The construction in the Patton garden had begun the day before, under the heat of the mid-July sun. The old paving stones had been hauled away and the workers were standing around now, scratching their heads, considering the work that lay before them. They were supposed to be building a new deck and laying sod but the century-old building rubble that was now exposed brought them up short.
Could grass survive in these conditions?
They stood and considered it some more, and then went to work removing the top few inches, hoping to find earth below.
Several hours and two feet later, they were still working with unfertile sand mixed with pieces of brick, mortar, stone and the odd old rusty nail or hinge. They would need to remove more, and to bring in a large load of proper soil.
“Have you found anything interesting?” asked Cindy Patton from the doorway of the house, taking them a bit by surprise.
She stood there, her shoulder-length red hair hanging straight, her hands in her jeans pockets so that her t-shirted shoulders rose up almost to meet her ears. She wore no make-up, and no jewellery, and had an equally straightforward approach to life.
“Well, just rubble, old hinges, a few rather long rusty nails,” replied the foreman, Chris. “Not very interesting, more annoying than anything. What kind of interesting did you have in mind?”
“Something historical?” Cindy asked hopefully. Cindy was a writer facing a severe case of writer’s block. She was looking for a diversion from her frustration.
“No, we rarely find historical items when we work on houses – there have been so many home improvements all through the city that anything of historical interest has probably already been found, twenty or maybe even fifty years ago,” explained Chris, removing his hat and wiping his face with the back of his hand, the hot sun glinting off a small bald patch at the back of his head.
Seeing her disappointment, he continued, “Sometimes we find something creepy when we’re working right downtown, on commercial sites, but nothing really historical.”
Cindy pondered this for a moment, letting her imagination run. Creepy? She assumed he meant human bones, maybe a scull? That would indeed be more interesting than nothing at all, but it wasn’t really what she had in mind.
She knew her house had been built around the turn of the last century, 1905 or so, and she was hoping for clues about what had been there before that.
Cindy shrugged and returned to her attempts at writing, closing the door behind her.
Meanwhile, the contractors moved on to the construction of the deck, giving up on the soil and the sod for the moment. They removed the old steps up to the back door, hauling them out to the truck on the street. When they returned, they took a moment to admire the old stonework of the foundation.
As with many of the houses in the area built one hundred or so years ago, this house had an impressive foundation, built skillfully by old style stonemasons using high quality local stone. They just didn’t make houses like this anymore.
It was as they were turning around to start construction on the new deck that Chris noticed something sticking out of the corner of the foundation, down near the ground. It looked like the corner of a piece of paper. He wouldn’t have seen it except that the foundation seemed to be crumbling there slightly. It wasn’t crumbling anywhere else, but seemed to be falling away from the paper.
Using his finger, he carefully tried brushing the mortar away from the paper, hoping to wiggle it loose. It was no good. He didn’t want to make a mess of the foundation and he didn’t want to rip the paper. He was curious.
He went to the truck and, after rummaging around for a few minutes, returned with some masonry tools used for repointing brick and stonework. He spent some time poking and prodding at the mortar around the paper, while the others continued building the deck.
After an hour of working at the corner, he was able to chip enough of the mortar away so he could pry the piece of paper free. It was rolled up tightly, with just the one corner sticking out. It was amazing that he had seen it at all.
He would have to remember to patch up the mortar before the day was over.
When he unrolled the paper, still white from being so tightly encased all those years, he discovered that it was a piece of old newspaper. More specifically, a collection of want ads posted by a real estate agent on April 8, 1905. As he flattened the paper out, and peered closely at the old type, his eye was drawn to one ad in particular:
FOR SALE, four solid brick terrace dwellings in a row of five, by the River at Chester Road and John Street. Each house contains halls, parlor, dining room, summer and winter kitchens, 4 bedrooms, open plumbing, hot water attachments, concrete collars, furnace, electric fixtures, solid brick wall between each dwelling. Designed by architect Wallace Hugh, resident of no. 3 Chester Road.
This was an ad for this row of houses, it had to be. They were the only ones that fit the description. This piece of paper must have either been put into the mortar on purpose, or else somehow made its way there during construction. What were the chances?
He opened the door and called Cindy’s name.
“Mrs. Patton, if you have a second, you might want to look at this.”
Cindy appeared in the doorway a few moments later, happy to have an interruption.
“Mrs. Patton,” Chris started, “I’ve found something stuck in the bottom of the foundation, a piece of paper…”
Cindy eagerly reached for the paper Chris was holding out in his hand and scanned the text.
“Well, I’d say that’s pretty interesting, wouldn’t you?” she asked with a mischievous smile.
She followed Chris to the corner of the house, and crouched down to inspect the hole he had chipped in the foundation. Chris started to apologize for the hole, explaining he would of course patch it up, but she waved his apology away so that it died on his lips.
“Thank you,” said Cindy simply. And then she went inside and closed the door.
Chris removed his hat again and scratched his head, stood a moment considering the crumbled mortar, and then shrugged and went about fixing the mess he had made. He wasn’t sure what else he had expected. After all, it was only a piece of old paper. What more was there to do? He had handed it over to the owner of the house and would now get back to his work. He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts.
Inside, Cindy had first walked through the house, reading the description of the rooms in the paper as she went, and imagining where walls used to stand, where the summer and winter kitchen had been, imagining the house as it had been built. Then she retreated to her home office and set the paper down on the desk.
So, she thought, Wallace Hugh, an architect, had designed these houses and lived in one of them, and they were built in 1905, as the real estate agent had originally informed her and her husband.
This didn’t shed any more light on what was here before they were built, but it was an interesting piece of history. She would research the architect and see what she could find out about him, what other buildings in the city he had designed. Perhaps she would have this old piece of newsprint framed as a gift for her husband. They could hang it on the main floor and show it to friends when they came to visit.
It was as she was idly imagining the frame, the mounting, the dinner conversations that would ensue, that she happened to turn the paper over. Later, she would wonder why neither she nor Chris had thought to look on the other side of the paper when they first found it.
The newsprint itself detailed the results of a mayoral campaign and election, which had evidently taken place the previous day, April 7, 1905. It mentioned the re-election of Mayor Edward deVille and the speech he gave following the announcement of the results. It also mentioned that he was accompanied by his wife, Edith deVille, and described her attire in fascinating detail.
But this was only secondary to the handwriting. On the back of the newsprint, scrawled across the election story in elaborate, blue-inked cursive, was a note.
My Dearest WH,
I cannot get away for the next fortnight I fear. Please wait for word. We shall sail by night as planned. I promise.
Cindy read and re-read this message, her heart pounding furiously in her ears. Could this really mean what she thought it might? A secret lovers’ message? This was more than she could have hoped for. Interesting indeed!
It was only then that she scanned the article printed underneath the scrawling writing, gasping as she pieced together the significance of what she held in her hand. WH could only refer to Wallace Hugh; it was his house after all. She wondered, though, who the E was. Could it possibly have been Edith, the wife of the mayor? She scarcely dared to believe that something so momentous had been hidden in a corner of her house for more than a century.
Cindy spent the rest of the day researching.
First, she looked up “Wallace Hugh” and discovered that he had designed a number of important buildings around town, that he had been married and had two sons, and that he had died in his house, this very same house in which she lived, in 1917. That was an interesting piece of information, one that would be appreciated, she was sure, by their future dinner companions.
Next, she searched for information on Edith deVille. She didn’t find anything particularly illuminating as far as the present mystery was concerned. Edith had been a society lady, not necessarily beautiful but very young and stylish. In 1905 she had been 35, young for the wife of a 55-year-old mayor. Much of the information online described the clothes she wore while accompanying her husband to evening soirees attended by the elite of the day.
There was one interesting paragraph in a scanned copy of a September 1905 newspaper, though. It was in the society pages. It might have been nothing, but it did mention Edith taking to her bed with an unspecified illness on April 20, 1905, and not being seen about town for several months. Her husband had been forced, then, to attend events alone and, the paper reported, people were bemoaning the fact that he was attending far fewer events in her absence.
Cindy knew that Googling the mayor himself would yield too many results, and would likely lead her on a wild goose chase through stories of little interest to her. Instead, she looked up April 20, 1905 and the name of the city. This brought her to an online archive of various historical documents. She selected “Newspapers, books & directories” and was presented with over a hundred options. She was thrilled to find that all the newspapers of the day had been scanned and were available online. What a treasure trove of stories!
Wide-eyed, she began to scroll through those that came up as part of her search, not opening any, simply reading the two sentences that appeared for each listing.
One listing, at about number thirty in the search results, grabbed her attention. It began “…persistent rumours are in circulation that Edith deVille, wife of Mayor deVille…” Cindy clicked on it.
When it opened, she found that it had been rumoured at the time that Edith was not ill but had, in fact, been unfaithful to her husband and had, as a result of the rumours surfacing, gone into seclusion in her home.
There were several other articles from around the same date and they followed the same storyline, but they did not provide any additional information.
Cindy continued to read through the newspapers, day by day, scanning them for news of Edith. It seemed, as with all rumours, that with no new developments to fan the flames of public curiosity, the story died out and others took its place.
And then, the September 1905 paper that she had come across initially, reporting that Edith had recovered from her illness and was again to be seen about town. There was no mention of rumours or infidelity.
Cindy continued to scroll through the subsequent issues of the paper, but found nothing untoward, nothing out of the ordinary. Edith seemed to have picked up where she had left off as the stylish wife on the arm of the popular mayor.
Cindy wondered whether the rumours were simply a result of idle gossip filling in the blanks when the nature of Edith’s illness had not been publicized. But, a loud voice in her mind insisted, it was quite a coincidence that the illness coincided with the note “E” had written to “WH.”
She played out the events as she imagined them in her head. Edith and Wallace had been having an affair and had planned to run away together, by boat. Edward had been re-elected as mayor and Edith had to postpone their plans for a few weeks, while she accompanied her husband to the inevitable post-election society events. But she had intended to fulfill her promise to Wallace as soon as things returned to normal and she could “get away.”
But then someone, possibly Edward, maybe even Wallace’s wife, had discovered the lovers’ plans. Edith took to her bed – either with a broken heart or because she was forced to do so by Edward who meant to put an end to the affair – and Wallace hid the note in the foundation of the home that he was constructing for himself and his family – near to him but safe and securely hidden.
Perhaps the affair picked up again, perhaps not. There was no mention of it again, though. Neither Edith nor Wallace ran away, as both passed away still married to their spouses, still living in the same city. Wallace, as Cindy had read earlier, died in 1917. Edith, she discovered, died in 1944 at the age of 74. She had outlived her husband by 28 years; Edward died of a stroke at the age of 66 in 1916. It seemed she had never re-married.
Cindy, now sitting in the dark as night fell around her, was lost in thought as she imagined what Edith might have done during those 28 years. Was she reunited with Wallace in the year after Edward’s death, the year before Wallace himself died? Did she ever travel to their secret destination, walk through what would have been their new, anonymous life together?
Downstairs, the front door opened and then closed with a startling thud. Cindy awoke from her reverie and looked around her, rubbing her arms to warm them up. Her husband was home from work and it was time to get dinner going. She stood up, stretching her stiff legs and glanced at the computer screen before turning to leave the room. She thought she might have a story to tell now.
Tomorrow, she would thank Chris properly and show him what she had discovered on the back of their artifact.