"Chapter 11." by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
"Oh, Rose, I've got something so exciting to tell you!" cried Kitty Van Tassel, skipping into the carriage next morning when her friend called for her to go shopping.
Kitty always did have some "perfectly thrilling" communication to make and Rose had learned to take them quietly, but the next demonstration was a new one, for, regardless alike of curious observers outside and disordered hats within, Kitty caught Rose around the neck, exclaiming in a rapturous whisper: "My dearest creature, I'm engaged!"
"I'm so glad! Of course it is Steve?"
"Dear fellow, he did it last night in the nicest way, and Mama is so delighted. Now what shall I be married in?" And Kitty composed herself with a face full of the deepest anxiety.
"How can you talk of that so soon? Why, Kit, you unromantic girl, you ought to be thinking of your lover and not your clothes," said Rose, amused yet rather scandalized at such want of sentiment.
"I am thinking of my lover, for he says he will not have a long engagement, so I must begin to think about the most important things at once, mustn't I?"
"Ah, he wants to be sure of you, for you are such a slippery creature he is afraid you'll treat him as you did poor Jackson and the rest," interrupted Rose, shaking her finger at her prospective cousin, who had tried this pastime twice before and was rather proud than otherwise of her brief engagements.
"You needn't scold, for I know I'm right, and when you've been in society as long as I have you'll find that the only way to really know a man is to be engaged to him. While they want you they are all devotion, but when they think they've got you, then you find out what wretches they are," answered Kitty with an air of worldly wisdom which contrasted oddly with her youthful face and giddy manners.
"A sad prospect for poor Steve, unless I give him a hint to look well to his ways."
"Oh, my dear child, I'm sure of him, for my experience has made me very sharp and I'm convinced I can manage him without a bit of trouble. We've known each other for ages"–Steve was twenty and Kitty eighteen–"and always been the best of friends. Besides, he is quite my ideal man. I never could bear big hands and feet, and his are simply adorable. Then he's the best dancer I know and dresses in perfect taste. I really do believe I fell in love with his pocket handkerchiefs first, they were so enchanting I couldn't resist," laughed Kitty, pulling a large one out of her pocket and burying her little nose in the folds, which shed a delicious fragrance upon the air.
"Now, that looks promising, and I begin to think you have got a little sentiment after all," said Rose, well pleased, for the merry brown eyes had softened suddenly and a quick color came up in Kitty's cheek as she answered, still half hiding her face in the beloved handkerchief: "Of course I have, lots of it, only I'm ashamed to show it to most people, because it's the style to take everything in the most nonchalant way. My gracious, Rose, you'd have thought me a romantic goose last night while Steve proposed in the back parlor, for I actually cried, he was so dreadfully in earnest when I pretended that I didn't care for him, and so very dear and nice when I told the truth. I didn't know he had it in him, but he came out delightfully and never cared a particle, though I dropped tears all over his lovely shirtfront. Wasn't that good of him? For you know he hates his things to be mussed."
"He's a true Campbell, and has got a good warm heart of his own under those fine fronts of his. Aunt Jane doesn't believe in sentiment, so he has been trained never to show any, but it is there, and you must encourage him to let it out, not foolishly, but in a way to make him more manly and serious."
"I will if I can, for though I wouldn't own this to everybody, I like it in him very much and feel as if Steve and I should get on beautifully. Here we are–now, be sure not to breathe a word if we meet anyone. I want it to be a profound secret for a week at least," added Kitty, whisking her handkerchief out of sight as the carriage stopped before the fashionable store they were about to visit.
Rose promised with a smile, for Kitty's face betrayed her without words, so full was it of the happiness which few eyes fail to understand whenever they see it.
"Just a glance at the silks. You ask my opinion about white ones, and I'll look at the colors. Mama says satin, but that is out now, and I've set my heart on the heaviest corded thing I can find," whispered Kitty as they went rustling by the long counters strewn with all that could delight the feminine eye and tempt the feminine pocket.
"Isn't that opal the loveliest thing you ever saw? I'm afraid I'm too dark to wear it, but it would just suit you. You'll need a variety, you know," added Kitty in a significant aside as Rose stood among the white silks while her companion affected great interest in the delicate hues laid before her.
"But I have a variety now, and don't need a new dress of any sort."
"No matter, get it, else it will be gone. You've worn all yours several times already and must have a new one whether you need it or not. Dear me! If I had as much pocket money as you have, I'd come out in a fresh toilet at every party I went to," answered Kitty, casting an envious eye upon the rainbow piles before her.
The quick-witted shopman saw that a wedding was afoot, for when two pretty girls whisper, smile, and blush over their shopping, clerks scent bridal finery and a transient gleam of interest brightens their imperturbable countenances and lends a brief energy to languid voices weary with crying, "Cash!" Gathering both silks with a practiced turn of the hand, he held them up for inspection, detecting at a glance which was the bride-elect and which the friend, for Kitty fell back to study the effect of silvery white folds with an absorbing interest impossible to mistake while Rose sat looking at the opal as if she scarcely heard a bland voice saying, with the rustle of silk so dear to girlish ears: "A superb thing, just opened; all the rage in Paris; very rare shade; trying to most, as the lady says, but quite perfect for a blonde."
Rose was not listening to those words but to others which Aunt Clara had lately uttered, laughed at then, but thought over more than once since.
"I'm tired of hearing people wonder why Miss Campbell does not dress more. Simplicity is all very well for schoolgirls and women who can't afford anything better, but you can, and you really ought. Your things are pretty enough in their way, and I rather like you to have a style of your own, but it looks odd and people will think you are mean if you don't make more show. Besides, you don't do justice to your beauty, which would be both peculiar and striking if you'd devote your mind to getting up ravishing costumes."
Much more to the same effect did her aunt say, discussing the subject quite artistically and unconsciously appealing to several of Rose's ruling passions. One was a love for the delicate fabrics, colors, and ornaments which refined tastes enjoy and whose costliness keeps them from ever growing common; another, her strong desire to please the eyes of those she cared for and gratify their wishes in the smallest matter if she could. And last, but not least, the natural desire of a young and pretty woman to enhance the beauty which she so soon discovers to be her most potent charm for the other sex, her passport to a high place among her maiden peers.
She had thought seriously of surprising and delighting everyone by appearing in a costume which should do justice to the loveliness which was so modest that it was apt to forget itself in admiring others–what girls call a "ravishing" dress, such as she could imagine and easily procure by the magic of the Fortunatus' purse in her pocket. She had planned it all, the shimmer of pale silk through lace like woven frostwork, ornaments of some classic pattern, and all the dainty accessories as perfect as time, taste, and money could make them.
She knew that Uncle Alec's healthful training had given her a figure that could venture on any fashion and Nature blessed her with a complexion that defied all hues. So it was little wonder that she felt a strong desire to use these gifts, not for the pleasure of display, but to seem fair in the eyes that seldom looked at her without a tender sort of admiration, all the more winning when no words marred the involuntary homage women love.
These thoughts were busy in Rose's mind as she sat looking at the lovely silk and wondering what Charlie would say if she should some night burst upon him in a pale rosy cloud, like the Aurora to whom he often likened her. She knew it would please him very much and she longed to do all she honestly could to gratify the poor fellow, for her tender heart already felt some remorseful pangs, remembering how severe she had been the night before. She could not revoke her words, because she meant them every one, but she might be kind and show that she did not wholly shut him out from her regard by asking him to go with her to Kitty's ball and gratify his artistic taste by a lovely costume. A very girlish but kindly plan, for that ball was to be the last of her frivolities, so she wanted it to be a pleasant one and felt that "being friends" with Charlie would add much to her enjoyment.
This idea made her fingers tighten on the gleaming fabric so temptingly upheld, and she was about to take it when, "If ye please, sir, would ye kindly tell me where I'd be finding the flannel place?" said a voice behind her, and, glancing up, she saw a meek little Irishwoman looking quite lost and out of place among the luxuries around her.
"Downstairs, turn to the left," was the clerk's hasty reply, with a vague wave of the hand which left the inquirer more in the dark than ever.
Rose saw the woman's perplexity and said kindly, "I'll show you–this way."
"I'm ashamed to be throublin' ye, miss, but it's strange I am in it, and wouldn't be comin' here at all, at all, barrin' they tould me I'd get the bit I'm wantin' chaper in this big shop than the little ones more becomin' the like o' me," explained the little woman humbly.
Rose looked again as she led the way through a well-dressed crowd of busy shoppers, and something in the anxious, tired face under the old woolen hood–the bare, purple hands holding fast a meager wallet and a faded scrap of the dotted flannel little children's frocks are so often made of–touched the generous heart that never could see want without an impulse to relieve it. She had meant only to point the way, but, following a new impulse, she went on, listening to the poor soul's motherly prattle about "me baby" and the "throuble" it was to "find clothes for the growin' childer when me man is out av work and the bit and sup inconvaynient these hard times" as they descended to that darksome lower world where necessities take refuge when luxuries crowd them out from the gayer place above.
The presence of a lady made Mrs. Sullivan's shopping very easy now, and her one poor "bit" of flannel grew miraculously into yards of several colors, since the shabby purse was no lighter when she went away, wiping her eyes on the corner of a big, brown bundle. A very little thing, and no one saw it but a wooden-faced clerk, who never told, yet it did Rose good and sent her up into the light again with a sober face, thinking self-reproachfully, "What right have I to more gay gowns when some poor babies have none, or to spend time making myself fine while there is so much bitter want in the world?"
Nevertheless the pretty things were just as tempting as ever, and she yearned for the opal silk with a renewed yearning when she got back. It is not certain that it would not have been bought in spite of her better self if a good angel in the likeness of a stout lady with silvery curls about the benevolent face, enshrined in a plain bonnet, had not accosted her as she joined Kitty, still brooding over the wedding gowns.
"I waited a moment for you, my dear, because I'm in haste, and very glad to save myself a journey or a note," began the newcomer in a low tone as Rose shook hands with the most affectionate respect. "You know the great box factory was burned a day or two ago and over a hundred girls thrown out of work. Some were hurt and are in the hospital, many have no homes to go to, and nearly all need temporary help of some sort. We've had so many calls this winter I hardly know which way to turn, for want is pressing, and I've had my finger in so many purses I'm almost ashamed to ask again. Any little contribution–ah, thank you, I was sure you wouldn't fail me, my good child," and Mrs. Gardener warmly pressed the hand that went so quickly into the little porte-monnaie and came out so generously filled.
"Let me know how else I can help, and thank you very much for allowing me to have a share in your good works," said Rose, forgetting all about gay gowns as she watched the black bonnet go briskly away with an approving smile on the fine old face inside it.
"You extravagant thing! How could you give so much?" whispered Kitty, whose curious eye had seen three figures on the single bill which had so rapidly changed hands.
"I believe if Mrs. Gardener asked me for my head I should give it to her," answered Rose lightly, then, turning to the silks, she asked, "Which have you decided upon, the yellow white or the blue, the corded or the striped?"
"I've decided nothing; except that you are to have the pink and wear it at my–ahem! ball," said Kitty, who had made up her mind, but could not give her orders till Mama had been consulted.
"No, I can't afford it just yet. I never overstep my allowance, and I shall have to if I get any more finery. Come, we ought not to waste time here if you have all the patterns you want." And Rose walked quickly away, glad that it was out of her power to break through two resolutions which hitherto had been faithfully kept–one to dress simply for example's sake, the other not to be extravagant for charity's sake.
As Rosamond had her day of misfortunes, so this seemed to be one of small temptations to Rose. After she had set Kitty down at home and been to see her new houses, she drove about doing various errands for the aunts and, while waiting in the carriage for the execution of an order, young Pemberton came by.
As Steve said, this gentleman had been "hard hit" and still hovered mothlike about the forbidden light. Being the most eligible parti of the season, his regard was considered a distinction to be proud of, and Rose had been well scolded by Aunt Clara for refusing so honorable a mate. The girl liked him, and he was the suitor of whom she had spoken so respectfully to Dr. Alec because he had no need of the heiress and had sincerely loved Rose. He had been away, and she hoped had gotten over his disappointment as happily as the rest, but now when he saw her, and came hurrying up so hungry for a word, she felt that he had not forgotten and was too kind to chill him with the bow which plainly says "Don't stop."
A personable youth was Pemberton, and had brought with him from the wilds of Canada a sable-lined overcoat which was the envy of every masculine and the admiration of every feminine friend he had, and as he stood at her carriage window Rose knew that this luxurious garment and its stalwart wearer were objects of interest to the passersby. It chanced that the tide of shoppers flowed in that direction and, as she chatted, familiar faces often passed with glances, smiles, and nods of varying curiosity, significance, and wonder.
She could not help feeling a certain satisfaction in giving him a moment's pleasure, since she could do no more, but it was not that amiable desire alone which made her ignore the neat white parcels which the druggist's boy deposited on the front seat and kept her lingering a little longer to enjoy one of the small triumphs which girls often risk more than a cold in the head to display. The sight of several snowflakes on the broad shoulders which partially obstructed her view, as well as the rapidly increasing animation of Pemberton's chat, reminded her that it was high time to go.
"I mustn't keep you–it is beginning to storm," she said, taking up her muff, much to old Jacob's satisfaction, for small talk is not exciting to a hungry man whose nose feels like an icicle.
"Is it? I thought the sun was shining." And the absorbed gentleman turned to the outer world with visible reluctance, for it looked very warm and cozy in the red-lined carriage.
"Wise people say we must carry our sunshine with us," answered Rose, taking refuge in commonplaces, for the face at the window grew pensive suddenly as he answered, with a longing look, "I wish I could." Then, smiling gratefully, he added, "Thank you for giving me a little of yours."
"You are very welcome." And Rose offered him her hand while her eyes mutely asked pardon for withholding her leave to keep it.
He pressed it silently and, shouldering the umbrella which he forgot to open, turned away with an "up again and take another" expression, which caused the soft eyes to follow him admiringly.
"I ought not to have kept him a minute longer than I could help, for it wasn't all pity; it was my foolish wish to show off and do as I liked for a minute, to pay for being good about the gown. Oh, me! How weak and silly I am in spite of all my trying!" And Miss Campbell fell into a remorseful reverie, which lasted till she got home.
"Now, young man, what brought you out in this driving storm?" asked Rose as Jamie came stamping in that same afternoon.
"Mama sent you a new book–thought you'd like it. I don't mind your old storms!" replied the boy, wrestling his way out of his coat and presenting a face as round and red and shiny as a well-polished Baldwin apple.
"Much obliged–it is just the day to enjoy it and I was longing for something nice to read," said Rose as Jamie sat down upon the lower stair for a protracted struggle with his rubber boots.
"Here you are, then–no–yes–I do believe I've forgotten it, after all!" cried Jamie, slapping his pockets one after the other with a dismayed expression of countenance.
"Never mind, I'll hunt up something else. Let me help you with those–your hands are so cold." And Rose good-naturedly gave a tug at the boots while Jamie clutched the banisters, murmuring somewhat incoherently as his legs flew up and down: "I'll go back if you want me to. I'm so sorry! It's very good of you, I'm sure. Getting these horrid things on made me forget. Mother would make me wear 'em, though I told her they'd stick like–like gumdrops," he added, inspired by recollections of certain dire disappointments when the above-mentioned sweetmeat melted in his pockets and refused to come out.
"Now what shall we do?" asked Rose when he was finally extricated. "Since I've nothing to read, I may as well play."
"I'll teach you to pitch and toss. You catch very well for a girl, but you can't throw worth a cent," replied Jamie, gamboling down the hall in his slippers and producing a ball from some of the mysterious receptacles in which boys have the art of storing rubbish enough to fill a peck measure.
Of course Rose agreed and cheerfully risked getting her eyes blackened and her fingers bruised till her young receptor gratefully observed that "it was no fun playing where you had to look out for windows and jars and things, so I'd like that jolly book about Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, please."
Being gratified, he spread himself upon the couch, crossed his legs in the air, and without another word dived Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where he remained for two mortal hours, to the general satisfaction of his relatives.
Bereft both of her unexpected playfellow and the much desired book, Rose went into the parlor, there to discover a French novel which Kitty had taken from a library and left in the carriage among the bundles. Settling herself in her favorite lounging chair, she read as diligently as Jamie while the wind howled and snow fell fast without.
For an hour nothing disturbed the cozy quiet of the house for Aunt Plenty was napping upstairs and Dr. Alec writing in his own sanctum; at least Rose thought so, till his step made her hastily drop the book and look up with very much the expression she used to wear when caught in mischief years ago.
"Did I startle you? Have a screen–you are burning your face before this hot fire." And Dr. Alec pulled one forward.
"Thank you, Uncle. I didn't feel it." And the color seemed to deepen in spite of the screen while the uneasy eyes fell upon the book in her lap.
"Have you got the Quarterly there? I want to glance at an article in it if you can spare it for a moment," he said, leaning toward her with an inquiring glance.
"No, sir, I am reading–" And, without mentioning the name, Rose put the book into his hand.
The instant his eye fell on the title he understood the look she wore and knew what "mischief" she had been in. He knit his brows, then smiled, because it was impossible to help it–Rose looked so conscience-stricken in spite of her twenty years.
"How do you find it? Interesting?"
"Oh, very! I felt as if I was in another world and forgot all about this."
"Not a very good world, I fancy, if you were afraid or ashamed to be found in it. Where did this come from?" asked Dr. Alec, surveying the book with great disfavor. Rose told him, and added slowly, "I particularly wanted to read it, and fancied I might, because you did when it was so much talked about the winter we were in Rome."
"I did read it to see if it was fit for you."
"And decided that it was not, I suppose, since you never gave it to me!"
"Then I won't finish it. But, Uncle, I don't see why I should not," added Rose wistfully, for she had reached the heart of the romance and found it wonderfully fascinating.
"You may not see, but don't you feel why not?" asked Dr. Alec gravely.
Rose leaned her flushed cheek on her hand and thought a minute, then looked up and answered honestly, "Yes, I do, but can't explain it, except that I know something must be wrong, because I blushed and started when you came in."
"Exactly." And the doctor gave an emphatic nod, as if the symptoms pleased him.
"But I really don't see any harm in the book so far. It is by a famous author, wonderfully well written, as you know, and the characters so lifelike that I feel as if I should really meet them somewhere."
"I hope not!" ejaculated the doctor, shutting the book quickly, as if to keep the objectionable beings from escaping.
Rose laughed, but persisted in her defense, for she did want to finish the absorbing story, yet would not without leave.
"I have read French novels before, and you gave them to me. Not many, to be sure, but the best, so I think I know what is good and shouldn't like this if it was harmful."
Her uncle's answer was to reopen the volume and turn the leaves an instant as if to find a particular place. Then he put it into her hand, saying quietly: "Read a page or two aloud, translating as you go. You used to like that–try it again."
Rose obeyed and went glibly down a page, doing her best to give the sense in her purest English. Presently she went more slowly, then skipped a sentence here and there, and finally stopped short, looking as if she needed a screen again.
"What's the matter?" asked her uncle, who had been watching her with a serious eye.
"Some phrases are untranslatable, and it only spoils them to try. They are not amiss in French, but sound coarse and bad in our blunt English," she said a little pettishly, for she felt annoyed by her failure to prove the contested point.
"Ah, my dear, if the fine phrases won't bear putting into honest English, the thoughts they express won't bear putting into your innocent mind! That chapter is the key to the whole book, and if you had been led up, or rather down, to it artfully and artistically, you might have read it to yourself without seeing how bad it is. All the worse for the undeniable talent which hides the evil so subtly and makes the danger so delightful."
He paused a moment, then added with an anxious glance at the book, over which she was still bending, "Finish it if you choose–only remember, my girl, that one may read at forty what is unsafe at twenty, and that we never can be too careful what food we give that precious yet perilous thing called imagination."
And taking his Review, he went away to look over a learned article which interested him much less than the workings of a young mind nearby.
Another long silence, broken only by an occasional excited bounce from Jamie when the sociable cuttlefish looked in at the windows or the Nautilus scuttled a ship or two in its terrific course. A bell rang, and the doctor popped his head out to see if he was wanted. It was only a message for Aunt Plenty, and he was about to pop in again when his eye was caught by a square parcel on the slab.
"What's this?" he asked, taking it up.
"Rose wants me to leave it at Kitty Van's when I go. I forgot to bring her book from Mama, so I shall go and get it as soon as ever I've done this," replied Jamie from his nest.
As the volume in his hands was a corpulent one, and Jamie only a third of the way through, Dr. Alec thought Rose's prospect rather doubtful and, slipping the parcel into his pocket, he walked away, saying with a satisfied air: "Virtue doesn't always get rewarded, but it shall be this time if I can do it."
More than half an hour afterward, Rose woke from a little nap and found the various old favorites with which she had tried to solace herself replaced by the simple, wholesome story promised by Aunt Jessie.
"Good boy! I'll go and thank him," she said half aloud, jumping up, wide awake and much pleased.
But she did not go, for just then she spied her uncle standing on the rug warming his hands with a generally fresh and breezy look about him which suggested a recent struggle with the elements.
"How did this come?" she asked suspiciously.
"A man brought it."
"This man? Oh, Uncle! Why did you take so much trouble just to gratify a wish of mine?" she cried, taking both the cold hands in hers with a tenderly reproachful glance from the storm without to the ruddy face above her.
"Because, having taken away your French bonbons with the poisonous color on them, I wanted to get you something better. Here it is, all pure sugar, the sort that sweetens the heart as well as the tongue and leaves no bad taste behind."
"How good you are to me! I don't deserve it, for I didn't resist temptation, though I tried. Uncle, after I'd put the book away, I thought I must just see how it ended, and I'm afraid I should have read it all if it had not been gone," said Rose, laying her face down on the hands she held as humbly as a repentant child.
But Uncle Alec lifted up the bent head and, looking into the eyes that met his frankly, though either held a tear, he said, with the energy that always made his words remembered: "My little girl, I would face a dozen storms far worse than this to keep your soul as stainless as snow, for it is the small temptations which undermine integrity unless we watch and pray and never think them too trivial to be resisted."
Some people would consider Dr. Alec an overcareful man, but Rose felt that he was right, and when she said her prayers that night, added a meek petition to be kept from yielding to three of the small temptations which beset a rich, pretty, and romantic girl–extravagance, coquetry, and novel reading.
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