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The road was across an open country. The hills which skirted the western horizon were wooded to their summits; only one massive peak of bare rock rose above the fringe of trees and stood out strong and almost black against the evening sky. The valley through which I was driving was very rich and fruitful. The farms were well kept, the farmhouses neat and comfortable, the barns and outhouses indicating by their appearance the thrifty character of the agricultural population. There was for several miles no house which did not stand in a group of trees, whose great trunks and spreading branches were proof of considerable age in the home location under their shade. At length I came where on each side of the road was a row of elms, large old trees, and soon to a group of houses. The road widened and parted into two roads, with a broad green between them. The elms were more abundant, scattered here and there on the green. A small church, with rows of horse-sheds behind it, a house which could not be mistaken for any other than the parsonage, a store in front of which hung the sign "Post-office," and about a dozen other houses formed the village.
Before we reached the church the road passed the church-yard. A low stone-wall separated it from the road-side foot-path. It was easy, as the horses walked, to read the inscriptions on many headstones. It is always interesting to do this, for the mere sake of the names, both the surnames and the Christian names. I have given you lists of peculiar names thus perpetuated, which I have found in country graveyards. One acquires the habit of catching a name quickly, even at a distance and on a discolored stone. So as we passed along I read aloud one and another and another name, most of them old Bible names, now and then a strange name, doubtless a home invention.
I read aloud Samuel, Hepzibah, Bezaleel, Marina, Isaiah, Ichabod, Ignotus —, and as I read the last name I said "Whoa" to the horses. Surely that could not be a man's name. I leaped over the low wall and went to the grave which was near it. The stone was a low, black-slate slab, on which green and gray lichens were growing in such density that the original color was invisible except near the top where the slab was cleaned, evidently with care, so as to leave the word "Ignotus" plainly legible. And there was no other word on the stone.
Of course I was interested in this; and you will readily imagine the succession of thoughts which it aroused. At first I took it to be the grave of one who, possibly knowing of the celebrated Miserimus inscription, had directed the expression of utmost humility to be placed over his ashes. While I was pondering on this an elderly gentleman came along the road, and seeing where I was standing, paused at the wall. As I looked up he fixed his eyes on me with an expression which said as plainly as words could say, "You would like to know what that inscription means?" I took him at his word — or at his eyes — and said, "Can you tell me anything about this stone?"
"Everything about the stone," was the reply, "very little about the dust that lies below it."
"Then no one knows whose grave this is?"
"Precisely so. The inscription and the grave-mound together tell all that can be told. The mound is long. The inscription is in the masculine. The two tell you that an unknown man lies below."
"May I ask who ordered the stone and the inscription — for I fancy most if not all the other inscriptions here are in the English language?"
"Yes, most of them; not always the best of English. I had this stone cut and set here. The stone-cutter didn't understand it. As a rule the people around here don't know what it means. Pardon me. I should introduce myself. I am the pastor of these people. Most of the sleepers hereabouts were of my flock. The living are my care now. These are in God's care."
"And this man — he was not of your flock, I take it?"
"No and yes. If the shepherd find a stray sheep in ill condition, he should surely care for the poor beast, and make it one of his flock till it goes to its master. So it was with this man and myself. He came into the village one dark night forty years ago. He was ragged, dirty, old. There was a tavern then over yonder. The landlord found him lying on the ground in front of his door. He was a good Samaritan, my old friend Hezekiah Bolter; yonder is his grave. God give him rest! He took the man in and sent for the doctor, and the doctor sent for me. But the man was past help from either of us. He showed no signs of consciousness until after some powerful stimulus which the doctor administered. Then he murmured a little. But he never opened his eyes. We stayed by him for hours. His murmurs took the form of short sentences, and these sentences were Latin. When they were complete I recognized some of them. They were familiar passages, now from Virgil, now Horace, now Juvenal. Were these memories of his boyhood, or were they the utterances of a mind familiar, as a teacher's might be, with the Latin authors used in schools and colleges? We did not discuss the matter then, but much afterwards; and while the doctor maintained that the man was probably a teacher, I held to the theory that he was recalling memories, quoting passages which he had not thought of for years. We had, neither of us, anything on which to base our arguments; which is all the better for freedom of discussion. He died before morning. There was nothing in the pockets of his ragged clothing. We could learn nothing about him, and there was nothing to do but to bury him. I ordered the stone; the doctor paid for it."
Such was in brief, almost in full, the narrative which the good old man gave me, as we walked along to the gate by the side of the church, he on the outside, I on the inside of the wall. We met at the gate, and I ventured there to take his hand. The words he had spoken were a simple story, but there was a quaintness and earnestness in his tones which had quite won me. I am not sure that there are many pastors now (I know there is one) whom you would expect to hear of as staying all night by the side of a dying pauper, hoping for one interval of consciousness wherein he might give to the poor soul light for the dark road on which it was travelling. I ventured somewhat more, after I had taken his hand. I said, "And when you buried him you prayed for him."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because just now you prayed for the repose of the soul of Hezekiah Bolter."
"Ah, so I did; and so I do very often. What would be the lonesomeness, what would be the intolerable bereavement of this life of mine, of life in this world for you or me or any one, if we believed the dead were all gone out of the universe of God, out of his reach, into an unknown domain where they do not need a God, and prayer is vain. I have been in the cure of souls here for almost fifty years. The catalogue of those for whom it has been my duty to labor and to pray is larger on these stones and in these unmarked graves than in my list of the living. I never gave them up while they were here. I never gave up praying for them when they went out of the reach of my care."
"And it seems to me you care somewhat for their graves. I suppose it is your care which has kept that word 'Ignotus' so legible."
"Yes. I have never passed that grave without saying to myself, 'Ignotus, Ignotus; who was he, who is he, where did he go? I don't know, but God knows. Lord have mercy on him!' "
As I drove on in the gathering twilight I considered what I had heard. There was something very pathetic in the story of the ragged wanderer who had left all that had been his in some part of the world and died unknown. But it is much the same with all of us. It is only a question of time how soon the memory of every man's name and the place of his burial will be forgotten. If you look back two hundred years you will astonish yourself by finding how few graves of the dead of two centuries ago are known by monument. If you go back a thousand years the number is very small. If you seek the graves of mighty men or renowned women of the more ancient time, say three thousand years ago, you will find, except in Egypt, few if any besides the cave of Machpelah at Hebron and the tomb of Rachel on the way-side between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
And the names of men are forgotten. They are merged in other and strange sounds. It is not at all certain that our pronunciation of those which have been handed down to us in phonetic characters is remotely correct For all purposes of identification you might as well call the great Macedonian Smith or Thompson as Alexander, pronouncing the word "Alexander" as moderns pronounce it. The Saracens call it Iskander. They are as near right as we are. But it is not alone the names which vanish. The greater the man the more certain it is that a doubting generation will arise who will pronounce the name and the man creatures of imagination, pure myths. Homer has but a shadowy existence as a person. The greatest name in history is that of Moses, giver of laws not only to Israel but to the whole race of civilized men to-day. And there are plenty of men of this age in which folly flourishes, who deny that there ever was a Moses. So the time may come when Washington will be the name of a shadow as unsubstantial as that of William Tell, and men will find in the fact that many peoples have legends of great and good leaders satisfactory evidence that no one of them ever had such a leader in veritable flesh.