NOELA & THAT MAN IN RIO
NOELA / CHAPTER 3
"WAKE UP, NOELA!"
She heard her mother's voice calling from downstairs and she threw back the blue-patterned quilt and jumped out of bed. The white blossoms from the apple tree almost covered her window, their sweet scent filled the room and gave her a sense of giddy intoxication. Outside she could hear the cowbells ringing. Dawn was just breaking over Lac Léman, and the mountains were still capped with snow, though it was early May. By her bed lay a novel of Colette with a marker where she had read late into the night.
What good was it, she thought, to be nineteen and to feel spring surging through her, with all the young men gone off to fight, or else, like her brother Raoul, working as captives for the Germans? She would grow old and never know love, the kind Colette wrote about.
She pulled off her flannel nightgown and started to dress. Her clothes were simple, suited to a girl who had grown up on a farm, who had never been farther away from Saint-Gingolph than to take the lake steamer to Montreux and Geneva. How she would love to see Paris, the Paris that Colette wrote about, to buy a pretty dress, to see the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the opera! Dreams. Dreams she would never know. The Germans were in Paris, the Germans were everywhere, even in Saint-Gingolph.
She pulled on coarse black stockings, wondering how her legs would look in black net hose. Those were vain thoughts, the nuns at school would have punished her for thinking such things. I don't care, she thought, I am only young once! She reached out the window and picked a white blossom. She tucked it in her hair and waltzed around the room. Who was there to dance with? The only men left in Saint-Gingolph were old men. They smiled at her when she passed, when their wives weren't looking. There was old Monsieur Toutain, the baker, with the tall thin wife, her face pinched and bitter, her hands red and coarse. She was like one of those apples fallen on the ground in late autumn, brown, with all the juice gone.
What good was it to be young and pretty? It was wasted now. For so long she had been skinny and plain, with large amber eyes, sallow skin, and hair that was an ordinary shade of brown worn in braids. Her legs were like a bird's, without shape, always skinned at the knees from climbing trees. Vanity is not becoming, the nuns told her. She had thought of becoming a nun at one time, there was a nun she admired very much and she tried to imitate her.
The feeling had passed. Now she read novels the nuns would not approve of, and sometimes she felt that even the Abbé Romelin looked at her with disapproval when she skipped along the village streets humming.
"Noela! What are you doing?" Her mother's voice again.
Her mother was getting impatient. Her grandfather would already be up and putting logs on the fire. It was amazing how much he could do when he was half blind from cataracts. "I can still see well enough to shoot the boches," he said. He had fought along the Marne in the First World War and been wounded twice.
She could smell the woodsmoke now coming out of the chimney. Thank heavens there was still plenty of wood, but if the war lasted much longer they would have to be careful. Food was scarce, the Germans had taken everything. They waited and prayed for the invasion, there were all kinds of rumors that it would be soon, but no one really knew. Five years of war, five years out of her life that would never come back. It seemed endless.
She buttoned her blue cotton print dress and put on a black sweater. It was cool in the early morning, there was still dew on the grass. Birds were chirping. She fingered the tiny gold cross on a chain round her neck. She never took it off. It has been given her by her father on her fifth birthday, which was also Christmas. The following August he was drowned when his boat overturned in a sudden thunderstorm on the lake.
Her mother had coffee and rolls on the kitchen table. They had not had butter in a long time.
Her grandfather was turning the pages of his bible. She went over and kissed him and his gray mustache tickled her cheek.
"You look very pretty this morning, ma petite," he said.
"She is vain enough without compliments, Papa," her mother said.
"Ah, Germaine, who else is there to tell her? What kind of a life is it for a young girl in Saint-Gingolph these days? There are no young men around to dance with her, to court her. All we think of is survival, but she. . . ." He threw out his arms in a hopeless gesture.
Noela looked at her mother. From pictures of her she could see that she had been pretty once. No traces of it remained now, and she was barely forty. She was plump, her hair was pulled back in a bun, she dressed in drab, dark clothes like an old woman.
I do not want to be like that, Noela thought, I do not want ever to be old.
She sipped her coffee. The cup had a crack in it. At confession she would have to confess to impure, frivolous thoughts. That she wanted to dance, to have compliments, to have a man make love to her.
"She reads these cheap novels half the night," her mother said. "Putting all kinds of ideas into her head."
Germaine Fornay had put love out of her life when her husband died. Bernard Fornay. His grave was in the cemetery on the hill overlooking the lake, marked by a simple white tombstone with the dates and PRIEZ POUR LUI. She went often to his grave to replace the flowers and pray.
"Why did he have to go to Nyon that day?" Germaine frequently said, her voice tinged with resentment against the man she had once loved who had left her with all these burdens. "If only he had listened to me. . . ."
The past could not be changed. It was over. Bernard Fornay, beloved husband of Germaine Fornay, had gone to Nyon that day and been drowned. Priez pour lui. Grief prolonged became not grief but self-pity.
Should she feel guilty because she barely remembered her father? Noela wondered. Was that why her mother kept talking about him, so that she, Noela, would not forget that she once had a father? A father, who according to what she had been able to find out, had been unhappy in Saint-Gingolph and was always looking for excuses to get away. Was there another woman he had hoped to see in Nyon? No one would ever know.
THAT MAN IN RIO / CHAPTER 4
PRINCE VASSILY KOUMANOFF was enjoying court balls in Saint Petersburg when the pleasant world of his youth was swept away in the Bolshevik Revolution, his father shot, and his family estates confiscated. He escaped from Russia via the Black Sea to Turkey. From there he went to Paris, where he found that émigré White Russian aristocrats were working as doormen, cab drivers, and seamstresses. A Brazilian he met in Paris persuaded him to come to Rio, and he became extremely successful in the import-export business. Tall, charming and distinguished, he gave many parties and liked to surround himself with beautiful women.
Lila Townsend was one of them.
And it was at the home of Prince Vassily Koumanoff, on an evening in late September, that her path crossed with that of Count Kurt von Jaeger.
The garden was lit with Japanese paper lanterns, casting lavender, green and blue lights on the teahouse and goldfish pond. A small orchestra was playing "Dark Eyes."
"Isn't it beautiful, Donald?" Lila exclaimed.
Just then Vassily saw them arriving and came through the crowd to greet them.
"Good evening. I'm so happy you're here." He kissed Lila's hand. "The party would not be complete without the most beautiful woman in Rio."
"Vassily, you say that to every woman," Lila said, as Donald looked annoyed, his eyes searching for the bar.
"Only when it's true," Vassily said. "Please, do have a drink and some caviar." He motioned to a buffet table spread with Russian delicacies, then moved on to welcome other guests.
"The bar looks crowded," Donald said. "I'll go get us some drinks. "Wait here."
Lila glanced around and then she saw a man watching her. It was Count von Jaeger. Their eyes met and he smiled and walked over.
"May I get you something to drink? The champagne is very good. And of course the vodka."
"Thank you, but my husband has already gone to the bar."
"I do not think we have been properly introduced. I'm Kurt von Jaeger."
He kissed her hand. "I have seen you at the races and also at the polo matches."
"Yes. I enjoyed watching you play."
He looked pleased. "I wish I had more time to play, but official duties prevent it." He shrugged. "So, how long have you been living in Rio?"
"A little over a year."
"And do you like it?"
"I love it."
"It is my first time here. Before that I was posted in Shanghai. Vassily I knew in Paris. He is an old friend."
Paris. Shanghai. How casually he tossed off the names. She had never been to those cities, but she longed to see them, be part of that sophisticated world. She saw Donald across the room holding two drinks and chatting with a Navy couple. Don't rush back, she thought, take your time. "Are you from Berlin?" she asked.
"No, I was born in Schleswig-Holstein. Near the Danish border. My father is German but my mother was Danish."
She wondered why there was no wife in the picture. Had he been married or was there a sweetheart who had died? Or like his friend Vassily, did he not want to be tied down to any one woman? The most attractive men were always complex-and elusive. Perhaps that was part of their charm, she thought, and again that restless feeling swept over her. She decided to be bold. "Your wife didn't come with you to Rio?"
"I have no wife," he said. "I've never met the right woman."
"I find that hard to believe."
"It is true." He smiled. "The ones I am attracted to are always married."
Did he mean Pilar Alfaro? She had not noticed her here tonight. She was about to say something else when Donald appeared with the drinks.
"This is my husband, Commander Townsend, Count von Jaeger."
"I have been enjoying talking to your lovely wife. You are a very lucky man, Commander Townsend."
"I think so," Donald said.
"It has been a pleasure meeting you both. I will see you again, I hope."
"Yes, I hope so," Lila said, as Donald handed her the drink.
"Let's get some caviar," Donald said, and they made their way to the buffet table. Out of the corner of her eye Lila noticed that Kurt von Jaeger was now absorbed in a conversation with an attractive Brazilian woman. How nice it must be to be a man, she thought, to be able to move like a bee from one flower to another, picking what you choose, instead of being a woman who has to wait to be chosen, and then possibly discarded. And a man did not have to worry about his reputation either. No scandal was attached to him, but the woman who was involved was destroyed. It wasn't fair. She saw Kurt von Jaeger smiling at her. So what happens now? she wondered. Nothing. What could happen?
Later in the evening he asked her to dance. A tango was playing and when he held her in his arms it was as if an electric current went through her. She was sure he felt it too.