(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Harvey Merrick, a distinguished sculptor, has died of tuberculosis at the age of forty. As the story opens, a group of townsfolk waits for the arrival of the night train that is bringing Merrick’s body back from the East for burial in the small Kansas town where he grew up. The conversation among those waiting reveals the small-mindedness of their assessment of Merrick. When the train pulls in, Jim Laird, a local lawyer, drunk as usual but seemingly the only person who has a real purpose in being at the station, leads the group of waiting men to the express car. There they find Henry Steavens, a young apprentice of Merrick, who has traveled from the East with the coffin. Steavens, who worshiped his master, is stunned by the apparent lack of any connection or similarity between Merrick and the men who have come to collect the body. He watches them gaze with curiosity but without comprehension at the palm that lies across the coffin lid, a symbol of Merrick’s distinction as an artist.

When the coffin reaches Merrick’s home, his mother rushes out into the yard, screaming for her dead son. Steavens tries to see some evidence of kinship between her and his idol, but he is appalled by her look of violence and fierce passion, as well as by the power she wields over everyone around her. Steavens is equally appalled by the cheap vulgarity of taste that is everywhere apparent in the decor of the house and can scarcely believe that Merrick could ever have had any connection with this place. Despite her show of pious grief and decorous behavior, Mrs. Merrick stages a horrifying tantrum when her servant makes a small mistake, and it is evident that only this same servant, along with Mrs. Merrick’s weak, worn-out husband, actually feels any sorrow for the dead man. Steavens’s distress at the abysmal family situation finds an echo in the expression he sees on the dead sculptor’s face, which looks “as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.”

Steavens begins for the first time to see the full significance of Merrick’s achievement. The sculptor’s accomplishments...

(The entire section is 877 words.)