The chambermaid awakened me half-an-hour before the usual time, and said: ‘Telefono’. I struggled into a dressing-gown and went to answer it. After a few bewildered misapprehensions I realized that Nada Mushkin was asking me to dine that evening.
‘Oh-er-yes, I think I can,’ I said. ‘Yes, I’d love to. Yes, of course I can. What time?’
‘Half-past-eight,’ she answered. ‘Ring up Daisy. She’ll give you a lift.’
Nada was a Russian baroness who had been lady-in-waiting to the murdered Czarina. She was the same age as myself, as she informed me when we first met, adding: ‘There’s no difference between rotten apples.’ Although she suffered from spasmodic bouts of penury, she had very grand friends. Daisy was one, and not only had a huge private fortune, but her husband was a former ambassador and also a peer.
Still dazed by my premature awakening, I did not realize that a woman of this consequence would hardly be pleased to be disturbed equally early by someone asking for a lift. The domestic who answered sounded dubious, but I was connected with, presumably, her bedside telephone. I heard a drowsy voice say: ‘Hullo. What? Who? Nada Mushkin? Who? What?’
I was disconcerted to find that Nada had not forewarned her, and that my request was a bolt from the blue. However she said: ‘All right. Shall I call for you, or will you come here?’ I said that I would go there, as I was unwilling to put any more crumpled rose-leaves into her gold bed.
At half-past-seven I set out, standing squashed and suffocated in a bus that moved with the traffic of the Corso like a pebble in a glacier, and at about the same rate. When I arrived, a little late, at Daisy’s palazzo, she said: ‘Billy Shelley will take us, so I’ve let my driver go home.’
Billy Shelley was an ex-guardee bachelor, also very rich, and rather a pet of people like Daisy. On the few occasions when I had met him, he had bowed with courteous reserve, and I was a little diffident about intruding uninvited into his luxurious motor-car. This, equally with my smelly bus, had been caught in the glacier of the Corso, and he was half-an-hour late. With him was Princess Belladramini, perhaps the grandest lady in Rome, being descended from Augustus Caesar. Even physically she was among the most massive, so that Daisy had to take a back seat with me.
We arrived at Nada’s apartment on the Aventine after nine o’clock, but she did not notice our unpunctuality. We walked down a long room lined with gilt chairs, which for her may have echoed that imperial palace whence she came. At the end was a terrace with magnificent views, from S. John Lateran to the dome of S. Peter’s.
‘How nice!’ said the princess, the only one who was Roman born.
Here the table was laid and the other guests were waiting—they were an attaché from a transatlantic embassy and his wife, and a Russian prince, so small and bent and ancient that he seemed to have turned to ash: one felt that if he were touched he would fall to pieces. He kissed the hands of the princess and Daisy, and said something in such a faint, squeaky voice that it was as if a mouse had spoken.
Nada, with powder-white hair, pink cheeks, pink chiffon and pearls, was less frail, but stiff with rheumatism; so Daisy, in yellow taffeta and diamonds, had to go into the kitchen and carry in the food, as there was no servant except a daily woman who came in the morning. The food was delicious, but did not seem to be served in the right sequence.
Soon after we were seated Nada dropped a two-litre flask of chianti on the tiled floor, and we sat throughout dinner with our feet in red wine, which was not disagreeable, as the night was warm. However, the prince kept a grey felt hat on his lap, which occasionally he put on his head. The conversation was in English, Italian and French, and very melodious, though the attaché and his wife sounded rather like transistors against flutes.
There were many glasses on the table, but perhaps owing to the collapse of the chianti, or more likely to Nada’s vague memory, we were only given vodka.
That afternoon there had been a demonstration against the Vietnam war, and the attaché spoke contemptuously of ‘hysterical riff-raff’.
‘But it is horrible what they are doing there!’ exclaimed Nada, suddenly and surprisingly passionate.
‘We have to contain Communism,’ said the attaché, a little disconcerted, but with an aggressive jaw.
‘If you contain one bad thing with another, you only increase it,’ said Nada.
‘You don’t understand Communism,’ retorted the attaché. A barely perceptible gasp went round the table, as Nada’s closest friends had been shot by Bolsheviks, and herself had only escaped by a miracle. The attaché ignored this tremor and went on: ‘We don’t want it in our country and we haven’t got it.’
‘How nice!’ said the princess, and asked for more caviar.
Later we moved into the room with the gilt chairs. Shelley lifted one of them over a low table on which there was a tray of glasses. The seat fell out onto the tray. Nada was unperturbed and no one made any comment.
I found myself sitting near Princess Belladramini. She mentioned a friend of hers, another grandee, whom I had met in the previous summer while paying a visit north of the Alps. This lady’s son had since been the victim of a gruesome tragedy, of which I had heard but did not know the circumstances. The princess now gave them in detail, describing how a young man of the bourgeoisie had brutally killed him, when he found him paying attention to a girl on whom he himself had designs.
‘It was in all the European papers,’ she said. ‘And what made it so dreadful for his mother was that the murderer was not poor Josef’s equal in rank.’ She emphasized this point, mentioning it three times in the course of her narrative.
Billy Shelley’s manner towards me now became less reserved: I knew a duchess, even if her son had been murdered beneath his station in life.
The attaché and his wife, in spite of their profession, had not been coached in the rules of precedence and they stood up to leave before the princess. She, however, with her practised skill in dealing with such occasions, and in spite of her large bulk, managed to take Nada’s hand and to thank her for a delightful evening before the attaché’s wife could do so. She did this not from self-importance but from sheer kindness, as she thought how terrible it would be for them if later they discovered their blunder. However, they managed to reach the lift first.
I was the last to say goodbye, and when I saw Nada looking like a Boucher portrait, but with wine-stained feet and standing among the broken glass and general disorder of her apartment, I felt a sudden attendrisement for her, and I murmured to Daisy: ‘I’ll stay and help her wash up.’
‘No. Don’t,’ said Daisy. ‘The woman will do it in the morning.’
On the landing the fragile prince again kissed hands and squeaked some mousey compliments. He then put on his felt hat and tottered to a small apartment he had on the same floor. Daisy said he was Nada’s boy-friend.
‘How nice!’ said the princess.
The lift was small and only intended for three. As the princess occupied the space, and was also the weight of two people, there was only room left for Daisy; so Shelley and I went down the stairs, first noticing that the lift seemed to descend with unusual speed. When we reached the ground floor there was no sign of it, but we heard Daisy hallooing from the sub-basement, which was the coal cellar.
Shelley ran down, and returned to say that they had pressed the wrong button and had not a ten lire piece to put in the slot to make the lift work. Neither had I, so he ran up about six flights to Nada’s apartment, and obtained her last ten lire. He was then able to retrieve Daisy and the princess from the coal cellar.
Driving back, the princess said that if she had known Nada had no servants she would have brought her cook and her footman, who was a most intelligent young man. She also said this three times.
When Shelley had decanted Daisy at her palazzo, I asked him if he were going in my direction, and if so would he take me a little further. As we drove on the princess pointed out historic monuments connected with her family.
Outside my modest pensione she said goodbye most graciously; and looking up approvingly at the flaking ochre façade of the building, said, ‘How nice!’
As I turned the key in the door it occurred to me that in personnel this must be one of the grandest dinner parties I had ever attended, even though it was rather comic, yet basically sad, like a dwarf at a mediaeval court. Then I saw on the lift a square of cardboard, torn seemingly from a boot-box, on which was scrawled ‘Guasto’—out of order. After the poltergeist atmosphere of Nada’s flat, this struck me as sinister, and my reaction was not only one of annoyance.
It may have been due to the unaccustomed vodka, but the party now seemed no longer to have been comic, but faintly macabre, and to have had some sociological or even ethnological significance. I had met these displaced grandees occasionally at tea parties, but had not hitherto been conscious of their singularity.
Was my awareness due to the presence of the transatlantic attaché? Would I have accepted as normal the ethos of these relics of European history if he had not been there? Would I have been conscious of the murdered Romanoffs in Nada’s background; or of the oddity of her nonagerian lover, so discreetly occupying a separate apartment but only ten yards away on the same floor? And what had induced the princess to give those gruesome details of the death of her friend’s son, and then to end up in the coal cellar?
The vodka sent my mind wandering in fantastic regions of cause and effect, until I reached the conclusion that these people, and Europe itself, would still appear normal if the torpedo had missed the Lusitania.
The next morning, when the fumes of the vodka had evaporated, they left as residue in my mind the belief that it would.
Martin Boyd (1893 – 1972) was a novelist, memoirist and poet.