My Annual Ghost story, part of it passed down from Cousin Nancy, mixed with a story from my newspaper days. Pull your chair up to the fire, set your hot apple cider on the table, wrap the quilt around your shoulders. You wouldn’t want an unthinking draft to create a chill:
“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place” ~ Emily Dickenson
The October day blustered its way to a stormy evening. It was hard to tell what element bullied more – the wind or the rain spitting at anything in its way. Baschum Sluckert slid down the wet oak tree, answering the coded call of Snuff Sparks.
Soggy leaves muffled their footsteps as they maneuvered through blackness down Boonesborough Road to the dilapidated manor house – their courage looking less promising with each wet step.
What could cause two 12-year-old boys to wander about on not just a forsaken, chilled night but All Souls’ night? A time it was whispered that all restless souls of evil character roamed free by the devil’s own decree until the saints sent them packing back to the netherworld the following sunrise?
Only a dare, of course.
Adley Bancroft, with his overly large head and punishing fists, had taunted them in nursery rhyme sneer that they weren’t men – they were just girls in boy pants needing their mamas to kiss their booboos and hold their hands.
Baschum and Snuff mustered up enough courage to be baited – and here they were. On their way to the abandoned Clay mansion up the road. Back in their grandpa’s day, it had been a real showplace housing Cassius Clay, the notorious Lion of White Hall. Why, he had wrestled in political arenas from Russia to Kentucky. He’d even wrestled the women folk in his home who wanted the right to vote. So word said, he’d kicked them out, like an annoying cat.
Adley’s ma and pa used the house now to strip tobacco in November and store hay through the winter. Adley’s ma had found a statue, stuffed in a piano topped with salt licks for storage. The statue was a bust of old Cassius himself – and that’s what Adley had taunted them into taking. Not just taking it, though. That would be too easy. They had to stay until sunrise.
Not a soul would be there. Adley promised. At least, not a living one, he had snickered.
Snuff, breaking the quiet as they walked up the lane to the house, adjusted his back sack carrying a blanket and some marshmallows. He asked “D’you believe in ghosts, Baschum?”
“’Course not,” Baschum answered, his courage insulted. Sluckerts don’t get scared – he’d been taught that all this life. At least, not the smart ones. “Besides, no ghost’s gonna bother me, even if’n that old Cassius himself steps out on that porch packin’ a rifle. No misty piece of air’s gonna best me.”
“Adley said he locked his 14-year-old wife into his tie room, so she wouldn’t run away,” Snuff said.
“Don’t listen to nothing Adley says, Snuff. Hes just tryin’ to get your dander in an uproar.”
“Adley said she jumped out of the window and some man on a horse carried her away. Otherwise, she would’ve starved in that room.”
“She wouldn’t have, Snuff,” Baschum said, sticking his sweaty palms deeper into the pockets of his overalls, trying to stare down the white full moon. The moon had an unfair advantage; it never blinked. Sighing, he gave up, turning to see Snuff pointing frantically to the house.
“What’s th-that?” Snuff’s whispered.
A light blazed in an oval window, then vanished.
“That’s the room he kept her in Baschum. Adley said so,” Snuff reasoned.
“Now don’t let Adley go putting that fear in your head. He don’t know beans with his head in the bag. It was probably just him tryin’ to scare us,” Baschum calmly assured Snuff, albeit in a voice an octave higher.
Tugging Snuff’s arm, they moved up the brick sidewalk to the porch. Rattling the door knob, the door opened easily. Earlier that day, they had gathered kindling for a fire in the hearth and cased the house to dispel any unwonted fears.
‘Anybody home?” Baschum called warily. Black silence answered. “C’mon, Snuff.”
‘Two hours later they were wrapped in blankets, roasting marshmallows in the front parlor.
“See. There’s nothin’ to be frightened of Snuff. Nothin’ here but us chickens,” Baschum laughed, his giggles rolling to echo beyond the parlor.
Suddenly, Baschum stopped laughing.
Chills shimmied up Baschum’s spine as the door beyond them creaked like leather. His heart juggled up his throat. Something rubbed against his back.
In disgust, Baschum spit into the fire. Snuff spit. The cat spit, too.
The cat looked at Snuff. Snuff looked at Baschum, and Baschum looked at the cat.
“I don’t like this none,” Snuff whispered, his blue eyes wide as a meat dish.
“It’s just a cat,” Baschum said, bravado filling his voice.
“A black cat,” Snuff reminded in a hoarse whisper.
Baschum boldly picked up the cat, walked to the front door by the stairs, and threw the cat out.
Shutting the door, he turned around to the sound of furniture scraping across the upstairs floor and what-knots falling.
“It’s just Adley?” Snuff asked, hopefully.
Baschum didn’t say anything, just sat back down, pulling his blanket tight about. The only thing upstairs that afternoon had been hay.
When nothing else happened, both boys stretched out, falling into a chilly doze. Quiet – a heavy quiet resounded within. The fire crackled comfortingly.
Snuff sleepily opened his eyes – to look directly into a pair of yellow-green eyes. Hypnotic yellow-green eyes.
Baschum looked at the cat. The cat looked at Snuff, and Snuff looked at Baschum.
The cat turned to the fire – and spit into the burning embers, causing it to hiss.
Baschum grabbed the cat, stomped to the door, opened it and tossed the cat into the spitting, blustery wind of the night.
A door slammed within the bowels of the house. Snuff lurched for the poker by the hearth as Baschum turned to look up the stairs.
Violin music wafted softly from the darkness above.
“C’mon Snuff. We’re gonna give Adley the what for.”
Moving quietly, they climbed the stairs. At the landing, they listened at each door, trying to catch Adley. A pounding, thump, thump, thumping drew them to a room they had noticed early that afternoon. A room trimmed in blue.
“One, two, three,” Baschum whispered before both boys slammed open the door. No Adley. Just emptiness and a violin without strings.
“He must’ left somehow,” Baschum reasoned, not quite believing it himself.
Shoulder to shoulder in fright they walked back downstairs, practically holding their breath.
“Let’s just get that bust and leave,” Snuff offered. “I’ve had enough of this place.”
Sniffing, Baschum agreed. “It’s in what used to be the dining room. At least that’s what Adley said.”
Walking carefully, quietly, they moved through the house until they came to a room used for stripping tobacco.
In a corner was a chipped, dusty bust of Cassius Clay.
Picking it up, they headed back to the parlor.
Looking into the room, they saw a little boy peering vacantly into the fire. They blinked. And he was gone.
“I don’t like this Baschum. I say let’s get out of here,” Snuff said shakily.
Rolling up their blankets, they started to leave when out of the corner of their eye, they watched a black cat move to sit in front of the fire. “Mmmmerrrrrrr,” the cat growled looking at them, seeming to tell them to get out. Then the cat turned, spitting into the fire.
Screaming, Baschum and Snuff took off running, Snuff carrying the bust.
As they ran down the driveway, they saw a light flicker in the tie closet window above. Horse’s hooves clopped, gaining speed as it neared.
Snuff dropped the bust. A piercing keening sound echoed behind them as the head severed from the base, rolling to land by the gates.
Reaching, searching in pitch black night, Baschum grabbed what he could and ran. By Jove, he was not going to let Adley and the others think he had failed. The base was better than nothing, and he just did not have the time nor the courage left for both.
There is a bust of Cassius clay, the notorious Lion of White Hall, having been knocked off its base and reset.
Ghosts? Even today it is whispered that footsteps can be heard on the staircase, doors mysteriously slam and a light appears in the tie closet of Cassius Clay.
A great ambassador who fought for the emancipation of slaves, he was also the father of Laura Clay who fought for women’s rights alongside Susan B. Anthony. She was the first woman ever to be nominated by a political party (1920 Democratic National Convention) for president of the United States.
I collected information on White Hall State Shrine in 1984 for a Haunted House Series written for The Richmond Daily Register. The Lion of White Hall was written shortly after.
The black cats were handed down from “Cousin Nancy,” my grandmother’s paternal aunt, Nancy Wills Chenault. When Cousin Nancy came to visit (the last time was when I was 6 years old), everybody waited with great anticipation for her storytelling. They would turn off the lights, light a fire in the big fireplace – and settle in. I only remember 3 black cats spitting in the fire. 3 black cats without a story – is just a story waiting to be told. I hope Cousin Nancy would like the home I found for them.
Ghosty stories are great fun – at least the old-fashioned kind where it’s all really just a matter of mind over matter – or maybe faith over mind over matter. Often, what instills our fear is trumped-up worry, where things on the outside become stronger than things on the inside. Poor Baschum and Snuff – they were sneaking around, going places they shouldn’t – and the vapors of that behavior created a ghosty story – out of thin air.
Growing up in an over 200 year old house, I finally decided that God wouldn’t allow a ghost to scare me to death – and so everytime I climbed upstairs at night, in the seemingly ancient dark, He walked with me, my shield, my fortress and my deliverer – in the tangible and in the mind over matter.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Dueteronomy 31:6)
Of course, it helps if you’re not sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night trying to steal the bust of the Lion of White Hall in an abandoned house.