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Chapter 22 – Positively Last Appearance

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

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‘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
heartily:

‘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
him.’

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.

‘Why?’

‘Other things to do.’

‘What?’

‘Well, brush-making for one thing.’

‘Don’t chaff a fellow. Tell true.’

‘I truly did.’

‘What for?’

‘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
rather not.’

‘What else did I say? Queer, what stuff a man will talk when his wits
are gone.’

‘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?’

‘Yes!

‘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
satisfaction.

‘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.’

‘I have.’

‘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?’

‘Only one.’

‘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,
wasn’t it?’

‘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,
heart’s-dearest.’

‘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
before her.

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
March family.

 

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