If you enjoy my short stories, you can find ‘Christmas Rebellion,’ describing Santa’s problems, featured in the fantastic online magazine Autumn Chickens. Sign up for their free newsletter and join over 3,000 others who appreciate the wide range of features including books, prize draws and opinions, mainly aimed at the older reader, but open to all.
Part 2 of the short story ‘Best Man,‘ begun last week, continues below.
No one answered, although the shadow seemed to quiver. Summoning up my courage I snatched the poker from the old-fashioned fireplace, and with a show of bravado swept back the curtains. My heart stopped at the sight in front of me, and then I had to laugh at being such a wuss. It was only my overcoat, swaying gently in the breeze from the open window, with my shoes neatly placed on the floor below, giving the impression of a tall man standing there.
Closing the window, I peered out into the now dark grounds, and thought I saw a figure hurrying through the trees. “It must be my imagination working overtime,” I decided, until I remembered I hadn’t unpacked my coat from the suitcase. Perhaps one of the servants had been in, but if so, why hadn’t they hung the rest of my clothes in the wardrobe? Checking the door was locked, I returned to bed for a few more fitful hours of sleep. A hazy sun filtering through the partly opened curtains woke me early the next morning, and bleary-eyed I descended the stairs in search of coffee and breakfast.
‘Good morning, sir. What may I do for you?’
The voice made me jump as I hadn’t passed any doors, or heard anyone come up behind me. Despite the early hour, the man standing there was already dressed in a butler’s uniform. The black suit contrasted with his very pale skin, and although I was over six foot, he towered above me.
‘I was looking for the kitchen,’ I said. ‘Could you point me in the right direction?’
‘If you would be so good as to follow me, Sir,’ he replied, ‘the dining room is this way. Master Nicholas awaits your presence.’
It felt odd to hear my hard-drinking, rugby playing, womanising friend referred to as Master Nicholas, and I couldn’t wait to meet the lady who had caused such a transformation in his nature. The man servant led me into a beautiful room, made dim by the dark, heavy drapes covering the windows. The solid oak table in the centre would easily hold 30 or 40 people, and Nick looked rather lost sitting alone at one end.
‘Morning, Donn,’ he called as I made my way towards him through the gloom. ‘Did you sleep well?’
‘Morning, Nick. A bit restless, but this place is enough to get the imagination working overtime. Where is everyone? I thought I’d meet your fiancée this morning, or are you thinking it’s bad luck to see the bride on her wedding day?’
‘We’re not superstitious,’ Nick laughed. ‘You can’t afford to be in a place like this, or you’d go crazy. Lilith isn’t a morning person, but you’ll meet her at the ceremony.’
‘What time’s it taking place? You haven’t really told me any details.’
‘Not until tonight, so we’ve got the whole day before us. I’m really pleased you made it, otherwise all the guests would be from her side. I’ve rather lost track of the old gang since she appeared on the scene. Have some breakfast and I’ll give you the guided tour while there’s no one about.’
I like a steak as much as the next man, but the pile of raw meat under one of the covers didn’t look enticing. As I settled for coffee and toast, I presumed I was supposed to make my choice, then ring for one of the flunkies to take it to the kitchen to be cooked. Perhaps there were advantages to this lifestyle and being waited on hand and foot, but I could imagine it getting lonely.
‘Are you going to live here once you’re married?’ I asked Nick as he showed me round. ‘What about your old job? Are you going back to it after the honeymoon?’
‘No, I’ll be based here and joining the family business. It’s a bit like Hotel California. Come this way, I want to show you something in the old part of the building.’
Rather than return upstairs, he led me through a maze of winding, twisted corridors until we were facing another solid oak door. Taking a huge brass key from his pocket, he inserted it into the lock and picked up a torch from just inside.
‘Watch your head,’ he warned. ‘The ceiling is quite low from here, and we haven’t installed electricity in this part yet.’
I followed him down the rough stone steps until we emerged into an enormous space, with huge pillars, and unidentifiable concrete blocks scattered about. Nick seemed to know his way around, but I struggled to keep up with his fast pace, and had no chance of examining anything if I wanted to stay within the sphere of the torchlight. It was only when I stubbed my toe on a loose stone and yelled that he slowed down.
‘You OK? It’s not far now.’
‘Yeah. What is this place? It’s like an enormous dungeon. I wouldn’t fancy being trapped down here.’
‘The official version is it was where all the original steam and coal boilers were located, but it’s had other uses over the years. I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess what. Thank God for central heating. Here we are. Prepare for a surprise.’
Pushing open a solid, if slightly warped, oak door, Nick led me along another passage until we emerged into a high-galleried room. For a moment I was left in darkness until gradually one after another, lights appeared until the circle was complete and he returned to my side and extinguished the torch.
‘The old gas lamps down here still work. It’s pretty magical isn’t it?’
I had to agree with him as I looked round the room. The subdued lighting enhanced the patina of the paintings, which despite their dark colours and old-fashioned subjects looked fresh and vibrant.
‘Wow! These are fantastic,’ I said, as I moved closer to examine them in more detail. In most places there were three tiers, so the ones nearer the ceiling were harder to see, but those at eye level showed the mastery of the artist. ‘They have a similar style, but they couldn’t all have been painted by the same person.’
‘The family business is ancient works of art, but you’re right. These are the personal collection of various ancestors, and were done by three generations. The gift is handed down from father to son, or occasionally son-in-law. It’s a bit complicated. I’ll explain another time, but I’ve lots more to show you yet, and time’s passing. Come on.’
Closing and locking the door behind him, he led me further along the corridor before selecting another large key from his pocket, and we entered a second room which reminded me of a cross between a sculptor’s studio and Madame Tussaud’s. In the far corner were two gigantic wood-fired ovens, various shelves were full of glass jars with misty contents, and several statues in various stages of completion lined some of the walls.
‘Don’t touch that.’ Nick’s shout made me jump back from what looked to be a glass lined, metal container. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you but there’s acid in there, and I want my best man complete with all his fingers. Talking of which, it’s about time we started getting ready.’
Final part next week. Well, you’ve got to have a spooky story for Christmas. 😀
© Voinks August 2019