Louisa May Alcott.

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stopped short in his unusual fit of communicativeness.

"Tell about the cats, please," said Demi, feeling that he had asked an
unpleasant question, and sorry for it.

"Nothing to tell; only she had a lot of 'em, and kept 'em in a barrel
nights; and I used to go and tip over the barrel sometimes, and let 'em
out all over the house, and then she'd scold, and chase 'em and put 'em
in again, spitting and yowling like fury."

"Was she good to them?" asked Demi, with a hearty child's laugh,
pleasant to hear.

"Guess she was. Poor old soul! she took in all the lost and sick cats in
the town; and when anybody wanted one they went to Marm Webber, and she
let 'em pick any kind and color they wanted, and only asked ninepence,
she was glad to have her pussies get a good home."

"I should like to see Marm Webber. Could I, if I went to that place?"

"She's dead. All my folks are," said Dan, briefly.

"I'm sorry;" and Demi sat silent a minute, wondering what subject would
be safe to try next. He felt delicate about speaking of the departed
lady, but was very curious about the cats, and could not resist asking

"Did she cure the sick ones?"

"Sometimes. One had a broken leg, and she tied it up to a stick, and it
got well; and another had fits, and she doctored it with yarbs till
it was cured. But some of 'em died, and she buried 'em; and when they
couldn't get well, she killed 'em easy."

"How?" asked Demi, feeling that there was a peculiar charm about this
old woman, and some sort of joke about the cats, because Dan was smiling
to himself.

"A kind lady, who was fond of cats, told her how, and gave her some
stuff, and sent all her own pussies to be killed that way. Marm used
to put a sponge wet with ether, in the bottom of an old boot, then poke
puss in head downwards. The ether put her to sleep in a jiffy, and she
was drowned in warm water before she woke up."

"I hope the cats didn't feel it. I shall tell Daisy about that. You have
known a great many interesting things, haven't you?" asked Demi, and
fell to meditating on the vast experience of a boy who had run away more
than once, and taken care of himself in a big city.

"Wish I hadn't sometimes."

"Why? Don't remembering them feel good?"


"It's very singular how hard it is to manage your mind," said Demi,
clasping his hands round his knees, and looking up at the sky as if for
information upon his favorite topic.

"Devilish hard no, I don't mean that;" and Dan bit his lips, for the
forbidden word slipped out in spite of him, and he wanted to be more
careful with Demi than with any of the other boys.

"I'll play I didn't hear it," said Demi; "and you won't do it again, I'm

"Not if I can help it. That's one of the things I don't want to
remember. I keep pegging away, but it don't seem to do much good;" and
Dan looked discouraged.

"Yes, it does. You don't say half so many bad words as you used to; and
Aunt Jo is pleased, because she said it was a hard habit to break up."

"Did she?" and Dan cheered up a bit.

"You must put swearing away in your fault-drawer, and lock it up; that's
the way I do with my badness."

"What do you mean?" asked Dan, looking as if he found Demi almost as
amusing as a new sort of cockchafer or beetle.

"Well, it's one of my private plays, and I'll tell you, but I think
you'll laugh at it," began Demi, glad to hold forth on this congenial
subject. "I play that my mind is a round room, and my soul is a little
sort of creature with wings that lives in it. The walls are full of
shelves and drawers, and in them I keep my thoughts, and my goodness and
badness, and all sorts of things. The goods I keep where I can see
them, and the bads I lock up tight, but they get out, and I have to
keep putting them in and squeezing them down, they are so strong. The
thoughts I play with when I am alone or in bed, and I make up and do
what I like with them. Every Sunday I put my room in order, and talk
with the little spirit that lives there, and tell him what to do. He is
very bad sometimes, and won't mind me, and I have to scold him, and take
him to Grandpa. He always makes him behave, and be sorry for his faults,
because Grandpa likes this play, and gives me nice things to put in the
drawers, and tells me how to shut up the naughties. Hadn't you better
try that way? It's a very good one;" and Demi looked so earnest and full
of faith, that Dan did not laugh at his quaint fancy, but said, soberly,

"I don't think there is a lock strong enough to keep my badness shut up.
Any way my room is in such a clutter I don't know how to clear it up."

"You keep your drawers in the cabinet all spandy nice; why can't you do
the others?"

"I ain't used to it. Will you show me how?" and Dan looked as if
inclined to try Demi's childish way of keeping a soul in order.

"I'd love to, but I don't know how, except to talk as Grandpa does. I
can't do it good like him, but I'll try."

"Don't tell any one; only now and then we'll come here and talk things
over, and I'll pay you for it by telling all I know about my sort of
things. Will that do?" and Dan held out his big, rough hand.

Demi gave his smooth, little hand readily, and the league was made;
for in the happy, peaceful world where the younger boy lived, lions
and lambs played together, and little children innocently taught their

"Hush!" said Dan, pointing toward the house, as Demi was about to
indulge in another discourse on the best way of getting badness down,
and keeping it down; and peeping from their perch, they saw Mrs. Jo
strolling slowly along, reading as she went, while Teddy trotted behind
her, dragging a little cart upside down.

"Wait till they see us," whispered Demi, and both sat still as the pair
came nearer, Mrs. Jo so absorbed in her book that she would have walked
into the brook if Teddy had not stopped her by saying,

"Marmar, I wanter fis."

Mrs. Jo put down the charming book which she had been trying to read for
a week, and looked about her for a fishing-pole, being used to making
toys out of nothing. Before she had broken one from the hedge, a
slender willow bough fell at her feet; and, looking up, she saw the boys
laughing in the nest.

"Up! up!" cried Teddy, stretching his arms and flapping his skirts as if
about to fly.

"I'll come down and you come up. I must go to Daisy now;" and Demi
departed to rehearse the tale of the nineteen cats, with the exciting
boot-and-barrel episodes.

Teddy was speedily whisked up; and then Dan said, laughing, "Come, too;
there's plenty of room. I'll lend you a hand."

Mrs. Jo glanced over her shoulder, but no one was in sight; and rather
liking the joke of the thing, she laughed back, saying, "Well, if you
won't mention it, I think I will;" and with two nimble steps was in the

"I haven't climbed a tree since I was married. I used to be very fond
of it when I was a girl," she said, looking well-pleased with her shady

"Now, you read if you want to, and I'll take care of Teddy," proposed
Dan, beginning to make a fishing-rod for impatient Baby.

"I don't think I care about it now. What were you and Demi at up here?"
asked Mrs. Jo, thinking, from the sober look on Dan's face, that he had
something on his mind.

"Oh! we were talking. I'd been telling him about leaves and things, and
he was telling me some of his queer plays. Now, then, Major, fish away;"
and Dan finished off his work by putting a big blue fly on the bent pin
which hung at the end of the cord he had tied to the willow-rod.

Teddy leaned down from the tree, and was soon wrapt up in watching
for the fish which he felt sure would come. Dan held him by his little
petticoats, lest he should take a "header" into the brook, and Mrs. Jo
soon won him to talk by doing so herself.

"I am so glad you told Demi about 'leaves and things;' it is just what
he needs; and I wish you would teach him, and take him to walk with

"I'd like to, he is so bright; but - "

"But what?"

"I didn't think you'd trust me."

"Why not?"

"Well, Demi is so kind of precious, and so good, and I'm such a bad lot,
I thought you'd keep him away from me."

"But you are not a 'bad lot,' as you say; and I do trust you, Dan,
entirely, because you honestly try to improve, and do better and better
every week."

"Really?" and Dan looked up at her with the cloud of despondency lifting
from his face.

"Yes; don't you feel it?"

"I hoped so, but I didn't know."

"I have been waiting and watching quietly, for I thought I'd give you a
good trial first; and if you stood it, I would give you the best reward
I had. You have stood it well; and now I'm going to trust not only Demi,
but my own boy, to you, because you can teach them some things better
than any of us."

"Can I?" and Dan looked amazed at the idea.

"Demi has lived among older people so much that he needs just what you
have knowledge of common things, strength, and courage. He thinks you
are the bravest boy he ever saw, and admires your strong way of doing
things. Then you know a great deal about natural objects, and can tell
him more wonderful tales of birds, and bees, and leaves, and animals,
than his story-books give him; and, being true, these stories will teach
and do him good. Don't you see now how much you can help him, and why I
like to have him with you?"

"But I swear sometimes, and might tell him something wrong. I wouldn't
mean to, but it might slip out, just as 'devil' did a few minutes ago,"
said Dan, anxious to do his duty, and let her know his shortcomings.

"I know you try not to say or do any thing to harm the little fellow,
and here is where I think Demi will help you, because he is so innocent
and wise in his small way, and has what I am trying to give you, dear,
good principles. It is never too early to try and plant them in a child,
and never too late to cultivate them in the most neglected person. You
are only boys yet; you can teach one another. Demi will unconsciously
strengthen your moral sense, you will strengthen his common sense, and I
shall feel as if I had helped you both."

Words could not express how pleased and touched Dan was by this
confidence and praise. No one had ever trusted him before, no one had
cared to find out and foster the good in him, and no one had suspected
how much there was hidden away in the breast of the neglected boy, going
fast to ruin, yet quick to feel and value sympathy and help. No honor
that he might earn hereafter would ever be half so precious as the right
to teach his few virtues and small store of learning to the child
whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been
imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care. He
found courage now to tell Mrs. Jo of the plan already made with Demi,
and she was glad that the first step had been so naturally taken. Every
thing seemed to be working well for Dan, and she rejoiced over him,
because it had seemed a hard task, yet, working on with a firm belief in
the possibility of reformation in far older and worse subjects than he,
there had come this quick and hopeful change to encourage her. He felt
that he had friends now and a place in the world, something to live and
work for, and, though he said little, all that was best and bravest in a
character made old by a hard experience responded to the love and faith
bestowed on him, and Dan's salvation was assured.

Their quiet talk was interrupted by a shout of delight from Teddy, who,
to the surprise of every one, did actually catch a trout where no trout
had been seen for years. He was so enchanted with his splendid success
that he insisted on showing his prize to the family before Asia cooked
it for supper; so the three descended and went happily away together,
all satisfied with the work of that half hour.

Ned was the next visitor to the tree, but he only made a short stay,
sitting there at his ease while Dick and Dolly caught a pailful of
grasshoppers and crickets for him. He wanted to play a joke on Tommy,
and intended to tuck up a few dozen of the lively creatures in his bed,
so that when Bangs got in he would speedily tumble out again, and pass
a portion of the night in chasing "hopper-grasses" round the room. The
hunt was soon over, and having paid the hunters with a few peppermints
apiece Ned retired to make Tommy's bed.

For an hour the old willow sighed and sung to itself, talked with the
brook, and watched the lengthening shadows as the sun went down. The
first rosy color was touching its graceful branches when a boy came
stealing up the avenue, across the lawn, and, spying Billy by the
brook-side, went to him, saying, in a mysterious tone,

"Go and tell Mr. Bhaer I want to see him down here, please. Don't let
any one hear."

Billy nodded and ran off, while the boy swung himself up into the tree,
and sat there looking anxious, yet evidently feeling the charm of the
place and hour. In five minutes, Mr. Bhaer appeared, and, stepping up on
the fence, leaned into the nest, saying, kindly,

"I am glad to see you, Jack; but why not come in and meet us all at

"I wanted to see you first, please, sir. Uncle made me come back. I know
I don't deserve any thing, but I hope the fellows won't be hard upon

Poor Jack did not get on very well, but it was evident that he was sorry
and ashamed, and wanted to be received as easily as possible; for his
Uncle had thrashed him well and scolded him soundly for following the
example he himself set. Jack had begged not to be sent back, but the
school was cheap, and Mr. Ford insisted, so the boy returned as quietly
as possible, and took refuge behind Mr. Bhaer.

"I hope not, but I can't answer for them, though I will see that they
are not unjust. I think, as Dan and Nat have suffered so much, being
innocent, you should suffer something, being guilty. Don't you?" asked
Mr. Bhaer, pitying Jack, yet feeling he deserved punishment for a fault
which had so little excuse.

"I suppose so, but I sent Tommy's money back, and I said I was sorry,
isn't that enough?" said Jack, rather sullenly; for the boy who could do
so mean a thing was not brave enough to bear the consequences well.

"No; I think you should ask pardon of all three boys, openly and
honestly. You cannot expect them to respect and trust you for a time,
but you can live down this disgrace if you try, and I will help you.
Stealing and lying are detestable sins, and I hope this will be a lesson
to you. I am glad you are ashamed, it is a good sign; bear it patiently,
and do your best to earn a better reputation."

"I'll have an auction, and sell off all my goods dirt cheap," said Jack,
showing his repentance in the most characteristic way.

"I think it would be better to give them away, and begin on a new
foundation. Take 'Honesty is the best policy' for your motto, and live
up to it in act, and word, and thought, and though you don't make a cent
of money this summer, you will be a rich boy in the autumn," said Mr.
Bhaer, earnestly.

It was hard, but Jack consented, for he really felt that cheating didn't
pay, and wanted to win back the friendship of the boys. His heart clung
to his possessions, and he groaned inwardly at the thought of actually
giving away certain precious things. Asking pardon publicly was easy
compared to this; but then he began to discover that certain other
things, invisible, but most valuable, were better property than knives,
fish-hooks, or even money itself. So he decided to buy up a little
integrity, even at a high price, and secure the respect of his
playmates, though it was not a salable article.

"Well, I'll do it," he said, with a sudden air of resolution, which
pleased Mr. Bhaer.

"Good! and I'll stand by you. Now come and begin at once."

And Father Bhaer led the bankrupt boy back into the little world, which
received him coldly at first, but slowly warmed to him, when he showed
that he had profited by the lesson, and was sincerely anxious to go into
a better business with a new stock-in-trade.


"What in the world is that boy doing?" said Mrs. Jo to herself, as she
watched Dan running round the half-mile triangle as if for a wager.
He was all alone, and seemed possessed by some strange desire to run
himself into a fever, or break his neck; for, after several rounds, he
tried leaping walls, and turning somersaults up the avenue, and finally
dropped down on the grass before the door as if exhausted.

"Are you training for a race, Dan?" asked Mrs. Jo, from the window where
she sat.

He looked up quickly, and stopped panting to answer, with a laugh,

"No; I'm only working off my steam."

"Can't you find a cooler way of doing it? You will be ill if you tear
about so in such warm weather," said Mrs. Jo, laughing also, as she
threw him out a great palm-leaf fan.

"Can't help it. I must run somewhere," answered Dan, with such an odd
expression in his restless eyes, that Mrs. Jo was troubled, and asked,

"Is Plumfield getting too narrow for you?"

"I wouldn't mind if it was a little bigger. I like it though; only the
fact is the devil gets into me sometimes, and then I do want to bolt."

The words seemed to come against his will, for he looked sorry the
minute they were spoken, and seemed to think he deserved a reproof for
his ingratitude. But Mrs. Jo understood the feeling, and though sorry to
see it, she could not blame the boy for confessing it. She looked at him
anxiously, seeing how tall and strong he had grown, how full of energy
his face was, with its eager eyes and resolute mouth; and remembering
the utter freedom he had known for years before, she felt how even the
gentle restraint of this home would weigh upon him at times when the old
lawless spirit stirred in him. "Yes," she said to herself, "my wild hawk
needs a larger cage; and yet, if I let him go, I am afraid he will be
lost. I must try and find some lure strong enough to keep him safe."

"I know all about it," she added, aloud. "It is not 'the devil,' as you
call it, but the very natural desire of all young people for liberty. I
used to feel just so, and once, I really did think for a minute that I
would bolt."

"Why didn't you?" said Dan, coming to lean on the low window-ledge, with
an evident desire to continue the subject.

"I knew it was foolish, and love for my mother kept me at home."

"I haven't got any mother," began Dan.

"I thought you had now," said Mrs. Jo, gently stroking the rough hair
off his hot forehead.

"You are no end good to me, and I can't ever thank you enough, but it
just isn't the same, is it?" and Dan looked up at her with a wistful,
hungry look that went to her heart.

"No, dear, it is not the same, and never can be. I think an own mother
would have been a great deal to you. But as that cannot be, you must
try to let me fill her place. I fear I have not done all I ought, or you
would not want to leave me," she added, sorrowfully.

"Yes, you have!" cried Dan, eagerly. "I don't want to go, and I won't
go, if I can help it; but every now and then I feel as if I must burst
out somehow. I want to run straight ahead somewhere, to smash something,
or pitch into somebody. Don't know why, but I do, and that's all about

Dan laughed as he spoke, but he meant what he said, for he knit his
black brows, and brought down his fist on the ledge with such force,
that Mrs. Jo's thimble flew off into the grass. He brought it back, and
as she took it she held the big, brown hand a minute, saying, with a
look that showed the words cost her something,

"Well, Dan, run if you must, but don't run very far; and come back to me
soon, for I want you very much."

He was rather taken aback by this unexpected permission to play truant,
and somehow it seemed to lessen his desire to go. He did not understand
why, but Mrs. Jo did, and, knowing the natural perversity of the human
mind, counted on it to help her now. She felt instinctively that the
more the boy was restrained the more he would fret against it; but leave
him free, and the mere sense of liberty would content him, joined to the
knowledge that his presence was dear to those whom he loved best. It was
a little experiment, but it succeeded, for Dan stood silent a moment,
unconsciously picking the fan to pieces and turning the matter over
in his mind. He felt that she appealed to his heart and his honor,
and owned that he understood it by saying presently, with a mixture of
regret and resolution in his face,

"I won't go yet awhile, and I'll give you fair warning before I bolt.
That's fair, isn't it?"

"Yes, we will let it stand so. Now, I want to see if I can't find some
way for you to work off your steam better than running about the place
like a mad dog, spoiling my fans, or fighting with the boys. What can we
invent?" and while Dan tried to repair the mischief he had done, Mrs.
Jo racked her brain for some new device to keep her truant safe until he
had learned to love his lessons better.

"How would you like to be my express-man?" she said, as a sudden thought
popped into her head.

"Go into town, and do the errands?" asked Dan, looking interested at

"Yes; Franz is tired of it, Silas cannot be spared just now, and Mr.
Bhaer has no time. Old Andy is a safe horse, you are a good driver, and
know your way about the city as well as a postman. Suppose you try it,
and see if it won't do most as well to drive away two or three times a
week as to run away once a month."

"I'd like it ever so much, only I must go alone and do it all myself. I
don't want any of the other fellows bothering round," said Dan, taking
to the new idea so kindly that he began to put on business airs already.

"If Mr. Bhaer does not object you shall have it all your own way. I
suppose Emil will growl, but he cannot be trusted with horses, and you
can. By the way, to-morrow is market-day, and I must make out my list.
You had better see that the wagon is in order, and tell Silas to have
the fruit and vegetables ready for mother. You will have to be up early
and get back in time for school, can you do that?"

"I'm always an early bird, so I don't mind," and Dan slung on his jacket
with despatch.

"The early bird got the worm this time, I'm sure," said Mrs. Jo,

"And a jolly good worm it is," answered Dan, as he went laughing away to
put a new lash to the whip, wash the wagon, and order Silas about with
all the importance of a young express-man.

"Before he is tired of this I will find something else and have it ready
when the next restless fit comes on," said Mrs. Jo to herself, as she
wrote her list with a deep sense of gratitude that all her boys were not

Mr. Bhaer did not entirely approve of the new plan, but agreed to give
it a trial, which put Dan on his mettle, and caused him to give up
certain wild plans of his own, in which the new lash and the long
hill were to have borne a part. He was up and away very early the next
morning, heroically resisting the temptation to race with the milkmen
going into town. Once there, he did his errands carefully, to Mr.
Bhaer's surprise and Mrs. Jo's great satisfaction. The Commodore did
growl at Dan's promotion, but was pacified by a superior padlock to his
new boat-house, and the thought that seamen were meant for higher honors
than driving market-wagons and doing family errands. So Dan filled
his new office well and contentedly for weeks, and said no more about
bolting. But one day Mr. Bhaer found him pummelling Jack, who was
roaring for mercy under his knee.

"Why, Dan, I thought you had given up fighting," he said, as he went to
the rescue.

"We ain't fighting, we are only wrestling," answered Dan, leaving off

"It looks very much like it, and feels like it, hey, Jack?" said Mr.
Bhaer, as the defeated gentleman got upon his legs with difficulty.

"Catch me wrestling with him again. He's most knocked my head off,"
snarled Jack, holding on to that portion of his frame as if it really
was loose upon his shoulders.

"The fact is, we began in fun, but when I got him down I couldn't help
pounding him. Sorry I hurt you, old fellow," explained Dan, looking
rather ashamed of himself.

"I understand. The longing to pitch into somebody was so strong you
couldn't resist. You are a sort of Berserker, Dan, and something to
tussle with is as necessary to you as music is to Nat," said Mr. Bhaer,
who knew all about the conversation between the boy and Mrs. Jo.

"Can't help it. So if you don't want to be pounded you'd better keep out
of the way," answered Dan, with a warning look in his black eyes that

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Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottLittle Men → online text (page 17 of 23)