Every afternoon, Paule tends to her father’s newspaper clippings and listens to his stories. An actor, Paul-Alain Bernheim has a sexual appetite and a lust for life that have made him a legend of the Paris stage. He is also a fiercely proud Jew, and he has imbued his daughter with an unshakeable pride in the history of her people. So why, she wonders, has she fallen in love with a German?
From the moment Paule spots Wilhelm von Rhode at an embassy reception, she can’t take her eyes off him. So after a whirlwind Paris romance, when von Rhode is recalled to Berlin, Paule follows as his wife. But as the Nazis tighten their stranglehold on Germany and the world prepares for war, will Paule’s love stand against the night?
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An Infinity of Mirrors
By Richard Condon
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1964 Richard Condon
All rights reserved.
He sent her a music box which played an aria from Trovatore while simultaneously emitting Chanel's wonderful new scent. He sang the words to her with his odd, endearing voice:
"And can I ever forget thee
Thou shalt see that more enduring
Love than mine, ne'er had existence
Triumph over fate securing
Death shall yield to its resistance."
His voice was very deep and he faulted top notes. But when he sang the aria, he sang it as though he had commissioned this opera from Verdi to give her one small fragment from it and when she tired of that, its days would be ended forever.
He sent her three soft pink pearls every day, the pearls of his grandmother, the tragic wife of the greatest hero of his family, one of the greatest generals of the Royal Prussian Army. His grandmother had loved her husband, but because he could only master the art of useless death, she had left him when he had refused to leave the army. Paule had never seen such beautiful pearls. One morning he telephoned and asked her to bring them with her and they walked to the Place Vendôme, where before her eyes a master jeweler in a broadcloth tail coat strung the pearls together and cooed over them.
Veelee clasped the pearls around Paule's throat in the Tuileries before a round and tranquil pool — a clock without numbers, the timeless timepiece which saw children return to it with their children to float their boats, and then with their grandchildren. He asked her to marry him, but before she could reply he sang the aria softly in her ear in soulful and solemn Italian:
"Di te, di te scordar me!
Tu vedrai che amore in terra
Mai del mio non fù più forte
Vinse el fato in aspra guerra
Vincera la stessa morte."
She had known him for six weeks. She was twenty-two years old; he was thirty-four. She was tall and slender, and she had the air of a delighted child who had need to amuse and give pleasure. When they first met at the Italian Embassy on the fifth day of May, 1932, Paule stood at the center of a radiance of beautiful women. She was wearing brown, apricot, and salmon: a scarf over the great lapels of that year; and her soft, dark hair fell down behind her. She was thinking about a musician named Masson, about her father's four sets of riding boots in four different tones of leather, and of her father's latest divorce while Dr. Monti explained the preparation of Tacchino Ripieno alla Lombardia to her, when the tall, blond, handsome man had appeared at her side, awaiting his introduction. His dark civilian clothes contrasted with the uniforms in the room: startling epaulets, blood-red collars with gold crustings, and heavy dress swords.
The Embassy reception was to honor the Bonapartists who had assembled that morning at the Invalides around the grave of the Emperor. It was the hundred eleventh anniversary of the death of Napoleon, and if there were dry eyes in the room, it was because the Italian Ambassador had been obliged to invite outsiders due to the extraordinary vigor of the social calendar that spring. The conversation in the room was safe and almost entirely devoted to such current events as the visit of the Emir Feisal, Viceroy of Hedjaz, whose entourage had exhausted three concierges with demands for more and more facile women. There was every ingredient to make that spring a great season. The National Lottery had just been introduced; Malraux had won the Goncourt; Mauriac had entered the Academy; Chanel had just launched the first of the dressmaker perfumes; a Manet exhibition was at the Orangerie; Baker was at the Casino de Paris; and Paule's father, Paul-Alain Bernheim, the greatest actor of France and one of the four greatest in the world — most certainly including England — was appearing inGifron. Of his performance, François Winikus of La Revue de Paris had written:
He has proved once again that he is a great actor, as in every appearance, onstage and off, he has ever made. He is a regal ornament upon what is the most adorned on earth, Paris. He brings home to us with vast power that today the Frenchman dislikes war, but at the same time he does not wish war to be represented as a shabby and ridiculous thing. Does the author of this piece really believe that war is something which is only crazy and bloody? He seems to forget that the public is dominated by memories of war as a cataclysm which reaches to magnificence. If the author could have avoided showing war as a ridiculous and silly act this would be a much better play.
The tall, blond, handsome man's name was Wilhelm von Rhode. Dr. Monti said he was the military attaché at the German Embassy — except that everyone knew that since the Treaty, Germany did not maintain military attachés. He frightened her when he clicked his heels and bowed, but then he smiled and Paule liked him. She liked the smell of him, phermones which communicated before words. He was much taller than Paule, a new sensation for her. His body had power. His eyes were very blue and his hair was dark blond. He had the most wonderful smile: it paid compliments which no words could convey.
Dr. Monti had finished his recipe. Paule recovered. "It sounds heavenly, Dr. Monti," she said. "My father could eat two of those."
"Myself, in my lifetime, I have eaten two hundred. And I can tell you this: there is nothing the French have ever invented ... in the kitchen" — and he paused to leer — "which can compare with Tacchino Ripieno alla Lombardia." He lifted her hand and bent over it, then bowed to von Rhode, and left them.
Von Rhode took a deep breath and stared at Paule.
"When do you speak?" she asked.
"Let us go to dinner."
"But ... I was to meet my father here."
"At what time?"
He looked at his watch. "Seven thirty-five. Your father has had his chance."
"Oh! There he is. Papa!" The sound made no impression in the maelstrom. Paule took von Rhode by the hand and plunged into the crowd, moving in the general direction of her father, greeting people steadily as she crossed the room but holding to a course which was several points northwest of her father and in the precise direction of the main exit. He was chatting with three awe-struck Italian beauties, but she concentrated on making him look up at her, and when he did she yelled jovially, "Franz! Set to!" and he gleamed with delight. Paule pulled von Rhode through to the top of the main staircase and grinned at him. "If I had interrupted my father on his night off, as he stood there trying to decide which of those three gorgeous women he would choose, he would have wept," she said.
"I'm very glad you didn't interrupt him."
"Shouldn't a military attaché be in uniform?"
"It's a long story. What does 'Franz! Set to!' mean?"
"It's a family joke. It's Papa's favorite line from all his plays." As they stood close to each other she saw that they were the right height.
"It comes from a perfectly awful play Papa did in London about ten years ago. He was an eighteenth-century fop who had a manservant named Franz to do everything unpleasant for him. He fought Papa's duels, he was bled for him when Papa was ill, he even got married for him, and whenever Papa needed help he would yell, 'Franz! Set to!'"
Paule and Veelee dined lingeringly at Voisin, in the rue St. Honoré, on asparagus, gigot and white beans, cheese, coffee and Calvados, all joined together by Meursault and Julienas. Early in the meal they shifted from French to German and never left it. They lunched together twice that week and dined three times. They saw Yonnel's Hamlet at the Comédie, partly to see Yonnel but also to hear Madeleine Renaud sing Ophelia's song in her extraordinarily primitive voice. They had tea every afternoon at Ixe-Madeleine, Sherry, or Chez Ragueneau; they went on a picnic; they rode on the Bateau Mouche. They talked to each other and listened, they looked and they touched, and they fell in love. At night Paule would lie on her stomach, her chin on her pillow, and stare gravely over the west of the city, trying without success to teach herself to understand what was happening. She lived with her father in the flat where she had been born, which covered the entire seventh floor of a large building on the Cours Albert I and viewed the Seine at a point where the river took care to be at its most elegant. Her father had bought the flat to celebrate his first marriage, to Paule's mother, on June 8, 1909. Paule was born on October 13, 1910. Her mother left them forever on February 21, 1916. Her father blamed his first divorce on mixed marriages, inasmuch as Paule's mother had had nothing to do with the theatre. She was the daughter of a colonial planter in the East, her people had been statesmen, and her brother was a concert pianist of the least theatrical sort. Thereafter, with the exception of the stunning vaudeville contortionist, Nicole Pasquet, Bernheim had always married within the theatre, the opera, or the cinema, avoiding dancers because he believed they were interested only in beefsteaks when away from their work, and abjuring civilians.
Paule took tremendous pride in her father. He was a Commander of the Legion of Honor. His prowess as artist, lover, duelist, patriot, wit, gambler, impresario, horseman, husband, feeder, rager, and fashion plate was constantly in the world press. Since her tenth birthday Paule had been in charge of the leather-bound books which held the yellowing daily history of her father's life. Together father and daughter had pored over the books each day when he was not appearing at a matinee performance, so that she would be able to interpret each item precisely in a balanced and exact manner when the time came to write his official biography. Because of the newspaper clippings, she had been taught English, German, Spanish, and Italian; with French, these were the languages of the box-office countries. No one — with the possible exception of her father — understood better than Paule how lucky they were because of his genius, his presence, and his charm.
These were only a few of the things which helped to endow Paule with her sense of great good fortune at having been born a Jew. Each Friday night, from six to six-thirty, while he drank a half-bottle of Moët, her father would polish her pride with rich fabrics from Jewish history. "It is important that you remember, my love, that it was the Jews who rejected the Romans. We fought them in three wars and beat them in two, and when it was all over they offered us citizenship. You see? And when I say wars I mean wars, not battles. We had Hadrian so rattled that he sent a general named Severus all the way from the British front with thirty-five thousand troops, and we tore them apart. And, believe me, not only because they were tired from traveling. Hadrian knew which general to send. That Severus was a very dirty fighter. He burned everything we had and he murdered every noncombatant in his path. They won. They didn't win fairly, but they won. They were the biggest empire in the world and we were so small we couldn't have filled the opera house, but they offered us citizenship and — never forget this, Paule — we turned it down."
Or he would say, "The origins of anti-Semitism are forgotten now, darling girl, but after we gave Saul of Tarsus the basic material from the life of one of our rabbis, Christianity spread across the world. As a matter of fact, by the twelfth century the Jews were the only non-Christians left in the known world and the Church was taking very good care of us because it had wistful hopes about converting us. And it was extremely important to them. After all, they would have a harder time proclaiming Christ's divinity if his own people disclaimed him, wouldn't they? But naturally we wouldn't convert, so to prevent us from infecting the faithful we were excluded from the feudal system until, in a brash decree in 1215, Pope Innocent II instituted the yellow badge. It was then the great sprint toward ritual murder began."
More vividly than her own mother, Paule remembered her father's second wife, Evelyn Weissman, one of the great stars of the French theatre. Her presence was so electric that Paule's father had had to dismiss her as a wife, although he kept her as a mistress for three and a half years after the divorce; he was obsessed with the idea that she was more interested in her own electricity than in home-making. Paule was nine at the time of the second divorce. She was a lovely child, tall for her age, and even the caustic realism of her birthday portrait by Felix Valloton, the Swiss, could not conceal the fact that she was exquisitely female with long plaited hair and huge purple eyes which savored the viewer from a long, finely boned face.
All of Bernheim's wives had been kind and loving to her, although some not as convincingly as others. Dame Maria van Slyke, the film star and her father's fourth wife, had been Paule's favorite. Marichu Senegale, the third wife, an Algerian opera star, had been the least sympathetic. She had wept endlessly and in such a strange key after she had gained ninety-one pounds, causing Bernheim to come home less and less frequently. The one thing all wives brought to Paule was information about her father's mistresses, in the hope that Paule would trade information or even come to sympathize more with them than with her father. A man as intensely artistic as Paul-Alain Bernheim had to have mistresses while he had wives; it was a matter of station, nationality, profession, and health. He kept a small apartment on the Avenue Gabriel but he always made it a practice to begin new liaisons at the Hôtel de la Gouache, at Versailles, always in the same three-room apartment. One bedchamber was for the candidate, the other for himself. The furniture in the large room which separated the bedchambers was removed, except for one table which held a gramophone.
Bernheim's custom was to make love from nine in the morning until noon; to lunch from one o'clock until three; to sleep until six in the evening; then to alternate from the lady's bed to his for love-making until ten o'clock in the evening, at which time a light snack and a magnum of champagne was served in the lady's room. After that they would tango to the gramophone records from eleven until three o'clock in the morning. This regimen required his greatest concentration, and he would be unmindful of complaints from other clients of the hotel. At three o'clock they would retire to their separate rooms to sleep until nine the next morning, when the happy schedule would begin all over again until the lady tired. Twice, despite the enormous sums he had spent at the Hôtel de la Gouache, the management permitted a bird to awaken him at an ungodly hour; on both occasions he had had the bird shot.
Paul-Alain Bernheim was dedicated to everything in life, but most of all to pretty women. If a woman was pretty he had to know her better. His method was direct. On the first day he would send a basket of flowers. On the second day he would send baskets of flowers every hour on the hour; florists had dueled over securing or retaining his account. If on the third day there was no response to the dozens of messages concealed beneath the blooms, he would send a fiacre filled with flowers. Then that night he would bribe his way into the woman's house; crouching on the carpet outside her bedroom, he would scratch at the door until elemental curiosity forced her to leave her bed and open it.
"For God's sake, what is it?" one whispered harshly, "who are you? my God, Bernheim! Are you crazy, Bernheim, my husband will kill you, your flowers have already driven him out of his mind why are you here you will ruin my marriage, Bernheim, for God's sake leave, leave now before there is blood!"
Using his stage voice which could break an electric light bulb at thirty feet, he would answer, "Why have you not telephoned me?"
"Ssssshhhh! My God, telephone you, I hardly know you! My God you must be totally insane, Bernheim, please, please go before he wakes up and turns into a raging tiger — no, oh no, stop that, Bernheim, no."
He was relentless with such women because they had pretended to ignore him and forced ultimate methods. He would reply, "If you do not want me, I prefer a scandal. I demand to see your husband now. I must have you. Let him run me through, but I must have you."
He was not young when he did these things, because it took some years of experience to develop such pragmatic psychology, but his own wives told Paule that the women always appeared the next morning at eight-thirty A.M. at the Hôtel de la Gouache, ready for duty.
Excerpted from An Infinity of Mirrors by Richard Condon. Copyright © 1964 Richard Condon. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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