The train left a trail of billowing smoke as it
wound through the low hills and the rhythmic chug, chug, chug of the engine had
put several of its passengers to sleep. Many of them had made this trip on
previous occasions and had little interest in the unfolding scenery. This,
however was all new to one of the two ladies who was enthralled with it all and
especially with the train itself. Belle Fenton had always been fascinated with
the power and romance of the stream engine and with the adventure of being
transported to far away places, in this case in reality rather than through the
magic of books. She was a librarian, or a rather, a recently unemployed librarian,
who was, thanks to her good friend Jennie, taking the first train trip in her life,
more than 25 miles from her home.
Jennie was saying, "You will love my parents and the farm and I am sure
that it will take your mind away from the past couple years at the school. I am
so glad I was able to convince you to come with me on my summer visit
with my parents." Belle had heard all the stories, multiple times of "the farm",
its beauty, the horses, the lake and the quaint town not far away. She was also
quite prepared, and even had some eager anticipation, of the primitive aspects
... no electricity or running water ... although she had some apprehension of
the inconveniences of the lack of indoor plumbing.
They arrived at the town of Crescent Lake, which is situated on the South
end of, what else, Crescent Lake. As they alighted from the rail coach with
their luggage and the kind assistance of the conductor, they were eagerly
greeted by Jennie's father who first hugged his daughter with obvious joy and
then turned to Belle saying, "You must be Miss Fenton. We are so glad to have you
visit this summer. Come ... the buggy is right over here ... you need to get to
the house and get all that filthy train soot off you." They were, in fact, quite
in need of some soap and water for as romantic as train travel may be to some,
it was indeed quite dirty.
apologized for not having one of those automobile "contraptions" but pointed out that
he had no need of one and that the horse was much easer to maintain. He didn't
stop talking during the fifteen minute ride to the farm but Belle enjoyed the
short trip as much as the train ride. Mr. Royce had just informed Belle that the
house was just up the road and to the right, pointing to the house and other
structures which had come into view. Belle saw that the turn in the road had
also revealed another house. At the same time, Jennie exclaimed, "Oh dad, What
happened to the Wilkins place?"
Obviously, there had been a fire. The pile of rubble to one side had been
the barn and the roof of the house was partially covered with a tarpaulin of
some sort. "Oh, the barn burnt down yesterday and the roof of the house caught
fire too. But that's not the worse of it .... Ma will tell you all about it when
you get settled in. She tells it better than I do." Jennie exclaimed, "how
terrible!" Then, "Daddy, is that Mr. Wilkins over there in the family plot?"
Glancing over to the small fenced area where the woods joined the road, he
replied, "Sure looks like him and he's diggin ... wonder what he's up to?"
"Ma" was waiting on the front porch and came down to greet them.
Introductions were made with hugs all around and then Belle was escorted to the
guest room, as it was explained, the former room of Jennie's older brother,
Steve, who as did Jennie, "went off to the city" and in a whisper, "too good for
farm life." There was a basin, a pitcher of water and a dish with a bar of soap
to "clean up a bit". Belle was invited to change from her "traveling" clothes and
rest a bit if she wished, then come down stairs. Dinner would be in about an
After she washed and unpacked her suitcase, Belle put on a comfortable
dress and immediately went down to join the family where she found Jennie
already in conversation with her parents. She was telling her mom what they all
had seen as they passed the Wilkins place. Her mother, with an anguished look on
her face remarked that it gets stranger and stranger all the time. "Its a crime
what is going on over there ... where will it end?" was her comment.
Well, that was the topic of conversation all evening and Belle asked
question after question. First of course she and Jennie were told of the
previous day's fire and the missing child. When Belle asked about the child, the
story of its birth and how it was kept in the house all these years was related. The tale
unfolded in bits and pieces largely from the recollections of Mrs. Royce,
some interjections of Mr. Royce and a little from Jennie. As an aid to the
reader, I will put it all in order as it unfolded in time rather than the random
order of accounts which Belle heard.
It all began years ago when Willie Wilkins and Emily Lenning were in
school. They were, as people said, "two of a kind", both a little "slow" and
both very shy. They were attracted to each other and, well, she became pregnant.
There was a quick wedding and Emily moved in to the Wilkins place. The baby was
stillborn and nothing more was said about things at the time but the Lenning
family was terribly upset about the entire situation and moved back to New York
State where they had come from. No one heard from them since. Willie
was good with his hands and became the town handyman, doing odd jobs and since most
folks felt sorry for him, they hired him to fix a screen door, repair a roof or
build shelves and such, whenever they could. His work was always more than
The Wilkins family had lived on the place for generations and that is why
there was a family plot near the road. There were twelve graves there and when
both Willie's parents died of the fever within a year of the marriage, they were
also buried there. Willie and Emily had a vegetable garden and had some fruit
trees. That, and fish from the lake, plus Willie's little jobs kept them fed and
solvent. Emily kept mostly to herself and the two were never known to go to
church and certainly didn't socialize with anyone. Everyone kind of felt
sorry for the couple but they seemed to be getting along all right so the let
them be. But, after a time, Emily was pregnant again.
After her time progressed a few months, Willie put her on the train to the
city. The stationmaster asked about it and was told that she had an aunt and
uncle with whom she would stay and a hospital nearby. They thought that it would
be better to have the baby in a hospital rather than rely on a midwife again,
which of course made all the sense in the world.
Eb, the stationmaster, had related what happened when she returned. He had
thought it very strange. Emily stepped down from the train with the baby
completely covered in a small light blanket even though the day was warm. The
conductor, after helping her down, reached back for her suitcase and placed it
on the platform. By then Willie was there and gave Emily a kiss but did not even
attempt to look at the baby. They went right to the buggy and were soon on the
road out of town. That was five years ago.
Since then no one has seen the child up close. A few neighbors had gone to
the Wilkins place bringing small gifts but were always told, "The child is
asleep" and while the gifts were politely accepted, the visitor was gently
turned away. Others who heard of this "affront" just didn't bother to go. There
were times when Emily was seen about the place, at first with the child in her
arms and latter being pulled about in a red wagon (is there any other color?) or
in winter, on a sled, But even several years later when it should be walking it
was never seen outside. Of course every one talked. Was the child deformed? Was
it an idiot? ... or both? The question was never answered but always asked.
Willie was often asked how the child and Emily were doing and it was always
the same, "Oh, they're fine." and nothing more. The other strange thing was that
Willie always referred to it as "Emily's Child". He never said "Our child" and
there was never the mention of a name or any reference to gender. Of course
during five years of this, the buzz, when people gathered for church or anything
else for that matter, just grew louder. "It is a crime how they treat that
child!" was often heard. "Will they keep it locked up forever?"
All this was related during dinner and afterward they went out to the
comfortable chairs on the lawn which slopped down to the lake. It was there that
the story continued.
Mr. Royce first saw dark smoke coming from the Wilkin's barn. He first
called to Ma, as he always referred to her, and by the time she reached the
porch there were licks of flame emitting from between the boards. She
immediately began sounding the dinner bell hanging on the porch, meant to call
the workers in from the fields when this had been a working farm. As John Royce
ran to his neighbors place, Willie was desperately trying to get his horse from
the barn and had just succeeded as John arrived. It was at dusk on a cloudy day and by
this time someone in town ad seen the smoke and flames. The town fire bell had
sounded and help would be on the way. The women had gotten buckets and soon
Willie, John, Ma and Emily were doing their best to get some water from the lake
onto the blaze with little or no effect.
By the time the volunteer firemen arrived, the barn was beyond saving and
embers had ignited the roof of the house. The almost new and untried fire truck
was driven between the house and the lake where the big hose was unreeled with
the end thrown into the water. The firemen manned the other hose and the pumper
revved up until a steady stream quenched the flames that had started eating away
at the roof. The house and most of the roof had been saved. While this was
happening, others arrived and two men rushed into the house. Some time later,
the men emerged reporting that there was some water damage up stairs but little
else. But they were perplexed. They found no child, just a child's room, some
clothing and a few toys.
While a tarp was obtained from a neighbor and secured over the damaged
section of roof, the fire chief asked Emily where she had put the child. Her
startling response was, "I have no child." Emily, obviously distressed, was
sobbing. She sat down on the grass simply repeating, time after time, "I have no
child." Willie came to her with tears streaming down his cheeks, threw his arms
around her and held her as the firemen cleaned up and neighbors continued to
gather. Someone suggested that a search be made of the house, small outbuildings
and the nearby woods. This was quietly done but nothing was found amiss,
certainly no trace of the missing child. But it was already quite dark and the
woods had not been well searched at all.
Mr. Royce told Willie he would take his horse to his barn and Ma, with some
trepidation, invited the couple to spend the night at the Royce place. As the
offer was made, the couple looked up at Ma and John and were both smiling
through their tears. The offer was gratefully declined and Ma was grateful that
it had been. She knew a crime had been committed here but could only imagine
what it had been ... And imagine she did. How could they be smiling?
Well, that was the story to this point and by now the mosquitoes had driven
the four back into the house. Ma suggested that Mr. go to town in the morning
and tell the sheriff about what Willie was seen doing in the grave plot and about
those smiles, those mysterious smiles! Belle asked if she could go along with
him. She wanted to know more and also said she would make a phone call to
someone she thought may be able to obtain some "missing" information.
So it was that the next day found Mr. Royse, Jennie and Belle in the office
of the sheriff on the first floor of the county building. Jennie related the
scene in the Wilkins family plot and added the witnessing of those strange
smiles. The sheriff thanked them and agreed that further investigation was in
order. He wished to talk to others before doing anything and the couple in
question weren't apt to go anywhere so he had time to gather as much facts as
possible before visiting them. Belle asked if there was a telephone she could use
to call the city and was directed to one in the deputies' office.
Belle knew that Constable Wagner had an eye for her since that
horrible episode in the library of the college (but that's another story) and
she could rely on him to make some inquiries. The long distance connection was
made with no more than the usual delay and she was soon relating as much of the
story as needed and the request was made for assistance. As she anticipated, the
constable was eager to help and said he would contact her when he had some
information. Their task completed, the trio returned to the house and the girl's
vacation was resumed.
Belle soon got accustomed to the lack of amenities, all of them, and became
lost in the adventures of the countryside. There were boat rides and she was
even introduced to fishing. She also enjoyed swimming in the pristine waters of
the lake. Most of all, once she overcame the fear, she enjoyed the horseback
riding. It was on one such ride, this one was to be a long one along the road
leading further from town that Billy, the stationmaster's son, came puffing up
on his bicycle just as the girls were leaving the farm. "Are you Miss Fenton?"
he inquired as he fought to catch his breath. When getting an affirmative reply
he dug a piece of blue paper from his pocked and reaching it up to her
announced, "Telegram for you." It was as informative as it was brief. "News"
stop "Call". Stop and signed "Wagner". That was enough and
Jennie said, "Can we ride to town instead of to the countryside? I must
telephone the constable." Jennie nodded yes and Belle remembered the messenger.
"Please wait here for your tip. I must go back to the house for my purse." When
the lad told her ,very reluctantly but all the same generously, to forget about
it, she said that she may need change for the telephone anyway and insisted he
wait. He needed no more persuasion and presently Belle returned presenting him
with a shinny quarter. He was most grateful especially since his usual gratuity
was most often a dime.
The boy was soon way ahead of them as they rode to town. Jennie suggested
that they go to the Sheriff's office as she was sure he would allow them to use
his telephone and besides they may learn more of his investigation. And so it
was that it was from her telephone conversation with Constable Wagner that Belle
received some very interesting and informative news after which, she asked the
sheriff to talk privately with her. When they emerged from the private office
the sheriff was saying that this put entire different light on things but there
were still some questions to be resolved. He said he and his deputy would be out
the next day and maybe he could ask the girls and Mr. and Mrs. Royce go with him
to visit Emily and Willie.
Jennie was a little, or more than a little, miffed that Belle was keeping
secrets from her ... her best friend. Belle explained that she had learned just
part of the story and that there were still questions open and unanswered. After
all, she still may be wrong about this whole thing and she didn't want to plant
unfounded ideas around. That didn't realy satisfy Jennie but she knew her friend
well enough to know that further plea's would be fruitless. When they arrived
back home, Jennie related all she knew including her displeasure with her
friend. They all went to bed that night to spend a sleepless night with all
sorts of scenarios racing through their minds, all that is, except Belle who
slept like the proverbial baby.
About mid morning the sheriff and his deputy drove up looking very official
in their best uniforms. Ma ask, "Ready to make some arrests?". The reply
surprised her. "Probably not, but lets get on over there." "But hasn't there been
a crime?" asked Mrs. Royce. Again ... "Probably not." Since all could not fit
into the car, they walked the short distance and as they did, noticed that both
Willie and Emily were at the family plot. As they approached, Willie was pounding
a wooden marker in the ground and his wife waited with some flowers. This
was truly an astounding, yet perplexing sight. But then everything about this
situation was perplexing.
The two were again smiling but now the tears were gone. The sheriff greeted
them with a warm "good morning" and asked if they could ask a few questions,
"just to satisfy unfounded rumors." Ma could contain herself no more and blurted
out, "But ... hasn't there been some sort of crime?" Belle put her hand on Ma's
arm and quietly said, Yes, but it may be one entirely different than you think."
Addressing the smiling couple, the Sharif asked, "Was there ever a child?" Emily
and Willie replied in unison, "No."
Ma, Mr. Royse and Jennie exclaimed in unison, "But we all saw ... "
cut them short asking, "Did anyone ever see an actual child?" Not waiting for a
reply, she answered her own question. "No, all anyone saw was a bundle that
could have been a child." She then explained what Constable Wagner had
discovered when he contacted the hospital in which Emily was confined for her
delivery and then when he found the aunt and uncle. This baby was, as was her
first, still born, quite premature. Poor Emily was so distraught as to be almost
uncontrollable. She blamed herself for failing the poor soul of her child by not
being able to carry it to term and give it life. She kept pleading for the
nurses to give her baby to her and out of desperation they gave her a doll to
which she clung, repeatedly saying she was sorry. They could not convince her to
give up the doll and so as she was discharged a nurse gave her a receiving
blanket in which the doll could be wrapped, just like a real live baby. She kept
the doll in the blanket until well enough to travel and her aunt and uncle put
her on the train with it. In the mean time they sent a letter to her husband
which explained everything and let him know when she would be arriving at
They all turned to the couple who nodded their affirmation to the story, Ma
then asked, this time with sensitivity, "But what happened the night of the
fire?" It was Emily who responded. "I knew all the time that there was no child
but could not bring myself to realy believe it. I think I wanted somehow for it
to be alive for if it was not, I had failed it. But when that man came out of
our house and said that there was no child, the words suddenly brought me to
reality. Nobody had spoken those words before, at least not since the hospital
and I guess I needed someone to say them." Willie interjected, "I did not know
how to say them." He continued, "But when my darling kept repeating that there
was no child I knew she had been released from her guilt ... we had both been
released and we could now be happy. There was only one thing left to be done."
Belle said, "And that brings us to this grave." Willie nodded, and said, "It
is a box with the blanket, clothes and toys." and stepping aside revealed the
words he had inscribed on the marker: "Here lies forever, Our guilt and sadness"
Ma, with tears in her eyes, softly and slowly said, "And I now see there
has indeed been a grievous crime here and the crime is the way we, as neighbors,
have treated you." Willie replied, that he and Emily had talked about it most of
the day after the fire and through the night and that they hold no grudge.
He blamed himself for not asking for help. Emily placed the flowers on the grave
and said, "Let all guilt be buried forever ... mine is buried here." With that,
they turned from the grave and the burial plot, Ma insisting that they all go
back to the house for some lemonade. It was, as had been said someplace else,
"The beginning of a beautiful friendship".
The word spread like wildfire and all that happened along with what hadn't
happened was told all through the county. Several days later neighbors from all
around descended on the Wilkins' place in cars, trucks and wagons bringing
lumber, nails and roofing materials. Within a week the roof of the house had
been restored and the barn rebuilt, larger and better than the old one. Ma,
Jenny, Emily and Belle all served refreshments and lunch for the workers and
their wives brought the food from their homes. Willie and Emily were assured
that all this was nothing more than the community owed to them for the way they
were shunned and maligned the past years, and yes, before that. The pastor
along with a large group from the local church invited them to Sunday service
and when they came, there was a sincere and public apology with a multitude of
private apologies both before and after the service.
It was found that Emily had a real talent, hidden all this time. She had a
gift of being able to sew as well as crafting beautiful designs.
She soon had many families commissioning her to make party dresses,
wedding gowns and her most loved creations, Christening gowns, for which she
always refused payment. Ma often was heard to say, "Its a crime we didn't get to
know them sooner." Yes indeed, ... Its a crime!