Big fellow as he was, he dropped on his knees by the bed, and buried his face in the old quilt, with a long, quivering sob. He had been occupied with so many things in the new experiences of his college life that he had not missed her for the last few months: but the sight of the old quilt brought her so plainly before him that the longing to have her back was almost intolerable.
Several blocks away, a crowd of students crossing the campus in the moonlight started a rollicking chorus. It floated blithely up to him on the wintry night air.
“The fellows will be here in a minute,” he thought. “What would she say if she knew? I promised her that I would never, never touch a drop of liquor or a deck of cards, and here I am, getting ready for a night of drinking and gambling and carousing. But I’ve gone too far to back out now. How they’d hoot and laugh if they knew!”
He got up, and began to fold the quilt, preparatory to putting it back in the box. The old scenes still kept crowding upon him. He saw himself lying on the hearth-rug, the night the boys were waiting for him around the corner, and he was crying out, “But you promised me! You promised me!” and there was his mother with the bit of a gold piece in her hand,—the precious little keepsake that she had treasured for thirty years, saying, in answer to her husband’s remonstrance: “No, Robert, that would make Johnny break his promise, too, and we couldn’t afford that, could we, son? We must keep our word at any cost!”
It stood out fair and fine now, the memory of her unswerving truthfulness, her fidelity to duty. If the commonplace deeds of those early days had seemed of little moment to his childish eyes in passing, he saw them at their full value now. He recognized the high purpose with which she had pieced her little days together, now that he could look at the whole beautiful pattern of her finished life. How sacredly she had always kept her word to him, the slightest promise always inviolate! Ah, the little gold coin was the very least of all her sacrifices.
He was about to say, “No, they shall not all be in vain,” when he heard the fellows on the walk outside. A cold perspiration broke out on his forehead, as he considered the consequences should he refuse to go with them. Strong as he was, he had a fear of ridicule. To be laughed at, to be ostracized by the set he admired, was more than he could endure. Like many another brave fellow, fearless in every respect but one, he was an arrant coward before that one overpowering fear of being laughed at.
He gathered the quilt in his arms, debating whether he should hide it hastily in the closet, or come out boldly before them all with its whole homely little story. The fellows were tramping down the hall now. Oh, what should he do? Go or not? It meant to break with them for all time if he refused now.
There was an instant more of indecision, as the footsteps halted at the threshold, but, when the door burst open, he had squared his shoulders to meet whatever might come, and was whispering between his set teeth: “At any cost, mother! I’ll keep my promise at any cost!”