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Wilson's Border Tales
The Prodigal Son

The early sun was melting away the coronets of grey clouds on the brows of the mountains, and the lark, as if proud of its plumage, and surveying itself in an illuminated mirror, carolled over the bright water of Keswick, when two strangers met upon the side of the lofty Skiddaw. Each carried a small bag and a hammer, betokening that their common errand was to search for objects of geological interest. The one appeared about fifty, the other some twenty years younger. There is something in the solitude of the everlasting hills, which makes men, who are strangers to each other, despise the ceremonious introductions of the drawing-room. So was it with our geologists—their place of meeting, their common pursuit, produced an instantaneous familiarity. They spent the day, and dined on the mountainside together. They shared the contents of their flasks with each other; and, ere they began to descend the hill, they felt, the one towards the other, as though they had been old friends. They had begun to take the road towards Keswick, when the elder said to the younger, "My meeting with you to-day recalls to my recollection a singular meeting which took place between a friend of mine and a stranger, about seven years ago, upon the same mountain. But, sir, I will relate to you the circumstances connected with it; and they might be called the history of the Prodigal Son."

He paused for a few moments and proceeded:—About thirty years ago, a Mr. Fenwick was possessed of property in Bamboroughshire worth about three hundred per annum. He had married while young, and seven fair children cheered the hearth of a glad father and a happy mother. Many years of joy and of peace had flown over them, when Death visited their domestic circle, and passed his icy hand over the cheek of their first-born; and, for five successive years, as their children opened into manhood and womanhood, the unwelcome visitor entered their dwelling, till of their little flock there was but one, the youngest, left. And, O sir, in the leaving of that one lay the cruelty of Death—to have taken him, too, would have been an act of mercy. His name was Edward, and the love, the fondness, and the care which his parents had borne for all their children, were concentrated on him. His father, whose soul was stricken with affliction, yielded to his every wish: and his poor mother

‘would not permit
The winds of heaven to visit his cheek too roughly.’

But you shall hear how cruelly he repaid their love—how murderously he returned their kindness. He was headstrong and wayward; and, though the small, still voice of affection was never wholly silent in his breast, it was stifled by the storm of his passions and propensities. His first manifestation of open viciousness was a delight in the brutal practice of cock-flghting; and he became a constant attender at every ‘main’ that took place in Northumberland. He was habitual ‘better’ and his losses were frequent; but hitherto his father, partly through fear, and partly from a too tender affection, had supplied him with money. A ‘main’ was to take place in the neighbourhood of Morpeth, and he was present. Two noble birds were disfigured, the savage instruments of death were fixed upon them, and they were pitted against each other. ‘A hundred to one on the Feltor Grey!’ shouted Fenwick. ‘Done! for guineas!’ replied another. ‘Done! for guineas!—Done!’ repeated the prodigal—and the next moment the Felton Grey lay dead on the ground, pierced through the skull with the spur of the other. He rushed out of the cockpit—‘I shall expect payment to-morrow, Fenwick!’ cried the other. The prodigal mounted his horse, and rode homeward with the fury of a madman. Kind as his father was, and had been, he feared to meet him, or tell him the amount of his loss. His mother perceived his agony, and strove to soothe him.

‘What is’t that troubles thee, my bird?’ inquired she; ‘come, tell thy mother, darling?’

With an oath he cursed the mention of birds, and threatened to destroy himself.

‘O Edward, love!’ cried she, ‘thou wilt kill thy poor mother—what can I do for thee?’

‘Do for me!’ he exclaimed, wildly tearing his hair as he spoke, ‘do for me, mother! get me a hundred pounds, or my heart’s blood shall flow at your feet.’

‘Child! child!’ said she, ‘thou hast been at thy black trade of betting again!—thou wilt ruin thy father, Edward, and break thy mother’s heart. But give me thy hand on’t, dear, that thou’lt bet no more, and I’ll get thy father to give thee the money.’

‘My father must not know,’ he exclaimed; ‘I will die rather.’

‘Love! love!’ replied she; ‘but, without asking thy father, where could I get thee a hundred pounds?’

‘You have some money, mother,’ added he; ‘and you have trinkets—jewellery.’ He gasped, and hid his face as he spoke.

‘Thou shalt have them!—thou shalt have them, child!’ said she, ‘and all the money thy mother has, only say thou wilt bet no more. Best thou promise, Edward, oh, dost thou promise thy poor mother this?’

‘Yes, yes!’ he cried. And he burst into tears as he spoke. He received the money, and the trinkets, which his mother had not worn for thirty years, and hurried from the house, and with them discharged a portion of his dishonourable debt.

He, however, did bet again; and I might tell you how he became a horse-racer also; but you shall hear that too. He was now about two and twenty, and for several years he had been acquainted with Eleanor Robinson; a fair being, made up of gentleness and love, if ever woman was. She was an orphan, and had a fortune at her own disposal of three thousand pounds. Her friends had often warned her against the dangerous habits of Edward Fenwick. But she had given him her young heart—to him she had plighted her first vow—and, though she beheld his follies, she trusted that time and affection would wean him from them; and, with a heart full of hope and love, she bestowed on him her hand and fortune. Poor Eleanor! her hopes were vain, her love unworthily bestowed. Marriage produced no change on the habits of the prodigal son and thoughtless husband. For weeks he was absent from his own house, betting and carousing with his companions of the turf; while one vice led the way to another, and, by almost imperceptible degrees, he unconsciously sunk into all the habits of a profligate.

It was about four years after his marriage, when, according to his custom, he took leave of his wife for a few days, to attend the meeting at Doncaster.

‘Good-by, Eleanor, dear,’ said he, gaily, as he rose to depart, and he kissed her cheek; ‘I shall be back within five days.’

‘Well, Edward,’ said she, tenderly, ‘if you will go, you must, but think of me, and think of these our little ones.’ And, with a tear in her eye, she desired a lovely boy and girl to kiss their father. ‘Now, think of us, Edward,’ she added; ‘and do not bet, dearest, do not bet.’

‘Nonsense, duck! nonsense!’ said he; ‘did you ever see me lose? do you suppose that Ned Fenwick is not ‘wide awake?’ I know my horse, and its rider too; Barrymore’s Highlander can distance everything. But, if it could not, I have it from a sure hand, the other horses are all ‘safe.’ Do you understand that, eh?’

‘No, I do not understand it, Edward, nor do I wish to understand it,’ added she; ‘but, dearest, as you love me, as you love our children, risk nothing.’

‘Love you, little gipsy! you know I’d die for you,’ said he--and, with all his sins, the prodigal spoke the truth. ‘Come, Nell, kiss me again, my dear—no long faces—don’t take a leaf out of my old mother’s book; you know the saying—‘Never venture never win—faint heart never won fair lady.’ Good-by, love—’by Ned—good-by mother’s darling,’ said he, addressing the children as he left the house.

He reached Doncaster; he had paid his guinea for admission to the betting-rooms; he had whispered with, and slipped a fee to all the shrivelled, skin-and-bone, half melted little manikins, called jockeys, to ascertain the secrets of their horses. ‘All’s safe,’ said the prodigal to himself, rejoicing in his heart. The great day of the festival—the important St. Leger—arrived. Hundreds were ready to back Highlander against the field—amongst them was Edward Fenwick; he would take any odds—he did take them—he staked his all. ‘A thousand to five hundred on Highlander against the field,’ he cried, as he stood near a betting post. ‘Done!’ shouted a mustachioed peer of the realm, in a barouche by his side. ‘Done,’ cried Fenwick, ‘for the double, if you like, my lord.’ ‘Done,’ added the peer; and I’ll treble it if you dare.’ ‘Done,’ rejoined the prodigal, in the confidence and excitement of the moment—‘Done, my lord.’ The eventful hour arrived. There was a false start. The horses took the ground beautifully. Highlander led the way at his ease; and his rider, in a tartan jacket and mazarine cap, looked confident. Fenwick stood near the winning post, grasping the rails with his hands; he was still confident, but he could not chase the admonition of his wife from his mind. The horses were not to be seen. His very soul became like a solid and sharp-edged substance within his breast. Of the twenty horse that started, four again appeared in sight. ‘The tartan yet! The tartan yet!’ shouted the crowd. Fenwick raised his eyes--he was blind with anxiety—he could not discern them; still he heard the cry of ‘The tartan! the tartan!’ and his heart sprang to his mouth. ‘Well done, orange!—the orange will have it!’ was the next cry. He again looked up, but he was more blind than before. ‘Beautiful! beautiful! Go it, tartan! Well done orange!’ shouted the spectators; ‘a noble race!—neck and neck; six to five on the orange. He became almost deaf as well as blind. ‘Now for it!—now for it!—it won’t do, tartan!—hurra! hurra!—orange has it.’

‘Liar!’ exclaimed Fenwick, starting as if from a trance, and grasping the spectator who stood next to him by the coat, ‘I am not ruined.’ In a moment he dropped his hands by his side, he leaned over the railing, and gazed vacantly on the ground. His flesh writhed, and his soul groaned in agony. ‘Eleanor, my poor Eleanor,’ cried the prodigal. The crowd hurried towards the winning-post; he was left alone. The peer with whom he had betted, came up behind him; he touched him on the shoulder with his whip, ‘Well, my covey,’ said the nobleman, ‘you have lost it.’

Fenwick gazed upon him with a look of fury and despair, and repeated, ‘Lost it! I am ruined, soul and body, wife and children ruined.’

‘Well, Mr. Fenwick,’ said the sporting peer, ‘I suppose, if that be the case, you won’t come to Doncaster again in a hurry. But my settling day is to-morrow—you know I keep sharp accounts, and if you have not the ‘ready’ at hand, I shall expect an equivalent—you understand me.’

So saying, he rode off, leaving the prodigal to commit suicide if he chose. It is enough for me to tell you that, in his madness and his misery, and from the influence of what he called his sense of honour, he gave the winner a bill for the money, payable at sight. My feelings will not permit me to tell you how the poor infatuated madman more than once made attempts upon his own life; but the latent love of his wife and of his children prevailed over the rash thought and in a state bordering on insanity, he presented himself before the beings he had so deeply injured.

I might describe to you how poor Eleanor was sitting in their little parlour, with her boy upon a stool by her side, and her little girl on her knee, telling them fondly that their father would be home soon, and anon singing to them the simple nursery rhyme—

‘Hush, my babe, baby buntin,
Your father’s at the hunting, &c.

when the door opened, and the guilty father entered, his hair clotted, his eyes rolling with the wildness of despair, and the cold sweat raining down his pale cheeks.

‘Eleanor! Eleanor!’ he cried, as he flung himself upon a sofa.

She placed her little daughter on the floor; she flew towards him, ‘My Edward!—oh, my Edward!’ she cried, ‘what is it love? something troubles you.’

‘Curse me, Eleanor,’ exclaimed the wretched prodigal, turning his face from her; ‘I have ruined you, I have ruined my children, I am lost for ever.’

‘No, my husband,’ exclaimed the best of wives, ‘your Eleanor will not curse you. Tell me the worst and I will bear it, cheerfully bear it, for my Edward’s sake.’

‘You will not—you cannot,’ cried he; ‘I have sinned against you as never man sinned against woman. Oh! if you would spit upon the very ground where I tread, I would feel it as an alleviation of my sufferings, but your sympathy, your affection, makes my very soul destroy itself. Eleanor! Eleanor! if you have mercy hate me, tell me, shew me that you do.’

‘O Edward! said she imploringly, ‘was it thus when your Eleanor spurned every offer for your sake, when you pledged to her everlasting love? She has none but you, and can you speak thus? O husband, if you will forsake me, forsake not my poor children. Tell me, only tell me the worst, and I will rejoice to endure it with my Edward.’

‘Then,’ cried Fenwick, ‘if you will add to my misery by professing love to a wretch like me, know you are a beggar, and I have made you one. Now, can you share beggary with me?’

She repeated the word ‘Beggary!’ she clasped her hands together, for a few moments she stood in silent anguish, her bosom heaved, the tears gushed forth, she flung her arms around her husband’s neck, ‘Yes,’ she cried, ‘I can meet even beggary with my Edward.’

‘O Heaven!’ cried the prodigal, ‘would that the earth would swallow me. I cannot stand this.’

I will not dwell upon the endeavours of the fond, forgiving wife, to soothe and to comfort her unworthy husband; nor yet will I describe to you the anguish of the prodigal’s father and of his mother, when they heard the extent of his folly and of his guilt. Already he had cost the old man much, and, with a heavy and sorrowful heart, he proceeded to his son’s house, to comfort his daughter-in-law. When he entered, she was endeavouring to cheer her husband with a tune on the harpsichord—though Heaven knows, there was no music in her breast, save that of love—enduring love.

‘Well, Edward,’ said the old man, as he took a seat, ‘what is this thou hast done now?’

The prodigal was silent.

‘Edward,’ continued the grey-haired parent, ‘I have had deaths in my family—many deaths, and thou knowest it— but I never had to blush for a child but thee. I have felt sorrow, but thou hast added shame to sorrow’—

‘O father,’ cried Eleanor, imploringly, ‘do not upbraid my poor husband.’

The old man wept, he pressed her hand, and, with a groan, said, ‘I am ashamed that thou shouldst call me father, sweetest; but, if thou canst forgive him, I should. He is all that is left me—all that the hand of death has spared me in this world. Yet, Eleanor, his conduct is a living death to me—it is worse than all that I have suffered. When affliction pressed heavily upon me, and, year after year, I followed my dear children to the grave, my neighbours sympathised with me; they mingled their tears with mine; but now, child—oh, now, I am ashamed to hold up my head amongst them! O Edward, man! if thou hast no regard for thy father or thy heart-broken mother, hast thou no affection for thy poor wife?—canst thou bring her and thy helpless children to ruin? But that, I may say, thou hast done already! Son! son! if thou wilt murder thy parents, hast thou no mercy for thine own flesh and blood?—wilt thou destroy thine own offspring? O Edward! if there be any sin that I will repent upon my deathbed, it will be that I have been a too-indulgent father to thee— that I am the author of thy crimes!’

‘No, father! no!’ cried the prodigal; ‘my sins are my own! I am their author, and my soul carries its own punishment! Spurn me! cast me off!—disown me for ever!— it is all I ask of you! You despise me—hate me too, and I will be less miserable!’

‘O Edward!’ said the old man, ‘thou art a father, but, little dost thou know a father’s heart! Disown thee! Cast thee off, sayest thou! As soon could the graves of thy brothers give up their dead! Never, Edward, never! O son, wouldst thou but reform thy ways—wouldst thou but become a husband worthy of our dear Eleanor; and, after all the suffering thou hast brought upon her, and the shame thou hast brought upon thy family, I would part with my last shilling for thee, Edward, though I should go into the workhouse myself.’

You are affected, sir—I will not harrow up your feelings by further describing the interview between the father and his son. The misery of the prodigal was remorse not penitence. It is sufficient for me to say, that the old man took a heavy mortgage on his property, and Edward Fenwick commenced business as a wine and spirit merchant in Newcastle. But, sir, he did not attend upon business; and I need not tell you that such being the case, business was too proud a customer to attend upon him. Neither did he forsake his old habits, and, within two years, he became involved— deeply involved. Already, to sustain his tottering credit, his father had been brought to the verge of ruin. During his residence in Bamboroughshire, he had become acquainted with many individuals carrying on a contraband trade with Holland. To amend his desperate fortunes, he recklessly embarked in it. In order to obtain a part in the ownership of a lagger, he used his father’s name! This was the crowning evil in the prodigal’s drama. He made the voyage himself. They were pursued and overtaken when attempting to effect a landing near the Coquet. He escaped. But the papers of the vessel bespoke her as being chiefly the property of his father. Need I tell you that this was a finishing blow to the old man?

Edward Fenwick had ruined his wife and family—he had brought ruin upon his father, and was himself a fugitive. He was pursued by the law—he fled from them; and he would have fled from their remembrance, if he could. It was now, sir, that the wrath of Heaven was showered upon the head, and began to touch the heart of the prodigal. Like Cain, he was a fugitive and a vagabond on the face of the earth. For many months he wandered in a distant part of the country; his body was emaciated and clothed with rags, and hunger preyed upon his very heart-strings. It is a vulgar thing, sir, to talk of hunger—but they who have never felt it, know not what it means. He was fainting by the wayside, his teeth were grating together, the tears were rolling down his cheeks. ‘The servants of my father’s house,’ he cried, ‘have bread enough, and to spare, while I perish with hunger;’ and, continuing the language of the prodigal in the Scriptures, he said—‘I will arise and go unto my father, and say, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight.’

With a slow and tottering step, he arose to proceed on his iourney to his father’s house. A month had passed—for every day he made less progress—ere the home of his infancy appeared in sight. It was noon, and, when he saw it, he sat down in a littla wood by a hill-side, and wept, until it had become dusk; for he was ashamed of his rags. He drew near the house, but none came forth to welcome him. With a timid hand he rapped at the door, but none answered him. A stranger came from one of the outhouses and inquired, ‘What dost thou want, man?’

‘Mr Fenwick,’ feebly answered the prodigal.

‘Why, naebody lives there,’ said the other, ‘and auld Fenwick died in Morpeth jail, mair than three months sin!’

‘Died in Morpeth jail!’ groaned the miserable being, and fell against the door of the house that had been his father’s.

‘I tell ye, ye cannot get in there,’ continued the other. ‘Sir,’ replied Edward, ‘pity me—and, oh, tell me, is not Mrs Fenwick here—or her daughter-in-law?’

‘I knaws noughts about them,’ said the stranger; ‘I’m put in charge here by the trustees.’

Want and misery kindled all their fires in the breast of the fugitive. He groaned, and, partly from exhaustion, partly from agony, sank upon the ground. The other lifted him to a shed, where cattle were wont to be fed. His lips were parched, his languid eyes rolled vacantly. ‘Water! give me water!’ he muttered, in a feeble voice; and a cup of water was brought to him. He gazed wistfully in the face of the person who stood over him—he would have asked for bread; but, in the midst of his sufferings, pride was yet strong in his heart, and he could not. The stranger, however, was not wholly destitute of humanity.

‘Poor wretch,’ said he, ‘ye look very fatigued; dow ye think ye cud eat a bit of bread, if I were gi’en it to thee?’

Tears gathered in the lustreless eyes of the prodigal; but he could not speak. The stranger left him, and, returning, placed a piece of coarse bread in his hand. He ate a morsel; but his very soul was sick, and his heart loathed to receive the food for lack of which he was perishing.

Vain, sir, were the inquiries after his wife, his children, and his mother; all that he could learn was, that they had kept their sorrow and their shame to themselves, and had left Northumberland together, but where, none knew. He also learned that it was understood amongst his acquaintances that he had put a period to his existence, and that this belief was entertained by his family. Months of wretchedness followed, and Fenwick, in despair, enlisted into a foot regiment, which, within twelve months, was ordered to embark for Egypt. At that period, the British were anxious to hide the remembrance of their unsuccessful attack upon Cadiz, and resolved to wrench the ancient kingdom of the Pharaohs from the grasp of the proud armies of Napoleon. The cabinet, therefore, on the surrender of Malta, having seconded the views of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, several transports were fitted out to join the squadron under Lord Keith. In one of those transports, the penitent prodigal embarked. You are too young to remember it, sir; but at that period a love of country was more widely than ever becoming the ruling passion of every man in Britain; and, with all his sins, his follies, and his miseries, such a feeling glowed in the breast of Edward Fenwick. He was weary of existence, and he longed to listen to the neighing of the war-horse, and the shout of its rider, and as they might rush on the invulnerable phalanx, and its breastwork of bayonets, to mingle in the ranks of heroes; and, rather than pine in inglorious grief, to sell his life for the welfare of his country; or, like the gallant Graham, amidst the din of war, and the confusion of glory, to forget his sorrows. The regiment to which he belonged, joined the main army off the Bay of Marmorice, and was the first that, with the gallant Moore at its head, on the memorable seventh of March, raised the shout of victory on the shores of Aboukir.

In the moment of victory, Fenwick fell wounded on the field, and his comrades, in their triumph, passed over him. He had some skill in surgery, and he was enabled to bind up his wound. He was fainting upon the burning sand, and he was creeping amongst the bodies of the slain for a drop of moisture to cool his parched tongue, when he perceived a small bottle in the hands of a dead officer. It was half filled with wine—he eagerly raised it to his lips—‘Englishman!’ cried a feeble voice, ‘for the love of Heaven, give me one drop—only one—or I die!’ He looked around. A French officer, apparently in the agonies of death, was vainly endeavouring to raise himself on his side, and stretching his hand towards him. ‘Why should I live!’ cried the wretched prodigal; ‘take it, take it, and live, if you desire life?’ He raised the wounded Frenchman’s head from the sand; he placed the bottle to his lips; he untied his sash and bound up his wounds. The other pressed his hand in gratitude. They were conveyed from the field together. Fenwick was unable to follow the army, and he was disabled from continuing in the service. The French officer recovered, and he was grateful for the poor service that had been rendered to him; and, previous to his being sent off with other prisoners, he gave a present of a thousand francs to the joyless being whom he called his deliverer.

I have told you that Fenwick had some skill in surgery; he had studied some years for the medical profession, but abandoned it for the turf and its vices. He proceeded to Alexandria, where he began to practise as a surgeon, and, amongst an ignorant people, gained reputation. Many years passed, and he had acquired, if not riches, at least an independency. Repentance also had penetrated his soul. He had inquired long and anxiously after his family. He had but few other relatives; and to all of them he had anxiously written, imploring them to acquaint him with the residence of the beings whom he had brought to ruin, but whom he still loved. Some returned no answer to his applications, and others only said that they knew nothing of his wife, of his mother, or of his children, nor whether they yet lived; all they knew was, that they had endeavoured to hide the shame he had brought upon them from the world. These words were daggers to his bruised spirit; but he knew he deserved them, and he prayed that Heaven would grant him the consolation and the mercy that was denied him on earth.

Somewhat more than seven years ago, he returned to his native country; and he was wandering on the very mountain where, to-day, I met you, when he entered into conversation with a youth apparently about three or four and twenty years of age; and they spent the day together as we have done. Fenwick was lodging in Keswick, and as towards evening they proceeded along the road together, they were overtaken by a storm. ‘You must accompany me home,’ said the young man, ‘until the storm be passed; my mother’s house is at hand.’ And he conducted him to yonder lonely cottage, whose white walls you perceive peering through the trees by the water-side. It was dusk when the youth ushered him into a little parlour where two ladies sat; the one appeared about forty, the other threescore and ten. They welcomed the stranger graciously. He ascertained that they let out the rooms of their cottage to visitors to the lakes, during the summer season. He expressed a wish to become their lodger, and made some observations on the beauty of the situation.

‘Yes, sir,’ said the younger lady, ‘the situation is, indeed, beautiful; but I have seen it when the water, and the mountains around it, could impart no charm to its dwellers. Providence has, indeed, been kind to us; and our lodgings have seldom been empty; but, sir, when we entered it, it was a sad house indeed. My poor mother-in-law and myself had experienced many sorrows; yet my poor fatherless children—for I might call them fatherless,’ and she wept as she spoke, ‘with their innocent prattle, soothed our affliction. But my little Eleanor, who was loved by every one, began to droop day by day. It was a whiter night—the snow was on the ground—I heard my little darling give a deep sigh upon my bosom. I started up. I called to my poor mother. She brought a light to the bedside, and I found my sweet child dead upon my breast. It was a long and sad night, as we sat by the dead body of my Eleanor, with no one near us, and, after she was buried, my poor Edward there, as he sat by our side at night, would draw forward to his knee the stool on which his sister sat, while his grandmother would glance at him fondly, and push aside the stool with her foot, that I might not see it; but I saw it all.’

The twilight had deepened in the little parlour, and its inmates could not perfectly distinguish the features of each other; but, as the lady spoke, the soul of Edward Fenwick glowed within him; his heart throbbed; his breathing became thick; the sweat burst upon his brow. ‘Pardon me, lady,’ he cried in agony, ‘but oh! tell me your name?’

‘Fenwick, sir,’ replied she.

‘Eleanor, my injured Eleanor!’ he exclaimed, flinging himself at her feet; ‘I am Edward, your guilty husband. – ‘Mother! can you forgive me? My son! my son! intercede for your guilty father?’

Ah, sir, there needed no intercession; their arms were around his neck; the prodigal was forgiven. ‘Behold,’ continued the narrator, ‘yonder, from the cottage, comes the mother, the wife, and the son of whom I have spoken. I will introduce you to them; you shall witness the happiness and penitence of the prodigal; you must stop with me to-night. Start not, sir, I am Edward Fenwick, the Prodigal Son!’

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