"Chapter 14." by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Being seriously alarmed by the fear of losing the desire of his heart, Charlie had gone resolutely to work and, like many another young reformer, he rather overdid the matter, for in trying to keep out of the way of temptation, he denied himself much innocent enjoyment. The "artistic fit" was a good excuse for the seclusion which he fancied would be a proper penance, and he sat listlessly plying crayon or paintbrush, with daily wild rides on black Brutus, which seemed to do him good, for danger of that sort was his delight.
People were used to his whims and made light of what they considered a new one, but when it lasted week after week and all attempts to draw him out were vain, his jolly comrades gave him up and the family began to say approvingly, "Now he really is going to settle down and do something." Fortunately, his mother let him alone, for though Dr. Alec had not "thundered in her ear" as he threatened, he had talked with her in a way which first made her very angry, then anxious, and, lastly, quite submissive, for her heart was set on the boy's winning Rose and she would have had him put on sackcloth and ashes if that would have secured the prize. She made light of the cause of Rose's displeasure, considering her extremely foolish and straitlaced, "for all young men of any spirit had their little vices, and came out well enough when the wild oats were sowed." So she indulged Charlie in his new vagary, as she had in all his others, and treated him like an ill-used being, which was neither an inspiring nor helpful course on her part. Poor soul! She saw her mistake by and by, and when too late repented of it bitterly.
Rose wanted to be kind, and tried in various ways to help her cousin, feeling very sure she should succeed as many another hopeful woman has done, quite unconscious how much stronger an undisciplined will is than the truest love, and what a difficult task the wisest find it to undo the mistakes of a bad education. But it was a hard thing to do, for at the least hint of commendation or encouragement, he looked so hopeful that she was afraid of seeming to promise too much, and, of all things, she desired to escape the accusation of having trifled with him.
So life was not very comfortable to either just then; and while Charlie was "mortifying soul and body" to please her, she was studying how to serve him best. Aunt Jessie helped her very much, and no one guessed, when they saw pretty Miss Campbell going up and down the hill with such a serious face, that she was intent upon anything except taking, with praiseworthy regularity, the constitutionals which gave her such a charming color.
Matters were in this state when one day a note came to Rose from Mrs. Clara.
MY SWEET CHILD, Do take pity on my poor boy and cheer him up with a sight of you, for he is so triste it breaks my heart to see him. He has a new plan in his head, which strikes me as an excellent one, if you will only favor it. Let him come and take you for a drive this fine afternoon and talk things over. It will do him a world of good and deeply oblige
Your ever loving
Rose read the note twice and stood a moment pondering, with her eyes absently fixed on the little bay before her window. The sight of several black figures moving briskly to and fro across its frozen surface seemed to suggest a mode of escape from the drive she dreaded in more ways than one. "That will be safer and pleasanter," she said, and going to her desk wrote her answer.
DEAR AUNTY, I'm afraid of Brutus, but if Charlie will go skating with me, I should enjoy it very much and it would do us both good. I can listen to the new plan with an undivided mind there, so give him my love, please, and say I shall expect him at three.
Punctually at three Charlie appeared with his skates over his arm and with a very contented face, which brightened wonderfully as Rose came downstairs in a sealskin suit and scarlet skirt, so like the one she wore years ago that he involuntarily exclaimed as he took her skates: "You look so like little Rose I hardly know you, and it seems so like old times I feel sixteen again."
"That is just the way one ought to feel on such a day as this. Now let us be off and have a good spin before anyone comes. There are only a few children there now, but it is Saturday, you know, and everybody will be out before long," answered Rose, carefully putting on her mittens as she talked, for her heart was not as light as the one little Rose carried under the brown jacket, and the boy of sixteen never looked at her with the love and longing she read in the eyes of the young man before her.
Away they went, and were soon almost as merry and warm as the children around them, for the ice was in good condition, the February sunshine brilliant, and the keen wind set their blood a-tingle with a healthful glow.
"Now tell me the plan your mother spoke of," began Rose as they went gliding across the wide expanse before them, for Charlie seemed to have forgotten everything but the bliss of having her all to himself for a little while.
"Plan? Oh, yes! It is simply this. I'm going out to Father next month."
"Really?" and Rose looked both surprised and incredulous, for this plan was not a new one.
"Really. You don't believe it, but I am, and mother means to go with me. We've had another letter from the governor, and he says if she can't part from her big baby to come along too, and all be happy together. What do you think of that?" he asked, eyeing her intently, for they were face to face as she went backward and he held both of her hands to steer and steady her.
"I like it immensely, and do believe it now–only it rather takes my breath away to think of Aunty's going, when she never would hear of it before."
"She doesn't like the plan very well now and consents to go only on one condition."
"What is that?" asked Rose, trying to free her hands, for a look at Charlie made her suspect what was coming.
"That you go with us." And, holding the hands fast, he added rapidly, "Let me finish before you speak. I don't mean that anything is to be changed till you are ready, but if you go, I am willing to give up everything else and live anywhere as long as you like. Why shouldn't you come to us for a year or two? We've never had our share. Father would be delighted, mother contented, and I the happiest man alive."
"Who made this plan?" asked Rose as soon as she got the breath which certainly had been rather taken away by this entirely new and by no means agreeable scheme.
"Mother suggested it–I shouldn't have dared even to dream of such richness. I'd made up my mind to go alone, and when I told her, she was in despair till this superb idea came into her head. After that, of course, it was easy enough for me to stick to the resolution I'd made."
"Why did you decide to go, Charlie?" And Rose looked up into the eyes that were fixed beseechingly on hers.
They wavered and glanced aside, then met hers honestly yet full of humility, which made her own fall as he answered very low: "Because I don't dare to stay."
"Is it so hard?" she said pitifully.
"Very hard. I haven't the moral courage to own up and face ridicule, and it seems so mean to hide for fear of breaking my word. I will keep it this time, Rose, if I go to the ends of the earth to do it."
"It is not cowardly to flee temptation, and nobody whose opinion is worth having will ridicule any brave attempt to conquer one's self. Don't mind it, Charlie, but stand fast, and I am sure you will succeed."
"You don't know what it is, and I can't tell you, for till I tried to give it up I never guessed what a grip it had on me. I thought it was only a habit, easy to drop when I liked, but it is stronger than I, and sometimes I feel as if possessed of a devil that will get the better of me, try as I may."
He dropped her hands abruptly as he said that, with the energy of despair; and, as if afraid of saying too much, he left her for a minute, striking away at full speed, as if in truth he would "go to the ends of the earth" to escape the enemy within himself.
Rose stood still, appalled by this sudden knowledge of how much greater the evil was than she had dreamed. What ought she to do? Go with her cousin, and by so doing tacitly pledge herself as his companion on that longer journey for which he was as yet so poorly equipped? Both heart and conscience protested against this so strongly that she put the thought away. But compassion pleaded for him tenderly, and the spirit of self-sacrifice, which makes women love to give more than they receive, caused her to feel as if in a measure this man's fate lay in her hands, to be decided for good or ill through her. How should she be true both to him and to herself?
Before this question could be answered, he was back again, looking as if he had left his care behind him, for his moods varied like the wind. Her attitude, as she stood motionless and alone with downcast face, was so unlike the cheerful creature who came to meet him an hour ago, it filled him with self-reproach, and, coming up, he drew one hand through his arm, saying, as she involuntarily followed him, "You must not stand still. Forget my heroics and answer my question. Will you go with us, Rose?"
"Not now–that is asking too much, Charlie, and I will promise nothing, because I cannot do it honestly," she answered, so firmly that he knew appeal was useless.
"Am I to go alone, then, leaving all I care for behind me?"
"No, take your mother with you, and do your best to reunite your parents. You could not give yourself to a better task."
"She won't go without you."
"I think she will if you hold fast to your resolution. You won't give that up, I hope?"
"No–I must go somewhere, for I can't stay here, and it may as well be India, since that pleases Father," answered Charlie doggedly.
"It will more than you can imagine. Tell him all the truth, and see how glad he will be to help you, and how sincerely he will respect you for what you've done."
"If you respect me, I don't care much about the opinion of anyone else," answered Charlie, clinging with a lover's pertinacity to the hope that was dearest.
"I shall, if you go manfully away and do the duty you owe your father and yourself."
"And when I've done it, may I come back to be rewarded, Rose?" he asked, taking possession of the hand on his arm as if it was already his.
"I wish I could say what you want me to. But how can I promise when I am not sure of anything? I don't love you as I ought, and perhaps I never shall–so why persist in making me bind myself in this way? Be generous, Charlie, and don't ask it," implored Rose, much afflicted by his persistence.
"I thought you did love me–it looked very like it a month ago, unless you have turned coquette, and I can't quite believe that," he answered bitterly.
"I was beginning to love you, but you made me afraid to go on," murmured Rose, trying to tell the truth kindly.
"That cursed custom! What can a man do when his hostess asks him to drink wine with her?" And Charlie looked as if he could have cursed himself even more heartily.
"He can say 'no.' "
"Ah, that's the trouble! You never learned to say it even to yourself, and now it is so hard, you want me to help you."
"And you won't."
"Yes, I will, by showing you that I can say it to myself, for your sake." And Rose looked up with a face so full of tender sorrow he could not doubt the words which both reproached and comforted him.
"My little saint! I don't deserve one half your goodness to me, but I will, and go away without one complaint to do my best, for your sake," he cried, touched by her grief and stirred to emulation by the example of courage and integrity she tried to set him.
Here Kitty and Steve bore down upon them; and, obeying the impulse to put care behind them, which makes it possible for young hearts to ache one minute and dance the next, Rose and Charlie banished their troubles, joined in the sport that soon turned the lonely little bay into a ballroom, and enjoyed the splendors of a winter sunset forgetful of separation and Calcutta.
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