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   Chapter 1 THE CHILD, AND WHAT SHE LED ME INTO

One of My Sons By Anna Katharine Green Characters: 6910

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


was walking at a rapid pace up the avenue one raw, fall evening, when somewhere near the corner of Fifty--Street I was brought to a sudden stand-still by the sound of a child's voice accosting me from the stoop of one of the handsome houses I was then passing.

"O sir!" it cried, "please come in. Please come to grandpa. He's sick and wants you."

Surprised, for I knew no one on the block, I glanced up and saw bending from the open doorway the trembling figure of a little girl, with a wealth of curly hair blowing about her sweet, excited face.

"You have made a mistake," I called up to her. "I am not the person you suppose. I am a stranger. Tell me whom you know about here and I will see that someone comes to your grandpa."

But this did not satisfy her. Running down the stoop, she seized me by the arm with childish impetuosity, crying: "No, no. There isn't time. Grandpa told me to bring in the first man I saw going by. You are the first man. Come!"

There was urgency in her tones, and unconsciously I began to yield to her insistence, and allow myself to be drawn towards the stoop.

"Who is your grandpa?" I asked, satisfied from the imposing look of the house that he must be a man of some prominence. "If he is sick there are the servants"-But here her little foot came down in infantile impatience.

"Grandpa never waits!" she cried, dragging me with her small hands up the stoop and into the open door. "If you don't hurry he'll think I didn't do as he told me."

What man would not have yielded? The hall, as seen from the entrance, was wide and unusually rich. Indeed, an air of the highest respectability, as well as of unbounded wealth, characterised the whole establishment; and however odd the adventure appeared, it certainly offered nothing calculated to awaken distrust. Entering with her, I shut the door behind me. In an instant she was half-way down the hall.

"Here! here!" she cried, pausing before a door near its end.

The confidence with which she summoned me (I sometimes wonder if my countenance conveys more than the ordinary amount of good nature) and the pretty picture she made, standing in the flood of light which poured from the unseen apartment toward which she beckoned me, lured me on till I reached her side, and stood in full view of a scene which certainly justified her fear if not the demand she made upon a passing stranger.

In the midst of a small room, plain as any office, I saw an elderly gentleman standing who, even to my unaccustomed eyes, seemed to be not simply ill, but in the throes of actual dissolution.

Greatly disturbed, for I had anticipated nothing so serious, I turned to fly for assistance, when the little child, rushing by me, caught her grandfather by the knees and gave me such a look, I had not the heart to leave her.

Indeed it would have been cruel to do so. The appearance and attitude of the sick man were startling even to me. Though in a state bordering on death, he was, as I have said, standing, not lying, and his tall figure swaying against the large table to which he clung, formed a picture of mental and physical suffering such as I had never before seen, and can never in all my life to come, forget. One hand was pressed against his heart, but the other, outspread in a desperate attempt to support his weight, had fallen on some half-dozen sheets or so of typewritten paper, which, slipping under the pressure put upon them, kept h

im tottering, though he did not fall. He was looking my way, and as I advanced into the room, his collapsing frame shook with sudden feeling, and the hand which he held clenched over his heart opened slightly, revealing a scrap of paper crushed between his fingers.

Struck with compassion, for the contrast was pitiful between his naturally imposing appearance and his present helplessness, I murmured some words of sympathy and encouragement, and then supposing him to be alone in the house with his grandchild, inquired what I could do to serve him.

"ONE HAND WAS PRESSED AGAINST HIS HEART"

He cast a meaning glance down at his hand, then seeing that I did not understand him, made a super-human effort and held that member out, uttering some inarticulate words which I was able to construe into a prayer to take from him the paper which his stiffening clutch made it difficult for him to release.

Touched by his extremity, and anxious to afford him all the solace his desperate case demanded, I drew the paper from between his fingers. As I did so I noted, first, that it was a portion of one of the sheets I saw scattered about on every side, and, secondly, that it was folded together as if intended for someone's private perusal.

"What shall I do with this?" I asked, consulting his eye over which a glaze was fast forming.

He let his own glance wander eagerly till it fell upon some envelopes, then it became fixed, and I understood.

Drawing out one, I placed the slip in it, and fastening the envelope, consulted his face with a smile.

He answered with a look so full of thanks, appreciation, and confidence that I felt abashed. Something of more than ordinary significance was conveyed by that look, and I was about to ask what name I should write on the envelope, when the faint sounds with which he had been trying to express his secret wishes became articulate, and I heard these words:

"To no one-no one else! To-to--"

Alas! at this critical moment and just as the name was faltering on his lips, his utterance failed. He strove for expression, but no words would come.

In a desperation, which was but the faint reflection of his own, I tried to help him.

"Is it for your lawyer?" I suggested; then, as he made no sign, I hastily added: "For your doctor? For your wife? For anyone in the house?"

He gave me one supreme look, raised his eyes, and for an instant stood in an attitude so expressive of joy and indefinable expectancy that I was astonished beyond words and forgot that I was in the presence of death. But only for a moment. While I was still marvelling at this sudden change in him, the child who was clinging to him uttered a terrified scream and unloosed her arms. Then I saw him sink, gasp, and fall forward, and, springing, caught him in my arms before his head could touch the floor. Alas! it was the last service I could render him. By the time I had laid him down he had expired, and I found myself, in no other company than that of a trembling child, bending above the dead body of a man who with his last breath had charged me with a commission of whose purport I understood nothing, save that under no circumstances and upon no pretext was I to deliver the letter he had entrusted to me, to anyone but the person for whom it was intended.

But who was this person? Ah, that was the question! Certainly my position in this house of strangers was a most extraordinary one.

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