“Show them the love, Humpty Dumpty. Wrench it up from the guts and whack them on the head with it, if need be. Scream from the rooftops, or cry from the sidewalks – let them know what love you have for me,” said lovely, insanely lovable Alessandra, flicking off stardust from her damask cheek with a long delicate porcelain finger, as she primed her beau to seek her parents’ blessings for marriage.
Humbert Lambert, junior barrister’s clerk with Messrs. Sapper, Suckett, and Siphonandra, at the Inns of Court, with a modest salary for now, but with the vague promise of an immodest bonus in a few years, fumbled at his tie knot and quivered. “I wish you would stop calling me that – it hardly inspires a man about to look a lion in the eye in his lair, and ask him to part with his flesh and blood.”
“Don’t sketch papa like that – once you get to know him, you’ll see what a cuddly bear he is,” she replied, stroking his hand, and getting him all twitterpated.
Bear or lion, it was all the same to Humbert. Percival Wallace, her father, with the demeanor of a dark lord, with business interests ranging from trout to baked beans to single malts, and with an eye out for a nomination to the Upper House, hardly motivated a suitor to shed his comforting coat of armor and drape him in close embrace.
“It’s very well of you to say so,” Humbert observed, trying not to chew the end of his tie in anxiety. “But fathers are dry-eyed seasoned auditors ever ready with an antidote for the barbs of a pining heart. Pray, what must I tell him when he asks about my salary?”
“Simple,” his enchantress said, drugging him with her sweet, delirious breath, “lie to him.”
“That is out of the question, I cannot speak an untruth. And a man like him is certain to have made inquiries – he probably knows me better than I do myself already.”
“What’s a lawyer that can’t tell a convincing lie?”
“Well that’s me. I will tackle the man anyhow – leave it to Hump – Humbert.” He crossed and uncrossed his legs; his words seemed to waft like strange tidings from afar.
“Tackle as you will, Humpty, but don’t be late. And don’t take no for an answer. Ta da,” she said, brushing his cheek lightly with her bee-stung lips and tearing off with long shapely legs after the3:20 to her Fine Arts class. Humbert loosened his collar, and oblivious to the sunshine and summer cheer on the sidewalk cafe, wondered how the meek might inherit the earth.
It wasn’t then a knight in shining armor on horseback that came knocking the next day at the castle gates to claim the hand of his fair lady, Humbert felt more like a little schoolboy in knickerbockers at the headmaster’s office asking for his answer sheets to be rechecked. Standing under Greek pillars at the Belgrave Square home, Humbert walloped a large brass knocker on a lavishly decorated stained oak-paneled door, and then promptly jumped at the resulting thunderclap.
A tall, bald man opened the gate almost immediately, as if he’d been lurking all day behind it in wait; and fixing Humbert with a saurian gaze, he half bent at the waist contemptuously.
“Ahem,” mourned the cheerless manservant in the usual bib and tucker of white wing-collar dress shirt, pocket-watch, grey striped trousers and white gloves, making Humbert feel lucky he’d been allowed till the doorstep without being collared out. Humbert was sure the man had never smoked pot in his life, or shared tea with a parlor maid.
“Hump…Humbert Lambert,” he announced his arrival, straightening up somewhat, to match the minion’s expectations.
“Aha! A Mr. Lambert is expected indeed,” the Butler declared, not believing himself. “Would that thing be yours,” he asked, raising himself on his toes and looking over Humbert’s shoulders at the cheap Renault parked in the driveway. “You could leave the keys here, we’ll get it hauled to the back. Master wouldn’t have that thing parked where visitors can see it.”
Pocketing the keys, he led Humbert through a marbled hall with recessed lights and picture frames with gold-leaf finish, to the study. Helena Wallace sat on a large, leather Montague sofa with rolled paneled arms, while Percival took up place next to the carved mantelpiece, casting a grim eye upon him, as his battle-ready ancestors might once have done, from the projecting battlements of Flodden Fort, at the enemy armada landing below.
Humbert was certain he’d seen Helena’s face on the Tattler magazine – she probably ran an advice column warning young girls of poor suitors. Or was she the head of some secret coven whose name he couldn’t recall; else, she was definitely involved to some extent in eleemosynary activities involving an African-American child’s life.
“Well,” said Humbert, rubbing his sweaty hands.
“Well,” said Percival, twirling his mustache.
“Well,” said Helena in a drawn-out, emphasized voice that was very cold and creaky.
“Ahem,” muttered the butler who’d brought in a silver tray with tea and buttered toast. After he’d served and left, Humbert cleared his throat and began; ” Lissy and I…I mean Alessandra and I were together at Cambridge…”
“Can’t help who you rub shoulders with in college these days,” Helena observed to her husband. “I believe now you have rice eaters there, people who live on fiery curries.”
“They are some of the brainiest and hardest working folks out there….” muttered Humbert.
“And what are your folks,” Percival asked, keeping a comforting hand on Helena’s shoulder – she’d crinkled up her nose as if the whole house smelt of boiled rice, asafetida and smoking chilies.
“They’re from Ashburn. Dad has a small farm, and he tends to sheep, chicken and pigs. Mom retired from the post office,” Humbert said proudly.
“See, I told you so.” Helena looked up at her husband accusingly.
“I work at – ” Humbert started; he felt an insight into his own standing might clear things up a bit.
“I know, I know,” said Percival, looking at his gold pocket watch, and tapping his foot impatiently on the Turkish carpet. “What is it that you want from us?”
“I want…we want… I was thinking…Lissy asked me to…”
“Alessandra is a dreamy kid. She’s an artist – she has these make-believe notions from another world. Don’t take her too seriously – she’ll soon get over it. I know she takes up these projects – she has a thing or two about the underdog and the downtrodden. Long shopping lists and creature comforts soon push affairs of the heart on the back foot – remember that.
Now – can I write a reference for you, or advance you a spot of loan or something?” Percival said, reaching into his breast pocket for the checkbook.
“Certainly not, Sir!” Humbert rose to his full height, his jaw set. “I have come here to ask for Alessandra’s hand in marriage, Sir, not compensation!” He bowed stiffly, his British manners, and strict upbringing stretched to the straining limits.
Helena cupped her hands to her mouth and looked faint. Percival’s sideburns bristled as he grabbed Humbert’s arm and led him out of the room. “You Sir, are out of your mind,” he said, banging the door in Humbert’s face.
The smirking butler stood in the hallway trying hard to compose himself. “Follow me please,” he said, showing Humbert into the balmy sunlight of Belgrave Square.
Humbert was sure he’d heard a wry chuckle as the oak doors creaked shut on him.
The Regent’s Park was awash in a ruckus of colors and chirping and sunshine, but the pensive young man on the white bench remained oblivious to the charms of the quiet lake and the sculptures park nearby, or the black swans and bolshie squirrels that gamboled over there, or the thorns on the rose stem that he so moodily twirled in his fingers. Lissy snuggled up close to Humbert and weaved her artistic fingers through his mop of red hair.
“Why are you so mad – what happened,” she asked again.
“And why weren’t you there? Leaving me alone with them…puffed up...scoffers.”
“Aunt Rhadamanthine was out of sorts. At the last minute I was bundled into a car and asked to keep her company – my parents would have none of my protesting.”
“And was she?”
“No. She was hale and hearty, wagging fingers at the menials. Forget her – tell me what happened? Did they agree – did you tackle papa like you said?”
“The question of tackling arises when one is allowed into the field – I was collared and heave-hoed before I could spit in my hands and say hut-hut. I tried to get back into the game, but then it was like maneuvering your ball in a field of very agile attackers with no one to pass to.”
Lissy chuckled like a cow that has discovered sweet cake mix in her feed.
“It all started with the hound dog on pork chops you’ve got at the gates. He relieved me of my car and snuck it six blocks away – he said the master would be ashamed of it!”
“What a dear…oh what a…” Lissy hastily changed to “…bear,” as Humbert turned to her in pain. “Then?” she shook his coat sleeve eagerly.
“Your dad said I was a project; that you were in love with the idea of love! Why, he even offered me some money!”
“Really? I hope you took it! We could go shopping,” Lissy said, doubling up with laughter.
“That was another thing he said about you – the long shopping lists!” Humbert rose in a huff. “So they do know you properly – and I’ve been blind! I’m the standup comic around here, and you’re quite the chuckle bunny today, aren’t you? You’re going to be getting over it soon, aren’t you…the sad little project? Do you ever take anything seriously, Lissy? The joke is on me, isn’t it?” he said, and stormed off.
“Wait,” she cried, and ran after him. “Humpty – hold up!”
“I’m not Humpty!” He paused to waggle a finger at her, and then continued on his way.
“Yes, you are,” she yelled, and sprinted after him. When she caught up she leaped on his back and held fast. Humbert tripped and they rolled to the ground. Humbert tried to break free, but she wouldn’t let go.
“You are a determined woman, aren’t you?” he said finally. She didn’t say anything but just wrapped her long legs around him tighter. “And I am your project?”
“No you aren’t – never say that again.” She turned up his chin and looked deep into his eyes. A tear had stolen to the brim of her eyes and hung there bravely.
Humbert realized he was being a fool. “I’m sorry. I was taking my frustration out on you,” he said. “ I was such a miserable failure. I love you so – I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you.”
“I love you too.” She bent down and pressed her lips against his for a long blissful spell. “Now the important thing is,” she asked, leaning on an elbow and tickling him in the ear with a grass stalk,” what are you going to do.”
Humbert crossed his hands under his head and looked for an answer in the fluffy clouds floating lazily overhead, with their white plumes outstretched.
“Let us elope,” she cried out.
“Please, Lissy. I wouldn’t steal you from yourself. I won’t have it without the parent’s consent – you would always be looking over your shoulders. You pretend to be tough – I know you chew rusty nails – but I know you love them too well to let them down. And deep down, we’re all too conservative to do anything rash.”
“The consent is not coming unless you become a Lord or a tycoon or something – and knowing you – that’s not happening anytime soon.” She giggled, and then cupped her mouth just when the hurt-puppy look began to flicker across his face again. “I could ask papa to get you a promising position?”
“Never! That wouldn’t be the right honorable thing to do. Just leave it to Hump – Humbert, darling.”
“If I leave it to Humpty again I’ll turn grey and wrinkly before I float down that aisle. What happened to that drunk, rich uncle of yours? Any chance of his copping it and leaving you the hidden loot?”
“No chance – the wine seems to be agreeing with the old primate. I can swear the man is getting younger by the day – I won’t be surprised if he outlives me!”
“Then I will have to think of something,” she said and lay back, thoughtfully chewing on a rose petal.
Nothing much changed for the next couple of days. Except that Lissy received a call from Ursula, her American roommate and soul mate from Willingham-Boarding-School-days. Ursula happened to be flying back from a business trip to Germany on a hopping flight to Canada, where she’d moved with her family. She’d wondered if Lissy could take time out to meet at Bentleys’ Oyster Bar & Grille at Piccadilly and catch up on old times. It was always a delirious delight to meet Ursula, so Lissy had readily agreed.
Now, Ursula was not one, but a twelve-hugs-a-day person who’d headed a Laughter Club in school, and taught people how to activate sullen solar plexus chakras in their body by spreading the love. She was like a flower that wilted without a comforting cuddle, peck – and a firm back rub if possible. Accordingly the old friends rendezvoused at the grill one sunny afternoon before her flight.
It was a chic place done in pastels and gold with mirrored walls and leather banquettes, with artwork of the chef proudly displayed on the broad white pillars with Corinthian caps. The girls tucked into complimentary canapés and coffee, and began to chat animatedly about boys – out of old habit.
“What’s the family strength now,” Lissy asked. “Is Robby still the Italian Stallion?” Ursula had gone ahead and married right after school.
“He’s called the Italian Stallion, not because he runs fast!” Ursula laughed, squeezing Lissy’s hand tightly – in fact she hadn’t stopped stroking it all afternoon. “I had to put the brakes at number four – mothball the birthing cannon, as it were – else the entire neighborhood would have been run down by the offspring. And what about you? Has the lawyer boy perked up enough nerve to face the old Grouch?”
“I had to put him up to it at gunpoint – ooh, the silly oaf makes me go so weak in the knees! But it went very badly I believe. It provoked even the sad Butler into drollness.”
“Oh my poor babe.” Ursula, always one to embrace other’s miseries, reached forward and pecked Lissy and curled her fingers into her hands again.
“Can I,” Lissy asked, gesturing towards one hand, wanting it back so that she could tuck into the Bouillabaisse with Seared Squid.
“Oh sure,” Ursula shrugged and reluctantly let go of one hand.
From the corner of her eye Lissy noticed two old ladies sitting beyond the broad pillars in the far corner, glaring continuously over pince-nez at her, their mouths agape. ‘That’s so rude,’ she thought. She leaned back in the wing couch slightly so that they couldn’t see her. As she turned her head slowly in their direction, she saw it was Aunt Rhadamanthine, with another old lady, a fellow coven member perhaps. Lissy’s first instinct was to walk over to them and say a loud Hello and thwack them on their backs – see if she could thump their fake dentures out, but something made her decide against it.
She pushed aside her soup bowl and crawled her hand back into Ursula’s tentacles, which coiled themselves gratefully around once more. “Have you checked out Chanel’s vanilla hand serum? It’s awesome!” she dangled her hands in Ursula’s face who couldn’t resist rubbing her snout appreciatively on them, rolling her eyes, and moaning softly. Lissy giggled, it felt so ticklish.
“My, it’s yummy!” Ursula said, rising halfway, and like a sniffer dog nuzzling all the way to her shoulders. “I’ll make sure to pick some up at the duty free shop. Canada is so cold and dry; my main problem is frizzy hair. But yours are so luxuriant – what do you use on them?”
“Russian Amber Imperial Conditioning Crème by Philip B – no less – the best of the best! Feel them?”
“Sure!” Ursula leaned in and cupping her wavy mop of hair, inhaled deeply. ”Umm! And what’s that delicious scent you’re wearing?” Her face encircled Lissy’s neck and lingered at the hollow of her neck, inhaling deeply of Chanel No 5. “Like old times, eh? Lord, how we used to love it back then. But I am famished now,” she said and returned to her seat to winkle out the grilled halibut with peach and pepper sauce, and quell the growls of the healthy appetite of a mother of four.
“Oh my God,” Ursula screamed later as Pineapple Carpaccio and Sicilian Citrus Sorbet were placed before her to round off the perfectly gourmet meal.
Lissy, realizing the peaking distress of the old ladies, who were now leaning in and jabbering animatedly, decided to serve up a piece de resistance herself. “My feet are killing me – would you,” she asked, shaking off her heels and putting a foot on the edge of Ursula’s chair, between her knees.
“Why not, child.” Ursula, trained masseur who could induce burps in the most stubborn of babies at her knee, began to good-naturedly knead Lissy’s toes with one hand and digging into the dessert with the other, enjoying the sweet dish thoroughly with unbridled expressions of loud ‘oohs-and-aahs’.
The Maître De seemed embarrassed with all the brouhaha the growing, unbecoming intimacy, and public display of unwarranted passion between the two ladies was causing, but remembering who Lissy was, decided to look the other way.
But the old women, who had seen what seemed enough unchristian sin through their failing eyesight from afar in the darkled hall, got up, and striking the Chef Sous deftly with the leather bound bill, stormed off, their umbrella tips sharp as snicker-snees pointing straight ahead of them.
Lissy came back home to find Aunt Rhadamanthine leaving the house. Lissy’s full-throated “Yo, Grumpy,” met with a cold shoulder and icy silence. She went upstairs and plunked on her bed. She gazed at Humbert’s picture frame for a while, sighing ever and anon, wondering when the twain shall meet and become one. While daydreaming of him kissing her among the amorous white blossoms, now red with love’s wounds, she fell into carefree asleep. Awakened by a soft knock at the door just before supper, she was informed by her handmaiden the Ancients’ desire to see her at once in the Study – the Bema seat of Judgment.
Mother looked like she’d been caught in a sudden downpour without an umbrella – she swayed slightly in the wing chair, while Father hung on to the mantelpiece for support, fortifying himself with scotch and soda.
“Hello parents,” Lissy piped.
“Where have you been,” the Pater asked, his finger, like an accusing compass needle pointing straight at her.
“School – sketching. In fact, we were drawing nudes today.”
“What – men I hope?” Mother was rapidly deteriorating into the arena of delirium. She looked discomposed and awesomely unwell. “O lord, what am I saying?”
“No – women.” Lissy, with a carefully constructed cool demeanor, began to leaf through a copy of ‘Country Homes for the Rich.”
“And no doubt, you treated one of them to lunch today?” Father said; his hand already half-raised to hammer down the ‘guilty’ verdict.
“Now that you mention it – yay – I do recall taking one of them out today – though I can’t remember if it was the same one as yesterday, or different.”
“You were seen in the bar – you were being watched.” Her father’s voice shook as he absentmindedly plucked hair from his sideburns.
“Everything?” Lissy allowed her hand holding the magazine to quiver, nay shudder violently, so that everyone could see it.
“Everything,” her father thundered. He wiped his brow in slow motion, and then changed tack. In a much gentler, coaxing voice he said, “ look we all know you are a bold…adventurous girl – it runs in the family, alas. But that’s no reason to get rash on the rebound. A little emotional setback doesn’t mean we should let our youthful passions…our hot-bloodedness…the fires in our belly run amok, and we start playing against nature’s course.”
“This is what becomes of little girls when you send them to girls-only convents. O Percival, I told you so! My little baby,” Mother moaned and looked like she was about to keel over and capsize.
With another great heave, Percival continued: ” What happened to that Humturd who drifted in that day – you aren’t still seeing him, are you?”
“Hump- Humbert Lambert, Papa. With his looks… heart of pure gold – and he was on rugby scholarship in college – fat chance! I guess he must have moved on. He never tried to contact me after the way he was treated here. And I can’t find any match – in men at least – who can show him dull in comparison.”
“In retrospect, it seems we were a tad crisp with the boy. He didn’t get the hearing he deserved.”
“You bet, papa. He was hunting for his car all evening.”
“Yes, yes, the servants do tend to read a little too enthusiastically into their orders – I shall have to talk to them about it – I dare say. But the boy has promise – why in a few years, Siphonandra assures me she will be ready to pick him as a partner. You must remember we give them good business each year, and I do have stocks – and a say in that company.”
“He’ll never let you influence his standing papa – he’s a very proud, self-made man.”
“Yes – what a pity – an affliction rather. I do wish they’d pay him better though – our Lissy is used to a certain style.”
“There is nothing a fat dowry cannot correct – no man may object to what parents wish to bestow upon their daughter,” said Mother. “But what of his status – his standing in society?”
“He has an uncle, with a drinking habit,” Percival said, carefully avoiding Lissy’s eyes. “In deep debt – a pecuniary condition carefully guised from society. His estates could be purchased, and a title of ‘Lord of the Manor’ could be transferred to this Huppert.”
Mother suddenly became bright eyed and bushy tailed like a squirrel that has discovered a chest of hickory nuts buried deep under the tamped snow. “How nice – being mother in law to a ‘Lord of the Manor’ – whatever that might mean.”
“What say, Lissy,” Percival asked, looking from wife to only daughter. “Should we call the man, and settle for a date – the earliest possible?”
“What can a girl, who is not financially independent, say, Papa dear, when her parents have already thought out everything for her. I know you mean the best for me – so I will go along with anything you folks say,” she said, trying very hard to look the coy, demure wife-to-be, and not explode with the fireworks that were popping inside of her.