WEDNESDAY, 28 APRIL 2004
The first shattering blow echoed down the line of empty rooms. The big man stepped back, raised the iron mallet again. It struck home with another sickening thud.
Christophe de Bonfond recoiled at the first hit, turned away at the second. His normally cheerful face was pale.
"Je ne peux pas
. . ." he murmured to his companion. "I can't. It really is too much."
"Then don't," Mara Dunn responded in French, drawing him away by the arm. She was a small, slim woman, forty-something, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that read in English: Outside of a dog a man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it is very dark.
This was attributed to Groucho Marx. Her head was topped with short-cropped hair. She had dark eyes, straight brows, and a decisive chin. Her expression, normally vivid, was at the moment tightly composed. Why had he insisted on being there? She said in an even tone that belied her exasperation, "We'll leave them to it, shall we?"
The little man nodded, shuddering as the steady, awful cadence of blows continued. In his haste to be gone, he pulled free of her and scuttled through a doorway leading into a small antechamber that gave access to the stairs.
"Smokey," Mara called over her shoulder, "I'll be down on the terrace with Monsieur de Bonfond if you and Theo need anything."
Aristophanes Serafim, otherwise known as Smokey the Greek because he was from Thessalonika and a chain smoker, paused in the middle of his swing. A limp Gitane clung like a tubular growth to his lower lip. His sweat-stained T-shirt was stretched over a barrel chest and a large belly.
"What would we need?" He spoke French with an accent as thick as feta cheese. The blunt head of the mallet completed its arc. A large sheet of plaster crashed down around him in a cloud of dust, exposing roughly dressed stone that had not seen the light of day for more than a hundred years. Smokey's younger brother, Theo, equally big, sledgehammer in hand, stepped up to inspect the damage.
"Well, just in case." Mara's eyes lingered anxiously on the pair. She had not worked with the brothers before and was not reassured by what she had seen so far. Their setup had been casual at best; the necessary precision of the task they were undertaking seemed beyond their comprehension. "Please try to take things down as carefully as possible." She glanced up. "You're sure of the bracing?" Her greatest fear was the roof collapsing.
Both men regarded her with indifference. The Serafims were good at demolishing walls but didn't seem to care much what else came down with them.
The terrace ran across the back of the main part of the house, overlooking an expanse of geometrically clipped yews and boxwood: an eighteenth-century garden done in the Italian manner, for all that this was twenty-first-century southwestern France. In fact, everything about Aurillac Manor placed it more in the past than in the present. It was a large U-shaped structure, consisting of an original central block with wings, added on at later times, extending backward to enclose part of the garden. Built of local stone and along traditional lines, with Early Renaissance and Baroque touches, the overall effect was charming if slightly quirky.
She stood beside Christophe at the terrace's edge. Below them played an eighteenth-century stone fountain in the shape of a leaping dolphin. Its nose, chipped off at the tip by some past violence, pointed like a crooked finger at a door giving access to the south wing. Water dribbled from the dolphin's mouth into a handsome but rather scummy pool. Aurillac's grounds staff was down to one old man and a girl. If asked, Christophe would have complained of the difficulty of getting good help.
"Silly of me, I know." His brown eyes were unhappy. He was a small, round person in his early sixties, immaculately dressed in fawn-colored trousers and a summer jacket of slightly darker hue. His sparse, graying hair was neatly slicked back; his features were soft and rosy. He resembled, Mara thought, one of those nice pink marzipan pigs displayed in the windows of the better confectionary shops. Except for his expression. Confectionary pigs smiled.
"It--it's too much like living flesh . . ." Christophe managed to sound both apologetic and petulant at the same time. The flesh of the de Bonfonds was what he meant, overlying the brittle bones of old money, the stiffened sinews of class and privilege dating back centuries, embodied in a house.
"You wanted a gallery," Mara reasoned with him. "You can't have it without knocking out walls." A naturally quick, impatient person, she had learned the necessity of coaxing clients along. The demolition stage was never easy. People had a hard time seeing past the rubble.
It had been Christophe's idea to convert the entire upper floor of the north wing into an elevated gallery. The gal
was a popular feature of grand French country residences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially a broad corridor linking parts of a house, it had evolved its own specialized function as an elegant walkway, a place for meditation and indoor exercise, a showcase for displaying family treasures and works of art. According to Christophe, the fact that Aurillac Manor lacked a galerie was not because it wasn't grand enough but simply owing to pure bad planning.
"You see," he had explained when Julian had brought Mara out three months earlier, "Aurillac, or at least the central block, will be five hundred years old next year. The gal
is my birthday present to the house, you might say, and the perfect architectural complement to a little book I'm writing on the history of my family." One had to take his use of "little" as an intended understatement, for the draft was said to run to over four hundred pages. "The de Bonfonds were ennobled, you know, by King Louis XV in recognition of invaluable services rendered to the crown. In fact, our family motto, 'Blood And My Right,' was suggested by the King himself, who intended it to refer to the rights and privileges conferred by our ancient bloodline. Rather like the British Royal Family's 'God And My Right,' except that the Brits"--here he had giggled--"recognize a higher power."
The book, in turn, was intended to mark the quarter-century anniversary of Christophe's small, elite publishing house, Editions Arobas. It was great fun, he said, everything coming together all at once like that. Christophe, who seemed to have pots of money, had glowed with excitement.
"Can you do it?" he had asked Mara earnestly as they strolled through the series of gloomy rooms making up the north wing. "Julian told me how good you are. I did talk to an architect, you know, but I didn't like him. A dreadful man with dirty fingernails, pas sympathique du tout
"I expect he mentioned these are all load-bearing walls?" Mara, a French Canadian interior designer with an eye for old houses, had seen many misguided renovations since setting up shop in the Dordogne eight years ago. "You can't just knock them out. They hold up your roof." She had spoken coolly, but excitement had surged through her like a drug. The wing, built before communicating corridors came into fashion, consisted of three large rooms, one giving onto another by way of smaller, interspersing antechambers. That meant breaking down five dividing walls in addition to the portion of the old exterior east wall where the wing had been joined on, thereby extending the gallery all the way to the front of the house. The creative use of space was her metier, and her mind leaped ahead to all the possibilities.
In the end Mara had worked out a plan (with another architect, who had clean nails and who was more sympathique
) for converting the internal walls into a series of weight-bearing arches. The structural integrity would be ensured, and Christophe would have the sense and functionality of continuous space. She also planned to cut away the window embrasures at forty-five-degree angles to increase the illumination. It was Mara's most important commission ever and a challenging project. Christophe was proving to be a grit-your-teeth client. Changing his mind. Fretting. (What if the structure was damaged? What if the gallery was not, after all, to his liking?) And now not being able to stomach the violence of the hammer's blow.
"Look." Once again she took him by the arm, turning him firmly from the dribbling fountain that was beginning to wear on her nerves. "Stop worrying. This is just the messy part. Think about the finished product. You'll love it. Family portraits on the walls, statues in the alcoves. The private space of a gentleman, for pleasure and contemplation." She threw out the line like a sop.
Christophe brightened. "Of course. You're right, as ever. I'm so glad Julian introduced me to you. I simply could not have entrusted the work to someone who didn't understand my feelings." He allowed himself to be led away. A moment later he glanced slyly at Mara and shook his head. "Although what l'Adoree will say to all of this I really dread to think."
"Who"--Mara's back went rigid as she braced herself for another complication--"is l'Adoree?"
"The Adored One, my great-grandmother, so named because my great-grandfather loved her passionately. Theirs was the romance of the century." He gave her an impish grin. "Her spirit still walks, did you know?"
." Mara laughed gustily. A ghost she could deal with, and Christophe's sense of humor seemed to have returned. In a good mood, the man was tremendously likable, which made his sulks and moments of unhappiness all the more affecting.
"Her name was Henriette Bertillon," he went on. "She was a great beauty and a wonderful soprano. Apparently she was plucked out of a convent school where her pure voice soared over the cloister"--Christophe's hand spiraled up in a simulation of soaring--"and thrust onto the stage of the Paris Opera. My great-grandfather Hugo heard her sing and fell madly in love with her. They married, and when she became ill with tuberculosis, he brought her here to the family country estate to recuperate. Come. I'll show you her room."
He steered Mara toward a door at the south end of the terrace. It opened directly into a lovely chamber, the walls of which were covered in cream-colored boiserie
inset with lozenges of painted fruit and flowers. True, the paint was chipped and faded, but the effect was charming all the same. In an alcove, Mara spotted a bonheur-du-jour
, a delicate lady's writing desk with a raised back, that she would have given an arm to acquire.
"As you can see," said Christophe, "it's been converted from a bedroom to a sitting room--le petit salon
, my parents called it. I'm told l'Adoree loved this room because it opened right onto the terrace and garden. I always thought she died young. However, the fellow I hired to do the background research for my book tells me she lived well into old age."
"And her spirit?"
"Temperamental. Dear me. My housekeeper, whose parents worked in the house in my parents' and grandparents' time, claims she once caused dinner plates to fly--"
"Arrh," a voice grated hoarsely behind them.
They turned. It was Theo Serafim, standing in the open doorway. He was covered in a fine layer of plaster dust. He carried his mallet as nonchalantly as a tack hammer. Dark runnels of sweat scored his cheeks.
" Mara drew straight, black brows together, the knot in her stomach that she was coming to associate with the Serafims pulling tight.
"Smokey says you want the stones numbered." Theo's accent was even thicker than his brother's.
"Exactly." She let her breath out slowly. "Left to right, top to bottom, while they're still in place. Monsieur de Bonfond wants to keep the stones, and he wants them ordered. I explained everything to Smokey yesterday. You have a problem?"
"Arrh. It's just that it's a double wall, and we're working at it on both sides, like."
She waited distrustfully.
He scratched his head, releasing a cloud of particles into the air. "So how do you want them numbered? The side he's on, or the side I'm on? Left to right his side is right to left my--"
"Christophe," said Mara in as even a tone as she could manage, "will you excuse me a moment?"
The object that Henriette de Bonfond, nee Bertillon, had caused to fly was not a dinner plate but a goodly-sized crystal ball. She had two strong arms, and the orb she had flung from the terrace had crashed into the nose of a fishlike creature that rose out of the fountain below her, carrying away with it a large chip of stone before disappearing with a satisfying splash into the murky depths of the basin. She had chosen the crystal ball because it appeared to be a valued family possession, occupying pride of place on a plinth in the main reception room. She had intended simply to hurl it into the pool. That it had damaged the fountain en route was better still.
Henriette's fury was occasioned by her impossible situation. She had given up the lively salons of Paris for a promised life of ease and comfort. Not that she had expected Hugo's family to receive her well. At least, not at first. She brought neither money nor property into the match. Beauty, wit, and intelligence were her entire dowry. However, at Aurillac she had found a penny-pinching austerity beyond imagining and a degree of ill-will that chilled her to the bone. Hugo, now that he had bedded her, did nothing to defend her. Instead, he went hunting every day, returning in the evening smelling of horses and wet leaves and stained with the blood of his kill. She was left to the company of his odious mother, his great lump of a sister, and his gouty father, who leered horribly at her from the fireside armchair to which he was confined.
A survivor, Henriette had instantly picked out Hugo's mother as her principal adversary. Odile de Bonfond was a thin, grim woman with a mouth like an iron trap. Henriette astutely sized her up as harder and more grasping than a bordel keeper and more preposterously puffed up about her station in life than the most arrogant Parisian lackey. Odile was also cruel and clever. Henriette found herself the target of daily acts of malice. The fare at Aurillac consisted mainly of game brought down by Hugo, who had a bloodlust for the hunt. When they had a civet of hare, it was Henriette who was somehow and inexplicably served the head. She was kept short of candles, perhaps in the hope that she would trip on the stairs and break her neck. She was sure that the servants had been instructed to ignore her orders. Only one, a new girl named Marie, showed herself kindly toward the newcomer. Between mistress and maid a certain sympathy had sprung up.
As Henriette watched the ripples in the pond die away, she knew it would be a fight to the finish. She was confident enough of her skills to feel that in time she would more than better her new sister and father-in-law. She was not so sure about Odile.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Orchid Shroud by Michelle Wan. Copyright © 2006 by Michelle Wan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.