(the strange case of a Miss Jay)

Some things in life are not easily explained, but, our human minds being what they are, they seem to need to have explanations anyway, usually as examples of either the miraculous, or the supernatural. It’s a question of whether one believes in such things or not. Either way, some phenomena always provide us with a good excuse to indulge in a bit of reflective speculation. What follows is one of those instances.

It’s about certain events in the summer of 1944, on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore of Maryland, at an historic place locally known there as –Hope House- named after one of three daughters of a very rich colonial era planter (from the three Graces, Faith, Hope, and Charity). As his daughters came of age and got married, he gave each of them a handsome dowry of large acreages, and, fine new brick mansions to live in. Of the three only Hope House remained. Faith House had long fallen into ruin and been abandoned. Charity House had vanished from view some time before the Revolutionary War began (the family apparently dogged by ill luck and tragedy).

Thus Hope House was the lone surviving relic of that era. Its Georgian style brick mansion, with two curving gallery wings ending with two outer pavilions at each end, still stood proudly on its modest rise of ground overlooking a sweeping view of a broad inlet and creek coming in off the Bay.

…page one

Adding to its air of past grandeur were a boxwood maze and rose gardens bordering almost an acre of gently sloping lawns down toward the creek’s waters. There, they became a modest sandy stretch of beach from which jutted out an ancient wooden finger pier with a broad – T – across its far end, where once both local sloops and even clipper ships tied up. The whole of it surrounded by woodlands of large old trees, pin oaks, locusts, and black walnuts, along with extensive marshlands stretching up and down along its shoreline.

It was the epitome of that era of colonial Maryland’s tidewater style plantation life, which included several troops of peacocks proudly patrolling those lawns, while flocks of Guinea fowl flitted about its gardens and among the trees, as a security force ever alert for any intrusion, human, or otherwise. Its peacocks were especially vicious and always ready to rumble with any humans daring to cross them.

Seemingly eternal, Hope House retained its air of genteel if somewhat decaying grandeur. The coming of the war had further made it difficult to maintain, drawing away much of the previously available manpower to fight in it. It was a constant struggle to keep up such a place. Still in the hands of distant kin of the original family owning the place, these had been forced to fix up and make habitable a half dozen out buildings and cottages, to rent out to summer vacationers from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, as their main source of working capital, along with the marginal proceeds it managed to get from the few cash crops that could be produced on the meager acreages left to it. Even so, with just a few available elderly wage workers and share croppers available to work it, it was sill steadily going to seed, which is when we came to know it.

 

…page two

Home from the war in Europe on a brief leave before going on to the Pacific Theater, my father had heard of the place from a friend. He and my step-mother decided it was the kind of quiet retreat they wanted while he was home, so they booked one of its small cottages for a few weeks. I had been invited to stop over to visit while on route from St. Louis to a summer camp job in Maine. Though uncertain of finding such a place to my liking (being a hormonal teenager at the time I didn’t relish the prospect of spending time at a backwater place just a tad shy of being another Tobacco Road). But both my father and I were eager to see each other after his long absence, and, knowing his new assignments that were taking him over to East Asia into even riskier situations than those he’d been through in North Africa and Italy, I didn’t want to miss being with him for perhaps, who knew, the last time.

For his part, the last time he’d seen me I was just a gangly fourteen-year old. Now sixteen headed for seventeen, and nearing my ultimate six-foot-plus frame, and almost able to look him squarely in the eye, he too wanted to see how this son of his was turning out.

So there I went. As it turned out it was not the dull sink hole I had expected it to be, far from it. To my delight I discovered the host family had a set of twin sisters, a year or so older than me, and quite “lively”. Since I was the only peer male around, it promised to be a very interesting visit (I’ll leave any details about that unexplained. Let’s just say, gentlemen don’t kiss…and tell). So for the bulk of my time there my father and I enjoyed a variety of adventures, riding a pair of shaggy unkempt horses through their woodlands, sailing in a beaten up canoe, crabbing, and hunting rabbits and quail. It was our chance for some real father and son bonding again

 

…page three

There were also the daily Hope House meal rituals. It was customary for vacationers to take their meals at the main house, all, presided over by the ancient matriarch of the family who, despite her antiquity, still displayed flashes of the youthful beauty for which she had been famous in her day. These meal times, particularly for dinner, were almost formal affairs in a grand dining room of near ballroom dimensions, and always times of lively conversations. Afterwards, everyone trooped through the wing gallery to the library in the West pavilion for coffee and drinks. Billiards, darts, card tables and music (either from an old wind-up gramophone, or a slightly out of tune antique grand piano) provided the entertainment.

Inevitably our elderly hostess would be asked about the house’s history, and since she was very fond of sherry, and genteelly well-oiled with it by then, she always gave interesting, often racy, anecdotes about it. Her favorite tale, however, was the one about how Hope House had acquired its resident ghost. A ghost who seemed to only have an interest in women who were young, single, and attractive.

It had all begun during the War of 1812, when a British fleet under the command of Admiral Cochrane sailed up the Bay to attack and torch Washington, and later heading for Baltimore to attack its Fort McHenry. Along the way, they conducted raids on both shores, sending small detachments of Royal Marines to grab whatever fresh food supplies they could from the locals, and otherwise pursue some terror tactics to keep them quiet. That approach didn’t work too well. Rather than being cowed by such tactics, the Shore locals began reacting like angry hornets. Among these was the then master of Hope House who was also a local militia commander.

…page four

When word arrived that such a raiding party had landed barely a mile down the shore from his domain, he gathered his household retainers, mustered his militia, and with a force of several hundred men went off after them. A sharp engagement ensued, with his men killing almost half of that British raiding party (which they later buried on the spot in a common grave), forcing the remainder to hastily retreat back to their boats. As they tried desperately to shove off that hostile shore, their attackers reached the water’s edge and began firing volleys at them to speed them on their way. From one of these, a young red-coated officer was struck down, falling overboard, face down, and drifting too rapidly away to be recovered by his men. Unable to do anything about it because of the intensity of those volleys from shore, they continued on their way back to the man-of-war they had come from, waiting for them out in the deeper waters of the Bay.

That would have been the end of the story, except, one of the Marylanders upon seeing the body drifting in to shore, waded out, and hauled it onto dry land, probably with the intent of swiping whatever trophy he might find in the poor man’s pockets. Imagine his discomfort to find that, far from being dead, the man was still alive, if only barely so. Grievously wounded and leaking blood, the young officer began moaning and thrashing about. At which point the situation came to the attention of the Hope House master. For some reason he decided this lone surviving Briton was worth trying to save, perhaps thinking in terms of having a bargaining chip if the raiders came back to look for him. So he ordered that the wounded man be carefully tended to, his bleeding wounds staunched as best they could, and that they should carry him back to Hope House, which was the nearest place where he might get proper care. So it was done.

…page five

With the heat of combat gone, everyone felt only pity and concern for such an obviously very young man. A Royal Marine lieutenant by his uniform and epaulette, and, of greater interest, among his personal effects a handsome gold pocket time piece with elaborately engraved family arms. Unfortunately one of the balls that had struck him had smashed it, making the whole thing a tangle mess, and thus impossible to decipher. His sword was of fine quality as well, as were his uniform and his boots. He was obviously a young man of good family. Such things were of social importance back then, so every effort was made to give him the best of care. Who knew how grateful his family back in England might be later on. The master of Hope House was a very practical-minded man.

The wounded officer was then placed in one of the upstairs rooms in the East pavilion. A local doctor was summoned, to carefully clean and bandage the young man’s many severe wounds, and he was then given round the clock care. Among those tending to him was the daughter of the house. She, of course, became much intrigued with this handsome young stranger. Sadly, however, despite all that care, the young man remained mostly comatose, with only a few rare moments when he seemed to be coming out of it, lingering on for only a week before expiring, much to everyone’s dismay.

Now the master of Hope House had a new and perhaps greater concern. What to do with the body? What if his naval superiors decided to come and look for him? Perhaps his family would want his remains and personal effects returned to them as well? It was a real dilemma.

 

…page six

He finally reached what he considered a good decision. The young man would be given a proper funeral in such a way that, if the Royal Navy or his kinfolk ever came looking for him, they’d have no cause for complaint. So his body was carefully washed and wrapped in the finest linen sheeting at hand. Several layers of it, in fact, carefully wound about it and stitched up into an almost mummy-like form. That done, a special lead coffin filled with distilled spirits was prepared to receive and to preserve it, and the whole thing then sealed and made airtight. This in turn was placed into a fine mahogany casket. Someday, who knew how long that might be, if they did come for him, he would be perfectly preserved, ready to be taken home, and no one would have reason to complain about how they had treated him.

He was then buried with military honors at the family’s burial plot in a clearing in the woods behind the house. There, a special brick-lined and well plastered crypt had been made ready to receive his casket. Not satisfied with those efforts, the master then ordered that the young man’s uniform and personal effects be carefully cleaned and stored in a cedar-wood chest and held there for his kin.

With all of that accomplished, the Hope House master decided to further hedge his bet, by sending a special message to the commanding Admiral of the British fleet, explaining all that had transpired, what had been done, and asking for help in identifying him and possibly notifying his family back in England about where he temporarily remained. The message was then sent off in a local sloop to find the Admiral’s flagship, but by that time the British had moved on to fight at Bladensburg, has torched Washington into rubble, finished things off with their attack on Fort McHenry, and then had sailed off into the Atlantic, somewhere.

…page seven

While all of that was interesting enough as a historical tale, everyone was impatiently waiting for the old dear to tell us how the ghostly part entered into the story. After having her empty sherry glass replenished, she then rose up from her chair, motioned for everyone to follow her to a glass case built into a back corner of the library wall. With a grand wave of her hands she then pointed to it. I can still remember the shock at seeing the display within that glass case.

This was no made up story because, inside that case, carefully fitted onto a tailor’s full sized mannequin, was the bright red coat with its single gold epaulette of that young Royal Marine of long ago. Though well cleaned and preserved it still showed the many visible darker brown blood stains around all those bullet holes in it. A three cornered hat was on its head, and his sword was slung from its mangled leather baldric. Polished leather boots completed the display. With all of that, and also carefully displayed at the front of the case, were the mangled gold watch, a small leather bound bible, and a few other personal odds and ends. Near the front corner of the case, there was the original message written to the British admiral. As the old lady explained while leading us all back to our seats, the family had never heard back from the British. For years all these things had stayed in the cedar chest until, eventually, it was decided to display them properly, and if anyone was interested they could visit the burial plot and see the crypt for themselves. What about the ghost then?

The old lady just smiled then began the rest of the story. The ghost first manifested its presence some twenty years after those events, when a young woman, a cousin, came to visit the family at Hope House. She happened to be given the same bedroom in which that young Royal Marine had died.

…page eight

One night, the entire household was awakened by her frightened screams. Rushing to her room, they found here trembling under the covers, hysterically babbling about a man in a red coat standing at the foot of her bed. After calming her down she was coaxed into describing what had happened. All she could say was…something woke her from a sound sleep, and there at the foot of her bed was a handsome young man in a red coat, sword at his side, gazing at her. Seeing her awake and aware of his presence, he then just smiled sadly, bowed politely, and…disappeared. That was the first reported apparition of the Hope House ghost. Everyone just knew it had to be that of the young Royal Marine who had died there, and whose body still lay in his tomb out in the family’s burial ground in the woods. Well, the young cousin was moved to another room, and a couple of the family’s young boys took her place instead. The ghost did not re-appear.

Since that time, it had appeared a half dozen times, and each time only when a certain kind of young, attractive, single woman occupied that room. For some reason it was a very particular ghost. Not every woman saw him, and for those that did it was always the same thing. He waited at the foot of the bed until the occupant was awake and aware of his presence,, then smiled, bowed, and disappeared. Since he was an apparently polite and benign ghost, he became the household’s favored “guest”. Visitors, however, were not told about him, or which had been his room. But every time there was a young, single, attractive woman there, they would put her in that room to see what would happen. His apparitions were unpredictable, and the family began to believe he only showed himself to women who, somehow, met some kind of criteria. There was much speculation about what those might be.

…page nine

Eventually the consensus was that it had something to do with such women reminding him of a lost love back home in England.

During the Victorian era they made some further attempts to find out who he had been, and to trace his family connections back in England, but all inquiries drew a blank. By then the new master of Hope House decided it was time to unpack the young man’s things from the cedar chest, and place them in a special glass case in the library pavilion. There, perhaps, he’d feel less confined and more like part of his adoptive family, of which it seemed he was becoming a permanent member. In that way it might cut down on his night time visits to young females. That seemed to work because he hadn’t appeared very often since that time.

At this point someone ask her how long had it been since he last appeared. The old lady smiled, slyly giggled, and said, as far as she knew she was one of the last to be honored by such a visit, many, many years ago, when she was a lot younger, and much better looking.

We all laughed and applauded at her way of ending the story about the ghost of Hope House. But it didn’t end there.

It so happened that a few days after we’d heard that story a young lady from Philadelphia came to vacation there for a week. The only room available was that special room. Everyone kept silent about it, wondering what might happen. I was particularly intrigued by the idea because I occupied a room just down the hall from where she was placed (I was at the main house because my father and step-mother’s cottage only had one small bedroom).

 

…page ten

Miss Jay was her name. Somewhat prim and proper, thirty something, with her hair tied up in a tight bun at the back of her head, not unattractive, but definitely a plain-Jane sort, so everyone was convinced a ghostly visit was not very likely to occur in her case. My father was especially certain it would never happen, and he and I had some lively debates about it, much to the disgust of my step-mother who disapproved of such things anyway. They were not to be joked about in her view.

For a few days nothing happened. But on the third night after her arrival Miss Jay’s screaming woke up the entire household in the middle of the night. Nearly hysterical, it took a while to calm her down. The old lady apologized for not having told her about their resident spirit, but reassured her it had never been known to make a second apparition, so there was nothing to be afraid of now. And with that, everyone went back to bed and sleep.

The next morning, at breakfast, Miss Jay seemed perfectly recovered from her experience, so nothing more was said about it, and everyone went about their planned activities for the day. But that evening, at the usual gathering in the library wing, a general discussion began about the event. Miss Jay seemed fascinated by it all and spent several long moments in front of the glass case gazing at the ghost’s things on display there. During the discussion there was speculation about why the ghost did what it did. But my question about it raised a few eyebrows. My question was…what would happen if the lady being visited, instead of screaming simply smiled back at him and asked…pray tell…what is your name sir? Maybe that’s all the young man was waiting to hear, and if he answered her his family identity might then be known, then Hope House could make arrangements to send him home again, allowing his spirit to finally have peace after some one hundred and thirty years.

…page eleven

Only three people in that gathering seemed to take my question seriously. Miss Jay stared at me with speculative interest. My father smiled, and nodded his head with approval. The old matriarch just looked at me with a big smile on her face saying…William is the first person to have ever suggested such a thing. It might indeed be the way for us to finally learn who our long staying guest is. Unfortunately, he’s never been known to make more than one visit at a time, so I suppose we’ll just have to wait until he visits another lady. Of course this means, from now on, we’ll have to advise any future female guests what to do and say if he shows up. Yet that poses some difficulties for us, since we don’t want either to alarm them or put suggestions in their minds about it. We’ll have to think about how we’ll have to do that.

For the next several evenings I noticed that Miss Jay spent a lot of time pausing by the display case, looking at the ghost’s red coat and the other things there. She was obviously intrigued by it all, rather than frightened. Whenever anyone asked if she’d had any more “visits”, she just smiled and shook her head.

The night before she was due to leave the evening’s normal gathering was somewhat shorter than others. Miss Jay excused herself on the grounds she faced a long day’s trip ahead of her. Shortly thereafter everyone else followed suit, going to their own rooms.

 

 

…page twelve

 

Around two in the morning something awoke everyone else in the house, so they all rushed to Miss Jay’s door…but there were no sounds. The old lady finally knocked on the door, and after a few moments, an obviously just awakened Miss Jay, clutching a hastily thrown on robe, opened it, asking what was happening and why was everyone standing in the hallway? The old lady asked her if she’d heard or been disturbed by anything. Miss Jay just yawned in response saying…only by all you people knocking on my door. Can I go back to bed now…and shut the door. It was a very strange development. Everyone went grumbling back to their rooms and beds again.

At breakfast next morning we all were talking about the night’s strange event, but Miss Jay wasn’t with us. An early riser she was usually the first at the breakfast table, so we began wondering what might be going on with her. By the time the breakfast time was half over the old lady became concerned enough about her absence to ask one of the serving staff to go knock on her door. At the moment, Miss Jay appeared. At least it looked like Miss Jay but there was something indefinably different about her. For one thing she was wearing a much more stylish and elegant outfit of an opened-neck blouse and well tailored slacks, with her hair drawn back into a neatly clubbed pony tail with a ribbon bow instead of her usual bun. She also smiled and greeted everyone with a strange sparkle in her eye. She was positively glowing! Gone was the somewhat drab, even mousey woman we had known when she had first arrived, who now seemed transformed somehow. Everyone just stared at her as she went to the sideboard to serve herself from the breakfast dishes there, and then took her seat at the table. My father and I just looked at each other wondering what had happened to her.

…page thirteen

After a few awkward moments the old lady smiled at her and asked…did you get plenty of sleep after we disturbed you last night? Miss Jay nodded and smiled. The old lady stared at her for a few more moments then finally blurted out…he came back…didn’t he? He paid you a second visit after all, right? Putting down her coffee cup Miss Jay jut glanced at the ceiling for a moment, before smiling at everyone, giggled and blushed, then said…oh, my…yes!

That did it. Everyone started throwing questions at her all at the same time, until the old lady finally tapped her cane sharply on the parquet floor to quell the hubbub and bring things back to some semblance of order, and said…that’s most interesting Miss Jay, it’s never been known for him to make a second visit to the same person. Tell us, did you speak to him?

Miss Jay nodded…I did exactly what William had suggested, asking who he was and where was his home in England, but he made no reply, just stood there looking and smiling at me. Then he did the strangest thing…he left the foot of the bed and came to sit beside me. It was not frightening at all, we just sat there looking and smiling at each other. He then reached out and took my hand, held it gently, then bent and kissed it. It was the oddest sensation, feeling almost real, but before I could ask him those questions again, he got up, went back to the foot of the bed, made a deep bow…and disappeared. It all seemed like a dream, and before I could even think about it I was sound asleep again, only waking up just a while ago. There’s also another strange thing about it, though. On the floor, near where he had been sitting next to me, I found this odd scrap of old paper, with only one word scrawled on it –Devon – that ‘s all I know… handing the scrap to the old lady.

…page fourteen

A very long silence followed Miss Jay’s story about her ghostly visitor’s second visit, until the old lady finally spoke up saying…while some folks might think you had a rather vivid dream, brought on by all this talk about a gallant ghost, what you’ve described seems much more than just a dream to me. You’ve had a rare privilege, Miss Jay. As for this piece of paper and the word – Devon- that’s the first time anyone has ever encountered anything like that. Perhaps it’s our resident spirit trying to give us a hint about where he was from back in England. In any event it shows he is not only benign, but also, knows how to romance a young lady as well! We all laughed and roared our approval at her conclusion, some of us even applauding. Miss Jay just sat there quietly smiling at everyone, but there was something about that smile of hers that had me wondering if she had told us the entire story. From the looks of her I suspected there was more to it than what she had told us, so, while others went their separate ways for the day, and as we walked back through the gallery, I quietly asked her…how long did he really stay with you, Miss Jay? Blushing and giggling a bit she said… naughty…naughty…I’ll never tell… gave my cheek a mock slap, made a few sassy skips, and went laughing up the stairs back to her room to get her things.

My father, who had observed some of that scene, came close to growl in my ear…what did she tell you? I just shook my head, and gave him a mumbled response as we headed out the door for the barn to get our horses for our morning ride. As we were mounting up, ready to head down the main drive, the car carrying Miss Jay to town to catch her train back to Philadelphia slowly passed us. As it did Miss Jay leaned out of the window, waved at us, then blew me a kiss, followed by what I thought sounded like a soft…thank you.

 

…page fifteen

As her car disappeared down the drive, my father looked at me strangely with that stern inquiring questioning look of his; but, since I just shrugged, he slapped my back, laughed out loud, and we both let the horses break into a brisk canter. The ghost of Hope House was a strange one indeed. We could only hope that Miss Jay’s encounter with it would lead her to a full and happy life.

As for Hope House, it was still there at the end of the war when we paid it a second visit. The old matriarch was still holding court, and the glass case with its red coat was still there. But no one had seen or heard of the ghost again. Nor did we ever find out if they had followed up on that clue about – Devon-.

It’s been a half century since those events. Hope House is still there, by that creek, looking out from its rise of land towards the Chesapeake Bay. As for its ghostly resident, who knows, he’s probably still waiting to visit some special young woman who might strike his fancy.

Some things are just unexplainable.

* * * * *