The Misfortunes of Lady Alice
by Stephen Palmer
Stephen Palmer has had stories published in print and online anthologies and the first of his Manchester set historical crime novels, Scar Tissue, was published in 2013. He is currently working on a sequel, Dolls and Mirrors, due to be published in 2021. He was born and raised in Somerset, England before leaving to study philosophy at Bangor University, North Wales and then Manchester University. The result of these studies, Human Ontology and Rationality, was published by Avebury Press. In order to make a living that writing and philosophy have signally failed to provide, he has worked as a bank clerk, research assistant, civil servant, film reviewer and an assistant on an archaeological dig at the Roman remains in Castlefield, Manchester. He now lives in Manchester with his wife and son.
‘He was eaten by a tiger! That must have been awful for you.’
‘Well, yes,’ I replied, ‘but not half as awful as it was for him.’
We were having aperitifs on the terrace of the Hotel Renoir. The sun was setting and no doubt its light shimmering on the Mediterranean was very beautiful but instead of letting the sight bathe my aching eyes I continued to study my companion. I was wondering what exactly he intended.
His name was Geoffrey or George or John. Something beginning with a G or a J. I wasn’t listening when my niece introduced him to me. He was an archaeologist or architect or some such and, having exhausted the various ways of sympathising with my loss, began to flatter me after we moved into the restaurant to dine. At least he had the sense to extol my intelligence rather than my looks. I have no illusions regarding the latter. My father was American and ugly but very rich which meant he could acquire as a wife a beautiful but extremely stupid daughter of an English viscount. Unfortunately it was my father’s looks I inherited. My face could be described as plain if it weren’t for my bulbous nose and thin lips. My body does nothing to make up for these deficiencies. My chest is flat, I have no hips to speak of and my legs are spindly. And now my eyes are beginning to fail. To the society in which I am condemned to move there are only two things of interest about me; the fortune I inherited and the fact that my husband was eaten by a tiger.
Ah, yes, my husband. Dear, dear, Charles. He was the most egotistical man I have ever met and am ever likely to. He married me for my money but I didn’t mind. Adventure was what Charles sought and he needed me to fund his expeditions. With my backing he climbed previously unscaled peaks, crossed uncharted wastes and hacked through jungles never before explored. He was dashing and handsome and that strange combination; both the most manly of men and a screaming homosexual. I loved him with a passion that caused me misery for twenty years. It was a misery I relished and even now, despite everything I suffered when I was married to him, I regret that he underestimated that tiger.
My companion at the Hotel Renoir was, like all the men I come across, a poor specimen in comparison. I was hoping when I agreed to dine with him that there would be something about him to spark within me some interest. Perhaps he wanted me to fund the construction of a building he had designed or an archaeological dig at the site of some ancient civilisation thus far unexcavated. By the time we were half way through the main course – a most marvellous boeuf bourguignon if I recall – I had gleaned what he was up to from those words wittering from his lips I couldn’t help but hear.
It was my money he was after but not me he wanted. He was playing the long game and who can blame him. I quite admired his forbearance in wishing to marry my niece and waiting for her to inherit rather than being saddled with me. I can, I have been told, be capricious. But not when it comes to my family. I may not have liked them very much but I am nothing if not loyal and Alexandra is the only family I have left.
Alexandra. I would like to say that, now Charles has gone, she is the light of my life but that would not be true. Sometimes I try to convince myself that I’m jealous. Not only will my wealth and estates be left to her when I die but she has the good fortune of having inherited her grandmother’s looks and her grandfather’s brains. She reads Russian novels in the original and looks very pretty as she does so but, much as I would like to, I can’t bring myself to envy her. I wish she was the sort of young woman who was poisoning me or plotting to push me down a flight of stairs so she can inherit without waiting for me to die of my own accord. Unfortunately Alexandra possesses one of those most irritating of dispositions, a sweet nature. She is kind and considerate to a degree that baffles me and so, of course, I am duty bound to protect her from men called Geoffrey, George or John.
So it was on that evening I decided to put him to the test, this Geoffrey, George or John who was buttering me up so that I would not object when he proposed to my niece. I began flirting with him. This is not behaviour that comes naturally to me and must have been a horrid sight but it is remarkable how a smile from thin lips can appear seductive and failing eyes seem to shine when there are several millions in the bank and a vast portfolio of stocks and shares behind them. The poor man was putty in my hands. Very wet putty it seemed given the speed with which his romantic attachment to Alexandra dissolved. He proposed to me over dessert – a wonderful chocolate crème brûlée. I ordered champagne.
So, here I am on the terrace of the Hotel Renoir. It is my wedding night although my husband is not with me. I made it clear that ours should be a companionable marriage. All that sex business would be rather undignified at my age. James – that’s his name, I think – made a valiant effort to hide his relief when I suggested this but failed. Alexandra is unhappy with me, of course. She was quite infatuated with my new husband and fully intended to accept him when he proposed. Her disappointment will pass soon enough. Especially when I put her in the way of a very handsome young Italian count with a fortune of his own who, I’ve been told, spotted her reading Anna Karenina and has expressed an interest in meeting her.
I stipulated only one other condition before marrying my second husband; that he should, as soon as the wedding was over, go out and find the tiger that ate my first husband and kill it. The poor fool took this as another example of my well known caprice and agreed. He is even now on his way to India whilst I am enjoying the reflection of a bright moon glittering in the dark blue waters of the Mediterranean. I must make the most of these moments of beauty before my eyesight fails completely.
When he arrives in India my husband will find that I have provided all the accoutrements necessary for a tiger hunt. He will have the very best equipment but, unfortunately, he is not the sort of man equipped for such an expedition. Thus I have high hopes of becoming that most exceptional of my sex; a woman who has suffered the misfortune of having not just one, but two, husbands eaten by a tiger.