The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray




            August 1939

            It always comes back to the castle.

            From my perch in the ballroom’s window seat, I watch the party latecomers arrive in gleaming coupes, cabriolets, and roadsters, chauffeurs honking to get ahead of the jam. Under the violet haze of the setting sun, a crush of bejeweled women is already storming the entryway and spilling up the spiral staircase in a cloud of Chanel No. 5—all of them hoping to see historical relics of the French general who was born here.

            Everybody else is so eager to get into this old pile of rocks, when all I want is to get out . . .

            I’ve lived between these storied walls since infancy, having been rescued from the streets of Paris by the American charity that runs the castle. With other children who lost one or both parents during the Great War, I came of age here—a little French orphan speaking English, playing baseball, chewing gum, and watching Hollywood silent movies. I was lucky enough to get a first-rate education—not to mention hard-won lessons about how to fight bullies on the playground—but I’ve never been farther away from the castle than the two-hour drive to Clermont-Ferrand, where I took my exam for my teacher’s certificate.

            Maybe it’s selfish to want more from life than an isolated French village in the mountains can provide, but at twenty-three, I’m dying to see more of the world. And that’s where a scholarship to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris comes in.

            The first time I applied for the Lafayette Memorial Foundation’s scholarship, they said I was too young. The next time, the board reminded me the scholarship was really envisioned only for the boys who grew up in the castle’s orphanage or attended its prestigious school. The year after that, they hinted I was getting too old for consideration anyway and really ought to be thinking about marriage. But I’ve never thought of myself as the marrying kind, and tonight’s my last chance at a scholarship, so I’m stealing surreptitious glances at my artwork on display, trying to gauge the reactions of the guests and board members to the bust I sculpted of the less famous Lafayette.

            Oh, I’d have loved to sculpt something more avant-garde than a musty old Revolutionary hero’s saintly wife, but an artist has to eat. And the board members aren’t going to give me a scholarship unless I press their patriotic buttons. My competition—guys like Samir Bensaïd, a French Algerian wearing a tuxedo and fez tonight—made predictable submissions. Dioramas of General Lafayette’s battles, maps of his travels, essays about his philosophies. I wanted to set myself apart, which is why I used a rare portrait of Lafayette’s wife to model a sculpture.

            I thought it was just the ticket. My ticket out of these mountains, that is. But now I’m worried that I made La Femme Lafayette’s eyebrows too prominent and her eighteenth-century hedgehog-style wig too . . . hedgehoggy.

            While I’m worrying, Henri Pinton kisses me for good luck. We’ve been sweethearts of a sort since he was in short pants and I was in pigtails—though sweet is really his thing, not mine. Now he’s all grown up in tuxedo and tailcoat, looking like he stepped off the set of a Frank Capra movie. “Relax, blondie,” he says. “Just breathe.”

            “I don’t know how anybody can breathe in a dress like this,” I complain, fiddling with the straps of my glitzy white gown—a purgatorial designer getup that cost more than I can afford on a teacher’s salary. Normally, I’m a trousers-and-saddle-shoes kind of girl, but I’ve got to impress the wealthy patrons who make this establishment possible with fundraising galas like this one.

            Though this is more of a good-bye party, truth be told. Glancing down at the courtyard where the tricolor of France and the American Stars and Stripes droop for want of a breeze, I remember that everybody at the castle used to say: These flags fly together or fall together. But isn’t that a laugh? With all the talk of war, the Americans who bought and renovated this old castle are leaving. The Moffats, who lived here all my life, are long gone, and Madame Beatrice—the colorful founder and president of the institute—left a few weeks ago. She said she helped drag America into the last war, and she’ll do it again if she has to.