It was the spring of 1876, and the first families of Old Gate, Virginia, were putting on quite a show for the man from New York who meant to be their new neighbor. The world was not such a large place that someone from a good Virginia family did not have connections in New York who could make inquiries about such a man. So everyone in the county already knew that Randolph Hasbrouck Bliss was about thirty years old, the son of a man who was reputed to have made an enormous fortune buying cotton from farmers in the Confederate States (sometimes from the government itself) for resale to the Northern textile mills, and then selling arms and ammunition back to the Confederacy. That he had a wife who was, interestingly, several years older than he, and a young daughter who, it was said, wasn’t quite right in the head. That he had been educated at the College of New Jersey, and, after having shown some skill in managing one of his father’s import operations (French wines, and more textiles), had decided to try his hand at farming apples and peaches in central Virginia. Those who had made the inquiries hadn’t been able to find out exactly why he had decided to change careers, but there were whispers that he had habits of a nature that embarrassed and displeased his mother, who was from old Dutch New York stock. It was believed that those habits involved women. Often much younger women, and women of ill repute.
But the dinner guests at Maplewood, the gracious, pillar-fronted home of Katharine “Pinky” Archer and her husband, Robert, found their prejudices undermined as soon as they met Randolph.
He wasn’t a man whom any woman would particularly call handsome, with features that were heavy and decidedly non- patrician: a prominent nose and thick, dark brows. But his jaw was strong and his brown eyes alert and lively. He wore his clothes well, despite having a waist that did not taper much from his broad shoulders, and an overall frame that was more like that of a laborer than of a man who spent his days giving orders to others. Like every other man in the room, he was dressed in a double-breasted evening coat of black, with matching trousers. His silk waistcoat was a rich shade of peacock blue that was at once daring and elegant. They could see that everything he wore was of superior quality, and though his face was rather common, he inhabited his expensive clothes with an easy, animal grace.
After a dinner that included expected delights like smoked oysters, turtle soup, bison, and a French cream tart, the Reverend Edward M. Searle and a couple of the other men of Old Gate watched Randolph with interest as he stood, smiling, surrounded by women. The women, including Edward’s wife, Selina, and their hostess, Pinky Archer, preened under Randolph’s gaze. His compliments were easy and witty. Was it that gaze that attracted them? As he looked at each woman, he seemed to give her his undivided attention, and when he looked elsewhere, she would wilt a bit. The women’s attraction to Randolph was puzzling to all of the men, and, if they had spoken to one another about it, they might have agreed that it had something to do with the juxtaposition of his wealth and his common appearance. Or was it the uneasy sense that he was capable of doing the unpredictable?
When Pinky sat down at the piano, she asked who would be willing to sing “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” as she had recently learned it, and Randolph volunteered readily. He sang confidently in a bold, baritone voice, but showed a strong degree of modesty when the group—particularly the women—applauded enthusiastically at the song’s end. One of the older women, Pinky’s mother, dabbed discreetly at her eye with a handkerchief.
When the singing was done, the party broke into smaller groups. Some played cards, others gathered around the enormous book of drawings of New York scenery that Randolph had sent as a gift to his hostess. With most of the women occupied, Edward, who was the priest at St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church, saw his opportunity to speak to Randolph alone.
A servant had brought Randolph a glass of water, and he was finishing it when Edward approached. He spoke quietly. “Randolph, won’t you walk outside with me for a moment? The evening is fine, and I like to take a small stroll after a large meal. Maple- wood’s garden is quite fragrant in the evening.”
Randolph smiled, his dark eyes full of mischief. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather take a turn with one of these beautiful ladies, Edward? Your wife looks very becoming. In fact all the women I’ve met since I arrived in Old Gate are possessed of charms unseen where I come from in New York. And I warn you. I won’t sit still if you try to kiss me beneath a rose bower.”
Robert Archer, their host, was passing and chanced to hear Randolph’s response. He stopped, chuckling. “You can trust Edward. I’ve known him since we were boys, and he never tried to kiss me once.”
A slight look of irritation passed over Edward’s face, but he banished it quickly and, with feigned gruffness, said, “But you haven’t Randolph’s exotic Yankee charm, Robert. Familiarity breeds contempt, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“Scoundrel. Don’t be long with your stroll, gentlemen. I fear the ladies will not tolerate Randolph being away from them much longer.” He laid his hand on Randolph’s broad back in a gesture of camaraderie that was not quite a slap. “You’ve become quite the favorite already. You’ll have to tell me your secret sometime. My Pinky and I have only been married five years, yet sometimes I think that since I’ve passed the age of thirty she sees me as ready for the ash heap. Beware, Randolph. The young women of the county are a flirtatious set, but we love them dearly, don’t we, Edward?”
Edward nodded sagely and guided Randolph to the door.
Outside, the evening was indeed fine, and the cloudless sky above Maplewood was a brocade of countless stars.
“You can’t see the sky like this in New York, in the city.” Randolph stopped on the garden’s path and looked up. “Too many factories, too many lights. My wife, Amelia, will like it here very much. She is reluctant to leave Long Island, but I think she and my daughter will be happy in the end. I have a working design for Bliss House, though it is sure to take more than a year to build.”
Edward cleared his throat. “Some would say Old Gate is a bit rough around the edges, but I was happy to come back here after the war and seminary.”
“I can’t think of a better place to build new traditions for myself and my family. Sometimes a man needs to escape the bonds of family tradition, don’t you agree?”
“Then I would say you will find its isolation to your liking. Old Gate is not like other Virginia towns. We are an insular place. The people who settled here, rather than in larger places like Lynchburg or Charlottesville, came here—or come here—because they were either not wanted in those larger societies or had reasons of their own for absenting themselves.” He looked closely at Randolph. “What are your reasons for wanting to come to a place as remote as Old Gate?”
Randolph smiled and gave a small laugh. “I suppose I want a change. Nothing wrong with that, is there? As I said, sometimes the bonds of family can become too tight.”
Rather than pressing him further, Edward glanced over his shoulder to see if they were being followed and continued walking. “This way, please.” When he was satisfied that they were far enough away from the house, he stopped again. He was several inches taller than Randolph, and the moonlight sharpened his patrician profile: a high, Grecian nose, tall forehead, and chiseled chin. His prominent height intimidated many people.
Randolph looked up at him without any sign of anxiety. “Is something troubling you? I’ll be of assistance if I can.”
“My friends would not thank me for speaking with you. While I am of their society, they hold somewhat more jaundiced views than I on many things.” He shook his head. “I would never accuse them of a lack of integrity, but I fear that the trio of individuals who own the property you are about to purchase for your home has not been completely honest with you.”
Randolph laughed. “It is business. No business can be con- ducted in complete honesty. Nothing would ever be settled. Do you think the price they ask is too dear? It seems quite reason- able to me. It’s a prime bit of land. Perfect for orchards, and an excellent home site.”
“If it is so excellent, is it credible to you that it should be so close to town and as yet undeveloped? We have undergone much improvement since the war.”
“Is there some defect I should know of? I have found none. Monsieur Hulot, my architect, has approved the surveyor’s report, and will depart with his assistant from France at my telegram. I have spent much time at the site. I am satisfied. What is this, Edward?” Randolph assumed a joshing tone. “Is there some other bidder you want it for? I’m not afraid of paying a bit more to ensure that I have it. Or—” He seemed to consider for a moment. “Is it that my erstwhile neighbors are disturbed because they’ve learned that the distinguished Monsieur Hulot happens to be a Negro?”
Edward gave a little cough. “I’m sure that has never come up.” “Then just tell me what it is you have to tell me.” “Very well,” Edward said. “A lot of the old families struggle to
keep up their homes. The ones farming tobacco are just recovering. They need the money. Your money.”
“Seems a fair trade.”
“That particular farm was never planted with tobacco. It was part of an early land grant, and the owners leased different parts of it to many tenants over the years. When I was a boy, it was home to the Doyle family, a family with Quaker sympathies.”
“The Doyles were friendly with the Quaker group down in Lynchburg. And as you probably know, the Quakers had no sympathy for slaveholding and subverted it in every way they could. Old Gate was on the route from Lynchburg to Culpeper County, which was a kind of gathering point for runaway slaves headed north.”
“Is there anywhere here that isn’t touched by that kind of his- tory? We must move past the war, man. It’s our duty.”
“Please, listen. We need to go back inside soon.” Now Edward was brusque. “There was a house and a barn on the property, and the house had a shed attached to it. Sometime in 1847 or ’48, the Doyles began to hide runaway slaves who were on their way north, in that shed. It became a kind of open secret among certain people in Old Gate.”
Randolph nodded. “That sounds like it was virtuous, but dangerous.”
“There are people in this house tonight whose parents didn’t like what the Doyles and the Quakers were doing. People who didn’t want to lose their own slaves because of such subversion close to home. Randolph, a group of Old Gate men surrounded the property one night and set fire to both the house and shed. When the family and, it’s said, two female slaves and their children tried to escape, the men held them at gunpoint until they went back inside the buildings. If they didn’t, they shot them dead, right there.”
In their own momentary silence, they heard a woman’s laughter from the house.
“It’s a terrible story, but it has nothing to do with me. I thank you for telling me, Edward. Was anyone prosecuted?”
“Of course not. It was done at night, and there were no witnesses left. No one is really even sure how many were killed. Eight, maybe ten people.”
“No, I don’t think you do. A few years later, another house was built there, on that same site. But no one was able to live in it for more than a few months at a time. Everyone who lived in that house suffered some tragedy, and they were forced to leave. Suicides. Madness. A murder.”
Randolph scoffed. “That’s bald superstition, and quite ridiculous. You’re an educated man. Surely you don’t believe in such things. Superstition is the stuff of old women and parlor games. To be honest, I’m amused by the superstitious aspects of the old pagan rites. Why, the Romans were a noble bunch, and the Celtics, too. But ghosts? That’s nonsense.”
Edward stiffened. “You would put your family at risk?”
“Of course not. There is no risk. There’s nothing left of any buildings there except traces of a foundation. And that will be dug up before any building begins. I dare any curse to try to cling to me. It would find that I am not so easily cowed.”
“I wish you would listen. There are other farms to be had.”
“We should go back inside, Edward. It’s growing late.” Edward’s shoulders fell, and he shook his head. They started back to the house. Not wanting to leave his new friend dispirited, Randolph made an effort to acknowledge his obviously genuine concern. “As a priest, perhaps you could perform some sort of blessing on the land. Might that not help obviate any curse, or whatever seems to be going on?”
Edward stopped. “I dislike that the Old Gate parties involved in this sale have not been frank with you. They seem to take it as rather a joke that someone like you—someone from a part of the country that they revile—is paying good money for the site of such an atrocity. You do not have true friends here, I’m afraid, Randolph. I don’t know that they will ever be different if you choose to build your house here.”
The light from the salon touched Randolph, illuminating his not quite handsome face. When Edward looked down into those eyes, he wasn’t sure if the sincerity he saw there was true or skillful manipulation. There was something else, too, something harder, that he hadn’t seen when they were in the house.
“I hope I may consider you my friend.” Randolph rested his hand on the taller man’s back, just as Robert Archer had touched him in friendship, and Edward felt an unpleasant sensation of cold spread over his body.
An hour later, the party broke up with many promises for future invitations. Randolph was heartily enjoined to write to his new friends just as soon as he knew when he would be returning to Old Gate to begin building his new home.
As he settled into the coach that would take him back to Missus Green’s Inn and Boardinghouse near the center of town, Randolph felt in the left pocket of his waistcoat for his matches. The matches were there, but there was something else: a small, folded note, which, when opened and held close to the flame of a lighted match, was revealed to be an invitation of a particularly intimate sort, written in a delicate, well-formed hand. He smiled. It was an invitation he would gladly accept.
He blew out the match and settled back in the seat. Yes. He was very much looking forward to settling in Old Gate.
Lucy Bliss ran blindly through the moonlit rose garden, thorns grabbing at her as though they would keep her from leaving. As she reached the break in the garden wall that would lead her to the woods, her robe tangled on the last bush, so she tore it from her body with a cry and left it behind. Was someone following? Surely Randolph, who was as frail as a man risen from a grave of five years, could not capture her.
My husband risen from his grave! So much is explained. The voices in the night. The light near the springhouse. How did I not see?
Above the trees the distant lights of Old Gate shone silver on the scattered clouds. Only twenty-five years earlier, before she had mar-ried Randolph in 1899, there had been but a dozen gas streetlamps in town, and the night sky had looked endless and cluttered with stars. How different it had been. Walking with her friends to the little theater, or home from a party, her laughing voice louder than she knew was proper. But she hadn’t cared. She had been cheerfully rebellious, happy to disregard her mother’s constant instructions about minding her behavior, and her father’s lectures from both his Episcopal pulpit and the dinner table. Though they were rigid people, and difficult to love, she had loved them both, and had obeyed—to a point. Few things were ever serious to her in those days. It had all been in fun.
Bright. Her life had been so wonderfully bright.
Now she was well into her forties, and her life had dimmed. Her feet were bare, tender from running over the crushed shells on the winding garden paths beside Bliss House, and her breath came in bursts. From moment to moment she wasn’t sure if she were dreaming or not. Before she’d gone to bed, Terrance, who had run Bliss House for her these past few years, and was no older than she, had given her the medicine that helped her feel calm, helped her forget. But she had terrible dreams and often woke to find that she had chewed the knuckle of her finger until it bled and there were tears on her cheeks. Now, dreaming or awake, she had fled the house, running, running. For months she had been loath to walk outside. Loath to leave her room. How she had run when she was a child! And when her son, Michael Searle, was young, they had run through the orchards together, playing and racing, far from Randolph’s critical gaze.
Michael Searle, my son. But more than a son. A gift.
This very night he was on his way home from North Carolina, where he had been visiting the woman he would marry. She had to get somewhere safe, to warn him—before he arrived—never to return to Bliss House.
Your father is alive! He will steal your happiness, my sweet child.
The path into the woods was crowded with brush and newly red switches of wild blackberry whose thorns were even more ambitious and brutal than those of the roses. She slowed. Her thin, torn gown was no protection from the cool night, and a layer of sweat caused her to shiver violently. Craving the former safety of her own bed within her flower-covered bedroom walls, she thought of sinking to the ground, nesting in the brambles like an animal. Still, she pushed deeper into the woods, even though no one seemed to be coming after her.
Do they think I am weak, that I will come crawling back?
As a girl, she had thought of Bliss House as a mysterious, magical place, all the more fascinating because her parents had told her to stay away. Now she knew every inch of its shining wood floors and paneled walls. She had danced in the ballroom dozens of times, and hurried up and down the staircases twenty times a day, and aired the rooms, and watered flowers and written letters at her desk in the morning room, and rocked her son to sleep, and wiped his brow, and entertained friends, and listened to the bees drowsing over the roses, and watched her husband, the man who had built Bliss House, go slowly mad. And she had lived in the presence of ghosts, and had even ceased to be afraid of them.
But if Randolph were alive—truly alive—she would have to live in fear.
Again. It didn’t matter if she were awake or dreaming. She would rather die than live with Randolph. Again.
Ahead, in the trees, there was a quivering light where there should not have been a light. Lucy glanced again over her shoulder to make sure she hadn’t gotten turned around, but there was Bliss House rising tall and threatening behind her, its windows glowing warmly as though it were still a safe place. A place where, some- times, she was happy.
Thank God Michael Searle is away. I will keep him safe.
Yes. Ahead of her was a light where there was supposed to be nothing, and desperation carried her toward it.