|"I don't think our Len will ever amount to much,"
said Leonard Howell, senior, one day to his wife as he entered the house.
"Why not, father?" anxiously inquired Aunt Milly.
"Oh! well, he's too careless and too trifling. He's smart enough, got wit enough, but it all runs the wrong way. I've about gi'n him up."
"Oh, no, father, don't say that; don't get discouraged. Let's wait awhile longer. You and I and Bernice here ought to be able to bring up one boy, even if we are getting old. I shall not give him up yet.
He may come out a good man, after all," said Mrs. Howell kindly.
"Ah, mother, what is bred in the bone can't be got out through the flesh. The boy is his mother right over -- -"
"There, father, don't let us talk about than. You know we agreed years ago to bury that matter forever."
This dialogue occurred in an old-fashioned country house in a settlement not far from Philadelphia, over fifty years ago. The house was built wholly of wood, and consisted of two parts -- an old and a new-although the new part gave evidence of having seen many summers. The old part was only one story high, but the long rafters and consequently high peaked roof gave room for a large attic. It had its heavy, projecting eaves; its oaken door, which had one day been red; its genuine leather latchstring hanging outside, and its heavy oaken latch within. There were also the large open fireplace, the swinging crane with its pothooks of various lengths, and the heavy wrought andirons. The furniture of this part of the house consisted of a solid table; several chairs, some with splint bottoms and others with bottoms of untanned skin; a carved corner cupboard; and a rude settee which served often as a bed.
The new part of the house was of two stories, although the ceilings were low; and the furniture of the room, as it was called, differed from that in the older part of the house. Indeed, two generations were represented in the furniture of this humble dwelling. In the "room" were a ten-stove; a wooden clock, with its picture of two brothers clasped in loving embrace on its front, and its peculiarly musical stroke; a black walnut table, with its feet of dragon claws, then more than a half-century old; and a well-worn rocking chair.
The house within and the yard around were generally kept scrupulously neat and orderly; and the small farm on which it stood showed signs of industry and thrift in all its details. The fences were clean and in good repair; the wagons, plows, and barrows, as well as the live stock, all showed the effects of intelligent care.
Leonard Howell was no idler, nor did he tolerate idleness in those around him. Brusque in manner, diligent in business, of good health and with good appetite, endowed with energy and a constant flow of good spirit, he was a thorough master of his work and the strength and support of the home. Or, at least, he had been so for many years; now, however, he was rapidly advancing toward old age. The estate upon which he lived had been left him by his father, and he was at this time possessed of sufficient means to afford a plain but comfortable living, and was free from debt. In his earlier days he had been successful both as a small farmer and as a dealer in cordwood and hoop-poles; and many of his ventures in this line had sailed out of the tortuous rivers of South Jersey to Philadelphia, where the wood and the poles then found ready sale.
Leonard Howell was fairly shrewd at driving a bargain, and was possessed of an exterior which on first sight would indicate rather a hard nature; but those who knew him well could bear testimony to his benevolence of heart, and also to a keen sense of humor which he at times manifested. Like most men of his time and vicinity, he occasionally drank apple whiskey, or apple "Jack," as it was called; but he was never known to become the worse for liquor. He was a member of the church, and was thoroughly sound in the faith, and a good contributor; but religious matters with him were to a large extent turned over to his brother, who was a deacon in the church, and to his wife, who was better read than himself, and who was thoughtful and pious. Leonard Howell, evidently, leaned more upon his wife's prayers and his brother's counsels than upon any devotions of his own. He had his "principles," and was ever ready to do what he called "the right thing," but as for services of devotion and the like -- well -- he submitted to them but never gave evidence that he enjoyed them.
Aunt Milly Howell was in many respects the very opposite of her husband both in outward and inward character. She was spare and delicate of form, and quite generally in poor health. Her manners were soft and refined, and she was far above the average woman of her neighborhood in point of intelligence. She had read much, considering her opportunities, and her memory was well stored with Bible facts and texts and with many gems of old English literature.
Although usually unwell herself, she was nevertheless filled with the tenderest sympathy for others, and was the special friend of the children of the community. Her resignation and patience, and here quiet, pleasant manner filled the old home with a soothing influence, making all who dwelt there happier, if not indeed better because of it. The restraint which her presence imposed upon the boisterous was by no means burdensome, because it was always accompanied by her own subdued example, and by her instructive and elevating conversation. I can see here now as I write, sitting in her high-backed chair, with her neat-fitting house dress on, the clean handkerchief folded over her shoulders with its lower ends concealed beneath her apron, her spectacles, her white cap with its frills, her gray hair and smooth brow, her softly treading slippers. Yes, I see her now in that old homestead, with the light of heaven falling in its gentle fullness upon her paid-worn face, and my soul warms with the vision. She was one of God's angels sent to bless the earth.
In this quiet home lived also the maiden daughter, Bernice, the youngest of a family of seven sons and daughters who had passed their childhood there. She was, at the time of the dialogue above mentioned, about twenty-five years of age; rather large and stalwart in form, inheriting her father's energy and self-reliance, coupled with much of her mother's reserve and kindness. She had the will, the nerve, and the cool courage fitting her to fill a more important sphere. Her dignity of manner was sublime, here scorn terrible. She could freeze or flay with less than a word. Her look was enough. She lived long beyond the time of my story, but she never married. Her's was the helping hand of the community ever ready to do good.
No home is complete without the boy. Leonard C. Howell, junior, was a grandson, and was at this time about thirteen years old. He was bright, but it could not be said that he was industrious; and he seemed to have imbibed a dislike to everything about the farm except the fruit that grew on the trees and the food that came to his place at table. The fowls, calves, colts, horses, and dogs -- all seemed to hate or fear him. He was inclined to be cruel as well as "careless." His chief pastime was to blow outlandish airs upon a small fife, the notes of which were as much out of place in that orderly home as were his manners and temper.
Leonard, however, always had a faithful and powerful friend and apologist in his Aunt Bernice; and hence when Grandfather Howell expressed himself as being about worn out with little "Len," Bernice waited until her mother had finished, and then with her black eyes fairly snapping fire, she added:
"Len is not so bad. He is mischievour, and careless and troublesome; but he is only a boy yet. He'll be all right when he gets older."
This was said with an emphasis that meant much more than the words themselves expressed; and as Bernice wielded great influence over her father, and as she was pleading for his namesake and grandson, the case was soon won, and the old gentleman dismissed the matter by saying: "God grant he may."
The father of young Leonard, the oldest son of Leonard Howell, senior, had married greatly against the judgment of his parents; and although the aged couple had long ago forgiven him and had freely received his wife as their daughter-in-law, yet they had never really changed their opinion. It was to this wife, of course, and not to his own son, that Grandpa Howell referred when he said, "What is bred in the bone, can't be got out through the flesh." He may have been right, but it is just as probable that he was wrong. He believed he was right, however, and his beliefs were always quite positive. Bernice shared none of this feeling, and to her Leonard was simply a nephew to be warmly loved and kindly treated.
Leonard did not stay long on the farm after this conversation; although the treatment he continued to receive was kind even to indulgence. He became more and more discontented, and, early one bright morning in May, was missing. A brief search revealed the fact that he had run away. He took the natural course of runaway boys, which was to the city; and thence made his way by sailing vessel to Boston. He had hired himself to the shipmaster as cabin boy, but Leonard grew heartily tired of the sea and of the discipline on shipboard long before he reached Boston; and as soon as the vessel was snugly at her wharf, he slipped away from her, forfeiting what little pay was due him.
Out in the streets of this strange city, with scarcely a penny in his pocket, without a friend or acquaintance to whom he could look, and altogether unacquainted with city life, Leonard for the first time repented his rashness. The seat of his repentance was, however, rather in his stomach than in his heart; and his feelings came and went according as he happened to be hungry or fed. When want pinched him, his thoughts would turn toward the smoking dinners of coarse but wholesome food that he had so often sat down to in the old home, and he would then reproach himself for running away; but when chance threw a good meal in his way, all these reflections departed and his evil courage returned.
Thus he wandered up and down the crooked streets of Boston for a number of days, catching odd jobs, and living around the markets; until one day it was his good fortune to meet with a farmer who was needing help and who offered him a temporary home.
A bargain was soon made, and it was with a glad heart that Leonard leaped into the farmer's wagon to enter upon the same sort of life as that from which he had run away. His short experience however had taught him the importance of having a home, and he entered upon his contract with a full resolution to fulfill it, by staying until the haying season was over. With such feelings he began his work on the Kingsley farm.
Although he had been bred to farm work in South Jersey, he soon found that being a hired boy on a farm in Massachusetts, differed very much from the life he had lived upon his grandfather's farm in New Jersey. The land was rough and stony; the hills quite steep and high, and the people were accustomed to long days and hard work. Up in the morning by the time it was light, they did half a Jersey day's work before breakfast, and supplemented the day with the other half after supper. Poor Leonard had indeed fallen into a trying situation. He was earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, and was becoming so lean and hollow-eyed that it did not seem that even the poor privilege of sweating would be long allowed him. His voice became thin and piping, and his spirits sank within him. He was tired every moment, and saw no prospect of relief until the end of the terrible haying season. This came at last, and with it the promised lull in the incessant rage of labor that for weeks had been sweeping over the sultry hills and valleys of the commonwealth.
Leonard had succeeded so well during the few weeks that Farmer Kingsley now offered him a permanent home, agreeing to pay him regular wages until the autumn's work should be over, and to board him during the winter, he doing the chores, and in the meantime going to school. This was accepted, and by the latter part of November the work was well over and Leonard ready to enter the district school.
Dressed in thick, comfortable clothes, with stout boots, and large for his age, muscular and well formed, he was a noticeable accession, but when he came in contact with the other boys he soon found that he was far behind them in his studies. He was awkwardly out of place and entirely too large for his grade. This, however, instead of paralyzing his energies tended to greatly stimulate them, and he resolved to catch up with those more advanced.
The teacher was a young man who had completed a sub-academic course, and was now preparing himself for college by private study, and at the same time trying to earn the money necessary for college expenses by teaching the district school. He was earnest and efficient as a teacher and kind to his pupils; but being somewhat absorbed in his own studies, and ambitious to enter college with a good record, he was rather too much preoccupied to be a good disciplinarian. He enjoyed the work of teaching, but disliked the drudgery of enforcing order.
In keeping with the inborn principles of his nature, Leonard soon formed the acquaintance of the more disorderly boys, and became in some respects their ring-leader. Being entirely away from parental restraint, he was more reckless in his manner than most of the other boys, and they soon accorded him the bad eminence of leadership. Although not orderly, he was naturally apt, and was rapidly advancing to a position in school more in accord with his size.
As Grandfather Howell had said, he had "wit" enough, and could acquire knowledge readily when he chose to do so; and just now he was bent on his books. But his mischievous, malevolent disposition had not been at all modified by his hard experience. On the contrary, it had grown apace, and had hardened in form during these months; and he had become more habitually surly in his nature and more liable to fits of unreasonable passion. It was evident almost from the day of his entrance to the school that Leonard's presence was not to be a blessing to it; and as soon as he had acquired the [quasi] leadership the audacity of the turbulent element increased, and the principles of order and respect were trampled underfoot. The condition soon became so bad that the attention of the trustees was called to it; but they were in favor of mild measures, and accordingly induced the superintendent, a kind and elderly gentleman, to give the boys a lecture on their behavior. This, instead of correcting the evil, rather emboldened the offenders; and Leonard, who now rejoiced in being the bully of the school, began openly to annoy the teacher, as if purposing to bring on a conflict.
"He'll not attempt to flog any of us," shouted Bill Woodford, as he ran from the schoolhouse door to join the group of turbulents that stood in a distant part of the yard.
"Hum! I'd look to see him try it, wouldn't you, Len?" squeaked little Dave Claypole, looking up in Leonard's face.
"Say, fellers, I tell you what let's do," said Sam Duncan. "When he calls us out in class this afternoon let's all stand with our feet wide apart -- so, and our hands in our pockets, and our heads way back, like that," striking the attitude, at which all the boys laughed heartily.
"That's the very thing," piped out little Dave. "That will make him mad; he hates anything like that."
All were soon agreed, and mutual pledges were passed with considerable formality. They were to stand by one another in the fight, and were never to tell anything about their part of the matter afterward. Thus filled with evil purposes, the little band of juvenile covenanters entered the schoolroom.
Leonard had said but little, but he had agreed to the proposal, not having the moral courage to oppose, although he knew that, being at the head of the class, he would be the first one to meet the issue, the probable consequences of which had now begun to swim before his mind.
During all these days of semi-defiance the teacher had not been unobservant nor idle. He had studied the situation thoroughly and had reached his own conclusion. He knew that a crisis must soon come, and had braced himself for it. Flogging had not gone out of practice in the schoolroom, nor was there any law or sentiment that interfered with the teacher's free use of the birch.
When the boys were to take their places in class, true to their agreement, they ambled out slowly and noisily, pounding the floor and the desks with their big boots as they went along, and finally all stood in a line with their legs well straddled out, their hands in their pockets, and their chins well up in the air. Stripped from its intention, it was altogether a comic sight, and it is not at all unlikely that Mr. Boyne saw something funny in the froglike attitude which the boys assumed. It was grotesque, and was not lost on the rest of the school. The teacher had ignored many breaches of order, but he determined not to ignore this.
Calling on Leonard to recite, he said calmly:
"Take your hands out of your pockets and stand as you ought to."
Leonard did not move, but began to recite, his face wearing an air of defiance and contempt.
"Leonard, I say, take your hands out of your pockets and stand as you ought to," repeated Mr. Boyne.
Leonard smiled but did not move. The teacher turned quietly around and drew from behind his desk a seasoned rod that the boys had never seen before; and the next instant this rod was wrapping itself around Leonard's straddled legs with amazing vigor. The teacher struck only two blows, but these stung as though a red-hot wire had been coiled around his bare skin. Leonard sprang forward and caught the teacher by the throat clutching it with all the strength of his hardy nature, his whole being inflamed with wild passion. He drew back his right hand with his fist clinched to strike. He never delivered the blow, however, for Mr. Boyne, quick as lightning, threw out his left hand, seized Leonard's right wrist, and the next instant, by a trip and a twirl, threw him full length to the floor, falling upon him. In his descent Leonard's head had struck heavily against a desk, and he was partially stunned; nevertheless, he still clung to the teacher's throat, and for a few moments the struggle was fierce. All this time Mr. Boyne had refrained from blows; and when at length he freed himself and arose to his feet he was still quite cool and collected.
Leonard arose, but the fall and the flow he had received from the desk had unnerved him; and dazed, humbled, and bleeding, he went away to his seat, and sank down into a half-unconscious condition.
The boys who had done so much in planning the affair, and who had pledged themselves so solemnly, had been very careful to take no part in the fight, and were now quite backward in showing their sympathy toward Leonard. As they looked upon the late bully, exhausted and cowed, with clothes torn, hair disheveled, face besmeared, and head bruised and bleeding, they may have inwardly charged him with folly, and chuckled over their own good sense; but it would have been impossible to have defended themselves from the charge of meanness. After a painful waiting, one or two of them finally ventured to assist him in getting himself fixed up, and Leonard, crestfallen and disgusted, set out for home.
To Leonard's everlasting credit be it said he had not acquired the habit of lying; and on arriving home he gave Farmer Kingsley a truthful account of the affair, no doubt suppressing the circumstances which told most against himself. Farmer Kingsley listened patiently, and although he had no sympathy whatever with Leonard's conduct, he did not hastily decide against him. He had seen Leonard's ambition to learn, and knew that he was apt; and he was not convinced that the recent experience had made upon him a good impression. This was true. Leonard was not only thoroughly humiliated, but was also greatly enlightened, and had firmly resolved to alter his ways.
His work done and supper eaten, he went early to bed, but slept little during the night. His head pained him seriously, but the reflections which came to his mind were much more painful. He saw that he had made a fool of himself, even if he did not clearly see the wrong he had been guilty of. And then, the recollections of his earlier wrong steps, and the dark pictures of the immediate future, which his lively imagination painted -- for as yet he knew nothing of Farmer Kingsley's intentions -- pursued each other back and forth across his mind like the waves of a squall-tossed sea. This severe agitation served to confirm within him the resolution he had formed; and the next morning, when Mr. Kingsley proposed that he should return to school, he felt greatly relieved, although as yet he did not know how the matter could be settled.
Farmer Kingsley was a man of great energy and probity of character, and was well known. His influence was almost without limit in the community; and convinced of Leonard's sincerity, he now took his cause, and by much persuasion finally had him restored to the school.
Leonard's change of conduct was apparent to all, and becoming more diligent than ever, he fairly bounded along in his studies. Had his reformation been more thorough, and had he gone back to the principles he had been taught by precept and by loving example in his New Jersey home; had his change been deeply moral, and led him to retrace his runaway steps and ask forgiveness of the tender relatives he had wronged, his whole life would doubtless have been brighter. As it was, the change was great, and his resolution noble; but it had respect only to prudence, and rested upon a merely utilitarian morality. It was a half-measure and a compromise; and it was upon such a basis that Leonard set out to erect that character upon which as a monument he should at last inscribe his name and the record of his life.
His schooldays were finished without further event; and in the spring he returned to work with increased energy and fidelity, saving his earnings with scrupulous care. He soon won the reward due his upright and manly bearing in the confidence and good will of the community; and the unpleasant school episode faded from public memory. It was a boyish freak that should not be charged to the disadvantage of the enterprising young man, who had not only repudiated it, but who had done all in his power to atone for it. Leonard Howell was forgiven.