The boys had gone to the pasture to drive up the cows for the milking, but they were loitering now near the margin of Stony Creek, looking for tinted feldspar. Fred was just reaching for a gorgeous flesh-red crystal that lay sparkling in front of him when Will's dexterous fingers closed over the coveted prize.

Fred flashed on him angrily, "It's mine. You can't have it!"

"Is that so?" mocked Will, depositing the crystal in his "safety" pocket at the same time; for Will was eleven and Fred was only nine.

"But I saw it first." Fred's voice was quivering, and he could hardly keep back the tears.

"Well, I got it first," retorted Will, turning on his heel, "and you know as well as I do that 'findings' is 'keepings'"; and then, as the faint sound of a horn reached the lads by the margin of the creek: "You would better hurry along, for father will not like it if we are late to supper."

While Will, sitting beside his brother, keeps his coat tight-buttoned with true proprietary instinct, and while Fred extracts what comfort he can from hot muffins and fresh honey, we may as well begin without delay a serious study of The Affair at the Creek. Here is the kernel of much that shall be written. If, within ten years from now, Will and Fred and some of their friends shall fairly understand the meaning of possession, these chapters will be immensely worth the while.

For, right here at the creek, our problem meets us, head on, before we can construct the least sort of an introduction (after the manner of book-writers) to show "the difficulty of our subject," and "the need of a careful survey." Here it is at one leap: Finding father's feldspar on father's farm, and, with no least reference to the rightful owner, appropriating it forthwith to the fortunes of father's boy, as against the fortunes of father's other boy (and that for the very complacent reason that eleven is stronger than nine!), and the familiar boy-tragedy grotesquely silhouetted against the dazzling white virtue of "pleasing father" by promptness at the supper table—the whole unhappy affair proclaims the ethics of property as it is recognized in the world at large, and as it is commonly accepted in our Christian civilization. From top to bottom it is a tissue of wrong, and, for the sake of Will and Fred and a thousand others of their generation, it ought to be shredded apart.

Nor will it cover the case to suggest, as some would suggest, that this affair was an exhibition of flagrant discourtesy, and that Will's greatest need was a thorough training in manners. Well, courtesy springs from kindness, and courtesy would have been helpful at the creek. But Will's trouble was deeper than his manners, which, as boys and manners go, were very passable. How keen he was to be prompt at table! And that, by all means, is a very mannerly thing to remember. The fact is, Fred had no sort of complaint against his brother's manners; nor had he any quarrel with Will's ethics of ownership, which he understood and shared completely. His chief grievance was that he himself was only nine years old and small for his age. As he ate his supper that night his secret hope was that muffins would make muscle.

Lord Chesterfield reminds us that "Manners must adorn knowledge, and smooth its way through the world." We have no calling to prepare a manual on the courtesies of ownership. It is not our particular business to describe the manner in which Knowledge goes to work in the world; but it is certainly our business to ask, What does Knowledge know? and, Where did Knowledge learn? If we shall rightly judge The Affair at the Creek, and so be fairly competent, as the boys grow toward manhood, to counsel Will and Fred on the whole broad subject of ownership and possession, we ourselves shall need to examine the very sources of our common knowledge, and, perhaps, to reconstruct some of our own thinking.

The Affair at the Creek having jarred us from a fitting Introduction, and having brought us to the heart of our problem "at one breath," as the Hindus subtly phrase it, we prefer to meet it squarely, here and now: The doctrine of ownership, as commonly defined in the jurisprudence of Europe and America, is pagan both in meaning and origin.

That last sentence, standing all alone in naked English, seems to wave the red flag of defiance at the very start, and fully proves the wisdom of those writers, who, before they attempt to say anything, buttress themselves with a complete Introduction and seven chapters of Remarks. But it was our misfortune (unless it shall prove our good fortune) that two schoolboys on the margin of the creek thrust a raw problem into our very face, and, in justice to the boys, we have been compelled to take it in the raw. The boys themselves are not disconcerted when we flatly affirm that the whole doctrine of ownership is pagan, for boys have no nice prejudice concerning words. Nevertheless, it will interest the boys, and may interest their elders, to add a further word of explanation.

Paganism, or, to use its broader synonym, heathenism, is a fascinating thing. It challenges the mind that hath wisdom. The fruit of it is dark, and heavy with evil, but the root of it is very near the tree of life. The beginnings of truth and error are always close together; and herein is our fear of error, that it is so near the truth.

When, therefore, we say that the doctrine of ownership, which Will and Fred had unconsciously assimilated, is a pagan doctrine, we have made a formidable leap from the quiet meadows of Stony Creek into the very heart of heathenism. In preparation for such a leap, and in justice to the author and to his readers, it is fitting that we should pause for a brief Remark, which may serve also for the omitted Introduction.