Louisa May Alcott.

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"Oh dear, no! We always allow one pillow-fight Saturday night. The cases
are changed to-morrow; and it gets up a glow after the boys' baths; so
I rather like it myself," said Mrs. Bhaer, busy again among her dozen
pairs of socks.

"What a very nice school this is!" observed Nat, in a burst of
admiration.

"It's an odd one," laughed Mrs. Bhaer, "but you see we don't believe
in making children miserable by too many rules, and too much study. I
forbade night-gown parties at first; but, bless you, it was of no use.
I could no more keep those boys in their beds than so many jacks in the
box. So I made an agreement with them: I was to allow a fifteen-minute
pillow-fight every Saturday night; and they promised to go properly to
bed every other night. I tried it, and it worked well. If they don't
keep their word, no frolic; if they do, I just turn the glasses round,
put the lamps in safe places, and let them rampage as much as they
like."

"It's a beautiful plan," said Nat, feeling that he should like to join
in the fray, but not venturing to propose it the first night. So he lay
enjoying the spectacle, which certainly was a lively one.

Tommy Bangs led the assailing party, and Demi defended his own room with
a dogged courage fine to see, collecting pillows behind him as fast as
they were thrown, till the besiegers were out of ammunition, when they
would charge upon him in a body, and recover their arms. A few slight
accidents occurred, but nobody minded, and gave and took sounding
thwacks with perfect good humor, while pillows flew like big snowflakes,
till Mrs. Bhaer looked at her watch, and called out:

"Time is up, boys. Into bed, every man jack, or pay the forfeit!"

"What is the forfeit?" asked Nat, sitting up in his eagerness to know
what happened to those wretches who disobeyed this most peculiar, but
public-spirited school-ma'am.

"Lose their fun next time," answered Mrs. Bhaer. "I give them five
minutes to settle down, then put out the lights, and expect order. They
are honorable lads, and they keep their word."

That was evident, for the battle ended as abruptly as it began, a parting
shot or two, a final cheer, as Demi fired the seventh pillow at the
retiring foe, a few challenges for next time, then order prevailed. And
nothing but an occasional giggle or a suppressed whisper broke the quiet
which followed the Saturday-night frolic, as Mother Bhaer kissed her new
boy and left him to happy dreams of life at Plumfield.



CHAPTER II. THE BOYS

While Nat takes a good long sleep, I will tell my little readers
something about the boys, among whom he found himself when he woke up.

To begin with our old friends. Franz was a tall lad, of sixteen now, a
regular German, big, blond, and bookish, also very domestic, amiable,
and musical. His uncle was fitting him for college, and his aunt for a
happy home of his own hereafter, because she carefully fostered in him
gentle manners, love of children, respect for women, old and young,
and helpful ways about the house. He was her right-hand man on all
occasions, steady, kind, and patient; and he loved his merry aunt like a
mother, for such she had tried to be to him.

Emil was quite different, being quick-tempered, restless, and
enterprising, bent on going to sea, for the blood of the old vikings
stirred in his veins, and could not be tamed. His uncle promised that he
should go when he was sixteen, and set him to studying navigation, gave
him stories of good and famous admirals and heroes to read, and let him
lead the life of a frog in river, pond, and brook, when lessons were
done. His room looked like the cabin of a man-of-war, for every thing
was nautical, military, and shipshape. Captain Kyd was his delight, and
his favorite amusement was to rig up like that piratical gentleman, and
roar out sanguinary sea-songs at the top of his voice. He would dance
nothing but sailors' hornpipes, rolled in his gait, and was as
nautical in conversation to his uncle would permit. The boys called him
"Commodore," and took great pride in his fleet, which whitened the
pond and suffered disasters that would have daunted any commander but a
sea-struck boy.

Demi was one of the children who show plainly the effect of intelligent
love and care, for soul and body worked harmoniously together. The
natural refinement which nothing but home influence can teach, gave
him sweet and simple manners: his mother had cherished an innocent and
loving heart in him; his father had watched over the physical growth of
his boy, and kept the little body straight and strong on wholesome food
and exercise and sleep, while Grandpa March cultivated the little mind
with the tender wisdom of a modern Pythagoras, not tasking it with long,
hard lessons, parrot-learned, but helping it to unfold as naturally and
beautifully as sun and dew help roses bloom. He was not a perfect child,
by any means, but his faults were of the better sort; and being early
taught the secret of self-control, he was not left at the mercy of
appetites and passions, as some poor little mortals are, and then
punished for yielding to the temptations against which they have
no armor. A quiet, quaint boy was Demi, serious, yet cheery, quite
unconscious that he was unusually bright and beautiful, yet quick to see
and love intelligence or beauty in other children. Very fond of books,
and full of lively fancies, born of a strong imagination and a spiritual
nature, these traits made his parents anxious to balance them with
useful knowledge and healthful society, lest they should make him one of
those pale precocious children who amaze and delight a family sometimes,
and fade away like hot-house flowers, because the young soul blooms too
soon, and has not a hearty body to root it firmly in the wholesome soil
of this world.

So Demi was transplanted to Plumfield, and took so kindly to the life
there, that Meg and John and Grandpa felt satisfied that they had done
well. Mixing with other boys brought out the practical side of him,
roused his spirit, and brushed away the pretty cobwebs he was so fond of
spinning in that little brain of his. To be sure, he rather shocked
his mother when he came home, by banging doors, saying "by George"
emphatically, and demanding tall thick boots "that clumped like papa's."
But John rejoiced over him, laughed at his explosive remarks, got the
boots, and said contentedly,

"He is doing well; so let him clump. I want my son to be a manly boy,
and this temporary roughness won't hurt him. We can polish him up by
and by; and as for learning, he will pick that up as pigeons do peas. So
don't hurry him."

Daisy was as sunshiny and charming as ever, with all sorts of
womanlinesses budding in her, for she was like her gentle mother,
and delighted in domestic things. She had a family of dolls, whom she
brought up in the most exemplary manner; she could not get on without
her little work-basket and bits of sewing, which she did so nicely, that
Demi frequently pulled out his handkerchief to display her neat stitches,
and Baby Josy had a flannel petticoat beautifully made by Sister Daisy.
She like to quiddle about the china-closet, prepare the salt-cellars,
put the spoons straight on the table; and every day went round the
parlor with her brush, dusting chairs and tables. Demi called her a
"Betty," but was very glad to have her keep his things in order, lend
him her nimble fingers in all sorts of work, and help him with his
lessons, for they kept abreast there, and had no thought of rivalry.

The love between them was as strong as ever; and no one could laugh
Demi out of his affectionate ways with Daisy. He fought her battles
valiantly, and never could understand why boys should be ashamed to
say "right out," that they loved their sisters. Daisy adored her twin,
thought "my brother" the most remarkable boy in the world, and every
morning, in her little wrapper, trotted to tap at his door with a
motherly "Get up, my dear, it's 'most breakfast time; and here's your
clean collar."

Rob was an energetic morsel of a boy, who seemed to have discovered the
secret of perpetual motion, for he never was still. Fortunately, he was
not mischievous, nor very brave; so he kept out of trouble pretty well,
and vibrated between father and mother like an affectionate little
pendulum with a lively tick, for Rob was a chatterbox.

Teddy was too young to play a very important part in the affairs of
Plumfield, yet he had his little sphere, and filled it beautifully.
Every one felt the need of a pet at times, and Baby was always ready to
accommodate, for kissing and cuddling suited him excellently. Mrs.
Jo seldom stirred without him; so he had his little finger in all the
domestic pies, and every one found them all the better for it, for they
believed in babies at Plumfield.

Dick Brown, and Adolphus or Dolly Pettingill, were two eight year-olds.
Dolly stuttered badly, but was gradually getting over it, for no one was
allowed to mock him and Mr. Bhaer tried to cure it, by making him talk
slowly. Dolly was a good little lad, quite uninteresting and ordinary,
but he flourished here, and went through his daily duties and pleasures
with placid content and propriety.

Dick Brown's affliction was a crooked back, yet he bore his burden so
cheerfully, that Demi once asked in his queer way, "Do humps make people
good-natured? I'd like one if they do." Dick was always merry, and did
his best to be like other boys, for a plucky spirit lived in the
feeble little body. When he first came, he was very sensitive about his
misfortune, but soon learned to forget it, for no one dared remind him
of it, after Mr. Bhaer had punished one boy for laughing at him.

"God don't care; for my soul is straight if my back isn't," sobbed Dick
to his tormentor on that occasion; and, by cherishing this idea, the
Bhaers soon led him to believe that people also loved his soul, and did
not mind his body, except to pity and help him to bear it.

Playing menagerie once with the others, some one said,

"What animal will you be, Dick?"

"Oh, I'm the dromedary; don't you see the hump on my back?" was the
laughing answer.

"So you are, my nice little one that don't carry loads, but marches by
the elephant first in the procession," said Demi, who was arranging the
spectacle.

"I hope others will be as kind to the poor dear as my boys have learned
to be," said Mrs. Jo, quite satisfied with the success of her teaching,
as Dick ambled past her, looking like a very happy, but a very feeble
little dromedary, beside stout Stuffy, who did the elephant with
ponderous propriety.

Jack Ford was a sharp, rather a sly lad, who was sent to this school,
because it was cheap. Many men would have thought him a smart boy, but
Mr. Bhaer did not like his way of illustrating that Yankee word, and
thought his unboyish keenness and money-loving as much of an affliction
as Dolly's stutter, or Dick's hump.

Ned Barker was like a thousand other boys of fourteen, all legs,
blunder, and bluster. Indeed the family called him the "Blunderbuss,"
and always expected to see him tumble over the chairs, bump against the
tables, and knock down any small articles near him. He bragged a good
deal about what he could do, but seldom did any thing to prove it, was
not brave, and a little given to tale-telling. He was apt to bully the
small boys, and flatter the big ones, and without being at all bad, was
just the sort of fellow who could very easily be led astray.

George Cole had been spoilt by an over-indulgent mother, who stuffed him
with sweetmeats till he was sick, and then thought him too delicate
to study, so that at twelve years old, he was a pale, puffy boy, dull,
fretful, and lazy. A friend persuaded her to send him to Plumfield, and
there he soon got waked up, for sweet things were seldom allowed, much
exercise required, and study made so pleasant, that Stuffy was gently
lured along, till he quite amazed his anxious mamma by his improvement,
and convinced her that there was really something remarkable in
Plumfield air.

Billy Ward was what the Scotch tenderly call an "innocent," for though
thirteen years old, he was like a child of six. He had been an unusually
intelligent boy, and his father had hurried him on too fast, giving him
all sorts of hard lessons, keeping at his books six hours a day, and
expecting him to absorb knowledge as a Strasburg goose does the food
crammed down its throat. He thought he was doing his duty, but he nearly
killed the boy, for a fever gave the poor child a sad holiday, and when
he recovered, the overtasked brain gave out, and Billy's mind was like a
slate over which a sponge has passed, leaving it blank.

It was a terrible lesson to his ambitious father; he could not bear the
sight of his promising child, changed to a feeble idiot, and he sent
him away to Plumfield, scarcely hoping that he could be helped, but sure
that he would be kindly treated. Quite docile and harmless was Billy,
and it was pitiful to see how hard he tried to learn, as if groping
dimly after the lost knowledge which had cost him so much.

Day after day, he pored over the alphabet, proudly said A and B, and
thought that he knew them, but on the morrow they were gone, and all
the work was to be done over again. Mr. Bhaer had infinite patience with
him, and kept on in spite of the apparent hopelessness of the task, not
caring for book lessons, but trying gently to clear away the mists from
the darkened mind, and give it back intelligence enough to make the boy
less a burden and an affliction.

Mrs. Bhaer strengthened his health by every aid she could invent, and
the boys all pitied and were kind to him. He did not like their active
plays, but would sit for hours watching the doves, would dig holes for
Teddy till even that ardent grubber was satisfied, or follow Silas, the
man, from place to place seeing him work, for honest Si was very good to
him, and though he forgot his letters Billy remembered friendly faces.

Tommy Bangs was the scapegrace of the school, and the most trying
scapegrace that ever lived. As full of mischief as a monkey, yet
so good-hearted that one could not help forgiving his tricks; so
scatter-brained that words went by him like the wind, yet so penitent
for every misdeed, that it was impossible to keep sober when he
vowed tremendous vows of reformation, or proposed all sorts of queer
punishments to be inflicted upon himself. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer lived in
a state of preparation for any mishap, from the breaking of Tommy's own
neck, to the blowing up of the entire family with gunpowder; and Nursey
had a particular drawer in which she kept bandages, plasters, and salves
for his especial use, for Tommy was always being brought in half dead;
but nothing ever killed him, and he arose from every downfall with
redoubled vigor.

The first day he came, he chopped the top off one finger in the
hay-cutter, and during the week, fell from the shed roof, was chased by
an angry hen who tried to pick his out because he examined her chickens,
got run away with, and had his ears boxed violent by Asia, who caught
him luxuriously skimming a pan of cream with half a stolen pie.
Undaunted, however, by any failures or rebuffs, this indomitable youth
went on amusing himself with all sorts of tricks till no one felt safe.
If he did not know his lessons, he always had some droll excuse to
offer, and as he was usually clever at his books, and as bright as a
button in composing answers when he did not know them, he go on pretty
well at school. But out of school, Ye gods and little fishes! how Tommy
did carouse!

He wound fat Asia up in her own clothes line against the post, and left
here there to fume and scold for half an hour one busy Monday morning.
He dropped a hot cent down Mary Ann's back as that pretty maid was
waiting at table one day when there were gentlemen to dinner, whereat
the poor girl upset the soup and rushed out of the room in dismay,
leaving the family to think that she had gone mad. He fixed a pail of
water up in a tree, with a bit of ribbon fastened to the handle, and
when Daisy, attracted by the gay streamer, tried to pull it down, she
got a douche bath that spoiled her clean frock and hurt her little
feelings very much. He put rough white pebbles in the sugar-bowl when
his grandmother came to tea, and the poor old lady wondered why they
didn't melt in her cup, but was too polite to say anything. He passed
around snuff in church so that five of the boys sneezed with such
violence they had to go out. He dug paths in winter time, and then
privately watered them so that people should tumble down. He drove poor
Silas nearly wild by hanging his big boots in conspicuous places,
for his feet were enormous, and he was very much ashamed of them. He
persuaded confiding little Dolly to tie a thread to one of his loose
teeth, and leave the string hanging from his mouth when he went to
sleep, so that Tommy could pull it out without his feeling the dreaded
operation. But the tooth wouldn't come at the first tweak, and poor
Dolly woke up in great anguish of spirit, and lost all faith in Tommy
from that day forth.

The last prank had been to give the hens bread soaked in rum, which made
them tipsy and scandalized all the other fowls, for the respectable old
biddies went staggering about, pecking and clucking in the most maudlin
manner, while the family were convulsed with laughter at their antics,
till Daisy took pity on them and shut them up in the hen-house to sleep
off their intoxication.

These were the boys and they lived together as happy as twelve lads
could, studying and playing, working and squabbling, fighting faults and
cultivating virtues in the good old-fashioned way. Boys at other schools
probably learned more from books, but less of that better wisdom which
makes good men. Latin, Greek, and mathematics were all very well, but in
Professor Bhaer's opinion, self knowledge, self-help, and self-control
were more important, and he tried to teach them carefully. People shook
their heads sometimes at his ideas, even while they owned that the boys
improved wonderfully in manners and morals. But then, as Mrs. Jo said to
Nat, "it was an odd school."



CHAPTER III. SUNDAY

The moment the bell rang next morning Nat flew out of bed, and dressed
himself with great satisfaction in the suit of clothes he found on
the chair. They were not new, being half-worn garments of one of the
well-to-do boys; but Mrs. Bhaer kept all such cast-off feathers for the
picked robins who strayed into her nest. They were hardly on when Tommy
appeared in a high state of clean collar, and escorted Nat down to
breakfast.

The sun was shining into the dining-room on the well-spread table, and
the flock of hungry, hearty lads who gathered round it. Nat observed
that they were much more orderly than they had been the night before,
and every one stood silently behind his chair while little Rob, standing
beside his father at the head of the table, folded his hands, reverently
bent his curly head, and softly repeated a short grace in the devout
German fashion, which Mr. Bhaer loved and taught his little son to
honor. Then they all sat down to enjoy the Sunday-morning breakfast of
coffee, steak, and baked potatoes, instead of the bread and milk fare
with which they usually satisfied their young appetites. There was much
pleasant talk while the knives and forks rattled briskly, for certain
Sunday lessons were to be learned, the Sunday walk settled, and plans
for the week discussed. As he listened, Nat thought it seemed as if this
day must be a very pleasant one, for he loved quiet, and there was
a cheerful sort of hush over every thing that pleased him very much;
because, in spite of his rough life, the boy possessed the sensitive
nerves which belong to a music-loving nature.

"Now, my lads, get your morning jobs done, and let me find you ready
for church when the 'bus comes round," said Father Bhaer, and set the
example by going into the school-room to get books ready for the morrow.

Every one scattered to his or her task, for each had some little daily
duty, and was expected to perform it faithfully. Some brought wood and
water, brushed the steps, or ran errands for Mrs. Bhaer. Others fed the
pet animals, and did chores about the barn with Franz. Daisy washed the
cups, and Demi wiped them, for the twins liked to work together, and
Demi had been taught to make himself useful in the little house at home.
Even Baby Teddy had his small job to do, and trotted to and fro, putting
napkins away, and pushing chairs into their places. For half and hour
the lads buzzed about like a hive of bees, then the 'bus drove round,
Father Bhaer and Franz with the eight older boys piled in, and away they
went for a three-mile drive to church in town.

Because of the troublesome cough Nat prefered to stay at home with
the four small boys, and spent a happy morning in Mrs. Bhaer's room,
listening to the stories she read them, learning the hymns she taught
them, and then quietly employing himself pasting pictures into an old
ledger.

"This is my Sunday closet," she said, showing him shelves filled with
picture-books, paint-boxes, architectural blocks, little diaries, and
materials for letter-writing. "I want my boys to love Sunday, to find it
a peaceful, pleasant day, when they can rest from common study and
play, yet enjoy quiet pleasures, and learn, in simple ways, lessons more
important than any taught in school. Do you understand me?" she asked,
watching Nat's attentive face.

"You mean to be good?" he said, after hesitating a minute.

"Yes; to be good, and to love to be good. It is hard work sometimes, I
know very well; but we all help one another, and so we get on. This is
one of the ways in which I try to help my boys," and she took down a
thick book, which seemed half-full of writing, and opened at a page on
which there was one word at the top.

"Why, that's my name!" cried Nat, looking both surprised and interested.

"Yes; I have a page for each boy. I keep a little account of how he gets
on through the week, and Sunday night I show him the record. If it is
bad I am sorry and disappointed, if it is good I am glad and proud; but,
whichever it is, the boys know I want to help them, and they try to do
their best for love of me and Father Bhaer."

"I should think they would," said Nat, catching a glimpse of Tommy's
name opposite his own, and wondering what was written under it.

Mrs. Bhaer saw his eye on the words, and shook her head, saying, as she
turned a leaf,

"No, I don't show my records to any but the one to whom each belongs. I
call this my conscience book; and only you and I will ever know what is
to be written on the page below your name. Whether you will be pleased
or ashamed to read it next Sunday depends on yourself. I think it will
be a good report; at any rate, I shall try to make things easy for you
in this new place, and shall be quite contented if you keep our few
rules, live happily with the boys, and learn something."

"I'll try ma'am;" and Nat's thin face flushed up with the earnestness
of his desire to make Mrs. Bhaer "glad and proud," not "sorry and
disappointed." "It must be a great deal of trouble to write about so
many," he added, as she shut her book with an encouraging pat on the
shoulder.

"Not to me, for I really don't know which I like best, writing or boys,"
she said, laughing to see Nat stare with astonishment at the last item.
"Yes, I know many people think boys are a nuisance, but that is because
they don't understand them. I do; and I never saw the boy yet whom I
could not get on capitally with after I had once found the soft spot in
his heart. Bless me, I couldn't get on at all without my flock of dear,
noisy, naughty, harum-scarum little lads, could I, my Teddy?" and Mrs.
Bhaer hugged the young rogue, just in time to save the big inkstand from
going into his pocket.

Nat, who had never heard anything like this before, really did not know
whether Mother Bhaer was a trifle crazy, or the most delightful woman he
had ever met. He rather inclined to the latter opinion, in spite of her
peculiar tastes, for she had a way of filling up a fellow's plate before
he asked, of laughing at his jokes, gently tweaking him by the ear, or
clapping him on the shoulder, that Nat found very engaging.

"Now, I think you would like to go into the school-room and practise
some of the hymns we are to sing to-night," she said, rightly guessing
the thing of all others that he wanted to do.

Alone with the beloved violin and the music-book propped up before him


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Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottLittle Men → online text (page 2 of 23)