11. The Dragon's Den

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The carriage pulled up in front of an impressive facade. It was impressive, simply because it was large. Very large. You couldn't really see anything else of it yet because of the thick pea soup that was drifting in from the River Thames: the house was nothing but a massive, vaguely rectangular shadow in the mist. The greenish glow of gas street lights was shining through the fog and laughter drifted over to us. Apparently, the guests at the ball were enjoying themselves.

I shook my head. Some people had really strange tastes.

"Look! Look!" Excited, Lisbeth pointed out of the window. Before us, gates and a low stone wall had appeared out of the mist. The gates stood wide open, with servants forming an impressive welcoming-committee on either side. Hm. This Wilkins fellow had to be seriously rich. No wonder my aunt had been so desperate to get us all here.

The servants stood to attention as the carriage passed. It took us down a short gravel path to the entrance of the house, flanked by two intricately wrought iron lanterns. More servants awaited us there. Good God, how many servants did this Wilkins have? And what did he all use them for? Surely one would be enough to say hello and welcome.

Gravel crunching under its wheels, the carriage stopped in front of the large front door. It stood wide open, just as the gates, and had a red carpet, an actual red carpet in front of it. Three servants jumped forward to open the door, which impressed me very much – after all, it was only one door, with one handle.

My aunt was the first to rise and descended from the carriage as if she were the Queen of England herself. All three of the servants bowed to her, and a smile appeared on her face like that of a vulture who had just found the cadaver of a fat cow. This had to be heaven for her. She hadn't had anyone bow to her in a very long time other than old Leadfield, and he didn't do it very often because of his bad back.

"Madam?" servant one asked. He held out his hand. Graciously, my aunt took out our invitation and handed it to him.

Servant one examined it carefully, then handed it to servant two, who looked at it and nodded graciously, and then handed it to servant three, who also looked at it, and nodded even more graciously. Good gracious! I was drowning in graciousness here.

"Very good, Madam," servant number one said, bowing so deeply this time his nose almost touched the ground. "Welcome to Lenberry Hall, home of Sir Philip Willkins. If you and your lovely nieces would be so good as to follow me, it shall be my pleasure to conduct you into the interior of my master's abode."

Ella leaned over and whispered to me: "What did he just say?"

I grinned. "I think it's his way of saying 'Come on in.'"

And we both burst out in a fit of giggles. Our aunt threw us a look that could have melted lead and then said to servant number one:

"Very well, my good man. Lead on."

With a very flourishy flourish, servant one indicated to servant two and three to join again the other servants congregated around the open front door and entered the house at a measured, dignified pace. We followed, not quite so dignified – at least not me – entering a large hallway, and I had to vigorously employ my jaw muscles to prevent my mouth from falling open at the sight of the opulent splendour awaiting us:

The walls were held in a pale beige colour, softly illuminated by large, glittering chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. Around the bottom, the walls were panelled in costly, dark woods that gave off a warm glow all of their own. Paintings of stately men hung on the wall, each in a frame that looked to be pure gold. What the floor was made out of I couldn't really see, for it was covered with large and fancy oriental carpets – but it was sure to be something darn expensive.

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