Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter 16. In the Tennis-Court
Athletic sports were in high favour at Plumfield; and the river where the old punt used to wabble about with a cargo of small boys, or echo to the shrill screams of little girls trying to get lilies, now was alive with boats of all kinds, from the slender wherry to the trim pleasure-craft, gay with cushions, awnings, and fluttering pennons. Everyone rowed, and the girls as well as the youths had their races, and developed their muscles in the most scientific manner. The large, level meadow near the old willow was now the college playground, and here baseball battles raged with fury, varied by football, leaping, and kindred sports fitted to split the fingers, break the ribs, and strain the backs of the too ambitious participants. The gentler pastimes of the damsels were at a safe distance from this Champ de Mars; croquet mallets clicked under the elms that fringed the field, rackets rose and fell energetically in several tennis-courts, and gates of different heights were handy to practise the graceful bound by which every girl expected to save her life some day when the mad bull, which was always coming but never seemed to arrive, should be bellowing at her heels.
One of these tennis grounds was called 'Jo's Court', and here the little lady ruled like a queen; for she was fond of the game, and being bent on developing her small self to the highest degree of perfection, she was to be found at every leisure moment with some victim hard at it. On a certain pleasant Saturday afternoon she had been playing with Bess and beating her; for, though more graceful, the Princess was less active than her cousin, and cultivated her roses by quieter methods.
'Oh dear! you are tired, and every blessed boy is at that stupid baseball match. 'What shall I do?' sighed Josie, pushing back the great red hat she wore, and gazing sadly round her for more worlds to conquer.
'I'll play presently, when I'm a little cooler. But it is dull work for me, as I never win,' answered Bess, fanning herself with a large leaf.
Josie was about to sit down beside her on the rustic seat and wait, when her quick eye saw afar off two manly forms arrayed in white flannel; their blue legs seemed bearing them towards the battle going on in the distance; but they never reached the fray; for with a cry of joy, Jo raced away to meet them, bent on securing this heaven-sent reinforcement. Both paused as she came flying up, and both raised their hats; but oh, the difference there was in the salutes! The stout youth pulled his off lazily and put it on again at once, as if glad to get the duty over; the slender being, with the crimson tie, lifted his with a graceful bend, and held it aloft while he accosted the rosy, breathless maid, thus permitting her to see his raven locks smoothly parted, with one little curl upon the brow. Dolly prided himself upon that bow, and practised it before his glass, but did not bestow it upon all alike, regarding it as a work of art, fit only for the fairest and most favoured of his female admirers; for he was a pretty youth, and fancied himself an Adonis.
Eager Josie evidently did not appreciate the honour he did her, for with a nod she begged them both to 'come along and play tennis, not go and get all hot and dirty with the boys'. These two adjectives won the day; for Stuffy was already warmer than he liked to be, and Dolly had on a new suit which he desired to keep immaculate as long as possible, conscious that it was very becoming.
'Charmed to oblige,' answered the polite one, with another bend.
'You play, I'll rest,' added the fat boy, yearning for repose and gentle converse with the Princess in the cooling shade.
'Well, you can comfort Bess, for I've beaten her all to bits and she needs amusing. I know you've got something nice in your pocket, George; give her some, and 'Dolphus can have her racket. Now then, fly round'; and driving her prey before her, Josie returned in triumph to the court.
Casting himself ponderously upon the bench, which creaked under his weight, Stuffy--as we will continue to call him, though no one else dared to use the old name now--promptly produced the box of confectionery, without which he never travelled far, and regaled Bess with candied violets and other dainties, while Dolly worked hard to hold his own against a most accomplished antagonist. He would have beaten her if an unlucky stumble, which produced an unsightly stain upon the knee of those new shorts, had not distracted his mind and made him careless. Much elated at her victory, Josie permitted him to rest, and offered ironical consolation for the mishap which evidently weighed upon his mind.
'Don't be an old Betty; it can be cleaned. You must have been a cat in some former state, you are so troubled about dirt; or a tailor, and lived for clothes.'
'Come now, don't hit a fellow when he is down,' responded Dolly from the grass where he and Stuffy now lay to make room for both girls on the seat. One handkerchief was spread under him, and his elbow leaned upon another, while his eyes were sadly fixed upon the green and brown spot which afflicted him. 'I like to be neat; don't think it civil to cut about in old shoes and grey flannel shirts before ladies. Our fellows are gentlemen, and dress as such,' he added, rather nettled at the word 'tailor'; for he owed one of those too attractive persons an uncomfortably big bill.
'So are ours; but good clothes alone don't make a gentleman here. We require a good deal more,' flashed Josie, in arms at once to defend her college. 'You will hear of some of the men in "old boots and grey flannel" when you and your fine gentlemen are twiddling your ties and scenting your hair in obscurity. I like old boots and wear them, and I hate dandies; don't you, Bess?'
'Not when they are kind to me, and belong to our old set,' answered Bess, with a nod of thanks to Dolly, who was carefully removing an inquisitive caterpillar from one of her little russet shoes.
'I like a lady who is always polite, and doesn't snap a man's head off if he has a mind of his own; don't you, George?' asked Dolly, with his best smile for Bess and a Harvard stare of disapprobation for Josie.
A tranquil snore was Stuffy's sole reply, and a general laugh restored peace for the moment. But Josie loved to harass the lords of creation who asserted themselves too much, and bided her time for another attack till she had secured more tennis. She got another game; for Dolly was a sworn knight of dames, so he obeyed her call, leaving Bess to sketch George as he lay upon his back, his stout legs crossed, and his round red face partially eclipsed by his hat. Josie got beaten this time and came back rather cross, so she woke the peaceful sleeper by tickling his nose with a straw till he sneezed himself into a sitting posture, and looked wrathfully about for 'that confounded fly'.
'Come, sit up and let us have a little elegant conversation; you "howling swells" ought to improve our minds and manners, for we are only poor "country girls in dowdy gowns and hats",' began the gad-fly, opening the battle with a sly quotation from one of Dolly's unfortunate speeches about certain studious damsels who cared more for books than finery.
'I didn't mean you! Your gowns are all right, and those hats the latest thing out,' began poor 'Dolphus, convicting himself by the incautious exclamation.
'Caught you that time; I thought you fellows were all gentlemen, civil as well as nice. But you are always sneering at girls who don't dress well and that is a very unmanly thing to do; my mother said so'; and Josie felt that she had dealt a shrewd blow at the elegant youth who bowed at many shrines if they were well-decorated ones.
'Got you there, old boy, and she's right. You never hear me talk about clothes and such twaddle,' said Stuffy, suppressing a yawn, and feeling for another bon-bon wherewith to refresh himself.
'You talk about eating, and that is even worse for a man. You will marry a cook and keep a restaurant some day,' laughed Josie, down on him at once.
This fearful prediction kept him silent for several moments; but Dolly rallied, and wisely changing the subject, carried war into the enemy's camp.
'As you wanted us to improve your manners, allow me to say that young ladies in good society don't make personal remarks or deliver lectures. Little girls who are not out do it, and think it witty; but I assure you it's not good form.'
Josie paused a moment to recover from the shock of being called 'a little girl', when all the honours of her fourteenth birthday were fresh upon her; and Bess said, in the lofty tone which was infinitely more crushing than Jo's impertinence:
'That is true; but we have lived all our lives with superior people, so we have no society talk like your young ladies. We are so accustomed to sensible conversation, and helping one another by telling our faults, that we have no gossip to offer you.'
When the Princess reproved, the boys seldom resented it; so Dolly held his peace, and Josie burst out, following her cousin's lead, which she thought a happy one:
'Our boys like to have us talk with them, and take kindly any hints we give. They don't think they know everything and are quite perfect at eighteen, as I've observed the Harvard men do, especially the very young ones.'
Josie took immense satisfaction in that return shot; and Dolly showed that he was hit, by the nettled tone in which he answered, with a supercilious glance at the hot, dusty, and noisy crowd on the baseball ground: 'The class of fellows you have here need all the polish and culture you can give them; and I'm glad they get it. Our men are largely from the best families all over the country, so we don't need girls to teach us anything.'
'It's a pity you don't have more of such "fellows" as ours. They value and use well what college gives them, and aren't satisfied to slip through, getting all the fun they can and shirking the work. Oh, I've heard you "men" talk, and heard your fathers say they wish they hadn't wasted time and money just that you might say you'd been through college. As for the girls, you'll be much better off in all ways when they do get in, and keep you lazy things up to the mark, as we do here.'
'If you have such a poor opinion of us, why do you wear our colour?' asked Dolly, painfully conscious that he was not improving the advantages his Alma Mater offered him, but bound to defend her.
'I don't; my hat is scarlet, not crimson. Much you know about a colour,' scoffed Josie.
'I know that a cross cow would soon set you scampering, if you flaunted that red tile under her nose,' retorted Dolly.
'I'm ready for her. Can your fine young ladies do this? or you either?' and burning to display her latest accomplishment, Josie ran to the nearest gate, put one hand on the top rail, and vaulted over as lightly as a bird.
Bess shook her head, and Stuffy languidly applauded; but Dolly scorning to be braved by a girl, took a flying leap and landed on his feet beside Josie, saying calmly: 'Can you do that?'
'Not yet; but I will by and by.'
As his foe looked a little crestfallen, Dolly relented, and affably added sundry feats of a like nature, quite unconscious that he had fallen into a dreadful snare; for the dull red paint on the gate, not being used to such vigorous handling, came off in streaks upon his shoulders when he turned a backward swing and came up smiling, to be rewarded with the aggravating remark:
'If you want to know what crimson is, look at your back; it's nicely stamped on and won't wash out, I think.'
'The deuce it won't!' cried Dolly, trying to get an impossible view, and giving it up in great disgust.
'I guess we'd better be going, Dolf,' said peaceable Stuffy, feeling that it would be wise to retreat before another skirmish took place, as his side seemed to be getting the worst of it.
'Don't hurry, I beg; stay and rest; you must need it after the tremendous amount of brain work you've done this week. It is time for our Greek. Come, Bess. Good afternoon, gentlemen.' And, with a sweeping courtesy, Josie led the way, with her hat belligerently cocked up, and her racket borne like a triumphal banner over one shoulder; for having had the last word, she felt that she could retire with the honours of war.
Dolly gave Bess his best bow, with the chill on; and Stuffy subsided luxuriously, with his legs in the air, murmuring in a dreamy tone:
'Little Jo is as cross as two sticks today. I'm going in for another nap: too hot to play anything.'
'So it is. Wonder if Spitfire was right about these beastly spots?' And Dolly sat down to try dry cleansing with one of his handkerchiefs. 'Asleep?' he asked, after a few moments of this cheerful occupation, fearing that his chum might be too comfortable when he was in a fume himself.
'No. I was thinking that Jo wasn't far wrong about shirking. 'Tis a shame to get so little done, when we ought to be grinding like Morton and Torry and that lot. I never wanted to go to college; but my governor made me. Much good it will do either of us!' answered Stuffy, with a groan; for he hated work, and saw two more long years of it before him.
'Gives a man prestige, you know. No need to dig. I mean to have a gay old time, and be a "howling swell", if I choose. Between you and me though, it would be no end jolly to have the girls along. Study be hanged! But if we've got to turn the grindstone, it would be mighty nice to have some of the little dears to lend a hand. Wouldn't it now?'
'I'd like three this minute--one to fan me, one to kiss me, and one to give me some iced lemonade!' sighed Stuffy, with a yearning glance towards the house, whence no succour appeared.
'How would root-beer do?' asked a voice behind them, which made Dolly spring to his feet and Stuffy roll over like a startled porpoise.
Sitting on the stile that crossed the wall near by was Mrs Jo, with two jugs slung over her shoulder by a strap, several tin mugs in her hand, and an old-fashioned sun-bonnet on her head.
'I knew the boys would be killing themselves with ice-water; so I strolled down with some of my good, wholesome beer. They drank like fishes. But Silas was with me; so my cruse still holds out. Have some?'
'Yes, thanks, very much. Let us pour it.' And Dolly held the cup while Stuffy joyfully filled it; both very grateful, but rather afraid she had heard what went before the wish she fulfilled.
She proved that she had by saying, as they stood drinking her health, while she sat between them, looking like a middle-aged vivandiere, with her jugs and mugs:
'I was glad to hear you say you would like to have girls at your college; but I hope you will learn to speak more respectfully of them before they come; for that will be the first lesson they will teach you.'
'Really, ma'am, I was only joking,' began Stuffy, gulping down his beer in a hurry.
'So was I. I'm sure I--I'm devoted to 'em,' stuttered Dolly, panic-stricken; for he saw that he was in for a lecture of some sort.
'Not in the right way. Frivolous girls may like to be called "little dears" and things of that sort; but the girls who love study wish to be treated like reasonable beings, not dolls to flirt with. Yes, I'm going to preach; that's my business; so stand up and take it like men.'
Mrs Jo laughed; but she was in earnest; for by various hints and signs during the past winter she knew that the boys were beginning to 'see life' in the way she especially disapproved. Both were far from home, had money enough to waste, and were as inexperienced, curious, and credulous as most lads of their age. Not fond of books, therefore without the safeguard which keeps many studious fellows out of harm; one self-indulgent, indolent, and so used to luxury that pampering of the senses was an easy thing; the other vain, as all comely boys are, full of conceit, and so eager to find favour in the eyes of his comrades that he was ready for anything which would secure it. These traits and foibles made both peculiarly liable to the temptations which assail pleasure-loving and weak-willed boys. Mrs Jo knew them well, and had dropped many a warning word since they went to college; but till lately they seemed not to understand some of her friendly hints; now she was sure they would, and meant to speak out: for long experience with boys made her both bold and skilful in handling some of the dangers usually left to silence, till it is too late for anything but pity and reproach.
'I'm going to talk to you like a mother, because yours are far away; and there are things that mothers can manage best, if they do their duty,' she solemnly began from the depths of the sunbonnet.
'Great Scott! We're in for it now!' thought Dolly, in secret dismay; while Stuffy got the first blow by trying to sustain himself with another mug of beer.
'That won't hurt you; but I must warn you about drinking other things, George. Overeating is an old story; and a few more fits of illness will teach you to be wise. But drinking is a more serious thing, and leads to worse harm than any that can afflict your body alone. I hear you talk about wines as if you knew them and cared more for them than a boy should; and several times I've heard jokes that meant mischief. For heaven's sake, don't begin to play with this dangerous taste "for fun", as you say, or because it's the fashion, and the other fellows do. Stop at once, and learn that temperance in all things is the only safe rule.'
'Upon my honour, I only take wine and iron. I need a tonic, mother says, to repair the waste of brain-tissue while I'm studying,' protested Stuffy, putting down the mug as if it burnt his fingers.
'Good beef and oatmeal will repair your tissues much better than any tonic of that sort. Work and plain fare are what you want; and I wish I had you here for a few months out of harm's way. I'd Banting you, and fit you to run without puffing, and get on without four or five meals a day. What an absurd hand that is for a man! You ought to be ashamed of it!' And Mrs Jo caught up the plump fist, with deep dimples at each knuckle, which was fumbling distressfully at the buckle of the belt girt about a waist far too large for a youth of his age.
'I can't help it--we all grow fat; it's in the family,' said Stuffy in self-defence.
'All the more reason you should live carefully. Do you want to die early, or be an invalid all your life?'
Stuffy looked so scared that Mrs Jo could not be hard upon his budding sins, for they lay at his overindulgent mother's door line in a great measure; so she softened the tone of her voice, and added, with a little slap on the fat hand, as she used to do when it was small enough to pilfer lumps of sugar from her bowl:
'Then be careful; for a man writes his character in his face; and you don't want gluttony and intemperance in yours, I know.'
'I'm sure I don't! Please make out a wholesome bill of fare, and I'll stick to it, if I can. I am getting stout, and I don't like it; and my liver's torpid, and I have palpitations and headache. Overwork, mother says; but it may be overeating.' And Stuffy gave a sigh of mingled regret for the good things he renounced, and relief as he finished loosening his belt as soon as his hand was free.
'I will; follow it, and in a year you'll be a man and not a meal-bag. Now, Dolly'; and Mrs Jo turned to the other culprit, who shook in his shoes and wished he hadn't come.
'Are you studying French as industriously as you were last winter?'
'No ma'am; I don't care for it--that is, I, I'm busy with G-Greek just now,' answered Dolly, beginning bravely, quite in the dark as to what that odd question meant till a sudden memory made him stutter and look at his shoes with deep interest.
'Oh, he doesn't study it; only reads French novels and goes to the theatre when the opera bouffe is here,' said Stuffy, innocently confirming Mrs Jo's suspicions.
'So I understood; and that is what I want to speak about. Ted had a sudden desire to learn French in that way, from something you said, Dolly; so I went myself, and was quite satisfied that it was no place for a decent boy. Your men were out in full force; and I was glad to see that some of the younger ones looked as ashamed as I felt. The older fellows enjoyed it, and when we came out were waiting to take those painted girls to supper. Did you ever go with them?'
'Did you like it?'
'No 'm; I--I came away early,' stammered Dolly, with a face as red as his splendid tie.
'I'm glad you have not lost the grace of blushing yet; but you will soon, if you keep up this sort of study and forget to be ashamed. The society of such women will unfit you for that of good ones, and lead you into trouble and sin and shame. Oh, why don't the city fathers stop that evil thing, when they know the harm it does? It made my heart ache to see those boys, who ought to be at home and in their beds, going off for a night of riot which would help to ruin some of them for ever.'
The youths looked scared at Mrs Jo's energetic protest against one of the fashionable pleasures of the day, and waited in conscience-stricken silence--Stuffy glad that he never went to those gay suppers, and Dolly deeply grateful that he 'came away early'. With a hand on either shoulder, and all the terrors smoothed from her brow, Mrs Jo went on in her most motherly tone, anxious to do for them what no other woman would, and do it kindly:
'My dear boys, if I didn't love you, I would not say these things. I know they are not pleasant; but my conscience won't let me hold my peace when a word may keep you from two of the great sins that curse the world and send so many young men to destruction. You are just beginning to feel the allurement of them, and soon it will be hard to turn away. Stop now, I beg of you, and not only save yourselves but help others by a brave example. Come to me if things worry you; don't be afraid or ashamed; I have heard many sadder confessions than any you are ever likely to bring me, and been able to comfort many poor fellows, gone wrong for want of a word in time. Do this, and you will be able to kiss your mothers with clean lips, and by and by have the right to ask innocent girls to love you.'
'Yes'm, thank you. I suppose you're right; but it's pretty hard work to toe the mark when ladies give you wine and gentlemen take their daughters to see Aimee,' said Dolly, foreseeing tribulations ahead though he knew it was time to 'pull up'.
'So it is; but all the more honour to those who are brave and wise enough to resist public opinion, and the easy-going morals of bad or careless men and women. Think of the persons whom you respect most, and in imitating them you will secure the respect of those who look up to you. I'd rather my boys should be laughed at and cold-shouldered by a hundred foolish fellows than lose what, once gone, no power can give them back--innocence and self-respect. I don't wonder you find it "hard to toe the mark", when books, pictures, ball-rooms, theatres, and streets offer temptations; yet you can resist, if you try. Last winter Mrs Brooke used to worry about John's being out so late reporting; but when she spoke to him about the things he must see and hear on his way to and fro from the office at midnight, he said in his sober way, "I know what you mean, mother; but no fellow need to go wrong unless he wants to."
'That's like the Deacon!' exclaimed Stuffy, with an approving smile on his fat face.
'I'm glad you told me that. He's right; and it's because he doesn't want to go wrong we all respect him so,' added Dolly, looking up now with an expression which assured his Mentor that the right string had been touched, and a spirit of emulation roused, more helpful, perhaps, than any words of hers. Seeing this, she was satisfied, and said, as she prepared to leave the bar before which her culprits had been tried and found guilty, but recommended to mercy:
'Then be to others what John is to you--a good example. Forgive me for troubling you, my dear lads, and remember my little preachment. I think it will do you good, though I may never know it. Chance words spoken in kindness often help amazingly; and that's what old people are here for--else their experience is of little use. Now, come and find the young folk. I hope I shall never have to shut the gates of Plumfield upon you, as I have on some of your "gentlemen". I mean to keep my boys and girls safe if I can, and this a wholesome place where the good old-fashioned virtues are lived and taught.'
Much impressed by that dire threat, Dolly helped her from her perch with deep respect; and Stuffy relieved her of her empty jugs, solemnly vowing to abstain from all fermented beverages except root-beer, as long as feeble flesh could hold out. Of course they made light of 'Mother Bhaer's lecture' when they were alone--that was to be expected of 'men of our class' but in their secret souls they thanked her for giving their boyish consciences a jog, and more than once afterward had cause to remember gratefully that half-hour in the tennis court.