Billy Sunday in one of his characteristic sermons recently told a body of society women at the home of Mrs. Rufus Dawes in Evanston (Illinois) that God does not permit things to happen by chance. Coupled with this remark he gave an example--a suggestion of the sort of life romance one sees often in the movies or on the stage but seldom in life.
"Nothing happens by chance," he said. "We are put here for a purpose. I know of a house by the lake, beautifully furnished for a bride. But the girl changed her mind and it still stands there, all boarded up. The furniture is still in that unoccupied house--dust covered."
The great evangelist told no more. An Evening American reporter followed up this suggestion of a remarkable story of real life and found it nestling close to the little Winona lake, Indiana, not far from the home of Ma and Billy Sunday. You will find this romantic story on this page.
Love Yet Abides though Wedding Never Occurred-
Aged Couple makes Regular Pilgrimages
Here Blighted Romance Lies
Winona Lake's Mystery House Which Has Stood Fifteen Years Silently Beckoning for a Bride that will not come
Under the willows that feather Bruning's Point," on the shore of Lake Winona, stands "The Mystery House" its doors locked, its windows sealed. "It has stood so for fifteen years, waiting for something," say the cottagers of Winona Lake, the little Indiana resort town. None of the scant 50 Winter villagers or the thousands of Summer visitors who gape and gossip about it know exactly what this "something" is.
They are told it is a "bride." They are told a romantic story-a real romance. They have never seen within the house and never expect to. They get the story from the carpenter, the plumber and the piano tuner, told when they returned from their thrilling assignments to repair the interior of the mysterious dwelling.
These men brought back the heart-stirring information that the house was completely and lavishly furnished, that tinder and logs stood on the hearth, ready for the match, that a silver service for two was set on the dinner table, that two leather chairs were waiting under a reading lamp, that the piano stood, top lifted, keys ready for human hands; that two sleeping rooms, beds made, combs and brushes on chiffoniers, slippers laid out, everything ready for occupancy, were arrayed.
Who Built Mansion
"And," said the favored artisans, "one of the rooms is for a woman, because there are dressing tables in it, covered with these slim, ivory backed things that women use for their hands and hair."
The townspeople know that W. H. Bruning, the wealthy President of the F. J. Bruning and Son Company, spice and tea, wholesale merchants of Evansville, Ind., and New York, built the mysterious mansion in 1903, calling it "Merbrink" because it stood on the brink of the lake and that twice every month since erecting it, fifteen years ago, he comes back to visit it.
He has never spent a night in it. The week-ends in Winona Lake he spends in the "Swiss Terrace" Hotel, which is managed by Mrs. John Cooper and her daughter, Miss Nellie Cooper.
The cottagers of the resort came in time to recognize that deep and sincere affection existed between this dignified man of the outer world and Miss Nellie Cooper. On Sunday afternoons it was the habit of the woman and her mother to accompany their guest to the "Mystery House" to enter with him via the one key for the door which he carried and on such occasions the villagers, making it their business to pass by, could hear the piano within, awakening under the younger woman's fingers.
Only within the last year has this ceremonial been discontinued, the failure of Mrs. Cooper's health causing the daughter to remain at home while Mr. Bruning makes his pilgrimage to the closed house alone.
The cottagers long ago handed the story about that the owner of "The Mystery House" was waiting for Miss Cooper to marry him. They told visitors that it was she, for whom the bridal house had been prepared.
But time has worked to show their early prophecies were slow in coming true. Fifteen summers have passed and still no wedding occurs to satisfy the pleading silence of the house.
The onlookers have seen age creep on the three who used to listen to the piano behind the closest blinds. The mother of Miss Cooper is now an invalid, close to 90. Miss Cooper herself nearing 60, for all the beautiful frost in her hair, has youthfulness of spirit as though some strange inner peace buoyed her through the years.
Bruning, straight to, immaculate, impressive, bears seventy snows in his thick hair without bending. His charities are as numerous as his words are infrequent. Reputed a millionaire, his gifts to the religious organizations of Winona Lake have borne out in fact, the impressions of his kindliness.
He is the friend and fellow board member of William Jennings Bryan, serving as a director of the Winona Assembly and Bible Conference, of which the "Commoner" is president. His business wisdom and foresight make him the pillar upon which the clergymen in the management lean.
The Real Story
And when the women lodgers at "Swiss Terrace" grow confidential with Miss Nellie Cooper and helpless before their own burning curiosity, seek to gain the story from her, she avoids any answer with the sweet, serene smile that has earned for her the title "the best loved woman in Winona."
This then, it seems, might be all Winona Lake knows. It regards the secret with romantic affection. The house is not a forbidding spot, for all its blind windows. The townspeople recite this much of the story with pride.
The real story, which is obtained from friends and admirers of both Mr. Bruning and Miss Cooper, is far more romantic than even Winona Lake's imagination has made it.
Although all attempts to gain statements from both parties yesterday failed, owing to Miss Cooper's inability to leave the bedside of her mother, who is dangerously ill, and Mr. Bruning's absence from Evansville on a business trip, the following series of facts, establishing the story as one of the most remarkable to ever occur in real life, were substantiated by friends of both:
Forty years ago John Cooper, an educator of New York, although no longer a young man, followed the Greenley injunction, then quite popular, and came West. He brought with him his wife and daughter Nellie, then a girl of 18. Evansville, Ind., recognize his worth and made him superintendent of schools.
The Bachelor Arrives
For some three years he lived so, his family happy and the way clear before him. Then his health began to fail and his wife and daughter sought to stem adversity by taking boarders.
Among the first to come was W. H. Bruning, a bachelor of 30, and partner with his father in the town's oldest tea and spice store. It is said that he loved Nellie Cooper from the first, that she loved him and that they became engaged directly both recognized the fact. But something interposed.
Their friends believed the girl felt it her duty to remain with her parents in their difficulties. At any rate she went with them to Winona Lake in 1901 when Mrs. Cooper decided to maintain a hotel at that resort, then opening for its first season.
Their cottage was named "The Homestead," and, though small, was popular with the vacation hunters. An old-world courtesy and charm hovered around their rooms and brought local fame to them.
A year passed and John Cooper died. With the widow and daughter, Bruning grieved as a son, and to aid them in meeting the world he built a magnificent cottage, capable of housing some hundred guests, named it "The Swiss Terrace," and installed in it the two women as proprietors.
They have managed it as their own since that day and among the cottagers it is always "Cooper's Swiss Terrace" and never Bruning's''.
That same summer Bruning bought a lot on the point where the bathing harbor curves out to the more rugged shoreline. For weeks the place teemed with dredges and drays, as he built out and filled in making "Bruning's Point." When a new acre was made, he imported carpenters and on plans which he himself and perhaps another had drawn up, began the erection of the fated house.
Into it went the best timber, the most ultra-modern conveniences. In that economical day its cost, $10,000 made it the show place of the town.
Its weatherboarding was lined with mineral wool, its chimneys were bottomed with wide fireplaces. Cheveal mirrors, chandeliers, thick Brussels rugs, ensignia of luxury in those times, filled it.
Art went on its walls, a bluish gray scheme of color, subdued and beautiful, ran through its living rooms. Twenty-one rocking chairs are scattered through it. Gas lights were ready, fires were laid on the hearths, and a magnificent silver dinner set was placed beside rare china in the cupboards.
Bride never Came
Why Miss Nellie never came down to take the place, now known to have been meant for her, is known to none but herself and Mr. Bruning. No explanation was ever given. In fact their engagement was never announced. No one knows if such a pledge was ever formally given, but certain it is that true love, has throughout the years existed between them.
The lover's attitude announces this to the world, although he makes no reference to it. He is ever the suitor, the admirer, bringing at each trip (and he has never in these years missed his regular bi-weekly visit) a box of candy, presenting it to Miss Cooper with the manner of the story book swain.
He allows no decay to creep into it--"The Mystery House." Each year it is painted anew, the piano tuned, the water and gas pipes examined and any loose boards replaced. Twice in the fifteen years new draperies have been carried in. The house is as ready today for occupancy as when it was built. The stone sun-dial which Bruning set up on the lawn a few years back is kept in as perfect alignment as though there were owners to run out from the house behind at any moment to note upon its face the progress of the day.
The grass in summer is mown weekly, the snow and sleet which in winter blow across the wide veranda are cleaned away by a workman who knows no more of the building's interior than do his neighbors.
When the willow trees drop their leaves and twigs he cleans them away punctiliously, much as might a servant expecting his master and mistress home on the morrow.
When the waves cast driftwood over the concrete wall, Bruning built against the blue lake, the caretaker carries the wood away as though a lady from the house within might open her eyes in the morning and be offended by the litter. The workman is hired by Mr. Bruning to "keep the lawn clear" and nothing more. This he does and no more.
Where Lovers Meet
One thing and one only betrays time's flight. This is the names and carving on the planks that board the windows. These boards are thick and stout, for curiosity seekers are constantly prying at them, striving to see behind. Over them are scores of lovers' names, written and carved in the fashion of "seventeen."
In summer the boys and girls wander down to the point and hand in hand circle "The Mystery House" or sit on the veranda steps.
There has never been a "No Trespass" sign on the premises for such as they. At least three times these boards have been replaced so whittled were they by the knives of young lovers, carving entwined hearts, linked names and all the lazy, dreamy, totem-pole symbols to which aimless-youth-in-love is addicted.
What irony this is, graven on the house that waits for love, can only be told by the man and the woman, if indeed, they ever tell at all.
Chicago American, May 10, 1918 page 11 "Fiction Page"
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