Visitors 4

“the Duchess and Bee”

 

    1913 April 22: J. K. Luton’s “Observations By the Way”  Overlooking the river country north of Ravenna, there is a sand storm raging.... I have decided to drive down there. Between Ravenna and Mulberry I halted at the home of S. A. Kincaid. The wind is blowing a gale.... S. A. Kincaid’s house is large and he has plenty of corn and oats in his barn. S. A. is 70 years of age and his good wife is 55. I enjoyed the hospitality of these people for the night....


As the Anniversary Day approaches,

how do they speak of Mollie?


    Last Friday night [in February 1899] Miss Mollie Kincaid was burned to death at her home, four miles northwest of Ravenna. She had been to an entertainment at her neighbors, and she and her brother and another young man returned home about midnight. They made up a fire in the fire-place and the young men went out to attend to their team, leaving her in the house alone. They were soon attracted by her screams, and rushed in to find her enveloped in flames. She was so badly burned before they reached her, that she died in a short time. It is supposed that she got too near the fire, and her dress caught from the flames.

   


    Louis Kovar came to the college as a French professor during the time I worked in the library. Shards of information were soon assumed about him: From a prominent family, he fled Czechoslovakia after the communists took power. With a long, angular face, Louis’ manner, gestures and voice could be enthusiastic, at other times bordering on shrill. Among things I never tried to know was a hint that Louis had been taken prisoner by the Nazis as a “resistance fighter” and sent to a labor camp in Norway. Among the books he recommended for the library, French “existentialism” was a prominent subject and major interest of mine. A “personal acquaintance” with Jean-Paul Sartre was added to the profile. Louis’ book on “American thought” he paid to have published himself. The trepidation I felt when introducing myself had all this background, but after a short time Louis and his family were visiting the farm at Mulberry.  

    Maria Kovar was a large woman with a broad, open face, of ruddy complexion; they had married in Czechoslovakia. She was a practical business woman. Yet her disposition was warm and friendly, colored by an ironic quality: only she knew what it took to hold her family together.

    Maria and Louis had two daughters. Monica was the older, fifteen at the time I’m remembering (1964). Bianca was thirteen. At home, Monica was “Duchess,” her father’s joy; she was pretty and vivacious. Her first claim to Louis’ affection was accepted without question, so far as I could see. When I met Monica for the first time. she had just returned from France.

   Whereas Monica’s hair was dark and long, Bianca’s was light and short. They called her “Bee,” and “Tom-Boy.” She loved horses and we had two. My mother usually cooked a meal for their visit. On one occasion we had a great scare. Monica was riding too, insisting she knew how. Lightning started to run with her, back toward the barn. All were watching, but there was nothing anyone but she could do. Just as the horse raced under a low shed, Monica leaned forward and put down her head beside his neck. We started to breathe again.


photo: Monica and Louis; beyond, the barn and dark shed where Lightning ran with her


    During that summer when Monica was in France, Louis and Maria bought a large house in an “older” section of Sherman. It had broad porches and tall ceilings. When I saw it first, the restoration that Maria had managed was almost complete. It had been a major undertaking. The last thing, before Monica returned, was to hang a crystal chandelier from Prague over the dining room table.


    We went one winter night. Every window was ablaze, except for one in the darkened room where Louis sat. The house was filled with people, mainly from the college, but my mother recognized Dr. Darling and took both his hands in hers. Maria wore the black dress of a peasant woman. She was standing in the hall, talking on the telephone. Then she put her strong arms around me. Monica was dead.

    A car wreck. The day before, she’d received her driver’s license. With other girls in the car, she sped off into the country. “Slow down, Monica, or you’ll kill us all,” one girl screamed. Only Monica died. The doctors, including Dr. Darling, were helpless. Maria stood in the hall and received all the people that night. Upstairs, Louis sat far back in a low chair. Only one or two people at a time could be with him. It was hard to tell what he might know. We wanted him to know that we had come, but it was too much to ask. Eyes closed. He was weeping.

    At Monica’s funeral the following day, her coffin was covered by a dark pall that hid its rigid lines. There’s one last glimpse: During the service Louis sat with one arm around Bianca. His face was down, turned toward hers. Maria sat on the edge of the pew with her face always on the speaker, chin held high.


    Another period with the Kovars began. I went to the house about once a week. We sat most times in the kitchen. I thought my coming might help. At least, I didn’t talk much. On one occasion it was decided we should move to one of the sitting rooms at the front of the house. Louis left the room and I was alone with Maria. She made a gesture toward the door that led into the entrance hall, and in a quiet, steady  voice said, “That’s where she stood when she told me the last lie.”

    Upstairs, Louis would not allow Monica’s room to be changed in the slightest way. Only the door was closed. I went with him once. He showed me the poems Monica had written, which he intended to have printed in France. Then he said he was writing more poems to be her memorial. He read in French, translating the thoughts, in his high, tense voice.

    Louis returned to teaching almost immediately and went his way amidst general sympathy. Another dimension had been added to what was “known.” Maria left the big house too, and took a clerical job at the college. It kept her in the library many hours each day, reeling through microfilm records for the addresses of alumni. Louis was upset with the authorities in charge of the cemetery. Monica was in a new section where the stones had all to be of a uniform size and low so power mowers could pass over. Beyond, on a rise, the old stones stood. Louis wanted to design a stone himself; there were angry, frustrated words. Maria finally ruled, “The grave will not be moved.”

    When the Kovars visited Mulberry again, Bianca had grown tall and beautiful. Louis made much of this. We wondered if she knew that she was taking Monica’s place. To my mother, looking across the valley from the north edge of the cellar where they sat, Maria spoke again with chilling bitterness. Later we analyzed, adding the Kovars’ story to the fabric of our own lives in Mulberry.

   

    As their family was packing to leave Sherman, I glimpsed on a screened back porch a distinctive white vase with a radiant tulip, exactly like the one my grand-

mother Maudie brought as a gift to Mulberry, so many years ago. It had probably caught her eye at Kress’ because of its unusual shape. I regret not asking for this “new” one, and feel sure it was abandoned in the move. Shortly after the Kovars left Sherman, the college received word that Louis was ill, and soon after that he died.




C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:


“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”