Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (4 page)

*   *   *

His recovery prevented him from saying goodbye to Miranda when she went off to her boarding school in Massachusetts. Though he couldn't remember if he'd ever actually loved her, he thought it appropriate to write a poem in her honor. In “Hymn du Soleil,” he compared her beauty to a sunrise. He sent the poem to her in an envelope sealed with red wax. She never wrote back.

He'd been raised a Catholic, but after his accident he decided he preferred the looser rules and the social status enjoyed by his Episcopalian friends. In the spring of 1875, he left the Montrose Military Academy and moved to New York, intending to enroll in the General Seminary. His plans changed, however, after he was contacted by the headmistress, Miss Lucy Plympton, of St. Agnes's School in Albany, who had heard of his skills as a lecturer. She offered him a job teaching French at her school. He accepted. And when St. Agnes's closed and Miss Lucy Plympton took over the Albany Academy for Girls, she appointed Armand a member of the faculty.

Among the students studying French at the Albany Academy was one Amy Sutherland Beckwith, eighteen years old, with silky light-brown hair that she wore in a braided topknot, alert blue eyes, and lips pressed together in a determined line, as if she were forcing herself to suppress a squeal of joy. From the start of class, Armand was aware of her staring at him from a desk at the back of the room. Later, he let himself imagine her relief to hear that he wasn't yet married. He wasn't at all surprised to find that she had engineered an opportunity that would let Professor de Potter take closer notice of his devoted student. In December 1877, he received an invitation to perform his skit about Napoléon at a meeting of the Tivoli Literary Society, hosted by Mr. and Mrs. William Beckwith. He cordially accepted.

 

Tivoli to Brussels

A
MY BECKWITH
had never met anyone as worldly as her new French professor at the Albany Academy for Girls. His ears were especially finely formed and fit snugly against his greased brown hair. His deep-set eyes seemed lit by an interior flame. The bump on the slope of his nose gave him a hint of ruggedness. She wondered if he had lost his temper and broken his nose in a fistfight. But from his dignified bearing, Amy judged him to be slow to anger. In other ways, though, he was boyishly jittery and could hardly sit still while her father was introducing his performance. She watched as he interlaced his fingers and twiddled his thumbs, a nervous habit that she understood to be an expression of an energy he could barely contain. He gave the impression that he was sure he was destined for great things, yet instead of appearing conceited, he seemed modestly attuned to the responsibility of his fate. He
would
do great things, she was convinced. He was admirable in all respects. He had the signature of nobility that was most evident in the area between his mustache and his beard, where the tip of his pink tongue would occasionally appear to moisten the perfect bud of lips. From the moment she first saw him at the front of the class, she wanted to kiss those lips and, in doing so, give her simple life new meaning. Professor de Potter made everything fresh and interesting. He had stepped out of history, landing on the doorstep of the Beckwith farmhouse and looking strikingly like a young Napoléon Bonaparte.

He was elusive in the beginning. Some said he was French by birth, others Dutch. He called himself Pierce in public, Armand in private. Sometimes he used Elseghem as his last name, other times de Potter. On the nameplate on his office at school, he was Professor P. L. de Potter.

After his performance for the Tivoli Literary Society, Professor P. L. de Potter offered to take questions.

“Professor, how do you know so much about Napoléon?” one man called out from the back of the living room.

“My mother's father served as a general under Napoléon,” Armand replied. “He told my mother, who told me, that when the emperor was deep in thought, he would twist his forefinger inside his ear to loosen the wax,
comme ça
.”

The laughter faded, and someone else called, “Did your mother ever meet Napoléon?”

“As an infant, she once sat on his lap!”

The audience murmured in appreciation.

“What did your father do, Professor?” Mr. Beckwith asked in a voice that was mostly jovial but contained a touch of suspicion.

“My father…?”

“Your father's line of work.”

“My father was a diplomat.”

“And your father's father?”

“My father's…?”

“Your paternal grandfather.”

Armand raised his eyebrows, as if surprised at being asked a question when the answer should have been obvious. “Why, he was Louis de Potter.”

Those present that day pretended to be amazed. They didn't admit that they'd never heard of Louis de Potter. It took Amy a trip to the library in Albany to learn that Louis de Potter was one of the leaders of the Belgian independence—that brave little country's own Thomas Jefferson—and, as she reported back to her family, the citizens of Dutchess County were probably the only educated people in the world who didn't know who he was.

To think that the grandson of Louis de Potter had come to Tivoli, New York, to play the worn-out Napoléon in exile and pace the living room of the Beckwiths' farmhouse as though it were the garden of a crumbling villa on St. Helena. Who wasn't enthralled?

They didn't consider that there was no way to verify the claims their guest made. He was perceived to be impeccably distinguished, with a connection to history that couldn't be matched in America. “The sketch of Napoléon, as performed by Prof. P. L. de Potter, was well worthy of praise,” according to the Red Hook reporter who wrote about the meeting. The applause was vigorous and prolonged, and the audience asked the performer for an encore, for which he recited Macbeth's “tomorrow” soliloquy. The reporter concluded that the Tivoli Literary Society had never before had such a successful gathering. He didn't bother to mention that the Beckwiths' dog, Lulu, wouldn't stop barking and had to be banished to the cellar, or that after his performance Prof. P. L. de Potter invited Miss Amy Beckwith to join him for tea.

*   *   *

In the spring of 1879, Professor de Potter took a leave of absence from the Albany Academy and went abroad for three months, ostensibly to visit his family in Belgium. When he returned, he was thinner and brisker in his manner. He carried a new walking stick topped with an ivory handle. He had a pale patch on the bridge of his nose where his skin had been blistered by the sun one day when he'd forgotten his hat. He'd brought back a box full of old coins and knickknacks made of brass, onyx, and alabaster—purchased, he said, for next to nothing at open markets and antiques shops.

He was clear and purposeful as he laid out his plans for the future. He announced that he had decided to start his own tourist business. He claimed that a fortune was to be made offering luxury excursions to Americans, and with his fluency in multiple languages and his background in Europe, he was confident that he could avoid the aggravations suffered by inexperienced guides.

He set the cost of his first Long Summer Tour, including all tickets and fees, at a competitive $235. He hired an accountant, Fletcher Vosburg, to balance the books.

On the day the American Bureau of Foreign Travel advertised its first tour to the public, the man known to his colleagues as Pierce asked his student Amy Beckwith to be his wife. They were married at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 22, 1879, at St. John's Reformed Church in Upper Red Hook. The bride agreed to change the spelling of her name to
Aimée
when she became Madame de Potter, and though the groom signed
Pierce L. A. de Potter d'Elseghem
in the church registry, he would go by
Armand
, the name Aimée preferred.

*   *   *

They spent their wedding night at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, where they ordered eggs Benedict and a bottle of champagne for their dinner. Aimée came out from the suite's small dressing room wearing an ankle-length, pink satin nightgown. Even as she closed the curtains and reached for the knob to turn down the lamp, extinguishing the flame completely, she felt that she was about to begin the most important task of her life.

As she understood the contract of marriage, she was obligated to follow the usual course and produce a child. Her mother had done the job neatly five times, giving birth to three girls and two boys. She nearly succumbed on the fifth round from milk fever after Tom was born, but she pulled through. Amy—rather, Aimée, she mustn't forget her own name!—had confidence that she herself would pull through. And if she privately associated intercourse with barnyard antics, she was ready to sacrifice herself to fulfill her duty.

She had sprayed herself with the eau de toilette Armand had given her for her last birthday, and as she made her way cautiously across the dark room, she worried that she hadn't used enough perfume—or had she used too much? She slipped beside her husband into the bed, ran her tongue across her lips to dampen them, and waited to be kissed.

But Armand didn't kiss her, not right away. He just stroked the side of her neck, a gesture that she found too puzzling to enjoy. She wondered if he was waiting for her to kiss him—but would that seem too brazen for a young bride? Would he prefer her to be coy or timid or saucy, or maybe to stretch out like a cat under the gentle pressure of his hand? How could she not know the desires of the man she had aligned herself with for a lifetime? She wasn't used to such uncertainty. To be lying in bed with a husband whose thoughts were shielded by his silence, while her own thoughts were in turmoil … what had she gotten herself into, falling in love with a mystery!

His fingertips were icy, his palms warm, his beard wiry against her cheek. Driven only by the need to pin down the man she had married that morning, she found his mouth in the darkness and raised herself on her elbows, clamping her lips on his so hard that their teeth knocked together with a little clattering sound.

She tasted pipe tobacco and a tangy, salty flavor she couldn't identify. She wondered if she had surprised him with her kiss. Then, as she felt his hand slip beneath the hem of her nightgown, she forgot whatever impression she hoped to make and turned her attention within herself, experiencing the heightened awareness achieved by closing her eyes in a room that was already lightless.

*   *   *

The next day they set off on a steamer bound for Liverpool. Following an itinerary Armand had mapped out in his office in Albany, they traveled from London to Paris, down to Italy, and back north across Europe to Belgium on a dry run of what would be the first De Potter Old World Tour.

Every place they visited, Armand recorded information, writing across the columns of the only notebook he had on hand, a thin Brown Brothers & Co. savings-account passbook, bound in soft lambskin. At the National Gallery in London, he made a note that twenty-three paintings by Reynolds were on display. At the Louvre, he wrote that a panel by Uccello “contains heads of Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Manetti & himself, representatives of Painting. Sculpture. Architecture. Mathematics & Perspective.” He described three paintings by Morales as “sublime, refined, delicate.” At the Pitti Palace in Florence, he listed paintings by Allori and Giorgione and Botticelli. Looking at a small triptych in the Uffizi, he described Montagna's “delicacy of touch.”

Everything was beautiful. Everything was interesting. Watching her husband make his notes, Aimée experienced curiosity as a delicious hunger and was proud of her increasing sophistication. The knowledge she gained with Armand's help gave her a feeling of uncanny authority. She felt her transformation almost physically, as if her self-assurance were making her lighter on her feet.

The only time the newlyweds came close to arguing was when they were sitting at a café in the piazza outside the Pantheon in Rome, sipping lemon soda and idly watching a beggar woman in rags, bent over her cane, moving among the crowd. They watched for a long time, long enough to see dozens of tourists give her money. As the hunchbacked old woman limped past their table, Aimée gave her a lira. They continued to watch her as she wandered back through the crowd. They were still watching when the church bells began to ring for vespers, and the woman stood straight, pushed back her hood to reveal her dark eyes and smooth, pale skin, and marched off, her cane tucked under her arm.

Aimée was appalled. Armand, in contrast, made no secret of his amusement. He was impressed by the performance and insisted that the girl had earned her wages fairly.

“You approve of her duplicity?” Aimée asked sharply.

“Ma belle
,

he said, fixing his gaze on his wife, “I mean no harm, but you must recognize that the poor girl is protecting herself against a worse fate.”

She appreciated her husband's eagerness to sympathize with such a creature. She would have sympathized, too, if only she hadn't so easily been fooled.

*   *   *

From Italy they took a train north through Switzerland. They spent two nights in Geneva, then continued on to Belgium, arriving in Brussels at midnight, in the midst of a storm so severe that the water streamed over their shoes as they crossed the street. But by the next morning the rain had passed, and they woke to a sky lit a pale blue that Armand swore could only be seen in Belgium.

They were staying in a suite at the Grand Hôtel Mengelle, a first-class hotel on the rue Royale. They had a leisurely breakfast and then hired an open carriage to take them to the Cathedral of St. Gudula, where Armand wanted to show Aimée the pulpit's florid carving of Adam and Eve creeping from paradise. They spent the rest of the morning in the Royal Museum of Fine Art and ate their midday meal at a small café across the street, where Armand remembered being served chocolate cake on his seventh birthday. Afterward, they walked through the Grand Place and fed the pigeons with crumbs from a roll Aimée had stashed in her purse.

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