“Where?” I asked.
“Why—you’re leaning against her headstone!”
The little incongruity made us both laugh, but it was only for the instant. The tender mood of the evening, and all that we had said, sustained the quiet and almost grave undertone of our conference. My own quite unconscious act of rising from the grave and standing before him on the path to listen brought back to us our harmonious pensiveness.
“She was born in Kings Port, but educated in Europe. I don’t suppose until the time came that she ever did anything harder than speak French, or play the piano, or ride a horse. She had wealth and so had her husband. He was killed in the war, and so were two of her sons. The third was too young to go. Their fortune was swept away, but the plantation was there, and the negroes were proud to remain faithful to the family. She took hold of the plantation, she walked the rice-banks in high boots. She had an overseer, who, it was told her, would possibly take her life by poison or by violence. She nevertheless lived in that lonely spot with no protector except her pistol and some directions about antidotes. She dismissed him when she had proved he was cheating her; she made the planting pay as well as any man did after the war; she educated her last son, got him into the navy, and then, one evening, walking the river-banks too late, she caught the fever and died. You will understand she went with one step from cherished ease to single-handed battle with life, a delicately nurtured lady, with no preparation for her trials.”
“Except moral elegance,” I murmured.
“Ah, that was the point, sir! To see her you would never have guessed it! She kept her burdens from the sight of all. She wore tribulation as if it were a flower in her bosom. We children always looked forward to her coming, because she was so gay and delightful to us, telling us stories of the old times—old rides when the country was wild, old journeys with the family and servants to the Hot Springs before the steam cars were invented, old adventures, with the battle of New Orleans or a famous duel in them—the sort of stories that begin with (for you seem to know something of it yourself, sir) ’Your grandfather, my dear John, the year that he was twenty, got himself into serious embarrassments through paying his attentions to two reigning beauties at once.’ She was full of stories which began in that sort of pleasant way.”
I said: “When a person like that dies, an impoverishment falls upon us; the texture of life seems thinner.”
“Oh, yes, indeed! I know what you mean—to lose the people one has always seen from the cradle. Well, she has gone away, she has taken her memories out of the world, the old times, the old stories. Nobody, except a little nutshell of people here, knows or cares anything about her any more; and soon even the nutshell will be empty.” He paused, and then, as if brushing aside his churchyard mood, he translated into his changed thought another classic quotation: “But we can’t dawdle over the ’tears of things’; it’s Nature’s law. Only, when I think of the rice-banks and the boots and the pistol, I wonder if the Newport ladies, for all their high-balls, could do any better!”