A Thing Called Conscience

    “A Thing Called Conscience,” Friend, Sept. 1988, 10–11

    A Thing Called Conscience

    Sunshine highlighted the autumn leaves as Lottie and her collie, King, picked their way down the rocky path to the springhouse to fetch a crock of butter. She held up her long skirt that she wore to school so as not to dirty it. Despite Mama’s lecture, however, she had discarded the stiff high-button shoes in the weeds. The cool grass chilled the bottoms of her calloused feet. She hadn’t worn shoes all summer (except to church because Mama insisted), and she hated to start now. Mama said that a ten-year-old girl should act like a lady, but Lottie didn’t feel like a lady as she ducked under a low limb of an apple tree.

    As she opened the wide, heavy door of the springhouse, she felt a chill sweep past her, and she was grateful for King’s companionship. Although Lottie had three older sisters, they stayed at the house to help Mama with the three younger girls and her little brother.

    It was damp and dark in the springhouse. The icy springwater flowed briskly through the long troughs where they kept their perishable foods. Maybe I’d better get one more crock, thought Lottie. It takes a lot of butter for hot cakes for all of us. Just then Lottie lost her footing on the slippery floor. As she grabbed a shelf to break her fall, the fancy butter crock that she had just chosen slipped from her grasp and hit the floor with a sickening crash! Pieces of blue pottery scattered in all directions!

    Tears welled up in Lottie’s eyes as she remembered Papa’s words of caution: “These are hard times and we cannot afford any waste.”

    Fearful of being late for school and of getting a tongue-lashing from Mama, while King licked up the splattered butter, she stuffed as many pieces as she could find into her apron pocket, grabbed another crock of butter, and hurried toward the house.

    Lottie quickly pushed the pieces of broken crockery into a crevice in the old stone fence at the edge of the field and ran back to the house. As she neared it, the smell of bacon floated out with the chimney smoke to meet her.

    “What kept you, Charlotte?” asked Papa as Lottie appeared in the doorway.

    “I guess I’m a little slow this morning, Papa,” Lottie answered, trying hard to smile. She felt Papa’s sideway glance every so often during breakfast. It was a questioning expression that Papa always wore when he knew that there was something that he should know but didn’t.

    “Anything special going on at school today?” he asked.

    “No, not much,” Lottie answered, trying to be cheerful.

    “I have a busy day ahead of me,” he said. “I need to mend some fences to get ready for the new herd.”

    Lottie nearly choked on a bite of bacon. What if Papa checks that particular fence? she wondered. It wouldn’t have been such a big thing to Mama had it not been her favorite crock, nor to Papa had it been empty, nor to herself if careful inventory would not be taken, but she knew that an accounting must come.

    It came sooner than Lottie had anticipated, for Papa was waiting outside the barn as the girls came home from school. “Come into the barn, girls. We need to talk.”

    The four girls looked at each other, recognizing the concern in Papa’s voice.

    “I happened onto these pieces of Mama’s best crock today while I was mending the stone fence,” he said, displaying the broken pieces. “Who can tell me how they got there?”

    A big lump jumped into Lottie’s throat. She hung her head. The older girls looked at each other and then back at Papa.

    “How about you, Charlotte?” Papa’s voice, although even and mild-tempered, thundered in Lottie’s ears.

    “I don’t know, Papa.” It was a lie, and she knew it—and she knew that Papa knew it. But somehow, down deep, she secretly hoped that he didn’t.

    “I suppose that the wind broke it and scattered the pieces into the fence,” Papa said, looking hard into each girl’s eyes. Finally he sighed and said, “All right, get to your chores.”

    Lottie’s mind wasn’t on her work. It was on her last Primary lesson. “The best remedy for a guilty conscience,” Sister Thompson had said, “is to repent and admit what you’ve done wrong.” Gathering her courage, Lottie walked slowly back to the barn.

    Papa looked up, pitchfork in hand. “You want to tell me something, Charlotte?” After a long, awkward silence, he prodded gently, “It was you, wasn’t it, Lottie?”

    “Yes, Papa. I suppose that I have to tell Mama too.”

    “It’s up to you. You’ve always been taught to do what’s right. Listen to your conscience; then decide.”

    As Lottie dragged into the house, Mama was fixing supper. The tears Lottie hated were back again.

    “Oh, Mama,” Lottie sobbed, “I broke it.”

    “Broke what?” asked Mama, giving her a hug.

    “Your best crock—and King ate it!” Lottie clung to Mama and cried even harder.

    “He ate the crock?” Mama smiled and wiped Lottie’s tears.

    “No, the butter,” Lottie explained, still sniffing. “Mama, I’m so sorry.”

    “Well, I’m glad that you were honest and told me.”

    “I just had to tell you and Papa, Mama. I felt so bad.”

    “That’s a thing called conscience,” said Mama.

    “I guess I just found out that I have one,” Lottie said, finally able to smile.

    Illustrated by Mike Eagle