When Gabriel had shut the door after announcing his uncle's arrival, the Consul got up and went off to the key-drawer, from whence he took a gigantic key, to which was attached a wooden label black with age. He then brushed his coat, and, after adjusting his chin in his neckcloth and arranging his scanty locks, left the office.
The house was large and old fashioned, with long passages and broad staircases. In the western wing were the offices, having a separate entrance on the side towards the sea. On the southern side, and over looking the garden, were the bedrooms of the family, and the apartments which were generally used as sitting-rooms.
The second floor consisted entirely of reception rooms, which were so arranged as to have the large ballroom in the middle, with salons at the side. In one of these rooms the family generally dined on Sunday, or when they had guests, and it was the small salon at the north-west corner, looking over the building-yard and the sea, in which the dinner was usually served.
On the third floor, or, more correctly, in the garrets, was an endless number of spare rooms, whose windows looked out of the quaint dormers which embellished the roof.
The furniture was mostly of mahogany, now dark with age, while chairs and sofas were covered with horsehair. Against the walls stood tall dark presses, and mirrors with the glass in two pieces, and having their gilded frames adorned with urns and garlands. The rooms were lit by old-fashioned chandeliers and girandoles.
The Consul met one of the servants in the passage.
"Has Mr. Garman arrived?"
"Yes, sir; and he has gone upstairs, to my mistress," answered the girl.
When the weather was warm, Mrs. Garman usually preferred one of the airy rooms upstairs. She was a very fat lady, who lived in a continual state of strife with dyspepsia. From whatever side you looked at her, she presented a succession of smoothly rounded curves covered with shining black silk.
It was wonderful that Mrs. Garman got so stout; it must have been, as she herself said, "a cross" she had to bear. She seemed to eat very little at her meals, and could not control her astonishment at the appetites of the rest of the company. Only at times, when she was alone in her room, she seemed to have a fancy for some little delicacy, and Miss Cordsen used to bring her a little bit of just what happened to be handy.
When the Consul entered her room, his wife was sitting on the sofa, engaged in conversation with her brother-in-law.
"How are you? how are you, Christian Frederick?" said Richard, gaily. "Here I am again!"
"You are welcome, Richard. I am charmed to see you," answered the Consul, keeping his hands behind his back.
Richard seemed quite confused, as he generally was when he met his brother, who sometimes could be as gay and cheerful as when they were boys, and at others would put on his business manner, and be cold, repellant, and so abominably precise.
"Is any one coming to dinner to-day, Caroline?" asked Consul Garman.
"Pastor Martens has announced his kind intention of introducing the new school inspector to us," answered the lady.
"Yes, I dare say, another of your parson friends," said the Consul, drily; "then, I'll just send the coachman with the carriage for Morten and Fanny, and ask them to bring some young people with them: they might find Jacob Worse, perhaps."
"What for?" answered the lady, in a tone which showed an inclination to dispute the proposition.
"Because neither Richard nor I care to have our dinner with nothing but a lot of parsons," answered the Consul, in a tone which brought his wife to her senses. "And will you be so kind as to arrange with Miss Cordsen about the dinner?"
"Oh! the dinner, the dinner!" sighed Mrs. Garman, as she left the room. "I cannot understand how people can think so much about such trifles."
Uncle Richard followed his sister-in-law to the door, and when he turned round after making his most polite bow, he saw his brother standing in the middle of the room, with his legs far apart, and one hand behind his back. With the other he held up the monster key like an eyeglass before his eye, and through it he regarded his brother with a knowing look.
"Do you know that?" asked the Consul.
"Mais oui!" answered Richard, in a tone which showed his delight at finding his brother in a mood which betokened a visit to the wine-cellar.
The two old gentlemen went off arm-in-arm, until they reached the top of the kitchen stairs. At the kitchen door they stopped, and the Consul called for the lights. A commotion was heard inside, and in a few seconds Miss Cordsen appeared with two ancient candlesticks.
Each took his own light—they never made any mistake as to which was which—and descended the stairs which led to the dark cellar. They first arrived at a large outer cellar, where it was comparatively light, in which were stored the wines which were in ordinary use, such as St. Julien, Rhine wine, Graves, and brandy. This was all under the charge of Miss Cordsen, who, in accordance with the régime which had come down from the old Consul's time, produced the different wines according to the number and importance of the guests. In the darkest corner of the cellar there was an old keyhole, only known to the Consul, but he could find it in the dark. All the same, both of them held out their lights to look for it, and the young Consul never omitted to remark upon the clever way in which his father had concealed the secret door.
The key turned twice in the lock with a rusty sound, which the brothers could distinguish from any other sound in the world, and an atmosphere redolent of wine and mould met them as they entered. The Consul shut the door, and said, "There now, the world will have to get on without us for a little while." The inner wine-cellar looked as if it were considerably older than the house itself, and the groined roof had a resemblance to the cloister of an old monastery. It was so low that Richard had to bend his head a little, and even the Consul felt inclined to stoop when he was down there.
In the old bins lay bottles of different shapes covered with dust and cobwebs, and in the recess of what had been a grated window, but was now walled up on the outside, there stood two old long stemmed Dutch glasses, while in one corner there lay a large wine-cask. In front of the cask was placed an empty tub, between an armchair without a back, and from the seat of which the horsehair was protruding, and an ancient rocking-horse that had lost its rockers.
The brothers put down their lights on the bottom of the tub, and took off their coats, which they hung each on their own peg.
"Well, what's it to be to-day?" said Christian Frederick, rubbing his hands.
"Port wouldn't be bad," suggested Richard, examining the bin.
"Port wine would be first-rate," answered the Consul, holding out his light. "But look, there's a row of bottles lying in here that we have never tried. I should like to know what they are."
"I dare say it is some of my grandmother's raspberry vinegar," suggested Richard.
"Nonsense! Do you suppose father would have hidden away raspberry vinegar in this cellar?"
"Perhaps he was as fond of old things as some other people I know," answered Richard.
"You always are so sarcastic," muttered the Consul. "I wish we could get at these bottles."
"You'll have to creep in after them, Christian Frederick. I am too stout."
"All right," answered his brother, taking off his watch and heavy bunch of seals. And the old gentleman crept into the bin with the utmost care. "Now I've got one," he cried.
"Take two while you are about it.
"Yes; but you will have to take hold of my legs and pull me out."
"Avec plaisir!"' answered Richard. "But won't you have a drop of Burgundy before you come out?"
There must have been some joke hidden in the question, for the Consul began to laugh; but before long he stammered out, "I am choking, Dick; will you pull me out, you fiend?"
The joke about the Burgundy was as follows. Once when the young Consul had crept in among the bottles, to look for something very particular, he managed to knock his head against one which lay in the rack above so hard that it broke, and the whole bottle of Burgundy ran down his neck. Every time any allusion was made to this mishap, a meaning smile passed between the brothers, and Richard was even so careless as sometimes to allude to it when others were present. For instance, if they were sitting at dinner, and the conversation turned upon red wines, he would say, "Well, my brother has his own peculiar way of drinking Burgundy;" and then would follow a series of mysterious allusions and laughter between the two, which usually ended in a fit of coughing.
The young people had several times tried to get at this joke about the Burgundy, but always in vain. Miss Cordsen, who had been obliged that day to get a clean shirt for the Consul, was the only one in the secret; but Miss Cordsen could hold her tongue about more serious matters than that.
At last the Consul came out again, laughing and sputtering, his waistcoat covered with dust, and his hair full of cobwebs. When they had had a good laugh over their joke—it was well the walls were so thick—Richard, on whom the duty always devolved, uncorked the first bottle with the greatest care and skill.
"H'm! h'm!" said the Consul, "that is a curious bouquet."
"I declare, the wine has gone off," said Richard, spluttering.
"Bah! right you are, Dick," said Christian Frederick, spluttering in his turn.
Uncle Richard opened the second bottle, put his nose to it, and said approvingly, "Madeira!" and in a moment the golden wine was sparkling in the old fashioned Dutch glasses.
"Ah! that's quite another thing," said the young Consul, taking his usual place astride of the old rocking-horse.
The rocking-horse was a relic of their childhood. "They used to make everything more solid in those days," said Christian Frederick; and when some years previously the horse had been found amongst a lot of rubbish, the Consul had had it brought down to the cellar. For many a long year he had sat on this horse, drinking the old wine out of the same old glasses with his brother, who sat in the rickety armchair, which cracked under his weight, laughing and telling anecdotes of their boyhood. He never got such wine anywhere else, and no room ever appeared so brilliant in his eyes as the low-vaulted cellar with its two smoky lights.
"I declare, it's a shame," said the young Consul, "that you have never had your half of that cask of port. However, I will send you some wine out to Bratvold one of these days, so that you may have some, till we can get it tapped."
"But you are always sending me wine, Christian Frederick. I am sure I have had my half, and more too, long ago."
"Nonsense, Dick! I declare, I believe you keep a wine account."
"No, I am sure I don't."
"Well, if you don't, I do; and I dare say you've remarked that in your account for last year——"
"Yes; that's enough of that. Here's to your health, Christian Frederick," broke in Uncle Richard, hastily. He was always nervous when his brother began about business.
"That's a great big cask."
"Yes, it is a very big one."
And the two old gentlemen held out their lights towards it, and each of them thought, "I am glad my brother does not know that the cask is nearly empty;" for it returned a most unpromising sound when it was struck, and the patch of moisture beneath it showed that it had evidently been leaking for many years.
At the end of the bottle, they got up and clinked their glasses together. They then took each his bottle of Burgundy for dinner, hung their coats on their arms, and went up into the daylight. It was strictly forbidden for any one to meet them when they came out of the cellar, and Miss Cordsen had trouble enough to keep the way clear. They presented a most extraordinary spectacle, especially the precise Christian Frederick, coming up red and beaming, in their shirt sleeves, covered with dust, and each carrying his bottle and his light. An hour later they met at the dinner-table—Richard, trim and smart as usual, with his conventional diplomatic smile; the Consul precise, haughty, and correct to the very tips of his fingers.