Chapter I. His Inheritance
 

It was winter--cold and snow and ice and naked trees and leaden clouds and stinging wind.

The house was an ancient mansion on an old street in that city of culture which has given to the history of our nation--to education, to religion, to the sciences, and to the arts--so many illustrious names.

In the changing years, before the beginning of my story, the woman's immediate friends and associates had moved from the neighborhood to the newer and more fashionable districts of a younger generation. In that city of her father's there were few of her old companions left. There were fewer who remembered. The distinguished leaders in the world of art and letters, whose voices had been so often heard within the walls of her home, had, one by one, passed on; leaving their works and their names to their children. The children, in the greedy rush of these younger times, had too readily forgotten the woman who, to the culture and genius of a passing day, had been hostess and friend.

The apartment was pitifully bare and empty. Ruthlessly it had been stripped of its treasures of art and its proud luxuries. But, even in its naked necessities the room managed, still, to evidence the rare intelligence and the exquisite refinement of its dying tenant.

The face upon the pillow, so wasted by sickness, was marked by the death-gray. The eyes, deep in their hollows between the fleshless forehead and the prominent cheek-bones, were closed; the lips were livid; the nose was sharp and pinched; the colorless cheeks were sunken; but the outlines were still delicately drawn and the proportions nobly fashioned. It was, still, the face of a gentlewoman. In the ashen lips, only, was there a sign of life; and they trembled and fluttered in their effort to utter the words that an indomitable spirit gave them to speak.

"To-day--to-day--he will--come." The voice was a thin, broken whisper; but colored, still, with pride and gladness.

A young woman in the uniform of a trained nurse turned quickly from the window. With soft, professional step, she crossed the room to bend over the bed. Her trained fingers sought the skeleton wrist; she spoke slowly, distinctly, with careful clearness; and, under the cool professionalism of her words, there was a tone of marked respect. "What is it, madam?"

The sunken eyes opened. As a burst of sunlight through the suddenly opened doors of a sepulchre, the death-gray face was illumed. In those eyes, clear and burning, the nurse saw all that remained of a powerful personality. In their shadowy depths, she saw the last glowing embers of the vital fire gathered; carefully nursed and tended; kept alive by a will that was clinging, with almost superhuman tenacity, to a definite purpose. Dying, this woman would not die--could not die--until the end for which she willed to live should be accomplished. In the very grasp of Death, she was forcing Death to stay his hand--without life, she was holding Death at bay.

It was magnificent, and the gentle face under the nurse's cap shone with appreciation and admiration as she smiled her sympathy and understanding.

"My son--my son--will come--to-day." The voice was stronger, and, with the eyes, expressed a conviction--a certainty--with the faintest shadow of a question.

The nurse looked at her watch. "The boat was due in New York, early this morning, madam."

A step sounded in the hall outside. The nurse started, and turned quickly toward the door. But the woman said, "The doctor." And, again, the fire that burned in those sunken eyes was hidden wearily under their dark lids.

The white-haired physician and the nurse, at the farther end of the room, spoke together in low tones. Said the physician,--incredulous,--"You say there is no change?"

"None that I can detect," breathed the nurse. "It is wonderful!"

"Her mind is clear?"

"As though she were in perfect health."

The doctor took the nurse's chart. For a moment, he studied it in silence. He gave it back with a gesture of amazement. "God! nurse," he whispered, "she should be in her grave by now! It's a miracle! But she has always been like that--" he continued, half to himself, looking with troubled admiration toward the bed at the other end of the room--"always."

He went slowly forward to the chair that the nurse placed for him. Seating himself quietly beside his patient, and bending forward with intense interest, his fine old head bowed, he regarded with more than professional care the wasted face upon the pillow.

The doctor remembered, too well, when those finely moulded features--now, so worn by sorrow, so marked by sickness, so ghastly in the hue of death--were rounded with young-woman health and tinted with rare loveliness. He recalled that day when he saw her a bride. He remembered the sweet, proud dignity of her young wifehood. He saw her, again, when her face shone with the glad triumph and the holy joy of motherhood.

The old physician turned from his patient, to look with sorrowful eyes about the room that was to witness the end.

Why was such a woman dying like this? Why was a life of such rich mental and spiritual endowments--of such wealth of true culture--coming to its close in such material poverty?

The doctor was one of the few who knew. He was one of the few who understood that, to the woman herself, it was necessary.

There were those who--without understanding, for the sake of the years that were gone--would have surrounded her with the material comforts to which, in her younger days, she had been accustomed. The doctor knew that there was one--a friend of her childhood, famous, now, in the world of books--who would have come from the ends of the earth to care for her. All that a human being could do for her, in those days of her life's tragedy, that one had done. Then--because he understood--he had gone away. Her own son did not know--could not, in his young manhood, have understood, if he had known--would not understand when he came. Perhaps, some day, he would understand--perhaps.

When the physician turned again toward the bed, to touch with gentle fingers the wrist of his patient, his eyes were wet.

At his touch, her eyes opened to regard him with affectionate trust and gratitude.

"Well Mary," he said almost bruskly.

The lips fashioned the ghost of a smile; into her eyes came the gleam of that old time challenging spirit. "Well--Doctor George," she answered. Then,--"I--told you--I would not--go--until he came. I must--have my way--still--you see. He will--come--to-day He must come."

"Yes, Mary," returned the doctor,--his fingers still on the thin wrist, and his eyes studying her face with professional keenness,--"yes, of course."

"And George--you will not forget--your promise? You will--give me a few minutes--of strength--when he comes--so that I can tell him? I--I--must tell him myself--George. You--will do--this last thing--for me?"

"Yes, Mary, of course," he answered again. "Everything shall be as you wish--as I promised."

"Thank you--George. Thank you--my dear--dear--old friend."

The nurse--who had been standing at the window--stepped quickly to the table that held a few bottles, glasses, and instruments. The doctor looked at her sharply. She nodded a silent answer, as she opened a small, flat, leather case. With his fingers still on his patient's wrist, the physician spoke a word of instruction; and, in a moment, the nurse placed a hypodermic needle in his hand.

As the doctor gave the instrument, again, to his assistant, a quick step sounded in the hall outside.

The patient turned her head. Her eager eyes were fixed upon the door; her voice--stronger, now, with the strength of the powerful stimulant--rang out; "My boy--my boy--he is here! George, nurse, my boy is here!"

The door opened. A young man of perhaps twenty-two years stood on the threshold.

The most casual observer would have seen that he was a son of the dying woman. In the full flush of his young manhood's vigor, there was the same modeling of the mouth, the same nose with finely turned nostrils, the same dark eyes under a breadth of forehead; while the determined chin and the well-squared jaw, together with a rather remarkable fineness of line, told of an inherited mental and spiritual strength and grace as charming as it is, in these days, rare. His dress was that of a gentleman of culture and social position. His very bearing evidenced that he had never been without means to gratify the legitimate tastes of a cultivated and refined intelligence.

As he paused an instant in the open door to glance about that poverty stricken room, a look of bewildering amazement swept over his handsome face. He started to draw back--as if he had unintentionally entered the wrong apartment. Looking at the doctor, his lips parted as if to apologize for his intrusion. But before he could speak, his eyes met the eyes of the woman on the bed.

With a cry of horror, he sprang forward;--"Mother! Mother!"

As he knelt there by the bed, when the first moments of their meeting were past, he turned his face toward the doctor. From the physician his gaze went to the nurse, then back again to his mother's old friend. His eyes were burning with shame and sorrow--with pain and doubt and accusation. His low voice was tense with emotion, as he demanded, "What does this mean? Why is my mother here like--like this?"--his eyes swept the bare room again.

The dying woman answered. "I will explain, my boy. It is to tell you, that I have waited."

At a look from the doctor, the nurse quietly followed the physician from the room.

It was not long. When she had finished, the false strength that had kept the woman alive until she had accomplished that which she conceived to be her last duty, failed quickly.

"You will--promise--you will?"

"Yes, mother, yes."

"Your education--your training--your blood--they--are--all--that--I can--give you, my son."

"O mother, mother! why did you not tell me before? Why did I not know!" The cry was a protest--an expression of bitterest shame and sorrow.

She smiled. "It--was--all that I could do--for you--my son--the only way--I could--help. I do not--regret the cost. You will--not forget?"

"Never, mother, never."

"You promise--to--to regain that--which--your father--"

Solemnly the answer came,--in an agony of devotion and love,--"I promise--yes, mother, I promise."

       *       *       *       *       *

A month later, the young man was traveling, as fast as modern steam and steel could carry him, toward the western edge of the continent.

He was flying from the city of his birth, as from a place accursed. He had set his face toward a new land--determined to work out, there, his promise--the promise that he did not, at the first, understand.

How he misunderstood,--how he attempted to use his inheritance to carry out what he first thought was his mother's wish,--and how he came at last to understand, is the story that I have to tell.