To every youth there comes a time of conscious awakening, a time when he begins to realize that he has a part in life of his own to perform. In other words, he finds that he has an inner life that is seeking to assert itself to help him reason and decide matters that he has hitherto left or submitted to the knowledge and understanding of others.
Even the lowest and most uncultured have this Heaven-given element within them, and day by day this reasoning power increases in strength and understanding. During the time when this silent mystic power is developing within the immature mind, much mischief results from a lack of understanding of the first principles of life.
The child nestling under the protection of its parents’ care little knows what dangers are ahead of it. Like the brood of chickens beneath the mother’s wings, it has no comprehension of evil; and, like them, it feels the dangers when it ventures from its protection.
Byron was a child no longer. Within him the manly powers had arisen and were asserting themselves in his nature. Although unable to comprehend the full meaning of the change, he felt that he must have a right to judge and reason for himself. The current of events was sweeping him rapidly onward, and a dense mist had arisen above the sea. His course was becoming more indistinct every moment. And, both because he did not know about the hidden dangers of the deep, and also being unwilling to obey the warnings of his conscience, he was already in a perilous condition.
When Byron went to the field the next day, his mind was not on his work. He was thinking of the things that happened the day before, of James’ suggestion, and of his mother’s warnings. It was no light thing to act directly against his former teaching and do the very sins against which he had been warned. He was still pondering over James’ plan when he returned to the barn at the noon hour.
Leaving the horses to find their own stalls, he continued to the main part of the barn. Just as he was preparing to fill one of the mangers with hay, a large white hen suddenly flew from beneath the feed box. He dropped his load quickly at the opposite side of the manger, and looked for a nest. Sure enough, it was there, and he saw that it contained three white eggs.
The suggestion arose before him that here was his opportunity. But with it came a feeling of repulsion; the thought of stealing the eggs made him shudder. But then he thought about the boys, and of the taunting remarks they would make if he came with little or no money next time. Byron hesitated. It was hard to be ridiculed and termed a coward; so he glanced about him, and then walked to the door to make sure nobody was near.
Seeing no one, he returned to the manger. But he was still fearful lest someone might be in another part of the barn, so he carefully looked all around. Still finding no one, he again stopped in front of the manger, and as he silently looked down upon the eggs he asked himself, “Shall I do it?” In answer his newly awakened manhood asserted itself, and he mumbled, “It’s my right; and if I associate with those boys, there is no other way.” After chiding himself for his lack of courage, he suddenly put his hand down into the nest. But just as quickly he withdrew it without taking any. The eggs were still warm, and they seemed to burn him.
Ashamed of his failure, he made another attempt. This time he succeeded in grasping the eggs firmly in his hand. With them he climbed a ladder and soon had them carefully deposited beneath a pile of hay in one corner of the loft. By this time his conscience, fully aroused, was speaking in almost audible tones, and as he got ready to enter the house, he shrank from meeting his mother. The sin that he had committed was no light thing. Not only had it broken the harmony between them, but a wall seemed to have suddenly risen. Like the beans, it was something to sprout and grow in his heart.
“Think of the days that your patient mother has spent in looking after your wants and needs. Think of the weary hours at night that she has spent beside your cradle and bedside,” his conscience urged. “Can you ever heal the wounds that you are making in her heart and life? Can you ever again return her tender, loving gaze? Think of her advice concerning James. Is not his influence just as she said it would be?” The apple story and other things awoke in his memory, and when he entered the house he endeavored to slip into his accustomed place unnoticed.
Thinking that he had succeeded in his purpose, he glanced around quickly in the direction of his mother, only to see that he was mistaken. She was looking at him, and in her eyes he seemed to read the dreaded question. During the entire meal he felt that her gaze was upon him and that she was reading the hidden secrets of his heart.
Conscience suggested that he replace the stolen eggs when he returned to the barn, but the thought of the boys’ ridicule and unkind remarks forced the idea from his mind. When the dinner hour was over, he returned to his work in the field, and endeavored to drown his feelings in the sea of forgetfulness and to bury his burden beneath the furrows that he was turning in the mellow soil. It helped some, for hard work often brings relief to the troubled mind. But it did not lessen his guilt nor remove the mist that had enveloped his soul and that was endangering his character and principles.
When he saw the hen fly from the manger the following day, he did not hear the warnings of his conscience quite as loudly as before. This time the eggs did not seem to burn him as he removed them from the secluded nest. Neither was he so much afraid of the eyes that might be watching him at the dinner table. Each day that week he took eggs from the manger to put with those in the loft above. He also discovered other nests in out-of-the-way places, and the eggs from them helped to increase his hidden store. Little by little the plan that had so horrified him at first came to seem entirely proper. Whenever his conscience appealed to him, he pled his rightful ownership of a share of the farm produce.
When he was able to count six dozen of the stolen eggs, he felt that they must soon be disposed of, for they might be discovered at any time. He began to wonder how to sell them. There was no place near his home to market them, and he would be missed if he left the farm for awhile. He couldn’t sell them to a neighbor lest they become suspicious, and his secret be found out.
One morning as he was watering the horses at the well, and planning his work for the day, his mother came by. “Byron,” she said, “we are needing flour, and it will be necessary for you to go to the mill this morning.”
“Here is my chance,” he thought with pleasure. “I can take the eggs with me and sell them at the country store I shall have to pass on the way. Nothing can possibly be discovered if I leave them there.” Thinking it best to hide his eagerness, however, he answered carelessly, “All right. How soon shall I go? Right away?”
“Yes, you had better start at once,” his mother replied. “I need the flour now and must have it as soon as I can get it.” Then as she turned to go into the house she added, “Your brother will help you to prepare the load and to get started.”
“Ah!” Byron remarked to himself. “I could not have wished for better luck!” As he nervously began his preparations for leaving, he wondered how he could bring the eggs down from their hiding place and get away safely with them. His older brother helped with the sacking and loading of the grain; but when the load was ready, Byron went into the barn alone to harness the horses. Before he finished, he hastily took a basket and, climbing to the loft, was soon bending over the pretty eggs. A few minutes later he had returned with them, placed the basket in a convenient place near the door, and covered it with empty grain sacks. Then he quickly returned to the horses.
When at last everything was ready, he managed, while his brother was gone, to slip the basket in among the sacks of grain. As he was driving through the gate, he smiled at the thought of his cleverness. He was pleased to think that he had escaped detection, but with this pleasure there came a bitterness and shame. What had he done? He, a thief and a robber, had stolen from his own mother. Crime was at his door! These thoughts and many more surged through his brain. Although he endeavored to excuse himself, he knew that the accusations of his conscience were true. “I can’t say I have not done wrong,” he at last acknowledged to himself, “but I can’t back down now. I must sell these eggs, for how could I account for them if I should try to return them.”
On reaching the store he stopped in front of it and, after hitching his team, lifted the basket from its hiding place. Again he was reminded of his sin, but he hesitated for only a moment.
The store had once been a home; but, having been somewhat remodeled and rearranged, it made a very respectable store building. Signs and various advertisements decorated the darkened storefront, and the many boxes and barrels in the yard signified a good amount of business.
Before entering the building, Byron stopped to examine some of the posters and found that most of them were advertising tobacco and cigars of various brands. He noticed several boxes arranged near the door, and remembered his mother telling him of loafers who often gathered about the doors of a country store to while away the time in playing cards and gambling. Instantly a scene seemed to arise before him, and in his imagination he saw a group of four men seated around one of the boxes with a deck of cards before them. The faces of the players were hard and vicious, and each man seemed intent upon winning the game and obtaining the pile of money that lay upon one corner of the box. As he gazed upon the imaginary scene, it appeared to change. The box became the green grass in the woods by the river, and the players the four young men who had played for the nickels. The same lines of sin seemed to be chiseled upon their faces, and Byron shrank from the scene.
Pushing open the screen door, he entered the store. As he met the kindly-faced grocer, he was strongly impressed with his gentlemanly appearance. After replying to the man’s remarks about the weather, Byron briefly told his errand, and the grocer carried the stolen eggs away from Byron’s possession, but not from his thoughts.
With his conscience still rebuking him, he began to look about the room that was a general store and post office combined. He first noticed the extreme order and neatness of the place. And then came the desire that he had long felt to own a store for himself someday. In all his dreams of the future he had pictured himself either behind a counter or in an office chair. But such a possibility seemed very far away when he thought of all the work that occupied his time upon the farm. Of late, however, his thoughts had been wholly centered upon other things.
The return of his former hopes brought again the remorse of his wrong doing, and his conscience whispered, “It would be better to recover the eggs than to blight your whole future career.” But Byron simply received the change from the grocer, and when asked if there was anything else that could be done for him, he replied, “Why, yes, I will take a little candy.”
He received the candy, made a few remarks about the weather and crops, and soon was again seated in the wagon. His thoughts were peculiar indeed. Byron wanted to do right. He desired not only to become a respectable citizen of his country, but to be an honor to his family as well. He meant to have a worthy aim in life. But he had not chosen the course that would land him on the shores of Success, and he knew it. He would have liked to undo the happenings of the past weeks and to begin his life anew, but thought, “It would be too hard now.”
The candy purchased with the egg money he did not enjoy. It seemed to have a strange, unnatural taste, and he remembered his mother’s statement that stolen goods give little enjoyment. The sight of the mill, however, changed his thoughts to other things. The building bore the signs and stains of old age, but from within came the sound of music peculiarly sweet in itself.
As the hum of the busy wheels floated out upon the morning air, it seemed to carry with it the spirit of the place. Byron remembered how pleasant the miller had been on former occasions and how interesting had been the stories that he told him while they waited for the grist to be ground into flour. He wondered if he should hear any on that particular morning and what it would be about.
Mechanically driving up to the high porch at the side of the mill, he began to unload his grain. As he did so, he heard the merry laughter of the miller as it rang out above the hum of the machinery from time to time. “He surely is happier than I am this morning,” Byron thought.
Just as he unloaded the last sack of grain to place it beside the others, the miller, clad in his flour-dusted clothing, appeared in the doorway. Looking up into the happy face before him, Byron wondered if the miller ever had disappointments and trials.
“Well, Byron, I am very glad to see you here again,” the miller remarked with a smile of welcome as he warmly shook the hand that had been offered him. “Everyone is well out your way, I suppose?”
Byron said they were, and asked about the grain.
“I will do the very best I can for you, Byron,” the miller said kindly, “but I’ve had a lot of bad luck of late. Last week it was my hogs. Several of them died, and I lost quite a bit of time on account of it. And this morning, just as we were starting up, some of the machinery broke. We have it all repaired now, though, and will begin on your grist right away, as I think you are in more of a hurry than the rest of my customers. I suppose the break was caused by a small fire that we had here last week, and I’m very glad that no greater damage was done than there was.”
Here his merry laughter rang out again through the building and drove away whatever dark shadows might have come at the remembrance of his troubles. Byron could see traces of the fire that had suddenly swept through the building. Even though it had been extinguished before it did very much harm, he realized the delay and damage that it must have caused the miller. Yet it had made no difference in his attitude toward others. He was just as kind and considerate as he had always been on other occasions and was as ready with his story telling. So Byron seated himself upon a pile of empty grain sacks and listened attentively.
While the miller ground the wheat, he told a story that he’d read in a certain book. It was about a young miller who had inherited his father’s business. This miller made the flour for all the people in his village and for the farmers of the country for miles around. He took his pay in a toll from the grain that he ground, at the rate of one-tenth of every bushel. This tenth was measured out in a round box, or dish, that was called the toll-dish and that was kept for that special purpose.
Among this young miller’s customers was an old farmer. As this man had his farm all paid for and well stocked, and having some investments besides, his neighbors considered him a rich man. He used to come about every two week to the mill, bringing four or five bags of wheat to be ground.
One day, after the old man had left, the young miller began as usual to pour the wheat into the hopper. Then a thought occurred to the miller that if he should take a little more than a tenth the farmer would never miss it. “Other millers do it,” said he to himself, “and so might I as well. Besides, I will make it up to him by extra care in grinding his flour.”
So, after he had taken out the tenth that he was entitled to, he filled the toll-dish twice again and poured it into a barrel of his own wheat that stood near.
But the miller did not feel altogether satisfied with what he had done. The thought of it disquieted him more than once. Yet he could not quite persuade himself to put the wheat back. “I think I’m fairly entitled to something more from such a rich man,” he reasoned.
Then a bright thought struck him. There was in the mill some corn that belonged to a widow. The poor woman had brought it there in a wheelbarrow herself, and left it to be ground into meal.
“I’ll take less than my full share from her, and so will make matters square by remembering the poor.”
This seemed for a time to satisfy his conscience. But, having made a beginning, he gradually increased the amount he took from the rich farmer, but soon stopped giving any extra to the widow.
The young miller had guessed right that the farmer wouldn’t miss what he’d taken. But he was wrong in thinking that he could keep his conscience quiet. He found that it would not heal while he kept on wounding it afresh, or that it would accept as true what he knew to be false. It was of the kind that we find it so inconvenient to have when we want to do wrong and still be as comfortable as if we were doing right.
“Why has he chosen this particular story this morning?” thought Byron, as he changed his position upon the grain sacks. Byron would have liked something of a different nature much better, but he continued to listen respectfully as the miller went on talking.
The young miller of the story was in the habit of going to the village church on a Sunday. Here he sat in the pew with his wife and little children, taking part in the service and listening to the minister’s sermon. But now, whenever the eighth commandment was mentioned, he grew restless and uneasy and anxious for the service to be over.
On weekdays the stage driver, as he passed the mill door, threw out a newspaper that the miller subscribed to. And as the great waterwheel was revolving and the millstones were grinding, it had been his favorite pastime to sit among the bags of grain in his flour-besprinkled clothes and read his paper through and through. But of late he found himself avoiding all paragraphs headed: “Theft,” “Embezzlement,” “Breach of Trust,” “Fraud.” Now and then he happened on an account of some honest debtor who as soon as he was able paid up his back debts, or of some repentant thief who made restitution for the things he had stolen. This was unpleasant reading to the miller.
In the village there lived a man who had not paid his debts, and in consequence bore a bad name. The miller disliked meeting this man. And occasionally the miller, while on business to the county seat, passed by the jail. Peering through the bars, he often saw the evil countenances of the prisoners. “What are they in there for, I wonder,” he said to himself. “The truth is, I deserve to be there with them.”
And so the miller found a rebuke in whatever he came across. This went on until everything about him seemed to join in a dreadful chorus, accusing him of his crime.
At last the load on his conscience became so heavy that he could bear it no longer. But what should he do to get rid of it? To confess his guilt would crush him to the earth. There was but one thing more dreadful, and that was to go on hiding it. But was there no way of escaping an open confession? Ah! happy thought! This would not be necessary. The farmer was still confidently bringing his grain every two weeks to the mill.
“I will go over my accounts,” said the miller to himself, “and add up to the last pound all I have ever taken from him. I will return it gradually with his flour, from time to time, in quantities that will not be noticed. Thus I shall pay my debt and clear my conscience without being even suspected of wrong.”
Having made this resolve, he longed to put it in practice, and could hardly wait for the farmer’s next trip. In a few days he arrived as usual. The miller, with a glad heart (which he was careful to conceal), carried the bags into the mill and bade the farmer a cheerful “goodbye” as he drove away.
“Now,” he thought, “I will take out of this grinding some of my toll. For if I don’t take any out, the difference might be noticed.” So he filled the toll-dish three times instead of six, and ground up the rest of the wheat.
But while he was secretly carrying out his plan at the mill, he little suspected how matters stood at the farmhouse. The farmer’s wife, who had occasion to notice the wheat more than her husband, had suspected for some time that the flour returned from the mill seemed short in weight. At last she told her husband.
“Nonsense!” he said. “I’ve known the miller all his life, and his father before him: his father had a conscience, and so has he.”
At this Byron glanced quickly out the window and thought of his own conscience. But his companion went on with his story.
“Well,” said the farmer’s wife, “there’s one way of testing it to make certain. I weighed what we last sent him; now we’ll weigh what he sends back to us.”
So the farmer agreed to this. The next day he went to the mill for the grinding. The miller received him gladly and hastened to carry out the grist to the wagon. As he drove homeward the farmer said to himself, “How strange that Wife should speak so about the flour! But women do sometimes take up such queer notions. She’ll be waiting when I get home, I’m sure, to have the bags put on the scales as soon as they are unloaded.”
He was not wrong. As he drove around to the side porch, his wife appeared in her great white apron, hardly able to keep quiet until the wagon was backed up. As the bags were taken down, they were laid, one by one, on the scales that stood near.
“How does it come out, Wife?” asked the farmer as she wrote down the pounds contained in the last bag.
But she kept on going over the figures again and again without answering; so the old man put on his spectacles and hastily added them up.
“Didn’t I tell you so?” he exclaimed both reproachfully and triumphantly. “Why, instead of cheating us, he has cheated himself! What a pity it is for a woman to be suspicious!”
“Don’t brag too soon,” said his wife, annoyed. “You’d better wait till we’ve weighed another grinding.”
The hungry mouths on the farm soon demanded a fresh supply of flour, and then another load of wheat was weighed with extra care and hauled to the mill.
The miller, with some relief to his conscience by the little he had already done, was more eager than ever to carry out his plan and remove his burden altogether. “It is certain they have not noticed anything unusual in the last grist,” he thought. “I might just as well hurry matters up a little. This time I’ll take out no toll at all, and after this will begin adding some of my own flour.”
Putting off other farmers who had brought their grain first, the miller ground the old man’s wheat before theirs and sent him word it was ready. The farmer’s wife, still smarting under the charge of being unjustly suspicious, hurried him away after it, and waited his return even more anxiously than she had when he was bringing the former load. It came in due time, and was promptly laid on the scales as the other had been. But if she was surprised before, she was dumb with wonder now. Her husband, who, in truth, thought there was no better woman, seeing her embarrassment, was considerate enough not to chide her. So the flour was quietly put away in the storeroom.
Just before bedtime that evening, as they sat together in their old-fashioned comfortable kitchen, the farmer said to his wife, “I’ve been thinking about that last grist. There must be something the matter with our young miller’s scales, and you know that we don’t want to take what belongs to him without paying for it. I mean to go over to the mill tomorrow on purpose to look into it.”
“That’s exactly what I want you to do,” replied his wife, seriously. “The grinding was short of weight more than once, I know; and twice now it has weighed too much, we both know. The thing keeps worrying my mind.”
As soon as breakfast was over the next morning, the farmer harnessed up his horses and drove to the mill. The miller, standing at the door, was surprised to see him, since he had neither wheat to grind nor flour to haul away. Then a look of apprehension came over his face, for there is always a lurking fear of evil in the heart that is conscious of hiding some wrong.
“I don’t believe you can guess what I’ve come over about,” said the farmer, as he got down from the wagon.
The miller said nothing.
“Did you weigh the last grinding?” asked the old man.
“And the one before that?”
“And don’t you know they weighed too much? But perhaps you wanted to make us a present!” he continued, merrily. “Or maybe, as winter is coming on, you thought we stood in need.”
The miller’s face grew scarlet. He attempted to speak, but his voice stuck in his throat, and he could not utter a word.
The farmer saw at a glance that the miller was in trouble, and said kindly, “Tell me all about it. I was your father’s friend and am yours.”
Then the miller took the old man into the mill, and, shutting the door, told him, in a trembling voice, the whole sad story.
“I’ve found out,” he said, “that the wrong way is a hard way. I’m in that way yet, but I long to get out of it. I’d give this mill—yes, and all that is in it—were that needful to make me feel myself once more an honest man. I have set it all aside. Those bags of wheat over there contain every pound I have ever taken. But I shall never know a happy moment till I see them hauled away from here and put into your barn.”
“My dear young friend,” said the farmer, drawing his sleeve across his eyes, “I care nothing for the flour, yet it is mine, and it is right I should take it. Carry it out and load it on the wagon and I’ll soon put it where you want it to be. I believe you have been taught, by the best of teachers, such a lesson as you’ll never forget. And be assured that after this, I shall never fear to trust you. Take my word for it, too, that no one but my wife—and she can keep a secret—shall ever hear of this.”
The next Sunday the miller went to church, and, whatever else he might have dreaded to hear about, it was not the eighth commandment. And the following week, and for many a week afterward, he read his newspaper as he did in former time—all through, skipping nothing.
After finishing the story the miller added a few words on principle. “Principle,” he told Byron, “is that quality within man that makes him do right because it is right. It acts as a rudder and helps him to take and keep the right course all through life’s voyage. It guides him during the storms of temptation. His companions may be willing to slight their work, but he will be independent and will judge his duty to others by what he would expect from them.
“This young miller’s sufferings were the result of his acting against his principles and failing to heed the warnings of his conscience. Byron, men or boys without principle may sometimes succeed in business; but, mark my word, if they do, not only will they reap unhappiness all the way along, but, in the end, sorrow and misery will be their reward. I had rather act according to my principle—to do right and listen to the warnings of my conscience—than to have all the wealth that is gained by dishonesty.”
Here the miller was called to another part of the building, and Byron was left alone for awhile. His heart was beating wildly. Shame and guilt had done their work, and he wondered, “Would it be possible to undo the happenings of the past few weeks?” He realized more keenly than ever what dishonesty really means, and his sin seemed to loom up before him mountain high.
He could hear the miller’s merry whistle now and then, and noted the pleasant smile with which he greeted his workmen and customers. And Byron thought, “It must surely be principle that has given his face that happy, care-free expression.”
A picture of the two great courses in life arose before Byron. He saw that he had chosen the wrong course, and he partly discerned the mist that had so thickly enveloped him. The dense fog was breaking away; but as it did so, dangers great and forbidding appeared. The course the miller in the story had taken in the end was not tempting, but Byron saw that it was right.
At last his flour was ready, and he started home. As he rode along, he meditated on the story. It revealed to him his own duty, and his conscience strove to guide him aright by proposing plans of reconciliation between him and his mother.
“It would be better to tell her at once,” whispered that faithful voice in his ear. “Explain the temptation and sin that have befallen you, and allow her to advise you. She will be only too glad to help you out of your difficulties.”
“Yes, but the boys,” he reasoned. “How can I meet their taunts when I see them?”
“Don’t see them! Stay out of their company, and you will have no trouble,” his conscience continued.
“How about Sunday? I shall have to see them at Sunday school, and hard questions will be asked!” Byron argued.
“You could avoid the boys,” conscience suggested. “Just let them understand that you do not want their company.”
“Which is easier said than done,” thought Byron, as he drove in through the gateway at his home.