Monsieur Rose
by Irène Némirovsky
(Narrated by Bridget Paterson)

Monsieur Rose (Mr. Rose)

HE WAS AS ALOOF AND SELF-CONTAINED AS A CAT. He had an easy life; he had never married; and he was rich. Ever since he had been a child his face had had a condescending, mocking expression that inspired respect. He seemed to think that the world was peopled by fools; that, in fact, was what he did believe, and there was little to be said in response. He was well into his fifties, with nice plump cheeks, a sharp, authoritative voice, a sensitive and discreet manner, and a pointed wit. He had a good wine cellar and gave excellent dinners for selected friends. To get to know a man, you have to see him at the table or with a woman he finds attractive: whether he was peeling a piece of fruit, or kissing a woman’s hand, Monsieur Rose showed the same fastidious, coaxing attention.

He cared for no one; he hated no one. The general opinion was that he was the most easygoing man in the world. He managed his fortune remarkably well. He had traveled a great deal in his youth, but this no longer gave him any pleasure. He lived on the Boulevard Malesherbes, in the house where he was born. He slept in the same room, in exactly the same corner that his bed had been as a child. His monotonous, reclusive life held joys known only to him. He approved of simple pleasures: long walks, strolls, reading, the same liqueur drunk at the same time every evening in the same quiet bar, children’s treats—fondant creams, chocolates, soft-centered sweets; he never picked out a praline rashly but, through half-closed eyes, would look thoughtfully at the pink bag and then, with a little sigh, choose one and delicately put it in his mouth. He thought that one should plan ahead, weigh things up, be wary of the unknown. He was happy to admit that this was not always easy, but patiently he tried to ward off misfortune.

His greatest concern was where to invest his money and how to avoid heavy taxes. He had anticipated the war of 1940 when it was still only a shadow on the horizon, before the time came when every evening, in every Parisian drawing room, twenty or so false prophets in tails and evening dress began glibly to declare that the end of the world was upon them. He had been taking precautions since 1930, although these were not always successful. “I’ve lost a few feathers,” he confided to his close friends in 1932, “but better a feather than the whole bird.” Very early on he decided to sell the buildings he owned in Paris, one of which was the house in the Boulevard Malesherbes. He was a little ashamed to admit that he was frightened of air raids. In any case, his reasons were no one else’s business. Quietly, without any rush, he finalized some deals, as always without making or losing too much money. He chose a delightful spot in Normandy, not far from Rouen, where he bought a comfortable and well-appointed house with a large garden. After the Anschluss in 1938 he had his collection of porcelain sent there and arranged it in two glass-fronted cabinets in the ground-floor drawing room. When German troops marched into Prague, Monsieur Rose had his glassware and pictures packed away; the books and silver had left shortly before Munich. He was also one of the first Frenchmen to acquire a gas mask. In spite of all this, he remained an optimist, and declared cheerfully that everything would be fine.

MONSIEUR ROSE HAD A MISTRESS, whom he had chosen astutely: she was pretty, elegant, silly, and well-meaning. Monsieur Rose preferred to forget that once, just like other men, he had almost let himself be trapped by a woman. It had happened in Vittel, in 1923. He had fallen in love with a young girl. For the first time in his life, Monsieur Rose’s eyes fell on a girl of twenty. She was the niece of the doctor who was looking after him, an orphan who had been taken in through charity; because they didn’t much care for her, they wanted to marry her off as soon as possible. She was healthy and brown-haired, with smiling and submissive eyes and a pretty mouth. He was attracted to her immediately; she awoke in him a curious feeling of tenderness and lust, along with a rather unsettling feeling of pity. She wore simple pink dresses, straight as a child’s shift, and a round comb in her hair. One day, after a charity event, she wrote to him, signing herself Lucy Maillard. Monsieur Rose had smiled when he saw the “y,” which she must have hoped would be an improvement on Lucie, a perfectly good lower-middle-class name: her bad taste enchanted him, he did not know why. It was naive, laughable, delicious: in Monsieur Rose’s eyes it symbolized a step toward her dream, a timid attempt at disguise, or a longing for escape.

When he saw the girl again, he teased her about the way she spelled her name, and about the red polish on her nails. She sometimes bit them with a little girl’s ferocious energy, then, remembering her age, blushed and asked Monsieur Rose for a cigarette. She did not inhale, but made a face and, as she blew out the smoke, pursed her young girl’s lips, which Monsieur Rose found as fresh and sweet as a praline. He did once kiss her. He had met her in the public gardens; it was evening and they were alone. He had kissed her very quickly, wondering how she would react. Lifting her eyes to his, she had asked in a shaky voice, “Do you like me?”

She seemed so uncertain about herself and wanted so much to be reassured, flattered, and loved, that again he could not help the pity he felt when he was with her. He said, “My darling.” When he put his hand on her thin neck, he could feel her heatbeat gently under his fingers. It made him think of the warm, palpitating body of a bird, and he whispered, “My darling little bird.” They walked on together and he kissed her again. This time she returned his kiss. Softly she asked, “Do you love me? Really? Really and truly? At home, nobody loves me.”

After that he invited her to where he was staying. His intentions were honorable; he wanted only to kiss her, but she looked at him and said, “If you were to marry me … Oh! You wouldn’t want to, I’m sure. I know I’m neither pretty nor rich enough, but if you wanted to …” Seizing hold of his hand, she added, “How I would love you!”

She bent her head and kissed his hand. Monsieur Rose was so overcome by this, by her perfume, by her dark hair, that he caught hold of her and, pulling her close, told her that he would marry her and that he would love her.

“Are you unhappy at home?”

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes!”

“Well, from now on you’ll be happy, I promise. You will be my wife. I shall make you happy.”

An hour later, when she left, they were engaged. But then he was alone once more, and gradually he came to his senses. What had he done? He wandered through the public gardens; the beautiful evening had misted over and it was raining. He went back to his rooms. He imagined his flat on the Boulevard Malesherbes with a woman whom it would be impossible to get rid of in the evenings. There would be a woman at mealtimes, always. A woman in his bed, whether he wanted her there or not. When he bolted his bedroom door, as he did every night, he was struck by the thought that a wife could perceive this simple act as unusual and almost insulting. He would never be on his own. He was still young and might one day be persuaded to have a child. Then anything would be possible: a wife, children, a family.

“Ridiculous,” he said out loud, “ridiculous.”

He fell into an armchair, closed his eyes while he collected his thoughts, and then reached a decision: “Impossible.”

With one bound, he was on his feet. Never had he moved so fast. He dragged his suitcase into the middle of the room and started to pack. The next day, he fled. It was strange. He forgot the episode at once. For the next ten years no thought of Lucie Maillard ever returned to haunt him. Even so, in 1925 he heard about her marriage and, three years later, her death. He had learned about both events through the doctor: the first left him indifferent and the second aroused only a brief feeling of compassion. But recently he had begun to dream about her, and as he got older he did so more and more often. Yet, thank God, dreams vanish quickly, and these left just a faint feeling of unease, like a distant migraine, which went away as soon as he had sipped a few mouthfuls of his weak morning tea.

Then it was 1939 and Monsieur Rose stopped having dreams. In fact, he slept less and less. How difficult it was, in this shifting, unstable world, to steer a course with certainty, as one used to do. Monsieur Rose foresaw disasters ahead. He regretted them very much, but as he could neither avoid them himself, nor help anyone else to do so, there was only one rational response: his only concern was for himself, for his own well-being and his own fortune.

He would not have admitted this to anyone; the feeling remained, unformulated and troubling, deep down in his heart. Monsieur Rose was not in any way a cynic. Along with everyone else, he talked about necessity and paid homage to the nobility of sacrifice; he was happy to talk, forcefully, about the citizen’s obligations and rights, but in his mind there was an essential difference between himself and other people: he left the obligations to them, keeping only the rights for himself. It was a natural reaction for him, almost an instinctive one. He could not help but relate everything he saw, heard, or read to himself; he saw the world through the prism of his own preoccupations. As these depended on the fate of the world, this was hugely important to him. Thus his conscience was clear. He was able to convince himself with no difficulty that it was Europe’s destiny that was preventing him from sleeping, and that by abandoning his peace of mind in this way he was sacrificing what he held most dear. What more could he do? He was no longer young and had no children. In any case, he was overburdened with taxes. That was enough.

One day he decided he must rescue as much as he possibly could.

How could he protect his money? Neither England nor America was, in his view, a safe haven. He deliberated for a long time, using all his experience, caution, and skill to make a careful comparison of every country in Europe, as well as in the rest of the world. None of them seemed to be well enough defended or secure enough to act as his strong room. Finally he chose Norway, where he had financial interests.

At the outbreak of war he was at home in Normandy. He drank fresh milk and tended his roses. When he reappeared in Paris in November he was able to smile at some of the stories he was told about other people who had left.

“Really, my dear fellow, you sent your wife off to the Hérault? What a strange idea!”

“So what did you do?”

“Oh, I just prolonged my holiday. September was so beautiful! I have to tell you that I feel perfectly calm, perfectly indifferent to whatever happens to me. An old bachelor like myself …”

Absentmindedly he picked up a paper bag tied with gilt thread that had been left on the table, took a sugared almond from it and, chewing thoughtfully, went on: “I’m no use to anyone, not even myself. Sometimes I feel I’ve had enough. Now I’ve seen two wars. This violent and bloody world disgusts me.”

And so the winter passed. It was now springtime and Paris had never looked so lovely. There was something melancholy, tender, and luminous about the atmosphere—such a rare and precious beauty that, in spite of himself, Monsieur Rose kept putting off the day of his departure.

He had, in fact, made very specific plans: he would spend this summer of 1940 quietly in Normandy. Then he would take a short trip to England. He had been feeling weary and overwrought for some time; the fighting in Norway had hit him hard. He hoped, indeed was fairly sure, that all was not lost. Nevertheless … Yet he had behaved reasonably, with thought, logic, and caution. But reason and caution were gradually losing their hold and their traditional value. As they came into contact with this insane world, they were overturned and came adrift—just as scientific instruments go off course in extreme atmospheric conditions.

Happily, Monsieur Rose’s fortune had been only diminished by the disaster in Norway; it had not disappeared altogether. And he still had his house in Normandy, his china, his pictures, his valuables, and his gold. Nevertheless, he felt angry and bitter, rather like a betrayed lover. Feeling as he did, he dreaded the solitude of the countryside. This splendid Parisian spring suited him better.

It took the night of the tenth of June finally to make him leave. He had slept badly; the sirens had woken him twice and, although he had not gotten out of bed, his sleep had been shattered by their wailing, by the sound of his neighbors hurrying downstairs, and by antiaircraft fire nearby. At dawn he fell deeply asleep and dreamed that he was looking for something, he knew not what, in a strange house, where the doors banged and there were wisps of straw and scraps of wrapping paper all over the floor; someone outside the room shouted at him to hurry up, while he searched desperately for a very dear and precious object or person that he could not find; but he had to leave, and in his dream he was weeping. He was in such anguish that when he woke up his heart was beating furiously. When he discovered what had happened in the night he became very thoughtful. It was time to leave.

THINGS WERE NO BETTER in Normandy. It was ridiculous, he knew. What danger threatened him in this peaceful countryside? In any case, it was not anxiety he felt but a kind of sadness. He felt old, far older than his years. He was out of place in this world. He was a survivor, in fact, of a species that had almost disappeared; his habits and his tastes were leftovers from another era. Something else was needed, he did not know what—youth perhaps? But he was no longer young. He had never been young.

And so he waited.

He did not have to wait long. With one bound the war pounced on Monsieur Rose’s peaceful retreat, like a wild animal bursting from its lair. Once more he had to leave. All his silver, books, valuables, and gold, which he had taken such trouble to arrange so carefully, to hang, label, or lock away, were now in chaos: some were buried in the garden, and the rest piled into the car when Monsieur Rose finally decided to go.

“We should have left yesterday,” said Robert, the chauffeur.

Monsieur Rose had employed him only since the outbreak of war as a replacement for the previous one, who had been called up. He was a short, ginger-haired, puny man who was exempt from military service. He drove well and did not seem to be dishonest. But Monsieur Rose could barely tolerate him and did so only because he couldn’t find anyone else. He spoke with a working-class Parisian accent and was offhand, if not insolent, in his manner. Monsieur Rose liked him less and less. He grumbled, shrugged his shoulders, and was almost rude when spoken to.

They drove all day. When evening came Monsieur Rose was hungry. He was surprised that, in the midst of such a disaster, he could feel such normal, healthy emotions.

“Stop as soon as you see a village,” he said to the chauffeur.

He could see only the back of Robert’s neck, the ginger hair under the blue cap.

Robert said nothing, but his big red ears quivered; his back seemed to hunch and the back of his neck to crease; impossible to know how he did it, but seen from behind, and without saying a word, he managed to express so much disapproval, such sarcasm, that Monsieur Rose went purple with anger and shouted, “Stop at once!”

“Here?”

“Yes, here. I’m hungry.”

“And what is Monsieur going to eat? I can’t see a restaurant.”

“I can see a farm. At times like these,” Monsieur Rose said sadly and severely, “one shouldn’t make difficulties.”

“It’s not difficult to stop,” Robert said with a smirk (the car had been stuck for an hour in an unimaginably bad traffic jam). “The problem will be to get going again.”

“Do what I tell you,” Monsieur Rose replied. “Get out of the car and run to that house. Buy whatever you can, bread, ham, fruit … oh yes, and a bottle of mineral water; I’m dying of thirst!”

“So am I,” said Robert. Pulling his cap down over his eyes, he climbed out of the car.