A House in Miller's Ledge
one were to travel three days by buggy from Green Hills, you would
arrive at the quiet little village of Miller’s Ledge. Upon
approach you would notice the graceful steeple of the town church
standing tall and white, a beacon like a landlocked lighthouse. You
would also pass by the shops along its main road and the whitewashed,
picket fences of its neat houses. Perhaps you would pause on the
green to refresh your horse from the cool well and enjoy a freshly
baked mince tart from Martha’s Bakery in the shade of a sheltering
elm tree. Resting on the soft grasses you would think that, if one
were searching for a place to call Eden then surely Miller’s Ledge
would be a likely suitor.
Alas, dear friend, surfaces can be deceiving and one does not have to scratch too deep to discover the serpent here.
Direct your attention now to a rough and overgrown path that leads away from the pleasantness of the green. If you could convince your horse to venture forth, you’d find the road rutted, uneven, the trees alongside spilling over and casting deep shadows on the weeds that sprouted untamed. Perched overhead like sentries, ravens sit silently in the branches waiting to swoop down with great, dark wings upon any trespassers. The wind, which clings low to the ground and hisses around the trunks, carries with it a subtle acrid scent that makes the nose twitch and raises gooseflesh on even summer days.
It would soon become obvious that few, if any, venture down this trail and you would be wise to turn about and follow their lead.
For if you were to continue, you would come to a simple small house, proudly keeping up its front while Mother Nature tries to reclaim it. Its walls are white with dark green shutters and a front door of plum. The paint has started to peel off its clapboard sides, the roofline sags slightly in the middle and the shutters no longer hang square. A small awning over the front door now rests upon one post and the fence that once encircled it has fallen in places.
Despite its unassuming appearance, though, the house has a sinister history that makes it a place to be avoided. So much so that the townspeople cannot even bring themselves to venture onto the land to destroy it, to burn its evil from their midst. Rather it looms down the dark road as an unwelcome landmark.
For the house once belonged to one Phineas Cooper who had arrived by carriage on a fine spring day in 1837. The driver had stopped for provisions and Phineas stepped out of the cramped coach to stretch his frame. He was tall, solidly built and carried himself with the manner of a gentleman. His light, brown hair was swept back into a small knot tied by a red ribbon and accentuated his sharp features. Though he was but 27 upon his arrival he had experienced enough of the world to have grown weary of its headlong pace. His dark eyes swept around the sweet pleasantness he had found and concluded that it would be a fine place to settle himself.
He first took up residence with Pastor Bellow and helped him around the church. Phineas began doing small carpentry jobs in exchange for the room and displayed a natural skill with his hands. It was not long before he began taking on larger tasks, removing the pews and refashioning them with ornate carvings and details.
A row would vanish after Sunday service and return for Wednesday’s with biblical scenes carved into the ends and all along the back edge of the seat were visions of the sufferings in Hell. Tortured souls cowering under a whip or toiling under the millstone of their sins, waist deep in the lake of fire. Whilst kneeling and praying or listening to Pastor Bellow, the flock could gaze upon the punishments of sinners and reflect upon their own shortcomings. So powerful was Phineas’ skill that rarely did a service pass by without someone feeling such great a weight of guilt that they needed to bolt up and testify before their neighbors and The Lord Almighty.
Phineas’ reputation as a skilled woodworker grew and soon he was sought out for projects all over the county. He also found himself the attention of many of the ladies of the county. Often times, he would find a basket of currant scones or fiddlehead pies outside his woodshed, courtesy of the mother of some eligible young lady with perhaps an invite to Sunday dinner. More often than not, he would accept and rave over the meal and he was considered all around to be a delightful dinner companion. However, the young lady to whom he was being steered would inevitably fail to catch his fancy.
Some were too thin or some were too plump, some did not giggle at just the right moment or with just the right tinkle to please his ear. He cared not whether some were brunette or raven-haired and even Mrs. Bellow's red-headed niece, who visited with them for a day, failed to stir any interest from Phineas. The status of the family, too, played no role in those whose company he chose to spend time with, enjoying the attentions of both prominent families and those that lived on the fringes of the town.
His manner, though light and gay, disguised a heart he kept closed.
Until the night he saw Miss Emily Green.
Master Green owned a spread of rolling land that had produced prize winning black gillyflower apples at every grange fair for the last fifty years and a stable of horses esteemed for their strength and temperament. Though not the wealthiest of families, they moved in those circles and their daughter was much in demand. Many suitors tried to win her hand, for not only was her family well placed but Emily was fair of face and refined in manner, yet none had seemed to be able to win her attention.
Phineas saw her at a church social and was immediately smitten. His eyes locked onto her profile as she sat within a protective circle of admirers She sipped daintily at her cider, taking delicate bites from her sugar cake and demurred from a tray of sweets. When she danced, she seemed to glide just inches above the floor with such poise that all the others faded into the shadows. Her slender nose wrinkled slightly as she giggled into her gloved hand and her cheeks flushed.
He tried casting glances her way in hopes of catching her eye but he seemed to always be too late or look away too soon. As the night ended and people headed back to their homes, he found himself making the rounds and saying his ‘good nights’ until he came to the table at which sat the object of his new found affection.
After introductions and pleasantries, Mrs. Green complimented him on his work at church and said that she was in need of a new sideboard as their current one was much too small for their ever expanding holiday fare.
“Perhaps I could stop by day after next to see what you have and what might work best for you?” he suggested, knowing full and well that it would be Sunday and a delicious meal could be in the offering which would afford him a greater opportunity to impress himself upon Miss Emily.
“If we’re not careful, the sideboard will not be the only thing to be expanding this holiday,” Mr. Green said jovially as he patted his midsection. “My Madeline makes some the finest apple pies you’ll have ever tasted Mr. Cooper.”
Phineas nodded knowingly and looked down at his own belly. He slid his gaze over Emily’s face though she pointedly ignored him, brushing away a nonexistent wrinkle in her dress. She was younger than he by perhaps ten years and her features even more pleasing up close. Her hair was golden and fine, her eyes were a deepest blue, lips slightly pouting and just a touch of rouge on her pale cheeks.
“I look forward to trying one of your blue ribbon pies, Mrs. Green.” He smiled genially, fixing his eyes on her and not her daughter.
With great anticipation on his part, he left the meeting hall and hastened back to his room at Pastor Bellow’s to make his plan to win fair Emily’s heart.
Please remind yourself that Phineas Cooper had never felt such as he felt that night. His heart had finally softened and thoughts of Emily now raced about his mind. His fingers even trembled in nervousness as buttoned his nightshirt, thinking of a future with Emily.
‘Men plan and the Lord laughs’ is an old saying and never was it truer than in the case of Phineas Cooper and his Emily Green. For all the envisioning that Phineas did, it seemed that there were other plans in store and they did not include his winning Miss Emily’s affections.
Phineas arrived at the appointed hour and was given ample time to stir her interest. He rolled up his sleeves to move the heavy sideboard easily then measured the space with his folding rule. At the dining table, he ably calculated the measurements in his head, promoting to the Greens that he was an educated man. Over cool tea, he commented favorably on the Green’s collection of books and noted quite loudly the ones that he had read.
He was, as always, a perfect gentleman and more than charmed Mr. and Mrs. Green. Still, Emily remained cordial yet aloof towards him and were Phineas not so besotted he would have seen that she did not share his feelings.
He was not to be rebuffed, however, and when he returned to show Mrs. Green his plan for the new sideboard he was as solicitous and gentlemanly towards Emily as he could be. A few days later he returned to deliver an empty pie plate that Mrs. Green had insisted he take away when it was still full and he took a cool drink with Emily on the porch. He tried to engage her into conversation but she only politely answered his inquiries and there was much silence on her side. She remained unmoved and, though other men may have despaired by now, Phineas was far too smitten.
At last the sideboard was delivered and he was invited to join them for dinner. At this point, his interest in Emily was quite apparent to the Greens and his manners and skill at his profession seemed to have overcome his lack of money in their eyes. The only thing lacking was Emily and he was at a loss as to how he could turn her heart.
Perhaps if he had gone straight back to the room that night, he would have slept fitfully yet come to his senses in the morning and eventually accepted Emily’s rejection. But he did not, instead he rode out to the clearing beyond the woods and paused under the pale moonlight to think.
The thoughts were not good.
He questioned The Lord and muttered a curse to fate. He felt deserving of rewards for his services at the church but all he felt now was mocking indifference. He strode in broad circles around his horse, mumbling about the unfairness of his mortal life. He cried out an offering to the whole world in exchange for Emily’s affection.
A stranger appeared then, a hideous lump of a man in a soot black cloak and wide brimmed, tall hat. He seemed to have stepped from the woods and stood silently watching Phineas’ rant. After a moment he tapped the gnarled stick that he carried in one hand lightly on the ground and thunder rolled across the night sky, startling the birds from the trees. Their screeches cutting through the night as they swirled, a dark cloud in a dark sky.
Phineas’ horse looked up startled and stared hard with widened eyes. With a defensive snort, its nostrils flared and its lips curled back at the stranger then bolted away, reins flapping behind it as it vanished down the path back to town. The thunder rumbled away, the birds fled and the hoof beats faded, the clearing was calm again.
“Phineas Cooper,” the stranger said in a soft tone.
“I am he,” he tried to say bravely, for he was not one that was easily frightened. “Who might you be that sneaks upon a man in his private moments.”
Had only Phineas been afraid, dear ones, the story would end here. Such was not to be, sadly Phineas was a proud man and stood his ground, waiting for the stranger to answer him.
“I am the one to whom you called for tonight, the one that can deliver your Emily’s heart to you.”
“Are you here to tempt me?”
The stranger smiled, “I am,” he answered boldly. He tucked the stick under his arm and moved with an exaggerated limp across clearing. “I am here, because I heard your pleas.”
“Do not toy with me, sir,” Phineas warned. “I have no patience for it this night.”
“I play no games, I come to make a deal, to offer my services and to remedy the woefulness of your soul.”
“A bargain with the Devil is no bargain at all.”
The stranger seemed taken aback. “You call me a demon? Have I given you any reason to draw such a conclusion?”
Phineas sized him up and down in the moonlight and reasoned, most unwisely, that a demon would surely assume a more pleasing appearance. “A wizard perhaps? Sorcerer?”
The stranger shrugged his lump of shoulders, “just a man with a gift who wishes to help,” he paused, “for a price.”
“What price might that be?”
He stroked his chin. “What price would be worth Miss Emily? What is the value of affection?” He watched Phineas closely and fearing he might waver he prodded him further, “Rather, what is the price to not have her? To blindly follow along with whatever fate has decreed for you?” He paused a moment to let Phineas consider a life alone. “Perhaps she is not worth a price?”
“She is worth a king’s crown.”
“Then perhaps we can strike a deal?”
Oh, again dear listener, I wish that I could change what happened next and tell a tale of natural happiness but Phineas and the stranger sat and talked in the center of the clearing under the pale light of the full moon and before the cock crowed to herald the encroaching dawn they had come to an arrangement.
Phineas did not sleep when he finally returned to Pastor Bellow’s instead he quickly gathered all the monies he had earned and saved and ventured out to the home of Judge Plinth. The judge owned the aforementioned house on the lane leading out of town but he had since moved on to a much larger piece of property and less humble home. He sold the house to Phineas that very morning.
Clutching the deed, he marched out to the Greens house and boldly called upon Miss Emily without pretense. Upon sight of him, before she had even stepped out onto the porch, her heart suddenly skipped for a moment. Her father stepped out first, perhaps to dissuade him but Phineas insisted. With reluctance, for he believed that Emily did not love Phineas, Mr. Green gave his blessing if she were to say yes.
Emily stepped out shyly onto the porch and Phineas dropped to one knee. “Miss Emily Green I am not one who is good with flowery phrases so I’ll simply ask if you would you do the me the honor of becoming my bride?”
Before he could reach into his waistcoat to procure the ring he had within she grabbed his hand. “Yes, Master Cooper, I would be honored to do so,“ she giggled happily.
Mr. and Mrs. Green looked at each other dumbstruck but they could not deny their ears.
The town was atwitter for weeks after as Phineas set about preparing the house and Emily preparing herself. A date was chosen and the ladies of the village began making her gown, crafting a shawl and bodice from the finest white velvet and cream lace in the county. Phineas, too, was hard at work preparing the house, building furniture and clearing out nests of wild creatures that had taken up residence.
So caught up in his work and his plans was Phineas that he forgot all about the stranger and their agreement and that Emily had even been bewitched. He came to believe that she truly loved him and that belief whispered to him, keeping him blindly happy.
The day came, the weather was perfect, the ceremony was beautiful and it seemed as though it was truly a blessed day. Phineas had never been happier as he and Emily shared their first kiss and then walked hand in hand down the aisle. They retired to the Green’s home to receive the congratulations of friends and neighbors. The afternoon wore into the night and lanterns came out, lighting the dusk.
Mr. Green brought out bottles of wine he had purchased in Virginia as the fiddler began another round of music. The dancers circled around under the stars, moving for the enjoyment of the wedding party. Toasts were raised and the night was without care or worry.
Phineas’ new bride grew tired soon, faint with the excitement of the day and they eventually excused themselves. A carriage awaited them and to the hurrahs of the attendees, they rumbled off into the night.
They waved to the carriage driver as he rode away, leaving them on the stoop of Phineas’ freshly prepared house. He opened the door and lifted her in his arms, carrying her across the threshold.
“Where have you been?” demanded a voice in the dark and a candle suddenly flamed to life on the hearth.
Sitting on a hard stool in the corner was the stranger. He leaned forward on his gnarled stick and scowled at the groom and his bride. Emily’s eyes widened and she clutched close to Phineas. Phineas’ eyes also widened though not in shock but in sudden remembrance.
“What are you doing here?” Phineas hissed.
“Waiting for you,” the stranger said in disgust. “A long time have I been sitting here, too.”
“Who-,” Emily stuttered, “who is this man?”
The stranger chuckled and it was deep and ominous. “Have you forgotten our agreement, Phineas Cooper? She is indeed worthy of a king’s crown.”
“Don’t you dare to look at her that way, fiend. I refuse to honor our bargain.” Phineas stepped forward, putting himself between Emily and the leering stranger.
The stranger stood now, pointing a crooked, accusing finger at them, “in exchange for her heart, I get to spend your wedding night with her. That was the deal, do not deny it now.”
“I made no such abomination,” Phineas shut his eyes tightly and shook his head to refuse the thought.
“Phineas!” Emily called out, “what is he saying?” In breaking the deal, the spell was now broken and Emily looked around in confused terror at the house and the gnome-like stranger. “What have you done?”
“He sold you in order to own you,” the stranger cackled and took a step forward. “Now he has broken our deal and I’m claiming his bride as my own!”
Who cried out cannot be said, for all voices were jumbled but there was a struggle as the stranger reached out and Emily shrank back and Phineas struck. The stranger’s aspect transformed, standing tall and straight and looming over them, his lumpish shape having melted away. His head brushed just inches from the ceiling beams, his black eyes glittered like polished coal and a wicked smile curled the corners of his mouth.
Emily, the poor foolish girl, tried to run but her beautiful gown wrapped itself around her legs and she fell to the floor at the stranger’s feet. She tried scooting back but his hand ensnared her wrist and pulled her up. Sobbing in abject terror, her once white dress was now besmirched with dust and grime and tears.
“Release her!” Phineas roared grabbing her other wrist.
The stranger, now hearty and hale, planted his feet and tugged. His unnatural strength caught Phineas by surprise, unbalancing him. Phineas tried to find purchase on the newly finished floor but his fancy boots slid him forward.
The stranger’s eyes glowed an angry red. “Give her to me,” he insisted and waved his stick at him as it transformed into staff of highly polished ebony wood. “You’ve broken the deal now pay the price.”
“Never! I’ll pursue you into the pit, if need be!” his feet slid further.
“Then so be it!” The stranger swung his staff down upon Emily’s arm. “I’ll leave you something to remember her by, though.”
Phineas fell back now, hitting the floorboards with a surprised grunt. In his hands he still held Emily’s arm but it had been severed at the elbow. He looked up and saw the stranger and Emily, his beloved Emily, stepping through a portal that had opened in the middle of the room. Emily was slumped in the stranger’s arm, eyes shut, pale cheeks even paler and once ruby lips parted and blanched.
“We’ll see you soon enough,“ the stranger mocked before the portal squeezed itself down to a dot of darkness then winked out.
They found him in the morning.
Pastor Bellow had come down to offer them a morning blessing and some breads from one of his parishioners’ and received no answer to his knocking. He stepped around to peer though one of the windows and spied the signs of a struggle. Furnishings toppled, the rug askew and blood on the floor. Trying the handle, the door opened and inside he found poor Emily’s forearm laying lovingly on a pillow. From the rafters of the ceiling Phineas swung, having hung himself in order to follow his bride down to the brimstone pits.
Rumors of what happened in the house quickly ran rampant around the county. Pastor Bellow tried to cleanse the house but still refused to venture down the road. The house itself was shuttered and shunned thereafter.
If you should happen upon the town, though, visit the church and take a moment to bend a knee. Say a prayer for foolish Phineas Cooper and his poor bride Emily, bow your head for their mortal souls. If you look closely at the back of your pew, perhaps you shall see them, carved in beautiful relief, suffering at the hands of the stranger.