No rest for the wicked in this cabin in the woods

GATINEAU HILLS, Que.
I’m pretty sure that Airbnb was haunted.

I didn’t realize it right away. We pulled in just before midnight, parking to the side of the white bungalow. A stone’s throw away, across the drizzled grass, was a white church, its windows dark.

The wet fog and mist turned to heavy rain as I cut the engine and we dashed onto the wooden porch, trying not to make too much noise, though we couldn’t see our closest neighbours. A lone streetlight a hundred metres away highlighted the outline of barren road twisting away from us.

barren dark night road streetlight

The front door had art-deco stained glass that vibrated as Melani worked at the lock. The sounds were swallowed by the rain and our giggles as we burst into the cottage.

Directly in front of us, a vaguely glowing rectangle, when lit, morphed into a giant painting of an owl holding a ball of fire, or the earth, or sitting on a shining egg-soul or somesuch. Opposite this horned monster was an ancient off-white and rose piano intricately carved and lovingly propped on its one good leg.

owl painting

This discordant music and art room was separated from the rest of the house by sweeping black curtains. I pulled them apart to step through, thinking of the owner, “she’s pagan,” as one might realize “she’s Irish” or “she likes owls.” There was a collage of pagan flourishes on the wall over a dozen crystals placed carefully and exactly in a cross pattern on a round altar. The collage said: “Life deeply loves you.”

Yet as we explored the house, lighting corners, we turned up more spiritual imagery: there were votive candles and angels, Native American wards, Cinco de Mayo and vodoun pieces, burnt sage. A Buddhist shrine. Tibetan prayer cloths. There were candles and incense and crystals on every flat surface.

art and protection

“She’s covering all her bases,” I thought, trying to ignore the foreign creaks and gurgles coming from the dim kitchen. “What is she protecting herself from?”

I was following four-year-old Jilly to the second storey when she said, in her way, “I like the stairs in this haunted house, Mum.” I stopped dead.

haunted airbnb piano 2“Why on earth would you say that it’s haunted?” I asked, my voice an octave higher than I’d intended. She was already on the landing, so talked down to me: “The floorboards creak. Floorboards only creak in haunted houses.” She demonstrated on a loose section of hardwood in front of a darkly stained door labeled “Private.”

The rain had slowed to an unnervingly rhythmic staccato on the tin roof and we could hear the splashing of the creek behind the house, and the fertile cries of frogs and bugs. With no moon or stars and the streetlight faded into the mist, the world was black outside the windows. I decided I would not be afraid in this old wooden house that was trying so hard to be welcoming and to fend off things that might scare us.

I opened a downstairs door expecting the promised third bedroom and instead found a large mudroom hung with man-shaped coats and rubber-soled shoes and there, against the inky window, was a strange shape with broken curlicues. I leaned in closer and found myself staring hard into brown eyes that were judging or longing, framed by a sepia-toned face and hair that hinted at romance. The woman in the picture wore puffed sleeves and ribbon and a pearl choker. I looked at her, and she was looking right back at me.

photo in the closet

A room away, Jilly had sat at the piano and was playing something tuneful. Yet no one has ever taught her how to play.

I tripped over my ankles backing out of the closet and shut the door. I don’t remember what I said to Melani, but I know I told her she wasn’t to open the door again. Searching for a wine glass I found the stash of extra votive candles, incense and tarot cards. The owner was on a mission to keep this home safe and grounded. Who were we to doubt her?

Yet I sat for a long time with my back to the wall, and I would not look at the closet door.

low quebec united church

The Bessborough Hotel and the man in the grey suit

saskatoon bessborough hotel 2

SASKATOON — There is a man in a grey suit who smiles freely and greets guests on the banquet level some late evenings. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but there’s time yet.

He and I are at the Bessborough in Saskatoon, one of the last of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

The nation’s tradition of rail hotels began in Montreal, the home of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Cornelius Van Horne. The Windsor went up in 1878 and the CPR and other companies followed with the Hotel Vancouver, the Banff Springs Hotel, Quebec City’s extraordinary Château Frontenac, and other beasts of brick and stone along thousands of kilometres of rail. Fourteen hotels later, Regina saw the rise of the Hotel Saskatchewan in 1927.

It’s not like Regina didn’t deserve a grand hotel. It was a vibrant, growing city that had been built by the railway. But so was Saskatoon, and this city wanted one, too.

saskatoon rail bridge 2

The CPR went through Saskatoon, 300 kilometres north of Regina, and had since 1908. The city boasted an elegantly long and tall rail bridge with a pedestrian walkway as well as a sleek little railway station.

The earl and countess of Bessborough.Called the Hub City, Saskatoon also hosted track for Canadian National Railway and the Grand Truck Railway. All it was missing was a grand hotel, and CNR stepped in to make that happen. 

So within a year, ground was broken for the 10-storey Bavarian castle-inspired building that overlooks Saskatchewan River. Designed by Montreal architects, it integrated turrets, heraldry, gargoyles and other stonemasonry under a copper roof. Sir Vere Ponsonby, the ninth earl of Bessborough and 14th governor-general of Canada, consented to have it named in his honour.

It was 1932 when building was completed, and the Depression was hitting the Prairies hard. The doors of The Bez wouldn’t officially open for another three years.

It has aged elegantly. The gardens with their ironwork gates and heart-shaped flower gardens lure lovers and the river just beyond keeps the castle separate from the rest of the world and dampens the noise of traffic and passersby.

bessborough hotel garden gate1

Bellmen rush to open doors before a guest has the chance to reach out their chilled hands. In the wide hallways, carpets muffle the sound of dress shoes and high heels. Chambermaids stop what they’re doing to say hello and ask after one’s day.

The high-ceilinged banquet area features palatial windows with luxurious curtains, dark wood accents and chandeliers. It was once a quiet space for gentlemen to sit and sip coffee, read their newspapers and gossip, as men do.

bessborough stairsHere is where one might see the man in the grey suit. He is an older gentleman, and he is wearing a fedora.

His countenance is so still and friendly that people who meet him often don’t realize till after they’ve returned his greeting that he isn’t there at all.

No one knows who he is or when he was.

A legend that sticks is that of a hotel employee who was tasked with asking a group of guests to settle down one evening. Two men at the party did not take kindly to the admonishment and threw the employee over a railing. He fell several storeys to his death.

That tragedy is marked by a crack in the ballroom floor. And perhaps by a man in a grey suit and fedora.