Chapter 17 – Composition Day

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

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"Hurry up, boys, it’s three o’clock, and Uncle Fritz likes us to be
punctual, you know," said Franz one Wednesday afternoon as a
bell rang, and a stream of literary-looking young gentlemen with
books and paper in their hands were seen going toward the

Tommy was in the school-room, bending over his desk, much
bedaubed with ink, flushed with the ardor of inspiration, and in a
great hurry as usual, for easy-going Bangs never was ready till the
very last minute. As Franz passed the door looking up laggards,
Tommy gave one last blot and flourish, and departed out the
window, waving his paper to dry as he went. Nan followed,
looking very important, with a large roll in her hand, and Demi
escorted Daisy, both evidently brimful of some delightful secret.

The museum was all in order, and the sunshine among the
hop-vines made pretty shadows on the floor as it peeped through
the great window. On one side sat Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer, on the
other was a little table on which the compositions were laid as
soon as read, and in a large semicircle sat the children on
camp-stools which occasionally shut up and let the sitter down,
thus preventing any stiffness in the assembly. As it took too much
time to have all read, they took turns, and on this Wednesday the
younger pupils were the chief performers, while the elder ones
listened with condescension and criticised freely.

"Ladies first; so Nan may begin," said Mr. Bhaer, when the settling
of stools and rustling of papers had subsided.

Nan took her place beside the little table, and, with a preliminary
giggle, read the following interesting essay on


"The sponge, my friends, is a most useful and interesting plant. It
grows on rocks under the water, and is a kind of sea-weed, I
believe. People go and pick it and dry it and wash it, because little
fish and insects live in the holes of the sponge; I found shells in my
new one, and sand. Some are very fine and soft; babies are washed
with them. The sponge has many uses. I will relate some of them,
and I hope my friends will remember what I say. One use is to
wash the face; I don’t like it myself, but I do it because I wish to be
clean. Some people don’t, and they are dirty." Here the eye of the
reader rested sternly upon Dick and Dolly, who quailed under it,
and instantly resolved to scrub themselves virtuously on all
occasions. "Another use is to wake people up; I allude to boys
par-tic -u-lar-ly." Another pause after the long word to enjoy the
smothered laugh that went round the room. "Some boys do not get
up when called, and Mary Ann squeezes the water out of a wet
sponge on their faces, and it makes them so mad they wake up."
Here the laugh broke out, and Emil said, as if he had been hit,

"Seems to me you are wandering from the subject."

"No, I ain’t; we are to write about vegetables or animals, and I’m
doing both: for boys are animals, aren’t they?" cried Nan; and,
undaunted by the indignant "No!" shouted at her, she calmly

"One more interesting thing is done with sponges, and this is when
doctors put ether on it, and hold it to people’s noses when they
have teeth out. I shall do this when I am bigger, and give ether to
the sick, so they will go to sleep and not feel me cut off their legs
and arms."

"I know somebody who killed cats with it," called out Demi, but
was promptly crushed by Dan, who upset his camp-stool and put a
hat over his face.

"I will not be interruckted," said Nan, frowning upon the unseemly
scrimmagers. Order was instantly restored, and the young lady
closed her remarks as follows:

"My composition has three morals, my friends." Somebody
groaned, but no notice was taken of the insult. "First, is keep your
faces clean second, get up early third, when the ether sponge is put
over your nose, breathe hard and don’t kick, and your teeth will
come out easy. I have no more to say." And Miss Nan sat down
amid tumultuous applause.

"That is a very remarkable composition; its tone is high, and there
is a good deal of humor in it. Very well done, Nan. Now, Daisy,"
and Mr. Bhaer smiled at one young lady as he beckoned the other.

Daisy colored prettily as she took her place, and said, in her
modest little voice,

"I’m afraid you won’t like mine; it isn’t nice and funny like Nan’s.
But I couldn’t do any better."

"We always like yours, Posy," said Uncle Fritz, and a gentle
murmur from the boys seemed to confirm the remark. Thus
encouraged, Daisy read her little paper, which was listened to with
respectful attention.


"The cat is a sweet animal. I love them very much. They are clean
and pretty, and catch rats and mice, and let you pet them, and are
fond of you if you are kind. They are very wise, and can find their
way anywhere. Little cats are called kittens, and are dear things. I
have two, named Huz and Buz, and their mother is Topaz, because
she has yellow eyes. Uncle told me a pretty story about a man
named Ma-ho-met. He had a nice cat, and when she was asleep on
his sleeve, and he wanted to go away, he cut off the sleeve so as
not to wake her up. I think he was a kind man. Some cats catch

"So do I!" cried Teddy, jumping up eager to tell about his trout.

"Hush!" said his mother, setting him down again as quickly as
possible, for orderly Daisy hated to be "interruckted," as Nan
expressed it.

"I read about one who used to do it very slyly. I tried to make
Topaz, but she did not like the water, and scratched me. She does
like tea, and when I play in my kitchen she pats the teapot with her
paw, till I give her some. She is a fine cat, she eats apple-pudding
and molasses. Most cats do not."

"That’s a first-rater," called out Nat, and Daisy retired, pleased with
the praise of her friend.

"Demi looks so impatient we must have him up at once or he won’t
hold out," said Uncle Fritz, and Demi skipped up with alacrity.

"Mine is a poem!" he announced in a tone of triumph, and read his
first effort in a loud and solemn voice:

"I write about the butterfly,

It is a pretty thing;

And flies about like the birds,

But it does not sing.

"First it is a little grub,

And then it is a nice yellow cocoon,

And then the butterfly

Eats its way out soon.

"They live on dew and honey,

They do not have any hive,

They do not sting like wasps, and bees, and hornets,

And to be as good as they are we should strive.

"I should like to be a beautiful butterfly,

All yellow, and blue, and green, and red;

But I should not like

To have Dan put camphor on my poor little head."

This unusual burst of genius brought down the house, and Demi
was obliged to read it again, a somewhat difficult task, as there
was no punctuation whatever, and the little poet’s breath gave out
before he got to the end of some of the long lines.

"He will be a Shakespeare yet," said Aunt Jo, laughing as if she
would die, for this poetic gem reminded her of one of her own,
written at the age of ten, and beginning gloomily,

"I wish I had a quiet tomb,

Beside a little rill;

Where birds, and bees, and butterflies,

Would sing upon the hill."

"Come on, Tommy. If there is as much ink inside your paper as
there is outside, it will be a long composition," said Mr. Bhaer,
when Demi had been induced to tear himself from his poem and
sit down.

"It isn’t a composition, it’s a letter. You see, I forgot all about its
being my turn till after school, and then I didn’t know what to
have, and there wasn’t time to read up; so I thought you wouldn’t
mind my taking a letter that I wrote to my Grandma. It’s got
something about birds in it, so I thought it would do."

With this long excuse, Tommy plunged into a sea of ink and
floundered through, pausing now and then to decipher one of his
own flourishes.

"MY DEAR GRANDMA, I hope you are well. Uncle James sent
me a pocket rifle. It is a beautiful little instrument of killing,
shaped like this [Here Tommy displayed a remarkable sketch of
what looked like an intricate pump, or the inside of a small
steam-engine] 44 are the sights; 6 is a false stock that fits in at A; 3
is the trigger, and 2 is the cock. It loads at the breech, and fires
with great force and straightness. I am going out shooting squirrels
soon. I shot several fine birds for the museum. They had speckled
breasts, and Dan liked them very much. He stuffed them tip-top,
and they sit on the tree quite natural, only one looks a little tipsy.
We had a Frenchman working here the other day, and Asia called
his name so funnily that I will tell you about it. His name was
Germain: first she called him Jerry, but we laughed at her, and she
changed it to Jeremiah; but ridicule was the result, so it became
Mr. Germany; but ridicule having been again resumed, it became
Garrymon, which it has remained ever since. I do not write often, I
am so busy; but I think of you often, and sympathize with you, and
sincerely hope you get on as well as can be expected without me.
Your affectionate grandson,


"P.S. ? If you come across any postage-stamps, remember me.

"N.B. Love to all, and a great deal to Aunt Almira. Does she make
any nice plum-cakes now?

"P.S. ? Mrs. Bhaer sends her respects.

"P.S. ? And so would Mr. B, if he knew I was in act to write.

"N.B. Father is going to give me a watch on my birthday. I am glad
as at present I have no means of telling time, and am often late at

"P.S. ? I hope to see you soon. Don’t you wish to send for me?

T. B. B."

As each postscript was received with a fresh laugh from the boys,
by the time he came to the sixth and last, Tommy was so
exhausted that he was glad to sit down and wipe his ruddy face.

"I hope the dear old lady will live through it," said Mr. Bhaer,
under cover of the noise.

"We won’t take any notice of the broad hint given in that last P.S.
The letter will be quite as much as she can bear without a visit
from Tommy," answered Mrs. Jo, remembering that the old lady
usually took to her bed after a visitation from her irrepressible

"Now, me," said Teddy, who had learned a bit of poetry, and was
so eager to say it that he had been bobbing up and down during the
reading, and could no longer be restrained.

"I’m afraid he will forget it if he waits; and I have had a deal of
trouble teaching him," said his mother.

Teddy trotted to the rostrum, dropped a curtsey and nodded his
head at the same time, as if anxious to suit every one; then, in his
baby voice, and putting the emphasis on the wrong words, he said
his verse all in one breath:

"Little drops of water,

Little drains of sand,

Mate a might okum (ocean),

And a peasant land.

"Little words of kindness,

Pokin evvy day,

Make a home a hebbin,

And hep us on a way."

Clapping his hands at the end, he made another double salutation,
and then ran to hide his head in his mother’s lap, quite overcome
by the success of his "piece," for the applause was tremendous.

Dick and Dolly did not write, but were encouraged to observe the
habits of animals and insects, and report what they saw. Dick liked
this, and always had a great deal to say; so, when his name was
called, he marched up, and, looking at the audience with his bright
confiding eyes, told his little story so earnestly that no one smiled
at his crooked body, because the "straight soul" shone through it

"I’ve been watching dragonflies, and I read about them in Dan’s
book, and I’ll try and tell you what I remember. There’s lots of
them flying round on the pond, all blue, with big eyes, and sort of
lace wings, very pretty. I caught one, and looked at him, and I
think he was the handsomest insect I ever saw. They catch littler
creatures than they are to eat, and have a queer kind of hook thing
that folds up when they ain’t hunting. It likes the sunshine, and
dances round all day. Let me see! what else was there to tell about?
Oh, I know! The eggs are laid in the water, and go down to the
bottom, and are hatched in the mud. Little ugly things come out of
’em; I can’t say the name, but they are brown, and keep having new
skins, and getting bigger and bigger. Only think! it takes them two
years to be a dragonfly! Now this is the curiousest part of it, so you
listen tight, for I don’t believe you know it. When it is ready it
knows somehow, and the ugly, grubby thing climbs up out of the
water on a flag or a bulrush, and bursts open its back."

"Come, I don’t believe that," said Tommy, who was not an
observant boy, and really thought Dick was "making up."

"It does burst open its back, don’t it?" and Dick appealed to Mr.
Bhaer, who nodded a very decided affirmative, to the little
speaker’s great satisfaction.

"Well, out comes the dragonfly, all whole, and he sits in the sun
sort of coming alive, you know; and he gets strong, and then he
spreads his pretty wings, and flies away up in the air, and never is
a grub any more. That’s all I know; but I shall watch and try to see
him do it, for I think it’s splendid to turn into a beautiful dragonfly,
don’t you?"

Dick had told his story well, and, when he described the flight of
the new-born insect, had waved his hands, and looked up as if he
saw, and wanted to follow it. Something in his face suggested to
the minds of the elder listeners the thought that some day little
Dick would have his wish, and after years of helplessness and pain
would climb up into the sun some happy day, and, leaving his poor
little body behind him, find a new lovely shape in a fairer world
than this. Mrs. Jo drew him to her side, and said, with a kiss on his
thin cheek,

"That is a sweet little story, dear, and you remembered it
wonderfully well. I shall write and tell your mother all about it;"
and Dick sat on her knee, contentedly smiling at the praise, and
resolving to watch well, and catch the dragonfly in the act of
leaving its old body for the new, and see how he did it. Dolly had a
few remarks to make upon the "Duck," and made them in a
sing-song tone, for he had learned it by heart, and thought it a great
plague to do it at all.

"Wild ducks are hard to kill; men hide and shoot at them, and have
tame ducks to quack and make the wild ones come where the men
can fire at them. They have wooden ducks made too, and they sail
round, and the wild ones come to see them; they are stupid, I think.
Our ducks are very tame. They eat a great deal, and go poking
round in the mud and water. They don’t take good care of their
eggs, but them spoil, and "

"Mine don’t!" cried Tommy.

"Well, some people’s do; Silas said so. Hens take good care of
little ducks, only they don’t like to have them go in the water, and
make a great fuss. But the little ones don’t care a bit. I like to eat
ducks with stuffing in them and lots of apple-sauce."

"I have something to say about owls," began Nat, who had
carefully prepared a paper upon this subject with some help from

"Owls have big heads, round eyes, hooked bills, and strong claws.
Some are gray, some white, some black and yellowish. Their
feathers are very soft, and stick out a great deal. They fly very
quietly, and hunt bats, mice, little birds, and such things. They
build nests in barns, hollow trees, and some take the nests of other
birds. The great horned owl has two eggs bigger than a hen’s and
reddish brown. The tawny owl has five eggs, white and smooth;
and this is the kind that hoots at night. Another kind sounds like a
child crying. They eat mice and bats whole, and the parts that they
cannot digest they make into little balls and spit out."

"My gracious! how funny!" Nan was heard to observe.

"They cannot see by day; and if they get out into the light, they go
flapping round half blind, and the other birds chase and peck at
them, as if they were making fun. The horned owl is very big,
‘most as big as the eagle. It eats rabbits, rats, snakes, and birds; and
lives in rocks and old tumble-down houses. They have a good
many cries, and scream like a person being choked, and say,
‘Waugh O! waugh O!’ and it scares people at night in the woods.
The white owl lives by the sea, and in cold places, and looks
something like a hawk. There is a kind of owl that makes holes to
live in like moles. It is called the burrowing owl, and is very small.
The barn-owl is the commonest kind; and I have watched one
sitting in a hole in a tree, looking like a little gray cat, with one eye
shut and the other open. He comes out at dusk, and sits round
waiting for the bats. I caught one, and here he is."

With that Nat suddenly produced from inside his jacket a little
downy bird, who blinked and ruffled his feathers, looking very
plump and sleepy and scared.

"Don’t touch him! He is going to show off," said Nat, displaying
his new pet with great pride. First he put a cocked hat on the bird’s
head, and the boys laughed at the funny effect; then he added a
pair of paper spectacles, and that gave the owl such a wise look
that they shouted with merriment. The performance closed with
making the bird angry, and seeing him cling to a handkerchief
upside down, pecking and "clucking," as Rob called it. He was
allowed to fly after that, and settled himself on the bunch of
pine-cones over the door, where he sat staring down at the
company with an air of sleepy dignity that amused them very

"Have you anything for us, George?" asked Mr. Bhaer, when the
room was still again.

"Well, I read and learned ever so much about moles, but I declare
I’ve forgotten every bit of it, except that they dig holes to live in,
that you catch them by pouring water down, and that they can’t
possibly live without eating very often;" and Stuffy sat down,
wishing he had not been too lazy to write out his valuable
observations, for a general smile went round when he mentioned
the last of the three facts which lingered in his memory.

"Then we are done for to-day," began Mr. Bhaer, but Tommy
called out in a great hurry,

"No we ain’t. Don’t you know? We must give the thing;" and he
winked violently as he made an eye-glass of his fingers.

"Bless my heart, I forgot! Now is your time, Tom;" and Mr. Bhaer
dropped into his seat again, while all the boys but Dan looked
mightily tickled at something.

Nat, Tommy, and Demi left the room, and speedily returned with a
little red morocco box set forth in state on Mrs. Jo’s best silver
salver. Tommy bore it, and, still escorted by Nat and Demi,
marched up to unsuspecting Dan, who stared at them as if he
thought they were going to make fun of him. Tommy had prepared
an elegant and impressive speech for the occasion, but when the
minute came, it all went out of his head, and he just said, straight
from his kindly boyish heart,

"Here, old fellow, we all wanted to give you something to kind of
pay for what happened awhile ago, and to show how much we
liked you for being such a trump. Please take it, and have a jolly
good time with it."

Dan was so surprised he could only get as red as the little box, and
mutter, "Thanky, boys!" as he fumbled to open it. But when he saw
what was inside, his face lighted up, and he seized the long desired
treasure, saying so enthusiastically that every one was satisfied,
though is language was anything but polished,

"What a stunner! I say, you fellows are regular bricks to give me
this; it’s just what I wanted. Give us your paw, Tommy."

Many paws were given, and heartily shaken, for the boys were
charmed with Dan’s pleasure, and crowded round him to shake
hands and expatiate on the beauties of their gift. In the midst of
this pleasant chatter, Dan’s eye went to Mrs. Jo, who stood outside
the group enjoying the scene with all her heart.

"No, I had nothing to do with it. The boys got it up all themselves,"
she said, answering the grateful look that seemed to thank her for
that happy moment. Dan smiled, and said, in a tone that only she
could understand,

"It’s you all the same;" and making his way through the boys, he
held out his hand first to her and then to the good Professor, who
was beaming benevolently on his flock.

He thanked them both with the silent, hearty squeeze he gave the
kind hands that had held him up, and led him into the safe refuge
of a happy home. Not a word was spoken, but they felt all he
would say, and little Teddy expressed his pleasure for them as he
leaned from his father’s arm to hug the boy, and say, in his baby

"My dood Danny! everybody loves him now."

"Come here, show off your spy-glass, Dan, and let us see some of
your magnified pollywogs and annymalcumisms as you call ’em,"
said Jack, who felt so uncomfortable during this scene that he
would have slipped away if Emil had not kept him.

"So I will, take a squint at that and see what you think of it," said
Dan, glad to show off his precious microscope.

He held it over a beetle that happened to be lying on the table, and
Jack bent down to take his squint, but looked up with an amazed
face, saying,

"My eye! what nippers the old thing has got! I see now why it hurts
so confoundedly when you grab a dorbug and he grabs back

"He winked at me," cried Nan, who had poked her head under
Jack’s elbow and got the second peep.

Every one took a look, and then Dan showed them the lovely
plumage on a moth’s wing, the four feathery corners to a hair, the
veins on a leaf, hardly visible to the naked eye, but like a thick net
through the wonderful little glass; the skin on their own fingers,
looking like queer hills and valleys; a cobweb like a bit of coarse
sewing silk, and the sting of a bee.

"It’s like the fairy spectacles in my story-book, only more curious,"
said Demi, enchanted with the wonders he saw.

"Dan is a magician now, and he can show you many miracles
going on all round you; for he has two things needful patience and
a love of nature. We live in a beautiful and wonderful world,
Demi, and the more you know about it the wiser and the better you
will be. This little glass will give you a new set of teachers, and
you may learn fine lessons from them if you will," said Mr. Bhaer,
glad to see how interested the boys were in the matter.

"Could I see anybody’s soul with this microscope if I looked hard?"
asked Demi, who was much impressed with the power of the bit of

"No, dear; it’s not powerful enough for that, and never can be made
so. You must wait a long while before your eyes are clear enough
to see the most invisible of God’s wonders. But looking at the
lovely things you can see will help you to understand the lovelier
things you can not see," answered Uncle Fritz, with his hand on the
boy’s head.

"Well, Daisy and I both think that if there are any angels, their
wings look like that butterfly’s as we see it through the glass, only
more soft and gold."

"Believe it if you like, and keep your own little wings as bright and
beautiful, only don’t fly away for a long time yet."

"No, I won’t," and Demi kept his word.

"Good-by, my boys; I must go now, but I leave you with our new
Professor of Natural History;" and Mrs. Jo went away well pleased
with that composition day.


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