In the week of my eighteenth birthday, Johnny made an unexpected, breath-taking gesture. How would I like to go to Paris for him? To buy perfume? He had borrowed additional capital and was certain we could dispose of inexpensive French perfume at considerable profit. He could not spare the time to go himself. As a matter of fact, I might mix business with pleasure, and consider the trip a birthday present from the John Graham Company.
I was beside myself. Paris! Perhaps, even, a French finishing school flashed through my mind. How long could I stay? Oh, a fortnight, said Johnny, smiling at my excitement. I thought, even if I attended only a few days, no one could take from me the fact that I had gone to a French finishing schooL
I hurried to tell Monte Collins. I had assumed a new importance in my own eyes. Monte, too, was impressed. “I really don’t wish you to go, Lily,” he said carefully. “But in a way I’m glad. It will give me a chance to do a great deal of thinking”—he paused and looked away— “which may alter your entire life.” He stole a quick glance at me.
I let my face reveal nothing. I needed to do a great deal of thinking, too. How was I to resolve my dilemma? I was almost sure I loved Johnny, but Johnny seemed to have no idea of how I felt, as he had no idea that I was being courted by an enormously rich suitor whom I might not have the courage to refuse.
I went to Paris. Immediately after registering at a hotel where Johnny had made my reservations, I set out for a well-known finishing school, the Coeur de Sevigne, at Neuilly, Monsieur le directeur was outraged. Enroll for two weeks? Impossible. When I asked helplessly what I could do, he could only suggest the Berlitz School. Perhaps they would accept a student for two weeks. I knew enough to know that Berlitz was not a finishing school— but it was a French school. I enrolled at Berlitz.
It took little time to carry out my mission for the John Graham Company. When I was not in class I rode the buses of Paris from Montmartre to Montparnasse, drinking in the fights and gaiety, or traveled by Metro, thumbing a French-Engfish dictionary. I studied hard. No one would ever again hear me make a fool of myself saying Channel or de^w”tees or Champs Ilissees.
When I thought of Monte my mind revolved helplessly. His words could only mean that he was preparing, in his cautrous, businesslike fashion, to propose marriage. And if he proposed, how dared I think of saying no? Who was I to turn down a chance to be rich, to have security for the remainder of my life, to push aside in one glorious stroke the deprivation, the helplessness and humiliation of the poor, the dreariness and hopelessness and squalor, the scraping, grasping, soul-chilling existence of the East End? Then I thought of Johnny. All sorts of outrageous fantasies flooded through my head. Perhaps Monte would die after I married him and then I would have two million pounds and I could marry Johnny and repay his sister and we would five happily forever after. But suppose Johnny, noble Johnny, were to spurn me for what I had done? Then my sacrifice would be in vain and I would be a widow, at eighteen, despicable and unloved—I could reach no conclusion.
At the end of two weeks I wasn’t ready to return to London. If I could remain another two weeks at Berlitz I was sure I’d make tremendous progress. And I couldn’t face what I had to face in London. Not yet. I wrote Johnny asking to stay another fortnight. I was studying at Berlitz to better myself. Perhaps, I wrote, I might stumble on a sensational bargain in fancy goods that would more than pay for the extra time.
The telegram I received was brief. “Impossible send you more money.”
I remember folding it and placing it in my purse and slowly walking down the Boulevarde des Italiens, thinking miserably, I’ll have to go back, I must go back.
When I returned to my room to pack, a special-deUvery letter awaited me. It was from Monte Collins. When I opened it a bank draft fluttered out for one hundred pounds. “My dear Lily,” he had written. “I am sending you this money because it occurred to me that while you are in Paris you may wish to buy some clothes. I should like you to use it all on clothes to please yourself. On your return I shall have a very important question to ask you.”
From the lowest depths of despondency I was rocketed to ecstasy. One hundred pounds! Suddenly I saw Monte with new eyes. For a quick, infinitesimal moment, for the space of a heart beat, the door to the future had opened, only a fraction of an inch, to emit only the tiniest quiver of light—but how bright, how blindingly bright that future! I thought no more. I began buying clothes. I enlisted a girl in my Berhtz class to take me to fine shops where I spent every penny of what was then equivalent to five hundred dollars, today to more than three times that much. It was a fortune to spend selfishly.
I glutted myself. All my life I had been limited to dark shades, because they were more practical. The poor could not afford light colors. I bought a shimmering white evening gown flecked with silver, a pale blue dress, a beige coat with a lynx collar, and a light blue coat with gloves, hats, and shoes to match. I knew nothing about style or texture—away from cotton, flannel, and serge I was lost—^but I knew enough not to clash colors.
My wardrobe complete, I marched into the Paris salon of Elizabeth Arden. I was terrified by the aloof attendants who seemed to wither me with a glance, to know instantly that I was Lily SheU, orphan and skivy, but I spoke up. “I want my face massaged.” I ordered every service available, from a pedicure to a facial guaranteed to remove wrinkles. Then I took a tremendous and, for me, daring step. I had my hair bobbed. I sat in the chair at Elizabeth Arden’s and watched my golden hair fall to the floor about me. I suffered no panic. I thought how far I had come from the orphanage! I would return to London as a new glamorous personality, with new clothes, new face, new hairdo, with the new assurance of my Berlitz School background. To dazzle London. To dazzle Johnny. Above all, to dazzle Monte Collins, as only the future Mrs. Monte Collins could do.
When I finally saw Johnny again, I explained to him that I had used my own savings to remain in Paris. I simply had to complete one month of school. My bobbed hair made him forget any rebuke he might have had in mind.
A day later, dressed in my Paris clothes, I called on Monte. He drew me across the threshold and held me at arm’s length for a moment. Shyly I removed my new coat—then the hat—and stood there, in my lovely blue dress.
His face lit up. “Very nice, the way your hau- is cut,” he said. “Makes you look more grown up. I like it,”
I was relieved. “And the dress?”
“Yes,” he said. “Turn around.”
I turned around.
“Yes, it suits you very much.” Then: ‘‘My dear, sit down.” He led me to the settee and looked at me thoughtfully. Then, with a ghost of a smile, as he sat next to me, he said, “I have something for you, LUy.” With great deliberation he reached into his vest pocket and extracted a small, square box. Watchiog my face, he opened it slowly. I gasped. It was an engagement ring with an enormous diamond. Still keeping his eyes on my face, he took my left hand and solemnly, slowly, slipped the ring over the third finger.
“You will be my wife, LUy,” he said.
He did not ask me if I would marry him. There was no question in his mind but that I would say yes. He was conferring a great favor upon me. I was terribly excited. I held my hand out, the ring up, and displayed it this way and that to catch the light. The great square stone caught fire even in that somber room. I thought. Why, this must have cost thousands! “Oh, thank you, Monte,” I breathed. He put his face to mine and kissed me gently on the lips. It was the first time.
I nesded against him on the settee, my head on his shoulder, holding my hand up, watching the diamond gleam and flash.
He pulled away. “Do you love me?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, Monte,” I said. “I do.”
“I love you, Lily,” he said. He was still rather restrained, and I was tense, for I had captured a millionaire. I stared, hypnotized, at the diamond. No one would ever believe it was real.
I heard his voice, quite pleased. “At the same time, I bought you this—” With an effort I tore my eyes from the ring. Monte, watching my face and savoring every moment, was opening a long, narrow black velvet case. I stared—there, against a white satin background, glit-ered a diamond bracelet. A dozen diamonds, two dozen —I could not count the stones! He slipped the bracelet over my paralyzed hand. And suddenly I was not as excited. I thought— but I must take him with all this. My thank-you’s sounded strained in my own ears as I exclaimed, “Oh, Monte, this is so wonderful, this is so lovely, I never dreamed—”
He was not finished. From an inside breast pocket, Uke a pleased Santa Claus, he produced still another narrow black velvet case. In it was a diamond brooch. I was speechless. I had never seen so much wealth before.
“Stand up, Lily,” he said, gently. I rose like an automaton and carefully he pinned the brooch to my dress. I stood there emblazoned with diamonds and all I could think of was, when am I going to see Johnny? And, How I wish I could be excited about this. I know it is fantastic, what is happening to me. Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic ..,!