Victoria Holt

King of the Castle


Even as the branch-line train came into the station halt I was saying to myself: “It’s not too late. You could go straight back even now.”

During the journey I had crossed the Channel the night before and had been travelling all day I had been mustering my courage, assuring myself that I was no foolish girl but a sensible woman who had decided to take a certain action and was going to carry it through. What happened to me when I reached the castle depended on others; but I promised myself I should act with dignity, and behave as though I were not desperately anxious, hiding from them the fact that when I thought of what my future could be if they rejected me, I faced panic. I should let no one know how much this commission meant to me.

My appearance I felt for the first time in my life was in my favour.

I was twenty-eight and, in my dun-coloured travelling cloak and felt hat of the same colour, calculated to be useful rather than decorative, and after having travelled all night; I certainly looked my age. I was unmarried and had frequently intercepted pitying glances on that account and had heard myself referred to as ‘an old maid’ and ‘on the shelf. This had irritated me with its implication that the main reason for a woman’s existing was dedication to the service of some man a masculine assumption which, since my twenty-third birthday, I had determined to prove false; and I believed I was doing so. There could be other interests in life; and I consoled myself that I had found one.

The train slowed down. The only other person who alighted was a peasant woman carrying a basket of eggs under one arm and a live fowl under the other.

I took out my bags there were several of them, for they contained all I possessed my small wardrobe and the tools I should need for my work.

The only porter was at the barrier.

“Good day, madame,” he was saying.

“If you don’t hurry the baby will be born before you get there. I heard your Marie had started her pains three hours back. The mid wife’s gone to her.”

“Pray it’ll be a boy this time. All those girls. What the good Lord is thinking of…”

The porter was more interested in me than in the sex of the expected baby. I was aware that while he was talking he was watching me.

My bags were now beside me and as he stepped forward about to blow his whistle and send the train on its journey, an old man came hurrying on to the little platform.

“He, Joseph!” the porter greeted him and nodded towards me.

Joseph looked at me and shook his head.

“Gentleman,” he said.

“Are you from the Chateau Gaillard?” I asked in French, which I had spoken fluently from childhood. My mother had been French and when we had been alone we had conversed in that language although in my father’s presence English was always spoken.

Joseph came towards me, his mouth Slightly open, his eyes incredulous.

‘ “Yes, mademoiselle but…”

“You have come to pick me up.”

“Mademoiselle, I have come for a Monsieur Lawson.” He spoke the English name with difficulty.

I smiled and tried to force a nonchalance, into my manner, reminding myself that this was the smallest of the hurdles over which I should have to jump. I pointed to the labels on my baggage: D. Lawson.

Then realizing that Joseph probably couldn’t read I explained: “I am Mademoiselle Lawson.”

“From England?” he asked.

I assured him this was so.

“I was told an English gentleman.”

“There has been some mistake. It is an English lady instead.”

He scratched his head.

“Shouldn’t we be going?” I asked. I looked down at my baggage. The porter came slowly over, and as he and Joseph exchanged glances I said with authority: “Please put my baggage into the er… conveyance and we will leave for the chateau.”

I had practised self-control for years and there was no trace of the apprehension I was feeling. My manner was as effective here as it was at home. Joseph and the porter carried my bags to the waiting trap; I followed, and in a few moments we were on our way.

“The chateau is far from here?” I asked.

“Two kilometres or so, mademoiselle. You will see it soon.”

I looked about me at the rich wine-growing land. It was the end of October and the harvest was over; I supposed they would now be preparing for the next year’s crop. We skirted the little town with its square dominated by the church and hotel de ville, with its branching narrow streets, its shops and houses; and then I had my first glimpse of the chateau.

I shall never forget that moment. My common sense of which in the last year I had consoled myself I had plenty as a compensation for having little else-disappeared; and I forgot the difficulties in which I had recklessly placed myself. In spite of all the alarming possibilities which logical reasoning suggested were inevitable, I laughed quite audibly and said equally audibly: “I don’t care what hap pens. I’m glad I came.”

Fortunately I had spoken in English and Joseph could not understand. I said quickly: “So that is Chateau Gaillard!”

“That’s the chateau, mademoiselle.”

“Not the only Gaillard in France. I know the other in Normandy, of course. The one where Richard Coeur de Lion was kept a prisoner.”

Joseph grunted and I hurried on: “Ruins are fascinating, but old castles which have been preserved through the centuries are far more so.”

“The old chateau has had some narrow escapes. Why, in the days of the Terror it was almost destroyed.”

“How fortunate that it wasn’t!” I heard the emotion in my voice and hoped that Joseph hadn’t. I was enchanted by the chateau; I longed to live in it, to explore it, to become familiar with it. I felt it was where I was meant to be, and that if I were sent away I should be desperately unhappy and not only because I did not know what I should do if I went back to England.

Briefly I allowed that alarming possibility to come between me and my contemplation of the chateau. There was a distant cousin somewhere in the north of England actually a cousin of my father’s of whom he had spoken now and then.

“If anything-happened to me you could always go to my cousin Jane. She’s a difficult woman; you’d have a wretched time; but at least she would do her duty. ” What a prospect for a woman who, having been denied those personal attractions which are the key to marriage, had developed a defensive shell, largely made up of pride. Cousin Jane… never! I had told myself. I would rather become one of those poor governesses depending on the whims of indifferent employers or mischievous children who could be even more diabolically cruel. I would rather place myself in the service of some querulous old woman as a lady’s companion. No, I should be desolate, not because the dark pit of loneliness and humiliation gaped before me, but because I should be denied the infinite joy of doing the work I loved the best in the world in a setting which merely by its existence could make my life interesting.

It was not quite as I had imagined it; it surpassed expectations.

There are occasions in life when reality is more exciting, more enchanting than the picture the imagination has supplied but they are rare; and when they come they should be savoured to the full.

Perhaps I had better enjoy these moments because they might be the last I would enjoy for a long time.

So I gave myself up to the contemplation of that magnificent piece of fifteenth-century architecture standing there in the midst of the vine country. My practised eyes could place it within a decade or two.

There had been extensive building in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the additions had not detracted from the symmetry; rather they gave it its character. I could see the cylindrical towers which flanked the main building. The chief staircase would, I knew, be in the polygon al tower. I was fairly knowledgeable about old houses and although often in the past I had resented my father’s attitude towards me, I was grateful for all he had taught me. The aspect was purely medieval; and the solid buttresses and towers gave an air of having been built for defence. I calculated the thickness of those walls with their narrow slits of windows. A fortress surely. As my eyes went from the keep overlooking the drawbridge to the moat dry, of course I caught a glimpse of rich green grass growing there.

Excitement gripped me, as I gazed up at the corbel led parapet supported by numerous machicolations about the outer facade.

Old Joseph was saying something. I guessed he had decided that the arrival having turned out to be a woman instead of a man was no concern of his.

“Yes,” he was saying, ‘things don’t change at the chateau. Monsieur Ie Comte sees to that. “

Monsieur Ie Comte. He was the man I should have to face. I pictured him, the aloof aristocrat, the sort who would have driven through the streets of Paris in his tumbrel to the guillotine with haughty indifference. So he would banish me.

“Ridiculous,” he would say.

“My summons was clearly meant for your father. You will leave immediately.”

It would be useless to say: “I am as competent as my father was. I worked with my father. In fact I know more about old paintings than he did. That was the side of the business he always left to me.”

The side of the business! How explain to a haughty French count that a woman could be as efficient, as clever at the specialized work of restoring old paintings as a man.