. Here, I feel so far away from everything." She had smiled at him then, loving him more than ever. They had shared an extraordinarily happy ten years. "Do you really think war will come soon?"
"Not for your country, my darling." He always reminded her that she was an American. He had always thought it important that she retain a sense of her own allegiance, so that she would not become totally swallowed up by his views and his ties to France. She was a separate entity, after all, and she had a right to her own allegiances and opinions, and thus far they had never interfered with his own. Now and then there was a raging battle, an outburst of disagreement between them, but it seemed to keep the relationship healthy and he didn't mind. He respected her views as much as his own, and he admired the zeal with which she stood up for what she believed in. She was a strong woman with an admirable mind. He had respected her from the moment he first knew her, in San Francisco, as a girl of just fifteen. She had been a magical child, with an almost ethereal golden beauty, and yet after years of living alone with her father, Harrison Crockett, she had gained a range of knowledge and wisdom unusual in such a young girl.
Armand could still remember the first time he had seen her, in a white linen summer dress and a big straw hat, wandering through the Consulate garden in San Francisco, saying nothing as she listened to the "grown-ups," and then turning to him, with a shy smile, to say something in flawless French about the roses. Her father had been so proud of her.
Armand smiled at the distant memory of her father. Harrison Crockett had been a most unusual man. Stern, and at the same time gentle, aristocratic, difficult, handsome, obsessed with his privacy and protecting his only child, and a brilliant success in shipping. He was a man who had done much with his life.
They had met shortly after arriving in San Francisco, at a deadly little dinner arranged by the previous consul before he left San Francisco for Beirut. Armand recalled that he knew Crockett had been invited, but was almost certain he wouldn't come. Most of the time Harrison Crockett hid behind the walls of his elegant brick fortress on Broadway, looking out over the bay. His brother, George, was far more inclined to go to parties, and was one of the most popular bachelors in San Francisco, not so much for his charm as for his connections and his brother's enormous success. But much to everyone's amazement Harrison had come to the dinner. He had spoken little and left early, but before he did, he had been very pleasant to Odile, Armand's wife. So much so, that she had insisted on inviting him and his daughter for tea. Harrison had spoken of the girl to Odile, and had been particularly proud of his daughter's mastery of the French language, and with a proud smile, he had said that she was "a very remarkable girl," a comment they had both smiled at as Odile relayed it to Armand.
"At least he has one soft spot. He looks every bit as ruthless as they say he is."
But Odile had disagreed. "I think you're wrong, Armand. I think he's very lonely. And he's absolutely mad about the girl." Odile hadn't been far off the mark. Shortly after, they heard the story of how he had lost his wife, a beautiful girl of nineteen, whom he had worshipped. He had been too busy with his shipping empire before that, but apparently once he turned his mind to marriage, he had chosen well.
Arabella Dillingham Crockett had been brilliant as well as beautiful, and together she and Harrison had given some of the city's most devastating balls. She had floated through the mansion he'd built for her, looking like a fairy princess, wearing the rubies he brought her from the Orient, diamonds almost as large as eggs, and tiaras, made especially for her at Cartier, on her golden curls. Their first child was heralded with the same excitement as the Second Coming, but despite the accoucheur Harrison brought from England, and two midwives from the East, Arabella died in childbirth, leaving him widowed with an infant, a girl child in her image, whom he worshipped as he once had his wife. For the first ten years after his wife's death, he never left his house, except of course to go to his office. Crockett Shipping was one of the largest shipping lines in the States, with ships spread out all over the Orient, carrying cargo, as well as two extraordinarily handsome liners that carried passengers to Hawaii and Japan. In addition, Crockett had passenger ships in South America, and some that traveled profitably up and down the West Coast of the United States.
Harrison Crockett's only interests were his ships and his daughter. He saw a great deal of his brother, as they ran the empire together, but for a decade Harrison saw almost none of his old friends. Then at last he took Liane to Europe for a vacation, showing her all the wonders of Paris and Berlin and Rome and Venice, and when they returned at the end of the summer, he began to include his friends in his life again. Gone was the era of the grand parties in the mansion on Broadway, but he had come to realize how lonely his child was, and how badly she needed the company of other children, other people, and so Harrison slowly opened his doors again. What ensued were activities that centered only around his daughter: puppet shows, visits to the theater, and trips to Lake Tahoe, where he bought a handsome summer home. Harrison Crockett lived only to please and protect and cherish Liane Alexandra Arabella. She was named after two dead grandmothers and her mother, three lost beauties, and somehow she managed to combine the charm and loveliness of all three. People marveled when they met her. Despite the sumptuous existence she led, there was no sign of it having affected her. She was simple, straightforward, quiet, and wise beyond her years, from spending so many years dining alone with her father, and sometimes her uncle, listening to them talk business and explain to her the business of shipping, and the politics of the countries into whose por