Chapter 4
11 mins to read
2860 words

The Divers would return to the Riviera, which was home. The Villa Diana had been rented again for the summer, so they divided the intervening time between German spas and French cathedral towns where they were always happy for a few days. Dick wrote a little with no particular method; it was one of those parts of life that is an awaiting; not upon Nicole’s health, which seemed to thrive on travel, nor upon work, but simply an awaiting. The factor that gave purposefulness to the period was the children.

Dick’s interest in them increased with their ages, now eleven and nine. He managed to reach them over the heads of employees on the principle that both the forcing of children and the fear of forcing them were inadequate substitutes for the long, careful watchfulness, the checking and balancing and reckoning of accounts, to the end that there should be no slip below a certain level of duty. He came to know them much better than Nicole did, and in expansive moods over the wines of several countries he talked and played with them at length. They had that wistful charm, almost sadness, peculiar to children who have learned early not to cry or laugh with abandon; they were apparently moved to no extremes of emotion, but content with a simple regimentation and the simple pleasures allowed them. They lived on the even tenor found advisable in the experience of old families of the Western world, brought up rather than brought out. Dick thought, for example, that nothing was more conducive to the development of observation than compulsory silence.

Lanier was an unpredictable boy with an inhuman curiosity. “Well, how many Pomeranians would it take to lick a lion, father?” was typical of the questions with which he harassed Dick. Topsy was easier. She was nine and very fair and exquisitely made like Nicole, and in the past Dick had worried about that. Lately she had become as robust as any American child. He was satisfied with them both, but conveyed the fact to them only in a tacit way. They were not let off breaches of good conduct—“Either one learns politeness at home,” Dick said, “or the world teaches it to you with a whip and you may get hurt in the process. What do I care whether Topsy ‘adores’ me or not? I’m not bringing her up to be my wife.”

Another element that distinguished this summer and autumn for the Divers was a plenitude of money. Due to the sale of their interest in the clinic, and to developments in America, there was now so much that the mere spending of it, the care of goods, was an absorption in itself. The style in which they travelled seemed fabulous.

Regard them, for example, as the train slows up at Boyen where they are to spend a fortnight visiting. The shifting from the wagon-lit has begun at the Italian frontier. The governess’s maid and Madame Diver’s maid have come up from second class to help with the baggage and the dogs. Mlle. Bellois will superintend the hand-luggage, leaving the Sealyhams to one maid and the pair of Pekinese to the other. It is not necessarily poverty of spirit that makes a woman surround herself with life—it can be a superabundance of interest, and, except during her flashes of illness, Nicole was capable of being curator of it all. For example with the great quantity of heavy baggage—presently from the van would be unloaded four wardrobe trunks, a shoe trunk, three hat trunks, and two hat boxes, a chest of servants’ trunks, a portable filing-cabinet, a medicine case, a spirit lamp container, a picnic set, four tennis rackets in presses and cases, a phonograph, a typewriter. Distributed among the spaces reserved for family and entourage were two dozen supplementary grips, satchels and packages, each one numbered, down to the tag on the cane case. Thus all of it could be checked up in two minutes on any station platform, some for storage, some for accompaniment from the “light trip list” or the “heavy trip list,” constantly revised, and carried on metal-edged plaques in Nicole’s purse. She had devised the system as a child when travelling with her failing mother. It was equivalent to the system of a regimental supply officer who must think of the bellies and equipment of three thousand men.

The Divers flocked from the train into the early gathered twilight of the valley. The village people watched the debarkation with an awe akin to that which followed the Italian pilgrimages of Lord Byron a century before. Their hostess was the Contessa di Minghetti, lately Mary North. The journey that had begun in a room over the shop of a paperhanger in Newark had ended in an extraordinary marriage.

“Conte di Minghetti” was merely a papal title—the wealth of Mary’s husband flowed from his being ruler-owner of manganese deposits in southwestern Asia. He was not quite light enough to travel in a pullman south of Mason-Dixon; he was of the Kyble-Berber-Sabaean-Hindu strain that belts across north Africa and Asia, more sympathetic to the European than the mongrel faces of the ports.

When these princely households, one of the East, one of the West, faced each other on the station platform, the splendor of the Divers seemed pioneer simplicity by comparison. Their hosts were accompanied by an Italian major-domo carrying a staff, by a quartet of turbaned retainers on motorcycles, and by two half-veiled females who stood respectfully a little behind Mary and salaamed at Nicole, making her jump with the gesture.

To Mary as well as to the Divers the greeting was faintly comic; Mary gave an apologetic, belittling giggle; yet her voice, as she introduced her husband by his Asiatic title, flew proud and high.

In their rooms as they dressed for dinner, Dick and Nicole grimaced at each other in an awed way: such rich as want to be thought democratic pretend in private to be swept off their feet by swank.

“Little Mary North knows what she wants,” Dick muttered through his shaving cream. “Abe educated her, and now she’s married to a Buddha. If Europe ever goes Bolshevik she’ll turn up as the bride of Stalin.”

Nicole looked around from her dressing-case. “Watch your tongue, Dick, will you?” But she laughed. “They’re very swell. The warships all fire at them or salute them or something. Mary rides in the royal bus in London.”

“All right,” he agreed. As he heard Nicole at the door asking for pins, he called, “I wonder if I could have some whiskey; I feel the mountain air!”

“She’ll see to it,” presently Nicole called through the bathroom door. “It was one of those women who were at the station. She has her veil off.”

“What did Mary tell you about life?” he asked.

“She didn’t say so much—she was interested in high life—she asked me a lot of questions about my genealogy and all that sort of thing, as if I knew anything about it. But it seems the bridegroom has two very tan children by another marriage—one of them ill with some Asiatic thing they can’t diagnose. I’ve got to warn the children. Sounds very peculiar to me. Mary will see how we’d feel about it.” She stood worrying a minute.

“She’ll understand,” Dick reassured her. “Probably the child’s in bed.”

At dinner Dick talked to Hosain, who had been at an English public school. Hosain wanted to know about stocks and about Hollywood and Dick, whipping up his imagination with champagne, told him preposterous tales.

“Billions?” Hosain demanded.

“Trillions,” Dick assured him.

“I didn’t truly realize——”

“Well, perhaps millions,” Dick conceded. “Every hotel guest is assigned a harem—or what amounts to a harem.”

“Other than the actors and directors?”

“Every hotel guest—even travelling salesmen. Why, they tried to send me up a dozen candidates, but Nicole wouldn’t stand for it.”

Nicole reproved him when they were in their room alone. “Why so many highballs? Why did you use your word spic in front of him?”

“Excuse me, I meant smoke. The tongue slipped.”

“Dick, this isn’t faintly like you.”

“Excuse me again. I’m not much like myself any more.”

That night Dick opened a bathroom window, giving on a narrow and tubular court of the château, gray as rats but echoing at the moment to plaintive and peculiar music, sad as a flute. Two men were chanting in an Eastern language or dialect full of k’s and l’s—he leaned out but he could not see them; there was obviously a religious significance in the sounds, and tired and emotionless he let them pray for him too, but what for, save that he should not lose himself in his increasing melancholy, he did not know.

Next day, over a thinly wooded hillside they shot scrawny birds, distant poor relations to the partridge. It was done in a vague imitation of the English manner, with a corps of inexperienced beaters whom Dick managed to miss by firing only directly overhead.

On their return Lanier was waiting in their suite.

“Father, you said tell you immediately if we were near the sick boy.”

Nicole whirled about, immediately on guard.

“—so, Mother,” Lanier continued, turning to her, “the boy takes a bath every evening and to-night he took his bath just before mine and I had to take mine in his water, and it was dirty.”

“What? Now what?”

“I saw them take Tony out of it, and then they called me into it and the water was dirty.”

“But—did you take it?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Heavens!” she exclaimed to Dick.

He demanded: “Why didn’t Lucienne draw your bath?”

“Lucienne can’t. It’s a funny heater—it reached out of itself and burned her arm last night and she’s afraid of it, so one of those two women——”

“You go in this bathroom and take a bath now.”

“Don’t say told you,” said Lanier from the doorway.

Dick went in and sprinkled the tub with sulphur; closing the door he said to Nicole:

“Either we speak to Mary or we’d better get out.”

She agreed and he continued: “People think their children are constitutionally cleaner than other people’s, and their diseases are less contagious.”

Dick came in and helped himself from the decanter, chewing a biscuit savagely in the rhythm of the pouring water in the bathroom.

“Tell Lucienne that she’s got to learn about the heater—” he suggested. At that moment the Asiatic woman came in person to the door.

“El Contessa——”

Dick beckoned her inside and closed the door.

“Is the little sick boy better?” he inquired pleasantly.

“Better, yes, but he still has the eruptions frequently.”

“That’s too bad—I’m very sorry. But you see our children mustn’t be bathed in his water. That’s out of the question—I’m sure your mistress would be furious if she had known you had done a thing like that.”

“I?” She seemed thunderstruck. “Why, I merely saw your maid had difficulty with the heater—I told her about it and started the water.”

“But with a sick person you must empty the bathwater entirely out, and clean the tub.”


Chokingly the woman drew a long breath, uttered a convulsed sob and rushed from the room.

“She mustn’t get up on western civilization at our expense,” he said grimly.

At dinner that night he decided that it must inevitably be a truncated visit: about his own country Hosain seemed to have observed only that there were many mountains and some goats and herders of goats. He was a reserved young man—to draw him out would have required the sincere effort that Dick now reserved for his family. Soon after dinner Hosain left Mary and the Divers to themselves, but the old unity was split—between them lay the restless social fields that Mary was about to conquer. Dick was relieved when, at nine-thirty, Mary received and read a note and got up.

“You’ll have to excuse me. My husband is leaving on a short trip—and I must be with him.”

Next morning, hard on the heels of the servant bringing coffee, Mary entered their room. She was dressed and they were not dressed, and she had the air of having been up for some time. Her face was toughened with quiet jerky fury.

“What is this story about Lanier having been bathed in a dirty bath?”

Dick began to protest, but she cut through:

“What is this story that you commanded my husband’s sister to clean Lanier’s tub?”

She remained on her feet staring at them, as they sat impotent as idols in their beds, weighted by their trays. Together they exclaimed: “His sister !”

“That you ordered one of his sisters to clean out a tub!”

“We didn’t—” their voices rang together saying the same thing, “—I spoke to the native servant——”

“You spoke to Hosain’s sister.”

Dick could only say: “I supposed they were two maids.”

“You were told they were Himadoun.”

“What?” Dick got out of bed and into a robe.

“I explained it to you at the piano night before last. Don’t tell me you were too merry to understand.”

“Was that what you said? I didn’t hear the beginning. I didn’t connect the—we didn’t make any connection, Mary. Well, all we can do is see her and apologize.”

“See her and apologize! I explained to you that when the oldest member of the family—when the oldest one marries, well, the two oldest sisters consecrate themselves to being Himadoun, to being his wife’s ladies-in-waiting.”

“Was that why Hosain left the house last night?”

Mary hesitated; then nodded.

“He had to—they all left. His honor makes it necessary.”

Now both the Divers were up and dressing; Mary went on:

“And what’s all that about the bathwater. As if a thing like that could happen in this house! We’ll ask Lanier about it.”

Dick sat on the bedside indicating in a private gesture to Nicole that she should take over. Meanwhile Mary went to the door and spoke to an attendant in Italian.

“Wait a minute,” Nicole said. “I won’t have that.”

“You accused us,” answered Mary, in a tone she had never used to Nicole before. “Now I have a right to see.”

“I won’t have the child brought in.” Nicole threw on her clothes as though they were chain mail.

“That’s all right,” said Dick. “Bring Lanier in. We’ll settle this bathtub matter—fact or myth.”

Lanier, half clothed mentally and physically, gazed at the angered faces of the adults.

“Listen, Lanier,” Mary demanded, “how did you come to think you were bathed in water that had been used before?”

“Speak up,” Dick added.

“It was just dirty, that was all.”

“Couldn’t you hear the new water running, from your room, next door?”

Lanier admitted the possibility but reiterated his point—the water was dirty. He was a little awed; he tried to see ahead:

“It couldn’t have been running, because——”

They pinned him down.

“Why not?”

He stood in his little kimono arousing the sympathy of his parents and further arousing Mary’s impatience—then he said:

“The water was dirty, it was full of soap-suds.”

“When you’re not sure what you’re saying—” Mary began, but Nicole interrupted.

“Stop it, Mary. If there were dirty suds in the water it was logical to think it was dirty. His father told him to come——”

“There couldn’t have been dirty suds in the water.”

Lanier looked reproachfully at his father, who had betrayed him. Nicole turned him about by the shoulders and sent him out of the room; Dick broke the tensity with a laugh.

Then, as if the sound recalled the past, the old friendship, Mary guessed how far away from them she had gone and said in a mollifying tone: “It’s always like that with children.”

Her uneasiness grew as she remembered the past. “You’d be silly to go—Hosain wanted to make this trip anyhow. After all, you’re my guests and you just blundered into the thing.” But Dick, made more angry by this obliqueness and the use of the word blunder, turned away and began arranging his effects, saying:

“It’s too bad about the young women. I’d like to apologize to the one who came in here.”

“If you’d only listened on the piano seat!”

“But you’ve gotten so damned dull, Mary. I listened as long as I could.”

“Be quiet!” Nicole advised him.

“I return his compliment,” said Mary bitterly. “Good-by, Nicole.” She went out.

After all that there was no question of her coming to see them off; the major-domo arranged the departure. Dick left formal notes for Hosain and the sisters. There was nothing to do except to go, but all of them, especially Lanier, felt bad about it.

“I insist,” insisted Lanier on the train, “that it was dirty bathwater.”

“That’ll do,” his father said. “You better forget it—unless you want me to divorce you. Did you know there was a new law in France that you can divorce a child?”

Lanier roared with delight and the Divers were unified again—Dick wondered how many more times it could be done.

Read next chapter  >>
Chapter 5
13 mins to read
3442 words
Return to Tender is the Night