Claire’s Story, 1910
Come now, my dear Claire,” Cousin Colette said. “You must be exhausted from your journey. I’m sure you would appreciate some quiet time to rest in your new room.”
I nodded my head in agreement, but to be honest, I didn’t feel a bit tired—not one bit! I was far too jumpy and jangly with anticipation, and what I really wanted to do was explore every inch of Rousseau Manor’s grand house and grounds. I wanted to spend hours getting to know my cousins Henri and Colette Rousseau, who would be my guardians from now on. Most of all, I wanted to do everything I could to make this unfamiliar place feel like home—and to make these strangers feel like family.
The best way to do that, it seemed, was to do exactly what my new guardians asked of me. That’s why I didn’t resist when Cousin Colette and Cousin Henri led me past the receiving line of servants and through the entrance of Rousseau Manor. But I did turn my head around to peek behind me one more time. The girl near the end of the line was still standing there, watching me—Camille, she was called—and as soon as our eyes met, she smiled. I smiled back as I waved at her over my shoulder. We were almost the exact same height, which made me think Camille was nearly twelve years old, like me. She was the very first person my age I’d met since I had arrived in Paris. There was something about her—a spark of kindness, I think, or maybe it was the friendly way her face crinkled up when she smiled—that made me wish we could be friends. But Camille was a servant here, and I had no idea when I’d see her again.
“This way, Claire.” Cousin Colette’s voice interrupted my thoughts. I hurried to catch up, pausing for only a minute to marvel at the grand entryway of Rousseau Manor, where gold trim made the walls and ceiling gleam. I wished I could’ve stopped to stare at everything—Rousseau Manor was even grander than I had imagined it would be.
“Wait,” I said suddenly. “Where are my trunks?”
“Ah, of course,” Cousin Colette replied. “After you’ve rested, I’ll have the footmen bring them up. We will hire a lady’s maid for you in due course, but Henri and I thought you should have a say in whom we choose. So until then our head housemaid, Bernadette, will attend to you. I’ll see to it that she unpacks your trunk and organizes your belongings while we dine.”
“No!” I said suddenly. I didn’t want to be disagreeable, but . . .
Cousin Colette looked at me in surprise. I took a deep breath and tried again. “If it’s not too much inconvenience, I’d like to unpack myself—as soon as possible.”
“Yes, of course, my dear,” Cousin Colette said. “Whatever you desire.”
She stepped over to the butler for a brief word and then returned to my side. “We’ve chosen a room on the second floor of the East Wing for you,” she said as we climbed the spiral staircase. “I hope that you’ll find the room suitable. With the eastern exposure, you’ll have a lovely view of the sunrise each morning. Of course, you may not be an early riser, but I can assure you the curtains are velvet and very thick; they’ll be sure to block out the light. And if there is anything about the decor you’d like to change, you need only say the word. . . .”
Cousin Colette’s voice trailed off as she reached out to open the door. I caught a quick glimpse of a canopy bed with billowing white curtains, blue velvet drapes, and a plush rug to match, but I didn’t need to see my new room to express my gratitude.
“It’s perfect,” I said. “Thank you.”
A relieved smile washed over Cousin Colette’s face, and for the first time I wondered if she felt as nervous as I did. She squeezed my hand as the footmen arrived, bearing my trunks.
“Where would you like them, Mademoiselle Claire?” the taller one asked.
“Oh, anywhere is fine,” I said. “Perhaps by the window?” It had a deep window seat that was crowded with velvet pillows; I could already tell that I would spend many happy hours there, basking in the morning sun as I read my favorite books.
“You mustn’t worry about the unpacking,” Cousin Henri said. “The entire staff here is at your service and will be more than happy to assist you in any way they can.”
“Thank you,” I repeated. Perhaps I should’ve told them that unpacking as quickly as possible was all part of my plan to make Rousseau Manor feel like home. But I didn’t quite know how to say it, so we stood together in an uncomfortable silence, the way strangers might stand together on the platform as they await the next train.
Suddenly, Cousin Colette leaned forward to embrace me. “We are so glad you have come to Rousseau Manor,” she whispered near my ear, “though we wish it had happened under different circumstances.”
Tears pricked at my eyes then, but I tried to blink them away. There would be no melancholy or weepy moments for me. No, I would be happy and cheerful and a joy to have at Rousseau Manor. That was the vow I had made on the voyage from America. After all, that’s what Mother and Father would’ve wanted me to do.
But were those tears shining in Cousin Colette’s eyes as well? I knew what it looked like when adults were trying not to cry in front of me. I’d seen it quite a bit in the last few weeks.
“We’ll send Bernadette in later on to help you dress for dinner,” she finished.
Cousin Henri smiled winningly at me before he escorted Cousin Colette from the room.
And then I was all alone for perhaps the first time since the accident that had killed my parents and left me an orphan. Since that terrible night, everyone had been so tremendously kind to me . . . and the people of Rousseau Manor were no exception.
I went straight to my trunk and unlatched the strong brass buckles. I didn’t even notice how anxious I was until I eased open the lid, waiting to see if the precious contents had survived the rough crossing overseas. My hands were trembling a bit as I unwrapped the bundles—the big one first. I opened the sturdy case and breathed a sigh of relief to discover that Father’s beautiful violin was in perfect condition, looking just as it had the very last time he had played for me. The polished wood gleamed in a beam of sunlight as I lightly rested my fingers on the taut strings. After I unpacked the bow, perhaps I could play a little. If I closed my eyes, it might even feel as if Father was playing for me once more.
I reached for the second bundle, which was much smaller and lighter. Inside the silk handkerchief, I found them: Mother’s favorite pair of gloves and a small cameo brooch that she always wore pinned to the front of her dress.
I slipped my hands into the gloves, knowing that hers were the last hands to wear them. They even smelled like her delicate perfume. A wide smile filled my face; anywhere would feel like home with these special reminders of Mother and Father by my side.
I reached into the trunk for Father’s bow and found something surprising instead:
I don’t remember any letters in here when the maids helped me pack my trunk, I thought as a confused frown spread across my face. But sure enough, my name was written on the front in perfect, elegant script. I opened the envelope and began to read.
As I write this letter on the eve of your departure, there is much hope swirling through my heart: that you will have a pleasant journey; that you will find France to be as wonderful and welcoming as I have during my visits; that you will feel quite at home the moment you arrive at Rousseau Manor; and, most of all, that the grief you feel for your parents will be replaced by only the sweetest memories of them.
You know, of course, that your mother was a dear friend, and her untimely passing is a great injustice that no one who loved her should have to bear. And yet I have found that your presence here at Vandermeer Manor has done wonders to soothe my grief. It is a testament to your character, Claire, that even in the face of such tragedy, you are compassionate and kind. More than once I have observed you at play with Kate and little Alfie and thought about how proud your parents would be of your strength and resiliency.
Knowing this, I am confident that you will find a warm welcome at Rousseau Manor and soon feel very much at home there. I met Henri and Colette many years ago and found them to be a charming couple with generous, giving hearts. And when you find yourself on American shores once more, I do hope you will visit us here at Vandermeer Manor. We will always have a room ready for you, and I look forward to seeing your sweet face at my table once more.
With my fondest regards,
Mrs. Katherine Vandermeer
I read the letter twice more before I finally returned it to its envelope. It was just like dear, sweet Mrs. Vandermeer, Kate and Alfie’s great-grandmother, to write something so kind and heartening, then slip it into my trunk so that I should discover it right when I might need some reassurance! Reading her words made me wish, for the briefest moment, that I was still at Vandermeer Manor, listening to Kate practice her reading or helping Alfie arrange his toy soldiers. A wave of homesickness washed over me as I sat beside my trunk, all alone in a strange land.
A sudden knock at the door interrupted my thoughts.
“Come in,” I said, scrambling to my feet as I hurried to take off Mother’s gloves. I’d thought it would be Cousin Colette, or perhaps a housemaid to help me unpack, but instead it was the girl I’d met in the receiving line. Camille.
“Pardon the interruption, Mademoiselle Claire,” she said right away, ducking into a curtsy as she balanced a heavy tray, “but we thought that you might be in need of some refreshments.”
“What’s this?” I cried as I hurried across the room. The tray was so laden with treats that I marveled at Camille’s ability to carry it, let alone curtsy without spilling a single thing. There were slices of crusty bread and a wedge of creamy cheese; a basket filled to the brim with cookies; a platter of pastries; a bowl of chocolate-covered strawberries; and a tall glass of milk. There was even a vase with a large, fragrant white flower.
“How beautiful!” I gasped as I leaned down to sniff it. I didn’t remember the name of the flower, but its scent reminded me of Mother. She’d grown flowers like this in one of our gardens.
“Where did you get this?” I asked Camille, hardly daring to hope that other flowers like this one might grow somewhere on the grounds of Rousseau Manor.
“It comes from the flower garden,” she told me. “Tomorrow, if you’d like, I would be happy to give you a tour of the house and grounds.”
“Would you really?” I asked in excitement. “That would be wonderful. Thank you!”
“It would be my pleasure, Mademoiselle Claire. I will come to your room after breakfast.”
“Please, you really must call me Claire,” I told her.
Camille looked a bit worried. “Are you—are you sure?” she asked. “It seems so informal . . . disrespectful, almost. . . .”
“Nonsense!” I replied. Then, impulsively, I gestured toward the window seat. “Come. You must join me. I can’t eat all of this by myself!”
Camille glanced over her shoulder. “I should get back,” she said. But when Camille looked at me again, something in her face changed. “But perhaps I can spare a few minutes.”
I closed the lid of my trunk so that it became a table for us. “What should I try first?” I asked.
Camille looked at the tray thoughtfully. “Well, these are my favorites,” she said, pointing at a puffed-up ball of pastry with a thin glaze of chocolate on top. “They’re called profiteroles, and they’re filled with custard.”
“Mmm,” I said as I reached for one and took a bite. “Delicious!”
Camille smiled so proudly that I wondered if she had made them. I was about to ask when she suddenly said, “A violin!”
“It belonged to my father,” I explained.
A look of understanding flashed through Camille’s eyes. “What a special thing to have,” she said as she squeezed my hand. “My papa died when I was five years old, and Mama let me keep one of his red handkerchiefs. I still have it.”
She knows, I thought as I smiled gratefully at Camille. She knows what this feels like.
“Do you play?” she continued.
“Oh, no,” I said, shaking my head. “Well, a little, I suppose. But badly—very badly. I only wish I had inherited my father’s musical gifts!”
Camille giggled. “I feel the same way about my mother’s culinary skills,” she confided. “She’s a genius in the kitchen, but I’m a laughingstock, an absolute disaster!”
She turned away briefly to glance at the clock hanging on the wall.
“I really must go, I’m afraid,” she said as she rose. “I need to watch Baby Sophie while her mother prepares the servants’ meal.”
I rose with her. “Thank you for the visit and the refreshments,” I replied, though what I wanted to say was, I do wish you could stay!
After Camille took her leave, my new room seemed so much quieter and lonesome. Perhaps I should’ve insisted that she stay, I thought. But of course I would never do such a thing—not when she had responsibilities to attend to. It would be unfair to put her in such a position.
There’s no reason I can’t start exploring the gardens myself, I decided. I put on my favorite hat, the one with embroidered cherries scattered around the brim, and reached for my smart spring coat. Just before I left my room, I decided to take Father’s violin with me. He always loved to play outdoors on a bright spring day or a warm summer evening. Perhaps I would grow to love it too.
I made my way downstairs and out the grand double doors, wondering if I’d see Cousin Colette or Cousin Henri and need to explain why I was wandering about with a violin case tucked under my arm. The only people I saw, though, were a few housemaids, who looked at me curiously before ducking into deep curtsies. I smiled broadly at them as I tried to remember their names. I’d met so many new people that everything was a blur!
Outside, I followed a stone path around the back of the house, where the gardens stretched out like a beautiful patchwork quilt. A tall hedge lined the path, which twisted and turned across the property. I followed it until I came to a lovely little garden that was positively bursting with flowers in bloom, including the ones that Mother used to grow! How I wished I could remember the name of those flowers.
There was a white marble bench in the middle of the garden, so I sat on it while I removed Father’s violin from the case and added a little extra rosin to the bow. Then, after carefully positioning my chin on the leather chin rest, I began to play his favorite song from memory. But the notes sounded all wrong! It was no secret that I was a poor excuse for a musician, especially compared to Father; I stopped playing after a screechy note that was off-tempo besides. The last thing I wanted to do was butcher Father’s favorite song.
Then I tried my hand at a simpler tune. It wasn’t anything special, but I played it passably well. I closed my eyes as I imagined what he would say if he could hear my playing: “Better. Better! I can tell you’ve been practicing!” Even though we both knew that I hadn’t been—not as much as I should’ve, anyway.
The memory brought a smile to my face, but it lasted only a moment before it faded. I had the strangest sense . . . a creeping feeling that started at the base of my head before crawling down my spine. It felt like someone was watching me.
I opened my eyes. “Who’s there?” I called out loudly. Half the battle in facing one’s fears was to face them head-on, or at least, that’s what Mother always used to tell me. So I was pleasantly surprised by how steady my voice sounded.
I listened carefully but heard no reply. I had no choice but to conclude that I was alone in the little garden: completely, totally, and utterly alone.
Yet the feeling persisted; if anything, it grew stronger, until I was as certain as I could be that no matter what my eyes told me, I was not by myself after all.
I didn’t dare hope that I might be feeling the presence of my dear father visiting me from the world beyond. I would be twelve years old in a few months, and everyone knew that twelve was way too grown-up to believe in specters and haunts from beyond the grave.
Even though I would’ve given anything—anything—for one more afternoon with my parents.
I took a deep breath and nestled Father’s violin under my chin once more. Then, taking extra care to hold the bow just so and to place my fingers firmly against the strings, I again attempted to play Father’s favorite song . . . just in case.