In 1905, a tourist agent and amateur antiques collector named Armand de Potter mysteriously disappeared off the coast of Greece. His body is never recovered and his wife is left to manage his affairs on her own. But as she starts to piece together his life, she realizes that everything was not as he had said. Infused with details from letters and diary entries, the narrative twists forward and backward through time, revealing a lost world of fake identities, underground antiques networks, and a husband who wasn’t what he seemed. Told with masterful narrative agility, De Potter’s Grand Tour is a tale as grand as the tour guide at its center. Drawing on real letters, legal documents, and a trove of diaries only recently discovered, Joanna Scott points delicately toward the story’s historical basis and unfolds a detective tale of the highest order.
Chapter 1: Constantinople
He leaves early on the morning of June 10, descending the carpeted stairs to the lobby of the Pera Palace Hotel. He rings the bell at the front desk. He is about to ring again when a clerk appears from the dark interior of a back office, looking freshly scrubbed, smelling of soap. The bill is settled swiftly, and the clerk is most obliging, despite his limited French, when Armand hands him two last letters addressed to Madame de Potter, care of the Hotel Royal in Toblach. The letters are to be held and posted, he specifies, on the twelfth. Does the clerk understand the instructions? “Oui, monsieur,” the clerk says, setting aside the letters and motioning to a porter. He hopes Monsieur de Potter’s most recent stay has been pleasant. The coach, he adds, is already in the drive.
Outside, Armand notices that the gas lamp above the entrance to the public garden is still lit, though the sky is already beginning to glow with dawn. He removes his spectacles and rubs the lenses with his handkerchief. After the porter has returned with his trunk and hoisted it onto the baggage rack, Armand tips him a handful of piastres and climbs into his seat. The driver slaps the reins to rouse his horses, and the carriage lurches forward.
Down they go from the summit of Pera, the wheels clattering over the uneven paving stones, the chassis rising and plunging, the horses moving so fast that a small dog doesn’t have time to get out of their path. The yelp the dog lets out has a chillingly human ring, and Armand thinks it must have been crushed, yet when he turns, he is relieved to see it scramble out from between the rear wheels and run off, disappearing around a corner. The horses trot briskly on, undeterred.
He resists calling out to the driver to order him to slow down. Pulling his hat on tighter, he sits back and observes the scenery, contemplating the familiar landmarks as if from a great distance—the banks and restaurants he knows so well, and the convent where, two days earlier, the members of his party were delighted to come upon the dervishes right when they were beginning to whirl.
As they pass one of the white mansions housing an embassy, he is reminded of his father, who had been stationed abroad for nearly a decade—first in Paris, then Dakar, and lastly Constantinople. He supposedly worked as a manager for a Belgian trading company, but Armand, who was stuck back in East Flanders with his brother and stepmother, believed that his father was a spy, appointed by King Leopold to pry into the secret affairs of foreign governments. He used to tell himself that he, too, would be a spy someday and travel around the world.
You could say that he did become a spy of sorts, on a self-appointed mission to gather antiquities instead of secrets, with his travel bureau providing an excuse to visit places that were out of reach for other collectors. De Potter Tours is in the business of leading wealthy tourists around the world, and the De Potter Collection is on display at the University Museum in Philadelphia. It has been an honorable arrangement, he believes. It worked for more than a quarter of a century and would have gone on working if he hadn’t grown so careless.
At least he managed to keep the Americans on his tour sufficiently entertained. They never guessed that he had anything else on his mind but their well-being as he shepherded them around the city. Even when he put them on the train and sent them off to Broussa without him, they were persuaded that he was sparing them a worse inconvenience. As far as they could tell, Professor de Potter was his usual amiable self, as reliable a guide as they’d been promised in the testimonials he included in his advertisements.
From Mrs. P. A. Saunders of Cincinnati: “It was a trip I shall ever remember with pleasure. Could I go abroad every year, my choice would be to go under the care of Prof. de Potter and with his party.”
From the late Henry W. Bellows, D.D., of Albany: “I have great pleasure in saying that I am acquainted with Prof. A. de Potter. I do not doubt his trustworthiness and competency to conduct foreign tours in the interest of education, and I can heartily recommend him.”
From HHW of Rome, New York: “There are various ways of traveling, many, as we do, independently and at the mercy of sharks, or in parties with a courier, or with a tourist agent. The only party that we have envied was that of Prof. Armand de Potter of New York, an unassuming gentleman, speaking nine different languages. To him we shall commend any friends in the future who wish to make a tour of the Old World.”
The friends of HHW would have to find another guide, since Professor de Potter won’t be conducting any more parties. Never again will he have to worry about making arrangements for packs of inexperienced tourists, keeping track of their tickets and explaining the sights. On this trip, he is traveling alone.
Down, down, down rolls the coach, past buildings fronted by broken terraces and wilted gardens, to the boulevard skirting the inlet of the Golden Horn. The low angle of the sun catches the top of a minaret on the opposite hill and turns the white to rose. On the surface of the water beside the road, the reflections of the plane trees look as though they are frozen in ice.
They reach the lot beside the customhouse, where Armand pays the driver and hires a handler for his trunk. The official greets him with a yawn, waving him through without asking him to open his satchel. On the quay, he takes out the gold-plated pocket watch his wife gave him on his thirty-ninth birthday and checks the time. It will be an hour or more until the ship is ready to receive passengers. There is nothing to do but wait.
JOANNA SCOTT is the author of ten books, including The Manikin, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Various Antidotes and Arrogance, which were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and the critically acclaimed Make Believe,Tourmaline, Liberation, and Follow Me. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Award.
Copyright © 2014 by Joanna Scott