Romance in various degrees of fruition and symmetry: Ramona meets and furthers her acquaintance with the maddeningly mysterious Martin D’Avignon, discovers the power of lying by way of using the truth, and gently spies and speculates on Millicent’s new lover the tycoon Henry Carstairs
Later that week, sitting at a table of the Brasserie Verain, my favorite café, I began sifting through brochures for Monte Carlo. Outside, the wind gave a blast, forcing a strangled squeak from the window. The Mistral, the northwest wind that gusted through the Provence valleys in spring, had begun barreling through the streets in long chilly blasts, imperiling coiffures and making window shopping untenable.
I reached for a cigarette, my second, since arriving; I’d been so engrossed in the brochures I hadn’t noticed the garcon had yet to appear. Thirty-five minutes must have passed. I stood and moved to peer around the empty counter. The bell on the café door rang, I turned round and there stood the dark-haired man from the park, The Proctor, as I found myself thinking of him. He bowed his head.
“Good afternoon,” he said.
Before I could speak, a man in waiter’s uniform emerged from the back, looking harassed, wiping his hands on a towel.
“Pardon, pardon, mademoiselle, messieur–the boiler, she has been killed,” he pointed a thumb behind him. “It is very sad. There is nothing I can do till the man with the–pipes, I think you say–arrives. But the espresso machine, she lives, merci bien. Now, please, what do you require?”
I ordered a cafe crème; he, an espresso. The waiter bustled off.
“Thinking of going to Monte?” the Proctor asked.
I hesitated; the brochures, under another’s gaze, looked jejune. “Yes, perhaps.”
“Not so crowded this time of year.”
“No, no I expect not.”
The waiter, smiling broadly, came round, bringing two steaming cups to my table.
“Oh, garcon,” I said, unsure if the Proctor would want to obligated.
“You see, she lives!” The waiter beamed. “Voila. Enjoy.”
He hurried off to a customer impatiently jangling her bracelets at another table.
“The most cheerful waiter in all of France,” he said, and then assented his head towards the chair. “Shall I?”
“Please do,” I said, trying to keep my voice normal.
“I’m Martin D’Avignon.”
“Miss Bright. Ramona Bright.”
He looked at me speculatively for a moment. “You know…”
“I don’t actually believe…this is the first time we’ve met.”
I could feel my eyebrows raise in surprise of their own accord.
“But perhaps met is not the correct word,” he said. “Well, I don’t imagine you’d recollect. In Oxford. You were sitting in a car, with a nasty rap to the head, I’m afraid.”
I stared at him in consternation.
“Yes. I came by just as your friend was trying to find a first aid kit,” he said. “I was with the boys. Who were predictably beastly, I believe.”
“Oh, oh!–yes, yes, I do remember. How extraordinary. But how on earth did you remember?”
“I’ve an eye for faces. I take it you’re all right?”
“Oh yes, fine, thank you.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.
His skin was an olive color, with purplish circles under the eyes. In the slanting light I could see traces of boil scars on his cheeks in faint corrugation. A small corner of his upper left lip seemed blurred into the flesh around it but if this was a result of an accident or birth it was difficult to tell. I thought he was perhaps four or five years younger than myself, but then again he might have been older.
“So, what brings you to Nice?” he asked.
I put aside the strangeness of this previous encounter to mull over later. “My cousin—she decided it best we get away for the winter.”
“Well, while not actually warm, the sun makes a reasonably frequent appearance, which certainly can’t be said for England.”
“Yes, the sun—and the sea…” I trailed off. “Well, it’s quite pleasant.”
“The Cote D’Azur has made another conquest?”
I smiled. “I’m afraid so. And yourself?”
“Every few years the school where I teach comes up with the idea of the boys going away over winter holiday, to learn a bit of the ‘world’s culture,’ while the little dastards busy themselves being as ill-behaved as they can manage. Then everyone remembers what a dreadful idea it is only to come up with the same one a few years later. So I hear, anyway; this is my first go-round. Fortunately we have a bumper crop of chaperones and parents coming over–Nice being a rather attractive prospect–so I’m not obligated watching the little blighters as much as I might.”
I was seized with many questions but started with the simplest: “What do you teach?”
“Actually, I’m the acting vice-principal.”
“You seem surprised.”
In fact I was astonished. Having spent a fair amount of time in schools during my father’s various posts, he hadn’t struck me as the sort.
“Usually vice-principals are a bit older,” I offered.
“The school lost nearly a third of their staff in the war.”
Martin nodded. “They needed someone to fill the post temporarily, while they
looked, and an old Army chap–he’s the head of a district up north suggested me–and well, here I am.”
“You taught first though, I imagine.”
“A little. Before the war. Nothing like this.”
“Ah,” I said. I paused waiting for him to continue, but he said nothing else. “My father taught history.”
“Ah,” he said. “Bad luck for you.”
I laughed, startled; it had never occurred to me the tamped down sensation I had during my father’s recitation of the Battle of Marston Moor had been boredom, and was a little dazzled this man could reveal something I didn’t know about myself so easily. He disposed of the last of his espresso in a few swallows. I felt a small but unmistakable pang of dismay.
“Well, then, if you’ll excuse me. There is a meeting,” he said, pulling out his wallet and lay francs for both coffees on the table. “There is always a meeting, in fact.” He nodded towards the brochures. “Will you go to Monte?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said.
“Watch yourself on the roulette tables.”
I smiled. “The voice of experience?”
“I shan’t answer that, but you might heed my caution, anyway.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Good afternoon,” he said, with a slight bow. “Glad to see you so much better than in Oxford.”
“Thank you, Mr. D’Avignon.”
The bell trilled as he left. I pulled out my compact, powdered my nose and regarded myself. I don’t know what I was looking for, but it wasn’t there. I closed it with a snap and put it away.
I decided not to go to Monte after all, deciding it a silly, shallow tourist trap, but nor did I visit other places to which I’d been considering. Instead, I haunted cafes and shops, with an eye out for Vice-Proctor Martin D’Avignon. It was a ridiculous way to spend the time, particularly as I never did see him.
By Friday, irritated with myself, I headed to Juan-Les-Pines, and had an agreeable if idle afternoon strolling about. I sat outside in a café, my dark coat absorbing the sun so it laid heavy and warm on my back, warding off the chill, as I stared out at the ocean, the hours slipping through my unresisting fingers. I found a local paper for Juan-Les-Pins and read about a sperm whale carcass that had washed up on the beach with three twenty foot long tentacles wrapped around its body ‘like garlands’ accompanied by pictures of serious-looking men in suits standing next to its collapsed bulk. Next to it was an advert for a promisingly frivolous-looking dress shop, which I noted, as well as a notice for a George Feydeu play in Cannes. How long had it been since I went to theater? Too many years to count.
I walked about till dinner time, admiring the sloping streets, and perhaps prompted by the relics of Count Kaslovsky, popping into Eglise de Tou les Saints de Terre Russe and seeing that it was later than I thought, nearly dark. After a dinner of mussels and frites, I noticed a poster for a film in nearby Antibes, and wondered, as I decided to go, how many years it would take for me to no longer find the sensation of not feeling obliged to anybody so very heady and delicious.
The wind had died and with no moon the bus stop, far down the promenade by the sea, lay in darkness. I stood waiting, thinking it seemed as if the sky and sea were reflecting the night back and forth, multiplying the inky darkness into whatever is meant by infinity. I felt no fear, standing there in the vastness of that implacable night; instead, only conscious of the picture I made, the tidy outlines of coat, pocketbook, gloves and hat. Finally, a small dot of light grew larger and larger, and the bus arrived, only to shuttle us deeper into the darkness, shuddering a little as it heaved over the hills to Antibes.
The cinema seemed a relative cacophony of color and humanity. I made my way to the promenade, marveling, as ever, at the chicness of French women. I bought my ticket, and headed into the lobby only to come to a halt. Martin D’Avignon stood not fifteen feet from me, taller than I remembered, hands in pockets, his eye flickering over passing faces. A red-haired woman gave a little trill and called in French.
“Bon soir! Est-ce-que-vous Martin?”
“She is so sorry. Helene, she cannot come tonight.”
“Ah,” he said, glancing away. “I suppose I should have expected it. Hubert back early?”
“That I do not know, cherie, and you should know better than to ask.”
“You’re sure then?”
She gave him a look of bemused reproach in reply.
“Yes. Well,” he said. “Nothing to do about that, is there. Are you here as replacement?” His voice was gently ironical.
“No, no,” the woman gave a dimpled smile. “But I think I better go before I am tempted. You are just as Helene said. But, you see, my husband is waiting, looking most impatient, and really I am quite fond of him. You will excuse me?”
“By all means,” he said with a bow. He watched her leave and turning, caught my eye upon him. I felt myself stiffen, as if I stood still enough, he might not notice my presence.
“Good evening,” he said, adding after a second of recall: “Miss Bright.”
I murmured a greeting, giving him a covert glance. His beard looked very dark under his skin. I had spent the better part of the day daydreaming about him and now I felt foolish, awkward, even endangered, finding him here.
“I take it you’re here for the cinema?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, I am.”
He pulled out his cigarettes and offered me one. I declined, noticing the crowd had begun to thin and I cast a glance towards the entrance of the screening room.
“Well, so nice to see you,” I said. “I best be going.”
“Frambois et Fragonard?” he asked in an exhalation of smoke.
“Yes.” I hesitated, darting a glance at him; his eyes still scanned the crowd. I cleared my throat. “Well. I—”
“Perhaps,” he said finally turning away from the entrance. “Well, we might as well do so together.” He paused, his eyes a mild sort of question.
And so my time with Martin D’Avignon began.
I hadn’t passed the time with a man before or since Ralph Arbuthnot. A rare spot of possible romance had flared a few years previous with a Mr. Twombley, an extremely tall, silent clerk with horn rim spectacles at the foreign office. Mr. Twombley was actually rather handsome, when one got past his diffidence, but I somehow never took his invitations to dinner with his mother or the cinema as anything but prompted from a book, Overcoming Shyness, I had once seen half-hidden on his desk.
Yet even if I hadn’t years of an unremittingly “quiet” life behind me, the prospect of a Martin D’Avingon might have been unnerving. He had a worldly air, by which I mean less that he appeared an extreme sophisticate than he struck me as someone who had experienced much of the troubles, pleasures and adventures life has on offer, and my own lack of these things seemed of a gaucherie that was almost garish in its ridiculousness. I felt foolish and in peril of doing something hideously embarrassing.
Fate, in any case, seemed to be nudging us together. It helped that our hotels were within three blocks. We met by chance, at the cafes, chemists or bookstore, on the promenade, or waiting for l’autobus, and once I learned a little of his routines, I was able to nurture along their likelihood. When I saw him with students I made no effort to prolong our exchanges, thereby communicating proper respect for his professional responsibilities, but more to do with a desire to avoid his charges. Boys that age have a preternatural ability for noticing, and moreover blurting out half-buried truths in others, and the idea of one of them shouting “She’s potty about you, gov!” literally made chills run down my spine.
But often enough, I found him alone. And despite every fibre of my attention fixed on him—the angle of his jaw, the tiny scar over his right eyebrow, the odd blur on the left side of his mouth—each time I found him different. He might be taller or shorter, younger or older; one day I remembered him as having brown hair but then saw, in the light of the café, it was very nearly black. I would find his features strange, irregular, nearly deformed, on some days; on others, far more handsome than was comfortable, like a matinee idol. This line between beauty and idiosyncrasy secretly pleased me, gave me a proprietary feeling, as if my attraction were a result of my own acumen. But as I watched women appraise him one afternoon, I realized, with wistful resignation, I hadn’t shown such unusual discernment after all: he really was very handsome.
Our meetings seemed charged with significance, although I can’t say our conversations were particularly memorable. They couldn’t be, perhaps; they were far too polite, so polite, in fact, I occasionally felt we were speaking in code. These conversations eventually grew more natural, although never particularly personal. He told me of the scrapes the boys found themselves in, the day’s outings; we discussed the history of Nice and of France, which he knew extensively. We talked of London and Paris and talked of the two countries. He spoke of various writers–mostly Russian–Dostoyevsky, Gogol and the like—and various translations, and the difficulty of teaching literature. He talked a bit about the war, in the most general terms and I studiously avoided looking at a long jagged scar on his arm and a sinewy patch of burnt skin near his neck.
If ever a subject became more revealing on a personal level–as when I asked him questions about what he did during the war–it would be smoothed over by subtle but impenetrable politeness, an English trick, although the more time I spent with him, the more I wondered at his nationality. He had an unplaceable air about him, which I found particularly trying; there was something fundamentally and tantalizingly elusive about Martin D’Avignon, an odd thing in a young man already so willingly encumbered by professional responsibility.
But an element in his manner intrigued me as much as self-revelation might have: occasionally the polite mask would drop, his eyes taking on a flat, encompassing sort of stare–his gaze following a car, a woman, a plane, a package–with an intelligent and assessing interest that struck me as something like professional shrewdness or maybe just a simple predatory watchfulness. Furthermore, it struck me as familiar. He would glance away and when he turned back it would be gone. One day I realized with a start, what it was: I had found him, my lion in the garden, that crept through the underbrush his eyes penetrating, still, unruffled.
I felt sure Martin was hiding something. What, I couldn’t say; at the very least, who he was, I suppose. I saw it in the unruly black hair that required severe combing to stay in place, his still, watchful air. Then he would seem as correct and conventional as he appeared and I would doubt myself, thinking it an absurd extension of the schoolgirl passion I seem to have acquired.
I never did gather the courage to ask for the information I most wanted to know—-who the missing Helene at the movie theater had been–although one day I saw him with a woman that I guessed—-no, knew—-was her. Passing a side street my eye caught his familiar dark head, leaning over, speaking intently, angrily, to a woman whose face was obscured by one of those ineffably soignee French hats, and who by contrast, seemed quite self-possessed. My heart sank as I assessed her: silken fair hair, lush curves, conspicuously French. I wondered if the cane she leaned on were a result of a war injury. They turned heading towards a tiny café at the end of the street.
My body moved with a determination of its own to follow. But it wasn’t discretion or good sense or even the prospect of my own embarrassment that made me falter after a few steps. In the end, I hadn’t wanted to know what I might find.
About a month after I’d first met him, I overheard two older French boys–I suppose they were seventeen or eighteen–talking at a cafe about their girlfriends. The boys went on to complain in unexpurgated detail about their girlfriends driving them mad, with their perfumes and hair and heels, so they were in a constant state of agitation, “Boules bleues,” one complained in a off-hand but boisterous voice. They gobbled their patisseries, and left still talking of it. I watched them go.
I thought I rather knew what they meant.
One day I gave way to a fit of temper. We were walking along the Quai Etas Unis, the sea sparkling almost painfully bright. He had forgotten me beside him, I could tell, and I was overtaken by anger.
“Are you really here for the school?” I asked him abruptly. “Or is there some other reason?”
He looked at me surprised.
“Are you?” I pressed.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You don’t seem to have that many responsibilities.” I pointed out. “You never seem harried for a person with sixty eight boys in his care.”
He paused leaning against the railing.
“Whatever else could I be doing?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling my face set into unfamiliar stubbornness. “Having a holiday I suppose, or coming here to see someone,” Helene flashed in my mind’s eye. “Or have some—errand—of some…sort.” Even in my momentary temper, I couldn’t bring myself to say I imagined him as having some spy-like purpose.
“Miss Bright,” he said, after a pause, and there was something strange, even kind in his face. “I believe you’ve gotten the wrong impression about myself. I’m a most ordinary—”
I looked away. Something about that kindness stung worse than rebuke. My cheeks burned.
“Well, you may say what you like. But. . . well, I still think so.”
“It’s flattering to be thought of as more mysterious than one actually is. But, really, I’m afraid you’re mistaken.”
“Well,” I said, deeply embarrassed at my outburst, but still angry. “There you are then, I suppose.”
He paused and half-turned towards me, leaning on the railing. “I think you might be speaking of yourself Miss Bright.”
“What do you mean?”
He gave me a mild, interrogatory look, and then looked away.
“What,” I said. “Do say it.”
“Well,” he said, seeming to consider which route would allow for me to return equilibrium, and saw, correctly, to speak him mind. “You and that cousin of yours. It’s a bit of…an…unlikely set of traveling companions.”
“Because she’s beautiful and I’m not,” the words were out before I could check them and I turned away, humiliated.
“No, Miss Bright. Of course not—”
“Oh, I’m being awful please—”
He went on as if I hadn’t spoken.
“I didn’t say that. I can see you don’t believe me, so I’ll be more candid than I might usually. I mean because she’s rich, Miss Bright. And about to get even richer.” I had told him about her courting with Henry. “You know he’s one of the richest men in California?”
“Well, the rich aren’t exactly well known for bringing along their less fortunate relations to luxury vacations unless there are of kindly nature—” he glanced over to see if I recognized what he wasn’t saying about Millicent. “Or if there is a reason.”
The word reason seemed to hang between us.
“Millicent and I–well, we…”
“No, no–I needn’t explanations, and certainly I don’t mean to pry. Private pacts between people are best left that way, aren’t they?”
My mouth must have been agape.
He laughed. “You’re looking at me like I’m some sort of mind-reader, Miss Bright. I’m just jumping to a few of the more likely assumptions. Perhaps you saved her from drowning when you were children. Or her father embezzled all the money in your family, and she feels some lingering guilt about it. Perhaps you went through some tough times together in the war.”
“We did, actually. That’s it. The war–well, I lost my fiancé. And she her brother.” I paused. “We’re the last of the family, so there was…no one else. We were. . . there. . . for each other.”
And as I said it, I realized, I was lying to him with the truth.
“Ah,” he said with comprehension. “Well, there you are then.”
“I still stand by what I said earlier,” I turned away crossing my arms. “You can be as understanding as you want, but I do.”
He laughed. “You’re very adamant today, Miss Bright.”
I made some sort of stiff excuse to leave. I would go home mulling over this conversation, horrified at both what I had revealed and could have revealed in my fit of temper.
I avoided him, after that. I suppose I hoped this avoidance would be noticed and redressed, but it wasn’t of course. I did watch him from afar when I could but was careful not to be seen.
My feelings for Martin, however compelling, hadn’t totally subsumed all my energies. I still was curious about Millicent’s new beau and I’d managed to find out a good deal about him simply by habituating the St. Juste’s café. Two aristocrat ladies, one Russian, one Bulgarian, swathed in fur coats and hats, twinkling with jewel-studded lorgnettes, brooches and cigarette cases, discussed the hotel’s inhabitants, past and present, in impeccable French, the better part of each morning while downing a formidable number of coffees. Their reconnaissance arrived from chambermaids, shopkeepers, ex-fiancés, relations, valets, dressmakers, friends, even the person themselves, if one was incautious enough to let out an confidence, and was synthesized with shrewdness, expertise, and something one must really call wisdom, to a whole. They were artisans of their craft. What they knew of Millicent was remarkably accurate (my presence, incidentally, dismissed in a sentence or two) and I had little doubt of the credence of what they said about Henry.
The salient points were this: Henry Carstairs was gorgeously rich, American, Catholic, of the humblest of origins, widowed, handsome, respectable, and had a growing reputation as a philanthropist. His Irish parents had been killed in a car accident when he was eight, he’d been brought up by nuns in an orphanage in San Pedro, California. He married his childhood sweetheart who promptly died giving birth to a stillborn son. By the age of thirty, he had made his fortune in prospecting and then went on to a diverse array of businesses including oil, shale and ammunitions. He went on to have distinguished himself in the war and donated much to the Red Cross. For a California millionaire he seemed to have little interest in Hollywood, something the aristocratic ladies found disappointing, but conceded was probably to his credit.
I didn’t speak of Henry to Millicent, but merely kept close observation. She was out of the flat a good amount and when she returned it was to change frocks or catch a nap. I’d see her lying on the divan, cucumber slices over her eyes, face slathered in cream, nails resting in a milky orange fluid. The phone rang often, Henry picking her up early for full salubrious days of motoring and dining and even tennis, although it must have been an indoor court with the Mistral blowing as it did. I saw them on the promenade or driving through the streets in his American motorcar; Millicent looked different–younger, I suppose–browned and smiling. I wondered if she would catch Martin Davingnon’s eye, and felt a sharp pang of equal parts intrigue and sickness at the prospect: of course she would. Well, I thought, at least I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t answer the question honestly.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com