This old chestnut was whispered conspiratorially across the counter of the old General Store just up the county road by the owner, Dot Perkins, when Ms. Smith-Jones had stopped in for a gallon of milk and sundries. “There was that sadness,” continued Dot, “about poor Mrs. Webster lost out in the snow—and her infant child as well.” Dot shook her head. “What that poor thing was doing out on Christmas Eve in a blizzard, and with her baby …” She let the dreadful vision hang in the humid air of an early July heat wave. “They never found the wee thing, you know, only its poor mother. They buried her in the village churchyard.” Dot pointed up the county road.
Ms. Smith-Jones listened in fascinated horror. She shivered, despite the suffocating heat in the un-air-conditioned store. “Do you mean old Mr. Webster’s wife, Mrs. Ernest Webster?” Poor man! Could such a thing happen nowadays? Ms. Smith-Jones suddenly wondered if that could explain why the Old Webster Place had been on the market for so long without a single nibble, the result of local notoriety. Up until that moment she would have said it had simply been waiting for them to arrive.
“Mr. Ernest Webster?” Dot laughed out loud. “Not him! He never married. No I’m talking about young Sarah, wife to Joseph Webster, him that built the old place. The first Mrs. Webster. O’course, Joseph remarried afterward.”
“You mean it happened two hundred years ago?” replied Ms. Smith-Jones, resetting her original theory regarding their finding the Old Webster Place.
“Two hundred was it now? Well, let me see,” murmured Dot, pausing to make a calculation in her head. “No, two hundred and twenty five years come this Christmas Eve.” The old cash register drawer dinged open and Dot pushed it shut. “That will be eighteen dollars and fifty five cents—credit or debit?”
Ms. Smith-Jones swiped her card.
Along with its owner, the General Store displayed a jarring and wildly relaxed approach to time, past and present, where a pizza oven and credit card machine comingled with original tin ceiling tiles, hand hewn beams, and an old fire bell attached outside the screen door that Dot assured Ms. Smith-Jones had rung at least the one time when fire had broken out in the Old Webster Place, leaving no more damage, it was hoped, than the charred tree trunk in the cellar.
A similar melding of then and now seemed to define the character of the Old Webster Place, as if time were a malleable substance that could be squashed and stretched at will. The Smith-Joneses themselves were determined to do just that, to roll back time and restore harmony and life to the old house that had been left to go to seed for too, too long.
Oddly enough, the oldest part of the house, the old dining room and entryway, which predated the Revolutionary War, had avoided the ravages of time, fire, and whimsy. It was small, but beautifully proportioned, low ceilinged, and dark with only one small window looking out to the yard. The walls were painted to simulate wood-grain, which was typical of the period, and original. On the north side of the almost square room was a large fieldstone fireplace rising from the floor to a thick wooden mantle. The old room glowed with the artistry of its hand-painted paneling, preserved like a beloved antique, protected but untouched, and it was this room that had spoken directly to Ms. Smith-Jones, the heart of the home, the soul of it, which she silently vowed to cherish and protect.
When the sale was finalized, a local contractor, well respected for restoring other older homes in the village, was interviewed and a budget was drawn up for essential repairs. He could begin right away and promised to do his best to complete the work on the house before Christmas. It was an ambitious timeline, he warned, but he would try. And Ms. Smith-Jones requested that protective tarps be hung over the antique paneling in the dining room and the fireplace mantle with the built-in settles to either side.
“Just cover over everything in the dining room,” she said, mentioning again about the preciousness artistry of this original feature in the home.
The contractor nodded as if he received requests like this every day of the week. They all shook hands and work on the Old Webster Place commenced.
The Old Webster Place, which had settled into a quietude of Rip-Van-Winklean proportions, where even the dust lay as if asleep on the edges of framed photographs, old table and chairs, and the moth-nibbled fibers of the faded rugs that had long ago shifted off-square on the wide plank floors, now suddenly woke to the activity of workmen and noise and carpentry dust made airborne by the whiz of circular saws and the pneumonic bursts of nail guns. And Ms Smith-Jones, on her weekly walk through the worksite, would always stop in the antique dining room covered floor to ceiling in blue tarp and sit on a low wooden sawhorse provided by one of the workmen. There was a feeling in the room, something she could not put her finger on, but each visit brought to mind, again, that long ago event of the lost mother, buried in the village churchyard, and her child who was never found.