“ You always talk about ghosts the same as if they were, yet you ’ve never seen one, Aunt Dilsy.”
“Maybe not; though I seem to see a heap when I set here alone of evenin’s. I ain’t never been to the city, yet I know it’s there, an’ ’s creepin’ out on us, with its spires an’ churches an’ opery house. I ain’t never seen the Falls of Niagry ; have you ? ”
“No ’m, nor want to. The creek in a spring risin’ ’s enough for me.”
“ You always were scary as a child.” Aunt Dilsy rocked comfortably, with her chair drawn to the doorway, where she could see the sunset fading from the locust trees.
“ I reckon a body don’t have time left for scariness, with hard work ’n’ worry ’n’ sickness 'n’ children V husbands 'n’ all,” said the neighbor, sitting on the step.
“ Well, talkin’ of husbands, I’ve lived to mourn mine, an’ he ’s a heap of company yet,” said Aunt Dilsy.
“ You make my flesh creep when you talk about the dead like they were flesh ’n’ blood! It’s livin’ so near to the buryin’ ground, I s’pose. I ’d rather keep company with the livin’,” returned the first.
“ Child, the nearness of the dead need n’t make you afeard. Why, I set here a-watchin’ them stones down yonder in the buryin’ ground till it seems like they was movin’ around in the dusk, an’ their owners oughter come up ’n’ set awhile, for old acquaintance’ sake ! ”
“I reckon if they did you’d be as scary as the next one,” remarked the other, in the unresponsiveness with which the utterances of the imaginative are met by their more phlegmatic kind.
“ I don’t believe so,” said Aunt Dilsy gently, “I ’m so used to the thought of ’em; an’ knowin’ their restin’ places so well has seemed to draw ’em nearer. I haven’t had anythin’ else to mother for a good while now ’cept them graves. Yes, some folks lyin’ down yonder are better known to me now than they were in life. It’s like the false doctrines had fell away of themselves, an’ the truth about folks grew clear in a body’s mind in spite of everythin’.”
The other woman sat, with her chin in her hand, listening vaguely, and gazing where a boy was driving cows up the lane. Her attitude expressed that any theory which might be alien to the beaten track of village opinion could not bear weight in her estimation.
“ There’s many a one takes to flowers easy that you wouldn’t have thought it of,” mused Aunt Dilsy’s gentle voice. “ There was n’t a leaf or blade on Antony Birk, the ground was so hard” —
“ I reckon Antony Birk was too hardnatured for anythin’ to grow on him! ” interpolated the neighbor.
“ So ’t was thought. But I minded the time he gave Jane Atkins and the children that cottage free of rent in winter time, an’ I thought the Lord must know of a soft spot somewheres, so I planted a little periwinkle, an’ it’s growin’ beautiful.”
“ I never knew he gave anythin’ to anybody in all his mortal life.”
“ Folks ain’t so apt to know what a man does as what he don’t do. All the flowers down yonder’s doin’ well : the life everlastin’ on my Amos, — he held on to life so, Amos did ; an’ the pansies on poor Sally Minch, — she never had no heart’s ease in life, an’ ’t seems like she deserves some now; the bleedin’ heart on little Molly Green ; but the best bloomer of all’s that there crimson rambler rose I planted on Liza Wetherford, and I ain’t a bit surprised.”
The listener turned her head with a show of interest, and said, “ Why not ? ”
“ Because Liza always could do things better ’n anybody else, whether ’t was raisin’ flowers or singin’ or workin’; she was mighty pretty, too.”
“I never thought Liza Wetherford had any looks to speak of,” remarked the neighbor.
“ ’T was the sort of looks that are deeper ’n flesh. She loved a red flower, too, poor Liza ! ”
“ There ain’t any call to pity Liza Wetherford now, Aunt Dilsy ; if she did n’t come to no good end, she brought it on herself. Better call a spade a spade.”
“ Maybe it digs as well if we don’t call it a rusty one,” said Aunt Dilsy. “ The only bad end Liza come to, to my knowledge, was to be sent back dead with a doctor’s certificate for typhoid fever, poor soul ! There warn’t any too many mourners to follow the hearse from the train to the buryin’ ground, though I tried to make it seem Christian-like. But she did n’t have no people at best. Seemed like Liza was buffeted around terrible from the start; motherless, too ! ”
“ Oh, Aunt Dilsy, you can’t make folks as easy on people as you are. If runnin’ away from home, an’ goin’ back on the man she was to marry, an’ —if what is said is true — turnin’ play actor on the stage, is n’t a bad end, what is ? ”
“ I 've found out that a thing may look one way, an’ be another,” said the older woman, gazing where the dusk gathered blackly in the locust leaves; “ we deceive ourselves easy by tryin’ to think as other folks think. Maybe livin’ alone has kep’ my memory fresh about folks, but — you knew Marcus Wetherford, Liza’s father ? ” The neighbor nodded. “ Well, I knew Marcus an’ Tom Wetherford before your day. Tom went West an’ married an’ died ; an’ Marcus, he lived along here, shif’less an’ worse. I ain’t one to rake up a man’s sins, livin’ or dead, but truth is truth. When he got into trouble with the Plineyville Bank, how did he keep out of jail?”
“ I don’t just remember now,” said the other indifferently.
“ ’T was this way : Liza went around and raised the money for bail, and pledged herself to pay it all back ; and I reckon she knew best what a life Marcus led her ! Then she broke off with Willy Marshall, refusin’ to bring disgrace upon his name ; and what did Marcus do ? (For there’s them that can’t stand bein’ helped !) He up ’n’ promised old Jacob Rhett that if he’d go security on a note, Liza should marry him ; and he knew that Liza was just wrapped up in Willy Marshall ! ”
“ Well, I don’t know anythin’ about that part,” said the neighbor ; “ it seemed like Mr. Wetherford lived quiet and respectable enough afterwards. All men fall into trouble sometimes.”
“And women, too, — only they don’t get out of it so easy,” said Aunt Dilsy. “ He did n’t dare be anythin’ but respectable ; ’t was that respectableness that wore me out with Marcus Wetherford ! I most deceived myself tryin’ to make excuses to myself for him, but it was n’t any use ; I could n’t see him any way ’cept what he was, noways. He was so smooth-tongued that when old Jacob Rhett demanded that Liza should marry him, Marcus sorter got everybody on his side, — don’t ask me how ! And all the time Liza workin’ her fingers to the bone for the bail money ! I never admired Liza as much as when she saw the right and refused. Then she went away as clean from sight as though she ’d never been. Afterwards the Plineyville Bank began to get a sum reg’lar, until every cent of the money was paid off ; and all the time Marcus goin’ around mournin’ about Liza disgracin’ him ! My land ! I hope I ’ll be forgiven for seein’ it all so plain ! It’s terrible, sometimes, to see folks just as they are. But I ’ll tell you this: it was a good while after Marcus Wetherford died before I could bring myself to plant more than a petunia on him ! ” Aunt Dilsy sighed, and leaned back and passed her handkerchief over her face, after this unusual outburst. The frogs croaked in the hollow, and the night drew near.
“ Well, it’s a wonder, for you ’re so soft about people,” replied the other woman. “ I only know what they said about Liza Wetherford. Seems like her father had given a promise; and old Jacob Rhett had money, too.”
Aunt Dilsy sighed ; she had heard the argument many times. “Yes, that’s just it,” she said; “you can’t set folks right when they want to see wrong.”
“ Well, Aunt Dilsy, she certainly did get that money mighty quick, some way ! She must have got to be an actor or — or something.”
“ Well, there ain’t any commandment agin it,” said Aunt Dilsy. “ I own that Liza was different to most in these parts ; but just because we belong to Plineyville, we ain’t seen everybody yet. She could sing wonderful, Liza could. My ! I hear that voice yet; it kind of went to the soul. You see, tendin flowers has taught me a heap. No two can be raised alike. There’s them to be tied, and them to be twined, and them to he left to the wind o’ heaven ; an’ it’s the same with folks.”
“ Well, I must think ’cordin’ to principle,” said the neighbor virtuously, as she arose. “ Seems to me that when her father got to be a respectable elder of the church ’n’ all, she ’d better have stayed home ’n’ married. Old Jacob Rhett had a heap o’ money. I must go make my bread up, Aunt Dilsy.”
The older woman sighed before she too arose. It was the sigh which meant the folding of the wings of vision which were driven back to brood within the silence of her own heart.
“ I ’ll go to the gate with you I take exercise reg’lar now, mornin’s an’ evenin’s, to keep from gettin’ oversized.”
The moon shone through a black fret of locust leaves as the two women walked down the path together. At the gate, as her neighbor passed through, Aunt Dilsy stopped to smell a hundred-leaved rose, “ Yes,” she repeated, “ flowers has taught me. There’s nothin’ alike ; all’s different; but folks don’t see it, even when other folks are lyin’ dead like poor Liza Wetherford.”
The other made an irrelevant remark about the warmth of the night, and went her way down the road, which meant that no one need be affected one way or the other by the vagaries of one as notional and “ soft-natured ” as Aunt Dilsy Ames. Meanwhile, Aunt Dilsy went back to her cottage by another path where she stopped through force of habit at the gate of the little graveyard adjoining her land. The moonlight made more white the stones against the black yew, which stood spirelike in the centre of the plot. The paths were white as day, and she peered forward, discerning the dark mass of the rambler rose — a rich crimson by day —which overhung the grave of Liza Wetherford. She looked, and looked again, and drew her shoulder shawl closer, as though the air were growing cooler. Then she turned back to her garden path, and stopped to touch a plant here and there, as familiarly as if it had been day. The air was heavy and sweet, and inside her cottage Aunt Dilsy drew her chair again to the doorway, and sat dreamily rocking and gazing out upon the moonlit world. This was the hour which she habitually gave to nature, to the impassioned sense of beauty and truth within her, and she drank in the nearness of the night, as they only can to whom such solitude is the draught of life.
As she rocked and mused, the moon’s light and the black shadows merged, and a shape grew out of them, and stood hesitating in the path, as though listening. It stole forward haltingly, yet longingly, and then a woman’s form stood before the door. She was tall and slim, and something fleecy fell back from her dark hair, which was drawn softly from a clear brow. She withdrew into the deeper shadow, and when she spoke she seemed a part of the night, — only there was a swift movement of the hands, quickly suppressed, as though they would fain have flown outward ; and one of them held a cluster of the rambler rose.
“ I did not intend to startle you. I saw you, and only stopped for a moment.”
It was a vibrating tone, and at its sound Aunt Dilsy leaned forward quickly and strove to see through the darkness. Then her voice trembled strangely. “ I knew I saw somebody — somethin’ — down yonder, as I come by. Seems like I know your voice mighty well.”
The figure started, as though it would have fled, and the veil of night grew deeper between them, and through it came quickly breathed words : —
“ No, you do not know me! ”
There was an instant in which Aunt Dilsy’s old hands clasped together, and the insistent noises of night were loud in her ears.
“ Maybe I’ve no right to say I do,” she said humbly, “ but I’d know that voice anywheres. It belonged to one I helped bury with my own hands.” She passed a hand across her brow as though to brush away the dream, if dream it were ; form was an almost intangible object in the night-time. Then her voice grew stronger. “ Yes, I helped bury her, but I ain’t afeard if you — if you ’re — her.”
The other gave a sigh as of relief, and drew nearer and sat down upon the step, with her head bowed almost at Aunt Dilsy’s knee.
“ I might have known you would n’t be afraid of Liza Wetherford,” she murmured. “ I wanted so to see you once, to thank you for planting this.” She held up the rambler rose. “ No one else would have done it.” She sighed, and Aunt Dilsy spoke as in a dream : —
“ ’T was n’t anythin’ to do ! I knew all about it, you see, — how Liza come to go away ’n’ all. She was most heartbroke ; seems like I’d have done the same if I’d been her. I was so hurt for her that I was n’t sorry scarcely when she come back dead an’ at rest; it seemed better so.”
The moon had crept behind the house, and the locust leaves wove black shadows like phantom hands between the two, — Aunt Dilsy’s pitiful old face, and the dark head bowed at her knee.
“ 1 ’d like to have seen her once, though,” she mused ; “ there were things I wanted to make sure about, so’s I could straighten it out here for her some, maybe.”
“No one must know! ” whispered the other.
“ I’ve always wanted to know how that money was made,” said Aunt Dilsy.
“ You’ve a right to know,” spoke the voice. “ It was made honestly, by singing. Oh, it was a terrible struggle at first, almost starvation ; but she was bitter and desperate, and — and did n’t care. She did not want even her old name ; she left that behind her with everything else.”
“ I knew Liza could n’t live anyways but honest! ” said Aunt Dilsy.
“ Dear Aunt Dilsy, it is so good to hear your voice ! Yes, she was honest. She only had time for work, and she had nobody ; that is, until she found her cousin, who was ill and poor, too.”
“ Tom’s daughter ? ” asked Aunt Dilsy.
“Yes; they stayed together until — until ” —
“ Until Liza died,” said the older voice.
“ Oh, why did you say that it was better she died ? ” the other broke in, with a sudden note of passion and a sob. “ Why should n’t she have lived afterwards, after all the struggle was over, and had time for life ? Maybe she could have come back here and had a home like other people, and — and — been happy. Oh, why could n’t she ? Was there nobody wanted her ? ”
Aunt Dilsy looked dreamily into the darkness and rocked, as though musing to herself.
“ Maybe I’m wrong, but’t seems like folks forget easy when they don’t care, and hard when they do.”
“ You mean there’s nobody cares now ? Yes, you are right; there would have been no use for her to have come back. Tell me : when I — when Liza died, was there anybody who cared then ? ”
“ Willy cared,” said Aunt Dilsy softly ; “ he cared terrible.”
“ Yes, — yes, tell me ! ”
“ Well, men are different,” said Aunt Dilsy gently, “ and people’s talking will have weight, I s’pose. He married soon afterwards.”
There was stillness between them except for the whippoorwill’s note and the shrill voices of the darkness. Then the other arose and stood tall against the night.
“ It was better she died,” said she. “ Life has its way with some ; they can’t battle against it. It would have done no good to have come back.” . . . Suddenly her hands were flung upward, and shuddering sobs broke the restraint of words. “ I waited so long ! I waited so long for him to come ! He promised . . . and he did not come. . . . And I thought that he loved me ! ” It was a bitter, human cry, and for a quick instant two arms were cast around Aunt Dilsy, and a tear lay hot upon her cheek. “ Oh, forgive me for coming ! Forgive me ! I was starving to know ! . . . Good-by ! Oh, good-by ! . . . You are the only one I ever had, — the only one ! ”
The leaves shook as with wind, and the older woman arose like one awakening from sleep, and stood trembling on the threshold.
“ You are no spirit! ” she said aloud. “ You are mortal flesh and blood ! For the good Lord’s sake, tell me what this means ! What became of Tom’s daughter ? Speak ! ”
The answer stole back with a sob, — “ Dead.”
“ And her name ? Her name ? ”
But the darkness closed upon a vanishing form, and there was only a whisper,—
“ Liza Wetherford ! ”
Virginia Woodward Cloud.