Monsieur Péricand followed his daughter-in-law's hands attentively. She was so distracted and upset that she forgot his sauce. His white beard waved about alarmingly. Madame Péricand came back to reality and quickly poured the parsley butter over the ivory flesh of the fish, but it was only after she placed a slice of lemon at the side of his plate that the old man was calm again.
Hubert leaned towards his brother and muttered, "It's not going well, is it?"
"No," he replied with a gesture and a look. Hubert dropped his trembling hands on to his lap. He was lost in thought, vividly imagining scenes of battle and victory. He was a Boy Scout. He and his friends would form a group of volunteers, sharpshooters who would defend their country to the end. In a flash, his mind raced through time and space. He and his friends: a small group bound by honour and loyalty. They would fight, they would fight all night long; they would save their bombed-out, burning Paris. What an exciting, wonderful life! His heart leapt. And yet, war was such a savage and horrifying thing. He was intoxicated by his imaginings. He clutched his knife so tightly in his hand that the piece of roast beef he was cutting fell on to the floor.
"Clumsy oaf," whispered Bernard. He and Jacqueline were eight and nine years old, respectively, and were both thin, blond and stuck-up. The two of them were sent to bed after dessert and the elder Monsieur Péricand fell asleep at his usual place by the open window. The tender June day persisted, refusing to die. Each pulse of light was fainter and more exquisite than the last, as if bidding farewell to the earth, full of love and regret. The cat sat on the window ledge and looked nostalgically towards an horizon that was the colour of green crystal.
Monsieur Péricand paced up and down the room. "In a few days, maybe even tomorrow, the Germans will be on our doorstep. I've heard the High Command has decided to fight outside Paris, in Paris, beyond Paris. No one knows it yet, thank goodness, because after tomorrow there will be a stampede on the roads and at the train stations. You must leave for your mother's house in Burgundy as early as possible tomorrow morning, Charlotte. As for me," Monsieur Péricand said rather proudly, "I will share the fate of the treasures entrusted to my care."
"I thought everything in the museum had been moved out in September," said Hubert.
"Yes, but the temporary hiding place they chose in Brittany isn't suitable; it turns out it's as damp as a cellar. I just don't understand it. A Committee was organised to safeguard national treasures. It had three sections and seven subsections, each of which was supposed to appoint a panel of experts responsible for hiding works of art during the war, yet just last month an attendant in the provisional museum points out that suspicious stains are appearing on the canvases. Yes, a wonderful portrait of Mignard with his hands rotting away from a kind of green leprosy. They quickly sent the valuable packing cases back to Paris and now I'm waiting for an order to rush them off to somewhere even further away."
"But what about us? How will we travel? By ourselves?"
"You'll leave tomorrow morning, calmly, with the children and the two cars, and any furniture and luggage you can carry, of course. We can't pretend that, by the end of the week, Paris might not be destroyed, burned down and thoroughly pillaged."
"You are amazing!" exclaimed Charlotte. "You talk about it so calmly!"
Monsieur Péricand turned towards his wife, his face gradually returning to its normal pinkish coloura matte pink, the colour of pigs who have been recently slaughtered. "That's because I can't really believe it," he explained quietly. "Here I am, speaking to you, listening to you; we've decided to flee, to leave our home, yet I cannot believe that it is all real. Do you understand? Now go and get everything ready, Charlotte. Everything must be ready by tomorrow morning; you could be at your mother's in time for dinner. I'll join you as soon as I can."
Excerpted from Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky Copyright © 2006 by Irene Nemirovsky. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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