Master of Fate (II)


My sister’s hôtel was on the busy rue du Temple in le Marais. This quarter of Paris was among the oldest with many, ancient noble structures. The chậteau sat hidden behind a perimeter wall and was entered from a side street. It took some time for the massive wooden gate to be unbolted. It seemed a great inconvenience, servants were running back and forth through the small, walker’s-door, across the street to the stables. I thought of what a nuisance it must be to pay call on neighbors. I was admiring the carving on the wooden gate — the crest of John the Conqueror. I was thinking that, just like skilled artisans back home that could replicate seals, genealogy could so too be claimed. Overhead was a stone archway carved with the crest of my sister’s house — the House de La Ménétra. This put me a little off, I had every intention of not being impressed. The crest was a shield quartered with anchors and crossed with spyglasses, flanked by mallards further marking the house as one of long naval heritage. Then I saw that the motto was illegible and smiled with smug satisfaction, thinking of how fitting it was that, the most important part is missing.

As the gate swung open, I had every hope of finding condemnation in the way my father’s fortune was spent, I was sure it would be on useless luxuries. Nonessentials. But, we entered Eden. There were trees and flowers the likes of which I never saw. I remembered my sister writing that her husband enjoyed collecting rare flora specimen sent to him from naval comrades who traveled the globe. The navy made a village of the globe and I was now on some tropical island. The courtyard was striking, and serene, and I’d just left the madness of the streets of Paris. I was now floating on air, in a dazzling lull of vibrant colors blended in tranquil sounds. The courtyard was lined with soft, white, paved stone, without the rough ridges of cobbled stone. And without the holes of dirt roads. Exotic birds called-out to each other from across the courtyard, you could hear them at once. And then, as soon as the gate closed behind us, you could hear the water trinkling in the giant, central, white-marble fountain. “Donatello,” my mother whispered as we circled around it, “from the Boboli Gardens.” I could tell she was already impressed, even though the chateau was definitely not French, nor was it English. It was an Italian-Renaissance-Tropical mix, whitewashed and stained to a yellowish-tint with a red-clay roof. All the windows were squares and the shutters were dark. Every window facing the courtyard had a wrought iron terrace, lined with palm trees that, miraculously, swayed in a mock ocean breeze. This was done by wicker fans on pulleys hidden behind bougainvillea. Now I understood why it took so long for the gate to be opened. It was time to put on the show.

Our carriage door was opened by a footman, liveried in sky blue silk with silver pipping. I looked to my mother and offered her my arm, whispering, “Are those not the king’s colors? Presumptuous.” She flashed me a warning look that reminded me of my promise to be on my best behavior.

We stood before a wide set of stone steps leading up to the terrace entrance. There the maitre d’hôtel stood, peering down at us, his brow seemingly raised. He looked as confident as any military general heading-up his army of staff. After the necessary introductions he informed us that, because of our failure to send letters of courtesy regarding our arrival, “the Marquise de La Ménétra and children have not yet arrived.”

“I did send letters, monsieur,” I told him. “Can I be blamed for the current conditions in France?”

“No of course not, monsieur, I did not mean to suggest. Please, let me show you to yours rooms, you must wish to rest. Soon the marquis will be notified of your arrival, I expect he’ll return tonight in time for supper.” My heart skipped a beat in hearing this. I would see Yves tonight, and without my sister present. “And your valet, monsieur?” he asked me.

“Oh, he’s driving the carriage,” I mindlessly responded.

The rigid man’s face fell in a momentary lack of composure which caused me to smile with secret pleasure, until I saw my mother’s face and sobered. Just then Sepp delivered to me my carrying case. “I’ll just see to the horses first, milord,” he said with a winked smile. This horrified my mother. “You won’t believe how much France is changing,” she said quickly aloud. “Every one has gone mad.”

As the maitre d’ turned to lead the way, she gave me a look that said I’d already broken my promise. I suppose it was my fault that my mother suffered the humiliation of a servant not held in check but then, who’s fault is a son who cares little for custom? I was the one who vexed her the most, this I understood, I was the one who was present. I was the one she relied on, the one she ate with, laughed with, worried with. Lucien’s estrangement didn’t bother her half as much as my actually working in the fields did. She found every opportunity to express resentment at my authority, much more than to express Claude’s neglect. And Émilie, well, she was a married woman.

As soon as one entered the house, the tropics were left behind and one entered the world of the classics. The front door was sculpted glass set in a heavy patina frame fashioned in an arboreal pattern. The first room was a vestibule, an octagon of white marble. Our steps echoed in the cold, monochrome space — the only other color was black. There was a chandelier forged from black iron and two Famille Noire vases set in the niches, filled with white lilies which left me wondering about Yves’s position. As a delegate selected by Parisian nobility for the original assembly, I was expecting to find him traditional.

The next room was also of white marble, but a large rotunda marked with pilasters carved in the Corinthian order. Aside from being a large room for entertainment, it gave access to four separate corridors. And, its niches gave shelter to the Greek and Roman gods chiseled in Carrara marble. The stone’s blue veining gave them an eerie, mortal appearance. I found the room another insipid space that would’ve left one cold if not for the light that filtered-in from the clerestory above. It supported a magnificently coffered dome, sculpted with sea creatures. A black stair-banister wound slowly up the round room, so delicately interlaced it was impossible to believe it was wrought iron. The room was empty which was interesting. As if suggesting there was something else you should be admiring. There was only a central table carved in the black gold of Portoro, a Dutch-brass chandelier, and a giant mirror. My mother was admiring it when the maitre d’ informed her it was from Baccarat. She smiled appreciatively. “Your province,” he added. Now she was offended. “I’m well aware of that, monsieur,” she responded disapprovingly, humbling the man again into submission. “Oh madame, I didn’t mean to suggest. Come follow me, you will see. You have the best suite.”

We followed him up the stairs to what was more than just a landing, it was a large sitting hall endlessly lined with shelves of books. One could call it a library except that, it was missing one wall. He continued down the corridor moving through cabinets in the standard style, turning right toward rooms lining the busy rue du Temple. I was thinking that surely the rooms with views to the gardens were better. He flung open the doors, proudly announcing that it was our comfort he had in mind when selecting these rooms. “They share this salon,” he said. “It was recently redone by your daughter, madame. You will not be bothered by anyone here, this wing is rarely in use. Just ring if you need something,” he said, pointing to the red braided cord with a polished-brass handle shaped as a mallard.

“Are we being locked-up?” my mother asked in mocked humor.

“Why no madame, of course not. I was only thinking of your comfort. After a such a long journey, surely you’d like to refresh yourselves. A light fare is being prepared by the kitchen and will be served after your bath, should you wish for one.”

My mother softened at the suggestion. “When is my son-in-law expected?”

“Supper is at ten, madame.”

“Have the water delivered in half an hour, monsieur, it will give my maid time to prepare.”

While they continued their discussion, I went to my room. I noticed at once my sister’s touches. It was epicene in a way any man who spent too much time in a boudoir could appreciate. The bed was solid mahogany, dressed with linens not in floral patterns but with a Pompeii motif. These matched silk curtains of powder-blue, crimson and crème. The mantel was striking, carved from rouge de Rance. The room itself was not large, it was cozy. And it didn’t require a lot of furniture because it had closets. As my mother was quick to inform me, the walls were covered with a woven crème toile. Just then, an army of water carriers arrived filling the copper tub, followed by the maitre d’ and a young servant girl carrying a tray of ale and bread. “Refreshment,” he announced as she placed the tray on the bed. “We can’t find your valet, monsieur, may I offer you one of mine?” The man was my height, we stood looking each other eye to eye.

“Non monsieur, merci,” I responded and he looked away. It was a presumption on his part to have a bath drawn before request of it but, I must admit, when I slipped into the warm water, I was happy for the assumption. It was the first time in days I felt relief. I fell asleep because I remember my dream. I was standing in my fields cut by the blue water of the Moselle. She would pop-up in some place in the tall, waving grain, looking young again — not more than fourteen. I was good at anticipating her. I’d be waiting and startle her and she’d run-off again laughing, her black hair loose behind her. In my dream, she ran-off to hide behind the giant oak that sits near the river’s bank — the one with the string and treehouse. I knew I had her now, there was nowhere else for her to go. I crept playfully like a cat, listening to her giggle. But, when I sprung around the trunk there was no one there. I looked up, down, all around, in the water but, there was nothing not even a ripple. I slid down the trunk crying like an infant child. That must have been when my knees buckled and I slide underneath the water. It was the same feeling I had when my mother told me Elizabeth was engaged, my knees buckled that day too. The dream was over, I awoke gasping for air. It was back to the reality of her presence without being present.