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    Mildred's Inheritance

    by Annie Fellows Johnston
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    (1899)



    ~

    As the good ship Majestic went steaming away from the Irish coast, one sunny September morning, three pretty college girls leaned over the railing of the upper deck, watching the steerage passengers below. With faces turned to the shore which they might never see again, the lusty-throated emigrants were sending their song of "Farewell to Erin" floating mournfully back across the water.

    "Oh, look at that poor old grandmother!" exclaimed one of the girls. "There; that one sitting on a coil of rope with a shawl over her gray head. The pitiful way she looks back to land would make me homesick, too, if I were not already on my way home, with all my family on board, and all the fun of the sophomore year ahead of me. Let's go down to the other end of the deck, where it is more cheerful."

    They moved away in friendly, schoolgirl fashion, arm in arm, intent only on finding as much enjoyment as possible in every moment of this ocean voyage. A young English girl, dressed in deep mourning, who had been standing near them, followed them with a wistful glance; then she turned to look over the railing again at the old woman on the coil of rope.

    "I wish that I could change places with her," thought the girl. "She is so old that she cannot have many homesick years in store, while I--left alone in the world at seventeen, and maybe never to see dear old England again--" The thought brought such an overwhelming sense of desolation that she could not control her tears. Drawing her heavy black veil over her face, she hurriedly made her way to her deck-chair, and sank down to sob unseen, under cover of its protecting rugs and cushions.

    This was the first time that Mildred Stanhope had ever been outside of the village where she was born. The only child of an English clergyman, the walls of the rectory garden had been the boundary of her little world. She could not remember her mother, but with her father for teacher, playmate, and constant companion, her life had been complete in its happiness.

    If the violets blooming within the protecting walls of the old rectory garden had suddenly been torn up by the roots and thrown into the street, the change in their surroundings could have been no greater than that which came to Mildred in the first shock of her father's death. She had been like one in a confused dream ever since. Some one had answered the letter from her mother's brother in America, offering her a home. Some one had engaged her passage, and an old friend of her father's had taken her to Liverpool and put her on board the steamer. Here she sat for the first three days, staring out at the sea, with eyes which saw nothing of its changing beauty, but always only a daisy-covered mound in a little churchyard. All the happiness and hope that her life had, ended in that.

    "Who is the pretty little English girl?" people asked when they passed her. "She doesn't seem to have an acquaintance on board."

    "I never saw such a sad, hopeless face!" exclaimed one of the college girls whom the others called "Muffit." "If she were an American girl I'd ask her to walk with us. But English girls are so reserved and shy, and I am afraid it would frighten her."

    If Muffit could have known, that cold, reserved manner hid a heart hungry for one friendly word. It was the third day out before any one spoke to her. She had been warned against making the acquaintance of strangers, but one look at the gentle-voiced, white-haired lady who took the chair next her own, disarmed every suspicion. The lady was dressed in deep mourning, like herself, and she had a sweet, motherly face that drew Mildred irresistibly to her. Before the day was over the two were talking together like old friends. When she saw how the girl grieved for her father, she tried to draw her away from her sorrow by questioning her about her future.

    Mildred answered with a shiver. "Oh, I try not to think about that at all. I have never seen Uncle Joe or any of his family, and everything must be so strange and queer in America. Now, if they lived in India I would not dread going half so much; for there would be something homelike in feeling that I was still under the protection of our queen. I cannot bear to think of leaving the ship, for it will be like leaving the last bit of home, to step from under the dear old Union Jack. 'A stranger in a strange land,'" she added, her lips quivering.

    "No, dear, not as strange as you think," added the lady, with a motherly hand-clasp. "Don't you know that one corner of our country is called New England, in loving remembrance of the old; that your blood flows in our veins regardless of dividing seas, and gives us the same heritage of that proud past which you hold dear? Don't you know that thousands of us go back every year, like children of the old homestead, drawn by all those countless threads of song and story, of common interests and aims and relationships that have kept the two nations woven together in the woof of one great family?

    "Let me tell you a bit of personal sentiment that links me to the old town of Chester on the River Dee. There is a house there that, until recently, was in the possession of my husband's family for nobody knows how many generations. Thousands of travellers go every year to see the inscription over its door. Once, over two hundred years ago, an awful plague swept the town, and every family in it lost one or more of its household. Only this one house was spared, and in grateful memory of its escape there was carved over the door the inscription:

    "'GOD'S PROVIDENCE IS MINE INHERITANCE.'

    "That became the family motto, and it is engraved here in my wedding-ring. The beautiful thought has helped me over many times of perplexity and sorrow, and has become the inspiration of my life. Because we can trace it back to that place, I have grown to love every stone in the quaint old streets of Chester."

    She sat twisting the plain gold circlet on her finger for a moment, and then added thoughtfully: "In the light of her history America might well set that inscription over her own door: 'God's providence is mine inheritance.' It would be none the less appropriate because it reaches back past the struggling colonists and past the Mayflower to find the roots of that faith in the mother country, in a little English town beside the Dee.

    "No, my dear," she exclaimed, looking up at Mildred; "it is not a land of strangers you are going to. We sing 'America' and you sing 'God Save the Queen,' and we both feel sometimes that there is a vast difference between the songs. But they are set to the same tune, you know, and to alien ears, who cannot understand our tongue or our temperament, they must sound alike."

    Life seemed very different to Mildred when she went to her stateroom that night, and her cheery companion inspired her with so much hope before the voyage was over that she began to look forward to landing with some degree of interest. How much of her new-found courage was due to the presence of her helpful counsellor Mildred did not realize until she came to the parting. They were standing at the foot of the gangplank in the New York custom-house.

    "I am sorry that I cannot stay to see you safe in your uncle's care," the lady said, "but my son tells me there is barely time to catch the next train to Boston. Good-bye, my child. If you get lonely and discouraged, think of the motto in my wedding-ring, and take it for your own."

    The next instant Mildred felt, with a terrible sinking of the heart, that she was all alone in the great, strange, new world.

    Following the directions in her uncle's letter, she pushed her way through the crowds until she came to the section marked "S," where he was to meet her. There was no one in sight who bore any resemblance to the description he had written of himself. She stood there until her trunk was brought up, and then sat down on the battered little box to wait.

    An hour went by, and she began to look around with frightened, nervous glances. A half-hour more passed. The crowds had diminished, for the officials were making their custom-house examinations as rapidly as possible. All around her the sections were being emptied, and the baggage wheeled off in big trucks. The newsboys and telegraph agents had all gone. A great fear fell suddenly upon her that her uncle was never coming, and that she would soon be left entirely alone in this barnlike, cavernous custom-house, with its bare walls and dusty floors; and night was coming on, and she had nowhere to go.

    She was groping in her pocket for a handkerchief to stop the tears that would come, despite her brave efforts to wink them back, when some one spoke to her. It was the pretty college girl whom the others had called Muffit.

    "Are you having trouble with your baggage too?" she asked, kindly. "One of our trunks was misplaced, and they would not examine anything until it was found. It is here at last, thank fortune, so that we shall not be delayed much longer. Mamma and I have noticed you waiting here, and wondered if you were in the same predicament. Papa says that he will be so glad to help you in any way he can, if you need his assistance." She did not add that her mother had said, "I can't go away with any peace of mind until I see that child safe in somebody's hands."

    "There is some dreadful mistake!" sobbed Mildred. "My uncle was to meet me here, and I do not know what to do!" She buried her face in her handkerchief, and the next minute "Muffit's" mother had her arms around her. Then she found that the girl's name was not Muffit, but Mildred, like her own, Mildred Rowland.

    When Mildred Stanhope told Mrs. Rowland her name, that motherly woman exclaimed, "Oh, Edward! What if it were our daughter left in such a trying position! She shall just come to the hotel with us and stay until we hear from her uncle. Wasn't it fortunate that that old trunk delayed us so long! We might have hurried off and never known anything about you. Well, it's all right now. Mr. Rowland shall telegraph to your uncle, and we will keep you with us until he comes."

    The next two days were full of strange experiences to Mildred. The rush and roar of the great city, the life in the palatial hotel, with its seeming miles of corridors and hundreds of servants, bewildered her. In response to Mr. Rowland's telegram the reply came: "Joseph Barnard died last Wednesday. Call for letter Blank Hotel." The message was signed Derrick Jaynes. The letter, which was brought up an hour later, bore the same signature. It had been written at the request of Mrs. Barnard by her minister. It told Mildred of her uncle's sudden death, occurring the day that she left Liverpool, and had been sent to the hotel to which Mr. Barnard had intended to take his niece, Mrs. Barnard supposing that her husband had given Mildred that address in case of any slip in making connections.

    The kindly old minister seemed to realize the unhappy position in which the young girl was placed, and gave minute directions regarding the journey she would have to take alone, while Mr. Rowland arranged for her comfort in the same fatherly way he would have done for his own Mildred. "What would I have done without you?" she exclaimed, in a choking voice, as she clung to Mrs. Rowland at parting. "Now I shall be adrift again, all alone in the world, as soon as you unclasp your hand."

    "No, Providence will take care of you, dear," answered Mrs. Rowland. "Just keep thinking of that motto you told me about, and let us hear from you when you are safe in Carlsville."

    * * * * * * *

    Easter had always come to Mildred with the freshness of country meadows, with cowslips and crocuses, with the soft green of budding hedgerows and a chorus of twittering bird-calls in the old rectory garden. This year, after her long, dreary winter in Carlsville, she looked out on the roofs of the smoky little manufacturing town, and saw only red brick factories and dingy houses and dirty streets. The longing for the spring in her old English home lay in her heart like a throbbing pain. "Oh, papa," she sobbed, resting her arms on the window-sill and laying her head wearily down, "do you know all about it, dearest? Oh, if you could only tell me what to do!"

    A week before, her aunt, Belle Barnard, had said, in her sickly, complaining voice, "Well, Mildred, I don't like to tell you, but I have been talking the matter over with the girls, and they think that we might as well be plain-spoken with you. Everybody thought that your Uncle Joe was a rich man, and so did we till we got the business settled up. Now we find that after the lawyers are paid there won't be enough for us all to live on comfortably. At least there wouldn't be if it wasn't for a small inheritance that Maud and Blanche have from their grandmother, and, of course, they couldn't be expected to divide that with you, and deny themselves every comfort; so I don't see any help for it but for you to get a place in some store or millinery shop, or something. We have to move in a smaller house next week."

    The week had nearly gone by, and Mildred was growing desperate. Unfitted for most work, either in strength or education, she scarcely knew for what to apply, and went from one place to another at her aunt's recommendation, feeling like a forlorn little waif for whom there was no place anywhere in the world.

    One afternoon she sat by her window, looking out on the early April sunshine, trying, with the hopelessness of despair, to form some plan for her future. "Why didn't I have a grandmother to leave me an inheritance like Blanche and Maud?" she thought, bitterly.

    Then her thoughts flew back to the day on shipboard, when she had heard of the old house in Chester and the inscription in her companion's wedding-ring. "And she told me to take that motto for my own," she whispered through her tears. "'God's providence is mine inheritance!' If it is, the time has certainly come for me to claim it, for I have never been in such desperate need."

    The few times that winter that Mildred had gone to any service, had been in the church in the next block. Its gray stone walls, with masses of overhanging ivy, reminded her of the one she had loved at home. God had seemed so very far away since she came to Carlsville. She prayed as she had always done before, but her prayers seemed like helpless little birds, unable to rise high enough to carry her pleadings to the ear of the great Creator who had so many cries constantly going up to him. She had not realized before how big the world was and how small a part her little affairs played in the plan of the great universe. A longing for some closer communion than she had known before drew her toward this church, of which Derrick Jaynes was the rector. The door was unlocked, and the slender black figure slipped in unobserved. In the big empty church her desolate little moan was all unheard and unheeded, as she knelt at the altar sobbing, "Oh, God, I don't know what will become of me if you do not help me now! Oh, show me 'mine inheritance!'"

    Three times during that week she went back to that same place with that same cry. The last time she went some one was in the church. It was the organist, practising some new Easter music for the next day's services. A burst of triumphant melody greeted her as she noiselessly opened the side door. She met the florist coming out, for he had just completed the decorating, and the place was a mass of bloom. All around the chancel stood the tall, white Easter lilies, waiting, like the angels in the open tomb, with their glad resurrection message--"He is risen!"

    As Mildred stood with clasped hands, an unspoken prayer rising with the organ's jubilant tones and the incense of the lilies, she felt a touch on her shoulder. It was the white-haired old minister.

    "I saw you come in," he said, in a whisper. "I have been trying all day to find time to call at your aunt's to talk with you. You do not know, but I have been in correspondence several times this winter regarding you, with a Mr. Rowland. He wrote me when you first came that his wife and daughter were deeply interested in you, and wanted to be kept informed of your welfare. This morning I received a letter which needs your personal answer. I am very busy now, but shall try to see you Monday in regard to it."

    Mildred's heart beat rapidly as he handed her a large, businesslike-looking letter and went softly out again. In the dim light of the great stained-glass windows she read that poor Muffit had over-taxed her eyes, and that they were so badly affected she could not go back to school for the spring term. In looking for some one who could be eyes for their Mildred, so that she might go on with her studies at home, they had thought of this other Mildred, the little English girl, whose low, musical voice had been so carefully trained by her father in reading aloud. By one of these strange providences which we never recognize as such at the time, Mr. Rowland had broken his spectacles the last evening of Mildred's stay in New York. She had offered to read the magazine article which he was particularly anxious to hear, and they had been charmed by her beautifully modulated voice. Now the letter had been written to offer her a liberal salary and a home for the summer.

    Mildred gave a gasp of astonishment. It was not the almost miraculous finding of what she had come to seek that overwhelmed her. It was a feeling that swept across her like a flood, warm and sweet and tender; the sudden realization that a hand stronger than death and wise above all human understanding had her in its keeping. She dropped on her knees at the flower-decked altar-rail, with face upturned and radiant; no longer lonely; no longer afraid of what the future might hold. She had come into her inheritance.

    Kneeling there she looked back again to her father's lowly grave in the little churchyard across the seas, but she saw it no longer through hopeless tears. Into her heart the great organ had pealed the gladness of its exultant Easter message, and in the deep peace of the silence which followed, the fragrance of the lilies breathed a wordless "Amen!"
    If you're writing a Mildred's Inheritance essay and need some advice, post your Annie Fellows Johnston essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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