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After Long Years and Other Stories by  Agnes M. Dunne

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THE INHERITANCE

MR. ACTON AND HIS SON

[151] Mr. Acton was a clever and highly respected merchant who owed much of his success in life to the system and exactness with which he carried on his business. Then, too, he was so reliable, so honest, and sold his goods so cheaply, that everyone preferred to trade with him.

His home, which he could have furnished luxuriously, was the model of simplicity.

The only surviving member of his family was his son George, who was now twenty years of age. He was a sturdy, manly, upright youth; willing and obliging to his friends and kind-hearted to the poor. He reverenced God and everything which should be held sacred in life. He was the joy of his father's heart.

Partly on account of his father's business and partly to increase his own knowledge and ability, George had journeyed to England, and Mr. Acton daily awaited his return.

Late one afternoon, after a day of strenuous work, Mr. Acton sat dreamily near the fireside, smoking his pipe. Mr. Richmond, his bookkeeper, [152] who had been one of his school-mates, and who on account of his loyalty and honesty was classed as his nearest and dearest friend, sat beside him. Together they were planning for a banquet which they would give in honor of George's return.

A knock at the door interrupted their conversation, and in response to the pleasant "Come," the servant entered and delivered a package of letters. Mr. Acton broke the seals and hurriedly glanced over them, in turn. As he took one which seemed to please him, his face suddenly changed color, and the hand which held the letter began to tremble. Mr. Richmond became startled, for he well knew that business losses, which Mr. Acton had often experienced and borne calmly, could not be the cause of this agitation. He touched him lightly on the shoulder and said, with deep concern: "Do tell me what has happened."

"There, read it," said Mr. Acton, with a deep sigh, as he handed him the letter. Then, sinking back in his arm-chair and folding his hands, he stared blankly into the distance, his grief too deep for words.

Mr. Richmond read the letter which a fellow merchant in a distant city had written, and which referred incidentally to the sinking of a ship in the English Channel. Unknown to the merchant, this ship had been the one on which George Acton was to have taken passage.

This sad news stunned Mr. Richmond, but he [153] tried to reassure his friend, and said: "Perhaps your son is among the saved, or possibly he may not have embarked, owing to some business delay."

"You certainly do kindle a faint spark of hope in my heart, my dear Richmond, but I fear it will be extinguished. Let us lose no time in getting all the information we can." He rang, and said to the servant who answered: "Go at once and send this telegram." Then taking up the evening newspaper his eye glanced hurriedly over column after column, and finally he read that the ship Neptune  had been sunk, and that eleven persons had been rescued, but no names had been reported.

Between hope and fear, the next day passed. He summoned all his courage and waited anxiously for an answer to his telegram.

All the neighbors, in fact all the people of the town, held Mr. Acton and his son in the highest esteem, and they awaited the news of George Acton's fate in dread suspense. At last the answer arrived: "George was numbered among the passengers on board, but not among those rescued."

Poor Mr. Acton was so overcome that his eyes held no tears. With dumb grief he shut himself up in his room to find his comfort in God, alone.

Several days later, there came to Mr. Acton's house an old sailor, who had been on the ill-fated [154] vessel, and who could give an accurate account of the calamity.

"We encountered a storm," said the sailor, "such as I, an old sea-dog, have never experienced. It broke shortly before midnight, and in less than two hours it had driven us out of our course and seriously damaged our ship. Suddenly, we felt a great thud, which threw us off our feet, and a dreadful crash told us that the ship had foundered. The water poured into the vessel from all sides, and the ship was soon submerged.

"The helmsman, seven sailors, two passengers and myself swam through the tempestuous sea toward the cliffs which had shattered our ship. The brave captain and all the other passengers went to their watery grave.


[Illustration]

The Helmsman

"The loss of young George Acton," continued the sailor, as he dried his eyes, "was deeply lamented by us all. The sailors loved him very much, for he was always so helpful and friendly. I know positively that every one of us would willingly have sacrificed his life, in order to save that of your son. But there was no moment to wait; the ship went under, and we were obliged to sink or swim.

"I last saw him near the bow of the vessel, just as the storm was threatening to break. From that time on, I saw no more of him; but I chanced to [156] find this wallet, as I descended from the rigging;" and he passed it over to Mr. Acton.

"It contains several letters from you to your son, and a bank note of value. That is why I wished to deliver it myself."

Mr. Acton took the wallet, and opened it with trembling fingers. He found the letters there which he had sent his son. "My good boy," said the father, "kept all my letters so carefully, carried them with him, and as I would have wished, read them often!"

The affectionate father whose grief had been dumb and dry, for the first time shed the tears that would give relief to his pent-up feelings.

The sailor continued: "On the morning following the disaster, we found ourselves on the bare rocks, with nothing about us but the immeasurable sea. We found a stick and a piece of sail which had been cast upon the rocks, and this we hoisted. We were taken up by the sailors of another ship and landed at Havre."

Mr. Acton had listened attentively to each word. Then, taking the money from the wallet, he presented it to the sailor, saying: "Take this for your love to my son and for your honesty in returning the wallet to me. Lay the money by for your old age."

The sailor was astonished at this rich gift. He thanked Mr. Acton for his generosity and then departed.

[157] Mr. Acton felt the loss of his son more and more each day, and soon his health began to fail. One Sunday morning, as he returned from church, he suddenly became very ill. He hadn't the strength to remove his clothing, but sank into the nearest chair.

Mr. Richmond, who had accompanied him, hoped that the illness would be slight, and buoyed his spirits with the thought that he would soon recover.

"My dear Richmond," the merchant said, "my hopes in this world are over, and I must now set all my affairs in order. Come, seat yourself at this table. There is pen, ink and paper. I wish to dictate to you my last wishes. The notary can then sign and seal the instrument.

"The great wealth with which God has blessed me would, in the natural course, all fall to my relations. But, as I know them, this would not be the best thing for them, but rather unfortunate. They shall each receive a suitable portion, with the understanding that the money be not wasted, but invested and bequeathed to their children. If the children do not wish to study and learn some trade, they shall not get a penny of mine.

"For you, my dear Richmond, and for all my faithful assistants who helped me amass my fortune, I shall provide generously. The worthy poor and the afflicted, I shall not forget. Come now, write quickly; I fear the time is short."

[158] Mr. Acton began to dictate, but suddenly he stopped and cried: "I hear my summons. I must go. God, who has not permitted me to finish this deed, will in His wisdom fulfill it, and let it reach my heirs to their best advantage!"

He paused, prayed silently and passed away.

All the members of the household were grieved at their loss. Mr. Richmond spoke gently to them and said: "Our good, helpful, pious friend sleeps in peace. Richly did he sow good deeds while here on earth, and now he has gone to the land beyond where richly he will reap."

THE UNINVITED GUEST

[159] The death of Mr. Acton cast a gloom over all the people, with the exception of his relatives, who felt such unbounded joy over the unexpected inheritance, that it gave them much trouble to mask their true feelings.

"The inheritance is enormous!" was all they could say and think. When the time came to make the division, and it was found upon investigation that the value of the estate to be divided was only about a million, the heirs were heard to grumble at the amount. They reprimanded the worthy bookkeeper, Mr. Richmond, and all the other able assistants, as if they had embezzled some of the money. These good, faithful men, instead of receiving what Mr. Acton had fully intended they should, were obliged to accept reproaches and immediate dismissal.

Soon the heirs began to quarrel among themselves, and for a time it seemed as if they would have to settle their affairs in the court. However, their eagerness to possess the money soon brought them into accord, and each one accepted his portion.

Then, one began to build; another bought a [160] country estate; another gave up his business, and rode about in his carriage. Not one of them ever thought of Mr. Acton, much less of erecting a monument on his grave.

Mr. Acton's house, besides a large share of his money, fell to the lot of a man named Mr. Bond. He immediately had the house renovated and furnished magnificently, and when it was completed to his satisfaction, he invited all his relatives to celebrate the event. On the appointed night, hundreds of lights illumined the house and gleamed in the crystal, like so many colors of the rainbow. They were reflected from the mirrors and shone upon the highly polished silver.

All the heirs of the departed Mr. Acton had responded to the invitation, and were dressed to honor the occasion. Especially happy were the wives and daughters, whose elaborate gowns were works of art. Mr. Bond's daughter resembled a princess in the elegance of her attire, and strutted about, in order to display her beautiful diamonds.

After supper had been served, the guests retired to the grand salon. The entrancing tones of the music soon led couple after couple to dance to its rhythm, and the revelry ran high.

It struck twelve by the big church clock. Suddenly there flashed over the faces of the assembled guests, consternation and horror. The music stopped—the dancers seemed rooted to the floor. A sudden stillness, broken only by the echoing [161] tones of the clock, or here and there a gasp of fear or an exclamation of surprise, hovered over all. In one instant the doors had been thrown open, and there on the threshold, clad in black, and with a countenance pale as death, stood George Acton.

If he had really returned from the grave, the fear and shock that his appearance caused could not have been greater.

All present felt a shudder pass over them, as they realized the certainty of his return. However courteous it would have been for them to have hidden their displeasure and to have extended their greetings to him, not one came forward. The loss of their fortune was too distasteful to them; the awakening from a happy dream, from a life of joyous forgetfulness of right and duty, to a life of hard work was too revolting for them. Mr. Bond had been obliged to seat himself to recover his strength. Some swooned and had to be carried out.

The noble George Acton had not for one moment thought that his entrance would have caused his relations such a shock. So he withdrew to another room. Then the questions were heard: "Do we sleep or dream? Was it really he, or was it an apparition?"

The heirs could not understand how George Acton, who was considered as dead by everyone, even by the courts, could have the audacity to live, [162] and by his unexpected return to give them such a blow; but it came about in a very natural way.

George Acton had, on the night of the shipwreck, swung himself from the fast sinking vessel to a plank. Wind and waves soon carried him many miles. Then the storm had subsided and a gentle wind had arisen. He found himself very much exhausted, for it had taken all his strength to cling to the plank.

After a while he managed to seat himself upon the board. At dawn, all he could see on every side was water and sky. Completely drenched, and faint from hunger and cold, he passed the day.

As the sun was beginning to sink, he felt that there was nothing for him but death. He raised his eyes to heaven and prayed silently. Suddenly, in the distance he saw the smoke-stacks of a ship, lighted by the rays of the declining sun. The ship came nearer and nearer. At last, he was spied by the captain and saved. His thanks to God and man for his rescue were as hearty as his prayers had been fervent. When George had been warmed and nourished, he begged the captain to land him at the nearest port.

The captain expressed his willingness to do all that lay in his power; but, said he, "This is an English warship. I dare not deviate one hair's breadth from my appointed course. You will be obliged, unless we meet another vessel, to continue with us on the journey to St. Helena."

[163] The ship reached its destination, and after a weary wait of several months, George was advised to take passage on board a coaling steamer, then in port, and bound for Lisbon. "From there you can easily get to London," said the captain.

George accepted this good advice, but found himself in a very great dilemma. He, the son of a rich merchant, was, what he had never thought possible, without one penny. As he sat lost in thought, the captain aroused him and said: "What is it that troubles you?"

George looked up at him abashed, and said: "How can I make this trip when I am entirely penniless?"

"Is that all?" said the captain. "Well, I have provided for that." Whereupon he counted out to the astonished George a good round sum of money. "Now all I want is a receipt."

"What?" cried George. "You intend to trust me, a person of whom you know so little, with this large amount of money! You know nothing of my circumstances, but what I have told you."

"I know your sentiments, your thoughts," said the captain, "and that is sufficient. I would willingly give you more, if I had it to give. But the amount will be sufficient to carry you to your destination. Were I not able to trust a boy like you, I should not want to deal with anyone. Now perhaps you would not mind doing a little favor for me. When you arrive in London, please deliver [164] this money to my old mother, who needs my help." George promised faithfully to carry out the captain's wish.

On the morning of departure, George bade the captain and his crew farewell, and after a devious journey, he at last arrived in London. He hurried to the home of his father's friend, at whose house he had so recently sojourned.

The merchant was speechless with astonishment when he recognized George, whom he had reckoned among the dead. But greater still was George's grief and despair when he learned that his kind, loving father had passed away.

Without further delay, he transacted the business which the captain had deputed to him, bought some clothing for himself, and sailed with the next steamer to Havre. From there he took the train to his native town, arriving late at night.

With a heavy heart, he walked through the streets to his father's house. He expected to find it quiet and gloomy, but the brightly illuminated windows were a painful sight. The joyous laughter and the music all wounded his saddened heart. He could not resist the temptation to present himself, unannounced, and end this wild revelry, this dreadful disrespect for the dead. So, it happened that he appeared on the threshold of the grand ball-room—an uninvited guest.

THE FLOWERING PLANT

[165] On the following morning, George wended his way to the cemetery to visit his father's grave. After wandering about for some time, he thought: "How strange it is that I can not find it." At last he met a worker there, to whom he said: "Friend, would you be so kind, as to direct me to the tomb-stone that marks the grave of the late Mr. Acton."

The old grave-digger thrust his spade into the newly, upturned sod, and said to George, whom he did not recognize, "Yes, I can show you the grave, but the tomb-stone is still missing. His heirs have set up no stone, and probably will never erect one. They have forgotten the good, noble old soul."

By this time, they had reached the grave, which was graced by a beautiful hydrangea, handsomer than any plant of its kind that George had ever seen. A mass of beautiful flowers crowded forward between the dark-green leaves and thousands of dew-drops hung on the plant and sparkled in the morning sun.


[Illustration]

"By this time, they had reached the grave, which was graced by a flowering plant."

George stood there silent, with his hands clasped tightly before him, and his head bowed [166] in grief, while the tears fell on the grave. The beauty of the plant was a little comfort to him.

After he had spent some moments thinking of his departed father, he turned to the grave-digger, and said: "Who planted this beautiful bush?"

"Oh, that good child, Lucy, the oldest daughter of Mr. Richmond who was the book-keeper for the late Mr. Acton, she planted it. She was very much concerned because it seemed as if the good man were never to have a tomb-stone.

" 'Oh, that we were rich' said she, 'then he certainly should have the finest monument here in the church-yard. However, I will do what I can. I will plant this bush and, though it be not costly like a monument, yet it represents no less in good intentions.'

"She bought the bush last April and brought it here; and with the spade I loaned her, she dug the earth with her tender hands and set it here. You see it is a long distance from yonder stream and yet, she brought the water that distance, to wet this plant whenever she visited the grave. She really felt grateful to Mr. Acton for his kindness to her father. All her people, too, loved him."

While George listened with interest to the grave-digger's recital, a young man from the village happened along. He joined the group and admired the bush. After a pause, he added; "I, too, remember Mr. Acton, everyone speaks of his [167] goodness. It would have been better for the old, honest Mr. Richmond and his children had Mr. Acton lived a little longer, for then, they would have suffered no want. Nor would Mr. Richmond have been thrust out of business so shamelessly.

"As one misfortune seldom comes alone," continued the stranger, "so it happened that Mr. Richmond had put all his savings into Mr. Acton's business, where he thought it would be well invested. The heirs accused him of falsifying the accounts and brought him to court. But the case was deferred, and put on the calendar for some distant date. In the meantime Mr. Richmond lost his all.

"His daughter's needle is now his only support, as Mr. Richmond's failing sight keeps him unemployed. The other members of the family are too young to earn anything."

George had been deeply touched by these revelations. He picked a flower from the bush, and put it into his button-hole. Then he slipped a golden coin into the old man's hand, asked for the street and number of the humble house where the Richmonds now resided, and turned his steps in that direction.

THE TWO FAMILIES

[168] The report that George Acton had returned was the talk of the town and had reached the ears of the Richmond family in their out-of-the-way home. Mr. Richmond had gone forth in search of more facts on the subject. He returned highly elated, with the good news confirmed, and stood in the midst of his family relating it to them. Lucy stopped sewing and her hands dropped in her lap, for the news was such a wonderful surprise to her. Mr. Richmond closed his remarks by saying that he regretted his inability to find George Acton anywhere, and nobody seemed to know what had become of him. To search for him in the cemetery had not occurred to anyone.

Just then a knock at the door announced a visitor. The door was opened, and George stepped into their midst. Everyone was dumbfounded. The old Mr. Richmond ran forward and pressed him to his breast. Lucy and her brothers kissed his hands and wet them with their tears. "Oh, that your father were with us," was all Mr. Richmond could say.

George then seated himself and learned the history of his father's last days. Mr. Richmond [169] told everything as he remembered, and every eye was moist. He told, too, how rough, mean and cruel the heirs had been, particularly Mr. Bond.

Hours passed like seconds to George, who listened breathlessly. He assured them of his good will and promised them soon to return and better their condition. He then left to make a few visits and to attend to some important business.

In the meantime, the affairs in Mr. Bond's household were not very agreeable. Following the unfortunate feast and revelry, Mr. Bond and his wife and daughter had passed the remainder of the night planning what they would do next.

"Nothing worse could have befallen me," said Mr. Bond, "than the return of this boy. I would rather that this house had tumbled in on us, and killed us all as we stood there. When I return my inheritance to George Acton, I become a beggar. What we have wasted, is twice as much as we ever had, and nothing will be left for us."

"Oh," said his wife, "then we must sell our jewels and our carriages, and I must again walk to the theatres, like other ordinary people. I shall never survive it!"

"You will, most likely, never get to a place of amusement," said Mr. Bond. "What we have spent in one night for pleasure alone, will have to support us for almost a year."

His daughter, who had been admiring her [170] diamonds, then said: "Must I return my diamonds, too?"

"Yes," said her father, "jewels, gold, silver, house, garden, money must be returned and all luxury is at an end."

Suddenly the Bonds resolved upon a plan to flatter George Acton, beg his pardon for their seeming disrespect, and invite him to a celebration in honor of his return. As they were still devising how best to carry out the plot, George Acton entered. They jumped to their feet, hastened to greet him and assure him that his return gave them the greatest joy and happiness, and informed him of the feast with which they proposed to honor him.

George hesitated a moment. Then, as if it had suggested some new idea to him, he agreed, with the understanding that he would be the host on that occasion, and that he would reserve the rights to invite a few of his old friends. He also requested that the feast be postponed for two weeks, as he wished to pass that time quietly, out of respect to his father.

THE FEAST

[171] The day that was to be crowned by a night of joy at last arrived. Late that afternoon, George Acton called upon his friends, the Richmonds and invited them for a walk. Lucy begged for a few moments in which to change her dress, but George dissuaded her, saying that her simple frock of beautiful white linen could not be improved upon.

After strolling leisurely for some time, they came to the cemetery. "Let us go in," said George, "and visit my father's grave."

Lucy felt awkward, for she feared that he would consider the planting of the bush as audacious on her part, but she said nothing. He stepped toward the grave and held his hat in his hand. All were silent. Only the breeze sighed through the trees, and scattered here and there a leaf or flower upon the grave. Every eye was wet with tears.

"Lucy," said George, turning toward her, "the first bit of comfort that came to my heart after I learned of my father's death, was the sight of this bush, planted here by your hands. I always respected your high and worthy thoughts and I have [172] learned now to respect them even more. Were my dear father living, I would lead you to him, and say that next to him I cared most for you, and ask him to give us his benediction. But, now I lead you to his grave, which to you as well as to me, is holy ground, and here I ask you to give me your hand, that I may care for you and protect you while I live; and I will ask your parents for their blessing."

Mr. Richmond, quickly recovering himself from his surprise, said: "My boy, remember that you have millions and that my daughter is penniless."

"Your daughter's kind heart is worth more than millions." He then broke a flower, and placing it in Lucy's hair, said: "This flower with which Lucy decorated my father's grave, represents her dower. My dear Mr. Richmond, add your blessings."

Recognizing George's earnestness, then Mr. Richmond said: "God bless you, my children, and may He keep you as happy, as He has made us all this day."

Silent and engrossed in deep thought, they approached George Acton's house. "Here," said he, "I am expected. It grieves me that I must spend this night in the company of relatives who have dealt so cruelly with you, my good people, whom I love so dearly. But I must remain, for I have given my word; and you must all accompany me."

[173] With Lucy at his side, followed by the Richmond family, George Acton stepped into the brilliantly illuminated room, which was gorgeously decked with flowers. They were greeted by soft strains of sweet music. The Bonds were all prepared with flattering speeches, but the sight of the Richmond family surprised them as greatly as George Acton's return had done, and words failed them.

"They have complained to him," whispered Mr. Bond, "and so he has dragged them here in their shabby clothes. Such impertinence on their part."

George stepped forward into the ball-room and beckoned to the musicians to stop. The guests had risen by this time, and stood about him in a circle.

Mr. Bond then addressed George saying: "I know why you come with these good people. Probably, it is on account of the law-suit which I have brought. It gives me great pain to think that any difference or ill-feeling exists between Mr. Richmond and myself, but I shall certainly call off the law-suit and I will pay him the money which belongs to him, this very night." Turning to his servant, he said: "Summon my book-keeper, at once."

"Don't bother any further about it," said George, "for it is no longer a matter which con- [174] cerns you, but me. I will see to it that Mr. Richmond's rights are restored to him. It was not for that purpose that I brought him here. I have an entirely different object in view. Where do you think we have been? We come, just as we are, from the grave of my beloved father."

Mr. Bond felt embarrassed and said: "Oh, I feel very much disturbed that the idea of giving your father a tomb-stone has never been carried out, but the stone-cutter disappointed me so often."

Then his daughter took up the thread of the conversation and said: "Yes, we regret so much that this delay has arisen, for only two days ago I visited your father's grave, and thought how beautiful a monument would look there, if it were chiseled from Carrara marble."

"If you were there but two days ago," said George, "then you must have noticed that it has a tombstone, though not of marble. How did it please you?"

She paled and began to stammer: "I was—I don't know—it must have—"

Then followed a painful silence which was broken by George saying: "It is evident that you never visited the grave. However, that monument has stood there several months.

"It pains me deeply, Mr. Bond, that you did [175] not consider my father, who so generously enriched you, worthy of a slight token of your thanks. Let me tell you that this night my relationship to you changes."

Turning to the other members of the party, George said: "I notice in this gathering many true friends of my father who loved me and esteemed me as a boy. I feel gratified that you have come to celebrate my return. But I must tell you that this celebration has a double purpose; for this is the night on which I present to you my future wife—Lucy Richmond. She it was who planted the flowering bush on the grave of my father, never dreaming that it would be recognized by any one. But I think more of that flower, than of all the riches of the world."

His friends came forward and with hearty cheers cried: "Long live George Acton and his bride."

"Now," said he, "as this house and all the fortune of which Mr. Bond still holds the greatest share, falls again to me, I take upon myself the rights of host, and heartily invite all those who are my friends, to spend the rest of the night in celebration of this threefold event: My return, the restoration of my fortune and Lucy to share it."

One by one, the Bond family quietly slipped out of the room.

[176] Later in the evening, during the feast, Mr. Richmond offered a toast to the health and happiness of George and his daughter, and ended by saying: "Noble purposes and noble thoughts are the only foundation for happiness; and yield at all times buds and blossoms unnumbered."


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