Mystery of the Manse


 
It was an in-between time up there in Massachusetts. As a young soldier, I had come to the end of one road, but had not yet set foot upon another. I spent most of my lonely evenings at a Service Club on the base, feeling blue. That's how I came to meet Mary. She was a dark-haired civilian who ran the club. Not only beautiful, she was also profoundly intelligent. A Cornell graduate, she knew how to power up my idling intellect with a conversation about current Broadway shows or the Met. She worked odd hours in that job so our dates off-duty were often at odd times, too. She had a dreamboat of a white Chevy convertible which turned our motoring excursions around New England into magic-carpet rides. One special night was more than magic - the night destiny confronted us with the mystery of the Old Manse.
How does one write of such an adventure? I tremble and my throat constricts as I recollect it even now when two-score years stand between me and that awful - or was it wonderful? - night. Mary had been reared a Roman Catholic. I had been exposed to a variety of Protestant denominations, had even been baptized by four of them, yet could not be thought of as religious anymore. Irreverent, yes. Agnostic, perhaps. Cautious in such matters, to be sure. Here were two young people, mostly in search of a good time, who were suddenly to find themselves at eternity's door, or, should I say, before a window that opened into another world.
It was past midnight. We were driving, with me at the wheel, up the coast of Maine, having just left the pie-wedge of New Hampshire that allowed the state an Atlantic shore. We'd seen a show at a resort where a recording star named Teresa Brewer had sung Little Things Mean a Lot, and I remember Mary reprising it to me in her sweet voice as we drove along with my free hand resting in hers. We should have been driving back to the base in Massachusetts, but the "call of the wild," as we often put it in Jack London's phrase, had directed us to go northeast rather than southwest.
Things went well for awhile. There was no traffic. We seemed alone in the world, driving along a road edging the water, with nothing but endless ocean to the right and a wall of tall, impenetrable pines to the left. When the full moon disappeared behind a heavy curtain of clouds, the night took on an eerie quality quite unlike the romance of previous nocturnal jaunts on this very road. Save for the narrow beacon of our headlights, the darkness became seamless and nearly absolute.
Suddenly, round a bend of high boulders, we launched into a sea of knee-high fog which totally obscured any line of demarcation between the shoreline and the Atlantic. Driving at relatively high speed, I momentarily lost control and swerved on to a pebbled beach, twisting round before coming to a halt. The forest of pines had ended in a vast clearing a mile or two back, so there we sat with the headlamps lighting up a marshmallow landscape of Thule fog and black sky extending to what looked like the ends of the earth.
Schooled in graveyard horror films, our imaginations readied us to expect Boris or Bela to rise up before us in the the mist. It was a situation unlike any she or I had experienced before.
We could not go on without the edging of pines as a guidepost for keeping us on dry land. Even turning around could be a problem, depending on how far I had skidded on the beach. Getting out of the car and asking Mary to do the driving, I felt around with my feet until I determined which way the ocean lay.
"Thank God for Maine's 'stern and rockbound coast,'" I quoted from some poet or other. "I'm standing on a rock ledge above the sea. Mary, you drive slowly at my heels. I'll get us out of this." My words were spoken calmly, but a sense of foreboding hung heavy in my heart.
In the car heading south, safe- ly removed from the fog, Mary told me she had felt it, too. "I think we were turned back by some sinister force. What an ugly feeling! I feel the need of some peaceful place where we can forget about what happened back there. Ah, I know!"
She directed me to Concord, Massachusetts, the charming old colonial town where Ephraim Bull had developed the Concord grape around 1850. Here also had lived many literati, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott, who wrote about her Concord childhood in Little Women. We noticed that the hands of the huge town clock stood at 2:30 in the morning. We came to a parking lot where Mary instructed me to pull in. She took my arm when we crossed under a street lamp and entered an unlit avenue formed by stately trees. The clouds had pulled back from the moon, which now cast a warming glow.
"This lane leads us to the Old North Bridge spanning the river," she explained, "where the colonial militia fought against the British in 1775. It was the first battle of the Revolutionary War. I want you to see the statue of a minuteman. It's very romantic by moonlight. After what we've been through tonight, I think romance should be on the agen- da."
We sauntered through deep shadows, unconsciously enjoying an age in America when one could generally walk about at night without fear of violent attack. Still, as we approached the end, our footsteps became more urgent, our arms more tightly entwined. Something not human was working against us again, as it had in the coastal fog. More insistent than ever, it moved toward us like a vengeful demon, without shape, color or smell, but tangible enough to make us turn and run like hell. It lifted as soon as we reached the small circle of light in the road.
"Did you see anything?" Mary asked.
"No, but I felt something at that tree, something cold and dangerous rising up against us. It was a warning to go away or....."
"Or what?"
"I don't know. Mary, let's go back to your place. If Pat and Charlie are there, they'll cheer us up."
Pat, Mary's roommate, was also a Service Club manager and was engaged to Charlie, an officer who, like Mary, had been graduated from Cornell.
We backed out of the lot and turned into the street. At this angle, we could see the gate of a wide driveway standing open across the way.
"What's over there?" I asked.
"A famous house," she said, "where Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived. It's called the Old Manse. I think it belongs to the Massachusetts Historical Society. I've never been inside."
"That's odd," I remarked. "There's a padlock on the gate, but it's open. You'd think they'd keep it locked at night, wouldn't you?"
I started to drive by, but I simply could not turn the wheel away from that gate.
"What are you doing?" Mary cried. "We could get arrested for going in there! You could be court-martialed!"
"I can't help it," I whispered.
The car had taken on a life of its own. My hands were on the wheel, but I was not entirely in control, or so it seemed. Very slowly, the convertible entered the grounds. Another lane of tall trees. We passed the first, the second, then, at the third, that oppressive feeling came over both of us again as it had in the fog and as it had when approaching the statue of the minuteman. The car lights reflected brilliantly in a bottle-glass transom above the main door of the house straight ahead.
The car carried us past the fourth tree, then, at the fifth tree, the headlight beams unexpectedly deflected upward from the transom to an open window on the left side of the second storey. A lacy curtain fluttered in a breeze.
I heard Mary gasp, "Someone's there!"
The car kept moving slowly, inexorably, toward the house. The convertible's closed roof obscured my view. I leaned forward. Through the curtains, I could just make out the figure of a woman holding something.
"A baby," Mary whispered hoarsely. "She has a baby in her arms."
A ghastly sensation swept over me. Had we been turned back from the coast and the bridge in a scheme to bring us to this place at this time simply to be enthralled by a specter in a window? If so, why? Satanic or divine, supernatural or crazy, I had seen enough.
"I don't like it, Mary. We're getting out of here."
I revved up the Chevy and took off. We reached the base and sped through an unguarded back gate. Our route took us past the Catholic chapel for military personnel.
"Stop!" Mary cried out. "I don't know why, but the chapel door is open. I really feel the need to pray. If there's a priest, he may have an answer to our experience tonight."
I watched her climb the stairs of the white wooden building and go inside. After only a minute or two, she rushed back out and ran to the car. She was extremely agitated
"No one is there! The candles are lighted on the altar, but no one is THERE! I tried, but I couldn't even pray!" Fear contorted her lovely face. "Oh, Brock, have we fallen into the devil's hands?"
I took her in my arms. I knew how she felt. That was the only time in my life I, too, might have sought answers from a priest.
We clung to each other for the next hour in the car until the sky began to lighten, and we heard a cock crow. The sense of relief was tremendous. It was as though the rooster's clarion call had driven away the spirits of the night. There was no denying it turned our emotional tide.
"Hamlet!" I said aloud, lines from the Shakespearean drama leaping out of thought. "Act one, scene one, remember? 'The cock that is the trumpet to the morn, doth with his lofty and shrill sounding throat awake the god of day, and at his warning whether in sea or fire, in earth or air th'extravagant and erring spirit hies to his confine.' We're safe now, Mary.
It was five o'clock. I drove Mary home. Pat and Charlie were sitting on the living room sofa, looking ashen. They were thrilled when we walked in the door. They told us of their own experience. Returning home after midnight from a date, they had entered the flat and were immediately struck by an oppressive sensation they took to mean something might have happened to us. We four were like a close-knit family and could often read each other's thoughts. They waited all night, dreading an emergency phone call, braving the impropriety of Charlie's presence there at such an hour.
We told them our story. They questioned nothing. They felt they had lived through it, too.
For the next day or two, we all met when we could to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Although our conjectures led to frustration, Mary and I grew determined to unravel the mystery of the Manse.
At last, sans any conscious awareness of its being the third day, Mary and I decided to pay a visit to the minuteman statue and the Old Manse in daylight.
It was a clear, sunny afternoon when we parked in the lot and crossed the street to the avenue leading to the river. How peaceful it was! I began to appreciate Mary's romantic sentiments until I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson's reference in Concord Hymn to the minutemen who "fired the shot heard round the world" against a swarm of redcoats bent on aborting the birth of our nation. This had been a place of terror and death!
Before reaching the statue, we came to the spot where a rush of fear had driven us back to the street before. Beneath the trees were the graves of Hessian mercenaries, Germans fighting on the redcoats' side. The sense of oppression swept over us again. Had we been overcome by a timeless residue of despair from young men severed violently from life before their time? Anxious to end this whole affair once and for all, I tugged Mary back to the street.
"I don't think we should visit the Old Manse today," I said as calmly as I could.
Just then, on that sunny, clear afternoon, three alarming claps of thunder sounded from the heavens. We flew into each other's arms.
"Brock," she whispered, "if we're to keep our sanity, we must go inside."
I was left with no choice.
"Sounds like we might have rain," the lady at the door cheerfully announced. "Welcome to the Old Manse. Would you like the guided tour?"
We were the only visitors there. Each room had a story to tell. An inscription cut into a dining room window recorded that the resident family had watched from that vantage point while the minutemen fought at Old North Bridge. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, had written Mosses from an Old Manse in the house, describing his honeymoon happiness there. Hawthorne's close friend, Franklin Pierce, later to become 14th President of the United States and from whose sister I was descended on the maternal side, had dined in the house. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written Concord Hymn there. One by one, details unfolded until we finally came to the room that might hold a clue to our private mystery of the Old Manse.
The room was small, containing a high bed along the back wall. Above it hung a chart listing the kings of England ending, as one might expect, with George III, "the mad king who lost America," as he was called by English adversaries in his lifetime. A dresser sat in a back corner and a rocking chair at the front, with a hand-crafted cradle between them on the floor. The cradle and the rocker suggested to us the woman and the child. We gazed out of "her" window down to the lane below. Tremors ran up and down our spines.
"And this room, what happened in here?" Mary asked shakily of the guide who stood outside the door.
"Oh, nothing, I suppose," she replied with a smile. "It's just a bedroom, as you can see."
Ours was the only room in the Old Manse without a story! More angry than surprised, I stood there in stark disbelief.
"Are you absolutely sure?" I asked. "Could this be, say, the caretaker's room? I mean, does someone stay here at night?"
The guide shook her head. "No one lives here."
"Well, then, some tragedy....."
"No," the guide added, "the Old Manse is a house of love. The Hawthornes honeymooned here. It's always been known as a happy house."
As we turned to leave the room, Mary and I noticed a small painting of five children on the wall, standing in a row.
We were speechless all the way back to the street. We stood under a tree outside the car wondering what in the world to do next. We knew something was amiss.
All of a sudden, five claps of thunder rent the sky, and a cloudburst poured down. We jumped into the car.
"Mary, there's a solution to this mystery, and that thunder screamed at me to go and find it TODAY!"
"But where and how?" she wanted to know.
"I don't know yet," I said as I drove away. "Keep your eyes peeled. It's around here somewhere."
A few minutes later, I looked up and noticed that the old town clock registered three. I glanced at my watch. It was only a quarter past noon. I mentioned this to Mary.
"Yes," she said, "so let's head where the three hand is pointing."
We came to the Concord Public Library.
"That's it," I announced. "The solution awaits us here."
The rain had ceased by the time we got out of the car. Inside, the librarian informed us the town clock had stopped a couple of nights before. Mary and I shivered. It had ceased tracking present time at precisely the moment we made our nocturnal visit to the Old Manse. Parts were on order for its repair.
That afternoon, we combed through every book in the stacks and on the shelves that might tell us something about our room. We had nearly given up when I opened a book called The Peabody Sisters of Salem. One of these famous sisters, Sophia, had married Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842. They honeymooned in the Old Manse until 1845. I read all the pages having to do with those three years until, despairing, I went to close the book just as the library's grandfather clock struck three. In that instant, my eyes fell on a short passage which spoke of Sophia's taking a nap in the parlor one afternoon. While dozing, she thought she heard a whisper of skirts passing by. She felt the presence of a person although she was alone in the house.
I shouted to Mary: "Eureka! A ghostly presence! Something's there!"
We waltzed around the room. The librarian chased after us shush-shushing, but we didn't care. Finally, we settled down, and even told her a bit of our tale. She didn't believe a word, but took it with good humor. That passage provided the shot in the arm we needed to continue our research. The librarian, realizing how important this was to us, let us ramble through the archives. No luck.
Discouraged at last from finding out that day whatever secret the Old Manse might hold, Mary and I sat down beside each other at a library table. It had clouded over again outside.
"More claps of thunder?" I wondered aloud, only half in jest.
Then, as the grandfather clock struck five, "Oh, my, what have we here?" the librarian crowed from behind the main counter. "Come, come, you two, and see what I've found at the back of this drawer!"
As good as the rooster, her cry dispelled the gloom. She presented us with a pamphlet. "I've never seen this one," she said. "It appears to be a tract about the Old Manse."
The pages were yellowed with age. We began to read.
From its beginnings, the Old Manse had indeed been a house of love, built in 1769 by Reverend William Emerson for his beloved wife whom he called his "little Phoebe-bird." Their happiness was immeasurable. She gave him five children. He gave her all he could endow. They had expected to linger a lifetime in their paradise, but everything changed at 7:00 AM on April 19,1775, when 400 minutemen skirmished with 200 redcoats and their Hes- sian allies at Old North Bridge. Phoebe and her family watched the battle from the dining room. One of them inscribed the fact on a window pane with a diamond ring.
Reverend Emerson found himself in a moral dilemma. His family was unharmed, but a great wound now gaped in his country's heart. His conscience pulled in opposing directions. As a man of God, he had parishioners to care for, not to mention his loved ones. His dear Phoebe-bird was fast approaching delivery of their sixth child. Yet his countrymen were giving birth to a nation.
What was he to do? After much soul-searching, he volunteered his services to meet the country's need, deciding to leave his parish and his family to the will of God. So it came to pass that on the third day after the birth of the child, Reverend William Emerson marched away to war, the first United States Army chaplain in American history.
"Another touch of glory for this old house," Mary mused, looking up from the page, "even if his departure was a sad event. But why would Phoebe's spirit still be at the window, if ectoplasm is what we saw? There must be something else."
"There is," I said softly, still reading, "and it solves the mystery of the Manse."
I guided Mary's finger to a brief passage farther on in the text. She caught her breath. The information enabled us to reconstruct the crucial final moments that led to the apparition we would see:
Phoebe, having turned the small room upstairs into a nursery, was too weak to descend the staircase to the ground floor after giving birth only two days before. The five older children lined up beneath the bottle-glass transom of the front door to bid their father farewell. He kissed each in turn and gave them a final admonishment to be good boys and girls.
Walking slowly along the lane, he stopped at the fifth tree and looked to the window above. She was there, Phoebe, with the newborn in her arms, leaning against the sill. Tears flooded Emerson's eyes. Resolving not to look anymore, he continued toward the road. At the third tree, his resolution gave way. He turned for a last glimpse of the love of his life. She managed a little wave, but calls from his fellow soldiers drew him away.
How many times must Phoebe have stood with her nursing baby at the window after the other children were asleep, hoping against hope for a miracle to bring him through the gate?
For Mary and me, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place when we learned that Chaplain Emerson had been killed in the war. Phoebe never saw him again.
Subdued, we thanked the librarian profoundly. She wept when she heard the conclusion of the tale. Mary and I drove back to the Old Manse. It was closed and the gate padlocked, but we felt we'd earned the right to crawl through the fence. We stood beneath the window. This time, no phantasm waited there.
"Goodbye, Phoebe," I said. "The house has told its tale."
"You're not alone now, dear," added Mary. "We know. We'll think of you the rest of our lives."
How true that was! We were to discover that we had borne witness to a cutting portent of the future as much as to a jagged edge of the past.
Within the next five years, the girl I loved, another Mary, died five days after childbirth, and our daughter, Christine, after three weeks more.
Mary became entangled in a disastrous marriage in Germany and was left with a little boy.
Charlie left the Army, married Pat, and was on the brink of a bright and happy life when he fell victim to leukemia, lost his mind and died without ever comprehending that Pat had just given him a son.
Were we touched that night forty years ago by the devilish or the divine? Were our lives blighted, or were we simply made aware early on that those we treasure most may be taken from us at any time?
Three of us who shared in the mystery of the Manse survived it, three who could stand with Phoebe at the sill and understand full well the suffering in her heart, three who would henceforth relish as a gift each moment spent with those we loved.
 

THE END
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