And I’m wearing my cargo pants.
She smiles at me, though, as I cross the street. She is not frowning at what I’m wearing. Yvonne has dressed for cocktails.
“Mon cher,” she proffers one cheek and then the other. I gladly kiss them and step back.
“Vous êtes magnifique.” And, as I say that, I note that there is a driver replete with cap in the front seat.
“On fait un petit effort pour l’Empereur, n’est-ce pas?” Dressing up for the Emperor is an idea that has never crossed my mind but has hers. I know there are Bonapartistes still in France, even members of the family itself. Could be that she’s Yvonne Bonaparte? I doubt it, but how can I know? I’m lucky to have her first name at this point. How would I go about asking her for her full name now?
Should I excuse myself for what I have on? Hervé advised me not to wear shorts and/or sandals at dinner tomorrow. Cargo pants in the Café Napoléon III? “Je pensais me changer.” There. I’ve offered to change clothes.
She just smiles. “Roger va nous conduire jusqu’à l’hôtel et puis il rentre au garage. Je prends la voiture demain pour aller à Ustaritz. C’était la voiture de mon père. Je l’utilise rarement. Roger le donne ‘a bit of a spin.’” She turns and gets back in the car. I hurry around to get in on the other side. Whoa! A car inherited from her father is an antique car, no doubt. Have I ever been in one of these cars? I think I have years ago. Plus. So comfortable to sink into the upholstery. Roger starts the motor, and the chassis rises. I want to giggle.
Has she hired Roger for the day? Who is he? If she rarely uses the car, why would she have a chauffeur? I’m full of questions but don’t dare ask her any of them. I have to wait for clues; that’s the genteel way. I guess. Anyway, it would be rude to quiz her on her status, her financial situation, her last name even.
But why? I bet Courtenay wouldn’t hesitate.
“Voulez-vous m’accompagner à Ustaritz demain?” The Ustaritz question.
Luckily, I don’t have to lie. “Mais non, désolé, je ne peux pas. J’ai d’autres engagements.” Well, I don’t have other engagements; I have one engagement. But anyway. She has turned to face me. I watch as her face registers disappointment. So, Hervé has not told her about the dinner invitation for tomorrow. Odd. But then, I knew this, because she would not have invited me to Ustaritz if she had known.
“Léonie sera très déçue.” She turns abruptly to face the back of Roger’s neck. Maybe hiding her own disappointment? Certainly not Léonie’s. So, she’s told Léonie about me being here. “Je lui ai dit que je vous ai rencontré et elle a été surprise et voulait tellement vous parler.” She turns toward me with a coquettish look: “Quelque chose entre vous qui a besoin de résolution?” She must see the panic I’m feeling, because she smiles and turns back to Roger’s neck. Panic. Not exactly panic; more dread. I don’t want to rehash all that, my abrupt disappearance from the farm in Ustaritz. Why do I have to be involved with all that again? It should be obvious, especially given all the terrorist stuff now. I don’t care if Léonie is disappointed. And the idea that I might have some wink-wink relationship with Léonie?
Damn it, why am I even in the car with this Yvonne woman? I can just ask her to let me out. We’re driving through town; I recognize where we are, not that far from my hotel.
But I don’t.
I drift back to Ustaritz, to the farm, to the sheep, and to the young shepherd. I am curious as to what has happened to all that. Léonie hardly seems like a person into animal husbandry. Maybe she is totally dependent on the shepherd. That would be nice. He must be glad to see Jordí locked up; I can see that fear in his eyes now. Okay, there are questions to be asked. And I am curious, but not that curious. Léonie is not a person you can frequent without entanglements.
And that’s probably true of Yvonne. So why…?
“Je comprends bien que vous ne voudriez pas aller à Ustaritz. Tout ça? C’est un peu louche.” She’s speaking to Roger’s neck and shoots me a glance: “Très louche, effectivement. J’aimais bien Alize. On voit que c’est une femme d’une certaine classe. Mais la cause Basque?” Sleazy, the whole Ustaritz business is sleazy, including the whole Basque separatist thing. Yvonne is fixed on Roger’s neck as she speaks. “Vous avez trouvé Jordí un mec attirant?” Jordí, a hot dude? She pauses. Maybe she’s listening for a gasp from me, but I don’t give her that satisfaction. I do watch her speaking now, but she keeps talking to Roger’s neck. She must feel me looking. “Je voyais son attrait. Je ne suis pas prude. Et nos deux bonnes femmes…” No prude, she could see his attraction, but two women? She lets out a sigh that turns into a laugh and turns to me. “Anyway, you were lucky not to get involved in any of that.” She suddenly pats my knee: “Smart man.” She looks back towards Roger and then out the side window. “We’re almost there.”
I suppose that was meant to clear the air.
We’re passing City Hall. This is where I’d gotten the bus at noontime. I’m feeling now that the time between then and now is a blank. My lunch in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was a footnote. Clear the air? It’s made the unspoken spoken, and I feel totally trapped. I’m entangled. I don’t want to be entangled.
If I had a thought of moving here – and I did – that’s over for good now. In forty-eight hours, I check out of my hotel. I take the train home.
I feel better already. Good thing, because Roger has just steered the car into the domain of the Hôtel du Palais and is about to deposit us at the front door. We arrive in grandiose style. People will rush out and open the doors of the car.
And they do.
The last time I experienced anything quite like this was on arriving at a funeral in the undertaker’s limousine.
Tata Yvonne immediately asks to be shown to the Bar Napoléon III. I follow.
We progress through the vast beige and gilt lobby past its mottled mauve marble columns in the wake of the bellhop, and are soon at the open entrance to the Bar. The contrast is startling, as if entering an Ali Baba cave. Walls are deep royal blue or maybe very dark turquoise with escutcheons framed in gilt, furniture beige leather, black leather sofa, scarlet upholstered armchairs: It is the colors of the French flag, republican colors, but no doubt the colors of the flag under the reign of the Emperor. These were after all Napoléon’s colors, republican revolutionary colors for an empire. I’ve never figured out how he managed to turn the revolution into an empire. I guess you’d have to have been there. Now, that’s a subject I could bring up with Yvonne should conversation flag.
We are seated in a pair of scarlet upholstered armchairs separated by a round table of veined black marble. The bellhop retreats. The young bartender comes forward in black trousers, tan bowtie, white shirt, and tan-and-black vest, his hair brown and cut fashionably short, aquiline nose, pale skin… and hands madame a menu and then myself. Where do they grow elegant young guys like this? He doesn’t look Basque.
Yvonne puts the menu down before her and surveys the room. Our table is well positioned. There are a few couples having drinks. There are two men at opposite ends of the bar also having a drink. I don’t recall anyone turning to see who has arrived. And we are now only being discretely watched by the bartender awaiting a sign that we are ready to order.
“Look, beside the door where we entered: the Emperor.” A grayish-brown bust on a carved red-marble pedestal. Oh, and how unmistakable with his flowing handlebar moustache and large goatee: Even I recognize Napoléon III in bust form. But Yvonne says this as if she has recognized someone in the room. “He doesn’t look much like his uncle, does he? And yet he transformed France.” I am not looking properly cognizant. A pained look in her eye, and she adds: “There would be no Opéra Garnier, the avenues of Haussmann, you do know that.” I do and I don’t. Of course, all that transformation was begun under imperial decree: How else? And then continued under the Republic after 1874. I at least know that date. So, I just mumble, yes. She is annoyed and picks up the menu. She sets it back down again and pulls a pair of reading glasses, wire-rimmed and fragile-looking, out of the pocket of her Chinese silk smock. It strikes me then that she has no handbag; a woman without a handbag. Odd. A cane, yes, although not today. Another odd thing. We crossed the lobby, she crossed the lobby, and there was no cane in sight. Did she forget it in the car? No. There had been no cane in the car. The cane is a prop? “Le bureau de l’empereur est devenu un zinc,” she says to the menu lying on the table as she adjusts her glasses. Yes, this was the Emperor’s study, his office. I don’t know if she likes the idea, finds it blasphemous, or just appreciates the irony of history. But this place hardly falls into the zinc category; it’s really and truly posh, no workingman’s café. There is plenty of conversation but in tones that make it white noise. I can’t help thinking of what would happen if Courtenay suddenly arrived and opened her mouth. Would everyone turn in horror? Initially, for sure. And then turn away and continue as before, trying hopelessly to ignore her voice, which cannot be truly ignored or blocked out except by headphones, and then how would they continue their conversations? Ha!
Courtenay is not there. And she hasn’t been invited or tipped off, has she?
I’m hit with the reality that I’m scheduled for an entire dinner in public with her tomorrow.
“The family still does designate an emperor. We now have a Napoléon VII.” We? This means that Yvonne is in fact part of the Bonaparte family? Or is it just speaking in general terms? Or is it a bit of Frenchified English? Why is she speaking English?
“Vive l’Empereur!” I say and she replies with a frown. She thinks I’m mocking her. Not really. Why did I spout that?
“Not so loud. These are matters left unspoken. And better in English. There is less chance of being overheard. Mes compatriotes are usually not that good in English that they can follow a conversation from afar.”
“Really? We’d be even safer in Basque.” I laugh; she does not.
“This is something for Léonie. Not for me.” She returns to studying the menu. The glasses give her a professorial look, not unsuited to her. But she is different looking down so studiously.
I need to do the same thing. It’s divided into three parts: Signature, Contemporary, and Forgotten Classics. And then you can just order what you want. I assume they’d easily serve you a Dry Martini. But you’d have to be careful. In the past in France if you ordered a Dry Martini, you got a glass of dry vermouth. But this hotel is American-owned and contemporary international, right? Still.
“Is there something that strikes your fancy, Yvonne?” This is the first time I’ve addressed her by name. She doesn’t seem to notice. And she doesn’t look up. She’s really and truly studying the menu. I can see she’s reading every description of every cocktail. I need to do the same.
I’m familiar with the Forgotten Classics, so not really so forgotten. I feel I should order a Signature cocktail, but which one? Going through their ingredients, they all seem a bit too sweet for my taste. So, how about the Contemporary. Oh, there’s one with tequila that has spicy additives, peppery things and even some concoction based on padrón peppers – grilled, a great favorite as a tapas. Decided. I look up at Yvonne. Clearly, she is not done reading the menu in detail. Funny, I really can’t picture her drinking a cocktail; she is so at ease with champagne, but then of course there was the story about Picon Bière, and the demi-panaché that she ordered at the l’heure de l’apéro Sunday evening.
She looks up at me: “Lynchburg Limonade?” Her eyes laugh before a kind of genteel chuckle sounds. “I can’t imagine that this is a forgotten classic, can you? I’m tempted. And then not. Are you a bourbon lover? I refer not to the royal dynasty. Je suis de tout mon cœur Bonapartiste.” She purses her lips for effect. Her lipstick is mauve. Lipstick. I hadn’t noticed she was wearing any before. Before I can answer, “What are you having?”
“I like bourbon, but I’m having the tequila cocktail.”
“Oh? Where’s that?” She finds it almost immediately. “That sounds good. I’ll have that too,” she looks up at me to express her harmony with me and then glances fiercely toward the bar. The bartender is at our table in a matter of a minute; his eye had been on us. Yvonne looks to me, a look ordering me to speak. “On prend tous les deux un Montijos.”
“Très bien, Monsieur.” He moves to remove the menus.
“Non, non, Monsieur, laissez-nous un menu. On prendra peut-être un deuxième et différent, n’est-ce pas?” She looks at me with a theatrically questioning face, followed by a serene smile. She might need the menu to order a second, maybe different cocktail?
“Très bien, Madame.” He leaves both menus and is off to the bar.
“Did you notice that the Montijos is only 10 cl? I wonder why? Many of the others are 20 cl. Is that a commentaire on the origin of the Impératrice Eugénie de Montijo? That it is quite powerful?” She smiles and then chuckles. A true chuckle. Her first that I’ve heard. It’s almost as if she’s had a sip of the cocktail already. “I think nowadays we would call Eugénie a bitch.”
I burst out laughing. I had read up on the Empress a bit last night before going to sleep.
“She brought about the downfall of the Emperor.” Yvonne says that emphatically. I nod in agreement. History would seem to agree these days. “She was a fanatical Catholic, typically Spanish, a lover, an adorer of the pope and his power. She bullied our dear Charles-Louis, Louis-Napoléon, into going to war with the Prussians. All for the fucking papacy.” She burst out laughing at the shock on my face at her choice of that word. “Ah, c’est comme ça. I don’t mince words.” The bartender arrives with our cocktails.
I raise my glass and she hers: “Tchin-tchin,” I say. She gives my cocktail a tap and then takes a sip. Her eyes light up. I nod. It is very good. I haven’t had tequila in a while. It tastes great.
How odd that she referred to Napoléon III as our Charles Louis. So, she is a Bonaparte? I find myself looking for Corsican facial traits. What are they? I really don’t know. Something Italian? Genovese? I glance over at the bust of “dear Charles Louis.” No, she looks nothing like him. “You’re taking a second look at the Emperor, I see?” She’s caught me.
“From here, he looks the caricature I have in my mind. I’d have to get up closer. Are you related?” I had to; I let the question pop out.
“Not directly, no.” She takes two short sips of her cocktail. “This is very good. That’s why it’s only ten centiliters. Good things always come in short supply, don’t you find?”
I chuckle. It is a nervous reaction. And she spots that. She looks at me with renewed interest and waits, though taking another sip and then another. Her cocktail is half gone. “I suppose you’re right.” You couldn’t have come up with a lamer reply than that. “I can’t think of any examples at the drop of a hat.” I’m feeling that tequila; she isn’t? This is a surprise. Yvonne can drink you under the table, as they say? I hadn’t noticed that when we were with Hervé and Courtenay. “So, you’re related to the Bonapartes indirectly?” I’m pushing it, banking on the tequila loosening her tongue. Why should I pussyfoot around with her? She asked me if I found Jordí sexy, right? Pretty indiscreet of her. Even rude.
“Yes.” She finished the cocktail and turns toward the bar. In seconds, the bartender is at our table. What an eye the guy has! “C’était délicieux, si bon que je prends un deuxième. Vous êtes magicien.” She is flirting with him so outrageously that the guy panics for a second before nodding his thanks for the compliment. He looks inquiringly at me.
“Oui, c’est délicieux…” No, I can’t have another one; I haven’t even finished this one, though it is half gone. What the hell. “Je ne dis pas non.” I won’t say no, I laugh. Ah, he likes that. He relaxes. With a merci, he’s off. I had figured I’d order something else, try something else. That was my original idea, that is, if Yvonne was a slow drinker or if she wanted another one. I hadn’t banked on her inhaling the cocktail. She’s bulldozed me again. In two generous sips, I finish my drink.
“I would have thought you were a drinking man.” Her eyes dance at me. I’m being teased. I’m not sure how to react, so I just laugh. It would be nice to reply that I never thought she was such a thirsty woman, but I don’t. “I’ll tell you. Yes, we are related to the Famille Bonaparte. My great grandfather was a commandant in the service of the Emperor as a young man. He married one of the Emperor’s nieces.” Which one, I wonder? “The family values loyalty. I am loyal to the family. So, there is some Bonaparte flowing in my veins.” She leans forward. “You are so American in how you appreciate knowing this.” I feel insulted until she adds, “But the Brits are much worse et néfaste. J’apprécie votre intérêt et votre sympathie?” My sympathy, as she puts it, now has her eyes glistening. Emotion fueled by tequila?
The bartender returns with two Montijos.
“You must detest the Brits.” She has taken up her glass, so I raise mine. We toast to this.
“Mais non. Les Anglais ont hébergé l’Empereur et Eugénie. The Emperor’s son died in the Boer War in the service of Her Majesty. The Emperor is buried at St. Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough.” She acts as if I know where Farnborough is. No clue, except obviously it is in England somewhere. But I didn’t know that Napoléon III was such an anglophile. “I can see why you find this surprising, given Waterloo. But France was violently republican, while the Brits love their monarchy. Eugénie was very at home in London and Chislehurst. You do also know that this part of France where we sit was once English.” I do know that. Aquitaine. I mention the word “claret.” She takes a sip of the Montijos. “Such a familiar and old-fashioned word for our Bordeaux, as if it is the only red wine of interest in the world.”
It hits me then that maybe Courtenay knows all about this Bonaparte thing? That she is like one of those heiresses from the Gilded Age described by Henry James, out to marry for a title? But then Hervé has no title. Yvonne has no title. Or does she? I’m about to ask her when I see her checking her watch. It is one of those very tiny watches that I can’t believe they make anymore; it must be an antique. Her wrist is little more than a bone covered in fine skin, delicate, as fragile looking as the tiny watch. I no longer have a watch. I always have my smartphone with me. I wonder if she has a smartphone. And then out of the other pocket of her Chinese smock she pulls one. It is smaller than mine. With one finger she opens it, finds an app, and begins typing a message.
I no longer exist for her.
And then she looks up at me in surprise. “Ah, excusez-moi. Je signale Roger de mon départ imminent.” She’s just texted Roger the chauffeur? She clicks the smartphone off and puts it back in her pocket. “I love this room, don’t you?”
“It is marvelous. I don’t know, really, but I bet it’s the best part of the Palais.” She nods in agreement. “Should I call you Madame la Marquise?” This comes out before I can stop it, so I just take a sip of my new drink and wait for her reaction.
“You could. You could call me anything your heart desires. Titles in France are only imaginary anyway.” But she toasts me and takes a sip. Checkmate. Do I care if she has a title? Yes, I am curious. I watch her smile at her cocktail glass. Either she’s enjoying toying with me or she’s remembering something I might like to know. I think of Alize being some kind of Basque royalty and not laughing it off. Can’t picture her behind bars. “I wonder if our Charles Louis made the fatal decision to go the war with the Prussians right here, with Eugénie rejoicing upstairs. These walls have stories. And I like the color they have chosen. I doubt if it is original. There was a fire, and then the hotel was enlarged to the size you see today. Charles Louis was long dead. Eugénie could well have been back in Spain at that point. I should know more, but I don’t. I’m not much of a marquise.” I’m waiting for her to laugh, but she doesn’t. The Montijos is perhaps making her gloomy? And yet she was very lively with all that Clos du Mesnil in her yesterday.
She has drifted into another world. I feel as if I’m no longer there with her. I can partially overhear other conversations of people in the bar – phrases, words.
I’ve seen the Bar Napoléon III. I’ve seen it with a Bonapartist. Done that.
Yvonne has become boring.
How am I going to get her home? She has no cane. Can she even stand up at this point? Can I?
“Cher Monsieur!” She might as well have pounded on the table to get my attention. “I have wanted to have a drink with you alone in this bar charmant – et oui, a few mementos for me. Can you guess the reason?”
Courtenay? The American connection? “I hate guessing games.”
She leans forward to get my attention, gets it, and now sits back. “Yes, it’s my nephew and Courtenay.” She says this as if she has read my mind. Of course, what else? “I’m going to tell you the scenario I see. Hervé marries Courtenay. They have an extended honeymoon in Saint Tropez, not here. She is already bored here, I’m sure. And then she will drag him to Houston. They will live in that slave-owner’s mansion. He will have a seat on her father’s board so that he has an office to go to a few times a week. And then she will get pregnant. They will have a child, maybe twins, maybe another child. Here, my prediction skills become poor. They are beautiful children.” She leans forward now again. “You know that.” I nod. I can well imagine. She straightens and takes up her cocktail glass. There are a few sips left. She takes one. “And then Hervé will divorce her. He will be sick of the bling life. He will hate Texas. He will hate living in the country that could elect such a grotesque president as Trump. He will come to Biarritz. How old will I be?” She leans forward again. “Please, how old will I be?”
“I don’t know your present age.”
She smiles back. Is she going to tell me? No, she bursts out laughing, loud enough so that I can see a few heads turn toward us. “I will be an old woman. I may be senile. I may be in a wheelchair.”
“Or Hervé may not last that long, not if they go to Houston. Maybe there won’t be any children.” Her eyes brighten at my take. She lifts up the cocktail glass to her mauve lips and takes the final sip.
“What a shame that will be, non?” We look at each other and start laughing, but quietly, a kind of bonding laugh. Yes, we both saw that same thing, beautiful children, yesterday when we both met Courtenay. Despite her ear-splitting voice. “You know, Hervé is not, as you might say, a gold-digger. He has little interest in money. He should have more, but he doesn’t. What he tells me he finds fascinating about these people, Courtenay’s kind of people, is their vulgarity, the way they throw money around, their horrific taste in everything, their coarseness in humor and evaluating people only in terms of money. He loves how they are in awe of him.”
I’m surprised. “Do you think they are in awe of him? Does Hervé have a title?” I’m joking, of course.
“Yes. He does. One of those imaginary ones. From his father. He is a marquis.” She relishes the look on my face. “It was very psychic of you to tease me with Madame la Marquise, you see.” I open my mouth to ask her how. “My brother had the title, not me. It went to Hervé. But you know mon cher ami, it’s all fantasy.” She stands up. “You will know a lot more after your dinner with them tomorrow.” So, Hervé has told her? She knew all along that I couldn’t go to Ustaritz with her? “I will be so curious.” She moves out from the chair. She is going to leave. I stand up. I see the bartender look at me. I hadn’t thought about this moment. What choice do I have?
“Give me a minute.”
“Do you have to pee again?” Ah, the crystalline laugh. I join in her laugh and head to the bar. I ask for the check. The bartender already has it. I’m aghast at the number: It’s more than my Sunday lunch. I give him my card, and he inserts it into the machine. I watch the screen. I type in my pin number. Out comes a receipt. The bartender hands me back my card. “Voilà. Merci, Monsieur. Bonne soirée.” I have stupidly put my wallet back in my pants pocket. Now I fumble and pull it out again. I turn halfway from the bar and slip the card back in and put the wallet back in my pocket. I look toward our table and Yvonne. There’s no one there.
She must be waiting outside in the hall: definitely indiscreet to watch me paying, boring. And no doubt she’s used to gentlemen paying for her drinks. I assumed we’d split the bill; this is the modern women’s-lib way, right? I feel silly as I take a last look around the bar. Unlikely that I’ll ever come back. It is a gorgeous room. It’s been worth every euro. I glance back to the bust of the Emperor, a kind of adieu.
Hervé, Monsieur le Marquis. Sort of thrilling. Matches his looks.
Out in the hall, I panic. I don’t see her. No, she hasn’t even said goodbye. And then I catch a glimpse of her way at the end where it opens to the grand lobby. She’s an impatient woman. She feels my eyes on her? She stops and turns to check on me. I stride down the hall after her. She waits.
So, the cane is her prop. She doesn’t need it. And two of those drinks haven’t made a dent in her after all, except maybe to facilitate her tongue. Even that. As she said, there was a purpose behind our visit to the Bar Napoléon III in her eyes. So, what exactly? To be a spy for her at tomorrow’s dinner? Hardly likely. She talked about having a drink in this bar as we walked to her building in the fog. Seeing the bar was connected to seeing what Hyatt had done with the Palais. That was it. We’d both seen the pictures.
She taps impatiently with her hand against her jacket. Hurry up!
She wanted to test her scenario out on me. No, she never asked me what I thought. She’s planted her scenario in my mind. That’s it. I will sit through the dinner with it in the back of my mind. And then in some way she will contact me to find out whether I find it probable?
“Monsieur, on vous attend.” Waiting. Impatiently.
I’m by her side, not exactly breathless, but I feel a slight rush of adrenalin. Or activated alcohol? “On prend son temps, non?” Are we in a hurry? I’m thinking of the long walk to her place. Will she hold up? Yes. I’ll make her slow down. Some people speed up on alcohol. She must be one of them.
We go through the revolving door.
I totally forgot her messaging from her smartphone.
There is the DS with Roger at the wheel. He starts the motor. “Au revoir, Monsieur. À bientôt. Ustaritz m’attend. Je dirai bonjour à Léonie de votre part.” Yvonne opens the door on her own and gets in.
She’s going to Ustaritz right now, not tomorrow.