Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (6 page)

Entering through the kitchen, she stopped to taste the soup Felicie had left simmering on the stove. In the front hall, she slowly unwrapped her scarf. She felt inexplicably self-conscious, as if she had just discovered that she was being watched by her husband. It was especially strange, then, that she should find herself watching him, his body framed by the salon's pocket doors, his back to her as he tinkered with the curios in the gilt cabinet.

She was glad to see that he'd gotten out of bed and he wouldn't need the menthol after all. His absorption in his work impressed her. He was like a clockmaker tinkering with pins and gears.

She heard a clatter and saw him reach for the ivory elephant from the chess set and stand it upright on the shelf. She hoped nothing had been broken, then told herself it wouldn't much matter. The curios relegated to the gilt cabinet had been bought from street vendors for a franc or two, and most of the pieces were too damaged or too poorly made to be of interest to Egyptologists. Some, such as the chess set, or the strange flat-headed iron figure with untextured hair that fell to its shoulders, didn't even come from Egypt but were caprices bought on his journeys around the world. Together it was a motley group, “my assemblage of misfits,” Armand had once said.

Still, he could occupy himself sorting and arranging the collection in the cabinet for hours at a time, in the hope that he'd one day discover something of value among his misfits. Aimée thought it an unrealistic hope, but she knew that it calmed him to handle the pieces. And after his efforts to put his finest treasures on display for the public to enjoy, he was allowed to indulge himself in private, especially at a time when he'd been shaken by the news from Jaffa. The least she could do was allow him a moment of peace and slip away before he realized she was standing there.

*   *   *

Victor came home for the Easter holiday, and when Felicie saw him, she exclaimed at how much he'd grown in just a few weeks. He was nearly as tall as his mother and kept stumbling over his feet. He'd outgrown his suits, so Aimée brought him to Nice to buy a new one. Gertrude came along, and they met friends for tea at Rumpelmeyer's. Back in Cannes, Aimée took Gertrude and Victor to hear vespers at St. George's. They met Armand at Grand Bois and had dinner on the terrace, the table positioned just far enough from the fountain that they wouldn't get wet if the breeze sent the spray in their direction.

All these activities Aimée diligently listed in her diary. She chose not to mention that when she'd returned from Nice, she'd found Armand in his study rereading the letters from Jaffa. She didn't bother to say that when she reached for the letters, he tossed them to the floor and demanded, as if she were one of his accusers, “Explain to me why this accident is my responsibility!”—then left the room abruptly. His anger was best forgotten. And though she was right to predict that before the day was over he would express remorse, taking her into his arms and apologizing for his outburst, she saw no need to include this in her chronicle. All she wrote that evening was “Lovely day, but letters from members of Party distress us and our hearts are heavy. Sat in garden in p.m.”

The following Sunday, neighbors dropped by and ended up staying for tea. Just as they were leaving, the de Potters were surprised to see Gustav Turgel, the conductor of the De Potter Oriental Tour, walking up the hill toward their front gate. He had sailed from Jaffa to Marseille and then taken the train to Cannes instead of continuing directly on to Paris.

A young man, Alsatian by birth, he had the demeanor of someone much older, with a polished bald head and lips that turned down at the corners. Aimée took an immediate dislike to him. Over the dinner that Felicie hastily prepared, he launched into a more graphic version of the accident. He said that Mr. Leroy, a stout merchant from Scranton, Pennsylvania, had been inconsolable after the sailors decided he was too heavy to lift onto the rescue boat and instead dragged him through the water to shore. He said that the right arm of the elderly Mrs. Cunningham from Boston had nearly been twisted out of its socket, and that Mrs. Cunningham's niece had vomited into her hat during the carriage ride to the hotel.

How much Armand would have to pay in penalty, they didn't yet know. They didn't want to know. He might have been an adventurer, but he was poorly equipped to engage in a drawn-out legal battle he was sure to lose. The whole affair was proving increasingly threatening, though perhaps Monsieur Turgel was exaggerating some of the details for the sake of drama. At the very least, Aimée thought it rude of him to visit without sending word ahead. She was glad when he left Grand Bois after supper to catch the night train for Paris.

*   *   *

At the beginning of May they drove Victor back to school. As they bounced along between fields of new sunflowers and lavender, Gertrude—giddy at being young and lovely and riding in a motorcar in the south of France—started singing “Always Leave Them Laughing,” and they all joined in on the chorus, even Armand. Then they ate sandwiches and passed around a box of bonbons to share. For the first time in many days, Aimée allowed herself to hope that their hard-earned serenity would soon return.

Back at home, she picked pink and white carnations from the garden and arranged the bouquets in vases around the salon. In the evening, she and Armand read aloud to each other from the copy of Tennyson's poems he'd given her when they were engaged.

Armand was due to lead a tour in early May, and on the Sunday before he left to sail to Naples, Aimée celebrated his upcoming birthday by waking him with kisses. They had breakfast together, and while he finished preparing for his trip, she and Gertrude went to the service at St. Paul's and then to admire the view from the top of the clock tower at the Villa Fiorentina, across the street from Grand Bois.

After they'd climbed back down, she rested in the shade while Gertrude wandered off to explore the garden. She listened to the squeaking of a child's violin coming from inside the villa and watched a black cat that had planted itself on the bottom step of the tower and was picking grit from its paw.

When Gertrude returned, she wore a halo she'd woven with daisies. She announced that if she could find a way to do it, she, too, would settle permanently in Cannes. “How lucky you are, Auntie,” she declared.

The girl was right: Aimée was lucky to have found Armand de Potter and to have escaped the provincialism of her friends back home. Because of Armand she had the chance to collect armfuls of carnations, to ride in automobiles through the countryside of Provence, and to preside over Grand Bois. Armand had introduced her to the world across the ocean and made it possible for her to structure her days in such a way that she was continually enthralled. As Madame de Potter, life was never boring. She was reminded of this as she watched Gertrude in her daisy halo trying to catch one of the lizards scurrying up the wall of the Villa Fiorentina clock tower.

The next morning, Armand left to lead the Classic, Oriental, and Alpine Tour. He prepared for the trip in the usual way, packing his trunk and putting his tickets and passport in order, reviewing his itinerary, reading up on the archaeological sites he planned to visit. Aimée saw him off at the station in Cannes instead of accompanying him to Marseille, since she had a meeting at noon with the architect who was designing the gardener's cottage. She wrote in her diary that night, propped up in her bed by a pair of tasseled pillows, “A. left today for Naples.” She considered writing a line about the fine coq au vin Felicie had prepared for dinner. Instead she just added, “Cloudy & damp.”

She kept herself busy visiting and receiving friends, running errands in town, going to the dentist and to church. The weather remained unseasonably cool and rainy, and a flare-up of rheumatism made her fingers stiff. On some days she and Gertrude declined to join friends on excursions and instead stayed home, reading or playing cards by the fire. The builders started digging the cellar for the gardener's cottage. Several times, often in fog and drizzle, Aimée invited her niece and Miss Plympton to accompany her on a carriage ride down to la Croisette to see the waves crashing against the jetty.

The weather began to improve toward the end of May. On the first of June Aimée hired a car and took Gertrude and Miss Plympton to Mandelieu to pick up Victor at his school. A few days later they set out on a trip together, traveling through the Vars Valley to Grenoble and Lausanne on a new itinerary Aimée had agreed to test out for De Potter Tours.

She expected to enjoy herself, but things started to go wrong. The first hotel they stayed at was a musty place, with a nest of scorpions in the closet. Not only did Victor develop a cough and have to spend a day in bed, but poor Miss Plympton didn't fare well either. In Puget-Théniers she was nearly prostrated by the heat and humidity, and by the time they reached Grenoble she was, as Aimée reported in her diary, “entirely used up.”

The group arrived in Lausanne on June 10. After suffering the heat on the slow train from Grenoble, Aimée shared Miss Plympton's exhaustion. She left Victor in Gertrude's charge and retired to her room right after dinner. She pushed open the shutters that the maid had latched, then sat on the window seat and took out a book. She lost herself in this absorbing fantasy about time travel for several hours, reading straight to the end. Not until several months later, when she was finally returning the book to the shelf at Grand Bois, would she consider the coincidence: while she'd been following the time traveler up to the point when he enters his machine and disappears forever, Armand de Potter had gone missing.

 

El Kef to Tunis

Y
OU CAN BE SURE
that if he were telling this story, he wouldn't begin in Constantinople. He wouldn't begin with his arrival in New York, or even with his introduction to the Dredging Club of the Brooklyn Institute. He would begin in the outpost of El Kef, in that godforsaken dirt alley where he lost his way in 1879 after making the mistake of smoking a rare hashish offered to him by a proprietor of a tea shop.

But it could hardly be called
smoking
when all he'd done was take one quick puff, the bamboo stem still moist from the lips of the old Berber who had offered him the pipe. He hadn't felt any change in the quality of his consciousness after that single puff, but he eventually felt something … was it three days, or three hours, later? The hashish had followed him and spun its web, snaring his thoughts, so he couldn't remember how he'd come to this place, or where he was supposed to be.

Back then he was still a naive traveler and hadn't learned the importance of always mapping out his route. He knew, at least, that he was in an outpost called El Kef, in the northwest corner of Tunisia. But in his muddled state that day he could not posit a self capable of remembering why he had come here in the first place. He remembered that once as a sublieutenant for the French military he had visited El Kef. He wasn't a sublieutenant anymore, so why was he back? He had the vague impression that he'd returned to the village to search for something he'd misplaced, but he couldn't remember what it was.

He stumbled along a path bordered by polished black stones. For no good reason, he tried to catch up with a goat that was trotting urgently, as though fleeing the slaughterhouse. At the juncture of the path and the hard-packed road leading out of the palm grove, he lost sight of the goat and wasn't sure which way to turn. He turned left, crossed between beds of dense, spiky aloe, and passed through a low archway, entering a corridor that curved endlessly into the darkness and promised to lead nowhere.

As he moved forward, he was reminded of walking down a beach into the water. The ground was soft-packed sand like a beach, and the walls were a lemony, dimpled limestone. Moving farther along the corridor, he expected the darkness to be impenetrable. But as he rounded a bend, he saw a glow trickling in from a distant opening.

For a man who didn't know where he was going or how he had ended up in his current location, light was a more appealing destination than darkness, and he quickened his pace. Now at least he was a man with a sense of direction. With each step his purpose intensified. He was not just a man walking forward toward the source of light. He was a man who for a reason he couldn't yet articulate was hopeful that soon his whereabouts would be clarified. Hope, then, was a welcome attribute, and as a hopeful man whose boots crunched the top layer of sand he proceeded along the corridor.

He was increasingly hopeful as his senses had more to identify. There was the faint, greasy smell of his own sweat, the bitter taste of lime dust in his mouth, the occasional crumbling when his hand rubbed along the wall. Eventually he heard what he thought was the rustling of palm leaves in the breeze. But the source of the sound wasn't the wind moving through the palms, he realized as he drew closer. It was human breath moving from the lungs and emitted through pursed lips as murmurs.

Murmurs signaled that he had reason to be wary. He was hopeful and wary as he approached the source of the light and the murmuring. New questions came to mind. Should he be silent and observe the scene ahead of him without revealing his presence, or should he arrive with a bellow of a greeting?

He didn't have a chance to decide, for he was suddenly there, where the corridor opened up to a doorless entrance and the white light of the sun created a cube amid the shadows occupied by three white-robed, turbaned men. Two were squatting on the sand, knotting fine threads, and the third was standing, looking down at their work. All three offered the intruder no more than an indifferent glance before they resumed their conversation, trading hushed sounds with an intensity suggesting that whatever rug they intended to weave would be the product of reluctant compromise.

He stood for a long while observing them, envying even more than their concentrated absorption in the work of weaving their facility with a language he did not yet understand. He wished he were a man who spoke the language of these weavers. He could be that man if he set his mind to it. He must have been drawn to this place for a reason.

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