The old tree saw and heard a good many little scenes and confidences that summer, because it became the favorite retreat of all the children, and the willow seemed to enjoy it, for a pleasant welcome always met them, and the quiet hours spent in its arms did them all good. It had a great deal of company one Saturday afternoon, and some little bird reported what went on there.
First came Nan and Daisy with their small tubs and bits of soap, for now and then they were seized with a tidy fit, and washed up all their dolls’ clothes in the brook. Asia would not have them “slopping round” in her kitchen, and the bath-room was forbidden since Nan forgot to turn off the water till it overflowed and came gently dripping down through the ceiling. Daisy went systematically to work, washing first the white and then the colored things, rinsing them nicely, and hanging them to dry on a cord fastened from one barberry-bush to another, and pinning them up with a set of tiny clothes-pins Ned had turned for her. But Nan put all her little things to soak in the same tub, and then forgot them while she collected thistledown to stuff a pillow for Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, as one doll was named. This took some time, and when Mrs. Giddy-gaddy came to take out her clothes, deep green stains appeared on every thing, for she had forgotten the green silk lining of a certain cape, and its color had soaked nicely into the pink and blue gowns, the little chemises, and even the best ruffled petticoat.
“Oh me! what a mess!” sighed Nan.
“Lay them on the grass to bleach,” said Daisy, with an air of experience.
“So I will, and we can sit up in the nest and watch that they don’t blow away.”
The Queen of Babylon’s wardrobe was spread forth upon the bank, and, turning up their tubs to dry, the little washerwomen climbed into the nest, and fell to talking, as ladies are apt to do in the pauses of domestic labor.
“I’m going to have a feather-bed to go with my new pillow,” said Mrs. Giddy-gaddy, as she transferred the thistledown from her pocket to her handkerchief, losing about half in the process.
“I wouldn’t; Aunt Jo says feather-beds aren’t healthy. I never let my children sleep on any thing but a mattress,” returned Mrs. Shakespeare Smith, decidedly.
“I don’t care; my children are so strong they often sleep on the floor, and don’t mind it,” (which was quite true). “I can’t afford nine mattresses, and I like to make beds myself.”
“Won’t Tommy charge for the feathers?”
“May be he will, but I shan’t pay him, and he won’t care,” returned Mrs. G., taking a base advantage of the well-known good nature of T. Bangs.
“I think the pink will fade out of that dress sooner than the green mark will,” observed Mrs. S., looking down from her perch, and changing the subject, for she and her gossip differed on many points, and Mrs. Smith was a discreet lady.
“Never mind; I’m tired of dolls, and I guess I shall put them all away and attend to my farm; I like it rather better than playing house,” said Mrs. G., unconsciously expressing the desire of many older ladies, who cannot dispose of their families so easily however.
“But you mustn’t leave them; they will die without their mother,” cried the tender Mrs. Smith.
“Let ’em die then; I’m tired of fussing over babies, and I’m going to play with the boys; they need me to see to ’em,” returned the strong-minded lady.
Daisy knew nothing about women’s rights; she quietly took all she wanted, and no one denied her claim, because she did not undertake what she could not carry out, but unconsciously used the all-powerful right of her own influence to win from others any privilege for which she had proved her fitness. Nan attempted all sorts of things, undaunted by direful failures, and clamored fiercely to be allowed to do every thing that the boys did. They laughed at her, hustled her out of the way, and protested against her meddling with their affairs. But she would not be quenched and she would be heard, for her will was strong, and she had the spirit of a rampant reformer. Mrs. Bhaer sympathized with her, but tired to curb her frantic desire for entire liberty, showing her that she must wait a little, learn self-control, and be ready to use her freedom before she asked for it. Nan had meek moments when she agreed to this, and the influences at work upon her were gradually taking effect. She no longer declared that she would be engine-driver or a blacksmith, but turned her mind to farming, and found in it a vent for the energy bottled up in her active little body. It did not quite satisfy her, however; for her sage and sweet marjoram were dumb things, and could not thank her for her care. She wanted something human to love, work for, and protect, and was never happier than when the little boys brought their cut fingers, bumped heads, or bruised joints for her to “mend-up.” Seeing this, Mrs. Jo proposed that she should learn how to do it nicely, and Nursey had an apt pupil in bandaging, plastering, and fomenting. The boys began to call her “Dr. Giddy-gaddy,” and she liked it so well that Mrs. Jo one day said to the Professor
“Fritz, I see what we can do for that child. She wants something to live for even now, and will be one of the sharp, strong, discontented women if she does not have it. Don’t let us snub her restless little nature, but do our best to give her the work she likes, and by and by persuade her father to let her study medicine. She will make a capital doctor, for she has courage, strong nerves, a tender heart, and an intense love and pity for the weak and suffering.”
Mr. Bhaer smiled at first, but agreed to try, and gave Nan an herb-garden, teaching her the various healing properties of the plants she tended, and letting her try their virtues on the children in the little illnesses they had from time to time. She learned fast, remembered well, and showed a sense and interest most encouraging to her Professor, who did not shut his door in her face because she was a little woman.
She was thinking of this, as she sat in the willow that day, and when Daisy said in her gentle way, “I love to keep house, and mean to have a nice one for Demi when we grow up and live together.”
Nan replied with decision, “Well, I haven’t got any brother, and I don’t want any house to fuss over. I shall have an office, with lots of bottles and drawers and pestle things in it, and I shall drive round in a horse and chaise and cure sick people. That will be such fun.”
“Ugh! how can you bear the bad-smelling stuff and the nasty little powders and castor-oil and senna and hive syrup?” cried Daisy, with a shudder.
“I shan’t have to take any, so I don’t care. Besides, they make people well, and I like to cure folks. Didn’t my sage-tea make Mother Bhaer’s headache go away, and my hops stop Ned’s toothache in five hours? So now!”
“Shall you put leeches on people, and cut off legs and pull out teeth?” asked Daisy, quaking at the thought.
“Yes, I shall do every thing; I don’t care if the people are all smashed up, I shall mend them. My grandpa was a doctor, and I saw him sew a great cut in a man’s cheek, and I held the sponge, and wasn’t frightened a bit, and Grandpa said I was a brave girl.”
“How could you? I’m sorry for sick people, and I like to nurse them, but it makes my legs shake so I have to run away. I’m not a brave girl,” sighed Daisy.
“Well, you can be my nurse, and cuddle my patients when I have given them the physic and cut off their legs,” said Nan, whose practice was evidently to be of the heroic kind.
“Ship ahoy! Where are you, Nan?” called a voice from below.
“Here we are.”
“Ay, ay!” said the voice, and Emil appeared holding one hand in the other, with his face puckered up as if in pain.
“Oh, what’s the matter?” cried Daisy, anxiously.
“A confounded splinter in my thumb. Can’t get it out. Take a pick at it, will you, Nanny?”
“It’s in very deep, and I haven’t any needle,” said Nan, examining a tarry thumb with interest.
“Take a pin,” said Emil, in a hurry.
“No, it’s too big and hasn’t got a sharp point.”
Here Daisy, who had dived into her pocket, presented a neat little housewife with four needles in it.
“You are the Posy who always has what we want,” said Emil; and Nan resolved to have a needle-book in her own pocket henceforth, for just such cases as this were always occurring in her practice.
Daisy covered her eyes, but Nan probed and picked with a steady hand, while Emil gave directions not down in any medical work or record.
“Starboard now! Steady, boys, steady! Try another tack. Heave ho! there she is!”
“Suck it,” ordered the Doctor, surveying the splinter with an experienced eye.
“Too dirty,” responded the patient, shaking his bleeding hand.
“Wait; I’ll tie it up if you have got a handkerchief.”
“Haven’t; take one of those rags down there.”
“Gracious! no, indeed; they are doll’s clothes,” cried Daisy, indignantly.
“Take one of mine; I’d like to have you,” said Nan; and swinging himself down, Emil caught up the first “rag” he saw. It happened to be the frilled skirt; but Nan tore it up without a murmur; and when the royal petticoat was turned into a neat little bandage, she dismissed her patient with the command
“Keep it wet, and let it alone; then it will heal right up, and not be sore.”
“What do you charge?” asked the Commodore, laughing.
“Nothing; I keep a ‘spensary; that is a place where poor people are doctored free gratis for nothing,” explained Nan, with an air.
“Thank you, Doctor Giddy-gaddy. I’ll always call you in when I come to grief;” and Emil departed, but looked back to say – for one good turn deserves another – “Your duds are blowing away, Doctor.”
Forgiving the disrespectful word, “duds,” the ladies hastily descended, and, gathering up their wash, retired to the house to fire up the little stove, and go to ironing.
A passing breath of air shook the old willow, as if it laughed softly at the childish chatter which went on in the nest, and it had hardly composed itself when another pair of birds alighted for a confidential twitter.
“Now, I’ll tell you the secret,” began Tommy, who was “swellin’ wisibly” with the importance of his news.
“Tell away,” answered Nat, wishing he had brought his fiddle, it was so shady and quiet here.
“Well, we fellows were talking over the late interesting case of circumstantial evidence,” said Tommy, quoting at random from a speech Franz had made at the club, “and I proposed giving Dan something to make up for our suspecting him, to show our respect, and so on, you know something handsome and useful, that he could keep always and be proud of. What do you think we chose?”
“A butterfly-net; he wants one ever so much,” said Nat, looking a little disappointed, for he meant to get it himself.
“No, sir; it’s to be a microscope, a real swell one, that we see what-do-you-call-’ems in water with, and stars, and ant-eggs, and all sorts of games, you know. Won’t it be a jolly good present?” said Tommy, rather confusing microscopes and telescopes in his remarks.
“Tip-top! I’m so glad! Won’t it cost a heap, though?” cried Nat, feeling that his friend was beginning to be appreciated.
“Of course it will; but we are all going to give something. I headed the paper with my five dollars; for if it is done at all, it must be done handsome.”
“What! all of it? I never did see such a generous chap as you are;” and Nat beamed upon him with sincere admiration.
“Well, you see, I’ve been so bothered with my property, that I’m tired of it, and don’t mean to save up any more, but give it away as I go along, and then nobody will envy me, or want to steal it, and I shan’t be suspecting folks and worrying about my old cash,” replied Tommy, on whom the cares and anxieties of a millionaire weighed heavily.
“Will Mr. Bhaer let you do it?”
“He thought it was a first-rate plan, and said that some of the best men he knew preferred to do good with their money instead of laying it up to be squabbled over when they died.”
“Your father is rich; does he do that way?”
“I’m not sure; he gives me all I want; I know that much. I’m going to talk to him about it when I go home. Anyhow, I shall set him a good example;” and Tommy was so serious, that Nat did not dare to laugh, but said, respectfully-
“You will be able to do ever so much with your money, won’t you?”
“So Mr. Bhaer said, and he promised to advise me about useful ways of spending it. I’m going to begin with Dan; and next time I get a dollar or so, I shall do something for Dick, he’s such a good little chap, and only has a cent a week for pocket-money. He can’t earn much, you know; so I’m going to kind of see to him;” and good-hearted Tommy quite longed to begin.
“I think that’s a beautiful plan, and I’m not going to try to buy a fiddle any more; I’m going to get Dan his net all myself, and if there is any money left, I’ll do something to please poor Billy. He’s fond of me, and though he isn’t poor, he’d like some little thing from me, because I can make out what he wants better than the rest of you.” And Nat fell to wondering how much happiness could be got out of his precious three dollars.
“So I would. Now come and ask Mr. Bhaer if you can’t go in town with me on Monday afternoon, so you can get the net, while I get the microscope. Franz and Emil are going too, and we’ll have a jolly time larking round among the shops.”
The lads walked away arm-in-arm, discussing the new plans with droll importance, yet beginning already to feel the sweet satisfaction which comes to those who try, no matter how humbly, to be earthly providences to the poor and helpless, and gild their mite with the gold of charity before it is laid up where thieves cannot break through and steal.
“Come up and rest while we sort the leaves; it’s so cool and pleasant here,” said Demi, as he and Dan came sauntering home from a long walk in the woods.
“All right!” answered Dan, who was a boy of few words, and up they went.
“What makes birch leaves shake so much more than the others?” asked inquiring Demi, who was always sure of an answer from Dan.
“They are hung differently. Don’t you see the stem where it joins the leaf is sort of pinched one way, and where it joins the twig, it is pinched another. This makes it waggle with the least bit of wind, but the elm leaves hang straight, and keep stiller.”
“How curious! will this do so?” and Demi held up a sprig of acacia, which he had broken from a little tree on the lawn, because it was so pretty.
“No; that belongs to the sort that shuts up when you touch it. Draw your finger down the middle of the stem, and see if the leaves don’t curl up,” said Dan, who was examining a bit of mica.
Demi tried it, and presently the little leaves did fold together, till the spray showed a single instead of a double line of leaves.
“I like that; tell me about the others. What do these do?” asked Demi, taking up a new branch.
“Feed silk-worms; they live on mulberry leaves, till they begin to spin themselves up. I was in a silk-factory once, and there were rooms full of shelves all covered with leaves, and worms eating them so fast that it made a rustle. Sometimes they eat so much they die. Tell that to Stuffy,” and Dan laughed, as he took up another bit of rock with a lichen on it.
“I know one thing about this mullein leaf: the fairies use them for blankets,” said Demi, who had not quite given up his faith in the existence of the little folk in green.
“If I had a microscope, I’d show you something prettier than fairies,” said Dan, wondering if he should ever own that coveted treasure. “I knew an old woman who used mullein leaves for a night-cap because she had face-ache. She sewed them together, and wore it all the time.”
“How funny! was she your grandmother?”
“Never had any. She was a queer old woman, and lived alone in a little tumble-down house with nineteen cats. Folks called her a witch, but she wasn’t, though she looked like an old rag-bag. She was real kind to me when I lived in that place, and used to let me get warm at her fire when the folks at the poorhouse were hard on me.”
“Did you live in a poorhouse?”
“A little while. Never mind that I didn’t mean to speak of it;” and Dan stopped short in his unusual fit of communicativeness.
“Tell about the cats, please,” said Demi, feeling that he had asked an unpleasant question, and sorry for it.
“Nothing to tell; only she had a lot of ’em, and kept ’em in a barrel nights; and I used to go and tip over the barrel sometimes, and let ’em out all over the house, and then she’d scold, and chase ’em and put ’em in again, spitting and yowling like fury.”
“Was she good to them?” asked Demi, with a hearty child’s laugh, pleasant to hear.
“Guess she was. Poor old soul! she took in all the lost and sick cats in the town; and when anybody wanted one they went to Marm Webber, and she let ’em pick any kind and color they wanted, and only asked ninepence, she was glad to have her pussies get a good home.”