“Romance” and “Rouen” both begin with the letter R. Surely no coincidence. If you’ve ever imagined an interlude with a handsome not-quite-stranger in a charming, old-fashioned French hotel, the next two chapters are for you.
The Voynich Affair: Chapter 10
The trip to Rouen took slightly under an hour, and they were both absorbed in their own thoughts as they sped through the countryside. West kept glancing in the rearview mirror, as though afraid they might be pursued. That hadn’t occurred to her. Why is he still worried about Mazarin? Is there something he hasn’t told me?
Finally, as they were nearing the outskirts of the city, she said, “Why did it mean so much to you to see those pages? And where did you get the key?”
“It’s a complicated story.” He seemed to be gathering his thoughts, trying to decide what to tell her, and how to explain it. “As you know, with any text to be deciphered, the longer it is, the better chance one has of solving it.”
“Of course. Having extra pages with new word and character combinations would increase the odds of success dramatically.”
“Mazarin and I… we have something in common,” he continued. “The Voynich manuscript is a family matter for both of us. Mazarin’s grandfather obtained the pages, god only knows from whom. He looks on them as his destiny, his great contribution to world scholarship.”
“And you?” she urged.
He was silent for longer than she expected. “My mother was a linguist. She was interested in the Voynich manuscript. More than interested. After her love for my father, it was her ruling passion. I used to work with her, trying out different solutions to the cipher and debating whether it was a real cipher or an artificial language.” Another long silence. “In those days, the network of Voynich enthusiasts was much smaller, though just as rife with rumors and conspiracy theories as it is now. She heard that Mazarin owned missing pages from the document and was keeping them secret. There was nothing in the world she wanted more than to see those pages, to possess them, to touch them.”
Lynn hung on his words, riveted by this evidence of West’s close relationship with his mother, and the revelation that he had been studying the Voynich manuscript since childhood.
“Is your mother still living?” she asked gently.
“No,” he said. “She died quite a few years ago. Cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lynn, and he nodded, his eyes on the road. “This is our turnoff,” he said. “There’s a hotel I have in mind, near the cathedral. It’s not far from the train station, and you can get a train to Paris tomorrow, if you like.”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve never been to Rouen,” she said. “I was thinking of staying a couple of days to investigate the sights, since it’s unlikely I’ll be back any time soon.” If ever. “I understand it has a long history.”
“Yes.” He was absorbed in navigating through the city streets now. “I know Rouen reasonably well. I could show you around,” he added casually. “If you’re interested.”
She paused, understanding well that this was a turning point. If she said no, she would return to Paris and likely never see West again. Perhaps they would continue their old pattern of exchanges on the Voynich listserv, or perhaps they would both fall silent. But she would always wonder exactly what sort of man he really was. A cynical, opportunistic predator? A romantic, given to risky, outlandish gestures? Or something else entirely? If she said yes, there was a definite possibility that they would sleep together during the next couple of days. A sexual encounter with West was, she suddenly realized, a very tempting prospect. But I don’t trust him. The silence was stretching out into an uncomfortably long pause.
“Yes,” she answered calmly. “I’d like that.” After all, she was in Rouen now. She’d have her own hotel room, and she could leave any time she wanted.
They stopped at the Hôtel de la Cathédrale, a charming, half-timbered structure set in a narrow street just steps away from the cathedral with its delicate Gothic ornamentation and tall spire. Looking at it, she exclaimed, “West… is this the cathedral that Monet painted so many times?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he said, removing their luggage from the trunk. “We can see it later today. Let’s get checked in.” They were assigned two rooms, a few doors apart, and as she was putting the key in her door, he said, “I’m going to return the car. I’ll collect you for lunch, say at one o’clock? Remember my knock.”
“And if I decide to go out on my own?” she asked in a low voice.
He frowned. “You’re not a prisoner. I’d rather you didn’t wander about Rouen without me, but if you do, keep your wits about you. Stay in public areas.” He turned to go.
“West,” she said.
He looked back. “Yes?”
“Thanks for the ride.”
Over lunch at Le P’tit Bec, one street down from the abbey of St. Ouen, she said, “I don’t see a ring on your finger. Have you ever been married?” If there was any chance of finding herself in West’s bed, she wanted to be certain of his marital status.
Le P’tit Bec was a typical French bistro, except that it had an unusual number of vegetarian choices. Lynn had ordered the pan-fried tomatoes with Parmesan crust, and they were enjoying a carafe of the house white. He poured himself another glass before answering, “Once. When I was younger. It didn’t last long. She was a hothouse flower. What they call ‘high maintenance.’ In fact, as I recall, she had no domestic skills whatsoever.”
Lynn bristled a little. “Are you one of those men who thinks all domestic chores are the responsibility of his wife?”
“Not at all,” he replied coolly. “I’ve been looking after myself since I was eighteen.”
“Most longtime bachelors I know eat out, have a cleaning lady, and send their shirts to a laundry.”
“I like to cook, I refuse to have strangers snooping around my private space, and I own a Feiyue steam press for ironing my clothes. Though I do send them out periodically.” He raised an eyebrow, as though inviting her reaction. She was impressed, but didn’t want to admit it.
“Were you in love with your wife?” she asked, aware that this might be too personal a question. She wondered whether he had never married again because of a broken heart. He didn’t hesitate over his answer.
“In love? Madly. But I got over her soon enough. I think she became an upscale courtesan, the profession she was born to. Probably by now she’s losing her looks.” He smiled rather nastily. Yes, she thought. He had his heart badly broken.
“Now, when I feel the need for female companionship, I ask someone pleasant on a few dates. Once I’ve been seeing a woman for a month or so, she considers it ‘a relationship,’ so I always stop calling before that point. Much simpler that way.”
“I see.” This was what she had to look forward to. If this was West’s seduction technique, he must be a little out of practice. But at least he was being honest with her.
He poured her more wine and asked a question of his own. “Melton was your husband’s name. Why didn’t you change it when you split up? Professional reasons?”
So he knows about my divorce. She wondered how he got that information. From Alessandra? Or was it in some public record that he could have searched? He was a librarian of sorts, after all. “Professional reasons, yes. We were married for fifteen years, during the same time period when I was establishing my scholarly reputation.”
“A fine one, by the way,” he put in, raising his glass to her and then taking a drink. “Shakespeare’s comedies, yes?”
She smiled, flattered that he knew her work. “For the most part. And then there are my ex-stepdaughters, whom I helped raise. Even though we have no legal relationship now, keeping their name makes me feel closer to them.”
“What was your name before you married?”
“Thibodeaux. Why do you ask?”
“You’ve a look about you that I see in some parts of France. Tall, with a straight nose, eyes like the little blue flower called la véronique, and black hair that goes silver early on. When did your hair turn? In your twenties?”
“Yes. I kept on dyeing it until my divorce. My mother didn’t have much of an ethnic identity, but my father’s family were Cajuns from Louisiana.”
“Ah, probably from Poitou then, by way of Canada. My mother was from Châtellerault and spoke Poitevin,” he said. And then, rather abruptly changing the subject, “Now then. What would you like to see this afternoon? There’s the cathedral, of course, but also the abbey of St. Ouen, the Beaux-Arts museum, the antiquities museum, the church of St. Maclou, the church of Jeanne d’Arc… This is where they burned her, you know.”
Lynn hadn’t known. “Let’s begin with the cathedral, and then work our way to the abbey,” she said, “but first, let me change my shoes.”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: One of the most delightful things about writing this story was the research. After looking up all the sights in Rouen, I have a powerful desire to visit! One of my favorite reference photos is this one from the hotel where West and Lynn stay.
They even have a darling calico cat named Michou. Yes, I am the kind of person who would select a hotel based on the cat.