“The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house.” – Jo Walton
“Of course it's not like that these days,” she said, and twitched the velvet curtain shut. “Between men and women.”
I had fully understood. I kept my eyes on the paneling, still good under its yellowed pre-war wallpaper, and scratched out another note. I could have the subcontractors soak the paper off on Tuesday, and inspect for mold damage Thursday next.
The Dowager adjusted her faded skirts again and clinked her teaspoon on the cup. The tea was a necessary courtesy for a woman of her age; neither of us were eager to take confidences with the other. I nudged the thick blue velvet curtains back open to catch the light. The wallpaper looked different in sunlight, pale and sickly. Yes, I thought. It would have to go.
“You young people have your own notions, I suppose,” the old woman went on, as if I had responded.
I had already inspected the wainscoting; there was little excuse to avoid a response. I coughed quietly, and was rescued by the soft tread of workboots on the Dowager's Indian carpet.
“The structure appears in good condition,” Duplessis said from the doorway. The Dowager waved a hand, as if to say of course, and I favoured him with a quick smile. For all my expertise I was an amateur and he an accredited professional inspector, with a knowledge of the local materials. His opinion would carry the sale.
“That's good to hear, M'sieur, thank you,” I said. “Your full report will be most anticipated,” and if there was more gratitude in it than load and oak beams strictly required, I did not actually mind. I had learned in the war to be unstinting with my appreciation. It did not do, anymore, to leave a good word unsaid too long.
Duplessis touched his tweed cap and I recovered my handbag from the sideboard, gathered my coat. “Thank you for the tea, Comtesse,” I said, having barely touched it. She did not protest my retreat.
My low heels clicked against the scuffed floorboards: good oak, if long-neglected. The bones of the estate were indeed strong, sturdy enough at root to squint at the whole and contemplate salvage. The experienced house-buyer knew, nonetheless, that oftentimes the hidden gem was the best-laid trap of all: one might repair and replace, driven by blind optimism, for decades while hands callused and the money ran dry. It was why I had brought inspectors and appraisers as a condition of sale. The Dowager loved her house fiercely. It was common to be blind to its faults.
Unlike on other days, the Dowager trailed me outside, assisted into cloak and boots by her equally aged companion, Mme Martin. Her feet, arched in acquiescence to a lifetime of high heels, fumbled over the light grey frost. “Oh, Comtesse,” Mme Martin gasped the third time she slid, and despite his own limp, M. Duplessis obligingly offered his free arm.
The Dowager smiled up at him, all her wrinkles arranged so for a moment, the puzzle fit, and I recognized in her a lifelong habit of looking up to strong men and beaming. She took his arm gracefully, a woman accustomed to being caught, and we processed at her slower pace to the gnarled rose gardens.
It was difficult to ascertain their condition overwinter, but my informants in town had assured me the Comtesse's rose bower still bore, and richly. The war had devastated local industry, and I hoped to grow for the parfumeries Molinard and Galimard in Grasse. We were no longer in an age of rents and retainers; the house would have to create revenues.
Mlle Caron was in the garden where I had abandoned her, rubbing between two fingers a grain of chalky soil. “I will have to adjust the acidity,” she said, as I ducked the curling claws of the overgrown hedge, “but the bushes are alive.”
“How much work?” I asked.
“Persistent work,” my botanist corrected, “and careful. I imagine they required a great deal of tending.”
“They were the Comte's especial gift,” the Dowager interrupted, balanced between Mme Martin and M. Duplessis at the vined arch. “He planted them as courtship.”
Mme Martin favoured us with a theatre director's smile. “The Comte was a grand romantic,” she said, with a dutiful glance at the Dowager. I extracted my pen and took another careful note. Acidity and soil.
We stood in silence, watching Mlle Caron work until the sky threatened afternoon rain. M. Duplessis loaded his instruments, and Mlle Caron waited primly in my passenger seat, her gloved fingers lined like parapets on the ridge of her handbag. I regarded the house, grand once, now exhausted, the soft cobalt peaks of its rooftops marred by missing tiles and careless years.
“The notary will be in touch,” I said, and shook the Dowager's hand.
It was a month before the Dowager gathered her things—those not part of the sale—and moved down to the cottage purchased for her in the village. I spent those weeks in preparatory organization. It would require work to make the château habitable; the Dowager had confined herself, in the end, to the library, kitchen, and a small suite of rooms, and the rest was in disrepair.
Mlle Caron went right away to work in the rose gardens. They were extensive, more so than we had imagined, their roots a tracery running under pathway and garden wall. “Insidious little things,” Mlle Caron said, and brushed dirt from her trousers, “but it is encouraging for the enterprise.”
I surveyed the austere grounds and imagined them filled with workers: young boys and women hired to pluck petals without bruising. Even with the recent strides in chemical synthesis, there was a quality to the flower delicately handled. Substitution could not approximate it. In the summer, we would have real roses.
The workmen arrived on the second day I possessed the château keys. They led a convoy of pipes and plans: gas and plumbing for a modern kitchen, updated water closets, a new boiler strapped precariously to a jury-rigged farm truck. They went to work with an enthusiasm, burning through cigarettes as the odour of old masonry dust effervesced into the halls. Some of the furniture was intact, and as for the rest, the empty lorries served to carry it off once the gleaming copper pipes were unloaded.
I wandered through the new-sprung maze of dust sheets, checking here a notation scrawled in pencil on the wall, there the architectural plans. M. Defoussy's firm had sent a representative down from Paris, and he traced the most recent alterations for me with a narrow fingernail. “We have of course adjusted to meet the Comtesse's instructions.”
The Dowager had perhaps sensed my irreverence. A condition of sale had been appended to the final paperwork: I was to under all circumstances leave the tower library and rose bower intact. M. Defoussy had assured me we could proceed at the same cost, but there were new green pencil markings on the final diagram: walls which required opening to move our large modern equipment through. “This will not alter the schedule?”
“It should not,” M. Angel said, with a dubious twitch of the mouth. “We agreed to open up the first floor regardless, for the light.”
“We did,” I allowed. I had engaged M. Defoussy because I had a dream of houses: square, neat, and cheerful, self-sufficient in their habits, with wide windows that coated each room in butter-rich sun. I had fantasies especially of kitchens: red wine and copper pots, sleeves rolled up, good work and laughter; all the brightest moments of the last long, awful years distilled into one warm room whose roads led outward like fingers stretched. The dream was large and the château itself a warren of small chambers. Each had to bend somewhat to accommodate the other.
Now that the papers were signed, I found I disliked the idea of a room that was not wholly mine, a room in my home deemed unalterable. I sighed and went upstairs to reconcile myself to the library.
I was given to understand the Dowager especially liked to read, and the château's collection was too vast for her to carry away. She had left the vast plurality intact. I slipped into the room and pulled the drapes, blue velvet as in the rest of the château, and the library illumined: an octagon of towering bookshelves looming over dusty balustrades, with century armchairs and reading nooks scattered like birdseed along its balconies. Dust swirled in ribbons between them, circling upward to the chandelier.
This had been the limitation of the Dowager's universe in recent years. It had the air of a border checkpoint. The thick windowpanes peered inward, their outsides white with dirt. The walls, thick-lined with books, damped the masonry work to a sigh. Silence could roar in the ears like water, and the library had that peculiar isolation, a quiet that filled nose and mouth. For a moment, I felt all my own architecture stripped away, and saw myself as the house would: small and compact, built only of flesh, a bruisable vessel floating through its bloodstream of stone, wood, and bone.
The war years had left me averse to being watched, and that instinct flared fully: my hand fumbled at my waist for my Walther. I exhaled. I had destroyed that gun in Paris under a spring sky, two days after the April elections; a foolish statement, a worthwhile one. I forced my shoulders lower. It was only a room.
I walked each balcony, wrapped in the sensation of a house caught breathing; trailed fingers along the walnut shelves, inspecting here and there a title. The collection was neither rare nor insipid: classics of the French canon, reference books, and a great many volumes of poetry and romance. Books were stacked unevenly, in rows and oftentimes piles. They bulged out from the shelves, each one an offered fruit, their jangled colours dizzying.
I sank onto a small settee, thoroughly dislocated, and rubbed dust from my eyes. It was when I opened them that I spied a small doorway hid behind a tall armchair, a door not noted on our plans.
I shifted the dusty armchair and tried the door. The knob stuck. Behind the parched wood, I heard the rustle of something alive.
There was a sensation I experienced sometimes; I do not remember if it occurred before the occupation. My breath would freeze, my vision sharpen, my body straighten like a blade. My hands and feet went hot, then numb. It happened just around the corner from danger. I felt it when I rattled that wrought-iron knob again and opened the door.
Behind the door was a thicket: instead of a wall, roses. The rose canes were grey, gone dormant with the winter, and they twisted tighter than tapestry work, thorns pierced through one another, matted thick along the space between the plaster and the stone. Cold air seeped between their irregular gaps. They disappeared into the wall void. I could not see an end to them.
I prodded the walls around the doorway, ran the flat of my hand across the plaster as far as my reach extended. The wall was indeed uneven, full of tiny dips and pressure warps. There were bumps like sentinel pinpricks across my palm.
I blinked at the dark spectacle before me, feeling curiously underwater. I would have to ask Mlle. Caron how there might be roses in the walls with no sunlight to nourish them.
The grey branches crackled.
I drew a deep breath and called for M. Angel.
“Well,” M. Angel said. “It will decidedly pose a structural problem.”
The meeting had been hastily convened: Mlle Caron, M. Angel, my foreman, and me, peering through the thicket in the library. The removal of the doorknob and then the door had freed the long-compressed branches. They spilled through the doorway and scratched the shelves, engorging larger every minute.
The foreman muttered in dialect as he made exploratory cuts along the plaster, every five feet, and then every three. Each slice into the plaster set off crackles behind the walls: the hide of a great beast shifting around the masonry. A book slid from its precarious pile and landed, spine broken, on the floor.
“A healthy rosebush sends roots two or three feet,” Mlle Caron said. She walked the balconies, around and round, her fingers tangled in a fret. “I need trenches. We must see how deep the roots run.”
M. Angel tipped her a decisive nod. “Then you have the workmen. I shall stop all other work immediately.”
I felt the tremor go through me, the one that said danger was already here. “What is the worst case?”
It was plain M. Angel did not want to say. “Mademoiselle,” he started. “The library walls are integral masonry. If they are thoroughly compromised, the plants may bring the roof down.”
We looked upward as one to the heavy chandelier. That suffocating quiet overtook me for a moment, broken only by the rip of old plaster and the crackling of girdled thorns.
M. Angel closed off the room entire, and the sound of cut stone, picks, and chisels faltered and then died. I stepped outside to the stone rail and watched Mlle Caron soften the dead lawns with water and then, with pick and shovel, pry up the first tranche of soil.
There was little to be done tonight.
I retraced the road between town and the château in my small green Citroën, one of my few indulgences. I had been fortunate to inherit a patent, but it was just one patent, and there was no room to spend my windfall unwisely. Even less so, now that I had tied up my savings in the château. The car hit a pothole, jostled and righted, and I sat in the road at a full stop for a moment, hands upon the wheel at ten and two, both visibly shaking.
I had taken rooms in the village, so as to not inhibit the renovations, and it was to them I retired: a bed and washroom in the old mill house, let from a widow whose sons had not returned from Bir Hakeim. She kept their posthumous medals on the mantel and pressed her kissed fingertips to their cold metal every time she passed. The house itself was three leaning stories of white stucco and tile. It had its own irregularities: all the windowframes were scored with cracks from where the land had changed over centuries. One day, the land would go where the building could not, and the house would slide down the hill.
The thorns in my walls unsettled me. I could not fathom how both I and M. Duplessis had missed them in our inspections. I reread the plans and his report twice as the grey day waned. Surely the door had always been there.
Though my rooms in the mill had only small conveniences, Mme Arronax did provide breakfast and supper. We sat over a single candle and a thick potage at one end of the ten-seat table, eating with spoons in one hand, in the other fresh loaf. Through the door, I caught a glint of the type of kitchen I longed for—window-lined, capacious—except it stood empty and dark.
“How are you finding the château?” she asked after an interval. I was an awkward guest, and she an awkward host.
I circled the bowl with a dented spoon. “I fear it will take some work.”
Mme Arronax dipped her chin in sympathy. “Ah. Forgive me: I'm too curious. The Comtesse never seemed to like guests.”
I felt sufficient warmth from her that I ventured it: “I am surprised she would not show off her house. She seemed quite proud of it.”
The corners of Mme Arronax's mouth flinched. “I could not say.”
“Perhaps the Comte was less sociable?”
My hostess put down her spoon. “I could not say.”
We finished the meal in silence.
The ground floor walls were already scheduled to come down. M. Angel brought them down faster. The books were shuffled into boxes and banished through their ruins to the cellar, and over four days we ripped the library back to the oak beams. M. Defoussy himself came down from Paris and he walked the foundation, shielded by an assistant with an umbrella, his eyes on the ground and his pen poised over his own small, neat notebook.
I was summoned to the room midafternoon for appraisal. It gaped like an opened cadaver, the intestines burst. Freed from the walls, the briar had filled the library; thorns garrotted the central stone pillar. They seemed endless and still-growing, creaking against a lifetime of constraint. Soon the balconies would be subsumed, and then the airy shaft down to the door, everything serrated with roses.
“Mademoiselle,” M. Angel greeted me, and I had no capacity to offer him a kind smile. I examined the canes, stretched out and bloomless; roses did not grow well in the dark even if, somehow, they grew. I reached out to touch one, and then a sudden fear gripped me of what might come to pass if I let that cane draw blood.
M. Defoussy cleared his throat behind me. “The foundation appears sound. The canes must be traced through the walls to their entry point. Then we might establish the risk, and the likelihood of repair.”
I waited. M. Defoussy would not have come down from Paris for this alone.
“I have,” he said, and cleared his throat again, “contacted the notary's office. The Dowager Comtesse clearly falsified the condition of the house. The sale itself may be void.”
“It is that grave.”
He looked down and straightened his suit jacket. “Many would not wrestle such conditions.”
The house had good bones. It was the best-laid trap: a thing to be rescued that just might be rescuable if I dedicated myself, was wise and careful. And I had had such a dream of houses.
“I will have a decision in the morning,” I said, and took my leave.
I walked for some time through the empty château, aware of every creak and fissure. The charm was gone from its halls. Every crack stood out like a razorblade, and the weight of the house crouched, full freighted with something ominous. I ended at the servants' entrance, a portico stubbed into the back of the château, so disused the workmen had required torches to shear free the door hinges. Just inside sat a pile of gleaming machinery. Sometime in this mad week, the manufacturers had brought the condensing apparatus.
I lifted the tarp and considered its metal bulk. It should have been installed by now in its newly cleared workroom, the masons reassembling the wall behind it. Today I should have witnessed the second test, stood there while the great beast seethed around me, sucked and spit steam through its shiny steel valves, and the fog wreathed our faces, our hands, and our hair. I had imagined leaving the test wrapped in the scent of roses.
I locked the door after me and walked down to the car.
The Dowager lived in the village now. The Comte's agent had purchased an empty cottage for her, the home of a weaving family who packed for Nice eleven years past. I walked the cobblestoned streets up the hill to her residence. A light burned at the lintel, but the windows were closed, the curtains shut.
Mme Martin was surprised to see me. She blocked the door halfway. “Mademoiselle.”
“I came to see how the Comtesse is getting on,” I told her. Her brow furrowed, evaluating, but she nonetheless led me in.
The cottage was snug: three rooms and a washroom. The Dowager had brought comparatively little with her upon vacating, but her parlor overflowed. Three bookcases were wedged against the plaster walls, double-stuffed with titles so worn the gilt flaked off. A familiar chaise longue took up a full wall of the parlor; the modest white window frame boasted grand blue velvet curtains, hastily hemmed.
The Dowager herself did not appear smaller. She perched under blankets in her precarious recreation, a doll in her doll's-house grand château. She did not look as if she had stirred from that spot in days. She schooled her face to hauteur when she spied me and set down her frail hand along the cracked spine of a book.
“Mme Martin tells me,” she said without preamble, “what you are doing to the house.”
A woman of her station would never admit to anger. It had been bred against as meticulously as a prize-winning stable matched race horses. Her lack of hospitality was message enough.
“Yes,” I said, as mannered as I could. “I have some questions as to your instructions.”
Her coquettish smile fluttered. Her lips were thin and pale. “I misunderstand, Mademoiselle. Surely I have no head for such things. You would have to ask the estate agent.”
I had never been patient with the habits of these trimmed-down women. They were difficult to blame; they were a peculiarity of particular times and places, and we all do what we must to survive. But I found them equally difficult to tolerate: their edged manners, their dropped hints, their insistence that it must have been exactly what any young girl would have asked for, and surely you agreed. One left feeling plucked at and positioned, a mirror set out to best reflect their light.
“It is a matter of safety, Comtesse,” I said. “There are rose roots in the walls.”
“Is that serious?” she asked, with a tilt of her old head.
I could not shriek. I could not blow her foolish fantasy of a cottage down and stomp with both feet on the ashes. “Why,” I asked, “did you stipulate against improving the library?”
The Dowager sat straighter in her armchair and took on a victor's cast. I understood, too late, that I had unwittingly ceded some crucial point in an invisible game. The Dowager had all this time wanted something of me, and now she would have it.
“The first thing you must understand,” she said, in the voice of a teller of folktales, “is that when I came to the château it was cursed, and the Comte had not left its gates in a decade.”
She thought that her story was unique: once upon a time there was a girl who knew no better, and a grown man who behaved like a beast. There glowed a strange soldier's light in her eye as she detailed the small ways he had bent to accommodate her—a slight restraint upon his whims and moods, bare table manners, the rose garden—all communicated with a breathless confiding, insensitive to my shuttered face. It was the same story every schoolfriend who spent the war with German officers told; they told it with the same eyes. My gaze landed on that frail hand, on the curve where the bone jutted out, inexpertly healed, so it left the fingers crooked. I understood now why the Dowager had proscribed me the library. She did not love the house. It had been the site of an occupation, and I had gravely misjudged.
“So you see,” she concluded, after relating far too many daily horrors, “the way in which one must treat my Comte's château. It is a house that must be loved carefully, in its peculiar ways. There is not one woman alive who understands it as I do.” The old woman beamed at me maternally, as if she had imparted a crucial catechism and had not spared the rod. And it was clearly my place, now, to speak.
They shaved the heads of those girls who took up with German officers. Shaved their heads, and paraded them through the streets of Montparnasse. We all did what we must, in those years, to survive, but perhaps this was what it meant to have seen peacetime and then a war: I opened my mouth to speak to the Dowager and could not. It was too much to be asked, after all that blood and mourning, to be a collaborator.
“Your new home is very fine,” I said uselessly. It arced through the air like a shell falling.
“Oh yes,” the Dowager said airily, glowing still with her satisfaction. “It has begun to feel like home.” And her gaze fell to the corner, where a tub of dirt had been hidden behind the velvet curtain. It was imperfectly packed, its author no master gardener. From the soil rose a single, greyed rose cane. It had just begun to pry at the crack where plaster met tile.
“It was a great romance,” she said, chin out, her rheumed eye sharp as thorn.
I brushed dust off my skirt and made, with a polite smile, my excuses.
Mme Martin saw me out the door past sunset, and I walked from the town back to my estate, down darkened, muddied roads still damaged from German tanks. Another might have thought them quaint. It was a simple view of things, to call quaint what was merely broken. To make moral example—instruction—of that which we merely, miserably survived.
All the country were survivors, now: me, the Dowager Countess, the imprisoned men of the Vichy regime, M. Duplessis with his limp, Mme Arronax in her house of dead medals, sliding down the hill. We would have to find a story for our disappointments soon, one that lit the windows of our cracked and haunted houses. I could not abide the thought of standing old in my pulpit, shackled to the same dreams I held at twenty-five, pronouncing to some young woman that the ruined basements of my heart were a model home.
There were thrushes in the fields, flitting tree to tree, their callnotes ringing against the starred sky as they took their night migrations. I lingered with them, face tipped to the sky. I had had a dream of houses: loving, giving, mortared against the cold. A heartbroken girl's ideal home, one that would never falter. And in the matter of houses I was still an amateur. I did not know if I could build that house in the unsound walls I owned now.
The château came into view at the next turn, a blot, imposing against the sugarbowl stars, its grounds pockmarked with trenches like the fields of Picardy. I traced the patterns of lost shingles across the vaunted roofs. Damage, so long unrepaired. And for a moment I pictured the roots of all those red roses unraveling, unraveling until they sank the house and were shown for what they were: hands clenched around clumped soil, skeletal dead hands grasping as their feet kicked the dirt and their jaws bit, wordless, with no tongue to express anger, enraged at the monstrosity of what had been done.
The servants' entrance was as I had left it that afternoon: corroded, with my equipment wrapped in funeral shrouds. I bypassed it and went directly for the tools. The new boiler clicked when I drew a bucket of fresh hot water, glad of the work, of motion. Mlle Caron's pruning shears were kept sharp. I put on my driving gloves and turned the lock on the library door.
Once upon a time, in the beginning, there was a small choice to tell a different story: one where the briars were cut out, the roots traced and plucked free, and the roses replanted in a green field where they had air and space, sun and rain, and soil that was proper. Where the young woman, alone in a strange and dark château, took down the looming walls and widened windows until sun could spill through.
I cut and trimmed, pulled, untangled as the thorns plucked at my glove leather. Through the night I hummed softly, one of my old songs: C'est nous qui brisons / les barreaux des prisons / pour nos frères.
The roses would be out by morning. And then the house would stand, or it would fall.