Good day, dear reader,
Below I am posting another piece that I wrote on a writing prompt. Head beyond the break and into the pantry…
The thing in the pantry
We are visiting one of the old, esteemed houses, the kind that were built in the late 1700s. As we stand in front of it, on the immaculately maintained lawn, with the warm sunshine on our backs, we admire the architecture of that era, the grandeur of the columns and the portico with its seven high, sleek columns.
The guide emerges from inside the mansion and welcomes us. She immediately starts talking about the owners of the estate, the history of the building and as she ushers our group around it, she points out the small oddities that are in the details. The tiny changes in each window, either in height, width or shape. The person who designed this was rather cunning, we agree, as without the help of the guide we would not have seen them. Once alerted to these small weirdnesses though, the group starts looking at the building more closely, and we start discovering more and more things that are slightly off.
Here is one window without a sil. There is a window that cannot be opened. A small door in a dark corner with doorhandles on the left and the right, and neither of them opens the door (this is explained by the guide of course, we are not the kind that goes yanking doors that belong to other people).
Once we have completed the outside tour of the grand house, we arrive at a table with ample refreshments. A few people, all in black and white costumes, serve us. They are very proficient, and when I ask a man if this is something he does often, he smiles politely and explains that they belong to the staff of the mansion.
“The owner is hardly ever present, and these tours are always a pleasant way to pass the time for the staff,” he elaborates. “Of course, our employer is fully aware of these arranged ‘invasions’ of the property.” There is even a hint of a smile around his lips when he says that. Unfortunately his face returns to a butler-like correctness again all too soon. The smile suits him.
After lemonade and cookies , or tea and scones, something remarkably British for such a large and typically American estate, our guide tells us we will now enter the house.
As we walk to the huge double doors, I glance back at the tables where the servants are cleaning up the remains of our snack, but quickly already I pass the thick, dark-wood doors and we step into a hall that is breathtaking. The floor is made of marble tiles, dark brown and pale sandy of colour, laid in a checkerboard pattern. The walls are coated with dark wood and paintings of hunting scenes. I look up and see three floors there, each one having arched columns supporting the higher levels. It reminds me of how old Italian opera-houses are built, including the apparently handcrafted handrails.
Everywhere are lamps. They look like gaslamps, and considering the age of this house they might well be.
Our group is herded through the hall, towards the grand staircase to the left that leads up to the first floor. We pass a small door. At first I hardly notice it but it’s there. Something intrigues me about it; it does not fit in this place. The colour is not off, the wood is the same, everything is in tasteful accordance with the hall, and yet…
I linger, feigning to study a painting. Paintings are not my passion, not at all paintings where a pack of dogs are trying to kill a bear, but it is the only one close at hand. I hope they won’t notice me staying behind.
They don’t. The group shuffles up the marble steps, following the sound of the guiding voice, and soon they are all out of sight. As I turn towards the door, I am startled by a young woman. She is in the black and white uniform, one of the people who served tea at the table outside. She smiles at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say untruthfully.
“You need not apologise,” she smiles. “I assume you noticed the door.”
“How do you know?”
Instead of replying she smiles once more, puts a hand behind my elbow and ushers me to the door . She opens it and lets me step through first. Behind the door is a kitchen. I am partly surprised, as that is not be what I’d expect, but given the awkward architecture nothing should be a surprise.
“Won’t you sit down?” the young woman asks as she points to a chair.
I sit down. “Very kind of you, Miss…?”
“Everyone calls me Betsie,” she tells me as she picks up an old kettle and fills it with water. “Everyone here will be pleased to see that you found your way here.” Betsie puts the kettle on a large, near antique stove with many copper or brass handles. It must be worth a fortune, since it is still in perfect condition.
“My name is Franz. Nice to meet you. And why would they be pleased?” I wonder, while Betsie takes a jar from a shelf over the stove. She puts it on the table and takes off the lid. There are cookies in the jar, they look home made.
No sooner have I asked, when the door behind me opens and five people, all servants according to their clothing, enter. They sit down around the table, introduce themselves and make light conversation about the house, the estate and the visitors. A feeling that started vaguely strange spreads through me, but I can’t pinpoint what it is.
Betsie and a man called Abraham pour tea for everyone. After they have taken seats, Betsie addresses me. “We have been waiting for a long time for someone to notice the door to the kitchen,” she says without further introduction. There seem to be less and less people who have eye for the detail.”
Her words confuse and intrigue me equally.
“You see, dear Franz, there is this thing in the pantry. And we do need someone to look at it. Someone with an eye for detail.”
I suddenly suspect they have taken some piece of value from the house, stored it in the pantry and now they hope that I can judge it for what it might be worth. I start explaining that I am not an antique dealer, but they all smile and laugh.
“No, that is not what we ask of you. Would you please come with me, and have a look?” Betsie stands up, her tea untouched.
No harm in going into a pantry with a nice looking woman, I think to myself. As I rise from the chair however, there seems to be a slight tension among the others. It must be the strange environment and so I mentally shake it off.
Betsie shows me to a door at the far end of the kitchen and waits for me to open it, her face showing clear anticipation. I grin. Inside the small room behind the door I see nothing but darkness. Betsie steps inside. From somewhere she takes a lamp and lights it with a match. The gentle yellow light now shows shelves left and right, laden with jar, bags, sacks and boxes. The small room is deeper than I had expected.
Betsie asks me to follow her as she walks down the rather narrow corridor. I have to be careful not to bump into any of the things that are on the shelves. After a few steps I hear the door being closed.
“Why did they close the door?” I ask Betsie, but she does not reply. Since she carries the lamp, I can only follow her. Being left in the dark, literally, is not a prospect in this narrow place.
The walk ends rather abruptly when we reach a table. It is not a remarkable table, just four wooden legs and a untreated wooden surface. There is a… thing on the table. It looks like a cross between a vase, a lamp and a bottle. A soft light shines from inside it. It is a moving light. It dances up and down and takes many colours, from white to yellow to blue to red and back to white.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Betsie asks, as she puts the lamp she holds on a shelf to her left. I am not certain if she directs her question at me. She reaches out to the bottle, or lamp, or vase, and touches it. Where her fingers touch its surface, the light flares up very brightly. It invites me to touch it as well. As I move my hand towards the thing, Betsie’s face lights up with a smile, and when I touch it, she moves her hand over mine.
The lamp, or whatever it is, seems to erupt in light for a moment, blinding us.
When I can see properly again I look at the young woman who stands next to me. She looks a bit confused and holds her hands to her chest, one hand clutching the other.
“I think you have seen enough, haven’t you?” I ask her with a smile, trying to reassure her that everything is fine. As she nods I pick up the lamp from the shelf. “Please follow me, Betsie. If we stay here too long, the others might think we are doing things one should not do in a pantry.”
“Or perhaps one should,” she giggles nervously. She trails close behind me while we make our way to the door. I open it, let her step into the kitchen and I extinguish the gaslamp.
In the kitchen only Susan, Wilbur and Johanna remain, the others have returned to their chores. The three smile and nod, while Susan rushes over to me and brushes something off the collar of my black jacket.
“You should be more careful, Franz,” she tells me, “there is a smudge on your shirt. You might want to see to that.”
Apologetically I look at Betsie. “I am sorry, I need to take care of this,” I state. Susan says that she will see Betsie out, so I leave the kitchen and go to the room I know is mine, where I can change into a clean shirt quickly. Later that afternoon a new group of curious people will arrive and we need to have everything tip top by then.
As I hurry to the dining room to set the table for lunch, I wonder how long it will take before Abigail will return. Mortimer is up for leave next, he must be very anxious. It was in his eyes when he served me my tea.
It is always an uncertainty, as we never know when someone returns… or even if.