FictionForest

Chapter 10 – Demi Settles

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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‘Mother, can I have a little serious conversation with you?’ asked
Demi one evening, as they sat together enjoying the first fire of the
season, while Daisy wrote letters upstairs and Josie was studying in
the little library close by.

‘Certainly, dear. No bad news, I hope?’ and Mrs Meg looked up from
her sewing with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety on her motherly
face; for she dearly loved a good talk with her son, and knew that he
always had something worth telling.

‘It will be good news for you, I think,’ answered Demi, smiling as he
threw away his paper and went to sit beside her on the little sofa
which just held two.

‘Let me hear it, then, at once.’

‘I know you don’t like the reporting, and will be glad to hear that I
have given it up.’

‘I am very glad! It is too uncertain a business, and there is no
prospect of getting on for a long time. I want you settled in some
good place where you can stay, and in time make money. I wish you
liked a profession; but as you don’t, any clean, well-established
business will do.’

‘What do you say to a railroad office?’

‘I don’t like it. A noisy, hurried kind of place, I know, with all
sorts of rough men about. I hope it isn’t that, dear?’

‘I could have it; but does book-keeping in a wholesale leather
business please you better?’

‘No; you’ll get round-shouldered writing at a tall desk; and they
say, once a book-keeper always a book-keeper.’

‘How does a travelling agent suit your views?’

‘Not at all; with all those dreadful accidents, and the exposure and
bad food as you go from place to place, you are sure to get killed or
lose your health.’

‘I could be private secretary to a literary man; but the salary is
small, and may end any time.’

‘That would be better, and more what I want. It isn’t that I object
to honest work of any kind; but I don’t want my son to spend his best
years grubbing for a little money in a dark office, or be knocked
about in a rough-and-tumble scramble to get on. I want to see you in
some business where your tastes and talents can be developed and made
useful; where you can go on rising, and in time put in your little
fortune and be a partner; so that your years of apprenticeship will
not be wasted, but fit you to take your place among the honourable
men who make their lives and work useful and respected. I talked it
all over with your dear father when you were a child; and if he had
lived he would have shown you what I mean, and helped you to be what
he was.’

Mrs Meg wiped away a quiet tear as she spoke; for the memory of her
husband was a very tender one, and the education of his children had
been a sacred task to which she gave all her heart and life, and so
far she had done wonderfully well – as her good son and loving
daughters tried to prove. Demi’s arm was round her now, as he said,
in a voice so like his father’s that it was the sweetest music to her
ear:

‘Mother dear, I think I have got just what you want for me; and it
shall not be my fault if I don’t become the man you hope to see me.
Let me tell you all about it. I didn’t say anything till it was sure
because it would only worry you; but Aunt Jo and I have been on the
look-out for it some time, and now it has come. You know her
publisher, Mr Tiber, is one of the most successful men in the
business; also generous, kind, and the soul of honour – as his
treatment of Aunty proves. Well, I’ve rather hankered for that place;
for I love books, and as I can’t make them I’d like to publish them.
That needs some literary taste and judgement, it brings you in
contact with fine people, and is an education in itself. Whenever I
go into that large, handsome room to see Mr Tiber for Aunt Jo, I
always want to stay; for it’s lined with books and pictures, famous
men and women come and go, and Mr Tiber sits at his desk like a sort
of king, receiving his subjects; for the greatest authors are humble
to him, and wait his Yes or No with anxiety. Of course I’ve nothing
to do with all that, and may never have; but I like to see it, and
the atmosphere is so different from the dark offices and hurly-burly
of many other trades, where nothing but money is talked about, that
it seems another world, and I feel at home in it. Yes, I’d rather
beat the door-mats and make fires there than be head clerk in the
great hide and leather store at a big salary.’ Here Demi paused for
breath; and Mrs Meg, whose face had been growing brighter and
brighter, exclaimed eagerly:

‘Just what I should like! Have you got it? Oh, my dear boy! your
fortune is made if you go to that well-established and flourishing
place, with those good men to help you along!’

‘I think I have, but we mustn’t be too sure of anything yet. I may
not suit; I’m only on trial, and must begin at the beginning and work
my way up faithfully. Mr Tiber was very kind, and will push me on as
fast as is fair to the other fellows, and as I prove myself fit to go
up. I’m to begin the first of next month in the book-room, filling
orders; and I go round and get orders, and do various other things of
the sort. I like it. I am ready to do anything about books, if it’s
only to dust them,’ laughed Demi, well pleased with his prospects,
for, after trying various things, he seemed at last to have found the
sort of work he liked, and a prospect that was very inviting to him.

‘You inherit that love of books from grandpa; he can’t live without
them. I’m glad of it. Tastes of that kind show a refined nature, and
are both a comfort and a help all one’s life. I am truly glad and
grateful, John, that at last you want to settle, and have got such an
entirely satisfactory place. Most boys begin much earlier; but I
don’t believe in sending them out to face the world so young, just
when body and soul need home care and watchfulness. Now you are a
man, and must begin your life for yourself. Do your best, and be as
honest, useful, and happy as your father, and I won’t care about
making a fortune.’

‘I’ll try, mother. Couldn’t have a better chance; for Tiber & Co.
treat their people like gentlemen, and pay generously for faithful
work. Things are done in a businesslike way there, and that suits me.
I hate promises that are not kept, and shiftless or tyrannical ways
anywhere. Mr Tiber said: "This is only to teach you the ropes,
Brooke; I shall have other work for you by and by." Aunty told him I
had done book notices, and had rather a fancy for literature; so
though I can’t produce any "works of Shakespeare", as she says, I may
get up some little things later. If I don’t, I think it a very
honourable and noble profession to select and give good books to the
world; and I’m satisfied to be a humble helper in the work.’

‘I’m glad you feel so. It adds so much to one’s happiness to love the
task one does. I used to hate teaching; but housekeeping for my own
family was always sweet, though much harder in many ways. Isn’t Aunt
Jo pleased about all this?’ asked Mrs Meg, already seeing in her
mind’s eye a splendid sign with ‘Tiber, Brooke & Co.’ over the door
of a famous publishing house.

‘So pleased that I could hardly keep her from letting the cat out of
the bag too soon. I’ve had so many plans, and disappointed you so
often, I wanted to be very sure this time. I had to bribe Rob and Ted
to keep her at home tonight till I’d told my news, she was eager to
rush down and tell you herself. The castles that dear woman has built
for me would fill all Spain, and have kept us jolly while we waited
to know our fate. Mr Tiber doesn’t do things in a hurry; but when he
makes up his mind, you are all right; and I feel that I am fairly
launched.’

‘Bless you, dear, I hope so! It is a happy day for me, because I’ve
been so anxious lest, with all my care, I have been too easy and
indulgent, and my boy, with his many good gifts, might fritter his
time away in harmless but unsatisfactory things. Now I am at ease
about you. If only Daisy can be happy, and Josie give up her dream, I
shall be quite contented.’

Demi let his mother enjoy herself for a few minutes, while he smiled
over a certain little dream of his own, not ready yet for the
telling; then he said, in the paternal tone which he unconsciously
used when speaking of his sisters:

‘I’ll see to the girls; but I begin to think grandpa is right in
saying we must each be what God and nature makes us. We can’t change
it much – only help to develop the good and control the bad elements
in us. I have fumbled my way into my right place at last, I hope. Let
Daisy be happy in her way, since it is a good and womanly one. If Nat
comes home all right, I’d say: "Bless you, my children," and give
them a nest of their own. Then you and I will help little Jo to find
out if it is to be "All the world’s a stage" or "Home, sweet home",
for her.’

‘I suppose we must, John; but I can’t help making plans, and hoping
they will come to pass. I see that Daisy is bound up in Nat; and if
he is worthy of her I shall let them be happy in their own way, as my
parents let me. But Josie will be a trial, I foresee; and much as I
love the stage, and always did, I don’t see how I can ever let my
little girl be an actress, though she certainly has great talent for
it.’

‘Whose fault is that?’ asked Demi, smiling, as he remembered his
mother’s early triumphs and unquenchable interest in the dramatic
efforts of the young people round her.

‘Mine, I know. How could it be otherwise when I acted Babes in the
Wood with you and Daisy before you could speak, and taught Josie to
declaim Mother Goose in her cradle. Ah, me! the tastes of the mother
come out in her children, and she must atone for them by letting them
have their own way, I suppose.’ And Mrs Meg laughed, even while she
shook her head over the undeniable fact that the Marches were a
theatrical family.

‘Why not have a great actress of our name, as well as an authoress, a
minister, and an eminent publisher? We don’t choose our talents, but
we needn’t hide them in a napkin because they are not just what we
want. I say, let Jo have her way, and do what she can. Here am I to
take care of her; and you can’t deny you’d enjoy fixing her
furbelows, and seeing her shine before the footlights, where you used
to long to be. Come, mother, better face the music and march gaily,
since your wilful children will "gang their ain gait".’

‘I don’t see but I must, and "leave the consequences to the Lord", as
Marmee used to say when she had to decide, and only saw a step of the
road. I should enjoy it immensely, if I could only feel that the life
would not hurt my girl, and leave her unsatisfied when it was too
late to change; for nothing is harder to give up than the excitements
of that profession. I know something of it; and if your blessed
father had not come along, I’m afraid I should have been an actress
in spite of Aunt March and all our honoured ancestors.’

‘Let Josie add new honour to the name, and work out the family talent
in its proper place. I’ll play dragon to her, and you play nurse, and
no harm can come to our little Juliet, no matter how many Romeos
spoon under her balcony. Really, ma’am, opposition comes badly from
an old lady who is going to wring the hearts of our audience in the
heroine’s part in Aunty’s play next Christmas. It’s the most
pathetic thing I ever saw, mother; and I’m sorry you didn’t become an
actress, though we should be nowhere if you had.’

Demi was on his legs now, with his back to the fire, in the lordly
attitude men like to assume when things go well with them, or they
want to lay down the law on any subject.

Mrs Meg actually blushed at her son’s hearty praise, and could not
deny that the sound of applause was as sweet now as when she played
the Witch’s Curse and The Moorish Maiden’s Vow long years ago.

‘It’s perfectly absurd for me to do it, but I couldn’t resist when Jo
and Laurie made the part for me, and you children were to act in it.
The minute I get on the old mother’s dress I forget myself and feel
the same thrill at the sound of the bell that I used to feel when we
got up plays in the garret. If Daisy would only take the daughter’s
part it would be so complete; for with you and Josie I am hardly
acting, it is all so real.’

‘Especially the hospital scene, where you find the wounded son. Why,
mother, do you know when we did that at last rehearsal my face was
wet with real tears as you cried over me. It will bring down the
house; but don’t forget to wipe ’em off, or I shall sneeze,’ said
Demi, laughing at the recollection of his mother’s hit.

‘I won’t; but it almost broke my heart to see you so pale and
dreadful. I hope there will never he another war in my time, for I
should have to let you go; and I never want to live through the same
experience we had with father.’

‘Don’t you think Alice does the part better than Daisy would? Daisy
hasn’t a bit of the actress in her, and Alice puts life into the
dullest words she speaks. I think the Marquise is just perfect in our
piece,’ said Demi, strolling about the room as if the warmth of the
fire sent a sudden colour to his face.

‘So do I. She is a dear girl, and I’m proud and fond of her. Where is
she tonight?’

‘Pegging away at her Greek, I suppose. She usually is in the evening.
More’s the pity,’ added Demi, in a low tone, as he stared intently at
the book-case, though he couldn’t read a title.

‘Now, there is a girl after my own heart. Pretty, well-bred,
well-educated, and yet domestic, a real companion as well as
help-meet for some good and intelligent man. I hope she will find
one.’

‘So do I,’ muttered Demi.

Mrs Meg had taken up her work again, and was surveying a
half-finished buttonhole with so much interest that her son’s face
escaped her eye. He shed a beaming smile upon the rows of poets, as
if even in their glass prison they could sympathize and rejoice with
him at the first rosy dawn of the great passion which they knew so
well. But Demi was a wise youth, and never leaped before looking
carefully. He hardly knew his own heart yet, and was contented to
wait till the sentiment, the fluttering of those folded wings he
began to feel, should escape from the chrysalis and be ready to soar
away in the sunshine to seek and claim its lovely mate. He had said
nothing; but the brown eyes were eloquent, and there was an
unconscious underplot to all the little plays he and Alice Heath
acted so well together. She was busy with her books, bound to
graduate with high honours, and he was trying to do the same in that
larger college open to all, and where each man has his own prize to
win or lose. Demi had nothing but himself to offer and, being a
modest youth, considered that a poor gift till he had proved his
power to earn his living, and the right to take a woman’s happiness
into his keeping.

No one guessed that he had caught the fever except sharp-eyed Josie,
and she, having a wholesome fear of her brother – who could be rather
awful when she went too far – wisely contented herself with watching
him like a little cat, ready to pounce on the first visible sign of
weakness. Demi had taken to playing pensively upon his flute after he
was in his room for the night, making this melodious friend his
confidante, and breathing into it all the tender hopes and fears that
filled his heart. Mrs Meg, absorbed in domestic affairs, and Daisy,
who cared for no music but Nat’s violin, paid no heed to these
chamber concerts, but Josie always murmured to herself, with a
naughty chuckle, ‘Dick Swiveller is thinking of his Sophy Wackles,’
and bided her time to revenge certain wrongs inflicted upon her by
Demi, who always took Daisy’s side when she tried to curb the spirits
of her unruly little sister.

This evening she got her chance, and made the most of it. Mrs Meg was
just rounding off her buttonhole, and Demi still strolling restlessly
about the room, when a book was heard to slam in the study, followed
by an audible yawn and the appearance of the student looking as if
sleep and a desire for mischief were struggling which should be
master.

‘I heard my name; have you been saying anything bad about me?’ she
demanded, perching on the arm of an easychair.

Her mother told the good news, over which Josie duly rejoiced, and
Demi received her congratulations with a benignant air which made her
feel that too much satisfaction was not good for him, and incited her
to put a thorn into his bed of roses at once.

‘I caught something about the play just now, and I want to tell you
that I’m going to introduce a song into my part to liven it up a bit.
How would this do?’ and seating herself at the piano she began to
sing to these words the air of ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’:

‘Sweetest of maidens, oh, how can I tell

The love that transfigures the whole earth to me?

The longing that causes my bosom to swell,

When I dream of a life all devoted to thee?’

She got no further, for Demi, red with wrath, made a rush at her, and
the next moment a very agile young person was seen dodging round
tables and chairs with the future partner of Tiber & Co. in hot
pursuit. ‘You monkey, how dare you meddle with my papers?’ cried the
irate poet, making futile grabs at the saucy girl, who skipped to and
fro, waving a bit of paper tantalizingly before him.

‘Didn’t; found it in the big "Dic". Serves you right if you leave
your rubbish about. Don’t you like my song? It’s very pretty.’

‘I’ll teach you one that you won’t like if you don’t give me my
property.’

‘Come and get it if you can’; and Josie vanished into the study to
have out her squabble in peace, for Mrs Meg was already saying:

‘Children, children! don’t quarrel.’

The paper was in the fire by the time Demi arrived and he at once
calmed down, seeing that the bone of contention was out of the way.

‘I’m glad it’s burnt; I don’t care for it, only some verse I was
trying to set to music for one of the girls. But I’ll trouble you to
let my papers alone, or I shall take back the advice I gave mother
tonight about allowing you to act as much as you like.’

Josie was sobered at once by this dire threat, and in her most
wheedling tone begged to know what he had said. By way of heaping
coals of fire on her head he told her, and this diplomatic
performance secured him an ally on the spot.

‘You dear old boy! I’ll never tease you again though you moon and
spoon both day and night. If you stand by me, I’ll stand by you and
never say a word. See here! I’ve got a note for you from Alice.
Won’t that be a peace-offering and soothe your little feelings?’

Demi’s eyes sparkled as Josie held up a paper cocked hat, but as he
knew what was probably in it, he took the wind out of Josie’s sails,
and filled her with blank astonishment by saying carelessly:

‘That’s nothing; it’s only to say whether she will go to the concert
with us tomorrow night. You can read it if you like.’

With the natural perversity of her sex Josie ceased to be curious the
moment she was told to read it, and meekly handed it over; but she
watched Demi as he calmly read the two lines it contained and then
threw it into the fire. ‘Why, Jack, I thought you’d treasure every
scrap the "sweetest maid" touched. Don’t you care for her?’

‘Very much; we all do; but "mooning and spooning", as you elegantly
express it, is not in my line. My dear little girl, your plays make
you romantic, and because Alice and I act lovers sometimes you take
it into your silly head that we are really so. Don’t waste time
hunting mares nests, but attend to your own affairs and leave me to
mine. I forgive you, but don’t do it again; it’s bad taste, and
tragedy queens don’t romp.’

The last cut finished Josie; she humbly begged pardon and went off to
bed, while Demi soon followed, feeling that he had not only settled
himself but his too inquisitive little sister also. But if he had
seen her face as she listened to the soft wailing of his flute he
would not have been so sure, for she looked as cunning as a magpie as
she said, with a scornful sniff: ‘Pooh, you can’t deceive me; I know
Dick is serenading Sophy Wackles.’

 

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