I am sorry for the delay in publishing part II of this story. I went to Normandy for a week of tennis tournaments with Gigi (yes – she did win an Adult Woman’s Open) and I did not take my computer (silly me!); and then since I came back we have been run ragged with a whole host of things that have taken rather longer to sort out then they should have done. In addition, I have a confession to make – the conclusion is in part III, I am afraid; there were rather too many loose ends I had to tie up. BUT, that will definitely be out later this week, I promise.
I hope you enjoy part II (and if you did not read part I it is here).
THE KEY THAT TURNED BACK TIME (part II)
It was a warm but dismal afternoon when Francine was laid to rest in the family crypt on the hillside behind the château. There was an enormous crowd of people on the lawns below the house, waiting patiently for the family and close friends to reappear after the internment. Simon and I waited with them, knowing Emma was inside as a close friend.
Most of the people waiting there with us were over the age of 60, and at the back of the group were four people in wheelchairs; they were the oldest of all, and they too had come to pay their respects for a woman they had known so many years ago. I learnt later that the oldest them had been just 28 when Francine had disappeared, but now, at the age of 101, he sat under his blanket, tears streaming down his face as the faintest of drizzle fell from a damp sky. I quietly asked Simon if he knew who the old man was and he whispered back, “Monsieur Levant, I think he’s called. He used to be a joiner, many many years ago.” and I vaguely recognised the name.
An arrest warrant had been been issued for Maximilien de Brosse. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since June, 1945, and the police were not at all sure they ever would. If he was alive, Maximilien would be over 120 years old, an age difficult to reach in most circumstances, but perhaps impossible for a man who had been a fugitive since his disappearance. No one expected much from the hunt for him.
An hour later in the Great Salon, a slow carousel of people on the move was in evidence, as Catherine stood in one place and received the condolences and sympathy of the invited mourners. Bodies inched about, clutching glasses and small plates, and a hubbub of conversation circulated below the ceiling like a breeze born of angels’ wings. I found myself in the corner approaching an old man and Jeanette, her carefully cut grey and black dress a stark difference to the all-black attire of so many others. The two of them were deep in conversation, but they looked up as I bumped into them, and Jeanette instantly said, “Hello, Sophie, we were just talking about your children,” and as the old man glanced at me I recognised him as the gardener who had been there on the lake that day.
“Oh,” I replied, “have they done something wrong?” and I smiled a little lopsidedly, wondering if perhaps they really had.
There was an instant smile of reply from Jeanette, and even the old man must have understood my French for he too grinned. “No, no, nothing like that,” Jeanette said, “we were saying how nice they were, and how Emma has grown into a beautiful young woman, and how clever she was.”
I noticed the direction Jeanette was gazing, and turning saw Emma off to one side with Tim and Vivienne, the three of them in a conspiratorial huddle against a wall, and Emma’s auburn hair a splash of colour in a very monotone scene. Above them, specifically for the occasion, Catherine had hung an enormous portrait of her mother, splendidly dressed in a long black gown, as if she was about to play a piano in some grand concert. In the painting Francine’s neck was bare, with no sign of the chain and the key, but the Countess had told Emma how her mother would typically wear it as a piece of everyday jewellery; friends of Francine had told Catherine many times how as a child growing up she had always reached for the key when being held. I felt my eyes water a little at the thought of Francine’s small body growing cold and de-fleshed in the darkness of the lake – it was a vision that had kept repeating itself day after day, and I was only half-persuaded that Francine had already been dead when left alone on the mud under ten feet of water.
I started to talk to Jeanette and the old gardener in an effort to drive away my morbid thoughts, and Simon reappeared by my side with a glass of wine to ease the task. All conversation ceased though, when the gardener opened his mouth a minute later and said, perhaps in a bitter tone laced with a glass or two of wine, “My father always told me that my grand-father had a secret he said he could not tell,” and we all stopped, glasses raised to lips, eyes flickering wildly as we waited for more.
He continued, “But my father found out eventually and told me, too, but I never once imagined that it would involve the Countess’ mother.” and he looked at us in turn with rheumy eyes, tired with the past few days of discovery and grief.
“The story was about a summer night at the end of the war when the Count asked my grand-father to help deposit a kitchen pot in the lake at the château. He was told it contained valuables and papers, and its location should never be revealed to anyone.”
The old man stopped at this juncture, suddenly aware of how much he was revealing, but noncommittal to the consequences, as though the memory had been a splinter that needed to be worked out of an old wound. He seemed to retreat within himself and he took a huge sip of wine, nearly draining his glass in the process.
I stood there, rocking back on my heels, and wondered at it all. It made sense, and I saw Simon looking at me with a wry look, so I knew he was imagining how the tale had run as well. I wondered if there was any more to be told, but at that moment there was a clack of a gavel on a table, and we all turned to see Catherine in the centre of a growing circle of people.
There were words of thanks, mentions of people whom I did not know, and then a short but fulsome passage of thanks for the discoverers of the cauldron, and the police who had helped. Then there was a eulogy by a small white-haired man of great age, who spoke of a talent taken before its prime, and a devoted mother who had been torn from a child with only one leg. Finally there was a tearful toast to family and friends departed, after which the Countess was gone, easing through the small door in the corner of the salon, and we could all see she had done her best before the tears came again. Slowly the room emptied over the next half hour or so, and as Simon, Emma and Vivienne walked with us outside, we realised the rain had finally gone and the valley was aglow in the light of the late afternoon sun.
I slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning as images of a body crammed into a cauldron alternated with those of a key, spinning on a chain. I woke as dawn came through the window just after 5.00am and went for a long walk by the river, aware that the key was still turning in my consciousness. By the time I had made it back home, I was sure there was more to the whole affair than we knew, and I hoped quietly that some of Aunt Sylvie’s divination skills were lurking in my DNA to help us solve the mystery.
It was a week later on a Wednesday morning that I bumped into the Countess in the village. Coincidentally, I had stepped out of the boulangerie after a long conversation about the situation at the château with the baker’s wife, Nathalie, and as I stepped down to the cobbled square with two baguettes tucked under one arm, I saw Catherine sitting in her Volvo across the square, Jeanette beside her. I waited on the kerb, wondering whether they would need help, and watched as they got out from the vehicle and set off towards me. As they approached the kerb, Catherine looked over at me, and smiled in greeting, raising a hand. She looked in much better form, I decided, and hoped that she was coming to terms with the saga of her mother’s death and the appalling treachery of her father.
It was a typical early September day, and Catherine pointed a finger at the blue sky as she came close, and asked, “Slightly better weather, Sophie, heh?” and I nodded confirmation. It was indeed, glorious weather, fit for a festival of croquet or cricket, with a sky unruffled by a single cloud as far as the eye could see in each azure direction.
“Where are you off to, Cherie?” said the Countess, and I replied I was heading home for lunch. Simon had made a tarte au tomate, or so a text earlier had said, and the message had demanded some bread to go with it.
But I then pointed with my chin to the right across the square to the little bar on the corner, a tiny dark entrance to a room which became bigger as a trapezoidal space between two houses always does, and added, ”I have to go and buy some batteries first from the tabac, however”.
“We’re going there, too,” interjected Jeanette with a cheerful smile, “I have to say hello to my mother,” and holding out an arm for Catherine, she beckoned for me to slip in on the other side. Together we crossed between the parked cars in the square, dodged the water spouting from the fountain and gave a nod of thanks to the war memorial as it came into view, all this while I struggled to remember the mother’s name, which finally came to me as we crossed the road again. It was Carole Levant; I recalled it eventually, and twenty seconds later we were mounting the steps under the awning into the tabac, with the bar stretching away from it into the interior. There, sunlight flooded through four great casemented windows that looked out on the river as it headed westwards some 30 feet below. It was a magnificent setting, and I idly wondered how much it was worth as a property.
I was standing at the counter with Catherine and Jeanette, all of us looking at the view, when there was the sound of a fly-curtain rustling, and a girl stepped out from the room behind. She saw us instantly, and gave a cry of greeting, a call of familiarity at which Jeanette swung round and burst out loud, “Alice! Ça va?” and a huge grin of delight sprung onto the girl’s face.
She in turn whirled round and sang out to the fly-curtain, “Tante Amelie, Jeanette est venue” and there was a quick steady shuffle of feet and a dark-skinned woman with a thatch of African curls swung into view, dazzlingly arrayed in a robe of such blue colour I had to blink. Before I could do so though, Jeanette and her mother had come together in a great Afro-Gallic greeting, with a myriad of kisses dispensed to all four cheeks involved in the embrace.
Catherine hung back, smiling softly, and as Jeanette started to explain, “Maman, I’m so sorry I haven’t been before this week,” there was a snort of dismissal at the remark before the woman strode towards Catherine, at which point a second great embrace began. It became immediately apparent that the Countess and Jeanette’s mother were very old friends, and then I suddenly remembered that Carole had worked for Catherine too, as the previous housekeeper – such an obvious detail of dynasty that I couldn’t work out why I had never thought of the connection before.
My thoughts ran to several seconds, and when I recovered I realised the three women in front of me were watching with interest as I nodded my new found facts into place. I blushed, and said lamely, “Bonjour Carole,” and shook my head in embarrassment, with a tinkle of laughter from the mother my only response. We all looked at each other, and then Carole put her arm through Catherine’s and drew her behind the counter, murmuring soft apologies for her inability to attend Francine’s funeral the week or so before. The two of them disappeared behind the fly-curtain, and Jeanette motioned for me to go through too, as she brought up the rear.
It was immediately obvious that the room behind the bar was a kitchen, office, stockroom and snug, all rolled into one. It was the first time I had ever been in there, and I saw it was a long space, with a small fireplace along one wall, a sofa and a chair opposite, and a desk on the other wall. The sinks, gas-burner, oven and several kitchen-type units with a counter were almost within a spitting pan’s distance of the fly-curtain, while beyond the fire was a row of cupboards opposite a shelved section of wall that was laden with files, books, boxes and the other assorted trivia of a bar’s complicated life. Various licences and certificates in old frames adorned the walls, together with some family photos. The room had the air of a comfortable life, where nothing serious could not be solved, and where everyday matters were regarded as food for the soul; at the far end there was another of those large casemented windows, swung open to catch the summer breeze and allow a viewer to look down the long length of bottle-green river as it pottered gently past the steep hillsides to a distant sea. I decided very quickly it was a room filled with love – a love of life, work, rewards and friendship. I could feel the comfort of it quite physically, almost, and it was something I had rarely experienced before. It was a very old-fashioned room, out of place perhaps in a modern age but perhaps so very much more familiar to people from busy, large families.
Jeanette saw me glancing down the long space, and gently reached out to withdraw the baguettes from under my arm. She put them on a countertop, and as her mother and Catherine carried on their conversation, walking down the room towards the window, she asked me what I thought of this peaceful space, hidden off the square, overlooking the flow of water.
“It’s beautiful,” I replied, “It’s the last thing I would expect to find here. It’s so,” and I looked for the word, “Ordinary, yet so special. I feel a great peace here,” and I watched her face as I spoke.
She smiled instantly, happy at my reply, and nodded in empathy. “I grew up here,” she said, “Not when I was very young, but I spent a lot of time here, helping my parents, and learning an awful lot about people. They took over the bar here in 2000 when my mother left the château and passed me her housekeeper’s role,” and she looked fondly at the Countess as she said that, before continuing.
“My parents had always coveted this property, they’d always wanted to make it a special place for people,” and at that I remembered how once, when the Cole family had first moved to the village in 2006, we had eaten many times in the room next door – simple meals consisting of a “plât de jour” accompanied by a bottomless bread basket; typically a course of one large plate whose origins had been often betrayed by a sometimes unsubtle but delicious blend of seasoning or spice, redolent with flavours of Africa and the Caribbean. It had never been a traditional French dining experience, but much more a meeting place of food, hungry people and the soul of an African cook. I seemed to remember the chef had been Carol’s husband, a man called Jean who had died some years previously – after which the food part of the bar had come to an end. It had been a very unlikely but wonderful place to eat, deep in the heart of the French countryside.
I said, gently, “I remember your father, Jeanette – he was called Jean, wasn’t he? Didn’t he do the cooking here when you served food?” and Jeanette’s eyes gleamed with love and pride.
“Yes, he was a man, “ she said, in a very African way, and I smiled in turn. “Totally self-taught, everything from books and TV programs….mother could not continue the food without him, alas…” and her voice trailed away and in the silence that followed I could hear Carole and the Countess deep in conversation down by the big window.
There was pause then, until Jeanette looked at me very directly, and said, “You ate here, didn’t you? I remember all your children, so small, and now so big!” and she laughed out loud, her eyes white with mirth and her earrings slapping against her face. And I had no option but to join in, too. The magic of the room was working on us all.
Carole and Catherine came back to our end of the room then, and Carole asked if I wanted something to drink.
“I have to buy some AA batteries, Carole, if you still sell them?” and she smiled at me with a nod and went through the fly-curtain to the bar. I knew there was a section there where she sold sweets, cigarettes, lighters and lottery cards, and I’d bought batteries there before, too. In the passage of time that followed her departure, Jeanette crossed to the shelves as Catherine and I watched, and reaching up she took down a leather-bound volume, saying as she did so, “My mother found some old photos of you teaching Jean in her diary the other day, Catherine. She thought you might like to see them,” and the heavy tome banged down on the table with a thud of destiny.
As it did so, Carole came back through with a swish of the fly-curtain, and without even saying a word, reached into a drawer and picked out a small key which Jeanette took from her. I watched open-mouthed, and glancing at Catherine, saw she was absorbed too. There was a heavy band about the book, and a hasp which Jeanette inserted the key into, and with a turn of her fingers there was a click and the hasp sprung open slightly. Jeanette pushed the top part to one side and then opened the volume to a page where several photos had been laid. Carole helped her daughter take them out and they laid them on the table in a row. All of the photos were recent and in colour, and they showed Catherine and Jean at various times in several scenes from the château. There was one photo, a large print, that had Jean sitting in front of the Bösendorfer, elegantly dressed in a white shirt and a small bowtie, with his tiny hands poised above the keyboard. In the background were several people in similar smart clothing, as though going to a concert.
“Oh my,” said Catherine in a small voice as she sifted through the photos, ending finally with the one of Jean by the piano. “Oh, my,” she repeated it again, and picked carefully at one corner of her eyes with a long finger. The photo trembled in her hand like a leaf in a breeze. “This is when Jean had his first grading, four or five years ago, Carole.” she said eventually, turning to the dark faces which were watching her solemnly.
“Did I give them to you, Carole? I have no idea if i did or not,” Catherine asked and Carole grinned and shook her head.
“No – I took that one, I was there if you remember, Jeanette could not come. The rest Jeanette took without you knowing,”: and the two women giggled as Catherine raised her eyebrows in response and looked at the photographs again.
Something was bothering me, and I was trying to put my finger on it during the buzz of conversation. There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind, begging me to return to it, like a half-finished sandwich on a plate. I frowned, and concentrated harder, going through the past minute of events. And then suddenly the thought burst through into consciousness, like a firework on a dark night.
“The key! Catherine, the key!” I stammered, and the three women turned to me in surprise.
“That key, it’s the same sort as your’s…” and my voice died off as I saw Catherine realise what I was saying. She moved to the hasp and touched the key as she looked at Carole, who seemed bewildered by my outburst.
“May I have a look at this little key, Carole?” the Countess asked in a quiet voice and Carole nodded slowly, earrings jangling, as she came to terms with the request.
“Of course you can, Catherine,” she murmured. “Of course,” and the Countess’ slim fingers pulled the key out of the hasp into the light. I stepped to her side and we looked at it carefully. It was old, tarnished and polished smooth in places, a key so small it could have been worn as an earring. The surface of the bow and shaft was worn in places but it still obviously worked as well as it ever had. It was much larger than Catherine’s key, which I had last seen in the chai on the day it had come out from its resting place in the bottom of the cauldron, but it was very much of the same design.
Carole broke the silence, saying,”The book was my mother’s journal, Catherine. I have always kept it, obviously. She found it in a street market in Paris many years ago, perhaps even in Montmartre. I have kept things hidden in it for years – at least, until the day Jeanette found the key, “ and she turned to her daughter at this with a fake scowl of annoyance. Jeanette just grinned back at her and put her hand on her mother’s arm. It was she who replied.
“I remember you used to keep our bad school reports in there so papa wouldn’t find them,” she said with a huge grin, and there was another hoot of laughter between them.
I’d been looking at the key, and Catherine was watching my face when I turned to her and said, “Did your mother have a book like this, Catherine? Have you got one, or something like it?” and I watched as the Countess slowly shook her head, pursing her lips slightly as she did so.
“No,” she finally replied, “I do not recall ever seeing anything like that”, and my heart sank a little.
I turned to Jeanette and Carole, “Have either of you? In your time at the château?”
There followed a babble of conversation as we all talked at once, before Catherine ended it with a flat statement. “Perhaps there is something in the library – it has hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, maybe there is something there?” and we all wondered at that, since the library at the château was a large room, dominated by three walls of books and an antiquated ladder that ran on a rail around the shelves. The room was used often for gatherings and functions, and there was a section in it devoted to sheet music too. Catherine looked at Jeanette, and asked simply, “Shall we have look after lunch? Sophie, will you come too?” and we both nodded, agreeing as one.
“Can I bring Emma, she’s here for a week or so, Catherine?” I asked, and the countess replied instantly.
“Of course, Sophie, of course, she has the brightest of ideas that girl of yours,” and we little knew how brightly one of Emma’s ideas would glow later that afternoon, a glow that would ignite and at last warm the cold dark heart of a château where a housekeeper might need to light a fire each day, no matter what the season.
The day darkened with cloud suddenly that afternoon, in the library. Jeanette had been using a step-ladder, and Emma had spent two long hours halfway up the sliding affair that had already slid along two walls of books. Catherine and I had done the lower levels, where we could reach without problem, and the thin latex gloves Catherine had given each of us to use on the old books were dusty with a coating of particulate age. Jeanette had proceeded us all with the dusting attachment on her vacuum-cleaner that she said was all she had ever used – that and the old fashioned ostrich-feather duster on its long pole. Neither had worked sufficiently for there not to have been still some residue of dust.
Catherine had tapped her leg when we’d arrived and muttered some aristocratic oath at the sliding ladder, a remark under her breath that implied she’d never been to visit the highest shelves. The ceiling above us all was fifteen feet high, and the books on their shelves scaled the walls for twelve feet of that height at least. I doubted little had changed in the room for decades, perhaps even a century to two.
We stopped for goûter about 4.00 o’clock, and sat about the long table in the middle of the room, our gloves rolled off and looking at what we still had to search as the sky darkened further. The conversation was decidedly monosyllabic. There was one wall left, and it included the music section, low enough for Catherine and I to search through. I sipped the last few mouthfuls of the cup of tea that Jeannette had made for me, and we went back to work. There had not been much to say, we’d all thought the answer would be there under our noses, and if truth be known our hearts were no longer singing with adventure.
It did not take long. A full thirty minutes later and we were done with the books – none had a hasp or a leather clamp around it, and we all stood down from the search, looking at the shelving and its contents. Jeannette had turned the lights with the oncoming dusk, and the room glowed a little in warm light as it threw shadows in dark corners. There was a chandelier above the long table, and it threw its light out and upwards to the ceiling. I sat a little disconsolate in a chair, and Catherine stood to one side, pursing her lips and looking at the books as if to draw a clue out of them. Jeanette had disappeared to the kitchen with the tea tray and so she missed the moment when Emma, sitting opposite me, stiffened with excitement.
“Mum, “ she whispered at me, “Mum, look behind you,” and she quivered a little like a dog who spies a rabbit some distance off. Catherine missed our exchange, and I hissed back.
“What? What am I looking at?”
“The shadow of the top shelf on the wall, mum,” whispered Emma, “Look at it, what do you see?”
And I turned then, quite slowly, to look behind me, up at the shelf. I saw instantly what had attracted Emma’s attention. The shelf held a long line of matching volumes, numbered and in order, a situation that had probably not changed for a hundred years. The shadow from the chandelier laid a straight dark edge along the wall, except for a part where it grew taller, before ducking down again. I had seen the aberration, but did not understand it. I turned back to Emma, but the question must have showed on my face, for she spoke immediately.
“It means that some of those books are out of line, mum – they’re further forward than the others….” and her voice trailed off a little.
Catherine had noticed our sibilant whispers and was watching us, I realised. Her face was taut with tiredness again, and Emma beat me to the explanation.
“I think some of the books up there,” and she pointed to the relevant part of the shelving, “Are pushed out a little, Catherine. They’re not fully back against the wall. Can I climb up and have a look?”
And Catherine nodded instantly, too tight inside to say a word. Emma got up from the table and walked to the ladder before sliding it along the rail to a position underneath the broken shadow-line. In almost total silence, she put a foot on the rung and climbed slowly upwards as Catherine and I watched. There was a dimming of light as though the electricity had been disconnected for a second, and it seemed the room sighed. I was sure a curtain twitched by a window and faintly, a long way away, I could hear Jeanette down the corridor in the kitchen, clinking crockery.
Emma reached the top of the ladder and put a hand towards the books, and a paper on the table suddenly fell to the floor, it was as if the room was alive with energy, and I felt the small hairs on my neck rise with supernatural awe. Catherine stood by me, our shoulder touching, and I was unsure how she had got there. Even as I though that, I saw the Countess look at our closeness in surprise, and then our eyes met. Her’s were shining bright, as though a truth was close to hand.
“Oh,” came a surprised gasp from above, and I tuned to see Emma sliding a book away from the wall. “There’s something behind here, Catherine.” and she eased another book away from the wall, and then another, as Catherine and I stood there below, me with my mouth open, and Catherine with the look of a fervent believer. It was bizarre, as if she had been expecting a miracle to happen, and it was now on its way.
Emma eased another book out of the line, reached into the long sliver of darkness that stretched back to the wall, and there she stopped and turned back to look at us. Her voice quavered with excitement, “There’s a book in there, Catherine,” and she slowly pulled it out into the light. We could all see instantly that the volume had a leather band around it, closed with a hasp; it was almost the twin of the book Carole had down in the bar, though it was slimmer.
Catherine uttered one word, “Oh.” and waited for Emma to come down. As she climbed down the ladder, the door opened and Jeanette was there with a tray, balancing some glasses and a jug of water in one hand.
She stopped stock still as she saw what was happening, and then said, in a strange unworldly voice, “At last, you have found my secret.”
We all stopped and looked at her, and she in turn looked back at us, as though she had uttered something totally banal.
“What did you say?” I said into the silence. “What did you say, Jeanette?” and the quiet in the library grew wings and started to whirl about my ears, and Catherine swayed beside me.
“What did you say?” I repeated quite determinedly, and Jeanette stood there, tray in one hand, her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish as she struggled to come to terms with what she had actually said. I watched as she repeated it to herself, her eyes opening in wonder.
The leather volume lay in the middle of the table, the small key from the cauldron in its hasp, and Catherine sat there looking at it as we crowded round. We watched spellbound as she turned the key in the little lock and the hasp clicked open for the first time in nearly a century. The thick leather covers had protected the interior pages perfectly, and the first covering page took us all by surprise as we looked on. Catherine put a finger to the first bold line , and read aloud.
“Le Journal de Francine de Brosse”, and she pointed then without saying a word, to the date, August 25th, 1936.
“What happened in 1936, Catherine,” I asked, aware there was not a sound in the room.
“That was the year my mother married my father, Sophie,” replied Catherine in a voice raw with emotion. And she turned a page, to see her mother’s neat handwriting sloping across the paper in the style of a well-educated woman. There were pages of it, together with small sketches, doodles, lines of music, a recipe for steak tartare and a map to show the location of some stream on a hillside far away. As Catherine turned the pages, so time and the years passed; there was a photograph of Francine on a horse at the start of the war, and then towards the back of the volume, in amongst some lines of poetry and a pressed flower, was another photograph, of a small baby in a crib. A smiling mother held a hand downwards to a tiny person, a smile was on Francine’s face.
It took just two minutes to quickly flick though the journal to the last entry, which was dated Dec 28th, 1944; the rest of the journal was blank. Catherine sank back in her chair, “Is this all?” she asked in a small voice. “Is there no answer to what happened?” and we felt bereft of answers, The room was dark now, the light a glow above our heads, and even though Catherine had skimmed through the volume it did appear there was little else for us to call on as a solution to what happened. There was joy in the discovery of the journal that would be revisited, at a much slower pace and with more attention to the recounting of it, but we had all gathered there in the library to find an answer to a mystery, and none seemed to be forthcoming.
It was then, in the hush that followed Catherine’s outburst, that Emma reached out her hand to the journal that had been gently put down, and touched the leather hand-stitched covers. Her long fingers stroked the material as though seeking an answer, and I heard her sigh. I thought it was a sigh of regret, but as I turned to Emma, I realised it was a sigh of sadness, for bright Emma had seen more than most of us, and she was now touching the reality of the story and sensed the truth was but a moment away.
She turned to the Countess, whose eyes were vacant with distant thought and memory, and said, “Catherine, I think there is more here to be discovered,” and she lifted the journal to the old woman, and reaching out to her, Emma took Catherine’s fingers and pulled them towards the leather covers, pushing them into the leather, and I realised instantly that there was the cover was too thick, too full, and the stitching we could see was not the original. There was a hidden insert between the covers.
We waited until Jeanette came back into the quiet of the library two minutes later with a thin knife in her hands, and Catherine slowly and shakily picked out several stitches before cutting through the rest of them; there was sheet of cardboard as a stiffener inside the front leather cover, but it was folded in half, and as Catherine withdraw it, it fell open and a sheaf of papers fell onto the table. It was immediately obvious that they were letters, some in the handwriting of Francine, and some in a bolder, firmer hand, on different paper and laid out by a different pen.
We watched, entranced, as Catherine picked up the first and started to read, Emma with a hand on Catherine’s arm, and Jeanette behind holding the Countess’ shoulders. It took but a minute or so before Catherine started to shake, and tears, suddenly and unremittingly, started to pour down her face. This was not grief, but sadness, a knowing of truth that is on the brink of hurt, a telling of a tale from the grave to a small girl by a mother who had laid almost in plain sight for so long, eyes staring out into the dark.
I could not watch the sorrow of discovery, and closing my eyes, I put my hand on Catherine’s other arm. The room choked on the raw air, and then Catherine said in a slow, tremulous voice, “I have a brother, somewhere I have a brother. Oh lord, I am not alone…I have a brother,” and we all stopped still in shock and amazement, her sentence a slice of light through the veil of darkness in the room.
I opened my eyes to look at Catherine, and her face was contorted with the understanding that only final knowledge can give. In the hour of her deepest sorrow, her mother had given her a gift, and the conflict of emotions was too much. Her shoulders shook more, a long roll of grief, and Emma, sweet Emma, reached forward and hugged Catherine tight, as only the young can do.