On the evening of Thanksgiving day, John Inglefield, the blacksmith, sat
in his elbow-chair, among those who had been keeping festival at his
board. Being the central figure of the domestic circle, the fire threw
its strongest light on his massive and sturdy frame, reddening his rough
visage, so that it looked like the head of an iron statue, all aglow,
from his own forge, and with its features rudely fashioned on his own
anvil. At John Inglefield's right hand was an empty chair. The other
places round the hearth were filled by the members of the family, who all
sat quietly, while, with a semblance of fantastic merriment, their
shadows danced on the wall behind then. One of the group was John
Inglefield's son, who had been bred at college, and was now a student of
theology at Andover. There was also a daughter of sixteen, whom nobody
could look at without thinking of a rosebud almost blossomed. The only
other person at the fireside was Robert Moore, formerly an apprentice of
the blacksmith, but now his journeyman, and who seemed more like an own
son of John Inglefield than did the pale and slender student.
Only these four had kept New England's festival beneath that roof. The
vacant chair at John Inglefield's right hand was in memory of his wife,
whom death had snatched from him since the previous Thanksgiving. With a
feeling that few would have looked for in his rough nature, the bereaved
husband had himself set the chair in its place next his own; and often
did his eye glance thitherward, as if he deemed it possible that the cold
grave might send back its tenant to the cheerful fireside, at least for
that one evening. Thus did he cherish the grief that was dear to him.
But there was another grief which he would fain have torn from his heart;
or, since that could never be, have buried it too deep for others to
behold, or for his own remembrance. Within the past year another member
of his household had gone from him, but not to the grave. Yet they kept
no vacant chair for her.
While John Inglefield and his family were sitting round the hearth with
the shadows dancing behind them on the wall, the outer door was opened,
and a light footstep came along the passage. The latch of the inner door
was lifted by sonic familiar hand, and a young girl came in, wearing a
cloak and hood, which she took off, and laid on the table beneath the
looking-glass. Then, after gazing a moment at the fireside circle, she
approached, and took the seat at John Inglefield's right hand, as if it
had been reserved on purpose for her.
"Here I am, at last, father," said she. "You ate your Thanksgiving
dinner without me, but I have come back to spend the evening with you."
Yes, it was Prudence Inglefield. She wore the same neat and maidenly
attire which she had been accustomed to put on when the household work
was over for the day, and her hair was parted from her brow, in the
simple and modest fashion that became her best of all. If her cheek
might otherwise have been pale, yet the glow of the fire suffused it with
a healthful bloom. If she had spent the many mouths of her absence in
guilt and infamy, yet they seemed to have left no traces on her gentle
aspect. She could not have looked less altered, had she merely stepped
away from her father's fireside for half an hour, and returned while the
blaze was quivering upwards from the same brands that were burning at her
departure. And to John Inglefield she was the very image of his buried
wife, such as he remembered her on the first Thanksgiving which they had
passed under their own roof. Therefore, though naturally a stern and
rugged man, he could not speak unkindly to his sinful child, nor yet
could he take her to his bosom.
"You are welcome home, Prudence," said he, glancing sideways at her, and
his voice faltered. "Your mother would have rejoiced to see you, but she
has been gone from us these four months."
"I know it, father, I know it," replied Prudence, quickly. "And yet,
when I first came in, my eyes were so dazzled by the firelight, that she
seemed to be sitting in this very chair!"
By this time the other members of the family had begun to recover from
their surprise, and became sensible that it was no ghost from the grave,
nor vision of their vivid recollections, but Prudence, her own self. Her
brother was the next that greeted her. He advanced and held out his hand
affectionately, as a brother should; yet not entirely like a brother,
for, with all his kindness, he was still a clergyman, and speaking to a
child of sin.
"Sister Prudence," said he, earnestly, "I rejoice that a merciful
Providence hath turned your steps homeward, in time for me to bid you a
last farewell. In a few weeks, sister, I am to sail as a missionary to
the far islands of the Pacific. There is not one of these beloved faces
that I shall ever hope to behold again on this earth. O, may I see all
of them--yours and all--beyond the grave!"
A shadow flitted across the girl's countenance.
"The grave is very dark, brother," answered she, withdrawing her hand
somewhat hastily from his grasp. "You must look your last at me by the
light of this fire."
While this was passing, the twin-girl-the rosebud that had grown on the
same stem with the castaway--stood gazing at her sister, longing to fling
herself upon her bosom, so that the tendrils of their hearts might
intertwine again. At first she was restrained by mingled grief and
shame, and by a dread that Prudence was too much changed to respond to
her affection, or that her own purity would be felt as a reproach by the
lost one. But, as she listened to the familiar voice, while the face
grew more and more familiar, she forgot everything save that Prudence had
come back. Springing forward, she would have clasped her in a close
embrace. At that very instant, however, Prudence started from her chair,
and held out both her hands, with a warning gesture.
"No, Mary,--no, my sister," cried she, "do not you touch me. Your bosom
must not be pressed to mine!"
Mary shuddered and stood still, for she felt that something darker than
the grave was between Prudence and herself, though they seemed so near
each other in the light of their father's hearth, where they had grown up
together. Meanwhile Prudence threw her eyes around the room, in search
of one who had not yet bidden her welcome. He had withdrawn from his
seat by the fireside, and was standing near the door, with his face
averted, so that his features could be discerned only by the flickering
shadow of the profile upon the wall. But Prudence called to him, in a
cheerful and kindly tone:--
"Come, Robert," said she, "won't you shake hands with your old friend?"
Robert Moore held back for a moment, but affection struggled powerfully,
and overcame his pride and resentment; he rushed towards Prudence, seized
her hand, and pressed it to his bosom.
"There, there, Robert!" said she, smiling sadly, as she withdrew her
hand, "you must not give me too warm a welcome."
And now, having exchanged greetings with each member of the family,
Prudence again seated herself in the chair at John Inglefield's right
hand. She was naturally a girl of quick and tender sensibilities,
gladsome in her general mood, but with a bewitching pathos interfused
among her merriest words and deeds. It was remarked of her, too, that
she had a faculty, even from childhood, of throwing her own feelings,
like a spell, over her companions. Such as she had been in her days of
innocence, so did she appear this evening. Her friends, in the surprise
and bewilderment of her return, almost forgot that she had ever left
them, or that she had forfeited any of her claims to their affection. In
the morning, perhaps, they might have looked at her with altered eyes,
but by the Thanksgiving fireside they felt only that their own Prudence
had come back to them, and were thankful. John Inglefleld's rough visage
brightened with the glow of his heart, as it grew warm and merry within
him; once or twice, even, he laughed till the room rang again, yet seemed
startled by the echo of his own mirth. The grave young minister became
as frolicsome as a school-boy. Mary, too, the rosebud, forgot that her
twin-blossom had ever been torn from the stem, and trampled in the dust.
And as for Robert Moore, he gazed at Prudence with the bashful
earnestness of love new-born, while she, with sweet maiden coquetry, half
smiled upon and half discouraged him.
In short, it was one of those intervals when sorrow vanishes in its own
depth of shadow, and joy starts forth in transitory brightness. When the
clock struck eight, Prudence poured out her father's customary draught of
herb-tea, which had been steeping by the fireside ever since twilight.
"God bless you, child!" said John Inglefield, as he took the cup from her
hand; "you have made your old father happy again. But we miss your
mother sadly, Prudence, sadly. It seems as if she ought to be here now."
"Now, father, or never," replied Prudence.
It was now the hour for domestic worship. But while the family were
making preparations for this duty, they suddenly perceived that Prudence
had put on her cloak and hood, and was lifting the latch of the door.
"Prudence, Prudence! where are you going?" cried they all, with one
As Prudence passed out of the door, she turned towards them, and flung
back her hand with a gesture of farewell. But her face was so changed
that they hardly recognized it. Sin and evil passions glowed through its
comeliness, and wrought a horrible deformity; a smile gleamed in her
eyes, as of triumphant mockery, at their surprise and grief.
"Daughter," cried John Inglefield, between wrath and sorrow, "stay and be
your father's blessing, or take his curse with you!"
For an instant Prudence lingered and looked back into the fire-lighted
room, while her countenance wore almost the expression as if she were
struggling with a fiend, who had power to seize his victim even within
the hallowed precincts of her father's hearth. The fiend prevailed; and
Prudence vanished into the outer darkness. When the family rushed to the
door, they could see nothing, but heard the sound of wheels rattling over
the frozen ground.
That same night, among the painted beauties at the theatre of a
neighboring city, there was one whose dissolute mirth seemed inconsistent
with any sympathy for pure affections, and for the joys and griefs which
are hallowed by them. Yet this was Prudence Inglefield. Her visit to
the Thanksgiving fireside was the realization of one of those waking
dreams in which the guilty soul will sometimes stray back to its
innocence. But Sin, alas! is careful of her bond-slaves; they hear her
voice, perhaps, at the holiest moment, and are constrained to go whither
she summons them. The same dark power that drew Prudence Inglefleld from
her father's hearth--the same in its nature, though heightened then to a
dread necessity--would snatch a guilty soul from the gate of heaven, and
make its sin and its punishment alike eternal.