The Holiday Home Tour
Negotiating the icy cobblestones that led to the front door of Buckden House was a tricky business and Margaret was nearly there before she realized the crowd she had expected was nowhere to be seen. In fact, she soon found herself standing quite alone at the bottom of the steep stone stairs leading up to the heavily carved front door. There upon it, hanging from a silk cord the colour of mahogany, was a plain wreath of noble fir, (obviously not a Stonefield design) but nothing else to signify holiday festivity of any kind. Margaret reached into her pocket and pulled out the holiday tour brochure to make certain she had the right day, clumsily opening it up with her red-gloved hands. Yes, there was the date plainly written, December 12th, ten to two. She turned to look over her shoulder but no one was following her up the drive; she could see nary a soul coming along down Simpson Street. Margaret sighed. It was impossible she had the wrong day, equally impossible she was too early; the tour was scheduled to begin in ten minutes. Standing so close to the house she’d dreamed about since childhood gave her more confidence than she’d normally have possessed in such odd circumstances, so she squared her shoulders, marched up the stairs and raised her hand to rap loudly on the door. Before her gloved hand could accomplish that mission however, the door slowly, almost nonchalantly, opened a crack.
Margaret froze, red-gloved hand still raised. Through the tiny crack in the heavy door she could smell a hint of , ... oh, what was it? Lilac? Rose? No, gardenia. That was it. Odd to have gardenias at Christmastime. Timidly, she reached out and nudged the door open a bit wider. She peeked inside. There was no one there. No smiling docent dressed in holiday colours to welcome her in and take her tour ticket. No other tour patrons milling about in the entry. The hall lay dark and empty before her. Overwhelmed by a curiosity she couldn’t deny, Margaret stuck her head around the door then, holding her handbag to her chest, she took a step into the hall.
A single lamp, its glass shade reverse painted with forest scenes and deer, cast a faded light over a long wooden entry hall table. Directly in front of her, a carpeted stairway rose up into darkness. The conservatory lay to her right, its stained glass dull and opaque in the dim light of the icy morning. Looking to her left she saw a long shadowy room, its walls lined with William Morris wallpaper and many tall bookshelves. A grand piano sat in the corner by one of the mullioned windows, draped in a silk shawl embroidered in flowers of fuschia and crimson. There were capacious high backed chairs arranged throughout the room upholstered in red damask and soaring shadows cast by a crackling fire in a massive stone fireplace moved about the walls like grey-gowned dancers. From somewhere in the house came the sound of music playing. Margaret strained to listen. It was a tune she recognized. Mozart? No. Oh yes, she knew it now... Saint-Saens Dance Macabre. What a strange piece to be playing during a Christmas home tour.
She called out in a soft voice.
“Hello? Anyone here?”
Margaret stepped tentatively into the room. To her right by the doorway was an octagonal burl wood table on which sat a large collection of silver and gold picture frames. She bent down to get a closer look. A series of faces gazed back into hers. Here, a regal looking gentleman in an Egyptian kalasiris stared out at her, his black eyes warmly kind. There, a beautiful woman in Victorian dress holding the lead of a lanky Irish Wolfhound. A smiling raven-haired child sitting atop a white pony. On a rocky beach, a tall willowy lady was laughing as she looked back over her shoulder at the camera pointed her way. And was that... could that be...? Yes, there in a freshly polished silver frame sat a photograph of Virginia Woolf wearing an expression that could only be described as a grin. Her curiosity superseding her confusion, Margaret stood up straight and looked around. She listened. Still no other sound but Saint-Saens. She followed her drifting, dazzled gaze over to the many colourful spines of the volumes lined up on the bookshelves. Most, she saw, were classics. Lifting out a weathered leather copy of Twelfth Night, she turned it over and over in her hands. She opened it up, rubbing the fine parchment between her fingers. With astonishment, she then noticed an autograph scrawled on the frontispiece.
W. Shakespeare. It couldn’t be? Could it?
Just as she heard a distinct rise in the volume of the music, Margaret also heard footsteps; the clickety clack of ladies’ heels, hurrying along a corridor somewhere beyond the end of the room. Her heart began to beat faster. Whoever it was was coming this way. Suddenly, the door behind the piano burst open and two young women flew threw on a cloud of gardenia scented air. Both were in dresses of pale pink satin, bias-cut,with masses of white pearls strung casually round their necks. Their hair hung down in dark curls and their lips were red as cherries. They were the most gorgeous girls Margaret had ever seen in her life. They practically shone.
“Oh Margaret, you’ve finally arrived! We were so worried you wouldn’t find the way!”
“Stella, look! She has the invitation! I told you that would work”.
Margaret instinctively looked down at her holiday brochure, crumpled in her red-gloved hands and stepped back a step. But the two women reached out for her, taking hold of her arms saying,
“We’ll have to hurry to get you ready in time. Mathieu has just finished your gown, and wait till you see it! You’ll be the most sublimely dressed one at the party. Come ON, Margaret! This way..”
Stunned to numbness, Margaret found herself following along behind the beautiful creatures at a clip. Out into the entry hall and up the carved staircase where, she noticed in passing, lights were now glowing from every available surface. Catching a glimpse into the conservatory, she saw the stained glass was now technicolour; the room afire with rainbows. Two flights up, they turned, almost at a run now, down a hallway papered in pink and green flowers. Dahlias and roses, peonies and lamb’s ears. Everywhere. Margaret’s head was turning this way and that to get a good look at it all when all at once the girls stopped short at a tall dark door. Flinging it open, they pushed her inside.
“ Here we are. This is your room and, for goodness sakes, get ready as quickly as you can! The music starts in ten minutes and you simply cannot be late! You’ll have everything you need and we’ll meet you in the garden when you’re done. Ten minutes, now Margaret!”
“Oh and it’s just lovely to see you finally! You’re just as lovely as we imagined you’d be!”
The door shut with a click behind them and Margaret turned to face a room unlike any other she’d entered in the whole of her life. A gilded light flooded through floor length windows, transforming everything, from chair to candlestick, to shining gold. Light pooled on each gleaming surface of the polished wood furniture like cupfuls of honey in morning sun. The four-poster bed was dressed in a pink so pale it could almost be white; the sort of pink that fills the sky in that one single second just before summer dawn. Lying across the foot of the bed was a gown that could only be described as unique. Margaret had never seen one to equal it, not even in the glossiest of fashion magazines. With a dark aubergine velvet skirt and a bodice of emerald green feathers, it looked as though a magnificent bird had landed atop the lavishly draped bed. Surely she wasn’t expected to put this dress on.
Convinced completely now that she’d never even awakened this morning, that she was still deep within a dream brought on by the weather or an impending virus of some sort, she decided she’d just go ahead and try the dress on. Pulling off her red gloves, unbuttoning her hooded coat, she giggled to herself at the silliness of it all. The emerald feathers tickled her neck as she slipped the exquisite frock over her head. The dress fit like a dream, which of course, Margaret thought, it would, considering it was one.
Turning around to look for a mirror, she noticed there was no one to be seen. She moved to the trio of shining windows at the back of the room but her reflection was invisible in the glowing light streaming in from the garden. Margaret gazed down upon a wondrous scene. A Halloween party, it had to be. Fat orange Chinese lanterns hung in a forest of scarlet-leafed trees. A tuxedoed orchestra was taking its seat on a stage draped in fairy lights and flowers. There were tables bedecked with tapestry cloths and white pumpkins, towering cakes with snowy icing and crystal glass bowls of pink wine. She could see bannered boats on Grove Lake, drifting lazily along as the laughter of their sailors floated in towards her ear.
Margaret’s hands held folds of her aubergine velvet gown. She couldn’t even begin to think clearly. At the very same moment she noticed, over in the corner, a familiar red tartan bed, she heard a faint scratching at the door of the room. She crossed quickly to the door and threw it open. In trotted Emmett, heading for the dog bed where he plopped down with a contented sigh. Margaret stood still, her mouth agape.
She began to hear, faintly at first, then clearer and clearer, a chorus of voices calling her name and so went back to the window and peered out to the garden. There, such an array of unusual faces looked up her way, glasses raised, smiling and laughing. People of every colour, every age, all in exotic finery much like her own. All were smiling up at her window.
“Come out Margaret! It’s time!” A chorus of voices traveled up from the garden.
Margaret patted Emmett on his little brown head and turned at once for the door, her skirts floating over the floor like a soft wind off the lake.
In the late afternoon of December 12th, Graham Stonefield and his little brother, Michael, were delivering Christmas wreaths to the houses of Simpson Street, a task they enjoyed each year. People always loved to see the brothers during the holiday season. The lavish handmade wreaths from the Stonefield Farm were a treat unique to Grove Hill and a tradition much prized by the neighbours on Simpson Street. The boys earned enough money in one week to keep them in comic books and DVD’s for the rest of the year. The temperature was dropping now, and Graham had just decided to wait till the hopefully warmer next morning to complete their deliveries, when he noticed Michael standing at the gates of old Buckden House.
“Shame about that place. Someone should fix it up. It’s just falling in”, said Graham.
“Yeah”, Michael replied. He so longed to see inside. He always had.
“Come on,” yelled Graham, his voice muffled in the icy wind.
Reluctantly, Michael Stonefield turned to leave the gates of Buckden House, his booted foot trodding on one unnoticed red fair isle glove as he ran.