The Prodigal Son!
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"You won't forget your mother, William?" Mrs. Enfield said, pushing aside the clustering locks from the fair brow of her boy, and imprinting thereon a fervent kiss.
"Forget you, dear mother! Oh, no! I cannot forget my kind, good mother. How could I ever cease to remember her and love her?"
"And yet, William," the mother added, with something sad in her tone, "it is no strange thing for a son, as he goes out into the world, and mingles in its excitements — to esteem lightly the deep affection and unchanging interest of a mother's heart. You are but twelve now, and you leave us tomorrow for college, never again, perhaps, to make one of the home-circle. New scenes, new companions, new pleasures will be yours; and, unless you guard your heart, your mother's image may grow dim therein. Then guard that heart, my boy, for your mother's sake."
Tears were in Mrs. Enfield's eyes, and her son wondered that she should feel thus and talk thus. He loved her tenderly, and could not imagine why a question of that love's continuance could stir in the heart of his mother.
"I can never forget you, mother — I can never cease to love you!" he replied, with tenderness and fervor. "I will write to you often, and think of you always. If others, as they grow up, forget their home — it cannot be so with me. How could I ever cease to love you, as I now do?"
"I will trust you, William. My heart tells me that I may trust you!" Mrs. Enfield said, in a changed tone, and again impressed her lips upon the high, white forehead of her boy.
On the next day, William Enfield left his home and his mother, and entered one of the collegiate institutes of the country, more than two hundred miles away from his homestead. A new world was, indeed, opened to him — but its wonders dimmed not by contrast, the home affection. Almost every week he wrote to his father, or his mother, and his letters were full of earnest and true love of the dear friends from whom he had been separated. But he dreamed not of the deep and intense fervor of that affection which burned for him in the heart of his mother with an inextinguishable flame. Day and night she thought of him, and morning and evening prayed that no ill might harm her boy. The world she knew was full of evil — and the snare of the fowler laid in many places to catch the young and unwary. That evil thoughts and evil affections should ever rule her now innocent boy, were ideas that made her heart ache. Yet she could not conceal from herself the danger that must lurk in his path and hover over him continually.
"I often wish we had kept William at home," she said one day to her husband, a man of a strong and decided cast of mind. "We have many good schools in the city, and some of high standing. I cannot but think that it would have been much better to have paid as much regard to the keeping of his moral life unspotted — as to the providing for the high degree of mental attainments that we desired for our boy. If his affections are not wisely guided — they will mar and pervert all his intellectual attainments."
"Do not fear for him," the father replied. "I have observed his character closely, and am well convinced that it is the right course to throw him, as young as he is, upon the world — that he may feel its unkindness, its selfishness, its heartlessness, and learn to contend with them early. I fear less their effects upon him — than the enervating influence of home to one of his gentle and affectionate nature. He is to be a man, and must be prepared to meet the world as a man, and take a man's place in it."
"You know much better than I do, no doubt," Mrs. Enfield replied, meekly; "still I cannot but have these thoughts and feelings."
"They are the weaknesses of a mother's heart; the over-fond yearnings of an intense affection; and they are natural. Still, they must suffer violence."
"With all my anxiety for William, I must confess that one selfish feeling predominates over all the rest," Mrs. Enfield said, after a pause.
"And what is that?" asked the father.
"The anxious fear lest he should cease to love me with the tenderness that I know he now bears towards me."
"Do not give way to such thoughts. They are but active principles of unhappiness in your mind," Mr. Enfield said. "William would be unworthy the name he bears, and unworthy the love of so devoted a mother — did he ever love you less than he loves you now. But this cannot be. Do not, then, give way to such vain thoughts and feelings. It is injustice to him, and injustice to yourself."
At the end of the first collegiate term, William came home, to spend three weeks with his parents and his dear little sister Florence, just completing her seventh year. He had improved much even in that short space of time. He was more manly and self-possessed; and there was about him something of the dignity of independent thought. The father saw all this with a pride that he could not conceal; the mother looked deeper, and scanned, with the penetrating insight of affection — the change that had passed upon his moral nature. That there was a change, the modulation of the first uttered word told her as plainly as if she had marked his every action for days; but its exact nature, she could not tell. He did not seem to love her less; nay, she felt sure that his love was altogether unchanged.
The brief period of vacation quickly passed, and William again left his home, and with far less of reluctance than he had at first experienced. He had begun to entertain an affection for the new condition of life into which he had been thrown, and, as this affection increased — the excellence and attractiveness of home faded from his mind. During the next term, his letters, from having been weekly, fell off in frequency, and he deemed once a month often enough to write.
Mrs. Enfield noted this change with an instinctive fear. It indicated to her, that home affections were being superseded by others, which might be good or evil.
Again William came back to spend a few weeks. He was now thirteen, and a fine, intelligent boy, improved in every way. Even the mother forgot her fears in her pride, as she pressed him to her heart.
And thus time wore on. Every six months, William came home and spent a few weeks with his parents, but never long enough for the mother to become familiar with and apprehend fully, the changes which time and the freedom of a college life had wrought in her child. Mr. Enfield was satisfied with the rapid advancement which had been made in the various branches of education by William, and looked forward with an emotion of pride to the time when the name of his son would be distinguished and honored in the world. He thought not of looking deeper, and, indeed, in the brief periods allowed for fellowship during the few weeks of vacation, there was too much pleasure in meeting, to leave room for serious scrutiny into the principles of action which were, as a matter of course, beginning to be developed in the mind of William. Painful, indeed, were then the surprise and mortification which he experienced, when it came upon him, with the startling suddenness of a clap of thunder from a serene sky — that his boy had been expelled the institution, where he had been for six years — instead of bearing off, as he had proudly hoped, its highest honors.
A brief glance at William Enfield's college-life will explain the painful fact just alluded to. After the third year of his attendance at the literary institution where he was pursuing his studies, a fondness for social fellowship led him to become one of a club of young men whose love of fun and frolic was the annoyance of the whole faculty, as well as of the quiet inhabitants of the village in which the institution was located. He did not join them, at first, in any of their unlawful acts, but contented himself with making one of their number when these wild doings were the subjects of exulting discussion.
Still, he sympathized with the reckless spirit of those in whose society he took pleasure, and hesitated to partake in their mischief, only because he feared the consequences. Thus, he consented to wrong. And let every reader lay this truth up in his heart, that, whenever he takes pleasure in seeing another do what is evil — it is a proof that he would himself do the same evil, if it came in his way, and there were no external restraints to prevent him. To delight in witnessing others commit wrong actions, is an evidence that we would ourselves commit similar wrongs, were we not afraid of the loss of reputation, or something else that we value.
It was not many months, however, before William Enfield could not only join his companions in their wild mischief, but enjoy them with as keen a relish as any. These consisted in annoying the other students in various ways; such as locking their room-doors and hiding the keys; or locking them in their rooms, so that they could not get out when the breakfast or supper-bell rang; destroying their books; disturbing their sleep; and a thousand other unkind acts, which no really noble-minded boy or young man will engage in — for they are acts committed at the expense of the comfort and happiness of others. Then they made it a standing rule of their club, to let no professor in the institution, no matter how just and amiable his character might be, pass unmolested for a longer period than one month at a time; nor was any single law established by the faculty, to remain unbroken for a longer period.
Every week, too, the rules of the club said, some quiet inhabitant of the village must be disturbed. Sometimes a board would be placed over the top of a chimney, and the inhabitants of the house almost suffocated before the cause of the sudden smoking could be discovered. Bells were rung; signs taken down and changed; families roused in the middle of the night by hurried messages from pretended sick relations, or by fearful cries in the street. The ingenuity of some twenty young men, whose talents for this kind of work increased by exercise, was constantly on the alert for new sources of annoyance to the other students, the faculty, or the villagers. And so secretly were all these things conducted, that the effort to discover the perpetrators was in vain.
In meeting frequently to plot mischief, these young rebels were often at a loss for amusements, and, to make the time pass pleasantly, as they alleged, cards were usually introduced, and among other acquired evil habits, was added, finally, that of gambling — for the simple playing of cards for amusement, was by far too spiritless an occupation for such wild young fellows. A stake had to be introduced — or there would be no fun at all in the game. Of a keen and ready intellect, William Enfield soon became the leader of the club; for those of a less active mind naturally fell into a position of subordination. The love of power and influence added their incitements to the mind of the foolish young man, thus early ambitious of evil instead of good — and he was fast acquiring a position that was dangerous to any who might occupy it.
So great at last became the annoyance of this "Dare-Devil Club," as it was called, that a considerable reward was offered by the faculty for the detection and conviction of anyone of the members in unlawful acts. The penalty was to be immediate expulsion from the institution. This being the case, another step was taken in evil, and that was, to swear each member, by a profane use of that holy book, the Word of God, to the profoundest secrecy. And now, the rules of the club were so changed as to extend the regular periods of annoyance, and thus make the danger of detection less, for not one of them had any wish to be expelled.
Gambling, in consequence, became a more frequent resort. In this, William Enfield grew more and more expert every day, and as he indulged in the delight of winning the money of his fellow-students, the generous impulses of his nature became more and more deadened, until he could take the last dollar from a poor young man who had weakly and wickedly risked the hard-earned pittance of a kind father — sent to meet his expenses — and not feel one throb of human sympathy.
Thus, from small beginnings, result important aggregates of evil. The first departure from the strict law of rectitude, though small, and, to the youth, seeming but an innocent departure — was like the first shooting up from the earth of a noxious weed, that looked as fair as the healthful plants springing around it. But, as in the one case, so in the other, a beginning had been made, and towards that beginning, as to a center, tended, by a law of nature, the principles which were to nourish and invigorate. A germ of good is met by the affinities which like principles of good have for each other; and a germ of evil is met by the affinities of evil principles. Thus, both tend onward towards maturity by an immutable law. How great, then, the danger of giving life to the smallest thought of evil, by bringing it down into action!
Let those who are just entering upon life, and are yet innocent, keep this thought ever before them. Let them beware of the first deviation. It never occurs without the quick perception of wrong, which is the best safeguard that youth can have, becoming less tender and acute. But to proceed.
William Enfield had attained the age of nearly eighteen years, and had, during that time, far surpassed any student in the institution. He spent at home the last vacation preceding his final removal from college, preparatory to entering upon some business or profession; and left with his mother's blessing upon him. His sister Florence, now grown up to a tall girl of thirteen, received her brother's parting kiss with the fond hope that soon he would return to be near her always. She dreamed not, that beneath the calm brow and polished exterior of her brother, were hidden evil passions which were soon to work anguish of mind and sad estrangement. Mrs. Enfield's perceptions were all too sensitive not to discover that there was something about her son, manly, handsome, and generous as he seemed — which was not right. She was troubled, she knew not why; and often chid herself for entertaining vain fears. But no reasonings could quiet her vague and uncertain forebodings.
When William returned to college, he entered with a deeper zest into his former reckless companionship.
"Old Peterson," he said, one evening, to the members of the club, alluding to the president of the institution, "has had a long respite. We must stir up his blood a little."
"We have exhausted every good trick," remarked one of the club. "Cannot you, Enfield, devise something notable, which shall make a nine-days' wonder to the whole college?"
"Yes, Enfield must do it!"
"He is the chap for it," went round the circle. And then a formal vote was taken that William should plan some scheme, transcending all that had yet been done, for its keen annoyance of the head of the Faculty.
"If I must, I must," he said. "My time is nearly up, and I ought to do something to make the 'Dare-Devil Club' venerate the name of their president."
On the next evening the club were assembled, but in a different room, for it was a law of their organization never to meet in the same room more than once a month. Enfield was busy in the preparation of some strange mixture, and all the rest were looking on with eager interest.
"What is it?" asked one.
"You shall soon see," William replied. "The old lady, Madame President, you know, is nervous, as they say. A little shock sometimes does wonders in these affections."
"Well?" inquired half a dozen of his companions, as Enfield paused.
"Wait a while, and you shall see."
And then all was curious interest in the preparations made by Enfield for the evening's frolic. He had procured a large glass, upon the top of which he was arranging a small cup holding about a pint, so that by drawing upon a small cord it could be made to turn over and empty whatever it might contain into the large bell-shaped vessel below. This all ready, he fastened the apparatus to the end of a long pole, and then poured a quantity of the oil of turpentine into the large glass.
"All ready now," he said, rising, "forward, march, for the president's quarters!"
It was past eleven o'clock, and the night was exceedingly dark, when the party sallied forth, observing, as they went, a profound silence. The windows of the chamber in which the president of the institution slept were about fifteen feet from the ground, and fronted the broad college-lawn. Under these, the party soon halted, when Enfield, with three or four to assist him, retired behind an angle of the building with a dark lantern, and proceeded to finish the arrangements.
"But what are you going to do?" asked one of the few who now attended him.
"You shall soon see," Enfield said, drawing a vial from his pocket. "This is nitric acid, of the highest power," he continued, as he proceeded to fill the small cup suspended on a pivot over the glass containing the oil of turpentine.
At once the truth flashed upon the minds of his companions, whose knowledge of chemistry made them familiar with the effect produced when these two substances are brought into contact with each other.
"I wouldn't do that!" said a young man in a decided tone, straightening himself up, and looking Enfield steadily in the face.
"Why wouldn't you?" asked the latter.
"Because Mrs. Peterson is in ill health, and in an exceedingly nervous condition. It might cost her her life!"
"Nonsense!" exclaimed one or two; "she would be a hard subject to kill."
"But," remonstrated the first speaker, "it would be cruel to frighten anyone in such a way. A strong man would be exceedingly alarmed, much more a weak woman, in ill health, with her whole nervous system out of order. Indeed, indeed, I would not do it."
"Dick Miller has grown wonderfully tender-hearted all at once," said one, sneeringly.
"I have a mother in ill health," he replied, in a tone of feeling. "I could not bear that anyone should treat her with so much cruelty."
There was a brief pause after this remark, during which William Enfield thought of his own mother. Her image came up before him with a chilling distinctness, as he had last seen her, drooping with infirmity, and startling at any sudden noise or unusual occurrence; and for a moment he wavered.
"We'll send Dick Miller home to his mamma!" broke in one with a sneering laugh, and instantly the image of Enfield's mother faded from his mind, and he said, in a clear determined tone —
"All ready now!"
There was no further remonstrance or opposition, and the party was soon under the window close to which slept the president and his invalid wife. The vessels containing the oil of turpentine and nitric acid were then elevated on the pole, and brought on a plane with the window; the pole on such an angle that the holder of it was at some distance from under the apparatus. When all was ready, Enfield carefully drew the cord, and the contents of the vessel containing the acid were poured upon the oil of turpentine. Instantly ensued a slight explosion, and then the whole place was lit up with a strong glare, while brilliant sparks with light explosions were emitted in all directions from the substances so suddenly ignited by coming in contact. A wild prolonged scream from within answered this mad exploit, and then the vessels were dashed to the ground and each of the party retired, precipitately and in silence, to his own room.
All that night, and for most of the ensuing day, the wife of President Peterson lay in nervous spasms, from which she finally recovered, with her system more shattered than ever. The whole institution was in a state of feverish excitement; and there was a united and determined effort to discover the actors in this daring and cruel outrage. And they were discovered; Enfield, among the rest, identified as the leader, and publicly expelled the institution.
And now came the moment of reflection. William knew that his father would suffer a mortification of the profoundest kind at this result, and he knew also that he was stern and unrelenting to a fault. Instinctively he took the direction of home, in company with a young man from the South, who was leaving the institution under the same disgrace.
"Are you going home?" asked his friend and companion in evil deeds thus early entered into.
"I am afraid to go home, Tomkins; my father will never forgive me, and I cannot bear the distress of my too kind and good mother."
"Then what do you think of doing?"
"I do not know," was answered in a desponding tone.
"Come with me."
"Where are you going?"
"To seek my fortune. Like you, I cannot think of going home."
"I can play a pretty good game of cards, and so can you. There is enough to do in this line, in the South and Southwest."
Thus sang the tempter. William was not altogether depraved, and, for a brief season, the struggle in his mind was powerful. But he had already consented to gamble at college, and it was more from the idea of becoming a known gambler, that he shrank — than from any instinctive virtuous horror of the vice. He consented — wrote a brief but farewell letter to his father and mother and sisters, begging their forgiveness, but alleging that, since he had so disgraced himself and them, he would never see their faces again.
We will not attempt to picture the chilling anguish which fell upon the heart of the mother, as this letter followed the official announcement of the expulsion of her son, for such unfeeling and cruel conduct, from one of the oldest literary institutions in the country. We must draw a veil over it.
We cannot, in the limits to which we must confine this sketch, trace step by step, the downward career of William Enfield. For a space of nearly five years, he continued a course of wicked conduct, and became known in the South as a most heartless and abandoned gambler. So callous had he grown in regard to the feelings of his friends at home, that towards the close of that period, he frequently wrote to his father for money; thus keeping afresh and smarting, wounds that would not heal. No notice, however, was taken by the father; but the mother's heart was not steeled towards the son of her love. Secretly she would answer these letters, and enclose money; imploring him, by all the love he bore her — to come home, and be to them all that he once had been. These were sometimes like arrows to his soul — but they wrought no change.
At the end of about five years after his expulsion from college, with shattered health, and a growing disgust for his profession, he went over to the island of Cuba, and there entered a corps of engineers. Fortunately, he was here thrown into contact with men of virtue and principle. Gradually his health became renovated, and, what was much better, the moral tone of his mind began to strengthen with something of that energy which is derived from good resolutions. Every day he began to think more and more of his mother. The good lessons which she had taught him in childhood, would frequently come up before his mind suddenly, and with a vividness which would startle and pain him by their contrast with the evil of his life.
One night, he was awakened by a dream, the effect of which could not be shaken off. He thought that he was at home; and that it seemed as though he had never been exiled from that home by evil actions. He sat by the side of his mother, as he had sat in former years, and listened to her voice with the same pleasure that he had listened to it in former times. But suddenly her face grew very pale, and she leaned back, faintly, in her chair. "She is dead!" exclaimed his father, bursting into the room, "and you are her murderer!" Instantly the idea of his dream changed, and he saw himself as the prodigal of virtue; the blight upon the heart of her who had borne him, and nourished him, and loved him with a yearning tenderness which was unutterable. The shock awoke him. Sleep sealed not again, his eyelids, during the remaining dark watches of that night. All the next day he was thoughtful and serious, and, on the morning of the next, took passage in a ship bound for the United States.
It was about six weeks from the day when William Enfield left the island of Cuba, that Mr. and Mrs. Enfield, and Florence, now a beautiful young woman, were seated in their parlor. Mr. Enfield was reading, while the mother, now a drooping invalid, unable to sit up but a few hours at a time, sat in her easy-chair, her mind all absorbed in thoughts about her still dear though absent and wandering child. Every day she thought of him; nay, every hour; but now her mind was all absorbed in pondering upon his wayward life, and the mirror of her imagination pictured, with a distinctness which veiled every other object, the image of her child.
Suddenly the door was thrown open, and a young man of fine appearance, though with a sad, pale face, entered. The mother startled, the father rose to his feet hastily, and Florence stood still, where she had been arranging some flowers, and looked with a strange wonder upon the sudden apparition.
"Mother! father! Behold your son! Can you, will you forgive me?" And he fell upon one knee, and covered his face with his hands, still at a distance from them.
Mr. Enfield drew himself up sternly, and turned partly away; but the poor mother, unable to rise, stretched out her hands, and murmured —
"William! — William! — oh, my boy! my boy!" while tears gushed from her eyes, and streamed upon the floor.
For a few moments, the young man remained thus, no one speaking, no one offering to touch his hand or raise him. He heard, indeed, the low, and to him sweet, forgiving murmurs of his mother's voice. But all else was to him still and stern.
"Dear father!" whispered Florence, coming to Mr. Enfield's side, and clasping his arm, "see! he is weeping. Tears come not from an unrepentant heart. Oh, father, forgive him!"
Slowly Mr. Enfield turned towards the young man still kneeling. One look sufficed to melt down his feelings. As the tears fell like rain through his fingers; Mr. Enfield remembered his penitent words, and then nature gave way. With an impulse that he could not restrain, he sprang towards him, and lifting him up, embraced him, while his own tears mingled with those of his penitent son.
Who can tell the delight of that mother's heart, when she again entwined her arms around her boy, and did so with an assurance, which was as strong as a voice from Heaven to her spirit, that her son was truly the returning prodigal!
And William Enfield did not again destroy by wrong-doings, the new hope thus suddenly kindled in the hearts of his parents and sister. From that hour, he was all they could desire.