The Elm-Tree

Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXXVII No. 1 (January, 1903)

The elm-tree had his field to himself. He stood alone in a wide and deep expanse of wind-swept grass which once a year surged round him in foaming billows crested with the rose of clover, and the whiteness of daisies, and the gold of buttercups. The rest of the time the field was green with an even slant of lush grass, or else it was a dun surface, or else a glittering level of snow, but always there stood the tree, with his green branches in the summer, his gold ones in the autumn, his tender gold-green ones in the spring, and his branches of naked grace in the winter, but always he was superb. There was not in the whole country-side another tree which could compare with him. He was matchless. Never a stranger passed the elm but stopped and stared and said something or thought something about it. Even dull rustics looked and had a momentary lapse from vacuity. The tree was compelling. He insisted upon a recognition of his beauty and grace. Let one try to pass him unheeding and sunken in the contemplation of his own little affairs, and, lo! he would force himself out of the landscape not only upon the eyes, but the very soul, which, turned away from self, would see the tree through its windows, like a revelation and proof of that which is outside and beyond. It became at such times, to some minds, something akin to a testimony of God. Something there was about the superb acres of those great branches curving skyward and earthward with matchless symmetry of line which seemed to furnish an upward lift for thought and imagination. The field in which the tree stood was a great parallelogram. On the left-hand side, across a stone wall, was a house almost as old as the tree. On the other side, across a new painted fence, was a modern house, pretentious and ornate with bracketed cornices, bay-windows, a piazza, and a cupola. This cupola especially disturbed the mind of the dweller in the old house. The name of this dweller was David Ransom. He was quite old, and had a stiff leg which necessitated a gait wherein one limb described a rigid half-circle before it was brought to the accomplishment of a forward step. He had been incapacitated from work for some years. All he had in the world was his poor ancient house and an acre of land in the rear on which he raised vegetables and kept a few hens which furnished his humble sustenance. Once it had been very different. He had owned the great field on which the elm stood; he had even owned the new house beyond, although in a simpler form. He had built it very largely with his own hands, for, though ostensibly a farmer, he had been a Jack of all trades, and able to turn his hand to almost any craft with skill. He had lived in the old Ransom house, which had been in the family for four generations, until he was almost an old man and his wife an old woman, then with the pitiful savings of a lifetime he had built the new one. He had loved and handled tenderly every nail he had put into it, every fragrant length of pine; he had built it with the utmost that was in him. Then, just as it was finished, he had lost it. The bank in which his savings were stored had failed, and there was nothing to meet the payments for the stock. He sold the house and the field at a miserable sacrifice, and used the proceeds to pay the bills, all except a proportion which he was obliged to work out. The old wife died shortly afterward; the disappointment had been too much for her. All her life she had planned and dreamed about the new house which was to stand on the vacant lot. She had thought about it until in a sense she had really lived in it, and an actual building had tumbled about her ears.

After she died, David lived alone, and wound himself up like a caterpillar in a cocoon of repining and misanthropy. He seemed bitter to the core. He was in spirit a revolutionist and anarchist. The mention of banks sent him into a white heat of rage. He nursed his grievances until they turned upon himself and stung him to his own spiritual harm. One of his special bitternesses was the improvements which the new owner had made in his new house. He resented them as he might have done any pointing out of his own personal defects. When the new owner, whose name was Thomas Savage, set about building the bay-window on the blank of the south wall, David fairly swelled with indignation and humiliation. That morning he went across the road and unbottled his wrath to old Abner Slocum. Old Abner lived with his daughter, who was a dressmaker — it was an unskilful, desultory sort of dressmaking at very low prices — and thereby supported in frugal comfort herself and her father, who was very deaf. Old Abner, on pleasant days in warm weather, spent most of his time on the porch, for his room was better than his company in the sitting-room, which was also the apartment used for fitting dresses. David Ransom spent many an hour with him, seated on the top step of the porch. Abner had an old kitchen chair tipped back against the house wall. On that morning when the scaffolding for the new bay-window was erected David went across the street swinging his lame leg around viciously. That was the second spring after the rheumatism had attacked him. It was a hot moist morning in early May. The trees were beginning to cast leaf shadows, and the air was cloyed with sweet. Old David, on the porch, was in his shirt sleeves, his feet were covered with great carpet slippers. He grinned vacuously as David approached. A curtain of a window behind him went down with a snap, shutting out a glimpse of a young woman upon whom his daughter was about to try a new gown.

Abner did not hear it, but he felt it, and he smiled slyly at the new-comer. “Mari's tryin' on a new gownd to the Ames gal,” he chuckled.

David nodded with impatient scorn. The curtain might as well have been lowered for a shadow as for him. He settled himself laboriously on the porch step in front of Abner. His lame leg was stretched out unbendingly into Maria Slocum's bed of lady's-delights which came up faithfully in their old place every spring. David ground his heel viciously down among the flowers. He scowled at Abner with almost malignity. He jerked a shoulder toward the right. “Seen what they are doin' over there?” he inquired, gruffly.

Old Abner did not hear him. He had been gazing forth at the glories of the spring morning, and he answered from the fulness of his thought.

“Yes, I guess spring is 'most here, sure 'nough,” he said, happily. He made a curious nestling motion with his old shoulders in a warm sunbeam which lay over them like a caressing arm. He smiled contentedly. Now were come for him the long days of peaceful dozing on the porch, undisturbed by his daughter's dress-making, the days of plenty of garden greens and vegetables and fruit. Keenly sensitive to material sweets was old Abner Slocum.

But David Ransom sniffed with fury. “Spring!” he cried. Then he shouted, reaching out a knotted hand, and clutching the other's lean shank with a fierce grip. He gesticulated violently toward the house on which the workmen were hammering. “See what they're doin' of over there?” he demanded, biting off every word and syllable shortly, and old Abner heard, or, if he did not hear, grasped the meaning of the pointing hand and the smart grip on his leg.

“Yes,” he answered, cheerfully, “makin' improvements, ain't they?”

“Improvements!” shrieked David Ransom, “improvements! improvements! When that house was fit for the President to live in before. Improvements! Good Lord!”

“That winder is goin' to look real pooty, ain't it?” inquired old Abner, innocently.

David glared. He rose, dragging his lame leg after him. “Be you a fool?” he shouted. Then he was gone down the path with his stiff strut, while old Abner gazed after him, amiably open-mouthed like a baby. Presently he began to nod, and finally fell asleep in the moist light, with his head sunken on his breast.

But David Ransom sat alone on the doorstep of his old house, and all day long his regard never left the carpenters working on the new one across the field. When the bay-window and the new piazza were completed, and the tin roofs glittered in the sun, David fell fairly ill. He neither ate nor slept. His eyes looked wild in their jungle of unkempt beard and long white hair. He talked to himself a good deal; he made furious gestures when walking. Children turned to stare after him; once in a while they ran away when they saw him coming. There began to be talk of taking care of him, sending him somewhere to be looked out for, lest he do harm to himself and others. His old house and land might pay his board for the rest of his life, for he seemed feeble.

David knew nothing of this. He continued to inveigh with a rancor which had the force of malignity at the improvements on the new house. When at last the cupola was built, that was the climax. When Maria Slocum saw him coming across the road to talk it over with her father, she hustled the old man into the house. “David Ransom is clean out of his head,” she said, “and I ain't goin' to have him comin' over here. I'm afraid of him.”

So when David reached the Slocum house he found the door bolted and the window-curtain down, with cautious gaps for peering at the sides, for Maria, her father, and a woman whom she was fitting, but David did not see them. He went stiffly home, talking all the way so loudly that they could hear what he said. “Bad enough to hev it in the fust place, then to go and build on to it winders and piazzers and cupolys, as if it wa'n't good enough for him. Guess what was good enough for Sarah an' me was good enough for him.” Then he finished with a refrain of misery, “Winders, piazzers, cupolys, new stun steps, and a new tin ruff.” He said the last in a sort of singsong over and over. That was the burden of his thoughts, the summing up of his grievances.

“Something had ought to be done about David Ransom,” said Maria Slocum to the woman who was being fitted, and the woman agreed with her.

That night a strange thing happened: one of the catastrophes which serve to punctuate and paragraph the monotony of village life. The new house which had been built by David Ransom and purchased and improved by Thomas Savage was burned to the ground. At midnight the sky was rosy for miles around, and the air resonant with bells; at dawn there was only a bed of glowing coals and ashes. Everybody, of course, suspected David, although there was no proof except his well-known bitterness regarding the improvements. He was under a ban, though he was not arrested. It was decided that he was a dangerous character, in spite of his age and feebleness, and ought not to be at such entire liberty to work out his own devices, and that, moreover, he ought, humanly speaking, to be cared for comfortably.

One afternoon old Abner Slocum, sitting on the front porch with a handkerchief over his face to keep the flies off, and presumably dozing, heard his daughter Maria tell the woman whom she was fitting that David was to be carried the next day to Eleazer Wise's to board. Eleazer and his wife had occasionally taken old people whom no one else wanted to board, for a small consideration. “The town has took it up,” said Maria.

“You don't say so,” said the woman, turning sidewise to look at the fit of her bodice. “Ain't there a little pouch where the sleeve goes in?”

“That 'll be all right when it's stitched. They don't think it's safe for him to be round, and they don't think he has proper victuals. For my part, I ain't afraid of him as I used to be before the house was burnt. He don't talk to himself, nor make motions the way he used to. He just sits real kind of still on his doorstep. He come over here to see father the other day, and he seemed real mild and gentle. I ain't a mite afraid of him, nor I ain't afraid he'll set me afire, and I never believed he set Thomas Savage afire. Mis' Savage was always dreadful careless about fire — used to carry live coals in a shovel all over the house when she wanted to kindle fires in the air-tight stoves, and the Savage boy made a bonfire in the barn once. They don't tell of it, on account of the insurance, but I heard it real straight; and they ain't goin' to build there again, — goin' out of town; guess there's reason enough. I ain't goin' to believe that David Ransom did such a thing as that, if he did used to talk so. He's had an awful hard time, and it wa'n't his fault.”

“S'pose he'll take it hard goin' to 'Leazer's,” said the woman.

“I'm dreadful afraid he will, and I don't blame him. I know 'Leazer Wise, and his wife, too. I know how I'd feel if it was father goin'.”

“Your father 'll feel bad to have him go.”

“Yes; I 'ain't dared say anything about it to father.”

A little later Maria, glancing out of the window, after taking in an under-arm seam, exclaimed, “Why, where's father?”

“Ain't he there?” asked the woman, screwing her head around.

“No, and he was sittin' there just a minute ago, sound asleep. Well, mebbe the flies plagued him, and he's gone down in the orchard under the trees; sometimes he does.”

Old Abner Slocum had just toddled out of sight around the Ransom house opposite, to the garden where David was picking some corn for his supper. A little later he returned, and his daughter saw him. She came to the door, the woman's dress waist in her hand. “Where have you been, father?” she cried, drawing her thread through.

Old Abner did not hear, but he knew what she said. “Over to David's,” he replied, quaveringly. His eyes looked watery, and his mouth unusually firm.

Maria regarded him sharply. Then she reflected that he must have been asleep, and not able to hear, in any case, what she and the woman had been talking about.

“Well, you'd better sit down and keep cool, father,” said she; “you look all het up.”

Then she re-entered the house, and old Abner settled himself in his chair on the porch. Presently one of the selectmen of the village, who lived a little farther down the road, and who was to take David to Eleazer Wise's next morning, rode by in a light express-wagon in a cloud of dust. “Hullo, Abner! Hot day!” he shouted, urbanely. Abner waited until he had passed, then he slowly shook his fist at him.

The next morning Maria Slocum kept the curtain of her front window facing the Ransom house down. “I dun'no' as you can see in here,” she said to her first customer, “but they are goin' to take David Ransom to board to 'Leazer Wise's this mornin'; they think he ought to be looked after, and I don't want to see it. He's lived there ever since I was born, and father sets a heap by him, and he's had a hard time, poor man. I don't see why they can't let him alone. He never set that fire any more than I did, and he wouldn't hurt a baby kitten; never would, for all he used to talk so. If he ain't quite so comfortable where he is, he's enough sight happier than he'll be to 'Leazer's.”

“I've heard 'Leazer Wise wa'n't any too mild,” said the other woman.

“I wouldn't want father to go there,” said Maria.

There was a sound of wheels outside. “Guess 'Leazer and John Dagget have come for him now,” said Maria.

The woman peeped round the curtain. “Yes, they hev,” said she; “it's John's wagon.”

“They're goin' to try to let the house, and have the rent pay his board,” said Maria. “See anything of him?”

“No. They're just goin' in the front gate. Now they're knockin'.”

“Anybody come to the door?”

“No. They're knocking again.”

“Anybody come?”

“No. Now they're tryin' the door.”

“Are they goin' in?”

“Yes, they're goin' in.”

There was a silence. Presently Maria spoke. “See anything of him?”

“No; can't see a sign of anybody.”

“Ain't it dreadful queer?”

“Seems to me it is. You don't s'pose anything has happened, do you?”

“I dun'no'. It's dreadful queer.”

The woman made an exclamation.

“What is it?” asked Maria, anxiously. “What do you see, Mis' Abbot?”

“Why, they're comin' out,” replied the woman.

“He with 'em?”

“No, he ain't. My land!”

“What is it?”

“They're comin' over here.”

Indeed, as she spoke Eleazer Wise and the selectman crossed the road to the Slocum house, and Maria ran trembling to the door.

The woman who was being fitted stood back out of sight, since she had not her dress on, and listened at the door. She heard Maria reply to a question in her high agitated voice. “No, David Ransom ain't here. I 'ain't set eyes on him to-day. You can't find him? You don't say so! What do you s'pose has happened to him?”

Old Abner Slocum sat on the porch, with his handkerchief over is eyes. He had not stirred. Maria shook him violently by the shoulder, as Eleazer Wise inquired of him if he had seen David Ransom that day, and his voice was strained to razorlike sharpness, though it was naturally soft. But old Abner did not hear. He gave a sleepy grunt like a disturbed animal, shrugged his shoulder loose from his daughter's grasp, flirted the handkerchief pettishly over his face, settled his head back, and gave vent to an ostentatious snore.

Eleazer Wise, who was a thin-nosed, pensive-looking man, and the selectman, who was exceedingly tall and bore himself with a dull dignity, went their ways in the latter's light wagon, presumably to search for David Ransom. The horse was whipped to a smart trot. Maria called after them to know what they were going to do, but she got no response. She looked hard at her father, who sat quite still, making a loud purring sound. Then she went into the house. The minute she was gone old Abner slipped the handkerchief from his face, and stared with a wonderful keenness of bright old eyes across the road at the beautiful elm-tree in the midst of the field in a rosy and green foam of grass and clover. He waved the handkerchief which he had taken from his face. There was a tiny answering gleam of white from the massy greenness of the elm. Old Abner chuckled softly. Then he muttered to himself, “Can't do nothin' afore dark,” and settled for a nap in good faith.

It was a very warm night, and dark except for the stars. The twilight lingered long, but at last the village lay in deep shadow, and one could not distinguish objects far in advance. Once that night Maria Slocum thought she heard a noise on the porch, and got out of bed, and thrust her head out of the open window. “Anybody there?” she called, softly and timorously. There was a dead silence. She peered into the darkness, but could see nothing. She went back to bed, and thought she must have been mistaken. Once after that she was wakened from sleep by a strange sound, and this time she lighted a candle, and crossed the little entry to her father's room. She opened the door softly, and a glance showed her the gleam of the white head on the pillow.

“Must have been rats,” she thought, and returned to her own chamber, and slept undisturbed the rest of the night.

The next morning she went into the pantry to cut some slices from a piece of corned beef, and stared incredulously. She looked everywhere, standing on tiptoe to search the upper shelves. Then she hurried into the kitchen, where her father sat waiting for his breakfast. He cast a scared glance at her as she entered; then he turned his chair around with a grating noise, and stared intently out of the window. “Well, you've got to go without your breakfast,” said Maria.

Old Abner made no sign.

Maria raised her voice higher. “Can't you hear, father?” she cried. “You'll have to go without your breakfast. There ain't a thing in the house to eat but some bread and butter.”

The old man rolled one bright eye at her over his shoulder, then he stared out of the window again. A red flush was evident mounting his neck to his thin fringe of white hair.

“All that corn' beef is gone, every mite of it,” proclaimed Maria, in a voice of tragedy. “I heard a noise last night. I knew I did. There was a thief in this house last night, father.”

Old Abner appeared to hear. His shoulders heaved, but he did not look around.

“A thief came into this house through the pantry window, and stole all that corn' beef,” repeated Maria. “It's gone, and it couldn't go without hands. Some tramp, I s'pose, that was hungry. I paid 'most fifty cents for that corn' beef, but I s'pose I ought to be thankful. He might have stole Miss Bemis's black silk dress. You'll have to put up with toasted bread for your breakfast, father. Do you hear, father? You'll have to put up with toasted bread and coffee for your breakfast.”

“All right,” mumbled the old man.

Maria went out of the room, and the sound of the coffee-mill in the shed resounded through the house. Then old Abner turned around and noiselessly doubled himself up with merriment.

The day was very pleasant and clear, although still warm. Maria toiled at her dress-making, and old Abner sat peacefully on the porch. The selectman and Eleazer visited the house once, and inquired if they had seen anything of David; they also searched again in the old Ransom house. In the afternoon, just after the two men had driven away, and Maria had the front curtains drawn to keep out the sun, old Abner stole around the house, got a tin pail from the pantry, drew it full of cold water at the well, and slunk swiftly, padding like an old dog in his carpet-slippered feet, across the opposite field to the elm-tree.

He stood underneath, casting wary glances around; he held the pail, catching a gleam of the western sun from its polished sides until it looked as if on fire. He fumbled away at its handle, then suddenly, as if by some unseen agency, it was drawn up and out of sight into the green umbrage of the great tree. Old Abner turned about gleefully after a furtive hiss of whisper sent after the ascending pail, and his daughter Maria stood unexpectedly behind him. Slyness and sharpness were family traits. She had been suspicious ever since she had missed the meat in the morning. Old Abner turned quite pale. He chuckled feebly to hide his consternation, and he stared helplessly at Maria.

“What in creation are you doing here, father?” she asked, sternly. She spoke quite low, but he heard her perfectly.

“I ain't doin' anything, Mari,” he replied, feebly, shifting in his carpet slippers.

“You needn't talk that way to me, father; I know better. You're up to something. What were you doing with that pail, and how came it to go up in the tree?”

Maria peered upward, and stood transfixed. Out of the great spread of the tree, that majesty of green radiances and violet shadows and high-lights as of emeralds — out of this fairy mottle as of jewels and shadows and sunbeams, stared the face of old David Ransom, and the face was inexpressibly changed. All the bitterness and rancor were gone.

It was the face of a man in shelter from the woes and stress of life. He looked forth from the beautiful arms of the great tree like a child from the arms of its mother. He had fled for shelter to a heart of nature, and it had not failed him. He smiled down at Maria with a peaceful triumph.

“They never thought of lookin' for me here,” he called down. “I wa'n't goin' to 'Leazer's.”

“David Ransom, you 'ain't been up there all this time, in that tree!” gasped Maria. “Why, they've got men huntin' in the woods, and they're goin' to drag the pond.”

David laughed in a silver strain as sweetly as a child.

“Never thought of lookin' for me here,” said he. “I wa'n't goin' to 'Leazer's.”

“How on earth did you ever get up there with your lame leg?”

“I clim.”

“How? You wa'n't up there all night?”

David nodded, setting the green leaves nodding. He was comfortably astride a large bough, with another below it, affording him a rest for his feet. His back and head were against the trunk of the tree. He rested as comfortably as if in an arm-chair midway of the tree, entirely concealed from view except to one standing directly beneath him.

“It beats all,” said Maria. “I s'pose you carried him that corn' beef, father? That was where it went to.”

“I wa'n't goin' to let an old neighbor starve, Mari,” said old Abner, with boldness.

Maria stood staring at him.

“I carried him some bread, too, an' a piece of squash pie,” said old Abner, defiantly, in his cracked treble of age.

Maria looked up at old David in the tree. “Mr. Ransom, you come down here as quick as you can,” said she, authoritatively.

David made an attempt to climb higher. His bough rocked.

“Come right down here,” repeated Maria. “You ain't got to go to 'Leazer's. I ain't afraid of you. You didn't set that house afire, did you?”

“No, I didn't,” called down David.

“Well, you come down here. You sha'n't go to 'Leazer's. You can board with me. I need the money as much as 'Leazer Wise. You can have the south chamber, or you can sleep in your own house, if you want to, till it's rented, if you'd feel more to home.”

“I've moved out of my old house,” called David.

“All right, you can have the south chamber in my house, and you and father can have real good times together. Come down. Can you git down?”

David began swinging himself downward with painful slowness.

“Be careful you don't fall and break your bones.”

David descended. When he was just ready to slide down the shaggy trunk below the spread of large branches, he paused and looked down at Maria with lingering doubt and distrust.

“You needn't be afraid,” said Maria. The tears were running down her cheeks. “You sha'n't go anywheres you don't want to. I'll look out for you, and I'd like to see anybody stop me.” There was decision in Maria's voice which compelled confidence. Still David looked down hesitatingly, like a child afraid to leave its mother.

“Come right along,” said Maria, “and look out you don't fall and break your bones. I've got some nice griddle-cakes for supper and a custard pie.”

David slid down.

After that the two old men could have been seen all day seated on the porch of the Slocum house wrapt in the silence of peaceful memories. A family moved into the old Ransom house, and they enjoyed watching the children play about. David took a fancy to one little girl. Sometimes he coaxed her over, and he told her one story of his own childhood which his father had told him. It was uncouth and pointless, but the child loved it, and the two men hailed its climax always with innocent laughter. The three were children together. Old David was never bitter nor rebellious in those days, but his mind was somewhat affected after a curious and, as some would have it, merciful fashion. Maria said openly that it was a blessing that he looked at things the way he did, that she believed that the Lord was sort of tellin' him stories to keep him goin' in his hard road of life, the way folks tell stories to children. She discovered it before old David had been domiciled with her twenty-four hours.

It was the next morning after he came there. He and her father were talking together on the porch, and she heard David saying this to old Abner: “You see that house over there,” said he; “ain't it handsome? It's the handsomest house in this town, and it's all mine. Nobody else has the right to set foot in it. I had it painted green, and it's higher than the meetin'-house. Can't nobody find any fault with that house. Nobody is going to build cupolys nor bay-winders on that, I can tell ye. It's jest right.”

Maria and the woman whom she was fitting stared at each other.

“Did you hear that?” asked Maria, pale and trembling.

“He's out of his head,” said the woman.

Maria leaned out of the window. “Where is your house, Mr. Ransom?” she asked, in a gentle voice.

Old David pointed.

“He means the elm-tree,” said Maria.