Armand’s First Letter. Amelia’s First Letter.
L’Hôtel d’Esprit, Toulouse, Provençe
23 September 1015
My dearest cousin Armand,
When I left off last week, we had just arrived in Toulouse. I must now pick up the story, and so filled have the days been that I begin to wonder if I will ever catch up. Therefore, I shall begin with a summary.
We are still in residence at L’Hôtel d’Esprit, not having yet found anything in the vicinity of L’Ecole du Sorciers. In truth, we have not yet started looking, for we have had much to do to set up housekeeping together in a new Land. There are so many little things one needs, Armand, that one takes quite for granted: pins and laces and a modicum of cooking gear, in case one should wish to boil an egg.
Which one does, with shocking frequency.
And then, in a new city one must learn where these things are to be found. And how does one learn about a new city? From one’s acquaintance. And where is our acquaintance at present, such as it is? At the Embassy and its environs. And so here we are for the present. Not that we have had any time to go looking for accommodations.
The Ambassador, Lord Ellesmere, is a bluff, jolly sort of fellow, a former officer of hussars from Maximilian’s own regiment. He can talk for hours in his bluff, jovial tones, giving the listener all manner of strong impressions without actually saying anything substantive. He seems a decent sort, though I don’t suppose I shall be having much to do with him; for Maximilian is a very junior member of the establishment.
Maximilian’s chief, Alec Gainsborough, is ostensibly the Ambassador’s social secretary. This is an important position as the diplomatic life, apart from crises, takes place at balls, luncheons, dinners, and other social gatherings. In practice, however, this function is performed by one of Mr. Gainsborough’s underlings, for he might more correctly be styled Chief of Intelligence. It is in this role that Maximilian will be working for him.
We were closeted with him for a lengthy period the day after we arrived in Toulouse.
“Archer,” he said, “your task will be to read the newspapers and other periodicals and make a precis of anything that seems to touch on Cumbrian interests. Which is everything here, mind you. If there is an uptick in society weddings, I want to know about it. If a rivalry between two football teams in the poor part of Toulouse hots up, I want to know about it.” He smiled at Maximilian’s expression. “It’s tricky for the first few weeks, but you’ll soon have a solid baseline. Three months from now the relevant details will fly off of the pages.”
Then he turned to me.
“This next is for both of you. For I must assure you, Mrs. Archer, that a diplomat’s wife is his prop and stay, and that is never more true than in this kind of work. As you both go about the city you must keep your eyes and ears open. You must ponder what you see, and must bring anything unusual to me. Archer, you will not be closed up here in the Embassy all of the time; I expect you to spend part of each day roaming the city of Toulouse and getting to know it like the back of your hand. In the future, you will likely be sent on, shall we say, errands for His Lordship. In time these might even take you to other parts of Provençe.”
Here he paused, and gave Maximilian a considering look. “You are young, Archer, and yet to be proven; still, I have heard good things of you. Don’t disappoint me.”
“I won’t,” Maximilian said.
“Hah! Good.” He turned back to me. “Mrs. Archer, of course I do not expect you to roam as far or as widely as your husband. Still, you will have your daily rounds; and your situation with L’Ecole du Sorciers will give you an entree and a perspective that we here at the Embassy have hitherto lacked. I shall be especially interested in anything you bring to me.”
“Shall I report directly to you then?” I asked. “Or ought I to pass any information through my husband.”
“Through your husband. It would cause talk to have you visiting me alone, and such must always be avoided.”
I nodded. Then I said, “Mr. Gainsborough, I am concerned. I have not yet met anyone from L’Ecole, but I hope to make many friends there. I am uncomfortable spying upon them.”
Mr. Gainsborough’s brow had furrowed delicately as I began my speech, a proper show of serious attention; but then he smiled and laughed quietly.
“My dear Mrs. Archer,” he said, “I fear I have misled you. We are not at war with Provençe; we are certainly not at war with L’Ecole du Sorciers. I am not asking you to search their rubbish bins or report on their individual doings. It is simply my task to determine the shifts and currents in the city of Toulouse, the better to advise His Lordship. I am asking for impressions, points of view, assessments of the issues of the day, as you have heard them from your acquaintance. Yes, and any shifts or changes you note as you walk about the city.”
“I am much comforted to hear it,” I said.
His face grew serious once again. “In time of war it might be different; but in time of war, except in dire circumstances one dreads to contemplate, there would be no reason for a diplomatic presence here in Toulouse. I beg you not to worry.”
And indeed I was comforted, Armand; though I did note that he gave no such assurances to Maximilian.
After our meeting with Mr. Gainsborough it was necessary for me to procure a new wardrobe; and prior to that it was necessary for me to find a maid. Here Lady Ellesmere took me under her wing, for, as she said, “Your manner and appearance reflect on the dignity of the Embassy. I am determined that they should reflect well.” When I say she took me under her wing, I do not wish to give you the wrong impression. What I mean to say is that her secretary, a quiet older woman named Miss Morton, was directed to find me a competent Provençese maid of sober mien and knowledge of couture who could be trusted to shepherd me through the process. And Miss Morton, having been apprised of our coming and being a paragon of efficiency, had already done so; and so that afternoon I and Mlle Sophie began a flurry of shopping.
I should like to say that we had been given a clothing allowance by the Embassy, but such is not the case; but fortunately Sophie knows where to go and the most one should spend. Had I been responsible for bargaining with the dressmakers it should not have gone half so well. Still, I fear that I shall be a great charge on Maximilian’s finances, even given his pay from the Foreign Office.
“Certainly, but it is no more than I expected,” he said. “And while you are brightening your plumage, I shall be darkening mine.” I had to laugh, for indeed the kind of subfusc garb he is expected to wear as a junior functionary is a far cry from his bright and cheerful lieutenant’s uniform.
And in fact my daily apparel, though elegant and well-fitting, is also of a subdued hue. Toulouse, like Yorke, is a beautiful city; but like Yorke it is dirty with soot and grime, and so one reserves one’s brightest gowns for the balls and dinners and wraps up well before going out into the streets.
Oh, Armand, I have wasted so much paper on my wardrobe, about which you care very little, I am sure, and I still haven’t said anything about Dr. Laguerre, on whom so much rests—and about whom there is so much to be said!
Ah, well. Perhaps next week will be slower, and I shall be able to catch up. I beg leave to doubt it, however.
Your excited and ever-so-busy cousin,
Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash