“Of course we will!” cried Mrs. Bhaer, as she read the letter; and when she saw Nat she felt at once that, whether he was a genius or not, here was a lonely, sick boy who needed just what she loved to give, a home and motherly care. Both she and Mr. Bhaer observed him quietly; and in spite of ragged clothes, awkward manners, and a dirty face, they saw much 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; an anxious, 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,” said Mrs. Bhaer to herself, as she saw the eager, happy expression on his face 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 a word with her husband, went to Nat, who sat in a corner watching the scene with intense interest.
“Now, my lad, give us a little tune. We want a violin in our band, and I think you will do it nicely.”
She expected that he would hesitate; but he seized the old fiddle at once, and handled it with such loving care, it was plain to see that music was his passion.
“I’ll do the best I can, ma’am,” was all he said; and then drew the bow across 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 but those he made, Nat played softly to himself, forgetting every thing in his delight. It was only a simple melody, such as street-musicians play, but it caught the ears of the boys at once, and silenced them, till they stood listening with surprise and pleasure. Gradually they got nearer and nearer, and Mr. Bhaer came up to watch the boy; for, as if he was in his element now, Nat played away and never minded any one, while his eyes shone, his cheeks reddened, and his thin fingers flew, as he hugged the old fiddle and made it speak to all their hearts the language that 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 his protege.
“You shall be the first fiddle in my band,” added Franz, with an approving smile.
Mrs. Bhaer whispered to her husband:
“Teddy is right: there’s something in the child.” And Mr. Bhaer nodded his 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 was led to the place of honor by the piano, and the lads gathered round, never heeding his poor clothes, but eying him respectfully and waiting eagerly to hear him play again.
They chose a song he knew; and after one or two false starts they got going, and violin, flute, and piano led a chorus of boyish voices that made the old roof ring again. It was too much for Nat, more feeble than he knew; and as the final shout died away, his face began to work, he dropped 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 all her might, and trying to keep little Rob from beating time with his boots.
“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, and this is too noisy a place for you,” whispered Mrs. Bhaer; and took him away to her own parlor, where she let him cry himself quiet.
Then she won him to tell her all his troubles, and listened to the little story with tears in her own eyes, though it was not a new one to her.
“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 be sure you shall never suffer again, if we can help it. This place is made for all sorts of boys to have a good time in, and to learn how to help themselves and be useful men, I hope. You shall have as much music as you want, only you must get strong first. Now come up to Nursey and have a bath, and then go to bed, and to-morrow we will lay some nice little plans together.”
Nat held her hand fast in his, but had not a word to say, and let his grateful 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 cheery that it looked like a sort of sun, with the wide frill of her cap for rays.
“This is Nursey Hummel, and she will give you a nice bath, and cut your hair, and make you all ‘comfy,’ as Rob says. That’s the bath-room in there; and on Saturday nights we scrub all the little lads first, and pack 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 him into a long bath-tub in the little room opening into the nursery.
There were two tubs, besides foot-baths, basins, douche-pipes, and all manner of contrivances for cleanliness. Nat was soon luxuriating in the other bath; and while simmering there, he watched the performances of the two women, who scrubbed, clean night-gowned, and bundled into bed four or five small boys, who, of course, cut up all sorts of capers during the operation, and kept every one in a gale of merriment till they were extinguished in their beds.
By the time Nat was washed and done up in a blanket by the fire, while Nursey cut his hair, a new detachment of boys arrived and were shut into the bath-room, where they made as much splashing and noise as a school of young whales at play.
“Nat had better sleep here, so that if his cough troubles him in the night you can see that he takes a good draught of flax-seed tea,” said Mrs. Bhaer, who was flying about like a distracted hen with a large brood of lively ducklings.
Nursey approved the plan, finished Nat off with a flannel night-gown, a drink of something warm and sweet, and then tucked him into one of the three little beds standing in the room, where he lay looking like a contented mummy and feeling that nothing more in the way of luxury could be offered him. Cleanliness in itself was a new and delightful sensation; flannel gowns were unknown comforts in his world; sips of “good stuff” soothed his cough as pleasantly as kind words did his lonely heart; and the feeling that somebody cared for him made that plain room seem a sort of heaven to the homeless child. It was like a cosy dream; and he often shut his eyes to see if it would not vanish when he opened them again. It was too pleasant to let him sleep, and he could not have done so if he had tried, for in a few minutes one of the peculiar institutions of Plumfield was revealed to his astonished but appreciative eyes.
A momentary lull in the aquatic exercises was followed by the sudden appearance 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 to mind this explosion in the least; no one forbade it, or even looked surprised. Nursey went on hanging up towels, and Mrs. Bhaer laid out clean 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 the pillow 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 cases are changed to-morrow; and it gets up a glow after the boys’ baths; so I rather like it myself,” said Mrs. Bhaer, busy again among her dozen pairs of socks.
“What a very nice school this is!” observed Nat, in a burst of admiration.
“It’s an odd one,” laughed Mrs. Bhaer, “but you see we don’t believe in making children miserable by too many rules, and too much study. I forbade night-gown parties at first; but, bless you, it was of no use. I could no more keep those boys in their beds than so many jacks in the box. So I made an agreement with them: I was to allow a fifteen-minute pillow-fight every Saturday night; and they promised to go properly to bed every other night. I tried it, and it worked well. If they don’t keep their word, no frolic; if they do, I just turn the glasses round, put the lamps in safe places, and let them rampage as much as they like.”
“It’s a beautiful plan,” said Nat, feeling that he should like to join in the fray, but not venturing to propose it the first night. So he lay enjoying the spectacle, which certainly was a lively one.
Tommy Bangs led the assailing party, and Demi defended his own room with a dogged courage fine to see, collecting pillows behind him as fast as they were thrown, till the besiegers were out of ammunition, when they would charge upon him in a body, and recover their arms. A few slight accidents occurred, but nobody minded, and gave and took sounding thwacks with perfect good humor, while pillows flew like big snowflakes, till Mrs. Bhaer looked at her watch, and called out:
“Time is up, boys. Into bed, every man jack, or pay the forfeit!”
“What is the forfeit?” asked Nat, sitting up in his eagerness to know what happened to those wretches who disobeyed this most peculiar, but public-spirited school-ma’am.
“Lose their fun next time,” answered Mrs. Bhaer. “I give them five minutes to settle down, then put out the lights, and expect order. They are honorable lads, and they keep their word.”
That was evident, for the battle ended as abruptly as it began a parting shot or two, a final cheer, as Demi fired the seventh pillow at the retiring foe, a few challenges for next time, then order prevailed. And nothing but an occasional giggle or a suppressed whisper broke the quiet which followed the Saturday-night frolic, as Mother Bhaer kissed her new boy and left him to happy dreams of life at Plumfield.