Compiègne, Château de Royallieu
The day I first met Boy at Royallieu, Étienne was in a hurry to get to the stables and barely stopped in the château hallway to make the brief introduction. He walked on, but Arthur Capel, known to everyone as Boy, just stood there, mute, studying me. Without a word he tipped up my chin, his green eyes searching mine while I stared back at him, this man cut from stone by the creator and browned from the sun, like me. It seemed he could see into my mind, into my soul. I was vaguely aware of Étienne’s voice, greeting someone in the courtyard. Above, a maid’s footsteps echoed as she moved along the hardwood floors. But these sounds seemed to be outside of us, Boy Capel and me. I was intoxicated.
At last he spoke, cutting through the intensity of the moment. “So this is little Coco.” He stepped back, slipping his hands in his pockets, his manner turning nonchalant. “You are the sprite, and as lovely as Étienne has bragged.” When he smiled, his eyes danced. “I’ve heard you were the most popular chanteuse in Moulins, and that you led him on quite a chase.”
After I’d left the abbey at the age of seventeen, Étienne had wooed me from a cabaret stage in the village of Moulins, not far from Aubazine, sweeping me off to his estate at Royallieu, about forty-five kilometers northeast of Paris. Étienne was tall, handsome, and married—although his wife lived elsewhere. He was rich, and I was young and poor, just a girl. In Moulins, I left behind a sewing job in a tailor’s shop and singing at night for tips at the cabaret La Rotonde.
Oh, the excitement of those evenings—the sparkling lights and music and dancing. Soldiers garrisoned at Moulins all came to La Rotonde, and other young men from town, cheering when I strutted around the stage singing. I loved it, the men and boys, the smell of leather and smoke and wine, and the musty wood of the old oak stage. Coco, they called me, from a song I sang. And the name stuck. I told myself I was no longer poor Gabrielle.
At Royallieu, for the first time since Maman died, I felt secure in one place. Thanks to Étienne, now I had my own room, my own space, and a lovely big bed with silken sheets and piles of pillows, and the pleasure of sleeping late. In that first spring when I arrived at Royallieu, I lazed in the mornings, gazing through open windows at the broad fields of Étienne’s estate, bright with new green grass and rolls of golden hay, and the stables nearby, built of the same ancient gray stone as the château. I breathed in the clean scents of cut grass, of potpourri and lemon wood polish and fragrant yeasty bread baking in the kitchen below.
My stomach had rumbled the entire time I was at the abbey. Now, I could eat an entire loaf of that bread if I wanted! All this because Étienne Balsan had chosen me. I was his petite amie and this was my new home. Étienne said I could live at Royallieu as long as I wanted—forever.
Étienne’s stables were renowned throughout Europe. He was almost French aristocracy, learned, if not by blood—old money through and through. He taught me how to sit a horse, navigate a table set for thirty, how to pretend to love someone I secretly thought of only as a friend. He kept many houses and mistresses, and somewhere there was his wife, but she was no bother. I knew that I was special. When his other women visited the château, they wore long dresses with tight corsets squeezing their waists. They made up their faces, wore their hair in complicated twirls under their hats, and rode sidesaddle. I wore Étienne’s old cotton shirts, his jodhpurs, and a cast-off jacket of his that I tailored to fit. My dark hair was long back then, and when we rode, I let it fly unbound in the wind. We raced. I rode like a banshee, he teased. I was Coco, his lover, but also his friend. Already I was wise enough to know that friendship often outlasts love.
It was Boy Capel who captured my heart at Royallieu. He was always elegant, no matter the time of day or the situation. He wore a trim mustache and his hair brushed back over his ears in a new and modern way. Boy was an Englishman with grace and wit and money earned from Newcastle coal and ships and rail, a fortune made by his own hands, not like Étienne’s, which came from his father. Boy was charming, smart, rich, single, and an athlete. He was a five-goal polo player with stables of ponies and, like Étienne, with strings of women. He was also shrewd, and ambitious—something I lost sight of. I was drawn to Boy from the moment we met. Still, I fought the emotion at first, thinking, well, here’s another rich man fond of pretty coquettes.
After that day we met, Boy came to Royallieu almost every weekend. We began as friends, but something else under the surface connected us. I felt it and I sensed Boy felt this too. I knew there was a depth to this man that he’d not yet revealed.
The château was filled with Étienne’s friends every weekend. From sunup until late at night we filled our time—long breakfasts, then riding, card games, gambling, farces and charades, picnics, dinner and dancing and cocktails on the terrace, and plenty of laughter. Men brought their mistresses on these weekends, never wives. Boy always chose me as his partner in the games and we almost always won.
My favorite times came on warm evenings when the other guests wandered off and Boy and I sat alone together. He was a natural teacher and I was enthralled as he talked about such things as the science of the stars and moon and planets, how everything in the universe is perfectly balanced. I loved hearing him speak, his voice so controlled, low and modulated while he talked of other dimensions in time and space. He taught me the names of the constellations and told their ancient myths, stories of gods and lovers and tragedy. Often we talked of music, or art, or history, and always, always he’d bring the conversation around to philosophy and another world he called the spiritual world.
I felt stupid sometimes. I was a Catholic and familiar with musings on the afterlife, but Boy spoke of another kind of spirituality. At first, I pretended to understand. Then, one night I asked him to explain.
He stood, walked to a low stone wall edging the terrace, and snapped a jasmine flower from its vine. “Look,” he said, holding it up as he turned to me.
It was a common flower. He handed it over and I took the blossom and sniffed the fragrance. As he returned to his chair, he watched me, smiling. “You love the scent, the shape, the color?”
“Does the flower bring memories?”
I closed my eyes, sniffing the fragrance again, and on the spot I was carried into the past—into a haze of yellow sunshine. I could almost feel the warmth on my shoulders. I sat in the back of Papa’s peddler cart with my brothers and sisters, bumping down a narrow dirt road running through a sweet-scented jasmine field. We were off to a summer festival market somewhere in Provence. And Maman was with us, alive and sitting close to Papa on the driving seat in front.
“You see?” Boy’s voice broke in.
I opened my eyes and put the flower in my lap as I nodded.
“Nothing ends. Even though the material plants—the original flowers you saw and smelled that day—are gone, the essence of the flowers remains. And even after all these years, the fragrance releases memories imprinted in your mind associated with the scent, bringing back those same feelings of joy, of happiness.”
“Yes. Good memories.” I mulled this over. “I understand now. Something really does remain of those old dead flowers. You’re saying the past becomes the present.”
He smiled, pleased. “The material plants decomposed long ago. But the feelings they generate through scent remain. So,” he lifted his brows, “where do you think those feelings originate?”
I stared out over the moonlit field and said casually, “From the memories, of course.” Slouching down in the chair, I stretched out my legs and clasped my hands behind my head.
He laughed. “That’s circular thinking, Coco.” I turned my eyes to him, watching as he pulled his pipe from a pocket, along with his gold lighter and the leather bag of tobacco. I loved the smell of Boy’s tobacco.
“Well, I guess I’ve never thought of this before,” I said with a shrug. I was curious and waited in silence while he filled the pipe, tapped it on the table, and lit it.
Then, puffing on the pipe, he spoke in a tone that told me this was important to him. “Feelings, like the happiness you experienced from those memories, are not material things like the flower or the table over there. Feelings have no structure, they’re ephemeral. But like the memories, they are a real part of each of us.”
I sat very still, listening, longing to understand.
“Emotions, feelings, are stirrings from the soul, your inner self. They’re created after your brain takes in information about the flower—its color, shape, scent.” Pipe smoke curled toward the sky as he spoke. “They come from the spiritual world which existed long before we were born and continues after we die. So the human soul, the inner you, Coco, isn’t limited by human restrictions of time or space or structure. Those ephemeral parts of you, like the happiness brought up just now when you smelled the jasmine … you can access those moments any time. They remain always a part of you.”
He swooped his hand toward the silver stars. “So, in that way, we are all eternal.” Removing the pipe from his mouth, he held it in his hand. “In fact, our souls may even have lived through previous lives on earth.”
“Are you a Buddhist then?”
He smiled. “What I’m trying to explain is how things in the universe are connected.” He paused, regarding me, and I nodded.
“As for us—human beings hold a higher connection to the spiritual world than other living things, because our feelings cause us to make choices, to act through will. And those actions lead to consequences, which in turn lead to more actions …”—he rolls his hand—“… and so on and on, through eternity.”
“But once I’m dead, my actions cease,” I said, thinking I’d got him now.
He shook his head. “We each leave a mark when we act, consequences that roll on. The links to others never end. Everything in the universe is connected through eternity this way.”
I watched smoke rising from his pipe, wondering if the smoke would drift through the universe and time forever.
“Do you see my point? Because our actions have effects which never end, we must be thoughtful when we act. Our choices must never be random.”
So far, my life has certainly been random, I thought.
He gave me a sideways look. “If you open your mind, Coco, you’ll begin to understand. I could give you books to read, if you’d like.”
“Yes,” I said. “I would like that.” How I wanted to understand this idea that Boy believed and loved. Boy Capel was so different from Étienne, from any man I’d ever known.
He set the pipe on the table beside him and knelt before me. He cupped my face in his hands, studying me, as if memorizing. His lips touched mine then, a long, deep kiss sending little explosions of light through me like fizz in good champagne. From that moment on, I knew that I was lost. I was hopelessly in love with Boy.
It was a full month before Boy became my lover. We all have turning points in our lives, a moment that changes everything—your future, even how you feel about the past. Papa’s leaving me at the abbey was one such moment. Falling in love with Boy was another. On that day, we rode together across Étienne’s fields toward the forest of Compiègne about two kilometers away. Flost, my bay, was restless, wanting to run, but at the edge of the woods Boy slowed his horse to a walk, motioning toward the path entering the cathedral of delicate silver beech trees. I’d ridden there many times. But, as I followed Boy down the shaded path winding through the trees, I felt something wonderful was happening between us.
The air was cool and fresh, heavy with the pungent scent of Scots pine and damp leaves. Pale green light shimmered through the canopy overhead as we rode along. Our silence was broken only by birdsong, with an occasional mournful whistle from a black woodpecker, and the scurrying of foxes and rabbits and other small animals in the bushes. Ruffles of tiny blue, yellow, and scarlet wildflowers grew in the tall green grasses fringing the edge of the path.
“There’s a spot I want to show you,” Boy said as we reached a small clearing in a patch of sunshine. “Follow me.” Nudging his mount to the right, we left the pathway and rode across the clearing and into the trees on the other side. I heard water tumbling in a stream. The horses picked their way toward the sound.
We stopped when we saw it, the clear water shining in the sun as it fell from a rocky ledge into a limestone pool. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Boy twisted in his saddle, looking at me. I rode up beside him. I’d been riding in this forest for over a year and had never come across this place.
We dismounted and tethered the horses to a bush. For a while we sat on a flat rock at the edge of the stream talking and watching the play of water and light, the silver and gold spangles dancing over the bubbles. My heart was pounding in my chest, because, I knew then what would happen. And I wanted him.
Boy placed his hands on my shoulders and turned me to him. Sounds of the forest faded as our eyes met. He cupped my face in his hands, kissing me, his lips gently caressing mine at first, then moving harder as his tongue explored, parting my lips, and I responded, feeling weak under his touch. He lifted me then and I folded my arms around his neck as he carried me to a mossy patch of green beneath a tree, laying me down between roots bulging through the earth. I shivered as he settled beside me, propped on his elbow, as his other hand brushed lightly over my breasts and over my belly, and then I opened my arms to him.
He smiled, and his eyes held mine while his hands worked open the buttons on my jodhpurs—this seemed to take forever—and then, I caught my breath as he slid them off, and I reached up, so hungry, pulling him down on top of me, and we melted into each other in that silent forest, where nothing existed right then but Boy and me.
I was in love with Boy. And after that day, I trusted him completely. Étienne’s best friend swore he loved me too, then, and again and again. We kept our affair a secret. Even so, Étienne would not mind the loss of one small mistress, I told myself. Besides, the beautiful famed coquette Émilienne d’Alençon was also in residence at Royallieu. Étienne hadn’t come to my room in over a week. But we did not tell him. Not then.
I arrived at Royallieu as a poor girl, and I kept the past to myself, except for Boy. When asked, I would always say I was raised by two strict old aunts in their home near Moulins. I told that story to Boy at first, as with everyone else. When I confessed the truth, after the day we first made love, Boy professed he was stunned that I’d manufactured my past from beginning to end.
Lies, he called my stories.
I called them innocent little deceptions. Boy never did really understand. A lie requires an intention to deceive. My only purpose in hiding my past was survival. I wanted respect, not pity, from my friends.
I told him that. I told him that I only ever lie when a thing is important.