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Authors: Miranda Beall

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BOOK: The Dark Closet
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Twynne shrugged. “Suit yourself, but I’ve seen him.”

The room fell silent so unexpectedly that Crossett instinctively looked over at his friend. A strange look stole across Twynne’s face, a perplexity that welled up and shifted across his countenance much as the spirit of God must have moved over the face of the waters in the beginning of time. “A black shadow of a thing …throwing itself among the portraits hanging along the wall …” he almost whispered.

“You’re beginning to sound like
a campout in the backyard,” Crossett laughed nervously, nervously because he knew that look, had seen it many times move like a shadow across Twynne’s face in the dusky light of the back room just before the closet door closed and all he could see was the black. Those cold gray eyes were always the last thing he would see before the paneled door snapped shut. ”In fact, I think I remember this story.”

“You didn’t
hear it from me then,” he shook lose, almost bellowing his response. “I was very careful to keep it from you,” Twynne said very seriously.

“Then tell me
this: How is it that I never heard or saw these things all the time I spent the night over here as a boy?”

“You used to remark on the no
ises at night all the time. Don’t you remember? We would both talk about them at breakfast, and my father would tell us how old the house is and how much repair it needed and no wonder it makes noises, it’s going to cave in one day anyway. Don’t you remember that? You used to find it highly amusing that my father could be so pragmatic about having his house fall in on him one day.”

“They weren’t like the noises at Winterhurst,” Crossett conceded confessionally.

The two men sat in silence for a few minutes as the flurries outside piled a few more small, icy flakes along the window panes. Melting cubes clinked against his glass as Crossett swirled the yellow-brown liquid around.

“Kentucky Straight,” he mumbled. “Good sipping whiskey.” Twynne
puffed in his own fluffy cloud of tobacco. “So there are more stories, you say?” Crossett asked.

Twynne kept sucking at
his pipe, sending soft billows of smoke from his mouth up into the air as he eyed his friend. “Several.”

“Such as?”

“Well, the most famous is Magruder Green’s sideboard ghost. A red-sashed diplomat appears leaning against it at no regular intervals. It has been observed by Dr. William Benjamin of the history department at the University of Maryland, as well as, of course, by May Wetherton.”

“Not a
professional observer, but how did this Dr. Benjamin get involved?”

“Courtes
y of The Rambler.”

Crossett laughed. “Any kin
to The Lone Ranger?”

Twynne
released the pipe from his mouth, laying it in his lap. “Of course not. This is news, Crossett, the press, journalism. The newspaper is a perfectly valid source of information, even on ghost lore. Don’t you read the newspaper?”

“Of course.”

“Haven’t you seen The Rambler’s column?”

“No.”

“In the
Sunday Sentinel
—every Sunday. He does features on this area, concentrates on Barrow and Walsall and Taunton. Lots of articles on the tobacco heritage of Barrow and outlying areas, pre- and post-Civil War lore, the old and illustrious names that helped to found this region and establish the District as the nation’s capital. Families like the Blyths who used to own half of what is now D.C., who gave large portions of their estates to the government to establish a capital. Some died paupers from taxes after gifting the country with a capital city.”

“You sound angry.”

“I am angry,” he said leaning menacingly forward in his wing-back chair. “And if it weren’t for The Rambler most of the people in D.C. and Baltimore wouldn’t know where half the place names come from around here and who it was established the great cities they live in.”


Who is The Rambler anyway?”

Twynne leaned back again in
his chair and lifted his pipe thoughtfully to his full lips. “Don’t know. He’s been very successful at keeping his true identity a secret.”

“Or she.”

“What?”

“Or she. He could be
a she, don’t you think?” Crossett teased the chauvinistic Twynne.

“Surely there must have
been a few illustrious women back there, too, that The Rambler reports on?”

“No, no
women,” Twynne replied flatly.

“And
are all his ghosts men, too?”

“No,” he
answered slowly, eyeing his friend. “The Wighte ghost is a woman.”

“And what does she do?”

“I don’t believe it’s been fully documented,” he said thoughtfully as he stared up at the ceiling. “Not by The Rambler anyway.”

Twynne eyed
his friend. “No, that’s one he’s overlooked.” The pipe hung limply in his hand as he gazed at the ceiling again. “Perhaps I should look into it …” He looked perplexed, as if he had forgotten something but was sure he could remember if he only tried hard enough.

“What?”

Twynne roused himself with sudden agitation. “If you’re so damn skeptical , Crossett, why did you ask me about it?”

“Curiosity. It’s interesting anyway, even
if I don’t believe it.”

“And do y
ou believe what you saw yourself the other  night?”

“I don’t know,” he said in a
low voice. “I was tired. Being cooped up like this is making me positively squirrely. I can’t remember ever being snowed in this long.”


Just some frayed nerves, eh? Maybe so.”

“Maybe so,” Crossett repeated speculatively. “Any other stories?”

Twynne laughed. “Curiosity killed the cat, my friend, and satisfaction never brought him back. Yes, there are others. Remember Billy Bonns? Sure you do! Every schoolboy around here when we were growing up knew about Billy Bonns. He even got honorable mention in history class, even if he wasn’t required reading. He used to buy up all the incorrigible slaves in Barrow he could get his  hands on, which was a paltry number. Barrow natives like the Greens and Wethertons, Herefords and Teilbrights, Mainwarings and Forsters didn’t give up or give up on their slaves easily. Too big an investment in a state whose residents weren’t typically large slaveholders. Three hundred was an unheard of number and only found on the truly great wheat and tobacco plantations of the deep South. So Barrow masters held onto their slaves, but when they found themselves unsuccessful in handling an incorrigible one, they sold that slave to Billy Bonns. And Billy Bonns beat that slave until he could barely walk. Barely. Just enough to serve. Just enough for the excruciating pain to register for some time to come. And in 1837 his wife Azalea died in her bedroom when it caught on fire. The only room in the house to burn. The only person in the fire to die. Just enough damage for the pain to register with old Billy. Karma I’d say. He spent three weeks trying to beat out of every slave he owned just who set that fire, but he never found out and rumor had it that seven slaves died in those weeks. Local legend says you can still hear them moaning in the ice house on the Bonns property. He used to beat them there because the colder temperature kept the blood from flowing as readily and they’d hold up a little longer.”

“Oh,
really, Twynne!” Crossett said with disgust. “That’s nothing but an old ghost story!”

“Then you do remember it!”

“Not quite so embellished a version!”

“It’s local lore,
Crossett! An important part of our history here. Don’t you find it fascinating that there are so many of such stories in this region? Doesn’t it make you wonder why there are so many stories like that around here? I’ve looked into the histories of adjacent areas and not found the plethora of such stories as there are here. I’ll tell you what you should do,” he continued leaning forward. “You should go home and look though the family records and see what you can find. I’m serious,” he said waving his hand at Crossett as he blew through his mouth and turned his face from Twynne. “Have you ever looked through all that stuff in the cellar there? I know you have drawers full of it. I watched you stuff it all down there in cast-off furniture when your father died. You’re lucky your father was so interested in family history and his father before him and his before him, or you wouldn’t have all those records now. Take a look, Crossett. If you think you have a ghost at Winterhurst, you’ll find her in those records somewhere.”

“Oh, come now, Twynne. If May Wetherton couldn’t turn up anything, I doubt if I can.”

Twynne shrugged. “Maybe it wasn’t sensational enough for May.”

“You mean, maybe it’s a little ghost.”

“Your sarcasm is showing again.”

“I wear it like a petticoat.”

Chapter 3

 

In the dusk Crossett’s stocky frame was a black shadow gliding through the white snow on the back south tobacco field that joined Twynne’s. The front south field would have made a shorter trek from house to house, but the spear-headed stubble of the corn hidden by the thick layer of snow would have made the walk deadly. Lost, kernelless cobs lying toothless in the rows, if caught by the rubber heelless boot, would roll beneath the cover of the snow until the wayfarer lay flat on his back. In his youth such spills brought forth from him no more than a chortle, but now the hapless fall could leave him aching and wrenched for days. His dark figure hunched forward in the back field, huddling against the light snow blowing across the widely open space. In the distance the underbelly of the white, snow-filled sky reflected the glow along the horizon, the lights of the city of Washington. Further in the distance to the north a fainter light hovered along the tree tops, all that could be seen of the lights of Baltimore.

Crossett passed
the huge, looming, ebony figure of the tobacco barn, the light wind passing through its empty slats, turning one aside now and again with a muffled creak, the flap of the tarp in the stripping room like a page turning in the night. He stopped a moment to stand before it in defiance of its sourceless sounds, its mimicked assurance that some human hand had knocked gently along the graying boards of the barn, that human breath blew the brush of the hay along the dirt floor within. The sounds followed him without changing volume as he shuffled past, adding to their repertoire the slide of his rubber boots along the stiffening snow. When he turned to look behind him some 500 feet, he could still hear the flapping sides, the low whistles through the gaps between the boards, the soft breathing of the night breeze swelling the flap of tarp in and out, in and out. The barn was but a flat, black smudge against the darkening sky, a carelessly cut square of black construction paper pasted there by a greater hand. The line of the woods beyond met the black box, melted into it, and re-emerged on the other side to carry on its jagged design beneath the two cities’ glow.

He passed by Isaac’s house—all the sharecroppers’ houses were located ne
ar barns—a dark and lifeless a thing as the barn, except for the glint of a fire he saw as he walked within a few feet of a window.

“Who’s there?” came a bodiless voice with some alarm.

“It’s me, Isaac, Mr. Mainwaring. Just coming back from Mr. Forster’s.”

“You giv
e me quite a start,” came the sigh of his relief. “It’s awful dark tonight, ain’t it, sir?”

“Sure is, Isaac.
Think we’ll have some current in a few days. If you need anything, let me know.”

“We be all right, Mr. Mainwaring.”

“I’ve got no phone, Isaac, but we could get out in an emergency. Better close your door. Don’t let your heat out.”

“It’s awful cold
, sir.”

“Cut from the woods if you need to before the current
comes back on, but not after.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not after, Isaac. Understand?”

“Yes
, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Crossett did n
ot let anyone cut from the woods of Winterhurst except in the most extreme of circumstances. In fact, he himself bought his own firewood. Nor did he let anyone hunt there, not with a gun, anyway, although he had given the Barrow Hunt Club permission to pursue the fox hunt through Winterhurst as a further concession to his riderless status within it. Besides, if he had not, the club would have had to ride on Green Spring Road to get to the next farm through which they could hunt, and such stubbornness on Crossett’s part may have lost him his membership and as he was socially correct in Barrow, he could not let that happen.

Where Isaac had dragged a makeshift plow along the f
arm road, Crossett could hear the crunch of gravel beneath his boots, but the smooth, lumpy surface promised to turn to icy glass as the temperature dropped. Gingerly, he picked his way along the newly cut road past the corn crib and sheds sheltering the four tractors to the farm gate that led into the lawns of Winterhurst. The snowflakes tapped a few still-dangling brown papery leaves as he passed beneath the trees. He stopped to listen for a sigh among the shiftless branches as the wind swept in a gust through the walkway leading like a gauntlet through the two rows of maples that branched out into the sweeping lawn. The only sigh he heard was his own as he bemoaned the towering shadow of his house ahead.

It was Twynne’s matter-of-fact attitude
that had made the visit so unsatisfying. He had spoken of ghosts as if they were no more than cats and dogs roaming the premises, underfoot at times, but generally cooperative. He had exhibited irritation at Crossett’s skepticism, the same Crossett whom years ago Twynne had ridiculed for alarm at Winterhurst’s strange nocturnal noises. That is indeed how it all had started. As alliances were in a constant state of flux among Crossett and his three brothers, he had one day in a fit of camaraderie revealed to his younger brother Edmund his fear of Winterhurst’s nightly sounds. He was not to learn until a few days later what a mistake he had made. When Twynne next spent the night, Crossett found himself corralled and herded into the abyss of his closet. It was even greater sport because Crossett was the eldest of the brothers, the one to whom their parents had given the most responsibility and some authority. In the matter of the closet, Crossett was now the impotent one, a situation his brothers enjoyed. That was not to say that other alliances could not still be forged, but the subject of the eventide attacks was non-negotiable.

It wa
s Twynne who seemed to take especial joy in the capture and imprisonment.

“What did you see in there?” he would goad after the pale and shivering Cro
ssett had fallen from the closet door against which he had been pressed for the last hour. “Any ghosts?” And they would all laugh, Twynne and Crossett’s brothers, until the stir of his parents were heard and they would scurry back to their beds.

“I’ll bet there’s a whole family of ghosts up there in the attic,” Twynne would whisper through the wall as Crossett lay
in bed afterward. “You go up there, don’t you, when you’re in there? You go up there, don’t you? You’re not scared, are you …” Yes, Crossett would think, even now, I’m scared. No, he never went up the stairs to the attic. He pressed his body against the door until his hands were white as snow and prayed every prayer he could remember from Sunday school.

The thrill of torturing Crossett must have infected them all, for it wa
s a trick they unforgivingly played on him until he was at least seventeen years old. Nor did his brothers and friend completely cease at that time but periodically played the game until Crossett was almost twenty-two and by then too stocky himself to be shoved any longer into a dark closet, although a titanic struggle would ensue among the five men until the grunts and groans threatened to awaken Crossett’s ill-tempered father. The very nature, however, of those then infrequent and sporadic assaults kept Crossett’s nerves raw and twitching. He had, mercifully been left in peace since he was twenty-two.

And now to discover at forty-four that the youthful pragmatist Twynne
had believed all along in that which he could not see, in those apparitions he had accused Crossett of fearing, was a frustrating revelation. Or might Twynne be playing once again with his old friend in a more sophisticated manner? It was impossible, at least now, to read Twynne on this, Crossett thought. He shrugged his shoulders. Nonetheless, he might as well follow Twynne’s advice by looking though the family records. It would be something to do on a dark, snowy evening in the basement, and for all he knew he might find out if what he had seen the other night was just what a middle-aged man might see who was trying to scare away the ghosts of his youth.

Crossett stood now befo
re Winterhurst, watching its dark-eyed windows as the snow fell silently from the sky. Roaming the farm at night did not bother him; skirting the house on nights far darker than this, nights without the incandescence of the snow to light them, did not rankle his nerves . But scuffling over the wooden floors within without a lamp to light his way made his stomach churn even now, despite the fact that he had spent the last twenty-two years practicing the art of bravery like some nocturnal knight in the armor of determination. He had discovered in that time that one cannot learn fearlessness through rote memorization.

His boots crunched
the icing snow beneath them as he made his way to the basement door. Ridiculously, he thought he felt regretful that he could not just live in the cellar of this old house, so warm and cheerful did it seem as he entered it this time. At the oil stove Anne was stirring something hot whose herbed odor filled the bricked cavern; along the floor the children scooted their wagons filled with stuffed and stitched passengers on a journey through their mistresses’ imaginations; laughter echoed through the old archways preceding and succeeding them as they traversed that countryside in which only a child can roam. Three large kerosene lamps shielded dancing fueled flames within fluted glass covers, and the air above the cast iron stove rippled with heat.

“I wondered if you were going to spend the night over there,” Anne said with a smile.

“Oh, we had a couple of drinks and got talking you know,” Crossett replied wearily.

“You look tired. You’re up most of the night every night. What’s wrong?”

“I’m out of my routine. You know how I am—a creature of habit. I’ll be glad when the current comes back on or at least the telephone so I can tell the electric company we haven’t got any current.”

“I’m sure they know.”

“They need a fire lit under them.”

“I don’t
think it really does much good to call them when it goes out now or in the summer.”

“I know. I know. We’re
at the ends of the earth and we just don’t count.”

“Well,
they do always say they work on the most populated areas first.”

“Cities …”

“And towns …”

“Hamlets …”

And boroughs.”

“But not the country.”

“We don’t count.”

“I suspect
it will be on very soon,” Anne said.


I suspect it will have to come on sooner or later.”

“Don’t be
sarcastic, Crossett. It doesn’t change things.”


By the time they get it on, we’ll have a summer storm and we can do this all over again. The only difference will be the temperature.”

“Please, Cross
ett. You looked rather pleased when you came in. Your moods do take sudden turns.” She clanged the metal spoon on the side of the pan to knock off the drippings.

“Tomato?”

“Tomato and basil.”

“Peanut butter and
jelly?” His stomach turned just a little.

“Tuna
. I found a lone can way in the back of the cupboard today. No mayonnaise, you know. That spoiled long ago.”

“Sounds
dry.”

“Dip it in
your soup, dear. It’ll be delicious.”

She
was right. The meal tasted exquisite, as bereft of traditional southern Maryland fare and as dismally repetitive in nature with its immediate predecessors as it was. The touch of basil and the replacement of peanut butter and jam with lukewarm tuna were heady variations.

Anne went to bed early that
night. The long, lightless evenings were beginning to wear on her, too, even though she had still an ample supply of books to keep her entertained. The kerosene flames, however, were tiring to the eye, and the white page became yellow and the yellow page yellower. At times the strained eyes would see the glaring page of white from which its black ink rose, abandoning its serifs to a flatter dimension. It was quite impossible to read under such conditions. Nor was Anne able to read as fast as usual, and the modest pile of Brentanno’s paperbacks was disappearing only very slowly. Even if she had run out of those books, she could always go into Crossett’s library and find a leathered classic there. True, many of the books were old and rare, but some could still be handled with a modicum of threat to their condition.

Although
Crossett would let no one touch his book collection, in a snow storm he had decided to let Anne.

In the sh
adowy basement great black chasms hovered where the captured flame of the kerosene lamp could not penetrate. Crossett drew the brass lamp closer to the edge of the highboy and removed its metal shade to reveal the hurricane glass that shielded the flame from the whim of drafts and breezes. The lamp threw its unimprisoned light up among the tangle of pipes in the ceiling, casting their misshapen shadows into the  recesses among them until it seemed that hundreds of pipes channeled along the ceiling in a hopeless maze. The flame siphoned a waning light far into the cellar chamber where Crossett stood next to the Chippendale highboy preparing to open its top drawer. It was a piece of furniture in dire need of refinishing, one for which he had no real place upstairs and which suffered now from the degenerative disease of neglect. Its brass handles were black with tarnish, so thick and stubborn Crossett could not budge it in the fit of ambition he had had last summer to clean up the piece. He had upon the same occasion washed it from carved finial to claw-and-ball foot with Jakeson’s Oil Soap, which had left the finish looking dull and pasty. A good coat of furniture polish rubbed in by hand and polished with an old soft undershirt had created in its glow but a reminiscence of the highboy’s past splendor. A little exasperated, Crossett had  realized then that the only answer was a refinishing, which he could not do himself and which would therefore cost him a comely sum of money. He decided not to pay it. He took great care with the pieces he had, but he rarely spent money to have something repaired. He ensured the good condition of his antiques by not permitting his children to sit on any upholstered chairs or sofas in the house. He included in the sweeping dictum the cane-bottom chairs as well because he could not erase from his mind’s eye the vision of one of them poking a hole in the cane. And recaning a chair was almost prohibitively expensive. He declared once to himself that he would never consider it, witnessed by the collection of old chairs in the basement with great gaping holes in their caning at which he would often catch Warrenne staring with the utmost absorption. There had been but one exception: the 1625 turned chair in whose seat he had poked a hole himself. The whole house had been silent that day, succeeding such an event that Crossett himself had ruined a valuable piece of furniture. But he never mentioned it. Just took it to a caner and blanched while he wrote the check.

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