Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

London, Day Four


Day Four happened more than a year ago, so the memories have a hazy quality by now. But, someone has asked for more London stories, so let’s see what can be retrieved at this late date.

An image is coming back… of me, standing in the lobby of our elegant hotel early that last morning, talking to an assistant manager about the Bedbug Letter I’d received the day before. That was the letter that assured me there were no bugs in this fine hotel, and the welts on my leg couldn’t possibly have happened within its walls. In soothing, almost singsong tones, this man was upholding the storyline, assuring me that, of course, he was sorry I had a problem on my leg, but certainly the hotel bore no responsibility.

Arguing about bedbugs was no fun, but I suffer from a condition called Responsibility Sickness, learned at the knees of my mother and father, who both lived through the Great Depression while missing one or more parents, and who felt the weight of responsibility for their own lives at far too young an age. It caused my mother to type so fast (to earn college money) that her employer at the bank paid her double the hourly rate. It caused my essentially fatherless father to assume emotional and financial responsibility for four younger siblings when he was just a boy himself.

R.S. makes me stop to kick stones and sticks off the road to possibly spare someone’s tire, or to pick up glass shards and carry them home to our trashbin. It also makes me feel guilty if I don’t. So, the R.S. was on me that morning and I wasn’t about to back down. The next guest in Room 317 would not sit down to use her computer and leave the chair with two welts on her thigh.

Would you mind coming around to see? I asked. Assistant Manager in his black pin-striped suit glided out from behind his desk. Now we were on equal footing. I turned around and pointed to Exhibit A, an angry welt right behind my kneecap. Exhibit B was too far up my leg to display. He nodded, then glided back to the safety of his desk and fished out Exhibit C: the ultra-violet flashlight that x-rays furniture for bugs. I was unmoved. May I please speak to your manager? I asked. Like Jeeves the butler, his face betrayed no annoyance as he placed a quiet phone call to a Higher Up. Within minutes, Natalia appeared.

Natalia was startlingly attractive, with creamy olive skin, a streaked blonde ponytail and deep green eyes. I showed her both welts and mentioned the letter. She tossed her beautiful head. “That’s just ridiculous,” said she. “I can’t believe you were sent such a letter. Of course, we have bugs at times in our hotel. All the hotels do!”

Ross joined us just as Natalia was handing me her card and asking if there was anything she could do for us, perhaps on a return trip? I asked her to remove the desk chair from Room 317. Ross, who does not have R.S. and rather doubted we would be seeing Natalia again, quickly made the most of the offer. Might the hotel have a spare black stone soap dish he quite admired that we could take home? “Certainly,” said Natalia. An underling was sent to fetch one, and Ross slipped it into his suitcase.

Now we were ready to start our last day in London. With time for only one stop, we chose the Wallace Collection a few blocks away. This treasury of 18th and 19th-century European pieces is located in the Hertford House, previously owned by four Marquesses and one illegitimate son. (Thumbnail refresher on British nobility: the titles run—from least to greatest—Baron/Viscount/Earl/Marquess/Duke. So Marquess is really up there.)

As I revealed in an earlier journal entry, I am not keenly interested in the contents of museums. So, what I found fascinating that morning was not all the armor and Marie Antoinette’s toiletries and the European masterpieces but rather the intriguing tidbits handed out about Sir Richard Wallace, the final owner of Hertford House and the donor who gave the lot to Britain on his death.

At this remove, with some help from Wikipedia, here are several facts about the 4th Marquess and his son, Richard:

  1. The 4th Marquess of Hertford came to England in 1816.
  2. He fathered a son named Richard Wallace in 1818, just 5 years after Jane Austen wrote her manual on 19th-century propriety and moral rectitude known as Pride and Prejudice.
  3. The mother was Mrs. Agnes Jackson.
  4. The 4th Marquess of Hertford was a neurotic recluse.
  5. Richard took his mother’s maiden name.
  6. He was raised in Paris from age six by his mother’s mother.
  7. The 4th Marquess never acknowledged his paternity of Richard Wallace.
  8. In adulthood, Richard was made a sale-room assistant and adviser to the 4th Marquess.
  9. On the death of the 4th Marquess, Richard inherited his estate but not his title.
  10. Due to his philanthropy, Richard was made a baronet in 1871, shortly after marrying his mistress, who was also the mother of his 30-year-old son.
  11. Richard's wife and son refused to assimilate in England, so Richard was never accepted in English society.
  12. He gave his estate to England anyway on his death.

These 12 points whipped up a flurry of questions. Such as:

  1. Who was Mr. Jackson, and did all of this happen before or after he married Agnes?
  2. Why was Richard raised in Paris? And why did he take his mother’s maiden name? Was it because of Agnes’ marriage to Mr. Jackson?
  3. If all of this happened after Mr. Jackson’s marriage to Agnes, why did he stay married to her? Did they work out a deal, such as little-Richard-must-go-to-Paris-and-then-I-will-keep-you?
  4. Why did the 4th Marquess make Richard his sale-room assistant when he refused to acknowledge his paternity? And why did he bequeath his estate to a son he would not acknowledge?
  5. How did Richard feel about being a sale-room assistant to such a father?
  6. Was all of this relational tangle the result of trying to uphold the standards of propriety so evident in Pride and Prejudice?
  7. Richard apparently fathered a son at around age 22, but did not marry the mother for 30 years. Why?
  8. Was Richard only fit to be made a baronet after he married his mistress, and is that why he married her?
  9. What caused Richard’s wife and son to refuse assimilation in England?
  10. Why did Richard leave his estate to the nation of England, which did not accept him, rather than to his son?

More questions than answers, none of which I could find on the internet. (A search for Mrs. Agnes Jackson only pulled up a website about a black blues singer.) Still, interesting to ponder.

The museum owned several items belonging to Marie Antoinette, including her perfume burner and commode. While staring at the ornate objects, I realized I knew nothing about Marie Antoinette except the cavalier “let them eat cake” comment so often associated with her. Back home, I checked out a biography of the French queen and discovered, to my surprise, that she came to France from Austria and married at the tender age of 14. She was the fifteenth child born to her parents. The French initially loved her, and admired her beauty and grace. Over time, they viciously turned on her, suspecting her of sympathizing with her native (and hated by the French) Austria. She was a devout Catholic.

Her husband, Louis XVI, also was a devoted Catholic and a humble, gentle man. The “let them eat cake” statement so often pinned on Marie is surely apocryphal, since the expression had floated around the Continent for several centuries. Marie did spend money like a drunken sailor, but she didn’t know any better and was only behaving like a European queen. Louis was executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. Eight months later, at age 38, Marie endured the same fate, calmly, with faith in God.

Ross and I decided to have lunch in the Hertford House restaurant, a terrace-like room in the heart of the building. The lunch would not have been memorable, except for our French waiter. For some inexplicable reason, my menu choice gave him the giggles. I ordered gratin, a small oval dish of sliced potatoes with broiled cheese on top. That was all I wanted, having dined too well in London for several days.

“Yoost gratin?” he said with a grin.

“Yes," I said.

"Hhhhreally?” he giggled.

“Yes, please.”

More giggles. He walked away, and I saw him approach another waiter, whisper and point at me, still chortling. I didn’t care. The gratin was excellent, and I wasn’t in the mood for anything more.

I ended my days in London with a mad dash to the department store selling the official 2012 London Olympics t-shirts, certain our four children would treasure owning something one could only get in Britain. Ross wisely stayed behind at the hotel, where Natalia had arranged for our bags to be held. I ran the whole way there and back. We were the last passengers to board the plane, arriving at the gate just before they closed the door. It would have been worth it if the kids had loved their shirts. I only saw one of them wear one, twice. Last month, our youngest handed me several bags of unwanted clothing destined for Salvation Army. Right on top was the Olympic t-shirt. Never again!

I don’t remember the flight home or handing around the t-shirts. The bedbug bites are long gone, but memories of London are still alive in my mind. There is no city like it!