Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations III

Peppercorns from the Duchess’ Kitchen (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique nineteenth-century pharmacist’s bottle with original cork; black, green, and pink peppercorns; vintage kitchen twine; hand-stained print of illustration of the Ugly Duchess, her Cook, and the Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel

It was the epitome of Georgian elegance; a veritable jewel box of a house—three-storied, white-walled, black slated roof adorned by a pair of matching chimneys. Egg-and-dart cornices surrounded. A triangular portico rose high above its main entryway, where liveried finny and froggy footmen once hurried in and out, bearing royal invitations. Its classically sashed, twelve-paned, rectangular windows at the front looked out upon a clipped carpet of grass. In the spring and summer months, rhododendrons blossomed in explosions of white, purple, and fuchsia. The whole spoke of simplicity, of refinement. It was owned by a duchess, that much is true; the duchess of what and who she was (or the duke was, for that matter) is now lost, unrecorded. What is known, though, is that she was very ugly, had the deportment of a bulldozer, and had a penchant for garish flowered prints and oversized medieval millinery.

The house is a wreck now, barely standing; its exterior battered and blighted by time and weather. The chimneys have fallen, the roof caved, the windows smashed. The formerly immaculate lawns are unmown, weed-ridden, and strewn with splinted slates and slivers of shattered glass.

Beyond the collapsed bricks and past the absent front door, the foyer stretches, the terrazzo there a chess board of disjointed marble tiles where dead leaves gather and swirl; the skeleton of a grand staircase is straight ahead, its steps ascending to nothing more than the ghost of upper levels. On either side of the foyer, rooms lie open to the elements, paint peeling, wallpaper stained, buckled, and bubbled. No furniture remains, fireplace hearths are bare, carved mantelpieces chipped or missing. The only chamber that continues to reflect its former function is the kitchen. The floorboards are a minefield of broken crockery, scattered knives and spoons, a badly-dented, tarnished coffeepot. On walls besmirched by smoke, an empty plate rack encircles, embroidered with spider webs and encrusted with desiccated beetles. The stove—a massive wrought-iron monster—stands cold and rusted. It was here that the duchess’ cook, in apron and mobcap, held sway before steaming soup cauldrons, ladle in one hand, peppermill in the other. The strong pungency of that overused spice can still be smelt above the rot; clinging, saturating the woodwork, almost eliciting sneezes while peppercorns crunch under foot. It was in front of this stove that the duchess would sit, nursing a howling, porcine baby, singing to it strange, unsettling lullabies:

I speak severely to my boy,
I beat him when he sneezes;
For he can thoroughly enjoy
The pepper when he pleases!

It was here too that a curious cat curled, warming itself by the fire, purring, content, one could almost say grinning.

From above, beams suddenly creak ominously, a blizzard of dust drifts from the fissured plaster ceiling—it’s time to grab what little can be salvaged and be gone.