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 his 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:
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