"Don't stare, Alice, dear!"
Maud Benson (Universal Companions, Foreign and Eastern Travel Division) shot a glance of concentrated disapproval at her latest charge. Her charge remained willfully oblivious and continued to turn her head excitedly, drinking in the strange sounds and bustle of the Gare de Lyon refreshment room, still elegant in spite of four years of wartime neglect.
Alice sighed, and in pursuit of a world-weary image lay back against the buttoned leather upholstery of the banquette. Like the second barrel of a shotgun, inevitably came: "Don't loll, dear!"
Alice continued to loll and turned to her companion with a mutinous expression. Fearing that she might just have gone too far (for the moment), Maud said in a placatory tone, "You need not, Alice, feel obliged to finish your cup of tea. The French really have no idea . . ." The monument of corseted rectitude creaked forward slightly to take up her own cup and, while deploring the dire French habit of putting the water in the pot before the tea leaves, determined, nevertheless, to set a good example. "Always finish what is put in front of you," even if it is a cup of badly brewed tea.
Alice didn't take the hint but continued to stare enviously at the drink in the hand of the Frenchwoman sitting opposite. Frothy and pink, it fizzed seductively in a tall glass and Maud had no doubt, to judge by the appearance of the woman sipping it, that it contained alcohol. To her horror, Alice leaned forward and addressed the woman. In English public school French.
"Excusez-moi, madame, mais qu'est-ce que c'est que cette . . . er . . . boisson?"
"Alice!" hissed Maud, bristling with indignation. "You don't address a perfect stranger! What will she think?"
The woman in question put down the enviable pink drink and, after a moment of well-bred surprise, replied in scarcely accented English and with a charming smile of friendship. "It is called a Campari-soda. Very refreshing and very French." And without pause she turned to a passing waiter and said, "Monsieur, un Campari-soda pour mademoiselle, s'il vous plait!"
Alice's face lit up with a smile of guilty delight. Maud Benson closed her eyes and pursed her lips.
They were only three hundred miles into their journey and Maud shuddered at the thought that there were at least seven thousand more to be survived in the company of this girl. Alice Conyers. Time and again she had warned her charge, "This is France. You're not in Hertfordshire now and the company is very mixed. You should avoid getting involved with strangers. And, above all, avoid a certain type of woman. Yes, woman. One learns to recognize the type. It's easy to connect with such people but not so easy to disconnect. A good rule is 'never talk to strangers.' " She didn't know what more she could have said. And yet . . . "For all the good I've done, I might as well have been playing the flute!"
Discreetly, she palmed a bismuth tablet into her mouth. A martyr to indigestion, she had learned to take this precaution at the first sign of stress.
Maud recalled the briefing her Principal had given her before this assignment had begun. "Out of the top drawer, Miss Benson. Rich family. Best of prospects. Your charge is going out to India where she is to assume the reins of power, it would seem, at the head of the family business--I'm speaking of the great commercial house Imperial and Colonial--at least, half the reins of power since she is, very sensibly, to share that eminence with a second cousin. Sad recent history--deaths in the family--so you must be prepared for a gloomy little companion, I'm afraid."
(Maud felt a little gloom and becoming mourning would be preferred to this ceaseless chatter and frivolous curiosity.)
"She is not straight out of the schoolroom, she is twenty-one years old, but has led a very sheltered life in Hertfordshire. Her grandfather's executors have expressed a requirement for a highly dependable and experienced traveling chaperone and naturally they came to us."
First impressions had been good on the whole. Though pretty enough (and this was always a concern), the girl had appeared sensible and well spoken. Her manners were those of the lady she was and rather old-fashioned. She seemed to have none of that brash giddiness that some modern young girls affected and which could give such trouble on board a P&O steamer. Her wardrobe consisted of entirely suitable clothes in mourning colours of black and grey appropriate to a girl who had recently lost not just her only brother on the battlefield mere days before the war had ended but also her father and mother to the flu the previous year. And, to cap it all, her grandfather, Lord Rupert Conyers, whose death, in the words of the Times obituary, "was occasioned by a fall from his horse while hunting with the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds" the previous December.
Maud had hoped for an undemanding run through to Bombay but was aware that the major challenge to effective chaperonage was in the three-week-long sea passage. The steamers were crowded with stylish young army officers returning to India from home leave. Many were looking for eligible wives, always in short supply in India. They had charm; they had slim, active figures and a look of suntanned alertness. Maud was well aware of the dangers and, in spite of her clever stratagems and unsleeping vigilance, had presided, in her time, unwillingly, over no fewer than three engagements (one, at least, most unsuitable) during her traveling career and had lost count of the number of broken hearts.
But she decided she need have no fears for Alice Conyers. The girl had confided early in their journey that she had the greatest hopes of marrying her second cousin, at present a junior officer in a native infantry regiment, thereby securing the dynastic future of the firm. A sensible arrangement, Maud had thought. In all the circumstances. Even a pretty and wealthy girl these days found her choice of husband very much restricted. The war had scythed down young men in their thousands and Alice had confessed sadly that she had met no one in England she could regard as a marriage partner. So, with no regrets behind her and a favourable prospect ahead, Maud thought, it should be an easy matter to keep Alice on a straight canter down the course. Provided, naturally, that she could keep "designing women"--and she felt the description might well fit Alice's new acquaintance--at bay and fortune-hunting men at arm's length.
But Alice had left discretion behind as they had left England. Her first sight of a foreign country seemed to have turned her head. She had insisted on staying on deck on the cross-Channel ferry in spite of the stiff March breeze and had launched into conversation not only with fellow passengers but even with several of the deckhands. Instead of writing up her diary on the train to Paris she had stared about her asking a thousand questions which had brought Maud's crochet work almost to a standstill. And now they were in Paris and the mere name appeared to work some magic on Alice Conyers. Maud was glad their itinerary had allowed for no more than three days in the capital of frivolity. Alice had spent precious time patronizing the boutiques of the Rue de la Paix when she could have been visiting the Louvre. Here she was, luggage stuffed with who knew what frou-frous, bright-eyed, alert, and smiling at the world. Overexcited.
And things were getting worse. They were seated in the elaborately decorated refreshment room of the Gare de Lyon waiting for the Blue Train to be announced. Alice had sighed with pleasure and repeated the names of the towns through which it traveled on its way from Paris to the Riviera and beyond to Italy when the announcer gave them out: Lyons, Avignon, Marseilles, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo. She leaned forward to eye the waiters in long aprons down to their ankles as they whisked about deftly delivering plates of highly seasoned and decidedly foreign-looking food to the travelers. And now her attention was entirely caught by this Frenchwoman who had settled down opposite them, sipping her dangerously sophisticated pink drink.
No better than she should be, decided Maud. Traveling alone, what's more, and that tells you something! Typical of a certain type of Frenchwoman and a totally unsuitable acquaintance for Alice. She was wearing a wedding ring on a slim white hand but that cut no ice with Maud. Her clothes were in the height of fashion and at a guess, that dark red traveling coat with its glossy black fur trimmings and matching toque were from the House of Monsieur Worth. Well, some French had profited from the war, apparently. Perhaps her husband--or protector--was in armaments, Maud thought suspiciously and wished she could convey these thoughts to Alice, but the woman spoke good English and was certain to understand. The Frenchwoman extended slender silk-clad calves and neat buttoned ankle boots. Alice tucked her own legs under the table, conscious suddenly of her lisle stockings and lace-up shoes. She turned a defiant face to Maud.
"I'm having a Campari-soda, Miss Benson. Would you like one?"
"No, I would not!"
Maud didn't like to see the look of sly complicity which this provoked between Alice and the Frenchwoman.
"Pardon me," she said. "I am Isabelle de Neuville and I'm traveling to the Cite d'Azur. And you?"
"I'm going to the south of France too but only as far as Marseilles. I'm picking up a P&O steamer from Marseilles to Bombay. I'm Alice Conyers and this is my companion, Miss Benson."
Madame de Neuville acknowledged Maud with an unnecessarily friendly bow and then pointed upwards to the ceiling to one of the many florid Belle Epoque landscapes with which it was decorated. Maud had, on entering, advised Alice not to look. "Voila," she said. "That's where you're going. The painted lady represents Marseilles. The street you see is the Canebiere where all the low life and quite a lot of the high life of Marseilles is to be found. That is where your boat will leave from."
Alice followed her pointing finger, enchanted but a little scandalized by the series of opulent and semi-clad ladies who personified the cities along the route of the Blue Train. They smiled enticingly down at the travelers below, their allure only a little dimmed by almost twenty years of cigar smoke.
"And which one represents your destination?" Alice enquired.
"That one. Nice. And the street in the picture is the Promenade des Anglais."
"It looks lovely! So full of sunshine and flowers! So southern!"
"Yes, indeed. The mimosa will be over now and the magnolia and orange blossom will be out . . ."
Maud decided that this exchange should be nipped in the bud. "I observe," she said frostily, "that you are traveling without your maid?"
"Ah, no," was the reply. "My maid is handling the luggage. I hope successfully. But since the war, reliable domestic staff are hard to come by. Do you not find that?"
"Oh, I do!" said Alice. "And I had noticed that all the waiters are under sixteen or over sixty!"
"Sadly it is the same all over France and not only waiters--policemen, porters, shop assistants, engine drivers . . ."
Two things occurred at this moment to bring this rather limping conversation to a close. On the one hand, Alice's Campari-soda appeared and, on the other hand, Thomas Cook's agent appeared at Maud Benson's side.
"You have plenty of time for the moment, madam," he said, bowing politely to Maud, "but you should take your seats. If you would accompany me?"
With relief, Maud heaved herself to her feet and gestured to Alice to follow her. Isabelle de Neuville raised her glass and smiled at Alice. "To our journey," she said. "What do your English flyers say? Happy landings? Here's to happy landings!"
Alice seized the opportunity to taste her drink and annoy Maud further by not instantly leaping to her feet. Under her lowering gaze, Alice took a second sip and a third and though, truth to tell, she did not quite like the bitter aftertaste of the strange concoction, she defiantly drained her glass.
At this moment, sheepishly and with a torrent of French, Madame de Neuville's maid sidled up to her. She was dark, she was slim, she was, in Maud's opinion, unsuitably fashionably dressed for her station in life and she was, furthermore, in a shrill bad temper which she took no pains to disguise. She seemed put out to find her mistress in conversation and, after an initial look of surprise directed at Alice, she favoured her with a hostile glower. To add to Alice's embarrassment at the display and to Maud's gratification, she at once embarked on a furious and whispered quarrel with her mistress.
"There, you see!" said Maud as they followed the Cook's agent down from the peace of the Blue Train bar into the hubbub of the main station. "Now you see what will happen if you pick up with anyone who may address you. You are abroad now. This is Paris, where all the undesirables of Europe congregate. You see the kind of company you're in. Like mistress, like maid, if you ask me! Neither of them better than they should be. Maid, indeed!"
"I thought Madame de Neuville was very nice," said Alice. "And what lovely clothes!"
"Clothes! Are they paid for? And, if they are paid for, who paid for them? That is the kind of question you have to ask yourself when you take up with a stranger."
"Was she," said Alice, "do you think, a demi-mondaine?"
She wasn't entirely sure what the word meant but it had an image of risk, danger, and glamour and at that moment she very much wanted to be associated with it and dissociated from the world of Maud Benson with its careful checks and counter-balances.
"Demi-mondaine! Huh! Fully mondaine, I shouldn't wonder," sniffed Maud. "Most Frenchwomen are, you'll find. Now, come along!"
On arrival at the train they saw their luggage under the eye of the Cook's man and in the charge of porters in peaked caps and blue smocks loaded into the luggage compartment. They also saw Madame de Neuville and her maid, no longer in altercation, watching expensive luggage being loaded likewise. Alice made her way in Maud's wake, chirruping happily at the sight of the sleek and gleaming blue painted coachwork of the train, and they were handed by their agent into their reserved seats in the Pullman train under the management of the wagons-lits company. Alice was astonished by the elegance. She thought the attentive liveried stewards with their cream and umber kepis the most glamorous thing she had ever seen.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Ragtime in Simla by Barbara Cleverly. Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Cleverly. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.