They rode on until the oaks relented suddenly, exposing a broad shoulder clothed in open meadow, its exhausted colours beaten down, vigor spent in expectation of repose. A scolding flock of jays scattered into the air before their vehicle, flashing turquoise, planing away over a low line of yews that divided the meadow from a parterre garden, its dramatic, finely-demarcated textures like figured embroidery in lavender and sage, its bib of felt-green lawn pressing right up to the house itself.
The structure's two modest stories had been raised from the granite of the surrounding gorges and topped with a sloping hat of stern blue slate, reaching into eaves that were the equal of the region’s winters; arches of the same native stone framed narrow windows set with blinkered wooden shutters. Her face had lost its dour incomprehension as she glanced at her companion, and Gideon looked up from the newspaper in his lap in acknowledgment of her appreciation.
A short stone bridge spanned a ditch trickling with a stream that pushed through nodding grass, the long car easing on through gates pinned against the stout walls of an arch into a yard enlivened with topiary conifers; two baroque bronze dolphins spouted a pattering stream over their own flanks in a shallow black plane of water. Gazing upward, she saw the walls wore carven masks that had lost their rudest features to the rain and snow, so that their malevolence seemed subtle and considered. Over the kitchen door a weathered viper grasping its tail had been worked into the frame. Gideon smiled at her notice of it.
“I love the snake.” he admitted. “It is so blameless.”
The servants' kitchen was full of thick scrubbed pine and bright, mismatched Ardéche chairs, the impression elevated from agrestic simplicity by artful arrangement, continuing the graceful, almost unearthly standard of luxe that had enfolded her since their association, as though at the insistence of some lavish national divinity. It had lightened her mood en route, but the prospect of inhabiting a stranger’s house returned the frown to Susan’s face. Intramural formality began in the adjoining hall, almost a room in its own right, molding picked out in three shades of creme and duck-egg blue; away from the deep-set windows the rooms lost all touch with the world outside and became an insulated refuge. A large suite had been readied for her deep within the southern wing, its plastered walls framed with gilded gesso, deeply-buttoned fauteuil standing in the corners dressed in bloomy tearose silk, the cloth repeated in the plump quilts asphixiating a bed headed with riotous rococo boulle in the forms of swans and banners. An enormous blaze lapped willow slabs and pine cones in the open grate, betraying the presence of servitors that she had not yet espied.
“I cannot tell you how long I take to choose the colour... my decorator tear out his hair.” he told her, setting her pack down on the ottoman.
“It’s... lovely.” she assured him, placing the only bag she had been permitted to carry beside the others. “But I would have been happy with the couch.”
Incomprehension crossed his features, and he shook his head, as though politely disregarding some unwitting insult.
“Sussan, first, I must say something to you, an I don’t want for you to be alarmed.” He swept her toward an adjoining bathroom with a gesture. “I don’t know what Sachiin has told you, but, this place it is a hahdri as well as my home. You know this word?” He nodded with her. “Good. It's okay right now... you could sleep on the parterre, pas de probléme. But the moon, she make the rules... respecter les régles, eh? Your friend has his teaspoon... I don’t like him to kick my ass from here to Lyons because someone stand downwind of you.” Gideon nodded toward the garden. “Don’t go outside at night, not ever. Your room is on fire, okay... but if you want to walk, I will come with you. Never alone. An I cannot let you leave this place until Sachiin send for you. You are in my hand now... this is an old rule, an we keep to it.” She nodded again, more slowly. “Sometime, I must go for business, an then Luc will look after you... en cas d’urgence, you must leave everything an go with him, Étienne, or myself, whoever come first.” He shrugged, smiling. “That’s all. Now Sussan, you must be frank with me... what do you think of this? It is not, how you say, ah.... mauvais goût?" A long curtain of pink and gold toile hung over an enormous oval tub of rosé marble veined with vanilla inclusions, its steaming water topped with jasmine-scented froth.
"Tacky?" she suggested, smiling as she scratched at the back of her head. “I'd call it... happy.”
He lapsed into a chuckle and nudged her with his elbow, pronouncing her name so that it sat proud, like a sunlit isle amid his observations.
“Sussan... elle est tout á fait ridicule."
“William would say it looks like a dead duck’s guts.”
"Such exquisite vulgarity. Maybe the soap should be white, who can tell?”
“Well, a few weeks ago I had to burn furniture in the back yard to get hot water, so I’m just happy when the taps work.” she confessed. He shuddered in sympathy.
“Maison Bucket, eh? Quelle horreur. People ask me, why don’t you stay with them, Auberjonois, but ah... if you must ask, you haven't had the pleasure. So, now, you must excuse me... my cook he has the pox, an I wear the apron tonight.” he explained. “I like to dress for dinner. Perhaps you have something to wear?”
He watched her transfer the contents of her pack onto the quilt, keeping it in tidy piles as she sought out her cocktail dress.
“Everything I own has bloodstains.” she confessed.
“Leave them outside for Étienne... he is like Jesus casting out the spirit into the swine.” her host advised, touching her arm with another of his ingratiating smiles, before leaving her alone. She left the bed to stand before the fire, lifting her dress to warm her bare legs.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce