He had come here once, long ago, during the daytime, when his skin and eyes didn’t suffer so much from the sunlight. But he hadn’t been here since – and it was only a chance invitation from Monsieur le Marquis, who had clearly taken to him when they met at a complimentary drinks party in the square on New Year’s Eve that had brought him back to the château for champagne and paté de foie gras.
Now this was more his kind of time and weather. The heavy rain, it had to be said, was a nuisance: he had dressed carefully, and felt anxious that his black coat, suit and shoes would be spoilt. He had brought an umbrella, but the wind kept snapping it inside out, so he used it instead to perform sword thrusts at the air as he approached the village. No-one saw; there was no-one about. All closed inside their bourgeois little houses, he thought to himself, sneering as he pictured his own accommodation.
Having overheard a local remark that one of the château’s distinguishing features was the barrier it set against the outside world, he decided that it sounded like his sort of place. He spent the best part of ten minutes searching for an outside bell, treading carefully through the puddles and covering ninety degrees around the wall. It was too dark even for him to see anything. He’d been told there was a beautiful garden at the back. But gardens didn’t interest him – not even in summer; especially not then. Leaning on his umbrella as though it were a walking stick, feeling the rain dripping inside the collar of his coat, he made his way back to what looked like the front entrance. He lifted the latch on a modest wooden gate. Bats and beetles! It yielded. He crossed the empty courtyard to find Le Comte – son of Le Marquis – already standing at the bottom of a flight of stone steps to greet him.
After a whispered apology for his late arrival, he followed Le Comte up the winding stairs. As though performing the ritual of the ancient servant in some black-and-white horror film, a small piece of plaster fell off – just where the banisters began. Le Comte picked it up and, scarcely examining it, replaced it on the corner of the bottom step. ‘Another gluing job.’ That’s what he must have been saying to himself.
There was nowhere for him to hang his sodden coat. It was left draped over the top of the banisters. The two men then proceeded swiftly through a small library into an equally small salon. Here the walls were painted a pale turquoise – rather agreeable, though at one end of the room the colour changed abruptly to a yellowish white, which he liked less. It had a slightly grubby look, and he enjoyed visiting places that were clean, refined. Two Persian rugs, evidently of very good quality, though worn a little threadbare, watched him from the floor, the patterns on their burgundy background like polychrome eyes. The fire, he noticed immediately, had not been lit.
Being the last to arrive, he found the small party already assembled – a Dutch couple who lived in the village and who, he picked up straight away as introductions were performed, spoke French with scarcely an accent. The young woman they had brought with them, it was explained, was just visiting the village over the New Year. She looked about her nervously as she shook his hand, withdrawing it as soon as she felt the touch of his skin. She was English.
And, of course, there was M le Marquis and his little dog, Balzac. One evening, out walking late, he had encountered Le Marquis taking Balzac for his night-time relief. He’d heard a disembodied voice call out into the darkness, ‘Balzi! Balzi!’ But he hadn’t realised it belonged to their local aristocrat. He seemed to be very attached to Balzac, a slightly overweight miniature poodle. When the paté de foie gras was brought in, Balzi settled himself at his master’s feet and awaited indulgence. It didn’t take long before tit-bits were liberally dropped into his open mouth.
Le Comte himself waited on them, disappearing into the kitchen at one point to bring out plates of pizza – a cheerfully plebeian diversion from the endless paté de foie gras on crackers. But the pizza wasn’t sufficiently smothered in meat. That, anyway, was his opinion. He found himself imitating his host by surreptitiously feeding morsels of pizza to the winsome and ever-eager little poodle. The champagne served to them by Le Comte was Laurent Perrier. As the company sipped on it, they spoke of this especially terrible winter, of the Dutchwoman’s jewellery-making business, of her husband’s work as a master carpenter (he apparently did a lot of work for the Dutch and British buying up their perfect holiday home in the area). There was much talk about different types of wood. He learned more than he had ever realised there was to know about the differences between ‘marron’ and ‘chataigner’ – two completely distinctive types of chestnut tree. Angry discussion ensued at one point about the poor quality of service you receive nowadays at the bank. At this point, he felt smug and cool. Thank goodness he didn’t require the services of petty bureaucrats.
And then the ambience turned sad as Le Comte detailed the amount of work needed to keep habitable this heavy burden of stone he would, in the not too distant future, inherit from his father. Drastic refurbishment of an entire wing, he explained, was required, as the trees were growing through the roof.
The conversation being entirely in French, the Dutchwoman would turn occasionally to the English guest with a translation. Such good linguists, those folk from the Pays Basque. Whenever this diversion occurred, he took the opportunity to inspect the room further. The walls were decorated with oval family portraits and inauthentic-looking Fragonard murals of pre-Revolutionary French gardens, ladies disporting themselves. He registered a nice walnut bureau with rather too much by way of polished brass fittings; four attractive eighteenth-century chairs; the abomination of a white faux leather sofa in the middle of the room.
On a side table he noticed the black and white photograph of a young man. His large dark eyes seemed to shine straight out of the picture, cutting back the blackness of his graduation gown and cap. His lips seemed to quiver on the curve of a smile. A frozen stalactite of love snapped off and dissolved, slowly, in his gut. But he decided not to enquire about this beautiful young man: it was strange, after all, that neither of their hosts had mentioned a son or grandson. That’s normally the first thing people want to talk about. Not just beautiful, but a mystery. Had he run away to avoid the stone, tree-lanced burden from falling on his shoulders one day? Or had he been disinherited when he vanished with an unsuitable lover? With a frisson of excitement, he contemplated the possibility that, here before him, was an image of the dead.
Le Marquis must have noticed this dwelling on the photograph, for he suddenly got up and went over to a second, workaday desk, from which he seized a framed image he would obviously prefer his guest to look at. It featured the Queen Mother, who, visiting France during the 1970s, had graced the château with her presence. This photo was of course passed on to the young Englishwoman to inspect – with instantaneous translation. She smiled, nodding her head vigorously – at her most animated since the soirée began.
They were very kind and hospitable, these faded aristocrats. But there was something forlorn about the atmosphere, which suited one particular guest at least. Mme La Marquise, he learned, had died seven years ago. It was the Dutchwoman who mentioned this to him in a whispered aside – the only reference during the entire evening to the defunct wife and mother. When, at the top of the banisters, Le Comte handed back his coat, it was as wet as when he had arrived. Once outside the castle gates, he removed the coat. The rain had stopped. That cheerless, fire-less salon had, despite everything, succeeded in drying out his suit a little. In any case, such things never bothered him.
Draping his coat over his arm and making one quick sword thrust with his umbrella, he tried and failed to spot the wicked trees, but the blackness of the starless sky and the blackness of the castle roof merged into one. He shrugged, gave a low whistle and started walking back to his home. It was cold; it was dark; it was thousands of years older than the château. He had been there a long time.