The Bruce Mansion
by Edward Reubens
|part 1 of 4|
To my family and the families of James Watkins and Gywnn Crosby,
I feel obligated — finally — to reveal to you what really happened last spring. You all deserve the truth, though I doubt it will make sense to any of you. I am sorry for that. Please understand before continuing that I am the same Kevin you have always known and, I hope, loved. And since whether you forgive me or not is at stake, I will explain the best I can.
I date the beginning of these events to the beginning of April. In fact I believe it was the first day of spring break, which, as far as I’m concerned, is always Saturday.
There had been a monstrous storm the preceding night leaving branches, roof shingles, and garbage can lids strewn across the city streets.
I had stomped my way to James’ house, heated that he would abandon the movie event of the year. We had only been planning it for months.
His Mom let me in, noting she had not seen him all morning. Though his door was locked, the method of breaking into his room was common knowledge. I immediately did so and regretted it just as immediately. I was not prepared for what lay before me.
James sat on his bed looking at the door, but his countenance was not his own. His face was the kind of placid whiteness of complexion that only Poe could describe. After all, I don’t stun easily. He wore an absolute blankness of gaze in his eyes. It was intense, as if he were desperately waiting for something. It was distant, in that he stared straight through me to something far beyond his home.
It was so completely alarming to me that I summarily called in his mother. I remember vividly Mrs. Watkins let out a gasp when she looked upon him and raced to his side shaking him in a horrified panic. He did not respond.
I had not uttered a word to him since I first beheld him. Quite frankly, I was scared. Inappropriately perhaps, and without a word to he or his mother, I left. Sorry, Mrs. Watkins.
That evening I mustered my courage and visited him in the hospital to which his mother had frantically rushed him. His stare was not so complete, and his eyes were no longer fixed on a single point. They moved about occasionally, but in reaction to no apparent stimuli, just sort of randomly.
The bewildered doctors could only confirm that his body had recently released a large dose of adrenalin. This biological function had left his body fatigued, which could account for the pale complexion.
James had likely experienced something uncommonly stressful, such as witnessing a shocking death, the memories of which were still stunningly clear and likely being incessantly replayed in his mind.
It wasn’t until the next day, Sunday, and after James had been released back into the care of his mother, that he finally spoke to me.
I walked into his room. He was lying on his bed. Without so much as a greeting, and directing his undistracted gaze at the door, he told me this.
“Dude, remember Friday, like when that major windstorm came in?”
“Of course I remember. Snapped our cottonwood in two. Nearly hit the house.”
“Well, I was coming home from Farmers Cafe, like coming home from work and all. And I was like walking against the wind, it was blowing so hard. And I was going past the museum, you know, the Bruce Mansion. It was dark, you know, about nine or so, I guess.”
So frantic was his speech I could not help but blurt out, “Slow down, James. Take a deep breath.”
He tried. “And you know how they keep the front of it lit? They got that one halogen light, you know. Makes the whole front look yellow. Ok, the whole front actually is yellow, but you know what I mean. The light makes it all, like, old-newspaper yellow and stuff. But I was walking home. I already said that. And it was like blowing real hard. Like, real hard. It was all I could hear. I looked over at the Bruce house as I was walking past it. And in the front door, like where the steps are to get to the front door, there was something.
“Dude, scared the crap out of me. I didn’t know what it was, so I, like, just stared at it. Just trying to get a closer look without blowing over, but the wind was so hard, you know. But there was this thing on the front doorstep. The more I looked at it, the more it looked, almost, like, human, you know. Dude! So I kept staring. The more I looked, the more I got freaked out. It looked totally human, but it wasn’t a person. It was like a shadow, only not dark. Dude, you gotta believe me.”
James slowed down. He took a deep breath, looked directly at me for the first time that week, and lowered his voice so as not to be overheard, “Listen, I think I saw a ghost!”
When I didn’t respond, he persisted, “Dude, I’m totally serious. Do you understand? She was wearing like one of those old-timey things on her shoulders.”
“A shawl?” I helped, still stunned.
“Yes, and a bonnet. She was young, like our age, teenager, you know.”
You all know our beloved but imaginative James. The sensible response to such a story is to roll your eyes, say “whatever,” and move on to a new subject. His telling this, however, had a different effect on me. In fact, it sent a genuine shiver down my spine.
You see, and this is where you can part from my take on this whole affair, I thoroughly believed him. I didn’t just believe that he truly thought he saw something like a ghost. I believed he saw a ghost. My further experiences only confirm what was my belief then as well as now: there are ghosts in the Bruce Mansion.
He continued his tale, and it only got stranger. “Dude,” he gasped, “I totally can’t get that ghost out of my head.”
“Well, how could you possibly?”
“No,” he looked very concerned as he insisted, “it’s not that.”
“It is a supernatural occurrence indicating you’ve breached the world of the undead. That’s unsettling.”
“It’s not that,” he persisted.
“It’s damned scary!”
I finally gave up, “What are you talking about?”
“She was beautiful.”
“I can’t get her out of my head because she was so beautiful.”
I stood understandably dazed.
He repeated, “I mean it. I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful as her.” Getting no response from me, he continued, “I wonder who she is. Like if she used to live there or something.”
It was at this time that I was talked into going to the library, during spring break no less, by a guy who couldn’t even spell “library” let alone research local history.
All of what I recount in these next few paragraphs can be confirmed by the source I used: back issues of The Waitsburg Times. This small but active newspaper, which as you very well know, is over 130 years old and still printing all the community happenings with unusual clarity. It was (and still is) the kind of newspaper that made you feel it knew far more than it was letting on, and you not only trusted what it told you, but trusted it not to tell you anything you shouldn’t know.
This astonishing story starts over a hundred years ago.
Henry Waits, town founder and namesake, in an attempt to bring in money and political influence — Waitsburg was vying for county seat at the time — invited his good friends from San Francisco, the Bruce family, to move in.
Mr. Jon Bruce was a textile baron in the California Bay Area who was ill with tuberculosis. Medical experts determined the illness was caused and exacerbated by San Francisco’s famous damp, foggy chill. Under the promise of being able to spend the rest of his days breathing clean, dry, therapeutic air, Mr. Bruce turned over his business to his son, packed up his wife and daughter, and left his friends, social positions and home town behind.
He moved nine hundred miles north to the teeming community of Henry Waits. At the time, a steamship operated by the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co was experimenting with passenger sea transport. The Bruces embarked on the 50-passenger Columbia. The trip proved ill-fated.
During the boat ride up the Oregon coast, his only daughter, 16-year old Norma, died of unknown causes. The corpse was embalmed in Portland and transported with the bereaved by OR&N steam train to Waitsburg.
Before the family had stayed their first night, they held a funeral service for their beloved Norma and buried her in the town cemetery on the outskirts. Present at the funeral were Mr. and Mrs. Bruce and Henry Waits.
Immediately plans were designed for a large, bold, beautiful new home prominently placed on Main Street a block from the town businesses.
The design was simple, and not really worthy of the label "mansion." It was essentially a forty by forty by forty-foot cube distinguished from an oversized box only by windows, a front and back door, and steeply sloping roof which was made to flatten on top by a fashionable and aptly named widow’s peak.
I say it was aptly named because the house was not completed before the consumption got the better of poor Mr. Bruce, and he was buried next to his daughter.
Mrs. Bruce moved into her large, new home alone. She was never seen by the townspeople again, for she did not accept visitors and she did not allow herself to go outside. With the few exceptions of individuals claiming to see her at night on her widow’s peak, and the daily errands run by her mute manservant, there was little evidence to support that she was even alive.
The topic of Mrs. Bruce, however, did not monopolize the fair township’s gossip. For shortly after she moved in, another scandal broke out, ending in the disappearance of Henry Waits. Even the sagacious Waitsburg Times did not know what to believe, and many stories quickly spread.
Most accounts agree that an unknown, unseen woman possibly living clandestinely in his home, won the heart of the lonely Henry and eventually absconded with him. Other details are vague at best. This despite his being the town founder and namesake.
Focus quickly returned to the Bruces a month later, when a strong, smartly dressed young man stepped off the newly established Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway and announced he was Jonathon Bruce, Jr.
As both he and certain nosy townsfolk needed data, an exchange of information quickly took place leaving all confused. Jon did not understand references to the absence of his sister, and the townsfolk did not understand his insistence on meeting Mr. Waits. But upon learning the location of the Bruce house, Mr. Bruce walked into his mother’s home and never came out. Not alive anyway.
He was carried out a week later along with the corpses of his mother and her mute manservant. The cause of death for Mrs. Bruce was likely a self-imbibing of an arsenic solution. Jonathon’s bruised and slightly elongated neck suggested hanging. The manservant, more gruesome than all the others, had bled out of his facial orifices and housed a snapped spine.
The corpses, being found only after overly curious townspeople took it upon themselves as their civic duty to investigate the inactivity of the Bruce house, surprised everyone by being comfortably seated in the parlor, presumably placed there after their deaths.
As the mute’s parents had legally sold their child to Mrs. Bruce, he was considered hers, and all were buried in the family plot where the townsfolk supposed Mr. and Norma Bruce to still be.
The house stands today as the proud restored property of the Waitsburg Historical Society, which offers tours upon appointment and sponsors a yearly community festival on the very property of the grandiloquently named Bruce Mansion.
But now comes the part where I tell you things you don’t know. Things you won’t believe, though they’re the truth. Things that only serve to raise more questions, though they explain everything. These are the things I withheld from detectives, and when I tell them to you, you will understand why.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward Reubens