From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XLIII No. 5 (May, 1916)
It was in February when Margy Ellerton, sitting at her book with Miss Lucretia Norris, her governess, looked out of the window and cried in dismay, “Oh, they are carrying poor old Mr. Rice away to the almshouse. Brother Tom told Aunt Sarah yesterday that they were thinking of it.”
Miss Norris had sentiment. “Poor old Mr. Rice,” she said. “How he will miss his home!” Lucretia Norris said this, regardless of the fact that she knew perfectly well Old Man Rice would be much better off in the almshouse, that he had bibulous tendencies which would easily involve his setting himself and his house on fire any night and being reduced to ashes before succor could reach him. She knew, also, from trustworthy sources that his house was squalid beyond description. But she pictured poor old Rice confined in the almshouse, unable to prowl about fields and woods, which were as much his natural haunts as those of any aged wild four-footed creature.
Margy was inconsolable. She wept. “Poor old Mr. Rice!” she lamented. “He has brought me flowers from the swamp every spring since I can remember. I could never go for them myself because the swamp is so wet, and poor old Mr. Rice got his feet sopping wet.”
“It was a wonder he did not have pneumonia,” said Miss Norris.
“It was not so much the lovely things he brought, but he was so happy about it. It is wicked for people to take away an old man's happiness when it is a good happiness, like bringing wild flowers to me.”
“You had better continue your lesson, dear,” said Miss Norris, with a sigh. She was entirely of Margy's mind. Her heart had ached when the poorhouse wagon had passed. In that wagon on a bed of straw lay Old Man Rice, covered with old gayly colored quilts, which were violently tumultuous, though he was sick with grip. Lucretia Norris, as well as Margy, thought how pitiful it would be if the old man after he had recovered were to be kept in captivity. Old Man Rice, alien to the world at large, a gentle reprobate, harming himself to the extent of his ability, and only harming his race by the mere fact of his being a derelict with whom collision would not result in disaster, only in annoyance, was, nevertheless, chosen comrade of Nature. Nature had her secrets all unveiled for Old Man Rice.
He knew that the shadows on the snow were of the loveliest blue; he knew that there were tints as of roses in grain fields, and purple depths, like water depths, between ripening cornstalks. He knew where all the flowers lived and died, and found resurrection. Old Man Rice was a constant visitor on resurrection days of flowers and wild fruits.
Sarah Edgewater came in, and Margy told her. Anything which disturbed her beloved niece Margy disturbed her. When young Doctor Tom Ellerton came home, she consulted him. “It does seem a shame,” said Sarah; “they might have left that poor old man in peace. He did nobody any harm, and he did take so much comfort roaming the fields.”
“Not much roaming to be done now,” said Tom, glancing out of the window. The broad field was covered with high lights of snow patches.
“I know that,” admitted Sarah; “but spring is coming, and I am not sure that even now that old man might not get comfort going about hunting for signs of it.”
“He has a bad case of grip,” Tom replied pleasantly. Tom was always pleasant. “He would have died up there. Aunt Sarah, that shack is indescribable.”
“Will they let him out after he has recovered?”
“I don't believe they will. The town authorities think he ought to be taken care of.”
“Town authorities!” repeated Sarah, with high old head. “Town authorities have always simply made me sick. When that poor old man is over the grip he has a perfect right to come home. It is home to him. He is happy there.”
“Well, Aunt Sarah,” said Tom, “they will keep him away from rum too.”
“What of that?” inquired Sarah with recklessness. “Oh, yes, you can stare! Old Man Rice drinks no more rum than plenty of men who are not on the town, and when he drinks he always shows a great deal of sense. He carries it home, and just stays in his house until he is over it.”
Tom laughed a great laugh. “Aunt Sarah, you are shocking!” said he.
“I don't care, it's true,” said Sarah.
“You can't deny,” said Tom, “that there is great danger of the old man, during one of these sensible seclusions of his, setting his house on fire and being burned to ashes.”
Sarah, as she grew old, had obstinacy which was unmovable. “We all have to die sometime,” said she. “I say the town authorities have no right. Every human being should live just as he pleases as long as he harms nobody else. I believe in freedom. Besides, Margy is worrying herself sick over it,” said she.
That afternoon Sarah and Miss Norris and Margy went to the almshouse to inquire for poor Old Man Rice. As they stopped before the building, they distinctly heard him, for there was an upper window open. He was lamenting his fate. Now and then he coughed hoarsely. Then the wailing voice recommenced. “Let me go home,” was the burden of his tale. “I tell ye, I am going home. This is a free country. The Edgewaters let me squat on their field twenty-odd year ago, and I've got a right there. I tell ye, I'm goin' home!”
Sarah hitched the bay mare and covered her. She then left Margy and Miss Norris in the sleigh while she entered the almshouse for a talk with the matron. When she reappeared, the matron, a large, very good-natured-looking woman, was with her. “You will find that what I say is true,” she said to Sarah, “if you go there and look.”
“Won't they let him out?” Margy inquired anxiously as they drove away.
“No, Margy, they will not,” replied her aunt. “And he is not fit to go now. He has considerable temperature, and —” Sarah hesitated. The matron of the almshouse had told her what were well-nigh unspeakable things for a New England housekeeper to mention. She repeated things in horrified whispers. Miss Norris shivered disgustedly, but Margy looked straight ahead with brave eyes of disbelief. “I don't believe one word of it. They just don't want to let him go,” said she, with fine disregard of the utter lack of benefit which Old Man Rice could confer to make his presence so desired, even in an almshouse.
“I asked Mrs. White,” Sarah continued, “if she thought, when he got better and spring came, they would allow him to roam about the woods and fields, as he has always been accustomed to do, and she said that if Mr. Rice got well enough to tramp, he would have to work.”
“He won't like to work in the house,” lamented Margy. “He wants to pick flowers and wild berries!”
“Well, maybe they will let him,” soothed her aunt.
But Margy wept. Then suddenly she sat up straight, and her mouth tightened. “They shall not keep him,” she said to herself. There was much of her aunt Sarah in Margy. She felt entirely able to cope successfully with the town authorities.
Later, Margy, seated beside Miss Norris, working on a centerpiece with daisies in white silk, reflected. She had an odd little smile which made her childish face inscrutable. Margy was becoming pretty as rapidly as possible, considering the disadvantages of growth with its accompaniments of too much length in one place, and too little girth in another. Her face was already charming. She resembled her aunt Sarah, but with the delicacy and tender, appealing fragility of extreme youth. She had Sarah's coloring; her brilliant red and white, her massy darkness of hair and soft intensity of eyes which looked black under black brows. Margy wore a gown of blue wool, however, which insisted upon the blue of her eyes, and her hair was tied with wide blue ribbon in a great bow over her left ear.
The two little sisters next to Margy, Violetta and Imogen, were twelve and eleven years old respectively, and so nearly of a size that they were often taken for twins. Following a fancy of their mother, Laura Ellerton, who lay peacefully helpless in her pretty room up-stairs, they had always dressed alike. Both wore brown frocks, brown boots, and brown hair ribbons. As they were pink-cheeked, golden-haired little girls the brown suited them. They sat side by side, reading out of one book. They read at exactly the same rate of speed, and each was ready to turn a page at the same second. They agreed about many things, but Violetta had the stronger character of the two, in fact, she was possessed of a strangely adventurous spirit. It was at this adventurous little girl that Margy stole glances, reflective glances, as they all sat together that night in February after the ride to the almshouse. Margy pinned considerable faith on Violetta for assistance in her plans for the release, a little later on, of Old Man Rice.
She was obliged to wait until Saturday morning. Saturday was a fine day, warm for the season. The snow was melting and everywhere ran tiny brown rivulets. Once Margy, walking with Violetta to the post-office, thought she heard a bluebird, but Violetta insisted that it was a crow, and Margy, who had her mind intent upon more important things, yielded. “Let it be a crow,” said she.
“It was a crow,” said Violetta. Violetta, in her usual brown, walked along on thin brown-stockinged legs with a little hopping gait. Margy, clad in dark blue, walked at her side with a long graceful stride like her aunt Sarah's.
“You feel with me that it must be done,” said Margy.
“Of course,” responded the hopping Violetta briskly, “it must be done. Poor old Mr. Rice must be taken away from that awful place. But I don't see how we can do much just yet.”
Margy frowned reflectively. “I don't,” said she. “I know Jacky Widner will help, but, — that house of Mr. Rice's has to be cleaned, and we can't do that until it is a little later.”
“It is real warm to-day,” said Violetta, gazing at the brown rivulets — the earth seemed all in sinuous motion with them. “If March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb, then we can clean the house. While March is going out like a lamb, you know, Margy.”
Then they reached the post-office, and Jacky Widner stood in the doorway. “Hullo, Jacky,” said Violetta.
“Hullo,” returned Jacky. He took off his cap and said good morning to Margy. He and Margy had passed beyond the childish halloos of greeting, although they were still children together. “Jacky,” whispered Violetta, “walk along a little way with Margy and me. We want to tell you something.”
Jacky obeyed. He was a charming boy. He had curly hair, and close-cropped though it was the curliness showed. His head looked like a moire pattern done in shades of brown. He had a ready, good-natured laugh, but his eyes were keen and steady, of a lighter blue than Margy's. The three walked on. They talked of Old Man Rice. Jacky agreed to do his part. “When March is going out like a lamb,” said Violetta, “we will clean poor old Mr. Rice's house. I will steal soap and rags, and kettles and things. We will get them all there gradually. Then we will watch our chance.”
“I can get a broom up there all right,” said Jacky.
“We will set a day for it when nobody is likely to interfere,” said Margy.
“When March is going out like a lamb,” said Violetta, “Margy and I will have it all planned, and you will do the work we can't, Jacky.”
“Of course,” said Jacky.
There came a Saturday, when March was certainly going out like the mildest of lambs, when Violetta by a subtle course of hints had instigated Imogen to beg to be taken to Boston and Sarah Edgewater had yielded to the request for a holiday. Sarah with Imogen and Lucretia Norris started on the nine o'clock train. Mrs. Ellerton's room was on the other side of the house, and Saturday was always a busy day with the nurse, Susan Bellows, who, moreover, was not curious, nor given to looking out of windows. Doctor Tom Ellerton had some out-of-town calls to make, and the coast was entirely clear. Jacky Widner, Margy and Violetta, streaked across the field with pails, soap, rags and broom.
The three reached the little dingy hut in the midst of the yellow-green field. The snow had all gone, and the grass was spongy and deepening in color. A bluebird flew out of the distance and perched on a bit of broken fence. Spring was at hand. “I heard frogs last night,” said Jacky Widner. He held the broom over his shoulder like a bayonet. He looked brave, but in spirit was bewildered. How was a boy to clean a house? Margy and Violetta, although they concealed it, felt a bit of dismay before that tightly-closed little shack.
Jacky tried the door. It was locked. He took, with an air of importance, a large ring strung with keys. He had brought them from home. He tried key after key; not one fitted Old Man Rice's lock. “I'll have to get in a window,” said he. The windows were fastened in the primitive fashion with sticks under the lower sashes. Jacky had finally to break a pane of glass in order to obtain entrance. “I can get another pane and some putty and fix it myself,” he observed, as the glass shivered. Margy looked resolute, but a little startled. Violetta realized delicious thrills of heretofore ungratified daring. She pressed forward eagerly to enter after Jacky, but he called out to her. “You two keep back a minute,” said he, “I want to see how it is in here. There may be mice.”
“Huh! I am not afraid of mice,” cried Violetta, but she realized Jacky as a boy on the highroad to manhood.
There were only three windows in the little building. The other two were flung up with vehemence. Jacky appeared, looking out of the one by which he had entered. “You wait till a little fresh air gets in here,” he commanded. Old Man Rice's house, after being hermetically closed for weeks was not a bower of roses. Jacky, when he threw open the windows, admitted a flood of warm, damp air, and there was a conflict with the terribly stale atmosphere of the interior. Jacky leaned out of the window, panting.
“Let me go in,” urged Violetta.
“You wait, you and Margy,” said Jacky. “It's pretty close in here.” His face began to look a little sick.
It was in fact pretty close when at last the two girls had clambered in and stood with the boy surveying things. It was also very, very dirty, and disorderly to a degree which none of them had dreamed disorder could reach. “Some tramp must have got in here, and used poor old Mr. Rice's things,” half sobbed Margy.
“It was the way he lived,” declared Violetta with cruel firmness. “Mr. Rice is very untidy.”
Untidy was a mild expression for the condition of that one room which had meant home for years to the old man. It did not resemble a human habitation. It was the degeneration of civilization; it was organism rent to its essential elements. The three stared. To the girls, it was a hideous nightmare. The boy whistled. Margy pointed to one corner. “His bed,” she whispered.
Violetta pointed. “The stove where he cooked,” said she.
“What is that over there?” queried Margy.
She had one hand thrust through Jacky Widner's arm. Jacky whistled. Suddenly he faced the situation. “Now look here, girls,” he said, “it is an awful mess, not much worse than we ought to have expected I suppose. No use for us to stand here staring. If we have come to clean up, we must begin.”
Violetta grew alert. “I say so, too,” she agreed. “Margy Ellerton, you look scared to death. What's a little dirt? We must begin right away.”
Margy straightened herself. She remembered that she had organized this plan, and it was not for her to show the white feather. “The first thing to do,” said she, “is to make a fire in that stove so we can heat water. Jacky can bring some water from the spring, and there is the clean kettle we brought.”
Violetta eyed the stove. “It has three legs,” said she. “It is tipped way over to one side.”
Margy regarded them with the scorn of the instinctive New England housewife, fertile in expedients. “Neither of you see what he did,” said she. “I don't call you very smart. He used a brick for the leg that is gone. There is the brick,” she pointed.
Jacky whistled. He made for the brick in the mass of rubbish, and with the aid of the girls had the stove securely established. “Now I'll start a fire,” he said. “Then I'll fill the kettle.”
Margy, with set lips, had begun work. She wished she had brought gloves, but she handled things without a murmur. Violetta was more outspoken. “I wish I had tongs,” said she.
She stood with protruding lips. Then she made a dash out of the window. “I am going for some tongs,” she cried, and fled across the field. Jacky set his kettle on the stove, which was beginning to fill the place with fervent heat, and settled down beside Margy in her corner. “There's most everything here,” he remarked. “I wonder where he got such a collection.”
“I think people must have given him things,” said Margy. “Here are two old flour sifters, and three tea kettles with holes in the bottoms, and a lot of broken cups, and a bird-cage.” Margy held up a battered object and regarded it wonderingly. “I don't see why anybody ever did give him this,” said she.
“What is it?”
“It is an old lady's bonnet. I do think it is awful, Jacky.”
Violetta rushed in and snatched with the tongs the forlorn thing, streaming with black ribbons. “For goodness sake, Margy Ellerton, don't touch with your hands such terrible things!” said she.
“I know what I think,” said Jacky. “Old Man Rice is a sort of old crow. I think he just kept everything.”
Margy stared pitifully at Jacky. “If that is so,” said she, “we may be very cruel, Jacky.”
“All these things may mean a great deal to poor old Mr. Rice. They may mean to him what riches mean to men. They are his only possessions on earth.”
Violetta was back. “Now, don't be silly, Margy,” said she. “Possessions like these aren't good for anybody. We simply must clean up this place if we are to have that poor old man back.”
Jacky arose. He looked resolute. “Margy, you climb out of that window,” he ordered.
“What are you going to do?”
“The only thing that can be done. Go outside, and stand away from the door. I am going to force the lock with this old file.”
Margy clambered out of the window. The door was soon flung open with a crash. Then before Jacky, vigorously wielding the broom, came flying out poor Old Man Rice's hoard. Violetta shouted her approbation. “It is the very best way,” she proclaimed. Margy, with her mouth set, stood at one side watching. Hers was a firm, yet enormously tender heart of a little woman. What all these useless, frightful things might mean to him! With no experience of life in its entirety, she realized the tragic truth that even despicable possessions are part of the nature of a man, and derive from it a species of sanctity.
“You needn't look so solemn, Margy,” said Violetta. “It is dreadful rubbish.”
Margy nodded with grim, sad acquiescence.
At last Jacky had cleared the house except for a lounge tipping drunkenly against the wall, one chair which had lost half its back, one old arm chair, a table, and the stove. Jacky, Margy and Violetta gazed at the accumulated mass. “We can't burn it. A lot of it won't burn,” said Violetta.
“We must,” said Margy in a tragic voice, “bury it.”
“I'll run and get our shovel and spade,” cried Violetta. “They are in the woodshed.”
Jacky regarded Margy with a certain wonder mixed with admiration and sympathy. He did not fully understand, but he respected the strange workings of her girl-heart. “Old Mr. Rice can't really care for all this truck, you know,” he said.
“He does,” said Margy, “but he can't have it.” She looked away. Jacky glanced at her, and said no more. He moved about whistling. Violetta returned with the shovel and spade trundled in a wheelbarrow.
After that short work was made of Old Man Rice's property. It was taken in wheelbarrow loads to a soft place in the meadow behind the field. Jacky and Margy and Violetta worked, and there was a queer grave filled with the absurd earthly riches of a poor old man. Then they returned to the house. Even then, entering from the fresh air, they sniffed unhappily. “Don't believe we can ever get this place real clean,” said Violetta.
The kettle was boiling. They set to work. They scrubbed. The little place grew hotter and hotter. The task became harder.
“It is no use,” said Jacky. “I am awfully sorry, Margy, but the place will never be fit to live in.”
Margy was pale. She stood silently gazing at the poor little house, the home-nest of a solitary human being, which they had despoiled, and not bettered.
“Don't feel so bad, Margy,” said Jacky. “You have done all you could.”
“I wonder if — fumigation,” said Margy.
Jacky brightened. “The house is very tight. That might do. They say it kills all germs,” he said.
“Let's fumigate it,” cried Violetta with glee. “Let's fumigate it right away. It will be lots of fun.”
“You can't,” replied Jacky, “you haven't got the stuff to do it with. We shall have to wait.”
“I don't believe we can get a chance for three or four weeks,” said Margy.
“Oh, well, the old man can't come home till the weather is more settled, anyway,” said Jacky. “Come along, girls. I'll find out just how to fumigate, and we will do it the first chance we get. Then everything will be all right. I guess we had better burn up some of that furniture though, right away!”
Jacky and the girls dragged the things out, and set them on fire in the meadow where it was damp and there was no danger of the grass catching. Then they went home. Margy was considerably cheered at the prospect of fumigation, but she was impatient.
It was the Saturday before the first of May before they got their second chance. The wide field was green and dotted with dandelions; the trees were casting their first shadows of the year. It was very warm, and the air was heavy with fragrance, and thrilling with bird notes. Jacky and Margy and Violetta stopped every crack and cranny in the little house, and fixed their fumigating apparatus. Then all three went out, closed the door, and settled down under a wild apple tree. Suddenly Jacky exclaimed. “There's a good deal of smoke!” he cried.
“Wouldn't there be?” asked Margy. The smoke was pouring from the little house. It stood in a violet haze.
“I — don't know,” Jacky returned doubtfully.
Then there was a sudden leap of flame from the roof. Jacky seized the two girls by an arm of each, and they all ran into the woods. When they were under the trees out of sight, they stopped and looked at one another with round eyes of dismay. Margy was pale. “We have set poor old Mr. Rice's house on fire!” she gasped out.
It was quite true. They heard distinctly the fire gong. Then they heard bells and shouts. Suddenly they lost all sense of personal fear and ran to the fire. When they reached it the field was swarming with people and more were coming on a run. The engine was playing, Mr. Rice's little house was burning. The roof fell in, and there was a long-drawn cry from the people. “A mighty good thing,” Margy heard a man say to another, who nodded. She gazed at him, her little face piteous and panic-stricken, but he did not see her.
All about people were saying that it was a good thing the house had burned. Old Man Rice was well cared for in the almshouse. Now he could not return. “Not fit for rats to live in,” the young people heard one woman say. She added that her husband had been one of the men who had carried Old Man Rice away, and she related boldly her information of conditions which the three had never openly told one another.
When Jacky, Margy and Violetta went home across the field, poor Old Man Rice's house was simply a little bed of red coals, out of which rose a tiny blackened chimney. The three conferred as to what had better be done, with the result that Jacky told his mother as soon as he reached home, and Margy and Violetta told their aunt Sarah and their older brother, Doctor Tom. They were in Doctor Tom's office, and he told them to go out for a minute. It was not long before he recalled them.
“If you had deliberately set the house on fire, I can't say what would have been done,” Doctor Tom said; “but as it is now, your aunt and I both think you had much better keep your own counsel. I shall stop at Mrs. Widner's, and tell her the same thing. I am going over there now. You all meant well. It was accidental, and it is not necessary to set the whole village talking. Say absolutely nothing to anybody, not even to your sisters. You, of course, would not trouble your mother with it, and it is not necessary to tell Miss Norris.”
“I do not approve of secrecy, generally,” said Miss Sarah Edgewater, “but there are times when secrecy is simply common sense, and this is one of them. You both understand? Not a word about it!”
“Yes, Aunt Sarah,” replied Violetta, who looked a little puzzled but not disturbed. Margy was weeping. Sarah took her in her arms and smoothed back her brown hair. “Don't worry,” she whispered.
“Poor old Mr. Rice can't come back now,” said Margy with a little moan.
“Yes, he shall,” promised Sarah. “I will have another nice little new house put right up for him, and you shall help furnish it.” Margy looked up comforted. “Jump into the car with your brother and have a little ride,” said Sarah. “He is going over to Mrs. Widner's. Tell him I want him to bring home some asparagus for supper if he goes near the market in Barr-by-the Sea.”
Margy was hustled into her hat and coat and was off with Doctor Tom. “Why don't you want us ever to tell, Aunt Sarah?” asked Violetta, with shrewd eyes on her aunt's face, after the others had gone.
“Because nobody would make trouble in the case of you three, but setting houses on fire is an offense against the law, unless it is proved accidental,” replied Sarah with some sharpness.
“Oh,” said Violetta.
Presently she inquired with a cheerfully speculative air, “Would they arrest us and put us in prison?”
“No,” replied Sarah, “but it would all have to be proved, the accidental part, I mean, and it would be a great annoyance to us all; and now I want to hear no more about it. But I absolutely forbid you to attempt anything like fumigating again.”
“Yes, Aunt Sarah,” replied Violetta, but she still looked interested.
“If you ever speak of it to any human being, you will be severely punished, and sent away to school,” said Sarah.
Violetta was intimidated. She had an unreasoning dread of being sent away to school. “I will never tell, Aunt Sarah, honest,” she said, and at last was impressed.
That evening Margy had a long conference with her aunt Sarah and her brother Tom about the new house that was to be built for Old Man Rice. She earnestly suggested many things. Tom Ellerton was interested in spite of himself by Margy's earnestness and solicitude. There was to be a bedroom with bath in the new house. Tom chuckled, but agreed.
It was later than usual when Margy went to bed. Her room faced the field over which she had gone on her futile errand that day. It lay exposed to the full moonlight and seemed almost, to the girl's excited fancy, like a white sea. There was a slight mist rising from the moist earth overgrown with young herbage, and one could easily imagine slight undulations like that of water. It was a very beautiful night. Margy drew in a long breath and looked. Then she went to bed. She had not been in bed long before an old man appeared, wavering along the wagon track in the field.
Old Man Rice had fled from the almshouse. He had been treated kindly, too kindly. Now, when the new grass was springing lustily, and wonderful things were happening in woods, and meadow, and swamp-lands, things in which Old Man Rice was vitally interested, which, indeed, formed a part of his higher self, he had been kept indoors, scraping paper off walls of rooms which were to be renovated. The matron had been over-zealous. She had been afraid of his taking cold. He had not been put to the outdoor tasks of the town farm, which, homely as they were, would have better satisfied him. At last, with growing strength of mind, if not of body, Old Man Rice rebelled. He had risen, clothed himself by the light of the moon, stolen down-stairs, and had sped away toward his old home.
Old Man Rice had come of a good family. He had been well educated. Nobody, probably not even he, knew by what gradual steps of degeneration the old man of the present had been evolved from the young man of the past. In the almshouse he had sprung back, impelled by some subtle law of environment, to a being more like his old self. He had been living on charity, associated with paupers and degenerates, but the life had been an impulse to higher ground, and he had not drunk at all. Old Man Rice was very clean of body, well-shaven, and clean of soul, except for old memories, which hardly touched him, as he sped along. But the nearer he drew to his old haunt, the more keenly a longing which had been subdued awoke. Poor Old Man Rice, well-nourished and free in the lovely night, had no need for that bottle which had been left in the little closet in his hut. When he had started he had thought of it not at all; but there was no living soul to welcome him in his squalid abode. He began, after he had traveled a way and his strength flagged, to think of the dreadful welcome in that bottle. He thought more and more of it. When he had reached home, he would find it. Then he would lie down upon his old lounge, molded to his body, and would be asleep. Next day, there would be the wide freedom of the fields and woods.
Old Man Rice reached the place where his home had been. The reek of smoke was in his nostrils. Before him glimmered with unholy light, beneath that celestial radiance of the sky, a dying bed of coals. He saw that his home was gone. He stood staring. He had not heard the fire alarm while he was engaged at his dull task of scraping wall paper. Nobody had told him, and he had not heard. Since his attack of the grip his hearing had not been perfect. To-night, however, he heard everything. He saw everything. Suddenly his old eyes saw beyond the range of human vision. He stared at the smoking ruin of his old squalid home, and became self-hypnotized by the glare. He saw deep swamps where he had loved to wander, swamps in whose lush growth his feet sank with a splash and rise of water, swamps bordered with great bushes covered with racemes of delicate white flowers, so sweet that they made one drowsy, great bushes laden with berries with a blue bloom, which he gathered and carried to little Margy Ellerton, the little girl who looked in the unkempt face of the old man with loving eyes. He saw meadows covered with white strawberry blossoms; he saw them rosy with fruit for the loving little girl. He saw also in the swamps that orchid so delicately made that its vivid tints are dulled by its grace. He filled his old hands with the purple-pink clusters of arethusa, and was bound to the home of the little girl who loved them, and looked at him as she looked at them — the child who could look at a poor besotted old man as she looked at a flower. Then Old Man Rice saw the wild mushrooms whose secrets of poison and health he knew well. He saw great flaming wild lilies. He saw goldenrod, and asters, and then he was back in the track of the seasons, and there was a wild apple tree in the back field whose blossoms were rose-pink, and he could break off great branches.
In reality he was there under the apple tree at last. He had wandered away from the flaming spot where his home had been, and lay on the silver herbage under the apple tree. It was in full bloom and he breathed in wonderful sweetness. In the daytime it hummed with bees, but now the bees were in hive. Old Man Rice heard the field-nocturne of insects and wakeful birds, little notes and wing-rustles, and the rustle of leaves. He lay there and the premonition, that was conviction, of enormous joy about to come to him was over him, and untainted. His squalid possessions of earth had been cleaned by fire. Old Man Rice had never been cleaned as by fire. He felt strangely light of body. He had no regret for his home. He was sheltered by something beyond his farthest dreams of home. He considered, however, that he must presently stir himself and break off a blooming branch for the little girl, who would take it and look at him as if she loved him. Then he became aware that she was there. The young face was bending over him. The child — he always thought of her as the child — was bending over him, and he heard her saying so clearly that her voice woke like bell-chimes, that she had seen him from her window, that she had looked out and seen him, and Brother Tom must do something, must give him something. Poor old Mr. Rice, his home was all burned down. Then she said something about a new one, which seemed to him a true saying. He tried then to rise, and break off the blooming branch, but young Doctor Tom made him lie still.
Tom Ellerton knelt beside him, and listened at his chest, while the old man lay peacefully, his silver-white face shining as if luminous up at the blooming maze overhead. There was a boy there, too. Jacky Widner had seen him pass his house and had followed him. Old Man Rice lay there with the child bending over him and gazing at him with her eyes of kindness, and the boy beside her, and the young doctor, who had no skill to compare with the ancient healing power of the earth, which was now being bestowed upon her erring, suffering, piteous son.
Tom shook his head. Margy sobbed softly. Old Man Rice heard her, and again tried to rise and break off that blooming branch above his head. “Don't, dear,” said Tom to Margy, “you will trouble him.”
Margy bent down, and her lips touched the cold white forehead of the old man, and he smiled. He thought then that he had broken the blooming branch and given it to her. He passed, thinking so. The old man whose best life had been in the simple wilds of the countryside, whose despicable life had been in the squalid travesty on civilization, now burned away from him and the earth, lay white and silent in his fitting resting-place. The Old Man of the Field lay dead in the field, and he had died with the belief that he had broken and given that blooming branch of spring which tossed above him against the radiant sky, giving out fragrance like a triumphal song, to the child who had looked alike at him and it, and he had not died intestate of all beauty and wealth, after all.