From The Youth's Companion Vol. 74 No. 21 (May 24, 1900)
“I guess there won't be a great show of flowers on Sylvester's grave this year,” said Sarah Cook. Her voice had a certain triumph in it, but it ended with a decorous sigh.
“I guess there won't, either,” returned her sister, Mrs. Kemp. “I guess Phebe Ann is too sick to think much about it.” Her voice sounded like Sarah's.
Lucy Kemp dropped her sewing for a minute, and turned her face toward the window. “It seems 'most too bad, don't it?” she said, meditatively. “When she's done so much every year, and thought so much about it.”
“I don't know as I think it's too bad,” said Mrs. Kemp. “Of course I'm sorry Phebe Ann is sick, but when it comes to these flowers she's always covered Sylvester's grave with, Decoration day, I guess there was a great deal of it for show. It would have seemed different if he had been in the war, but I've thought a good many times, when I've seen Sylvester's grave with more flowers on it than any of the soldiers, that Phebe Ann had a little eye to what folks would say, for all she felt so bad.”
“I don't care anything about the show,” said Sarah Cook, “but I do think such an outlay on flowers to put on a grave is wicked, when there's folks that's her own kith and kin in actual want. It's as much as twenty years since Sylvester Kemp died, and there aint been a year that Phebe Ann aint laid out dollars on flowers. I guess if we'd had the dollars right here, it would have been more to her credit!”
“Well, I aint ever complained nor begged,” rejoined Mrs. Kemp. “Nobody can say I have, whatever happens. There's the rent money due, and that new dressmaker has come to town, and the work's falling off, and I don't know what's goin' to become of us, but I aint complained nor begged.”
“There's the band!” cried Lucy.
It was a very warm day for the season — almost as warm as midsummer. The windows were wide open. The two women and the girl leaned their heads out and listened. They could hear far-away music. Two little girls, with their hands full of flowers, ran past.
“They're just forming down at the town hall,” said Lucy. “Annie Dole and Lottie are just going.”
“They came over here for flowers this morning,” said her mother, “and I told 'em I hadn't any to give. All I had was lilacs, besides that little early rose-bush, and they'd got all the lilacs they wanted of their own, and there was only just three roses on that bush, and I could not bear to cut 'em. The procession aint coming — the music don't sound a mite nearer. It won't be here for an hour yet.”
The three seated themselves and fell to sewing again. The two older women swung out their long arms with stern persistency. Their faces were harsh and sad, and had a similarity of feature as well as expression. Lucy, the young girl, bent weakly over her work. The room was full of the faint band music, and the perfume of lilacs. She wished in her heart that she could put on her best dress and go out with the other girls, but she said nothing. They sat in the kitchen. The floor was swept clean, and there was no fire in the polished cooking-stove; it was early in the afternoon. Presently Lucy looked up. “Mother,” said she, “can't I stop sewing and run outdoors a minute?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Just outdoors a minute.”
Lucy was seventeen, but she seemed like a child in her manner toward her mother.
“I don't care,” said Mrs. Kemp.
“I s'pose the child gets dreadful tired sewing the whole time,” she said to her sister, after Lucy had gone out. “Sometimes I feel kind of worried about her.”
“She won't get tired sewing much longer, nor we, neither, if we don't have more work come in,” retorted her sister, grimly. “We aint got a mite ahead. We've got to go on the town, for all I see.” She said “town” with a scornful fear, as if it were an enemy to whom she must surrender.
“I don't s'pose Phebe Ann's husband will lift his finger to help us, even if she should be taken away, and he left without a chick nor child in the world,” said Mrs. Kemp.
Phebe Ann's husband was her own dead husband's brother, but she never spoke of him by his own name.
“I wonder how much Phebe Ann's husband has got?” said Sarah Cook.
“Well, I guess he's laid by a little something. They must have, with no family!”
“Mebbe he will do something, if it ever happens that he aint under anybody else's thumb.”
“It won't make any difference now. He's laid under the thumb so long that he's all flattened out of the shape he was made in. He used to bow kind of sideways behind Phebe Ann's back, when I met him, but he don't do that now. I met him face to face the other day, and he never looked at me. I don't know what poor Thomas would say if he was alive. I wonder what Lucy is picking lilacs for? Lucy!”
“What say?” Lucy's sweet, thin voice called back. Her smooth, fair head was half hidden in a great clump of lilac-bushes by the gate. She was bending the branches over, and breaking off full purple clusters.
“What you picking those lilacs for?”
“I just thought I'd pick a few.”
“What for? I aint going to have any in the house! They're too sweet — they're sickish!”
“I aint going to bring them into the house,” said Lucy. She let a branch fly back, and went across the yard with a great bunch of lilacs in her hands.
“I wonder what she's up to?” said her mother.
Lucy returned just before the procession passed. The cemetery was a little way beyond the house. Her mother and aunt, and a neighbor who had come in, stood at the windows listening eagerly to the approaching music. Lucy joined them. The procession filed slowly past: The Grand Army men, the village band, the ministers and local dignitaries, and the rear-guard of children, with flowers. An accompanying crowd thronged the sidewalks.
“I've just been saying to Sarah that Phebe Ann won't have Sylvester's grave decked out much this year,” said Mrs. Kemp. Her voice was pleasanter and more guarded than before.
“I heard Phebe Ann was pretty low,” said the neighbor.
“Yes, I s'pose she is. I should have gone up there, but she aint been inside this house for ten years, and I aint going to push in where I aint wanted. I hear she's got Mis' Baker with her, so she's taken care of. I couldn't help thinking this morning how much she'd always laid out on Sylvester's grave. Well, mebbe 'twas a comfort to her. I aint never thought so much of anything of that kind, because my husband and all my folks are buried away from here, and I aint had any chance to do anything about their graves. Aint that Phebe Ann's husband now? That looks like his horse.”
“Yes, 'tis,” said Sarah Cook.
“I've a great mind to run to the door and inquire how she is!” cried the neighbor, excitedly.
“Why don't you?” said Mrs. Kemp.
The neighbor ran to the door and called out. She was a stout woman with a shrill voice.
“How is — Phebe — Ann?” she clamored.
The horse was pulled up, and an old man's face peered around the buggy wing. “How is Phebe Ann this afternoon?” the woman said again. Mrs. Kemp, Sarah Cook and Lucy were listening at her back.
“Sinking,” replied the old man, in a hoarse voice. Then he drove on. The woman called something else after him, but he paid no attention. He had to pass the cemetery, which was now thronged with the living, in bright groups, standing among the flower-strewn graves of the dead. The music had ceased. A man's voice sounded out loudly in the hush. Phebe Ann's husband, John Kemp, leaned forward and shook the reins over his horse, then drove past rapidly. He kept his face turned away from the cemetery, and his forehead was scowling distressfully.
He had a half-mile to go before he reached home. He left the horse in the yard, and went into the house on tiptoe, through the house to Phebe Ann's bedroom. As he peered in stealthily, the nurse, who was sitting beside the bed, looked up and put her finger to her lip. There was just a glimpse of a pale, sharp profile among the pillows. Phebe Ann was asleep on her journey to the grave.
Her husband went out, put up his horse, and sat down on the door-step. He looked idly out over the fields. After a while he heard the village band again. It sounded quite near. They were marching back from the cemetery. Suddenly the old man felt a hand on his shoulder. “She's waked up,” the nurse whispered, “and she's terrible worked up about its being Decoration day. You'd better come in.”
Phebe Ann's husband went softly behind the nurse to the bedroom. Phebe Ann looked up at him and beckoned imperatively. He went close and bent over her. “What is it, Phebe Ann?” said he.
“Is it — Decoration day?” she whispered, with difficulty, for she was growing very weak.
“Yes, 'tis, Phebe Ann,” said her husband.
“Have you got — any flowers for — Sylvester's grave?”
“No, I aint. I aint thought of it, Phebe Ann, with your being so sick, and all.”
“Go — get some!” she panted. Her motioning hand and her eager eyes spoke louder than her tongue.
“Yes, I will, I will, Phebe Ann! Don't you fret another mite about it.”
The nurse followed him out of the room.
“I can't go to the greenhouse!” he whispered, agitatedly. “It's five miles away!”
“Land, get any kind of flowers!” said the nurse. “Get dandelions and buttercups, if you can't find anything else.”
The old man took his hat down with a bewildered air, and went slowly out of the yard. At the gate he paused and looked around. There were no flowers in the yard; there were several bushes, rose and phlox, but it was too early for them to blossom. Over at the left stretched a field, and that was waving with green and gold. Phebe Ann's husband went over into the field, and began pulling the buttercups in great handfuls, and the grasses with them. He had all he could carry when he left the field, and went solemnly down the road.
Sylvester's grave was at the farther side of the cemetery. The old man, with his load of buttercups and grass, made his way to it. The soldiers' graves were decorated with flags and flowers, but the people had gone. The cemetery was very still. When John Kemp reached Sylvester's grave, he started and stared. There was a great bunch of lilacs on the grave, and three charming, delicate pink roses in a vase.
“I wonder who put those flowers there!” he muttered. He laid the buttercups and grass down on the grave; then he stood still. It was over twenty years since the boy Sylvester had been laid there — a little soldier who had fought only his own pain. “I wonder who put those flowers there!” John Kemp muttered again.
He went out of the cemetery, but instead of turning down the road toward his own home, walked hesitatingly the other way toward the house of his sister-in-law — Thomas's wife, as he always spoke of her.
Lucy's face was at one open window, her Aunt Sarah Cook's at the other.
“Lucy!” called the old man, standing at the gate.
Lucy came out to him tremblingly. Sarah Cook ran to tell her sister; she thought Phebe Ann must be dead.
“Do you know who put those flowers there?” asked the old man, in a husky voice.
“I did,” said Lucy. Her face flushed. “I thought there wouldn't be anybody to see to it, now Aunt Phebe Ann is sick,” she explained, timidly.
Her uncle looked wistfully at her, his eyes full of tears. “Sylvester was a dreadful sufferer,” he said.
Lucy did not know what to say. She looked up at him, and her soft face seemed to take on distressed lines like his.
The old man turned abruptly and went away. “Phebe Ann is sinking,” he said, indistinctly, as he went.
Lucy's mother and her aunt rushed to the door to meet her. “Is Phebe Ann dead?” Sarah Cook called out.
“No, she aint dead.”
“What did he want to see you for?” asked Mrs. Kemp.
Lucy hesitated; a shamefaced look came over her face. “What did he want?” her mother asked, imperatively.
“He wanted to know who put some flowers on — Sylvester's grave.”
“What did you put on?”
“Some lilacs and — roses.”
“You didn't pick those roses?”
“O mother, the lilacs didn't seem quite enough! Aunt Phebe Ann has always done so much!” Lucy said. She was almost crying.
Her mother and her aunt looked at each other. “I shouldn't have thought you'd have picked those roses without saying anything about it,” said her mother, but her voice was embarrassed rather than harsh. She went back to the kitchen and proceeded with her work of making biscuits for supper. The sewing was all finished. Lucy set the table. After supper they went out in the cemetery, and strolled about looking at the flowers, in the soft, low light. “Who brought all that mess of buttercups and grass, I wonder?” said Sarah Cook, as they stood over Sylvester's grave.
“I guess it must have been Phebe Ann's husband — it looks just like a man,” Mrs. Kemp replied. Lucy got down on her knees and straightened the buttercups into a bouquet.
“I wonder if she'll live the night out,” said Sarah Cook, soberly.
“I've listened to hear the bell toll every morning this week,” said Mrs. Kemp. “I don't believe she can live much longer. I'd go up there to-night, if I thought she wanted me to.”
The next morning Mrs. Kemp, listening with her head thrust out of the window in the early sunlight, heard indeed the bell tolling for Phebe Ann. “She's gone,” she told Sarah Cook and Lucy; and Lucy cried.
They all went to Phebe Ann's funeral and followed her to the grave. Mrs. Kemp's and Sarah Cook's eyes were red when they came home. “There were a great many good things about Phebe Ann, after all,” Mrs. Kemp said.
“I always said there was,” Sarah returned, defiantly.
The morning after the funeral John Kemp came to the door. Lucy answered his knock. He looked old and dejected, but he tried to smile. “I want to see you a minute,” said he. “No, I can't come in — not this morning. I'm coming before long. I hope things will be different from what they have been. It was her wish. I went home that day and told Phebe Ann how you'd put the flowers there, and she beckoned to me to come and lean over her. Then she made out to tell me. She wanted you to have Sylvester's money that we put in the bank for him when he was born. It's been growing. We haven't spent any, excepting for the flowers, and it's near five hundred dollars. She wanted me to give it to you right away, and you're going to have it just as soon as I can get it out of the bank. Phebe Ann said you could have some more schooling, and not have to work so hard. And I guess you'll have more than that, too, some day, if you outlive me. Phebe Ann, she thought mebbe I could make some arrangements with your mother and aunt to come to our house and live, and take care of it. She said she didn't want any other women in there. She knew they were good housekeepers, and would keep things the way she did. You tell your mother I'm coming in to see her some time before long.”
John Kemp went feebly down the walk, and Lucy returned to the kitchen. The door had been ajar, and her mother and Sarah Cook had heard every word. They were both crying. “Coming just now when we didn't know which way to turn!” sobbed Sarah Cook. “Poor Phebe Ann!”
“Well, there's one thing about it,” said Mrs. Kemp, brokenly, “there sha'n't one Decoration day go by as long as I live, without Sylvester's grave being trimmed as handsome as if his mother was alive!”