Byron’s mother was a Christian woman, and she knew the power in prayer. Often during severe trials and in perplexing times she had carried her burdens to the throne of grace. And as she poured forth her sorrows there, she always received strength and help that she needed.
For some months her son had, much to her displeasure, been associating with James. On the evening when Byron wound his way through field and forest, across the stream, and on to the place where he was to meet James, his mother’s heart beat anxiously for her boy. When he had left her at the gate, she had watched him hurry down the road until he was hidden from her view. Then with a sad and aching heart she had turned and entered the house. The evening work was waiting, but she had no heart to do it. Entering her bedroom, she closed the door and, kneeling in her accustomed place, poured out her heart’s sorrow in earnest prayer to God.
“O Lord,” she cried, “Thou knowest the burden of my heart; Thou knowest that I must have Thy help and strength to bear up under this trial. I have done the best I knew to do and have used all the judgment Thou hast given me, in the matter. Byron has disregarded my wishes and advice. I am going to commit him into Thy hands, and I pray Thee to take care of him and help him to see the error of his way, and to save his soul. Send Thy Holy Spirit, Lord, to talk to him through his conscience, and pilot him through this night.”
When the prayer was ended she felt relief and went about her evening duties, but her mind was still upon her son. Byron had never before spoken to his mother in such a way, utterly disregarding her advice and judgment, and his cruel words could not be forgotten.
A week before, Byron had arranged with James, a boy a year older than he, to spend Saturday night with him.
All week long he had thought of his promise, and each day had planned to speak to his mother about it, but his courage had always failed him when he saw her. So the entire week had slipped away and Saturday had arrived without his having gained his mother’s permission to go.
At noon he had felt that the time had come. He must tell her, but how? He felt sure she would ask him certain questions, and how could he answer them? His mother had grounds for her poor opinion of James, for he did many things that were wrong. He had left his home in another state and for most of the way had stolen rides on freight trains.
For more than a year he had been living a few miles from Byron’s home, at the homes of the farmers he worked for. He went to Sunday school in the same country chapel that Byron attended, and it was in this way that the boys had become acquainted. A few times he had returned with Byron to his home.
After one of these visits Byron’s mother had talked seriously with him. “Now, Byron, I don’t want to deprive you of associating with other boys. It is right and proper that you should do so, but you ought to choose good boys for your companions. I should like to have you associate with those whose actions you can imitate and who have a good, strong, Christian character.
“You are now at an age when impressions are being made upon your mind that will last all through your future life. You are now neither a man nor a boy, yet you have manly principles unfolding themselves within you. In other words, you are molding either a good or a bad character. You cannot associate with evil companions and not have their imprint left upon your heart. Like the photographer’s camera, your heart has a sensor on which impressions are being made through exposure. When you are exposed to unclean or impure objects, is it strange that the heart becomes filled with thoughts that are evil? Is it strange that sinful acts are then committed? It is not strange, for Jesus said, ‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.’ (Luke 6:45)
“The world, Byron, is as an ocean—great, deep, and wide—and all humanity must spend their mortal life upon it. God has so arranged it that everyone may choose his own course upon this great sea, but He desired them to follow the directions that He has marked out for them in His guidebook—the Bible. If they decide to follow His instructions, He gives to them His Holy Spirit as a Pilot to guide them by speaking through their conscience in every trial and difficulty through which they may have to pass. Should their course be marked by danger and trial, there will be rewards and victories as well, for these things belong together. If, on the other hand, a man chooses to depend upon his own judgment and the advice of companions who, like himself, have no Pilot, he will be guided into new problems. He will find that he has no idea what lies before him, and sooner or later shipwreck will be his doom.
“For this reason I cannot feel right about your associating with James too much. It is all right to treat him kindly and to try to help him to do right, but you will not be able to help him if you become close friends, for he will influence you in the wrong direction.
“He has lived among all sorts of people and has come in contact with sin of nearly every kind. You can see by his face that he has formed sinful habits that ought to be shunned. Just because he attends Sunday school and church does not prove that he is a good boy, by any means. It may be helpful to him, and no doubt it is. A religious influence is good for anyone, but the influence that he gives in return must be avoided. From the time I first saw him I have not liked his appearance. He never could look me square in the eye. He always has an expression of guilt that an innocent boy does not have.
“I have tried to be kind to him when he has visited you, hoping that I might be of some help in turning him from his sinful habits. But I see that my influence has not any good, and, sad to say, he is doing you harm.
“Ever since your father’s death, when you were a small boy, I have felt the burden and responsibility of bringing you up to manhood with high and noble principles within you. I have tried to guide your feet in the right path. You are now at the most dangerous period of your life, when you need good, wholesome advice, and what I am telling you is for your future good.
“Now, James is older than you are, and you will unconsciously be led into company where it will be very hard for you to stand up for the right. Do you remember the account in your old school reader of the plateful of beautiful apples with the rotten one in the center?
“A father had noticed that his son was being influenced by evil companions. He decided to give him an object lesson, and so he placed a number of fine ripe apples on a plate. After showing them to his son, he put a rotten apple near the center of the pile. Then he placed them carefully in the cupboard and said, ‘We shall enjoy them later on.’
“His son was quite surprised at this. ‘Father, that rotten apple will spoil the others if you leave it there.’
“But the father paid no attention to his son’s warning and closed the cupboard doors.
“Some time later the father called his son to him and said, ‘Now, we shall get our plate of apples and eat them.’ Reaching into the cupboard, he carefully took down the plate. But when they looked at it, they did not see the fresh, beautiful fruit that had been placed there. The bad apple had ruined the good ones, and none of them were fit to eat.
“ ‘Did I not tell you,’ exclaimed the boy, ‘to keep that rotten apple away from the others, or it would ruin them?’
“ ‘Yes, my son,’ his father answered, ‘I know that you told me, and I also knew they would be spoiled. Do you know why I put that rotten apple with the others? I wanted to show you that a bad boy is like a rotten apple and causes his associates to become like himself.’
“Now, Byron,” said his mother, “think about the lesson of the apples, and about what will affect you. My daily prayer is that you may become a good Christian man.”
Byron really wanted to become a noble and useful man in the world. So whenever he saw James at Sunday school after his mother’s talk, he thought of her words. But as week after week rolled by, he tried to make himself believe that James was not so bad after all, and that his mother was just a little too careful and particular.
The daring stories James told him from time to time fed the restless nature within him, and, regardless of the apple story and his mother’s advice, he longed to be with James as he used to. Still, he did not like to invite him to his own home, while his mother felt as she did. After many an argument with himself he at last silenced his conscience for a season and began to plan how he could have secret meetings with James.
Now, Byron had a cousin who was near his own age and who lived not far away; and as the cousin was a good boy and carefully trained by Christian parents, Byron was often encouraged to visit him. Satan was not long in taking advantage of this opportunity and soon helped Byron in his scheming by presenting a way whereby James could meet the cousins down the river. He also gave James the shrewdness to only lead the boys on a little bit at a time in things they had been taught were wrong. And if the boys doubted that it was all right to do, or if they were afraid of being found out, James would ridicule them and make them feel ashamed.
Thus the two cousins were given the impression that their home teaching was not the kind that would make them brave, strong, and daring. Many times they did things they didn’t want to, that they might not appear cowardly before their hero. At these secret meetings the three would often go fishing or swimming. When the cousins suggested that their mothers did not approve of doing such things on Sunday, James would answer with a coarse laugh, “Yes, there you go again. Always quoting what your mother thinks. I wish you boys could remember that our actions are secret—no one’s going to find out what we do, so don’t worry about getting into trouble.”
In spite of his efforts to forget them, Byron would sometimes think of his mother’s warnings and of the apple story, but he would quickly banish such thoughts from his mind and endeavor to excuse James because of his lack of home training. But by now he knew that James was a bad boy and that his own desire to be with him and to do as he did was stronger than it had ever been before. He also realized that now, when James proposed doing something wrong, instead of saying that it was not what they ought to do, he was sometimes influenced to take part in it.
Byron told James how his mother did not want them to be together. James said, “Well, never mind, Byron. I know that your mother is a good woman and means well, but she doesn’t understand as I do your desire to gain a knowledge of the world. What can you learn, shut up as you are at home on the farm away from those who know what real fun is? I tell you what, Byron, it will be a grand day when you are able to do as you please.”
Thus Byron was encouraged in wrongdoing. As far back as he could remember, his mother had taught her children to gather together for a worship hour, and to bow with her in prayer. This he came to regard as tiresome and monotonous. The only part that he looked forward to with eagerness was the “Amen.” In fact, many things that he used to delight in he now no longer enjoyed; especially was this true about his class on Sunday in the little chapel. His mind was not on his lessons any more. He spent the time thinking of the fun that he would have at the riverside when he was with James. He enjoyed hearing James tell of the many things that he had done—of his stealing rides on the trains from one town to another, of the dangerous exploits that he had done, and of visits to saloons and other places of wickedness—and wondered if he himself would ever do those kinds of things.
Whenever he thought of the disgrace that such a downward course would mean to his family, he would reason, “They would probably never find out about it.” Thus the voice of his conscience was constantly hushed; and, without the Holy Spirit to pilot him through life, he was in great danger.
Upon a certain Sunday, when the three boys were together, they strolled back into the woods. Here, in a lonely place, they seated themselves upon a grassy knoll beneath a large beech tree, and James, whom the boys recognized as their leader, addressed them. “Boys,” he said, as he pulled something from his pocket, “I have something here that will be of interest to you.”
“What is it, James?” both boys exclaimed. “What have you got?”
“I have a pack of cards,” James answered, shuffling them carelessly in his hands. “These are the kind of cards that are used by gamblers and in saloons. I learned to play the game when only a small boy and can say it is not only interesting but beneficial as well, as large amounts of money can be won when it is properly played. I have never mentioned it to you before, because I know how strict Byron’s mother is about what he does or thinks, and I supposed she would be against this, of course. Now that you are becoming better acquainted with me and my ways, I shall tell you about the game, and,” he added confidently, “I am going to teach you how to play it, for it is not hard to learn it.”
James was dealing out the cards before the boys had an opportunity to say anything. Now Byron had played with the cards of the Educational series, but his mother had often warned him against the kind that the gamblers used. As he looked down at the cards before him, he thought seriously of his mother’s words.
“James,” he said with deep emotion, “I can’t feel right in playing this game. I’m afraid my mother will find out about it.”
“Oh, come Byron,” James urged, “don’t always be a boy! You are almost a man, and it’s high time you were learning some of these things.”
After a little of this kind of persuasion from James, the boys consented to learn and the game was begun. Now and then James made remarks about the impossibility of Byron’s mother ever finding out that they had been playing cards, and about the many people in the world whose fortunes had been made by gambling. The fascination of the game, together with James’ reassuring words, made it very easy for the boys to continue, and game after game was played, in which one or the other of the cousins was permitted to win.
So interested had they become that they did not notice that the sun was sinking fast and that the shades of evening were already gathering. Knowing that he would be expected home by sundown, Byron sprang suddenly to his feet, saying, “My, but the time has gone rapidly! I had no idea it was getting so late. That game is interesting, all right, and I don’t like to stop playing. It surely can’t be as bad as Mother has said, and I don’t see why she should object to it. She probably has never watched a game of this sort played. She has been altogether too strict with me.”
“I believe that you have a good mother, Byron,” James said; “but there is no need of depriving a fellow of all the pleasures along the way. Why, we only pass through this life once, and we might as well get all the enjoyment out of it that we can.”
The following two weeks Byron was kept so busy on the farm that he had no time for himself. When again the boys met near the river, a young man named George was with James. George, though not much larger than James, was older, and sin had left in his features deeper and harder lines. He stayed with a farmer who lived about a mile from where James worked, and the two boys were often together. The cousins found him to be a very jolly and talkative companion and were soon much interested in the stories he told them of his adventures. Then they all retired to the secluded place in the woods where James had produced the deck of cards.
During all the past two weeks of hard toil on the farm, Byron had not forgotten how much he had enjoyed the card game. Sometimes he wanted to talk about it to his mother and tell her how very interesting it was. But he always shrank from doing so when he thought of James’ words—“They are what the gamblers use in the saloons”—and remembered about the large amounts of money he could win when he learned how to play. How he wished that she would approve of the game!
Now, as he seated himself upon the green turf and the older boys began to play, he again thought of his mother’s teaching and heard the voice of his conscience speaking. But the game was so interesting that he soon accepted an invitation to join the others. For an hour or more they played, and as Byron became more and more fascinated with the game, he endeavored to learn all the little details that he could. He quickly many little tricks and methods by which he could take advantage of the other players dishonestly.
“Oh, this is too tame!” said James, after a bit. “Let’s put a little life into it! Come, get out your money, Byron, and let’s play for a small stake.”
“Why, that would be gambling!” Byron exclaimed in a horrified tone, realizing how things were going. “My mother—” he continued, but the look upon James’ face made him ashamed to finish the sentence. For several minutes he remained silent. “Mother has always said that gambling and card playing go together,” he thought, “and here the boys want me to gamble! What shall I do? If I tell them no, they will call me a coward, and perhaps take my money from me; and if I lay it down, I shall stand a chance of winning it back and more.” Hesitating, Byron slowly pulled out his wallet, saying, “What would Mother say if she should find out about this!”
“There Byron goes again, worrying about his mother,” James said, and he laughed coarsely. “He is always wondering about her, but he’s better than he used to be. He’s becoming more manly and will soon be able to think for himself.”
James’ tone and manner when speaking of Byron’s mother made Byron wince, and when James added, “Come now, old boy, your mother will never find out about this, so fork over your money like a little man,” Byron’s face became scarlet, and be dared not look up. James’ rough words and manner had stung Byron to the very depths of his soul, and for a few moments he did not know what to do. He would have been glad to be at home. It was hard to stand such ridicule, and now that James was losing his reserve, Byron could see plainly that his mother was right in her warnings. But there was a fascination about it all that he could not resist.
As soon as he was able to do so, he tried to laugh and not to appear offended at the rough remarks. Then, fearful lest something more be said about cowardice, he counted out his money, finding that he had just forty-seven cents, and quietly laid it down upon the grass. The other boys soon followed his example. Each put down a similar amount, and then all were ready to begin the game.
The manner in which the boys received their money was somewhat different. James and George were paid wages for their work; but by the time they paid for their clothing, they had very little left for other things. Byron and his cousin did not have to plan for their clothing, as it was always supplied. Whatever money was given them they could do with as they pleased; but they had been taught to use it carefully and to make it go as far as possible. It was therefore with reluctance that all the boys had parted with their money, but each was hoping to receive it back again with interest. With this thought in mind, James said, “We will not make the amount very large at first. We’ll each lay down a nickel, and the one who wins the game will receive all the nickels.”
In the game that followed each player tried to do his best. Every card was carefully studied before it was thrown down, and the players tried to take advantage of the others in every way that they could. George won, and as he triumphantly picked up the money, James said excitedly, “Now, boys, we ought to have more money than this. None of us here have much to spend, and we ought to figure out a plan whereby we could get more. I asked my boss the other day to pay me higher wages, but he only laughed at me and said he was paying me now more than I earned. I should like to have several dollars to blow in every week.”
“I agree with you,” George added emphatically. “Money is a good thing to have, and the more we can get in our possession the better time we can have.” Then he added in a lower tone, “I have been getting some extra of late, and I mean to get some more soon.”
“How is that?” James asked quickly.
“Why, I’ve been finding some loose change lying around,” George answered. “It’s an easy matter to find it when you try; but, of course, you have to be very cautious and can only take a small amount at a time, but it’s a help.”
“Good for you!” James said, slapping his companion on the back. “That’s the way to do it, and I guess it does help!”
An awful look of fear swept over Byron’s features. He realized that he was a companion not only of card players and gamblers, but of thieves as well. Could it be possible! What would his mother say about it? He could almost see her white face and hear her saddened voice warning him against such a course in life. Could he ever meet her again?
Suddenly, however, he was awakened from his reverie. “Look here, boys,” James was saying, “I have a plan all figured out, and I know it will work fine! Here is Byron. He receives no regular wages for his work, and he is entitled to a share in the things that are produced on the farm. He helps to produce them and ought to share in the benefits. Here is the plan: his mother has a large number of chickens, and each day he could lay aside a few eggs and hide them somewhere without their ever being missed. Then when he had collected a sufficient number, he could in some way manage to market them and thus secure a nice little sum for himself. And,” he added with a meaning glance, “I am sure he would be willing to share up with his best friends.”
“James, you are always full of new ideas,” said George, approvingly. “I never would have thought of that plan.”
Byron remained silent, more troubled than ever. The remarks made about his being able to securely hide things from his mother brought to his mind an incident that had taken place several years before. Thinking of this, he quite forgot that he was in the presence of the boys, and imagined himself back at home between the long rows of corn.
The incident occurred when he was about nine years of age. “Byron,” his mother had said, “I want you to take these beans to the north cornfield and plant them in with the corn. There is no other place to plant them now, and they should have been planted before this. As they are a variety that grows very tall, they can wind around and climb up on the stalks of corn for their support. You may make a small hole beside each hill of corn and drop a single bean in every hole. I will not need your sister in the house today, and she may go and help you with the work. It will be best for each of you to have a small stick sharpened at one end. With these you can easily make a small opening in the ground, where you can drop the bean, and then you can cover it with earth.”
Hastening to the woodpile, he soon prepared, by the aid of an ax and a jackknife, the two sticks. He brought them back to the house, where he found his sister waiting for him. In her hand was a tin pail that contained about four quarts of beans.
As Byron sat there among his friends musing, he remembered how beautifully the sun shone that morning, and how sweetly the meadowlarks were singing, as he and his sister walked to the cornfield. The sweet odors from the clover blossoms seemed again to fill the air. He remembered how, as they were climbing over the pasture fence, they had accidentally spilled part of the beans. They made sure to carefully pick every bean that had spilled. Then they eagerly made ready to start.
As they planted one row after another, their enthusiasm arose, and his sister remarked, “Say, Byron, this is fun! It won’t take long to plant these beans.”
“Yes,” he answered, “it’s more like play than work.”
But after a while their ardor abated, and he remarked, “This is going awfully slow. The beans in my pail are disappearing so slowly I fear it will take us a long time to plant them.”
“Yes, and my back is getting tired already,” said his sister.
At the next hill Byron had accidentally dropped two beans instead of one in the hole that he had made. Just as he was about to reach down to remove the extra one, a thought flashed through his mind.
“Say, Sister, if we just drop two beans in each hole, we can finish our work much sooner than we shall be able to do at this rate.”
“I know that Byron,” his sister replied, “but Mother told us to plant only one in each hill.”
“I know she did, but when shall we ever get done? No one would know about it if we dropped two in a hole, and we could do it just as well as not.”
After talking the matter over, his sister agreed to plant two beans in each hill, instead of one. After they had planted a few rows in this way, there were still a good many beans left, and they were both getting very tired and hungry. So, in their eagerness to finish the job, they did not stop with putting two beans in a hole but often dropped in four or five. Yet, even though they were using up the beans quite quickly now, there were still a number left when they heard the dinner bell begin to ring.
Looking about him for a place to hide the remaining beans, Byron discovered a stump and said, “Here’s a place, Sister, where we can hide our beans and make the folks think they’re all planted. Come, let’s empty our pails and cover the beans with a little earth. Then, if anyone asks us if we have planted them, we can answer yes, and no one will ever know the difference.” With one accord they deposited the beans about the stump and after carefully covering them hurried to the house for dinner.
“Well, children,” their mother asked, “did you get the beans all planted?”
“Yes, Mother,” they answered. Byron remembered the feeling of guilt that had crept over him then as their mother praised them for the good job she thought they had done. It was much the same feeling of guilt that he now felt about the plan that James had suggested. And he vividly remembered how his sin had been discovered.
Ten days after the beans were planted he and his older brother went back to work in the same cornfield. The corn had grown rapidly since he last saw it, and the beans were up and growing nicely. The two brothers worked back and forth through the field, one cultivating the soil and the other loosening it up about the roots of the corn with the hoe. Then his brother suddenly remarked, “Byron, you must have planted this row twice, for there are two beans coming in every hill.”
Byron noticed his brother’s quizzical look and did not know what to answer. It had never occurred to him that the beans would be a telltale for his disobedient actions. It was all too true. There were the beans, side by side in plain sight, and the next row was the same. His brother at once began an inspection of the field and soon found that not only two beans but four and five had been planted in a place. Coming to the stump where the children had emptied their pails, he found beans sprouting all around.
“What does this mean, Byron?” his brother asked as he stopped and looked earnestly into Byron’s face. “How did you children plant those beans?”
There was no other way than to tell the truth, and with burning cheeks he confessed his disobedience to his brother and later to his mother. She said that such deception and disobedience must be punished. Later, after the two guilty children had gone to bed, the mother quietly went to them and taught them about the harmfulness of deception and evils that were sure to follow deceit.
“Evil deeds,” she said, “will sooner or later bear a harvest of bad things. You may think, Byron, that you can commit sin without having it known, but this is not true. Whenever sin is planted in the heart, it, like the beans, will surely sprout and grow.”
All this ran through Byron’s mind as he sat among the other boys in the woods. At last he said, “Boys, if that wouldn’t be stealing, I don’t know what would, and I never want to be a thief. Mother has always been downright against stealing. She has told me that a person cannot enjoy what they get dishonestly, and what I get I want to come by in an upright manner. She said, too, that a person who steals will sooner or later land behind prison bars. I could never consent to do such a thing as you have mentioned. Just think what it would mean if it would be found out!”
“Listen to that boy again!” said James, with a sneer. “He is always afraid of being found out and is forever preaching to us about what his mother has told him. I think Byron would make a pretty good preacher. He is too chicken-hearted to make his way through the world with us. What he needs is more backbone, so that he will not be afraid of doing such little things as that.” Then turning to Byron he said, “It’s only holding up for your rights, Byron; you are entitled to the eggs, and we will stand back of you. If any trouble ever comes, we are your right-hand men.”
When James had finished his argument, the plan did not seem so bad to Byron as at the first, but he could not give his consent to carry out the suggestion even when George urged him to do so.
The shadows in the west had lengthened, and it was time that Byron was making his way homeward, so her left the boys with a hasty goodbye. Their urging remarks to consider the plan still rang in his ears as he entered the gate at home, and he feared to meet the other members of the family, lest they should read the guilt and shame that he already felt within his heart. He wondered what would happen if he did as James had suggested.