This is an excerpt from a work in progress...
Constance 'Dusty' Miller
There was something a little odd about Monsieur Khoury. He was charming and courteous, and she felt little in the way of threat.
Nothing he did or said suggested the real rogue type, and perhaps that was what was so confusing about him. He was paying Maria altogether too much attention. She couldn’t be rude to such an inoffensive person, and now she was paying altogether too much attention to him.
He was small, beautifully-dressed, but then they all were. The clothes were distinctly mod, but then he said he’d been to London. It must have been something judging by the way his eyes lit up. The hair was a little too long and the trilby hat completely unsuited to him. He was oddly attractive in spite of all that. His straggling mustache drooped expressively, and the whole impression was rather Chaplin.
They’d met in Paris, but it was quite a surprise to meet him again aboard the S.S. France.
The minute he saw her, strolling along, all prim and proper, his eyes lit up and he latched right onto her. And yet he was pale and sweating, suffering from a little seasickness possibly. It was not enough to keep him down, or so he said.
His attentions were very gentlemanly, not entirely unwelcome. It was a little mystifying. Maria had few illusions about her attractiveness where the opposite sex was concerned. She was neither tall, nor pretty, nor vivacious, neither did she have a particularly large décolletage. She stood barely five-foot four, a hundred and fifteen pounds. If she had any attributes at all, it might be rather nice hands and feet. She had a good mind, at least that was her impression, but the typical male didn’t much seem to like that sort of thing. They were always pursuing the empty-headed, fluffier types. She was hardly dressed to draw attention to herself, having invested her life savings in the one-way ticket to America. The clothes were very good of course, but long-hoarded and a bit old-fashioned. Not that that didn’t make a certain statement, for she was sure it did. She would have to support herself, and her ideas on that were very professional. She was a trained typist and stenographer. She had letters of recommendation from her previous employers and the possibility of a job as soon as she arrived.
That would depend on the impression she made, also they might not be hiring at that exact moment.
Even so, Maria had a plan, and sufficient funds to keep herself for a few months if things didn’t immediately pan out.
The fact that she had a little money—and how little! The thought that Monsieur Khoury might be a bit of a predator had crossed her mind, but then she had just as quickly crossed it off. He wasn’t shy about his own poverty, and yet insisted on paying for every little thing. Luckily, most of her daily needs were provided for, the ticket price including meals and even wine with dinner.
They were aboard for six days and six nights. They could hardly avoid running into each other. His cabin was down one level and just around the corner as such things went. He’d been staying at her hotel in Paris, and they had spoken once or twice—mostly at breakfast. It was affordable and that was about all that one could say about the place. She’d been there two nights and three days, just killing time before taking the night train to Le Havre and ultimately boarding ship.
Monsieur Khoudry had invited her for tea. With time to kill and nothing better to do, she had accepted.
His sad, puppy-dog eyes looked at her gravely over the table. Shaded from the blazing sun by a cheerful umbrella, flapping noisily in the wind around the edges, the white-caps on the azure sea were certainly a stirring sight. It was also a little bit tiresome, as the wind, easily thirty knots, was practically taking the cups as they were emptied. His pencil-thin trousers were very expensive, and yet she’d caught him wrapping up a couple of dinner rolls in a handkerchief and stuffing them into his pocket the evening of their first day on board.
“I was wondering if you liked the cucumber sandwiches. I’ve never had them before, myself.”
She laughed aloud at the solicitous look on his face. No, he wouldn’t have had them in Beirut. She doubted he’d ever had them in England either. What company he must have kept.
“Yes, they’re quite…interesting.” She’d only read about them in books.
For some reason the French caterers thought English food exotic.
He beamed at her, encouraged. Maria felt a small flutter, in spite of herself. He was a good ten or twelve years older than her. Yusuf, or Joseph as he preferred, was a businessman, with contacts in New York, Montreal and London, as well as many other places. His family was all over the world, and in spite of her natural misgivings about talking to strangers, (and even more misgivings about speaking to strange dark foreign gentlemen) she had been interested. All of her siblings, pretty much the entire clan, was safely ensconced in Poitou, farming or village life being all they had ever envisaged for themselves. What shock had rung through the grapevine when she announced she was going to Paris to work. Every single one of them had had something to say about it, even her twelve and fourteen year-old cousins. And what shock, what recriminations must have gone through her more immediate family when she wrote home and told them she was immigrating to America.
She never could have told Mama and Papa face to face…the guilt and the torment and the second thoughts, the pleading, would have been too much. The alternative suggestions, all perfectly well-meaning, all perfectly logical, all perfectly sensible, would have been too much. As it was, she could barely read their letters. The emotion, the loss, the grief rang through all too well. The fact was, that she had planned for every eventuality, even that one.
First, get out of town. Second, get out of France…
He’d given her his business card at the hotel in Paris. She’d kept it as a kind of souvenir of her trip, which would be a once in a lifetime deal. She had sometimes thought of it as an ordeal—one that she would wake up from. She would wake up and find herself in a new place, young and strong and vigorous, and one filled with boundless optimism…all that was good about America and decadent, backward-looking, all that was wrong about back home would be dealt with in a single, well-placed blow.
It was wrong for me and right for them, for whatever reason. It wasn’t like I had a choice, they didn’t seem to have a choice either. It was who they were—who we were.
To leave home was to walk through the flames of purification, to win one’s life back, to be well and truly free of all that had gone before.
The only thing about that, was that nothing much had actually gone before. Nothing bad, nothing good had happened to her.
She laughed aloud. It was quite surreal, and only now, she was suddenly overwhelmed by her luck.
Her good fortune. It was going to be the adventure of a lifetime, and it would work out.
She would not sit home, waiting for Fate to overtake her.
She would meet it head-on, on her own terms.
She would pay any price for her freedom.
The waiter brought them orange parfait for dessert, which wasn’t nearly as good as one might have expected on such a fine ship. Yusuf lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing. It was orange parfait, and that was that.
At least she knew what it was.