Monsieur Rossier has asked Maud to dinner at a quarter past seven on a Saturday night in late February. Monsieur Rossier, her landlord, is very old and very rich--one of the richest men in France, she has heard people say. He is also very much alone. He lives in a large chateau, which he built in the Norman style, with broad dark, exterior beams that are ugly and out of place in that part of the country. The small, stucco house that Maud rents from him is truly old, a portion of it dating back to the 18th century, with ivy growing up its lopsided but graceful, yellow walls. Maud's house is set in a garden with a pretty fountain--belle fontaine--and there are tall chestnut trees that form an alley and bloom white in the spring. Her house is far lovelier than Monsieur Rossier's chateau but, like him, she feels lonely in it, particularly that winter in the north of France when it rains a lot and is cold.
During the time that Maud and her children live in the house called Belle Fontaine--a time when little occurs and her life seems at a standstill--Maud is a bit frightened of Monsieur Rossier, even though he is old and frail, and she is always a bit afraid that he will find fault with her as a tenant. She wants him to approve of her, to like her even, although it is quite clear to Maud that they can never be friends. The age, and, more important, the social barrier, is too large. Still, Maud admires what she calls Monsieur Rossier's old-world standards and his outmoded courtliness, and she also worries about him--for instance, when, for several weeks, he does not come out to his chateau and, instead, stays in Paris on account of the weather or, worse, his health. And, each time this happens and she asks after him, the men who work for him--the maitre d'hotel, the gardener, the gatekeeper--shake their heads and tell Maud that it is a miracle that he is alive at all.
On the first Friday of each month, his health and the weather permitting, Monsieur Rossier always pays Maud a call. He comes to collect the rent and read the electric meter--or, rather, she reads it for him because he cannot see the little numbers jumping in the box. And, since he always arrives in the late afternoon, Maud builds a fire in the living room and makes tea and they sit together while he figures out in his shaky, spidery handwriting how much Maud owes him, and then she, in turn, writes him a check, careful not to make a mistake or to misspell the numbers in French, for she does not want him to think her careless or irresponsible. Once Maud gives him the check, Monsieur Rossier relaxes visibly and settles himself more comfortably in his chair. He drinks the weak, sweetened tea Maud gives him and talks to her in his correct but accented English about the bad weather, the difficulty of finding good men to work on his property now that times have changed so, and, invariably, he talks about the past. And Maud sits and listens and tries to show genuine interest in his problems and in his memories. She nods and shakes her head and says yes and no at the appropriate moments although she knows it really does not matter what she says, because Monsieur Rossier is not listening or paying attention to her.
One event stands out during the first months she lived at Belie Fontaine--although it had nothing to do with Maud personally and it happened when she and the children had just arrived and were barely settled in the house--and it is terrible. On a clear Sunday morning in September, several minutes after takeoff, a DC-10 carrying 315 passengers crashed a few kilometers south of the chateau into the forest of Ermenonville, killing everyone on board. According to reports, one of the cargo doors had not shut properly, and this led to a sudden loss of cabin pressure that caused part of the flooring to collapse, and this in turn damaged the controls of the plane. All day, from her house, Maud heard the wall of sirens. The roads were closed to traffic and in the village the pretty 13th-century Romanesque church was turned into a makeshift morgue. Maud's telephone rang constantly. For days, the people in the village talked of nothing else; Maud's children, too, spoke of it nonstop--the youngest child swearing tearfully that he would never fly again. Morbid stories circulated. The plane had burned a mile-long trail through the forest, leaving blackened tree stumps. Monsieur Rossier's maitre d'hotel claimed he had seen the smoke from the wrecked plane on his way back from Mass, and he told Maud that people found limbs stuck in trees, a child's tiny foot inside a milk pail.
Then, since many passengers on that flight had been Japanese, the village suddenly was filled with Asian mourners. They arrived the following day in a caravan of minibuses, holding bouquets of flowers and looking vacant-eyed as they stumbled on the cobblestone streets on their way to the church. Maud noticed a young woman holding a child by the hand, who, despite yet another clear, sunny day, was wearing a yellow slicker similar to the ones her own children wore in the rain. The wife and child of a passenger, Maud guessed. At the sight of them, her eyes had filled with sudden hot tears and for a moment, standing there watching them, Maud imagined that she too had lost a loved one.
TWICE, MONSIEUR ROSSIER has called to say he is expecting her at a quarter past seven, and Maud is determined to arrive for dinner exactly on time. She will be punctual no matter what, she has told herself sternly, and tonight she has no excuse--the children are away for the weekend, visiting their father, and the babysitter is off as well. Also, to avoid last-minute indecisions, she has already chosen what she will wear: a pleated skirt and silk blouse with her good pearl necklace, so that if Monsieur Rossier notices, he will approve, for Maud will look like countless French ladies he has met, talked to, and perhaps flirted with. The thought of Monsieur Rossier flirting makes Maud smile. Only he would never have flirted with her--of that Maud is quite sure--for she is an American, a foreigner, and, worse, she is divorced. But now, of course, it no longer matters. And, also, Maud is so shy and constrained with him, she never makes a demand or complains about the house she rents, its inefficient single toilet, the leaky faucets, the lack of heat, and the impractical old-fashioned kitchen where, for instance, the sink is so low, she gets a backache from doing the dishes.
At seven o'clock sharp, dressed in the skirt and silk blouse and wearing her pearls and her city coat, Maud goes out the back door and opens the heavy iron gate, which is usually kept shut, as it separates Maud's garden from Monsieur Rossier's chateau and land. Outside, it is dark and cold, a ground fog has set in so that, after only a few steps, Maud can no longer see her house or the drawing-room...