FATHER AND SONS

The light was fading among the Derbyshire hills. The trees, now
almost bare, were stirred by the fretful wind into what seemed like
a passionate wail for their own lost loveliness, and on the wide
bare stretch of moorland behind the house the strange weird cry of
the plovers sounded like a dirge over the dead summer. The sharp,
intermittent rain had beaten all the beauty out of the few late autumn
flowers in the garden, and it was tender of the twilight to hasten
to deepen into a darkness heavy enough to hide such a grey desolate
picture.
Inside Thornsett Edge another and a deeper darkness was falling. Old
Richard Ferrier was sick unto death, and he alone of all the household
knew it. He knew it, and he was not sorry. Yet he sighed.
‘What is it, Richard? Can I get you anything?’
A woman sitting behind his bed-curtain leaned forward to put the
question–a faded woman, with grey curls and a face marked with deep
care lines. It was his sister.
‘Where are the boys?’
‘Gone to Aspinshaw.’
‘Both of them?’
‘Yes; I asked Dick to take a note for me, and Roland said he’d go too.’
The old man looked pleased.
‘Did you want either of them?’ she asked.
‘I want them both when they come in.’
‘Suppose you are asleep?’
‘I shall not sleep until I have seen my sons.’
‘Art thee better to-night, Richard?’ she asked in a tone of tender
solicitude, dropping back, as people so often do in moments of anxiety,
into the soft sing-song accent that had once been habitual to her.
‘Ay, I’m better, lass,’ he said, returning the pressure of the hand she
laid on his.
‘Wilt have a light?’
‘Not yet a-bit,’ he answered. ‘I like to lie so, and watch the day
right out,’ and he turned his face towards the square of grey sky
framed by the window.
There was hardly more pleasantness left in his life than in the dreary
rain-washed garden outside. And yet his life had not been without
its triumphs–as the world counts success. He had, when still young,
married the woman he passionately loved, and work for her sake had
seemed so easy that he had risen from poverty to competence, and from
competence to wealth. Born in the poorest ranks of the workers in a
crowded Stockport alley, he had started in life as a mill ‘hand,’ and
he was ending it now a millowner, and master of many hands.
He had himself been taught in no school but that of life; but he did
not attribute his own success to his education any more than he did
the fatuous failure of some University men to their peculiar training;
so he had sent his sons to Cambridge, and had lived to see them
leave their college well-grown and handsome, with not more than the
average stock of prejudices and follies, and fit to be compared, not
unfavourably, with any young men in the county.
But by some fatality he had never tasted the full sweetness of any
of the fruit his life-tree had borne him. His parents had died in
want and misery at a time when he himself was too poor to help them.
His wife, who had bravely shared his earlier struggles, did not live
to share their reward. She patiently bore the trials of their early
married life, but in the comfort that was to follow she had no part.
She died, and left him almost broken-hearted. Her memory would always
be the dearest thing in the world to him; but a man’s warm, living,
beating heart needs something more than a memory to lavish its love
upon. This something more he found in her children. In them all his
hopes had been centred; for them all his efforts had been made. They
were, individually, all that he had dreamed they might be, and they
were both devoted to him; and yet, as he lay on his deathbed, his mind
was ill at ease about them. Did he exaggerate? Was it weakness and
illness, the beginning of the end, that had made him think, through
these last few weeks, that there was growing up between these two
beloved sons a coolness–a want of sympathy, an indisposition to run
well in harness together–which might lead to sore trouble?
There certainly had been one or two slight quarrels between them which
had been made up through his own intervention. How would it be, he
wondered, when he was not there any more to smooth things over? Somehow
he did not feel that he cared to live any longer, even to keep peace
between his boys. That must be done some other way. Truth to say, he
was very tired of being alive.
The October day faded, and presently the sick-room was lighted only
by the red flickering glow of the fire, which threw strange fantastic
shadows from the handsome commonplace furniture, and made the
portraits on the walls seem to look out of their frames with quite new
expressions.
Old Ferrier lay looking at the pictures in a tremor of expectation
that made the time seem very long indeed. At last his strained sense
caught the faint click of the Brahma lock as it was opened by a key
from without, and the bang of the front door as it was closed somewhat
hurriedly from within.
‘There they are,’ he said at once. ‘Send them up, Letitia.’
As she laid her hand on the door to open it, another hand grasped the
handle on the other side, and a tall, broad-shouldered young fellow
came in, with the glisten of rain still on his brown moustache, and on
his great-coat, seeming to bring with him a breath of freshness and the
night air.
‘Ah, Dick! I was just coming down for you. Where is Roland?’
‘He stayed awhile at Aspinshaw. How’s father?’
‘Awake, and asking for you,’ said his aunt, and went away, closing the
door softly.
‘Well, dad, how goes it?’ said the new-comer, stepping forward into the
glow of the firelight.
‘Light the candles,’ said his father, without answering the question,
and the young man lighted two in heavy silver candlesticks which stood
on the dressing-table.
As their pale light fell on the white face lying against the hardly
whiter pillow, Dick’s eyes scrutinised it anxiously.
‘You don’t look any better,’ he said, sitting down by the bed, and
taking his father’s hand. ‘I wish I’d been at home when that doctor
came yesterday.’
‘I’m glad you weren’t Dick; I’d rather tell you myself. I wish your
brother were here.’
‘I daresay he won’t be long,’ said the other, frowning a little, while
the lines about his mouth grew hard and set; ‘but what did the doctor
say? Aunt Letitia didn’t seem to know anything about it.’
‘He told me I shouldn’t live to see another birthday,’ said the old
man. He had rehearsed in his own mind over and over again how he should
break this news to his boys, and now he was telling it in a way quite
other than any that had been in his rehearsals.
‘Not see another birthday!’ echoed his son. ‘Nonsense! Why, father,’ he
added, with a sudden start, ‘your birthday’s on Wednesday. How could
he? I’ll write to him.’
‘My dear boy, I felt it before he told me. He only put into words what
I’ve known ever since I’ve been lying here. There’s no getting over it.
I’m going.’
Dick did not speak. He pressed his father’s hand hard, and then,
letting it fall, he walked over to the hearthrug, and stood with his
hands behind him, looking into the fire.
‘Come back; come here!’ said the wavering voice from the bed. ‘I want
you, Dick.’
‘Can’t I do something for you, dad?’ he said, in very much lower tones
than usual, as he sat down again by the bed. He kept his face in the
shadow of the curtain.
‘We’ve always got on very well together, Dick.’
‘Yes–we’ve been very good friends.’
‘I wish you were as good friends with your brother as you are with your
old father.’
‘I’m not bad friends with him; and, after all, your father’s your
father, and that makes all the difference.’
‘Your brother will soon be the nearest thing in the world to you. Oh,
my boy,’ said old Ferrier, suddenly raising himself on his elbow, and
clasping Dick’s strong right hand in both his, ‘for God’s sake, don’t
quarrel with him! If you ever cared for me, keep friends with him. If
you and he weren’t friends, I couldn’t lie easy in my grave. And it’s
been a long life–I should like to lie easy at last!’
‘I don’t quarrel with him, father.’
‘Well, lad–well, I’ve thought you did; perhaps I’m wrong. Anyway,
don’t quarrel–if it’s only for your old dad’s sake. I’ve loved you
both so dearly.’
‘I will try to do everything you wish.’
‘I know you will, Dick. You always have done that. Was that Roland just
came in? If it is, send him to me.’
The young man stood silently for a few moments. Then he bent down over
his father and kissed his forehead twice. When he left the room he met
a servant on the landing.
‘Is Mr Roland at home yet?’
‘Yes, sir; he’s just come in.’
‘Tell him Mr Ferrier wishes to see him at once.’
‘Miss Ferrier told him, sir, directly he came in.’


(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

He turned and went to his own room.
A quarter of an hour later Roland stood outside his father’s door. He
opened it gently, and entered, his slippered feet treading the floor of
the sick-room as silently as a nurse’s.
As he stood a moment in the dim light, eyes less keen and less
expectant than those looking at him from the bed might have easily
mistaken him for his brother. The slight difference in breadth of
shoulder and depth of chest was concealed by the loose indoor jacket
he wore. There was no trace about him of his wet and muddy walk, and
he looked altogether a much fitter occupant for the easy-chair that
stood at the sick man’s bedside than the stalwart, weather-stained, and
unsympathetic-looking figure that had last sat in it.
‘Rowley, why didn’t you come before?’ began the old man.
‘Oh, I couldn’t, father. It is a beastly night. I was awfully wet and
muddy. I only waited to change my things, and make myself presentable.
How are you to-night?’
‘Your brother came up wet enough,’ was all the answer.
‘Did he? What a careless fellow he is. He never seems to think of that
sort of thing.’
‘Oh, well, I suppose you didn’t know.’
‘Know what, father?’
‘How much I wanted to see you.’
‘Why, no, of course I didn’t,’ said Roland in an altered tone, and with
a look of new anxiety in his face. ‘What is it, father? I thought you
were better to-day.’
‘I shall never be better, lad. Doctor Gibson told me so, and I know
he’s right. You and Dick will soon be masters here. But don’t worry,
Rowley,’ he added, catching both his son’s arms; ‘it was bound to come
some day.’
For a moment the young man had hardly seemed to realise what the words
meant; but now a long, anxious, eager look at his father’s face made
the truth clear to him. An intense anguish came into his face, and
throwing his arms round the other’s neck, he fell on his knees in a
burst of passionate tears.
‘Oh, father, father, no, no–not yet–don’t say that–I can’t do
without you. Oh, why have I left you since you have been ill?’
The old man caressed him silently. There was a sort of pleasure in
feeling oneself regretted with this passion of sorrow and longing.
After a while.
‘Rowley,’ said he, as the sobs grew less frequent and less violent,
‘I’m going to ask you to do something for me.’
‘Anything you like, father–the harder the better.’
‘It ought not to be very hard to you, my son. Promise me that you will
always keep good friends with Dick.’
‘Yes–yes–I will, indeed.’
But little more was said. Roland seemed unable to utter anything save
incoherent protestations of love and sorrow.
At last, warned by the weariness that was creeping into his father’s
face, he bade him a very tender and lingering good-night.
‘Have me called at once if you are worse–or if I can do anything,’
were his last words as he left the room.
The watchful woman’s face was by the bed again in an instant.
‘I want–‘ the old man began.
‘You want your beef tea, Richard, and here it is.’
As he took it he asked,–
‘Is it too late to send for Gates?’
‘Oh, no; and it’s such a little way for him to come.’
Mr Gates was a member of a firm of Stockport solicitors, and his
country house was but a stone’s-throw from Thornsett Edge. It was
not long before he in his turn occupied that chair by the bed. He
bore with him an atmosphere of jollity which even the hush of that
sick-room was powerless to dispel. He was not unsympathetic either,
by any means, but he seemed made up of equal parts of kindheartedness
and high spirits, and looked much more like an ideal country squire
than like the ordinary legal adviser. As a matter of fact, he was more
at home on the moor side or in the stubble than among dusty documents
and leather-bound Acts of Parliament. It was his boast that he only
had eight clients, and that he lived on them, and, judging by his
appearance, they furnished uncommonly good living. He had a genial,
hearty way with him which made him a favourite with every man, woman
and child he came across, and he knew quite enough law to fully justify
the confidence of the eight above mentioned.
‘What, Mr Ferrier, still in bed! Why, we thought old Gibson would have
had you on your legs again in no time. I quite expected to see you
driving over to the Wirksvale wakes to-morrow.’
‘I shall never go behind any but the black horses again, Gates. It’s no
use. I’m settled, and I want you to alter my will.’
‘I’ll alter your will with pleasure, if you like. Though I must say
it’s so much more sensible than most people’s wills that I wonder you
want to alter it; but you mustn’t talk of black horses and that sort
of thing for another ten years. Don’t lose heart; you’ll live to alter
your will a score of times yet.’
In an eager, tremulous voice Ferrier begged the other to believe that
his fate was sealed, and that whatever was done must be done quickly.
Then he proceeded to explain the changes he wished to have made in the
will. He told the lawyer, without any of that reserve which ordinarily
characterised him, all his fears about his sons, and then unfolded the
scheme by which he thought to bind the two together. He wished their
worldly interests to be so strongly bound up in their relations to each
other that a quarrel _à outrance_ would mean ruin to both of them; and
to this end he proposed to leave the mill to them jointly, on condition
that they worked it together, and both took an active part in the
management of it. Should they dissolve partnership before twenty-one
years, or should either retire with consent of the other, the personal
property was not to be touched by either, and at end of ten years–if
they were both alive and still separated–the whole was to go to the
Manchester Infirmary.
Mr Gates noted this extraordinary scheme down on the back of an old
letter, and when Mr Ferrier had ended, read his notes through and shook
his head.
‘Far better leave it alone, Mr Ferrier; they seem the best of friends,
and legacies like this never help matters much, anyhow.’
‘I can’t leave it alone, Gates. I’ve very little time left. The will is
in that despatch-box, and there are pen and ink somewhere about.’
‘Do be advised,’ began Gates, his jolly face considerably graver than
usual.
‘I tell you I must have it done, and done at once. I’m deadly tired,
and I want it over.’
Mr Gates shrugged his shoulders, got out the will, and settled himself
at the round table, on whose crimson velvet-pile cloth stood a
_papier-maché_ inkstand, a recent purchase of Miss Letitia’s.
He sat there biting his pen, and making aimless little scribbles on a
sheet of blank paper. After some minutes he leaned forward, and for a
little time no sound was heard but the squeak of his pen. At last he
flung down the quill and rose.
‘It is the only way it can be done, sir,’ he said, and read it out.
It carried out Ferrier’s plans, but placed the personal property
in the hands of trustees, who were to pay to Roland and Richard the
interest thereof so long as they worked the mill together. If at the
end of twenty-one years there had been no dissolution between them, the
money was to pass unconditionally to them, in equal shares, or to the
survivor of them, or to their heirs if they were both dead. If they
quarrelled, the interest was to be allowed to accumulate for ten years,
and then, if the brothers were still not on friendly terms, it should
go, with the capital, to the Infirmary.
‘That’s right,’ said old Richard, in a voice so changed as to convince
the solicitor that he was right in saying he had not much more time to
spend.
The codicil was signed, duly attested, and attached to the will, and
Ferrier lay back exhausted, but with a light of new contentment in his
eyes.
‘I’m right down tired out,’ he said; ‘I shall sleep now.’
And sleep he did till the cold hour of the dawn, when there came a
brief waking interval, before the longest, soundest sleep of all.
He opened his eyes then.
‘It’s nearly over,’ he said; ‘my boys–my boys!’
He called for them both, but it was Dick on whose broad breast the
dying head rested. It was Dick who caught the last loving, whispered
words, felt the last faint hand pressure, soothed the last pang, caught
the last look.
For when Aunt Letitia hurried to their rooms, it was Dick who opened
his door before she reached it, and, fully dressed, sprang to his
father’s bedside.
Roland was in the sound sleep that often follows violent emotion, and
it was hard to rouse him. He came in softly just as his brother laid
gently down on the pillow the worn old face, at rest at last, and
closed the kindly eyes that would never meet Roland’s any more. Never
any more!