The Prodigal Brother

Miss Hannah was cutting asters in her garden. It was a very small
garden, for nothing would grow beyond the shelter of the little, grey,
low-eaved house which alone kept the northeast winds from blighting
everything with salt spray; but small as it was, it was a miracle of
blossoms and a marvel of neatness. The trim brown paths were swept
clean of every leaf or fallen petal, each of the little square beds
had its border of big white quahog clamshells, and not even a
sweet-pea vine would have dared to straggle from its appointed course
under Miss Hannah’s eye.

Miss Hannah had always lived in the little grey house down by the
shore, so far away from all the other houses in Prospect and so shut
away from them by a circle of hills that it had a seeming isolation.
Not another house could Miss Hannah see from her own doorstone; she
often declared she could not have borne it if it had not been for the
lighthouse beacon at night flaming over the northwest hill behind the
house like a great unwinking, friendly star that never failed even on
the darkest night. Behind the house a little tongue of the St.
Lawrence gulf ran up between the headlands until the wavelets of its
tip almost lapped against Miss Hannah’s kitchen doorstep. Beyond, to
the north, was the great crescent of the gulf, whose murmur had been
Miss Hannah’s lullaby all her life. When people wondered to her how
she could endure living in such a lonely place, she retorted that the
loneliness was what she loved it for, and that the lighthouse star and
the far-away call of the gulf had always been company enough for her
and always would be … until Ralph came back. When Ralph came home,
of course, he might like a livelier place and they might move to town
or up-country as he wished.

“Of course,” said Miss Hannah with a proud smile, “a rich man mightn’t
fancy living away down here in a little grey house by the shore. He’ll
be for building me a mansion, I expect, and I’d like it fine. But
until he comes I must be contented with things as they are.”

People always smiled to each other when Miss Hannah talked like this.
But they took care not to let her see the smile.

Miss Hannah snipped her white and purple asters off ungrudgingly and
sang, as she snipped, an old-fashioned song she had learned long ago
in her youth. The day was one of October’s rarest, and Miss Hannah
loved fine days. The air was clear as golden-hued crystal, and all the
slopes around her were mellow and hazy in the autumn sunshine. She
knew that beyond those sunny slopes were woods glorying in crimson and
gold, and she would have the delight of a walk through them later on
when she went to carry the asters to sick Millie Starr at the Bridge.
Flowers were all Miss Hannah had to give, for she was very poor, but
she gave them with a great wealth of friendliness and goodwill.

Presently a wagon drove down her lane and pulled up outside of her
white garden paling. Jacob Delancey was in it, with a pretty young
niece of his who was a visitor from the city, and Miss Hannah, her
sheaf of asters in her arms, went over to the paling with a sparkle of
interest in her faded blue eyes. She had heard a great deal of the
beauty of this strange girl. Prospect people had been talking of
nothing else for a week, and Miss Hannah was filled with a harmless
curiosity concerning her. She always liked to look at pretty people,
she said; they did her as much good as her flowers.

“Good afternoon, Miss Hannah,” said Jacob Delancey. “Busy with your
flowers, as usual, I see.”

“Oh, yes,” said Miss Hannah, managing to stare with unobtrusive
delight at the girl while she talked. “The frost will soon be coming
now, you know; so I want to live among them as much as I can while
they’re here.”

“That’s right,” assented Jacob, who made a profession of cordial
agreement with everybody and would have said the same words in the
same tone had Miss Hannah announced a predilection for living in the
cellar. “Well, Miss Hannah, it’s flowers I’m after myself just now.
We’re having a bit of a party at our house tonight, for the young
folks, and my wife told me to call and ask you if you could let us
have a few for decoration.”

“Of course,” said Miss Hannah, “you can have these. I meant them for
Millie, but I can cut the west bed for her.”

She opened the gate and carried the asters over to the buggy. Miss
Delancey took them with a smile that made Miss Hannah remember the
date forever.

“Lovely day,” commented Jacob genially.

“Yes,” said Miss Hannah dreamily. “It reminds me of the day Ralph went
away twenty years ago. It doesn’t seem so long. Don’t you think he’ll
be coming back soon, Jacob?”

“Oh, sure,” said Jacob, who thought the very opposite.

“I have a feeling that he’s coming very soon,” said Miss Hannah
brightly. “It will be a great day for me, won’t it, Jacob? I’ve been
poor all my life, but when Ralph comes back everything will be so
different. He will be a rich man and he will give me everything I’ve
always wanted. He said he would. A fine house and a carriage and a
silk dress. Oh, and we will travel and see the world. You don’t know
how I look forward to it all. I’ve got it all planned out, all I’m
going to do and have. And I believe he will be here very soon. A man
ought to be able to make a fortune in twenty years, don’t you think,
Jacob?”

“Oh, sure,” said Jacob. But he said it a little uncomfortably. He did
not like the job of throwing cold water, but it seemed to him that he
ought not to encourage Miss Hannah’s hopes. “Of course, you shouldn’t
think too much about it, Miss Hannah. He mightn’t ever come back, or
he might be poor.”

“How can you say such things, Jacob?” interrupted Miss Hannah
indignantly, with a little crimson spot flaming out in each of her
pale cheeks. “You know quite well he will come back. I’m as sure of it
as that I’m standing here. And he will be rich, too. People are always
trying to hint just as you’ve done to me, but I don’t mind them. I
know.”

She turned and went back into her garden with her head held high. But
her sudden anger floated away in a whiff of sweet-pea perfume that
struck her in the face; she waved her hand in farewell to her callers
and watched the buggy down the lane with a smile.

“Of course, Jacob doesn’t know, and I shouldn’t have snapped him up so
quick. It’ll be my turn to crow when Ralph does come. My, but isn’t
that girl pretty. I feel as if I’d been looking at some lovely
picture. It just makes a good day of this. Something pleasant happens
to me most every day and that girl is today’s pleasant thing. I just
feel real happy and thankful that there are such beautiful creatures
in the world and that we can look at them.”

“Well, of all the queer delusions!” Jacob Delancey was ejaculating as
he and his niece drove down the lane.

“What is it all about?” asked Miss Delancey curiously.

“Well, it’s this way, Dorothy. Long ago Miss Hannah had a brother who
ran away from home. It was before their father and mother died. Ralph
Walworth was as wild a young scamp as ever was in Prospect and a
spendthrift in the bargain. Nobody but Hannah had any use for him, and
she just worshipped him. I must admit he was real fond of her too, but
he and his father couldn’t get on at all. So finally he ups and runs
away; it was generally supposed he went to the mining country. He left
a note for Hannah bidding her goodbye and telling her that he was
going to make his fortune and would come back to her a rich man.
There’s never been a word heard tell of him since, and in my opinion
it’s doubtful if he’s still alive. But Miss Hannah, as you saw, is
sure and certain he’ll come back yet with gold dropping out of his
pockets. She’s as sane as anyone everyway else, but there is no doubt
she’s a little cracked on that p’int. If he never turns up she’ll go
on hoping quite happy to her death. But if he should turn up and be
poor, as is ten times likelier than anything else, I believe it’d most
kill Miss Hannah. She’s terrible proud for all she’s so sweet, and you
saw yourself how mad she got when I kind of hinted he mightn’t be
rich. If he came back poor, after all her boasting about him, I don’t
fancy he’d get much of a welcome from her. And she’d never hold up her
head again, that’s certain. So it’s to be hoped, say I, that Ralph
Walworth never will turn up, unless he comes in a carriage and four,
which is about as likely, in my opinion, as that he’ll come in a
pumpkin drawn by mice.”

When October had passed and the grey November days came, the glory of
Miss Hannah’s garden was over. She was very lonely without her
flowers. She missed them more this year than ever. On fine days she
paced up and down the walks and looked sadly at the drooping,
unsightly stalks and vines. She was there one afternoon when the
northeast wind was up and doing, whipping the gulf waters into
whitecaps and whistling up the inlet and around the grey eaves. Miss
Hannah was mournfully patting a frosted chrysanthemum under its golden
chin when she saw a man limping slowly down the lane.

“Now, who can that be?” she murmured. “It isn’t any Prospect man, for
there’s nobody lame around here.”




She went to the garden gate to meet him. He came haltingly up the
slope and paused before her, gazing at her wistfully. He looked old
and bent and broken, and his clothes were poor and worn. Who was he?
Miss Hannah felt that she ought to know him, and her memory went
groping back amongst all her recollections. Yet she could think of
nobody but her father, who had died fifteen years before.

“Don’t ye know me, Hannah?” said the man wistfully. “Have I changed so
much as all that?”

“Ralph!”

It was between a cry and a laugh. Miss Hannah flew through the gate
and caught him in her arms. “Ralph, my own dear brother! Oh, I always
knew you’d come back. If you knew how I’ve looked forward to this
day!” She was both laughing and crying now. Her face shone with a soft
gladness. Ralph Walworth shook his head sadly.

“It’s a poor wreck of a man I am come back to you, Hannah,” he said.
“I’ve never accomplished anything and my health’s broken and I’m a
cripple as ye see. For a time I thought I’d never show my face back
here, such a failure as I be, but the longing to see you got too
strong. It’s naught but a wreck I am, Hannah.”

“You’re my own dear brother,” cried Miss Hannah. “Do you think I care
how poor you are? And if your health is poor I’m the one to nurse you
up, who else than your only sister, I’d like to know! Come right in.
You’re shivering in this wind. I’ll mix you a good hot currant drink.
I knew them black currants didn’t bear so plentiful for nothing last
summer. Oh, this is a good day and no mistake!”

In twenty-four hours’ time everybody in Prospect knew that Ralph
Walworth had come home, crippled and poor. Jacob Delancey shook his
head as he drove away from the station with Ralph’s shabby little
trunk standing on end in his buggy. The station master had asked him
to take it down to Miss Hannah’s, and Jacob did not fancy the errand.
He was afraid Miss Hannah would be in a bad way and he did not know
what to say to her.

She was in her garden, covering her pansies with seaweed, when he
drove up, and she came to the garden gate to meet him, all smiles.

“So you’ve brought Ralph’s trunk, Mr. Delancey. Now, that was real
good of you. He was going over to the station to see about it himself,
but he had such a cold I persuaded him to wait till tomorrow. He’s
lying down asleep now. He’s just real tired. He brought this seaweed
up from the shore for me this morning and it played him out. He ain’t
strong. But didn’t I tell you he was coming back soon? You only
laughed at me, but I knew.”

“He isn’t very rich, though,” said Jacob jokingly. He was relieved to
find that Miss Hannah did not seem to be worrying over this.

“That doesn’t matter,” cried Miss Hannah. “Why, he’s my brother! Isn’t
that enough? I’m rich if he isn’t, rich in love and happiness. And
I’m better pleased in a way than if he had come back rich. He might
have wanted to take me away or build a fine house, and I’m too old to
be making changes. And then he wouldn’t have needed me. I’d have been
of no use to him. As it is, it’s just me he needs to look after him
and coddle him. Oh, it’s fine to have somebody to do things for,
somebody that belongs to you. I was just dreading the loneliness of
the winter, and now it’s going to be such a happy winter. I declare
last night Ralph and I sat up till morning talking over everything.
He’s had a hard life of it. Bad luck and illness right along. And last
winter in the lumber woods he got his leg broke. But now he’s come
home and we’re never going to be parted again as long as we live. I
could sing for joy, Jacob.”

“Oh, sure,” assented Jacob cordially. He felt a little dazed. Miss
Hannah’s nimble change of base was hard for him to follow, and he had
an injured sense of having wasted a great deal of commiseration on her
when she didn’t need it at all. “Only I kind of thought, we all
thought, you had such plans.”

“Well, they served their turn,” interrupted Miss Hannah briskly. “They
amused me and kept me interested till something real would come in
their place. If I’d had to carry them out I dare say they’d have
bothered me a lot. Things are more comfortable as they are. I’m happy
as a bird, Jacob.”

“Oh, sure,” said Jacob. He pondered the business deeply all the way
back home, but could make nothing of it.

“But I ain’t obliged to,” he concluded sensibly. “Miss Hannah’s
satisfied and happy and it’s nobody else’s concern. However, I call it
a curious thing.”

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