The last time I saw M. Renoir, he was sitting beneath an umbrella at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, leisurely drinking coffee and glancing through a newspaper. M. Renoir, every inch the French gentleman with closely trimmed mustache and beard–gray streaking at his temples–was usually impeccably dressed, his hat and cane placed casually upon the seat of an adjacent chair. I say “usually” since, on this occasion, he appeared not altogether unlike a much poorer and less refined version of himself. I was, I confess it, rather taken aback at his appearance.
It was early spring, 1939, and I was a reporter for a low-circulation American magazine. I had known M. Renoir for approximately two years after accidentally–and literally–bumping into him on the sidewalk outside Maxim’s. He was exiting, and I, lowly creature that I was and unable to afford the luxury of that establishment, was carrying a boxed dinner back to my hotel and, I admit it, not paying strict attention to where I was going when we collided and my dinner was lost to the sidewalk.
When I say M. Renoir was a gentleman, I do not exaggerate. He insisted the smash-up was absolutely his own fault and, accepting no excuses, ferried me straight away into Maxim’s where he provided a most unforgettable replacement for my lost dinner and an evening I will not soon forget. There, we shared wine and conversation well into the evening, enjoying each other’s company immensely. He seemed unusually interested in my particular occupation, and in America as a whole, and not at all bored with my stories and descriptions of people and places I knew there. Later, he confided (upon my prompt), that he was, to his knowledge, no relation whatsoever to the famous artist whose name he shared, and I, looking for something intelligent to say, allowed as how he was lucky not to be burdened with a name like Arnold or Brutus, at which comparison he laughed heartily and poured yet another glass of wine.
For all the times we happened upon each other after that first meeting, and for all the subsequent conversations we enjoyed over coffee at that very sidewalk cafe where I last saw him, M. Renoir remained somewhat a mystery. I was never once privileged to receive an invitation to any social event or to his home. In truth, I had no idea where or how he lived. I passed it off as a kindness as it was unlikely that I would have fit within his social circle. But, of course, I never knew.
My business took me here and there about Paris in an attempt to pick up what human interest happenings I could develop into stories for my employer back in the United States. The Moulin Rouge had supplied any number of good articles. One, involving a rejected dancer who attempted to shoot dead the manager with a pearl-handled dueling pistol, was particularly well-received. Another, involved a young man I helped fish from the Seine where he had flung himself after his lover had ditched him for the son of a wealthy Italian vintner. Paris abounded with stories of human interest. It was an assignment I relished and a city I loved. But even I had to admit that, of late, things were changing.
The city had recently become noticeably less the “Gay Paree” of legend and had taken on, instead, a nervousness and grayness that was out of character for the City of Lights. There were rumors of war and the news out of Berlin–indeed, the whole of Germany–was depressing for most; seriously frightening for many. However, Berlin was over a thousand kilometers away, so on the surface, the nervousness was pushed aside. The cabarets kept open their doors and an ironically cheerful face attempted to mask the ever-growing worry.
Trains arrived and departed Paris constantly. Only these days there seemed to be more than the usual number of children among the passengers. At first I hadn’t noticed. After all, the train station was only one of my haunts for stories. Of late, however, in addition to their greater numbers, the children were looking unusually tired and worn, their clothing often patched and colorless. Adults noisily herded large groups of them to and from the platforms, urging them to hurry up, or pay attention, or to be still and wait for instructions.
It was during one of my occasional strolls through the station late one afternoon that I was certain I had seen my friend, M. Renoir, on the platform opposite. I had begun to raise my arm in salutation, fully intending to call to him when an arriving train passed between us. By the time the passengers had disembarked and dispersed in whatever direction they were going, the train had moved on, and M. Renoir was gone. Had he taken the train somewhere? I wondered. I never asked, since to do so would have been an imposition on our rather casual friendship. There are many things now, of course, that I regret never asking, for I was extremely fond of M. Renoir.
On the day I last saw him, I was astonished at his rather plebeian attire when compared in memory with his usual finery. His trousers and jacket were of coarse cloth and his usual brocade vest had disappeared completely. There was only a humble cap on the chair beside him. His silver-knobbed cane had vanished along with the vest. He was just finishing his coffee and setting the newspaper aside when I approached.
“Monsieur Renoir! It is so nice to see you here today.”
He looked up at me. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir,” he said, in rather solemn tone. “My name is Frederic Colobert. I know of no one named Renoir except the famous painter.”
I detected a very slight, yet unmistakable, hint of apology in his voice and I was given pause. This was my friend, M. Renoir. I was sure of it. Was he in some kind of trouble? Had he fallen, suddenly, on hard times? I was dumbstruck, my brow furrowed with puzzlement, yet I said nothing that could be understood by a casual listener as contradiction. He was a gentleman. Of this I was absolutely sure and, thus, he must have had his reasons for denying the identity I was so positive was his own.
He looked away as he folded the newspaper and then he handed it out to me. “Perhaps you would enjoy reading the paper today. I am finished with it and I must be going.”
I looked him in the eyes for a long moment, and then, as I took the paper from his hand. I said, “Thank you. Merci. My mistake, Monsieur Colobert.”
He spoke only with his eyes and I felt it keenly. Was it gratitude? Regret? He nodded, then turned and walked away. I was left standing in the middle of the sidewalk, my brain reaching, trying to make sense of what had just transpired.
For reasons I still do not understand, I decided to follow him. He was yet in sight, walking briskly on the Rue Truffaut. I kept him in sight until he turned onto the Rue Des Dames and when I reached the corner only seconds later, he was gone. Vanished. And, though I did not realize it at the time, that was the last I would ever see my friend, M. Renoir. Or Colobert, as he claimed to be.
I was distraught. It had been evident to me that, of course, he knew me. Of course he was my friend, M. Renoir. I was not mistaken. I refused to believe it. I returned to the sidewalk cafe and fell into the chair he had occupied just minutes earlier. Deflated, I ordered a coffee and croissant and attempted to lose myself watching the passing crowd.
Three women chattering happily in French passed beside my table, ignoring me completely. A young woman–possibly a fashion model–hailed a taxi with one lovely arm while holding onto her feathered cloche with the other, and was subsequently ferried away in a puff of black exhaust. An elderly woman scolded her tiny poodle who was inspecting the leg of the next table. Then she picked him up and carried him, making soothing baby talk to the obliviously happy canine. I saw them all and yet I forgot them the instant they were seen.
Later, in my hotel and miserable at what I was sure was the loss of my friend, I received a telegram from my employer. Salt in wound, I had been reassigned–effective immediately–to London. If there was any hope of ever finding M. Renoir again, it was now crushed. I sadly, and rather hastily, packed for the flight that had been reserved for me.
In London, the mood was every bit as dour as it had been in Paris. And the skies were a good deal more gray. Here, a gentleman would be advised to carry an umbrella in place of a cane.
I unpacked my rather meager wardrobe and was in the process of hanging my jacket in the closet when I became aware that I still possessed the newspaper M. Renoir had handed me. It had fallen from the pocket of my jacket onto the floor. As I bent to retrieve it, I noticed a small article in the lower right corner of the page he had folded to the outside. Intrigued, I began reading as I stood back up. It told of children being transported from areas of potential danger in the event of a war that seemed, now, all but inevitable.
The British, the article reported, were making accommodations for many of these children and, having no other ideas, I felt this could be a good source for one or two human-interest stories for my magazine.
The following morning, I hired a car and drove up to Harwich where I tracked down timetables and awaited the next boat’s arrival. When it docked and the passengers began to disembark, I was astonished at the sheer number and condition of the children, even though I had been expecting them. Some came with a small suitcase of belongings while others arrived with nothing save the clothes they were wearing–and their names printed upon a numbered tag hung round their necks. They all came without parents and were herded along by weary and concerned adults. They all came unsure and apprehensive of their futures. The imminent war had suddenly thrust itself into my consciousness full-force.
Overhearing snippets of conversations, I began to take notes for a possible story. Scribbling furiously in an attempt to avoid missing anything, I chanced to hear an exchange between two children that halted my pen mid-air. It was as though a photographer had taken up residence inside my head and was busying himself bringing every lens into focus. In that moment, I began see my purpose clearer than ever I had before.
I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I don’t actually create anything. There is no lasting beauty in what I do. There is no art. Yet there is, I recognized, value in reporting what others have created. There is value in making sure the world knows of their achievements, for there are some things so rare and so important that they must be placed into the light–things that must be told. They must be reported accurately and clearly enough that even absent eyes can see–and understand.
With my pen suspended above my notebook, I listened. The small conversations were flowing around me in a tangle when all at once, from that Gordian knot of voices, an intelligence emerged that washed over me in unmistakable and painful clarity. I sat down and closed my eyes.
A little girl in patched dress and shoes that did not match each other, had complained of being tired. Holding her hand, an older boy–perhaps her brother–encouraged her to be happy now and to thank God they had been saved. They were safe! They were in England!
The little girl looked up through tears and said, “But I’m frightened, Georges. I want to go back and be with all the other children.”
“But we can’t go back, Marie.” He put his arm protectively around her. “We are safe now.”
“Please, Georges. I want to go back and stay with M. Renoir.”
Banner Image: FOTO:FORTEPAN / Saly Noémi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons