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Advent: The Stranger at the Cross Roads

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 10, 2012

From the Relief Society Magazine, February 1927 –

The Stranger at the Cross Roads

By Gladys Stewart Bennion

Mary Dorsey drew about her a filmy white scarf, as she mingled her gray, diminutive person with the falling snow. Her high shoes sank deep in the driftless mass of white, and she hurried down the trackless garden path to the letter box just beyond the gate. It was quite a distance from the quiet farmhouse with the last leaves of Virginia Creeper vainly resisting the wind, to the gate, but it had been Mary Dorsey’s custom for years now, at intervals to flutter down the garden path and return with a big envelope in her fingers. In her face there was always something divine as she held up and examined that official, stampless envelope. It was Lieutenant Jed’s insurance, his compensation money; his life’s sacrifice and his blood. He had given his all for his country, and now his money the government was sending home to them.

Mary Dorsey reflected upon the bitter years of that earlier war; that war which had marked a great epoch in our civilization. She remembered, as a little girl, those news sheets which brought home tidings of the war, and recalled to mind the song that ran something like this:

“Uncle Abe again is in the presidential chair,
The lovers of our country, by their votes have placed him there.”

And one wish had remained paramount, that she might one day see the Great Lincoln and hear him speak. She had never forgotten the days of his assassination and, as a child, had prayed that she might never grow up to see another such war.

Then, when Jed, her only boy, had joined the colors, she did not weaken, but begged that he might serve his country well, and return in safety back to her; too, she wished for him that he might see his President; that one who had called Jed to the front.

Mary Dorsey closed the door quietly while a shade of color scintillated across her cheek. With a delicacy that was Mary Dorsey’s own, she put the envelope into her big apron pocket, while her husband smiled up at her.

“Lieutenant Jed’s, eh? It comes quite often now, Mary; maybe these scurrying years win out over us old people. There must be quite a sum laid by for him now?”

Then he turned and, seating himself in his round back chair, with its worn silk cushions, began lacing his boots, but not before noting an entire alteration in Mary’s expression.

She stood silently watching her husband. The soles of his shoes were worn through, and there was snow outside. Too, she caught a glimpse of the light gray darns in the darker gray of his coat, and the deepening furrows about his eyes.

She moved toward him and picked up his coat while he shuffled to bring his arms into the worn sleeves. “I must be growing smaller, Mary, as the days go by,” he said, “or else you hold my coat higher than you used to. We shan’t have much of a winter this year. The corn is lightly clad, and we needn’t burn so much coal. This coat isn’t so bad, it’ll last me out this year, Mary. Then if I sell the calves today we’ll get along, we’ll get along somehow!”

He kissed the aged sweetness of her face and went out to harness the team.

Mary took the envelope again from her pocket, and fumbled with the sealed edge.

As Jedediah’s old farm wagon slid into the snowy ruts of the road, Mary opened the door and looked after him. He was sitting on the seat while others passed him by in automobiles! Jedediah turned as if impressed: “I’ll be quite late tonight, Mother, but don’t worry, the road is clear, and the storm is only in its infancy!” Then he chirruped to his horses and was gone.

Mary Dorsey fluffed up the worn silk cushion on Jedediah’s chair; she gathered in the broken bits of shoe string that lay on the floor and put a lump of coal in the hot blast stove. Then she slipped into the little back bedroom and raised the blind. The drawer of the old-fashioned dresser opened noiselessly. Mary sat down on the floor. She took out of that drawer a pair of perfectly good shoes, some felt slippers, fur-lined, a sweater with a white letter in front, and a pair of heavy gloves. Underneath those were some books on mathematics and some old chemistry notes. In the other corner of the drawer was an overcoat. The newest cut in college clothes, all wool, warm and comfortable, but it wasn’t Jedediah’s style, nor, if it had been, Jedediah could never have worn it. Mary folded it away and her tears fell hot among the moth balls. From her pocket she withdrew the big envelope, and, with steady fingers, broke the seal. After looking at the draft it contained, she slipped the empty envelope back inside a pair of perfectly good shoes, along with a score of other papers just like it.

Beside that lonely, unoccupied bed, Mary Dorsey breathed a prayer to heaven for her boy.

Could she only know whether or not he lived. If he were somewhere held a prisoner. If, perhaps, he were a mental wreck, a shell-shocked victim of the war; or if his precious body lay interred in safety within old mother earth?

Could the closing year but bring to her and Jedediah the satisfaction that he was safe, all would be quiet in her soul!

She had determined what to do; nothing should turn her from that purpose, and tomorrow was Christmas Eve.

That night Mary Dorsey’s lean fingers gathered in the few stray parcels that had fallen from her open handbag and lay promiscuously upon the settle of the southbound interurban.

Now and again she wiped the steam from the frost flecked windows with the end of her white silk scarf. She shielded her eyes from the light inside to cast furtive glances at the fleeting patchwork of white that covered the grain fields. She wondered if that racing electric that was eating up the sheeted stubble would ever stop for her at the crossroads. Under her worn beaver cape there was a flutter of something that seemed alive. Long years ago she had felt a like fluttering, a strange sensation! What a throb of joy it had brought to her, what ecstatic delight, for it had meant her boy; her Jed. where was he now? The great officials at Washington didn’t know!

With discriminative fingers Mary felt the left side of her body with the tips of her bare fingers in order that she might keep that lithe thing in place until the cars should shriek out their warning and slow up at the crossroads.

Her big, brown bundle was heavy, and there were several tiny parcels besides. They might so easily slip out of her netted bag and fall into the snow. Mary times Mary Dorsey had come back from town in this electric, but always before Jedediah had been there to welcome her. Tonight she must walk that mile and a half quite alone, but she had left the lights burning in the dining room, and Jedediah would not be home.

Into the calm purple quiet of a winter evening, Mary Dorsey stepped, and the interurban rattled on its way. Her bundles were all carefully guarded and the beaver cape was an excellent place of concealment. Even the huge bundle that she carried in her arms like a child could not be detected. It was a fur-lined overcoat. Jedediah would not yet be home she knew. The semi-fear that had quickened her heart had vanished, but she felt an utter loneliness. She seemed to sense the road ahead an endless stretch of journey in the white twilight, overcast with mauve and gray.

There were no passing automobiles in her direction so nobody was likely to pick her up. How wonderful, she thought, to own a car! There were many old couples in the suburbs, older than she and Jedediah, have their own cars, while her husband jogged along behind his horses. Besides there was no real reason for it. There was plenty of money down in that drawer, inside that pair of Lieutenant Jed’s shoes.

For an instant Mary flushed hotly. Why did she continually think about that money? Was she becoming worldly? It would make Jedediah ashamed of her if he knew, and besides she had opened one of those envelopes this very day. A stubborn unrest hindered her journey. She struggled with the bundles on through the snow. Why should it be wrong to use that money? It was hers and his. It was sent them to be used. If Lieutenant Jed were back, he would see to it that they wanted nothing. His sturdy young power would make them happy, relieve them of worry and care, and give to them, who had so willingly sacrificed for his education, a few of the comforts of life.

Mary Dorsey caught herself talking aloud. She breathed heavier as she spoke and found herself quite exhausted, for the snow was deep and soft, and the night still warm with only a trace of frost in the air.

Darker and darker drew the shades of night around her, and whiter and still more white lay the virgin snow. Mary Dorsey spoke out her longings and her trepidation, while her thoughts ran rampant, and she recalled again those two great wars.

A flash of light fairly blinded her; an auto had come over the hill and two moon-sized orbs shone squarely in her face. In a second it had gone, leaving Mary Dorsey standing quite still. She had dropped a precious bundle which her eyes were unable to see. With a little start she felt the package placed again in the crevice of her arm underneath the beaver cape, and she heard a voice at her side. The voice was very soft and low; it was musical and full of sympathy; familiar it seemed to Mary Dorsey, and in the dimness that enfolded her she looked up. A stranger stood beside her, a man, and together they moved on toward the farm. They had walked a long way in silence, when Mary Dorsey again found herself thinking audibly. Slowly and with precision the stranger answered all her longings. He cleared forever her misgivings. He lifted wholly her disquietude, and set her mind at rest.

Time and again she looked up at him, but he was so very tall, and it was growing darker.

Her son, he told her, was well and happy. “Only yesterday we talked a while together,” he said, “and his hopes were all for you. With his last breath on earth he spoke of you and his father. He wants you always to be happy, and not to grieve for him.”

“Does he live, then?” murmured Mary.

“He lives forever and forever, in your hearts and in the thought of all his countrymen.”

“There is none greater than he who gives up his life for his country.”

“Then he did that?”

“Most gloriously. Far from here in that world-famed tomb, lies none other than Lieutenant Dorsey, your boy. It is his body alone that rests there. He is the unknown of the unknowns. Lieutenant Dorsey is that unknown soldier who sleeps supreme in Arlington, and God will give you comfort.”

Before she was aware of the distance, Mary Dorsey was beside the letter box just outside the garden gate. The gate was open, and the unbroken snow lay smooth before her .Jedediah had not yet come back.

She turned to thank the kindly stranger, but was startled to see that he was halfway up the hill, almost indiscernible in the winter gloom, but Mary perceived in the quiet darkness a tall, gaunt figure. He seemed weary. he wore a high silk hat; his clothes fitted him illy. He walked with a decided swing of the shoulder and he carried a cane. The lights from another auto blotted out the scene, and when Mary looked again the stranger had gone; over the hill perhaps, and into the valley. Nervously she stooped to examine the footprints in the snow from the road up to the letter box, but the glare of the auto lights had been too bright, she could see nothing. Dazzled, bewildered, Mary stood for a moment in the snow; then it all came to her. That stranger was her President, she knew. All these years she had hoped to see him. Tonight her dream had come true.

Upon the worn silk cushions in Jedediah’s round back chair, Mary had laid her Christmas offerings of love, among them a huge bundle, and underneath her plate Jedediah had placed a gold clasped Bible with her name in full, for Jedediah had sold the calves.

About her waist the old man placed an arm, still strong with love and hope. He drew her to the door, and opened it while they looked out. In his mind were the rows of crosses on the French battle front. In hers a great tomb in Washington.

“See, Mary, how bright the lights are in the city tonight. They have never been so radiant before. The mist has lifted, and risen above the world.”

“Those are not the lights from the city, Jedediah,” breathed Mary. “Those are the stars of the East.”



5 Comments »

  1. Okay, that one was weird.

    Comment by lindberg — December 10, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

  2. Thank you, lindberg … somebody had to say it …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

  3. Agreed. I’m still thinking it over.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — December 10, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

  4. Can I be a little snarky? This reminds me of a middle school story, written with a fairly straightforward idea. What do the parents whose son is in the tomb of the unknown soldier do when he never comes home and they don’t know who he is. But, like many bad middle school fantasy stories, a few strange fascinations and a thesaurus are dangerous. My guesses about what some of the author’s influences were in creating the “work of fiction.”

    Lincoln the dead president decides to finally notify the family of the unknown soldier after talking to him in heaven for a while.

    Time travel SciFi and fantasy dime novels were gesturing time travel tales, there was lots of expiramentation with historical figures traveling through time, righting past wrongs. The “dark side of time travel” stories mostly start in the 30s, but aren’t really popular until Asimov comes up with a universe with infinite dimensions. (Yeah, I actually read way to much SciFi and fantasy and went through my pulp phase in high school.)

    A mother still getting money even though the government didn’t know if he was alive or dead, says the author only had romantic notions about how the military works.

    This is before the stock market crash, and gentile poverty, by choice, was a fashionable idea. Suffering was a popular theme, partly because no one thought the market could bust, and the civil war still had those who survived it alive, and spreading a romanticized view of the deprivation and sacrifice for “the cause” of each side was not quite legend, but not quite untraceable.

    Someone got a thesaurus for Christmas or a birthday. The word choices are used just wrong enough, with simpler words much more appropriate and understandable.

    Comment by Julia — December 11, 2012 @ 5:37 am

  5. While everything everyone has said is probably so (other than I think the ghostly president was Wilson rather than Lincoln, because Lieutenant Jed was a casualty of World War I; the references to the Civil War seem to be of Martha’s own childhood), I’ll counterbalance it a little by noting that I’ve read a number of stories through the years (not Mormon ones, particularly, but general lit), some ghost stories like this one, some poetry, that focus as this one does on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

    That Tomb is there in large part as a feature of civic religion, but also because it gives hope to families whose soldiers were never identified. “It just might be my boy here, given Christian burial and honored by the nation,” has to be in the back of the mind of every parent for whom the alternative is unbearable.

    That’s one reason why all paperwork relating to the bodies buried there is destroyed, so that there is no chance of accidentally discovering who a soldier is … or, more importantly, all the soldiers he is not. It’s why the US government also decided, following burial of an Unknown from the Vietnam War — who was later identified, removed from the Unknown vault, and returned to his family; there is no Vietnam Unknown there now — not to add further Unknowns from future wars: With advances in technology, it has become virtually impossible for any remains to be truly Unknown.

    Anyway, if we try to put ourselves in the emotional place of the parent or friend of a missing soldier — of whom there were so very many in 1927, less than a decade after the Great War, when memories were still so fresh — this story, awkward and poorly executed as it was, may have a little more value.

    Not scolding, not disagreeing with anything anyone has said. Just offering perspective on what this story may have meant to our great-grandmothers when it was originally published.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 11, 2012 @ 7:09 am

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