Thanks to a semester spent writing an exposition on Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night...” keeps rattling through my head as I stare out the limo window. Between the lightning, sheeting rain and arching trees, the cliché taking place outside is a scene straight out of a Vincent Price movie. It’s just the sort of weather I love.
The driver pulls up to the front door of the enormous Calderwood Mansion, an estate belonging to Brighton Calderwood, one of France’s most affluent bachelors, and the great-great-great-grandson to one of France’s most generous philanthropists.
“Avril Augustine,” I announce myself when a butler opens the front door. “I’m a photographer with Our Founding Fathers Historical Preservation Committee of Massachusetts.” I have no choice but to shout over the torrential downpour behind me. There’s nowhere else for me to stand to keep dry, but the acoustics beneath the large overhang covering the wide veranda accentuate the noise of the rain to the point that it’s difficult to even hear myself talk.
I’m not sure he’s heard me. Keeping himself partially hidden behind the colossal front door, the butler scans the grounds behind me suspiciously from left to right before letting me in. I know for a fact that I’m expected; I swear he seems reluctant to let me enter regardless.
I’d been given this assignment by Historical Preservation because no one else at my office was as ‘charmed’ by the idea of staying in a ‘haunted’ mansion as I was. It isn’t a haunted mansion, it’s rumored to be a haunted mansion, which I find entertaining. Taking this two-week assignment meant free airfare to Paris, free transportation, free room and board, and a historical mansion to explore—all while getting paid my regular salary, plus travel incidentals. For an unattached, childless twenty-six-year-old, I’d have been stupid to pass it up. The ‘haunted’ hype didn’t deter me one bit. While creepy witches, vampires, unicorns, and black cats are enthralling to me, I’m perfectly capable of differentiating reality from fantasy.
Though, I have to admit, this place is earning its reputation ten-fold in tonight’s weather. Good thing I’m not superstitious. I’m far too logical to believe in ghost stories, and judging by the way my office mates shunned this opportunity, that makes me the only one.
“Please, follow me, Madame,” the butler requests in his old, raspy voice. He closes his eyes when he bows at me, then turns around. I didn’t know people still did that. He has exactly the stale demeanor expected of a butler right out of a comic book.
When I enter the mansion’s foyer, my eyes widen with admiration.
“Wow!” I say, having to tilt my head back in order to take in the entire ceiling, soaring twenty feet above. Just then, the lightning outside flickers through the clerestory windows, and the electric blue of it projects the twisted branches of a tree outside onto the vaulted walls like shadow puppets. In that brief spark, I could make out the gilded crown moldings layered between murals and ceramic relief carvings before everything became engulfed in darkness again.
“Is the power out?” I ask.
“You’ll have to forgive us for the inconvenience, Madame, but it seems as though the storm has knocked out our electricity for the time being.”
No electricity? Greeeaat.
“Oh, you don’t have to be so formal with me, sir. Call me…”—I stop when my voice echoes through the large entryway as if I’d just shouted. It startles me.
“Madame, you are too kind. Please allow me to escort you to your quarters,” the butler cuts in. I’m taking that as a sign that my offer of informality isn’t something that interests him.
Also, I notice immediately when he speaks his voice does not ricochet between the walls as mine had; it simply falls flat, as though he’s shoved his words into a pillowcase and tossed them to me.
“Right. Lead the way,” I reply. I lower my volume but it does no good. The sound still bounces off the decadent wallpaper. I had no idea there was a special technique for talking in a mansion. I suddenly feel too crude to be in such lavish surroundings, what with all my unrefined American edges flapping in the wind here.
“Do you have any luggage that I should have the house servant retrieve, Madame?” the butler asks as I follow him towards one of the corridors leading out of the large foyer. He glides over the floor silently. The only sound in the mansion now is the rapid clack of my own high heels across the immaculately lacquered floorboards.
“Just the one suitcase and my camera bag, here,” I answer, gesturing to the black bag hanging from my shoulder. “You know airports these days. I didn’t—”
“Very good, Madame,” the butler cuts me off again without turning around. “I will have Jeffrey bring your belongings to your room at once. Please, follow me.”
Just to make conversation, I was going to say that I didn’t want to bring too much because I liked to travel light. Seems the old man, like the limo driver who brought me here, is not the conversational type either.
“How long is the power out for?” I ask, forgoing idle chit-chat.
“My apologies, Madame, I do not know.”
“Well, that’s all right. I’m all caught up on emails for now, and I charged my phone on the way here. I should be good for a couple of days.”
“I’m afraid those sorts of electronics do not work out here, with or without electricity. We have experienced complications with the communications tower located at the far north end of the estate. Rest assured Master Calderwood is taking care to fix everything right away. In the meantime, there is a phone you can use in the service kitchen. It is not cellular but it can call out.”
“No cell and no Internet?” I muse under my breath. I’m starting to lose the smugness I felt for snatching up this great assignment. Perhaps the reluctance at my office was no coincidence. Maybe I’m being hazed. “How far is it to the closest town again?” I ask, planning my escape route so I’ll be ready when the tech-urges hit.
“To the best of my knowledge, Madame, that would be Briar Village. It is roughly seventy-four kilometers east of here.”
Craptastic. That’s almost fifty miles. “What about the nearest Starbucks?”
“I’m sorry, Madame, a what?”
A ‘what year is this’ is more like it. Wait, do they even have Starbucks in Europe? I’m not asking that. I feel stupid enough as it is just walking beside this lavish wallpa—is that gold inlay?
“Um, nothing. Never mind,” I sigh, defeated for now.
At least my boss never mentioned having to email or text anything during my stay, so I’m off the hook in that regard. It’s more an issue of killing time. No cell phones, no Internet, and right now, no electricity? What the hell is one to do? I could’ve managed just fine if only I’d known in advance. I would have brought my knitting needles. Knitting is the perfect distraction to keep from binging on chocolate at eleven o’clock at night…which is not something I’ll have to worry about here anyway.
“Excuse me, sir, but I was wondering—am I supposed to have transportation provided during my stay, or, do you know who I arrange that through?”
“I’m afraid you may have misunderstood, Madame. Your transportation arrangement was solely to get you to and from the airport and Calderwood Estate. I would be happy to make any calls necessary to arrange otherwise, but the weather, you see? It will be a while before any services can reach us here at the estate. Master Calderwood extends his sincerest apologies and has expressly offered every effort to make your stay as convenient as possible until the situation has been remedied.”
“Not sure a hurricane can be remedied,” I mutter, forgetting my manners for a moment. “I mean, please tell him thank you and I appreciate that, but I’ll be perfectly fine,” I lie, not sure if he even heard me.
After a long corridor lit only by gas lanterns, he leads me into an even larger great room the size of an Olympic pool, with a floor just as glossy. In the center of it all is a flawlessly hand-carved wooden staircase whose steps and gleaming balustrade flare out in a swirl to either side at the bottom. As the steps stretch up to a landing set inside an enormous oriel window, the stairs split off to either side from there, wrapping along the walls to ascend another half flight before disappearing to opposite wings of the mansion.
As if on cue, lightning flashes behind the beautiful window with several quick pulses at the same time that I look up at it. The scene constructed of carefully arranged shards of colored glass is lit up, and I make out foxgloves, poppies, tulips, calla lilies, and cherry blossoms framing an ivy-covered iron gate that stands before a great, twisted tree. I don’t know my trees very well but I’d guess it to be an oak. It’s almost always an oak tree that is portrayed in these kinds of works of art.
“This mansion was built in 1721, wasn’t it?” I ask. My annoyance over the inconvenience of a power outage is replaced by curiosity for the history of the home. I’d put in hours of research on this estate before arriving, but there are some things you just have to see in person.
“Yes, Madame. Built by the hands of Lord William Geoffrey Calderwood II,” the butler replies. The hint of pride in his tone surprises me. I wonder if it’s because he appreciates my knowledge or because there’s some personal connection for him to the family. Perhaps—I think more cynically—he’s just paid to sound that way when he speaks about the Calderwoods.
“Yes,” I continue before he shuts me down again. “I read about him during my research. Lord Calderwood built this home for his wife, four sons, and two daughters.”
“Correct, Madame. His generosity made him a renowned man and he loved his family a great deal.”
“That’s nice.” I gaze off dreamily for a moment, trying to picture what it would be like keeping track of six kids running around this enormous estate. They too, coincidentally, would’ve endured no electricity, no technological distractions. It almost seems like a romantic idea to be cut off from the grid… almost.
“Now if I could just find me a rich husband,” I snort offhandedly. The sound I make when I do this, and it’s not a flattering one, is the only noise in the atrium against the empty, piercing silence of the butler’s derisive glare. “Oh, er, I’m only kidding. I’m not looking for a rich husb—”
“Very good, Madame. We’re almost to your quarters.”
I had clearly just lost whatever dismal shred of respect I’d gained a moment ago. He flippantly turns toward the massive stairs and proceeds up them without waiting for me. The Oriental rug, specially fitted and pinned back by a thin gold rod at the crook of each step, absorbs the sound of my footsteps as I catch up to him.
“Sorry, I’m nervous. The weather, the long trip—I’m overtired, I’m sure,” I lie again.
“No apologies necessary, Madame,” he says, which sounds not at all true.
Lightning flashes again as we hit the landing by the beautiful stained glass window and startles me. We go left where the stairs split. Once at the top, I stop by the banister that looks over the large floor my high heels just battered. From up here, the floral design of the wood inlays on the shiny floor below can be appreciated. Stretching effortlessly across, the timbered pattern’s liquid-like curves arch out in a continuation of the stair and balustrade’s outward spiral.
The low-lit corridor to our right leads to the east wing of the mansion. High above us hang immaculately clean, miniature crystal chandeliers. They are no brighter than a couple of candles but sparkle like little, independent galaxies. The corridor is as wide as the entire street my apartment sits on back home.
Along both sides are large double-doors, spaced about twenty feet apart and expertly stained with a shiny, dark, chocolate-brown finish. The wainscoting along the bottom half of the walls are the same rich wood as the massive doors. They’re even carved, quite literally, in my humble opinion, like chocolate bar sections. I might have chocolate on the brain… I blame it on the nerves. I’m completely out of my realm around such luxuriousness.
“I figured you would know about the house and its history,” I chime, shamelessly sucking up once I finish ogling my surroundings. “I guess I just like to chit-chat; it calms me.”
“It’s true, I know a great deal about the estate. However, Master Brighton Calderwood is more appropriately appointed to share with you its rich history, and eager to do so. I wouldn’t dream of taking away that privilege.”
“Oh. Er, of course...sir—” What the hell does one call a butler? “—I’m sorry. I’m not sure how to address you. I’ve never had a servant before and—”
The butler spins on his heel to face me and I nearly run into him.
“Madame, you misunderstand. I am here to serve you. I am not your servant.” His words are spoken staccato. Yup, he is definitely agitated.
He turns and continues walking down the long corridor. I exhale and roll my eyes. Great start.
“That’s not what I meant to say. Of course, I—”
“Of course.” He turns and stops at the first door on the right.
“I’m just trying to be friendly, it’s—”
“Very good, Madame,” his raspy voice wheezes abruptly. It’s record timing for me getting on someone’s bad side. I’m used to having to beat the older men off with a stick. I always figured it was due to my red hair. It seems to be a feature that conjures up a lot of memories from their youth. I guess that’s just an American thing.
“We have arrived at your quarters. May I present to you, Lady Angelica Marie Calderwood’s room.” The butler pushes the door open and motions for me to enter.
I recognized the name; she was Brighton’s great-great aunt.
My assigned room is decadently drenched in roses, from rose wallpaper, to a rose bedspread, right down to an Oriental rug laying across the hardwood floor that’s embroidered with a twisting, wild vine blooming with white roses.
Oh but it doesn’t end there; the fireplace mantle is competently carved to look like a climbing rose bush, the pillows and bedspread are the same rose fabric, but the curtains match only by colors and tones, as its rose pattern is unique unto itself. Where the candle sconces sprout from the walls and burn softly, the rosy floral pattern on the walls is visible, their hue far more subtle in monochromatic, deep reds.
The rouge, mauves, and maroons everywhere in this room glow intensely in the light of the crackling fireplace. Only the furthest corners, hidden in the shadows of the ornate, four-poster bed and the velvety chaise lounge, seem to blend abstractly into plain darkness.
It was truly breathtaking…in that old-fashioned, smothering sort of way.
You would think at some point that having roses on everything would be overkill, but this room proved that once you pass a certain threshold, the repetitive floral pattern begins to take on a life of its own until one feels as though they’re nestled within an English garden whose blooms are bursting at the seams.
Speaking of, there is a large exorbitant crystal vase filled with blush-pink roses sitting on the antique vanity by the window. I thought it was my imagination when I inhaled their sweet fragrance walking in here.
“I trust you will find everything you need, Madame, but if there is anything else you shall require you may call upon me, here.”
The butler gestures to a small metal box on the wall beside the bedroom door. In the center of that box is a shiny black button. A thin, somewhat crinkled, wire runs straight up from the box and is neatly stapled against the wall until it disappears beneath the crown molding. It looks like it may have been an ‘update’ installed in the 1800s. Given the age of the home, it’s quite probable it was to replace the older method of ropes and bells.
“My name is Alfred, if you should so call. I will leave you to prepare for bedtime, unless there is anything else?”
“Wh—bedtime? What time is it?” I ask. I didn’t think it was that late already. My cell phone is folded somewhere in my jacket at the moment.
“It is twenty to eight, Madame.”
“It’s not even eight yet? Is there somewhere I could get a bite to eat perhaps?”
“Most certainly, Madame. I shall have the kitchen prepare a meal for you and have it sent up immediately.”
“So, what you’re saying is…I can’t leave this room?” I smile nervously.
“It is recommended that you do not, Madame.”
“Recommended?” That’s an odd way to put it. “By whom?”
“Master Brighton, Madame. Until he has had a chance to show you around properly, he would ask that you remain here. Given the size of the estate, he fears you may become disoriented should you venture without an escort.”
Something about that strikes me as arrogant. Or sexist. Or both. But I ignore it for now.
“Oh.” I frown.
“As there are some rooms that remain off limits to guests,” he adds, perhaps reading my skepticism.
There’s no question this is a large place, and since it’s a private residence and not open, like a hotel, I guess it’s a reasonable enough request. Doesn't mean it’s not completely inconvenient, but, who am I to question a man on his own property. I’ll adhere to the curfew for now but if Brighton Calderwood thinks he’s going to lock me up like Rapunzel for two weeks, he has another thing coming.
“Where is Master Brighton?” I ask.
“Regretfully, he has been detained by the storm just outside of Luxembourg. He has asked me to convey his sincerest apology that he could not greet you on the night of your arrival and assures you that he looks forward to meeting you tomorrow morning.”
“At what time, did he mention?” I try to mask my annoyance at being stuck in here until tomorrow. At least Brighton sounds like he’s enjoying his evening.
“One of our maids has been enlisted to tend to you and will be at your service momentarily.” Alfred swung a brief but hard look at me on the word ‘service’ before his eyes returned to an imaginary spot above the fireplace. It was so split-second I almost missed it. “She will be the one to coordinate the breakfast schedule and inform you as to the time Master Brighton will receive you. In the meantime, I will assist in ensuring you get settled in properly. A variety of amenities have been made available for your convenience, including sleepwear, toiletries and hygiene, and light entertainment.” He gestures to a small bookshelf. “You shall find each in their respective places about your quarters. Madame, while I have your meal prepared, are there any allergies we should take care to note for your duration?” Alfred finishes.
“Uh...no.” I busy myself looking around for these so-called amenities.
“Very good. You will be served a light dinner shortly. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“Thank you.” I quickly search the room in case I find something I need assistance with now rather than at midnight to avoid having to wake anyone up—especially if it’s Alfred.
When I turn back around, Alfred is gone and the door is shut.
“Lovely. Thanks Alfred. Leave me hangin’,” I mutter sarcastically. This is going to be a long night.