Little Men, Page 2Louisa May Alcott
CHAPTER II. THE BOYS
While Nat takes a good long sleep, I will tell my little readerssomething 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, aregular German, big, blond, and bookish, also very domestic, amiable,and musical. His uncle was fitting him for college, and his aunt for ahappy home of his own hereafter, because she carefully fostered in himgentle manners, love of children, respect for women, old and young,and helpful ways about the house. He was her right-hand man on alloccasions, steady, kind, and patient; and he loved his merry aunt like amother, for such she had tried to be to him.
Emil was quite different, being quick-tempered, restless, andenterprising, bent on going to sea, for the blood of the old vikingsstirred in his veins, and could not be tamed. His uncle promised that heshould go when he was sixteen, and set him to studying navigation, gavehim stories of good and famous admirals and heroes to read, and let himlead the life of a frog in river, pond, and brook, when lessons weredone. His room looked like the cabin of a man-of-war, for every thingwas nautical, military, and shipshape. Captain Kyd was his delight, andhis favorite amusement was to rig up like that piratical gentleman, androar out sanguinary sea-songs at the top of his voice. He would dancenothing but sailors' hornpipes, rolled in his gait, and was asnautical in conversation to his uncle would permit. The boys called him"Commodore," and took great pride in his fleet, which whitened thepond and suffered disasters that would have daunted any commander but asea-struck boy.
Demi was one of the children who show plainly the effect of intelligentlove and care, for soul and body worked harmoniously together. Thenatural refinement which nothing but home influence can teach, gavehim sweet and simple manners: his mother had cherished an innocent andloving heart in him; his father had watched over the physical growth ofhis boy, and kept the little body straight and strong on wholesome foodand exercise and sleep, while Grandpa March cultivated the little mindwith the tender wisdom of a modern Pythagoras, not tasking it with long,hard lessons, parrot-learned, but helping it to unfold as naturally andbeautifully 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 earlytaught the secret of self-control, he was not left at the mercy ofappetites and passions, as some poor little mortals are, and thenpunished for yielding to the temptations against which they haveno armor. A quiet, quaint boy was Demi, serious, yet cheery, quiteunconscious that he was unusually bright and beautiful, yet quick to seeand love intelligence or beauty in other children. Very fond of books,and full of lively fancies, born of a strong imagination and a spiritualnature, these traits made his parents anxious to balance them withuseful knowledge and healthful society, lest they should make him one ofthose pale precocious children who amaze and delight a family sometimes,and fade away like hot-house flowers, because the young soul blooms toosoon, and has not a hearty body to root it firmly in the wholesome soilof this world.
So Demi was transplanted to Plumfield, and took so kindly to the lifethere, that Meg and John and Grandpa felt satisfied that they had donewell. Mixing with other boys brought out the practical side of him,roused his spirit, and brushed away the pretty cobwebs he was so fond ofspinning in that little brain of his. To be sure, he rather shockedhis 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 theboots, 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 byand by; and as for learning, he will pick that up as pigeons do peas. Sodon't hurry him."
Daisy was as sunshiny and charming as ever, with all sorts ofwomanlinesses budding in her, for she was like her gentle mother,and delighted in domestic things. She had a family of dolls, whom shebrought up in the most exemplary manner; she could not get on withouther little work-basket and bits of sewing, which she did so nicely, thatDemi 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 theparlor with her brush, dusting chairs and tables. Demi called her a"Betty," but was very glad to have her keep his things in order, lendhim her nimble fingers in all sorts of work, and help him with hislessons, for they kept abreast there, and had no thought of rivalry.
The love between them was as strong as ever; and no one could laughDemi out of his affectionate ways with Daisy. He fought her battlesvaliantly, and never could understand why boys should be ashamed tosay "right out," that they loved their sisters. Daisy adored her twin,thought "my brother" the most remarkable boy in the world, and everymorning, in her little wrapper, trotted to tap at his door with amotherly "Get up, my dear, it's 'most breakfast time; and here's yourclean collar."
Rob was an energetic morsel of a boy, who seemed to have discovered thesecret of perpetual motion, for he never was still. Fortunately, he wasnot mischievous, nor very brave; so he kept out of trouble pretty well,and vibrated between father and mother like an affectionate littlependulum with a lively tick, for Rob was a chatterbox.
Teddy was too young to play a very important part in the affairs ofPlumfield, 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 toaccommodate, for kissing and cuddling suited him excellently. Mrs.Jo seldom stirred without him; so he had his little finger in all thedomestic pies, and every one found them all the better for it, for theybelieved 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 wasallowed to mock him and Mr. Bhaer tried to cure it, by making him talkslowly. Dolly was a good little lad, quite uninteresting and ordinary,but he flourished here, and went through his daily duties and pleasureswith placid content and propriety.
Dick Brown's affliction was a crooked back, yet he bore his burden socheerfully, that Demi once asked in his queer way, "Do humps make peoplegood-natured? I'd like one if they do." Dick was always merry, and didhis best to be like other boys, for a plucky spirit lived in thefeeble little body. When he first came, he was very sensitive about hismisfortune, but soon learned to forget it, for no one dared remind himof 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 Dickto his tormentor on that occasion; and, by cherishing this idea, theBhaers soon led him to believe that people also loved his soul, and didnot 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 thelaughing answer.
"So you are, my nice little one that don't carry loads, but marches bythe elephant first in the procession," said Demi, who was arranging thespectacle.
"I hope others will be as kind to the poor dear as my boys have learnedto 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 feeblelittle dromedary, beside stout Stuffy, who did the elephant withponderous 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, butMr. Bhaer did not like his way of illustrating that Yankee word, andthought his unboyish keenness and money-loving as much of an afflictionas 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 thetables, and knock down any small articles near him. He bragged a gooddeal about what he c
ould do, but seldom did any thing to prove it, wasnot brave, and a little given to tale-telling. He was apt to bully thesmall boys, and flatter the big ones, and without being at all bad, wasjust the sort of fellow who could very easily be led astray.
George Cole had been spoilt by an over-indulgent mother, who stuffed himwith sweetmeats till he was sick, and then thought him too delicateto 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, andthere he soon got waked up, for sweet things were seldom allowed, muchexercise required, and study made so pleasant, that Stuffy was gentlylured along, till he quite amazed his anxious mamma by his improvement,and convinced her that there was really something remarkable inPlumfield air.
Billy Ward was what the Scotch tenderly call an "innocent," for thoughthirteen years old, he was like a child of six. He had been an unusuallyintelligent boy, and his father had hurried him on too fast, giving himall sorts of hard lessons, keeping at his books six hours a day, andexpecting him to absorb knowledge as a Strasburg goose does the foodcrammed down its throat. He thought he was doing his duty, but he nearlykilled the boy, for a fever gave the poor child a sad holiday, and whenhe recovered, the overtasked brain gave out, and Billy's mind was like aslate over which a sponge has passed, leaving it blank.
It was a terrible lesson to his ambitious father; he could not bear thesight of his promising child, changed to a feeble idiot, and he senthim away to Plumfield, scarcely hoping that he could be helped, but surethat 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 gropingdimly after the lost knowledge which had cost him so much.
Day after day, he pored over the alphabet, proudly said A and B, andthought that he knew them, but on the morrow they were gone, and allthe work was to be done over again. Mr. Bhaer had infinite patience withhim, and kept on in spite of the apparent hopelessness of the task, notcaring for book lessons, but trying gently to clear away the mists fromthe darkened mind, and give it back intelligence enough to make the boyless a burden and an affliction.
Mrs. Bhaer strengthened his health by every aid she could invent, andthe boys all pitied and were kind to him. He did not like their activeplays, but would sit for hours watching the doves, would dig holes forTeddy till even that ardent grubber was satisfied, or follow Silas, theman, from place to place seeing him work, for honest Si was very good tohim, and though he forgot his letters Billy remembered friendly faces.
Tommy Bangs was the scapegrace of the school, and the most tryingscapegrace that ever lived. As full of mischief as a monkey, yetso good-hearted that one could not help forgiving his tricks; soscatter-brained that words went by him like the wind, yet so penitentfor every misdeed, that it was impossible to keep sober when hevowed tremendous vows of reformation, or proposed all sorts of queerpunishments to be inflicted upon himself. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer lived ina state of preparation for any mishap, from the breaking of Tommy's ownneck, to the blowing up of the entire family with gunpowder; and Nurseyhad a particular drawer in which she kept bandages, plasters, and salvesfor his especial use, for Tommy was always being brought in half dead;but nothing ever killed him, and he arose from every downfall withredoubled vigor.
The first day he came, he chopped the top off one finger in thehay-cutter, and during the week, fell from the shed roof, was chased byan 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 caughthim luxuriously skimming a pan of cream with half a stolen pie.Undaunted, however, by any failures or rebuffs, this indomitable youthwent 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 tooffer, and as he was usually clever at his books, and as bright as abutton in composing answers when he did not know them, he go on prettywell at school. But out of school, Ye gods and little fishes! how Tommydid carouse!
He wound fat Asia up in her own clothes line against the post, and lefthere 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 waswaiting at table one day when there were gentlemen to dinner, whereatthe 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 ofwater up in a tree, with a bit of ribbon fastened to the handle, andwhen Daisy, attracted by the gay streamer, tried to pull it down, shegot a douche bath that spoiled her clean frock and hurt her littlefeelings very much. He put rough white pebbles in the sugar-bowl whenhis grandmother came to tea, and the poor old lady wondered why theydidn't melt in her cup, but was too polite to say anything. He passedaround snuff in church so that five of the boys sneezed with suchviolence they had to go out. He dug paths in winter time, and thenprivately watered them so that people should tumble down. He drove poorSilas nearly wild by hanging his big boots in conspicuous places,for his feet were enormous, and he was very much ashamed of them. Hepersuaded confiding little Dolly to tie a thread to one of his looseteeth, and leave the string hanging from his mouth when he went tosleep, so that Tommy could pull it out without his feeling the dreadedoperation. But the tooth wouldn't come at the first tweak, and poorDolly woke up in great anguish of spirit, and lost all faith in Tommyfrom that day forth.
The last prank had been to give the hens bread soaked in rum, which madethem tipsy and scandalized all the other fowls, for the respectable oldbiddies went staggering about, pecking and clucking in the most maudlinmanner, 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 sleepoff their intoxication.
These were the boys and they lived together as happy as twelve ladscould, studying and playing, working and squabbling, fighting faults andcultivating virtues in the good old-fashioned way. Boys at other schoolsprobably learned more from books, but less of that better wisdom whichmakes good men. Latin, Greek, and mathematics were all very well, but inProfessor Bhaer's opinion, self knowledge, self-help, and self-controlwere more important, and he tried to teach them carefully. People shooktheir heads sometimes at his ideas, even while they owned that the boysimproved wonderfully in manners and morals. But then, as Mrs. Jo said toNat, "it was an odd school."