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Mistress of the Ritz

Chapter 1


June 1940

Her shoes.

It’s her shoes that worry her, if that can be believed. Of all the things this woman should be concerned about on this horrific day, it’s her shoes.

But in her defense, given who she is and where she is headed, her shoes are a problem. They’re filthy, caked with dried mud, the heels worn down. And all she can think about, as her husband helps her off the train, is how Coco Chanel, that bitch, will react when she sees her. How they’ll all react when she shows up at the Ritz with filthy, worn-­down shoes, her ripped stockings practically disintegrating on her shapely calves. While she can’t do anything about her stockings—­even Blanche Auzello would never dream of changing her stockings in public—­she is desperate to find a bench so that she can rummage through her suitcases and find another pair of shoes. But before she can speak this wish, she and her husband are swept up in the wave of bewildered—­well, what the hell are they now? French? German? Refugees?—­who are flooding out of the Gare du Nord, eager, terrified, to see what has become of Paris in their absence.

Blanche and her husband are part of the great unwashed; dirt and cinders have coagulated in pockets of perspiration beneath their chins, behind their ears, their knees, in the crevasses of their elbows. Greasy faces streaked with soot. They haven’t changed clothes in days; Claude packed away his captain’s uniform before they left his garrison. “To be worn again,” he assured Blanche—­or more likely, she suspected, himself. “When we fight back. As we most certainly will.”

But no one knows when, or if, that time will come. Now that the Germans have taken France.

Outside, the pair finally push their way out of the crowd so that they can catch their breath, try to corral all the luggage that is slipping out of their hands; when they packed, nine months ago, they had no idea how long they’d be away. Automatically, they look for a taxi in the usual line outside the station entrance, but there are none; there are no cars at all, only one lone cart, hitched to the saddest horse Blanche has ever seen.

Claude glances at the horse, takes in its heavy breathing, the foam dribbling from its mouth, ribs so defined it’s as if the flesh has been carved, and shakes his head. “That animal will never see another morning.”

“You!” Blanche marches over to the man sitting on the cart, a man with small eyes and a gap-­toothed smile.

“Yes, Madame? Ten francs. Ten, and I take you anywhere in Paris! I have the only horse and cart within twenty kilometers!”

“You unharness that horse right now. You bastard, that horse is about to collapse, can’t you see? He needs to be stabled, fed.”

“Crazy bitch,” the man mutters, then sighs and gestures toward the street, teeming with humans on foot. “Don’t you understand? The Nazis took every healthy animal when they came. This nag is all I have to make a living.”

“I don’t care. I’ll pay you twenty francs if you just let this animal lie down for a while.”

“If he lies down, he won’t get up again.” The man glances at the poor animal swaying on its crooked legs, then shrugs. “I figure I have three, maybe four jobs left, and then he’s done. And so am I.”

“I’ll do it myself, you—­”

But Claude has reached his wife and dragged her away, even as she still lunges toward the hapless horse and his owner.

“Shh, Blanche, shh. Stop. We need to go. You can’t save every broken thing in Paris, my love. Especially not now.”

“Try and stop me!” But she does allow her husband to steer her away from the station. Because one important fact remains. The Auzellos are still a long way from the Ritz.

“I would have telegrammed to have someone meet us,” Claude says, mopping his forehead with his filthy handkerchief; he looks at it and winces. Blanche’s husband craves a clean handkerchief as much as she craves clean shoes. “But . . .”

Blanche nods. All the telegraph and telephone poles linking Paris to the outside world had been cut during the invasion.

“Monsieur! Madame!” Two enterprising young boys appear, offering to carry the Auzellos’ bags for three francs. Claude agrees, and they start to follow the urchins through the streets of Paris, normally so chaotic. Blanche can’t help remembering the first time she tried to navigate the circle around the Arc de Triomphe, so many lanes full of honking vehicles going every which way. But today, she’s stunned by the complete absence of traffic.

“The Germans are confiscating every car,” one boy, a tall, pale lad with blond hair and a broken front tooth, says with the cockiness of a youth in the unusual position of knowing more than his elders. “For their army.”

“I would blow it up first, rather than give my car to the Boche,” Claude mutters, and it’s on the tip of Blanche’s tongue to remind him that they don’t own a car. But she doesn’t; even Blanche knows that now is not the time to make that particular point.

While the ragtag little group straggles along, she becomes aware of something else: silence. Not just from the crowd of stunned citizens stumbling out of the station, spreading out through the city like a muddy puddle of rain, but everywhere. If there is one constant in Paris, it is talk: Café tables crammed with volatile patrons arguing about the color of the sun. Sidewalks, too, crowded with Parisians stopping to make a point, jabbing a finger in a companion’s chest as they debate politics, the cut of one’s suit, the best cheese shop—­it doesn’t matter, it never matters. Parisians, Blanche knows too well, love to gab.

Today, the cafés are empty. The sidewalks, too, are bare. There are no noisy schoolchildren in uniforms playing in the vacant gardens. No vendors singing while they push their carts; no shopkeepers haggling with suppliers.

But she feels eyes upon her, she’s sure of it. Despite the warmth of the cruelly sunny day, she shivers and tucks her hand beneath her husband’s arm.

“Look,” he whispers, nodding his head skyward. Blanche obeys; the windows beneath the mansard roofs are full of people peering out furtively behind lace curtains. Her gaze is pulled toward the sky, caught by something shining, reflecting the light, up on the very rooftops.

Nazi soldiers, carrying polished rifles, looking down at them.

She starts to tremble.

They haven’t encountered any soldiers until this moment. The Germans had not reached Nîmes, where Claude had been garrisoned at the start of the Phony War. Even on the train to Paris, where everyone was terrified that they would be strafed by bombers as so many people who fled had been; even though every scheduled—­and unscheduled—­stop caused all conversation to cease as they held their breath, afraid of hearing German words, German boots, German gunshots. Through it all, the Auzellos hadn’t encountered a single Nazi.

But now that they are here, home, they do. It’s really happened, goddammit. The Nazis have really conquered Paris.

Blanche takes a breath—­her ribs ache, her stomach churns, and she can’t remember when they last ate—­and walks on in her destroyed shoes. Finally, they come to the enormous paved square of the Place Vendôme; it, too, is empty of citizens. But not of soldiers.

Blanche gasps; so does Claude. For there are Nazi tanks in the square, surrounding the statue of Napoleon. An enormous Nazi flag, with its twisted black swastika, hangs above several doorways—­including that of the Ritz. Her husband’s beloved Ritz. Hers, too. Their Ritz.

And at the top of the stairs leading to the front doors stand two Nazi soldiers. With guns.

There’s a clatter. The boys have dropped the bags and are sprinting off like hares. Claude looks after them.

“Perhaps we should go to the flat instead,” he says, taking out his dirty handkerchief again. For the first time today—­for the very first time since Blanche has known him—­her husband looks uncertain. And that’s the moment when she understands that everything has changed.

Mistress of the Ritz
by by Melanie Benjamin