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Produced by David Reed


By Louisa May Alcott







"Please, sir, is this Plumfield?" asked a ragged boy of the man who
opened the great gate at which the omnibus left him.

"Yes. Who sent you?"

"Mr. Laurence. I have got a letter for the lady."

"All right; go up to the house, and give it to her; she'll see to you,
little chap."

The man spoke pleasantly, and the boy went on, feeling much cheered by
the words. Through the soft spring rain that fell on sprouting grass
and budding trees, Nat saw a large square house before him, a
hospitable-looking house, with an old-fashioned porch, wide steps, and
lights shining in many windows. Neither curtains nor shutters hid the
cheerful glimmer; and, pausing a moment before he rang, Nat saw many
little shadows dancing on the walls, heard the pleasant hum of young
voices, and felt that it was hardly possible that the light and warmth
and comfort within could be for a homeless "little chap" like him.

"I hope the lady will see to me," he thought, and gave a timid rap with
the great bronze knocker, which was a jovial griffin's head.

A rosy-faced servant-maid opened the door, and smiled as she took the
letter which he silently offered. She seemed used to receiving strange
boys, for she pointed to a seat in the hall, and said, with a nod:

"Sit there and drip on the mat a bit, while I take this in to missis."

Nat found plenty to amuse him while he waited, and stared about him
curiously, enjoying the view, yet glad to do so unobserved in the dusky
recess by the door.

The house seemed swarming with boys, who were beguiling the rainy
twilight with all sorts of amusements. There were boys everywhere,
"up-stairs and down-stairs and in the lady's chamber," apparently, for
various open doors showed pleasant groups of big boys, little boys,
and middle-sized boys in all stages of evening relaxation, not to say
effervescence. Two large rooms on the right were evidently schoolrooms,
for desks, maps, blackboards, and books were scattered about. An open
fire burned on the hearth, and several indolent lads lay on their backs
before it, discussing a new cricket-ground, with such animation that
their boots waved in the air. A tall youth was practising on the flute
in one corner, quite undisturbed by the racket all about him. Two or
three others were jumping over the desks, pausing, now and then, to get
their breath and laugh at the droll sketches of a little wag who was
caricaturing the whole household on a blackboard.

In the room on the left a long supper-table was seen, set forth with
great pitchers of new milk, piles of brown and white bread, and perfect
stacks of the shiny gingerbread so dear to boyish souls. A flavor of
toast was in the air, also suggestions of baked apples, very tantalizing
to one hungry little nose and stomach.

The hall, however, presented the most inviting prospect of all, for
a brisk game of tag was going on in the upper entry. One landing
was devoted to marbles, the other to checkers, while the stairs were
occupied by a boy reading, a girl singing a lullaby to her doll, two
puppies, a kitten, and a constant succession of small boys sliding down
the banisters, to the great detriment of their clothes and danger to
their limbs.

So absorbed did Nat become in this exciting race, that he ventured
farther and farther out of his corner; and when one very lively boy
came down so swiftly that he could not stop himself, but fell off the
banisters, with a crash that would have broken any head but one rendered
nearly as hard as a cannon-ball by eleven years of constant bumping, Nat
forgot himself, and ran up to the fallen rider, expecting to find him
half-dead. The boy, however, only winked rapidly for a second, then lay
calmly looking up at the new face with a surprised, "Hullo!"

"Hullo!" returned Nat, not knowing what else to say, and thinking that
form of reply both brief and easy.

"Are you a new boy?" asked the recumbent youth, without stirring.

"Don't know yet."

"What's your name?"

"Nat Blake."

"Mine's Tommy Bangs. Come up and have a go, will you?" and Tommy got
upon his legs like one suddenly remembering the duties of hospitality.

"Guess I won't, till I see whether I'm going to stay or not," returned
Nat, feeling the desire to stay increase every moment.

"I say, Demi, here's a new one. Come and see to him;" and the lively
Thomas returned to his sport with unabated relish.

At his call, the boy reading on the stairs looked up with a pair of big
brown eyes, and after an instant's pause, as if a little shy, he put the
book under his arm, and came soberly down to greet the new-comer, who
found something very attractive in the pleasant face of this slender,
mild-eyed boy.

"Have you seen Aunt Jo?" he asked, as if that was some sort of important

"I haven't seen anybody yet but you boys; I'm waiting," answered Nat.

"Did Uncle Laurie send you?" proceeded Demi, politely, but gravely.

"Mr. Laurence did."

"He is Uncle Laurie; and he always sends nice boys."

Nat looked gratified at the remark, and smiled, in a way that made his
thin face very pleasant. He did not know what to say next, so the two
stood staring at one another in friendly silence, till the little girl
came up with her doll in her arms. She was very like Demi, only not so
tall, and had a rounder, rosier face, and blue eyes.

"This is my sister, Daisy," announced Demi, as if presenting a rare and
precious creature.

The children nodded to one another; and the little girl's face dimpled
with pleasure, as she said affably:

"I hope you'll stay. We have such good times here; don't we, Demi?"

"Of course, we do: that's what Aunt Jo has Plumfield for."

"It seems a very nice place indeed," observed Nat, feeling that he must
respond to these amiable young persons.

"It's the nicest place in the world, isn't it, Demi?" said Daisy, who
evidently regarded her brother as authority on all subjects.

"No, I think Greenland, where the icebergs and seals are, is more
interesting. But I'm fond of Plumfield, and it is a very nice place
to be in," returned Demi, who was interested just now in a book on
Greenland. He was about to offer to show Nat the pictures and
explain them, when the servant returned, saying with a nod toward the

"All right; you are to stop."

"I'm glad; now come to Aunt Jo." And Daisy took him by the hand with a
pretty protecting air, which made Nat feel at home at once.

Demi returned to his beloved book, while his sister led the new-comer
into a back room, where a stout gentleman was frolicking with two little
boys on the sofa, and a thin lady was just finishing the letter which
she seemed to have been re-reading.

"Here he is, aunty!" cried Daisy.

"So this is my new boy? I am glad to see you, my dear, and hope you'll
be happy here," said the lady, drawing him to her, and stroking back the
hair from his forehead with a kind hand and a motherly look, which made
Nat's lonely little heart yearn toward her.

She was not at all handsome, but she had a merry sort of face that never
seemed to have forgotten certain childish ways and looks, any more than
her voice and manner had; and these things, hard to describe but very
plain to see and feel, made her a genial, comfortable kind of person,
easy to get on with, and generally "jolly," as boys would say. She saw
the little tremble of Nat's lips as she smoothed his hair, and her keen
eyes grew softer, but she only drew the shabby figure nearer and said,

"I am Mother Bhaer, that gentleman is Father Bhaer, and these are the
two little Bhaers. Come here, boys, and see Nat."

The three wrestlers obeyed at once; and the stout man, with a chubby
child on each shoulder, came up to welcome the new boy. Rob and Teddy
merely grinned at him, but Mr. Bhaer shook hands, and pointing to a low
chair near the fire, said, in a cordial voice:

"There is a place all ready for thee, my son; sit down and dry thy wet
feet at once."

"Wet? So they are! My dear, off with your shoes this minute, and I'll
have some dry things ready for you in a jiffy," cried Mrs. Bhaer,
bustling about so energetically that Nat found himself in the cosy
little chair, with dry socks and warm slippers on his feet, before he
would have had time to say Jack Robinson, if he had wanted to try. He
said "Thank you, ma'am," instead; and said it so gratefully that Mrs.
Bhaer's eyes grew soft again, and she said something merry, because she
felt so tender, which was a way she had.

"There are Tommy Bangs' slippers; but he never will remember to put them
on in the house; so he shall not have them. They are too big; but that's
all the better; you can't run away from us so fast as if they fitted."

"I don't want to run away, ma'am." And Nat spread his grimy little hands
before the comfortable blaze, with a long sigh of satisfaction.

"That's good! Now I am going to toast you well, and try to get rid of
that ugly cough. How long have you had it, dear?" asked Mrs. Bhaer, as
she rummaged in her big basket for a strip of flannel.

"All winter. I got cold, and it wouldn't get better, somehow."

"No wonder, living in that damp cellar with hardly a rag to his poor
dear back!" said Mrs. Bhaer, in a low tone to her husband, who was
looking at the boy with a skillful pair of eyes that marked the thin
temples and feverish lips, as well as the hoarse voice and frequent fits
of coughing that shook the bent shoulders under the patched jacket.

"Robin, my man, trot up to Nursey, and tell her to give thee the
cough-bottle and the liniment," said Mr. Bhaer, after his eyes had
exchanged telegrams with his wife's.

Nat looked a little anxious at the preparations, but forgot his fears in
a hearty laugh, when Mrs. Bhaer whispered to him, with a droll look:

"Hear my rogue Teddy try to cough. The syrup I'm going to give you has
honey in it; and he wants some."

Little Ted was red in the face with his exertions by the time the bottle
came, and was allowed to suck the spoon after Nat had manfully taken a
dose and had the bit of flannel put about his throat.

These first steps toward a cure were hardly completed when a great bell
rang, and a loud tramping through the hall announced supper. Bashful Nat
quaked at the thought of meeting many strange boys, but Mrs. Bhaer held
out her hand to him, and Rob said, patronizingly, "Don't be 'fraid; I'll
take care of you."

Twelve boys, six on a side, stood behind their chairs, prancing with
impatience to begin, while the tall flute-playing youth was trying to
curb their ardor. But no one sat down till Mrs. Bhaer was in her place
behind the teapot, with Teddy on her left, and Nat on her right.

"This is our new boy, Nat Blake. After supper you can say how do you do?
Gently, boys, gently."

As she spoke every one stared at Nat, and then whisked into their seats,
trying to be orderly and failing utterly. The Bhaers did their best to
have the lads behave well at meal times, and generally succeeded pretty
well, for their rules were few and sensible, and the boys, knowing that
they tried to make things easy and happy, did their best to obey.
But there are times when hungry boys cannot be repressed without real
cruelty, and Saturday evening, after a half-holiday, was one of those

"Dear little souls, do let them have one day in which they can howl and
racket and frolic to their hearts' content. A holiday isn't a holiday
without plenty of freedom and fun; and they shall have full swing once
a week," Mrs. Bhaer used to say, when prim people wondered why
banister-sliding, pillow-fights, and all manner of jovial games were
allowed under the once decorous roof of Plumfield.

It did seem at times as if the aforesaid roof was in danger of flying
off, but it never did, for a word from Father Bhaer could at any time
produce a lull, and the lads had learned that liberty must not be
abused. So, in spite of many dark predictions, the school flourished,
and manners and morals were insinuated, without the pupils exactly
knowing how it was done.

Nat found himself very well off behind the tall pitchers, with Tommy
Bangs just around the corner, and Mrs. Bhaer close by to fill up plate
and mug as fast as he could empty them.

"Who is that boy next the girl down at the other end?" whispered Nat to
his young neighbor under cover of a general laugh.

"That's Demi Brooke. Mr. Bhaer is his uncle."

"What a queer name!"

"His real name is John, but they call him Demi-John, because his
father is John too. That's a joke, don't you see?" said Tommy, kindly
explaining. Nat did not see, but politely smiled, and asked, with

"Isn't he a very nice boy?"

"I bet you he is; knows lots and reads like any thing."

"Who is the fat one next him?"

"Oh, that's Stuffy Cole. His name is George, but we call him Stuffy
'cause he eats so much. The little fellow next Father Bhaer is his boy
Rob, and then there's big Franz his nephew; he teaches some, and kind of
sees to us."

"He plays the flute, doesn't he?" asked Nat as Tommy rendered himself
speechless by putting a whole baked apple into his mouth at one blow.

Tommy nodded, and said, sooner than one would have imagined possible
under the circumstances, "Oh, don't he, though? And we dance sometimes,
and do gymnastics to music. I like a drum myself, and mean to learn as
soon as ever I can."

"I like a fiddle best; I can play one too," said Nat, getting
confidential on this attractive subject.

"Can you?" and Tommy stared over the rim of his mug with round eyes,
full of interest. "Mr. Bhaer's got an old fiddle, and he'll let you play
on it if you want to."

"Could I? Oh, I would like it ever so much. You see, I used to go round
fiddling with my father, and another man, till he died."

"Wasn't that fun?" cried Tommy, much impressed.

"No, it was horrid; so cold in winter, and hot in summer. And I got
tired; and they were cross sometimes; and I didn't get enough to eat."
Nat paused to take a generous bite of gingerbread, as if to assure
himself that the hard times were over; and then he added regretfully:
"But I did love my little fiddle, and I miss it. Nicolo took it away
when father died, and wouldn't have me any longer, 'cause I was sick."

"You'll belong to the band if you play good. See if you don't."

"Do you have a band here?" Nat's eyes sparkled.

"Guess we do; a jolly band, all boys; and they have concerts and things.
You just see what happens to-morrow night."

After this pleasantly exciting remark, Tommy returned to his supper, and
Nat sank into a blissful reverie over his full plate.

Mrs. Bhaer had heard all they said, while apparently absorbed in filling
mugs, and overseeing little Ted, who was so sleepy that he put his spoon
in his eye, nodded like a rosy poppy, and finally fell fast asleep, with
his cheek pillowed on a soft bun. Mrs. Bhaer had put Nat next to Tommy,
because that roly-poly boy had a frank and social way with him, very
attractive to shy persons. Nat felt this, and had made several small
confidences during supper, which gave Mrs. Bhaer the key to the new
boy's character, better than if she had talked to him herself.

In the letter which Mr. Laurence had sent with Nat, he had said:

"DEAR JO: Here is a case after your own heart. This poor lad is an
orphan now, sick and friendless. He has been a street-musician; and
I found him in a cellar, mourning for his dead father, and his lost
violin. I think there is something in him, and have a fancy that between
us we may give this little man a lift. You cure his overtasked body,
Fritz help his neglected mind, and when he is ready I'll see if he is
a genius or only a boy with a talent which may earn his bread for him.
Give him a trial, for the sake of your own boy,


"Of course we will!" cried Mrs. Bhaer, as she read the letter; and when
she saw Nat she felt at once that, whether he was a genius or not, here
was a lonely, sick boy who needed just what she loved to give, a home
and motherly care. Both she and Mr. Bhaer observed him quietly; and in
spite of ragged clothes, awkward manners, and a dirty face, they saw
much about Nat that pleased them. He was a thin, pale boy, of twelve,
with blue eyes, and a good forehead under the rough, neglected hair; an
anxious, scared face, at times, as if he expected hard words, or blows;
and a sensitive mouth that trembled when a kind glance fell on him;
while a gentle speech called up a look of gratitude, very sweet to see.
"Bless the poor dear, he shall fiddle all day long if he likes," said
Mrs. Bhaer to herself, as she saw the eager, happy expression on his
face when Tommy talked of the band.

So, after supper, when the lads flocked into the schoolroom for more
"high jinks," Mrs. Jo appeared with a violin in her hand, and after a
word with her husband, went to Nat, who sat in a corner watching the
scene with intense interest.

"Now, my lad, give us a little tune. We want a violin in our band, and I
think you will do it nicely."

She expected that he would hesitate; but he seized the old fiddle at
once, and handled it with such loving care, it was plain to see that
music was his passion.

"I'll do the best I can, ma'am," was all he said; and then drew the bow
across the strings, as if eager to hear the dear notes again.

There was a great clatter in the room, but as if deaf to any sounds but
those he made, Nat played softly to himself, forgetting every thing in
his delight. It was only a simple Negro melody, such as street-musicians
play, but it caught the ears of the boys at once, and silenced them,
till they stood listening with surprise and pleasure. Gradually they got
nearer and nearer, and Mr. Bhaer came up to watch the boy; for, as if he
was in his element now, Nat played away and never minded any one, while
his eyes shone, his cheeks reddened, and his thin fingers flew, as he
hugged the old fiddle and made it speak to all their hearts the language
that he loved.

A hearty round of applause rewarded him better than a shower of pennies,
when he stopped and glanced about him, as if to say:

"I've done my best; please like it."

"I say, you do that first rate," cried Tommy, who considered Nat his

"You shall be the first fiddle in my band," added Franz, with an
approving smile.

Mrs. Bhaer whispered to her husband:

"Teddy is right: there's something in the child." And Mr. Bhaer nodded
his head emphatically, as he clapped Nat on the shoulder, saying,

"You play well, my son. Come now and play something which we can sing."

It was the proudest, happiest minute of the poor boy's life when he was
led to the place of honor by the piano, and the lads gathered round,
never heeding his poor clothes, but eying him respectfully and waiting
eagerly to hear him play again.

They chose a song he knew; and after one or two false starts they got
going, and violin, flute, and piano led a chorus of boyish voices that
made the old roof ring again. It was too much for Nat, more feeble than
he knew; and as the final shout died away, his face began to work, he
dropped the fiddle, and turning to the wall sobbed like a little child.

"My dear, what is it?" asked Mrs. Bhaer, who had been singing with all
her might, and trying to keep little Rob from beating time with his

"You are all so kind and it's so beautiful I can't help it," sobbed Nat,
coughing till he was breathless.

"Come with me, dear; you must go to bed and rest; you are worn out, and
this is too noisy a place for you," whispered Mrs. Bhaer; and took him
away to her own parlor, where she let him cry himself quiet.

Then she won him to tell her all his troubles, and listened to the
little story with tears in her own eyes, though it was not a new one to

"My child, you have got a father and a mother now, and this is home.
Don't think of those sad times any more, but get well and happy; and be
sure you shall never suffer again, if we can help it. This place is made
for all sorts of boys to have a good time in, and to learn how to help
themselves and be useful men, I hope. You shall have as much music as
you want, only you must get strong first. Now come up to Nursey and have
a bath, and then go to bed, and to-morrow we will lay some nice little
plans together."

Nat held her hand fast in his, but had not a word to say, and let his
grateful eyes speak for him, as Mrs. Bhaer led him up to a big room,
where they found a stout German woman with a face so round and cheery
that it looked like a sort of sun, with the wide frill of her cap for

"This is Nursey Hummel, and she will give you a nice bath, and cut your
hair, and make you all 'comfy,' as Rob says. That's the bath-room in
there; and on Saturday nights we scrub all the little lads first, and
pack them away in bed before the big ones get through singing. Now then,
Rob, in with you."

As she talked, Mrs. Bhaer had whipped off Rob's clothes and popped him
into a long bath-tub in the little room opening into the nursery.

There were two tubs, besides foot-baths, basins, douche-pipes, and all
manner of contrivances for cleanliness. Nat was soon luxuriating in the
other bath; and while simmering there, he watched the performances of
the two women, who scrubbed, clean night-gowned, and bundled into bed
four or five small boys, who, of course, cut up all sorts of capers
during the operation, and kept every one in a gale of merriment till
they were extinguished in their beds.

By the time Nat was washed and done up in a blanket by the fire, while
Nursey cut his hair, a new detachment of boys arrived and were shut into
the bath-room, where they made as much splashing and noise as a school
of young whales at play.

"Nat had better sleep here, so that if his cough troubles him in the
night you can see that he takes a good draught of flax-seed tea," said
Mrs. Bhaer, who was flying about like a distracted hen with a large
brood of lively ducklings.

Nursey approved the plan, finished Nat off with a flannel night-gown, a
drink of something warm and sweet, and then tucked him into one of the
three little beds standing in the room, where he lay looking like a
contented mummy and feeling that nothing more in the way of luxury
could be offered him. Cleanliness in itself was a new and delightful
sensation; flannel gowns were unknown comforts in his world; sips of
"good stuff" soothed his cough as pleasantly as kind words did his
lonely heart; and the feeling that somebody cared for him made that
plain room seem a sort of heaven to the homeless child. It was like a
cosy dream; and he often shut his eyes to see if it would not vanish
when he opened them again. It was too pleasant to let him sleep, and he
could not have done so if he had tried, for in a few minutes one of the
peculiar institutions of Plumfield was revealed to his astonished but
appreciative eyes.

A momentary lull in the aquatic exercises was followed by the sudden
appearance of pillows flying in all directions, hurled by white goblins,
who came rioting out of their beds. The battle raged in several rooms,
all down the upper hall, and even surged at intervals into the nursery,
when some hard-pressed warrior took refuge there. No one seemed to
mind this explosion in the least; no one forbade it, or even looked
surprised. Nursey went on hanging up towels, and Mrs. Bhaer laid out
clean clothes, as calmly as if the most perfect order reigned. Nay,
she even chased one daring boy out of the room, and fired after him the
pillow he had slyly thrown at her.

"Won't they hurt 'em?" asked Nat, who lay laughing with all his might.

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Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottLittle Men → online text (page 1 of 23)