December had been unseasonably warm. There had been no snow before Christmas, but the days were short as winter days always are and the skies were grey and cloudy and solid, sealing heaven from view. As she sat on the veranda that wrapped the house around, she felt the wind from the west begin to rise and the air to cool and she welcomed the cold, wishing for any sort of change from the tepid, sunless monotony that the season had been.
The house itself was unusually quiet. Steve had stopped all work this week between the holidays, leaving tools, buckets, boards and rolls of worn-out carpet laying randomly about the porches and hallways of the old mansion. No whir of drill or whine of power saw; no scream of the crowbar; no pounding of the sledgehammer.
She was tired from another day of work and she rested her back on the wall of the house as she sat and looked out onto the early-evening traffic as it passed this way and that on the road before the house. Men and women returning from stores and offices as they had done every day forever; for as long as she had been around to see.
She was warmly dressed and so stayed on as the wind continued to rise and the temperature fell into a normal range for early winter. Now the cars that passed showed headlights and taillights white and red in the darkening twilight as they continued in their lines up and down the road. She thought of what she would do for dinner. There was no food in this old house. For that matter, no stove or refrigerator, plates or forks. She was a two-minute drive from her present residence where a full kitchen awaited her, but she was not yet hungry enough to disturb this repose.
She looked right, down the road as it headed up the river. The light from the streetlamps along the sidewalks was obvious now and just at the highest peak of the yellow light cones she saw the first faint snowflakes of winter. And there, just across the road, an old man tottered across the parking lot of Saint Paul’s Baptist Church. When he saw her he changed his direction and came straight toward her. He was bent over a cane and she felt no fear, but he stood until the traffic let him pass and came across the street and onto the front walkway of the house. He stood, resting both hands on the cane in front of him, and pointed his chin at her.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Are you the woman who bought this house?”
“You know there’s a story about it? You know that?”
“Well. I know about the Phillips family. They lived here when I was a girl. He was a Naval Officer. Lots of stories about them.”
“Oh, I knew the Phillips family. Knew them all. Fine people. But this story goes way back before them. It’s about the man who built the house.”
“I never knew the man’s name. He was before my time. I’m eighty-five. Lived here all my life. All I know is the story.”
“Well, I’ll be happy to hear that story. Won’t you come onto the porch? Get out of that snow?”
When he took the three steps, one foot at a time, onto the porch he leaned his cane against the post and sat on the rail.
“This story is about the man who built this place. He was very rich and they say that he married a girl from a foreign country. He built this place for her. She was of the nobility and she was homesick. They died together in an accident not long after this house was finished . . . .
(more to come)