The Rococo Rat
Instead of being in the shop making dovetails or carving, I was down in the pit replacing one of the teeth on a wooden gear that was part of the mill's machinery. The unique sound of the Dutch door swinging open, followed by "Hello! Anybody home?" arrested my efforts and I poked my head above the floorboards with a dusty-dirty grin, all teeth and eyebrows.
"Here he is, Woo-Woo. Over here!" it was an old friend Adiadnae Worthington, in all her ante-bellum elegance, with an equally elegant companion in tow. Some years before, Ari, as she liked to be called, had "just blown in", as she put it, but that was something of an exaggeration, for the mill, where I had my furniture-making business and which was also our home, was well off out in the country and not that easy to find. She had come alone, all by herself, which you may know is unusual. Women generally travel in pairs when on an outing. Maybe it's companionship. Or security. Guys travel in pairs, too, but mostly that's just an excuse to drink beer or show off their new pickup truck.
Anyway, the day I met Ari, she had come by herself, unless, of course, you count her ancient Rolls Royce with its long, elegrant bonnet and swept-back fenders. She had heard about the strange artist couple living in the mill and had come out of pure curiosity. I gave her the cook's tour of the first floor, with all its gears, belts, pulleys and clutches, which I had re-engineered to power my antique woodworking machines and was about to show her the basement with its great wooden driving wheels when I noticed a remarkable brightening of her countenance as she spied my wife across the mill floor.
Upon reflection, I think it must have been with some relief, that after the introductions, she gratefully followed Phebe upstairs for a chat and a cup of tea. Phebe told me later, over dinner, that they had taken to one another like lace and crinoline, which is not surprising, for although she does not suffer fools gladly, Phebe is very easy to get along with and Ari is about as charming and sophisticated as anyone could wish. Ari Worthington had married extremely well, moved to New York with her husband who owned several ships and was on the boards of all the most important corporations. They attended the opera, theatre, and were museum patrons.
When her husband died, Ari moved back South to the old family estate in Rockbridge County, close to Lexington.
"And she's invited us to come to Lexington for drinks on Saturday afternoon," Phebe said. "She has some curtains that were in her Park Avenue apartment that would be perfect for our bedroom."
And so we drove to Lexington in our creaky and battered old pickup truck, down Route 22 so as not to alarm the constabulary on I-81 and had a splendid time at her farm. Of course, Ari, in her turn, gave us the cook's tour of her house, a great ante-bellum brick monstrosity named Fairview. One room had been Marie Antoinette's. Really. It had been "deaccessioned" by the Metropolitan Museum (that's a fancy word meaning "we don't want it anymore and you can have it for a price") and because of her patronage Ari had been offered first dibs on acquiring it. All very hush-hush and inside, I'm sure. And there it was, paneled walls, floor ceiling and furnishings, just as it was in the museum.
"This piece could use some help," Ari said. It was a highly carved, ornate, contorted console fastened to one of the walls. Some of the carving was broken, some of it had come adrift and was carefully preserved in a drawer. The whole table had the air of a piece desperately in need of restoration. It was much fancier than anything I had ever restored before and certainly hugely valuable. Probably worth more than the mill, but I didn't let my lack of self-confidence show. On the way back to the mill - very slowly and carefully up Route 11 with the console safely snugged up in the back - I expressed my misgivings to Phebe.
"This is quite a responsibility, to trust that console to me."
"Jake, it's also quite a compliment. She's seen your work and she knows you can restore that console." Nothing boosts one's self-esteem more than a wife's quiet belief in her mate's abilities. Unless, of course, it's the actual achievement of the task at hand. Which I was able to do.
Ari was delighted with the restored console, and I had the pleasure of restoring something made by a master, and Phebe had gorgeous hand-printed linen curtains to hang in the mill's bedroom.