I peer out the window down the road at the Hôtel des Réservoirs. The six-story building, with its aged yellow facade and arched doorway, stands behind hastily erected barbed wire, giving it the feel of a fortress or prison, depending upon whether one is to be kept in or out. Either way, it looks as if the German delegation is to be quarantined, defeat a virus that no one wants to catch. Apple blossoms frame the hotel in a defiant lush pink.
The road leading to the guarded hotel gate is lined three deep with onlookers, reporters and photographers and townspeople and those who had packed the trains down from the city. There is no official party as there had been when Wilson arrived, no military band or other pageantry to herald the Germans’ arrival—just hordes of the genuinely curious, waiting to see those who are to be held responsible for the world’s suffering.
I turn back into the room where Papa sits working at his desk, oblivious to the spectacle taking place across the road. Our apartment in Versailles is located not in a hotel, but a tall row house that has been converted into apartments to accommodate the sudden influx. It is laid out much like our previous quarters in the city, two bedrooms adjoined by a common space. Everything, from Papa’s piles of books to the photograph of my mother on the mantelpiece, is in the same location as in Paris. It is as if we travel in a shell, I’d decided when we first settled in, re-creating the identical living environment for ourselves in each city. But the rooms here are smaller and oddly shaped, the parlor something of a trapezoid, walls with faded flowered paper slanting inward from the windows.
“They should be here soon,” I say. Papa does not answer. He had not wanted to be here today—or at all for that matter. He had tried to lure me away with an excursion to Paris. But I had insisted that we stay, despite his derisiveness of what he called the “circus of shame.” He does not stand at the window himself, but busies himself at the desk. How can he not look?
The topic had come up at a dinner party three weeks earlier when it was announced that the Germans had finally been summoned to the conference. “You’ll move over to Versailles now, of course, and stay with the delegation?” someone asked Papa. Until that point we had enjoyed our neutral status, not being identified too closely with any one camp, including the defeated. But when a telegram came from the head of the delegation inviting us to relocate, Papa could avoid it no longer. So we left the city for this dreary little suburb of Versailles, though he still commutes almost daily to the conference proceedings at the ministry in Paris.
Our apartment is just across the road and down a bit from the hotel. The location, close by the German residence but not within, reflects the delicate role Papa must play. The conference does not trust him because he is German. The German delegation will surely not accept Papa because he has been part of the conference. We are an island.
“I’m going to market,” I say, unable to stand the confinement of the apartment any longer and eager to get a closer view. Unlike the hotel in Paris, there’s no kitchen to deliver our meals and the town’s few remaining restaurants are dismal affairs, so it falls to me to procure what we need.
I hold my breath, waiting for Papa to see through my excuse—the shops are likely to be closed now with the arrival. But he does not. Papa has been more preoccupied than ever these past few months since the attempt on Clemenceau’s life. Though the French prime minister recovered quickly and the story faded from the newspapers, it continued to hang over Papa and me, a silent dagger.
I almost told Papa that night that it was my fault. “Quite a shock,” he’d remarked. “Clemenceau will be fine, even joked as they were taking him to the hospital about the madman’s poor marksmanship. But it is a sobering reminder to us all that even while we are here working toward the new world, there are those who would derail it.” His brow furrowed.
“What is it? Is there something more?”
“Not at all.”
“You don’t need to shield me. I’m not a child.”
He smiled. “No, of course not. I never like to trouble you and give pause to your beautiful smile, even for a moment. It’s just that this may cause trouble for me. Cottin—the would-be assassin—was upset about French opposition to the Pan-Slavic state. We had been trying to keep it a secret so the media controversy would not keep us from getting the matter done. The assassination attempt, the timing of it, gives rise to suspicions that someone had leaked information about the vote.”
“But surely no one could think that you had a role.”
Papa, the only German detailed to the conference, not to mention a Jew, feared himself a likely scapegoat. I watched his face, wondering if he suspected me, or was perhaps even hinting. But he could not imagine that I would have betrayed him in such a fashion. “I appreciate your outrage on my behalf. It will be fine.”
Though the accusations had never become overt, there had been a quiet distancing between Papa and some of the other conference advisors that made our sojourn to Versailles almost a relief.
Studying Papa now, my guilt rises anew. Only I know the truth—that it was my careless remark, overheard at the bar, which gave Cottin the information to act. I have never been good at keeping secrets from Papa and I have struggled for months not to blurt out what I had done, to seek his forgiveness. But he has enough to deal with right now and I won’t strain his health further.
Down on the street, the morning air is warming and a bit stale with gutter stench. Across the road the hulking Versailles palace sits with its endless fountains and gardens, swallowing the tiny town below.
I walk around the side of the apartment building to the garden I planted. When we’d arrived, the dirt patch had been overrun by weeds. “I could tend to it,” I suggested. “Make the place come back to life a little.”
“A fine idea,” Papa said quickly. Gardening, if done properly without too much strain, is an acceptable avocation for women. “Though we’re hardly likely to be here long enough to see things grow.”
“Then it will b