The smoke rolled voluminously from the chimney top, its edges ruddy with the fire; and from the far corner of the building, near the ground, angry puffs of steam shone snow-white in the moon and vanished.
The doctor opened the door and paused upon the threshold. 'You ask me what I make here,' he observed. 'Two things: Life and Death.' And he motioned me to enter.
'I shall await my mother,' said I.
'Child,' he replied, 'look at me: am I not old and broken? Of us two, which is the stronger, the young maiden or the withered man?'
I bowed, and passing by him, entered a vestibule or kitchen, lit by a good fire and a shaded reading-lamp. It was furnished only with a dresser, a rude table, and some wooden benches; and on one of these the doctor motioned me to take a seat; and passing by another door into the interior of the house, he left me to myself. Presently I heard the jar of iron from the far end of the building; and this was followed by the same throbbing noise that had startled me in the valley, but now so near at hand as to be menacing by loudness, and even to shake the house with every recurrence of the stroke. I had scarce time to master my alarm when the doctor returned, and almost in the same moment my mother appeared upon the threshold. But how am I to describe to you the peace and ravishment of that face? Years seemed to have passed over her head during that brief ride, and left her younger and fairer; her eyes shone, her smile went to my heart; she seemed no more a woman but the angel of ecstatic tenderness. I ran to her in a kind of terror; but she shrank a little back and laid her finger on her lips, with something arch and yet unearthly. To the doctor, on the contrary, she reached out her hand as to a friend and helper; and so strange was the scene that I forgot to be offended.
'Lucy,' said the doctor, 'all is prepared. Will you go alone, or shall your daughter follow us?'
'Let Asenath come,' she answered, 'dear Asenath! At this hour, when I am purified of fear and sorrow, and already survive myself and my affections, it is for your sake, and not for mine, that I desire her presence. Were she shut out, dear friend, it is to be feared she might misjudge your kindness.'
'Mother,' I cried wildly, 'mother, what is this?'
But my mother, with her radiant smile, said only 'Hush!' as though I were a child again, and tossing in some fever-fit; and the doctor bade me be silent and trouble her no more. 'You have made a choice,' he continued, addressing my mother, 'that has often strangely tempted me. The two extremes: all, or else nothing; never, or this very hour upon the clock--these have been my incongruous desires. But to accept the middle term, to be content with a half-gift, to flicker awhile and to burn out--never for an hour, never since I was born, has satisfied the appetite of my ambition.' He looked upon my mother fixedly, much of admiration and some touch of envy in his eyes; then, with a profound sigh, he led the way into the inner room.
It was very long. From end to end it was lit up by many lamps, which by the changeful colour of their light, and by the incessant snapping sounds with which they burned, I have since divined to be electric. At the extreme end an open door gave us a glimpse into what must have been a lean-to shed beside the chimney; and this, in strong contrast to the room, was painted with a red reverberation as from furnace-doors. The walls were lined with books and glazed cases, the tables crowded with the implements of chemical research; great glass accumulators glittered in the light; and through a hole in the gable near the shed door, a heavy driving-belt entered the apartment and ran overhead upon steel pulleys, with clumsy activity and many ghostly and fluttering sounds. In one corner I perceived a chair resting upon crystal feet, and curiously wreathed with wire. To this my mother advanced with a decisive swiftness.
'Is this it?' she asked.
The doctor bowed in silence.
'Asenath,' said my mother, 'in this sad end of my life I have found one helper.