Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (3 page)

Aimée turned the envelope over and examined the postmark. The letter must have arrived that morning. Her husband had been nursing the wound all day, and she'd been oblivious.

Unless, she considered, he hadn't been wounded at all—a far likelier possibility, she decided. He hadn't told her about the letter from Mrs. Stevenson because it wasn't important to him. What did a catalog matter when they could fly in an auto down the hill from Auribeau-sur-Siagne? Here in the south of France, Armand had grown newly carefree. Disappointment belonged to the past, along with the headaches that used to plague him during a crisis. He didn't need recognition from distant universities. It was impossible not to be content now that they were comfortably settled at Grand Bois.

She brought her diary out to the garden and sat on the stone bench beneath the magnolia. Small, cream-colored moths flitted about in the weak light of a kerosene lamp. A cart clattered by up the road. A nightingale started to sing. As she waited for the gate to open and her husband to return, she made an entry in her diary. She didn't mention the letter she'd found in the study. Instead, she wrote about walking into town for ice cream, listed the gifts they'd exchanged, and noted that the carnations were still in bloom.

 

New York to Tivoli

I
N THE BEGINNING
, the day he stepped from the gangway onto the Battery embankment in New York, he was tongue-tied in his conversation with the immigration official, and when the official wrote his name as Pierce L. A. Depotter Elsegern, he didn't dare to correct him. Nor did he object when, in the customs line, he was asked to step aside and make room for a Polish count, the same count, he recalled, who had refused to return his greeting early in the voyage, when they'd found themselves alone together in the ship's saloon.

It was dreadfully warm, and the air was thick with the stink of manure and steam and tar. He felt self-conscious in his old-fashioned waist-jacket and his rough cotton cravat. Yet the Polish count's fine black cape was wool. Wool on a hot summer's day! Which was worse, Armand asked himself as he followed the count toward the street—to be dressed humbly or to be unprepared for the local climate? He had his answer soon enough. If you were a count, it didn't matter if you were wearing a winter cape on a late summer's day, for there would be an official to meet you and direct you to a nearby carriage, and there would be servants to save you from the trouble of having to locate your trunk in the jumble of luggage that had been dumped by the stevedores.

Someday, Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d'Elseghem would have his own coach with red velvet seats waiting for him when he arrived in New York. His name would be recorded correctly, and he wouldn't have to use the forename
Pierce
on official documents for the next twenty years. Someday, he would have plenty of money to spend on amenities and wouldn't have to heave the trunk into the cab himself while the driver finished sealing the roll of his cigarette, drawing his tongue along the edge of the paper with a long lick and then facing his passenger with a wink that Armand thought obscene.

As he rode in the cab along Broadway, he dreamed of the day when he would be the guest of honor at a dinner and would find himself sitting next to the same Polish count who had snubbed him on their transatlantic voyage. It would be one of those rare moments of comeuppance, and Armand would relish it in private while politely chuckling at the count's tasteless jokes. The future, he was sure, would make up for all the humiliations of the past. He promised himself that he would be
heureux au jeu et heureux en amour
: lucky at cards
and
lucky in love.

*   *   *

He would tell his wife that he'd come to America to teach French at a private school, though no position was waiting for him when he arrived in New York. He would describe himself as a knight of the Order of Melusine, never admitting that he had to pay a considerable sum for the privilege. He would claim to be the grandson of a renowned Belgian writer and political leader named Louis de Potter, eliding that his grandmother had been the mistress of Louis and worked as a cook. He would speak of his relatives who owned the Castle of Loppem in Belgium without revealing that the de Potters of Loppem refused to recognize the illegitimate de Potters of the hamlet of Melle. At Loppem, he said, he had fallen down a spiral staircase and had to have a silver plate put in his skull. But the truth was, he had never set foot inside the Castle of Loppem.

Truth was a worthy goal, yet it was as swift as time itself, and one had to hurry to keep up with it. He was always in a hurry, even on that first day at the Gilsey Hotel, when he had no appointments on his calendar, nothing but blank days ahead. After finishing his steak and draining, against his better judgment, the watery liquid the waiter called coffee, he procured a local newspaper. He skimmed it from front to back, paying special attention to the notices of new businesses and real estate transactions. Then he set out walking.

He walked down Water Street to Fulton and across to Wall Street. He rested in Trinity Church and listened to a choir rehearsing. In the late afternoon he took the ferry to Brooklyn, where he heard a lecture at the Brooklyn Institute. Titled “Dullness and Viciousness in the Home and School,” it was delivered by an ancient clergyman who, despite his decrepit appearance, was so inspired by moral indignation that whenever he roared out his favorite phrase, “a blessed paragon of virtue,” he'd spray a shower of spittle over the ledge of the podium.

Armand was impressed by the man's vigor, as well as by the variety of topics listed in the institute's weekly schedule. He decided to make the long trip to Brooklyn the following day for a lecture titled “The Clam—a Study in the Survival of the Fittest.” The lecture was scheduled to begin at five. By half past the hour the speaker still hadn't appeared, and most of the audience left. But a small group stayed behind to talk among themselves. After Armand overheard one of the men claiming that Darwin's ideas were considered blasphemous in Europe, he intervened to offer a gentle correction. He announced that he was from Belgium, and he could say with certainty that Professor Darwin's influence was widespread among his countrymen—as evidence he cited a popular new book about parasites by Professor van Beneden of Louvain. The Americans were pleased to hear it and wanted to hear more. Introductions were exchanged. Armand learned that the men were all members of the Dredging Club—an organization dedicated to dragging New York Harbor in search of, as they explained, “rare fish, zoophytes, and odd crustaceans previously unknown to man.” Finding the foreigner to their liking, they invited him to join them for an excursion the following Saturday.

He kept busy during the week, and by Wednesday he had leased a small furnished apartment at 5 Barclay Street. He found a framer to mount a portrait print of Louis de Potter that he'd brought from Belgium. On a whim, he purchased a pair of authentic-deerskin moccasins to wear as bedroom slippers. In Central Park, he ate his first popcorn ball covered in caramel.

On Saturday he woke before dawn and made his way by train and ferry to a trawler at a Brooklyn pier. The other members of the club were already on board, and as he hurried to join them, he slipped and almost tumbled into the water but managed to throw himself forward onto the deck. For this he was immediately labeled “the flying Belgian,” a name that stuck through the following Saturdays when he and his fellow club members crisscrossed the New York Harbor.

Armand had been looking forward to the social aspects of the jaunt and forging new ties. He believed that to prosper he needed good, loyal, well-connected friends. The more people he knew in America the better. But that first morning he spent with the other members of the Brooklyn Institute's Dredging Club, he found himself so riveted by the muddy haul in the net that he stopped listening to the conversations going on around him. He was startled by the intensity of the suspense as the dripping net was being lifted from the water. He felt as though he were watching an image sharpen inside a crystal ball. What was there to find in the putrid scrapings from the bottom of the New York Harbor? Why, nothing less than relics from the forgotten history of the world.

Everything that came up in the net was potentially interesting. But while the club members were most excited at finding natural curiosities, the flying Belgian was fascinated by the items the others preferred to discard: the waterlogged handbags and boots and pieces of timber from shipwrecks.

He stood off to the side of the deck, studying a square piece of ashwood that had broken from a mast and was so soggy from its decades underwater that the splinters bent like rubber. With the tip of his knife he scraped away the slime and revealed the mark where the boom had been ripped off during what must have been a terrible storm. Where was the ship coming from? he wondered. What was its cargo? Who perished in the wreck and who survived?

The following Saturday he brought a knapsack and was allowed to take away whatever he could carry. After a month he had enough to constitute the beginnings of a collection: pieces of driftwood and sea glass, a woman's leather pump, the speared tip of a wrought-iron curtain rod, and, the greatest treasure of all, a pair of rusted handcuffs that Armand liked to imagine had once pinned a murderer to a bailiff.

*   *   *

To his collection of refuse from the New York Harbor he added glassware he bought at flea markets. Soon he graduated to broadswords and rapiers he found in antiques shops around the city. But he was forced to admit to himself that a collector can't live on air. After having little success trying to resell a sword with a cracked handle, he became convinced that a fortune could be made in real estate, and he began collecting buildings. He came across an advertisement announcing the auction of a warehouse in Orange, New Jersey. With the letter of credit an uncle on his mother's side secured for him in Brussels, he convinced the Island City Bank to loan him two hundred dollars, and he bought the warehouse, then resold it three months later for a small profit. He used the money to purchase another property in nearby Montrose, though this one turned out to be his albatross. Of the four families living in the building, only three paid their rent on time. A couple with several small children didn't bother to pay rent at all.

In the three years after he landed in New York, Armand made money, lost it, and made more. He joined academic organizations and social clubs. He published a weekly journal about French grammar and became a senior officer of the Dredging Club. He let it be known that he was available to give lectures on French language and European history. He was invited to speak at a meeting of the American Oriental Society and at Union College in Schenectady.

Just a few months earlier he'd been an obscure French tutor in New York City. Now he was becoming known as a reputable scholar. He showed his American audiences that there were few subjects he couldn't hold forth on. He had influential friends. Yet his debts were growing.

He continued to spend his afternoons at the library. After reading John Henry Parker's book about excavating Rome, he decided that he wanted nothing more than to be an archaeologist and create a collection with artifacts he dug up from the earth. But he had neither the appropriate training nor the affiliation to become an archaeologist, and he was having difficulty securing another loan. He gave up investing in real estate for a time and concentrated on smaller items. At an estate sale on Long Island he paid two dollars for an alabaster bowl that would years later join his antiquities on the shelf of his gilt cabinet.

Though he had a collector's instinct from the start, he couldn't afford to be a collector. He was barely able to pay his bills. He decided he needed a change. What he needed, he finally had to admit, was a reliable salary, so in the spring of 1874 he responded to an advertisement for a French instructor at the Montrose Military Academy. He was hired to begin the following fall.

In Montrose he met a girl named Miranda outside the library late on a crisp October afternoon. She was the daughter of the school's headmaster. Her black hair looked streaked with veins of copper when the sun shone on it. Unbraided, her hair hung to the middle of her back; piled in a bun, it exposed the curve of her ears; when strands came loose after she'd been running, they'd stick to her moist lips.

If he'd had true athletic ability, Armand would have ended up marrying the daughter of the Montrose Military Academy's headmaster. But at a gymnastics exhibition, while attempting a difficult routine on the parallel bars in front of a large audience that included Miranda and her father, he lost his grip and fell, landing half off the mat and smacking his head on the floor with an awful crack that he would hear in his dreams for the rest of his life.

He didn't remember much beyond the sound of that crack. He didn't remember being taken away in an ambulance or drifting in and out of consciousness for three days, or being wheeled into surgery, where the doctors inserted a silver plate to mend his fractured skull. He didn't even know he had a plate in his head until a nurse told him. He would have a vague memory of being bothered by a tingling in his scalp and trying to pick at the metal beneath the bandages. Long after the bandages had been removed, the plate would remind him of its presence by giving him an occasional piercing headache, or, more rarely, making him feel as if the ground were tilting beneath his feet.

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