Paris, June 27, 1936
When Therese de Coulaincourt met Paul Giroud in a cafe near St. Germaine des Pres, she was far from starting from scratch with him. Most important, there had been a meeting, some six months previously, in a cafe on the Rue Grenelle near the Ministry of War. That had been several months before the German military occupation of the Rhineland in defiance of the treaties.
The empty Plain of Mars on a bright winter day with the dark mass of the Invalides behind it did still symbolize the might of the French Army. In that atmosphere of security, the two conversants had spent hours rooted in their chairs without even getting up to answer any calls of nature.
Giroud, representing a region in the northeast, was also a Radical. Therese herself had often advertized him as one of the most intelligent of the younger deputies, and, having written a philosophical play which was performed in Paris, he certainly did his part to uphold the literary reputation of his party. Not only that, Therese was accustomed to point to Giroud as a shining example of a politician who wasn't owned by anyone. Her only regret had been that her admiration for him had never been reciprocated in quite the way she would have most liked.
She had started that meeting by staking out a position that she hardly cared about.
"I've always defended our party against charges of being ineffectual, but it's getting too much even for me. In some seven years of having power we haven't made one concrete step toward achieving the equality of incomes. That's supposed to be the primary goal of the Radical Party. Have the leaders become discouraged and given it up?"
"We certainly have not given it up! I've always regarded an equal distribution of profits as central to our program. I made a speech to that effect only last month."
"Even if class distinctions can't ever really be abolished, I think we should at least get started with some redistribution of income. And it's a scandal that the poor pay more taxes than the rich."
"I agree. But income redistribution must be just. Otherwise, we'd lose our mandate."
Therese then spoke quietly in the most reasonable tone she could muster.
"I was rather disturbed at the last Congress when Marcel Theroux proposed a dividend for the aged. He was absolutely shouted down. Do you remember?"
"Perhaps he wasn't quite the right man to propose it. He speaks badly. He also has almost no standing in the Party Bureau, even as provincials go."
"If you recall, his proposal was attacked because it didn't provide for the invalids, the orphans, the unwed mothers, and the unemployed. But that was unfair. You have to start somewhere, and you can't cure all the ills of society in one stroke. As it is, we've done exactly nothing."
"I don't think it's that bad. It's true that we haven't done anything dramatic, but it takes time to build a consensus."
Giroud had occupied the high ground of Radical rationality, and might almost have been waving a professorial pipe as he spoke. Therese then said,
"There was another rather odd thing that happened in response to Theroux. The better educated deputies all stood up and said that it was wrong to get bogged down in detail when it's the principle that matters. That's a sure prescription for never doing anything."
Giroud had been one of those deputies. When he replied, it was again with his amused smile.
"But Therese, we're always telling ourselves that our party is the party of Descartes. We wish to apply science to politics. It's necessary to clarify our first principles and then deduce from them correct political doctrines. In the end, we'll derive and enact individual measures. It does no good to merely propose piecemeal measures that seem right without any assurance that they are right."
"Even if such deductions could be made rigorously, each deputy would start with different principles. There's no reason to think that they'd agree in their conclusions."
"We may start with different principles, but only one set can be correct. Reasonable men will discover which set that is."
There had still been the half smile. Giroud was a little too sophisticated to simply spout the party line. But, still, it was an amazing response. Even in her wildest bohemian days, Therese wouldn't have believed anything so absurd.
Having argued just enough to make Giroud feel definitely insecure, she had then shown him the promised land.
The potential leader of the Radicals was ideally an intellectual, and ought to be markedly handsome in an urbane way. That got the clerks and petty bureaucrats, who had such aspirations themselves. Nothing got the peasants. They didn't even trust ex-peasants such as Pierre Laval, but, anyway, they had nowhere else to go.
There was, however, one thing that counted more than everything else put together. The leader of the party and potential prime minister would be that man whom the leader of each of the powerful party factions thought he could control. Of course, being at cross purposes themselves, they couldn't all control him at once. But, once in a while, there came a man whose manner was so perfect that each factional leader believed that he would eventually be able to use him against all the others. Therese was convinced that Paul Giroud was that man. The odd thing was that he didn't realize it himself.
Therese, of course, couldn't state the matter baldly. It was hardly flattering, and, in any case, Giroud would never have accepted such a description of himself. He instead had to be convinced that he was, unlike the others, a man of action. While the notion of Giroud as a man of action was, from her point of view, absurd, there was a quick nervousness in his manner and speech which could, with a little help, be misinterpreted.
On that January day, Therese had convinced him that, if he could only act in the right way at the right time, he could become the leader of the Radical Party, and then, almost by default, Prime Minister. She had also half convinced him that she'd be able to tell him when and how to act.
There had been another meeting, in late February, with other people present. Therese had attempted only to reinforce the impression she had made in January, and had hinted that he wouldn't have to wait so very long for his opportunity.
Then, on March 7, the German troops rolled forward. The French Army made no attempt to stop them. In 1923 France had occupied Dortmund merely to speed up the payment of reparations. But, now, a mere thirteen years later, it seemed that the world's most powerful army couldn't take on a small force riding motorcycles and armed with little more than hunting rifles. Paritucularly shaken were the French allies in eastern Europe who, with French military backing, were supposed to be able to fend off the Germans and/or the Russians. A Yugoslav statesman cabled,
"If you cannot defend yourselves, how do you expect to defend us?"
Neither Giroud nor anyone else had an answer to that one. Therese had met him at a couple of parties, and they had danced once. During that dance, she had suggested to him that the Rhineland occupation was exactly what he needed to set the stage for his new initiative. Beyond that, she had continued to be mysterious.
This, then, was their first chance to really talk since the German move. Therese, in another of her wonderful dresses, treated Giroud a little as if he were a lover at first, not wanting to be the one to raise more serious subjects. He did look at her with desire, but, of course, his political desire was much greater than his sexual one. At last, he said,
"I understood that you're prepared to make some suggestions as to my next move."
Therese pointed to her bag and said,
"Yes. I do have some notes."
Therese had often composed speeches which had been delivered, with little or no change, by one or another of the Radical deputies. Giroud, of course, had too much pride to ever deliver a speech written by someone else. On the other hand, having changed some things and added a few flourishes, he might easily convince himself that the speech was mainly his own work.
The speech Therese had in her bag addressed the respect in which she and her father believed France to be most vulnerable to German invasion. As General Brossard had said,
"If German tanks are let loose on our unprotected infantry, the infantry will panic and flee. It takes bombers to stop the tanks and disrupt their supply system. But our bombers can do that only if they're protected by fighters, at least equal in quality and numbers to those of the enemy."
France didn't possess such fighters. Quite independently, Therese knew that the French fighters suffered mainly from not having engines as powerful and reliable as those of other countries.
Therese's speech for Giroud proposed the setting up and funding of an agency which would buy foreign aircraft engines, even German Daimler Benz engines if possible, and test them against French engines. Fighters would then be equipped with the engines that proved to be superior.
It didn't appear to be a revolutionary proposal, and it was certainly a sensible one. But it would also step on an extraordinary number of toes. First, of course, there were the entrenched bureacracies who would strongly resent any parliamentary attempt to tell them how to go about their business. When she outlined her scheme, Giroud immediately seized on that aspect of the matter, ending,
"You musn't underestimate the power of bureaucrats."
It was easy enough to reply,
"But you must be perceived as being strong. Since it's necessary to offend someone, the bureacrats are safer than one of the other parties."
That went over well enough, and Therese's companion seemed to be getting his nerve up. What he didn't seem to realize, to her gratification, was that the proposal would offend an even more important group.
Giroud was, despite his political skills, just fuzzy and idealist enough not to fully realize that the parties of the right actively wanted to be conquered quickly by Germany. They, together with many allies in the center, some of them even in the Radical Party itself, would oppose any measure that looked as if it might strenghthen the defenses of France.
Things hadn't come to the pass where they could say so publicly, but they would find some objection to any such proposal as hers. No matter how flimsy their rationale might be, the odds were roughly even that they would be able to block it.
In Therese's mind, there were more important things than a measure which, even if passed, might in itself turn out to do little to address the disparity between the French and German fighter forces. But this was a useful opening wedge, the sort of thing Giroud might think he could adopt without disastrous consequences. If he did, he would find himself being taken to the next step, and then a further one. These might finally solve some defense problems, but they would create a number of different sorts of remarkably virulent political enemies for Giroud.
It was a source of some chagrin for Therese that the course of action she was recommending to Giroud would probably destroy his political career. After all, if she simply left him alone, he might easily rise to the leadership of his party. However, having reached that pinnacle, he was a man who would be content to bask in his glory and simply remain in power; one who, even if he became Prime Minister, would never do anything to cause Herr Hitler any anxiety. Indeed, Therese was almost certain that, in the present environment, no Radical politician could reach that level unless it was obvious that he would never really do anything.
As Therese filled in some of the details, she saw that, even though Giroud didn't fully appreciate the consequences of the proposed actions, it was still part of his political make-up to know, almost instinctively, that the prize would be won by the man who committed himself to as little as possible while others supplied the fireworks. He would need to be re-educated. Therese intended to replace the politician Giroud would otherwise have been with one who would give up the highest political office for himself. He would instead play a critical part in the formation of a coalition, perhaps even one led by Leon Blum and the Socialists, which would see to the ramparts of France.
At that moment, four young men in blue raincoats came laughing loudly up and deposited themselves at the next table. The one who was nearly facing Therese was quite good looking with unruly black curls. He addressed her,
"Hi, doll, out with your old dad?"
Giroud was only a few years older than herself, but he did have a streak of gray in his hair. Therese, feeling him bristle at her side, replied spiritedly to the youth, not without an element of flirtation. The conversation continued to the point that she introduced Giroud as her cousin from Lyon. The young man nodded equably at him and, waving at his companions, explained,
"We've come down from Pantin for a meeting."
Therese had immediately recognized the blue raincoats as the insignia of the Young Patriots, one of the rightist leagues. While this particular quartet seemed rowdy in only a rather harmless and good-humored way, the leagues contained gangs of thugs with politically motivated leaders. The thugs liked to beat up people, and the leaders could generally think of some appropriate victims. These were often left of center deputies, one of whom had lost an eye. In February, another group, the Camelots du Roi, had even gone so far as to pull the Socialist leader, Leon Blum, from his car and almost kill him.
The leagues were admittedly a bit reminiscent of the Fascist roughnecks who had gathered around Hitler and Mussollini in the early days, a similarity that was certainly not lost on Giroud. If, indeed, these young men were to find out who he really was, he might be subjected to the favorite low-level punishment of the Young Patriots. This consisted in standing the victim up, one patriot on each arm, while a third delivered a hard blow to the stomach.
Therese nevertheless felt entirely in command of the present situation, enough so that she let her skirt slide up well above her knees as she twisted to speak to the other Young Patriots. They were, as far as she could see, ordinary boys from a factory suburb having a good time in the big city.
Paul Giroud was obviously not enjoying himself. Taking no part in the repartee, he looked only as if he wanted to get away as soon as possible. When he touched Therese's arm to indicate as much, she whispered that he was perfectly safe as the cousin from Lyon. She then rose to go to the ladies' room. As she squeezed by the Young Patriot with whom she had first spoken, she felt his hand moving very lightly across the backs of her thighs. Giroud, she knew, would see, and would be furious. She was equally certain that he wouldn't make an issue of it.
When she returned to the table, she happened to hear the same Young Patriot telling Giroud how attractive his cousin was. The latter was acknowledging these remarks with fairly good grace as she sat down and worked the conversation around to politics. She thought it would be good for Giroud to hear what the rank and file of the leagues thought.
The opinions weren't original, but they were put forth with enthusiasm and sincerity. Left wingers and Jews came in for heavy abuse, as did homosexuals. Therese had only to mention the Chamber of Deputies to prompt one to say,
"Those bastards of politicians won't ever do anything but talk. They've never worked a day in their lives, and they don't know how to do anything except sit on their asses. Guys like us do all the work and hardly have a pot to piss in. If it's left to the politicians, we'll never be any better off."
After a few minutes, Therese let it drop that she was acquainted with Colonel de la Roque, the leader of the Cross of Fire.
The Cross of Fire, another rightist league, rode motorcycles. They were also older and more violent. The Young Patriots were impressed. They did have some reservations about the Cross of Fire, who were in some ways their rivals, but all the leagues had more or less joined forces against the police in the monumental battle before the Chamber of Deputies some two years previously. On closer questioning, it appeared that they were a little afraid of the Cross of Fire, and Therese could almost feel the increased respect for herself. The next time she got up, there would be no touches to her rear end.
In order to create the proper impression on Giroud, Therese got the young men to speak of some of their exploits. Some were quite juvenile, such as taking down a man's trousers and kicking him in the rear so that he landed in a mud puddle. On the other hand, Therese was particularly pleased to have her companion hear that one leftist professor at a provincial university had been forced to burn his own manuscripts and papers in his back garden. Giroud exclaimed involuntarily and audibly at that, but one of the young men assured him that, as an ordinary working man, he had nothing to fear from the Young Patriots.
When the young men left, Giroud relaxed visibly. Therese asked him,
"Is that the closest view you've had of league members?"
"It certainly is. I suppose I ought to thank you for the educational opportunity. Do you think they'd have beaten me up if they'd known who I am?"
"Probably not seriously. Despite their views, there was something wholesome about them."
"Anyhow, you've helped me settle one thing."
"I had been beginning to wonder whether it was worth remaining in a coalition with the Socialists and Communists just to present a united front to the Right and their leagues. This little experience has persuaded me that it is."
"There's also the fact that, if the Germans do conquer us, they'll regard the leagues as they're allies."
"I suppose so."
"And then, with our army virtually disbanded, the leagues will run wild. Colonel de la Roque may well end up as our prime minsiter."
Seeing that Giroud's eyes were bugging out, Therese suggested,
"In addition to the measures proposed in this draft for a speech, there are some other things you could do to help the our army resist the Germans."
It was these other things which Therese was really interested in pushing, but she had to go slowly and carefully. Giroud knew her well enough to recognize that everything previously discussed was leading up to something, and there was a noticeable suspicion in his voice as he asked what those other things might be. Therese replied,
"You might meet with my father. He has some ideas that wouldn't cost you anything politically, but which could lead to something useful."
Therese was happy that Giroud remembered her father, evidently with respect, and seemed willing. She continued,
"Your time has nearly come, Paul. You're a man of the center. You're trusted just enough across the whole spectrum so that you can calm the exaggerated fears of both the left and the right. You can unite France against the enemy."
In all her career, Therese had never seen her words have such an effect on a politician.
It was while Giroud was in a euphoric state that Therese quietly asked him about his wife. While the question partly broke his mood, the resulting state was one in which there were few inhibitions. All the deep dissatisfactions that Therese had known to be present in Giroud's marriage came pouring out. On this subject she was sympathy itself. But there was still just the barest hint that a man who stiffened his shoulders in other ways would have nothing to worry about where women were concerned. Therese touched him lightly on the hand while still preserving a little distance in her voice as she suggested that they walk up toward St. Germaine des Pres.
They had been literally hours in the cafe, and it felt good to get up and walk in the early evening air. Therese's blue silk dress caught the attention of the other pedestrians, and she found herself proud to swish and shimmer by the side of a man who had run the gamut of a number of strong passions. Far outdistancing his fear of the Young Patriots, and even his strong mixed feelings toward his wife, was the passion of ambition.
Giroud, indeed, had lost his usual caution, and had suddenly become impatient. He had forgotten that the logjams in his present course might well break up without his doing anything. He had also forgotten that the nonentity without enemies was best suited to swim, leisurely and almost unnoticed, into the pool containing the greatest prizes. On the contrary, he now thought he had to do something, and he thought he knew what to do.
It was now time to either go home to dinner or place a call to one's spouse. Therese, because she supported her household financially, could easily decide not to come home to dinner whenever she wished. On the other hand, Giroud's wife was jealous. He must, not only call, but call convincingly. Fortunately, there was a telephone office near at hand in the Rue Grenelle. It was a rather elaborate affair with operators behind a counter and a row of cabins opposite. The procedure was to give an operator the number one wanted, and, when the call was placed, one was told to go to a particular cabin. The office was really intended for long distance and international calls, but local calls could be made as well. Giroud, with a laugh, suggested that they each call from the same booth with the encouragement of the other.
The cabins were rather spacious, about six feet deep, but with only one chair. The door had a small square window, and there was a light that switched on when it closed. Since Giroud's need was greater, it was agreed that he should call first. There was a definite feeling of conspiracy as Therese asked,
"Will I also be able to hear what she says?"
"Certainly. That's half the fun."
She then stood next to him, their ears pressed almost together with the receiver between them.
Madame Giroud was quite angry. Had he forgotten that guests were coming? What was she supposed to tell them? He told her of a meeting called at the last moment which had lasted late, and of another yet to come. His wife gave some vent to her feelings, not only for Giroud, but for the party and the whole damned government. Giroud turned toward Therese, holding the receiver away from both their ears, and encircled her waist with his free arm. He then kissed her slowly and elaborately. She responded, opening his jacket and putting her arms around him. There were occasional squawks from Madame Giroud to which her husband responded in a desultory way. The call ended when Madame Giroud, unable to get any satisfactory response from her husband, hung up. Therese whispered,
"I'll have to go out to place my call, or they'll see that the line's not engaged and wonder what's happening."
She quickly set herself to rights and gave her home number to the operator at the counter. After a minute, she was directed to a different cabin, and Giroud, without a word, followed her in. This was the exciting part, thought Therese. The first time in bed with a new man could easily be confusing, or even disappointing. Before that there was the time, sometimes only an instant, when each came to realize that the other wanted the same thing. That was what she liked most. The sexual activity might be considerably delayed, and, if circumstances changed, it might never take place at all. It was just now, as she stepped calmly through the door and heard her companion close it, that expectations were great without being at all definite. She had learned a little about Giroud during the previous call, but not a great deal. She expected the next one to be much more instructive.
Therese was pleased that Giroud did not touch her as she stood with the receiver to her ear. When Henri came on the line, she told him that she wouldn't be home for dinner. Not greatly caring, he would then have hung up if she hadn't raised a rather sensitive and complex issue.
Since his resignation from the ministry, Henri had earned no money at all. He had squandered on various eccentricities most of the capital of his modest inheritance, so that it now produced only a negligible income. He had, at the same time, become rather distant in other ways. She certainly didn't object that they had separate bedrooms, or even that they had no physical intimacy. However, without being rude, he had become increasingly formal, and even pedantic, in speaking to her. There was now only the most occasional flash of that public attentiveness and consideration which had once caused her friends to envy her so.
Nowadays, Henri would wait until she made minor mistakes, and then point them out to her. When, a month previously, she had had to dismiss a maid for theft, Henri had pointed out to her, with agonizing slowness and excruciating detail, a series of measures she could take in hiring maids which would minimize the risk of such misadventures. She had been on the point of suggesting that he interview and hire the maids himself, but a little of the old awe and fear of incurring his displeasure had remained.
Yet more irritating was the fact that Henri spent increasing amounts of money in more and more peculiar ways without first asking her. Just recently, he had announced plans for buying a summer cottage in Sicily, of all places. With her investments and royalties doing as well as they were, Therese knew that she could afford him even if he doubled or trebled his expenditures. But she was beginning to ask herself why she went on indulging him. This matter had been in her mind that very day, and she now tackled Henri on the subject of the cottage in Sicily.
Henri replied at length. The worst thing about him was having to listen to those painfully slow explanations. It was no good interrupting him. He simply droned on regardless. It came as a sudden surprise to Therese that her dress was hanging loosely from her shoulders, having been entirely undone by Giroud. Giggling foolishly and shamelessly into the telephone as Giroud lifted her dress, she let the receiver dangle from the cord as her head and arms were briefly enveloped in the fabric. When she replaced the receiver to her ear, Henri was trying to get the operator. Surprised that he had missed her, she spoke cheerfully,
"Here I am again."
"What on earth is going on there?"
"I'm in a boutique. I had to put the receiver down while my dress was removed."
"I didn't know that there were telephones in fitting rooms."
"I'm out in the main part of the shop, but there's no one around. Besides, I'm still in my slip."
Therese spoke, as to a shop assistant, and then, before Henri could get started again, she said,
"Dear, I don't care how nice Sicily is. I'm not going to pay for a cottage even if you sign the papers. If you've already signed them, you'll just have to get out of it yourself."
As she spoke, Giroud put his arms protectively around her and very lightly caressed and kissed her bare shoulders and neck in the way that she most liked. For the moment, the attentions of her new lover proved more exciting than the fight with her old husband. Giroud then called out,
"Madame, over here, please."
Henri broke off what he was saying to ask,
"Wasn't that a man's voice?"
"It's his shop, dear."
Therese then added, in a whisper,
"I think he prefers boys to women."
"Have you no sense of dignity at all?"
Therese channelled the growing excitement in her voice into an expression of indignation.
"Of course I have dignity. I could go out into the street as I am with perfect aplomb and stare down anyone who might look askance at me."
Henri let the matter drop and went on insisting, coldly and emphatically, that she would have to pay. Therese was about to reply in kind when she felt her slip coming up. Suddenly aware of the window in the door, she held it down with one hand while trying to communicate to Giroud that she didn't wish to be undressed further. It was one thing to neck like a teen-ager and another to be actually exposed in a marginally private place. Giroud acquiesced, whereupon Therese said into the telephone,
"Just a minute, dear, while I try this on."
She then tipped her head slightly back and kissed Giroud with all her displaced marital passion. There were a few squawks from the telephone as she did so, but, before Therese was ready to pick up the telephone, there was a loud rapping on the door. Therese peeked out to see the manager walking away. She wasn't sure how much he had seen, but surmised that they weren't the first ones to put the cabins to such uses. Giroud was extremely nervous, undoubtedly imagining what the newspapers might say. Therese quickly terminated her telephone conversation by repeating her views on Sicily and hanging up. Giroud then helped her back into her dress.
Once outside, Therese decided that they would have a nice dinner, and then go their separate ways. She also knew that they would eventually meet in a place more private than a telephone cabin, but no exchange between them would ever be as happy and spontaneous as the one that had just taken place. After this evening, there would be a great many things to worry about. Some of those things would come out only when they were really naked. Others would concern many third parties in almost innumerable ways.
Of one thing, Therese was certain. She would subordinate her own pleasure to the end of managing Giroud politically. Every nuance of the sexual activity to come would be adjusted so as to produce, in the statesman who emerged from her bedroom, a proclivity for doing exactly the right thing at the right time. Therese was prepared to undergo a number of indignities, both sexual and otherwise, if, as she suspected, they would aid the cause.