The Lanier Mansion — a sweeping, majestic memorial to Hoosier multi-millionaire James F.D. Lanier, who, back in the 19th Century, rescued the Indiana state government from an inability to continue funding its support of the federal government in its participation in the Union side of Civil War battles. The beautiful, large old house, built by Lanier in 1844 and his home for many years, still stands, proudly maintained and furnished in the identical style to its original state, near the Ohio River in historic and picturesque Madison, Indiana.
The state of Indiana owns and maintains the historic house, and appoints the caretaker. One Christmas Eve recently, that individual, Samuel Ellison, was laboring in one of the second-floor rooms — a bedroom, as a matter of fact. Big, fancy bed with a canopy up above — common in 19th Century bedrooms. Might have even had a slop jar under the bed. You know; no indoor bathrooms in those days. Nobody wanted to hike out to the outhouse in the middle of a cold winter night in those days. Not like they’d want to nowadays, either.
Ellison was a reserved, conscientious caretaker, meticulous about his care of the historic mansion. He and his wife, Carolyn, lived in Madison at the time, but were originally from Fort Wayne. That’s a major city up in northeast Indiana, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Hoosier state. Much, much larger than Madison, a river town of about 12,000 population.
The caretaker’s handful of employees at the mansion had all gone home for Christmas Eve — because he told them to. Not that he looked forward to the work he was doing upstairs, but he didn’t want anyone to have to miss the “Big Night” with their families. Carolyn wasn’t happy about his coming home late that night, but she knew there were last-minute things that had to be done.
The main, HUGE Christmas tree in the mansion was already erected and decorated in the main living room downstairs. But the smaller one, situated in the bedroom, had only been laying on the floor, waiting for attention, when Ellison walked in and gave a sigh of regret before beginning his task.
“Ugh! Damn, this thing is heavy!” groaned Samuel as he set it up, secured it in the holder, then began decorating it. The beauty of the Christmas tree gradually took shape, as he added the ornaments, the angel on top, and, finally, the lights. They always tried to make things in the mansion look as “19th Century” as possible, but putting real candles on the tree, and lighting them, was never attempted. Didn’t need a major fire at the Lanier Mansion, especially on Christmas Eve!
Finally, it was finished! Samuel stood back, admired his own work, then noticed that the angel on top was leaning slightly to the left (“probably a liberal,” he muttered, laughing to himself), so the caretaker moved his stepladder back nearer to the tree, and mounted it to straighten things out.
“That tree looks just beautiful!”
The deep male voice suddenly resonated through the room.
Samuel jumped in surprise and shock, nearly falling off the stepladder. Grabbing the top of it to steady himself, he braced himself, then slowly and fearfully looked around.
A tall, dignified-looking man was standing in the middle of the room, watching him with a benign, friendly smile on his face. He was dressed in what appeared to be formal, 19th Century style, as if preparing to attend Christmas Eve services at a local church. His hairline had receded, and he had chin whiskers.
Samuel couldn’t believe his eyes. “How did you get in here? The mansion’s locked up for Christmas! And who are you, anyhow?”
The stranger continued smiling, gazing at the stunned caretaker. Then he said, “Oh, I like to come back to the old house every Christmas Eve. Brings back fond memories for me.” He pointed at the bed, and added, “My younger kids were started on that bed that me and the wife shared. It looked a little different then, but you folks have kept it pretty close.”
Ellison had climbed — carefully — down from the ladder by this time, and continued to stare at the stranger, disbelief written all over his face.
“M-m-mister, what do you mean, ‘the old house’, and ‘fond memories?’ I still want to know how you got in here — and, and — why the heck do you look sort of familiar to me?” he said, his voice shaking with fear.
“Oh, I’ve had a few photographs taken of me,” said the dignified stranger. “You may have seen one of them.” He strolled slowly around the bedroom, looking everything over as if with fond remembrance.
Finally, conscious that he was scaring the heck out of the proper, formal caretaker, he approached him — carefully, so as to cause him no further alarm — smiled warmly, and said, “You’re Mr. Samuel Ellison, aren’t you?”
Samuel was totally stunned now. He could only nod his head, silent as a lamb. He slowly put his hand out, carefully took the stranger’s, and noticed that it felt just like any other man’s right hand might have. Samuel’s mind was spinning like a top now. “Who is this? Is he a ghost? Then if he is, why does his hand feel so human?”
Lanier laughed — gently — and said, “Well, Mr. Ellison, let me explain. Yes, I come here, from another world, shall we say, once a year, on Christmas Eve. The Man Upstairs lets me ride with an old friend of mine. I like to see my old mansion when it’s all decorated up for Christmas. Reminds me of the days when my family and I were living here.”
“You — you say you ride here with a friend?” asked Samuel, starting to adjust just slightly to the unbelievable things that had happened in the last five minutes. “You mean, you come from — from –“
“From up above, Mr. Ellison. You know what I’m talking about,” Lanier answered, walking around the room to look at the details of his old bed chamber. “You folks have certainly come close to making it look just like it did back in my day!”
Samuel saw an opening for another question. “Well, Mr. Lanier, does your friend have his own plane, or a space ship, or what?”
Lanier laughed again, loudly this time, and said, “Oh, don’t concern yourself about that, Mr. Ellison.” He continued looking around the bedroom — then suddenly stopped with a gasp when he spied an old, old baby doll, lying at the head of the bed.
“That — that’s my little girl Katherine’s doll!” he cried, picking it up tenderly to take a closer look. He examined it carefully, then said, “It’s not a replica! It’s really her doll!” When Samuel got up the courage to say, “How do you know that?”, Lanier held the doll up closer to the caretaker’s face, and said, “Look on the front of her skirt.”
Samuel looked. Written on the front of the skirt, in a fading but still legible, little girl’s hand, was, “I love you, Daddy.”
“Little Katherine had seen that doll in the window of a store downtown, and she wanted it for Christmas so much. I told her I’d try to contact Santa Claus and see if he could make that happen. Of course, he did. And little Katherine was so grateful that she wrote that on the doll’s dress,” said Lanier, his eyes looking back a century and a half — and with tears of emotion rolling down his cheeks.
When he had gotten his brief breakdown under control, Lanier looked at Ellison, with a hopeful, pleading look in his eyes. “I hate to ask you, Mr. Ellison, to let me take something out of this beautifully restored house of mine. But … could you possibly let me take my precious little daughter’s doll baby back with me? It would mean SO much to me if you could!”
Samuel had to wipe tears from his eyes, too, after listening to the story. Then, without hesitation, he said, “Mr. Lanier, you may most assuredly take your little girl’s doll with you. We can easily find something else to put into its place.”
“Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Ellison!” cried Lanier, moving toward him as if to hug him. Ellison took a step backward — then immediately felt very guilty for doing so.
“I’m — I’m so sorry, Mr. Lanier,” he said. “I didn’t mean that in any kind of a negative way —“
Lanier smiled, his tears drying, and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, Mr. Ellison! If our roles were reversed, I might have done the same thing, if someone from another world came too close!”
And then, with no warning, both men began laughing at their mutual confusion and discomfort at this strange first meeting. “You’re quite a charming — uh — resident of another world, Mr. Lanier!” cried Ellison. And Lanier replied, “And you’re the first — uh — resident of another world I’ve gotten to chat with in a long, long time, Mr. Ellison!” And they both laughed a second time.
Then, suddenly, Ellison heard a strange sound from downstairs. Lanier looked up expectantly, then another deep, jolly sounding male voice rushed up the ornate, 19th Century stairway.
“Hey, Jim! Are you about done up there? You know I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight! We’ve got to get going,” the voice said. Lanier glanced, a little uncomfortably, at Ellison, then called out, “OK, Nick! I’ll be right down!”
Lanier glanced at Ellison, then smiled again, and said, “No more questions, Mr. Ellison. I’ve got to go now, so, I’m so very grateful I got to meet you, and I’m so very thankful that I found my little girl’s dolly, and that you allowed me to take it with me!”
Ellison smiled back, having overcome his uneasiness and fear at their meeting. “It was my pleasure, both ways, Mr. Lanier. Please tell your friend I said ‘Merry Christmas’, and … uh … please say hello to Rudolph for me!”
Jim Lanier laughed loud and long at that, and said, “Well, sir, I’ll certainly try!”
He then hurried out into the hallway and, apparently, back down the stairs. Ellison wanted very much to follow and watch him — and also possibly to catch a glimpse of — well, Jim’s friend. But he couldn’t muster up the courage to do it.
But he tip-toed to the top of the circular staircase in the upstairs hallway, and listened.
“Yes, let’s get moving here,” said the voice of the “friend.” Then Samuel heard him ask, “Why, where did you get that old doll? I didn’t leave that here!”
He heard Lanier chuckle softly again, then adding, “No, you didn’t, Nick. This is my precious little girl’s dolly, that these wonderful people have preserved here! The fellow I was talking to upstairs in the bedroom told me I could take it with me. Wasn’t that manifestly kind of him?”
Samuel heard the other voice laugh, loudly and heartily, then add, “Yes, it certainly was, Jim! He had the true Christmas spirit!”
Samuel felt a warm pleasure go all over him when he heard that. “Things went pretty good, after all,” he thought.
Then, suddenly, he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. And a heavenly voice sounded in his ear: “That was a marvelously kind thing you did, my son. Bless you, and may you and your family have the happiest of Christmases!”
Samuel froze all over again. He did not dare to move for, perhaps a minute and a half. Then he slowly, carefully looked over his shoulder.
There was no one there.
Then, suddenly, he heard Carolyn’s voice, from downstairs.
“Sam! Where are you? Aren’t you finished yet? The kids and grandkids are at the house, waiting for you. It’s Christmas Eve!”
Carolyn had a key to the mansion, so he knew how she had gotten in. He took a deep breath, trying to compose himself, then hurried down the circular staircase. His wife was standing at the bottom, looking up at him.
“Did you finally get the bedroom tree decorated? Sure took you long enough,” she said, but then smiled broadly at her husband.
“Yeah, I did. Sorry about taking so long,” Samuel answered, putting on his coat and hat. “I — uh — got delayed a little.”
“By what?” Carolyn asked, straightening his coat and re-setting his hat.
Samuel paused, unsure of what to say. And before he could speak, they both heard a sound, from above and outside.
“Why, what’s that?” asked Carolyn, looking around. “It — it sounds like sleigh bells!”
Samuel gave a slight start, then nodded his head knowingly, and patted her shoulder. “You asked, ‘By what’? Darling, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you! Now let’s head home! This will be the most wonderful Christmas we’ve ever had!”