So . . . uh . . . (laughs nervously). Here is Chapter One. All feedback appreciated. And I hope I can really see this through and not get tangled in the plot, taking a readership down with me. (I do have it mapped out but it’s never clear until it’s written). Anyway, here goes nothin!
The Viscount of Maisons Laffitte
Chastity Whitmore stared in the mirror at her green eyes, lined with the bluish hue of the sleep-deprived. A move to France may have been good for her career, and even her morale, but it was doing a number on her level of stress. She grabbed her purse from the hook on the bathroom door and dried her hands in the cramped quarters, sending water all over the floor. Yanking the door open, she hurried out of the bathroom and around the corner leading to the stairs. The students who were making their way up the spiral staircase squeezed past her, talking and laughing, as she hugged the railing on her way down. She walked past the main entrance and through a set of doors, which led to the library and reception beyond.
“You wanted to see me?” she asked the director, as she poked her head into her office.
“Yes, come on in,” the director responded pleasantly. Elizabeth Moore was seated at her desk and had been staring at the computer screen, trying to figure out how to organize student-teaching meetings according to everyone’s schedule. Her youthful face, athletic figure and bright clothing were at odds with her white hair. And though she was approaching retirement, she had an energy that bordered on exuberance and challenged teachers half her age.
“I saw your e-mail about your meeting with Monsieur de Chabot and I wanted to talk to you about that. Have a seat. And – why don’t you close the door.” The voices in the part of the library that served as a study area right outside the director’s office were starting to increase in volume.
“Hey everyone – keep your voices down,” Chastity admonished, meeting some of their eyes, before shutting the door. She sat down facing Elizabeth, her eyes drawn towards the window behind her director, searching briefly for her son in the crowd of young children playing.
“So you’re meeting him to talk about Camille’s English grades, is that it?
“His grades, yes,” Chastity replied. “But also his work . . . ethic, I guess you’d call it. And the fact that his ability for critical analysis just isn’t up to par. He is several years behind in that. How did it get this far? How did he keep passing to the next level?” She asked this curiously without any criticism in her voice.
The director pressed her lips together as she thought about it. “He continued to scrape by,” she said. “We would help him whenever we could and he seemed to be on level, even if it was just barely so. And so he kept moving forward. But truth be told, we couldn’t go against the wishes of his father.”
Chastity frowned in confusion. “What were his wishes?” she asked.
“He refused to let him repeat a grade,” Elizabeth replied. “He said that he was trusting us – charging us to do whatever it took to help his son stay on level.”
“But . . . why does the father have the final say? There are tons of people on the waiting list for this school. I didn’t think we had the habit of catering to the parents – we’ve always advocated for what’s best regarding the child’s interest.”
“Ah.” The director smiled and nodded here head sagely, saying, “You don’t know who Monsieur de Chabot is.” And if she didn’t know her director better, she would say she was pausing for effect. “He owns the Château of Maison Laffitte.”
“Oh!” There was surprise in Chastity’s voice. But then she wrinkled her brows. “Still, we have other wealthy parents, so I don’t see why . . .” She let her voice trail away
“Because he donates a large amount of money to the school, without which we wouldn’t be able to do the necessary upkeep of the outlying buildings. He does this, in part, to help the town that he lives in. I think he considers it his civic duty. But I highly doubt he would continue to do so if we thwarted his wishes to the point of losing his son as a student.”
“Okay, I’m sorry, but that just kind of irritates me,” Chastity said in something bordering shock. “He must be incredibly pompous to order people around that way. And to use his wealth and influence as a means to get what he wants without any regards for whether it’s best?” She felt breathless and wound up, which might have been the extra cup of coffee before her last class.
“You’ll see for yourself,” Elizabeth responded, smiling. “You may not be able to resist his charms. He’s quite persuasive when he wants to be and you often walk away, wondering how he got you to agree to the very thing you were certain you could not agree.”
Chastity sighed. “I highly doubt it. I’m very immune to . . . charm,” she finished dryly
“Well, just don’t say anything to set him off,” her director said. “We do need his monetary gifts.
Chastity rolled her eyes, but smiled as she picked up her bag. “I will do my best to behave.” Elizabeth smiled back at her warmly. They had established a mutually friendly – even affectionate – connection in the two short months since Chastity had joined the school.
Once back in her office, she was struck with the thought that she hadn’t told her director everything. But she didn’t have time to fill her in now. Only fifteen minutes remained before Mr de Chabot arrived. She selected a colored file from the stack sitting on top of the cabinets that lined the large windows. Her office was located in the corner of the building, so one wall of windows overlooked the tree-lined street, and the other overlooked the playground inside the schoolyard. She loved her new teaching environment that was so pretty and peaceful. Well – most of the time.
She sat at her desk and flipped through the papers until she came to the one she was looking for. It was a critical essay on Euripedes’ play Medea, and she read it once through, shaking her head slightly a couple of times. When she finished reading it, she said to herself out loud, “This is not anywhere near on-level. How can we let him bulldoze us . . .”
She picked up the pen and started scribbling in red, beginning with the first sentence. “There should be no first person in a critical essay. The beginning is too informal.” “Camille, you need to improve your writing. These words are too simple.” Towards the bottom of the second page, she wrote, “I’m not even sure you read the play!”
The essay was torturous to read. Not only was the ability to understand and analyze the literary work lacking, but there were sentence fragments and missed punctuation, elementary vocabulary. She sighed, and thought to herself, “And this is supposedly a group of the country’s brightest.”
Her phone rang earlier than she had expected, and it was the director. “Hi Chastity. Camille’s father is here to see you.”
“Okay thanks,” she replied. “I’ll be right down.”
Chastity slung her purse over her shoulder as she she shoved the student papers back in the file and put them on top of the filing cabinet. Reaching for the door handle, she pushed her glasses on top of her head and skipped down the few steps to the half-landing.
She was pretty, but never slowed down enough to look in the mirror, so the fact was lost on her. Her hair was reddish-auburn and reached the middle of her back in loose, curly ringlets, but she always wore it tied back. She had a slim frame, and her favorite colleague – the one who taught Math at the school – told her she dressed like a hippie. It was true her long, flowing skirts, and long shirts cinched at the waist with a wide belt, were not the height of French fashion.
But Chastity had had enough of trying to fit into the French culture. She was American, and grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she attended the French private school there. The only daughter of middle-class, aspiring parents who owned a dry-cleaning business, she spent her whole childhood trying to be French and fit in to this illusive sub-culture of a posh Manhattan. But now she was done with that, including when it came to what she wore.
She clipped down the winding staircase, causing her chignon to come undone just enough to allow little wisps to frame her face. She was wearing an emerald green shirt, which brought out her eyes, but this was not by design; it was her last clean shirt.
She rounded the corner to the director’s office, and came up abruptly to a gentleman that had all the bearing of aristocracy. He was dressed in Italian shoes, khaki pants, a navy blazer with a little silk scarf tucked in its pocket, and his white button down shirt was open at the top. His hair had only a few strands of grey, but was otherwise thick with large curls that made him look boyish. That was the thing about him that struck her most of all.
She involuntarily stuck her chin out, along with her hand. “Bonjour Monsieur Chabot,” she said as she shook his.
“Monsieur de Chabot,” he answered, accenting the prefix which both denoted ancient nobility, and – in all fairness – was really part of his name.
“Monsieur de Chabot,” she conceded, although she had known perfectly well how to pronounce his name. She had just been flustered by the fact that he looked much younger than she had expected. And – if she were being perfectly honest with herself – more handsome. She turned to walk back up to her office. “If you’ll follow me?”
They walked silently up the stairs, single file, and although a friendlier parent might have complimented her on her excellent French, Camille’s father said nothing. They reached the top of the stairs, and Chastity said, “Right in here, please.”
She shut the door behind them and they both sat at the table in the middle of the office that served for parent-teacher meetings. Without preamble, Chastity began. “I’m sure you know why I’ve requested a meeting,” she said, looking at him inquisitively.
The Viscount crossed his legs and put one arm on the table. “I’ve no idea, other than your note, which said you wished to discuss my son’s English level.”
“It’s not so much his level in English,” she said, putting emphasis on the one word. “It’s his scholarly level as a whole that’s inferior.”
The Viscount didn’t say anything, but continued to stare at her.
She was irritated, rather than discomposed, and began again. “Have you been following his coursework? His grades on the papers he’s handing in?”
“My son is fifteen years old, and he doesn’t need me to stand over him to get his homework done. He’s been autonomous for a couple of years now, and his grades were not worrisome last year.”
Chastity thought that he was rather blind to think that his son’s grades were not in trouble if he kept getting called in for parent-teacher meetings. But she simply said, “Well something has changed since then. Camille doesn’t seem to grasp what the subject matter is about – if he even reads the material at all. On top of that, the papers he hands in are very shallow in scope, employing the most elementary language.”
“Well Mademoiselle, as you know, English is not his mother tongue.”
“Oh Monsieur, he speaks English well enough. It’s not the English that’s the problem. He seems to lack the ability to think critically and to analyze what he’s reading.” She hopped up and grabbed the papers that she had just been working on, and slapped the file on the table. She saw the Viscount jump slightly at her abruptness, which made her flush with embarrassment.
“Here, for instance,” she said, pointing with a delicate hand to a paragraph in his son’s scrawl. He talks about Creon being a god. But he’s not a god; he’s the king of Athens. Your son was not able to grasp such basic character description, which either means he did not read the play, or he did read it and was unable to process its meaning.”
“Mademoiselle, I’m not familiar with . . . “
“And here,” she went on, knowing that her desire to make a point with this pretentious gentleman was bordering on aggression. “He is simply unable to construct a good sentence. There are fragments, and misused words, and punctuation in the wrong place. This is not the work of even the most basic level in the school, and he’s in the higher levels. For his age, he should be producing something of much higher quality.”
She paused and looked at him, waiting for a response.
The Viscount took his arm off the table and folded his hands on his lap. Cocking his head to the side, he said, “I am still unclear what you would have me do.
Chastity was taken aback at this father’s indifference. “Why, help him with his homework!” she said. “Take an interest in what he’s reading, what he’s working on.” The Viscount continued to look at her steadily without saying anything.
“Hire someone if you have to!” she spluttered.
“Mademoiselle Whitmore, I will certainly talk to my son about his grades. But I will not start looking over his shoulder. I did not raise him that way, and he’s always been on level before. He doesn’t need a babysitter.”
Chastity chewed her lip, refraining from retorting that he was barely on level, and this was only through his father’s coercion and the gullible teachers’ taking on a burden that was supposed to be handled by him. She had some experience with “his type” before – someone who thought the world should be handed to him on a platter, and that the same should be done for his children as well, whether or not they had worked for it. She was familiar with his arrogance, but she still wanted to shake him.
After a pause, she looked at him and said, “There’s something else.”
“For the past month or so, I’m not entirely sure whether your son has not been doing drugs.”
The Viscount looked surprised, and his gaze met hers directly – the first sign of possessing an emotion other than bored indifference. “My son doesn’t do drugs. Where would be get them? He doesn’t even smoke!”
Chastity tried unsuccessfully to refrain from sarcasm when she answered, “He smells like smoke every time he comes into class. And as far as drugs are concerned, unfortunately an area that is as wealthy as this one must be a prime target for those who sell them. From what I overhear of the student parties when they think I am not paying attention, someone is able to get drugs. That is a concern in and of itself. But when it starts to spill over into their school days, it is truly . . . worrisome,” she said, using his own word pointedly.
“What makes you so convinced Camille is using drugs?” the Viscount resumed in a voice that showed no indecision, as if nothing ever ruffled his calm. “You mentioned smoke, but that is not the same thing as drugs.”
“I can’t be sure. It’s true – I have no proof.” Chastity took a deep breath, knowing that this was a concession. But she felt she was right in her gut and so she continued. “Sometimes I catch a whiff of something that doesn’t smell like nicotine. And it’s his behavior in the class. He seems mellow at times – very mellow. Almost comatose.”
“My son is reserved,” the Viscount came back at her, shrugging his shoulders, his eyebrow raised. “And as you said, you cannot be sure that the smoke is what you think it is – or even that it came from him!”
“Yes, but . . .” Chastity began, shaking her head at his obtuseness and laughing without humour.
But the Viscount stood up, ending the conversation precipitately. “I appreciate your concern for my son,” he said. “I will take into consideration everything you said, but I believe you are mistaken in the matter.”
He walked to the door before turning back towards Chastity, who was still seated with her mouth slightly open in surprise at his abrupt dismissal. “I wish you a good day, Mademoiselle.”
She watched him walk away, his head upright and his broad shoulders filling the small corridor. She stared at the empty space for a minute before closing her mouth.