It was a warm October evening in 1978 with the distant skyscrapers sparkling in the dusk as Maxine glanced through the limousine window at the familiar New York skyline. She had chosen this route for that view. Now, in the discreet, hushed comfort of the Lincoln Continental, they stood stuck in traffic on the Triboro Bridge. Never mind, she told herself, there was plenty of time before the meeting. And the view was worth it -- like diamonds sprinkled across the sky.
Her neatly folded sable coat lay beside the maroon crocodile jewel case. The nine maroon-leather suitcases -- all stamped in gold with a tiny coronet and the initials M de C -- were stacked beside the chauffeur or stowed in the trunk. Maxine traveled with very little fuss and at enormous expense, usually someone else's. She took absolutely no notice of luggage allowances; she would say, with a shrug of the shoulders, that she liked comfort; so one suitcase contained her pink silk sheets, her special down-filled pillow, and the baby's shawl, delicate as a cream lace cobweb, that she used instead of a bed jacket.
Although most of the suitcases held clothes (beautifully packed between crisp sheets of tissue paper), one case was fitted as a small maroon-leather office; another carried a large medicine box packed with pills, creams, douches, ampoules, disposable syringes for her vitamin injections and the various suppositories that are considered normal treatment in France but frowned on by Anglo-Saxons. Maxine had once tried to buy syringes in Detroit -- mon Dieu, could they not tell the difference between a drug addict and a French countess? One had to look after one's body, it was the only one you were going to get and you had to be careful what you put on it and in it. Maxine saw no reason to force terrible food on the stomach merely because it was suspended thirty-five thousand feet above sea level; all the other first-class passengers from Paris had munched their way through six overcooked courses, but Maxine had merely accepted a little caviar (no toast) and only one glass of champagne (nonvintage, but Moët, she observed with approval before accepting it). From a burgundy suede tote bag she had then produced a small white plastic box that contained a small silver spoon, a pot of homemade yogurt and a large, juicy peach from her own hothouse.
Afterward, while other passengers had read or dozed, Maxine had taken out her miniature tape recorder, her tiny gold pencil, and a large, cheap office duplicate book. The tape recorder was for instructions to her secretary, the office duplicate book was for notes, drafts and memos of telephone conversations; Maxine tore them off and sent them on their way, always retaining a copy of what she had written; then when she returned to France, her secretary filed the duplicates. Maxine was well organized in an unobtrusive way; she didn't believe in being too well organized and she couldn't stand bustle or hustle, but she could only operate when things were orderly; she liked order even more than she liked comfort.
When Madame la Comtesse booked a reservation for a business trip, the Plaza automatically booked a bilingual secretary for her. She sometimes traveled with her own secretary, but it was not always convenient to have the girl hanging round one's neck like a pair of skates. Also, as the girl had now been with Maxine for almost twenty-five years, she was able to keep an eye on things at home in Maxine's absence; from the condition of her sons and her grapes to the times when Monsieur le Comte returned home and with whom.
Mademoiselle Janine reported everything with devoted zeal. Since 1956, Mademoiselle Janine had worked hard for the Château de Chazalle and she shone in the reflected glory of Maxine's success. She had first worked for the de Chazalles twenty-two years ago, when Maxine was twenty-five and had opened the château as a historical hotel, museum and amusement park, before anybody (except the locals) had heard of de Chazalle champagne. Mademoiselle Janine had fussed around Maxine from the time her three sons were babies, and she would have found life intolerably dull without the family. Indeed, she had been with the de Chazalles for so long that she almost felt like one of the family. But not quite. They were -- and always would be -- separated by the invisible, unbreakable barriers of class.
Like New York, Maxine was glamorous and efficient, which was why she liked the quick pace of the city, liked the way that New Yorkers worked with neat, brisk speed whether they were serving hamburgers, heaving garbage off the sidewalk or squeezing fifty cents' worth of fresh orange juice for you on a sunny street corner. She appreciated these fast-thinking people, their tough humor, their crisp jokes, and privately thought that New Yorkers had all the joie de vivre of the French, without being nearly so rude. She also felt at home with New York women. She enjoyed observing, as if they were another species, those cool, polite, impeccable women executives as they operated under the merciless pressure of the grab for power, the lunge for money, the lusting after someone else's job. Like theirs, Maxine's self-discipline was colossal, but -- at the age of forty-seven -- her grasp of people-politics was even better. Had it not been so, she would not have been traveling to meet Lili.
That gold-digging slut!
But Maxine was undoubtedly intrigued by Lili's offer and it was partly her curiosity that had brought her all the way across the Atlantic. Again she wondered whether she would accept the job. She would have thought that Lili -- who must be about twenty-eight years old by now -- would never have wanted to see Maxine again. Maxine remembered that long-ago expression of startled pain in the flashing chestnut eyes of the troublemaker whom the press had nicknamed "Tiger-Lili."
She had been amazed to receive the telephone call, to hear that low, sensual voice sound so astonishingly humble, as Lili had asked Maxine to meet her in New York to decorate Lili's new duplex on Central Park South. Lili wanted her new home to be a showpiece, a conversation-stopper, and she knew that Maxine could supply the correct blend of erudite elegance and spirited style. The budget would be as large as was necessary, and of course all expenses for Maxine's trip to New York would be paid whether or not she decided to accept the commission.
There had been a pause, then Lili had added in a penitent voice, "I would also like to feel that something no longer has such painful memories for you. For so many years I have lived unhappily with my conscience, and now I dearly wish to do whatever is necessary to be at peace with you."
After this apology there had been a thoughtful pause, then the conversation had turned to Maxine's work. "I understand you've just finished Shawborough Castle," Lili had said, "and I also heard about the stunning job you did for Dominique Fresanges -- it must be wonderful to have a talent such as yours, to rescue historic houses from decay, to make so many homes beautiful and comfortable while they still remain a heritage for the world...."
It had been a long time since Maxine had enjoyed a holiday in New York by herself, so eventually she had agreed to make the journey. Lili had asked Maxine to tell nobody of the meeting until after it had taken place. "You know the press won't leave me alone," she had explained. And it was true. Not since Greta Garbo had there been an international movie star who so intrigued the public.
As the limousine started to crawl forward, Maxine glanced at her diamond wristwatch -- there was plenty of time before the six-thirty meeting at the Pierre. Maxine was rarely impatient; she disliked being late, but assumed that everyone else would be. That was life today -- undependable. If a situation could be improved, Maxine would generally do it with a slight, one-sided smile, a look that combined conspiratorial charm with a hint of menace. If a situation could not be improved, then she folded her hands in her lap and imperturbably accepted la loi de Murphy.
She happened to catch sight of herself in the back mirror of the limousine and leaned toward it, lifting her jaw above the cream lace jabot and poking it sideways at her reflection. It was only five weeks since the operation, but the tiny scars in front of her ears had already disappeared. Mr. Wilson had done an excellent job and it had only cost a thousand pounds, including the anesthetist and the London clinic bill. There was no tautness, no pulling at the mouth or eyes; she simply looked healthy, glowing and fifteen years younger -- certainly not forty-seven. It was sensible to have it done when you were still young, so that nobody noticed, or, if they did, they couldn't pin you down; today you never saw an eyebag on an actress over thirty, or on an actor, come to think of it. Nobody had noticed her absence; she had been out of the clinic in four days and had then spent ten days in Tunisia where she had lost seven pounds, a satisfying bonus. She simply could not understand why some people went all the way to Brazil and paid heaven knows what for their lifts.
Maxine was a firm believer in self-improvement, especially surgical. One owes it to oneself, was her justification; her teeth, eyes, nose, chin, breasts, all had been lifted or braced until Maxine was a mass of almost invisible stitches. Even so, she was no great beauty, but when she thought back to her girlhood and remembered the prominent nose, the horselike teeth and her painful self-consciousness, she was grateful that years ago she had been persistently urged to do something about it.
It had not been necessary to do anything about her legs. They were exquisite; she stuck out one long pale limb, rotated an elegant ankle, smoothed the blue silk skirt of her suit, then opened the window and sniffed the air of Manhattan, oblivious to the strong carbon monoxide content at street level. She reacted to New York as she did to the champagne of her estate -- with happy delight. Her eyes sparkled, she felt high and ebullient. It was good to be back, despite the traffic jam, in the city that made you feel as if every day was your birthday.
Judy Jordan looked like a tiny, blond, exhausted Orphan Annie, although she was forty-five years old. In her Chloë brown velvet suit, and a fragile, cream silk blouse, she sat in the crowded bus as it crawled up Madison Avenue. Impatient by nature, she always took what came first, a bus or a cab. She had in fact recently been photographed by People in the amazing act of getting on a bus. This had given Judy a great deal of satisfaction, because there had been a long period in her life when she couldn't afford anything but a bus.
Suddenly she felt sad. As if she were touching a talisman, she fiddled with one of the matching rings she wore on her middle fingers, each one an exquisitely carved coral rosebud on a thick gold band. Apart from these she didn't much care for jewelry -- her passion was for shoes. Her walk-in shoe closet contained row upon row of exquisitely handmade boots and shoes. Judy decided she might just celebrate tomorrow by going mad in Maud Frizon. Why not? Her partner had told her only this morning that they were worth nearly two million dollars more this year!
It was increasingly hard to remember life in her old studio on East 11th Street, from which she'd been evicted because she couldn't pay the rent. But Judy forced herself to remember those days. They made the present all the more pleasant by contrast.
There was another reason why Judy never wanted to forget what it felt like to be short of money in a big city. That was how a lot of her readers felt. They bought VERVE! for its optimism, its encouragement, its sensuality, and they looked on the magazine as a friend. The truth was that Judy traveled by bus because she wanted to stay in touch with her readers.
Reconciling the opposite sides of her public image was sometimes difficult. On the one hand, she liked to be seen as a warmhearted, straightforward, hard-working woman who'd been known to lunch off a street corner hot dog, a working girl much like her readers. On the other hand, those same readers expected her to lead a glamorous social life, dress the way they dreamed of dressing, and be a celebrity her-self. So, when Judy was not eating hot dogs she lunched at Lutèce, dieted at the Golden Door when necessary, and traveled constantly. Like New York, she set a brisk, optimistic pace. On those occasions when -- suddenly -- she plummeted into black loneliness, she gritted her teeth and bore it. Loneliness from time to time was the price of freedom, and freedom wasn't a stars and stripes, Boy Scout idea, it was doing what you damn well wanted to do -- all the time.
The doors of the bus hissed open, sucked in more passengers and hissed shut again. A sallow, middle-aged woman collapsed into the seat opposite Judy, settled her shopping bag on her knees, then suddenly groaned. "I wish the buildings would go up in flames, then there'd be no more problems." She said it again, then yelled it. No one in the bus took the slightest notice until the woman got off; then there was a general rustle of relief, a few smiles and shrugs -- just another New York crazy who didn't care what anyone thought of her.
But that was also a sign of maturity, mused Judy. You became an adult when you stopped caring what other people thought about you and started to care what you thought about them....Was it a feature? she wondered professionally. She thought about a possible author, celebrities to interview, a quiz, and made a quick mental note to get one of the editors working on it. "Are You Grown-Up Yet?" Not a bad title. Not a bad question, either, she thought to herself, unable to answer it. She still felt as childlike inside as she looked on the outside, although she would never allow anyone to know it. Vulnerability was bad for business. Judy preferred her reputation as an enfant terrible, a baby tycoon, the lethal little lady publisher who had already come a long way and intended to go much further. The image that Judy projected was that of a woman to be reckoned with -- a woman who made you think ten percent faster when you were with her, but also a woman with a weakness for pretty shoes.
She was making up for lost time. Until she was fifteen, Judy had worn only sensible black shoes.
Behind the lace curtains her family had been painfully poor. Her parents were devout Southern Baptists, greatly interested in sin and its avoidance. In order to avoid sin, Judy and her young brother Peter were never allowed to do anything on Sundays. They could sing in church but they weren't allowed to do so at home, they were not allowed to listen to the radio, because radio on Sunday was sinful: the big, elaborate, walnut radio, with the wooden sunray pattern over the speaker, was the focal point of the living room, but on Sundays, apart from cooking noises, the only sound in the house was the clatter of the old icebox that stood by the door to the back porch.
Naturally, smoking and drinking were sinful. Nevertheless, her Grandad, who lived with them, would disappear from time to time into the cellar for a drink from the bottle that he kept hidden behind the boiler; perhaps he justified it to himself as medicine. After his Sunday drink, Grandad always went to the back porch to his rocking chair, which creaked under his weight as he beamed at the apple tree at the end of the yard and waited for the hereafter. Judy's parents must have known about the whiskey because you could smell the stuff on his breath; her mother's mouth would tighten, and she would give a tiny, delicate, disapproving sniff, but she never said anything. Grandad was supposedly a teetotaler.
The man in the plaid shirt seated across from Judy looked uneasy and lowered his eyes furtively to check his zipper. She looked away quickly -- she must have been staring again. When she was lost in thought, her dark blue eyes glared through the big tortoiseshell frames with a ferocity that was as alarming as it was unintentional.
She wondered again what the purpose of this meeting with Lili was, and why the mystery?
First there had been the contrite telephone call -- and God knows, Lili had every reason to sound contrite. Ultimately, of course, the bust-up with Lili had been good for Judy's public relations business, but that hadn't been Lili's intention that night in Chicago...."If you could find it in your heart to forgive me for the very bad way in which I behaved...." Lili had pleaded, in that deep voice with the slight continental accent...."I was so ungrateful....So very unpro-fessional....I am ashamed when I think about it...." In spite of herself, Judy had started to mellow; it wasn't just because of Lili's stardom or her magnetism, it was simply because Judy had enjoyed working with her. They really had been a terrific team until that night in Chicago.
Lili had said there was a special matter that she wished to discuss with Judy, "something of a very confidential nature I should like to speak to you about personally."
Judy didn't waste her time on anybody. Dozens of strange proposals were put to her each week, and most of them didn't get past her secretaries. But this was Lili, whose name had been linked to more celebrities than that of any other woman, Lili, whose waiflike beauty was a twentieth-century legend, Lili, who never gave interviews.
The last fact counted most with Judy. Lili was worth at least a thousand words for VERVE!, whatever happened at the meeting, so Judy agreed to it. Eager and charming as a child, Lili thanked her and asked her to keep their rendezvous a secret. Judy hadn't intended to tell anyone anyway. But she was intrigued; like herself, Lili had also succeeded in life fast, mysteriously and against the odds. She must be about twenty-eight or twenty-nine now, although she didn't look it.
Last month's telephone call had been followed by a confirming letter on thick, cream paper with the single word LILI centrally engraved in navy Bodoni typeface; for some reason Lili had no last name.
What could she have in mind? Judy wondered. Backing? Surely not. Publishing? Not likely. Publicity? No longer necessary.
It was six-twenty and the traffic was still motionless, so Judy jumped off the bus and walked the last few blocks. She always liked to arrive on time.
The cab smelled of stale cigarette smoke, the backseat had been slashed and the guts were spilling out. It was also stuck in traffic on Madison Avenue, but the driver, a surly Puerto Rican, was mercifully silent until suddenly he barked, "Where you from?"
"Cornwall," said Pagan, who never thought of herself as English. She added, "The warmest part of Britain," and thought that wasn't saying much. Pagan's pallor was due to poor circulation, she had always suffered from cold weather, which was eleven months of the year at home. As a child she had hated to put her naked feet out of bed on winter mornings and hurriedly plunged her chilblains into sheepskin slippers. Her first frenzied love-hate relationship was with her warm but uncomfortable winter underclothes; the scratchy, cream wool combination suit that covered her from neck to ankle, with sagging sanitary trapdoor that unbuttoned at the back; the prickly, flannel Liberty bodice, a vestlike garment that ended at the stomach with long, dangling suspenders to hold up her thick woolen stockings.
When Pagan was a child, at seven every morning a little housemaid had scurried around Trelawney to light the stoves and the fires, which were banked down or turned off every freezing winter night at eleven p.m. no matter what time everyone went to bed. Smelly cylindrical oil stoves stood before the lace curtains of the bathrooms and minor bedrooms, open coal fires smoldered in the principal bedrooms and great, glowing logs were piled in the hall and drawing room, but the long hallway and bathrooms were always freezing, and the food from the home farm was lukewarm when it finally arrived on the manor table. The uneven flagstones in the dining room always felt cold, even in summer, even through Pagan's shoes; when she thought no one was looking, Pagan used to tuck up her feet under her bottom and away from the icy floor -- but it was always noticed and she would be told sharply to "sit up like a lady."
However, the worst part of winter had been getting into bed under the cold heaviness of the linen sheets. Once beyond the heat range of the oil stove, Pagan's bones would ache and her body become gradually numb until sleep mercifully anesthetized the dull pain.
At this memory, although it was hot for October, the forty-six-year-old Pagan shivered in her pink wool Jean Muir coat.
As usual, Pagan was staying at the Algonquin, where she felt oddly at home. The lobby had the slightly seedy, unwarrantedly superior air of a London club with its high-backed, shabby leather wing chairs and dim, parchment-shaded lights. Her room was small but surprisingly pretty after the calculated gloom of the lobby. A comfortable, pink velvet armchair stood on the grass-green carpet; artful lace scatter pillows, cunningly placed brass lamps, a few bird pictures in golden frames spoke of the skillful decorator's touch. The old-fashioned, newly smart brass bedstead reminded Pagan of the nursery at Trelawney and the dark-green-on-white trellis wallpaper swept her mind back to the conservatory where her grandfather used to read the Times every morning, surrounded by slumbering dogs, palms, ferns and tropical plants. The conservatory was heated by long, hot, brown tubes that writhed around the walls at floor level and burned your fingers if you touched them. It was easily the warmest, if not the only warm spot in that drafty mansion, especially when the wind was blowing straight off the sea, sweeping harshly over granite-grim cliffs to the rhododendron-encircled lawns. The conservatory was also a terrific place to hide from her mother; with a book and an apple, Pagan would slither like a lizard under jade fronds and jagged malachite spikes, concealed by yellow froth and spumescent greens.
Pagan could hardly remember her father, who had been killed in a car crash when only twenty-six. Pagan, then three years old, had been left with a vague memory of a scratchy cheek and a scratchy, tweed-kneed lap. The only traces of her father were the row of silver trophy cups, which stood on the oak shelves in the study, for school swimming matches and county golf, faded sepia photographs of cricket teams, and a group of laughing people at a beach picnic.
After his death, until she was ten and had to go to school in London, Pagan and her mother made their home with Grandfather at Trelawney, where Pagan had been both spoiled and toughened. When she was three years old, she had been taken out into the bay and lowered over the side of the dinghy in Grandfather's arms to learn to swim. When she was thirteen months old she had been put on her first pony; the reins were placed in her baby hands and her grandfather walked her around the paddock every morning so that she would learn to ride before she was old enough to be frightened; she first hunted with Grandfather Trelawney when she was eight.
It was her grandfather who had taught Pagan courtesy. He listened politely and with genuine interest to everybody, whether it was one of his tenants, the village postman or his neighbor, Lord Tregerick; the people Grandfather couldn't stand were what he called "the money chaps" -- lawyers, bankers, accountants. Grandfather never looked at bills, he simply passed them on to his agent to be paid.
Pagan had always been surrounded by servants, many of whom were there because her grandfather hated to dismiss anyone. Somebody put Pagan's gloves on, somebody pulled her boots off, somebody brushed her hair at night, and somebody put her clothes away, so the little girl grew up to be compulsively untidy. Pagan always remembered the soft rustle of the housemaid's skirt as she carried brass cans of hot water to the bedroom in the early morning and stood them by the rose-patterned washbasin; the blissful warmth of the butler's pantry, where Briggs cleaned the silver and kept the flower-decorated Minton dinner service on shelves behind glass doors; the cozy warmth and fragrance of the big kitchen; the resigned, sour face of her grandfather's valet as he scratched the mud from Pagan's riding clothes in the brushing room.
Pagan seldom saw her mother, and when she did put in an appearance she was obviously bored. She hated the country; there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Cornwall in the 1930s was hardly sophisticated and Pagan's mother certainly was. Short hair sleeked beetle-neat against heavy, dead-white makeup; the daily masterpiece, a scarlet glistening mouth, was painted over her real mouth, which was much thinner; red traces of Pagan's mother could be found on glasses, cups, towels and innumerable cigarette butts. Mrs. Trelawney often went up to London, and when she came back, she brought her London friends down for the weekend. Pagan disliked them, but nevertheless, she picked up much of their Mayfair slang, and for the rest of her life her conversation was dotted with their dated, breathless exaggerations.
Now in 1978 Pagan still missed her grandfather and regretted that her husband had never met him -- or stayed at Trelawney before it had been transformed. Not that her grandfather would have had anything in common with her husband, who was interested only in books and his work. He took no interest in Pagan's fundraising -- although without the money she raised, he would have been unable to continue his research. Exasperated, she sometimes scolded him. When she did, he would hug her and say, "Darling, I'm sorry white mice are so expensive."
Pagan knew that he was proud of her work, though at first her forthright business methods had alarmed him. Sometimes she suspected they still did.
She always hated to leave her husband, but after his heart attack it was unwise for him to travel; he was better off at home with help close at hand, a semi-invalid, but still one of the wittiest, cleverest and most distinguished men in the world. Although neither of them spoke about it, the past sixteen years had been a very special bonus -- but sixteen years of constant care to keep him alive and working would be triumphantly worth that effort if now, as seemed likely, he might at last succeed within the next ten years. The question that they never asked each other was whether he could last until then. That was why Pagan hated to leave her husband, even to discuss the possibility of a major donation to the Institute.
And from such an unexpected source.
In the scarf-scattered, gumboot-glutted, coat-choked, stone-paved passage of her cottage on the Trelawney estate, Pagan had answered the telephone and heard the low, husky voice of Lili herself. As casually as if she were suggesting meeting in the next village, Lili had asked Pagan to travel to America to meet her on a matter that was both urgent and confidential. Pagan had been astonished by the telephone call. International film stars weren't in the habit of phoning her out of the blue and she had never met Lili, though of course she'd heard about her. One could hardly avoid hearing about that romantic, talented, sad creature.
On the telephone, the film star had spoken in a quiet, serious voice. "I've heard so much about your projects," she said. "I'm fascinated by the wonderful work your husband is doing and I'd like to discuss a way in which I might be of help."
When Pagan had politely pressed Lili for further details, Lili had explained that her American accountant had suggested several possible ways in which Lili might contribute, some extending over several years, and he had suggested a preliminary meeting in New York with Lili's tax advisers. It sounded as if a really big contribution was going to be made and a very generous check had then been sent to Pagan to cover her first-class travel expenses.
Sitting in the stationary cab and listening to the driver swear in Spanish, Pagan wished that she didn't feel so utterly awful. The waving mahogany hair that fell to her shoulders always looked fine, but today her face was puffy, her blue eyes dull, her eyelids swollen, and she looked all of her forty-six years.
New York time is five hours earlier than London. Pagan had arrived the previous evening, and after only a few hours' sleep, she woke at two in the morning, which was breakfast time in Britain. She wasn't able to concentrate on her book and she hadn't been able to get to sleep again. She never took sleeping pills or any other medicine, not even aspirin.
She was too terrified of getting hooked again.
Sleek black skyscrapers loomed slightly darker than the sky. You don't know how many shades of black there are until you've been in fashion or the printing business, Kate thought, as she hurried along West 58th Street, slightly late as usual. When she left the office at six-ten the sky had been pale blue and cream, but now, at six-thirty, it was dark. For a moment Kate thought nostalgically of the long English autumn twilights, then she paused at Van Cleef & Arpels. The Empress Josephine's diamond coronation tiara sat in state in one window; Kate preferred it to the tiara in the other window, the more magnificent Russian Imperial diadem that had candy-sized emeralds set in a three-inch-thick blaze of diamonds. Again Kate wondered why she hadn't let Tom pull her through the revolving doors last Monday. Most men hadn't even heard of Van Cleef, let alone know where it was, let alone offer to do a little shopping there. "Let's go get Josephine's tiara," Tom had said, tugging at her hand, and when she shook her head he had still tried to pull her in, pointing out that emeralds went with anything. Why hadn't she wanted to accept an expensive present from him? After all, her birthday was next week: she would be forty-six years old and she didn't care a bit. She didn't need expensive reassurance; she had got what she had always wanted -- a wonderful man and a wonderful job.
Now that she was a successful magazine editor, nobody would ever guess that for years Kate hadn't known what she wanted or where she was going, that she had felt as little in control of her life as a rag doll being tossed around in a washing machine. She felt she was being pushed around, all right, but she didn't know in which direction. "Now, girl," her father always said, "remember you're as good as anyone, Kathreen, remember that your dad's got the wherewithal and that's what counts. Nothing to stop you being top of the pile, and that's where your dad expects you to be, make no mistake about it."
The "wherewithal" had been the vast profits from the rows of identical small, squat red-brick houses that her father had built across central England. The "wherewithal" had paid for better clothes, better cars, better holidays and a better home than her schoolmates', but it had not been what counted; if anything, the "wherewithal" had been responsible for unspoken resentment from some of the other girls at her London day school. She had never felt that she was as good as any of them, and neither was she top. She always dreaded the arrival of the end-of-term reports, anticipating her father's rages, the punishments and -- most alarming of all -- her father's attempts to coach her: the more he shouted the less she could remember.
She had been a cowed girl. The anger that she had never dared to show had built up in layers of silent resentment. She knew she was a moral coward, but she was terrified that argument would rouse her father's anger. So, like her mother, Kate always said as little as possible or fled.
Once they knew her well, men were always surprised to discover how easily they could make Kate do exactly what they wanted without a word of complaint from her. But then, when they pushed her too far, she simply disappeared without a word of explanation.
As Kate couldn't stand her father when he was alive, she couldn't understand why, whenever one of her books hit the best-seller list, the wistful thought came unbidden into her head, "Wish the old bugger could have seen that." She couldn't understand why she wanted the ogre of her youth, dead these twenty years, to be proud of her; she couldn't understand her disappointment because her father had died before she discovered what she was top at, before she could shout, "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I've made it!" Kate didn't take much notice of her success, and neither did her friends, most of whom dated from the days when she was unknown, but her dad would have relished it, he would have cut her pictures out of the newspapers, kept all her cuttings and alerted his buddies when she was about to be on television.
Certainly this new book sounded an easy winner, another potential best-seller. Lili's story -- true or false -- should hit the list a week before publication. She was beautiful, romantic, irresistibly fascinating, and the public lapped up every detail of her life; for instance, how many times had she read that Lili always wore white, whether it was satin or silk, tweed or cotton? And of course Lili was a woman with a past -- and what a past!
Before Lili had reached international status, when she had still been just another continental B-film actress who stripped in every movie, Kate had once spent some time hanging around the set in a wet wood outside London and had subsequently written the first big story to treat the teenage Lili as a potential star. Kate had not heard from Lili since the interview, but the piece had been syndicated around the world, which is why, Kate supposed, she had been summoned to the Pierre. Today, all the stars wanted an "as told to" autobiography. Nevertheless, she had been surprised when Lili had telephoned in person and asked to meet her secretly.
Kate hurried toward the Plaza, smelled hot bagels and damp autumn mist, passed a group of blank-faced, bald-headed women, swathed in silver fox and lace, spotlit in Bergdorf's window; stopped at the traffic light beyond which was a blue police car, with two cops inside, both as bald and blank as the plaster models in Bergdorf's. Kate crossed the street. Dark green, elegant awnings stretched from apartment building doors across the sidewalk to where bored chauffeurs sat in spotless dark cars. Kate nodded to the blue-uniformed doorman, who saluted her as she swung between the marble pillars of the Pierre Hotel, through the revolving doors and along the wide, cream corridor.
At the reception desk they phoned up to make sure she was expected. The guests standing beside her murmured in soft Italian, the groups beyond spoke Arabic and French. Kate couldn't hear a word of English. It reminded her of Cairo. The elevator took her to the seventeenth floor and as she walked along the hushed gray corridor to Suite 1701, Kate pulled the back of her mulberry jacket down and fluffed up the purple silk bow of her blouse.
Just before she reached it, the door was opened by a thin woman with gray hair that matched her dress. Beyond her, through the open door, Kate could see into a long cream room that overlooked Central Park. A waiter was setting out ice, tongs and small dishes of olives; the secretary beckoned him out, stood aside so that Kate could enter and then softly closed the door from the hall.
"Jesus!" said Judy.
"Wrong again," said Kate, who could never resist a one-liner. Astonished, she stood in the doorway, trying to decide what this was all about. Judy and Pagan were sitting on a couple of apricot velvet couches placed at right angles to each other; at either end of the couches, huge vases of madonna lilies and imported apple blossoms stood on low, smoked-glass tables and beyond, to the right, in a beige velvet armchair, sat Maxine.
"What's this, a surprise reunion?" asked Kate.
Pagan fingered the delicate little green malachite butterfly that hung around her neck on a fine gold Cartier chain. Maxine said in a fast, low voice, "We'd better be careful what we say."
The atmosphere was tense. Kate did not have time to move over to the other women before the double doors at the far end of the room were flung open and in walked a small, gold-skinned young woman, wearing a white silk gown draped like an ancient Greek tunic.
Star quality radiated from Lili. A cloud of black, soft hair hung to her shoulders, swept back from an oval face with high, slanting cheekbones. Her small nose had a faintly predatory hook, her full lower lip was slightly too large, but when you looked at her you only noticed her eyes. They were huge shining chestnut eyes, thickly lashed, that glistened as if a crystal tear were about to fall from each one.
Tonight, however, Lili's eyes did not glisten. They glared. They projected rage and fury. For a moment the star stood silent as she surveyed the four older women: Kate in her mulberry suit by the door; Pagan in pink, sprawled across the apricot cushions; Maxine poised, porcelain cup in one hand, the saucer held on her blue silk lap; Judy in brown velvet, on the edge of the sofa with shoulders hunched, hands under her chin, elbows on her knees, scowling right back at Lili.
Then Lili spoke.
"All right," she said, "which one of you bitches is my mother?"
Copyright © 1982 by Shirley Conran