MR. THOMPSON'S PRODIGAL
by Bret Harte
We all knew that Mr. Thompson was looking for his son, and
a pretty bad one at that. That he was coming to California
for this sole object was no secret to his fellow-passengers;
and the physical peculiarities, as well as the moral weaknesses,
of the missing prodigal, were made equally plain to us through
the frank volubility of the parent.
"You was speaking of a young man which was hung at Red Dog for
sluice-robbing," said Mr. Thompson to a steerage-passenger, one
day; "be you aware of the color of his eyes?"
"Black," responded the passenger.
"Ah," said Mr. Thompson, referring to some mental memoranda,
"Char-les' eyes was blue."
He then walked away. Perhaps it was from this unsympathetic
mode of inquiry, perhaps it was from that Western predilection
to take a humorous view of any principle or sentiment persistently
brought before them, that Mr. Thompson's quest was the subject
of some satire among the passengers. A gratuitous advertisement
of the missing Charles, addressed to "Jailers and Guardians,"
circulated privately among them; everybody remembered to have
met Charles under distressing circumstances. Yet it is but due
to my countrymen to state that when it was known that Thompson
had embarked some wealth in this visionary project, but little of
this satire found its way to his ears, and nothing was uttered
in his hearing that might bring a pang to a father's heart, or
imperil a possible pecuniary advantage of the satirist. Indeed,
Mr. Bracey Tibbets' jocular proposition to form a joint-stock
company to "prospect" for the missing youth, received at one
time quite serious entertainment.
Perhaps to superficial criticism Mr. Thompson's nature was
not picturesque nor lovable. His history, as imparted at
dinner one day by himself, was practical even in its
singularity. After a hard and wilful youth and maturity--in
which he had buried a broken-spirited wife, and driven his
son to sea--he suddenly experienced religion.
"I got it in New Orleans in '59," said Mr. Thompson, with
the general suggestion of referring to an epidemic. "Enter
ye the narrer gate. Parse me the beans."
Perhaps this practical quality upheld him in his apparently
hopeless search. He had no clue to the whereabouts of his
runaway son--indeed, scarcely a proof of his present existence.
From his indifferent recollection of the boy of twelve, he
now expected to identify the man of twenty-five.
It would seem that he was successful. How he succeeded was
one of the few things he did not tell. There are, I believe,
two versions of the story. One, that Mr. Thompson, visiting
a hospital, discovered his son by reason of a peculiar hymn,
chanted by the sufferer, in a delirious dream of his boyhood.
This version, giving as it did wide range to the finer
feelings of the heart, was quite popular; and as told by
the Rev. Mr. Gushington, on his return from his California
tour, never failed to satisfy an audience. The other was
less simple, and as I shall adopt it here, deserves more
It was after Mr. Thompson had given up searching for his
son among the living, and had taken to the examination of
cemeteries, and a careful inspection of the "cold hic jacets
of the dead." At this time he was a frequent visitor of
"Lone Mountain"--a dreary hill-top, bleak enough in its
original isolation, and bleaker for the white-faced marbles
by which San Francisco anchored her departed citizens, and
kept them down in a shifting sand that refused to cover
them, and against a fierce and persistent wind that strove
to blow them utterly away. Against this wind the old man
opposed a will quite as persistent--a grizzled, hard face,
and a tall, crape-bound hat drawn tightly over his eyes--and
so spent days in reading the mortuary inscriptions audibly
to himself. The frequency of scriptural quotation pleased
him, and he was fond of corroborating them by a pocket Bible.
"That's from Psalms," he said, one day, to an adjacent
The man made no reply.
Not at all rebuffed, Mr. Thompson at once slid down into
the open grave, with a more practical inquiry: "Did you
ever, in your profession, come across Char-les Thompson?"
"Thompson be d----d!" said the grave-digger, with great
"Which, if he hadn't religion, I think he is," responded
the old man, as he clambered out of the grave.
It was, perhaps, on this occasion that Mr. Thompson stayed
later than usual. As he turned his face towards the city,
lights were beginning to twinkle ahead, and a fierce wind,
made visible by fog, drove him forward, or, lying in wait,
charged him angrily from the corners of deserted suburban
streets. It was on one of these corners that something else,
quite as indistinct and malevolent, leaped upon him with an
oath, a presented pistol, and a demand for money. But it was
met by a will of iron and a grip of steel. The assailant and
assailed rolled together on the ground. But the next moment
the old man was erect; one hand grasping the captured pistol,
the other clutching at arm's length the throat of a figure,
surly, youthful, and savage.
"Young man," said Mr. Thompson, setting his thin lips together,
"what might be your name?"
The old man's hand slid from the throat to the arm of his
prisoner, without relaxing its firmness.
"Char-les Thompson, come with me," he said, presently, and
marched his captive to the hotel. What took place there has
not transpired, but it was known the next morning that
Mr. Thompson had found his son.
It is proper to add to the above improbable story, that
there was nothing in the young man's appearance or manners
to justify it. Grave, reticent, and handsome, devoted to
his newly found parent, he assumed the emoluments and
responsibilities of his new condition with a certain serious
ease that more nearly approached that which San Francisco
society lacked, and--rejected. Some chose to despise this
quality as a tendency to "psalm-singing;" others saw in it
the inherited qualities of the parent, and were ready to
prophesy for the son the same hard old age. But all agreed
that it was not inconsistent with the habits of money-getting,
for which father and son were respected.
And yet the old man did not seem to be happy. Perhaps it
was that the consummation of his wishes left him without a
practical mission; perhaps--and it is the more probable--he
had little love for the son he had regained. The obedience
he exacted was freely given, the reform he had set his heart
upon was complete; and yet, somehow, it did not seem to please
him. In reclaiming his son, he had fulfilled all the requirements
that his religious duty required of him, and yet the act seemed
to lack sanctification. In this perplexity he read again the
parable of the Prodigal Son--which he had long adopted for his
guidance--and found that he had omitted the final feast of
reconciliation. This seemed to offer the proper quality of
ceremoniousness in the sacrament between himself and his son;
and so, a year after the appearance of Charles, he set about
giving him a party.
"Invite everybody, Char-les," he said, dryly; "everybody
who knows that I brought you out of the wine-husks of
iniquity, and the company of harlots; and bid them eat,
drink, and be merry."
Perhaps the old man had another reason, not yet clearly
analyzed. The fine house he had built on the sand-hills
sometimes seemed lonely and bare. He often found himself
trying to reconstruct, from the grave features of Charles,
the little boy whom he but dimly remembered in the past,
and of which lately he had been thinking a great deal. He
believed this to be a sign of impending old age and childishness;
but coming, one day, in his formal drawing-room, upon a child
of one of the servants, who had strayed therein, he would
have taken him in his arms, but the child fled from before
his grizzled face. So that it seemed eminently proper to
invite a number of people to his house, and, from the array
of San Francisco maidenhood, to select a daughter-in-law. And
then there would be a child--a boy, whom he could "rare up"
from the beginning, and--love--as he did not love Charles.
We were all at the party. The Smiths, Joneses, Browns, and
Robinsons also came, in that fine flow of animal spirits,
unchecked by any respect for the entertainer, which most
of us are apt to find so fascinating. The proceedings would
have been somewhat riotous, but for the social position of
the actors. In fact, Mr. Bracey Tibbets, having naturally
a fine appreciation of a humorous situation, but further
impelled by the bright eyes of the Jones girls, conducted
himself so remarkably as to attract the serious regard of
Mr. Charles Thompson, who approached him, saying quietly:
"You look ill, Mr. Tibbets; let me conduct you to your
carriage. Resist, you hound, and I'll throw you through
that window. This way, please; the room is close and
distressing." It is hardly necessary to say that but a
part of this speech was audible to the company, and that
the rest was not divulged by Mr. Tibbets, who afterwards
regretted the sudden illness which kept him from witnessing
a certain amusing incident, which the fastest Miss Jones
characterized as the "richest part of the blow-out," and
which I hasten to record:
It was at supper. It was evident that Mr. Thompson had
overlooked much lawlessness in the conduct of the younger
people, in his abstract contemplation of some impending
event. When the cloth was removed, he rose to his feet,
and grimly tapped upon the table. A titter, that broke
out among the Jones girls, became epidemic on one side
of the board. Charles Thompson, from the foot of the table,
looked up in tender perplexity. "He's going to sing a
Doxology"--"He's going to pray"--"Silence for a speech,"
ran round the room.
"It's one year to-day, Christian brothers and sisters,"
said Mr. Thompson, with grim deliberation, "one year
to-day since my son came home from eating of wine-husks
and spending of his substance on harlots." (The tittering
suddenly ceased.) "Look at him now. Char-les Thompson,
stand up." (Charles Thompson stood up.) "One year ago
to-day--and look at him now."
He was certainly a handsome prodigal, standing there in
his cheerful evening-dress--a repentant prodigal, with
sad, obedient eyes turned upon the harsh and unsympathetic
glance of his father. The youngest Miss Smith, from the
pure depths of her foolish little heart, moved unconsciously
"It's fifteen years ago since he left my house," said
Mr. Thompson, "a rovier and a prodigal. I was myself a
man of sin, O Christian friends--a man of wrath and
bitterness"--("Amen," from the eldest Miss Smith)--"but,
praise be to God, I've fled the wrath to come. It's five
years ago since I got the peace that passeth understanding.
Have you got it, friends?" (A general sub-chorus of "No,
no," from the girls, and "Pass the word for it," from
Midshipman Coxe, of the U. S. sloop Wethersfield.) "Knock,
and it shall be opened to you.
"And when I found the error of my ways, and the preciousness
of grace," continued Mr. Thompson, "I came to give it to
my son. By sea and land I sought him far, and fainted not.
I did not wait for him to come to me--which the same I might
have done, and justified myself by the Book of books, but
I sought him out among his husks, and--" (the rest of the
sentence was lost in the rustling withdrawal of the ladies).
"Works, Christian friends, is my motto. By their works shall
ye know them, and there is mine."
The particular and accepted work to which Mr. Thompson was
alluding had turned quite pale, and was looking fixedly
toward an open door leading to the veranda, lately filled
by gaping servants, and now the scene of some vague tumult.
As the noise continued, a man, shabbily dressed, and
evidently in liquor, broke through the opposing guardians,
and staggered into the room. The transition from the fog
and darkness without to the glare and heat within, evidently
dazzled and stupefied him. He removed his battered hat, and
passed it once or twice before his eyes, as he steadied
himself, but unsuccessfully, by the back of a chair. Suddenly,
his wandering glance fell upon the pale face of Charles
Thompson; and with a gleam of childlike recognition, and a
weak, falsetto laugh, he darted forward, caught at the table,
upset the glasses, and literally fell upon the prodigal's
"Sha'ly! yo' d----d ol' scoun'rel, hoo rar ye!"
"Hush!--sit down!--hush!" said Charles Thompson, hurriedly
endeavoring to extricate himself from the embrace of his
"Look at 'm!" continued the stranger, unheeding the admonition,
but suddenly holding the unfortunate Charles at arm's length,
in loving and undisguised admiration of his festive appearance.
"Look at 'm! Ain't he nasty? Sha'ls, I'm prow of yer!"
"Leave the house!" said Mr. Thompson, rising, with a dangerous
look in his cold, gray eye. "Char-les, how dare you?"
"Simmer down, ole man! Sha'ls, who's th' ol' bloat? Eh?"
"Hush, man; here, take this!" With nervous hands, Charles
Thompson filled a glass with liquor. "Drink it and go--until
to-morrow--any time, but--leave us!--go now!" But even then,
ere the miserable wretch could drink, the old man, pale with
passion, was upon him. Half carrying him in his powerful arms,
half dragging him through the circling crowd of frightened
guests, he had reached the door, swung open by the waiting
servants, when Charles Thompson started from a seeming stupor,
The old man stopped. Through the open door the fog and wind
drove chilly. "What does this mean?" he asked, turning a
baleful face on Charles.
"Nothing--but stop--for God's sake. Wait till to-morrow,
but not to-night. Do not--I implore you--do this thing."
There was something in the tone of the young man's
voice--something, perhaps, in the contact of the
struggling wretch he held in his powerful arms; but
a dim, indefinite fear took possession of the old
man's heart. "Who," he whispered, hoarsely, "is this
Charles did not answer.
"Stand back, there, all of you," thundered Mr. Thompson,
to the crowding guests around him. "Char-les--come here!
I command you--I--I--I--beg you--tell me who is this
Only two persons heard the answer that came faintly from
the lips of Charles Thompson:
When the day broke over the bleak sand-hills, the guests had
departed from Mr. Thompson's banquet-halls. The lights still
burned dimly and coldly in the deserted rooms--deserted by
all but three figures, that huddled together in the chill
drawing-room, as if for warmth. One lay in drunken slumber
on a couch; at his feet sat he who had been known as Charles
Thompson; and beside them, haggard and shrunken to half his
size, bowed the figure of Mr. Thompson, his gray eye fixed,
his elbows upon his knees, and his hands clasped over his
ears, as if to shut out the sad, entreating voice that
seemed to fill the room.
"God knows I did not set about to wilfully deceive. The
name I gave that night was the first that came into my
thought--the name of one whom I thought dead--the
dissolute companion of my shame. And when you questioned
further, I used the knowledge that I gained from him to
touch your heart to set me free--only, I swear, for that!
But when you told me who you were, and I first saw the
opening of another life before me--then--then--O, sir,
if I was hungry, homeless, and reckless, when I would
have robbed you of your gold, I was heart-sick, helpless,
and desperate when I would have robbed you of your love."
The old man stirred not. From his luxurious couch the
newly found prodigal snored peacefully.
"I had no father I could claim. I never knew a home but
this. I was tempted. I have been happy--very happy."
He rose and stood before the old man.
"Do not fear that I shall come between your son and his
inheritance. To-day I leave this place, never to return.
The world is large, sir, and, thanks to your kindness, I
now see the way by which an honest livelihood is gained.
Good-bye. You will not take my hand? Well, well. Good-bye."
He turned to go. But when he had reached the door he
suddenly came back, and, raising with both hands the
grizzled head, he kissed it once and twice.
There was no reply.
The old man rose with a frightened air, and tottered
feebly to the door. It was open. There came to him the
awakened tumult of a great city, in which the prodigal's
footsteps were lost forever.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~