It almost seemed as though our casual mention of Theobald and Christina had in some way excited them from a dormant to an active state. During the years that had elapsed since they last appeared upon the scene they had remained at Battersby, and had concentrated their affection upon their other children.
It had been a bitter pill to Theobald to lose his power of plaguing his first-born; if the truth were known I believe he had felt this more acutely than any disgrace which might have been shed upon him by Ernest's imprisonment. He had made one or two attempts to reopen negotiations through me, but I never said anything about them to Ernest, for I knew it would upset him. I wrote, however, to Theobald that I had found his son inexorable, and recommended him for the present, at any rate, to desist from returning to the subject. This I thought would be at once what Ernest would like best and Theobald least.
A few days, however, after Ernest had come into his property, I received a letter from Theobald enclosing one for Ernest which I could not withhold.
The letter ran thus:—
"To my son Ernest,—Although you have more than once rejected my overtures I appeal yet again to your better nature. Your mother, who has long been ailing, is, I believe, near her end; she is unable to keep anything on her stomach, and Dr Martin holds out but little hopes of her recovery. She has expressed a wish to see you, and says she knows you will not refuse to come to her, which, considering her condition, I am unwilling to suppose you will.
"I remit you a Post Office order for your fare, and will pay your return journey.
"If you want clothes to come in, order what you consider suitable, and desire that the bill be sent to me; I will pay it immediately, to an amount not exceeding eight or nine pounds, and if you will let me know what train you will come by, I will send the carriage to meet you. Believe me, Your affectionate father, T. PONTIFEX."
Of course there could be no hesitation on Ernest's part. He could afford to smile now at his father's offering to pay for his clothes, and his sending him a Post Office order for the exact price of a second-class ticket, and he was of course shocked at learning the state his mother was said to be in, and touched at her desire to see him. He telegraphed that he would come down at once. I saw him a little before he started, and was pleased to see how well his tailor had done by him. Towneley himself could not have been appointed more becomingly. His portmanteau, his railway wrapper, everything he had about him, was in keeping. I thought he had grown much better-looking than he had been at two or three and twenty. His year and a half of peace had effaced all the ill effects of his previous suffering, and now that he had become actually rich there was an air of insouciance and good humour upon his face, as of a man with whom everything was going perfectly right, which would have made a much plainer man good-looking. I was proud of him and delighted with him. "I am sure," I said to myself, "that whatever else he may do, he will never marry again."
The journey was a painful one. As he drew near to the station and caught sight of each familiar feature, so strong was the force of association that he felt as though his coming into his aunt's money had been a dream, and he were again returning to his father's house as he had returned to it from Cambridge for the vacations. Do what he would, the old dull weight of home-sickness began to oppress him, his heart beat fast as he thought of his approaching meeting with his father and mother, "and I shall have," he said to himself, "to kiss Charlotte."
Would his father meet him at the station? Would he greet him as though nothing had happened, or would he be cold and distant? How, again, would he take the news of his son's good fortune? As the train drew up to the platform, Ernest's eye ran hurriedly over the few people who were in the station. His father's well-known form was not among them, but on the other side of the palings which divided the station yard from the platform, he saw the pony carriage, looking, as he thought, rather shabby, and recognised his father's coachman. In a few minutes more he was in the carriage driving towards Battersby. He could not help smiling as he saw the coachman give a look of surprise at finding him so much changed in personal appearance. The coachman was the more surprised because when Ernest had last been at home he had been dressed as a clergyman, and now he was not only a layman, but a layman who was got up regardless of expense. The change was so great that it was not till Ernest actually spoke to him that the coachman knew him.
"How are my father and mother?" he asked hurriedly, as he got into the carriage. "The Master's well, sir," was the answer, "but the Missis is very sadly." The horse knew that he was going home and pulled hard at the reins. The weather was cold and raw—the very ideal of a November day; in one part of the road the floods were out, and near here they had to pass through a number of horsemen and dogs, for the hounds had met that morning at a place near Battersby. Ernest saw several people whom he knew, but they either, as is most likely, did not recognise him, or did not know of his good luck. When Battersby church tower drew near, and he saw the Rectory on the top of the hill, its chimneys just showing above the leafless trees with which it was surrounded, he threw himself back in the carriage and covered his face with his hands.
It came to an end, as even the worst quarters of an hour do, and in a few minutes more he was on the steps in front of his father's house. His father, hearing the carriage arrive, came a little way down the steps to meet him. Like the coachman he saw at a glance that Ernest was appointed as though money were abundant with him, and that he was looking robust and full of health and vigour.
This was not what he had bargained for. He wanted Ernest to return, but he was to return as any respectable, well-regulated prodigal ought to return—abject, broken-hearted, asking forgiveness from the tenderest and most long-suffering father in the whole world. If he should have shoes and stockings and whole clothes at all, it should be only because absolute rags and tatters had been graciously dispensed with, whereas here he was swaggering in a grey ulster and a blue and white necktie, and looking better than Theobald had ever seen him in his life. It was unprincipled. Was it for this that he had been generous enough to offer to provide Ernest with decent clothes in which to come and visit his mother's death-bed? Could any advantage be meaner than the one which Ernest had taken? Well, he would not go a penny beyond the eight or nine pounds which he had promised. It was fortunate he had given a limit. Why he, Theobald, had never been able to afford such a portmanteau in his life. He was still using an old one which his father had turned over to him when he went up to Cambridge. Besides, he had said clothes, not a portmanteau.
Ernest saw what was passing through his father's mind, and felt that he ought to have prepared him in some way for what he now saw; but he had sent his telegram so immediately on receiving his father's letter, and had followed it so promptly that it would not have been easy to do so even if he had thought of it. He put out his hand and said laughingly, "Oh, it's all paid for—I am afraid you do not know that Mr Overton has handed over to me Aunt Alethea's money."
Theobald flushed scarlet. "But why," he said, and these were the first words that actually crossed his lips—"if the money was not his to keep, did he not hand it over to my brother John and me?" He stammered a good deal and looked sheepish, but he got the words out.
"Because, my dear father," said Ernest still laughing, "my aunt left it to him in trust for me, not in trust either for you or for my Uncle John—and it has accumulated till it is now over 70,000 pounds. But tell me how is my mother?"
"No, Ernest," said Theobald excitedly, "the matter cannot rest here, I must know that this is all open and above board."
This had the true Theobald ring and instantly brought the whole train of ideas which in Ernest's mind were connected with his father. The surroundings were the old familiar ones, but the surrounded were changed almost beyond power of recognition. He turned sharply on Theobald in a moment. I will not repeat the words he used, for they came out before he had time to consider them, and they might strike some of my readers as disrespectful; there were not many of them, but they were effectual. Theobald said nothing, but turned almost of an ashen colour; he never again spoke to his son in such a way as to make it necessary for him to repeat what he had said on this occasion. Ernest quickly recovered his temper and again asked after his mother. Theobald was glad enough to take this opening now, and replied at once in the tone he would have assumed towards one he most particularly desired to conciliate, that she was getting rapidly worse in spite of all he had been able to do for her, and concluded by saying she had been the comfort and mainstay of his life for more than thirty years, but that he could not wish it prolonged.
The pair then went upstairs to Christina's room, the one in which Ernest had been born. His father went before him and prepared her for her son's approach. The poor woman raised herself in bed as he came towards her, and weeping as she flung her arms around him, cried: "Oh, I knew he would come, I knew, I knew he could come."
Ernest broke down and wept as he had not done for years.
"Oh, my boy, my boy," she said as soon as she could recover her voice. "Have you never really been near us for all these years? Ah, you do not know how we have loved you and mourned over you, papa just as much as I have. You know he shows his feelings less, but I can never tell you how very, very deeply he has felt for you. Sometimes at night I have thought I have heard footsteps in the garden, and have got quietly out of bed lest I should wake him, and gone to the window to look out, but there has been only dark or the greyness of the morning, and I have gone crying back to bed again. Still I think you have been near us though you were too proud to let us know—and now at last I have you in my arms once more, my dearest, dearest boy."
How cruel, how infamously unfeeling Ernest thought he had been.
"Mother," he said, "forgive me—the fault was mine, I ought not to have been so hard; I was wrong, very wrong"; the poor blubbering fellow meant what he said, and his heart yearned to his mother as he had never thought that it could yearn again. "But have you never," she continued, "come although it was in the dark and we did not know it—oh, let me think that you have not been so cruel as we have thought you. Tell me that you came if only to comfort me and make me happier."
Ernest was ready. "I had no money to come with, mother, till just lately."
This was an excuse Christina could understand and make allowance for; "Oh, then you would have come, and I will take the will for the deed—and now that I have you safe again, say that you will never, never leave me—not till—not till—oh, my boy, have they told you I am dying?" She wept bitterly, and buried her head in her pillow.