The April sun shone warmly that afternoon I went with the mother of Thomas Wolfe to the cemetery. The polished Vermont granite of Thomas Wolfe’s marker was warm as firm living flesh when I placed my hand upon it. But there was more than a hint of chill to the air when clouds dark on their bellies cut off the sunshine now and again.
His mother—a small, compact, well-preserved woman in her eighty-third year—had brought with her lilies of the valley and gladioli bulbs to place in the earth above the graves. She had brought, too, a large paper sack of rich earth from her own yard, to scatter upon a number of arid, bare patches.
She said, without boast, but with the quiet satisfaction of assurance, “Everything I put in the ground will grow. It’s always been that way, since I was a girl—way back there when I was about six years old, when Father bought a hundred acres on the Swannanoa. We had a mountain field there. Not many weeds, but the ground was rich. I said to my brother Jim, ‘Come on, Jim, give me all your seeds and I’ll put them in. I’ll put in the beans and the pumpkins and squash.’
“And I put a seed in every hill and covered it up, and we rushed along and got them all planted. We didn’t go back up there until later, in the fall. My brother Henry was up there with his gun, hunting, and he came back all upset, and he said, ‘You can’t walk or take a step. There are pumpkins and vines everywhere. She didn’t have a bit of sense. She has put a seed in every hill of corn. The beans are hanging in clusters, and you can’t walk for the pumpkins.’ “And I said to Jim, ‘Jim!—let’s go up there to see.’ And we did. I can still see that pumpkin field. They were just everywhere—the vines. Mother said, ‘You will have to gather them now for the winter. We can use the dried beans in the winter.’
“But that was a job I didn’t like, to pull those dried beans. We would take a big table cloth and jump on them with our feet and shatter them out that way.”
Thomas Wolfe’s mother felt of her nose thoughtfully with fingers earth-browned. She laughed, a quiet “Hah!” Her small eyes shone mischievously.
“I was always telling big hobgoblin stories,” she said. “There was one little knoll at that place where a little water drained down. But in severe dry weather there was only a black greasy streak, and that little ridge was red, and nothing would grow a foot high there. And Jim said, ‘It looks like grease.’ And I said, ‘The Indians used to live all around here. That mound is where they buried all those Indians, and that is the grease that is running out of the bones. That is what makes that black greasy streak.’ You couldn’t get my brother Will to go back there after that. They believed anything I told them.”
She bent, covered a bulb with earth. In a minute she straightened again, and regarded me fixedly.
“I have always wanted to go back there. I have often wondered if there was mineral in that hill. Oil maybe. I remember that greasy streak. There wasn’t anything living up there to make a greasy streak . . . But oh, those raspberries that grew around those rocks—the old blue raspberries!”
She drew a step closer and thrust out her index finger in the masculine gesture familiar to all who have met Eliza Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s first two novels. She said,
“Why, I tell you, those were the primitive days. One Sunday afternoon we were up there on the plateau gathering berries, and I know there wasn’t anything obstructing the view, and all of a sudden there were three old wolves smelling along, and I said, ‘Let’s run—let’s go back to the house—and don’t let Brute’—that was the dog—’see the wolves!” I was afraid, you know, that he’d bark and then the wolves would see us.
“We went down that mountain in a hurry. Father and Henry went up with their guns, but the wolves had gone. That night we could hear them howling though. Did you ever hear a wolf? Wh-o-o-o! Like that. Say, did you ever hear a wildcat?”
She shook her head, a short, convulsive movement, her lips pursed.
“Those were the primitive days. There wasn’t any such word in the language as frigidaire. No radios. No telephones. We heard news weeks after it happened. You don’t know how it was then.”
She was silent now, stooping, her fingers probing familiarly in the earth. The sun no longer shone now. The day had turned gray with April suddenness. I looked at the tombstones with the unceasing awe all must feel who have read about W. O. Gant, the spree-drinking monument cutter, and Ben Gant of the fierce scowl and tender heart, and Eugene, who was Thomas himself. And here they lie buried. On the big stone,
W. 0. Wolfe Born at Gettysburg, Pa. April 10, 1851 Died June 20, 1922
Next to the big stone is the one the tourists come to see:
Son of W. 0. and Julia E. Wolfe
A Beloved American Author Oct. 3, 1900—Sept. 15, 1938.
“the last voyage, the longest, the best.” look homeward, angel “death bent to touch his chosen son with mercy, love and pity, and put the seal of honor on him
when he died.”
the web and the rock
Not far distant are two modest stones:
Grover C. Wolfe Oct. 27, 1892 Nov. 16, 1904
Ben H. Wolfe Oct. 27,1892 Oct. 19, 1918
These were the twins—Grover, who died tragically in St. Louis, and Ben, whom Thomas Wolfe loved probably more than anyone else on earth.
His mother straightened from her work.
“Say, speaking of the old days—the first electric lights.” She laughed, a quiet snickering, passing a finger beneath her nose. “I went north with Mr. Wolfe after we were married. We went to Richmond, Baltimore, Washington City, Philadelphia. Nothing but gas, gas, gas lights. No electric lights. Well, we got to this old.rambling hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The United States Hotel. They had had electric lights put in. The first time I had ever seen them in a bedroom before. They had a light coming down from the ceiling just about the foot of our bed. Mr. Wolfe went to bed first, and was lying there and I was ready for bed, and he said, ‘What are you going to do about that light?’ I said, ‘You know you have to turn it out. You can’t blow it out.’ Mr. Wolfe said he knew that. ‘Why didn’t you ask them about it downstairs?’ I asked him.
“Well, we talked about it and finally I climbed down to the foot of the bed. I said to Mr. Wolfe, ‘Give me your handkerchief.’ And he said, ‘What do you want with the handkerchief?’ I said, ‘I’ve heard cotton is a non-conductor. I’m going to fold it up and touch this light and see what happens.’
“I took the handkerchief and went quietly and easy about that light, and I touched that button and found nothing happened. I turned it and the light went out. Mr. Wolfe said, ‘What are you going to do now if we have to have a light in the night?’ I turned it back on. And I stayed there for a little bit, turning it back and forth, never saying a word. Finally I turned it off and crawled back and I said, ‘That didn’t hurt.’ It tickled Mr. Wolfe, and when we got home he told about it, and I started telling the story on him. He was just afraid, that was it.”
She bent to her work now with a will. I felt a drop of rain upon the back of my neck, another presently.
Thomas Wolfe’s mother said, “Times have changed.” She regarded me intently, fixedly. “Most of my friends are out in the cemetery. They have passed on. Look—take Wood-fin Street and Spruce Street. The people who lived on those streets used to be good representative citizens. From the hospital down to the Y. M. C. A. building they were all good citizens fifty to sixty years ago. I knew them all. We all visited. But there isn’t one person living of them all today—except Julia E. Wolfe. That’s how a town changes in less than fifty years. You can take every street, I suppose, and find it the same way, The people have died, and new people have taken their places. From the Square to the Postoffice—well, take College Street clear up to Beau-catcher tunnel—there is only one person on that street who lived there forty years ago. That is Mrs. Pegram. The rest have all gone-—moved away, or died. I’m speaking about the time when Mr. Wolfe and I were married. Some of them were older than I at that time. A great many were younger, but they are all gone.” “It’s raining, Mrs. Wolfe,” I said.
She peered up at the torn, dark clouds. In a moment she was busy placing lilies of the valley in the earth. The drops were falling faster; I said to myself that she might, if she hurried, finish before getting very wet.
I went to the automobile and got my topcoat out of the back seat.
“Here, Mrs. Wolfe, you’d better put this on.” She straightened up. She looked at me sharply, then at the coat, and then at me again. She shook her head firmly. “I’ll put it around your shoulders,” I said. “No, I don’t want it.”
I held the coat over my arm, watching her as she moved slowly, with contemplative expression, among the graves. She paused near the high boxwood shrubs.
“These boxwoods,” she said, “are over fifty years old. Way back there—I had some friends out in the country who had rooted out some of that boxwood, and they sent me a couple of dozen. I set the little bushes out. . . . It was on my first property. . . . You know, I bought this lot over on Chestnut Street. Oh, they thought I was the smartest girl in town! Old Judge Aston was in the fire insurance business, and he was selling off those lots, one hundred and two hundred feet deep, and Father bought the second lot from the corner. He wrote me and said, I’ve bought the lot and I’m building us a home.’ I was ambitious. I had saved up $125—had it over there in the mountains where I was teaching school. I wrote Father a letter, saying, ‘Here’s $125—if they won’t trust me for the other $25, you pay it for me. I want you to buy me that corner lot next to yours.’
“Well, Father went down and read the letter to Judge Aston, and the old judge says, ‘But the corner lot is $200. It’s one of the more expensive lots.’ Father said, ‘Well, she didn’t know. I told her I paid $150 for mine and she wanted the one next to it. I’ll just send her money back to her.’
“Old Judge scratched his head, and says, ‘There isn’t a man in this town would get that lot for less than $200, but doggone it, Miss Julia is going to get it for $150. Any girl that will work and save up her money like that has got to he favored.’
“So Father paid the other $25 and I paid him. After the first year I had to pay the taxes on it. They sent a notice out. I got the tax notice on that lot—forty-eight cents. I read it, and I ran upstairs and dressed in a hurry, afraid they would sell it for taxes. I rushed up to the tax office and paid that forty-eight cents before I had my dinner.
“Well, I built a house on that lot. I planned it and ordered every piece of lumber that went into it. The carpenters said, ‘She is the stingiest girl—she has measured everything to the square inch and doesn’t allow any waste.’ I said, ‘I don’t mean to have any waste.’ I was twenty-one or two then. I hired the carpenters by the day. You know how a house used to be built. I wanted a steep roof, and I built it with the idea that I would take the roof off and raise the house another story later on. I made a broad hall down the front. When I ordered the sheathing that’s put on the rafters they said, ‘Even to the sheathing she’s calculated to the square foot,’ and I said, ‘I don’t expect you to waste any.’ They said, ‘Suppose a piece splits?’ ‘Send it back and get a good one,’ I said. When the logs were cut there would be a point, and they squared the lumber and there was a little scrap at the end. That wasn’t counted in your bill. It was measured from where it measured square. They said, ‘Maybe we’ll have a wheelbarrow full of scraps.’ I said, ‘I’ll throw it over the fence for mother to burn in the stove.’ Nothing was wasted. . . .
“Well, I set those boxwood bushes in the ground—a sidewalk to the gate. I decided afterwards that I wouldn’t leave them there—the carpenters had commenced tramping on them. I spaded them up and put them in a pile, and when I was married I took them over to Woodfin Street and set them out. After my first baby died and we got that burial lot out on the hill at Newton Academy, I set the boxwoods out there. When we moved my people and my baby, Leslie, —and Mr. Wolfe’s wife, Cynthia—when we moved them to this cemetery after Ben died, I moved these boxwoods too.”
The rain was falling steadily now—not a warm spring rain, but chill.
“You’d better put this coat on, Mrs. Wolfe.”
She shook her head.
“You’ll catch cold, Mrs. Wolfe.”
“You know, I always did like to work in the rain,” she said. “Always liked to get out in the rain and work.”
She went on presently to tell about Cynthia, whose body had been moved from Newton Academy cemetery at the time the boxwoods were moved.
“But that wasn’t the first time she was moved,” said Mrs. Wolfe. “They buried her first in the Methodist graveyard. Someone gave permission and someone else claimed it was their lot. So she was moved. The winter Mr. Wolfe and I were married, we had her moved out to the old Newton Academy graveyard. Mr. Wolfe didn’t want her sent to Raleigh, where she was from. It wasn’t sentiment—it was just the expense of taking her up and sending her all the way to Raleigh. And Father said, I tell you—we’ll fence this lot in at Newton Academy and measure it off, half of it for your family and the other half for mine.’
“So we moved her. It came a cold spell in March, and the wind blew. Mr. Wolfe got three negroes—Jim and Dan Brown and old Uncle Prov—to go out to the Methodist graveyard and dig up this box. Mr. Wolfe’s sister-in-law, Mary Wolfe, and Mrs. Bunn came over to the house that morning. Mrs. Bunn was a great friend of Cynthia’s while she was sick. Mrs. Bunn said, ‘We’re going out to the Methodist graveyard to see them take it up.’
“But Mr. Wolfe said he wasn’t going. He said, ‘They know all about burying that box.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m going—I hope when I die there will be some friend, somebody other than three negro men to see me put in my last resting place—and I’m going to see that they don’t just put it down any old way. I’m going to see that it’s done right.’
” ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you are determined to go, just wait till I put these tools away and I’ll go with you.’ And he laid aside his mallet and his chisel and we went on, and we met the negroes down where Church Street comes into Bilt-more Avenue—an old horse and wagon don’t go very fast— and Mrs. Bunn got up on that wagon and made those men open up that casket and open the lid and let her look in. She said, ‘Oh, that red hair has filled the whole casket!’— Cynthia had red hair—Mr. Wolfe used to call her Reddy. But the brown silk dress she’d been buried in was just like it was.
“They closed the box and went on. It struck me queer that Mr. Wolfe showed no emotion. The vault wasn’t long enough and they had to spend some time chipping it off, and the lid was always coming loose on the box, showing the casket inside. Mr. Wolfe noticed little bulges all over the top of the casket, and he took out his penknife and cut into one of them. He said, ‘The damned scoundrels 1 I bought it for solid walnut, and here the veneer is rolling up. It’s nothing but white pine!’
“Well, we walked around while the negroes worked, and we read the inscriptions on the old stones. On one of them it said, here lies the first white child born west of the Blue Ridge. It was windy, freezing, waiting for them to finish with that grave—a wonder we didn’t catch pneumonia. . .”
The raindrops were larger now, and they pattered whisperingly as they fell.
“Mrs. Wolfe,” I said, “you’d better put on this coat.”
She declined my offer with an outward thrust of her hand. She turned to break a dead twig off a rosebush and I slipped into the coat myself.
“I remember like yesterday the first time I saw Cynthia,’ she went on. “Mr. Wolfe married her, you know, in Raleigh, and about six months after that she opened a shop here in Asheville. She wasn’t a very strong woman, but she was a fine milliner. At that time I was going to school at the old Female College. I went to Mr. Pleasant’s store and I asked, ‘Have you got any hats?’ He said, ‘They’re hard to get, to tell the truth—but there’s a lady across the street putting up a millinery store and she trims hats.’
“So I went across, and she was in there, and she had boxes of things she had shipped in; she was opening up at the beginning of the week, and she wanted to know when I would want the hat. I said, ‘Oh well, so I get it by Saturday.’ Well, that’s the way it was all right. I bought the first hat she sold in Asheville.
“Well, one day I stopped in, and she said, ‘How are you, little Julia?’ I wasn’t large; I grew two or three inches after I was twenty-two, though. She told me she had been married six months, and she said, T got a letter from my old man today.’ And I said, T bet he is an old man, too. You say you’ve been married only six months—and no young man would marry an old maid.’
“You see, she was thirty-six years old—a real old maid in those days. ‘No,’ she said, ‘No, he isn’t an old man.’ ‘What are you talking about,’ I said, ‘a young man marrying an old maidT She says, ‘No, he’s a good looking man, and ten years younger than I am.’ I said, ‘Was he blind?’ ‘No.’ ‘Crazy then?’ ‘No.’ ‘What did he marry you for, then?’ I asked. Well,’ she said, ‘he just found out he couldn’t do without me. He boarded at my mother’s house and I did his darning and patching, and he couldn’t do without me.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have married a man because he wanted me to patch for him.’
“And all that went through one ear and out the other. I was busy, you know, and studying; I was going to Hender-sonville to school, and when I came back Cynthia had moved over onto College Street into another place, and I went in and she said, ‘Little Julia, what can I do for you?’ And I said, ‘I came over to see how you looked in your new place.’ And she said, ‘Say, that old man you used to talk about— he’s here—right back there.’ And Mr. Wolfe was sitting back at the stove.
“Well, I had studied a book on phrenology, and Cynthia knew about it. I had learned a lot about the shape of people’s heads, made quite a study of it, and Cynthia had said several times that I was right about their characteristics and so forth. So now she said, ‘I want you to come here and phrenologize his head. I’ve been telling him about you, but he doesn’t know how good you are.’ Well, he looked like he was a little bit afraid. I didn’t come near him. I said, ‘Say, I can tell you all you want to know right now. He is the most selfish man you have ever had anything to do with.’
“And Cynthia screamed and hollered and clapped her hands, and he went out that back door, and she called, ‘Come back, come back,’ but he didn’t come back. She laughed and laughed. The reason she got so excited was because I had made use of the very words she had always said about him— ‘The most selfish person I have ever met in my life.’ And she thought that was the best thing, because he resented it.
“She did everything for him, though. She was in love with him way back before he knew anything about it, I think, and she would have given her life for him—that was the way she was. I said to him afterwards, ‘She is the only one that ever did love you—what you call unselfish love-but you never appreciate the water until the well goes dry.’”
She paused and fingered a waxen leaf of the boxwood thoughtfully. I was thinking about crawling into the automobile out of the rain. But I knew I wasn’t going to get into the automobile. After all!—a chap of thirty-four sitting in an automobile out of the wet while a woman in her eighty-third year worked on undismayed among the silent, glistening markers. I drew my chin lower into the collar of my coat, and water ran off the brim of my hat.
She pursed her lips, shook her head, a slight, abrupt movement, and smiled presently, looking at me with mischievously shining eyes.
“Mr. Wolfe was a good safe business man,” she said. “He didn’t believe in gambling. But he did that time. . . . I’ll tell you the story about that. I was one of those dread book agents at that time, after Mr. Wolfe’s wife died. I had an agency; I took the orders during vacations and in the afternoons and Saturdays. I didn’t go into all the business places. I was very particular. I was prissy, you know, didn’t go just anywhere. I went into the tailor shop next door to Mr. Wolfe’s place, It was Mr. Shartle’s shop. He was a very fine man, and after he had bought a book I asked if any of his tailors might like to see my book. He said, oh no, they didn’t read.
” ‘But,’ he said, ‘you go in next door. Mr. Wolfe will buy your book.’ And I said, ‘Do ladies go in there?’ He laughed and said, ‘You go in and tell him I said to buy this book.’ So I went. I stood in the room outside his office. He was working on a stone, and I saw he had his apron on. I can see him now throw that apron off and grab his coat when he saw me. I was pretending I didn’t see him. When he opened the glass door I said, ‘Don’t get excited. I’m not a customer. I don’t need a stone today.’
“And he was all smiles. I said, ‘I am one of those dread book agents. Your neighbor sent me in here. I’m not going through the regular sales talk, I’ll just show you the book and you can look through it and put your name down here.’ Well, he thumbed through it and put his name down like I said. Then he asked me, ‘Do you ever read novels?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I read most anything. Not the Bible as much as I should, though.’
“He said, ‘I have a set of books; they are fine, too—love stories. Did you ever read “St. Elmo”?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘but a friend of mine said he had the book and would bring it to me.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have it.’ And he went on to say what a fine book it was, I said, ‘I have got a prospectus coming—a book called “Thorns in the Flesh”—I’ll bring that around. It’s a historical novel of the Civil War.’ He said, oh yes, he liked history. I thought, here’s a customer before the book comes.
“Well, he sent a colored man with ‘St. Elmo’ for me to read. Two days after that I started out to sell ‘Thorns in the Flesh.’ It was a book that was written from the Southern point of view, but I didn’t stop to think that Mr. Wolfe was from the North, a Yankee—I guess they called him a damn Yankee in Raleigh—but he changed his views and sided with the people in the South when he saw how they were treated in the Reconstruction Days. He was bitter against the North when he saw how they were treated.
“Well, I came across the Square to Mr. Wolfe’s place of business. When I came across, the door was closed and I thought, ‘He may not stay up here* every day.’ But I was bent on showing him that book because he said he was interested in history. I wasn’t thinking about him being a Northerner, and of course, as I say, that book told the Southern side of it.
“Well, I knew where he lived on Woodfin Street. It was a little out of my way, but anyhow it was time to go home to dinner, nearly one o’clock, and I thought, ‘I’ll just go by there, and if he is home I’ll show him the book.’ He answered the door, and I told him that I was on my way home to dinner and I saw his shop door closed and didn’t suppose he went up there every day, not thinking it was dinnertime for him, too.
“He said, ‘We are at dinner; I’ll tell Mrs. Allen.’ Mrs. Allen was his mother-in-law, Cynthia’s mother, and she lived there and took care of him, and he said, ‘I’ll tell Mrs. Allen,’ and he called her and spoke to her. Of course, I know now that he was telling Mrs. Allen to make another place at dinner. They were about finished, and so she appeared at the door and said, ‘Oh, how do you do?’ She knew me; was already acquainted with me. She said, ‘Come right on in. I’ve brought in a fresh bowl of soup.’ “I said, ‘I was just going on home.’ ‘No, you come on in.’ And Mr. Wolfe, he was the same way. I don’t know whether I ate much or not, I talked so much. After we had finished, I said, ‘I’ll show you this book.’ Mrs. Allen said, ‘I’ll come in the parlor just as soon as I put my things away and wash up the dishes.’
“Well, I went into the parlor and Mr. Wolfe showed me those old stereoscope pictures, you know, a lot of views made way back in Civil War days, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Blue and Gray lying around on the field. He would put in the slides while I looked at them. I said, ‘I wish Mrs. Allen would come on in—I will have to go on home, and you, I suppose, want to go back to your business.’
“He said, ‘Oh, my business doesn’t amount to anything. I don’t have to be up there.’ He said, ‘Mrs. Allen wants to go back to Raleigh to her people as soon as she can. She is just staying here because I hate to break up housekeeping. I’ve had a home for several years and I hate breaking up. I could sell the place, but I hate breaking up. But I will have to sell it or get married.’
“It never occurred to me that I was a marriageable girl, and I said, ‘If you ever expect to get married again, I guess it would be the best thing to get married instead of breaking up the home.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I think so, too.’ He said, ‘I have made up my mind.’ He took my hand—I think he took my hand. He said, ‘I have been looking at you for quite a while, looking at you as you passed, and I’ve had it in mind to ask you to marry me.’
” You don’t know me,’ I said. ‘I’ve had one love affair three or four years ago, and since then I’ve made up my mind to stay an old maid.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘that won’t do. I want you to marry me. What’s the answer?’ And I said, ‘Oh, let’s look at the pictures.’ Then I said, ‘I’ve finished the book and I will return it. I didn’t bring it today because I went down town.’
“ ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ he said. And he said, ‘I’ve got another one—”Infelice.” I’ll let you read that, too.’ ‘Now,’ I said, ‘let’s talk about the pictures.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘let’s talk about getting married.’ I said, ‘Oh, but I’m the old maid.’ He said, I want to know what the answer is going to be.’ He said, ‘Give me some idea of what kind of answer it’s to be.’ I said, ‘There’s no answer. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, only by sight.’
“He said, ‘Well, we can learn.’ So I said—well, you know, I had the book in my lap—I said, ‘Well, I tell you, let’s do this. You close your eyes and look away, and I’ll open the book and on the right hand side, the middle of the page, the paragraph in the middle, whatever it says, we will abide by it.’ He said, ‘That’s a gamble—I don’t want to do that.’ I said, ‘I’m willing to abide by it. I don’t know what’s in this book, but I’m willing to do it.’ It was just a piece of foolishness on my part, but Mr. Wolfe objected, said it was gambling.
“Well, you know, I opened that book—and what do you suppose I opened it to? When I opened it on that page, it said, ‘Till death do us part.’ It was a place in the story, I suppose, telling about a marriage. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s it, that’s the very thing.’ And I said, ‘My finger must have slipped.’ And he said, ‘We’re going to let it stand.’ He claimed that fate had ruled that was the way it should be.
“Well, I thought he would forget about it. But he didn’t. He was a widower, his wife not dead quite a year, and he was like all widowers. He didn’t let the grass grow under his feet. He wanted to finish what he had started. I never did tell him that I would marry him. He took it for granted. . . .”
“I think we’d better go, Mrs. Wolfe,” I said. “It’s more than a shower—it’s turned into a steady rain.”
She glanced at me sharply, plucked at her nose for a moment, leaving a smudge. Suddenly she smiled.
“My goodness, boy,” she said, “you’re all wet! Well, I tell you what—I’ll take you home and hang you up to dry. Don’t worry, you’ll be all right. You’ll be as good as new with some dry clothes on.”