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Chapter 52


The night began differently with the two watchers. The major was troubled in his mind at what seemed the hard-heartedness of the mother, for he loved her with a true brotherly affection. He had not seen her looking in at the door; he did not know the cause of her appearing so withdrawn and unmotherly: he forgot his shilling novel and his sherry and water, and brooded over the thing. He could not endure the low-minded cub, he said to himself; he would gladly, if only the wretch were well enough, give him a sound horse-whipping; but to see him so treated by father and mother was more than he could bear: he began to pity a lad born of parents so hard-hearted. What would have become of himself, he thought, if his mother had treated him so? He had never, to be sure, committed any crime against society worse than shocking certain ridiculously proper people; but if she had made much of his foibles and faults, he might have grown to be capable of doing how could he tell what? who would turn out a mangy dog that was his own dog! If the fellow were his he would know what to do with him! He did not reflect that just because he was not his, he did not feel the wounds that disabled from action. It was easy for him unhurt to think what he would do if he were hurt. Some things seem the harder to forgive the greater the love. It is but a false seeming, thank God, and comes only of selfishness, which makes both the love and the hurt seem greater than they are.

And as the major sat thinking and thinking, the story came back to him which his mother had so often told him and his brothers, all now gone but himself, as they stood or sat or lay gathered round her on the Sunday evenings in the nursery--about the boy that was tired of being at home, and asked his father for money to go away; and how his father gave it him, thinking it better he should go than grumble at the best he could give him; and how he grew very naughty, and spent his money in buying things that were not worth having, and in eating and drinking with greedy, coarse, ill behaved people, till at last he had nothing left to buy food with, and had to feed swine to earn something; and how he fell a thinking, and would go home. It all came back to his mind just as his mother used to tell it--how the poor prodigal, ragged and dirty and hungry, set out for home, and how his father spied him coming a great way off, and knew him at once, and set out running to meet him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. This father would not even look at the son that had but just escaped the jaws of death! True, the prodigal came home repentant; but the father did not wait to know that, but ran to meet him and fell on his neck and kissed him!

As the major thus reflected, he kept coming nearer and nearer to the individual I lurking at the keyhole of every story. Only he had to go home, else how was his father to receive him.

"I wonder now," he said, "if when a man die that is counted for going home! I hardly think it; that is a thing the man can't help at all; he has no hand in the doing of it. Who would come out to meet a fellow because he was flung down dead at his door. I fear I should find myself in no better box than this young rascal when he comes home because he can't help it!"

The end of it was that the major, there in the middle of the night, went down on his knees, and, as he had not now done since the eve of his last battle, tried to say the prayers his mother had taught him. Presently he found himself saying things she had not taught him--speaking from his heart as if one was listening, one who in the dead of the night did not sleep, but kept wide awake lest one of his children should cry.

"It is time," said the major to himself the next day, "that I began to think about going home. I will try again to-night!"

In his wife's room Gerald Raymount sat on into the dead waste and middle of the night. At last, as his wife continued quietly asleep, he thought he would go down to his study, and find something to turn his thoughts from his misery. None such had come to him as to his friend. He had been much more of a religious man than the major--had his theories concerning both the first and the second table of the law; nor had he been merely a talker, though his talk, as with all talkers, was constantly ahead of his deed: well is it for those whose talk is not ahead of their endeavor! but it was the idea of religion, and the thousand ideas it broods, more than religion itself, that was his delight. He philosophized and philosophized well of the relations between man and his maker, of the necessity to human nature of belief in a God, of the disastrous consequences of having none, and such like things; but having such an interest is a very different thing from being in such relations with the father that the thought of him is an immediate and ever returning joy and strength. He did not rejoice in the thought of the inheritance of the saints in light, as the inheriting of the nature of God, the being made partaker of the father's essential blessedness: he was far yet from that. He was so busy understanding with his intellect, that he missed the better understanding of heart and imagination. He was always so pleased with the thought of a thing, that he missed the thing itself--whose possession, and not its thought is essential. Thus when the trial came, it found him no true parent. The youth of course could not be received either as clean-handed or as repentant; but love is at the heart of every right way, and essential forgiveness at the-heart of every true treatment of the sinner, even in the very refusal of external forgiveness. That the father should not have longed above all things for his son's repentance; that he should not have met even a seeming return; that he should have nourished resentment because the youth had sinned against his family in which beauty as his he had gloried; that he should care to devise no measures for generating a sense of the evil he had done, and aiding repentance as makes forgiveness a necessary consequence; that he should, instead, ruminate how to make him feel most poignantly his absolute scorn of him, his loathing of his all but convict son--this made the man a kind of paternal Satan who sat watching by the repose of the most Christian, because most loving, most forgiving, most self-forgetting mother, stirring up in himself fresh whirlwinds of indignation at the incredible thing which had become the fact of facts, lying heaviest, stinging deepest, seeming unchangeable. That it might prove a blessing, he would have spurned as a suggestion equally degrading and absurd. "What is done is done," he would have said, in the mingled despair of pride and pride of despair; "and all the power of God cannot make the thing otherwise. We can hold up our heads no more for ever. My own son has not only disgraced but fooled me, giving men good cause to say, 'Physician, heal thyself.'"

He rose, and treading softly lest he should wake the only being he felt love for now, and whom he was loving less than before, for self-love and pride are antagonistic to all loves, left the room and went to his study. The fire was not yet out; he stirred it and made it blaze, lighted his candles, took a book from a shelf, sat down, and tried to read. But it was no use; his thoughts were such that they could hold no company with other thoughts: the world of his kind was shut out; he was a man alone, because a man unforgiving and unforgiven. His soul slid into the old groove of miserable self-reiteration whose only result was more friction-heat; and so the night slid away.

The nominal morning, if not the dawn was near, when, behold, a wonder of the night! The door between the study and the old library opened so softly that he heard nothing, and ere he was aware a child in long white gown stood by his side. He started violently. It was Mark--but asleep! He had seen his mother and father even more than usually troubled all day, and their trouble had haunted him in his sleep; it had roused him without waking him from his dreams, and the spirit of love had directed his feet to the presence of his father. He stood a little way from him, his face white as his dress, not a word issuing from his mouth, silent, haunted by a smile of intense quiet, as of one who, being comforted, would comfort. There was also in the look a slight something like idiocy, for his soul was not precisely with his body; his thoughts, though concerning his father, were elsewhere; the circumstances of his soul and of his body were not the same; and so, being twinned, that is, divided, twained, he was as one beside himself. His eyes, although open, evidently saw nothing; and thus he stood for a little time.

There had never been tender relations between Mark and his father like those between the boy and his mother and sister. His father was always kind to him, but betwixt him and his boys he had let grow a sort of hard skin. He had not come so near to them as to the feminine portion of his family--shrank indeed from close relations with their spirits, thoughts or intents. It arose, I imagine, from an excess of the masculine element in his nature. Even when as merest children they came to be kissed before going to bed, he did not like the contact of their faces with his. No woman, and perhaps not many men will understand this; but it was always a relief to Mr. Raymount to have the nightly ceremony over. He thought there was nothing he would not do for their good; and I think his heart must in the main have been right towards them: he could hardly love and honour his wife as he did, and not love the children she had given him. But the clothes of his affections somehow did not sit easy on him, and there was a good deal in his behaviour to Cornelius that had operated unfavourably on the mind of the youth. Even Mark, although, as I have said, he loved him as few boys love a father, was yet a little afraid of him--never went to him with confidence--never snuggled close to him--never sat down by his side to read his book in a heaven of twilight peace, as he would by his mother's. He would never have gone to his father's room for refuge from sleeplessness.

Not recognizing his condition his father was surprised and indeed annoyed as well as startled to see him: he was in no mood for such a visit. He felt also strangely afraid of the child, he could not have told why. Wretched about one son, he was dismayed at the nocturnal visit of the other. The cause was of course his wrong condition of mind; lack of truth and its harmony in ourselves alone can make us miserable; there is a cure for everything when that is cured. No ill in our neighbours, if we be right in ourselves, will ever seem hopeless to us; but while we stand wrapped in our own selfishness, our neighbour may well seem incurable; for not only is there nothing in us to help their redemption, but there is that in ourselves, and cherished in us, which cannot be forgiven, but must be utterly destroyed.

There was an unnatural look, at the same time pitiful and lovely, about the boy, and the father sat and stared in gathering dread. He had nearly imagined him an angel of some doom.

Suddenly the child stretched out his hands to him, and with upcast, beseeching face, and eyes that seemed to be seeing far off, came close to his knee. Then the father remembered how once before, when a tiny child, he had walked in his sleep, and how, suddenly wakened from it, he had gone into a kind of fit, and had for a long time ailed from the shock. Instantly anxious that nothing of the kind should occur again, he took the child softly in his arms, lifted him to his knees, and held him gently to his bosom. An expression of supreme delight came over the boy's face--a look of absolute contentment mingled with hope. He put his thin hands together, palm to palm, as if saying his prayers, but lifted his countenance to that of his father. His gaze, however, though not its direction, was still to the infinite. And now his lips began to move, and a murmur came from them, which grew into words audible. He was indeed praying to his father, but a father closer to him than the one upon whose knees he sat.

"Dear God," said the child--and before I blame the familiarity, I must know that God is displeased with such address from the mouth of a child: for this was not a taught prayer he neither meant nor felt--

"Dear God!" said the child, "I don't know what to do, for papa and Corney, I am afraid, are both naughty. I would not say so to anybody but you, God, for papa is your little boy as I am his little boy, and you know all about it. I don't know what it is, and I think Corney must be more to blame than my dear papa, but when he came home to-night he did not go to papa, and papa did not go to him. They never said How do you do, or Good-night--and Corney very ill too! and I am always wanting to come to you, God, to see you. O God, you are our big papa! please put it all right. I don't know how, or I would tell you; but it doesn't matter--you would only smile at my way, and take a much better one of your own. But please, dear God, make papa and Corney good, and never mind their naughtiness, only make it just nothing at all. You know they must love one another. I will not pray a word more, for I know you will do just what I want. Good-by, God; I'm going to bed now--down there. I'll come again soon."

With that he slipped from his father's knee, who did not dare to detain him, and walked from the room with slow stately step.

By this time the heart of the strong hard man was swelling with the love which, in it all along, was now awake. He could not weep, but sobbed dry, torturing sobs, that seemed as if they would kill him. But he must see that the boy was safe in bed, and rising he left the room.

In the corridor he breathed more freely. Through an old window, the bright moon, shining in peace with nobody to see, threw partly on the wall and partly on the floor, a shadow-cross, the only thing to catch the eye in the thin light. Severe protestant as Gerald Raymount was, he found himself on his knees in the passage before the shadow--not praying, not doing anything he knew, but under some spiritual influence known only to God.

When the something had reached its height, and the passion for the time was over--when the rush of the huge tidal wave of eternity had subsided, and his soul was clearing of the storm that had swept through it, he rose from his knees and went up to Mark's room, two stories higher. The moonlight was there too, for the boy had drawn back the window-curtains that from his pillow he might see the stars, and the father saw his child's white bed glimmering like a tomb. He drew near, but through the gray darkness it was some seconds before he could rightly see the face of his boy, and for a moment--I wonder how brief a moment is enough for a death-pang to feel eternal!--for an awful moment he felt as if he had lost him: when he left the study he had been lifted straight to the bosom of the Father to whom he had prayed! Slow through the dusk dawned his face. He had not then been taken bodily!--not the less was he gone!--that was a dead face! But as he gazed in a fascination of fear, his eyes grew abler to distinguish, and he saw that he breathed. He was astonished to find how weak was the revulsion: we know more about our feelings than about anything else, yet scarcely understand them at all; they play what seem to us the strangest pranks--moving all the time by laws divine.

The boy seemed in his usual health, and was sleeping peacefully--dreaming pleasantly, for the ghost of a smile glinted about his just parted lips. Then upon the father--who was not, with all his hardness, devoid of imagination--came the wonder of watching a dreamer: what might not be going on within that brain, inaccessible as the most distant star?--yea far more inaccessible, for what were gravity and distance compared with difficulties unnamed and unnamable! No spirit-shallop has yet been found to float us across the gulf, say rather the invisible line, that separates soul from soul. Splendrous visions might be gliding through the soul of the sleeper--his child, born of his body and his soul--and not one of them was open to him! not one of the thoughts whose lambent smile-flame flitted about his child's lips would pass from him to him! Could they be more divided if the child were dead, than now when he lay, in his sight indeed, yet remote in regions of separate existence?

But how much nearer to him in reality was the child when awake and about the house? How much more did he know then of the thoughts, the loves, the imaginations, the desires, the aspirations that moved in the heart and brain of the child? For all that his contact with him came to, he might as well be dead! A phantom of him moving silent about the house fill the part as well! The boy was sickly: he might be taken from him ere he had made any true acquaintance with him! he was just the child to die young! He would see him again, it was to be hoped, in the other world, but the boy would have so few memories of him, so few associations with him that it would be hard to knot the new to the old!

He turned away, and went back to his room. There, with a sense of loneliness deeper than he had ever before felt, he went down on his knees to beg the company of the great being whose existence he had so often defended as if it were in danger from his creatures, but whom he had so little regarded as actually existent that he had not yet sought refuge with him. All the house was asleep--the major had long ended his prayers and was slumbering by the fire--when Raymount knelt before the living love, the source of his life, and of all the love that makes life a good thing, and rose from his knees a humbler man.

George MacDonald