Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 1
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER I. GOOD ACCOMMODATION FOR MAN AND BEAST.
Would he live through the night? Would he die before his eldest son arrived? Could it be that the parent and the child, separated since so many years, were not to meet again on this side of the grave? How many times had the sun gone down upon their wrath, and risen again to find it yet turbulent and restless, and surging like a sea that would not be stayed! And now would not even Death bring penitence, and peace, and forgiveness?
Who could answer? Not pale Mr. Fuller, the surgeon of Grilling Abbots, the nearest town: not Dr. Barker, who had come over expressly summoned from the Mowle Infirmary: not Dr. Chillingworth, who had hurried down post-haste from London. They had met in serious conclave round the sick man’s bed. They had held a solemn—almost a grim—consultation upon the case. They had retired to the library adjoining, and whispered each other, and compared notes. They talked so earnestly, yet in voices so subdued they were inaudible a few yards off, while their heads approached together in so close a cluster that they seemed almost to pertain to one body, and looked like three apples growing on a single stalk. Pale Mr. Fuller went through a sort of friendly cross-examination as to the course of treatment he had pursued; he set forth his medicines and his motives in applying them: he stated his knowledge of the invalid, with particulars as to age, constitution, previous illnesses, predisposition to disease, &c. The doctor from Mowle patted the surgeon of Grilling Abbots familiarly, yet approvingly, on the shoulder. The physician from London patted both his professional brothers on the back, and nodded a great many times his approbation at all they had said and done. “Nothing could have been better—nothing, nothing,” he said; and they had each a glass of Madeira and a biscuit. They could not answer, they said, for the poor sufferer’s life: no, they agreed,—not from one moment to another.
Who could answer, then, if these could not? Certainly not that cosy group of guests round the glorious red-fire in the large room of the George Inn, Grilling Abbots.
Would the old gentleman last through the night? Was old Mr. Hadfield of the Grange really going? So they asked each other in low, awful whispers. The question went buzzing round as though it had been part of a fireside forfeit game, and each man was bound to propose it to his neighbour, and to give to it an evasive answer when his turn came to be examined on the subject. Indeed, it might have been a game. It was the season of the year for forfeits, and such amusements. The day after Christmas Day. There was merriment enough and to spare at other places. There was a grand ball at Mowle, for instance; while up in London, very likely, there were thousands shrieking with laughter at the clown's first leap on to the stage—at his soiling his new clean motley in his first slip and tumble. There was little mirth, though, at Grilling Abbots. They were warm and snug, the fire glowing splendidly, the kettle always proffering boiling water, the mugs full, and the rummers emitting most deliciously inebriating perfume. But there was no mirth. This question about old Mr. Hadfield oppressed all terribly. Already there seemed to be a gloom as of crape covering and saddening them.
It was a small enough event from any other than a Grilling Abbots point of view, it must be admitted. It was like an explosion in a room—it would break the windows possibly, and make the children next door scream and clutch their mother's skirts; but out of a certain small radius it would be quite inaudible. Yes, they would hear it at Mowle; they would be moved by it at Mowle—not, of course, so much as at Grilling Abbots, but still considerably. You know he had sat for Mowle—in the old times before the Reform Bill. No, he never set foot in the House after the Bill. He swore he never would, and he kept his oath. There was no mistake about him. If he once said a thing, he kept to it through thick and thin,—aye, that he did. A true, staunch, stout old English gentleman—that he was. There was no mistake about him. They were all agreed upon that. Yes, they would feel his loss at Mowle. But in London? Those Cockney chaps would read it in the newspaper at breakfast over their eggs, their precious London milk and eggs: (how derisive the rural inhabitant is always on the state in which the town-dweller receives these dainties!) they would read in the paper a simple line or two—
On the 26th December, George Richard Saxon Carew Hadfield, of Hadfield Grange, Grilling Abbots, Uplandshire, in the 72nd year of his age, deeply lamented—
and think and care nothing about the matter, and never know how valued was the old man in the neighbourhood of his estate, how good a friend he had been to the poor of Grilling Abbots; how treasured was his name and his memory amongst them; how old a family he came of, and how many pages were devoted to the chronicles of his house in that interesting work, the "History of Uplandshire."
There must of course be limits to grief. The bereavement which crushes one heart so cruelly is mere gossamer weight to another. The life to that man all in all is as nothing to this. Can we truly sorrow for one we have never heard of even, much less seen? Perhaps it is as well that we have some invulnerable places in our hearts. Were we to mourn each time that Death strikes down a victim, when should we joy?
"When did the Hadfields come into the county?" they were asking in the large room at the George. Was it in the time of the Henrys or the Edwards? They referred to the schoolmaster. He drew hard at his pipe. If the answer was worth having, it is presumable that it was worth waiting for. He appeared to be counting, as though he were obedient to that direction in music which requires you to wait so many bars before you come in again with your contribution to the harmony. But the schoolmaster waited too long, especially as the answer he was finally able to give was of so vague and incomplete a character. He wasn't sure, he said. You see, he'd only come into the county himself within the last twenty years. Woodlandshire, that was his native county. But he thought the Edwards. Yes, he was nearly sure about it—it must be the Edwards. Still, his uncertainty sent him down terribly—regarded as a man of general information—in the estimation of the assembly. For some considerable time afterwards he ruled very low—as the money-market people phrase it—and was indeed, I should say, quoted at quite a nominal price.
However, they were a very old family, the Hadfields, there was no doubt about that.
"A reverend thing," says Bacon, "to see an ancient castle or building not in decay, or to see a fair timber tree sound and perfect. How much more to behold an ancient family, which hath stood against the waves and weathers of time!"
A very old family—the schoolmaster told no one news when he told that. They had been seated at a very early period in Uplandshire—that was no great news either. Surely all Grilling Abbots knew that. They had received territorial grants from Henry VIII. at the dissolution of the Monasteries—that was certain also. And there was a Richard Hadfield, barrister-at-law, Recorder of the city of Oldport, Serjeant-at-Law, and Queen's Serjeant (38th Elizabeth, 1596), who had purchased additional adjoining lands (the Broadmede estates, indeed, which had belonged originally to Broadmede Priory) of Henry, third Earl of Chevedale, the grantee at the dissolution. Sir Hugh Hadfield was sheriff of the county in the tenth year of James I., and received the honour of knighthood at the coronation of Charles I. He erected the family seat on the site of an ancient Grange of the old Abbey of Grilling. Sir Hugh's house was a noble building, in the form, it was said as regarded its ground-plan, of a I, in compliment to James I. Since that period, however, the house had undergone considerable alteration, and the idea of its founder had been greatly departed from. Part had been pulled down and rebuilt. A George Hadfield, in the reign of Anne, had embraced the Roman Catholic faith, and erected a chapel attached to the house. His son and grandson had reverted to the religion of their forefathers, and had permitted the chapel to fall into hopeless decay. It must also be said of them that they combined to cut off the entail, destroyed the timber, sold great portion of the Broadmede property, and left heavy encumbrances upon the estates for their successors to struggle with and pay off. Part of the Hadfield lands had indeed been already lost to the family during the Civil War, in which the Hadfield family were devoted partisans of the Stuarts. At the Restoration, a Court of Claims re-established the family in a large share of their possessions; but before they could recover the whole, an order of the King in Council dissolved the Court. In 1682, Thomas, the younger son of Sir Hugh,—to carve out for himself a fortune, or to repair the disasters of his family,—had sailed for America, and settled in Maryland, marrying there. In a last letter received from him, many years later, he had stated that his wife was dead and also one of his two children, and that having acquired a large fortune and sold his lands for 40,000l., he intended returning to England with all his money in specie, and his only surviving son, to introduce him to his relatives, and to be himself interred in the family mausoleum at Grilling Abbots. But nothing further had ever been heard of him, and it was supposed that he had been lost at sea with his son and all his property.
Carved over the park gateway and the porch on the terrace, but very worn now, and moss-grown, and with orange lichen patches over it, the crest of the Hadfields is still traceable. Let the history of the county state it heraldically:—"A dove, ar. beak and legs, gu. standing on a serpent rowed ppr. Motto, 'Soyez sage et semple.'" And in that beautiful chamber—(it is used as a library now, and it is the room in which the medical gentlemen had their consultation and their Madeira)—wainscoted with carved oak of rich and elaborate pattern and most skilful workmanship, is to be seen in admirable preservation an almost unequalled specimen of the richly-decorated withdrawing-room of the time of James I. The chimney-piece is decorated with the Royal arms and the initials of James, while amidst the thick crust of ornamentation on either side are to be found the bearings of Sir Hugh, the builder, and of the family of his wife, one of the Saxons of Hillshire.
Not all this did the schoolmaster narrate to the guests of the George—yet something of it—they could not have borne it all. For they grew giddy with going so far back, just as people are dizzied by a great height. They wouldn't let go the present to trust themselves with the past. There was a sort of magnetic attraction about the business before them. They were held to it as by a chain—they would stretch out to the limits of their links, but they always returned to the original position. Would we live to see his son?
Who remembered Mr. Wilford? Nearly all in the room. Why, it was seven years ago that he went away. No, man—no, not so much. Yes, just seven years. Mrs. Joyce, the landlady of the George, fixed the time to a day—almost to an hour. It was the day her son Jeremiah—her fifth child—was born. She was in bed at the time, as Dr. Fuller could certify, if he were there, which he wasn't. Jerry was born in November, at half-quarter-day. Nobody could gainsay evidence so circumstantial as this. The fact was generally accepted that Mr. Wilford had gone away little better than seven years ago. Lord, what a long time ago it seemed!
Why had he gone? Nobody liked this question. They shirked it; they shrugged their shoulders; they looked hard at the ceiling. They passed on the inquiry—they said: "Ah! why, indeed?" and each looked as though he expected some one else to answer. He was a fine young fellow; they were all agreed as to that. A very fine young fellow. A handsome boy, with a bright dark eye, and black hair, as thick as a horse's tail. Farmer Corbet had a story to tell about the young gentleman coming over the hedge, in among his oats, playing the devil and all with them, said the farmer. But he behaved well (he went on)—a lad of sperrit, and a gentleman, one of the old Hadfields, and as like as two peas to the picter up in the long room of the Grange of that one ever so long ago as went to Indy, and got lost. Amerikey, was it? Well, it was all the same. Poor young gentleman. Perhaps the old Squire was too hard with him, too quick and sharp. The old Squire could be at times, they all agreed. Mr. Wilford wasn't the one for that sort of treatment. He couldn't bear too much of it. He was of the old Hadfield blood, a fiery temper when he was once roused: and what a black frown came over his face! and he'd give back word for word, they agreed. Yes, and blow for blow, said some one; and then there was an awful silence.
They were like children playing at a game; they were growing gradually warmer, and soon warmer—warmer—hot—very hot—then the game was played out—they had reached the climax. They had touched the answer to the question. As they all knew, the story went that the separation of Mr. Hadfield and his eldest son was in this wise: Angry words had passed between them—the dispute raged violently. In his passion the father had struck his son, and the blow had been returned. They had never met since, and Wilford Hadfield had never since set foot in Grilling Abbots.
True or false, this story was the under-current explanation of the division between the Squire and his son. All knew it, though all shrunk from discussing it openly. It was one of the ghosts of Grilling Abbots, this narrative. To be alluded to very carefully, in whispers, with shut doors. True or false, it was a fact that, now on his death-bed, the Squire had sent for his son. Would Wilford Hadfield reach the Grange in time?—he was running a race with Death.
"Snawing fast," said William ostler, coming into the room, to light a lanthorn or a pipe, or on some such specious errand. In truth, perhaps, to get a little warmth from the fire, or to carry away a slice or so of the conversation of the large room to amuse him with in the dreadful solitude and tedium of his life in the stable loft, or to be asked to take a draught from somebody's mug, or may-be a sip from somebody else's rummer.
"I said it was coming down," remarked the schoolmaster. But he did not improve in value much by the observation, for upon inquiry it seemed that every one in the room had ventured upon a similar prophecy—all had agreed that it would come down hard before morning; they had said so quite early in the day, by the look of the sky.
"Like a blanket. Can't hardly see before yer." What a time William ostler was lighting his pipe!—surely his eyes were roaming from mug to mug, rather enviously.
"Here, William," says Mrs. Joyce; "it must be bitter cold in stable." She hands him a jug of something smoking hot, and strong in flavour. A smile stars his face all over with lines and creases. He does not smile simply with his mouth; he brings his forehead, his cheeks, his eyebrows and eyes, even his shock head of hair, into the business. He stands in a curved attitude, with his head well out from his body, for fear any soiling drops should fall upon his chess-board patterned velveteen waistcoat. He raises his shoulders and squares his elbows. The process of drinking seems with him to need nothing so much as free play of the arms. He waves the jug three times, perhaps as a sort of incantation to secure luck; perhaps, to mix well together its contents. He seems rather inclined to make a speech, or drink the health of the company; but he evidently does not quite see his way comfortably through either of these formulae; so he abandons further ceremony, and empties the jug.
He draws a long breath. Tears are in his eyes. Tears of joy, of gratitude, not of sorrow; or perhaps it is the excessive heat of his libation that has acted as an irritant upon his lachrymal glands.
"Groom Frank's outside," he remarks, applying the back of his hand violently to his lips, as though to rub well into his skin the flavour of his drink. "Come down from Grange."
"What for? Why don't he come in?" says Mrs. Joyce; "he's never standing out in the cold?"
"No; he's under cover—brought horses down. Master Stephen bid him."
"To meet Mr. Wilford?"
William ostler nodded. The whole room was listening, and he seemed rather pleased at being so greatly an object of interest. It was a novel position for him, quite. Why, at that moment, Mr. and Mrs. Joyce were mere cyphers compared to William ostler; while the schoolmaster—bah! he was out of the question altogether. William went on:
"Old gentleman's very bad." It was the latest intelligence from the Grange, and was received with breathless interest.
"All say he's going fast as he can; but he's sensible, groom Frank says—so the housekeeper told 'em in the kitchen. He's asked again for Master Wilford—keeps on asking for him. So Master Stephen sends down groom Frank with horses to meet him, 'cause, if this snaw goes on, he'll have a job to get through Chingley Bottom; and as for going on to Grange with same horses, with that road what it is, and what I've known to be any winter these last twelve years, why it's more than horseflesh can do—that's what it is. A horse can't do no more than a horse can, and if you goes for to try—" But he stopped short, listening attentively.
"Wheels!" he cried.
All the room listened. Some declared it was fancy; others, no such thing. They could hear them quite well. The schoolmaster said he could hear nothing, but then he was a little hard of hearing on one side; yet, he said, with an air of philosophy, that he had often noticed that when people particularly wanted to hear a particular sound, then they were always given to think that they did hear it. The remark was not thought much of, especially as the schoolmaster was wrong. The sound of wheels was now distinctly audible. William, ostler, ran out with a lanthorn. Somebody drew the red curtains from before the long low window of the George. The heat of the room had clouded the glass. Many were occupied in rubbing clear a diamond pane of glass here and there, so that they might look out at the night and see what happened, as through peep-holes.
"Lord! how it was snowing!" "Why, the ground was quite white—the snow an inch thick already!" "What a draught there was with that front-door open!" O! how cold!" "Who was that man outside there, beyond the trough and the sign-post?" "Why, groom Frank, of course, with the change of horses."
"Yo-ho! Yo-ho! O! O!"
"Yo-ho! Yo-ho! O! O!"
The postilion from afar off echoes William ostler's cry. Now you can plainly hear the dull thumping of the wheels over the rough road muffled by the snow. You can see the red carriage-lights gleaming through the clouds of steam rising from the horses. The carriage makes slow progress in spite of all the whipping and spurring and the shrill threats and encouragement of the postboys. Indeed the horses are nearly dead-beat,—you can hear their pantings through all the noise. What a ghastly look about the carriage, white with snow on all one side where the wind has been blowing—a thick cake of snow on the roof, snow on the lamps even, half melting—snow on the harness, on the horses—on every slightest projection to which it can cling by any possibility. Snow, too, on the cap of the traveller—on his shoulders, on his flowing jet-black beard. He has been leaning out of the window, passionately urging on the postboys.
"Why are you stopping, d—n you!" he cries out savagely.
Groom Frank is at the window in a minute, touching his hat. "The horses are quite done up—there's no going on further with them to-night. He has brought down fresh from the Grange. They'll be put to in two minutes. There's a good fire in the large room of the George. They can start again in two minutes."
"Is he alive?" the traveller asks in a husky whisper.
"Yes, sir;" and groom Frank touches his hat, "but—"
"But what?" "But very poorly—very poorly indeed."
He frowned almost fiercely—they could see that much from the window of the George—he gave the man—a sovereign, wasn't it? he came down from the carriage and strode into the house. A tall, pale, haggard man, with wild-looking eyes. He took no notice of anybody in the room. He kicked the snow from his boots, and was soon toasting his feet on the bars of the roaring red fire. There was a dead silence in the room. The company seemed quite paralysed by his presence; no one dared to move a limb, though each managed to glance at him stealthily.
"Give me some brandy."
Mr. Joyce himself obeyed the order, but he hesitated for a moment.
"With hot or cold water?"
"With neither!" Rather angrily spoken. He drained it off at once. How his thin, long white hand shook,—all in the room managed to notice that somehow; so it was discovered, when they began to compare notes afterwards. His hand shook as he took up the glass.
"You're Joyce?" he asked suddenly. The landlord bowed.
"Yes, I remember," he said with a faint smile. He passed out of the room again—he threw down some money in the bar.
"Now, then, make haste. Am I to wait all night?" And he stamped on the ground.
What a cloud round those poor wearied horses, panting with drooping heads and bent knees. The company had rubbed fresh peep-holes in the window-panes, again dim with the heat; they could see the traveller mount into his carriage again.
"Off with you!" he cried. And they whirled him at a furious pace along the road to the Grange, the snow falling thicker than ever.
"Please God he gets there in time," said good Mrs. Joyce fervently.
"It's him," she went on fervently, "I knew him directly. There's no mistaking those fierce black eyes of his, if you've once seen them. Yet, how he's changed—how old-looking—how thin, and white; perhaps that's the cold, though,—he's been travelling a long while, likely enough, and it's a bad night for travellers. We ought to be very thankful we're all in front of a good fire, and with a roof over our heads, such a night as this. Yes—he's changed—fifteen years older he looks; and what a long black beard—for all the world like a furriner!"
"Like a Frenchman, a'most," said Farmer Corbet. "I don't fancy an Englishman wearing mustarchies myself," and he rubbed his shaven chin meditatively. "It seems unnat'ral like to wear all that hair on one's face."
"How quick he swallowed that brandy. Wonderful I call it," remarked Mr. Joyce.
"Please God, the old gentleman lives to see him and to make it up with him. Why do people ever quarrel, I wonder! I'm sure this ought to be a warning to us."
The events of the evening had made the landlady thoughtful.
"Poor Mr. Wilford," she said, sighing; and she filled up the kettle, for all the rummers wanted replenishing. "Poor Mr. Wilford," she said, sighing; and she filled up the kettle, for all the rummers wanted replenishing.
CHAPTER II. OLD MR. HADFIELD OF THE GRANGE.
Mr. Wilford was soon stopping in front of the porch over which was carven the crest of the Hadfields—the dove standing on the serpent; motto—"Soyez sage et semple."
A young man, not unlike the traveller in face and figure, except that he was much smaller and slighter, and wore no beard, came hurrying out of the entrance-hall.
"Wilford!" he cried out.
"Steenie!" the traveller answered.
"I'm so glad you've come!" And their hands were clasped tightly.
"Does he live still?" asked Wilford in a strange hollow voice.
"Yes. It is all one can say of him. He is dreadfully feeble, very dreamy, and dazed. He is like one in a trance. Yet, he lives."
"Thank God!" said the elder brother, solemnly. "I hardly dared hope to see him alive. Lord, Steenie, how you've grown. Why, you were quite a boy when I went away!"
"You've been gone some time, remember, Wil;" and Steenie smiled rather sadly.
"Seven years. Yes, there has been time for change. And you've married, haven't you, Steenie? You've got a wife and children? God bless me, how time flies!"
"You shall see her to-morrow, and the children, too, if you like; they have all retired for the night. Indeed, it was so late, we almost despaired of your coming to-night. I thought you had perhaps stopped at Mowle."
"Indeed, I haven't stopped a minute, Steenie, on the road. The news reached me in Brussels,—I saw the advertisement in the newspaper. I knew it could only refer to me, and I started at once. I haven't slept or tasted food since. Can I see him, Steenie? Will he let me?—now?—at once?"
"I will go up and see. I will ask Mr. Fuller: he is going to stop the night through. He has been most kind. Wait in the library: they shall bring you some refreshment. Be sure you ask for anything you want. You are at home again, you know, Wil, now."
And Stephen Hadfield mounted quickly the wide oaken staircase, so black with age and so polished that it looked as though it were made of ebony.
"At home!" Wilford repeated mechanically, passing his nervous hand over his forehead. There was something of agony in the tone of his voice as he added: "It has been no home to me for seven long years. It can never be a home to me again."
He tottered to a chair, he sat down, leaning upon the table and burying his face in his hands. He started up suddenly, for a servant entered with the tray, and he felt ashamed of his emotion being too apparent. He poured some wine into a tumbler and emptied it at once. A footstep was heard at the door; another moment and Mr. Fuller stood before Wilford Hadfield.
"My dear boy," said the doctor, heartily, "how glad I am to see you here again! once more at the Grange, Wilford; that's how it should be, isn't it? Yet, how you've changed; how your hand burns, too; you're dreadfully feverish, do you know that? It's the journey perhaps, as you say. I should hardly have known you with that great beard, and all that thick long hair."
Wilford smiled as he tossed back the matted locks from his forehead.
"That's more like you; I know that smile; I know that grand old action of the head to shake the hair from your forehead. There's something leonine about it. Many of the Hadfields have had it, especially old Uncle Hugh and my poor friend up-stairs. I don't trace it in Stephen so much; perhaps it's because I wasn't in attendance at his birth," and the doctor laughed at himself. "He was born in the south, if you remember. They tell me I always think the most of my own children, as I call them. Ah, Wilford, it doesn't seem so very long ago since all the place was rejoicing at your birth. How well I remember it! I was attending on poor Mrs. Hadfield! Lord! it seems only yesterday!"
So the kind-hearted doctor ran on. Was he really garrulous? or was he talking with an object. Doctors are very cunning. It might have been to give time to his patient up-stairs. It might have been to accustom Wilford a little more to his position—to calm down his excitement—before the interview between the father and the son should take place. Or did it arise from that prevalent English practice of keeping back the most important topic of conversation until much preliminary discussion has been disposed of? for it is not only ladies who defer to the postscript the vital object of their letters. People will approach the matter that most interests them, and to which they are burning to come, circuitously and under cover of all sorts of common-places, just as Hamlet and Laertes stamp and wave their foils and attitudinise, losing so much time before they set to the serious business of fighting, upon which both are bent.
The doctor would say very little of old Mr. Hadfield, dying upstairs. He parried all Wilford's eager inquiries.
"He is dozing, at present," he said. "Yes—it has been a bad attack—a very bad attack; and at his age even the best constitution—and his has been a very good one—all the Hadfields have had good constitutions—but at a certain age the best constitution in the world can't stand some attacks. He is very weak, but he fights on manfully—wonderful stamina. Each time I think he is sinking, I find that he rouses himself again in a quite surprising way. Yes, you shall see him, by and by, never fear; but the slightest inclination to sleep is valuable to him just now, and we mustn't trifle with him in his present state. By and by. By and by. Why, you look taller than ever. I really think you must have grown!"
How tiresome seems this sort of talk, in answer to the questions of the sick man's friends? Will he live? Will he survive the night? For how many hours is he safe? Will the morning's sun find him yet living, or will it be struggling to pierce through the chinks of closed shutters, and to gleam in thin lines and fitful patches on the bed where a corpse is stretched out, and the sheet covers a dead man's face? Ask these questions, as they come surging up from a suffering heart, and receive in reply platitudes about stamina and constitution, and time, and quiet, care, and the best advice!
Yet what can the doctor do or say else? He is only a man after all, though a medical man. He is not one of the Parcæ. He is not Atropos the Unchangeable, ruling the end of life. And even supposing that he thinks the worst has come to the worst, as people say,—that Death's hand is already pressing on the patient's heart, staying its pulsation—is he really bound to tell his thoughts on the instant? Is he not entitled to use his discretion as to the when and where of his revelation? Don't we pay him to be discreet? So Mr. Fuller elected to talk rather of the living son than of the dying father. It may be that he had reasons for so doing; and it may be, moreover, that those reasons were good ones.
"Seven years ago, Wilford, since you went away. Yes, just seven years. Ah! a sad business—a very sad business indeed!"
"Don't speak of it now, good friend," said Wilford, turning away; "not just now, at any rate."
"I won't, my boy; I won't. But we've often thought of you—often—wondering what had become of you—what you were doing."
"And what have I done all the while?" the young man cried, bitterly. "What have I done? No good, you may be sure of that."
"Hush! hush! don't speak so now. All that's over now, you know. You're home again in your father's house. Bygones are to be bygones now. You were a mere boy when you went away. You are only a young man now. There's a long life before you—a happy one, very likely. Why not?"
Wilford shook his head mournfully.
"But there is," the doctor persisted. "I have great hopes of you. I always had great hopes of you. In the old times, don't you remember, you were quite a pet of mine? We used to have great games together. I could never keep you out of the surgery. You were always plaguing me to let you look at the skeleton locked up in the mahogany case. Do you remember that? And my poor wife, what a fright she was in when you got hold of that case of lancets! You were quite a baby then, in frocks; and she thought you'd cut your poor little hands all to pieces. But you didn't. There's a special providence watching over children, I do believe, or I'm sure a great many more would be blown up with gunpowder, or cut into little pieces with knives and sharp instruments, or be run over, or go tumbling out of window. The things children get doing! It's wonderful!"
So the doctor ran on—a small, spare man, nearly sixty years of age, perhaps, with a handsome, rather bald forehead, and quick, bright blue eyes. His smile was very pleasant, though peculiar, accompanied as it was by a certain declension of the eyebrows always, which imparted to it a piquancy and vivacity that were decidedly attractive. He toyed with his double eye-glass as he spoke, and his whole manner was very earnest. Perhaps the situation in which he was placed made him seem almost restless during his conversation with Wilford.
"And your own children, doctor, are they well? Little sunny-headed things, how well I remember them, and the romps there used to be with them on the lawn at the back of your house. How I used to frighten them with telling them there were really live lions in Grilling Park, who would be sure to pounce upon them and eat them up, some day, at two mouthfuls. They declared it wasn't true, and yet they were always frightened, and took such tight hold of my hand. Such pretty children, too!"
"Thank you," said the doctor, looking very happy and pleased; "they are very well. But as for children! Time has been going on with you, and he hasn't been stopping with other people. I'm sure Vi wouldn't let you call her a child, and I don't think Madge would either; or perhaps I ought to say, rather, that I am sure Madge wouldn't, and I have grave doubts about Vi, for I believe it is always the youngest who are the most peremptory on these matters; and little Madge is now—let me see—she must be just fifteen—at least I think so; but you know that fathers never can remember their children's ages. But here I am talking, and keeping you from eating, and you must be as hungry as a hunter—quite faint, I should say rather, for want of food. You look very white. Always so? No, surely not; it must be the cold. The Grange is a dreadfully cold place. Gets worse and worse, I think, every winter. Perhaps it is that I feel it more and more, from growing older. Come close to the fire, and try and eat something, do. No, I wouldn't drink all that wine without eating something, if I were you. That's a very strong sherry—a good, sound wine; but I think some of this Madeira would be better for you. I'm not at all sure that the best thing you could do wouldn't be to go and get between the sheets at once, and try and have a good night's rest."
"I don't like his looks at all," he muttered to himself. Just then the housekeeper entered, making a profound curtsey to Mr. Wilford. He did not appear to notice her: he was gazing sternly into the fire, profoundly abstracted. She approached softly, and said something in a low voice to the doctor.
"Very well," he said, "I'll see to it:" and she left the room. The doctor's manner changed. He abandoned the light, pleasant tone in which he had until then been speaking. He looked very serious now. He placed his hand upon Wilford's shoulder.
"Your father will see you," he said. Wilford rose up, trembling.
"One moment," said the doctor, staying him as he moved towards the door. "I will go in with you. But I should caution you: Mr. Hadfield is very weak, yet at times he is almost violent; his strength seems to return to him for the occasion, and he permits himself to be strangely moved and excited. These paroxysms, for so I may almost call them—are very bad for him. You know something of his temper, of old. Age and illness have not bettered it. Be temperate with him, my dear boy. Don't irritate him. Say as little as possible. For your own sake, as well as his, don't offend him again—don't do that. Be careful, my dear boy. God prosper you."
The doctor shook hands with him affectionately.
"He is my father," said Wilford, in a husky voice. "I will remember that now, though I forgot it before. How my heart beats! Let us go to his room."
They ascended the staircase, and stopped before the door of a room on the first floor—the room in which old Mr. Hadfield, of the Grange, lay dying.
It was but dimly lighted by the fire burning rather low in the grate and a lamp on the table at the side of the invalid's bed, but placed so that his eyes should not be offended by its glare, and so that the shadow of the curtains should fall upon his face. Between the bed and the fire-place Stephen Hadfield was seated on a low chair with a large book in his hands, open at a particular place, as though he had been reading to his father.
The housekeeper was at the door to admit the visitors; another woman who had been acting as nurse was bending drowsily over the fire. The room was very large, with carved ceiling and heavy cornices. Every now and then, as a flame flickered in the grate, you could trace the dim outlines of a large allegorical painting, much dimmed and clouded by years, amongst the raised ornaments of the ceiling. But the colours were not very strong now, the drawing in places was quite undefinable, and much of the gilding of the portions in relief was very dull and black.
On a high, carved, four-post bedstead, with heavy, dull crimson hangings, old Mr. Hadfield was stretched at length, breathing heavily. He had been a tall man you could see at once, and handsome, too; his son Wilford's resemblance to him was remarkable; but he looked very gaunt and grim and grisly now, he was so wasted by age and illness. He had the fierce black eyes of Wilford, and falling on his forehead the same thick hair, save that it was perfectly white in his case. His cheeks were dreadfully sunken, while there was something unnatural about the brilliancy of his eyes, flashing from such hollow sockets. He stared steadily at his son, scrutinising him as he entered with the doctor. The poor old man was painfully weak, it could be seen at a glance; once he tried to raise himself up in the bed, but he sank back after an ineffectual effort. Wilford for the first few moments, unaccustomed to the low light of the room, could not clearly perceive his father, shadowed by the curtains of the bed. As yet, neither had spoken. The room was very still; you could hear the tickings of the watch in the pocket over the old man's head, above even his heavy breathing—above the trembling of the embers on the hearth—above the gasping which Wilford experienced consequent upon the terribly quick beating of his heart. He was about to address his father, but the doctor's hand on his arm checked him. The eyes of the old man turned from his first to his second son.
“Go on, Steenie,” he said, in a low hoarse voice. “Begin where I told you.”
And Stephen Hadfield, much moved and in rather broken tones, commenced to read:
——“gathered all together and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance in riotous living.”
He was reading from the New Testament—the story of the Prodigal Son. He continued for some verses further.
“Stop!” said the old man. Then he turned to Wilford, and cried, almost savagely: “Now, Prodigal! what have you to say?”
Wilford came to the side of the bed. There was a look of deep suffering in his face. He sank upon his knees with a piteous moan.
“Forgive me, father!” and he tried to take the old man’s hand. It was drawn away abruptly.
Mr. Hadfield, however, glanced at his second son, Stephen. There seemed to be an understanding between them as to what was next to be done. Stephen laid down the Book on the bed, and placed a hand-bell within his father’s reach, and then, motioning all to leave the room, quitted it himself, closing the door upon old Mr. Hadfield and his eldest son.