Jo's Boys, Page 2Louisa May Alcott
“Thanks, I’m going there also. Tom Merryweather has granulated lids, and I promised to touch them up for him. Save a doctor’s fee and be good practice for me. I’m clumsy with my thumbs,” said Tom, bound to be near his idol while he could.
“Hush! Daisy doesn’t like to hear you saw-bones talk of your work. Muffins suit us better” and Ted grinned sweetly, with a view to future favours in the eating line.
“Any news of the Commodore?” asked Tom.
“He is on his way home, and Dan hopes to come soon. I long to see my boys together, and have begged the wanderers to come to Thanksgiving, if not before,” answered Mrs Jo, beaming at the thought.
“They’ll come, every man of them, if they can. Even Jack will risk losing a dollar for the sake of one of our jolly old dinners,” laughed Tom.
“There’s the turkey fattening for the feast. I never chase him now, but feed him well; and he’s ‘swellin wisibly’, bless his drumsticks!” said Ted, pointing out the doomed fowl proudly parading in a neighbouring field.
“If Nat goes the last of the month we shall want a farewell frolic for him. I suppose the dear old Chirper will come home a second Ole Bull,” said Nan to her friend.
A pretty colour came into Daisy’s cheek, and the folds of muslin on her breast rose and fell with a quick breath; but she answered placidly: “Uncle Laurie says he has real talent, and after the training he will get abroad he can command a good living here, though he may never be famous.”
“Young people seldom turn out as one predicts, so it is of little use to expect anything,” said Mrs Meg with a sigh. “If our children are good and useful men and women, we should be satisfied; yet it’s very natural to wish them to be brilliant and successful.”
“They are like my chickens, mighty uncertain. Now, that fine-looking cockerel of mine is the stupidest one of the lot, and the ugly, long-legged chap is the king of the yard, he’s so smart; crows loud enough to wake the Seven Sleepers; but the handsome one croaks, and is no end of a coward. I get snubbed; but you wait till I grow up, and then see” and Ted looked so like his own long-legged pet that everyone laughed at his modest prediction.
“I want to see Dan settled somewhere. ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’, and at twenty-five he is still roaming about the world without a tie to hold him, except this” and Mrs Meg nodded towards her sister.
“Dan will find his place at last, and experience is his best teacher. He is rough still, but each time he comes home I see a change for the better, and never lose my faith in him. He may never do anything great, or get rich; but if the wild boy makes an honest man, I’m satisfied,” said Mrs Jo, who always defended the black sheep of her flock.
“That’s right, mother, stand by Dan! He’s worth a dozen Jacks and Neds bragging about money and trying to be swells. You see if he doesn’t do something to be proud of and take the wind out of their sails,” added Ted, whose love for his “Danny” was now strengthened by a boy’s admiration for the bold, adventurous man.
“Hope so, I’m sure. He’s just the fellow to do rash things and come to glory—climbing the Matterhorn, taking a ‘header’ into Niagara, or finding a big nugget. That’s his way of sowing wild oats, and perhaps it’s better than ours,” said Tom thoughtfully; for he had gained a good deal of experience in that sort of agriculture since he became a medical student.
“Much better!” said Mrs Jo emphatically. “I’d rather send my boys off to see the world in that way than leave them alone in a city full of temptations, with nothing to do but waste time, money, and health, as so many are left. Dan has to work his way, and that teaches him courage, patience, and self-reliance. I don’t worry about him as much as I do about George and Dolly at college, no more fit than two babies to take care of themselves.”
“How about John? He’s knocking round town as a newspaper man, reporting all sorts of things, from sermons to prize-fights,” asked Tom, who thought that sort of life would be much more to his own taste than medical lectures and hospital wards.
“Demi has three safeguards—good principles, refined tastes, and a wise mother. He won’t come to harm, and these experiences will be useful to him when he begins to write, as I’m sure he will in time,” began Mrs Jo in her prophetic tone; for she was anxious to have some of her geese turn out swans.
“Speak of Jenkins, and you’ll hear the rustling of his paper,” cried Tom, as a fresh-faced, brown-eyed young man came up the avenue, waving a newspaper over his head.
“Here’s your Evening Tattler! Latest Edition! Awful murder! Bank clerk absconded! Powder-mill explosion, and great strike of the Latin School boys!” roared Ted, going to meet his cousin with the graceful gait of a young giraffe.
“The Commodore is in, and will cut his cable and run before the wind as soon as he can get off,” called Demi, with “a nice derangement of nautical epitaphs”, as he came up smiling over his good news.
Everyone talked together for a moment, and the paper passed from hand to hand that each eye might rest on the pleasant fact that the Brenda, from Hamburg, was safe in port.
“He’ll come lurching out by tomorrow with his usual collection of marine monsters and lively yarns. I saw him, jolly and tarry and brown as a coffee-berry. Had a good run, and hopes to be second mate, as the other chap is laid up with a broken leg,” added Demi.
“Wish I had the setting of it,” said Nan to herself, with a professional twist of her hand.
“How’s Franz?” asked Mrs Jo.
“He’s going to be married! There’s news for you. The first of the flock, Aunty, so say good-bye to him. Her name is Ludmilla Heldegard Blumenthal; good family, well-off, pretty, and of course an angel. The dear old boy wants Uncle’s consent, and then he will settle down to be a happy and an honest burgher. Long life to him!”
“I’m glad to hear it. I do so like to settle my boys with a good wife and a nice little home. Now, if all is right, I shall feel as if Franz was off my mind,” said Mrs Jo, folding her hands contentedly; for she often felt like a distracted hen with a large brood of mixed chickens and ducks upon her hands.
“So do I,” sighed Tom, with a sly glance at Nan. “That’s what a fellow needs to keep him steady; and it’s the duty of nice girls to marry as soon as possible, isn’t it, Demi?”
“If there are enough nice fellows to go round. The female population exceeds the male, you know, especially in New England; which accounts for the high state of culture we are in, perhaps,” answered John, who was leaning over his mother’s chair, telling his day’s experiences in a whisper.
“It is a merciful provision, my dears; for it takes three or four women to get each man into, through, and out of the world. You are costly creatures, boys; and it is well that mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters love their duty and do it so well, or you would perish off the face of the earth,” said Mrs Jo solemnly, as she took up a basket filled with dilapidated hose; for the good Professor was still hard on his socks, and his sons resembled him in that respect.
“Such being the case, there is plenty for the ‘superfluous women’ to do, in taking care of these helpless men and their families. I see that more clearly every day, and am very glad and grateful that my profession will make me a useful, happy, and independent spinster.”
Nan’s emphasis on the last word caused Tom to groan, and the rest to laugh.
“I take great pride and solid satisfaction in you, Nan, and hope to see you very successful; for we do need just such helpful women in the world. I sometimes feel as if I’d missed my vocation and ought to have remained single; but my duty seemed to point this way, and I don’t regret it,” said Mrs Jo, folding a large and very ragged blue sock to her bosom.
“Neither do I. What should I ever have done without my dearest Mum?” added Ted, with a filial hug which caused both to disappear behind the newspaper in which he had been mercifully absorbed for a few minutes.
“My darling boy, if you would wash your hands semi-occasionally, fond caresses would be l
ess disastrous to my collar. Never mind, my precious touslehead, better grass stains and dirt than no cuddlings at all” and Mrs Jo emerged from that brief eclipse looking much refreshed, though her back hair was caught in Ted’s buttons and her collar under one ear.
Here Josie, who had been studying her part at the other end of the piazza, suddenly burst forth with a smothered shriek, and gave Juliet’s speech in the tomb so effectively that the boys applauded, Daisy shivered, and Nan murmured: “Too much cerebral excitement for one of her age.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to make up your mind to it, Meg. That child is a born actress. We never did anything so well, not even the Witch’s Curse,” said Mrs Jo, casting a bouquet of many-coloured socks at the feet of her flushed and panting niece, when she fell gracefully upon the door-mat.
“It is a sort of judgement upon me for my passion for the stage when a girl. Now I know how dear Marmee felt when I begged to be an actress. I never can consent, and yet I may be obliged to give up my wishes, hopes, and plans again.”
There was an accent of reproach in his mother’s voice, which made Demi pick up his sister with a gentle shake, and the stern command to “drop that nonsense in public.”
“Drop me, Minion, or I’ll give you the Maniac Bride, with my best Ha-ha!” cried Josie, glaring at him like an offended kitten.
Being set on her feet, she made a splendid courtesy, and dramatically proclaiming, “Mrs Woffington’s carriage waits,” swept down the steps and round the corner, trailing Daisy’s scarlet shawl majestically behind her.
“Isn’t she great fun? I couldn’t stop in this dull place if I hadn’t that child to make it lively for me. If ever she turns prim, I’m off; so mind how you nip her in the bud,” said Teddy, frowning at Demi, who was now writing out shorthand notes on the steps.
“You two are a team, and it takes a strong hand to drive you, but I rather like it. Josie ought to have been my child, and Rob yours, Meg. Then your house would have been all peace and mine all Bedlam. Now I must go and tell Laurie the news. Come with me, Meg, a little stroll will do us good” and sticking Ted’s straw hat on her head, Mrs Jo walked off with her sister, leaving Daisy to attend to the muffins, Ted to appease Josie, and Tom and Nan to give their respective patients a very bad quarter of an hour.
IT WAS well named; and the Muses seemed to be at home that day, for as the newcomers went up the slope appropriate sights and sounds greeted them. Passing an open window, they looked in upon a library presided over by Clio, Calliope, and Urania; Melpomene and Thalia were disporting themselves in the hall, where some young people were dancing and rehearsing a play; Erato was walking in the garden with her lover, and in the music-room Phoebus himself was drilling a tuneful choir.
A mature Apollo was our old friend Laurie, but comely and genial as ever; for time had ripened the freakish boy into a noble man. Care and sorrow, as well as ease and happiness, had done much for him; and the responsibility of carrying out his grandfather’s wishes had been a duty most faithfully performed. Prosperity suits some people, and they blossom best in a glow of sunshine; others need the shade, and are the sweeter for a touch of frost. Laurie was one of the former sort, and Amy was another; so life had been a kind of poem to them since they married—not only harmonious and happy, but earnest, useful, and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.
Their house was full of unostentatious beauty and comfort, and here the art-loving host and hostess attracted and entertained artists of all kinds. Laurie had music enough now, and was a generous patron to the class he most liked to help. Amy had her protégés among ambitious young painters and sculptors, and found her own art double dear as her daughter grew old enough to share its labours and delights with her; for she was one of those who prove that women can be faithful wives and mothers without sacrificing the special gift bestowed upon them for their own development and the good of others.
Her sisters knew where to find her, and Jo went at once to the studio, where mother and daughter worked together. Bess was busy with the bust of a little child, while her mother added the last touches to a fine head of her husband. Time seemed to have stood still with Amy, for happiness had kept her young and prosperity given her the culture she needed. A stately, graceful woman, who showed how elegant simplicity could be made by the taste with which she chose her dress and the grace with which she wore it. As someone said: “I never know what Mrs Laurence has on, but I always receive the impression that she is the best-dressed lady in the room.”
It was evident that she adored her daughter, and well she might; for the beauty she had longed for seemed, to her fond eyes at least, to be impersonated in this younger self. Bess inherited her mother’s Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also—ah! never-ending source of joy to Amy—she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould. The severe simplicity of a long linen pinafore suited her; and she worked away with the entire absorption of the true artist, unconscious of the loving eyes upon her, till Aunt Jo came in exclaiming eagerly:
“My dear girls, stop your mud-pies and hear the news!”
Both artists dropped their tools and greeted the irrepressible woman cordially, though genius had been burning splendidly and her coming spoilt a precious hour. They were in the full tide of gossip when Laurie, who had been summoned by Meg, arrived, and sitting down between the sisters, with no barricade anywhere, listened with interest to the news of Franz and Emil.
“The epidemic has broke out, and now it will rage and ravage your flock. Be prepared for every sort of romance and rashness for the next ten years, Jo. Your boys are growing up and will plunge headlong into a sea of worse scrapes than any you have had yet,” said Laurie, enjoying her look of mingled delight and despair.
“I know it, and I hope I shall be able to pull them through and land them safely; but it’s an awful responsibility, for they will come to me and insist that I can make their poor little loves run smoothly. I like it, though, and Meg is such a mush of sentiment she revels in the prospect,” answered Jo, feeling pretty easy about her own boys, whose youth made them safe for the present.
“I’m afraid she won’t revel when our Nat begins to buzz too near her Daisy. Of course you see what all that means? As musical director I am also his confidant, and would like to know what advice to give,” said Laurie soberly.
“Hush! you forget that child,” began Jo, nodding towards Bess, who was at work again.
“Bless you! she’s in Athens, and doesn’t hear a word. She ought to leave off, though, and go out. My darling, put the baby to sleep, and go for a run. Aunt Meg is in the parlour; go and show her the new pictures till we come,” added Laurie, looking at his tall girl as Pygmalion might have looked at Galatea; for he considered her the finest statue in the house.
“Yes, papa; but please tell me if it is good” and Bess obediently put down her tools, with a lingering glance at the bust.
“My cherished daughter, truth compels me to confess that one cheek is plumper than the other; and the curls upon its infant brow are rather too much like horns for perfect grace; otherwise it rivals Raphael’s Chanting Cherubs, and I’m proud of it.”
Laurie was laughing as he spoke; for these first attempts were so like Amy’s early ones, it was impossible to regard them as soberly as the enthusiastic mamma did.
“You can’t see beauty in anything but music,” answered Bess, shaking the golden head that made the one bright spot in the cool north lights of the great studio.
“Well, I see beauty in you, dear. And if you are not art, what is? I wish to put a little more nature into you, and get you away from this cold clay and marble into the sunshine, to dance and laugh as the others do. I want a flesh-and-blood girl, not a sweet statue in a grey pinafore, who forgets everything but her work.”
As he spoke two dusty hands
came round his neck, and Bess said earnestly, punctuating her words with soft touches of her lips:
“I never forget you, papa; but I do want to do something beautiful that you may be proud of me by and by. Mamma often tells me to stop; but when we get in here we forget there is any world outside, we are so busy and so happy. Now I’ll go and run and sing, and be a girl to please you.” And throwing away the apron, Bess vanished from the room, seeming to take all the light with her.
“I’m glad you said that. The dear child is too much absorbed in her artistic dreams for one so young. It is my fault; but I sympathize so deeply in it all, I forget to be wise,” sighed Amy, carefully covering the baby with a wet towel.
“I think this power of living in our children is one of the sweetest things in the world; but I try to remember what Marmee once said to Meg—that fathers should have their share in the education of both girls and boys; so I leave Ted to his father all I can, and Fritz lends me Rob, whose quiet ways are as restful and good for me as Ted’s tempests are for his father. Now I advise you, Amy, to let Bess drop the mud-pies for a time, and take up music with Laurie; then she won’t be one-sided, and he won’t be jealous.”
“Hear, hear! A Daniel—a very Daniel!” cried Laurie, well pleased. “I thought you’d lend a hand, Jo, and say a word for me. I am a little jealous of Amy, and want more of a share in my girl. Come, my lady, let me have her this summer, and next year, when we go to Rome, I’ll give her up to you and high art. Isn’t that a fair bargain?”
“I agree; but in trying your hobby, nature, with music thrown in, don’t forget that, though only fifteen, our Bess is older than most girls of that age, and cannot be treated like a child. She is so very precious to me, I feel as if I wanted to keep her always as pure and beautiful as the marble she loves so well.”
Amy spoke regretfully as she looked about the lovely room where she had spent so many happy hours with this dear child of hers.