My Mother’s Prayers Have Followed Me
You may not believe in prayer. You may not believe that prayer is answered. Maybe, you have not learned how to pray.
This is the record of prayers that were offered apparently in vain, that fell back, month after month, upon the lips that uttered them, until at the last— but let me give you the curious facts in the life of Jack Norton, the prodigal, in the order in which they led up to the great crisis of his career.
Jack was a fairly decent sort of a young fellow, for the only son of fond and doting parents, who expected him to go through life on ball bearings.
Following his graduation from the local High School, they sent him, after many consultations and arguments to one of the largest Eastern colleges.
It wasn’t long before Jack began picking up more things on the side than he found in the college curriculum. He was just a big, overgrown, spoiled boy, and he looked on the new world around him as a boy— not as a man.
One of the closest friends that he found at the university was a youth of about his own age, by the name of Dick Randolph. But there the resemblance ceased. Dick’s father owned three or four hundred miles of railroads, and Dick tried to make the world believe that he was the original Kid Broadway.
Under his supervision Jack became more familiar with poker chips, and cocktails, and musical comedy actresses than with Greek and Latin verbs, or Trigonometry. And his education progressed amazingly along those lines.
When he finally returned to Homeburg, with his sheepskin in his pocket, and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he was already beginning to feel a man of the world, and had his future painted in bright and glowing colors.
His father’s ambition had been to add the words
And Son to the partnership sign over at the paint factory that he had started forty years ago in one room, and he had confidently expected Jack to become one of the solid business men of the community.
The boy’s family, and a girl in the next block, by the name of Mary Bradford, who had kept Jack’s picture on the bureau in her bed room ever since the summer before he went away to college, had the same ideas about his business career. But he promptly showed them all that he had other plans.
This is no place for me, he confided to his father.
I’m going to New York, where a man of my talents has a proper chance I think I’ll be an architect. So if you’ll let me have what is coming to me I’ll use it to start at my new career. Take it from me— before long you won’t know your son!
His father glanced at Jack’s college-boy hat, and rainbow shirt, and white trousers, flirting with a lavender expanse of silk socks, and shook his head, but he finally gave in and drew a check for ten thousand to start his son and heir in the battle with the world.
I won’t give you any advice, he said, grimly,
but when the money is gone, you won’t get any more. That’s all I can say to you— but it ought to be enough!
Even a fond and doting parent sometimes has moments of sanity— generally when it is too late.
I won’t need any more, answered Jack confidently.
I didn’t mean advice, said his father curtly,
I mean money!
Mary Bradford tried to smile when she heard of Jack’s plans, but it wasn’t much of a success, and she locked herself in her room, and cried herself to sleep. She had a woman’s intuitions of the probable result.
His mother stole upstairs to her own private little nook, and when she came down she timidly held out a frayed, old fashioned Bible, with a book-mark that she had embroidered when she was a girl.
It has been mine since I was a child, she said.
When you read it, remember your mother at home is praying that her boy will make the best, and bravest, and biggest man in the whole world.
Jack smiled patronizingly.
She is a bit out of date, he said to himself,
and hasn’t had the chance to see life that I have, and know that people who amount to anything have outgrown that nonsense— but I may as well humor her.
So he slipped the Bible into the bottom of his trunk, where it would be out of sight, waved his hand to the folks on the porch, and swung out of the front gate.
At last he was on his way to the great city, where a man with brains could find a career worthy of his greatness.
He didn’t know that New York was a good deal like Homeburg, except in size, and that the only difference was that it had more varieties of human nature, and failure, and success, and more opportunities for getting the best, or the worst out of a man.
His old college chum, Dick Randolph, secured him a berth in an architect’s office but Jack was more interested in that part of the day after five o’clock in the afternoon.
He fell into the habit of telling those outside the office that he was only working to please his father out in Indiana, who owned half a dozen townships, but had old-fashioned ideas.
Dick Randolph prided himself that he was one of the star patrons of Broadway, and, through his introductions, Jack found himself generously received in a certain type of restaurants and cafes. But he was not deserving them as much as he was himself. As long as he had money to pay his way, they would make that way alluring to him. That is the custom of Broadway, and Jack, not being wise in the ways of the world, saw the easy things of life being handed to him simply by stretching out his hand for them.
It was about this time that his scheme of life was further complicated, when he met a golden-haired, soulful-eyed girl in a Forty-second Street musical comedy, called Flossie Brandon. Her hair and soulful eyes were manufactured by different processes, but Jack didn’t know it.
Before he realized it he was hopelessly, blindly infatuated.
Letters continued to come to him regularly with the Homeburg postmark, although he seldom bothered to answer them now. He didn’t have to. A mother has an extra sense— where her boy is concerned. God gave her an especial wireless telegraphy for her own exclusive use.
His mother added always to her letters the words,
You will know that I am praying for you, every night at eight o’clock, winter or summer. She never forgot to write that postscript. It was a part of her life.
Broadway was a closed book to her, but she didn’t need to open it. She had a mother’s conviction that the man out in the world, once the boy at her knees, and still the boy in her heart, needed her prayers. That was enough for her.
One evening Jack entertained at a dinner in his apartment.
It was Flossie Brandon who found his mother’s frayed Bible, that she discovered on the bottom shelf of a stand in the corner. Jack faced the crowd with a flushed, embarrassed face, as the girl held it up, and called the attention of the others to her find.
As he stared at it, the door of the cuckoo clock in the corner opened. One— two— three— four— five— six— seven— eight times came the shrill note of the toy bird. Eight o’clock!
It might have been coincidence, of course. But Jack Norton doesn’t think so— now.
Suddenly through the frayed cover of the Bible he seemed to catch a vision— his mother in her room at home on her knees, and the postscripts of her letters flashed back to him:—
At eight o’clock every evening I shall be praying for you. The next moment he swept the vision from him, and laughed as he pointed to the Bible.
Oh, that’s a relic! Quite a curiosity, isn’t it? he stammered.
And whose picture is this, may I ask? demanded Flossie coldly, stopping before a photo of Mary Bradford on the wall.
Oh, that’s another relic! he laughed again.
Flossie was a difficult young woman to please. She measured men only by one standard, the amount of money they would spend on her. The boy found his bank account gone, and his debts growing like a snow-ball, in his frantic effort to live up to her extravagant expectations.
One day Jack saw the cashier drop the combination of the office safe. The boy, on a sudden impulse, put his foot over it, and when he went home to dinner it was in his pocket.
His creditors were beginning to be insulting, and here was a chance to pay his debts, perhaps with money over, and no risk, to himself. If the safe were robbed, it would be impossible for anyone to suspect that he had a hand in it.
He slipped back to the office that evening. The safe was an old fashioned type, and the combination made it absurdly simple for him to open it.
Jack was twirling the last of the tumblers when a low, whirring sound back of him made him jump with a face like a sheet. But it was only the office clock preparing to strike.
One— two— three— four— five— six— seven— eight!
Jack stared at the safe like a man suddenly paralyzed.
It could not be coincidence again— and yet it must be! Jack pushed his hand over his face. It was suddenly dripping with perspiration. Perhaps you can find a satisfactory explanation. Jack has ceased to try.
Burning his brain, as he stood there, were the words of his mother’s letters,
Remember, every evening at eight o’clock I shall be praying for you— winter or summer!
In the mirror-like silver handle of the safe he seemed to see reflected the figure of a kneeling woman— his mother by her bed-side in her room at home.
A mother never forgets her promise to her boy.
Brace up! You are letting your nerves get way with you! he taunted himself.
With an oath he swung open the safe door, and stuffed a bundle of the yellow bills in the cash drawer into his pocket. The picture of his mother had gone.
When he returned to his rooms he found that he had stolen two thousand dollars.
The next morning the head of the firm had him on the carpet with the rest of the staff. Jack didn’t like the look in his eyes, but he told himself that it was impossible to connect him with the robbery.
A week later he was called into the private office again.
You’re through, Norton, his employer said.
You can get your time on your way out.
The boy began to bluster.
What do you mean?
I mean that a young fellow who has as many outside interests as we find you have is of no further use to us!
Jack went out with his head high.
Jobs were easy, he told himself. He found Dick Randolph, and approached him on the subject of another connection.
I had to tell the office I couldn’t stand their old fashioned methods any longer, he said.
Introduce me to somebody who can appreciate real brains.
But Dick shook his head.
You’ll have to dig for yourself, I’m afraid. I have all that I can attend to just now! he said coldly.
Then let me have a hundred until Tuesday.
Dick shook his head again.
I’m overdrawn at the bank, and my father is threatening to stop my allowance. Wish you luck, old man!
Jack changed to his evening clothes, and hunted up Flossie Brandon. Here at least he would find some one who understood him.
She looked at him with a sneer when he had finished his story.
I don’t see how that affects me, she said, putting on her hat.
But I did it all for you, cried Jack.
That’s what they all say, Flossie yawned.
If they won’t send you any more money from home, pawn what you can, and go to work in earnest! I have an engagement, my dear boy!
Jack staggered out into the street. His world had come to an end.
He thought that he was a very much deceived and wronged young man, and he hired all of the bartenders he could find to help him forget his troubles.
They were doing their best after thirty days interval, but they hadn’t succeeded, although he had pawned everything that a pawn shop would take, and had borrowed all the money his friends would loan him.
The only thing that whiskey can make a man forget, whether it is poured from a cut glass decanter on a mahogany bar, or from a black bottle on a tramp’s hip, is his manhood.
Jack drifted from Forty-Second Street down to Fourteenth Street, and then with short steps to the Bowery.
The farther a man gets on the toboggan the faster he shoots.
The one-time tango idol of the Broadway lobster palaces degenerated into a street corner beggar, and an object of police suspicion. One evening he slouched out from a doorway over to a taxicab, where a party of men and women in Fifth Avenue togs were stepping gingerly out onto the walk for a slumming trip.
Please, can you give me the price of a cup of coffee and a bed, he whined.
The man nearest him turned impatiently. It was Dick Randolph.
Jack saw the look of recognition in the other’s eyes, and then Dick tossed him a two dollar bill.
Take this, and beat it, you bum!
Jack stuffed the bill into his pocket and shuffled off. His hands were clenched, and something inside of him was burning like a hot coal.
He stopped a block away, hesitating between a Childs restaurant and a corner saloon. Should he get a steak, or another drink?
He turned suddenly from both restaurant and saloon with a wild look like fever in his eyes. Dick Randolph had called him a bum— and Dick Randolph was right.
Why continue a hopeless fight?
He pushed into a dismal little pawn shop, heavy with the atmosphere of lost hopes, and for his two dollar bill he received a second hand revolver, a box of cartridges, and fifteen cents in change.
He stopped again in small park, scowled at a spoony couple on a bench before him, and loaded his revolver behind them.
He was raising the weapon to his head when another voice checked him.
It was of a girl on the street corner, singing to the accompaniment of a bass drum and a cornet.
The revolver fell to his side.Clear and high the girl’s voice was ringing as she reached the chorus of her song:
I’m coming home,
I’m coming home to live my wasted life anew.
For mother’s prayers have followed me,
Have followed me the whole world through.
And then the second verse in the same arresting, penetrating key:—
O’er desert wild, o’er mountain high,
A wanderer I chose to be,
A wretched soul condemned to die,
Still mother’s prayers have followed me.
Jack dropped the revolver into his pocket, and stumbled out into the street. He was walking like a man in his sleep.
The girl reached the song’s concluding verse:
He turned my darkness into light,
This blessed Christ of Calvary,
I’ll praise His name both day and night,
That mother’s prayers have followed me.
As the words died away, she turned toward the doors of a corner mission hall.
Jack slouched after the two men with her who were carrying the bass drum and the cornet.
The words of the song kept dancing in the air before him, and through them he seemed to see vaguely, as at a great distance, his mother on her knees, with her hands over her eyes. A strange mist covered her face, and he couldn’t see it plainly, but he knew it was there. And he knew that he was weak, and dizzy, and sick, and that something was happening to him that he couldn’t understand.
He dropped onto a pine bench in the rear of the mission hall, and fumbled with his hat.
There were other men on the benches, and two or three women— most of them battered wrecks from the streets— who looked as though they had lost their way and didn’t know whether they could ever find it again, or not.
An aisle in the center led up to a platform, on which stood a man with a beaming smile, that seemed to take in everyone in the hall.
Jack’s eyes fixed themselves suddenly on a clock on the wall over the man’s head. Its hands pointed exactly to eight.
He tried to remember something that kept slipping away from him, and then like a flash it came to him, the forgotten postscripts of his mother’s letters—
Remember, I shall always be praying for you at eight o’clock, winter or summer.
Coincidence a third time! Or mental telepathy? Or the spirit of God? Jack gives the facts. He can’t give the reason for them.
All he knows was that he was staggering to his feet, and stumbling down the aisle.
Suddenly the mist faded from the picture of his mother that had been dancing in the air before him. He saw her face distinctly now, as distinctly as though she were in the room with him. And through her tears she was smiling. At the platform he dropped to his knees weakly.
He knew that for the first time since he had fallen out of the apple tree, and broken his arm, when he was a boy, there was something salty in his eyes that didn’t belong there.
The man on the platform reached over, and gave him a thump on the shoulders, and led him to a front bench. After the service he sat down at his side. He didn’t ask questions. He was too good a judge of human nature. Before Jack knew it, he was giving the other the story of his life.
God hasn’t any use for man with a skeleton in his closet, or for a quitter, said the superintendent when the boy had finished.
You can’t get right with God unless you’re right with men. You must go back to your firm and tell them it was you who robbed their safe.
But they will send me to prison if I do!
That’s up to them. You sinned deliberately, and you must pay— as they decide, not you. You’ve got to stand on your own feet, or not at all.
Jack’s glance fell to the floor, and his hands clenched as he fought out the battle with himself. He raised his eyes steadily.
I’ll— I’ll go through with it.
You understand what it means?
I understand! the boy said quietly.
You’re right. God can’t have any use for a quitter!
The superintendent put Jack to bed, and then sent off a long telegram, which he read over carefully before he gave it to the messenger boy.
The next afternoon the ex-Broadway Kid and the superintendent of the mission were ushered into the private office of Jack’s former employer.
There was queer taste in the boy’s mouth, and a queer light in his eyes, but he faced the head of the firm without a quiver, and told the story.
Is it the penitentiary? he asked when he had finished.
I’ve got to do my duty! he said grimly, and pushed a button before him.
Jack caught his breath. Above him he saw again the picture of his mother on her knees and he closed his eyes to blot it out. If they could only keep it from her!
Go to it! he said huskily.
Behind him the door opened. It must be the detectives. For an instant he stood rigid, and then, without turning, he held his wrists out behind him, for the handcuffs.
But it was not the grip of steel that caught them. It was something soft, and moist, and warm. With a gasp he whirled. It was his mother’s hands.
And behind her stood his father. It was his father who spoke first.
We’ve come to take you home, he said.
We need a new firm sign at the old factory!
Jack stared dumbly. The room was whirling over his head.
But what about the money I owe here, the money I stole, he stammered.
I’ll pay it back, and give you a chance to work it out for me! If you tell me the prodigal has learned his lesson we’ll all try to forget it! What do you say?
A month later, in the dusk of a summer evening, Jack stole up on the porch of the old home cottage, sweet with the scent of honeysuckle and lilacs. He was holding the hand of a girl beside him, a girl with shining eyes.
His mother rose from her easy chair, and dropped her knitting.
I’ve brought you home a new daughter, he said.
Mary Bradford has promised to take a chance with me, in spite of the past!
A few minutes afterward he pulled Mary across to the piano.
Play for me, he begged.
What shall it be?
My favorite song, of course! And he added softly,
The song that brought me back to myself, and to you and to God.
The girl smiled, and her hands ran lightly over the keys, as, through the room, there floated the strains of Mother’s Prayers Have Followed Me!
Song Stories of the Sawdust Trail (New York: Christian Herald, 1917), pp. 163–81