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THE VISCOUNT OF MAISONS LAFFITTE
Paltier walked down the smooth stone steps that led to, what was the ground floor on one half of the property set on a hill, and what was the cellar in the other. The stairway was lined with dim light fixtures, which were ineffective when set against the large windows located at the landing. The stone walls held centuries-old deer heads, mounted on felt-covered wooden bases. The air was chilly.
His shoes echoed on the stone as he walked towards the old kitchen with its brick fireplace that took up one entire wall, and the wine room that was just off to the side. The kitchen was sunny, as it was located on the side that was not underground and contained large windows. He entered the wine room, selected a bottle without hesitation, dusted it off with the chamois cloth he had brought with him, and tucked it under his arm.
At the landing, he hesitated before taking the stairs to go back up, and then following his prompting, continued walking straight ahead through a corridor into another stone room that was a bit darker with small windows high up where the ground was. He looked around to see that everything was in its place, and opened a closet to make sure that nothing had been moved there either. Then he touched his finger on the tabletops and made a mental note to talk to the housekeeping staff about not neglecting the basement.
With one last sweeping glance around the room, he headed back towards the corridor that led to the stairs. Just as he was about to exit the corridor and enter the landing, he heard the sounds of a heavy door being scraped open. The wood had swollen and squeaked as it was shoved against the tiles, but he could hear the door opening in short bursts as someone shoved his body against it.
It occurred to him that no one would hear him if he yelled for help, and that he had no weapon on hand with which to defend himself. But what never occurred to him was to save his own skin and go and hide while the interloper helped himself to whatever treasures the château had. Without waiting any longer, he stepped out into plain view in the alcove that held the door. Standing, and struggling with the door, his back turned, was the gardener – Martin.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, indignantly – and slightly out of breath from a fear he didn’t realize he was feeling. “Your work is outside.
Martin looked embarrassed at being caught, and his mumbled reply was barely audible in the echoing room. “I left my tool in the lower kitchen.
“What were you doing in the kitchen?” Paltier asked, even more severely, suspecting the attraction of the wine cellar.
Martin cleared his throat and spoke more confidently. “The ivy that was growing along the base of the house grew through the cracks in the kitchen windows and I couldn’t access it from the outside because the windows were closed.”
Paltier couldn’t think of anything to respond to that, so he dismissed Martin. “Alright you can go after you shut that door the rest of the way. But I want you to notify me first before you enter the house for any reason.”
“Even when I’m to come in and take care of the houseplants?” Martin asked with an innocence, Paltier suspected, that was false.
“If you enter the house on any day, apart from your set day for caring for the houseplants, please let me know,” Paltier returned unsmilingly. He was no fool.
Martin went to the kitchen, and came back with his tool in hand. Without looking at Paltier, he tugged the heavy door shut behind him as he exited, and Paltier closed the deadbolt from inside. Then he walked into the kitchen to verify Martin’s story. When he looked closely at the kitchen windows, he saw the little pockmarks left behind by ivy recently removed, and he nodded his head at the observation.
Suddenly, he felt his legs give way, and he sat down on the edge of the stone sink that had been used in centuries past. He blew his breath out and looked out the windows that were just on his left side. A cat leapt up to the sill, and picked its way carefully across – on its way to who knew what adventure.
It took him a minute to gather his strength before he picked up the bottle and stood back up again. “I am not getting any younger, he thought.”
* * *
Chastity could see Maude just up ahead – her thin, muscular arms and square shoulders that the thin cardigan didn’t quite cover – her hair pulled back into a large bun that she now knew was an extension, perfectly done. Originally from Martinique, her colleague had been in France ever since junior high; and with her sharp intellect and ready smile, she was quickly becoming a friend.
Maude was barely taller than her students – even in high heels – and Chastity eased past the straggling teenagers so she could catch up to her.
“Hey!” she said with a smile.”
“Ah! Salut toi!” was her answer. Hi yourself! Maude could speak English, but was definitely more comfortable in French, so that’s the language in which they spoke. “I need to stop in my office first,” she said, as she veered off to the side, waving for Chastity to follow.
Chastity imitated her abrupt turn and entered the office, which was warmly decorated with candles, picture frames, and fresh flowers. She made a mental note to work on personalizing her own office space a bit more. “You said you needed to come here ‘first’? Where are you going after that?”
“Oh, you’re coming with me!” Maude said brightly. “Unless you need to get Thomas.”
“No, no,” she responded. “He’s in the after-school program today.”
“Good!” said Maude. “We’re going to save Annie’s job.”
“Wait. Annie … Annie? The art teacher? What’s up with her job? She’s been here for years! And doesn’t she volunteer at the museum as well?”
“No, she works there!” Maude responded, emphasizing the word. “It’s only part-time, but still. I’ve heard she’s getting let go there as well. And I suspect the same person is responsible for both.”
“Who? It must be a personal vendetta!” Chastity cried out. “She is so sweet. There is no way she deserves this. And she’s really good at what she does!”
“I know. That’s why we’re going. A bunch of parents are here to support her, and about half of the teachers as well.” She added, “Some don’t like to go against the Board, though, and they’re staying out of it.”
Chastity shrugged, ever the idealist. “I don’t care about that. Let’s go.”
When they reached the door to the community room, there was already a handful of people waiting on the landing and the part of the stairwell. Maude, tapped the person in front her, and asked, “What are we waiting for? Why don’t we just go in?”
Chastity didn’t recognize the woman, and assumed it must be a parent. “We don’t have the right to interrupt the Board meeting, so we are waiting until it’s finished. We will ask them to reopen the issue and have them hear us out.”
Maude nodded at the plan and then turned back to Chastity. “You heard that?”
Chastity nodded back, and with a glimmer of a smile, answered, “This hints at revolt. I hope they don’t meet us with boiling oil.”
Maude flashed her white teeth as she laughed noiselessly. Then she whispered.
“So. Have you seen Marc again?” waggling her eyebrows.
“Four times since we last talked,” Chastity blushed, pressed her lips together, and shook her head. “I don’t know. Should I be doing this? I mean – even being his friend makes me a little anxious.”
“I can’t answer that for you,” Maude said kindly, shrugging her shoulders. “His parting words were unbelievable. But then again, he was – what – 17? 18? We are all kinds of stupid at that age.”
Chastity laughed at that. But then Maude continued in a more serious voice. “What do you guys talk about? Apart from Thomas and your history together – do you get along?”
Chastity stole a glance at the others who were waiting and saw that they were all involved in conversation, so she answered quietly. “We do – for the most part. We talk about our history, but not about us – you know? About our friends from that time.”
She continued, “And Thomas. We talk about him.” And then, as if she were confessing, “Sometimes, just when I think my son is all my own with no one else to take credit – no other contributing factor – he’ll make an expression that is totally Marc’s, and I will have completely forgotten about it. That’s annoying.”
Maude looked at her quietly, encouraging her to talk. “And, you know, he has this totally menial job, even though he could have done so much better with all the family connections he had. But he doesn’t talk about his job as if he despises it. He shares stories about the people who come in, and the funny things that are on their rolls of film.”
“Oh geez,” Maude interrupted. “It didn’t occur to me that people actually looked at the pictures!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Chastity said, grinning. “Marc might be an exception. He was always a curious guy.
“So you still don’t know where this thing is going?” Maude asked.
“I don’t. We are not romantic right now. I don’t know …” Chastity let out a big breath. “He asked me to come with us on vacation when Tom and I go to Deauville.”
“Oh!” Maude’s surprise was evident.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Chastity said quickly. “I told him ‘no’ – it was too soon. Plus, it’s my first vacation in France with my son, and I want us to go alone.
“I don’t know what I want.” she continued, shrugging her shoulders and letting out a laugh. “No, I do know. I want what you and Michel have.” She smiled at Maude.
“You want matching names?” Maude giggled back. “Let’s see … what matches with Chastity?”
Just then the door to the community room opened, signaling the end of the board meeting. Maude was still looking at Chastity and chuckling quietly, so she whispered, “Nothing! Nothing matches with my name.”
“Christophe!” Maude whispered back. “Chandler!” And then as an afterthought … “Charles!”
Chastity suppressed a smile and rolled her eyes. “Look ahead. The line’s moving,” she said.
As she climbed the stairs, Chastity realised she had no idea what to expect from this encounter; she just knew that it wasn’t fair that the board could get rid of someone for no apparent reason. This small group of supporters – about twenty-five in all – would at least take a stand against this injustice.
When she walked into the room, she was the last one to position herself on one end of the oval table that usually held student backpacks and cans of coke, but which now held espresso cups and an empty plate with crumbs. She looked up at the board members that were still talking with one another, and ignoring the crowd that had formed the minute the door opened.
Chastity drew in a surprised breath. The Viscount was here! Right in the center of the group of board members, she saw him talking and smiling as he shook the hand of a businessman she didn’t know. Her eyes darted to the right and caught those of her director, Elizabeth, who was still sitting at the table, a stack of papers and notes in front of her.
Of course she would have to attend the board meeting! She wondered what her director would have to say about everything when she got her alone – wondered what she could say. Elizabeth smiled at her; and the Viscount, finishing up his conversation, caught the silent interchange, and promptly glanced at Chastity. She thought she saw a flicker of recognition, and she was suddenly conscious of what she was wearing.
She mentally shook herself, and turned to Maude who was looking around to see who was going to begin the dialogue. When no one stepped forward, Maude said, “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen.” The board members slowly stopped talking and turned to face her.
“Thank you for your attention,” she began diplomatically. Gesturing at the people around her, she said, “We’ve come to talk to you about your decision to replace Annie Meurier.” She looked directly at the Viscount, who, Chastity was starting to suspect, had a principal role in the firing.
The Viscount looked at Maude without saying anything, which usually made people want to begin talking, just to fill in the conversation. But Maude just stared right back, waiting. Finally the Viscount sighed and said, “Well. You’ve come to talk. What is it you want to say?”
A couple of the people in the crowd muttered under their breath, and words like “proud” and “stuck-up” could be heard, although Chastity didn’t think that he could hear them. Maude did not take offense at his words, and spoke calmly.
“Mme Meurier is very good at what she does, and she adds value to the school and to the community. We represent staff and parents on this issue, and none of us are in agreement at her being let go. We would like to ask you to reconsider.”
The Viscount looked at her unflinchingly. “Madame …?” His pause indicated a question.
“Madame de Rosier,” Maude answered.
“Madame de Rosier,” the Viscount continued. “I appreciate your support of your colleague, and your interest in the decisions of the Board. But that’s just it. This is not a democracy, and the decisions are the Board’s to make. We’ve ruled on an issue that we feel is best for l’Ermitage, and that is to end Madame Meurier’s contract early. We are not required to justify our decision to anyone.”
The Viscount turned to gather his coat and briefcase. The grumbling in the group got louder, and Maude attempted to speak once again. “Monsieur de Chabot, we are just asking out of common courtesy to provide us with a reason …”
The Viscount cut her off, and said, “This meeting is adjourned.” Then turning to a gentleman on his left, he said, “Christian, will you accompany me to my car?” The gentleman in question gathered his things hurriedly and squeezed past the group of protesters that parted in the Viscount’s wake.
The crowd was now speaking more openly as the rest of the Board filed out. Elizabeth Moore stood up as well, looking self-conscious, if not embarrassed. Chastity decided not to talk to her just then, but made a mental note to approach her when some of the tension had died down. She looked at Maude, who will still staring at the doorframe where the Viscount had just exited.
Maude looked back at Chastity, her mouth open. “Wow,” she mouthed.
“I know,” Chastity mouthed back, nodding slowly.
For Chapter Seven, click here!