Only a little more than a week had passed since Byron left his mother standing beside that same gateway. She pleaded with him then, but her pleading had been in vain. He had not heeded her advice. He had cast it aside and almost ignored it. He had thought he knew best. Now he could see that his mother was right. Now all was changed.
Oh, if only he could undo the deeds of the past few weeks! But the days that were past could not be recalled. He must suffer now for his misdeeds! How dark was the future! Would he be permitted to return home after the trial, or would he be taken to the jail? Would the money that his mother had given his brother be of any service? These and similar thoughts filled his mind as the carriage rolled along.
As the carriage neared the river, Byron could see in the distance the outline of the old house in which the boys had spent that eventful night. As he crossed the bridge, he saw the moonbeams sparkling in the water below and thought of the foot log farther up the stream. The voice that had spoken to him in the lonely forest on that fatal night was still pleading in the same tender manner. He longed to cry out to God for pardon, for at last he realized that it was God’s Holy Spirit that was talking to him in answer to his mother’s prayer. He longed to live a new and different life that he might be not only an example to his friends but an encouragement to his sorrowing mother.
During most of the journey the two brothers rode in silence, as each was busy with his own thoughts. When they reached their destination, each drew a deep sigh; but it was not the sigh of relief, for neither one was glad. They realized what was before them, and Byron felt his strength and courage failing every moment.
The village in which the squire lived consisted of only about half a dozen weather-beaten houses. But this fact did not interest the brothers; they were looking for the squire’s office, which did not take long to find. They tied their horse in front of his house, they knocked on the door.
The squire was not at all pleased about being disturbed at so early an hour. Leading them into the living room—which was also his office—he gruffly bade them be seated. Then he went back to his bed to rest until the others should arrive.
In the stillness that followed, Byron tried to imagine what would be the outcome of the next few hours. He shuddered over the prospect, and again fear, such as he had never before experienced, took hold of him. He thought of the squire’s stern features and doubted that he would show any mercy.
As the sound of heavy breathing in the bedroom reached his ears, he thought of his own soft bed at home and of Mother; dear, patient Mother! Was she asleep? Had she had any rest? One thing he knew, and that was that she had been praying for him. This thought quieted his fears, and he wondered how much her prayers would help. The minutes passed wearily by. Slowly his eyes began to droop. Then sleep caused Byron to forget that he was not resting upon his own pillow at home.
When he awoke, the sun was peeping over the treetops. It was a beautiful morning. A merry little songster in the yard warbled forth its praise to its Creator for placing such beauty upon the earth. The notes sounded as mockery in Byron’s ears. Would he ever be happy again? Would his burden of guilt and sin ever be lifted? Could he ever again feel himself an innocent boy?
Another hour passed. Still the brothers waited for the arrival of the others who were to have a part in the trial. Suddenly there was a noise at the gate, and, looking out the window, Byron saw the officer who had arrested him the night before. And with him were James and George.
With keenest interest Byron watched them approach the house. He realized that they had not met since the night of their evil deeds, but he was quite sure that by now they knew of his confession, and he wondered how they would act toward him and what they would say when they came in.
The squire had also heard the click of the gate. He arose, and dressing quickly, was soon at the door to receive them. As the three entered the room, Byron saw them glance quickly in his direction. When his eyes met theirs, he read anything but sympathy and love in their expression. He thought of James’ promised friendship in times of trouble. James had said that he not only would help and stand by him, but would be his right hand man.
Faithful companion indeed! If Byron wanted help now he must look for it from a very different source. He felt the separation more keenly than if words had passed between them. These boys would never again want to associate with him, and he did not desire their companionship any longer. He had at least one true friend, and that was his mother. He knew that she would stand by him no matter what might happen.
In a short time two other rigs drove up in front of the house and five more men entered the squire’s office. One of these men was the prosecuting attorney, and two others the neighbors to whom Byron had talked the day before in the churchyard. All had a smile and a kindly word for Byron.
Presently the officers of the law collected in one corner of the room and conversed in low tones for several minutes. Byron listened with an eagerness that he had never before known. He wanted to learn all the facts in the case as soon as possible, and he wished to know why Jason was not present. Shortly he heard an officer, speaking in a louder tone, say that he had gone to arrest Jason but had failed. In some way word that the officers were coming had reached him, and he had left and could not be found. They continued to talk among themselves for some time and then motioned to the other men to join them. Again they spoke in tones too low to be heard by the boys.
The moments crept slowly by for the prisoners, but at last the scene was changed. The squire, after producing some writing material, seated himself with the others around a table, and then the prosecuting attorney remarked, “It is now time to commence the trial.”
When the preliminary address had been given, Byron was called forward as the first witness. In spite of his efforts to be calm, he could scarcely control himself. He trembled so violently that it was with difficulty that he answered the questions.
It was not strange that he was so affected: the prosecuting attorney was none other than the storekeeper to whom Byron had sold the eggs on his way to the mill. While the officers had talked among themselves, the whole experience with the eggs had come vividly before him—first the plan that James had concocted to bring the boys more spending money, next the temptation, then the theft, and last of all the disposal of the eggs. His mother’s words about deception growing in the heart, spoken to him when she punished him for deceiving her about the planting of the beans, had been fulfilled.
He had also remembered the little vision that had come before him as he stood in front of the little store—the vision of the gambling party who had changed into the forms of James, George, his cousin, and himself. And he recalled the miller’s story. “Ah,” he thought, “if only I had tried to change my course and had made my wrongs right before things came to this! I could easily have replaced the eggs or have taken them to Mother, and I should have been saved all this trouble.”
Every step in the wrong direction had made his return more difficult. There was not a shadow of a reason for the course that he had taken. He had not even the excuse that the miller had given in regard to the poor widow. A great cloud of darkness seemed to have suddenly arisen and threatened him with utter destruction.
He was indeed sorry now; but as a captain, realizing that the rudder of his vessel is broken, looks out upon the distant horizon and sees the storm approaching, so Byron looked into the faces of those before him in this terrific storm of life.
After he had answered the questions, he was told to make a statement of all that he and the other boys had done. He instantly remembered his mother’s advice—to speak the truth in everything and to tell the particulars just as nearly as he could. “No doubt she is praying for me at this very moment,” he thought. Inspired by this thought and the remembrance of her words, he told the story in a straightforward manner. As he confessed one thing after another, the look of terror left his face.
When he had finished speaking, he glanced toward the boys. Their opinion of him was still visible, but he no longer cared. He did not now desire their friendship, and experience had taught him what kind of help to expect from them in time of trouble.
He was asked a few more questions, and then James and George were in turn called forward. Both denied the charges brought against them and said that all of Byron’s talk was false and was made to get them into trouble.
When asked to tell where they had been on the Saturday night in question, each made up a story of his own; but when they were questioned more closely, their own words proved them guilty. One witness tried to testify in their favor, but his testimony was of no avail.
Then the prosecutor made a talk, in which he gave the boys some good, sound advice, and admonished them to abide by the law if they did not want to suffer the penalties that were attached to its violation. Next a large law book was produced, and the sentence for a crime such as they had committed was read. Besides the fine, there was a certain length of time to be spent in prison.
As Byron listened, it seemed all hope had left him. His breath came in gasps, and his face grew white. He had hoped that when the fine was paid he would be permitted to return home. He wanted to make amends for his wrongs and to help his poor mother forget her sorrow. What would she say? Would he ever be able to rise above a prison sentence? Could he ever take his stand in the world again?
He felt a great relief when the officer again rose and in solemn tones addressed the boys. “James and George will have to suffer the full extent of the law. They will be punished not only for the crime but for trying to shield themselves. But with Byron we will make a difference. He has been truthful, and he seems to be sorry not only for what has happened, but for having been led into bad company. When he has paid the fine he can return to his home and to his mother.”
At this, Mr. Davis, who had been strangely quiet, arose, and going to Byron, grasped his hand and spoke encouragingly to him. Then they all passed out of the squire’s office and were soon driving away in different directions. Byron, driving home with his brother, looked back over his shoulder and saw the officer with James and George disappearing at a turn in the road. He realized that just as they were passing from his sight they were also passing out of his life. Never again would he be led about in sin by these boys.
His thoughts and desires were so changed that he longed only for a pure and upright life and for the happiness and satisfaction that such a life gives. There was nothing for which he cared to live but to prove his love for his mother and to counteract his past actions toward her and the others whom he had wronged. The awful weight of his sin seemed to hold him down so securely that he could find no relief.
As the two brothers rode along side by side, they had little to say to each other, merely making an occasional remark about the crops or the weather. Neither mentioned the events of the past few hours. Higher and higher the sun rose until they realized it was nearing noon. They were glad when they could see in the distance the outline of their home.
How changed everything appeared to Byron as they approached their home. Changed and beautiful! Byron at last realized what home meant to him and saw the value of friends—noble and true friends, who would not turn away from him in times of trouble and distress. Would Mother see them and be at the gate to welcome them? Straining his eyes, he thought he could see someone at the very spot where she had stood when he had spoken those cruel words upon that fatal night.