The old house pre-dated the Civil War in South Alabama.
“This old house is a treasure of history, even though it’s going to need a lot of fixup.” Ernie strolled though his new home with his wife of five years.
Nicole nodded, “I’m glad it’s finally ours. I loved it after the first tour when we made the offer.” She motioned her hand over to the study. “It’s a perfect setting for you to continue your writing career. I hope it’s not too spooky spending our first night here.”
The cleaning crew did an excellent job on the little old two-story house. While some musty scent remained from being unoccupied for the past five years, with the utilities on and window AC units running, it did feel like home. They busied themselves all that day with stocking groceries in the new fridge and tested the washer and dryer installed earlier.
After dinner, Nicole and Ernie settled down in a queen size bed they brought from their previous house with fresh sheets. “I love these old panels and vertical molding up to the chair rail running around the room. It matches our antique canopy bed. I bet a bed like this may have been in this very room a long time ago,” Nicole said.
“I’m going to love this place.” Ernie kissed his wife, and she returned the good night kiss with more passion than he’d experienced in a while.
“That’s a thank you for this wonderful house. If I weren’t so tired, we’d stay up later, and I would really show you how much I love it,” Nicole said with a big smile on her face.
Both drifted off to sleep, and the house was quiet. A shadow loomed on the wall, but they hadn’t noticed it.
Thought tired, Ernie was restless and awoke to hear a very slight whistle of the wind that began overnight. As he looked around their room, slightly lit from a porch light outside, He was sure he saw a shadow on the wall, about the shape of a person. It moved slightly, then seemed to collapse on the floor. A cold breeze blew across his face. They understood the electricity was sporadic in this remote part of the little town, so they had placed candles around the house with plastic lighters nearby. He arose, lighting a candle in a holder on the nightstand.
Where is that eerie whistle coming from? He went to the window. It was sealed tight. The next location was the bedroom door, but it was shut tight and didn’t flicker the candle flame as he moved it around the door.
A voice spoke to him, and he jumped with a start. “What are you doing up this time of night with a candle?” Nicole propped on her elbow.
“Looking for a crack where air is coming in.” He moved the candle around the room. He came to the wall he’d seen the shadow on earlier. On a hunch, he moved the candle flame to the floor by the baseboard. The flame flickered from a breeze. “It seems to be coming under the baseboard, and it’s fairly brisk.”
“Come to bed. You can investigate it further in the morning.” Nicole pulled the covers up further and lay down. Ernie returned to bed and blew out the candle.
The shadow on the wall returned.
# # # #
During breakfast the next morning, Ernie mentioned one of the first things he was going to do, was get the “Old English Scratch Remover” and work on the skinned spots on the woodwork in their bedroom and the downstairs study. They both had a long ‘to-do list.
While in the bedroom, Ernie moved around to the wall he’d examined the previous night was kneeling where he could now see the small gap between the floor and the wall molding. Curious. He puzzled over why air could be coming from behind the wall, even if the floor was not a tight seal. He tapped on the three-foot-wide and thirty-inch tall wooden panel. It sounded hollow compared to panels on either side. His curiosity grew. He began examining every aspect of the wood. Then he saw something on the underside of the chair rail spanning the room. It looked like a wooden dowel about the size of his little finger, sanded flush, and stained the same color.
He pressed the dowel to see if it would move. It didn’t. Then he pushed much harder, and it moved inward, followed by a click of a latch release. Excitedly, Ernie began to pull on the vertical panel near the dowel pin, and several tugs later, a door open framed by the two vertical panels hiding the cracks of the hinges on one side and the crack of the door access. It was dark, musty, dusty, with spider webs everywhere and seemed to be a tunnel heading into the darkness.
“Hey, Nicole! Can you hear me?” No answer. Walking to the bedroom door, he shouted at the top of his voice, “Honey, come up here. I got something to show you.”
She replied that time and joined him within a minute.
“So, what’s the shouting about? Did you spill the scratch remover on the floor?”
“On no, I’ve made a discovery that will amaze you.” He showed her over to the open cubby door that had been perfectly hidden. She gasped at amazement.
“I thought you’d be surprised.” He lit the bedroom candle. “Let’s check it out.”
“Not me with all those spider webs.”
“Come on, and I’ll clean them out as we go.”
Ernie crawled into the small opening on his knees, and with the light, he could now see it was quite tall and about six feet wide. He gingerly stood up, raking spider webs as he moved. “Ouch, bumped my head.” He recoiled from his nearly upright position to a bent back position and started forward. “I think you can stand up without hitting your head. It was almost tall enough for me.”
Nicole followed behind. Once inside, they could see it resembled a large closet about eighteen feet long. Probably the length of the adjoining room, the area would not be noticeable when in the other rooms.
As they continued, wooded boxes sat on either side of this hidden room, and what looked like some kind of old trunk at the far end.
“I wonder how long these things have been in here? I’m sure the original owners who built it and lived here knew. But I wonder about everyone who’s owned the house since Reconstruction days in the South.” As Ernie moved the boxes, dust filled the air in the room.
“I can barely breathe,” Nicole said. “I’m going to get some damp rags and a better light.”
Later that morning, Ernie had rigged a light hung from a bare beam in the ceiling hooked to an extension cord, giving them ample light to both lessen years of dust and see what was in all the boxes. In one box, there were trinkets and Confederate money, not a vast sum, but enough for an emergency. Worthless now, except for some curio value. Inside the trunk was a wedding dress and other clothing and underneath a handmade box about a foot square made by an expert craftsman with brass hinges and hasp. It was not locked.
“Let’s drag this trunk out to the bedroom, out of all this dust, and we can inspect it all better.” Nicole was holding a damp cloth over her mouth and nose as she spoke.
With the two of them on either side, they pushed and pulled the trunk through the smaller opening of the hidden closet. It just passed through the opening and into the bedroom. Once outside, the couple began to unpack. Besides the wedding dress, all kinds of personal items were inside, including a glass framed family photo. The man standing in the family picture wore a Confederate officer’s uniform next to a lovely woman in an antebellum dress. There was a young son next to the man, and three younger girls were on the side of the woman, clearly their children. Underneath the photo was a neat stack of letters tied together with a ribbon, as one might wrap a gift.
“Look at this.” Nicole’s eyes sparkled as she held the package of letters with the name Nellie Smith on top of each one.
“This might be some very touching letters and perhaps some history there as well. Ernie observed his wife unwrap the ribbon and gently open the aging, crinkly paper of the first letter.
She read it aloud to Ernie. “Dear Nellie. The war is not going well, and we’ve had overwhelming casualties. I have heard the Yankees are in Alabama and could be approaching our part of the state soon. I fear for your safety and the children. Please take the children and leave for your cousin’s home in Louisiana. You will be safer there with relatives, and I will rest easier. I’m sending this letter out on horseback with mail from some of the others that are left. I hope it gets to you with God’s speed, and you will leave immediately. It pains me to say this, but the situation here is dire. This may be the last letter you will get. Know that I have loved you since we were young, and you have blessed me with love and children that have brought me unbounded happiness these many years.”
Nicole’s voice was already breaking as tears flowed down both cheeks. She read the signature of the letter. “All my love, forever, Lanford.”
Nicole clutched it to her heart. She bowed her head. “I don’t think I can read the others right now.” She exhaled a long whimpering sigh.
“I understand.” Ernie clutched his wife’s hand. His brow was wrinkled, and lips tightened as he nodded.
They spent most of the day reading all the letters, finding a broach and gold chain as a few other pieces of jewelry. The last letter they discovered was folded in the wedding dress and not in an envelope. It appeared to be a woman’s handwriting. The signature was Nellie’s and told of her consumptive illness and why she doubted she could make the trip to Louisiana but would see that her best friend and helpers would take the children with them to Louisiana.
“We may have a mystery here,” Ernie said. “What say we do some history digging and find out where the relatives are today and return these priceless items to them.”
She was delighted as her eyes brightened, and a big smile adorned her face. “That would be wonderful. I’ll go into town today and use the library’s computer to start a genealogy search on Lanford Smith dating from the 1860s.”
“I’ll work on the history of this fine old home at the Heritage Association’s office, and we’ll find all we can.” Ernie was as excited as his wife.
After several productive days, Ernie and Nicole had everything together, along with some phone numbers in Louisiana that contained Lanford and Smith. There were a lot of Smith’s to weed out. They were sitting at home that warm summer afternoon. The two had research scattered on the table around a speakerphone, so both could hear the conversations. After numerous dead-ends, they called a Lanford Robert Smith in Baton Rouge.
“Hello?” It was a man’s voice.
Nicole spoke first. “Is this Lanford Smith?”
“Most people call me Bob, who is this?”
“I’m Nicole Turner. We live in a Civil War Era home in South Alabama. We thought the original owner, Lanford Smith, might be related to you.”
There was a pause. Would this Smith be a dead end as others were?
“That was my great, great grandfather. He was a Lieutenant in the Civil War. I think he died in one of the last battles. And you live in his old home?”
Ernie chimed in. “I’m Ernie, and we just bought this house. Do we have a tale to tell you.
# # # #
Besides that first hour on the phone, many conversations took place between the current Lanford, whose father recently died of cancer, and his mother, who knew more about the relatives. The Smith grandparents were still alive and contributed more stories, including that Nellie had died and never made the trip to Louisiana. Relatives raised the four kids.
The Turners did not tell everything about the trunk, its contents, or details of the letters. But a large reunion of all the surviving relatives of Lieutenant Lanford Smith was scheduled for the old home place. Word spread of the gathering and soon one of the cable news channels planned to attend the event and do live reports during the proceedings. It was sunny weather at the old homeplace on the day of the event.
“Folks, we are gathered here today…” Ernie paused and looked at all the Smith relatives gathered behind him sitting in chairs on the long old wooded front porch. “…to reunite the Smith family, whose ancestors built and lived in this house, with some personal treasures we found in a secret hidden room.”
The TV news camera was live on a small scaffold behind the gathered crowd in the front yard. Ernie moved aside, and Nicole continued in front of the microphone on the podium. She told how the discovery of the secret closet happened and listed some of the contents. Before introducing the last male heir of the original Lieutenant Smith to speak, she read the final letter written by Lieutenant Smith, then the unsent letter from Nellie. Nicole had practiced but still choked up again reading both letters.
Finally, Bob and his mother came up to speak. They were bubbling with pleasure and the large gathering of all their kin.
“This is a wonderful gathering and lawn picnic the Turners have done for us. We are grateful for all the Turners have done bringing family heirlooms back to us. We have verification that great, great grandmother never made it out of this house alive.” Bob’s voice cracked with emotion. “Our whole family has been brought closer together by the written words of our ancestors. The Turners showed us the secret room in the old home used by the Smith family a hundred and fifty-five years ago. Thank you all.”
The applause was loud and long. Soon after, the party began. All enjoyed a wonderful time.
That night a very tired Ernie and Nicole went to bed and were asleep in minutes. In the wee hours of the morning, they both awoke feeling a breeze across their face. They sat up in their bed. The secret door in the bedroom was open. What had been only a shadow before was now more distinct. It was a woman with long hair wearing the same white wedding dress they had found and returned to the family. The shadowy face glanced at the pair in bed, seemed to smile, and drifted through the ceiling to eternal peace.