Millicent writes from her honeymoon, Ramona makes plans for what is next after the idyll in Nice and sleeps with a strange man
Millicent rung Henry early and by the muffled exclamations I could only assume she had accepted his proposal. After I’d crept, more than a little hung-over, out of bed, she beckoned me into her bedroom, where she was eating fried eggs and smoking in her silk peignoir. She told me of their plans: they would marry in Monte Carlo, within the week, at Henry’s insistence, followed by a honeymoon in Italy. The eggs smelled ghastly, I was much more hungover than I realized but the news had distracted me. As I felt the smile cross my face, it stopped and I promptly ran to the toilet and was very ill.
“Fried eggs,” I had panted, lifting my head from the basin. “Sorry. I really drank too much last night. The smell. Not the news. Really. I’m so very glad. Millicent. Congratulations.”
Millicent had looked at me, paused, and laughed.
The flat hummed with hotel staff the night before she left, and smelled of sachets and ironed wool and linen. There were the sounds of rustling paper and barked orders as Millicent’s new wardrobe, gleaned from the finest shops in Nice, was expertly packed. I caught sight of Millicent lying in her bed, in heavy ecru silk pajamas, eating a crème brulee, surrounded by yawning steamer trunks and bustling servants. Putting her bowl and spoon aside, half-finished, she put her arms behind her head, and surveyed the room with satisfaction.
Millicent looked lovely, if not particularly bridal, the next morning, wearing a lemon-yellow frock with white polka-dots, and matching spectator pumps. We stood outside in a flurry of activity, Millicent scanning the road for Henry, keeping up a stream of ever-increasing imprecations against the French. It had started after discovering the hotel staff had misplaced her cosmetics bag, and seemed to gain steam, drawn out by nerves, as she waited. I’d never have said so, but I thought she sounded not unlike Molly.
“Finally! There he is,” Millicent abruptly ceased her diatribe, turned to me, her voice loosing its edge, becoming flat, practical. “Look there isn’t much time, Ramona. I’ve made some arrangements. I’ve left it till just now so you can’t argue: no, just listen. There’s an account in your name; you need only call Siegel and Siegel in London to get the bankbook. Over here, darling,” she called and I heard a squeal of brakes. “God! That old fool just walked out in front of Henry! Oh. Blind,” she corrected. “Just the sort of thing….” Her voice raised, she called in the direction of the car. “He’s fine, darling. Don’t fuss. Honestly,” she said, with a sigh. “He’s been an hour.”
She returned her attention to me.
“Now. Yes. The account is yours, Ramona, to do whatever you like, wherever you like—London, the Casbah, New York—you get the idea. It’s not an absolute fortune, but it’ll give you a start, along with a yearly allowance. Siegel will fill you in on the details. The flat here is paid through till the end of August—stay for as long as you like—and nearly everything can be sent on account to the hotel. I know you’ve liked it, especially as you’ve got with all that French you’ve been lording over me. Still, I wonder if you might want to go back, good English woman that you are. That account should give you some freedom. No—you mustn’t say anything. No. No nonsense, Ramona.” She caught sight of Henry, swinging the Austin around to park in a neat swoop beside us. “Well, finally, darling.”
I tipped a glance at my watch; five minutes early, but as he was usually fifteen, this could be constituted as lateness. Henry hopped out, smiling. I’d only seen him at a distance, registering him as a tall fair man with broad shoulders in light-colored suits. Up close, I saw the fairness of hair, extended to lashes and brows that made him look a little indefinite at a distance, stood in direct contrast to his features, which the film star magazines would describe as rugged. He was handsome, surely, but it took a little bit of looking to realize how handsome. His expression was open, kindly, a bit wry, his eyes had an calm intelligent look to them. He offered me his hand.
“Miss Bright. I am so happy to make your acquaintance.”
He spoke in a grateful manner, and I wondered what Millicent told him as far as my being an impediment to their marriage. But then, I suppose I was. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, which Millicent ended pointing out her pigskin suitcases that needed moving. Henry began shifting them to the car.
“Darling, let one of the garcons do that,” Millicent rebuked, something Henry, I noted with interest, didn’t heed. Well, well, I thought: this one didn’t seem to take orders. Millicent made an exasperated noise.
“So,” I said clearing my throat. “Congratulations. I’m afraid I don’t know what I shall get you and Henry for a present,” I said trying to make a joke of it, but some of the worry seeped into my voice.
Millicent’s eyes searched mine. “Ramona. You ought to know the answer to that. You’ve given me more than I can ever repay.”
Somehow she carried this calculated sentiment off with conviction. But then, perhaps, I’d prompted her, even if we both were aware of an element of pantomime, for they were words I wanted to hear. Henry came round and held her door open.
“All right. Enough. I must go,” said Millicent. She gave me a short, sharp embrace before lowering herself into her seat. “No weepy goodbyes, please. Enjoy the flat. Henry, do stop fooling with that.”
“We don’t want it to fly out the window,” he said, unruffled, bundling a last package into the depths of the car seat. He shook my hand once more, and with a smile both wry and beneficent, climbed in the car. A toot on the horn, a final wave of gloved hand, and they disappeared down the palm-lined quay.
That afternoon, on the balcony, I stood holding one of the Count’s books, a leather-bound copy of David Copperfield, thinking I hadn’t read anything besides newspapers or magazines in ages and it was about time I tried. I held it, my thumb running over the heavy embossed letters as I stared out to sea, surveying the ocean, just beginning to stir into whitecaps with the wind.
This was often a poignant juncture sometimes mentioned in the women’s magazines, when a woman’s sister or cousin or best friend becomes a bride, and knowing things would never be the same once she is catapulted behind the citadel of marriage. I thought of the unexpected ease that living together had forged, as if the ease had always been there and might always be so. But that sense of the present being suspended, boundless, eternal, had been utterly false; such a thing could only be a finite. And it was very difficult to imagine circumstances that might lead to our living together—at Helvstead or anywhere else for that matter—or even taking such a trip to Nice—as we had.
But this thought proved less painful than I expected. I leaned into the balcony, feeling the warm metal of the railing against the arm. The book felt heavy, almost sodden in my hand, I was aware of the texture of the leather, thick and grainy, almost unpleasant to the touch, and I placed it on the ledge. While the pain of the morning’s parting had been real, I also felt an unmistakable relief. I watched the sea, not lost so much lost in reverie, but feeling aware of every plangent whisper of the waves, every gust of air on which they were carried, the sun growing hot on my back, the mimosa in their preposterous fluffy yellow bloomed in the corner of my eye.
The chambermaid peeped out with a question, I called some instruction; I didn’t even notice when I spoke in French anymore, I’d grown so accustomed to it. She retreated, and as I turned, I brushed the Count’s book with an elbow and turned just in time to see it tumbling off the balcony. I heard it land after a few seconds with a decided thump. I craned over, looking, listening for sound of distress of an elderly Italian countess having her head stowed in by a first edition. No such thing arrived and finally my eyes lit upon the book, lying off to the side of the footpath, open, in the grass, face up, looking quite undamaged.
I looked at it for a moment, then turned away, calling to the chambermaid to run my bath.
Those last few weeks in Nice, the mistral finally blew itself out, leaving a summery spring in its wake. Vines that had been twining round gates and lampposts, listless and desiccated, burst into flower and the palm trees lost their frayed look and became glossy and green. Clementine’s filled the trees and the mimosa began its first soft, powdery yellow blooms. The air had an inexpressible tang to it, the combination of spring and sea.
I received a letter from Millicent five days later, dashed off from Hotel Royale in Monte Carlo:
Henry and I were married yesterday in a tiny chapel by the sea—lovely, except the priest who married us, who looked rather like a wart hog—and took some dislike to me, can you imagine, at the exorbitant rates they charge. Henry says to be sure and send his regards, by the by, so dutiful wife that I am–and you’d laugh to know I do mean that–here they are.
The roulette wheel, on other hand, seems to have no hesitation in blessing the union; I’ve been on the most ludicrous winning streak, nearly 50,000 francs in the last few days. A louche old Hungarian countess called me some filthy names last night, scandalizing Henry; he, like most Americans, have the most amusing ideas about the aristocracy.
We’re heading for Lake Como, then Florence, Rome, etc. Good thing, too, I’m getting bored with all this winning. Remember, stay at St. Juste as long as you like. And don’t forget to ring Siegel and Siegel, will you?
I placed it on my bureau, but, on second thought tucked it neatly away in my suitcase.
Then, I received a note, left at the desk, buried in a pile of Millicent’s bills, from Martin. The bills I forwarded to Siegel’s, the note I took to the café, taking a shaded seat in the outdoor patio, placed my order and after my café crème and croissant arrived I opened it. It was dated eight days earlier.
Just got back from a weekend of hiking in the Estrevel, where none of the boys, despite their best efforts, managed to harm themselves, or at least with any degree of permanence. We are off tomorrow, back to the drear of jolly old England. Enjoy Nice. And keep up with the French—you really are rather good. Best of luck to your cousin on her impending nuptials.
I put it down, thinking of the week days of agonized suspense, thinking five times an hour I had seen him as I turned corners, emerged out of buses, taxis. How very strange, that great store of anticipation leading to nothing at all. I stared out past my untouched croissant which seemed, by some trick of my glazed staring, levitating on the horizon half over the glossy turquoise waters like some monstrosity. I’d most likely never see him again. This thought brought no crash of misery more, a sensation of emptiness, futility, like I was mourning a gust of wind to which I’d taken a mad passion.
The sun had shoved the shade out its way on my table as it crept to noon, baking the milky residue of my cappuccino to the inside of the cup. If Millicent had been sitting with me, this cup would have already been whisked away, with offers for another, and if that was declined, tea, orange juice or a side of beef, without a blink.
“Waiter,” I called in French, motioning for another cafe. “And this croissant is stale.”
“Oui, madam,” he said, with a bored, placating tone, only to move with alacrity to seat the Russian and Bulgarian gossips, smiling unctuously at them. They sat behind the screen of some bushes and a striped canvas shelter, but I could hear them speaking in their accented French quite clearly.
“Finally,” said one. “A little sun.”
“You will be broiling soon,” said the other. “Pink as a ham. Don’t forget that, Nadia.”
The spoke as to who was descending upon the St. Juste, who departed, and of those, who was dead, divorced, face-lifted, dipsomaniac, newly married, pregnant or emerging from a ‘rest.’
I heard the rattle of cups as their coffees arrived.
“Pass the sugar. Why is that Englishwoman still here, when her cousin has left with the American millionaire?
“Oh, Nadia, you’ve been to England! Seeking asylum from that horrible rain and gloom, of course. No wonder all the English are so very strange. Oooo—yummy, yummy gateau de chocolate today, you really ought to forget your slimming.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re so slender.”
There was demurral and debate, but ending in the garcon being summoned for another slice. He felt my impatient eye on him, but ignored it. I watched him retreat to the hotel for the cake. Since Millicent had left, it was clear, my unimportance had reasserted itself. The ladies discussed the details of Millicent’s elopement, her peignoir, Henry’s fortune, then circled back to me.
“Not quite up to snuff for the St. Juste.”
“…I just think it’s very strange.”
“But that fellow she was after—I heard it from the concierge—every day she asked if there was a message for her? That principal or teacher or whatever he was—is gone. Good thing too. Do you know, I swear Estelle had her eye on him the other day. ”
“No man is safe from that old harridan. But he was very handsome. Even better looking than my Clement.”
“Your Clement is a nice big boy. That one—a little too lean.”
“I like them nice and big.”
“You like them under thirty, is what you like, naughty one. And musical. Did Clement finally make the orchestra?”
“You know he didn’t. Just because your Paulo couldn’t come down this weekend—”
The other one sighed. “Dear Paolo.”
“Very ‘dear’ indeed—with that stickpin you bought him.”
They both laughed.
A stout young man, with ruddy cheeks, large blue eyes surrounded by very dark lashes and eyebrows, and, indeed very handsome, crossed the café, holding flowers, craning his head around till he alighted on them and broke into a smile almost theatrical in its pleasure.
“For the most beautiful woman in Nice,” I heard him say, behind me.
“Oh you foolish boy. Look, he’s wearing the stickpin. See? Does the amethyst not compliment his eyes beautifully?”
I tucked my things into my pocket book and left. I saw the waiter deliver the café crème to my empty table, look around, and shrug, leaving the cup steaming in the sun.
Five days later after the first, I received another missive, this time from the elaborately stenciled stationary from the Demedici Hotel:
I’m finding Italy a bit more than I bargained for—a honeymoon is an odd time, don’t you think, to have a fervent renewal of one’s religious upbringing? Henry is positively gorging himself on religious excess. He laughs and says I’m being foolish but then he goes all calf-sick looking at some grotty little chapel. Those American nuns got even more of a foothold than I realized.
Have the mimosa begun to bloom? I do like that in Nice. But be careful—Nice is filled with gigolos this time of year, and staying at the St. Juste, you might very well encounter a few. Whatever happened to that dark-haired fellow you were pining after? You didn’t really think I hadn’t noticed, did you? You never do tell me anything, Ramona, but I’ve got eyes.
A week later another letter lay waiting for me at the concierge’s desk, from the Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome decorated with Italian stamps.
Got your letter. Good to hear you’re still having a fine time of it. You failed to mention the man, but I won’t press, for now. To answer your question: Blanche Villette. Her shop is next to the café with those enormous meringues. Give my name, you’ll get a nice little discount. A new wardrobe for you too, Ms. Bright? Her silk knickers are particularly nice.
I hoped perhaps Henry was over his religious fit when we left Padua, but things are much the same in Rome—worse in fact. He’s gone and found himself a priest, name of Father Shaunessy on holiday from Boston. He has the most affected and theatrically penetrating stare, as if he can see all of one’s grubby little sins; it’s the sort of thing that can only be perfected by practicing in the mirror for hours. But it seems to have impressed Henry enormously; they have interminable talks about sin and Catholic law. And then they go look at their churches and relics (the later of which Ramona, I’ve disgraced myself several times over by now) and talk and talk and talk.
Do you know yesterday I actually found myself feeling rather jealous of the Basilica; one rather hopes a husband looks at oneself with that ardor, especially during a honeymoon. Not that Henry is neglecting his husbandly duties, as one might imagine during such a religious paroxysm. Still, outside the hotel room, with the Vatican and so many saint’s knucklebones to moon over, I might as well not be here. I’ve taken refuge in the shops. Most of the spoils have to be shipped, except for the jewels. Will be interesting when Henry sees the bills.
I did forget to mention in our hasty departure you are welcome to stay at Helvstead after you return to jolly old. And no, I’m not angling for you to take the responsibility of a certain monstrous elderly servant off my hands, so you needn’t include that in your calculations. Personally I think it would be lunacy sitting in the country in that wretched house, but you do what you want. You might as well.
We’ll be back in a few weeks; I’ll pop round to see how the old horror (Molly not H) is doing. Haven’t broken it to her yet I’ve married a Papist; should be an interesting conversation, although I do wonder if even she will be able to dislike Henry. No one ever quite seems to. Rather disgusting, if you want to know the truth, however much I can’t claim to be any different. But perhaps the old girl won’t disappoint. She is the only one I can say that never has.
p.s. do grab anything from Helvstead—furniture, paintings, silver, even that little Constable you’ve been eyeing since you got there—and yes, it is a Constable—for your own flat, wherever that might be. Mummy’d roll in her grave, eh?
I put the letter down on the table, tapping my lip with the envelope. So far, my brain turned mulishly blank when I tried to envision a return. But the sense of permanent holiday had a sudden and irreparable rupture. Perhaps I simply recognized, as alluring as it was here, without Millicent as a buffer it was not quite as pleasant in Nice. And I felt an urge—somewhat irrational—to have my things out of Helvstead before they returned, as if they might contain some contaminant of the recent past, some trace of Edward Depilliar.
And there was no Martin in Nice anymore.
The tourists were trickling back. When I went for my walks now, I even saw a few hearty bathers had made their way into the sea. The restaurants and hotels were more crowded. All in all, it was coming time to go home.
I spent my last week in Nice without incident, with one exception: I brought a man back to the flat.
I had sat next to him at lunch at the Fleur de Mer, a quiet restaurant a few blocks from the hotel, frequented by locals. I’d seen him before dining with his wife: medium-height, horn-rimmed glasses, that curious craggy Gallic handsomeness, capped by a large nose. The waiter had just placed dessert in front of him, fruit and ice cream, and after a moment, I asked what it was. When the waiter returned I ordered a Peach Melba for myself. The man complemented me on my French and insisted I join him at his table.
It was so simple that afternoon. One moment led to the next and before I knew it, I’d invited him for a drink at the flat. His skin was very brown. He left before tea-time, with remarkable little awkwardness, each item of clothing transforming him back into the respectable bureaucrat he had been when he arrived.
“Lovely room,” he said, with an appreciative nod, as he looked around.
I nodded my agreement. I didn’t tell him it was Millicent’s. I still lay under the sheets when he left; we smiled our goodbyes rather than speaking. I sat there smoking for a time after he left, staring out to sea.
A few days, I stood having a last look round for anything I might have left or, really, wish to take with me. St. Aloysius, who had kept such steady vigil in my bedroom lay at the bottom of one of my trunks, swaddled in one of the second-hand wool skirts Millicent had given me at Helvstead.
I made my way to Paris and the ferry to London. How clipped English voices sounded after the liquid elegance of French. I purchased a coffee, tied a kerchief round my hair against the wind on deck. The clouds stretched in heavy, almost slack, undulations, the air, cool and damp. I found an empty table and opened the Telegraph I’d been keeping in my handbag since I’d picked it up in the lobby of the Hotel St. Juste a week earlier. I pulled out the front section.
Edward Depillar Presumed Dead
‘I’m afraid it is impossible for us to tell what has happened,’ said Senior Officer Villpins. ‘Certainly there is the possibility of foul play; however it is no less likely that Mr. Depilliar simply met with an unfortunate accident. Everyone has offered full cooperation, from the hotelier where he was last seen to his family to the public, and we hope through this continued work we may yet find some answers. The case will remain open, although currently all active inquiries have been exhausted.”
I walked to the railing, feeling the coolness of the metal through my thin coat. The boat heaved very slowly, soothing as a rocking cradle. A breeze tugged at the folded paper. I didn’t resist, and after a moment, I felt the paper leave my hand to fly out high over the water till it fell into the wake, watching it till we were far out of sight.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.