Millicent gets engaged and the mystery of the dead man is revealed (or is it…?)
As I emerged from the hotel to head for the Old Ville for dinner, I found the pavement rather empty, as if the other habitants of Nice were still huddled inside. Turning onto a side street, I paused in my progress seeing Henry and Millicent framed in the picture window at Chez Frambal, dining a deux. I watched them for a moment and then headed on for my own dinner—-octopus, unexpectedly delicious with garlic, accompanied by a very good wine-—and when I returned, they were still there. Again I stopped, feeling a funny, detached affection for Millicent. I was about to move along when I saw he was taking her hand in his, head bent at a somehow unmistakable tilt: he was asking her to marry him. Millicent seemed unsurprised. A garcon arrived proffering a bottle of champagne, beaming. Someone cleared their throat pointedly behind me: a shopkeeper sweeping up. When I glanced back, another couple was being seated, obscuring my view. With a murmur of apology, I moved out of the path of the shopkeeper’s broom to the hotel.
Millicent appeared several hours later in the middle of the coffee I’d ordered from room service, a look of relaxation so altering her usual expression, for a moment I didn’t recognize her. She declined my offer of coffee, saying she’d had a bottle of wine sent up to the room. It arrived, and as the wind had died down in the evening, we went out on the terrace.
One of the Count’s throws lay on the chaise lounge and I swaddled myself loosely enough that I could reach the pack of cigarettes and lighter. Carried on the breeze, the distant sibilance of the ocean seem to refract from the corners of soft darkness of the patio, and I exhaled, the smoke wafting away to reveal stars just beginning to signal through a inky indigo sky. I took a sip of wine and felt myself sink into the chaise lounge, growing warm.
Millicent told me of her day, motoring through Provence with Henry, the markets he had shown her, the confection they discovered called ‘mayflies’ concocted of spun sugar and as ephemeral as their namesake; how Henry had helped an elderly woman ring her grandchild in America at a callbox; his interest in architecture, particularly the churches and cathedrals, the exploration of which he was an unrelenting tourist. Enthusiasm crept into her words from time to time, and she would pause to smile mockingly at herself.
As she talked, I could see her pleasure tempered by calculation. She wanted to marry him, gentle Henry in the yellow suit. But what to do with me? I thought I had felt her speculative gaze in the last week when she thought my mind elsewhere, and it occurred what sort of questions she might have been mulling with Henry’s proposal seeming imminent. Would she insult me by offering money? Would she insult me by not offering money? What might I want? How much, really in all fairness, did she owe me, especially after my assistance in covering up a man’s murder? I don’t imagine she was churlish in these considerations. Millicent was too practical to want anything but to insure our best interests. But certainly this must be a calculation even her upbringing hadn’t led her to make easily.
Feeling so relaxed, with a long fruitless day of searching for Martin D’Avignon behind me, something I had done while pretending I was merely shopping, my eyes darting about in a furtive manner, I felt impatient with tactfulness or circumlocution, especially from Millicent, whose absence of these qualities I had come to rely upon. Or perhaps it was the wine.
“I want you to marry Henry,” I interrupted, with an abruptness I hadn’t intended. I added then, more gently: “It’s a fine thing, Millicent.”
Millicent stopped talking, and smiled, to my astonishment, with a faint glitter of tears in her eyes.
“Funny you should say that, Ramona,” she said. “He asked me tonight.”
“I thought he had.” I hadn’t intended to say this either. “I caught sight of you when I was coming back from dinner. Congratulations.”
“Ever the spy, eh, Ramona?” she said, but there was no sting to the words. “But congratulations aren’t quite in order. If you’d spied long enough you might have seen I didn’t actually give him an answer.”
“Oh! Why not?”
“I suppose I thought I should speak to you first.”
“I don’t know why.”
“Yes, you bloody well do.”
“All right. Well, I believe you should say yes.”
“That’s good of you, Ramona,” she said. “To give your blessing.”
I shrugged and shook my head.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “You know it is.”
“All right, then. It’s fantastic of me,” I said. She laughed. “You’re a little drunk, aren’t you?”
“I suppose. I had wine with dinner. I’m glad, Millicent. He seems a good man.”
“Yes. I’ve known all manner of bores and blighters and Lotharios-—both the real sort and the self-imagined—-and some real bastards, too, mind you. And God knows I’m a bad lot,” she sighed comfortably. “But. Well-—there’s Henry. Henry’s rather nice.”
“Good,” I said. “I thought so.”
“He’s a Catholic, of course,” Millicent said, rolling her eyes. “Goes to Mass and all that nonsense. But I don’t mind so much.” She tilted her head consideringly. “Didn’t want to go to bed before we got married. I told him I wasn’t marrying anyone I hadn’t gone to bed with. Poor lamb, struggled valiantly, but lust won out in the end, as it usually does. Honestly, it was fun to watch him battle it out. And I wasn’t at all sure he would want to marry a non-Catholic, much less scandalous divorcee, like myself. More’s the pleasant surprise. Another?”
I held out my glass. “I believe he makes you happy, Millicent.”
She waved her hand. “Mawkish sentiment.”
She lowered the wine bottle. “I’ve always thought such things sounded crashingly deluded in other people. Ah, well, perhaps I’m on my way to being as dull as everyone else.”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” I said.
“Cheeky monkey. But really, I’m…well, it’s different than before. I even think of having a baby sometimes.” She caught my glance. “Well I’ve not gone utterly mad, Ramona. Oh, did I tell you he’s bought some property in England? Henry is the worst anglophile, only sees the grand self-sacrificing or the quaint, never all the grim, dreary bits. That house is perfectly absurd-—the old Vandolin estate—-I don’t suppose you had any occasion to go there, but it’s monstrous. Just the right place for the industrialist reborn as gentleman philanthropist, poor idiot. I suppose he’ll want me to make it over and then Mother’s training finally come home to rest.”
There was a lull as we contemplated these things for a moment.
“Now what about you?” She said.
“You needn’t worry about me.”
“Really, I shall do all right on my own.”
“Well, you needn’t live like you did in London.”
“I don’t want your m—”
“Best not be precipitous, I think. Think about what you do. Come now, there has to be something, isn’t there.”
I sipped my wine and stared at my hands. “Well, I suppose there is.”
“Of course there is. Come on then. Out with it.”
“I want to know what happened, Millicent.”
Her face was wiped of expression: not cold, strangely, just sobered, wary. She must have been waiting for this moment for a long time.
“You’re sure you do?”
“Quite sure,” I said.
“You’d have to pretend, if anything should ever happen,” she warned. “You couldn’t just—-”
“I’m willing to take that risk,” I said. “Anyway, someone told me just the other day I was a surprisingly good liar.”
“Oh, I know that. Well, with everyone else but me, Ramona, if you’ll notice. Still, it might be different if the authorities ever came involved.”
“I think I’d manage.”
She glanced at me, opened her mouth, and then closed it.
“All right,” she said, finally. “I can see you’re set on it. Shall we at least move inside?”
I almost protested, snug in my little nest on the divan, but I recognized this as imprudent; the wind had freshened, our voices might carry.
She sighed. “If your ravening curiosity can wait a moment, I’m in need of fortification. I didn’t really get many prawns down my gullet at dinner with all that proposing nonsense.”
She emerged from the kitchen with bread, a wedge of cheese and an apple, and tucking her legs underneath her, she began peeling the apple.
“Well. You have a right to know, Ramona. I suppose I can see that. But I can only do this on a few conditions.”
I felt the lassitude of the wine and the congratulatory mood recede.
She raised the knife to indicate the first condition. “After tonight, we won’t speak of it again. Ever. And—-”
“Ever!” I repeated. “Why?”
“Because,” she began heatedly then stopped. “Because I have a new life waiting for me. And I don’t want any loose ends straggling about. I don’t want the phone ringing or you showing up unexpectedly with just another teensy little question for me.”
I let this bit of unreasonableness pass, watching and waiting as I took another sip of wine.
“I need to know the door’s shut. It’s only fair, don’t you think?” she said.
“I don’t know if I’d say—” I began.
“I’m not finished. Now, secondly, if I’m going to tell you, you mustn’t pester me.
I’ll talk, you listen. No questions, no interruptions.”
“That’s the only way,” she said with finality, although her look was an entreaty.
“Millicent,” and I tried to temper my voice through a tide of rising incredulity.
“Not to ask any questions—that’s a bit absurd, don’t you think?”
“Please, Ramona. Please.”
Her eyes, dark and shining, sought mine. The word lay as if between us and to me rather shocking; the very fact of it is, I don’t know if I had ever her heard her say it before. I was, just as taken aback by this, how clearly it illustrated ours places in the family. I forgot, sometimes, since Edward Depilliar had been buried.
“Ramona. Come on then. Really, it’s a stupid thing, one I’m not very proud of. I can’t be asked about every little tiny detail. Too gruesome.”
“Well, I don’t believe I intended—-”
“Let me do this one last thing. I’ve managed everything so far, haven’t I? I’ll tell you, I promise, just let me do it in my own way.” She held my gaze.
“All right,” I sighed, finally. “All right then.”
I sighed resignedly. “I promise, Millicent.”
“Thank you, Ramona,” she breathed. “That’s white of you. Why you always agree to my nonsense, I’ll never know, but you have, so it’s done then.” She put aside the peeled apple, sliced and untouched, and picked up her wine. “God, I need a cigarette.”
I tossed the pack to her. She lit one, took a long draw, and I felt an earlier Millicent return, her voice snapping to life with bitterness.
“All right. Yes, as you may have guessed, this man-—I believe you know his name now—-and I had been having an affair. Not l’amour fou, incidentally, lest you think it a crime passionel. I was just looking for a way to pass a little time. Him, too, although there was the added spice of annoying his wife—-she’s held all the filthy lucre, don’t you know, and he rather despised her for it. But still, for what happened; passion would have been better reason. So it goes, eh?”
“I’d met him at Charn’s Open hunt last year. He seemed intrigued, although I don’t remember myself being particularly. So began the usual flirtations—-incidentally, I was by no means the first of his extramarital dawdlings; word had it he went in for the children’s nannies like clockwork, and some of the day maids besides, but one doesn’t really count those, does one? Plenty of bored wives of diplomats, society trollops, widows of important men in need of ‘entertainment’-—you get the idea. Bizarre how our lot eggs each other on, when the affairs tend to end in disaster—although the particular finality of this one is rather the exception. Well, I think so…one never knows.”
“So, where was I-—oh, yes. I was sick of the gossip mill and agreed to the liason only if we kept it secret, which suited him perfectly-—the wifey was threatening to stop his allowance if his romances made the papers again. We had our assignations at the Quai Inn amongst other places. Funny how you noticed him Ramona, at luncheon that day. And yes, of course we’d arranged it. I took you to task, I remember. You did look so unbearably keen.”
“Rendezvous continued just like always, the hunts, the balls and so forth. We ran into each other rather often. He was often away on business. Brussels, Luxembourg, Copenhagen, and so forth so our affair came about at a more protracted pace. He returned to London late October only to whisk back off to a meeting in Dublin and back—-was it Dublin? I lost track. We arranged he’d come to the country, perhaps even round to old Helvstead, as he and I both liked riding, and there was no one about really. Except you, of course, but that was easy enough to get ‘round. Really, it was my set I worried about. But they were all away at Rahl Sturgeon’s weekend confab.”
“So there he was. I think he was a bit sozzled, although he’s not the type to show it. Arrived and wanted to ride immediately, ‘chase the cobwebs away,’ a favorite cliché of his. We had quite a race over the fields-—really, he’s lucky Cheddars didn’t break a leg the way he used the switch. He was a good mount but still…I’ve been riding long enough around those fields to know what jumps to take. Can’t say the same for him. We finished. I won. He asked if I was as good a shot as I was a mount. He said he had always wondered if a woman could shoot as well as a man.”
“Really, though I think he was just looking for a fight, you know. He usually was under those insinuating manners of his. I told him I hadn’t really an opinion on the subject-—which is true-—pronouncements like that are so bloody useless in the end, aren’t they. But he got it into his head we’d find out. He set up a bottle from his pack and I shot them off in four shots. Not really spectacular marksmanship, but he made a rather a lot of it and set up his own. It took him five. He set up another few, didn’t hit a one, then handed me the gun. I shot them clean.”
“He held up a book from his pack—told me to shoot it out of his hand. At first I thought it was an old prayer book, but it was The Count of Monte Christo of all things-—his son’s copy, I believe, he was supposed to have passed along, but had forgotten of course.”
She sighed. “And you know it never occurred to me to just plainly miss. Just go far and wide.” She raised her eyes heavenwards. “Just imagine the grief I might have spared myself if I had! He could have crowed all he liked and it would have ended there. Really, it’s all too absurd.”
“Well,” she sighed. She leaned forward and ashed her cigarette. “I did it. Shot it out of his hand. He took a last glug, then insisted I try his flask. I told him not to be a bloody fool but he said he wouldn’t leave until I did. ‘Bad idea, Eddie,” I said. “I’ll shoot you and that horrid flask. Come on then, forget about it.’
“But he wouldn’t have it. Oh, he was very calm and collected, but he wasn’t budging until I did what he wanted. I knew it was idiotic but I was getting quite hungry and it seemed like I’d have much better luck if I just went ahead and did the fool thing rather than try to persuade him out of it. He put his hand out, holding that flask—bit chicken in the end wasn’t he. I raised the pistol and…” She looked up at me.
“And, well, I missed. “
There was a pause.
“In all fairness to myself, I must say he really was rather drunk–and wavering on his feet a bit. But still, the truth is I missed. Or I missed the flask.” She lifted her shoulders in a helpless gesture. “So perhaps, he was right. No woman is as good a shot as a man. Rather horrid way for him to find out, but they you are. And so I went to find you. Thank heavens I know where everything is, shovels and what not at Helvstead. All that blood. It’s a wonder, isn’t it? ” She stopped to look at me. “Gave you rather a moment when he–moved like that, yes? Really, I think it can be rather unexpectedly hard to kill someone. Charlie–Commander Charles–often said so, after all his…‘experiences’ in the war. Once took him over an hour of eviscerating some Nazi in a fox hole and the man still hadn’t died. Finally had to break his neck is some horrid manner.” She exhaled. “There you go, Ramona. Not all that interesting, I suppose,” she shrugged. “And certainly amazingly stupid. But I can’t help that now.”
I waited, sipping my wine. When nothing else was forthcoming I looked at her, her face still and unblinking, subtly challenging in its utter benignity. She leaned over and lit another cigarette.
“Honestly, though, Ramona, I don’t see how society would be improved by my hanging. I would rather like to hear someone argue otherwise, besides one of those grubby socialist types who have it in for my sort anyway. But really, who would benefit?”
I ignored this for the rhetorical question it was, my mind busy rolling back to that day Millicent had appeared before me. I didn’t remember alcohol on her breath. Where had this gun gone? Why had I not wondered about this, most painfully obvious thing, before? For a moment I saw her as I did that day we buried him, her head against the dark veil of the sky, and felt a little dizzy. What did I know of guns anyway? And why would she not tell me? What further thing could I not know? It was too weighty to probe with Millicent there, watchful and waiting for me to indicate the relief of my burden of curiosity.
“So. There you are then,” she said.
I recognized this as both prompt and a gauntlet.
“Yes,” I said, with a nod, and a smoothness that surprised myself. “It’s rather what I imagined might have happened.”
I saw her looking at me levelly from under her brows.
I smiled. “Really, Millicent. I’m quite satisfied. It’s just—-I wanted to know, you see.”
“Yes. I would have told you too—-I don’t know why you’ve waited so long. You’ve been rather patient, to tell the truth, haven’t you?” she said.
I’d almost forgotten Millicent’s ability to make a passing remark, even a complimentary one, sound like an insult. That she might resent the hold this knowledge might have over her, strangely, had never occurred to me, as I assumed, that like any situation, she would have the upper hand. Quite possibly, being Millicent, the idea that it was sentiment or only weakness that prevented me from doing anything with this information would irritate more than assure her.
“Now, I have a question for you,” Millicent said. “How did you pay for those things from Oxford?”
“Come on, then. Those ridiculous wooden brogues, and that painting. And you bought a hat. Other things.”
“Oh. Yes,” I said.
“You tucked that receipt away so I wouldn’t see how much they cost.” She went on when I didn’t reply. “I thought you were dead broke.”
Her voice sounded more amused than angry. I nodded, feeling a prickle in my scalp.
“So what changed, dear girl? Not selling off a bit of this and a bit of that are you Ramona? Skimming just a little bit from the Helvstead house coffers? The knickies and the knackies?”
I suppose it must have been in my expression. She threw back her head and laughed.
“I thought so. And all those horrid old first editions. Library’s chock full of them, isn’t it? Not to mention the tempting ceramic doodle and marble whatnots and curiosities laying around. You had been selling them off, haven’t you? A bit here and there? You little thief. And embezzler, now that I think of it.”
I said nothing.
“Oh Ramona. Go ahead get that expressionless…expression off your face. Very unpleasant. Look, I’m relieved, to tell you the truth, to see a crack in the veneer of that unremitting virtue. Anyway, I suppose you could say it’s just desserts. Your mother was done one over by the family, I’ve always said so. Now, you could have just asked for money, instead of this absurd pilfering. After all those times I practically had to jam a pound note in your handbag–” she broke off, amused. “Still, to tell you the truth and I’m delighted to get rid of Helvstead’s–let’s call it…detritus, shall we?–laying about. Particularly Mummy’s things. That’s why I didn’t say anything earlier. Although you best be careful or Molly will be onto you before you can say knife. If she’d been around more in the last year, she would have.”
The silence lengthened as I mulled this, finding to my surprise, while uncomfortable, I wasn’t writhing in mortification. Millicent was too shrewd not to mention such information as a sign of her hold on me. She did this not to threaten, but as reminder the perils of exposure could go either way.
There was a discreet knock on the front door; Millicent raised her eyebrows and rose to answer. A maid stood holding a large bouquet in a crystal vase, burbling in French, which I translated: although very late, she’d been instructed to knock if there was a light under the door.
“Oh, Henry,” said Millicent with irritation accepting the vase, yellow and white roses, bougainvillea and some twining green vine that twirled into little eddying spirals, so exquisitely well-arranged, it seemed like a recently discovered flowering plant of its own. She pulled out the envelope.
“‘Say yes, darling, and make me the happiest man alive.’ God. Are all men such schoolboys?” she smiled. “Henry, at least, is without some of the usual clumsiness. I suppose that is because he is actually a kind person. But still…” She fluffed the blossoms with a derogatory snort. “Well. Are we through with this…mutual recitation, then?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, Millicent I believe we are.”
“Well, thank god for that. Now, let’s polish this off, shall we?” she said, returning the chaise lounge and raising the bottle over my glass.
Later, as I turned over in the softness of my bed, I felt it, acutely: we were closer and further apart than we had ever been.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.