Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Little Men

Louisa May Alcott

  Produced by David Reed


  By Louisa May Alcott







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

  "Yes. Who sent you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  "Don't know yet."

  "What's your name?"

  "Nat Blake."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  "Mr. Laurence did."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  "No, I think Greenland, where the icebergs and seals are, is moreinteresting. But I'm fond of Plumfield, and it is a very nice placeto be in," returned Demi, who was interested just now in a book onGreenland. He was about to offer to show Nat the pictures andexplain them, when the servant returned, saying with a nod toward theparlor-door:

  "All right; you are to stop."

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

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

  "Here he is, aunty!" cried Daisy.

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

  She was not at all handsome, but sh
e had a merry sort of face that neverseemed to have forgotten certain childish ways and looks, any more thanher voice and manner had; and these things, hard to describe but veryplain to see and feel, made her a genial, comfortable kind of person,easy to get on with, and generally "jolly," as boys would say. She sawthe little tremble of Nat's lips as she smoothed his hair, and her keeneyes grew softer, but she only drew the shabby figure nearer and said,laughing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  "Dear little souls, do let them have one day in which they can howl andracket and frolic to their hearts' content. A holiday isn't a holidaywithout plenty of freedom and fun; and they shall have full swing oncea week," Mrs. Bhaer used to say, when prim people wondered whybanister-sliding, pillow-fights, and all manner of jovial games wereallowed under the once decorous roof of Plumfield.

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

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

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

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

  "What a queer name!"

  "His real name is John, but they call him Demi-John, because hisfather is John too. That's a joke, don't you see?" said Tommy, kindlyexplaining. Nat did not see, but politely smiled, and asked, withinterest:

  "Isn't he a very nice boy?"

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

  "Who is the fat one next him?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Mrs. Bhaer whispered to her husband:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Nursey approved the plan, finished Nat off with a flannel night-gown, adrink of something warm and sweet, and then tucked him into one of thethree little beds standing in the room, where he lay looking like acontented mummy and feeling that nothing more in the way of luxurycould be offered him. Cleanliness in itself was a new and delightfulsensation; flannel gowns were unknown comforts in his world; sips of"good stuff" soothed his cough as pleasantly as kind words did hislonely heart; and the feeling that somebody cared for him made thatplain room seem a sort of heaven to the homeless child. It was like acosy dream; and he often shut his eyes to see if it would not vanishwhen he opened them again. It was too pleasant to let him sleep, and hecould not have done so if he had tried, for in a few minutes one of thepeculiar institutions of Plumfield was revealed to his astonished butappreciative eyes.

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

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

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

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

  "It's an odd one,"
laughed Mrs. Bhaer, "but you see we don't believein making children miserable by too many rules, and too much study. Iforbade 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 thebox. So I made an agreement with them: I was to allow a fifteen-minutepillow-fight every Saturday night; and they promised to go properly tobed every other night. I tried it, and it worked well. If they don'tkeep 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 theylike."

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

  Tommy Bangs led the assailing party, and Demi defended his own room witha dogged courage fine to see, collecting pillows behind him as fast asthey were thrown, till the besiegers were out of ammunition, when theywould charge upon him in a body, and recover their arms. A few slightaccidents occurred, but nobody minded, and gave and took soundingthwacks 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 knowwhat happened to those wretches who disobeyed this most peculiar, butpublic-spirited school-ma'am.

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

  That was evident, for the battle ended as abruptly as it began, a partingshot or two, a final cheer, as Demi fired the seventh pillow at theretiring foe, a few challenges for next time, then order prevailed. Andnothing but an occasional giggle or a suppressed whisper broke the quietwhich followed the Saturday-night frolic, as Mother Bhaer kissed her newboy and left him to happy dreams of life at Plumfield.