“Never mind about that,” he replied with a sigh. “And learn a lesson from all this. I, you see, in an hour of recklessness did a wrong thing; to hide it I had to do further wrong, till it grew to a mountain which fell on me and crushed me. Now, I am the most miserable of men and I might perhaps have been the happiest. I have spoilt my own life by my own folly, weakness, and guilt; and I have lost Paula, who is dearer to me than all the other creatures on earth put together. Yes, Mary, if she had been mine, your poor uncle would have been the most enviable fellow in the world, and he might have been a fine fellow, too, a man of great achievements. But as it is!—Well, what is done cannot be undone! Now go to bed child; you cannot understand it all till you are older.”
“Oh I understand it already and much better perhaps than you suppose,” cried the ten years’ old child. “And if you love Paula so much why should not she love you? You are so handsome, you can do so many things, every one likes you, and Paula would have loved you, too, if only. . . . Will you promise not to be angry with me, and may I say it?”
“Speak out, little simpleton.”
“She cannot owe you any grudge when she knows how dreadfully you are suffering on her account and that you are good at heart, and only that once ever did—you know what. Before you came home, grandfather said a hundred times over what a joy you had been to him all your life through, and now, now. . . . Well, you are my uncle, and I am only a stupid little girl; still, I know that it will be just the same with you as it was with the prodigal son in the Bible. You and grandfather parted in anger. . . .”
“He cursed me,” Orion put in gloomily.
“No, no! For I heard every word he said. He only spoke of your evil deed in those dreadful words and bid you go out of his sight.”
“And what is the difference—Cursed or outcast?”
“Oh! a very great difference! He had good reason to be angry with you; but the prodigal son in the Bible became his father’s best beloved, and he had the fatted calf slain for him and forgave him all; and so will grandfather in heaven forgive, if you are good again, as you used to be to him and to all of us. Paula will forgive you, too; I know her—you will see. Katharina loved you of course; but she, dear Heaven! She is almost as much a child as I am; and if only you are kind to her and make her some pretty present she will soon be comforted. She really deserves to be punished for bearing false witness, and her punishment cannot, at any rate, be so heavy as yours.”
These words from the lips of an innocent child could not but fall like seed corn on the harrowed field of the young man’s tortured soul and refresh it as with morning dew. Long after Mary had gone to rest he lay thinking them over.