SHORTLY after breakfast, at which he assisted with a highly tragical countenance, John sought his father where he sat, presumably in religious meditation, on the Sabbath mornings. The old gentleman looked up with that sour, inquisitive expression that came so near to smiling and was so different in effect.
‘This is a time when I do not like to be disturbed,’ he said.
‘I know that,’ returned John; ‘but I have — I want — I’ve made a dreadful mess of it,’ he broke out, and turned to the window.
Mr. Nicholson sat silent for an appreciable time, while his unhappy son surveyed the poles in the back green, and a certain yellow cat that was perched upon the wall. Despair sat upon John as he gazed; and he raged to think of the dreadful series of his misdeeds, and the essential innocence that lay behind them.
‘Well,’ said the father, with an obvious effort, but in very quiet tones, ‘what is it?’
‘Maclean gave me four hundred pounds to put in the bank, sir,’ began John; ‘and I’m sorry to say that I’ve been robbed of it!’
‘Robbed of it?’ cried Mr. Nicholson, with a strong rising inflection. ‘Robbed? Be careful what you say, John!’
‘I can’t say anything else, sir; I was just robbed of it,’ said John, in desperation, sullenly.
‘And where and when did this extraordinary event take place?’ inquired the father.
‘On the Calton Hill about twelve last night.’
‘The Calton Hill?’ repeated Mr. Nicholson. ‘And what were you doing there at such a time of the night?’
‘Nothing, sir,’ says John.
Mr. Nicholson drew in his breath.
‘And how came the money in your hands at twelve last night?’ he asked, sharply.
‘I neglected that piece of business,’ said John, anticipating comment; and then in his own dialect: ‘I clean forgot all about it.’
‘Well,’ said his father, ‘it’s a most extraordinary story. Have you communicated with the police?’
‘I have,’ answered poor John, the blood leaping to his face. ‘They think they know the men that did it. I dare say the money will be recovered, if that was all,’ said he, with a desperate indifference, which his father set down to levity; but which sprung from the consciousness of worse behind.
‘Your mother’s watch, too?’ asked Mr. Nicholson.
‘Oh, the watch is all right!’ cried John. ‘At least, I mean I was coming to the watch — the fact is, I am ashamed to say, I— I had pawned the watch before. Here is the ticket; they didn’t find that; the watch can be redeemed; they don’t sell pledges.’ The lad panted out these phrases, one after another, like minute guns; but at the last word, which rang in that stately chamber like an oath, his heart failed him utterly; and the dreaded silence settled on father and son.
It was broken by Mr. Nicholson picking up the pawn-ticket: ‘John Froggs, 85 Pleasance,’ he read; and then turning upon John, with a brief flash of passion and disgust, ‘Who is John Froggs?’ he cried.
‘Nobody,’ said John. ‘It was just a name.’
‘An ALIAS,’ his father commented.
‘Oh! I think scarcely quite that,’ said the culprit; ‘it’s a form, they all do it, the man seemed to understand, we had a great deal of fun over the name — ’
He paused at that, for he saw his father wince at the picture like a man physically struck; and again there was silence.
‘I do not think,’ said Mr. Nicholson, at last, ‘that I am an ungenerous father. I have never grudged you money within reason, for any avowable purpose; you had just to come to me and speak. And now I find that you have forgotten all decency and all natural feeling, and actually pawned — pawned — your mother’s watch. You must have had some temptation; I will do you the justice to suppose it was a strong one. What did you want with this money?’
‘I would rather not tell you, sir,’ said John. ‘It will only make you angry.’
‘I will not be fenced with,’ cried his father. ‘There must be an end of disingenuous answers. What did you want with this money?’
‘To lend it to Houston, sir,’ says John.
‘I thought I had forbidden you to speak to that young man?’ asked the father.
‘Yes, sir,’ said John; ‘but I only met him.’
‘Where?’ came the deadly question.
And ‘In a billiard-room’ was the damning answer. Thus, had John’s single departure from the truth brought instant punishment. For no other purpose but to see Alan would he have entered a billiard-room; but he had desired to palliate the fact of his disobedience, and now it appeared that he frequented these disreputable haunts upon his own account.
Once more Mr. Nicholson digested the vile tidings in silence, and when John stole a glance at his father’s countenance, he was abashed to see the marks of suffering.
‘Well,’ said the old gentleman, at last, ‘I cannot pretend not to be simply bowed down. I rose this morning what the world calls a happy man — happy, at least, in a son of whom I thought I could be reasonably proud — ’
But it was beyond human nature to endure this longer, and John interrupted almost with a scream. ‘Oh, wheest!’ he cried, ‘that’s not all, that’s not the worst of it — it’s nothing! How could I tell you were proud of me? Oh! I wish, I wish that I had known; but you always said I was such a disgrace! And the dreadful thing is this: we were all taken up last night, and we have to pay Colette’s fine among the six, or we’ll be had up for evidence — shebeening it is. They made me swear to tell you; but for my part,’ he cried, bursting into tears, ‘I just wish that I was dead!’ And he fell on his knees before a chair and hid his face.
Whether his father spoke, or whether he remained long in the room or at once departed, are points lost to history. A horrid turmoil of mind and body; bursting sobs; broken, vanishing thoughts, now of indignation, now of remorse; broken elementary whiffs of consciousness, of the smell of the horse-hair on the chair bottom, of the jangling of church bells that now began to make day horrible throughout the confines of the city, of the hard floor that bruised his knees, of the taste of tears that found their way into his mouth: for a period of time, the duration of which I cannot guess, while I refuse to dwell longer on its agony, these were the whole of God’s world for John Nicholson.
When at last, as by the touching of a spring, he returned again to clearness of consciousness and even a measure of composure, the bells had but just done ringing, and the Sabbath silence was still marred by the patter of belated feet. By the clock above the fire, as well as by these more speaking signs, the service had not long begun; and the unhappy sinner, if his father had really gone to church, might count on near two hours of only comparative unhappiness. With his father, the superlative degree returned infallibly. He knew it by every shrinking fibre in his body, he knew it by the sudden dizzy whirling of his brain, at the mere thought of that calamity. An hour and a half, perhaps an hour and three-quarters, if the doctor was long-winded, and then would begin again that active agony from which, even in the dull ache of the present, he shrunk as from the bite of fire. He saw, in a vision, the family pew, the somnolent cushions, the Bibles, the psalm-books, Maria with her smelling-salts, his father sitting spectacled and critical; and at once he was struck with indignation, not unjustly. It was inhuman to go off to church, and leave a sinner in suspense, unpunished, unforgiven. And at the very touch of criticism, the paternal sanctity was lessened; yet the paternal terror only grew; and the two strands of feeling pushed him in the same direction.
And suddenly there came upon him a mad fear lest his father should have locked him in. The notion had no ground in sense; it was probably no more than a reminiscence of similar calamities in childhood, for his father’s room had always been the chamber of inquisition and the scene of punishment; but it stuck so rigorously in his mind that he must instantly approach the door and prove its untruth. As he went, he struck upon a drawer left open in the business table. It was the money-drawer, a measure of his father’s disarray: the money-drawer — perhaps a pointing providence! Who is to decide, when even divines differ between a providence and a temptation? or who, sitting calmly under his own vine, is to pass a judgment on the doings of a poor, hunted dog, slavishly afraid, slavishly rebellious, like John Nicholson on that particular Sunday? His hand was in the drawer, almost before his mind had conceived the hope; and rising to his new situation, he wrote, sitting in his father’s chair and using his father’s blotting-pad, his pitiful apology and farewell:—
‘MY DEAR FATHER, — I have taken the money, but I will pay it back as soon as I am able. You will never hear of me again. I did not mean any harm by anything, so I hope you will try and forgive me. I wish you would say good-bye to Alexander and Maria, but not if you don’t want to. I could not wait to see you, really. Please try to forgive me. Your affectionate son,
The coins abstracted and the missive written, he could not be gone too soon from the scene of these transgressions; and remembering how his father had once returned from church, on some slight illness, in the middle of the second psalm, he durst not even make a packet of a change of clothes. Attired as he was, he slipped from the paternal doors, and found himself in the cool spring air, the thin spring sunshine, and the great Sabbath quiet of the city, which was now only pointed by the cawing of the rooks. There was not a soul in Randolph Crescent, nor a soul in Queensferry Street; in this outdoor privacy and the sense of escape, John took heart again; and with a pathetic sense of leave-taking, he even ventured up the lane and stood awhile, a strange peri at the gates of a quaint paradise, by the west end of St. George’s Church. They were singing within; and by a strange chance, the tune was ‘St. George’s, Edinburgh,’ which bears the name, and was first sung in the choir of that church. ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ went the voices from within; and, to John, this was like the end of all Christian observances, for he was now to be a wild man like Ishmael, and his life was to be cast in homeless places and with godless people.
It was thus, with no rising sense of the adventurous, but in mere desolation and despair, that he turned his back on his native city, and set out on foot for California, with a more immediate eye to Glasgow.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00