By Laura E. Richards
Public Domain Books
Chapter V. In the Churchyard
God’s Acre! A New England burying-ground,–who does not know the aspect of the place? A savage plot of ground, where nothing else would grow save this crop of gray stones, and other gray stones formless and grim, thrusting their rugged faces out here and there through the scanty soil. Other stones, again, enclosing the whole with a grim, protecting arm, a ragged wall, all jagged, formless, rough. The grass is long and yet sparse; here and there a few flowers cling, hardy geraniums, lychnis, and the like, but they seem strangely out of place. The stones are fallen awry, and lean toward each other as if they exchanged confidences, and speculated on the probable spiritual whereabouts of the souls whose former bodies they guard. Most of these stones are gray slate, carved with old-fashioned letters, round and long-tailed; but there are a few slabs of white marble, and in one corner is a marble lamb, looking singularly like the woolly lambs one buys for children, standing stiff and solemn on his four straight legs. This is not the “cemetery,” be it understood. That is close by the village, and is the favorite walk and place of Sunday resort for its inhabitants. It is trim and well-kept, with gravel paths and flower-beds, and store of urns and images in “white bronze,” for the people are proud of their cemetery, as well-regulated New England people should be, and there is a proper feeling of rivalry in the matter of “moniments.”
But Melody cares nothing whatever about the fine cemetery. It is in the old “berrin’-groun’” that her mother lies,–indeed, she was the last person buried in it; and it is here that the child loves to linger and dream the sweet, sad, purposeless dreams of childhood. She knows nothing of “Old Mortality,” yet she is his childish imitator in this lonely spot. She keeps the weeds in some sort of subjection; she pulls away the moss and lichens from head and foot stones,–not so much with any idea of reverence as that she likes to read the inscriptions, and feel the quaint flourishes and curlicues of the older gravestones. She has a sense of personal acquaintance with all the dwellers on this hillside; talks to them and sings to them in her happy fashion, as she pulls away the witch-grass and sorrel. See her now, sitting on that low green mound, her white dress gleaming against the dusky gray of the stone on which she leans. Melody is very fond of white. It feels smoother than colors, she always says; and she would wear it constantly if it did not make too much washing. One arm is thrown over the curve of the headstone, while with the other hand she follows the worn letters of the inscription, which surely no other fingers were fine enough to trace.
Sacred to the Memory Of Susan Dyer. True to Her Name, She died Aug. 10th, 1814, In the 19th year of her age. The soul of my Susan is gone To heighten the triumphs above; Exalted to Jesus’s throne And clasped in the arms of his love.
Melody read the words aloud, smiling as she read. “Susan,” she said, “I wonder who wrote your verses. I wonder if you were pretty, dear, and if you liked to be alive, and were sorry to be dead. But you must be used to it by this time, anyhow. I wonder if you ’shout redeeming love,’ like your cousin (I suppose she is your cousin) Sophia Dyer, over in the corner there. I never liked Sophia, Susan dear. I seem to think she shouted here too, and snubbed you, because you were gentle and shy. See how her stone perks up, making every inch it can of itself, while yours tries to sink away and hide itself in the good green grass. I think we liked the same things a good deal, Susan, don’t you? And I think you would like me to go and see the old gentleman now, because he has so many dandelions; and I really must pull them up. You know I am never sure that he isn’t your grandfather. So many of you are related here, it is a regular family party. Good-by, Susan dear.”
She bent over, and touched the stone lightly with her lips, then passed on to another which was half buried in the earth, the last letters of the inscription being barely discernible.
“How do you do, Mr. Bascom?” said this singular child, laying her hand respectfully on the venerable headstone. “Are your dandelions very troublesome this morning, dear sir?”
Her light fingers hovered over the mound like butterflies, and she began pulling up the dandelion roots, and smoothing down the grass over the bare places. Then she fell to work on the inscription, which was an elaborate one, surmounted by two cherubs’ heads, one resting on an hour-glass, the other on a pair of cross-bones. Along every line she passed her delicate fingers, not because she did not know every line, but that she might trace any new growth of moss or lichen.
“Farewell this flesh, these ears, these eyes, Those snares and fetters of the mind My God, nor let this frame arise Till every dust be well refined.”
“You were very particular, Mr. Bascom, weren’t you?” inquired Melody. “You were a very neat old gentleman, with white hair always brushed just so, and a high collar. You didn’t like dust, unless it was well refined. I shouldn’t wonder if you washed your walking-stick every time you came home, like Mr. Cuter, over at the Corners. Here’s something growing in the tail of your last y. Never mind, Mr. Bascom, I’ll get it out with a pin. There, now you are quite respectable, and you look very nice indeed. Good-by, and do try not to fret more than you can help about the dandelions. They will grow, no matter how often I come.”
Melody, in common with most blind persons, always spoke of seeing, of looking at things, precisely as if she had the full use of her eyes. Indeed, I question whether those wonderful fingers of hers were not as good as many pairs of eyes we see. How many people go half-blind through the world, just for want of the habit of looking at things! How many plod onward, with eyes fixed on the ground, when they might be raised to the skies, seeing the glory of the Lord, which He has spread abroad over hill and meadow, for all eyes to behold! How many walk with introverted gaze, seeing only themselves, while their neighbor walks beside them, unseen, and needing their ministration!
The blind child touched life with her hand, and knew it. Every leaf was her acquaintance, every flower her friend and gossip. She knew every tree of the forest by its bark; knew when it blossomed, and how. More than this,–some subtle sense for which we have no name gave her the power of reading with a touch the mood and humor of those she was with; and when her hand rested in that of a friend, she knew whether the friend were glad or gay, before hearing the sound of his voice.
Another power she had,–that of attracting to her “all creatures living beneath the sun, that creep or swim or fly or run.” Not a cat or dog in the village but would leave his own master or mistress at a single call from Melody. She could imitate every bird-call with her wonderful voice; and one day she had come home and told Miss Rejoice quietly that she had been making a concert with a wood-thrush, and that the red squirrels had sat on the branches to listen. Miss Vesta said, “Nonsense, child! you fell asleep, and had a pretty dream.” But Miss Rejoice believed every word, and Melody knew she did by the touch of her thin, kind old hand.
It might well have been true; for now, as the child sat down beside a small white stone, which evidently marked a child’s grave, she gave a low call, and in a moment a gray squirrel came running from the stone wall (he had been sitting there, watching her with his bright black eyes, looking so like a bit of the wall itself that the sharpest eyes would hardly have noticed him), and leaped into her lap.
“Brother Gray-frock, how do you do?” cried the child, joyously, caressing the pretty creature with light touches. “I wondered if I should see you to-day, brother. The last time I came you were off hunting somewhere, and I called and called, but no gray brother came. How is the wife, and the children, and how is the stout young man?”
The “stout young man” lay buried at the farther end of the ground, under the tree in which the squirrel lived. The inscription on his tombstone was a perpetual amusement to Melody, and she could not help feeling as if the squirrel must know that it was funny too, though they had never exchanged remarks about it. This was the inscription:
“I was a stout young man As you would find in ten; And when on this I think, I take in hand my pen And write it plainly out, That all the world may see How I was cut down like A blossom from a tree. The Lord rest my soul.”
The young man’s name was Faithful Parker. Melody liked him well enough, though she never felt intimate with him, as she did with Susan Dyer and the dear child Love Good, who slept beneath this low white stone. This was Melody’s favorite grave. It was such a dear quaint little name,–Love Good. “Good” had been a common name in the village seventy years ago, when this little Love lived and died; many graves bore the name, though no living person now claimed it.
Love Good, Four Years Old. Our white rose withered in the bud.
This was all; and somehow Melody felt that she knew and cared for these parents much more than for those who put their sorrow into rhyme, and mourned in despairing doggerel.
Melody laid her soft warm cheek against the little white stone, and murmured loving words to it. The squirrel sat still in her lap, content to nestle under her hand, and bask in the light and warmth of the summer day: the sunlight streamed with tempered glow through the branches of an old cedar that grew beside the little grave; peace and silence brooded like a dove over the holy place.
A flutter of wings, a rustle of leaves,–was it a fairy alighting on the old cedar-tree? No, only an oriole; though some have said that this bird is a fairy prince in disguise, and that if he can win the love of a pure maiden the spell will be loosed, and he will regain his own form. This cannot be true, however; for Melody knows Golden Robin well, and loves him well, and he loves her in his own way, yet has never changed a feather at sight of her. He will sing for her, though; and sing he does, shaking and trilling and quivering, pouring his little soul out in melody for joy of the summer day, and of the sweet, quiet place, and of the child who never scares or startles him, only smiles, and sings to him in return. They are singing together now, the child and the bird. It is a very wonderful thing, if there were any one by to hear. The gray squirrel crouches motionless in the child’s lap, with half-shut eyes; the quiet dead sleep on unmoved: who else should be near to listen to such music as this?
Nay, but who is this, leaning over the old stone-wall, listening with keenest interest,–this man with the dark, eager face and bold black eyes? His eyes are fixed on the child; his face is aglow with wonder and delight, but with something else too,–some passion which strikes a jarring note through the harmony of the summer idyl. What is this man doing here? Why does he eye the blind child so strangely, with looks of power, almost of possession?
Cease, cease your song, Melody! Fly, bird and tiny beast, to your shelter in the dark tree-tops; and fly you also, gentlest child, to the home where is love and protection and tender care! For the charm is broken, and your paradise is invaded.