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In
the face of these changes it were impious to doubt fortune's kindness.
All would be well yet; the Mackenzies would be found, Flora, younger and
lovelier and kinder than before; Alan would be found, and would have so
nicely discriminated his behaviour as to have grown, on the one hand,
into a valued friend of Mr. Nicholson's, and to have remained, upon the
other, of that exact shade of joviality which John desired in his
companions. And so, once more, John fell to work discounting the
delightful future: his first appearance in the family pew; his first
visit to his uncle Greig, who thought himself so great a financier, and
on whose purblind Edinburgh eyes John was to let in the dazzling
daylight of the West; and the details in general of that unrivalled
transformation scene, in which he was to display to all Edinburgh a
portly and successful gentleman in the shoes of the derided fugitive.

The time began to draw near when his father would have returned from the
office, and it would be the prodigal's cue to enter. He strolled
westward by Albany Street, facing the sunset embers, pleased, he knew
not why, to move in that cold air and indigo twilight, starred with
street-lamps. But there was one more disenchantment waiting him by the
way.

At the corner of Pitt Street he paused to light a fresh cigar; the vesta
threw, as he did so, a strong light upon his features, and a man of
about his own age stopped at sight of it.

"I think your name must be Nicholson," said the stranger.

It was too late to avoid recognition; and besides, as John was now
actually on the way home, it hardly mattered, and he gave way to the
impulse of his nature.

"Great Scott!" he cried, "Beatson!" and shook hands with warmth. It
scarce seemed he was repaid in kind.

"So you're home again?" said Beatson. "Where have you been all this long
time?"

"In the States," said John--"California. I've made my pile though; and
it suddenly struck me it would be a noble scheme to come home for
Christmas."

"I see," said Beatson. "Well, I hope we'll see something of you now
you're here."

"I guess so," said John, a little frozen.

"Well, ta-ta," concluded Beatson, and he shook hands again and went.

This was a cruel first experience. It was idle to blink facts: here was
John home again, and Beatson--Old Beatson--did not care a rush. He
recalled Old Beatson in the past--the merry and affectionate lad--and
their joint adventures and mishaps, the window they had broken with a
catapult in India Place, the escalade of the Castle rock, and many
another inestimable bond of friendship; and his hurt surprise grew
deeper. Well, after all, it was only on a man's own family that he could
count: blood was thicker than water, he remembered; and the net result
of this encounter was to bring him to the doorstep of his father's house
with tenderer and softer feelings.

The night had come; the fanlight over the door shone bright; the two
windows of the dining-room where the cloth was being laid, and the three
windows of the drawing-room where Maria would be waiting dinner, glowed
softer through yellow blinds. It was like a vision of the past. All this
time of his absence, life had gone forward with an equal foot, and the
fires and the gas had been lighted, and the meals spread, at the
accustomed hours. At the accustomed hour, too, the bell had sounded
thrice to call the family to worship. And at the thought a pang of
regret for his demerit seized him; he remembered the things that were
good and that he had neglected, and the things that were evil and that
he had loved; and it was with a prayer upon his lips that he mounted the
steps and thrust the key into the keyhole.

He stepped into the lighted hall, shut the door softly behind him, and
stood there fixed in wonder. No surprise of strangeness could equal the
surprise of that complete familiarity. There was the bust of Chalmers
near the stair-railings, there was the clothes-brush in the accustomed
place; and there, on the hat-stand, hung hats and coats that must surely
be the same as he remembered. Ten years dropped from his life, as a pin
may slip between the fingers; and the ocean and the mountains, and the
mines, and the crowded marts and mingled races of San Francisco, and his
own fortune and his own disgrace, became, for that one moment, the
figures of a dream that was over.

He took off his hat, and moved mechanically towards the stand; and there
he found a small change that was a great one to him. The pin that had
been his from boyhood, where he had flung his balmoral when he loitered
home from the Academy, and his first hat when he came briskly back from
college or the office--his pin was occupied. "They might have at least
respected my pin!" he thought, and he was moved as by a slight, and
began at once to recollect that he was here an interloper, in a strange
house, which he had entered almost by a burglary, and where at any
moment he might be scandalously challenged.

He moved at once, his hat still in his hand, to the door of his father's
room, opened it, and entered. Mr. Nicholson sat in the same place and
posture as on that last Sunday morning; only he was older, and greyer,
and sterner; and as he now glanced up and caught the eye of his son, a
strange commotion and a dark flush sprang into his face.

"Father," said John steadily, and even cheerfully, for this was a moment
against which he was long ago prepared, "Father, here I am, and here is
the money that I took from you. I have come back to ask your
forgiveness, and to stay Christmas with you and the children."

"Keep your money," said the father, "and go!"

"Father!" cried John; "for God's sake don't receive me this way. I've
come for----"

"Understand me," interrupted Mr. Nicholson; "you are no son of mine; and
in the sight of God, I wash my hands of you. One last thing I will tell
you; one warning I will give you: all is discovered, and you are being
hunted for your crimes; if you are still at large it is thanks to me;
but I have done all that I mean to do; and from this time forth I would
not raise one finger--not one finger--to save you from the gallows! And
now," with a low voice of absolute authority, and a single weighty
gesture of the finger, "and now--go!"




CHAPTER VI

THE HOUSE AT MURRAYFIELD


How John passed the evening, in what windy confusion of mind, in what
squalls of anger and lulls of sick collapse, in what pacing of streets
and plunging into public-houses, it would profit little to relate. His
misery, if it were not progressive, yet tended in no way to diminish;
for in proportion as grief and indignation abated, fear began to take
their place. At first, his father's menacing words lay by in some safe
drawer of memory, biding their hour. At first, John was all thwarted
affection and blighted hope; next bludgeoned vanity raised its head
again, with twenty mortal gashes; and the father was disowned even as he
had disowned the son. What was this regular course of life, that John
should have admired it? what were these clock-work virtues, from which
love was absent? Kindness was the test, kindness the aim and soul; and
judged by such a standard, the discarded prodigal--now rapidly drowning
his sorrows and his reason in successive drams--was a creature of a
lovelier morality than his self-righteous father. Yes, he was the better
man; he felt it, glowed with the consciousness, and entering a
public-house at the corner of Howard Place (whither he had somehow
wandered) he pledged his own virtues in a glass--perhaps the fourth
since his dismissal. Of that he knew nothing, keeping no account of what
he did or where he went; and in the general crashing hurry of his
nerves, unconscious of the approach of intoxication. Indeed, it is a
question whether he were really growing intoxicated, or whether at first
the spirits did not even sober him. For it was even as he drained this
last glass that his father's ambiguous and menacing words--popping from
their hiding-place in memory--startled him like a hand laid upon his
shoulder. "Crimes, hunted, the gallows." They were ugly words; in the
ears of an innocent man, perhaps all the uglier; for if some judicial
error were in act against him, who should set a limit to its grossness
or to how far it might be pushed? Not John, indeed; he was no believer
in the powers of innocence, his cursed experience pointing in quite
other ways; and his fears, once wakened, grew with every hour and hunted
him about the city streets.

It was perhaps nearly nine at night; he had eaten nothing since lunch,
he had drunk a good deal, and he was exhausted by emotion, when the
thought of Houston came into his head. He turned, not merely to the man
as a friend, but to his house as a place of refuge. The danger that
threatened him was still so vague, that he knew neither what to fear nor
where he might expect it; but this much at least seemed undeniable, that
a private house was safer than a public inn. Moved by these counsels, he
turned at once to the Caledonian Station, passed (not without alarm)
into the bright lights of the approach, redeemed his portmanteau from
the cloak-room, and was soon whirling in a cab along the Glasgow road.
The change of movement and position, the sight of the lamps twinkling to
the rear, and the smell of damp and mould and rotten straw which clung
about the vehicle, wrought in him strange alternations of lucidity and
mortal giddiness.

"I have been drinking," he discovered; "I must go straight to bed, and
sleep." And he thanked Heaven for the drowsiness that came upon his mind
in waves.

From one of these spells he was awakened by the stoppage of the cab;
and, getting down, found himself in quite a country road, the last lamp
of the suburb shining some way below, and the high walls of a garden
rising before him in the dark. The Lodge (as the place was named) stood,
indeed, very solitary. To the south it adjoined another house, but
standing in so large a garden as to be well out of cry; on all other
sides, open fields stretched upward to the woods of Corstorphine Hill,
or backward to the dells of Ravelston, or downward towards the valley of
the Leith.



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