The Prodigal's Return by Henry Seton Merriman

"Yes, mother, he will come. Of course he will come!" And the girl turned her drawn and anxious young face towards the cottage door, just as if her blind mother could see the action.

It is probable that the old woman divined the longing glance from the change in the girl's tone, for she, too, half turned towards the door. It was a habit these two women had acquired. They constantly looked towards the door for the arrival of one who never came through the long summer days, through the quiet winter evenings; moreover, they rarely spoke of other things, this arrival was the topic of their lives. And now the old woman's life was drawing to a close, as some lives do, without its object. She herself felt it, and her daughter knew it.

There was in both of them a subtle sense of clinging. It was hard to die without touching the reward of a wondrous patience. It was cruel to deprive the girl of this burden, for in most burdens there is a safeguard, in all a duty, and in some the greatest happiness allotted to human existence.

It was no new thing, this waiting for the scapegrace son; the girl had grown up to it, for she would not know her brother should she meet him in the street. Since sight had left the old mother's eyes, she had fed her heart upon this hope.

He had left them eighteen years before in a fit of passionate resentment against his father, whose only fault had been too great an indulgence for the son of his old age. Nothing had been too good for dear Stephen—hardly anything had been good enough. Educated at a charity school himself, the simple old clergyman held the mistaken view that no man can be educated above his station.

There are some people who hold this view still, but they cannot do so much longer. Strikes, labour troubles, and the difficulties of domestic service, so called gentleman farmers, gentleman shopkeepers and lady milliners—above all, a few colonies peopled by University failures, will teach us in time that to educate our sons above their station is to handicap them cruelly in the race of life.

Stephen Leach was one of the early victims to this craze. His father, having risen by the force of his own will and the capabilities of his own mind from the People to the Church, held, as such men do, that he had only to give his son a good education to ensure his career in life. So everything—even to the old parson's sense of right and wrong—was sacrificed to the education of Stephen Leach at public school and University. Here he met and selected for his friends youths whose futures were ensured, and who were only passing through the formula of an education so that no one could say they were unfit for the snug Government appointment, living, or inheritance of a more substantial sort, that might be waiting for them. Stephen acquired their ways of life without possessing their advantages, and the consequence was something very nearly approaching to ruin for the little country rectory. Not having been a University man himself, the rector did not know that at Oxford or Cambridge, as in the army, one may live according to one's taste. Stephen Leach had expensive tastes, and he unscrupulously traded on his father's ignorance. He was good-looking, and had a certain brilliancy of manner which "goes down" well at the 'Varsity. Everything was against him, and at last the end came. At last the rector's eyes were opened, and when a narrow-minded man's eyes are once opened he usually becomes stony at heart.

Stephen Leach left England, and before he landed in America his father had departed on a longer journey. The ne'er-do-well had the good grace to send back the little sums of money saved by his mother in her widowhood, and gradually his letters ceased. It was known that he was in Chili, and there was war going on there, and yet the good old lady's faith never wavered.

"He will come, Joyce," she would say; "he will surely come."

And somehow it came to be an understood thing that he was to come in the afternoon when they were all ready for him—when Joyce had clad her pretty young form in a dark dress, and when the old lady was up and seated in her chair by the fire in winter, by the door in summer. They had never imagined his arrival at another time. It would not be quite the same should he make a mistake and come in the morning, before Joyce had got the house put right.

Yet, he never came. A greater infirmity came instead, and at last Joyce suggested that her mother should not get up in bad weather. They both knew what this meant, but the episode passed as others do, and Mrs. Leach was bedridden. Still she said—

"He will come, Joyce! He will surely come."

And the girl would go to the window and draw aside the curtain, looking down the quiet country road towards the village.

"Yes, mother, he will come!" was her usual answer; and one day she gave a little exclamation of surprise and almost of fear.

"Mother," she exclaimed, "there is some one coming along the road."

The old lady was already sitting up in bed, staring with her sightless orbs towards the window.

Thus they waited. The man stopped opposite the cottage, and the two women heard the latch of the gate. Then Joyce, turning, saw that her mother had fainted. But it was only momentary. By the time she reached the bed her mother had recovered consciousness.

"Go," said the old lady, breathlessly; "go and let him in yourself."

Downstairs, on the doorstep, the girl found a tall man of thirty or thereabouts with a browner face than English suns could account for. He looked down into her eager eyes with a strange questioning wonder.

"Am I too late?" he asked in a voice which almost seemed to indicate a hope that it might be so.

"No, Stephen," she answered. "But mother cannot live much longer. You are just in time."

The young man made a hesitating little movement with his right hand and shuffled uneasily on the clean stone step. He was like an actor called suddenly upon the stage having no knowledge of his part. The return of this prodigal was not a dramatic success. No one seemed desirous of learning whether he had lived upon husks or otherwise and with whom he had eaten. The quiet dignity of the girl, who had remained behind to do all the work and bear all the burden seemed in some subtle manner to deprive him of any romance that might have attached itself to him. She ignored his half-proffered hand, and turning into the little passage, led the way upstairs.

Stephen Leach followed silently. He was rather large for the house, and especially for the stairs; moreover, he had a certain burliness of walk, such as is acquired by men living constantly in the open. There was a vaguely-pained look in his blue eyes, as if they had suddenly been opened to his own shortcomings. His attitude towards Joyce was distinctly apologetic.

When he followed the girl across the threshold of their mother's bedroom the old lady was sitting up in bed, holding out trembling arms towards the door.

Here Stephen Leach seemed to know better what to do. He held his mother in his arms while she sobbed and murmured out her joy. He had no words, but his arms meant more than his lips could ever have told.

It would seem that the best part of happiness is the sharing of it with some one else.

"Joyce," was the first distinct word the old lady spoke, "Joyce, he has come at last. He has come! Come here, dear. Kiss your brother. This is my firstborn—my little Steve."

The young man had sunk upon his knees at the bedside, probably because it was the most convenient position. He did not second his mother's proposal with much enthusiasm. Altogether he did not seem to have discovered much sympathy with the sister whom he had left in her cradle.

Joyce came forward and leaned over the bed to kiss her brother while the old lady's hands joined theirs. Just as her fresh young lips came within reach he turned his face aside, so that the kiss fell on barren ground on his tanned cheek.

"Joyce," continued the old lady, feverishly, "I am not afraid to die now, for Stephen is here. Your brother will take care of you, dear, when I am gone."

It was strange that Stephen had not spoken yet; and it was perhaps just as well, because there are occasions in life when men do wisely to keep silent.

"He is strong," the proud mother went on. "I can feel it. His hands are large and steady and quiet, and his arms are big and very hard."

The young man knelt upright and submitted gravely to this maternal inventory.

"Yes," she said, "I knew he would grow to be a big man. His little fingers were so strong—he hurt me sometimes. What a great moustache! I knew you had been a soldier. And the skin of your face is brown and a little rough. What is this? what is this, Stephen dear? Is this a wound?"

"Yes," answered the Prodigal, speaking for the first time. "That is a sword cut. I got that in the last war. I am a colonel in the Chilian army, or was, before I resigned."

The old lady's sightless eyes were fixed on his face, as if listening for the echo of another voice in his deep quiet tones.

"Your voice is deeper than your father's ever was," she said; and all the while her trembling fingers moved lovingly over his face, touching the deep cut from cheek-bone to jaw with soft inquiry. "This must have been very near your eye, Stephen. Promise me, dear, no more soldiering."

"I promise that," he replied, without raising his eyes.

Such was the home-coming of the Prodigal. After all, he arrived at the right moment in the afternoon, when the house was ready. It sometimes does happen so in real life, and not only in books. There is a great deal that might be altered in this world, but sometimes, by a mere chance, things come about rightly. And yet there was something wrong, something subtle, which the dying woman's duller senses failed to detect. Her son, her Stephen, was quiet, and had not much to say for himself. He apparently had the habit of taking things as they came. There was no enthusiasm, but rather a restraint in his manner, more especially towards Joyce.

The girl noticed it, but even her small experience of human kind had taught her that large, fair-skinned men are often thus. They are not "de ceux qui s'expliquent," but go through life placidly, leaving unsaid and undone many things which some think they ought to say and do.

After the first excitement of the return was over it became glaringly apparent that Stephen had arrived just in time. His mother fell into a happy sleep before sunset; and when the active young doctor came a little later in the evening he shook his head.

"Yes," he said, "I see that she is asleep and quiet—too quiet. It is a foretaste of a longer sleep; some old people have it."

For the first time Joyce's courage seemed to give way. When she had been alone she was brave enough, but now that her brother was there, woman-like, she seemed to turn to him with a sudden fear. They stood side by side near the bed; and the young doctor involuntarily watched them. Stephen had taken her hand in his with that silent sympathy which was so natural and so eloquent. He said nothing, this big, sun-tanned youth; he did not even glance down at his sister, who stood small, soft-eyed, and gentle at his side.

The doctor knew something of the history of the small family thus momentarily united, and he had always feared that if Stephen Leach did return it would only kill his mother. This, indeed, seemed to be the result about to follow.

Presently the doctor took his leave. He was a young man engaged in getting together a good practice, and in his own interest he had been forced to give up waiting for his patients to finish dying.

"I am glad you are here," he said to Stephen, who accompanied him to the door. "It would not do for your sister to be alone; this may go on for a couple of days."

It did not go on for a couple of days, but Mrs. Leach lived through that night in the same semi-comatose state. The two watchers sat in her room until supper-time, when they left their mother in charge of a hired nurse, whose services Joyce had been forced to seek.

After supper Stephen Leach seemed at last to find his tongue, and he talked in his quiet, almost gentle voice, such as some big men possess, not about himself or the past, but about Joyce and the future. In a deliberate business-like way, he proceeded to investigate the affairs of the dying woman and the prospects of her daughter; in a word, he asserted his authority as a brother, and Joyce was relieved and happy to obey him.

It is not in times of gaiety that friendships are formed, but in sorrow or suspense. During that long evening this brother and sister suddenly became intimate, more so than months of prosperous intercourse could have made them. At ten o'clock Stephen quietly insisted that Joyce should go to bed while he lay down, all dressed, on the sofa in the dining-room.

"I shall sleep perfectly; it is not the first time I have slept in my clothes," he said simply.

They went upstairs together and told the nurse of this arrangement. Joyce remained for some moments by the bedside watching her mother's peaceful sleep, and when she turned she found that Stephen had quietly slipped away. Wondering vaguely whether he had intentionally solved her difficulty as to the fraternal good-night, she went to her own room.

The next morning Mrs. Leach was fully conscious, and appeared to be stronger; nevertheless, she knew that the end was near. She called her two children to her bedside, and, turning her blind eyes towards them, spoke in broken sentences.

"I am ready now—I am ready," she said. "Dears, I am going to your father—and... thank God, I can tell him that I have left you together. I always knew Stephen would come back. I found it written everywhere in the Bible. Stephen—kiss me, dear!"

The man leant over the bed and kissed her.

"Ah!" she sighed, "how I wish I could see you—just once before I die. Joyce!" she added, suddenly turning to her daughter, who stood at the other side of the bed, "tell me what he is like. But—I know .. I KNOW—I feel it. Listen! He is tall and spare, like his father. His hair is black, like—like his father's—it was black before he went away. His eyes, I know, are dark—almost black. He is pale—like a Spaniard!"...

Joyce, looking across the bed with slow horror dawning in her face, looked into a pair of blue eyes beneath tawny hair, cut short as a soldier's hair should be. She looked upon a man big, broad, fair—English from crown to toe—and the quiet command of his lips and eyes made her say—

"Yes, mother, yes."

For some moments there was silence. Joyce stood pale and breathless, wondering what this might mean. Then the dying woman spoke again.

"Kiss me," she said. "I... am going. Stephen first—my firstborn! And now, Joyce... and now kiss each other—across the bed! I want to hear it... I want... to tell... your... father."

With a last effort she raised her hands, seeking their heads. At first Joyce hesitated, then she leant forward, and the old woman's chilled fingers pressed their lips together. That was the end.

Half an hour afterwards Joyce and this man stood facing each other in the little dining-room. He began his explanation at once.

"Stephen," he said, "was shot—out there—as a traitor. I could not tell her that! I did not mean to do this, but what else could I do?"

He paused, moved towards the door with that same strange hesitation which she had noticed on his arrival. At the door he turned, to justify himself.

"I still think," he said gravely, "that it was the best thing to do."

Joyce made no answer. The tears stood in her eyes. There was something very pathetic in the distress of this strong man, facing, as it were, an emergency of which he felt the delicacy to be beyond his cleverness to handle.

"Last night," he went on, "I made all the necessary arrangements for your future just as Stephen would have made them—as a brother might have done. I... he and I were brother officers in a very wild army. Your brother—was not a good man. None of us were." His hand was on the door. "He asked me to come and tell you," he added. "I shall go back now...."

They stood thus: he watching her face with his honest soft blue eyes, she failing to meet his glance.

"May I come back again?" he asked suddenly.

She gave a little gasp, but made no answer.

"I will come back in six months," he announced quietly, and then he closed the door behind him.