Chapter 21 – Aslauga’s Knight

Louisa May Alcott2016年11月05日'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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It was curious to see the change which came over Dan after that talk.
A weight seemed off his mind; and though the old impetuous spirit
flashed out at times, he seemed intent on trying to show his
gratitude and love and honour to these true friends by a new humility
and confidence very sweet to them, very helpful to him. After
hearing the story from Mrs Jo, the Professor and Mr Laurie made no
allusion to it beyond the hearty hand-grasp, the look of compassion,
the brief word of good cheer in which men convey sympathy, and a
redoubled kindness which left no doubt of pardon. Mr Laurie began at
once to interest influential persons in Dan’s mission, and set in
motion the machinery which needs so much oiling before anything can
be done where Government is concerned. Mr Bhaer, with the skill of a
true teacher, gave Dan’s hungry mind something to do, and helped him
understand himself by carrying on the good chaplain’s task so
paternally that the poor fellow often said he felt as if he had found
a father. The boys took him to drive, and amused him with their
pranks and plans; while the women, old and young, nursed and petted
him till he felt like a sultan with a crowd of devoted slaves,
obedient to his lightest wish. A very little of this was enough for
Dan, who had a masculine horror of ‘molly-coddling’, and so brief an
acquaintance with illness that he rebelled against the doctor’s
orders to keep quiet; and it took all Mrs Jo’s authority and the
girls’ ingenuity to keep him from leaving his sofa long before
strained back and wounded head were well. Daisy cooked for him; Nan
attended to his medicines; Josie read aloud to while away the long
hours of inaction that hung so heavily on his hands; while Bess
brought all her pictures and casts to amuse him, and, at his special
desire, set up a modelling-stand in his parlour and began to mould
the buffalo head he gave her. Those afternoons seemed the pleasantest
part of his day; and Mrs Jo, busy in her study close by, could see
the friendly trio and enjoy the pretty pictures they made. The girls
were much flattered by the success of their efforts, and exerted
themselves to be very entertaining, consulting Dan’s moods with the
feminine tact most women creatures learn before they are out of
pinafores. When he was gay, the room rang with laughter; when gloomy,
they read or worked in respectful silence till their sweet patience
cheered him up again; and when in pain they hovered over him like ‘a
couple of angels’, as he said. He often called Josie ‘little mother’,
but Bess was always ‘Princess’; and his manner to the two cousins was
quite different. Josie sometimes fretted him with her fussy ways, the
long plays she liked to read, and the maternal scoldings she
administered when he broke the rules; for having a lord of creation
in her power was so delightful to her that she would have ruled him
with a rod of iron if he had submitted. To Bess, in her gentler
ministrations, he never showed either impatience or weariness, but
obeyed her least word, exerted himself to seem well in her presence,
and took such interest in her work that he lay looking at her with
unwearied eyes; while Josie read to him in her best style unheeded.

Mrs Jo observed this, and called them ‘Una and the Lion’, which
suited them very well, though the lion’s mane was shorn, and Una
never tried to bridle him. The elder ladies did their part in
providing delicacies and supplying all his wants; but Mrs Meg was
busy at home, Mrs Amy preparing for the trip to Europe in the spring,
and Mrs Jo hovering on the brink of a ‘vortex’ – for the forthcoming
book had been sadly delayed by the late domestic events. As she sat
at her desk, settling papers or meditatively nibbling her pen while
waiting for the divine afflatus to descend upon her, she often forgot
her fictitious heroes and heroines in studying the live models before
her, and thus by chance looks, words, and gestures discovered a
little romance unsuspected by anyone else.

The portiere between the rooms was usually drawn aside, giving a view
of the group in the large bay-window – Bess at one side, in her grey
blouse, busy with her tools; Josie at the other side with her book;
and between, on the long couch, propped with many cushions, lay Dan
in a many-hued eastern dressing-gown presented by Mr Laurie and worn
to please the girls, though the invalid much preferred an old jacket
‘with no confounded tail to bother over’. He faced Mrs Jo’s room, but
never seemed to see her, for his eyes were on the slender figure
before him, with the pale winter sunshine touching her golden head,
and the delicate hands that shaped the clay so deftly. Josie was just
visible, rocking violently in a little chair at the head of the
couch, and the steady murmur of her girlish voice was usually the
only sound that broke the quiet of the room, unless a sudden
discussion arose about the book or the buffalo.

Something in the big eyes, bigger and blacker than ever in the thin
white face, fixed, so steadily on one object, had a sort of
fascination for Mrs Jo after a time, and she watched the changes in
them curiously; for Dan’s mind was evidently not on the story, and he
often forgot to laugh or exclaim at the comic or exciting crises.
Sometimes they were soft and wistful, and the watcher was very glad
that neither damsel caught that dangerous look for when they spoke it
vanished; sometimes it was full of eager fire, and the colour came
and went rebelliously, in spite of his attempt to hide it with an
impatient gesture of hand or head; but oftenest it was dark, and sad,
and stern, as if those gloomy eyes looked out of captivity at some
forbidden light or joy. This expression came so often that it worried
Mrs Jo, and she longed to go and ask him what bitter memory
overshadowed those quiet hours. She knew that his crime and its
punishment must lie heavy on his mind; but youth, and time, and new
hopes would bring comfort, and help to wear away the first sharpness
of the prison brand. It lifted at other times, and seemed almost
forgotten when he joked with the boys, talked with old friends, or
enjoyed the first snows as he drove out every fair day. Why should
the shadow always fall so darkly on him in the society of these
innocent and friendly girls? They never seemed to see it, and if
either looked or spoke, a quick smile came like a sunburst through
the clouds to answer them. So Mrs Jo went on watching, wondering, and
discovering, till accident confirmed her fears.

Josie was called away one day, and Bess, tired of working, offered to
take her place if he cared for more reading.

‘I do; your reading suits me better than Jo’s. She goes so fast my
stupid head gets in a muddle and soon begins to ache. Don’t tell her;
she’s a dear little soul, and so good to sit here with a bear like

The smile was ready as Bess went to the table for a new book, the
last story being finished.

‘You are not a bear, but very good and patient, we think. It is
always hard for a man to be shut up, mamma says, and must be terrible
for you, who have always been so free.’

If Bess had not been reading titles she would have seen Dan shrink as
if her last words hurt him. He made no answer; but other eyes saw and
understood why he looked as if he would have liked to spring up and
rush away for one of his long races up the hill, as he used to do
when the longing for liberty grew uncontrollable. Moved by a sudden
impulse, Mrs Jo caught up her work-basket and went to join her
neighbours, feeling that a non-conductor might be needed; for Dan
looked like a thundercloud full of electricity.

‘What shall we read, Aunty? Dan doesn’t seem to care. You know his
taste; tell me something quiet and pleasant and short. Josie will be
back soon,’ said Bess, still turning over the books piled on the

Before Mrs Jo could answer, Dan pulled a shabby little volume from
under his pillow, and handing it to her said: ‘Please read the third
one; it’s short and pretty – I’m fond of it.’ The book opened at the
right place, as if the third story had been often read, and Bess
smiled as she saw the name.

‘Why, Dan, I shouldn’t think you’d care for this romantic German
tale. There is fighting in it; but it is very sentimental, if I
remember rightly.’

‘I know it; but I’ve read so few stories, I like the simple ones
best. Had nothing else to read sometimes; I guess I know it all by
heart, and never seem to be tired of those fighting fellows, and the
fiends and angels and lovely ladies. You read "Aslauga’s Knight", and
see if you don’t like it. Edwald was rather too soft for my fancy;
but Froda was first-rate and the spirit with the golden hair always
reminded me of you.’

As Dan spoke Mrs Jo settled herself where she could watch him in the
glass, and Bess took a large chair facing him, saying, as she put up
her hands to retie the ribbon that held the cluster of thick, soft
curls at the back of her head:

‘I hope Aslauga’s hair wasn’t as troublesome as mine, for it’s always
tumbling down. I’ll be ready in a minute.’

‘Don’t tie it up; please let it hang. I love to see it shine that way.
It will rest your head, and be just right for the story, Goldilocks,’
pleaded Dan, using the childish name and looking more like his boyish
self than he had done for many a day.

Bess laughed, shook down her pretty hair, and began to read, glad to
hide her face a little; for compliments made her shy, no matter who
paid them. Dan listened intently on; and Mrs Jo, with eyes that went
often from her needle to the glass, could see, without turning, how
he enjoyed every word as if it had more meaning for him than for the
other listeners. His face brightened wonderfully, and soon wore the
look that came when anything brave or beautiful inspired and touched
his better self. It was Fouque’s charming story of the knight Froda,
and the fair daughter of Sigurd, who was a sort of spirit, appearing
to her lover in hours of danger and trial, as well as triumph and
joy, till she became his guide and guard, inspiring him with courage,
nobleness, and truth, leading him to great deeds in the field,
sacrifices for those he loved, and victories over himself by the
gleaming of her golden hair, which shone on him in battle, dreams,
and perils by day and night, till after death he finds the lovely
spirit waiting to receive and to reward him.

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!

Beloved strife

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
suit him.

‘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
kills another – ,’


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
of sympathy:

‘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
answer for.

‘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!"’


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