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A First Look at the Village and the Valley.
The community of Chalon-sur-Saone is a small town at one end of a broad shallow valley in eastern France.
Much of the valley is given over to vineyards and fruit orchards, though there are also many farms, and rangelands or small livestock (sheep are common) on the hills. Lots of tall old trees line the lanes, and the upper hills and back reaches of the valley are covered with some fine stands of forest timber. Riding paths and game trails cross one another in the uplands, but the forest cuts the valley off from most other contact. To the east, across the river, the foothills of the Alps begin to rise up only a few miles away.
The Chalon valley is perhaps ten miles long and five across at its widest point. It is shaped rather like a mitten, with the Saone river running through the shorter eastern "thumb" to within a few hundred yards of the town. Despite this, the village takes little note of the river, and the tiny dock there is only for rowboats and an occasional houseboat or two. The bulk of the water traffic that passes nearby remains wholly unaware of the little village and the valley beyond. There is only one road into the valley -- a winding dirt track leading south to a neighboring village -- and, though the railroad passes on the valley's western side and stops at the village, the station house is just two small rooms, manned only by the signalman.
A view of the countryside near Chalone
The village of Chalone
Chalon-sur-Saone does not court contact with the outside.
In between many of the vineyards, and in other lowland areas that have not been used or cultivated, the land is either green rolling grass or huge and ancient thickets of blackberry brambles. In the summer and fall, the berries grow large and succulent in profusion. The locals do not eat them, however, feeling for some reason that blackberries are not good "people food." This only leaves more for out-of-town guests, who do not complain at all about the bounty.
Here and there, scattered across the valley and ranging the hills and ridgelines, are a number of heavy standing stones. These are regarded with great reverence by the villagers, who know that they bring good luck and guard the valley from harm. No one would ever dream of harming or moving a stone, at least not without the permission of the Master of the Estate.
What's the Village Like?
Chalon-sur-Saone is a small town, little more than a village. A few hundred people live in the valley; maybe half of them reside in the village proper.
At first glance, Chalon is a quintessential picturesque small French town. Half-timbered houses, peaked shingle or thatch roofs, cobbled streets in town and gravel or dirt outside, a lovely little central square with a centuries-old fountain, fronting on the Catholic church and the meeting hall.
Houses have little square window panes and French or split Dutch doors, ornamental shutters and flower boxes everywhere. The town center has a few small shops -- butcher, baker, bistro, patisserie, cobbler, cooper and the like -- and many family homes.
Some buildings have two stories, none have more. Everyone has deep root cellars, and a number of wells are scattered through the town. Houses have flower and vegetable gardens, sometimes a fruit tree or two, and occasionally some chickens or pigs, carefully fenced in the yard.
Closer inspection reveals a couple of peculiarities. Chalon has no electricity at all. There are no wires, no power nor phones -- the telegraph line goes to the rail platform, but the sole telephone connections run to the Mayor's house and to the Estate. None of the houses have electric power. The streets are lit at night by hanging oil lamps, tended by an elderly local man and his family. The homes are also lit and heated by oil, or kerosene, or by wood fires and candlelight.
There are no automobiles visible in the village, and almost no powered vehicles of any sort in the valley.A small supply of petrol is kept at the smithy, for the benefit of occasional outsiders, but for the locals, travel is on foot, in the saddle, or drawn by horse.
For all its quaint antiquity, Chalon is a very clean place, and pretty. The buildings and streets are well-tended, there is no sign of neglect or disuse, no rubbish or refuse left in public places. The people are well dressed, though simply, and show no signs of illness, malnutrition, or poverty of any sort. All in all, the place exudes a kind of quiet, ageless prosperity.
You've seen the village in the opening sequences of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast?" That's Chalon-sur-Saone.
The last peculiarity in Chalon is the way the people behave. Guests of the Whisphers Estate are always accorded the greatest respect and deference. The villagers seem to regard the Estate, and all who stay there, as rightful gentry and worthy of devoted service at all times. It is very difficult to pay for anything in Chalon, if one is a guest of the Estate. The Chalonois feel that to accept payment is somehow to dishonor the House and the Master. It is as though, even in the twentieth century, this village were still the proper fief of a beloved feudal lord.
Only three roads leave the village. One, to the south, is a simple dirt track, which winds in ruts and jutting stones out of the valley and twenty miles to the next community of any size, a riverside town called Tournous. Another wanders east and north not far from the river, servicing the orchards and vineyards along the valley's eastern branch.
The third, the main road in the area, travels almost due north, between the farms and fields of the flatlands, for about five miles, ending in the untouched forest of the valley's northern extents. It is this road, too, that passes by the Whisphers Estate.
What's the Estate like?
Whisphers Estate lies somewhat less than two miles north of the village of Chalon. The gravel road passes by its tall outer wall of ancient trees, and a great wrought-iron gate with the elaborate "F" on the arch. The gate has not closed in living memory.
Beyond the gate, a private drive winds across a long rolling expanse of lawn, studded thickly with tidy copses of trees. Other outbuildings can be seen here and there beyond trees and concealing shrubbery. The driveway runs a quarter mile, over a small rise and down again, to the Estate's manor house. Directly in front of the House, the drive turns a circle around a central fountain whose ornament is a stylized standing human figure. Flower beds decorate the front lawn and the edges of the House, but on either side and to the rear, all the outbuildings and trappings of a fully functional farm can be seen: Stables, barns, smokehouses, storage sheds, housing for the workers, pens and corrals, and so on. A small chapel stands close to one side. Many of the working buildings are new or nearly so; but the house itself looks as if it has survived centuries.
The manor house at Whispers is large and square, painted white, with its red tile roof studded by a dozen chimneys. From the visible windows, it rises four stories from the ground to the attic garrets. The House is a weird mélange of different architectural styles, all jostling together to make a weirdly symmetric whole: Classic pillars adorn the front, gargoyles from an earlier age leer from rooftop corners, elaborate Victorian cupolas thrust upwards above Venetian Renaissance window embrasures. The House has no wings or additions; all the outbuildings are fully separate from the main structure. A broad roofed sun porch runs the width of the rear of the House, symmetric to the pillared front; beyond it is an elaborate hedge-maze with an Edwardian bandstand cupola at the center. Beyond all of that are many acres of fruit trees. Small clusters of sheep graze between the orchard rows.
The Estate employs its staff from the village, in numbers ranging from six to more than twenty depending upon the season. Its permanent outside staff is two gardeners and a groom; inside, the House hires a single maid and a cook.
None of these live at the Estate, but prefer to walk to work from their homes nearby. The only member of the staff who is permanently in residence is Bent, the House butler, a wizened gnome of a man who is nonetheless very sharp and punctilious about his duties.
Whisphers is a bit different than the rest of Chalon. The Estate has electric lighting, and power, and it boasts a single telephone, on a small open table in the front hall.
Downstairs, the House interior is devoted to public rooms. A broad central passage runs the length of the house from front to back, its walls lined with portrait of varying ages, some of them centuries old.
To one side, in front, is a huge library, with shelves running twenty feet up three of the walls.
On the other side is a grand dining room, suitable to seat fifty people at a formal dinner, and the kitchens beyond. A small open-air solar lies at the house's center, complete with flowers, grass and a small trickling spring. Glass walls allow those in the hall to look into the central garden.
At the back of the house, a large amusement room has a variety of instruments, a movie screen and projector, and a small stage; a billiard table, cards, a dartboard, mats and fencing equipment can also be found here.
Across the hall, a music room is decorated in yellow, blue and white, with large open shelves of sheet music and various instruments. As well as comfortable chairs for listening to concerts.
A large grand staircase rises upwards opposite the solar.
The second floor consists of ten bedroom suites, an office, and some other smaller closets. Each of the suites is decorated in a different luxurious style: Italian Renaissance, Russian Orthodox, Louis XXVI, British India, and more.
The third floor is also bedrooms, nine of them this time, with closets and a small kitchen, for the use of a much larger staff or extra guests when necessary.
The attic is closed, devoted to storage and unused. Small stairs run between the second and third floors, while only the grand staircase and a single smaller flight by the kitchen connect to the ground floor.
People of the Village and the Valley.
Paul Jacquard, the mayor -- one of the few outsiders to live permanently in the village, Jacquard has been in Chalon for nearly twenty years. He does not speak much of his past, saying only that he is not proud of what he was and is happier here. His education and familiarity with the outside serves him well in dealings with the government and neighboring towns.
A passionate loud man, he is vigorous in argument and delights in order. In addition to being the town mayor, Jacquard also owns the town Bistro, and usually runs the tap. He has a longstanding feud with M. Couviesa, the Estate's groundskeeper, whom he regards as a poacher and a thief (which was once true.) Jacquard is married; his wife, Marie-Ange, is a pillar of the church and known for her knitting. They have no children.
Franc Couviesa, the groundsman at the Estate -- Tall, gaunt and silent, Couviesa is more at home in the forest than in town, and is rarely seen in public. He speaks French with a Burgundian accent, and comes, he says, originally from Spain. He came to the valley years ago and lived on his own, far from town, hunting in the forest and entering the village rarely, until he was hired to work for the for the Estate. His hair is long and usually tied back; he wears a trimmed full beard. Couviesa is unmarried and has few friends.
Maurice Donne, the Baker -- one of the more prosperous men in town, with a shop on the central square. Wide, bald, and loud of laughter, he is famous for his pies and for his family. His wife Rosalie is half his size, with lustrous black hair and a heart-shaped face that was once the loveliest in town; now they have five children (Marie, Jean-Paul, Pierre, Nanette, and Augustine,) and the mother's beauty is outshone by her daughters’.
Marie Donne, the Baker's Daughter -- A fixture in the village. Marie is 18, beautiful and "stacked," and she knows it. Easily the most marriageable maid in town, she runs the bakery shop most days while her father bakes. Every lad from 12 to 30 vies for her attentions, and her constant teasing flirtations would get her into big trouble anywhere but in Chalon. Everyone knows that time is running out, that Marie will marry soon; her sister Nanette, at 14, is already eager to take over the job of baking the croissants when Marie moves away.
Louis Devere, the Butcher -- a skinny long-limbed monkey of a fellow in his 40s, with a hook nose, thinning blonde hair, and a wisecracking loud mouth. Louis is married to Renee, sister to Rosalie Donne. They have two boys, Pierrot and Justin, both in their teens.
Charles Devereaux, the local Priest -- Slender, brown haired, olive skinned, 35, quiet and thoughtful, Deveraux is a local boy who went away to seminary and returned to guide his people. His parents are both gone, he has one older sister, Annette, in the village. He is of course unmarried.
Annette Deveraux, the Spinster -- Slender, brown haired, olive skinned, pushing 40, Annette looks much like her brother. Unmarried, she is devoted to the life of the parish, and regularly intrudes in everyone's homes. She also helps the ill and the aged, organizes picnics and games for the children, and is an indispensable pillar of town society.
Roget Hartmann, the Lamplighter -- Thin, pleasant, in his 70s with a shock of unruly white hair, Hartmann is the son of German who settled here almost a century ago and married a local girl. He is married but separated, his wife Louise having run off to the big city many years ago. Hartmann has three children, all grown, who live in the village. Two of them, Pierre and Jean, work with their father making and caring for the town lamps, and helping out in the fields.
The third, Claude, is married to Caroline Chameaux and runs her father's vineyard. They have three children, all girls, ranging from 9 to 17 years of age.
Abelard Turleau, the Candlemaker -- Nearly 50, of average height and build with greying black hair and small round spectacles, Turleau has the appearance of being continually disappointed in something. He can be found most evenings at the Bistro, where he sits quietly for an hour or two after dinner before returning to his home on the north road, his wife Beatrice and their two unmarried children.
Raoul Acadie, the Signalman -- Raoul works at the railway station as its sole employee, a combination of switchman and telegraph operator. He has done so for nearly forty years. Taciturn but pleasant, in his sixties, he has full grey hair, is clean shaven, and smokes a large pipe.
Francoise Acadie, the Drayer -- Francois is a burly man of forty, with curly dark hair and a powerful build. He plies his trade everywhere in the valley, helping to haul cargoes here and there. His wife Suzanne is a local beauty. They have three children, Pierre, Cytherea, and Jacques, all in their teens.
Pierre Acadie, the Welcoming Committee -- Pierre is Raoul's grandson, the eldest son of Francois the drayer.He is now thirteen, skinny and dark. Garrulous and friendly, Pierre is a real chatterbox, and loves to drive visitors from the station to the House in his wagon when he has the chance.
Chalon and the Estate
The history of the Whisphers Estate and that of the village nearby are very closely intertwined. Much of the valley has been owned for centuries by the Farquell family, and for most of that period the town was indeed the personal fief of the Maitre de Farquell. The House and grounds were first laid out in about 1600 by M. Pierre Farquell, the most famous member of the line, who was a favorite at the French court and widely renowned as a scholar and humanitarian. The grounds have been added to ever since, bit by bit by bit.
Chalonois villagers also know that M. Pierre, the first Master of the House, was a powerful white wizard, who devoted his energies to keeping the valley safe from all harm, and helping his beloved France as well. Over the long years of his life he gathered around him other men and women of power, likewise devoted to the defense of the people and the realm, and opened his house to them as a resting place, a place to gather and to plan, to gain strength between battles. Since then, the Estate and the village have continued to prosper, and the Masters of the House have always kept harm far from the people of Chalon.
There is an unwritten covenant between the Estate and the village: The villagers know that the Estate and its people are responsible for their prosperity and continual good fortune. In return for that protection they donate any services required to the Masters of the Estate, without stint or charge. It is an affair of honor, a truly feudal understanding that has served both sides well to this day. The life of the villagers is quiet but dedicated, each working in their small way to defend their homes from dark magics and evil airs that can be felt at once by any who wander for long outside the Valley walls.
The careful placement of the standing stones, the lack of modern industries, the little ancient rites of the seasons, and the unstinting vigilance of the Masters of the Estate are all a part of that safety, even now in when the world has begun to change. Each side expects the other to do their part, and so the peace and safety is maintained over the years. The valley has not seen a truly bad harvest in over two centuries; there have been some petty crimes, but neither rapes nor murders in all that time. Men of the valley have marched forth in France's wars; some even served in the Great War; but mostly they return and never wish to leave again. To the villagers, the world outside is a harsh and poisoned place, uncertain and filled with wild danger.
It is a thing of faith, a religion of sorts. The devotion is very real.
To be sure, there are always those for whom the village life is not enough. Some seek adventure on foreign soil, others go forth to join the Church, or to study at the great schools of the world, or to pursue trades that do not exist in Chalon. For them, the village is a place of safety to which they may always return at need. Others turn instead to the Estate, offering themselves and their service to the cause of M. Farquell.
A few, too, come to the valley from outside. Some of these are drawn here by chance or by yearning for a quiet place; others come with the House's secret soldiers and stay to rest, or to build new lives. These all are welcomed, so long as they are willing to be a true part of the village, and give up outside cares. There are no strangers here, and ties to the world are deliberately distant and slow.
The villagers are, by and large, devoutly Catholic in their faith. Their religion, however, would not find wide acceptance in Rome, for they believe too in countless small pagan rituals, in the intricate ties between sorcery and faith, and in the personification of the Lord as the health of the Land. They know of hidden energies, of magics of life and light that ward and guide the angels and messengers of Heaven, and this is natural to them. They are not sorcerers; they believe that the purpose of magic in the Lord's plan is to better illumine an understanding of the Light of God, and not to change the world for gain. Use of such things is left in the hands of the people at the House, the Soldiers and the Master there.
It is widely known that the House itself is a living thing, a mother to all upon the grounds of the Estate, protecting and spreading wide her cloak of safety to the village as well. None know how this came be; but the House is accorded the respect and deference of a chosen tool of God, and greeted and spoken to by those who go there, like an invisible guardian spirit. It does not answer, but all know that it hears and understands. Positions at the House and at the Estate are coveted ones.