Consecration

I collect old books and magazines and am especially interested in material from America in the early 1900s and the 1800s.  I’ll be going through my collection from time to time and posting work, some of which may have been out of the public eye for decades, or possibly more than a century in some cases.  Look for these postings in the antiquarian category on this site.

One such piece is a short short called “Consecration” by Fiswoode Tarleton.  Published in a magazine called Overland Monthly in July of 1920, this story is so well written that  I could easily see it being published in any number of 21st century literary magazines.  Following is the story in its entirety.

When I was a boy of ten or thereabouts, he sat in front of the cemetery gates, as he does yet, on nice days to see that no one trespasses on the grounds.  But sometimes he would fall asleep in his chair, and then we would steal past his motionless form and make for the nut groves within to fill our sacks.  His hair was white, even then–twenty or more years ago–and his back quite stooped from age.  When he walked, a twisted cane helped along his withered body.  Usually a clay pipe stuck from his mouth and he smoked in long puffs.  In bad weather, a little house, that was set aside for his use, protected him from the rain and cold, and by means of a rope, he could open and shut the gates from the inside.  Sometimes when a funeral party approached he would examine their permit through the window, and if it was all right, nod for them to enter.  On Sundays and holidays when th people flocked to the Cemetery to look after their lots, he would put on a white shirt, and a black tie, and limp about from one end of the cemetery to the other.  Such was Uncle Henry as I have always known him.

One day–about the end of November, last year–a hike, undertaken primarily for some rabbit shooting, brought me, toward evening, to the cemetery gates.  Winter had already taken hold.  The trees were bare, and birds, there were none, except a few jays tht fluttered about among the branches.  The wind was bitter cold and sent the dead leaves flying through the air; this way and that, until they banked up against the fence in high piles.  On the road, a man was walking behind a creaking wagon and swinging his arms to keep warm.  A party of mourners, wrapped up to their chins, were filing slowly down a path between the graves; the women weeping; the men bowing their heads from grief.  One of the party (She must have been the widow) often paused to look back at a new grave, which two men were closing over; their spades ringing against the hard earth, and their bodies bending backward as if worked by springs.  My dog, hot on the trail of a rabbit, began to yelp in a near-by wood.

Smoke was pouring from the chimney of the old Keeper’s house and I stepped in to warm up my numb feet and to chat.

With his usual greeting, “Glad to see you, son,” he pushed a stool toward me and with it, his tobacco box.

We talked of the weather, and the chances for a long, severe winter; the strikes that were tying up the mills in the city; and at last the high cost of living, which led him to compare, the conditions with what they were in seventy or seventy two.  Even a grave cost ten times as much, he declared as it did in “sixty-six.”  After a while he pointed out of the window to a large sycamore which had been badly damaged by a recent wind.  “I’m afraid,” said he, “that tree is going to die,” and it has stood for fifty years.”

“Uncle Henry, what has kept you here, so long–among the dead?” I asked.

He only puffed at his pipe the harder and looked out of the window–at nothing of course, while I sat there turning the logs ith the toe of my shoe.  Outside it was growing dark.  You could no longer see the wagons that squeaked and rumbled along the road.  The wind howled down the chimney and around the eaves of the house like the voice of a drifting soul.  The old keeper’s dog in the corner, a fine mastiff, raised his head and growled.  Then as if to make sure that no one was prowling about, he paced the floor and sniffed the air before stretching himself out again.

At last when I got up and put on my hat, as if to go, the old keeper took a lantern from the wall, and motioning for me to follow, led me out doors and up a path between the graves.  The dog trailed at my heels.  Over rock by-paths, for a considerable distance, I followed the limping form.  Now and then a stone, unseen in the dim light almost sent me stumbling to my knees.  Suddenly the light from the lantern splashed the rusted, iron door of a tomb, which the old keeper, without any fumbling, unlocked and pulled open with a grating sound.  Then we stepped in and stood before a crypt, and this is what was chiseled in the stone:–

“Amelia, the betrothed of Henry

Died March 15, 1860″

Beneath this inscription, was another one, carved evidently, by a rough hand:

Henry, the betrothed of Amelia

Died March 15, 1860.

I kept the punctuation exactly as it appeared in the original, even where there might have been small errors.  As of this posting, I was unable to find any other occurrence of this story on the internet.  If you’re interested in reading more, I did find a brief overview of Fiswoode Tarleton’s life, as well as a complete copy of his book of short stories, “Bloody Ground, A Cycle of the Southern Hills,” thanks to the wonderful Google Books Library Project. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s