Life in a small French village is far more complicated than one might suppose, and memories are long. In the end, what happened couldn’t precisely be blamed on the collision of different cultures, although Burgundians will tell you their wines, cheeses, and history set them apart from the rest of the world. The truth is, tragedies ultimately are individual, and this one was no different, except perhaps that the people involved were oblivious to the import of the thunderclouds gathering over their village. That someone would soon be dead did not occur to anyone.
—P. L. Vickers, The Mysterious Death at the Château
Reigny-sur-Canne was hardly more than a crossroads in Burgundy’s famous landscape of pastures and grapevine-planted terroirs on rolling hills, overlooked by tourists for the most part, which was fine with its residents. No shops selling souvenir tea towels and postcards, not even a wine cave, only a musty-smelling bookstore and a sleepy café. Katherine Goff had realized soon after she and Michael transplanted themselves to the village three years before that the only reason summer visitors with maps made their way to Reigny was to see the crumbling Château de Bellegarde, which had played a role in the medieval clash of titans that defined so much of Burgundy’s history.
This July morning, the pear tree’s shade was welcome. Katherine’s two guests sipped café crème from ceramic bowls their hostess had found early on in furnishing the old house her husband bought for her on a whim. Katherine, still beautiful at fifty-five, was stationed at her easel, her graying hair gathered in a ponytail, her petite body wrapped in an old patterned apron, and her fingers smudged with paint.
“We’re going to put on the best show Reigny has ever seen, darlings.” She picked up a brush. “Michael will play guitar and sing, of course, and Emile has offered to join him in a duet.”
Yves, the owner of the bookstore, slumped in a misshapen rattan chair and groaned. “Mon dieu, Katherine. This does not make me desire to be on the same stage, you understand? Your husband, he is incroyable, amazing, but Emile, he cannot sing well in any language.” Handsome, fortyish, with a strong Gallic nose and dark, almost black hair and eyes, Yves spoke heavily accented English with a drawl, pulling his words out like taffy.
“Yves is right,” the pretty American woman sitting near him said. “You can’t count on Emile’s performance to impress an audience other than Jean’s nasty pack of dogs.” She nibbled some pain d’epices, Dijon’s famous spicy gingerbread, with perfect white teeth. “Someone should speak to that man about keeping the beasts in his yard. It’s impossible to take a walk without them trailing along as if they were about to jump you. In Cleveland, they would be on leashes.”
“You’re not in Cleveland anymore, Penny,” Katherine said as she spun back to her easel on red leather 1940s heels, a vintage find at one of the summer flea markets and only five euros. “I have a remedy for that. Not for the dogs, of course. They will be with us, like ancient curses, until we die. Michael says Betty Lou has agreed to do a set, and you two can sing one of those funny disco medleys you do so well. Perhaps we can convince Emile to give us an accordion number instead of singing.”
She picked up a tube of burnt umber oil paint and squeezed a little onto her palette, wondering if she had been too blunt with Penny, who could go on about how things were done in the city of her birth, a city she had fled the moment her late parents’ fortune had been settled on her. She wondered if Yves, who had never seen a reason to travel outside of his native France, even knew where Cleveland was. She jabbed the brush onto the canvas in an area that was going to be sky. In the foreground of the painting, two young women in long gowns appeared to be examining a lamb. The scenery behind them was what Katherine saw when she looked over her crumbling stone wall, a field of alfalfa still dotted with the last of the brilliant red poppies.
“I haven’t sung in ages and I’d be embarrassed,” Penny said, “especially if Betty Lou Holliday’s going to perform. She’s famous. People will be coming to hear her, not us.” She paused to swat at a bug that had settled on her slender, uncovered arm. “Damn these horseflies. Why don’t those new people from Belgium board their horses somewhere in the country?”
“My dear, this is the country,” Katherine said. She would have to put the unfinished painting away soon and set up for her lunch party. “More black, do you think?” she said, half turning toward Yves, but really thinking out loud. Here in Burgundy, she had discovered after several years of full-time residency, unabashed blue sky days were as rare as uncomplicated relationships. The heavy rains, chilly even in summer, appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Skies darkened ten minutes after she hung the sheets, and the alfalfa danced in gusty winds.
“Betty Lou hasn’t had a big hit record since, well, since they were records and not CDs,” she said to comfort Penny. “Maybe I’m exaggerating. Country music was never my thing. Anyway, Michael’s trying to persuade her to try a little rock. Her husband, J.B., is her producer, you know, and he’s all for it.”
“I don’t understand why you offered to organize the entertainment for this local thing,” Penny said. “It’s so much work.”
“Well, to be the queen of the party, of course, admired for pulling off the best show in Reigny’s history. I expect you to cover me with glory.” Katherine laughed to disguise her hope that they understood how serious she was. “Everyone will say what a charming and talented woman Madame Goff is, and how lucky we are to have her in our midst.”
“Have all the ladies coming to lunch today volunteered, or is this a recruiting event?” Penny said.
“No, not at all. I’d like Betty Lou to meet some local people. She’s isolated in that house they leased so far out of town. Michael says it’s elegant, but the real draw is the recording studio. The place is owned by a French actor, but he’s never there.”
“I am invited for lunch also?” Yves said, eyebrows cocked in what Katherine guessed he thought of as an appealing expression. “I don’t mind closing for a couple of hours. Business, it is terrible. Yesterday was one customer, a tourist who wanted every book in the shop about the château, as they all do this time of year, but nothing else.”
“I’m afraid not. Adele Bellegarde is coming.”
“Why?” Yves said, his voice rising. “She tells tales about me and you invite her to your home? I am insulted.” He abandoned his smile and glowered at Katherine, who was too used to his extravagant moods to pay much attention.
“Yes, I know. But that’s only because you wooed her daughter before abandoning her for our adorable Penny,” Katherine said. “Naturally, she is disappointed for Sophie’s sake.”
“Wooed? I do not know what that means,” Yves said, not entirely convincingly. “Her mother put me in a position where I had to ask the unhappy thing to a film or two, but that was it. A bore, I tell you.”
“Yes, well, unfortunately, Adele knows exactly how you feel about her daughter. I think you told everyone in town, which was a very foolish thing to do,” Katherine said, “and now she will not break bread with you. I do understand how she feels, you know? It was unkind of you, Yves.”
Penny looked at Yves and smiled, tapping his hand before leaning down to pick up her bag. “You are a bad, bad boy,” she said in mock rebuke, making a face at him.
At that moment, a large black dog bounded up to them, pink tongue hanging out. More slowly, a man in a Stetson and a smaller, white version of the shaggy dog followed, the man dipping his head to enter the leafy green shade.
“Howdy,” he said, pulling up a straight-backed chair from near the tree’s trunk and swinging it around so he could sit backward on it. He took off his hat and ruffled his pale blond hair, clenching a thin, unlit cigarillo between his teeth.
Penny let out a small scream. The dogs had tumbled in her direction, and Gracey, who was roughly the size of a small black bear, bumped into her as it playfully nipped its companion.
“Down,” Michael shouted. “Git, both of you.” He waved his hat and both dogs ambled off, grinning and panting, to find their own shady tree.
Yves spoke into the quiet. “Your dogs, Michael, they do not know their place. Not like French dogs.”
“I wouldn’t have a French dog if you paid me,” said the man in the cowboy hat. “Damn things piss on the furniture.” “Now, darling,” Katherine said to her husband. “You know that’s not true. It only happened once and it was not, thank heavens, an upholstered chair.”
Michael Goff laughed. “Kay’s the most softhearted person I know. Once is enough in my book. You won’t catch my dogs doing that.” He cocked his head in Katherine’s direction and winked at Penny as he said it.
“I saw that,” Katherine said, pointing her brush at him. “Stop teasing. Anyway, it wasn’t a French dog. It was the ambassador’s dog, which makes it a German dog by your logic.” She gestured broadly with the hand that still held a paintbrush.
“Albert Bellegarde’s no ambassador. He’s a businessman who got an honorary job title because of his money, which I heard he earned by selling guns to mercenaries.” Michael had pointed this out to his wife before, but Katherine chose not to remember it if the occasion called for a bit of dramatic emphasis. She understood that correcting her on small points was merely one of the running choruses in a long and comfortable marriage, and so she breezed past comments like this one.
Yves, however, took full advantage of the opening. “You see, he is a villain,” he said, stabbing the air with his forefinger to drive home his point. “Me, I am surprised he has not been arrested or even assassinated.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Katherine said, “he’s an old man, maybe a bit full of himself.”
“Michael,” Yves said, changing gears seamlessly in the face of the irritation he heard in her voice, “you are going to sing in Katherine’s little show, non?”
“Yup, I’m doing a set with Betty Lou. Got any requests?”
“Rock and roll, mon ami,” Yves said in a loud voice, “that is what we want. Maybe you can get one of your famous friends to do a set, yes?”
Yves had probably started the rumor three years ago that the new American resident was a rock star living incognito in Reigny. Their next-door neighbor, Emile, a cheerful man of small talent and high musical ambitions, had taken up the idea with gusto and had doubtless spread it far and wide, at least as far as the nearby market towns. Katherine knew it made Michael uncomfortable. On the other hand, it was flattering and, after all, her husband had been on the verge of stardom before things with the band went sour.
“What about you?” Penny asked her.
“Paint the stage set, of course, and make the champagne punch, using Crémant, since we only use wine from the region. The fête’s in honor of the Feast of the Assumption, so the entertainment should probably be, well, decorous.”
“Non, Katherine,” Yves said with a burst of laughter. “I assure you it is not celebrated in Reigny as a religious festival. This is France; vive la république.”
“In any case, I hardly feel I’m up to tap dancing in front of an audience.” Secretly, she was torn, liking the notion of showing off her figure and dancing moves almost as much as she feared having people laugh at her. It was her exercise and she practiced in front of a mirror daily, in the wood-floored bedroom behind dense lace curtains, staring critically at the woman who looked back at her, scanning for inadvertent comedy.
Lately, to her annoyance, the voice in her head insisted on asking what Madame Pomfort would think. Everyone in Reigny-sur-Canne looked sideways at the widow who presided over Reigny’s social life before deciding when to plant their dahlias or paint their shutters. Unfortunately, Madame shared the local prejudice against foreigners. Those few, mostly seasonal, residents who even noticed her snubs learned to keep a low profile when in her company, say, picking up a newspaper at the café. Most of them disappeared in the depths of winter anyway, irritating the locals who had to put up with cold rain, freezing temperatures, and poorly heated homes.
Katherine, however, felt the rejection of the local society keenly. When Michael surprised her by saying he’d found a house online that seemed to fit her dream of a simple life in the countryside south of Paris, he had assured her she’d fit right in with her command of French and her desire to please. But all her life, Katherine had lived with the equal terrors of being invisible and being seen by everyone as a fool, the legacy of an unloved childhood she had never quite escaped. The unease clung to her like a creeping fog at times, fended off by painting and flea market shopping, solitary tap dancing, and an extra glass of wine when the smell of rejection threatened to choke her. Mme Pomfort was the living embodiment of her fears, living five hundred yards away down the picturesque little road.
Charm, Katherine’s only weapon, had not penetrated Madame’s thick armor. Katherine’s few friends were summer visitors like Penny or the outgoing Belgians who came for long weekends, and the Bellegardes, who lived in the château but were not quite part of the local scene either. The young Englishwoman who had moved into a dark little house at the other end of Reigny’s main street was no relief, being somewhat reclusive. But the mostly elderly women and men who made up Reigny’s year-round population followed Mme Pomfort’s lead like courtiers attending a queen. All except Yves, who considered himself a communist except when it came to paying the annual commune tax for garbage collection.
“You shall tap, my dear Katherine. I shall sing with Penny, and your husband and his American cowgirl-singer shall amaze us all with their duets. Emile, well, I don’t think so. We shall arrange to keep him busy at the pétanque court, yes?”
“Country music, Yves, and Betty Lou was big time,” Michael said.
“Emile may surprise you,” Katherine said. “He has apparently dug up an electric guitar. He told me he was in a rock band in Paris when he was a student. Admittedly, it seems a little strange given his fixation on the accordion.”
Michael snorted. “Well, hell, we’ve all been in a rock band at some point or other.”
“Not me. You were in a famous band, weren’t you, Michael?” Penny said. “The Crazy Leopards? I went to see them when they played at Wellesley for homecoming. We were thrilled.”
Michael unfolded his height from the chair, turned it back to face the little group, and slapped his hat on his leg. He squinted into the far distance and shrugged. “That was more than twenty years ago, and I left the band before they went platinum.”
Katherine looked sideways at Michael. Would this never stop hurting? She had seen the slight twinge of his mouth before he answered Penny.
“Well, I’ve got to get on with the rehearsing,” he said, and walked around to where his wife was standing and gave her a quick kiss.
“Darling, you will be gone until four, won’t you?” Katherine said. “This is really a ladies’ lunch. No one will gossip if you’re here.”
“Can’t have that,” Michael said, leaning in to snag a piece of gingerbread from the scallop-edged serving plate with the hairline crack only she could see, another of Katherine’s flea market finds. “So long,” he said, ducking under the tree’s low branches. He ambled back across the uncut lawn toward the old stone house, accompanied by a yellow cat that appeared out of nowhere to trail along behind him. Katherine paused to admire his broad shoulders and the snug fit of his jeans. He had been a catch back in the day, five years her junior, which hadn’t mattered a bit to either of them, and she still felt lucky. A few minutes later, the group under the tree heard his old Citroën labor up the little road next to the house.
“My dear husband has no idea if people are idly gossiping or plotting an overthrow of the European Union,” Katherine said to Yves and Penny as the car sound faded away. “He has no French, and hand signals don’t work in general conversation as well as they do when choosing croissants at the patisserie. Now, I must clean up and finish the ratatouille for lunch, so off with you both. Penny, I’ll see you at one.”
“My plumber’s due in a few minutes, anyway,” Penny said. She stood up and shook out her elegant linen slacks. “I don’t know why he can’t fix things the first time, or even the third. It’s the same every summer, from the week I arrive until I close up the house. I’m beginning to think I’m his retirement fund.”
“You probably are,” said Katherine, coming to kiss her American guest on both cheeks.
“If you hear me scream, I’ve been attacked by Jean’s pack of wild animals.” Penny wafted off in a cloud of expensive perfume, picking her way down slate steps, through the tangle of roses and irises to the end of the garden and through the iron gate, which squealed as she opened it. Yves pulled his car keys out of his pocket and jingled them.
“I must be going also. Tell me, are the Bellegardes coming to the fête, do you think? I don’t know if I will attend if they are.”
“I didn’t want to say anything more in front of Penny,” Katherine said, putting her arm through his and leading him to his car. “But it was rather more than a couple of dates, Yves. You even talked about making her your partner in the bookshop once you were married. Poor Sophie has retreated to Paris and her father is furious.”
“Jamais. I never said that, it is only the lies her mother tells. She is such a snob, and he, my god, he would like us all to believe his money makes him better than the rest of us.”
“Well, it certainly makes him something,” Katherine said. “I have a feeling he could buy this whole town if he wanted to. Someone told me recently—Betty Lou’s husband, I think—that he’s a very rich man.”
“He’s nouveau riche, which is not the same thing,” Yves said with an audible sniff. “And he is German.”
“A naturalized French citizen, Yves, and you know it. He took her family name when they married forty years ago. Now, stop arguing and go back to daydreaming in your little cubby,” Katherine said, smiling up at him to take the sting out of her words.
“Ah, but you have not told me if Adele and Albert Bellegarde will attend the big celebration. If they do, I will be forced to drink a great deal of punch and snub them completely.”
“I thought you said you weren’t coming if they were. Never mind.” She raised her voice and laughed as he started to explain his changing position. “As long as you don’t run the old man through with a sword, I’m sure it will be fine. Sophie will probably stay holed up in her father’s office in Paris. You’ve spoiled the summer for her, you know.”
“Hah,” Yves said with a snort. “She will be holed up, as you put it, counting her father’s ill-gotten gains. She is a sharp little capitalist, you know.” Yves folded himself into his battered car and in a moment was speeding down the narrow road.