A Promise Kept
About a fortnight later Sir Edward, who always opened the mailbag himself, found there a letter addressed to his little niece, and sent a message to the nursery to tell her to come down to him. She arrived very surprised at the summons, as Sir Edward always wished to be left undisturbed at his breakfast.
When she saw the letters on the table she cried out joyously, “Good morning, Uncle Edward. I know there’s a letter from Jack for me, isn’t there? I’ve been waiting for it every day.”
“I think there may be, judging from the writing on the envelope. Come here and open it.”
Milly took the letter, and her little fingers fairly trembled with excitement as she opened it, saying softly to herself as she did so, “I knew he would keep his promise. I knew he wasn’t a thief.”
A money order dropped out.
“Well,” said Sir Edward, “you were right, little woman, and we were wrong. Would you like me to read it for you?”
“Yes, please, uncle.”
The letter read as follows:
I am as good as my word, little Miss, in sending you back what you lent me with many grateful thanks for the loan, as I reached London safe and have never touched a drop of drink since I seen you, and am in work at my uncle’s, which is good of him to take me, and am getting good wages and goes to church again. And my uncle has a chum which is a street preacher, and comes along of plenty of fellows like I was, and I told him of your young fellow, Tommy Maxwell, and he will keep a lookout for him. Tell the woman that fetched you sharp away that I’ll hold up my head with her yet, and every night I asks God to bless you, for I hopes I am getting on the right track again, and thank you kindly for your talk, which is sticking to me.
Sir Edward laid the letter down in silence when he had finished reading it. Milly’s face was radiant.
“I’ve never had a letter in my life before, uncle, but I don’t quite understand all of it. Will you explain it to me?”
And this her uncle did, sending her upstairs at length to show it to nurse, but sitting wrapped in thought himself and leaving both his letters and breakfast untouched for some considerable time.
That same day he went out driving in the afternoon with a young horse. On his way home met a tractor, at which the horse instantly took fright and bolted. For some time Sir Edward kept steadily to his seat, and though powerless to check the animal’s course was able to guide it. But in spite of all his efforts the trap was at last upset, and he was thrown violently to the ground. He had no groom with him, and the accident took place on a lonely road, so that it was not till an hour later that help came, in the shape of a farmer returning from market in his cart. He found Sir Edward unconscious, and the horse still feebly struggling to extricate himself from under the trap, which was badly broken.
It was about seven o’clock in the evening when Sir Edward was brought home, and he had three ribs broken, besides some very severe injuries to his head. The doctor wished to telegraph for a nurse from London, but Sir Edward had a horror of them, and having recovered consciousness shook his head vehemently when it was suggested. So it ended in Milly’s nurse volunteering to assist his valet in nursing him. Poor little Milly wandered about the house with Fritz at her heels in a very woe-begone fashion. What with the anxiety in her heart lest her uncle should die, and the absence of her nurse—who could spare little time now to look after her—she felt most forlorn. Her greatest comfort was to go down to the keeper’s cottage and talk to Mrs. Maxwell.
Sir Edward was soon out of danger, but he was a long time recovering, and required most careful nursing. Milly begged and entreated to go in and see him, but this was not allowed. At last permission was given by the doctor for a very short visit, and the child stole in on tiptoe, but insisted upon taking a large brown paper parcel in with her, the contents of which were unknown to everyone except herself.
Softly she crept up to the bed and looked at her uncle’s bandaged head and worn face with the greatest awe.
He put out his hand, which she took in hers. Then she said, her brown eyes fixed wistfully on his face, “I’ve wanted to see you, Uncle Edward, for so long. I wish you would let me come in and help to nurse you.”
Sir Edward smiled, then shook his head.
“I’ve been asking God to make you better so many times,” she continued, softly stroking his hand as she spoke, “and He is going to make you live again; now isn’t He? I wasn’t quite sure whether you mightn’t like to die best, but I didn’t want you to. Nurse says I mustn’t stay a moment, but I’ve brought you a present. Mr. Maxwell went to the town and got it for me with the money Jack sent back to me. May I open it for you?”
Seeing that her uncle said yes with his eyes, Milly eagerly removed her brown paper, and then lifted on to the bed with difficulty a picture of the Prodigal Son, in a plain oak frame.
“Isn’t it a lovely one, Uncle Edward? There’s the prodigal son—I’ve learned to say it properly now—all in rags hurrying along the road, and there’s his old father in the distance coming to meet him; and can you see the words underneath?—‘I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.’ (Luke 15:18) I thought you would like it to look at while you are in bed. May I rest it against the rail at the bottom of your bed? There you can see it beautifully.”
Nurse came forward and helped the child to put the picture in the place she wished. Sir Edward tried to look pleased, and said in a low tone, “Thank you, little one, I can see it well from there.” But under his breath he muttered, “Has she a purpose in bringing that everlasting subject before me? I’m sick to death of it. I shall get rid of that picture when she is gone.”
But he did not. His eyes grew somewhat wistful as he gazed upon it, and later in the day, when nurse asked him if he would like to have it removed, he shook his head, no.
No one could know his thoughts during those long days and nights of weariness and pain. The restlessness of body did not equal the restlessness of soul, and the past came back with a startling vividness. The wasted years, the misused talents, and above all, the fast-closed heart against its rightful Owner, now seemed to stand up in judgment against him. Often in his wretchedness would he groan aloud, and wish for unconsciousness to come to his aid and consign to oblivion his accusing memory.
It was a cold, gray afternoon. Mrs. Maxwell’s little kitchen was in perfect order. The fire shed flickering lights on the bright dish-covers on the wall, and the blue and white china on the old-fashioned dresser was touched with a ruddy glow. Mrs. Maxwell herself, seated in a wooden rocking-chair, in spotless white apron, was knitting busily as she talked. Milly on a low stool, the tabby in her arms, with her golden-brown curls in pretty disorder, and her large dark eyes gazing earnestly into the fire, completed the picture.
“Do you like winter, Mrs. Maxwell?” she was asking.
“Well, my dear, I can’t say as I don’t prefer the summer. But there!—the Almighty sends it, and it must be right, and I don’t think folks have a right to grumble and go rushing off to them foreign parts, a-leaving their own country and the weather God gives them, because they say they must have sunshine. I allays thinks they’ve no sunshine in their hearts, or they wouldn’t be so up and down with the weather.”
“I think winter is a very lonely time, Mrs. Maxwell, and I’m so sorry for the trees. I was out this morning with Fritz, and I talked to them and tried to cheer them up. And I think they feel they’re nearly dead, poor things! They were shivering with cold this morning; they were, really. I told them they would be happy when next summer comes, but they sighed and shook their heads. It’s such a long time to wait, and they have nothing to do—they can only stand still. I was very sad this morning. After I had talked to them, I went down to the plantation at the bottom of the lawn, and on the way I came to a poor dead frog. Fritz sniffed at him, but he didn’t seem to be sorry. I don’t know how he died. I thought perhaps he had stayed out in the cold and got frozen, he felt so very cold. I took him up and buried him, and I wondered if his mother would miss him. Then I went on a little farther, and there were some little bird’s feathers all in a heap on the ground. I felt sure a cruel cat had been eating it up, and I couldn’t help crying, for everything seemed to be dying. And when I got to the plantation I was a little comforted, for the fir-trees looked so comfortable and warm—they hadn’t lost their leaves like the other trees—but do you know, in the middle of them all was a tall, thin, bare tree—he looked so lonely and unhappy, and he was the only one without any leaves.”
“One of those birches, I expect. My man, he said the other day that the fir plantation yonder wanted weeding out.”
“Well, I couldn’t bear to see him so sad, so I crept right in amongst the firs until I got to him, and then I put my arms right round him and cuddled him tight. I told him God would take care of him, and give him a beautiful new green dress next summer. But he seemed to feel the cold, and I expect the other trees aren’t very kind to him. I always think the firs are very stiff and proud. I—I kissed him before I came away. It was a sad morning.”
Milly’s tone was truly pathetic, and Mrs. Maxwell, who loved to hear her childish fancies and never laughed at them, now looked up from her knitting sympathetically.
“You’re sad yourself, dear. Is your uncle pretty well today?”
“I think he is getting better, but he mustn’t talk, and nurse won’t let me see him. I think it’s winter makes me sad, Mrs. Maxwell.”
There was silence for a few moments. Milly stroked her cat thoughtfully, then she said, “If Uncle Edward had died, what would have happened to me? Should I have had to go to the workhouse?”
“Bless your little heart, no! Why, my man and I was saying the other day that it’s most sure as you’ll be mistress of the property one day. Sir Edward he have no other kith or kin, as far as we know. Workhouse, indeed! A place where they takes in tramps and vagabonds.”
“I heard some of the maids talking about it,” continued Milly. “They said they wondered what would happen to me. I think he is my only uncle, so I couldn’t go anywhere else. I wish I had a father, Mrs. Maxwell, I’m always wishing for one. I never remember my father. My mother I do, but she was always ill, and she didn’t like me to bother her. Do you know, I thought when I came to Uncle Edward that he would be a kind of father; Miss Kent said he would. But I’m afraid he doesn’t like me to bother him either. I should like him to take me up in his arms and kiss me. Do you think he ever will? I feel as if no one cares for me sometimes.”
“I think a certain little apple dumpling as I put in the oven for someone is smelling as if it wants to come out,” was Mrs. Maxwell’s brisk response as she bustled out of her chair, her old eyes moist with feeling.
In an instant Milly’s pensiveness had disappeared. A baked apple dumpling had great charms for her, and no one would have believed that the light-hearted child with the merry laugh, now dancing around the room, and climbing up to the dresser for a plate, was the same as the one who had so sadly talked a few moments before on the mournfulness of winter and of her orphaned state.
“Did you make such nice apple dumplings for Tommy?” she asked presently, busy with her fork and spoon, and looking supremely content with herself and surroundings.
“Ah! Didn’t I? I mind when he used to come in on Saturdays from the forge, I always had a hot pudding for him. He used to say there was no one as cooked as well as mother.”
“He’s a long time coming home, isn’t he, Mrs. Maxwell? I get so tired of waiting. I wish he would come for Christmas.”
“I’m not tired of waiting,” Mrs. Maxwell said softly, “and I’ve waited these nine years, but it sometimes seems as if it is only yesterday as he went off. I feel at times like fretting sadly over him, and wish I knew if he was alive or dead; but then the Lord do comfort one, and I know He sees just where he is, and He’ll let me know when the right time comes.”
“I’m expecting him every day,” said Milly with a cheerful little nod. “I was telling God about him last night at my window on the stairs—and it seemed as if God said to me that he was coming very soon now. I shouldn’t wonder if he came next week!”
The keeper entered the cottage at this moment, and Milly jumped off her seat at once.
“I’m afraid it’s time for me to be going back. Nurse said I was to be in at four. Are you going to take me, Mr. Maxwell?”
“Don’t I always see you safe and sound up at the house?” Mr. Maxwell said good-humoredly. “And do you know it has struck four ten minutes ago? When you and my old woman get together to have a crack, as the saying is, you don’t know how time passes. We shall have to run for it.”
Milly was being rapidly covered up in a thick plaid by Mrs. Maxwell.
“There now, my dearie, goodbye till next I see you, and don’t be doleful in that big house by yourself. Your uncle will soon be well, and nurse will be better able to see after you. I don’t know what all those servants are after that they can’t amuse you a bit.”
“Nurse doesn’t like me ever to go near the servants’ hall,” said Milly. “I promised her I wouldn’t. Sarah stays in the nursery with me, but she runs away downstairs pretty often. Goodbye, Mrs. Maxwell.”
It was getting dark. Mr. Maxwell soon had the child in his strong arms, and was striding along at a great pace, when passing a rather dark corner, a man suddenly sprang out of the bushes and took to his heels.
Mr. Maxwell shouted out wrathfully: “Let me see you in here again, and it will be the worse for you, you scoundrel!”
“Oh, Mr. Maxwell,” cried Milly, “who is it?”
“One of them skulking poachers—they’re always in here after the rabbits. If I hadn’t a-had you to look after and had my thick stick I would a-been after him.”
“But you wouldn’t have hurt him?”
“I should have taught him a lesson, that I should!”
“But, Mr. Maxwell, you mustn’t, really! Only think, he might be—Tommy coming home! You couldn’t see who it was, could you? It would be dreadful if you chased away Tommy.”
“No fear o’ that,” Mr. Maxwell said in a quieter tone. “My own son wouldn’t skulk along like that. He was a ragged vagabond, that’s what he was.”
“Prodigal sons are nearly always ragged. He might have been someone’s prodigal son, Mr. Maxwell.”
“He was just a poacher, my dear, and I think I know the chap. He’s staying at the Blue Dragon, and has been a-watching this place for some time.”
“Perhaps he is one of God’s prodigal sons,” said Milly softly, “like Jack was.”
To this Mr. Maxwell made no reply, but when he set her down in the brightly-lighted hall a little later, he said, “Don’t you fret about our Tommy. I should know him fast enough. He wouldn’t run from his own father.”
And Milly went in, and that night added another petition to her prayers: “And please God, if the man who ran away from Mr. Maxwell is a prodigal son, bring him back to his father for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”