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that old machine for money," said Emil, with scorn.

"Wasn't it Silas himself?" said Jack.

"Well, I like that! Old Si is as honest as daylight. You wouldn't catch
him touching a penny of ours," said Tommy, handsomely defending his
chief admirer from suspicion.

"Whoever it was had better tell, and not wait to be found out," said
Demi, looking as if an awful misfortune had befallen the family.

"I know you think it's me," broke out Nat, red and excited.

"You are the only one who knew where it was," said Franz.

"I can't help it I didn't take it. I tell you I didn't I didn't!" cried
Nat, in a desperate sort of way.

"Gently, gently, my son! What is all this noise about?" and Mr. Bhaer
walked in among them.

Tommy repeated the story of his loss, and, as he listened, Mr. Bhaer's
face grew graver and graver; for, with all their faults and follies, the
lads till now had been honest.

"Take your seats," he said; and, when all were in their places, he added
slowly, as his eye went from face to face with a grieved look, that was
harder to bear than a storm of words,

"Now, boys, I shall ask each one of you a single question, and I want an
honest answer. I am not going to try to frighten, bribe, or surprise the
truth out of you, for every one of you have got a conscience, and know
what it is for. Now is the time to undo the wrong done to Tommy, and
set yourselves right before us all. I can forgive the yielding to sudden
temptation much easier than I can deceit. Don't add a lie to the theft,
but confess frankly, and we will all try to help you make us forget and
forgive."

He paused a moment, and one might have heard a pin drop, the room was
so still; then slowly and impressively he put the question to each one,
receiving the same answer in varying tones from all. Every face was
flushed and excited, so that Mr. Bhaer could not take color as a
witness, and some of the little boys were so frightened that they
stammered over the two short words as if guilty, though it was evident
that they could not be. When he came to Nat, his voice softened, for the
poor lad looked so wretched, Mr. Bhaer felt for him. He believed him to
be the culprit, and hoped to save the boy from another lie, by winning
him to tell the truth without fear.

"Now, my son, give me an honest answer. Did you take the money?"

"No, sir!" and Nat looked up at him imploringly.

As the words fell from his trembling lips, somebody hissed.

"Stop that!" cried Mr. Bhaer, with a sharp rap on his desk, as he looked
sternly toward the corner whence the sound came.

Ned, Jack, and Emil sat there, and the first two looked ashamed of
themselves, but Emil called out,

"It wasn't me, uncle! I'd be ashamed to hit a fellow when he is down."

"Good for you!" cried Tommy, who was in a sad state of affliction at the
trouble his unlucky dollar had made.

"Silence!" commanded Mr. Bhaer; and when it came, he said soberly,

"I am very sorry, Nat, but evidences are against you, and your old fault
makes us more ready to doubt you than we should be if we could trust you
as we do some of the boys, who never fib. But mind, my child, I do not
charge you with this theft; I shall not punish you for it till I am
perfectly sure, nor ask any thing more about it. I shall leave it for
you to settle with your own conscience. If you are guilty, come to me at
any hour of the day or night and confess it, and I will forgive and
help you to amend. If you are innocent, the truth will appear sooner or
later, and the instant it does, I will be the first to beg your pardon
for doubting you, and will so gladly do my best to clear your character
before us all."

"I didn't! I didn't!" sobbed Nat, with his head down upon his arms, for
he could not bear the look of distrust and dislike which he read in the
many eyes fixed on him.

"I hope not." Mr. Bhaer paused a minute, as if to give the culprit,
whoever he might be, one more chance. Nobody spoke, however, and only
sniffs of sympathy from some of the little fellows broke the silence.
Mr. Bhaer shook his head, and added, regretfully,

"There is nothing more to be done, then, and I have but one thing to
say: I shall not speak of this again, and I wish you all to follow my
example. I cannot expect you to feel as kindly toward any one whom you
suspect as before this happened, but I do expect and desire that you
will not torment the suspected person in any way, he will have a hard
enough time without that. Now go to your lessons."

"Father Bhaer let Nat off too easy," muttered Ned to Emil, as they got
out their books.

"Hold your tongue," growled Emil, who felt that this event was a blot
upon the family honor.

Many of the boys agreed with Ned, but Mr. Bhaer was right, nevertheless;
and Nat would have been wiser to confess on the spot and have the
trouble over, for even the hardest whipping he ever received from his
father was far easier to bear than the cold looks, the avoidance, and
general suspicion that met him on all sides. If ever a boy was sent to
Coventry and kept there, it was poor Nat; and he suffered a week of slow
torture, though not a hand was raised against him, and hardly a word
said.

That was the worst of it; if they would only have talked it out, or
even have thrashed him all round, he could have stood it better than
the silent distrust that made very face so terrible to meet. Even Mrs.
Bhaer's showed traces of it, though her manner was nearly as kind as
ever; but the sorrowful anxious look in Father Bhaer's eyes cut Nat
to the heart, for he loved his teacher dearly, and knew that he had
disappointed all his hopes by this double sin.

Only one person in the house entirely believed in him, and stood up for
him stoutly against all the rest. This was Daisy. She could not explain
why she trusted him against all appearances, she only felt that she
could not doubt him, and her warm sympathy made her strong to take his
part. She would not hear a word against him from any one, and actually
slapped her beloved Demi when he tried to convince her that it must have
been Nat, because no one else knew where the money was.

"Maybe the hens ate it; they are greedy old things," she said; and when
Demi laughed, she lost her temper, slapped the amazed boy, and then
burst out crying and ran away, still declaring, "He didn't! he didn't!
he didn't!"

Neither aunt nor uncle tried to shake the child's faith in her friend,
but only hoped her innocent instinct might prove sure, and loved her all
the better for it. Nat often said, after it was over, that he couldn't
have stood it, if it had not been for Daisy. When the others shunned
him, she clung to him closer than ever, and turned her back on the rest.
She did not sit on the stairs now when he solaced himself with the old
fiddle, but went in and sat beside him, listening with a face so full of
confidence and affection, that Nat forgot disgrace for a time, and
was happy. She asked him to help her with her lessons, she cooked him
marvelous messes in her kitchen, which he ate manfully, no matter what
they were, for gratitude gave a sweet flavor to the most distasteful.
She proposed impossible games of cricket and ball, when she found that
he shrank from joining the other boys. She put little nosegays from her
garden on his desk, and tried in every way to show that she was not a
fair-weather friend, but faithful through evil as well as good repute.
Nan soon followed her example, in kindness at least; curbed her sharp
tongue, and kept her scornful little nose from any demonstration of
doubt or dislike, which was good of Madame Giddy-gaddy, for she firmly
believed that Nat took the money.

Most of the boys let him severely alone, but Dan, though he said he
despised him for being a coward, watched over him with a grim sort of
protection, and promptly cuffed any lad who dared to molest his mate or
make him afraid. His idea of friendship was as high as Daisy's, and, in
his own rough way, he lived up to it as loyally.

Sitting by the brook one afternoon, absorbed in the study of the
domestic habits of water-spiders, he overheard a bit of conversation on
the other side of the wall. Ned, who was intensely inquisitive, had been
on tenterhooks to know certainly who was the culprit; for of late one
or two of the boys had begun to think that they were wrong, Nat was so
steadfast in his denials, and so meek in his endurance of their neglect.
This doubt had teased Ned past bearing, and he had several times
privately beset Nat with questions, regardless of Mr. Bhaer's express
command. Finding Nat reading alone on the shady side of the wall, Ned
could not resist stopping for a nibble at the forbidden subject. He had
worried Nat for some ten minutes before Dan arrived, and the first words
the spider-student heard were these, in Nat's patient, pleading voice,

"Don't, Ned! oh, don't! I can't tell you because I don't know, and it's
mean of you to keep nagging at me on the sly, when Father Bhaer told you
not to plague me. You wouldn't dare to if Dan was round."

"I ain't afraid of Dan; he's nothing but an old bully. Don't believe but
what he took Tom's money, and you know it, and won't tell. Come, now!"

"He didn't, but, if he did, I would stand up for him, he has always been
so good to me," said Nat, so earnestly that Dan forgot his spiders, and
rose quickly to thank him, but Ned's next words arrested him.

"I know Dan did it, and gave the money to you. Shouldn't wonder if he
got his living picking pockets before he came here, for nobody knows
any thing about him but you," said Ned, not believing his own words, but
hoping to get the truth out of Nat by making him angry.

He succeeded in a part of his ungenerous wish, for Nat cried out,
fiercely,

"If you say that again I'll go and tell Mr. Bhaer all about it. I don't
want to tell tales, but, by George! I will, if you don't let Dan alone."

"Then you'll be a sneak, as well as a liar and a thief," began Ned, with
a jeer, for Nat had borne insult to himself so meekly, the other did not
believe he would dare to face the master just to stand up for Dan.

What he might have added I cannot tell, for the words were hardly out
of his mouth when a long arm from behind took him by the collar, and,
jerking him over the wall in a most promiscuous way, landed him with a
splash in the middle of the brook.

"Say that again and I'll duck you till you can't see!" cried Dan,
looking like a modern Colossus of Rhodes as he stood, with a foot on
either side of the narrow stream, glaring down at the discomfited youth
in the water.

"I was only in fun," said Ned.

"You are a sneak yourself to badger Nat round the corner. Let me catch
you at it again, and I'll souse you in the river next time. Get up, and
clear out!" thundered Dan, in a rage.

Ned fled, dripping, and his impromptu sitz-bath evidently did him good,
for he was very respectful to both the boys after that, and seemed to
have left his curiosity in the brook. As he vanished Dan jumped over the
wall, and found Nat lying, as if quite worn out and bowed down with his
troubles.

"He won't pester you again, I guess. If he does, just tell me, and I'll
see to him," said Dan, trying to cool down.

"I don't mind what he says about me so much, I've got used to it,"
answered Nat sadly; "but I hate to have him pitch into you."

"How do you know he isn't right?" asked Dan, turning his face away.

"What, about the money?" cried Nat, looking up with a startled air.

"Yes."

"But I don't believe it! You don't care for money; all you want is your
old bugs and things," and Nat laughed, incredulously.

"I want a butterfly net as much as you want a fiddle; why shouldn't I
steal the money for it as much as you?" said Dan, still turning away,
and busily punching holes in the turf with his stick.

"I don't think you would. You like to fight and knock folks round
sometimes, but you don't lie, and I don't believe you'd steal," and Nat
shook his head decidedly.

"I've done both. I used to fib like fury; it's too much trouble now; and
I stole things to eat out of gardens when I ran away from Page, so you
see I am a bad lot," said Dan, speaking in the rough, reckless way which
he had been learning to drop lately.

"O Dan! don't say it's you! I'd rather have it any of the other boys,"
cried Nat, in such a distressed tone that Dan looked pleased, and showed
that he did, by turning round with a queer expression in his face,
though he only answered,

"I won't say any thing about it. But don't you fret, and we'll pull
through somehow, see if we don't."

Something in his face and manner gave Nat a new idea; and he said,
pressing his hands together, in the eagerness of his appeal,

"I think you know who did it. If you do, beg him to tell, Dan. It's so
hard to have 'em all hate me for nothing. I don't think I can bear it
much longer. If I had any place to go to, I'd run away, though I love
Plumfield dearly; but I'm not brave and big like you, so I must stay and
wait till some one shows them that I haven't lied."

As he spoke, Nat looked so broken and despairing, that Dan could not
bear it, and, muttered huskily,

"You won't wait long," and he walked rapidly away, and was seen no more
for hours.

"What is the matter with Dan?" asked the boys of one another several
times during the Sunday that followed a week which seemed as if it would
never end. Dan was often moody, but that day he was so sober and silent
that no one could get any thing out of him. When they walked he strayed
away from the rest, and came home late. He took no part in the evening
conversation, but sat in the shadow, so busy with his own thoughts that
he scarcely seemed to hear what was going on. When Mrs. Jo showed him an
unusually good report in the Conscience Book, he looked at it without a
smile, and said, wistfully,

"You think I am getting on, don't you?"

"Excellently, Dan! and I am so pleased, because I always thought you
only needed a little help to make you a boy to be proud of."

He looked up at her with a strange expression in his black eyes an
expression of mingled pride and love and sorrow which she could not
understand then but remembered afterward.

"I'm afraid you'll be disappointed, but I do try," he said, shutting the
book with no sign of pleasure in the page that he usually liked so much
to read over and talk about.

"Are you sick, dear?" asked Mrs. Jo, with her hand on his shoulder.

"My foot aches a little; I guess I'll go to bed. Good-night, mother,"
he added, and held the hand against his cheek a minute, then went away
looking as if he had said good-bye to something dear.

"Poor Dan! he takes Nat's disgrace to heart sadly. He is a strange boy;
I wonder if I ever shall understand him thoroughly?" said Mrs. Jo
to herself, as she thought over Dan's late improvement with real
satisfaction, yet felt that there was more in the lad than she had at
first suspected.

One of things which cut Nat most deeply was an act of Tommy's, for after
his loss Tommy had said to him, kindly, but firmly,

"I don't wish to hurt you, Nat, but you see I can't afford to lose my
money, so I guess we won't be partners any longer;" and with that Tommy
rubbed out the sign, "T. Bangs & Co."

Nat had been very proud of the "Co.," and had hunted eggs industriously,
kept his accounts all straight, and had added a good sum to his income
from the sale of his share of stock in trade.

"O Tom! must you?" he said, feeling that his good name was gone for ever
in the business world if this was done.

"I must," returned Tommy, firmly. "Emil says that when one man 'bezzles
(believe that's the word it means to take money and cut away with it)
the property of a firm, the other one sues him, or pitches into him
somehow, and won't have any thing more to do with him. Now you have
'bezzled my property; I shan't sue you, and I shan't pitch into you, but
I must dissolve the partnership, because I can't trust you, and I don't
wish to fail."

"I can't make you believe me, and you won't take my money, though I'd be
thankful to give all my dollars if you'd only say you don't think I took
your money. Do let me hunt for you, I won't ask any wages, but do it for
nothing. I know all the places, and I like it," pleaded Nat.

But Tommy shook his head, and his jolly round face looked suspicious and
hard as he said, shortly, "Can't do it; wish you didn't know the places.
Mind you don't go hunting on the sly, and speculate in my eggs."

Poor Nat was so hurt that he could not get over it. He felt that he had
lost not only his partner and patron, but that he was bankrupt in honor,
and an outlaw from the business community. No one trusted his word,
written or spoken, in spite of his efforts to redeem the past falsehood;
the sign was down, the firm broken up, and he a ruined man. The barn,
which was the boys' Wall Street, knew him no more. Cockletop and
her sisters cackled for him in vain, and really seemed to take his
misfortune to heart, for eggs were fewer, and some of the biddies
retired in disgust to new nests, which Tommy could not find.

"They trust me," said Nat, when he heard of it; and though the boys
shouted at the idea, Nat found comfort in it, for when one is down in
the world, the confidence of even a speckled hen is most consoling.

Tommy took no new partner, however, for distrust had entered in, and
poisoned the peace of his once confiding soul. Ned offered to join him,
but he declined, saying, with a sense of justice that did him honor,

"It might turn out that Nat didn't take my money, and then we could
be partners again. I don't think it will happen, but I will give him a
chance, and keep the place open a little longer."

Billy was the only person whom Bangs felt he could trust in his shop,
and Billy was trained to hunt eggs, and hand them over unbroken, being
quite satisfied with an apple or a sugar-plum for wages. The morning
after Dan's gloomy Sunday, Billy said to his employer, as he displayed
the results of a long hunt,

"Only two."

"It gets worse and worse; I never saw such provoking old hens," growled
Tommy, thinking of the days when he often had six to rejoice over.
"Well, put 'em in my hat and give me a new bit of chalk; I must mark 'em
up, any way."

Billy mounted a peck-measure, and looked into the top of the machine,
where Tommy kept his writing materials.

"There's lots of money in here," said Billy.

"No, there isn't. Catch me leaving my cash round again," returned Tommy.

"I see 'em one, four, eight, two dollars," persisted Billy, who had not
yet mastered the figures correctly.

"What a jack you are!" and Tommy hopped up to get the chalk for himself,
but nearly tumbled down again, for there actually were four bright
quarters in a row, with a bit of paper on them directed to "Tom Bangs,"
that there might be no mistake.

"Thunder turtles!" cried Tommy, and seizing them he dashed into the
house, bawling wildly, "It's all right! Got my money! Where's Nat?"

He was soon found, and his surprise and pleasure were so genuine that
few doubted his word when he now denied all knowledge of the money.

"How could I put it back when I didn't take it? Do believe me now, and
be good to me again," he said, so imploringly, that Emil slapped him on
the back, and declared he would for one.

"So will I, and I'm jolly glad it's not you. But who the dickens is it?"
said Tommy, after shaking hands heartily with Nat.

"Never mind, as long as it's found," said Dan with his eyes fixed on
Nat's happy face.

"Well, I like that! I'm not going to have my things hooked, and then
brought back like the juggling man's tricks," cried Tommy, looking at
his money as if he suspected witchcraft.

"We'll find him out somehow, though he was sly enough to print this so
his writing wouldn't be known," said Franz, examining the paper.

"Demi prints tip-top," put in Rob, who had not a very clear idea what
the fuss was all about.

"You can't make me believe it's him, not if you talk till you are blue,"
said Tommy, and the others hooted at the mere idea; for the little
deacon, as they called him, was above suspicion.

Nat felt the difference in the way they spoke of Demi and himself, and
would have given all he had or ever hoped to have to be so trusted;
for he had learned how easy it is to lose the confidence of others, how
very, very hard to win it back, and truth became to him a precious thing
since he had suffered from neglecting it.

Mr. Bhaer was very glad one step had been taken in the right direction,
and waited hopefully for yet further revelations. They came sooner than
he expected, and in a way that surprised and grieved him very much. As
they sat at supper that night, a square parcel was handed to Mrs. Bhaer
from Mrs. Bates, a neighbor. A note accompanied the parcel, and, while
Mr. Bhaer read it, Demi pulled off the wrapper, exclaiming, as he saw
its contents,

"Why, it's the book Uncle Teddy gave Dan!"

"The devil!" broke from Dan, for he had not yet quite cured himself of
swearing, though he tried very hard.

Mr. Bhaer looked up quickly at the sound. Dan tried to meet his eyes,
but could not; his own fell, and he sat biting his lips, getting redder
and redder till he was the picture of shame.

"What is it?" asked Mrs. Bhaer, anxiously.

"I should have preferred to talk about this in private, but Demi has
spoilt that plan, so I may as well have it out now," said Mr. Bhaer,
looking a little stern, as he always did when any meanness or deceit
came up for judgment.

"The note is from Mrs. Bates, and she says that her boy Jimmy told her
he bought this book of Dan last Saturday. She saw that it was worth much
more than a dollar, and thinking there was some mistake, has sent it to
me. Did you sell it, Dan?"

"Yes, sir," was the slow answer.

"Why?"

"Wanted money."

"For what?"

"To pay somebody."

"To whom did you owe it?"

"Tommy."

"Never borrowed a cent of me in his life," cried Tommy, looked scared,
for he guessed what was coming now, and felt that on the whole he would
have preferred witchcraft, for he admired Dan immensely.

"Perhaps he took it," cried Ned, who owed Dan a grudge for the ducking,
and, being a mortal boy, liked to pay it off.

"O Dan!" cried Nat, clasping his hands, regardless of the bread and
butter in them.

"It is a hard thing to do, but I must have this settled, for I cannot
have you watching each other like detectives, and the whole school
disturbed in this way, did you put that dollar in the barn this
morning?" asked Mr. Bhaer.

Dan looked him straight in the face, and answered steadily, "Yes, I
did."

A murmur went round the table, Tommy dropped his mug with a crash; Daisy
cried out, "I knew it wasn't Nat;" Nan began to cry, and Mrs. Jo left
the room, looking so disappointed, sorry, and ashamed that Dan could not
bear it. He hid his face in his hands a moment, then threw up his head,
squared his shoulders as if settling some load upon them, and said, with
the dogged look, and half-resolute, half-reckless tone he had used when
he first came,

"I did it; now you may do what you like to me, but I won't say another
word about it."

"Not even that you are sorry?" asked Mr. Bhaer, troubled by the change
in him.

"I ain't sorry."

"I'll forgive him without asking," said Tommy, feeling that it was
harder somehow to see brave Dan disgraced than timid Nat.

"Don't want to be forgiven," returned Dan, gruffly.

"Perhaps you will when you have thought about it quietly by yourself, I
won't tell you now how surprised and disappointed I am, but by and by I
will come up and talk to you in your room."

"Won't make any difference," said Dan, trying to speak defiantly, but
failing as he looked at Mr. Bhaer's sorrowful face; and, taking his
words for a dismissal, Dan left the room as if he found it impossible to
stay.

It would have done him good if he had stayed; for the boys talked the
matter over with such sincere regret, and pity, and wonder, it might
have touched and won him to ask pardon. No one was glad to find that it
was he, not even Nat; for, spite of all his faults, and they were many,
every one liked Dan now, because under his rough exterior lay some of
the manly virtues which we most admire and love. Mrs. Jo had been the
chief prop, as well as cultivator, of Dan; and she took it sadly to
heart that her last and most interesting boy had turned out so ill. The
theft was bad, but the lying about it, and allowing another to suffer
so much from an unjust suspicion was worse; and most discouraging of all
was the attempt to restore the money in an underhand way, for it showed


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Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottLittle Men → online text (page 15 of 23)