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Lilac Girls(16)
Martha Hall Kelly

“You know what I mean. With Paul.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. Stay calm….A tired Roger was trouble.

“Paul would be gone by now if not for you. I see what’s happening.”

“That’s unfair, Roger.”

“Is it? He has a family, Caroline. Isn’t it odd he’s in no hurry to get back?” Roger picked up Paul’s folder and paged through it.

“His new show—”

“Is more important than his wife?”

“I think they’re somewhat, well…estranged.”

“Here we go.” Roger tossed the folder onto his desk. “Pia says you two spend lunch up on the roof garden.”

“No need to overreact, Roger.” I stepped toward the door. Little did Roger know, Paul and I had crisscrossed Manhattan together many times over. Eaten chop suey and rice cakes on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Strolled the Japanese garden in Prospect Park.

“Look, Caroline, I know you’re probably lonely—”

“No need to be insulting. I’m just trying to help. It isn’t right he and Rena should suffer like this. Look at all Paul’s done to help France.”

“Please. You want me to get Rena out so he can stay. Then what? Three’s a crowd, Caroline, and guess who’ll be left out? He needs to do his duty as a French citizen and go home.”

“We have to do what’s right, Roger.”

“We don’t have to do anything. Be careful what you wish for, Caroline.”

I hurried back to my office, sidestepping a stray pétanque ball. Would Paul still be waiting?

Roger’s words hung in the air. Maybe I was attracted to Paul. I hoped Betty was right about men and their silhouettes. Did Paul like mine? There were worse things in life.

WE WERE TERRIBLY BUSY at the consulate, but Mother insisted I volunteer at the thé dansant she and her friends arranged at the Plaza. If you’ve never attended one, a thé dansant is a relic of a bygone age, a casual afternoon gathering at which light sandwiches are served and dancing is encouraged.

There were a million places I’d rather have been that day, but Mother’s thé dansant was to benefit her White Russians, those former members of the Russian aristocracy, now exiled, who had supported the tsar in the Russian Civil War. Helping these former aristocrats had been Mother’s pet cause for years, and I felt obligated to help.

She’d booked the Plaza’s neorococo Grand Ballroom, one of the most beautiful rooms in New York with its mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers, and commissioned a Russian balalaika orchestra to provide the music. Six of the tsar’s former court musicians, in white tie, sat ramrod straight on risers at one side of the ballroom. Each held his triangular three-stringed balalaika on his knee, waiting for Mother’s cue. Though these world-class musicians had been reduced to playing at thé dansants, they seemed happy for the work. The assisting hostesses, committee members Mother had strong-armed and a few of my Junior League friends, went about the room setting up in traditional Russian dress. She’d even convinced a sullen Pia to join our ranks.

I told no one outside of my fellow hostesses that I volunteered at these gatherings, for it was humiliating beyond belief to be seen in Russian dress. As an actress I’d happily worn every species of costume imaginable, but this one was too much, for it included the sarafan, an elongating black trapeze-like dress embroidered with bright red and green stripes and a puff-sleeved white blouse adorned with crewelwork flowers. Mother also insisted we all wear the particularly embarrassing kokoshnik, the high headdress embroidered in gold and silver, set with semi-precious stones, and festooned with long strings of river pearls. As if I weren’t tall enough already, the headdress made me resemble an only slightly shorter Empire State Building draped in pearls.

Mother slid an empty Russian gilt-and-enamel donation bowl onto the front table and then placed one hand on my embroidered sleeve. This sent a lovely wave of perfume my way, the one her friend Prince Matchabelli, a displaced Georgian nationalist himself, had made just for her, with her favorite lilac, sandalwood, and rose notes. He and his actress-wife, Princess Norina, sent Mother every one of their fragrances, resulting in a colorful city of cross-topped crown bottles atop her dressing table.

“There will be low turnout,” Mother said. “I feel it.”

Though I was reluctant to tell Mother, low attendance was inevitable, for Americans had become increasingly isolationist. The poll numbers showed that our country, still smarting from huge casualties in the First World War and from the Great Depression, was opposed to being swept into the new conflict. New Yorkers were in no mood for thé dansants that benefited anyone outside our forty-eight states.

“With the war on in Europe, your White Russians are no longer a priority, Mother.”

Mother smiled. “Yes, think of all the poor displaced Europeans.” She looked at charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.

Our cook Serge stepped across the ballroom, a pleated toque on his head, his chef’s jacket dusted with flour. He cradled a silver bowl of tvorog in his arms, a Russian peasant dish of farmer’s cheese infused with blackberry syrup. Born Vladimir Sergeyevich Yevtushenkov, Serge was descended from some sort of Russian nobility, which Mother had always been vague about. Having Serge live with us was like having a heavily accented, much younger brother who spent every waking hour thinking up new things to flambé for Mother and me.

Serge’s appearance caused Pia to approach, like a crocodile sliding into the water, crystal punch cup in hand. “That looks delicious, Serge.”

Serge blushed and wiped his hands on his apron. Lanky, sandy-haired Serge could have wooed any girl he wanted in New York City, but he’d been born with a crippling shyness that kept him in the kitchen, happily salamandering his crème brûlée.

“Maybe booking the Grand Ballroom was a mistake, Mother,” I said.

The chances of filling over four thousand square feet with merrymakers were slim. I stole a piece of Mother’s khachapuri, buttery bread cut in triangles. “But you advertised it in the Times. People will come.”

Mother’s orchestra played a passionate version of the Russian folk song “The Ancient Linden Tree,” incompatible with any modern-day dance step.

Mother gripped my elbow and pulled me aside. “We’re selling Russian tea and cigarettes, but leave them alone. Pia says you’ve been smoking them with your French friend.”

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