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Weeds by Ruth McEnery Stuart

A Romance of the Simpkinsville Cemetery

ELIJAH TOMKINS stood looking down upon his wife's grave. It was early morning, and he thought himself alone in the cemetery.

The low rays of a rising sun, piercing the intervening foliage, lay in white spots of light upon the new mound, revealing an incipient crop of rival grasses there. A heavy dew, visible everywhere in all-pervading moisture, hung in glistening gems upon the blades of bright green cocoa spears that had shot up between the drier clods, and it lay in little pools within the compact hearts of the fat purslane clumps that were settling in the lower places. But Elijah saw none of these things.

He had been standing here some minutes, his head low upon his bosom, when a slight sound startled him. It was a faint crackle, as of a light footstep upon the gravel walk.

He turned suddenly and looked behind him. He saw nothing, but the start had roused him from his reverie, and he hastily proceeded to raise his walking-cane, which he had held behind him, and to thrust it with care several inches deep into the top of the grave. Then withdrawing it, he dropped into the hole it had made a rose-bud, which he took from his pocket, drew a bit of earth over it, and hastened away.

Elijah had done precisely this thing every morning since his wife's death, three weeks ago.

There were exactly twenty-one rose-buds buried in this identical fashion, one for each day since the filling of the new grave, and most of them had been deposited there before the rising of the morning sun.

Elijah was a man to whom any display of sentiment was childish; or, what to one of his temper was perhaps even worse, it was “womanish.” To “fool with flowers” in a sentimental way was, according to his thinking, as unbecoming a man as to “spout poetry” or to “play the piany.”

He had passed safely through all the vicissitudes of courtship, marriage, and even a late paternity—that crucial test of mental poise —without succumbing to any of the traditional follies incident to these particular epochs. He had borne his honors simply, as became a man, without parade or apparent emotion. But with his widowerhood had come an obligation involving tremendous embarrassment.

Elijah had loved his wife, and when on her death-bed she had asked him to come every day and lay a rose-bud upon her grave he had not been able to say her nay. No one had heard the request. None knew of the promise.

On the day following the funeral he had risen early, saddled his horse, and ridden to the graveyard, carrying the rose-bud openly in his hand. He had slept heavily that night—the sleep of exhaustion that comes as a boon at such times—and when he had waked next morning, confronted suddenly by a sense of his loss and of his promise, he had set out upon his initial journey without a touch of self-consciousness. It was only when he unexpectedly came upon a neighbor in the road that he instantly knew that he was doing a sentimental thing. At the surprise the flower turned downward, falling out of sight behind the pommel of his saddle as if by its own volition. And when Elijah had passed his neighbor with a silent greeting, his horse's head turned, as if he too were denying the sentimental journey, into a foot-path leading entirely away from the cemetery.

When he had gotten quite beyond the curve of the road, it was a simple thing to turn across a bit of wood and enter the graveyard by another gate, but as he did so Elijah knew himself for a hopeless coward. The crackling pine-needles under his horse's feet sounded as thunder to his sensitive ears. Every bur seemed to turn upon him its hundred eyes, in which he saw all Simpkinsville gazing at him, a mourning widower carrying flowers. The twitterings of the wood were the whisperings of the village gossips, and some of the younger trees even giggled as he passed.

To say that the widower's grief commands scant sympathy in Simpkinsville is putting the case leniently.

Indeed, it is no uncommon thing in this otherwise kindly village for the friends who sit up with the body of a deceased wife to indulge in whispered speculations as to her probable successor, and any undue exhibition of emotion on the part of the bereaved husband is counted as presaging early consolation.

This may seem harsh, perhaps, and yet it is said that the hypothesis is amply sustained by the history of widowerhood and its repairs in these parts.

It is possible that such exhibition of feeling is sometimes a simple revolt against the lonely life as insupportable.

It may have been so, indeed, in the most notable case in the annals of Simpkinsville, when a certain inconsolable widower of effusive habit proceeded, on the demise of his wife, whose name was Lily, to adopt a lily as his trade-mark stencilled upon his cotton-bales, to bestow the name promiscuously upon all the eligibles born upon his plantation, from a pickaninny of chocolate hue to a bay colt, and to have all flowers excepting the lilies extracted from his garden. Indeed, he even went so far as to change the name of his place from “Phoenix Farm” to “Lilyvale,” and when at the end of a year of full florescence the odor of the white flower pervaded every nook and cranny of his home he suddenly succumbed to the blushing wiles of a certain “Miss Rose—” of the country-side, and there was a changing of names and a planting of roses with some confusion.

There were jests galore about the rose's thorns scratching up the lily bulbs in this particular garden of the winged god, and the slight residuum of sympathy possible towards the mourning widower passed forever out of the popular heart with the legend of the lily and the rose.

Everybody in Simpkinsville and its environments had known and laughed at this romance of a year. Elijah simply cleared his throat and been disgusted over it, but it will be easily seen that such a precedent might somewhat heighten the sensitiveness of so timid a man to the perils of the situation as he entered upon his daily pilgrimage.

He had not meant to bury the rose that first morning. The interment was an after-thought; but it was so simple a thing to do that he had easily seized upon it as a direct way out of his difficulty.

A man of poetic feeling might have found pleasure in the reflection that in thus personally bestowing the flower he made it more exclusively hers who lay beneath it than if the knowledge of it were shared by others. But Elijah did not go so far. His satisfaction was rather that of him who thinks he has found a way to eat his pie and have it too.

As we have seen, he had been burying his daily bud for three weeks when this recital begins, and he believed himself still unobserved. He had always been an early riser, and the cemetery was so near the road to his own fields that he found the early détour quite a safe thing. One meeting him on the road would not question his errand.

The fright he had felt at the suspicion of footsteps in the graveyard this morning remained with him as he turned homeward. Once before he had been startled in this way, and each time the false alarm had been a warning. It had frightened him.

“Strange how women takes notions, anyhow!” he muttered, as, the sense of panic still upon him, he turned to go. This was his first confessed revolt. “Never knowed Jinny to be so awful set on rose-buds, nohow, when she was here. Not thet I'd begrudge her all the roses in creation ef she wanted 'em. But for a middle-aged couple like us to be made laughin'-stalks of jest for a few buds thet I'm doubtful ef she ever receives, it does seem—”

He had just reached this point in his soliloquy when an unmistakable creaking sound startled him, and he turned suddenly to see the vanishing edge of a woman's skirt as it disappeared behind the hedge of Confederate jasmine that enclosed the family burial lot of a certain John Christian, a year ago deceased.

He had heard, long before his own bereavement, that Christian's widow spent a great part of her time at her husband's grave, but he had heard it at a time when such things held no special interest for him, and it had passed out of his mind. But now the discovery of her actual presence here filled him with panic. It was not likely that she had seen him this morning. The Christian lot was near the other gate, by which she had evidently entered, and her back had been in his direction. But she would be coming again.

Elijah was so fearful of discovery that he dared not risk another step, and so he sat down upon a stump in the shade of a weeping-willow and waited.

The widow Christian was short, and the jasmine hedge was tall. The opening in the green enclosure, indicated by an arch of green, was upon its opposite side, so Elijah had not seen her enter it, but presently the shaking of the upper branches of the vines showed that the training hand was within the square. Once or twice a slender finger appeared above the hedge as it drew a wiry tendril into place, and there was an occasional clipping of shears as the wayward vine received further discipline from the pruning-blade within.

Long after there was any sign of her presence Elijah sat waiting for the widow to go, but still she stayed. It seemed an age, and he grew very tired, and under the pressure of imprisonment and fatigue he presently began to amuse himself with idle thoughts—thoughts about the hedge first, then about the man who lay within its enclosure, and then, by natural sequence, about his widow.

“Pore Christian!” he began. “He was hedged in purty close-t with her religion long ez he lived—an' I see she's a-follerin' it up! A reg'lar Presbyterian cut that hedge has got—a body 'd know it to look at it. A shoutin' Methodist, now, might 'a' let it th'ow out sprouts right an' left, an' give God the glory.”

From this, his first idle thought, it will be seen that Elijah was a man of some imagination. May it not, indeed, have been this very imagination, with a latent sense of humor, that put so keen an edge upon his anguish in a ridiculous situation?

His shrugging shoulders gave silent expression to a repressed chuckle, as he followed his rambling thoughts still further in this wise:

“Umh! Well, I reckon she knows what she's about in keepin' a close-t watch over his grave. She's afeerd some o' them few wild-oats she never give him a chance to sow might sprout up an' give him away. Umh!”

His growing pleasure in this momentary mental emancipation seemed to shorten the period of his waiting.

“Well, ef wild-oats is ez long-lived ez what wheat is, she can't no mo'n ward off the growth du'ing her lifetime—that is, ef what parson sez is true, thet a grain o' wheat has laid in a ol' tombstone 'longside one o' these dumby mummies a thousand years, an' then sprouted quick ez it was took out. Hard to smaller, that story is, for a farmer, thet's had to do with mildewed seeds, but I reckon ef preachers don't know the ins an' outs of mummies, nobody don't. But the way I look at it, any chemicals thet's strong enough to keep a mummy in countenance that long would exercise a savin' influ'nce on anything layin' round him, maybe. Pity they couldn't be applied to a man in life, so ez to—Jack Robinson! What in thunder—She's a-comin' this way!”

It is a long way from the buried secrets of Egypt to the Simpkinsville cemetery, and to be transported the entire distance in a twinkling by the apparition of a dreaded woman bearing down upon one is what might be called a jolting experience. This is exactly what happened to Elijah at this trying moment.

The widow Christian had stepped briskly out of the enclosure, and was facing the tree under which he sat.

There be “weeping-willows” that truly weep, while some, with all the outward semblance of sorrow, do seem only to whine and whimper, so sparse and attenuated are their dripping fringes—fringes capable even of flippancy if the wind be of a flirtatious mind.

Of this latter sort was the one beneath which Elijah had taken refuge this morning. The meagre ambush that had seemed quite adequate in the lesser exigency was as nothing now as through its flimsy screen he saw disaster surely approaching. But his moment of supreme panic was mercifully brief.

Before she had reached his hiding-place the widow turned hastily aside. She was bent upon a definite destination, and Elijah had scarcely had time to rally from his first fright before he discovered that she was going to his wife's grave. He could not see her when she had reached it, but he saw distinctly her lengthened shadow on the sward behind her. When at last she stopped there, he even saw this same witness make a deliberate tour of the grave. He saw it bend and rise and fall, and then, when it was gone, he watched for the widow to appear at the farther side, and he saw her at last go out the graveyard gate. In a moment more he heard the roll of wheels, and, standing up, he even descried the top of her buggy as she drove away. And then, taking off his hat and mopping his forehead, he came out of hiding.

This visit to his wife's grave gave Elijah a most uncomfortable sensation, and he hurried there to see how things were. He had, he knew, carefully covered his morning bud, but still he was uneasy.

When he returned to the grave he found the grass upon it dry. There seemed to be otherwise no change in its appearance, and he was turning away, somewhat reassured, when a fresh clod caught his eye. It seemed to have been overturned. He stooped down, his heart thumping like a sledge-hammer, while he made a careful examination.

The clod lay exactly over the spot where he had, an hour ago, deposited his rose-bud, and its damp side was upward. A bent hair-pin lay beside it, and there was damp earth upon its points. Lifting the lump, he found its nether side still warm from the sun. Beneath it, clearly discernible without further removal, was the pink edge of a rose leaf.

Elijah was not ordinarily a nervous man, but when he rose from the grave he was trembling so that he felt it safe to repair to his seat beneath the willow until he should recover himself.

The next moments were possibly as wretched as any that had hitherto come into his life. As he sat with his face buried in his hands, he felt the same sort of exquisite torture that he had occasionally experienced in a dream, when for a brief moment he had believed himself walking the streets naked, in a glare of light, and had waked up with a start to a blessed consciousness of a friendly darkness and his night-shirt. There was no awakening possible now. A second trip to the grave only prolonged the horrors of the nightmare. He took off his hat again and mopped and mopped his face and head and neck. Then, in sheer desperation, he began walking slowly up and down the gravelled paths, his hands nervously clasped behind him, and before he realized it he found himself at the opening in the Christian hedge, and he walked in.

There was a pretty rustic seat just within the enclosure, and he sat down upon it. Even his state of mind, and the fresh impression of the obtrusive widow rudely etched with the muddy point of a hair-pin upon the sensitive plate of his consciousness, could not prevent his feeling the sweetness and beauty of this spot. The grave in its centre was already, in the early spring, a bed of blooming flowers. Tender sprays of smilax climbed about the marble slab at its head, while from the urn at the foot of the mound depended rich garlands of moneywort and tradescantia, and the air was fragrant with the perfumed leaf of pungent herb and flowering shrub.

Along the lower borders of the mound, just above a battlement of inverted bottles that outlined its extreme limits, there were signs of the recent passage of the trowel, and here closer scrutiny revealed a single line of wilting plants, evidently just set out.

Elijah looked about him for some moments, and then, man that he was, he began to cry. Perhaps it was essential to his manhood that his emotion should be interpreted as anger. At any rate, the turmoil within him found expression in words that, as nearly as they could be distinguished among sobs, were such as these:

“The idee of John Christian, thet never did a decent thing in his life, layin' comf'tably down in sech a place ez this—an' bein' waited on—an' bloomed over! An' here I, thet have tried to ac' upright all my life, am obligated to be a laughin'-stalk to his fool widder an' anybody she's a mind to tell! They've been times in my life when I'd give every doggone cent I've made du'in' my durn blame life ef I'd 'a' been raised to swear—I'll be jim-blasted ef I wouldn't! No widder of sech a low-down, beer-drinkin' cuss ez John Christian need to think she can set out to pester me—a-nosin' round my private business with her confounded investigatin' hair-pin! They ain't nothin' thet a woman with a hairpin ain't capable of doin'—nothin'!”

He sobbed for some time without further words; but presently, while he wiped his eyes, he said, in quite another voice:

“Ef—ef Jinny had jest 'a' had the fo'thought to say bushes instid o' buds, why—why, they'd 'a' been planted long ago— an' forgot—an' she'd be havin' her own roses fresh every day; instid o' which—” And now he sobbed again. “Instid o' which John Christian's widder has got the satisfaction of holdin' me up on a hair-pin p'int for all Simpkinsville to laugh at—same ez ef I was some sort o' guyaskutus!”

As he raised his face, dashing his tears away with his great bare hands, his eyes fell upon the inscription upon the stone before him. The Bible verse quoted there seemed an assumption of superior sanctity, and he resented it as a personal taunt.

“Yas,” he retorted, “I see you're takin' to quotin' Scripture, John Christian, but you needn't to quote it at me! You're set out first class, you are, Bible tex' at yo' Lead an' flowervase at yo' feet, but you ain't the first low-down cuss thet's been Bible-texted out of all recognition.”

Was it the answering silence of the grave in response to this volley that rebuked him? Perhaps so, for certainly there was sudden contrition expressed in his next words, spoken in apologetic voice:

“God forgive me for strikin' a man when he's down; but he does seem so set up—flowered all over—an' nothin' to do—an' a lovin' wife— “

Just as Elijah said these last words there was a stir at his side, and he turned to see the widow Christian standing before him, plants and trowel in hand. She started on first perceiving him, but his tearful, dejected state was an appeal to her womanly sympathies. She took her seat beside him on the settee.

“Yas,” she said, mournfully, “everybody knows she was a lovin' wife, Mr. Tomkins, an' I ain't surprised to see you all broke up this way. I been through it all, en' I know what it is.” She sighed heavily. “They ain't a grain o' the bitterness but I've tasted—not a one—an' quinine an' bitter alloways is sugar to it. But I'm mighty glad, Mr. Tomkins, to see thet you feel neighborly enough to come into my lot to give way. You'll be all the better for it. It's what I do myself. When I git nervous in the house, an' seem to look for him to come in, an' feel sort o' like ez ef he might be down-town an' maybe things goin' wrong, why, I jest come here, an' I see it's all right, an' I cry it out an' go home.

“I hate to see you come twice-t in one day, though, Mr. Tomkins,” she added, after some hesitation. “Too much sorrer starts the heart a-cankerin'! Somehow I had a notion thet you'd been here an' gone over a hour ago. I come an' set out this row o' pansies round the edge of his grave befo' sunup—an' I was jest seven short. So I went an' fetched these to finish the line.”

To attempt to describe Elijah's sensations during these first moments would be folly. He simply had none. It was a season of general suspensions.

In speaking of it afterwards, he said: “While she set there a-talkin', seem like she'd move away off into the distance tell she wasn't no bigger 'n a chiney doll, an' every word she'd say would sound clair an' fine same ez ef a doll-baby was to commence to talk by machinery. An' when she'd be away off an' dwindlin' down to a speck, I'd be gittin' bigger an' bigger tell I'd seem like a sort o' swole-up pin-cushion with needles a-stickin' in me all over. Then she'd start forward an' commence to git bigger, an' I'd swivel an' swivel, tell time she come up to me, with a voice like thunder, I'd be so puny seem like I was li'ble to go out any minute.”

But in this view of the situation we have the advantage of the retrospect.

The visible picture at the time was of Tomkins politely facing his entertainer, with possibly too much solicitude as to the wiping of his face, but still with what she was pleased to accept as polite attention. She could have suspected nothing abnormal in it, for her next words were:

“But I ain't a-goin' to bother you now, Mr. Tomkins; you jest take yo' time to ease up, an' I'll plant these plants. They go in right here at his feet.”

Even as she spoke she fell upon her knees and set about her task. But there was no intermission in her talk.

“You don't know what a comfort this grave is to me, Mr. Tomkins,” she said, with a sigh, as, taking a pin from her back hair, she began carefully drawing out the damp roots of the plant she held. “Ef a body studies over it rightly, there's a heap o' communion with the dead th'ough grave-tendin'! Now these pansies here—f 'instance—Pansies, you know—why, they're flowers of remembrance, an' a person can plant any kind they see fit, accordin' to their hearts' desires. There's the yallers and deep reds—an' mixed. Some o' the mixed ones is marked so ez to make reg'lar fool faces. These here are all dead black.” She sighed again. “I did think I'd put in a purple or two this season, but I 'ain't had the heart to—not yet. He hated black,” she added in a moment, “but of co'se in this my heart has to have some consideration, an' I've done a good many things to pacify him—

“These bottles, f'instance—” She sat back upon her heels, while her eye made the circuit of the bottle border. “These bottles, now,” she repeated, with manifest hesitation—“I 'ain't never mentioned them to nobody before, Mr. Tomkins, an' I don't know why I'm a-doin' it to you, 'less 'n it's seein' you in the same state o' mind thet I've been th'ough. You'll find, ez you go on, Mr. Tomkins, thet unless a heart gets expressed one way or another, its mighty ap' to palpitate inwardly. Have you ever had yo' heart to palpitate inward, Mr. Tomkins?”

She had turned, and was looking straight into her guest's face. He had had time to begin to recover his bearings by this time. The me and the not me were gradually assuming proper relations in his returning consciousness. To be exact, he had just begun definitely to realize where he sat, and that John Christian's widow was talking to him when she put her question.

His first conscious act had been to stop mopping his face and to put his handkerchief away. It was while he was in the act of this bestowal that there came a realization of her expectant face and the necessity of speech.

“Well, reely—Mis' Christian—” he began.

“Of co'se,” she interrupted, “you may've had it an' not known it. You tell it by feelin' the need of somethin' an' not knowin' jest what it is. It might be fresh air or aromatic sperits of ammonia, an' then again it might be somebody to talk to. With some it's religion. Of co'se, with me—with me it's been this grave.

“These bottles, now—ef they was one thing on earth thet could 'a' been called a bone of contention in our lives, Mr. Tomkins, it was them identical bottles. I don't reckon I'm a-tellin' you any secret when I say that. Everybody was obligated to know pore John's one fault, because it was that sort of a fault—outspoke an' confessed. That's where John was unlucky. They's lots o' folks thet passes for better 'n what he passed thet has inward faults thet he'd 'a' spewed out o' his mouth. Sech ez that I class ez whited sepulchures—nothin' else. But his one outward fault—why, someway it nagged me constant, an' I know I never showed proper patience with it.

“But now”—she sighed sadly—“but now I've took every endurin' bottle I could lay hands on thet he ever emptied, an' I've brought 'em to him here. An' I've laid my pansy line 'longside of 'em. But I can't say yet thet they ain't a thorn in the flesh to me sometimes—them bottles.

“An' I've even done more than that, Mr. Tomkins; I've planted mint here—jest ez a token of forgiveness—nothin' else. An', tell the truth, I'm even gittin' so's I like the smell of it. Maybe I'll git entirely reconciled to the bottles—in time. I've had mighty little patience with spearmint all these years, which I now reelize was very foolish, 'cause a green herb ain't no ways responsible for the company it's made to keep, an' I don't know ez they's anything thet could take the mint's place in a julep an' do less harm 'n what the mint does. I don't know but it's maybe a savin' grace to it; an' then it's a Bible herb, you know—mint an' anise an' cumin.”

She had turned away now, and was resuming her work of transplanting. Her last words were spoken as if in half-forgetfulness of her guest. Still, this was possibly only in the seeming, for she said, in a moment, “This is every bit a work of love, Mr. Tomkins.” She dropped a pansy into place as she spoke, measuring its distance from the inverted bottle with the length of her hair-pin. “He always said he didn't want no foolishness made over his grave—but I think sech modesty ez that should have its reward.”

She had presently completed her planting, and after she had scraped the trowel with her hairpin, cleansed the pin's point in turn against the blade, and then wiped them upon a folded leaf, she mechanically restored the little implement to her hair and rose from her knees.

“I'm reel glad I had to come back to finish that transplantin', ez it's turned out, Mr. Tomkins.” She looked straight at him, with absolute ingenuousness, as she spoke. “I'm glad, 'cause I feel thet I've been able to offer you a little consolation. I was tempted to let them plants lay over tell to-morrer, but I thought I'd feel mo' contented all day ef every beer-bottle had its pansy. Ef they was anything over, I'd ruther it would be a pansy, to make shore of lovin' forgiveness.”

She had turned again to the grave now.

“I don't often count my plants when I fetch 'em over, an' I mos' gen'ally have a few to spare, an' I set 'em round on graves thet don't have much care. I try to keep the potter's field a-bloomin' a little with my left-overs.”

She had taken her seat at Tomkins's side again and laid the trowel in her lap. Her bonnet-strings needed retying, and there was a suspicion of dust to be brushed from her knees.

“I did carry a handful of left-over flowers around to plant on pore Crazy Charlie's grave one day, but when I got there I found thet the Lord had took care o' the pore idiot's memory better'n I could 'a' done. It was all broke out thick ez measles with dandelions, an' sez I to myself, ef they ever was a flighty flower on the green earth, it's a dandelion. So I come away an' planted my odds an' ends promiscuous. I've often wondered ef dandelions wasn't reckoned ez idiots among flowers.”

It was no doubt an awful thing for Elijah to do, certainly it was most inconsistent with his position as taken seriously from any point of view, but at this juncture he suddenly surrendered himself to uncontrollable laughter.

After a first startled glance his entertainer smiled.

“Well, I declare!” She spoke kindly. “I've done a good mornin's work, Mr. Tomkins, ef it's only to give you a good, hearty laugh. You'll be all the better for it.”

It is one thing to laugh, and quite another not to be able to stop laughing. Tomkins was for some minutes precisely in this condition. He was so overcome, indeed, that he finally turned his back, and, burying his face in his handkerchief, shook until the bench rattled.

Fortunately his hostess was a woman of genial humor, and, as she has amply shown, by no means a person of sensitiveness.

“You'll likely cry a little again when the laugh's over—I always do—but it's jest that much better for you,” she said, cheerily, as she rose to go. “And now, good-bye!”

As she moved away, Tomkins suddenly realized something that sobered him. She must not go until there should be some understanding about his buried rose-buds. If possible, he must have her promise of secrecy.

There was a sudden pain in his heart and a sense of shame as the tender subject presented itself anew to his mental vision. His sorrow was fresh and sacred. The woman with whom he must temporize had invaded its holy domain, and he felt, even as he hastened to pursue her, that he despised her.

She was a lithe little woman, of quick step, and by the time Elijah had disposed of his troublesome emotions sufficiently to present himself he saw that she was nearing the gate, and he called her, faintly:

“Oh, Mis' Christian!”

She immediately turned and started back.

“Nemmind; don't come back; I jest want to talk to you a little bit.”

He overtook her now, and together they proceeded to the gate.

“Mis' Christian, I've jest been a-thinkin',” he began—“that is, I've been a-wonderin'—I wonder ef you're the kind o' person—I know you're a mighty nice lady, Mis' Christian, an' a tender-hearted one, which you've showed me to-day, unmistakable—but I was jest a-wonderin' ef you was the kind o' person”—they had reached the gate now, and Elijah leaned against the post, hesitating in awkward embarrassment—“ef you was the sort o' person thet, ef you was to know a little thing about another person thet they was a-tryin' to keep hid —for reasons of their own—would you jest keep it to yo'self, please, ma'am, an' not say nothin' about it? I'd like to think you was that kind o' person, Mis' Christian—I would indeed.”

A great, pleased light came into the widow's eyes. They saw the dawn of a new era in this interesting case, and this was its reflection. She mechanically loosened her bonnet strings as she came nearer to Elijah.

“Mr. Tomkins,” she began, seriously, and with evident relish, “I'm mighty glad you've spoke. Of co'se yo' silence wasn't a thing for me to break. A person's silence is his own—to break or to keep—an' you've broke yores an' let me in—an' I come ez a friend. But befo' I go a step further, Mr. Tomkins”—she came nearer now and lowered her voice —“befo' I go a step further, I want to tell you roses don't grow by plantin' buds. They have to be set out in cuttin's. You could come here an' plant rose-buds all yo' mortal life, an' you wouldn't never have so much ez a sprout, much less 'n a rose-bush—not ef you planted tell doomsday.”

Elijah blushed scarlet. “An' do you think, Mis' Christian, thet—”

“I don't think nothin' about it. I know it. But ez for talkin'! Why, horses an' mules couldn't drag a word out o' me about yo' plantin' them buds. I been wantin' to tell you for three weeks thet you wouldn't have no crop, but, ez I said befo', it wasn't for me to break yore silence. I wanted to tell you partly on her account, too, 'cause ef she's conscious of it, I know it must pleg her. She was so sensible always, I know how she'd feel.”

Elijah moved uneasily, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Mis' Christian,” he began, “we're here in the presence o' the dead, ez you might say, an' I'm a-goin' to talk to you outspoke. My feelin's ain't things I like to talk about—an' I'm a slow-spoken man anyway. Either my luck or yores is the lot of purty nigh every married couple in God's world. Mighty few is allotted to die together. They's bound to be a goer an' a stayer, an' ef the goers can stand their part an' keep silence, it's always seemed to me the stayers might do ez much—jest hold still—that's all. I thought I was man enough to do it—an' I am ef—” He wanted to say “ef I could be let alone,” but he dared not. He left the sentence broken. “But ef they's one thing on the round world thet I can't stand, it's bein' made a fool of —or laughed at. An' that's why I planted them buds.”

The widow looked at him askance, as if half suspicious of his sanity. But he went on:

She ast me, Mis' Christian—one o' the last words she spoke — an' I promised her—to put a rose-bud on her grave every day —an' I've done it. But I knowed thet ef I was ketched a-doin' sech a softy thing, they wouldn't be no peace in Simpkinsville for me— so I've jest buried it. An' continue to do so I must.

“Now I've done out with the whole thing. It seemed like a little thing to ask. Buds is plentiful, an' the cemetery is close-t enough, an' I'd do a'most anything to please her. An' yet—Well, it's jest one o' them little things sech ez a woman 'll ask a man to do in a minute, an' he'll never git done doin'. Th' ain't nothin' I wouldn't do for her, an' do gladly, thet I could keep to myself. Ef she'd 'a' ast me to eat a whole rose-bush every day, I'd eat it gladly, thorns an' all. They'd be a-plenty o' ways of eatin' it in secret, an' I wouldn't mind a inward thorn. But this here trip I'm obligated to take—tell the truth, it plegs me. An' now, I don't doubt thet to a woman with sech a bloomin' grave ez you keep I must seem like a mighty begrudgin' sort of a man, Mis' Christian.”

“Not at all, Mr. Tomkins—not at all. You're jest precizely, for all the world, similar-dispositioned to John Christian. Ef I had 'a' died first, although he'd 'a' been all broke up over it, I know I wouldn't have no mo' flowers on my grave than sech weeds ez the good Lord sends to beggars' graves—not a one. Pore John! He often said, jest a-jokin', of co'se, thet he'd promise thet I should wear weeds, no matter which went first. He was death on jokin' that-a-way. Little did he think I'd wear both kinds, though, pore John, which no doubt I will. They won't be nobody but God to flower me over when I'm gone. I've often thought I'd like to get in under 'em—when my time comes—and enjoy my own flowers awhile. His grave is a-plenty wide. But of co'se they wouldn't be no way of gettin' me in without upsettin' things, an' I reckon it's jest ez well. Ef I knew the flowers was there I'd have 'em on my mind all the time, an' every dry spell I'd be fidgety to get out an' water 'em. In tendin' his grave, Mr. Tomkins, I take the same pleasure I would 'a' took ef I was in it an' he fixin' it up. Doin' ez you'd be done by is sometimes mo' satisfyin' than bein' did by. 'Cause them thet do by you don't always come up to the mark.

“But don't think I blame you, Mr. Tomkins. Where they's one person foreordained to carry rose-buds around, there's been a hundred foreordained to laugh at him.

“But it looks to me like ez if we ought to be able to devise some way to have you relieved. Of co'se you've got to keep on—ez long ez rose-buds hold out. An' of co'se they's a long summer ahead, an' buds 'll be plentiful, but the last two winters have been so mild thet they's a big freeze prophesied next year. An' ef buds give out, ez they're more'n likely to, why, it won't be yo' fault. An' ef she sees into yo' heart she'll see thet it warms so to desher the day the roses freeze thet she wouldn't be indooced to have you start it another season. An' don't you fret. Jest go along plantin' yore buds, an' nobody livin' but you an' me an' this gatepost 'll ever know it.

“An' any time you feel the need of givin' way, jest come over to his square an' make yo'self at home, whether I'm there or not. We all have our trials, Mr. Tomkins, an' when yore buds seem mo' than you can bear, why jest remember thet I've got my beer-bottles. Good-bye!”

She held out her hand. Tomkins took it heartily, without a word, and then, turning away, he proceeded to unfasten her horse, and to turn him while she jumped into her buggy.

As he handed her the reins, lifting his hat as he did so, he was startled by the sound of approaching wheels.

Involuntarily at the sound he dodged into the open gate and hurried back through the cemetery to his horse, tied at the other gate. And even in his hurry and fright, as he strode rapidly through the winding paths, this comforting thought took shape and soothed his troubled mind:

“ 'Stonishin' what a sensible woman Christian's wife is, after all!”

She was to him quite as truly the dead man's wife as if her lamented husband were still living. Her friendly interest and sympathy had been that of a kindly sister woman to an unhappy brother man. That was all. And he was grateful to her. Indeed, as he rode homeward, taking a winding détour that should bring him to his own gate from a direction opposite the cemetery, as the hour was late, he was conscious of a lightened burden.

The tension of awful secrecy had been eased by the simple sharing of it with another—another who, notwithstanding her own different temperament, “understood.”

This was Elijah's mood to-day; but when next morning came he found himself definitely annoyed at the thought of the interested woman in the cemetery. She would know when he came in and went out. Maybe she would be watching while he buried the bud. He would feel like such a fool if he suspected this. He hoped that, having once been kind and neighborly, she would henceforth mind her own business and let him alone.

Fortunately for his state of mind, there was no reason to fear that she was anywhere near on this first day, and he performed his mission without any sort of disturbance—excepting, indeed, the distinct irritation he felt when he perceived the bent hair-pin still lying where she had dropped it the day before.

The color mounted to his face when he saw this, and if the widow had appeared before him at this moment it would have been hard for him.

She did not come, however. Indeed, though he regularly came and went —and always looked for her—he did not see her for several weeks; and when at last, nearly a month later, he did meet her coming in with a watering-pot in her hand, she only smiled in a simple and friendly way, as she said to him, quite as if he might have been any other man:"Good-mornin', Mr. Tomkins. Mighty dry spell o' weather,” and passed on.

This was well done; and Elijah was pleased, though he was destined to experience a somewhat uncomfortable moment, as he instantly realized that he had met and spoken to a lady bearing a heavy vessel of water and had not offered to carry it for her.

Indeed, he was suddenly so ashamed of himself that he turned to proffer the tardy courtesy; but she had gone so far—and his voice did not come at the critical moment—and—well, the opportunity passed.

When it was over, he felt rather glad that his courteous impulse had failed to carry. Better let her think him a trifle remiss, or even impolite, than for him to “begin 'totin' ' water to John Christian's grave.”

“Ef I was to be ketched doin' sech a thing ez that,” he even reflected further, “I'd be worse off 'n ever.”

The summer was a long and lonely one to Elijah. His home, left to the care of a single old servant, was wellnigh comfortless.

Adam's first necessity, preserved through the very conditions of its transmission, has become the one unimpaired heritage of his latest son. It is still, even as at first, not good for man to be alone. A primary need of his life is yet the sustaining companionship of some good woman, be she wife or mother or sister or friend. And it is well for him if she be better than he; happy for him if she spice the sweetness of her relation with differences of thought and opinion. Only let him feel that she understands him, and cares.

Elijah, in spite of all her expressions of kindness to him, and her since becoming reticence, had never quite forgiven the widow Christian for discovering his secret. The rusting hair-pin, always definitely located in his consciousness, even when the summer's full growth had covered it over, was still an irritation to him.

And yet, when the season of shortening days was at hand, when September was waning and October's promise was so very barren, he one day idly wondered if he should never meet, if for but a moment's recognition—“jest for a passin' o' the time o' day”—the one woman on earth who knew and respected his secret; the one who, so far as her slight knowledge went, understood him.

He saw her again, very soon after this, but there was no greeting. He had taken a fancy to come in by “her gate,” and he found she had just preceded him. For the length of such a distance as one would designate as “a block” in New York—it would be “a square” in New Orleans—he walked a short distance behind her. And the morning sun shone full upon her all the way, defining her trig figure, penetrating the coil of her hair. She did not look around, though she must have heard his step.

The widow Christian was, as already seen, a Presbyterian, and as she walked before Elijah down the gravelled path, every hair of her head seemed a fitting expression of her faith. Each strand lay as if obeying a divine injunction dating from the foundations of the world. But it was clean and wholesome, and of a true blue-black.

It was frankly Calvinistic, eminently sure, by every declaration of its polished braid, of its calling and election.

And yet—its conscientious wearer was canonizing a drunkard, reincarnating the tares of his wasted life as flowers, and feasting her famished soul upon their fragrance and beauty, willingly self-deceived —apologizing, as the good always do to the bad. Base indeed must be a life too poor to yield a posthumous flowering of balm for the anointing of loving hearts. The inconsistency of the lonely little Presbyterian woman's daily devotions at a shrine so meagre and yet so rich in color and symbols was full of pathos. She reminded one of a little Romanist at her prie-dieu burning her candle for a departed soul— without the consolations of purgatory.

Elijah did not try to overtake her this morning, nor, be it quickly said to his credit, did he think these thoughts about her. They are the writer's—and idle enough.

But Elijah was touched with sympathy for her as she walked alone before him—he knew not why.

There was a suspicion of chill in the air as he sniffed its breath this morning. The faint, indescribable atmospheric relief that comes when a Southern September yawns for a minute is hard to describe. It is only as if summer were tired, perhaps. Still, a yawn always presages a new era—a renascence beyond its culmination.

To Elijah it meant that the season of the blooming rose was on the wane. He lingered quite a while at his poor shrine to-day, waiting, for no reason at all. But when he was presently startled by a rustling skirt, and, looking up, saw the widow depart, he turned away with a definite sense of disappointment.

She certainly had known he was there, and might have had the grace to look over and nod, or to remark that it was a cool morning, or a warm one. Either would have been true enough.

“The fact is,” he reflected, as a fretful ten-year-old boy might have done—“the fact is, she don't keer no mo' for me 'n what she does for the next one. She was jest kind to me because she is kind, that's all—an' I was jest big enough of a fool to think she felt reel neighborly.”

If there was reason for such misgiving to-day, the morrow brought the lonely man a goodly grain of reassurance. It was indeed a full day.

Unconsciously piqued by his last experience, he determined that it should not be repeated, and so he had risen betimes and gone earlier than usual to the cemetery; and he was turning away, feeling remote enough from all human sympathy, when he saw his neighbor enter the gate, and by first intention start in his direction. His first feeling was a qualm of apprehension lest she had set out on a visit of investigation, and would turn back when she should see him.

But no; she had seen him. There was pleased recognition of his presence in her face as she approached him. This was, by-the-way, the first time that he saw that she was pretty—or thought of it, indeed.

“I thought I'd find you here early this mornin', Mr. Tomkins, an' so I hurried up to ketch you.” Such was her frank and friendly greeting. “Mr. Tomkins,” she repeated, when she had reached him, “I jest wanted to tell you thet Jim Peters is goin' to be fetched down from Sandy Crik an' buried here to-morrer. The Peters lot is right down there back o' yours, an' the men are comin' by sunup in the mornin' to dig his grave; an' I thought maybe, like ez not, you'd like to know it. I know you'd likely ruther not meet 'em here. Ef you don't feel like gittin' up about three o'clock—it's high moon then—why, you could easy slip around after sundown. They don't never be anybody here late of evenin's nohow. I often come in an' sprinkle his pansies after the sun's off of 'em, an' I never have met nobody here 'long about dark.”

She stood facing the grave on the side opposite Elijah as she spoke. There was a note of simple friendliness in her voice, and it touched him deeply.

“I declare, Mis' Christian,” he said, with emotion, “I do think you're the best-hearted an' kindest lady I've ever knew in all my life. I do indeed.” And then, as his eyes fell upon the grave between them, he hastened to add, “Present company excepted, of co'se.”

“Of co'se,” she repeated in generous assent. “An' I respect you all the mo' for that polite attention to her, Mr. Tomkins. They ain't many men that would 'a' done it.” And then she added: “I see thet you 'ain't never come over to his square sence that one time. You ought to walk in some time when I ain't there to bother you, even ef you don't need to borry the hedge, jest to see how purty it is. Them pansies have turned out lovely. But the funniest thing happened. Right in the row with the black-faced ones—jest about where you set that mornin'—would you believe it thet one o' them pansies bloomed out pink? Ever' one planted from dead-black seeds, mind you. An' do you know, maybe I ought to 've picked it out quick ez it showed color, but I didn't. I couldn't do it, Mr. Tomkins. Seemed to me that pansy stood out there jest to remind me o' the day thet I was enabled to cheer you up a little, an' whenever I'd look into its sassy little pink face with its quizzical eyebrows I'd seem to see you a-settin' there shakin' with laughter. An' it's done me good, too. When the good Lord sends a little thing like that out o' His ground, where He works so much magic for the comfort of our hearts, I believe in jest takin' it ez He sends it. An' that pansy plant has kep' a pink face there for me all summer; an' when I'd look at it I'd often remember to wish a little wish for you, Mr. Tomkins. I've often wanted to ask how yore two babies was comin' on, but I didn't like to. But ef I'd knew you well enough when she died, I wouldn't no mo' have advised you to let yore sister take them children out o' yore house than nothin'. Ef they's ever a time a man needs his child'en it is when their mother is took away. Goin' to see 'em once-t a week the way you do ain't livin'. If I was you, an' them my babies, well—Howsoever, excuse me for meddlin'. Maybe ef I'd ever had any child'en o' my own they wouldn't seem like gold an' diamonds to me the way they do. But here I keep on a-talkin'. It's a little fresh this mornin', an' I reckon we'll have the early frost. Sech buds ez you find now must be most too pretty to bury. Fall roses always seem like they put on their purtiest so ez to make you hate to see 'em go. Good-bye.”

Instead of answering, Elijah stepped quickly around the grave and joined her.

“Don't hurry away, Mis' Christian,” he said, as he stepped beside her. “I 'ain't got no nice seat to offer you, like you have, but I want to talk to you a little. It's been on my mind some time to tell you thet you mustn't think I 'ain't got no mo' pride than to let this grave o' mine all run to weeds forever. I'm jest a-waitin' a little—tell it settles solid—an' I'm goin' to have it fixed up decent an' expensive. I thought about havin' a reg'lar long slab laid down over it, an' all cemented round the edges. But I won't do it now tell all the buds give out. I've got so used to layin' the bud under the sod thet I wouldn't feel ez ef she had it ef it was on top a lot o' marble an' stuff. She was a mighty good wife, Mis' Christian—most of her time porely, ez you know. They's many a little thing I wisht I'd 'a' done for her, ez I look back. I'd 'a' had a marble stone there long ago—'ceptin' for the buds.”

“Well—I don't know but you're wise, Mr. Tomkins. Sometimes I thought of cementin' his in, an' jest lettin' it rest so. But I haven't never been able to make up my mind what I'd do with the bottles —whether I'd leave 'em inside or take 'em out. Sometimes,” she sighed, and hesitated—“some times I have reel strange misgivin's about them bottles. Supposin', f' instance, thet at the resurrection he was to be shamed out of all countenance findin' 'em here—with the brewer's name blowed in each one—an' all the white ribboned angels a-flyin' round. Of co'se we can't tell how things is goin' to be —an' they're bound to be some way. I don't know but I'll change it all yet—some day. But ef I was to cement him in I'd feel mighty empty-handed—an' lost. But reely, Mr. Tomkins, instid o' you apologizin' to me, I want to tell you thet I've often felt reproached seein' you slip in an' out so reg'lar an' so quiet. You're doin' a thing she ast you to do—an' doin' it modest and sincere. An' me—I'm doin' a thing he never would 'a' liked in creation, an' makin' a show of it—though how it would look was cert'nly the last thing on earth in my mind. Somehow pore John never stood ez high ez I'd liked him to among the livin' an' I have been ambitious to have him stand well among the dead. But you're the only human I've ever spoke to about it, an' the good Lord knows you're the last man I'd 'a' ever thought I could 'a' spoke to—seven months ago. We never know what we'll do—tell it's done.”

They were at the opening of the hedge now, and she walked in, Tomkins following.

“Ef you want to see yoreself ez others see you, or at least ez I saw you, Mr. Tomkins, look at this pink pansy.”

She chuckled merrily as she turned the saucy face of the flower so that he could see it. Tomkins laughed too as he looked at it.

“Nobody knows how much company them pink faces have been to me all summer. Croppin' out there in the black row they're like jokes at a funeral. We've all told 'em—or listened to 'em—an' they's no place on earth thet a joke gets its own more'n at a funeral, to my thinkin'. Yas, ez I said, Mr. Tomkins—Set down a minute, won't you? I won't charge you any more.”

Her playful mood was like wine to poor Elijah after a long thirst. She moved to the end of the bench to make room for him, and he sat down.

“Yas, ez I said,” she began, in quite a changed tone, and yet with a spring in her voice—” ez I said, Mr. Tomkins, I'd have them babies home— ef they was mine—sister or no sister. Why, the way you're a-living now, you ain't no mo'n a uncle to 'em. An' the way I look at it—of co'se you ain't never goin' to think of marryin' again; you are like me in that—an' so, the way you start out with them child'n o' yores is likely to continue. Ef you was jest holdin' off tell sech a time ez you could turn out among the girls to pick out a step-mother for 'em for her rosy cheeks, it would be different. Yore sister would do jest ez well ez anybody else to ripen 'em for her. But it seems to me thet a man o' yore standin' an' yore stren'th o' mind would 'a' took some nice pious old lady like Mis' Gibbs, f' instance, thet has done quilted all her life away nearly, an' won't accept no home thet she can't earn. Seems to me sech a lady ez that would 'a' kep' yo' family circle intac'—an' earned a good home at the same time. An' Mis' Gibbs, why, she thinks the world an' all of you. She grannied yore mother when you was born—maybe you remember—'t least so she says. She says you was the reddest baby she ever see in her life, but I sort o' doubt that—with yore brown hair.”

She glanced at Elijah's head as she spoke.

“Well!” she laughed; “don't know ez I doubt it, either, look at you now.”

He had, indeed, blushed scarlet, and now he blushed again because she had noticed it.

“I do declare!” she laughed again. “I reckon you must be like a girl I went to school with She always said she felt humiliated every time she reelized she'd ever been a baby. But I glory in it. The only grudge I've got against it is thet I can't remember how folks fed me an' dressed me an' toted me around—waited on me. I 'ain't got a single ricollection of sech ez thet in all my life—not a one. I've done the fetchin' and carryin' for others ever sence I can remember, an' done it willin' enough, too. Still, I'm glad to know thet I have had my innin's. But you think over what I've said about ole Mis' Gibbs now—but don't never let on thet I mentioned it. Some child'en is afeerd of her on account of her wig—but they'd soon git used to it. It does shift some sence she's fell away so, but I don't doubt thet at the head o' yore bountiful table she'd very soon grow up to it again. I know what one broke-up home is, Mr. Tomkins, an' I hate to see another. Mine can't help but stay broke—'less'n I'd start adoptin', which would be a hard thing to do—in Simpkinsville. There couldn't never possibly be a orphan without relations here, where everybody is kin— an' a orphan with about twenty-'leven lookers-on is the last thing on earth for anybody to adopt.”

This was the last meeting Elijah had with the widow Christian during this season. He stayed a few minutes to-day, her willing listener and grateful guest.

When he finally made his awkward adieus his mind was filled with a new hope in her suggestion of reconstructing his broken circle— bringing his children home. Perhaps, after all, all of life had not gone out of living.

He wished a little, as he pondered over her plan, that old Mrs. Gibbs's wig were a closer fit, and that she were, perhaps, a trifle less reminiscent. But these were externalities. She would really care for him—and his babes. There would be a light in the front room when he should go home at night.

As he looked back over the last seven months, Elijah felt as if he had always been a widower—and wretched. It must be wretched to be a widower, else why the common race for escape?

Perhaps widowhood is as miserable, but its pangs are different, being matters of a woman's soul. With her it is rarely a question of home-breaking or bodily discomfort. She is herself a maker and disburser of comfort. Where she is is home. And so her sorrow is— otherwise.

The more Elijah pondered over the question of reorganizing his home, the more the desire to do so grew strong within him.

Still—so irreconcilable are sometimes the factors in a difficult situation—the more he thought of old Mrs. Gibbs seated with wig askew behind his coffee-urn, the less the picture invited his consent.

But the new concept had taken shape—a reorganized family table—a little chair on one side—a high chair on the other. If old Mrs. Gibbs's wig bobbed up constantly behind the coffee-urn, there was at least an interrogation point above it. And in the interrogation there is hope.

Elijah was very thoughtful these days—very circumspect—very serious.

Many times he went to the cemetery, paid his tribute, and came away without even looking towards the Christian lot.

Perhaps he was thinking of old Mrs. Gibbs.

However this may be, a few days after this last interview, when he had, as usual, deposited his floral tribute, he leaned over the grave, and reaching forward, felt carefully about the roots of a certain clump of grass, as if searching for something, and presently he picked up an old, very rusty hair-pin.

He laid it in the palm of his other hand a moment and looked at it. Then, taking his handkerchief, he wiped it tenderly, as if it were a precious thing.

“I don't know what on earth I been a-thinkin' about to let it all go to rust that-a-way,” he said, aloud.

And then he carefully put it in his pocket. *



* The writer wishes to say that this is positively all that ever happened between the widow Christian and Elijah Tomkins, bereaved, in the Simpkinsville cemetery, and the report that went abroad at the time of their marriage, some months later, to the effect that they had begun their courting in the graveyard, is utterly without foundation in fact. And she trusts the impartial reader to agree that never were two mateless mourners more circumspect, never two with time and abundant opportunity who were more loyal to their respective dead, than they.
 
 
 

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