The Blood-Red Nails of War is a novella that originally appeared in the 2014 Christmas addition of an anthology called The Secrets of Castle Drakon, written by authors of the former Thorstruck Press.
My story is part of the historical series I’m writing called Daughter of The Alvar. In Part I of the short story we write the year 1908 and Ingrid’s daughter (Book I), Agnes Gunarsson Dupuis (Book II) is then 15 years old.
Centre of attention is Château Drakòn, owned by the Count Horace de Dragancourt and situated near Roye, in the Somme department in Picardy in northern France. This castle is the summer residence of him, his English-born wife Virginia and their four teenage children.
Ingrid and her adoptive father Baron Max Dupuis de Melancourt are also enjoying their summer months away from Paris a little further to the south near Creil.
Part I ends where Ingrid has a nasty experience when coming to stay with the Dragancourts and after that wants to have nothing to do with the family evermore.
In Part we write 1917 and world War I rages over the area. Ingrid, by then a doctor graduated from the Sorbonne and her friend and colleague Angèle Brest, decide to throw their weight behind the battle by becoming war doctors at the front. The war hospital is set up in Château Drakòn and 9 years later the young people meet each other under completely different circumstances.
“What started out as a seemingly whimsical tale of three privileged teenagers in 1908 France turned into a heart warming coming of age story that brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
“July 1908 …Chateau Drakon; France.
Count Horace de Dragoncourt together with his English wife Virginia and their four children escape the city life every year to spend the languid summer months in Departement Roye. Elle de Dragoncourt at 17-years-old is bored, moody and looking for anything to excite her rebellious self. The arrival of a guest and her dislike of the man has her eyeing his car with unbridled longing. She adores beautiful things, and the sleek, powerful, white 120 HP Benz lures her restless spirit. Without regard for consequence Elle decides she will drive the car. With the wind streaming through her hair and her spirit soaring she masters the beast, and her hands with their long red-painted nails feel as one with the steering wheel. She has no fear, and this ride will set her on a course she cannot change.
Her twin brother Jacques meanwhile lounges under a parasol totally immersed in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. It is an innocent time. The formalities of afternoon tea parties and dinner at 8.00 where formal attire was de-rigueur sheltered them in the luxury they were born to.
Agnes Dupuis and her father Baron Maximilian Dupuis de Melancourt are guests at a tea-party at the chateau. Agnes is a beauty and at fifteen she is sheltered and unworldly. The cynicism and behavior of the twins initially shocks her, however they vie for her attention and she is fascinated by their behavior. The friendships develop slowly and the young people spend time visiting each other, until an incident when Agnes is staying at the chateau shocks her so profoundly that she returns home. She vows never to return.
Agnes is a newly qualified doctor and the war in Europe rages on. Despite her vow never to go back to the Chateau Dakron she finds herself journeying there with her friend Angele also a doctor. The Chateau is now operating as a hospital close to the front lines and they want to help any way they can.
Author Hannah Warren lures the reader to that time and that place. Her ability to create mood and color through language is stunning. The reunion of peoples with shared history, and the empathy and understanding evoked by her words linger on long after the tale is complete.
Elegant and compelling.”
Here’s a taster….
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 at 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 sauntere
d 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 eyes didn’t leave her hazel ones 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 lipsticked lips, announced in her high-pitched voice:
“Viens avec moi, dahling, champagne is ready!” Then she turned her well-coiffured dark head to her daughter and with a triumphant squint in her gold-brown eyes, added: “Are you joining us on the terrace, honey?”
“No thanks, 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-cyclinder 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, in 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 the 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 run 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 nobody 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 handbrake and off they went, first making a semi-circle over the gravel up front and then down the lane in between the old plane-trees until they 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 residing 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 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.
TO BE CONTINUED