The Prodigal Son (1905)

The Prodigal Son (1905), by Hall Caine

In northern Iceland, it is sheep farmer Magnus Stephensson’s wedding day: he is marrying Thora Neilsen and becoming a partner in her father’s business in Reykjavik. The town’s sheriff has spent the day writing the marriage contract. Magnus’s brother, Oscar, a talented musician and composer, has recently returned from his studies in England; he is ‘one of those happy, sunny souls who are born with the power of winning people’s hearts […] the spoilt child of fortune, the privileged pet of everybody.’ Magnus and Oscar are the sons of Stephen Magnusson, the governor-general of Iceland, and his wife, Anna. Thora has been persuaded into marrying Magnus by her Aunt Margret, her father’s sister; it is clear that Thora does not love Magnus and, in fact, prefers Oscar. Magnus, returning from the mountain, overhears Thora telling Oscar she loves him. When Magnus confronts them, Oscar denies stealing Thora’s affections, telling Magnus: ‘Thora’s engagement to you is nothing but a miserable commercial bargain between her father and our father by which she has been bought and sold like a slave.’ Oscar tells Magnus that he loves Thora and would marry her if he could. Magnus agrees to break the marriage contract and tells Oscar to say nothing during the ceremony. The families arrive at the farm for the wedding. Aunt Margret suspects the truth; observing that Oscar and Thora had been in each other’s company since he returned to Iceland, she says, ‘The man who is going to marry a girl and wants his brother to look after her while he is away is a fool, and his friends ought to take care of him. Two dogs at a bone seldom agree! […] Take a cranky old woman’s advice and don’t make trouble between two brothers.’ Thora’s father, Oscar Neilsen (also called the ‘Factor,’ meaning ‘dealer’ or ‘agent’), tells the assembled company how much he is looking forward to taking Magnus into his business. He and Stephen intend to give the young couple an extensive honeymoon trip abroad as their wedding gift. The sheriff arrives with the wedding contract, which is read aloud. Magnus rejects it, making increasingly extravagant demands to the dismay and anger of the families. Oscar offers to take his place on the original terms and is accepted, to Thora’s joy, on the condition that he abandon his music career in England. Thora thanks Magnus for releasing her: ‘That you should allow everybody to believe you were only thinking of the money when you were really thinking of me […] I feel as if I were losing a friend […] a brave, true friend who would have done anything in the world for me.’ Magnus warns Oscar that if he ever neglects Thora, or deserts her for another woman, he will kill Oscar. When Oscar and Thora return from their honeymoon trip after seven months, Thora is pregnant and Oscar has fallen in love with Helga, Thora’s younger sister and ‘one of the new women,’ who joined them when the couple reached Denmark. Magnus is now a tenant of the farm and will inherit it when his parents die. An agent of the Bank of Denmark arrives seeking payment of a note for a very large sum drawn at Nice that purports to be signed by Oscar’s father and witnessed by the Factor. Magnus discovers that Oscar forged the signatures and the note negotiated by Helga, and orders Oscar to choose between Thora and Helga. They argue. Magnus tells Oscar and Helga that if they part, he will pay the note and avert a scandal. Overcome with shame, Oscar nearly tells his father about the note but Helga stops him. He tells Helga they should part, that their relationship is hurting Thora: ‘When a man is married to a good woman he ought to be true to her. His marriage may have been a mistake, an unpardonable mistake, but whatever the consequences to himself he ought to do his duty.’ Helga tells him that he was born to create music, not toil in her father’s business. She has received a letter from Neils Finsen, an old friend from school, who now manages opera on the Riviera. Finsen has invited Oscar and Helga to join him. She tells Oscar, ‘The law of the world is trying to crush and ruin both of us. It is trying to bury your genius and destroy my happiness—to condemn me to lifelong loneliness and you to the misery of a loveless marriage. […] There is another law, a higher law, the law of our own hearts, and we ought to obey that.’ Oscar and Helga embrace passionately and then Oscar rushes off. Thora, who has overheard part of this conversation, confronts Helga, accusing her of thinking only of the assistance Oscar can provide with her career. Helga tells Thora that she persuaded Oscar to forge the signatures on the note and that if she is forced to go away she will take Oscar with her. They have a physical altercation; Thora faints and is taken to her room, where she is seen by a doctor. Magnus tells his father about the note. Oscar confirms that he forged the note and that the money was lost in gambling. The doctor tells the families that Thora has died in childbirth but that the child, a girl, is doing well. In the aftermath, Stephen tells Oscar that he will pay the note if he reveals the name of the woman who prompted him to execute it fraudulently. When he refuses to name Helga, Stephen tells him that he must leave Iceland and that he wishes never to see his face again. Oscar mourns Thora: ‘Thora, forgive me! I cannot live without your
forgiveness. I wronged you and sinned against you.’ Magnus realises that the farm will have to be mortgaged to pay the debt and that the likely outcome will be bankruptcy. He tells his mother the truth behind his renunciation of Thora on their wedding day and about his threat to kill Oscar if he ever betrayed Thora. He takes down a gun from the wall. He finds Oscar in Thora’s room, kneeling beside her body on the bed. Magnus, overcome with emotion, drops the gun and falls to his knees. Five years later, Oscar and Helga are working at a casino on the Riviera, where he conducts the orchestra and she is an opera singer employed by Finsen. The family doctor arrives to tell Oscar his father is dead. His mother is living at the farm with Magnus, who is still in debt for the mortgage taken out to cover Oscar’s fraudulent note. His daughter, Elin, is thriving. The manager of the casino, playing on Oscar’s fears that Helga is about to drop him for Finsen, suggests that Oscar cheat at the card tables with the permission of the house; in this way he can amass a small fortune and win Helga back. Oscar first tries to persuade Helga to return to Iceland with him: ‘What matter if we have to forget our cherished dreams and aspirations? Life is the fulfilment of duty, and our duty is at home.’ Helga reminds him that she is under contract to Finsen and, besides, he can earn more money in the casino than in Iceland, which will help him discharge the mortgage debt sooner. She tells him she is on the cusp of becoming a star and that after he writes the great musical works she knows are in him, they will be famous together. Oscar overhears an intimate conversation between Helga and Finsen and makes another fruitless attempt to get Helga to go back to Iceland with him. He tells her the reason he has not written music in five years is a vow he made on the night Thora died: ‘I asked myself what punishment I could impose, and I heard but one answer—I could bury my delirious dream of greatness in the grave of the sweet girl it had destroyed.’ Helga tells him the only way she can leave is by paying Finsen back all the money he has spent training and promoting her. She suggests that perhaps he should take up the casino manager’s offer: ‘It seems so cruel to be stopped merely for the want of money—one’s own money as one might say.’ She further tempts him with a vision of a life together, with Finsen out of the picture, telling Oscar, ‘The time may come when I can resist him no longer—when he will tell me he has done everything for me and I shall feel myself to be his property, his slave.’ Oscar tells the casino manager that he accepts his offer. Oscar wins three times but is immediately seized with regret. He breaks with Helga, telling her that ‘when a woman loves a man she upholds his honour and protects his good name, but you have stolen both from me that you might feed your vanity and pamper your pride. […] I cut you out of my heart and wipe you out of my life. Whatever it may cost us we part here and now. Your course lies that way, mine this—farewell!’ As he returns his winnings back to the casino manager, the other players begin to suspect the ruse. The doctor gives Oscar a gun and suggests that death is preferable to a life of dishonour. Oscar rejects this, asserting it would be braver ‘to face it out—to fight it out—to live it out to the last! I cannot die! I will not die! I will live, whatever happens!’ He throws the gun down and leaves; the doctor fires it into the air and then tells everyone that Oscar has killed himself. Ten years pass. It is New Year’s Eve. The Stephensson farm is to be sold at auction. Magnus begs the sheriff for more time to meet his debts, but is told that unless he pays eight thousand crowns by the following morning, the auction will proceed. Elin, now fifteen, prays for a miracle. A visitor arrives, calling himself Christian Christiansson—it is Oscar, slightly disguised. His mother is the first person he has met since his return to Iceland who has a good word to say about her lost son. When he sees his daughter, Elin, he momentarily thinks she is the ghost of Thora. Elin recognizes the name of Christian Christiansson as the name of a much-loved Icelandic composer now living in England, who writes operas based on the old Icelandic sagas. Elin sings him one of his own songs. He tells Magnus he is planning to attend the sale of the farm the following day. Anna tells him about the eight thousand crowns that are due and tries to persuade the visitor to lend Magnus the money. He responds by saying he will give Magnus the money as a gift, not a loan, if he is allowed to adopt Elin. He shows Anna his pocketbook, which contains more than enough to pay what is due on the farm. Magnus flatly refuses, saying, ‘It’s the farm, not my niece, that is for sale.’ As much as the life of a lady appeals to Elin, she is unwilling to abandon her uncle. The visitor is moved to tears and asks Elin whether she would reconsider if she knew that Christian Christiansson was her own father. ‘I couldn’t feel as if you were my father, sir,’ Elin tells him. ‘What I call a father is one who has nursed you on his knee when you were a little thing, and kissed you and coaxed you when you were sick, and thought of you and cared for you always.’ Oscar/Christiansson writes a short note, puts it inside the pocketbook, and then gives the pocketbook to Elin, telling her to give it to the sheriff in the morning. He embraces her and breaks down sobbing, covering his emotions by pretending to be drunk. He tells Anna he intends to buy the house for his mother (she does not realise he means her) and goes to bed. When Anna tells Magnus that the visitor has a great deal of money with him, Magnus devises a plan to steal some of it, despite Anna’s protests. ‘He’s a prodigal himself, it seems. Very well, let prodigal pay for prodigal!’ he exclaims, letting himself into the guestroom and closing the door behind him. Dawn breaks and the sheriff and others, including the Factor, arrive for the sale. The Factor, having met Oscar/Christiansson in town the day before and knowing his true identity, asks where he is, teasing Anna about not recognizing him. Magnus reports the
visitor left sometime during the night. Elin comes forward and gives the pocketbook to the sheriff. It turns out to contain 200,000 crowns—enough to buy the farm four times over. The Factor finally tells everyone that Christiansson was actually Oscar. Everyone toasts ‘Anna’s long-lost son, our long-lost son, Iceland’s long-lost son, Oscar Stephensson!’ In a tableau, Oscar is seen ascending a mountain outside the town. When he hears church bells and one of his own anthems being sung, he stops and turns to look, smiling. [Here the script suggests additional tableaux: 1) Oscar at top of the mountain pass, Magnus following, the brothers embracing; 2) inside the farmhouse; company rising from table as door bursts open and Magnus enters with Oscar; 3) the entire company, including Oscar, at breakfast; all laughing, talking, singing.]