It is in the nature of things that Henry should begin to appreciate the services of his home to his development at the moment when he was leaving it. And the mere pang of the parting from it, when one day the hour for parting had surely come, was much more deep and complicated than he could have dreamed. As in our bodies we become conscious of certain vital centres, certain dependencies of relation and harmony, only when they have suffered shock, so often in life we may go along unconscious of the vital dependencies of our human relationships, till the moment comes to strain or sever them. Then a thousand hidden nerves quiver at the discovering touch of the knife. Henry’s leaving home, though it had been originally the suggestion of violent feeling, was not to be an actual severance. His father’s “leave my house for ever” had owed something to the rhetoric of anger, and the expulsion and cutting off which it had implied had since been so softened as practically to have disappeared. Henry was certainly not leaving his father’s house for ever, but merely going into lodgings with a friend, with full privileges to visit his own home as often as he chose.
Still, he was, all the same, leaving home, and he was the first to leave it. The mother, at all events, knew that this was the beginning of the end, knew that, with her first-born’s departure (desertion, she may have called it), a new era had commenced for the home,—the era of disintegration. For twenty years and more it had been all building and building; now it would be all just pulling down again; and there was a dreary sound as of demolition and wind-driven rain in her ears.
Oh, tragic love of mothers! Of no love is the final loss and doom so inevitably destined. The husband may desert the wife, but the son is sure to desert his mother—must, for nature demands the desertion. Put not your trust in princes—and yet put it rather in princes, oh, fond and doting parents, than in the blue-eyed flower of childhood for which year after year, with labours infinite, you would buy all the sunshine of the world.
Henry’s pang at leaving home was mainly the pang of parting with his mother. It seemed more than a mere physical parting. It was his childhood that was parting from her for ever. When he came to see them he would be something different,—a man, an independent being. As long ago physically, now spiritually, the umbilical cord had been cut.
With Esther and Dot and Mat the parting was hardly a parting, as it was rather a promise of their all meeting together some day in a new place of freedom, which there was a sense of his going out to prepare for them. Their way would be his way, as the mother’s could not; for theirs was the highway of youth, which, sooner or later, they would all take together, singing in the morning sun.
The three younger sisters, the as yet unopened buds of the family flower, took Henry’s departure with the surface tears and the central indifference of childhood. When a family is so large, it practically includes two generations in itself; and these three girls were really to prove a generation so different in characteristics from their four elders as to demand a separate chronicle to themselves.