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“Probable Sons” | Amy Le Feuvre

“He Arose and Came to His Father”

Major Lovell stayed a week, and Sir Edward seemed the better for his company, as far as his bodily health was concerned. But at heart he was very wretched, and his cousin’s influence was not the sort to help him.

“Now, old chap, make haste and get well, and don’t moon over yourself and your feelings. And come down to our place for Christmas, won’t you? You’re getting quite in the blues by being so much alone.”

These were Major Lovell’s parting words, and Sir Edward responded, “No, thanks; I prefer being at home this Christmas. Why, I doubt if I shall leave my room by that time. I am as weak as a baby.”

The week before Christmas Sir Edward was in an easy chair in the library, and, though still an invalid, was now making rapid progress towards recovery. He was looking over an article he had just written, before a blazing fire, when there was a knock at the door. A frown came to his face as he turned to see who the intruder was, but it disappeared at the sight of his little niece, rosy and breathless, in outdoor garments, and hugging a large piece of holly in her arms.

“Uncle Edward, he has come!”

“Who has come?”

“Tommy—he really and truly has! Mr. Ford told me just as I came in with nurse. He heard it from Mr. Harris, and Mr. Harris heard it from Mr. Maxwell himself. He said, ‘My lad has come, tell little missy,’ and Mr. Ford says Mr. Harris said, ‘He looked as if he could dance a jig for joy!’ Oh, Uncle Edward, may I go to them? Nurse says it’s too late, but I do want to be there. There’s such a lot to be done now he has really come. And, Uncle Edward, may they kill one of the cows in the farm that are being fatted up? There’s no calf, I’m afraid. May they? And may I go and tell them so? You will let me go, won’t you?”

“Most certainly not. It is much too late in the afternoon for you to be going down there. It is getting quite dark, and as to one of my cattle being disposed of in that way, I should not dream of allowing it for one moment.”

Milly’s eyes filled with tears, which she vainly tried to restrain. When her uncle spoke to her in that tone she knew it was useless to remonstrate.

“They’ll be having the feast without me,” she said, with a little sob in her voice. “Mrs. Maxwell promised me I should be there when they had it, and I’m longing to see Tommy.”

“Then if Mrs. Maxwell promised you that, she will put off her feast till tomorrow,” said Sir Edward in a softer tone. “And now be a sensible little woman, and wait patiently till the time comes. You may be sure his parents will like to have him to themselves the first night. Run away now; I don’t want to be disturbed.”

Poor little Milly crept out of the room feeling very crestfallen, and a short time after was lying on the hearth-rug before the nursery fire. Her arms were wound round Fritz’s neck, and she was confiding to him the whole story, and comforting herself by conjecturing how and where the meeting had taken place. Her little mind was so full of the subject that it was long before nurse could get her to sleep that night. Her last words before she dropped off were, “I wonder who will do the music and dancing!”

The next morning, the instant her breakfast was over, Milly obtained nurse’s permission to go down to the keeper’s cottage under charge of Sarah, the nursery maid. She was away the whole morning, and about one o’clock a message came from Mrs. Maxwell to ask if she might stay to dinner with them. So that it was not till nearly four in the afternoon that she was brought up to the house. And then, flushed and excited, she poured into her nurse’s ear a long account of all that she had been hearing and doing.

“Now, come, my dear, you mustn’t talk forever,” was nurse’s remonstrance at last. “Sir Edward told me I could send you to him for a little when you came in, and I must make you tidy first.”

It was quite dusk when Milly entered the library, but the bright firelight showed her the figure of her uncle leaning back in his easy chair, and indulging in a reverie.

“Well,” he said, looking round, “where have you been all day? Down at Maxwell’s, I suppose?”

“Yes,” said Milly, sedately. “And I’ll tell you all about it, if you like. May I make myself comfortable first?”

And after a minute’s hesitation she climbed into the heavy armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace, making a pretty picture, as she leaned her curly head back on the cushion and gazed earnestly into her uncle’s face.

“We will have a crack together, uncle. That’s what Mr. Maxwell calls it, when Mrs. Maxwell and I talk over the fire. May I tell you all about Tommy now?”

“You may,” was the amused reply.

“Well, you know, I ran as fast as I could down to the wood this morning, and Sarah ran after me, and Mrs. Maxwell saw me coming and she ran to the door. I was rather out of breath, you see, so she just smoothed me down a little, and we kissed each other, and she cried a tiny bit, for I felt her tears on my face. Then she took me in to see Tommy—Mr. Maxwell was out, and Tommy was in the kitchen in one of Mr. Maxwell’s greatcoats, and he was eating some bacon at the table for his breakfast. He got up when he saw me—he’s a nice big man, uncle, but I think his hair needs cutting. We shook hands, and I told him I’d been expecting him ever so long. He looked rather shy, but after he had quite finished his breakfast, we had a very nice talk, and Mrs. Maxwell went bustling about getting dinner ready. Tommy told me all about himself from the very beginning, but I really quite forget some of it. He never kept any pigs at all, but he kept some sheep instead—he went out to America and did it—and then he was a railway man, and then he had a fever, and then he got into bad company, and at last he came to London, and he was an bus driver there, and then a cabman, and then he drank too much beer, and his money all went away, and he was ashamed of himself, and so he wouldn’t write home, and then he smashed his cab against the lamp post, and then he drank too much again.”

“I don’t think you need tell me anymore of his misdoings,” said Sir Edward, drily.

“But, you see, he had to get very bad before he got good, because he was a prodigal son. And he is sorry now. He said he never, never would have come home until he was a good man, only one day he listened to a man preaching a sermon in the middle of a street on a Sunday night, and he felt uncomfortable, and then he was spoken to after by—now guess, uncle, who do you think?”

Sir Edward could not guess, so Milly went on triumphantly: “Why, it was my Jack, and he began to talk to him, and told him he was like him once, and he said he was looking out for a Tommy Maxwell. Now wasn’t that wonderful, when it was Tommy himself he spoke to! Well, Tommy said he hadn’t the face to go home till he was better, but Jack told him not to wait a day longer, for his father and mother were waiting for him. But the strange thing was that even then Tommy waited a whole two weeks before he made up his mind to come. Now don’t you think he was foolish, uncle?”

“Very foolish.”

“I couldn’t quite understand it, but nurse says there are lots of people like that, waiting to make themselves better, instead of running home just as they are. She says some of God’s prodigal sons do that. Do you think many do, uncle?”

“I daresay.”

“And Tommy said, though he wanted to see his home again dreadfully, he had a great fight with himself to come at all. I didn’t know prodigal sons found it so difficult—the one in the Bible didn’t, not when he once made up his mind. Well, and so Tommy got out at the station—I’m sorry he came by train, but Jack’s uncle paid for his ticket—I would rather he had run the whole way.”

“Why would you?” asked Sir Edward, with a smile.

“I think it would have been more proper if he had,” said the child slowly, her head a little on one side, as she gazed thoughtfully into the fire. “I always run or walk the whole way when I play the prodigal son. I begin rather slowly, because it looks a long way off, but when I come near I hurry. I’m wanting to be there when I see my home. The prodigal son didn’t have a train in the Bible, and I think Tommy could have tried to do without it.”

The tone of reproach at the end of her speech was too much for her uncle’s gravity, and he laughed aloud. “I am afraid Tommy has sadly disappointed you. Did he take a cab from the station?”

“No, he didn’t do that. He got home in the afternoon, and Mr. Maxwell was cleaning his gun on the doorstep, when he saw a shadow, and he looked up and there he was! Oh! I should like to have been there, but I’m sorry to say Mr. Maxwell didn’t fall on his neck and kiss him. I asked Tommy very carefully about it, and he said he took hold of both his hands and squeezed them tight, and he gave a shout, and Mrs. Maxwell was doing her washing in the backyard, and she heard it, and she shook all over so that she could hardly walk. She cried so much when she saw Tommy that Mr. Maxwell had to pat her on the back and give her a glass of water. And Tommy he sat down on the little seat inside the porch, and he said—these were his very words, uncle—‘I ain’t fit to come home, father. I’m a disgrace to your name,’ and Mrs. Maxwell—Tommy told me—she just took his head between her two hands, and drew it to rest on her shoulder, and then she bent down and kissed him all over and she said: ‘My boy, who should you come to when you are in disgrace and trouble but your own father and mother?’

“Tommy said, when he told me this, ‘It fair broke my heart, miss,’ and then he gave a great sob, and I began to cry, and then Mrs. Maxwell came up, and her hands were all floury, for she was making an apple pudding, and she cried too, and then we all cried together—at least, Tommy turned his head away and pretended he didn’t, but I saw he did.”

Milly paused for breath, and her eyes looked wistfully into the glowing coals before her.

“I didn’t know prodigal sons were sad when they came back, but Tommy seemed so sad that he made me sad too. Why do you think Tommy cried, uncle?”

Sir Edward did not reply. He was gazing dreamily into the fire, and something of the wistfulness in his little niece’s face seemed to be reflected in his. He gave a start after a moment’s silence.

“Eh, child? What are you saying? Have you finished your story?”

“Why, no, uncle, not nearly. Are you tired? Nurse said I must not tire you too much.”

Sir Edward laughed, but it was not a happy laugh.

“Oh, finish your story by all means, little woman,” he said. So Milly continued:

“We all cheered up when Mrs. Maxwell asked me if I’d like to stay to dinner. I asked if it was the feast, and she laughed and said, ‘Yes.’ She had a roast leg of pork in the oven, with some stuffing and apple sauce, and, uncle, it was lovely! Mr. Maxwell came in just in time, and he looked so happy, and then we all sat down to dinner, but I asked Mr. Maxwell to say first before we began: ‘Let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’* (Luke 15:23-24) He folded his hands and said it like grace, and Mrs. Maxwell said ‘Amen’ when he had finished, and wiped her eyes with her apron. I told them we must all be very merry, but Tommy wasn’t, I’m afraid. He kept looking first at Mrs. Maxwell and then all round the kitchen, and then at Mr. Maxwell, and then he sighed very big sighs. He said he couldn’t believe he was at home; but he told me, when I asked him quietly afterwards, that he was really very happy, he only sighed and looked sad because he thought how foolish he had been to stay away so long. I was very sorry for one thing about him, uncle. He wasn’t in his best clothes. They were all too small for him, and the slippers wouldn’t fit him, but Mr. Maxwell says he will buy him some new ones tomorrow. And Tommy told me he wouldn’t wear a ring if he had one. He asked me why he should, so I told him about the prodigal son in the Bible—he seemed to like hearing about it, and he said he thought he was very like him. And then I asked about the music and dancing. I wanted to have that, but we couldn’t manage it. Mrs. Maxwell said we had music in our hearts. How can we have that, uncle? I didn’t hear any in mine, for I kept silent and listened for it.”

“I expect she meant you were so happy that you did not want any music to make you happier.”

“I was very happy. Oh, Uncle Edward, why won’t all the prodigal sons go home? I can’t think why they like staying away. It is so lovely to think of Tommy now! And everyone would be just as happy, wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t think all young men have such fond parents as your friend Tommy has,” said Sir Edward gravely.

“Haven’t they? Well, God’s prodigal sons couldn’t have a nicer father. I lie and think of them when I’m in bed sometimes, and I talk to God about them. I was so glad when Jack went back to Him. I think it is worst of all to stay a long way off from God, because He does love them so. I wonder if it is that they don’t know whether God will take them back. Tommy seemed half afraid till he came, that his father would be angry with him. I should like to see a prodigal son running back into God’s arms so much! But I suppose he does it very quietly, and only the angels look down and see it!”

“And what is this young scapegrace going to do now? Live on his father and mother, or is he going to try and do some honest work?”

Sir Edward’s tone was rather impatient. Milly looked up surprised.

“Do you mean Tommy, uncle? Are you angry with him? He told me he was going to look for work directly, and Mr. Maxwell is coming up to speak to you about him tomorrow.”

“Ah! I daresay—wants him to take the place of under-keeper, I suppose,” and Sir Edward gave a little grunt of dissatisfaction at the thought.