Editor’s note: This post is continued from the previous one.
Once uncle Finn and I arrived in Vic-sur-Aisnes we headed straight to the gates of the chateau. Everything appeared to be closed and Finn told me that he was concerned that we might not be able to get in. However, after years of chasing the elusive myths about my grandparents’ life and traveling across an ocean, a gate was no hindrance. It wasn’t locked so we walked in. And there it was, stone towers with gray tile turrets against the sky, pristine grounds with deep velvet green formal gardens and the only sound, the crunch of the gravel as we walked down the drive to stand in the center courtyard facing the steps where the old family photos had been taken so long ago.
All the years of hearing about the chateau and the vague stories of life there from the childhood memories of my aunts and later family repetition of these tales, seeing the photos of great uncle Oscar, and moster Clary and Nick (Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson) and Elsa and the children–Antoinette and Marianne, my aunts–in fashionable summer attire of the late 20’s standing on these same steps were tumbling about in my head–it was all true. They were here and now I was in the very same spot. Considering some of the scurrilous things that have been said about “the Major” and the attempt to discredit him and discount every aspect of his life as something that he made up–being in that setting right out of one of his swashbuckling tales gave me that sense of place that Granddaddy Pickens provided on those long ago southern nights.
We stood in the courtyard with the old part of the castle to our right, the “newer” part to our left and other outbuildings farther to the left including an old carriage house. Finn left me to my time travel and walked over to a woman who appeared to be giving instructions to a gardener. I saw them speaking and gesticulating and pointing to me. Finn called me over and somehow with my fractured French, Finn’s fluent language skills and Madame Peiffer’s English ability we were able to communicate what we were doing here and why. The Peiffers bought the chateau some years ago to save it from developers and though they do not live there they rent it out for large events and weddings. They have taken great care and everything, the chateau, the grounds, the outbuildings–all are in beautiful condition.
Madame Peiffer is proud of the history of the chateau and when she discovered that we had relatives living there at one time she became excited and insisted on taking us all through the house and grounds. Funny thing, if we had not driven around Paris twice and been late in arriving we would have missed meeting her. Madame Peiffer took us through the house and related some of the history. There are references to the chateau dating from the 8th century as an abbey and parts of the current buildings are from the 12th century. To understand that in American terms–only the native people were living on our continent at that point! It has all the ingredients that a proper French chateau should have, beginning as an abbey, crusading knights and Napoleonic connections. If you can read a little French their website gives more details.
It was nice that there was little furniture inside, just the bare bones of the house because it left the imagination free to roam. I could imagine my grandparents and aunts, my father and uncle as small children running through the rooms and playing outside in the garden. I could imagine the parties and all the activity, the comings and goings of friends and various relatives. There was certainly plenty of room! According to my aunt, Toni Harley there were 14 servants who ran the chateau when the family lived there and they would have all been needed simply to keep the place, both inside and out, in running order.
After we went through the main building we walked in the grounds because I wanted to see the tennis courts that I knew existed from photos of my grandmother in her white tennis dress standing in the gardens of the chateau. Madame Peiffer pointed out a garden wall dedicated to one of the sons of the family who died while on the crusades.
We then went into the oldest part of the chateau climbing up narrow steep stone steps into the old castle keep. We came in just as a group of French school children were preparing to settle in for a talk about the history of the chateau and the ancient history of their own land. And so it goes, stories passing from one generation to the next, weaving in the rope that connects us.
In that short visit I caught so many glimpses of small details that are part of my grandfather’s stories. He loved history and it is not surprising that with his creative imagination and the beautifully haunted setting of the chateau that he was inspired to write stories based in the rich soil of old Europe. It was not just medieval tales but modern ones as well that were inspired by the chateau. One of my favorite stories, The Road Without Turning which BMA Audio has recorded is a spy story that takes place in WWI and the setting? Why, Vic-sur-Aisnes and its ancient chateau. Naturellement.
We took leave of Madame Peiffer and the chateau with promises to stay in touch. I was walking on air and ready to move right back in to those proverbial castles. The only thing possible to do after such a perfect encounter in France is find a bistro and have a glass of wine. We decided to continue following the footsteps of the Major and ended the day in his favorite get away spot just down the village street at the Lion D’or. The gracious host joined in with the pleasure of our adventure and we all raised a glass. Skal Grandfather Nick.