Grandpère opened the door. "Molly," he called, "take the dog, will you?" Without waiting for a reply, he closed the door behind Tweenie's reluctant rump and returned to us, brisk and unruffled.
"She gets upset," Grandmère murmured again, smiling at us in a general way.
"We'll take Huge up with us," my father said and turned to us. "Let's get settled now, let's get our things upstairs."
We set off. The staircase was wide and curving, with heavy mahogany banisters and a carved newel post. The steps were broad and shallow, and the red-patterned carpeting was held in place by brass rods. Lugging our suitcases behind us, we went up in slow motion, step by step. On the second-floor landing there was a door which was always closed.
One afternoon I had climbed the stairs by myself. When I reached that landing, instead of going on to the upstairs hall, I stopped at the small closed door on the right and opened it, though I knew I should not. I looked in: a narrow hallway, with closed doors on either side. I stepped inside. It was hushed and dim; everything seemed different there. The ceiling was lower and the floor was uncarpeted linoleum. I walked silently, on my toes, down the hall. I pushed open one of the doors and peered into a small bedroom. It held a narrow wooden bed, a small bureau, and a chair. Everything was perfectly neat. The window looked out the back of the house to the garage. The curtains at the window were limp, and the air seemed muted and dark. A clock ticked in the stillness. I stood without moving, looking at everything, staring into a world I didn't know. My heart began to pound, and when I heard someone coming up the back stairs from the kitchen, I fled back to the front hall.
Later I asked my mother what was behind that closed door on the landing. She said it was the servants' wing, and that we must never go in there, as it would disturb them. That was where they lived, she said. I didn't understand this, for how could you live in a place like that? How could you compress a whole life into that one small room with nothing in it, in someone else's house?
There were no servants in our own house. My father had been a lawyer in New York, like Grandpère, but he had given that up. He had left the law and the city, and moved to Ithaca in upstate New York, where we now lived. My father worked for the university, helping poor people in the community. I'd heard him tell people about making this change, and from the way he said it I knew it was something unusual, and that we were proud of it.
We lived outside town, in an old white clapboard farmhouse. There was only one bathroom, and the house was heated by a big wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room. In the winter, after supper, we sat around the stove and my mother read out loud, and my father peeled oranges for us. While we listened, my father pulled the oranges apart, separating the succulent crescents and passing them to us: fragile and treasured. Then he unlatched the heavy iron hatch on the stove and threw inside the thin bruised-looking orange peels. We heard the faint hiss as they gave themselves up to the red heart of the stove. We closed our eyes for a moment, listening, and feasting on the sweet fragrance the peels gave up.
At Weldonmere we slept on the third floor. Abby and I were in one room, the boys in another. Our room overlooked the porte cochere, and it had been our father's when he was little. It had low twin beds, foot to foot, and a velvety engraving of a Raphael Madonna and Child. The boys' room overlooked the back lawn, and beyond it the small pond that gave the house its name. Our parents slept on the second floor, with Grandmère and Grandpère. We children were alone on the third floor, and we liked this. On Christmas Eve we felt boisterous and wild, and we didn't want the presence of our parents to constrict us. In the morning, we were not allowed to go down the front stairs for our stockings until it was light, and on some Christmases the four of us had sat, lined silently up on the landing, shivering, waiting for the first gray pallor of day to lighten the darkened rooms below.
Excerpted from A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson Copyright © 2005 by Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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