This week we join Colin back in the château, talking to Pierre, the owner.
A ghostly acquisition
I am still staring out of a window in the great hall. A noise makes me turn. Pierre shuffles towards me with a glass of red wine on a silver tray. He is over eighty years old and not quite so steady on his feet. A pool of red liquid spreads around the base of the glass like blood from an artery.
‘I am clumsy,’ he mutters. He fetches a yellow paper napkin from a dresser against the Roman wall and fastidiously cleans the bottom of my glass. He offered me whisky, but a glass of bordeaux seemed more appropriate for an Englishman who is immersing himself in medieval history. In the days of Jourdain de Roquefort, Bordeaux belonged to England, and the English bought its wines in huge quantities. A few years before the Albigensian Crusade, King John had placed a single order for 120 tonnes. My tastes are more modest and I am happy to take a sip from a single glass, but it reminds me that I am more knowledgeable about what happened eight centuries ago than I am about Montgey’s more recent past.
‘Pierre, how did you come to be the owner of Montgey?’
We make ourselves comfortable at a table near the fireplace and he pours himself a measure of Glenlivet. ‘My family has lived in this area for centuries,’ he begins. ‘I’ve traced my own genealogy back to 1565 and it probably goes back much further. My great-grandfather was mayor of Montgey, but I grew up in a neighbouring village – Nogaret.’
I had spotted Nogaret a couple of kilometres to the south when I was looking out of Pierre’s windows at the Pyrenees. One summer’s day when he was ten years old Pierre decided to take a country walk to Montgey with some of his cousins.
‘Back then the fields were still divided into tiny parcels and we passed along sunken roads in the shade of the trees. I was the oldest and I was carrying my shotgun in case we met a wild boar. Somehow, we ended up at the Château de Montgey and we played in the abandoned park. It was completely overgrown, the château was falling into ruin and there was no one there. It was like being in a fairy tale, and I imagined that one day I would become the lord of Montgey.
‘My family farmed the land around the château, and over the next few years when I was helping with the harvest I often used to push open the gate and step inside. The place held a strange attraction for me, a human version of tropism perhaps. I sensed so much history in here, as if these ancient walls had absorbed the past.’
I take another mouthful of bordeaux and scribble a few notes while Pierre tells me that, in 1948, the château was bought by a lady called Mademoiselle Delamy. She had grand plans for the château, but was unable to slow its decay. The village rumour mill had long maintained that the man she employed as her gardener was the last wizard in the Tarn, and most people kept well away. Pierre was an exception: by now he was a successful and well- respected young lawyer, but he was unable to resist the peculiar pull the château had exerted on him since boyhood. At one point he offered to buy it and allow Mademoiselle Delamy to continue living there until her dying breath, but she declined.
‘I came to be on good terms with her,’ says Pierre, ‘and for my work I sometimes organised receptions here in the château for a couple of hundred people. She was an eccentric woman and full of grand airs, but she could be quite charming. When she died, her relatives naturally expected to inherit Montgey. They were furious when they discovered the terms of her will.’
I put two-and-two together and jump to a conclusion. ‘She left the château to you?’
He laughs. ‘No. She bequeathed it to the Department of the Tarn to be turned into a museum.’
It is not that easy to give away a château, particularly one with an unknown history. The architect for historic buildings took one look at its ruinous state and declared the Château de Montgey was of insufficient public interest to justify the 300 million old francs that would be required to save it. The Department said ‘non, merci’ and gave it back to Mademoiselle Delamy’s estate. At this point Pierre made another offer to buy the château and her heirs accepted it, presumably with some relief.
‘I remember coming here with my children two or three days after Montgey became mine. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in July and we stood outside the walls. I looked at the locked gates leading into the courtyard knowing I held the key in my hand. The walls of the château and the alleys of the park were a part of my childhood, and now my dream had come true. I unlocked the gates and we all trooped in here, into the great hall. My children rushed around in excitement and I was thrilled, but suddenly we all fell silent and listened.’
Pierre pauses and points to the ceiling above my head.
Suddenly the room feels colder.
‘We all heard them: slow footsteps above our heads moving diagonally towards the east tower. My children whispered, “Father, do you hear? There’s someone up there!” I reassured them, I told them it was nothing, but I knew it was no living person. Even today, if the gates are locked no one can get in. Another thing struck me: it was ten in the morning, not the traditional hour for ghosts.’
I glance up at the ceiling and suppress a shiver. Strips of aquamarine paint glow between the dark wood of exposed beams and joists. I hold my breath and listen, but there are no footsteps. ‘Were you frightened?’
‘No, I have never seen the ghost during the hours of darkness, and he’s not alarming in daylight.’
Pierre notes my look of incredulity. ‘You can believe or disbelieve me as you wish. By nature, I have a Cartesian mind, I am a lawyer, but Sophie and I have both seen the ghost during the day, and at night we hear strange noises. Usually it’s the sound of footsteps, but once we were woken by the noise of a heavy trunk being dragged down the spiral staircase: toc-toc-toc. It was a devilish sound.’
He looks at me with what I can only think of as the ghost of a smile. ‘Maybe you think I was dreaming, but it’s my impression the past has been concentrated and stored inside these ancient walls. This is a home with at least two thousand years of history. We don’t know enough about life and death; we don’t know what may resurge from the past. But what is certain is that Sophie and I have both seen the ghost many times in two different parts of the château. We only see his top half and he is always grey, but he isn’t disagreeable.’
We exchange a look and Pierre’s expression becomes apologetic. ‘I’m not making fun of you, I assure you. My daughter always used to laugh at me until a month ago when she finally saw the ghost for the first time. I was so pleased because I haven’t seen him myself for ten years. And then, last Sunday, the lady who helps us look after the château rushed into the kitchen with a look of terror on her face. She had seen him on the first floor, but he merely gave her a glance and disappeared. As I said, he never does anything unpleasant.’
Although I share Pierre’s disinclination to believe in phantoms, my body temperature has dropped by several degrees. Before today, I had always assumed he had conjured up the ghost to amuse or frighten his visitors, but now I have heard the full story, I am not so sure. I take another sip of bordeaux and remember all the blood spilt below these walls in 1211.
Next week we will be continuing with another extract. If you can’t wait for that, you can buy Colin’s book in print or ebook format from the main online retailers worldwide. It is also on sale in numerous bookshops, tourist offices and museums in Carcassonne, Toulouse and the Lauragais. Visit his website for a full listing of sales outlets.