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Authors: Frank Moorhouse

Dark Palace

BOOK: Dark Palace
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About the Book

Five years have passed since Edith Campbell Berry arrived at the League of Nations in Geneva. The idealism of those early grand days, however, has been eroded. Edith's marriage and her work are no longer the anchors in her life – she is feeling the weight of history upon her and her world.

As her certainties crumble, Edith is joined by Ambrose Westwood, her old friend and lover and her former anxiety about their unconventional relationship is replaced by a feeling that all things are possible, at least in her private life. But the world moves ever closer to another war, and Edith and her fellow officers must come to terms with the knowledge that their best efforts are simply useless against the forces of the time. Moving, wise and utterly engrossing, this is a profound and enriching novel.
Grand Days
and
Dark Palace
confirm Frank Moorhouse as one of our greatest writers – a master of tone and timing, an elegant and exuberant stylist and an unerring chronicler of the human spirit.

Contents

T
O
J
EAN-
P
AUL AND
M
ONIQUE
D
ELAMOTTE, FRIENDS AND PATRONS

‘The League of Nations (1920–1946) … mankind's
first effort at permanent, organised world-wide international
cooperation to prevent war and promote human well-being.'

DR HANS AUFRICHT

‘Do you know the Abbé Morio? He is a most interesting man …'

‘Yes, I have heard of his scheme for permanent peace and it is
interesting but hardly practical …'

‘You think not?' said Anna Pavlovna for the sake of saying something
and in order to get back to her duties as hostess.

LEO TOLSTOY,
War and Peace

 

This book is, in part, based on the dramatic reconstruction of real
people, identified by their actual names, and on fictional characters,
who sometimes embody features of people who existed at the
time, but who are essentially fictional (see Who is Who in the
Book).Where people who actually existed say anything substantial,
their words are taken from documentary sources or are constructed
within the context of existing evidence.

All the substantial events depicted (and quite a few of the
insubstantial events) are inspired by documentary sources.

But the book is, above all, a work of the imagination.

Two Young Ladies Laughing Together Like Maids: The Nature of Wives

Geneva, on the night of October 15, in the year of 1931…

Edith and her friend, Jeanne, found themselves in the dining room of the Hôtel des Bergues—Geneva's best—wining and dining in a grand, exuberant, and stately manner.

Not, perhaps, so
stately
a manner.

More two young ladies indulging themselves.

Two young ladies laughing together like maids, actually.

Laugh thy girlish laughter:

Then, the moment after,

Weep thy girlish tears!

Too old now for girlish tears, Edith thought, but there was still some girlish laughter left, even though she was in her thirties.

There they were, two young ladies laughing like maids, in the dining room of the Hôtel des Bergues surrounded by men going about the business of war.

The League's first very serious war.

As well as celebrating the renewal of her contract Edith was there as an Agent. Under Secretary Bartou had put her there to garner unofficial information about the Japanese invasion of
Manchuria. To charm from important men the secrets of the war.

Despite the frightfulness of this Japanese war, it was an exquisite task they had been given, folded, as it were, in the fine lace of paradox, the paradox of enjoying the highly strung business of war while at the same time serving the mission of peace.

And, folded in on that again, the permission to indulge their personal pleasures.

And more. Within their bodies, so elegantly clad, coiffed and made-up, resided their public identity as officers of the League, and Edith relished the aura of that identity.

But while outwardly assuming their proper self-deprecation as international civil servants, and by seeming to keep to their proper female station, they were, in fact, both adopting poses of a delicious, consummate falseness.

For truth be told, they both felt immensely superior. Their immaculate, silk-clad bodies and their charming vivacity veiled a haughty femininity.

Edith was dressed in a new, pale pink silk-satin Parisian evening dress, with a low scooped front, Egyptian emerald bracelet, necklace and ring, and with her short hair set into waves and parted on the side. Tonight, everything about her appearance was right. From hair to toenails, although no one, apart from her husband Robert, would be granted the privilege of seeing her varnished toenails, something she had got perfectly right for once. Others could, however, admire her silken legs and new black satin shoes.

The hotel was one of the brightly lit venues of comings and goings about the war. Despite the international acceptance of the idea of open diplomacy, old habits died hard and many delegates still preferred the corridor whisper and private dining rooms for their diplomacy.

Cigar smoke diplomacy. The discreet squeeze of a hand on an elbow to seal agreement.

Maybe diplomacy would always, in part, be sequestered.

The world was not changing in quite the way she had planned, but she did, she hoped, change the world a little as she passed through.

She laughed to herself. Yes, Edith A. Campbell Berry was definitely still in the business of teaching the world good manners.

Most of the tables in the dining room and the coffee room and the lobby were taken by delegates, military attachés, and those others who had a say in the business of war—many of whom they knew from League business—and she and Jeanne were well positioned to see into the lobby and note who was talking to whom. From time to time, between courses, she took a stroll through the public areas to keep an eye on things, to stop and lean into a table with a familiar hand on a shoulder, pleased by her manicured and varnished fingernails and the exquisite emerald ring on the finger, and her smooth arm and hand displayed to the men at the table, sometimes sitting briefly to give the men some diverting company while she discreetly listened. They liked to impress a young woman with their secrets.

Perhaps she was becoming a married flirt?

Her experience was that men liked married flirts. She had come to realise that in the international circles of Geneva, married women were assumed to be
experienced
and not likely to make a fuss.

Not that she had explored these curious assumptions.

From time to time, delegates and others, knowing one or both of them, also stopped at their table as they passed and exchanged gossip about the crisis.

And to all inquiries about their presence there in the hotel restaurant without male companions, Jeanne would reply, ‘We are here to celebrate Edith's promotion, as two professional ladies.'

Laughing together like maids at the ambiguity of the remark.

Although Edith had known that the renewal of her contract
had not been in any doubt, it was still something of a confirmation of herself, and she was basking in that. It helped to charge up her aplomb, the aplomb which allowed her to lean into tables and exchange flirtatious greetings with important men and to place her manicured hand on their shoulders.

The contract renewal also gave her, at least for the moment, a feeling of being impregnable, even if her little inner voice said that something would happen eventually to contest that feeling. Until then, she would lap up her contractual security like warm milk.

She looked at Jeanne again and exclaimed, ‘Jeanne, just think, I have another five years with the League!'

‘You are still merry about
le contrat
?' Jeanne asked, sipping her glass of wine. ‘Oh, Edith dear—you are the very spirit of the League. They could never let you go.'

Edith laughed from within the stronghold of her contract. ‘Ah, the sanctity of the contract. A contract with the League of Nations. What else is there to life?'

‘The contract of your marriage? Perhaps?'

‘Ah—my marriage is a contract with one man: my contract with the League is a contract with the whole world.'

‘You cannot sleep with the General Assembly, Edith.'

‘We know who has tried.'

They laughed about a female colleague who had a ‘reputation'.

Jeanne said, giggling, ‘A young lady, who instead of spending her days saying, “Yes, sir” and her nights saying, “No, sir”…'

Edith joined in, and they said in chorus ‘… spent her nights saying, “Thank you, kind sir”!'

They giggled.

Edith, dropping her voice, then asked Jeanne seriously, ‘What would it be like—to be
loose
?'

Jeanne opened her eyes theatrically as if offended, ‘You ask me as if I am a specialist?!'

She smiled, shaking her head, ‘Imagine. It must be, well, demanding?'

Jeanne thought for a second or two. ‘The word would be passed from man to man—after a time,
very
demanding. Every man would expect it.'

Edith chuckled. ‘At least one's social calendar would be full.'

‘I could not bear knowing that men talked of me in that way.'

‘Perhaps men don't tell tales?'

‘I am sure they do.'

‘Would they compare notes, do you think?'

‘I think.'

‘In some detail?'

‘I know nothing of the smoking room talk of men, but I suspect that they would compare notes in some detail.'

‘Not very gentlemanly.' Edith tried to imagine the details about which they might talk.

‘At some point, I would assume they place such women in another category—a category which permits them to talk so.'

‘But it is not the category of the
cocotte
?'

‘No. Perhaps these women see themselves as a sort of courtesan.'

‘Or perhaps they just like it—like that way of life?'

‘Perhaps.'

‘What if one was loose and not very good at it? So to speak.'

She looked at Jeanne. She was good fun and single but still a respectable young woman from a very good French family. She was not a thank-you-kind-sir woman.

‘Experienced men must have some scales of judgment in these matters,' Edith mused.

‘Perhaps that it is why it is best that all of us—men and women—marry as virgins,' Jeanne said. ‘No expectations. No comparisons.'

Jeanne said she thought it would require such careful management of one's body, to be so available. ‘As in the opera where Violetta places a bowl of red roses in the entrance to her apartment when it is that time of the month.'

‘And birth control, of course.'

‘Matters such as that.'

‘There would after a time be some degree of, well, debauchment? Of the body? Do you think? And a risk of venereal problems?'

‘Maybe this is not a subject for the dinner table,' Jeanne said, laughing.

‘Imagine—different men in your bed, say two a week? Do you think they would have two, maybe more? Do the men then call again? At any time of the night?'

‘Edith, your mind runs riot. Do you think of the laundry?'

‘Not only the laundry. Expensive underwear. Of course, street women have far more men in a week. What must they feel when they are with their lovers and what must their lovers feel?'

‘Edith, stop.' But Jeanne herself went on. ‘They must talk of the day's work with their lover perhaps.'

‘I suppose they must.' Edith tried to imagine herself doing that sort of work and found it salaciously intriguing.

And what of the married flirt? Tonight they were both parading their feminine attractions in exchange for something. Not that any of the men present who knew them would be under any illusion as to their propriety.

Or were they?

She didn't say anything, but Edith played briefly in her mind with the idea of it all. Of being such a woman. Coming from a slightly bohemian background, she had known free-love women in her parents' circle. And at university. She had never looked down on them. She had, for a time, rather admired them for their audacity in the face of convention.

At the League she found she liked the naughty girls.

Her mind went back to her contract. Although in the renewal she'd been promoted to A group, it looked as if they were soon going to abolish the distinction between A and B, so it meant nothing much.

She'd hoped for more. But for what she'd hoped she couldn't precisely say.

She still had times of not being sure that she was any good. She still kept a file of congratulations and thankyou notes on her desk, so that she could run through them at times of feeling low.

‘We are always in self-doubt,' she said to Jeanne. ‘And Edith A. Campbell Berry wants a proper title.'

Jeanne reminded Edith yet again that the important thing in life was to savour the moment. ‘Enjoy your contract. Take life as with a meal—savour it mouthful by mouthful.'

‘Every second mouthful? Is that enough?'

They laughed.

Her contract and promotion still left her in a vague position in the hierarchy of it all. She was still really a private secretary to Under Secretary Bartou but, in effect, she ran his office of four and was therefore
Chef de Section
—almost. But not actually. She was a planner of policy as well. She did write out proposals on matters of substance which went into the cauldron of discussion at Directors' Meetings.

Again she was given much protocol work to do, especially from Sir Eric's office, which meant she was also something of a
Chef du Protocole
.

She no longer took dictation or did typing for Bartou. A woman typed
her
letters now. And she had an assistant, Gerty.

And she was training new people. Only yesterday she had to send a memo to one of their new legal people pointing out the distinction between an ‘appointed ambassador', representing a nation and usually resident, and an ‘ambassador extraordinary or plenipotentiary or envoy', who was a personal representative of a head of state on a particular mission.
But the only way she could sign the memo was ‘Yours Ever, EACB'. No title.

Bartou had once told her that ill-defined positions carried a secret power and could be expanded by an ambitious person. Those around such a person could never be sure where that person's authority ended.

But nor was authority always granted.

She'd tried to upgrade her signature by changing it to Edith A. Campbell Berry, hoping that an impressive signature would make her balloon rise higher, but she was even uncertain of the aptness of that move.

To be such a rickety inner-person could not be good for one.

Oh well.

She took a deep drink of her wine, finishing it too greedily and earning a disapproving look from Jeanne.

As long as one didn't look too rickety from the outside.

‘Sometimes I wish I was working for Health Section in an African village, helping to sink a well, having the pump draw the first water, tasting the first pure water, seeing the black children drink it and smile,' she said. ‘Making the water flow.'

They all had that yearning from time to time, to flee their desks and the paperwork.

Finding water was what her father did back in Australia. How appreciable his work was. He could actually drink and taste his work. She realised that she had never talked with him much about it.

‘You make ideas flow, Edith,' Jeanne said.

‘Oh, yes,' she said without conviction. ‘Oh, yes.'

‘At organising a conference you are a witch. And, as you say, the international conference is the diplomacy of tomorrow.'

‘Witch?'

‘A female wizard?'

‘Wizard, I think, Jeanne, for men
and
women in this case. Or perhaps I am a Good Witch. Or trying to be. Mr Nicolson
tells me that our international conferences are make-believe diplomacy.'

‘Mr Nicolson is a witty snob. Snobbery is a mind
déformé
.'

She did have access to the Secretary-General which was more than most could say. But she tried not to use that access.

She laughed to herself. What a great diplomatic device—the granting of a privilege which the person could not use: ‘Call on me at any time—no need for an appointment.' It rewarded the person thus privileged and, at the same time, held them in a state of hesitation from fear that they might abuse that privilege. Yet it placed the person who had been given the privilege in a position of eternal allegiance.

BOOK: Dark Palace
4.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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