The mansion, built in the early 1800s, had been seemingly transported from the very heart of Dixie. Stout German neighbors on the one side viewed it with the same mixture of suspicion and curiosity as they might have an alien spacecraft. On the other side - well, the property still goes on and on out of view, until it butts up against a thick stand of brush too ugly and forsaken for anyone to try and make a living on it.
Oh, it was beautiful: the white columned facade, the gracefully curved walkway, the two-story veranda, the fountain in the courtyard. You can tell how the place once looked the same way that you can discern the sculpted cheekbones and delicate skin that still lie hidden under sagging jowls and caked foundation on Virginia Shippen. I heard that Virginia got her looks from her mother, and her legendary vile temper from her father, and she's not selling the mansion until she drops as dead as a deer that's been gut-shot.
Nobody that's local would look twice at the place, let alone consider buying it. Hell, some of them won't even use the road that runs in front. There've been too many accidents along that stretch. Horses spook and throw riders, or overturn carriages. Cars blow tires with alarming frequency. And, by some trick of nature, thunderstorms seem to hang over the place in a near constant cannonade during the month of July.
I didn't get the full tour, but I did get a look-see when I brought Virginia a third offer from our company.
Stepping through the front door, I was struck by the 15 foot ceilings and the pervasive scent of gardenia. A great fireplace yawned along one wall, and above hung the requisite oil paintings of sour and judgemental ancestors. I was struck by the one in the middle, however; a beautiful woman with russet ringlets and full pouting lips seated next to a man with thin lips, pointy nose and a distinct resemblance to a possum. Ms. Shippen followed my gaze.
"My parents. Well, just one of them, really."
I raised one eyebrow, a trick which I had spent an entire year in elementary school perfecting.
There was a far off rumbling, which I interpreted as yet another cold front moving into the area. Excellent. A good downpour would allow me to observe any telltale pooling of water outside or egregious leaks inside. Any excuse to tear the place down and build something new, something modern, with clean simple lines, lots of windows...
"Good. You hear them." The widow's voice jolted me from my mercenary reverie.
"Sorry?" My first thought was that "them" might be the scurrying of vermin. I resisted the urge to lift my feet.
She smiled at me brightly. "Would you like some sweet tea?"
Rude as it may seem, I followed her into the kitchen so as to assess its potential use in the conference center of our dreams. It wouldn't do at all.
I sat down at the wooden table as another drumroll sent vibrations through the soles of my feet, accompanied by a quick flare of bright light.
Locals say that an apparition is often spotted on the property - a Confederate soldier, dressed in an officer's uniform. While alive he marched past the mansion on his way to a nearby battle, where he met his end. His body forever trapped in the North, his spirit took refuge in the mansion as the closest and most familiar representation of his beloved South.
"Poppycock," she ground out.
My teeth clacked painfully on the rim of the glass. I couldn't possibly have quoted that aloud; the cold sticky tea was still trickling down my throat.
"You aren't the first to sit here with that ridiculously sappy look on your face. Romantic folklore. Pah."
Boom! went the thunder. Or a thirty-two pounder.
"My father had made his money breeding horses, and when war was declared the Union Army came and bought all but three. Two years later, when the Rebs had come close enough that we could smell 'em, Father took the last three and lit out for Yankee lines. He couldn't fight - a horse kick had busted his kneecap the year he built White Chimneys- but he could drive a pony trap with the horses on behind. And the troops could certainly use fresh horses. Stop picking your cuticles."
I slid my hands under the table guiltily, resisting the urge to say "Sorry, ma'am."
"At any rate, while he was gone, a Confederate officer did come to the door. You'd think that she would have hidden, but you would be wrong. She met him at the door with a Remington 6 shot, saw that he was bleeding heavily from a head wound, and allowed him entrance. As a Confederate, he was the enemy; as an officer, and a well-bred man to boot, he posed no immediate threat. She showed him to an unused servant's room - back that hallway." She pointed to a doorway at the other end of the kitchen.
The air seemed to split with a deafening crack and I just managed to stop myself from covering my ears. She would have made an excellent stage manager, arranging for nature to perfectly punctuate her tale.
"She told him 'My husband will be back shortly. He's a decent sort of man, and will shelter you as long as you abide in a peaceful manner. I'll ask you to hang your sword outside of the door as a token of trust.' So he did."
"And what happened when your Father met him?" I was so drawn into the story that I had forgotten why I was even there.
"He killed him, or so the story goes. You see, when he got home Mother was nowhere to be found. He found a smear of blood on the floor there - right over there - which led him to the room with the officer. And Father shot him."
"But the sword!" Ugh. I sounded like a squealing school girl.
What I presumed was hail rat-a-tatted against the wooden siding.
"We can only surmise that the soldier was somehow in possession of the sword."
I felt dumbfounded. The story felt all wrong, somehow. Had I missed something?
"So the Confederate officer had killed your mother?"
The old woman smiled, and that's when I saw the faint outlines of her mother's beauty lingering subtly below the carunculated surface.
"Oh no. She killed my father. Please close your mouth, dear." She delicately added a sprig of mint from a china plate to her sweating glass of tea. "You see, she'd been out to the privy when Father arrived home. That's why he couldn't find her."
I wanted to beat my head on the table. "I don't get it. I just don't get it."
"Well, I guess it's a story about honor. Or war. Or love. I can't really know, can I? I wasn't even born. It's like one of those - science things. A dichotomous key. There are choices, and each choice leads to a different outcome. I know two things. No one else in my family has blue eyes. And my Father supposedly broke the sword in anger. And yet there it was, whole, at the bottom of Mother's cedar chest when she passed."
I slowly digested this as watery light filled the kitchen.
"Now then, young man, you may leave your paperwork in that fancy carrying case of yours. I have everything drawn up here, just so. I'm ready - ready as I'll ever be - to move to the Cavalry Home. I know, I know, it's Calvary, but it does make the erudite curl up and wither. Your company agrees to keep and maintain the mansion, intact, and to make that a condition for future resale as well. You also agree to maintain and honor the graves of those who are buried in the cemetary in the copse over the hill. In return, you may purchase the property for the princely sum of one dollar."
"Ah, well..." I ran a finger under the back of my collar. Damned itching tags. "I'll have to...er...take this back and offer it for..."
There was a deafening crash which sent me into a palsied leap from my chair. Out of the corner of my eye, floating in a lazy trajectory, was a glowing cannonball. I threw myself down on the cool tiled floor.
"It's gone. Suppose you get up on your hind legs and sign these papers. A body's only born with so much patience."
I scrambled to my feet, feeling my face flush hot with embarrassment. She held out a pen. "The pen is mightier than the sword, boy. Sign, and I'll even give you the sword as a gift."
Picking up the pen, I toyed with it, rolling it between my fingers. The noise outside had abated, a few muted thumps and a faraway voice calling unintelligibly. I felt ridiculous; a tendril of insanity had been tickling the far reaches of my mind, it seemed. Virginia's story had transported me to that other time. It was just a storm. The cannonball was just ball lightning.
"Poppycock," I said aloud, to reassure myself.
"Is it?" Virginia countered. "Sign, and they will take their war back to where it belongs."
"And if I hang my sword..."
"...outside of your bedroom, as a sign of trust, you will always remain safe."
Well, I signed of course. After all, it's important to re-purpose and save structures of historic import. The mansion is now a cozy conference center with two modern suites on the upper floor to house important overnight guests. The locals still swear that they see apparitions about the place, but that just means more bookings for the center. Outsiders are curious.
Virginia's still at the old folks' home, as far as I know, and probably raising hell with residents and staff alike.
Me, I moved to another country and took up bartending. The sword is in a museum back in the US. But just to be on the safe side, I bought a toy replica which I hang outside of my bedroom every night.
Just to be on the safe side, you know.