Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl
Wayne stood awkwardly by the sideboard. “Bye, Mother.... “The door shut. He turned to Amanda. “You were being sarcastic, weren't you?"
she replied with a grin.
Laughing, Wayne advanced toward her, arms outstretched. “How about a morning kiss from my little girl?"
"So that our guests may discover us in an unseemly moment? Fie, Papa, fie.” She slipped out the door, turned the sign around to “Hall Open” and assumed her pose on the stone steps.
Wayne took a magisterial stance beside Amanda, but his voice was uncertain. “Not that I really think of you as a daughter, you know."
Here we go again.
"I mean—have you thought any more about that movie? The new Brad Pitt flick is opening this weekend...."
She'd thought about a movie. Theatres were air-conditioned, for one thing. And Melrose didn't have either cable or a VCR. But Wayne was not relationship material. “I'd enjoy taking in a movie,” she told him, “as long as it wasn't a date. Just friends, know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I get it.” His face fell. He probably heard that one a lot.
Amanda scanned the landscape. No visitors were strolling up the gravel paths or across the glistening green of the grass. A couple of gardeners planted marigolds by the ticket office. A boat glided down the river. Birds sang. The sun shone pitilessly in a blue sky.
"I didn't have too many friends when I was growing up,” Wayne said. “Melrose is kind of isolated, at least when you're an only child like I was. Like I am."
Amanda had never thought of her younger brother and sister as valuable socializing agents before. “When did you move into town?"
"When I got my driver's license. Mother wanted me to be closer to the high school so I wouldn't have to drive so much. And since my father had just passed away she wanted to be closer to her friends."
"The place was getting to be a maintenance problem, wasn't it?"
"It was getting pretty shabby. Which bothered Mother a lot more than it did me. I'd build forts with wood from the old stable and dig dungeons in the cellar and do chemical experiments with blackberries and paint flakes and stuff. I never blew anything up, though.” He shook his head sadly.
Amanda smiled. “I grew up in a brand new split-level. Our cellar was partly a rec room and partly my dad's workshop. Melrose's cellar must have been really spooky before it was cleaned out."
"Oh yeah. I used to scare the heck out of myself down there, imagining that old furnace was some kind of monster."
"I would have imagined bodies buried beneath the floor. All these old houses need at least one good ghost story."
"We're falling down on the job, aren't we? You'd think at least one self-respecting spook would be hanging around here, but no."
"You never heard mysterious footsteps or had cold spots in the hallway when you were a kid?"
"People ask me that all the time. But my father grew up here, you know, and his father, and neither of them ever saw more than a death-watch beetle or two. Maybe we can make up a good story about that body behind the summerhouse. If it wouldn't scare you, that is,” added Wayne, “with you having to stay out here alone and everything."
This is where she'd come in. Amanda glanced toward the driveway. Good—the cavalry was coming. A group of tourists advanced toward the house, escorted by Roy Davis, an interpreter playing one of the footmen. “...my wife was sold to another plantation,” he was saying. “I know I'll never see her again. It wasn't as hard on Master Page when his wife died, I reckon."
"Heads up,” Amanda muttered to Wayne. He extended his elbow. She placed one hand on his forearm and with the other opened her fan.
"Welcome to Melrose Hall. My name is Page Armstrong.” Wayne's expansive gesture almost threw Amanda down the steps. “Allow me to present my daughter, Sally."
Amanda recovered herself with a curtsey. “Please come inside."
Roy bent in an anachronistic but understandably sardonic bow. With embarrassed looks, unsure whether to play along with the game, the sightseers walked into the house. Amanda shot Roy's departing back a rueful smile. The interpretation program was, after all, a fantasy that only worked because everyone ignored its paradoxes. If she and Wayne and the others brought history to life, why couldn't the ghost of James Grant bring life to history....
Wayne dragged Amanda across the threshold with him. “I designed Melrose myself. The classical symmetry of the house represents the ultimate human faculty, that of Reason. As my friend Thomas Jefferson said so meaningly the other day...."
Amanda fixed Sally's sweet, biddable smile on her face. Another normal day at Melrose had begun. Depending on your definition of normal.
As more and more sightseers arrived, Amanda and Wayne separated and conducted different groups. By now she had her role down pat, and recited it by rote. Fortunately none of the tourists asked any questions more difficult than, “What kind of underwear you got on there, lady?” Only a few inquired about the bones. Amanda directed them to the gardens.
At last she was once more turning the sign around and locking the door. After the glare of the sun the entrance hall seemed as dark as Wayne's imaginary dungeon. She felt like something growing on a dungeon wall. She was surprised she didn't leave a slime trail on her way to the kitchen.
"See you tomorrow,” she called to the other interpreters. They jostled each other out the door. Wayne, his face the color of a ripe tomato, waved at her and ran for it.
Amanda raced down the corridor to her apartment, pulling off her clothes on the way. Lafayette, at his post outside the cat flap, rated only a quick, “How can you look so cool with all that fur?” Before the last tourist bus had belched out of the parking lot Amanda was in her shower. A shower on a hot day was as good as sex.
Sometimes even better, she thought with a grimace. The twenty-first century had left the subtleties of drawing room flirtation and seduction far behind. Now it was cut to the chase and change the channel.... As if those eighteenth-century subtleties had extended to the bedroom. It had simply taken longer to get there then, that was all.
Amanda toweled off, stepped into a T-shirt and shorts, and fed the cat. Clipboard in hand, she set out on her tour of the house.
A whisk of the carpet sweeper took care of some dusty footprints. The shell earrings attributed to Pocahontas were disarranged in their case—a shake set them right. The tail of Amanda's T-shirt polished a smudge from the pier glass in the spare bedroom. For one ghastly moment she thought a silver hairbrush from Sally's dresser was missing, but she found it on the table by the window, reflecting a blaze of sunlight next to the dull shapes of the embroidery, thimble, and miniature.
No matter how she watched, the small hand was always quicker than the eye.
With the curtains closed the room glowed amber, as though lit by candlelight. Amanda picked up the portrait of Captain Grant. Yes, it was definitely the same face she'd seen last night, even though his eyes had apparently been blue, not brown as depicted here. His expression in the portrait was much more confident than it was in life....
She turned the miniature over. The frame was an ornate metal one of the period, but its backing was a modern piece of acid-free cardboard. Cautiously, with the tips of her fingernails, she pulled out the tiny pins holding the portrait and its backing in place.
The picture was painted on a thin piece of wood. On its back several words were written in lushly curved eighteenth-century handwriting: James Grant. Dundreggan. 1780. And he died in 1781, Amanda thought. Millions of young men died in wars—her grandfather's brother had become a statistic on Omaha Beach. Her mind couldn't take in millions. It could take in one.
Of course it was Wayne who'd hit the target. James Grant's ghost was restless. Because of his body's slapdash burial, Amanda wondered, or because the burial had been exposed? And why had the burial been so slapdash to begin with? She toyed with scenarios of James staggering wounded from Greensprings Farm, back to Sally's arms.... No. The Armstrongs wouldn't have had any reason to hide his body. They'd have turned it over to his regiment, like the nice honorable aristocrats they were.
She put the picture and frame back together and returned it to the table. Clipboard in hand, she stood at the head of the stairs and listened. The house was silent. Faintly from outside came the sound of birds singing.
Get over it,
she told herself, and clomped down the steps. Seeing a ghost had been a hell of an experience, but she wasn't going to include it on her resume.
Amanda went out the back door and inspected the lawns, the drive, the kitchen garden. Everything was in order, including Lafayette stretched sphinx-like in her living room window. She headed down the boxwood allee toward the summerhouse and the bobbing heads of the archaeological crew.
How long before Hewitt identified the body as Grant's? If he ever did. It would depend on what associated artifacts he dug from the grave. If Grant had been stripped of his uniform no one would ever know who he was. That wasn't right, Amanda thought. James Grant deserved the dignity of his name. But making herself look like a total idiot wouldn't help him.
Several dirt-daubed students carrying tools and water jugs passed her on their way to the parking lot. “How'd it go today?” she asked one.
"Got almost everything up,” he replied. “Kept having to stop and deal with kibitzers, though."
"I don't think we've seen even the first wave of kibitzers yet,” Amanda told him.
He shrugged. “There won't be anything to see other than the footprint of the summerhouse, not past tomorrow anyway. Not unless we turn up another body."
"Please don't,” Amanda said under her breath. That was all she needed, phantom regiments trooping up and down the stairs at night.
Judging by the tangy scent of bug repellent which hung over the excavation, every insect in Virginia had come for lunch and now strummed and throbbed irritably in the underbrush. On the trampled weeds were arranged various trays and boxes piled with brown-stained lumps. Bill Hewitt stood thigh-deep in the trench, holding up a trowel for Helen Medina's video camera.
"Great,” the press officer said. She pulled a red bandanna from one of the many pockets of her vest and mopped at her glasses. Her bun of gray-streaked hair, held together by a pencil and a swizzle stick, sagged a little lower on her neck. “Now do something with the bones, Bill."
Hewitt clambered from the hole and knelt down by one of the boxes. Amanda inched forward. She expected to see a more or less articulated skeleton, like an anatomical chart, but what lay in the tray was a pile of brown pick-up sticks. Hewitt lifted the skull in one hand and its jawbone in the other. Fitting them together, he held them up for the camera. “What we have here,” he said, “is the skull and the detached mandible of a man probably between twenty and thirty-five."
No reason the empty eye sockets should retain an image of the blue-grey eyes and the personality that had looked out from them. But Amanda had expected to feel some tingle of fear or even disgust at the bones, and all she felt was sorrow, that mortality was so dull.
Hewitt put the skull down and picked up a long bone. “This is the femur,” he said. “By measuring its length we'll be able to tell approximately how tall the man was. By studying the growth at the ends of this bone and others, we'll have a better idea of his age."
"Bill,” protested Helen, “this is deadly. No pun intended. Can't you jazz it up?"
"I'm not a movie star,” Hewitt said.
"Well no, you're not, are you? Okay, let me get a few more general shots and we'll find some talent to do a voice-over. What's in these boxes?"
Hewitt acknowledged Amanda's presence with a nod and bent over one of the trays. “Bits and pieces of fabric, leather, and metal. Lots of metal. He might have been a military officer. Revolutionary War, maybe. Or Civil War. There's an epaulette.” His forefinger indicated a dirt-encrusted doodad that could have been anything from a tea strainer to a dead hedgehog. Amanda shook her head. Hard to believe those lumps were the silver buckles and braid in Grant's portrait.
"Doesn't look like much,” said Helen.
"When the conservation people get done it'll be photogenic,” Hewitt promised. “This object still in the ground is interesting. I think it's a scabbard."
An uneven muddy ridge barely emerged from the soil. Amanda felt a tickle between her shoulder blades. She'd seen that scabbard already. Then it had been cleaned and polished and held in strong hands. Now it was tarnished and crushed by the weight of dirt and time....
The tickle between her shoulder blades was a bug. She contorted herself until she could slap at it.
"Just a scabbard?” Helen asked. “No sword?"
"Not yet. We'll give the hole another going-over tomorrow. Sift out trouser-buttons. Shreds of fabric. The small bones of the hands and feet. If the sword's there it's buried deep."
Don't hold your breath for those trouser buttons,
Amanda thought. And she doubted that the sword was in the grave, since Captain Grant was wandering eternity without it.
"Hmmmm.” Helen looked narrowly at the lengthening shadows and reached for her camera case. “Let me know when you get everything tidied up. I need some personal details, bringing history to life and so on."
Amanda turned a laugh into a cough. “When can I visit the lab?” she asked. “I'd like to know what you find out about the body."
"Next Monday?” Hewitt suggested. He wiped his hand across his domed forehead, adding one more smear of dirt.
"I'll be there. Thanks.” She scratched her back. “So what happens to the bones if you can't identify him?"
"They'll be re-interred. With his comrades, if we can at least establish which war he was in and which side he was on. Assuming it makes a difference after all this time."
"Someone was waiting for him to come home,” said Helen.
Amanda told her silently.
"I didn't mean,” Hewitt began, and then shrugged. “I'll keep you posted, Miss Witham, Miss Medina."