"Have you," I said to the mortuary statistician, "the death records of one, Dr. F. P. Wierzbicki, who was practicing medicine in San Francisco in 1849?"
I could hear the statistician making noises in his throat.
"Why, you know, all those files were destroyed at the time of the great fire in 1906."
"Is there no record of any kind?" I pursued.
"Perhaps," said the statistician. "If the doctor chanced to be buried by N. Gray & Company, the pioneer funeral directors of San Francisco, you will find a record of his interment in the 'Book of the Dead"--their register of every burial they have made since 1850."
On the wings of hope I flew to N. Gray & Company.
"I want to locate the grave of a Polish doctor -- Felix P. Wierzbicki," I told the young woman in the office at Gray's. "Perhaps you have a record of where he was buried. He was born in Poland -- so you'll probably find him in the Catholic Cemetery." I watched as she ran a slender finger down the index of the dead. "No," she said, "not in the Catholic Cemetery. But -- here he is, on Lone Mountain." As she spoke she jotted some words on a slip of yellow paper and handed it across to me. I read:
"Laurel Hill -- Chain Plot -- Tier 3 -- Grave 55."
I thanked her kindly and hurried away.
I hailed this discovery with considerable joy. Now, I told myself, I would learn who Wierzbicki was, where he was born, when he died. All anticipation, I headed my motor-car toward Lone Mountain.
Up Pine Street, through the Bush Street gates to Laurel Hill, I sped. At the office -- braked to a stop.
"The Chain Plot," I said to the superintendent. "I am looking for the Chain Plot." At the same time visualizing to myself a greenswarded spot surrounded by low iron posts from which swung heavy black chains.
"The Chain Plot --" repeated the superintendent, as if endeavoring to recall some long-forgotten part of Lone Mountain. "The Chain Plot? Oh yes -- over the hill yonder -- beyond the mausoleums of those Washoe millionaires." He indicated a spot to the right. When I still hesitated, "Come along," he said, "I'll show you."
Across a mound-marked turf, as undulating as waves on a sea, we walked. And as we walked I was telling the superintendent about Wierzbicki. How he wrote the first guide book to the gold region. That it was published in old San Francisco. That it was valued by book collectors and those who cherished an unvarnished account of California in 1849. About the Grabhorn reprint and the introduction I was hoping to write. "I must locate his grave," I said conclusively, "and get the dates of birth and death from it. The introduction depends upon them. Without dates," I assured him, "there is no possibility of preparing a suitable introduction."
All this time we were climbing a weed-choked path. Wild birds were singing and scolding over their nests in nearby yews. Earthworms were burrowing through upturned sods. Gates sagged and grated on rusty hinges. Blades of grass, like points of green swords, poked their spears through the mold of last year's leaves. On every side was the continuous cycle -- beginning -- end -- beginning again. "The bird has a nest -- the worm a clod -- each man a country," I quoted, "but the exile only a grave surrounded by chains."
We reached the brow of the hill. Over the high walls along California Street came the clangor of heavy traffic. Lone Mountain was far from being a peaceful spot. Beyond roof-tops I could glimpse a blue expanse of Pacific -- and the bar at the entrance to the Golden Gate.
Before a long, moldering heap of ruined turf the superintendent had come to a stop. "The Chain Plot," he said, indicating the disarray before me.
"The Chains?" I asked. "Where are they?"
"Long since rusted away, and parted -- too much fog and damp on Lone Mountain," he said.
"'Tier 3," "I read from the yellow paper. The superintendent looked about. He couldn't even locate Tier 1. Everything was leveled or in the process of being leveled to the dust. "Eighty years is a long time in this damp," he said. "Neither iron nor marble can weather mold. This is the first plot on Lone Mountain. The pioneers of old San Francisco lie here." I looked over the walls and down on the shining roofs of the city. And I wondered if anything still stood that these dusty tenants had builded.
There were graves all about us. To the right -- to the left -- before -- behind -- wrecked -- uncared-for mounds and fell depressions. Marble slabs leaned this way -- that. Some toppled half forward -- some leaned far back -- others, having lost their foundations, had pitched completely over. I peered into their ancient faces -- trying to read their inscriptions -- white -- gray -- rusty inscriptions. Repeating, as I did so: "Felix Paul Wierzbicki. Felix P. Wierzbicki," that in the confusion of the new names my eyes rested upon, I might not forget the one I sought, "F. P. Wierzbicki -- F. P. Wierzbicki. F. P. W."
"Here's 55," called the superintendent. I hurried forward. He was hovering over a sunken spot.
"The marker?" I asked.
"Wood," he replied. To prove it, he picked up a nearby stick, crumbled it and blew away the dust with a breath.
I was disappointed. He turned to go. I had expected more from the Chain Plot. Exiled -- and the doctor couldn't even claim a sod. The Polish poet had been wrong -- the wild bird might have a nest -- the worm a clod -- any man a country -- but Wierzbicki hadn't even a grave. I summed up the situation. There was nothing left of the doctor but a few hundred words the bibliomaniacs fought over in auction rooms. The book was worth $600. But its author was not worth even a ruined gravestone.
Feeling a bit cynical, I returned down the weed-choked path. Down that same path up which Wierzbicki's friends had brought him to the Chain Plot, I thought. They didn't even put up a marker to his memory. A fine lot of friends! Back I threw a reproachful look. A clump of myrtle with shining leaves that was cascading over a low white marker, half hiding it, caught my eye.
"Back in a moment," I said to the superintendent as I swept myrtle and sand aside, disclosing a low white stone on which was carved three initials: "F. P. W." I read them again: "F. P. W."
Shall I name the feeling that possessed me? It was extravagant. Perhaps Balboa, when he gazed on the bosom of the Pacific, felt it. Satisfaction, out of all proportion to the low white foot-marker I gazed upon, welled within me.
"Have you a knife?" I called.
In answer, the superintendent flashed forth a long pruning-knife. I grasped it by the haft and plunged the blade here and there into the mound until I felt, and heard, iron rasp against rock.
"There," triumphantly from the superintendent as his ear caught the sound, "the headstone!" Together we rolled sand, dirt and myrtle aside. The base of a shivered funeral urn, from which the urn itself had been broken away, greeted our eye. But nothing more. That was disappointing.
I looked up. From a near-by tree -- a spreading oak or cypress -- a limb was missing. I had it. One night there had been a tempest on Lone Mountain with driving wind and pelting rain. That branch had snapped loose and fallen across Wierzbicki's grave, severing the chains, breaking the urn from its base, the stone from its foundation, and the slab, like a plummet dropped in water, had sunk foot first into soft unresisting sand and buried itself.
"Got a shovel?" I asked.
Deep into the mound I sank the blade. Again iron grated harshly against stone. I shoveled away the sand. The top of a marble slab disclosed itself -- gray-colored -- and, because it had been so long buried, slimy to the touch. We tugged at it, the superintendent and I. This way. That. It was slippery. There was nothing on which to get a hold. It resisted our combined efforts and scarcely budged. We grasped at it more firmly and moved it violently back and forth. I must have those dates.
Upward we pulled. The sand loosed its hold. We felt it give. With a sucking noise the square top of a marble slab emerged, ever so slightly, above the level of the mound. I leaned forward to read -- shall I confess? -- with what exultation:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF DR. FELIX P. WIERZBICKI
I have never thought I could feel joy on reading the name of any man -- not even an arch enemy -- had I one -- carved on his tombstone -- let alone smile triumphantly while doing it. Yet when I beheld that of Wierzbicki a feeling closely akin to rejoicing seized me. I felt more like shouting. I looked at the superintendent. He, too, was wreathed with satisfaction.
"Higher-higher," I called. "There is more carved below, and I can't read it yet." The superintendent tugged with might and main, but made little impression. The sand sucked at the marker and it slipped out of sight. I went to his assistance. Like two possessed, we struggled with that piece of marble. Perspiration in riculets coursed down our faces. Sand sunk into our shoes. But little by little the sand slackened its hold. Inch by inch we raised the tablet. Again I leaned over to read:
"Born in Charniawce, Poland, January 1, 1815There I had it in a brief statement. What I had sought to know. The summation of Wierzbicki's life. The date of his birth. The period of the grave. And a concise appraisal of his life. The epitaph, not a flowery one such as a man like Wierzbicki would have despised, but a brief, austere one such as he would have approved. I was elated. . .
Died December 26, 1860
Highly esteemed by all who knew"