Chapter 4 - Dan
Mrs Jo often thought that Dan had Indian blood in him, not only because of his love of a wild, wandering life, but his appearance; for as he grew up, this became more striking. At twenty-five he was very tall, with sinewy limbs, a keen, dark face, and the alert look of one whose senses were all alive; rough in manner, full of energy, quick with word and blow, eyes full of the old fire, always watchful as if used to keep guard, and a general air of vigour and freshness very charming to those who knew the dangers and delights of his adventurous life. He was looking his best as he sat talking with 'Mother Bhaer', one strong brown hand in hers, and a world of affection in his voice as he said:
'Forget old friends! How could I forget the only home I ever knew? Why, I was in such a hurry to come and tell my good luck that I didn't stop to fix up, you see; though I knew you'd think I looked more like a wild buffalo than ever,' with a shake of his shaggy black head, a tug at his beard, and a laugh that made the room ring.
'I like it; I always had a fancy for banditti - and you look just like one. Mary, being a newcomer, was frightened at your looks and manners. Josie won't know you, but Ted will recognize his Danny in spite of the big beard and flowing mane. They will all be here soon to welcome you; so before they come tell me more about yourself. Why, Dan, dear! it's nearly two years since you were here! Has it gone well with you?' asked Mrs Jo, who had been listening with maternal interest to his account of life in California, and the unexpected success of a small investment he had made.
'First-rate! I don't care for the money, you know. I only want a trifle to pay my way - rather earn as I go, and not be bothered with the care of a lot. It's the fun of the thing coming to me, and my being able to give away, that I like. No use to lay up; I shan't live to be old and need it, - my sort never do,' said Dan, looking as if his little fortune rather oppressed him.
'But if you marry and settle somewhere, as I hope you will, you must have something to begin with, my son. So be prudent and invest your money; don't give it away, for rainy days come to all of us, and dependence would be very hard for you to bear,' answered Mrs Jo with a sage air, though she liked to see that the money-making fever had not seized her lucky boy yet.
Dan shook his head, and glanced about the room as if he already found it rather confined and longed for all out-of-doors again.
'Who would marry a jack-o'-lantern like me? Women like a steady-going man; I shall never be that.'
'My dear boy, when I was a girl I liked just such adventurous fellows as you are. Anything fresh and daring, free and romantic, is always attractive to us womenfolk. Don't be discouraged; you'll find an anchor some day, and be content to take shorter voyages and bring home a good cargo.'
'What should you say if I brought you an Indian squaw some day?' asked Dan, with a glimmer of mischief in the eyes that rested on a marble bust of Galatea gleaming white and lovely in the corner.
'Welcome her heartily, if she was a good one. Is there a prospect of it?' and Mrs Jo peered at him with the interest which even literary ladies take in love affairs.
'Not at present, thank you. I'm too busy "to gallivant", as Ted calls it. How is the boy?' asked Dan, skilfully turning the conversation, as if he had had enough of sentiment.
Mrs Jo was off at once, and expatiated upon the talents and virtues of her sons till they came bursting in and fell upon Dan like two affectionate young bears, finding a vent for their joyful emotions in a sort of friendly wrestling-match; in which both got worsted, of course, for the hunter soon settled them. The Professor followed, and tongues went like mill-clappers while Mary lighted up and cook devoted herself to an unusually good supper, instinctively divining that this guest was a welcome one.
After tea Dan was walking up and down the long rooms as he talked, with occasional trips into the hall for a fresher breath of air, his lungs seeming to need more than those of civilized people. In one of these trips he saw a white figure framed in the dark doorway, and paused to look at it. Bess paused also, not recognizing her old friend, and quite unconscious of the pretty picture she made standing, tall and slender, against the soft gloom of the summer night, with her golden hair like a halo round her head, and the ends of a white shawl blown out like wings by the cool wind sweeping through the hail. 'Is it Dan?' she asked, coming in with a gracious smile and outstretched hand.
'Looks like it; but I didn't know you, Princess. I thought it was a spirit,' answered Dan, looking down at her with a curious softness and wonder in his face.
'I've grown very much, but two years have changed you entirely'; and Bess looked up with girlish pleasure at the picturesque figure before her - for it was a decided contrast to the well-dressed people about her.
Before they could say more, Josie rushed in, and, forgetfull of the newly acquired dignity of her teens, let Dan catch her up and kiss her like a child. Not till he set her down did he discover she also was changed, and exclaimed in comic dismay:
'Hallo! Why, you are growing up too! What am I going to do, with no young one to play with? Here's Ted going it like a beanstalk, and Bess a young lady, and even you, my mustard-seed, letting down your frocks and putting on airs.'
The girls laughed, and Josie blushed as she stared at the tall man, conscious that she had leaped before she looked. They made a pretty contrast, these two young cousins - one as fair as a lily, the other a little wild rose. And Dan gave a nod of satisfaction as he surveyed them; for he had seen many bonny girls in his travels, and was glad that these old friends were blooming so beautifully.
'Here! we can't allow any monopoly of Dan!' called Mrs Jo. 'Bring him back and keep an eye on him, or he will be slipping off for another little run of a year or two before we have half seen him.'
Led by these agreeable captors, Dan returned to the parlour to receive a scolding from Josie for getting ahead of all the other boys and looking like a man first.
'Emil is older; but he's only a boy, and dances jigs and sings sailor songs just as he used to. You look about thirty, and as big and black as a villain in a play. Oh, I've got a splendid idea! You are just the thing for Arbaces in The Last Days of Pompeii. We want to act it; have the lion and the gladiators and the eruption. Tom and Ted are going to shower bushels of ashes down and roll barrels of stones about. We wanted a dark man for the Egyptian; and you will be gorgeous in red and white shawls. Won't he, Aunt Jo?'
This deluge of words made Dan clap his hands over his ears; and before Mrs Bhaer could answer her impetuous niece the Laurences, with Meg and her family, arrived, soon followed by Tom and Nan, and all sat down to listen to Dan's adventures - told in brief yet effective manner, as the varying expressions of interest, wonder, merriment, and suspense painted on the circle of faces round him plainly showed. The boys all wanted to start at once for California and make fortunes; the girls could hardly wait for the curious and pretty things he had picked up for them in his travels; while the elders rejoiced heartily over the energy and good prospects of their wild boy.
'Of course you will want to go back for another stroke of luck; and I hope you will have it. But speculation is a dangerous game, and you may lose all you've won,' said Mr Laurie, who had enjoyed the stirring tale as much as any of the boys, and would have liked to rough it with Dan as well as they.
'I've had enough of it, for a while at least; too much like gambling. The excitement is all I care for, and it isn't good for me. I have a notion to try farming out West. It's grand on a large scale; and I feel as if steady work would be rather jolly after loafing round so long. I can make a beginning, and you can send me your black sheep to stock my place with. I tried sheep-farming in Australia, and know something about black ones, any way.'
A laugh chased away the sober look in Dan's face as he ended; and those who knew him best guessed that he had learned a lesson there in San Francisco, and dared not try again.
'That is a capital idea, Dan!' cried Mrs Jo, seeing great hope in this desire to fix himself somewhere and help others. 'We shall know where you are, and can go and see you, and not have half the world between us. I'll send my Ted for a visit. He's such a restless spirit, it would do him good. With you he would be safe while he worked off his surplus energies and learned a wholesome business.'
'I'll use the "shubble and de hoe" like a good one, if I get a chance out there; but the Speranza mines sound rather jollier,' said Ted, examining the samples of ore Dan had brought for the Professor.
'You go and start a new town, and when we are ready to swarm we will come out and settle there. You will want a newspaper very soon, and I like the idea of running one myself much better than grinding away as I do now,' observed Demi, panting to distinguish himself in the journalistic line.
'We could easily plant a new college there. These sturdy Westerners are hungry for learning, and very quick to see and choose the best,' added ever-young Mr March, beholding with his prophetic eye many duplicates of their own flourishing establishment springing up in the wide West.
'Go on, Dan. It is a fine plan, and we will back you up. I shouldn't mind investing in a few prairies and cowboys myself,' said Mr Laurie, always ready to help the lads to help themselves, both by his cheery words and ever-open purse.
'A little money sort of ballasts a fellow, and investing it in land anchors him - for a while, at least. I'd like to see what I can do, but I thought I'd consult you before I decided. Have my doubts about it suiting me for many years; but I can cut loose when I'm tired,' answered Dan, both touched and pleased at the eager interest of these friends in his plans.
'I know you won't like it. After having the whole world to roam over, one farm will seem dreadfully small and stupid,' said Josie, who much preferred the romance of the wandering life which brought her thrilling tales and pretty things at each return.
'Is there any art out there?' asked Bess, thinking what a good study in black and white Dan would make as he stood talking, half turned from the light.
'Plenty of nature, dear; and that is better. You will find splendid animals to model, and scenery such as you never saw in Europe to paint. Even prosaic pumpkins are grand out there. You can play Cinderella in one of them, Josie, when you open your theatre in Dansville,' said Mr Laurie, anxious that no cold water should be thrown on the new plan.
Stage-struck Josie was caught at once, and being promised all the tragic parts on the yet unbuilt stage, she felt a deep interest in the project and begged Dan to lose no time in beginning his experiment. Bess also confessed that studies from nature would be good for her, and wild scenery improve her taste, which might grow over-nice if only the delicate and beautiful were set before her.
'I speak for the practice of the new town,' said Nan, always eager for fresh enterprises. 'I shall be ready by the time you get well started - towns grow so fast out there.'
'Dan isn't going to allow any woman under forty in his place. He doesn't like them, 'specially young and pretty ones,' put in Tom, who was raging with jealousy, because he read admiration for Nan in Dan's eyes.
'That won't affect me, because doctors are exceptions to all rules. There won't be much sickness in Dansville, everyone will lead such active, wholesome lives, and only energetic young people will go there. But accidents will be frequent, owing to wild cattle, fast riding, Indian scrimmages, and the recklessness of Western life. That will just suit me. I long for broken bones, surgery is so interesting and I get so little here,' answered Nan, yearning to put out her shingle and begin.
'I'll have you, Doctor, and be glad of such a good sample of what we can do in the East. Peg away, and I'll send for you as soon as I have a roof to cover you. I'll scalp a few red fellows or smash up a dozen or so of cowboys for your special benefit,' laughed Dan, well pleased with the energy and fine physique which made Nan a conspicuous figure among other girls.
'Thanks. I'll come. Would you just let me feel your arm? Splendid biceps! Now, boys, see here: this is what I call muscle.' And Nan delivered a short lecture with Dan's sinewy arm to illustrate it. Tom retired to the alcove and glowered at the stars, while he swung his own right arm with a vigour suggestive of knocking someone down.
'Make Tom sexton; he'll enjoy burying the patients Nan kills. He's trying to get up the glum expression proper to the business. Don't forget him, Dan,' said Ted, directing attention to the blighted being in the corner.
But Tom never sulked long, and came out from his brief eclipse with the cheerful proposition:
'Look here, we'll get the city to ship out to Dansville all the cases of yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera that arrive; then Nan will be happy and her mistakes won't matter much with emigrants and convicts.'
'I should advise settling near Jacksonville, or some such city, that you might enjoy the society of cultivated persons. The Plato Club is there, and a most ardent thirst for philosophy. Everything from the East is welcomed hospitably, and new enterprises would flourish in such kindly soil,' observed Mr March, mildly offering a suggestion, as he sat among the elders enjoying the lively scene.
The idea of Dan studying Plato was very funny; but no one except naughty Ted smiled, and Dan made haste to unfold another plan seething in that active brain of his.
'I'm not sure the farming will succeed, and have a strong leaning towards my old friends the Montana Indians. They are a peaceful tribe, and need help awfully; hundreds have died of starvation because they don't get their share. The Sioux are fighters, thirty thousand strong, so Government fears 'em, and gives 'em all they want. I call that a damned shame!' Dan stopped short as the oath slipped out, but his eyes flashed, and he went on quickly: 'It is just that, and I won't beg pardon. If I'd had any money when I was there I'd have given every cent to those poor devils, cheated out of everything, and waiting patiently, after being driven from their own land to places where nothing will grow. Now, honest agents could do much, and I've a feeling that I ought to go and lend a hand. I know their lingo, and I like 'em. I've got a few thousands, and I ain't sure I have any right to spend it on myself and settle down to enjoy it. Hey?'
Dan looked very manly and earnest as he faced his friends, flushed and excited by the energy of his words; and all felt that little thrill of sympathy which links hearts together by the tie of pity for the wronged.
'Do it, do it!' cried Mrs Jo, fired at once; for misfortune was much more interesting to her than good luck.
'Do it, do it!' echoed Ted, applauding as if at a play, 'and take me along to help. I'm just raging to get among those fine fellows and hunt.'
'Let us hear more and see if it is wise,' said Mr Laurie, privately resolving to people his as yet unbought prairies with Montana Indians, and increase his donations to the society that sent missionaries to this much wronged people.
Dan plunged at once into the history of what he saw among the Dakotas, and other tribes in the Northwest, telling of their wrongs, patience, and courage as if they were his brothers.
'They called me Dan Fire Cloud, because my rifle was the best they ever saw. And Black Hawk was as good a friend as a fellow would want; saved my life more than once, and taught me just what will be useful if I go back. They are down on their luck, now, and I'd like to pay my debts.'
By this time everyone was interested, and Dansville began to lose its charm. But prudent Mr Bhaer suggested that one honest agent among many could not do much, and noble as the effort would be, it was wiser to think over the matter carefully, get influence and authority from the right quarters, and meantime look at lands before deciding.
'Well, I will. I'm going to take a run to Kansas and see how that promises. Met a fellow in 'Frisco who'd been there, and he spoke well of it. The fact is, there's so much to be done every where that I don't know where to catch on, and half wish I hadn't any money,' answered Dan, knitting his brows in the perplexity all kind souls feel when anxious to help at the great task of the world's charity.
'I'll keep it for you till you decide. You are such an impetuous lad you'll give it to the first beggar that gets hold of you. I'll turn it over while you are prospecting, and hand it back when you are ready to invest, shall I?' asked Mr Laurie, who had learned wisdom since the days of his own extravagant youth.
'Thanky, sir, I'd be glad to get rid of it. You just hold on till I say the word; and if anything happens to me this time, keep it to help some other scamp as you helped me. This is my will, and you all witness it. Now I feel better.' And Dan squared his shoulders as if relieved of a burden, after handing over the belt in which he carried his little fortune.
No one dreamed how much was to happen before Dan came to take his money back, nor how nearly that act was his last will and testament; and while Mr Laurie was explaining how he would invest it, a cheery voice was heard singing:
Emil always announced his arrival in that fashion, and in a moment he came hurrying in with Nat, who had been giving lessons in town all day. It was good to see the latter beam at his friend as he nearly shook his hand off; better still to see how Dan gratefully remembered all he owed Nat, and tried to pay the debt in his rough way; and best of all to hear the two travellers compare notes and reel off yarns to dazzle the land-lubbers and home-keepers.
After this addition the house would not contain the gay youngsters, so they migrated to the piazza and settled on the steps, like a flock of night-loving birds. Mr March and the Professor retired to the study, Meg and Amy went to look after the little refection of fruit and cake which was to come, and Mrs Jo and Mr Laurie sat in the long window listening to the chat that went on outside.
'There they are, the flower of our flock!' she said, pointing to the group before them. 'The others are dead or scattered, but these seven boys and four girls are my especial comfort and pride. Counting Alice Heath, my dozen is made up, and my hands are full trying to guide these young lives as far as human skill can do it.'
'When we remember how different they are, from what some of them came, and the home influences about others, I think we may feel pretty well satisfied so far,' answered Mr Laurie soberly, as his eyes rested on one bright head among the black and brown ones, for the young moon shone alike on all.
'I don't worry about the girls; Meg sees to them, and is so wise and patient and tender they can't help doing well; but my boys are more care every year, and seem to drift farther away from me each time they go,' sighed Mrs Jo. 'They will grow up, and I can only hold them by one little thread, which may snap at any time, as it has with Jack and Ned. Dolly and George still like to come back, and I can say my word to them; and dear old Franz is too true ever to forget his own. But the three who are soon going out into the world again I can't help worrying about. Emil's good heart will keep him straight, I hope, and
Nat is to make his first flight, and he's weak in spite of your strengthening influence; and Dan is still untamed. I fear it will take some hard lesson to do that.'
'He's a fine fellow, Jo, and I almost regret this farming project. A little polish would make a gentleman of him, and who knows what he might become here among us,' answered Mr Laurie, leaning over Mrs Bhaer's chair, just as he used to do years ago when they had mischievous secrets together.
'It wouldn't be safe, Teddy. Work and the free life he loves will make a good man of him, and that is better than any amount of polish, with the dangers an easy life in a city would bring him. We can't change his nature - only help it to develop in the right direction. The old impulses are there, and must be controlled, or he will go wrong. I see that; but his love for us is a safeguard, and we must keep a hold on him till he is older or has a stronger tie to help him.'
Mrs Jo spoke earnestly, for, knowing Dan better than anyone else, she saw that her colt was not thoroughly broken yet, and feared while she hoped, knowing that life would always be hard for one like him. She was sure that before he went away again, in some quiet moment he would give her a glimpse of his inner self, and then she could say the word of warning or encouragement that he needed. So she bided her time, studying him meanwhile, glad to see all that was promising, and quick to detect the harm the world was doing him. She was very anxious to make a success of her 'firebrand' because others predicted failure; but having learned that people cannot be moulded like clay, she contented herself with the hope that this neglected boy might become a good man, and asked no more. Even that was much to expect, so full was he of wayward impulses, strong passions, and the lawless nature born in him. Nothing held him but the one affection of his life - the memory of Plumfield, the fear of disappointing these faithful friends, the pride, stronger than principle, that made him want to keep the regard of the mates who always had admired and loved him in spite of all his faults.
'Don't fret, old dear; Emil is one of the happy-go-lucky sort who always fall on their legs. I'll see to Nat, and Dan is in a good way now. Let him take a look at Kansas, and if the farm plan loses its charm, he can fall back on poor Lo, and really do good out there. He's unusually fitted for that peculiar task and I hope he'll decide to do it. Fighting oppressors, and befriending the oppressed will keep those dangerous energies of his busy, and the life will suit him better than sheep-folds and wheat-fields.'
'I hope so. What is that?' and Mrs Jo leaned forward to listen, as exclamations from Ted and Josie caught her ear.
'A mustang! a real, live one; and we can ride it. Dan, you are a first-class trump!' cried the boy.
'A whole Indian dress for me! Now I can play Namioka, if the boys act Metamora,' added Josie, clapping her hands.
'A buffalo's head for Bess! Good gracious, Dan, why did you bring such a horrid thing as that to her?' asked Nan.
'Thought it would do her good to model something strong and natural. She'll never amount to anything if she keeps on making namby-pamby gods and pet kittens,' answered irreverent Dan, remembering that when he was last here Bess was vibrating distractedly between a head of Apollo and her Persian cat as models.
'Thank you; I'll try it, and if I fail we can put the buffalo up in the hall to remind us of you,' said Bess, indignant at the insult offered the gods of her idolatry, but too well bred to show it except in her voice, which was as sweet and as cold as ice-cream.
'I suppose you won't come out to see our new settlement when the rest do? Too rough for you?' asked Dan, trying to assume the deferential air all the boys used when addressing their Princess.
'I am going to Rome to study for years. All the beauty and art of the world is there, and a lifetime isn't long enough to enjoy it,' answered Bess.
'Rome is a mouldy old tomb compared to the "Garden of the gods" and my magnificent Rockies. I don't care a hang for art; nature is as much as I can stand, and I guess I could show you things that would knock your old masters higher than kites. Better come, and while Josie rides the horses you can model 'em. If a drove of a hundred or so of wild ones can't show you beauty, I'll give up,' cried Dan, waxing enthusiastic over the wild grace and vigour which he could enjoy but had no power to describe.
'I'll come some day with papa, and see if they are better than the horses of St Mark and those on Capitol Hill. Please don't abuse my gods, and I will try to like yours,' said Bess, beginning to think the West might be worth seeing, though no Raphael or Angelo had yet appeared there.
'That's a bargain! I do think people ought to see their own country before they go scooting off to foreign parts, as if the new world wasn't worth discovering,' began Dan, ready to bury the hatchet.
'It has some advantages, but not all. The women of England can vote, and we can't. I'm ashamed of America that she isn't ahead in all good things,' cried Nan, who held advanced views on all reforms, and was anxious about her rights, having had to fight for some of them.
'Oh, please don't begin on that. People always quarrel over that question, and call names, and never agree. Do let us be quiet and happy tonight,' pleaded Daisy, who hated discussion as much as Nan loved it.
'You shall vote as much as you like in our new town, Nan; be mayor and aldermen, and run the whole concern. It's going to be as free as air, or I can't live in it,' said Dan, adding, with a laugh, 'I see Mrs Giddygaddy and Mrs Shakespeare Smith don't agree any better than they used to.'
'If everyone agreed, we should never get on. Daisy is a dear, but inclined to be an old fogy; so I stir her up; and next fall she will go and vote with me. Demi will escort us to do the one thing we are allowed to do as yet.'
'Will you take 'em, Deacon?' asked Dan, using the old name as if he liked it. 'It works capitally in Wyoming.'
'I shall be proud to do it. Mother and the aunts go every year, and Daisy will come with me. She is my better half still; and I don't mean to leave her behind in anything,' said Demi, with an arm round his sister of whom he was fonder than ever.
Dan looked at them wistfully, thinking how sweet it must be to have such a tie; and his lonely youth seemed sadder than ever as he recalled its struggles. A gusty sigh from Tom made sentiment impossible, as he said pensively:
'I always wanted to be a twin. It's so sociable and so cosy to have someone glad to lean on a fellow and comfort him, if other girls are cruel.'
As Tom's unrequited passion was the standing joke of the family, this allusion produced a laugh, which Nan increased by whipping out a bottle of Nux, saying, with her professional air:
'I knew you ate too much lobster for tea. Take four pellets, and your dyspepsia will be all right. Tom always sighs and is silly when he's overeaten.'
'I'll take 'em. These are the only sweet things you ever give me.' And Tom gloomily crunched his dose.
'"Who can minister to a mind diseased, or pluck out a rooted sorrow?" quoted Josie tragically from her perch on the railing.
'Come with me, Tommy, and I'll make a man of you. Drop your pills and powders, and cavort round the world a spell, and you'll soon forget you've got a heart, or a stomach either,' said Dan, offering his one panacea for all ills.
'Ship with me, Tom. A good fit of seasickness will set you up, and a stiff north-easter blow your blue-devils away. Come along as surgeon - easy berth, and no end of larks.'
added Emil, who had a fragment of song to cheer every care and sorrow, and freely offered them to his friends.
'Perhaps I'll think of it when I've got my diploma. I'm not going to grind three mortal years and have nothing to show for it. Till then, - '
'I'll never desert Mrs Micawber,' interrupted Teddy, with a gurgling sob. Tom immediately rolled him off the step into the wet grass below; and by the time this slight skirmish was over, the jingle of teaspoons suggested refreshments of a more agreeable sort. In former times the little girls waited on the boys, to save confusion; now the young men flew to serve the ladies, young and old; and that slight fact showed plainly how the tables were turned by time. And what a pleasant arrangement it was! Even Josie sat still, and let Emil bring her berries; enjoying her young lady-hood, till Ted stole her cake, when she forgot manners, and chastised him with a rap on the knuckles. As guest of honour, Dan was only allowed to wait on Bess, who still held the highest place in this small world. Tom carefully selected the best of everything for Nan, to be crushed by the remark:
'I never eat at this hour; and you will have a nightmare if you do.'
So, dutifully curbing the pangs of hunger, he gave the plate to Daisy, and chewed rose-leaves for his supper.
When a surprising quantity of wholesome nourishment had been consumed, someone said, 'Let's sing!' and a tuneful hour followed. Nat fiddled, Demi piped, Dan strummed the old banjo, and Emil warbled a doleful ballad about the wreck of the Bounding Betsey; then everybody joined in the old songs till there was very decidedly 'music in the air'; and passers-by said, as they listened smiling: 'Old Plum is gay tonight!'
When all had gone Dan lingered on the piazza, enjoying the balmy wind that blew up from the hayfields, and brought the breath of flowers from Parnassus; and as he leaned there romantically in the moonlight, Mrs Jo came to shut the door.
'Dreaming dreams, Dan?' she asked, thinking the tender moment might have come. Imagine the shock when, instead of some interesting confidence or affectionate word, Dan swung round, saying bluntly:
'I was wishing I could smoke.'
Mrs Jo laughed at the downfall of her hopes, and answered kindly:
'You may, in your room; but don't set the house afire.'
Perhaps Dan saw a little disappointment in her face, or the memory of the sequel of that boyish frolic touched his heart; for he stooped and kissed her, saying in a whisper: 'Good night, mother.' And Mrs Jo was half satisfied.