A tale of the writer,
The fog hung low over the hillside, resisting the rays of the morning sun. Instead of fields of green, only gray could be seen. A few farmhouses could be seen through the haze and the trees, blurred monuments to the pastoral French countryside. Ravens cawed from the woods instead of the pleasant cries of songbirds. It was not a dead morning, not entirely, merely full of gloom, as if the land was mourning a lost loved one than dying itself.
It was a far cry from
“Still as gloomy as it was five years ago. Shame really.”
“We were here for a week, Geoffrey, hardly time for a lasting impression,” Harry Brett retorted. “Besides, we are standing next to a damn river. That makes things a might foggy.”
To Harry’s left, James Fletcher nodded in agreement. Harry and James were an interesting pair. The two Americans seemed almost inseparable, at least for as long as
“Such a shame really, you boys were looking forward to this,”
“It’s nothing more than a memory of the past,” James said, looking back at
“Come on,” Geoffrey said, turning away from the gray dawn and walking back to the country road. “There’s no point in staying here.”
Geoffrey walked solemnly down the road, the others trailing behind them. As the sun rose behind them, the land around them shifted from a foggy gloom to a lazy haze. On either side of the road, worn down by wagon wheels and carts, vines of grapes rose up. Aubellet was a town of vineyards, dotted by the occasionally chateau; ancient masters to the wines of the area. The sense of history in the area seeped through everything. For
They rounded a turn in the road and found themselves facing an old vineyard. The yards were withered, the grapes dead, and awash in the morning haze. Yet, farther away from the road and vines a rose garden flourished. It was filled with bright colors, standing vibrant even in the gray haze of the morning. The garden was a stark contrast to the chateau it surrounded. Standing tall on a rolling hill, the house was faded, its masonry worn and smoothed away. The spires of its roof were dilapidated and laced with cracks. Curtains hung in all the windows, and even the tiniest crack between them exposed nothing but blackness. It seemed abandoned, a twilight maw surrounded by a circle of life. When
The man was looking at the rose garden, not moving. He was too far to see in detail.
“I’m fine. Let’s go,” she said. She took one last look at the chateau before following the others. The man was gone.
The rest of the day passed without any conflict. The men continued their exploration of the countryside, memories of the war coming back with each locale. Charlotte was surprised by the seriousness of their efforts. James’ somberness no longer seemed aimless. Even Harry had avoided leaving a droll comment with every step.
Each man seemed different once they stopped to reminisce. For those moments, they seemed to channel the beings they were ten years ago. They took on a certain formality, a way of carrying themselves that was foreign to Charlotte and Elizabeth. Geoffrey had never ignored his title, but as Charlotte watched him framed in the fading light of the dusk, he seemed all the more noble in his bearing.
The trip had been Geoffrey’s idea, a way to get away from the city for a bit, and travel the countryside; three weeks away from Paris, heading east towards Lorraine before turning south to Marseille. The trip had started out fine, but once come across the locations the men remembered from the war, every so often things turned melancholy. It made Charlotte long for the bars and haunts of Paris. This sour turn did not please her. The men seemed to be almost different people. This Lord Dryden was not the Geoffrey she had chosen to marry. Thankfully it only lasted into the twilight of the evening. As they lay to rest for the night, Geoffrey was himself again, and a measure of comfort returned to Charlotte.
The following morning was free of the burden of the past. Their hotel was situated in the center of Aubellet, at the north end of the town square. Just opposite of the hotel, leading into a long street, was an open air market, already filled with cries of vendors hawking their goods and wares. The church bells of an old gothic cathedral chimed, ringing in the late morning as the penitent left the pews.
The travelers found themselves seated outside a café in the square. It was not yet noon and already three bottles lay empty on the table. The late breakfast was a casual affair, with a sampling of the local wines. Geoffrey and Charlotte leaned back in their wicker chairs, taking in the scenery. Harry was rambling away, all while Elizabeth listened intently. The louder American was her favorite today. For his part, James drank his wine quietly, looking at an old stone statue of Louis XIII in the center of the square. It had been erected years ago to commemorate a victory during the Thirty Years War, and it still stood, imposing and regal, a symbol of the history of the area.
Geoffrey sighed, setting his drink down. “It’s so strange, being back. Everything seems so vivid now, but we were here for so little time.”
“Do we have to talk about the war, dear?” Charlotte asked.
“Why not?” Geoffrey asked. “Isn’t that why we’re here, to see these old places again?”
“I thought we were here to see the countryside and get out of Paris for a bit. You know, to see something foreign.”
“We’re all expatriates dear, every part of France is a foreign to us as the next.”
“Not if we’ve spent the last few years living out of every bar and café in the city.”
“Time well spent,” Harry said, leaning towards the couple.
“Harry, you’re tight,” Elizabeth said playfully, giving the American a slap on the arm.
“Well love, I could be a lot worse,” he replied, feigning offence.
“He’s fine,” James said quietly from his chair, a small smile gracing his face. He had been silent for almost the entire day; at least since Elizabeth had chosen Harry as her companion for the day.
“I just want to have some fun, that’s all,” Charlotte whispered.
Geoffrey leaned towards her, trying to keep his words from reaching the others. “Charlotte, you know I just want to make you happy. I promise that we will do something soon. This has just been a…difficult few days for me. I’m sorry.”
He left a quick kiss on her cheek. Charlotte smiled in return, slipping her arm behind his waist and resting her head on his shoulder.
“Hang on,” Harry said. “Did it just get quiet here?”
The café had turned silent. Beyond their table, people leaned over their drinks, looking down the street with discomfort. They seemed overcome with apprehension, as if a sudden fear had grasped the people of Aubellet. Charlotte followed their gaze to the end of the market, and she saw what scared them. It was the man from the chateau.
He stood near a vendor, a bundle under his right arm. In his left hand he held his dark wooden cane. Charlotte realized he walked with a limp, his left leg faltering with each step. He walked away from the vendor, walking down the street, towards the café. He was dressed with immaculate care. His shirt was spotless, and he wore a dark cravat at his neck. Over it all was a long, gray coat. Even with the limp, the man walked with the air and look of a distant lord. The man held a somber grimace on his face, but once again Charlotte noticed something was odd about his eyes. His hair was shock white, paler than his face.
Charlotte watched the man walk past the café. As he passed, she saw into his eyes. She saw them only for the briefest moment, but at that moment she was able to see what had been odd about them. Despite his well-kept appearance, his eyes seemed like hollow circles in the center of his face. They were sunken and gray, almost dead. They stared out at the world passively, as if nothing caught the man’s attention. The two gray spheres were truly lifeless.
The blankness of his eyes was unnerving. Even before the man’s eyes swept past her,
After the man passed, a wave of whispers passed through the market. The travellers were confused by the incident. Aubellet was not some sort of Frankish Elysium, but it was as if the limping man had walked across the entire village’s grave. Charlotte thought back to the hike through the vineyards surrounding the town, and the dark chateau where she had first seen the man.
The time passed, and the man passed from their minds. Harry and Elizabeth eventually called for more wine. The travelers left a pile of francs on the table and left the café. They passed through the town square before ending up at the winery in the other side of the market. The store was a stone construction, cool on the inside with long wooden counters. Only one window let light in, the store was mostly dark. A few meats and cheese hung on the shelves behind the counters, while the rest of the storage space was reserved for the wine itself. Bottles lined the wall, and a door at the rear of the store led to a vast cellar of wine.
Gilles LaPadite sat behind his counter, a small glass of wine held idly in his hands. A solid man, the sommelier had a noticeable paunch around his midsection. His moustache was as gray as his hair. He was a gruff man, but honest and friendly. He also spoke English, something that made him quite popular to the travellers ever since they had arrived in Aubellet. When he saw them, he gave a nod of appreciation, turning towards his shelves for a pair of dark red wines.
As the bottles were opened and poured, the mood quickly returned to the laissez-faire attitude of the morning. LaPadite joined in on their conversation, engaging Geoffrey and James on a discussion of the fishing and hunting sites around Aubellet. The men grew excited and soon drew Harry into their plans. Charlotte took the opportunity to get the sommelier’s attention.
“Do you hear that Geoff?” Harry called from the other end of the bar counter. “Your fiancé has taken an interest in one of the locals.”
Geoffrey snorted, scoffing at the idea. “Please, don’t let your imagination run wild. Yes Monsieur LaPadite, indulge
The sommelier rested an elbow on the counter, stroking his bushy whiskers. “Ah, d’Avout, now there is a harsh man. Hmm, this is a hard tale to tell. You gentlemen, I assume you fought in the war, yes?”
“Harry and I were part of the American Expeditionary Forces,” James replied. “And Geoff was with the British Army. We met in
LaPadite nodded, now scratching his stubbly chin. “Good, then you have some idea of the horrors of the war. It is amazing how much of a dead heat that fight was. Yet, some of the fighting stretched far more west than many expected. Head east for a few miles and you might find signs of an old battle, maybe a spent shell or the trampled remains of the site of an artillery strike.
“Regardless, this town has its history. There are five chateaus in the area, did you know that? On the north end of town, next to the river, there is the Chateau de Crépuscule. A decade ago it was an active place. The Vicomte d’Avout, the owner, was heavily engaged in cultivating the land. The Chateau was a major source of wine for years. However, the Vicomte died in 1914, just before the war broke out. His sons, Gaston and Philippe inherited the land, but by the next year, they were already fighting in the trenches. What happened after that, I cannot say, except that in January of 1920, Philippe d’Avout, the man Madame here is asking about, came back to Aubellet.
“It was a tumultuous return. D’Avout had left in good health, but he came back lame with his limping leg. He claimed the title of Vicomte d’Avout, declaring Gaston, the elder sibling, dead, and dismissed the servants and workers from the grounds. Since then, only he has inhabited the Chateau. No one ever stays there, and aside from coming into town for food, d’Avout never leaves. Surprisingly the place has not fallen apart, but it is just one man looking after it. It is faded and damaged, yes, but hardly in ruins. A gardener from town goes there every three weeks to tend to the flowers, but he says he never sees the Vicomte. When d’Avout comes into town, he is taciturn and somber. As you can imagine, with his attitude and the stir of his return, it only led to rumors.”
“What kind of rumors?” James asked.
LaPadite took the bottle of wine and poured himself a glass. He slowly took a sip before answering. “Rumors, hearsay, I personally give them no heed; they are just the speculations of overly imaginative people.”
“But there are rumors, and they are usually so interesting,”
“Ah, there were many when he first returned. The chaos he created at Crépuscule set the town ablaze with rumors. Some were truly wild, but a few emerged as popular. Some people say that he killed Gaston during the war to inherit the chateau and is haunted by actions. Others said that he had taken up dueling in
The sommelier stopped to finish his wine, setting the small glass back on the counter when he was finished. He swept his gaze across the travelers, before settling on
LaPadite shifted the conversation back to the men’s plans to explore the countryside, leaving d’Avout a topic of the past. The wine continued to flow and the mood among the patrons eased. Charlotte smiled, but her mind flashed back to the dead stare of d’Avout. She wanted to put the image far from her mind, but it continued to unsettle her.
The sun hung directly overhead. Charlotte and Elizabeth sat at an outside table, sipping chilled wine from the nearby winery. A day had passed since d’Avout had passed through town. The men were now off somewhere, fishing and reminiscing about the war. That left the women to peruse the shops of Aubellet and amuse themselves, which only led them to LaPadite’s winery and a few carefully selected bottles.
Charlotte had chosen a simple dress and a small hat for the day, while Elizabeth wore pants and a jacket, a look that had become popular with the women of Paris. Charlotte rested her chin on her hand, looking at her friend.
“How do you do it?” she asked.
“Do what, dear?” Elizabeth said.
“Harry and James, how do you do it? You have been playing the two ever since we left. You seem to choose between them each day like you would a dress.”
Elizabeth broke into a coquettish laugh. “Oh that. Charlotte, it’s easy. Unlike you, I’ve never been married.”
“Are you saying I’m an old maid?”
“I’m simply saying that you went from poor Andrew to dear Geoffrey without much of a transition. You’ve missed out on quite a life in Paris.”
“I get as tight as you.”
“I don’t mean drinks, Charlotte. We are young and free, why shouldn’t we go and enjoy life?”
“Hmm, I see what you mean. Sometimes this whole thing seems like a blur. It’s a loss of innocence, but it’s so fulfilling. I just wish Geoffrey would embrace it.”
Elizabeth leaned over her drink with a look of concern on her face. “You aren’t happy with Lord Dryden?”
“He’s just been so moody lately. I’ll be honest, I’ll be happy when we leave this town.”
“I understand Charlotte,” Elizabeth replied with a smile. It faded a look of realization dawned on her face. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry, I left my purse back at the hotel. Can you wait here while I go get it?”
“Good. And don’t drink all of the wine!”
Elizabeth hurried away from the winery, back towards the town square and their hotel. For her part, Charlotte sat idly by. She poured herself a full glass from the wine bottle, hoping it would last her while her friend was gone. She stared into the dark liquid, watching it swirl around inside the glass. She lost herself in there, her mind wandering.
“What do you mean by ‘a loss of innocence’?”
She tried to speak, but found that she could not figure out what to say. Finally, after a moment of stammering, she asked, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
D’Avout’s look changed. The glare abetted, but the dead face did not alter. He pulled out Elizabeth’s chair. “I am sorry; I could not but overhear what you were saying. Please, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Philippe d’Avout. May I sit down?”
“My name is Charlotte Miller,” she heard herself say.
“Hello Miss Miller,” d’Avout replied. “You are English, I take it?”
“Yes,” she said. “I am here with my fiancé and his friends.”
D’Avout nodded, then curtly spoke before she could say anything else. “Can you explain to me what you meant by a ‘loss of innocence?’”
Charlotte took a deep breath, trying to choose the right words. “It has to do with my fiancé. Or, you could say it has to do with the war. I was married once before. I knew him only briefly, it was arranged by my mother. I was young, and only three weeks after we married, he left for Holland. He died somewhere out there. It did not seem to affect me, he was just a person to me, not my husband.
“After that though, things just seemed to change. Once the war was over, I think we all just wondered what the point of it all is. What is the point of all of our morals and rules? That is how I ended up in Paris. We all seemed to drift there. We realized the pointlessness of it all, the naiveté we once had; my fiancé’s friends, my own. We could not live the same way our parents did. The old ways were done. It is time to just indulge and cast off that foolish innocence. We are all awake now.”
“Are you in love, mademoiselle?” d’Avout asked, almost at a whisper.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Your fiancé, do you love him? Have you ever been in love?”
“I…I think I do,” Charlotte replied, her unnerve growing again.
“You are not in love.”
His voice was different. It was no longer just that somber formality. It was laced with something; anger? “If you were in love, you would feel it in your very core, there would be no doubt what it was.
“You talk about loss, but what do you know about loss? Who have you lost, your husband? You hardly knew him. Have you ever watched your family die? Did you see your brother blow up from an artillery barrage? Did you survive only because a German bullet tore through your leg, leaving you writhing on the ground in pain, only able to watch as he was engulfed in flames?”
D’Avout looked at her now, his face showing a hidden rage. His eyes were still blank, but the spiteful sneer he held on his mouth scared Charlotte. Her knuckles squeezed the table with all of their might.
“You talk about loss after the war, but what do you know? After I was injured I was cared for by a woman in Lorraine. Sophia. She tended to my leg, and she helped me accept my brother’s death. I fell in love with her. We married when the war ended.”
Charlotte could not look away from the comte’s face. His gaze seemed to see look through her. All she could do was sit and listen. Were those tears welling up in his eyes?
“We had been married only for three months when the Spanish influenza reached Lorraine. Sophia fell ill, as did her family. I remained in good health, only able to try to ease her pain. Have you ever felt that helpless? No, of course you have not. First her brother died, then her parents. Finally, it was just her. She asked me to be happy, give her a smile, and I could not. She wanted a family, and all I could do was watch her dream erode. Then she was gone, just like that. After a month of pain, she was gone, and I was alone. I still am.
“Do not talk to me about loss. I know your kind, you are all spoiled. You are nothing more than bored fools with no grasp on true tragedy. You have too much money and no idea what to do with it so you fake some wisdom and waste away in debauchery. So do not try and justify your life or lament on what has happened; you have no right to. I hate you and everyone like you.”
“Monsieur le vicomte.”
Charlotte jumped in her seat at the sudden interruption. D’Avout stopped, his scathing words cut off by LaPadite. The sommelier stood at the doorway of the winery, a case of bottles in his hands. His weary face betrayed a distrust as he looked at the seated comte. LaPadite extended the case to d’Avout. “Your order.”
D’Avout closed his eyes, masking his fury once more. He seemed frustrated at being cut off and forced to stop in his attack. He broke his glare away from Charlotte and stood up, cane in hand. He took the case from LaPadite without a word, simply handing him a handful of francs. Adjusting his cane, d’Avout limped away from the table.
LaPadite looked down at Charlotte. “Mademoiselle, are you okay?”
Charlotte nodded weakly. She wrenched her hands off of the table, surprised to find her knuckles white. She felt drained all over, almost in shock over what she had heard. D’Avout’s words had cut to her core. The hate she had seen on his face was horrific, far more terrifying than the dead stare that had fascinated her. What had she found? Even when Elizabeth returned from the hotel, Charlotte still had no idea what to think.
“Charlotte, are you ready?” Geoffrey asked from the doorway.
Charlotte closed the suitcase and turned towards Geoffrey. “Yes, let’s go. When does the train get here?”
“We have half an hour. Then we’ll be on our way to Marseille,” he said, walking over to her. He wrapped his arms around her waist, but she walked away. “Charlotte, what’s the matter?”
“It’s nothing, I’m all right. I’m quite all right. Where are the others?”
Geoffrey hesitated, perturbed by her actions. After a pause, he replied, “They are meeting us at the station. Come on, let’s go.”
He grabbed her bag and followed her out the door. Geoffrey paid the bill and thanked their host. They walked out into the square, heading towards the train station on the north end of town. To Charlotte’s surprise, the usual crowd in the marketplace was gone, instead gathering around the old statue in the center of the square. She could make out a figure at the center of the circle, addressing the others, but she could not tell any details.
Geoffrey was similarly intrigued. He took her hand and led her toward the crowd. As they moved inward, pushing past a few onlookers, they could see the man at the center of the crowd. He was dirty, his hands and clothes stained by the soil. He was speaking with an animated voice, speaking out of shock and not worry. As the Englishmen approached, they were able to hear what he was saying.
“…the chateau was abandoned. It was just dust and fading paintings. He was in one of the few habitable rooms. A fire had died out in the hearth, and at least six empty wine bottles were strewn across the floor. And the ring! He had a ring on his finger. I’ve never seen it before. It was a gold wedding band.”
Geoffrey grabbed a nearby onlooker. The man turned towards him, upset at being pulled away from the story.
“That man, who is he?”
“Claude Chirac, a gardener of the area,” the Frenchman replied in a heavy accent.
“Who is he talking about?”
“The vicomte d’Avout.”
“You don’t know? Chirac found the vicomte this morning. He hung himself.”
Charlotte felt her stomach knot. The words hit her hard. The noise of Chirac’s story faded around her. She felt the urge to run, just to get way. She had to leave Aubellet. She needed an escape. Charlotte tugged at Geoffrey’s sleeve.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“What?” Geoffrey asked, perplexed by her sudden plea.
“We just need to go, I can’t stay here anymore.”
Charlotte did not wait for a response. She would not stay anymore in the shadow of d’Avout’s words or the remnants of his memories. Chirac was describing the site of the corpse, but the words did not reach Charlotte’s ears. She turned and walked away.