Hey there, dear readers, it's me today! The last frog in the Thorstruck blog hop! Sharing with you my short story from the Thorstruck Press anthology: The Blood Red Nails of War.
In the past couple of weeks I've written about all the other stories from The Secrets of Castle Drakon, highlighting the different genres, introducing the authors and sharing snippets & reviews. So today, I'll tell you a little more about The Blood Red Nails of War before giving you the entire story to read at your leisure.
In the summer of 2015 Thorstruck Press will publish Book #1 in the Daughter of The Alvar Series called Ingrid. This suspenseful family saga is set in South Sweden in 1890 and is my virginal attempt at writing historical fiction. The series will consist of 5 books: 5 generations of women from the late 19th century until the early 21th century. For the short story in the anthology I've taken 3 snippets from Book #2, in which Ingrid's daughter Agnes is the main character, part 1 from 1907, part 2 from 1917 and the epilogue from 1918. I haven't decided yet whether I will later integrate The Blood Red Nails of War into the novel "Agnes" but for now it is intended as a stand-alone story.
So far, I've been a jack of all trades and a master of none genre-wise but I think I'm finding my niche in writing family sagas. Moreover, I must say I really enjoy being busy with historical fiction. A nostalgia for life less complicated, slower and less direct. The Secrets of Castle Drakon cover inspired me to take the story to France in the early 20th century among the aristocratic classes, both pre-war and war-struck!
Alors, grab a 'café crème' or a 'thé à la menthe', snuggle on the couch with your tablet or phone and jump back in time. It is the truly French summer in 1907, cloudless & easygoing.
For my Thorstruck family, so close to me in spirit
Part I 1908
Liberty: one of the imagination’s most precious possessions ~ Ambrose Bierce
Elle de Dragancourt was weaving her hand through the water of the pond, luring the fat koi carps towards her with her blood-red fingernails. When they were about to bite, she quickly withdrew her hand.
The Parisiènne would wait for the red-and-white fish to give up their hunt for food and swim away, before she dipped her fingers back in, wetting her Valencienne lace cuffs without care.
Boredom had set in with Elle, with the long summer days, the lack of company, the silence of country life, but no one seemed to care the least bit for her state. Nothing went her way these days. Not since ‘la petite affaire’ that had made her blood sing and her father cringe.
“I haven’t seen Alexandre La Trémoille for ages.”
The tall girl with her willowy figure and shiny black hair around a pale narrow face, left her game at the side of the pond and got up, stretching her long legs and adjusting her blue-silk afternoon dress. Her words were addressed to no one in particular.
Elle’s two sisters, Marie-Clementine and Valérie, could be heard playing a game of tennis in the court at the back of the family’s country estate. Her twin brother Jacques was lounging under a parasol on the lawn immersed in Henry James’s The Wings Of The Dove, his flanneled legs draped dandishly over the side of his lounge seat.
Like every year, also in July 1908, Count Horace de Dragoncourt and his English wife Virginia had left their stately mansion on the Boulevard Hauptmann in Paris for Château Drakòn in the Departement Roye, to spend the summer months away from the city. Apart from their four children, aged fifteen to nineteen, they had brought their cook, two kitchen maids, the parlour maid, and the chauffeur who also doubled as the butler.
Local staff consisted of two gardeners for the garden à la Française, and two stable boys for the Arabian horses the Dragoncourt girls were fond of riding.
Listlessly, Elle sauntered over to her brother, and seeing he had dozed off with his book half in his lap, she gave his dangling calf a nasty pinch with her sharp nails.
Jacques woke with a start. “Ouch, hell, I’ve been stung by a wasp!”
Smiling, Elle turned her back on him to continue her leisurely stroll to the tennis court. Just then did she hear the tyres of the family car crunch the gravel in the drive. Car doors slammed. Alexandre had arrived! She quickly employed a more agreeable expression on her sulky face and hastened to be the first to welcome their guest.
Alexandre, tall, elegant, and middle-aged, towered over her as he took her hand to kiss it, ignoring the traces of waterweed his lips had to brush. His grey-green gaze didn’t leave her hazel one, but Elle had already lost interest.
“Where’s Daniel?” It sounded like a reproach.
“Hello to you too mademoiselle Elle, what a nice surprise to see you again!” La Trémoille, well aware he was considered a ‘mere’ businessman, although rich beyond means but not of blue blood, was irritated by the young girl’s haughty tone, knowing well how she had lowered herself only weeks earlier with Daniel Westport, an American business associate of his and a man of much lower esteem than he.
“Oh sorry old chap, yes hello to you too!” Elle shrugged at his hostile approach and immediately looked for ways to get away from him now he hadn’t brought Daniel, but just at that moment her mother, the eternally gracious Countess Virginia de Dragoncourt – but everyone called her Ginny - came flowing towards them, all perfume and crèpe de mousseline, a fairy-tale picture but with an alabaster heart. Alexandre also bent his bronzed head over the Countess’s gloved hand and brushed the scented leather with his lips.
Ginny immediately locked arms with Alexandre, and sending him a radiant smile from perfectly painted lips announced, in her high-pitched voice, “Viens avec moi, dahling, champagne is ready!” Then she turned her well coifed dark head to her daughter, and with a triumphant squint in her golden flecked brown eyes, said, “Are you joining us on the terrace, honey?”
“No thank you Mother, I’ll let you oldies have fun together.”
“Dinner at eight in la grande salle verte,” Ginny ordered, drifting lightly up the steps that led to the entrance of the castle, and disappearing inside. Elle could hear her giggle resonate from the walls and a cold feeling raced up her veins.
She lingered outside on the gravel not knowing why the little scene with her mother and De Trémoille had unsettled her, and not knowing what to do next she turned her lively mind to Alexandre’s shiny white 120 HP Benz that stood pontifically on the driveway, still making clicking noises while cooling down from its sudden halt. Elle sniffed around the long chassis of the 4-cylinder marvel with the striking black tires, so elegantly contrasting with the white body, like a dog on heat.
She simply had to hop in to feel the touch of the black leather upholstery, warmed by the sun and Alexandre’s derriere. Gripping the copper wheel, so slender and round, between her two hands; and it felt swell, just swell. This Benz had only three weeks earlier entered in the 1908 French Grand Prix in Dieppe, where it came in second. Boy was that something!
Elle’s father, Count Horace de Dragoncourt also owned a car, but it was an ugly black Ford T that looked like a silly boy’s toy compared to this racer. Papa’s car, which was considered just a motoring convenience, had never struck a chord in his high-strung daughter. Elle craved beauty in everything her eyes wandered to, and when that wandering eye rested on something of her liking she simply had to have it. Having a bone to pick with De Trémoille, as it was this insidious toad who’d given her father the hint about her affair with Daniel Westport, Elle’s mind was made up. She was going to give the Benz a good ride.
“It’s just you and me now, beauty,” she declared, as she slid out of the seat to get hold of the crank at front. It was much harder to turn than she had anticipated, but after a couple of yanks the motor started unwillingly and Elle ran back to the driver’s seat.
What now? She pushed a number of pedals and inspected the dials on the dashboard. The beauty squeaked quite shrilly, ending her protest in a grunting noise, then fell still. Elle spied around her to see if anybody had become alerted by the noise, but the family was in the back garden behind the solid walls of the castle, so she decided to give it another go. This time she struck the right pedal, obviously having released the hand-brake, and off she went, first making a semi-circle over the gravel in front, and then down the lane in between the old trees until she came to the Avenue de Paris. The soft summer breeze undid Elle’s hairdo, and long black strands whirled in her face and around the steering wheel, but she didn’t give a damn.
“This is it!” she shouted to the wind, her mouth covetous and her golden eyes reflecting the brilliance of exuberant youth.
People stopped at the side of the road, peasants returning home for their supper with bundles of straw or potatoes on their back, and a cyclist saved his own skin by hastily retiring to the strip of grass along the road as Elle almost knocked him over.
At first she swayed from left to right and back, being fortunate there were hardly any other cars, but soon she got the hang of it and positioned herself strongly on the right side of the road. Turning at Le Roi du Matelas, she stepped on the gas on the way back, reaching a top speed of 100 kilometres per hour. There and then, Elle found her destination. She was going to be the first French female race car driver, and a car would especially be designed for her.
None of the family had noticed her disappearance and for once Elle looked quite subdued and just lovely in her lavender-coloured evening dress of chiffon, low enough to show her modest bosom but high enough not to upset the Count. She feigned interest in the garden party that was to be held the next day, all the while planning and plotting how to convince her father to back her new-found destiny.
A flower cannot blossom without sunshine, and a man cannot live without love ~ Max Muller
There was nothing Agnes liked more than to sit and read and think in the shade of the big chestnut tree with its abundance of identical five-fingered leaves.
At her feet, as always, lay old Gåva, the sheepdog Papa and she had brought from Sweden fifteen years earlier. Gåva, her black and tan coat motley and matt now, was blind, and almost deaf, but her grey-haired nose made up for her other declining senses. Even the slightest movement of Miss Agnes’s legs was registered by the loyal dog and she guarded her mistress as she had once done Ingrid, the young girl’s mother.
Where Agnes was, Gåva followed to the effect that she even slept in a wicker basket next to Agnes’s bed, much to the disapproval of her father Max, who had always tolerated and respected this remnant of his daughter’s unfortunate past, but in essence viewed the animal as a mere carrier of lice.
“Dearest,” he tried every time, “You simply cannot take Gåva to Mrs Guillard’s tea party, or to the Duke of Bourbon’s ball.”
But it all fell on deaf ears. As pliant as Agnes was in all other matters, her dog was her one living memory of the country of her birth. So she wouldn’t part with her, like a young child would hang on to its toy tiger. Knowing of the girl’s obsessive devotion to her dog Max feared the moment the two of them would have to part, to the extent that it kept the Baron awake at night, wondering whether he should introduce a new playmate to his daughter now or take her on an extended vacation when the sad moment arrived.
But for now all was happy and tranquil under the chestnut tree in the garden of the Château de Melancourt in Picardy. Through the open window Agnes could hear her father practice the Theodore Moses-Tobani’s Hearts and Flowers that he was to play with his orchestra L’Esprit Musique at a garden party they were attending the next day. It sounded very melancholic, but also pure and beautiful. Agnes was glad her father was so devoted to music, although she felt bad she couldn’t talk about it with him as she had no knowledge of any instrument and no feeling for it.
Endless times her musical only parent had tried, first with piano, then with violin, even with several wind instruments, but Agnes couldn’t even master reading notes and she sang horribly out of tune. Books and writing were Agnes’s passion, and at fifteen she was completely certain she wanted to study Languages and Philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Now she was indulging in The Wings of the Dove by one of her favourite authors, the American, Henry James. Home-tutored, Agnes was well-versed in French, English, Swedish and Latin, and also spoke a substantial mouthful of German and Spanish.
‘My little scholar’ her father dotingly called her. Gåva was used to her mistress exclaiming dramatic parts of her much-loved novels aloud, and although Swedish to the bone the old dog, like no other, understood the love of words in any expressible human language.
Agnes was a very blonde, blue-eyed nymph of medium height, and with a distinct but modest upright appearance. Those who had known her mother, the unfortunate vicar’s daughter Ingrid Gunarsson of Öland in the Baltic Sea, would have seen a striking likeness between mother and daughter. The Baron, sadly, wasn’t Agnes’s real father but he had told her he had loved her deceased mother so very much, and for that reason alone felt Agnes to be his daughter in every possible way but the biological.
Her real father was a man whose history was shrouded in mystery. Papa Max had told her his name was Kalle Ljundberg and that he resided in the United States of America. A Swede by birth he had left her mother unwed – hence Agnes’s surname being a combination of her mother’s maiden name and her father’s titled last name. When Agnes turned sixteen on the 4th of April 1909, Papa Max had promised to tell the apple of his eye everything about the vague circumstances of her birth and the relationship of her parents. Until that age, he had felt her to be too young and impressionable to deal with her difficult start in life.
But whenever Agnes pressed him with questions about her mother, Papa Max was all too willing to answer them forthright. There was a framed photograph of her mother on the grand piano.
Mama dressed in a beautiful but quite outmoded pink dress, embroidered with tiny pink and white roses with a red heart; soft-looking material with lace lining. Her blonde hair was also styled in an old-fashioned way, all heaviness at the front in thick rolls of springy light hair, making her look too old for her young age.
The eyes were striking, and although it was a black and white photograph the clear light in them sprang at you, there was zest for life and mockery in equal doses in the gaze and the mouth, with soft full lips, smiling bountifully, showing two rows of perfect, strong teeth. The photograph had become full of colour for young Agnes, because Papa Max had ordered the French symbolist painter Edgar Maxence to paint a portrait of the photo, and this large painting was hanging over the mantelpiece in his music room. The two images had melted into one in Agnes’s vision, and as they were the only visual image she had of poor mama she looked at them every day, sometimes several times.
Every year, at the end of winter, she and her father undertook the over 1500 kilometres from Paris to the graveyard in Smedby village, on the island of Öland, to pay their respects and look after the tomb. Ingrid was buried in a remote spot of the same graveyard where Agnes’s grandparents, Elisabet Gunarsson-Holm and Gustav Gunarsson, lay side-by-side. They would also quickly pass by their tomb, but Agnes didn’t like the concerned frown on her father’s forehead when they did.
“Agnes, where are you?” Her father’s clear musical voice sounded from the open window.
“Ici, Papa.” She threw the book in her chair and dashed towards the house. Gåva followed as quickly as her old legs would carry her.
Her father had come downstairs and stood on the carpet in the hall smiling broadly at his protégé. Despite being of substantial means, the Baron always dressed casually and cared very little for protocol and decorum. He was in his early forties now, his dark hair only here and there with a silvery thread, his olive-skin a remembrance of his gypsy mother; a soft warm glow in his deep-brown eyes.
He wasn’t a remarkably handsome man, nor very imposing as he was not tall enough for that, but there was something in his posture, a mixture of tenacious morality and artistic kindness that made sure you didn’t overlook Baron Maximilian Dupuis de Melancourt. Today he wore embroidered Persian babouches, simple grey flannel trousers with a clear fold in them, and a rather wide dark blue cotton pullover under which the collar of his white chemise, with the invariably silk cravat tucked in, were visible.
He opened his arms wide and the blonde nymph to her adoptive father rushed into his arms as if she was still five years old. After the long cuddle as if they hadn’t seen each other at lunchtime, Max dutifully caressed the grey head of the wildly tail-wagging Gåva before he turned his full interest to his daughter again. “What were you doing out there, chérie? The obvious?”
“Of course Papa, have you ever read Henry James? I think him extraordinary. Oh, if I only could compose sentences like that.”
“Henry James? No I haven’t, my darling. Literature-wise, I am quite a philistine at times. Do instruct me, which of his books should I embark upon first.”
“Start with The Portrait of A Lady, Papa. You’ll like it, it’s quite artistic, like you.”
This made the baron smile. Arm-in-arm they went through the maze of corridors of the Château until they came to the tea room in the left wing, which also served as a conservatory for Max’s collection of oriental plants.
As it was a warm and sunny day the glass doors to the garden were wide open and Justine, the maid, was busy setting up their afternoon tea. Father and daughter enjoyed the strong English tea with milk and sugar and a slice of fruit cake. The Baron wasn’t frugal or sparing, but ever since he had seen the extreme poverty in which his beloved Ingrid had had to survive, he believed in not eating too much in between meals and hated every form of frippery and extravagance.
No room in Château de Melancourt was considered a real room when it didn’t have music, so even in the conservatory there was a gramophone with a collection of records. For this afternoon O Sole Mio sounded from the big horn, a little scratchy at times but ever so soulful and theatrical.
Gåva gratefully licked up the crumbs Agnes dropped on the floor. The summer of 1908 was a happy one. It lacked very little.
The Tea Party
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea ~ Henry James
Château de Drakòn bathed in history. Since the time of pre-roman civilisation people had lived in the Roye area. It had first probably been a Gallo-Roman land estate.
The castle derived its name from the coat of arms of Louis, first Count of Dragoncourt, who obtained the Renaissance castle in the 16th century. As he was a member of the Bourbon family and a leader of the Protestant party, he had chosen the sign of the dragon in combination with the French court. The castle being one of the strongholds of the religious wars, that pestered France at the time, had two impressive gatehouses and an underground jail with an intricate locking system.
During the last years of the Sun King's reign in the 18th century the Château became a showpiece for the arts and music. This sixth generation, Philippe Count de Dragoncourt became exorbitantly rich thanks to marrying the daughter of the Marquis de la Raye, and lucrative trading in the Indies.
Much of the castle's final appearance was due to Philippe. He brought to Drakòn the Italian atmosphere of the famous architect Servandoni. The current 9th Count de Dragoncourt, Horace lived comfortably on the wealth gathered by his predecessors and had little interest or insight in changing so much as one painting in the Oudry wing, or a mirror in the Servandoni ballroom, or a shaped box tree in the nine acre park. But he had installed all the newest devices: electrical light, telephone, central heating.
That particular morning in July 1908 had passed in an absolute frenzy at Château de Drakòn, to prepare for the afternoon tea party that was to host thirty guests of very different plumage, and therefore exceedingly complex to organise.
Add to this mix the Countess Virginia, who was ignorant of all matters practical and adaptable, and it was enough to set the whole understaffed servant’s quarters of the Château on fire.
The two kitchen maids, Daphne and Dolly, who on normal days didn’t get on very well as Daphne, born and bred in Paris, considered herself a liege above provincial Dolly, but then Dolly was prettier than coarsely-built Daphne, and there had been a row about Daphne’s beau showing interest in Dolly, so only the slightest agitation was enough to set off the two, leaving the kitchen in a state of chaos that would even make Napoleon turn in his grave.
By mid-morning, realising the state of affairs, the despairing but kind-hearted Count had ordered Guillame, the butler, to drive to Boulangerie Patrice in the centre of Roye and buy the cakes and pastries necessary for the party, while the two girls got the flour from their hair and calmed down with a cup of tea.
All the while Ginny remained outside the common squabbling, immersed in throwing silk gowns one after the other onto her four poster bed, sighing deeply and forever shaking her head. She was entering a similar state of agitation as the maids downstairs, so that as soon as Guillame returned with the cakes he had to reverse the T-Ford and drive Madame to Le Centre de La Mode Moderne, the flashy new department store that had recently opened in Roye, so she could purchase a much needed new gown.
The children, 19-year old Marie-Clementine, though the oldest of the lot, still the chubbiest of them all, red-curled and freckled, the 17-year old twins Jacques and Elle, not identical but quite identical looking, and ‘the baby’ 15-year old Valérie, went about their usual holiday activities, quite oblivious to all the commotion going on at Drakòn.
Elle didn’t get on well with her sisters, who invariably had gone out for their morning horse-riding trip, and she pretended to dislike Jacques as well but actually quite adored him. The only thing that wasn’t so great about her brother was his bookishness. For the rest he was quite dashing to see, popular with the girls, and the only one open to a bit of mischief.
It lay on her lips to disclose her secret to him, wanting to become a car racer, but not having her plan ready yet, to yield her father into having a car designed for her, she thought it best not to yet. “Do you know any of the people Mother and Father invited this afternoon?” Elle was sitting in one of the armchairs with a very high back, hugging her legs.
She was contemplating wearing trousers to the afternoon tea, not just for the shock of it but also to make a statement about her future career. Jacques was lying on the sofa reading his Henry James’s novel. He looked up at his sister, a glint of mischief in his eyes that alerted her to listen carefully.
“Well, I heard the eccentric Baron Dupuis de Melancourt is attending with his stray daughter and dog. Apparently, the orphan is quite a pretty thing and ever so malleable.” He winked at his sister.
But Elle had little interest in another of her father’s queer acquaintances with their appendages. However exotic at first sight, they always turned out to be shaped of the same dullness inside; their queerness just a varnish on their outward appearance while inwardly too afraid to move with the times, hanging on to their eccentricities as a lapdog to the hem of its mistress’s skirt.
Elle sighed. Only thoughts of exhilarating speed and screeching tires seemed to make her heart beat faster. “I’m old before my years. I don’t have a passion for people anymore.”
“You never had, darling sister,” her brother remarked sharply. “Passion equals possession in your case. In well-measured proportions.”
Elle stuck out her tongue and softly muttered a swear word. She left the room hating everyone, including Jacques.
Some hours later as the first tones of Tobani’s Hearts and Flowers resounded over the clinking of cups and light conversation, Elle came down the stairs at the back of the Castle in a white silk blouse with a brown tie, and a pair of beige corduroy riding trousers which hugged her slim figure at the waist and billowed out at the thighs.
Her feet and lower legs were covered by sturdy brown leather riding boots. Her hair was simply held together in a loose knot at the nape of her neck with a brown male beret a little tilted on her pretty head. She had completed her outfit with very red lips and matching nail varnish. Liking the picture her mirror had reflected, she decided this new look befitted her new life and dresses were passé.
Anticipating the ripple of consternation her appearance would cause she grinned widely, revealing strong white teeth that bit into a long cigarette holder.
“Thank you,” she blew a kiss to De Trémoille who hastened towards her to light her cigarette for her, adding under her breath, “Toad.” Elle had missed the light-blue eyes of the girl sitting in the shade in the outer ring of the gathering, holding a dog leash in one hand while her other hand was lightly lying on the neck of the old dog sitting next to her.
Agnes’s eyes were big with surprise and she had no idea what to make of the girl, was it a girl?, who had just joined the party. Contrary to the rest of the people, Agnes had no opinion on the newcomer’s looks, it simply confused her.
The girl, she decided it must be a member of her own sex because of the red nails and lips, obviously was part of the scenery as she talked hither and thither, and everywhere she went was approached with a mix of respect and bewilderment. Agnes would have loved her father to tell her who she was, but as he was occupied with his orchestra she sat by herself feeling odd and alone. Agnes wasn’t one for parties but her father wanted her to socialise, and she didn’t want to let Papa down.
He had assured her his old-time friend and fellow étudiant Horace de Dragoncourt had four children her age and she would enjoy their company, and perhaps see more of them during the course of this summer.
I doubt they will be interested in me, Agnes had thought with her usual withdrawn attitude, so she was very surprised to hear a strong voice behind her exclaim, “Miss Agnes Dupuis, or should I call you Miss Gunarsson?” Her Swedish last name was pronounced in a singsong French accent. Agnes turned around to see a dazzling youngster come her way, and drop himself and his long legs on the empty seat at her solitary table.
He gazed at her from underneath a lock of black hair, scrutinising light-brown eyes the colour of medium dry sherry. He held out a slender hand, a signet ring dandily on his right pinky finger. Hesitantly, Agnes gave him her lace-gloved hand.
“Jacques,” he introduced himself. Nothing more. And while she was still searching inside her vocabulary for the correct answer, he continued, “Well?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What shall I call you?”
“It… it doesn’t matter, both are alright,” she stammered, her cheeks colouring under his constant gaze.
Just when she wondered whether he would reveal who he was, he whispered in her ear, “I’m one of them!” Pointing his thumb in the direction of the Count, who was standing on the grass with his hands on his back listening to the L’Esprit Musique. “But I don’t feel I am.”
Agnes looked at him in amazement. From what she had gathered of the Dragoncourt family, they seemed a happy bunch with the odd wild streak, but funny and accomplished. “Why not?”
She arched her eyebrows in what Jacques thought an endearing way but he had already lost interest in belonging or not, and turned his short-lived interest to Gåva. He stretched out his hand but quickly withdrew it when the old dog revealed its yellow teeth.
“Gåva, down,” Agnes ordered, and the dog immediately obeyed. Apologetically she said to Jacques, “I’m sorry, she’s blind and deaf and very dedicated to me. But she will never do anything or I wouldn’t bring her.”
“Never mind,” Jacques assured her. “Can I get you another cup of tea?”
“Delightful.” She nodded and her smile stole its way into the young man’s heart in a way he didn’t understand. It unsettled him, but just when he wanted to get up and help her to a fresh pot of tea Elle’s voice came down on them to destroy everything.
“Now, my brother, who’s your latest conquest if I may ask?” Her hands on her hips, a defiant look in her hazel eyes, she stood in front of them, square on her piece of ground, not budging one inch.
“Enchanté,” she said in a mocking voice, holding out the hand with the blood-red nails to Agnes.
Agnes took the offered fingers gingerly, and said, “Enchanté, Mademoiselle.”
A Boy and Two Girls
We must watch over our modesty in the presence of those who cannot understand its grounds ~ Jean Rostand
In their teens, the twins Jacques and Elle, had one heart with two minds, two bodies with one goal. They invariably wanted what the other one had found first.
Wherever the first one’s eye strayed, the second one’s followed, until in unison they met their fate in the pleadingly sweet figure of the light-haired heiress of the barony of Dupuis-de Melancourt.
Elle was struck, she would never have admitted it, but really dumbstruck, by Agnes’s fairylike appearance and the phenomenal character that already showed behind all the modesty. She fell for the Swedish lass like a leaf in autumn, snapping loose after prolonged withering, and then whirling down, round and round until it landed on the soft moss, to lie there for good.
Agnes, so very foreign to the Dragoncourts’ cynical doings, looked from brother to sister with an uncertain expression in her crystalline blue eyes. The siblings had taken up position in opposite seats at her table, staring wordlessly at each other, but with the grimness of two boxers in the ring.
Meanwhile their visitor kept an anxious watch on Gåva, alerted by the dog’s guarded attitude. Not feeling at ease with being the target of so much tension, Agnes was relieved to see the black evening jacket of her father’s orchestra uniform weaving through the throng of people, coming her way.
“Here Papa,” she cried, waving her hand in the cream-lace glove and holding her wide hat in the same colour with her other hand. Max, on spotting his daughter, hurried her way, glad to see her seated with two young people her own age.
“Ah ma cherié,” he smiled broadly, “how did we do?” He was of course hinting at the concert just performed, but Agnes’s non-musical ears, plus all the stifled emotion that had been going on around her, had failed to hear one note of the entire performance. Fortunately her father was more interested in her companions than in her answer, and was already shaking hands with the twins. Finding out they were his friend Horace’s children, he immediately invited them to their castle in Picardy.
“You must come this week! I can send the car any day you like,” the hospitable baron insisted, “don’t you agree Agnes dear? It will be delightful to hear young voices in our quarters once again.”
Elle was sniffing out the baron, her hazel gaze making a close inspection of the middle-aged dark appearance, friendly and somewhat withdrawn, just like the girl. Max was wearing his orchestra uniform, so there was no saying whether he truly was the eccentric dresser Jacques said he was in daily life.
Agnes looked absolutely adorable in perhaps not the latest Paris fashion, but still a very reasonable dress of blue chiffon with cream trimmings. A tad too modest but suiting her buttoned-up Nordic style, and showing off the waif-like body underneath.
Elle’s mind worked fast. Now she had decided to change tack clothing-wise herself, she might even enjoy the odd prank. And driving the 95 kilometres to Picardy - alas in the slow old T Ford - would be a good practice to show Papa what she was capable of.
“Why not?” she breezed at her brother, giving him a kick against the shin under the table. “It’s not like we’re having a disastrously overloaded agenda right now, and I’m sure Jacques and Agnes can talk books while I can pound a little on the piano as accompaniment to your fiddling away.”
Max stared at the boisterous young girl, momentarily stuck for an answer, but she gave him a playful wink and then he had to laugh. Something broke open in him and he laughed like he hadn’t done in years, loud and clear so that eyes turned to see what the merriment was at their table.
“You’re… you’re quite something, Miss Elle,” he chortled with glee, “Oh my, oh my!” His laughter seemed to ease the tension and soon all four of them were laughing, not knowing why but just for the fun of it. Even old Gåva wagged her tail and pushed her wet snout against Agnes’s thigh to join in.
And so it was that Jacques and Elle drove down the winding French lanes to Château De Melancourt, and after a first visit which turned out quite favourably, Max agreed to Agnes’s packing a suitcase and going to stay at Drakòn for a fortnight. There was no leaving Gåva behind, so the old dog was tugged along.
Agnes had been extremely doubtful about the whole enterprise, not that she didn’t like Jacques and Elle, because behind their initial mockery and cynicism she found they were genuinely interested in her and bent over backwards to gain her attention. But it was all so sudden and she was so used to her tranquil life with Papa and Gåva and the servants and her books and the Picardy garden.
Contrary to all she had known before, life at Drakòn always seemed to take place in the fast lane. The twin's were ever so worldly wise, though only two years her senior, smoking and talking of kissing the other sex, occasionally even using the crass word. And then there was Elle’s manner of dressing and the fact that her parents consented to it, she even drove the car everywhere herself, not letting Jacques near the steering wheel.
Agnes always needed much time to absorb new impressions, writing about them in her diary, but since Jacques and Elle had taken over her life she lived in a constant merry-go-round, too exhausted at night to jot down a single word. But above all she didn’t want to let her father down, who obviously also enjoyed the loud-spoken duo and apparently considered them a good influence on his quiet only child.
“You’re going to stay with me in my bedroom,” Elle declared, looking over her shoulder to the back seat where Agnes sat huddled together with the shaking Gåva. The car was going at least 75 kilometres per hour but the road was bendy and more than once Elle had to brake forcefully to take it, leaving her three passengers in wonder whether they would reach the end of the curve in once piece.
“For Heaven’s sake, Elle,” Jacques shouted angrily, “Drive more with your brains and less with your feet. You’re not alone in this car. You’re frightening the living daylights out of our guests!” He also looked over his shoulder and sent Agnes a reassuring glance.
“Sorry, Agnes,” Elle mumbled, and she did adjust her speed. “Listen sweetie, tomorrow we’re going car shopping together. I need a new car. This old rickety thing doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore.” It was unclear if the ‘sweetie’ was addressed to Jacques or Agnes, but probably both. Neither wanted the other to have exclusive time with Agnes. Jacques couldn’t have her sleeping in his bedroom, but otherwise he would.
The Dragoncourt twins had fallen head over heels for the Swedish nymph with the sky-blue eyes and golden locks, who emanated the purest light of inner self, the modest and quiet being, almost like transparent water flowing between their fingers; elusive, dreamlike, eternal. An infatuation the dark twin's couldn’t grasp, and which only befuddled little Agnes.
Jealousy that dragon, which slays love under the pretence of keeping it alive ~ Havelock Ellis
One could wonder why the Count de Dragoncourt gave so much leeway to his children, letting them run wild liked untrained dogs, creating havoc and commotion wherever their fancy took them, but in fact this hadn’t always been the case.
The longstanding differences between the opposite characters of the count and countess had in the end led to them giving in. Forever battling about the education of their offspring, with the count opting for stern but fair, and the countess with her erratic behaviour always undermining his authority, they had in the end thrown in the towel and let the four children be as they wanted to be. However, not all was lost.
The eldest daughter; chubby, red-haired Marie-Clementine, was actually quite a well behaved young woman, kind and generous like her father. Though not the smartest or the prettiest of the bunch, she had landed in a favourable engagement to Mr Maurice Martin, who as a member of the lower gentry may not have been the aristocrat the family was looking for, but made up for this lack by being a rising star in France’s political firmament.
Martin was one of the co-creators of the Entente Cordiale, the British-French agreement to solidify the connections between the two eternal enemies. His wife-to-be had but one passion, which was horse riding, so her modest but insistent wish for her marriage had been ‘a place in the country’, which now had been found near Versailles in the vicinity of Paris where she would be close to her parents and the younger sister she doted on.
Also ‘the baby’ Valérie, at fifteen, was not a difficult child although well-equipped with a quick mind and a strong will. Valérie’s only drawback in life was her delicate health, quite at loggerheads with her passionate drive to ‘become someone in scientific spheres’. She suffered from weak muscles, an ailment the doctors couldn’t diagnose or cure.
And this delicate health was exactly why Marie-Clementine, who generally steered clear from the troublesome twin's, watched over ‘the baby’, her baby as she secretly called her sister like an overanxious mother hen, forever expecting that moment the knees of her weak sister would once again buckle and she would collapse into that helpless little bundle. A condition that had startled the Dragoncourt household more often than they cared to remember. As Marie-Clementine swore by horse riding as a cure for everything, she took Valérie with her on her morning rides.
‘The baby’, though not very keen to hobble around on a horse’s back all the time, was pleased to go along with her doting older sister and hardly ever complained.
So in fact it was only the in-between twin's who ruffled the feathers of de Dragoncourt breed with disconcerting regularity. Jacques, the only boy amid three sisters, was a highly-intelligent young fellow, very good with algebra and languages, and would become - if he’d manage to be more consistent - a promising future academic.
Entering his teens the rebellious streak popped up due to his feeling countered by Elle’s constant competitive attitude, and the onset of adolescence developments for whom no one had prepared him. Jacques’s pitfall was his short attention span, of which the high-spirited, querulous Elle, took advantage of by constantly side-tracking his own plans so he would become her ally, joining in activities that forever bordered on the illegal and insane. Why was Elle as she was?
That was food for psychiatrists, whose blood she’d probably drink with relish if they’d dared to come near her. Already as a toddler little Elle had outrun and outdone her eldest sister and ten-minute older brother. She was the thoroughbred Arab among the Shetland ponies, although she didn’t care one bit for the stable filled with both on her father’s estate.
Passion was her creed with an insatiable drive to race, to win, to be the best, to outshine. But sadly Elle was the only recklessly ambitious one in the family, so no one understood her irrepressible lust for heights and speed. She was bridled from birth without knowing what it was she lacked. What showed was her constant dissatisfaction with everything and everyone, and it made her sour and quarrelsome.
Somewhere in this world there had to be someone who understood this girl’s raw power, and to that person Elle would be loyal like a dog to its master. But until then, eruptions and drama would follow like a shadow.
Elle steered the T-Ford with a generous swipe along the last bend of the Avenue de Paris, so that the multi-windowed Drakòn castle with its extensive wings, like large arms holding the greenery in its embrace, became visible. A majesty residing on the top of sloping grounds, glorious in the bright summer sun. Turning around once again she glanced at the back seat where Agnes sat motionless with Gåva leaning against her, an unhappy frown on her sweet little face.
“What would you like to do when we arrive?” Elle shouted over the noise of the engine. “Would you care to go for a swim in the pond, perhaps?”
“I haven’t… I haven’t brought my swimming costume. I didn’t know we …”
“Never mind, silly,” Elle laughed, “You can always use one of mine. Or we could swim naked. Nobody will see us, and then let ourselves dry in the grass afterwards. Haha!”
Agnes was shocked. Why did Elle say such things? The idea alone!
Not even daring to take a peek at her own flesh when ready to step into her bath, Agnes shuddered at the idea of exposing herself to others in complete nudity and broad daylight. She bit her lip, desperately wanting to return to the safe surroundings she had left behind. Would she dare to ask the Dragoncourt's to telephone Papa if she really, really, didn’t want to stay?
Oh, why had she agreed to her father’s insane plan to take leave of his kind companionship? Of course she wanted to make him happy, but if the result was she made herself unhappy in the process, that for sure couldn’t be the right thing to do.
Jacques must have sensed her mortification because now it was his turn to look around at her while Elle concentrated on the taking the narrow driveway, with the plane trees, that led to the castle.
With a lopsided smile on his handsome face, he said, “Never mind Elle, dear Agnes, she always tries to provoke. It’s her second nature.”
Elle stuck her tongue out at him and then licked her lips in a provocative way. But Jacques’s kindness made the tension in Agnes’s midriff relax a little, though she still felt on guard, anxious over what the dark girl would blurt out next.
That dark girl braked with a last dramatic screech of tyres on gravel and the T ford came to a sudden standstill right in front of the castle’s main entrance. She jumped out quickly because she wanted to open Agnes’s door before her brother had his chance.
Holding out her white fingers to help her guest out, Gåva snarled at her. Elle quickly withdrew her hand. “Heavens dog, I’m only trying to be friendly!” she snapped, aghast, taking a step back. Agnes for sure had come with her bodyguard.
The bodyguard's mistress had meanwhile lovingly picked Gåva up in her arms and slid on her behind out of the car, where she put the old dog down holding onto the leash, both looking forlorn and out of sorts. The old dog shivered and yawned with a loud gasp. Again it was Jacques who tried to mollify her unease.
Having retrieved her suitcase from the boot, he stood looking at her, the lock of sleek dark hair half over his brown eyes, his light summer suit somewhat crumpled from the long car trip. “Come, let us go in.” His smile was meant to give courage to the bewildered girl.
She walked up the stairs towards the entrance of the castle, flanked on each side by the twins, and followed on her heels by her life-long companion.
In the central hall with the incredibly high ceiling, from which fat cherubs with harps and winding grapevines looked down on him, Count Horace de Dragoncourt stood waiting for them to arrive.
He was on his own, with no sight of the countess or the other two children. Tall and stooped as if his heavy shoulders were wearing him down, he looked older than his forty-eight years.
There was an aureole of greyness around the count, not just because of his grey hair and eyes but as if greyness emanated from his inner self, a lack of lustre he’d lost somewhere along the way; a long time ago, a time he couldn’t really recall but when he remembered he still had some authority and some direction in life. His sombre gaze fixed on the threesome who were crossing the marble tiled floor with a querying expression on his clean-shaven, lined face, as if he didn’t really know if what he saw was actual reality.
But his long practice as the French ambassador in the United Kingdom made him strike the right tone without too much extra effort on his part. “Welcome to Château Drakòn,” he said graciously, “I am so pleased to be able to welcome the daughter of an old friend of mine. I might add, my oldest friend.” He gave Agnes a small uncertain smile while he took her hand, and fixing his grey stare on the dog that was following her without thinking twice, sank to his knees. “Oh, how wonderful, you brought your dog. How I miss my Hector. My Afghan hound died this spring. What’s your name, boy?”
Gåva sensing an animal loving creature near her, licked his hand and the hitherto dumbstruck Agnes found her tongue again. “Actually it is a she, Sir, and she’s is named Gåva. She’s Swedish, just like me.” A shy blush coloured the area under cheekbones.
Horace got up with some difficulty and swayed on his legs for a moment before he found his balance again. “Ah yes,” he replied, “your father told me as much, you being Swedish, how very distinct, very distinct.”
The friendship between the count and the baron did indeed go back to the time they were still students, but the really private parts of their private lives had never been the subject of their conversations when they met for cognac and cigars at their Paris club Arti et Amicitiae, or during visits to the Opéra National de Paris, or trips to their respective houses and castles. So, to the count, Agnes’s past was shrouded in as much mystery as were the troubles at Drakòn to Max Dupuis.
Elle had been watching the scene between her father and her guest from a short distance, and it enchanted her. There was something so disarming in Agnes’s effect on people. Feeling suddenly warmed she went up to her father, stood on tiptoe and gave him a hearty peck on the cheek: “Bonjour Papa,” she beamed, “how very nice of you to welcome Agnes like this.”
“By golly, my child,” her father muttered, taken by surprise at this unexpected show of his daughter’s affection. “Come, let us all go to the garden room and have our tea there. You must excuse my wife and my other two daughters, my dear. They had an errand in the centre of Roye, but shall be back before dinner.”
Agnes nodded. She needed plenty of time to adjust to this company, so the rest of the members were welcome to wait in the wings a little longer as far as she was concerned.
The count gave instructions to Guillaume, the butler, to carry Agnes and Gåva’s belonging to the guest rooms, but Elle quickly cut in, “Take everything to my quarters, Guillaume. Miss Agnes will sleep with me.”
The Count only raised his brows as the maid had already aired the two rooms adjacent to Elle’s and dressed the bed, but he wisely refrained from making a remark. That was the result of long practice. He just gave a curt nod to the butler to affirm his daughter’s wish. Agnes would at that moment have loved to say she’d prefer her own room, but not knowing whether that was considered impolite, she also kept silent.
Leading the small ensemble through a maze of long corridors and other halls, the count finally opened an unadorned brown wooden door that looked like it had been installed in recent times, and they entered a light room which was sparsely furnished in a quite modern way with a long tea table, currently laden with cakes and fruits and sandwiches, akin to English afternoon tea, as after all the mistress of the house came from Kent.
Comfortable grey leather chairs surrounded a low coffee table that overlooked the well-tended garden sloping down to the pond. The doors were open and white gauze curtains billowed outside in the soft afternoon breeze.
At least half a dozen paintings adorned the white-washed walls, a careful collection of the most well-known French impressionists Renoir, Monet, and Cézanne. The floor consisted of deep sienna mosaic parquet with rugs in off-white; fluffy and very soft to the toes.
“Please sit down,” the count invited. As soon as he rang the bell Constance, the maid, entered carrying a Delft-blue china teapot with a reed handle.
The Count poured and handed the cups around before he sat himself in the most worn leather chair, which sighed under his weight. Obviously he was the one using this room most often.
Jacques was studying Agnes with intense interest as she sat talking to his father, a yet unknown feeling growing in his chest. How delightful she was as her gracious hand lifted the cup from the saucer to her full female lips.
The way her pearly teeth bit into a slice of cake and then the flowing movement of her elbow as she bent down to feed crumbs to Gåva. Everything about her had a watery element, flowing, purling, waving, transparent and intangible. Her essence flowed through his fingers like the softest touch of silk.
He savoured her singsong accent, a hybrid of English and French, and supposedly Swedish, but Jacques had never heard the language spoken so wasn’t sure.
Oh she must read me a poem in her native tongue, he mused. I could listen to that golden voice any minute of the day or night.
Something agonisingly sweet and tender took hold of the young man and settled in his soul; her soft blonde head, the light in the afternoon parlour and the murmur of conversation rippling so easily between his father and this angelic creature.
“Does your father still have his rare collection of Chopin sheet music, I wonder?”
Music not being her forte but being as refined a conversationalist as the count, Agnes answered without a trace of her shyness over her lack of musical facts and figures. “I suppose so, Sir. My father has told me how his father was the expert on Chopin. It was ever so sad that my grandfather fell ill before he was able to finish the extensive biography he was writing on the great composer. Apparently he and Chopin were well acquainted. But you knew all that already, I suppose, Sir?” She looked at the count in the most amiable way.
“Yes, Max, um … your father, told me that the work will unfortunately remain unfinished until another expert on Chopin stands up and makes a thorough study of your grandfather’s notes.”
“Do you play an instrument, Sir?”
“Oh my dear girl, I don’t suppose your father will have regaled you with my attempts at mastering the piano. My efforts are in no comparison to the virtuoso of your father’s. However, we did play the occasional Claude and Debussy together when we were younger. Now I would feel terribly embarrassed at taking place aside him. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance with his orchestra during our afternoon tea party.” The count smiled happily at the memory and the greyness around him seemed to evaporate in a softer white light, that showed his features had at one time been quite attractive, and that the four children he had put into this world didn’t have their looks solely from their ravishingly beautiful British mother.
Folded in a comfortable position in the lounge chair, her legs tucked under her and balancing the expensive cup of Darjeeling tea on the top of her right knee, from where it could drop and shatter with the slightest movement, Elle also scrutinised the pleasant babbling that went to and fro between her father and Agnes Gunarsson, her latest conquest as she saw it.
Despite the cynical line around her coral-red lips, hard shelled Elle also found herself mesmerised by this elflike creature, out of whose little hand everybody seemed to eat anything the creature had to offer. But Elle was no fool and had a high degree of reflective psychology ready in her bones.
She saw how Agnes could influence her environment not because of her willing it, but because of some inbred quality that casts a softer shade of light on others, like a good-quality reading lamp providing the best light to enjoy your book.
Something yearned in Elle’s chest, conflicting, but raw and real. A longing to crush that evasive softness, take it, absorb it and incorporate it in her own self and another longing to observe it from a distance, detached, enjoy it slowly, forever more, preserving its eternal value. Beauty, the essence of beauty, the one aspect that made humanity long for so desperately, sought through the ages in literature and paintings, aspired to in the search for God. She would possess it no matter if the whole world would tell her it couldn’t be possessed.
Elle smiled the tiniest of smiles and felt happy for the first time since being able to spell the word.
But when she looked across the room to her brother and saw the puppy love spread all over his handsome face, she squinted her eyes and growled inwardly.
What was he thinking?
Agnes was hers and hers alone.
The vehemence of her feeling startled even rough-edged Elle. Was she desiring Agnes on a physical level? That hadn’t even crossed her mind! Elle recalled the touch of Daniel Westport’s smooth cool flesh on her own warm softness and pondered if there was a similarity to the feeling that was rushing through her now. With Daniel, the clandestineness and hastiness of the affair had been the real attraction, the shredding of layers of underwear and feverish groping to get to the act of possessing each other.
But had that been real desire? It was not what she was feeling now. Confused but determined to find the answer, Elle banged her cup on the shining surface of the mahogany tea table and got up to stretch herself. “I’m going to my room,” she declared. “Are you coming Agnes?”
A Mark Of Ownership
In preparing for battle I was always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
In the Dragoncourt household with all its centrifugal forces, there was one aspect that bound them like thieves, and that was the evening dinner.
Served on the stroke of eight in la grande salle verte, the family would unite there on a daily basis, together in place but not so much in spirit. Even if the kitchen maids, Daphne and Dolly, had had the rowdiest of rows during the day – one threatening the other to leave on the spot – there would be the customary three course meal on the damask tablecloth, with the Claret ready for Monsieur, and the Veuve Clicquot for Madame who only ever drank Champagne.
Guillame standing right next to the door, wearing white gloves and a deadpan expression on his broad face, was supervising the rest of the staff who were gathered to serve the main meal of the day to that odd assembly of age old aristocrats.
None of the family members, not even Elle, would dream of not changing for dinner in a more suitable formal dress, to sit down to the invariable joint of lamb or piece of rolled pork. Why? Nobody knew, but it was the way it was and the one tradition that still had a semblance of old-school dignity.
Elle had taken Agnes up to her rooms in the hope of having a few minutes alone with her to set the stamp for the next couple of days. But Gåva being at the end of her tethers after the long journey, Agnes’s first priority was with her dog, feeding her and getting her to settle in her basket next to her bed.
It was an intimate moment in which surrounding circumstances had no place, and Elle, slumping on her bed with the soft eiderdown duvet, watched the scene with fascination. Everything Agnes did seemed so natural and self-evident. She was talking to Gåva in Swedish, comforting and calming her best friend, while simultaneously soothing herself.
“Stilla, stilla, min äslkling,” she kept repeating. “Be still, my darling.” In the end Gåva ate a small portion of meat and drank a few sips of water that Agnes urged her to take, and settled down in her basket, too exhausted to protest.
“Shall I show you my rooms?” Elle jumped up energetically at the option to have Agnes finally to herself. No matter how exhausted the little Swede was with all the impressions and inarticulate emotions - a situation she was in no way accustomed to at home - she wanted to please her host and said yes.
“You will sleep here, of course,” Elle waved her red-pointed nails at the bed next to which Agnes had just laid Gåva to rest.
It was a double bed with a ribbed white quilt tightly tucked in. Next to it was a side-table and a lamp with a green shade, placed in the corner of what apparently was Elle’s master bedroom. Her bed was an impressive mahogany four-poster with matching tables on both sides.
The rest of the room contained an out of proportion wardrobe that obviously housed Elle’s extensive wardrobe, as many articles had escaped from drawers and boards and lay crumpled and forgotten across the thick beige carpet. Lamps were lit everywhere as the heavy fawn velvet curtains were drawn, which gave the room a nightclub-like atmosphere as no outside light filtered through the drapes.
For the rest there was an odd jumble of chairs and tables that seemed to have been knocked over at some instance but then put upright again, not knowing exactly what their original positions were. After looking around the room, as there was no way her host could show her around, there being obstacles everywhere on the floor, Elle preceded her to an en-suite bathroom with gilded taps and an entire mirrored wall.
Also here Agnes was quite affronted by the mess of tubes and bottles spread everywhere, even a beige slip with lace trimmings was lying on the floor instead of in the wash basket.
Agnes honestly asked herself how Elle could not be embarrassed to show her this eruption of personal belongings, but the owner and creator of the eruption was quite unperturbed. She simply added to it by stepping out of her afternoon dress, a low-cut crimson mousseline piece of nothing, without any brace or lining. Standing in front of her guest in her equally red corset, whilst studying herself in the mirrored wall that multiplied her sparsely dressed reflection in layer after layer, her hands piling her hair on top of her head and striking a seductive pose, Agnes’s colour also turned the same deep-red as the garment but she was equally unable to avert her eyes from the exposure of so much nonchalant beauty. Elle, seeing she finally had Agnes’s full attention couldn’t help herself and pushed the line.
“I need to change my underwear as well as I’m to wear a silk dress tonight and this red garment would be seen through the white silk. So…” She unfastened the hooks of her corset and stepped into her Eve’s costume without so much as blinking one eye. Agnes’s rushed out of the bathroom aghast.
She looked around the room, wanting to escape from the house and this girl immediately, but because her beloved dog was lying there,fast asleep and snoring, and she had no ideas what was customary in this society, she sat down on her bed and waited in anxious worry, chewing the inside of her cheek. Minutes later Elle reappeared from the bathroom wearing a silk silver dressing gown pulled tight around her figure, and looking more morose than Agnes had expected.
“Sorry Agnes, I don’t know what it is that I always need to provoke people, like Jacques says. It’s not that I like to be this way. Can you forgive me?” Elle lit a cigarette from her silver cigarette case and inhaled the smoke deeply.
Her gold-brown eyes, definitely one of her most attractive features, gazed on Agnes who was still sitting on her bed, her arms folded defensively over her chest. She didn’t answer.
Elle let herself fall backwards on her bed, the robe falling open, disclosing her tanned thighs.
“I could really do with a friend,” she said to the ceiling of her four-poster, tipping the ash into the ashtray she had mounted onto her tummy. Still no answer from Agnes. “I know I’m not a good person, Agnes dear, not the kind of person that inhabits your world, but I’m not all bad, believe me. I have a dream, a real dream that I think would turn me into a better person, a more caring member of society, but I have no idea how to go about realising it. It’s haunting me day and night…” her voice trailed off and she turned her gaze to the closed curtain as if she wanted to look through it and see the world beyond.
Agnes didn’t know if she was supposed to say anything or had to wait until Elle resumed her soliloquy. But reality was that it was no soliloquy.
Elle honestly wanted to tell someone about her crazed longing to become a car racer, she wanted to reach out but just like Agnes she didn’t know how, so in the end, she said waving her hand with the blood-red nails, “Never mind! Let’s get dressed. I’ll try not to upset you anymore. Promise.”
So the girls dressed in silence. Elle in her white silk and Agnes in a light-blue brocade with a charming band in the same colour as her golden locks.
Still without speaking to each other, they descended the stairs to make their way to la grande salle verte, the heels of their evening shoes clicking rhythmically on the marble floor. Both were feeling disconnected from their surroundings and unhappy in their souls.
Jacques, dressed in a double-breasted black dress suit with a white waistcoat, had come into the dining room early to secure a place on Agnes’s right hand, but Elle stepped in quickly and changed the plates around so she would be on Agnes’s left hand instead of having their guest sit next to her father.
Guillaume who oversaw the serving of the family at dinner, had already taken up his usual position and stood stiffly upright next to the gilded doorpost. He frowned as this messing with the plates would lead to confusion among the maids, but he refrained, as always, from making a remark, so as not to further inflame the already volatile atmosphere at Château Drakòn.
Agnes accepted Jacques’s help to get her seated and as such she was the first one sitting at the huge oval dining table, above it two chandeliers which sprinkled a gay light from a myriad of pear-shaped electric bulbs over the perfectly white damask cloth.
But turned inwards to her own musings, Agnes wasn’t aware of the bustle that was soon going on around her in the green room; the luxurious display of food and crystal, expensive china, or the gallery of portraits.
During the final scene in the bathroom something had snapped in Agnes, and although still unhappy and out of sorts she felt no longer afraid of these strange surroundings.
What was there to be afraid of? It was all a lot of ado about nothing. She decided that she would cherish her life with Papa even more after she returned to Picardy, and when they took up residence again in their house in Châtelet in the autumn.
Agnes was adamant she would not waste one minute of their happy life together, no matter how uneventful that life may seem to others. She was so preoccupied with her visions of her homely situation that she only vaguely took in the arrival of the newcomers, the countess and her two other daughters, whom she greeted with reverence, but as they left her to her own devices as well didn’t make an effort for polite chitchat.
Soon however, Jacques claimed all her attention, and in a rather agreeable way. She didn’t really pay much attention to his words, more to his lips when she suddenly heard him utter, “But how James portrays Kate Croy’s desire to marry the penniless Merton Densher, yes that’s the intricate workings of love in literature, that’s …”
Suddenly Agnes fixed him with her light-blue eyes. “You are familiar with The Wings of The Dove?”
Jacques seemed somewhat taken aback by Agnes’s sudden direct interruption of his poetical insights, with which he wished to impress her. He'd had the impression she wasn’t really listening to him with the way she fumbled with a small piece of bread in between her long white fingers. So she had been listening to him, after all?
“Well, yes,” he answered cautiously. “Reading it at present.”
“So am I!” A sudden ray of light broke through Agnes’s gloom. A kindred spirit in reading was a kindred spirit indeed. The conversation took on a completely different connotation.
“It’s brilliant,” she declared, “the subtleties of love! Why, there are so many aspects that can make people believe they are in love when in reality it is something else they are experiencing, like possessiveness or loneliness.” Elle’s eyes were hard on her again but Agnes didn’t register it. Talking books, she was in a different realm altogether.
“Indeed,” Jacques agreed, “that’s what I admire Henry James the most. Apparently the author himself is adamant he will not marry, but he is ever so skilled in laying bare the human deceptions to choose for a life companion of the opposite sex.” Jacques cast a quick glance at his parents, which Elle didn’t miss but Agnes did.
“When I marry it will be out of love and nothing else,” Agnes proclaimed, with more force than any of her earlier utterances, and it brought a flush to her face. She shot a quick glance at her handsome table companion and he nodded, absorbing in what according to him was the wisest thing anyone had ever uttered in la grande salle verte.
After the meal, Agnes soon asked to be excused as she was very tired, with a slight headache, and longing to be close to her dog whom also wasn’t used to being in strange surroundings.
She fell asleep immediately, forgetting all that upset her and sleeping the rosy sleep of healthy young people.
She woke with a start, feeling the bedclothes move. It was still night, or at least it looked like it as all lamps had been extinguished and it was pitch black around her. It didn’t take her two seconds to realise Elle had slipped into her bed and that she was completely naked, pressing her body hard against Agnes’s back.
“Get out,” Agnes yelled, startled and angry.
But Elle pressed a hand over her mouth and stifled her cries.
Agnes struggled, trying to free herself from Elle’s firm grip, but she was stronger.
“Shhh… Agnes, I don’t want to frighten you. I was just so cold and lonely in my own bed.”
Agnes thought that was the most blatant lie she had ever heard in her life. Be cold and take all your clothes off! Elle was truly deluded.
She tugged at the arm that was held in front of her mouth and then Gåva was on the bed too, snarling at Elle who immediately dropped her attack and lay still. Agnes switched on the bedside lamp. When light flooded the room she was able to calm her dog.
Elle lay panting on her back with her eyes closed, as naked as God had made her.
“I’m going away from here right now,” Agnes declared, getting out of bed and starting to dress herself.
But with catlike grace Elle moved to the door and locked it, holding the key triumphantly between her red-tipped fingers. “Come on Agnes, don’t be a spoilsport,” she begged. “I just like you so much, you’re so special. I honestly believe I’ve fallen in love with you. I shouldn’t have climbed into your bed. Come on, I promise it won’t happen again. Will you please, please stay?”
The brown eyes flashed beseechingly, and she went to the bed to throw her silver dressing gown around her as a sign of good behaviour. Agnes was revolted by so much brazen action and was determined to leave that very minute. From the little she had seen in the household, Elle called the shots, so that left her without an option. “I want to go home.” Her voice was toneless.
“Jacques will also be so sad if you leave, and what will your dear Papa think?”
“He will understand. Please, just open the door and let me go.”
“It’s four-thirty in the morning, how on earth will you go the ninety kilometres to Picardy at this time? It isn’t even light yet.”
Agnes chewed the inner side of her left cheek, a habit she had when at a loss. But this situation was not a normal one, she just wanted to leave Drakòn to never return to the place. To be kept a prisoner here by this outrageous girl whom she didn’t even know, and never wanted to have anything to do with ever again. “I will sit on the steps and wait until Guillaume wakes, and then I’ll ask him to telephone my father.”
“Don’t be such a milksop, Baroness Agnes.” It was said in such a demeaning way that for the first time ever Agnes’s anger flared up. She got up and attacked the other girl.
If she was anything, she wasn’t a coward! Without knowing what she did she hit Elle across the face, and the girl fell sideways on the carpet, banging her head against the post of her bed.
She lay motionless and Agnes panicked. Had she killed her?
But she saw Elle move and curl up in a ball. The last thing she saw of her was a red tongue stuck out at her in a teasing way.
Without knowing what to do next, Agnes picked up the key that had fallen on the ground and fleeing in her nightie called Gåva to follow her along the long corridor, tears stinging in her eyes until she bumped into Jacques who had been awoken by the noise and came to see what was going on.
Agnes stammered incoherent words, sobbing loudly, but in the end Jacques could make out what had happened and soothing her tried to make Agnes sit down, but there was no reasoning with her. For no money in the world would she go back to that room and be confronted by Elle.
“I hate her, I hate her!” the upset girl kept repeating, so in the end Jacques wrapped Agnes in one of his own jackets and with rattling teeth, carrying the shivering Gåva in her arms, drove her back to her father’s château in the T Ford.
“I am so sorry about this, Agnes. I do hope you believe me?” He only broke the silence when they slowly entered the driveway to the Dupuis estate.
“I do, Jacques. You’ve been kind to me.” It sounded small and muffled.
“What on earth will your father think, you coming home at this odd time and without being properly dressed?”
“I’ll tell him I fell sick and you had to bring me home in a hurry.”
“I’ll bring your clothes and Gåva’s things first thing tomorrow, okay?”
“Thank you, Jacques. Thank you and good bye.”
Jacques watched until the small figure with the old dog had disappeared around a corner of the huge white-brick castle, and sighed deeply. To fall in love and then be deprived of the object of your love so soon and so suddenly. He just couldn’t put his young heart around it.
Elle, he thought, you have so much to account for! I’m leaving home tonight too!
Part II 1917
The Way Back
War is the unfolding of miscalculations ~ Barbara Tuchman
It was an early sunny morning in mid-June 1917 when Agnes sat in the windowsill on the second floor of her father’s house at the Place de Châtelet, overlooking the right bank of the River Seine.
The maid had opened the windows to let in the fresh air and the hubbub from the street below was filling the room. It had rained during the night, leaving a soft mist of moisture over the moving world below, but the sun was rapidly covering terrain so coats were already draped over lower arms and the waiters with the long white aprons were wiping the last drops of rain from the chairs and tables of the outside cafés.
There was a pensive look in the blue eyes of the young girl who had just received her Diplôme de Etat de docteur en medicine from l’Université de Sorbonne, and was contemplating enrolling for the specialisation of gynécologue.
In the other open window sat her best friend, Angèle Brest, who was also a brand new doctor. Angèle, a bright springy character with a mass of red copper curls and a boyish figure, originally came from Normandy and had come to live with Agnes after the baron had married her mother’s Swedish girlhood friend three years earlier, and now couldn’t return to France due to the war lines across Europe. So he bided his time on Öland with his new wife, Elise, a widow with two children.
“Isn’t it strange to realise that there are so many countries at war with each other right now and we’re sitting here seeing Paris wake up from a wet night as if it’s just another peaceful day?”
Angèle, used to her friend’s philosophical musings, after all Agnes was known to be a deep thinker and regularly contributed articles to La Revue de Philosophie as their youngest member ever, sighed. “As long as it lasts chérie, we never know whether the Hindenburg Line will hold. The Germans may still be marching into Paris in August, who knows? The irregular messages we receive here invariably tell us the situation is still not very favourable for the Allied Forces.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” Agnes replied, jumping off the windowsill and standing before her friend with her hands on her slender hips. She was already wearing her black doctor’s coat with the white chemise underneath, as the girls had volunteered to supervise the paediatric wing of the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital now that most of their male colleagues had enlisted for the war. “You know that I’m having doubts about specialising as a gynaecologist, but apart from that I will still have plenty of time to pick up my studies when the war is over. By God, we do hope it will be over some time soon.”
“What are you hinting at, Agnes dear?” Angèle was far from a fool and knew already what was coming. Agnes had been brooding over this ever since they had taken their final exams in May, but had waited until she had her diploma. “You want to go to the Château in Picardy and become a war doctor?”
“How well you know me,” Agnes smiled. “But there are a couple of problems. I can’t reach Papa on short notice to get his consent to turn the Château into a temporary hospital for the wounded, and we would need so many supplies. How will we transport these from Paris over the road?” There was a deep wrinkle between her fair brows, the light eyes studiously fixed on her idea.
“I suppose that you want me to come with you if you’re going through with this?” Angèle, also in her uniform, had left her spot at the window and stood well-grounded on the carpet, a mere one-meter-sixty tall but with a mighty spirit and courage.
“Would you?” It sounded tentative. “I would never force you and would never wish to endanger you in any way.”
The girls looked at each other, closer even than many sisters and with a deep affection and respect for each other.
Angèle gave a short nod. “I go where you go Agnes, and that’s that.” It sounded as resolute as it was meant.
“Let’s first drive up there on the weekend and see with our own eyes what’s going on.” And with a glint in her eye, Agnes added, “We’ll stuff as many bandages and morphine and equipment in the Renault AX as we possibly can.”
So this was how the two recently graduated female doctors embarked on a journey to the outskirts of Creil in Picardy where the Château Dupuis de Melancourt lay hidden in the green forests.
The Château staff had been kept to a minimum in the years the baron had been abroad and Agnes too busy with her university studies, so the caretaker Mr LeGrand walked around nervously opening the blinds in front of the windows and ordering Madame Dubois to get the necessities to make sure the young baroness and her friend were received in the order ordained to them.
But war and shortages in Paris had made Agnes give up all form of protocol for years. “Please, Mr Legrand,” she pleaded, “We’re not here to make things more difficult for you than they already are. We brought our own supplies from Paris. What I’d like to know is how I could be of help to the front up north by giving my assistance as the doctor I now am. Perhaps we could set up a war hospital here and be of some aid to the ongoing massacres in the trenches?”
Mr Legrand, who had already been in the service of the Dupuis family when Max’s father Alexandre was the baron, was a stocky man with a broad ruddy face and grizzly bread.
He took off his invariably black beret and scratched the short hair underneath. The girl disconcerted him in her grave doctor’s uniform and foreign Nordic look. What was she expecting from him? He wasn’t used to taking orders from women fifty years his junior. And the war? It would be best not to think of it and plod on as long as one could.
The idea of a hospital full of screaming, wounded, soldiers was not what Legrand envisaged for this rural estate, on which – in reality - he only had to keep half an eye.
All the work was done by the Baron’s tenants who lived in the nearby village and knew their business like no other. And now this young woman, God forbid universities now allowed the weaker sex to study there, came marching in with these revolutionary plans. It had to be nipped in the bud.
He cleared his throat, “Miss Agnes… um … Doctor Gunarsson, if I may, the front is at least 80 kilometres to the north and we here in the l’Oise would rather keep it that way. But I’ve heard a large war hospital has been set up in Château Dràkon south of Roye. You could take a look there and see if your … um … skills, could be of use to that hospital?”
It was the first time in nine years that Drakòn castle was mentioned in front of Agnes, and the name still hit her unpleasantly. Bad memories, bad people. But that was a long time ago and perhaps the old Dragoncourt bunch wasn’t even living there anymore, certainly if it been turned into a hospital. That didn’t seem like something that family would embark upon.
Agnes’s mind worked fast. Angèle knew nothing of the horrible visit she’d paid to the castle as a girl of fifteen, but a place already equipped and operational might be a much better idea than starting something here from scratch.
“Thank you Mr Legrand,” she replied politely. “I agree. Why reinvent the wheel when it’s already round and rolling?”
Used to taking charge in situations now her only parent was away, and because her studies had shown her how important it was to act with authority, Agnes gave orders right away after a quick consultation with Angèle.
“Mr Legrand, we will have lunch here but will then carry on north during daylight. Doctor Brest and myself will take the Renault with our supplies to Roye and see if we can be of any use there. If not, we’ll return here. When I have a clear view of the situation at the front and the needs for medical assistance, I’ll let you know whether we will carry out my initial plan or not.”
Legrand sighed with relief and consented to this new turn of events without delay. He had heard rumours of the absolute chaos at Drakòn, so no doubt a pair of extra professionals would be welcomed there. “But are you sure you want to travel on today, Doctor Gunarsson?”
Agnes tried to push all memories of her earlier dramatic visit to Drakòn to the background, but all along the Avenue de Paris she kept seeing flashes of Elle steering the black T Ford, her laughing face looking mockingly over her shoulder, scrutinising her, the blood-red nails, the careless voice.
Angèle was driving as she was a much better chauffeur than Agnes, and now and then Agnes shot a quick glance at the clear cut profile with the straight nose, the grey eyes fixed on the road ahead, and the mass of curls everywhere around her friend’s face.
I think I must tell Angèle about what happened here in my childhood, she pondered. It’s obviously still bothering me as I honestly haven’t given it a thought in years. As a matter of fact I haven’t ever told Papa the entire truth of what happened.
A funny sense of anticipation rose in Agnes’s chest. What if the Dragancourt's were still there? She had meanwhile seen more naked bodies in her professional life - both male and female - than she cared to remember, and even her own flesh was quite dear to her now. She fondly thought of Gregor and their delightful afternoon meetings in her homely Paris bedroom.
‘You dare,’ he had laughed with his wonderful green eyes fixed on her, ‘they say when the cat’s away the mouse will play,’ alluding to the absence of her father, but it had been a joint decision and Agnes had no regrets.
If Gregor ever came back from the Belgian trenches, they would be a team both privately and professionally. She was sure of that. Oh dear Gregor, please, please, please still be alive and send me another letter soon.
“I have to write to Eleonor to tell her to send on any mail we receive,” Agnes said, “as soon as we know where we’re staying.”
Angèle smiled. “You’re hoping for mail from Gregor Lawinski?”
“Among others, but I was also thinking of your beau.” She gave Angèle’s arm a little squeeze.
War was such an uncertain business when you were in love. Whether they would ever marry was very much the question and it was not only the war. Times were changing and there was work to be done, work that couldn’t be done the moment you agreed to put on the bridal veil.
But this confusion was all so very different from the confusion she had felt as a vulnerable teenager in the claws of the worldly wise Elle de Dragoncourt.
What would have become of that daredevil? Agnes now had to smile at the thought of her, although not at her own inhibition and fright. It could well be that happening made me decide to study medicine, to overcome my fear of naked flesh.
Closer to the War
I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas ~ Nancy Wake
The closer they came to Château Drakòn, the clearer the signs of a terrible war going on rolled out before the young women’s eyes. They were stopped along the road three times by road blocks, and soldiers with grim faces and heavy-looking machine guns snarled at them instead of giving them a friendly welcome:
“Vous avez un rendez-vous? Do you have an appointment? Vous allez òu? Where are you going?”
The same questions over and over again, but as soon as they mentioned they were doctors on the way to help the wounded broad smiles lit up tired haggard faces and cigarettes and accommodation were instantly offered, but the girls declined all friendly gestures and then the Renault was let through with as much ceremony as the exhausted men could muster.
They passed abandoned houses and burnt meadows with blackened tree trunks sticking up, as if the former inhabitants didn’t want the enemy to have anything of value might he push the frontline further to the south.
There had not been an actual war in these fields as the Allied Forces - French, British and Belgian armies - had with all their might been able to keep Imperial Germany from marching any deeper into France. The war of trenches hadn’t moved much in over three years, it had just cost millions of lives.
Driving up the long winding road with the old plane trees in full foliage was an emotional happening for Agnes, for two reasons: her memories and the current sight.
Everywhere there were wounded people with missing arms or legs, bandages around their heads, lying on stretchers or just in the grass on a blanket, or walking with crutches along the pond.
Nurses with white headbands and the big red crosses on their white aproned bosoms walked among the men like floating angels in a kingdom of the lost souls. There was a dreariness and despair to the scene that blocked out all former memories of this grand Château before the war.
All the reckless gaiety it had breathed then was gone for good. Just when Angèle was looking for a place to park the Renault, as it was very busy with cars and Model T Ford Ambulances that stood parked on the gravel along the front side of the castle, they were overtaken by one of these black ambulances at high speed.
“Heavens,” Angèle exclaimed, “I didn’t see that one coming.” They kept sitting in the car, seeing how ambulance staff – two females in uniforms, wearing trousers – sped out and rushed to the back of the ambulance where they loaded a heavily bleeding man on a stretcher and ran him up the steps and into the castle.
As Angèle prepared to get out of the car, Agnes again put her arm on her sleeve and said, “Wait, I’ve got to tell you something. I’ve been here before in very different circumstances.” And she told Angèle what had happened so that whatever they would meet on their way in, her friend would be prepared.
Well aware how Agnes might need her support, they slowly made their way up the stairs side by side, carrying their doctor’s bags in their right hands. What they saw when they entered the large central hall with the high ceiling full of cherubs and grapevines was a sight Agnes would not forget in her entire life.
All human senses were stretched here to the extreme. It was absolute chaos. The wounded lay everywhere, on beds, blankets, tables, even on the marble floor, and their screaming was unbearable. The predominant colour was red, human blood, and it had stained the walls, the clothes of everyone in the place, the carpets, and the skins. The smell of decay and terrified sweat permeated everything. Nurses and volunteers were running to and fro carrying the wounded from the central hall to what Agnes supposed were the wards and the operation rooms.
While they stood there at least three new wounded were brought in and the frenzy of it was beyond human scope. Nobody had any time to come up to them and ask what they wanted or who they were. If they had had it in their minds to run away with the precious paintings on the walls, nobody would have stopped them. Here there was only one human law still in operation: relieve the suffering.
The girls looked at each other and nodded. They stepped over moaning bodies and already dead corpses, around pools of blood and almost bumped into overwrought nurses. Agnes walked the same way Count Horace had once led the way, and it crossed her mind it was a good thing she knew where she was going: la grande salle verte as that was most probably the headquarters of this castle turned war hospital.
She was right. Big lamps had replaced the chandeliers and around the large oval table three doctors stood with a concentrated frown between their brows, bent over the operating table covered with a large green rubber mat.
Here the wounded were mostly silent as they had been lucky enough to get a stiff dose of morphine that had helped them to pass out. Only here and there a soft moan was heard.
It was only at the entrance of this room that the girls were stopped by a tall young man with dark hair and a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles. His white coat was smeared with blood but not as badly as the others. There was a look of numbed terror in his brown eyes as if he had lost the capacity to really take in that what was going on around him.
“Can I help you, ladies? Have you been sent here by anyone?” Pointing to their bags, he had obviously understood they were doctors.
“Jacques?” Agnes gasped, putting her hand in front of her mouth in shock.
For a moment he looked at her with the same unseeing eyes with which he inspected everything around him, but soon also in him the penny dropped. “Agnes!” he exclaimed, stretching out his hand. “Agnes Gunarsson. Bless my bark!”
Angèle recently being informed of the history of their relation, also shook his hand in a cordial manner, and then Jacques told them they absolutely had to find a quiet place in this madness and he would explain everything that was going on at Drakòn and his own role in this nightmare.
Leading them to the same garden room where Agnes had conversed with his father at that first and only afternoon of her visit, a strange duality befell her. It felt as if she had been sent here, matters had to be set right.
Seeing Jacques like this, nothing like the indolent teenager he had been, but a man with a mission, albeit a sad mission but still the same person, sensitive and bewildered in a world that had changed beyond recognition. Had she changed so much herself?
She certainly wasn’t that shy little girl anymore. Yes, that’s what the war seemed to do to them all. Give them a purpose, a mission to fulfil. They had grown old before their years.
No matter how different the rest of what they’d seen of the castle so far had looked, the garden room was relatively unchanged, and it was quiet at that moment in the afternoon.
The room was clearly used as a recuperation space for the staff and for that reason had been given a more practical arrangement, with two large percolators of coffee, and tea pots, coffee and tea cups and slices of chocolate cake under bell glasses. But the same pictures hung on the wall and Agnes recognised the bone china service set and the grey leather lounge chairs.
“Coffee or tea?” Jacques looked at them over his shoulder and the familiarity in the look touched Agnes’s heart. Somehow they had been so close for such a short period of time, and only now that occurred to her.
“Coffee, please,” they said in unison. Now being a much better communicator about her feelings Agnes added, “This is so strange, Jacques. I haven’t been in this castle here longer than half a natural day but I remember everything, everything about you as well.”
Jacques smiled, handing her the cup. “Your words lift my spirit in more than one way, Agnes. The hell that’s going on at the moment is almost too much to bear anyway, and then seeing you again and thinking with remorse about how you were to leave here last time. Hopefully, we can make it up to you now?”
They had seated themselves as they had done nine years earlier, with Jacques now sitting in his father’s chair. Agnes felt they first had to explain their arrival so she told him about their journey via Picardy.
“You’re more than welcome, dear doctors,” Jacques assured them. “In fact you’re heaven sent. We’ve been so near the front for three years now and there is such a great need for hospitals in the vicinity. The three surgeons we have here are absolutely exhausted. I take it you can do surgery?”
“It’s not our main field, of course,” Angèle explained, “being trained as general doctors, but in these circumstances we will do what we can.”
Jacques nodded but then looked worried, his gaze fixing on Agnes. “I have to tell you that my sister Elle is here as well. She’s one of the ambulance drivers and doing a hell of a job.”
He sounded really proud of her and Agnes immediately waved away his concern. “Coming here meant the possibility of encountering the Dragoncourt's, all of them. And hey, I’m not fifteen anymore and maybe I also overreacted a little myself at the time.”
She saw Jacques looking stealthily at Angèle, who in her turn gave him her sweetest smile and just gestured with her hand, showing she was aware of the whole situation.
Then he fumed, “No you didn’t, Agnes. Elle’s behaviour was disrespectful and just grotesque.”
The words ‘just grotesque’ resonated through the room and in the doorway stood the accused in her khaki uniform, a leather belt around her slender waist and her wide trousers in firm leather boots, her cap in the fingers still with the painted blood-red nails.
Agnes slowly rose and the two uniformed ladies, one a driver, the other a doctor, approached each other.
“Do you remember me?” Agnes asked, holding out her hand.
“Of course I do. I’d be sorry if I didn’t.” Elle shook the hand briefly, and ignoring her brother and Angèle went over to the percolator to pour herself a coffee.
There was a red band on her forehead where her cap had been, and her gait was one of a worn-out woman with a depressed mind. She dropped onto one of the chairs and stretched her khaki legs, crossing them at the knee. “I’ll do two more drives up to Cambrai before dark,” she informed her brother, taking a cigarette from her silver case and tapping the stub on the smooth surface. Her brother hastened to offer her a light, “Abigail will have to do the last one. I want to look in on mum before she goes to sleep.”
Through the smoke she observed Agnes and Angèle, the look in her brown eyes saying what the heck are you two showing up here for?
Agnes took the stage as she supposed she had to. “Myself and Angèle have just graduated as doctors from the university in Paris and want to throw our weight behind this terrible war by assisting in your war hospital. We heard about it at my father’s place in Picardy and so that’s how we landed here. Your brother has already said you’re short of staff, so…”
“You’re a couple?” Ash was tipped off nonchalantly in the ashtray and the look in Elle’s eyes was pseudo-interested. She took a sip of her coffee, evading Agnes’s stare.
“What?” Angèle and Agnes called out in chorus, and then had to laugh, “No!”
“Good.” Elle jumped up and gave them a fierce look, “One gay couple at Drakòn is enough, and that’s me and Abby.”
Before they had a chance to react she was out of the door, closing it with a loud bang.
“You see,” Jacques looked at Agnes with an apologetic look in his bespectacled eyes, “Elle hasn’t changed a damn!” He was silent for a little while before he added, “but don’t be mistaken by appearances ladies, as I said, she is doing the work of a hero here!”
Agnes felt a strong need to put Jacques at ease and that also was déja-vu. “I understand your mother is still alive?” There was a hurt look now in the shrouded eyes.
“Yes, yes, Mother is still with us, but I’m afraid only in body. She’s… she’s not herself anymore, lost her four younger brothers in the Battle of the Somme. Too much, you see, too much.” He paused a moment gazing out of the window. “She lives in the Watteau wing and we employ around-the clock nurses for her. Really lost it, poor soul, really lost it.”
“And your father passed away?” Agnes ventured further, already acquainted with the fact as her father had told her so, but at the time she had hardly been interested in this piece of news.
“Yes, he had a heart attack just before the war. Actually a blessing for him it happened this way. He never suffered and never knew anything about this.” He made a vague gesture as if sweeping all of today’s Drakòn off the globe.
“I’m sorry,” Agnes replied, and the warmth in her voice reached Jacques.
He blinked, and for the first time since their arrival seemed to lower some of the barrier he had built around him in order to survive the atrocious things his eyes had to witness on a daily basis. “Thank you, Agnes. We don’t deserve your sympathy after the inhospitable reception you had here as a child. I guess you two are wondering what my position is in all this?” He took off his spectacles and started rubbing them on a handkerchief he produced from his coat pocket.
“You’re the Count of Drakòn now, I suppose?” Agnes looked at him sympathetically. He nodded and for a moment she saw the young boy with the lock of dark hair in front of his brooding eyes again, talking books with her.
“In that function I oversee the war hospital and the estate, yes.” The young count sighed, obviously feeling the heavy weight of his duties upon his 26-year old shoulders.
“What about Marie-Clementine and Valérie?”
“Oh, Marie married her business man alright, and has two children and her estate in Versailles. All is just as it was planned there. We see very little of them as this house of horrors is not a place to bring young children to, and Elle and myself have no private time to spare. Valérie lives with them if she’s not abroad. Thank god, her health seems fine these days ‘The baby’ is a rock scientist, you see, and travels a lot to the States to give lectures at Harvard.” The last sentence was spoken with immense pride.
Agnes smiled. How much had changed in nine years. Now the twins were in charge of a very different Château Drakòn.
Jacques took Agnes and Angèle to a wing of the castle where Agnes had not been before, apologising for the fact they would have to make their own beds and there would be little comfort.
“The staff we still employ is too tied-up with looking after the hospital, and the house and grounds, to have time for other domestic duties. You see, my father never really worked apart from his unpaid ambassadorship, but he did spend a lot of money during his lifetime and so did my mother and so did we.” He added in a mournful tone, “We had, of course, no idea it would come to this. Life at Drakòn before the war was so innocent, so closed off from real life that this shock hit us incredibly hard, as if we lived in a bubble and now it is burst. We survive because we get money from the Allied Forces and the French government to run the hospital, but how we’re going to survive after the war is a complete puzzle to me. Thank god I hardly have time or energy to lay awake about these matters.”
Jacques opened a heavy oak door that led to a large en-suite room with floor to ceiling windows with closed blinds on the inside. He went to open them and the soft afternoon light filtered through the glass curtains into the high room.
It was as if they stepped back in time and for a moment war was non-existent. The grandeur of the room was overwhelming.
Panelled walls of deep-brown oak, with beautiful carvings of birds and other animals adorning the walls between the windows.
The ceiling was of stucco marble with the most beautiful ornaments. Paintings with heavy gilded frames hung on the walls, landscapes and still-lifes that must be worth a fortune. The floor was of parquet and shone like it had been polished just that morning. In the middle of the room stood a large four poster bed, the same Agnes remembered of Elle’s room.
They went through the open door to the next one, which was identical. Also here Jacques opened the blinds and then the windows to let in fresh air.
He turned around with a question on his face. “Will this do for you? The bathroom is here at the back of this room.” He opened another door and a large modern tiled bathroom with bath, toilet and washbasin, showed when he flicked on the light.”
“It’s really, really nice,” Angèle assured him. “Are you sure you can spare this space for us?”
“As if it’s been waiting for you to occupy it,” Jacques laughed. “This is one of the things my father did with the money he inherited. We may as well use and enjoy it.”
“Our suitcases and medical supplies are still in the car,” Agnes remarked, “We first wanted to know if our services would be of any help, you see.”
“You know what?” the young count exclaimed with more happiness than he had felt in a long time, “I’ll ask Guillaume, the butler - you may still remember him Agnes as he’s been with us for ages - to bring up your belongings, and then you can freshen up and come down to dinner when you’re ready. I’m afraid we now eat in the same room where we just had coffee, because – as you’ve seen la grande salle verte is our surgery. You’ll meet all the hospital staff at dinner, those who aren’t on duty, and then after dinner I’ll show you around the wards?”
“No way!” Agnes contradicted him, “We’re perfectly capable of carrying up our own stuff and you keep your personnel for things that are much more important than looking after us.” She gazed at her golden Cartier wristwatch with the three diamonds, a present from her father for her 21st birthday, and saw it was five o’clock. “We will be quick with our own suitcases and then if someone can show where we can store our medical supplies that would be great. We want to start working as soon as we can, don’t we Angèle?”
The always practical Angèle just nodded, saying, “And please let us know where we can find bed linen, if you still have some to spare, so we can make up our beds.”
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see ~ Henry David Thoreau
While Agnes hung her head over the grimy bucket, purging the contents of yesterday’s dinner into it, Angèle stood with her, murmuring words of encouragement, stroking her back.
Tears ran down Agnes’s cheeks when a new convulsion gripped her and she thought of her defeat.
“There, there now,” Angèle kept repeating, “it’s okay to be upset. You’re doing fine. We can do this!”
The girls had been at Drakòn for a week now and already operated on more young boys and men than they had done in their entire six-year study. Agnes had been on duty the night before when a young British soldier, originally from India but called to enlist for his new fatherland, had been brought in, no older than seventeen or eighteen. Both his lower legs had been almost amputated during a mortar-shell and he had pieces of shrapnel everywhere, really everywhere in his body and face. The turban on his dark head, once a pristine white, was full of mud and blood. He was conscious though, and after the first morphine shot able to whisper his name: “Revant Chopra Sehgal.”
As they had run out of anaesthetics, Agnes had done what she could for the patient together with Bree, one of the Scottish nurses, who kept giving the boy increasingly higher doses of morphine every time he moaned, but it had been a race against the clock as he was losing more and more blood from his wounds and the amputated stumps were starting to infect.
Retrieving the hundreds of shards was an immense and precise operation that took all Agnes’s concentration. She had no idea how long she’d been working to save his life but the light of the new day was already filtering in, so she must have stood at the operating table for more than twelve hours. The young dawn fell on his brutalised features where once he had been such a handsome man, the grace and delicate perfection of the people of North India, his body lean and slim, with thin but muscled upper legs and arms; the skin smooth and dark, the long black hair lying along his shoulders, still entangled with the unwrapped turban from his head, to work on the wounds there.
A small moustache fluffed his upper lip. He was lying on his back, his eyes half-closed because of the heavy sedation, breathing lightly. Checking his heart regularly Agnes doubted more and more that he would make it. She was relieved that he didn’t seem to suffer too much.
All the while she was working on him, the true gruesomeness of the war sunk in. Everything in her profession protested against having to work on this healthy young body, of a boy who without knowledge of where he’d be sent had exchanged the sun laden golden hills of Punjab for the ghastly conditions of the trenches in France, perhaps even without anyone he knew. And now he would die and with him the sun would die in Punjab and in Liverpool and in Cambrai and in all these other places where mothers and fathers and wives were waiting for letters from their loved ones instead of that hated telegram.
What had the world come to? Yet she still operated without pause, her eyes almost too red and swollen from exhaustion to focus on the scalpel in her hand, retrieving a large piece of shrapnel from his brow and dabbing the wound with ether. She saw him open his brown eyes and study her. The morphine’s glaze seemed gone, his gaze was steady. He made a small movement with his hand as if to ask her to stop what she was doing.
“Am I hurting you?” she asked softly. He just blinked his beautiful dark eyes, the look of a deer in angst, but signalled that wasn’t the point.
“You want me to give up?” her voice was a struggle in itself, tears choking her throat.
He nodded. A brown hand with slender long fingers was put on her surgeon's glove as if asking her to come closer. Agnes brought her face close to the young Punjab and he whispered with a breaking voice, “Thank you doctor, you are the most beautiful angel I’ve ever seen. After all the greyness and pain, to take this image with me is balm for my soul. Thank you, doctor.”
And he was gone. And without understanding it Agnes had become so sick she had to throw up, sick of the unfairness and brutality and senselessness of it all. Angèle who had come in to take Agnes’s place so she could rest, saw how her friend break and, though saddened and grieved herself, understood that this had to happen to each and every one of them sometime. Only a person without feeling would be able to go about this business and remained unchanged.
Agnes wiped her mouth with the handkerchief Angèle gave her, swallowing the taste of bile in her mouth. She looked at the operating table one more time where Bree had put a sheet over Revant Chopra Sehgal, and two male carriers already marched in to take his corpse to the temporary cemetery on the Drakòn grounds. He also would be given a white cross with his name on it like the five hundred others who had preceded him.
“Come, let’s get you to the garden room. You sit down and I’ll fetch you some water.”
Agnes protested, “I can’t keep you from your work Angèle, look they’re already bringing in another victim.”
“I’ll be back here in two seconds,” her friend answered, pushing her out of the room and towards the relative sanctuary of the garden room. Agnes sank into the grey leather chair, too exhausted to do otherwise, and let Angèle fetch her a glass of water of which she took small sips. “I’ll be okay now. Please let me not detain you any longer.”
“You sure?” There was a frown on Angèle's small face but also the determination that she had to go and do her duty.
“Sure, I’ll sit here for a while and then go up to bed to get some rest. See you this afternoon.”
Agnes woke as she felt as though somebody picked her up. She opened her eyes and looked straight into Elle’s golden-brown gaze. She had obviously lifted her from the chair in the garden room where she had dozed off and was now carrying her along the corridor.
“Shhh …” Elle whispered, her strong muscled arms around the slender Agnes, “Angèle told me what happened and I’m taking you to bed.”
Still groggy from the deep sleep she had fallen into, Agnes was confused.
“Don’t worry,” Elle chuckled, “I’m not a rapist, never was. I’m just putting an exhausted doctor to bed. I do that for a living these days.”
Agnes felt the warmth of Elle’s lenient body under her coarse ambulance uniform and absorbed it. There was no fear in her anymore. Why would there be?
Elle kicked open the door to Agnes’s bedroom with her heavy boot and carefully let her slip down on the bed, clothes and all. She got the covers from Angèle’s bed and covered Agnes up. Then she sat on the side of the bed with a deep frown on her pretty face.”Sorry, Agnes, I shouldn’t have but at the time everything was different.”
“It’s okay, Elle,” Agnes mumbled half-asleep, “let’s talk when I’ve slept, okay?”
“Rightio,” Elle agreed, getting up to close the blinds so that darkness enveloped the room. Lingering on the threshold she added, “You’re as close to an angel as humanity will ever see, Agnes Gunarsson, and I’ll be damned if I hadn’t seen that before Jacques.”
“I’m no angel,” was the sleepy protest from under the duvet, but Elle had missed that.
Château de Drakòn 1919
Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born ~ Anaïs Nin
Max Dupuis de Melancourt and his wife Elise, née Aberg, were sitting under the chestnut tree in the garden of their Château in Picardy, drinking their morning coffee and chatting about this and that in an amiable way.
Through the French windows Agnes and Angèle stepped out, dressed in light summer dresses, their straw hats tied under their chins colourful ribbon. They had arrived from Paris the night before, where Agnes was specialising as a gynaecologist and Angèle worked as a family doctor in the Nanterre district.
Both were still single, as - like with so many women of their generation - their lovers, Gregor and Anthony, had not returned from the front. Agnes was twenty-six now, but didn’t look a year older than twenty with her wavy blonde hair and clear blue eyes, perhaps a little too thin and ethereal and serious, but a beauty none the less. Angèle was still the tiny spirited mass of copper curls with a decisive look around her mouth, but a certain softness surrounded her now due to all that they had gone through in the Great War.
“Papa, we are expected at Château Drakòn this afternoon. Elle and Jacques invited us to stay with them for the weekend. Will you excuse us?”
Max, at fifty-two still upright and with a full head of hair that had turned completely grey, smiled as his daughter and her friend. “Of course, my darling. Please give them my greetings. I am so pleased you have become friends after all.”
Tons of memories made the trip to the Château near Roye very emotional for both young women. They parked the Renault Torpedo at Roye British Cemetery and walked among the endless rows of white crosses, the silence only broken by the lonely song of a nightingale high in the blue sky.
Agnes laid a white rose under the cross that read Revant Chopra Sehgal, born Lahore, Punjab 2 January 1900 - died Roye, France 5 August 1917.
They continued their journey in silence, wondering what they would find at Drakòn, which they had left soon after the Armistice on 11 November 1918 to return to Paris to recuperate.
Although there had been an exchange of letters so that they knew Elle and Abigail had visited Valérie in the States, that Jacques was still busy returning the castle to its former function, and that the old countess was still unchanged in her state of dementia, they hadn’t seen each other since.
Arriving on the familiar gravel parking place in front of the castle, they were surprised to see quite a number of cars, also with English number plates.
“I hope nothing has happened to the old countess,” Agnes said. “Or perhaps her relatives are here?”
A broad-smiling Jacques and Elle stood on the steps of the castle in light summer gear, both in trousers, and it dawned on Agnes that she always seemed to arrive here in full summer. Only the last time she’d left, it had been a grim Autumn day.
“Welcome again,” brother and sister de Dragoncourt chimed. “Let’s go straight through to the garden, there is no time to waste,” Jacques added.
After many kisses and bonjours, they tugged the two young doctors by their sleeves and dragged them to the garden where there was quite an assembly of people dressed festively, but also men in military uniform. Under an arbour a small string quartet was playing Irving Berlin’s That International Rag, which sounded quite cheerful and had already drawn couples to the wooden dance floor that had been created on the lawn.
Electric lights were decorating the trees and the necks of champagne bottles stuck out of silver buckets filled with ice. The staff, no longer in blood-smeared clothes but in immaculate black and white uniform, served the guests as if they had not been through the war.
Two tall uniformed gentlemen with rows and rows of decorations went up to stand behind a table and signalled the musicians to stop playing. The two generals, one British and one French, stood side by side, looking imperial and victorious on the Drakòn lawn.
The British general cleared his throat and in his deep loud voice announced, “It is an honour to be here today to present to four young French citizens and one former British subject the British War Medal 1914-1918. These five young people have shown immense strength and courage during the Great War. This silver medal, also jokingly known as 'Squeak' is awarded to men and women of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918. For over 1100 transports of wounded military from the front to the war hospital here at Drakòn, numerous times descending into the trenches herself to carry out the wounded men, I’d like to ask Elle de Dragoncourt to step forward.”
Elle, looking rather nervous for the first time in her life but hiding it under her usual air of bluff and bravery, marched up to the table, clasping her hands with the invariable red nails in front of her. She slowly bent her head as first the British general pinned the British War Medal, and then the French general awarded her with the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918.
The sun shone abundantly on her short brown crop of hair and for the very first time in her life Elle looked vulnerable. A tear slipped down her cheek, which she wiped stealthily as she took her up her position next to her brother again.
The general continued, “Abigail MacDonald, you are awarded these crosses for at least 700 hundred ambulance rides to the front and back …
… Count Jacques de Dragoncourt you are awarded these crosses for the more than 6000 wounded soldiers that you looked after in your war hospital here at Château Drakòn and giving a temporary place for the almost 700 who didn’t survive their wounds …
… Angèle Brest, you are awarded these crosses for carrying out more than 500 operations on wounded soldiers of the Allied Forces …
… Agnes Gunarsson Dupuis de Melancourt, you are awarded these crosses for carrying out more than 500 operations on wounded soldiers of the Allied Forces. Thanks to you, doctors, almost all these men have been able to return to their families.”
The group of young decorated war heroes were quite overcome by these words of such high distinction for what they had only considered their duty. None managed to mutter more than a soft ‘thank you’.
Later, when the music had resumed and the tall champagne flutes stood bubbly and tingling in front of them, they shyly inspected each other’s medals, still quite wordless.
The silence of the men gone, the men they hadn’t been able to save, and those they had. They raised their glasses to victory and to friendship, blessing and cursing the blood-red nails of war.
To read more you can see Jo Sexton 's blog posted yesterday highlighting her story in the anthology, titled The Dragon's Mate!
That was it, folks! Thank you for reading our stories. You can get the entire collection from Amazon.
The Secrets of Castle Drakon
Contributors: Jeff Blackmer, Richard Rhys Jones, Jillian Ward, Bev Allen, Elaina J Davidson, Suzanna Burke, Paul Rudd, Hannah Warren, Joanne Sexton, Tee Geering, and Poppet.
Castle Drakon is a mysterious place. A portal to offworld, a haven for the ancients, a receptacle for nightmares, and a residence where the weird and bizarre are the norm. In this anthology of eleven short stories you will experience a smorgasbord of phenomenal tales that will entertain and leave a lingering mulling over the profound and macabre.
Welcome to Castle Drakon, enter the sacrosanct halls at your own peril.