Authors: Françoise Bourdin
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women
A Bordeaux Dynasty
Bordeaux, 100 miles.
Robert had only glanced at the road sign, more concerned about the two trucks ahead. He was coming up on them too quickly. Annoyed, he flashed his headlights a few times so they’d free up the left lane. His wipers were struggling with the violence of the rain. He had to downshift to third gear and began drumming on the steering wheel with his fingertips.
“I’ll be in Bordeaux in … a little more than an hour,” he said to himself. “That’s too early …”
He thought maybe he should stop somewhere and wait for the storm to pass. He’d left Paris on a whim, struggling with insomnia as well as temptation. Pauline’s visit, eight days earlier, had profoundly disturbed him. The idea of returning to Fonteyne had taken seed in his mind then, and little by little it had grown into this inevitable outcome: him driving home. His father’s house was a place he’d avoided for too long.
His sudden decision to go on vacation had surprised his colleagues at Lariboisière Hospital, since Dr. Laverzac never took any time off. For the past few years, he’d basically been living at work. Ambition didn’t completely explain the overzealousness. There was Pauline. In spite of the passing years, Pauline was always popping into Robert’s head as soon as he wound up alone or when he wasn’t busy, whenever he had five minutes of peace and quiet.
He absentmindedly reached for his pack of cigarettes, lit one, took a long drag, and cracked the window open. Rain immediately trickled on his shoulder.
Taking the Bordeaux exit and heading north toward Margaux was akin to a pilgrimage for him, a sort of atonement.
Jules had sounded surprised when Robert called so late in the evening to clumsily express his intention.
“Just come on over,” Jules had replied, refraining from asking any questions.
Thinking of Jules brought a smile to Robert’s face. Of course, he was only going to Fonteyne at Pauline’s insistence. Maybe to make up with his older brother, too. And to see his father. But above all, there would be, at the heart of the family, the reassuring presence of Jules, with his warmth, his passion for his work, his constant affection.
It was almost four o’clock and the rain was subsiding. Thinking of the harvest, Robert smiled once again.
Aurélien Laverzac swirled the wine inside the crystal glass before raising it to observe its color. His brow furrowed, he scrutinized the almost fatty streaks that the alcohol left behind as it slid back to the bottom of the tulip-shaped glass. Then he took in the smell of blackberries and violets, finally took a sip, savored it. For the thousandth time in his life, he felt that same deep satisfaction. Putting the glass back down on the corner of the desk, he listened to the noises of the house. Fonteyne was quiet, dozing. A little earlier, when the phone rang, tearing him from his precarious sleep, Aurélien had waited to hear Jules’s steps on the staircase. But they never came, and Aurélien, irritated, figured it was some nuisance call. Probably one of his youngest son’s many girlfriends! Still, he’d gotten out of bed, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. He’d gone up to the kitchen and opened a bottle of La Tour de Mons just for himself, picturing Jules’s surprise the next morning at the sight of the uncorked bottle with ironic glee.
Aurélien struggled with insomnia, particularly in the summertime. The hot nights suffocated him, the storms made him sick with anguish for his vineyards. He took another sip and was startled by the knock on the door.
“Come in,” he said in a loud voice.
He made out the tall silhouette of his son against the lit hallway. Jules was holding a tray in one hand and shut the door behind him with the other. He put the bottle of La Tour de Mons on the desk and poured himself a glass with precision, watching for deposits. Aurélien observed him, at once amused and annoyed.
“Cheers …” Jules said as he raised his glass.
“You’re celebrating something?” his father asked.
Jules smiled, sniffed the wine, tasted it.
“It’s perfect,” he muttered. “Exactly the way you like it, just like the Clauzels do it.”
Aurélien sighed in resignation.
“Yes,” he said. “Shall we toast?”
Jules broke into a quick, breezy laugh. He half-filled both glasses.
“That’s a pretty expensive sleep aid.”
“Why don’t you take a seat on the bed?” asked Aurélien, who occupied the room’s only chair.
Jules, now serious, shook his head.
“No … I saw the light and I heard you. I just wanted to make sure everything was all right … I’m going back upstairs.”
But he stayed put, patting his jeans, looking for cigarettes.
“You smoke too much,” Aurélien said with a sigh. “And what about that late call? Who was it?”
“I hate surprises.”
Jules laughed again.
Aurélien leaned over the desk and said, “Since you only came down to tell me about the call, spill it.”
“Robert is on his way. He’s going to stay a few days.”
Aurélien thought about this for a moment, his gaze lost on the Margaux’s label.
“It’s been a long time since I had my four sons together here at Fonteyne,” he said. “And Robert, it’s been what … five years?”
“Six. And he says he’s going to stay until the harvest.”
“Really?” Stunned, Aurélien gaped at Jules. Without another word, he got up, took off his robe and went over to sit on his bed. “Tell Fernande to prepare something a bit out of the ordinary,” he said.
Jules picked up the tray and headed for the door. But instead of walking out, he turned to his father.
“Aurélien,” he said, “you haven’t ever felt that chest pain again, have you?”
Furious, Aurélien shrugged and said, “No, I haven’t. Go to bed now, son …”
Jules left without a sound, and Aurélien leaned back against his pillow. He turned off his bedside lamp but kept his eyes open in the almost absolute darkness of the room. The pain that Jules alluded to had never returned, no. Aurélien had laid in wait for it, had feared it. The attack had been the first concrete sign of aging, the first dark cloud on the horizon. Aurélien had been forced to realize that he was no longer in his prime. He grimaced at the thought, telling himself he was no longer a young man. The notion of age was irrelevant to him, though it meant that he now had to think about the future and, therefore, contact a notary, since protecting Fonteyne, preserving its integrity, had become urgent. And this sense of urgency was quite unpleasant.
Life goes by that quickly?
he thought, as he shut his eyes.
Yet his active life had begun early enough, as events had forced him to become a mature man quickly. At the age of twenty, he’d found himself at the helm of Fonteyne. His two older brothers had died in the war, leaving him as an only child. Then, two years after the Liberation, a hunting accident took his father’s life. And there was his mother’s frightening despair, the way she let herself slide into indifference. Then the estate was handed over to an unscrupulous manager. Fortunately, in one last burst of energy, Aurélien’s mother had convinced him to marry Lucie, whose family owned nearby vineyards. It was a marriage of calculation and preservation, a sort of rescue wedding. Only then did Aurélien’s mother let herself die of sadness, as was said at the time.
With the help of his father-in-law, Aurélien had buckled down. Fonteyne was a vast estate that spread far beyond the Gironde River to the west. It had always produced prodigious wines, including a Margaux that obtained a Second Growth ranking in the famous Bordeaux wine classification of 1885. Aurélien set out to revive the vineyards with a doggedness that never wavered thereafter. First, he fired the manager and the cellar master, and then took control over his own destiny and the future of his vines. He belonged to an outright wine-producing dynasty, and he was determined to overcome the past few years of turmoil. Acutely aware of his land’s value, he got to work, replanting and grafting.
Lucie adored and admired him wholeheartedly. One year after their wedding, she gave birth to their first son, Louis-Marie. Then Robert was born, and then Alexandre. The Laverzacs seemed a picture-perfect family, and Fonteyne prospered. While Lucie was absorbed in the education of her sons, Aurélien bought pieces of land to expand the estate, while discreetly chasing women.
The difficulties all converged at once. Aurélien, who insisted on handling the entire harvest almost single-handedly, had also launched into costly expansion projects. The labor laws put a lot of pressure on the wine producers and reduced the workforce.
The administration of the estate was difficult, complex—a balancing act most of the time. The death of Lucie’s father made things even more challenging, as suddenly Aurélien was one of the Médoc region’s biggest landowners. Luckily, he’d always managed to keep a cool head.
Then, to the utter astonishment of his family and friends, he adopted a fourth son. He hadn’t told anyone a thing about it. The child, as if materializing out of nowhere, arrived at Fonteyne on a summer day, just a few months old. Aurélien imposed him on his family without a word. Lucie was never able to obtain any sort of explanation and ended up accepting the situation for fear of gossip, out of love for her husband, and out of mercy for the baby.
While Louis-Marie, Robert, and Alexandre—all three of them blond with light eyes—were mostly disinterested in this strange, brown-haired little brother who’d fallen from the sky and was so different from them, Lucie tried to love him. However, though time and again she showed the baby signs of affection, she could never make them seem natural. For his part, Aurélien lost himself in his work and cared for his family only from afar. He was up to his neck dealing with hailstorms or grapevine diseases—degeneration, parasites. And so he didn’t pay much attention to Lucie’s bronchitis one winter, didn’t press her to get treated. He wound up a widow at age thirty-three.
His wife’s death put Aurélien out of commission for a while. He had four sons to raise and a huge amount of land to manage. But, as always, he pulled himself up and got organized. He felt lonesome, but not at all desperate. He’d loved Lucie, in his own way, but didn’t grieve for her. His mistresses took turns consoling him. They tried, one after the other, to play a bigger role in his life, but none succeeded—he was thrilled to feel free. He kept Lucie’s chambermaid, Fernande, and convinced her to marry his cellar master, Lucas, before promoting her to head housekeeper. After all, a woman was needed to manage his home. After that, Fonteyne ran as smoothly as ever. Aurélien tightened his grip on his children, making sure that Jules was treated properly by the others. Quickly, Louis-Marie and Robert took the little one under their wings.
Years passed and everyone forgot about the odd circumstances of Jules’s arrival at Fonteyne. Aurélien was equally strict with all four sons. He raised them with an iron fist, never playing favorites. With time, however, it became obvious that the one who appeared to be a true Laverzac, the one who loved the land the most, the one who was most captivated by Aurélien, was the youngest one, with the dark eyes.
Aurélien, considering his four sons, was exasperated at the thought that he saw himself mostly in the one that wasn’t his. It was Jules who followed him around the vineyards, asking questions nonstop. It was Jules he found here, there, and everywhere on the estate, lost in endless thoughts. Though made taciturn by hard work and widowhood, Aurélien still had to deal with the kid’s daily pestering, and he became accustomed to seeing him pop up everywhere, to having him by his side and answering his barrage of questions. He then developed, without realizing it, a preference for Jules. He couldn’t help himself. The older sons figured that their father felt a moral obligation to treat his adopted child this way and didn’t mind it. Besides, they too had completely fallen under Jules’s spell.
Once in a while, Aurélien rebelled against himself and launched into periods of excessive strictness. Jules didn’t even seem to notice and weathered the storms with a smile on his face, absorbed by what was already the great passion of his life: grapes. Louis-Marie, to Aurélien’s great displeasure, studied literature and law before heading to Paris for a career in journalism. He worked as hard as he played, coming back to Fonteyne only during periods of heartbreak or financial difficulties. Aurélien welcomed his son with kindness, but never helped him with his money problems, treating him as both a privileged guest and a stranger. Robert, all the while, was completing his study of medicine, specializing in surgery and obtaining a position at a Parisian hospital. Though proud of his son’s achievement, Aurélien decided to put a stop to the family’s breakup. And so he didn’t offer Alexandre the opportunity to go to college, and kept him by his side at Fonteyne. But his scheming to force Alexandre into becoming a winegrower proved unnecessary. Alexandre loved the estate and enjoyed living there. Aurélien was grateful for that and was left only to wonder what to do with Jules. He didn’t have to think long about it, as the teenager was clamoring to stay at Fonteyne with Alexandre. But Aurélien made no decision until his adopted son finished high school and completed his military service. Then, perhaps in an attempt to protect himself down the road, Aurélien demanded that Jules obtain a degree in commercial law. Sent to Bordeaux against his will, Jules had an extremely difficult time dealing with the separation. Fonteyne was vital to him. He could barely breathe away from the vines and he lived for the school breaks, during which he worked his tail off and always managed to fill the gap between Alexandre’s knowledge and his.