Out of the twilight the sign appeared, bright in the headlights.
“Lover’s Lane. That’s our destination,” I said, hoping the road’s name would help her relax. She did not like surprises, but I liked giving them.
“Okay, mister. I’m intrigued. I should have known it would be something romantic.”
Before leaving the house, I’d said, “Bring your boots and a sweater,” but I wouldn’t let on what I had planned. I should have told her, but communication was one of my weaknesses.
I had met Cassandra a little over a year earlier at a Codependents Anonymous meeting. We fell in love hard and fast, as our kind do. When we were not busy pulling at each other we would do things we thought might help the other “get better”. She was trying to help me to ask for what I wanted instead of always giving in. I was trying to help her be less afraid of everything.
We parked in a small lot as the last light of the sun faded and darkness crept in around us.
“This past year with you has been the best time of my life,” I said, taking her hand. “Every time you tell me I’m special I believe it a little bit more. You give me the confidence to do uncomfortable things that I never thought I could do. I want to do the same for you. This night is a combination of your love for nature and history, and if it makes you a little uncomfortable, just remember that I think you’re special.”
“Oh, Marty. That’s so lovely… and a little creepy. Stay close, mister.”
Holding hands, we walked together to the rear of an old stone gatehouse. A small cascading waterfall, faintly visible in the dying light, caught our attention, and we paused to enjoy the soothing sound of water rushing over rocks. The tranquil moment didn’t last. It was time for my surprise. I turned with her and walked toward a small group. She slowed upon seeing them. About ten people faced a large man dressed in dark, flowing, period clothing. His right hand held up an old lantern, his left beckoned us closer.
“Welcome, friends. Gather round. My name is Tom, and I will be your guide this evening. Welcome to The Ghost Walk of the Hermitage Ruins.”
Cassandra, who had already taken my arm in a firm hold, now yanked it sharply to her chest.
“Really? No!” she said in a sharp hush.
I smiled and reached for her cheek to go in for a kiss, but she pulled back. This was not going to be easy. I wiped the smile off my face.
“I know you can do this. Please, babe.”
She tried to lead me away, back to the car, but I held my ground. She stared for a few seconds, and I could see the fear in her eyes as she struggled to master it. Then she gave in, just like that, with a little smile that said I hadn’t heard the last of it.
“Thank you for the surprise. I trust you,” she said looking straight into me like only she has ever done.
Tom began by saying he believed the stories were true, although he’d been skeptical.
“So many people I’ve met describe the same things, you start to believe after a while. But don’t take my word for it. I invite you to do some reading on the history of Ancaster. This is the third oldest community in Canada, and it has a violent past: rebellion, slavery, clan feuds; many deaths by sinister means.”
Mood established, we set out on a winding path caged by ancient trees, gnarled roots pushing through the ground in our path, thick branches stretching out above our heads. Tom led, his lantern held high.
After a few minutes, we were led off the path into a clearing, the looming forest retreating from sight. Tom had come to a stop. He looked around slowly before turning back to us, waiting for the full attention of his audience.
“This was once a popular picnic area and playground,” he began as the quiet settled in around us. “There was a large pavilion overlooking Hermitage Creek, and the faint sound of Hermitage Cascade was often drowned out by laughter and voices. It was a happy place until one day, something happened to change the mood forever.
“In the 1960s, there was an artist who lived in the area named Stanley Emerson Davis. Like many great artists before him, Stanley became famous upon his death. His self-portrait hangs in the Royal Ontario Museum. He spent the last months of his life visiting this spot every day to work on it. Upon its completion, with his final stroke, Stanley slashed his own throat, spraying red across the canvas. The finished painting portrayed him as he was found, dead on the ground in this clearing.”
Tom scanned the area again. Cassandra pulled me closer.
“The blood soaked into the grass, but the memory of violence did not fade away. People still came to visit the park, but it was no longer a place of laughter and happiness, despite the lovely setting. Something lingered. Stories began to circulate of people seeing the dead painter, working away at his masterpiece, always in the distance, across the meadow. As more people heard the stories, less visitors came to the park. Today it is rarely used, but sightings are still reported. A painter, working at his red canvas.”
Cassandra was looking around nervously.
“No, Marty, we’re not coming back for a picnic. Don’t even think about it.”
I smiled and stole a quick kiss before Tom led us back to the path into that night.
We came upon a mighty, towering tree, and our host stopped beneath its massive branches.
“This is the Meeting Tree. It is a 700-year-old white oak tree, and it has been infamous since the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. This was the meeting place for rebel leaders who wanted to remove the British oligarchs and replace them with new, democratic leaders. They met here to plan an open attack on the seat of government in Toronto.
“The tree has another name. It is called the Hanging Tree because of what happened here on November 13, 1837. On that day, the authorities interrupted the rebels amid their planning, caught them red-handed under these same branches, and hanged five men that very night. The ropes looped over that branch right there.”
Tom pointed to a thick branch that loomed above where the group had stopped. We stared up, bending our necks sharply.
“Five men died swinging through the place you stand, their necks snapped.”
There was a loud crack. Cassandra, along with most of the group, jumped. Looking for the source, we saw Tom, holding a broken stick.
“I often feel a pinch in my neck when I’m standing here. I think it’s the ghostly broken necks, swinging back and forth through me.”
The wind caused a rustling of leaves. Tom took off his tall hat and bowed slightly towards the Hanging Tree, then turned back to the path and led us on.
“Oh my god, Marty. My heart is pounding,” she said.
I held her hand as we walked on, enjoying the thrill.
Shapes in the black solidified, forming a large old structure. Tom thrust an arm at the ruined walls.
“Here stand the remains of the Hermitage Manor, once the largest estate in the region.” His deep voice was very loud now, a boom echoing off ruins and forest alike. His eyes caught the light of the lantern as they swept over his entourage, glinting with fake malice. Then, with unexpected eloquence, he told his final tale.
“The Hermitage was home to the Campbell family, the wealthiest in the area. The family had known terrible loss when the mother died giving birth to their only child, the beautiful Eleanor. An unfortunately common story in those days. The Hermitage was a quiet, lonely place for John Campbell and his daughter as he struggled to raise her alone. But he was a good man and he had means, and they did their best. Life went on, and the Hermitage slowly came out of sorrow and a sort of normalcy settled in.
“One day, years beyond their grief, the family took in an escaped slave, Atticus Jones, at the age of nine, the same age as Eleanor. He was a smart boy with a good heart who did everything he could to show his gratitude. He worked hard and never caused trouble. For John Campbell, this filled a hole in his heart, and he returned the effort with unfeigned affection, glad to have a young boy to teach some of the lessons life had taught him. Eventually, he came to love Atticus like the son he never had, as they say. Eleanor loved him, too. She loved to hear the stories he would tell, knowing he had seen and lived through so much. And Atticus loved them both in return. When he wasn’t working hard for the father, he was playing games and laughing the days away with Eleanor. It was a beautiful time, and everyone who visited the Hermitage said it had become a happy home.
“But fate would not let the happiness last. For the love that was once innocent between Atticus and Eleanor slowly evolved into something more. As they grew up together, they grew closer. Eventually, as foolish young adults, they fell madly in love.
“Knowing theirs was a forbidden love, they hid it from everyone. Kept in darkness, like a fine wine, their love grew sweeter. Until one night, the doomed lovers ran away, hoping for their chance at a life together. Their absence was soon discovered, and they were tracked down and brought home to face John Campbell.
“That Atticus would betray him like this, with his beloved Eleanor, enraged Campbell. He had given this former slave a good life, and this was how his kindness was repaid. With no room for mercy in his heart, the father locked his daughter in her room. She could do nothing to alter the course of events that followed.
“In the courtyard behind the Hermitage, Atticus pleaded for understanding, begging Campbell to see how true love had made him a slave again. It was a moving speech, but John Campbell had made up his mind. Jones would be exiled, driven away, never to see Eleanor again. Campbell ordered his men to imprison Atticus until morning, when he would be sent away for good.
“With rough hands, he was locked away in the cold cellar of a small outbuilding to the rear of the manor, but only briefly. Somehow, he escaped. He could have left then; his freedom was only a matter of turning and leaving. Instead, he went back, hoping in his madness to get Eleanor to go with him. But he was met in the courtyard by John Campbell. There was a fight, both men giving release to their rage. The sounds quickly drew the other members of the household, but before anyone could intervene, cruel chance struck. Atticus, with an unlucky punch, knocked Campbell to the ground where his head hit a rock, cracking his skull and killing him instantly.
“The horror of that night continued. Amid screams and shouting, Atticus was tackled to the ground and severely beaten, carried to a tree at the edge of the grounds and hanged from a tall branch.
“Eleanor, alone in her room, captive witness to everything, broke. Seeing her father die, then seeing her love hanged, was more than she could bear. Crying, she took a knife to her wrists.
“The fate of the Hermitage was sealed. It was no longer a place of joy, only grief. The family’s sudden demise was followed by the steady deterioration of the grounds and buildings. From neglect, they fell apart. Soon nothing was left but what you see before you.”
Tom stopped, letting the silence punctuate the horror we all felt at the tragedy.
We stood watching Tom under a crescent moon that hung like a sickle, its glow reflecting off the ruins, soft and eerie. The three remaining walls were thick stone with no roof, no glass in the window frames. The empty rectangles nudged at the imagination, hinting at faint shapes. It was a haunting scene with its grim history.
Our guide turned halfway toward a gaping doorway.
“We are about to enter the ruins. Please watch your step as the footing is a real danger. Rocks are everywhere, and we don’t want anyone falling and smashing their skulls.”
The group filed through the doorway into the large, open space beyond. Rocks really were everywhere, in piles and strewn about, as if a giant hand had smashed the whole building down into this mess. Beyond the crumbled remains of Hermitage Manor were outlines of smaller buildings, with just the base of the walls left to show where they had once stood in their heyday.
“A distant aunt lived here for a while after the terrible events. She stayed in the Hermitage as it slowly fell to ruin around her, until her death in 1908. Since then, no one has officially lived here, and Mother Nature has worked to transform it into this. For a few years, in the 1930s, the Hermitage was inhabited by drifters and vagabonds. That is, until a grisly triple murder took place here in 1937. The bodies of three men were found inside the ruins, murdered in their sleep. The killer was also found; he had hanged himself from a tree out back. Perhaps the very same tree from which swung Atticus long ago. Google it if you don’t believe me. It really happened.
“There’s another story from the 1950s about teenagers who would come out here to use the grounds for their parties. That stopped when a girl went missing and was never found.
“It has been 150 years since the days of Eleanor and Atticus. Their story is well known hereabouts. In fact, the road you came in on, Lover’s Lane, is named for their tragic, misguided love story. And in all this time, the rumors have persisted. Mysterious sightings, menacing sounds and vague shapes. It’s said the ghost of Atticus Jones is still looking for his beloved Eleanor, ready to take her away forever. The locals don’t come here at night. They all know the Hermitage is haunted.”
We were told to take some time to look around, and as everyone dispersed, Cassandra and I explored the ruins.
I started towards a fenced off area near the back of the grounds.
“Don’t you dare take one step out of reach, mister.”
I walked over to her and pulled her close.
“Come on, this is almost over, and you are doing great. Aren’t you having a little bit of fun?”
“This not my idea of fun, mister. I’m scared, and I don’t like being out here in the dark with a bunch of strangers.”
“But we’re together, and I won’t let anything bad happen. Trust me. This is something I want us to remember. I think it will help you realize how brave you are. Isn’t the history interesting? Who knew there was a Hanging Tree here?”
“I do like the history. And I trust you. Lead on, mister.”
Reaching the ruins of a small outbuilding, we looked through the safety fence. All we could see, aside from crumbled walls, was a door-shaped hole in the rock floor leading to, we assumed, a cellar. It looked deep and black.
“Do you think this is the cellar where they locked Atticus up?” I grinned as I threw a rock into the hole. A stray chill wind shushed through the forest like a whisper, starting from somewhere nearby and ending in a swirl around us.
“I guess. I didn’t hear that rock land, did you?”
We heard Tom call out, gathering the group to return. Before we left, he had some last words.
“Three stories of violence and death I have told you. Take what you will from my tales, but do not dismiss my words. Like the Hanging Tree of the conspirators, or the beautiful clearing of the artist, this place has a presence at times. You may have felt it, or maybe not, but something is here, make no mistake.”
The walk back after was quick and quiet, with no more ghost stories. In no time, we were at the parking lot. We thanked our host, and everyone got in their cars to leave. Except us. I had idled and snuggled Cassandra close, leaning against our car in the cool autumn night. I felt a real sense of happiness now that it was over, and Cassandra had made it through without giving in to her fears.
“Were you really scared?” I asked, knowing she was.
“Yes, Martin! But I had fun, too, I admit. He’s a great storyteller, and there’s a lot more history here than I ever knew. Thank you, babe. I’m glad you got me here.”
“Want to go back, just us?”
“Umm, no way. Seriously?”
She was right, of course. We could have left then; like Atticus, our future was only a matter of turning and leaving.
“You said I’m leading tonight. I want to go back. No, I want you to go back. This is for you. Face your fear, defeat it.”
She heaved a big sigh as she looked down at the ground, then back to me.
“Okay. Why not? Let’s go back,” she said. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Soon we were back in the woods. A slash of cloud had covered the thin moon. My small flashlight barely reached the trees beside the path. Branches appeared out of nowhere, like claws above us or beside us as we walked. Once, she jumped as a branch brushed her shoulder and I held her close and felt her shiver.
Before long we were once again standing in silence before the ruined walls of Hermitage Manor. Cassandra glanced back at the way we had come, then looked at me, then back again. She wanted to leave. I gave her a kiss and shook my head, pulling her forward.
Careful to avoid rocks, I led her straight back to the little fenced off outbuilding with the creepy doorway to darkness, as I had come to think of it. Her grip tightened, almost hurting. My little light reached out beyond the fence, revealing the uneven, rocky ground and the blacker hole in the ground. It seemed as if black was pouring out of it. Can darkness shine? A flush traveled down my spine, and goosebumps made every hair on my body stand up.
“I want to leave, Marty.”
From somewhere right below us came the sound of heavy rock sliding on rock. The sound may have lasted a second or five, echoing off the walls of the Hermitage. Startled, we clutched each other. Tears streamed down her face. No other sound came to my ears. In fact, there was no sound at all, not even the wind.
My voice was hoarse. I tried for a more confident tone.
“Cass, it’s okay. We’re leaving.”
She nodded, turning away while I took one final look back.
The darkness of the doorway seemed to grow, as if reaching for us. It was getting darker. I froze for a moment, questioning my eyes. The outer edge of dim light from my flashlight crept along the ground, closer to us. A sound came. It started like wind, then became a whisper.
I swear I heard, “Eleanor…”
My flashlight flickered off-on-off.
I pulled her or she pulled me, and we ran but soon stumbled over rocks and went down. I heard a loud, wet crack. I scrambled up and pulled at her, but without success. I shook the flashlight back on and shone the light over her face. Blood pulsed from a wound on her forehead. So much blood. Her eyes were glazed, blinking away tears and blood.
“Oh shit. Cass! Cassandra! Fuck-oh-fuck.”
I swung the flashlight back towards the fence, saw nothing, and swung back to her. Blood soaked the ground beside her where I saw a large rock with bits of skin and hair, and more blood.
“Cass, I’m going to pick you up. We’re going to be okay; don’t worry.”
She looked disoriented; the flashlight flickered again. Then she focused on my face, and I saw recognition, clarity.
“Martin.” It was a sad, tired word. She didn’t sound scared, although she had to be. She didn’t sound loving.
As I leaned towards her, we looked into each other’s eyes in the dim light. I wanted her to feel I could protect her. The moment lasted only a second, then she blinked heavily, looking away from me and toward the night, seeming to focus on something in the darkness.
“Atticus…” she whispered and closed her eyes.