‘As Serenity awakens after her accident to the curious new world all around, nothing can prepare her for the shattering revelation ahead.’
The last in a succession of ten swift chimes now melting into the warm air, the sunlight filtered through the bevelled glass panes of the two vaulted windows as it edged its way across the crisp yellow bed linen. Inch by inch it advanced along the soft ivory skin of the young woman’s outstretched arm, her long fingernails shattered and dirty, continuing on its journey as it flowed onwards beyond her smooth jawline, illuminating her flawless skin, its milky luminosity bruised and disfigured by a blood-encrusted swollen temple.
As the birdsong drifted past the billowing mustard taffeta curtains, a distant clock again struck the hour, its eleven chimes entering the room through a set of double doors in the far wall, the left of which sat slightly ajar.
Emitting the weakest of groans, Serenity rolled towards the sunlight. The silken sheen of the pillowcase caressing her discoloured cheek, squinting against the daylight, her narrowed gaze came to rest on a section of white plaster cornice above the nearest of the two domed windows. An initial effort to raise herself from the pillow only causing her to collapse once more into its soft compactness, with one grazed palm pressed to her eye she managed to prise herself several inches from the blood-smudged satin.
“Where am I?” she mumbled through dry lips, peering at the large oil portrait suspended between the windows.
Centuries old, the benevolent eyes of the beautiful young woman gazed back at her from the canvas, her creamy complexion accentuated by the deep burgundy silk of her exquisite dress. A small cage on a wooden table by her side, its gilded bars housed a single canary, who, although presented with the unconcealed gift of liberty courtesy of a conspicuously open door, seemed quite content to remain at proximity to its captivating mistress.
Below the painting, flush against the yellow chintz wall, sat a dressing table. Its curved glossy legs and bowed drawer fronts crafted from a diagonally striped dark red wood, the oval glass in the furthest of its three mirrors reflected the reversed image of the metal clad torso and shoulders of another portrait, itself hung somewhere near or above the bed.
The discomfort intense as she twisted her aching body to investigate, the pounding in her head now receding, Serenity tilted her face to the wall behind noticing the lower corner of a gilded frame several feet higher up the wall.
Raking lengths of dishevelled hair from her face, she reached for the fluted white rim of the headboard to steady herself as she glanced up at the image of the man who towered above her. Attired in an armour-plated jacket, a cerulean blue sash strung across his body, his large, dark brown eyes were fixed in the direction of the young woman on the opposite wall.
Even in her distress, something in his noble features and stately pose struck Serenity as familiar, the memory of his face lingering in her jumbled thoughts as she turned away – her curiosity at once drawn to a tall, thin mirror which hung above a mottled red marble fireplace set into the right wall. Painted a matte sage green, its intricate frame chiselled from either wood or plaster to imitate vines entwining their path up and around the casing, the two parallel outer bars curved some six feet above the mantelpiece to form an arch, an elaborate carved motif of a large open clamshell at the centre.
What is this place? she wondered, as her puzzled stare strayed left of the mirror past a small wooden crucifix to a vertical split in the wall-covering – realising as she ran her gaze upwards and along the dark line a concealed door was in fact built into this wall.
Her scrutiny of the room continuing, Serenity observed the diminutive writing desk in the corner, crafted from a similar wood to the dressing table, before her attention flitted to the small settee which nestled inside an alcove directly opposite the foot of the bed – the smooth golden sheen of its upholstery adorned by a gilt moulded frame.
The quivering pain again consuming her as she struggled to lever herself from the firm mattress, it was as Serenity peeled the layers of bed linen away from her aching body that the startling reality dawned on her that the room in which she’d found herself wasn’t the only thing unfamiliar – for upon glancing down, neither could she remember the diaphanous oyster silk nightdress which clung to the outline of her svelte young figure, revealing each and every curve.
In one agonizing movement she swung her legs clear of the bed. Almost knocking into a black lacquered wooden bedside table, the bare soles of her feet met with the warm, angular squares of sunlight cast onto the parquet flooring through the panes of the nearest arched window. Shuddering with pain, she eased herself upright, her first steps uncertain as she staggered over the polished wood in the direction of the double doors, hands unsteady as they reached out for the burnished oval knob of the one left ajar to the room beyond.
“Hello?” she called out, voice hoarse, as she peered through the gap into the gloom – the hearth of a large fireplace visible on the far side, a loud ticking audible from somewhere within.
“Is anyone there?” she enquired, clearing her throat as she now entered the room. Unnerved by the silence, Serenity let go of the knob.
Pausing to compose herself, she raised her face to the ceiling, her eyes tracing the shimmering specs of dust suspended in the narrow shards of light that filtered into the room from above the fastened shutters. The rays of splintered light illuminating the back end of the room, she glanced along the row of chairs lined flat against its wall, the bright hue of the fabric similar to that of the wall-covering in the bedroom.
As her eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness, now aware of a tall dark object in the far right corner, Serenity hastened towards the diagonal wedge of light projected onto the darkened floorboards around the door directly ahead. Knuckles clattering against the rectangular latch as her hand found the cold metal protuberance, she wrenched the door towards her – at once grimacing, eyes squeezed shut as she reeled backwards – the daylight from beyond blinding in its intensity.
Once more, she advanced towards the light, stepping out onto the cool black and white marble floor tiles of an elaborate landing – the glare from the sunlight that reflected off the white stucco-panelled walls and wide alabaster staircase, almost unbearable – the scent of fresh lavender pungent in the air.
The semi-circular flight of steps sweeping down to the floor below, unsteadily, Serenity made for the wrought iron banister. As her fingers tightened around the black metal scrollwork, she edged her frail body forwards – her flushed cheeks tingling in the cool air from the stairwell below – but all she could see was the multitude of alabaster steps winding their way ever downward in a spiral.
“Where is everyone?” she protested, now aware of a peculiar, rhythmic squeaking.
Releasing her anguished grip of the torqued metal, she made her way across the diamond floor tiles in the direction of a corridor which led away from the landing, the brilliant sunlight that flooded through the leaded panes of its windows glinting off the gilded leaf-like arms of a succession of empty candle sconces interspersed along the left wall. The curious noise falling silent as she glanced through a window onto the cobblestones below, her gaze darted to another wing of the house itself only partially visible that extended at right angles from the end of the corridor.
It’s a country house, she thought, already making her way towards the next window, where she peered in astonishment through the bevelled panes. Situated around three sides of a courtyard, she could now see the scale of the building – the domed windows of the second floor from where she looked out, dwarfed in comparison by the larger rectangular windows of the two lower floors. The wing to the right blocking the sunlight, it cast an oblique shadow onto the cobbles, the sharp line slicing directly across a small circular fountain.
In bewilderment, Serenity continued along the sunlit corridor towards the squat decorative table set between the two central windows.
A large clock upon its pale grey marble surface, the distinctive loud ticking now recognisable as the same she’d heard in the darkened room, she ran her finger along the smooth outline of one of its four curved gilt legs – intrigued by the plump porcelain figure of an elderly Oriental man perched aloft its summit, a golden parasol clutched in his tiny fingers.
His minute brow furrowed as if in silent contemplation, he surveyed the scene below him, that of a pretty pastoral landscape painted onto an oval porcelain panel an inch above the clock face – a scene of two children playing in a garden – the young girl amusing herself with a length of pink ribbon as a kitten frolicked around the hem of her long skirt, the boy some distance from her, his face angled away yet still looking towards the onlooker, a question mark lingering in his elongated eyes – as one pastel white finger pointed behind him towards the bars of a closed gate in a section of wall which separated the garden from the dark wooded area beyond.
Distracted by a sudden barking, through the leaded windowpanes Serenity spotted two black dogs scurrying across the cobblestones below in the direction of the left wing of the building – a woman’s voice at that moment startling her.
Turning towards the landing, a faint sound of footsteps audible from the stairs, Serenity hurried back along the corridor. The heavy breathing she was certain she could detect now unmistakable as she reached the landing, her heart at once leapt at the sight of the hunched body visible through the wrought iron baluster – the gnarled, vein-riddled hand gripping at the twisted rail with dogged determination as the deep, rasping breath intensified with every step. A heavy dark brown overcoat slumped over his wide shoulders, his wiry black hair caught at the nape with a crimson ribbon, the corpulent man now reached the mezzanine landing of the staircase, where coughing hoarsely he paused, a battered, triangular black leather bag clutched in his left hand.
“Hello there,” announced Serenity, voice faltering with uncertainly, “could you tell me where I am please?”
With a stamp of his foot, the man stopped in his tracks. His podgy face peering up the remaining stairs as he squinted through the small circular lenses of his spectacles, his mouth fell open to reveal an uneven row of grey teeth.
“Mon Dieu! Are my eyes deceiving me?” he spluttered, jowls reddening. “Child! What in Heaven’s name are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” stammered Serenity, “I wasn’t sure where I was, and …”
“Enough! We must return you to your room immediately!” he barked, struggling up the final stairs.
“But can you tell me where I am, please?”
With no attempt to answer, having now reached the landing, the surly stranger took a firm grip of Serenity’s tender upper arm as he marched her in the direction of the open door that led back to the darkened room. A violent cough causing him to release her from his grasp as they neared the bedroom, with an indignant gesture of his hand, he ushered her towards the bed, plodding his way around to the far side, where seized by another bout, he dropped his black bag onto a chair that until that moment had quite escaped Serenity’s attention.
“We must have no more of this nonsense! You need rest, child!” he rasped, knuckles white as he shook the disbanded bed-sheets in his strong hands. The clock from the corridor chiming briskly the quarter hour, Serenity slid back below the bedcover sensing only too well the futility of any kind of protest, the physician – for that was what she assumed he must surely be – having arranged the sheets around her, now adjusting his odd metal spectacles.
“I just need to know where I am!”
With no hint of acknowledgement, the crotchety man grasped at her bruised wrist, applying pressure on her veins with his square fingertips. The large scuffed brass buttons on his wide brown cuff snagging in the delicate lace of her sleeve, his determined silence continued, as he placed his palm with a thud on her forehead.
“I’m not sure how I got here,” announced Serenity, aware of the warmth building in her cheeks.
“Hush, child!” came the brusque reply. “What with poor sister Clothilde the other day, yourself yesterday and our dear Mademoiselle Angelique this very morning, indeed I fear Holy Year will be penitence for us all!”
“Yes,” replied the doctor, his tone kinder, as, leaning over to retrieve his leather bag, he shot a penetrating yet compassionate stare at Serenity through his lenses, “as I’m sure you very well know, the year of Jubilee, in which all good Catholics may gain forgiveness from our dear Lord.” With a muffled click, he opened the bag, the concentrated aroma of herbs wafting out so intense as to make Serenity almost wretch.
“All seems to be well I am glad to say for which we should both show our gratitude,” he added, as his stubby fingers rummaged around the sober depths.
“Now, I am going to give you a sedative, but first I will arrange for you to take a little soup. I shall return presently,” he frowned, snapping closed his bag. Pausing to steady himself against the tapestry bedstead, with his squat index finger he pushed his spectacles further up the bridge of his nose, grinning in a tensed smile.
“Now rest, child!” he insisted as he shuffled for the open door and the gloom beyond, the sound of his laboured breathing growing faint as he reached the landing.
“Your soup, Madame.”
“Thank you,” acknowledged Serenity to the younger of the two women having entered the bedroom through a set of double doors between the bed and window, at once bemused at their curious attire – the gauzy white fabric of their ankle length skirts billowed at the hips, the bodice of their dresses tight and cut staggeringly low for a religious establishment – for again, that was what she now assumed the residence must surely be, what with Sister Clothilde and her associate having their respective mishaps.
As she scrutinized their identical hairstyles – brushed back from their faces, a frilled square of lace pinned at the crown as if to keep it in place – Serenity felt her mouth grow dry, her instincts, however, urging her to remain calm, at least for the moment.
The elder of the two, a buxom redhead of about forty busying herself as she slapped and adjusted the pillows of the bed where Serenity, having little option but struggle to sit erect had lain only a few moments before, the younger, a pretty, delicate-boned girl with light brown hair stood at the foot of the bed. A steaming china bowl set upon the small, round silver tray she held in her nimble hands, an apprehensive smile played on her lips.
“I’m not sure what’s happened to me,” uttered Serenity, looking from the younger woman to the other, “but it was very kind of the nuns to bring me here.”
Neither woman responding, staring at each other their eyes grew wide.
“The gentleman who was here told me something had happened to two of the nuns, Sister Clothilde and Sister Angelique?”
“I think perhaps Madame is mistaken,” replied the fragile brunette, her tone apologetic.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s what he told me.”
“We do not have any nuns here!” interrupted the stout redhead, as she administered several substantial blows to the stuffing of the nearest pillow.
“Although we do have a Mademoiselle Angelique,” added her gentler companion.
“But she is not a nun,” confirmed her able counterpart, the firmness in her voice akin to the squareness of her pallid jaw.
“If Madame needs anything, she may use this bell,” continued the stern matron, “someone will attend to her. I will leave it here,” she announced, placing the tiniest of copper coloured bells, coincidentally the precise colour of her stumpy eyelashes, on the bedside table. “Now take your soup!” she commanded, her face expressionless as she pushed Serenity’s left shoulder backwards into the upright pillow. “We shall return shortly.”
The younger woman approaching the bed, she placed the polished tray flat on Serenity’s lap.
“Thank you,” replied Serenity, as she glanced down into the straw coloured liquid.
“You are welcome, Madame,” answered both women in unison, already retreating towards the open double doors, the young brunette with a curtsey making her way after the stern-faced redhead, who, without so much as turning her face, now disappeared from view.
“Is Madame perhaps feeling a little better?”
“Yes, thank you,” acknowledged Serenity, lifting the tray with its empty bowl from her lap. “I’m Serenity by the way. I don’t think I introduced myself earlier,” she added, offering it to the young maid.
“I am Chloé, Madame.”
“Chloé, I got the impression this was perhaps a convent?”
“Oh, no Madame. I am afraid you misunderstand.”
Placing the tray onto the small table, Chloé sat down on the edge of the bed, one smooth-skinned hand flat on top of the other as she leaned towards Serenity. “We are not a convent.” Pursing her lips, she pushed her hands harder against the mattress. “Madame, I am told you were involved in an accident yesterday. They brought you here from the forest of Sénart.”
“Who?” enquired Serenity.
“Some gentlemen of ours. They were out hunting at the time.
Unfortunately, you somehow ran into their path and … well, they were unable to avoid a collision with you. They brought you here to Choisy,” continued the pretty brunette, “and immediately sent for Monsieur Pavier, the gentleman who visited you earlier.”
“Oh,” remarked Serenity, “I didn’t know that was his name. I really can’t remember anything at the moment,” she stammered. “Everything feels so strange. Perhaps there’s a telephone I could use to call my family? Just to let them know what has happened and where I am.”
“A telephone, Madame? I do not understand.”
“Yes, do you have a telephone I could use?” repeated Serenity, her temple pulsating.
“Forgive me,” answered Chloé, apologetically, “You wish to inform your family of your situation? Yes, of course. We can arrange for someone to notify your family at once.”
“I’m trying to remember my number,” stammered Serenity.
I shall arrange for a horse to be prepared immediately,” replied Chloé as she now rose from the bed.
“I’m sorry,” interrupted Serenity, pushing herself forwards from the pillow. “I didn’t explain. You see, my family actually live in England and that’s why I wanted to telephone.”
“But I do not understand telephone, Madame,” replied the young woman, softly taking her place again on the edge of the mattress.
“Chloé,” announced Serenity ironically, shooting a sideways glance at the sunlit floorboards, “this is 2007?”
“Madame, I do not know what to say …”
Her confusion evident, the young woman sat bolt upright. Turning her face away, a crease disturbed her smooth brow as she stared fixedly through the open window, the breeze from the summer morning beyond catching the fine hairs which hung loose in front of her ears.
The moments passing, she did not move – until from the direction of the landing, through the succession of open doors, the delicate tinkle of the clock striking the half hour broke into the odd silence as Chloé slowly turned her face from the sunlight – her delightful features rendered stiff, unnatural. A tremble in her smooth hands as she laid them flat upon the bed sheets, she leant forwards – whatever it was that disturbed her palpable in her clear but downcast almond eyes. Her soft lips quivering, for a few seconds they opened, only to close again, as, lifting her gaze, softly, she looked straight at Serenity.
Madame, it is the year of our Lord 1751.”