“The Wanderer’s Return,” by M. W. D. (from Youth’s Companion, 22 November 1849; p. 117)
An old man was wending his way along the road to L. His locks were grey, his step slow and feeble, and every few moments he would pause, as if to take breath, and then slowly resume his walk. There was something noble in the old man’s features, as though Nature had stamped the impress of an honorable soul, which time and age could not efface. The traveller’s dress was very plain, and now so covered with dust, that it would be difficult to describe the color, which was originally black! The village of L., situated in the midst of high hills, at length appeared in sight, and the traveller seated himself in the shade of a large tree, upon a bank, which overlooked the village. There he shades his face with his hand, and for a long time, gazed upon the scene, once so familiar to his eye. Then the memory of other days came rushing over him, and the flood-gates of his soul were opened. Deep must be the grief to draw tears from the eye of age. In childhood and youth, trifling griefs cause tears; but they are dried as soon as shed. But, when an old man weeps, there must be some deep sorrow at work in his innermost heart. Such were the feelings of him who now wept. This was his native village. These scenes were the scenes of his boyhood. Now he had returned to them, and where were those whom forty years before, he had left in health and prosperity. Gone, gone forevever. His father, his mother, brother and sisters, all gone, save one, and she the youngest of the family, alone remained, to welcome back the wanderer.
Thoughts such as these were revolving in the old man’s heart, and caused the eye long a stranger to tears, to overflow. Not long however, did he indulge his grief. Rising from that bank he seized his trusty staff, and commenced descending the hill, at whose foot lay the village. As he passed by, many a curious look was cast upon the stranger; but no friendly greeting, no friendly clasp of the hand hailed his return. All had forgotten him. Even the few old men, like himself, looked upon him with cold eyes, as if they had not been his playmate in boyhood. Was it for this he had crossed the ocean, and travelled so many weary miles? Was this the welcome he had so longed for from his old friends? Yes, this was all; and, more desolate than when travelling in India, or in the desert; the old man passed on, till he came to a small house, half hid by clustering woodbine and honey-suckle. With trembling hand he opened the wicker gate. With trembling hand he knocked at the door of that low roofed cottage, his boyhood’s home.
The knock was answered by the appearance of a young girl, who looked with startled surprise at the stranger, as he asked her who lived in the cottage. The child answered, “my mother and myself, sir. There is no one else here.”
“What is your mother’s name, my child?” asked her strange questioner.
“Mary Elwood,” was the girl’s reply, who wondered why the man wished to know, and what was the object of all these questions.
“Was her name once Mary Reed,” asked again the stranger.
At this moment a voice was heard from an inner room, saying, “Ask the gentleman in, Mary, if he wishes to speak with me.”
Without waiting for farther invitation, the old man entered the room where was seated a middle aged woman, who laid aside her sewing, as he entered, and handed him a chair, saying at the same time:
“You asked my daughter if Mary Reed was my maiden name. It was. But may I ask why you are interested to know.”
A flush of intense emotion lighted up the pale features of the stranger, and he started as if about to rise from his chair. Then, as though some new resolution enabled him to suppress his feelings, he said:
“I once knew your father very well, and I wished to see his daughter, if she were living. There are so few left to remind me of those I loved, that I take every opportunity to see those few.”
“You are indeed welcome to my house, sir, if you once knew and loved my excellent father. Though poor myself, I have enough for my wants, and to enable me to live here with my child. As long as you will stay with us, and take rest after your fatigue, it will give us great pleasure. My father’s friend should not go to a public house for rest and refreshment.” Then, turning to her daughter, she said: “You may lay the table, my child, for travelling sharpens the appetite, and our friend needs refreshment.”
While Mary was spreading a snow white cloth upon the oaken table, and preparing for the meal, Mrs. Elwood took the hat and cane of their aged guest, and, after assisting him to remove the dust of his journey, resumed her sewing.
“Did your father leave any property, Mrs. Elwood,” asked the stranger, who wished to ascertain his sister’s circumstances, before making himself known to her.
“He did not, sir. This house, the furniture, the farm, all was sacrificed to his creditors, for he had incurred heavy debts during his last illness. Still I was allowed to retain the house by the creditors, on the payment of a moderate rent. My husband’s long illness made it very difficult for me to support the family; but, by the aid of friends, and my own exertions, I often earned sufficient to afford him some comforts, though I often felt discouraged at the thoughts of the future. Providence has aided me since my husband’s death, to support this fatherless child and myself. I have much to be grateful for, much to make me happy, and it is only the thought of those who are gone, that sometimes makes me sad.”
The old man turned away, that she might not see him weep. But in vain. He could no longer suppress his agitation, and in a voice broken with emotion, he said:
“Do you not remember when you were very young, that you had a brother James, a wild boy, who left your father’s house, never to return, as he then said?”
Mrs. Elwood started and exclaimed, “Can you tell me anything of my brother James. Oh, if you can, if he is alive, tell me where I may find him, and I will go anywhere, make any sacrifices, to find him and bring him home?”
“There is no need of that, my sister; your brother James is before you.”
If the old man’s heart had pined for a welcome home, he was now satisfied. The mother and the daughter gave him such assurance of their love, as comforted the wanderer after his long exile. He had returned a wealthy man, and Mrs. Elwood was no longer obliged to earn her own livelihood. Her brother built a noble mansion for his beloved sister and niece, and his declining years were rendered happy by the kind attentions and fond care of Mary Elwood and her mother.