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Authors: Miranda Beall

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BOOK: The Dark Closet
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Nor was Christopher John the only o
ne. It seemed to run in the Mainwaring men. Crossett’s own father was not very quiet about his paramours, but his mother appeared to tolerate it. That is, she said nothing. She nodded to her husband frequently when he spoke, but Crossett was hard pressed to remember anything conversational about their relationship. Edmond very likely could have been the last straw, but, oddly enough, it was not his mother who held Edmond in disdain but his father, who did not have to, it seemed to Crossett, bring him home to Winterhurst.

Oh, well.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said himself apologetically as he pulled Lamerie’s hand from the radiator. “It’s the dampness from all this snow that makes it seem colder than it is. Goes right through you.” He fingered the folded
Sunday Sentinel,
rolled over, and slowly spread it open on the cold wooden floor. “Wighte Ghost Leads County in Tall Tales,” the headline of the leisure section claimed below it in smaller type, “The Rambler Offers Another Fascinating Account of Barrow’s Dark Past” and below that in still smaller type,” Another in a Series of Famous Names and Places in Southern Maryland.” He ran his hand over the article, which covered the front page of the section replete with pictures of the crumbling house at Wightefield and the surrounding fallow fields. He sighed deeply.

“Did you
authorize this?”

“No,” she said firmly.

“Did they call you or something?”

She
moved slightly in the bed. The movement made his hand slide lightly over the paper.

“Somebody called from the
Sentinel
asking questions about Wightefield.”

“Do you know
who it was?” he asked leaning on his elbow and wondering if it could have been The Rambler himself.

“No. He didn’t say and I didn’t ask.”

“What did you tell him?” he asked feeling somewhat disappointed.

“Nothing. I
don’t talk about Wightefield. It’s my business.” It was the one topic about which she showed some spirit, Crossett thought.

“Then where did they get all this information?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” she lied. She strongly suspected Jake had told them.

“Is it true?”

“I guess they got it from folks living around.”

“But is it true? Had you heard all this yourself?”

“Yes,” she sighed with impatience. “When I was a child, Opal, our maid, used to tell me about it. But once Opal left, I never heard anything more—Mama hated all those old stories and would answer no questions about them.”

“Just hearsay, huh?”

“Jake believes it.” She was angry now, he knew, because she never mentioned Jake by name unless she was. She knew how upset it got him and that he would take it out on her, reject her in some way.

“So?” he said indifferently, a little angry that she was not afraid t
o mention her husband.

“He’s been over every inch of that ground around the house and well beyond.”

“Looking for the necklace?”

“Silver, too,” she said roughly.

“No luck?”

“No, but
he’s not convinced yet it wasn’t buried when the troops took over the house. He won’t let anyone up there, even though a million people must have dug around that house in the years following the Civil War. If it was there, someone found it long ago.”

Jake
had an extremely and inexcusably proprietary attitude toward the house at Wightefield. It did not belong to him: Lamerie had told him many times, but he laughed her off when she tried to stake her claim to Wightefield, reminding her that she was married now and that they held everything in common, including the old house at Wightefield.

“It was left to
me! It will never be yours!” she would spit back. Yes, Wightefield was the one thing over which she showed some backbone.

“It’s both of ours,”
Jake would reply unruffled.

“I’ll get a lawyer,” she would threaten.

“Go ahead but you’ll have to pay for it yourself. Don’t take it out of
my
checkbook,” he would reply coolly, turning a little from her, fingering a smoldering cigarette in an ashtray. He knew she had no money of her own. She was completely dependent on him, and that was the way he wanted it.

“I married one of Southern Maryland ‘s
finest,” he had proclaimed beside the bed in the Howard Johnson’s honeymoon suite in Richmond, Virginia. ”Me. A New York boy.” Then he had smiled widely looking very pleased with no warmth in his eyes, just glass.

It was some time before
she realized that she might still be fighting the War Between the States. Jake seemed quite proud of his northern heritage, which she did not hold against him she told herself. How could she? She was just as proud of her heritage or she would not have insisted on holding onto Wightefield. It never occurred to her, however, that their relationship might be a conquest whose proclamation of war was given beneath two Cupids holding a swath of tasseled red velvet over Howard Johnson’s official nuptial bed.

“Did you know that my
great grandfather was a lieutenant in the Company of New York Zouaves?”

Jake
had folded his arms beneath his head on the pillow as Lamerie had gazed up at the plump buttocks of one cherubed Cupid.

“1861.
General George B. McClellan.” Then he had laughed loudly, as if the trick were still worth the telling even if it could no longer be played. “You can bet many a Confederate thought it was his own men from a distance. Their uniforms were almost identical.” He had laughed bellicosely. “Then
blam
! What a surprise
that
must have been! They couldn’t tell a Confederate from a Union soldier if the colors weren’t right.” Turning over toward her, he made his first direct hit. “So Wighte was a big name back then, huh? Lots of money and slaves and tobacco? Didn’t the Union army avail itself of all that and nearly destroy the house?” There had been a pause as Lamerie had tried to understand the implications of his words.

“If your people had taken car
e of that house, we could be living there today, but,” he had sighed, dropping back on the pillow, “as it is, it’s just a pile of lumber that’s going to cost us money. Can’t live in it. You’d have to be a millionaire to be able to restore it. Your father,” he had rolled back over toward her, “could have gotten something out of that barn—he  could have repaired it. He could have—or should have—,” he had continued softly, tracing a line along her bare arm with his finger, “hired ten or twenty men and given that place a good going over, made it livable. It’ll take me years to restore that place and a bankful of money, too. And you think Wightefield belongs to you?” He asked gently. “It belongs, my dear, to whoever can afford to repair it. Aren’t you lucky you married a jack of all trades? He should have concentrated more on Wightefield rather than that stupid book they say he was writing.”

J
ake was the only one in all of the Washington metropolitan area coarse enough to verbalize her father’s chief weakness. The shock of Jake’s statement on her wedding night left her with such a feeling of humiliation, she fell silent and did nothing. She could only see in her mind’s eye her father straining over the typewriter in the apartment living room, hunting and pecking with one finger. He would begin his highballs late in the evening and continue them until the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, Lamerie would awaken at about one or two o’clock in the morning to the intermittent clacks of her father’s typewriter and would crawl into his lap to watch his jittering fingers press down the keys, to smell the languid odor of bourbon in the air. They say he had been writing the story of the Wighte family, including his own theories on the fate of the wonderful emerald necklace and the trove of silver, based on his own excavations of the house and lawns of Wightefield.

For a long time she
could not fathom where Jake had gotten the idea her father had enough money to restore the house at Wightefield. Her mother couldn’t not even afford any kind of a wedding for Lamerie. Did he think her mother was so parsimonious that she would refuse her only child a wedding?

A wedding.
She would think about it for years to come. She had been to some of Barrow’s weddings, seen the white-veiled and embroidered brides trail like spirits down the winding staircases of old family homes, preceded by six or seven bridesmaids and groomsmen, chiffonier and powdered and bedecked with flowers in their hands, their hair, their hats. Ushers lined the walls of great halls like gray statues in cut-aways and cravats. Guests sat hunched in grand parlors and libraries, gloved and jeweled, and coifed. And the receptions! The receiving lines went on for hours so many were the guests. Tables in remote rooms groaned under the weight of sterling silver and crystal and china received by the bride-to-be, and other tables supported newly arrived gifts wrapped in white tissue paper and argentine foil and dotted with loops of ribbon and lace. White-coated, black-panted caterers politely served steaming trays of ham biscuits and crab puffs, while black-dressed white-aproned women filled and refilled plates of shrimp cocktail, crab fondue, steamship rounds of beef, cheeses, dips and potato chips, fresh fruit mixtures, rolls, horseradish sauce, mayonnaise, Smithfield ham, honey mustard, strawberries, confectioner’s sugar, nuts, and creamy mints. There were always a minimum of three bars to serve Barrow’s thirsty planters.

Yes, she knew
what money really was. It was green when it poked its shoots through the cracked soil of the fields and fanned its leaves through the summer winds. And it was green when it was pulled from the pocket and fanned its leaves over bars and counters and the hands of wealthy merchants.

She told
him frequently after that her father had had no money. Just some currency. That’s all. When her mother died, she realized how ineffectual her statements had been. Jake accused her of hiding her inheritance from him—whatever pieces of the hidden necklace and silver he was sure her father had found and stashed away for himself in his drunkenness. He demanded the draft of his book, which her mother had destroyed upon her father’s death, so much did she hate the old stories of buried Wighte wealth. Jake refused to believe that all there was to be passed on to descendants was the house at Wightefield, that that was all her father had had, all her mother had had, and now all Lamerie had.

“They were wealthy once,” she had told him. “They los
t everything in the Civil War.”

“How romantic,
” he had said acidly, unmoved by the ill luck of an old southern family.


Robert Wighte died in the war, and his wife Lamerie Tailler Wighte was killed by Union soldiers,” she had tried to convince him.

“The house was ruined—destroyed—by Union soldiers—you’ve told me the story yourself—“ Lamerie continued, “The crops burned, the livestock stolen or run off, the slaves scattered. Many did not return. They represented thousands of dollars in investment, all lost. There was nothing left to start over with. Their eight-year-old daughter, Mersey, went to live with relatives in Washington, where she lived all her life, only occasionally visiting Wightefield. She refused many offers of sale, they say, all from carpetbaggers and poor white farmers suddenly rich from the misfortune of half a nation. ”

“What did
she
use to pay the taxes on Wightefield?” Jake had asked caustically.

“Whatever she had.” And indeed that was
true. Sometimes she cleaned the homes of more fortunate wealthy Barrow wives, trailing the illegitimate child of a Union soldier after her, rumored to be the son of one of the soldiers that looted Wightefield. Sometimes she used her whole body for the pleasure of wealthy Barrow planters. Barrow itself knew the secret, but Jake would never learn it from Barrow. It was part of the landscape, the deterioration of the Wighte family and its sordid transgressions in the face of ruin. All of Barrow knew it but it was not parlor talk, not anymore. It was old news, tolerated and forgotten. That was the way Barrow was: Its secrets were its own. It accepted the ill- fortune of its tenants, did not indulge in public ridicule, was expert in the art of social ostracism.

Often
Lamerie asked herself how she had come to marry Jake, who seemed so dissatisfied now with the choice of his mate. But how also did he come to marry her? Was it the first trip to Wightefield that had convinced him? Then, too, it had been as abandoned as it was now and had been for over a century. And Jake was accustomed to seeing the interiors of Barrow’s finest and oldest homes where he had replaced and added moldings, painted, repaired woodworking, laid floors, and wallpapered. What allure could the ramshackle Wightefield have held?

She turned,
thinking of all this, propping her head on the inside of her forearm so that she could watch the tiny dots of snow pass the windowpane.

It was beautiful, though, even in its ruin.
She had always thought so. Perhaps Jake thought so, too. Wightefield fired the imagination even in its degeneration: the great floor-to-ceiling windows lining the front of the house; the two thick, wooden, fluted pillars marking the main entrance; the heavy brass door knocker, tarnish and all; the wide front lawn, however entangled with the encroaching forest, that still somehow maintained is proprietary sweep to the road below the arch of the bay-like window that rounded a corner of the house making six turns of its own in the process; the many entrances—main, servants’, back, and side. Even without furniture and drapes, even with its torn, gray, faded wallpapers and chipped paint, the interior of the house had retained its dignity and grace. The chilly, empty rooms climbed to fifteen-foot ceilings and the front oaken stair case wound from the front vestibule to the upstairs hall. From there one could look down one end of the hall and see the five bedrooms, while the other end met with a wall on the other side of which were servants’ quarters, reachable only from the kitchen via an exceedingly narrow and steep stairwell.

BOOK: The Dark Closet
2.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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