THE TAILOR’S SISTER’S TOMBSTONE

I was on the hill over against the village where my friend the tailor
lived, and was preparing to descend into the valley to inquire the
whereabouts of his cottage, when one of those sharp summer storms came
on, the sky being darkened as if a hand had drawn a curtain across it,
and the entire village lit by a vivid, unnatural light, like limelight
in its intensity.

Turning about, as the first great drops fell, to look for shelter, I
spied a rough shed by the wayside, shut in on three sides with gorse,
wattle and mud, and roofed over with heather thatch. Into this I
scuttled and found a comfortable seat on a sack placed on a pile of
hurdles.

It was evidently a place used by a shepherd for a store-house of the
implements of his craft. At the back of a shed was one of those houses
on wheels shepherds use in the lambing season; besides this were
hurdles, sacks, several rusty tins, and a very rusty oil-stove. All very
primitive, and possessed of a nice earthy smell. It gave me a sudden
desire to be a shepherd.

Looking down into the valley I saw men running for shelter, hastily
pulling their coats over their shoulders as they ran. In a field on the
far side of the valley they were carting Wheat, and I saw two men
quickly unhitch the cart horses, and lead them away to some place hidden
from me by trees.

The village was buried in orchards, and lay along the bank of a quickly
running river that caught a glint of the weird light here and there
between the trees like a path of shining silver. A squat church tower
stuck up among the red roofs.

For a moment the scene shone in the fierce light, then the low growling
thunder broke into a tremendous crash, and the light was gone in an
instant. Then the rain blotted out everything.

The hiss of the rain on the dry heather thatch over my head was good
enough company, and it was added to, soon, by the entrance of seven
swallows that flew into my shelter and sat twittering on a beam just
inside the opening. Then came an inky darkness, broken violently by a
blare of lightning as if some hand had rent the dark curtain across in a
rage. A great torn jagged edge of blue-white light streamed across the
valley, showing everything in wet, glistening detail.

Only that morning I had been reading by the wayside an account of a
storm in the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini. It came very pat for the day.
It was at the time when Cellini rode from Paris carrying two precious
vases on a mule of burden, lent him to go as far as Lyons, by the Bishop
of Pavia. When they were a day’s journey from Lyons, it being almost ten
o’clock at night, such a terrific storm burst upon them that Cellini
thought it was the day of judgment. The hailstones were the size of
Lemons; and the event caused him to sing psalms and wrap his clothes
about his head. All the trees were broken down, all the cattle deprived
of life, and a great many shepherds were killed.

I was still engaged in picturing this when the sky above me grew
lighter, the rain fell less heavily, and, in a very short time, all that
was left of the storm was a distant sound as of a giant murmuring, a
dark blot of rain cloud on the distant hills, and the ceaseless patter
of dripping trees. The sun shone out and showed the village and
landscape all fresh and shining. Then, as I looked, against the dark
bank of distant clouds, a rainbow arched in glorious colours, one step
of the arch on the hills tailing into mist, and one in the corn field
below. The sight of the rainbow with its wonderful beauty, and its great
message of hope thrilled me, as it always does. I do not care what the
scientist tells me of its formation: he has not added one atom to my
feeling, with all his knowledge. It remains for me the sign of God’s
compact with man.

“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make
between me and you, and every living creature that is with you,
for perpetual generations.

“I set my bow in a cloud, and it shall be for a token of a
covenant between me and the earth.

“And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth,
that the bow shall be seen in the cloud.

“And I will remember my covenant which is between me and you,
and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no
more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

“And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it,
that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and
every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

I learnt to love that when I was a child, and being still, in many ways,
the same child, I look upon a rainbow and think of God remembering his
covenant: and it makes me very happy.

Now as the storm was over, and I had no further excuse for stopping in
my shelter, I took my knapsack again on to my shoulder and walked down,
across two fields of grass, round the high hedges of two orchards, and
came out into the road in the valley, about two hundred yards distant
from the village church. It was about four of the afternoon.

I was about to turn towards the village to ask my best way to the
tailor’s cottage, when who should turn the bend of the road but the
tailor himself with all the air of looking for some one.

I grasped him warmly by the hand, and he held mine in a good grip like
the good fellow he was, saying, “I was looking about for you, sir,
thinking you might have forgotten my direction” (as indeed, I had), “and
knowing you would most likely go to the village to inquire, I was on my
way there.”

As we turned to walk down the road away from the church, the tailor
informed me his sister was all agog to see me, but very nervous that I
might think theirs too poor a place to put up with, and she had, at the
last moment, implored him to take me to the inn instead.

The affection I had gained for the little man in my few hours’ talk with
him made me certain I should be happy in his company, and I laughed at
his fears.

“Why, man,” said I, “I have walked a good hundred miles to see you, do
you think it likely I shall turn away at the last minute?”

“There,” cried the tailor, “I told her so. She’s a small body, you’ll
understand, sir, and gets worried at times.”

We turned a corner and I saw before me one of the prettiest cottages I
have ever seen. A low, sloping roof of thatch, golden brown where it had
been mended, rich brown and green in the older part. The body of the
cottage was white, with a fine tree of Cluster Roses, the Seven Sisters,
I think it is called, growing over the porch and on the walls. The
garden was one mass of bloom, a wonderful garden—as artists say, “juicy”
with colour. Standard Roses, Sweet Williams, Hollyhocks, patches of
Violas, Red Hot Pokers, Japanese Anemones, a hedge of Sweet Peas “all
tip-toe for a flight” as Keats has it, clumps of Dahlias just coming
out, with red pots on sticks to catch the earwigs; an old Lavender
hedge, grey-green. A rain butt painted green; round a corner, three
blue-coloured beehives; and all about, such flowers—I could not mention
half of them. Bushes of Phlox, for instance; and great brown-eyed
Sunflowers cracked across with wealth of seed; and tall spikes of
Larkspur like the summer skies: and Carnations couched in their grey
grass or tied to sticks. A worn brick pathway leading through it all.

The tailor watched the effect on me anxiously.

I stood with one hand on the gate and drank in the beauty of it. Set, as
the place was, in a bower of orchards, it looked like a jewelled nest, a
place out of a fairy tale, everything complete. The diamond panes of the
windows with neat muslin curtains behind them, with fine Geraniums in
very red pots on the window-sill, were like friendly eyes beaming
pleasantly at the passing world. To a tired traveller making his way
upon that road, such a sight would bring delight to his eyes, and cause
him, most certainly, to pause before the glad garden. If he were a
romantic man he would take off his hat, as men do abroad to a wayside
Calvary, in honour of the peace that dwelt over all.

Like a rich illuminated page the garden glowed among the trees—like a
jewel of many colours it shone in its velvet nest.

The tailor could restrain himself no longer. He said, “As neat as
anything you’ve seen, sir?”

“Perfect,” said I. “As much as a man could want.”

He walked before me down the garden path and called, “Rose,” through the
open door.

In another minute I was shaking hands with the tailor’s sister.

In appearance she was as spotlessly clean as her muslin curtains. She
was a tiny woman of about forty-five, very quick in her movements, with
a little round red face and very bright blue eyes. She wore, in my
honour, a black silk dress, and a black silk apron and a large cornelian
brooch at her neck.

“Pray step inside, sir,” she said throwing open the door of the parlour.

When I was seated at tea with these people I kept wondering where they
had learnt the refinement and taste everywhere exhibited. For one thing
the few family possessions were good, and there was no tawdry rubbish. A
grandfather clock, its case shining with polishing, ticked comfortably
in one corner of the room. An old-fashioned sofa filled the window
space. We sat upon Windsor chairs with our feet on a rag carpet. Most of
the household gods were over or upon the mantelpiece, most prominent
among which was a really fine landscape, hung in the centre. I inquired
whose work this might be.

One had only to look in the direction of any object to get its history
from the tailor.

“I bought that, sir,” he said, when I was looking at the picture, “of a
man near Norwich. It cost me half a crown.”

“Three shillings,” said the sister. Then to me, “He takes a sixpence
off, now and again, sir, because he’s jealous of my bargains; aren’t
you, Tom?”

Tom smiled at her and winked at me. “She will have her bit of fun,” he
said.

“But it’s a fine picture,” said I.

“Proud to have you say so,” he answered; “I like it, and the man didn’t
seem to care about it. He was going to the Colonies and parting with a
lot of odds and ends. I bought the brass candlesticks off him at the
same time—a shilling.”

I could see why the little man liked the picture, for the same reason I
liked it myself. It was of the Norwich School, a broad open landscape
painted with care and finish of detail, and with much of the charming
falsity of light common among certain pictures of that time. On the left
was a cottage whose garden gave on to the road, a cottage almost buried
under two great trees. The road wound past, out of the shadows of the
trees, and vanished over a hill. The middle distance showed a great
expanse of country dotted with trees with the continuation of the road
running through the vale until it was lost in a wood. A sky of banked up
clouds hung over all. Right across the middle of the picture was a
wonderfully painted gleam of sunlight, flicking trees, meadows, and the
road into bright colours; the rest of the picture being subdued to give
this effect. Up the road, coming towards the cottage, was a small man in
a three-cornered hat, knee breeches, and long skirted coat. This figure
dated the picture a little earlier than I had at first thought it.

“That’s me,” said the tailor, pointing to the figure. “That’s what Rose
said as soon as I brought it home, ‘Why that’s you, Tom.’”




“I did, sir, that’s just what I said. ‘Why Tom, that’s you,’ I said.”

“And so it is,” said the tailor.

Half a crown! Few of us are rich enough in taste to have bought it.

After tea I begged leave to see the garden. “And, Miss Rose,” I said,
“to hear about the tombstone, please.”

She put her small fat hands to her face and laughed and laughed. “He’s
been and told you that, sir? Well, I never did!”

[Illustration: A COTTAGE GARDEN.]

We went out of the back door and into a second flower garden rivalling
the one in front for a display of colour. There, sure enough, stood the
tombstone, grey and upright, planted in a bed of flowers. They seemed to
hurl themselves at the grim object, wave upon wave of coloured joy
washing the feet of the emblem of Death.

“There she is,” said the tailor’s sister proudly.

“Please tell me about it,” said I, wondering at her cheerfulness.

“You see, sir,” she began, “before Tom and I came into our fortune, and
got rich——”

Multi-millionaires, I thought, could you but hear that! But they were
rich—as rich as any one could be. The flowers in the garden were worth a
kingdom.

“—We used to wonder what we’d do if we ever had a bit of money. Of
course, we never dreamed of anything like this.” Her eyes wandered
proudly over her possessions.

“Yes,” said the tailor, joining in. “Our best dreams never came near
this. I’d seen such places, but never thought to live in one, much less
own one.”

“Well, you see, sir,” said his sister taking up the thread of her story,
“there was one thing I’d always set my mind on—a nice place to lie in
when I was dead. I had a horror of cemeteries, great ugly places, as you
might say, with the tombstones sticking up like almonds in a tipsy cake
pudding, and a lot of dirty children playing about. I lived for ten
years in London, in a room that overlooked one, a most dingy place I
called it. I couldn’t bear to think I’d be popped in with a crowd,
anyhow. Now, a churchyard in the country—that’s quite different.”

“I’d a great fancy for a spot I knew in Kent,” said the tailor. “Dark
Yew trees all round one side, and Daisies over everything, and a seat
near by for people to rest on, coming early to church.”

“Go on, Tom,” said his sister lovingly. “Ar’n’t you satisfied with what
you’ve got?”

He turned to me after putting his arm through his sister’s. “We’ve got
our piece of ground,” he said cheerfully. “I’m going to be planted next
to her, on the left of the church door—well, it’s as good a place as
you’d find anywhere, and people coming out of church will notice us
easily. I’d like to be thought of, after I’m gone.”

Death held no terrors for these people, it seemed, they talked so
happily of it, made such delightful plans to welcome it; robbed it of
all its gloom and horror, its false trappings, its dingy grandeur.

There was a flaunting Red Admiral sunning its wings on the tombstone.

“I never thought,” said the sister, “I should find just what I wanted by
accident. Isn’t it lovely?”

It certainly had a beauty of its own. It was a copy of an early
eighteenth century tombstone, the top in three arches, the centre arch
large, and round, ending in carved scroll work. In the centre of the
arch a cherub was carved, very fat and smiling, with wings on either
side of his head. Then, in good deep-cut lettering, were the words:

SACRED TO THE MEMORY
OF
ROSE BRANDLE

Both these curious people looked at me as I read the lettering. Arm in
arm they looked nice, cheerful, loving friends, a good deal like one
another in the face, very gay and homely, and with a certain sparkling
brightness, like the flowers they loved. To see them standing there
proudly, smiling at the grey tombstone, smiling at me, under the sun, in
the garden so full of life and of growing healthy things, gave me a
sensation that Death was present in friendly guise, a constant welcome
companion to my new friends, and a pleasant image even to myself.

“Second-hand,” said the tailor’s sister, “all except the name, and he
put that in for me at a penny the letter: that came to elevenpence, so I
gave him a shilling to make an even sum.”

“A guinea, as it stands,” said the tailor.

“You like it, sir?” asked his sister anxiously.

“On the contrary,” said I, “I admire it enormously.”

“As soon as I saw it,” she said, “I fell in love with it. It was
standing at the back of the yard among a heap of stones. The sun was
shining on it, and I said to myself, ‘If that’s cheap, it’s as good as
mine.’ The man had cut it out years ago as an advertisement to put in
the front of the yard, and it had a bit of paper pasted on it with his
terms and what not—Funerals in the best style. Distance no object—and
that sort of thing. I asked the price of it and he told me ‘One pound.’
‘Cheap,’ I said, and he told me how ’twas so, since people nowadays like
broken urns and pillars or something plainer, and had given up cherubs,
and death-heads and suchlike. So I put down the money, and he popped it
on a waggon that was coming back this way with a small load of Hay, and
Tom put it up for me in the garden. Now I can die happy, sir.”

I asked her if she had no feelings about Death, and if the idea of
leaving her garden and her cottage was not strange to her.

She replied, in the simplest way possible, being a cheerful religious
woman without a particle of sham in her nature, that when God called her
she was ready and glad to go, and as for the garden she would only go to
another one—far more beautiful.

Her faith, I found afterwards, was of a sweet simple kind, and had been
with her as a child, and remained with her as a woman, untouched by the
least doubt. She heard Mass every morning of her life in the little
church half a mile away, and spoke in loving and familiar tones of her
favourite saints as being friends of hers, though in a higher station of
life. Included in her ideas of heaven was a very distinct belief that
there would be many beautiful flowers and birds, and the pleasure with
which she looked forward to seeing them—in a humble way, as if she might
be one of a crowd in a Public Garden—gave her a quiet dignity and charm,
the equal of which I have seldom met. Her brother, who was always
marvelling at her, had, also, some of her dignity, but a wider, freer
view of things, and the natural gaiety of a bird.

The next morning, as soon as I woke in the fresh clean bedroom they had
made ready for me, I sprang from my bed and went to look out of the
window. The dew was sparkling on the flowers, and their scent came up
sweet and strong; a tubful of Mignonette, at which the bees were busy,
was especially fragrant. As I looked, the tailor’s sister came into the
garden, in a neat lavender-coloured print dress; she carried a missal in
one hand, and a rosary swung in the other. She stood opposite to her
tombstone for a minute, her lips moving softly, and then, after turning
her pleasant face towards the wealth of flowers about her, she bowed
deeply, as if saluting the morning. A little time later I heard the gate
of the front garden swing and shut, and I knew she had gone to hear
Mass.

The garden was left alone, busy in its quiet way; growing, dying,
perpetuating its kind. The bees were industriously singing as they
worked; lordly butterflies danced rigadoons and ravanes over the
flowers; a thrush, after a long hearty tug at a fat worm, swallowed it,
and then, perching on the tombstone, poured out its joy in full clear
notes. And Death was cheated of his sting.