I am quite sure, in retrospect, that it was pure coincidence my company was contacted to investigate the wildlife inhabiting the attic voids at the old Millard Mansion, but coincidence or not, it will always stand, as the most puzzling and bizarre service call in my pest management career.
The April work-morning had started as always with the usual ‘cuppa Joe‘ and a few rounds of banter about how the ‘Habs’ had annihilated the ‘Leafs’ the night before. The aging “Rocket” had been at his all-time best, he had scored what would be his last playoff goal, to help Montreal take a three-games-to-none lead over Toronto on their way to a four-game sweep for the Stanley Cup. The great Johnny Bower had let one too many go by him, not that anyone would have been able to stop those lightning shots, but those of us who were Hab’s fans thoroughly enjoyed the Leaf fans’ misery.
The shrill chime of the telephone broke up the lively banter, reminding us why we were here and my subsequent cheerful, “Good afternoon, Avon Pest Management,” was answered, just as cheerfully on the other end, by the voice of an elderly lady.
“Hello my name is Mrs. Rosalyn Millard, and I think I have something living in my attic.”
“Not a nice thing to have,” I responded. “What types of noises do you hear, madam and at what times of the day?”
“I hear rasping sounds, and scrabbling, in the middle of the night, right above my bed and it carries on for some time. If I bang on the ceiling with a broom handle it stops, but it starts again in a few minutes.”
I asked a few standard questions and ascertained that a mouse problem probably existed in the lady’s house.
Since the Millard place was on my way home, I assured Mrs. Millard I would personally inspect the house for her on my way home from work and left early to make it my last call of the day.
The Mansion was situated on a large cul-de-sac in the North end of London, Ontario, close to Gibbons Park and overlooking the meandering Thames River.
The house had been built by James T. Millard, in 1832. Millard, a retired Colonel who had served gallantly in the British Army during the War of 1812, was subsequently granted a large estate encompassing several hundred hectares of prime land by the forks of the Thames River near the then, small town of London.
The town grew tremendously over the years and in 1956 was incorporated as the city of London; better known locally, as the Forest City.
Over the early years, Millard sold off vast tracts of his grant to the growing municipality, making him a very rich man.
Three wings had been added to the original house. One in 1864, by son, Samuel and two more by the current owner, great grandson, John James Millard, in 1941. At the same time the livery stables had been converted into a six car garage, with living quarters for house staff on the second level.
The years had been good to the Millard family; Samuel James Millard the grandson of James T. had been a shrewd lawyer and businessman whose investments had ensured the Millard dynasty a permanent and influential place among London’s elite.
Always the philanthropists, yet savvy investors, John James Millard, Samuel’s son, and his wife Rosalyn were well known in London’s social circles, and if you happened, as I did, to live and work in London during the late 1950’s and early 60’s, you certainly knew their names, their business and social gossip. (Even hints of a black-sheep, cluttering the ancestral annals.)
So now, here I was, standing at the threshold of these ancient oak front doors leading into the inner sanctum of this renowned landmark and its historic family.
John James had passed away the year before at the age of seventy five but his wife, Rosalyn, met me at the door.
A beaming, welcoming smile was spread across her bright, open face, haloed by white, silken, flowing hair. Lady Millard, for I could only think of her as such, wore an elegant ankle length kimono-style dress, embroidered on the left shoulder only, with tiny yellow and black butterflies suspended within a green and orange flower garden, the rest of the gown was a deep purple but constantly changing hue as the light caught its movements.
“You must be from the Pest People,” she smile as she said it. “Please come in and thank you ever so much for coming. I know you’d much rather be on your way home, so can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Perhaps a cognac?...no I don’t suppose that would be appropriate! perhaps a sandwich?”
I assured her that I was quite fine and needed nothing, “but thank you for offering.”
“Anyway,” Mrs. Millard continued, almost in the same breath, “these noises in the night and, oh! …sometimes even in the daytime too …are simply intolerable and I shall probably have to sell this old house and move if we cannot get to the bottom of their cause.”
I assured her that I would be able to relieve her of her unwanted house guests in short order and she would not have to sell the family home, just yet.
“Well let me show you around, shall you want to see the basement? It’s ever so crowded, what with all those stuffed animal heads from the men’s African hunting trips, I just dread going down there, feels like they are all looking at me with accusing eyes”
“Yes” I said, “I would like to have a quick look at the basement, although I am more interested in the attic. That is where the noises are coming from, is it not?
“Yes, of course you’re quite right.”
“I do know what you mean about animal heads staring at you though, I never quite liked the idea of mounting trophies like those, I prefer to mount pictures of animals in an album.”
Mrs. Millard walked me through the halls and up a grand circular staircase leading to the second floor. She pointed to a door in the hallway.
“This leads to the attic areas. I was up there just last night but did not see anything,” she said. “There are a lot of old boxes containing papers, old photos and other memorabilia of the family, dating I would think all the way back to Johnny’s Great Granddaddy, James T. when this house was first built. I would hate to think that mice would be living in those boxes and chewing on all those old papers.”
She reached for a light switch and said, “Please do go on up and have a look, I shall wait downstairs in the parlour off the kitchen, just come down when you are done, I will have Paulette make a pot of tea - I hope you like tea - and sandwiches and we can discuss what you propose.”
I said, “thank you very much I won’t be too long.”
Most attics in old homes are difficult at best to negotiate, but getting into this attic was simply a case of walking up a flight of narrow steps which culminated in a dimly lit, but massive pine floored area with angled walls and arched ceiling.
Mrs. Millard had turned on the lights before I ventured up but only one bulb out of four were actually lit, so I switched on my flashlight and began my search for the telltale mouse dropping I was sure I would encounter.
The attic was indeed crammed to the rafters with dusty old boxes, whose contents historians would probably line up to explore. The lone bulb still lit, was at the far end of the East wing of the house, slightly angled away from my present location.
I slowly ran the beam from my flashlight over the floor areas and stacked boxes and found both mouse tracks and droppings in the dust surrounding the stacks.
I was about to return to the lower level and rejoin Mrs Millard, having seen all that I needed to see, when a movement down by the dim light caught my eye.
It had been a mere blur and I thought perhaps the shadows were playing tricks on me, or it could have been the movement of a stealthy raccoon slipping into the shadows, not unlikely in an attic this large, and so went to investigate.
I rounded the corner of a tall stack of wooden crates and, to my surprise, almost collided into a table where an old, frail looking, gentleman was bent over an accumulation of papers in assorted disarray. He was mumbling something under his breath and seemed totally immersed in his work.
“I beg you pardon,” I said. “Mrs. Millard never mentioned anyone would be working up here. I was just checking for mice.”
“Mice,” the old fellow wheezed, in a rather high pitched voice. “Damn vermin are chewing through all our old records an photographs, dere won’t be any left if we don’t get rid of dem soon.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s exactly why I am here; to see if we can do just that.”
“Good,” said the old gentleman “but I should tink the staff would’ve caught dis problem before it got out of control.
During his monologue I’d been observing the old man a little closer. He wore the coveralls of a gardener with a red and yellow plaid flannel shirt tucked in on one side but hanging out on the other side. The man had a full grey beard. A pair of narrow spectacles rode the bridge of his rather prominent nose like a rider clinging to a bucking bronco. A full head of silvery hair, trimmed rather expertly, topped his friendly, but shadowed face.
“I was called in by Mrs. Millard to see if we could solve this little problem and now that I know what the problem is we’ll bait the house for you and in a few short days the mouse problem will be history,” I assured the gentleman.
“I certainly ‘ope so, young man, I’d ate to see all dese papers eaten by rats.”
“Mice,” I politely corrected. I said goodbye to the old man and assured him once more that my company would make short work of his problem. He ‘harrumphed’ and bent back to his interrupted work, while I quietly returned to the stairwell and descended to the parlour and the waiting Mrs. Millard.
She greeted me with another smile and asked, “I hope you found my problem.”
“Indeed.” I said, as I followed her to the kitchen, speaking on the way.
“You are quite right. There does seem to be a heavy infestation of mice in the house, but we will be able to get rid of them soon.”
“That’s so wonderful to hear,” she said. “Please come join me for some tea and sandwiches, I hear Paulette has just come back from wherever she gets to, I’m sure I don’t know, and will have it all ready for us.”
Paulette, a petite ‘French Maid’ - for I immediately thought of her like that because of her short black and white uniform - stood beaming at the kitchen table. She was a pretty girl with short dark hair and sparkling green eyes. I did notice though that she had a rather overlong nose for her small face. She also seemed a little flushed and short of breath, but I assumed her job kept her busy.
“I laid out a tray of sandwiches ‘an some nice tea, as you asked for madam. If you need anyting else I will be appy to get it.”
“Thank you so much Paulette, I am sure this is fine, as always. Will you have sugar or cream with your tea Mr. Spencer,” Mrs. Millard asked me?
“No thank you Mrs. Millard,” I answered, “and please call me Frank. I always think someone is speaking to my father when they say Mr. Spencer. Oh this looks great. But you shouldn’t have bothered on my account.”
“Oh no trouble at all, Paulette has so little to do – I really don’t need her, you know, but my grandson insists. Tell me what you think Mr., er, sorry, Frank, are you quite sure you can you get rid of these mice for me?” Her bright inquisitive eyes seemed to hold me.
“Yes Mrs. Millard we can definitely solve your problem. It was a good thing you called me when you did, before your family heirlooms got eaten.” I paused for effect and then said. “By the way, the elderly gentleman up in the attic, seemed quite upset at the nuisance, I must say I was a little startled to run into him up there, but I suppose you simply forgot to inform me he was working there. Is he your gardener?”
Mrs. Millard sat up with a start, spilling her cup of tea. “I can assure you young man, I do not have a gardener. We employ an outside landscaping company for all grounds maintenance and I can further assure you that there is no elderly gentleman roaming about my house, my attic, or any other area of my estate.”
At this moment, because of the spilt tea, Paulette came out of nowhere, and mopped it up and replaced the wet place mats with clean, dry ones. Her eyes were wide and she mumbled something about Master Jimmy up to his old tricks, but she disappeared as soon as her job was done and left Mrs. Millard and I alone at the table again.
Visibly shaken, Mrs. Millard continued, “Could you have been mistaken, Frank? I mean about talking to this gentleman in the attic?”
I assured her that I had talked to someone and proceeded to describe him in detail to her.
She became increasingly uncomfortable during my description, so, not wanting to upset her further, I changed the subject back to mice, but she asked;
“The coveralls you said he wore were they of a dark green colour and did you perhaps notice if he had a length of rope tide about his midriff?”
I thought for a moment trying to picture him in my mind, I did remember seeing a rope around his waist and had thought it strange at the time.
“As a matter of fact he did have a length of rope around his waist, and yes the cover-alls were dark green from what I could tell in the rather dim lighting.”
Mrs. Millard sat very still for a second and then she slowly got up from the table, she reached her hand to me and beckoned me to follow her. I took her frail hand in mine and let her lead me back into the parlour.
She went to a beautifully carved antique buffet placed against the mahogany wainscoting of the room, opened a large picture album and choose a page. She turned around and beckoned me to look.
There before me, in a faded photograph, sat the same old gentleman I had just spoken with up in the attic. In the photograph he was surrounded by flowers and assorted gardening accessories and the rope around his waist held gardening tools suspended from hooks to keep them accessible while he worked.
“This picture looks to be a very old and yet the gentleman in it is, or was, in your attic just now, how can this possibly be?”
She sank down on a settee next to the buffet and sighed deeply. “The picture I just showed you is one of the few we have of Colonel James T. Millard, my late husband’s great grandfather and the builder of this house. His passion, during his retirement years, was his garden. He was famous for his hybrids.
“Paulette has often told me she sees a person resembling James T. in the upper halls, but I never really paid any attention to her.”
I said, half-jokingly, “perhaps we should go back up to the attic to see if old James is still there?’’
“Oh for goodness sake, I certainly do not believe in ghosts for a single moment. I am sure there is a plausible explanation for what or who you saw in my attic and we shall know in due time what that is.”
I thought for a while about this whole incident, why should I have been privy to this remarkable meeting with a long dead person, and then it suddenly occurred to me that this event could be a staged performance for my eyes only. The whole setting, the dusty attic, scurrying mice, melodramatic atmosphere, the house definitely had mice … most older homes do … but a ghost?
“Mrs. Millard, is there any reason for someone to try to scare you or to get you to move out of this house right now,” I asked her? “I know it’s really none of my business but this whole thing seems just a bit suspicious to me and that ghost I met was a little too solid.”
She had her eyes lowered and I could see tears rolling down her cheeks, I reached for a tissue from a box on the buffet and offered it to her, she took it with shaking fingers and wiped her eyes and cheek.
“My grandson, Charles, has been trying to convince me I would be better cared for in a retirement village out in Grand Bend. He says I would be much better off there where I could have someone to look after my needs at all time. I have steadfastly refused to leave Millard House, and he finally relented three month ago and hired Paulette to be my maid and helper.
“Paulette has been a great help, but sometimes I think she is spying on me. I know; I’m just a silly old woman with a vivid imagination. I am very wicked to be sure, but you see when my son and his wife were killed three years back - you may remember the accident, it was in all the newspapers - Charles became next in line to inherit the Millard fortune when I pass on. Sometimes I think he is trying too hard to put me away. Perhaps I am overreacting, but still...” she trailed off.
I sat for a moment and took all this in. Should I actually get myself involved in this situation or simply walk away, only offering to take care of the mouse problem? Somehow it didn’t seem right to do so, and beside why had I been confronted with this supposed ghost? Why me, and why now?
As these questions tumbled through my mind, in the far corner of the parlour, by the grand fireplace, there suddenly appeared a wisp of fine smoke or vapour, and a thin voice from nowhere spoke;
Roz,.” the voice whispered, almost breathed, for it sounded more like a heavy sigh.
“Roz…why do you not come join me, I’m lonely, darling, without you. Everything here is so beautiful. Father and mother are with me, and grandpa too. We’re all here, waiting for you, my love … We miss you, Roz.”
The ghostly pleading continued, repeating variations in the same vein, ghostly and reedy, and Mrs. Millard sat petrified; a frail, porcelain doll.
I shot up and went to the fireplace to see if I could find the source of the smoke but the darkness of the room did not reveal any pipes or other openings and the whole thing was over in a moment.
Coming out of her trance-like state, Mrs. Millard, still shaking, said, “That was my Johnny calling me, I know his voice, maybe the Millard ghosts are here and it is time for me to join them.”
“Nonsense” I said “ I think someone is trying to frighten you, and from what you’ve told me I believe it to be your grandson, Charles, let me help you get to the bottom of this, please call Paulette in here.
Mrs. Millard pushed an unseen buzzer and a few moments later a still beaming Paulette appeared, “’ow may I elp you Madam” she said. Her accent much more pronounced as she smiled into her mistresses’ worried face.
Before Mrs. Millard could utter a word however, I interrupted, “You can begin by telling us how you rigged the smoke and the recorded voice we just heard in this room.”
Paulette looked shocked, “I beg pardon sir, I do not know what you are talking about. Please, Madam Millard, why is dis man asking me dese questions?"
Mrs. Millard answered, “I would certainly also like to know how it was done, Paulette, and why.”
Paulette looked, teary-eyed, from Mrs Millar to me but said nothing further.
“Is it you or Charles or both of you trying to frighten Madam Millard into moving,” I demanded?
“And what is your interest? What is Charles paying you?”
Suddenly, Paulette’s eyes lowered to the floor, she slowly sank down into a wooden chair by the fireplace and began to sob, holding her white apron up to her wet eyes.
“’e told me madam, that e would marry me if I ‘elped ‘im. All I ad to do was try to get you to leave ere by ‘elping ‘im play dese recordings, an act da part of de old man, so you would tink ‘is ghost was 'aunting da 'ouse.. E figgered dat you, madam, would be so terrified dat you would leave an 'e could take over zee estate an e would ‘ave control of all your money.”
“I ham truly sorry madam, I really like you an I did not want to 'urt you , but you … well you understand - I love im, so.”
Paulette continued to sob so heavily that the rest of her words faded into unintelligence.
“I must admit” said Mrs. Millard, “I never really suspected Paulette to be capable of this. How ever did you figure it out Frank?”
“Well,” I began, “when I met the old man in the attic I noted the hint of a French accent and when I heard Paulette later in the kitchen, when she was serving us tea, I realized she had exactly the same accent.
“As clever as the rest of your disguise certainly was, Paulette, and my compliments, your French Canadian roots gave you away. The French cannot pronounce the ‘th’ sound and no matter how well they imitate an accent, this inability will always surface.
“Of course I may have been fooled into thinking I met an old man in the attic, I would never consider mistaking him for a ghost.”
The police had come and gone, and Paulette was safely out of the house.
Charles James had been apprehended at The London Hunt and Country Club without incident and faced a number of minor charges that would cause him more embarrassment and scandal than legal difficulties.
I remained with Mrs. Millard throughout her ordeal with the police and afterward, and now, late into the evening hours, we sat in front of the same large fireplace where earlier the “Ghost” had spoken to her.
Rosalyn seemed somewhat more at ease after these unpleasant events and was quietly sipping her tea while I had finally accepted and was enjoying a Vignoble Grateaud XO.
“You do not, then, believe in ghosts Frank?” Rosalyn quietly asked. I paused for a moment and looked into those kindly but suffering eyes. Age had not diminished the beauty and regal appearance of this lovely lady.
“ There are many unknowns in this great world of ours,” I mused, “but the spirit world has never been proved or disproved, so I tend to doubt, though I keep an open mind on the subject. Why, do you?”
“Well” she began “last night, as I was listening to the mice, or rather Charles and Paulette pretending to be mice, chewing all my treasures in the attic, I became so frustrated, knowing the damage they could do, that I climbed out of bed and hurried up to the attic with a broomstick in my hands, hell-bent (pardon my language) on bashing them into oblivion.
“Naturally I saw no mice, but I was so infuriated and upset, that when I left the attic to go down stairs again, I wasn’t myself, Frank. I stubbed my foot on a hidden box in the shadows at the edge of the stairwell. I think lost my balance, Frank, and fell head first down the stairs. And I landed in the open closet at the foot of the attic stairs.”
I looked closely at her as she said this, shocked that she wasn’t badly hurt.
“I really have no idea how I survived the fall, but I picked myself up apparently unhurt, shut the closet door and went to bed resolving, to call a pest control in the morning.” Mrs Millard put down her cup, got up from her chair and wandered about the room as if searching for something.
“My God Rosalyn” I said, finally, working myself out of the deep leather chair. “Are you sure you’re not hurt? That sound like a terrible fall. It must be a good dozen stairs or more and a very hard landing at the bottom. You must have had some divine intervention; you don’t have even a single bruise.”
I looked across the room to the fireplace where Rosalyn had stopped her wandering, but between my bending to get out of the chair and straightening up, she had somehow disappeared from the room.
There lying in a crumpled heap dappled with dried blood, shocked, unseeing eyes staring straight at me, lay the cold, still body of Rosalyn Millard, rigor mortise locking a shattered broomstick in her white hands.
I went into the hall and called her name, but got no answer. How had she managed to vanish so abruptly? Suddenly, a cold chill held me. I sprinted up the stairs to the attic stairwell, flung open the door to the hall closet and gasped.