Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Little Men, part 2

As Martin went rustling after, with his long skirts trailing, his earrings tinkling, his curls waving, and his heart beating, he felt as if his fun had really begun at last, for the mirror had plainly told him that he was ‘a little beauty’. His friends repeated the pleasing phrase enthusiastically, and for several minutes he stood, like a jackdaw in the fable, enjoying his borrowed plumes, while the rest chattered like a party of magpies.

“While I dress, do you drill him, Niles, in the management of his skirt and those French heels, or he will trip himself up. Take your silver butterfly, and catch up that long curl on the left side of his head, Clive, and don’t any of you disturb the charming work of my hands,” said Beau, as he hurried away, looking well pleased with his success.

“You don’t look a bit like yourself, but you are very nice. I’m nowhere beside you, for Beau has heaps of taste, and you’re quite French, I assure you. Let your flowers hang, don’t be so careful of them, and be sure you don’t trip,” returned Sammy, trying not to care that Martin was prettier than himself.

Keeping that warning carefully in mind, Martin got safely down stairs and sailed into the drawing rooms where the Moffats and a few early guests were assembled. He very soon discovered that there is a charm about fine clothes which attracts a certain class of people and secures their respect. Several young gents, who had taken no notice of him before, were very affectionate all of a sudden. Several young women, who had only stared at him at the other party, now not only stared, but asked to be introduced, and said all manner of foolish but agreeable things to him, and several old gentlemen, who sat on the sofas, and criticized the rest of the party, inquired who he was with an air of interest. He heard Mr. Moffat reply to one of them...

“Daisy March — mother a colonel in the army — one of our first families, but reverses of fortune, you know; intimate friends of the Laurences; sweet creature, I assure you; my Nettie is quite wild about him.”

“Dear me!” said the old gent, putting up his glass for another observation of Martin, who tried to look as if he had not heard and been rather shocked at Mr. Moffat’s fibs. The ‘queer feeling’ did not pass away, but he imagined himself acting the new part of fine gent and so got on pretty well, though the tight dress gave him a side-ache, the train kept getting under his feet, and he was in constant fear lest his earrings should fly off and get lost or broken. He was flirting his fan and laughing at the feeble jokes of a young lady who tried to be witty, when he suddenly stopped laughing and looked confused, for just opposite, he saw Laura. She was staring at him with undisguised surprise, and disapproval also, he thought, for though she bowed and smiled, yet something in her honest eyes made him blush and wish he had his old dress on. To complete his confusion, he saw Beau nudge Archie, and both glance from him to Laura, who, he was happy to see, looked unusually girlish and shy.

“Silly creatures, to put such thoughts into my head. I won’t care for it, or let it change me a bit,” thought Martin, and rustled across the room to shake hands with his friend.

“I’m glad you came, I was afraid you wouldn’t,” he said, with his most grown-up air.

“Joe wanted me to come, and tell him how you looked, so I did,” answered Laura, without turning her eyes upon him, though she half smiled at his maternal tone.

“What shall you tell him?” asked Martin, full of curiosity to know her opinion of him, yet feeling ill at ease with her for the first time.

“I shall say I didn’t know you, for you look so grown-up and unlike yourself, I’m quite afraid of you,” she said, fumbling at her glove button.

“How absurd of you! The boys dressed me up for fun, and I rather like it. Wouldn’t Joe stare if he saw me?” said Martin, bent on making her say whether she thought him improved or not.

“Yes, I think he would,” returned Laura gravely.

“Don’t you like me so?” asked Martin.

“No, I don’t,” was the blunt reply.

“Why not?” in an anxious tone.

She glanced at his frizzled head, bare shoulders, and fantastically trimmed dress with an expression that abashed him more than her answer, which had not a particle of her usual politeness in it.

“I don’t like fuss and feathers.”

That was altogether too much from a girl younger than himself, and Martin walked away, saying petulantly, “You are the rudest girl I ever saw.”

Feeling very much ruffled, he went and stood at a quiet window to cool his cheeks, for the tight dress gave him an uncomfortably brilliant color. As he stood there, Major Lincoln passed by, and a minute after he heard her saying to her mother...

“They are making a fool of that little boy. I wanted you to see him, but they have spoiled him entirely. He’s nothing but a doll tonight.”

“Oh, dear!” sighed Martin. “I wish I’d been sensible and worn my own things, then I should not have disgusted other people, or felt so uncomfortable and ashamed of myself.”

He leaned his forehead on the cool pane, and stood half hidden by the curtains, never minding that his favorite waltz had begun, till some one touched him, and turning, he saw Laura, looking penitent, as she said, with her very best bow and her hand out...

“Please forgive my rudeness, and come and dance with me.”

“I’m afraid it will be too disagreeable to you,” said Martin, trying to look offended and failing entirely.

“Not a bit of it, I’m dying to do it. Come, I’ll be good. I don’t like your gown, but I do think you are just splendid.” And she waved her hands, as if words failed to express her admiration.

Martin smiled and relented, and whispered as they stood waiting to catch the time, “Take care my skirt doesn’t trip you up. It's the plague of my life and I was a goose to wear it.”

“Pin it round your neck, and then it will be useful,” said Laura, looking down at the little blue boots, which she evidently approved of.

Away they went fleetly and gracefully, for having practiced at home, they were well matched, and the blithe young couple were a pleasant sight to see, as they twirled merrily round and round, feeling more friendly than ever after their small tiff.

“Laura, I want you to do me a favor, will you?” said Martin, as she stood fanning him when his breath gave out, which it did very soon though he would not own why.

“Won’t I!” said Laura, with alacrity.

“Please don’t tell them at home about my dress tonight. They won’t understand the joke, and it will worry Father.”

“Then why did you do it?” said Laura’s eyes, so plainly that Martin hastily added...

“I shall tell them myself all about it, and ‘fess’ to Father how silly I’ve been. But I’d rather do it myself. So you’ll not tell, will you?”

“I give you my word I won’t, only what shall I say when they ask me?”

“Just say I looked pretty well and was having a good time.”

“I’ll say the first with all my heart, but how about the other? You don’t look as if you were having a good time. Are you?” And Laura looked at him with an expression which made him answer in a whisper...

“No, not just now. Don’t think I’m horrid. I only wanted a little fun, but this sort doesn’t pay, I find, and I’m getting tired of it.”

“Here comes Nettie Moffat. What does she want?” said Laura, knitting her black brows as if she did not regard her young host in the light of a pleasant addition to the party.

“She put her name down for three dances, and I suppose she’s coming for them. What a bore!” said Martin, assuming a languid air which amused Laura immensely.

She did not speak to him again till suppertime, when she saw him drinking champagne with Nettie and her friend Fisher, who were behaving ‘like a pair of fools’, as Laura said to herself, for she felt a sisterly sort of right to watch over the Marches and fight their battles whenever a defender was needed.

“You’ll have a splitting headache tomorrow, if you drink much of that. I wouldn’t, Martin, your Father doesn’t like it, you know,” she whispered, leaning over his chair, as Nettie turned to refill his glass and Fisher stooped to pick up his fan.

“I’m not Martin tonight, I’m ‘a doll’ who does all sorts of crazy things. Tomorrow I shall put away my ‘fuss and feathers’ and be desperately good again,” he answered with an affected little laugh.

“Wish tomorrow was here, then,” muttered Laura, walking off, ill-pleased at the change she saw in him.

Martin danced and flirted, chattered and giggled, as the other boys did. After supper he undertook the German, and blundered through it, nearly upsetting his partner with his long skirt, and romping in a way that scandalized Laura, who looked on and meditated a lecture. But she got no chance to deliver it, for Martin kept away from her till she came to say good night.

“Remember!” he said, trying to smile, for the splitting headache had already begun.

“Silence a la mort,” replied Laura, with a melodramatic flourish, as she went away.

This little bit of byplay excited Archie’s curiosity, but Martin was too tired for gossip and went to bed, feeling as if he had been to a masquerade and hadn’t enjoyed herself as much as he expected. He was sick all the next day, and on Saturday went home, quite used up with his fortnight’s fun and feeling that he had ‘sat in the lap of luxury’ long enough.

“It does seem pleasant to be quiet, and not have company manners on all the time. Home is a nice place, though it isn’t splendid,” said Martin, looking about him with a restful expression, as he sat with his Father and Joe on the Sunday evening.

“I’m glad to hear you say so, dear, for I was afraid home would seem dull and poor to you after your fine quarters,” replied his Father, who had given him many anxious looks that day. For fatherly eyes are quick to see any change in children’s faces.

Martin had told his adventures gaily and said over and over what a charming time he had had, but something still seemed to weigh upon his spirits, and when the younger boys were gone to bed, he sat thoughtfully staring at the fire, saying little and looking worried. As the clock struck nine and Joe proposed bed, Martin suddenly left his chair and, taking Bertie’s stool, leaned his elbows on his Father’s knee, saying bravely...

“Papee, I want to ‘fess’.”

“I thought so. What is it, dear?”

“Shall I go away?” asked Joe discreetly.

“Of course not. Don’t I always tell you everything? I was ashamed to speak of it before the younger children, but I want you to know all the dreadful things I did at the Moffats’.”

“We are prepared,” said Mr. March, smiling but looking a little anxious.

“I told you they dressed me up, but I didn’t tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate. Laura thought I wasn’t proper. I know she did, though she didn’t say so, and one woman called me ‘a doll’. I knew it was silly, but they flattered me and said I was a beauty, and quantities of nonsense, so I let them make a fool of me.”

“Is that all?” asked Joe, as Mr. March looked silently at the downcast face of his pretty son, and could not find it in his heart to blame his little follies.

“No, I drank champagne and romped and tried to flirt, and was altogether abominable,” said Martin self-reproachfully.

“There is something more, I think.” And Mr. March smoothed the soft cheek, which suddenly grew rosy as Martin answered slowly...

“Yes. It’s very silly, but I want to tell it, because I hate to have people say and think such things about us and Laura.”

Then he told the various bits of gossip he had heard at the Moffats’, and as he spoke, Joe saw his Father fold his lips tightly, as if ill pleased that such ideas should be put into Martin’s innocent mind.

“Well, if that isn’t the greatest rubbish I ever heard,” cried Joe indignantly. “Why didn’t you pop out and tell them so on the spot?”

“I couldn’t, it was so embarrassing for me. I couldn’t help hearing at first, and then I was so angry and ashamed, I didn’t remember that I ought to go away.”

“Just wait till I see Archie Moffat, and I’ll show you how to settle such ridiculous stuff. The idea of having ‘plans’ and being kind to Laura because she’s rich and may marry us by-and-by! Won’t she shout when I tell her what those silly things say about us poor children?” And Joe laughed, as if on second thoughts the thing struck him as a good joke.

“If you tell Laura, I’ll never forgive you! He mustn’t, must he, Father?” said Martin, looking distressed.

“No, never repeat that foolish gossip, and forget it as soon as you can,” said Mr. March gravely. “I was very unwise to let you go among people of whom I know so little, kind, I dare say, but worldly, ill-bred, and full of these vulgar ideas about young people. I am more sorry than I can express for the mischief this visit may have done you, Martin.”

“Don’t be sorry, I won’t let it hurt me. I’ll forget all the bad and remember only the good, for I did enjoy a great deal, and thank you very much for letting me go. I’ll not be sentimental or dissatisfied, Father. I know I’m a silly little boy, and I’ll stay with you till I’m fit to take care of myself. But it is nice to be praised and admired, and I can’t help saying I like it,” said Martin, looking half ashamed of the confession.

“That is perfectly natural, and quite harmless, if the liking does not become a passion and lead one to do foolish or unboyish things. Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Martin.”

Martin sat thinking a moment, while Joe stood with his hands behind him, looking both interested and a little perplexed, for it was a new thing to see Martin blushing and talking about admiration, lovers, and things of that sort. And Joe felt as if during that fortnight his brother had grown up amazingly, and was drifting away from him into a world where he could not follow.

“Father, do you have ‘plans’, as Mr. Moffat said?” asked Martin bashfully.

“Yes, my dear, I have a great many, all fathers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mr. Moffat’s, I suspect. I will tell you some of them, for the time has come when a word may set this romantic little head and heart of yours right, on a very serious subject. You are young, Martin, but not too young to understand me, and fathers’ lips are the fittest to speak of such things to boys like you. Joe, your turn will come in time, perhaps, so listen to my ‘plans’ and help me carry them out, if they are good.”

Joe went and sat on one arm of the chair, looking as if he thought they were about to join in some very solemn affair. Holding a hand of each, and watching the two young faces wistfully, Mr. March said, in his serious yet cheery way...

“I want my sons to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as Goddess sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good woman is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a man, and I sincerely hope my boys may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Martin, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear boys, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich women merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor women’s husbands, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than kings on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

“Poor boys don’t stand any chance, Beau says, unless they put themselves forward,” sighed Martin.

“Then we’ll be old bachelors,” said Joe stoutly.

“Right, Joe. Better be happy old bachelors than unhappy husbands, or unboyish boys, running about to find wives,” said Mr. March decidedly. “Don’t be troubled, Martin, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored men I know were poor boys, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old bachelors. Leave these things to time. Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my boys. Father is always ready to be your confidant, Mother to be your friend, and both of us hope and trust that our sons, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.”

“We will, Papee, we will!” cried both, with all their hearts, as he bade them good night.

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