The End of All Living

  • 19 Dec - 25 Dec, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

In a week he was carried out for burial; and so solemn was the person's manner as he spoke a brief service over him, so thrilling his enunciation of the words "our brother," that we dared not even ask what else he should be called. And we never knew. The headstone, set up by the parson, bore the words "Peccator Maximus." For a long time we thought they made the stranger's name, and, judged that he must have been a foreigner; but a new schoolmistress taught us otherwise. It was Latin, she said, and it meant "the chiefest among sinners."

He stood by, still like a child, while this comfortable woman put the china on the shelves, speaking warmly, as she worked, of the pretty curving of the cups, and her belief that the pitcher was "one you could pour out of." She stayed on at the house, and Jonas, through his sickness of the mind, lay back upon her soothing will as a baby lies in its mother's arms. But the china was never used, even when he had come to his normal estate, and bought and sold as before.

No baseless, windy boasting that "I might and if I would!" Nay, here are the marriage ties to testify. In this pleasant, weedy corner is a little white stone, not so long erected. "I shall arise in thin image," runs the inscription; and reading it, you shall remember that the dust within belonged to a little hunchback, who played the fiddle divinely, and had beseeching eyes. With that cry he escaped from the marred conditions of the clay. Here, too (for this is a sort of bachelor nook), is the grave of a man whom we unconsciously thrust into a permanent masquerade. Years and years ago he broke into a house, – an unknown felony in our quiet limits, – and was incontinently shot. The burglar lost his arm, and went about at first under a cloud of disgrace and horror, which became, with healing of the public conscience, a veil of sympathy.

After his brief imprisonment indoors, during the healing of the mutilated stump, he came forth among us again, a man sadder and wiser in that he had learned how slow and sure may be the road to wealth. He had sown his wild oats in one night's foolish work, and now he settled down to doing such odd jobs as he might with one hand. We got accustomed to his loss. Those of us who were children when it happened never really discovered that it was disgrace at all; we called it misfortune, and no one said us nay. Then one day it occurred to us that he must have been shot "in the war," and so, all unwittingly to himself, the silent man became a hero. We accepted him. He was part of our poetic time, and when he died, we held him still in remembrance among those who fell worthily.

When Decoration Day was first observed in Tiverton, one of us thought of him, and dropped some apple blossoms on his grave; and so it had its posy like the rest, although it bore no flag. It was the doctor who set us right there. "I wouldn't do that," he said, withholding the hand of one unthinking child; and she took back her flag. But she left the blossoms, and, being fond of precedent, we still do the same; unless we stop to think, we know not why. You may say there is here some perfidy to the republic and the honoured dead, or at least some laxity of morals. We are lax, indeed, but possibly that is why we are so kind. We are not willing to "hurt folks' feelings" even when they have migrated to another star; and a flower more or less from the over plus given to men who made the greater choice will do no harm, tossed to one whose soul may be sitting, like Lazarus, at their riches' gate.

When that report flew round, the parson got wind of it, and then, in the pulpit one morning, he announced that he felt it necessary to say that the words had been used "at our brother's request," and that it was his own decision to write below them, "For this cause, I came into the world." We have accepted the stranger as we accept many things in Tiverton. Parson and doctor kept his secret well. He is quite safe from our questioning; but for years I expected a lady, always young and full of grief, to seek out his grave and shrive him with her tears. She will not appear now, unless she come as an old, old woman, to lie beside him.

It is too late.

One more record of our vanished time, – this full of poesy only, and the pathos of farewell. It was not the aged and heartsick alone who lay down here to rest we have been no more fortunate than others. Youth and beauty came also, and returned no more. This, where the white rose-bush grows untended, was the young daughter of a squire in far-off days: too young to have known the pangs of love or the sweet desire of Death, save that, in primrose time, he always paints himself so fair. I have thought the inscription must have been borrowed from another grave, in some yard shaded by yews and silent under the cawing of the rooks; perhaps, from its stiffness, translated from a stately Latin verse. This it is, snatched not too soon from oblivion; for a few more years will wear it quite away: – "Here lies the purple flower of a maid having to envious Death due tribute paid. Her sudden Loss her Parents did lament, And all her Friends with grief their hearts did rent. Life's short. Your wicked Lives amend with care, For Mortals know we Dust and Shadows are." All the blossomy sweetness, the fragrant lamenting of Lycidas, lies in that one line. Alas, poor love-lies-bleeding! And yet not poor according to the barren pity we accord the dead, but dowered with another youth set like a crown upon the unstained front of this. Not going with sparse blossoms ripened or decayed, but heaped with buds and dripping over in perfume. She seems so sweet in her still loveliness, the empty promise of her balmy spring, that for a moment fain are you to snatch her back into the pageant of your day. Reading that phrase, you feel the earth is poorer for her loss. And yet not, since the world holds other greater worlds as well. Elsewhere she may have grown to age and stature; but here she lives yet in beauteous permanence, – as true a part of youth and joy and rapture as the immortal figures on the Grecian Urn. While she was but a flying phantom on the frieze of time, Death fixed her there forever, – a haunting spirit in perennial bliss.