« The Hidden River » by Storm Jameson
First published 1955
I feel I have to put in a word or two concerning that book and give the reason why it appealed to me though how it came into my hands was actually a matter of chance.
Four days ago, I drove over to my Mum’s place. It doesn’t sound like much but I was in fact feeling queasy about making the small trip. It had been a month since I had last seen her and although she was coping very well, the current lockdown was a drag on her, as on everybody else of course, but then she is 82.
I hate to confess it but I was afraid of being stopped by the police. Even to me, that kind of confession sounds weird and over-exaggerated. But we had been on lockdown for long enough now for me to wonder if that measure had been implemented only as a matter of national security.
My answer is No.
But I won’t elaborate. Let it suffice to say that within less than 3 weeks, the French police had collected 78 million € in fines, enough to provide our French political elite with free cocaine for at least a year or two.
We are supposed to have an Ausweis to show the police, although its official name is « Autorisation de sortie » which we sign ourselves. So in fact we allow ourselves the right of getting out on 4 different occasions. One is to get food ; another is to go and see your aged parents. So I shouldn’t have been afraid but I was. The police will look into your bags to make sure your foodstuffs can be considered as staple goods. You can be fined for having bought bread or sanitary tampons. You can be fined for having gone to look after your cattle. On Ile-de-Ré, a man was forced by the police to turn back, preventing him to bid farewell to his dying father. An old woman was fined because she had waved hello to her husband sitting by the window in his nursing home. The testimonies are endless.
That may explain why at the end of the day, I felt I had to bolt. Funnily enough, we don’t have curfews but nightfall might be just another reason to get stopped by the police, and then fined in due course. I had nothing to read, I told my Mum and could I borrow two of her books ? Of course, I could, she said. So off to her study I went and grabbed two hard cover novels on one of the English bookshelves. I didn’t flip through the pages, just chose them at random and was gone.
As it turned out, the first one I read was « The Hidden River » by Storm Jameson. It deals with the aftermath of WWII and I instantly related to Elizabeth’s feeling of wanting «to get back to normal».
Here is the story. Six years after WWII, in France.
A young English man, by the name of Adam Hartley, was driving through the Loire countryside on his own.
He was no common traveller. His goal was to reach the Monnerie’s family manor before nightfall. On his way, his mind kept going back to the Monneries and the war.
During WWII, because he spoke fluent French, he had been sent as a liaison officer to France. There he was hidden during five days in the attic of the Monneries. If he was coming back to it now, on a social visit, it was not only to renew old friendship.
For the last six years, Robert’s arrest had been on the back of his mind. What if …? had been the relentless question. What if he, Adam, had let out a word he should not have ? What if he had unvoluntarily talked too much, given him away ?
Adam knew what to expect on arrival. Or so he thought.
There was old Daniel Monnerie, Jean’s uncle, an aesthete whose main goal in life had been that of an idle country gentleman. The war bothered him little : he viewed it as an inconvenience, a brutal and ugly thing that had nothing to do with him. He bore the unpleasantness of the German occupation well, mostly ignoring it, even relishing it at last when an old friend of his, a German officer, was posted in the area. He would invite him to the manor, enjoy his company, the music and the talk. Nothing was said of the war, which in fact didn’t exist so much for Daniel Monnerie. He never knew that an English soldier had been hiding in his own attic. Everybody spared him the trouble or maybe simply didn’t trust him with the knowledge.
One day however his peaceful life almost wavered. He had run into the old parish priest, Father Baussan, and was forced to talk to him. To his amusement, he found out that to Father Baussan, indifference was a sin. It would not have bothered him, had Father Baussan not had been arrested as a freefighter a few days afterwards.
Daniel Monnerie felt he might help Father Baussan by inviting his German friend and the Gestapo officer to dinner. To his dismay, the Gestapo man could only speak of the greatness of the Fürher. When he left, he made no secret it was to attend to Father Baussan’s torture session.
The war went on without Daniel Monnerie’s being much concerned. He could hardly understand why he was arrested after the war, having committed no crime.
Then there was Jean Monnerie himself, a person he liked and trusted. Jean had been involved in the resistance early in the war. He had been 28 at the time. But Adam had never met Jean’s younger brother, François, a sixteen-year old student then living in Paris. And there was Elizabeth, a distant relative, living on the premises, who he vaguely remembered as a tomboy, an eighteen-year old lady who had been engaged to Robert Régnier.
Of course, there was Robert himself, a young man of 21, a worthy and dedicated resistant he had come to like very much.
Last but not least was Cousin Marie, Robert’s mother. Robert had been very young when he lost his Dad. Marie Régnier had then come to the Monneries and had soon taken over more as a foster mother than a mere cousin. François, the youngest, simply called her Mamma and even Jean looked up to her as some sort of a mother figure. She had taken care of the three boys, making no differences between her son and the other two. When Elizabeth, a distant relative, had come to the manor, Cousin Marie had approved of her engagement to her son.
Things started to go wrong as soon as Adam got there. First, Jean Monnerie was distracted and could not avoid showing how untimely his arrival was. After the war, Daniel Monnerie had been arrested for collaboration with the enemy, and jailed. Sick and dying, he had just been released and was due home any moment. Cousin Marie had decided to go. She had never forgiven Daniel for having slept with the enemy – so to speak – while her own son was tortured to death and she definitely would not stay in a house Daniel would occupy. If that hadn’t been enough, Jean had recently become engaged to Elizabeth who was trying to put off their marriage as much as she could. But what bothered Adam most was Jean’s refusal to mention the betrayal that had led to his cousin Robert’s death at the hands of the Nazis. His whole point seemed to have been « Let’s not talk of bygones ».
When Daniel Monnerie arrived, the library had been turned into a room for his comfort as he was too weak to climb up the stairs. Weak as he was, it didn’ t prevent him from spitefully blasting what little comfort Jean had : first he told him that François had been involved in Robert’s death and secondly that it was obvious that Adam had fallen in love with his fiancee.
It still would have been okay, had Cousin Marie not overheard the conversion. She became relentless, wanting to know what part François had played in her son’s death. Daniel Monnerie was a selfish, self-centered old man whose maliciousness survived him. He was found dead in the morning.
François denied everything at first in an easy, offhand manner. But Uncle Daniel was not the only one to accuse him. Adam was positive François was the young man he had almost run into in Orléans while waiting for Robert on the day of his disappearance.
Forced to acknowledge the fact, François brushed it off, almost playfully. Okay, he had made a mistake and so what ? Yes, he had befriended a young German by the name of Helmut who had convinced him to turn Robert over to him. But it had all been a game really, Helmut had promised that he would not hurt Robert, just take him out of harm’s way. How was he to know ?
François showed no remorse and no guilt. Probing into the matter, his elder brother found out it might not have been the first time François had betrayed his closest friends. The two people François was supposed to have run an underground press with in Paris had also been arrested, leaving Robert off the hook, unscathed.
Cousin Marie wanted to turn François over to the authorities. He had to be arrested and tried without delay.
When Elizabeth, Marie and Adam left the room, François pleaded with his brother. He would go off to New York City, start a new life and redeem himself.
The rest of the story is gloomy, almost sickening. Jean poisoned his younger brother out of the certainty that François could never be redeemed. He would kill again, not wilfully perhaps but out of vanity and childishness, if only to please the wrong kind of people he was mixing with. He had had no qualms about betraying his cousin, a young man who looked upon him as a brother. He would have betrayed the whole family, had he known Adam was in the house at the time. But there might have been another reason. Cousin Marie would neither forgive nor forget. She would have denounced him to the police. François could flee but he was not fit for survival. He would have been arrested and executed in due course. So maybe Jean thought that for François, it was an easy way out. Hard to tell.
In the end, Jean is gone. Adam and Elizabeth take themselves off to England and Cousin Marie remains all alone in a deserted manor.
François and Daniel are distasteful characters but Cousin Marie beats them all. There is something loathsome in the way she looms over everybody like a revengeful and heartless Nemesis. She has no sympathy for anyone, not even for Father Baussan’s pain who survived the Dachau nightmare a broken man. She is rude to Adam from day one. When Elizabeth’s friend dies in childbirth, she scorns Elizabeth’s grief : the husband on coming home will have a healthy baby boy and that all that matters, the dead mother will surely be replaced by some other woman in a year or two. Elizabeth herself recoils at the thought of marrying a man she considers like a brother ? What nonsense ! A brotherly attitude in a husband is just fine and why should a penniless Elizabeth want more out of life ?
Even Robert seems more real in Adam’s memory than in his mother’s. And the joy she expressed at François‘s death is disgraceful, her being so glad, as she put it, « that François had taken his own life ».
Left alone, she remained bewildered as if she had never expected another death or two would shatter the rest of her life. Her closing the shutters at night, as a last attempt at normality, is telling. And when she realized the barren environment she was locking herself into would last forever, «she opened the shutter a few inches, then widely, (…) letting into the room the valley, the Loire itself, solitude, and the light »
And I do not feel the light here is in anyway comforting. Maybe it comes too late in the day. For them all, and for me.
Laurence Esbuiée© 23 avril 2020