Chateau Aubrey: Chapter 3


About a month later, James received  an invitation in mail from Madeleine. There was to be a Bastille Day picnic at Chateau Aubrey on the fourteenth of July. The lawns of the Chateau were dotted with white tents, tables draped with lace trimmed tablecloths, and wicker chairs.

There he was introduced to her parents and when they asked what he did, he told them truthfully that he had just found work as a clerk for a local company and a freelance photographer for a local newspaper. Her father was polite but her mother did not seem impressed with him.

“I wonder what that young man wants with Madeleine?” Madame d’Aubrey asked her husband.

“He’s in love with her,” The Chevalier d’Aubrey had answered, as if it was obvious.

“In love with Madeleine, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Is it so hard to believe?”

“No, if Madeleine was the kind of girl that men fall in love. Don’t think I’m being cruel but you have to admit that she has less advantages than her sisters. I’m worried that boy is after something, plain but rich girls are always vulnerable to people like that.”

He then learned where Catharine had got her bright and warm personality from.

Catharine was of course the center of attention and acted like it did not matter a bit to her, but she would have been in a terrible mood if she was not the center of attention.

“When’s the wedding to be?” a friend asked Catharine.

“Sunday the eighth of October,” she answered, “at St. Ouen Cathedral, the Archbishop is going to perform it.  The invitations have just been put in the mail, You should all be receiving them soon.”

“You’re very fortunate.”

Catharine then turned to a young man named Gaston Leclerc, who had proposed to her several months before Georges Thomas did and was rejected, and asked with what he thought of Georges.

“He’s not clever enough for you,” Gaston responded.

“Then Georges must be a real idiot,” James whispered to Madeleine.

He had to admit, He had found the party dull and the company even duller. Madeleine seemed bored as well mostly because everyone snubbed her.

“Come, let’s go take a walk,” she said to him, “I’ll show you around the garden.”

That day he realized how unhappy she was. He had seen how her sister treated her and now he had heard how her mother felt about her and seen how she was ignored by everyone around her.

New York City- November, 1898

On a chilly, overcast morning in early November, a young man woke early out of habit.

He looked over to the bed next to him in the lodging house dormitory and noticed that it was empty.

“Jimmy,” he whispered, “Jimmy, where are you?”

There was no answer.

He got out of bed, put on his trousers and shirt, and went to go look for him.

The other men in the lodging house were still asleep. Many were nursing hangovers after a night of carousing, and out of courtesy, the young man tried to be as quiet as possible.

A small boy stood up on the roof of the lodging house, wrapped up in a coat which was too big for him.

“Jimmy, what are you doing up here?” The young man’s voice asked.

“I like the view.” Jimmy, the small boy, answered.

“Come back inside, it’s freezing.”

“I don’t mind it.”

“I guess it’ll be good to get some fresh air.”

There was a nice view from up there; the entire city was spread up before them. To the south was Brooklyn and the east was Long Island and Queens. New York went on for as long as the eye could see.

The young man had once looked at a book in a lodging house reading room which had a map of the world in it and on it, New York appeared as a little speck on the very edge of America. If that was so, then the world must seem endless.

“I’ll tell you what, kid, since we’re both up, why don’t we read a little of that book before we have to get ready for work.”

“Sounds good, Laurie.”

Laurie quietly snuck back downstairs, retrieved a dime novel from among Jimmy’s things and went back up onto the roof with catlike tread. They took turns reading aloud about the exploits of Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch which was full of derring-do and flawlessly executed bank and train robberies.

When the lodging house inmates began to wake up, Laurie and Jimmy went into the washroom.  Laurie scrubbed Jimmy’s neck and behind his ears and Jimmy fidgeted in protest.

“Can we read that one about Beau Colt again, Laurie?” He asked.  

“Maybe, if you’re good .” Laurie answered.

Beau Colt was the cowboy hero of Jimmy’s favorite book.

“Or maybe we could borrow a book from the reading room.”

“Yeah, yeah!”

“Alright, then we’ll stop by later and see what’s there.”

When work was over that evening, Laurie and Jimmy returned to the lodging house. Jimmy had picked out The Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Men from the reading room and they read from it before bed.

“Young Daniel ran through Sherwood Forest holding the rabbit he had killed. ” Laurie read aloud “The Sheriff’s men had seen him hunting rabbits in the king’s forest, and if caught, he would be put to death.

In this panic, he did not see the thick, gnarled roots of a great oak. Daniel tripped and fell to the ground with his feet caught among the oak tree’s roots.

“Oh no,” he wept, “they’ll certainly catch up with me now.”

“Why are you crying, young sir?” A kind voice asked.

A handsome gentleman with a red beard dressed in deep green stept out from behind the trees.

“I’m caught, sir,” Daniel answered him, “and the Sheriff’s men will kill me if they catch me.”

” Don’t worry, young sir, do you know who I am?”

Daniel shook his head No.

“I’m Robin Hood.”

Alright, that’s it for tonight.”

Laurie closed the book and Jimmy groaned.

“Could you please read a little bit more.” Jimmy pleaded.

“Alright, alright, could those eyes get any bigger.”

Laurie opened the book again.

Jimmy began to doze off at the part where Robin Hood was wooing Maid Marion. Laurie noticed that the sleeping boy was clutching the red bandanna he always had with him.

He had known Jimmy since he was a baby, when his stepmother, Luisa, had been hired as wet nurse at New York Foundling. Luisa was a soft, warm hearted person with a habit of taking lost souls to her bosom.  She had lost a baby of her own, Laurie’s little half brother who died soon after birth, prior to becoming Jimmy’s nurse. Jimmy, perhaps, took the place of this nameless little corpse buried in an unmarked grave.

Laurie called Luisa his stepmother because she had lived with his father on and off again since his own mother’s death, and the word “stepmother” simplified, at least superficially, a complex situation. He pitied Luisa because he imagined that his father had put his mother through the same things that he put her through. Luisa and his mother, whose mother had been called Costanza, bore a suspicious resemblance to one another: pale, blonde, and pretty with dark eyes, brows, and lashes.  They were both of Italian descent and had the misfortune of loving the same man; Luisa had been born in America and never married his father while Costanza had immigrated at age seventeen, married his father at eighteen, and died giving birth to Laurie at nineteen.

Laurie believed that his father had loved his mother, as much as he was capable of loving anyone other than himself.  

The next morning, Laurie shaved himself in washroom mirror. The reflection which looked back at him had the florid, Irish good looks of his father, who he had been named for, square and strong jawed, but with Costanza’s dark eyes.

Around the Chateau were planted giant rhododendron and azalea bushes. It was past the time when rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom.  Madeleine told him that the ones closest to the house were a bright red color when they were in bloom and the ones which formed an arch overhead were pink and white and when you walk through the garden after a rainfall and pick some of the blooms and crush them in your hand, it releases the most enchanting scent. There was a terrace shaded by a large chestnut tree and a magnolia tree which she told him could be seen from the dining room.

“I have something special to show you.”

She lead him down a dirt path into a field dotted with poppies. At the far end of the field were the ruins of a Norman castle.

“Wow,” he had said.

Madeleine darted down the field, beckoning him to follow her.

She was out of breath when they got to the ruins of the old castle and sat down, panting, in the window of an old tower.

“I used to play here as a child.”

“Imagine having this as your childhood playhouse?”

She climbed through the window and he climbed in after her. Inside the tower was a staircase and at the top was a small, ceiling less  chamber with a large window similar to the one at the bottom.

“Look at the view,” he had said looking out of the window, “The sky is so big that the land looks small.”

“My father says that he thinks you’re in love with me, is that true?”

“I imagine that I’d be a lot worse off than I am if I was.”

Neither of them quite understood what had been meant by this cryptic response.

“That’s good, I wouldn’t want  anyone to suffer for love of me.”

They both sat down on the windowsill. He cozied up to her and leaned in to kiss her.

“You aren’t afraid that I’m too high above you? I don’t care much about things like that but they might think that way, though goodness knows they don’t have that high opinion of me.”

“Darling, I wouldn’t care if you were the queen of the Upper Nile.”

Footsteps were heard on the stairwell and in came Berloiz, the groundskeeper, with the heavy tread of his boots. He grabbed him by the shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” Berloiz’s gruff voice shouted at him, “You know trespassers get prosecuted.”

He then noticed Madeleine.

“Trying to impress your pretty little friend here, well it’s going to take more than this to get her to spread her legs.”

Madeleine stepped forward.

“It’s alright, Monsieur Berloiz,” she told the groundskeeper, “He’s a friend of mine.”

The man tipped his cap when he recognized her.

“My apologies, Mademoiselle Madeleine.”

“It’s alright.”

Shame-faced, Berloiz stepped out and left them alone.

Before anyone could notice they had left, they returned to the party, which lightened up after the sun went down and some of the guests left, making it less formal and more intimate. There was a game of hide and seek and then fireworks and sparklers on the front lawn.

“Meet me back at the castle at midnight,” Madeleine whispered to him in passing as she danced around, waving a sparkler.

He went to join her at the castle, bringing with him a candle to light his way. Another candle had been placed in the upper window of the tower where they had gone earlier that day.

Madeleine was waiting for him in the upper window. She had covered the floor with a picnic blanket and was sitting upon it. He put his candle in the window next to hers and then sat by her side.

Because the tower was missing it’s roof, a star spangled blanket of darkest blue sky covered them.

Being a downtown city boy for most of his life, he had never looked up at the stars before. The bright lights of New York, London, and Paris had made it difficult to see them.

Madeleine shyly leaned in and kissed him. He kissed her back more forwardly.

“I’m trembling,” he had said.

“I am too,” she responded.

“As much as I want to, I can wait. You don’t have to do this.”

“I want to do this.”

She settled into his arms; he began undoing the buttons and laces of her clothing-smooth, naked skin shimmering with candlelight.

He guided her hands to unbutton his shirt and helped her to lay back on the blanket.

He had been with girls before but this was the only time it had been truly memorable, probably because it had meant more than those other times.

When they parted, he had felt that they must marry and he imagined that she felt the same way. Why wouldn’t she, she had just expressed her love for him more eloquently than she ever could with words.

Catharine’s wedding was set for Sunday the eighth of October. The church was booked, the archbishop was engaged to perform the ceremony, and the invitations, all three hundred of them, sent out in the mail. James decided to speak to Madeleine of marriage the next time they met and if she said yes, he would speak to her parents on the day of the wedding.

Paris-June, 1907   

Mado had spent the day shopping with her mother and sisters on the Champs-Élysées. They bought new gowns to wear to the ball being held that evening, which was to be Mado’s first. Her gown was of eggshell colored duchess satin adorned with little beads, painted to look like pearls. The gorgeous creation lay on her bed in the suit at the Ritz Carlton her family had rented for the week.

After shopping, Catharine had come up with idea of joining a tour group to explore the Paris Catacombs. Mado had never seen the catacombs before and the idea seemed both gruesome and fascinating.  Their entrance was near the ancient church of the Holy Innocents, and was known as the Mouth of Hell. Before them was an inscription which read “Arréte! C’est Ici L’Empire de la More.”  It was dark and drafty underneath the streets of Paris; the rocks which made up the walls of these underground tunnels dripped with perspiration. The bones from long overcrowded cemeteries were arranged on the walls of the tunnels, a frightening spectacle  which made several of the ladies in the group feel faint.  

Their tour guide, who held up a candle to lead the way, warned that these catacombs were a common haunt of thieves, who found the shadows an ideal place to hide and await unsuspecting victims. The image of robbers hiding in the darkness and pouncing upon her at any moment both terrified and thrilled Mado.

A black line painted on the ceiling marked the path through the catacombs. Mado feared that at any moment she would get lost and fall into the clutches of some nefarious character. She clutched the large, sharp, pin which held her hat in place, ready to pull it out and use it to defend her virtue.

Luckily, or perhaps unfortunately, the excursion passed with relative uneventfulness. A couple of gentlemen had their wallets snatched by unseen pickpockets, but that was all.  Papa called them a cab after the tour, which took them to Notre Dame.

The huge cathedral was filled with visitors admiring the stone architecture and stain glass and speaking in hushed tones. Mado lit a votive candle and said a prayer, asking for success at the ball that night.

Mimi had just read Victor Hugo’s  The Hunchback of Notre Dame and wanted to climb up to the parapets and look at the gargoyles. It was about four hundred steps to the top; Mado was so worn out after the climb that she could not enjoy the view. Her heart raced and pounded against her ribs; her lungs felt shriveled up and her corset creaked as she struggled to breath.

“If you would only exercise more, Madeleine,” Maman told her, “You wouldn’t tire out so easily.”

They returned back to the hotels after visiting Notre Dame to get ready for the ball. A bath was drawn for Mado; sea salt mixed with bicarbonate of soda and chopped up rosemary was dissolved in the boiling water. A shampoo made from soap flakes, egg yolks, and olive oil was used to wash her hair and was rinsed out with lemon juice to bring out the golden highlights in her blond hair.  When she stepped out of this bath, she rubbed beeswax, almond oil, and rose oil into her skin to soften it. She washed her face with orange blossom oil, rosewater, sugar, and egg whites.

Marceline, Maman’s maid, arranged her hair in a style reminiscent of Gibson’s beauties. A little rice powder and cochineal rouge was used to enhance her complexion. Drops of belladonna were put in her eyes to give them a dreamy look.

“Remember, if a young man asks you to dance, you must be grateful for the honor,” Maman lectured as Marceline helped Mado into her new ball gown, “Say you would be delighted and accept his offer.”

“I will, Maman,” Mado answered.

Maman looked her over and seemed pleased.

“You will do quite well, my dear.”

This show of approval from her mother felt like the most lavish praise.

Her first ball lived up to everyone of Mado’s hopes. Though she sat every second or third dance, she was never without a partner when she wanted one. Each of her partners was more handsome and charming than the last. While, they waltzed, polkaed, and galloped, Mado made small talk with them.

“Have you been to the opera?” they would ask.

“I saw Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice last thursday night,” she replied.

“Did you dine at the Ritz?”

“We had dinner there before coming here.”

“What did you think of that new Matisse exhibition?”

“It is too noisy and crowded when I visited it. I wasn’t able to enjoy the paintings.”

“Were you able to make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower?”

“No, I didn’t make it past the first floor; I couldn’t manage all those steps.”

The dancing finished up with the Fledermaus Quadrille. Mado return home, exhausted but perfectly happy. Mimi, who resented being the only one left at home, demanded to know everything and Mado eagerly complied, showing the menu for the dinner, the program of music, and her dance card which she had saved to put in her scrapbook.

“I cannot wait until my first ball,” Mimi said.

“You’ll have to wait,” Mado responded, “If I had to wait, so do you.”


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