Read CHAPTER XXX - ‘I COULD NOT STAND IT ANY LONGER, TOM’ of Lover or Friend, free online book, by Rosa Nouchette Carey, on ReadCentral.com.

’The beautiful souls of the world have an art of saintly alchemy, by which bitterness is converted into kindness, the gall of human experience into gentleness, ingratitude into benefits, insults into pardon.’ AMIEL.

‘Mat has come home!’

Audrey uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure as she heard this unexpected intelligence.

’Is it really true?  Oh, Mr. O’Brien, I am so glad so very glad!  When did he come?  Why did you not send for me?  My dear old friend, how happy you must be to get him back after all these years of watching and waiting!’

A curiously sad expression crossed Mr. O’Brien’s rugged face as Audrey spoke in her softest and most sympathetic voice.

‘Ay, I am not denying that it is happiness to get the lad back,’ he returned, in a slow, ruminative fashion, as though he found it difficult to shape his thoughts into words; ’but it is a mixed sort of happiness, too.  Come in and sit down, Miss Ross Mat has gone out for a prowl, as he calls it and I will tell you how it all happened while Prissy sees to the tea;’ and as Mrs. Baxter withdrew at this very broad hint, Mr. O’Brien drew up one of the old-fashioned elbow-chairs to the fire, and then, seating himself, took up his pipe from the hob, and looked thoughtfully into the empty bowl.  ’Things get terribly mixed in this world,’ he continued, ’and pleasures mostly lose their flavour before one has a chance of enjoying them.  I am thinking that the father of the Prodigal Son did not find it all such plain sailing after the feast was over, and he had time to look into things more closely.  That elder brother would not be the pleasantest of companions for many a long day; he would still have a sort of grudge, like my Prissy here.’

‘Oh, I hope not!’

’Oh, it is true, though.  Human nature is human nature all the world over.  But, there, I am teasing you with all this rigmarole; only I seem somehow confused, and as though I could not rightly arrange my thoughts.  When did Mat come home?  Well, it was three nights ago, and would you believe it, Miss Ross? it feels more like three weeks.’

‘I wish you had written to me.  I would have come to you before.’

’Ay, that was what Prissy said; she was always bidding me take ink and paper.  “There’s Miss Ross ought to be told, father” she was always dinning it into my ears; but somehow I could not bring myself to write.  “Where’s the hurry,” I said to Prissy, “when Mat is a fixture here?  I would rather tell Miss Ross myself.”  And I have had my way, too’ with a touch of his old humour ’and here we are, talking comfortably as we have been used to do; and that is better than a stack of letters.’

Audrey smiled.  Whatever her private opinion might be, she certainly offered no contradiction.  If she had been in his place, all her world should have heard of her prodigal’s return, and should have been bidden to eat of the fatted calf; she would have called her friends and neighbours to rejoice with her over the lost one who had found his way home.  Her friend’s reticence secretly alarmed her.  Would Vineyard Cottage be a happier place for its new inmate?

‘Yes, it is better for you and me to be talking over it quietly,’ he went on; ’and I am glad Mat took that restless turn an hour ago.  You see, the place is small, and he has been used to bush-life; and after he has sat a bit and smoked one or two pipes, he must just go out and dig in the garden, or take his mile or two just to stretch his muscles; but he will be back by the time Prissy has got the tea.’

‘And he came back three nights ago?’ observed Audrey.

’Ay.  We were going upstairs, Prissy and I; the girl had been in bed for an hour.  I was just smoking my last pipe over the kitchen fire, as I like to do, when we heard a knock at the door, and Prissy says to me: 

’"I expect that is Joshua Ruddock, father, and Jane has been taken bad, and they cannot get the nurse in time.”  For Prissy is a good soul at helping any of her neighbours, and sometimes one or other of them will send for her to sit up with a sick wife or child.  And then she goes to the door, while I knock the ashes out of my pipe.  But the next moment she gave a sort of screech, and I made up my mind that it was that rascal Joe asking for a night’s lodging not that he would ever have slept under my roof again.  I confess I swore to myself a bit softly when I heard Prissy fly out like that.

’"Father,” she says again, “here is a vagrant sort of man, and he says he is Uncle Mat.”

’"And she won’t believe me, Tom; so you had better come and look at me yourself;” and, sure enough, I knew the lad’s voice before I got a sight of his face.

‘I give you my word, Miss Ross,’ he continued, somewhat huskily, ’I hardly know how I got to the door, for my limbs seemed to have no power.

’"Do you think I don’t know your voice, lad?” I said; and, though it was dark, I got hold of him and pulled him into the light.

’We were both of us white and shaking as we stood there, but he looked me in the face with a pitiful sort of smile.

’"I could not stand it any longer, Tom,” he said; “I suppose it was home-sickness; but it would have killed me in time.  I have not got a creature in the world belonging to me.  Will you and Susan take me in?” And then, with a laugh, though there were tears in his eyes:  “I am precious tired of the husks, old chap.”

’Well, I did not seem to have my answer ready; for I was fairly choked at the sight of his changed face, and those poor, pitiable words.  But he did not misunderstand me, and when I took his arm and pushed him into a chair by the fire, he looked round the place in a dazed kind of way.

’"Where’s Susan?” he asked.  “I hope she is not sick, Tom.”  And with that he did break me down; for the thought of how Susan would have welcomed him not standing aloof as Prissy was doing and how she would have heartened us up, in her cheery way, was too much for me, and I fairly cried like a child.

’Well, I knew it was my lad in spite of his gray hairs when he cried, too just for company.  Mat had always a kind heart and way with him.

’"I never thought of this, Tom,” he said, when we were a bit better.  “All to-day Susan’s face has been before me bonnie and smiling, as I last saw it.  Prissy there is not much like her mother.  And so she is in her coffin, poor lass!  Well, you are better off than me, Tom, for you have got Prissy there to look after you, and I have neither wife nor children.”

’"Do you mean they are gone?” I asked, staring at him; and he nodded in a grim, sorrowful kind of way.

’"I have lost them all.  There, we won’t talk about that just yet.  What is it Susan used to say when the children died?  ’The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.’  Those are pious words, Tom.”  And then he looked at me a bit strangely.

’Well, it was Prissy who interrupted us, by asking if Mat wanted food.  And then it turned out that he was ’most starving.

’"I think I was born to ill-luck, Tom,” he went on; “for some scamp or other robbed me of my little savings as soon as I reached London, and I had to make shift to pay my fare down here.  It is a long story to tell how I found you out.  I went to the old place first, and they sent me on here.  I had a drop of beer and a crust at the Three Loaves, and old Giles, the ostler, knew me and told me a long yarn about you and Prissy.”

’And then we would not let him talk any more.  And when he was fed and warmed Prissy made up a bed for him, for we saw he was nearly worn out, and there was plenty of time for hearing all he had to tell us.

’But I could not help going into his room before I turned in, for there came over me such a longing to see Mat’s face again though it was not the old face.  And I knew my bright, handsome lad would never come back.  Well, he was not asleep, for he turned on his pillow when he saw me.

’"If one could only have one’s life again!” he said and there was a catch in his voice.  “I could not sleep for thinking of it.  I have shamed you, Tom, and I have shamed all that belonged to me; and many and many a time I have longed to die and end it all, but something would not let me.  I was always a precious coward.  Why, I tried to shoot myself once; but I could not do it, I bungled so.  That was when things were at the worst; but I never tried again, so don’t look so scared, old chap!”

’Well, it was terrible to hear him talk like that, of throwing his life away, and I said a word or two to show what I thought of it; but he would not listen.

’"Don’t preach, Tom:  you were always such a hand at preaching; but I will tell you something you may care to hear.  It was when I was out in the bush.  I had been down with a sort of fever, and had got precious low.  Well, it came over me one day as I was alone in the hut, that, if that sort of life went on, I should just lose my reason; for the loneliness, and the thought of the prison life, and all the evil I had done, and the way I had thrown aside my chances, seemed crowding in upon my mind, and I felt I must just blow my brains out, and I knew I should do it this time; and then all at once the thought came to me:  ’Why not go to Tom?  Tom and Susan are good sort; they won’t refuse a helping hand to a poor wretch;’ and the very next day I packed up my traps and started for Melbourne.”

’"My lad,” I said, “it was just Providence that put that thought in your head;” and then I left him, for my heart was too full to talk, except to my Maker.  But I dreamt that night that Susan came to me, and that we stood together by Mat’s bedside looking down at him while he slept.

’"He looks old and gray,” I heard her say quite distinctly; “but he will grow young again beside my Tom.”  And then she looked at me so gently and sighed:  “Be patient with him; he is very unhappy,” and then I woke.’

‘Oh, I hope you told him that dream!’

’Ay, I did.  I told him a power of things about Susan and myself and Prissy, and he never seemed tired of listening; but after that first evening he did not open out much of his own accord.  He told us a few things, mostly about his bush-life, and where he went when he got his ticket-of-leave; but somehow he seemed to dislike talking about himself, and after I had questioned him pretty closely, he suddenly said: 

’"Look here, old chap:  I don’t mean to be rough on you, but I have grown used to holding my tongue during the last few years.  What is the use of raking up bygones?  Do you suppose I am so proud of my past life that I care to talk about it?  Why can we not start afresh?  You know me for what I am, the good-for-nothing Mat O’Brien.  I know I am no fit companion for you and Prissy; and if you tell me to go, I will shift my quarters without a reproachful word.  Shall I go, Tom?”

’"No,” I said, almost shouting at him, and snapping my pipe in two; “you will just stay where you are, lad.  Do you think I will ever suffer you to wander off again?” And then, as he looked at me very sadly, I opened the big Bible we had been reading in that morning, and showed him the verse that was in my thoughts that moment:  “The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part me and thee.”

’"Do you mean that, Tom?” and his voice was rather choky.

’"Ay, I do,” was my answer.  And then he gripped my hand without speaking, and went out of the room, and we did not see him for an hour or two.  And that is about all I have to tell you, Miss Ross.’

‘Thank you, old friend,’ returned Audrey gently.

And she looked reverently into the thoughtful face beside her.  The rugged, homely features were beautified to her.  He was only a small tradesman, yet what nobleman could show more tender chivalry to the fallen man who had brought disgrace on his honest name?  In her heart Audrey knew there was no truer gentleman than this simple, kindly Tom O’Brien.

‘There’s Mat,’ he observed presently; and Audrey roused herself and looked anxiously at the door.

She was longing, yet dreading, to see this much-loved prodigal.  Priscilla’s description of ‘a vagrant sort of man’ had somewhat alarmed her, and she feared to see the furtive look and slouching gait that so often stamp the man who has taken long strides on the downward path.

She was greatly surprised, therefore, when a tall, fine-looking man, with closely-cropped gray hair and a black moustache, came quickly into the room.  On seeing a young lady he was about to withdraw; but his brother stopped him.

’Don’t go away, lad.  This is Miss Ross, the young lady who I told you was with Susan when she died.’

‘And I am very glad to welcome you back, Mr. O’Brien,’ observed Audrey cordially, as she held out her hand.

Mat O’Brien reddened slightly as he took the offered hand with some reluctance, and then stood aside rather awkwardly.  He only muttered something in reply to his brother’s question of how far he had walked.

‘I think I will go to Priscilla,’ he said, with a touch of sullenness that was mere shyness and discomfort.  ’Don’t let me interrupt you and this young lady, Tom.’  And before Mr. O’Brien could utter a remonstrance, he was gone.

‘I am afraid I am in the way,’ suggested Audrey.  ’Perhaps your brother does not like to see people.  It is growing dark, so I may as well start at once.  Mr. Blake has promised to meet me, so I shall not have a solitary walk.’

‘Nay, you must not go without your cup of tea,’ returned the old man, rubbing up his hair in a vexed manner; ’I hear Prissy clattering with the cups.  Don’t fash your head about the lad; he is a bit shamed of looking honest folk in the face; but we’ll get him over that.  Sit you down, and I will fetch him out of the kitchen.’  And without heeding her entreaties to be allowed to go, Mr. O’Brien hurried her into the next room, where the usual bountiful meal was already spread, and where Mrs. Baxter awaited them with an injured expression of face.

‘I think father has gone clean daft over Uncle Mat,’ she observed, as Mr. O’Brien departed on his quest.  ’Draw up to the table, Miss Ross.  Father will be back directly; but he won’t touch a mouthful until he sees Uncle Mat in his usual place; he fashes after him from morning to night, and can hardly bear him out of his sight.  It is “Mat, come here, alongside of me,” or “Try this dish of Prissy’s, my lad,” until you would think there was not another person in the house.  It is a bit trying, Miss Ross, I must confess; though I won’t fly in the face of Providence, and say I am not glad that the sinner has come home.  But there, one must have one’s trials; and Heaven knows I have had a plentiful share of thorns and briars in my time!’

’I am sorry to hear you speak like this, Mrs. Baxter.  I was hoping that you would rejoice in Mr. O’Brien’s happiness.  Think how he has longed for years to see his brother’s face again!’

Mrs. Baxter shook her head mournfully.

’Ay, Miss Ross; but the best of us are poor ignorant creatures, and, maybe, the blessings we long for will turn to a curse in the end.  I doubt whether our little cottage will be the restful place it was before Uncle Mat came home.  He has gone to a bad school to learn manners; and wild oats and tares and the husks that the swine did eat are poor crops, after all, Miss Ross,’ finished Priscilla a little vaguely.

Audrey bent over her plate to conceal a smile; but she was spared the necessity of answering, as just then the two men entered.

It was the first meal that Audrey had failed to enjoy at Vineyard Cottage; and notwithstanding all her efforts to second Mr. O’Brien’s attempt at cheerfulness, she felt that she failed most signally.  Neither of them could induce Mat O’Brien to enter into conversation; his gloomy silence or brief monosyllabic replies compelled even his brother at last to desist from any such attempt.

Now and then Audrey stole a furtive glance at him as he sat moodily looking out into the twilight.  The handsome lad was still a good-looking man; but the deep-seated melancholy in the dark eyes oppressed Audrey almost painfully:  there was a hopelessness in their expression that filled her with pity.

Why had he let that one failure, that sad lapse from honesty, stamp his old life with shame?  Had he not expiated his sin?  Why was he so beaten down and crushed with remorse and suffering that he had only longed to end an existence that seemed God-forsaken and utterly useless?  And then, half unconsciously, she noted the one serious defect in his face the weak, receding chin; and she guessed that the mouth hidden under the heavy moustache was weak too.

‘I will not ask you what you think of Mat to-night,’ observed Mr. O’Brien, as he accompanied Audrey to the gate; ’he has not been used to a lady’s company, and he has grown into silent ways, living so much alone.’

‘He looks terribly unhappy.’

’Ay, poor chap, he is unhappy enough; he has got a load on his heart that he is carrying alone.  Sometimes it makes my heart ache, Miss Ross, to see him sitting there, staring into the fire, and fetching up a sigh now and then.  But there, as Susan says, “The heart knoweth its own bitterness”; but if ever a man is in trouble, Mat is that man.’

And Audrey felt that her old friend was right.