Chapter 8. Avenue Victor HugoJuly 4, Saturday. In a large apartment situated above Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris’s fashionable sixteenth arrondisement, three generations of women of the d’Auverne family gathered for family business among the antiques of the Belle Époque dining room.
“Now, before Jim and Pascal arrive, I want to talk with you, Sophie,” said her mother Martine.
“Oui, maman,” replied Sophie in her most demure little girl voice. She took a seat across from her mother at the dinner table.
“You, too,” said Martine to her granddaughter Marie Hélène. “You’re also involved.”
“Oui, grand-mère,” said Marie Hélène trying to sound adult as she dutifully sat down. Didn’t want another talking to about Greek lifeguards, though that was still high on her and Delphine’s list of forbidden pleasures to be dreamed about for the summer. They so didn’t want to show up at lycée in the fall with only little girl stories—nursery rhymes so to speak—to talk about, wannabe stuff when possibly real adventures beckoned.
“Now, I’ve been to my lawyer, Sophie,” said Martine. “He assures me I have the right to disclaim my succession to the title la vicomtesse. I simply have to disclaim title to the Normandy property, le vicomté,”mentioning the fief that was the land behind the title. “And I surely don’t want to live in that drafty old chateau; besides, the title to la maison has been in your name since you were born. Your grandfather saw to that.”
“I do not dispute your right to disclaim the surrounding properties,” said Sophie, referring to those few hectares that still comprised le vicomté surrounding the village of Auverne. “I’ve just asked that you do not do it now. I cannot succeed to le vicomté at this time and be known as la vicomtesse. My political foes would crucify me in the court of public opinion.”
“It could go to Marie Hélène,” said Martine.
“Well, yes. But it can’t go to her until she reaches the age of consent,” said Sophie firmly. “That’s the code.”
“Maybe we could move up the age of consent,” said Marie Hélène with a tone of tentative hopefulness.
Her mother and grandmother turned and drilled her with hard looks. She slunk down in her chair under the withering stares. “Just joking,” she said weakly.
“Not to be joked about,” said Martine.
“Mother,” said Sophie softening her tone, “I do want to walk in my grandmother’s footsteps…and in the footsteps of all les vicomtesses…I know that’s my destiny…just not now.”
“Well, I’m not of the blood…you and Marie Hélène are,” said Martine. “I always feel out of place.”
“How can you,” cried Sophie. “You are a mother, a creator of the blood…if it was just Auvernes marrying Auvernes it would have turned into a family of imbeciles generations ago…the entire vibrancy of the family comes from those who marry into it.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true…otherwise it would look like the French cabinet,” said Martine with a sarcastic laugh.
“They come by their imbecility through democratic means,” said Sophie. “It is a very legitimate form of imbecility.”
“If you say so, dear,” said Martine. “Sure makes opportunities for your paramour Jim. It’s like he takes billions from the cribs of babies.”
“What Jim does is harder than it looks,” said Sophie. “I will eventually stand down, mother, you know that. I’m never going to be what Jack calls a ‘low flying jimmy’ sitting on the back benches of some parliament.”
“Just what are you interested in?” her mother asked.
“There are only a few portfolios that interest me,” replied Sophie. “Ministries where I can help shape the future of Europe.”
“Not in the French government?” asked her mother.
“Lord no,” said Sophie. “The action has moved on. They’re mostly moving small pieces of cheese around on the chess board in Paris.” Sophie looked at Marie Hélène and said, “Except at the finance ministry where Pascal’s father works. The new economics minister Emmanuel Macron is launching an ambitious program of reform. President Hollande’s support for the reform is the boldest policy move of his presidency, one of the boldest since the De Gaulle era.
“A Socialist?” asked Martine skeptically.
“Yes, truly unusual,” replied Sophie.
“Why?” asked Martine.
“It’s probably Hollande’s only chance to get reelected in 2017; he has to put people back to work,” said Sophie. She added, “We should all listen attentively to see if Pascal has anything to say.”
“Pascal might say something important?” asked Marie Hélène, somewhat disbelieving.
“Yes, he might,” said Sophie.
The maid came in and said, “Jim and Pascal are in the drawing room.”
The three Auverne women got up and went into the drawing room, Marie Hélène first, then Sophie, followed by Martine. Jim and Pascal rose to meet the ladies. Sophie walked over and shook Pascal’s hand and then introduced him to Martine, “My mother, Martine d’Auverne.”
“Yes, my father spoke of you,” said Pascal. “He said you were the new la vicom…”
Martine held her hand up to stop Pascal with the stern injunction: “My name is Martine d’Auverne. Anything else is superfluous.”
“My mother uses no titles from the previous centuries,” explained Sophie with a laugh.
“I’m sorry,” said Pascal.
“You, of course, wouldn’t know that,” said Sophie with a forgiving smile. Changing the subject, she continued, “However, I do have the new memoir written by grand-mère and I promised your father a copy.” She went over to a book case and took a book from a stack of new books and brought it over. “But before I give it to you, let’s get a vicomtesse to sign it.” She beckoned Marie Hélène and said, “Please sign the book la vicomtesse and below the title your name Marie Hélène d’Auverne.”
“Oui, maman.” She sat down on the sofa and signed the book and handed it back to her mother.
Sophie gave the book to Pascal. “Here you go.”
Pascal said, “Thank you. I’ll give it to my father when I get home.” He set the book aside.
Martine asked Pascal, “You’re beginning lycée in the fall, I’m told. Please tell me about it.”
Marie Hélène stepped forward to listen.
Sophie took her leave and walked over to Jim and wrapped an arm around his and blew a kiss towards his ear.
“Finally,” she said.
“How long will you be in Paris?” he asked.
“Tonight,” she replied. “With you.”
“When do you have to leave?”
“I have to be in Brussels tomorrow night. Once the returns from the Greek referendum come in, strategy meetings will be quickly formed to decide on the next steps.”
“What might they involve?”
“You know I can’t tell you. It would give you an unfair advantage over the other speculators…”
“Investors,” corrected Jim with a laugh.
“But I can tell you the process…lots and lots of meetings…”
“Yes,” said Jim. “We track them closely.”
“I saw your partner Jürgen…”
“Yes, in Frankfurt,” said Jim.
“Yes, Jürgen and I found ourselves in the same high policy circles speaking with the same high officials…”
“So I gathered, but I he has told us little if anything…secret emissary work he says.”
“Yes, but when we were in the office of a high official talking the high policy Jürgen’s phone rang…I believe the ringtone said Geneva…and he excused himself and went to a far corner of the office…his face went pale…his eyes registered utter amazement…”
“I believe your hedge fund may be long in Greece in a very substantial way…”
“Jack’s in Athens working it all out,” said Jim.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” said Sophie, mocking one of Jack’s favorite phrases.
“There are grounds for optimism…”
“Well, that’s it then. With Jack in Athens, your investments are in safe hands.” She laughed at his attempt to suppress a pained expression.
“Well, if Europe gets out of it…so will we…with a big profit,” said Jim.
“Yes, I know. You are like the cat that always lands on its feet,” said Sophie, both warmly and knowingly. She walked over to the bookcase and got another of the new books and brought it back and gave it to Jim. “Here’s grand-mère’s memoir. It’s just published and this copy is for you.”
Jim sat down and held the book in his lap, looking at the title, La Mémoire de la vicomtesse Inès d’Auverne 1920-2015. Then he opened the book and looked at the picture in the frontispiece. It was a beautiful wedding picture of Inès and her husband Thierry d’Auverne taken in the spring of 1939, that last spring before the beginning of the war. The couple was standing before the altar in the stone Romanesque church in the village of Auverne surrounded by wreaths and bouquets of flowers, tall candelabras in the background. The ancient wooden crucifix looked down from the stone wall behind. Tapestries hung from the walls, contemporaries of the famous Bayeux Tapestry.
Jim turned to the back of the book and another picture in the same Romanesque church. The dark stones, the burning candles on high candelabra, the dark mahogany casket, the French tricolor on top, the small wreaths of flowers on the floor, and the three women standing on the steps in front of the casket in descending order by generation, all in long black dresses with the discreet white collars, the black veils falling from black pillbox hats over their faces, graceful somber apparitions of grief at the passing of Inès d’Auverne.
He remembered the scene well. The funeral took place this past January. He had sat in the pew and watched the funeral ceremony unfold in its time honored fashion, a vivid reminder to an American how anchored the French were to the Church, the land, the village, the family. Outside in the churchyard were the graves of generations of vicomtes and vicomtesses. They had all stood there in the gray drizzle as the casket was lowered away and the women each tossed a handful of dirt into the grave.
He had looked out across the churchyard and over the rolling fields to the English Channel in the distance. You could sense the great invasion that had landed on its shores over seventy years ago. In your mind, you could also imagine the long ships pulling away from the coast carrying the Normans across the Channel for their great victory over the Saxons almost a thousand years ago. It was a place of timeless valor.
He thumbed through the book looking for what was him its most insightful passage. He had first read the passage several years before when perusing the handwritten manuscript in its leather-bound covers in the upstairs library of the chateau. He found the passage and read:
In time of crisis, the cream rises. Great events call the talented from their youth to positions of great authority to master the challenges threatening failure from every quarter. I understood the power of the ambitious young aspiring to the pinnacles of power. If there were no vigor in the bed chamber, how could there be robustness of character in the cabinet room? My entire experience cried out—it was not possible.
Just then his recollection was broken as the maid announced that dinner was served in the dining room. He stood up and went into the dining room and was pointed to a chair across from Marie Hélène and Pascal. Martine sat at the head of the table, Sophie at the other end. The maid brought in some appetizers and set them down. She set down a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket and left.
“Pascal, would you be so kind as to pour the wine,” asked Martine.
Pascal stood up and pulled the bottle of wine from the bucket and skillfully wrapped a large napkin around the bottle and then walked around the table pouring wine in each glass. Jim observed that he filled his and Marie Hélène’s glass with half portions.
“Thank you, Pascal,” said Martine. She raised her glass as did the others and she said, “A votre santé.” Everyone took a sip and set their glasses down.
“Pascal, I believe your father is now working for the economics minister, M. Macron,” said Sophie, mentioning Emmanuel Macron, the young thirty-something economics adviser to Hollande and former investment banker from the Rothschild & Cie Banque.
“Yes, he is,” replied Pascal. “In a policy planning group.”
“Part of the group which designed la loi Macron?” asked Sophie, mentioning the major structural reform law of the highly rigid French labor law recently pushed through the legislative process by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President Hollande using the president’s decree powers in the spring of 2015.
“I better not say,” said Pascal looking down at the table cloth.
Sophie laughed. “Very well.” She looked around the table and added, “I used to work with his father Étienne when I was at the Matignon. A superb financial specialist.” The Matignon is the palace on the Left Bank housing the offices and residence of the prime minister.
“Well, I must say,” said Martine, “in this regard, Hollande has accomplished something that Sarkozy was never able to do. France needs to change or it will be left behind.”
“Yes, there was possibly too much talk and too little action during the Sarkozy years,” said Sophie.
“Bling, bling,” chimed in Marie Hélène, reciting the shorthand phrase used to describe the former president’s superficiality. “My favorite political slogan.”
Sophie looked at her affectionately and continued, “Just looking back, of course.” Sophie had been closer to Prime Minister Francois Fillon than President Sarkozy since Sarkozy did not delve deeply into economic policy, not to put too fine a point on it.
“My father has been very excited to work with M. Macron,” said Pascal. “He told me it was an example of analysis driving policy, not politics.”
Sophie laughed and said, “Yes, of course. But the ultimate politics—French presidential politics—plays a major role. If there is no improvement in employment in France—if people do not go back to work—the president will have a very difficult reelection battle in 2017.”
“Yes, I agree,” said Marine. “I greatly respect M. Macron’s background. He was an investment banker at Rothschild. As you know, now and again when I was working with my husband at Banque d’Auverne, we did some good business with the Rothschild bank. Always a profitable undertaking,” she said mentioning the family bank.
“Yes, the bank,” scowled Marie Hélène and turned to Pascal and explained: “If I don’t do well in school and don’t get into a grande ecole, then I have to go work at the bank. Boredom central.”
“It’s hardly punishment,” said Martine. “Your grandfather and I greatly liked the experience.”
“It’s not like being a runway model or something glamorous,” said Marie Hélène with a downcast look at all this grind-it-out, diploma-by-diploma distinction being piled high on her future by the expectations of her mother and grandmother.
“Well, M. Macron was a respected young investment banker,” said Sophie looking at Jim, “and then he decided to move onto something more socially significant in government.”
“I enjoy wallowing around in the greed of the private markets,” said Jim, putting his nose up in the air while looking at Marie Hélène and saying, “We can spend our declining years skateboarding in Monaco, dropouts from family expectations.”
“Can I water ski with the princess?” asked Marie Hélène with genuine enthusiasm. “She gets all the cool guys.”
“Anything’s possible from the vantage point of a skateboard,” said Jim with lofty words of advice from the adult world.
“Well, I’ll take greed over glamor,” said Martine. “That what puts a family into a chateau.”
“There will be a warm fire in the hearth when you get back from the public wars,” said Jim as he lifted his glass towards Sophie. “Courtesy of Anglo-Saxon greed.”
“Merci,” she replied. “I’ll park my skateboard in the foyer.”
The group continued chatting and bantering through dinner.