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CHAPTER XXII.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE TEA TABLE.

FinBeautifulJoe.pngROM my station under Miss Laura's chair, I could see that all the time Mr. Harry was speaking, Mr. Maxwell, although he spoke rather as if he was laughing at him, was yet glancing at him admiringly.

When Mr. Harry was silent, he exclaimed, "You are right, you are right, Gray. With your smooth highways, and plenty of schools, and churches, and libraries, and meetings for young people, you would make country life a paradise, and I tell you what you would do too: you would empty the slums of the cities. It is the slowness and dullness of country life, and not their poverty alone, that keep the poor in dirty lanes and tenement houses.

They want stir and amusement too, poor souls, when their day's work is over. I believe they would come to the country if it were made more pleasant for them."

"That is another question," said Mr. Harry, "a burning question in my mind—the labor and capital one.

When I was in New York, Maxwell, I was in a hospital, and saw a number of men who had been day laborers.

Some of them were old and feeble, and others were young men, broken down in the prime of life. Their limbs were shrunken and drawn. They had been digging in the earth, and working on high buildings, and confined in dingy basements, and had done all kinds of hard labor for other men. They had given their lives and strength for others, and this was the end of it—to die poor and forsaken. I looked at them, and they reminded me of the martyrs of old. Ground down, living from hand to mouth, separated from their families in many cases—they had had a bitter lot. They had never had a ohance to get away from their fate, and had to work till they dropped. I tell you there is something wrong. We don't do enough for the people that slave and toil for us. We should take better care of them, we should not herd them together like cattle, and when we get rich, we should carry them along with us, and give them a part of our gains, for without them we would be as poor as they are."

"Good, Harry—I'm with you there," said a voice behind him, and looking round, we saw Mr. Wood standing in the doorway, gazing down proudly at his stepson.

Mr. Harry smiled, and getting up, said, "Won't you have my chair, sir?"

"No, thank you, your mother wishes us to come to tea. There are muffins, and you know they won't improve with keeping."

They all went to the dining room, and I followed them. On the way, Mr. Wood said, "Right on top of that talk of yours, Harry, I've got to tell you of another person who is going to Boston to live."

"Who is it?" said Mr. Harry.

"Lazy Dan Wilson. I've been to see him this afternoon. You know his wife is sick, and they're half starved. He says he is going to the city, for he hates to chop wood and work, and he thinks maybe he'll get some light job there."

Mr. Harry looked grave, and Mr. Maxwell said, "He will starve, that's what he will do."

"Precisely," said Mr. Wood, spreading out his hard, brown hands, as he sat down at the table. "I don't know why it is, but the present generation has a marvelous way of skimming around any kind of work with their hands. They'll work their brains till they haven't got any more backbone than a caterpillar, but as for manual labor, it's old-timey and out of fashion. I wonder how these farms would ever have been carved out of the back-woods, if the old Puritans had sat down on the rocks with their noses in a lot of books, and tried to figure out just how little work they could do, and yet exist."

"Now, father," said Mrs. Wood, "you are trying to insinuate that the present generation is lazy, and I'm sure it isn't. Look at Harry. He works as hard as you do."

"Isn't that like a woman?"said Mr. Wood, with a good-natured laugh. "The present generation consists of her son, and the past of her husband. I don't think all our young people are lazy, Hattie; but how in creation, unless the Lord rains down a few farmers, are we going to support all our young lawyers and doctors? They say the world is getting healthier and better, but we've got to fight a little more, and raise some more criminals, and we've got to take to eating pies and doughnuts for breakfast again, or some of our young sprouts from the colleges will go a begging."

"You don't mean to undervalue the advantages of a good education, do you, Mr. Wood?" said Mr. Maxwell.

"No, no, look at Harry there. Isn't he pegging away at his studies with my hearty approval? and he's going to be nothing but a plain, common farmer. But he'll be a better one than I've been though, because he's got a trained mind. I found that out when he was a lad going to the village school. He'd lay out his little garden by geometry, and dig his ditches by algebra. Education's a help to any man. What I am trying to get at is this, that in some way or other we're running more to brains and less to hard work than our forefathers did."

Mr. Wood was beating on the table with his forefinger while he talked, and every one was laughing at him.

"When you've quite finished speechifying, John," said Mra. Wood, "perhaps you'll serve the berries and pass the cream and sugar. Do you get yellow cream like this in the village, Mr. Maxwell?"

"No, Mrs. Wood," he said, "ours is a much paler yellow," and then there was a great tinkling of china, and passing of dishes, and talking and laughing, and no one noticed that I was not in my usual place in the hall. I could not get over my dread of the green creature, and I had crept under the table, so that if it came out and frightened Miss Laura, I could jump up and catch it.

When tea was half over, she gave a little cry. I sprang up on her lap, and there, gliding over the table toward her, was the wicked-looking, green thing. I stepped on the table, and had it by the middle before it could get to her. My hind legs were in a dish of jelly, and my front ones were in a plate of cake, and I was very uncomfortable. The tail of the green thing hung in a milk pitcher, and its tongue was still going at me, but I held it firmly and stood quite still.

"Drop it, drop it," cried Miss Laura, in tones of distress, and Mr. Maxwell struck me on the back, so I let the thing go, and stood sheepishly looking about me. Mr. Wood was leaning back in his chair, laughing with all his might, and Mrs. Wood was staring at her untidy table with rather a long face. Miss Laura told me to jump on the floor, and then she helped her aunt to take the spoiled things off the table.

I felt that I had done wrong, so I slunk out into the hall. Mr. Maxwell was sitting on the lounge, tearing his handkerchief in strips and tying them around the creature where my teeth had stuck in. I had been careful not to hurt it much, for I knew it was a pet of his; but he did not know that, and scowled at me, saying: "You rascal, you've hurt my poor snake terribly."

I felt so badly to hear this that I went and stood with my head in a corner. I had almost rather be whipped than scolded. After a while, Mr. Maxwell went back into the room, and they all went on with their tea. I could hear Mr. Wood's loud, cheery voice, "The dog did quite right. A snake is mostly a poisonous creature, and his instinct told him to protect his mistress. Where is he? Joe, Joe."

I would not move till Miss Laura came and spoke to me. "Dear old dog," she whispered, "you knew the snake was there all the time, didn't you?" Her words made me feel better, and I followed her to the dining room, where Mr. Wood made me sit beside him and eat scraps from his hand all through the meal.

Mr. Maxwell had got over his ill humor, and was chatting in a lively way. "Good Joe," he said; "I was cross to you, and I beg your pardon. It always riles me to have any of my pets injured. You didn't know my poor snake was only after something to eat. Mrs. Wood has pinned him in my pocket so he won't come out again. Do you know where I got that snake, Mrs. Wood?"

"No," she said; "you never told me."

"It was across the river by Blue Ridge," he said. "One day last summer I was out rowing, and, getting very hot, tied my boat in the shade of a big tree. Some village boys were in the woods, and hearing a great noise, I went to see what it was all about. They were Band of Mercy boys, and finding a country boy beating a snake to death, they were remonstrating with him for his cruelty, telling him that some kinds of snakes were a help to the farmer, and destroyed large numbers of field mice and other vermin. The boy was obstinate. He had found the snake, and he insisted upon his right to kill it, and they were having rather a lively time when I appeared. I persuaded them to make the snake over to me. Apparently it was already dead. Thinking it might revive, I put it on some grass in the bow of the boat. It lay there motionless for a long time, and I picked up my oars and started for home. I had got half-way across the river, when I turned around and saw that the snake was gone. It had just dropped into the water, and was swimming toward the bank we had left. I turned and followed it.

"It swam slowly and with evident pain, lifting its head every few seconds high above the water, to see which way it was going. On reaching the bank it coiled itself up, throwing up blood and water. I took it up carefully, carried it home, and nursed it. It soon got better, and has been a pet of mine ever since."

After tea was over, and Mrs. Wood and Miss Laura had helped Adèle finish the work, they all gathered in the parlor. The day had been quite warm, but now a cool wind had sprung up, and Mr. Wood said that it was blowing up rain.

Mrs. Wood said that she thought a fire would be pleasant; so they lighted the sticks of wood in the open grate, and all sat round the blazing fire.

Mr. Maxwell tried to get me to make friends with the little snake that he held in his hands toward the blaze, and now that I knew that it was harmless I was not afraid of it; but it did not like me, and put out its funny little tongue whenever I looked at it.

By-and-by the rain began to strike against the windows, and Mr. Maxwell said, "This is just the night for a story. Tell us something out of your experience, won't you, Mr. Wood?"

"What shall I tell you?" he said, good-humoredly. He was sitting between his wife and Mr. Harry, and had his hand on Mr. Harry's knee.

"Something about animals," said Mr. Maxwell. "We seem to be on that subject to-day."

"Well," said Mr. Wood, "I'll talk about something that has been running in my head for many a day. There is a good deal of talk nowadays about kindness to domestic animals, but I do not hear much about kindness to wild ones. The same Creator formed them both. I do not see why you should not protect one as well as the other. I have no more right to torture a bear than a cow. Our wild animals around here are getting pretty well killed off, but there are lots in other places. I used to be fond of hunting when I was a boy, but I have got rather disgusted with killing these late years; and unless the wild creatures, ran in our streets, I would lift no hand to them. Shall I tell you some of the sport we had when I was a youngster?"

"Yes, yes," they all exclaimed.