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The Secret of The Elms

When I was a boy, seven years old or so, we all knew that The Elms was the home of our town’s richest family.  Angus Schuster, the family’s patriarch, spent much of his time in the city, where he ran his vast business empire.  His wife, Sophie, stayed at home where she presided over her brood of three daughters and a son, ranging in age from three to fourteen.  None of us knew the children.  They all attended a private school and lived in a world apart from the one we grew up in.

When I was eleven, Sophie and Aldous Andrews, old Angus’ boyhood friend, had mysteriously disappeared.  Aldous had been wounded in the war and had lost his left arm.  And, upon returning, he lost his inheritance in a stock swindle.  Angus had invited him to stay at the Elms indefinitely.  Missing one arm, and with bleak prospects, Aldous gratefully accepted.

Although the disappearance of Aldous and Mrs. Schuster was of only passing interest to me and my friends, it was a matter of many hushed discussions among our mothers.  The general consensus was that the two had run off together.  After Sophie and Aldous had been missing for six months, there was an inquest of sorts.  The conclusion of the secret grand jury was much the same as that reached by my mother and other “blue collar” women of the community.  Conventional wisdom was that they’d fallen in love and had run off, but that they’d eventually show up again.

The years passed quickly, as they have a way of doing when we’re young.  I graduated from high school with honors and won a scholarship at an upstate college.  From there I went on to law school and was eventually hired as a junior partner in one of the city’s most prestigious law firms.  After five years I had accumulated a hefty stock portfolio, and was made a full partner.  It was then I learned that The Elms was on the market.  Old Angus had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while I was in law school.  His eldest daughter, Estelle, had become executor of the estate, and lived as a spinster at The Elms after her siblings had moved away.  When Estelle suffered a psychotic break with reality and had to be indefinitely institutionalized, her sisters and brother unanimously decided to cash out and to sell the old place.

I arranged to be given a tour of the property and immediately fell in love with the entire setup.  I had been living in a townhouse in the city and had long been dreaming of a place to call home and to spend my weekends at.  After some negotiating, the deal was struck and I became the new owner of The Elms.  The place was completely furnished, and there was little for me to do but to show up on Friday afternoons and to spend my weekends living the life of a country squire.

Autumn was magical, and Christmas was a time of great festivity.  I invited many of my boyhood chums and their wives to a round of parties.  Somehow the old story of Sophie and Aldous cropped up.  But time had blurred the immediacy of their strange disappearance.  And of course society’s ideas of propriety had changed.  What had once been an occasion for intense curiosity had become a matter of little interest to my guests.  But oddly enough my own curiosity was piqued, perhaps because it was an unsolved mystery about the stately place that I now called home.

In any case, in the following spring I ventured for the first time up into the mansion’s attic, and much to my delight I discovered a massive trunk whose lid was held shut by an antique padlock.  Since I had never come across a key, I forced my way in with the help of a stout bolt cutter.

The trunk contents made it obvious that it was a repository for Angus’s effects.  With pounding heart it occurred to me that the pistol Angus had used to blow his brains out might be among the contents.  But there was no gun.  In the trunk’s bottom, however, was a sealed envelope with the writing, “To be opened by Estelle only upon my death.”  I turned the envelope over and over in my hands, wondering why it was still sealed.  Was it possible that Estelle had failed to discover it before her untimely mental collapse?  Should I open it now, or should I try to contact Freddy, her brother?  I didn’t know how to communicate with him, but had little doubt that the private investigation company our law firm frequently used would find him.

I closed the old trunk and took the letter downstairs, still unopened.  After sleeping on the whole matter, I decided the following morning that I’d open it and have a look.  With bated breath I sliced the envelope open and, much to my surprise, found only a cryptic message inside: “Look in the rose garden, under the bird fountain.”  The only other words were the poignant closing, “Forgive me.  Dad.”

Well!  This had become a mystery of the first order.  I resolved then and there to follow through with Angus’s instructions.  I went out to the rose garden and examined the old bird fountain.  It had long been neglected and was filled with mossy water.  I got a dipper and bailed the water out of the dish.  The bowl sat on a pedestal and was quite heavy, but I managed to dislodge it.  I then tipped the pedestal over, not knowing what I might find there.  But there was nothing other than a stone slab, long since obscured by brambles and dead leaves.

“Probably laid here to act as a foundation to keep the pedestal from sinking into the soil,” I thought.  But when I tilted the pedestal back to its upright position, there was a hollow ring.  The slab appeared not to be lying on solid ground!  Fearing that I might be on a fool’s errand, I went to the utility shed, fetched a crowbar, and returned to the garden.  The slab was covered with debris, and I decided to sweep it clear before trying to pry it up.  Much to my surprise, I found the initials “SS” and “AA” carved in the surface.  It didn’t take long for my lawyer’s mind to put the names “Sophie Schuster” and “Aldous Andrews” together with the initials.  Could the slab be the cover for their crypt?

I debated whether or not to summon the police.  But I decided to forge ahead.  I pried one end of the slab up, and the whole thing slid along a couple of inches.  With pounding heart I pried the lid from the side and gazed with wide eyes of wonder at the shallow compartment beneath it.  Laid out side by side were two skeletons, one dressed in an elegant dress from a bygone era, and the other in a tuxedo.  Each skull had a small, round hole in it, right between the eye sockets.  Gingerly I felt the sleeves of the tuxedo.  There was a bone in the right sleeve, but the other was empty.  Lying on the breast of the skeleton in the elegant dress was a weathered piece of parchment paper.  On it, in masculine handwriting, were the words, “I loved you both.  You broke my heart.”

Stunned, I stared at the scene before me.  Feelings of sadness and, yes, of embarrassment swept through me.  How had it happened?  Had Angus caught them in bed together?  Or had they confessed their love and intention to leave in his den?  Were they awake when they were shot?  Or were they asleep, perhaps gently locked in a lovers’ embrace?  Did they beg for their lives?  Or for that matter did crazy Estelle do the deed?  Only the walls seemed to have the answers now, and thankfully they weren’t talking to me.

Carefully I replaced the paper and slid the slab back into position.  I scattered leaves upon it and re-set the fountain in place.  My aged mother and her surviving friends would go to their final rest still thinking that Sophie and Aldous, two star-crossed lovers, had melted into the night those many years ago. 

“Rest in peace,” I murmured, resting my hand on the old fountain’s lip.  I would never set foot in the rose garden again.  And you, dear reader, are sharing these words now because I too am deceased.  It is a story as old as mankind itself.  Perhaps not such a big deal now.  But in those days men (and women) lived by a different code --- a fact all too clear to those who, like me and now you, know the secret of The Elms.