I have a rendezvous with Death. . .
This story is a simple one: of two lovers torn apart by circumstance, who yet pledge to meet on two successive anniversaries of their parting. Both honor those anniversaries of the heart–one of them, the second and last time, from beyond the grave.
This story is told by Nancy Roberts in her 1988 book Haunted Houses: Tales from 30 American Homes. Roberts was a friend and colleague of one of the participants for many years, and heard the story firsthand from her. The names she gives the two lovers–Karen and Jon–are pseudonyms.
Karen was a newspaperwoman, young and determined, when she was given an assignment to write about Charlotte, North Carolina’s fabled Duke mansion, also known as White Oaks. She first entered the house on a lovely spring evening as a guest at a fundraiser for a performing arts group.
The first person she met, when she arrived at the mansion, was a handsome, personable, middle-aged man named Jon Avery, a close friend of the hostess. Karen and Jon hit it off immediately, but later in the evening, her hostess warned her not to become too involved with him: he was a married man, although his wife suffered from some chronic ailment and had, in fact, been confined, at that time, to a sanitorium for three years.
Karen replied that she probably would never meet Jon again, and left it at that. A week later, however, she was again invited to a function at the Duke mansion, where she and Jon met again, and, after that second meeting, they acknowledged that they had fallen deeply in love.
The affair continued through the spring and into the summer. By August, however, Karen had come to realize that the relationship was going nowhere; Jon would not divorce his sickly wife, and the wife, despite her illness, was not sick enough to die.
So, reluctantly, she broke off with Jon. Before they parted, however–as they had met, at a party at the Duke mansion–, Jon extracted a promise from her: that they would meet, on that night and at that hour, one year hence.
Despite misgivings, Karen agreed. She would come, she told him, if she were alive.
No, he insisted. Promise you will meet me here, dead or alive.
The condition was an odd one, but at last she agreed.
The first meeting was an unhappy one, and Karen told Jon firmly that she would prefer not to meet again, but he persuaded her to meet him the following year, same time, same place.
She finally agreed, and they repeated the condition: dead or alive.
Karen had moved on with her life; she had begun seeing a wonderful man named Alex, to whom, by the time of her next pledged rendezvous with Jon, she was engaged. Worried that Alex would not understand her upcoming meeting with Jon, she didn’t tell him about it; instead, that anniversary night, she took along a friend, Sherry, as a chaperone. She planned to tell Jon about her approaching wedding and tell him firmly this would be their last meeting.
She and Sherry actually arrived a bit early at the meeting place, on the grounds of the Duke mansion.
Jon had walked with a slight limp ever since a childhood bout with polio; thus, Karen recognized his footsteps as he came into that secluded part of the garden. With Sherry watching from a discreet distance, she waited. This year his steps seemed slower and less vigorous than formerly.
In the moonlight she could see that he looked handsome as ever, dressed in dark formal attire.
He walked toward her without seeming to see her. . .
almost passed her. . .
She reached out to catch hold of his arm and was startled to find she could not grasp it.
Her hand went clear through him, as if he were not there at all.
Only then did he turn his face toward her, though he still seemed not to see her. She distinctly heard him whisper the words dead or alive.
And then he was gone.
Karen ran back to where a shaken Sherry held her ground. Sherry confirmed that she had seen and recognized Jon, but that there had been something so odd about his appearance that she had been frightened half-witless. She had seen him look at Karen, seen his lips move, but could not hear the words.
The following day, still unnerved by her experience, Karen phoned another friend, a relative of Jon’s. The woman told her that Jon was dead.
He had died the previous Friday of a sudden illness. Delirious before the end, his last words had been a fevered, repetitious moan: Dead or alive! Will I get there?
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
This story is bracketed by quotes from the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger (1888-1916), an American poet killed in WWI while fighting with the French Foreign Legion, prior to US involvement in the conflict. Alan Seeger was, by the way, the paternal uncle of folksingers and musicologists Pete, Mike and Peggy Seeger.