Old Aristocrats

The Aristocrats

 

The Baroness, thin, blond, pale skinned, was sitting with us outside a country restaurant on the Swiss border. She had not changed since the last time I saw her, years ago. As always, she was dressed in classical fashion. We were waiting for the waitress. The Baroness was our guest. Her husband, Maurice de Reinach Hirtzbach, had died a year earlier. A few lazy puffs of clouds hung in the sky above our heads. It was late spring. It was lunchtime. Madame la Baroness de Reinach’s first name was Marie-Thérèse. Our two families had been friends for more then fifty years. It was only after the death of the Baron Maurice de Reinach that my mother allowed herself to call the Baroness by her first name. Or maybe the Baroness encouraged my mother to do so. To my father and I, she remained “Madame de Reinach.” For us, calling her by her first name was inconceivable.

At one point, over the appetizers, she remembered her late husband. I was surprised when she described the Baron shamelessly as follows: ‘His elbow on the edge of the armchair, supporting his chin slowly slipping off the heel off his hand, he kept reassuring those present, repeating at intervals: “I am not drunk….” ‘ There was sadness in her voice. She made it clear that he had passed away from this unspoken disease due to alcohol. I was shocked. I realized that aristocrats also have ordinary problems.

My father and Maurice de Reinach had become very close fiends during the military service. They were both born in 1911. By 1929 at age 18, they were in the army together, for compulsory military service. The government does not separate recruits according to their social rank. It was years later that I understood how this friendship had started. My father had made life-long friends in the army. I realize now that those ties started ten years before the onset of World War II. Maurice de Reinach was one of those old friends. He was tall, standing straight, shoulders back and he was proud. He had a pale matte complexion. Like all French men of that period, his thick silver hair was combed back. His aristocratic mustache was well groomed and his suits were impeccable. He spoke clearly and with assurance, plunging his blue eyes directly into mine. His daughter, Beatrice, was my age. We both attended Saint Ursula School. He was from our area of the country, whereas his wife was from the west. She did not speak the dialect.

They lived in Hégenheim, a village in France, on the border, close to Basel, Switzerland. We visited them frequently. The children were our age, four boys and Beatrice. One day, as we arrived for a visit, my mother pointed to the roof, telling me that there were three attics under that roof. I detected some envy in that information. The great stone mansion stood in the middle of a park, surrounded by huge dark hundred year-old-trees. Farther out were the farms and fields belonging the baron.

The Baron often visited my father in his library. One evening, alerted by the tune in my father’s voice, I overheard him telling my mother that the Baron de Reinach, as we all called him, had confided in him. The Baron had found a way to trick the authorities and at the same time appease at this conscience. It was about poaching. The Baron was poaching game on his own land. Poaching was illegal. Doing something illegal was a sin. Poaching was a sin. The Baron was Catholic. Being Catholic he was obligated to confess his sins to the priest. In Hégenheim of course the priest knew him. Maurice de Reinach, the Baron, above all wanted to avoid the shame of poaching his own pheasants and rabbits. In Basel the priest spoke only German. The Baron de Reinach confessed in French to the German-speaking priest. He came back with a clear conscience.

 

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