The Seydlitz family, less the late-sleeping Erich, was at breakfast in the pleasant morning room of their little hotel. None of the other hotel guests were present, and Klaus had just returned from the lobby with a selection of papers. Charlotte was the first to notice the picture on the front page of Le Monde. It proved to represent one Jean Paul Serrault, and it took her only a second to recognize him as Marie-Claude's husband.
M. Serrault, though dressed as usual, had an uncharacteristic breathless look, as if he had been exercising. Not only that, his hat was on crookedly, as if someone else had placed it there. Further inspection of the photograph revealed that he was being led off by a policeman on each arm.
There was a considerable flurry of activity around the breakfast table, and Charlotte read aloud. It was, really, just another financial scandal. There had been some loans to a company which existed only on paper, but which had received some government contracts. Some high bureaucrats were implicated, but denied responsibility. Some politicians also appeared to be involved, but there was no indication that this scandal would approach that of Stavisky or shake even a shaky government. Only M. Serrault and some businessmen no one had heard of had been caught red-handed. There was also a piece in Le Figaro, on an inside page, to much the same effect.
When they had digested the news, Charlotte said,
"I suppose I'll get a call from Marie-Claude. I wonder what on earth I can say in a case like this."
"There's also the daughter, Annette."
"Yes. We saw her just a couple of weeks ago."
"It may be hardest on her. Perhaps you and Hans could arrange to take her somewhere, at least to distract her for a bit."
Hans said nothing, but didn't object.
It was only a half hour before Marie-Claude called, in a state very near hysteria. In addition to prison, her husband faced huge fines and legal expenses. Her own money had been absorbed by the Serraults, and would almost certainly be wiped out. She wanted Charlotte to come out with her alone to talk, but Klaus, beckoning from across the room, urged that Marie-Claude and Annette accompany them to the Bois de Boulogne.
Annette, always rather grave, seemed much as ever. She, Hans, and Klaus rambled enjoyably through the woods and around the ponds, even sailing paper boats down the little streams. Charlotte was inevitably drawn into conversation with Marie-Claude, and they remained within sight, but somewhat apart from the others.
Klaus took them all to a brasserie in Neuilly afterwards, and they didn't finally return home until almost dark. When they were alone, Klaus asked Charlotte how Marie- Claude was doing. Charlotte replied,
"It's very strange. She's near euphoria at times, and near despair at other times.
"Because her husband and his mother have gotten what's been coming to them for a long time. They've been totally ruined."
"But she herself must be affected."
"Her money is essentially gone. But she says that, for all the good
it was doing her, they'd already stolen in. She's really rather proud and
fierce at times, but then, when she realizes that she and Annette will
be reduced to some sort of lower middle-class existence, she's thrown into
Therese de Coulaincourt hadn't been terribly surprised by the revelations concerning M. Serrault, but she was surprised to receive a call from Charlotte Seydlitz. It turned out that Erich had suggested to Charlotte that she, Therese, might be able to help Marie-Claude with some of her problems. Klaus had then urged Charlotte to call, suggesting that Therese might be willing to overlook their political differences. Therese wasn't sure exactly what might be in the wind, but she was delighted to have a chance to talk with Charlotte. Without any hesitation, she dropped her plans and arranged to meet at a cafe near Charlotte's hotel.
It had always seemed to Therese that Charlotte was prevented from being beautiful only because she was too bright and cheery, and because she joked a little too much. This time, there was no joking as she explained Marie- Claude's difficulties. She concluded,
"Her immediate problems are mostly financial, and I did think that I could take her on as my secretary and assistant. I have a number of business interests in America and elsewhere."
"Was that Marie-Claude's suggestion?"
"Not exactly. But, of course, she's wiped out and she knows that I'm well off."
Therese decided to be blunt.
"Marie-Claude, at least by marriage, belongs to a set of people who often do illegal things. Her husband isn't an isolated case, and she herself isn't reliable. If she's in your employ, either here or in America, you're likely to be held responsible for her actions. If you want to give her money to tide her over her difficulties, that's safer."
"But rather demeaning for her."
"There's a better solution, and a traditional French one. This isn't the first such scandal, you know."
"Does it consist in going home to mother?"
"I see that it's also the traditional American solution. Marie-Claude's mother-in-law is much stronger than her son and Marie-Claude combined. If you give Marie-Claude money, that's where most of it will go. You'll end up supporting the whole establishment, and the old lady probably won't even be polite to you into the bargain. But Marie-Claude's parents are still well off. All she has to do is take Annette off to Bordeaux and live with them."
"You wouldn't be too unhappy to see Marie-Claude removed from Paris, would you?"
"No. I think she's a silly woman without character. She's not at all like you. I suppose she must seem exotic to you, and, of course, she can open doors that aren't ordinarily opened to visiting Americans."
Therese had never spoken to Charlotte in such a vein before, and watched to see the effect. Charlotte was perfectly cool. At that moment, it seemed to Therese that she was extraordinarily beautiful. Unfortunately, Charlotte's hand shook so badly that she could hardly manage her coffee. Therese asked,
"Am I being rude?"
"No. It's just that this is a difficult thing for me. I met Marie-Claude in America, and she seemed to me to be the spirit of France."
"In many ways she is. I shouldn't complain, I can be just as silly. We've all been silly about men, except for you. There's really nothing wrong with Marie-Claude except her politics. And it's not just politics in the ordinary sense. I have friends who are conservative. It's that love of Hitler she has. I hope you don't have it, too."
"No. I can see that I'd better explain about that. I've gone with Klaus to Germany a number of times in the last few years, and I've seen things I've never seen before. There's a unity of spirit and an organized energy that doesn't exist in America or France or England. It's terrific. I wish that democracy could produce it, but it apparently can't."
"Not in peacetime, certainly."
Charlotte, stared down momentarily at the table and continued,
"I was aware, in Germany, of a greater directed force than anything I've ever imagined. Of course, Hitler controls it, and he can use it for evil as well as good. He already has done some bad things. But I believe that he does want the best for his own country, and that he's in a position to achieve it. That's more than you can say for any other politician in the world."
"I'm sure he does want the best for Germany, and I admit that a reasonable person might wonder if the French politicians really do want the best for France. On the other hand, Hitler may find it convenient and expedient to conquer France. As an American, you don't have to take sides between European nations, but I think a Frenchwoman ought to be for France."
"Yes. Well, I'm pretty sure that Hitler wants to conquer Russia, not France. What attracts me really isn't that, or even the man himself, so much as the position he's in. There are all these social problems that have been around since the beginning of history that we're so used to regarding as unsolvable."
"You mean things like poverty, crime, and the abuse of women and children."
"Sure. Most people can hardly imagine a society without such things."
"Well, I admit that Hitler and the Germans are more efficient. They may well have better programs in those areas. But it's still just a matter of degree, isn't it?"
Charlotte hesitated, and then said,
"I think it can be more than that. But no democratic politician can do the things that are needed."
There was another pause, and then she continued,
"About five per cent of the people in each country are hopeless. No sort of re-habilitation will make them useful citizens. They were never habilitated in the first place. And most of their children will grow up the same way and turn out the same way."
Therese shrugged and replied,
"I suppose that's true, but I don't see what Hitler or anyone else can do about it."
"Hitler can keep them from breeding. I think he's on the point of having the really sub-normal people in Germany sterilized."
Therese felt a little dizzy. She was aware of Charlotte looking at her a little breathlessly, and she replied,
"He might just have them killed."
"Oh, there's no need to do that. I think he's intelligent enough to see that."
"You seem so very different from Marie-Claude and her friends. They're worried about communists taking away their money, not about future generations."
"The only thing that worries me about Hitler is his treatment of the Jews."
"That worries me too. I have many Jewish friends."
"So do I. It did seem to me just worth it if they had the freedom to go elsewhere, America for example, and were helped to get a new start."
"The trouble is that Hitler stirs up passion and hate. He may intend only to deport Jews and sterilize hopeless people in discreet clinics tucked away somewhere, but the masses of people he inflames are likely to cut their sexual organs off with kitchen knives."
Charlotte nodded silently, and Therese noticed that her hands were no longer shaking. Their conversation had certainly turned out to be civil enough. Therese was sure that she had made an impression on Charlotte, but wasn't sure how lasting it would be. Out of the blue, Charlotte asked her,
"Is Marie-Claude's husband being victimized because of her activities?"
"Possibly. He comes from a particularly corrupt noble family, and I don't suppose his dealings have ever been honest. Someone may have decided to put a stop to her activities in that way. I wasn't the one. I would've been more direct."
"Well, I suppose it won't hurt Marie-Claude to go back to her parents for a while."
"It won't be for so very long. She'll get divorced, and then it won't take her so long to marry well and recover her position."
After that, Charlotte, seemingly satisfied, showed no signs of leaving. On the contrary, she sat back, crossed her legs prettily, and looked around the cafe, as if to comment on the people she saw. Therese, not sure exactly how to proceed, waited to see what Charlotte's sudden change of mood would produce. She was then surprised when Charlotte began to speak of her young cousin, Hans, a boy whom Therese had heard about but never met.
Therese, in turn, told Charlotte about Armand. It seemed that they were
both unusual boys who could be expected to do interesting things. By the
time that they finally left, it seemed to Therese that, while Charlotte
really wasn't a bad person, she was extremely dangerous