"Chapter 13." by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Steve's engagement made a great stir in the family–a pleasant one this time, for nobody objected, everything seemed felicitous, and the course of true love ran very smoothly for the young couple, who promised to remove the only obstacle to their union by growing old and wise as soon as possible. If he had not been so genuinely happy, the little lover's airs would have been unbearable, for he patronized all mankind in general, his brother and elder cousins in particular.
"Now, that is the way to manage matters," he declared, standing before the fire in Aunt Clara's billiard room a day or two after the ball, with his hands behind his back. "No nonsense, no delay, no domestic rows or tragic separations. Just choose with taste and judgment, make yourself agreeable through thick and thin, and when it is perfectly evident that the dear creature adores the ground you walk on, say the word like a man, and there you are."
"All very easy to do that with a girl like Kitty, who has no confounded notions to spoil her and trip you up every time you don't exactly toe the mark," muttered Charlie, knocking the balls about as if it were a relief to hit something, for he was in a gloriously bad humor that evening, because time hung heavy on his hands since he had forsworn the company he could not keep without danger to himself.
"You should humor those little notions, for all women have them, and it needs tact to steer clear of them. Kitty's got dozens, but I treat them with respect, have my own way when I can, give in without growling when I can't, and we get on like a couple of–"
"Spoons," put in Charlie, who felt that he had not steered clear and so suffered shipwreck in sight of land.
Steve meant to have said "doves," but his cousin's levity caused him to add with calm dignity, "reasonable beings," and then revenged himself by making a good shot which won him the game.
"You always were a lucky little dog, Steve. I don't begrudge you a particle of your happiness, but it does seem as if things weren't quite fair sometimes," said Archie, suppressing an envious sigh, for, though he seldom complained, it was impossible to contrast his own and his cousin's prospects with perfect equanimity.
"His worth shines forth the brightest who in hopeobserved Mac, quoting Euripides in a conversational tone as he lay upon a divan reposing after a hard day's work.
Always confides: the Abject soul despairs,"
"Thank you," said Archie, brightening a little, for a hopeful word from any source was very comfortable.
"That's your favorite Rip, isn't it? He was a wise old boy, but you could find advice as good as that nearer home," put in Steve, who just then felt equal to slapping Plato on the shoulder, so elated was he at being engaged "first of all the lot," as he gracefully expressed it.
"Don't halloo till you are out of the wood, Dandy–Mrs. Kit has jilted two men, and may a third, so you'd better not brag of your wisdom too soon, for she may make a fool of you yet," said Charlie, cynically, his views of life being very gloomy about this time.
"No, she won't, Steve, if you do your part honestly. There's the making of a good little woman in Kitty, and she has proved it by taking you instead of those other fellows. You are not a Solomon, but you're not spoilt yet, and she had the sense to see it," said Mac encouragingly from his corner, for he and his brother were better friends than even since the little scene at the Van Tassels'.
"Hear! Hear!" cried Steve, looking more than ever like a cheerful young cockerel trying to crow as he stood upon the hearth rug with his hands under his coat tails, rising and falling alternately upon the toes and heels of his neat little boots.
"Come, you've given them each a pat on the head–haven't you got one for me? I need it enough, for if ever there was a poor devil born under an evil star, it is C. C. Campbell," exclaimed Charlie, leaning his chin on his cue with a discontented expression of countenance, for trying to be good is often very hard work till one gets used to it.
"Oh, yes! I can accommodate you." And, as if his words suggested the selection, Mac, still lying flat upon his back, repeated one of his favorite bits from Beaumont and Fletcher, for he had a wonderful memory and could reel off poetry by the hour together.
"Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man
Commands all light, all influence, all fate.
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are; or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still."
"Confoundedly bad angels they are too," muttered Charlie ruefully, remembering the one that undid him.
His cousins never knew exactly what occurred on New Year's night, but suspected that something was amiss, for Charlie had the blues, and Rose, though as kind as ever, expressed no surprise at his long absences. They had all observed and wondered at this state of things, yet discreetly made no remark till Steve, who was as inquisitive as a magpie, seized this opportunity to say in a friendly tone, which showed that he bore no malice for the dark prophecy regarding his Kitty's faithfulness: "What's the trouble, Prince? You are so seldom in a bad humor that we don't know what to make of it and all feel out of spirits when you have the blues. Had a tiff with Rose?"
"Never you mind, little boy, but this I will say–the better women are, the more unreasonable they are. They don't require us to be saints like themselves, which is lucky, but they do expect us to render an 'honest and a perfect man' sometimes, and that is asking rather too much in a fallen world like this," said Charlie, glad to get a little sympathy, though he had no intention of confessing his transgressions.
"No, it isn't," said Mac, decidedly.
"Much you know about it," began Charlie, ill pleased to be so flatly contradicted.
"Well, I know this much," added Mac, suddenly sitting up with his hair in a highly disheveled condition. "It is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts or, at best, one not half as good as theirs. If they weren't blinded by love, they'd see what a mean advantage we take of them and not make such bad bargains."
"Upon my word, the philosopher is coming out strong upon the subject! We shall have him preaching 'Women's Rights' directly," said Steve, much amazed at this outburst.
"I've begun, you see, and much good may it do you," answered Mac, laying himself placidly down again.
"Well, but look here, man–you are arguing on the wrong side," put in Archie, quite agreeing with him, but feeling that he must stand by his order at all costs.
"Never mind sides, uphold the right wherever you find it. You needn't stare, Steve–I told you I was going to look into this matter, and I am. You think I'm wrapped up in books, but I see a great deal more of what is going on around me than you imagine, and I'm getting on in this new branch, let me tell you, quite as fast as is good for me, I daresay."
"Going in for perfection, are you?" asked Charlie, both amused and interested, for he respected Mac more than he owned even to himself, and though he had never alluded to the timely warning, neither forgot.
"Yes, I think of it."
"How will you begin?"
"Do my best all-round–keep good company, read good books, love good things, and cultivate soul and body as faithfully and wisely as I can."
"And you expect to succeed, do you?"
"Please God, I will."
The quiet energy of Mac's last words produced a momentary silence. Charlie thoughtfully studied the carpet; Archie, who had been absently poking the fire, looked over at Mac as if he thanked him again, and Steve, forgetting his self-conceit, began to wonder if it was not possible to improve himself a little for Kitty's sake. Only a minute, for young men do not give much time to thoughts of this kind, even when love stirs up the noblest impulses within them. To act rather than to talk is more natural to most of them, as Charlie's next question showed, for, having the matter much at heart, he ventured to ask in an offhand way as he laughed and twirled his cue: "Do you intend to reach the highest point of perfection before you address one of the fair saints, or shall you ask her to lend a hand somewhere short of that?"
"As it takes a long lifetime to do what I plan, I think I shall ask some good woman 'to lend a hand' when I've got anything worth offering her. Not a saint, for I never shall be one myself, but a gentle creature who will help me, as I shall try to help her, so that we can go on together and finish our work hereafter, if we haven't time to do it here."
If Mac had been a lover, he would not have discussed the subject in this simple and sincere fashion, though he might have felt it far more deeply, but being quite heart-free, he frankly showed his interest and, curiously enough, out of his wise young head unconsciously gave the three lovers before him counsel which they valued, because he practiced what he preached.
"Well, I hope you'll find her!" said Charlie heartily as he went back to his game.
"I think I shall." And while the others played, Mac lay staring at the window curtain as contentedly as if, through it, he beheld "a dream of fair women" from which to choose his future mate.
A few days after this talk in the billiard room, Kitty went to call upon Rose, for as she was about to enter the family she felt it her duty to become acquainted with all its branches. This branch, however, she cultivated more assiduously than any other and was continually running in to confer with "Cousin Rose," whom she considered the wisest, dearest, kindest girl ever created. And Rose, finding that, in spite of her flighty head, Kitty had a good heart of her own, did her best to encourage all the new hopes and aspirations springing up in it under the warmth of the first genuine affection she had ever known.
"My dear, I want to have some serious conversation with you upon a subject in which I take an interest for the first time in my life," began Miss Kitty, seating herself and pulling off her gloves as if the subject was one which needed a firm grasp.
"Tell away, and don't mind if I go on working, as I want to finish this job today," answered Rose, with a long-handled paintbrush in her hand and a great pair of shears at her side.
"You are always so busy! What is it now? Let me help–I can talk faster when I'm doing something," which seemed hardly possible, for Kitty's tongue went like a mill clapper at all hours.
"Making picture books for my sick babies at the hospital. Pretty work, isn't it? You cut out, and I'll paste them on these squares of gay cambric–then we just tie up a few pages with a ribbon and there is a nice, light, durable book for the poor dears to look at as they lie in their little beds."
"A capital idea. Do you go there often? How ever do you find the time for such things?" asked Kitty, busily cutting from a big sheet the touching picture of a parent bird with a red head and a blue tail offering what looked like a small boa constrictor to one of its nestlings, a fat young squab with a green head, yellow body, and no tail at all.
"I have plenty of time now I don't go out so much, for a party uses up two days generally–one to prepare for it and one to get over it, you know."
"People think it is so odd of you to give up society all of a sudden. They say you have 'turned pious' and it is owing to your peculiar bringing-up. I always take your part and say it is a pity other girls haven't as sensible an education, for I don't know one who is as satisfactory on the whole as you are."
"Much obliged. You may also tell people I gave up gaiety because I value health more. But I haven't forsworn everything of the kind, Kit. I go to concerts and lectures, and all sorts of early things, and have nice times at home, as you know. I like fun as well as ever, but I'm getting on, you see, and must be preparing a little for the serious part of life. One never knows when it may come," said Rose, thoughtfully as she pasted a squirrel upside down on the pink cotton page before her.
"That reminds me of what I wanted to say. If you'll believe me, my dear, Steve has got that very idea into his head! Did you or Mac put it there?" asked Kitty, industriously clashing her shears.
"No, I've given up lecturing the boys lately–they are so big now they don't like it, and I fancy I'd got into a way that was rather tiresome."
"Well, then, he is 'turning pious' too. And what is very singular, I like it. Now don't smile–I really do–and I want to be getting ready for the 'serious part of life,' as you call it. That is, I want to grow better as fast as I can, for Steve says he isn't half good enough for me. Just think of that!"
Kitty looked so surprised and pleased and proud that Rose felt no desire to laugh at her sudden fancy for sobriety but said in her most sympathetic tone: "I'm very glad to hear it, for it shows that he loves you in the right way."
"Is there more than one way?"
"Yes, I fancy so, because some people improve so much after they fall in love, and others do not at all. Have you never observed that?"
"I never learned how to observe. Of course I know that some matches turn out well and some don't, but I never thought much about it."
"Well, I have, for I was rather interested in the subject lately and had a talk with Aunt Jessie and Uncle about it."
"Gracious! You don't talk to them about such things, do you?"
"Yes, indeed. I ask any questions I like, and always get a good answer. It is such a nice way to learn, Kitty, for you don't have to pore over books, but as things come along you talk about them and remember, and when they are spoken of afterward you understand and are interested, though you don't say a word," explained Rose.
"It must be nice, but I haven't anyone to do so for me. Papa is too busy, and Mama always says when I ask question, 'Don't trouble your head with such things, child,' so I don't. What did you learn about matches turning out well? I'm interested in that, because I want mine to be quite perfect in all respects."
"After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that Uncle was right, and it is not always safe to marry a person just because you love him," began Rose, trying to enlighten Kitty without betraying herself.
"Of course not–if they haven't money or are bad. But otherwise I don't see what more is needed," said Kitty wonderingly.
"One should stop and see if it is a wise love, likely to help both parties and wear well, for you know it ought to last all one's lifetime, and it is very sad if it doesn't."
"I declare it quite scares me to think of it, for I don't usually go beyond my wedding day in making plans. I remember, though, that when I was engaged the first time–you don't know the man; it was just after you went away, and I was only sixteen–someone very ill-naturedly said I should 'marry in haste and repent at leisure,' and that made me try to imagine how it would seem to go on year after year with Gustavus–who had a dreadful temper, by the way–and it worried me so to think of it that I broke the engagement, and was so glad ever afterward."
"You were a wise girl–and I hope you'll do it again if you find, after a time, that you and Steve do not truly trust and respect as well as love one another. If you don't, you'll be miserable when it is too late, as so many people are who do marry in haste and have a lifetime to repent it. Aunt Jessie says so, and she knows."
"Don't be solemn, Rose. It fidgets me to think about life-times, and respecting, and all those responsible things. I'm not used to it, and I don't know how to do it."
"But you must think, and you must learn how before you take the responsibility upon yourself. That is what your life is for, and you mustn't spoil it by doing a very solemn thing without seeing if you are ready for it."
"Do you think about all this?" asked Kitty, shrugging up her shoulders as if responsibility of any sort did not sit comfortably on them.
"One has to sometimes, you know. But is that all you wanted to tell me?" added Rose, anxious to turn the conversation from herself.
"Oh, dear, no! The most serious thing of all is this. Steve is putting himself in order generally, and so I want to do my part, and I must begin right away before my thoughts get distracted with clothes and all sorts of dear, delightful, frivolous things that I can't help liking. Now I wish you'd tell me where to begin. Shouldn't I improve my mind by reading something solid?" And Kitty looked over at the well-filled bookcase as if to see if it contained anything large and dry enough to be considered "solid."
"It would be an excellent plan, and we'll look up something. What do you feel as if you needed most?"
"A little of everything I should say, for when I look into my mind there really doesn't seem to be much there but odds and ends, and yet I'm sure I've read a great deal more than some girls do. I suppose novels don't count, though, and are of no use, for, goodness knows, the people and things they describe aren't a bit like the real ones."
"Some novels are very useful and do as much good as sermons, I've heard Uncle say, because they not only describe truly, but teach so pleasantly that people like to learn in that way," said Rose, who knew the sort of books Kitty had read and did not wonder that she felt rather astray when she tried to guide herself by their teaching.
"You pick me out some of the right kind, and I'll apply my mind to them. Then I ought to have some 'serious views' and 'methods' and 'principles.' Steve said 'principles,' good firm ones, you know." And Kitty gave a little pull at the bit of cambric she was cutting as housewives pull cotton or calico when they want "a good firm article."
Rose could not help laughing now, though much pleased, for Kitty was so prettily in earnest, and yet so perfectly ignorant how to begin on the self-improvement she very much needed, that it was pathetic as well as comical to see and hear her.
"You certainly want some of those, and must begin at once to get them, but Aunt Jessie can help you there better than I can, or Aunt Jane, for she has very 'firm' ones, I assure you," said Rose, sobering down as quickly as possible.
"Mercy on us! I should never dare to say a word about it to Mrs. Mac, for I'm dreadfully afraid of her, she is so stern, and how I'm ever to get on when she is my mother-in-law I don't know!" cried Kitty, clasping her hands in dismay at the idea.
"She isn't half as stern as she looks, and if you go to her without fear, you've no idea how sensible and helpful she is. I used to be frightened out of my wits with her, but now I'm not a bit, and we get on nicely. Indeed, I'm fond of her, she is so reliable and upright in all things."
"She certainly is the straightest woman I ever saw, and the most precise. I never shall forget how scared I was when Steve took me up to see her that first time. I put on all my plainest things, did my hair in a meek knob, and tried to act like a sober, sedate young woman. Steve would laugh at me and say I looked like a pretty nun, so I couldn't be as proper as I wished. Mrs. Mac was very kind, of course, but her eye was so sharp I felt as if she saw right through me, and knew that I'd pinned on my bonnet strings, lost a button off my boot, and didn't brush my hair for ten minutes every night," said Kitty in an awe-stricken tone.
"She likes you, though, and so does Uncle, and he's set his heart on having you live with them by and by, so don't mind her eyes but look straight up at her, and you'll see how kind they can grow."
"Mac likes me, too, and that did please me, for he doesn't like girls generally. Steve told me he said I had the 'making of a capital little woman in me.' Wasn't it nice of him? Steve was so proud, though he does laugh at Mac sometimes."
"Don't disappoint them, dear. Encourage Steve in all the good things he likes or wants, make friends with Mac, love Aunt Jane, and be a daughter to Uncle, and you'll find yourself a very happy girl."
"I truly will, and thank you very much for not making fun of me. I know I'm a little goose, but lately I've felt as if I might come to something if I had the right sort of help. I'll go up and see Aunt Jessie tomorrow. I'm not a bit afraid of her, and then if you'll just quietly find out from Uncle Doctor what I must read, I'll work as hard as I can. Don't tell anyone, please, they'll think it odd and affected, and I can't bear to be laughed at, though I daresay it is good discipline."
Rose promised, and both worked in silence for a moment, then Kitty asked rather timidly: "Are you and Charlie trying this plan too? Since you've left off going out so much, he keeps away also, and we don't know what to make of it."
"He has had what he calls an 'artistic fit' lately, set up a studio, and is doing some crayon sketches of us all. If he'd only finish his things, they would be excellent, but he likes to try a great variety at once. I'll take you in sometime, and perhaps he will do a portrait of you for Steve. He likes girls' faces and gets the likenesses wonderfully well."
"People say you are engaged but I contradict it, because, of course, I should know if you were."
"We are not."
"I'm glad of it, for really, Rose, I'm afraid Charlie hasn't got 'firm principles,' though he is a fascinating fellow and one can't scold him. You don't mind my saying so, do you, dear?" added Kitty, for Rose did not answer at once.
"Not in the least, for you are one of us now, and I can speak frankly and I will, for I think in one way you can help Steve very much. You are right about Charlie, both as to the principles and the fascination. Steve admires him exceedingly, and always from a boy liked to imitate his pleasant ways. Some of them are very harmless and do Steve good, but some are not. I needn't talk about it, only you must show your boy that you depend on him to keep out of harm and help him do it."
"I will, I will! And then perhaps, when he is a perfect model, Charlie will imitate him. I really begin to feel as if I had a great deal to do." And Kitty looked as if she was beginning to like it also.
"We all have and the sooner we go to work the better for us and those we love. You wouldn't think now that Phebe was doing anything for Archie, but she is, and writes such splendid letters, they stir him up wonderfully and make us all love and admire her more than ever."
"How is she getting on?" asked Kitty, who, though she called herself a "little goose," had tact enough to see that Rose did not care to talk about Charlie.
"Nicely, for you know she used to sing in our choir, so that was a good recommendation for another. She got a fine place in the new church at L—, and that gives her a comfortable salary, though she has something put away. She was always a saving creature and kept her wages carefully. Uncle invested them, and she begins to feel quite independent already. No fear but my Phebe will get on–she has such energy and manages so well. I sometimes wish I could run away and work with her."
"Ah, my dear! We rich girls have our trials as well as poor ones, though we don't get as much pity as they do," sighed Kitty. "Nobody knows what I suffer sometimes from worries that I can't talk about, and I shouldn't get much sympathy if I did, just because I live in a big house, wear good gowns, and have lots of lovers. Annabel used to say she envied me above all created beings, but she doesn't now, and is perfectly absorbed in her dear little Chinaman. Do you see how she ever could like him?"
So they began to gossip, and the sober talk was over for that time, but when Kitty departed, after criticizing all her dear friends and their respective sweethearts, she had a helpful little book in her muff, a resolute expression on her bright face, and so many excellent plans for self-improvement in her busy brain that she and Steve bid fair to turn out the model couple of the century.
This chapter has been put on-line as part of the
BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer