Have you ever read a book so aching, so beautiful, that you wanted at once to weep with longing and to cry out with joy? Have you ever folded down the corner of a page so you could come back later to a passage and rediscover its thrill anew? If you have, then perhaps you will appreciate the story of what happened to me in Cannes. And if you haven't, then perhaps you've never heard of Raven M. Blyss.
Raven—I hope she will not mind that I refer to her so intimately—writes romances. But they aren't the sort of romances where a dashing gentleman sweeps a virtuous maiden off her feet with a kiss. In Raven's books, it's more often dashing women doing the sweeping. And as for kisses, well, one learns from reading Raven that a great variety of passionate acts can make a virtuous maiden's little button quiver, throb, or tremble. (Do you know about the little button? I had discovered it myself even before I'd first picked up Aurora's Treasure, but it's only from Raven that I learned so many words for the way it makes itself urgently known when one is being spanked or fondled or thrust into—or when one reads of such things happening to a romantic heroine.)
I was in Cannes for the summer. In exchange for keeping quiet about certain indiscretions of hers, my cousin Stiffy (who first introduced me to Raven but who does not, I am sorry to say, revere her work quite as thoroughly as I do) told me the location of a shop there where one could purchase some of Raven's rarer titles—the sort they were, regrettably, more at liberty to sell in France than at home. I got myself alone one afternoon and bravely found my way to the address. I was waiting outside, wondering what the inside of the shop looked like and what one ought to say to a purveyor of such wares, when who should come out the curtained door but Mrs. Dahlia Travers? And what should I glimpse at the top of the large paper sack she carried but the cover of Eliza's Ardor?
I should explain that Mrs. Travers was the mother of Angela Travers, a young Englishwoman I'd met in Cannes. Angela and I had become such fast friends that I'd almost invited her along on my expedition, only when I'd dared to ask if she'd ever wept at a book or marked herself a favorite passage, she'd got a funny look on her face and said, "But don't you think reading is, after all, quite silly?" (Later that day, she had a harrowing near-miss with a shark, and I hope it is not terribly wicked of me to wonder if that was God's way of vindicating the transformative powers of literature.)
I had not thought to wonder whether Mrs. Travers might be more sympathetic to my own views on the romance of the written word, any more than I had wondered such things about Angela's cousin, Bertie Wooster. (Mr. Wooster would not, of course, be the sort of reader most poised to appreciate Raven's work, but perhaps there is someone who writes stories about the passions of cheery young men in elegant jackets, and perhaps, reading those, Mr. Wooster might quiver, tremble, or throb in his own way.) Seeing her emerge now from the very shop to which I was attempting my own literary pilgrimage, I saw Mrs. Travers suddenly in a new light.
How very like Countess Ingrid she was, in Anna's Embrace—dignified, daring, and worldly. How too like Mrs. Pinswallow, the stern schoolmistress whose star pupil comes to her one summer for a lesson in the physical arts. And I saw something then that I had been foolish not to see before. When I read Raven, I put myself in the part of the heroine. But perhaps there were others who imagined themselves her lover. The beauty of the thought made me shudder, and I clutched at the railing by the stairs to the shop door. Some part of me had always read wistfully, certain that countesses and schoolmistresses and demanding royals were wholly Raven's invention. It came to me now that these women must exist, that perhaps Raven herself might have known some, and that, if one only knew where such people would be likely to congregate, an equally solemn pilgrimage might be made in that direction.
All of this came to me in a flash. There wasn't time, amidst shuddering and clutching and wondering, to consider whether I ought to conceal my presence from Mrs. Travers, or whether I ought to confront her instead with our glorious shared secret. In the end, I did neither. Mrs. Travers never looked straight at me, but I thought I saw something flicker across her face as she passed. Then she turned the corner and was gone.
A few nights later, Angela invited me on an outing she and Mr. Wooster were making to the Casino. I was to join the two of them—and Mrs. Travers—at their villa beforehand, and I hope you will forgive me if I tell you I went thinking more of Angela's mother than of Angela or her cousin. But when I came in, Mrs. Travers was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a terrible metallic din coming from the kitchen, and among the clatters and crashes, I heard a voice I recognized as hers.
"Fool!" Mrs. Travers shouted. "Ass!" Clatter and crash again. "You great clod!"
My face fell. These insults sounded so like the sorts of things Miss Pinchwarden shouts at Penelope in An Orphan's Longing that it seemed certain for a moment that Mrs. Travers had in the kitchen a Penelope of her own. But there was no second voice with her, I realized after a moment's listening, and so I concluded instead that she was shouting these words at herself—the same way one might, in a moment of solitude, smack one's own bottom, imagining the hand was controlled by another. (What she was doing with the pots and pans, I couldn't entirely imagine, but then, I hadn't read all of Raven's books; perhaps there was a use for cookware I hadn't yet anticipated.)
"Is Mrs. Travers well?" I asked Angela and Mr. Wooster.
"She's perfectly fine," Angela said, her nose wrinkled in disapproval.
"She's gone and lost her shirt," Mr. Wooster explained.
My face flushed. "Oh, dear," I said, glancing over his shoulder in hopes the kitchen might be within view.
"It's her own fault," Angela grumbled. "She always loses at baccarat."
"Oh," I said, my face flushing further. It had been a metaphorical shirt all along. "I should offer my condolences."
"It's no use—" Angela started.
"Best to let her cool off," said Mr. Wooster.
I ignored them and went off towards the kitchen.
Mrs. Travers, fully clothed, held a saucepan lid between her fingers. A silver spoon issued from her other hand and clanged against the inside of the sink.
"Good evening, Mrs. Travers," I said, when the reverberations had stopped.
She turned around to look at me. "Good evening, yourself. Come to see the face of a penniless woman, have you?"
"Oh, no," I said quickly. "I've come to offer my condolences."
"Hah!" said Mrs. Travers, dropping the saucepan lid where the spoon had fallen. "I don't need condolences. I need something to hit." She made a fist in demonstration and clapped it against the palm of the other hand.
I wondered if she'd seen me at the shop after all, if perhaps she'd meant this as an invitation. I took a great swallow and then stepped forward. "I can offer you that too."
Mrs. Travers narrowed her eyes at me. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
Undeterred, I looked straight at her. "Mrs. Travers," I said boldly. "I've read Raven M. Blyss."