Sarah started reading and found a charming personality developing as she turned the pages. She found herself fascinated by the writing alone. The author, Sadie Hanrahan, didn’t remember much about the war, but she did recall the days after. There had been a great deal of bitterness in the city, despite the fact that it had been in Federal hands for years, and that many of the citizens had never wanted Florida to secede—they had always needed their Yankee tourist dollars. It had been a difficult time. President Lincoln had been assassinated. John Wilkes Booth had been hunted down and shot, and his co-conspirators hanged, but many blamed all Southerners for the death of the president. And so many in the South had been stripped of their homes, their heritage and more.
Sadie’s first pages were filled with tales of growing up and vivid descriptions of buildings that hadn’t changed to this day. There were also some very funny anecdotes about learning to deal with the cumbersome clothing women had to wear, even in the summer heat. And then Sarah hit the jackpot.
It was on a Saturday late in 1865 that I walked by the old Grant place with Scotty Kehoe. It was near dusk, and in front of the building, in the drive, we saw the mortuary’s glass-encased hearse with a coffin inside. At first I was enthralled by the two horses that were to draw the funerary wagon; they were glorious big black beasts, wearing black-feathered headdresses. But Scotty was drawn by the coffin within the hearse. “Come on!” he said to me. “What are you doing?” I protested. Then he called me a chicken. Well, I couldn’t have that. He’d cluck at me every single day at school. So I crept with him through the brush that was kept neatly trimmed around the entrances to the main mansion and the carriage house and then we crawled up on the conveyance to look in. I’d never been to a funeral. I was shocked by the coffin. It was beautifully carved, but there was a glass window above the face. I saw the girl in the coffin. She was young, with beautiful wheat-colored hair, and she had pale skin, like all her blood was gone, but her lips were a bright red. She looked as if she was sleeping. “Look, she’s opening her eyes!” Scotty teased, and I nearly screamed. I did slide from my perch. That was when the elder Mr. Brennan came out on the porch. I had always hated him. We weren’t bad people, not most of us—even if they did call us carpetbaggers. But Mr. Brennan had rather taken over the place before he had bought it. We’d heard tales that the previous owner’s father, Mr. MacTavish, had been a kind man, forced to turn his home into a funeral parlor to survive once his plantations had failed and his son was gone to war. MacTavish had died, and his son had returned from the war only to have his heart broken when he found his father dead and his fiancée gone, so I’d been told. Some people remembered the son kindly, too. He had been dashing, and a valiant soldier. Always charming and kind and caring, especially to children and the elderly. But other people whispered about him, saying that he was really the devil incarnate and a murderer. But at least some people had liked him, and no one liked old man Brennan. I especially didn’t like Mr. Brennan after that day. He was furious; he yelled at us and promised that kids or no kids, next time, he’d have his shotgun out, that we were defiling the dead. We ran. I thought he would tell our parents about the incident, but he never did.
I found out who the girl in the coffin was that night, when my father’s housekeeper was talking to him about it.
“A carriage accident, my foot. That young’un disappeared more’n three weeks ago. It’s something afoot, just like that Madison girl who disappeared in ’sixty-two. She died in a carriage accident, too—so they said. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Not Miss Della Bentley. It’s them carpetbaggers that run this place that say what isn’t is, and ignore what’s going on. They say one girl rode off with her Rebel lover, and another girl ran off to meet her Yankee lover, and it just ain’t so. They’re just saying it was a carriage accident ’cause poor Mr. Cato MacTavish isn’t around for them to be blaming this on! Why, they’ve even tried to start the rumor that Cato is out hiding in the woods—that he comes back to stalk and hunt women—just in case someone realizes there weren’t any carriage accidents.”
My father was a good man. He tried to soothe her. He said it was a tragedy about the poor girl, but we couldn’t go believing in wild fantasies made up by folks who were bitter about the war and had little else to do.
Our housekeeper walked away, muttering.
My father kept a sharp eye on me after that, though. I wasn’t allowed to walk around town anymore with the other children. But by then, we weren’t really allowed to be children at all anyway. Maybe it had to do with it being the aftermath of the war. I was a child at the time. My father trusted the authorities. I trusted my father.
After that day, whenever I saw Mr. Brennan on the streets, I ran. One day, when I was much older, I asked my father about Brennan and the house on St. George. He was silent for a long time. “There was a lot of tragedy there,” he told me at last. I asked him why the young Mr. MacTavish had left. I understood a broken heart—half the women not too many years older than I was had broken hearts, on account of their fellows had died in the war. But he had abandoned such a beautiful house.
“The disappearances,” my father said. “Or the murders,” he added after a moment of reflection. “I didn’t believe it at the time.” He rattled off a list of names. Women’s names. “They all disappeared, starting right when Cato MacTavish came home. We assumed then that they had run off—it was a war, conditions were miserable. Only two of the girls were ever found—and the doctor on call said that both had died in the streets. Carriage accidents. But…they didn’t look right.” He stopped. He wasn’t going to tell me any details of the corpses that had been found. “Cato’s fiancée had disappeared right after he left to fight, and since he wasn’t here, he was a good scapegoat. When he returned from the war, people said he’d killed her because she was pregnant or he was just tired of her. He tried to fight the accusations—they weren’t official, there was no evidence—but bear this in mind, child. Words can be as cruel as any weapon; they give rise to battles and wars, and in the end, he was a soldier who could not win the battle of words, I’m sad to say. Thing is, soon after he left, the housekeeper disappeared, too. She wasn’t actually his housekeeper, she had come with Brennan. But the whole city was terrified of her.” “Why?” I asked. “Black magic.” “You don’t believe in black magic,” I told him. He shook his head. “I didn’t want to believe. They said that she mixed voodoo with Indian lore, black magic and more. Some thought it was her spells that made the girls disappear. Or made them run away. Or perhaps she was the one who killed them. The truth, Brennan was allied with the powers that controlled the city at the time. Cato MacTavish was not. And MacTavish was a man who could bear no more. Perhaps he changed his name when he went north—or south. All anyone knows for sure is that he rode out of town one day on his father’s big bay, crying out his innocence and cursing the city, never to be seen again. Brennan, now, Brennan is a dangerous man. He conned Cato into teaching him the business, and he managed to make MacTavish leave and get hold of the place for himself. It’s always dark, that house, always covered in a pall of black and mourning. I told you once, years ago, to stay away. And I want you to do so now and forever, even if you’re growing into a woman.”
And so I did. But as the years went by, I found myself walking past the house, time and time again. It was on St. George, just a block from my home, so it was easy to take that route. The house remained sheathed in black, black veils, black drapes, black wreaths. And the death carriages came and went, and I still wondered why old man Brennan had never told my father about my crawling up on his hearse and looking into the coffin of the beautiful young woman.
Sarah just finished the entry when her cell phone rang, nearly sending her flying from the chair as it broke into her intense concentration.
“Hello?” she said a bit breathlessly.
“Sarah?” It was Caroline.
“Are you all right?”
Sarah laughed. “Yes. The sound of my phone just startled me, that’s all.”
“I know you’re taking the day off, but can you stop by the museum for a minute? Come in the back. No one will even know you’re here.”
“Okay. But are you all right? You sound…disturbed.”
“There’s something I need to show you,” Caroline said.
“Just get over here. You really need to see it for yourself.”
Sarah frowned and glanced at her watch. “Okay. Should I head over now?”
“Please. I’ll meet you at the back door.”
Sarah returned the book to Vicky Hind, aware that it was valuable and should be put away carefully, so she was surprised when Vicky told her that she was welcome to take it home to read.
“I know you, Sarah. You’ll treat it like gold. Here—let me put one of these dust jackets over it, and then you won’t have to worry about a thing.”
Once the book was duly encased, Sarah put it in her shoulder bag and left, thanking Vicky for her help. Vicky assured her that she would dig around for more references to the house.
Sarah hurriedly walked the few blocks to the museum and headed around to the back.
Caroline was already standing there with the rear door open, dressed in homespun antebellum attire. Her face was knitted in a frown, and she was anxious.
“Get in, get in!” she urged, as if they were on a secret spy mission.
Sarah stepped through the back door into the employees’ break room, nicely set up with a slightly worn but comfortable sofa, a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. A door on a side wall led to the hall, and the restrooms and lockers.
They were alone in the room, but even so, Caroline looked around worriedly, as if the walls themselves might be watching surreptitiously.