From the Children’s Friend, May 1924 –
By Elsie Chamberlain Carroll
“Now, children,” reminded Teacher as the bell sounded for the dismissal of school, “remember what we planned for our Nature lesson tomorrow. We are going to see who has the sharpest eyes. There will be a prize, you know, for the boy or girl who brings the most kinds of flowers and rocks that we haven’t studied about before.”
Most of the children turned and looked at Peter, some enviously, some admiringly, and a few a bit maliciously. Among the latter was George, who sat across the aisle.
“Teacher’s pet,” he whispered sneeringly.
Teacher saw the glances and smiled kindly at Peter.
“There is no reason why the rest of you can’t do as well as Peter,” she said, “If you will try as hard.”
When they were in the hall George crowded in beside Peter as they were getting their caps and dinner pails from the row of hooks.
“Here’s one prize you don’t get, old ‘Peter Punkin Eater.’ You’re tied to your Mama’s apron string and have to go right straight home after school, don’t you? Well, we’re going to spend from now till dark looking for rocks and flowers all over Pine Knoll, aren’t we Dave?” He turned to Dave Thorne who was behind him.
“You bet,” assented Dave. “Anything to beat old Pete for once.”
Peter felt his cheeks burn as he made his way to room 1 for Madge. Before George had spoken he had been wishing he didn’t have to take Madge home, then he could go on the hill and look for rocks and flowers on his way home. There would not be time afterwards to do it and get home in time for his evening chores. But mother had told him always to bring Madge directly home as soon as school was over.
Peter was in the Fourth grade, but this was little Madge’s first year. She was just six years old and seemed to the family a mere baby. In the fall when they had debated whether to send her to school or not, mother had said she wouldn’t think of letting her go on account of the school house being so far away if it were not that Peter was so trustworthy.
And so all winter Peter had faithfully lived up to his mother’s expectations. No matter what the other boys were doing he had always hurried home so mother would not be worried. And he had never resented his task before, for he almost idolized his baby sister who depended so much on him.
But this afternoon as they walked toward the path which led around Pine Knoll to their father’s farm, Peter was unusually quiet.
“What’s the matter, Petie?” queried Madge. “Is you been bad in school today?”
Peter shook his head. Then a bright thought struck him. They could at least walk slowly and look for rocks and flowers on their way home. He might get some new ones anyhow. So he explained to Madge about the prize and she joyously agreed to watch her side of the trail.
When they neared Pine Knoll, George and Dave came running behind them.
“Hello, Peter Punkin Eater,” jeered George again.” We’re going over to Lowell’s meadow on the other side of the knoll. Don’t you wish you could go with us?”
Peter said nothing, but he burned at the boy’s hateful manner. If only he could win in spite of his handicap.
George and Dave rushed on, and Peter saw them cross the footbridge which spanned Lowell Creek and heard their exclamations of satisfaction as they reached the green bank on the other side.
By the time Peter and Madge had reached the bridge, George and Dave had disappeared around the point of the knoll. They would probably make a complete circuit of the knoll and come back home by way of the Dawson road, thought Peter. There were always such lovely early spring flowers in Lowell’s Meadow and he wondered if they would think about the cave back of the gravel pit where there were so many different kinds of pebbles. Oh, if he only had an hour, he could get such a fine collection.
Peter was recalled from his unhappy reverie by little Madge who had darted across to his side of the trail to pluck a flower he had not seen.
“Petie,” she chided, “just see what you leaved right behind.”
He accepted the rebuke and watched more closely for a few moments, but his mind was still tormenting itself for a way to gather a respectable collection.
When they reached the bridge which crossed Lowell Creek he stopped. Here the road forked. Their own path led away from the knoll through cultivated fields where there would be little chance to find either new flowers or rocks. Across the creek the green bank rose enticingly to the foothills. If only he had even a half hour! He knew just where to look for the flowers and he was quite sure George and Dave would never think of the cave. They would go through the meadow, then on around to the Dawson road. He was sure with half a chance he could win the contest, in spite of all their boasting.
If mother only knew she would surely tell him he might go. Of course she had told him always to come directly home with Madge, but today was different. Teacher would expect him to have a lot of flowers and rocks even if he didn’t win the prize. It made him lift his shoulders – the feeling he had whenever he thought about his Teacher, she helped him so much.
He looked at the few straggling flowers in his hand – only two of them were new ones they had not studied. Madge had one new one. They had no rocks. He couldn’t bear the thought of not living up to teacher’s expectations.
His eyes were fastened wistfully on the bank across the creek. He almost imagined he could see whole patches of new flowers.
“Madge, could you sit on that flat rock over there and not move a bit for a little while? You could read in your new book, or play with these flowers, but not go anywhere.”
“Why – what for?” the little girl asked wonderingly.
“If you would be sure to stay right there for a half – for just a little while – I could run up over the knoll and get such lots of flowers and pretty rocks and then maybe I’d win the prize tomorrow.” Peter had already told Madge about the prize when he had told her to watch for flowers.
“Oh, could you?” the little girl was all eagerness. “But can’t I go with you?”
“No, I’d have to hurry too fast. You would just have to wait a little while for me. Will you, Madgie?”
“But Mama says for us to always come right home,” reminded the little girl.
“Do you think she could care if she knew Teacher wanted – Teacher expected me to get the flowers and rocks, Madgie?”
Madge pondered a moment. It was not often that this big, adored brother appealed to her judgment.
“No, I don’t fink she would care if Teacher wants you to do it,” she decided.
This did not entirely settle Peter’s qualms of conscience but he accepted it.
“All right. We’ll go over the bridge and you wait on that flat rock under the big tree. I’ll hurry awful fast.”
As they were crossing the narrow plank bridge, Madge gave a little scream.
“Ugh! The water’s deep and roary, isn’t it, Petie?”
Peter hadn’t noticed before that the creek was unusually high and muddy. The last few days had been almost as warm as summer although it was yet early May. The snow in the mountains must be melting rapidly. Had Peter not been so occupied with his problem he might have thought of spring floods which were so common. But he was only thinking of the spots he would go for his flowers and rocks.
“Now, you stay right here, Madge. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll hurry just as fast as I can.” Peter was not free from a pricking conscience as he hurried away. He tried to think, however, that Mama would not care if she knew just what he was trying to do.
Peter did not want to encounter his rivals so he hurried over the knoll toward the cave near the gravel bed, first. He would go to the meadow on his way back. When he reached the crest of the knoll he saw the two boys in the meadow. He was glad they were so engrossed in their task that they did not notice him.
As he had remembered, there were many kinds of rocks in and around the gravel cave and he soon had his cap filled. He wanted to find one particular kind – a pink rock with rich brown streaks such as he and Jack Lowell had found many specimens of the summer before, but he knew he must hurry back to Madge. What if something should happen to her? He kept telling himself that he must go, and yet he stayed, searching desperately for the pebble he wanted.
At last he found one of the pink rocks and with an exultant little whoop started on a run toward the meadow. He looked toward Dawson road and saw George and Dave searching for rocks on the hillside near the road. Apparently they were not going to the cave. Peter was exultant. He wouldn’t have minded so much anyone else winning over him – just those two boys. They were always taunting him about being Teacher’s pet, or being tied to Mother’s apron string. In his resentment against the boys and his eagerness to get a good collection of flowers, Peter forgot Madge for a little while, and scoured the big meadow.
At last he remembered with a start. The sun was almost down. It suddenly seemed a dreadfully long time since he left his little sister. What would Mama say?
He ran as fast as he could around the foot of the Knoll. He had not realized it was so far. Finally he turned the bend which brought him in view of the tree where he had left her.
Then he stopped in horror. Madge was not there! The big flat rock gleamed white in the setting sun, but the little girl was nowhere to be seen.
As soon as he could collect himself, Peter called loudly.
“Madge! Madgie!” as he ran breathlessly on.
But there was no answer. It seemed to Peter that he would die during the agonizing interval that followed. He imagined a hundred terrible things which might have happened. And Mother had trusted him. Mother had said so often that he was dependable and that she didn’t worry when the baby was with him because he always obeyed.
The shame and anxiety he felt almost smothered him. As he drew nearer the tree a roar from the creek startled him. He recalled Madge’s words as they had crossed the footbridge: “Ugh, isn’t it deep and roary!”
Another terrible moment and he stood on the bank of the stream. The water had risen to within a couple of feet of the bridge, and was rolling with a fierce muddy power.
White and stricken Peter stood on the bank. It was all tragically clear to him what must have happened. Madge had become frightened at the louder roar of the flood waters and had tried to cross the bridge – and without his hand to guide her – oh, he couldn’t bear to think of it! He covered his face and sobbed. The flowers for which he had sacrificed his baby sister dropped forgotten to the ground, and the rocks fell unheeded from his cap beside them.
Oh, what should he do? He couldn’t go home. He couldn’t face the trusting mother he had disobeyed. In his terrible grief he flung himself to the ground and sobbed out a prayer: “Dear Father in Heaven, what shall I do? What shall I do?”
As he lay there moaning this heartbroken plea, a voice came to him from across the creek.
“Peter! Peter!” It sounded like Mother.
He staggered to his feet and through his tears he saw her standing on the opposite bank – and oh, the joyous relief – Madge was by her side.
His mother was beckoning excitedly. “Peter, hurry over the bridge. Can’t you see the water is rising.”
Somehow he made his way to them. He gathered Madge in his arms and burst again into tears. His mother looked at him seriously a few moments, then she said gently:
“I guess you have been punished enough for forgetting to obey this time. But, Peter, can’t you see what could have happened to little sister if I hadn’t happened to come along soon after you left. I was so surprised to see her sitting there alone as I was hurrying toward town trying to get to the schoolhouse before you left as I wanted to take Madge to the store for some new shoes. Can’t you see what a serious mistake it was? Why, what if she had become frightened of the roar of the water, or of the stillness of the hillside and had tried to cross the creek alone.”
“Oh, Mother, I know. I thought sure she was drowned,” sobbed Peter and his mother put her arms around him then and comforted him for she was sure he had learned his lesson.
The next morning when Peter got to school, George and Dave were proudly exhibiting their collection of flowers and rocks to Teacher. She looked up expectantly when Peter came in.
“I haven’t any,” he said simply and Teacher was wise enough not to ask any questions – just then. George and Dave laughed exultingly. But the hurt of their laugh was removed a few moments later when little lame Lucy Brown came into the room with her apron full of something she was carefully carrying, and her face glowing with happiness.
“Teacher – see! When I was coming to school I was looking for flowers as you told us to. I wanted to get a few even if I can’t go far. And what do you think, Teacher, I looked across the creek and there was this whole pile of flowers and rocks right by the bridge that goes over to Lowell’s pasture. See Teacher! Lots and lots of them. Do you think that maybe an – an angel – or a fairy found them for me because I am lame?”
Teacher looked tenderly into the little girl’s radiant face – then her glance caught a reflected glow in Peter’s face. Teacher had an understanding heart.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, Lucy dear, but what that is exactly what happened.”