101 Bell Whistle
Chapter 7: An Attraction
Copyright© 2010 by JimWar
Audra came boiling out of the sitting room and almost knocked me over as she bounded into my arms disregarding Mr. Whiskers who quickly leaped out of the way. Elise raised her eyebrows as she peered at us from the doorway of the sitting room. I certainly hadn't expected that reaction. Audra was blushing red as she disengaged herself from my arms. She did take me by the hand and pull me towards Elise and the sitting room where she had a pitcher of iced tea waiting.
I spent the next thirty minutes explaining my journey as Elise carefully looked through the book I had retrieved. No questions were asked as I recounted my passage through the walls of the old house. After I finished Audra said, "All the years I lived here, I never suspected that there may have been people walking around in the walls. I remember hearing sounds coming from the wall late at night, but I never thought..."
Elise touched Audra's arm to get her attention and said, "All wooden houses have noises. I remember Edward telling me that houses heat up in the daytime and cool at night, causing nails to pull loose and boards to rub against each other. Most likely that is what you heard most of the times."
I added, "I don't know how long it took for all of that dust to accumulate in the attic, but the footprints do indicate that one person in recent times did rediscover the passage and make it all the way through. It was also obvious, from the way the footprints went straight to the wall where the passage started, that whoever did make that trip knew that the passage was there..."
Audra interrupted, "Mother or father never said anything about a secret passage so I don't think it was either of them."
I looked from Audra to Elise and asked, "How much have you told her about what went on in the house?"
Audra answered, "You wanted me to clear the air, so I told her everything."
Looking towards Elise and then back to me she continued, "You were right. She thought I was being disrespectful. I was, but she didn't understand my reasons. So she knows about father if that's what you're asking."
I continued, "The thing I was going to say was that you didn't find out about the tunnel from anything your father said. You found that out by following him. So it's possible he could have been the one that made the footprints in the attic."
Audra looked puzzled and then said, "If he was the one that made that trip through the passageway, it must have been after he stole all the books because otherwise why would he have gone to the trouble of digging the tunnel from the garage?"
About halfway through Audra's question Elise fidgeted excitedly. As soon as Audra finished formulating her question Elise answered, "I can think of several reasons. If he managed to bring the books from the basement up through the walls to the attic they were still in the house. The stairway from the attic is in the main hallway. It would be hard to spirit books out through that hallway. Another thing is that we don't know if the passageway will work in reverse, because from what Joe said, opening one door in several instances closes another."
I nodded and added, "The mechanism that controls all of the passageway doors seems to be quite complicated. I was most of the way through and the entryway was still locked by the mechanism. I bet if we went back to the attic now we would find it reset. It's possible that there's some method of controlling which way the doors open that we have yet to discover."
Elise spoke again, "This book goes back to the time before the Civil War. Evidently this house was a regular stop on what was called the Underground Railroad. This ledger is a listing of all the runaway slaves that used this house as a stopping point on their journey north. I can't make out all it says because some of the words are very faint, but this seems to be a very detailed account of those times."
I shook my head, the enormity of what we had found just settling into my mind. I then said, "So here, in the middle of our quiet neighborhood, we have a house that is 160 years old and played a major part in American history."
Then something else hit me. I added, "This house may have been built with that in mind. I mean the passageway was an integral part of the house's original construction. That passageway can't be an add-on at all. The spaces in the wall would have to have been planned for."
Elise was excited and said, "Do you realize how important this house is? Have you ever heard of any place like this before?"
We all sat there digesting what we had discussed. No one seemed to want to offer an opinion. Honestly, I wasn't sure I was happy about all of this. I thought I had found a quiet place to call home, but now wasn't sure what I had. Could anyone be expected to live in a place with this much history?
Then Elise broke the reverie when she opined, "I think this is bigger than all of us. You should have a historian from the university look at this book. I'm sure it will set off quite a furor on its own. Unless I miss my guess it will end up being even more valuable than the house itself." After she said that she handed me back the book in question.
I smiled and queried, "So how do you find a historian late on a Saturday afternoon? I doubt they are listed in the yellow pages."
Elise thought a moment and said, "I'm sure Edward knows one or two. He's on the board of the club and mentioned that the president of the local university is also on the board. He should be home now anyway."
I suggested, "Why don't you use my phone and invite him over? He may have some insight as how best to approach this."
I was excited but a bit apprehensive as I attached the gas bottle to my new grill. The ledger had touched off a firestorm of interest from not only the history professors at the local university but a wide range of people in the local community. Somehow the press had gotten word and the president of the town's historical society had to be included in the mix. Elise had helped Audra and I host a get together of the more influential members of all of those groups.
Reporters were camped out on the street waiting for the local celebrities to arrive as if this were the local equivalent of the Oscars. Audra and Elise had fussed over the menu until I wondered if I was going to have to call a caterer to satisfy them both. Sipping on my beer I laughed as I thought back to the moment an argument over the menu threatened to dissolve their newly formed friendship. I still wasn't sure whether my stepping up and offering to grill steaks was a wise move. Still, they both seemed to quickly settle on a menu of steaks, baked potatoes and salad along with Elise's German chocolate cake. I thought any meal that included Elise's German chocolate cake would be more than adequate.
Audra stepped out the back door looking radiant as if all of the energy of the bright afternoon sun was being reflected from within her bright pastel summer dress. As soon as she was within hearing I said, "You look beautiful this afternoon."
She blushed slightly, as she seemed to do anytime I paid her a complement. She also seemed at a loss for words. Knowing the answer already I asked, "Is that the dress Elise helped you pick out?"
Audra sunny disposition briefly turned to a scowl as she answered, "Yes, I told her I should wear a uniform and serve tonight but she's as stubborn as you are."
I laughed; glad to have Elise as an ally. Audra scowl reversed into a sly smile when she heard my laughter. She tried to put a serious look on her face as she said, "Oh, you're no help. You're always on her side."
I laughed louder this time and said, "She's older and wiser than us both."
Audra admitted, "I never thought I would like her, but..." She let her thought trail off as she peered into the top of the old well.
I asked, "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing, I was just thinking..."
"About?" I queried.
"Umm, do you suppose we'll ever..."
Audra then stopped as her face began to redden.
She started again and said, "Elise told me that she thought..."
As I realized that she wasn't going to continue without some encouragement I queried, "Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"Huh!" She responded.
At that moment I realized teasing probably wasn't the best thing under the circumstances so I said, "Well, I know there's a thought in there somewhere and so I figured you wanted me to guess what it was."
She reddened again and said, "I know what I want to say but I can't figure out exactly how to put it into words without sounding stupid."
I asked, "We're friends, right?"
She said, "Yes, that was kinda' what I wanted to talk to you about, but now's probably not the best time."
Puzzled again I looked at my watch said, "Well, it will either have to be quick, or we'll have to wait 'til later. I hope you know you can tell me anything and I will listen."
She shyly looked at me and mumbled, "Maybe you should get dressed. It can wait."
Later that evening I was cleaning the grill after the assembly of experts had departed. I was thinking of what a bust the evening had been. The two history professors from the university had spent most of the evening huddled in deep discussion with the ledger. Occasionally they had excitedly conferred with the president of the town's historical association. The only time either of the professors had deigned to include me, Audra or any of the other guests in their conversation was during the tour of the house. I was stunned when I overheard their discussion of possibly ripping out the walls of the house to see what other documents might be found. At the end of the evening it was all I could do to pry the ledger from the hands of one of the rude professors. She seemed to have the impression that I had already donated the ledger to the university. The truth was that at that point I had already decided that, experts or not, those two particular academics were not going to be given access to the ledger or the house if I had anything to say about it.
Elise and Edward both had apologized profusely for the behavior of the scholars during the evening as if it was their fault. Elise said Edward was embarrassed as he felt he had vetted the two. Later he assured me that he would speak to the president of the university at the club during the coming week. Lenora Wells, the president of the historical society had been much more sociable. I found that Lenora was as much an expert on local history as the two professors. She might not have a PhD attached to her name but she had a sharp, inquiring mind that held an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the known history of the local area. I had invited her back to tour the house, tunnel and passageway at a later time. We'd shared a laugh as we almost simultaneously realized that suits and cocktail dresses were not made for exploring dark hidden passageways. I also let her 'borrow' the ledger long enough to make copies of the pages and consult with the town librarian as to how to best conserve the valuable document.
Audra was dejected after the evening, as she felt that had she worn a uniform and acted in the capacity of servant rather than hostess it would have elevated my status and I would have been taken more seriously by the academics. I laughed and told her that the only thing that might have elevated my status in their eyes would be the letters PhD appended to my name.
The next week I struggled to keep up with an increased number of repos. Bob surprised me by asking my company to do all of his bank's cleanouts for a fixed price. The price he suggested was 20% higher than my average bid for those projects that I won. The down side was that I would have to accept those properties that I had avoided in the past. I talked to both Hector and Jorge who assured me that they could find as many workers as I needed. I accepted the offer with the stipulation that I could renegotiate the contract at any time if it didn't work out.
Although this removed one time consuming element from my business day, it didn't alleviate the need to estimate specific job requirements and schedule the work for Hector and Jorge. It was during one of our early morning meetings on a Thursday that I asked for one of them to find a crew of reliable men to help me move some furniture at my house. Jorge acted as if he was offended as he quickly said, "Boss, all my men are reliable. How long you need them for?"
I answered, "That depends on how many men you bring. I have a 300-pound desk that needs to be moved up a flight of stairs and then four rooms of other furniture that will need to be moved up two flights of stairs into the attic. Several of those pieces are pretty damn heavy."
Hector said, "Damn boss, I thought you lived in an apartment like me. When did you buy a house?"