Little Women (Chapter 33)
New York, November
Dear Marmee and Beth,
I’m going to write you a regular volume, for I’ve got heaps to tell, though I’m not a fine young lady traveling on the continent. When I lost sight of Father’s dear old face, I felt a trifle blue, and might have shed a briny drop or two, if an Irish lady with four small children, all crying more or less, hadn’t diverted my mind, for I amused myself by dropping gingerbread nuts over the seat every time they opened their mouths to roar.
Soon the sun came out, and taking it as a good omen, I cleared up likewise and enjoyed my journey with all my heart.
Mrs. Kirke welcomed me so kindly I felt at home at once, even in that big house full of strangers. She gave me a funny little sky parlor—all she had, but there is a stove in it, and a nice table in a sunny window, so I can sit here and write whenever I like. A fine view and a church tower opposite atone for the many stairs, and I took a fancy to my den on the spot. The nursery, where I am to teach and sew, is a pleasant room next Mrs. Kirke’s private parlor, and the two little girls are pretty children, rather spoiled, I fancy, but they took to me after telling them The Seven Bad Pigs, and I’ve no doubt I shall make a model governess.
I am to have my meals with the children, if I prefer it to the great table, and for the present I do, for I am bashful, though no one will believe it.
“Now, my dear, make yourself at home,” said Mrs. K. in her motherly way, “I’m on the drive from morning to night, as you may suppose with such a family, but a great anxiety will be off my mind if I know the children are safe with you. My rooms are always open to you, and your own shall be as comfortable as I can make it. There are some pleasant people in the house if you feel sociable, and your evenings are always free. Come to me if anything goes wrong, and be as happy as you can. There’s the tea bell, I must run and change my cap.” And off she bustled, leaving me to settle myself in my new nest.
As I went downstairs soon after, I saw something I liked. The flights are very long in this tall house, and as I stood waiting at the head of the third one for a little servant girl to lumber up, I saw a gentleman come along behind her, take the heavy hod of coal out of her hand, carry it all the way up, put it down at a door near by, and walk away, saying, with a kind nod and a foreign accent, “It goes better so. The little back is too young to haf such heaviness.”
Wasn’t it good of him? I like such things, for as Father says, trifles show character. When I mentioned it to Mrs. K., that evening, she laughed, and said, “That must have been Professor Bhaer, he’s always doing things of that sort.”
Mrs. K. told me he was from Berlin, very learned and good, but poor as a church mouse, and gives lessons to support himself and two little orphan nephews whom he is educating here, according to the wishes of his sister, who married an American. Not a very romantic story, but it interested me, and I was glad to hear that Mrs. K. lends him her parlor for some of his scholars. There is a glass door between it and the nursery, and I mean to peep at him, and then I’ll tell you how he looks. He’s almost forty, so it’s no harm, Marmee.
After tea and a go-to-bed romp with the little girls, I attacked the big workbasket, and had a quiet evening chatting with my new friend. I shall keep a journal-letter, and send it once a week, so goodnight, and more tomorrow.
Had a lively time in my seminary this morning, for the children acted like Sancho, and at one time I really thought I should shake them all round. Some good angel inspired me to try gymnastics, and I kept it up till they were glad to sit down and keep still. After luncheon, the girl took them out for a walk, and I went to my needlework like little Mabel ‘with a willing mind’. I was thanking my stars that I’d learned to make nice buttonholes, when the parlor door opened and shut, and someone began to hum, Kennst Du Das Land, like a big bumblebee. It was dreadfully improper, I know, but I couldn’t resist the temptation, and lifting one end of the curtain before the glass door, I peeped in. Professor Bhaer was there, and while he arranged his books, I took a good look at him. A regular German—rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one’s ears good, after our sharp or slipshod American gabble. His clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth, yet I liked him, for he had a fine head, his linen was very nice, and he looked like a gentleman, though two buttons were off his coat and there was a patch on one shoe. He looked sober in spite of his humming, till he went to the window to turn the hyacinth bulbs toward the sun, and stroke the cat, who received him like an old friend. Then he smiled, and when a tap came at the door, called out in a loud, brisk tone, “Herein!”
I was just going to run, when I caught sight of a morsel of a child carrying a big book, and stopped, to see what was going on.
“Me wants me Bhaer,” said the mite, slamming down her book and running to meet him.
“Thou shalt haf thy Bhaer. Come, then, and take a goot hug from him, my Tina,” said the Professor, catching her up with a laugh, and holding her so high over his head that she had to stoop her little face to kiss him.
“Now me mus tuddy my lessin,” went on the funny little thing. So he put her up at the table, opened the great dictionary she had brought, and gave her a paper and pencil, and she scribbled away, turning a leaf now and then, and passing her little fat finger down the page, as if finding a word, so soberly that I nearly betrayed myself by a laugh, while Mr. Bhaer stood stroking her pretty hair with a fatherly look that made me think she must be his own, though she looked more French than German.
Another knock and the appearance of two young ladies sent me back to my work, and there I virtuously remained through all the noise and gabbling that went on next door. One of the girls kept laughing affectedly, and saying, “Now Professor,” in a coquettish tone, and the other pronounced her German with an accent that must have made it hard for him to keep sober.
Both seemed to try his patience sorely, for more than once I heard him say emphatically, “No, no, it is not so, you haf not attend to what I say,” and once there was a loud rap, as if he struck the table with his book, followed by the despairing exclamation, “Prut! It all goes bad this day.”
Poor man, I pitied him, and when the girls were gone, took just one more peep to see if he survived it. He seemed to have thrown himself back in his chair, tired out, and sat there with his eyes shut till the clock struck two, when he jumped up, put his books in his pocket, as if ready for another lesson, and taking little Tina who had fallen asleep on the sofa in his arms, he carried her quietly away. I fancy he has a hard life of it. Mrs. Kirke asked me if I wouldn’t go down to the five o’clock dinner, and feeling a little bit homesick, I thought I would, just to see what sort of people are under the same roof with me. So I made myself respectable and tried to slip in behind Mrs. Kirke, but as she is short and I’m tall, my efforts at concealment were rather a failure. She gave me a seat by her, and after my face cooled off, I plucked up courage and looked about me. The long table was full, and every one intent on getting their dinner, the gentlemen especially, who seemed to be eating on time, for they bolted in every sense of the word, vanishing as soon as they were done. There was the usual assortment of young men absorbed in themselves, young couples absorbed in each other, married ladies in their babies, and old gentlemen in politics. I don’t think I shall care to have much to do with any of them, except one sweetfaced maiden lady, who looks as if she had something in her.
Cast away at the very bottom of the table was the Professor, shouting answers to the questions of a very inquisitive, deaf old gentleman on one side, and talking philosophy with a Frenchman on the other. If Amy had been here, she’d have turned her back on him forever because, sad to relate, he had a great appetite, and shoveled in his dinner in a manner which would have horrified ‘her ladyship’. I didn’t mind, for I like ‘to see folks eat with a relish’, as Hannah says, and the poor man must have needed a deal of food after teaching idiots all day.
As I went upstairs after dinner, two of the young men were settling their hats before the hall mirror, and I heard one say low to the other, “Who’s the new party?”
“Governess, or something of that sort.”
“What the deuce is she at our table for?”
“Friend of the old lady’s.”
“Handsome head, but no style.”
“Not a bit of it. Give us a light and come on.”
I felt angry at first, and then I didn’t care, for a governess is as good as a clerk, and I’ve got sense, if I haven’t style, which is more than some people have, judging from the remarks of the elegant beings who clattered away, smoking like bad chimneys. I hate ordinary people!
Yesterday was a quiet day spent in teaching, sewing, and writing in my little room, which is very cozy, with a light and fire. I picked up a few bits of news and was introduced to the Professor. It seems that Tina is the child of the Frenchwoman who does the fine ironing in the laundry here. The little thing has lost her heart to Mr. Bhaer, and follows him about the house like a dog whenever he is at home, which delights him, as he is very fond of children, though a ‘bacheldore’. Kitty and Minnie Kirke likewise regard him with affection, and tell all sorts of stories about the plays he invents, the presents he brings, and the splendid tales he tells. The younger men quiz him, it seems, call him Old Fritz, Lager Beer, Ursa Major, and make all manner of jokes on his name. But he enjoys it like a boy, Mrs. Kirke says, and takes it so good-naturedly that they all like him in spite of his foreign ways.
The maiden lady is a Miss Norton, rich, cultivated, and kind. She spoke to me at dinner today (for I went to table again, it’s such fun to watch people), and asked me to come and see her at her room. She has fine books and pictures, knows interesting persons, and seems friendly, so I shall make myself agreeable, for I do want to get into good society, only it isn’t the same sort that Amy likes.
I was in our parlor last evening when Mr. Bhaer came in with some newspapers for Mrs. Kirke. She wasn’t there, but Minnie, who is a little old woman, introduced me very prettily. “This is Mamma’s friend, Miss March.”
“Yes, and she’s jolly and we like her lots,” added Kitty, who is an ‘enfant terrible’.
We both bowed, and then we laughed, for the prim introduction and the blunt addition were rather a comical contrast.
“Ah, yes, I hear these naughty ones go to vex you, Mees Marsch. If so again, call at me and I come,” he said, with a threatening frown that delighted the little wretches.
I promised I would, and he departed, but it seems as if I was doomed to see a good deal of him, for today as I passed his door on my way out, by accident I knocked against it with my umbrella. It flew open, and there he stood in his dressing gown, with a big blue sock on one hand and a darning needle in the other. He didn’t seem at all ashamed of it, for when I explained and hurried on, he waved his hand, sock and all, saying in his loud, cheerful way…
“You haf a fine day to make your walk. Bon voyage, Mademoiselle.”
I laughed all the way downstairs, but it was a little pathetic, also to think of the poor man having to mend his own clothes. The German gentlemen embroider, I know, but darning hose is another thing and not so pretty.
Nothing has happened to write about, except a call on Miss Norton, who has a room full of pretty things, and who was very charming, for she showed me all her treasures, and asked me if I would sometimes go with her to lectures and concerts, as her escort, if I enjoyed them. She put it as a favor, but I’m sure Mrs. Kirke has told her about us, and she does it out of kindness to me. I’m as proud as Lucifer, but such favors from such people don’t burden me, and I accepted gratefully.
When I got back to the nursery there was such an uproar in the parlor that I looked in, and there was Mr. Bhaer down on his hands and knees, with Tina on his back, Kitty leading him with a jump rope, and Minnie feeding two small boys with seedcakes, as they roared and ramped in cages built of chairs.
“We are playing nargerie,” explained Kitty.
“Dis is mine effalunt!” added Tina, holding on by the Professor’s hair.
“Mamma always allows us to do what we like Saturday afternoon, when Franz and Emil come, doesn’t she, Mr. Bhaer?” said Minnie.
The ‘effalunt’ sat up, looking as much in earnest as any of them, and said soberly to me, “I gif you my wort it is so, if we make too large a noise you shall say Hush! to us, and we go more softly.”
I promised to do so, but left the door open and enjoyed the fun as much as they did, for a more glorious frolic I never witnessed. They played tag and soldiers, danced and sang, and when it began to grow dark they all piled onto the sofa about the Professor, while he told charming fairy stories of the storks on the chimney tops, and the little ‘koblods’, who ride the snowflakes as they fall. I wish Americans were as simple and natural as Germans, don’t you?
I’m so fond of writing, I should go spinning on forever if motives of economy didn’t stop me, for though I’ve used thin paper and written fine, I tremble to think of the stamps this long letter will need. Pray forward Amy’s as soon as you can spare them. My small news will sound very flat after her splendors, but you will like them, I know. Is Teddy studying so hard that he can’t find time to write to his friends? Take good care of him for me, Beth, and tell me all about the babies, and give heaps of love to everyone. From your faithful Jo.
P.S. On reading over my letter, it strikes me as rather Bhaery, but I am always interested in odd people, and I really had nothing else to write about. Bless you!
My Precious Betsey,
As this is to be a scribble-scrabble letter, I direct it to you, for it may amuse you, and give you some idea of my goings on, for though quiet, they are rather amusing, for which, oh, be joyful! After what Amy would call Herculaneum efforts, in the way of mental and moral agriculture, my young ideas begin to shoot and my little twigs to bend as I could wish. They are not so interesting to me as Tina and the boys, but I do my duty by them, and they are fond of me. Franz and Emil are jolly little lads, quite after my own heart, for the mixture of German and American spirit in them produces a constant state of effervescence. Saturday afternoons are riotous times, whether spent in the house or out, for on pleasant days they all go to walk, like a seminary, with the Professor and myself to keep order, and then such fun!
We are very good friends now, and I’ve begun to take lessons. I really couldn’t help it, and it all came about in such a droll way that I must tell you. To begin at the beginning, Mrs. Kirke called to me one day as I passed Mr. Bhaer’s room where she was rummaging.
“Did you ever see such a den, my dear? Just come and help me put these books to rights, for I’ve turned everything upside down, trying to discover what he has done with the six new handkerchiefs I gave him not long ago.”
I went in, and while we worked I looked about me, for it was ‘a den’ to be sure. Books and papers everywhere, a broken meerschaum, and an old flute over the mantlepiece as if done with, a ragged bird without any tail chirped on one window seat, and a box of white mice adorned the other. Half-finished boats and bits of string lay among the manuscripts. Dirty little boots stood drying before the fire, and traces of the dearly beloved boys, for whom he makes a slave of himself, were to be seen all over the room. After a grand rummage three of the missing articles were found, one over the bird cage, one covered with ink, and a third burned brown, having been used as a holder.
“Such a man!” laughed good-natured Mrs. K., as she put the relics in the rag bag. “I suppose the others are torn up to rig ships, bandage cut fingers, or make kite tails. It’s dreadful, but I can’t scold him. He’s so absent-minded and goodnatured, he lets those boys ride over him roughshod. I agreed to do his washing and mending, but he forgets to give out his things and I forget to look them over, so he comes to a sad pass sometimes.”
“Let me mend them,” said I. “I don’t mind it, and he needn’t know. I’d like to, he’s so kind to me about bringing my letters and lending books.”
So I have got his things in order, and knit heels into two pairs of the socks, for they were boggled out of shape with his queer darns. Nothing was said, and I hoped he wouldn’t find it out, but one day last week he caught me at it. Hearing the lessons he gives to others has interested and amused me so much that I took a fancy to learn, for Tina runs in and out, leaving the door open, and I can hear. I had been sitting near this door, finishing off the last sock, and trying to understand what he said to a new scholar, who is as stupid as I am. The girl had gone, and I thought he had also, it was so still, and I was busily gabbling over a verb, and rocking to and fro in a most absurd way, when a little crow made me look up, and there was Mr. Bhaer looking and laughing quietly, while he made signs to Tina not to betray him.
“So!” he said, as I stopped and stared like a goose, “you peep at me, I peep at you, and this is not bad, but see, I am not pleasanting when I say, haf you a wish for German?”
“Yes, but you are too busy. I am too stupid to learn,” I blundered out, as red as a peony.
“Prut! We will make the time, and we fail not to find the sense. At efening I shall gif a little lesson with much gladness, for look you, Mees Marsch, I haf this debt to pay.” And he pointed to my work ‘Yes,’ they say to one another, these so kind ladies, ‘he is a stupid old fellow, he will see not what we do, he will never observe that his sock heels go not in holes any more, he will think his buttons grow out new when they fall, and believe that strings make theirselves.’ “Ah! But I haf an eye, and I see much. I haf a heart, and I feel thanks for this. Come, a little lesson then and now, or—no more good fairy works for me and mine.”
Of course I couldn’t say anything after that, and as it really is a splendid opportunity, I made the bargain, and we began. I took four lessons, and then I stuck fast in a grammatical bog. The Professor was very patient with me, but it must have been torment to him, and now and then he’d look at me with such an expression of mild despair that it was a toss-up with me whether to laugh or cry. I tried both ways, and when it came to a sniff or utter mortification and woe, he just threw the grammar on to the floor and marched out of the room. I felt myself disgraced and deserted forever, but didn’t blame him a particle, and was scrambling my papers together, meaning to rush upstairs and shake myself hard, when in he came, as brisk and beaming as if I’d covered myself in glory.
“Now we shall try a new way. You and I will read these pleasant little marchen together, and dig no more in that dry book, that goes in the corner for making us trouble.”
He spoke so kindly, and opened Hans Anderson’s fairy tales so invitingly before me, that I was more ashamed than ever, and went at my lesson in a neck-or-nothing style that seemed to amuse him immensely. I forgot my bashfulness, and pegged away (no other word will express it) with all my might, tumbling over long words, pronouncing according to inspiration of the minute, and doing my very best. When I finished reading my first page, and stopped for breath, he clapped his hands and cried out in his hearty way, “Das ist gut! Now we go well! My turn. I do him in German, gif me your ear.” And away he went, rumbling out the words with his strong voice and a relish which was good to see as well as hear. Fortunately the story was The Constant Tin Soldier, which is droll, you know, so I could laugh, and I did, though I didn’t understand half he read, for I couldn’t help it, he was so earnest, I so excited, and the whole thing so comical.
After that we got on better, and now I read my lessons pretty well, for this way of studying suits me, and I can see that the grammar gets tucked into the tales and poetry as one gives pills in jelly. I like it very much, and he doesn’t seem tired of it yet, which is very good of him, isn’t it? I mean to give him something on Christmas, for I dare not offer money. Tell me something nice, Marmee.
I’m glad Laurie seems so happy and busy, that he has given up smoking and lets his hair grow. You see Beth manages him better than I did. I’m not jealous, dear, do your best, only don’t make a saint of him. I’m afraid I couldn’t like him without a spice of human naughtiness. Read him bits of my letters. I haven’t time to write much, and that will do just as well. Thank Heaven Beth continues so comfortable.
A Happy New Year to you all, my dearest family, which of course includes Mr. L. and a young man by the name of Teddy. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your Christmas bundle, for I didn’t get it till night and had given up hoping. Your letter came in the morning, but you said nothing about a parcel, meaning it for a surprise, so I was disappointed, for I’d had a ‘kind of feeling’ that you wouldn’t forget me. I felt a little low in my mind as I sat up in my room after tea, and when the big, muddy, battered-looking bundle was brought to me, I just hugged it and pranced. It was so homey and refreshing that I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed and cried, in my usual absurd way. The things were just what I wanted, and all the better for being made instead of bought. Beth’s new ‘ink bib’ was capital, and Hannah’s box of hard gingerbread will be a treasure. I’ll be sure and wear the nice flannels you sent, Marmee, and read carefully the books Father has marked. Thank you all, heaps and heaps!
Speaking of books reminds me that I’m getting rich in that line, for on New Year’s Day Mr. Bhaer gave me a fine Shakespeare. It is one he values much, and I’ve often admired it, set up in the place of honor with his German Bible, Plato, Homer, and Milton, so you may imagine how I felt when he brought it down, without its cover, and showed me my own name in it, “from my friend Friedrich Bhaer”.
“You say often you wish a library. Here I gif you one, for between these lids (he meant covers) is many books in one. Read him well, and he will help you much, for the study of character in this book will help you to read it in the world and paint it with your pen.”
I thanked him as well as I could, and talk now about ‘my library’, as if I had a hundred books. I never knew how much there was in Shakespeare before, but then I never had a Bhaer to explain it to me. Now don’t laugh at his horrid name. It isn’t pronounced either Bear or Beer, as people will say it, but something between the two, as only Germans can give it. I’m glad you both like what I tell you about him, and hope you will know him some day. Mother would admire his warm heart, Father his wise head. I admire both, and feel rich in my new ‘friend Friedrich Bhaer’.
Not having much money, or knowing what he’d like, I got several little things, and put them about the room, where he would find them unexpectedly. They were useful, pretty, or funny, a new standish on his table, a little vase for his flower, he always has one, or a bit of green in a glass, to keep him fresh, he says, and a holder for his blower, so that he needn’t burn up what Amy calls ‘mouchoirs’. I made it like those Beth invented, a big butterfly with a fat body, and black and yellow wings, worsted feelers, and bead eyes. It took his fancy immensely, and he put it on his mantlepiece as an article of virtue, so it was rather a failure after all. Poor as he is, he didn’t forget a servant or a child in the house, and not a soul here, from the French laundrywoman to Miss Norton forgot him. I was so glad of that.
They got up a masquerade, and had a gay time New Year’s Eve. I didn’t mean to go down, having no dress. But at the last minute, Mrs. Kirke remembered some old brocades, and Miss Norton lent me lace and feathers. So I dressed up as Mrs. Malaprop, and sailed in with a mask on. No one knew me, for I disguised my voice, and no one dreamed of the silent, haughty Miss March (for they think I am very stiff and cool, most of them, and so I am to whippersnappers) could dance and dress, and burst out into a ‘nice derangement of epitaphs, like an allegory on the banks of the Nile’. I enjoyed it very much, and when we unmasked it was fun to see them stare at me. I heard one of the young men tell another that he knew I’d been an actress, in fact, he thought he remembered seeing me at one of the minor theaters. Meg will relish that joke. Mr. Bhaer was Nick Bottom, and Tina was Titania, a perfect little fairy in his arms. To see them dance was ‘quite a landscape’, to use a Teddyism.
I had a very happy New Year, after all, and when I thought it over in my room, I felt as if I was getting on a little in spite of my many failures, for I’m cheerful all the time now, work with a will, and take more interest in other people than I used to, which is satisfactory. Bless you all! Ever your loving… Jo