Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the memoir, French Illusions by Linda Kovic-Skow. Enjoy!
The Dubois Family
“Je suis américaine. Je ne parle pas français.”
It took equal parts sign language, broken English and even more broken French before I understood the train attendant in Paris. Two more transfers? You’ve got to be kidding, I thought.
Cursing my high-heeled shoes, I dragged my luggage down endless platforms before boarding my final train. An hour later, just as the sun set across the Loire River, we pulled into Songais. Only three other people disembarked and went off their separate ways, hastening around me as I wrestled my suitcases into the station.
Filled with both apprehension and excitement, I surveyed the room, looking for Madame Dubois, but no one there fit her description. Wandering over to one of the tall arched windows, I pressed my face against the pane, peering left and right.
The Songais train station sat along a narrow cobbled street, lined with one white stone building after another, each attached to its neighbor. The structures varied in height, either two or three stories, their rooftops gabled, some with severe peaks. A few buildings presented Juliette balconies trimmed in black wrought iron, their built-in flower boxes filled with raspberry-red geraniums. Seeing no cars or people in either direction, I refocused my attention inside the building.
As I waited, a million thoughts jumbled through my head. How would Madame Dubois react when she discovered my lie? What would I do if she refused to let me stay? Was there a train back to Paris tonight? Even if I could persuade her to let me stay, what about her husband?
The longer I waited, the more agitated I became, starting whenever I heard the slightest sound. A woman entered the station, her heels tapping a steady beat on the linoleum floor. When I saw she carried a suitcase, my heartbeat moderated.
“Avez-vous du feu?” My body jerked as a handsome young man leaned toward me.
Fumbling through my reference guide, I found the word feu, which meant fire, and tried to make sense of his question. Convinced this was a come-on, I glared at him and refused to answer. His shoulders slumped and he shook his head as he walked away. A few minutes later, it occurred to me he merely wanted a light for his cigarette, but by then he had vanished.
“Bonsoir, Mademoiselle Kovic.”
I spun around and saw a tall, statuesque woman, far advanced in her pregnancy, walking toward me. A burst of adrenaline discharged in my brain. With each step, her dark blue wool coat opened, exposing a large belly. Stopping in front of me, her lips forming a thin smile, she extended her hand in one swift motion.
“Bonsoir, Madame Dubois.” My voice quivered as I clasped her palm against mine. “Good evening” was one phrase I managed to learn, but what to say next? “Parlez-vous anglais?”
Madame Dubois frowned and tilted her head sideways. “Yes, I speak English fluently, but you speak French, correct?”
“The truth is, I speak only a few phrases.” Inhaling deeply, I continued. “I realize this must come as a shock, but I hope you’ll let me explain before you make a decision whether or not to let me stay.”
Her eyes hardened, the color drained from her face. Seconds ticked away as I swallowed firmly against the bile rising in my throat.
Finally, she spoke. “Clearly, I am stunned by this turn of events, but you are here now. As you can see, I do need an au pair very soon. We will discuss the situation with my husband and decide what to do then.”
She motioned with her hand for me to follow her and moved toward the exit. I felt so relieved by her words, it took me a moment to react and pick up my bags.
With her nose raised higher than necessary, Madame Dubois led us around the few remaining passengers and out the door to her Peugeot.
“Put your things back here,” she said, opening the trunk with her keys.
I shoved my bags inside with a grunt, slid into the front seat and Madame pulled out of the train station’s side parking lot. As she maneuvered the car through the town’s slender streets, I studied my new patron. She appeared to be in her early thirties. Her thick blonde hair was pulled back from her face into a low ponytail, emphasizing her prominent nose. Unadorned by makeup or lipstick, no one would have called her pretty, but her alabaster skin glowed flawlessly, and her reserved demeanor suggested self-assurance in her social standing.
Hoping to ease the tension, I ventured, “Is it far to your home?”
“No, we live only a short distance from town.”
“How convenient,” I said, twisting to gaze out the window, marveling at an ancient stone church and then catching a glimpse of a grand, elegant chateau rising above the town, its multi-towered turrets extending skyward.
“Have you lived here long?”
“I grew up in Songais and so did my mother before me.” Madame Dubois’s voice sounded cool and aloof. “I would not consider living anywhere else.”
Her chilly reception increased my anxiety. I shifted my position, trying to relax my clenched teeth. At least she didn’t put me back on the train immediately. Somehow I would have to persuade her and her husband to give me another chance and let me stay on as their au pair.
Five minutes later, Madame pulled the car off the main highway onto a private road marked with an ornate metal gate. We progressed slowly along a gravel driveway through a forest so dense it formed a tunnel in front of us. As Madame rounded a bend in the road, I caught my first glimpse of the Château de Monclair on the hillside.
Built in the mid-1800s, it stood three stories high, topped by tall gables decorated with medallions and leaf designs. Elegant dormer windows on two sides protruded from the roof. Red bricks dominated the building, but cream-colored stones framed all eight of the massive paned windows, four on the first level and four on the second. An intricate stone railing encircled the court off the first floor, and the area below opened up to a massive expanse of grass lawn. We pulled up to the front entrance and I glanced at Madame Dubois, my mouth agape. “It’s unbelievable.”
She smiled and dipped her forehead, a regal motion like a queen to a servant.
The interior of the Château de Montclair proved equally impressive. The ten-thousand-square-foot structure housed eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, a library, and various formal and casual rooms. Moving around the interior, our heels clicked on the gleaming marble floors, the sound resonating upward from the foyer, emphasizing the soaring grandeur of the building.
Twelve-foot ceilings, six-foot tall mahogany wainscoting and intricate built-in dark wood cabinetry highlighted the superior artisanship of the 19th century. Period furniture and ancestral art, placed to perfection, made me feel I was touring a museum rather than a home. In almost every room, elaborate colorful flower arrangements welcomed us. The bouquets looked freshly picked—possibly from a garden somewhere on the grounds.
Several times Madame Dubois hastened me along, her fingers gripping my elbow when I stopped to gawk at a sculpture or a painting. “Come this way and I’ll show you the upper floors of the chateau.”
We climbed the stairs to the second landing and strolled down the hallway, Madame pointing toward closed doors as we passed by. “These are the children’s rooms, but they are already in bed.”
My eyebrows lifted in surprise when she said this. Leaving the children alone to fetch me from the station seemed irresponsible, but then again, it was only a five-minute drive.
When we reached the master bedroom, Madame grasped both handles on the double doors and opened them with a flourish. A large, exquisitely carved mahogany bed dominated the room, complemented on either side by matching nightstands. On the opposite wall, a mirrored dressing table accommodated several perfume bottles with crystal stoppers. Beside the six-foot tall window, a dozen burgundy-red roses sat on their own stand, and two graceful armchairs took their places nearby. The royal and light blue silk bedspread and elegant floor length blue-patterned drapes finished the room.
Standing still, drinking in the scene before me, I obeyed with reluctance when Madame Dubois waved me toward the exit.
Continuing up the stairs to the third floor, we entered the first bedroom on the left, one of four on this floor.
“This room is reserved for my au pairs,” Madame Dubois said, prompting a wide-eyed double take from me.
The diminutive room contained a graceful barrel-arched dormer window with two built-in wardrobes on either side. Below the window, a compact desk invited au pairs to sit and write while enjoying the view of the valley below. A small, narrow bed rested against the opposite wall, and a comfortable stuffed chair filled the corner. The adjacent room contained a small sink, but nothing else.
“It’s lovely, but where is the bathroom?”
“Down the hall,” she replied, pointing with her forefinger. “I suppose all of this is quite different from your home in the United States?”
“That’s for sure. I never imagined I would live in a place like this.”
Madame Dubois crossed her arms under her chest. “We will see . . . My husband and I will listen to your explanation first.”
Descending the stairs, I contrasted my own home with the Château de Montclair. Raised in a humble family with very few extravagances, my reference for this kind of wealth came from television and the movies. My parents shopped at second-hand stores and discount grocers, always settling for the less expensive choice in order to save a dime or two. Over time, they saved and accumulated money, acquiring several low-income rental properties. Influenced by hardships during the Great Depression and World War II and always looking toward the future, they remained hesitant to spend money on anything deemed “unnecessary.”
For the last three years, I lived in one of their apartments while I worked and attended college. Although I appreciated the discounted rent, I dreamt of one day moving into a chic residence in a more sophisticated part of town.
Madame’s voice brought me back to the present. “I’ll pour us some lemonade, and we can wait for Armand in the salon.”
Holding my drink, I followed her into the room, and we sat in two armless chairs near the fireplace. A few minutes later, Monsieur Dubois, debonair in an expensive business suit and tie, sauntered into the room.
Broad-chested and of average height, his brown eyes and olive skin augmented his good looks and suggested a Mediterranean influence. He glanced my way, but before acknowledging my presence, he greeted his wife. Strands of dark wavy hair fell forward as he kissed her on the cheek.
He then turned to me. “Bonsoir, Mademoiselle Kovic.”
The bile revisited my throat. I pushed it down.
“Armand, Mademoiselle Kovic ne parle pas français,” she told him. Miss Kovic doesn’t speak French.
Monsieur Dubois scowled and wasted no time dissecting the matter. “I do not understand. The agency assured us that you spoke French. Who wrote the letters for you? Why would you take such a chance?”
“I know it was foolish of me and I’m sorry.” Swallowing back tears, I tried in earnest to explain how and why I had deceived them, my voice cracking on several occasions.
After I finished, neither of them spoke, their cold blank stares daunting. At last Madame Dubois broke the silence. “This is your explanation?”
She didn’t understand how much I wanted the flight attendant position with World Airways. I’ve never wanted anything so much in all my life, I thought.
Desperate now, I leaned forward and offered some final heartfelt words. “You have every right to be angry with me, but I really am a good person. I promise to work very hard as your au pair, and I’ll practice my French daily if you’ll only agree to let me stay.”
A look passed between Madame and Monsieur Dubois, and then he rose from his seat. “We will need a few minutes alone to discuss the matter. Would you mind waiting in the foyer?”
“No, of course not.”
I exited the room, doubt swirling inside my brain. Did I convince them? I wasn’t sure.
While I waited, I chewed my bottom lip, pacing back and forth, my hands clasped behind my back. When Monsieur called me back into the room, my lungs froze in my chest.
“Madame and I have decided to let you stay. As you can see, we have very little choice with the baby coming so soon. We hope this deception is the last we will experience while you are here.”
A long lingering breath escaped from my mouth. “Thank you so much.”
Monsieur Dubois offered me a tenuous smile and his voice softened. “I am sure you are exhausted. Why don’t you go up to bed? Everything will look brighter in the morning after a good night’s rest.”