The Truant, Neddy Oram

WHAT’S the matter with Neddy Oram?” I said as a noise outside drew me to the window, and I saw old Mrs. Oram dragging her grandson along the street. She looked angry and determined.

“He’s played truant, I guess,” answered my little girl as she came to my side. “He played truant last week, and Mr. Jonas made him stand on one foot ever so long a time. And when he got tired and put the other one down, he switched him on the leg. Oh dear! I don’t want to go this morning. I wish Neddy wouldn’t play truant, nor be bad in school! He’s such a nice boy, and I can’t bear to see him whipped. Mr. Jonas will cut him dreadfully, I know he will, for he said he’d take the skin off of him if ever he played truant again.”

Neddy was a nice boy, as my little girl said. He was bright and active, kind-hearted and generous. I never saw him do a mean or selfish thing. But he had a free, rather reckless spirit and a will that was stubbornness itself when aroused. Kindness softened, but anger hardened, him.

Neddy’s father and mother were both dead, and the boy lived with his grandmother, who was rather a hard woman, and believed more in the power of force than in the power of kindness.

As soon as I understood the case I put on my bonnet hastily and ran after Mrs. Oram, hoping to come up with her before she reached the school-room. I was a few moments too late for this, but in time to have a word with Mr. Jonas, who stood at the door holding the struggling boy firmly by the arm.

“I want you to promise me one thing,” I said, laying my hand on the schoolmaster’s. I spoke in as quiet a voice as I could assume, but very seriously. My words and manner threw Mr. Jonas off of his guard. His hold on the boy relaxed, and in the next instant Neddy was beyond his reach and running off as fast as his feet could carry him.

“After him!” cried the schoolmaster, greatly excited. “After him, John Wilkins!”

A large, coarse-looking boy started forward, and was about passing through the door, when I put my hand on him, and pressing him back said,

“Wait a moment, John. Maybe, after I’ve said a word to Mr. Jonas, he’ll not want you to go. Tell him to wait, Mr. Jonas; do, now, because I want you.”

I softened my voice to a persuasive tone, and so made my interference effectual. The schoolmaster told John Wilkins to go back to his seat.

Mrs. Oram had started after her troublesome grandson on the instant of his escape, and so I was left alone with the excited teacher.

“Now, don’t be angry with me,” said I, “nor tell me to go away and mind my own business. Two heads are sometimes better than one; and it’s my opinion that if you and I put our heads together, we can save this poor  boy from being ruined. There is a great deal of good in him, but as things go now I’m afraid it will be lost. With natures like his, ‘love has readier will than fear.’ His grandmother doesn’t know how to manage him. Let us try to show her a better way.”

Neddy being dragged to school by his grandmother

THE TRUANT.

By the time I had said this the thoughts of Mr. Jonas had become clearer and his anger against Neddy much abated. I saw this in his face.

“Let the boy go now,” I added. “After school come and see me, and we’ll have a long talk over the matter. But promise me one thing.”

“What is that?” he asked.

“If old Mrs. Oram brings Neddy back to-day, don’t punish him.”

“Very well. It shall be as you say,” answered the schoolmaster.

That evening Mr. Jonas called to see me. He was a better man, on the whole, than he was a schoolmaster. Out of school he was kind and genial, but as a teacher he was not always as wise and as patient as he should be. Like Neddy’s grandmother, he believed more in the power of force than he did in the power of kindness. His rod was always in sight, and too often in his hand. He ruled by fear, and not by love.

“Did Neddy come back to school?” I asked.

Mr. Jonas shook his head gravely.

“Oh, mother,” cried my little girl, rushing into the room just at this moment, “Neddy Oram’s lost or run away!”

She stopped on seeing Mr. Jonas; her face, that had been a little pale, flushed deeply, and her eyes had an angry flash. “And it’s all your fault!” she added, with a sudden brave indignation in her tiny voice as she turned on the schoolmaster and looked at him steadily.

“My fault!” said the schoolmaster, in a startled voice.

“Yes, sir. It’s all your fault. If you hadn’t made him stand on one leg until he was almost tired to death, and switched him when he put the other down, and if you hadn’t said you’d cut the skin off of him, he wouldn’t have run away.”

And here little Carrie burst out crying, and buried her face, sobbing, in my lap.

“Brave talk for my timid little girl, Mr. Jonas,” I said, in an undertone, “but all true, I’m afraid.”

“What is true?” he asked, looking bewildered.

“All that Carrie has said. This way you have of flogging children does more harm than good. A man of your clear mind and kindly nature might surely find some better way to govern your scholars.”

Mr. Jonas did not answer. There was a look of pained surprise on his face.

“Run away, lost!” he exclaimed, after a few moments, rising to his feet. His manner had become suddenly agitated. “Poor boy! I must see about this;” and he went out hastily.

 When Neddy Oram, who was only ten years old, escaped from the schoolmaster, he went directly home and hid himself in the garret, behind some boxes and old furniture. He ran so much faster than his grandmother that she lost sight of him and did not see him go into the house. So no search was made for him in the garret. Like some poor hunted animal that had gained a place of safety, he crouched panting in his hiding-place, enjoying for a time a sweet sense of security. But Neddy could not long forget how small and weak and dependent he was. It was all very well to hide away from his grandmother, but how was he to get anything to eat?

“Run away!” said a voice that spoke inside of him, but so loud and clear that he almost started. “Run away!” repeated the voice. “Grandmother Oram will find you out up here and take you back to school, and Mr. Jonas will switch you half to death.”

I wonder who it was that said this, or how a voice could speak inside of Neddy Oram? It was a bad spirit, I think, that wished to do him harm. We may often hear these bad spirits speaking in our thoughts and telling us to do naughty things. Good spirits speak in our thoughts as well as bad ones, and they tell us to do what is right, to be kind and generous and loving and true.

I am sorry to say that Neddy, who was not only angry with his grandmother and the schoolmaster, but on account of his wrong-doings and disobedience afraid of them, listened to this voice, and as he listened the bad spirit made the voice seem so like his own thoughts that he knew not but that all came from himself.

So under this wrong influence he planned an escape from the house, which was to be made as soon as his grandmother went out. For an hour or two he heard her moving around. At last all was still. Then he stole from his hiding-place and listened at the head of the stairs. Not the slightest sound broke the deep silence. Grandmother had gone away. Then he took a loaf of bread, a large slice of cake and some apples, which he tied up in a handkerchief; and stealing out of the back door, he ran through the garden and out of a gate that opened into a lane. At the end of this lane was a piece of woods, and beyond this wood a deep hollow, along which it was easy to go without danger of being seen by any one.

How strangely the little boy’s heart beat as he hurried along, going he knew not whither! It was not long before he reached the hollow beyond the woods. After crossing this hollow, he entered another wood by a narrow path made by the cattle. The trees in this wood were very tall and close together, and the underbrush grew so thick that he could see before him only for a short distance.

The silence and darkness of this heavy forest caused a lonely feeling to come over Neddy. All at once the thought of bears and wolves came into his mind, and with the thought fear crept into his heart. A weakness fell upon  him, and he stood still with drops of cold sweat on his forehead. Then he turned and ran back, but in doing so missed the way and took a path that, instead of taking him out of the forest, led him farther into it. He ran and ran, panting for breath, until he was so tired that he had to sit down to rest.

“What if I am lost?” he said to himself, a cold chill running over him at the thought. Lost! How wildly the poor little boy’s heart began to beat! As he sat there, feeling too weak from weariness and fear to arise, he heard not far off the sound of feet cracking the dry sticks and rustling the leaves that lay upon the ground. He held his breath in terror, for he was sure it was a bear or wolf. Nearer and nearer the animal came, passing only a few rods from where he sat motionless.

“Oh, oh!” exclaimed Neddy, in tones of relief, starting to his feet as he saw a young heifer which was astray in the woods.

At sight of the boy the heifer, scared by his sudden appearance, started off at a run and was soon out of sight, leaving Neddy again alone. He tried to follow her, but was not able to get on her track. Oh how he did wish himself at home! How sorry he was that he had played truant on the day before!

In trying to follow the heifer, Neddy left the narrow path along which he had been going, and now he was among the thick undergrowth of the forest, his hands and face scratched with briars. The trees stood so close together that no sunshine came down through their thick branches. All was dim and shadowy.

Poor Neddy! A great fear and loneliness fell on him again; and sitting down on the limb of a fallen tree, he began to cry bitterly. But crying was of no use. It wouldn’t get him out of the woods and safely home again. So he dried his tears and started on again, hoping to find the path he had left. But he tried in vain. All at once he noticed that the light was fading rapidly and the air growing cold. The sun had gone down, and night was falling. Neddy’s heart began to beat wildly; he could feel the throbs all over him; there was a great pressure as if a hand were laid on his breast; he could scarcely breathe, so strong was the feeling of suffocation that oppressed him. He tried to run, but his foot caught in a vine, and he fell upon the ground, where he lay for a long time before he had strength enough to arise.

In his weakness and exhaustion the poor boy found strength and courage. How! Think, my little reader. What would you have done if lost in the woods as Neddy was lost? Where would you have looked for help? You would have done, I am very sure, just as he did. And what did he do? Why, he put his little hands together, and lifting his tearful eyes upward prayed that God would take care of him, and not let any wild beasts eat him up.

As soon as he had done this the dreadful fear from which he was suffering went  out of his heart. Just a little way beyond the spot where Neddy had fallen was a small clear place in the forest, where grew a bed of soft green moss. A few rays of light came down through an opening in the trees and showed him this cosy nook. Once in it, there seemed to grow all about him a wall of darkness. So he sat down upon the moss with a strange feeling of peace and security in his heart.

And now, for the first time, Neddy felt hungry. So he opened the bundle of bread and cake which he had brought with him, and ate with a keen relish. Then he began to feel tired and heavy. The soft moss on which he was resting was just the bed for a poor tired boy like him, and before he had time to think of his loneliness and danger he was fast asleep.

But sleep sometimes gives us frightful dreams, and one of these came to Neddy. He still thought himself a poor lost boy in the woods trying to find his way out. He heard wolves howling, and saw bears and tigers and all kinds of wild beasts. At last a wolf with great red jaws came after him, and he started to run, but his terror was so great that he could scarcely move his feet. A fearful growl ran through the woods, and the dreadful beast came rushing down upon him. At this frightful moment he heard his name called; and turning, he saw Mr. Jonas, the schoolmaster, running toward him with an axe in his hand, with which he struck the wolf just as he was about seizing him. The wolf fell dead, and the schoolmaster, catching Neddy up in his arms, said, tenderly, “My poor, poor boy!” and hugged him tightly to his breast.

Was all this a dream? No, not all, for Neddy awoke and found himself in the schoolmaster’s arms, with two or three men around holding lanterns in their hands.

“My poor, poor boy!” said the schoolmaster again, laying his hand tenderly on his recovered scholar; and this time Neddy heard the words in full wakefulness.

He did not stir, but lay with his head close against Mr. Jonas, who, guided by the men with lanterns, walked hurriedly through the forest, and soon came to the road that led to the village.

I was at Grandmother Oram’s, waiting anxiously for news of the lost boy, when the schoolmaster came in with Neddy in his arms. I had been talking long and seriously with the frightened old lady about her way of treating Neddy, and she had promised me not to say a hard or angry word to him when he came home, if that ever should be. She was very much softened, and her real love for Neddy was having its full course.

It was after ten o’clock when we heard the sound of coming feet. The poor old lady started up and stood pale and breathless. The door opened and Mr. Jonas came in, carrying Neddy in his arms. His face was softer in expression than I had ever seen it. He did not say a word until he came close up to Mrs. Oram, when, holding out the boy, he said, in a low voice that was broken and  tender, “Be kind to the poor child, Mrs. Oram. I will see you about him in the morning,” then merely adding, as he turned to leave, “We found him asleep in the woods,” went out hastily.

There was a new order of things in the village school after that. The rod fell from Mr. Jonas’ hand, never to be lifted again, and he soon learned that in kindness was greater power than in fear. Neddy was in his place on the next day, and from that time onward was one of the most obedient and faithful scholars in school. Mr. Jonas’ manner toward him was kind and gentle, and Neddy felt drawn toward him by a strange attraction that gave the schoolmaster the power over him of a wise and loving father. No thought of disobedience crossed the boy’s mind. It was his delight to obey.

All this happened many years ago, and now the boy Neddy has grown to be a strong, wise, good man, an honor to the position he holds, and one of the best of citizens. He had the opportunity of doing Mr. Jonas many kind acts; and when at last the old man grew too feeble to earn his living, Mr. Oram made his last days comfortable by placing him above the reach of want.