Herbert didn’t know this part of town existed. Of course, in a city as large as this one, there would be obscure or hidden neighborhoods, places where no one has any reason to go unless they live there. But how did you even find these places initially, in order to move in? Did you need an “in” with someone? Was it just luck, checking the right newspaper on the right day? Did someone hand you a mysterious card that compelled you to seek it out?
It looked beautifully European, to his untraveled mind, with oily iron streetlight poles and spiked garden fences and plants absolutely everywhere. Nature refused to yield to human development in this area, with Spanish moss drifting from tree limbs, explosions of ferns hanging from balconies, trimmed hedges where a property owner was able to wedge them in, and maples and oaks that looked large enough to have been planted around the time of Jesus. He had the impression that the city had gone up against this bloc of flora and lost enough times to make development economically unsustainable. This was exceptional, in a city that seemed to love razing and refacing itself every few years, like a criminal desperately covering his tracks.
There had to be real money involved here. That was the sense Herbert got, a symbiotic relationship between property values and a lush pocket of nature. Perhaps the streetlights really had been imported from Paris. The flush of admiration he initially felt for this scenery slowly gave way to envy and melancholy. He made enough money to throw at “women of the evening” catering to exotic and forbidden tastes, sure, but even if he cut that expenditure, he would never earn enough to live among the French colonial houses with lovingly restored balconies.
As he gawked, he saw a flash of white amid a wall of foliage. He picked out an elderly couple sitting on white wicker furniture, reading the paper and having a smoke. They smiled at him kindly; he waved back, then recalled the purpose for his visit and turned quickly, shuffling down the street. Behind him the old man chortled.
The house numbers were difficult to read. Each building had its own curly, stylized, frou-frou script, and it hid their numbers in a new location each time: painted on the front steps, mounted within a richly hued porch, artfully accenting an antique mailbox. Herbert frowned and studied his precious little card again, looked up at the house fronts. He sighed, then breathed deeper: the air seemed so much cleaner here, healthful and life-lending. He couldn’t believe he’d lived so long in this city and never, ever caught a hint of this little paradise.
It took him too long to realize that the card being one digit off from the two houses he studied meant that he was on the wrong side of the street. Blushing, he turned around, checked for traffic—cars were parked along the road but no one had driven by the entire time he’d been here—and jogged across the street to land in front of his destination.
The building was a little smaller, narrower than those around it, but no less elegant. He wondered how in the world they were able to plant and maintain a palm tree in the little postage stamp of a front yard: it rose with a massive, pale trunk before the creamy two-story house. The upper level of the building had just enough room for one large window and a glass door opening to a sheltered balcony, which rested on two carved pillars framing a snug, elegant porch. Even this, this afterthought of a construction, this little brother to all the glorious houses lining the street, this was far beyond his reach. He would have been happier to stand here and simmer with envy, than to return to his actual home.
His lip trembled. He stepped up to the front walk and, as if on its own, his hand reached out to rest upon the knob of a wrought-iron gate, to stroke a cast-iron mailbox. Everything here was so classically beautiful, so solid and heavy. He continued up the walk, treading carefully, conscious of his lower-quality shoes upon the property (even the poured concrete seemed nicer here). His slacks felt thin, the shoulders of his jacket hung unevenly, and an odd breeze gave him to wonder if he smelled. He looked around again, slower, doubtfully. What was he doing here? He had no right to stumble into this carefully curated living space. Was the Madame playing a joke on him… or was she setting him up for failure? He looked up at the house, this time questioning whether he’d ever walk out of it.
He started to turn, then froze. No, Herbert, he told himself, not again. You’ve doubted yourself so many times, talked yourself out of asking for raises at work, turned away that nice woman at the restaurant who, in reflection, you’re 60% to 80% sure may have been trying to invite you on a date… You’re holding yourself back again. You have no reason to suspect the Madame of acting in bad faith, and for all you know, your wildest dreams reside within this house. Even if it’s the smallest on the block.
So he wouldn’t catch a taxi out to an overpass and hurl himself into the river. He stood in one beam of sunshine that slipped through the abundant trees, breathed the sweet air, and trusted in the card he pinched in his little fist. It was his tastes, his very intense and peculiar appetite that pulled him from the brink now, and as he promised the Madame, he would commit himself to it wholly. And it could end badly, but—
He stopped himself right there, kicked that thought in the seat of its pants and turned around and headed toward the house again. His shabby wingtips knocked against the immaculately painted porch boards, and before he could stop himself, he rapped smartly upon the leaded glass window in the front door.
There was a pause, during which Herbert struggled to swallow his questions and doubt, and he was rewarded by the parting of lace curtains on the other side of the window. Through warbled glass an older man peered at him, nodded, and unlatched the heavy locking mechanism. Herbert stepped back and held up the card like a holy symbol; the gentleman simply stepped aside and gestured Herbert to enter. His heart pounded in his head as he slipped out of the sunlight and nutritive air, into a comfortably shadowed entryway, redolent of old candles and old books. The wood furnishings glowed with decades and decades of meticulous care; the Turkish rug was as stout and sturdy as it was aged. Everything around here had a determination to live and exist, and Herbert felt as though he didn’t measure up to it all.
The gentleman wore a nicely fitted black suit, not as showy as a tux but as flattering as one. His hair was slicked back and groomed flawlessly. “This way, sir,” he said in cultured, modulated tones; Herbert abruptly longed for this man to read him to sleep. Even these three words underscored the rich, fantastical world so close and yet unknown to Herbert’s existence. It was almost a violation for him to be here, a trespass. He and his moth-eaten, secondhand suit deserved to languish in that fleabag flat he rented.
But the Madame…
The gentleman said, “My name is” (Herbert, distracted, managed not to catch it and was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it) “and I am the steward of this property. Please have a seat.” He indicated an elaborately carved, stuffed chair beside a truly enormous Ming vase. Of course it’s a Ming vase, thought Herbert, it couldn’t be anything else in a place like this. He struggled to find a comfortable position as the steward glided away and disappeared.
Waiting by oneself was one thing; waiting in a den of opulence and luxury while feeling like a cockroach was another experience entirely. At least he could command his behavior, he thought, pinching his knees shut and folding his hands upon them. He practiced straightening his spine, unsure in what position it was actually straight. He sat in a large alcove, opposite a bay window fringed in thriving plants, hazy and buzzing with sunlight. After some time he realized there was music playing somewhere. He’d assumed his mind was creating it to complement his surroundings. He tilted his head, turned slightly, held his breath: yes, there was an accordion, a violin, and gentle drumming, coming through dimly as though the neighbors were practicing. Closing his eyes, he visualized a group of libertines, bohemians, drinking colored syrups in tiny glasses, holding their cigarettes in odd positions, laughing and joking in a language he couldn’t understand.
“Mr. Barton?” The gentleman, translocating silently, rattled him from his reverie. “If you would follow me, please.”
Herbert leaped to his feet, then spun, startled, ready to catch the huge vase in case he’d bumped it. With a work of art that precious, one naturally assumes one has upset it or is about to. But it was fine, it stood solidly as ever, and slowly he permitted himself to relax. “Yes, of course,” he said absently.
The steward somehow implied the sense of smiling. “It’s a fake, Mr. Barton.”
“The vase. It’s a very good replica. The original had been jostled and shattered many years ago.”
Herbert’s body rattled with relieved laughter. “Ah, so the pressure’s off! I could just…” He leered and reached for the upper lip.
“The replica is still quite expensive.”
Herbert froze and stepped back from the vase, then flinched to see what he might be backing into. The gentleman only raised one eyebrow and strode out of the room, and Herbert tailed him closely.
They passed through a dark wooden door and picked their steps carefully down a carpeted spiral staircase. The stairwell was lined with velvet wallpaper and gold trimming. The light fixtures were flickering LED bulbs that closely replicated the sense of large candles in sconces. Occasionally there were small, gilt-framed paintings of elegant woman in classical outfits. The stairwell turned and turned, and Herbert desired to rest his hand on the steward’s shoulder, to remain upright. The scent of the upper level had disappeared, was replaced by chilly air and petrichor; there was no music, only their own heavy footsteps on the runner, stretching on and on and on.
Unable to bear the tension, Herbert spoke up. “Say, this is awfully deep for a basement, isn’t it?”
The steward did not look back at him. “We are not going to the cellar, Mr. Barton. It is our fortune that beneath our property lies a network of largely pristine caverns.”
“Caverns!” This was the last thing Herbert expected to hear. “But… I mean, I suppose if you were able to purchase the land, you would get the mineral rights, but caverns… Surely they spread much further than the borders of this house.”
“We own the block, sir, and a number of blocks around it.” The back of the gentleman’s head bobbed with each successive step. “In a literal and legally binding sense, this is our part of town.”
Herbert’s knees nearly gave out. This was more than old money, this was legacy… He felt as though he very slowly, and only too late, began to perceive what he was stumbling into. He had to think about something else. “How do you know my name, anyway?”
As though responding automatically, distractedly, the gentleman said, “Mademoiselle is expecting you,” and nothing more. Herbert had nothing to say to that and only followed him into the depths of the earth.
At length they reached the bottom of the stairwell, which was a small, violently carved room with an immense fire door. The steward gripped a large iron bar on the door, then paused to look back at Herbert. He examined him as though noticing him for the first time, his brow lightly wrinkling as he took in Herbert’s thinning hair, the careless flap of his jacket lapels, the old shoes peeking out from beneath the frayed hem of his slacks. Herbert could feel his scrutiny the way he would feel someone slowly running a hair dryer over his entire body.
Turning back, the steward sucked in his breath, tightened his grip, and squared his shoulders to the degree that Herbert thought he might shred his own clothing. He was about to offer some assistance when metal on metal began to squeal. The bar rotated, gained speed, and when it made one full circle the steward gripped a fixed, vertical bar in the door and slid the entire slab to the side, into the rock. Cool, damp air flooded over the pair of them, and tiny smudges of light glowed in the yawning darkness beyond.
“Mademoiselle! We arrive!”