The House at Belle FontainePrint
By Lily Tuck
June 1, 2007
Monsieur Rossier has asked Maud to dinner at a quarter past seven on a Saturday night in late February. Monsieur Rossier, her landlord, is very old and very rich—one of the richest men in France, she has heard people say. He is also very much alone. He lives in a large château, which he built in the Norman style, with broad dark, exterior beams that are ugly and out of place in that part of the country. The small, stucco house that Maud rents from him is truly old, a portion of it dating back to the 18th century, with ivy growing up its lopsided but graceful, yellow walls. Maud’s house is set in a garden with a pretty fountain—belle fontaine—and there are tall chestnut trees that form an alley and bloom white in the spring. Her house is far lovelier than Monsieur Rossier’s château but, like him, she feels lonely in it, particularly that winter in the north of France when it rains a lot and is cold.
During the time that Maud and her children live in the house called Belle Fontaine—a time when little occurs and her life seems at a standstill—Maud is a bit frightened of Monsieur Rossier, even though he is old and frail, and she is always a bit afraid that he will find fault with her as a tenant. She wants him to approve of her, to like her even, although it is quite clear to Maud that they can never be friends. The age, and, more important, the social barrier, is too large. Still, Maud admires what she calls Monsieur Rossier’s old-world standards and his outmoded courtliness, and she also worries about him—for instance, when, for several weeks, he does not come out to his château and, instead, stays in Paris on account of the weather or, worse, his health. And, each time this happens and she asks after him, the men who work for him—the maître d’hôtel, the gardener, the gatekeeper—shake their heads and tell Maud that it is a miracle that he is alive at all.
On the first Friday of each month, his health and the weather permitting, Monsieur Rossier always pays Maud a call. He comes to collect the rent and read the electric meter—or, rather, she reads it for him because he cannot see the little numbers jumping in the box. And, since he always arrives in the late afternoon, Maud builds a fire in the living room and makes tea and they sit together while he figures out in his shaky, spidery handwriting how much Maud owes him, and then she, in turn, writes him a check, careful not to make a mistake or to misspell the numbers in French, for she does not want him to think her careless or irresponsible. Once Maud gives him the check, Monsieur Rossier relaxes visibly and settles himself more comfortably in his chair. He drinks the weak, sweetened tea Maud gives him and talks to her in his correct but accented English about the bad weather, the difficulty of finding good men to work on his property now that times have changed so, and, invariably, he talks about the past. And Maud sits and listens and tries to show genuine interest in his problems and in his memories. She nods and shakes her head and says yes and no at the appropriate moments although she knows it really does not matter what she says, because Monsieur Rossier is not listening or paying attention to her.
One event stands out during the first months she lived at Belle Fontaine—although it had nothing to do with Maud personally and it happened when she and the children had just arrived and were barely settled in the house—and it is terrible. On a clear Sunday morning in September, several minutes after takeoff, a DC-10 carrying 315 passengers crashed a few kilometers south of the château into the forest of Ermenonville, killing everyone on board. According to reports, one of the cargo doors had not shut properly, and this led to a sudden loss of cabin pressure that caused part of the flooring to collapse, and this in turn damaged the controls of the plane. All day, from her house, Maud heard the wail of sirens. The roads were closed to traffic and in the village the pretty 13th-century Romanesque church was turned into a makeshift morgue. Maud’s telephone rang constantly. For days, the people in the village talked of nothing else; Maud’s children, too, spoke of it nonstop—the youngest child swearing tearfully that he would never fly again. Morbid stories circulated. The plane had burned a mile-long trail through the forest, leaving blackened tree stumps. Monsieur Rossier’s maître d’hôtel claimed he had seen the smoke from the wrecked plane on his way back from Mass, and he told Maud that people found limbs stuck in trees, a child’s tiny foot inside a milk pail.
Then, since many passengers on that flight had been Japanese, the village suddenly was filled with Asian mourners. They arrived the following day in a caravan of minibuses, holding bouquets of flowers and looking vacant-eyed as they stumbled on the cobblestone streets on their way to the church. Maud noticed a young woman holding a child by the hand, who, despite yet another clear, sunny day, was wearing a yellow slicker similar to the ones her own children wore in the rain. The wife and child of a passenger, Maud guessed. At the sight of them, her eyes had filled with sudden hot tears and for a moment, standing there watching them, Maud imagined that she too had lost a loved one.
Twice, Monsieur Rossier has called to say he is expecting her at a quarter past seven, and Maud is determined to arrive for dinner exactly on time. She will be punctual no matter what, she has told herself sternly, and tonight she has no excuse—the children are away for the weekend, visiting their father, and the babysitter is off as well. Also, to avoid last-minute indecisions, she has already chosen what she will wear: a pleated skirt and silk blouse with her good pearl necklace, so that if Monsieur Rossier notices, he will approve, for Maud will look like countless French ladies he has met, talked to, and perhaps flirted with. The thought of Monsieur Rossier flirting makes Maud smile. Only he would never have flirted with her—of that Maud is quite sure—for she is an American, a foreigner, and, worse, she is divorced. But now, of course, it no longer matters. And, also, Maud is so shy and constrained with him, she never makes a demand or complains about the house she rents, its inefficient single toilet, the leaky faucets, the lack of heat, and the impractical old-fashioned kitchen where, for instance, the sink is so low, she gets a backache from doing the dishes.
At seven o’clock sharp, dressed in the skirt and silk blouse and wearing her pearls and her city coat, Maud goes out the back door and opens the heavy iron gate, which is usually kept shut, as it separates Maud’s garden from Monsieur Rossier’s château and land. Outside, it is dark and cold, a ground fog has set in so that, after only a few steps, Maud can no longer see her house or the drawing-room light she has deliberately left on, regardless of the electric bill. She knows that the château is not far—less than half a mile along a track that skirts a field—yet suddenly she is afraid and she is tempted to turn back to Belle Fontaine. She can go by car down the alley bordered by chestnut trees, then out to the main road and back around through Monsieur Rossier’s gates and driveway. But she had thought it more sporty and neighborly to walk. Now, her fear of being late makes her continue quickly in the dark until, at last, she can see the château silhouetted in front of her. The fog has blurred the outlines, and the château looks like a part of the night sky, suspended on a bank of clouds, and almost beautiful.
As Maud’s heels crunch in the driveway, a dog comes rushing out at her and starts to bark. She knows the dog—he belongs to the gatekeeper—but still she is afraid. She speaks sternly to him in French to show that she is not frightened, but the dog continues to run around her and bark. When Maud reaches the château, she runs up the steps while the dog remains below in the driveway, barking. In the dark, Maud feels the wall with her hand for the doorbell, and it occurs to her that maybe she has made a mistake and the dinner is the following week. When no one comes to the door, she starts to panic and wants to go back, but she knows that the dog will not let her. She is about to shout when, miraculously, the door opens and she sees light and Monsieur Rossier.
“Good evening,” he says. “I thought I heard someone coming up the steps, but it was seven twenty.”
Is he reproaching her? “Good evening, Monsieur,” she says meekly, as she slips off her coat. The maître d’hôtel takes the coat from her. Seeing him in his white serving jacket and white gloves, she did not recognize him right away; he is more familiar to her in his blue apron washing Monsieur Rossier’s car and exchanging gossip over the gate that divides their property. Tonight, when she says “Bonsoir,” he merely nods.
Maud follows Monsieur Rossier as he opens the door into a room that is brightly lit and where a fire is blazing. Except for the dark television cabinet standing in a corner, the room is mainly red, not just on account of the fire but on account of the furniture that is upholstered in red leather. The curtains, too, are a red print fabric and, altogether, Maud likes the effect.
“Sit down, sit down, make yourself comfortable,” Monsieur Rossier says.
Maud sits in a red leather armchair to one side of the fireplace. She wants the evening to be a success, and she will make an effort to be good company for the old man.
Monsieur Rossier offers Maud an apéritif. “A whiskey?” he asks.
“Unlike most Americans, I don’t drink whiskey,” Maud says, trying to make a joke.
“A glass of sherry then?” Frowning, Monsieur Rossier goes to a tray that has been set up with bottles, glasses, and a bowl of ice and pours her the sherry.
Maud thanks him and half raises her glass. “To your health,” she says, but since Monsieur Rossier does not acknowledge her gesture, she lowers her glass.
Slowly, Monsieur Rossier settles himself into the red leather armchair facing hers by the fire and says, “This is my favorite room, especially on long, cold winter nights when I tend to feel a bit lonely.”
Maud nods. She knows about lonely nights.
“But I really cannot complain,” Monsieur Rossier continues, “my son who lives in London is very attentive.”
“Your son lives in London?” Maud says. She already has been told that Monsieur Rossier’s son lives in London, but she is determined to keep the conversation going.
“Yes, my only son. He married an English woman, and they have four boys. They come and spend Christmas here, it’s a tradition, but otherwise they have their own lives. Their friends. And they are too busy to visit an old man.” Monsieur Rossier shrugs and smiles, and Maud smiles back. “Here, let me show you their picture.” With an effort, Monsieur Rossier gets up from his chair and goes to a table where he takes a silver-framed photograph of four young men—who look to be in their 20s, not much younger than she is—and he hands the photograph to Maud.
“They are very handsome,” Maud says. She says it in such a way that it sounds as if she does not think so, but in fact she does. Embarrassed, she asks, “What are their names?”
“Yves, Didier, James, and William,” Monsieur Rossier recites, taking the photograph back from her. “You see, the parents compromised—half French, half English.”
Maud says. “My children too—” but Monsieur Rossier interrupts her. “My son is really very good to me. He telephones every Sunday from London and he comes to Paris quite frequently on business and then we have lunch together.”
Maud is about to say something when the maître d’hôtel opens the door, another door, leading directly into the dining room, and announces that dinner is served. Instead, she puts her half-empty glass of sherry on the table and takes another quick look at Monsieur Rossier’s grandsons in the photograph.
As Monsieur Rossier walks into the dining room, he puts his hand on Maud’s shoulder for support. Many years ago, Monsieur Rossier must have been tall and good-looking; now he is so shrunken and bent, he is not much taller than Maud; his hand shakes as he guides her into the next room where the maître d’hôtel stands, impassive, holding the door open for them. The dining room is a vast empty room. The long table is covered with a blue linen cloth and has too many empty chairs around it. A bright overhead electric candelabra illuminates the bareness, and it makes Maud sad to think of Monsieur Rossier sitting here alone three times a day. How much nicer, she thinks, if he were served on a tray in the library in front of the fire, but that would no doubt be going against tradition or his principles. Monsieur Rossier motions Maud to the head of the table and she starts to sit down as, behind her, the maître d’hôtel holds out her chair. The thought crosses Maud’s mind that he might pull the chair out from under her—a practical joke—and she has a hard time suppressing a giggle that unexpectedly wells up in her throat.
Monsieur Rossier hands her a printed menu. “Our dinner,” he says.
Maud takes the menu: paupiettes de veau and soufflé à la vanille. Without comment, she hands the menu back to Monsieur Rossier—at least, she tells herself, she can look forward to the dessert.
The maître d’hôtel is at her side with a platter filled with white mounds—rice with a tomato sauce on the side. Carefully, Maud serves herself a mound. “Merci,” she says to the maître d’hôtel—she does not want him to think that she has no table manners—but he does not respond. He goes over to Monsieur Rossier with the platter of rice.
“Normally,” Monsieur Rossier says, “I eat a light supper in the evening—a bowl of soup, cheese and a bit of fruit. It is not good for my digestion to eat a great deal in the evening. I am making an exception tonight.”
No wonder the maître d’hôtel ignores her. He has to cook and serve a big meal instead of the usual soup and cheese. He will be in the kitchen much later than usual washing up and he will no doubt complain.
Maud eats the rice without tasting it. “Last week, when I was in Paris, I went to the theater,” she says, determined to show Monsieur Rossier that she is capable of proper conversation and also that she does not just sit around the house all day but has an active social and cultural life of her own. “I saw a play by Chekhov. It was set in modern times,” she continues even after she sees that Monsieur Rossier is absorbed with his rice and is eating it greedily. A few grains of rice are stuck to the side of his mouth.
The maître d’hôtel pours water into her glass and then wine into her second glass. Maud takes a sip of her wine, which is very good. Monsieur Rossier, she notices, does not take any wine, only water.
When the old man raises his head and looks over at her, Maud can see that he is somewhere else far away. “I am so pleased you like Belle Fontaine,” he says. Her mouth full of rice, Maud nods. She is not sure what he means. The way Monsieur Rossier looks at her reminds Maud of how he looks when he adds up the rent and the electricity, and all of a sudden she worries that he wants her to pay more.
“I have such happy memories of that house,” Monsieur Rossier is saying, his expression has softened and Maud relaxes. “I lived there as a child, you know, with my parents. My mother had what I suppose is your room, although, of course, it was quite different then. She had all her furniture from when she was a young girl and it was like a salon.” Maud cannot help picturing her bedroom transformed into a sort of storage room, crammed and crowded with antique furniture blocking the windows and shutting out the light.
“Especially when she was older and could no longer come downstairs,” Monsieur Rossier continues, “she stayed in her room and we would go up and visit her. It was always very pleasant and she was happy there. She died in that room, you know.”
He is not trying to offend you, Maud admonishes herself. He is just an old man with old memories. Just listen and be still.
The maître d’hôtel comes around with the white mounds again, and Maud shakes her head. “Non, merci,” she tells him.
Monsieur Rossier takes another mound of rice, and Maud tries hard not to think of the havoc it will cause to his digestion. “Later, after my wife and I were married, we lived there with our two sons,” Monsieur Rossier continues.
“Your son who lives in London—”
“Yes, two sons.” Monsieur Rossier interrupts. “André who lives in London and another son, Yves. He was younger than André. A wonderful boy, handsome and full of spirit and lively. He was very popular with the people of the village. Everyone admired him and liked him. He loved to ride horses and to hunt, to play golf and tennis. My wife and I thought he could have become a professional athlete, but, of course, we did not want that for him. It was just an idea we had, you understand.”
Maud takes a little more wine. Obviously, Yves was the prodigal son. Probably, he was arrogant and spoilt. She sympathizes with sensible and unathletic André and wants to resist Yves’ facile charm.
Across the table, Monsieur Rossier is quiet. But then he rouses himself and says, “Life is strange, you know.” He looks at Maud while the maître d’hôtel begins to clear the plates and replace them with clean ones. Maud smiles what she hopes is a kind, wise smile and hopes that Monsieur Rossier will realize that she, too, understands about life and its strangeness. After all, isn’t he aware that she must have been through a lot herself? Here she is alone in a foreign country with her small children? But she sees that he is no longer looking at her. He is playing with his fork.
Maud does not know what to say when Monsieur Rossier suddenly says, “Yves was killed.” In an effort to show grief, she screws up her face—her mouth turned down, her eyes squinted. “I’m so sorry,” she finally says as the maître d’hôtel nudges her elbow with a platter of paupiettes de veau. Surrounding the veal are small peas and little onions, the kind that look as if they came from a can, and Maud serves herself sparingly.
Monsieur Rossier helps himself to peas and onions, but no veal, and continues, “Yes, Yves was killed. No, not in the war, although he wanted very much to enlist with de Gaulle and the Free French. He was only 15 at the time, and his mother and I were very much against it, of course. We forbade him. André was in the Resistance, and that was bad enough. God knows, we worried about him night and day.”
Monsieur Rossier sighs deeply and takes a mouthful of peas and onions. “It was such a stupid accident, really. So unnecessary. He was on his way to Bordeaux to visit friends and spend the weekend. It was a house party. The plane service had just resumed, and flights were still very infrequent. In any case, the planes were small and I suppose old, and something went wrong with the landing gear. The pilot was not alerted. The plane crashed and burnt. All the passengers and crew were killed and Yves was among them. They said they were all killed instantly.”
Maud lowers her head so that he cannot see her face and busies herself cutting up the veal on her plate.
“They telephoned to tell us and it was already late and, of course, I shall never forget it. My wife and I were preparing to go upstairs to bed. We had been out that night, not far from here, to see friends, and we had just gotten home. We were living in Belle Fontaine, I remember it so well, and we had just begun work on the château. The telephone rang and I said to my wife, ‘Good heavens, who could that be calling us at this hour?’ But I knew. And when I went to pick up the receiver, I knew already what they were going to tell me. It was the police in Bordeaux.”
Maud can picture it exactly. She can see Monsieur Rossier and his wife as they are about to go upstairs to the bedroom, and then she can see Monsieur Rossier hesitate and look inquiringly at his wife, before he goes to answer the phone, which is in the hallway right next to the landing of the stairs, not far, just a few steps away, but far enough for him to feel a premonition and be afraid.
Maud finishes her food slowly. Yes, the peas and onions are most certainly from a can. How strange, she thinks, remembering the large vegetable garden Monsieur Rossier cultivates in the summer. From her bedroom window, Maud had watched how the gardener worked all day among the neat rows of lettuce, spinach, onions, and, no doubt, peas. She refuses a second helping.
“Who would guess that something like that would happen to us? We were so happy, so . . . ” Monsieur Rossier searches for a word, “so united. And life never seemed quite the same after that, for my wife and me.”
Maud is reminded of the young Japanese woman and her child in the yellow slicker, and she tries to imagine how their lives have changed. She is tempted to say something about the recent plane crash—surely Monsieur Rossier would remember it—but she decides not to.
“Yves would be a grown man by now, in his 40s, with children of his own, like André. Still, I can’t help thinking about it and how different things would perhaps be if he were alive. He would be living in Belle Fontaine, and he would be here tonight for dinner.”
But I wouldn’t be, Maud is tempted to say, but she knows perfectly well that she cannot, even for an instant, risk such a lighthearted comment. She is nothing to Monsieur Rossier, and although, at that moment, she would like to try and be, she also knows that never, never, can she be of comfort to Monsieur Rossier.
“I always watch the Saturday night show on the television,” Monsieur Rossier says as, obediently, Maud follows him back into the library where two straight-back chairs have been placed directly in front of the large, brilliant televison already turned on too loud. Pointing to one of the chairs, Monsieur Rossier excuses himself and leaves Maud alone in the room. The fire has nearly gone out and the room no longer feels cozy and warm. Maud wishes she could get a cigarette from her purse. The soufflé that she had looked forward to was a disappointment—it tasted of egg whites and vanilla extract. But Monsieur Rossier would not approve of her smoking, she decides. Looking over again at the photograph of the four grandsons, she idly wonders which of the four is Yves and whether he is like the uncle he was named for. Probably the opposite—studious and quiet—she decides. Overhead, she hears water running, then Monsieur Rossier’s heavy step on the stairs, and Maud wishes there was something she could do for him.
Monsieur Rossier turns off the light and settles into the chair next to her. The room now, except for the light from the television, is completely dark; Maud can just make out the outline of Monsieur Rossier’s profile. They watch a variety show; a young man wearing a frilly shirt and a medal around his neck is singing. It is hard for Maud to tell if Monsieur Rossier is enjoying the show—his profile seems attentive enough.
There is a discreet knock, and the maître d’hôtel pushes open the door with a tray full of bottles and glasses—enough, Maud thinks, for 20 people. Putting the tray down on a table near their chairs, he bids them good night. “Help yourself,” Monsieur Rossier tells Maud. “There’s brandy, liqueur, fruit juices, everything, I think.”
Why not? she thinks as she gets up from her chair and fumbles among the bottles and glasses in the dark. She finally takes a bottle that feels like a brandy bottle and pours herself almost a full glass. It is not brandy but a liqueur, a pear liqueur. The liqueur is very strong and tastes like fire going down her throat.
Sitting in the chair next to Monsieur Rossier, the glass in her hand, Maud tries to concentrate on the television but cannot, and she starts to think again about what she is doing here—in this foreign country, in this ugly château, on a Saturday night with an old man who is nothing to her and to whom she is nothing. She shivers. Hadn’t Monsieur Rossier told her more than once how, in order to economize, the maître d’hôtel turned off the heat at night? Outside, it must be even colder. She should be in a city, in a brightly lit restaurant or a nightclub, warm and intimate, with a handsome young man who is holding her hand and with whom she is going to dance. The young man in the nightclub looks like one of Monsieur Rossier’s grandsons. Again, Maud is reminded of Yves. Perhaps she would have liked him after all, perhaps even loved him, and who knows, they might have gotten married and it would not matter that he was so much older than Maud, he was so extraordinarily good-looking and athletic. He would have loved her back, too, and of course they would be living at Belle Fontaine, only it would be different. She would not be paying rent and she would feel close to this old man; she would be his daughter-in-law, and perhaps there would be children, his grandchildren. And life would be filled with excitement and pleasure, parties and trips, riding, tennis and skiing, and always handsome Yves at her side and in her bed. Maud imagines making love to Yves.
On the television, a tall woman in a long white dress has replaced the singer, and Monsieur Rossier leans forward in his chair to take a closer look at her. Monsieur Rossier, Maud knows, was once one of the leading businessmen in France. He made a name for himself and a fortune as well. Actually, he had always had the name, for his family was an old and distinguished one, but when he took over the family business, he raised the name to a new and glorious height. Probably, he was ruthless and forced smaller companies out or bought them up. Probably, too, families went bankrupt or lost their fortunes as Monsieur Rossier cornered the market and became enormously rich. But he was quietly rich, discreetly rich. He did not own yachts and race horses or spend his free time in Monte Carlo gambling with movie stars. Mainly he owned land. He bought vast forests in the north of France, thousands of hectares, which he supervised himself and on which he grew fir trees that were sold to paper mills. He built the ugly château, and he owned a large apartment in Paris in the 8th arrondissement, near the Étoile. In the winter, he took his family to Saint Moritz to ski, where he had gone as a small boy with his own parents. They had gone in sleds, with trunks full of monogrammed linen and personal servants to look after them in the hotel; in the summer he and his family went to Deauville for the sea air. And he had been content, for he had always stood for what was decent and honest and never mind that some people had criticized him for being too severe and for being a bit heartless. He had a clear conscience. One had to have high standards—otherwise one never got anywhere. And had he not always worked hard for everything he got?
The dancer on the television is quite beautiful, Monsieur Rossier decides, but not as beautiful as his wife. Mostly, if he thinks about the years before Yves’ death, he thinks about his wife and how they really did not spend enough time together, and he regrets it now. It seemed as if there was always something they had to do, some place they had to be, a reception, a ball, a weekend. She, in particular, had liked the receptions. She liked to dress well and she had lovely clothes and it is true, she looked beautiful in them. He thinks about how she looked in the long gowns with the jewelry he had given her and he feels sad. But there is no question that he has had a good life—with a few exceptions, of course. Yves’ death. The war, too, although that had its advantages for his business. Yes, he has had a good life and he cannot complain, even if he can no longer eat properly and his bowels do not move, but all that is minor. After all, he will be 93 this year. And sometimes he feels lonely but not always. Tonight he has the tenant from Belle Fontaine sitting in the chair next to him. She is not bad looking for an American and she is polite. You never know about tenants, especially women, single women, and all the children. He had been very worried at first that they would destroy his mother’s old furniture. Children nowadays have no discipline, and there is no one but a fat Spanish girl to look after them, and each time he has gone to the house, the Spanish girl is sitting in the living room dressed in strange clothes and smoking and the children are nowhere to be seen. Surely, there is something she could be doing, but of course it isn’t any of his business, and the house is kept clean and orderly. There are flowers, and it looks almost the way it did when he and his wife lived there. And the maître d’hôtel tells him that as yet nothing has been broken and they are looking after his things, which shows that you can never tell about people. Perhaps, it will work out after all. She is really quite nice—not energetic enough perhaps, and too timid—but on the whole that is better than the other way around. The dancer on the television is pirouetting in her long, white dress, and the music is familiar. He cannot remember right away what it is. Oh, yes, he thinks,“The Skater’s Waltz.” How many times has he waltzed to this with his wife?
Maud also recognizes the waltz. When she was first married and before the children were born, she and her husband took ballroom lessons. They enjoyed dancing together and got fairly proficient at the fox trot, the two-step, even the tango, but for some reason they never quite mastered the waltz. She can still hear how her husband would groan out loud when they had to practice it—one, two, three, one, two, three—then, how, suddenly clumsy, he stepped on her feet and bumped her into the other couples. Unapologetic, he laughed and, as a joke, she remembers, he called her “Ginger.” In the dark, sitting next to Monsieur Rossier, Maud smiles to herself at the memory. Abruptly, the music comes to an end and the screen changes color. A voice announces something else, a tumbling act.
The variety show finishes at 11:00 and they sit and watch the news. Monsieur Rossier falls asleep and snores during the report of the mine explosion in the Pas de Calais, the threat of strikes, the rain and cold forecast for the morrow. Maud has to touch his arm to wake him when it is over. Startled, Monsieur Rossier shakes himself, embarrassed; then, slowly he gets up to turn off the television. In the dark, Monsieur Rossier gropes for the switch by the door. When he finds it, the room is filled with bright, white light that makes Maud squint. She glances over at Monsieur Rossier who is standing by the door, and he looks tired and ill. His face is gray and his eyes are hidden behind a film of water, age, and grief. Maud walks past him to the hall where her coat is neatly folded on a chair. She puts it on while Monsieur Rossier undoes the bolts on the front door and opens it for her.
She thanks him and says, “Goodnight.”
Looking out past Maud into the night, Monsieur Rossier merely nods.
The cold air catches Maud as the door shuts behind her. She hardly dares to breathe, and when she looks up at the sky, there are no stars. She turns back toward the château as it goes dark, and everything is suddenly black. She remembers the dog and prays that he is inside with the gatekeeper. But she is frightened of other things as well—nameless things—as, her heart pounding, she begins to run past the field. “Don’t be a fool,” she tells herself. “What can possibly happen to you?” And she makes herself slow down. In the distance, she can see a faint light coming from the drawing-room window in the house.
The telephone is ringing when she opens the door to Belle Fontaine. It is very late and she cannot imagine who might be calling her at this hour. For a few seconds, she stands there in the hallway right by the stairs that lead up to her bedroom, unable to move and also, in the exact same spot where, so many years ago, Monsieur Rossier stood. The children, Maud thinks, then, an accident. In spite of herself, she pictures the plane going down. The phone continues to ring and, still a little out of breath from hurrying in the cold, she finally picks up the receiver. It takes her a moment to recognize Monsieur Rossier’s voice. “Yes, thank you, I’m home,” Maud tells him, relieved, but immediately she remembers how duped she had felt when she discovered that the person on the television in the long white dress dancing to “The Skater’s Waltz” was a man and not a woman. A man impersonating a woman. Not sure whether Monsieur Rossier had realized that, Maud had started to tell him but changed her mind.
Lily Tuck is the author of four novels, including The News from Paraguay, which won a National Book Award in 2004. Her latest book, Woman of Rome, is a biography of the Italian writer Elsa Morante.
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