Over lunch I met the other dramatis personae of the Risle. There was Auguste Lambiotte, whom Ritz calls the Giant of Flanders, a tall, white-haired Belgian industrialist who links up with Ritz for trout-fishing vacations as often as possible. Together, the Belgian businessman and the Paris hotelkeeper are streamside models of old-world courtesy. If Ritz spots a feeding fish, he says to his friend Lambiotte: "I offer this fish to you."
"Non, non," protests the Belgian, "je vous l'offre!" Sometimes they argue the point until it is too late and there is no fish left to argue about. "La politesse is more important," says Ritz.
The proprietor of the Aclou Reach of the Risle is Edouard Vernes, head of a French bank and a dry-fly purist, who has been buying up angling rights and property along the river for decades until he now controls some three miles of breathtaking fishing water. M. Vernes is one of a class of Frenchmen who speak English not merely with a British accent but with an upper-class British accent, intoned in slow, careful sentences with long pauses in between. He walks along his stream with head down, heavy pipe clenched in his teeth, wearing an English-style tweed jacket, the kind with one little pocket above each big pocket, clasping the rod behind him with the tip sticking above his head so that he gives the impression of being a well-tailored, Eton-educated Martian. Until he speaks, M. Vernes has a tendency to awe one and make one nervous. But he turns out to be, like Ritz and Lambiotte, a most kindly man and a gentle needier. At lunch Vernes waited for Ritz to finish telling a story, then said to me:
"One day during the war a nervous pilot came down the river firing all his machine guns. You should have seen Charley! He went flat on his stomach and turned the color of that plate there!"
"Now, just a minute, my dear Edouard," said Ritz, taking the bait. "I was not afraid! I was merely anxious to live."
Vernes laughed and gave Ritz a bone-shattering clap on the back.
"But I do remember a time when we were on the Cherbourg express on the way to the river," said Ritz, "and the American planes came over, and we all had to jump out and run for the weeds. Everybody was hungry in those days, and most of the passengers were on their way to Normandy to try to find meat and eggs. While all the bullets were spattering around, a hare got up in the field. Every Frenchman on the train jumped to his feet and tore after that hare."
I asked Ritz and Vernes what had happened to the Risle during the German occupation. "Surprisingly, very little," said Vernes. "The Germans were disciplined about restricted waters. There was only one exception. Towards the end of the war Ribbentrop's son was posted here with the Hitler Jugend. He would shout, 'I want to eat trout!" and he would come to the river with rubber boats and grenades. But he was the only one. I was more concerned about a gasoline pipeline the Germans ran from the Paris area to supply the airfields around here. Our people treated it like a—how do you call it?—a self-service. And sometimes mysterious accidents happened to the pipeline. Pouf! We do not know how these happened. Acts of God. But I used to tell certain people, 'Watch out what you do to that pipeline! It goes across the Risle, and you might kill the trout!' "
To hear Charles Ritz tell it, M. Vernes has never used anything but dry flies in his entire life. One can imagine his shock when, shortly after the liberation, Vernes spotted an English major, who was also a lord, fishing the Risle with his batman. "I saw him lifting the line out of the water and placing it a few feet further downstream each time," Vernes recounted in his English accent. "And suddenly I realized he was fishing with a—eh—a wuhhhhhhhm!" Into the single blasphemous word "worm" Vernes put all the shock and horror of a Hitchcock movie, pushing out the sound as though it pained his voice box.
"What in the world did you do?" asked the bemused Ritz.