I wrote this piece for an online writing group I joined, with the prompt of writing about the reunion of two old friends.
At the moment I am reading The Mysteries of Udolpho and its beautiful prose voice and Radcliffe’s ability to write painterly landscapes and pastoral scenes proved a great inspiration for this piece.
It is late in the day, the sun beginning to fall golden in early summer evening through the oaks and lavender lining the soft dusty yellow hillside. It is fine weather for travel and would remain light enough to continue on for some time, but at the same time the ever-present fear of brigands and the pressures of hunger and fatigue from a day’s hard journey meant the lengthening shadows and ephemeral cooling of the air drive travellers to seek places to eat and rest.
But there are stretches of these uneven lands that are barely habitable, or rather barely able to sustain the meagre lives of the ordinary people who make a country live. The soil is, in the higher lands, unsuited to growing much beyond tough-stalked shrubs and unwelcoming to fauna of any size save wolves and vicious wildcats which prey upon what they can. And in such places, villages are few and far between. There may be monasteries secluded in places where fortunate geography may permit the growing of enough food for pious men of modest means to eat frugally, and they are generally welcoming enough in sacred charity to weary travellers, but there are precious few coaching-inns or places of lodging. It is in so remote, singularly beautiful yet unsuited to extended sojourning, a place that sits upon a ridge far above a small river rich in fish a castle of curious design. Built, some say, by a madman – and according to others built by his crueller relatives to appease his fantasies while making sure he was long distant from their polite society – it fell into disrepair for many years, but of late has been reinhabited by those seeking to put its sad past behind them.
The Chateau Quescal is built such that it is visible in some aspect for miles in all directions from the only road of note that passes it. Its outer wall curves some distance away from the much more modest structures within but give it the appearance from afar of a vast redoubt that towers over the landscape like the domain of a giant. Within this wall there is a strange garden, watered from the underground springs that are tributaries of the fast-flowing river below. It comprises long avenues of exotic plants and statues gathered from far countries that sit in some strange menagerie of stone gods and heroes. A ravenous, bearded ogre brandishes its mighty bronze club at the delicate form of a long-forgotten goddess from the desert. A wild hunt of knights and kings faces off against a dread revue of mismatched armour. There is a playfulness to this whole affair, as if the architect once read some story of how, come the end of days, great heroes will rise again to fight, and tried to reproduce this.
This display appals and intrigues the Chateau Quescal’s current incumbents in mixed measure. They cannot bear to remove it, and indeed to do so would leave the gardens bare and in need of fresh landscaping. But at the same time it is grotesque in its disregard for the natural order.
Thus, now properly acquainted with the Chateau upon its ridge, one can picture the scene on a long golden evening; a traveller of some stature has let her horse fall into tired gait as she seeks shelter for the night, and begins upon the narrow stony path up to the Chateau’s gates. A weary watchman opens the gate for her, an air of recognition on his face perhaps, and she is told that the Lord is about to dine, and indeed that she should join him once duly refreshed. The meal can wait a little. His Grace dines lightly when the weather is warm and dry, and the food will not spoil.
There is, indeed, something familiar about this place for the visitor. Of course, anyone of vague knowledge of this part of the country knows of the great statue garden of Quescal, but there is something else here. The woman lays down her packs, heavy with books and writing-materials, and takes from the small selection of clothes she carries with her something suitably formal for her station. Her muleteer will bring the remainder of her apparel and accoutrements in time. He was some distance behind her on the trail, riding with the young apprentices serving as servants on this journey. She explains to the maid waiting in her quarters that there will be three servants to come, and that they should, if possible, be furnished for. And thus prepared, she heads down to dine.
Faint familiarity, the unknowing haze of trying to remember from where one has seen something, needs only a tiny spark of understanding to make all clear. In this case it is the sound of a woman’s voice from the dining room, clear and crisp in its enunciation, with all trace of this region’s broad, unacademic accent removed until the voice is completely without quality save its very unremarkableness. It is a voice born to belong to a clerk of tedious demeanour, or a pinch-faced madam behind small spectacles declaiming the principles of construing ancient texts to bored scions of nobility. A voice which seemingly predisposes its bearer to mediocrity. And yet the traveller knows its bearer did anything but dwindle into nothingness. She rose up the ranks of the university to a certain point and now-
“Oh. Is that Miriel?”
“You know our guest, Cateline?”
“I… do. We, well,”
“We studied together, Cateline. It’s been far too long.”
“You never left the university?”
“Research appealed to me. I have some apprentices somewhere. You should meet them, Margot reminds me so much of you when we were both students. And you, I presume you are-”
“Resident magician to His Grace the Marquis Chalevon.” The table is reset, and the two ladies are sat next to each other. “And exactly how does your apprentice remind you of me?”
“She has this way of writing, she can appear completely idle and then as I am about to give her a piece of my mind there is suddenly a page of the finest writing on a subject you could imagine. Or I ask her to construe some work or other and she stares at the floor, then the ceiling, and just as I am about to ask someone else to speak she offers the correct answer.”
“I suppose I was like that, wasn’t I?” At some point food and wine appear and the pair make the appearance of eating some of it, but Miriel Ludendorff has not seen Cateline Guiscard for years and that is enough to distract her completely. Starched formality, the quality-less voice of Guiscard in her professional, courtly role, is dispensed with and behind the green-and-white silk of a serious uniform there is still something of the eternal undergraduate that remains. Being back in the room with someone full of tales of student days – stories of playing the game, of standing up for school and for rightness, of the cunning and wits that helped one survive and prosper – helps bring back that youthful enthusiasm.
Long after the meal is eaten the two women remain in the gallery where the table cools; its arched windows overlook the manic gardens below, and provide no end of diverting views for those whiling away the pale blue nights on the maquis. Cateline has beheld this view every day since her arrival at the Chateau, but only today – with Miriel by her side – does she truly look at it. Details so often regarded as to become consigned to the part of the memory that deals with the routine suddenly became new things to spur conversation and keep this moment of reunion alive. For both women there is the unspoken, unacknowledged worry that if the conversation should stop they would be parted again. And so their talk wanders all but directionless. Sights beneath them drive a new idea, but it is not dwelled upon. Miriel sees a statue of a queen from distant sunburned lands, and talks of her own travels down to the Eagle Sea in the far east to see the long painted ships of those on its own eastern bank. The subject of her research, into the old magics of those lands, brings up pangs of nostalgia for the long hours of confinement in library-booths that defined the latter years of Cateline’s study. Study for its own sake, not for the purposes of maintaining a province.
Eventually they must part for the night. Miriel has been convinced to stay a day or so more – and it is likely, she knows, that this will be further extended for her ultimate destination is by no means as interesting as this happy reunion. In the morning, Cateline will introduce her properly to M. Chalevon and they will walk in the garden and out to a sight of singular beauty down in the valley behind the Chateau. From there, Cateline says, one can see far in all directions on a clear day, and make out hamlets as if drawn with tiny brush upon a field of green – for down by the river the land is rich and vineyards are in abundance.
This has been a reunion of friends, and that in itself is a happy occurrence coming as it did in the midst of a journey through harsh yet elegant countryside. But at the same time much as Miriel has so much knowledge to share, has remained within her tower expanding her world through study, Cateline has – in what could be considered the mental confinement of day-labour – learned in the intimate detail of routine all the fine details of her environs with such dedication that the arrival of anyone at all from foreign parts would have had her fall upon them to share their beauties. Miriel has stepped into a world her friend has become familiar with in a way that someone who has studied all their life cannot imitate. Cateline has lived among the Marquis’ people, visited them, addressed their grievances and solved their problems within her power, and it has awakened within her a love for these lands that begs to be shared.