Stranger than you ever dreamed

Sylvia chapter 1

Sylvia felt her expectations grow while she was packing her bags. This was an old dream, at last coming true. She tried to decide what to bring, some change of clothes, blouses, a party dress, should she have to attend a party. The tape recorder, notation pads, camera, press card – and grandmother's diary, the most important item of all. Books? No, there should be plenty of books where she was going.

The journalist Sylvia van Hoek was on her way from her job at the newspaper, from her apartment in Amsterdam, to make the scoop of her life. At last he had approved to give an interview, the French writer, philosopher and hermit Gabriel da Silva. He was known all over the world for his well written, historical novels, and he sometimes made statements about matters he was interested in and knew lots about, but nobody could claim to know him. He never attended big parties and there was nothing about him in the gossip columns. Other than "Does the well-known writer da Silva keep a woman secretly at his manors? Is he secretly seeing someone? Or does he prefer men?"

Gabriel da Silva lived isolated at his estate in the south of France, an estate which had been in the family for many generations. At the few occasions he had made a statement he always appeared polite, convincing and charismatic. His appearance was that of a gentleman. Sylvia had seen him on TV a couple of times and she found him good-looking too. Her newspaper had approached him a couple of times, asking for an interview, without having received an answer. But when she herself wrote him a letter, telling him that her grandmother once had known a relative of his, probably his grandfather, a vicomte da Silva, then he answered.

He invited miss van Hoek to his mansion for an interview and to stay for a couple of days, provided she came alone. Was her grandmother still alive? She was, mrs Annabelle Muenster, now over 80 years old. It was just a coincidence that her grandmother once told Sylvia that she had known Victor da Silva, count and pianist, and had visited him at him at his mansion in France. When Sylvia told her she had been invited Annabelle said "Then I will give you what nobody else has ever read. I'm old now and I don't care if you get to know what once happened. It's my diary. Read and understand." Sylvia thanked her grandmother, moved by her gift. "But don't read it until you arrive, I want you to go to the estate without prejudice."

Sylvia had no idea how long she was going to stay. The newspaper paid her travel expenses. She had no strains to anybody, since her parents lived in another city and she had no regular boyfriend. She felt a greater bond to her grandmother that to her parents. Annabelle was very musical and had once been a skilled piano player. Sylvia didn't play but liked very much to listen to music. "One thing you have inherited from me are your dimples" her grandmother said. "They seem to skip one generation. My grandmother, Therese Descieux, had them, I have seen that on old paintings and also read it in some letters. When you come back I will perhaps show them to you."

A deep dimple right to the left of Sylvia's mouth made her look intriguing, especially when she laughed. She felt she needed that, finding her features very regular, with green eyes, a generous mouth and brown hair, at the moment reaching as far as her shoulders.

It was the beginning of September and you could feel autumn coming. Sylvia wore a blue dress and a trench-coat when she took the train from Amsterdam to Nevers. The sun was shining most of the time. At Nevers a car was waiting for her, with a chauffeur in the driver's seat. They drove through the green French landscape, finally passing a large iron gate, hanging on two gate posts of stone. They seemed very old, partly overgrown with moss. As they drove up on the open area in front of the mansion Sylvia saw parts of the garden, with lots and lots of apple trees.

The driver opened the car door and Sylvia stepped out just in front of the big stairs up to the building. Slowly she went up the stairs to this – mansion, or could it be called castle? Chateau d'Envarennes. The chauffeur followed her with her luggage. When she stood on the top of the stairs the door opened. Sylvia had expected a maid or a butler and was surprised when she realized it must be the master of the house himself who opened the door. He took a few steps backwards to let her enter. He smiled to her, warm and generously, not what she had expected from a man of his reputation as a hermit.

He took her hand. "Welcome, Miss van Hoek. Did you travel well?" His handshake was firm. "Thank you, yes thanks, it went well." She smiled back at him. "Please come in" he said.

She looked around at the entrance hall, big and impressive. "Pierre will carry your bags to your room. Please come with me to the library." His voice was soft and a pleasant, just as she remembered it from TV. "Do you have a bathroom where I can go and freshen up?" – "Of course, forgive me. It's over there."

Having studied herself in the mirror Sylvia left the bathroom and entered the library. A coffee table was laid in front of the fireplace. He rose as she entered the room. "Please sit down and tell me about your journey." He poured the coffee and offered her some biscuits. "Have you been in this part of France before?" – "Alas I haven't. It's very beautiful."

They talked for a while and Sylvia found him easy to talk to. He told her that the estate had belonged to the family for many centuries. She studied the room while he talked and then she studied her host. She wondered what age he was and came to think of that this was never mentioned in any newspaper. He looked about forty, with dark brown hair, eyes shifting between green and light brown under heavy eyelids, and a beautiful mouth. Then she was ashamed of herself – she was here to write about his work, nor his looks. She felt that he studied her too and couldn't help wonder if he liked what he saw.

She smiled and saw a he looked at her dimples. "Would you like to take a walk in the garden?" he asked. "I would love to – if I don't disturb you in your work?" – Oh no. this is my thinking period. I will write in a couple of weeks." As they rose Sylvia said "Just let me go and change my shoes." – "Of course. See you in the hall in half an hour."

Sylvia found her bags in a large beautiful room at the top of the stairs. She unpacked some of her clothes and changed into something suitable for a walk. She wondered how many people there were staying at the mansion. Pierre the chauffeur yes – and a cook, a maid perhaps? No relatives? She felt it was a challenge to meet Gabriel da Silva and to get to know him.

They went into the orchard with rows of apple trees and pear trees as long as you could see. "In the end of the week I will have people come to pick all the fruit" he said. "And on Sunday we will have a harvest home. Perhaps you will stay to attend it?" – "That would be marvelous. If it's no trouble for you? I just came for the interview." – "But when you have travelled so long. It will give you more to write about too." – "Thank you, then I will stay."

They walked in the garden until Sylvia was tired. "Now you must rest" Gabriel said. "Dinner is at seven. See you then." Sylvia went to her room and lay down on her bed to rest. This was really an adventure!

For dinner she put on a fresh make up and changed into a dress and long ear-rings. She wanted to look her best. Gabriel wore a black suit. The dining-room was old-fashioned with a long table and high chairs. Sylvia learned that there was both a cook and a maid employed at the castle. A young woman in an old-fashioned black uniform with a white apron and a white cap on her blond hair served the food. Pierre, now acting as a butler, served the wine.

Gabriel lifted his glass. "Cheers and welcome, Miss van Hoek." – "Thank you. I really appreciate it. And you have good servants too." – "Well, Mylene and Pierre like it here and Madame Dupont loves to cook. After the soup Sylvia asked "Do you live here alone, apart from the servants?" – "Mostly. I have no relatives alive. Sometimes I have friends staying with me." – "A lady-friend? Are you engaged?" He shook his head. "No, I haven't found 'the right one' as they say. I have had some relationships, but they ended."

Sylvia felt bold after the wine. "I don't understand. You must be a desirable prey for any woman." He looked at her intensely. "That's right – prey. Perhaps they were after my fame and my glory and I saw them through." – "You don't want to be quoted on this?" – "The interview starts tomorrow – and I want to read it all before you publish. This is about me as a writer – you understand?" Sylvia understood. She had heard enough about da Silva's quarrel with journalists and was afraid he wouldn't tell her much if she was too persistent. Why was he so kind to her, really?

Later during the dinner Gabriel asked about Sylvia and she told him about her life. That she was interested in classical languages, had worked for her father at the public administration and then started to study to be a journalist, a job that she loved. "I am very fond of history and I have read all your books." – "And if I ask you – any male friend, or engagement?" – "Neither. I have had, but not at the moment."

After dinner they went to a small salon for coffee. "Please tell me about your grandmother. Is she well?" – "Very much so. We talked a lot before my trip here, and she gave me her diary to read. Perhaps she mentions your grandfather, count Victor da Silva. Was he a musician?" – "He played the piano. Not for a living, just for pleasure. The cultural interest was always great in our family – history knowledge, writing, music. A great grandfather of mine was a poet during the nineteenth century and met with Alfred de Musset and George Sand." – "And you have met the giants of our time – Camus, Sartre?" – "Of course."

Sylvia felt tired. "Do you mind if I retire? It's been a long day." – "I fully understand. Do you want to have some books for reading?" – "Not tonight." – "Good night then – see you tomorrow."

Sylvia ha a quick shower and went to bed. Then she opened her grandmother's diary. She wanted to start reading.

"Paris 1912. I start writing my diary this day, when I arrive with my parents in Paris. We are being invited to many noble dinners and are going to meet a lot of cultural people. Tonight we will attend the performance of the Russian ballet from Moscow.
Friday. Oh my, that was truly marvelous! We saw the ballet Scheherazade with music by Rimsky Korsakov. What music! And what a charming dancer, Nijinsky. He's so beautiful! And talented! We went to a party afterwards and saw the leader of the ballet, Sergei Diaghilev. A pompous and charming man too. I heard people say that they … well they live together. What a waste for a good-looking young man. Tomorrow we will attend a soirée.

Sunday. I have seen him! The man who makes my heart beat faster. I thought the soirée was going to be a dull thing. It was at first. Then he came, Victor da Silva, count and pianist. He played Debussy and Ravel and Chopin and I just listened – and watched. What fine hands. What lovely eyes. Beautiful under heavy eyelids." Sylvia stopped reading. This could be a description of Gabriel as well. So he looks very much like his grandfather. She went on reading. "Then we were introduced. He looked at me for a long time. I think he admired my dimple. Now I think of him all the time."

Sylvia put the book at the table. That would be all for tonight.

She had a good night's sleep and felt good when she woke up. The sun was shining but it looked a bit like autumn. She went down to the dining room, where the breakfast table was laid with bread, cheese and jam. There was also coffee and tea, and Mylene just brought in the milk. "Coffee or tea, mademoiselle?" – "Tea please, no milk." The maid left and Sylvia heard people talking in the kitchen, but she was alone in the dining room. After a while Gabriel entered, from outside, wearing boots and a tweed jacket. "Good morning! Do you like it?" – "It's good." – "Can we meet in the study at ten o'clock?"

At ten Sylvia entered Gabriel da Silva's study, bringing notepads, pens and a tape-recorder. They both sat down. "What's the scope?" he asked. "Gabriel da Silva up close and personal?" – "No, I would like to know what you are interested in, what makes you write, how you work. How long have you been doing this?" Gabriel sat back in his armchair. "I have always been writing, as far as I remember." Then he went on telling her about his work and his inspiration, and Sylvia listened and took notes. And looked. She had a good opportunity to watch him while he spoke, and this was a pleasure. He was attractive, and he knew about it. It should not be difficult to be infatuated, oh no..

They had a dialogue, and sometimes he made Sylvia talk about herself. They had a good time and time flew. At two o'clock he said "It's past lunch time. Shall we go and ask mme Dupont if she has something for us?" – "Thank you very much for the interview. I have lots of material now, that I can work with. There might be some more questions during the days to come – that is if I may stay." – "Yes, that's what we agreed. Then I might perhaps call you Sylvia and you can say Gabriel?" – "Yes, that's fine. Thank you." – "Well come on then, Sylvia." When they left the room he put his hand on her back, very soft. That was the first contact.

When they had lunch Gabriel said "I have documents about my family all the way back from the Roman time, from the third and fourth century. This material I keep in a safe and I have never shown it to anyone. Now I have plans to write all this into my computer and publish it. That will be a huge job. That is reality. The books I write, they are only fiction, though based on research."

After lunch they took a walk on the estate, going in another direction. There were fields and a forest. "I'm a landowner too, although I have a tenant farmer. I can live of my estate. The writing is mere luxury, for my own pleasure." – "You must be well off then. Still I don't see any golden bathtubs or pearl taps." – "You haven't seen my private bathroom yet" he said and smiled roguish. He put his arm under hers. She winced as she felt him touching her, but he didn't seem to notice.

"I would like to take your photograph, for the article" she said. "Let's go to the orchard." He posed in front of the apple tree and then in front of the whole orchard. "You must take pictures of the pickers too when they come" he said. "Now I want a picture of you. Remember to send it to me."

They returned to the house. "Coffee on the terrace?" he asked. "Yes please, if I'm not disturbing your work?" – "I have planned your visit. It's good to rest from work for a while. And in such pleasant company." She smiled. "You flatter me." They went to the back of the mansion. There was a huge ballroom inside, leading to a terrace, adorned with ancient pillars and steps down into the garden. "Many waltzes have been danced in this ballroom" Gabriel said. "Please have a seat, I will go look for coffee."

He returned with a tray holding coffee, cups and some croissants. "Tomorrow the pickers will come" he said "and work for the rest of the week. On Sunday we celebrate the harvest home. During the day there will be food and entertainment on the premises. In the evening I have invited some of my friends for dinner." He smiled. "I do have friends even though I am a hermit. There will be my publisher from Paris, some of my best friends and some of the neighbors. Almost all couples. You are needed as a lady."

After coffee Gabriel had to see some people and Sylvia went to the library. There were lots and lots of books and she found several she had never seen before. After some hours of reading she went upstairs. She went along the hall and found several bedrooms in a row. At the back of the house, on top of the ballroom, there was a small salon with large windows facing the park. There was a sofa and some armchairs, a gramophone and a grand piano. He hadn't told her that he played. Or perhaps it was his grandfather's. She struck a few notes. Then she heard Mylene calling from downstairs "Dinner is at seven!" She went back to her room to change.

During dinner Sylvia asked about the people he met. "We talked about felling. I sell timber from my woods." Then she said "I saw a grand piano upstairs. Do you play?" – "I do, but not very often. It belonged to my grandfather." – "You haven't said much about your parents?" – "They were just ordinary people who did their work. They did not practice any fine arts." – "And who was your grandmother?" – "I don't know." She noticed he was a bit quiet when it came to all other relatives except for the grandfather. "What does your grandmother's diary say? Does she write about a rival?" – "I haven't got that far yet."

After dinner they went to the salon upstairs. It was dark outside and the moon was full. "It's beautiful" she said. "Yes, it has always looked like that. The moon is timeless." He sat down by the piano. "What would you like me to play?" – "Something modern? Perhaps Petruschka?" He concentrated for a minute, and then played it by heart. She listened and watched. She studied his hands and his eyes as he sometimes closed them, sometimes looked at the keys. And sometimes at her. 'My God' she thought 'I'm falling in love with him. That would not be good. What would her chances be? But if..'

He played the last cord. "More" she said. "Claire de lune". Suddenly he looked sad. "Then smile" he said. He looked at her all the time as he played, and she wondered if she reminded him of someone. Then they sat down at the sofa. "Would you like to listen to some records?" She shook her head. "No I'm tired. I could think of retiring, if it's ok." – "Fine for me. I have an early morning. Good night then." He kissed her hand politely. She wondered what that meant.

In bed Sylvia went on reading the diary. She skipped some pages until she came to something about Victor. "Tonight we are all invited to a ball. At last I will meet count da Silva again. Evening: I have to write. Victor da Silva remembered me! We danced and he seemed to like me. He told me I reminded him of someone. I surrendered completely. Later I asked some friends if he was engaged to be married and was told he is free. But they said he was too old for me. He kissed my hand as we parted."

Victor was mentioned in the diary every now and then. Then in the following summer: "Victor has invited me and some friends to stay at the castle for a month for piano-lessons and music playing. My parents don't like it. But we will bring Madame Trosseu for an apron. Mother has given me some letters written by and to her mother, Therese Descieux, in the end of last century. I saw the name da Silva. I will bring them to the castle. I think there was some sort of scandal involving my grandmother. All I know about her is that she had dimples too, like me."

Annabelle described the chateau. "It's marvelous here. A beautiful castle. Victor seems to live here alone, no family, just servants." She wrote about the lessons. "All the young women adore Victor. But I think I'm his favorite. Sometimes he puts his hand on my shoulder.
Saturday: There was a grand ball yesterday. We danced the waltz, the polka and the mazurka. It was wonderful floating in his arms. I was too weak, and when we went out on the terrace we went for the shadows, and there he kissed me. I made no resistance, it was wonderful. I think I am in love with him. He touched my dimple. Then he let go of me. 'No' he said 'I can't do it, it's not right.'- 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'You are too young, I can't make you. Your parents will not allow it.' – 'I think they will. You are a count, and a great pianist.' – 'Nobody can trust me, least of all myself.' – You mean you will grow tired of me?' – 'I don't know. I shouldn't have kissed you. I ruined our friendship.' – 'Not necessary, I can wait for you, until you get certain.' Then we kissed again, and of course he wants me. 'Victor, you are in my heart' I said. Then we didn't dance any more. I feel so confused. I love him. But does he want me?"

Sylvia put down the diary. Should this turn out the same way? Would she fall in love with Gabriel and he would not want her? She wanted to read some more. Victor and Annabelle tried to pretend nothing had happened between them. She wrote. "Today something strange happened. I was standing in the library pulling out some books. Suddenly I saw a thing that must have fallen behind the books. It was a locket. I opened it, curious as I am, and saw a picture of – Therese, my grandmother. You could see her dimple. Brown curly hair, blue eyes, rather like me. What is this all about? I have to ask Victor.
Monday: the letters from Therese don't say much. They are a bit difficult to read. Like 'oh Henrietta, my heart is on fire. But this must remain a secret. You know about poet's reputation.' And from another letter 'I have been at the castle of my beloved. It's wonderful. My Henri!' Then there was a letter from 'her beloved': 'Therese. I miss you so. You are all I think of. Yours for ever, Henri, vicomte da Silva.' Now Victor really has to explain!"

Sylvia found it most confusing. Victor and Annabelle, Henri and Therese. How far back did this go? Was this the reason why Gabriel had invited her to the castle? But she felt it was not the time to ask about that yet. She had to read some more.

"Friday: I asked Victor about the picture of Therese. He seemed disconcerted. Finally he had to explain. 'You see, my grandfather courted your grandmother once. But their love was never a happy one. She lived at the castle for a while, then she had to return to Paris to be married. She was very beautiful, looked like you. We can't let their unhappiness spoil our happiness. Do I dare love you?' I tried to persuade him and we kissed again. Now we have a secret affair that nobody knows about."

Sylvia put the diary on the table. She wanted to know a little more about Gabriel before she continued. "No prejudices" her grandmother had told her. How could she not think about Victor, or Henri, the next time she saw Gabriel? She didn't sleep well, and dreamed about Gabriel, who changed forms all the time.