The End of All Living

  • 12 Dec - 18 Dec, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Life seemed warmer, more tangible, again. "Law, do go," said the mother soothingly. "She doesn’t want the whole township trampling' up there to eye over her chin. Make her as nervous as a witch. Here's the ha'-bushel basket, an' some paper to put between them. You go, Jonas, an' I'll clear off the shelves." So Jonas, whether he was tired of guiding the impulses of his own unquiet mind, or whether he had become a child again, glad to yield to the maternal, as we all do in our grief, took the basket and went.

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.

The mother's prescience was too keen for that. Here in this ground are the ambiguities of life carried over into that other state, its pathos and its small misunderstandings. This was a much married man whose last spouse had been a triple widow. Even to him the situation proved mathematically complex, and the sumptuous stone to her memory bears the dizzying legend that "Enoch Nudd who erects this stone is her fourth husband and his fifth wife." Perhaps it was the exigencies of space which brought about this amazing elision; but surely, in its very apparent intention, there is only a modest pride. For indubitably the much-married may plume themselves upon being also the widely sought. If it is the crown of understanding to be desired, here you have it, under seal of the civil bond.

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.

But of all these fleeting legends made to, hold the soul a moment on its way, and keep it here in fickle permanence, one is more dramatic than all, more charged with power and pathos. Years ago there came into Tiverton an unknown man, very handsome, showing the marks of high breeding, and yet in his bearing strangely solitary and remote. He wore a cloak, and had a foreign look. He came walking into the town one night, with dust upon his shoes, and we judged that he had been travelling a long time. He had the appearance of one who was not nearly at his journey's end, and would pass through the village, continuing on a longer way. He glanced at no one, but we all stared at him. He seemed, though we had not the words to put it so, an exiled prince. He went straight through Tiverton Street until he came to the parsonage; and something about it (perhaps its garden, hot with flowers, larkspur, coreopsis, and the rest) detained his eye, and he walked in.

Next day, the old doctor was there also with his little black case, but we were none the wiser for that; for the old doctor was of the sort who in trench themselves in a professional reserve. You might draw up beside the road to question him, but you could as well deter the course of nature. He would give the roan a flick, and his sulky would flash by. "What's the matter with so-and-so?" would ask a housing neighbour. "He's sick," ran the laconic reply. "Going' to die?" one daring queerest ventured further. "Some time," said the doctor. But though he assumed a right to combat thus the outer world, no one was gentler with a sick man or with those about him in their grief. To the latter he would speak; but he used to say he drew his line at second cousins. Into his hands and the true old parson's fell the stranger's confidence, if confidence it was. He may have died solitary and unexplained; but no matter what he said, his story was safe.

to be continued...