Sure enough, as detailed by the attendant himself, a short way down the road, a little dirt track strayed off to the right, flanked by a gatehouse either side, and a writhed open set of iron gates proved the tempting ingress for the curious traveler.
The houses themselves were in a frankly awful state of condition. The windows were smashed, the doors kicked open, and ivy clung to every crevice that it could, adding to the somewhat foreboding visual conception of the entrance.
“That’s not our house, is it?” Scarlett pointed to the left building and looked with nervous intent, an uneasy quiver rustling through her voice.
“I hope not!” Elly joked, taking more time to inspect the details which the houses held within them, “It’s bloody falling apart!” She chuckled, as did we.
“Our house must be a little way down the path.” I pointed down the track, slicing through the ashes and oaks, running down besides the railway.
We pressed on a little further, taking care not to plunge our footwear into the murky puddles which appeared here and there, whilst also not allowing the dogs to stray too far away from us, as well as too close to the railway.
The sounds were marvelous. Pigeons cooing in the distance, the rustling of leaves in the trees, and the gentle puffing of a steam train coming nearer. It was all too surreal.
The view ahead never changed either. The trees were always replaced with new ones once we passed them, creating a mirage of ochre and auburn, autumn’s true beauty being portrayed in this canvas-like landscape.
With our suitcases held high enough to eliminate the threat of spoiling them in the dirt, we waited in anticipation as something began to emerge beyond the phantasm ahead.
The stone building emerged from the forest like a sunken wreck from the deep. A once grand splendor of Palladian Architecture. Four limestone columns rose to support the large portico which layered upon the front entrance.
We came towards the immediate façade of the building, and gazed in amazement at the manor. It wasn’t particularly all that large, but its features made it stand out as one of the most splendid homes I had ever witnessed.
For one, a large Venetian window stood immediately above the pediment, offering a spectacular view over the grounds behind us – on a clearer day perhaps.
The pediment was another truly brilliant piece. It showed, standing out for almost five-hundred years, the coat of arms of the presumable owners of the house: A shield flanked by demon-like creatures either side, with the words – though slightly worn away – Gott schützt die starken engraved into the stone.
Being a skilled German student in my younger days, this was easily decipherable as God protects the strong ones, a bold and brave motto for a family of such standing.
Directly under the motto, were a set of Roman numerals – MCDXII – also translatable to the year fourteen-twelve, the presumable time of initial build – or at least a possible refurbishment.
“Wow…” Elly just gaped in awe of the magnificence and glory the structure projected. The color, the age, the true beauty, it was all there, even if covered by a renovation.
“Well, girls.” I turned to the others behind us, before making my way up the stairs to the front door, “Here we are. This’ll be our house for the time being.”
As the sun began to crest gently on the horizon to our right – over the railway track – I began with a nod back to my youth upon knocking on the door: Shave and a Haircut.
The classic childhood memory, it rang through the oak door like a reminiscence, floating through one’s mind, until I realized that, thankfully, there was no reply.
“That’s a good sign.” I turned to the others, standing in anticipation of this great marvel, ready to step inside as the dogs charged around the grounds, “No ghosts.”
The wooden edifice creaked open slowly as I gently pushed my hand against it, and with great eagerness we stared in awe as the entrance hall came into view.
The blue-gray color upon the walls was slowly peeling off in many places, and was pocked with the occasional spot of mold in others.
The smell, of newly-placed freshened plants was but overwhelmed by the aroma of a growing fungus, and the air was stagnant due to the closed doors, adding to the forthrightly unpleasant odor.
The exposed floorboards, primarily of pine, creaked under the weight of our feet and ricocheted as the dogs pondered over it in quick succession.
Directly in front of us, in the center of the foyer, stood a medieval library table of outstanding grandeur.
It was of oak build and rectangular form, the molded top inlaid with a brass frieze of foliate scrolls flanked by trefoil roundels, raised on gothic tracery-carved end standards of hourglass form centering a gilded shield with the some sort of emblem of a ‘garb’ or wheatsheaf, joined by a stretcher on leaf carved feet.
On it was placed an ornamental and embroidered tablecloth, Aged, battered and of formidable feudal bravura. On top of this lay a few pieces of parchment, a handful of candles and a pack of matches.
We did however, while engrossed in the palatial construction of this great building, only glance at the table for a few seconds, before Elly spoke to me.
“I think its best if we find our rooms first. That way we’ll know where we’re sleeping tonight.” She tried to be quiet, but the space of the lobby threatened her with an incomparable resonance.
“That sounds a plan.” I admired the architecture before I turned to the adolescents, “Don’t drop your suitcases, girls.” I told them, “We’ll get you in your rooms first.”
The scope of the building had overawed them as well, it seemed, as they did nothing but nod, the door slowly swinging shut behind them as we walked leisurely towards the stairs, meandering around the desk.
Either side of the stairs were a pair of parallel corridors, each running down to the kitchen behind, and had two arched and stained glass windows each which intersected the angle of the stairs, allowing as much natural light as the venetian windows atop the lower landing could offer.
These doors on their own were very ornate and patterned themselves. Their entablatures were decorated with carvings and sculptures which could only be described as medieval figures, giving the impressions that maybe the original structure had been several centuries older than first expected.
There were also two more doors on the ground floor: one off to the right and another to the left, presumably to two reception or living rooms. These in contrary were high double doors, like one would imagine in such a château.
Paintings and tapestries almost completely concealed the walls around the hall. Royal portraits, landscapes and the odd drapery were laid nearly end-to-end along the wall, grubby and venerable from the years – or maybe even epochs – they had endured.
Slowly we walked up the stairs, our boots and shoes echoing on the hard wood, suddenly groaning under the abrupt weightiness of our boots and shoes.
The Venetian window on the lower landing was definitely something else. Its broad arched central section loomed over the two smaller flat-headed side segments, allowing light to flood in from all angles.
From that, the stairs angled off to the left and ran along the first floor balcony, circling around to the right, where it carried off down a long corridor.
As we reached the top, once more the uniform style became somewhat monotonous, yet still remained the beautiful gothic elegance, keeping in time with the rest of the hall.
As detailed before, there was no corridor off to the right, but instead it orbited off to the left, where two rooms were situated along the east wing, before meeting the south Venetian window.
The balusters were individually carved out of the finest oak available, and were topped with a lining of antiquated and gothic ebony for the handrail, intersected with the odd column every so often.
“Here we are…” I approached the first set of doors on the right of us as we departed the stairs. They, like all of the doors on the first floor, were doubled to give a certain panache, which blended in with the rest of the house, “Hopefully, this should be one of the bedrooms.” I pushed the doors, and with a slightly harder budge, they reluctantly opened, catching the floorboards on their swing.
Sure enough, it was. Albeit slightly cluttered with books, furniture as well as anything else that had no room anyplace else, it was quite an elegant room.
Despite the look from the exterior, it wasn’t as large as we had at first expected, but was certainly large enough to be considered a bedroom, especially with the beds snuggled in tightly.
They were a pair of four-poster beds, each side of the tall window which opened onto the east balcony, and were both partnered with a chest of drawers at the end of each.
There was no sort of covering on the floor at all, and the clutter seemed to be clothed wholly with drapes of white sheet. They were completely caked in dust, and gave a somewhat spooky or ominous tone to the room, but the girls didn’t mind one bit.
All they cared about was the royalty that this house seemed to emanate. The princess image was one which they heavily enjoyed, and this house – with its dollhouse appearance – was something they were personally looking forward to.
Despite the cobwebs hanging from all corners of the room, and the eerie sheets covering the relics of a distant past, they waited in eagerness before I gave them the all-clear.
“There we are, girls.” I turned to them, as they gleamed great smiles, “I take it this is your room.”
They waltzed in with the pairs of suitcases, happy to finally lump them down by the beds. Without doing anything more, they hopped on the newly-made duvets and began to relax, enjoying the hearty atmosphere of the room.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright…” Elly certainly knew Scarlett’s wakeful tendencies in new houses, and posed the question as we stood in the doorway, “You can bunk in here if you want?”
“Yeah…” Scarlett didn’t seemed totally sure, but had that ring of truth in her voice. It was as if one had tested the integrity of a gold coin, and it seemed, despite all odds, very true indeed, “I’ll be fine.”
“See you in a minute, girls.” Elly said as they still lounged about on the beds.
“Okay…” they responded in unison, and we moved onto the next room.
Once again, though this time on the wider landing which joined to the opposite side, the doors were of doubled fashion, but this time they swung freely open as I pushed them to.
The room was exactly as the one we had previously entered, but in mirrored image, and only one bed.
There was, as before, piles upon piles of what could only be described as clutter, and tables, chairs and other sorts of furniture were also stood against the far wall, bordering this room from the twins’.
This room did, however, have a bookcase, which upon seeing it, all three of our hearts’ fluttered.
If it were one thing that kept Scarlett interested and prevented her homesickness, it was reading, and so this would put her in the best position of all.
I should point out, she never really liked being away from home as a rule itself. Unless she was able to explore and find her own way around – in which this case she most certainly wasn’t – she found it quite hard to adjust, and would commonly be kept awake at night due to her problem.
But, to all our surprise, the bookshelves, cabinets and even shelves were chocked full of adventure books. Treasure Island, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and King Solomon’s Mines were only a mere few of the masses which clogged the room.
“It’s great!” Scarlett, without any hesitation, ran into the room and placed her bags onto her bed, before scouring the shelves for a suitable read to divulge herself into, disregarding anything else in the room.
I and Elly just looked to each other, smiled and slowly backed away as the young teenager kneeled down to pull out book after book, before she wiped the dust off to inspect the antique covers and titles.
“We’ll just be across the landing, okay?” Elly sounded as soft as she could, as we knew that Scarlett probably didn’t want to be disturbed at this moment.
“Okay…” She didn’t really hear us, engulfed in the age and stories – both fictional and real – that these books seemed to contain, and so with that, we left her to her own devices.
The other girls seemed to chatter away nicely as we crossed the landing, with more of the clutter to our right, by the other large window which overlooked the south driveway – which we had just traversed – and headed straight to what was to be our bedroom.
The room was the size of the other two put together, to make up for the fact that this was in reality the Master Bedroom. To look at it, though, it was fit for a royal family, let alone a king.
Straight ahead from the doors stood an old desk. Of serpentine form on all four sides, there were six freize drawers and twelve pedestal drawers, all with their original incised handles. The decoration was comprised of panels of burr walnut within plain banding, with carved flowers and acanthus leaves on the corners and feet. It was slightly stood ajar, and a walnut armchair acted as the seating for the occupier.
To our right, was the main sleeping quarters of the room. The king-size bed really fit in well with the style of the room, though maybe a little worn-down. The boards and posts were hand-carved, and seemed to depict settings in the rural countryside, probably of the country in which the makers had originated from. Like a medieval cot, curtains hung from each side, meaning that the occupants could be granted a little privacy if they required.
On each side of the bed stood an identical Georgian end table. These were beautifully decorated, the handles seemed to be formed into the shape that of a man’s beard, where his other features lay above them. There were three drawers, one with lock and key, all bearing the same engraving, and the whole structure was raised on square tapering legs, making it a very elegant piece of furniture indeed.
The curtains along the east windows were of most graceful velvet, cast in a warm burgundy, yet beginning to dim in color due to the age and dust which started to cling to it.
We walked a little further into the room, allowing our peripheral to view most of the immediate area. As Elly began to admire the beauty of the sleeping area, I took more of an interest in the other furniture in the left part of the room.
The fireplace, against the wall to the landing, was a beautifully figured grey and warm chocolate marble mantle and surrounds. The jambs, central tablet as well as the upper joins were stunningly impressed, and it emanated quite a neo-classical style, contrasting nicely with the overall Palladian flair of the house.
Above it a mirror spanned the section of wall, typical of the Georgian style. It was very fine, gilded most delightfully, and split into three sections. It was a style I had come to know from my own bedroom mirror as a child. Triptych it was called.
Above the mirror, the trio of panels depicted a certain piece in the history of the story it portrayed. In this case, the engraving The Procession of Jupiter was the narrative, flanked by two Corinthian columns.
Once again, the wallpaper peeled from the walls. Around the windows and doors it flayed itself slowly, collecting in piles on the naked wood floorboards.
Like in the other rooms also, the leftmost portion of the room contained piles of sheeted fittings and fixtures, stacked on one another and nearly reaching to the ceiling.
The windows themselves were very grubby, and most of the metal mechanisms to lock them had seized, meaning the room had begun to feel quite stuffy already, to say the least.
A large chandelier was hung from the ceiling central to the middle line of the fireplace, and proportionately in the halfway point of the room itself.
From what I could make out, it seemed to be a Flemish cast brass six candle chandelier, the scrolling arms with circular cast bobeche drip pans and bulbous candle sconces, issuing from a knopped central column with circular etched banding – a common sight in the houses I encountered in the Ardennes.
A rope stretched across the width of the room, and dangled freely through a hoop by one of the windows opposite the hearth, which one could use to lower and raise the fixture, either to replace or light the candles.
“Wow…” Elly mumbled once more as she pressed her hand into the soft cushion of the bed’s mattress, “It’s very comfy.” She took my hand, “Come on, let’s have a rest for a minute now.”
“Believe me,” I took her hand and embraced her with all my might, “I can’t wait to jump in this tonight, providing it doesn’t collapse.” I chuckled, being the old romantic I always was, “But for now, there’s still more of the house to discover.”
“Then let’s get going.” She smiled, leading me out of the room and towards the stairs, “Girls! We’re just going to explore a bit downstairs, alright?”
“Okay, mum!” They all responded, before we descended the stairs to adventure a tad more.