III

Over at last. “All aboard!”

On and on rushes the engine, every moment bringing me nearer to my destination. The conductor drawling out the stations, the noisy going and coming produce almost no conscious impression on my senses. Seeing and hearing every detail of my surroundings, I am nevertheless oblivious to them. Faster than the train rushes my fancy, as if reviewing a panorama of vivid scenes, apparently without organic connection with each other, yet somehow intimately associated in my thoughts of the past. But how different is the present! I am speeding toward Pittsburgh, the very heart of the industrial struggle of America. America! I dwell wonderingly on the unuttered sound. Why in America? And again unfold pictures of old scenes.

I am walking in the garden of our well-appointed country place, in a fashionable suburb of St. Petersburg, where the family generally spends the summer months. As I pass the veranda, Dr. Semeonov, the celebrated physician of the resort, steps out of the house and beckons to me.

“Alexander Ossipovitch,” he addresses me in his courtly manner, “your mother is very ill. Are you alone with her?”

“We have servants, and two nurses are in attendance,” I reply.

“To be sure, to be sure,” the shadow of a smile hovers about the corners of his delicately chiseled lips. I mean of the family.”

“Oh, yes! I am alone here with my mother.”

“Your mother is rather restless to-day, Alexander Ossipovitch. Could you sit up with her to-night?”

“Certainly, certainly,” I quickly assent, wondering at the peculiar request. Mother has been improving, the nurses have assured me. My presence at her bedside may prove irksome to her. Our relations have been strained since the day when, in a fit of anger, she slapped Rose, our new chambermaid, whereupon I resented mother’s right to inflict physical punishment on the servants., can see her now, erect and haughty, facing me across the dinner-table, her eyes ablaze with indignation.

“You forget you are speaking to your mother, Al-ex-an-der”; she pronounces the name in four distinct syllables, as is her habit when angry with me.

“You have no right to strike the girl,” I retort, defiantly.

“You forget yourself. My treatment of the menial is no concern of yours.”

I cannot suppress the sharp reply that springs to my lips: “The low servant girl is as good as you.”

I see mother’s long, slender fingers grasp the heavy ladle, and the next instant a sharp pain pierces my left hand. Our eyes meet. Her arm remains motionless, her gaze directed to the spreading blood stain on the white table-cloth. The ladle falls from her hand. She closes her eyes, and her body sinks limply to the chair.

Anger and humiliation extinguish my momentary impulse to rush to her assistance. Without uttering a word, I pick up the heavy saltcellar, and fling it violently against the French mirror. At the crash of the glass my mother opens her eyes in amazement. I rise and leave the house.

My heart beats fast as I enter mother’s sick-room. I fear she may resent my intrusion: the shadow of the past stands between us. But she is lying quietly on the bed, and has apparently not noticed my entrance. I sit down at the bedside. A long time passes in silence. Mother seems to be asleep. It is growing dark in the room, and I settle down to pass the night in the chair. Suddenly I hear “Sasha!” called in a weak, faint voice. I bend over her. “Drink of water.” As I hold the glass to her lips, she slightly turns away her head, saying very low, “Ice water, please.” I start to leave the room. “Sasha!” I hear behind me, and, quickly tiptoeing to the bed, I bring my face closely, very closely to hers, to catch the faint words: “Help me turn to the wall.” Tenderly I wrap my arms around the weak, emaciated body, and an overpowering longing seizes me to touch her hand with my lips and on my knees beg her forgiveness. I feel so near to her, my heart is overflowing with compassion and love. But I dare not kiss her — we have become estranged. Affectionately I hold her in my arms for just the shadow of a second, dreading lest she suspect the storm of emotion raging within me. Caressingly I turn her to the wall, and, as I slowly withdraw, I feel as if some mysterious, yet definite, something has at the very instant left her body.

In a few minutes I return with a glass of ice water. I hold it to her lips, but she seems oblivious of my presence. “She cannot have gone to sleep so quickly,” I wonder. “Mother!” I call, softly. No reply. “Little mother! Mamotchka!” She does not appear to hear me. “Dearest, golubchick!” I cry, in a paroxysm of sudden fear, pressing my hot lips upon her face. Then I become conscious of an arm upon my shoulder, and hear the measured voice of the doctor: “My boy, you must bear up. She is at rest.”