The Prodigal Brother by Lucy Maud Montgomery
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?"
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."