To read Part 1, go here.
I had stumbled upon it while searching for my pet ferret Lila, who liked to run away all the time. That time I feared the kitchen cat had chased her into even deeper hiding than usual.
The secret was a dressing table, made of rich mahogany, inlaid with nacre and gold leaves. A rococo jewel for a lady’s boudoir not for a decrepit attic. Where a mirror should have been, the oval frame, covered in a black sheer veil, held the portrait of a woman – at first I thought I had glimpsed my reflection in it until I noticed its coloured immobility.
Unease at this strangeness clasped my heart.
“Lila!” I called, my shaky voice muffled by the soft debris of years.
Only the bats squeaked. A draught prickled the skin on my neck.
Reason insisted I should leave. I got closer.
There was a matching stool in front of the table, covered in what used to be white damask. I sat on it, my shallow breathing entirely too noisy, while I gathered the resolve to lift the veil. It partly disintegrated in my hands, and I drew back sharply, repulsed by its soft sticky feel of crow silk, of sepulchral shroud.
The painting was amateurish, in rough traits and colours too raw, yet the artist had managed to convey... his love, I thought, of all things. Yet the young woman’s perfect beauty was not kind to the spectator’s soul. The harmony seemed somehow tinged, incomplete. The face was vaguely familiar, and I realised that it represented the woman in the great hall, my great-great-aunt Antoinette as I was going to find out later.
Yellowed candle ends, grotesquely thickened by blobs of long melted wax, stood in a semicircle in front of the portrait.
Other objects were spread on the dressing table. A gold hairpin, almost buried in dust. A hairbrush, that I didn’t dare touch, holding a single black hair. A string of pearls. An empty perfume bottle made of thick Bohemian crystal.
Without thinking, I lifted the ornate silver cork and brought my nose to the small bottle. How could it be? The fragrance was strong, a mix of lilacs and lily of the valley, as if the perfume in it were still fresh.
Suddenly it occurred to me that the black veil was a bereavement veil and the dressing table a pagan shrine. Had a desperate lover, no doubt an obscure servant in the household, consumed here his untold adoration? His tearing pain at her death? Were these objects that he had gathered, stolen even, only to transform them into the paraphernalia of his worship?
The air seemed heavy with pain, or passion, or death – suddenly too dense to endure, suffocating. I dropped the cork on the table and fled.
I told no one about this and decided not to return. Despite this, I was back the next morning. And the next. And the next.
Every day I felt more familiar with the place, more at… home.
Every day I returned downstairs a little later, not wishing to leave at all, and spent my evenings in sickly reveries or pestering Mrs. Adair with questions whose purpose nobody could have fathomed.
Every day I made a discovery. The cork was back in its place. Objects I hadn’t noticed the day before were suddenly lying on the table or in half-open drawers. However, I was not of the distracted kind. I was thorough, I was neat, I was logical, and I prided myself with this. Nobody could have come there because in the all-encompassing dust there were no other traces but mine. Yet, drawers I was certain I had closed lay invitingly open. The veil I thought I had pulled down over the portrait before leaving was partly lifted, revealing a mischievous eye.
I blamed this confusion, this lost trace of time on the half-trance induced in my brain by the stale air, by the muffled silence, by the heavily filtered daylight. It had to be I who put them there, only I, who mesmerised by an object, spent often hours holding it, or simply looking at it.
One day it was a small silver broach adorned with rubies, on another a scarf of green silk, then a book of William Blake’s poems – a dedication inside in a flowery woman’s handwriting, To Antoinette, Love, Mother – or a pair of antelope gloves embroidered with silk and pearls, a broken fountain pen, a torn slipper...
A hundred times, I resolved not to go there anymore and every day I sneaked back, not able to resist the odd sick spell the place cast on me.
To be continued...