The party had moved to a game of aphorisms, where each player was supposed to describe another member of the group in the wittiest way imaginable. Someone described Sir Reginald as "a sunny peach on a garden wall," at which he bowed so deeply that they feared he might have died. One of their friends called Violet "a blooming cornfield," at which she laughed so infectiously she had to hold her hand to her mouth. Sir Reginald, having recovered from his bow, then pointed out a particularly colorless cousin who was sitting in the back of the room. He called her, in very polite tones, "a glass of water fit for a lady," and the party roared. Olive laughed, her hands on her knees.
Suddenly one of the young men of the party crawled before Olive, his hand over his heart.
"Marry me," he said.
Olive laughed again, which doubled as her response.
As the man walked off, defeated yet still smiling, he said with great style: "Her beauty was the embodiment of repose."
This party had been going on for years.
As a girl growing up, Olive's only friend was her sister, Flora. But she had been gone for a long time, having married a very serious man named Hubert Walter. When Flora accepted his proposal, Olive remembered Flora sitting and staring at her engagement ring as if it were locked to some invisible chain. Flora had most recently been in Belgium with her husband, who was helping to negotiate the government's takeover of the Congo after atrocities had been reported there. Olive had recently attended a lecture on the subject, which was quite boring despite the horrors described.
Olive's friends were a more eclectic group. First among them was Violet, the daughter of the newly elected prime minister, H. H. Asquith. There was also Blanche "Baffy" Dugdale, the gentile Zionist intellectual who lived in London and wrote letters to everybody
. The men they socialized with were of similar pedigree and wealth if not entirely their equal. They included Archie Hamilton-Gordon, Violet's beau, and Maurice "Bongie" Bonham-Carter, who worked for the P.M. and was a batsman for the Oxford Cricket Club. Olive's trustworthy old friend Mr. Hardy was always there. But at the dinner parties Olive was always accompanied by her father. Everyone knew that Olive's mother Agnes was ill, but she wasn't seen very much about Vinters. She was rumored to be off with a relative or friend.
As the summer wore on, Olive and her friends congregated at dinner parties, teas, and on excursions to the Continent. They had a party on the Sunbury Belle
, a boat on the Thames covered in cherries, grapes, and bananas. They drank iced coffee on the white deck. There were suitors, of course, but Olive treated them like meals at a table. She and Violet were often engaged to dance partners ten feet deep on any given night. Olive would creep up next to Violet at a party and say, "So-and-so is a dangerous character and you mustn't dance with him." Violet would just laugh in her face and declare it "the greatest
' rot." They danced and laughed with all manner of men until, as Violet often put it, "the birds came out." They would then retire to their core group and motorcar until dawn, their minds a blank as the sun rose to shed light on the ruins of their evenings.
Life, in fact, was rich and brilliant. Sometimes Olive looked around like she barely recognized it.
So when a friend asked her to come meet an explorer of some renown, it sounded somewhat boorish, but it held at least the promise of perhaps being interesting—which was her favorite thing—so she agreed, after only minimal persuasion.
THE MEADOWS WERE FLUSH with oxeye daisies when Olive and a friend drove south to Cranbrook on a late-summer day in 1908. They were traveling to Swifts Place, a country estate where Jane Austen had once lived, located near the quaint town of Cranbrook in Kent. As they drove, Olive took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of hay and the motor. The man they were going to meet was some sort of taxidermist who had built his own museum. The fact that he stuffed birds was hilarious to Olive. He was probably yet another Rifle Brigadier. No wonder her friend wanted company: She would need the protection. At least the ride had been worth it.
When they chugged along the main drive, Olive's eyes widened at the sight of Swifts Place, a towering manor with three brick chimneys. Surrounded by green grass bursting with richly colored flowers, the house was grand and palatial. Olive guessed it must have at least twenty rooms. The explorer who was born there, was now living in Wilsley House, located on the back of the estate. As they passed Swifts Place onto a bumpier road, Olive saw another car quickly turn from the other side of the home and speed off in the other direction. The man who was driving was laughing.
They made their way for a bit until they saw the back of another house. As they pulled up to Wilsley House, a charming brick-and-tile house with steep gables, Olive saw that their host was waiting for them. He was trim and wore a light suit with a dark tie. His chestnut brown hair was parted on his left and close-shaven on the sides. His mustache was long, tapered at the ends, and full above his upper lip. As he welcomed them, his smile lay in his cheeks and in the outside corners of his dark eyes. Olive shook hands with him. He looked and felt military.
"Lieutenant Boyd Alexander," the man said.
"Olive MacLeod," she replied.
They sat down inside to a white tablecloth set with bone china. Olive was only half there, tired from the previous night's festivities and the long drive. They were joined by a few other family and friends. The interior of the home was lain with oak panels. Olive saw various types of scientific equipment. She also spied books, mostly about Africa, but also works of Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain adventures, and a slim volume titled Leaves of Grass
. In one room, the walls were covered with dark murals. Along the bottom were painted a series of lean, white dogs that were hunting a terrified hare who occupied the furthest left panel. The upper panels were something else entirely. Olive saw that they depicted, in older, even darker hues, scenes from the Bible. She saw Sodom burning in fire. Someone must have seen the surprise on her face because they told her that the room had previously been used as a chapel.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman.