CHAPTER XXXIV

In 1943 we were unduly shaken out of that quietude and that awful feeling of uncertainty as to the future which had begun to pall. The Italians marched into the Principality. They occupied the whole of the Riviera at the command of their senior partner: Germany. They came, very pleased with their mission and with themselves. At once they made their presence felt. They were the Fascist military authorities in occupation; theirs the power to command, to enforce any regulations they chose to make. They strutted about like turkey-cocks in a farmyard.

They began operations by summoning all foreigners of either sex and less than seventy-five years of age to appear before them at the Beaux Arts Theatre. Of course we all 'appeared' at the appointed time and the theatre was crammed with men, women and children of every nationality. For a whole hour we sat facing the stage, on which were three chairs, a table, a carafe of water and a glass. The military authorities did not condescend to be punctual. After sixty-five minutes of weary waiting a gentleman in gorgeous field-grey uniform, his manly bosom a regular picture postcard of ribbons, crosses, and medals stalked in, followed by an orderly and a civilian who, we understood, was the interpreter. The gorgeous gentleman spoke in Italian and the civilian interpreted.

We could not interfere in any way with the military authorities whatever they chose to do. Any interference would be severely punished . . . imprisonment . . . exile . . . death even. Well, it was soon clear what the military authorities chose to do. Wholesale arrests. The poor Jews first--the rich ones somehow seemed to be immune. In the Principality (still supposedly neutral) they were safe for the time being, but the poorer ones were living just a yard or two over the border, i.e. in France. The Italians--under pressure from Germany one could suppose--had suddenly developed violent anti-Semitic tendencies. Those wretched people were hauled out of their beds in the middle of the night, the aged, the sick, the dying, not allowed to pick up as much as a tooth-brush, bundled into lories, driven away like cattle--whither? who could tell? Children dragged away from their mother's arms, husbands from their wives; child-bearing women. . . .

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We in Monte Carlo were happily left in comparative peace and I was able to do some work, i.e. to finish my latest romance, Will-o-the-Wisp which had been contracted for by Messrs. Hutchinson before the war. Naturally there was no chance of the MS. or typescript being sent over to England. So I put my Will-o-the-Wisp away, hoping for those happy times which were so long in coming and I was left wondering if I would ever write a romance again.

After the Jews it was the turn of the British and one or two Americans. The American Army had landed in Morocco. They were now belligerents, always our friends but now our allies, fighting with us and at one with us. All of us were threatened with internment or at least with exile in what was called résidence forcée somewhere in the hinterland of the Mediterranean coast. But it always meant the breaking up of a home, leaving all precious possessions at the mercy of one knew not what, of looting, rioting, German terrorism. I didn't think that I had anything to fear for myself or for my English maid, Julia Purkis, who was under fifty, my loyal and devoted companion in the midst of all the sorrow that was slowly but surely closing in about me now. I interviewed the 'Military' authorities till I was sick with fatigue and with the shame of being such a humble and persistent suppliant. I put my case before them: my age, the state of my husband's health--which was becoming very precarious--my dependence on the companionship of the one woman who understood my anxiety and foresaw the inevitable. The 'Authorities' were most suave and mealy-mouthed. The young officers knew me well by name. They had read and admired my books. "Mais non, Madame la Baronne," they said "on ne vous l'enlévera pas" (We won't take her away from you).

Every ten days or so representatives of the Fascist authorities--an officer and two orderlies--called upon me, questioned me, interviewed Julia Purkis, put ridiculous questions to her: Who were her friends? With whom did she consort? Where and in what way did she spend her time? The officer conducted the interrogation, and the orderlies made notes in their books. After a quarter of an hour of this they went away, still saying suavely: "Ne craignez rien, Madame, on ne va pas vous l'enlever" (Do not fear, Madame, we will not take her away from you).

Soon after this came the order from the Fascist military authorities for all British nationals resident in France to clear out of the Riviera. This affected our temporary chaplain of Beaulieu, who was so devoted to us and to our Church; and also his wife; also several friends who had homes in Mentone or Cap d'Ail or Beausoleil. They were given twenty-four hours in which to pack up and go. This meant more breaking up of English homes. Most of those thus evacuated went to Grenoble, which was soon crowded with refugees. But there were others--married couples, British families with little children who were sent into résidence forcée, or to somewhere in the hinterland of the Mediterranean coast.

Some were sent to Vence, others to St. Martin Vésubie; but there were many men of British nationality who were relegated to a prison camp. One or two Americans, among these my kind friend, Commander Beehler, still holding his post as American representative in the International Hydrographic Bureau. Outwardly a hale and hearty man, a delightful musician, a charming, helpful friend with a devoted young wife, he was a sufferer from tuberculosis, not yet in a serious way, but needing care, and rest. The Italian military authorities arrested him, hauled him out of bed in the night in mid-winter and dragged him away in an open lorry to a prison camp in Sospel, where he died within thirty-six hours of his arrest from exposure and want of medical attendance.

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Younger people and others who were in good health had no cause to grumble at résidence forcée. St Martin Vésubie--up in the mountains--was really a beautiful spot, very healthy, and there was good accommodation to be had in one or two hotels, rather primitive, but clean on the whole and even the chance of renting a cottage or a small apartment. Of course everyone there was under supervision--in a sense they were prisoners--they had to report to the military commandant twice a day and were not allowed to wander out beyond a very circumscribed limit. On the whole those who were lucky enough to have a little bit of money did not have a bad time. They played bridge (sic) and had tea parties among themselves. But there was a large cosmopolitan Jewish population there, very poor and with a lot of children, trying to make the best of their miserable lot and living in perpetual fear that German occupation would follow the Italian. The latter did not seem to have been specially unkind to them there, but the poor wretches knew quite well what their fate would be once the Germans occupied the whole of France.

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Early in 1943 the light went out of my life. My darling passed away and I was left in darkness and alone.

©Blakeney Manor, 2001