After careful consideration, she made her choice, and Mrs. Evringham and Jewel settling themselves comfortably, the former began to read aloud the tale of—
If it had not been for the birds and brooks, the rabbits and squirrels, Gabriel would have been a very lonely boy.
His older brothers, William and Henry, did not care for him, because he was so much younger than they, and, moreover, they said he was stupid. His father might take some interest in him when he grew bigger and stronger and could earn money; but money was the only thing Gabriel’s father cared for, and when the older brothers earned any they tried to keep it a secret from the father lest he should take it away from them. Gabriel had a stepmother, but she was a sorry woman, too full of care to be companionable. So he sought his comrades among the wild things in the woods, to get away from the quarrels at home.
He was a muscular, rosy-cheeked lad, and in the sports at school he could out-run and out-jump the other boys and was always good-natured with them; but even the children at the little country school did not like him very well, because the very things they enjoyed the most did not amuse him.
He tried to explain to them that the birds were his friends, and therefore he could not rob their nests; but they laughed at him almost as much as when he tried to dissuade them from mocking old Mother Lemon, as they passed her cottage door on their way to and from school.
She was an old cross-patch, of course, they told him, or else she would not live alone on the edge of a forest, with nobody but a cat and owls for company.
“Perhaps she would be glad to have some one better for company,” Gabriel replied.
“Go live with her, yourself, then, Gabriel,” said one of the boys tauntingly. “That’s right! Go leave your miser father, counting his gold all night while you are asleep, and too stingy to give you enough to eat, and go and be Mother Lemon’s good little boy!” and then all the children laughed and hooted at Gabriel, who walked up to the speaker and knocked him over on the grass with such apparent ease and such a calm face, that all the laughers grew silent from mere surprise.
“You mustn’t talk about my father to me,” said Gabriel, explaining. Then he started for home, and the laughing began again, softly.
“It was true,” he thought, as he trudged along. Things were getting worse at home, and sometimes he was hungry, for there was not too much on the table, and his big brothers fought for their share.
As he neared Mother Lemon’s cottage, with its thatched roof and tiny windows, he saw the old woman, in her short gown, tugging at the well-sweep. It seemed very hard for her to draw up the heavy bucket.
Instantly Gabriel ran forward.
“Get out of here, now,” cried the old woman, in a cracked voice, for she saw it was one of the school-children, and she was weary of their worrying tricks.