Salem Massachusetts, September, 1831
“It seems an unlikely day to conjure up ghosts,” mumbled the old man. The response provoked a curious look from the younger male seated next to him on the perch of the open, horse-drawn chaise. “The sky is so bright and so blue today,” the old man continued, closing his eyes in recollection. “A warm soft blue as was the color of her bonnet the first day I set eyes upon her.” He opened his eyes and turned toward his travel companion. “Such a cruel irony is the finality of death.”
“How do you mean, father?” asked the younger gentleman.
“For although I am overcome with a great emptiness at the loss of a dear friend, I am comforted with the belief that her soul has been delivered into the hands of the Creator. I shall miss her.”
“It was a beautiful service,” replied the young man, preoccupied with clutching the reins, guiding the mare’s steady trot as it pulled the bouncing chaise over cobblestone streets.
“She was a special lady,” the old man paused to reflect. “Lived a long life, she did.”
“Salem has changed much since you brought me here as a boy,” recalled the young man. “So many homes.”
“Yes, Joshua, but it is still Salem…still timeless…still dark and mysterious. Her gabled roofs and spires beckon thee to days gone by.”
“I can see the church, father.”
The old man peered upwards and gazed upon the colorful foliage canopy that lined the streets. “Autumn is New England,” he said with a pleasant sigh. Through the breaks in the tree branches he could distinguish the steeple of the red brick church. “Another block or two,” he determined.
The chaise slowed at an intersection alive with pedestrians and a variety of horse drawn vehicles. “Stop here for a moment,” the old man instructed. His eyes widened. “It was here…here on this corner.”
“What was here, father?”
“The seven gabled Turner home stands just down the street facing the sea,” he explained pointing. “It was here as a lad that I listened to the tale from an old sea dog. It was here that it all began for me that day, so many years ago.” The old man stared off into the distance locked in a memory.
“You have many fond memories of this place?” Joshua asked.
The old man returned from his reminiscence and looked at his son. “I have many memories…not all of them very fond,” he said with a grin bespeaking of a man with a secret. “Let us proceed to the church.”
With a sigh, Joshua snapped the reins and the horse resumed its trot pulling the chaise another block. The vehicle came to rest before a large red stone building with a gabled rooftop sloping toward the north, adjoined with a tall steeple rising high above the roof that dominated the structure. The building’s religious significance shown in the large white Christian cross that was positioned against the façade and centered above the middle of three long stained glass windows. The oak door of the church had been set below the windows and the carved wooden sign planted in the front yard revealed the identity of the house of worship…Immaculate Conception.
Joshua turned toward his father. “A Catholic church? Father, did you bring me here to tell me you’ve changed your denomination?”
The old man smiled. “Come, Father O’Brien is expecting our arrival,” he said gingerly climbing down from out of the vehicle with the support of a cane.
The two men proceeded up the narrow stone walkway to the front steps of the church. “It looks to be a new building,” Joshua remarked, adjusting his stride to slow his pace with that of his father’s.
“Six years. It was built in eighteen twenty-five,” his father responded quickly.
At the top of the steps, both men removed their stylish top hats and Joshua pulled the large wooden door open allowing his father to pass through. As the door closed behind them, he followed the old man inside the church, temporarily blinded by darkness that was broken only by a half dozen symmetrical streams of sunlight penetrating stained glass windows at the sides of the church.
Joshua stood in the rear of the church trying to adjust his eyes to the sudden darkness before he recognized the resonance of his father’s cane against the wooden floor moving away from him. He peered down the center aisle of the church that split uniformed rows of wooden pews and realized that his father had continued on a path down the center of the building toward the altar.
“Father?!” Joshua called out in a loud whisper; but to no avail.
“It’s all right,” a voice assured, originating from a figure appearing suddenly from out of the shadows across the room to Joshua’s left. The man moved in Joshua’s direction pacing through a row of pews dressed in a long sleeved, close-fitting, black garment skirted at the feet with a high stiff white neck collar.
“Father O’Brien?” Joshua deduced.
“Yes,” he smiled reaching Joshua with hand extended.
The two men shook hands and then Joshua remembered his father, turning to see him now standing upon the altar beside a marble table, dwarfed by religious images painted on the wall behind him. A large wooden crucifix was centered above the altar flanked by two stone statues—one of the Virgin Mary and the other of Joseph the Carpenter.
“You must be Joshua Caleb Pratt,” the silver-haired priest acknowledged reclaiming Joshua’s attention. “Your father has mentioned you often in our correspondence. I dare say you’re younger than I imagined.”
Joshua chuckled politely. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Father, but I am thirty-three.”
Suddenly pounding echoed about the church, temporarily interrupting their conversation. Immediately Joshua focused his attention to where the altar was positioned and watched as his father pounded the end of his cane against the diamond-shaped sandstone set in the center of the marble-laid floor in front of the sacred table. “Father!” Joshua gasped.
Red-faced with embarrassment Joshua turned back toward Father O’Brien. “I don’t know what’s come over him?!”
The priest continued to smile. “It is all right. After all, your father’s generosity allowed for the construction of this church—God won’t mind if he beats on a stone.”
Joshua was surprised. “My father built this church?”
“He owned the land on which this church stands and donated it to the Diocese.”
Joshua brought his hand to his chin with a bewildered look.
“You are surprised?” O’Brien asked.
“Somewhat…you know my father is a member of the Second Congregation Church—I don’t understand this connection with the Catholic Church? I mean it’s all very strange,” Joshua admitted. “I’ll be honest with you. We were raised in a very strong Christian home, but my family spent very little time in church. It wasn’t something my parents emphasized. So I’m not really sure why my father has brought me here today; he has never spoken of this particular parish. We’ve come directly from a funeral, but my father insisted we stop here before departing for home. He was quite adamant about it you know…I couldn’t refuse.”
“Perhaps he has a secret he wishes to share?” the priest replied with a smile.
“He has been very cryptic today,” Joshua replied, “Well I guess I had better find out. Excuse me,” He turned away from the priest and began pacing down the center aisle toward his father.
The old man had ceased his assault on the stone, stepping from the altar, and began a pace down the center aisle for a few steps before meeting his son.
Joshua turned back toward Father O’Brien to be certain the priest still maintained his distance at the back of the church and well out of earshot from the two of them before addressing his father. “Father I’m very confused,” Joshua began. “The priest has told me you once owned the land upon which this church is built. Is this true?”
The old man grinned. “You doubt the word of a man of the cloth?”
“Well….” Joshua stammered. “No…but…”
“Father O’Brien!” the old man called, looking beyond Joshua. “May I have some time alone here with my son?”
“Of course. I shall speak with you later,” the priest replied and disappeared within the shadows at the rear of the church.
“Sit down, my son,” the old man instructed pointing to a pew.
Joshua reluctantly dropped down in the pew and his father slid in beside him.
“My friend’s untimely departure has brought me to Salem today. Her unfortunate passing has called attention to my own mortality,” the old man began, pausing to take a breath and gather his thoughts before continuing. “As you know, although you were born and raised in the state of New York, I have my roots in New England—in fact, here in this very town of Salem. My devotion and honesty toward my family and friends has been incessant and I have endured seventy-seven good years marred only by the grim misfortune of outliving a wife whose love bore me seven children.” The old man glanced up at the crucifix above the altar and then back at his son. “You and your brothers and sisters will someday inherit a small fortune—money I accumulated as a proprietor of a brewery. But did you know that when I was a lad I spent my days as a journeyman in the art of shoemaking and eventually became a shoemaker?”
“I believe mother told me that at one time,” Joshua revealed. “Father I don’t like the tone of this conversation…after all you are in good health.”
The old man smiled and ignored his son’s concern. “And I am very much intrigued by religion and a portion of my income has been donated to churches of various denominations. It is a gesture of my deep conviction to faith and righteousness.”
“But you and mother never placed much emphasis on attending church? I remember you once saying organized religion restrains the soul?”
The old man grinned. “Yes…I did. Didn’t I?”
“So you’ve built other churches?” Joshua inquired leaning forward.
“No. This is the only church built on land I once owned.”
“Why Catholic and not Protestant?”
“Timing,” the old man responded. “Please let me continue.”
Joshua sighed and leaned back in the pew.
“Throughout my life I have been privy to many a momentous event from the birth of American democracy to the wondrous engineering feat that is the Erie Canal. I have witnessed the terms of seven presidents and inhaled the suffocating smoke from gunpowder as our nation plodded through two wars with Britain. I have tasted the fruits of liberty provided by the Constitution and listened to the political discourse on equality—all the while Uncle Sam continues to add stars to the American flag at the expense of the Indian and black slave. I have felt the power of industry, and the sudden rash of inventions has given me a glimpse of the future. In spite of such stirring occurrences, it is the recollection of my confrontation with one called…” the old man paused and gripped his son’s right arm. “I have not uttered his name in many years…” he swallowed hard, turned away from Joshua, and peered at the altar. “The one called Cyrus Eblis,” he uttered quickly before turning back toward Joshua. “It was my confrontation with Eblis that has done the most to chart the course of my existence.”
The old man’s tone was more serious now and he released his hold on Joshua’s arm. “My childhood was cast in a time when skepticism bred ostracism. The long shadow of suspicion would quickly envelop those eager to share an unusual experience or strange encounter. Thus on an unforgettable night many years ago, a trio of friends pledged an oath of secrecy, vowing never to reveal the following experience while all remained among the living. Instead we decided that the burden of recording the macabre events of our youth would fall upon the last surviving member of our trinity. God help me—for I am that person!”
Joshua turned to see if the priest still stood at the rear of the church, but found him to be gone and then turned back to his father. “You’re serious, aren’t you father?”
“I have never been more serious. What I am about to tell you may seem fantastic and the imaginative product of a man stricken by years; but as your father, I can only give you my word on the authenticity of the events and implore you to remain patient with the story I have to tell. Do I have your attention?”
Joshua nodded. “Yes…of course, father.”
“And so I begin…,” the old man said, slumping against the back of the pew, “…as if slumbering back into the midst of a bad dream. As I remember, I was a boy of thirteen when first hearing the legend of the beast of Cape Hatteras; although I must admit that I’ve acquired a deep respect for the validity of such folklore and use the term legend loosely. It was with the recital of the Cape Hatteras story that the experience with Cyrus Eblis began for me—a nightmarish chapter of my youth worthy to be recounted around the dying embers of a fireplace on a stormy autumn evening. Sometimes there exists a fine line between myth and reality…I crossed that line in the autumn of seventeen sixty-seven…”