The Redemption of John Churchill

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.