- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Ships from: Hewitt, NJ
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
Ships from: Bella Vista, AR
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
|PROLOGUE: ECHO HOUSE||1|
|1 * THE GIRL ON THE BICYCLE||27|
|2 * MRS. PFISTER||74|
|3 * EQUILIBRIUM||104|
|5 * CAMELOT||159|
|6 * WASHINGTON'S JEW||200|
|7 * TRUST AND THE PERCEPTION OF TRUST||235|
|8 * ECHO HOUSE||275|
The Girl on the Bicycle
Axel Behl and his son dined alone on Thanksgiving Day, 1947 Sylvia Behl had vacated in August, living in Europe, people suspected, though no one knew for sure except possibly Axel, and no one dared ask him. Sylvia was gone. Sylvia was a closed subject. She had written no one, not even young Alec; at least that was the rumor, and people who knew Sylvia believed it. She was a woman who burned her bridges.
The community understood. Sylvia was beautiful and high-spirited and, after 1944, Axel was neither. He admitted to Billie Peralta that his life might not be worth the effort it took to live it. However, the understanding did not include sympathy, for Sylvia was a handful, sharp-tongued, temperamental, opinionated, and slow to fit into the milieu. In fact, it was generally agreed that she had never really tried, an awkward situation all around, because everyone was so fond of her gallant husband. And the boy was a standout, the sort of well-mannered intelligent boy who was a pleasure to have to dinner. The community tended to take the long view and concluded that Sylvia's desertion was probably for the best. A Washington homily fit the situation: "That which must be done eventually is best done immediately."
So this was the first Thanksgiving without Sylvia, and a desultory affair it was, despite the best efforts of the kitchen staff; but since they were French the meal had a saucy quality that owed more to Perigord than to the federal city. After preparing dinner, the servants had been given the evening off, leaving only Axel and Alec at home, picking through the spicy dinde with its tangled collar of green beans and au gratin potatoes and pureed mushrooms and foie gras; but no stuffing or cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie or the creamed onions that were Sylvia's specialty. Father and son sat in silence, listening to the clock tick.
Axel had turned down half a dozen well-meant invitations from friends to come up to New York or down to Middleburg or The Plains. In early October he had had another operation on his back and was still in pain. That operation had not been a success any more than the others had been. The surgeons at Walter Reed remarked that he was very fortunate to have such a high tolerance for pain; he thought they would kill him in their heroic efforts to keep him alive. So this was the last operation, permitting him the dubious consolation that he would not have to be cut again; in that one sense the operation reminded him of his marriage. And the boy bravely insisted that he would rather be alone at Echo House with his father than with friends, whose kindly concern he found embarrassing, particularly since no one would mention his mother's name. He was not in the mood for another family's feastly hilarity with its specific rituals like charades or Monopoly. And the table conversation would be politics, everyone expected to contribute, whether they had anything to say or not; and God help you if you got a fact wrong, the number of congressional districts in Iowa or the identity of the governor of Kentucky or the number of Reds in the French National Assembly. So at six in the evening Alec found himself toying with his food, moving the potatoes around the beans and the mushrooms around the dinde, thinking about the long train ride back to school in Massachusetts two days hence. His father had offered to fly up to Boston so that they could have Thanksgiving at Locke-Ober with the Aswells, but the boy had said no thanks to that, too, not wanting to trouble his father. The last operation had left him looking haggard and frail, in no condition for a three-hour journey in an airplane. And it was bitter cold in Boston.
Candle wax was dripping on the tablecloth, and the boy moved to reposition the candles, which had begun to list. The dining room was warm and the silence oppressive. He thought he might slip out for a movie, since his father would surely retire early. There were war films playing on a double bill downtown, leathernecks assaulting a Pacific island. That would surely take care of the rest of the evening, leaving only Friday and Saturday before departure on the crowded midnight train to Boston. He glanced into the oval mirror over the sideboard and saw his father's face, gaunt in the flickering candlelight. His father looked colorless and insignificant in the vastness of the room. His head was thrown back and his eyes were closed, but he wasn't dozing, because his lips were moving and he was massaging his lower back. Framed in the mirror, Axel Behl's white face had the dour aspect of a seventeenth-century Dutch portrait; and the artist was no friend.
"Can I get you something?" the boy asked. "More turkey? Mushrooms?"
His father waited a moment before replying, in a dusty voice, "Pour me a glass of whiskey, please."
The boy went to the sideboard and poured whiskey from a decanter into a glass, looking again into the mirror, his own face up close and his father's in the background, flickering yellow light all around. He handed the whiskey to his father, who took a sip and set the glass carefully on the table.
"Pretty awful, isn't it?"
"It's not so bad," the boy said. "It's a French Thanksgiving."
"I asked Billie Peralta to tell them what to do and how to do it, but Billie doesn't speak French very well and Jacques wouldn't've listened anyhow. He only listened to your mother. Reluctantly." Axel sighed, leaning forward to massage his back. Little beads of sweat jumped to the surface of his forehead. "I suppose we should have taken Billie up on her offer, gone out to Middleburg for turkey. And charades after."
"This is fine," the boy said.
"I hate charades," his father said.
"So do I."
"She would have been thrilled to have us, though. She likes to take people in. And she never liked Sylvia."
"I know," the boy said. He ate a mouthful of turkey.
"She said Sylvia's bite was worse than her bark."
Alec nodded, not knowing where his father was headed with this conversation but dreading it.
"Washington's hard," Axel said. "We all know each other so damned well and everyone has a past with everyone else. You either fit in right away or you don't, and if you don't you never will."
"She said she missed London," Alec said. "But I don't know what the great difference is. They both have a river and a legislature and the men wear hats."
"The difference is." Axel paused. "Heat."
"I like Washington," Alec said loyally.
"Maybe your taste in cities will change."
"Well, you're young. You can keep your powder dry."
"She used to say that Washington was dry. She said it was a dry bath. What did she mean by that?"
"She thought that Washington was old. London was young. Sylvia always took a contrary view. She liked to turn things inside out. We Behls are attracted to women who turn things inside out. Trouble is, it's not a quality that wears well, long term. It's tiresome." Axel took another sip of whiskey, holding the glass to the candlelight and looking through it.
They were silent again. The boy was not certain what his father meant about turning things inside out. At that moment he was certain he would never live anywhere but Washington. He could not imagine living anywhere else, certainly not bombedout London, with its frightening memories. Echo House was home for him, as it had been home for his grandfather and his father.
"Son." The boy looked up. His father was staring into the middle distance, as if what he had to say could only be thrown into neutral territory. "I have a number for her, if you want to call. She's in London. At least she was in London last week."
"Did you speak to her?"
"No. But I have a number."
The boy was watching his father in the oval mirror, the older man in a soft tweed suit, blue shirt, and regimental tie. It was an old bespoke suit and it fit him badly, loose around the shoulders and waist; but of course it had been made for a larger man. It was the suit he always wore at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, as usual when he was speaking of personal matters, his hand moved to the deep scar that ran from his hairline to his jaw. He took another swallow of whiskey and the boy knew that the pain must be very bad, because his father seldom drank. He had not touched his wine.
"It might be a good idea if you called her."
"I'll think about it," the boy said.
His father reached into his pocket and put a file card on the table. The boy took it and put it away without reading it, though he noticed that there was an address along with a telephone number. He had assumed that his mother was in London, her favorite city in the world, where she had many friends and fine wartime memories and no family. "Five hours time difference," his father said.
"I remember," the boy said.
"Do you miss London?"
"I hated the school."
His father nodded; that was old ground.
"And then you went away."
Axel smiled wryly. "No question. That was a big mistake."
He had gone away and returned a casualty of war, so broken and torn up that he was unrecognizable. Their London house, which had been so full of life before the war, was suddenly silent and blue, his father upstairs in the wide hospital bed, his mother below. Nothing had seemed beyond Axel Behl's reach, a ticket to Wimbledon or a box of Belgian chocolates or an American convertible or an introduction to Glenn Miller; suddenly he was helpless, unable even to speak coherently, assisted by nurses every day and night. Alec said, "Where did you get the number?"
"Son," his father said. "Please. I have friends and they have friends. It wasn't very hard to do."
Then why did it take so long? "Okay," the boy said.
"Well." His father sighed heavily, smiling slowly. "What are your plans for the evening?"
"There's a double feature at the Circle."
The boy hesitated. "I forget."
Axel looked at him sharply. "The morning paper's in the library. You can check the listings."
"It's a John Wayne double feature."
"John Wayne goes to war?"
"I guess so."
"Germans or Japanese?"
"Japs, I think."
Axel Behl was silent a moment, leaning back, his hands flat on the table.
"It's only a movie," the boy said.
"I saw one once," he said. "The White House last summer. Mr. Truman invited us over. I made myself go and it wasn't easy. I swore I never would, but when you're invited to the White House, you go. Such tripe. One lie after another, and when you added up all the little lies you had a big lie the size of the Matterhorn. I left halfway through, pleading fatigue. Couldn't stand it. Hated every minute." He began to drum his fingers on the table, looking again into the middle distance.
"I know," the boy said. Talking to his father was like walking through a minefield: one false step and you were on your back, minus an arm or a leg.
"No, you don't."
"Then tell me," the boy said quickly, the words out before he could bring them back. His father had never spoken about the war and made it clear he didn't want to be asked about it. His war was so profoundly intimate that it could not be shared; at least he did not share it.
"Propaganda," he said suddenly.
"What's propaganda?" the boy asked.
"A rhapsody," Axel said. "A bully's love song."
"You walked out of a movie in the White House?" The boy wanted his father to keep talking, to tell him about the war even if it was his own false rhapsody. He had the right to tell any story he wanted, at whatever length or to whatever purpose. He could use the historical facts or invent his own; it wouldn't matter. But he did not have the right to remain silent, keep things to himself, withhold evidence. What had happened to Captain Axel Barkin Behl in the war was their common property. They both lived with the consequences and would go on living with them. This was the way the world worked, and this was their fate. His father was crippled and his mother was gone and there remained only the two of them to face the wide world. And the world was not indifferent.
"Do you remember which movie it was?"
But Axel was silent, his eyes half-ridded, his fingers again tracing the cicatrix that carved his face. He had been startlingly handsome as a young man before the war. Everyone said so and the family photographs proved it, Axel in black tie, Axel in tennis whites, not a hair out of place, the part in the center of his skull as straight as a sword's blade. But it was hard for Alec to recall the prewar years. What he remembered was a private hospital in Belgravia, its cream-colored facade suggesting a villa in the Levant, his father on the third floor bandaged head to foot, his eyes glazed and staring from a hole in the rough gauze. His mother's gloved hand pushed him forward to give Daddy a kiss. But she did not say where, so he kissed the bandaged cheek and watched his father wink. Later, when Axel was home with most of the bandages off, Alec did not want to remember him as he had been. That memory was indecent.
The silence lengthened. The boy looked into the candlelight and willed his father to speak. How difficult could it be to give voice to the events of your own life, to speak so that others could understand the shadow-line that divided youth from maturity? Did it involve betrayal? Was it simple stupidity or plain misfortune, obvious bad luck of the sort that everyone encountered every single day? He had gone away a healthy young man and returned a wretched old one, and this seemed to happen overnight. The circumstances were mysterious, and his silence only made them more so, and sinister besides.
Axel smiled. "They say that good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment."
Alec laughed even though he had heard the expression many times.
Axel said abruptly, "As you know, I went to France in early 'forty-two. Fred Greene and I were put ashore in Brittany. You might remember Fred, big redheaded fellow, hot-tempered. Wonderful pianist; he knew everything about popular music and classical music, too. After the war he intended to make his living playing in nightclubs. Fred was my closest friend; we'd known each other since we were schoolboys. His father was an editor and a great friend of the senator, wrote speeches for him. We had been in Spain together, not to fight but to study German aerial tactics, the bombardment of civilian targets mostly. Spain was a war of fire and maneuver, the tactics not much different from Lee's at Antietam, except that Lee was a genius and there were no military geniuses in Spain. The difference between Antietam and Teruel is disciplined butchery and undisciplined butchery, plus of course the airplanes. Spain was modern war and old-fashioned war at once, so we stayed on longer than we should have, learning what we could, and we learned quite a lot. Fred's wife was even less enthusiastic about this adventure than Sylvia, and in fact she left him because of it. Fred didn't understand her and neither did I, because our work in Spain was important. People were dying, Spain was bleeding to death." Axel paused, thinking about Spain in 1938; there was more to be said, but he didn't say it.
"Later on we went to work for Colonel Donovan and volunteered for France. That was when you were sent to Scotland to school. You were much too young for boarding school, but that couldn't be helped. Sylvia had a job in the war, too, and as you have cause to know, caring for small children was not her long suit. Baby-sitting was not in her repertoire. Nannies were impossible to find in London, and Sylvia dismissed the ones we did find, and the blitz was in progress and so forth and so on. It was very dangerous. So you went away to Scotland, Sylvia stayed in London, and I went to France with Fred Greene in a small boat."
Axel stopped talking, drumming his fingers on the table again, leaning back and looking at the ceiling and then at the three portraits on the far wall. His father and grandfather were there, along with Constance. The family resemblance was striking; all the men had high foreheads and heavy eyelids over liquid dark eyes and thin lips, and they were scowling. Young Alec was unmistakably of this tribe, except that he had his mother's fair hair and gray eyes, and his build was slender. He had a way of leaning forward on the balls of his feet when the conversation interested him, a trick of Sylvia's as well. There was much of Constance in Axel. His extraordinarily large hands could have belonged to a farmer or blacksmith. He had her stony black eyes, but they were set in his father's face; the de Barquin lip was conspicuous also.
When next Axel spoke it was in a voice as dry as an accountant's, and his manner and tone suggested that the words were costly. He did not give them up easily. Truthfully, he did not want to give them up at all. So his son had better listen carefully, because they would not be repeated.
How much there was to remember. This much was known for sure.
They formed up with Allied troops after D-Day and were ordered to report to Patton's command, assigned to his intelligence section. This was logical; they knew the countryside very well, having lived off it for the past two years. They knew where the Germans were and where they weren't and which French units were reliable and which were bandits. The politics of the Resistance were complicated, as complicated as the various lines of command in the Spanish war; so they tried to avoid politics, claiming indifference or ignorance, depending on the situation. Fred Greene was fluent in French, and Axel was fluent in German and passable in French. Patton was short of translators, and while he distrusted OSS characters generally, he had known and admired Adolph Behl and someone had told him that Fred was all right, so he asked for them by name. That was the way things were done. Someone knew someone and the word was passed down, your orders were cut, and you went off in a Jeep to join George Patton's intelligence section.
They began in Anjou, following Patton's line of march east, the road littered with empty jerry cans and C-ration cartons and the occasional disabled tank and rotting corpse. The region was thick with land mines and remnants of German units, because Patton had not bothered to stop and mop up, perform the usual housekeeping chores. Housekeeping (Axel's term) was not in the general's repertoire. From the look of things, he had destroyed everything in his path, so it made for a dispiriting ride. The litter and the stench.
Axel was driving very fast, and when he came to a crossroads he veered south, turning on impulse into a part of the country that had not been touched by blitzkrieg or invasion or Patton's stampede. Axel was disgusted by the corpse-smell and the helter-skelter of war's residue, and when he saw the turn he took it without thinking. When Fred looked at him in alarm, Axel said he was taking the scenic detour. He said they were owed one. Just once in the miserable year 1944 he intended to behave irresponsibly, and if Fred didn't like it he could get out. If they were lucky they would find a bottle and a wheel of cheese, have lunch and a snooze, and pretend they were in Rock Creek Park on a hot Sunday afternoon.
Fred shrugged and pulled his helmet over his eyes, a gesture that said, more plainly than words, Bad idea.
The unfamiliar road was winding and treacherous, but there was no sign of the Wehrmacht. They crossed one river and then another and entered ancient Aquitaine. Suddenly there were no more road signs. Axel drove more slowly now, elated to be motoring through the quiet countryside at midday. In that part of France the light is thick and milky, shadowless where it touches the earth. The atmosphere is heavy, almost dreamy; you can imagine a knight on horseback or a traveling carnival. The land was deserted and undisturbed, except for a few small farms and orchards. Many of the fields were overgrown and the farmhouses in disrepair. Axel wondered aloud if the inhabitants had fled, though there was no sign of military activity. Even the usual graffiti were missing. It was as if they had stumbled into a France of another century.
They drove south for many hours, the countryside growing wilder and less civilized and at the same time drowsier. Late in the afternoon they came over a rise and saw below them an exquisite medieval village crouched in the shadow of a narrow valley, a noble Romanesque church with its heavy walls and bell tower set in a square beside a meandering stream. Atop a low hill was a diminutive chateau with vineyards all around, motionless in the milky light. They stopped the Jeep and gaped, forgetting utterly about the war and their destination west of the Rhine; and they felt now that they were surrounded by the century before, having somehow stumbled into this undiscovered or forgotten valley, some place far removed from the industrialized and self-aware twentieth century. It's the simple truth that many strange and inexplicable things happen in wartime. Ask any soldier.
They motored down the road slowly, because they had no way of knowing the politics of the village, who occupied it, and whether they were friendly. They crossed a stone bridge spanning the slow-moving stream and stopped in front of the church. In the square a half a dozen old men were playing boules. The men looked up at the approach of the American Jeep but did not pause in their game. They moved ponderously, their arms swinging like pendulums, the heavy balls lofted and falling with a thud to the bare ground. From the terrace of the cafe across the square, a waiter was motioning. Axel and Fred left the Jeep where it was and walked to the cafe, carrying their carbines.
I am the patron of this cafe, the Frenchman said.
I am also the mayor of the village.
You are welcome here, but you will have no need for weapons.
The mayor offered bread and cheese and a carafe of the local wine, coarse as sandpaper. He remarked on the weather, warm even for August. The night would be warm as well. Wouldn't you prefer to wear something more comfortable? Then he offered the traditional blue trousers and smocks worn by workingmen. The mayor seemed eager to avoid any reminders of the nearby armies. Anonymous in blue, rifles stowed in the Jeep, the Americans sat at a table on the terrace of the cafe and talked with the mayor, an obviously well-fed mayor. Yes, there had been Germans in the vicinity, but they had departed without warning early one morning the previous week. In any case there had been no trouble with them.
Enjoy yourselves, gentlemen, the mayor said and disappeared into the interior of his cafe. In the square behind them the old men continued to play boules.
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 Blue Skies 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 here? 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 chateau, the mayor said quickly. The count insists that you spend the night with him in the chateau. 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.
Posted July 17, 2013
Posted February 14, 2011
Some of the political actions and dealings in the novel were spectacular. The writing, however, fell a little flat. A little too journalistic and heavy-handed, perhaps.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2010
This is yet another interesting book by Ward Just. I seem to be reading his works in reverse, but learn something new from each one. His characters are so real & one obtains a better grasp of history & politics with each read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 11, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted May 20, 2014
No text was provided for this review.