Authors: Rose Burghley
“If all the world and love were young, And truth in every shepherd’s tongue, these pretty pleasures might me move to live
with thee, and be thy love.”
The Nymph’s Reply to the Passionate Shepherd
WINNIPEG - CANADA First printed in 1958 by Mills & Boon Limited, 50 Grafton Way, Fitzroy Square, London, England,
Harlequin edition published October, 1961
All the characters in this book have no existence
outside the imagination of the Author, and have no
relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the
Author, and all the incidents are pure invention. ©Rose Burghley 1958 Printed in Canada
Caroline had known for some time that the taxi was behaving in a way no well-conducted taxi should behave, and she was not therefore surprised when the driver suddenly brought it to a standstill and climbed down to examine the contents of the antiquated bonnet. His flow of French, as he did so, passed over her head; but when he straightened and spread his hands and looked at her dolefully through the window she knew that the worst had happened.
She opened the door and joined him in the hot, dusty road.
“Can’t you make it go?” she asked.
The French taxi-driver looked a little pained.
“Go?” he repeated. “It is not that she will not go, but the juice— as you say in England!—is all used up, and of course I cannot make her move! Quelle affaire!” He shrugged his shoulders. “What an abomination! What do we do from here?”
“Where do we go from here, I think you mean,” Caroline heard herself correcting him automatically, and then she looked at her large suitcase strapped securely to the grid and felt a little helpless. She couldn’t possibly carry that suitcase very far and the taxi-man didn’t look as if he would be sufficiently obliging as to abandon his cab and bear it even a short distance for her. And somehow she had the feeling that the end of her journey was really quite close at hand.
She looked about her at the unruffled countryside, and spared it a moment of heartfelt appreciation. It was really so little different from England, so green, so peaceful, so familiar—in spite of the fact that she had never seen it before in her life—that she might not have crossed the Channel to get to it. There were trees running right down to the edges of the winding white road, and between the trees there were halcyon groves that beckoned. She could imagine how deliciously cool it would be beneath those spreading branches, and how sweet the grass would both smell and feel; and but for her predicament she would have stretched herself out on it there and then, and invited the taxi-man to sit beside her. He had looked so hopeful when he had picked her up at the station, and answered her query about the Chateau de Marsac, assuring her that it was not more than a few kilometers away, and that he knew it well. But now he looked as if Fate had dealt him an unkind and rather spiteful blow.
“How far is the chateau from here?” Caroline asked, while her only companion on that solitary road stood shaking his head and frowning.
“How far, mad’moiselle?” He squared his shoulders, as if the action enabled him to think. “You could reach it through the woods. There is a road that eventually comes out on the main drive. But, me”—he looked at her as if it was entirely her fault— ”how will I get back to Le Fontaine? How will I get back to my garage?”
“Perhaps a car will come along and let you have some petrol,” Caroline suggested. “Or tow you back.”
The taxi-man said something in French about the unlikelihood of pigs flying, since the road was so lonely, and so infrequently used. And then he began to unstrap her suitcase.
“At least you will not wish to be without this,” he said.
“But I can’t possibly carry it far!” she objected.
He shrugged, and indicated the side of the road. “Then leave it and you can collect it later. Or someone will collect it for you,” he amended.
“But supposing its stolen... ?” recalling that literally her entire wardrobe was contained inside that solitary suitcase.
“In France,” the Frenchman informed her grandly, “we have no robbers, whatever may be the situation in Angleterre. ”
Later, as she trod the forest path alone, and her suit-case reposed beneath a heap of leaves beside the road, she hoped that although his statement sounded fantastic there was at least a modicum of truth in it somewhere. The evening—very early evening, when the June sun was beginning to turn a little red, and the gnats were flying high—was extremely peaceful, and it was a peacefulness that made the walk less of a penance than it might otherwise have been. It couldn’t possibly have been any sort of a penance if she hadn’t been wearing a flannel suit, and heels that were never intended for woodland ways. And if she hadn’t been carrying a rather outsize pouch handbag, and a present for Marthe Giraud that she had been unable to accommodate in the suit-case—and if she hadn’t been travelling hard all day.
It seemed such a long time since she said farewell to the white cliffs of England, and although it was only a temporary farewell she already had the sensation that she had travelled long and far. She had been wrong about the familiarity of this sort of countryside. It was like nothing she had ever been familiar with. There was something primordial about it—unless it was the hour, and the silence that hung suspended beneath the gigantic, spreading branches.
Great trunks rose up on either hand, and they were like the pillars of a cathedral soaring to the distant blue of the sky. She could catch glimpses of the sky every now and again, and there was a constant movement of feathered life against it as wings were spread and birds took off for other branches. The coolness, as she had known it would be, was delicious in this enchanting stillness; but the marvel was that the stillness and the coolness went on and on, reaching into dim tunnels where it would have been only right to come upon a wood-cutter, or the habitation of a witch who thought it safest to avoid the haunts of men. Or perhaps a knight-at-arms loitering in the gloom beneath the trees.
“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering...?”
Caroline thought that if these spreading woods were the property of the Comte de Marsac then his ancestors must at some time or other have ridden in armour through the lonely, lost world of whispering trees and wavering grasses, with flowers springing up to provide a touch of colour, and brambles to reach out clutching hands—just as they sought to clutch at her absurd little hat, and wrench it from her beech-brown curls, and threatened the deep blue of her eyes that was so like the blue of the violets that probably grew there in clumps in the spring.
Violets and primroses and bluebells, Caroline thought. And remembered that Marthe had written glowingly of the beauty of the de Marsac woods in the spring.
Marthe...! She began to feel a little anxious, lest Marthe should wonder what had happened to her. If she knew anything at all about Marthe she would have been watching the clock for ages, and without a doubt there would be a most appetising meal awaiting her. Marthe was a true Frenchwoman in that preparing tempting dishes for other people to consume was one of the joys of her existence; and by simply watching their faces when her culinary triumphs were set before them on the table she received her greatest reward. For Marthe never failed, whether it was crisp rolls hot out of the oven, a chicken spit-roasted and served with Garottes et Pots Parisiennes, or an omellette that was more like a chefs secret dream, Caroline, who wasn’t in the least hungry, felt her heart warm as she thought of Marthe eagerly awaiting her; and then she found that the path forked, and eventually converged on to rather an ill-kept drive. But once she stood on the drive and caught her first glimpse of the house her heart grew warmer still.
Charlemagne towers peered at their reflection in the quiet waters of a moat, and perhaps it was something to do with the evening light, but the waters of the moat seemed crystal clear. There was no suggestion of lank weeds, or the festering fungus of centuries dragging somewhere at the bottom of it. A terrace that seemed to be raised like a platform in space was approached from the solid earth by grey flights of steps, and even at that distance Caroline could see the stone vases that decorated it, and the ornamental lions and other creatures which crouched at the head of the flight of steps. Before the house there were formal gardens, which she had been given to understand were overgrown, and at one side of it there were yew alleys—possibly also very much overgrown—and beyond it the forest trees went on and on. It was a little patch of sheer beauty enclosed by chestnut, oak and ash, with the scent of lime floating on the wind; and whatever the shabbiness at close quarters, in the distance it had the dignity and elegance of a very elderly lady so conscious of better days and many triumphs that she didn’t even recognise that her dress was no longer strictly in the mode.
Caroline stopped beside a fallen tree trunk, and sat down on it to gaze her fill. Surely the Comte de Marsac, who neglected his property so shamefully according to Marthe, would have been stirred, even as she was, by the mellow loveliness of it in this light? Surely the knowledge that it was his—something that had been handed down to him through several centuries, passed from loving as well as careless hands, cherished as well as perhaps occasionally despised—would have caused something deep inside him to vibrate a little? With pride of ownership, if nothing else.
Caroline, who owned very little, and passed most of her time— when she was not concocting doubtful meals over a gas-ring in a London bed-sitter—in a dull lawyer’s office, would have given a year of her life to be able to say, without making any closer acquaintance with the place: “That is my house...! That is the chateau that has belonged to my family for generations...!”
But the Comte de Marsac spent most of his time in Paris, and he had long since dissipated everything that had been handed down to him apart from the chateau. There had been a period of penury, and then the sort of success that comes almost out of the blue. He was a playwright—one of those who continuously pleased public taste—but the money he made was directed to other interests than the home of his ancestors. It had been allowed to fall gradually into a state of decay which caught at Marthe’s heart; and Marthe was the only one who laboured there nowadays—apart, that is, from a very old man from the village, who chopped wood, and carried water, and maintained something in the nature of a highly productive kitchen-garden. So that:
“At least there is always the fresh salad, and the fresh vegetables,” old Madame Giraud had written to the daughter of the woman she had once served. “And you can leave it to Marthe to see to it that you are as comfortable as those two hands can make you, ma petite! I have no doubt that in common with most young women nowadays you have the slenderness that is the result of too little nourishment, and the fact that you have been so severely ill is proof that you are cared-for. Pneumonia is not a thing that attacks the truly robust!”
Caroline couldn’t help smiling a little as she wondered what Marthe would say when she learned how she had contracted the pneumonia—not so much because she was not “truly robust,” but because there had been no one on hand when she had first gone down with a slight chill. No one on the floor above her, no one on the floor below— and the owner of the house, who lived in the basement, too disinclined to climb several flights of stairs to ascertain whether the only one of her lodgers who had not gone away for the Easter holiday was as well as she ought to be.
It had been very nearly too late when at last she was found, and it had taken her a long time to recover. First in hospital; then back in the dismal bed-sitter. And then Marthe had written, saying: “Come to France, my little one, and let old Marthe take care of you...! It is wrong that you should live alone! It is tres mauvais....!'
And here she was, looking towards the Chateau de Marsac on a June evening when the sun was near its setting, and feeling a little unlike herself because she was tired, and beauty always did something to her that was a little difficult to analyse. It was just as if part of herself took flight and knelt in homage... as it had done more than once before the pictures in the National Gallery, the pigeons fluttering at the feet of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, the river twisting and turning near Henley, a Turner-esque sunset.... And now rural France! A corner of France where a forlorn but beautiful house awaited her, which she could already see and admire. She could watch the light slipping lower over the terrace, gilding the parapet, discovering diamond points in the moat. Those Charlemagne towers seemed to be reaching up into a dim blue atmosphere that nevertheless had a champagne clarity about it, and the trees behind them were swaying in a sudden gust of air. But the shadows in the yew trees were growing longer and longer, and it was there that the ghosts of the past were walking, and probably always did walk at this hour....