The trees lining the lake bank hid the crumbling mansion on the hilltop. The trek through the woods to the old house took longer than I imagined. But then I reminded myself I wasn’t a kid anymore and climbing through underbrush and weeds was a kids’ game, not an exercise for a middle-aged man.
Nature had reclaimed the road leading to the estate long ago, and at present, the only way to the estate was by water. I followed the deer trails up the small hill to the house from the shore. The trek proved as tough on my body as wrestling with the canoe.
The view on the plateau where the estate stood reminded me of days past. Looking around the grounds, I found the remains of the carriage house that once housed a Duesenberg and a Packard. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear the roar of the cars’ big engines as they prepared for a trip into town. Private collectors purchased the cars years ago when the family no longer required them.
My grandfather closed the estate in the early 1940s just as the war was heating up. Rumors were floating about in the family as to why he left the business and closed the mansion. I had heard them, but I suspected something else was going on. There were holes in the story, and no one ever talked about his affairs with his private secretaries and their sudden disappearances.
The intervening eighty years had not been kind to the building. The winds and rains had long since made their way into open windows and doors, and the roof was down to bare wood in places. I spotted the caretaker’s cottage not far behind the main building. Considering the house’s condition, no one had been serving as caretaker for a long time.
My family never acknowledged the existence of the old estate. Most of the younger generations likely didn’t know it existed. I didn’t know until recently. Only when my estranged uncle passed away did I learn about the estate.
My grandfather, deceased before my uncle, left a codicil to be opened upon my uncle’s death. My uncle’s will left everything to his family as expected, and there wasn’t much.
But my grandfather’s codicil to his will stipulated that the estate goes to the oldest surviving of his grandchildren at the time of his brother’s death. That was me. My older sister had passed a few years ago, and my younger brothers were several years behind me. That left me to inherit an estate I didn’t know existed.
I did a great deal of research and discovered the family bought the land and began building the house in the early 1900s. The back tax bill was substantial, and the value was in the property itself, not the building. So, razing the whole thing and selling the land was suggested to clear the taxes and get out from under the entire thing. With the sudden interest in the old property, an overeager tax collector feared that if they couldn’t get the money for the back taxes from a sale, they would come after me now that I owned it. I was in danger of having them foreclose on the property and my company to clear the debt. So, selling the property was becoming a viable option to get the government off my back. But there was still a part of me that hesitated. The house held family history, and I couldn’t let it go without trying to keep it.
Before deciding what to do, I needed to see the property, and here I was. I walked to the caretaker’s cottage, which had fared slightly better than the main building but was still unusable. The carriage house was a shell of its former self. The large bays that once held elegant and powerful cars and large fancy carriages before that was now a shell covering many piles of ruins and debris and tools left to rust and rot. If there were anything of value to save, it would be the main building.
Standing on the porch, I could imagine the days when it had been a glorious place to spend a Sunday afternoon in the summer sun. Looking over the lawn, I could almost see the lake below. Back then, I probably could have. Untrimmed trees and weeds had taken over the far edge of the lawns, obscuring any view of the lake below.
I walked inside and found it as bad as I’d imagined. Only remnants of the original inlaid woodwork remained. I could see the bones of the room and how well laid out the building had been in its time. The original electric fixtures still hung in many rooms. The kitchen still had the original cast iron sink, and the refrigerator with the compressor on top sat in the far corner.
On the second floor, I found an office. My grandfather’s, I presumed. The wood wainscotting peeled from the walls around the big French doors that had once led to a small sitting porch that overlooked the front lawn. His large wooden desk sat in the middle of the room, flanked by several club chairs whose leather covering had long ago deteriorated, now cracked and faded. Looking around the room, I poked through the books on the two shelves that flanked the door to the room. Some were fiction. Many were business and reference books.
I dared to sit in his chair behind his desk. Looking over the room from his view, I imagined myself the captain of the empire and considered what he’d do now. Reaching down, I opened a random drawer in the desk to find a ledger. Opening it, I read the records of his business, and the numbers he dealt in astonished me. Where had the money gone?
I sat there for a moment. My background in construction told me it would cost a fortune to rebuild this place to its former glory. There had to be a reason to justify all the time and expense and headache that restoring the estate would cost. So far, I hadn’t found it. I wished the profits recorded in the ledger were available.
I spent the rest of the day going over every room, taking pictures, and making notes. It was getting late, and I wanted to return to the marina before dark. I sat on the porch and debated with myself. I couldn’t afford this project, and no one in the family would back me on it. Having resigned myself to the prescribed fate, I headed back inside one last time.
I stood in the foyer and pictured it as it was in its glory days. Taking a few more pictures, I headed back down to the boat. I made it to the dock before sunset.
After supper, I retired to my office to go over my pictures and notes and decided I needed more information. Over the next few weeks, I spent numerous hours researching my grandfather, his businesses, and where all the money had gone. I made several more trips back to the estate, and each time I brought back more papers, ledgers, and documents, hoping to piece together exactly what had happened then.
Meanwhile, the family was pressuring me about selling the property. I refused. Telling them that I couldn’t until I knew more about the history and what happened to it. What I didn’t tell them was I’d already pretty much decided not to sell. I wanted to find a reason and a way to save it.
The codicil in his will, presented only with his brother’s will, made me wonder. Why that specific brother and why now after all these years? There had to be a reason he’d kept it a secret all this time.
On one of my visits, when I was going through the old bookcases in the office, I accidentally opened a secret panel in the wall. The compartment was small and well hidden. Inside, a stack of files marked “Eyes Only” and “Classified.” Going through the files, I discovered the true history of the estate during the war.
Not only had it been used as a training ground for special operations. But more importantly, it had been a secret meeting place for Churchill, Monty, and other Big Wigs during the war, with details showing security and the staff listed in a separate file. The government compensated my grandfather for his service to the country. I found a set of documents from a Swiss bank, giving the bearer who could prove he was related to my grandfather access to an account. An account that had been sitting gathering interest for over eighty years.
Now I understood why he had closed the place down in the early 1940s. The estate was close to London, but the importance of the location had never dawned on me. During the war, an area so secluded and near London was valuable, and the government used the estate as a clandestine meeting place for top brass during the war.
I knew all about the Officials Secrets Act and how you couldn’t talk about what you did during the war. This explained why he could never explain why he’d suddenly shut the estate down during the war. As for not reopening it afterward, I still didn’t understand. But at least now I had some answers to the questions.
More importantly, I had the possible means to have the place restored. It also explained the codicil with my uncle’s will. My uncle must have known about the arrangement, and while he was alive, he couldn’t talk about it. But once the last living person who knew about it was gone and those who signed the agreement were gone, the Act no longer applied.
I spent several weeks authenticating documents and confirming signatures, names, and dates. While that was happening, I had the road back up the hill to the estate cleared, and access to the estate reopened. To my surprise, my family loved the idea of restoring the estate once they knew there was money and a bit of history behind the property. I suspect it was the money.
Once confirmed as the rightful heir, I took a trip to Switzerland and the bank. Presenting the original notice and my supporting documents, the bank granted me access to the account. The numbers in the account staggered me.
It had not been a large sum when it opened up, but interest over eighty years had accrued compounding yearly and never touched, and it had become a fortune. The money from the account was more than enough to settle the back taxes on the estate. Plus, I now had seed money to restore the property to its original state.
Suddenly a separate set of government officials were interested in the property and me. Over the next ten years, I received grants and other funding to help restore the estate. Soon I retired from my regular work and managed the estate full time.
On weekends, we gave tours and talked about the secret history of the place. There were some who still thought that old secrets should stay buried. In some ways, I agreed with them. But these secrets helped save the free world eighty years ago, and now they saved my family.