October 9, 1934
RMS Empress of Britain
Thelma considered Manhattan her home, though she hadn’t lived there for over ten years. To her, it was a city of firsts: she had smoked her first cigarette there, a Lucky Strike stolen from a nun’s desk drawer at the convent and passed around the dormitory after bedtime. She and her twin sister had rented their first apartment on Fifth Avenue: an attic brownstone which, at 16 years old, they were far too young to live in unchaperoned but did so anyways, stuffing the living room with flowers and leaving the icebox empty. Her first encounter with the society pages had been at New York Harbour: she was eight at the time, mobbed by reporters at their father’s behest as she walked down the gangplank after her first Atlantic crossing, Gloria beside her in a matching pinafore.
First marriage, thought Thelma, gripping her sable collar more tightly around her neck. First divorce. She stayed on deck long enough to watch the ship slip past the red-brick buildings of Southampton before seeking refuge from the chill air.
Though Thelma felt uneasy at the prospect of being away from David for nearly six weeks, she knew that she had little choice: Gloria’s trial had become a media sensation, chewing up columns on front pages across America and Europe. The custody battle, dubbed the “Trial of the Century” by reporters who squeezed onto the courthouse steps each day like sardines, was, Thelma knew, a nightmare for her sister, forced to defend not only her right to raise her own daughter but also to preserve her own good name. Thelma still rankled at the letter Gloria had sent her: For Reggie’s sister to believe what’s being said about me is bad enough, but to know that the rumours came from our own mother is too much to bear…
Thelma knew that the stories would continue long after the trial concluded – it was inevitable, given that it revolved around a Vanderbilt daughter, with Vanderbilt millions.
She walked through a glass-paneled door into the ship’s tearoom, nearly empty, now, as passengers found their bearings on board. David’s private secretary had booked Thelma a first-class ticket, and though she was pleased by the quality of her berth she did regret the loss of her privileges on board Duke’s yacht – not that it would be capable of taking her on a voyage this long. Thelma liked to think that Duke would have let her take it, if it had been capable of an Atlantic crossing. He had been at Thelma’s side when she’d received news of Reggie’s death, and held her as she sobbed for her widowed sister, her niece who would grow up without a father. Despite everything that had passed between them, Thelma hoped that Duke would have understood how important it was for her to go.
Thelma had received Gloria’s letter five days ago, and had booked passaged on the earliest steamer to New York. She would have done the same for her other siblings, of course, but the request meant more to Thelma coming from Gloria: as her twin, Gloria held Thelma’s allegiance the strongest. The simple fact was that Gloria needed her. It was how it had always been, one supporting the other.
There was only one consideration weighing on Thelma’s mind which made it difficult for her to focus on what she would find in America.
“Shall I come, too?” David had asked, days ago, at Fort Belvedere. Dismal weather had driven Thelma, David and their guests indoors, an afternoon of weeding David’s gardens mercifully replaced by card games and needlepoint round the drawing room fire. David laid his embroidery hoop to one side, the half-finished rose pointing at the ceiling.
Across the room, Wallis, perusing the contents of a bar cart, turned.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. From a club chair in the corner, Wallis’s husband Ernest folded down the corner of a newspaper. There was a momentary silence as Wallis’s long fingers trailed delicately along the crystal tops of several heavy decanters before she selected one and picked up a glass.
“You can’t possibly think it’s a good idea for him to get caught up in this mess,” she said, pouring a neat whisky. “You’ve seen the papers. Can you imagine the sort of froth they’d work themselves into if the Prince of Wales stuck his oar in? Not to offend you, Thelma,” she said, “but it’s just not seemly for him to get involved, don’t you think?”
David’s brows knitted together as Wallis handed him the drink. “I feel so terrible about it all,” he said, studying the pattern in the glass. “Gloria’s a decent sort, she doesn’t deserve this sort of attention… surely there’s something I can do?” He looked up at Thelma, his spaniel eyes imploring.
“You can let Thelma go to support her sister,” said Wallis. “Gloria needs her family, Sir, not the distraction of a royal sideshow.”
“Wally’s quite right, Sir,” said Ernest. He folded his newspaper and rested it on his lap. “You’d be hindering more than you’d help. Couldn’t fix me up one of those as well, could you, darling?”
David exhaled, but didn’t look convinced. “Perhaps,” he said, as Wallis returned to the cart. “I certainly wouldn’t want to add any more controversy to this ghastly business, though I hate the thought of you going on your own.”
Thelma took Wallis’s empty place, smiling at the thought of what David’s advisors would say if he so much as commented on the trial, let alone sail to America.
“They have a point,” she said. “I don’t think there’s much for you to do. But thank you for wanting to help.”
He smiled, worry carved into the lines of his face. “Of course,” he said, and kissed Thelma on the cheek. He picked up his needlepoint, closely inspecting the stitches. “Just don’t stay away too long. I don’t think I could stand it.”
Perched on the armrest of Ernest’s chair, Wallis caught Thelma’s eye. She smiled, red lips splitting her face in a homely, reassuring grin.
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