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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLittle Men - Chapter XX. ROUND THE FIRE
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Little Men - Chapter XX. ROUND THE FIRE Post by :berle1 Category :Long Stories Author :Louisa May Alcott Date :February 2011 Read :2995

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Little Men - Chapter XX. ROUND THE FIRE

With the October frosts came the cheery fires in the great
fireplaces; and Demi's dry pine-chips helped Dan's oak-knots to
blaze royally, and go roaring up the chimney with a jolly sound.
All were glad to gather round the hearth, as the evenings grew
longer, to play games, read, or lay plans for the winter. But the
favorite amusement was story-telling, and Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer
were expected to have a store of lively tales always on hand. Their
supply occasionally gave out, and then the boys were thrown upon
their own resources, which were not always successful.
Ghost-parties were the rage at one time; for the fun of the thing
consisted in putting out the lights, letting the fire die down, and
then sitting in the dark, and telling the most awful tales they could
invent. As this resulted in scares of all sorts among the boys,
Tommy's walking in his sleep on the shed roof, and a general state
of nervousness in the little ones, it was forbidden, and they fell
back on more harmless amusements.

One evening, when the small boys were snugly tucked in bed, and
the older lads were lounging about the school-room fire, trying to
decide what they should do, Demi suggested a new way of settling
the question.

Seizing the hearth-brush, he marched up and down the room,
saying, "Row, row, row;" and when the boys, laughing and
pushing, had got into line, he said, "Now, I'll give you two minutes
to think of a play." Franz was writing, and Emil reading the Life of
Lord Nelson, and neither joined the party, but the others thought
hard, and when the time was up were ready to reply.

"Now, Tom!" and the poker softly rapped him on the head.

"Blind-man's Buff."

"Jack!"

"Commerce; a good round game, and have cents for the pool."

"Uncle forbids our playing for money. Dan, what do you want?"

"Let's have a battle between the Greeks and Romans."

"Stuffy?"

"Roast apples, pop corn, and crack nuts."

"Good! good!" cried several; and when the vote was taken, Stuffy's
proposal carried the day.

Some went to the cellar for apples, some to the garret for nuts, and
others looked up the popper and the corn.

"We had better ask the girls to come in, hadn't we?" said Demi, in
a sudden fit of politeness.

"Daisy pricks chestnuts beautifully," put in Nat, who wanted his
little friend to share the fun.

"Nan pops corn tip-top, we must have her," added Tommy.

"Bring in your sweethearts then, we don't mind," said Jack, who
laughed at the innocent regard the little people had for one
another.

"You shan't call my sister a sweetheart; it is so silly!" cried Demi,
in a way that made Jack laugh.

"She is Nat's darling, isn't she, old chirper?"

"Yes, if Demi don't mind. I can't help being fond of her, she is so
good to me," answered Nat, with bashful earnestness, for Jack's
rough ways disturbed him.

"Nan is my sweetheart, and I shall marry her in about a year, so
don't you get in the way, any of you," said Tommy, stoutly; for he
and Nan had settled their future, child-fashion, and were to live in
the willow, lower down a basket for food, and do other charmingly
impossible things.

Demi was quenched by the decision of Bangs, who took him by
the arm and walked him off to get the ladies. Nan and Daisy were
sewing with Aunt Jo on certain small garments, for Mrs. Carney's
newest baby.

"Please, ma'am, could you lend us the girls for a little while? We'll
be very careful of them," said Tommy, winking one eye to express
apples, snapping his fingers to signify pop-corn, and gnashing his
teeth to convey the idea of nut-cracking.

The girls understood this pantomime at once, and began to pull of
their thimbles before Mrs. Jo could decide whether Tommy was
going into convulsions or was brewing some unusual piece of
mischief. Demi explained with elaboration, permission was readily
granted, and the boys departed with their prize.

"Don't you speak to Jack," whispered Tommy, as he and Nan
promenaded down the hall to get a fork to prick the apples.

"Why not?"

"He laughs at me, so I don't wish you to have any thing to do with
him."

"Shall, if I like," said Nan, promptly resenting this premature
assumption of authority on the part of her lord.

"Then I won't have you for my sweetheart."

"I don't care."

"Why, Nan, I thought you were fond of me!" and Tommy's voice
was full of tender reproach.

"If you mind Jack's laughing I don't care for you one bit."

"Then you may take back your old ring; I won't wear it any
longer;" and Tommy plucked off a horsehair pledge of affection
which Nan had given him in return for one made of a lobster's
feeler.

"I shall give it to Ned," was her cruel reply; for Ned liked Mrs.
Giddy-gaddy, and had turned her clothespins, boxes, and spools
enough to set up housekeeping with.

Tommy said, "Thunder turtles!" as the only vent equal to the
pent-up anguish of the moment, and, dropping Nan's arm, retired
in high dudgeon, leaving her to follow with the fork, a neglect
which naughty Nan punished by proceeding to prick his heart with
jealousy as if it were another sort of apple.

The hearth was swept, and the rosy Baldwins put down to roast. A
shovel was heated, and the chestnuts danced merrily upon it, while
the corn popped wildly in its wire prison. Dan cracked his best
walnuts, and every one chattered and laughed, while the rain beat
on the window-pane and the wind howled round the house.

"Why is Billy like this nut?" asked Emil, who was frequently
inspired with bad conundrums.

"Because he is cracked," answered Ned.

"That's not fair; you mustn't make fun of Billy, because he can't hit
back again. It's mean," cried Dan, smashing a nut wrathfully.

"To what family of insects does Blake belong?" asked peacemaker
Franz, seeing that Emil looked ashamed and Dan lowering.

"Gnats," answered Jack.

"Why is Daisy like a bee?" cried Nat, who had been wrapt in
thought for several minutes.

"Because she is queen of the hive," said Dan.

"No."

"Because she is sweet."

"Bees are not sweet."

"Give it up."

"Because she makes sweet things, is always busy, and likes
flowers," said Nat, piling up his boyish compliments till Daisy
blushed like a rosy clover.

"Why is Nan like a hornet?" demanded Tommy, glowering at her,
and adding, without giving any one time to answer, "Because she
isn't sweet, makes a great buzzing about nothing, and stings like
fury."

"Tommy's mad, and I'm glad," cried Ned, as Nan tossed her head
and answered quickly

"What thing in the china-closet is Tom like?"

"A pepper pot," answered Ned, giving Nan a nut meat with a
tantalizing laugh that made Tommy feel as if he would like to
bounce up like a hot chestnut and hit somebody.

Seeing that ill-humor was getting the better of the small supply of
wit in the company, Franz cast himself into the breach again.

"Let's make a law that the first person who comes into the room
shall tell us a story. No matter who it is, he must do it, and it will
be fun to see who comes first."

The others agreed, and did not have to wait long, for a heavy step
soon came clumping through the hall, and Silas appeared, bearing
an armful of wood. He was greeted by a general shout, and stood
staring about him with a bewildered grin on his big red face, till
Franz explained the joke.

"Sho! I can't tell a story," he said, putting down his load and
preparing to leave the room. But the boys fell upon him, forced
him into a seat, and held him there, laughing, and clamoring for
their story, till the good-natured giant was overpowered.

"I don't know but jest one story, and that's about a horse," he said,
much flattered by the reception he received.

"Tell it! tell it!" cried the boys.

"Wal," began Silas, tipping his chair back against the wall, and
putting his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, "I jined a
cavalry regiment durin' the war, and see a consid'able amount of
fightin'. My horse, Major, was a fust-rate animal, and I was as fond
on him as ef he'd ben a human critter. He warn't harnsome, but he
was the best-tempered, stiddyest, lovenest brute I ever see. I fust
battle we went into, he gave me a lesson that I didn't forgit in a
hurry, and I'll tell you how it was. It ain't no use tryin' to picter the
noise and hurry, and general horridness of a battle to you young
fellers, for I ain't no words to do it in; but I'm free to confess that I
got so sort of confused and upset at the fust on it, that I didn't know
what I was about. We was ordered to charge, and went ahead like
good ones, never stoppin' to pick up them that went down in the
scrimmage. I got a shot in the arm, and was pitched out of the
saddle don't know how, but there I was left behind with two or
three others, dead and wounded, for the rest went on, as I say. Wal,
I picked myself up and looked round for Major, feeling as ef I'd
had about enough for that spell. I didn't see him nowhere, and was
kinder walking back to camp, when I heard a whinny that sounded
nateral. I looked round, and there was Major stopping for me a
long way off, and lookin' as ef he didn't understand why I was
loiterin' behind. I whistled, and he trotted up to me as I'd trained
him to do. I mounted as well as I could with my left arm bleedin'
and was for going on to camp, for I declare I felt as sick and
wimbly as a woman; folks often do in their fust battle. But, no sir!
Major was the bravest of the two, and he wouldn't go, not a peg; he
jest rared up, and danced, and snorted, and acted as ef the smell of
powder and the noise had drove him half wild. I done my best, but
he wouldn't give in, so I did; and what do you think that plucky
brute done? He wheeled slap round, and galloped back like a
hurricane, right into the thickest of the scrimmage!"

"Good for him!" cried Dan excitedly, while the other boys forgot
apples and nuts in their interest.

"I wish I may die ef I warn't ashamed of myself," continued Silas,
warming up at the recollection of that day. "I was mad as a hornet,
and I forgot my waound, and jest pitched in, rampagin' raound like
fury till there come a shell into the midst of us, and in bustin'
knocked a lot of us flat. I didn't know nothin' for a spell, and when
I come-to, the fight was over just there, and I found myself layin'
by a wall of poor Major long-side wuss wounded than I was. My
leg was broke, and I had a ball in my shoulder, but he, poor old
feller! was all tore in the side with a piece of that blasted shell."

"O Silas! what did you do?" cried Nan, pressing close to him with
a face full of eager sympathy and interest.

"I dragged myself nigher, and tried to stop the bleedin' with sech
rags as I could tear off of me with one hand. But it warn't no use,
and he lay moanin' with horrid pain, and lookin' at me with them
lovin' eyes of his, till I thought I couldn't bear it. I give him all the
help I could, and when the sun got hotter and hotter, and he began
to lap out his tongue, I tried to get to a brook that was a good piece
away, but I couldn't do it, being stiff and faint, so I give it up and
fanned him with my hat. Now you listen to this, and when you hear
folks comin' down on the rebs, you jest remember what one on 'em
did, and give him credit of it. I poor feller in gray laid not fur off,
shot through the lungs and dyin' fast. I'd offered him my
handkerchief to keep the sun off his face, and he'd thanked me
kindly, for in sech times as that men don't stop to think on which
side they belong, but jest buckle-to and help one another. When he
see me mournin' over Major and tryin' to ease his pain, he looked
up with his face all damp and white with sufferin', and sez he,
'There's water in my canteen; take it, for it can't help me,' and he
flung it to me. I couldn't have took it ef I hadn't had a little brandy
in a pocket flask, and I made him drink it. It done him good, and I
felt as much set up as if I'd drunk it myself. It's surprisin' the good
sech little things do folks sometime;" and Silas paused as if he felt
again the comfort of that moment when he and his enemy forgot
their feud, and helped one another like brothers.

"Tell about Major," cried the boys, impatient for the catastrophe.

"I poured the water over his poor pantin' tongue, and ef ever a
dumb critter looked grateful, he did then. But it warn't of much
use, for the dreadful waound kep on tormentin' him, till I couldn't
bear it any longer. It was hard, but I done it in mercy, and I know
he forgive me."

"What did you do?" asked Emil, as Silas stopped abruptly with a
loud "hem," and a look in his rough face that made Daisy go and
stand by him with her little hand on his knee.

"I shot him."

Quite a thrill went through the listeners as Silas said that, for
Major seemed a hero in their eyes, and his tragic end roused all
their sympathy.

"Yes, I shot him, and put him out of his misery. I patted him fust,
and said, 'Good-by;' then I laid his head easy on the grass, give a
last look into his lovin' eyes, and sent a bullet through his head. He
hardly stirred, I aimed so true, and when I seen him quite still, with
no more moanin' and pain, I was glad, and yet wal, I don't know as
I need by ashamed on't I jest put my arms raound his neck and
boo-hooed like a great baby. Sho! I didn't know I was sech a fool;"
and Silas drew his sleeve across his eyes, as much touched by
Daisy's sob, as by the memory of faithful Major.

No one spoke for a minute, because the boys were as quick to feel
the pathos of the little story as tender-hearted Daisy, though they
did not show it by crying.

"I'd like a horse like that," said Dan, half-aloud.

"Did the rebel man die, too?" asked Nan, anxiously.

"Not then. We laid there all day, and at night some of our fellers
came to look after the missing ones. They nat'rally wanted to take
me fust, but I knew I could wait, and the rebel had but one chance,
maybe, so I made them carry him off right away. He had jest
strength enough to hold out his hand to me and say, 'Thanky,
comrade!' and them was the last words he spoke, for he died an
hour after he got to the hospital-tent."

"How glad you must have been that you were kind to him!" said
Demi, who was deeply impressed by this story.

"Wal, I did take comfort thinkin' of it, as I laid there alone for a
number of hours with my head on Major's neck, and see the moon
come up. I'd like to have buried the poor beast decent, but it warn't
possible; so I cut off a bit of his mane, and I've kep it ever sence.
Want to see it, sissy?"

"Oh, yes, please," answered Daisy, wiping away her tears to look.

Silas took out an old "wallet" as he called his pocket-book, and
produced from an inner fold a bit of brown paper, in which was a
rough lock of white horse-hair. The children looked at it silently,
as it lay in the broad palm, and no one found any thing to ridicule
in the love Silas bore his good horse Major.

"That is a sweet story, and I like it, though it did make me cry.
Thank you very much, Si," and Daisy helped him fold and put
away his little relic; while Nan stuffed a handful of pop-corn into
his pocket, and the boys loudly expressed their flattering opinions
of his story, feeling that there had been two heroes in it.

He departed, quite overcome by his honors, and the little
conspirators talked the tale over, while they waited for their next
victim. It was Mrs. Jo, who came in to measure Nan for some new
pinafores she was making for her. They let her get well in, and
then pounced upon her, telling her the law, and demanding the
story. Mrs. Jo was very much amused at the new trap, and
consented at once, for the sound of happy voices had been coming
across the hall so pleasantly that she quite longed to join them, and
forget her own anxious thoughts of Sister Meg.

"Am I the first mouse you have caught, you sly pussies-in-boots?"
she asked, as she was conducted to the big chair, supplied with
refreshments, and surrounded by a flock of merry-faced listeners.

They told her about Silas and his contribution, and she slapped her
forehead in despair, for she was quite at her wits' end, being called
upon so unexpectedly for a bran new tale.

"What shall I tell about?" she said.

"Boys," was the general answer.

"Have a party in it," said Daisy.

"And something good to eat," added Stuffy.

"That reminds me of a story, written years ago, by a dear old lady.
I used to be very fond of it, and I fancy you will like it, for it has
both boys, and 'something good to eat' in it."

"What is it called?" asked Demi.

"'The Suspected Boy.' "

Nat looked up from the nuts he was picking, and Mrs. Jo smiled at
him, guessing what was in his mind.

"Miss Crane kept a school for boys in a quiet little town, and a
very good school it was, of the old-fashioned sort. Six boys lived
in her house, and four or five more came in from the town. Among
those who lived with her was one named Lewis White. Lewis was
not a bad boy, but rather timid, and now and then he told a lie. One
day a neighbor sent Miss Crane a basket of gooseberries. There
were not enough to go round, so kind Miss Crane, who liked to
please her boys, went to work and made a dozen nice little
gooseberry tarts."

"I'd like to try gooseberry tarts. I wonder if she made them as I do
my raspberry ones," said Daisy, whose interest in cooking had
lately revived.

"Hush," said Nat, tucking a plump pop-corn into her mouth to
silence her, for he felt a particular interest in this tale, and thought
it opened well.

"When the tarts were done, Miss Crane put them away in the best
parlor closet, and said not a word about them, for she wanted to
surprise the boys at tea-time. When the minute came and all were
seated at table, she went to get her tarts, but came back looking
much troubled, for what do you think had happened?"

"Somebody had hooked them!" cried Ned.

"No, there they were, but some one had stolen all the fruit out of
them by lifting up the upper crust and then putting it down after
the gooseberry had been scraped out."

"What a mean trick!" and Nan looked at Tommy, as if to imply
that he would do the same.

"When she told the boys her plan and showed them the poor little
patties all robbed of their sweetness, the boys were much grieved
and disappointed, and all declared that they knew nothing about
the matter. 'Perhaps the rats did it,' said Lewis, who was among the
loudest to deny any knowledge of the tarts. 'No, rats would have
nibbled crust and all, and never lifted it up and scooped out the
fruit. Hands did that,' said Miss Crane, who was more troubled
about the lie that some one must have told than about her lost
patties. Well, they had supper and went to bed, but in the night
Miss Crane heard some one groaning, and going to see who it was
she found Lewis in great pain. He had evidently eaten something
that disagreed with him, and was so sick that Miss Crane was
alarmed, and was going to send for the doctor, when Lewis
moaned out, 'It's the gooseberries; I ate them, and I must tell before
I die,' for the thought of a doctor frightened him. 'If that is all, I'll
give you an emetic and you will soon get over it,' said Miss Crane.
So Lewis had a good dose, and by morning was quite comfortable.
'Oh, don't tell the boys; they will laugh at me so,' begged the
invalid. Kind Miss Crane promised not to, but Sally, the girl, told
the story, and poor Lewis had no peace for a long time. His mates
called him Old Gooseberry, and were never tired of asking him the
price of tarts."

"Served him right," said Emil.

"Badness always gets found out," added Demi, morally.

"No, it don't," muttered Jack, who was tending the apples with
great devotion, so that he might keep his back to the rest and
account for his red face.

"Is that all?" asked Dan.

"No, that is only the first part; the second part is more interesting.
Some time after this a peddler came by one day and stopped to
show his things to the boys, several of whom bought
pocket-combs, jew's-harps, and various trifles of that sort. Among
the knives was a little white-handled penknife that Lewis wanted
very much, but he had spent all his pocket-money, and no one had
any to lend him. He held the knife in his hand, admiring and
longing for it, till the man packed up his goods to go, then he
reluctantly laid it down, and the man went on his way. The next
day, however, the peddler returned to say that he could not find
that very knife, and thought he must have left it at Miss Crane's. It
was a very nice one with a pearl handle, and he could not afford to
lose it. Every one looked, and every one declared they knew
nothing about it. 'This young gentleman had it last, and seemed to
want it very much. Are you quite sure you put it back?' said the
man to Lewis, who was much troubled at the loss, and vowed over
and over again that he did return it. His denials seemed to do no
good, however, for every one was sure he had taken it, and after a
stormy scene Miss Crane paid for it, and the man went grumbling
away."

"Did Lewis have it?" cried Nat, much excited.

"You will see. Now poor Lewis had another trial to bear, for the
boys were constantly saying, 'Lend me your pearl-handled knife,
Gooseberry,' and things of that sort, till Lewis was so unhappy he
begged to be sent home. Miss Crane did her best to keep the boys
quiet, but it was hard work, for they would tease, and she could not
be with them all the time. That is one of the hardest things to teach
boys; they won't 'hit a fellow when he is down,' as they say, but
they will torment him in little ways till he would thank them to
fight it out all round."

"I know that," said Dan.

"So do I," added Nat, softly.

Jack said nothing, but he quite agreed; for he knew that the elder
boys despised him, and let him alone for that very reason.

"Do go on about poor Lewis, Aunt Jo. I don't believe he took the
knife, but I want to be sure," said Daisy, in great anxiety.

"Well, week after week went on and the matter was not cleared up.
The boys avoided Lewis, and he, poor fellow, was almost sick with
the trouble he had brought upon himself. He resolved never to tell
another lie, and tried so hard that Miss Crane pitied and helped
him, and really came at last to believe that he did not take the
knife. Two months after the peddler's first visit, he came again,
and the first thing he said was

"'Well, ma'am, I found that knife after all. It had slipped behind the
lining of my valise, and fell out the other day when I was putting in
a new stock of goods. I thought I'd call and let you know, as you
paid for it, and maybe would like it, so here it is.' "

"The boys had all gathered round, and at these words they felt
much ashamed, and begged Lewis' pardon so heartily that he could
not refuse to give it. Miss Crane presented the knife to him, and he
kept it many years to remind him of the fault that had brought him
so much trouble."

"I wonder why it is that things you eat on the sly hurt you, and
don't when you eat them at table," observed Stuffy, thoughtfully.

"Perhaps your conscience affects your stomach," said Mrs. Jo,
smiling at his speech.

"He is thinking of the cucumbers," said Ned, and a gale of
merriment followed the words, for Stuffy's last mishap had been a
funny one.

He ate two large cucumbers in private, felt very ill, and confided
his anguish to Ned, imploring him to do something. Ned
good-naturedly recommended a mustard plaster and a hot flat iron
to the feet; only in applying these remedies he reversed the order
of things, and put the plaster on the feet, the flat iron on the
stomach, and poor Stuffy was found in the barn with blistered
soles and a scorched jacket.

"Suppose you tell another story, that was such an interesting one,"
said Nat, as the laughter subsided.

Before Mrs. Jo could refuse these insatiable Oliver Twists, Rob
walked into the room trailing his little bed-cover after him, and
wearing an expression of great sweetness as he said, steering
straight to his mother as a sure haven of refuge,

"I heard a great noise, and I thought sumfin dreffle might have
happened, so I came to see."

"Did you think I would forget you, naughty boy?" asked his
mother, trying to look stern.

"No; but I thought you'd feel better to see me right here,"
responded the insinuating little party.

"I had much rather see you in bed, so march straight up again,
Robin."

"Everybody that comes in here has to tell a story, and you can't so
you'd better cut and run," said Emil.

"Yes, I can! I tell Teddy lots of ones, all about bears and moons,
and little flies that say things when they buzz," protested Rob,
bound to stay at any price.

"Tell one now, then, right away," said Dan, preparing to shoulder
and bear him off.

"Well, I will; let me fink a minute," and Rob climbed into his
mother's lap, where he was cuddled, with the remark

"It is a family failing, this getting out of bed at wrong times. Demi
used to do it; and as for me, I was hopping in and out all night
long. Meg used to think the house was on fire, and send me down
to see, and I used to stay and enjoy myself, as you mean to, my bad
son."

"I've finked now," observed Rob, quite at his ease, and eager to
win the entree into this delightful circle.

Every one looked and listened with faces full of suppressed
merriment as Rob, perched on his mother's knee and wrapped in
the gay coverlet, told the following brief but tragic tale with an
earnestness that made it very funny:

"Once a lady had a million children, and one nice little boy. She
went up-stairs and said, 'You mustn't go in the yard.' But he
wented, and fell into the pump, and was drowned dead."

"Is that all?" asked Franz, as Rob paused out of breath with this
startling beginning.

"No, there is another piece of it," and Rob knit his downy
eyebrows in the effort to evolve another inspiration.

"What did the lady do when he fell into the pump?" asked his
mother, to help him on.

"Oh, she pumped him up, and wrapped him in a newspaper, and
put him on a shelf to dry for seed."

A general explosion of laughter greeted this surprising conclusion,
and Mrs. Jo patted the curly head, as she said, solemnly,

"My son, you inherit your mother's gift of story-telling. Go where
glory waits thee."

"Now I can stay, can't I? Wasn't it a good story?" cried Rob, in high
feather at his superb success.

"You can stay till you have eaten these twelve pop-corns," said his
mother, expecting to see them vanish at one mouthful.

But Rob was a shrewd little man, and got the better of her by
eating them one by one very slowly, and enjoying every minute
with all his might.

"Hadn't you better tell the other story, while you wait for him?"
said Demi, anxious that no time should be lost.

"I really have nothing but a little tale about a wood-box," said Mrs.
Jo, seeing that Rob had still seven corns to eat.

"Is there a boy in it?"

"It is all boy."

"Is it true?" asked Demi.

"Every bit of it."

"Goody! tell on, please."

"James Snow and his mother lived in a little house, up in New
Hampshire. They were poor, and James had to work to help his
mother, but he loved books so well he hated work, and just wanted
to sit and study all day long."

"How could he! I hate books, and like work," said Dan, objecting
to James at the very outset.

"It takes all sorts of people to make a world; workers and students
both are needed, and there is room for all. But I think the workers
should study some, and the students should know how to work if
necessary," answered Mrs. Jo, looking from Dan to Demi with a
significant expression.

"I'm sure I do work," and Demi showed three small hard spots in
his little palm, with pride.

"And I'm sure I study," added Dan, nodding with a groan toward
the blackboard full of neat figures.

"See what James did. He did not mean to be selfish, but his mother
was proud of him, and let him do as he liked, working by herself
that he might have books and time to read them. One autumn
James wanted to go to school, and went to the minister to see if he
would help him, about decent clothes and books. Now the minister
had heard the gossip about James's idleness, and was not inclined
to do much for him, thinking that a boy who neglected his mother,
and let her slave for him, was not likely to do very well even at
school. But the good man felt more interested when he found how
earnest James was, and being rather an odd man, he made this
proposal to the boy, to try now sincere he was.

"'I will give you clothes and books on one condition, James.'

"'What is that, sir?' and the boy brightened up at once.

"'You are to keep your mother's wood-box full all winter long, and
do it yourself. If you fail, school stops.' James laughed at the queer
condition and readily agreed to it, thinking it a very easy one.

"He began school, and for a time got on capitally with the
wood-box, for it was autumn, and chips and brushwood were
plentiful. He ran out morning and evening and got a basket full, or
chopped up the cat sticks for the little cooking stove, and as his
mother was careful and saving, the task was not hard. But in
November the frost came, the days were dull and cold, and wood
went fast. His mother bought a load with her own earnings, but it
seemed to melt away, and was nearly gone, before James
remembered that he was to get the next. Mrs. Snow was feeble and
lame with rheumatism, and unable to work as she had done, so
James had to put down the books, and see what he could do.

"It was hard, for he was going on well, and so interested in his
lessons that he hated to stop except for food and sleep. But he
knew the minister would keep his word, and much against his will
James set about earning money in his spare hours, lest the
wood-box should get empty. He did all sorts of things, ran errands,
took care of a neighbor's cow, helped the old sexton dust and warm
the church on Sundays, and in these ways got enough to buy fuel in
small quantities. But it was hard work; the days were short, the
winter was bitterly cold, and precious time went fast, and the dear
books were so fascinating, that it was sad to leave them, for dull
duties that never seemed done.

"The minister watched him quietly, and seeing that he was in
earnest helped him without his knowledge. He met him often
driving the wood sleds from the forest, where the men were
chopping and as James plodded beside the slow oxen, he read or
studied, anxious to use every minute. 'The boy is worth helping,
this lesson will do him good, and when he has learned it, I will
give him an easier one,' said the minister to himself, and on
Christmas eve a splendid load of wood was quietly dropped at the
door of the little house, with a new saw and a bit of paper, saying
only

"'The Lord helps those who help themselves.'

"Poor James expected nothing, but when he woke on that cold
Christmas morning, he found a pair of warm mittens, knit by his
mother, with her stiff painful fingers. This gift pleased him very
much, but her kiss and tender look as she called him her 'good son,'
was better still. In trying to keep her warm, he had warmed his
own heart, you see, and in filling the wood-box he had also filled
those months with duties faithfully done. He began to see this, to
feel that there was something better than books, and to try to learn
the lessons God set him, as well as those his school-master gave.

"When he saw the great pile of oak and pine logs at his door, and
read the little paper, he knew who sent it, and understood the
minister's plan; thanked him for it, and fell to work with all his
might. Other boys frolicked that day, but James sawed wood, and I
think of all the lads in the town the happiest was the one in the
new mittens, who whistled like a blackbird as he filled his
mother's wood-box."

"That's a first rater!" cried Dan, who enjoyed a simple
matter-of-face story better than the finest fairy tale; "I like that
fellow after all."

"I could saw wood for you, Aunt Jo!" said Demi, feeling as if a
new means of earning money for his mother was suggested by the
story.

"Tell about a bad boy. I like them best," said Nan.

"You'd better tell about a naughty cross-patch of a girl," said
Tommy, whose evening had been spoilt by Nan's unkindness. It
made his apple taste bitter, his pop-corn was insipid, his nuts were
hard to crack, and the sight of Ned and Nan on one bench made
him feel his life a burden.

But there were no more stories from Mrs. Jo, for on looking down
at Rob he was discovered to be fast asleep with his last corn firmly
clasped in his chubby hand. Bundling him up in his coverlet, his
mother carried him away and tucked him up with no fear of his
popping out again.

"Now let's see who will come next," said Emil, setting the door
temptingly ajar.

Mary Ann passed first, and he called out to her, but Silas had
warned her, and she only laughed and hurried on in spite of their
enticements. Presently a door opened, and a strong voice was
heard humming in the hall

"Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten

Dass ich so traurig bin."

"It's Uncle Fritz; all laugh loud and he will be sure to come in,"
said Emil.

A wild burst of laughter followed, and in came Uncle Fritz, asking,
"What is the joke, my lads?"

"Caught! caught! you can't go out till you've told a story," cried the
boys, slamming the door.

"So! that is the joke then? Well, I have no wish to go, it is so
pleasant here, and I pay my forfeit at once," which he did by sitting
down and beginning instantly

"A long time ago your Grandfather, Demi, went to lecture in a
great town, hoping to get some money for a home for little orphans
that some good people were getting up. His lecture did well, and
he put a considerable sum of money in his pocket, feeling very
happy about it. As he was driving in a chaise to another town, he
came to a lonely bit of road, late in the afternoon, and was just
thinking what a good place it was for robbers when he saw a
bad-looking man come out of the woods in front of him and go
slowly along as if waiting till he came up. The thought of the
money made Grandfather rather anxious, and at first he had a mind
to turn round and drive away. But the horse was tired, and then he
did not like to suspect the man, so he kept on, and when he got
nearer and saw how poor and sick and ragged the stranger looked,
his heart reproached him, and stopping, he said in a kind voice

"'My friend, you look tired; let me give you a lift.' The man seemed
surprised, hesitated a minute, and then got in. He did not seem
inclined to talk, but Grandfather kept on in his wise, cheerful way,
speaking of what a hard year it had been, how much the poor had
suffered, and how difficult it was to get on sometimes. The man
slowly softened a little, and won by the kind chat, told his story.
How he had been sick, could get no work, had a family of children,
and was almost in despair. Grandfather was so full of pity that he
forgot his fear, and, asking the man his name, said he would try to
get him work in the next town, as he had friends there. Wishing to
get at pencil and paper to write down the address, Grandfather
took out his plump pocket-book, and the minute he did so, the
man's eye was on it. Then Grandfather remembered what was in it
and trembled for his money, but said quietly

"'Yes, I have a little sum here for some poor orphans. I wish it was
my own, I would so gladly give you some of it. I am not rich, but I
know many of the trials of the poor; this five dollars is mine, and I
want to give it to you for your children.'

"The hard, hungry look in the man's eyes changed to a grateful one
as he took the small sum, freely given, and left the orphans' money
untouched. He rode on with Grandfather till they approached the
town, then he asked to be set down. Grandpa shook hands with
him, and was about to drive on, when the man said, as if
something made him, 'I was desperate when we met, and I meant
to rob you, but you were so kind I couldn't do it. God bless you, sir,
for keeping me from it!' "

"Did Grandpa ever see him again?" asked Daisy, eagerly.

"No; but I believe the man found work, and did not try robbery any
more."

"That was a curious way to treat him; I'd have knocked him down,"
said Dan.

"Kindness is always better than force. Try it and see," answered
Mr. Bhaer, rising.

"Tell another, please," cried Daisy.

"You must, Aunt Jo did," added Demi.

"Then I certainly won't, but keep my others for next time. Too
many tales are as bad as too many bonbons. I have paid my forfeit
and I go," and Mr. Bhaer ran for his life, with the whole flock in
full pursuit. He had the start, however, and escaped safely into his
study, leaving the boys to go rioting back again.

They were so stirred up by the race that they could not settle to
their former quiet, and a lively game of Blindman's Buff followed,
in which Tommy showed that he had taken the moral of the last
story to heart, for, when he caught Nan, he whispered in her ear,
"I'm sorry I called you a cross-patch."

Nan was not to be outdone in kindness, so, when they played
"Button, button, who's got the button?" and it was her turn to go
round, she said, "Hold fast all I give you," with such a friendly
smile at Tommy, that he was not surprised to find the horse-hair
ring in his hand instead of the button. He only smiled back at her
then, but when they were going to bed, he offered Nan the best bite
of his last apple; she saw the ring on his stumpy little finger,
accepted the bite, and peace was declared. Both were ashamed of
the temporary coldness, neither was ashamed to say, "I was wrong,
forgive me," so the childish friendship remained unbroken, and the
home in the willow lasted long, a pleasant little castle in the air.

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