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“Example Is Better than Precept”

From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander

“Pa is pretty late getting home.”

It was Mrs. Jackson who spoke, standing in the doorway and shading her eyes with her hand—not because of the strong light, but because her eyes were weak and she had a habit of curving her hand over them. Two children—a boy and girl—were looking out, too, for “Pa,” for that was another of Mrs. Jackson’s habits—calling her husband “Pa.”

“I think I hear the buggy,” said Tom.

“Yes,” Alice chimed in, “and I see old Ball’s white face.”

Mrs. Jackson went back to her supper, which was smoking on the stove; while Tom ran to open the big gate, and Alice went to meet her father.

Mr. Jackson was a cheery, good-humored kind of man, and his coming generally brought the sunshine with it; and now, when he came in laughing, stamping, and laden with bundles, like a great, rough Santa Claus, his good humor was infectious, and his wife bustled smilingly around the table, while the children clamored for a peep into the parcels.

“No, no,” he said; “wait till ‘ma’ gets supper over.” So you perceive he had a habit, too.

Supper was soon over after that, and the dishes cleared away in a hurry; then came the unwrapping of the mysterious parcels.

There was a dress for Mrs. Jackson and one for Alice, and two bright-hued mufflers which a polite clerk had inveigled him into buying; then came shoes for mother and daughter—Alice shrieking with delight at the buttons on hers—and a pair of stout boots for the stout feet and legs of Master Tom. There was a bolt of unbleached domestic, of which no thrifty housewife can have too much, and half a bolt of bleached; then came a hat and some tricks for Mr. Jackson, and odds and ends too numerous to mention.

All were well pleased, as they had a right to be; and Mr. Jackson was as well pleased as the trio, although he made a wry face when he displayed his lean purse and doubled the flattened sides together.

“Now, mother,” he said, “put away the things, while I count up and see how I’ve come out in my trading. I know how much money I had, and there were ten dozen eggs and four pounds of butter.”

Mrs. Jackson cleared off the table again; her husband took out his account book and pencil and was soon absorbed in his calculation; Tom strutted around in his new boots; and Alice, with the gay muffler twisted around her neck, was lost in blissful contemplation of her buttoned shoes.

“By George!”

It was Mr. Jackson who spoke, and they all looked at him in surprise, for it was not often that a byword escaped his lips.

“By George!” he repeated, giving his knee a resounding slap. “Timmons has cheated himself out of a dollar as sure as shooting.”

“How did he do it?” his wife asked.

“That is just what I don’t know. He is such a close-fisted old fellow that I should have thought it would have been the other way.”

“Are you certain that you are right?” said Mrs. Jackson, looking over his shoulder.

“O yes, but I’ll go over it again. Well, it does beat the world,” he added, after a short pause, “that old Timmons gave a man a dollar more than was due him! If he knew that, he wouldn’t sleep a wink tonight.”

Mr. Jackson leaned back in his chair and laughed loud and long at the thought, and Tom came and stood by his father’s side and laughed, too.

Mrs. Jackson looked a little disturbed, and said: “You can make it straight with him the next time you see him.”

“Not I,” said Mr. Jackson. “It’s all I can do to look out for number one. If he had got me for a dollar, do you s’pose I ever would have heard of it? He made the calculations and did it himself.”

Justice compels the admission that Mr. Jackson was not dishonest, only thoughtless now in his glee over the though of stingy Timmons cheating himself out of a dollar. He expected to give it back to him, but it suited his humor to-night to talk differently, forgetting the boy standing at his elbow, who was drinking in every word.

“Do as you would be done by,” said Mrs. Jackson.

“I will. If I make a calculation and let Timmons or any other man get me for a dollar, I’ll stand it. How I would laugh to see his face, if some one should tell him that he had given me the whole amount of a dollar!”

Mr. Jackson kept smiling and chuckling to himself until bedtime—not because of having made a little by the carelessness of Timmons, but at the bare idea of the stingy merchant’s chagrin, if he knew it.

Tom and Alice were off betimes for school the next morning, but when Mr. Jackson came up from the fields in the evening, they were having a game of marbles in the yard; for Tom, having no boy companion, was fain to press Alice into service, and she was just as willing as a healthy, happy body and cheerful spirit could ever be.

Mr. Jackson took his paper and sat down just inside the door to enjoy its contents, but before he became engaged in reading he heard the voices of his boy and girl raised in altercation in the yard.

“I don’t like this taw,” said Alice. “I want the striped one I always play with.”

“Well, wait till I find it,” said Tom; and there was silence for a few minutes, then came a rattling sound. Tom had dropped his marble purse and the marbles rolled in every direction.

“Well, Tom Jackson,” Alice screamed, “I am ashamed of you—you mean, wicked boy!”

“What have I done?” said Tom, sulkily, gathering up his marbles.

“You have got little Sammy Black’s marbles—that’s what you’ve done—and I wouldn’t have thought it of you!”

“How do you know?” Tom asked, still on the defensive.

“Because he was hunting for them all over the playground to-day, and couldn’t find them; and I know some of the marbles, and you’ve got them. Why, Tom, you’re as bad as a thief!”

The sisterly heart of Alice would not allow her to call Tom a thief, but she was greatly distressed.

Mr. Jackson made a motion to rise and go out to them; but Tom was talking again, and he sat still.

“I’m not a thief,” said Tom, “and you had better dry up calling me names. Sammy gave me the marbles his own self.”

“And then hunted for them an hour?” said Alice. “Why, Tom!”

“He might have forgot about it,” said Tom; and he laughed a disagreeable, exultant kind of laugh that jarred strangely on Mr. Jackson’s nerves.

“Why didn’t you tell him, then? You just stood by and never said a word.”

“He had borrowed my marbles,” Tom explained, “and when he gave them back, he just dumped his own down with them. I never let on, for if he had a mind to cheat himself, it was none of my business. It is all I can do to look out for number one.”

Alice was silent for a little bit, not convinced by Tom’s sophistry, but sorely troubled. There was silence in the house, too, for another heart was troubled. “Example is better than precept” echoed in the father’s ears, and he felt his responsibility as a father as he had never felt it before.

Alice spoke again: “I know what I would do if I were you. I’d carry them just as straight to Sammy Black as I could walk.”

“Yes, of course you would,” Tom answered, “and be a ninny in the bargain. Girls have got no sense. That is not the way that men do business.”

“If you don’t carry them back,” said Alice, roused by his thrust, “I’ll tell pa—that’s what I’ll do—and he will make you do it, and whip you, besides.”

But Tom was not intimidated by the thrust. “Just tell him, if you want to,” he said. “I don’t care if you do. He will only laugh at you.”

Tom was thinking of the way he had laughed with his father the night before, and was not he equally as smart? He had only done as his father did.

The voice of Mrs. Jackson was heard from the back yard, calling Alice; thereupon the dispute ended and Alice hastened away. Tom put up his marbles and sauntered out to the barn, not dreaming that his father had heard their conversation.

Mr. Jackson was silent and grave that night—so much so that the children were rather awed, and the marble scrape was not mentioned.

The next morning was Saturday, and after breakfast Mr. Jackson told Tom to catch out old Ball and saddle him.

Then Tom had a great surprise, for his father said: “I do not feel very well to-day, and I want you to ride over to Mr. Timmons’ store and take back this dollar which he gave me by mistake. Tell him that I counted it all over, and, if he will do the same, he will see that I am right.”

Tom turned white, and then red. “I thought you were going to keep it,” he said.

“Keep what is not mine? No, indeed! I should be a thief then, whether any one knew it or not. I want to leave the name of an honest man behind me when I die; it will be the best legacy I can leave to you, my son. I have never stolen anything in my life, and I don’t propose to begin now.”

“But he gave it to you, pa. That makes a difference, doesn’t it?”

“That makes no difference at all. If I know it, and he does not, it is still stealing to me, just as though I were to slip into his store, get away with something, and not be caught at it. God would know it, and I should be a rogue.”

Tom rode off very soberly. He had plenty of time for reflection as old Ball jogged along, and when he reached the store he had another surprise.

“Now this is just as it should be between man and man,” said Mr. Timmons, rubbing his hands together. “Tell your father that whereas I always thought him an honest man, I now know him to be. Did I find it out? Of course I did, that very night, and I was just waiting to see if he would rectify it. People say I’m close as the bark on a tree, but all I want is my own. Now I know what sort of a man Mr. Jackson is, and tell him I’ll be proud and happy to serve him in any way that I can. Whenever he wants to trade, let him come to me from this on, if he pleases.”

Tom turned his horse’s head homeward, leaving Mr. Timmons rubbing his hands and smiling as though he had made a great and pleasant discovery.

Mr. Jackson was not surprised that evening when Tom requested permission to go over to Mr. Black’s to play with Sammy a while. He noticed the look that passed between Tom and Alice, but, like a wise parent, did not let on. He had his ears open, too, though the newspaper was before his eyes, when Tom returned and Alice met him at the gate.

“Did you give them back, Tom?” Alice said, eagerly; and Tom, with his old, happy laugh, answered: “Yes, and I’m as glad of it as I can be. I wouldn’t do such a trick again for pay. I don’t believe I ever would have done it if it hadn’t been for what pa said. I might have known, if I hadn’t been such a goose, that he was just ‘funning’ with ma.”

Alice gave a jump and three hops. “O, I’m glad, too!” she said. “You just didn’t think how bad it would be. Why, Tom”—her favorite expression—“you might have gone on, and gone on, and done something bad next. I don’t want you to be ‘bad Tom Jackson.’”

“I don’t mean to be,” he said soberly, “and I felt just as hateful as you please at you. I believe I said girls had no sense, and I knew that wasn’t so.”

“Never mind,” said Alice. “We will have a game of marbles, and I’ll ‘tailor’ you again if you don’t look sharp. Let’s forget all about it.”

“All right,” said Tom. “I’m glad of one thing: I’m glad pa did not know it. I tell you I felt bad when he was talking to me this morning.”

But “pa” did know it. Sitting just inside the door of the quiet front room, he had heard every word across the narrow dooryard, and different feelings to what Tom would have expected stirred his breast. If one had been looking, he might have seen two big tears roll down his rough cheeks and fall with a great splash upon his paper, and he lifted up an earnest prayer to God for strength to do his duty and for guidance, that he might guide aright the young feet that were following him.

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