Not going to make any Thanksgiving this year?" Deacon Comstock's face expressed the utmost astonishment of which it was capable. He had come in from doing his morning "chores," and found his wife sitting down with her knitting, on this, the day before Thanksgiving, the day which should, according to all precedent, have been the busiest in the year.
"Want any help, mother?" he had said cheerfully.
And then came a sud den burst of tears that quite startled him; for Mrs. Comstock was not one of the crying kind of women, and she said, amid her sobs, that she wasn't going to make any Thanksgiving this year—why should she? What had she to be thankful for?
Deacon Comstock understood her well enough for all the astonishment in his face and his voice. God's hand had been laid upon them this year, heavily. Three years before, their only son, a reckless, roistering lad, in whom there was less of actual harm than of merry mischief and impatience of restraint, had run away from his sober, Puritanical home, and gone to sea. They had never heard of him since. They knew not whether the deep sea held him or under what strange skies he sailed, or what far-off shores he roamed.
This blow had been hard to bear, but Deacon John Comstock and his wife called themselves Christians, and they tried to submit their hearts in patience. And when Thanksgiving time came and they missed merry Jack so sorely, his sister, their only daughter, had brought home to comfort them in Jack's stead, her first baby, a little rosy boy, just old enough to laugh up in their faces, and hold out chubby arms to go from one to the other.
Two more Thanksgiving times had come and gone since then, and that child had been their consolation. His baby kisses had soothed away their heartache. With him and his father and mother to welcome, there had been something for which to make Thanksgiving.
But neither baby Joe nor his fair young mother would ever again come smiling home. There had been a few days of terrible illness, and then in the summer twilight the boy had laid his golden head on his mother's breast, and her arms had folded round him; and so the watchers coming in had found them, lying as if asleep.
They had been brought back to the old homestead, and buried in one grave; and then Martha's husband had gone away to seek solace among strange scenes. He was young and strong, and for him time might bring comfort; but a bitterer woe, for which change of scene would have offered no balm, settled down upon the stricken parents. The mother, especially, mourned night and day with an agony that would not be comforted. She said nothing, but you could read her mutinous misery in the thin, wasting form, the eyes that solitary weeping had dimmed, and the hair turning white so fast. Now, at last, she had begun to speak. Words—bitter, rebellious words—came hotly:
"God has not been merciful, John. To thank Him would be a mockery. I lost Jack, and I bore it, and thought that in some unknown way it must be meant for good. But I had Martha then, and little Joe, and now they too are gone. Shall I make a feast for the dead to cat? Whom have we left among the living?"
"And yet, mother, let us make the feast; for five and twenty years we have not failed to keep this festival together. Let us not pass it over now with thankless hearts, and it may be that the guests will come. I, too, have mourned for our children, but I see the Father's mercy yet, for He has left me you, my dearest."
He stopped, and his hand rested on his wife's shoulder with a tender touch. His words had pierced through her sullen sorrow, her numb despair, right to the core of her heart. His dearest! Was not he that to her, also; and with him by her side, had she dared to say she had nothing for which to be thankful? What if he, too, had been taken? She looked at him with eyes in whose loving depths he never missed the girlish brightness, and said, with a new sweetness in her quivering voice:
"I have sinned, John. God has been merciful in sparing you. I have yet something for which to keep Thanksgiving. We will make our feast as usual. If no guests come, we can send of our abundance to the poor and the needy, and we will partake together of heaven's bounty with thankful heart—we two—as we used to do in those first years before the children came."
All the rest of that day there was no lack of stir and bustle in Deacon Conistock's house. The mistress omitting nothing of the usual Thanksgiving preparations. She made the pies, the plum pudding, the delicate cakes and jellies—every trifle that Jack or Martha had loved she took pleasure in preparing, as a sort of memorial offering. So busied, the day that she had meant to make one of gloomy, selfish, thankless indulgence in her sorrow, passed quickly; and at night, tired though she was, her face bore a look at once brighter and more peaceful than her husband had seen on it since Martha and her baby had gone to sleep in the summer twilight.
Through the evening they sat and talked together—peaceful, tender talk about the dead and about those long absent. Especially they spoke of Jack, of his merry, boyishways, of his loving heart, of his courage and his truth. All that was noblest in him seemed to live again in their memories. They forgot how willful, and obstinate, and hard to rule he was, and only remembered him at his best.
"My mind misgives me often, mother, lest we were too hard on the boy," the deacon said at last. "I think we drew the reins too tight, and his mettle was too high to stand it. And now no one knows what his fate will be!"
"Yes, God knows," the wife answered softly, Since morning, convinced anew of God's mercy to herself, her faith seemed somehow to have grown. "God is as near to him, John, as to us, on the sea as well as on the land. We shall see the boy again—if not here, there, where there is no sea. It is borne in upon my mind that the Lord will hear our prayers, and that when we walk in His heaven, we shall not miss the face of our boy."
And then hand in hand they knelt and prayed for their wanderer, for all wanderers, for all sorrow-stricken and lonely souls, for all those who grope in the darkness of this world—prayed that the celestial morning might break for them by and by, and the tired feet rest safely where wait the many mansions.
The snow had begun falling with the twilight. The rambling country village was still. Under every home roof the loved ones weregathered in, sheltered from storm, and cold, and care, waiting for the morrow. There seemed something ominous in the very stillness to a traveler who walked along the highway. He had stopped at a railway station two miles off, whither he had come on a late train, and he was now making his way on foot, through the softly falling snow, over paths that seemed to be familiar to him. It made him think of cerements folded above the dead—this white, still-falling snow that was covering the cold, frozen shape of hills and valleys.
A fear stole into his heart and chilled the blood in his veins—a superstitious fear, perhaps, born of the night stillness, the gleaming snow, the darkness through which all objects loomed ghostly and uncertain as phantoms. He turned aside from the highway and walked rapidly through a lane into a little country graveyard and on among the graves, until he reached the farthest corner, and stood under a great, heavily drooping willow, in a lot set apart from the rest by an iron railing.
Then he stood and counted the gravestones—grandfather and grandmother, two uncles, the tiny slab with his baby sister's name, the sister whom he could just remember as a blue-eyed wonder, with golden curls and lips as bright as red berries—all those he knew; but whose was that other stone, which was not there when last he stood under that willow? He brushed away the snow with his hand, and felt for the inscription that it was too dark to see. But his fingers were almost stiffened with the cold, and he could only be sure of the first letter, a capital M.
His fears sprang up to the stature of convictions—it was the initial letter of hi s rn other's name. This, then, was the work these years had wrought—the home he was coming to was one where no mother's face would smile, no mother's voice would welcome him. And if his going away had killed her, what hope was there that his father would ever forgive him? Mighthe not as well go back in the night and the storm, and carry his sorrow with him—vanish, as he had come, in the darkness, making no sign? For a moment, standing irresolute among those graves, under that willow, he argued the question with himself; and then it seemed to him that a voice he used to know and love called him, as one might call a lost child through the darkness:
"Come home, boy, come home!"
He hesitated no longer, but walked on swiftly through the falling snow, until he stood before Deacon John Comstock's door, and lifted the ponderous knocker with a hand that trembled despite the brave courage of his young manhood. He drew his soft hat close over his eyes, and wrapped his coat around him with its collar turned up so that only a straight nose and a bit of brown beard were in sight when the deacon opened the door.
"It is storming," he said. "Can you give me shelter?"
It was not the boyish voice that used to ring so merrily in Martha Comstock's ears; it was fuller, deeper than that other voice, and less smooth, but there was something in it which made her heart beat chokingly. Then the stranger crossed the threshold, and the light fell on the little of his face that was in sight. She had kissed a beardless boy the last time she bade merry Jack good night; but no change of voice, no bronze or beard deceived the mother's heart.
"Our Father has sent the guest!" she cried. "Oh, John, He has sent the guest!" as she sprang forward and took her own boy, snow and all, into her close, trembling arms. "My boy! my own boy Jack!" sang the voice he had longed to hear. He was indeed home.