Friedrich Bhaer raised his head from contemplation of the papers on his desk: the house was too quiet.
Saturday evenings were the only productive period available to him when the boys were home over the weekends. After Saturday dinner, Emil and Franz helped Tina’s mother in the kitchen with the washing-up, and Bhaer escaped to his study, where he worked as quickly as he could, so as to be able to enjoy his Sunday outings with the boys -- and, more recently, the other children of the house -- entirely without guilt. Or, at least, mostly without guilt: washing-up done, the boys inevitably embarked on wild adventures which just as inevitably required him to intervene for the sanity of his neighbors before he was entirely done with his lesson prep for the next week. He loved his nephews; loved having them in the boarding house on the weekends -- but he had to admit, they made productive work a lot more difficult.
Which was why the professor was surprised to find himself contemplating which of the last two essays in his week’s work he wished to correct first. Usually, he was called away long before this -- and when he raised his head to listen, he heard none of the usual rumblings that precluded that point. No shrieks, no childish giggles, no animalistic roars (he could never decide if the trip to the zoo, many weeks before, had been an inspired choice or a colossal mistake) -- the house was in perfect peace. For once. Perhaps Mrs. Kirke had set the boys on the new encyclopedia set that had recently arrived, and they were quietly engaged.
Deciding that investigating, in this case, would merely disrupt his own productivity sooner rather than later, Bhaer turned his eyes back towards his desk: Bobby Chilton’s paper would no doubt be grammatically flawless though topically bland, while he knew that Miss March’s “Sailors, Robbers, and Romance: A Response to the Brothers Grimm” would be entertainingly droll for its own sake, aside from her uncanny tendency to pepper her papers with false cognates which gave several passages entirely different meanings than the author intended.
These two were the only two papers left. Each challenging in their own way.
Miss March’s mistakes could be highly entertaining when encountered in the right frame of mind, but tonight, Bhaer was not in that mindset. The Masters brothers had pelted him with chestnuts from his window as he departed, and the Jacobsen boy's essay was almost certainly copied from somewhere else. He felt old and exhausted -- and that woman’s haphazard application of grammar and vocabulary would leave him more frustrated than entertained. With a sigh, he pushed aside Miss March’s blotted pages in exchange for Bobby Chilton’s pristine ones, promising himself that he’d give Miss March his very best attention early on Monday morning, instead.
And then, all chaos was unleashed.
A loud “YARRRGH!” was the only warning he received before the light of his study was blacked out entirely, by what he could only assume was a pillowcase thrown over his head. He felt the fumbling of one boy trying to secure the blind, while another -- probably Emil? -- held fast to his hands and had seemed to be tying them together with a piece of rope. Then another rope (a sheet? where had the boys procured these items from?) fastened around his middle, binding him securely to the chair, and then the crow of delight as Franz called out “Ahoy, we have secured the booty!” before the chair itself tilted back at a terrifying angle.
Ah-ha, Bhaer realized. It was Pirates they were playing now. And Uncle Fritz himself was the contraband to be captured, fought over, and ransomed.
At which point, the chair began to move, and Bhaer had a moment of terror on behalf of Mrs. Kirke’s floors before he realized by the sound that the boys were deliberately moving the carpet along with the chair, which was still not perfect, but would surely protect the floors better than the alternative.
But where were they taking him?
He could hear Emil shouting -- presumably maritime -- orders as Franz veered first down one hallway, then another. There were sounds of further chaos up ahead, and as they rounded the corner into what Bhaer could only assume was the nursery, he could hear Tina’s crow of delight. “Mine Baer!”
“No, not yet, Tina,” Franz admonished. “First we have to fight, and then we have to walk the plank. After that, you can have Uncle Fritz.”
“Ahoy!” yelled Mrs. Kirke’s younger son, Charlie, who clearly had taken to the game with great enthusiasm, if less fluency.
“Ahoy and avast!,” agreed Emil.
What followed was greatly confusing for anyone blindfolded and immobilized as Bhaer was. The chair was – thankfully – returned to its upright position, and he could sense that Franz and Emil had temporarily abandoned their loot. There was much shouting, and a thump or two, and some roars of agony which he could only guess were false, as they weren’t followed up by cries for help. Bhaer had just begun to wonder if he might be able to unknot the bonds around his hands when the sounds of quick footsteps made him realize an adult was quickly approaching the room. He was unsure whether to hope that might mean that rescue would be at hand, or to be embarrassed that his charges had caused so much chaos that another resident of the house had to approach to chastise them.
Hopes of rescue, however, were quickly dashed, when the footsteps were followed by the sound of a dramatic leap, and a loud “YARRR!”
“It’s the dread Pirate Joe!” yelled Emil, “Attack!”
“It’s my seas ye be tresspassin’ on, landlubbers that ye arrrr,” cried the newcomer in a merry tenor voice, “I’m here to lay claim to your booty and your wealth, as is my due. Resist me, and you’ll walk the plank -- all of youse!” The blindfold around Bhaer’s head was clearly muffling his ears as well -- the voice sounded familiar enough, but for the life of him, he couldn’t quite identify it. Or remember which of the young men of the house given to playing with the boys had a Christian name of Joseph. But there was no time for that, for chaos was rising as the battle recommenced. Emil and Franz exhorted the others to charge, but they weren’t having much luck against the newcomer, who, based on the sounds of things, was shamelessly employing a longer sword arm to hold all five of them off.
“Do ye surrender?” shouted Pirate Joe.
“You’ll have to catch us, first!” called back Emil. And suddenly, the children turned tail and fled the nursery, shrieks and cries spreading throughout the house. And leaving Professor Bhaer very much alone with Pirate Joe.
Who was laughing. Not the laugh of a confident pirate king, but a lighter, happier laugh -- the sound of a boyish heart that hadn’t played so well in some time.
“Oh dear,” said the pirate. “Mrs. Kirke’s going to have my head for this one,”
“It is mine she will have first, no doubt,” offered Bhaer from his corner. “I admit, sir, I can’t recognize your voice from here, but you no doubt know that two of those five are mine -- and I’m pretty sure they were the ringleaders for the whole enterprise.”
“Professor Bhaer!” exclaimed the voice. “I hadn’t realized you were here.”
Bhaer smiled. “The pirates snatched me, in the early part of battle.” He found himself wishing he could see the other adult’s face, so that they could share a conspiratorial grin, as he said, “I believe I’m supposed to be the booty.”
“Oh dear,” said the other voice, and suddenly, there were trim fingers at his wrists, deftly loosening the bonds that immobilized him. As his hands fell free he set himself to untying the last of the bonds that held him to the chair, as his rescuer tugged at the blindfold that had rendered him more helpless than any other piece of binding.
With a final pull, the pillowcase lifted away, and Bhaer looked up to see that his rescuer was --
The word burst out of him, almost as unexpected to him as the identity of his rescuer had been. Not Pirate Joe, but, rather, Pirate Jo.
Miss March, whose skirts were rigged to approximate swashbuckling pants, and an eyepatch that had gone askew beneath the pirate hat perched precariously atop her head, grinned broadly back at him. “Good to see you, Professor,” she said. “Might I make a suggestion?
“By all means,” Bhaer agreed.
Pirate Jo gestured towards the door, from which Bhaer could hear the shouts and shrieks which indicated the children were on their way back to the nursery for another round of attack.
“Five against one -- even if that one has some training in stage combat and several inches of extra height -- are uneven odds. How would you feel about joining my crew to mount a counterattack?”
There was never any question of his answer.
“I need a sword,” he said, and Miss March quickly thrust the dowel from her own hand into his and pulled her eyepatch back into place. The footsteps in the hall grew ever-nearer. They were definitely back on the same floor again.
“What will you do, then?” he asked. Miss March let out another jolly laugh.
“Don’t you worry about me,” she said. “I’ll find something.” She cast about quickly and Bhaer watched as her face lit up, and she grabbed an armful of stuffed animals from the nearby windowsill. “Canon,” she exclaimed gleefully.
“YAAARRRGH!” exclaimed Emil, bursting into the nursery, Tina clinging to his back.
“Giddyap!” yelled the smaller child gleefully.
“Attack!” shouted Jo, hurling a doll at the invading forces.
“Aye, Captain! Attacking, Captain” responded the professor, leaping to an approximation of en garde, to delighted shrieks from the marauding band, who were amazed to find their contraband not only free, but armed.
The battle, as it followed, was brutal and fast. Pirate Jo’s missiles were successful at long-range, but once the other sailors got in close, she found herself an unhelpful ally. She contented herself with holding off the invaders from the strategic position of the bed, as Fritz took on the surprisingly potent team of Emil and Tina. When he had finally disarmed the two, declaring them to be “Stabbed, and dying -- or dead,” it was in the knick of time, for she had run out of dolls to hurl. Bhaer tossed Emil’s disarmed sword in her direction, and she caught it midair as she leapt from the bed to join the professor on the ship’s deck, the two adults taking defensive poses back to back just as the three remaining pirates realized they were no longer under the threat of missile fire and raced to attack.
Three against two seemed like reasonable odds for the adults, but the tide turned against them quickly: a lucky sword stroke from James Kirke took out Miss March’s sword arm as he swung to attack Bhaer. However, the boy took a bit too long to savor his victory, and the older man was able to take him out while Miss March switched her weapon to her non-dominant hand and declared she was not out of the fight yet. She was successful, in that she was able to inflict a killing blow on Charlie Kirke while fighting southpaw, but he inflicted collateral damage as he fell, slicing across her knee with a dowel that looked disturbingly like the curtain-rod from the water-closet down the hall. Still claiming to be battle-worthy, Miss March obligingly took herself to the floor and flailed futilely in the direction of Franz’s kneecaps as he and his uncle engaged in thrusts and ripostes, but it was clear it was just a matter of time until Franz found a way to score a hit across Miss March’s neck and declare her truly killed.
And yet, just as she had been claiming, she wasn’t quite dead yet -- and Professor Bhaer was still in the game. In an unexpectedly well-synchronized move, Fritz ducked a dangerous parry-and-thrust meant for his neck, while Jo gained purchase on Franz’s leg. Per the rules of the game, Franz quickly pulled his leg up to indicate he’d been amputeed, and attempted to continue the battle, but it had been enough to disrupt his rhythm, and shortly thereafter, Bhaer landed a killing blow across the boy’s chest. The boy looked down at the blade and its placement, and yelled, “He got me! I am killed. Killed dead. Dead for a ducat...dying, dying--”
“The rest is silence,” suggested Miss March, sitting partway up from her own near-death position on the floor, to contribute a bit of the Bard.
“The rest is silence,” agreed Franz, and, then realizing he’d painted himself into a corner, engaged in several seconds of thrashing and groans before finally falling dramatically dead to the raucous applause and whoops of his pirate band.
“Huzzah for Pirate Uncle Fritz,” cried Emil, and Bhaer took a moment for his own bow before reaching down to extend a hand to Miss March.
“Does my comrade-in-arms have a wish to join me?” he asked, and Miss March willingly placed her hands in his.
Things went a little awry, then: for, where Jo used the professor’s hands for balance as she leapt to her feet, Bhaer had planned to pull his collaborator upwards. The result was that Jo rocketed upwards and would have very nearly fallen again, had Bhaer not caught her.
For a second, he was so grateful to have prevented the fall that he failed to notice the matter of their proximity: Jo’s hands were braced against his chest, while one of his gripped her upper arm, and the other clutched at her waist.
“Whoops-a-daisy,” Miss March laughed; Bhaer laughed with her, relaxing his grip and moving his other hand to her waist as well, to stabilize her.
“Steady on?” he asked, referring to the somewhat-nautical terminology as a matter of course. Miss March nodded, her hands unfurling against his chest, and both grinned at each other in relief at their near-miss.
Fritz felt compelled to say something more -- to commend Jo on her excellent fighting, to ask where she’d learned stage combat, anything in that moment, only to be shocked by the loud cheers that emanated from the floor of the nursery -- he had completely forgotten about the smaller pirates watching them from their own scattered positions on the floor. Jo pulled away from Fritz with an apologetic smile and a blush -- modest about the public acclaim, no doubt -- and turned towards the merry band of seafarers to sketch a sweeping bow in their direction.
Bhaer could not take his eyes off her: her hat had been lost at some point in the fray, her eyepatch was askew once more, and her bun had become almost completely unfurled. She looked disheveled and disreputable, but, looking at her, the professor felt the urge to do something rash, something heroic -- something truly befitting a sailor who would fight alongside a brave lady pirate. But for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what it would be. He could only smile back as she smiled at him, and be grateful that he was able to do that much.
The cheers were interrupted by Mrs. Kirke, who popped her head into the nursery, saying that while she’d never had any doubt as to where the children had been, she had wondered whether the house itself would survive the excitement -- and now that the day was won (or lost, as the case may be), her two needed to start preparing for bed. Charlie and James begrudgingly headed for the door as Mrs. Kirke caught sight of Tina, who’d somehow fallen asleep against the rocking chair in all the excitement, and swooped in to retrieve her as well.
“Us, too, Uncle?” Bhaer could tell from Franz’s voice that he was hoping his uncle would relent and tell the boys they could stay up on their own for a while, but the fact was, Mrs. Kirke’s appearance made him realize that it had gotten quite a bit later than he expected -- and it was, in fact, time for bed. For all of them, including him.
“Indeed,” Bhaer rumbled. “Thou must needs rest, for tomorrow is a big day. I’ll be in to say goodnight soon.”
Emil sighed loudly, but both boys brushed themselves off with fewer complaints than Bhaer had expected, and they headed for the door, stopping on their way out to clap the lady pirate on the shoulder, thanking her for joining their play and wishing her a good night.
And then, the children were gone, leaving a sudden and shocking silence in their wake.
“This piece of shanghaied loot owes Pirate Jo a debt of thanks, I think. I had little expectation of rescue, until you came to my aid.”
“That’s the magic of girl pirates,” Miss March said wryly, pulling the eyepatch from her head, untying the laces that pulled her skirts into the approximation of pants, and beginning to investigate the destruction of her coif with careful hands. Bhaer raised an eyebrow in silent question, and she responded with her explanation with a smile as she began to pull pins from her hair. “No one ever expects them.”
Bhaer felt that perhaps she was commenting on themes larger than those covered by an unexpected adventure in the nursery, but for now he only felt qualified to respond to the statement itself.
“In this case, the unexpected was...quite wonderful,” he said. “I am grateful you joined us.” And he sketched her a small, odd, bow.
Miss March smiled back at him as she scrubbed a hand through her hair and the last of it fell free. “Truly, it was my pleasure,” she responded. “I haven’t romped like that in dog’s ages.”
“Well, I am sure the boys would welcome you at any time,” he offered.
The grin Miss March offered at that invitation was quite different from the wry smile she had offered a few moments before. “My mother would have a fit if she saw me sliding down banisters like the misbehaved child I once was,” she responded, “but perhaps there will be a chance for Pirate Jo to ride the waves once more.” She hesitated for a moment, but the rest of the invitation tumbled from her lips almost unbidden. “And perhaps, if that were the case, a certain scholarly sailor could be convinced to join the fray, as well?”
“You can count on it, Miss March. I am always close to hand.”
“Though hopefully not in quite the same way you were this evening, eh?” she asked, nodding towards the chair.
Friedrich laughed as he rubbed his wrists, which were only now beginning to feel a little sore. “I must admit, being tied up was not a pleasant experience.”
“No,” said Jo, joining him in rueful laughter, “I would imagine not.”
“And that,” Bhaer said, “is my cue to return the chair to its home -- and to check on Emil and Franz, who are either halfway to sleep or halfway to Africa by now. I will bid you good night, Miss March.”
“I vote for Africa,” she responded, heading for the door herself. “Guten nacht, Professor.”
As Bhaer retraced the steps down the hall towards his rooms with the chair in his arms, he noticed that the house was quiet once more -- but this time, it was the soft silence of sleepy children and tired parents preparing for bed. Approaching the small cubby he’d appropriated as an office, Bhaer couldn’t help but feel as if his journey had been significantly longer than the simple walk from one set of rooms to another -- it was a surprise to see the lamp still burning brightly, and the two last essays sitting quietly where he’d left them, waiting for his feedback. “Sailors, Robbers, and Romance: A Response to the Brothers Grimm,” seemed to wave merrily at him, as if it knew what kinds of adventures he was so quietly returning from. And Bhaer felt himself smiling fondly at the blotted paper.
He set down the chair and closed his eyes, summoning Miss March’s smile to mind without any effort. The joyous peal of her laugh echoed in his ears, and with it, the memory of Bhaer’s desire when they were standing in the nursery to do something truly daring -- something to make him worthy of fighting alongside a self-styled “girl pirate.”
Something to make him worthy of her.
His eyes flew open with the realization.
“That’s the magic of girl pirates -- no one ever expects them,” Miss March had said.
And, perhaps, too, something of the magic of love. For looking back, he could see the signs of it now: from the leap in his chest when she’d removed his blindfold and the excited sense of nerves that always pervaded him in the hours before her weekly German lessons (even though he faced his dozens of other students without qualm) to his recent attempts to include the other children of the house in Sunday outings with Franz and Emil that had previously been reserved just for the three of them (recognizing, he admitted now, that of course Mrs. Kirke would ask her governess to accompany the children, in order to provide the outings of a lone bachelor and several unrelated young ones with an element of propriety. Even if Mrs. Kirke wouldn’t ever imply such a thing aloud and Jo March wasn’t particularly skilled at cultivating propriety in any situation). And then, too, the nights they found themselves sharing nearby chairs in the convivial community of the parlor downstairs -- drawn together by their common professional interests, their shared affection for the children of the house, and a mutual enjoyment of philosophic ideals. He sought out Miss March’s company in the name of friendship, and told himself that it was that which he valued, but somewhere along the line, he had come to value Miss March for herself.
And, too, there was something of the memory of her slim waist beneath his hands -- a waist which, his fingers reminded him, owed nothing to the stays and corsets that most women employed, often to the detriment of their health. It was quite a pleasant memory. Unconscious gallantry had its advantages, perhaps.
And its disadvantages...for if he found the feel of Miss March’s waist between his hands to be a compelling proposition, how difficult would it be for him to overlook it in the future? For overlook it, he must. He had noticed how frequently her dashing neighbor -- Teddy, was it? -- found his way into the any childhood stories she shared when talking about her family. And he could not ignore that, while Miss March’s acquaintances were all inveterate letter-writers -- there was always an envelope or two bearing her name in the cubby for house mail -- notes from the selfsame Teddy (or Miss March’s assumed replies) never made it into the parlor for sharing as the others did. Miss March spent a good deal of her public leisure time writing letters home; had sought Fritz’s input on philosophical debates between herself and her father, shared stories that sister Meg had put to paper about her twins’ all-encompassing exploits, the adventures of artistic Amy, and the cares and concerns provoked by Jo’s mother’s notes about the health of fragile Beth, but yet, thoughts shared between Miss March and her Teddy (a ridiculous name!), were not for public consumption.
This, of course, was ignoring the simple fact that Miss March was intelligent and charismatic and hard-working…and all of 23 years old. Whereas he, Fritz, was impoverished, absentminded, overweight, saddled with two (charming but rambunctious) nephews, and stubbornly refusing to accept that 35 was no longer "just around the corner."
She could do better than him.
Was doing better than him, if one overlooked her protestations that “Teddy” was “just a friend” and accepted the inevitable truth.
“Ah, Fritz,” he sighed to himself, “you have put yourself in it this time.”
Nothing to be done about that, really, he admitted to himself. He was proud to have the treasure of Miss March’s friendship and regard, for he recognized that was a hard-earned thing. And yes, he admitted now, he would be delighted if she ever gave any indication of welcoming more. But, she wouldn’t. And Fritz would be content -- happy, even -- with to be nothing more than Miss March’s friend. Her old, funny, ever-reliable friend Fritz.
Ever-dependable Fritz, who was always good for an afternoon in the park with the boys in tow, but who had passed the point in his life where a woman would look at him with interest. Or even desire.
“Enough,” he said, sharply. “Enough and be grateful.”
It was getting late -- that was probably the best explanation for his sudden bout of maudlinness after what had been, indeed, a very merry evening. And what if such things were not in his future? Affairs of the heart only complicated otherwise very pleasant friendships anyway.
He should get himself to bed, as he’d promised the boys -- and, of course, as he’d promised Miss March. Things would look brighter in the morning, no doubt.
He turned and looked around the room one last time, to see if anything was amiss or out of place before reaching for the light.
“Sailors, Robbers, and Romance: A Response to the Brothers Grimm,” caught his eye once more. He’d passed it over earlier, in favor of Bobby Chilton’s cleaner, grammatically correct paper. Turned away in favor of, perhaps, a more traditional approach to homework. For Jo March always believed that good intentions and hard work could overcome simple obstacles like financial security and general privilege. Jo March believed believed in a world where girl pirates could ride the waves, companionably joined by scholarly sailors who had skill with the sword. It wasn’t the real world -- in which adventurous women turned into sober governesses, and academics were driven to late nights by their need to recoup tutor fees rather than intellectual inquiry -- and that evening, with his back aching and a headache looming, his friend’s optimistic ability to see swords instead of broken stairway spindles had been infuriating to him.
But on his better days, Fritz wished he could see those things, too.
With a smile, Bhaer reached for the paper with one hand as he reached for the light with the other. The paper would accompany him to bed, in the hopes that his dreams, at least, he could be a guest in MIss March’s world once more.