Of Virtue and Damnation will have you on the edge of your seat from the moment you turn the first page. A young priest is enlisted to look after a dying Marchioness but, he also has to deal with her evil husband. Will his faith prevail?
It was dusk.
The chateau loomed eerily in the fast fading light with a low mist trickling from beneath the surrounding trees and into the vast grounds giving the illusion it was floating. In day or night, the facia was magnificent, even those with minimalistic tendencies admitted to this. Classical columns guarded the heavy doors and supported the stone portico above with their plinths and cornices painstakingly engraved with gilt gold patterns.
The sash windows, set in only the finest white stone, were large and imposing especially in bright sunlight as one could be almost blinded by the glare that forbade prying eyes to see within. It was a dwelling that had had no expense spared on its production and design and one had no doubt that the rest would be just as lavish.
Set in the centre of Corbeau Island, the closest village was over a mile away and the only signs of life were the tracks of the wild animals hidden away in the thickets. Even if he’d been older than his twenty two years, Abbé Jérôme Dubois would still have found the sight intimidating, used to the closeted village churches and enclosed chapels. His dark hair was tousled from the evening breeze and the grabbing branches he had walked through, his long coat frayed at the base and cheeks pinched, he was rather relieved he had reached his journey’s end.
Excitement also ran through his veins amongst the vortex of others, it was a chance to see slightly more of life, even though it would only be the grounds and also have more time to improve his own faith as well as that of others.
It had been a hard road he had been shown, but all through he felt the grace of the Gods, guiding him and finally it was reaping some reward and if he could save the soul of even one other if would all be worthwhile.
Yet it was not without doubt, he approached the great gates guarded on either side by fierce gargoyles. Despite querying the position, the young Abbé had not been told why his predecessor had left or anything about the noble family whose private chapel he was to be in charge of, only that the Marchioness was in ill health but still wished to be closer to the Gods. He had accepted the answers, or lack of, with good grace, seeing he would find out as time went on and he was certainly not going to reject the position on the omission of relatively trivial information.
Jérôme paused as he noticed the chains and heavy lock that secured the estate and read the scrawled directions he had been given which advised him to take the pebbled path around to the rear of the building.
He pulled his coat tighter about himself; an icy wind heralding the approaching winter, and continued onto the path, his feet softly crunching on the seldom trodden grit. The high walls grew lower around the back allowing an obscured view of the dimly lit servants’ quarters and the paving, leading to the stables and the greenery beyond, now glimmering with a yellow hue from the fading sun.
He opened the gate which seemed to mew like a kitten on the rusty hinges, the cobbles slippery underfoot from fallen leaves and recent rain, heralding the autumn that had chased away the summer’s crop.
Nearby, the sound of a horse snorting could be heard and the rustle of hay as it paraded about its habitat. Giving a final look back at the freedom, he would have to leave behind Jérôme knocked the rough wooden door guarding what he assumed was the kitchen area, judging by the empty bottles a few feet away. It was several minutes before he heard footsteps hurrying across a hard f loor and the rattle as the door was unlocked.
A young maid in blue answered, clearly no older than around fifteen, she was undernourished with large, haunted hazel eyes and a turned up nose, her thinning blonde hair drawn high in a messy bun.
“May … may I help you?”
Her voice stuttered and her lips twitched nervously as she tried to smile.
‘New no doubt … ’ Jérôme thought and gently smiled attempting to put her at ease; it seemed to work to a degree and she opened the door a little wider.
“Good evening, Mademoiselle,” he said politely “I was sent to replace Père Guérin … ”
For a moment the maid looked startled “You are? Oh … ”
“Is there something wrong?”
“No!” She said rather too quickly “It is just … I was not expecting you yet, I must have lost track of the time, there are not many servants here and although Madam is trying to hire others it adds much work … ” She bit down on her lip to stop herself babbling and pulled at a strand of her hair instead.
“I am sure it does … may I ask your name?”
“Charlotte … please come on in, I will Madame know you have arrived … ” She led him into a small room, adjacent to the kitchen area, containing only a wooden table surrounded by four chairs and used by the servants on the seldom taken breaks. All apart from one, were covered in a thin layer of dust and had clearly stood unused for many months. A small fire gave the space little warmth and cast faint light that made shadows loom and twist in nightmarish fashion.
“I am sorry this is all so rushed … do you need anything?”
“I am fine … Thank you.” Jérôme said quietly, as he set his single bag down on the floor, pushing it under the table with his foot. Charlotte nodded and hurried away through the kitchen and up the stone staircase that led into the main building and upper rooms. It was only when her footsteps had faded did Jérôme fully notice how quiet it was, there was no sign of any other employee and no sound to indicate them elsewhere. There must be others surely, he thought to himself, one child is hardly capable of maintaining every duty … especially one as slight as she is. He perched himself on the edge of the cleaner chair to avoid the powdery dust which would have been obvious if it caught his dark clothing.
Somewhere in the other room a clock ticked constantly as if singing with the crackle of the embers of the fire. Silence may be golden, especially when one is praying but he found himself missing the sounds of the village, the sounds of life. He sat fiddling absent mindedly with the ring on his index finger, a silver band indicating commitment to his calling. After some time Charlotte reappeared, her face flushed and out of breath from her rush.
“Madame requested to see you … ”
“Are there no others here?” Jérôme asked as he got to his feet.
“A few but they are all over twenty five and have permission to leave the grounds when not required, the only other younger help is the Marquis’ valet but he has him with him.”
He said no more and followed her as she guided him up the stairs, explaining as she went that the servants’ area was once a separate building that after much alteration had been linked to the main chateau by stairways and corridors.
“It makes it easier on staff” she said “we can do our work without having to disturb the family by wandering the main halls.”
It was not that unusual, he had seen houses before that had been adapted in the exact way but it seemed to create a rift between the classes that he had never approved of. He had no time to think of this as Charlotte stopped by a crude wooden door.
“This leads to the main corridor; you can easily tell which doors are ours as they are all like this just made to look a little better on the other side, by having them the same colour as the wall” she paused as she pushed it open “I doubt you will need to use them though.”
Jérôme said nothing but nodded, feeling as if his heart was beating in his throat; Charlotte too fell silent as the light flooded in. She stepped aside to allow him past and gave a small, apologetic smile with a nervous quiver of her lips “I cannot go with you, unless I am told or summoned I am allowed no further, Madame’s room is the second on the left.” With that she hurried away.
‘Just like a frightened rabbit.’ Jérôme thought with a shake of his head; a fair comparison since the way they had followed resembled a maze of burrows.
He closed the door and proceeded down the marble aisle, broken up by luxurious fur rugs so thick ones shoes sank like quicksand in their softness. Jérôme felt himself walking to the side to avoid them, fearful of making a mark on the costly materials or offending the soul of the animal that lost its life for the vanity of man. Further down than imagined, he reached the door he had been directed to, clearly a room belonging to a female as the faint smell of sweet perfume leaked through the gap underneath. He hesitated for a second and tapped the door lightly. After a short while of silence, he began thinking he had not been heard and contemplated knocking again but before he could he heard, a faint, tired sounding voice bidding him to enter was heard. Gripping the golden plated handle, the door opened without a sound and the hallway was flooded with light.
The Marchioness Beaumont was a small, pale woman, made all the more so by the size and opulence of the room she inhabited. She sat in a large, heavily cushioned chair whilst resting her stocking covered feet on a matching stool; her beige dress was too big for her frail frame and made the skin seem almost yellow. Diminished through her long illness, her features were childlike but age old memories haunting the depths of the too bright eyes; an embroidery basket sat next to her chair, threads neatly arranged and an unfinished tapestry was folded atop. Hanging above was a heavy crystal chandelier which lit the room with the light of a thousand candles, glistening on various priceless ornaments that lined the shelves and tops of cabinets.
The room itself was papered in a white velvet like fabric, allowing less sound to penetrate the walls and disturb the one within; only one painting hung upon it, a simple scene of the chateau and surrounding area in the full bloom of the spring.
“Please do not exert yourself, Madame,” Jérôme said quickly as she attempted to rise “it really is not necessary.”
She sank back in apparent relief and motioned for him to take the seat, opposite her not speaking until he did as if she needed to conserve every breath of air she took into her lungs. “Thank you for coming on such short notice, Abbé Dubois,” she said smiling weakly “your predecessor left in quite a hurry as I am sure you are aware.” She gave a weary sigh. “Normally I would ask my husband to meet our newcomers but often it falls to me, Lucien keeps himself busy … ” She paused uncertainly “but maybe with you it is for the best, he can be a little hard to relate to. Like many men, he enjoys an argument
so please do not take offence.” She shifted slightly, as she pondered over how much to disclose without giving an unwarranted image. “He has a few issues with anything that leans towards spiritual … ”
“I have met many like that, Madame,” Jérôme answered “I also like to think I am quite tolerant of others’ opinions and beliefs.”
“Thank goodness … Père Guérin was not, I never found out what transpired but … ” She stopped and gave her head a small shake “it matters not anyway but I thought it best to inform you then it will come as no surprise … he is a wonderful man though and in time I am certain you will see that.”
Although even if I did not, there is nought I can do,’ Jérôme thought, unless dismissed I have no option but to stay … He did not give voice to these thoughts, she would know that anyway, it was common law that any employee under the age of twenty five was a virtual prisoner and only freed if they were dismissed in disgrace, an event which tarnished reputation and made it almost impossible to find work elsewhere. If any dared to flee, no matter what abuses they faced, then the penalty would be worse, in the mind of the lawmakers, it was as bad as treason.
The Marchioness reached down beside her for a cord that trailed like knotweed over to the wall and rang the downstairs bells. Every movement seemed to give her grief but when Jérôme offered to assist, she refused “No … It is best I have at least some movement, otherwise the only time I would rise is for dinner in the evening when my husband is home.”
They heard the bells echo faintly below stairs and soon, after the sound of pattering feet reverberating through the passages behind the walls outside.
“Your room in opposite the family chapel, it is only small but I think you will find it comfortable enough, Charlotte will see to anything you need, she is our only member of staff who is with us all day and night.” She was interrupted temporarily by a tentative knock at the door, after asking the young maid to wait a moment she continued.
“I left a note on the desk there to let you know of the times I set aside for worship although I sometimes add more but I shall give you notice of that, the Gods seem to be all I have left these days.” She called for Charlotte to enter and added a final word as her head fell back into the soft down of the pillows that propped her up “You may consider the chapel your own, use it as you will.”
“Thank you, Madame,” Jérôme gave a small bow of the waist as he stood to leave “I am here for you whenever you need me.”
Her lips twitched in an attempt to smile and she glanced over to the doorway where the girl stood quietly awaiting her orders, so still not even a fibre of her navy dress moved. “Take Abbé Dubois to his room, see to it he has everything he requires … if my husband returns before ten please ask if he will see me but after that I will have retired to bed.”
“Yes, Madame … ” The Marchioness gave a dismissive move of her bejewelled fingers, her head resting in the others “And please try and be quiet, Charlotte, I have a headache and I do so hate it when I can hear you banging about downstairs.”
“I will be as quiet as I can, Madame, I’m sorry if I disturbed you … ” She motioned for Jérôme to follow her and tiptoed from the room, closing the door with a soft click behind them.
“The chapel is down the corridor from the library, your room is just before that,” she explained as she led him to main stairway overlooking the entrance hall. She paused for a moment, to allow him to view the surroundings; feelings even if she had not it would have made him stop in his tracks as she herself had on arrival. The staircase spiralled down from both sides of the slim landing, curving elegantly to the marble f loor below which glistened like the surface of the lake nestling in the grounds. A faint scent of roses f loated throughout the air, blended with the perfume of the lilies in the corner. Opposite the grand wooden doors stood a large mahogany grandfather clock, it’s ticking loud in the vastness of the space. High on the ceiling was yet another chandelier dripping with crystals, etched by the finest glass makers; cost had been no object. Three other closed doors, coloured a creamy white to match the walls and intricate patterns carved above, shielded the grandeur of the rooms beyond.
Beautiful yes … ’ Jérôme thought, ‘but empty in character and soul …
“It is like a maze when you are newly appointed,” Charlotte said in a hushed voice “but it does not take too long to become used to it and there are a fair few rooms that are hardly used which can make it easier.”
“It is certainly very … elaborate,” he answered carefully, but his disapproval was evident “although I have my doubts I will be seeing much outside the chapel and my own room.”
“Possibly not,” her slim fingers twitched in indication towards the left “it is not far … down the hall past the dining area.”
Charlotte walked daintily down the stairs, carefully refraining from gripping the polished banister and leaving any sign of her fingerprints to tarnish the perfection.
Jérôme followed, keeping his footfalls as soft as he could, for no reason other than it felt as if he should, like when one is in a church or library. He saw no more of the grandeur that so often offended his ethics as all doors down the way Charlotte guided him were closed and even had they been open, the rooms would be hidden since the corridor was unlit, to save the candles and oil she had said. Even the rich have to be economical I suppose, he thought but kept his opinion to himself, it was none of his concern however irksome he found it.
“I do not like the darkness that invades these corridors,” Charlotte said suddenly, the silence beginning to weight heavy upon her “even in the day they are shady … I keep thinking of the ghostly spirits the other children I knew spoke about … ”
“The Island is rife with such tales,” Jérôme answered with amusement “but often such spirits mean no harm, I would not worry about it if these halls house them.”
Charlotte hid her surprise, first at speaking without needing to and secondly that he had not reprimanded her for doing so or ridiculed her fears, quite the opposite in fact. Finally, she stopped at a small f light of stairs leading to an arched set of double doors. “The chapel is through there,” she said with a faint smile “your room is just around the corner, I am sorry I cannot be of any more help but I still have much to do this evening.”
She flinched as her voice trailed off as if afraid she would be struck by something she had become used to but it never made it easier, she merely began to expect it from anyone.
“You do not have to apologise,” Jérôme said with a small smile “I hardly want to be another duty for you and I have always fended for myself, even when I was younger than you.”
“Thank you … I hope you are lucky and everything works out well for you here … ” It seemed an odd thing to say and she hesitated as if she wished to add more or maybe concerned she had spoken out of place. With a swift curtsy with vanished back into the dim light that illuminated only the outline of her thin frame like a chalk drawing on a blackboard.
Shaking his head slightly Jérôme descended the few stone steps deciding to leave the exploration of the chapel until the morning since there was hardly anything he could do that night. He turned and opened the old door to his room, the hinges screeching in complaint as they revealed the small square room lit by a single dying candle resting upon an old but clear desk. The flame flickered from the draught from a barred window high up near the ceiling, a small crack allowing the chill to slip through and make the already cold, starched sheets of the single bed even colder.
Thankfully, Charlotte had added another blanket and placed a few strips of kindling by the stone fireplace.