When Henry Steavens arrives in a small forsaken Kansas town with the casket of the accomplished sculptor Harvey Merrick, his mentor, Steavens is rather perplexed that such a barren environment was the home of such an artistic personality. Further, when some men stand waiting at the quay, he is nonplused that it is with seeming disinterest that such a master of capturing beauty should be met by such a banal group. And there are no relatives present. One man with a beard tells Steavens that the family is scattered and could not be there.
So incongruous does the small assembly seem that Steavens chooses to ride with the casket to the Merrick's home. Once there, he studies the total lack of beauty and symmetry in the Merrick's yard and house, wondering how such an accomplished artist could have come from an aesthetically barren environment. Then, in almost a parody of the solemnity of the occasion,
...a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: "My boy, my boy! And this is how you've come home to me!"
As false as this excess seems, it is met by the appearance of an insipid, "flat and angular" younger woman, who tells the guests in a tone "of obsequious solemnity as she turned to the banker": "The parlor is ready, Mr. Phelps." While Steavens observes that the mother's face is coarsened by fiercer passions; grief seems never to have laid a gentle finger there. Finally, the third family member appears; Mr. Merrick is an emaciated man, timorous, but sensitive to his son:
"He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of 'em all—only we didn't none of us ever onderstand him." The tears trickled slowly down his beard and dropped upon the sculptor's coat.
The two brothers do not arrive. After observing his family and the members of the community who attend the wake, Steavens understands "...well enough now the gentle bitterness of the smile that he had seen so often on his master's lips!"