With a flash of emerald earrings, she turned her gaze on me as Sporty introduced us. Fighting the urge to bow or curtsey, I extended my hand.
She clasped it limply. “Indira of Cooch Behar,” she said in her low, seductive voice. “It is not often a film star calls on me, Miss Valentine.”
The brief contact felt dismissive. Maybe a handshake had been inappropriate. “I’m not really a film star, Your Highness. You are too kind. It is an honour to meet you.”
She indicated the indigo sofa opposite her chair. “Would you care for tea?”
“Thank you,” I said as the butler left to attend to our needs. Smoothing my dress and white cuffs, I perched stiffly on my seat. Sporty was close, but not too close.
At her elbow was a turquoise enamel ashtray, red lighter, and an ivory cigarette holder. I was reminded of my first day on Whirlpool, the day I saw my prince in the newspaper. Impossible to imagine it had been less than three months ago.
“There is a rather popular song in France, Valentine, made famous by Maurice Chevalier. Have you heard it?”
Vah-len-tina, she pronounced it. “No, but I’d love to, Your Highness.”
“Mais vous parlez francais?”
It was something in French, that was all I knew.
“Speaking of music,” Sporty said, rescuing me. “Our friend, Tony Martin, sends his regards. He’s as big a star as ever, sells millions of records. Says you must pay him a visit.”
“I shall. Once we sort things out at home.” With slim fingers, Indira removed a cigarette from the cloisonné box and placed it in the ivory holder. Her lighter flashed, and she inhaled with a grace and sex appeal I knew I could never attain. She gave me a sympathetic look. “All the way from Hollywood. That is quite a journey.”
“It’s nothing. I’m so happy to be here. To meet you and see Paris.”
“Of course. Although winter here can be a bit dreary.”
Her black eyes took in my ring and drifted away. I felt brushed aside, as insubstantial as the sheen of powdery silver gradually covering her ashtray. The butler reappeared with a trolley, serving the royal mother and son martinis from a gold shaker, then setting out my tea. He replaced the dirty ashtray with a crystal one.
Feeling excluded, I lifted the cup to my lips. “Delicious.”
“Darjeeling. From one of our tea estates.”
“Your own tea. How thrilling.”
“I would not think to be thrilled by something like tea.” Indira took a delicate sip. “But it is kind of you to say so, Miss Valentine.”
As Sporty stiffened, his martini untasted, I thought of Gene Tierney and drew on her regal air. “Not kind at all. I do so enjoy fine tea.”
“What I mean to say is I admire that quality of American enthusiasm, as well as your casual approach to life.”
“Thank you,” I said coolly, as Sporty sent his mother a warning glance.
She lifted a lorgnette – diamond-studded! – to her eyes. “Your dress is charming. With your youth and beauty, you are free to simply disregard fashion.”
My charming blue crepe dress was nearly the same colour as the sofa, making me feel even less substantial. I’d thought it would be classic and conservative, while showing off my legs nicely, but maybe I should have chosen something with more flair.
“I went to the most marvellous Dior event,” Indira said, putting aside her lorgnette. “There is to be a dramatic ‘New Look’ this year, long skirts, no more rationing. All the dreary wartime attire headed for the dustbin. And good riddance. Don’t you agree, Miss Valentine?”
“We were happy to support the war effort, but of course fashions come and go.” Suddenly showing my legs didn’t seem so modern. Fighting the urge to tug down my skirt, I noticed tiny seed pearls on the toes and ankle strap of her velvet high heels. “But not those shoes!”
Sporty laughed. “Ma worships at the altar of Ferragamo.” He regarded his mother with a mischievous look. “Although Granny still speaks of a certain visit to Buckingham Palace when you paid your respects to Queen Victoria barefoot and folded your hands in namaskar instead of curtseying.”
Indira’s dark eyes gleamed. “I was but a girl then.”
“How brave of you, Your Highness.” I immediately regretted my words, which seemed too personal. “I mean, of course, you have your own customs. I’ve always been fascinated by India. So far away.” I was digging myself in deeper.
“Very far, my dear. Farther than you could imagine.” Indira sipped her martini. As a sinuous raga replaced Bach, she turned to her son. “The British have begun withdrawing their troops. I am advised Dickie may move more swiftly than expected.”
“It will be difficult enough to meet his June 1948 date,” Sporty said.
She lifted a shoulder. “Our new viceroy, Mountbatten, is an energetic man, even impulsive, one might say. He and Edwina will arrive in Delhi in two weeks. Their mandate is to leave a government in place – at least the appearance of one.”
“He knows the terrain. I served with him when he headed up South East Asia Command. Dickie has always been a good friend.”
“There are no friends in politics, son, only interests. Remember, Lord Mountbatten now represents the Labour government. And they want out.”
“What of our mutual support treaties?”
Indira sighed, a flash of anxiety in her large eyes, then the veil fell again.
“Is that the opinion of Lord Smythe?” He picked up his drink.
“Lord Smythe is a Churchill man,” she said with a small lift of her shoulder. “The Conservatives won the war but lost the peace, swept from power by a public tired of foreign entanglements. And why not, after the revered Mahatma would have had us lie down before the Nazis? We may thank Nehru for resisting that bit of insanity. Although he seems less successful in resisting Mr Jinnah and his Muslim state.”
General Donovan had mentioned Nehru, “a known socialist”. But Jinnah?
“Nonsense. Our Hindu and Muslim communities are too interlinked to be separated.”
“There has been dreadful violence in Calcutta. All around Bengal.”
“Cooler heads will prevail. A perfect moment for the Mountbattens to launch their charming offensive.”
“Against the royals as well. Remember, son, treaties are simply pieces of paper.”
“There is talk of a princely federation after independence, but I do not believe that is best for the people of Cooch Behar. Who would stand up for our interests?”
“Exactly. Better to shape events than to let them shape you. We have much at risk, Bhaiya. We cannot afford distractions.”
“Indeed.” His jaw tightened.
Indira turned toward me. “I know that political affairs can be terribly tedious, Miss Valentine, but perhaps my son can make amends with a lovely shopping excursion.”
To replace my charming clothing, no doubt. “Your son never needs to make amends with me. Naturally, you two have much to discuss.”
Sporty sat forward on the sofa. “We have taken a great deal of your time, Ma and I look forward to continuing our discussions soon. Until then, we must be off.”
“Yes,” Indira replied. “You must enjoy Paris while you can.”
He took my hand, holding her gaze. “After all, there are events to shape.”
“It was a great pleasure meeting you, Your Highness.” I smiled carefully.
“And you, Miss Valentine,” the Maharani said, looking up from her seat. “A Hollywood career is a marvellous thing. It would be wise not to neglect it.”
I nodded as if this were the sagest advice, but inside I was seething. Indira reminded me of a coiled cobra, calm and silky in repose, deadly when choosing to attack.
Excerpted with permission from The Star of India, Diana R Chambers, Penguin Books India.