The Prisoner of Chillon
“Where are you going, Philippa?” Mrs. Jackman asked sharply as Flip turned away from the group of tourists standing about in the cold hall of the château of Chillon.
“I’m going for a walk,” Flip said.
Her father put his hand on her shoulder. “I’d rather you stayed with us, Flip.”
She looked up at him, her eyes bright with pleading. “Please, Father!” she whispered. Then she turned and ran out of the château, away from the dark, prisoning stones and out into the sunlight that was as bright and as sudden as bugles. She ran down a small path that led to Lake Geneva, and because she was blinded by sudden tears and by the sunlight striking on the lake she did not see the boy or the dog sitting on a rock at the lake’s edge, and she crashed into them.
“I’m sorry!” she gasped as the boy slid off the rock and one of his legs went knee-deep into the water before he was able to regain his balance. She looked at his angry, handsome face and said quickly, this time in French, “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t see you.”
“You should watch where you’re going!” the boy cried and bent down to wring the water out of his trouser leg. The dog, a large and ferocious brindle bull, began leaping up at Flip, threatening to knock her down.
“Oh—” she gasped. “Please—please—”
“Down, Ariel. Down!” the boy commanded, and the bulldog dropped to his feet and then lay down in the path in front of Flip, his stump of a tail wagging with such frenzy that his whole body quivered.
The boy looked at Flip’s navy blue coat. “I’m afraid Ariel got your coat dirty. His paws are always muddy.”
“That’s all right,” Flip said. “If I let it dry, it will brush off.” She looked up at the boy standing very straight and tall, one foot on the rock. Flip was tall (“I do hope you won’t grow any taller, Philippa dear,” Mrs. Jackman kept saying), but this boy was even taller than she was and perhaps a year older.
“I’m sorry I knocked you into the lake,” Flip said.
“Oh, that’s all right. I’ll dry off.” The boy smiled; Flip had not realized how somber his face was until he smiled. “Is anything the matter?” he asked.
Flip brushed her hand across her eyes and smiled back. “No. I was just—in a rage. I always cry when I’m mad. It’s terrible!” She blew her nose furiously.
The boy laughed. “May I ask you a question?” he said. “It’s to settle a kind of bet.” He reached down and took hold of the bulldog’s collar, forcing him to rise to his feet. “Now sit properly, Ariel,” he commanded, and the dog dropped obediently to its haunches, its tongue hanging out as it panted heavily. “And try not to drool, Ariel,” the boy said. Then he smiled at Flip again. “You are staying at the Montreux Palace, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Flip nodded. “We came in from Paris last night.”
“Are you Norwegian?”
“No. I’m American.”
“She was right then,” the boy said.
“Right? About what? Who?” Flip asked. She sat down on the rock at the edge of the water and Ariel inched over until he could rest his head on her knee.
“My mother. We play a game whenever we’re in hotels, my parents and I. We look at all the people in the dining room and decide what nationalities they are. It’s lots of fun. My mother thought you were American, but my father and I thought maybe you were Norwegian, because of your hair, you know.”
Flip reached up and felt her hair. It was the color of very pale corn and she wore it cut quite short, parted on the side with a bang falling over her rather high forehead. Mrs. Jackman had suggested that she have a permanent, but for once Flip’s father had not agreed. “She has enough wave of her own and it suits her face this way,” he said, and Mrs. Jackman relented.
“Your hair’s very pretty,” the boy said quickly. “And it made me wonder if you mightn’t be Scandinavian. Your father’s so very fair too. But my mother said that your mother couldn’t be anything but American. She said that only an American could wear clothes like that. She’s very beautiful, your mother.”
“She isn’t my mother,” Flip said. “My mother is dead.”
“Oh.” The boy dropped his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Mrs. Jackman came from Paris with Father and me.” Flip’s voice was as hard and sharp as the stone she had picked up and was holding between her fingers. “You’d have thought she was just waiting for Mother to die, the way she moved in.”
“Was your mother ill long?” the boy asked.
“She was killed in an automobile accident. A year ago. She’s always being terribly kind, Mrs. Jackman, I mean, and doing things for me, but I think she doesn’t care if I live or die. What I think is, she lusts after my father.” Now the words were muffled. She had never said this before. She had thought it, but she had not said it.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said again, then, as though to cut the tension, “Watch out that Ariel doesn’t drool on your skirt,” he said. “One of his worst faults is drooling. What’s your name?”
“Philippa Hunter. What’s yours?” She tried to relax.
“Paul Laurens. People”—he hesitated—”people who aren’t your own parents can sometimes be wonderful. I know—” He broke off as though he had said too much.
“Not Mrs. Jackman,” Flip said.
“She’s very beautiful.”
“Beauty is only skin deep, according to my grandmother. And Eunice’s skin may not be thick, but it’s not deep either. She makes me call her Eunice, and I hate that. We’re not friends. And when she calls my father ‘darling’ I want to hit her. She’s the one I got so mad at just now, so I knocked you into the lake.” She looked at Paul in apology and surprise. “I’ve never talked about Eunice before. Not to anyone.”
“Well,” Paul said, “sometimes you get to a point where you have to spill things out, or you burst.”
“I guess I was there,” Philippa said. “Thanks for not being put off.”
“Don’t be silly. And it’s safe with me. Ariel’s made your coat very dirty. I hope it will brush off. You have on a uniform, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Flip answered, and her voice was harsh again because tears were threatening her again. “I’m being sent to boarding school, and it’s all because of Eunice Jackman wanting me out of the way so she can get her claws into Father. He’d never have thought of making me go away to school if Eunice hadn’t persuaded him it was—what did she say?—inappropriate—for me to travel around with him while he makes sketches for a book.”
“That’s too bad. But—well, my mother has to be travelling all winter. She’s a singer, and she’s going to be on tour. So Father and I are managing alone.”
“But you’ll be with your father,” Flip said. She looked out across the lake, forcing the tears back.
“What do you want to do when you get out of school?” Paul asked.
“Be an artist, like Father. School won’t help me to be an artist.” She continued to stare out over the water, and her eyes rested on a small lake steamer, clean and white, passing by. “I should like to get on that boat,” she said, “and just ride and ride forever and ever.”
“But the boat comes to shore and everybody has to get off at last,” Paul told her.
“Why?” Flip asked. “Why?” She looked longingly after the boat for a moment and then she looked at the mountains that seemed to be climbing up into the sky. They looked like the mountains that she imagined when she looked up at cloud formations during the long, slow summers in Connecticut. Now she was in Switzerland and these were real mountains, with real snow on their dazzling peaks. “Well—” She stood up, dislodging Ariel. “I’d better go back now. Eunice Jackman will think I’m off weeping somewhere. She says Mother’s been dead nearly a year and I should stop moping. She’s doing her best to stop Father moping, that’s for sure.” Now that she had started talking about Eunice, it seemed she could not stop. “She’s already had two or three husbands, and she wants to add Father to her collection. If I’m in boarding school I can’t stop her. I don’t know what’s the matter with me, going on this way. I’m sorry, Paul.”
“It’s all right.” Paul took her hand. His grip was firm and strong. “Ariel doesn’t usually take to people the way he’s taken to you. When Ariel doesn’t like people I know I’m never going to like them, either. He has very good taste. Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime. I’d like that.”
“I’d like it, too.” Philippa returned his smile. “It doesn’t sound likely, with me being incarcerated in boarding school.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Paul said. “It sounds awful. I hate institutions. But Switzerland’s a small country, and my father and I are going to spend the winter up on the mountain while Mother’s on tour. She goes tomorrow. They’ve been wandering around the château this morning; they love it. It’s where my father proposed to my mother.” He smiled again and then his face changed and became so serious that Flip looked at him in surprise. “I don’t like it, because I don’t like any place that’s been a prison.” But then his face lightened and he said, “Do you know that poem of the English poet, Byron? The Prisoner of Chillon? It’s about a man who was a prisoner in the château.”
“Yes,” Flip said. “We studied it in English last year. I didn’t like it much, but I think I shall pretend that my school is a prison and I am the prisoner and at Christmas my father will rescue me.”
“If he doesn’t,” Paul said, “I will.”
“Thank you,” Flip said. “Are you—do you go to school?”
The same odd, strained look came into Paul’s eyes that had darkened them when he mentioned prisons. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to school right now.”
“Well . . . good-bye,” Flip said.
“Good-bye.” Paul shook hands with her again. She turned clumsily and patted Ariel’s head; then she started back up the path toward the château of Chillon.
About halfway to the château she saw her father coming down the path toward her. He was alone, so she ran up to him and caught hold of his hand.
“All right now, Flippet?” Philip Hunter asked.
“It’s not as though it were forever, funny face.”
“I know, Father. It’s all right. I’m going to pretend that the school is the château of Chillon and I’m the prisoner, and then at Christmas you’ll come and liberate me.”
“I certainly will,” Philip Hunter said. “Now let’s go find Eunice. She’s worried about you.”
Eunice Jackman was waiting for them, her hands plunged into the pockets of her white linen suit. Her very black hair was pulled back from her face into a smooth doughnut at the nape of her neck. “Only a very beautiful woman should wear her hair like that,” Philip Hunter had told Flip. Now he waved at Eunice and shouted, “Hi!”
“Hi!” Eunice called, taking one hand leisurely out of her pocket and waving back. “Feeling better, Philippa?”
“I can’t feel better if I haven’t been feeling badly,” Flip said icily. “I just wanted to go for a walk.”
Eunice laughed. She laughed a great deal, but her laugh never sounded to Flip as though she thought anything was funny. “So you went for a walk. Didn’t you like the château, Philippa?” Eunice never called her Flip.
“I don’t like to look at things with a lot of other people,” Flip said. “I like to look at them by myself. Anyhow, I like the lake better. The lake and the mountains.”
Mrs. Jackman looked over at Philip Hunter and raised her eyebrows. Then she slipped her hand through his arm. Flip looked at him, too, at the short straw-colored hair and the intense blue eyes, and her heart ached with longing and love because she was to be sent away from him.
“Wait till you get up to the school,” Mrs. Jackman said. “According to my friend, Mrs. Downs, there’s a beautiful view of the lake from every window. You’re going to adore school once you’re there, Philippa.”
“Necessities are necessary, but it isn’t necessary to adore them,” Flip said. She hated herself for sounding so surly, but when she was with Mrs. Jackman she always seemed to say the wrong things. She stared out over the lake to the mountains of France. She wanted to go and press her burning cheeks against the cool whiteness of the snowy tips.
Excerpted from And Both Were Young by Madeleine L’Engle.
Copyright © 2010 by Madeleine L’Engle.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.