Louisa May Alcott
Part 6 out of 6
Of all the stories in the book this was the last one would have
supposed Dan would like best, and even Mrs Jo was surprised at his
perceiving the moral of the tale through the delicate imagery and
romantic language by which it was illustrated. But as she looked and
listened she remembered the streak of sentiment and refinement which
lay concealed in Dan like the gold vein in a rock, making him quick
to feel and to enjoy fine colour in a flower, grace in an animal,
sweetness in women, heroism in men, and all the tender ties that bind
heart to heart; though he was slow to show it, having no words to
express the tastes and instincts which he inherited from his mother.
Suffering of soul and body had tamed his stronger passions, and the
atmosphere of love and pity now surrounding him purified and warmed
his heart till it began to hunger for the food neglected or denied so
long. This was plainly written in his too expressive face, as,
fancying it unseen, he let it tell the longing after beauty, peace,
and happiness embodied for him in the innocent fair girl before him.
The conviction of this sad yet natural fact came to Mrs Jo with a
pang, for she felt how utterly hopeless such a longing was; since
light and darkness were not farther apart than snow-white Bess and
sin-stained Dan. No dream of such a thing disturbed the young girl,
as her entire unconsciousness plainly showed. But how long would it
be before the eloquent eyes betrayed the truth? And then what
disappointment for Dan, what dismay for Bess, who was as cool and
high and pure as her own marbles, and shunned all thought of love
with maidenly reserve.
'How hard everything is made for my poor boy! How can I spoil his
little dream, and take away the spirit of good he is beginning to
love and long for? When my own dear lads are safely settled I'll
never try another, for these things are heart-breaking, and I can't
manage any more,' thought Mrs Jo, as she put the lining into Teddy's
coat-sleeve upside down, so perplexed and grieved was she at this new
The story was soon done, and as Bess shook back her hair, Dan asked
as eagerly as a boy:
'Don't you like it?'
'Yes, it's very pretty, and I see the meaning of it; but Undine was
always my favourite.'
'Of course, that's like you--lilies and pearls and souls and pure
water. Sintram used to be mine; but I took a fancy to this when I
was--ahem--rather down on my luck one time, and it did me good, it
was so cheerful and sort of spiritual in its meaning, you know.'
Bess opened her blue eyes in wonder at this fancy of Dan's for
anything 'spiritual'; but she only nodded, saying: 'Some of the
little songs are sweet and might be set to music.'
Dan laughed; 'I used to sing the last one to a tune of my own
sometimes at sunset:
'"Listening to celestial lays,
Bending thy unclouded gaze
On the pure and living light,
Thou art blest, Aslauga's Knight!"
'And I was,' he added, under his breath, as he glanced towards the
sunshine dancing on the wall.
'This one suits you better now'; and glad to please him by her
interest, Bess read in her soft voice:
'"Healfast, healfast, ye hero wounds;
O knight, be quickly strong!
For fame and life,
Oh, tarry not too long!"'
'I'm no hero, never can be, and "fame and life" can't do much for me.
Never mind, read me that paper, please. This knock on the head has
made a regular fool of me.'
Dan's voice was gentle; but the light was gone out of his face now,
and he moved restlessly as if the silken pillows were full of thorns.
Seeing that his mood had changed, Bess quietly put down the book,
took up the paper, and glanced along the columns for something to
'You don't care for the money market, I know, nor musical news.
Here's a murder; you used to like those; shall I read it? One man
Only a word, but it gave Mrs Jo a thrill, and for a moment she dared
not glance at the tell-tale mirror. When she did Dan lay motionless
with one hand over his eyes, and Bess was happily reading the art
news to ears that never heard a word. Feeling like a thief who has
stolen something very precious, Mrs Jo slipped away to her study, and
before long Bess followed to report that Dan was fast asleep.
Sending her home, with the firm resolve to keep her there as much as
possible, Mother Bhaer had an hour of serious thought all alone in
the red sunset; and when a sound in the next room led her there, she
found that the feigned sleep had become real repose; for Dan lay
breathing heavily, with a scarlet spot on either cheek, and one hand
clinched on his broad breast. Yearning over him with a deeper pity
than ever before, she sat in the little chair beside him, trying to
see her way out of this tangle, till his hand slipped down, and in
doing so snapped a cord he wore about his neck and let a small case
drop to the floor.
Mrs Jo picked it up, and as he did not wake, sat looking at it, idly
wondering what charm it held; for the case was of Indian workmanship
and the broken cord, of closely woven grass, sweet scented and pale
'I won't pry into any more of the poor fellow's secrets. I'll mend
and put it back, and never let him know I've seen his talisman.'
As she spoke she turned the little wallet to examine the fracture,
and a card fell into her lap. It was a photograph, cut to fit its
covering, and two words were written underneath the face, 'My
Aslauga'. For an instant Mrs Jo fancied that it might be one of
herself, for all the boys had them; but as the thin paper fell away,
she saw the picture Demi took of Bess that happy summer day. There
was no doubt now, and with a sigh she put it back, and was about to
slip it into Dan's bosom so that not even a stitch should betray her
knowledge, when as she leaned towards him, she saw that he was
looking straight at her with an expression that surprised her more
than any of the strange ones she had ever seen in that changeful face
'Your hand slipped down; it fell; I was putting it back,' explained
Mrs Jo, feeling like a naughty child caught in mischief.
'You saw the picture?'
'And know what a fool I am?'
'Yes, Dan, and am so grieved--'
'Don't worry about me. I'm all right--glad you know, though I never
meant to tell you. Of course it is only a crazy fancy of mine, and
nothing can ever come of it. Never thought there would. Good Lord!
what could that little angel ever be to me but what she is--a sort of
dream of all that's sweet and good?'
More afflicted by the quiet resignation of his look and tone than by
the most passionate ardour, Mrs Jo could only say, with a face full
'It is very hard, dear, but there is no other way to look at it. You
are wise and brave enough to see that, and to let the secret be ours
'I swear I will! not a word nor a look if I can help it. No one
guesses, and if it troubles no one, is there any harm in my keeping
this, and taking comfort in the pretty fancy that kept me sane in
that cursed place?'
Dan's face was eager now, and he hid away the little worn case as if
defying any hand to take it from him. Anxious to know everything
before giving counsel or comfort, Mrs Jo said quietly:
'Keep it, and tell me all about the "fancy". Since I have stumbled on
your secret, let me know how it came, and how I can help to make it
lighter to bear.'
'You'll laugh; but I don't mind. You always did find out our secrets
and give us a lift. Well, I never cared much for books, you know; but
down yonder when the devil tormented me I had to do something or go
stark mad, so I read both the books you gave me. One was beyond me,
till that good old man showed me how to read it; but the other, this
one, was a comfort, I tell you. It amused me, and was as pretty as
poetry. I liked 'em all, and most wore out Sintram. See how used up
he is! Then I came to this, and it sort of fitted that other happy
part of my life, last summer--here.'
Dan stopped a moment as the words lingered on his lips; then, with a
long breath, went on, as if it was hard to lay bare the foolish
little romance he had woven about a girl, a picture, and a child's
story there in the darkness of the place which was as terrible to him
as Dante's Inferno, till he found his Beatrice.
'I couldn't sleep, and had to think about something, so I used to
fancy I was Folko, and see the shining of Aslauga's hair in the
sunset on the wall, the gum of the watchman's lamp, and the light
that came in at dawn. My cell was high. I could see a bit of sky;
sometimes there was a star in it, and that was most as good as a
face. I set great store by that patch of blue, and when a white cloud
went by, I thought it was the prettiest thing in all this world. I
guess I was pretty near a fool; but those thoughts and things helped
me through, so they are all solemn true to me, and I can't let them
go. The dear shiny head, the white gown, the eyes like stars, and
sweet, calm ways that set her as high above me as the moon in heaven.
Don't take it away! it's only a fancy, but a man must love something,
and I'd better love a spirit like her than any of the poor common
girls who would care for me.'
The quiet despair in Dan's voice pierced Mrs Jo to the heart; but
there was no hope and she gave none. Yet she felt that he was right,
and that his hapless affection might do more to uplift and purify him
than any other he might know. Few women would care to marry Dan now,
except such as would hinder, not help, him in the struggle which life
would always be to him; and it was better to go solitary to his grave
than become what she suspected his father had been--a handsome,
unprincipled, and dangerous man, with more than one broken heart to
'Yes, Dan, it is wise to keep this innocent fancy, if it helps and
comforts you, till something more real and possible comes to make you
happier. I wish I could give you any hope; but we both know that the
dear child is the apple of her father's eye, the pride of her
mother's heart, and that the most perfect lover they can find will
hardly seem to them worthy of their precious daughter. Let her remain
for you the high, bright star that leads you up and makes you believe
in heaven.' Mrs Jo broke down there; it seemed so cruel to destroy
the faint hope Dan's eyes betrayed, that she could not moralize when
she thought of his hard life and lonely future. Perhaps it was the
wisest thing she could have done, for in her hearty sympathy he found
comfort for his own loss, and very soon was able to speak again in
the manly tone of resignation to the inevitable that showed how
honest was his effort to give up everything but the pale shadow of
what, for another, might have been a happy possibility.
They talked long and earnestly in the twilight; and this second
secret bound them closer than the first; for in it there was neither
sin nor shame--only the tender pain and patience which has made
saints and heroes of far worse men than our poor Dan. When at length
they rose at the summons of a bell, all the sunset glory had
departed, and in the wintry sky there hung one star, large, soft, and
clear, above a snowy world. Pausing at the window before she dropped
the curtains, Mrs Jo said cheerfully:
'Come and see how beautiful the evening star is, since you love it
so.' And as he stood behind her, tall and pale, like the ghost of his
former self, she added softly: 'And remember, dear, if the sweet girl
is denied you, the old friend is always here--to love and trust and
pray for you.'
This time she was not disappointed; and had she asked any reward for
many anxieties and cares, she received it when Dan's strong arm came
round her, as he said, in a voice which showed her that she had not
laboured in vain to pluck her firebrand from the burning:
'I never can forget that; for she's helped to save my soul, and make
me dare to look up there and say:
"God bless her!"'
POSITIVELY LAST APPEARANCE
'Upon my word, I feel as if I lived in a powder-magazine, and don't
know which barrel will explode next, and send me flying,' said Mrs Jo
to herself next day, as she trudged up to Parnassus to suggest to her
sister that perhaps the most charming of the young nurses had better
return to her marble gods before she unconsciously added another
wound to those already won by the human hero. She told no secrets;
but a hint was sufficient; for Mrs Amy guarded her daughter as a
pearl of great price, and at once devised a very simple means of
escape from danger. Mr Laurie was going to Washington on Dan's
behalf, and was delighted to take his family with him when the idea
was carelessly suggested. So the conspiracy succeeded finely; and
Mrs Jo went home, feeling more like a traitor than ever. She expected
an explosion; but Dan took the news so quietly, it was plain that he
cherished no hope; and Mrs Amy was sure her romantic sister had been
mistaken. If she had seen Dan's face when Bess went to say good-bye,
her maternal eye would have discovered far more than the unconscious
girl did. Mrs Jo trembled lest he should betray himself; but he had
learned self-control in a stern school, and would have got through
the hard moment bravely, only, when he took both hands, saying
'Good-bye, Princess. If we don't meet again, remember your old friend
Dan sometimes,' she, touched by his late danger and the wistful look
he wore, answered with unusual warmth: 'How can I help it, when you
make us all so proud of you? God bless your mission, and bring you
safely home to us again!'
As she looked up at him with a face full of frank affection and sweet
regret, all that he was losing rose so vividly before him that Dan
could not resist the impulse to take the 'dear goldy head' between
his hands and kiss it, with a broken 'Good-bye'; then hurried back to
his room, feeling as if it were the prison-cell again, with no
glimpse of heaven's blue to comfort him.
This abrupt caress and departure rather startled Bess; for she felt
with a girl's quick instinct that there was something in that kiss
unknown before, and looked after him with sudden colour in her cheeks
and new trouble in her eyes. Mrs Jo saw it, and fearing a very
natural question answered it before it was put.
'Forgive him, Bess. He has had a great trouble, and it makes him
tender at parting with old friends; for you know he may never come
back from the wild world he is going to.'
'You mean the fall and danger of death?' asked Bess, innocently.
'No, dear; a greater trouble than that. But I cannot tell you any
more--except that he has come through it bravely; so you may trust
and respect him, as I do.'
'He has lost someone he loved. Poor Dan! We must be very kind to
Bess did not ask the question, but seemed content with her solution
of the mystery--which was so true that Mrs Jo confirmed it by a nod,
and let her go away believing that some tender loss and sorrow
wrought the great change all saw in Dan, and made him so slow to
speak concerning the past year.
But Ted was less easily satisfied, and this unusual reticence goaded
him to desperation. His mother had warned him not to trouble Dan with
questions till he was quite well; but this prospect of approaching
departure made him resolve to have a full, clear, and satisfactory
account of the adventures which he felt sure must have been
thrilling, from stray words Dan let fall in his fever. So one day
when the coast was clear, Master Ted volunteered to amuse the
invalid, and did so in the following manner:
'Look here, old boy, if you don't want me to read, you've got to
talk, and tell me all about Kansas, and the farms, and that part. The
Montana business I know, but you seem to forget what went before.
Brace up, and let's have it,' he began, with an abruptness which
roused Dan from a brown study most effectually.
'No, I don't forget; it isn't interesting to anyone but myself. I
didn't see any farms--gave it up,' he said slowly.
'Other things to do.'
'Well, brush-making for one thing.'
'Don't chaff a fellow. Tell true.'
'I truly did.'
'To keep out of mischief, as much as anything.'
'Well, of all the queer things--and you've done a lot--that's the
queerest,' cried Ted, taken aback at this disappointing discovery.
But he didn't mean to give up yet, and began again.
'What mischief, Dan?'
'Never you mind. Boys shouldn't bother.'
'But I do want to know, awfully, because I'm your pal, and care for
you no end. Always did. Come, now, tell me a good yarn. I love
scrapes. I'll be mum as an oyster if you don't want it known.'
'Will you?' and Dan looked at him, wondering how the boyish face
would change if the truth were suddenly told him.
'I'll swear it on locked fists, if you like. I know it was jolly, and
I'm aching to hear.'
'You are as curious as a girl. More than some--Josie and--and Bess
never asked a question.'
'They don't care about rows and things; they liked the mine business,
heroes, and that sort. So do I, and I'm as proud as Punch over it;
but I see by your eyes that there was something else before that, and
I'm bound to find out who Blair and Mason are, and who was hit and
who ran away, and all the rest of it.'
'What!' cried Dan, in a tone that made Ted jump.
'Well, you used to mutter about 'em in your sleep, and Uncle Laurie
wondered. So did I; but don't mind, if you can't remember, or would
'What else did I say? Queer, what stuff a man will talk when his wits
'That's all I heard; but it seemed interesting, and I just mentioned
it, thinking it might refresh your memory a bit,' said Teddy, very
politely; for Dan's frown was heavy at that moment.
It cleared off at this reply, and after a look at the boy squirming
with suppressed impatience in his chair, Dan made up his mind to
amuse him with a game of cross-purposes and half-truths, hoping to
quench his curiosity, and so get peace.
'Let me see; Blair was a lad I met in the cars, and Mason a poor
fellow who was in a--well, a sort of hospital where I happened to be.
Blair ran off to his brothers, and I suppose I might say Mason was
hit, because he died there. Does that suit you?'
'No, it doesn't. Why did Blair run? and who hit the other fellow?
I'm sure there was a fight somewhere, wasn't there?'
'I guess I know what it was about.'
'The devil, you do! Let's hear you guess. Must be amusing,' said Dan,
affecting an ease he did not feel.
Charmed to be allowed to free his mind, Ted at once unfolded the
boyish solution of the mystery which he had been cherishing, for he
felt that there was one somewhere.
'You needn't say yes, if I guess right and you are under oath to keep
silent. I shall know by your face, and never tell. Now see if I'm not
right. Out there they have wild doings, and it's my belief you were
in some of 'em. I don't mean robbing mails, and KluKluxing, and that
sort of thing; but defending the settlers, or hanging some scamp, or
even shooting a few, as a fellow must sometimes, in self-defence.
Ah, ha! I've hit it, I see. Needn't speak; I know the flash of your
old eye, and the clench of your big fist.' And Ted pranced with
'Drive on, smart boy, and don't lose the trail,' said Dan, finding a
curious sense of comfort in some of these random words, and longing,
but not daring, to confirm the true ones. He might have confessed the
crime, but not the punishment that followed, the sense of its
disgrace was still so strong upon him.
'I knew I should get it; can't deceive me long,' began Ted, with such
an air of pride Dan could not help a short laugh.
'It's a relief, isn't it, to have it off your mind? Now, just confide
in me and it's all safe, unless you've sworn not to tell.'
'Oh, well, then don't'; and Ted's face fell, but he was himself again
in a moment and said, with the air of a man of the world: 'It's all
right--I understand--honour binds--silence to death, etc. Glad you
stood by your mate in the hospital. How many did you kill?'
'Bad lot, of course?'
'A damned rascal.'
'Well, don't look so fierce; I've no objection. Wouldn't mind popping
at some of those bloodthirsty blackguards myself. Had to dodge and
keep quiet after it, I suppose.'
'Pretty quiet for a long spell.'
'Got off all right in the end, and headed for your mines and did that
jolly brave thing. Now, I call that decidedly interesting and
capital. I'm glad to know it; but I won't blab.'
'Mind you don't. Look here. Ted, if you'd killed a man, would it
trouble you--a bad one, I mean?'
The lad opened his mouth to say, 'Not a bit,' but checked that answer
as if something in Dan's face made him change his mind. 'Well, if it
was my duty in war or self-defence, I suppose I shouldn't; but if I'd
pitched into him in a rage, I guess I should be very sorry. Shouldn't
wonder if he sort of haunted me, and remorse gnawed me as it did Aram
and those fellows. You don't mind, do you? It was a fair fight,
'Yes, I was in the right; but I wish I'd been out of it. Women don't
see it that way, and look horrified at such things. Makes it hard;
but it don't matter.'
'Don't tell 'em; then they can't worry,' said Ted, with the nod of
one versed in the management of the sex.
'Don't intend to. Mind you keep your notions to yourself, for some of
'em are wide of the mark. Now you may read if you like'; and there
the talk ended; but Ted took great comfort in it, and looked as wise
as an owl afterwards.
A few quiet weeks followed, during which Dan chafed at the delay; and
when at length word came that his credentials were ready, he was
eager to be off, to forget a vain love in hard work, and live for
others, since he might not for himself.
So one wild March morning our Sintram rode away, with horse and
hound, to face again the enemies who would have conquered him, but
for Heaven's help and human pity.
'Ah, me! it does seem as if life was made of partings, and they get
harder as we go on,' sighed Mrs Jo, a week later, as she sat in the
long parlour at Parnassus one evening, whither the family had gone to
welcome the travellers back.
'And meetings too, dear; for here we are, and Nat is on his way at
last. Look for the silver lining, as Marmee used to say, and be
comforted,' answered Mrs Amy, glad to be at home and find no wolves
prowling near her sheepfold.
'I've been so worried lately, I can't help croaking. I wonder what
Dan thought at not seeing you again? It was wise; but he would have
enjoyed another look at home faces before he went into the
wilderness,' said Mrs Jo regretfully.
'Much better so. We left notes and all we could think of that he
might need, and slipped away before he came. Bess really seemed
relieved; I'm sure I was'; and Mrs Amy smoothed an anxious line out
of her white forehead, as she smiled at her daughter, laughing
happily among her cousins.
Mrs Jo shook her head as if the silver lining of that cloud was hard
to find; but she had no time to croak again, for just then Mr Laurie
came in looking well pleased at something.
'A new picture has arrived; face towards the music-room, good people,
and tell me how you like it. I call it "Only a fiddler", after
Andersen's story. What name will you give it?'
As he spoke he threw open the wide doors, and just beyond they saw a
young man standing, with a beaming face, and a violin in his hand.
There was no doubt about the name to this picture, and with the cry
'Nat! Nat!' there was a general uprising. But Daisy reached him
first, and seemed to have lost her usual composure somewhere on the
way, for she clung to him, sobbing with the shock of a surprise and
joy too great for her to bear quietly. Everything was settled by that
tearful and tender embrace, for, though Mrs Meg speedily detached her
daughter, it was only to take her place; while Demi shook Nat's hand
with brotherly warmth, and Josie danced round them like Macbeth's
three witches in one, chanting in her most tragic tones:
'Chirper thou wast; second violin thou art; first thou shalt be.
Hail, all hail!'
This caused a laugh, and made things gay and comfortable at once.
Then the usual fire of questions and answers began, to be kept up
briskly while the boys admired Nat's blond beard and foreign clothes,
the girls his improved appearance--for he was ruddy with good English
beef and beer, and fresh with the sea-breezes which had blown him
swiftly home--and the older folk rejoiced over his prospects. Of
course all wanted to hear him play; and when tongues tired, he gladly
did his best for them, surprising the most critical by his progress
in music even more than by the energy and self-possession which made
a new man of bashful Nat. By and by when the violin--that most human
of all instruments--had sung to them the loveliest songs without
words, he said, looking about him at these old friends with what Mr
Bhaer called a 'feeling-full' expression of happiness and content:
'Now let me play something that you will all remember though you
won't love it as I do'; and standing in the attitude which Ole Bull
has immortalized, he played the street melody he gave them the first
night he came to Plumfield. They remembered it, and joined in the
plaintive chorus, which fitly expressed his own emotions:
'Oh my heart is sad and weary
Everywhere I roam,
Longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home.'
'Now I feel better,' said Mrs Jo, as they all trooped down the hill
soon after. 'Some of our boys are failures, but I think this one is
going to be a success, and patient Daisy a happy girl at last. Nat is
your work, Fritz, and I congratulate you heartily.'
'Ach, we can but sow the seed and trust that it falls on good ground.
I planted, perhaps, but you watched that the fowls of the air did not
devour it, and brother Laurie watered generously; so we will share
the harvest among us, and be glad even for a small one,
'I thought the seed had fallen on very stony ground with my poor Dan;
but I shall not be surprised if he surpasses all the rest in the real
success of life, since there is more rejoicing over one repentant
sinner than many saints,' answered Mrs Jo, still clinging fast to her
black sheep although a whole flock of white ones trotted happily
It is a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present
tale with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield and its
environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no youthful
Schliemann could ever find a vestige of it. But as that somewhat
melodramatic conclusion might shock my gentle readers, I will
refrain, and forestall the usual question, 'How did they end?' by
briefly stating that all the marriages turned out well. The boys
prospered in their various callings; so did the girls, for Bess and
Josie won honours in their artistic careers, and in the course of
time found worthy mates. Nan remained a busy, cheerful, independent
spinster, and dedicated her life to her suffering sisters and their
children, in which true woman's work she found abiding happiness. Dan
never married, but lived, bravely and usefully, among his chosen
people till he was shot defending them, and at last lay quietly
asleep in the green wilderness he loved so well, with a lock of
golden hair upon his breast, and a smile on his face which seemed to
say that Aslauga's Knight had fought his last fight and was at peace.
Stuffy became an alderman, and died suddenly of apoplexy after a
public dinner. Dolly was a society man of mark till he lost his
money, when he found congenial employment in a fashionable tailoring
establishment. Demi became a partner, and lived to see his name above
the door, and Rob was a professor at Laurence College; but Teddy
eclipsed them all by becoming an eloquent and famous clergyman, to
the great delight of his astonished mother. And now, having
endeavoured to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as
much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the
music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall for ever on the
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