Little Men. Dan leaves Plumfield.
Sixteen unlocks doors to the world, and the snow hovers on the verge of thaw, spring waiting at the threshold.
"Mind you wear warm clothing," Mother Bhaer says, turning up his collar, convenient disregard for the fact that she had packed nothing in his bags not long-sleeved and thicker than bearskin. "No doubt Mr. Hyde will look after you nicely, but remember that you have a home here when you need it."
"Yes, ma'am." He sketches an ironic little sailor salute, meets her gaze with level mirth. "As you wish, ma'am."
She shakes a knobby, well-worn, well-loved finger at him, then uses it to smooth back his hair. "Enough cheek from you, young rascal. Now get along before I find my ducklings tumbling in, accusing me of kidnapping the departing hero."
The party they've prepared takes place before the great hearthfire in the parlor, with a spread of cider and sandwiches and candy apples, much merriment and no tears.
Nan checks him over with the solemnity of a young owl before pronouncing him fit as a fiddle and filling his ears with gruesome tales of mistreated travel afflictions, and Daisy presents him with a hand-knit sweater, 'city fashion', along with a hundred cakes and biscuits to sweeten his party.
Within the homely walls, they sparkle like the brightest stars in the night sky; from their healthy good looks, from the unmistakable stamp of breeding left upon their brows, he can prophesize a time when they'll be snatched from arm to arm, no time left over for an adopted sort-of-brother.
But for the present he's still an admirable figure in their eyes, and he tousles Nan's hair, unbends to peck Daisy on the forehead, and endures their attentions until Mother Bhaer comes in to rescue him and herd Rob and young Teddy off to bed, leaving her older charges to sit through the rest of the night together.
Heated controversy commences over the program for the evening. Two camps emerge: Emil heads off the discussion with a motion for Follow My Leader while Ned suggests Charades, and the rest support one or the other until words become barbs verge on blows, and it seems like they're on the verge of the second War of Independence till finally Nan snaps: "Why not let Dan speak? This is his party, and there's no call for you to be ruining it."
At this, the boys glance at each other with varying degrees of sheepishness. "Sorry, old man," Tommy is the first to fold, always lamblike before his ladylove, and the others follow in ragged suit.
"No apologies, lads," he matches their discomfiture with discomfort. "Come now; the Professor won't thank us for disturbing his rest. I'll wager there's nothing less to be gained through talk tonight than games."
It's a wise decision, he concludes later, one of the few he's made in his lifetime. They clear a circle in the center of the room, piling all the unconsumed goodies (few) and crumbs (innumerable) into the center of it. Tommy tells ridiculous tales of his father's business exploits; Emil responds with a succession of dirty limericks, punctuated by Daisy's blushes and Nan's sly interjections.
The real surprise of the evening is Demi, who blindsides them with real-life gossip as black as Tommy's stories and Emil's doggerel combined, looking serious but not unduly disturbed, as if recognizing the deplorable state of the human condition and resigned to much of it -- the boy is growing up, growing quickly, and Dan is almost relieved he won't have to be here for the worst of it.
By the time Nat pushes himself forward, eyelids are drooping around the circle. "What do you have for us?" Dan says with the knowledge that his friend still isn't comfortable with concentrated attention, thinking to save him some awkwardness.
Nat flushes and, saying nothing, fetches his fiddle from its case and places it under his chin. In the flickering light from the hearthfire, amidst the remnants of a feast and the crackle of burning wood, he plays.
The music is lethargic, the night is old, and they make a poor audience; Dan struggles to keep his eyes open while waves of the music crush him under like a gentle and insistent sea, and he wonders if that's precisely Nat's intention, one lullaby to set him on the road.
In the end, maybe Nat himself is the only one to appreciate his performance from beginning to end.
When morning comes, he's the first to wake, staring at the ceiling, watching for the first signs of daylight, listening to the sound of breathing from his companions rise, fall, rise. Somewhere, the sun is creeping up like a thief.
Blankets rustle; a lone floorboard creaks. Demi's snuffling comfortably against a cushion, a steady wheeze that he won't admit, not even after waking himself once with one especially loud snore and insisting, afterwards, that he'd heard a firecracker going off in his dreams. "That's you, Reverend, a regular firebrand," Tommy had crowed, fleeing the pillow Demi hurled towards his retreating back.
He has an arm flung over Demi's stomach now but, caught in sleep, neither of them notice or mind.
They remind Dan of barnyard kittens, rolling over lazily to exchange half-serious swats in the daytime, curled together with heads on each others' paws at night. Washing each others' faces, until Tommy remembers Nan calling Demi 'handsome' or Demi catches Tommy playing a prank on his sister. Dan observes their antics from afar with the scorn of the unfelled.
Pushing himself up, he takes a quick survey of the surroundings: Emil's still propped in sitting position against one of the support posts, Nat's curled up with his fiddle and jacket, and Porkie hugs a jar of pickles to himself even in sleep. Jack is sprawled closest to him, lids trembling, the victim of indigestion-induced nightmares.
He's smiling as he slips out the door into the pre-dawn glimmer.
Snow crunches under his boots, fresh-fallen. There's a spot on the fence that commands a fine vantage of the grounds, and he perches himself there, kicking at the wood in desultory fashion. The mist hasn't cleared yet. There's a hint of orange at the very edge of the horizon, which means a splash of morning color soon to come, and Dan takes a deep, shivering breath of the frigid air, then lets it out again.
"Won't you be sorry to leave all this behind?"
Nat's voice, and somehow he's not surprised to hear it, or to see Nat closing the door to the barn behind him with the discreet care of a house-burglar. "I'm sorry to have woken you."
"You've yet to master the changing of subjects," says Nat, but he looks pleased, more like a grazing gazelle than usual. "Though as far as waking goes, I'm glad of it. There might not be time for proper goodbyes later on."
"There's little enough need for one, I reckon," Dan shrugs. "You'll fly the nest yourself before long. You're almost of age."
"I suppose." Nat moves closer, until he might prop his elbow on Dan's knee if he liked. "Not for a while yet, though -- knocking about doesn't suit me as it does you. You were always the one for the adventures and heroic exploits; you'll bring all the excitement of Old Plum with you when you leave."
"Off to bed with you if you're going to carry on the soppy reminiscing." He gives Nat a push, but not too hard, and Nat only sways back like a sapling and laughs in his face.
The sun's making its presence known now, pushing past the horizon. Their breaths steam, mingling in the cold.
"I had something prepared for you," says Nat, extracting a bundle of foolscap from underneath his jacket. "It's nothing impressive, but that's your own fault for not giving us earlier notice, you realize."
Dan takes it. "I didn't want to have a fuss made." The papers are folded with the contents on the inside, but he can make out the lines and marks of a musical score through the thin paper.
"Then you ought to have snuck out in the middle of the night and left a note for Mother Bhaer," is Nat's practical response. "Fuss there would have been in any case, but you could have been halfway to port before it began if you'd left without warning."
"You nag like old women." Dan ignores the gratification that pools about his chest at the thought that he's the one provoking such a reaction, that it belongs to him. "Franz didn't have such a to-do heaped on his head."
"Franz is off to civilized Germany, and will be writing faithful reports of his experiences every week. Not even Mr. Hyde can tell us when he'll be back with you, or even when we'll hear from you again, with the mail ferries between here and South America infrequent as they are."
Dan unfolds Nat's gift to prevent the conversation from descending further into schmaltz, and finds sheets and sheets of music scores, inked in Nat's meticulous, slightly over-refined handwriting.
"They're all Plumfield favorites," Nat interjects, seeming slightly abash at Dan's examination. "I thought you might like a reminder, in those heathen rainforests."
"If it doesn't bring the headhunters after us." And if he didn't prefer music that came from the fingers, from the heart, rather than played with perfect and unerring skill, but it's the thought that counts, and this is Nat, who had once given him a gift that sustains him still. "Thank you, old boy."
He reaches out to ruffle Nat's hair as he'd done with Nan the previous night, and watches Nat dodge his hand and turn pink with no real sign of displeasure. Nan, and Nat -- the two are similar in name and superficial feature, but Dan, with the guilt of betraying a chum, recognizes that in this case the female is the more likely to resent a bit of petting.
Dan despises weakness, he believes firmly that every man should carry his own weight, but it's impossible to despise Nat, whose follies and flaws often hurt nobody but himself.
"I'll miss you, Dan," he sighs now, and holds his hand out, trying to look grave and grown up, succeeding only in achieving a hilarious solemnity.
Dan takes it and shakes it. The sun is up, throwing its brilliance over the Bhaers' homestead; the fields glitters invitingly, and soon the rest of the household will be stirring. He quirks his lips at Nat, and Nat, shedding off the ungainly suit of maturity, grins back.
It's not a bad image, after all, to take away as a ward against the jungle's crocodiles and secrets and web of vines. "Go in and get some more sleep," he says, and though Nat's brow clouds, he knows he'll be obeyed. "I'll follow in just a bit."
"If you don't, I'll send Mother Bhaer after you, so don't you think of running early."
Looking after Nat's blurring outline as the boy trundles back towards the house, he thinks it certain he'll miss this -- warmth, companionship, unconditional acceptance, everything he's found at Plumfield that he never thought to possess. But then he looks up, at the rolling fields of white and the blue sky and the endless possibilities of the future opening to him like the petals of a lily, and he breathes, just breathes.