Millicent’s Glamorous Life Is Demystified and Yet Remains Still Mystically Glamorous; Horse-mad, afternoon Guests Appear at Helvstead; Violent Gossiping; Intonations of Love Affairs, Past, Present and Future
During the war, as I watched Millicent stride off after one of our infrequent and unilluminating teas, I would speculate on her next rendezvous, who would be there, at which posh London club or restaurant it would take place. I imagined the conversation, food, frocks, cocktails. Cobbled together from pictures, information gleaned from Debrett’s, gossip columns and further inflamed by the cinema of my youth, I’d envisioned Millicent’s life for so long, my imaginings seemed quite real: Millicent at Ascot in a soignée hat; Millicent surrounded by friends and admirers at a ball; Millicent at the hunt leaning over a horse, urging it faster, whipping its gleaming flanks with the crop; Millicent in black evening frock glittering with crystal, popping open a bottle of champagne while fireworks went off behind her; Millicent at the weekend party of a film star; Millicent at the Dumfries hunt in impeccably cut red coat. In these imaginings, she was laughing, always laughing, a sound that resonated with every last privilege her life had contained and did nothing protect others from it.
Finally at Helvstead, I had a perfect vantage point to observe this life, to satisfy all the years of ravening curiosity, to see what seemed hard to imagine, especially through my father’s conscientious eyes: how she could be so busy, so very busy, without husband, children or family, duty or obligation or even particular purpose, besides mapping out her own will against the day, every day.
After only a few weeks and then more months wore on, my expectations dissipated like ginger fizz and stuck me as marked with humiliating transparency by my own longings and worse still, by how very little I had known her. She was often out in the world, that much I was right about, lunching, riding, hunting, driving, going to parties, ever-certain of the inevitability of the next moment’s entertainment, and that it should bring pleasure or distraction, and no compunction about abandoning it the moment it no longer did so. Her acquaintances, too, were as glamorous as I had imagined. But I hadn’t realized how little she liked society and seemed to derive no particular pleasure or importance from the exalted circles in which she ran, and her days, were simply that—days—even if they contained impressive company. She woke, she read the paper, she talked on the phone. It was quite odd really.
Sometimes I would find Millicent sitting on the sofa in the afternoon room, reading the paper, casually wearing a thick silk kimono, obviously worth a king’s ransom, and a pair of fading red plimsoles, a relic leftover from Millifield as a girl, hair tied haphazardly in her favorite gold Hermes scarf, smoking, and drinking a frothy concoction of Molly’s involving hot milk, cream, honey, egg and cinnamon. Millicent appeared softer then, nearly frowsy, her eyes almost slits against the smoke of her cigarette as she read, resembling, if only a second, a Kensington housewife. And then the phone would ring and soon enough she would be Millicent again; beautiful and indomitable Millicent, out the door for a weekend in the country with the adult children that were the bane of a prominent industrialist or a famous theater actor.
In that maddening way of life, I had been both essentially right and essentially wrong; she could never have been as glamorous as I’d imagined; but then again, she was.
To observe that Millicent was the rare woman under little obligation to the world isn’t to say the world didn’t pursue her, often in earnest. The phone rang and the post overflowed with invitations to parties and dinners, hunts and balls. Occasionally a reporter might call:
“Helvstead?” I heard her snort on the phone. “Darling, you must be joking. Anyway, I make bad copy these days—dull as dishwater if you haven’t heard. No, you may not quote me, and if you do I’ll happily pull a few strings to see you’re out on your ear. So be a good little boy and go play somewhere else.”
Millicent rung off, a protesting voice still buzzing on the other end. “Young idiot.”
“Why not what?” Millicent poured herself a gin and tonic.
“Why not let them do a story about Helvstead?”
My voice was a bit high, I suppose, fearful somehow it was my unremarkable presence had caused her to put off the journalist. Millicent shrugged.
“What could be more tedious,” she said settling on the sofa. “I’d like to see them try to make Helvstead the Sunday spread. Anyway, there’s no reason anymore, is there, with us being the last of the Clives. Besides,” she added, putting her drink on the coffee table, “I’m keeping a low profile these days.”
I wouldn’t know, till later, how deliberate this was.
The one constant in Millicent’s life was riding. I would see her come over the fields on Cyclamen, her favorite, disappear over a rise, only to come up another, further, grassy swell, streaking over the fields, sometimes accompanied by riders, but often alone. She’d return after a few hours, snapping her crop against her boots to dislodge the mud, calling for Lucy to bring her a drink, falling into the divan with a sigh of satisfaction. She might ride to other estates, ten, twenty, even thirty miles away which I only determined by looking it up on a map; boasting never could be counted among Millicent’s faults.
One night after waking from an unpleasant dream, I came out into the hall to find Millicent, hair and coat soaked with rain, pulling off her boots. Startled, I spoke more sharply than usual.
“Millicent! Whatever are you doing?”
She looked up, not at all disconcerted, thumping the second boot down next to the first.
“I could ask you the same thing, Ramona.”
“I couldn’t sleep. Just got up to get some hot milk with rum.”
She shuddered. “Sounds worse than insomnia.”
“You’re soaking,” I said.
She shrugged at the obviousness of this statement and peeled off a coat to reveal a ball gown, of Grecian design, breathtaking, even in its sodden state, an exquisite shade of lavender, both delicate and deep. I remembered the bill, the description of crystal beading and chiffon, the astonishing number tallied at the bottom.
“Oh, I went to the Callaway’s—Lord and Lady Ptomaine as I call them—Christ, they are a bothersome bunch. They do have a nice lay-in, though. I haven’t had brandy like that since Vivien took me to some very obscure monastery in the Alps.”
“You didn’t stay over?” I gestured outside.
“Oh, well. Jack Parfar and I had been playing bridge, and then wifey appeared— ” She laughed at my expression. “None of that, Miss Bright. What an evil mind, you have. Just like her apparently.” She knocked mud off her boot. “Couldn’t bear the boredom of yet another scene.”
“So you just…left?”
“But that must be twenty miles! And in this rain!” I couldn’t say if the shrill in my voice was censure, marvel, or envy.
“Don’t be a juggins, Ramona,” Millicent said. “And you needn’t look at me like I’m some swashbuckling bradaggio. I’ve been riding around this county since I was an infant, if you’ll remember. I hadn’t my car, so it only made sense. I let the groomsman know—after Jackie’s behavior with Cyclamen last New Year’s he, frankly, doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Now, do go on and get your gin and pabulum.”
I crept down the stairs and made my hot milky drink. By the time I returned upstairs the hall stood empty, although it still smelled of rain.
Eventually and perhaps inevitably Millicent’s social circle appeared at Helvstead. She kept to her word, for there was no formal entertaining. But occasionally, her set might come in for a tea or break when it rained during their riding. There was little warning; they came through a side door, suddenly tromping into the morning room in their riding boots and coats, smelling of the outdoors, leather and horses, far more at home than I had ever been.
After their initial visit, where a plate of lemon squares had stood untouched, I told Lucy to have some heartier fare on hand, like cheese straws, pickled walnuts and crisps: things that went better with a drink, for if the sweets had remained untouched a good deal of gin had disappeared. Millicent sorted through a few bottles at the bar, grimaced, and told me to restock and within a few days an encyclopedic array of spirits was laid in, proof in those days of lingering rations, the Clive name still held plenty of sway in the county.
The crowd was some configuration of at least two or three, and sometimes all, of the following persons: Lord Peterson, a tall, bald, man in his late fifties with a perpetually thunderous expression, who must have been extraordinarily handsome as a young man; his wife, a good twenty years younger, fair and blue-eyed, and much sharper than I think he realized; a short, sallow woman who possessed the most amazing face, like some wily and dissipated Russian countess although from the general conversation I knew her to be from Herefordshire and her name to be Mrs. Blotte-Tingle; Thisbe and Gervaise Willow, a couple who had the good sense to not only be beautiful, but clever, well-born, highly educated, and extremely rich; both were in their thirties, and masters of a subtle but no less excoriating style of gossip I hadn’t been privy to before; a round genial fair man, Lord Bainbridge Tarris, neighbor to Helvstead, who I gathered to be very rich; and a cousin of the Willows, a Commander L. N. Charles, who no one called anything but Commander Charles, that I eventually realized was Reggie’s lover; and Selena Squireton, woman in her forties whose quiet gentle voice, large doe eyes and wistful beauty, was at odds with a venomous tongue.
If I did manage to hear them coming in, I attempted to appear in medias res, brow furrowed, papers in hand, as if I just happened to be leaving or, when cornered, sat at the desk, feigning great absorption in the numbers before me, willing myself invisible. Commander Charles might silently place a cordial by my desk, giving a mock-solemn nod to my thank you.
On the whole though, I needn’t have worried; my presence was too inconsequential to be either be the hindrance or irritant I feared. Someone would occasionally demand to know what I was doing and, aware I didn’t want to sound fulsome (Millicent would have certainly made a scorching remark if I’d enthused about doing the bills) nor martyred (for the same reason), and, conscious that much of what I did involved Millicent’s private financial matters, and as a result was rather incoherent. But they had no real interest, and Millicent most often would draw their attention elsewhere, it didn’t matter particularly.
They discussed politics, art, riding, architecture and history and in most discerning tones, but the spokes of this wheel of conversation originated from a hub that was gossip, gossip so refined to be an art form. Millicent, I noticed, seemed acclimated to this atmosphere of ruthless speculation, but often appeared restless, and the first to suggest they return to the horses. It occurred to me that however effortlessly she inhabited the same sphere as these people, she didn’t like them particularly. At most, she tolerated them except for Commander Charles; if she hadn’t told me of Reggie, I might have wondered if they were lovers. They often exchanged a glance over the other’s heads in the signals of private jokes; he refilled her drink, and she his, in a manner that bespoke intimacy.
“Damned shame about the Anderson’s,” Lord Peterson bellowed one day over a hot toddy, as he was wont to do. Millicent had explained too much shooting in the war had left him a bit deaf.
“Beaky Farrington called Billy a mountebank,” said Gervaise Lynch. “I thought he was going to call him out in a duel the other night.”
“‘Unregenerate monster’ is what I believe he said,” drawled his wife.
“Sounds more like the whiskey and soda talking; one never can tell with Beaky.” Selena Squireton said. “Well, I don’t blame Anderson—”
“Coo!” shouted Commander Charles. “You simply don’t mean it. Not with the child being so terribly ill.”
“Well, imagine having to come home to that dreariness, every night. She doesn’t even bother to keep herself up anymore. Looks like some grubby little housewife. No thanks, kiddies. I’d have run off with my cousin’s parlor maid too.”
“I don’t know which of you callous monsters frightens me more,” said Mrs. Blotte-Tingle, looking not in the least perturbed. “But he’ll loose the fortune, if he flies. Come, Millie, what to you think, will Anderson be a complete fool and marry the chit?”
Millicent stared out the window, smoking, oblivious.
“I say, old girl! Millicent. Millicent!” Lord Bainbridge Tarris called.
Millicent turned. “Good god, what is it?”
Bainbridge Tarris snorted and exchanged a glance with the rest. “Rather hard to get your attention Millie my girl,” he said. “Something on your mind, eh?”
“A love affair!” said Mrs. Blotte-Tingle, in a voice ripe as Stilton with interest.
I couldn’t help but turn. I had been wondering the same thing after our visit to the Quai. There had been a few phone calls, late, I couldn’t quite hear. A letter with no return address. And a very expensive box of candy, left by the side of her bed, opened but untouched: chocolate shells, something I knew she didn’t like, but imagined a lover sending to her in hopes of pleasing. Small things, but I’d wondered.
The voices chimed in. “Naughty one!”
“Who he is, you sly fox?”
“Couldn’t be me finding the company a bit dull, I suppose?” Millicent stubbed out her cigarette and glanced up to find their collective gaze on her. “Look at you lot! Like wolves at a butcher shop! Don’t give me the gimlet eye, Lord Bainbridge, I know what you’re on about.”
“But you’re not denying a love affair are you, darling?” said Thisbe, with a knowing voice that I would have found infuriating.
“But I believe I am, ‘darling,’” Millicent said. “But if I were, do you think I’d tell the likes of you?”
“Just having some fun, then eh,” prompted Bainbridge. “Deuced odd thing, you without a man. Must be a fellow somewhere.”
“Bainbridge, you always can be relied upon to” Millicent said.
“Ha! You’re not one to go without—”
“To be prurient,” she said. “So, what have I missed of such all-fired importance? Beaky blatting about the Andersons? Well: kettle, pot, black, wouldn’t you say—?”
“I know a man who’d like to meet you,” Bainbridge interrupted.
“Oh, don’t be tiresome, Bainbridge,” Millicent said.
“You’ll not take that tone with me, when you hear his name, I’ll wager.”
Bending over to light his cigar, he took her silence for encouragement; he didn’t see her expression, the arctic look of boredom.
“Lord Larson. Not that grotty failed biscuit-maker—diamond mines, girlie. Comes to my club, doesn’t he? Thinks you’re very attractive, m’dear, and is quite interested in…knowing more, shall we say.”
I was a little shocked at the lewdness underneath his playful tone. I forget how those of her own set would speak to her with little fear of banishment from her orbit.
“And you told him I’d screw anything in pants that’s got over fifty thousand a year, I expect,” She rejoined. “And you’d arrange the whole thing and get a little vicarious pleasure for yourself. How very jolly for everyone.”
His handsome jowly face grew startled then affronted.
“I said no such thing.” He brushed an imaginary crumb off his lap. “Besides it most certainly isn’t true. Fifty a year,” He grumbled. “I ought to know.”
Millicent laughed, as did everyone. “Yes, you know it, don’t you Bainbridge, dear. Anyway, you’re not fooling anyone. You’ve had your eye on Pippa Depillar for years. You play the salty old dog, but we all know better.”
To my surprise his voice changed, growing serious. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You are pathetically transparent,” Millicent said.
“I have nothing but the highest regard for Pippa Depillar.”
“That’s not all you have for Mrs. Depillar, I’d say,” said the husband of the couple, and another ripple of amusement passed through the group.
“I don’t like your jokes,” Bainbridge said, tugging his cuffs.
“Relax, Bainbridge. No one’s suggesting anything,” Commander Charles said. “Well, that’s not quite true: no one suggesting anything’s actually transpired.”
“Yes. But,” Gervaise tossed in an olive to his drink. “That’s why our man’s so touchy.”
His wife chortled.
Bainbridge’s face darkened. “You may think it amusing to speak in that way of a decent married woman—”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Millicent said. “Do shut up, all of you. If Bainbridge believes dear Pippa’s honor has been impugned we’ll never hear the last.” She faced him. “We’re simply laughing at your pathetic, and apparently inexhaustible, schoolboy devotion to a woman who has never looked at you twice, or if so, only for your fortune.” Her voice grew less sharp. “You really are an unlikely sort to be cast as the lover, Bainbridge, even you must see that.” She turned to me. “Ramona! Would you mind going in and seeing what is taking Lucy so infernally long? Perhaps some tea will silence the caviling, gossip-mongering swine that seem to be cluttering up the morning room.”
An awkward moment followed where it seemed someone might take offense; but it passed, then laughter, perhaps with a tinge of reluctant admiration. And, I noticed, the question of Millicent’s love life had been effectively cancelled by mentioning Pippa Depillar.
I tried to catch Millicent’s eye as I left, but she didn’t notice; I don’t know why I expected her to.
The next morning after breakfast I attempted to wind the conversation round to the previous afternoon.
“Was the rest of your ride pleasant? Seemed like Lord Bainbridge Tarris…well, the conversation got the wind up yesterday.”
“Bainbridge has had that ridiculous pash for Pippa Depillar since he was at schools.”
I had meant the other source of contention, but she was already continuing:
“He told me about it once, when he was sozzled. Something about Pippa and he caught in the rain at a boathouse, when they were thirteen, led to some grubby game of doctor from which he’s never recovered. Why men can be such sentimental idiots I never will understand.”
I sighed and looked out the window. “I suppose it’s difficult, when you’re truly mad for someone.”
Millicent raised her eyebrows. “Oh? Are you nursing some secret ungovernable passions, Ramona?”
Her incredulity stung, all the more for its aptness. There was no one; there was no one I even longed for hopelessly.
“Of course not,” I replied, bending over to pick up a thread on the rug.
“Never mind. Oh, I do hate when you look like that. Noble reproach! All right, all right! No doubt I’ve trampled all over some horribly sensitive area. I’d rather hoped you hadn’t so very many such areas as you used to, but just wishful thinking, obviously.”
She paused, glancing back over at me.
“That was a very bad apology, wasn’t it?” she shook her head. “That lot gets to me and all this talk of love makes it worse. Let’s pretend it never happened, shall we?”
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com