"John Thomas!" Mr. Belknap spoke in a firm, rather authoritative voice. It was evident that he anticipated some reluctance on the boy's part, and therefore, assumed, in the outset, a very decided manner.
John Thomas, a lad between twelve and thirteen years of age, was seated on the doorstep, reading. A slight movement of the body indicated that he heard; but he did not lift his eyes from the book, nor make any verbal response.
"John Thomas!" This time the voice of Mr. Belknap was loud, sharp, and imperative.
"Sir," responded the boy, dropping the volume in his lap, and looking up with a slightly flushed, but sullen face.
"Did n't you hear me when I first spoke?" said Mr. Belknap, angrily.
"Then, why did n't you answer me? Always respond when you are spoken to. I'm tired of this ill-mannerd, disrespectful way of yours."
The boy stood up, looking, now, dogged, as well as sullen.
"Go get your hat and jacket." This was said in a tone of command, accompanied by a side toss of the head, by the way of enforcing the order.
"What for?" asked John Thomas, not moving a pace from where he stood.
"Go and do what I tell you. Get your hat and jacket."
The boy moved slowly and with a very reluctant air from the room.
"Now, don't be all day," Mr. Belknap called after him, "I'm in a hurry. Move briskly."
How powerless the father's words died upon the air. The motions of John Thomas were not quickened in the slightest degree. Like a soulless automaton passed he out into the passage and up the stairs; while the impatient Mr. Belknap could with difficulty restrain an impulse to follow after, and hasten the sulky boy's movements with blows. He controlled himself, however, and resumed the perusal of his newspaper. Five, ten minutes passed, and John Thomas had not yet appeared to do the errand upon which his father designed to send him. Suddenly Mr. Belknap dropped his paper, and going hastily to the bottom of the stairs, called out:
"You John! John Thomas!"
"Sir!" came a provokingly indifferent voice from one of the chambers.
"Did n't I tell you to hurry--say?"
"I can't find my jacket."
"You don't want to find it. Where did you lay it when you took it off last night?"
"I don't know. I forget."
"If you're not down here, with your jacket on, in one minute, I'll warm your shoulders well for you."
Mr. Belknap was quite in earnest in this threat, a fact plainly enough apparent to John Thomas in the tone of his father's voice. Not just wishing to have matters proceed to this extremity, the boy opened a closet, and, singularly enough, there hung his jacket in full view. At the expiration of the minute, he was standing before his disturbed father, with his jacket on, and buttoned up to the chin.
"Where's your hat?" now asked Mr. Belknap.
"I don't know, sir."
"Well, find it, then."
"I've looked everywhere."
"Look again. There! What is that on the hat rack, just under my coat?"
The boy answered not, but walked moodily to the rack, and took his hat therefrom.
"Ready at last. I declare I'm out of all patience with your slow movements and sulky manner. What do you stand there for, knitting your brows and pouting your lips? Straighten out your face, sir! I won't have a boy of mine put on such a countenance."
The lad, thus angrily and insultingly rated, made a feeble effort to throw a few rays of sunshine into his face. But, the effort died fruitless. All was too dark, sullen, and rebellious within his bosom.
"See here." Mr. Belknap still spoke in that peculiar tone of command which always stifles self-respect in the one to whom it is addressed.
"Do you go down to Leslie's and tell him to send me a good claw hammer and three pounds of eightpenny nails. And go quickly."
The boy turned off without a word of reply, and was slowly moving away, when his father said, sharply:
"Look here, sir!"
John Thomas paused and looked back.
"Did you hear me?"
"What did I tell you to do?"
"Go get a claw hammer and three pounds of eightpenny nails."
"Very well. Why did n't you indicate, in some way, that you heard me? Have n't I already this morning read you a lecture about this very thing? Now, go quickly. I'm in a hurry."
For all this impatience and authority on the part of Mr. Belknap, John Thomas moved away at a snail's pace; and as the former in a state of considerable irritability, gazed after the boy, he felt strongly tempted to call him back, and give him a good flogging in order that he might clearly comprehend the fact of his being in earnest. But as this flogging was an unpleasant kind of business, and had, on all previous occasions, been succeeded by a repentant and self-accusing state, Mr. Belknap restrained his indignant impulses.
"If that stubborn, incorrigible boy returns in half an hour, it will be a wonder," muttered Mr. Belknap, as he came back into the sitting-room. "I wish I knew what to do with him. There is no respect or obedience in him. I never saw such a boy. He knows that I'm in a hurry; and yet he goes creeping along like a tortoise, and ten chances to one, if he does n't forget his errand altogether before he is halfway to Leslie's. What is to be done with him, Aunt Mary?"
Mr. Belknap turned, as he spoke to an elderly lady, with a mild, open face, and clear blue eyes, from which goodness looked forth as an angel. She was a valued relative, who was paying him a brief visit.
Aunt Mary let her knitting rest in her lap, and turned her mild, thoughtful eyes upon the speaker.
"What is to be done with that boy, Aunt Mary?" Mr. Belknap repeated his words. "I've tried everything with him; but he remains incorrigible."
"Have you tried--"
Aunt Mary paused, and seemed half in doubt whether it were best to give utterance to what was in her mind.
"Tried what?" asked Mr. Belknap.
"May I speak plainly?" said Aunt Mary.
"To me? Why yes! The plainer the better."
"Have you tried a kind, affectionate, unimpassioned manner with the boy? Since I have been here, I notice that you speak to him in a cold, indifferent, or authoritative tone. Under such treatment, some natures, that soften quickly in the sunshine of affection, grow hard and stubborn."
The blood mounted to the cheeks and brow of Mr. Belknap.
"Forgive me, if I have spoken too plainly," said Aunt Mary.
Mr. Belknap did not make any response for some time, but sat, with his eyes upon the floor, in hurried self-examination.
"No, Aunt Mary, not too plainly," said he, as he looked at her with a sobered face. "I needed that suggestion, and thank you for having made it."
"Mrs. Howitt has a line which beautifully expresses what I mean," said Aunt Mary, in her gentle, earnest way. "It is
'For love hath readier will than fear.'
Ah, if we could all comprehend the wonderful power of love! It is the fire that melts; while fear only smites, the strokes hardening, or breaking its unsightly fragments. John Thomas has many good qualities, that ought to be made as active as possible. These, like goodly flowers growing in a carefully tilled garden, will absorb the latent vitality in his mind, and thus leave nothing from which inherent evil tendencies can draw nutrition."
Aunt Mary said no more, and Mr. Belknap's thoughts were soon too busy with a new train of ideas, to leave him in any mood for conversation.
Time moved steadily on. Nearly half an hour had elapsed, in which period John Thomas might have gone twice to Leslie's store, and returned; yet he was still absent. Mr. Belknap was particularly in want of the hammer and nails, and the delay chafed him very considerably; the more particularly, as it evidenced the indifference of his son in respect to his wishes and commands. Sometimes he would yield to a momentary blinding flush of anger, and resolve to punish the boy severely the moment he could get his hands on him. But quickly would come in Aunt Mary's suggestion, and he would again resolve to try the power of kind words. He was also a good deal strengthened in his purposes, by the fact that Aunt Mary's eyes would be upon him at the return of John Thomas. After her suggestion, and his acknowledgment of its value, it would hardly do for him to let passion so rule him as to act in open violation of what was right. To wrong his son by unwise treatment, when he professed to desire only his good.
The fact is, Mr. Belknap had already made the discovery, that if he would govern his boy, he must first govern himself. This was not an easy task. Yet he felt that it must be done.
"There comes that boy now," said he, as he glanced forth, and saw John Thomas coming homeward at a very deliberate pace. There was more of impatience in his tone of voice than he wished to betray to Aunt Mary, who let her beautiful, angel-like eyes rest for a moment or two, penetratingly, upon him. The balancing power of that look was needed; and it performed its work.
Soon after, the loitering boy came in. He had a package of nails in his hand, which he reached, half indifferently, to his father.
"The hammer!" John started with a half frightened air.
"Indeed, father, I forgot all about it!" said he, looking up with a flushed countenance, in which genuine regret was plainly visible.
"I'm sorry," said Mr. Belknap, in a disappointed, but not angry or rebuking voice. "I've been waiting a long time for you to come back, and now I must go to the store without nailing up that trellice for your mother's honeysuckle and wisteria, as I promised."
The boy looked at his father a moment or two with an air of bewilderment and surprise; then he said, earnestly:
"Just wait a little longer. I'll run down to the store and get it for you in a minute. I'm very sorry that I forgot it."
"Run along, then," said Mr. Belknap, kindly.
How fleetly the lad bounded away! His father gazed after him with an emotion of surprise, not unmixed with pleasure.
"Yes--yes," he murmured, half aloud, "Mrs. Howitt never uttered a wiser saying. 'For love hath readier will than fear.'"
Quicker than even Aunt Mary, whose faith in kind words was very strong, had expected, John came in with the hammer, a bright glow on his cheeks and a sparkle in his eyes that strongly contrasted with the utter want of interest displayed in his manner a little while before.
"Thank you, my son," said Mr. Belknap, as he took the hammer; "I could not have asked a prompter service."
He spoke very kindly, and in a voice of approval. "And now, John," he added, with the manner of one who requests, rather than commands, "if you will go over to Frank Wilson's, and tell him to come over and work for two or three days in our garden, you will oblige me very much. I was going to call there as I went to the store this morning; but it is too late now."
"O, I'll go, father--I'll go," replied the boy, quickly and cheerfully. "I'll run right over at once."
"Do, if you please," said Mr. Belknap, now speaking from an impulse of real kindness, for a thorough change had come over his feelings. A grateful look was cast, by John Thomas, into his father's face, and then he was off to do his errand. Mr. Belknap saw, and understood the meaning of that look.
"Yes--yes--yes,--" thus he talked with himself as he took his way to the store,--"Aunt Mary and Mrs. Howitt are right. Love hath a readier will. I ought to have learned this lesson earlier. Ah! how much that is deformed in this self-willed boy, might now be growing in beauty."