“Will you go?” and Mr. Bhaer looked at the lads, who were greatly touched by Mrs. Brooke’s kind words and wishes.
“Yes,” they answered, like one boy; and an hour later they went away with Franz to bear their part in John Brooke’s simple funeral.
The little house looked as quiet, sunny, and home-like as when Meg entered it as a bride, ten years ago, only then it was early summer, and rose blossomed everywhere; now it was early autumn, and dead leaves rustled softly down, leaving the branches bare. The bride was a widow now; but the same beautiful serenity shone in her face, and the sweet resignation of a truly pious soul made her presence a consolation to those who came to comfort her.
“O Meg! how can you bear it so?” whispered Jo, as she met them at the door with a smile of welcome, and no change in her gentle manner, except more gentleness.
“Dear Jo, the love that has blest me for ten happy years supports me still. It could not die, and John is more my own than ever,” whispered Meg; and in her eyes the tender trust was so beautiful and bright, that Jo believed her, and thanked God for the immortality of love like hers.
They were all there father and mother, Uncle Teddy, and Aunt Amy, old Mr. Laurence, white-haired and feeble now, Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer, with their flock, and many friends, come to do honor to the dead. One would have said that modest John Brooke, in his busy, quiet, humble life, had had little time to make friends; but now they seemed to start up everywhere, old and young, rich and poor, high and low; for all unconsciously his influence had made itself widely felt, his virtues were remembered, and his hidden charities rose up to bless him. The group about his coffin was a far more eloquent eulogy than any Mr. March could utter. There were the rich men whom he had served faithfully for years; the poor old women whom he cherished with his little store, in memory of his mother; the wife to whom he had given such happiness that death could not mar it utterly; the brothers and sisters in whose hearts he had made a place for ever; the little son and daughter, who already felt the loss of his strong arm and tender voice; the young children, sobbing for their kindest playmate, and the tall lads, watching with softened faces a scene which they never could forget. A very simple service, and very short; for the fatherly voice that had faltered in the marriage-sacrament now failed entirely as Mr. March endeavored to pay his tribute of reverence and love to the son whom he most honored. Nothing but the soft coo of Baby Josy’s voice up-stairs broke the long hush that followed the last Amen, till, at a sign from Mr. Bhaer, the well-trained boyish voices broke out in a hymn, so full of lofty cheer, that one by one all joined in it, singing with full hearts, and finding their troubled spirits lifted into peace on the wings of that brave, sweet psalm.
As Meg listened, she felt that she had done well; for not only did the moment comfort her with the assurance that John’s last lullaby was sung by the young voices he loved so well, but in the faces of the boys she saw that they had caught a glimpse of the beauty of virtue in its most impressive form, and that the memory of the good man lying dead before them would live long and helpfully in their remembrance. Daisy’s head lay in her lap, and Demi held her hand, looking often at her, with eyes so like his father’s, and a little gesture that seemed to say, “Don’t be troubled, mother; I am here;” and all about her were friends to lean upon and love; so patient, pious Meg put by her heavy grief, feeling that her best help would be to live for others, as her John had done.
That evening, as the Plumfield boys sat on the steps, as usual, in the mild September moonlight, they naturally fell to talking of the event of the day.
Emil began by breaking out, in his impetuous way, “Uncle Fritz is the wisest, and Uncle Laurie the jolliest, but Uncle John was the best; and I’d rather be like him than any man I ever saw.”
“So would I. Did you hear what those gentlemen said to Grandpa to-day? I would like to have that said of me when I was dead;” and Franz felt with regret that he had not appreciated Uncle John enough.
“What did they say?” asked Jack, who had been much impressed by the scenes of the day.
“Why, one of the partners of Mr. Laurence, where Uncle John has been ever so long, was saying that he was conscientious almost to a fault as a business man, and above reproach in all things. Another gentleman said no money could repay the fidelity and honesty with which Uncle John had served him, and then Grandpa told them the best of all. Uncle John once had a place in the office of a man who cheated, and when this man wanted uncle to help him do it, uncle wouldn’t, though he was offered a big salary. The man was angry and said, ‘You will never get on in business with such strict principles;’ and uncle answered back, ‘I never will try to get on without them,’ and left the place for a much harder and poorer one.”
“Good!” cried several of the boys warmly, for they were in the mood to understand and value the little story as never before.
“He wasn’t rich, was he?” asked Jack.
“He never did any thing to make a stir in the world, did he?”
“He was only good?”
“That’s all;” and Franz found himself wishing that Uncle John had done something to boast of, for it was evident that Jack was disappointed by his replies.
“Only good. That is all and every thing,” said Mr. Bhaer, who had overheard the last few words, and guessed what was going on the minds of the lads.
“Let me tell you a little about John Brooke, and you will see why men honor him, and why he was satisfied to be good rather than rich or famous. He simply did his duty in all things, and did it so cheerfully, so faithfully, that it kept him patient and brave, and happy through poverty and loneliness and years of hard work. He was a good son, and gave up his own plans to stay and live with his mother while she needed him. He was a good friend, and taught Laurie much beside his Greek and Latin, did it unconsciously, perhaps, by showing him an example of an upright man. He was a faithful servant, and made himself so valuable to those who employed him that they will find it hard to fill his place. He was a good husband and father, so tender, wise, and thoughtful, that Laurie and I learned much of him, and only knew how well he loved his family, when we discovered all he had done for them, unsuspected and unassisted.”
Mr. Bhaer stopped a minute, and the boys sat like statues in the moonlight until he went on again, in a subdued, but earnest voice: “As he lay dying, I said to him, ‘Have no care for Meg and the little ones; I will see that they never want.’ Then he smiled and pressed my hand, and answered, in his cheerful way, ‘No need of that; I have cared for them.’ And so he had, for when we looked among his papers, all was in order, not a debt remained; and safely put away was enough to keep Meg comfortable and independent. Then we knew why he had lived so plainly, denied himself so many pleasures, except that of charity, and worked so hard that I fear he shortened his good life. He never asked help for himself, though often for others, but bore his own burden and worked out his own task bravely and quietly. No one can say a word of complaint against him, so just and generous and kind was he; and now, when he is gone, all find so much to love and praise and honor, that I am proud to have been his friend, and would rather leave my children the legacy he leaves his than the largest fortune ever made. Yes! Simple, generous goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and is the only riches we can take out of this world with us. Remember that, my boys; and if you want to earn respect and confidence and love follow in the footsteps of John Brooke.”
When Demi returned to school, after some weeks at home, he seemed to have recovered from his loss with the blessed elasticity of childhood, and so he had in a measure; but he did not forget, for his was a nature into which things sank deeply, to be pondered over, and absorbed into the soil where the small virtues were growing fast. He played and studied, worked and sang, just as before, and few suspected any change; but there was one and Aunt Jo saw it for she watched over the boy with her whole heart, trying to fill John’s place in her poor way. He seldom spoke of his loss, but Aunt Jo often heard a stifled sobbing in the little bed at night; and when she went to comfort him, all his cry was, “I want my father! oh, I want my father!” for the tie between the two had been a very tender one, and the child’s heart bled when it was broken. But time was kind to him, and slowly he came to feel that father was not lost, only invisible for a while, and sure to be found again, well and strong and fond as ever, even though his little son should see the purple asters blossom on his grave many, many times before they met. To this belief Demi held fast, and in it found both help and comfort, because it led him unconsciously through a tender longing for the father whom he had seen to a childlike trust in the Father whom he had not seen. Both were in heaven, and he prayed to both, trying to be good for love of them.
The outward change corresponded to the inward, for in those few weeks Demi seemed to have grown tall, and began to drop his childish plays, not as if ashamed of them, as some boys do, but as if he had outgrown them, and wanted something manlier. He took to the hated arithmetic, and held on so steadily that his uncle was charmed, though he could not understand the whim, until Demi said,
“I am going to be a bookkeeper when I grow up, like papa, and I must know about figures and things, else I can’t have nice, neat ledgers like his.”
At another time he came to his aunt with a very serious face, and said
“What can a small boy do to earn money?”
“Why do you ask, my deary?”
“My father told me to take care of mother and the little girls, and I want to, but I don’t know how to begin.”
“He did not mean now, Demi, but by and by, when you are large.”
“But I wish to begin now, if I can, because I think I ought to make some money to buy things for the family. I am ten, and other boys no bigger than I earn pennies sometimes.”
“Well, then, suppose you rake up all the dead leaves and cover the strawberry bed. I’ll pay you a dollar for the job,” said Aunt Jo.
“Isn’t that a great deal? I could do it in one day. You must be fair, and no pay too much, because I want to truly earn it.”
“My little John, I will be fair, and not pay a penny too much. Don’t work too hard; and when that is done I will have something else for you to do,” said Mrs. Jo, much touched by his desire to help, and his sense of justice, so like his scrupulous father.
When the leaves were done, many barrowloads of chips were wheeled from the wood to the shed, and another dollar earned. Then Demi helped cover the schoolbooks, working in the evenings under Franz’s direction, tugging patiently away at each book, letting no one help, and receiving his wages with such satisfaction that the dingy bills became quite glorified in his sight.
“Now, I have a dollar for each of them, and I should like to take my money to mother all myself, so she can see that I have minded my father.”
So Demi made a duteous pilgrimage to his mother, who received his little earnings as a treasure of great worth, and would have kept it untouched, if Demi had not begged her to buy some useful thing for herself and the women-children, whom he felt were left to his care.
This made him very happy, and, though he often forgot his responsibilities for a time, the desire to help was still there, strengthening with his years. He always uttered the words “my father” with an air of gentle pride, and often said, as if he claimed a title full of honor, “Don’t call me Demi any more. I am John Brooke now.” So, strengthened by a purpose and a hope, the little lad of ten bravely began the world, and entered into his inheritance, the memory of a wise and tender father, the legacy of an honest name.