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The Inheritance

Louisa May Alcott





  Dutton Books New York

  Copyright © 1997 by Charles Pratt, Frederick Pratt, and John Pratt

  Edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy



  IN A GREEN PARK, WHERE TROOPS of bright-eyed deer lay sleeping under drooping trees and a clear lake mirrored in its bosom the flowers that grew upon its edge, there stood Lord Hamilton's stately home, half castle and half mansion. Here and there rose a gray old tower or ivy-covered arch, while the blooming gardens that lay around it and the light balconies added grace and beauty to the old, decaying castle, making it a fair and pleasant home.

  The setting sun shone warmly through the high stained windows on a group within, and the summer wind lifted the bright locks of a fair girl who sat weaving garlands on the vine-covered balcony. Beside her stood a young and handsome man, while just within the shadow of the crimson curtain a graceful, dark-eyed lady half reclined among the pillows of a velvet couch. Beside her sat another lady, older and more stately, whose proud, cold face grew milder as she watched the young girl with the flowers.

  In a recess at the other end of the large and richly furnished room sat another girl, beautiful indeed, but a deep sadness seemed to shadow her pale face. The sunlight that shone softly on her rich, dark hair, folded round her drooping head, fell also on bright tears in the large, mournful eyes, which looked so sadly at the happy group beyond. Her painting lay before her, but the brushes were untouched and she seemed lost in lonely thoughts.

  "I hope Lord Percy will be here before my flowers are withered," said the bright-haired girl. "Dear Arthur, look again; he surely must be near."

  "No, Amy, not a sound," replied her brother as he looked along the avenue winding through the park. "I fear he will not come. I shall be truly vexed; I did so want you all to know and love him like myself."

  "Tell us something more of his past life. You said it had been a sad one and not without romance," said the lady on the couch.

  "Ah, do, 'twill wile away the time, and we shall feel less like strangers when we meet. Tell us it, Arthur," cried his sister.

  "With pleasure, Amy, and if it please you. Lady Mother," he answered, turning to the gray-haired lady by his side.

  "Yes, Arthur, I am interested in Lord Percy, for I knew his mother years ago. She was a noble woman, and if her son be like her, I can wish for you no truer, better friend. Tell on, and Amy, love, come place some flowers in Ida's hair; she has left that for your skillful hands to do."

  "Well, then, I obey and tell the story as I learned it from one who knew and loved him well. You know I met him in Rome where I was wandering, sick and lonely, trying to regain my health and spirits before I should return. He was like an elder brother to me, kind and tender as a woman, and soon cheered me up and made my journey so delightful that I was really sorry when we reached England on our homeward way. I visited his home and fine old castle, where his mother leads her quiet, solitary life, caring for no other happiness than doing good and loving Walter. He is now her only son, and well deserves a noble mother's love. From her I learned the story of his life, and this is it.

  "He was the eldest son of old Lord Percy, who died while he was but a child, so, with his younger brother, he grew up beneath his mother's care: noble, rich, and highborn. Few could lead so pure a life as he. His brother was his dearest friend, whom he watched over with all a father's tenderness and care; but at last a fair young cousin came to live with them, and both the brothers loved her. Neither knew the other's secret, till Walter, our Lord Percy, heard his brother whisper the dear name in sleep, and then he nobly put away his own joy and strove to win for his younger brother the heart he loved so tenderly himself, and he succeeded. The young lovers were married, and none knew why Walter's cheek grew pale or why he stole away when the happy couple told their joy and tried to cheer his sadness. None save his mother ever knew the sacrifice her noble son had made.

  "She told me this, for it happened long ago, and the brother and beloved one are both now dead. And since that time he has never loved again. The happy dream so sadly ended never has returned. Courteous and kind to all, devoted to his aged mother, he has lived; loved, honored, and admired for the generous deeds he has done and the blameless life he has led. If I can deserve the friendship he has given me, I shall be more honored than if I had won the favor of a king. And now my tale is done. How does it please you?"

  "I had heard something of it years ago but had forgotten it till now," said his mother. "He is indeed a noble man, and you must prize his friendship, Arthur, and teach us to gain it also. Tears, Amy? And for what, my child?"

  "Ah, dear Mama," said Amy as she wiped away the drops that filled her gentle eyes. "It was so beautiful in him to hide his love and make his brother happy. How few men would have done it. Was it not a noble thing, Ida?"

  "It was indeed, Amy. But you have not told us, Arthur, is he handsome? Half the romance will be gone if he is not."

  "He is not what you ladies might consider handsome" was the gay reply, "but to me his calm, pale face and serious eyes are far more beautiful than mere comeliness and grace of form, for the pure, true heart within shines clearly out and gives a quiet beauty to his face, such as few possess. But, hark, surely those are carriage wheels. Yes, here he comes." And young Lord Hamilton went quickly out to meet his friend. The ladies stood upon the balcony to greet him as he passed, while the young girl who sat alone stole softly from the room.

  As the carriage rolled swiftly by, the gentleman within bent gracefully and raised his hat. A few moments passed, and then Lord Percy was announced. When the first greetings were over, Amy looked again at the face that had smiled so kindly on her as he took her hand.

  It was calm and pale, as Arthur had said, with dark hair parted on a high, white brow, beneath which shone a pair of clear, soft eyes. He was tall and finely formed, with a certain stately grace that well became him. A quiet smile lit up his face and, as the soft light of the evening sun shone on it, Amy thought a beautiful and noble soul must lie within.

  Later in the evening, as they sat by moonlight on the terrace, Lord Percy turned to Arthur, saying, "Hamilton, you promised you would show me the old chapel. Would it not look well in this soft light?"

  "A good thought, Percy; let us go. Ladies, you will join us? A visit to the haunted ruins by moonlight would just suit my romantic sister and cousin. Ida, you may be inspired to take a sketch. Can we not tempt you out, Mama?"

  Lady Hamilton declined, and their gay voices soon died away as they passed through the park towards the lake, where stood the ancient chapel. As they drew nearer, the low, sweet tones of an organ finely played sounded through the silent air.

  "The spirits that you say haunt the old chapel are most musical tonight," said Lord Percy as they listened. "Can we not go in and witness their ghostly rites?"

  "Yes," replied his friend. "But tread lightly and speak low, for spirits are most timid things, and we must see and yet not be seen ourselves. This way through the porch."

  They entered softly and looked up to the gallery whence the music came. The moonlight shone in clear and bright and fell upon the lovely face of the young girl who had stolen away before Lord Percy came. Her soft, dark eyes, no longer filled with tears, were lifted to the light that streamed so brightly in, while her clear, rich voice mingled with the solemn music as she sang an evening hymn.

  "It is Edith," whispered Arthur to his sister as they stood together in the shadow of an arch. "How came she here? And how divinely she is singing. Look at Percy. He's a judge of music, and it must be fine for him to listen
to it as he does. Stand still and do not call her; it might frighten and disturb her."

  So silently they stood till the music died away. Then, rising, the fair singer glided down the narrow stairs and disappeared. Then Lord Percy turned to Arthur, saying with a smile, "I envy you your spirits, Hamilton, if all are as beautiful as this and sing as charmingly. Few voices could have sung that song so perfectly. But might I inquire who the fair ghost is?"

  "As we go round the chapel I will tell you, Percy. Edith Adelon is an Italian girl my father brought from Italy when but a child as playmate for my sister. He was touched by her lonely, friendless situation, for her mother had died and her father was unknown. Her beauty, gentleness, and lovely voice all won his heart, ;md so he brought the homeless child to England. As Amy's faithful friend, she has grown up to womanhood, beautiful and richly gifted. Though she is poor and friendless, we all love her for her gentleness and lender care of Amy, to whom she teaches music, painting, and Italian, and better lessons still in patience, purity, and truth. This is her story. How we chanced to find her here I cannot tell, unless she is given to moonlight wanderings like ourselves. Now we must go, for it is damp and chilly. We will come again by daylight, and I'll show you the old tombs."

  Lord Percy listened silently, and then, conversing gaily, they went through the moonlit porch to the balcony again.



  LADY HAMILTON, THE WIDOWED mother of Lord Arthur and his sister, was a stern and haughty woman whose whole happiness was in her children, and to them alone did her cold heart warm and all its tenderness and love flow forth. Proud of her broad lands and almost boundless wealth, and prouder still of her high name, she rarely showed affection for any save her kindred. She was not cruel nor unkind to those beneath her, but cold and haughty; and her children, while they feared her, still loved her tenderly. To them she was a fond and faithful mother.

  Arthur, the young heir of his dead father's name and wealth, was a frank, warm-hearted youth, kind, generous, and noble. All loved and honored him as one who well became the name he bore. His gentle sister Amy, a gay and lovely girl whose life was all a summer day, he loved most truly; and she returned his love with all her heart, looking up to him and admiring him with all a sister's pride and fond affection.

  Lady Ida Clare, the niece of Lady Hamilton, had inherited her pride and coldness without the hidden tenderness her aunt possessed. Though beautiful and brilliant, she was still unmarried, for her proud heart longed for rank and wealth, and few would give her these. Though highborn and lovely, she was poor and from her aunt received all she possessed. Haughty in spirit, Lady Ida Clare longed for freedom from dependence; yet though many had admired her, no one had offered more. With bitter disappointment, she saw year after year go by. Her beauty was fast fading, and her vain and passionate heart mourned this most deeply, and thus she envied Edith's beauty, youth, and grace and would almost have consented to sell her noble name to purchase these. Every look of admiration, every word of courtesy or kindness given to the gentle girl she coveted and felt that 'twas Edith's loveliness alone that won them for her, and so with unkind words and cold neglect she tried to revenge herself on Edith and her beauty.

  Ida's unkindness was soon felt and her deep dislike plainly showed. But Edith never guessed the cause, and in her gentle heart, she longed to win Ida's love and be as true a friend to her as she had been to Amy. Never by a reproachful look or a complaining word did Edith betray how deeply she was pained by the cruelty of one who should have scorned to injure and insult her poverty and humble birth.

  With an angel's calm and almost holy beauty, Edith bore within as holy and as pure a heart-gentle, true, and tender. Few could bear the burden of a lonely life as patiently as she. Longing daily more and more for tenderness and love, she hid the wish deep in her lonely heart. None could tell the wealth of warm affections sleeping there, or with what grateful care a gentle word was cherished or a loving look was remembered, and thus she lived happily in the home they had given and the friendship she had won. Amy truly loved and honored her for all her faithful care and silent deeds of charity that Edith never dreamed were known, and she never knew how she was winning reverence and love from Amy and her brother.

  Lord Percy's story has been told, and all his young friend's praises were deserved. Careless of the wealth and honor that might be his, he prized far more the purity and worth of noble human hearts, little noting whether they beat in high or low. Forgetful of the title that he bore, he went among the suffering and the poor and won from them their gratitude and love, which brought a happiness that all the flattery of the great could never give.

  The bright dream of his youth had passed away and left within his heart a tender longing and a hope that one day the sweet vision might return and he might win a beautiful and noble wife to cheer life's pilgrimage and bless him with her love. Thus he had mingled in the gay and busy world, and though many lovely faces smiled and gentle voices sounded in his rar, none ever charmed him like his early love, and he had never found the strong, pure heart he sought for.

  And now he had come to spend the summer days with young Lord Hamilton. Silently he studied the various characters around him, and in the pure, pale face of the Italian girl he found a charm that daily pleased him more and more, for in it he could read the history of a gentle, patient heart.



  THE NEXT DAY PASSED, AND AGAIN the evening sun shone on the same group as the night before. Lady Hamilton sat calm and stately in her carved old-fashioned chair, her niece arranged upon the couch so that the crimson curtains threw a rosy light on her dark cheek ;md the velvet cushions made her arm appear whiter still, with the jeweled bracelet clasped upon it.

  Amy, on a low seat at her mother's knee, and Arthur, leaning on the high back of his mother's chair, relaxed, while Lord Percy stood with folded arms beside the open window, telling them in his low, musical voice of Italy and the lovely things there seen.

  "They are all beautiful," he said, "but the fairest thing I saw while there was a little flower sent from England, and as I looked on that, paintings, temples, statues, and Italian skies all vanished; and the tender flower was to me more beautiful than all."

  "Because some fair hand sent it to you, perhaps, my lord," said Lady Ida with a meaning glance.

  "The hand of her who is dearest to me on the earth, my mother," he replied, with a smile that lit up his pale face with a gentle light. "Do you remember how you wondered at my keeping it, Arthur?" he continued. "It is here still." And taking from his bosom a small medallion, he handed it to Lady Hamilton and said, as he removed the little faded flower, "You remember her when young? It is my mother as she is looking now."

  "How beautiful," said Amy as she held the picture. "And how much it is like you," she innocently added.

  "Thank you for the compliment. I should ask no greater if I resembled her in all things as in this," he answered with a playful bow.

  "Whose portrait then is this? A sister's?" asked Amy, as in her confusion she had touched a spring and the medallion flew open, showing a most lovely face of a young and blooming girl.

  Lord Percy grew a little paler and his voice was lower as he answered, "Yes, my sister, for she was my brother's wife, and pure as she was beautiful and young," he added. With a sad, sweet smile, he closed the case and laid it in its resting place again.

  Amy's warm heart beat, and tears were in her eyes as she remembered how he had loved and suffered for her whose picture she had just seen and how he still treasured it when she was dead.

  Arthur understood Lord Percy's sigh and Amy's silence, and to cheer them both he gaily said, "Amy here would prize a flower from Italy as you do yours, Percy, for it is her chosen country, and I have promised her a trip to Rome when she has done with lessons and can go without Mama."

  "Well, Arthur, you may jest with me about it, but how can I help loving the land that one so dear and good as Edith calls her home?" said Amy
. "Ah, if you could listen to the tales she tells and hear the sweet songs she can sing of it, you would not wonder that I long to journey there."

  "Our Saint Cecilia of last night you speak of?" said Lord Percy. "Yes, when Italy can send you such a voice as that, you may well love it; but does she never sing to any but yourself, Lady Amy?"

  "Not often, but tonight she may come down and sing to us, may she not, Mama? Cousin Ida has not touched her harp all day, and I am weary of my own songs. Let me call her. She will gladly come if I but ask her."

  "No, my love; ring the bell and bid the footman ask Miss Adelon to join us," replied her mother, adding in a lower tone, "You must remember, Amy, that your governess can never mingle with the friends who visit you. She is poor and lowborn; you are Amy Hamilton."

  "Yes, Mama," said Amy, "but it's strange that one so beautiful and good should be shut out from all she would enjoy so much. Ah, here she comes."

  A light step sounded through the room, and then Edith stood by Lady Hamilton, saying in a low voice, "What are your wishes, madam?"

  "You will sing to us, if you please. Take Lady Ida's harp and place it there." She coldly waved her hand.

  Edith was turning away when Arthur, with true courtesy, said, "Lord Percy, this is Amy's friend, Miss Adelon." She gracefully returned his salutation and passed on to the harp.

  Lady Ida frowned, for she had seen that Lord Percy bowed as low to the humble governess as he had done to her, the highborn niece of Lady Hamilton. "What do you prefer, my lord? Miss Adelon will play whatever you may choose."

  "Might I ask the evening hymn my mother used to sing? It is the song I love the best," he answered, turning to Edith as he spoke. With a smile, she touched the harp and, as her low, sweet voice sounded through the silent room, Amy watched Lord Percy, who bent his head and listened silently, though Lady Ida talked and rustled with her fan. When the song was done and he looked up, she saw his eyes were full of tears. "His mother sang it," thought she, "and how well he loves it."