The Secret Garden at Thornehurst
Delilah Thorne placed her jewels in a small cedar chest and piled a supply of gold coins on top of them. Then she went downstairs and handed the chest to her most trusted slave. "Bury it deep in the woods, but be sure you'll be able to find it after they've left."
Once the slave left to carry out her request, Delilah fell to her knees and prayed. It was really all she could do. Her husband, as well as all the other able-bodied young men from the plantations neighboring Thornehurst, were off fighting for the Confederacy--those that were still alive, that is. Thankfully, Buford Thorne was one of the lucky ones. He had not been killed in battle, had not been taken prisoner and miraculously had not even been wounded.
The war won't last much longer, Delilah thought gratefully. The glorious cause for which so many Southern gentlemen had fought and died was coming to an end. The Confederacy had been humbled by the Union and was now going through its death throes. Delilah had seen many fine, noble families of the Old South destroyed during the past few years: men killed or maimed, fortunes lost and homes destroyed. Now Sherman's army was on the march, eager to bring the war to the people of Georgia.
Delilah looked around her at the beauty of Thornehurst. To her, the magnificent mansion was more than a house; it was a symbol of the Thorne family's wealth and accomplishment. Holding back her tears, she continued to pray to God that Thornehurst be spared.
Later that day, a small group of distant neighbors appeared at Delilah's door. Like most of the people in Georgia, they were destitute and hungry.
"Come in," she said graciously, as she led her guests to the parlor. "We haven't much food to offer you, but I can make...."
The oldest of the group, the patriarch of a once prosperous family, silenced her with a wave of his hand. "We have not come to take your food," he said, summoning what was left of his pride.
"Something to drink perhaps?" The old man shook his head. "What can I do for your then?" Delilah asked.
"It is what we can do for you that brought us here. Last week Sherman's General Slocum was headquartered in our home. When he left, his soldiers took what food they could carry off, and then they burned down the barn." The old man chuckled bitterly. "It appears our Mr. Sherman has difficulty understanding signal flags and prefers reports from his generals in the form of smoke signals."
"They are soldiers at war, my dear. At least their deeds, unpleasant as they are, can be understood. It is the stragglers that follow in the army's wake, the bummers as they are called, who are the true monsters. They are heartless and cruel and lack even a semblance of a conscience."
"I have heard rumors of such men."
"They are not rumors. Not long after Slocum left, they arrived. My wife and daughter hid in the woods behind the ice house, for fear of what the men might do."
Tears burned in the old man's eyes. "I did nothing. I stood by, helpless, as those animals looted and burned down my home."
The old man's daughter put her hand on his arm. "There was nothing you could have done, Father. If you had put up any resistance, they would have killed you," she sobbed.
Delilah watched with compassion. "I'm so sorry for all your troubles."
"Thank you. We have lost our home and our fortune, but we still have each other. We will survive."
He lovingly squeezed his daughter's hand and smiled at his wife. Then he turned back to Delilah.
"Slocum is headed this way. He is camped only a day's march from here."
Delilah looked to the door with fear as if expecting to see the Yankees marching up the driveway.
"Your husband is off fighting, and you're left alone here with only a handful of slaves. You must come with us. We have a little money. We can make a new start in New Orleans."
"Leave Thornehurst?" Delilah was shocked at the very notion of such a thing.
"The bummers will burn it to the ground just as they have every other home they've ransacked from here to Atlanta."
"I cannot leave here."
"We'll get word to Buford. If not now, then after the war is over. He can join you in New Orleans."
"From the bottom of my heart I thank you for your kindness and your generosity, but my leaving here is out of the question. Thornehurst is my home, and I will stay here, despite Sherman's army."
* * *
The Yankees arrived at Thornehurst in the late afternoon of the following day. General Slocum and his officers entered the stately old home while the men pitched tents on the lawns and in the fields. Slocum nodded to a small group of men who began searching the rooms, fearful of discovering a crazed old rebel with a shotgun or a vindictive belle with a pistol. To their surprise, the house was empty.
"The owners must have been warned that we were coming," Slocum said. "They're probably off hiding in one of the outbuildings. Knox, you and your men have a look around. Make sure there's no one preparing to attack us while we sleep."
Lieutenant Knox split his men into three groups, sending one to check the barn, another to search the slave quarters and the last to look through the smoke house, the ice house and all the other ancillary buildings on the plantation. As his men searched for any possible threat to the army's safety, Randolph Knox walked around the property surrounding the mansion. Thornehurst was a beautiful building, he noted, but it was the grounds rather than the house itself that most impressed him. He marveled at the velvet green lawn, the giant oak trees covered with Spanish moss and the colorful, fragrant gardens.
As he walked along a narrow brick path that was nearly obscured by tall, blossoming Azalea bushes, he compared the relative discomfort of the frigid New England winters and the sweltering Georgia summers. Suddenly he came upon a site that left him stunned by its sheer beauty. A young woman with hair the color of sunshine and skin as creamy as fresh milk stood at the side of a small pond fed by a clear woodland stream. Around the pond grew a profusion of flowers of varying sizes and colors. Randolph felt as though he were Adam standing on the threshold of Eden, catching his first glimpse of Eve.
The young woman turned to face him. Fear and surprise showed on her face but not panic. "Are you with the army," she bravely asked, "or are you one of those lawless stragglers who prey upon the weak and defenseless?"
"I'm Lieutenant Randolph Knox," he announced in his New England twang. "I'm serving under General Henry Warner Slocum in command of Sherman's 20th Corps."
"And you are here, no doubt, to take my food and burn down my barn."
Knox hung his head in shame. He did not like waging war on civilians, yet Sherman was determined to "make Georgia howl," and he must follow orders.
"Our army is on the march," he explained, "and we need provisions."
The woman turned her attention back to the mirror-like surface of the pool. "Do what you must, lieutenant," Delilah said softly.
"It will be dark soon," Knox observed. "You should go back to the house."
"No. It's no longer my home. It's overrun with Yankees."
"We'll be gone early tomorrow morning."
"And then the bummers will come and destroy whatever your men have left."
Knox knew that the woman's predictions would come true. There were ruthless men from both armies who pillaged the war-torn South. It was so unfair, he thought. Men died, houses and even whole towns were destroyed and women were left to mourn and suffer. As was so often said, war was hell.
"Find anything?" Slocum asked when Lieutenant Knox returned to the main house.
"Nothing but a handful of terrified slaves," he lied. "The master of the house is out fighting for the Confederacy. Most of their fellow slaves headed north after Mr. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This group stayed here, probably too afraid to leave."
"Well, let them stay on the land for now," Slocum said. "Let Mr. Lincoln decide what to do with them when the war is over. We've got to worry about getting to Savannah."
* * *
Delilah spent the night in one of the empty slave cabins. As Lieutenant Knox had told her, Slocum's men left the following morning but only after first torching the barn. At the site of the flames, Thornehurst's remaining slaves began running for buckets to fill with water.
"Don't bother," Delilah said as she watched the barn burn. "Even if you could save it, the bummers will only come along and set fire to it again. Come with me. We will hide in the cellar of the overseer's house. No one will find us there. But first we will take as many of the family heirlooms from Thornehurst as we can carry."
Only a few hours after fleeing the grand house, Delilah heard the sound of the stragglers' shouts, although she could not make out at a distance what they said. Soon the yelling was punctuated by the sound of breaking glass. They're ransacking the place, she thought with profound sorrow.
After what seemed an eternity, the sounds gave way to silence. But with the silence came the acrid smell of burning wood. The magnificent home known as Thornehurst was ablaze.
Delilah later returned to the empty slave cabin where she lived, surrounded by the treasures she and her faithful slaves had managed to save from the bummers, waiting for Buford to return. The war, however, had not yet taken its full toll on her; the final blow was yet to come. On March 2, 1865, at the battle of Waynesboro, Buford Thorne was shot in the shoulder. He died of gangrene seven days later, exactly one month before Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
Lieutenant Randolph Knox, too, was to know the pain of loss. When the long, bloody war at last came to an end, he returned home to Puritan Falls, only to learn that his young wife had died of scarlet fever three months earlier.
Feeling he had nothing to lose, he sold his house, withdrew his savings from the bank and headed south to Georgia. There, like so many others from the North, he made a fortune during Reconstruction. But unlike the disreputable carpetbaggers, Randolph took pity on the former Confederates and contributed large sums of money to charities from which they benefited.
* * *
The years went by, and the city of Atlanta, like the mythical phoenix, rose from the ashes to live again. And as the city of Atlanta prospered, so too did Randolph Knox.
In 1905 the former Yankee lieutenant celebrated his sixtieth birthday, and a formal dinner was given in his honor. It was an elaborate affair but not a very joyous one, for Randolph's life had not been a particularly happy one, successful though it was. His second wife died in childbirth, and their prematurely delivered son died a few days later. After losing two wives, Randolph never remarried. Instead, he lived the lonely life of a widower.
Added to this unhappy marital state were the painful memories he carried of the years he'd served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Many a night he was haunted by the sound of cannons and the screams of wounded and dying men.
On the eve of his sixtieth birthday, Randolph made a monumental decision. "I'm going to sell the business," he told his attorney.
The lawyer looked at him with concern. "You're not ill, are you?"
"No, just old and tired. I want to spend the last years of my life in peace."
"What will you do with all that free time?"
"Travel perhaps or maybe I'll take up painting or gardening."
"And go mad with boredom," the lawyer laughed.
"No, I welcome it, in fact. Besides, it's time for me to move on. The company could use some young blood and fresh ideas."
"Do you have a buyer yet?"
"I've received a generous offer from a man in Savannah. I think I'll accept it."
Two weeks after the meeting with his attorney, Randolph signed the papers transferring ownership of his company to the gentleman from Savannah.
"Now that you'll have some free time," the new owner said, "you should visit Savannah. It's a beautiful city. Have you ever been there?"
"Once," Randolph replied sadly, reminded of his participation in Sherman's march toward the sea, "but that was many years ago."
* * *
That summer Atlanta was hotter than normal, and many people fled the city to vacation in cooler climes. Hence, Randolph decided it would be the most sensible time to begin his travels. He would first visit friends in Savannah and then take a boat north. It had been a long time since he'd seen New England. Two days into his journey, Randolph realized that he was traveling much the same route to Savannah as General Slocum had some forty years earlier. Poor farms stood where the grand plantations once dotted the Georgia countryside. Not far from where he stopped to rest the second night, was the spot where a young Yankee lieutenant saw a beautiful blond woman standing beside a tranquil pool.
So many times during the intervening years, Randolph had thought of that young woman and longed to escape to that peaceful setting. Through the trials and tribulations of his life, he often imagined himself standing beside that radiant creature, amidst all those fragrant blossoms, listening to the peaceful trickling of the woodland stream flowing into the pond.
Suddenly, he had the urge to see the site again, although he seriously doubted he would be able to find it. But he was in no rush to get to Savannah. After all, he was retired and no longer bound to a time schedule.
Randolph turned his horseless carriage off the main route and began seeking out the roads less traveled. After several hours of riding over bumpy dirt roads, he was about to give up his pursuit and continue on to Savannah, but then he drove over a wooden-plank bridge that spanned a small stream.
He stopped his car, got out and looked at the path of the winding stream. There was no way he could follow it with his automobile, so he pulled the car off onto the side of the road and began walking. For an hour and forty-five minutes, Randolph followed the stream through fields and woods. Nothing looked even remotely familiar, however.
"This is ridiculous," he told himself. "I'm not going to find anything."
Then he entered a thickly wooded area where the trees were very dense, and there was a good deal of undergrowth that made walking along the steam quite difficult. Randolph persisted, however. Some force he could not understand urged him on. He trekked through the woods for almost another hour before he spotted a small clearing. His heart raced when a light breeze carried to him the scent of garden flowers.
He continued on and soon found himself standing before the same peaceful pond he had seen when he was part of Sherman's army. It was just as he remembered it. But what about the house? he wondered. Had the stragglers burned it? Had the woman been forced to sell the place in order to survive the hard days following the war?
Randolph found the brick path through the azalea bushes to the house where General Slocum and his officers had slept one night. To his surprise, the beautiful mansion was not only still standing, but it was in pristine condition. He walked to the front of the house where he could see from the modern materials used, that it was not the original structure after all. Someone had rebuilt the house after the war.
As he stood on the driveway marveling at the architectural beauty of Thornehurst, the front door opened, and out onto the veranda walked a young woman with hair the color of sunlight and skin as creamy as fresh milk. She must be the daughter--no, the granddaughter--of the woman he'd seen in 1864. The young woman stared at him, and Randolph realized he had no logical reason for being on her property.
"I'm sorry if I've frightened you," he apologized. But it was not fear or even curiosity he saw on her face; it was recognition. "Do I know you?" he asked. "Perhaps we have mutual friends in Atlanta."
The woman shook her head. "I've never been there, and I don't have any friends."
A deep sadness in her voice tugged at Randolph's heart. "I find that hard to believe," he replied. "Why, a beautiful woman like you must have dozens of gentlemen callers." The young woman raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry for speaking so boldly," he apologized.
"I have no gentlemen friends--not since I lost my husband."
"Oh, forgive me. I had no idea."
"And what about you, Lt. Knox? How have you fared since the end of the war? And what brings you back to Thornehurst after all these years?"
Randolph stared at the woman, dumfounded. "How do you know who I am?"
"Don't you remember when we first met, lieutenant? It was right here. Or rather, it was beside the pond."
"It couldn't have been you I met! You're just a young woman."
Delilah Thorne walked down the stairs and took Randolph's arm. "Why don't we take a little stroll, and I'll tell you all about it."
She led him back along the azalea-lined brick walkway to the small pond. "I was standing here beside the water, and you came along the path. I asked you if you were with the regular army or if you were a straggler."
Randolph shook his head and repeated, "It can't be you!"
Delilah bent over and, cupping her hands together, scooped up a handful of water. "Drink this," she said.
He looked at her questioningly and then took a sip. The water was cool and had a faint mineral flavor to it.
"That's odd," Randolph said after several more sips. "For the past few years I've been having trouble with my hearing. It seems to have cleared up suddenly."
"Look at your reflection in the water."
Randolph stared at his own image, amazed that his white hair was now predominantly brown with gray patches at the temples.
"Take a few more sips," she urged. "But don't drink too much. You don't want to return to your childhood; do you?"
"Do you mean it is the water that has kept you looking so young?"
"May I ask you a very personal question?"
"You want to know how old I am, right?" Randolph nodded. "I was twenty years of age when my husband, Buford, and I left Plymouth, England. That was in 1587. We were part of a group of one hundred and fifty men, women and children who came to settle on Roanoke Island."
"But that colony failed, and all the people disappeared."
"We suffered much during our stay there. We were starving because we had not brought enough supplies, and then sickness spread through the colony. Some of the natives told tales of water that could cure illness and restore strength to those who lost it. We voted to leave Roanoke Island in search of this water. It took years, and many people died during the search. Eventually, the remaining colonists began to feel the quest was hopeless. Small groups broke off and decided to settle in the surrounding lands. Only Buford and I continued searching, always believing that we would find the magic water."
"And this is it," Randolph observed, dipping his hand into the pool.
"Yes. It is the legendary fountain of youth, the one sought by Ponce de Leon, but he confined his search to Florida and never headed north to Georgia."
"I was an old woman by the time Buford and I found this place. The water restored my youth and has kept me young and healthy ever since."
"And your husband?"
"He was made young again too. But then he left to fight for the Confederacy and was killed in battle. I have been alone--except for my loyal servants--ever since."
"Do your servants know about this miraculous stream?"
Delilah nodded. "They have been with me for many, many years, since long before the war between the states."
"They drink the water, too, then?"
"That is why they did not go north when Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves."
"And no one notices that neither you nor your servants fail to age?"
"I never leave Thornehurst. And as for my servants...." Delilah sighed. "This is Georgia, Lt. Knox. One ex-slave looks the same as another to these people."
"Well," Randolph said, still amazed at the tale he'd heard. "Your secret is safe with me. I'll never tell. I doubt anyone would believe me if I did." A look of sadness clouded Delilah's beautiful face again. "Or," Randolph continued, "won't I be allowed to leave? Will you have one of your servants silence me permanently?"
"No," Delilah replied. "You are free to go, but I had hoped you wouldn't want to."
"I don't quite know what you mean."
"I would like you to stay here with me at Thornehurst. You're not married, are you?"
"I was--twice--but both my wives are gone."
"I thought so. When I saw you standing in the drive, I knew you were lonely just like me. What else would bring you to a house you saw only one time forty years ago?"
"It was a site I never forgot. I felt as though I was entering the Garden of Eden."
"It is a little like that," Delilah agreed. "It is an extremely peaceful and comforting place."
Randolph took a final sip of the water, enjoying the feel of strength and vitality returning to his body. He stole another look at his reflection. Like Delilah Thorne, he looked as though he was in his early twenties. "Absolutely incredible!"
"Now that you know the secret of my garden, lieutenant, will you stay here at Thornehurst with me?"
"Well," he said with a mischievous grin, "I've never had a close relationship with an older woman, but I'm willing to give it a try."
* * *
Several days later, a Georgia farmer found Randolph Knox's horseless carriage parked on the side of the road near the wood-plank bridge. He notified the local law enforcement officials who searched for nearly a week for the retired businessman. But he was nowhere to be found.
"He was a Yankee," one of the deputies reminded the others. "Served under Sherman during the war, and then made a fortune during Reconstruction."
That said, the men called off their search and turned their attention to other matters.
No, Salem, that's not the fountain of youth. It's just a birdbath!