Mrs. Bhaer was right; peace was only a temporary lull, a storm was brewing, and two days after Bess left, a moral earthquake shook Plumfield to its centre.
Tommy’s hens were at the bottom of the trouble, for if they had not persisted in laying so many eggs, he could not have sold them and made such sums. Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes. Tommy certainly could not, for he spent his income so recklessly, that Mr. Bhaer was obliged to insist on a savings-bank, and presented him with a private one an imposing tin edifice, with the name over the door, and a tall chimney, down which the pennies were to go, there to rattle temptingly till leave was given to open a sort of trap-door in the floor.
The house increased in weight so rapidly, that Tommy soon became satisfied with his investment, and planned to buy unheard-of treasures with his capital. He kept account of the sums deposited, and was promised that he might break the bank as soon as he had five dollars, on condition that he spent the money wisely. Only one dollar was needed, and the day Mrs. Jo paid him for four dozen eggs, he was so delighted, that he raced off to the barn to display the bright quarters to Nat, who was also laying by money for the long-desired violin.
“I wish I had ’em to put with my three dollars, then I’d soon get enough to buy my fiddle,” he said, looking wistfully at the money.
“P’raps I’ll lend you some. I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do with mine,” said Tommy, tossing up his quarters and catching them as they fell.
“Hi! boys! come down to the brook and see what a jolly great snake Dan’s got!” called a voice from behind the barn.
“Come on,” said Tommy; and, laying his money inside the old winnowing machine, away he ran, followed by Nat.
The snake was very interesting, and then a long chase after a lame crow, and its capture, so absorbed Tommy’s mind and time, that he never thought of his money till he was safely in bed that night.
“Never mind, no one but Nat knows where it is,” said the easy-going lad, and fell asleep untroubled by any anxiety about his property.
Next morning, just as the boys assembled for school, Tommy rushed into the room breathlessly, demanding,
“I say, who has got my dollar?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Franz.
Tommy explained, and Nat corroborated his statement.
Every one else declared they knew nothing about it, and began to look suspiciously at Nat, who got more and more alarmed and confused with each denial.
“Somebody must have taken it,” said Franz, as Tommy shook his fist at the whole party, and wrathfully declared that-
“By thunder turtles! if I get hold of the thief, I’ll give him what he won’t forget in a hurry.”
“Keep cool, Tom; we shall find him out; thieves always come to grief,” said Dan, as one who knew something of the matter.
“May be some tramp slept in the barn and took it,” suggested Ned.
“No, Silas don’t allow that; besides, a tramp wouldn’t go looking in that old machine for money,” said Emil, with scorn.
“Wasn’t it Silas himself?” said Jack.
“Well, I like that! Old Si is as honest as daylight. You wouldn’t catch him touching a penny of ours,” said Tommy, handsomely defending his chief admirer from suspicion.
“Whoever it was had better tell, and not wait to be found out,” said Demi, looking as if an awful misfortune had befallen the family.
“I know you think it’s me,” broke out Nat, red and excited.
“You are the only one who knew where it was,” said Franz.
“I can’t help it I didn’t take it. I tell you I didn’t I didn’t!” cried Nat, in a desperate sort of way.
“Gently, gently, my son! What is all this noise about?” and Mr. Bhaer walked in among them.
Tommy repeated the story of his loss, and, as he listened, Mr. Bhaer’s face grew graver and graver; for, with all their faults and follies, the lads till now had been honest.
“Take your seats,” he said; and, when all were in their places, he added slowly, as his eye went from face to face with a grieved look, that was harder to bear than a storm of words,
“Now, boys, I shall ask each one of you a single question, and I want an honest answer. I am not going to try to frighten, bribe, or surprise the truth out of you, for every one of you have got a conscience, and know what it is for. Now is the time to undo the wrong done to Tommy, and set yourselves right before us all. I can forgive the yielding to sudden temptation much easier than I can deceit. Don’t add a lie to the theft, but confess frankly, and we will all try to help you make us forget and forgive.”
He paused a moment, and one might have heard a pin drop, the room was so still; then slowly and impressively he put the question to each one, receiving the same answer in varying tones from all. Every face was flushed and excited, so that Mr. Bhaer could not take color as a witness, and some of the little boys were so frightened that they stammered over the two short words as if guilty, though it was evident that they could not be. When he came to Nat, his voice softened, for the poor lad looked so wretched, Mr. Bhaer felt for him. He believed him to be the culprit, and hoped to save the boy from another lie, by winning him to tell the truth without fear.
“Now, my son, give me an honest answer. Did you take the money?”
“No, sir!” and Nat looked up at him imploringly.
As the words fell from his trembling lips, somebody hissed.
“Stop that!” cried Mr. Bhaer, with a sharp rap on his desk, as he looked sternly toward the corner whence the sound came.
Ned, Jack, and Emil sat there, and the first two looked ashamed of themselves, but Emil called out,
“It wasn’t me, uncle! I’d be ashamed to hit a fellow when he is down.”
“Good for you!” cried Tommy, who was in a sad state of affliction at the trouble his unlucky dollar had made.
“Silence!” commanded Mr. Bhaer; and when it came, he said soberly,
“I am very sorry, Nat, but evidences are against you, and your old fault makes us more ready to doubt you than we should be if we could trust you as we do some of the boys, who never fib. But mind, my child, I do not charge you with this theft; I shall not punish you for it till I am perfectly sure, nor ask any thing more about it. I shall leave it for you to settle with your own conscience. If you are guilty, come to me at any hour of the day or night and confess it, and I will forgive and help you to amend. If you are innocent, the truth will appear sooner or later, and the instant it does, I will be the first to beg your pardon for doubting you, and will so gladly do my best to clear your character before us all.”
“I didn’t! I didn’t!” sobbed Nat, with his head down upon his arms, for he could not bear the look of distrust and dislike which he read in the many eyes fixed on him.
“I hope not.” Mr. Bhaer paused a minute, as if to give the culprit, whoever he might be, one more chance. Nobody spoke, however, and only sniffs of sympathy from some of the little fellows broke the silence. Mr. Bhaer shook his head, and added, regretfully,
“There is nothing more to be done, then, and I have but one thing to say: I shall not speak of this again, and I wish you all to follow my example. I cannot expect you to feel as kindly toward any one whom you suspect as before this happened, but I do expect and desire that you will not torment the suspected person in any way, he will have a hard enough time without that. Now go to your lessons.”
“Father Bhaer let Nat off too easy,” muttered Ned to Emil, as they got out their books.
“Hold your tongue,” growled Emil, who felt that this event was a blot upon the family honor.
Many of the boys agreed with Ned, but Mr. Bhaer was right, nevertheless; and Nat would have been wiser to confess on the spot and have the trouble over, for even the hardest whipping he ever received from his father was far easier to bear than the cold looks, the avoidance, and general suspicion that met him on all sides. If ever a boy was sent to Coventry and kept there, it was poor Nat; and he suffered a week of slow torture, though not a hand was raised against him, and hardly a word said.
That was the worst of it; if they would only have talked it out, or even have thrashed him all round, he could have stood it better than the silent distrust that made very face so terrible to meet. Even Mrs. Bhaer’s showed traces of it, though her manner was nearly as kind as ever; but the sorrowful anxious look in Father Bhaer’s eyes cut Nat to the heart, for he loved his teacher dearly, and knew that he had disappointed all his hopes by this double sin.
Only one person in the house entirely believed in him, and stood up for him stoutly against all the rest. This was Daisy. She could not explain why she trusted him against all appearances, she only felt that she could not doubt him, and her warm sympathy made her strong to take his part. She would not hear a word against him from any one, and actually slapped her beloved Demi when he tried to convince her that it must have been Nat, because no one else knew where the money was.
“Maybe the hens ate it; they are greedy old things,” she said; and when Demi laughed, she lost her temper, slapped the amazed boy, and then burst out crying and ran away, still declaring, “He didn’t! he didn’t! he didn’t!”
Neither aunt nor uncle tried to shake the child’s faith in her friend, but only hoped her innocent instinct might prove sure, and loved her all the better for it. Nat often said, after it was over, that he couldn’t have stood it, if it had not been for Daisy. When the others shunned him, she clung to him closer than ever, and turned her back on the rest. She did not sit on the stairs now when he solaced himself with the old fiddle, but went in and sat beside him, listening with a face so full of confidence and affection, that Nat forgot disgrace for a time, and was happy. She asked him to help her with her lessons, she cooked him marvelous messes in her kitchen, which he ate manfully, no matter what they were, for gratitude gave a sweet flavor to the most distasteful. She proposed impossible games of cricket and ball, when she found that he shrank from joining the other boys. She put little nosegays from her garden on his desk, and tried in every way to show that she was not a fair-weather friend, but faithful through evil as well as good repute. Nan soon followed her example, in kindness at least; curbed her sharp tongue, and kept her scornful little nose from any demonstration of doubt or dislike, which was good of Madame Giddy-gaddy, for she firmly believed that Nat took the money.
Most of the boys let him severely alone, but Dan, though he said he despised him for being a coward, watched over him with a grim sort of protection, and promptly cuffed any lad who dared to molest his mate or make him afraid. His idea of friendship was as high as Daisy’s, and, in his own rough way, he lived up to it as loyally.
Sitting by the brook one afternoon, absorbed in the study of the domestic habits of water-spiders, he overheard a bit of conversation on the other side of the wall. Ned, who was intensely inquisitive, had been on tenterhooks to know certainly who was the culprit; for of late one or two of the boys had begun to think that they were wrong, Nat was so steadfast in his denials, and so meek in his endurance of their neglect. This doubt had teased Ned past bearing, and he had several times privately beset Nat with questions, regardless of Mr. Bhaer’s express command. Finding Nat reading alone on the shady side of the wall, Ned could not resist stopping for a nibble at the forbidden subject. He had worried Nat for some ten minutes before Dan arrived, and the first words the spider-student heard were these, in Nat’s patient, pleading voice,
“Don’t, Ned! oh, don’t! I can’t tell you because I don’t know, and it’s mean of you to keep nagging at me on the sly, when Father Bhaer told you not to plague me. You wouldn’t dare to if Dan was round.”
“I ain’t afraid of Dan; he’s nothing but an old bully. Don’t believe but what he took Tom’s money, and you know it, and won’t tell. Come, now!”
“He didn’t, but, if he did, I would stand up for him, he has always been so good to me,” said Nat, so earnestly that Dan forgot his spiders, and rose quickly to thank him, but Ned’s next words arrested him.
“I know Dan did it, and gave the money to you. Shouldn’t wonder if he got his living picking pockets before he came here, for nobody knows any thing about him but you,” said Ned, not believing his own words, but hoping to get the truth out of Nat by making him angry.
He succeeded in a part of his ungenerous wish, for Nat cried out, fiercely,
“If you say that again I’ll go and tell Mr. Bhaer all about it. I don’t want to tell tales, but, by George! I will, if you don’t let Dan alone.”
“Then you’ll be a sneak, as well as a liar and a thief,” began Ned, with a jeer, for Nat had borne insult to himself so meekly, the other did not believe he would dare to face the master just to stand up for Dan.
What he might have added I cannot tell, for the words were hardly out of his mouth when a long arm from behind took him by the collar, and, jerking him over the wall in a most promiscuous way, landed him with a splash in the middle of the brook.
“Say that again and I’ll duck you till you can’t see!” cried Dan, looking like a modern Colossus of Rhodes as he stood, with a foot on either side of the narrow stream, glaring down at the discomfited youth in the water.
“I was only in fun,” said Ned.
“You are a sneak yourself to badger Nat round the corner. Let me catch you at it again, and I’ll souse you in the river next time. Get up, and clear out!” thundered Dan, in a rage.
Ned fled, dripping, and his impromptu sitz-bath evidently did him good, for he was very respectful to both the boys after that, and seemed to have left his curiosity in the brook. As he vanished Dan jumped over the wall, and found Nat lying, as if quite worn out and bowed down with his troubles.
“He won’t pester you again, I guess. If he does, just tell me, and I’ll see to him,” said Dan, trying to cool down.
“I don’t mind what he says about me so much, I’ve got used to it,” answered Nat sadly; “but I hate to have him pitch into you.”
“How do you know he isn’t right?” asked Dan, turning his face away.
“What, about the money?” cried Nat, looking up with a startled air.
“But I don’t believe it! You don’t care for money; all you want is your old bugs and things,” and Nat laughed, incredulously.
“I want a butterfly net as much as you want a fiddle; why shouldn’t I steal the money for it as much as you?” said Dan, still turning away, and busily punching holes in the turf with his stick.
“I don’t think you would. You like to fight and knock folks round sometimes, but you don’t lie, and I don’t believe you’d steal,” and Nat shook his head decidedly.
“I’ve done both. I used to fib like fury; it’s too much trouble now; and I stole things to eat out of gardens when I ran away from Page, so you see I am a bad lot,” said Dan, speaking in the rough, reckless way which he had been learning to drop lately.
“O Dan! don’t say it’s you! I’d rather have it any of the other boys,” cried Nat, in such a distressed tone that Dan looked pleased, and showed that he did, by turning round with a queer expression in his face, though he only answered,
“I won’t say any thing about it. But don’t you fret, and we’ll pull through somehow, see if we don’t.”
Something in his face and manner gave Nat a new idea; and he said, pressing his hands together, in the eagerness of his appeal,
“I think you know who did it. If you do, beg him to tell, Dan. It’s so hard to have ’em all hate me for nothing. I don’t think I can bear it much longer. If I had any place to go to, I’d run away, though I love Plumfield dearly; but I’m not brave and big like you, so I must stay and wait till some one shows them that I haven’t lied.”
As he spoke, Nat looked so broken and despairing, that Dan could not bear it, and, muttered huskily,
“You won’t wait long,” and he walked rapidly away, and was seen no more for hours.
“What is the matter with Dan?” asked the boys of one another several times during the Sunday that followed a week which seemed as if it would never end. Dan was often moody, but that day he was so sober and silent that no one could get any thing out of him. When they walked he strayed away from the rest, and came home late. He took no part in the evening conversation, but sat in the shadow, so busy with his own thoughts that he scarcely seemed to hear what was going on. When Mrs. Jo showed him an unusually good report in the Conscience Book, he looked at it without a smile, and said, wistfully,
“You think I am getting on, don’t you?”
“Excellently, Dan! and I am so pleased, because I always thought you only needed a little help to make you a boy to be proud of.”
He looked up at her with a strange expression in his black eyes an expression of mingled pride and love and sorrow which she could not understand then but remembered afterward.
“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, but I do try,” he said, shutting the book with no sign of pleasure in the page that he usually liked so much to read over and talk about.
“Are you sick, dear?” asked Mrs. Jo, with her hand on his shoulder.
“My foot aches a little; I guess I’ll go to bed. Good-night, mother,” he added, and held the hand against his cheek a minute, then went away looking as if he had said good-bye to something dear.
“Poor Dan! he takes Nat’s disgrace to heart sadly. He is a strange boy; I wonder if I ever shall understand him thoroughly?” said Mrs. Jo to herself, as she thought over Dan’s late improvement with real satisfaction, yet felt that there was more in the lad than she had at first suspected.
One of things which cut Nat most deeply was an act of Tommy’s, for after his loss Tommy had said to him, kindly, but firmly,
“I don’t wish to hurt you, Nat, but you see I can’t afford to lose my money, so I guess we won’t be partners any longer;” and with that Tommy rubbed out the sign, “T. Bangs & Co.”
Nat had been very proud of the “Co.,” and had hunted eggs industriously, kept his accounts all straight, and had added a good sum to his income from the sale of his share of stock in trade.
“O Tom! must you?” he said, feeling that his good name was gone for ever in the business world if this was done.
“I must,” returned Tommy, firmly. “Emil says that when one man ‘bezzles (believe that’s the word it means to take money and cut away with it) the property of a firm, the other one sues him, or pitches into him somehow, and won’t have any thing more to do with him. Now you have ‘bezzled my property; I shan’t sue you, and I shan’t pitch into you, but I must dissolve the partnership, because I can’t trust you, and I don’t wish to fail.”
“I can’t make you believe me, and you won’t take my money, though I’d be thankful to give all my dollars if you’d only say you don’t think I took your money. Do let me hunt for you, I won’t ask any wages, but do it for nothing. I know all the places, and I like it,” pleaded Nat.
But Tommy shook his head, and his jolly round face looked suspicious and hard as he said, shortly, “Can’t do it; wish you didn’t know the places. Mind you don’t go hunting on the sly, and speculate in my eggs.”
Poor Nat was so hurt that he could not get over it. He felt that he had lost not only his partner and patron, but that he was bankrupt in honor, and an outlaw from the business community. No one trusted his word, written or spoken, in spite of his efforts to redeem the past falsehood; the sign was down, the firm broken up, and he a ruined man. The barn, which was the boys’ Wall Street, knew him no more. Cockletop and her sisters cackled for him in vain, and really seemed to take his misfortune to heart, for eggs were fewer, and some of the biddies retired in disgust to new nests, which Tommy could not find.