“Please, ma’am, could I speak to you? It is something very important,” said Nat, popping his head in at the door of Mrs. Bhaer’s room.
It was the fifth head which had popped in during the last half-hour; but Mrs. Jo was used to it, so she looked up, and said, briskly,
“What is it, my lad?”
Nat came in, shut the door carefully behind him, and said in an eager, anxious tone,
“Dan has come.”
“Who is Dan?”
“He’s a boy I used to know when I fiddled round the streets. He sold papers, and he was kind to me, and I saw him the other day in town, and told him how nice it was here, and he’s come.”
“But, my dear boy, that is rather a sudden way to pay a visit.”
“Oh, it isn’t a visit; he wants to stay if you will let him!” said Nat innocently.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” began Mrs. Bhaer, rather startled by the coolness of the proposition.
“Why, I thought you liked to have poor boys come and live with you, and be kind to ’em as you were to me,” said Nat, looking surprised and alarmed.
“So I do, but I like to know something about them first. I have to choose them, because there are so many. I have not room for all. I wish I had.”
“I told him to come because I thought you’d like it, but if there isn’t room he can go away again,” said Nat, sorrowfully.
The boy’s confidence in her hospitality touched Mrs. Bhaer, and she could not find the heart to disappoint his hope, and spoil his kind little plan, so she said, “Tell me about this Dan.”
“I don’t know any thing, only he hasn’t got any folks, and he’s poor, and he was good to me, so I’d like to be good to him if I could.”
“Excellent reasons every one; but really, Nat, the house is full, and I don’t know where I could put him,” said Mrs. Bhaer, more and more inclined to prove herself the haven of refuge he seemed to think her.
“He could have my bed, and I could sleep in the barn. It isn’t cold now, and I don’t mind, I used to sleep anywhere with father,” said Nat, eagerly.
Something in his speech and face made Mrs. Jo put her hand on his shoulder, and say in her kindest tone:
“Bring in your friend, Nat; I think we must find room for him without giving him your place.”
Nat joyfully ran off, and soon returned followed by a most unprepossessing boy, who slouched in and stood looking about him, with a half bold, half sullen look, which made Mrs. Bhaer say to herself, after one glance,
“A bad specimen, I am afraid.”
“This is Dan,” said Nat, presenting him as if sure of his welcome.
“Nat tells me you would like to come and stay with us,” began Mrs. Jo, in a friendly tone.
“Yes,” was the gruff reply.
“Have you no friends to take care of you?”
“Say, ‘No, ma’am,’ ” whispered Nat.
“Shan’t neither,” muttered Dan.
“How old are you?”
“You look older. What can you do?”
“If you stay here we shall want you to do as the others do, work and study as well as play. Are you willing to agree to that?”
“Don’t mind trying.”
“Well, you can stay a few days, and we will see how we get on together. Take him out, Nat, and amuse him till Mr. Bhaer comes home, when we will settle about the matter,” said Mrs. Jo, finding it rather difficult to get on with this cool young person, who fixed his big black eyes on her with a hard, suspicious expression, sorrowfully unboyish.
“Come on, Nat,” he said, and slouched out again.
“Thank you, ma’am,” added Nat, as he followed him, feeling without quite understanding the difference in the welcome given to him and to his ungracious friend.
“The fellows are having a circus out in the barn; don’t you want to come and see it?” he asked, as they came down the wide steps on to the lawn.
“Are they big fellows?” said Dan.
“No; the big ones are gone fishing.”
“Fire away, then,” said Dan.
Nat led him to the great barn and introduced him to his set, who were disporting themselves among the half-empty lofts. A large circle was marked out with hay on the wide floor, and in the middle stood Demi with a long whip, while Tommy, mounted on the much-enduring Toby, pranced about the circle playing being a monkey.
“You must pay a pin apiece, or you can’t see the show,” said Stuffy, who stood by the wheelbarrow in which sat the band, consisting of a pocket-comb blown upon by Ned, and a toy drum beaten spasmodically by Rob.
“He’s company, so I’ll pay for both,” said Nat, handsomely, as he stuck two crooked pins in the dried mushroom which served as money-box.
With a nod to the company they seated themselves on a couple of boards, and the performance went on. After the monkey act, Ned gave them a fine specimen of his agility by jumping over an old chair, and running up and down ladders, sailor fashion. Then Demi danced a jig with a gravity beautiful to behold. Nat was called upon to wrestle with Stuffy, and speedily laid that stout youth upon the ground. After this, Tommy proudly advanced to turn a somersault, an accomplishment which he had acquired by painful perseverance, practising in private till every joint of his little frame was black and blue. His feats were received with great applause, and he was about to retire, flushed with pride and a rush of blood to the head, when a scornful voice in the audience was heard to say,
“Ho! that ain’t any thing!”
“Say that again, will you?” and Tommy bristled up like an angry turkey-cock.
“Do you want to fight?” said Dan, promptly descending from the barrel and doubling up his fists in a business-like manner.
“No, I don’t;” and the candid Thomas retired a step, rather taken aback by the proposition.
“Fighting isn’t allowed!” cried the others, much excited.
“You’re a nice lot,” sneered Dan.
“Come, if you don’t behave, you shan’t stay,” said Nat, firing up at that insult to his friends.
“I’d like to see him do better than I did, that’s all,” observed Tommy, with a swagger.
“Clear the way, then,” and without the slightest preparation Dan turned three somersaults one after the other and came up on his feet.
“You can’t beat that, Tom; you always hit your head and tumble flat,” said Nat, pleased at his friend’s success.
Before he could say any more the audience were electrified by three more somersaults backwards, and a short promenade on the hands, head down, feet up. This brought down the house, and Tommy joined in the admiring cries which greeted the accomplished gymnast as he righted himself, and looked at them with an air of calm superiority.
“Do you think I could learn to do it without its hurting me very much?” Tom meekly asked, as he rubbed the elbows which still smarted after the last attempt.
“What will you give me if I’ll teach you?” said Dan.
“My new jack-knife; it’s got five blades, and only one is broken.”
“Give it here, then.”
Tommy handed it over with an affectionate look at its smooth handle. Dan examined it carefully, then putting it into his pocket, walked off, saying with a wink,
“Keep it up till you learn, that’s all.”
A howl of wrath from Tommy was followed by a general uproar, which did not subside till Dan, finding himself in a minority, proposed that they should play stick-knife, and whichever won should have the treasure. Tommy agreed, and the game was played in a circle of excited faces, which all wore an expression of satisfaction, when Tommy won and secured the knife in the depth of his safest pocket.
“You come off with me, and I’ll show you round,” said Nat, feeling that he must have a little serious conversation with his friend in private.
What passed between them no one knew, but when they appeared again, Dan was more respectful to every one, though still gruff in his speech, and rough in his manner; and what else could be expected of the poor lad who had been knocking about the world all his short life with no one to teach him any better?
The boys had decided that they did not like him, and so they left him to Nat, who soon felt rather oppressed by the responsibility, but too kind-hearted to desert him.
Tommy, however, felt that in spite of the jack-knife transaction, there was a bond of sympathy between them, and longed to return to the interesting subject of somersaults. He soon found an opportunity, for Dan, seeing how much he admired him, grew more amiable, and by the end of the first week was quite intimate with the lively Tom.
Mr. Bhaer, when he heard the story and saw Dan, shook his head, but only said quietly,
“The experiment may cost us something, but we will try it.”
If Dan felt any gratitude for his protection, he did not show it, and took without thanks all that was give him. He was ignorant, but very quick to learn when he chose; had sharp eyes to watch what went on about him; a saucy tongue, rough manners, and a temper that was fierce and sullen by turns. He played with all his might, and played well at almost all the games. He was silent and gruff before grown people, and only now and then was thoroughly sociable among the lads. Few of them really liked him, but few could help admiring his courage and strength, for nothing daunted him, and he knocked tall Franz flat on one occasion with an ease that caused all the others to keep at a respectful distance from his fists. Mr. Bhaer watched him silently, and did his best to tame the “Wild Boy,” as they called him, but in private the worthy man shook his head, and said soberly, “I hope the experiment will turn out well, but I am a little afraid it may cost too much.”
Mrs. Bhaer lost her patience with him half a dozen times a day, yet never gave him up, and always insisted that there was something good in the lad, after all; for he was kinder to animals than to people, he liked to rove about in the woods, and, best of all, little Ted was fond of him. What the secret was no one could discover, but Baby took to him at once gabbled and crowed whenever he saw him preferred his strong back to ride on to any of the others and called him “My Danny” out of his own little head. Teddy was the only creature to whom Dan showed an affection, and this was only manifested when he thought no one else would see it; but mothers’ eyes are quick, and motherly hearts instinctively divine who love their babies. So Mrs. Jo soon saw and felt that there was a soft spot in rough Dan, and bided her time to touch and win him.
But an unexpected and decidedly alarming event upset all their plans, and banished Dan from Plumfield.
Tommy, Nat, and Demi began by patronizing Dan, because the other lads rather slighted him; but soon they each felt there was a certain fascination about the bad boy, and from looking down upon him they came to looking up, each for a different reason. Tommy admired his skill and courage; Nat was grateful for past kindness; and Demi regarded him as a sort of animated story book, for when he chose Dan could tell his adventures in a most interesting way. It pleased Dan to have the three favorites like him, and he exerted himself to be agreeable, which was the secret of his success.
The Bhaers were surprised, but hoped the lads would have a good influence over Dan, and waited with some anxiety, trusting that no harm would come of it.
Dan felt they did not quite trust him, and never showed them his best side, but took a wilful pleasure in trying their patience and thwarting their hopes as far as he dared.
Mr. Bhaer did not approve of fighting, and did not think it a proof of either manliness or courage for two lads to pommel one another for the amusement of the rest. All sorts of hardy games and exercises were encouraged, and the boys were expected to take hard knocks and tumbles without whining; but black eyes and bloody noses given for the fun of it were forbidden as a foolish and a brutal play.
Dan laughed at this rule, and told such exciting tales of his own valor, and the many frays that he had been in, that some of the lads were fired with a desire to have a regular good “mill.”
“Don’t tell, and I’ll show you how,” said Dan; and, getting half a dozen of the lads together behind the barn, he gave them a lesson in boxing, which quite satisfied the ardor of most of them. Emil, however, could not submit to be beaten by a fellow younger than himself, for Emil was past fourteen and a plucky fellow, so he challenged Dan to a fight. Dan accepted at once, and the others looked on with intense interest.
What little bird carried the news to head-quarters no one ever knew, but, in the very hottest of the fray, when Dan and Emil were fighting like a pair of young bulldogs, and the others with fierce, excited faces were cheering them on, Mr. Bhaer walked into the ring, plucked the combatants apart with a strong hand, and said, in the voice they seldom heard,
“I can’t allow this, boys! Stop it at once; and never let me see it again. I keep a school for boys, not for wild beasts. Look at each other and be ashamed of yourselves.”
“You let me go, and I’ll knock him down again,” shouted Dan, sparring away in spite of the grip on his collar.
“Come on, come on, I ain’t thrashed yet!” cried Emil, who had been down five times, but did not know when he was beaten.
“They are playing be gladdy what-you-call-’ems, like the Romans, Uncle Fritz,” called out Demi, whose eyes were bigger than ever with the excitement of this new pastime.
“They were a fine set of brutes; but we have learned something since then, I hope, and I cannot have you make my barn a Colosseum. Who proposed this?” asked Mr. Bhaer.
“Dan,” answered several voices.
“Don’t you know that it is forbidden?”
“Yes,” growled Dan, sullenly.
“Then why break the rule?”
“They’ll all be molly-coddles, if they don’t know how to fight.”
“Have you found Emil a molly-coddle? He doesn’t look much like one,” and Mr. Bhaer brought the two face to face. Dan had a black eye, and his jacket was torn to rags, but Emil’s face was covered with blood from a cut lip and a bruised nose, while a bump on his forehead was already as purple as a plum. In spite of his wounds however, he still glared upon his foe, and evidently panted to renew the fight.
“He’d make a first-rater if he was taught,” said Dan, unable to withhold the praise from the boy who made it necessary for him to do his best.
“He’ll be taught to fence and box by and by, and till then I think he will do very well without any lessons in mauling. Go and wash your faces; and remember, Dan, if you break any more of the rules again, you will be sent away. That was the bargain; do your part and we will do ours.”
The lads went off, and after a few more words to the spectators, Mr. Bhaer followed to bind up the wounds of the young gladiators. Emil went to bed sick, and Dan was an unpleasant spectacle for a week.
But the lawless lad had no thought of obeying, and soon transgressed again.
One Saturday afternoon as a party of the boys went out to play, Tommy said,
“Let’s go down to the river, and cut a lot of new fish-poles.”
“Take Toby to drag them back, and one of us can ride him down,” proposed Stuffy, who hated to walk.
“That means you, I suppose; well, hurry up, lazy-bones,” said Dan.
Away they went, and having got the poles were about to go home, when Demi unluckily said to Tommy, who was on Toby with a long rod in his hand,
“You look like the picture of the man in the bull-fight, only you haven’t got a red cloth, or pretty clothes on.”
“I’d like to see one; there’s old Buttercup in the big meadow, ride at her, Tom, and see her run,” proposed Dan, bent on mischief.
“No, you mustn’t,” began Demi, who was learning to distrust Dan’s propositions.
“Why not, little fuss-button?” demanded Dan.
“I don’t think Uncle Fritz would like it.”
“Did he ever say we must not have a bull-fight?”
“No, I don’t think he ever did,” admitted Demi.
“Then hold your tongue. Drive on, Tom, and here’s a red rag to flap at the old thing. I’ll help you to stir her up,” and over the wall went Dan, full of the new game, and the rest followed like a flock of sheep; even Demi, who sat upon the bars, and watched the fun with interest.