Mischief at the Shadows
10/24/2014 07:41AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
Gallery: Schexnayder Illustrations [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Diane Marquart Moore • Illustrations by Paul Schexnayder
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you another story by award-winning author Diane Marquart Moore. This piece captures the history and the mystery of New Iberia’s iconic Shadows-on-the-Teche.
At 10:30 p.m. on the eve of Halloween when the white moon was high in a sky devoid of clouds, author Lyle Saxon arrived at the Shadows-on-the-Teche, an old Greek Revival style mansion on the banks of the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. He had agreed to meet with Weeks Hall, owner of the mansion and its garden, to talk about the history of the home Hall’s great-grandfather had built in 1834. Saxon had proposed that they meet the following morning at a decent hour, but Hall, who was notoriously nocturnal, had retorted: “What’s the matter with right now?”
And here they were at nearly midnight, sitting in Hall’s famous garden, lamenting about the fact that impinging commerce and a major highway now fronting the old mansion had caused the Shadows’ landscape to diminish in size. Saxon shivered as a light wind played in the old oaks under which they sat, moss trailing like old men’s beards in its branches. Through the trees, they could see the Teche rippling in the moonlight.
“Someone told me that you play pranks on your guests,” Saxon said. “They said that one night you set a wastebasket on fire in the mansion because the fire fighting squads in the city had acquired a new fire engine and you wanted a look at it. I hope you’ve outgrown such shenanigans.”
“I should get so old!” Hall exclaimed. “Life is about humor, Saxon—calculated whimsy or deliberate caprice.” He uncrossed his legs and smoothed the crease in his blue denim pants. “Choose your fun, Lyle, but life’s deserving of a daily prank. I’m not afraid to add to ridiculous experiments. Wasn’t it Louis Auchincloss who said that taking one’s self too seriously was the highest form of conceit?”
Saxon’s felt color flood his handsome face, and his dark, melancholy eyes suddenly brightened. In the moonlight, Hall was unable to see the change in his guest’s facial hue and expression, but he heard the passion in the writer’s voice.
“Life, my dear friend, is more nearly as a wise man said it is,” Saxon replied. “He said we mustn’t forget that living a good life is the most distinguished and rarest of all the arts. Then he added that no one seems to have succeeded in draining the whole cup with grace.”
“You’re so profound about so little, Saxon. It’s only midnight—let’s have a drink and toast my birthday. I was born on Halloween, you know.” Hall, an insomniac, frequently stayed awake until the early hours before dawn.
“Sorry, old man, but I’m off to bed. I have to leave early to continue my trip down the bayou. I’m writing a book called The Friends of Joe Gilmore, and you were one of the preferred friends on the list. The Shadows-on-the Teche was my first stop.” Saxon stood and looked out in the direction of the garden Hall had restored.
“Before I turn in, tell me about your garden. Sorry it’s too dark for me to see it,” Saxon said.
“There isn’t a single plant on the grounds that has been positioned without my studying where it should go beforehand—sun, shade, color of the blooms,” Hall replied. “I plant like I paint so that textures and colors complement each other. My favorite is the pool of waterlilies. But you have to come back when the camellias bloom. I even have the original Lady Humes’s Blush planted by Mrs. David Weeks. The garden sorta’ underlines my wish for seclusion. The bamboo hedge in the front shuts out the world.”
Saxon walked toward the front of the old mansion, a portico facade of eight Doric columns that rose to the height of the two stories. Three attic dormer windows faced the street, and the outside staircase was a typical Louisiana feature, but he was headed toward the second stairway inside. Hall followed behind his guest and directed him to a bedroom that included a handsome bed with four stout posters. The pristine white coverlet had been turned down, and pale moonlight shimmered through the glass panes. Shadows of the lordly oak limbs gnarled in a gesture of protection.
Saxon undressed and picked up a copy of a leather volume entitled Guide to Matrimony lying on the bedside table. Odd choice for a confirmed bachelor, Saxon thought, turning the pages listlessly. Within minutes, his eyelids had become heavy, but he was startled by a keening noise coming from the attic. Must be the ghost of Mary Weeks Moore, he thought. Hall had said she died while sequestered there during the Yanks’ occupation of the mansion at the time of the “Late Great Unpleasantness.” The keening sound grew louder. He shivered but was too sleepy to investigate. Saxon drifted off but woke suddenly when a cold draft of air hit him and the rasping sound of hinges filled the room.
“Who’s there?” Saxon called out. In the dim light, he saw the white painted door at the end of the room swing open. He switched on the bedside lamp and gasped. An aged man wearing a nightcap and dark-colored robe stared at him out of large pop eyes. The grotesque figure smiled menacingly, revealing over-sized front teeth, as he walked toward Saxon, leaning on a walking stick.
“What do you want?” Saxon shouted.
The silent figure walked around the bed, glared at Saxon, then turned and ran through the paneled door at the far end of the room. Saxon flung off the coverlet and raced after the receding figure. Thin yellow light filtered into the hall from under Hall’s bedroom door, and he burst into the room without knocking. Hall lay on his back in bed, the nightcap still intact and large celluloid eyes dangling on his laughing face, which was covered with grease paint.
Saxon, furious, left the room, but Hall called after him, “This has been only one night of pranks. I spend a lot of time plotting shenanigans. I’m up most every night calling my friends when I can’t sleep. I once called Adolph Hitler, you know. Remember what I said about taking yourself too seriously!”
• • •
Weeks Hall walked in his garden, smiling about the success of his nighttime prank. Of course, he had more pranks up his sleeve, but tomorrow, he’d put on a feed for Saxon before he left the Shadows. There’d be three perfect movements of a well-orchestrated lunch, compliments of Aunt Pattee’s recipes: turtle soup, fried oysters with hush puppies, stuffed mirliton as a crescendo side dish and an encore of homemade blackberry sherbet. He was sure Saxon would recover from the midnight shenanigan and go on his way with a full stomach and a happy demeanor.
Then he’d return to his pranks when the ladies of the New Iberia Garden Club arrived to peer at the restored garden. Although the Shadows-on-the-Teche wasn’t open to the public yet, he had reluctantly agreed that the women could view the garden because it was Halloween and he had devised a treat for them.
The garden was almost complete. He had planted over 100 tall azaleas, white wisteria, and camellias, and had lined the brick walkways that curved around the house with aspidistra. Waterlillies encircled a small pool, and in a bed of the formal garden spider lilies, lantana, and wandering Jew now grew. Hall could render a yard as well as he could a painting, but he really wanted the garden to be tranquil and not encroached upon by visitors; however, he guessed he could reckon with local garden clubs.
Hall climbed the stairs to the attic and pulled three cardboard, life-size replicas of movie actresses from their hiding place behind old trunks containing the clothes of his ancestors. The mannequins, buxom blondes with gleaming teeth and slender legs, had arched eyebrows that hovered above wide eyes. The eyes had been cut out, allowing someone to stand behind and look through them. One by one, Hall hauled the figures downstairs and placed them in front of a japonica bush so that they formed an enclosure. Satisfied with his arrangement, he went indoors. The clock in the hall struck three times as he returned to his bedroom.
The following morning when a contingency of four women appeared in the garden, Hall placed himself within the enclosure. Although the leader of the group maneuvered several middle-aged viewers in white gloves and broad-brimmed hats past the booth, the women glanced back at sinister-looking eyes moving behind the smiling faces of the blonde figures and shrugged.
Inside the enclosure, Hall convulsed with laughter. He was tempted to shriek and further pique the women’s curiosity, but since the women had been more curious than frightened, he decided that this prank warranted a deeper shenanigan. When they had passed from view, he shouldered one of the figures and raced up the outer stairs to position himself on the balcony. When they returned to the front of the mansion, he hoisted one of the cardboard mannequins and, uttering a loud shriek, threw it over the balcony.
This time his prank produced the effect he desired. The women below stood transfixed in horror as the cardboard figure crashed to the ground at their feet.
“Just an old scarecrow I’m getting rid of to keep the blackbirds from taking over the garden,” Hall called down to the indignant women. “Happy Halloween!”
One of the women, feisty Julia Wyche from Belmont Plantation, called up to him, “Weeks, you’re not only cunnai, you have a great penchant for drama; however, it’s sometimes refreshing. I remember your grand introduction of Kane last month.”
A month prior to the Garden Club tour, the New Iberia Women’s Club had booked Harnett Kane to speak for a reception at the Shadows, and Hall had promised to introduce the renowned Louisiana writer. Everyone assembled at 4 p.m., and at 4:30 p.m. they were still waiting for Hall to appear. Kane was due in New Orleans at 8 p.m. so his dander was up when the president finally sent one of Hall’s attendants upstairs to find out why Hall hadn’t appeared. Hall ran out onto the same gallery from which he had thrown the mannequin and called down to the assembled women: “Friends, I give you Harnett Kane,” then strutted indoors and banged the doors shut against polite society.
Hall invited Julia indoors for coffee. She left the outraged women in the Garden Club group and joined him in his office where a delicious chicory aroma filled the room. She sat down tentatively and waited as Hall arranged a pewter set of coffee pot, creamer, and sugar bowl on a tray.
“You can put away that pot on the tray,” Julia told him. “I know it has a pin hole in the bottom. More than one lap in New Iberia has suffered damage from that practical joke, and on occasions other than Halloween.”
Hall laughed. “You were most magnificent at an early age,” he said. He glanced at the handsome woman’s fashionable, upswept hairstyle. She wore a gold-colored shantung skirt and white silk blouse and had the bearing of someone “to the manor born.”
Hall took the offending pewter pot and placed it on a shelf behind his desk, replacing it with a small silver one.
“You could rival Liz Taylor in National Velvet and were likely to sneak off on horse back when you didn’t have permission,” Hall said. “Your brother James says that at five years old you asked to ride one of the thoroughbreds. Naturally, your parents refused, but a few hours later, your father heard a horse whinnying and looked toward the bayou. There you were, riding bareback on a horse swimming across the bayou. You have some of the same spirit I do.” Hall looked admiringly at his guest.
“Oh, forget the Little Colonel stories,” Julia said, embarrassed at the recitation of a family story. “I haven’t forgotten the night you asked me to have dinner with you here and brought a fishing rod and reel to the table. I wasn’t pleased when you cast down to the end of the table, and the fly landed on my plate.”
“It was a complimentary gesture,” Hall said. “You’re clever enough to know that the implicit message was that I think you’re a good catch for any man.”
“But I matched your shenanigan by telling my father you had asked me to marry you, and when you called to rescind the offer, father told you I had gone to New Orleans to search for a trousseau. That gave you quite a start.”
Hall smiled at the joke Julia had played on him and began to pour the dark coffee into demitasse cups he had retrieved from a shelf in the office. The dark liquid began to drip from the pot onto his guest’s shantung skirt. He held up the coffee pot and peered at its bottom.
“Oops, this one seems to have a pin hole too,” Hall said. He lowered his black-rimmed glasses and smiled at his guest.
“Two times tricked means ‘shame on you,’ Julia said with controlled hauteur, “but three times tricked means ‘shame on me.’” She snatched a napkin from the tray and wiped the spill from her skirt. Carriage erect, she left the office, ignoring Hall’s offer to accompany her to the front door.
After Julia left, Hall felt tired. His practical jokes seemed to have fallen flat. They were short of the grand shenanigan he really wanted to accomplish but was afraid to attempt. The shenanigan was the coup de grace of all pranks, one that would have been a perfect Halloween prank. He had read that if a person abraded the skin and rubbed into it a mixture of something called tetradoxin, a substance which could be extracted from a Haitian blowfish, and parts of toads, lizards, tarantulas and human bones, he would temporarily enter a zombie-like state. He thought the idea of becoming a zombie was fascinating and would scare the wits out of anyone. He pondered the grand shenanigan for a few minutes. But what if he remained a zombie? Hall decided the prank was too bizarre for him to perform.
However, the plan for his funeral would probably seem bizarre to some New Iberians. He had left instructions for Dr. Dupuy to ship his body from New Iberia on the night train to New Orleans for embalming at Bultman’s Funeral Parlor, and the coffin would be open for friends to view during one day in the Crescent City. Then, his corpse would be shipped back to New Iberia by train the following day and interred. He thought about what New Iberians would say when Dr. Dupuy told nosy townspeople that Weeks “was just going down to New Orleans for the day.” The thought caused him to laugh aloud.
Hall stroked the head of his beloved English setter, Spot, while he considered the idea of devoting himself entirely to the restoration of the Shadows and the garden, a better project than playing pranks on people. Maybe he’d make a public appeal for someone to keep the old home alive after his death. He’d write a letter to the National Trust for Historic Preservation tomorrow. Perhaps he’d write to the Department of the Interior or find a private philanthropist who wanted to endow a historic property.
Hall wondered whether he could sustain this single project and avoid the pleasure of playing pranks on people, especially on Halloween. He remembered what his great-grandmother had written about life at the Shadows in a letter to her second husband John Moore: “You know the monotony of Attakapas life, only varied by fear of freezes or sickness...”
He couldn’t resist topping the Halloween activities before the day ended. He ‘d string a clothesline between the trees in front of the Shadows and hang all those dead snakes he’d killed with his .22 revolver. Passersby, who always tried to peer through the bamboo hedge, would take one look at the skins of deadly water moccasins dangling in the fall wind and shudder, wondering who the intriguing character was who hid his life behind a bamboo hedge in an old mansion bordering a bayou named after a snake. Delicious notoriety!
Maybe, just maybe, he’d do one last shenanigan... but how could he abandon the Halloween parties he staged for the children of the town when he disguised his servant Theophile as a ghost who chased him through the grounds of the Shadows? Would he have to put away his old man’s disguise and stop scaring his house guests? And how would he feel if he had to part with his cardboard lady friends?
Hall decided he’d have to reconsider devoting most of his time to restoring the house and grounds. After all, wasn’t life about laughter and fun? He needed the frivolity to chase away bad spirits on the nights when strange things came out of the shadows of the old mansion. He supposed he’d better try to sleep on the idea of living a life without mischief at the Shadows. But if sleep didn’t come...