War had extended one of its antennae even to the avenue Victor Hugo. It was a silent war in which the enemy, bland, shapeless and gelatinous, seemed constantly to be escaping from the hands only to renew hostilities a little later on.
“I have Germany in my own house,” growled Marcelo Desnoyers.
“Germany” was Dona Elena, the wife of von Hartrott. Why had not her son—that professor of inexhaustible sufficiency whom he now believed to have been a spy—taken her home with him? For what sentimental caprice had she wished to stay with her sister, losing the opportunity of returning to Berlin before the frontiers were closed?
The presence of this woman in his home was the cause of many compunctions and alarms. Fortunately, the chauffeur and all the men-servants were in the army. The two chinas received an order in a threatening tone. They must be very careful when talking to the French maids—not the slightest allusion to the nationality of Dona Elena’s husband nor to the residence of her family. Dona Elena was an Argentinian. But in spite of the silence of the maids, Don Marcelo was always in fear of some outburst of exalted patriotism, and that his wife’s sister might suddenly find herself confined in a concentration camp under suspicion of having dealings with the enemy.
Frau von Hartrott made his uneasiness worse. Instead of keeping a discreet silence, she was constantly introducing discord into the home with her opinions.
During the first days of the war, she kept herself locked in her room, joining the family only when summoned to the dining room. With tightly puckered mouth and an absent-minded air, she would then seat herself at the table, pretending not to hear Don Marcelo’s verbal outpourings of enthusiasm. He enjoyed describing the departure of the troops, the moving scenes in the streets and at the stations, commenting on events with an optimism sure of the first news of the war. Two things were beyond all discussion. The bayonet was the secret of the French, and the Germans were shuddering with terror before its fatal, glistening point. . . . The ’75 cannon had proved itself a unique jewel, its shots being absolutely sure. He was really feeling sorry for the enemy’s artillery since its projectiles so seldom exploded even when well aimed. . . . Furthermore, the French troops had entered victoriously into Alsace; many little towns were already theirs.
“Now it is as it was in the ’70’s,” he would exult, brandishing his fork and waving his napkin. “We are going to kick them back to the other side of the Rhine—kick them! . . . That’s the word.”
Chichi always agreed gleefully while Dona Elena was raising her eyes to heaven, as though silently calling upon somebody hidden in the ceiling to bear witness to such errors and blasphemies.