She pushed the buzzer next to his apartment door and waited, somewhat hoping he wouldn't answer. It's not like there was an emergency, but it was the right thing to do. As far as she could tell, he was all alone. She wanted to be a helpful neighbor.
The buzz sounded far off. She waited, about to turn around and leave when the sound of steps could be heard and the peep-hole opened. She smiled at the blue eye peering out at her.
"Yes, is someone there?" she heard him ask in his clipped British accent.
"Hi, Mr. Stuart. It's me, Mary, from next door." She said cheerfully. She took a step back so he could see her better.
"Yes, sir, from next door. The elevator is broken again,” she said by way of explanation. “I was going out for groceries and wondered if you need me to pick up anything for you. I’m happy to do it."
He opened the door a crack, recognized her, and opened it the rest of the way. "Ah, yes. It’s you. Can't be too careful, you know,” he said. “For a moment there, I was afraid you were one of those roundheads."
Roundheads, she thought. What’s a roundhead? A local gang, maybe? Why would a gang ring his doorbell? And, why would they be called “roundheads” of all things?
"Can I pick up some groceries for you?" she offered again. "I thought I'd save you the trouble of walking up and down the six flights."
"I see. Yes, yes," he answered with a smile, "that would be very kind of you.” He opened the door fully, stepped aside, and motioned for her to enter. “Why don't you come inside while I take stock of the larder?"
She didn’t really want to go into his apartment but she’d made the offer and now had to see it through. She had only met him a few times before and each time although he was certain to say something odd, he seemed harmless enough. She had chalked up some of his oddness to the fact that he was elderly, some to the fact that he was British. But really, do Brits still say larder, even elderly ones? She was reminded of the first time she met him at the mailboxes. He introduced himself as, “Charles. Charles Stuart. Sometimes referred to as The First."
Stepping into the apartment she couldn’t help but look around. The windows were covered with heavy drapes tied back with gold tassels. One wall had a massive oil painting and above a purple velvet sofa was a pair of crossed swords with jeweled hilts. Those jewels looked real. She hadn’t imagined that he would have anything that valuable. He seemed a bit shabby to her - tall and proud, but shabby nonetheless.
A small spaniel slept on a large tufted cushion also covered in purple velvet. It looked like that pretty, little dog in the Disney cartoon, Lady and the Tramp. She tried to remember the name of the breed. “Cavalier?” she thought. The dog quietly snored.
"Have a seat," he said. "Make yourself comfortable. Let me get you some tea." She felt as though he had proffered an invitation to be in his presence, one she could not politely refuse. He gestured to a small table covered by a cloth with a design of flowers, birds, and small monkeys hanging from vines. She sat down on the edge of the chair, a bit bewildered by the whole situation.
"Mary, you said your name was Mary? He asked genially from the kitchen while preparing the tea. She stopped staring at the tablecloth and watched him gently pour boiling water from the kettle into a large, brightly polished silver urn. "That was my grandmother's name,” he said as he carried the urn to the table. “Interesting woman, my grandmother, Mary.” He set down the urn. “She had several husbands and then she got into a tiff with her cousin, Elizabeth. Lost her head over that. Quite unpleasant situation”
"Lost her head?"
"Yes, it seems to be an occupational hazard for us Stuarts," he chuckled. "Mine is still on for the moment,” he tapped it as if to reassure himself, “unless of course Parliament gets their way." He stopped chuckling and became rueful while filling her small china teacup. "Why it is they think they can tell me what to do, I do not know." He stopped and thought for a moment. "You know, my nephew Louis is not beset with these problems."
"Yes, my nephew. Louis. He lives in France. Built himself a beautiful little country home just outside of Paris. No one would dare demand his head. He wouldn’t stand for it!”
Okay, now she was completely confused. She struggled to think of something to say. She bent her face over the china cup, hoping it hid her feelings of awkwardness. Looking for a way to steer the conversation onto something that made sense to her, she glanced around the room for inspiration. There was a large leather book atop a gilded table in the corner. "That is a beautiful book you have there. You don't often see books bound like that."
He looked where she was pointing. "Oh that,” he said proudly. “It's The Bible. It’s a family heirloom. My father wrote it."
"Your father wrote in that beautiful old bible?"
"No, no, he wrote it. My father, James. He wrote The Bible. He was called The First, too, you know. Although the Scots called him The Sixth. Ever loyal, those Scots, if a bit gruff around the edges. He died with his head intact."
She was saved the trouble of responding while he wrote out a shopping list. He wrote slowly and carefully making large curly loops with a fountain pen. "Thank you, my dear," he said as he handed the list to her. "This is really quite kind of you." His manner was clear. She was dismissed. The command performance, it seemed, was over. She breathed a sigh of relief as she stood up and reached for her bag, careful not to upset the table.
"Happy to help, Mr. Stuart," she said while he closed the door behind her. Walking to the stairs, she glanced down at his list relieved that the encounter was over. But where she was going to find game pie, roasted swan, and claret, she didn't have a clue.