Have you ever done something impulsive and daring, the sort of thing that under ordinary circumstances, you’d never dream of doing? Lynn Melton hasn’t, not really. Her conduct has always been what Jane Austen would approvingly describe as “unexceptionable.” But Lynn is about to meet with serious provocation. From a very sexy man. In a French chateau.
The Voynich Affair: Chapter 5
After a couple of days in Paris, spent recovering from jet lag and visiting museums, Lynn felt elated again. She still had several days of vacation, the Voynich symposium was sure to be enjoyable, and every meal held new pleasures, from the generous basin-like cups of café au lait and the buttery croissants served at breakfast in her hotel, to the luscious falafel of the Marais, and the bistro cheese plates, invariably served at a perfect degree of temperature and ripeness that seemed to elude American restaurants. She wished her friend Laura could have come along to enjoy the food.
Following the instructions in her conference packet, she went to the Gare St. Lazare and boarded a train for Rouen, where a car from the chateau would pick her up for the journey to the small town of Bois Guilbert. Wearing her full panoply of dress, hat, heels and gloves, she drew appreciative looks from several men in the station and on the train, where more than one offered to help with her bags. Maybe I should wear clothes like this more often. Or travel to France more often. The conference was to be held in the relative seclusion of M. Mazarin’s chateau, one of several in the area. She was excited at the thought of seeing Rouen, a city near the mouth of the Seine river whose history stretched back to Roman times, and even more so at the prospect of being a guest at a chateau. It sounded very luxurious, though she knew that if the chateau was anything like an English country house, the accommodations might be less than ideal.
After a train ride of an hour or so, she found the car waiting outside the station and the driver helped her stow her luggage. She was expecting something medieval-looking with a cylindrical tower topped by a roof shaped like a witch’s hat, but on arrival, she saw that the chateau was Neoclassical, symmetrical and built of a warm yellow stone. The grounds were stunning, with beautifully groomed lawns and formal gardens. Lynn silently thanked Samantha for taking her shopping. Walking into the chateau in her “grand entrance” outfit felt appropriate and respectful. A shudder ran through her at the thought that she might have arrived in her workout clothes.
She was graciously received by M. Mazarin, a large man in his sixties with short, grizzled hair and keen dark eyes, who reminded her of Ricardo Montalban. He was pleasant and quite attentive in a way that made it clear he found her attractive, but there was something slightly feral about him, as though he was one part Fantasy Island Montalban and one part Wrath of Khan. His brother, Georges Mazarin, was less disquieting— tall like Michel, but with a sweeter, more boyish face. His brown hair was just starting to grey at the temples.
A staff member conducted her upstairs to a second-floor bedroom, furnished with a bed and vanity in modern oak. Unfortunately there was no bedside lamp, for the room had no electric outlets. She was glad she’d brought her iPad, with its backlit screen for reading, but it would be necessary to find someplace else to charge it. She was not surprised to find that the bath was located down the hall. Such are the vagaries of old houses. From the window of her room, she could just make out a traditional manicured labyrinth of tall yew hedges. After getting settled, she gave in to the temptation to remove her hat and gloves, checked her makeup, re-pinned her chignon, then returned downstairs to one of the salons, where she was to meet the other guests for drinks.
As she walked into the salon, the first thing she noticed was its high ceilings and walls covered with elaborate figural reliefs, separated by engaged columns with gilt capitals. The second thing she noticed was the man from the plane, standing by himself at a window and gazing out at one of the long garden vistas as he drank a glass of red wine. Her mouth fell open and then snapped shut again as she felt the anger swelling in her chest. What kind of game is he playing? He must have known they were going to the same conference, but he hadn’t said a word.
She procured a glass of white wine, and introduced herself to a number of people clustering in a group. She knew virtually all of their names from the Voynich listserv and journal; they knew her as well and seemed pleased to meet her. There was Jean-Luc Durand, well known for his creation of a Voynich computer font reproducing the script, and Karsten Becker, whose contributions focused on statistical analysis of entropy in the Voynich text. Most of the guests were European men, which reflected the demographics of the Voynich study group. The only women were Lynn and Alessandra Contadino, whom she greeted with relief. In the Parnell English department, there were as many women as men, and unlike some of her colleagues in the science departments, she had never before experienced an academic environment in which females were rare. Now she was standing quite close to the window where the mystery man still faced outward. She saw one of the others walk up to him and nod, saying “Clarence” in greeting. They chatted quietly for a moment, and the other man moved on, leaving his companion still gazing out the window. Clarence? That’s not a name I recognize. Who is he?
Finally she could stand it no longer and stepped over to take in the view from the window, sipping her wine. He was wearing a dressy navy suit and white shirt with a forest-colored, silky tie. Even though she was in three-inch heels, he was still quite a bit taller than she. He’d cut his hair before coming to the conference. It was a shorter than on the plane, when it had flopped rakishly over his forehead. Now it was trimmed close at the back of his neck and around the sides, but slightly longer on top, where it bristled out at his browline. His hair was black, sprinkled with the odd strand of gray. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said, without looking into his face.
“I didn’t want to spoil the surprise,” he said in the mellifluous voice she remembered from the airplane.
“Did you ask the gate attendant to seat you next to me?”
“Yes.” He turned to her and their eyes met. He seemed to be looking at her dress and perhaps focusing on her cleavage, but she couldn’t gauge his reaction.
“You already knew who I was?”
“Yes.” His frank admission of these facts, combined with his complete lack of communicativeness about his motives, annoyed her. A suspicion arose in her mind.
“Who are you? Is your name Clarence?”
“Yes, sometimes I go by Clarence. My full name is Theophilus Clarence West.” He took her hand, bowing over it in a decidedly old-fashioned, courtly way. T. C. West. Oh God. I ought to have known. He put his lips to her hand. They felt warm and soft. Oh no. As he raised his head and she looked into his large brown eyes, flecked with tiny spots of green, she thought to herself, He really is a very attractive man.
He straightened. “I’m looking forward to your paper, Professor Melton. I’m sure I’ll have a great deal to say in response.” And fixing her with another of his gimlet stares, he set down his glass on a service tray by the window. As he turned to go, he drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and something small and metallic fell from it. As he withdrew, she quickly bent down to retrieve the item. She was going to call him so that she could return it, but her attention was distracted as she examined it more closely. It was a small, ornate key in a shiny gold color. Perhaps gold-plated brass; surely nobody would make a key from solid gold. It was about an inch and a half long, and had a short hollow barrel, like a bicycle lock key. There was a design on it, some kind of writing.
Before he’d gotten eight steps away, West checked his pocket and noticed the key was gone. He turned back immediately and extended his hand, the forbidding look on his face erasing her earlier impression that he was handsome. “I’ll take that, if you please,” he said curtly.
Lynn was annoyed. Why did he always have to be so rude? She was overcome by a sudden, wild urge to do something that would anger him. He was in dire need of a taste of his own medicine. She turned her back on him, faced the window, and slipped the key down her dress, into the space between her breasts. Then she slowly looked around at him. His eyes had widened in surprise, then narrowed. “I’ll return it,” she informed him. “After I’ve had a chance to examine it at my leisure.”
West gave her a look that was positively searing, and his eyes dropped to her breasts. He looked as though he would have liked to grab her by the waist and plunge his hand down her dress. He even made a slight involuntary move toward her, but there were several people still in the room, and she knew he could do nothing. His hands clenched into fists.
“That object belongs to me, Professor Melton. I want it back. Now.”
“No.” She smiled. This feels wonderful.
“I can see I’m going to have to remove it from you. I must admit that I expect to enjoy the process.”
“Hmm. I can see that I’m going to have to lock my door this evening,” she said lightly.
He stared at her grimly. “Do you think any lock can keep me out?” An erotic thrill ran through Lynn as he spoke. His words seemed to touch and penetrate her body, as though they possessed physical mass. Setting her jaw, she swept past him without a word, and headed to another meeting room where people were gathering for the first paper session, on the physical characteristics of the Voynich manuscript.
To her relief, West did not follow her, and for the rest of the afternoon he was nowhere to be seen. The symposium was so heavily scheduled that Lynn scarcely had time to think of him, or the key that still resided between her breasts. By dinner, however, he had returned. She sat with Alessandra and tried not to look in West’s direction. The meal was sumptuous, consisting of a cold cauliflower soup, scallops, sole, and a delicious cheese course. White Meursault from Burgundy flowed freely. Afterward, they stood about chatting with glasses of the local Calvados, provided as a digestif. She was just about to leave when West came up beside her. He looked rather mellowed from the meal, but as he surveyed her, his hazel eyes became icy. “Sweet dreams, Professor,” he said.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Ciarán Hinds fans will recognize my allusion to the town of Bois-Guilbert. There is a real-life chateau in Bois-Guilbert. It is a gracious structure of brick, noted for its sculpture garden. (So far as I know, there is no labyrinth, but I needed it for reasons you will discover.) By the Neoclassical look of the chateau, it dates to the early nineteenth century. For the current occupants, click here.
I pictured M. Mazarin, the disquieting master of the chateau, as looking much like Ricardo Montalban, an actor I have always enjoyed. I have happy memories of watching him in villain roles, but also as the mysterious benefactor Mr. Roarke in the classic 80s TV series Fantasy Island.
Monsieur Mazarin’s name alludes to the 17th century cardinal, who was known equally for his ruthlessness and his outstanding collections of art, books, and jewels.