From Harper's Magazine Vol. CXLVI No. DCCCLXXV (April, 1923)
“What in Sam Hill!”
Billy Larkins, peering into the night, carefully closed his hothouse door behind, for the wind was bitter. March was leaping upon the world like a lion, the lash of the northern gale in mane and tail.
A doubled-up figure came toward Billy on the run.
“Have you gone crazy, Ed Mann?”
“Let me in quick!”
Billy opened the hothouse door, and a warm breath fragrant with lilies, roses, geraniums, and indeterminate green things growing lushly in damp heat, steamed in their faces. Billy had been sitting in an old armchair between the rows of plants. There was another chair beside it. Billy indicated it. Billy was rather curious in his personal appearance, still pleasing. He seldom shaved, and wore his hair rather long, with the effect of strong features gleaming dimly through a soft gray mist of floating locks and beard. His brown eyes shone out as alert as a Skye terrier's under the overhang of his bushy brows.
Ed Mann, small wiry, sharply handsome of feature, thin cheeks red as a girl's, carefully clad, shoes polished, tie exactly twisted, even the shoulders of his old overcoat brushed to a gloss of high lights, regarded Billy and beamed. “Jest dodged 'em in time,” he chuckled.
“The hull women's club. I thought they had gone, and I was makin' for the back door, when I near run into 'em. They were pilin' out of the kitchen. Goin' out the back door on account of the snow. Two or three cars standin' there. Mebbe they'll be an hour gettin' out, standin', talkin' to Emmy.”
Billy nodded, sinking his chin into his ash-sprinkled over-slouch of waist-coat.
“I run home, wanted to tell Emmy,” said Ed.
“Bought it?” inquired Billy indistinctly on account of the pipe in his mouth.
“Yep. Foss took a hundred off on account of cash too. Said he knew the Fields man who owns it wouldn't kick.”
“Land enough for hens and a garden beside the house?”
“Yep, garage too. Goin' to buy a Ford later on.”
“Guess Emmy'll be tickled.”
“Tickled! My God, Billy, if you knew how that poor little woman has slaved, and saved, and wanted, a home of her own all these years! She hated rentin'. ‘I ain't complainin', Ed,’ she'd say, ‘but I do feel if I could be livin' in a house that was our own, knowing I'd die in it when my time comes, it would mean more'n anything else to me.’ You see Emmy's folks did own their home. She never knew what it was to rent till she got married.”
“It ain't goin' to cost ye any less, Ed. Taxes goin' up every year. Renters goin' mad on town improvements. Lots of fun spendin' other folks' money. Next thing they'll be wantin' to pave Main Street with gold bricks, like the New Jerusalem. It'll cost you more than to rent.”
“I know that, but mebbe taxes will go down.”
“When you goin' to begin?”
“Cellar's goin' to be dug right away. Say, I believe that was the Emmons car went out then.”
“Guess it was.”
Ed jumped up. “Then I'm goin' home. Emmy knows I was thinkin' of clinchin' the bargain to-day, and she'll be crazy to hear. I'm goin' to give her that hundred dollars I saved for a mat for the new parlor floor.”
“You bet. We ain't waited all this time to crawl out the little end of the horn. Hardwood all over the house, and electric lights and a telephone and a bathroom. Every darned thing she's been hankerin' for.”
Billy closed the hothouse door quickly after Ed, and stood outside watching him scud across the yard lit by a high-sailing moon in a rack of gold-tipped clouds.
Ed ran up his home steps like a boy, and threw open the kitchen door. A warm fragrance of cake and coffee emerged like a presence. And there stood Emmy.
Emmy was a very small woman, daintily detailed. She wore her best dark-blue silk dress with a lace collar. She had been very pretty. Now all of her beauty lay in her expression, which was almost wonderful. It made for eternal youth, and hope, victorious over all delays and disappointments of life.
“Well, Ed,” she said and raised herself upon her little toes.
Ed laughed exultantly. “All right, Emmy.”
“You bought it?”
“Sure thing, finest lot in this town. Bought and paid for. Why, Emmy, Emmy! Emmy be you sick? What's the matter? Emmy!”
Ed caught his wife, just saving her from a bad fall. Then he stood, holding on to the little figure, tightly, helplessly. “Why, Emmy, what ails you? Emmy, Emmy!”
Suddenly the door was flung open and Billy Larkins rushed in.
“Seen you through the winder!” he grasped. “What in Sam Hill?”
“Guess it ain't anything, Billy. Reckon I told her about buyin' that land sort of sudden. She ain't sick.”
“Ain't sick, you blarsted fool! Lay her down on the floor quick! She's fainted clean away if she ain't — gone. Mebbe — she's — gone.”
Ed laughed over the faded little head on his shoulder. “She ain't sick. She was just struck all of a heap.”
“Lay her down on the floor quick, and I'll get some water.”
Ed kissed Emmy's little face as he laid her gently down.
The action had astonishing results. Emmy sprang up like a released wire-coil. “Ed Mann,” she cried feebly but strenuously, “you'll ruin my best dress! I know they've spilled coffee on this floor! Let me up quick. Jest let me set down a minute and get me some water and I'll be all right.”
Emmy drank the water, holding her handkerchief over the front of her dress, then she looked up at her husband.
“I heard right, didn't I, Ed?” she whispered.
“Course you did, Emmy.”
“The land for our house is bought?”
“Course it's bought.”
Billy Larkins stared anxiously at Emmy.
“Feelin' all right now?” he asked.
“Land, yes. It sort of come over me, that's all. Then I was tired out having the club meeting.”
“You women beat all,” Billy said with a chuckle which had repressed tenderness in it. Billy had dreamed about pretty little Emmy before her marriage.
“Give her some coffee clear,” he told Ed. “We'd have somethin' stronger to give her ef it wa'n't for them damn bums the country is trying to steer to salvation.”
Ed poured a cup of coffee, and Emmy drank it, still shielding carefully the front of her dress. “Don't talk so, Billy,” she said. “I wouldn't touch any liquor anyway.”
“You feel all right now, don't you, Emmy?” Ed asked.
Emmy nodded smiling. “It just come over me, that's all.”
Billy regarded the little smiling face which had a strange color. He shook his head as he turned to go.
“I'll be over for a game of pinocle later on,” Ed said.
When Ed entered Billy's house after supper the cards were not ready as usual. “Look at here, Ed,” Billy said soberly, “I don't think we'd better play to-night.”
“Why not, Billy?”
“I don't think Emmy had ought to be left alone.”
Ed laughed. “Emmy, she's all right now. She's gone to bed. Said she'd ring the bell if she felt bad.”
“A h—l of a bell she'd ring if she was as bad as she was before supper. I don't want to scare you, Ed, but Emmy, she ain't well.”
“Emmy not well? You wait till you see her in the new house. Guess you'll think she's well, then.”
“She may not ever live in the new house,” Billy said heavily.
Ed started, then he laughed. “That's just like you, Billy,” he said, “always lookin' on the dark side. Emmy, she's all right. She's had these spells before.”
“Oh I dunno, quite a lot. She always perks up right afterward. There's nothin' the matter with Emmy.”
The other man sat in a cloud of smoke. His face was inscrutable.
“Ain't you never had the doctor?”
“Doctor? Emmy would have had a fit if I had called in a doctor when we were savin' money for the house. Doctor! Hm! Emmy, she's all right. Ain't we goin' to play pinocle?”
“Don't believe I feel jest like it to-night. I think you'd better be goin' and see if Emmy's all right. If you want me any time in the night, you jest ring the bell. I'll sleep with one ear open.”
Ed laughed. “Land! Emmy would laugh till she cried if she heard you. She ain't scared and I ain't.”
“Sometimes scarin's savin',” returned Billy. “Get along with you, Ed.”
Billy stood in front of his hothouse, watching Ed hasten across the yard. The wind was in his beard and gray hair. He waited until a window downstairs in Ed's house flared golden with light, then dimmed, then two upstairs windows between slants of white curtains flared and dimmed. Billy listened for the bell. Finally when he heard nothing, he went into his house of plants, and locked the door.
Next day he with Ed stood over the men digging the cellar of the new house. A century ago, another house had stood there in an old-fashioned garden whose flower beds were marked off primly with box hedges. Even now one could see straggling clumps of box here and there. A slight depression showed where the cellar of the old house had been. It was rank with dry weeds. Now and then the men dug up old bricks.
“The old Squire Fields house used to stand here,” Billy said. “Remember how it used to be tumbling down more and more every year?”
Ed shook his head. “Guess I'm jest about enough younger than you to be sort of hazy about it. I do seem to remember a big garden here. Those old lilac bushes must be the remnants. Guess there'll be more old things flowerin' in the spring.”
“Emmy'll be terrible tickled with 'em.”
Billy nodded and smiled tenderly.
Ed Mann's house was built in an incredibly short time. The exterior was complete and the men could work inside when the heat came. It was one of the hottest, most dreadful summers on record. Every morning poor little Emmy would gaze through the steaming fog at the roof of her new home. All that summer she toiled at her womanly tasks toward its furnishing. She made new towels of fine linen with cunning needlework, tablecloths, napkins, she drew in rugs, made preserves to stock her new cellar. She worked and she saved. She saw to it that her husband had plenty to eat, but secretly she starved herself for the sake of new things for the new house. She had gone without for years for this crowning possession of her life. Now she spared nothing of her strength for its fulfillment in beauty.
Emmy lost flesh. She suffered from dreadful weariness and weakness, but she realized immense happiness. She had not been as happy even during the first years of her married life, and she loved her husband. Now Emmy had not only her husband, but the true setting for her married life loomed before her, dazzling her faded blue eyes with glory. Through the terrible, damp days of heat when all nature seemed fainting, she exulted.
One afternoon when there seemed scarcely air enough to sustain life, when the sun behind its thin curtain of terrible vapor scalded, she walked over to the new house. The sound of the hammers seemed to her like music. She climbed up a board-slant to the door, entered and looked around. The workmen hardly noticed her. Stripped to shirts and trousers, reeking — hateful to one another and to themselves — they toiled away.
Emmy looked about delightedly. “It's going to be cool in here,” she said.
One man nodded, then took another nail from his mouth. All were surly from suffering.
Emmy went around the house, looked at the drooping old floral survivors of long-dead summers, at the site where they planned to have a garage, at the gnarled old trees bent in stiff contortions by the storms of a century. … Suddenly a great peal of thunder sent her scurrying. She ran fast, skirts kilted over thin flying ankles.
Ed came home an hour later. He entered the kitchen door. He went on a run across the yard to Billy Larkin's.
Billy sat smoking in his north doorway, watching the storm, which had begun to slacken with a retreat of rain-spitting, shell-shaped clouds toward the northeast and a spur of distant mountains.
“She's gone,” Ed said in a strange voice like a talking doll. He stood before Billy and panted.
Billy paled. “What?”
“She's gone. Emmy's dead.”
With that Ed turned and raced back across the yard. Billy rose and lurched heavily into the house to his telephone. Then Billy left the receiver hanging and followed Ed. He walked feebly and clumsily like an old man.
“I've got the doctor and the undertaker,” he said in a hoarse whisper to Ed who was waiting for him in the kitchen door. Ed nodded.
“Where is she?”
“Parlor floor,” Ed replied.
When the doctor arrived he found poor little Emmy in there. Her sewing, a hemmed curtain, lay beside her. The doctor nearly stepped on her thimble. He was a young man but cool and deliberate. He picked up the thimble and handed it to Ed, before he knelt down beside Emmy.
The doctor rose in a few minutes. He looked at the two men and nodded solemnly. They all stood silent for a minute. Then the doctor said in a whisper,
“I saw her in the postoffice the other day, and thought she was looking seedy.”
“She was never better in her life, and I never see her so happy,” Ed returned with a curious air of gay defiance in the face of death.
Ed did not look as much affected as Billy, who trembled so that the doctor gave him something in a glass of water. “Better drink this and go home and lie down, Billy,” he said kindly.
“Emmy's things to be laid out in are all in the bottom drawer in her bureau,” said Ed. “She told me a long time ago. I can lay my hands right on 'em when the undertaker and his daughter come.”
The young doctor regarded Ed curiously. “Well to be prepared,” he remarked dryly.
“That is what Emmy said,” replied Ed in a calm, almost a happy, voice. His tone certainly implied pride over Emmy's foresight. “She said it had to come to all of us, and nobody would know where the things were. She wanted to be laid out in her best blue silk dress too.”
Ed looked questioningly at the doctor. His face was sober but perfectly collected. He had not lost his color. “She didn't suffer?” he asked.
“Oh no. Knew nothing about it.”
“I am glad of that,” Ed said simply. “If poor Emmy had suffered it would have been very hard for her.”
The doctor had to assist Billy as he went across the yard.
“Talk about suffering, what is that man made of?” he asked.
“He suffers enough,” Billy replied thickly. “It's — his way of taking everything. He — can't see anything but the bright side.”
The young doctor swore under his breath, as he helped Billy up his own steps. “Now you go and lie down,” he said.
Billy nodded dazedly. “I'll be all right. It is sort of sudden.”
After the doctor had gone Billy lay on the old sofa in his sitting room, and tears rolled over his grizzled cheeks.
After Emmy's funeral — they had stopped work on the new house meantime — Billy heard the hammers and could not believe his own ears. He went slowly down the road, and stood listening. He was sure then. The work on Emmy's house was going on, and she was in her grave. The flowers heaped upon it were not even entirely faded.
Ed came out of the new house. “Hullo Billy,” he said.
Billy looked at him.
“What's the matter?”
“Workin' on the house?”
“Yep. Movin' in next week. Paper goin' on upstairs now.”
“You are goin' to finish that house, and — live in it now?”
Ed stared, frankly puzzled.
“Finish that house she lotted on so and live in it, now she's dead?”
Ed regarded the other man with a mystified expression. “Why, of course. That's the main reason why I'm in a hurry to get it done and move in. Emmy was so set on it.”
Billy shook his head. “Dunno how you can move in at all.”
“Look at here, Billy. I feel jest as if she was goin' to move in too.”
Ed looked at Billy. There was a strange rapt expression in his blue eyes. “Be you sure?” he asked.
“You beat me, Ed.”
“Emmy, she planned every single thing. She picked out the paper. I know where every single piece of furniture is going to set. Do you s'pose a merciful God would make a good woman like Emmy lose every single thing she spent her life wishin' for because he called her unexpected to leave it?”
“I dunno. You beat me.”
“When I'm in that new house with everything jest the way Emmy wanted it, I'll feel as if she was there too.”
“Well, I'm glad if you can,” Billy said feebly.
“You look sort of sick, Billy.”
“Guess I be. Guess the heat sort of took hold of me. Guess I'll go home and lay down.”
“I'll walk along with you.”
By the time the two had reached Billy's house, the worst storm of the season broke. Trees bowed to the ground before the mighty multiple flail of the wind. The air was aquiver with electric fire. Crash followed crash.
Billy lay upon the sofa gasping for breath. Ed was afraid of the telephone in a thunder shower, but he used Billy's and called the doctor.
After the doctor had gone Billy, sinking into the feather pillows on his bed, looked up at Ed, and laughed weakly and crazily. “S'pose I can visit you in your new house if I'm dead and buried too?” he whispered.
Ed did not hear him. He laughed back rather uncertainly in response to Billy's laugh.
Billy was overcome by the heat of the worst day of the season, and he had no recuperative power. The doctor came and sent for a nurse. Billy died during the fainting hours of the early morning. Ed had not gone home. He sat waiting in Billy's sitting room. The doctor looked in.
“He's gone,” he said rather curtly. He could not understand Ed. He looked at him shrewdly, waiting for some trace of emotion.
“He was three years older than I be,” said Ed.
The doctor scowled.
“I'm glad he ain't got anybody but me to miss him,” Ed continued reflectively.
“Reckon you can stand it,” the doctor said with sarcasm.
But Ed only looked wonderingly at him. “I can stand anything I have to,” he said. “What else can I do?”
The next day was a little cooler. A distant cousin of Billy's long-dead wife, who was to inherit his property, arrived. He was a gentle, masterly man, and took charge of everything with quiet skill. The nurse cooked dinner and Ed stayed with the cousin and ate.
The cousin, whose name was Larkins also, his Christian name Abner, looked kindly at Ed when he passed his plate.
“You were the nearest he had here?” said Abner.
“Yep,” Ed replied to his question.
“Hear you've got a new house most done?”
“Yep.” Ed looked at the other doubtfully. “S'pose folks think I'd ought to lay off work till after the funeral,” he said.
“Because me and him was so much together.”
“What difference can it make to — him?” Abner indicated the best room by a movement of his head.
“That's the way I figger it out. And my rent comes due next week. Seems a pity to start another quarter.”
“Course it does. Keep right on. Course you'll come to the funeral.”
Ed stared. “Course, and nobody is goin' to hear any hammers whilst it's goin' on.”
“That's jest decent.”
“You're goin' to be one of the bearers?”
“Ef you say so. I want to do all I can for Billy.”
“Countin' on you. Mis' Sheffield, she's goin' to stay till after the funeral, and then I'm goin' to shift for myself. Used to it. Goin' to rent my house in Barr. It ain't as good as this, and I'm goin' to keep on with Billy's business. I know a lot about flowers. Say —”
“I'm goin' to cut every bloom in his greenhouse to trim the house for his funeral.”
“I figgered on buying a piller for him with ‘Rest’ on it done in little white flowers.”
“Don't you go to makin' expense, with all them flowers in there. You can come over and help if you want to.”
“Course I do.”
“Come to-night then. We'll make a start. Can't do everything till the last minute; the weather's so hot, the blooms would wilt.”
“I'll be over to-night.”
People talked a good deal about Ed Mann having his house finished and moving right in so soon after his best friend had died, and the more because he seemed radiantly happy. Ed, after he was settled in his new house, displayed it from attic to cellar to all callers. “It's all jest as my wife wanted it,” he would state triumphantly. “Ain't her room pretty? She always wanted a blue room. I know I ain't set a stick of furniture anywhere she wouldn't have picked out.”
One day the young doctor brought the woman with whom he boarded to see the house. The woman had taught school until she had been covertly asked to retire and make way for a younger woman. She was a gentle, reasonable soul. She acquiesced with no rancor. She had her own house, and had saved a little from her meager salary. She eked that out by boarding the doctor and minister. The woman was of the sort that no breath of scandal touched her with her men boarders.
That afternoon, leaving the new house with the doctor in his car, he looked at her when he had started on the straight stretch of road. “Is that man a bit touched?” he asked.
“Touched?” repeated Ellen Holmes, “touched, Ed Mann?”
“Yes, I for one cannot understand him.”
The woman beside him, elderly, rather stout, clad in gray veiled with gray, laughed a little sadly. “I wonder if any of us ever can understand people like him,” she said.
“Then you think him perfectly sane?”
“As sane as he ever was, as sane as any of us. He is different. Difference does not spell insanity.”
Doctor Emmons hesitated a minute. “Insane people are different,” he admitted finally with a laugh, “but you are right, Miss Holmes. Different people are not always insane.”
“Well, he has always been different. I have known him all the years I have lived here. I am a little older. He was different as a boy. Take away Ed Mann's apple, and he would be just as happy with a nut. He was born with his face turned toward the bright side of things, and I really suppose everything in this life has its bright side. Ed's mental neck may seem a little askew to us, but he can't help it. It is twisted toward brightness, perhaps more so lately.” Ellen Holmes frowned reflectively.
“What is it?”
“Well, I do wonder whether Ed has always been quite like he is now. I wonder if the general upheaval of all familiar things by the War can have affected him too, a little. But Ed is sane enough.”
“He seems happy anyway.”
“He is happy.”
“Doesn't he mourn for his wife and Billy Larkins?”
“He mourns them, but he mourns them with the light on his soul.”
Doctor Emmons gave a surprised look at Ellen.
“You ought to have written poetry instead of teaching school,” he said.
“Poetry would not have supported me,” Ellen replied. “I am glad for my part to see a man like Ed. It is something in this world now even to know of a man who is happy.”
“I am glad if he is,” said the doctor with a laugh, as he put on second speed for a short steep hill.
There was no doubt that Ed Mann was happy. When the horrible summer was over and a drenched dismal autumn, winter came without snow, brilliant, crystalline, dazzling with cold blue — with constellations pricking the heavens with celestial splendor.
Ed in his house enjoyed to the full every day. He was not in the least lonely. He was happy, and he believed his Emmy was happy; he believed also in Billy's happiness.
Often that winter Ed sat of an evening in the kitchen, because of the cold, his stockinged feet toasting in the stove oven. He had his pipe and the evening paper. Sometimes he dozed lightly. Then he woke with a smile. He often talked aloud to himself.
“Emmy, she never could stand such dreadful cold,” he said, and nodded affirmatively. “She would have wanted to set in her parlor, and it's freezin' there. She would have worried about her plants and the bathroom pipes. Now she's where she don't have any call to suffer or worry. I guess Emmy, she's got as nice a one as there is of them many mansions, and she's havin' the time of her life fixin' it up.”
Ed got up, raised a window shade and gazed out. It was a bitter cold night of crystalline beauty, and death. So cold it was that death even could not prevail entirely as to its condemnation of organism to decay. Life in a sense reigned triumphant.
Ed looked up at the stars. “She's enough sight better off,” he said. “As long as she is, what's the odds about me?”
Ed lowered the curtain, stuck his feet in the oven, and puffed at his pipe. He thought of Billy, his old pal, of their evenings playing pinocle. Somehow that thought made him uneasy. “Donno what they've got to give poor Billy instead of his play cards and his pipe,” he said.
Finally, Ed got out his old pinocle deck, and began to play on the kitchen table, with an imaginary opponent. After a bit he chuckled happily. “Guess you're beatin', Billy,” he said.
A knock came on the door, immediately followed by its opening and the entrance of Abner Larkins. “See your light, and come right in,” announced Abner. “Too cold to wait for perliteness.”
He unwound yards of gray knitted stuff, and his handsome face dimly pink beneath its golden furze appeared. His blue eyes snapped as with blue flame at the cards.
“What you doin',” he asked.
“Sortin' out the old cards. Have to get things straight in odd minutes,” replied Ed calmly. “I miss Emmy about that. Try to keep house the way she'd like it.”
Abner looked with abashed wistfulness at the other.
“S'pose you never play cards,” he ventured timidly.
Ed shook his head. “Emmy, she never quite approved of it.”
Ed knew perfectly that the other man was longing for a game, but he could not bear to play that night with other than his self-projected vision of his dead friend. He packed the cards neatly, tied them with a bit of string, and placed them in the drawer of the table.
“Keep 'em in there?”
“Belong in the secretary in t'other room, but it's too cold to open the door and let the heat out of here.”
Abner took his pipe out of his pocket, filled it and began to smoke. “It's easier for a man than a woman to be left,” he remarked, “because a man can smoke, always has that left.”
“That's the way I feel,” agreed Ed.
Abner stared around. “You've got everything shipshape.”
Ed nodded. “Jest the way she wanted.” He too stared about him, taking in everything completely with its fullest meaning of memory and loss. For a second he looked immensely grave. Then his gallant old face cleared. He laughed. “Yep,” he said, “this is some kitchen, and I cooked a supper anybody might have set down to. My hot biscuits and my fried ham couldn't be beat in this town, I'll bet my hat.”
Abner made quite a long call. When he left Ed held the lamp in the kitchen window to light him down the path. “He means well,” he said, “but he ain't Billy; but I'm glad Billy ain't got to set up all night tendin' them plants in the greenhouse.”
Ed wound up the clock, banked the kitchen fire, saw to the furnace, and went to bed. Before he switched off the light he looked happily around the charming blue room which Emmy had planned. “Jest the way you want it, ain't it, Emmy?” he said.
That winter night was Ed's last in the new house. Nobody ever knew how it had caught fire. Ed had been very careful. People thought it was due to a short circuit.
At three in the morning Ed woke with a gasp. He tasted smoke, he smelled heat, and there was a red light. He ran to the telephone, but it was too late. He dragged the new rug out of the parlor, and tore down the curtains, before he ran out.
All the village was there when the roof fell in. The usual shout — the strange compound of horror, fear, and admiration — went up.
Ed looked on as calmly as if he had been a mere spectator.
“Hope you was well insured,” Henry Dodd, the storekeeper, shouted above the roar of the flames.
“Not a dollar. Emmy, she didn't believed in insurance. She believed in prayin' every night.”
“Much good your prayin' did you,” Dodd said scornfully. “Look at here,” he called out to bystanders. “He wa'n't insured.”
There was a clamor of distressed sympathy. People crowded around Ed.
“Much good your prayin' did,” Dodd said again.
“You needn't blame it on the Lord, Hen Dodd. I didn't pray last night about fire. I forgot to. You needn't blame it on the Lord. He's blamed for too much as 'tis.”
“Ain't blamin' it on the Lord,” Dodd said surlily. “Not a dollar of insurance!”
Dodd crossed the firelit yard, and spoke to a stout woman enveloped in shawls over her calico wrapper. She shook her head.
Ed went over to her, and laughed pleasantly. “I couldn't come noways, thank you jest as much, Mis' Dodd,” he said.
“You couldn't have heard!” Adeline Dodd gasped.
“I see. Sometimes seein's hearin'.”
Adeline's fat, pretty face colored red between her shawls.
“I'd like to have you come. I'd take you and welcome, Ed, but Lucy's coming to-morrow, and I've got only one spare room.”
“Course you ain't. Thank you jest the same. I couldn't come. I've got my plans all made.”
“What — are — you — goin' to do, Ed?”
Ed pointed toward a tiny unpainted building with a tile chimney, tinted rosy red by the fire. “Lucky the wind wa'n't that way.”
“You — goin' to — live there?”
“Course I be. It's all boarded up tight, and there's a place for a stove. It's going to be real nice and comfortable.”
“I'm real sorry about your house burning down,” Adeline said uncomfortably.
“You needn't be. Lots of folks have their houses burn down and don't have any other place to live in the way I do. I'm goin' to get some of the men to help me move in my things that are saved.”
Ed walked away. Adeline stood staring after him. Ed readily secured all the help he needed. They worked by the light of the smoldering house-fire. Soon the little garage was furnished and looked, after a fashion, comfortable.
When the people had all gone Ed stood gazing about him. There was a fire in the kitchen stove which had been saved. There was a smoothly made bed. The parlor rug was on the floor, curtains hung at the one window. There were chairs, a table, and a bureau with a looking-glass. There were dishes and cooking utensils and provisions.
“Come,” Ed said, “this is mighty nice after all. They saved the ham and eggs and coffee and bread. Guess I'll get a little early breakfast, and won't go to bed again; I'd better watch that fire in case the wind changes.”
Ed cooked his breakfast, and ate peacefully from the kitchen table.
“It's lucky they got this out instead of the parlor one,” he said. “I'd have spoiled that, cookin' and eatin' on it.”
After Ed had finished breakfast he lit his pipe, sat down before the stove, and toasted his feet in the oven. After awhile he rose, moved his chair near the window, sat down and looked out. He could see the red cellar of his destroyed home. The constellations had sunk toward the horizon, where they burned dimly in the waxing pallor of the winter dawn.
Suddenly Ed started. He had been smelling acrid smoke all the time, but now a puff of smoke of a different quality came in his face.
This smoke was hot.
Ed stared up at the wooden ceiling. It was filmy with smoke, curling about in great spirals like a nest of snakes. A tongue of flame lapped through them.
“This did ketch fire after all,” said Ed. He was fully dressed and his shabby but warm overcoat had been saved. He got into the coat, and thrust his cap firmly upon his head covering his ears. He felt in his inside pocket and drew out his wallet. It was packed with banknotes. “Lucky I saved this,” he said. He also drew out a bank book. “Keep me goin' mebbe as long as I live,” he said. “Might be a heap worse off.”
Ed fled out of the garage. It lit his pathway with flames. He dodged into shadow as he ran. He heard the fire alarm and the clang of the fire apparatus. He ran down the road in the opposite direction. It was a lonely road and led to South Barr.
Ed had not been gone long before his garage crashed down with a burst of flame. It did not take much time to destroy the tiny edifice.
As soon as the embers were cool enough, men were poking in them. Everybody thought that Ed had perished in the fire. Doctor Emmons worked with the rest. Finally he got into his car and drove home to breakfast. He had his round of morning calls to make.
“He probably burned to death,” he told Ellen Holmes over his coffee.
She looked at him pitifully.
“I wonder if he did not take the trouble to get out of that fire,” Emmons said thoughtfully.
“You mean? —”
“Oh I don't know exactly what I do mean. I may be wrong. But I do wonder if that poor old village chap did not escape the contagion of his time. You were right, Miss Holmes. He surely had a twist. His mental neck was bent aside from realities. He looked at life from an inhuman angle. It is common nowadays and it is dangerous. It does not pay to go far on the road with the wrong sign, because you are sure it's right. Ed Mann denied the evil in life, and when mortal man denies evil he defies the gods.”
“He did deny evil. Then you think?”
“It looks as though he had burned to death.”
“Poor old man,” Ellen said.
Meantime Ed was creeping, bent a little after the manner of an escaping animal, along the South Barr road. The sun came up, and the day dazzled. Everything gave out reflections from white-faceted frost.
He heard a car behind him, and crept under some stiffly crackling bushes out of sight. He gazed with alert eyes through the glittering lances of branches and watched the car slither past, then two men trudged by with axes over shoulder. The blades gleamed like fire.
Ed, when all was still, stood up and gazed about him. In the rear stood a wretched old house. It was rain-washed, wind-lashed, windows were broken — still the house held itself erect with almost comical effect, like an old woman whose only strength and beauty of life is in her own mind-of-defiance toward length of days and ill fate. Originally the Carr house had been builded with conscience as well as hand. Its foundations were intact, its ancient beams true to their purpose.
Ed emerged from the glittering tangle and entered the house. He sniffed disgustedly. Despite the open door, the breath of the aged edifice was that of horror and decay. The room was not as cold as out of doors. The wind did not enter, and there was a little fire smoldering in the rickety cook stove.
Ed wondered a little that the furniture had not been moved. Beside the stove there were a dirt-blackened table and a few chairs. A cupboard stood open, disclosing odds and ends of dishes.
Ed remembered that he had heard something about the people moving out of the house.
“Reckon they didn't think the furniture was worth takin', or they were too lazy to bother with it,” said Ed.
He stood amidst the miserable discard of a poor flitting family. The floor was strewn with unclassable articles, bits of wood, glass, tin, the shards of a human nest.
Ed started. Suddenly he heard a sound from the next room, an unmistakable sound — the whimper of a dog, the appeal of a dog from his footstool of humanity to its kingdom, an appeal compounded of utmost need and confidence in power to help. Ed entered the next room. It was unspeakably disorderly, and shabby but completely furnished with wreckage of good old furniture.
In a corner on a heap of old cushions lay a dog. It looked at Ed with wonderful, beautiful brown eyes of utmost adoration and trust.
“I swan,” said Ed.
He went nearer. He stooped and lifted a feebly jerking, fat little puppy.
“Left you your bed and one of your babies,” he said. “Glad they had that much decency.”
The dog lumbered up and licked Ed's hand. She was a beautiful mongrel, paradoxically a throughbred of cross breeds.
Ed moved away with the puppy, followed by the mother, out of the house, the puppy shivering in the sharp air. Ed tucked him under his coat, cuddling him warmly.
“Now you'll be all right, little feller,” he said. He patted the mother's head. “Come now,” he said, “this ain't so bad. Here I be with money in my pocket, and quite a lot saved up in the bank, and a puppy dog, and a mother dog. Ain't never had a dog. Always wanted one.”
Back in the village the men were still anxiously poking the embers of Ed's garage for his charred bones, as he went up a glittering rise of road, the puppy under arm, the mother at heel.
Suddenly the following dog gave a short sharp yelp. Ed turned. The dog was a flat streak of speed on the road toward a slender advancing figure with fluttering fringed ends of shawls.
Ed stopped, facing the figure, which was now stooping and patting the dog.
“What in tunket?” said Ed.
He began to retrace his steps. The woman straightened, hesitated a moment, then came on to meet him with the dog leaping around her and yelping.
“This is my dog,” she said in a weak little voice when they met.
Her small, strained fair old face stared affrightedly at Ed.
“Please don't take my dog,” said she.
Tears rolled over her thin blond cheeks from her faded blue eyes.
“My sakes alive! I don't want your dog,” said Ed.
He stood staring at her. She bent her head and fairly sobbed, hiding her face in the corner of her old green shawl. Everything which she wore had an appearance of having been worn in hot suns and heavy rains and wild winds, and being marvelously intact in spite of them. The woman herself, faded and old as she was, had a willowy grace and pliability which spelled strength.
She was in fact at once delicate and enormously strong by reason of having overcome her own fragility enough to maintain her existence upon the earth.
Ed stared at her. “Don't cry so,” said he, “you'll make yourself sick.”
“I know I hadn't ought to,” she gasped. “I didn't want to lose Patty. She was all I had left after my brother and his wife went.”
“Look at here,” said Ed, “I want to know. Ain't you Abby Carr?”
The shawled head nodded.
“I used to go to school with you, don't you remember?”
“I didn't know you lived here. I heard you went out West to keep house for your brother Sam when his wife died, years ago.”
“I did. There's been nothing but deaths in our family. Father died first, then I went out West to live with Sam and he married again. Then he died, and I lived with his second wife and my half-brother Harold.
“Sam's wife was a nice woman. She and I got along fine. Then she died, and Harold got married to a dreadful flighty little thing, pretty as a picture but dreadful flighty. Then Harold lost his job, and he thought he could get one round here, and the old house was here. So we moved. The furniture was mine. Father left it to me. We moved the furniture, and came on here in the summer.”
“Along about the time my wife died.”
“Then last Thursday Harold's wife got a job in the movies in New York, and they went right off, just like that, packed their clothes and scooted and borrowed the money from me for fares.”
“Left you alone?”
“Well I've been sick quite a while, sort of run down. Guess I haven't eat any too much. Nothing the matter with me. They couldn't take me, and Rosamond had a good job with big money offered. I am all right. I'm glad they didn't take Patty, and they were pretty good to leave her that puppy.”
“How many puppies?”
“Five. They took four in a basket; thought they could sell 'em. That was all right. I am afraid Patty is hungry. They left a little bread and milk but not much.”
“What have you had to eat, yourself?”
“I ain't been hungry.”
Ed stood looking at the woman, poor pitiful endurance of feminine humanity. She had never had much, never asked for much, never complained because she had not much. Unconsciously, the creature was so meek that her whole spiritual attitude was one of apology to the world at large for suffering her.
“You never got married?” said Ed.
She straightened herself, wavering lines of beauty appeared in her face, her cheeks flushed faintly. She shook her head. “He died,” she said.
“Somebody out there?”
She nodded. She looked at him, her face full of pride. At least she had not been unsought.
Ed stood regarding her with a puzzled air. “What in tunket are we going to do?” he said finally.
She drooped again. Her face answered his question with another.
“Have you got anything at all to live on?”
“I've got enough to pay taxes on the house.”
“It ain't clear.”
“I've kept it clear,” she said with a slight toss of head.
“I've got enough for two to live on the income if I have a garden in the summer,” said Ed.
She gazed at him uncomprehendingly.
“I could go right in there and we could live real comfortable — except —” said Ed. He faltered and reddened slightly.
She still gazed, not comprehending.
“Folks would talk,” Ed said at last.
“We're too old,” said she, “but maybe you wouldn't like my cooking.”
“If we had walked out of the Ark with the animals two by two, we wouldn't be too old,” said Ed. “We'd have to get married and I don't want to get married. Emmy's all the wife I want.”
“And my beau that died is all I ever want,” returned the woman with sudden understanding. She flushed with anger. “I never liked you enough to marry you, Ed Mann!”
“I don't suppose you did, but you can't live alone, poor little mite like you. You've got to have somebody with you to take care of you and keep you from freezing and starving to death.”
She turned her back toward him.
“Look at here, Abby, you don't like me well enough to marry me, and I married Emmy. That settled me about marrying. But — you ain't got anything against me?”
She shook her head.
“If you don't like me well enough to marry me, and feel as if that poor feller that died is the only one, and I feel that Emmy is the only one, do you think you could put up with me staying in the house with you, cutting up wood and bringing up coal, and keeping the fire going, and eating at the table with you?”
Abby gazed at him, bewildered.
Ed patted the puppy dog. “Nice little feller. I know I'd like your cooking all right, Abby.”
She made an inarticulate noise.
The two stood staring at each other.
“We ain't getting anywhere,” said Ed. “Look at here, how is the house het?”
“There's a big base burner in the sitting room. It heats that and the room out of it where Harold and Rosamond slept, and there's a register in the floor of my room right over the stove. It heats up real nice.”
“Course you'd feel safer with me downstairs.”
“Suppose I would.”
“I know the Baptist minister in South Barr,” said Ed. “Guess you remember him. Nice old man. Getting a license and having a few questions asked and answering them wouldn't do any harm.”
The woman nodded. A light of understanding flashed into her face.
“Then,” said Ed, “folks couldn't talk.”
The woman reflected.
“I do remember the Baptist minister in South Barr,” she said at length. “He was always real nice.”
“Suppose you go back to the house, it's too cold to stand here. You wrap up real warm, and I'll go on to Judson's livery. It ain't far. Then I'll come back for you, and we'll go to South Barr.
“We can get some provisions there, too. Got any coal?”
“I'll order some to be brought to-morrow.”
The woman turned.
“Here,” said Ed, “you'd better take the puppy, tuck him under your shawl. The dog will foller.”
Ed went on up the hill, and the woman walked rather rapidly back to the house, the puppy bulging her shawl, the mother dog waddling after.
That evening Ed and Abby sat in the swept and dusted sitting room. They had eaten a good supper. Abby was a master cook. There was a grand fire in the base burner. A red geranium bloomed on the window sill. The puppy and his mother nestled in coils of comfort in an old basket lined with straw.
Ed, seated in an old rocking chair, looked at Abby, seated in another.
“He used to smoke a pipe,” Abby said unexpectedly. She had put on an old brown silk dress. Her blond hair, gray on the top of her head, had a rosy tinge from the glowing isinglass door of the stove.
“I always have smoked a pipe,” said Ed.
“I like the smell of one,” said Abby.
Ed crammed his old pipe with tobacco. He lighted and smoked peacefully.
“Me and Billy Larkins always used to set evenings and smoke and play pinocle,” Ed remarked reflectively.
“I can play pinocle.”
“Always did; don't play very well.”
The two sat at the little table and played pinocle. Ed won the first game. He looked across at Abby and smiled. “I guess if Emmy could look in here now, and see me setting here playing pinocle after that good supper, she's be tickled to death, after all I've gone through,” he said.
Abby smiled back at him, the smile of a little girl child.
“I guess my beau that died would be tickled too,” she responded. “When he was sick so long he used to worry about me, how I'd get along. He died with old-fashioned consumption. I guess he'd be tickled just the same as Emmy.”