The jolt of the halting carriage awoke me from sleep and I sat up, blinking, in the darkness. The driver came to my door and gave my window a rap. I sleepily handed him the coins that he expected and stepped out, trunk in hand. As he whipped his horses and drove on and away, I raised my eyes and looked upon the Chateau Castellane for the first time – or I should say that I looked upon its reflection, for I stood close by a lake and, beneath the moonlight, the great dark edifice was reflected in the shimmering waters with far more clarity than what little of it I could see beyond the tall, leaning trees that sheltered it from my view.
It was a great stone structure made of spires, narrow windows, and tangled ivies. The garden was overgrown with briars and with creeping, flowered vines that choked the paths and spread themselves upon its walls – so much so that I could barely separate the chateau from the luxuriant wilderness that surrounded it. The smell of jasmine and honeysuckle was overpowering and I could not draw a breath without finding my senses pleasurably stifled. I confess that as I drew closer to the gate of the chateau, I paused to pluck one of the pale blossoms that clung to the iron grating.
My hand instantly flew to the dagger in my coat while I turned to see who spoke. To my surprise, I saw a girl – barely of marriageable age, from the look of her – standing before me. In spite of my weary and disoriented condition, I could not help but notice that she was a striking creature. My gaze wandered from the deep green of those eyes that so provokingly returned my look and then refused it, to the melancholic beauty of her profile, while the moonlight spilled upon her throat and shoulders, illuminating the red-gold hair that floated about her pale young face. It would be a shame, I thought, for Voclain to have his way with such a lovely throat.
The girl at last ventured again to return my gaze, though I am ashamed to say that the frankness of my look was such that the poor little creature blushed faintly and bit her lip. “Monsieur, are you the one whom my father wished to interview? The one who wishes to be our secretary?”
“I am, mademoiselle,” I said, feeling embarrassed myself at my own crudeness and the effect of this clumsy introduction. “Monsieur Laurent Fontaine at your service.”
She seemed to recover herself when she perceived my own confusion, but then her gaze settled on the dagger that I still held, like a moonstruck fool.
“Forgive me, mademoiselle,” I said, cursing myself under my breath. “You must understand that in Paris, a man grows accustomed to watching his own back.”
“Of course, Monsieur Laurent.” She managed a little smile, one that seemed perhaps a little teasing now. As sorry as I had earlier been to provoke such discomfort in her, I was not at all sure that I preferred her sudden, smiling awareness of my own confusion. At least formerly I had enjoyed the upper hand and commanded a certain degree of respect. But, alas, in spite of my resentment, how could I be cross with such a fair creature?
As we passed through the gate, she paused to pluck a blossom and pressed the soft-petalled growth into my hand, saying with another shy, yet mocking smile, “I believe, Monsieur, that you dropped the one that you first coveted.”
Humiliated and yet charmed by my young guide, I silently followed her deeper into the shadow of the Chateau Castellane.
There were no servants to greet us, as one would have expected in so handsome an estate and I was obliged to take my coat in hand myself as I followed my conductress into the great parlor.
“Father,” she said, speaking to a figure who stood by the hearth, “here is the secretary from Paris – Monsieur Laurent Fontaine.”
Without turning, the gentleman by the hearth said, “Come stand by me, Monsieur Fontaine.”
I obeyed and drew closer to the man whom I presumed to be the lord of the Chateau Castellane. The fire leapt and fell, brightening and then shadowing that half-turned countenance; he said, “I am the Vicomte Guillaume de Castellane. You must forgive your rather cheerless welcome – once there would have been a loyal retinue here to render you more comfortable, but I am afraid that it is a different time, Monsieur, and you must stir your own fire and see to your own bags.”
“My lord,” I said. “I fear that in one particular, you are mistaken. There is one loyal servant in this chateau – myself.”
My pretty words were spoken glibly, the effusions of a polite education – but when the Vicomte de Castellane turned to look at me, I felt myself grow soberer. This was partly due to the searching quality of his gaze, but also I think because for the first time I now laid eyes upon that remarkable visage.
How can I describe the Vicomte de Castellane and adequately convey the effect that he had upon me at that first meeting? His face was certainly not that of a young man, but neither was it ancient – there was too much control in the firm set of his mouth, too much vigor in his glance, to share the enfeebled qualities of age. And yet, though he did not seem old, there was an air of antiquity that clung to him in the way that dust will settle upon a century’s old portrait whose subject will still remain fresh in spite of the passing of years. I could not account for this peculiar impression; I only knew that it was mine.
But his eyes were what held me most firmly, for there was in them such a look of proud sufferance and austere resignation as I had never before beheld – of an insult sustained that has worked its venom in a lofty and inflexible heart and produced a bitter rancor that can never be forgotten or unfelt. I saw that rancor in his searching look, in the half-provoked surprise at my light words, in the way that he observed with a stern melancholy my cavalier bearing, my unbowed shoulders and unbent knee, as I stood before him. Pharaoh himself could not have looked upon the children of Israel as they escaped him across the Red Sea with more bitter longing than the Vicomte de Castellane as he looked upon me. I confess that I felt myself grow cold as I returned his look silently.
“You do not seem like a young man who has knelt often before his lord,” he said at last. “And yet, your words are pretty, Monsieur, and charm me.”
“I hope that I did not offend, my lord,” I said. “I only meant to express my own willingness to serve as I have been hired.”
“Oh yes, and so you shall,” Castellane smiled. “But it is late and you are weary – we shall speak more upon that subject tomorrow evening.”
He took my hand; his own fingers were remarkably dry and cold, but I was grateful for their comforting pressure – so at odds with his relentless gaze.
“Sleep well, young man. You are in my castle and I must hope, as its lord, that you should sleep as on enchanted ground.”
“I am certain that I shall, my lord.”
That stern being could not bear to bow even as a common formality; instead, he pressed my hand while looking intently into my eyes. I began to have the uneasy feeling – surely borne out of my own weariness rather than any premonition – that he was reviewing my innermost thoughts with the ease of a man who traces the lines upon a page with his finger. Filled with a superstitious trepidation and thinking of Voclain and my own clandestine errand, I managed to withdraw from him as politely as I could. My bizarre fear seemed only confirmed when I imagined that a peculiar look of thwarted bafflement crossed his visage.
“Tomorrow,” he said, turning back to the fire. “We shall speak again. Good night, Monsieur.”
To be continued…