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Chapter 69
IN coming to the conclusion that he would sever the connection between himself and his family once for all Ernest had reckoned without his family. Theobald wanted to be rid of his son, it is true, in so far as he wished him to be no nearer at any rate than the Antipodes; but he had no idea of entirely breaking with him. He knew his son well enough to have a pretty shrewd idea that this was what Ernest would wish himself, and perhaps as much for this reason as for any other he was determined to keep up the connection, provided it did not involve Ernest’s coming to Battersby nor any recurring outlay.

When the time approached for him to leave prison, his father and mother consulted as to what course they should adopt.

“We must never leave him to himself,” said Theobald impressively; “we can neither of us wish that.”

“Oh, no! no! dearest Theobald,” exclaimed Christina. “Whoever else deserts him, and however distant he may be from us, he must still feel that he has parents whose hearts beat with affection for him no matter how cruelly he has pained them.”

“He has been his own worst enemy,” said Theobald. “He has never loved us as we deserved, and now he will be withheld by false shame from wishing to see us. He will avoid us if he can.”

“Then we must go to him ourselves,” said Christina; “whether he likes it or not we must be at his side to support him as he enters again upon the world.”

“If we do not want him to give us the slip we must catch him as he leaves prison.”

“We will, we will; our faces shall be the first to gladden his eyes as he comes out, and our voices the first to exhort him to return to the paths of virtue.”

“I think,” said Theobald, “if he sees us in the street he will turn round and run away from us. He is intensely selfish.”

“Then we must get leave to go inside the prison, and see him before he gets outside.”

After a good deal of discussion this was the plan they decided on adopting, and having so decided, Theobald wrote to the governor of the gaol asking whether he could be admitted inside the gaol to receive Ernest when his sentence had expired. He received answer in the affirmative, and the pair left Battersby the day before Ernest was to come out of prison.

Ernest had not reckoned on this, and was rather surprised on being told a few minutes before nine that he was to go into the receiving room before he left the prison, as there were visitors waiting to see him. His heart fell, for he guessed who they were, but he screwed up his courage and hastened to the receiving room. There, sure enough, standing at the end of the table nearest the door were the two people whom he regarded as the most dangerous enemies he had in all the world — his father and mother.

He could not fly, but he knew that if he wavered he was lost.

His mother was crying, but she sprang forward to meet him and clasped him in her arms. “Oh, my boy, my boy,” she sobbed, and she could say no more.

Ernest was as white as a sheet. His heart beat so that he could hardly breathe. He let his mother embrace him, and then withdrawing himself stood silently before her with the tears falling from his eyes.

At first he could not speak. For a minute or so the silence on all sides was complete. Then, gathering strength, he said in a low voice:

“Mother” (it was the first time he had called her anything but (”mamma”), “we must part.” On this, turning to the warder, he said: “I believe I am free to leave the prison if I wish to do so. You cannot compel me to remain here longer. Please take me to the gates.”

Theobald stepped forward. “Ernest, you must not, shall not, leave us in this way.”

“Do not speak to me,” said Ernest, his eyes flashing with a fire that was unwonted in them. Another warder then came up and took Theobald aside, while the first conducted Ernest to the gates.

“Tell them,” said Ernest, “from me that they must think of me as one dead, for I am dead to them. Say that my greatest pain is the thought of the disgrace I have inflicted upon them, and that above all things else I will study to avoid paining them hereafter; but say also that if they write to me I will return their letters unopened, and that if they come and see me I will protect myself in whatever way I can.”

By this time he was at the prison gate, and in another moment was at liberty. After he had got a few steps out he turned his face to the prison wall, leant against it for support, and wept as though his heart would break.

Giving up father and mother for Christ’s sake was not such an easy matter after all. If a man has been possessed by devils for long enough they will rend him as they leave him, however imperatively they may have been cast out. Ernest did not stay long where he was, for he feared each moment that his father and mother would come out. He pulled himself together and turned into the labyrinth of small streets which opened out in front of him.

He had crossed his Rubicon — not perhaps very heroically or dramatically, but then it is only in dramas that people act dramatically. At any rate, by hook or by crook, he had scrambled over, and was out upon the other side. Already he t............
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