Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (5 page)

She was surprised that they couldn't find the time to visit the de Potter relatives who lived at the castle in Loppem. They did meet his brother, Victor, for dinner on their last night in Brussels. When Aimée asked in her best French for stories about their grandfather Louis de Potter, Victor, who was nearly a foot taller than his brother, spilled the soup from his spoon back into the bowl and exchanged a glance with Armand. “I was telling you about the skirmish at Yelalla, along the Congo River,” Victor said. He hadn't been telling them any such thing, but Armand chimed in, “Yelalla, yes, you were saying?”

“I want to show you…”—Victor pulled a heavy copper crucifix from his satchel—“this Katanga beauty I took off the corpse of a native.”

Victor had been educated at a school in Brussels, and after serving for two years in the Belgian military he came home to East Flanders. By then their father was dead, and Victor lived in the family home with his stepmother. All Armand had said about his father's second wife was that she'd been born on a farm outside the village of Waterloo five years after the defeat of Napoléon, and she preferred to speak only Dutch. He resisted complaining outright about her, but Aimée guessed that the stepmother was one of the reasons her husband had moved to America.

They took the train to Antwerp the next day, and as they traveled through the countryside, Armand puffed on his pipe and gazed silently out the rain-streaked window at the fields. What was he thinking about? Aimée remembered the intimacy of her wedding night. Now she longed for a concurrent intimacy that would enable her to read her husband's expression. He was so distant from her right then, as much a foreigner as when he'd arrived in the classroom for the first time in Albany. He had rarely spoken about his brother, Victor, and she thought she understood why—he was far coarser than she would have expected for a member of the European aristocracy. She wondered about his father, who had died when Armand was seventeen. Had he really been a diplomat, as Armand claimed? She wondered what the family house in Elseghem was like, and if her husband had misrepresented his past. Even if she went ahead and asked him to clarify, she couldn't be sure that he would tell the truth.

What a horrible tangle of fears. She might as well come right out and call him a liar. She had no evidence that he had lied to her. If his brother lacked manners, it wasn't Armand's fault. Even if Armand had exaggerated his family's wealth and importance, he couldn't have invented the basic facts. What cause did she have to be suspicious? He was merely looking out the train window at the countryside of Belgium. The truth was not that the person Aimée loved most in the world was guilty of misrepresenting his past, but that she didn't know everything about him.

She was proud of her nimble intuition and had a reputation among her schoolmates for being an astute judge of character. But she remembered that she'd been wrong about the beggar woman in Rome. Could she have been wrong about her own husband, too? As she watched him looking out through the rain, she told herself that if nothing else, her experiences over the past three months had made her keener, more confident in her ability to see the truth. The inconsistencies she'd discerned in his account of his past added color to the picture, and color added depth. That there was more to him than she had initially perceived would only make the marriage more thrilling. Already she had come to know him in a new way in bed. Now she could look forward to another kind of knowing that would develop gradually, through the accumulation of experiences over days and years and decades. She was ready to be surprised by him. She had no doubt that the more he revealed himself to her, the more there would be of him for her to love.

 

PART TWO

 

The
Regele Carol

I
NSTEAD OF GOING DIRECTLY TO HIS STATEROOM
, he climbs to the upper deck of the
Regele Carol
to take in the view of Constantinople. From the rail, he watches the two sailors who brought him to the ship row back to shore. A felucca glides past them toward the mouth of the Bosporus. On an ironclad frigate anchored nearby, a red flag slowly rises on a pole.

He decides to walk to the other side of the deck, where he can look out at the black walls and towers on the nearest hillside. He tries to orient himself, tracking from the palace to the Hagia Sofia dome and across the jumble of rooftops of the Seraglio. He wonders if he's right in identifying the roof of the shop where, on a whim two days earlier, he'd bought a small bronze statue in the shape of the youthful Bacchus.

The water has the glassy stillness of a pond, and his attention is caught by his own shadow on the surface. He bends and straightens his arm. The elongated shadow bends and straightens. He curls his arms over his head and presses his chin against his chest, making a ram with his shadow—an image he remembers showing his son just a few weeks earlier, using the light from his magic lantern.

The breeze grows warmer and the harbor busier. Ripples spreading from the wake of a passing barge slap against the hull of the ship. New passengers keep arriving, and in the time since Armand has been standing at the rail of the upper deck, two Russian women and a girl have claimed their chairs. One of the women opens a book; the other woman and the girl share segments of an orange. The citrus fragrance reaches Armand, and it makes him sharply aware of his longing to be back at Grand Bois, sharing an orange with his wife and son.

He imagines what he'd say if his wife were standing with him on the upper deck of the
Regele Carol
. Maybe he would have confessed everything right then. No, he wouldn't. He would continue his efforts to postpone revealing his plan to her by drawing her attention to the domes crowning the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Right then the whistle sounds the ship's imminent departure. Armand plugs his ears with his knuckles and watches the Russian woman, who keeps right on talking to her daughter, trying to make her words understood above the noise.

There is more activity on deck as several boatloads of passengers disembark. He wonders how long he has been standing there and takes out his watch. Two days earlier at the Yeni Valideh Jami' he had made a show of setting it to Turkish time. Here in the land of the sultan, where the clock follows the sun, it is just past three in the morning.

He signals to a steward and speaks to him in German, expressing his desire to be directed to his cabin. He is met with puzzlement. He guesses that the steward is Romanian like most of the crew. But Armand doesn't speak Romanian. He tries Greek, then English, and finally, in French, succeeds in communicating his meaning.

The steward is slender with bowed legs and burly arms. His green eyes would have been piercing, but it seems he can't help but fix his gaze slightly below eye level, a habit that makes his manner, otherwise plain, seem obsequious, or even furtively judgmental, as if he were the kind who mocked his superiors behind their backs. Armand's response is to run his fingers through his beard in case he has crumbs there, though he's sure he doesn't, since he had no breakfast that morning.

The steward leads the way down the stairs to the first-class section, moving along the corridor so quickly that Armand has to take a couple of running strides to keep up. When they reach the room, they find the door already ajar, which concerns him, though he can't come up with a good reason to complain. The room is more spacious than he'd expected for such a small steamer, and his trunk is stored securely beneath the bunk.

He dismisses the steward and begins arranging his room. Whenever he travels on a ship, he goes through the same routine: He sets out his reading glasses and opens his notebook to one of his lectures, in this case about the mythological sea kings of the Aegean. He folds down a corner of the blanket and fluffs the pillow. He wipes his spectacles with his handkerchief. He lays out a fresh shirt and runs a damp cloth across his vest and jacket, though lunch is still several hours away. Then he starts reading:
Here where the magical past is astonishingly real, and, if real, supremely interesting to us
 …

 

Cannes to Lausanne

B
Y THE SPRING OF 1905
, two months before Armand disappeared at sea, Aimée had written so many letters about the advantages of life in France that her friends and relatives back in America began to be persuaded. Miss Plympton, former headmistress of the Albany Academy for Girls, decided to retire in Cannes. Mr. and Mrs. Tamour, who had been their neighbors in Albany, came to visit the de Potters and ended up buying a villa down the hill from them. And Aimée's sister Leila sent her daughter Gertrude to Cannes to study French.

The American Bureau of Foreign Travel had full-time staff in offices in New York, Detroit, and Paris. The business, in its twenty-sixth year, published a thick brochure titled “De Potter Tours for Pleasure and Study Abroad,” with “well-matured and leisurely itineraries,” “intelligent sightseeing under expert guidance,” and “veritable voyages de luxe at reasonable cost.” Each tour had been repeated dozens of times by the same guides, and each guide made his own arrangements for interpreters. Armand was hardly needed. Although he liked to join the tours in Europe and Egypt for short intervals, he was home more often than not and frequently gave personal tours around the region to whoever happened to be visiting.

On the day they planned to take Gertrude to see the Rothschild gardens in Grasse, they were still at breakfast when the morning mail arrived. Among the letters were several from members of a De Potter traveling party and one from a guide named Gustav Turgel.

Monsieur Turgel regretted to inform Professor de Potter that an accident involving the DOT party—shorthand for the De Potter Oriental Tour—had occurred in the harbor of Jaffa. He explained that a boat transporting the party from a khedival steamer to shore had been capsized by a rogue wave, and the passengers and crew had been thrown into the water. Everyone had made it to shore alive, but all the luggage was lost. The travelers were recuperating in their rooms in the Grand New Hotel. Monsieur Turgel assumed he could borrow off the bureau's credit to replace essential items. He was sorry to say that the current accommodations were shockingly inadequate and only added to the party's general displeasure. He asked if he could have permission to move the group to the Hôtel du Parc. He added that several members of the party had promised to write to Professor de Potter directly.

In their own letters, some travelers threatened to take legal action against the American Bureau of Foreign Travel; others demanded immediate compensation. One man promised to publicize the news of the accident so that anyone back in America who was planning to join a De Potter tour would know exactly what to expect. The losses claimed were considerable—purses and wallets stuffed with cash, a set of diamond cuff links, two pearl necklaces, an emerald brooch.

Armand's pallor had turned a grayish hue by the time he finished reading through the letters, and Aimée worried that he was about to suffer one of his dizzy spells. She pressed him back into his seat when he started to stand. No, he said with irritation, he was fine. She mumbled something about the distressing news from Jaffa. He announced that nothing could be done about an accident that had already occurred. Putting the letters aside, he insisted on going ahead with their trip to the Rothschild villa.

In Grasse, they spent nearly two hours strolling paths that wound between massive yuccas and blue palms. The skies had cleared, and Gertrude claimed to be intoxicated from the perfume of the blossoms. To prove it she staggered ahead, weaving from side to side, plucking the flower of a geranium and tucking it into her hair.

Aimée hardly noticed. She was preoccupied with the news they'd received that morning, even though she respected her husband's wish not to speak of it. In Alice Rothschild's gardens they spoke only about the plants that were in bloom, and over lunch at the Hôtel de la Porte they wondered whether the dressing on the salad was excessively sweet, and if the rain would return.

Back in Cannes they busied themselves with chores in the hour left before supper and made arrangements to take a carriage ride to the seaside village of Théoule with friends the following day. Alone in her room that evening, Aimée thought further about the letters they'd received that morning. She opened her diary and wrote, “Can see trouble ahead.” Then she stared at the words, not entirely certain what they meant.

*   *   *

The next day, after Armand didn't appear at breakfast, Aimée went to his room and found him in bed with the shutters still closed. She sat beside him and touched the back of her hand against his forehead. She assured him that he didn't have a fever. Still, he felt too seedy to go to Théoule, he said. He hadn't slept at all the night before, and now his head was throbbing.

She asked him stupidly if he was worrying over the accident at Jaffa. He waved away her question and announced that there was nothing more to be said about Jaffa. But there had to be more to say about Jaffa. She wished they could have talked at length about it. She wanted to persuade him that they were lucky, no one had been killed, and they were fortunate to have the resources to satisfy the injured parties. Yes, the public would hear about the accident, and there might be a temporary drop in applications for upcoming tours, but the business would survive. Her husband would take charge, as he always did, and make the necessary restitutions.

First, though, he had to suffer one of his nervous headaches. If she hadn't loved him as she did, she might have blamed him for letting himself be dominated by misery. She was irritated by her own helplessness. She could do no more than encourage him to try to sleep and leave him alone for a few hours.

She set out on errands, stopping first at the apothecary to purchase menthol for her husband, then continuing on to the post office. She spent another hour walking the length of the beach below la Croisette before returning home.

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