The first night was harrowing. As the chateau was five times the size of a normal house, it was perfectly plausible that the standard creaks and groans would be multiplied by five as well.
Early the next morning we breakfasted marvelously on pain au chocolat and, armed with flashlights, set off to explore the cave-riddled grounds. These caves were man-made, just created in the late 18th century, but who knew what they were intended to store (or hide!). In the recesses of my mind I half-hoped to uncover a scene akin to the Cask of Amontillado.
We crossed around the moat, having spotted out the entrance to our first cave. Something made me pause, however. . .were those voices that I heard? My guess was confirmed when we saw three French children trapped on the other side of the entrance, crying to us for help, as the door would not budge.
It was the habitual story of Americans coming to French rescue–after much effort, my sister and I were able to dislodge the stubborn gate. The grateful children scampered out of the cave, chattering merrily to us. 3 years of French classes permitted me to translate merci.
A quick inspection of the cave confirmed that there was nothing to be seen; it simply led to a small niche that fronted the moat. Later we would learn that was the ‘laundry cave’, where clothes were scrubbed in the murky waters. I imagine they smelled quite fresh afterwards. We marched on.
An hour later, and my sister was already more than prepared to retire for the day (she being very protective of her rest). I was determined to visit one last cave however. . .the one locked and marked as dangereux, of course. Earlier we had been told that a coat-of-arms had been unearthed in this area, the crest engraved upon it dating back to the 15th century. This sort of carving was commonly used as a tombstone. As there had been no records of a grave discovered, I foolishly hoped that perhaps I would be the one, that there would be some hidden message on the cave wall. I also hoped I could remember the French words for ““Here lies…” or “The tomb of…”
With obstinate determination I picked the lock and strained to move the heavy grill. After a good few minutes of exertion, I stood to take a better look at the entrance, now free of encumbrance. It was an ominous thing, nothing more than a set of ancient, moss-covered steps leading into solid black. Faintly I could hear the sound of running water. The chilled air and dismal sky pressed heavily upon us. From the pit of my being I felt a deep rumbling, as if my body sensed it might soon be shed of it’s manipulative soul.
Well, I was hungry too.
“Coming, Alexis?” I knew the answer before I even asked.
“Not on your life” Alexis snorted, plopping down on the lush grass.
Sibling affection having failed me, I went on alone. Taking care not to slip on the uneven steps, I descended slowly. The sound of water grew louder, and I felt sloshing around my feet. The air was stale, pungent with the stench of rotting vegetation, a smell I was already familiar with in the swamps of Florida. I wondered what possible use there could have been for digging a cave here, or if anyone had ever taken the time to examine it properly.
“Hey!” I yelled into the darkness, not sure what else to do. I could hear no echo, but could not tell if it was simply lost in the sound of water or if I was at close quarters. I fumbled for my flashlight and tentatively flicked it on.
The only vague memories I have of the next few seconds are blurred. The light fell upon a room filled with water, walls covered with shadows I took to be vines. . .until those shadows sprang forward and leapt at me. I felt a great whoosh, and was assaulted by piercing cries. Stumbling, ears pounding, heart having caught somewhere in my throat, I scrabbled back up the steps, sprawling gratefully on the grass in open air.
Oh, and the screaming. We mustn’t forget the screaming.
“Dude, were those bats?“ my sister was frozen where she sat, eyes wide.
I had no chance to reply, for at that moment, the groundskeeper came lumbering over, alerted by my hysterical squeals. I prepared myself for some French tirade. Yes, monsieur, the stupid Americans were at it again.
“May I ask,” he huffed, “just what you were doing in the old sewer?”
I simply sat in the grass, mute now, because once he put it like that, it did seem kind of stupid.
We gave up, after that fiasco. The afternoon found us lying in the meadow under the blossoming dogwood trees, weaving flowers in our hair. Afterwards, the townsfolk were treated to the merry sight of two Eurasian girls being chased by a bee while picking wild lilies.
As city-born girls, the crisp air, endless green, and the simple sheer novelty of country lifestyle were invigorating. Sitting in a tree as the sun set, watching the color slowly bleed from the sky, I thought it not improbable that Dumas harked back to his time here when he tired of the city’s bustling streets.
I certainly do.