Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (10 page)

No one in the party minded when she excused herself early from dinner. By then they were absorbed in a good-natured debate about the differences between the Italian waiters and the waiters they'd left behind in Budapest. They paused only to agree to meet the next morning for a hike, and to wish Madame de Potter good-night.

Back in her hotel room she reread the telegrams until she had memorized the details: the name of the ship, the name of its captain, the time of arrival in Piraeus. What was her husband doing on a ship bound for Piraeus? He was supposed to wait in Constantinople for the messenger to bring the copy of his passport and then to meet his wife in Toblach. But here she was in Toblach, reading the notice that he'd gone missing.

She tried to persuade herself that the Greek officials were misinformed. Wasn't it possible that Armand had never boarded the SS
Regele Carol
for Piraeus? Where was he, then? It could be that he was still in Constantinople. But what about the trunk with his belongings that had been left behind in Room 17? Oh, the trunk must have been put on the wrong ship in the confusion at the port—mix-ups like that weren't uncommon. Then how to explain that Armand had been listed on the manifest? That wasn't Armand—it was the thief who had stolen Armand's passport. Armand had received the duplicate passport and was on his way to meet his wife in Toblach. Or he was already back in Cannes, sound asleep in his comfortable new bed. Everything would be all right once the truth was sorted out. Or else a nightmare had begun that would last for the rest of Aimée's life, and Armand de Potter was to blame.

She couldn't help it; she was overcome by fury. Her husband was missing at sea. He had gone missing on purpose. She knew him too well and didn't have to wait for more information to fill in the blanks. Her husband had always been a weak man, too easily hurt by snubs and gossip. His fate was as obvious as if she'd been there to witness it. But he had made sure she wasn't there: the whole story of his missing passport had been a ruse to distract her. Everything about his life had been a ruse. The truth of his deception was as sharply outlined as the towering outcrops of the Dolomites outside her window, jagged silhouettes in the moonlight. He had married her to make her a widow. He who had authored his own impeccable reputation—he'd known all along that he wouldn't be able to keep up the pretense forever, yet she would be required to do just that in his absence. Oh, how she hated him right then. She hated him for being as weak as he was clever. She hated him for tricking her into marrying him, for letting her get used to her happiness and then abandoning her and their child. She had never hated anyone before, and now she hated the man she loved most in the world.

*   *   *

She hated her husband until the next day, when two letters from Armand arrived with the afternoon mail. Aimée's hand trembled as she accepted her mail from the desk clerk, but she had enough sense to return to her room rather than open the envelopes in the lobby.

The letters had been written on stationery of the Pera Palace Hotel and posted in Constantinople. One extended over several pages and the other was just half a page.

In the shorter of the two letters, Armand gave instructions on financial matters Aimée would need to attend to in his absence. The details were clear. She would find the key to his safe-deposit box in the upper right-hand drawer of his desk. Inside the box was his life insurance policy from Mutual Life, paid in full.

The longer letter confused her, and though she read it slowly, she was unable to comprehend its meaning.


Ma chérie
,” her husband wrote. “By the time you read this letter I will be gone to the Field of Amenti.” What was he saying—where was the Field of Amenti? Then came a declaration about the beauty of truth and an invocation to “Almighty, Everlasting God.” The letter was written in pencil. The words
I beg you
were crossed out, the sentence left unfinished. “Do not forget,” he wrote, “there is something to learn from every civilization.” For reasons he would never understand, he was never invited to join the Grand Loge. He hoped his son would have more success. He declared that he was a good Christian who believed in the transmigration of the soul. He listed evils he had
not
committed in his life: adultery, betrayal, the murder of another human being. He had never pointed a gun at anything other than a painted bull's-eye, even during his military service. He had never knowingly sowed discord. He wanted to make sure he said the appropriate prayers when the time came. He was writing to say goodbye to his sweet chérie. Oh, yes, she knew the meaning of goodbye. But what did palm wine, cinnamon, and myrrh have to do with anything? And who was “Prof. HH,” and what right did he have to call Armand a fraud? There had been a meeting in Constantinople. Armand didn't say what had gone wrong. It didn't matter, he insisted. He told her never to doubt his love for her and Victor. His conclusion made little sense and yet was presented as if it were a verdict reached through careful deliberation. He wrote, “Now that you have read to the end, you will understand why you must destroy this letter. You must destroy both letters immediately, for your own sake, and for the sake of our dear son.”

She would do anything for the sake of their son—but what was she supposed to understand? That Armand was never coming home? He loved her, that much was clear, and she loved him. Love was something she understood. She also understood that she was supposed to destroy the letters, and she would, as soon as she located the box of wooden matches she always carried in her purse. Where was that box? Here was her drawstring coin bag, her packet of calling cards, a pencil, her opera glasses, her train ticket and passport, and, at last, the matchbox. But the first match broke when she struck it, and though the second match lit, the flame sputtered out along the edge of the letter, and she needed a third match. Three matches it took to set the paper aflame, and then it took the second page to feed the flame, and then the second letter to keep it burning—three pages separated into smoke and a fine ash that smoldered in the basin of her sink and kept her mesmerized for just long enough that by the time she realized that she shouldn't have burned the letters without rereading them one more time, it was too late.

A moment later she could hardly remember what he'd written to her and still didn't understand why he'd wanted her to destroy the letters. Maybe there were no letters. Had she even read them?

There was a knock on her door—the hotel maid was in the hall, she must have smelled the smoke, quick, open the window, Madame was terribly sorry, she had lit a candle, no, she had lit a cigarette, yes, it was true, Madame was a smoker, that was one of her secrets among many, yes, Madame had more secrets than the world would ever know.

But the maid hadn't smelled smoke. She was just checking to see if Madame needed anything.

Madame needed only to make time go backward, to the day before her husband set out on his last tour, so she could keep him with her and prevent him from ever leaving home again.

*   *   *

The following morning she hired a hotel guide to lead the De Potter party on their hike while she stayed behind to send a telegram to the American consul in Athens. By the afternoon she had a response confirming that Armand de Potter had disappeared at sea, and his body had not been recovered.

She asked for a glass of water from the agent but couldn't drink, her hand was shaking so. Yet somehow she managed not to faint. Somehow she managed to get herself back to the hotel and listen to the members of the party tell her all about the scenery she'd missed on their hike, the wild goats perched on rocky precipices, the tiny blue flowers poking out of the snow. What a wonderful time they were having on their Classic, Oriental, and Alpine Tour. Thank you, Madame de Potter, for being such a considerate hostess.

She traveled to the Italian city of Feltre in the Veneto with the touring party, then back north to Zurich and Lausanne. For three days, she played her part expertly—and why shouldn't she? All her marriage had been training for this most demanding of roles. She was refined, cultivated, admirable in all respects. Her surface was impenetrable. No one in the party even caught a glimpse of her turmoil, and when another guide from the agency finally arrived to take her place, the travelers could only say that they were sorry to see her go, and that, as Miss Maxwell put it, Madame de Potter was the most gracious woman she'd ever met.

She took the train from Lausanne to Paris, arriving at ten thirty in the evening. She was met by the director of Armand's Paris office, Edmond Gastineau, who helped her check in at the Hotel St. James on the avenue Bugeaud. She ate a sandwich alone in her room, then soaked for hours in the marble tub.

The next morning she discovered that she couldn't withdraw money from their account at the Crédit Lyonnais Bank. She demanded to see the manager. She waited nearly an hour, and when the manager finally came out from his office, he had an oversize file, which he set on the table in front of Aimée without opening. Pinching and smoothing the tips of his long mustache, he explained that the de Potter account had been closed by Monsieur de Potter nearly a year ago.

She was beginning to understand what Armand had been trying to communicate in the letters that she'd burned. She returned immediately to her room at the St. James, packed her suitcase, and moved to the Hotel Oxford & Cambridge. From there she met Edmond Gastineau at the agency's office. She told him about the closed account. And though she hardly knew the man and had never conferred with him on anything more pressing than what he would like in his tea, she said, “I need your help, Monsieur Gastineau. I need you to help me borrow from the agency's account.”

He was honest with her: the agency couldn't pay its bills, and Brown Brothers refused to extend more credit. She touched her fingers to her ears to remind herself which earrings she was wearing—the Venetian pearls Armand had given her for her fortieth birthday. Her mind whirled with calculations—what would the pawnbroker give her for her earrings, and how did that sum compare with their true value?—even as Edmond Gastineau offered to transfer money from his personal account into hers. She refused. He kept insisting, until she finally accepted his charity.

She sent telegrams to officials in Athens and Piraeus begging for news, but she didn't wait for a reply. She bought a ticket for Greece, and on the fifth of July, at nine thirty in the evening, she left on the
rapide
, enduring a hot, tiring journey through the night to Marseille.

She spent the day waiting at the port on a bench. To people passing by she must have seemed a cold, arrogant woman, rigid in her posture, her mouth frozen in a severe line, the panic in her eyes hidden by the shadow of her hat. To Aimée, the world itself was cold and arrogant, and she cringed at everything: the smoke belching from the steamliners, the harsh sunlight reflecting off the water, the stevedores going about their work with brutal indifference, as if they'd heard the news but didn't care that Armand de Potter was missing at sea.

*   *   *

She boarded the SS
Yangtze
for Piraeus at five in the afternoon. It took the steamer two days to reach Naples, and Aimée spent most of her time in her room, reading and sleeping. In Naples she stayed on board, watching the activity on the quay from the deck. Her husband had passed through Naples not much more than a month earlier. What did he experience when he stood on the deck of the steamer? Were there those same little boys, both of them shirtless, in short overalls, climbing up a stack of fishing nets on the pier? Did he feel faint from the heat? Did it occur to him that he might never return home?

She reached Piraeus on Monday at four in the afternoon. With an American woman, a missionary's wife she'd met on the
Yangtze
, she hired a cab for the long ride into Athens. She checked in at the hotel where Armand had stayed one month earlier—the Hôtel d'Angleterre.

The next morning she met the local dragoman, Chorafas, and together they went to all the local hospitals to look over the lists of patients. Their last visit was to the city morgue, where Aimée waited on the street, sweltering in her long dress, while Chorafas went inside to make inquiries. He kept her waiting for so long that she began to grow light-headed. She became sure that he had found her husband and was postponing his announcement of the discovery while the corpse was prepared for viewing. She rehearsed her response to Chorafas when he finally came out: she would collapse in the dusty street, a crowd would gather round, they would carry her into the morgue, flutter fans around her and open a jar of smelling salts, and when she had sufficiently recovered, Chorafas would be speaking gently, telling Madame de Potter how sorry he was to have to inform her that …

“… no gentleman matching your husband has been delivered to the morgue.”

“What?”

“The coroner is certain.”

A dazed “Oh, then…” was all she could muster, though she wanted to ask Chorafas if he was surprised. She wanted to say how strange it was for a man to disappear without a trace.

He led her back to the hotel and offered to accompany her to dinner. She thanked him but declined—she would have dinner alone in her room.

*   *   *

The next day she moved to Mrs. McTaggert's Pension and then took the train on her own to Piraeus. She went first to the police station, where she interviewed the police chief, who spoke limited French. He assured her that his officers had conducted a thorough investigation. Monsieur de Potter had been seen on the deck of the
Regele Carol
late at night by a steward and a stewardess. His room was empty the next morning, and he never appeared for breakfast. His last reported interaction with a fellow passenger was in the evening of the first day of the voyage. A clergyman who had shared his table at dinner said that he'd met Professor de Potter on deck later, and they'd had a friendly exchange. Evidence pointed to an accidental drowning as the cause of death, the police chief said. But he added that two details were suspicious: First, an empty belted wallet had been found in Monsieur de Potter's trunk. She was confused, until she realized that he was referring to Armand's pouch belt. Yet Armand's pouch belt had been stolen from his hotel room in Constantinople—he'd written Aimée to tell her. She refrained from objecting and asked about the second detail. This involved another passenger, an American, on the
Regele Carol
. The American had testified that he'd seen two peddlers in Piraeus trying to sell a small, antique bronze that he was sure had belonged to Monsieur de Potter. But the peddlers had left the area before they could be questioned, taking the bronze with them.

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