For a long time, Liz had been getting up early to do her mathematical work before being distracted by Viv, Ivan, or even Barbara. Recently, that work had taken a peculiar turn. There were things in basic calculus and analytic geometry which, if not outright mistakes, made quite complex and abstruse assumptions. Mathematicians made those assumptions without even being conscious of them, and, of course, everything worked. But that wasn’t really good enough. Liz wanted something better. Anyhow, she could hear Viv stirring in the unfamiliar hotel room. She had better beat her to the bathroom.
Now in front of the mirror, Liz felt curiosity and anxiety in almost equal degrees. They would soon be off to London to meet David’s parents and assorted family members. Ivan had money and power, but there was that Jewish grandmother with a babushka. What would the English upper class think of that? What would they think of girls who had been brought up mostly in a shack on top of a wharf?
In response to those questions, she shook her head vigorously, making her light brown hair shoot out comically in all directions. The world had some intense problems. What did it matter whether a particular bunch of impoverished English snobs decided to be matey with young American women who had things to accomplish?
As they got ready for the occasion in their room, Liz realized that Viv had been more dressed up in the past week than in the previous year. She might, however grudgingly, be getting used to it. But, still, there was the possibility that she would put on her favorite Brooklyn accent and tack ‘awreddy’ on the ends of sentences concerning ‘Lon gisland’.
Liz rather liked to dress up, but without any element of fantasy. The whole point was to affect people, particularly men. Indeed, it was possible to engage in a little gentle manipulation, and it was fun to see how it worked.
Her specialty was dressing in a way maiden aunts would consider to be ‘modest’. Even in high heels, she walked like an athlete without wiggles, and she wore clothes just loose enough not to require a girdle. There was always a slip under the thin silk dress or blouse, and the aunts would nod with approval. But there was also a little something that would set their men to speculating.
They went first class in comfort on the express train to Waterloo Station, and had the compartment to themselves. Viv asked, “I don’t have much idea what to expect. Do you?’
“I was only a kid when David’s father visited. I remember liking him, but I certainly had no idea that he would send his son around to marry me.”
“Do you think he did?”
“To an extent. David wouldn’t have proposed if he hadn’t liked me, but his father probably got him started in that direction.”
“Well, I know his father’s the famous ace, but that’s about all.”
“I found out some from David before he left. His father, Ralph, isn’t the aristocrat of the family. He was what we’d call upper middle class, and went to Rugby, which is the school the game was named after. But David’s mother’s family is full of people with titles. They also had wealth, but lost most of it in the crash. So David is following his father in marrying money, bringing with him a certain prestige in exchange.”
“Ivan also has prestige as an inventor and businessman, but I don’t think there are many Russian princes in our heritage.”
“In today’s world, our family’s kind of prestige should certainly count for something.”
“I guess we’ll soon find out.”
There was a welcoming committee on the platform, consisting of David’s sister, Olivia, his brother, Robert, and his father, Ralph Randolph. Liz quickly recognized Ralph, and could see by his immediate reaction that she had herself changed considerably. As a group, the three Randolphs were handsome enough to draw the notice of passing strangers.
The introductions were made somewhat haphazardly. Olivia was given the idea that her brother had married Viv rather than Liz, but, when corrected, she managed to conceal whatever feelings she might have had concerning their relative desirability. Ralph had brought a flask of whiskey which they passed around, and the whole party then made its more or less triumphal way down the platform.
In their brief time together, David had indicated to Liz that he felt overshadowed by his older brother, Robert. In the traditional scheme of things, Robert, as the oldest son, would have inherited the estate and most of the money. There was now only enough to maintain the family at a middle class level, but Robert was still the star. He was supposed to be a little more handsome than David, a little more athletic, and, perhaps, a little smarter. In any case, Robert was certainly more dashing, and, probably, more seductive. Liz was wondering how many lady friends and/or mistresses he had when they arrived in the main station. While the men went briefly in search of something, Viv remarked to Olivia, “Your men folk are a lot like the fighter pilots I’ve known.”
“Oh yes. Of course, father was one. Robert would be, but he’s too tall to fit in a Spitfire. So he’s in a light bomber, instead.”
“A Blenheim or a Fairey Battle?”
The Fairey company’s single engine light bomber was almost as obsolete as the Swordfish which David ordinarily flew. The occupations of the two brothers were somewhere between the dangerous and the suicidal. Viv didn’t respond and Liz couldn’t think of anything to say. It was Olivia who said, “One does worry. But the men in the family have always done things like this while the women stay at home. We occupy ourselves frantically with good works and what not.”
Liz could hardly imagine Olivia as a social worker. If she entered a peasant’s cottage, looking as she did at the moment, the peasant might well die of shock.
It turned out that they were to take the underground. Ralph explained, “Driving in London traffic is slow, confusing, and irritating. The underground isn’t terribly clean or quiet, but it gets one there.”
It was easy to agree, but it seemed to Liz that Ralph was the sort of man who would want to zip around in a sporty car. Most likely, he couldn’t afford one.
The home was a pleasant little house in Chiswick, not far from the Thames. There was also a converted barge, moored in the river, which was used by the young people. The whole arrangement suggested a rather nice and unostentatious form of living, cleverly designed by someone. The someone turned out to be the tall and rather forbidding-looking Lady Mary. After being introduced, she said to Liz and Viv, “Thank God you’re here. We four women, acting together, may be able to get the men to behave properly.”
She didn’t seem to be joking, and carried on, “Until now, it’s been just Olivia and I against the other three. Now it’ll be four against three.”
Liz found herself almost babbling, but Viv asked, “Are we to make good use of that cricket bat I see by the stairs?”
“I can actually be rather violent, but humiliation, particularly in public, seems to be more effective. When one of the males has a wobble off course, I produce a drama that the neighbors can hear through closed windows.”
Liz, then getting into the spirit of the thing, replied, “I friend of mine advised me to practice controlled hysteria to get what I want.”
“Quite wise advice. Locally, it’s more a matter of keeping them from doing things that one hates.”
Olivia added, “Almost any man will flee if four women are to scream at him, but there’s no telling what he may do after he’s fled.”
“If we had more money these days, I’d hire private detectives to follow all of them.”
Addressing Liz, she said, “I understand that your father also has the occasional wobble, my dear.”
“Well, Ivan’s Russian. So are Viv and I, but not quite in the same way. Ivan’s very inventive and generally talented, but not all his ideas are good ones.”
Mr. Randolph finally had a chance to say, “Mr. Bolsky and Mr. Sikorsky are among the world’s best aircraft inventors.”
His wife looked at him pityingly, and led her guests off to a room that had a view of the river.
Liz eventually wound up alone with Olivia, who remarked, “I don’t suppose you could have had any idea of the sort of family you’ve married into.”
“I’ve really only been with David for less than a week, and he didn’t say much about it.”
“I see. The main split is between my father and mother. He, banking on his reputation, launched into all sorts of enterprises that ended up losing money, even before the crash. Then, when it came, the ancestral home was wiped out, along with most of the financial capital. My mother, in one way or another, managed to pull things together quite nicely, but the animosity remains.”
“Our situation is different, but the tensions between my father and stepmother are considerable. She doesn’t have any confidence in his sanity.”
“But he hasn’t managed to lose his money, has he?”
“No. He forms companies for which he isn’t personally liable. They usually succeed, but, even if one didn’t, he wouldn’t personally lose anything.”
“That doesn’t sound crazy at all.”
“He isn’t, but there are difficulties.”
Liz then told Olivia about the episode on the golf course. Olivia replied, “My father would never do anything like that, but nothing seems to have been lost beside some golf balls.”
“There’s the matter of reputation, which Ivan doesn’t care about. It disturbs Barbara, whom you’ll soon meet, deeply.”
“Mary wouldn’t be so upset by that. Still, the upshot is that Ralph half lives on the boat, along with Robert and David. I go back and forth, more or less as an intermediary.”
“Viv is our intermediary. She’s closer to Ivan than Barbara, but Barbara listens to her.”
“I’m connected with my brothers and father by our mutual love of sport, which my mother doesn’t share. But she’s more intelligent and interesting than any of them.”
“In our group, Barbara is the only non-athletic person.”
“It seems that we have a jigsaw puzzle that could be put together in many different ways.”
“For the time being, everyone seems to be sociable enough.”
“Oh yes. Everyone will be on good behavior at dinner. Afterwards, Mary intends to banish the men to the boat while we four women take over the house tonight.”
The Randolph fortunes had not sunk so far that they had to do their own cooking and dishwashing. Lady Mary went into the kitchen to supervise at times, but good traditional food came out in quantities. Liz was no judge of wine, but she liked the taste and partook, as did Viv.
She had expected an aviation dinner, but then sensed that there was a rule not to talk aviation at table, probably due to Lady Mary. After all, once started, it would never stop. Ralph and Robert, both expansive personalities, were amusing without being dominant. Had they been trained?
Liz knew that there was a convention for the ladies to adjourn to another room after dinner while the men remained at the table to smoke cigars, drink peculiar beverages, and speak in ways that they couldn’t in front of ladies. It did seem a good idea not to inflict women’s talk on the men, and vice versa, but it also seemed that the house was too small to carry on all the old traditions. In any case, Ralph and Robert left for the boat at a fairly early hour.
It was an odd feeling for Liz to have a mother-in-law, and she would never have dreamed that she would have one like Lady Mary. But it proceeded easily,
“The boys call me, ‘mum’, but Olivia started calling me, ‘Mary’, in a show of independence at an early age. Why don’t you do the same?”
“Fine. No one has ever called me anything but ‘Liz.’”
“So convenient, Liz and Viv. Tell me about your early life.”
It was easy to make life in the seaplane shack amusing, particularly the bathroom arrangements and the coming of the propellers. Mary listened attentively, and then said, “Your father really is a genius, isn’t he?”
“I suppose so. He’s always compared to Sikorsky, who’s a super genius, but Ivan has some talents that Eye-Eye doesn’t have.”
“And this poor woman who married him and inherited you and your sister. Was she dazzled by the genius?”
“I think so. She’s actually managed to adjust pretty well for a Virginia girl with a totally different background.”
“Do you like her?”
“Pretty well. She worked hard on moulding us, and succeeded more with me than with Viv. But I’m glad she has. I’d be spitting tobacco between my teeth if she hadn’t.”
“What a revolting idea! Are there people who do that?”
“We grew up with some.”
A little later, with another glass of wine, Liz recounted the events of the evening on which she and David got engaged. Mary commented, “It’s good that you took the initiative. I’m also glad that he told you he’s had sex with other women.”
“I asked him. I was a little relieved that he knew what to do. I’ve heard that some men don’t.”
“I believe that they do by nature. Except that some funk it. Embarrassing all around.”
On the train back the next morning, Liz and Viv compared notes. Viv had talked a good deal with Olivia, and said, “She was curious about my experiences in Spain, and is convinced that there’s going to be a war here.”
“You aren’t trying to get into a Spitfire, are you?”
“No. Olivia said the English would never let me. I’m rather glad. I really don’t want to get burned alive in a fighter, but, if I were given a chance to fly combat I probably would.”
“Despite what you told Ivan?”
“Promises like that tend to go out the window. I’m sure Ivan knew that. Anyhow, Olivia has some less dangerous ideas that might turn out to be quite effective.”
Liz didn’t then ask what they were, but filed the matter away for future discussion. Having more immediate concerns, she asked, “Did you find out what David does that worries his mother so much?”
“More or less. There’s a tradition of young English aristocrats drinking, gambling, and whoring. It seems that Robert is more given to the whoring than David. David instead has had affairs with married women. It’s usually come out, and the husbands have tended to be wealthy and powerful.”
“So he wasn’t joking when he said it was necessary to get him out of England.”
“Apparently not. But it could be a lot worse, Liz. Those women wouldn’t be likely to have diseases.”
Liz had to laugh at this small consolation as she replied, “Mary certainly made it clear that David’s had adventures, but Olivia seems to have given you more detail.”
“There was one funny thing. When David tired of one of his married mistresses, she came to Mary to complain that her son had abandoned her. She seemed to want Mary to make David come back to her.”
Liz concluded, “No wonder Mary seems to have lost patience.”
“And we were worried that we might not measure up to English upper-class standards! Except for the façade, they’re rather like the hillbillies of West Virginia.”
“But, individually, they’re all good-looking and charming. More like Hollywood.”
“Yeah, I guess so. And, of course, they’re part of a warrior class.”
“You have to make some allowances for that.”