The Redemption of John Churchill by Lucy Maud Montgomery
John Churchill walked slowly, not as a man walks who is tired, or content to saunter for the pleasure of it, but as one in no haste to reach his destination through dread of it. The day was well on to late afternoon in mid-spring, and the world was abloom. Before him and behind him wound a road that ran like a red ribbon through fields of lush clovery green. The orchards scattered along it were white and fragrant, giving of their incense to a merry south-west wind; fence-corner nooks were purple with patches of violets or golden-green with the curly heads of young ferns. The roadside was sprinkled over with the gold dust of dandelions and the pale stars of wild strawberry blossoms. It seemed a day through which a man should walk lightly and blithely, looking the world and his fellows frankly in the face, and opening his heart to let the springtime in.
But John Churchill walked laggingly, with bent head. When he met other wayfarers or was passed by them, he did not lift his face, but only glanced up under his eyebrows with a furtive look that was replaced by a sort of shamed relief when they had passed on without recognizing him. Some of them he knew for friends of the old time. Ten years had not changed them as he had been changed. They had spent those ten years in freedom and good repute, under God's blue sky, in His glad air and sunshine. He, John Churchill, had spent them behind the walls of a prison.
His close-clipped hair was grey; his figure, encased in an ill-fitting suit of coarse cloth, was stooped and shrunken; his face was deeply lined; yet he was not an old man in years. He was only forty; he was thirty when he had been convicted of embezzling the bank funds for purposes of speculation and had been sent to prison, leaving behind a wife and father who were broken-hearted and a sister whose pride had suffered more than her heart.
He had never seen them since, but he knew what had happened in his absence. His wife had died two months later, leaving behind her a baby boy; his father had died within the year. He had killed them; he, John Churchill, who loved them, had killed them as surely as though his hand had struck them down in cold blood. His sister had taken the baby, his little son whom he had never seen, but for whom he had prepared such a birthright of dishonour. She had never forgiven her brother and she never wrote to him. He knew that she would have brought the boy up either in ignorance of his father's crime or in utter detestation of it. When he came back to the world after his imprisonment, there was not a single friendly hand to clasp his and help him struggle up again. The best his friends had been able to do for him was to forget him.
He was filled with bitterness and despair and a gnawing hatred of the world of brightness around him. He had no place in it; he was an ugly blot on it. He was a friendless, wifeless, homeless man who could not so much as look his fellow men in the face, who must henceforth consort with outcasts. In his extremity he hated God and man, burning with futile resentment against both.
Only one feeling of tenderness yet remained in his heart; it centred around the thought of his little son.
When he left the prison he had made up his mind what to do. He had a little money which his father had left him, enough to take him west. He would go there, under a new name. There would be novelty and adventure to blot out the memories of the old years. He did not care what became of him, since there was no one else to care. He knew in his heart that his future career would probably lead him still further and further downward, but that did not matter. If there had been anybody to care, he might have thought it worthwhile to struggle back to respectability and trample his shame under feet that should henceforth walk only in the ways of honour and honesty. But there was nobody to care. So he would go to his own place.
But first he must see little Joey, who must be quite a big boy now, nearly ten years old. He would go home and see him just once, even although he dreaded meeting aversion in the child's eyes. Then, when he had bade him good-bye, and, with him, good-bye to all that remained to make for good in his desolated existence, he would go out of his life forever.
"I'll go straight to the devil then," he said sullenly. "That's where I belong, a jail-bird at whom everybody except other jail-birds looks askance. To think what I was once, and what I am now! It's enough to drive a man mad! As for repenting, bah! Who'd believe that I really repented, who'd give me a second chance on the faith of it? Not a soul. Repentance won't blot out the past. It won't give me back my wife whom I loved above everything on earth and whose heart I broke. It won't restore me my unstained name and my right to a place among honourable men. There's no chance for a man who has fallen as low as I have. If Emily were living, I could struggle for her sake. But who'd be fool enough to attempt such a fight with no motive and not one chance of success in a hundred. Not I. I'm down and I'll stay down. There's no climbing up again."
He celebrated his first day of freedom by getting drunk, although he had never before been an intemperate man. Then, when the effects of the debauch wore off, he took the train for Alliston; he would go home and see little Joey once.
Nobody at the station where he alighted recognized him or paid any attention to him. He was as a dead man who had come back to life to find himself effaced from recollection and his place knowing him no more. It was three miles from the station to where his sister lived, and he resolved to walk the distance. Now that the critical moment drew near, he shrank from it and wished to put it off as long as he could.
When he reached his sister's home he halted on the road and surveyed the place over its snug respectability of iron fence. His courage failed him at the thought of walking over that trim lawn and knocking at that closed front door. He would slip around by the back way; perhaps, who knew, he might come upon Joey without running the gauntlet of his sister's cold, offended eyes. If he might only find the boy and talk to him for a little while without betraying his identity, meet his son's clear gaze without the danger of finding scorn or fear in it--his heart beat high at the thought.
He walked furtively up the back way between high, screening hedges of spruce. When he came to the gate of the yard, he paused. He heard voices just beyond the thick hedge, children's voices, and he crept as near as he could to the sound and peered through the hedge, with a choking sensation in his throat and a smart in his eyes. Was that Joey, could that be his little son? Yes, it was; he would have known him anywhere by his likeness to Emily. Their boy had her curly brown hair, her sensitive mouth, above all, her clear-gazing, truthful grey eyes, eyes in which there was never a shadow of falsehood or faltering.
Joey Churchill was sitting on a stone bench in his aunt's kitchen yard, holding one of his black-stockinged knees between his small, brown hands. Jimmy Morris was standing opposite to him, his back braced against the trunk of a big, pink-blossomed apple tree, his hands in his pockets, and a scowl on his freckled face. Jimmy lived next door to Joey and as a rule they were very good friends, but this afternoon they had quarrelled over the right and proper way to construct an Indian ambush in the fir grove behind the pig-house. The argument was long and warm and finally culminated in personalities. Just as John Churchill dropped on one knee behind the hedge, the better to see Joey's face, Jimmy Morris said scornfully:
"I don't care what you say. Nobody believes you. Your father is in the penitentiary."
The taunt struck home as it always did. It was not the first time that Joey had been twitted with his father by his boyish companions. But never before by Jimmy! It always hurt him, and he had never before made any response to it. His face would flush crimson, his lips would quiver, and his big grey eyes darken miserably with the shadow that was on his life; he would turn away in silence. But that Jimmy, his best beloved chum, should say such a thing to him; oh, it hurt terribly.
There is nothing so merciless as a small boy. Jimmy saw his advantage and vindictively pursued it.
"Your father stole money, that's what he did! You know he did. I'm pretty glad my father isn't a thief. Your father is. And when he gets out of prison, he'll go on stealing again. My father says he will. Nobody'll have anything to do with him, my father says. His own sister won't have anything to do with him. So there, Joey Churchill!"
"There will somebody have something to do with him!" cried Joey hotly. He slid off the bench and faced Jimmy proudly and confidently. The unseen watcher on the other side of the hedge saw his face grow white and intense and set-lipped, as if it had been the face of a man. The grey eyes were alight with a steady, fearless glow.
"I'll have something to do with him. He is my father and I love him. I don't care what he did, I love him just as well as if he was the best man in the world. I love him better than if he was as good as your father, because he needs it more. I've always loved him ever since I found out about him. I'd write to him and tell him so, if Aunt Beatrice would tell me where to send the letter. Aunt Beatrice won't ever talk about him or let me talk about him, but I think about him all the time. And he's going to be a good man yet, yes, he is, just as good as your father, Jimmy Morris. I'm going to make him good. I made up my mind years ago what I would do and I'm going to do it, so there, Jimmy."
"I don't see what you can do," muttered Jimmy, already ashamed of what he had said and wishing he had let Joey's father alone.
"I'll tell you what I can do!" Joey was confronting all the world now, with his head thrown back and his face flushed with his earnestness. "I can love him and stand by him, and I will. When he gets out of--of prison, he'll come to see me, I know he will. And I'm just going to hug him and kiss him and say, 'Never mind, Father. I know you're sorry for what you've done, and you're never going to do it any more. You're going to be a good man and I'm going to stand by you.' Yes, sir, that's just what I'm going to say to him. I'm all the children he has and there's nobody else to love him, because I know Aunt Beatrice doesn't. And I'm going with him wherever he goes."
"You can't," said Jimmy in a scared tone. "Your Aunt Beatrice won't let you."
"Yes, she will. She'll have to. I belong to my father. And I think he'll be coming pretty soon some way. I'm pretty sure the time must be 'most up. I wish he would come. I want to see him as much as can be, 'cause I know he'll need me. And I'll be proud of him yet, Jimmy Morris, yes, I'll be just as proud as you are of your father. When I get bigger, nobody will call my father names, I can tell you. I'll fight them if they do, yes, sir, I will. My father and I are going to stand by each other like bricks. Aunt Beatrice has lots of children of her own and I don't believe she'll be a bit sorry when I go away. She's ashamed of my father 'cause he did a bad thing. But I'm not, no, sir. I'm going to love him so much that I'll make up to him for everything else. And you can just go home, Jimmy Morris, so there!"
Jimmy Morris went home, and when he had gone, Joey flung himself face downward in the grass and fallen apple blossoms and lay very still.
On the other side of the spruce hedge knelt John Churchill with bowed head. The tears were running freely down his face, but there was a new, tender light in his eyes. The bitterness and despair had fallen out of his heart, leaving a great peace and a dawning hope in their place. Bless that loyal little soul! There was something to live for after all--there was a motive to make the struggle worthwhile. He must justify his son's faith in him; he must strive to make himself worthy of this sweet, pure, unselfish love that was offered to him, as a divine draught is offered to the parched lips of a man perishing from thirst. Aye, and, God helping him, he would. He would redeem the past. He would go west, but under his own name. His little son should go with him; he would work hard; he would pay back the money he had embezzled, as much of it as he could, if it took the rest of his life to do so. For his boy's sake he must cleanse his name from the dishonour he had brought on it. Oh, thank God, there was somebody to care, somebody to love him, somebody to believe him when he said humbly, "I repent." Under his breath he said, looking heavenward:
"God be merciful to me, a sinner."
Then he stood up erectly, went through the gate and over the grass to the motionless little figure with its face buried in its arms.
"Joey boy," he said huskily. "Joey boy."
Joey sprang to his feet with tears still glistening in his eyes. He saw before him a bent, grey-headed man looking at him lovingly and wistfully. Joey knew who it was--the father he had never seen. With a glad cry of welcome he sprang into the outstretched arms of the man whom his love had already won back to God.