Two very superior bicycles went twinkling up the road to Plumfield one September afternoon, bearing two brown and dusty riders evidently returning from a successful run, for though their legs might be a trifle weary, their faces beamed as they surveyed the world from their lofty perches with the air of calm content all wheelmen wear after they have learned to ride; before that happy period anguish of mind and body is the chief expression of the manly countenance.
“Go ahead and report, Tom; I'm due here. See you later,” said Demi, swinging himself down at the door of the Dovecote.
“Don't peach, there's a good fellow. Let me have it out with Mother Bhaer first,” returned Tom, wheeling in at the gate with a heavy sigh.
Demi laughed, and his comrade went slowly up the avenue, devoutly hoping that the coast was clear; for he was the bearer of tidings which would, he thought, convulse the entire family with astonishment and dismay.
To his great joy Mrs Jo was discovered alone in a grove of proof-sheets, which she dropped, to greet the returning wanderer cordially. But after the first glance she saw that something was the matter, recent events having made her unusually sharp-eyed and suspicious.
“What is it now, Tom?” she asked, as he subsided into an easy-chair with a curious expression of mingled fear, shame, amusement, and distress in his brick-red countenance.
“I'm in an awful scrape, ma'am.”
“Of course; I'm always prepared for scrapes when you appear. What is it? Run over some old lady who is going to law about it?” asked Mrs Jo cheerfully.
“Worse than that,” groaned Tom.
“Not poisoned some trusting soul who asked you to prescribe, I hope?”
“Worse than that.”
“You haven't let Demi catch any horrid thing and left him behind, have you?”
“Worse even than that.”
“I give it up. Tell me quick; I hate to wait for bad news.”
Having got his listener sufficiently excited, Tom launched his thunderbolt in one brief sentence, and fell back to watch the effect.
Mrs Jo's proof-sheets flew wildly about as she clasped her hands, exclaiming in dismay:
“If Nan has yielded, I'll never forgive her!”
“She hasn't; it's another girl.”
Tom's face was so funny as he said the words, that it was impossible to help laughing; for he looked both sheepish and pleased, besides very much perplexed and worried.
“I'm glad, very glad indeed! Don't care who it is; and I hope you'll be married soon. Now tell me all about it,” commanded Mrs Jo, so much relieved that she felt ready for anything.
“What will Nan say?” demanded Tom, rather taken aback at this view of his predicament.
“She will be rejoiced to get rid of the mosquito who has plagued her so long. Don't worry about Nan. Who is this "other girl"?”
“Demi hasn't written about her?”
“Only something about your upsetting a Miss West down at Quitno; I thought that was scrape enough.”
“That was only the beginning of a series of scrapes. Just my luck! Of course after sousing the poor girl I had to be attentive to her, hadn't I? Everyone seemed to think so, and I couldn't get away, and so I was lost before I knew it. It's all Demi's fault, he would stay there and fuss with his old photos, because the views were good and all the girls wanted to be taken. Look at these, will you, ma'am? That's the way we spent our time when we weren't playing tennis”; and Tom pulled a handful of pictures from his pocket, displaying several in which he was conspicuous, either holding a sun-umbrella over a very pretty young lady on the rocks, reposing at her feet in the grass, or perched on a piazza railing with other couples in seaside costumes and effective attitudes.
“This is she of course?” asked Mrs Jo, pointing to the much-ruffled damsel with the jaunty hat, coquettish shoes, and racquet in her hand.
“That's Dora. Isn't she lovely?” cried Tom, forgetting his tribulations for a moment and speaking with lover-like ardour.
“Very nice little person to look at. Hope she is not a Dickens Dora? That curly crop looks like it.”
“Not a bit; she's very smart; can keep house, and sew, and do lots of things, I assure you, ma'am. All the girls like her, and she's sweet-tempered and jolly, and sings like a bird, and dances beautifully, and loves books. Thinks yours are splendid, and made me talk about you no end.”
“That last sentence is to flatter me and win my help to get you out of the scrape. Tell me first how you got in”; and Mrs Jo settled herself to listen with interest, never tired of boys' affairs.
Tom gave his head a rousing rub all over to clear his wits, and plunged into his story with a will.
“Well, we've met her before, but I didn't know she was there. Demi wanted to see a fellow, so we went, and finding it nice and cool rested over Sunday. Found some pleasant people and went out rowing; I had Dora, and came to grief on a confounded rock. She could swim, no harm done, only the scare and the spoilt gown. She took it well, and we got friendly at once—couldn't help it, scrambling into that beast of a boat while the rest laughed at us. Of course we had to stay another day to see that Dora was all right. Demi wanted to. Alice Heath is down there and two other girls from our college, so we sort of lingered along, and Demi kept taking pictures, and we danced, and got into a tennis tournament; and that was as good exercise as wheeling, we thought. Fact is, tennis is a dangerous game, ma'am. A great deal of courting goes on in those courts, and we fellows find that sort of "serving" mighty agreeable, don't you know?”
“Not much tennis in my day, but I understand perfectly,” said Mrs Jo, enjoying it all as much as Tom did.
“Upon my word, I hadn't the least idea of being serious,” he continued slowly, as if this part of his tale was hard to tell; “but everyone else spooned, so I did. Dora seemed to like it and expect it, and of course I was glad to be agreeable. She thought I amounted to something, though Nan does not, and it was pleasant to be appreciated after years of snubbing. Yes, it was right down jolly to have a sweet girl smile at you all day, and blush prettily when you said a neat thing to her, and look glad when you came, sorry when you left, and admire all you did, and make you feel like a man and act your best. That's the sort of treatment a fellow enjoys and ought to get if he behaves himself; not frowns and cold shoulders year in and year out, and made to look like a fool when he means well, and is faithful, and has loved a girl ever since he was a boy. No, by Jove, it's not fair, and I won't stand it!”
Tom waxed warm and eloquent as he thought over his wrongs, and bounced up to march about the room, wagging his head and trying to feel aggrieved as usual, but surprised to find that his heart did not ache a bit.
“I wouldn't. Drop the old fancy, for it was nothing more, and take up the new one, if it is genuine. But how came you to propose, Tom, as you must have done to be engaged?” asked Mrs Jo, impatient for the crisis of the tale.
“Oh, that was an accident. I didn't mean it at all; the donkey did it, and I couldn't get out of the scrape without hurting Dora's feelings, you see,” began Tom, seeing that the fatal moment had come.
“So there were two donkeys in it, were there?” said Mrs Jo, foreseeing fun of some sort.
“Don't laugh! It sounds funny, I know; but it might have been awful,” answered Tom darkly, though a twinkle of the eye showed that his love trials did not quite blind him to the comic side of the adventure.
“The girls admired our new wheels, and of course we liked to show off. Took 'em to ride, and had larks generally. Well, one day, Dora was on behind, and we were going nicely along a good bit of road, when a ridiculous old donkey got right across the way. I thought he'd move, but he didn't, so I gave him a kick; he kicked back, and over we went in a heap, donkey and all. Such a mess! I thought only of Dora, and she had hysterics; at least, she laughed till she cried, and that beast brayed, and I lost my head. Any fellow would, with a poor girl gasping in the road, and he wiping her tears and begging pardon, not knowing whether her bones were broken or not. I called her my darling, and went on like a fool in my flurry, till she grew calmer, and said, with such a look: ‘I forgive you, Tom. Pick me up, and let us go on again.’”
“Wasn't that sweet now, after I'd upset her for the second time? It touched me to the heart; and I said I'd like to go on for ever with such an angel to steer for, and—well I don't know what I did say; but you might have knocked me down with a feather when she put her arm round my neck and whispered: "Tom, dear, with you I'm not afraid of any lions in the path." She might have said donkeys; but she was in earnest, and she spared my feelings. Very nice of the dear girl; but there I am with two sweethearts on my hands, and in a deuce of a scrape.”
Finding it impossible to contain herself another moment, Mrs Jo laughed till the tears ran down her cheeks at this characteristic episode; and after one reproachful look, which only added to her merriment, Tom burst into a jolly roar that made the room ring.
“Tommy Bangs! Tommy Bangs! who but you could ever get into such a catastrophe?” said Mrs Jo, when she recovered her breath.
“Isn't it a muddle all round, and won't everyone chaff me to death about it? I shall have to quit old Plum for a while,” answered Tom, as he mopped his face, trying to realize the full danger of his position.
“No, indeed; I'll stand by you, for I think it the best joke of the season. But tell me how things ended. Is it really serious, or only a summer flirtation? I don't approve of them, but boys and girls will play with edged tools and cut their fingers.”
“Well, Dora considers herself engaged, and wrote to her people at once. I couldn't say a word when she took it all in solemn earnest and seemed so happy. She's only seventeen, never liked anyone before, and is sure all will be all right; as her father knows mine, and we are both well off. I was so staggered that I said:”
“"Why, you can't love me really when we know so little of one another?" But she answered right out of her tender little heart: "Yes, I do, dearly, Tom; you are so gay and kind and honest, I couldn't help it." Now, after that what could I do but go ahead and make her happy while I stayed, and trust to luck to straighten the snarl out afterwards?”
“A truly Tomian way of taking things easy. I hope you told your father at once.”
“Oh yes, I wrote off and broke it to him in three lines. I said: "Dear Father, I'm engaged to Dora West, and I hope she will suit the family. She suits me tip-top. Yours ever, Tom." He was all right, never liked Nan, you know; but Dora will suit him down to the ground.” And Tom looked entirely satisfied with his own tact and taste.
“What did Demi say to this rapid and funny lovemaking? Wasn't he scandalized?” asked Mrs Jo, trying not to laugh again as she thought of the unromantic spectacle of donkey, bicycle, boy, and girl all in the dust together.
“Not a bit. He was immensely interested and very kind; talked to me like a father; said it was a good thing to steady a fellow, only I must be honest with her and myself and not trifle a moment. Demi is a regular Solomon, especially when he is in the same boat,” answered Tom, looking wise.
“You don't mean—?” gasped Mrs Jo, in sudden alarm at the bare idea of more love-affairs just yet.
“Yes, I do, please, ma'am; it's a regular sell all the way through, and I owe Demi one for taking me into temptation blindfold. He said he went to Quitno to see Fred Wallace, but he never saw the fellow. How could he, when Wallace was off in his yacht all the time we were there? Alice was the real attraction, and I was left to my fate, while they were maundering round with that old camera. There were three donkeys in this affair, and I'm not the worst one, though I shall have to bear the laugh. Demi will look innocent and sober, and no one will say a word to him.”
“The midsummer madness has broken out, and no one knows who will be stricken next. Well, leave Demi to his mother, and let us see what you are going to do, Tom.”
“I don't know exactly; it's awkward to be in love with two girls at once. What do you advise?”
“A common-sense view of the case, by all means. Dora loves you and thinks you love her. Nan does not care for you, and you only care for her as a friend, though you have tried to do more. It is my opinion, Tom, that you love Dora, or are on the way to it; for in all these years I've never seen you look or speak about Nan as you do about Dora. Opposition has made you obstinately cling to her till accident has shown you a more attractive girl. Now, I think you had better take the old love for a friend, the new one for a sweetheart, and in due time, if the sentiment is genuine, marry her.”
If Mrs Jo had any doubts about the matter, Tom's face would have proved the truth of her opinion; for his eyes shone, his lips smiled, and in spite of dust and sunburn a new expression of happiness quite glorified him as he stood silent for a moment, trying to understand the beautiful miracle which real love works when it comes to a young man's heart.
“The fact is I meant to make Nan jealous, for she knows Dora, and I was sure would hear of our doings. I was tired of being walked on, and I thought I'd try to break away and not be a bore and a laughing-stock any more,” he said slowly, as if it relieved him to pour out his doubts and woes and hopes and joys to his old friend. “I was regularly astonished to find it so easy and so pleasant. I didn't mean to do any harm, but drifted along beautifully, and told Demi to mention things in his letters to Daisy, so Nan might know. Then I forgot Nan altogether, and saw, heard, felt, cared for no one but Dora, till the donkey—bless his old heart!—pitched her into my arms and I found she loved me. Upon my soul, I don't see why she should! I'm not half good enough.”
“Every honest man feels that when an innocent girl puts her hand in his. Make yourself worthy of her, for she isn't an angel, but a woman with faults of her own for you to bear, and forgive, and you must help one another,” said Mrs Jo, trying to realize that this sober youth was her scapegrace Tommy.
“What troubles me is that I didn't mean it when I began, and was going to use the dear girl as an instrument of torture for Nan. It wasn't right, and I don't deserve to be so happy. If all my scrapes ended as well as this, what a state of bliss I should be in!” and Tom beamed again at the rapturous prospect.
“My dear boy, it is not a scrape, but a very sweet experience suddenly dawning upon you,” answered Mrs Jo, speaking very soberly; for she saw he was in earnest. “Enjoy it wisely and be worthy of it, for it is a serious thing to accept a girl's love and trust, and let her look up to you for tenderness and truth in return. Don't let little Dora look in vain, but be a man in all things for her sake, and make this affection a blessing to you both.”
“I'll try. Yes, I do love her, only I can't believe it just yet. Wish you knew her. Dear little soul, I long to see her already! She cried when we parted last night and I hated to go.” Tom's hand went to his cheek as if he still felt the rosy little seal Dora had set upon his promise not to forget her, and for the first time in his happy-go-lucky life Tommy Bangs understood the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The feeling recalled Nan, for he had never known that tender thrill when thinking of her, and the old friendship seemed rather a prosaic affair beside this delightful mingling of romance, surprise, love, and fun. “I declare, I feel as if a weight was off me, but what the dickens will Nan say when she knows it!” he exclaimed with a chuckle.
“Knows what?” asked a clear voice that made both start and turn, for there was Nan calmly surveying them from the doorway.
Anxious to put Tom out of suspense and see how Nan would take the news, Mrs Jo answered quickly:
“Tom's engagement to Dora West.”
“Really?” and Nan looked so surprised that Mrs Jo was afraid she might be fonder of her old playmate than she knew; but her next words set the fear at rest, and made everything comfortable and merry at once.
“I knew my prescription would work wonders if he only took it long enough. Dear old Tom, I'm so glad. Bless you! bless you!” And she shook both his hands with hearty affection.
“It was an accident, Nan. I didn't mean to, but I'm always getting into messes, and I couldn't seem to get out of this any other way. Mother Bhaer will tell you all about it. I must go and make myself tidy. Going to tea with Demi. See you later.”
Stammering, blushing, and looking both sheepish and gratified, Tom suddenly bolted, leaving the elder lady to enlighten the younger at length, and have another laugh over this new sort of courtship, which might well be called accidental. Nan was deeply interested, for she knew Dora, thought her a nice little thing, and predicted that in time she would make Tom an excellent wife, since she admired and “appreciated” him so much.
“I shall miss him of course, but it will be a relief to me and better for him; dangling is so bad for a boy. Now he will go into business with his father and do well, and everyone be happy. I shall give Dora an elegant family medicine-chest for a wedding-present, and teach her how to use it. Tom can't be trusted, and is no more fit for the profession than Silas.”
The latter part of this speech relieved Mrs Jo's mind, for Nan had looked about her as if she had lost something valuable when she began; but the medicine-chest seemed to cheer her, and the thought of Tom in a safe profession was evidently a great comfort.
“The worm has turned at last, Nan, and your bond-man is free. Let him go, and give your whole mind to your work; for you are fitted for the profession, and will be an honour to it by and by,” she said approvingly.
“I hope so. That reminds me—measles are in the village, and you had better tell the girls not to call where there are children. It would be bad to have a run of them just as term begins. Now I'm off to Daisy. Wonder what she will say to Tom. Isn't he great fun?” And Nan departed, laughing over the joke with such genuine satisfaction that it was evident no sentimental regrets disturbed her “maiden meditation, fancy-free”.
“I shall have my eye on Demi, but won't say a word. Meg likes to manage her children in her own way, and a very good way it is. But the dear Pelican will be somewhat ruffled if her boy has caught the epidemic which seems to have broken out among us this summer.”
Mrs Jo did not mean the measles, but that more serious malady called love, which is apt to ravage communities, spring and autumn, when winter gaiety and summer idleness produce whole bouquets of engagements, and set young people to pairing off like the birds. Franz began it, Nat was a chronic and Tom a sudden case; Demi seemed to have the symptoms; and worst of all, her own Ted had only the day before calmly said to her: “Mum, I think I should be happier if I had a sweetheart, like the other boys.” If her cherished son had asked her for dynamite to play with, she would hardly have been more startled, or have more decidedly refused the absurd request.
“Well, Barry Morgan said I ought to have one and offered to pick me out a nice one among our set. I asked Josie first, and she hooted at the idea, so I thought I'd let Barry look round. You say it steadies a fellow, and I want to be steady,” explained Ted in a serious tone, which would have convulsed his parent at any other time.
“Good lack! What are we coming to in this fast age when babes and boys make such demands and want to play with one of the most sacred things in life?” exclaimed Mrs Jo, and having in a few words set the matter in its true light, sent her son away to wholesome baseball and Octoo for a safe sweetheart.
Now, here was Tom's bomb-shell to explode in their midst, carrying widespread destruction, perhaps; for though one swallow does not make a summer, one engagement is apt to make several, and her boys were, most of them, at the inflammable age when a spark ignites the flame, which soon flickers and dies out, or burns warm and clear for life. Nothing could be done about it but to help them make wise choices, and be worthy of good mates. But of all the lessons Mrs Jo had tried to teach her boys, this great one was the hardest; for love is apt to make lunatics of even saints and sages, so young people cannot be expected to escape the delusions, disappointments, and mistakes, as well as the delights, of this sweet madness.
“I suppose it is inevitable, since we live in America, so I won't borrow trouble, but hope that some of the new ideas of education will produce a few hearty, happy, capable, and intelligent girls for my lads. Lucky for me that I haven't the whole twelve on my hands, I should lose my wits if I had, for I foresee complications and troubles ahead worse than Tom's boats, bicycles, donkeys, and Doras,” meditated Mrs Jo, as she went back to her neglected proof-sheets.
Tom was quite satisfied with the tremendous effect his engagement produced in the little community at Plumfield.
“It was paralysing,” as Demi said; and astonishment left most of Tom's mates little breath for chaff. That he, the faithful one, should turn from the idol to strange goddesses, was a shock to the romantic and a warning to the susceptible. It was comical to see the airs our Thomas put on; for the most ludicrous parts of the affair were kindly buried in oblivion by the few who knew them, and Tom burst forth as a full-blown hero who had rescued the maiden from a watery grave, and won her gratitude and love by his daring deed. Dora kept the secret, and enjoyed the fun when she came to see Mother Bhaer and pay her respects to the family generally. Everyone liked her at once, for she was a gay and winning little soul; fresh, frank, and so happy, it was beautiful to see her innocent pride in Tom, who was a new boy, or man rather; for with this change in his life a great change took place in him. Jolly he would always be, and impulsive, but he tried to become all that Dora believed him, and his best side came uppermost for everyday wear. It was surprising to see how many good traits Tom had; and his efforts to preserve the manly dignity belonging to his proud position as an engaged man was very comical. So was the entire change from his former abasement and devotion to Nan to a somewhat lordly air with his little betrothed; for Dora made an idol of him, and resented the idea of a fault or a flaw in her Tom. This new state of things suited both, and the once blighted being bloomed finely in the warm atmosphere of appreciation, love, and confidence. He was very fond of the dear girl, but meant to be a slave no longer, and enjoyed his freedom immensely, quite unconscious that the great tyrant of the world had got hold of him for life.
To his father's satisfaction he gave up his medical studies, and prepared to go into business with the old gentleman, who was a flourishing merchant, ready now to make the way smooth and smile upon his marriage with Mr West's well-endowed daughter. The only thorn in Tom's bed of roses was Nan's placid interest in his affairs, and evident relief at his disloyalty. He did not want her to suffer, but a decent amount of regret at the loss of such a lover would have gratified him; a slight melancholy, a word of reproach, a glance of envy as he passed with adoring Dora on his arm, seemed but the fitting tribute to such years of faithful service and sincere affection. But Nan regarded him with a maternal sort of air that nettled him very much, and patted Dora's curly head with a worldlywise air worthy of the withered spinster, Julia Mills, in David Copperfield.
It took some time to get the old and the new emotions comfortably adjusted, but Mrs Jo helped him, and Mr Laurie gave him some wise advice upon the astonishing gymnastic feats the human heart can perform, and be all the better for it if it only held fast to the balancing-pole of truth and common sense. At last our Tommy got his bearings, and as autumn came on Plumfield saw but little of him; for his new lode star was in the city, and business kept him hard at work. He was evidently in his right place now, and soon throve finely, to his father's great contentment; for his jovial presence pervaded the once quiet office like a gale of fresh wind, and his lively wits found managing men and affairs much more congenial employment than studying disease, or playing unseemly pranks with skeletons.
Here we will leave him for a time and turn to the more serious adventures of his mates, though this engagement, so merrily made, was the anchor which kept our mercurial Tom happy, and made a man of him.