Ambrose was beginning to feel stifled by the coziness of the parlor. Reclined uncomfortably in an overstuffed rosewood sofa, Ambrose sighed deeply. The air was thick with the smell of old cigar smoke. He felt like he was practically marinating in it. The wooden mantel clock ticked away unceremoniously, and Ambrose rested his head in his hands. After what seemed like ages, Ambrose’s reverie was broken.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting, my boy.”
Ambrose looked up from his hands quickly, setting himself in as dignified a manner as possible. Before him stood a man easily six feet tall in a chestnut-colored coat and dark trousers, possessed of a stately beard and slick black hair. Ambrose rose and extended his hand.
“Ambrose Monroe, sir.” The older gentleman took Ambrose’s hand in a firm handshake. The heady smell of cigars nearly crippled Ambrose’s senses.
“Colonel Landon Davis, my boy.” The Colonel released Ambrose’s hand and casually inspected him. “So, you’re the one whose come to teach my daughter. You’re younger than I expected- but you come highly recommended. Is this your first time in Louisiana?”
Ambrose nodded nervously. The Colonel eyed him carefully, and spoke again.
“My daughter is a headstrong girl, as her mother was. Do you care for a cigar, Mr. Monroe?” The Colonel motioned to a small box set alongside a pristine crystal decanter on a mahogany table. Ambrose shook his head.
“I appreciate the offer, sir, but I must politely decline. You mentioned the girl’s mother?”
The Colonel turned towards the window as if to look out it, though the heavy curtains were drawn. Ambrose noticed a weight descending on the Colonel’s brow. It seemed to Ambrose that he was struggling to remember something, but his expression quickly passed back into stern formality.
“Sadly, she’s passed. Drowned. A terrible accident.”
“My condolences, Colonel. Was it long ago?”
The Colonel made his pained expression once more, and Ambrose immediately felt foolish for pressing the matter.
“It was long ago, and yet not. The serenity of our home at Eight Oaks can play strange tricks of time on you.” The Colonel looked back at Ambrose, his face reassembled in a mask of sternness. “You are the inquisitive type, I see. I suppose it will be a good influence on my daughter.”
From somewhere in the manor a sudden cry went up, and Ambrose felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the shrillness of it. The Colonel looked unfazed.
“Speak of the Devil — If you’ll excuse me a moment, Mr. Monroe.” The Colonel affected a crisp bow and exited swiftly, the lingering smell of cigar smoke hanging in the room behind him. Ambrose stood in silence a moment, waiting for the hackles on his neck to relax and for the Colonel to return. From somewhere nearby, he could hear muttering voices, muted as if on the other side of a wall.
Drowned her, though it was never proven…
Ambrose looked around the room in surprise. Ambrose shook his head and pressed his fingers to his brow. The trip to Louisiana had been long and tiring, and he suspected his mind was beginning to play tricks on him. It felt as though he had been sitting in the parlor for ages. Just as he was turning to check the mantel clock, a woman’s voice echoed from somewhere down the hall.
Startled, Ambrose leaned out the door of the parlor and looked down the long hall adjoining it. An door down the hallway lay wide open, and the voice spoke again.
Ambrose felt a strange recollection – for a moment he almost recognized the voice, though he could not place it with any certainty. As if drawn by invisible hands, he walked down the hall against his better judgment and sense of propriety. Muttered voices seemed to coalesce and dissipate around him, and he thought for a moment he could hear a Yankee woman speaking softly.
Rumored to have had an affair with their daughter’s tutor…
Ambrose reached the door and peered inside. A small bedroom decorated with heavy curtains and a modest bed was illuminated by a hurricane lamp on the bedside table. Ambrose looked about, but saw no one. Drawn by curiosity, he stepped inside and walked towards the bed.
“My sweet Ambrose.”
Ambrose turned sharply to the sound of the woman’s voice in the room. Before him stood a beautiful middle-aged woman in lavish spreading skirts. Her beauty was arresting, and her crisp emerald eyes seemed to look right through him. His body move towards her as if of its own volition, guided by a force unseen. Before he knew what was happening, he felt himself locked in an embrace with her. His lips moved as if remembering something long held in a fugue at the tip of the tongue.
“Olivia, my love.”
Her lips were cool against his as they kissed for what seemed like time immeasurable. The woman whose name he somehow knew to be Olivia smelled of lavender spiked with the smell of cigar smoke. There was something beautiful and painful welling in his chest, and he struggled to place its familiarity right until the moment that the Colonel spoke.
“Lost, Mr. Monroe?”
Ambrose snapped to attention and spun to face the Colonel, who was leaning against the frame of the door with an expression of mild bemusement. He caught his breath and struggled to speak, making a small sound of fear in his throat.
“I see you’ve found the room you’ll be staying in, Mr. Monroe. I hope it suits your preferences?”
Ambrose turned his head sharply to where Olivia stood, but there was no one there. He turned back to the Colonel, whose bemusement was slowly shifting to impatience. Ambrose croaked a response.
“Yes. It’s very lavish, thank you. May I ask what that cry was all about?”
The Colonel looked at Ambrose as if he were mad.
“What cry, boy? Have you been sneaking into my private spirits?”
Ambrose went flush in the cheeks. “No, sir. I would never dream of such an impropriety.”
A woman’s gentle laughter resounded from the hall, though neither Ambrose nor the Colonel took any note of it. The Colonel stepped out of the doorway and Ambrose followed him, looking back into the room in confusion. The scent of lavender clung to his lapels. The Colonel motioned to a door across the hall with barely-concealed pride.
“Only the finest amenities are to be found here at Eight Oaks, Mr. Monroe.” The Colonel turned to face him, indicating the door. As he spoke, Ambrose felt as though the Colonel’s voice reverberated with a distant one in chorus. “Indoor running water, and indoor facilities.”
While Ambrose was certainly impressed by the rare and luxurious existence of an indoor privy, he couldn’t shake the encounter he’d just had, nor could he account for the Colonel’s casual manner. The distant voices rose softly again, and Ambrose suddenly felt as though he were moving within a crowd of muttering strangers.
…After doing so to the tutor. No one really knows, but we all enjoy a little speculation…
“Colonel Davis, forgive me if I seem dull for asking, but you mentioned your wife…” The Colonel interrupted Ambrose with a brusk laugh and clapped one mammoth hand on his shoulder.
“Where are my manners? Of course, Mr. Monroe, let me introduce you to my wife and daughter.” The Colonel turned Ambrose down the hallway. At the end of the long stretch of hallway stood two women, one lovely and young and the other beautiful and in her prime. Both wore spreading skirts but Ambrose barely noticed it – from all the way down the hall the emerald eyes of Mrs. Davis captured him, and as he walked with the Colonel it felt as if he might drown in the turbulent tides of her inviting gaze. As he approached, Ambrose felt a distant recognition but struggled to place from when and where.
“Mr. Monroe, my daughter, Chloe.”
Ambrose broke his gaze and faced the younger girl, but he could hardly see her through the haze of Mrs. Davis’ presence. He smiled politely and she curtsied in response. He vaguely recalled the sound of her crying out earlier and the Colonel’s egress to find her, but made no note of it. He quickly turned to face Mrs. Davis.
“And my wife, Olivia.”
Mrs. Davis offered one gloved hand to Ambrose, who took it politely. He could feel the warmth of her body, alive and thrumming, through the gentle fabric of her white glove. “A pleasure, Mr. Monroe. We are all quite thrilled to have an educated man from Pennsylvania staying with us.”
Ambrose spoke, and the words left his lips as if in a dream.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Davis.”
A silence descended upon the group, and from somewhere nearby, voices rose up, muffled as if behind walls, and the sound of their conversation passed through the Ambrose and the Davis family – though if any of them heard it, none made indication of its passing.
“I’ve heard rumors that Eight Oaks is haunted.”
Melanie Pearl turned to face the group of tourists as she led them down the long central hallway of Eight Oaks and laughed gently. The young woman who mentioned the local legend smiled timidly. Melanie addressed her with the polite dismissal only tour guides have ever truly mastered.
“That’s a legend we here at Eight Oaks often hear. The owners in the late mid-nineteenth century were the Davis family, and Colonel Davis’ wife is rumored to have had an affair with their daughter’s tutor. It’s also said that Colonel Davis drowned her, though it was never proven and there are no records to indicate any such foul play.”
Melanie walked slowly backwards as the group of a dozen tourists admired a crystal decanter on a table in the hallway. She forced her smile to remain rigid and polite.
“It’s also said that Colonel Davis shot himself after finding out, after doing so to the tutor. No one really knows, but we all enjoy a little speculation. Here, however, is something of real interest, a unique rarity in the antebellum south; Indoor running water, and indoor facilities.” Melanie deftly changed the subject, as she was trained to do, and indicated the door of the bathroom. The tourists made impressed noises. She continued down the hallway into the parlor, still decorated in the style of the time it was built.
“Here is the parlor, where guests would have been received. As you can see, the curators of Eight Oaks have done a brilliant job of maintaining the décor in a period-accurate style.” A two-backed sofa sat, empty, in the corner of the room. The tourists spread out to admire the artifacts of a past age, all but forgetting any mention of hauntings. The young woman who had addressed Melanie in the hall sneezed abruptly, then stifled another sneeze, and another. Melanie smiled as politely as she could manage. The woman approached her, sniffling slightly.
“Miss…” the woman searched to recall Melanie’s name. Melanie indicated her name tag.
“Ah, Miss Melanie? Why does everything smell like cigar smoke?”