SOMEWHERE in North Carolina is a very large house once owned by a very wealthy man whose name I forget. Perhaps you’ve been there. It’s a large house with many corridors, and you pay money to walk through them. The original residents are long dead, but their possessions remain intact, displayed to affect the liveliness of years past, and I found myself, on visiting the house many years ago, quite swept up in the phantom scenes. On leaving, you can purchase reproductions of the ivory keepsakes and velvet tablecloths in the house’s gift shop. For an additional fee, you can stomp grapes outside in the same buckets the wealthy man’s servants once used to make his wine.
Despite the resentment I ought to have harbored toward this gravestone of capitalist peacocking, I remember feeling a genuine excitement on pulling up. I’d read that the man who owned the house had acquired some art in his life, and there was an awesome casualness to the thought of a Monet on the wall of an actual room, when my finest art remains a Yoshitomo Nara picture torn from a magazine and stuck in a frame from Walgreens. At the back of the breakfast room, I remember a secret door that, the docent explained, led to the butler’s pantry, painted to resemble the surrounding wall. The finishing touch on the disguise was a Renoir hanging there simply to help it blend in, impressionist verisimilitude.
Elsewhere in the house is a portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted, who’s said to have designed the yard. The portrait was commissioned of John Singer Sargent, but Olmsted, by then nearing the end of his life, was too poorly to make the journey down from New York, and sent as proxy his son to model for him instead. The portrait depicts Olmsted Sr. gazing paternally at the acreage of submissive greenery, a doubly imagined scenario, as the painting preceded the planting of the mountain laurels pictured. The man was just a child in a grown-up’s coat, and the yard was just mud.
Does blood still flow in a metaphor so far removed? The house and its galleries of make-believe might not provide such an answer, but the question is all over the baroque decor, and no more than in the library. I stayed for a while in that room, not for the books, which were out of reach, but for a little game table staged between two empty club chairs, all of which once belonged to Napoleon, who, uprooted from his homeland to a musty estate on Saint Helena in his final years, had only chess and a languishing stomach as pastimes.
There are stories about that stomach. Napoleon’s favored wallpapers featured a verdant color known as Scheele’s green, the vibrancy of which was partially a result of copper arsenite in the dyes. For a while, the prevailing theory over his death was that the walls were leaching arsenic into the air. Napoleon hadn’t considered that, but he was convinced that someone was slipping rat poison into his stew, and he arranged for an autopsy in the hopes of producing a Poirot-like moment of discovery. (But of course, as Poirot comes to learn, “there are many things not called poison which can kill a man.”)
Less an autopsy than a sacrament, the procedure involved, along with the removal of Napoleon’s stomach—which had growing on it a large tumor—that of his heart, which he’d asked be preserved in wine and delivered to his surviving wife. As the opened body was being flushed, the urn with the heart was placed on his game table, the pawns brushed aside. And in the moments before the sewing shut of the abdomen, the second valet chipped off two lengths of rib, which were later given to the priest and the butler—their own ivory keepsakes.
That game table, which once amused a dying man and later briefly held his drunken extracted heart, now sits in a room surrounded by volumes of centuries past. I stood before it for some time, picturing how one might become engrossed by this thing, by the ghosts it had touched, and the almost destitute faith that, if you pressed your ear to its surface, you might still hear, like the ocean in a seashell, the faint beating of a living heart.
After that we went out back and stomped some grapes with our bare feet, and it felt good.
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