Stone walls covered in overgrown creepers and spider webs. As you walk further along the corridor you can make out the shape of a woman carved in red marble rising from a shell-shaped basin that collects water from a fountain. The courtyard is made of stone slabs all neatly glued to one another surrounded by a garden of herbs and flowers. Rosemary and lavender bushes, chamomile, mint, wild roses and thyme are the first names that come to your mind as the scents waft into your nose, intoxicating your mind with dreamy sensations. You make your way along the last stretch of corridor and find yourself in a dark room. The flicker of an incandescent lightbulb reveals a mahogany desk paired with a short chair. Dust floats in the air, visible in that bar of light traversing the space between a crack in the window pane and the wall. There’s a ripped-up curtain lying on the ground, all dusty and moth-eaten. Disappointed, you leave the room and turn back towards the other end of the corridor circling the fountain courtyard. A tabby cat sits in the sun, drinking in the warmth and blinking slowly, as if it were experiencing pure bliss. Its pink nose twitches lightly to indicate that an interesting smell has captivated its attention; and as it allows itself to wander in the delectable aroma, its ears perk up and point towards you like a pair of antennae capturing information on your current position. If only you were that cat, relaxing in the sunshine and breathing in the lavender, life would be so much easier. You wouldn’t be stuck in a strange abbey without a clue on how to escape. There are no monks to show you the exit. Just you in an abandoned building. Where is everyone?
Pauline woke up sweating. The heat drifted in from all four corners of her bedroom, suffocating her in her sleep. Even if she fanned herself or kept the windows open to let a fresh breeze in, the heavy warmth strangled her body like a hot and damp cloth. She kept a water bowl on a short stool beside her bed, but it was of no use as the water warmed up pretty fast. During the day, she watched the peasants working hard in the fields and wondered how they could survive such harsh conditions. The draught and the flies, the bees stinging their toes when they stepped on one accidentally, the burning sun singing their skin like a hot poker, the physical work that drained them of their energy resources. Pauline watched them harvest the wheat and make bales of hay and covering them with a large cloth that was fixed in place by strong strings. In late autumn these same workers would be picking olives and making oil. Soon there would be wine from the vineyards, where the fruit was already round and purple and rich in sugar. The men and women dragged their donkeys up the hill, to return hours later laden in fruit. Baskets containing apricots spilled over in early summer – now these were diminishing in numbers and giving way to a few blackberries and a large amount of hay and wheat.
Swallows twirled and chirped in the sky, looking like scythe blades launched in the air. The morning sun glowed bright red in the distant horizon, slightly perceptible from her tall window. Pink fluffy clouds floated in the sky serenely, wispy brushstrokes caressing a pale background. It was too early to be up for her. This was when the peasants got out to work in the fields. They rose with the sun and eclipsed with the moon. The day had begun in the village; bakeries had fire dancing in the ovens and bread rising on large trays, restaurants were preparing for the inevitable hungry mob that would turn up at midday, women carried baskets of dirty rags and smelly clothes to wash in the river and scrub clean with soap on their boards, farmers set out to sell their products in the market square, and a group of children in the streets wandered aimlessly.
All around her property, Pauline had gardeners occupied with her hedges and pruning the roses. Servants polished the banisters, dusted the rooms, cleaned the floors with lemon juice and vinegar to remove those awful stains produced by a pair of dirty boots belonging to her younger brother, washed her clothes and chopped vegetables ready for lunch. Cook was storing a fresh cargo of salted meat in the cellar.
A group of sparrows perched on an olive tree chatted away loudly. There was no going back to sleep for Pauline. She rose from her bed, stretching her arms out as she yawned, washed her face with soap and water from the wash bowl in front of an ornate mirror, and made her bed as well as she could. Today she would wear a very light dress – it was too hot outside for fancy or outrageous clothes! In her wardrobe, she found a pair of leather slippers and long white socks she would tie in place just above the knee with a cream-coloured ribbon. Her underwear, a simple chemise that covered her trunk and thighs, was made of soft cotton imported from the New World. Over it, she would wear a narrow panier, a loose corset with a wooden piece between her breasts and a stomacher. Today she felt like wearing a pink petticoat and golden silk gown. Her maid, Lucie, had to repair that torn blue skirt, so she was left with no other options really as to the colour of her petticoat – pink or cream.
The second Lucie was called into her room, the morning toilette ceremony began. The gown was sown into place, her hair was tied up and kept in place by an army of pins, her face was slightly powdered, and rouge was tenderly applied to her jutting cheekbones. She was ready for another long day.
For breakfast, a coffee and a cake were consumed. Coffee, sugar and chocolate were the rage among the local ladies – the transatlantic trade was providing them with so many delicious goods that simply could not be resisted! Pauline thought of how next time she would invest in loads of sugar cones for her cakes. Also, she’d try to obtain some new silk stuff. Anything exotic made her wild. She’d heard from her father that she would soon receive a black maid to help Lucie around the house – imagine that! A woman with chocolate skin and real curls on her head like a woolly black sheep. Pauline was fascinated. Childishly, she imagined dressing her up like one of her dolls and tying a pearl necklace round her neck to contrast with its dark tone. It was maddening to her servants how much she thought of others as playthings due to her high status and wealth. A “strange” person to Pauline could have easily been confused with a new toy. That was the French aristocracy: insouciante, curious and never fully mentally grown-up. At some point, a select few stopped caring about other humans. Not that they didn’t ever suffer, as death, disease, heartbreak, boredom, depression and suicide were not uncommon. Their lives were just that much easier.
Pauline and Lucie went out to the garden for a promenade. They inspected the work being done in the gardens and smelled the roses. At ten Pauline sat down under a parasol to read a book and at eleven she was joined by Pierre at her location to discuss world affairs. Lunch was served with olive oil, bread and fish. White wine completed the meal exquisitely. At half past two Pierre left and Henri, her little brother, begged Pauline to watch him ride his pony. Pauline and Lucie stood by as the little boy trotted up and down the fields, clapping and complimenting him. At four a plate of French pastries was brought to the women, and by five all but one of them had disappeared. It was, as per usual, a day to contemplate morality and natural philosophy under the sun, pretending to be great men illuminated by knowledge or nuns praying for salvation. Pauline wrote down all her observations and kept track of every single step made on her property in a little notebook that she carried around, almost threateningly. Presents were sent out to some distant relations in the evening and milk, bread and cheese were served to the hungry children of the village. Charity was more a question of public relations and benefits to the utilitarian Pauline. If she could keep everyone happy, no matter how good or bad this year’s harvest was, everything would be alright and there would be food for everyone because the peasants would not revolt. A reduction in impôts, renting out the mill and pasture lands for an affordable price and keeping up appearances with the bourgeois promised peace and stability. The decrease in the number of corvées dished out diminished her profits but it certainly did keep anger at resentment at bay. She wouldn’t act like a man, focusing merely on revenue and profit. Pauline had sworn to keep her protégés happy to work and live without facing the madness that famine and disease aroused. Her dollhouse had to stay in one piece so that the dolls could have a bed to return to after a long day’s work. No missing pieces, no broken strings or fading paint. It all had to be like when she played “villagers” in her room: toys respecting her commands and always being taken care of.
At seven, she retreated to the indoors to play the harpsichord. She didn’t train with a master anymore, so her fingers played timidly, as if unsure or begging for approval. Lucie just nodded and repeated how amazing mademoiselle was for playing so well so young!
A knock interrupted the concertino. Someone had arrived. “Let them in,” Pauline said.
“Your father sent her. Should I take her downstairs with Cook?”
“No, just show her to me.”
The white door opened slightly to let in a girl with a coffee bean glow. Her doe eyes scanned the room nervously. Did she speak French at all? Pauline wondered. In any case, she was mad happy to have her in her presence! Finally, her father had sent her the new maid, as promised!
“What is her name?” Pauline asked, faking boredom and carelessness. Ennui was easy to act out.
“Marie. She’s from Bourbon. She was taken to Marseille in one of your father’s ships with his cargo of goods.”
“He didn’t send any letter to inform me of her arrival, or even her existence. Just leave her here.”
The servant hurried out the room, leaving the frightened soul in the spacious room alone with Pauline and Lucie.
“Do you speak?” Pauline asked in a commanding tone.
“Good. Marie, how old are you?”
“Can you read and write?”
“A little, madame.”
“If I ask you to write a letter neatly, do you think you can execute my command?”
“I can try.”
Marie eyed her new mistress apprehensively. She understood her authority. Pauline's eyes fell on Lucie.
“Lucie, would you like to ask Marie anything at all?” she said.
“Yes. Where are your parents? Do you have any siblings?”
Marie nodded fervently. “Two younger siblings. My parents live on separate plantations. They used to belong to the same owner, but since my mother is a mulatta she was assigned to a lady’s service.”
“Do you miss them?”
“Terribly.” Marie stiffened, trying to keep the tears from running down her face. She had to make a good impression for her survival. “Excuse me for burdening you with such trivial matters, madame.”
Pauline shook her head, waving her hand in a gesture of insouciance. “No offense taken, Marie. You are just a young girl.” Her eyelids dropped dramatically to seal her eyes from human sight. “Hmmmm... You will work with Lucie now. You must be friends. Tomorrow, if I ask you to go to the chapel with me you will ensure that you are dressed appropriately and that you are in time for our morning prayers. When we go on walks, you will stay behind me at all times.”
The interrogation had come to a close. Marie was dismissed and introduced to her new quarters by Cook. Pauline stayed awake a while longer before removing her clothing apparel and retreating to the comfort of her bed.
There is no escape from the abbey. You run along a passage, hoping for a way out to surprise you, but you only find a dimly lit room where an array of glassware, perfume bottles and aromatic plants lie in disorder on a table and floor. There is a pigeon cooing from its nest on top of one of the columns. Ugly and yellow, her chicks turn their beaks towards you, eyes shut. No one lives here anymore. There used to be copyists, monks making perfumes and distillation experiments. This abbey has been abandoned for a while now. No one lives here anymore. God does not reside here. All the crosses have been removed. You notice large hole surrounded by cracks in the stained-glass window, like as if someone had thrown a rock to smash it on purpose. You turn around and run back to the courtyard. What if you climbed up a column and onto the roof? But you’re not strong enough. You’ve never had to run away or claw your way to freedom. You’re weak and petty.
Pauline woke up with a startle. Her mind had remained in the abandoned abbey of her dreams. She silently got up and snuck outside through her window. The air was delightful thanks to the cool breeze coming in from the north. She breathed in and out slowly, trying to control her tingling senses from getting on fire.
The garden was pitch black. Silence reigned mighty over the sleeping mortals. Only the breath of the wind and the cicadas interrupted the nocturnal peace. Pauline, in her undergarment and holding a cloak, ran down the allée, a long path for carriages lined by sycamore trees, to the entry gates. She knew there was a way out somewhere, she remembered paying for the repairs of a broken fence and the replacement of a burnt bush around this area. Her hands pawed at the darkness desperately as she searched for this exit from her own domain. She didn’t want anyone seeing her leave the house in the middle of the night, especially not dressed like this (practically naked!)
The recurrent dreams had been disturbing her since a month before Marie’s arrival. It was always the same abbey. She remembered seeing it in real life, although not as desolate and abandoned as it had appeared in her dreams. Pauline’s fingers scratched an opening, in the fence and she slid through it to the outside world. Hopefully, no human soul had set an eye on her in this state. Pauline walked along the dirt road like a blind man without his cane, perceiving little more than the rustling leaves and the stars above her head. She carried on, struggling to find her way at first, but then gradually adjusting to the lack of daylight, and found the street that led to the abbey. It was an hour-long walk, but, Pauline thought, completely worth it. The escape had been so exhilarating, liberating and adrenaline-exciting! Who would have guessed that mademoiselle Pauline had run from her manor to visit a possibly abandoned abbey that might have become a shelter for some individuals of questionable moral character?
First, she scanned her surrounding. She had to make sure that no one was watching her, that she hadn’t been followed, and that she wouldn’t run into anyone once in the perimeter of the abbey. Second, she enveloped her thin body in the large blue cloak and dashed to the outside walls of the abbey. It appeared to be empty. No candlelight lit in the dark, no rehomed women and men huddled around a pot of soup, no snoring monks or sleepwalking refugees. A sound of emptiness echoed. Fear crawled under Pauline's skin. This was the place she had visited in so many dreams for the past month. This was it: the same walls, the same spooky courtyard with a fountain at its centre, the same rows of lavender bushes in the fields, the corridors, all of it she had already seen again and again and again so many times. What was she supposed to do now that she was here?
Slowly, she edged towards a window and spied inside. Nothing. Just a pile of manuscripts lying on a desk, a couple of perfume bottles and flasks containing unknown substances along the walls and a portrait of the virgin hanging next to a cross. Nothing special. Pauline walked around the walls of the abbey to the small door leading inside. How could she enter without someone noticing? Surely there were monks still living there. Her dreams had just been... Dreams. Yet she had seen every single corner of the abbey and her imagination matched up with reality to the utmost detail. This was scary. She took a deep breath and tried to open the door. It was locked. There was no way pf getting in there. It was just an abbey shut up for the night. Pauline exhaled profusely and wiped the sweat of her forehead with the back of her hand. There wasn’t much more she could do. She would just have to go back home and see what to do in the morning.
At eight she woke up “for real”. Marie was called in to her room.
“Marie, you will go to the abbey with Lucie and ask for perfumes there. Tell me what you think of it.”
Marie left quietly, leaving Pauline to wonder: what would she find inside?