While John was forming new acquaintances at school, Satan was not asleep. John's active mind was soon being schooled in many evils that he had not known before. And to make the matter still worse, John's father had a number of bachelor friends with whom he was in the habit of meeting for pleasant evenings, and their amusements were mostly drinking strong drinks and playing card games.
Among these men, as among his schoolmates, John became a favorite; and he was often praised and admired for his shrewd and manly ways. And when the report concerning his intense desire to become a man was circulated among them, they urged him to drink beer, saying that it would make him more manly and that all men must learn how to drink and smoke if they would be thought of as being manly. As a result John was soon able to drink his share of the beer, although he did not like the taste at first. Besides this, John discovered that at these evening gatherings he could often replenish his supply of tobacco by slipping a little from someone's pocket when the owner was not on his guard.
Poor little John! -- such a favorite! so gifted, and yet so neglected! in regard to high ideals and purposes in life, so ignorant! and so desirous of that motherly love and interest that were ever denied him! He endeavored to fill his life with other things; but in his day-dreams he often pictured his mother, and wondered: |Was she like my aunt? Would she take me and hold me in her arms while she smoothed my hair with her hand? Would she bind my bruises? And would she sit by my bedside at night and hold my hand in hers while telling me stories that she had read?| |Oh, how would it all seem?| he would ask himself; and then, remembering that such could never be, he would try to forget and be happy. His mother was gone, he reasoned, and he must be content. It was to his two little feathered friends alone that he confided his sorrows.
Had John's father remembered the determination that filled his soul on the dark day of his wife's funeral, and had he continued to teach his little son to pray and to serve God, how much better it might have been! How much better might John have understood the difference between right and wrong! In such a case, John's life's record might have been filled with good and noble deeds, and his habits might have been clean and wholesome.
As it was, because of his ignorance of right, he was laying a crumbling foundation formed of evil motives and desires. And should he continue to build, using similar material, his life's structure would be unsafe; it would be momentarily in danger of falling. As Satan is ever waiting with the needed supplies for a work of this kind, so he was ready to aid little John. The card parties at which John and his father were often present furnished John with much of his material.
The younger men among those who attended these gatherings, recognizing in John material of the entertaining sort, began at once to educate him. They taught him, not only to drink beer, but also to play cards and to swear. To John beer did not at first have a pleasant taste; but as it was when he was trying to learn to use tobacco, so it was now -- the promise that it would help him in becoming manly encouraged him to take more; and as he drank, the appetite grew. Finally, he would sometimes drink so much that he could not keep awake.
Usually on these occasions beer was served only as a prize to the winners of the games. The lucky fellow alone was given a drink while those who had lost were given only a smell of the bottle. One time when John had won in a number of games and had been treated to as many drinks from the bottle of beer, he became very sleepy. Going over to one corner of the room, he crept up on a table and soon was apparently asleep. It happened, however, that, although he was sleepy, he was not wholly unconscious to what was going on; and suddenly he heard a plot that seemed to him so cruel that he could scarcely believe his ears.
[Illustration: A Card-Party]
At the close of such gatherings, a chicken-roast was generally in order, and the fowl used was usually taken from some hen-roost not far distant. On this particular occasion when the party was about to break up, John heard the roughest of the company ask:
|I say, boys, who's goin' fer the roast tonight? Some one ought to be off fer it's nigh onter the midnight hour, and I, fer one's got a big job ahead a me tomorrer.|
|I'll go, Bill,| someone answered; |but wha do ye say ter go?|
|Oh, it don't make no difference, so's it's not too fer away!| the other answered, and added: |Whist, Tom, why can't we git John's turkeys? They'd make fust-rate eatin' all right. He's too far gone to know anything about it.|
John was just about to call out that they must let his turkeys alone when he remembered how hard it would be in the darkness to discover their roosting-place, so he remained quiet. It was, however, with some uneasiness that he awaited the thieves' return. When they came, he was relieved; for they were carrying chickens instead of turkeys. Although, because of the safety of his pets, a thrill of satisfaction swept over John, yet he had received in his heart a wound that was deep and wide. These cruel, heartless men were willing to take from him, in so unprincipled a manner, his only companions and playfellows. John somewhat realized that life had a hard and bitter side for him; but again he endeavored with all his strength to make the best of it.
It was morning before John and his father returned to their home; and it was with unusual joy that John found his pets waiting for their breakfast. As he held them close to his breast, with their beaks close to his cheek, he again thought of his mother; also he wondered about a certain change that had come over his father.
For a time after their removal to their own home, the father had been very devoted to John and had seemed to understand something of the boy's loneliness. Perhaps it was a realization of this loneliness and a desire to bring into the life of the child the motherly interest of which he had been deprived that had turned the father's heart toward a certain young lady of his acquaintance. Anyway, whatever was the cause, the father became more and more interested in this young woman; while, on the other hand, he paid less attention to John, whose loneliness daily increased. Night after night John's pillow was dampened by the tears he shed while waiting and listening for the sound of his father's returning footsteps.
In course of time the father married and brought home his new bride. At first John was very shy; but he was glad. Oh, how he wished that she would be what he had day-dreamed that his own mother might have been! He could then have given her all his love and confidence. He could have told her all his boyish plans for the future, asking her for the advice he would need. But the new mother failed to fulfill his hopes. Even she did not understand the longings of his boyish heart; nor did she realize that the poor little neglected boy was measuring her by what he had imagined a true mother to be. She was kind to John; but that was all. Her time and attention were given to her husband; and John daily saw the gulf between his father and himself widening and deepening. A feeling of discord crept into John's heart; all attraction for home was severed; and he felt that his happiness would have to be sought from other sources.