It was spring in the farming hamlet of Greta, and Martha sat on her veranda unpicking an old wedding gown. It was soft white muslin, delicately woven to ensure the garment was gentle on the bride’s skin. ‘Such beautiful and sacred fabric,’ thought Martha.
The frock was not Martha’s own wedding gown; she purchased it from her neighbour, Kate Kelly. It had been Kate’s late mother’s wedding dress, and as Kate was now an elderly spinster, it was of no use to her. Times were hard on Kates’s farm so selling the gown helped make ends meet. Martha had been kind to the Kelly family when others in Greta had not, so Kate thought her mother would approve of Martha buying the wedding gown.
Martha planned to use the fabric to sew a new Sunday school dress for her daughter, Violet. She decided to smock the front with pale pink thread and place a ribbon sash of the same shade around the waist. When Violet’s pretty new dress was finished Martha was particularly pleased.
There was a length of the pink ribbon left over so Martha, knowing how hard life was for Kate, took it to the old women’s humble cottage. Martha suggested the pink ribbon would look lovely on Kate’s straw hat and the old lady agreed, so Martha carefully stitched the ribbon onto the hat.
Delighted, Kate declared, ‘The new ribbon on my hat looks lovely and Violet’s new dress is so sweet. My mother would be smiling from her grave to see her wedding gown being put to such good use.’
‘Yes, I am sure she can see it from up there. The view from the back hill is wonderful, so your mother will be able to see Violet coming and going from Sunday school,’ added Martha. She was referring to the position of Mrs Kelly’s grave which was high on a hill in Kate’s back paddock.
Life had been hard for old Mrs Kelly, she was widowed early and her two sons had been in serious trouble with the law. One died in a fire and the other was hanged from the gallows for his crimes. With the Kelly boys dead only Mrs Kelly and Kate were left to farm their unproductive, swampy land. Mrs Kelly and Kate were gentle, law abiding souls but the locals ostracised them because of the Kelly boy’s bad reputation. Life was lonely for the two Kelly women. Martha was their only visitor and she was warmly appreciated.
Once old Mrs Kelly died Martha continued to look in on Kate. One day, during a particularly wet spring, Martha set out to visit Kate and, finding her regular route across the paddocks blocked due to the boggy conditions, she took a different path on higher ground. In an isolated back paddock Martha came across a patch of white arum lilies growing in the wet ground. They looked splendid, if a little strange out in the middle of nowhere. Martha picked a bunch for Kate.
The old woman was pleased to see Martha but became uneasy when she produced the arum lilies. ‘The paddocks were so boggy that I came a different way and I discovered these and thought a bunch would brighten your cottage,’ Martha explained.
A look of apprehension came across Kate’s face, like a shadow. ‘Oh dear, they are Elizabeth’s lilies,” she confessed, her voice trailing off.
Martha was confused. ‘Who is Elizabeth?’ she asked.
‘It happened years ago,’ explained Kate. ‘A child went missing one night from her home in Glenrowan – young Elizabeth Banks. The men of the district searched for her and never found her. One day, Mother and I were chasing a stray lamb on a remote part of the farm and we came across her. Her decomposed body lay huddled beside a tree in her tatted nightgown. Elizabeth had been dead for years.’
Martha’s blood ran cold. She recalled the local mystery of the missing girl, Elizabeth Banks. The child had never been found.
Kate whispered, ‘When we found her body, Elizabeth’s parents had long since left the district. Mother was terrified the police would blame her for Elizabeth’s death; they had been keeping an eye on us since my brothers’ troubles. So we decided to give her a decent burial where she’d been found. We prayed for her and planted the lilies on her grave.’
There was silence. Martha understood the unusual and precarious situation the two Kelly women found themselves in. Martha gently said, ‘I guess there was nothing to be done, if you found her dead and her parents were long gone. You gave her a good burial.’
Tears flooded Kate’s eyes, she admitted carrying the secret had been a burden.
Kate disclosed, ‘In my dreams I can see Elizabeth dressed in her white nightgown, dancing around the lilies. Sometimes when the night is still and clear I even think I can hear her singing.’
Martha began to cry as well and embraced Kate. She promised, ‘I will never say anything. It happened so long ago. Best let little Elizabeth rest in peace.’
When Kate Kelly eventually died she was buried on the hill beside her mother. Martha grew old herself, but in all the years she never revealed the secret of the lost girl’s grave.
Her daughter Violet, grew into a fine young woman, married and moved away from Greta.
Some years later in early spring, Violet returned to Greta with her husband and their young daughter, Grace. Violet dressed her little girl in the same muslin dress which her mother made all those years ago. Martha was delighted to see her granddaughter wearing the dress she had reworked from Mrs Kelly’s wedding gown.
The family took tea on the veranda. Little Grace sat quietly with the adults and eventually Martha allowed her granddaughter to leave the table and play in the garden.
Grace played under the lemon tree until a marmalade cat caught her eye. She followed it around the side of the house, through the orchard and into the dairy. Under the dairy sink Grace discovered the cat had a litter of kittens, excited, she sat to watch them.
While the kittens tumbled and played, Grace became aware of what sounded like a child singing. Peeping out the back door of the dairy she saw a little girl near a distant mulberry tree.
Keen to investigate, Grace was soon under the mulberry tree but the girl was no longer there. Then Grace saw her in a distant paddock, she was dressed in a white threadbare nightgown and her skin was so pale it appeared translucent.
Each time Grace came closer the mysterious white girl would appear a little further away. Before long Grace had crossed many paddocks trying to catch up, forgetting about her parents and grandmother back at the homestead.
Presently, the white girl turned toward Grace and called ‘Come and see my flowers. I’ll let you pick some.’ Grace replied, ‘I’d like that very much.’ Soon the two girls stood looking at each other across a bed of crisp white arum lilies.
‘Where is your mother and your house?’ asked Grace.
“I don’t have a house or a mother but I do have these lilies,” replied the white girl. Then, staring at Grace, she added, ‘You have Mrs Kelly’s wedding dress on.’
‘No I don’t,’ Grace replied indignantly. ‘It’s my dress and it belongs to me, my grandmother made it.’
The white girl responded, ‘Well, Mrs Kelly told me it was her wedding dress.’
Grace was confused now – what is she talking about?
‘If you are wearing a wedding dress then you must carry some flowers. Go on, please pick some,’ insisted the white girl.
Grace was proud the white girl thought her dress smart enough to actually be a wedding dress. She began to think some flowers would be nice and perhaps make the white muslin dress, tied at the waist with a pink ribbon, look more like a wedding gown.
Grace’s hand reached toward a succulent green stem of one of the lilies.
Suddenly, a wrinkled old hand firmly grasped Grace’s wrist and pulled it away. Grace was startled to see an old lady in a straw hat. Oddly, a ribbon on the hat was the same colour as Grace’s sash.
‘Elizabeth can’t play anymore,’ the old lady gently explained, ‘and you must go back to your grandmother.’ With that, the old lady took Grace by the hand and led her across the paddocks. In time, the mulberry tree appeared in the distance and the woman told Grace to run towards it.
Grace’s grandmother saw her and ran out of the dairy towards the mulberry tree. ‘Where have you been? We have searched everywhere,’ cried Martha.
‘I went to see Elizabeth and her flowers, and a nice old lady with a pink ribbon on her hat brought me back.’
Martha’s heart beat fast as her frail eyes scanned the paddocks. There was no one there.
But on top of the hill where Kate and Mrs Kelly were buried, Martha thought she could see three figures; they appeared to be two old ladies, one wearing a hat and with them stood a young girl dressed in white.