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An Unsettled Estate: A Short Story, Part One

Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

an-unsettled-estate

St. Pierre estate spreads out before me, a forested, rolling landscape that drops down to a lake that shimmers in the midday sunlight like a diamond on green velvet. From my suite in the estate’s two hundred and twenty-six-year-old mansion, I can also see a sculpture garden partially hidden by flowering trees.

I’ve just begun writing for a major, east coast magazine after doing news stories in small markets for the last few years. It will be nice to see my name, Nola McGowan, associated with a company that’s respected for its high standards in journalism. The job offer came out of nowhere in the mail. I hadn’t even applied for the position. Needless to say, I was enormously flattered.

My first assignment is to write a series of articles about St. Pierre. My interview with the owner of the estate led to date after date. The charming Philip Rousseau finally asked me to move into this guest suite so I could study the grounds more thoroughly. The article will be about the history, art, and architecture of the estate, but I have a personal interest in the sculpture garden and the statues of a young man and woman.

I decide it’s a good time for a break from my writing, so I descend the main stairway, cross the foyer and step out into the summer sun. St. Pierre was established during Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power, but I’m not in France. I’m in New England where Philip’s ancestor, Sebastien St. Pierre, immigrated during the French Revolution.

I pass beneath the trees into the sculpture garden and pause in front of the statue of a frontiersman carrying a rifle over his shoulder. In his other hand, the rugged pioneer holds two rabbits by their back feet. I move on to view an older gentleman, a Frenchman by dress, gazing into the distance using one hand to shield his eyes from the sun. I imagine the living man, in his own day, looking over these same buildings and grounds.

an-unsettled-estate

Two other sculptures have captured my attention. The man and woman seem to be in love judging from their broad smiles and bright eyes. She is reclining on a blanket as though they are having a picnic in the country. The man is standing and smiling down at her. Even after more than two centuries, the woman seems lifelike. I’ve stared into her eyes, wondering what kind of life she lived. Was she in love with the man behind me? Did they marry, have children and grow old together? Hopefully, in the course of my research and writing, I’ll learn more about these two people.

Following dinner, each evening, Philip and I go for a walk that eventually takes us to the garden. We sit on the edge of the fountain and watch as the figures of a man and woman commune in silence. They’ve watched the centuries pass, known the unbroken line of the garden’s caretakers and cast moonlight shadows on lovers holding one another as they sat where we sit now.

Philip and I are building a relationship that I hope will last, but I must admit, I know very little about the man’s personal life. Has he ever been married? Does he have children? He’s certainly old enough to have experienced both, but he never talks about such things. I, on the other hand, babble on and on about my life. Maybe if I would be silent long enough he would have a chance to open up.

I’ve just arrived in the dining room for dinner, and Philip seems especially excited about something. We sit down to eat, and he finally reveals his surprise.

“Nola, I want you to join me tomorrow for a carriage ride around the estate. I’ll show you everything, all the breathtaking views, and the quiet, secluded places too.”

“Philip, it sounds wonderful. But a whole day? I have my articles to write.”

“We’re trying to get to know each other, aren’t we? That takes time.”

I’m more than a little embarrassed. I’ve been concerned about Philip opening up to me, and now, when he offers to spend an entire day together, I try to turn him down. “I’m sorry I hesitated and worried about my work. Of course, I’ll go. Could we pack a picnic lunch?”

“I already have the meal planned. It’s going to be a wonderful day, Nola.”

# # #

We have an early breakfast and pack a picnic basket with our lunch. The horse is waiting patiently on the circle drive, harnessed to a white carriage that has been part of this estate from the beginning. The sun is shining down through a cloudless sky, and I must declare that this is the perfect day.

Near the house, the carriage rumbles over cobblestones, but farther out, the cart path turns into a dirt two-track. We climb to a high overlook where we can see the mansion down below. Barns, sheds and servants’ quarters hint at the hustle and bustle that must have characterized the estate at its zenith.

A switchback road brings us down to where the forest opens into a green meadow bordering the lake. We leave our horse and carriage and row about in a boat among flowering lily pads, croaking frogs and a pair of mute swans with their wings slightly extended, sailing in the breeze.

A flowered blanket is at first our table, then our bed as we hold each other and doze in the sunshine. I recline on the blanket and gaze up at Philip as he prepares the horse for our return ride. He is truly a man of character, a man who knows what he wants, a noble man. He answers my admiration with a beautiful smile.

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# # #

Philip and I just finished dinner, and I’m sitting in the garden. What a wonderful day we had together. I didn't give my work even a single thought. Branches sway in the breeze allowing intermittent moonlight to illuminate the garden like the flashes of a camera. The brief glimpses give me a fresh view of the faces of the man and woman. They seem different somehow, so I approach for a closer look.

Something about her eyes seems changed. I know she’s carved from stone, but I could swear that on my previous visits her eyes were shining with the joy of being in love. But the joy is diminished, along with the smile. A tear, also fashioned out of stone, reveals a sadness I had not seen before. A furrowed brow dominates the man’s expression, giving him a look of sternness. His broad smile is only a memory. I suppose these differences are just the subtleties of art, but I have to admit, I’m a bit unnerved.

  • An Unsettled Estate,, part two
    Part two: Nola sits in the sculpture garden, excited about her growing relationship with philip, but then she notices the sculptures of Keera and Sebastien. Their facial expressions have changed.
  • An Unsettled Estate: Part Three
    Philip has caught Nola in the forest at night. They argue about whether the statues of Sebastien and Keera are alive and about Philip's plan to keep Nola as his secret mistress on St. Pierre estate.
  • An Unsettled Estate: Part Four
    Nola escapes Philip's grasp and runs through the trees for her car, but she must pass through the sculpture garden first. Philip catches up, but they both are halted by an impossible scene.

© 2016 Chris Mills

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