For an Englishman it was a strange time to be in France. During much of the century a strong enmity had existed between the countries’ two governments, first because of Napoleon’s rather uncouth attempt to conquer Europe, then because of the lingering hostility born of that time. Now, though, the emperor’s nephew ruled France and had shown himself more liberal than his uncle—he had freed the press and the government from many of their previous restrictions—and an uneasy peace had sprung up across the Channel.
Even during the worst of times, just after Waterloo, for instance, there had been civility among open-minded French and English men, and now a man like Lenox, who loved so much about France—its coffee, its food, its wine, its architecture, its countryside, its literature—could visit the place with open admiration. There were republican rumblings in the capitol, however, and many Frenchmen, whose grandfathers had survived the revolution, felt fearful of what the next years might bring. Both Lenox and Lady Jane were happy that they had come when they did. Who knew what changes another shift in regime might bring? Who knew whether they would ever be able to visit again? And since that was the case, they had done all they could. Lady Jane had ordered dresses by the dozen (the seamstresses here being so infinitely preferable to English dressmakers—even at the height of the war fashion had been smuggled from one country to the other), while Lenox had spent his days closeted with a dozen different politicians, all of them sympathetic.
For he was in fact the newly minted Member of Parliament for Stirrington—had been elected not six months since. In that time he had barely entered the great chamber, however. He and Lady Jane had married in the Whitsun Recess, and now, in the Summer Recess, they were on their honeymoon. Paris was their final destination. They had spent three weeks traveling through the beautiful lake towns of the Alps, then another two in the French countryside.
In truth, as wonderful as it had been, both longed to be home. They missed London, missed their friends, and missed the little street off Grosvenor Square, Hampden Lane, where they had lived in side-by-side town houses for the better part of two decades. When they returned the two houses would be one: Over the past months an architect had supervised the demolition of the walls between them and seamlessly joined the buildings’ rooms to create one large house. It gave Lenox a good deal of private pleasure to contemplate this physical symbol of their union. For long years Jane had been his closest friend, and he could scarcely believe that he was lucky enough now to be married to her. Their births were close enough (hers slightly higher), and they had grown up together, but within London society she was one of the brightest stars, and while he was welcome everywhere and had a great variety of friends, he was viewed as idiosyncratic because of his career. Perhaps his marriage and his admission to Parliament would change that. He hated to admit it, but he wouldn’t mind. It had been hard to go it alone for so long in the face of everyone’s polite disapproval of his vocation.
That evening they were in their sitting room at the Crillon. She was at a small carved desk, writing her correspondence, and he was sitting in an armchair, reading. A cool summer breeze blew in through the window.
As if she were reading his mind, she looked up and said, “To think—in three days we’ll be home!”
“I can’t wait,” he said quietly and ardently.
“I’ve had a letter from Toto. She’s simply enormous, she says, and she and Thomas seem to be quite content together—what does she say? Here it is: Thomas and I sit together in the evenings. I knit and he reads, except when we both stop and talk about baby names and what room to give the child and, oh, everything. That sounds like Toto, doesn’t it? She writes just the way she speaks.”
Bess Telford’s facts had been mingled with rumors—Thomas McConnell was a doctor and occasionally did drink too much. A talented surgeon from a family of minor nobility in Scotland, he had come to London to practice in Harley Street and shortly thereafter, almost to his surprise, married one of the most admired young women in the city. Lady Victoria Phillips was born with beauty and immense fortune, and in personality she was entirely winning—effervescent, affectionate, gossiping, and slightly silly—but she was also young. While their marriage had been happy for three years, after that it had become first an acrimonious and then a terrible one, full of fights and cold silences. For a period of two years the couple barely spoke, and Toto spent much of her time at her parents’ house in the country. It was during this time that Thomas had begun to drink. Shamed by his wife’s family into selling his practice for a song to a Phillips cousin (it wasn’t considered fitting that the husband of Toto Phillips should be a professional man) his subsequent aimlessness had been cruel to his spirit. It was only within the last year or two that Toto and Thomas’s relationship had healed, and her pregnancy—which was why, eight months in, she could describe herself as enormous—was just the final bond they needed to restore them to happiness.
The trouble between them had been terrible to Lenox and Lady Jane. Thomas was Charles’s medical assistant when a case demanded it, and besides that a close friend, and as for Jane, Toto was a cousin of hers, and more like a niece than any of Jane’s actual nieces. The couple’s renewed closeness was a massive relief. Toto’s series of letters had been more and more happy with each one, as the birth of her baby came closer and closer.
“Where will she go for the birth?” asked Lenox.
“I believe they intend to stay in London.”
“I would have thought they might go to her father’s house.”
“In a way I’m glad they won’t. It’s always been too easy for Toto to flee to her family. Perhaps it’s a sign that she’s growing up.”
Lenox stood. “Shall we go to dinner soon?” he asked.
“I’d rather just stay in, if you don’t mind?”
He smiled. “Of course.”
The next morning was August 25, the day in France of the Feast of St. Louis. By more than a century’s tradition it was also the day the famous Salon opened at the Louvre palace, and the greatest artists of France and indeed the world displayed their year’s work. Lenox and Lady Jane went early, heard Napoleon III speak, and spent a long day looking around. People surrounded a painting by Manet and another by Whistler, and while Lenox admired these profoundly he soon found himself steering away from the crowds and toward the back rooms. Here he found in one dim corner a series of three extremely blurred, thick-painted canvases of sunrise, even less distinct than Manet’s. They seemed to be little more than evocations of figure and light. He stared at them for half an hour and, after consulting his new wife, bought one, the littlest one, which was blue and orange.
That evening they dined with Bess and Clara, and the next day they took a trip to the country and toured a small town with one of the politicians Lenox had met, who represented the district the town belonged to.
Then, just like that, it was all over. They had to wake very early the next morning to finish the packing their servants had begun and send their luggage off. By nine o’clock they were in a carriage on the way to Calais, and by noon they were aboard their ferry.
It was summer, but for some reason the Channel was extremely foggy, and as they stood on deck a wet, gray wind swirled around them.
“It seems like a dream, doesn’t it?” said Lady Jane. “I feel as if we left yesterday. But think of all those beautiful Swiss villages, Charles! Think of that hundred-foot waterfall!”
“We ate in that restaurant on the mountainside.”
“And our guide when we went up there!”
“It was a wonderful trip,” he said, leaning on the rail, “but I’m glad we’re going home. I’m ready to be married in London now.”
She laughed her clear, low laugh and said, “I am, too.”
He hadn’t been quite joking. He stole a glance at Jane, and his heart filled with happiness. For years he had thought himself a happy man—indeed had been happy and fortunate in his friendships, his work, his interests, his family—but now he understood that in that entire time something vital had been missing. It was she. This was a new kind of happiness. It wasn’t only the mawkish love of penny fiction, though that was there. It was also a feeling of deep security in the universe, which derived from the knowledge of an equal soul and spirit going through life together with you. From time to time he thought his heart would break, it made him so glad, and felt so precarious, so new, so unsure.
A mild, wispy rain started to fall when they were nearly across the water. Jane went inside, but Lenox said he thought he might stay out and look.
And he was lucky to have done so. At certain times in our lives we all feel grateful for one outworn idea or another, and now was one of those times for Lenox: As the fog cleared he saw much closer and bigger than he had expected the vast, pristine white face of the cliffs of Dover come into view. It made him feel he was home. Just like Jane did.
A STRANGER IN MAYFAIR Copyright © 2010 by Charles Finch