I contend that enjoyment of churchyards in no way indicates morbidity of mind. Indeed I find pleasantly absorbing these testimonies to the qualities of the unknown dead — generations of beloved husbands and devoted wives, of men who were people’s sons, of names that were mothers to men.
Which all goes to explain how I came to be wandering round the churchyard of a hamlet named — I think — White Rose Hill one spring evening. And there I found the perfect tomb, a monument so unusual that it took away my breath.
There in a quiet corner was the headstone whose story I shall never forget. It was unusual because it bore lettering not only upon its face, but also upon its back. And the words were oddly contradictory. Let me quote them straight away. “Here Lies,” read the inscription upon the stone’s face, “all that is mortal of Mary Gray, who passed away on May 3rd, 1890. In gentleness and virtue, in kindliness and calm, there breathed none like her. Pious, charitable and meek, she moved among those who loved her with tolerance and mercy. She never spoke an unkind word or did an unjust act. In lowliness and humility she passed her days, beloved by all, an example to everyone who crossed her path.” There followed the Initials, “G.T.”
* * * * *
On passing behind the stone I saw the other inscription, which ran as follows: “To the memory of Mary Gray from. A.T. She was free as a linnet, happy as a lark. Her world was laughter, and laughter was Mary. May these qualities never lie forgotten, the virtue of gay carelessness, the delight of her changing day.”
“You’ll be wondering about Mary Gray, I daresay,” said a voice, and there he stood, a greybeard with a scythe, the very spirit of all graveyard tidiers.
“Certainly, I am—I daresay, for that, most strangers do.”
“Ah,” he said, “that they do. That gravestone stands as a lesson to people that don’t persevere—and it shows that it doesn’t pay in this life to take too much account of your moods. I always tell folks to be themselves and not let other folks influence them. Human beings can do terrible things to other human beings, just by being around in their lives.”
“Then tell me the story of Mary Gray,” I begged him.
He stared for a moment or two at the headstone in silence. Then he told me her tale.
She was a pleasant enough, pretty enough girl, daughter of a small farmer of the parish. There was nothing, it appeared, really very much to Mary Gray.
“What’s more, nobody’d’ve ever remembered Mary Gray if it hadn’t been for that headstone—unless, of course, it was Peter Monk,” said the old man. “Peter and she was always about together as kiddies, birds-nesting, spinning their tops, helping with the harvest, and getting into scrapes. In fact, there wasn’t a person in White Rose Hill that didn’t see them two walking to altar as inevitably as they both had to die one day. It seemed the natural thing for them to do. And sure enough, when they got to an age when folks stop spinning tops and think about other things, they began to step out together.”
Nothing could have been more pleasingly normal, than the courtship of these two—their relationship was as soft as spring weather, and doubtless they would have walked to the altar after the appropriate time had the Tenby brothers not chosen to arrive in White Rose.
These were strange chaps, Ambrose and Gideon Tenby, the one a blithe, downright spirit always singing and chaffing, the other a solemn crag of a man with grey, staring eyes that were inclined to make the ordinary mortal turn from them after a while.
They came to labour on Cranham’s Farm, and within a week all White Rose Hill was wondering about them.
* * * * *
Ambrose spent evening after evening in the public house, Gideon Sunday after Sunday in church. Ambrose looked with gay insolence at the village girls. Gideon passed them by, his eyes straight before him.
“They were mighty queer chaps, I tell you, sir,” declared the ancient, “and I ought to know, as I seen ’em often and knew ’em well. Characters, both, and influences—yes, influences in the village and influences on Mary Gray. That’s what I mean when I said that about folks having to be themselves in this life. Folks found it hard to be themselves with Gideon and Ambrose Tenby—ordinary folks, that is.”
“You don’t tell me that she fell in love with them both?” I demanded.
He stared very hard at me for a moment, and then he said: “That’s what I was coming to. She did, and she didn’t. Truth was, Mary Gray was swept away. She’d never met their ilk before, and she was an ordinary girl, you’ll understand me; just an ordinary country girl who’d been walking out with Peter Monk, who was an ordinary country lad.”
“Then first Gideon, then Ambrose Tenby starts in on Mary—and she doesn’t know what to think. There’s Gideon, with his grey eyes, sitting in the front parlour with his hands on his knees, talking about books and learning and the Bible. Then there’s Ambrose, swinging his leg over the garden gate, whistling under her window like a blackbird, telling her to come down and walk with him to Potter Hill and look for faeries.”
It all bore out the old man’s contention that folks could think themselves in love with any number of folks provided they, the other folks, carried on enough and had enough character. Peter Monk, it appeared, had no character to match the Tenby brothers. He was far from gormless, but he was ordinary. The long and the short of it was that Peter dropped out of the running, and Mary did little to stop him.
* * * * *
Mary herself fell under the spell of the two brothers. One day she thought she could never live any way but quietly and seriously with Gideon Tenby. The next day it was the insolent challenge of Ambrose’s whistle that set her heart beating and her head singing.
Mary Gray was gay, and Mary Gray was grave—Mary Gray craved pious calm, and Mary Gray wanted to dance over the hills and faraway. And, tormented, she could not make up her mind to marry either.
“It was a very queer business.” said the greybeard. “And on the whole, I sorely blame Peter Monk for not carrying on his own suit. As it was, he was scared of two folks who had strong characters, and he couldn’t bear to see the pair of them wooing Mary, and he took himself off out of the district.
“The other folks said he was wrong, said he ought to have persevered, him and Mary belonging to the community and being friends all their lives, and the Tenby brothers being strangers. But he hadn’t the heart. The village saw Mary with a spell cast over her, and it begged Peter Monk to stand up for himself, and carry Mary off in a natural, normal way.
“But Peter hadn’t the heart—he was ordinary, you see. Mary was ordinary, too, but she was a woman, and the brothers were men, and there was influence, you understand.”
Well, it appeared that a short while later both Mary’s parents died, and when this happened the brothers were after her harder than ever. But she couldn’t make up her poor mind, and she longed for what she did not recognise as just ordinary love with someone ordinary like Peter Monk. She couldn’t deal with the Tenbys’ dramatics—but they moved her as an impressionable audience is moved by an emotional play.
* * * * *
To cut short a story that went on for another year, Mary Gray grew ill, an illness that was aggravated by doubts and indecision and fear. And just a year after the death of her parents she died herself.
The brothers themselves raised the headstone of her grave, and each had inscribed on it his picture of Mary Gray.
“But, you see, they were both wrong,” said the old man. “Mary Gray wasn’t any of the things that they set down about her. She was influenced, that’s all, by each of them in turn. At heart she was just —Mary Gray. And she ought to have married Peter Monk who hadn’t any ideas about her like them two had, and who just loved Mary Gray, whom he used to spin tops with and take birds-nesting.”
“In about a year’s time, what’s more, he came back, Peter Monk did, not knowing what had happened, wondering to himself if his Mary Gray had married or remained single.”
“The queerest part of the story is that he claimed he had seen her,” added the storyteller. “Not more than a few months before.”
“Mary?” I asked. “But surely she was—”
“Dead —Yes, quite dead, sir.”
Suddenly a cold, algid sweat breached my forehead, and I looked down to find my hand unconsciously brushing itself against the headstone.
“Peter had told folk that he had been overseas. One particular night, following a day where Mary had dominated his thoughts, he had pushed out from harbour and, in that very moment, he had seen a faint white thing moving along the promenade . It had caught him by surprise and presenting itself as such an unusual sight, he had at once rested his oars and stared towards the shore. Straining his eyes, he began to make out the shape of a woman — and no ordinary woman, for it had taken on the shape of his past love—Mary.”
“Good God!” I exclaimed. “What on earth did the man do?”
“That night not a great deal, for as soon as he had called out her name she had vanished without a trace, without having uttered a word. But soon after, he made up his mind that he would return to White Rose Hill, to seek out Mary.”
“And what he found was this headstone, and the Tenbys gone.”
“He stood reading the two inscriptions, and after a while he shook his head. His Mary Gray wasn’t there. He stood by her grave, and remembered her, the way her soft eyes looked away from his shy ones, the quiet sound of her voice as she talked. She was ordinary, and he was ordinary, and they ought to have been married and had ordinary kids, if you get my meaning, sir.”
He stopped, and then, bending down, he pulled aside the heavy ivy that overgrew the lower end of Mary Gray’s grave. “That was Mary Gray,” he said, and pointed to the crude letters, roughly chipped on the low stone. They read: “Here lies my lovely Mary—Peter.”
“And Peter Monk carved that himself?” I asked.
“With my own hands,” said the old man, “of moonlight nights—three years it took me. I don’t know why I loved her, sir. I just loved Mary. I blame myself bitterly, bitterly. If I’d persevered, and hadn’t been scared—but I knew the truth of her, sir, and I keep it private, not to give away the secret, under these ivy leaves.”
“And her ghost? — what you had seen by the water?”
“Just a place she had longed to go,” sighed the old man. “That little girl inside her, just retreating to her favourite place.”