The Unseen Horror of Highland Hall

The Unseen Horror of Highland Hall

 

By

 

Elton Camp

 

            “Gentleman, a home for you.  Highland Hall. 1504 17th Street.  322-4938,” read the item from rentals in the August 1962 Columbus Ledger classifieds.



            I was frustrated due to hours wasted searching for rooming that would be affordable on the meager salary of my new job as a fledgling teacher at Columbus High School.  Yet, I decided to make one more call before giving up for the day.  As I slowly steered my old, black Chevrolet coupe along the advertised street, I watched the house numbers increase until they reached the 1500s.  There, in the middle of the block, was the estate.  The house was in mild decay, but impressively large with white columns, a steep roof, ornamental iron porch railings and old-fashioned shutters.  The grounds were blighted by poorly located flowerbeds, untrimmed shrubs and rotted benches. Year of neglect were evident.  Enormous trees, however, provided shade and lent an air of Southern gentility.  A solid red brick wall, more than head high, enclosed the grounds at the sides and back.  It had once been splendid.



            As I climbed the steps to the front porch, I thought “Not a great prospect, but worth checking.”  To the right of the double doors was a button.  A muted, but impressively elegant chime rang from deep within the mansion. 



            The door swung inward to reveal a short woman who wore gold-rimmed glasses.  Her salt-and-pepper hair showed attempts to induce curls, but was in disarray.  She wore a blue dress that I supposed had been costly and stylish years before.  Trips to the cleaners and the passage of time had rendered it faded and worn.  I estimated that she was in her late seventies. 



            “I, uh, I came about the room,” I managed to get out awkwardly. 



            At that, she stepped onto the porch to look me over.  “Are you new in town?” Her accent testified to her origins in the aristocracy of the Deep South. 



            After giving my name, I explained that I needed a place to stay near the high school.  Mention of my employment seemed to allay any misgivings.  A half-smile appeared on her face. 



            “Well, come in and see if this will suit you.” She opened the screen door and indicated that I should enter ahead of her.  “My name is Estelle Collins Smith.”



            The long, room-sized entrance hallway was far more impressive than I’d expected.  It gave me a feeling of being in a museum.  A series of Oriental carpets covered the dark wood floor.  On both sides, mirrors with wide, gold frames nearly reached the ceiling, which soared to at least triple the height of a normal room.  Some of the mirrors were attached to the wall while others rested on gilt bases that extended to the floor.  In one corner stood a decorated vase nearly as tall as a man.  An eclectic collection of tables and ornaments completed the decor.  A chandelier with several tiers of long prisms provided light.



            “I didn’t know you could rent a room in a house like this.” Awed, I admired the opulent surroundings. 



            Accustomed to the reaction, Mrs. Smith explained that her husband, an importer, had acquired many of the objects from castles in Europe. I began to envision old-world palaces stripped of their furnishings to satisfy the American appetite for splendor. 



            “I’ll show you around and then you can see what will be your room,” she stated in a manner to leave no doubt that I’d be staying. 



            To the right was a library with uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs.  Its walls were lined with mahogany cases containing aged books, some of them bound in leather.  An unpleasant, musty smell filled the room.  Although the heavy draperies were pulled partly back from the windows, the room felt gloomy and unwelcoming. I wondered how many, if any, of the volumes had ever been read. 



            Directly across the hallway was the parlor.  Another uncomfortably formal space, it was crowded with Victorian couches, tables and chairs atop a dark Oriental rug with an intricate pattern.  The golden drapes were tightly closed.  They excluded light to such an extent as to make the room even more forbidding than the library.  A fireplace, surrounded by a carved marble mantle, showed no evidence of recent use. 



            She gestured toward the wall to the left of the fireplace.  “This room once had a secret panel, but it was covered with wallpaper long ago.” 



            That seemed a classical location for a hidden door.  I wondered why anyone would ruin such a fabulous, exciting feature.    



            “When I was a child, we’d go through there with candles and climb the stairway to explore the attic.”  She stared toward the spot.  A vague look of fear appeared on her face.  “Finally, our father had it sealed and covered.” 



            As we continued down the hallway and stepped into Mrs. Smith’s bedroom, a tall half-canopy bed with dark mahogany carvings caught my attention.  A set of thick green brocade bed curtains hung from the canopy.  A velvet cord attached them loosely to the posts.  Moveable wooden steps gave access to the top of the thick mattress. 



            “This is called the Josephine Room.  The bed is like the Empress Josephine’s at Versailles, except that her canopy is lower.”



            Matching pieces were equally elegant.  I eyed two oil paintings with sculpted frames that hung on the walls.  Mrs. Smith followed my gaze and smiled. 



            “I painted those myself.  In my younger days, I was an artist.”



            While far from an able judge of art, I allowed that the obvious lack of correct perspective in the landscapes added credence to the idea that an amateur had created them; however, as expected, I gave nothing but praise.   



            Other rooms led off an interior common area near the center of the house.  An especially impressive bedroom featured a massive four-poster bed crowned by a full-length wooden canopy.  It was lined underneath with pleated golden fabric. Fading and stains of the material testified to its age. 



            “This is the bed used in Gone With the Wind.  Here is where Mammy tightened Scarlett’s corset.”  She lightly touched one of the polished posts. 



            That seemed unlikely to be true since I knew that the epic had been produced in Hollywood.  She added information that addressed my unspoken doubt. 



            “Margaret Mitchell was a friend of one of my nieces and used to visit here.  When the movie of her novel was to be made, she told the producers about my house.  They came here for measurements so they could make copies.” 



            The series of extravagant claims began to raise suspicion in my mind, but she related them with such conviction that I was forced to consider that they might be true. That Margaret Mitchell had been from nearby Atlanta added believability to the idea that she could have visited Columbus. 



            The other downstairs rooms were unremarkable.  One was an old-fashioned country kitchen.  The final room she showed was the one she proposed I rent. It had what I believed to be a sixteen-foot high ceiling.  Its brass chandelier had several crystal tiers of gradually decreasing size.  They terminated with a single faceted ball.   Ironically, its many sockets were vacant except for a lone sixty-watt bulb.  The furnishings were of reasonable quality, but disappointing due to the sharp contrast with her magnificent bedroom.  In the far wall was a good-sized closet made appealing by the aroma of its cedar lining. While nice enough, that room clearly was set up for rental.  Although she had been wealthy once, it was obvious that Mrs. Smith had fallen onto hard times. 



            “It’s $35 a month, including maid service.” She took a seat in a tan recliner in the common area to the side of the door to my room. 



            I assumed that she’d be the maid.  The amount was quite reasonable for the early 1960s, less than half what I’d been asked elsewhere.  Reluctantly, I decided that the arrangement should do at least until I was able to save enough money for an apartment.  Unenthusiastically, I accepted her proposal.



            “You won’t mind paying a month in advance.” Her tone left no doubt that the matter wasn’t up for discussion.



            I sat in the other recliner where I fished from my wallet a twenty, ten and a five.  My ready cash was almost exhausted.  Less than forty dollars remained. 



            “You may want to search for Mr. Lloyd’s gold when you get settled.  If you find it, I’ll give you a big reward.” 



            Even the remote possibility of adding to my scanty assets immediately aroused my interest.  After she meticulously counted and folded the rent money, she stuffed it into a crowded black leather coin purse. Then she told the story of the long ago murder of the builder of Highland Hall.



            With a faraway look in her eyes, she commenced.  “It was in the days before the War.  Highland Hall was a plantation house in the midst of over 300 acres.  Mr. Lloyd owned dozens of slaves.” 



            It suddenly dawned on me that “the War” to which she referred was the Civil War.  Even though almost 100 years had passed since its end, older Southerners sometimes tended to think in terms of “before the War and after the War,” because it brought an end to the privileged way of life of their ancestors. 



            The woman related a gory account of the planter’s death. He was reputed to keep a sizeable cache of gold coins hidden in or near his palatial residence.  One morning, during the midst of the harvest season, house servants arrived to start the day’s work, only to find their master crumpled inside.  His throat had been viciously slashed.  A trail of blood led from his bedroom to the front door where he died in a futile attempt to summon assistance. 



            “Your room was his in those days,” she added, gesturing toward the place I’d just agreed to rent.  “There’s a spot of blood by the side of the bed that nobody’s been able to remove in all these years, but you won’t see it since it’s under the carpet. Goodness knows, I’ve tried, but it won’t come up.” 



            The hair stood up on the back of my neck at hearing the grisly story.  For a moment, I considered asking that she return my money so I could get out of there.  By that time she’d packed her coin purse into her handbag.  I suspected that any such request would be futile.  To lose that much money wasn’t an option at that point in my life. 



            “Sometimes I hear Mr. Lloyd screaming,” she continued.  “It’s always late at night.  I’ve never seen him.  I know he’s there–I can almost feel his presence.”



            I struggled to keep a straight face, barely able to avoid scoffing at the fantastic account.  No doubt it was real to her, but I’d recently finished a degree in science.  Certainly, I didn’t believe in such foolishness as ghosts.  Yet, the story had all the right elements:  a scary old house, missing money, and a violent death.  Still, I didn’t buy into it for a minute.



            “While you bring in your things, I’ll fix you a bite to eat.  You can park in the back beside the gardener’s cottage.” 



            I unloaded my car and returned to the room.  My few possessions were contained in a small brown suitcase.  As I placed my clothes into the chest of drawers, she stepped inside my room to hand me a plate with a ham sandwich and a small serving of mashed potatoes.  After I thanked her, I closed my door, sat on the side of the bed, and ate the scanty but tasty meal.  I was glad to accept anything that would help me reach my first payday, two weeks away.  Not wanting to stifle any generous impulses Mrs. Smith might feel in the future, I returned the costly-looking china to the kitchen where I rinsed it thoroughly and placed it carefully into the sink. 



            After taking a nap that lasted longer than I intended, I woke up, surprised to see that dusk had already settled.  When I turned on the elegant hanging light, it provided only dim, yellowish illumination of the cavernous room.   Since I’d accepted the accommodations after only a cursory examination, I looked around more carefully to become better acquainted with my new surroundings. 



            In addition to the exit to the common area, a door led into the entrance hall, but it was locked.  An old-style dresser with a high mirror blocked a passageway to a door that had to open into the adjacent parlor. I looked behind the piece of furniture and found that the wall between the two rooms, rather than being normal thickness, extended several feet.  A closet door led into one end of the massive wall.  A fireplace in my room, plus the one in the parlor, took up the central space.  My closet occupied the remaining area.  It’d been fun to imagine a hidden stairway, but reality showed other reasons for the odd floor plan.



            Due to the absence of a comfortable chair in my quarters, I returned to the common area and sat in the recliner closest to my door.  On the wall, to the left of the television set, hung a yellowed, framed newspaper clipping of considerable length.  A bit bored, but hesitant to use the TV set without permission, I got up and walked over to read the item.  It was a story from the Columbus Ledger that related in more detail the event that Mrs. Smith had described, complete with quotes from people who, over the years, claimed to have heard the victim’s horrible cries. 



            Since I’d taken the tale to be the ranting of a confused old lady, I was surprised to see it given enough legitimacy to have been printed in a reputable newspaper.  Just the same I remained convinced that everything had a natural explanation if one only looked for it.  While a person might have valid reason to be cautious of the living, nobody dead need be feared. 



            The onset of darkness, combined with creaking and popping sounds found in old houses, became disquieting.   I returned to my room and locked the door.  Despite feeling somewhat foolish, I went to the right side of my bed and folded back the carpet.  As I expected, no evidence of a bloodstain appeared. I switched to the other side, and repeated the action.  To my dismay, I found an irregular, almost black splotch about a foot in diameter on the floor under the rug.  Additional, smaller spots of whatever made the pattern were dimly visible.  They led alongside the bed toward the foot.  Could this represent a long-ago spillage of blood?



            I immediately reproached myself for such a thought as I considered any number of alternative explanations.  Most likely it was nothing more than paint.  Nevertheless, I quickly jerked the carpet back into place.  I lay down and slept peacefully for about an hour. 



            Refreshed by the nap, it was about eleven o’clock before I became sufficiently sleepy to go to bed.  Although the mattress was lumpy, the crisp, white sheets had a clean smell.  I set my alarm clock, and placed it on the bedside table so that I could see the luminous dial during the night.  As I drifted into sleep, I heard a loud, almost wailing voice. 



            “God, why do you keep me here?  I want to come to be with my family,” it called out pitifully.  “Don’t make me live any longer.” The unseen speaker emitted an unhappy sigh, followed by a prolonged moan. The sound instantly jerked me awake. 



            The direction of the outcry suggested that it came from Mrs. Smith’s room.  I crept to the locked hallway door and listened.  What was unmistakably her voice continued to entreat death. Embarrassed to overhear her praying, I returned to bed, where I tried not to listen.  Eventually the plaintive voice fell silent.  She was asleep, I concluded, glad to be free of the distressing sound. 



            By then exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep.  What sounded like the creaking of floorboards brought me to consciousness.  Stealthy steps seemed to approach in the darkness.  Would the landlady dare to come into my room during the night?   A glance at the clock showed that it was a few minutes after midnight.  Like a frightened child, I tugged the covers tightly over my head as if that useless measure could protect me from some menace. The steps continued until they reached the side of my bed.  I heard the rasp of labored breathing. 



            Ready to run, or to fight if need be, I abruptly threw back the covers to determine who was there.  To my amazement, the dim moonlight that filtered through the Venetian blinds revealed no form. 



            Ashamed of myself for an overactive imagination stimulated by the wild ghost story and creepy old place, I groped for the top sheet.  It was time to go back to sleep. 



            A deep voice near my ear demanded in a hoarse whisper, “What are you doing here in my room?”



            I rolled instantly to the other side and bounded to my feet.  I didn’t see anything to explain the scary manifestation, yet I ordered with as firm a voice as I could muster, “Get out of here and leave me alone.” 



            The unseen speaker warned, “Try to find my gold and you die.” A stench like rotting flesh permeated the room. A wave of nausea swept over me.  

           

            Sound judgment and sensible thinking vanished in an instant.  Sweat broke out on my forehead as I commenced to breathe heavily.  My heart beat faster and harder, producing a loud thump in both ears.  I began to tremble. 



            “Who are you?  Why can’t I see you?  Leave me alone,” I implored.  “I haven’t done anything to you.” 



            The invisible presence cried out with a long and tortuous scream as if in agony.  Was it Mr. Lloyd?  Was the story true?  The horrifying scream repeated again and again.  Each cry was louder than the one before.  I clapped my hands over my ears in terror, but seemed glued to the floor, unable to run. 



            The next thing I knew, I awoke as my bedside clock alarmed.  Morning sunlight streamed through the windows.  It was broken into beautiful projections of red, green and blue by the prisms of the chandelier.  I heard the sound of traffic passing out front.  Mrs. Smith busily rattled pans in the kitchen.  The aroma of frying bacon filled the air. 



            I lunged out of bed, jerked on my clothes, tossed my belongings into my suitcase, and fled out the back door to my vehicle.  As I raced downtown to the YMCA where I’d previously stayed, I decided that I could afford to lose the rent money after all.

        

                                                           

Epilogue

 



            While this tale is partly a work of fiction, it’s based on a place where I, as a young man, lived after completing undergraduate school.  The house, location and landlady represent actualities, although somewhat distorted for dramatic effect.  The story of the murder, ghost, and gold was well known locally. 



            The ground underneath the raised back of Highland Hall had numerous pits where generations of Collins children had dug in vain for the missing gold.  I confined my searches to the interior.  Once I found a twenty-dollar bill in the bottom of a cavity of a long-abandoned window alongside the staircase to the upper floor.  The date placed its origin within the decade prior to discovery.  Mrs. Smith recalled her addled sister having misplaced just such a bill. 



            I had no encounter with the murder victim, despite living in that house for five years, not a single night as suggested in the story. The apparition described was only a dream.  Nothing in this tale should be taken as endorsing belief in “ghosts.” 



            On a visit to Columbus many years later, I sought out a granite-covered grave at the far right side of Linwood Cemetery.  Along with dates, “Wife of J.J. Smith, and the single word, “Beloved,” was the deeply engraved name, Estelle Collins Smith. 



            The mansion still stood, in use as a frame store.  The magnificent furnishings were gone.  It didn’t look nearly as grand as I remembered.




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Synopsis
A single day spent in a spooky old mansion in Columbus, Georgia.
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