Something is dripping in the basement again. She can’t recall why she went down in the first place, and fumbles for a light switch while the noise grows in the darkness. The air is heavy and musty, with a sharp coppery, metallic note, which surprises her, because it seems like half the household staff is in and out of the basement on a regular basis; for all that ventilation, she’d expect it to be fresh as a daisy. The switch clicks in her hand, but nothing happens, and after flopping it back and forth a few times, she shrugs and gives up. Hopefully she’ll remember what it was she needed later.
Poppy’s been valuing art collections for twenty years, but she’s never seen anything quite like the holdings at Reed Manor. She uses ‘holdings’ advisedly to describe the sprawling collection, which almost seems to be growing by the day as she attempts to impose order. The vague description of the collection led her supervisor to suggest she’d be in and out in a week, but it’s already been three, with no sign of stopping. She’s the fourth valuator who’s attempted to tame the collection. No one seems to know what happened to the other ones, as she discovered when she asked the sullen staff for copies of their notes.
Stellar paintings are stacked up against the walls, while priceless sculptures are carelessly tossed in the corners of the ballroom; this, Poppy thinks, is a collection that’s been hoarded through generations. There’s no way one person could possibly have accumulated this much art in a single lifetime. And it’s all depictions of torment and depravity, which makes for pleasant viewing as she attempts to restore some sort of order, sifting the wheat from the chaff.
It’s winter and she’s trapped indoors, even when she longs to poke through the gardens and explore the village. Driving rain and snow alternate, creating an icy slick that was almost her undoing every time she attempted to step outside the front door. After the first week, she gave up, wandering the dim corridors for hours and attempting to catalog along the way, ignoring the hostile glares of the staff. On her first night, she could have sworn someone hissed ‘you’re not wanted here’ as she unpacked in the chilly shadows of her rooms.
Considering how many of them there are, she’d think that the rooms would be in better condition, but they’re heavy with dust, drapes rotting from the hangers. The plumbing groans and screams when she turns it on in the morning, and every shower is an adventure in avoiding the fall of spiders which always plummet from the taps before the water starts flowing. A heavy, dark smell hangs over the whole house. She can’t quite put her fingers on it and she’s almost gotten used to it by now, but at first it made her wrinkle her nose and gag. Like the house itself is dying, walls streaked with water stains and dark blotches.
Sliding her feet into icy sheets at night, she casts a bitter thought in the owner’s direction now and then. He can’t even bother to be there when she’s working, probably off in the tropics somewhere. A wealthy heir, of course, who views art primarily as an asset to be bought and sold. He just wants to know how much he can milk out of it.
Shaking her thoughts off and treading heavily back up the stairs, unwilling to venture into the depths of the basement without light, she frowns at the door, which someone must have closed after her. Every time she’s been down there, she’s told them to leave it open, and it’s always closed and latched when she returns from her peregrinations in the bowels of earth. Fortunately it gives if she kicks it, which she does, bursting into the kitchen, where the cook stirs something foul-smelling on the stove and shoots her a filthy look.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says. ‘I thought the door was on the latch.’
‘Got to close it, you know. Otherwise there’ll be a draft.’
‘Yes, of course.’
She wants to ask what’s for dinner but thinks better of it, smelling the miasma in the kitchen. There will be time enough to pick over it later when a lemon-faced maid slams it on the table in her rooms. She’s been reminded that the staff doesn’t want to go to any ‘special lengths’ for her and that means no seat in the silent, chilly dining room with the ghoulish paintings of medieval torture scenes on the walls and the heavy silver candlesticks that look like they probably require two footmen to lift.
The cook shoots a meaningful glance at the growing darkness outside the window and Poppy gets the message. Closed for the winter, the house isn’t lit at night except when absolutely necessary, and the servants often ‘forget’ to leave the lights in the hall on for her. At night, she’s confined not just to the house, but to her rooms, which are on the opposite end of the house from the rest of the staff. She suspects someone has disconnected her bell; the pull in the corner has a weak, floppy feel like it’s forgotten what it’s like to be connected to something.
Regretting that she ever took the job, and ruing the stubbornness that makes her refuse to leave, Poppy follows the hall to her room. The windows have blown ajar again, blasting snow across the floors, and she struggles to shut them with numb fingers, wondering why no one’s closed the shutters to stop the fingers of the wind from ripping her windows open. She barely has time to pull out her notes from the day before the maid arrives, dropping a tray on the scarred table with a clatter. The soup sloshes against the sides of the bowl, spilling out across the tray in a greasy smear, but the maid doesn’t apologise.
‘Set it out the door when you’re done,’ she says, her voice a harsh croak, and then she vanishes silently. Poppy toys with the spoon, wondering if she should forgo dinner altogether, but her stomach rumbles, and she gives in to the inevitable. The dripping noise seems to follow her as she eats and slides the tray out for the maid to retrieve on noiseless feet. The house is fully settled in winter gloom by then, and she cocks her head, listening to the sound, and wondering if she ought to check the basement again. If something is leaking, after all, it could damage the art.
One foot in front of the other, Poppy walks unsteadily into the darkness…