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A Rolling Stone Vol.III

Chapter VII

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Chapter VII.

‘And the mother at home says, “Hark!
For his voice I listen, and yearn;
It is growing late and dark,
And my boy does not return.”’

And where was the man for whom a fortune waited, for whom Gatherall and Sampson inquired in vain, and whom Godfrey Palmer spoke of as being somewhere in the world and sure to turn up? They had not the gift of clairvoyance, or they might have seen him on an ocean steamer, coming towards that southern continent wherein Mr. Gatherall's advertisements were widely disseminated, and his agents made zealous search: for a person thousands of miles away.

It was true, as Mr. Gatherall had said, that for some years no one in New Zealand had heard of Randall. Mr. Wishart and Mrs. Meade, anxious that their step-sister should not be fettered by more than the semblance of an engagement, had stipulated that he should not write to her, nor by any means attempt to bring himself to her remembrance, during those years. He had not blamed them for this, nor wondered that they should have faint hopes of his success; it seemed a far-away and unreal thing to page 100 himself. Nothing but a penniless adventurer; was it strange that what he dared to hope for was a mad scheme, an impossibility in the opinion of others? He had seen (not without feeling it keenly) that Mrs. Meade and her brother were glad of his departure—glad that he should be out of the way. They wanted Maud to forget him. Perhaps they would be well pleased, notwithstanding their profession of friendship, if they never heard of him again. When his pride was stirred by these thoughts he resolved no one should hear how he fared. He went away without informing a single person of his plans, or whither he was bound. Mr. Borage, indeed, was surprised to have his money returned, shortly after Randall's departure; but the letter which accompanied, it told him nothing of the writer's circumstances further than that his position was much improved and that he was in no need of aid. There were others to whom he might have written, and who often wondered what had become of him. No letters came. They had known him only as a man who was perseveringly unlucky. He had determined that they should know no more until he could come himself and tell them that the wheel had turned with him in right earnest.

It was to be expected that Mr. Gatherall should lose all trace of him in Australia. To advertise for a man under a name by which he had never been known in those parts was certainly not of much use. When first Randall had wandered about Australia page 101 the thought of his disgrace had lost none of its bitterness. Fearful lest he should be found out by some one who had once known him or had heard of his misfortune, afraid of being pitied or patronised by former friends, he had hidden himself under an assumed name. Again, when travelling with Philimore, he had returned to this name, and by it had been known wherever he and his agent had gone. Thus for a time he had virtually disappeared from the world, and Mr. Gatherall might well have difficulty in finding him.

But it was inexcusable that one who had more claims on him than all the rest should have waited years and received neither letters nor word of news. True, he had written to his mother during his stay at Palmer's; but the letter had been returned to him unanswered. He could not know that this mishap had been caused by a wrong address. At that time Mrs. Randall had been living with her son-in-law. She had since returned to that house which had been her home when Randall left England. One by one, relative and friend had fallen away from her. Many had died, some had gone to distant countries, and, like her only son, sent her no word of remembrance. The place to which she had come seemed an asylum for such as herself. Some instinct leads the lonely, the disappointed, and the neglected to such world-forgotten spots. It was a gloomy little village, standing amongst grass-grown roads; full of old trees, old houses, and old people. Youth could not page 102 endure its dulness; when it was chained there it withered prematurely. Who has not known such a place?—where nothing ever happened, to which no one ever came who could help it, in which all the dreary monotony, all the oppressing trifles, all the apathetic resignation of what is called a quiet life, had dominion. A calm, untroubled, pleasurable sort of existence to those who see it from a distance, or who only catch a glimpse as they hasten past. Yet there may be great depths, dark and cold, beneath the still waters, and sometimes they hide the grave of happiness. Better, perhaps, to take the stream where, all sparkle and foam, it rushes from the hills, than to moor our boat in this sluggish backwater.

But amongst her neighbours Mrs. Randall was believed to be rather a fortunate person. Most of them were poor; they knew that by her son-in-law's generosity she was placed beyond the reach of want. To the end of her days she would have a comfortable home. She had, indeed, by one misfortune after another, lost everything except a home; but years had passed since those trials, and it appeared as if she were consoled for them. They had not aged her so much as fretfulness and sour discontent age many women. Her manner was invariably cheerful; if she had a grief she kept it to herself. It is a little trouble that can be babbled out to every acquaintance.

She never went from home now. It seemed to page 103 her as if her son might come at any time. The dawn whispered hope to her—he would surely come that day: the dusk of night fell sadly around her—sitting in her deserted home. Often in the midnight the noise of the train rushing into the station, the sound of wheels upon the road, the clatter of a horse's hoofs, would cause her to start from her pillow and listen with a longing heart for what she knew too soon was not yet to be.

Some days she believed him to be dead. It was not otherwise possible that he could have neglected or forgotten her for so long. Would not even the strong yearnings, the prayers and tears of a forsaken mother, by some mysterious influence, have turned his footsteps homewards long ago? He had died—it was because he could not that he did not come.

For years she had sought for information, and had vainly endeavoured to trace him. She had heard of him in different places; but the clue had always broken before it had led her through the maze. She made a practice of reading several Australian papers, in the faint hope of seeing something which might help her to find him. Frequently she read of things in these papers which stirred her soul with dread; sad stories of the fateful endings of just such homeless wanderers as the one she sought. In each she feared to find her son. Was he the man who was found lying in a Melbourne street, his cold white face turned from the pitiless world to a starry sky, and a portrait—they thought it was his page 104 mother's—tightly clasped in a hand that would not relax its hold? Was it he who wandered farther and farther on the endless plains, till he maddened with the fiercely burning heat and the unchanging scene, and when he was found could only smile vacantly in the faces of his deliverers? Oh, Heaven! it could not be that he had suffered thus. It was better to think he had been that stranger who in the fearful hours of a shipwreck had saved others, without thought of his own life, and had been drowned with the child his arms for whose sake he had returned to the sinking vessel. But these fancies were vain; she would never know how he had perished.

Yet she had her days of gladness, as we all have. There were times when she believed he was coming home No one else believed he ever would return: was that any reason why she should not cling to a thought that comforted her? Though this day had not brought him to her door the morrow might; though the morrow even should not fulfil her hopes he might be very near—a week? a month? and her waiting would be ended. Oh, what patience, that in this thought forgot all the years which had passed without word or sign!—forgot to blame the cause of a grief which had been slow of healing; forgot to murmur; but buoyed itself upon a hope that to every other mind seemed a fond delusion.

One morning in particular Mrs. Randall had risen in good spirits, and was so bright and cheerful as to excite the curiosity of Miss Gibson, her page 105 companion, a quiet, mild-tempered elderly lady who had lived with her for years. ‘Mrs. Randall, I can't help noticing how well you are looking,’ she said.

‘Yes, I am very well,’ answered the other lady, rather absently. ‘But my health is always good.’ Then brightening, she added, ‘You will laugh at me; but I have had such a delightful dream, I feel happy in thinking of it. I can't forget it, and I don't want to.’

‘A dream!’ said Miss Gibson.

‘Yes; it was about Henry. He is always in my thoughts, it is no wonder I should dream of him. I have often dreamed he had come home; but it was never so clear, so vivid, as it was last night.’

‘I had that dream once,’ said Miss Gibson; ‘but I think it was with reading some historical romance late at night, for in my dream he came home like a knight of the olden time, all in armour, and followed by a long train of captives and loads of spoil.’

‘The dream was not all pleasant,’ continued Mrs. Randall; ‘but it ended so well! At first I thought I was looking for Henry in some large city, and could not find him. It was not an English city; the streets were uneven, narrow, and thronged, and the buildings rose very high on each side; and above, I remember; there was a beautiful sky, without a cloud, and so darkly blue. It was mid-day, and very hot, with a close sultry heat. I walked through the streets for many hours, as I thought, amongst endless crowds of people. It seemed strange to me page 106 that not one of all those numbers was going in the same direction as mine; they were all hastening the other way. Thousands of faces, all meeting me, with terrible eyes that seemed to burn into mine. I could hear their footsteps on the pavement; but in all the streets, amongst all the multitude, there was no sound of a human voice. I begged, prayed, entreated them to help me; they would not answer; they only looked at me and passed me by. And I was so weary, heartsick, and footsore! the sun burned down upon me; I lost my way often, and turned back, always to find the same faces looking into mine, but not the one I wanted. Then suddenly all that faded away, and I was in my own room at home—our old home, where we lived before my husband died, and there was a nightingale singing in the shrubbery, where I have often heard them sing on summer evenings. I listened to it—oh, how sweetly it sang!—and I knew I need not be troubled about Henry any more, for he was coming home. It seemed only a few days since he had left me, and when he came in he wasn't altered, not the least, but just as he was when I saw him for the last time—my own handsome boy! Of course I felt, even in my dream, that it couldn't be so; years must have made a difference to him as well as to me. And I wanted—oh, how I wanted him to speak! but he only stood before me and smiled. Then, when I felt as if my heart would break with joy, I woke as I was calling to him aloud.’

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‘Ah, if it would only come true!’ said the sympathising Miss Gibson.

‘It will, some day. If he is yet alive he will come back. Did he not promise? He may be coming now.’

‘Oh, but we had better not think too much of this,’ said Miss Gibson, looking pityingly at the other lady. ‘You know a dream isn't much to trust in. You have thought so much of his return it is only natural you should dream of it.’

‘Oh, come, Mary,’ said Mrs. Randall impatiently, ‘I never said I believed in dreams. I know what you think though you wouldn't say it to me for worlds—you think that he will never come back. But he will, for he promised, and I never knew him to break his word.’

Miss Gibson would not argue against this belief. ‘If he could not have come he might at least have written,’ she said presently.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Randall. ‘I have often wondered why he did not write. Perhaps he thought I was offended with him, and was too proud to make the first advance; it is often that which keeps near relatives asunder. Or perhaps he has been unfortunate, and would not send me word lest I should be distressed and unhappy on his account. As if any news, almost, would not have been better than none. To know the truth is so much better than to be left only to one's imagination, terrifying oneself with all sorts of fancies. He ought to have known that I page 108 want to hear of him always, not only when he is fortunate and happy. This is what grieves me most—that he may be in trouble or suffering, ill, wretched, and in want, far away from me, and I know nothing of it. I can't get to him, I can't help him, nor even send him one word of comfort. Yes, if I were certain he would always be happy I could bear not to hear from him but to be in trouble, and hide it from me—that is not like him, not right. When he was a boy he told me everything; it was as if I knew every thought in his mind. Oh, if he remembered, he would surely write.’

‘Yes,’ replied Miss Gibson; ‘but, so far as I know anything about them, young men who leave their families and go away to other countries don't think much of such things. I suppose most men are a little harder and more selfish than women; at any rate they behave as if they were, and I daresay they get along all the better for not being too soft-hearted.’

‘No, it isn't that,’ said Mrs. Randall. ‘They are not harder nor more selfish than we are. It is because they don't know how it is with those they have left behind. They haven't so much time in their restless busy lives to think of others as we have who only stay at home and wait. Every day they may meet with new things, with new faces, and new people; we only think and dream of one. And how can they guess that they are causing us any grief or trouble? Do they know of the long nights in which no sleep comes to our eyes because of them, page 109 of the tears we can't always keep back, and how often we weary Heaven in their behalf? Oh no, they can never know, and of course we can never tell them.’

‘I should like to tell some of them, and give them a piece of my mind into the bargain,’ said Miss Gibson emphatically.

‘What was that?’ suddenly asked Mrs. Randall, after a few moments' silence.

‘Only the branch of that tree tapping against the wall.’

‘I thought it sounded like a footstep outside.’

‘No, it was the tree,’ persisted Miss Gibson, rising and leaving the room. She usually went out into the village at this hour for a campaign with the curate, with whom she had concluded a league which had for its object the regeneration of their poorer neighbours—the county families, unfortunately for themselves, were supposed to be irreclaimable. So vigorously had Miss Gibson and her clerical companion scoured the parish that hardly an indigent man or woman therein dared to be irreligious. This morning she made such haste to begin her daily labour of love that it was not surprising she should be unobservant of a stranger, who, just as she left the house, coolly entered it by a little porch at the side. The door opening into this led into a sitting-room not often used, and by this way it was easy, during the daytime, to gain admittance to the house without disturbing the inmates—too easy, the timid Miss Gibson had often thought. She sometimes had page 110 visions of tramps and other undesirable characters joyfully entering by this convenient door; one had only to turn the handle and come in. The stranger came in with a smile on his face, as if he found housebreaking an agreeable diversion. ‘How quiet it is!’ he said to himself, pausing and listening, with his hand still on the door-knob. ‘I hardly know why I've crept in here like a thief, instead of sensibly walking up to the front door and ringing the bell. This is a trick I've often played as a boy; but I could never disguise my face so well as to cheat my mother. I wonder, will she know me now, changed as I am? Yes, I suppose so; If I had wished to pass myself off as a stranger, I ought at least to have provided myself with blue glasses, and roughened my voice by some means—a severe cold would have been of use’

He remained standing, as if absorbed in thought, and the expression of his face became more serious. He knew the room well; it had been his own during the short time he had lived with his mother in this house, and it was just as he had left it years ago. He could hardly turn his eyes anywhere without seeing little things which he had treasured in his boyhood, trifles for the most part of no real value to any one, but preserved and kept in their place because they had once belonged to him. Nothing was missing of all that he had left at home. There were fresh flowers on the table—he had always been fond of flowers, and his mother had been accustomed to put them in his room. Why, he could tell by the very page 111 look of the room that he was expected—had been expected for years. Here, standing alone in the silence of this quiet place, which had known no change while he had changed from a boy into a man, he could almost fancy that something whispered to him, ‘Why did you not come before? we have waited so long—the years have been very long.’

He had only just begun to realise how long they must have been to the one left at home. He had never forgotten her for long together; not all the wanderings and vicissitudes of his life had blotted from his mind the remembrance of his mother and the affection and reverence which were her due. But what had been his few vagrant thoughts, the moments here and there he had spared for her. On those scattered occasions he had perhaps unconsciously thought it very good of himself to remember her, as we may often feel highly satisfied with the propriety of our reflections. Ah, how very seldom, after all, had he yielded his restless mind to such quieting thoughts, how often had he foolishly imagined he would not be welcomed in her home, that she was offended or ashamed of him. He knew now what he wondered at himself for not having known years before. There had been no day on which she had not thought of him; no time at which he could have come and not have brought joy to her heart.

He went out of the room, intending to go and find her. No one met him as he passed through the silent house. Its stillness and deserted appearance page 112 would have made him anxious, had he not already known from his inquiries in the village that his mother was at home and well. At the open door of her sitting-room he hesitated; there was no one to be seen, nothing to be heard; she could not be within. Yes; she was sitting beside the window, leaning back in her chair with her face turned away from him. She did not move nor look up, and as he came nearer he saw that she was asleep.

It has been well said that the face of a mother is never unlovely to her children. As it lay there on the dark cushion, partly shaded by the window-curtain, there was a pathetic beauty on this sleeping face the worn and faded face of an elderly woman who had never been beautiful, not even in her youth. What matter? what difference had that ever made to the few to whom hers had always been the dearest face on earth? It was changed, and yet not so changed as might have been expected, thought the one who stood silently gazing at it. A little thinner and paler, a few more fine lines drawn on the forehead and around the eyes. There was something in the expression—was it patient expectation, longing, hope unwearied?—which moved him strangely. Oh, well that he had not come to find her face stilled and calmed in a longer sleep than this.

Somehow he felt so awed and humbled just then, that when he spoke to her, calling her by her name, his voice hardly rose above a whisper, and that whisper did not awake her. He would not disturb page 113 her suddenly. There was his own old piano standing in its accustomed place, would it not be a good idea to play her gradually out of sleep? But trying to open the piano he found it locked, and noticed at the same time that there was another in the room, opened as if for use, and with music lying upon it. No one, then, was allowed to touch the one which had been his. However, he had a fancy to play on it rather than on any other, and after some search found what proved to be the key Then he opened it and began to play.

What strange, unearthly sounds! It was the ghost of a melody, filled with jangling and discordancy, faint and tremulous, weak and quavering, when it should have been full, and clear, and sweet. Poor old piano! it was husky, as if its music had dried up long ago; its strings were beginning to rust; its keys were stiff from want of exercise: it could not be expected to give forth sweet tones when suddenly aroused from a slumber of years. But he brought some music out of it at last. It was wonderful how the ancient instrument regained its tone under his management. It was the hand of a master that swept the keys. The wild rich melody, faint and low at first, then louder and louder till it filled the room, stole upon the sleeper's ear like the music of a dream.

It must be—it was a dream, she kept telling herself even after she had opened her eyes. No; she was awake; she could hear the murmur of the page 114 wind outside; mark the clouds moving across the sky; here was the book she had taken up to read awhile ago; she knew where she had left off. But what stranger was this who had stolen in while she slept, and was playing such music as seemed hardly to belong to earth? Why did it speak to her of all that she had known or felt? It was soft as words of consolation, and the balm of a great peace stole into her heart; it was grand and full in its tones, and thought after thought crowded into her mind; voices whispered to her; faces passed before her. Now it grew louder and more passionate, like waves beating against the immovable rock; then soft and slow as the distant murmur of summer seas. And hark! she had caught some familiar air, some old English ballad tune, so sweet and simple. But it changed again to a dreamy waltz measure whose delicious tones brought back memories of her girlhood, of the unwearying dance through still summer nights, with the soft breezes wafting in through open windows, of the brilliantly-lighted hall, and the crowd; of dancers whose feet kept time to strains like these

She felt as if chained to her seat. A wild hope flashed through her mind; it was so like Henry's playing, and yet she could not but acknowledge to herself finer, far better in every way. Oh, if he would only turn his head! And yet why should she be in such a hurry to see his face? it would only disappoint her. For this could not—could page 115 not be what she had thought: it was only in dreams that such things happened—only in dreams.

Still he continued to play, as unconcernedly as if he had a perfect right to be there. But she fancied as she watched him, sitting in the shadow at the other end of the large room, that once he moved a little as if he were trying to look sideways at her. She would still let him go on, whoever he might be; his music did her good, she could not tire of it.

But he began another piece, one that had been familiar to her long ago, a favourite with both her husband and her son. All at once her reserve, her inexplicable shyness of this mysterious stranger, was broken through; trembling and agitated she started from her seat; the tears rushed to her eyes. ‘Not that,’ she cried, ‘oh, not that!’ and her hand was on the musician's arm. He turned and smiled in her face, but it needed not that smile to tell her who he was. With a cry, ‘My son, you are my son!’ she caught his hands in hers, and the music ended with a jarring chord.