“THE SECRETARY OF STATE would like to see you.”
“Thank you,” said Louis Morgon.
He rose, turned, and gazed at President Nixon’s photo hanging behind his desk, not out of any sense of devotion to the president, but to check his own reflection in the glass. He gave the knot of his tie a little upward tug.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
“Good luck,” his secretary said, thinking he had spoken to her.
Louis had recently been commended for several initiatives, and he guessed, not unreasonably, that he was about to be promoted. Instead he was led before the grim-faced secretary of state and presented with a list of charges against him, ranging from incompetence to something just short of treason.
Two uniformed guards escorted him back to his office. They watched while he gathered his belongings—personal papers, photos of Sarah and the children—and put them in a box. They walked him to the building’s entrance and waited while he got into a cab.
“He always seemed like a nice guy,” said one of the guards.
“It just goes to show you,” said the other.
The cab swung out of the circular drive and into traffic.
* * *
An hour later Louis sat at his dining table with his head in his hands. “How can this be happening?”
“How could it not happen?” said Sarah angrily. “You’re in espionage; you work with spies. Treachery is your business.”
Louis did not answer.
“Say something,” she said.
“Like what?” said Louis.
“It’s like you’ve gone into hiding,” she said.
Sarah was right. He had gone into hiding. “I don’t know who you are anymore,” she said. “You’re a stranger. To me and to your own children.” She was right about that too. He was even a stranger to himself.
Sarah took the children—Jennifer and Michael—and moved out.
Louis spent long, empty hours staring into the garden. The flowers nodded prettily in the hot breeze. But Louis saw only wreckage and desolation.
“What should I do?” he said one morning over coffee.
“You look terrible,” someone answered. Louis could no longer remember who she was.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You should go somewhere. Somewhere … far away.”
“Where?” said Louis.
“France,” she said. “Why don’t you go to France?”
“France?” said Louis.
* * *
Louis tried teaching. He tried writing. Nothing worked. Then one day he stuffed a backpack with a few necessities and flew to Paris. He stared through the plane’s small round window into the empty night sky. He was thirty-five and as lost as he had ever been. “I understood things better when I was four.”
The woman seated next to him pretended not to hear.
The best part of Louis’s work had always been the going away. He loved being far from home. He had always found solace—he did not know why—in being a stranger. This aspect of his personality had helped him become an effective diplomat and a superb spy. It had served him well in dangerous negotiations in North Africa and in the Middle East. Talking to an adversary was not that different from talking to a friend; it turned out that most adversaries were no less trustworthy than most friends.
In the Paris airport Louis retrieved his backpack. He tightened the laces in his boots. He swung the pack onto his back and cinched up the straps. He marched through the terminal and out into the gray morning. A small service road took him out of the airport. The soft rain cooled his skin as he walked, and the noise and bustle of the airport fell away behind him. Each step carried him further into a quiet, unfamiliar place where he felt somehow that he belonged.
Louis followed small country lanes and farm roads, stopping now and then to check where he was against the map. He gazed at the landscape, across the green fields, into the mist. He turned slowly in a circle to take everything in. He did not want to miss anything. “This is where I am right now,” he said. “Nowhere else.” He walked along muddy field roads, through woods and villages.
That first day of walking Louis stopped for lunch in the small village of Beaumarchais. He sat on a bench as the church bell rang noon. He gazed at the monument with its long list of those who had died in the two world wars. There were more from the First than the Second World War. But given the size of Beaumarchais, the numbers were staggering.
Louis ate a baguette, which he cut into hunks and stuffed with Gruyère cheese. The cheese was soft and oily from being in his pack. He went to the grocery across the square. “Cerises,” he said. The grocer weighed some cherries and put them in a paper bag. Louis went back to the bench by the monument. He closed his eyes as he ate each cherry. Someone might easily have supposed he had never eaten cherries before.
Louis walked west toward the Atlantic coast for several days and then turned southwest along the Loir River (the one without an e), which would lead him eventually to the other larger and better known Loire River. He slept in hotels when they were convenient. But he slept just as happily in barns and churches and even haystacks.
Some nights, when the weather was fair, he simply lay back under the black sky and stared upward until he was lulled to sleep by the sight of infinity. One night he slept in a cemetery, beneath a large monument. He discovered the next morning that the cemetery was for German soldiers.
It hardly mattered to Louis if it rained, was cold, was hot, if he got blisters, was bitten by insects, if he lost his way and had to retrace his steps until he found it again. For the first time in his life, inconvenience did not matter, nor did delay. He felt neither urgency nor languor. Every step he took seemed to take him further out of himself and, at the same time, bring him closer to himself. He could not understand or explain it. He sometimes had the feeling he was walking through his own mind.
Louis stopped in ancient churches, in part because they were ancient. He stood on the worn stairs and felt the depressions worn into the stone over hundreds of years by rivers of feet. He rubbed his fingers over worn walls, touched the worn edge of the font where countless hands had dipped into holy water. The traces of passing generations, of centuries of suffering and redemption, comforted him. He regularly paused before monuments honoring the dead of the two world wars. He read the names and felt both their presence and their absence. He stood in for their loved ones.
He existed in a thousand heres and a thousand nows. Walking through thick fog one morning, he was overcome with the sense that at any moment he was going to meet himself coming toward him. Instead an old man emerged from the fog. The man was bent over. He wore a hat that resembled a helmet, and he had a gun on his shoulder. The ghost of a soldier, thought Louis. As he passed, the man greeted Louis with a salute and disappeared back into the fog.
Louis was taking inventory without knowing he was doing so. His own past seemed to recede into some other plane of being, where it could be organized. In the State Department and the CIA, intrigue and disingenuousness had been his undoing. Now all machination receded from his consciousness. A new reality slowly took its place. His sordid past—there really was no better word for it than sordid—seemed to belong to someone else, someone more foolish, but smarter too and more cynical than he. And now there was something darker, something intractable and ancient that rose up around him, that came upon him like that ghostly man, like the fog itself.
* * *
One chilly afternoon Louis ducked under the small roof over a wooden entry gate to wait out a passing downpour. Down the hill in front of him he could see the Loir River. The gate behind him passed through a high stone wall to a modest and slightly ramshackle Renaissance château. Phillipe de Bourchon, the house’s owner, returned just then from walking his dogs. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he invited Louis inside.
“There’s a nice fire,” said Phillipe. “Some brandy.” Phillipe lived alone except for a maid who had been with the family her entire life. Phillipe’s wife was dead, his children grown.
Louis and Phillipe sat with their feet stretched toward the fire. Louis revealed himself to be an interesting and engaging conversation partner, and so Phillipe invited him to stay for dinner. “A cassoulet; Janine’s version; nothing fancy.”
During the meal the two men talked briefly about current world politics, then abandoned that for the more agreeable subject of the joys of walking. Phillipe was interested in Louis’s long walk. How did one see an entire country on foot? Didn’t a country lose its continuity, its national identity, when visited in such small segments?
Louis did not think so. At least not so far. There were regional differences, of course, but there was also still France, something he could clearly identify as France.
“Is it a good place?” Phillipe wondered.
Louis did not think good could apply to an entire country. “It is an agreeable place.”
Phillipe wondered whether walking was better with dogs or without dogs. Louis thought that it was probably better with dogs, since that way the walk became a kind of silent, yet purposeful, conversation. Phillipe countered it might be better without dogs—just for the sake of the argument—since seeing to the dogs was a distraction from the walk itself.
As Janine cleared the dishes—she was old and slow, and it took her many trips to the kitchen to do so—the tone of the conversation shifted. Louis had made an allusion to the misery he left behind as he walked, and Phillipe was struck by his words.
“Misery? But you are too young to know real misery. Besides, you are American. You have never been hungry. You have never had your country attacked or occupied. And you certainly were never tested by the moral ambiguities we French have encountered.”
“Moral ambiguities?” said Louis. It was a question that was not a question.
Phillipe smiled, pleased to have gotten a reaction. “Yes, moral ambiguities.” Phillipe raised his glass as though he were toasting the concept. “In June of 1940, for instance—were you alive then? Well, maybe just barely—when the Germans arrived in France, it was not at all obvious that their occupation was the worst fate that could befall us. Not obvious at all. Remember, at that time the communists were trying to establish a Soviet state in France, and they saw the war as the moment to do it. France became a battleground between fascism and communism, the two great evils of our time. We French seemed to be faced with a choice between cooperating with the Germans or becoming another Soviet satellite.
“To me and to many others it is not a choice at all. Communism was by far the greater danger. History has proved that to be true. Many Frenchmen cooperated with the occupying power.…”
“You mean they collaborated with the Third Reich,” said Louis. Again Phillipe smiled. He opened a box of cigars and held it toward Louis like a reward for having spoken up again. “No thank you,” said Louis.
“Of course, all right, yes, ‘collaborated with the Third Reich,’” said Phillipe. “And by collaborating we avoided the destruction of France, preserved her liberty and independence, and prevented a Soviet takeover.”
“And the Jews?” said Louis.
Phillipe held his glass in front of his face and peered at Louis over the edge. “Ah, yes. The Jews. They always come up in these discussions, don’t they? You bring them up, just as you bring up the Third Reich and collaboration, as though their part in all this clarifies things, as though the fact of their persecution—which, by the way, I do not deny—renders all moral ambiguity irrelevant.
“Are you Jewish by any chance?” Phillipe smiled but did not wait for Louis to respond. “It doesn’t matter. Whether you are or aren’t doesn’t change anything. The occupying Germans, the victorious Germans, were determined that there should be no Jews left in Europe. The French government in Vichy had little choice but to cooperate in their deportation from France.”
“But Vichy didn’t just cooperate, did they?” said Louis. “They weren’t reluctant partners. They jumped in with both feet. The Vichy government was zealous. They eagerly anticipated the Nazis’ wishes. They were arduous in their pursuit of Jews and in their deportation to death camps. The French, on their own initiative, rounded up tens of thousands of Jews, including French citizens, war heroes, women, children, and sent them to their deaths.”
Louis had not meant to be so vehement. “I am sorry to offend your hospitality,” he said. “But did you really think at the time that your collaboration in the persecution of the Jews would preserve France’s independence?”
“But you are mistaken, monsieur,” said Phillipe, raising his eyebrows. He smiled at Louis again. He took time to light his cigar. “No, no, no. You misunderstand me completely. It is true, I do not like Jews. And I liked them even less back then. But I opposed, and still oppose, their persecution. And I came to my position on collaboration—some of my friends have grown afraid of that word—only after the war was over. After weighing all the facts in my mind. After doing extensive research. After following the criminal proceedings against Vichy officials. My goodness. No, no, monsieur, you are quite wrong. I was a member of the resistance.”
Louis’s face did not betray his surprise, but Phillipe smiled anyway. He had a charming and handsome smile. “That was not as you might imagine it either. Nothing heroic. No, no. On the contrary. I was a young man at university in Bordeaux. I was bored with my studies and bored with my life. That is the only way I can explain it.
“One day I was eating in a well-known restaurant in the old city, and a group of German officers came in. They sat down and ordered steak, which arrived after a while. I like steak and had not eaten one for a long time. I studied the menu, but I did not see steak listed. When the waiter came to my table, I asked for a steak. He told me there was no steak available. I gestured in the direction of the German officers. ‘There is no steak available,’ he said again.
“Imagine. German soldiers could get steak, but a French citizen could not. I can still taste that steak I could not get, better than any steak I have ever eaten. Soon after that I joined a local group of resisters. We blew up a few train tracks and telegraph lines, that sort of thing. It seemed to me at the time that I had no choice. But of course I did have a choice, and I believe now I made the wrong one.”
It had gotten late. Count Phillipe de Bourchon invited Louis to spend the night, and Louis accepted his invitation. The following morning Phillipe served Louis a generous breakfast of bread, butter, jam, cheese, and coffee. Then, with his dogs trotting before them, he accompanied Louis on his way.
The moral ambiguities they had spoken of over dinner were of course known to Louis. Phillipe was mistaken if he believed an ocean could protect you from moral ambiguity. Moral ambiguity was the lifeblood of human commerce.
In fact Louis’s career had been built on moral ambiguity. His work in the State Department and then in the CIA had been to find the American advantage in various situations in the Middle East. Where was the morality in that? Louis had helped write American policy and then sought to implement it. This depended in large part on the manipulation of others—people and countries—frequently to their own detriment and even harm. Louis befriended people, in Algeria for example, and then recruited them to his purposes without telling them what those purposes were. Where was the morality in that?
Louis had convinced himself at the time that he had to lie, prevaricate, manipulate in order to assure the success of the enterprise. And in a sense it was true. But he soon found himself mired in a moral swamp from which he could not escape. His downfall came precisely because he was aware of the moral ambiguities.
* * *
On the sunny afternoon of June 21, Midsummer’s Eve, after nearly three weeks of walking, Louis came to the village of Saint-Léon-sur-Dême. He slipped off his pack and took a seat at a table on the terrace of the Hôtel de France on the town square. The plane trees around the square had had their branches pruned back severely the previous fall, and the new leaves now emerging from the woody knobs at the ends of the branches cast the square in lovely dappled sun.
Louis sipped a beer and watched the preparations for that evening’s celebration. Men on ladders hung colored lanterns from lampposts around the square, while other workmen hammered together a small stage for the musicians. First Madame then Monsieur Chalfont—they owned the hotel—engaged Louis in conversation. Louis was a reluctant partner at first. But the Chalfonts saw welcoming conversation as part of their duty as innkeepers, and before long they knew all about Louis’s strange pilgrimage. They insisted that he stay the night.
“We have a charming small room available. A last-minute cancellation, monsieur. You will be our guest,” said Madame Chalfont.
“And there will be excellent food, monsieur. From our kitchen of course,” said Monsieur Chalfont. He leaned toward Louis as though he were sharing a great confidence. “The event is not to be missed.”
“And dancing,” said Madame Chalfont. “There will be dancing.” Her eyes flashed happily.
Louis did not like celebrations, but that night he celebrated. He did not like to dance, but he danced. He waltzed with Madame Chalfont, of course, and with Solesme Lefourier, who would later be his neighbor and then his lover.
“You are American?” Solesme said as they were swept along with the crowd.
“Yes,” said Louis.
The Gypsy musician sang in a high, lonesome voice, lyrics that Louis thought could have been written for him.
Charles the great has come at last,
Come at last to stay.
He knows not where he’s going, though
He thinks he knows the way.
“Are you here for a while?” said Solesme. Her mouth was close to his ear so he would be able to hear.
“One night only,” he said.
“Are you on the run then?” She laughed.
“In a manner of speaking,” he said.
Dance after dance they circled around the square until the crowds went home and the music stopped.
After leaving Saint-Léon the following morning, Louis continued south. He walked for many more weeks, stopping finally in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where Saint James, the apostle, is supposed to have first set foot in Europe, the final destination of pilgrims for many centuries.
During all his walking a new idea had slowly found its way into Louis’s consciousness. It was that France, and more specifically the village of Saint-Léon-sur-Dême, were exactly where he longed to be. Louis did not know exactly how or why. Was it the celebration, the kindness of the Chalfonts, the feeling of Solesme in his arms, moving with him around the square to the music of the bal musette? He did not know what had brought him to this longing, but he did not doubt that it was as true as anything else he knew. He decided he should return to the United States and bring what he needed—mostly his books—back to France, and he should live in Saint-Léon.
“France? Are you crazy?” said Sarah. Their divorce was final. “Christ, Louis. You’re unbelievable. You think it’s all right to just move away? Without discussing it with anyone? What about our children? Your children? What about Jennifer; what about Michael? You’re their father.”
Louis did not have an answer for Sarah, or for Jennifer or Michael. In truth he had hardly ever been there for his children. He had been tending to his career when they were little. And now that they were teenagers, he was tending to his failure.
Louis flew back to Paris and drove a rental car back to Saint-Léon. He took a room in the Hôtel de France while he looked at properties. A week later he drove south to a notaire’s office in Tours. And an hour after that he drove back north again. He patted the manila folder on the seat beside him to reassure himself that he had in fact done what he had just done. He had bought a house. In France. My God.
The folder was stuffed with official documents, none of which he could read and all of which he had signed. After the signing, the notaire had with great ceremony opened a bottle of champagne. The two men had raised their glasses to Louis’s new home, which was in fact a disheveled and abandoned cottage on a hill above the village of Saint-Léon with a charming view and which had almost certainly never before had a champagne glass raised in its direction.
The only other time Louis had driven from Tours, he had missed the turn toward Saint-Léon. This time it was the way home and he did not miss it. A small milestone said it was five kilometers to Saint-Léon. The narrow road wound between pastures and fields. Louis stopped the car just before town beside a little stream, which turned out to be the Dême.
The water was swift and narrow. Louis broke the baguette he had bought earlier. Breadcrumbs exploded in every direction. He unwrapped the Gruyère and cut off a chunk. Since his long walk, whenever he ate this way—cheese and bread on an unfamiliar road—he felt happy. Louis sat on the bank of the Dême and tried to see through the murky water to the trout that were supposedly there. He tore off a crumb of bread and dropped it onto the surface. Something took it immediately.
Louis tried to picture the house he had just bought. He couldn’t remember what it looked like. He was not even sure he could find the place. He sat back and let the sun shine full on his face.
Louis found the way to his house without asking. He turned left up the small lane and then left again up the driveway. The house came into view.
It had not been lived in since before the war. It had most recently served as a hay barn, and even that had been many years earlier. There were no trees around it, no bushes or flowers either. The roof was sagging badly, and there were gaping holes where slates had blown away. Windowpanes were broken and shutters were missing. The exterior walls had turned black with mold. Pieces of the carved cornice had fallen away. The door was held shut by a wooden peg on a wire stuck behind a bent nail.
* * *
Not long after the Second World War, the French regional authorities had decided to consolidate some of the police operations in the district. This meant that the small police outpost in Saint-Léon, along with several other village police stations, had been closed and relocated to the police barracks in the nearby town of Château-du-Loir.
This had remained a satisfactory arrangement for more than twenty-five years. But now it had been decided, for political as well as administrative reasons, that police operations should again be dispersed among the various villages, and that Saint-Léon should once again have its own police station. Though Jean Renard had only recently graduated from the national police academy, he seemed an excellent choice to man the new outpost.
“He’s very young, sir,” said the lieutenant studying Renard’s file. “Inexperienced.”
“He’s smart,” said the captain in charge. “He’ll make a good policeman. Besides, he’s from Saint-Léon. People there know him. They’ll trust him. He’ll fit in better than a stranger might.”
“What about his father?” said the lieutenant.
“His father?” said the captain.
“The old gendarme, Yves Renard. You know—the war, his collaboration, prison in Russia,” said the lieutenant. “That could be a problem.”
“It’s ancient history,” said the captain. “Besides, it has nothing to do with young Renard.”
“Not yet thirty years. Not ancient enough for some people,” said the lieutenant. “I’m not talking for myself, Captain,” he added quickly. “But for some it’s not a very long time in the overall scheme of things.”
The son, Jean Renard, received the appointment and showed up one sunny spring morning for his first day of work. Those having their coffee on the terrace at the Hôtel de France watched as he parked his car in front of the old police station. He turned the iron key in the office door. It was probably the same key his father had used before him. The door swung open with a groan.
Renard—even his wife, Isabelle, called him Renard—stepped inside and pulled back the heavy curtains. Dust swirled in the slanting morning sun. He carried boxes of files inside and stacked them next to the large wooden filing cabinet. He dropped the box containing current files on top of the desk with a thud, making the dust swirl again.
Renard wiped off the chair with his hand and sat down. He went through the box to remind himself of what needed to be done. There were a few bulletins and notices that needed posting on the bulletin board. There were some recent incidents that needed looking into. There was a thick dossier about a troublesome property dispute that had gone on far too long. He decided he would start with that. But even that could wait a bit. He looked around the office.
The room had been used for storage for decades. All but one of the old filing cabinets and stacks of excess furniture had been removed in anticipation of his arrival. The desk, a couple of chairs, one file cabinet, and a few other rudimentary pieces of furniture were all that remained. Along with the dust.
Renard spent the rest of the day cleaning and arranging the furniture to his liking. He took out all the desk drawers and emptied them into a garbage bin. He swept and mopped the floor. By the end of the afternoon the office was in a reasonable state. “Not bad,” he said with a satisfied clap of his hands.
Renard locked the office and walked over to the Hôtel de France. He looked around. The hotel was covered with flowering vines, just as it always had been. The Hôtel Cheval Blanc had been closed at the end of the war and had remained so ever since. Cars and bicycles came and went. A moped clattered by. People shopped for supper, bought bread, vegetables, meat. They moved among the various shops, stopping on the square to visit with neighbors.
“So how was your first day?” said Claude, the waiter, as he poured Renard a glass of wine.
“As a first day should be,” said Renard. “Quiet.”
“Renard!” cried Madame Chalfont. She rushed up and embraced the policeman. “Congratulations. And welcome home. Claude,” she instructed the waiter, pointing at the glass in front of Renard, “that is on the house.”
“Oui, madame,” said Claude.
“Merci, madame,” said Renard.
“Ha,” said Claude when she had gone. “Your first day on the job, and already you’ve been bought off.”
Copyright © 2012 by Peter Steiner