“Only a Little” written by Charlotte Maria Tucker (A.L.O.E.) is about neglecting duty.
It was a bright, clear day in September, and the sea sparkled in the sunshine as if strewed with glittering stars. What could be more delightful to children lately come from dusty London, than to wander on such a day on the shore, drinking in the fresh, pure air, basking in the sunshine, and watching the little waves as they stole gently up over the brown sand and the rocks green with beautiful sea-weed?
At least, so thought Owen and his two little sisters on the day after their arrival at a pleasant place on the seacoast.
This was their first visit to the seaside, and much they enjoyed it. Their mother permitted them to stroll down by themselves to the beach, as she had many arrangements to make for their comfort in the lodging which she had taken. Mable was provided with a basket, and little Alice was as eager as herself to fill it with shells, and all the “ beauty t’ings “ which they could find on the rocks or the sands.
“I say, Mabel,” observed Owen, “if I go a little further across that shallow strip of water, I can fish up with my net that rare bit of red seaweed.”
“But you will get your feet so wet, oh, so wet,” said the prudent Mabel. “Only look at your new shoes already! Mamma will be vexed, if she sees them quite spoiled.”
“I don’t know the use of shoes, or of socks either,” cried Owen, “when one has such soft sand to tread on, and water to paddle about in. I’ll have mine off in a minute!” And Owen had soon pulled off his shoes and his socks, and tucked up the ends of his trousers, so that, more at his ease, he could search about for seaweed or shells.
Mabel was not sure whether mamma would approve of her boy going bare-legged, but Owen had no doubts on the subject. When from his little net he landed the lovely seaweed in Mabel’s basket, all the children were so much delighted that they thought of nothing but the pleasure of finding such a beautiful prize.
“It is red as coral,” cried Mabel, “and has as many branches as a tree.”
“Won’t we dry it and put it into mamma’s pretty album?” said Alice. “Look at de ’ittle, ’ittle shells that are sticking to it;” and the child clapped her hands with delight.
No wonder that the children, thus happily engaged, forgot how fast time was flying. Mabel, a quiet, steady little girl, stepped very carefully from rock to rock, keeping her feet out of the water which lay in little pools in the sand. She also tried to prevent Alice from wetting her little shoes. But Owen’s delight was to get as far out into the sea as the jutting-out line of low rocks would let him; and in her eagerness to follow her brother, Alice slipped down more than once, and splashed the water over her ankles.
“I think that we must have been out a long time,” Mabel at last observed; “and Alice ought to change her wet shoes. Mamma will be wondering what has become of us. We had better not stop any longer.”
“Only a little,” cried Owen, who had fixed his heart on reaching one particular rock, which was half covered with mussels.
“Only a ’ittle,” echoed Alice, who was full of her play, and who, but for Mabel, would have liked to kick off her own little shoes, and wade into the water, like Owen.
After about five minutes had passed, Mabel spoke again to her brother. “Mamma may be anxious,” said she.
“Only a little,” laughed Owen. “She’ll forget her anxiety soon, when she sees what a store of mussels I’ve found.”
“We really ought to go back,” said Mabel after another pause. “If you will not come, Owen, I must take Alice home by myself.”
“Wait; only wait a little,” cried her brother; but Mabel knew that it would be wrong to wait longer, so, taking the unwilling Alice by the hand, the girl turned round to go back to the beach.
“Oh, look at de shoes and socks, all a-swimmin’!” exclaimed Alice, as soon as her face was turned in the direction of the spot from which the children had been wandering, as they made their way along the causeway of rocks and sand.
“Owen, Owen! look—look!” cried Mabel, and the sound of her frightened voice made her brother turn hastily round.
Then, indeed, the boy saw the cause of and shared his sister’s alarm. The rock on which he had thrown his shoes and socks had been perfectly dry when he had cast them upon it, and surrounded by sand which had then been also quite dry. But while Owen had been amusing himself in picking up seaweed and shells, the tide had been gradually creeping up, little by little. The rising water had stolen round now this stone, now that stone, nearer to the shore, till a wave had lapped the rock on which lay the shoes and the socks. It had sucked them off, and set them floating like weeds, quite beyond reach of their late owner, who stood helplessly gazing after them, half-way up to the knees in salt water.
“Oh dear, dear! how shall we ever get back!” exclaimed Mabel; for all between the children and the beach was quite covered now by the waves, except the low line of rocks; and even these seemed to be gradually growing smaller, and more detached one from another.
Alice burst out into a loud cry of terror. “ We’ll be drown-ded—drown-ded!” shrieked she.
“We must rush back as fast as we can!” exclaimed Owen, who saw that his foolish delay had been bringing himself and his sisters into serious danger.
But Alice was so much terrified, that she seemed unable to move from the bit of rock on which she was perched, and which stood higher than the rest above the surface of the sea. The child dreaded to leave her place of refuge, and plunge into the shallow water which divided her from the shore.
“Let’s be off at once!” cried Mabel.
“Oh no, no!” screamed Alice, clinging fast to her sister; and she added in a tone of entreaty, “Wait a ’ittle, only a ’ittle!” while the tears flowed fast down her cheeks.
“No more foolish delay!” cried Owen; and snatching up the child in his arms, and calling to Mabel to follow, the boy went wading and splashing towards shore as fast as he could make his way through the water.
This water was not, indeed, very deep, but deep enough to cover many a sharp slippery bit of rock on which Owen trod in his haste. Once he stumbled, and in his fall plunged the shrieking Alice into the waves, while he himself was drenched to the skin. This, however, was as nothing compared to the pain of treading barefooted amongst rocks. Owen could no longer choose soft sandy bits on which to set his feet; they were soon both bruised and bleeding. Had the poor boy been less anxious to gain the shore, he must have stopped in his course, so great was the pain which he suffered.
As for poor Mabel, who carried the basket and net, she followed her brother as closely as she could; but she was terribly frightened, and felt as if the waves were giving her chase as she fled before them, for the little girl could not tell how high the tide was likely to rise. See her struggling on, panting and gasping! There—she is down! What a splash! how her eyes and mouth must be full of salt water! She is up again, but dripping and drenched—her hat hanging back by the strings, and the drops streaming from her hair. As for her basket full of treasures, a wave has carried it away! Another false step—another fall! The net has dropped from the poor girl’s hand, and is floating off on a billow! Owen will never use that net again to fish up curious things from the sea.
The three children, however, have reached the dry land, and stand panting upon the smooth beach. They are thankful to have gained it in safety; but dripping and drowned do they look, their wet dresses clinging to their forms, their hair hanging in wet strands round their pale faces.
Their mother had become uneasy at the long absence of her children, and just as they reached the sands she came hurrying down towards them. There was no need for Owen and his sisters to tell their story; their mother saw at a glance what had happened. As her children looked in so piteous a state, the lady thought it better not to add to their distress by a word of reproach. She hurried them off to her lodging, where she instantly made them take off their wet clothes and go to their beds, in which they spent the rest of that bright September day. The girls escaped with slight colds; but poor Owen’s bleeding feet needed to be carefully washed in warm water to clear out the sand from his hurts. It was some days before he could bear to put on boots, and he thus lost many a pleasant ramble with his sisters beside the sea.
Never did Owen forget his painful ad venture. Often, when tempted to delay for “only a little” what ought to be done at once, the boy would smile and shake his head as he said, “Only a little once nearly drowned my sisters and me.”
And let us all remember, that to wander from the straight path of duty only a little must always be fraught with danger. Unless we retrace our steps, only a little wandering will surely bring us into the deepening waters of temptation, amongst the rocks and shoals of sin. If through mercy we are at last enabled to turn and escape, it will yet be with a bruised spirit and an aching heart, and the remembrance of precious hours lost for ever that all our regret for the past can never bring back to us again.