THE VISCOUNT OF MAISON LAFFITTE
(chapter one is here)
The morning sun streamed through the tall windows of the Chateau of Maison Laffitte, and the small square window panes made a checkered pattern of sunlight on the wooden floor. It was a warm day for late October, and the crisp sound of birds chirping nearby intermingled with the muted squeals of children playing further away.
Le Viscomte Charles Jean-Anne de Chabot sat behind the Louis XIV desk, which was antique in structure but modern in disarray with cords and chargers strewn among the documents. Papers were stacked in what could roughly be called piles, and a steaming cup of espresso sat in the center of it all, yet untouched. The Viscount was leaning back against his padded, straight-backed chair, one leg crossed easily over the other. A tablet was perched on his lap and he idly flipped through yesterday’s news articles, raising his brows over the caption on one of the photos.
Glancing at his coffee, he picked up the sugar cube that was placed on the saucer. He dipped the end of it in his coffee and watched as the cube turned brown, before dropping it in and stirring it with the tiny sliver spoon. Then he drank the scalding liquid in one go. As soon as the porcelain cup clattered on the saucer, a door in the wall opened – one that was so discreet you wouldn’t notice it unless you knew to look for it.
Paltier came in wearing his usual black suit, and lifting the espresso cup from the desk, he stood to one side. He was the perfect butler – starched and upright, and with an appreciation for nobility and lineage that made it an honor for him to serve
He cleared his throat and spoke up. “I don’t imagine you want to be involved in this, but the tailleurs are here from Versailles to trim the trees and bushes. I put them in touch with Martin so he could direct them as needed.”
Jean Martin was the gardener who had been hired to manage the grounds; and although he was very good at caring for the plants and lawns, trimming the trees and bushes in the proper fashion for French gardens was not his specialty. The artisanal measuring techniques of old were now replaced with laser beams to achieve the perfect right angles, and there were companies that did just that.
“You’re right,” the Viscount responded. “I don’t need to be involved. The team from Versailles know what they’re doing. I won’t insult them by breathing down their necks.”
“I understand,” Paltier replied. “So that just leaves your visit with the stable manager this morning before your family arrives for lunch.”
The Viscount looked out the window thoughtfully, and mused aloud. “I wonder if we can keep the meeting at the stables to under an hour.”
He was not as passionate about riding and racing horses as his father had been, but out of respect for his legacy, he continued to oversee the management of the racetrack from a distance. He met with the stable manager out of necessity, and tried to get through the meetings with as little implication to himself as possible. Since the racetrack, along with all business dealings for the château, were under the aegis of Jean Lefevre, Paltier did not it was his place to reply.
When the Château of Maison Laffitte went up for private sale, after remaining a government-owned historical property for nearly a century, public outrage warred with people’s good sense. The government was burdened by the social charges it imposed upon itself and was no longer capable of maintaining some of the national monuments. Since the racetrack was linked to the château, and both were as costly as they were nearing bankruptcy, Maison Laffitte was one of the châteaux that was sacrificed to the stricter fiscal measures.
The Viscount at the time – his father – had pumped a large portion of his investment money into the racetrack, making it profitable once again. And he worked in accordance with the government agreement for historical monuments to restore the château to its former glory without deviating in furnishings from what was historically accurate. His untimely death transferred the property to his son’s hands, who was still in university at the time. And now the current Viscount handled the estate in the same way that he handled everything. Responsibly.
Noticing that his employer had gone back to reading the news, Paltier ventured, “May I ask what time lunch should be served?”
The Viscount looked up again and said, “My mother won’t arrive until 13:00, so we’ll eat shortly after that.” He smiled disarmingly by way of dismissing his butler, who had been in the family’s service since before the Viscount was born. Picking up on the clue, Paltier nodded his grey head somberly and left the room through the discreet passageway.
The château was big, and ever since the Viscount had taken up permanent residency there, he rarely ventured outside of his own “apartment” encompassing his bedroom, office and sitting room. He even ate his meals in the sitting room or the kitchen, unless there were guests. Some of the more severe critics wondered why the family had even bothered to purchase the château if they weren’t going to bring some life to it again. But the Viscount didn’t listen to the critics.
By the time it was one o’clock and the sounds of his mother’s arrival filtered through, the visit to the stables had been satisfactorily completed in record time, and his two sisters and the elder’s husband had already been sitting with him for a half-hour. His mother marched into the parlor where they sat drinking an aperitif.
“Hello mother,” he said, rising to his feet and crossing the room to kiss her softly on each cheek. “I hope you didn’t hit too much traffic.”
“The péripherique was slow, as to be expected,” she answered regally, as she turned to receive the bises – the kisses on each cheek – from her other children. She glanced around the room and said, “Ah. I see you moved that Cézanne as I suggested.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked critically for a moment before adding, “It needs to be closer to this armchair, however, because otherwise it’s not centered between the windows.”
The Viscount sighed internally. He was respected in his field, and the owner of the nicest château on the outskirts of Paris, but his mother had the gift of making him feel like a little boy as soon as she entered the room. She turned stiffly in her cream-colored Chanel suit and saw a teenager lounging on the sofa by the window with his headphones on.
“Camille, aren’t you going to greet your grandmother?” she asked acerbically in a loud voice. Then turning to the Viscount, “We mustn’t allow adolescents to forget good manners. I would have thought you too well-raised to neglect something like that.”
The young man rose to his feet and slipped off his headphones before lumbering over to his grandmother and kissing her. “Bonjour Grand-mère.”
The Viscount’s mother turned back towards her son, her pale blue eyes boring into his. She didn’t even bother to lower her voice as she said, “I’ve told you this before, but he needs a woman in his life. A mother.”
With that she walked across the room to greet her daughters and son-in-law who were rising for that purpose; but before she kissed them, she turned back with an afterthought. “Just not that young actress of yours.”
“Well Mother,” the Viscount said quickly – though politely. “Shall we go to the table?”
Once everyone was seated and had been served the first course at the long oval table, the Viscount’s sister Adelaide, who was older by six years and his closest sibling in affection, leaned over to him with a twinkle in her eye. “And how is that actress of yours?” she asked with a grin. She poked her fork into the toast with melted chèvre and took a bite.
“You have salad in your teeth,” he replied.
She blushed a little, but – turning her face fully away from the other end of the table where her mother was sitting – grinned even wider, showing all of her teeth, which now had both salad and cheese in the crevices. “Do you think she will like me, Charles?” she asked mournfully with her mouth full.
“Please be serious.” The Viscount’s stony face was belied by a smile in his eyes.
“What are you talking about over there?” his mother asked.
Adelaide swallowed before answering. “I was asking Charles if he could look in on Sylvie at Cambridge when he goes to England next weekend.” Her daughter was in her first semester at university there.
“Why are you going to England?” His mother’s question resembled more of a command.
The Viscount shot a look at his sister before breaking off a piece of bread and answering nonchalantly, “Manon will begin filming in London. I plan on accompanying her just for the weekend.” He put the bread in his mouth.
His mother turned to her grandson. “And Camille, what will you do while your father is away?”
Camille looked uncomfortable as all eyes turned towards him. “I didn’t . . . I don’t know.” He scraped his fork against the plate, making everyone cringe.
The Viscount’s eldest sister, Eléonore, who was eight years his senior, answered peremptorily. “Camille, you will come and stay with me.
Camille looked a little alarmed until the Viscount rescued him. “Camille is perfectly fine here by himself. He’s fifteen years old and doesn’t need a babysitter. Paltier will be here if he needs anything, and besides -“ addressing his son directly, “you have plenty of homework to do, don’t you?”
If his son felt any relief at being saved, he didn’t to show it. He mumbled something incomprehensible and looked down at his plate, spared from further need to talk by Paltier bringing in the main course - roast pigeon and potatoes seasoned with thyme. Paltier filled each of the glasses half-way with red wine, beginning with the Viscount. For a time, there was no sound other than the clink of cutlery against china until the Viscount finally spoke up.
“The mayor has asked me to serve on his advisory board for the city.”
“It’s about time you got more involved in politics,” said Eléonore, whose husband was the campaign director for the UMP – the right wing political party in France.
“I’m not getting involved in politics,” the Viscount said firmly. “I’m more concerned with the affairs in this town – the preservation of the forest, for a start.”
“But I thought that was a given,” Adelaide said with a crinkle in her forehead. “I thought there were very strict laws concerning forest preservation, and that nothing could be built there.”
“There are,” the Viscount replied, taking a sip of his wine and then cutting the meat off the drumstick. The delicious brown sauce from the meat marred the pristine white of the china plate. “But there are many people who feel some of the forest could be sold off to build housing projects.
Everyone, except for Camille, who was still looking down at his plate, started talking animatedly. “I have never heard of anything like this,” his mother spluttered. “Is no property . . . no piece of history to remain sacred?”
“Many people felt the same way when my father bought the Château de Maison Laffitte,” the Viscount said wryly, in what was, perhaps, a spirit of mischief.
His mother turned to him. “I hope you do not regret that he did so,” she said in a dangerous tone.
“No mother,” he replied smoothly. “I am enough your son to recognize the value of heritage.”
His mother seemed appeased and picked up her fork again. But she remained uncharacteristically silent throughout the rest of the meal. Paltier brought in the cheese platter and everyone refused, except for the Viscount and his brother-in-law - the latter deciding to ignore his straining shirt buttons. However, everyone accepted the espresso at the end of the meal.
The dowager went to leave after the family had lingered over their coffee for over an hour. Walking down the large marble steps in the foyer, and allowing her son-in-law to open the heavy iron and glass door that led to the courtyard, she turned to her son to receive his kisses. Glancing beyond him to the park with its rows of trees, she placed her gloved hand on his arm and gave a small sigh. “The grounds have never looked as good as they did when Pierre was caring for them.”
“Yes,” he said smiling. “But your nostalgia has made you forget that Pierre took off one day without saying a word and we never saw him again. At least Martin is still here.”
“I was never more shocked in my life!” his mother answered vehemently, gripping his arm. “After twenty-two years of faithful service to go off without a word! He left the hedges half-trimmed!” She shook her head at such indolence, and in spite of her anger, suddenly seemed frailer than she usually did.
The Viscount stood there patiently for a moment with his mother’s hand on his arm, waiting for her to recover. Finally she shook it off and looked at him, saying with something akin to urgency in her voice, “See that you preserve the legacy of this place. It may not have been long in our family, but you owe it to the families that came before you, and you owe it to your son.
“I will, Maman,” the Viscount replied, leading her to the back seat of her chauffeured car. He helped her into it and then turned to kiss his sisters and take leave of his brother-in-law as they made their way to their own cars. As usual, there was little discussion between the men.
“Charles,” his brother-in-law said pompously, shaking his hand.
“Have a nice drive, Thierry,” he answered in return.
As the cars drove off, crunching in the gravel until they reached the broad street, which veered left, the Viscount stood on the stone steps, watching the iron gate close automatically behind them. He was plunged in thought, remembering the last time he saw Pierre on the ladder, trimming the hedges manually and pausing so the branches didn’t fall on the young Viscount and Miriam as they walked by.
Miriam! His childhood sweetheart and young bride, although that was the first day he had dared to hold her hand. And he had thought they were alone until they chanced on the row that Pierre was trimming. The gardener’s eyes had taken it all in at once – the hands pulling away quickly, the bright eyes and large smiles of young love. Normally he would have risked a wink at the Viscount, knowing what a big deal it was for him. But on that day the gardener was somber and unlike himself – as if there had been a foreboding that such happiness could not last.
The Viscount stood there for a minute, recalling Miriam’s brown eyes – the only thing he could remember clearly about her without looking at a photo. The grief he suffered was long gone, but there had never been any joy to take its place. Sometimes he wondered if he should be worried by that.
He turned to go inside and came up flush against the same set of eyes, causing his heart to skip a beat in surprise – a ghost rising from the past.
“Oh. Camille. You’re here.” He paused for a minute, searching for some way to connect with his son, and then said awkwardly, “Sorry to spring it on you that I’m away next weekend like that.”
“That’s fine,” his son said. He had the same dark wavy hair his father did, and a long lock of it hid the brown eyes, which differed from his mother’s only in that they didn’t sparkle or laugh, but rather turned downwards.
When his son didn’t say anything else, the Viscount recalled his conversation with the English teacher from the day before and felt a flash of irritation towards her. He had the urge to lean forward and sniff his son to see if he smelled like smoke or something else; but he resisted the urge.
“I met with your English teacher,” the Viscount said. Camille looked up, a little alarmed, but quickly covered it up with a neutral expression. He didn’t say anything that might ease the Viscount’s discomfort, so the father was forced to go on. “Is . . . uh, everything all right in school?
“Yes Papa, everything’s totally fine,” he immediately replied, obviously anxious to end the conversation.
The Viscount felt defeated. He really didn’t want to push the issue. He always thought that young men would come about if left to their own devices. At least he wanted to be left to his own devices and assumed everyone else felt the same way. He looked his son over for a minute before simply saying, “Make sure you do your homework for school tomorrow.”
“Oui, Papa,” Camille said, making his escape.
The Viscount stood on the steps surveying the beauty of his property, but trying to shake off the ghosts it held. To the left, the tailleurs were now working on the rows of trees closest to the edge of the park. One man was standing in the white metal bucket, which was lifted up by the arm of the small truck, and he sliced the side of the tree with his electric trimmer in a perfect line. There were shouts as the men below cleared the area of falling branches.
The Viscount stared for just a minute before turning and entering the marble foyer. His footsteps echoed as he walked up the empty staircase.
Click here for Chapter Three.