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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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.