Authors: Jessica Brockmole
At the Edge of Summer
is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2016 by Jessica Brockmole
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
At the edge of summer : a novel / Jessica Brockmole.
pages ; cm
ISBN 978-0-345-54789-7 (hardcover : acid-free paper) ISBN 978-0-345-54790-3 (eBook)
1. Man-woman relationshipsâFiction. 2. World War, 1914â1918âFiction. 3. First lovesâFiction. I. Title.
Book design by Dana Leigh Blanchette, adapted for eBook
Title-page and part-title images: Â© iStockphoto.com
Cover design: Marietta Anastassatos
Cover image: Richard Tuschman
he colors in France were all wrong.
I was used to the grays of Scotland. The granite blocks of Fairbridge, the leaden sky, the misty rain, the straight stone walls bisecting fields. Even the steel of Father's eyes.
Scotland wasn't all gray, of course. In summer, the hills of Perthshire were muted green, in the spring flecked with the yellow-brown of gorse, and in the autumn, brown. But washed over all of it, gray. It was the color I knew best.
Lately, though, I saw more black than anything. It was draped on our front doorknob, it edged my handkerchiefs, it hung in my wardrobe in a modest row of new dresses. Six weeks of mourning black. Six weeks of sympathetic looks, of waxy pale lilies, of whispered conversations about what was to be done with me. But then Madame CrÃ©pet swept into the house, smelling of violets in a dress the color of honeycomb, and set about straightening things. The household was too happy to leave me in her hands. They didn't know what to do with me anyway. As soon as Madame had my new black dresses packed up, we left for France.
Right away, France was too bright. From the blue-green of the Channel lapping the edges of Calais, past orange-roofed houses and yellow rapeseed fields, all the way to a chÃ¢teau rising up white in a jewel green lawn. An automobile brought us down a slash of a burnt sienna drive, past golden-blossomed lindens and sprinkles of violets. Madame CrÃ©pet leaned over to me and said, “Welcome to Mille Mots, Clare.”
The people waiting in front were no different. Two young girls were introduced as maids, though they wore green flowered dresses instead of dark broadcloth. The butler had a great drooping orange mustache. The cook had her hair tied up in a paisley scarf. I heard the whispered buzz of French and was suddenly afraid to step from the car.
But then Madame CrÃ©pet took my hand. “It's your home for as long as you need,
” Her words brought a lump to my throat and I swallowed it down. She slid off the lap shawl. “Are you ready?”
Was I? I didn't know. A week ago I'd been back at Fairbridge, in the same square parcel of Scotland I'd spent the past fifteen years. I left with Madame CrÃ©pet, thinking I was setting off on an adventure. I forgot that polite, well-bred girls weren't supposed to have adventures.
My head ached with the color and the light and the unfamiliar words my ears strained to catch. The air smelt like rosesâheady, drowsy roses. Wasn't it too early for them to be in bloom? A man approached the car, in a waistcoat speckled blue like a raven's egg. He smiled widely and held out both hands.
“Can it be the
? I remember you, only as high as my knee and charming us all with your smile.” He spoke English casually, Glaswegian vowels slipping in and out of his French accent. “Do you not remember me?”
It was an unfair question. Knee-high, I hadn't noticed much beyond the nursery. I stepped down from the automobile and regarded the man beneath the brim of my boater. He had a soft brown beard curling over his cravat and eyes dark as currants. Maybe I did remember him.
“Monsieur CrÃ©pet, is it?”
His grin broadened.
He took both of my hands in his. “Mademoiselle, welcome to my Picardy.” He leaned forward and deposited a tickly kiss on each of my cheeks. Father always smelt of Rowland's Macassar Oil and the faint wood of pencil shavings, but as Monsieur CrÃ©pet leaned close, I smelt coffee and garlic, turpentine and tobacco. His cravat was spattered with green and yellow paint.
“Your Picardy?” I asked.
Madame CrÃ©pet linked her arm through her husband's. “
Claude, he'd lay claim to all the most beautiful parts of France if he could.”
“Only long enough to paint them,” he said with a kiss to the back of her hand, one that sent her blushing like a schoolgirl.
“And you'll meet the last of our family tomorrow,” Madame said. “Our
Luc, he'll be home from school. You probably don't remember him either.”
Madame came to visit us in Perthshire each spring, staying for two weeks at Fairbridge, in the rose moirÃ© guest suite. Only once do I remember her bringing her family along. I'd forgotten that she had a son.
A mottled cat streaked out from the open front door, followed closely by a dog. The pair darted between legs before tearing off across the lawn. A maid yelped and jumped aside, Madame laughed, and the butler dropped his spectacles with what I was sure was a French curse.
Suddenly I was exhausted. Everything here was too bright, too loud, too different. I pressed my hands against the scratchy crepe of my skirt. In front of this aching white chÃ¢teau, I was the only spot of black.
he bedroom was a quiet, faded blue.
The room was perched up at the top of a tower. Round stone walls were hung over with drooping tapestries that looked as though they'd been there since Louis XVI; dusty, pastoral scenes of sheep and boys and overdressed shepherdesses. In the center of the room was an ancient bed, a heavy four-posted affair draped all around with curtains. It sagged in the middle and was piled with azure and lace and far too many pillows, but it was clean. I dropped my valise onto the bed and wished I was alone.
But the CrÃ©pets lingered, Madame fussing with the towel on the mismatched washstand and Monsieur adjusting the most crooked of the tapestries.
“I'll send Yvette up to unpack your trunk,” she said.
Monsieur CrÃ©pet let go of the tapestry. “Rowena, I'm sure the child wishes to rest.”
“Of course, of course.” She rubbed her hands together. “And supperâ¦should I send up a tray?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
As they left the room, Madame paused in the doorway. “I hope you will regard Mille Mots as your home as long as you need to, my child. Your parents were dear friends and we mourn with you.”
“Thank you, but I'll only be staying until you can find my mother.”
Madame and Monsieur exchanged glances, the same kind that grown-ups had been exchanging over my head for the past six weeks.
“Father always said she'd return for me.” There was that lump again in my throat, one I'd been carrying around since the night he died.
Madame hesitated, so it was Monsieur who finally said, “I'm sure she will.”
When the door closed behind them, I fell onto the bed and wept.
Later that night, I woke grainy-eyed. A candle burnt low on the dressing table, next to a supper tray. I rubbed at my eyes with a wrinkled sleeve and pulled myself up from the bed. The tray held some slices of cold roasted duck, flecked with herbs and black pepper, a crusty chunk of bread, and some kind of soft, pungent cheese. Miss May, my governess, always said that pepper excessively aroused the constitution. I ate the bread in small torn bites and left the rest.
As I chewed, I went to the window and pushed it open. I wondered how late it was. Stars sprinkled across a sky as black as the one I'd known in Scotland. Maybe France wasn't so different after all. In the dark, it didn't look as intimidating.
After Mother left, I used to slip from my bedroom onto the roof of Fairbridge, to look off across the night sky and wonder where she was. One night, I found my father while I was out on the roof.
He was in a rumpled cardigan and slippers, his hair uncombed. He leaned out of his own window, eyes fixed on the dark sky, the way mine were every night. I thought to creep back into my room, but without turning his head, he said, “Do you know the constellations?”
I stayed where I was, knees drawn up under my nightgown. “No, sir.”
He drew in a breath. “That there, that's Pegasus.” He pointed up at a faint collection of stars. “Do you see? Look, there are his forelegs. That rectangle is his body. And straight on that way is his neck and head.” He traced shapes with his finger, shapes that I couldn't see but trusted were there.
I scooted closer. “And what else?”
“There, next to Pegasus is Perseus, with his sword. There, and there.”
I didn't want him to go inside and end this quiet conversation, the most I'd had with him in a long while. “I like the constellations.”
“I do too.” He sighed, a puff of frost in the dark night. “The world may come and go, but the stars always stay the same.”
I thought of that now, leaning out of the tower window of Mille Mots. Much of my little world had changed. I'd lost the only person I had left. I'd left Scotland. And yet, here in this strange chÃ¢teau in this strange country, the constellations were still spread about above, keeping their stories for always.
Somewhere below my window, someone turned on a gramophone. I didn't recognize the musicâsomething lively and quick on a pianoâbut a weight lifted in my heart.
“Good night, Father,” I whispered up to the stars, and crawled into bed with the gramophone music at the edge of my sleep.