He was sandy haired, pink faced and well dressed, and he had been watching me for nearly twenty minutes.
“Madam, will you try this Lite-o-lamp?” I was asking a stout, gray-haired woman. “You see, lift it—it lights. Lift it again—it turns off. Ingenious, isn’t it?”
I was standing at the John Graham Company exhibit at the London Daily MaiVs Home Exhibition. Major Gillam had rented a small booth in an attempt to move our stock of Lite-o-lamps. The sandy-haired young man, about twenty-five, had bought a lamp, gone off a few yards, and hovered there, watching me. Now, apparently gathering courage, he approached as the stout woman walked on. He said hurriedly, “Miss, you may say no but I can’t be hung for asking. Would you consider going t>ut to dinner with me on Saturday night? And going to a cinema later?”
That was how I met George Nelson, who owned his own grocery store and on our second date introduced me to his mother, and sister, Helen. George knew of interesting places to go and he danced well. Now I had someone to take me out on the evenings Major Gillam dined with his sister or went off to his club. George’s sister, Helen, was perhaps a year older than I. A millionaire was courting her, said George, proudly.
“A millionaire?” I asked, awed. “You really mean he has a million pounds?”
George nodded soberly. “Probably closer to two million. Name of Monte Collins. He owns property in the City and has so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it. And he Hkes Helen—” He painted an intriguing picture of Mr. Collins, who had worked hard, but had played hard, too, and spent lavishly on his favorite ladies. Now, having marked his forty-seventh year, he was ready to settle down. He wanted to marry a sweet, respectable girl, rear a family and create a dynasty worthy of carrying on his name.
A few days later George brought exciting news. Mr. Collins had invited us to join Helen and him in his box at the Duke of York Theatre. Mr. Collins could call for Helen and George, then pick me up. George was jubilant: Mr. Collins had already met his mother and his invitation strongly suggested that he intended to become a member of the family.
I flew about getting the proper clothes. I rented a green evening gown and a black evening cape. I thought, as I fitted the dress, suppose Mr. Collins liked me instead of Helen? Suppose he falls madly in love with me and wants to marry me and make me his heiress? Major Gillam would be pleased if his pT0t6g€ caught a real millionaire. Yet, for some reason, I said nothing to my employer.
I waited at my window. I heard the bell and stole a glance outside. There, in front of my boarding house, waited the longest, sleekest black car I had ever seen. It could only be a Rolls Royce. A uniformed chauffeur stood at attention at the car door. Down below, his finger nervously pressing the bell, waited George.
I swept down as gracefully as I could. George helped me into the car. In the enormous back seat, upholstered in luxurious gray, sat Helen, all in blue, and a fairly short, heavy-set man, his face pinkish and pouchy under the soft ceiling light, with small bags under his dark eyes. “Good evening,” he said in a soft voice. He moved closer to Helen to make room for me. “Do come in.”
George took a seat in front with the driver, Helen and I on either side of Mr. Collins who smelled strongly of talcum powder and cologne. There was little conversation on the way. Helen giggled and called Mr. Collins Monte, while I sat in awed silence. At the theater Helen and I took our seats self-consciously in the front of the box, the two gentlemen arranging themselves behind us. I have no memory of the play. I only recall, almost as though it were a physical sensation, feeling Mr. Collins’ dark eyes boring into my back. I dared not turn around because I knew I would find myself staring directly into his eyes.
In the car afterward Mr. Collins said, “Let’s go to my flat and we’ll have some champagne.” When we arrived there, a butler opened the door to an enormous, heavily carpeted apartment decorated in black and gold. The furniture, the tables, the chairs, the rich brocaded hangings from ceiling to floor, were black and gold. Everywhere I had a sense of wealth.
The butler reappeared with an elaborate tray of small sandwiches, and champagne in a bucket of ice. George was doing his best to talk to me so Mr. Collins would pay attention to Helen, but Mr. Collins—as I was to learn is true of most rich men—did what he wanted to do. He talked to me. I felt sorry for Helen, who grew glummer and glummer, but I could not conceal my elation. A millionaire! And he was interested in me,
Now, as we stcxxi about, Mr. Collins poured the champagne and solemnly handed us the dasses. I became very daring. I faced him, raised my glass and, looking directly at him with what must have been a shy look but which I thought was absolutely brazen, I said clearly, “To our friendship!” I caught a sick smile on George’s face and utter consternation on Helen’s. They had seen our eyes meet, and hold. Then everyone chimed in, “To our friendship,” and we drank. But the magic moment had come—and I had seized it. Mr. Collins and I had communicated.
The next half hour passed like a dream. We drank champagne and devoured the exquisite sandwiches. I sat with legs crossed, my hands poised aristocratically. I knew that a middle-class woman would never dare cross her legs. Somewhere I had read this, perhaps in Charles Garvis’ romances in which beautiful, high-bom society women, wearing aigrettes in their hair, startled staid masters of industry with their unconventionality.
When it was time to go George tried to regain lost ground. “Lily lives closer,” he said to Mr. Collins. “Let’s drop her first.”
“No,” said Mr. Collins simply. “Til drop you and Helen off first.” George reddened, but said nothing.
Meanwhile, I was growing uncomfortable. I had never had champagne before. I wanted to go to the bathroom badly but I couldn’t bring myself to say to a millionaire, “Where is the ladies’ room?” I thought it immodest—or at least, in bad taste, to call such personal matters to a man’s attention. Now, as we drove, I became increasingly distressed. When we dropped George and Helen at their flat in North London, I almost summoned courage to excuse myself and dart inside for a moment. But this would have been even more conspicuous. I thought, I’ll use power of will. I’ll forget it.
But I did not forget it. On the long drive back to my boarding house, sitting with Mr. Collins in the lovely car, on the “lovely gray upholstery, I grew more and more desperate. He was talking to me: my predicament now made me breathless. I spoke in staccato bursts, I Uterally bounced in my seat as I tried to chat animatedly about the play.
Then nature took over. I couldn’t help it. I knew what was happening. I struggled, in anguish and shame, but I could no longer control myself.
I thought. Oh God, this light gray upholstery. Maybe it won’t show. Maybe he won’t notice. I want to die.
The car arrived in front of the boarding house. Mr. Collins switched on the ceiling light. He got out and helped me out. As he did so I gave an agonized glance at where I had sat. There was a large black circle as big as the full moon. A wave of humiliation swept over me so that I almost fainted. That’s what I had done to his lovely car. Not to mention—it flashed through my mind —the dress and cape I had rented.
I cried myself to sleep that night. I’ll never see him again, I thought. He’s a millionaire. I’ll never see him again. I’ve spoiled the only big chance I’ll ever have in my life. It could have come true! I could have been rich the rest of my life!
Next day there was a telephone call from Mr. Collins. Would I be his luncheon guest at Skindles, Maidenhead-on-Thames? I thought, he hadn’t noticed!
At Skindles, Mr. Collins was the soul of thoughtfulness. He wanted to know all about me and I told him about Major Gillam and my job. He wanted to know if I had gone out often? What did I do with my time? He questioned me carefully and I told him what I thought he should know.
Just before we left, after he helped me on with my red coat, he inclined his head brusquely toward the end of the hall. “The ladies’ room is down that corridor,” he said.
I almost ran there. But I knew he knew—and everything was all right. The dream could still come true.
Apparently my contretemps was better proof of my character than anything I could have said. If I was too shy to ask to go to the ladies’ room, I must be completely innocent. This was what he needed to be sure of: a beautiful, virtuous, and poor girl who would be grateful for the privilege of being his wife.
Mr. Monte Collins courted me. There was no question about it. Poor Helen fell by the wayside. Within a month he was seeing me twice a week, Sundays and Wednesdays. On other nights, I still saw Major Gillam. Several times a week I went to his flat for biscuits, ginger beer, and my bath. Sometimes we played a record and danced: he was a superb dancer; he kissed me and I clung to him, feeling warm and protected. I was always excited with Major Gillam.
One thing was certain. There was no excitement with Mr. Collins. Our routine was as prescribed as if I were his hired companion. On Sunday evenings, promptly at eight, his Rolls Royce called for me. There would be whispers from the boarders as I came down and entered the enormous car. I enjoyed the ride to his apartment but I grew gloomier and gloomier at the thought of seeing Mr. Collins.
He would open the door himself. Dressed in a black velvet smoking jacket, he kissed me solemnly on the cheek, a gentle kiss, the faintest imprint, then drew me across the threshold. Carefully he took my coat and hat and led me to a black and gold settee. In front of us was a low gilt table, on which champagne stood in an ice bucket, and sandwiches.
I would notice now that he was not as heavy set as I had expected from his pouchy face: his feet were surprisingly small; his eyes were black and mournful; his hair always appeared wet but it was not wet, it was black and rather thin. He always smelled strongly of the powder with which he dabbed his cheeks after shaving. He spoke slowly and precisely and had a way—after making an apparently casual remark—of stealing a sudden sideways glance as if to catch me unaware.
Sitting with him in his luxurious apartment, I felt hemmed in. The heavy black and gold drapes that were always drawn over the long high windows, the deep pile carpeting with motif of black and gold, the black and gold decor everywhere, made me gasp for air. Major Gillam’s flat was friendly, comfortable, inviting. This was formal and forbidding. Was this how the rich lived?
I listened while he talked. UsuaUy it was about his childhood and his struggle for success, the need to be alert and shrewd to meet the challenges of everyday life. Or he spoke of a business deal that would bring him still more money. I tried to think, desperately, of what to say. I was drinking champagne with a millionaire who liked me—and I felt so stifled 1 could hardly breathe.
The butler refilled my plate with sandwiches. When I swiftly polished off a second plateful Mr. Collins put his hand over mine. “Ever hear the story about the two little boys, Lily? One was eating an apple. The other said, ‘Gimme the core. Go on—gimme the core!’ The first boy said, ‘With this apple there ain’t gonna be no core!’ “ And watching me, Monte laughed uproariously. I laughed politely, too, although I did not think it funny. I was learning that you laugh at a rich man’s joke, even if the joke is on you.
Somehow the evening would come to an end. Mr. Collins would press his lips chastely against my cheek and send me home.
On Wednesday evenings he took me to dinner at the Cafe de Paris, one of London’s most expensive dance restaurants. Now, when the Rolls appeared in front of my boarding house, Monte waited in the back seat. As he helped me in, he kissed me on the cheek. Then, after tucking the lap robe carefully about me, he would solemnly present me with a box of chocolates. “Oh, thank you, Monte,” I’d say, and opening it, I would begin popping them into my mouth. “Better not take too many, Lily,” he would say, jovially. “You’ll spoil your appetite.” I’d shake my head. “You know you don’t have to worry about my appetite,” I’d say archly.
When we arrived at the restaurant I ordered grilled turbot, which I loved. Monte ordered roast beef. And while I ate he looked at my face the way I looked at the grilled turbot. After dessert he offered me a cigarette and I accepted it and puffed languidly like a woman of the world. Always there was champagne.
“Would you like to dance, Lily?” he would ask.
I danced with him. He was a heavy-footed dancer, literally hopping from one foot to the other. As he hopped about, he sang the words of the latest musical hit in my ear:
It had to be you,
It had to be you,
I wandered around and finally found
The somebody who could make me be true.
Could make me be blue
With all your faults
It had to be you.
He would pull his face away, look at me meaningfully with his dark mournful eyes, and then chant another song in my ear.
Dancing with Monte while he hopped and puffed and sang and nuzzled my ear, I could not help glancing about the floor at the other men, men who were slender, elegant, long-limbed, men who danced gracefully with beautiful, bored women. If only I were dancing with that tall, blond gentleman. K only I were dancing with Johnny Gillam!
I heard Monte’s voice, sharp and harsh. “Are you flirting with that man?”
“Oh, Monte,” I said. “Of course not. I just looked at hun.”
We danced a little while. I could not take my eyes away from the young bloods, the young lords so gay, so handsome on the floor.
“Now, Lily, I saw you smile at that man over there—^”
“I didn’t, Monte, really I didn’t—” I wasn’t flirting. I was looking longingly. I thought, Monte considers himself a great prize. If I play my cards right he will marry me and I will be rich and the whole world will be mine. But I thought, sadly, is this all there is? Will he be the end of the great yearning and the great adventure?
Monte never kissed me on the lips, never tried to caress me, never expressed tenderness toward me. I felt, he doesn’t really love me. He wants to buy me as an adornment. And he is watching me, carefully, apprais-ingly, looking over the goods before he makes his purchase. Yet to have a rich husband—if only it didn’t have to be Monte Collins!
I said nothing to Major Gillam about my millionaire suitor. I could not bring myself to tell him. Perhaps I feared he would be hurt, or perhaps—and I believe this was the truth—I was falling in love with him.
I knew now that he was deeply in debt to his sister— indeed, that the John Graham Company was far from a success. I knew that he had sold very little of the costume jewelry, the auto polish, the Lite-o-lamps, the dozen other items he always bought too dear and tried to sell at the wrong time. But I was falling in love with his sweetness, his tenderness, his acceptance of me as I was, his conviction that I was irresistibly beautiful and could succeed in anything I chose. I was falling in love with his unquenchable optimism, his eager, youthful attitude toward the world. Anything was possible with Major Johnny Gil-lam: life was an exciting adventure wherever he was and wherever he moved.
Published as Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1958).