The Earrings

The survivor of many Washington dinners, DEAN ACHESON became an expert on their pecking order and how to cope with it.

Diplomatic dinners in Washington are not the glamorous events which Edwardian novels and memoirs depict them as having been in London. Even thirty years or more ago they were not. Superbly groomed and beautiful women, glittering with jewels, did not provoke equally glittering wit from statesmen toying with the fate of nations. When Washington was much smaller and the diplomatic list less than a third its present length, one could guess who two thirds of the diplomatic guests would be, and time after time one would draw the wife of the same colleague in the little cabinet.

One evening, however, my card informed me that I would take in a partner unknown to me and about whom neither our host’s introduction nor cautious inquiries revealed anything. On the way into dinner I caught a foreign accent, Germanic I guessed, but she rose to none of the flies I cast above her.

Then curiosity had to rest for the moment. Talk at the table had set against us, and her attention was claimed on her other side. My own, though not claimed, was dutifully turned to an only too familiar tale, a colleague’s wife. The medical degree she was reputed to have taken must have been in surgery and led on to expertise in probing tender spots. Her aim seemed to be to keep the rest of us in wincing consciousness of inferiority. A friend had told me that when he asked her at one of the diplomatic rumbles who somebody was, she replied, “I’m afraid I can’t help you. I know only chiefs of missions.” Searching for a safe gambit, I thought I had found one in the absence of her husband. Was he off, I asked, on one of his mysterious missions?

He was not, it turned out, but was, unhappily, under the weather. After expressing insincere solicitude, I carelessly dropped my guard. Was his trouble contagious, and should those of us who had met with him only the day before take prophylactic measures? Surely we needed medical guidance, and who better than she could give it?

“Oh, no,” she said, airily, “you have nothing to worry about. You see, this attack of jaundice came from overwork.”

It was a neat thrust, lethal but almost painless, and carried off with bland vindictiveness. Deflated, I could only express relief and hope that the sufferer from exhaustion in line of duty might posthumously be awarded the purple heart. With these pleasantries we occupied ourselves until the table turned, and I with it, hopeful of better luck with my unknown partner.

More cautious this time, I waited for her to take the initiative. After a long look across and down the length of the table, she leaned conspiratorially toward me. “Who,” she asked, “is that Spanish lady or is she South American? — wearing the striking earrings?” We were soon on target. I knew that our conversation for the evening was made. Resisting the ancient gag “That’s no lady; that’s my wife,” I began by whetting her curiosity.

“Superficially,” I said, “the lady— is neither Spanish nor South American, but one of the fairest flowers of Michigan. I speak with knowledge since I have the great good fortune of being her husband. And yet how right you are to think her Spanish and to mention the earrings!” Right, indeed, since I had bought them myself within the month as a Christmas offering — large old gold affairs with long pendants dangling bright semiprecious stones which sparkled as she moved. We had admired them in the window of Arnold’s antique jewelry shop, long since gone when its home gave way to the building boom which has transformed downtown Washington. They had been the success of that Christmas.

“But you must not stop there!” said the lady. I had no intention of doing so, only of setting the hook before playing my fish.

The story began, I told her, in the summer of 1588 after the long-running fight from the Lizard through the Channel and up the east coast of England to beyond the Wash. Poor seasick Medina Sidonia with his vast, unwieldy Armada took a fearful beating from the great Drake, who was commanding the Queen’s new ships. They had been designed by old John Hawkins. Against much shaking of heads, he had narrowed and lengthened the conventional galleon, doing away with the towering castles and bow and stern so that his ships could sail nearer the wind. He did away, too, with shortrange batteries firing man-killing canisters, and substituted broadsides of long-range culverins. He would no longer, he said, fight infantry battles at sea, which Spain must win, but would outsail the Armada, and standing off out of range, batter it to pieces.

Drake did just this. Where he left off, the Lord of Battles took up. He blew the shattered remnant of the Spanish fleet around the north of Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland. The Irish gratefully received wreckage washed ashore. When they found a man, in whom a faint spark of life still lingered, lashed to a spar, they presumed him to be a co-religionist and an enemy of the English, and so treated him kindly. This ragged bit of human flotsam could remember little beyond a confused horror of battle and shipwreck; not even his name. So he was called “Lestrange” and settled down happily where he had been washed ashore.

This touch seemed to me a nice, although faint, connection with truth. My wife’s grandmother had been born a Lestrange of County Kerry.

“But the earrings,” asked my dinner partner, “where do they come in?”

“He was wearing them! And ever since, contrary to the Salic law, they have descended in the female line. So, you see, with rare perception you grasped the essentials about the dark lady — the suggestion of Spain and the earrings.”

My partner continued her rapt gaze down the table. “It sounds just like a novel,” she murmured.

I looked at her quickly, but she continued her study. It did, indeed, sound like a novel, because it was one, a best seller by a favorite of the time, Donn Byrne. I would not have dared try the plagiarism on a fellow countrywoman. When the ladies withdrew, an interesting interview would surely occur, but my wife had read Destiny Bay, too, and could be counted on to field whatever came her way. It would certainly begin with due warning — something like, “Your husband has been telling me the fascinating tale of your Spanish ancestor and those entrancing earrings.”

When we reassembled, I carefully avoided both the connubial eye and my late dinner partner, making innocently for a postprandial companion. My wife did not even look up as she hissed a word at me: “Swine!” It was a small price to pay for escaping a conversation which could have been a bore.