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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

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John Rodman is a Union army veteran who, in order to heal his broken body and mind, applies for a solitary life as the keeper of a national cemetery in the South. He spends his days meticulously recording the names of some 14,000 dead soldiers in a large ledger. He ruminates on the nature of being a keeper of the dead and disregards the imagined voices from the mounds saying, "While ye have time, do good to men." One night, while filling his ledger, he finds the grave of another soldier named Rodman, whom he calls "Blank Rodman" and thinks of as a kinsman.

A young black boy delivers the keeper his supplies from town on a particularly humid day. The keeper asks the boy hopelessly if there are any cold springs in the South. To his surprise, the boy indicates a clump of trees and says there is a cold spring at "Ole' Mars' Ward's place." The keeper makes a journey there and finds a house in complete shambles.

He meets a former Confederate soldier named Ward De Rosset whose servant, a former slave named Pomp, is very late bringing him food. De Rosset is ill and injured, and though he is reluctant to accept a Union soldier's help, his hunger takes over. After Pomp finally returns, the keeper leaves, intending to wash his hands of the situation.

As De Rosset's condition worsens, Pomp and the keeper move him to the tiny cottage in the cemetery where the keeper lives. Though he often thinks bitterly of his unwanted company, he realizes that he cannot leave a fellow soldier in such a state. After a week, De Rosset's cousin, Bettina, arrives and insists that the keeper leave at once.

Bettina is a prideful woman and insists that she pay for the care that the keeper has given De Rosset. Calling her bluff, the keeper demands thirty dollars. He and De Rosset both know that Bettina is incapable of paying the money and that the keeper is far more equipped and able to take care of De Rosset.

In his dying days, De Rosset becomes childishly dependent on the keeper, much to the frustration of Bettina. Though she did not directly participate in the war, she cannot overcome her animosity toward a Northerner. When De Rosset dies, Bettina sneaks onto the cemetery grounds just to be in that place where her cousin died.

When confronted by the keeper, Bettina says she is moving to Tennessee to start a new life by teaching. The keeper asks her to be the first to sign the guest register, as all the visiting guests thus far were illiterate former slaves. She refuses to sign the register but does extend her hand to the keeper, begrudgingly thanking him for all he has done.

After Bettina leaves, the keeper journeys once more to the old Ward house to find a man from Maine planning to tear it down. He sells the keeper the house's climbing vines for twenty-five cents.

Summary

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Last Updated on February 21, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

John Rodman, a Union Army veteran who takes care of a large cemetery in which fourteen thousand Union soldiers are buried, comes to grasp the depth of animosity felt by southerners against their conquerors, both living and dead. He understands that although the legacy of hatred may in time diminish, the aftermath of war can be as destructive as war itself.

Having taken a poorly paid job in what was formerly enemy country, Rodman hopes to recover mentally and physically from the experiences he endured during the war. The mild southern climate will restore his body, he thinks, while the mechanical work of groundskeeping, record keeping, and administering in such a quiet place will restore his tortured mind. Additionally, he hopes to repay his fallen comrades for their sacrifice to a cause in which his faith has never faltered.

In short order, he learns that those living nearby want no part of him or the cemetery. They regard both as symbols of an unwanted occupation. However, as an open-minded man, he attempts to acclimate to his surroundings, to find admirable traits in his poverty-stricken neighbors whom he admires for their soldierly qualities and their single-minded devotion to a way of life as he tries to adjust to a climate very different from his native New Hampshire.

One hot day, in search of a cold spring, he finds a great house in total disrepair in which lives Ward De Rosset, a sick former Confederate soldier now being taken care of by Pomp, a former slave. Although hungry and wracked with pain, De Rosset is reluctant to accept the slightest favor from a Yankee. However, the extremity of his situation brings him to the tiny cottage that goes with Rodman’s position. Although Rodman has no sympathy for the Confederate cause, he cannot witness a fellow soldier in such distress and attempts to nurse him for about a week until a woman arrives.

Bettina Ward, haughty and unforgiving, but somehow more seductive and intimidating than her northern sisters, rejects Rodman’s hospitality, insisting she will pay for any care given to her cousin. His patience tried, Rodman replies in kind, demanding thirty dollars, knowing Bettina cannot pay the enormous sum and showing that a hardheaded New Englander is every bit a match for a spirited southerner.

Despite the frost between these two young people, an obvious attraction exists; Bettina at one point goes so far as to comment on Rodman’s racially correct “flaxen hair.” When De Rosset dies, she determines to leave the area to make an uncertain living teaching in Tennessee. She has come to a grudging respect for the former Yankee officer who nursed her cousin. However, when he asks her to be the first to sign the cemetery’s guest register, she refuses, though she takes his hand in gratitude before she leaves.

In a final scene, Rodman encounters a Down Easter who intends to tear down the old house in which De Rosset had lived but will sell him its climbing vines for twenty-five cents. Perhaps this commercial spirit and get-up-and-go is as good a remedy as any to help drive out old ghosts.

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