The second chapter in our winter tale , The Paradise Stones. My huge thanks to my daughter Ella for helping me work this story out. If you missed part one it is here.
“Mesdames, Messieurs, prochain arrêt Fontainebleau”, Elsa’s heart beat a little faster as the train conductor announced their arrival in Fontainebleau. She had felt nervous and excited since she opened her eyes that morning. ” I can’t believe I am finally here, Mom would be so proud .. ” She wrote in her journal while admiring the landscapes flashing past the train window. She felt anxious, after so many years of research, wondering whether the story of the stones might finally come to a conclusion today.
On the phone that morning, her sister had told her : « Always prepare for the worst, don’t forget Elsa, be ready to be disappointed .. Don’t forget these french men are not the easiest, the contact has been so difficult with Mr Celestin’s family. It’s a miracle we even got a meeting with the grandson, I really don’t want you to get your hopes up darling, even Mom never made it this far .. “
“I know you’re right sis, but it may be the french air, or my magical encounter last night, I just have this feeling that everything is going to work out. It’s as if Mom’s spirit were here, I am going to find out what happened to those stones”
The train drew to a halt, “Fontainebleau, tout le monde descend!” Elsa woke from her daydreaming, grabbed her notebook and bag and jumped off the train along with a few commuters hurrying away to their work day.
She walked into the train station, where to her surprise, a tall man, with a moustache had a sign in his hands « Madame Elsa. NY” She walked up to him shyly : “Bonjour Monsieur, are you looking for me?.. “
The reply resonated in a loud deep voice : “ Madame Elsa, I am Marcel, I am Mr Celestin’s chauffeur, I will be taking you to the chateau, if you please follow me.”
“ I didn’t expect a driver, that is so generous.. » He started walking on without letting her finish her sentence, surprised once again, she caught up with him, he turned his head but never stopped walking : “Mr Celestin likes his meetings to be punctual, and as you are american and you do not know this region, he felt it best I would drive you there.” He continued striding ahead of her.
She raised her eyebrows “Oh really! well that is very kind. Merci » They exited the train station, and he led her to a large old car. Marcel opened the back door. “ Please Madame” He closed the door behind her before getting in to the driver’s seat. “Please be comfortable Madame .. we ‘ave a 10 minute drive.” Elsa was slightly little taken aback by his air of authority, but she loved the mystery, and felt surprisingly reassured.
Marcel drove confidently through the beautiful town of Fontainebleau, and out into the forest until finally from far, she saw the Chateau. As they passed the gate, Marcel slowed down, and she could hear the sound of the gravel beneath the wheels, her jaw dropped. She had seen a picture of this place in an old album at home, but never had she imagined it would be this impressive in reality. Before the chateau the gardens were laid out in straight lines and perfect topiaries. Gently Marcel stopped the car, then opened the door to Elsa. As she stepped out of the car, a tall young man emerged from the chateau.
« Madame Elsa, I presume. I am Victor, Mr Celestin’s grandson. I appreciate you being on time, if you will follow me, we can talk inside. This won’t take long» He started walking; not leaving her a second to reply, she follows. « Thank you Victor, it’s a pleasure to meet you, I can’t thank you enough for your time, I know you are busy. I am very grateful. Thank you so much for sending me Mr Marcel, it was a real delight….. I didn’t know the French were so big on punctuality.” she said smiling. Victor gave her a quick look while walking ahead, he did not seem to appreciate the humor.
“Well, Madame Elsa, I never believed the Americans knew much about the French. “. He continued to stride ahead of her, his nose in the air. “Hmm thought Elsa, sis was right, this won’t be easy.” Determined not to be dominated, she stopped in her tracks.
« Well, Monsieur Victor, if you knew anything about American women, it would come as no surprise that men with character are no threat to us. I have come here today as a friend, and out of respect for our shared family history. I hope that I can show you that I do understand some things about the French, and that I have great respect for you and your family” Standing in the middle of the entrance hall, she stared at him, waiting for his reaction. He stopped, then slowly turned around. Elsa’s heart beats a little faster, anxious to know his reaction, wondering if she had just blown the entire meeting.
He looked at her and smiled; “Indeed? I believe we have underestimated you. I think you should meet my grandfather Celestin after all”
He walked up to her, and offered his arm like a gentlemen : “If I may?” Elsa smiled, and slipped her wrist behind his elbow as they started walking together : “So this is the french charm I’ve heard so much about !” Smiling they walked through two large and richly decorated rooms, before stopping in front of a door in the library. « I was going to talk to you alone today, and tell my grandfather how our conversation went, but I think the two of you should talk straight away. And this is where I leave you Mademoiselle Elsa. » As he gently pushed the door open, she looked at him nervously, her heart beating fast, she took a deep breath.
The door opened onto a beautiful old study, full of books and paintings on the wall, a fire was burning, an older man sitting in a large armchair, his hand holding a big cigar.
“Mademoiselle Elsa, finally I get to meet you. So I guess my grandson has decided that you are a lady worthy of our time and secrets.” He stood up to shake her hand then indicated to her to come and take a seat next to him.
The old man looked a lot like his grandson, tall and elegant, dressed in a well cut suit, slicked grey hair. Though he was clearly quite old, he stood proudly and easily and she sensed an air of nobility in him. As she got closer to him, she recognized the sharp jawline she had seen in photos , the same strong nose. He took a good look at her, as she sat down carefully on a velvet sofa. In silence, he stared at her for a while, before making his way to the little bar. He puts down his cigar in the crystal ashtray, and poured two cups of coffee. Elsa didn’t dare say a word, enjoying the scene before her.
Carefully he put down both cups on an imposing table then walked back to take his cigar and ashtray. He looked at her again.
“You look like your grandmother, that is nice ….. I have been waiting for you Elsa, for quite some years now. I began to think you would never come. I always believed your grandmother would send you here, but I hadn’t guessed you’d have a professional interest in the story too”. Elsa watched him carefully. She preferred to let him talk rather than influence his line of thought. He sat in his armchair, taking another long puff from his cigar. “I was sad to read in your letter that you lost your mother, and that I was never able to meet her. I am sorry she is not here with us today. But you are. » His deep emerald eyes seem to pierce through Elsa. “I believe you have a lot of questions for me, but if you allow me, I would like to tell you my story first, I am an old man, and questions make me weary.” He said with a gentle smile. Elsa sipped the coffee, and remained silent.
“If I accepted to see you today, is that I think it is time for me to tell the truth about the Paradise stones. ” Elsa’s heart skipped a beat, “This is it!” she said to herself and holding her breath
“It all started in 1939, I was young at the time, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. The second world war had just been declared, but that wasn’t what made me the saddest that year. All I can remember is my heart aching with love for Mademoiselle Astrid de Bonvouloir, your grandmother’s dear friend. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I was not the only to think so. We were four young men to have fallen in love with her; two counts, an officer and a baron. Not only was she beautiful, she was the greatest mystery. No one knew what secrets her heart was holding or who she preferred, but she seemed to have affection for each of us.
When the war broke out, she wrote to each of us saying she wanted to meet before we set off to fight. I was surprised by her arrival here and I later found out that she did the exact same thing here as at the home of each of her admirers. We all knew that she had a spectacular necklace, a family heirloom. It was white gold, studded with precious stones, and held five large aquamarine pendants. It was of great value and importance to her family.
Young Astrid had the necklace dismantled – oh mon dieu, a pure folie! She brought an aquamarine to each of her admirers and buried it in a box in the grounds of their home. The fifth stone she kept with her. She told each of us “promise me you will come back from the war and bring me back this stone”. I think that this beautiful young girl was very superstitious and she believed that the stones would somehow bring us home intact from the war.
Clestin marked a pause and looked at Elsa “ But I think you know this story, non?” Elsa smiled, “I have heard extracts only, but I prefer to listen to you”
“We all went away to fight, and tragically I am the only one who did not die on a battlefield. After the war I tried to contact Astrid but her family had suffered greatly during the war and I couldn’t track them down. So in the hope that I would find her one day, I visited the homes of her three other suitors and found the missing stones, with the intention of bringing them to Astrid”
Elsa gasped “you mean you have the stones?!”
“Yes mademoiselle, I do have the stones. They are safe and I still hope to give them to Astrid”
“And could I see them?” He looked at her ,“oh please Celestin. All my life my grandmother has talked to me about this incredible necklace, and her friend Astrid who separated these stones in the name of love. I long to tell this tale and to see the necklace reunited for the museum show in New York. It is such a romantic tale.”
Celestin looked at her, and she thought she may have seen a tear form at the side of his eye. He rang a small bell on the table beside him, and his grandson appeared from behind the door. “Victor, please take Mademoiselle Elsa back to the car, she will be leaving now. He turned to Elsa. Merci Mademoiselle for your visit. It has been very tiring for me to remember these things and now I need to think in quiet. I shall be in touch”
And with that Elsa was whisked away before she even had time to protest or arrange another meeting time. The chauffeur drove her back to the station and remained until she was safely on the train and heading to Paris.
Her heart was heavy as she travelled back to the city. Was that it? Had she crossed an ocean, and tracked down the elusive Celestin simply to be turned away empty handed?
It was exciting to discover that four of the stones were safe, but so frustrating too. That evening she pushed open the heavy door to her apartment and glanced up at the window of Madame where she had spent the previous evening sheltering from the rain. She remembered that the grandson asked for news on her progress looking for the stones, but this evening she was too tired. “Tomorrow is another day” she whispered as she closed the door and went inside.
We’ll bring you the final chapter in this little tale next week, it will be our first post of the New Year! If you missed the first part of the tale you can find it here