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Taking, Not Stealing by Hannah Sheppard

 

"So that's your game, is it, my lads? Guess I can help you a bit. I'll try, anyhow, if it's only for the love I bore your fathers before you. And you're fine fellows too; but you've got a wrong twist somewhere, or you'd never in the world do such a thing as that." And quickening his step at the close of his soliloquy, "Captain Dan," as he was called, came up behind two boys who were standing in front of the principal fruit and candy store of the busy town of Hamilton.

A large bag of pea-nuts, with many other things, was displayed outside under the window, and the old man's attention had been attracted by seeing the elder of the boys carelessly pick up a nut as he chatted with his companion, who soon followed his example. Evidently neither one had any thought of doing wrong as they stood eating the nuts and crushing the shells in their fingers.

They started as he laid a hand heavily upon the shoulder of each, but answered his greeting so cordially that it was easy to see they were warm friends. He stopped them, as, linking their arms in his, they began to turn him around, by saying: "Going toward home, are ye? Well, I don't mind if I do go a piece with you after a bit, if you'll go down to the shore first, for I want to take another look at that vessel I had a sight of a good hour ago, and see if I can find out where she hails from. There'll be a fine sunset, too, with the clouds piled like yon"—as he pointed seaward. "I 'most wonder you're not out in the Firefly. How is it, Dick?"—turning to the lad on his right hand.

"Why, you see, Captain Dan," replied the boy, slowly, as if bringing his thoughts back from a long distance, "Ethel wanted Maurice to row her over to the Island, though I don't think he knows much more about a boat than May."

"Did they take her with them?" asked the captain, eagerly.

"Yes," answered Dick; "and I'm sure mamma would not have let her go if she'd been at home. But she was out riding with papa, and May begged so hard that Ethel would take her in spite of all I could say."

"Oh, well, there's no great harm done that I know of," quoth Captain Dan, "though I'm free to confess that I don't think your cousin knows as much of boats as he does of his books. However, as you feel uneasy, we'll wait about the landing till they come, and they can climb the cliff with us if they like. Many's the time little 'May bird' has gone up it on my shoulder, little pet!" Then, as he noticed how intently Dick was watching, he added, "They'll surely be back before long, and it won't hurt us to talk here awhile, 'specially as I've a word to say to you, my hearties."

"That's all right," responded Dick, good-humoredly; "for you know Theo and I like nothing better than to have you spin us a yarn—eh, Theo?"

"Yes, indeed," chimed in Theodore Murray, giving a vigorous kick to a stone which lay in the captain's path.

By this time they had reached the shore, and after looking off toward the Island and seeing nothing of their boat, they all sat down on a rock, which seemed almost as though it might have been shaped for a seat, only that it was rather roughly finished.

"You really needn't look so anxious, my boy," said Captain Dan, turning to Dick, "for I don't think your party could possibly come to harm. Why, the water is as smooth as glass, and we can see them the moment they round the corner of the cove."

"If Ethel only wasn't so awfully polite," groaned Dick, "but would just take the oars herself, I'd not mind a bit, for she can row beautifully; but Maurice hasn't an idea how to manage a boat, though he's first rate on land. We're all ready for your yarn, though, captain, as soon as you've got your breath ready to begin to spin it."

Captain Dan smiled, half sadly. "It's no 'yarn' to-night, my lads. But, Dick, what would you call a man who took what didn't belong to him?"

"Why, a thief, of course," answered the boy, promptly.

"'And what would you say if any one called your father's son a thief?" pursued the old man.

"Tell him he lied!" exclaimed Dick, quickly, springing to his feet, and confronting his questioner with flashing eyes. "What ever do you mean, sir, by such strange talk?"

"Sit down quietly again, and I'll tell you; for though I saw both you and Theo helping yourselves to what didn't belong to you this afternoon, yet I never could find it in my heart to call you thieves; for I suppose you would say it was only 'taking,' and not 'stealing.'"

"What do you mean?" asked Theodore, who had been listening in silence, but with a most puzzled face.

"Just this—that as I walked up the street I saw each of you take a nut or so from the bag which stands in front of Mr. Baker's store."

"Oh," said Dick, drawing a long breath of relief, "that was all, was it?"

"Why, that wasn't stealing, Captain Dan," broke in Theodore, eagerly.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," observed their friend, dryly. "I didn't know you'd paid for the nuts, or I'd not have mentioned the matter."

"Paid for them!" exclaimed both boys at once. "Of course we'd not paid for them; but then that's not stealing, you know, for we only each took one or two, and we were right there in open sight. It's a totally different thing."

"I beg leave to differ entirely from you," answered the captain, in his slow way. "But suppose there'd been a water-melon lying there on the step, would either of you have carried it off without paying for it, or eaten it there, either?"

"Of course not," said Dick, indignantly; but Theodore broke in, abruptly, as he sprang up, his cheeks glowing with shame:

"I never thought of it so before! Why, it's just dreadful, Dick; for Captain Dan is right—we were stealing, though we never meant it. Oh, what would my mother say?" he added, with a choke in his voice.

"I don't see it in that light at all," persisted Dick, sturdily; "it was only a pea-nut or so, and we didn't do it 'on the sly,' as we would if we'd been 'stealing,' as you say. Why, the very word makes me mad all over"—doubling up his fists as he paced up and down before them, now and then giving himself a shake like a great dog.

"Hold on a minute, my son," said the old man, gently, "and I think I can make it clearer. Suppose a basket of apples was standing in Smith's grocery store. On my way home I stop in to buy a pound of tea, and while it is being weighed out I pick up an apple to eat. You drop in next to get some crackers, and you take one while waiting. Then Theo's mother sends him for a pound of cheese, and he also helps himself. Others follow our example, and though no person takes more than a single one, yet by night the basket is emptied, without a cent of profit to the grocer, though he has paid the farmer for them. Yet you say we have not been stealing. How is it?"

The color had been slowly mounting in Dick's frank face as he stood before his friend with folded arms, and looking far out to sea. But the instant he heard the question with which the speaker concluded, he turned and said, impulsively: "You're right, Captain Dan, and I'm all wrong. It is stealing, and nothing else, just as you said; but I never thought of it so before, and it's just dreadful. I can't bear to think of it, even though I've hardly ever done it; still, the part I hate just the worst kind is that I've done it at all, and never saw the harm of it till now."

"Tell you what, Dick," exclaimed Theodore, hurriedly, "I mean to go in and tell Mr. Baker about it on my way home to-night; will you go with me?"

"Of course I will; and we'll pay him for everything we can possibly remember. But I say, old fellow, what if Jack Stretch saw us, or any of those other street chaps? They could turn the tables on us splendidly, you know, after our asking them to go to Sunday-school with us. They'd be likely to tell us we'd borrowed their trade, and would say we needn't preach to them again."

Theodore looked troubled, and then brightened somewhat as a happy thought struck him. "I mean to tell my mother the whole thing before I go to sleep this night," he said, "and I'm sure she'll help us out."

"You're right, my boy," observed the captain, nodding his head with a pleased air. "Your mother's a wise woman; so is yours, Dick, and I advise you to adopt the same plan; for when boys get too old—or too something—to talk over their troubles and their pleasures with their mothers, you may be pretty sure they're going wrong somehow; at least that has always been my experience."

"But, Captain Dan, there are lots of people who surely can't look at this thing as you do, and as we do too, now that you've shown us," remarked Dick, thoughtfully, "for I've seen men, and women too, pick up little things to taste in the stores, and never seem to think of paying for them."

The old man sighed wearily. "I know it, lad," he answered; "and I can tell you more than that. For I've heard of some cases—I hope and trust they're rare ones, though—where boarding-house keepers in large cities, who were poorly off, would go from one store to another, and from stand to stand in the markets, pricing and buying in a small way, while all the time they would be picking up a nut or so here, an apple or orange there, or a few raisins over yonder, and in this manner get enough for a dessert, till their tricks came to be well known, and they were watched carefully."

"How dreadful!" cried the boys.

"And perhaps," added Theodore, "they began as we did, without thinking anything about it, and I'm ever so much obliged to you, Captain Dan, for telling us."

"Yes, indeed!" struck in Dick, earnestly, giving himself a shake; "I see it exactly now; and I don't mind telling mamma about it half so much as I do thinking to myself that I ever did such a mean thing, don't you see."

"Yes," responded his friend, as he looked up into the pure manly face, feeling that so long as the fact of losing his own self-respect was so much worse than to lose that of others, he would always have a safeguard—"yes, I understand. But isn't that the Firefly off yonder?"

The boys ran down to the water's edge, followed at a slower pace by the captain.

"Dear me! why don't Ethel take the oars and show him how to row?" burst forth Dick, impatiently, as they watched the tiny craft moving irregularly toward them.

"Gently, laddie," said the captain; "remember we must all have a learning; and no doubt you did as badly as that when you began, even though you're such a crack sailor now; and you know Miss Ethel mightn't like to give a lesson unless she was asked to do so."

The little boat gradually neared them, though in a very jerky fashion, showing how unskilled the rower was, till, unhappily, glancing over his shoulder, he caught sight of the group awaiting them, and raised his oars by way of salute. But, in lowering them, one fell from his hand, tired with the unusual exertion; he leaned over too far to reach it, and the next moment they were all struggling in the water.

In an instant the boys' coats were off, and they dashed in to the rescue; nor was Captain Dan much behind them, while it was truly wonderful to see how agile he was, when swimming, for after his slow steps on land, the water appeared like his native element. Fortunately the boat was not far from the shore when the accident happened, and the captain's powerful strokes soon put him ahead of his younger companions. He reached the spot just in time to catch May—his "baby," as he always called the five-year-old prattler—as she was sinking for the last time, in spite of the frantic efforts made by Maurice, who, though no swimmer, had retained his presence of mind, and had caught the edge of the overturned boat, which he was trying to float toward Ethel, while holding May tightly with the other arm. But the child had struck her head against the oar as she fell, and was stunned so as to be quite insensible.

"Keep your hold of the boat," called the captain; "I've got the baby all safe, and the boys have reached Miss Ethel. Hullo, Dick!" he shouted, suddenly; "let Theo help your sister, and bear a hand here, will you?" For he saw that Maurice was fast giving out, though the gallant old man was supporting him with one hand, while holding the child firmly with the other; and encumbered in this way, swimming was slow work.

"Here we are!" sang out Dick, who soon reached them; and remembering "Nan the Newsboy's" directions, with the captain's aid managed to turn Maurice upon his back, for by this time he had quite lost consciousness, and then struck out steadily for the land. In the course of a few more moments the little party were anxiously gathered around Maurice and May, who were still insensible. Theo had started off for help, which soon came, and they were carried to the nearest house, where Maurice after a time revived. But poor little May remained so long unconscious that they had almost given up hope, when Dick, who had been helping to rub her, and would give up his post to no one, exclaimed he was sure he felt her heart beating, which, to his great delight, proved to be the case, and a while afterward she opened her eyes, and looked around vacantly.

But the blow on her head had been a very severe one; the shock to the little frame was so great that it was followed by a serious illness; and though she recovered after weeks of suffering, and was her own bright self again, yet the boys agreed that Captain Dan's kindly sermon had been followed by enough to make that day one of the most eventful in their lives, and never to be forgotten.

And though they could not go to the store that night, yet they went early the next morning, told the whole story, and were most kindly received by Mr. Baker, with whom Captain Dan had had a private conference just before their arrival, so that he was fully prepared for them.

In spite of their urging, he would not take their money, though he thanked them "for coming in such a manly way to confess their fault," adding, as he shook hands with them, that while they had only done what was right, yet he wished men as well as boys would have the moral courage to confess when they had done wrong, for so often these little beginnings of evil lead the way to greater sins.