It sprang at me from behind thick vines tangled in trees that rose into the thickening fog. I braked, mesmerized by the limited view, and ticked off the reasons why I would be insane to leave the safety of my car on this isolated road and plunge into the abyss of foliage. Yet, without considering anything beyond the need to take it all in, I slipped my .38 from my purse, tucked it into the back of my jeans, and plowed my way toward the ruins of the house.
Huge, intricately-carved capitals still relatively intact topped the twelve Corinthian columns spiraling higher than some of the trees, and a damp, musky smell emanated from the gaping wounds of the paneless windows beyond the bricked porch. A sudden fluttering of wings broke the silence, startling me as half a dozen birds disgorged themselves from beneath the nearly collapsed roof at one end of the porch.
Shadows unrelieved by the late afternoon sun wrapped the crumbling structure like a gentleman’s opera cape. “You are magnificent,” I said aloud, enunciating each syllable. “Totally magnificent.”
“One hundred years ago, she was more than that.”
My fingers crawled automatically to my gun. I spun around but saw no one. “Who’s there?”
A man of indeterminate age slid from behind a massive oak, his lean body braced on a single elbow crutch. Unwillingly, I let my eyes slide down his wrinkled khaki pants and glimpsed the gleam of a steel brace barely visible beneath them.
“Who are you?”
“The keeper of the keys, so to speak, although no one’s needed keys to go inside in fifty years.”
“You’re the caretaker? I apologize for trespassing.”
“Yes and no, and you aren’t really.”
“Well, which is it?” I regretted the irritation in my voice.
“I’m not the official caretaker, only a spurned admirer of the old lady. And the property, while private, isn’t designated as such.”
My hand dropped away from the cold steel pressing against the small of my back.
“You carry,” he observed in a neutral voice.
“Don’t you feel the need of a little protection in this isolated place?”
“No. What am I going to shoot? Mosquitoes?”
“Snakes. That’s why I brought this with me when I decided to explore.”
“They’d see you before you’d see them. Care to sit down and continue this conversation?”
“Is this a step-into-my-parlor invitation?”
His pleasant laugh broke down the last of my reserves. “I’m afraid that’s not a good choice. How about the steps? They’re solid enough.”
He limped past me and lowered himself onto the second-to-bottom broad brick step. I joined him there but at the opposite end, and let myself look directly at his face. He wasn’t the handsomest man around, but something about the dark eyes set deeply into a relaxed face in need of a shave caught my interest.
He laid his crutch aside. “How did you hear about Bel Rêverie?”
“I just saw it from the road.”
“You have a sharp eye then. Most people don’t even know it’s here.”
“I always take back roads and watch for interesting places.”
“Back roads aren’t always safe for a young lady.” He smiled, displaying an honest sweetness I’d rarely seen in a man. “But then, you carry.”
I started to retort but decided maybe he wasn’t really making fun of me after all. “Bel Rêverie, you said. What does that mean?”
“It’s French for beautiful dream. And that’s what it was—a dream. A beautiful, transient dream.”
“You’ll have to explain more.”
“The Fournier family came to Mississippi from North Carolina in 1847, settled this land, and built the middle wing of the house. Their eldest son Emile went back to Abercrombie County in 1855 and married Giselle Moreau. The two families had immigrated from France together in late eighteenth century after the American Revolution, although Emile and Giselle were born in America. Anyway, when Emile returned with his bride, he added a third story to the house and built the two side wings. Gisele designed the gardens.”
“You seem to know a lot about the history of this place, so I’m guessing you’re a descendant.”
“I’m Lane Forney. My grandfather anglicized the name Fournier in the thirties when he went into the real estate business. The first property he tried to sell was this one.”
“His family home? What was he thinking?”
“Literally out from under his own father who still lived there.”
“That’s inexcusable! Tell me it didn’t sell.”
“For a paltry sum. From Emile’s account books, which somehow survived the Civil War and a family who cared absolutely nothing for its own history, I figure building this place today would cost in the neighborhood of three million dollars. Of course, there was slave labor, which I’m ashamed to admit being connected to, and materials like clay for the brick were readily available. Forty-two rooms, thirty-one fireplaces, a detached kitchen, a conservatory, eighteen cabins, a blacksmith shop, smokehouse, ice house, and other outbuildings used for spinning and sewing. Not to forget the pest house.”
“Disease was rampant—yellow fever, typhoid, smallpox. Anyone who became ill was isolated until he got well or died. That reminds me—there’s a cemetery about a quarter of a mile behind the house. Emile’s parents were the first buried there, then three sisters and an infant brother. Gisele died giving birth to their second child, and eventually Emile ended up beside her. My line is from the sole surviving son, André.”
I tried to file away the facts he’d spit out so easily. “I’m beginning to smell a story here.”
“Only for a weekly newspaper, but I’ve got a few dreams which I intend to make come true. What about you?”
“Oh, I took over the real estate business from my father and grandfather. I’ve done rather well despite their concern I was only capable of dreaming about the family’s past glory and other things.”
I leaned my elbows on my knees and leaned forward. “What else do you dream about?”
“Restoring this old place.”
“It looks beyond help to me.”
“She has good bones.”
“Good bones. You talk about the house as if it’s human.”
“She was built to last. Being more or less off the beaten path, the Yankees missed her. Otherwise, they might’ve burned her, or she might’ve been vandalized after she was empty.”
“How much would it cost to restore...to fix her?”
“A lot. We’re talking period furnishings, too. But like I said, I’ve done well. I’ve put out feelers and had some favorable responses about grants and other financing.”
“Suppose you did it. Would you live here?”
His face creased into a broad grin. “Where else? And I’d open the house for tours. In her day, she saw a lot of people come across her threshold. My great-grandfather was the last to live here. In fact, he died in one of the upstairs rooms. That was after his son—my grandfather—tried to move him out so he could sell the place.” He winked at me. “They say he’s down in the cemetery, but I’m not sure he ever really left the house.”
“He haunts this place?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“I might have.” The man’s gentle smile morphed into a devilish grin.
“I’m not sure I believe in ghosts.”
“Well, you don’t have to.”
“Um...is he...um...friendly?” Without thinking, I glanced over my shoulder.
“If you are.”
I laughed then. “You’re pulling my leg!”
He wiggled his eyebrows. “Actually, that might be fun, but your honor is safe with me.” He winked. “For now.”
I couldn’t help laughing again.
“I told you my name, but all I know is that you’re a lovely phantom from the forest. Maybe you’re a ghost, too. I can see you in a hoop skirt and glittering jewels.”
“Sorry, I’m very real and only wear a dress on Sundays.”
He shook his head and let his mouth fall clown-like into sad lines. “What a disappointment.”
“I’m Annie Tolliver, originally from Greenville.”
“Is there a Mr. Tolliver?”
“No. Is there a Mrs. Forney?”
“Not yet.” He got to his feet with some difficulty and offered me a hand up. “Well, Annie Tolliver from Greenville, how about dinner tonight in Vicksburg? It’s just eleven miles up the road. Or do you have somewhere you need to be?”
His fingers still holding mine made answering difficult. “Not until I hear more about Bel Rêverie. I told you I smelled a story.”
He bowed from the waist like his great-great-grandfather might have done. “Then...shall we go, mademoiselle?”
“I’d be delighted, Monsieur Fournier.”