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Authors: Miranda Beall

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BOOK: The Dark Closet
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In the drawers of the
unfortunate highboy, Crossett had literally jammed after his father’s death the volumes of family papers and records. His father had kept them upstairs in the library in a Chippendale slant-top desk over which hung the portrait of a sober and discontented William Tyler Crossett, his mother’s great-grandfather whose pedigree and political status had made his great-granddaughter such a good match for Winthrop Braden Mainwaring II. (How relieved Crossett was, once he was old enough to realize it, that he had not been a III. He expressed his gratitude to fate by naming his first son Braden and then educating him forever after on the vanity of naming one’s sons after one’s self.) He had wasted little ceremony in the transfer of the papers from the heart of the house to its bowels and had left them there with little guilt and a great deal of satisfaction. Winthrop Mainwaring had been a genealogist, although he had had little to do with the phylogenetically-minded May Wetherton, who likewise had had little to do with him and, unbeknownst to Crossett, effectively cut most of the Mainwarings out of her masterpiece,
Sharing Ancestors
, regarded provincially, despite her quavering reputation, as the definitive work on the tangle of blue-blood relationships in Barrow. So if there was a ghost to be found within the Mainwaring domain, May did not record it, and Twynne knew it. Crossett did not know it as he opened the first dusty drawer of that Chippendale highboy to draw out one of many seventeenth and eighteenth century slave lists written by hand by long-deceased masters of Winterhurst.

One by one he drew out the fr
agile papers, some ripping from their own weight as they hung from his fingers. Others were in plastic covers now so cloudy with age their contents could not be read without removing them. But it was not slave lists for which Crossett was looking.

In the next drawer he found an old family Bible with a host of births
and deaths recorded in it, some photographs so old and brown, features were now indistinguishable, although his father had laboriously labeled just about all of them. Some were big enough to be framed and hung, and a few were already framed in circular, gilded frames whose raised decorations had chipped off here and there revealing the plaster beneath.

In the next d
rawer he found fifteen or twenty packs of letters rubber-banded together, and in the next old scrapbooks dating back to at least 1762, which was the oldest dated newspaper article he could find at a glance-through. Some were labeled according to who had kept the book with such statements as “This scrapbook was made largely by Winthrop Braden Mainwaring, Sr., 1840-1893.” Many such statements were written and articles annotated in his father’s handwriting.

The fascination
of old scrapbooks deflected Crossett from his course. They were filled not only with local news involving Mainwaring ancestors and contemporaries as well as other prominent Barrow families but also with a plethora of unrelated news items depending on the interests of the scrapbook keeper. Notices from the society page were rampant:

s Katherine Mainwaring has returned from Northhampton, Mass., where she is attending Smith’s College, to spend the holidays with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Mainwaring II.”

“Mrs. Joshua Mainwaring
gave a reception last evening at her residence, Winterhurst estate in Barrow, Md., in honor of her son, Mr. Thomas Mainwaring, and his wife, who were married at Boston, Mass., on April 8. The bride was Miss Maude Clarkson, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Christian Clarkson. Mr. Mainwaring is the grandson of Jeremiah L. Mainwaring who was a large landowner in Leggett County Md., many years ago. The bride and groom spent their honeymoon at Richmond, Va., coming to Washington a few days ago to reside permanently. A large number of persons called last evening to extend their good wishes to the young couple. The receiving party included Mrs. Mainwaring, the bride and groom, and Miss Sophie Clarkson, a sister of the bride. Those who assisted in the dining room were Mrs. M. J. Barcoe, Miss Marietta Mainwaring, Miss Mamie Teilbright, Miss Clare Wetherton, and Mrs. Liette Rothfield.”

He found his great-grandfather’s death notice and
the inscription on his gravestone, his father’s birth notice, a draft of his great aunt’s wedding announcement with the exact wording of the invitations. When his great-grandfather appeared in Baltimore for dinner, it was recorded in the newspaper. When his great-great-great-grandfather fed Revolutionary troops on the lawns of Winterhurst, it was chronicled by the press. There were articles devoted to the accomplishments of various of his forebears: “Recorded Facts About Robert Mainwaring Gives Queen’s Story Added Interest.” While the actual events were not unfamiliar to him, Crossett had no idea the movements of his ancestors had been the subject of such surveillance. May Wetherton had, after all, given the impression that they had not.

Long, narrow, hand-torn
articles, yellowed with age, on subjects of general interest and curiosity were endless: ”Wedding Anniversaries,” “Birth Flowers,” “World’s Tallest Woman Dead,” “Siamese Twin a Mother,” “Proverbs of Africa,” “Floods in Europe in the Past Century,” “Early Opinions of the Potato,” “Longest Name in the Bible,” “Dire Prophecies for 1893,” “An Elegy on the Dying race of Southern Cooks,” “Cigarette Upheld, Good for Fever,” “The New Jail, A Visit to the Institution—Some of the Characters Confined There,” “Easter Eggs, Their History and Significance,’ “What Ugly Toes Women Have,” “The Graveyard Bureau Money Squandered on National Cemeteries—Crooked Contracts for Tombstones,” “Symbolic Meanings of Precious Stones,” “Sentiments Attached to Flowers,” “Rich Widows in New York,” “Keyser’s Haunted Churn,” “How Flies Climb.”

Events from
all avenues of history dotted the pages like seed thrown to hungry birds in the depths of winter: “Giant Wireless Towers at Work: First Messages Flashed Out by Naval Station at Arlington, Va.,” “Sinking of Lusitania Everywhere Denounced,” “New Diptheria Cure in a Fungus Growth,” “Age Is No Barrier to Taft’s Cabinet,” “Slaves and Slave Days in Southern Maryland,” “The New Federal Reserve Banks, Their Capital, and Deposits,” the death notice of Dr. Mudd, “Burial of the Confederate Dead.”

There were even recipes for peach wine
, a two-gallon jar (of what was not specified), blackberry cordial, and three pages of puddings—potato, bread, citron, American, sweet potato, Indian, ground rice. And beneath most of the articles on most of the pages were the nearly-obliterated  handwritten genealogies of the Mainwaring family and all branches therefrom or therewith, drafts of letters, diary-like recordings of visits.

t was in one of these scrapbooks that Crossett actually came across several columns by The Rambler. He was very much surprised because he had assumed The Rambler was a contemporary phenomenon, but judging from the dated scrapbooks in which he found the columns, The Rambler was either very, very old or knew the secret of regeneration. This made it all the more perplexing that no one apparently knew who he was, as Twynne had told him. Had The Rambler managed to keep his identity a secret for over a century? Amused and intrigued, Crossett began to read through The Rambler headlines: ”The Rambler Visits the Burial Place of General Marburk Mainwaring,” said the first one. That was an ancestor with whom Crossett was not familiar. Another announced “The Rambler Visits Barrow in Leggett County,” in which The Rambler gave the etymology of the town’s name, derived from the Old English bearwe, meaning basket or wheelbarrow. He went on to say that the old families of Barrow were importing pianos from London as well as cases of books, plates, and pictures while their neighbors to the west were still sporting bearskin caps and deerskin skirts as they traded with the Indians. He reported that Barrow, a wheat and tobacco region, boasted a host of old plantations: Barrow Mansion, Rivers Chance, Independence, Warenne’s Grove, Forster’s Pleasure, Winterhurst, Rezin’s Levels, Teilbright’s Green, Whetherton, Wightefield. Crossett looked at the date on the article: February 22, 1907. The next article was entitled ”With the Rambler,” dated to May 6,1848, and described Poplar Hill, a Mainwaring holding famous for its silver poplars, which The Rambler said was a common tree found planted close to the old mansions, especially among Catholic plantation owners since, according to legend, it is from this tree that the cross upon which Christ died was carved. To this day, the legend continues, its leaves still shiver in fear that it might be used again for such a purpose.

Crossett remembered Poplar Hill.
He had never seen it himself but his father used to speak of it with great bitterness because it had slipped from Mainwaring hands to a respective nobody, a Mr. Jackson Wilbon, who turned out to be a far shrewder investor than the current crop of Mainwarings. He had bought the estate considerably under market value from its widowed mistress, who had been overwhelmed by grief and the prospect of estate management. Eleven years later in 1945 he sold it for three times the amount to Deerwood Baptist Church for a school and home for retired pastors. Crossett’s father had raged on the subject of Deerwood Baptist, which had broken the bounds of the borough of Deerwood to penetrate the borders of Barrow, staunchly Catholic except for a few diehard Anglicans (like the Mainwarings). The 1799 Federal brick house at Poplar Hill had been on the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage every year from 1923 to 1934, a claim even Winterhurst could not make, despite its elaborate and impressive architecture and history. Known for its entrance hall staircase that wound to the third floor, Poplar Hill’s moldings and plaster cornices depicted tobacco leaves and grapes, classical urns and swags. It was a tribute to the era that had spawned it but had gone to ruin in the eleven years during which Mr. Wilbon had held it, waiting for the right buyer. As far as Crossett’s father was concerned, the Deerwood Baptists were seeing to it that it stayed that way. Rumor had it (no one knew for sure because no Barrow Catholic or Anglican deigned to look) that they knocked down walls to create a meeting area in the three small rooms that crossed the front of the house and erected other walls in the two large rooms beyond to create offices. It was a story that could blanche any citizen of Barrow worth his ancestral blood.

“Why didn’t someone
stop Mrs. Mainwaring from selling the house?” Crossett in his naïve youth had once asked his father.

“She didn’t want to
be stopped!” his father had bellowed. “She didn’t want to run the place!”

“Then why didn’
t someone in the family offer to run it for her?”

A reasonable suggestion,
but a question to which his father gave no answer, for the answer was an axiom, cold in its truth but no source of embarrassment to its indifferent constituents: Mainwarings did not help other Mainwarings. They did, however, scrutinize one another’s affairs, albeit from afar, and criticize loudly among themselves but never face to face.

No, Mainwarings
did not help other Mainwarings, even within their own nuclear families. There was many a tale of wayward Mainwarings whose lifelines were unceremoniously cut by the family patriarch and the unorthodox kinsman let out to sea. Nor was there any coming back, prodigal or no, and no penance sufficient to obliterate the transgression. He knew. His brother Edmond was just such an ill-fated Mainwaring. Since the day his father had told Edmond he could indeed tend to his own affairs as he so impudently wished, he had been cast from Winterhurst. Calling everyone into the back parlor, his father gave them, especially and most cordially to Edmond, a highball and announced that Edmond was henceforth disinherited. He was as unrepentant as he promised to be, too. On a rainy, cold March day in 1949 in the offices of Maynard, Williams, Teilbright, and Laster, all instances of Edmond’s name were struck from the will of Winthrop Braden Mainwaring II.

a point, Crossett often thought, Edmond should be reinstated in some fashion, but at exactly what point Crossett had not yet determined nor did he seem of a mind to hasten his decision. Meanwhile, somewhere specifically where no one knew, Edmond languished in the humiliation of having been rejected by a man he could never again hope to approach, except perhaps in that life beyond the grave.

Crossett resumed his reading, forgetting Edmond
completely when he saw the next headline: “Harden House Ghost Disappears as Flames Sweep Building,” dated February 6, 1931. According to the article, the house was built by the Lords Baltimore in 1624 as a bride’s dowry, and Elizabeth Harden had burned to death there thirty-five years ago. The same Dr. Benjamin mentioned by Twynne claimed to have seen her ghost while wandering through the stone cellar, all that was left of the house. Details were few.

The next article,  howev
er, struck a familiar chord.

Dr. Benjamin Tells The Rambler of His Latest Encounter with Mr. Magruder Green’s Ghost, January 23, 1949.”

Dr. Benjamin has witnessed once again one of the most famous ghosts of Barrow, Md., Mr. Magruder Green’s diplomat, who appears leaning against the dining room Hepplewhite sideboard on particularly quiet evenings at Green’s Levels, the remaining 501 acres of the original 3,456-acre estate given to Winston Magruder Green by Queen Anne. Dr. Benjamin saw the ghostly personage himself as he walked into the room saying he sensed a presence. The red-sashed diplomat, after appearing in a gauze-like fashion, moved from the sideboard to the dining room table where he appeared to pour himself a glass of wine from the decanter placed there. After several sips he disappeared, apparently satisfied with the aperitif. Dr. Benjamin has prepared a written record of this encounter to add to the several others he has already had at Green’s Levels and other great houses in the region.”

BOOK: The Dark Closet
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