When he looked from the windows of the train next morning the hills were there. They towered immense and magical into the blue weather, and suddenly the coolness was there, the winy sparkle of the air, and the shining brightness. Above him loomed huge shapes, the dense massed green of the wilderness, the cloven cuts’ and gulches of the mountain passes, the dizzy steepness, with the sudden drops below. He could see the little huts stuck to the edge of bank and hollow, toy-small, far below him in the gorges. The everlasting stillness of the earth now met the intimate, toiling slowness of the train as it climbed up round the sinuous curves, and he had an instant sense of something refound that he had always known — something far, near, strange, and so familiar — and it seemed to him that he had never left the hills, and all that had passed in the years between was like a dream.
At last the train came sweeping down the long sloping bend into the station, But even before it had come to a full halt George had been watching out of the windows and had seen Randy Shepperton and his sister Margaret waiting for him on the platform. Randy, tall and athletic-looking, was teetering restlessly from one foot to another as his glance went back and forth along the windows of the train in search of him. Margaret’s strong, big-boned figure was planted solidly, her hands clasped loosely across her waist, and her eyes were darting from car to car with swift intensity. And as George swung down from the steps of the pullman and, valise in hand, strode towards the platform across the rock ballast of the roadbed and the gleaming rails, he knew instantly, with that intuitive feeling of strangeness and recognition; just what they would say to him at the moment of their meeting.
Now they had seen him. He saw Margaret speak excitedly to her brother and motion towards his approaching figure. And now Randy was coming on the run, his broad hand extended in a gesture of welcome, his rich tenor shouting greetings as he came:
“How are you, boy?” he shouted. “Put it there!” he cried heartily as he came up, and vigorously wrung him by the hand. “Glad to see you, Monk!”
Still shouting greetings, he reached over and attempted to take the valise. The inevitable argument, vehement, good-natured, and protesting, began immediately, and in another moment Randy was in triumphant possession and the two were walking together towards the platform, Randy saying scornfully all the time in answer to the other’s protests:
“Oh, for God’s sake, forget about it! I’ll let you do as much for me when I come up to the Big Town to visit you! . . . Here’s Margaret!” he said as they reached the platform. “I know she’ll be glad to see you!”
She was waiting for him with a broad smile on her homely face. They had grown up together as next-door neighbours, and were almost like brother and sister. As a matter of fact, when George had been ten and Margaret twelve, they had had one of those idyllic romances of childhood in which each pledged eternal devotion to the other and took it for granted that they would marry when they grew up. But the years had changed all that. He had gone away, and she had taken charge of Randy when her parents died; she now kept house for him, and had never married. As he saw her standing there with the warm smile on her face, and with something vaguely spinsterish in her look in spite of her large, full-breasted figure and her general air of hearty good nature, he felt a sudden stirring of pity and old affection for her.
“Hello, Margaret!” he said, somewhat thickly and excitedly. “How are you, Margaret?”
They shook hands, and he planted a clumsy kiss on her face. Then, blushing with pleasure, she stepped back a pace and regarded him with the half bantering expression she had used so often as a child.
“Well, well, well!” she said. “You haven’t changed much, George! A little stouter, maybe, but I reckon I’d have known you!”
They spoke now quietly about Aunt Maw and about the funeral, saying the strained and awkward things that people always say when they talk of death. Then, this duty done, there was a little pause before they resumed their natural selves once more.
The two men looked at each other and grinned. When they had been boys together Randy had seemed to George more like Mercutio than anybody he had ever known. He had had a small, lean head, well shaped, set closely with blond hair; he had been quick as a flash, light, wiry, active, with a wonderful natural grace in everything he did; his mind and spirit had been cleat, exuberant, incisive, tempered like a fine Toledo blade. In college, too, he had been the same: he had not only done well in his classes, but had distinguished himself as a swimmer and as quarter-back on the football team.
But now something caught in George’s throat as he looked at him and saw what time had done. Randy’s lean, thin face was deeply furrowed, and the years had left a grey deposit at his temples. His hair was thinning back on both sides of the forehead, and there were little webbings of fine wrinkles at the corners of the eyes. It saddened George and somehow made him feel a bit ashamed to see how old and worn he looked. But the thing he noticed most was the expression in Randy’s eyes. Where they had once been clear and had looked out on the world with a sharp and level gaze, they were now troubled, and haunted by some deep preoccupation which he could not quite shake off even in the manifest joy he felt at seeing his old friend again.
While they stood there, Jarvis Riggs, Parson Flack, and the Mayor came slowly down the platform talking earnestly to one of the leading real estate operators of the town, who had come down to meet them. Randy saw them and, still grinning, he winked at George and prodded him in the ribs.
“Oh, you’ll get it now!” he cried in his old extravagant way. “At all hours, from daybreak to three o’clock in the morning — no holds barred! They’ll be waiting for you when you get there!” he chortled.
“Who?” said George.
“Haw-w!” Randy laughed. “Why, I’ll bet they’re all lined up there on the front porch right now, in a reception committee to greet you and to cut your throat, every damned mountain grill of a real estate man in town! Old Horse-face Barnes, Skin-‘emalive Mack Judson, Skunk-eye Tim Wagner, The Demon. Promoter, and Old Squeeze-your-heart’s-blood Simms, The Widder and Orphan Man from Arkansas — they’re all there!” he said gloatingly. “She told them you’re a prospect, and they’re waiting for you! It’s your turn now!” he yelled. “She told them that you’re on the way, and they’re drawing lots right now to see which one gets your shirt and which one takes the pants and B.V.D.s! Haw-w!”— and he poked his friend in the ribs again.
“They’ll get nothing out of me,” George said, laughing, “for I haven’t got it to begin with.
“That doesn’t matter!” Randy yelled. “If you’ve got an extra collar button, they’ll take that as the first instalment, and then — haw-w! they’ll collect your cuff-links, socks, and your suspenders in easy payments as the years roll on!”
He stood there laughing at the astounded look on his friend’s face. Then, seeing his sister’s reproving eye, he suddenly prodded her in the ribs, at which she shrieked in a vexed manner and slapped at his hand.
“I’ll vow, Randy!” she cried fretfully. “What on earth’s the matter with you? Why, you act like a regular idiot! I’ll vow you do!”
“Haw-w!” he yelled again. Then, more soberly, but still grinning: “I guess we’ll have to sleep you out over the garage, Monk, old boy. Dave Merrit’s in town, and he’s got the spare room.” There was a slight note of deference in his voice as he mentioned Merrit’s name, but he went on lightly: “Or if you like — haw-w! — there’s a nice room at Mrs. Charles Montgomery Hopper’s, and she’d be glad to have you!”
George looked rather uncomfortable at the mention of Mrs. Charles Montgomery Hopper. She was a worthy lady and he remembered her well, but he didn’t want to stay at her boarding-house. Margaret saw his expression and laughed:
“Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho! You see what you’re in for, don’t you? The prodigal comes home and we give him his choice of Mrs. Hopper or the garage! Now is that life or not?”
“I don’t mind a bit,” protested George. “I think the garage is swell. And besides”— they all grinned at each other again with the affection of people who know each other so well that they are long past knowledge —“if I get to helling around at night, I won’t feel that I’m disturbing you when I come in . . . But who is Mr. Merrit, anyway?”
“Why,” Randy answered, and now he had an air of measuring his words with thoughtful deliberation, “he — he’s the Company’s man — my boss, you know. He travels around to all the branches to check up and see that everything’s O.K. He’s a fine fellow. You’ll like him,” said Randy seriously. “We’ve told him all about you and he wants to meet you.”
“And we knew you wouldn’t mind,” Margaret said. “You know, it’s business, he’s with the Company, and of course it’s good policy to be as nice to him as we can.” But then, because such designing was really alien to her hospitable and whole-hearted spirit, she added: “Mr. Merrit is all right. I like him. We’re glad to have him, anyway.”
“Dave’s a fine fellow,” Randy repeated. “And I know he wants to see you . . . Well,” he said, and the preoccupied look was in his eyes again, “if we’re all ready, let’s get going. I’m due back at the office now. Merrit’s there, of course. Suppose I run you out to the house and drop you, then I’ll see you later.”
This was agreed upon. Randy grinned once more — a little nervously, George thought — and picked up the valise and started rapidly across the station platform towards his car, which was parked at the kerb.
At the funeral that afternoon the little frame house which old Lafayette Joyner — Aunt Maw’s father, and George Webber’s grandfather — had built with his own hands years ago looked just as it had always looked when George had lived there as a boy. Nothing about it had been changed. Yet it seemed smaller, meaner, more shabby than he remembered it. It was set some distance back from the street, between the Shepperton house on one side and the big brick house in which his Uncle Mark Joyner lived on the other. The street was lined with cars, many of them old and decrepit and covered with the red clay of the hills. In the yard in front of the house many men stood solemnly knotted in little groups, talking quietly, their bare heads and stiff Sunday clothes of austere black giving them an air of self-conscious shyness and restraint.
Inside, the little rooms were jammed with people, and the hush of death was on the gathering, broken now and then by muffled coughs and by stifled sobs and sniffles. Many of them were Joyners, who for three days had been coming in from the hills — old men and women with the marks of toil and pain upon their faces, cousins, inlaws, distant relatives of Aunt Maw. George had never seen some of them before, but they all bore the seal of the Joyner clan upon them, the look of haunting sorrow and something about the thin line of the lips that proclaimed their grim triumph in the presence of death.
In the tiny front room, where on wintry nights Aunt Maw had always sat by the light of a kerosene lamp before a flickering fire, telling the boy her endless stories of death and sorrow, she now lay in her black coffin, the top and front of which were open to display as much of her as possible to the general view. And instantly, as George entered, he knew that one of her main obsessions in life had been victorious over death. A spinster and a virgin all her years, she had always had a horrible fear that, somehow, some day, some man would see her body. As she grew older her thoughts had been more and more preoccupied with death, and with her morbid shame lest someone see her in the state of nature after she was dead. For this reason she had a horror of undertakers, and had made her brother, Mark, and his wife, Mag, solemnly promise that no man would see her unclothed corpse, that her laying out would be done by women, and, above all else, that she was not to be embalmed. By now she had been dead three days — three days of long hot sun and sultriness — and it seemed to George a grim but fitting ending that the last memory he would have of that little house, which in his childhood had been so filled with the stench of death-inlife, should now be the stench of death itself.
Mark Joyner shook hands cordially with his nephew and said he was glad he had been able to come down. His manner was simple, dignified, and reserved, eloquently expressive of quiet grief, for he had always been genuinely fond of his older sister. But Mag, his wife, who for fifty years had carried on a nagging, internecine warfare with Aunt Maw, had appointed herself chief mourner and was obviously enjoying the role. During the interminable service, when the Baptist minister in his twanging, nasal voice recited his long eulogy and went back over the events of Aunt Maw’s life, Mag would break forth now and then in fits of loud weeping and would ostentatiously throw back her heavy black veil and swab vigorously with her handkerchief at her red and swollen eyes.
The minister, with the unconscious callousness of self-righteousness, rehearsed again the story of the family scandal. He told how George Webber’s father had abandoned his wife, Amelia Joyner, to live in open shame with another woman, and how Amelia had shortly, afterwards “died of a broken heart”. He told how “Brother Mark Joyner and his God-fearing wife, Sister Maggie Joyner,” had been filled with righteous wrath and had gone to court and wrested the motherless boy from the sinful keeping of his father; and how “this good woman who now lies dead before us” had taken charge of her sister’s son and brought him up in a Christian home. And he said be was glad to see that the young man who had been the recipient of this dutiful charity had come home again to pay his last debt of gratitude at the bier of the one to whom he owed so much.
Throughout all this Mag continued to choke and sputter with histrionic sorrow, and George sat there biting his lips, his eyes fixed on the floor, perspiration streaming from him, his jaws clenched hard, his face purple with shame and anger and nausea.
The afternoon wore on, and at last the service was over. People began to issue from the house, and the procession formed for the long, slow ride to the cemetery. With immense relief George escaped from the immediate family group and went over to Margaret Shepperton, and the two of them took possession of one of the limousines that had been hired for the occasion.
Just as the car was about to drive off and take its place in the line, a woman opened the door and got in with them. She was Mrs. Delia Flood, an old friend of Aunt Maw’s. George had known her all his life.
“Why, hello there, young man,” she said to George as she climbed in and sat down beside him “This would’ve been a proud day for your Aunt Maw if she could’ve known you’d come all the way back home to be here at her funeral. She thought the world of you, boy.” She nodded absent-mindedly to Margaret. “I saw you had an empty place here, so I said, ‘It’s a pity to let it go to waste. Hop right in,’ I said. ‘Don’t stand on ceremony. It might as well be you,’ I said, ‘as the next fellow.’”
Mrs. Delia Flood was a childless widow well past middle age, short, sturdy, and physically stolid, with jet black hair and small, piercing brown eyes, and a tongue that was never still. She would fasten upon anyone she could catch and corner, and would talk on and on in a steady monotone that had neither beginning nor end. She was a woman of property, and her favourite topic of conversation was real estate. In fact, long before the present era of speculation and sky-rocketing prices, she had had a mania for buying and selling land, and was a shrewd judge of values. With some sixth sense she had always known what direction the development of the growing town was likely to take, and when things happened as she predicted, it was usually found that she had bought up choice sites which she was able to sell for much more than she had paid for them. She lived simply and frugally, but she was generally believed to be well off.
For a little while Mrs. Flood sat in contemplative silence. But as the procession moved off and slowly made its way through the streets of the town, she began to glance sharply out of the windows on both sides, and before long, without any preliminary, she launched forth in a commentary on the history of every piece of property they passed. It was constant, panoramic, and exhaustive. She talked incessantly, gesturing briefly and casually with her hand, only pausing from time to time to nod deliberately to herself in a movement of strong affirmation.
“You see, don’t you?” she said, nodding to herself with conviction, tranquilly indifferent whether they listened or not so long as the puppets of an audience were before her. “You see what they’re goin’ to do here, don’t you? Why, Fred Barnes, Roy Simms, and Mack Judson — all that crowd — why, yes — here! — say!”— she cried, frowning meditatively —“wasn’t I reading it? Didn’t it all come out in the paper — why, here, you know, a week or two ago — how they proposed to tear down that whole block of buildings there and were goin’ to put up the finest garage in this part of the country? Oh, it will take up the whole block, you know, with a fine eight-storey building over it, and storage space upstairs for more cars, and doctors’ offices — why, yes! — they’re even thinkin’ of puttin’ in a roof garden and a big restaurant on top. The whole thing will cost ’em over half a million dollars before they’re done with it — oh, paid two thousand dollars a foot for every inch of it!” she cried. “But pshaw! Why those are Main Street prices — you can get business property up in the centre of town for that! I could’ve told ’em-but hm!”— with a scornful little tremor of the head —“they didn’t want it anywhere but here — no, sir! They’ll be lucky if they get out with their skins!”
George and Margaret offered no comment, but Mrs. Flood appeared not to notice, and as the procession crossed the bridge and turned into Preston Avenue she went on:
“See that house and lot over there! I paid twenty-five thousand for it two years ago, and now it’s worth fifty thousand if it’s worth a penny. Yes, and I’ll get it, too. But pshaw! See here!”— she shook her head emphatically. “They couldn’t pull a trick like that on me! I saw what he was up to! Yes! Didn’t Mack Judson come to me? Didn’t he try to trade with me? Oh, here along, you know, the first part of last April,” she said impatiently, with a dismissing gesture of her hand, as if all this must be perfectly clear to everyone. “All that crowd that’s in with him — they were behind him — I could see it plain as day. Says: ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. We know you’re a good trader, we respect your judgment, and we want you in,’ he says, ‘and just to have you with us, why, I’ll trade you three fine lots I own up there on Pinecrest Road in Ridgewood for that house and lot of yours on Preston Avenue.’ Says: ‘You won’t have to put up a cent. Just to get you in with us I’ll make you an even swap!’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s mighty fine of you, Mack, and I appreciate the compliment. If you want that house and lot on Preston Avenue,’ I said, ‘why, I reckon I can let you have it. You know my price,’ I said. ‘It’s fifty thousand. What are those lots in Ridgewood worth?’— came right out and asked him, you know. ‘Why,’ he says, ‘it’s hard to say. I don’t know just exactly what they are worth,’ he says. ‘The property up there is goin’ up all the time.’ I looked him straight in the eye and said to him: ‘Well, Mack, I know what those lots are worth, and they’re not worth what you paid for ’em. The town’s movin’ the other way. So if you want my house and lot,’ I said, ‘just bring me the cash and you can have it. But I won’t swap with you.’ That’s exactly what I told him, and of course that was the end of it. He’s never mentioned it again. Oh, yes, I saw what he was up to, all right.”
Nearing the cemetery, the line of cars passed a place where an unpaved clay road went upwards among fields towards some lonely pines. The dirt road, at the point where it joined the main highway, was flanked by two portalled shapes of hewn granite blocks set there like markers of a splendid city yet unbuilt which would rise grandly from the hills that swept back into the green wilderness from the river. But now this ornate entrance and a large billboard planted in the field were the only evidences of what was yet to be. Mrs. Flood saw the sign.
“Hah? What’s that?” she cried out in a sharply startled tone. “What does it say there?”
They all craned their necks to see it as they passed, and George read aloud the legend on the sign:
RIVERCREST DEDICATED TO ALL THE PEOPLE OF THIS SECTION AND TO THE GLORY OF THE GREATER CITY THEY WILL BUILD
Mrs. Flood took in the words with obvious satisfaction. “Ah-hah!” she said, nodding her head slowly, with deliberate agreement. “That’s just exactly it!”
Margaret nudged George and whispered in his ear:
“Dedicated!” she muttered scornfully — then, with mincing refinement: “Now ain’t that nice? Dedicated to cutting your throat and bleeding you white of every nickel that you’ve got!”
They were now entering the cemetery, and the procession wound slowly in along a circling road and at length came to a halt near the rounded crest of the hill below the Joyner burial plot. At one corner of the plot a tall locust tree was growing, and beneath its shade all the Joyners had been buried. There was the family monument — a square, massive chunk of grey, metallic granite, brilliantly burnished, with “JOYNER” in raised letters upon its shining surface. On the ends were inscriptions for old Lafayette and his wife, with their names and dates; and, grouped about them, in parallel rows set on the gentle slope, were the graves of Lafayette’s children. All these had smaller individual monuments, and on each of these, below the name and dates of birth and death, was some little elegiac poem carved in a Bowing script.
At one side of the burial plot the new-dug grave gaped darkly in the raw earth, and beside it was a mound of loose yellow clay. Ranged above it on the hill were several rows of folding chairs. Towards these the people, who were now getting out of the cars, began to move.
Mark and Mag and various other Joyners took the front rows, and George and Margaret, with Mrs. Flood still close beside them, found chairs at the back. Other people — friends, distant relatives, and mere acquaintances — stood in groups behind.
The lot looked out across a mile or two of deep, dense green, the wooded slopes and hollows that receded towards the winding river, and straight across beyond the river was the central business part of town. The spires and buildings, the old ones as well as some splendid new ones — hotels, office buildings, garages, churches, and the scaffolding and concrete of new construction which exploded from the familiar design with glittering violence — were plainly visible. It was a fine view.
While the people took their places and waited for the pallbearers to perform their last slow and heavy service up the final ascent of the hill, Mrs. Flood sat with her hands folded in her lap and gazed out over the town. Then she began shaking her head thoughtfully, her lips pursed in deprecation and regret, and in a low voice, as if she were talking to herself, she said:
“Hm! Hm! Hm! Too bad, too bad, too bad!”
“What’s that, Mrs. Flood?” Margaret leaned over and whispered. “What’s too bad?”
“Why, that they should ever have chosen such a place as this for the cemetery,” she said regretfully. She had lowered her voice to a stage whisper, and those round her could hear everything she said. “Why, as I told Frank Candler just the other day, they’ve gone and deliberately given away the two best building sites in town to the niggers and the dead people! That’s just exactly what they’ve done! I’ve always said as much — that the two finest building sites in town for natural beauty are Niggertown and Highview Cemetery. I could’ve told ’em that long years ago — they should’ve known it themselves if any of ’em could have seen an inch beyond his nose — that some day the town would grow up and this would be valuable property! Why, why on earth! When they were lookin’ for a cemetery site — why on earth didn’t they think of findin’ one up there on Buxton Hill, say, where you get a beautiful view, and where land is not so valuable? But this!” she whispered loudly. “This, by rights, is building property! People could have fine homes here! And as for the niggers, I’ve always said that they’d have been better off if they’d been put down there on those old flats in the depot section. Now it’s too late, of course — nothin’ can be done — but it was certainly a serious mistake!” she whispered, and shook her head. “I’ve always known it!”
“Well, I guess you’re right,” Margaret whispered in reply. “I never thought of it before, but I guess you’re right.” And she nudged George with her elbow.
The pallbearers had set the coffin in its place, and the minister now began to read the brief and movingly solemn commitment service. Slowly the coffin was lowered in its grave. And as the black lid disappeared from sight George felt such a stab of wordless pain and grief as he had never known. But he knew even as he felt it that it wasn’t sorrow for Aunt Maw. It was an aching pity for himself and for all men living, and in it was the knowledge of the briefness of man’s days, and the smallness of his life, and the certain dark that comes too swiftly and that has no end. And he felt, too, more personally, now with Aunt Maw gone and no one left in all his family who was close to him, that one whole cycle of time had closed for him. He thought of the future opening blankly up before him, and for a moment he had an acute sense of terror and despair like that of a lost child, for he felt now that the last tie that had bound him to, his native earth was severed, and he saw himself as a creature homeless, uprooted, and alone, with no door to enter, no place to call his own, in all the vast desolation of the planet.
The people had now begun to move away and to walk back slowly towards their cars. The Joyners, however, kept their seats until the last spadeful of earth was heaped and patted into place. Then they arose, their duty done. Some of them just stood there now, talking quietly in their drawling voices, while others sauntered among the tombstones, bending over to read the inscriptions and straightening up to recall and tell each other some forgotten incident in the life of some forgotten Joyner. At last they, too, began to drift away.
George did not want to go back with them and be forced to hear the shreds of Aunt Maw’s life torn apart and pieced together again, so he linked his arm through Margaret’s and led her over the brow of the hill to the other side. For a little while they stood in the slanting light, silent, their faces to the west, and watched the great ball of the sun sink down behind the rim of distant mountains. And the majestic beauty of the spectacle, together with the woman’s quiet presence there beside him, brought calm and peace to the young man’s troubled spirit.
When they came back, the cemetery appeared to be deserted. But as they approached the Joyner plot they saw that Mrs. Delia Flood was still waiting for them. They had forgotten her, and realised now that she could not go without them, for there was only one car on the gravelled roadway below and the hired chauffeur was slumped behind his wheel, asleep. In the fast-failing light Mrs. Flood was wandering among the graves, stopping now and then to stoop and peer closely at an inscription on a stone. Then she would stand there meditatively and look out across the town, where the first lights were already beginning to wink on. She turned to them casually when they came up, as though she had taken no notice of their absence, and spoke to them in her curious fragmentary way, plucking the words right out of the middle of her thoughts.
“Why, to think,” she said reflectively, “that he would go and move her! To think that any man could be so hard-hearted! Oh!” she shuddered with a brief convulsive pucker of revulsion. “It makes my blood run cold to think of it — and everybody told him so! — they told him so at the time — to think he would have no more mercy in him than to go and move her from the place where she lay buried!”
“Who was that, Mrs. Flood?” George said absently. “Move who?”
“Why, Amelia, of course — your mother, child!” she said impatiently, and gestured briefly towards the weather-rusted stone.
He bent forward and read again the familiar inscription:
Amelia Webber, née Joyner
and below her dates the carved verse:
Still is the voice we knew so well, Vanished the face we love, Flown her spirit pure to dwell With angels up above. Ours is the sorrow, ours the pain, And ours the joy alone To clasp her in our arms again In Heaven, by God’s throne.
“That’s the thing that started all this movin’!” Mrs. Flood was saying. “Nobody’d ever have thought of comin’ here if it hadn’t been for Amelia! And here,” she cried fretfully, “the woman had been dead and in her grave more than a year when he gets this notion in his head he’s got to move her — and you couldn’t reason with him! Why, your uncle, Mark Joyner — that’s who it was! You couldn’t argue with him!” she cried with vehement surprise. “Why, yes, of course! It was back there at the time they were havin’ all that trouble with your father, child. He’d left Amelia and gone to live with that other woman — but I will say this for him!” and she nodded her head with determination. “When Amelia died, John Webber did the decent thing and buried her himself — claimed her as his wife and buried her! He’d bought a plot in the old cemetery, and that’s where he put her. But then, more than a year afterwards —you know, child — when Mark Joyner had that trouble with your father about who was to bring you up — yes, and took it to the courts and won! — why, that’s when it was that Mark took it in his head to move Amelia. Said he wouldn’t let a sister of his lie in Webber earth! He already had this plot, of course, way over here on this hill where nobody’d ever thought of goin’. It was just a little private buryin’ ground, then — a few families used it, that was all.”
She paused and looked out thoughtfully over the town, then after a moment she went on:
“Your Aunt Maw, she tried to talk to Mark about it, but it was like talkin’ to a stone wall. She told me all about it at the time. But no, sir!” she shook her head with a movement of strong decision. “He’d made up his mind and he wouldn’t budge from it an inch! ‘But see here, Mark,’ she said. ‘The thing’s not right! Amelia ought to stay where she’s buried!’ She didn’t like the looks of it, you know. ‘Even the dead have got their rights,’ she said. ‘Where the tree falls, there let it lie!’— that’s what she told him. But no! He wouldn’t listen — you couldn’t talk to him. He says: ‘I’ll move her if it’s the last thing I ever live to do! I’ll move her if I have to dig her up myself and carry the coffin on my back all the way to the top of that hill across the river! That’s where she’s goin’,’ he says, ‘and you needn’t argue any more!’ Well, your Aunt Maw saw then that he had his mind made up and that it wouldn’t do any good to talk to him about it. But oh! an awful mistake! an awful mistake!” she muttered, shaking her head slowly. “All that movin’ and expense for nothin’! If he felt that way, he should’ve brought her over here in the first place, when she died! But I guess it was the lawsuit and all the bad blood it stirred up that made him feel that way,” she now said tranquilly . . . “And that’s the reason all these other people are buried here”— she made a sweeping gesture with her arm —“that’s what started it, all right! Why, of course! When the old cemetery got filled up and they had to look round for a new site — why, one of those fellows in Parson Flack’s gang at City Hall, he remembered the rumpus about Amelia and thought of all these empty acres way out here beside the old buryin’ ground. He found he could buy ’em cheap, and that’s what he did. That’s exactly how it was,” she said. “But I’ve always regretted it. I was against it from the start.”
She fell silent again, and stood looking with solemn-eyed memory at the weather-rusted stone.
“Well, as I say, then,” she went on calmly, “when your Aunt Maw saw he had his mind made up and that there was no use to try to change him — well, she went out to the old cemetery the day they moved her, and she asked me to go with her, you know. Oh, it was one of those raw, windy days you get in March! The very kind of day Amelia died on. And old Mrs. Wrenn and Amy Williamson — they had both been good friends of Amelia’s — of course they went along, too. And, of course, when we got there, they were curious — they wanted to have a look, you know,” she said calmly, mentioning this grisly desire with no surprise whatever. “And they tried to get me to look at it, too. Your Aunt Maw got so sick that Mark had to take her home in the carriage, but I stood my ground. ‘No,’ I said, ‘you go on and satisfy your curiosity if that’s what you want to do, but I won’t look at it!’ I said, ‘I’d rather remember her the way she was.’ Well, sir, they went ahead and did it then. They got old Prove — you know, he was that old nigger man that worked for Mark — they got him to open up the coffin, and I turned my back and walked away a little piece until they got through lookin’,” she said tranquilly. “And pretty soon I heard ’em comin’. Well, I turned round and looked at ’em, and let me tell you somethin’,” she said gravely, “their faces were a study! Oh, they turned pale and they trembled! ‘Well, are you satisfied?’ I said. ‘Did you find what you were lookin’ for?’ ‘Oh-h! says old Mrs. Wrenn, pale as a ghost, shakin’ and wringin’ her hands, you know. ‘Oh, Delia!’ she says, ‘it was awful! I’m sorry that I looked!’ she says. ‘Ah-ha!’ I said. ‘What did I tell you? You see, don’t you?’ And she says: ‘Oh-h, it was all gone! — all gone! — all rotted away to nothin’ so you couldn’t recognise her! The face was all gone until you could see the teeth! And the nails had all grown out long! But Delia!’ she says, ‘the hair! — the hair! Oh, I tell you what;’ she says, ‘the hair was beautiful! It had grown out until it covered everything — the finest head of hair I ever saw on anyone! But the rest of it — oh, I’m sorry that I looked!’ she says. ‘Well, I thought so! I thought so!’ I said. ‘I knew you’d be sorry, so I wouldn’t look!’ . . . But that’s the way it was, all right,” she concluded with the quiet satisfaction of omniscience.
Through this recital George and Margaret had stood transfixed, a look of horror on their faces, but Mrs. Flood did not notice them. She stood now looking down at Amelia’s tombstone, her lips puckered thoughtfully, and after a little while she said:
“I don’t know when I’ve thought of Amelia and John Webber — both of ’em dead and in their graves through all these years. She lies here, and he’s all alone in his own lot over there on the other side of town, and that old trouble that they had seems very far away. You know,” she said, looking up and speaking with a tone of deep conviction, “I believe that they have joined each other and are reconciled and happy. I believe I’ll meet them some day in a Higher Sphere, along with all my other friends — all happy, and all leading a new life.”
She was silent for a moment, and then, with a movement of strong decision, she turned away and looked out towards the town, where the lights were now burning hard and bright and steady in the dusk.
“Come, now!” she cried briskly and cheerfully. “It’s time we were goin’ home! It’s gettin’ dark!”
The three of them walked in silence down the slope towards the waiting car. As they came up to it and were about to get in, Mrs. Flood stopped and laid her hand on George’s shoulder in a warm and easy gesture.
“Young man,” she said, “I’ve been a long time livin’ on this earth, and as the fellow says, the world do move! You’ve got your life ahead of you, and lots to learn and many things to do — but let me tell you somethin’, boy!” and all at once she looked at him in a straight and deadly fashion. “Go out and see the world and get your fill of wanderin’,” she cried, “and then come back and tell me if you’ve found a better place than home! I’ve seen great changes in my time, and I’ll see more before I die. There are great things yet in store for us — great progress, great inventions — it will all come true. Perhaps I’ll not live to see it, but you will! We’ve got a fine town here, and fine people to make it go — and we’re not done yet. I’ve seen it all grow up out of a country village — and some day we will have a great city here.”
She waited an instant as if she expected him to answer and corroborate her judgment, and when he merely nodded to show that he had heard her, she took it for agreement and went on:
“Your Aunt Maw always hoped that you’d come home again. And you will!” she said. “There’s no better or more beautiful place on earth than in these mountains — and some day you’ll come home again to stay.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15