Thursday, 20 September 2007

An hour alone in the Macauley House

I visited the deserted Macauley house today, having been deputed to do so by Rose, who left me with a key and asked me if I would go in there and check that everything was just as it should be before Lady Macauley’s return, which she believes to be imminent. It is a little service that Rose generally performs herself. The elderly Downeys who keep house there are all very well, she tells me, but they are growing old and slipshod, and can no longer be entirely counted upon to get things right.

It’s just a question of seeing that windows have been opened and beds properly aired, I was advised. Of checking that the refrigerator is stocked with essential items, and perhaps of gathering a bunch or two of fresh flowers from Belle’s garden - scented ones if possible, to dispel the mustiness that always seems to accumulate in the old house after an absence of any duration. Oh, and of plumping cushions everywhere, Rose added as an afterthought. There is nothing which offends Lady Macauley quite so much as a cushion that looks as if it had been sat upon lately by someone else!

I was glad enough to go. The days have been hanging rather heavily on me, if the truth be known; and I had a certain curiosity besides, to see just how the old house functions in Lady Macauley’s absence. I have never quite been able to understand how two women can exist comfortably in so large, and inconvenient a place; it seems to me they inhabit just one small corner of it these days, and that it must be the old lady’s indomitable spirit alone, which keeps things going. I went there in the early afternoon, by which time I knew that the Downeys would have completed their own duties and retired, exhausted, to their quarters on the second floor. I entered by way of the heavy black door that opens out of the kitchen yard, and stood a moment in the dim passageway while my eyes adjusted to the change of light.

This part of the house is the old servants’ quarters, now become Belle’s own domain. A series of small, square, dark-panelled rooms opening out of one another; still bearing names like the sewing room, and the housekeeper’s room, and the butler’s parlour – and giving rise, eventually, to the short flight of creaking wooden stairs that leads down to the basement. Where Jack Macauley long ago created what was then his impressively modern and capacious kitchen, and where Belle, these days, is accustomed to seek what hours of respite she can from her mother’s continuing demands.

I could see why Belle is so fond of the basement rooms. The afternoon sun finds its way down there through a series of surprisingly large, if heavily barred windows; they give the basement something of the aspect of a dungeon when viewed from outside, yet seen from within are altogether cheerful and friendly - especially when the sun streams in so very pleasantly, as it did for me today. Here, I thought, standing to gaze and drink in the atmosphere for a while, must Belle have passed so many of the hours of her lonely girlhood and early womanhood. Here, perhaps, had she dreamed what must often have seemed her foolish, fruitless dreams: despaired of at last by her mother, pitied by other, more overtly successful women, especially Rose. Here, had she begun to suppose that life had passed her by forever, and she must end her days alone. And here, lately, had she finally come with Bill. To sit quietly over tea after walking the dogs; to warm themselves beside the open range in winter, and in the sun of summer - and to find friendship, and then love, blossoming unexpectedly at last.

Why then, when the rooms down there were so pleasant ( and there is another, across from the kitchen on the garden side, a bright little room bathed in afternoon light, and scented by the lavender that grows in boxes on the windowsill; Belle uses it as her private sitting room and occasional bedroom, and it was the place, I felt certain,to which she had probably brought Bill, on the afternoon of Lady Macauley’s birthday party) .... Why, when everything there seemed bathed in the light of Belle’s happy change of circumstance, did I have the vague sense that everything was about to change; that events were spinning out of my, out of everyone’s control, and nothing would ever be quite the same again?

I seem to remember that I shivered a little, in the warmth of the sun. And closed the door of Belle’s inner sanctum; feeling I had no place there, but ought to go quietly away, leaving it to await her own return with Bill. I returned, myself, briefly to the kitchen; checking that the refrigerator was stocked with the items Rose had enumerated, that the windows had evidently been opened and closed that day, and that a small bowl of garden flowers stood on the dresser, and another, larger one, in the middle of the table.... The Downeys had evidently done their work a good deal better than Rose had foreseen, I observed; and then I hurried away, back up the creaking stairs, and through the heavy swing door that gave admittance to the hall.

This is the grand, the formal part of the house. Still known to Lady Macauley as the state apartments; where she herself is accustomed to find a cushioned sofa in a sunny corner in which to sit, or hold court in the afternoons - and where Jack Macauley’s improvements seem to have had least, or least sustainable effect. It was curious to me to see how stoutly this part of the house had resisted the effects of modernisation. It must have been extensively altered, and made homely enough once, I thought. The Macauleys had lived here as a family after all, for almost forty years: there must once have been friendly chairs, and well-loved ornaments, and all the cosy accoutrements of ordinary family life. But somehow, the old atmosphere, the old high-backed chairs and pompous cabinets had crept back. So that it was not Macauley shadows, but the shadows of figures from a more distant, forgotten past, that I most seemed to apprehend there today. The house had had its inexorable way, I thought: had reverted back by some unfathomable process of its own to a period that existed long before Jack Macauley came to put his stamp on it.

This is also the part of the house where the old chapel used to be, of course; where patches of coldness still exist, and Lady Macauley had felt the lingering presence of the ghostly priest. And though the chapel itself has long since gone; swept up into the body of the hall, its presence further neutralised lately by lavish application of the cream-coloured paint that David Porteous advocated; and made cheerful enough today by arrangements of expensively authentic-looking artificial flowers in coloured bowls... though all these things have been accomplished and the sun streamed in, yet I sensed the coldness still, and found myself glancing backwards now and then, as I climbed the ornate staircase to the upper rooms.

It was in Lady Macauley’s private apartments on the first floor that I experienced the strongest intimation yet that everything was about to change. How it was going to change I couldn’t have said. Only that everything here seemed poised and waiting – the very tapestries on the wall, the drawn window curtains, and Lady Macauley’s silk negligée, hanging on her dressing room door. It was pure impulse, I think, which prompted me to fold down a corner of the bed-covers, to take up the silk negligée, folding it neatly, and draping it against the massed cushions on her bed. Impulse too perhaps, which drove me down into the garden to gather an armful of late-flowering yellow roses, and make a pretty display of them beside the bed.

The effect was a happy one, dispelling shadows, and restoring a sense of normality to the scene. So that I was able to close the door and take my leave, without any sense that I had intruded; without apprehension, or any looking back. Here at least, I thought, was the presence only of Lady Macauley. The old lady herself was everywhere - and so, in some scarcely calculable way, was her beloved Jack. Which seemed proof enough to me that change might come, and probably would; but that human love and the human spirit were virtually inextinguishable, when only they were strong enough. I let myself out of the back door of the house again with equanimity quite restored. I would never see the old place in just that way again perhaps – but suddenly it no longer mattered, since whatever came next was likely to be so very much better.

On reflection, this seems the better place in which to end Part Two. The third, and final part, will therefore begin with the next instalment.