Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (20 page)

Oh, François, do you envy the man standing at the window? Do you dream about trading places with him? If you only knew the truth: Armand de Potter is not to be envied. He may put on a convincing show, but he has been accumulating debt for years and received the news just yesterday that Brown Brothers had closed his line of credit.

The telegram had come from his assistant director, Edmond Gastineau, while Aimée was out shopping for a new purse. Armand made up his mind not to tell her. What was there to say? That their happiness was an illusion? That he was a charlatan who only pretended to be successful? Some men gambled away their fortune. Some squandered their wealth on selfish pleasures. He, the esteemed Armand de Potter, had sunk so much money into his collection of antiquities that he could no longer afford to pay his bills.

—
You vain idiot, you could have gotten rich off your treasures. Instead you gave them away for the price of a compliment.

No—he hadn't given anything away. His collection was on an extended loan that was designed to increase its reputation among the public, therefore improving its value. His antiquities were his largest remaining asset. If he couldn't borrow against his tourist business, he could borrow against the worth of the De Potter Collection.

—A collection so haphazardly displayed that it can hardly be said to exist as a whole … a collection left to gather dust in a room few people ever enter … a collection that continues to be neglected by its guardian, Mrs. Stevenson, yet still you keep sending her more treasures, at your own expense—only a fool would hope to use such a collection as collateral.

But what about the rare wooden shabty? The silver Ptolemaic parrot? The necklace of gold bees? Weren't these worth something? His Pantheon of bronzes had won an award at the Chicago Exposition. And, of course, there was the decorated coffin that was said by Mrs. Stevenson herself to be one of the finest examples of its kind.

—For which you cashed in your railroad stocks. And then a boat dumps your party into the harbor of Jaffa, and you have nothing to offer them in restitution.

He wanted to insist that he was ordinarily a careful man, with an eye on the future. He had invested in treasures that had been produced to last forever. He had planned ahead. Of course, he couldn't foresee all contingencies. But at least he had paid his life insurance policy in full.

—And how will your paid-up life insurance policy help you with the Jaffa claims, your son's tuition, and the expenses of Grand Bois? It won't do much good as long as you're here taking credit for it. What will you do, monsieur? How will you manage?

He'd figure it out, but in his own time, thank you, and in his own way. Until then he would ignore the goading voice inside him and would instead turn to the door as it was flung open and welcome his wife in his arms.

She kissed his nose—one; his ear—two; his lips and bearded chin and the top of his head—three, four, five; the tip of each finger—plus ten; the flesh of his chest that was exposed between the V of his nightshirt. She kept kissing him up one arm and down the other. She kissed him as if they were discovering each other for the first time. She kissed him with such force that he fell beneath her onto the bed, and they rolled together from one side to the other, both of them as in love as they were when they were newlyweds.

“What's this all about?”

“It's your birthday, darling!”

“My birthday is next month.”

“But you won't be here next month, so I'm giving you your birthday kisses today.”

Once a year on her husband's birthday, she came to him instead of waiting for him to slip into her bed. Once a year, she managed to surprise him when she threw open the door. Once a year, she gave him a set number of kisses, no more and no less.

He would be fifty-three on the fourth of June. He was on the verge of ruin, but right then, after Aimée extracted herself from his embrace and got up to pull the shutters closed, sealing the room in that familiar darkness that never failed to arouse him, he had to laugh aloud with the sheer delight of being healthy and in love with his wife. Deaf to the demon inside him, he stripped off his nightshirt, and the de Potters shared one last experience of happiness.

*   *   *

It was a cool day, partly cloudy, with the mistral blowing down from the mountains. While Aimée took Gertrude to church and then to climb the clock tower at the Villa Fiorentina, Armand stayed behind at Grand Bois to prepare for his trip.

He spent the morning poring over his passbooks and calculating the expenses ahead. He was so absorbed that he didn't notice how much time had passed until he checked his watch and saw it was already noon. He hurriedly stacked the loose papers on his desk and was about to discard a pile of old magazines when he noticed a month-old copy of
The School Journal
, which he'd never got around to reading. He paged through to make sure he hadn't missed anything of interest, then stopped when he came across an article announcing changes at the University Museum in Philadelphia.

He read with surprise that Mrs. Sara Yorke Stevenson, “well-known for her learned patronage of exploration in the East,” had resigned from her position at the University Museum and withdrawn “her financial support from Dr. Hilprecht's exploration expeditions.” Hilprecht was identified as the chair of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania. Armand had never met him, but he had heard about him at meetings of the French Oriental Society, where Hilprecht was spoken of with great admiration. It was even rumored that he would be assuming the directorship of the whole University Museum. Yet here was news that he was involved in a controversy, and Mrs. Stevenson had resigned because of him.

Armand was stunned but didn't have time to reread the article, for he heard the front door open. Aimée and Gertrude were back, and Miss Plympton was with them. Felicie had a
déjeuner
of herbed omelets and boiled greens ready to serve. Aimée was at the door of the study, asking Armand to come along to the dining room.

He brought up a bottle of his cherished Montagland champagne from the cellar. Between gulps, Gertrude told him all about the bright-eyed birds-of-paradise that were blooming in the garden of the Villa Fiorentina. Miss Plympton asked for his advice on sights they must visit while he was away. Their conversation became more animated, and Gertrude and Miss Plympton began trading gibes about women's suffrage, which they both supported, but for different reasons, Gertrude because the vote would give American women independence, Miss Plympton because it would give them a deeper sense of responsibility. Aimée weighed in with the practical observation that independence and responsibility were entirely compatible, as long as a proper education was provided for all citizens. Inevitably, they asked Armand for his opinion. He announced that he would prefer to live in a world ruled by women, since they would settle their disputes with words rather than weapons.
Hear, hear
, Gertrude agreed, raising a toast to Uncle Armand, to his health, to a safe, fulfilling journey, then holding out her empty glass to be refilled.

Armand checked his watch and was about to excuse himself to finish packing, but just then their friends the Manques arrived to wish Armand bon voyage and give Aimée a long-spurred orchid seedling they'd bought at the market in Toulon. She offered them champagne before Armand could whisper a reminder that he had to get ready for his trip.

He opened another bottle, and the group sat in the salon that had been decorated by Aimée the previous day with bouquets of pink and white carnations. There must have been five dozen carnations in vases around the room, and together with the artwork on display they prompted from Monsieur Manques, who liked to prove he had a philosophical disposition, a question about the nature of beauty. He asked the others to consider: Is material beauty, as Plotinus suggested, nothing more than a distraction from the inner beauty of the Good? Was Plotinus right to compare the effect of beauty to the effect of light playing on the surface of a river, beckoning us to reach for it? And then, don't you know, we fall in and are swept away to nothingness.…

Armand was dismayed that he couldn't remember the relevant passage from Plotinus. The best he could offer to prove he was learned was a comment drawn from Plato on divine art versus human art. He addressed his wife and guests as if they were his students: “You will recall that in
The Sophist
, the Stranger urges Theaetetus to agree that nature is produced by divine creation—the work of God. Art—‘What shall we say of human art?' he asks. ‘Art is a sort of dream created by man for those who are awake.' Look around you, and you'll see in this salon many dreams. There are my little curiosities in the cabinet, gathered from around the world. And the paintings, each one illustrating how beauty is produced with the tip of a brush. And we must include Aimée's own creation, the arrangement of flowers, in itself a work of artistry. We judge talent not by the artist's ability to persuade us that the false thing is real, but by her ability to persuade us to forget reality altogether, just as we forget it in a dream.”

He reached for his wife's hand as she was lowering her glass, inadvertently jostling her. She used her napkin to dab at the drops that had spilled on the floor. Though he was vaguely aware that he'd already drunk too much champagne, he took another sip.

“Last night I dreamt…” He paused, as if trying to recall. “I was alone in a little boat, rowing myself across the ocean. As I rowed, a storm blew in, and my boat was tossed about by monstrous waves. In my dream, I forgot to pray to God for help. I ask you, what would God have done, if he'd heard me praying in a dream?” Aimée gave him a smile designed to remind him that they had guests and her dearest mustn't let his nerves get the better of him. But this had nothing to do with nerves—he was talking about art, and the dream of art, and the charge that it was pointless.

“It was just a dream, and I was safe in my bed and did not need the Almighty to rescue me. Which might lead us to conclude that it's all a lot of hogwash, as my friend Judge Griswold likes to say, hogwash, the dream of art in all its infinite variety, because it is unreal. But don't you see”—he shook his hand free and stood, striding toward the mantel, where the black Grecian clock was displayed—“don't you see that our very sense of reality is determined by our dream of it, and if we represent the hours of a day divided as symmetrically as the columns of a temple, then that is the way we understand time, not because we know the truth of time but because some influential artist has given us a dream of it!”

He recognized that he had surprised his guests by working himself into a passion—but didn't the subject demand it? He waited to hear Monsieur Manques concede that nothing was more important than art, or what Plotinus had so crassly described as “material beauty.” Instead, Madame Manques murmured gently, “Dear Prof. de Potter, forgive me, but I'm not sure what you're talking about.”

That's because she thinks you are a lunatic
came the verdict within him, and in this case, the judgment might seem deserved when he was measured against the elderly bourgeoisie of the Alpes-Maritimes. Consider his liabilities: He had gone into debt to collect antiquities so that others might appreciate them. He was tired of life, exhausted by his efforts to convince others to share his amazement. The demon inside him was insisting that his mistakes were too immense to be corrected.

He looked to his wife, hoping she would explain to Madame Manques. Usually she was ready to help him out when he lost track of his meaning. But on this occasion, his wife looked right past him. If she knew that her husband needed her right then, if she recognized that his fate depended upon her willingness to offer some small gesture of solace or even just a flicker of recognition in her eyes to show him that she understood what he was going through, she didn't care. She intended to ensure that her guests would think fondly of their visit to Grand Bois, and she was already rising from her chair, preparing to usher the group into the garden to see the wisteria in an effort to make them forget Armand's confusing rant.

*   *   *

And so the day progressed. The Manques left, and Aimée took Gertrude into town. Alone in the house, Armand opened the gilt cabinet and removed a small figurine, a flat-headed male figure with pierced ears and a stylized body that ended in a tang. He had paid twenty francs for it in a shop in Damascus, but he thought it must be worth at least twice that, even though it was broken at the shaft.

Tucking the little statue in his pocket, he went into his study to write three last letters.

His first letter was to Hermann Hilprecht, chair of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania:

Dear Professor Hilprecht,

As an amateur Orientalist with a collection of Egyptian antiquities on loan to the University Museum in Philadelphia, I have read with great interest about your explorations at Nippur. I continue to acquire antiquities and now and then purchase fine pieces that interest me but have no place in my own collection. Since you, sir, are a collector as well as a renowned archaeologist, I would like to offer you an item in my possession that comes from Babylonia. It is a male figure, solid cast, with prominent brow ridges and a dark brown patina. The shaft is broken, revealing an iron core.

As it happens, I will be leading a tourist party to Constantinople in early June, and it would give me immense pleasure to meet with you. I will be arriving on Wednesday the 7th and can be contacted at the Pera Palace Hotel. I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely, P. L. Armand de Potter.

His second letter was to Edmond Gastineau at the agency office in Paris, on the rue des Pyramides:

Dear Edmond,

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