Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter XII. Good Times
Every one was very kind to Ben when his loss was known. The Squire wrote to Mr. Smithers that the boy had found friends and would stay where he was. Mrs. Moss consoled him in her motherly way, and the little girls did their very best to "be good to poor Benny." But Miss Celia was his truest comforter, and completely won his heart, not only by the friendly words she said and the pleasant things she did, but by the unspoken sympathy which showed itself just at the right minute, in a look, a touch, a smile, more helpful than any amount of condolence. She called him "my man," and Ben tried to be one, bearing his trouble so bravely that she respected him. although he was only a little boy, because it promised well for the future.
Then she was so happy herself, it was impossible for those about her to be sad, and Ben soon grew cheerful again in spite of the very tender memory of his father laid quietly away in the safest corner of his heart. He would have been a very unboyish boy if he had not been happy, for the new place was such a pleasant one, he soon felt as if, for the first time, he really had a home. No more grubbing now, but daily tasks which never grew tiresome, they were so varied and so light. No more cross Pats to try his temper, but the sweetest mistress that ever was, since praise was oftener on her lips than blame, and gratitude made willing service a delight.
At first, it seemed as if there was going to be trouble between the two boys; for Thorny was naturally masterful, and illness had left him weak and nervous, so he was often both domineering and petulant. Ben had been taught instant obedience to those older than him self, and if Thorny had been a man Ben would have made no complaint; but it was hard to be "ordered round" by a boy, and an unreasonable one into the bargain.
A word from Miss Celia blew away the threatening cloud, however; and for her sake her brother promised to try to be patient; for her sake Ben declared he never would "get mad" if Mr. Thorny did fidget; and both very soon forgot all about master and man and lived together like two friendly lads, taking each other's ups and downs good-naturedly, and finding mutual pleasure and profit in the new companionship.
The only point on which they never could agree was legs, and many a hearty laugh did they give Miss Celia by their warm and serious discussion of this vexed question. Thorny insisted that Ben was bowlegged; Ben resented the epithet, and declared that the legs of all good horsemen must have a slight curve, and any one who knew any thing about the matter would acknowledge both its necessity and its beauty. Then Thorny Would observe that it might be all very well in the saddle, but it made a man waddle like a duck when afoot; whereat Ben would retort that, for his part, he would rather waddle like a duck than tumble about like a horse with the staggers. He had his opponent there, for poor Thorny did look very like a weak-kneed colt when he tried to walk; but he would never own it, and came down upon Ben with crushing allusions to centaurs, or the Greeks and Romans, who were famous both for their horsemanship and fine limbs. Ben could not answer that, except by proudly referring to the chariot-races copied from the ancients, in which he had borne a part, which was more than some folks with long legs could say. Gentlemen never did that sort of thing, nor did they twit their best friends with their misfortunes, Thorny would remark; casting a pensive glance at his thin hands, longing the while to give Ben a good shaking. This hint would remind the other of his young master's late sufferings and all he owed his dear mistress; and he usually ended the controversy by turning a few lively somersaults as a vent for his swelling wrath, and come up with his temper all right again. Or, if Thorny happened to be in the wheeled chair, he would trot him round the garden at a pace which nearly took his breath away, thereby proving that if "bow-legs" were not beautiful to some benighted beings they were "good to go."
Thorny liked that, and would drop the subject for the time by politely introducing some more agreeable topic; so the impending quarrel would end in a laugh over some boyish joke, and the word "legs" be avoided by mutual consent till accident brought it up again.
The spirit of rivalry is hidden in the best of us, and is a helpful and inspiring power if we know how to use it. Miss Celia knew this, and tried to make the lads help one another by means of it, -- not in boastful or ungenerous comparison of each other's gifts, but by interchanging them, giving and taking freely, kindly, and being glad to love what was admirable wherever they found it. Thorny admired Ben's strength, activity, and independence; Ben envied Thorny's learning, good manners, and comfortable surroundings; and, when a wise word had set the matter rightly before them, both enjoyed the feeling that there was a certain equality between them, since money could not buy health, and practical knowledge was as useful as any that can be found in books. So they interchanged their small experiences, accomplishments, and pleasures, and both were the better, as well as the happier, for it; because in this way only can we truly love our neighbor as ourself, and get the real sweetness out of life.
There was no end to the new and pleasant things Ben had to do, from keeping paths and flower-beds neat, feeding the pets, and running errands, to waiting on Thorny and being right-hand man to Miss Celia. He had a little room in the old house, newly papered with hunting scenes, which he was never tired of admiring. In the closet hung several out-grown suits of Thorny's, made over for his valet; and, what Ben valued infinitely more, a pair of boots, well blacked and ready for grand occasions, when he rode abroad, with one old spur, found in the attic, brightened up and merely worn for show, since nothing would have induced him to prick beloved Lita with it.
Many pictures, cut from illustrated papers, of races, animals, and birds, were stuck round the room, giving it rather the air of a circus and menagerie. This, however, made it only the more home-like to its present owner, who felt exceedingly rich and respectable as he surveyed his premises; almost like a retired showman who still fondly remembers past successes, though now happy in the more private walks of life.
In one drawer of the quaint little bureau which he used, were kept the relics of his father; very few and poor, and of no interest to any one but himself, -- only the letter telling of his death, a worn-out watch-chain, and a photograph of Senor Jose Montebello, with his youthful son standing on his head, both airily attired, and both smiling with the calmly superior expression which gentlemen of their profession usually wear in public. Ben's other treasures had been stolen with his bundle; but these he cherished and often looked at when he went to bed, wondering what heaven was like, since it was lovelier than California, and usually fell asleep with a dreamy impression that it must be something like America when Columbus found it, -- "a pleasant land, where were gay flowers and tall trees, with leaves and fruit such as they had never seen before." And through this happy hunting-ground "father" was for ever riding on a beautiful white horse with wings, like the one of which Miss Celia had a picture.
Nice times Ben had in his little room poring over his books, for he soon had several of his own; but his favorites were Hamerton's "Animals" and "Our Dumb Friends," both full of interesting pictures and anecdotes such as boys love. Still nicer times working about the house, helping get things in order; and best of all were the daily drives with Miss Celia and Thorny, when weather permitted, or solitary rides to town through the heaviest rain, for certain letters must go and come, no matter how the elements raged. The neighbors soon got used to the "antics of that boy," but Ben knew that he was an object of interest as he careered down the main street in a way that made old ladies cry out and brought people flying to the window, sure that some one was being run away with. Lita enjoyed the fun as much as he, and apparently did her best to send him heels over head, having rapidly earned to understand the signs he gave her by the touch of hand and foot, or the tones of his voice.
These performances caused the boys to regard Ben Brown with intense admiration, the girls with timid awe, all but Bab, who burned to imitate him, and tried her best whenever she got a chance, much to the anguish and dismay of poor Jack, for that long-suffering animal was the only steed she was allowed to ride. Fortunately, neither she nor Betty had much time for play just now, as school was about to close for the long vacation, and all the little people were busy finishing up, that they might go to play with free minds. So the "lilac-parties," as they called them, were deferred till later, and the lads amused themselves in their own way, with Miss Celia to suggest and advise.
It took Thorny a long time to arrange his possessions, for he could only direct while Ben unpacked, wondering and admiring as he worked, because he had never seen so many boyish treasures before. The little printing-press was his especial delight, and leaving every thing else in confusion, Thorny taught him its and planned a newspaper on the spot, with Ben for printer, himself for editor, and "Sister" for chief contributor, while Bab should be carrier and Betty office-boy. Next came a postage-stamp book, and a rainy day was happily spent in pasting a new collection where each particular one belonged, with copious explanations from Thorny as they went along. Ben did not feel any great interest in this amusement after one trial of it, but when a book containing patterns of the flags of all nations turned up, he was seized with a desire to copy them all, so that the house could be fitly decorated on gala occasions. Finding that it amused her brother, Miss Celia generously opened her piece-drawer and rag-bag, and as the mania grew till her resources were exhausted, she bought bits of gay cambric and many-colored papers, and startled the store-keeper by purchasing several bottles of mucilage at once. Bab and Betty were invited to sew the bright strips of stars, and pricked their little fingers assiduously, finding this sort of needle-work much more attractive than piecing bed- quilts.
Such a snipping and pasting, planning and stitching as went on in the big back room, which was given up to them, and such a noble array of banners and petitions as soon decorated its walls, would have caused the dullest eye to brighten with amusement, if not with admiration. Of course, the Stars and Stripes hung highest, with the English lion ramping on the royal standard close by; then followed a regular picture-gallery, for there was the white elephant of Siam, the splendid peacock of Burmah, the double-headed Russian eagle, and black dragon of China, the winged lion of Venice, and the prancing pair on the red, white, and blue flag of Holland. The keys and mitre of the Papal States were a hard job, but up they went at last, with the yellow crescent of Turkey on one side and the red full moon of Japan on the other; the pretty blue and white flag of Greece hung below and the cross of free Switzerland above. If materials had held out, the flags of all the United States would have followed; but paste and patience were exhausted, so the busy workers rested awhile before they "flung their banner to the breeze," as the newspapers have it.
A spell of ship-building and rigging followed the flag fit; for Thorny, feeling too old now for such toys, made over his whole fleet to "the children," condescending, however, to superintend a thorough repairing of the same before he disposed of all but the big man-of-war, which continued to ornament his own room, with all sail set and a little red officer perpetually waving his sword on the quarter-deck.
These gifts led to out-of-door water-works, for the brook had to be dammed up, that a shallow ocean might be made, where Ben's piratical "Red Rover," with the black flag, might chase and capture Bab's smart frigate, "Queen," while the "Bounding Betsey," laden with lumber, safely sailed from Kennebunkport to Massachusetts Bay. Thorny, from his chair, was chief-engineer, and directed his gang of one how to dig the basin, throw up the embankment, and finally let in the water till the mimic ocean was full; then regulate the little water-gate, lest it should overflow and wreck the pretty squadron or ships, boats, canoes, and rafts, which soon rode at anchor there.
Digging and paddling in mud and water proved such a delightful pastime that the boys kept it up, till a series of water-wheels, little mills and cataracts made the once quiet brook look as if a manufacturing town was about to spring up where hitherto minnows had played in peace and the retiring frog had chanted his serenade unmolested.
Miss Celia liked all this, for any thing which would keep Thorny happy out-of-doors in the sweet June weather found favor in her eyes, and when the novelty had worn off from home affairs, she planned a series of exploring expeditions which filled their boyish souls with delight. As none of them knew much about the place, it really was quite exciting to start off on a bright morning with a roll of wraps and cushions, lunch, books, and drawing materials packed into the phaeton, and drive at random about the shady roads and lanes, pausing when and where they liked. Wonderful discoveries were made, pretty places were named, plans were drawn, and all sorts of merry adventures befell the pilgrims.
Each day they camped in a new spot, and while Lita nibbled the fresh grass at her ease, Miss Celia sketched under the big umbrella, Thorny read or lounged or slept on his rubber blanket, and Ben made himself generally useful. Unloading, filling the artist's water-bottle, piling the invalid's cushions, setting out the lunch, running to and fro for a Bower or a butterfly, climbing a tree to report the view, reading, chatting, or frolicking with Sancho,-- any sort of duty was in Ben's line, and he did them all well, for an out-of-door life was natural to him and he liked it.
"Ben, I want an amanuensis," said Thorny, dropping book and pencil one day after a brief interval of silence, broken only by the whisper of the young leaves overhead and the soft babble of the brook close by.
"A what?" asked Ben, pushing back his hat with such an air of amazement that Thorny rather loftily inquired:
"Don't you know what an amanuensis is?"
"Well, no; not unless it's some relation to an anaconda. Shouldn't think you'd want one of them, anyway."
Thorny rolled over with a hoot of derision, and his sister, who sat close by, sketching an old gate, looked up to see what was going on.
"Well, you needn't laugh at a feller. You didn't know what a wombat was when I asked you, and I didn't roar," said Ben, giving his hat a slap, as nothing else was handy.
"The idea of wanting an anaconda tickled me so, I couldn't help it. I dare say you'd have got me one if I had asked for it, you are such an obliging chap,"
"Of course I would if I could. Shouldn't be surprised if you did some day, you want such funny things," answered Ben, appeased by the compliment.
"I'll try the amanuensis first. It's only some one to write for me; I get so tired doing it without a table. You write well enough, and it will be good for you to know something about botany. I intend to teach you, Ben," said Thorny, as if conferring a great favor.
"It looks pretty hard," muttered Ben, with a doleful Glance at the book laid open upon a strew of torn leaves and flowers.
"No, it isn't; it's regularly jolly; and you'd be no end of a help if you only knew a little. Now, suppose I say, 'Bring me a "ranunculus bulbosus,"' how would you know what I wanted?" demanded Thorny, waving his microscope with a learned air.
"There are quantities of them all round us; and I want to analyze one. See if you can't guess."
Ben stared vaguely from earth to sky, and was about to give it up, when a buttercup fell at his feet, and he caught sight of Miss Celia smiling at him from behind her brother, who did not see the flower.
"S'pose you mean this? I don't call 'em rhinocerus bulburses, so I wasn't sure." And, taking the hint as quickly as it was given, Ben presented the buttercup as if he knew all about it.
"You guessed that remarkably well. Now bring me a 'leontodon taraxacum,'" said Thorny, charmed with the quickness of his pupil, and glad to display his learning.
Again Ben gazed, but the field was full of early flowers; and, if a long pencil had not pointed to a dandelion close by, he would have been lost.
"Here you are, sir," he answered with a chuckle and Thorny took his turn at being astonished now.
"How the dickens did you know that?"
"Try it again, and may be you'll find out," laughed Ben.
Diving hap-hazard into his book, Thorny demanded a "trifolium pratense."
The clever pencil pointed, and Ben brought a red clover, mightily enjoying the joke, and thinking that their kind of botany wasn't bad fun.
"Look here, no fooling!" and Thorny sat up to investigate the matter, so quickly that his sister had not time to sober down. "Ah, I've caught you! Not fair to tell, Celia. Now, Ben, you've got to learn all about this buttercup, to pay for cheating."
"Werry good, sir; bring on your rhinoceriouses," answered Ben, who couldn't help imitating his old friend the clown when he felt particularly jolly.
"Sit there and write what I tell you," ordered Thorny, with all the severity of a strict schoolmaster. Perching himself on the mossy stump, Ben obediently floundered through the following analysis, with constant help in the spelling, and much private wonder what would come of it: --
"Phaenogamous. Exogenous. Angiosperm. Polypetalous. Stamens, more than ten. Stamens on the receptacle. Pistils, more than one and separate. Leaves without stipules. Crowfoot family. Genus ranunculus. Botanical name, Ranunculus bulbosus."
"Jerusalem! what a flower! Pistols and crows' feet, and Polly put the kettles on, and Angy sperms and all the rest of 'em! If that's your botany, I won't take any more, thank you," said Ben, as he paused as hot and red as if he had been running a race.
"Yes, you Will; you'll learn that all by heart, and then I shall give you a dandelion to do. You'll like that, because it means dent de lion, or lion's tooth; and I'll show them to you through my glass. You've no idea how interesting it is, and what heaps of pretty things you'll see," answered Thorny, who had already discovered how charming the study was, and had found great satisfaction in it, since he had been forbidden more active pleasures.
"What's the good of it, anyway?" asked Ben, who would rather have been set to mowing the big field than to the task before him.
"It tells all about it in my book here, -- 'Gray's Botany for Young People.' But I can tell you what use it is to us," continued Thorny, crossing his legs in the air and preparing to argue the matter, comfortably lying flat on his back. "We are a Scientific Exploration Society, and we must keep an account of all the plants, animals, minerals, and so on, as we come across them. Then, suppose we get lost, and have to hunt for food, how are we to know what is safe and what isn't? Come, now, do you know the difference between a toadstool and a mushroom?"
"No, I don't."
"Then I'll teach you some day. There is sweet flag and poisonous flag, and all sorts of berries and things; and you'd better look out when you are in the woods, or you'll touch ivy and dogwood, and have a horrid time, if you don't know your botany."
"Thorny learned much of his by sad experience; and you will be wise to take his advice," said Miss Celia, recalling her brother's various mishaps before the new fancy came on.
"Didn't I have a time of it, though, when I had to go round for a week with plantain leaves and cream stuck all over my face! Just picked some pretty red dogwood, Ben; and then I was a regular guy, with a face like a lobster, and my eyes swelled out of sight. Come along, and learn right away, and never get into scrapes like most fellows."
Impressed by this warning, and attracted by Thorny's enthusiasm, Ben cast himself down upon the blanket, and for an hour the two heads bobbed to and fro, from microscope to book, the teacher airing his small knowledge, the pupil more and more interested in the new and curious things he saw or heard, -- though it must be confessed that Ben infinitely preferred to watch ants and bugs, queer little worms and gauzy-winged flies, rather than "putter" over plants with long names. He did not dare to say so, however; but, when Thorny asked him if it wasn't capital fun, he dodged cleverly by proposing to hunt up the flowers for his master to study, offering to learn about the dangerous ones, but pleading want of time to investigate this pleasing science very deeply.
As Thorny had talked himself hoarse, he was very ready to dismiss his class of one to fish the milk-bottle out of the brook; and recess was prolonged till next day. But both boys found a new pleasure in the pretty pastime they made of it; for active Ben ranged the woods and fields with a tin box slung over his shoulder, and feeble Thorny had a little room fitted up for his own use, where he pressed flowers in newspaper books, dried herbs on the walls, had bottles and cups, pans and platters, for his treasures, and made as much litter as he liked.
Presently, Ben brought such lively accounts of the green nooks where jacks-in-the-pulpit preached their little sermons; brooks, beside which grew blue violets and lovely ferns; rocks, round which danced the columbines like rosy elves, or the trees where birds built, squirrels chattered, and woodchucks burrowed, that Thorny was seized with a desire to go and see these beauties for himself. So Jack was saddled, and went plodding, scrambling, and wandering into all manner of pleasant places, always bringing home a stronger, browner rider than he carried away.
This delighted Miss Celia; and she gladly saw them ramble off together, leaving her time to stitch happily at certain dainty bits of sewing, write voluminous letters, or dream over others quite as long, swinging in her hammock under the lilacs.