Thursday, November 16, 2006

NaNo Excerpt

What could be more appropriate for a prose piece during the month of November? You will see a chapter of my novel in all

Chapter 7
Christopher Visits Again and Reveals His Secret, Also a Foggy Day and What Happened in it, Also a Visit From the Solicitor

Jeanne was washing the plates after dinner and singing along to the Verdi which was playing on the radio when she heard a knock on the kitchen door. She dried her hands and opened it. Christopher Sheldon stood there with a bunch of radishes in his hands. “I thought…I thought perhaps you would like these. I can’t possibly eat all of them and you were the only people I could think of. Old Timothy hates the things.” She smiled.
“Of course. Thank you so much. Won’t you come in?”
He hesitated and then nodded and came in.
“I was just washing up. Sit down, I’ll be done in a moment.” She turned the radio down as she walked past. She was horribly embarrassed at the thought that he had heard her singing but there was nothing she could do about it now.
“This is a very large kitchen,” he said.
“Yes. The whole house is very large for only two people and even larger for one. I don’t know how Aunt Jean did it all these years. She took wonderful care of the house considering she’s sixty and all by herself. Although she is remarkably strong except for being a little confused about time once in awhile. But she let the garden go all to seed. I’ve been working in it and it is starting to look presentable again.”
“It looked very lovely this morning. I’m sorry, this is strange, but I was under the impression that you are French.”
“Yes, half-French. And I was born and grew up there.”
“But you have no accent at all.”
“Well, Maman and Papa always spoke both languages to us. Maman used French and Papa English and so we learned both.”
“Which did they use when they spoke to each other? And who is we?”
“Oh, they used both. It usually depended on who was starting the conversation. And we are my brother Nicolas and I. Nicolas is in school in Paris, studying to be an architect. Maman was a teacher until she married Papa and now she takes care of us all. Papa is a greengrocer.”
Christopher looked at the book lying on the table. “Who’s been reading Christina Rossetti?”
“I have. It’s sad, the number of books I have never read.”
“Do you enjoy her?”
“Immensely. Not all of them of course, but there are so many that are very beautiful. And you?”
“Well, I suppose so, yes. There are times when she is very much a woman’s writer but there are times when she is very universal.”
“I suppose I can see that. There, I’m done. Would you like anything to eat or drink?”
“Oh no, I just had supper before I came. And I wouldn’t want to make more dishes for you to wash.” He smiled and she noticed the way the corner of his eyes crinkled up. It was in that moment that she realized that she was in a fair way to having an infatuation with him. She was not sure if this delighted or worried her. After all three meetings does not tell you overmuch about a person’s character.
Whatever either one of them might have said after that was forever left unsaid because both of them distinctly heard a bump in the next room. Christopher motioned to her to be quiet and very carefully picked up the kitchen poker. They tiptoed quietly to the door and saw a light underneath. Christopher gently turned the handle and the door swung to reveal Jean sitting in front of the big stone fireplace. She looked up at them and smiled. “Come in my dears. I have just been sitting here in front of the fire and dreaming and then I went to put another log on and tripped over the dogs. Have you made the acquaintance of the dogs yet? My father had them cast when he was quite a young man. He was very particular of them and we were never allowed to play with them. My dear Jeanne, I am afraid I have been very bad company and a worse hostess these past few days. There are times when I am afraid my mind wanders back into the past and the recent events sent me back there. I beg your pardon.” Jeanne bent over her and kissed her.
“Dear aunt, you needn’t worry.” She sat down on the chair next to her.
“Christopher is that you?” Jean asked.
“Yes. I brought radishes.”
“Oh good, we can have them in a salad with the lettuce. We may have to give you lettuce. It seems there is a good deal out there.”
“Mountains,” Jeanne groaned.
Jean sighed and stood up. “Well, I am off to bed. I am very tired and tomorrow I want to start cleaning the attic out a bit. It is quite ridiculous the way we have let things accumulate up there. I am afraid we Hargraves have always been thrifty and have never ever thrown anything that could possibly be used away.”
She walked out of the room; somehow a more dignified figure than she ever had been before. Christopher and Jeanne sat together in silence.
“I wonder why on earth whoever came in and wrecked the library did it. P.C. Andrews seemed to think that it was some random and senseless thing but it seemed so…thorough. And I would have thought that a village rascal would have left dirty messages scribbled somewhere. It’s almost as though they were looking for something. But what on earth could it have been?”
Christopher shook his head. “I don’t know. Has your aunt ever told you any stories about a treasure in the family or anything of that sort?”
“No. I know we were quite wealthy at one time but I don’t know when it was exactly or what happened to change that. As far as I know it was some quite normal thing like bankruptcy or having to bribe someone or blackmail or five years of bad crops in a row. Nothing that would lead to a hidden treasure.”
“Well, that rules that out then. Unless it’s something quite obvious that is hidden under all of our noses—something that didn’t have a particular value when it was first bought or made but now does.”
“But who would know to look for something like that?”
There was a long moment of awkward silence.
He sighed. “Rosamonde Delacroix. She’s an art collector specializing in obscure and valuable antiques. She also happens to be quite unscrupulous.”
“I knew there was something about her. But how do you know all this?”
“At one time I knew her quite well. In fact, we were engaged for a bit but when I found out about her I broke it off. If she was capable of doing anything to get an antique she was just as capable of doing anything to get whatever else she might want and I did not want to pay that price.”
“She is very beautiful,” Jeanne said quietly.
“Yes. And she has many good qualities. But I am afraid they are being swallowed up by her urge to have whatever she desires and her ruthlessness in getting it. She came to see me after she arrived here. She wanted to know all about your house and family. I told her that I knew absolutely nothing about you all. She didn’t believe me but she spent the better part of an hour trying to vamp me. Again.”
“But now you do know us,” Jeanne said in a tight voice. He stared at her.
“Jeanne! You don’t think that I would do something like that do you?”
“Not consciously or willingly, no. But you said yourself she is ruthless. And if she is ruthless then she could quite easily find a way to use you.” Jeanne rubbed her forehead as she spoke. She was very tired and felt more than ever that she was about to cry.
“I promise you on my honor that I am not trying to lay the ground for whatever unscrupulous ideas Rosamonde has in her head. And I also promise on my honor that I will not tell her anything about you at any time. She has absolutely nothing to blackmail me with besides the fact that I once wore yellow socks.”
“Really and truly? Yellow?”
“Yellow. Do you believe me?”
“Yes. I shouldn’t, but I have so few people to talk to or trust that I can’t rule out one of them. And I believe you will keep your promise.”
“I will.”
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed ten.
“Well,” he said, getting up, “it’s time for me to head along. If you ever need help you know you have only to call on me.”
“I know.”
“And I’m glad your aunt is feeling better.”
“I am too. Good night.”
“Good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow…”
She looked confused.
“Surely you know that! Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.” She shook her head. “Ah, you’ve killed me! Romeo and Juliet is not, in my opinion, that wonderful, but you must read it because it’s Shakespeare. And Hamlet is incredible.”
“I will make a note of it. Good night Christopher.”
“Good night. Sleep well.”
Her thoughts as she climbed the many stairs to her attic lair were confused. On the one hand she implicitly trusted Christopher but on the other she was afraid of Rosamonde Delacroix and what she might do. And, looking into her heart of hearts, she had to admit that she was jealous of her as well, jealous that Christopher had once loved her, jealous of her power over him.
“Oh dear, I’m setting myself up for a fall I’m afraid,” she sighed. Her sheets were refreshingly cool as she slid under them and outside the stars winked coldly. She could see Orion. Something in his remoteness comforted her and she turned over and fell asleep.
The next morning was cool and grey. From the top of the Hill they could not se the village except for the church spire. This was not a day to work in the garden or to go hither and thither. It was not even a day to go down into the village. Rather it was a day for books and tea and blankets in the library, for good music on the radio and for warm soup in the evening. Jean agreed and they spent the day in silence broken only by the turning of pages, the Mozart on the radio and the crackling of the apple wood fire. Jeanne fixed a good lunch and brought it into the library on trays. After supper she played the piano for awhile. She had not played in a long time and at first she was very rusty but as she kept playing some of her old skill returned. She reminded herself to start practicing every day. Her days would now be even fuller. She realized again that judging a life by its outward hustle and bustle is false and even wrong. Only the products of the heart can really be the basis for a judging a life and some of these are never manifested. For the first time she really understood why it is considered a sin to judge another person. No one can ever really see into another’s heart and therefore judging them truly right or wrong is impossible.
It is strange how much can happen inside a person in a short time. The time of the heart does not move as regulated time does. It is more elastic, stretching and retracting. Jeanne had been putting away the piano books while she was thinking. It had only taken her a few minutes but she felt as though her heart had grown several months in that time. She had experienced the same thing when she was reading or painting.
The kitchen was, as always, dark and lonely but she turned on the light and sang Pachelbel’s Canon while she did the dishes and suddenly the darkness did not seem so dark. Sometimes it is small silly gestures like these that sway the balance between light and dark—bandaging a child’s bleeding knee, planting geraniums by the side of a house, or singing in a lonely kitchen. Jeanne was not conscious that she was swaying anything at all, but she did not hate the kitchen as she always had before and her heart was light as she went up to bed.
The next morning was foggy again but they were running low on supplies and Jeanne decided that she had to go to Scardale and restock. She did not trust the bicycle and she was afraid of getting lost in the fog so she decided to walk down with a big market basket. The road was unfamiliar in the mist and Jeanne stumbled several times and almost lost her way several other times. Eventually she reached the store which after the cold clamminess of the fog was wonderfully bright and warm. Mrs. Ackley welcomed her kindly and she was able to find almost everything she needed. Mrs. Ackley was adding up her purchases when someone else came into the store. She turned to see who it was. Rosamonde Delacroix in the flesh. Jeanne couldn’t imagine what had brought her there. Rosamonde cocked an eyebrow at her and smiled a little contemptuously.
“I hope your aunt is in good health,” she said.
“She is quite well, thank you,” Jeanne replied. She did not know what Rosamonde was hoping to gain by this but she was resolved not to tell her anything at all.
“I am glad to hear it. I had heard that she sometimes suffers from confusion, but perhaps I was wrong. Chris said he enjoyed his visits with you.”
Jeanne smiled and turned away. This conversation had given her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She would go to Old Timothy and he would give her tea and then everything would be all right. Mrs. Ackley gave her the things she had bought and she turned blindly towards the door almost stumbling as she walked out. It was almost as if a black hole had opened before her suddenly. All her worries had returned and her lovely happiness of the last few days was completely gone. When she reached Old Timothy’s everything was dark and her knocks echoed in the room. He was not there. This finished her completely and she broke down and cried right there. She cried long and hard. She was so engrossed in her cry that she did not hear the footsteps behind her and when someone put their hand on her shoulder she was startled and swung around with a gasp. Christopher stood there.
“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.
She laughed a rather watery laugh. “No, I don’t think I am. I was at the store and suddenly I was just so disheartened and cold. So I thought I would come see Old Timothy but he isn’t here and now I think I’ll just sit down and cry.” She sniffed again. He produced a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. “Thank you,” she said and blew her nose noisily. He slipped his hand under her elbow and took her along with him. She wondered vaguely where they were going but realized that it was probably his house or lodgings. He stopped before a door and unlocked it, whistling vaguely. Inside he turned on the light and sat her down in a chair. Then he went over to the stove and put a kettle on. She looked around. It was small and full of things but it was, in some strange way, not untidy and it was certainly comfortable. She almost preferred its small dark warmth to the large austere darkness of much of Scardale House.
“Please.” She realized that his vague whistling had solidified into Chopin’s Nocturne. He noticed her look and laughed a little.
“I can’t sing worth anything but I whistle most tunefully.”
“Most dexterously?” she asked.
“That’s Twelfth Night. I told you Romeo and Juliet.”
“Yes, but I thought I should start with a comedy.” Christopher handed her a cup.
“A black comedy. Poor Malvolio, they certainly aren’t very kind to him are they? Pretending he’s mad and shutting him up in a dark place.”
“Well I get the feeling that he deserved it. He didn’t seem like a very kind person. We don’t see that side of the story.”
“All too true. I am bested!” He fell back in his chair dramatically but sat up again quickly. “What made you unhappy at the store?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does. What was it Jeanne?”
She looked at the floor rather miserably. “Well, I was there and I had just finished buying everything and Rosamonde Delacroix came in and asked me a few questions and all of a sudden everything was just terrible.” She looked up at him. “Isn’t that sad? I’m sure I shouldn’t have felt that way, but she apparently has that effect on me.”
Christopher did not reply but he did not look pleased. Jeanne felt cold in spite of the tea and suddenly sneezed twice.
“God bless you,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you. I think it’s time for me to go. Thank you.” He shook his head.
“What else would I have done? Left you to weep on Old Timothy’s doorstep? Pas de tout.”
Jeanne laughed. “I didn’t know you knew French.”
“Mais seulement un peu mademoiselle! And I have a horrible accent.”
“It’s not too bad.”
“You flatter me.” He helped her on with her coat. “Will you be able to find your way back?”
“Yes. I think the fog is clearing a little. Thank you anyway. Good bye.”
“Good bye. Say hello to your aunt from me.” She nodded.
Jeanne sat before her mirror that night for a long while, brushing her hair. Contrary to current fashion she wore it long and did it up in a knot at the nape of her neck. It suited her bone structure and enhanced her naturally timeless appearance. She was not one to follow every trend of fashion. Her style, appearance, and outlook could quite easily be called old-fashioned but she preferred classic herself.
At any rate, that night she brushed her hair for a long time until it shone brightly. She was indeed very lovely although she did not think of herself as lovely. Her features were clear and delicate and her coloring was unusual. When she was excited or happy or embarrassed she flushed but when she was sad or tired (she was both that night) she was pale and her eyes and hair stood out starkly. When she was none of these she was a delicate rose. With her hair down and shining she looked like Danae must have. She was tired and cold and puzzled and she felt that the calm had ended and the storm had arrived. She was not sure what it would bring or where it would come from and therefore she could not make ready. This worried her immensely. She could not be called a worrywart exactly but she liked to be prepared and her inability to do so was quite frightening for her. She also felt the need to protect her aunt no matter what happened. This also would be easier to do if she knew what was coming. The very air seemed charged, waiting. She did not want to wait alone in her tower in the dark so she sat and read until she fell asleep. The next morning she could not remember what she had read but it had been better than lying awake in the dark and listening to the wind swirl around her.
The first move was not long in coming. The next afternoon Jean and Jeanne were sitting in the small parlor dusting a number of items they had found all over the house when they heard a knock at the door. Jeanne went to answer it and found a grey-haired man in a suit who she had most certainly never seen in her entire life. “Mr. Entwhistle,” he said. “Your aunt’s solicitor. You must be Miss Jeanne. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Won’t you come in?” Jeanne led the way to the parlor. Her aunt stood when Mr. Entwhistle entered the room.
“Mr. Entwhistle. What on earth brings you here?”
“I must tell you madam that reports of a rather, hem, alarming nature have reached our office and I came down myself to, hem, investigate discreetly.”
“What are these reports?”
“To be honest Miss Hargrave—that is, the elder Miss Hargrave—we were told that you are losing your faculties. That your mind wanders and that you are not able to live on your own anymore.”
Jeanne’s eyes blazed with fury and her cheeks flushed with battle-joy but before she could say anything her aunt cut in, speaking in the iciest voice Jeanne had ever heard.
“I am surprised at you George Entwhistle. In the first place you can see perfectly well that I am not living on my own. My niece Jeanne is here with me and if she ever wishes or finds it necessary to leave I will employ a young woman as a companion. In the second place, while I quite freely admit that I have times when I am confused as to time, this does not mean that my mind wanders or that I am an unfit keeper of this estate. The estate is, in any case, mine to give and you know perfectly well how I have left it. I shall not alter my will or if I decide to, it will be a small alteration in no way changing the main portion of the will. Whoever it was that came to you must be disappointed. You have handled my affairs for many years and you know that I am not foolish or incautious. I refuse to be bullied into anything.”
“I must protest Miss Hargrave that it is not my attention to offend you. I do indeed know that you show none of those undesirable traits. But it is my duty to investigate any such claims, no matter how outlandish or how repellent it may be to my own feelings. I am a busy man Miss Hargrave and the fact that I and not a representative is here speaks to my feelings on the matter. This silly accusation must be kept quiet. I trust you and your niece will agree with me on the matter.”
“Well then, I will trouble you no more. Good day to you ladies. Is there a reputable inn here?”
“Do not be sillier than you can help, I beg of you. You will stay here tonight and we will feed you ham and broccoli au gratin. You will enjoy yourself.” Jeanne spoke with a great deal of force and Mr. Entwhistle gave in as gracefully as he could. Over the broccoli and ham he leaned across the table and whispered to Jeanne, “I should have been miserable in the inn.”
“Indeed you would have sir,” Jean replied. “Yes, I know you were speaking to my niece, but your whispers leave much to be desired. If my sixty year old ears can hear you, you are not whispering. And the inn is quite good to visit but a bad place to stay.”
“I wonder how that woman stomachs it,” Jeanne said, not thinking about the possible effect that this might have on their visitor. He dropped his fork and stared at her.
“Woman?” he asked.
“Rosamonde Delacroix is her name. She is staying at the Red Dragon.”
Mr. Entwhistle turned pale. “Oh, how interesting.”
“Mr. Entwhistle, are you all right?” Jeanne asked.
“Yes, yes, quite all right my dear young lady. A momentary twinge. I am subject to them at times.”
He went to bed early and did not sleep well. Jean and Jeanne sat awhile together in front of the fire in the library as they liked to do.
“How odd Mr. Entwhistle was at dinner. Do you know anything about it aunt?”
Jean sat silent for a moment, almost as if turned to stone. “Know anything about what my dear?”
“About Rosamonde Delacroix.”
“I do know something of it but I cannot tell you now. Some day soon I will make everything clear, I promise.”
“Absolutely. Now I am going to bed. I am an old lady and I need my rest. Good night Jeanne.”
“Good night Aunt Jean.”
As usual, the fire held no answers for Jeanne. “I am not Lizzie Hexam,” she murmured to herself as she lit her candle to light her ascent to her tower.

No comments: