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A B C

From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander

“Where is Charles?” said Mrs. Butler, as they gathered around the breakfast table. “He is generally prompt at mealtime, if no other.”

“I think he was reading,” Mr. Butler answered. “Lou., go and call him; perhaps he did not hear the bell;” but as Lou. arose from her seat the clatter of boyish boots was heard, and in a moment Charles was in his place beside her.

“I got interested,” he said, in a frank, offhand manner, “in a little story—or incident, rather—about Napoleon.”

“And what did Napoleon do in this instance?” said his father.

“He got in a passion and counted a hundred before speaking.”

“Pooh! That was a great thing to do,” said Mr. Butler; and he went on helping the twins, Essie and Earnest, who sat, in all the dignity of high chairs and bib aprons, opposite Charles and Lou.

“If that’s all it takes to make a Napoleon, I could be one myself,” Lou. said, as she stirred her tea.

“I’ll bet you couldn’t do it,” said her brother.

“I’ll bet I could,” said Lou.

“Come, come!” Mr. Butler interposed. “We’ll have no betting here; but I agree with Lou., Charles, that anybody can count a hundred before speaking, no matter how angry he may be.”

“If he did, though,” Charles went on, “he would not want to say the angry words.”

“He would have time for reflection then,” said Mrs. Butler, “and it is likely that the angry words would be left unsaid.”

“When I get mad,” Charles said, “I feel like saying ugly things. If I should say over the alphabet, I believe my ill temper would be gone.”

“Suppose you imitate Napoleon so far, then,” said his father. “Repeat the A B C’s when you get angry about anything.”

“Will you do it, Sis.?” Charles asked, nudging Lou.

“Of course I will,” she answered, “though I don’t get mad like you, Charlie; you’re so much older.”

Lou. was but ten, while Charles had attained to the respectable age of thirteen years.

“All right!” he answered. “Now, for to-day at least, if we feel cross and angry and mean generally, we are to repeat the A B C’s before speaking.”

“B C,” said Essie, beating time with her spoon in one fat palm; and Earnest, as twin brother, echoed: “B C.” They had been learning their letters, but had not got very far into them.

“Bless their little hearts!” cried the fond mother. “They shall say ‘B C,’ too, just as often as they please;” and the twins jumped up and down rapturously in the high chairs, and cried “B C, B C,” in chorus.

“Now, father,” said Lou., “we will let you and mother in, too, and we will all try it for to-day. If you get mad, will you repeat the A B C’s before speaking?”

“Why, yes, I can do it,” said Mr. Butler, “but I don’t see the use.”

“Well, it will do no harm,” Lou. insisted. “Say, will you?”

“Yes, I will.”

“Will you, mother?”

“Yes, if I can think of it.”

“O, we will remind you!” they said.

After breakfast they all went to their duties. Lou. washed the dishes and tidied up the kitchen like a thrifty little housewife; Mrs. Butler made the beds, dusted, brushed, and gathered vegetables for dinner; Mr. Butler went to the wood shed and hammered and tinkered on a wagon bed; the twins found a good place to play in an ash bank; and Charles watered the mules and put them in pasture, and was the first to be tempted. Everybody knows how mean a mule is—how they go down before and up behind, how tricky their heels are, how inquisitive they are, and how easily they get frightened, or pretend to be.

Old Beck was a mule, and she was mean; so when Charles took her to water, she backed and wouldn’t drink, then went up again and backed, and then, as he tried to lead her up, she slung her heavy jaw around and took him “whack” in the face.

Charles was furiously angry; the blood started from his nose, and the tears from his eyes. “You old—” he began, and I can’t tell what else he might have said; but he recollected his bargain made at breakfast, and, setting his teeth hard and gulping down a great knot in his throat, he began, “A B C D E F G,” etc., and—lo!—by the time Z was reached he was about cooled off, and old Beck was quietly filling her sides with water. “After all, it is no use to bemean her,” he said to himself; “she wouldn’t understand me.” So he bathed his face in the cool water and rode off to the pasture, feeling very cheerful and contented as old Beck ambled along at her best for his benefit.

Just before dinner Lou. ran out to get some chips for the stove, and discovered the twins busily engaged over an old bucket. She ran in with her chips, and said to her mother, “Ess. and Earn. are up to some meanness out yonder; I’ll see what it is;” then she ran out, and in a moment her mother heard a horrified scream and ran out, too.

Lou. stood, the picture of rage and despair, holding the remains of her lovely French doll, which she had fished out of the bucket of dirty water; while the little transgressors stood by, bewildered, shamefaced, and ready to cry.

“O, my Angelina!” sobbed Lou. “She is ruined, she is ruined! O, the little wre—!”

“A B C, daughter,” said her mother, gently. “Remember your A B C’s.”

“I was to say them when I was mad,” Lou. screamed, “and I’m hurt now! I never will love—”

“Hush, hush!” said Mrs. Butler. “You are very angry, Lou.; don’t back out from your promise.”

“A B C,” Lou. began, brokenly; and while going over the letters she noticed how sorry the little thing looked, how the tears were standing in Essie’s eyes, and that the little red lips of her brother were trembling. Before she got to Z she had said to herself, “They’re babies, and better than dolls, anyway;” and she surprised her mother by smiling at her through the tears, and the twins ventured nearer with something like a promise, “Do so no m-o-o, no m-o-o;” and Lou. kissed the little faces and forgave them, for they did not know any better. They knew their own faces needed washing, and, seeing Angelina, with her long curls, red cheeks, and round blue eyes, thought she needed it, too.

“Have we a Napoleon in our family?” Mr. Butler inquired over the dinner table, smiling as he did so.

His wife smiled back as she replied: “Yes; Lou. had a right hard trial this morning, and the A B C’s helped her over it wonderfully.”

“And what about you, Charles?” said his father.

“Charles laughed; it all seemed funny to him now. “I guess if Old Beck could talk, she would tell you about mashing a boy’s nose, and how the A B C’s flew till the passion was all gone.”

“Well,” said Mr. Butler, “you and I come in next, mother.”

Lou. washed up the dinner dishes, and as she was drying the plates “slip” went a rare old bit of China out of her hand and lay broken in tiny bits at her feet.

Mrs. Butler heard the crash and hurried in, to be struck dumb at the sight. Her dishes were not her “household gods” exactly, but they held a very high place, and here lay the choicest bit of all—one of her mother’s plates—in fragments.

A cloud gathered on Mrs. Butler’s brow and she opened her lips to speak, raising her hand at the same time for a blow, when Charlie’s merry voice rang out behind her: “A B C, mother!”

There was no help for it. She remembered that Lou.’s doll was as dear to the child as the plate was to her, and she began the prescription, though she thought it would strangle her. As she went on she remembered that she had broken dishes when a child, but her dear, wise mother had never punished her for it. She seemed again to hear the gently voice saying: “I do not wish a child of mine to tremble with fear and dread of me, but be careful, daughter, be careful.” She finished, and Lou., crying quietly and dreading a whipping, was astonished when her mother said, “I am very sorry, my dear, that it is broken, but it is too late to grieve over it now. In the future be more careful;” and Lou. promised in her heart that she would be careful, and from that time on she was.

At the workbench that evening, Mr. Butler bethought himself of a stick of seasoned timber which had been lying around for some months; and now that he wanted it, it couldn’t be found. He looked around the edges of the yard, and, as Charles was not about to assist him, went to his wife.

“Martha,” he said, looking in upon her as she sat at work, “do you know anything of that piece of split timber that has been thrown around for some time?”

Mrs. Butler did not reply for a moment. Mr. Butler’s temper was a thing to be dreaded, for it found expression in very unbecoming words at times, and trifling crosses made him furious; but she must tell the truth for the truth’s sake, and for Lou.’s, who sat looking at her with wide-open eyes.

“Yes,” she said, “it had been lying around so long I did not think you would ever need it, and the other day when I was ironing I laid it on the fire. I am very sorry, but I thought it was useless.”

Mr. Butler’s brows contracted, his eyes gleamed under them with a baleful luster, and hot, hasty, passionate words leaped to his lips; but just then his legs, as he stood at the door, were encircled by chubby baby arms, and two piping baby voices cried “B C, papa; B C,” having heard “B C” discussed so much they thought it an absorbing topic to him. It wasn’t, though—not at that time; but his brow cleared somewhat as he looked down at the mottled cherub faces turned confidingly up to him; then he looked in at his wife, sitting half smiling, half tearful, and wholly fearful of an outburst, and at Lou., watching him with earnest eyes. Then the twins were taken up to cover his confusion, and he went over the alphabet as though saying it for their benefit, and then marched off, leaving the bad words unsaid.

“After all,” he muttered, as he went about his work, “it was so full of dirt and grit it would most likely have ruined my tools; and I’m glad I didn’t say the words I started to say. If any man was to talk to me like I do to her sometimes, I’d punch his head for him, and I know it. A stick of timber—pooh!” and Mr. Butler had not been so well pleased with himself in some time as he was for refraining from the bitter, bad words.

“Any more Napoleons in our family?” Charles asked that night.

Lou. answered: “Yes; I think father had about as bad a time this evening as I had this morning.”

Mr. Butler looked rather guilty, but he smiled over at his wife, and said: “It is a harder job than I thought it was; but perhaps we have all learned that we can hold our tongues if we try, and although we may not repeat the A B C’s every time, we can refrain from saying bitter words.”

And the twins, looking very knowingly, jumped up in their high chairs, and, putting their curly heads together, whispered: “B C, B C.”