The great underground salon at Welbeck Castle.

Twenty-four monumental chandeliers have just been lit.  Their pale light shines on extraordinary riches.  One does not immediately notice the dozens of admirable paintings, so immense is the room.  Its floor, which shines with a gentle, even brilliance, could bear hundreds of dancing couples.  Along the high walls, covered in precious tapisteries, fifty enormous armchairs take up no more space than a flotilla of skiffs tied up on the Thames.  A table in solid Brazillian rosewood which measures fifteen square metres looks like a side-table, floating in this immensity.  Right at the end of the room, a tiny, little pinhead stuck into a curtain which has the dimensions of an opera curtain, is an alabaster bust.

Pressed one against the other, there are paintings by masters from all epochs.  There are Gainsboroughs with their sumptuous blues, diaphanous Turners, vast landscapes by Constable, majestuous portraits by Reynolds, Rosetti primitives, all rare.  Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of chefs-d’oeuvre…

And why are the twenty-four chandeliers alight, when it is daytime outside?  Outside?  Fifteen or twenty metres higher, we should say, for we are in a subterranean room, the biggest room in an enormous castle, invisible and secret, built in the depths of an English manor which emerges up there, in the Welbeck woods.  Beyond this monstruous room, there is a white marble rotunda and a cyclopean staircase which descends into darkness…  Galleries, the extremities of which cannot be distinguished, open all around a circular landing where Queen Victoria’s carriage could turn around with ease.  Linings of noble stone and carved wood provide a sure barrier against humidity, the smell of which is however badly removed by an air current which is kept in circulation by a fan.  At its extremity, the rotunda is locked by a high double-door, covered in bronze ornaments.  If we take the trouble to open this cathedral door, we would finally accede to the master bedroom.  There, the feet sink up to the ankles into a woollen carpet which is no less than one hundred square metres.  The furniture, in dark island wood, is decorated with silver.  To make the windowless walls less oppressing, they have been covered with vast, dark hangings.  Only some crystal bottles and brushes mounted on gold, placed on an ebony table, attract a bit of light.  The whole funereal decor is arranged around two very singular objects:  a narrow bed, or rather a miserable bunk of boards with a horse-hair blanket on it.  In the dim light, the second object glows on a black velvet cushion:  it is a skull, doubtless ancient, covered with a green patina…

Welbeck Castle in the County of Nottingham, property of the Dukes of Portland.

This description, which throws us into a dreamland, corresponds however to strict reality.  It is inside the living mortuary, we could say, of the great-cousin of the last Duke of Portland, William John Cavendish, that we have just entered.  Fifth Duke of Portland by distant affiliation, this enigmatic, extraordinary man, whose life is unknown to everyone, and whose face no-one ever saw, died in 1879.  To this day, nobody has been able to pierce his true personality, know what he did, or even once perceive his face, for he was buried with the mask that never left him in public.

However, what we know for certain is that he was the most singular builder of his time, but was irresistably drawn to living underground.  Like the spiritist societies which proliferated throughout the world, at this same epoch…  The moment that his father expired up there in one of the manor’s bedrooms, he had advertised throughout the whole county, and even as far as London, offers of employment concerning all of the professions represented in the kingdom.  In the days that followed, a whole army of artisans and workmen descended on Welbeck, without counting the many architects and decorators, who passed for the best in the British Isles.  They would stay there for ten years.

Soon, a little town of barracks lays seige to the manor, the inhabitants all attentive to the orders of the enigmatic lord.  The to-ing and fro-ing is incessant, carts transport day after day mountains of materials, however, no visible transformation affects the manor’s exterior aspect.  All the activity is taking place underneath the antique construction’s foundations.  For years, the best terrassiers dig the earth, replaced, as soon as a tunnel is dug, by a multitude of carpenters, plasterers, and masons.  It is now on a clever ant’s nest that the manor is sitting;  directly beneath its foundations, a twin castle is “rising” with more than one hundred richly furnished chambers where never a soul would penetrate;  high gothic galleries arrive at long corridors with cintred vaults which descend into the earth on a gentle slope.  Their extremities open onto the countryside through more than fifty dissimulated or grillaged access points, or again into one of the enormous pavillions which rise in the castle’s immense park.  Sometimes the master surges out of one of these issues with the purpose of surprising his servants.  His face masked, he gives brief orders or roughly scolds those who appear to lack enthusiasm.

At the centre of the subterranean dispositive are vast stables which, by long, sloping, circular corridors, arrive in the castle’s court of honour.  It is in fact along a veritable subterranean road paved with unpolished marble, bordered by footpaths and lighted by imposing bronze candelabra, that John William Cavendish’s heavy berline takes off at the same time each morning.  To go where?  It is difficult to say…  To begin with, the berline always has its curtains drawn and no-one knows whether our lord is inside it, particularly as the coachmen and grooms have received strict orders not to open the door on any pretext whatsoever.  Once at Harcourt House, the Duke’s London residence, the coach again enters a dark underground where the coachman hastily unharnesses the horses and leaves the berline which has remained closed…

How does Cavendish then occupy his days?  This is even more difficult to know, for no-one sees the Duke, either during the day in a circle or a club, or during the evening in a salon or at the theatre, or even in the House of Lords, where he has the right to sit.

One can search the archives and the genealogies, that is all that can be found on the fifth Duke of Portland.  There is however another Cavendish who has left his mark on History and is just as strange as the troglodyte Duke.

To be continued.