Chapter 5. Vacation
Everyone was glad of a holiday next morning, and all lingered over the breakfast-table, till Mrs Jo suddenly exclaimed:
'Why, there's a dog!' And on the threshold of the door appeared a great deer-hound, standing motionless, with his eyes fixed on Dan.
'Hallo, old boy! Couldn't you wait till I came for you? Have you cut away on the sly? Own up now, and take your whipping like a man,' said Dan, rising to meet the dog, who reared on his hind legs to look his master in the face and bark as if uttering an indignant denial of any disobedience.
'All right; Don never lies.' And Dan gave the tall beast a hug, adding as he glanced out of the window, where a man and horse were seen approaching:
'I left my plunder at the hotel over night, not knowing how I should find you. Come out and see Octoo, my mustang; she's a beauty.' And Dan was off, with the family streaming after him, to welcome the newcomer.
They found her preparing to go up the steps in her eagerness to reach her master, to the great dismay of the man, who was holding her back.
'Let her come,' called Dan; 'she climbs like a cat and jumps like a deer. Well, my girl, do you want a gallop?' he asked, as the pretty creature clattered up to him and whinnied with pleasure as he rubbed her nose and slapped her glossy flank.
'That's what I call a horse worth having,' said Ted, full of admiration and delight; for he was to have the care of her during Dan's absence.
'What intelligent eyes! She looks as if she would speak,' said Mrs Jo.
'She talks like a human in her way. Very little that she don't know. Hey, old Lass?' and Dan laid his cheek to hers as if the little black mare was very dear to him.
'What does "Octoo" mean?' asked Rob.
'Lightning; she deserves it, as you'll see. Black Hawk gave her to me for my rifle, and we've had high times together out yonder. She's saved my life more than once. Do you see that scar?'
Dan pointed to a small one, half hidden by the long mane; and standing with his arm about Octoo's neck, he told the story of it.
'Black Hawk and I were after buffalo one time, but didn't find 'em as soon as we expected; so our food gave out, and there we were a hundred miles from Red Deer River, where our camp was. I thought we were done for, but my brave pal says: "Now I'll show you how we can live till we find the herds." We were unsaddling for the night by a little pond; there wasn't a living creature in sight anywhere, not even a bird, and we could see for miles over the prairies. What do you think we did?' And Dan looked into the faces round him.
'Ate worms like the Australian fellows,' said Rob. 'Boiled grass or leaves,' added Mrs Jo.
'Perhaps filled the stomach with clay, as we read of savages doing?' suggested Mr Bhaer.
'Killed one of the horses,' cried Ted, eager for bloodshed of some sort.
'No; but we bled one of them. See, just here; filled a tin cup, put some wild sage leaves in it, with water, and heated it over a fire of sticks. It was good, and we slept well.'
'I guess Octoo didn't.' And Josie patted the animal, with a face full of sympathy.
'Never minded it a bit. Black Hawk said we could live on the horses several days and still travel before they felt it. But by another morning we found the buffalo, and I shot the one whose head is in my box, ready to hang up and scare brats into fits. He's a fierce old fellow, you bet.'
'What is this strap for?' asked Ted, who was busily examining the Indian saddle, the single rein and snaffle, with lariat, and round the neck the leather band he spoke of.
'We hold on to that when we lie along the horse's flank farthest from the enemy, and fire under the neck as we gallop round and round. I'll show you.' And springing into the saddle, Dan was off down the steps, tearing over the lawn at a great pace, sometimes on Octoo's back, sometimes half hidden as he hung by stirrup and strap, and sometimes off altogether, running beside her as she loped along, enjoying the fun immensely; while Don raced after, in a canine rapture at being free again and with his mates.
It was a fine sight--the three wild things at play, so full of vigour, grace, and freedom, that for the moment the smooth lawn seemed a prairie; and the spectators felt as if this glimpse of another life made their own seem rather tame and colourless.
'This is better than a circus!' cried Mrs Jo, wishing she were a girl again, that she might take a gallop on this chained lightning of a horse. 'I foresee that Nan will have her hands full setting bones, for Ted will break every one of his trying to rival Dan.'
'A few falls will not harm, and this new care and pleasure will be good for him in all ways. But I fear Dan will never follow a plough after riding a Pegasus like that,' answered Mr Bhaer, as the black mare leaped the gate and came flying up the avenue, to stop at a word and stand quivering with excitement, while Dan swung himself off and looked up for applause.
He received plenty of it, and seemed more pleased for his pet's sake than for his own. Ted clamoured for a lesson at once, and was soon at ease in the queer saddle, finding Octoo gentle as a lamb, as he trotted away to show off at college. Bess came hastening down the hill, having seen the race from afar; and all collected on the piazza while Dan 'yanked' the cover off the big box the express had 'dumped' before the door--to borrow his own words.
Dan usually travelled in light marching order, and hated to have more luggage than he could carry in his well-worn valise. But now that he had a little money of his own, he had cumbered himself with a collection of trophies won by his bow and spear, and brought them home to bestow upon his friends.
'We shall be devoured with moths,' thought Mrs Jo, as the shaggy head appeared, followed by a wolf-skin rug for her feet, a bear-skin ditto for the Professor's study, and Indian garments bedecked with foxes' tails for the boys.
All nice and warm for a July day, but received with delight nevertheless. Ted and Josie immediately 'dressed up', learned the war-whoop, and proceeded to astonish their friends by a series of skirmishes about the house and grounds, with tomahawks and bows and arrows, till weariness produced a lull.
Gay birds' wings, plumy pampas grass, strings of wampum, and pretty work in beads, bark, and feathers, pleased the girls. Minerals, arrow-heads, and crude sketches interested the Professor; and when the box was empty, Dan gave Mr Laurie, as his gift, several plaintive Indian songs written on birch-bark.
'We only want a tent over us to be quite perfect. I feel as if I ought to give you parched corn and dried meat for dinner, my braves. Nobody will want lamb and green peas after this splendid pow-wow,' said Mrs Jo, surveying the picturesque confusion of the long hall, where people lay about on the rugs, all more or less bedecked with feathers, moccasins, or beads.
'Moose noses, buffalo tongues, bear steaks, and roasted marrow-bones would be the thing, but I don't mind a change; so bring on your baa-baa and green meat,' answered Dan from the box, where he sat in state like a chief among his tribe, with the great hound at his feet.
The girls began to clear up, but made little headway; for everything they touched had a story, and all were thrilling, comical, or wild; so they found it hard to settle to their work, till Dan was carried off by Mr Laurie.
This was the beginning of the summer holiday, and it was curious to see what a pleasant little stir Dan's and Emil's coming made in the quiet life of the studious community; for they seemed to bring a fresh breeze with them that enlivened everyone. Many of the collegians remained during vacation; and Plumfield and Parnassus did their best to make these days pleasant for them, since most came from distant States, were poor, and had few opportunities but this for culture or amusement. Emil was hail-fellow-well-met with men and maids, and went rollicking about in true sailor fashion; but Dan stood rather in awe of the 'fair girl-graduates', and was silent when among them, eyeing them as an eagle might a flock of doves. He got on better with the young men, and was their hero at once. Their admiration for his manly accomplishments did him good; because he felt his educational defects keenly, and often wondered if he could find anything in books to satisfy him as thoroughly as did the lessons he was learning from Nature's splendidly illustrated volume. In spite of his silence, the girls found out his good qualities, and regarded 'the Spaniard', as they named him, with great favour; for his black eyes were more eloquent than his tongue, and the kind creatures tried to show their friendly interests in many charming ways.
He saw this, and endeavoured to be worthy of it--curbing his free speech, toning down his rough manners, and watching the effect of all he said and did, anxious to make a good impression. The social atmosphere warmed his lonely heart, the culture excited him to do his best, and the changes which had taken place during his absence, both in himself and others, made the old home seem like a new world. After the life in California, it was sweet and restful to be here, with these familiar faces round him, helping him to forget much that he regretted, and to resolve to deserve more entirely the confidence of these good fellows, the respect of these innocent girls.
So there was riding, rowing, and picnicking by day, music, dancing, and plays by night; and everyone said there had not been so gay a vacation for years. Bess kept her promise, and let the dust gather on her beloved clay while she went pleasuring with her mates or studied music with her father, who rejoiced over the fresh roses in her cheeks and the laughter which chased away the dreamy look she used to wear. Josie quarrelled less with Ted; for Dan had a way of looking at her which quelled her instantly, and had almost as good an effect upon her rebellious cousin. But Octoo did even more for the lively youth, who found that her charms entirely eclipsed those of the bicycle which had been his heart's delight before. Early and late he rode this untiring beast, and began to gain flesh--to the great joy of his mother, who feared that her beanstalk was growing too fast for health.
Demi, finding business dull, solaced his leisure by photographing everybody he could induce to sit or stand to him, producing some excellent pictures among many failures; for he had a pretty taste in grouping, and endless patience. He might be said to view the world through the lens of his camera, and seemed to enjoy himself very much squinting at his fellow beings from under a bit of black cambric. Dan was a treasure to him; for he took well, and willingly posed in his Mexican costume, with horse and hound, and all wanted copies of these effective photographs. Bess, also, was a favourite sitter; and Demi received a prize at the Amateur Photographic Exhibition for one of his cousin with all her hair about her face, which rose from the cloud of white lace draping the shoulders. These were freely handed round by the proud artist; and one copy had a tender little history yet to be told.
Nat was snatching every minute he could get with Daisy before the long parting; and Mrs Meg relented somewhat, feeling sure that absence would quite cure this unfortunate fancy. Daisy said little; but her gentle face was sad when she was alone, and a few quiet tears dropped on the handkerchiefs she marked so daintily with her own hair. She was sure Nat would not forget her; and life looked rather forlorn without the dear fellow who had been her friend since the days of patty-pans and confidences in the willow-tree. She was an old-fashioned daughter, dutiful and docile, with such love and reverence for her mother that her will was law; and if love was forbidden, friendship must suffice. So she kept her little sorrow to herself, smiled cheerfully at Nat, and made his last days of home-life very happy with every comfort and pleasure she could give, from sensible advice and sweet words to a well-filled work-bag for his bachelor establishment and a box of goodies for the voyage.
Tom and Nan took all the time they could spare from their studies to enjoy high jinks at Plumfield with their old friends; for Emil's next voyage was to be a long one, Nat's absence was uncertain, and no one ever knew when Dan would turn up again. They all seemed to feel that life was beginning to grow serious; and even while they enjoyed those lovely summer days together they were conscious that they were children no longer, and often in the pauses of their fun talked soberly of their plans and hopes, as if anxious to know and help one another before they drifted farther apart on their different ways.
A few weeks were all they had; then the Brenda was ready, Nat was to sail from New York, and Dan went along to see him off; for his own plans fermented in his head, and he was eager to be up and doing. A farewell dance was given on Parnassus in honour of the travellers, and all turned out in their best array and gayest spirits. George and Dolly came with the latest Harvard airs and graces, radiant to behold, in dress-suits and 'crushed hats', as Josie called the especial pride and joy of their boyish souls. Jack and Ned sent regrets and best wishes, and no one mourned their absence; for they were among what Mrs Jo called her failures. Poor Tom got into trouble, as usual, by deluging his head with some highly scented preparation in the vain hope of making his tight curls lie flat and smooth, as was the style. Unhappily, his rebellious crop only kinked the closer, and the odour of many barbers' shops clung to him in spite of his frantic efforts to banish it. Nan wouldn't allow him near her, and flapped her fan vigorously whenever he was in sight; which cut him to the heart, and made him feel like the Peri shut out from Paradise. Of course his mates jeered at him, and nothing but the unquenchable jollity of his nature kept him from despair.
Emil was resplendent in his new uniform, and danced with an abandon which only sailors know. His pumps seemed to be everywhere, and his partners soon lost breath trying to keep up with him; but the girls all declared he steered like an angel, and in spite of his pace no collisions took place; so he was happy, and found no lack of damsels to ship with him.
Having no dress-suit, Dan had been coaxed to wear his Mexican costume, and feeling at ease in the many-buttoned trousers, loose jacket, and gay sash, flung his serape over his shoulder with a flourish and looked his best, doing great execution with his long spurs, as he taught Josie strange steps or rolled his black eyes admiringly after certain blonde damsels whom he dared not address.
The mammas sat in the alcove, supplying pins, smiles, and kindly words to all, especially the awkward youths new to such scenes, and the bashful girls conscious of faded muslins and cleaned gloves. It was pleasant to see stately Mrs Amy promenade on the arm of a tall country boy, with thick boots and a big forehead, or Mrs Jo dance like a girl with a shy fellow whose arms went like pump-handles, and whose face was scarlet with confusion and pride at the honour of treading on the toes of the president's wife. Mrs Meg always had room on her sofa for two or three girls, and Mr Laurie devoted himself to these plain, poorly dressed damsels with a kindly grace that won their hearts and made them happy. The good Professor circulated like refreshments, and his cheerful face shone on all alike, while Mr March discussed Greek comedy in the study with such serious gentlemen as never unbent their mighty minds to frivolous joys.
The long music-room, parlour, hall, and piazza were full of white-gowned maidens with attendant shadows; the air was full of lively voices, and hearts and feet went lightly together as the home band played vigorously, and the friendly moon did her best to add enchantment to the scene.
'Pin me up, Meg; that dear Dunbar boy has nearly rent me "in sunder", as Mr Peggotty would say. But didn't he enjoy himself, bumping against his fellow men and swinging me round like a mop. On these occasions I find that I'm not as young as I was, nor as light of foot. In ten years more we shall be meal-bags, sister; so be resigned.' And Mrs Jo subsided into a corner, much dishevelled by her benevolent exertions.
'I know I shall be stout; but you won't keep still long enough to get much flesh on your bones, dear; and Amy will always keep her lovely figure. She looks about eighteen tonight, in her white gown and roses,' answered Meg, busily pinning up one sister's torn frills, while her eyes fondly followed the other's graceful movements; for Meg still adored Amy in the old fashion.
It was one of the family jokes that Jo was getting fat, and she kept it up, though as yet she had only acquired a matronly outline, which was very becoming. They were laughing over the impending double chins, when Mr Laurie came off duty for a moment.
'Repairing damages as usual, Jo? You never could take a little gentle exercise without returning in rags. Come and have a quiet stroll with me and cool off before supper. I've a series of pretty tableaux to show you while Meg listens to the raptures of lisping Miss Carr, whom I made happy by giving her Demi for a partner.'
As he spoke, Laurie led Jo to the music-room, nearly empty now after a dance which sent the young people into garden and hall. Pausing before the first of the four long windows that opened on a very wide piazza, he pointed to a group outside, saying: 'The name of this is "Jack Ashore".'
A pair of long, blue legs, ending in very neat pumps, hung from the veranda roof among the vines; and roses, gathered by unseen hands, evidently appertaining to aforesaid legs, were being dropped into the laps of several girls perched like a flock of white birds on the railing below; while a manly voice 'fell like a falling star', as it sung this pensive ditty to a most appreciative audience:
The moon had climbed the eastern hill
Which rises o'er the sands of Dee,
And from its highest summit shed
A silver light on tower and tree,
When Mary laid her down to sleep
(Her thoughts on Sandy far at sea);
When soft and low a voice was heard,
Saying, 'Mary, weep no more for me.'
She from her pillow gently raised
Her head, to see who there might be,
And saw young Sandy, shivering stand
With visage pale and hollow e'e.
'Oh Mary dear, cold is my clay;
It lies beneath the stormy sea;
Far, far from thee, I sleep in death.
Dear Mary, weep no more for me.
'Three stormy nights and stormy days
We tossed upon the raging main.
And long we strove our bark to save;
But all our striving was in vain.
E'en then, when terror chilled my blood,
My heart was filled with love of thee.
The storm is past, and I'm at rest;
So, Mary, weep no more for me.
'Oh maiden dear, yourself prepare;
We soon shall meet upon that shore
Where love is free from doubt and care,
And you and I shall part no more.'
Loud crew the cock, the shadow fled;
No more her Sandy did she see;
But soft the passing spirit said,
'Sweet Mary, weep no more for me.'
'The constant jollity of that boy is worth a fortune to him. He'll never sink with such a buoyant spirit to keep him afloat through life,' said Mrs Jo, as the roses were tossed back with much applause when the song ended.
'Not he; and it's a blessing to be grateful for, isn't it? We moody people know its worth. Glad you like my first tableau. Come and see number two. Hope it isn't spoilt; it was very pretty just now. This is "Othello telling his adventures to Desdemona".'
The second window framed a very picturesque group of three. Mr March in an arm-chair, with Bess on a cushion at his feet, was listening to Dan, who, leaning against a pillar, was talking with unusual animation. The old man was in shadow, but little Desdemona was looking up with the moonlight full upon her into young Othello's face, quite absorbed in the story he was telling so well. The gay drapery over Dan's shoulder, his dark colouring, and the gesture of his arm made the picture very striking, and both spectators enjoyed it with silent pleasure, till Mrs Jo said in a quick whisper:
'I'm glad he's going away. He's too picturesque to have here among so many romantic girls. Afraid his "grand, gloomy, and peculiar" style will be too much for our simple maids.'
'No danger; Dan is in the rough as yet, and always will be, I fancy; though he is improving in many ways. How well Queenie looks in that soft light!'
'Dear little Goldilocks looks well everywhere.' And with a backward glance full of pride and fondness, Mrs Jo went on. But that scene returned to her long afterward and her own prophetic words also.
Number three was a tragical tableau at first sight; and Mr Laurie stifled a laugh as he whispered 'The Wounded Knight', pointing to Tom with his head enveloped in a large handkerchief, as he knelt before Nan, who was extracting a thorn or splinter from the palm of his hand with great skill, to judge from the patient's blissful expression of countenance.
'Do I hurt you?' she asked, turning the hand to the moonlight for a better view.
'Not a bit; dig away; I like it,' answered Tom, regardless of his aching knees and the damage done to his best trousers.
'I won't keep you long.'
'Hours, if you please. Never so happy as here.'
Quite unmoved by this tender remark, Nan put on a pair of large, round-eyed glasses, saying in a matter-of-fact tone: 'Now I see it. Only a splinter, and there it is.
'My hand is bleeding; won't you bind it up?' asked Tom, wishing to prolong the situation.
'Nonsense; suck it. Only take care of it tomorrow if you dissect. Don't want any more blood-poisoning.'
'That was the only time you were kind to me. Wish I'd lost my arm.'
'I wish you'd lost your head; it smells more like turpentine and kerosene than ever. Do take a run in the garden and air it.'
Fearing to betray themselves by laughter, the watchers went on, leaving the Knight to rush away in despair, and the Lady to bury her nose in the cup of a tall lily for refreshment.
'Poor Tom, his fate is a hard one, and he's wasting his time! Do advise him to quit philandering and go to work, Jo.'
'I have, Teddy, often; but it will take some great shock to make that boy wise. I wait with interest to see what it will be. Bless me! what is all this?'
She might well ask; for on a rustic stool stood Ted trying to pose on one foot, with the other extended, and both hands waving in the air. Josie, with several young mates, was watching his contortions with deep interest as they talked about 'little wings', 'gilded wire twisted', and a 'cunning skull-cap'.
'This might be called "Mercury Trying to Fly",' said Mr Laurie, as they peeped through the lace curtains.
'Bless the long legs of that boy! how does he expect to manage them? They are planning for the Owlsdark Marbles, and a nice muddle they will make of my gods and goddesses with no one to show them how,' answered Mrs Jo, enjoying this scene immensely. 'Now, he's got it!' 'That's perfectly splendid!' 'See how long you can keep so!' cried the girls, as Ted managed to maintain his equilibrium a moment by resting one toe on the trellis. Unfortunately this brought all his weight on the other foot; the straw seat of the stool gave way, and the flying Mercury came down with a crash, amid shrieks of laughter from the girls. Being accustomed to ground and lofty tumbling, he quickly recovered himself, and hopped gaily about, with one leg through the stool as he improvised a classic jig.
'Thanks for four nice little pictures. You have given me an idea, and I think some time we will get up regular tableaux of this sort and march our company round a set of dissolving views. New and striking; I'll propose it to our manager and give you all the glory,' said Mrs Jo, as they strolled towards the room whence came the clash of glass and china, and glimpses of agitated black coats.
Let us follow the example of our old friends and stroll about among the young people, eavesdropping, so gathering up various little threads to help in the weaving of the story. George and Dolly were at supper, and having served the ladies in their care stood in a corner absorbing nourishment of all kinds with a vain attempt to conceal hearty appetites under an air of elegant indifference.
'Good spread, this; Laurence does things in style. First-rate coffee, but no wine, and that's a mistake,' said Stuffy, who still deserved his name, and was a stout youth with a heavy eye and bilious complexion.
'Bad for boys, he says. Jove! wish he could see us at some of our wines. Don't we just "splice the main brace" as Emil says,' answered Dolly, the dandy, carefully spreading a napkin over the glossy expanse of shirt-front whereon a diamond stud shone like a lone star. His stutter was nearly outgrown; but he, as well as George, spoke in the tone of condescension, which, with the blase airs they assumed, made a very funny contrast to their youthful faces and foolish remarks. Good-hearted little fellows both, but top-heavy with the pride of being Sophs and the freedom that college life gave them.
'Little Jo is getting to be a deuced pretty girl, isn't she?' said George, with a long sigh of satisfaction as his first mouthful of ice went slowly down his throat.
'H'm--well, fairish. The Princess is rather more to my taste. I like 'em blonde and queenly and elegant, don't you know.'
'Yes, Jo is too lively; might as well dance with a grasshopper. I've tried her, and she's one too many for me. Miss Perry is a nice, easy-going girl. Got her for the german.'
'You'll never be a dancing man. Too lazy. Now I'll undertake to steer any girl and dance down any fellow you please. Dancing's my forte.' And Dolly glanced from his trim feet to his flashing gem with the defiant air of a young turkey-cock on parade.
'Miss Grey is looking for you. Wants more grub. Just see if Miss Nelson's plate is empty, there's a good fellow. Can't eat ice in a hurry.' And George remained in his safe corner, while Dolly struggled through the crowd to do his duty, coming back in a fume, with a splash of salad dressing on his coat-cuff.
'Confound these country chaps! they go blundering round like so many dor-bugs, and make a deuce of a mess. Better stick to books and not try to be society men. Can't do it. Beastly stain. Give it a rub, and let me bolt a mouthful, I'm starved. Never saw girls eat such a lot. It proves that they ought not to study so much. Never liked co-ed,' growled Dolly, much ruffled in spirit.
'So they do. 'Tisn't ladylike. Ought to be satisfied with an ice and a bit of cake, and eat it prettily. Don't like to see a girl feed. We hard-working men need it, and, by Jove, I mean to get some more of that meringue if it's not all gone. Here, waiter! bring along that dish over there, and be lively,' commanded Stuffy, poking a young man in a rather shabby dress-suit, who was passing with a tray of glasses.
His order was obeyed promptly; but George's appetite was taken away the next moment by Dolly's exclaiming, as he looked up from his damaged coat, with a scandalized face:
'You've put your foot in it now, old boy! that's Morton, Mr Bhaer's crack man. Knows everything, no end of a "dig", and bound to carry off all the honours. You won't hear the last of it in a hurry.' And Dolly laughed so heartily that a spoonful of ice flew upon the head of a lady sitting below him, and got him into a scrape also.
Leaving them to their despair, let us listen to the whispered chat of two girls comfortably seated in a recess waiting till their escorts were fed.
'I do think the Laurences give lovely parties. Don't you enjoy them?' asked the younger, looking about her with the eager air of one unused to this sort of pleasure.
'Very much, only I never feel as if I was dressed right. My things seemed elegant at home, and I thought I'd be over over-dressed if anything; but I look countrified and dowdy here. No time or money to change now, even if I knew how to do it,' answered the other, glancing anxiously at her bright pink silk grown, trimmed with cheap lace.
'You must get Mrs Brooke to tell you how to fix your things. She was very kind to me. I had a green silk, and it looked so cheap and horrid by the side of the nice dresses here I felt regularly unhappy about it, and asked her how much a dress like one Mrs Laurence had would cost. That looked so simple and elegant I thought it wouldn't be costly; but it was India mull and Valenciennes lace, so, of course, I couldn't have it. Then Mrs Brooke said: "Get some muslin to cover the green silk, and wear hops or some white flowers, instead of pink, in your hair, and you will have a pretty suit." Isn't it lovely and becoming?' And Miss Burton surveyed herself with girlish satisfaction; for a little taste had softened the harsh green, and hop-bells became her red hair better than roses.
'It's sweet: I've been admiring it. I'll do mine so and ask about my purple one. Mrs Brooke has helped me to get rid of my headaches, and Mary Clay's dyspepsia is all gone since she gave up coffee and hot bread.'
'Mrs Laurence advised me to walk and run and use the gymnasium to cure my round shoulders and open my chest, and I'm a much better figure than I was.'
'Did you know that Mr Laurence pays all Amelia Merrill's bills? Her father failed, and she was heartbroken at having to leave college; but that splendid man just stepped in and made it all right.' 'Yes, and Professor Bhaer has several of the boys down at his house evenings to help them along so they can keep up with the rest; and Mrs Bhaer took care of Charles Mackey herself when he had a fever last year. I do think they are the best and kindest people in the world.'
'So do I, and my time here will be the happiest and most useful years of my life.'
And both girls forgot their gowns and their suppers for a moment to look with grateful, affectionate eyes at the friends who tried to care for bodies and for souls as well as minds.
Now come to a lively party supping on the stairs, girls like foam at the top, and a substratum of youths below, where the heaviest particles always settle. Emil, who never sat if he could climb or perch, adorned the newel-post; Tom, Nat, Demi, and Dan were camped on the steps, eating busily, as their ladies were well served and they had earned a moment's rest, which they enjoyed with their eyes fixed on the pleasing prospect above them.
'I'm so sorry the boys are going. It will be dreadfully dull without them. Now they have stopped teasing and are polite, I really enjoy them,' said Nan, who felt unusually gracious tonight as Tom's mishap kept him from annoying her.
'So do I; and Bess was mourning about it today, though as a general thing she doesn't like boys unless they are models of elegance. She has been doing Dan's head, and it is not quite finished. I never saw her so interested in any work, and it's very well done. He is so striking and big he always makes me think of the Dying Gladiator or some of those antique creatures. There's Bess now. Dear child, how sweet she looks tonight!' answered Daisy, waving her hand as the Princess went by with Grandpa on her arm.
'I never thought he would turn out so well. Don't you remember how we used to call him "the bad boy" and be sure he would become a pirate or something awful because he glared at us and swore sometimes? Now he is the handsomest of all the boys, and very entertaining with his stories and plans. I like him very much; he's so big and strong and independent. I'm tired of mollycoddles and book-worms,' said Nan in her decided way.
'Not handsomer that Nat!' cried loyal Daisy, contrasting two faces below, one unusually gay, the other sentimentally sober even in the act of munching cake. 'I like Dan, and am glad he is doing well; but he tires me, and I'm still a little afraid of him. Quiet people suit me best.'
'Life is a fight, and I like a good soldier. Boys take things too easily, don't see how serious it all is and go to work in earnest. Look at that absurd Tom, wasting his time and making an object of himself just because he can't have what he wants, like a baby crying for the moon. I've no patience with such nonsense,' scolded Nan, looking down at the jovial Thomas, who was playfully putting macaroons in Emil's shoes, and trying to beguile his exile as best he could.
'Most girls would be touched by such fidelity. I think it's beautiful,' said Daisy behind her fan; for other girls sat just below.
'You are a sentimental goose and not a judge. Nat will be twice the man when he comes back after his trip. I wish Tom was going with him. My idea is that if we girls have any influence we should use it for the good of these boys, and not pamper them up, making slaves of ourselves and tyrants of them. Let them prove what they can do and be before they ask anything of us, and give us a chance to do the same. Then we know where we are, and shall not make mistakes to mourn over all our lives.'
'Hear, hear!' cried Alice Heath, who was a girl after Nan's own heart, and had chosen a career, like a brave and sensible young woman. 'Only give us a chance, and have patience till we can do our best. Now we are expected to be as wise as men who have had generations of all the help there is, and we scarcely anything. Let us have equal opportunities, and in a few generations we will see what the judgement is. I like justice, and we get very little of it.'
'Still shouting the battle-cry of freedom?' asked Demi, peering through the banisters at this moment. 'Up with your flag! I'll stand by and lend a hand if you want it. With you and Nan to lead the van, I think you won't need much help.'
'You are a great comfort, Demi, and I'll call on you in all emergencies; for you are an honest boy, and don't forget that you owe much to your mother and your sisters and your aunts,' continued Nan. 'I do like men who come out frankly and own that they are not gods. How can we think them so when such awful mistakes are being made all the time by these great creatures? See them sick, as I do, then you know them.'
'Don't hit us when we are down; be merciful, and set us up to bless and believe in you evermore,' pleaded Demi from behind the bars.
'We'll be kind to you if you will be just to us. I don't say generous, only just. I went to a suffrage debate in the Legislature last winter; and of all the feeble, vulgar twaddle I ever heard, that was the worst; and those men were our representatives. I blushed for them, and the wives and mothers. I want an intelligent man to represent me, if I can't do it myself, not a fool.'
'Nan is on the stump. Now we shall catch it,' cried Tom, putting up an umbrella to shield his unhappy head; for Nan's earnest voice was audible, and her indignant eye happened to rest on him as she spoke.
'Go on, go on! I'll take notes, and put in "great applause" liberally,' added Demi, producing his ball-book and pencil, with his Jenkins air.
Daisy pinched his nose through the bars, and the meeting was rather tumultuous for a moment, for Emil called: 'Avast, avast, here's a squall to wind'ard'; Tom applauded wildly; Dan looked up as if the prospect of a fight, even with words, pleased him, and Nat went to support Demi, as his position seemed to be a good one. At this crisis, when everyone laughed and talked at once, Bess came floating through the upper hall and looked down like an angel of peace upon the noisy group below, as she asked, with wondering eyes and smiling lips:
'What is it?'
'An indignation meeting. Nan and Alice are on the rampage, and we are at the bar to be tried for our lives. Will Your Highness preside and judge between us?' answered Demi, as a lull at once took place; for no one rioted in the presence of the Princess.
'I'm not wise enough. I'll sit here and listen. Please go on.' And Bess took her place above them all as cool and calm as a little statue of Justice, with fan and nosegay in place of sword and scales.
'Now, ladies, free your minds, only spare us till morning; for we've got a german to dance as soon as everyone is fed, and Parnassus expects every man to do his duty. Mrs President Giddy-gaddy has the floor,' said Demi, who liked this sort of fun better than the very mild sort of flirtation which was allowed at Plumfield, for the simple reason that it could not be entirely banished, and is a part of all education, co- or otherwise.
'I have only one thing to say, and it is this,' began Nan soberly, though her eyes sparkled with a mixture of fun and earnestness. 'I want to ask every boy of you what you really think on this subject. Dan and Emil have seen the world and ought to know their own minds. Tom and Nat have had five examples before them for years. Demi is ours and we are proud of him. So is Rob. Ted is a weathercock, and Dolly and George, of course, are fogies in spite of the Annex, and girls at Girton going ahead of the men. Commodore, are you ready for the question?'
'Ay, ay, skipper.'
'Do you believe in Woman's Suffrage?'
'Bless your pretty figger head! I do, and I'll ship a crew of girls any time you say so. Aren't they worse than a press-gang to carry a fellow out of his moorings? Don't we all need one as pilot to steer us safe to port? and why shouldn't they share our mess afloat and ashore since we are sure to be wrecked without 'em?'
'Good for you, Emil! Nan will take you for first mate after that handsome speech,' said Demi, as the girls applauded, and Tom glowered. 'Now, Dan, you love liberty so well yourself, are you willing we should have it?'
'All you can get, and I'll fight any man who's mean enough to say you don't deserve it.'
This brief and forcible reply delighted the energetic President, and she beamed upon the member from California, as she said briskly:
'Nat wouldn't dare to say he was on the other side even if he were, but I hope he has made up his mind to pipe for us, at least when we take the field, and not be one of those who wait till the battle is won, and then beat the drums and share the glory.'
Mrs Giddy-gaddy's doubts were most effectually removed, and her sharp speech regretted, as Nat looked up blushing, but with a new sort of manliness in face and manner, saying, in a tone that touched them all:
'I should be the most ungrateful fellow alive if I did not love, honour, and serve women with all my heart and might, for to them I owe everything I am or ever shall be.'
Daisy clapped her hands, and Bess threw her bouquet into Nat's lap, while the other girls waved their fans, well pleased; for real feeling made his little speech eloquent.
'Thomas B. Bangs, come into court, and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, if you can,' commanded Nan, with a rap to call the meeting to order.
Tom shut the umbrella, and standing up raised his hand, saying solemnly:
'I believe in suffrage of all kinds. I adore all women, and will die for them at any moment if it will help the cause.'
'Living and working for it is harder, and therefore more honourable. Men are always ready to die for us, but not to make our lives worth having. Cheap sentiment and bad logic. You will pass, Tom, only don't twaddle. Now, having taken the sense of the meeting we will adjourn, as the hour for festive gymnastics has arrived. I am glad to see that old Plum has given six true men to the world, and hope they will continue to be staunch to her and the principles she has taught them, wherever they may go. Now, girls, don't sit in draughts, and, boys, beware of ice-water when you are warm.'
With this characteristic close Nan retired from office, and the girls went to enjoy one of the few rights allowed them.