Hollyhocks by Florence Finch Kelly

Green and peaceful, the long, low undulations of the prairie sea of southern Kansas spread away to the horizon in lines as graceful and pleasing as those of a reclining Venus. Here and there against a hillside the emerald waves broke in a bright foam of many-colored flowers. In all that vast extent over which I could look, there was visible no living creature save the tiny furred and feathered things whose home it was. The soft prairie wind blew caressingly against my cheek and seemed to whisper in my ear: "Why do men cling to the boisterous, cruel, lying sea as the emblem of freedom? Is not here beauty that allures with freedom's own charms? Is not here freedom herself, serene, smiling, constant, and blessed with a blessedness the sea knows not?"

The prairie wind blew the freedom it sang of into my heart, and it dwelt there with joy and exultation as I drove on and on over the waves of that smiling emerald sea. I salved my eyes, wearied and scorched by brick walls and city pavements, with those long, swinging reaches of green, and their silent benediction filled and soothed my very soul.

At last, when the low-lying hills began to cast cool shadows down their eastern slopes, there appeared against the velvet green of the distance the sprawling blotch of a little town, ugly, naked, and unashamed in its bustling newness. And nearer, by a mile or more, on a green slope which caught the golden-red rays of the sinking sun, was a little enclosure, naked and ugly as the town itself, but silent and awe-inspiring with the silence and awe of death. A barbed-wire fence enclosed it, and the prairie turf still covered much of its space. There were here no sunken mounds, no reeling headstones, no discolored marbles. The grave heaps were trimly rounded, the wooden crosses which marked most of them grinned their newness, and the few headstones and monuments shone upstartishly white in the sun. Barren of that curtain of verdure with which love strives to conceal the footprints of death, the little cemetery lay there against the green hillside like some fresh, gaping, ghastly wound in the face of a loved one.

One grave stood out startlingly from the rest. On the others only an infrequent trailing vine or a faded bunch of flowers told of loving effort to cover death's nakedness. But this one, which lay in the centre of the enclosure, was covered from headstone to foot-cross with a dense growth of hollyhocks. Their tall shafts were clothed with a luxuriance of vivid red bloom, as if they had sucked into their petals the life blood of the sleeper below. In the level red sun-rays they glowed with lusty contempt of the silent impotence beneath them.

A woman in a white dress, with her hands full of the red hollyhock blooms, walked between the graves down to the barred gate and came out upon the road as I drove up. I recognized her as the woman whose acquaintance I had made in the train a few days previously, and in whose company I had travelled from Chicago hither. She had been a pleasant chance acquaintance—intelligent, gentle, and refined.

"Will you ride back to town with me?" I said.

She accepted the offer of the seat beside me, carefully holding her flowers.

"How odd that grave looks with its marshalled array of hollyhocks!" I said, by way of opening conversation, for she sat there silent. "What a peculiar taste, to adorn a loved one's last resting-place in that way!"

She looked up at me silently, and I noticed that her eyes were hollow, and her face sad. Then she turned toward the graveyard and the tall red hollyhocks standing out so vividly in the sunset glow, and said quietly:

"It is my mother's grave. I planted the hollyhocks upon it."

She was silent again, looking sadly and tenderly at the flowers in her lap, but presently she went on:

"I do not mind telling you why I did it. Perhaps talking about it will lessen the heaviness of my heart. No one but my sister knows why I planted them there, and she has never seen the grave, nor have I seen her, since our mother died. When we were young girls at home, our mother loved hollyhocks. She had the yard filled with great clumps of them. We were away at school for a few years and when we went home again they quite horrified our advanced, young ladyish taste. We thought them vulgar, and between ourselves we fretted and scolded about them and declared to each other that they were horrid, and that we were ashamed to have any one visit us while those great, ugly, coarse things filled the yard. We apologized for them to visitors and said they were mother's flowers, but we hated them. And after a while we complained about them to mother and said before her how common and coarse and old-fashioned they were. And she, dear, gentle soul, said not a word, but looked sadly out at the flowers she loved so well and had cared for so long and so tenderly. And one day, after we had fretted and worried her a long time about them, she said to us—I can see yet how she tried to smile and disguise the sadness in her heart—that we might dig up all the hollyhocks and plant other flowers in their places. And we did. It stabs me to the heart now to think of it,—but we did it joyfully.

"After we were married and went away from home—my sister to London and I to Chicago—our mother came here to this town and soon died. In the sorrow of that time, when first I knew how much and how tenderly I loved her, I remembered about the hollyhocks, and at last realized how brutally thoughtless and unfeeling we had been. So, in shame and remorse, I did the one little thing that was all I could do, and covered the grave of our dear, patient, gentle, saint-like mother with the flowers she loved the best of all, but which we had not let her gladden her life with. I do not pretend to know whether or not there is a hereafter, or whether there is anything more of her than what lies under those red flowers back there. But often I wish—oh, how I wish!—that it may be so, and that from somewhere her spirit may look down and see and be pleased by the atonement I have tried to make!

"I wrote to my sister what I had done, and I found that she also felt as I did about it. Every summer I come here and see that the hollyhocks grow and flourish as we wish them to; and, at her request, I gather and send to her some of the blooms. These in my lap are for that purpose, and two weeks from now she will be weeping over them in her London home. If we could only have known—then—how we should feel about it now!"