Stranger in the Castle - Part 1
Once upon a time in France, there lived an old noble family in an old noble castle. They were a family who talked a lot about things in a difficult way, as the chevalier, who they held hostage for the benefit of their daughter, discovered. It was often not easy to understand what they were actually saying, you know. It made him think of his mother, who was probably very worried.
‘Oh, it is terribly hot here by the fire,’ the lady of the house said to him, when they had moved to the salon after dinner and had seated themselves before the fireplace, ’I am afraid I must retreat to the window for a while.’
‘I will join you, maman,’ her daughter, Madeline, said, getting up as well.
‘Nonsense, child!’ maman immediately answered to this, perturbed, ‘Your features appear uncommonly beautiful by the flames. You wouldn’t deprive the chevalier of them, would you? Isn't she beautiful in this light, chevalier?’
The chevalier looked at her and marveled again at how delicate she looked, and how doll-like, for apart from their beauty her big blue eyes had also yet to reveal to him any of the depth of her character. They felt like a screen, blocking true insight of her inside. He was fascinated, but also a little bit scared.
‘Uhm, I guess?’ he answered.
‘You guess! Oh, dear boy, do you guess after beauty? You mustn't own a lot of mirrors. Sit closer, children, sit closer, so I can adore the image of you both together.’
She laughed, theatrically, and followed up with an acceleration of her fan above her heaving bosom, when she understood that neither of them had followed her in laughter.
‘Pray, maman, what are you saying?’
‘Nothing, my child’, she answered, falling for a moment herself into the girl’s entrancing stare.
She dislodged herself and winked at the chevalier: ‘And everything. Isn’t she innocent?’
‘I would like to follow you to the window, maman. I feel the necessity of some coolness as well. Indeed, the wetness that has accumulated underneath my bodice is running unpleasantly into my bloomers as we speak.’
Madame’s eyes grew almost as big as her daughter’s with mortification. The chevalier’s uncomfortable swallowing struck her ears as the falling down of her great-grandmother’s gravestone, a woman, the stories told, who had braved the biggest storms of secondhand embarrassment.
‘You will do no such thing, Madeline. It's clear the fire is too hot for all of us...but someone has to also make sure it doesn't die. I will tell the maître to...uhm, well, what can one...find a bucket to throw on the fire. Oh, your father wants me. Duty calls.’
In a swoop and still red, she sprung from her seat and rushed to her place beside her husband. By placing her hand on his arm, she released him from the spell of some nocturnal scenery, so she could address him in a whisper:
‘What are you doing here? You’d better given me a hand with that foolish daughter of yours! With her talk, she will end up a spinster! Why are you looking outside? Is there something to see? I can't see anything. It's too dark.’
‘That might be the effect of the night on the landscape, ma chérie. If you want to dispel it, you should turn up the moon.’
‘Oh, don't play games with me, you old fool. Rather help me with your daughter. Oh, those words! Those nuns, they ruined her education. If they were here, I would slap them for it.’
It was true that Madeline had but just been released from the convent. And madame had to her horror discovered that the goodly sisters had not taught her daughter anything about proper flirtation.
‘A convent was never my desire, ma chérie, you know that.’
‘It’s the custom, Guillaume’
She grunted. She had no time for her husband’s remonstrances. She wanted his help.
‘Are you distressed, maman?’ her daughter yelled from the sofa.
‘No, my dear child, I just thought I saw a glimpse of a falling star!’
‘Really? Is it still there?’
Her mother waved her away, wishing that she would turn to the chevalier again and that she would not make herself more disagreeable.
‘No, not at all. No chance. You sit yourself back down.’
‘Did you call for that bucket, maman? I'm still rather hot. If it takes much longer, I might have to throw its content on myself, when it gets here.’
She opened her fan to disguise her skin turning pale and turned back around.
Her husband could not suppress a laugh. Her eyes turned to him angrily.
‘Oh hush, monsieur.’
‘I hope she has,’ Madeline said to the chevalier, ‘Maybe it's not the heat, maybe it's something I ate during dinner, or maybe it's the combination, but this bodice as well... Maman pulled it extra tight this afternoon and I cannot bear it. I have this strong desire for someone to rip it open and help me breathe.’
The chevalier clearly understood her predicament. He could not help but feel hot himself and pull his cravat while he saw her slip her little hands into her décolletage to pull at her chemise. Some sweat began forming on his forehead.
‘Are you quite well yourself, chevalier?’ Madeline asked, seeing him turn red.
The sisters had always taught her that any good Christian must be ready to help another.
‘Maybe you have the same problem? Is anything too tight? Maybe I can help you loosen your coat for you?’
His eyes grew big, just like the vein on his forehead. Sweat now really accumulated around his brow.
Her hands were already on the third button when the door opened, and the maître brought release with his appearance.
He came for his master.
‘Monsieur, can I speak to you for a moment?’
‘What is it, maître?’
‘It is the servants, monsieur.’
‘What about them?’
The maître hesitated, looking furtively at the women and the young chevalier.
‘Monsieur…,’ he began.
‘Just say what you have to say, man. We don’t hold any secrets from our guests.’
‘It’s the servants, monsieur. They are in fear of … a demonic force roaming the castle and its walls.’
‘A demonic force roaming the castle, wearing a big dark cape, creeping in the dark, making noises.’
‘As you undoubtedly do, when you are as such attired,’ monsieur remarked.
The master of the house taught it over for a moment and began to laugh it off, as was his practice with everything.
‘Well, I haven’t seen anything, and I have been standing by the window for quite some time.’
Madame grabbed his upper arm.
‘But it is dark, dear, remember.’
‘Ah yes, indeed, it is,’ he answered, ’Silly of me to forget.’
‘How exciting,’ said Madeline, ‘I’m getting goose bumps all over. Look chevalier.’
Madame could only roll her eyes to prevent them from dropping in despair. The fact that the chevalier had not fled out of the room and the castle yet, was, if anything, at least something to find solace in. And maybe this demon would prove to be just the diversion that would help him forget about Madeline’s impropriety.
‘Tell us more, maître,’ she asked, ‘because this sounds like a strange inconvenience indeed.’
‘Well the kitchen maids where doing some dishes, when it stormed into the room and attacked. They screamed and it disappeared, but they are still paralyzed with fear. And then others have claimed to have seen things and heard things as well.’
‘Good heavens,’ she exclaimed, ‘and is everything quite alright in the kitchens then? Are the crystal glasses fine? And the silver?’
‘Nothing broke, Madame, but the maids are still quite shaken.’
She gave a sight of relieve and smiled.
‘That’s good,’ she answered.
‘But how is this thing demonic?’ asked monsieur.
‘It frightened the maids, monsieur,’ was the answer.
‘Well that settles it then. No other option possible.’
Madame, whose senses over the years had become fine-tuned to perceive her husband’s sarcasm, reproached him and said:
‘Oh, but why wouldn’t it be, monsieur. Is there any other reason for something to suddenly appear in this house without any invitation? To me it sounds decidedly evil and demonic.’
‘Maybe, this thing is not a something, but a someone, a someone who had the purpose to break in?’
‘But why? Why would anyone want to break in here?’
‘Have you tried guessing my dear? Seems to be very in vogue with the clergy.’
She gave him a slap.
‘Oh, shut your deist mouth, you.’
She was not having it. She would not be made fun of like this; they had a guest.
‘This could be serious,’ the chevalier, buttoned up again, interposed, ‘Maman told me that last month the duke of Valacroix’s new mansion was broken into as well. Later-on the servants reported to have seen a caped figure creeping in the corridors during that night as well. I had bad dreams for a whole week after she told me.’
‘Excellent point, chevalier,’ Madame replied,’ wasn’t your sister at Valacroix’s as well, that fateful evening and didn’t she tell us the same thing, monsieur? If it is the same force…’
‘I do wish it to be a demon, however,’ Madeline said, ‘because that would just be so much more interesting. I have never seen a demon before, you know, chevalier, but burglars and murderers, you can always see those when they are hanged.’
To this the chevalier, nor anyone else had an immediate reply. Her parents were busy wondering about the sisters, however, and what the objectives had been in their daughter’s education that had made them declare her to be a success.
‘Don’t you think I’m right?’ asked Madeline, wondering at the silence. And as her thought couldn’t go as far without stumbling on the remainder of a previous one, she followed up with:
‘Mother, have you asked the maître for the water yet?’
‘A glass, milady?’ the servant asked.
‘Oh no, dear maître, that won’t do…a bucket or maybe even two.’
‘Just lessen the heat of the fire, maître,’ her mother said.
‘Maybe we should look around and find out?’ the head of the household interjected to come back upon the topic of the mystery presence in the castle.
‘Oh yes,’ answered Madeline while she jumped up from the sofa, ‘let’s have a hunt. I will come with you.’
Her father wanted to answer that he did not believe that that was such a good idea, but madame grabbed him and quickly convinced him of the merits of the scheme for having a talk with his daughter upon the subject of her behavior.
‘Alright,’ he said, turning back to her, ’let’s go and hunt this demon then.’
© 2020 Douglas Redant