The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (13 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Wednesday, July 21

The Colonel outdid himself again. I'd forgotten that when we passed Stoke Poges on the way to Stratford I'd wanted to detour to see Gray's churchyard just because the “Elegy” was my mothers favorite poem. The Colonel didn't forget; he drove me out to Stoke Poges for dinner, though it's a two-hour drive.

We got there just at twilight. Not a soul around and when we entered the churchyard the bells were tolling the knell of parting day.

Gray's mother is buried there. He wrote the inscription on her monument:

She had many children of whom only one had the misfortune to outlive her.

The church is seven hundred years old, very simple and plain. There were fresh wildflowers in the altar urns. Going down the center aisle you walk on ancient graves of parishioners buried centuries ago beneath the stone floor, their names on the stones obliterated now.

The Colonel strolled the graveyard and let me sit in the church by myself. I wished my mother could know where I was. I felt like the child who calls from a new perch: “Hey, Ma! Look!”

The Colonel's widowed sister-in-law lives near Stoke Poges. She teaches in London and commutes four hours a day, they're as crazy that way here as they are at home. We drove to her house to pick her up for dinner. She lives in a beautiful country suburb that could be anywhere in
Connecticut—as Nora's house and suburb might be anywhere in Queens. It's amazing how alike and anonymous all suburbs are, as undistinguishable from one another as highways. Maybe that's why I love cities. There's not a row of houses in London that could possibly be mistaken for New York. There isn't a square block of Manhattan that will ever for a moment remind you of London.

We had dinner at a beautiful pub called The Jolly Farmer. “Pub” is a very elastic term; it can mean a corner bar, a bar-and-grill, a cocktail lounge or an expensive restaurant. The Jolly Farmer is a typical Connecticut country restaurant: excellent, expensive and relentlessly charming. I had shrimp curry, and when I told the manager it was better than the curry I make, he brought me a jar of his own curry paste to take home to New York.

“Tell me,” the Colonel's sister-in-law said to me over coffee, “why are all Americans so fond of Gray's ‘Elegy'?”

Never knew they were, frankly. Except for my mother I never heard any American mention it. But the Colonel's sister-in-law meets a much larger cross section of American tourists at Stoke Poges than I'll ever meet in Manhattan, and they've all come there because of Gray's “Elegy,” so I took her word for it. And because I didn't have the moral backbone to say, “I don't know,” I explained the whole thing to her—off the top of my head.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” I said. “All our forebears were the poor and despised masses of Europe and Africa. We went to school and studied English poetry, and the poets we read all celebrated the aristocracy: kings and queens and Sidney's-sister-Pembroke's-mother and the spires of Oxford and the playing fields of Eton. Except Gray.
Gray celebrated the mute inglorious nobodies. And since all Americans are descended from mute inglorious nobodies, I suppose he strikes a chord with us.”

I hope I was right because she and the Colonel believed it. I even believed it myself. Got so carried away by my own eloquence that when we were driving home I began to wonder whether in explaining the American affection for Gray, I'd stumbled on a clue to the English passion for Dickens. They may admire Shakespeare more but it's Dickens they love. Maybe the average Englishman, being neither king nor peasant, identified less with the kings and peasants of Shakespeare than with the lower and middle-class upward-mobility types in Dickens. Even PB shares the national mania for Dickens—but he told me that one of his great-grandfathers was a fishmonger, and that when he was at Eton he was taunted by the other boys because his mother was “a Colonial,” born in Australia.

The Colonel is giving a farewell party for me on Sunday night. He'll be at the airport Monday when I leave.

Thursday, July 22

I'm getting so guilty about forcing Ena to paint me out-of-doors in London's well-publicized climate. We were rained out this morning for the second time. Yesterday when we were rained out she drove me to the Tower but there were long lines waiting to get in and I still can't stand on line very long. Today we started for the Tower again, but halfway there the weather cleared suddenly and I made her drive back to Russell Square. We'll do the Tower Sunday, I like having it the last London sight I'll see.

My friend the ticket taker is now entirely carried away by the project. He told Ena solemnly:

“That portrait will be worth hoff-a-million one day.” I told her if it is I get half.

Leo drove up and found us there at six. I could see Ena grinding her teeth, she'd wanted to paint as long as the light lasted. She'd told him we'd be in Russell Square and he should pick us up for dinner, but she counted on his not finding it till seven; like me, he has no sense of direction. He found Russell Square with no trouble at all and it infuriated her. And dear, obtuse Leo, who worships her and didn't know he'd committed a faux pas, went and committed a worse one: he stood behind her with his hands locked behind his back and gazed profoundly down at the portrait (Ena hates a gallery even if the gallery's Leo) and announced to me that it was “going to be beautiful.” That ended the sitting and we drove down to Panzer's, Ena and I in the station wagon, Leo following in the car. He'd wanted to take me somewhere very grand for our farewell dinner but I told him I'd rather have it at Panzer's.

We were finishing our drinks and were trying to find a day for me to drive down to Chartwell, Churchill's old home, which friends of theirs have bought, when I heard someone say:

“Hello, Helene.”

I looked up and saw coming toward us a woman I've known casually for years. She runs a successful shop in New York and she's very high-fashion. She's always perfectly friendly and pleasant when we meet but she's never considered me worth more than a passing hello.

I said Well-for-heaven's-sake-Dorothy, and introduced her to Leo and Ena. Leo invited her to join us for dinner, which she did. She explained she's here on a quick buying trip and she'd just landed. Leo, who has the world's most beautiful manners, ordered dinner for her and then engaged her in conversation so Ena and I could work on the Chartwell problem.

The problem was that since I'm leaving on Monday morning I haven't a free day to go down there with them.

“Tomorrow,” I told Ena, “Sheila Doel is driving me to Hatfield, it's the only palace I've ever wanted to see; and then we drive back to Highgate for my last dinner with Nora. Saturday is my last day with Pat Buckley, he's taking me somewhere in the country.”

“I want the Manns to meet you,” said Leo. “If they can have us on Sunday, can you drive down with us then?” And he explained to Dorothy that Christopher Mann and his wife, Eileen Joyce, had bought Chartwell.

“Sunday's the only day we have left for a sitting,” I said. “I think Ena's counting on it.”

“You need another sitting?” Leo asked, and Ena
nodded, and he explained to Dorothy about the portrait painting.

“I don't see why you have to go home on Monday,” said Ena, and sighed. And I sighed. And Leo sighed. And then he turned to Dorothy and asked how long she'd known me. She said vaguely: “I don't know. Eight or ten years.”

“Tell me,” said Leo in his vibrant English baritone, “we've only known her a few weeks. Why is it so difficult for us to part with her?”

I turned to Dorothy, ready to say something joking, but I never said it. She was literally open-mouthed, gawking at Leo. She mumbled something and then turned her gaze on me, still open-mouthed, still with that incredulous look on her face. Looking at her, I saw my own inward reaction to being a five-week Duchess mirrored in Dorothy's face.

We left Panzer's and Dorothy thanked Leo for dinner and declined a lift to her hotel, she said it was just up the street. Then she turned to me and, struggling to make it sound light and teasing instead of plainly baffled, said:

“I don't suppose there's any use asking you to fit
me
into your busy schedule?”

I wanted to say:

“Never mind, Dorothy. Next week the ball will be over and Cinderella will be back at the pots and pans and typewriter in an old pair of jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt, same as always.”

I just grinned and said I'd see her in New York.

Friday, July 23

God bless Sheila, Hatfield House was the crowning touch. Its not the oldest palace or the most beautiful, it's just Elizabeth's. She grew up there. One wing of her palace is still standing, we saw her dining rooms—and more of her kitchens than she ever saw of them.

We sat on a stone bench in the garden. It was quiet and deserted and four hundred years dropped away, you could imagine yourself there in the garden with her when the gentlemen of the Council rode up and dismounted and knelt to tell her she was Queen of England.

We drove back to Highgate for dinner and Nora gave me some photographs of Marks & Co. to take home, and one of Frank. She told me how furious she used to be when he brought one of my letters home to read to the family.

“I'd say to him, ‘What kind of husband are you, to bring another woman's letters home!”

“If he hadn't brought them home,” I said, “you'd have had cause to worry.”

She looked at me and nodded.

“That's just what Frank used to say,” she said.

Her garden almost done; she gave me the last of the roses to bring home.

Saturday, July 24

With PB and the Elys to Losely House, an Elizabethan mansion. Elizabeth herself was once a house guest there. And wrote her host a long list of complaints and criticisms when she got home.

The three of them are having dinner tomorrow night at a pub Sam Pepys dined at, they wanted me to come along. I said I'd try to make it before the Colonel's party, I knew perfectly well I couldn't but I'm a coward, I didn't know how to say goodbye-and-thank-you to PB. Will call him tomorrow and say goodbye on the phone.

After we dropped the Elys at the Connaught, he took me to the jeweler's to get my lapel pin. It's a gold crossbar with the red-and-white London seal and the city's motto in gold:

DOMINE DIRIGE NOS

Trust He will go on directing them.

Sunday, July 25

Did most of my packing last night so Ena could get an early start in Russell Square this morning, and she painted till noon, when we were rained out again.

She drove me through Regent's Park for a last look at the Nash Crescent and all the lovely streets, and then on down to Panzer's for a farewell lunch before we headed for the Tower.

We drove to the Tower and found people standing on line four abreast, waiting to get in. The line stretched for a city block along the Tower gates, and it wasn't moving. I knew then I would never see the inside of the Tower of London. I could have gone so many times. I let it go too long.

“Next summer,” said Ena lightly, “we'll make a list of all the places you didn't see and we'll do the Tower first off!”

She's going to drive me to the airport in the morning.

Later

The Colonel has a comfortable flat in Chelsea and his friends are all pleasant and easy to be with: two men, several attractive widows and a shy young couple from Switzerland. I don't remember any of their names or what we talked about, I couldn't concentrate. The party broke up early since I leave for the airport at 10
A.M.
Nora was there. She drove me home and we said goodbye and promised to write.

I'm writing this in bed. With the packed suitcase standing open on the floor, the dresser top bare and the drapes drawn against the rain, the room looks exactly as it did the night I came.

Monday, July 26

Had the suitcase brought down after breakfast and paid the bill. Phoned PB to say goodbye but no answer.

Went up the street to Deutsch's and autographed twenty copies of the book for Australian booksellers due here tomorrow for a convention. Don't know their names and
still
couldn't bring myself just to write my name and let it go at that, it seems unfriendly. Wrote “To an unknown booklover” in every copy, sometimes I think I'm crazy.

Said goodbye to Carmen and Mr. Tammer and all the other people at Deutsch, except André, who hadn't come in yet. Then went over and said goodbye to Russell Square. My friend the ticket taker hadn't come on duty yet; I was there by myself.

Came back to the hotel and tried PB again but still no answer. Decided to write him the minute I get home but would have done that anyway. When I came out of the phone booth Mr. Otto bowed and said solemnly:

“Madam's Jag-U-Ar awaits.”

And there was Ena in a borrowed Jag, she said Leo had the car and she wasn't going to drive me to the airport in a station wagon too noisy to talk in.

She gave me a ring set with two small pearls because she once heard me say I like pearls.

The Colonel met us at Heathrow. He had my suitcase taken care of and then led us grandly into the VIP Lounge for sherry. Over sherry, he announced that after my plane left he was going to take Ena on a VIP tour of the airport buildings.

He and Ena walked me to the plane. The Colonel
handed me over to a stewardess and told her to take good care of me, and he and Ena kissed me goodbye. I had a seat by the window and I slid into it and peered out, looking for them. Just as I saw them and lifted my hand to wave, they turned away and vanished in the crowd.

The plane lifted—and suddenly it was as if everything had vanished: Bloomsbury and Regent's Park and Russell Square and Rutland Gate. None of it had happened, none of it was real. Even the people weren't real. It was all imagined, they were all phantoms.

I sit here on the plane trying to see faces, trying to hold onto London, but the mind intrudes with thoughts of home: the mail piled up waiting for me, the people waiting, the world waiting.

Bits of Prospero run in my head:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors

. . . were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air . . .

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples . . . dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on. . . .

Rest in peace, Mary Bailey.

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