The old home place rose from the road by a ruined avenue, the house shell standing four-square in a grove of water oaks. There were the remembered trees. But we had forgotten how beautiful the spot was. Neither the dilapidation of the deserted dwelling sagging tiredly on its pillars, nor the depredations of time and neglect visible even at that distance could detract from a setting for a small and earthly paradise—the rise was so gentle, the trees so ancient, the slope to far fields and groves so graciously sound.
I told my aunt so, hoping someway to move her eyes from what seemed an angry staring.
“Beautiful?” she repeated sharply. “Of course it is—it is my old home.” Then she softened, lowering her stoutness stiffly from the car as though somewhere she ached. “You never saw it in its beauty, child.”
Uneasy as people at a grave we stood about, gazing upward at the rotting house against the sky, the debris, the yards washed to the bare bones of rock.
But they would come. Having deserted it for prosperity they had assumed the human attitude toward those we have wronged; they were constrained to seek it again, to brood over it in long stretches of the night, to remember it forever. More faithfully than the ghosts of former occupants which they fondly hoped waited there nightly, their own hearts unreasonably remorseful, haunted the halls they had been forced to resign. For years they had not heeded the inclination to see it; a subdued sentiment, a bit too tender, one suspected, had held off a vision of it deserted. But this time, gathered from far corners, they had the longing to see the “Old Place,” as they called it, the family plantation in the Flat-woods district, sold long since, where my aunt-in-law’s childhood and her children’s had been passed.
For only memento of early visits here I had a series of pictures in my mind. I could see a fireplace and grown-up feet and the rockers of chairs, Kathleen with me on the hearth rug, who now stood beside me with her child. I could see knobby roots of trees where to choose a playhouse site was to choose between riches. I remembered high stairs on the left of the door, seeing Katty’s legs lag up them to be switched for cutting a hole in her apron—and I had provided the scissors and urged the hole. . . . No more. The margins of their imperishable brightness were faded out in the ragged outlines of paper snatched from a consuming fire.
The group, my aunt and her two children, staring upward at the old house—they had their pictures also, but this ungenteel decay, dropping suddenly after a long eked-out existence, was reality. Would their high-horses ride them now, the peculiarity of Southern people of laughing at themselves in their moments of most significance, of playing ring-around-a-rosy with the truth?
They were faint but they would. Cousin George C, after a glance at his mother’s face, clapped his knee.
“By Jove, everything gone but the hickory, limb I came near hanging Cousin Sophie’s little long-curled boy on. Ma, that must have been all of thirty-five years ago, eh?”
“Yes,” she said drily, still staring ahead, “and the tree I came near hanging myself on is there—and that must have been all of sixty years ago. And the one your grandfather fell out of and your great-grandfather’s—”
“Stop,” Kathleen shrieked, gyrating her pleated skirt to a sustained circle. “You’ve set the world whirling!” Ahead of us her mother and her brother who had been ill, moved upward to the house, slowing themselves to each other’s retarded pace.
Kathleen had the eyes of her childhood still, that faint grey-blue of rain coming a long way off across blue hills. She rounded them eerily, whispering in my ear, “I see two little girls in checked aprons behind that cedar tree.” She leaned to her boy suddenly, “Sonny, hold my hand, I’m scared.” His eyes darkened but he clutched her reassuringly. What a mother he had.
We tried to find a nearer way to take the car up but there was none. Gullies were washed knee-deep in the paths, shelving sand strewed over. There was nobody to ask, nobody to call from the still doorway.
“This is what the poet meant by ‘ruined gardens in the South,’” I whispered.
Then I could not forbear, “What is it comes over you Southern people to let your old things die, to—”
“Economics,” she interrupted drily, sleeking her black hair. “The War ended all this, there has been no further excuse for its being. If you saw a flood coming, what would you do? Get out of the way of starvation too, wouldn’t you? This is the place after the floods passed over it, low prices, droughts, no markets. Simple, isn’t it?”
I saw her nails whiten on the boles of the old tree she leaned against. “We were so happy here. We had everything but money, But you remember. . . .” I remembered.
“It was because,” she seemed to think it out, “as little as we had, it was more than those around us had. It was because,” she grinned it into italics, “there were no people nicer than we, so what happened to us didn’t matter. We were still ahead.”
She had the cryptic smile of her day on, an incongruous sight in her bright sports dress dodging the ruts of the old avenue, but her hand slipped over each tree trunk we passed, slow, caressing.
From the yard above we looked back at the view so perfectly chosen that far off day of building. Past one shade of green field another dropped, pale succulent green of sugar cane against the darker green of cotton, past them for miles a new growth of woods and the fiatlands to the sky.
Two negroes had slipped furtively to the door, hardly more than boy. and girl. They said they lived there now. My aunt turned hostilely pale.
The black girl had a sleek mouse-skinned look out of her rags and humid doe’s eyes darkly pathetic. They had the air of wild things disturbed in their nest; in the deserted old place which they had crept to, no rats could have kept a worse one than they.
Aghast we stared in through the open door. A crumpled bedstead, a chair broken off at the rocker, a huddle of rags and straw, would be their only furnishing, lost in the wide high rooms, trumpery as mice’s store beneath the stretches of broken walls and rotting ceiling. Boards in the puncheon floor had given way, whole window frames were out, planked over so cheaply they too had split for the sun to spy out where all of darkness had assembled to hide. Tobacco stains on the falling mantel, mud and cast leaves on the filthy floor. The parlor to the left, scene of high days in the past, had a litter of bed broken in the middle, a musty smell of dirt and sloth and nigger. A rat, beast-sized, slunk across from the fireplace; out of a pile of mildewed cotton a lean hound nose reached and clicked at it warning jaws.
My aunt wavering in the doorway groaned suddenly aloud. “It’s so terrible it’s right ridiculous. . . .”
Caught still for a moment the waves of her desolation washed clear to our feet. We stood around awkwardly and with wrenched faces in the rotting relic of a day not only dead but indecently unburied, in the chill penetration of nevermore. “But where is Sonny?” the old lady cried. The child— the future—With one breath they moved back Southernly from a contemplation too terrible. New life—catch on to his skirts to sail into happiness ahead—ahead—
The boy stared amazed at the sudden interest that circled him, the faces pale and stirred, the hands held out in an intensity of affection. He turned bashful and keeled on one foot. “Wha’s dat chicken name’?” he demanded gruffly of the black girl crouched in her corner. Then he beamed at the releasing laughter. Even the abashed negroes tittered out of all proportion to the incident. Shoulders, shadows lifted as the moment turned; on their high-horses again they put their backs relievedly. to the past, moving through the further rooms with a sight-seer’s careless air. George C. twirled his cane again. Kathleen’s short skirt, as high as her son’s head, swagged with her step. My aunt’s hand clutched the little boy’s in peace.
“Right here,” she said as though she told someone else’s history, “I came down these steps a bride.” But she had the same coy sweet bride’s look in the smile she turned up to her son.
“Ma,” he said, “that’s all right but! prefer you as a cook. Now in the old pantry—” he began some gigantically dis-proportioned story, moving off.
He was a delight to visit with where once his prosperity would have jangled moneyly against the bones of the old place; this time last year he would have been an anachronism.—Now after a long sickness he shared destruction, now he moved also from a high period to an imminent fall; he held out his hand to catch the sunlight as he passed.
Wherever he moved his mother was right beside. She walked like a general, sure-footed, steady; whatever she felt could not be told. She was a staunch straight woman in the narrow Puritanism of the old South, with humor, enormous country humor; nothing dulled it, nothing could weaken it now.
All through the morning her voice was first. “Here’s where Katty sat and rocked, screak-screak, throughout her sister’s wedding—” “Here was my playhouse—” “Here was the trundle bed—” The bare rooms livened up and furnished themselves as she spoke.
“And the new floor!” You could make it out actually under the trash collected around the dead hearth, newer planking where those ancient chairs had rocked the old floors out. “And Katty took the notion that this was the place to dance because she got no splinters in her bare feet. Every night in the light of the fire she would jig and trot in her long nightgown while her grandmother would lie back in her four-poster in that corner and laugh and pat the time. . . .”
I could see the old lady then—she lived to be eighty-five— knocking out her pipe where the depression was grooved in the mantel wood. She was the quickest being I ever knew to be confined to a chair; though it was impelled upon her she sat ever in a position to rise, an impulse never released. In her usual seat in the hearth corner she had worn the air, the attributes of a fierce little tea kettle boiling away; the bottled up energy gave a vivid glancing spirit to her conversation, to her tongue the bubbling simmer of the kettle lid, and to her tobacco smoke the more fervid ebullition of steam. I could catch her quick voice now behind the quiet walls, “Don’t be so dilatory!” We never knew what the word meant but Katty and I had quickened at the impulsion of energy.
“Do you remember,” she whispered to me now with her darling air of secrecy, “ ‘Cruel as the Grave’?” We slipped up the stairs to the east bedroom. Under that bed—but no bed was there—we had flattened ourselves on our faces to read the forbidden copy. With a lamp on the floor, the book itself slipped out far enough to catch the beam and ourselves hidden, we had breathlessly run down each page until my aunt’s firm step was heard.—The lamp was all that she had found to scold. Now the room was empty to the unhindered wind that snarled dry leaves and cotton locks and floating trash in a rustly drift across the floor. Kathleen gravely lifted a glass of air. “To Mrs. Southworth—E. D. E. N.—” she proposed and drank it down.
On the stairs after the ceremony I ventured, “The sequel, ‘The Phantom Bride,’ have you ever found it?” “No!” We fell on each other’s neck,—”Give it to me for Christmas!” we each separately cried.
The others were on the sagging piazza. “You girl,” my aunt called to the darkies, “whereabouts is the spring?” She clasped her head suddenly quavering, “T declare I am right turned around in my mind.” Then, as amazing as her feeling, she as suddenly began to laugh; with a young delight, a sweeping pink flushing clear to the roots of her snowdrift hair.
“How well I remember the last switching my mother gave me—sitting right there. It was about the last big hog killing; they got less and less as the years went on, and there were about eighty hogs for as many tenants—tenants by then but still to be fed and clothed and stood for. It was at the spring they dressed the meat, and since it was a big event—dinner in pots by the water, songs and tales in between—I slipped off and stayed with the negroes for their meal of turnip greens, hoe-cake and fresh pork meat. I came on home later, scared anyway, and when mother demanded suddenly where I had been, without thinking I said”—here she broke down laughing, hesitating, and the blush of a proper Southern lady spread over the delightful naughty face of the child she must have been—”I said, I’ve been helping them rid the guts.’” In the empty scene of those old days she was apologizing still. “It was the darkies’ own expression for collecting the bits of floating fat to boil for lard, but mother . . .”
“And afterward,” she passed from that with so much to remember, “for another season the smoke-house was filled with lard and soap made from lye dripped through oak-wood ashes and stored in barrels, while the meats were hung in two tiers, one above the other, in the rafters for the hickory-chip smoke to cure. And the fruits dried and canned, the barrels of “big hominy” made from lye baths over the corn grain, the sacks of wheat flour, corn meal, hominy grits, the hanging pepper pods, the kershaws sunk in cotton seed—father never had to ask my mother where the food for all was coming from.”
In the quiet her voice sank into, the vast hive life of the plantation came alive; the clinking plough makers in the shops, the carpenter’s hammer, the blacksmith’s furnace roar, the mill wheel’s turning, the women at their continual task of creating that which was to be consumed tomorrow, of straightening that which was to be undone to-night. And they have said that Southern ladies were lazy.
Silence now mocked the mockers; the women were gone. In the niggardly little stores we had seen in the dining room a pitiful handful of okra had lain drying, the black girl’s instinctive attempt to lay by for tomorrow when winter would sing in and out the door cracks and there would be hunger and no growth.
“Ah well,” my aunt seemed to have concluded something. She moved sturdily down the steps, a heavy woman with a sort of nobility to her fine high-colored face.
The world of memories that an old house can hold, dying as the old women die.—Who would be left to take their obscure notations, who would bind up traditions that industrialism would fast dispel? These Southern people—
I was shaking my head at the ruined roadway where only the grass was mindful and flung a green charity over gaping wounds where the mud in winter rains had sunk with rude cart wheels and washed deeper in the freshets of spring. Weeds nameless or common, ragweed, passionflower, dog-fennel, little asters yellow-eyed, a flower trumpet shaped, whitely delicate, they all in sundry arrangements spread over the grass green forever beneath the constant trees. Birds were unfailing here. They sensed the quiet and isolation, they spoke back and forth, careless of visitors, their private gossip from tree house to tree house. It would take moon patches on the shadowed lawn and the last late hours of darkness for those symphonies of mocking bird and thrush, those bravura cycles, the tender calls, the piercing sweeter, softer answers. Now they chatted in a morning marketing absorption.
The old graves on the place, not near and dear enough even in her youth to be especially hallowed, my aunt said, she and George C. had come across in their ramble and she thought they might interest me. When the others came up we stopped there at those sentinels of the unremem-bered, those at whom now-living eyes had never brightened. My cousins’ childhood, or their mother’s, could be recreated; this was of an older order, a day of hearsay.
They lay not far from the end of the avenue—a little side path bramble twisted, a low stoop through cape jessamine hedges, the bloom for brides and corpses, whose waxed leaves leaned dense and close above their heads. Doves sighed in the walnut tree planted directly over, flicking its palmy leaves this side, that side, in a rising noontime breeze. The new nuts fleshed in thick pulp lay scattered on the huddled grave mounds, their headboards washed clear of identifying word. On a body-length stone sunk flat, carved deeper, brushed clear of nuts, out of lichens and slimy snail trails, it said in suave and spindly, esses:
Sargeant Tressler Simpson
1790-1820 Fell by the hand of Osceola Chief of the Seminoles
We stood very still for there was an air about of spent time and seclusion, of one thing in life immutably ended and content to be so.
“They got him this far, I’ve heard,” my aunt was saying, “toward his home in the Carolinas, sick of his wound, and he died here in Great-Grandma Lottie’s arms and she buried him well. The inscription is warlike and honorable enough, I suppose, but,” she whispered it to us behind a chaste hand, “I have always heard it was because of too warm attention to the chieftain’s sister.”
Grave air could not chill Kathleen. “Why, Mamma!” She stood back in utter horror. “Be ashamed to talk such scandal! George C. just listen to Mamma—”
Their delightful mocking broke the finality as they moved back to life outside the screening jessamine leaves, but I stooped nearer the depression sunk so long in Georgia earth, cool and green at midday beneath the tree and the doves and the small creeping breeze. A spring flowed by; green colored in its green moss channel, it caught the errant flickers of sunlight and shook them into golden sparkles as it stole along and out the jessamine roots. The doves sighed, Heugh!—Heugh! . . . Poor young sargeant. Were her limbs so dusky and so fleet? Her copper heels through the blinding wood—then the arrow, the splitting breast-bone? . . . Poor chieftain brother. Was she so dear to your tribe? The dove to be kept in the nest? . . .
“Come,” my aunt called briskly, “just time to get home for the baby’s dinner—” Spider webs capped my hair as I bent through the branches but it was Kathleen who glanced back and shivering caught my hand before she laughed again.
This was at her brother. He was so proud that he lay not in the grave alongside Sargeant Simpson that his spirit strutted beyond scruple. His mother had murmured at the roadside, “I do believe that right here—see in those vines —is Grandma Lottie’s mounting stone.”
“Mounting stone?” from him. ” ‘Zat the one she mounted up to heaven on, Ma?”
“Hush, sir,” she scolded. “I only wish I were as sure of your getting there. Great-grandma Lottie, I’ll have you know, sir, was a woman to be proud of, a manager and a lady. And she never learned to read or write.”
He heaved his eyebrows dejectedly together. “That bars us from the Society of the Cincinnati and the Daughters of the Confederacy and—”
“But never think that held her back.” She had the sound of being angry with the lax day we represented. “There was no way of learning then. This was the edge of the wilderness, land grants among the savages, and it took a man, and she was one, to hold out against them. Widowed twice at twenty-nine, the mother of seven, she took hold of these raw acres, a handful of slaves, and when she died at ninety she left two thousand acres and a hundred black men. She neither read nor wrote but I’ll be bound she learned to figure. On horseback she rode down to Savannah to learn the latest weaving and spinning, and candle making, to buy plough-irons and quinine and silver shoe buckles, wagon tires, tombstones and crystal chandeliers, and she so commandeered and managed that her sons had tutors and rode on horseback to Princeton College. My father was her favorite grandson and how he loved to tell of what he called her fine and earthly flavor, her humors, her rich aversions.”
“Yes, but who did she love?” asked Kathleen.
Her mother looked bewildered. “Well my father did say that her first husband was picked out for her at sixteen — women had mighty little to choose from then. And the second was an older man whom she married to nurse until he died. But father did say—”
“Ah,” from Kathleen.
“— that in her old days, lying back in her bed to die, that she would tell him of dreams she had so fresh and youthful, of-—” she hesitated virtuously one hundred years later—”of the young Sargeant Simpson—”
“Ah!” Her daughter’s hands clasped together, pink flaming her cheeks, “And Freud thought he had discovered something!”
“Who was he?” my aunt demanded, tossing her head. “He had nothing to do with Grandma Lottie.” She looked back stilled at the old house looming gauntly against the pale hollow of the sky. ” “He maketh the wilderness to blossom as the rose.’ . . . So Grandma Lottie did this. It was only, a quarter for slaves when she came and had the new house built because she loved the spreading view. She cleared this away and set out the oaks and cedars; she whipped her sons into truth and obedience; she brought up her daughters in patience and chastity; she took little and left much—”
Grandma Lottie; what a figure!—I stood on her worn little mounting stone, something hot in my throat. The curse on Southern people! Why should they sit back and watch their old things die—no matter how tender the regret? Was it the atmosphere, the too fecund earth that shot up sappy growth and then ploughed it under for the importunate new? Whatever they worked toward now it was a spurious borrowed industrialism, it was not their abandoned places, their histoiy older still and their traditions. I thought re-belliously, why should these descendants be content to see the makings of so valiant a soul slip backward to oblivion? . . . Back of us against the light the negroes like timid mice bold in solitude scampered back into the den they had made of Grandma Lottie’s pride. Uncared for, unguarded—
“You and Kathleen,” my aunt was scolding me sharply, “should be proud of such inheritance as her qualities—”
“I?” I stammered, “I?” I stumbled from her little mounting stone.
“Certainly,” with her fine impatience, “your great-grandfather on your mother’s side was another of her sons; this is your heritage also. And as I say, you descendants—”
We descendants . . .