Today we’re talking to Monsieur Arbois, one of the secondary characters in “Mélisande (Châteaux and Shadows Book 5),” an Historical Romance novel by Philippa Lodge.
A man with unfashionably short black hair, black eyes, and a plain, white neck cloth peeping out at the top of his long, black coat, bows politely, then shows us to two chairs set in front of a small desk covered in neat piles of paper, our backs to a larger, ornate, empty desk.
The man sits very straight and stares, his eyes flicking between the two of us. My artist companion, Béatrice, pulls out her pad and begins to sketch him in pencil. His frown is a mere twitch before his face is as neutral as before.
“Good afternoon, Monsieur Arbois. I wish to ask a few questions for the Nouveau Mercure Galant. We’re all so intrigued by the new lady in our midst.”
He nods. No wasted words.
“Your employer’s ward, Mademoiselle Melisande d’Yquelon.”
Monsieur Arbois clears his throat softly. “Not ward. The comte’s natural daughter.” His eyes bore into me.
I feel I should be confessing, but the daughter’s illegitimacy is hardly my sin. “Rumors are that she was raised in the slums of Paris.”
“And her mother is a fortune-teller.”
He nods again.
“And yet her father is known for piety, friendship with the queen, and donations to holy works.” And pompous diatribes and poisonous rumor-mongering. How did he end up making a baby with a witch?
A slight flicker of eyebrow. “He intends the reformation of his daughter to be his greatest holy work.”
“Oui, of course.” I try a smile.
Arbois’ expression doesn’t change.
“I suppose she spends her days in prayer.”
I wait for details, but none are forthcoming. “And perhaps social graces? Dancing?”
“He intends for her to marry well.”
I nod and look at my list of questions. I glance at the sketch, which my artist is filling with dark shadows. “How old are you?”
This gets me a raised eyebrow. An expression! I fumble my notes.
When I wait expectantly, he tightens his lips. “About thirty.”
“About?” He could be anywhere from twenty-five to forty.
He doesn’t clarify.
“And what is your relationship status?” Oh ciel, I’m not usually this obvious.
His eyebrows twitch. “I am considering marriage.”
“Ah? With the comte’s daughter?”
Both eyebrows rise in surprise. “If the comte’s godson doesn’t act soon.”
“The godson? Lucas de Granville?” I try to sound blasé, but my interest probably shows. De Granville is a handsome young gentleman, after all. I’m too old for him, but I can still look.
Monsieur Arbois can probably tell what I’m thinking.
That they’re both considering marrying the daughter is a hot piece of gossip, possibly too hot even for the Mercure Galant. I can’t imagine the comte allowing his daughter, no matter how illegitimate, to marry a secretary. The entire de Granville family is broke. I can’t imagine the comte agreeing to something that wouldn’t raise his own fortunes.
“The comte promised Monsieur Lucas this job.” Arbois points at his desk. “He decided de Granville was too inexperienced, so hired me.”
A piece of information has been volunteered! The nephew of a duke wants to be a secretary. More boring than an officer in the Army, but less abstinent than a priest.
Arbois shifts his gaze to the closed door. Barely audibly, he says, “Monsieur Lucas would have learned how large the comte’s debts are. He already knows the lands are mismanaged. That is why the comte hired me.”
There’s gossip that would cause a panic among the comte’s lenders.
A knock sounds and a golden gentleman with a hard expression slips in. When I start to rise, he implores me to remain seated and introduces himself as Lucas de Granville. He pulls up a plain, hard chair, arranges his unrelieved black coattails, and sits at Monsieur Arbois’ right hand.
“Well, Monsieur de Granville, I am asking…”
“I know,” he interrupts.
“What was your first impression of Mlle d’Yquelon?”
He reddens. “I wasn’t sure my godfather could tame her.”
“Tame her?” I exclaim. Like a wild dog?
“Ah.” His blush returns. “Teach her to be a proper young lady, a pious lady.”
“She is making strides?”
“Yes. She will soon fit the mold Monsieur the Comte wishes for her.”
“That’s very impressive, as the comte has high standards.” The comte has impossible standards and a loud mouth. I feign innocence. “She will be exactly as he wishes?”
Monsieur de Granville fidgets. “Not exactly. She is stubborn about not condemning her mother.”
“Her mother the witch?”
I had almost forgotten Monsieur Arbois, who leans forward slightly. “Mademoiselle Mélisande’s mother is not part of this interview.”
I stutter an apology, then I ask what I should not. “Do you see morality as black-and-white, or with shades of gray?”
Monsieur de Granville rears back in shock. “There is good and there is evil. There is no gray about morality.”
“Gray,” Monsieur Arbois says over the end of de Granville’s sentence.
Monsieur de Granville sputters something about Dieu, but Arbois silences him with a stare.
Arbois leans forward again. “Grayness is what confession is for. Emotion overwhelms us. People stray from the path. Who is to say there is only one path? We can do evil with the best of intentions or create goodness when aiming at other goals. Most of us learn about gray as we get older.”
I wonder if Arbois is referring to the comte, who has never struck me as anything other than strictly black and white.
Monsieur de Granville is scowling fiercely at Arbois, ready to defend himself and his godfather, I would guess. Maybe he’s overwhelmed by emotion.
De Granville launches into a sermon and I am soon nearly asleep. I glance at Béa’s sketchpad. My artist captured de Granville’s outrage and drew a halo over his head. I cough to cover my giggle.
I wait for him to take a breath. “And your relationship status, Monsieur de Granville?”
He stammers and blushes again, looking very young. “Monsieur the Comte has promised me a small farm in Normandy near his seat.”
Arbois shifts nearly imperceptibly and I wonder if this piece of land has been sold or promised elsewhere. It doesn’t sound like the comte keeps his promises to de Granville.
“When I am in possession of it, I will marry.”
I smile. “Marry Mlle d’Yquelon?”
He stutters. “If she’ll have me. If the comte approves.” The young man’s expression goes bleak.
Arbois…is he smirking? His mouth moved a little. His face fascinates me. He is close to my age and suddenly I feel warm, even in this chilly office with winter leaking in around the curtains. His eyes crinkle a tiny bit at the corners. I’d like to coax a smile out of him. In my bed.
I snap my eyes away from him and back to the golden beauty of de Granville mustering his courage. Youth are so tedious.
Arbois turns slightly toward at the younger man. “Speak up soon. He’s aiming higher than the seventh son of a seventh son.”
I inhale. Everyone knows the seventh son of a seventh son contains magic. The church and magic exist hand in hand in France, unlike among the English and Spanish barbarians.
“Who is he aiming for, then?” De Granville stands up to the older man, becoming more interesting. I glance over his fine figure again, thinking how younger gentlemen are ideal for the consolation of widows.
Arbois shakes his head.
The interview seems to be at an end as de Granville argues. I excuse myself and Arbois opens the office door for us, looking into my eyes. I have to force the dreamy look off my face. “Do contact me if you have anything to add, Monsieur Arbois.”
There! He almost smiled! “I might have questions to ask you, things you might have answers to that others do not.”
It’s a blatant appeal to my vanity as a lady reporter for the Mercure Galant, but I wonder if he wants to question me or to…
A movement draws my attention.
A thin lady in dark blue stops in the doorway of a sitting room down the hall.
She curtsies, her long lashes coming down over browned cheeks. She would have to use face paints and powder to become fashionably pale. The dress is new and tidy, but not at all comme il faut.
“Mademoiselle d’Yquelon, may I present Madame Verlebois? She collects gossip for the Nouveau Mercure Galant.” Arbois doesn’t even have to emphasize the word gossip for everyone to hear the warning.
The young lady nods, her pale eyes only leaving my face to take in Béatrice, who is staring avidly, memorizing her for a later drawing. The icy eyes and prominent nose just like her father’s make her not beautiful, but interesting.
“Madame Verlebois was on her way out,” De Granville announces and steps between me and the lady. Mademoiselle d’Yquelon smiles at him in gratitude. The competition for her hand is over before it has begun.
“Whenever you would like to sit down with me and give me an interview, Mademoiselle, I would be thrilled to give you the time.” I lean past de Granville and press a calling card into her hand.
The lady takes it with a small frown, then looks up at me, her expression as neutral as Arbois’. She will have to teach de Granville a few things.
Mélisande (Châteaux and Shadows Book 5) is available through: