An excerpt from
Chateau Despair/Linda Sole/ Red Rose publishing
Clothilde is growing up in a crumbling chateau with her half mad grandmother.
"You should send the child to the Nuns," Father Caillebotte said. "It is not fitting for her to be here in this place – and you are not well enough to care for her." His eyes swept round the room. It was cold despite the small fire flickering in the grate. Finding no answer to his problem, his gaze returned to the old woman, who sat hugging her shawl about her shoulders, her expression defensive and wary.
"The child is mine," she told him. "I brought her here to save her from the kind of life you would condemn her to with those sour-faced hags, who have never known what it is to live. Go away and leave us alone. We do not need you."
Caillebotte’s expression was one of patient resignation. He had made the same plea each time he came to the house for the past seven years, and it was always refused. He was wasting his time. It was only duty that made him continue to call at the house, which was crumbling into a ruin from neglect and had an air of despair about it.
"Perhaps not, but I shall continue to call even though you say you do not need me, Madame. If you have no thought for your own soul, the child must still be brought up in the way of the Lord – and she must be educated. It is time for her to begin her lessons. If you will not send her to school, I shall come myself to teach her to read and write."
Caillebotte was a good man. He would do his duty as he saw it. His conscience would not allow him to abandon either the child or the woman, even though he sometimes wondered if his visits meant anything at all to either of them.
The old woman gave him a sour look. "Please yourself. I should have taught her when she was ready. She likes to look at my treasures, and already she knows some of her letters. I do not neglect her as much as you imagine, Caillebotte. I tell her my stories. She likes stories…"
The priest was silent. He knew that the old woman had her good days and her bad days; he also knew that if he had done what was right, he would have taken the child into care long ago. This decaying chateau with its damp rooms and its dark secrets was not a suitable place for a child to grow – and yet the girl seemed to thrive on it.
She was a pretty child with large grey, wondering eyes. Her hair was long and dark; it flew wildly about her face as she ran bare foot about the house and the estate. He knew that she hid from him as much as she could, and suspected that she was somewhere around even now, listening to their conversation.
Clothilde listened from behind the painted screen, where she had hidden herself so that she could hear what they were saying. She was fiercely glad that Grandmere had refused yet again to send her to the Nuns. She did not want to go away from her grandmother, though she would not have minded escaping from certain other people in this house. But that would have meant leaving Grandmere, and she would never, never do that! If the priest took her to the Sisters of Mercy she would run away and come home to Grandmere.
Father Caillebotte was mistaken if he thought that she went nowhere and saw no one but her grandmere and the servants. Clothilde visited the village often. She knew the cottage where the priest lived behind the church, with its back garden where he grew herbs and vegetables, also fruit and a few flowers. Once she had stolen an apple from his tree, and his housekeeper came out shaking her fist. Clothilde ran away laughing; she was certain that the woman would never catch her.
The village itself was old; the houses built of some kind of stone that looked golden in the sunshine. Outside the small, dark inn, with its shuttered windows, old men sat drinking wine and dreaming in the sun while stray cats roamed where they would. Once Clothilde took one of the cats home with her, but it scratched her hand and ran away
The street was cobbled and there were potholes where the rain lay in the winter, the houses close to the road without gardens at the front. Some of them had bright window boxes, from which pink and red flowers trailed. In the back gardens the women, who always seemed to wear black, kept hens and some of them owned a pig, others grew herbs but not many of them grew flowers. Clothilde loved flowers, but there were none at the chateau, and no one to tend them. The servants were interested only in growing the vegetables they needed for the kitchen.
Clothilde waited until the priest left, then crept out from her hiding place and went to Grandmere. Climbing on to her lap, she sat before the fire, staring into the flames as they flickered and burned lower in the grate for want of kindling.
Grandmere stroked her head in an absent-minded manner. Clothilde knew that her grandmother’s thoughts were far away. She was always like this after the priest came, as if his visit made her want to shut out her surroundings.
"Are you dreaming about when you were young, Grandmere?" she asked, but received no reply. "Will you tell me a story?"
Sometimes her grandmother did not speak to her for hours, at others she would bring out her treasures and tell her stories. Clothilde liked those times best, but Grandmere was the centre of her world. Even when she was far away, lost in her world of dreams, she loved her.
From the moment she could walk and do things, Clothilde cared for Grandmere, understanding that the old woman needed her. She got down from her lap now and went to put more wood on the fire. Grandmere needed warmth because she was so often in pain from her poor crippled hands that ached with the rheumatics.
She went back and kissed the soft cheek, then slipped from the room. She would come back later when it was time for their supper. Grandmere would be ready to talk to her then, but for the moment Clothilde was free to escape into the woods. There she could run and hide, escape for a while from the harsh reality of her life at the house.
She was not sure that she liked the idea of lessons with the priest, but perhaps he would teach her to understand what was in the books in the library. There were a great many of them, some with pictures, which Clothilde liked to look at, others with strange letters that meant nothing to her.
"Where are you, little pig?"
Hearing the voice she hated most in the world, Clothilde made a dash for the door and freedom. She had stolen two buns fresh from the cooling tray earlier that morning and Blanche would beat her if she found her. However, the servant was fat and lazy, and she would not search far. Once Clothilde was in the woods she would be safe.
As she reached the door a bulky figure came darting out of the kitchen and grabbed her, shaking her until her teeth rattled.
"I have the little pig for you," Betrand called to his wife. "Here is the thief who stole your cakes."
"I didn’t steal them," Clothilde protested. "They are Grandmere’s cakes. You work for her. It’s your job to cook the food…"
She gave a scream as Betrand shook her, her head snapping back and forth. Blanche was coming towards her, stick in hand. She was going to be beaten again. Blanche was a vicious bully and beat her whenever she had an excuse. The last time she’d been black and blue all over for more than a week; she cried herself to sleep every night. She did not dare to complain to Grandmere, for it might upset her and make her ill. The servants treated her shamefully, but Clothilde was learning to fight back.
She turned her head and bit Betrand's hand. He gave a cry of pain and let her go, dropping her with such force that she felt the pain shoot through her wrist. Yet in a second she was on her feet, scuttling away and out of the door before he could recapture her.
She could hear them arguing about whose fault it was that she’d escaped, as she ran for her life, through the gardens towards the woods and safety.