This image is of an area in San Marino, California’s Huntington Botanical Gardens. At the moment–even though wisteria has long since bloomed and faded–I’m using it as wallpaper on my computer. It seems to me breathtaking in its serenity. I sit and look at it and imagine a little seating area, shady and quiet, where I could curl up with a book and listen to the wind blow and enjoy the stillness–possibly over to the right, hidden behind those massive evergreens.
And–such is my whimsy–there’s a ghost story here somewhere, even though my researches indicate otherwise and I’m in the midst of plotting one myself.
I’m reminded, even as I plot, of another garden, in a far different place–Vicksburg, Mississippi–a far different time–1861, the first year of the Civil War–and a far different season of the year–autumn. In the south the warmth of summer can linger far into October and even November, but I can imagine great leafy oaks and maples turning red and gold, and fall flowers–chrysanthemums, perhaps, and asters, maybe even those tiny wild ones we call frostflowers, that bloom six weeks before the first frost of winter comes, or one last cascade of roses, spilling over a trellis or down a wall. There’s a story of a lady who once cared for this garden, who worked in it, walked in it, took comfort there in those days of war, and found solace, finally, from a grief that struck to the very roots of her soul. There are those there who say she still walks there on autumn evenings, although she last walked there living more than a century ago.
At the time of the Civil War, the property was owned by Judge William Lake and his wife of twenty-five years. They were a quietly devoted couple: he still a handsome man in his maturity and his wife, to his fond eyes, still as lovely as she had been the day she became his bride. She wore silk dresses in the summer, and he loved to hear their skirts rustle as she went about the myriad chores of keeping house–and now, war work, making flags, socks and shirts for Mississippi soldiers. He also loved the subtle floral perfume she wore; he had brought her first bottle to her from New Orleans, in the early days of their marriage, and she had worn it ever since: a combination of scents, with jasmine, perhaps, the most notable.
She loved her garden more than anything save her husband, and he encouraged her to spend as much time there as possible, especially as the war news grew more dire and it became apparent that this was no short war, over by Christmas.
One day in autumn, though, the judge had more on his mind than the war. For the first time in his married life, when he returned to his office after lunch, he was fairly certain he would not be coming home to his wife, save as a corpse.
He was about to fight a duel against a political opponent, a rival for a seat in the Confederate congress.
Nowadays, politicians sling hateful words at one another, and no one suffers anything much save a bruised ego or a truncated political career, depending on how insinuations stick. Back then, though, “them wuz fightin’ words”, and, although dueling was illegal in Mississippi by then, the judge felt he had no choice but to defend himself on the field of honor. Hence, he and his opponent, their seconds and doctors, were to row across the Mississippi to the Louisiana shore, where hotblooded Cajuns and Creoles still satisfied their honor with gunplay.
He may have hugged and kissed his wife with somewhat more fervor than usual, as he wished her a lovely afternoon, but he didn’t tell her that he was going to duel. He didn’t want her to worry.
So it was that, late in the afternoon, one of her house servants came running to her with the news, which had spread through the grapevine, among the slaves of Vicksburg, long before any word reached the white folks.
Mrs. Lake had been planning to spend some time in her garden, deadheading the late roses and moving some of the more delicate plants to a warm haven for the winter. Instead, she spent it in horrified silence, watching through opera glasses–with them, she could see clear across the river to the dueling grounds at De Soto Point.
Watching as her husband and his opponent made their play.
Watching as her husband fell to the ground.
Watching as the doctor rose from his side and shook his head.
Watching as her husband’s body was carried, limp and lifeless, to a boat for its penultimate journey, back to his home.
Only then did she walk downstairs and into her garden, to wander aimlessly in her shock and grief, until they brought him to her.
It’s been more than a century since Mrs. Lake followed her husband to the grave, but families who have lived in their house, and who have lovingly tended her garden since, say that on some afternoons, especially in the last warm days of autumn, they see her shadowy figure, strolling along the paths she laid out long ago.
Other times, they hear only the rustle of her silk skirts, and smell a floral perfume, very different from the scents of the late blooms that grow there.
Perhaps, as in her happier days, she still finds solace in her garden.
So they hope.
The story of Judge Lake’s wife and her beloved garden is best told by the late Kathryn Tucker Windham, in her 1974 book 13 Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey.