"Chapter 15." by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
In spite of much internal rebellion, Charlie held fast to his resolution, and Aunt Clara, finding all persuasions vain, gave in and in a state of chronic indignation against the world in general and Rose in particular, prepared to accompany him. The poor girl had a hard time of it and, but for her uncle, would have fared still worse. He was a sort of shield upon which Mrs. Clara's lamentations, reproaches, and irate glances fell unavailingly instead of wounding the heart against which they were aimed.
The days passed very quickly now, for everyone seemed anxious to have the parting over and preparations went on rapidly. The big house was made ready to shut up for a year at least, comforts for the long voyage laid in, and farewell visits paid. The general activity and excitement rendered it impossible for Charlie to lead the life of an artistic hermit any longer and he fell into a restless condition which caused Rose to long for the departure of the Rajah when she felt that he would be safe, for these farewell festivities were dangerous to one who was just learning to say "no."
"Half the month safely gone. If we can only get well over these last weeks, a great weight will be off my mind," thought Rose as she went down one wild, wet morning toward the end of February.
Opening the study door to greet her uncle, she exclaimed, "Why, Archie!" then paused upon the threshold, transfixed by fear, for in her cousin's white face she read the tidings of some great affliction.
"Hush! Don't be frightened. Come in and I'll tell you," he whispered, putting down the bottle he had just taken from the doctor's medicine closet.
Rose understood and obeyed, for Aunt Plenty was poorly with her rheumatism and depended on her morning doze.
"What is it?" she said, looking about the room with a shiver, as if expecting to see again what she saw there New Year's night. Archie was alone, however, and, drawing her toward the closet, answered with an evident effort to be quite calm and steady–"Charlie is hurt! Uncle wants more ether and the wide bandages in some drawer or other. He told me, but I forget. You keep this place in order–find them for me. Quick!"
Before he had done, Rose was at the drawer, turning over the bandages with hands that trembled as they searched.
"All narrow! I must make some. Can you wait?" And, catching up a piece of old linen, she tore it into wide strips, adding, in the same quick tone, as she began to roll them, "Now, tell me."
"I can wait–those are not needed just yet. I didn't mean anyone should know, you least of all," began Archie, smoothing out the strips as they lay across the table and evidently surprised at the girl's nerve and skill.
"I can bear it–make haste! Is he much hurt?"
"I'm afraid he is. Uncle looks sober, and the poor boy suffers so, I couldn't stay," answered Archie, turning still whiter about the lips that never had so hard a tale to tell before.
"You see, he went to town last evening to meet the man who is going to buy Brutus–"
"And Brutus did it? I knew he would!" cried Rose, dropping her work to wring her hands, as if she guessed the ending of the story now.
"Yes, and if he wasn't shot already I'd do it myself with pleasure, for he's done his best to kill Charlie," muttered Charlie's mate with a grim look, then gave a great sigh and added with averted face, "I shouldn't blame the brute, it wasn't his fault. He needed a firm hand and–" He stopped there, but Rose said quickly: "Go on. I must know."
"Charlie met some of his old cronies, quite by accident; there was a dinner party, and they made him go, just for a good-bye, they said. He couldn't refuse, and it was too much for him. He would come home alone in the storm, though they tried to keep him, as he wasn't fit. Down by the new bridge–that high embankment, you know–the wind had put the lantern out–he forgot–or something scared Brutus, and all went down together."
Archie had spoken fast and brokenly but Rose understood and at the last word hid her face with a little moan, as if she saw it all.
"Drink this and never mind the rest," he said, dashing into the next room and coming back with a glass of water, longing to be done and away, for this sort of pain seemed almost as bad as that he had left.
Rose drank, but held his arm tightly, as he would have turned away, saying in a tone of command he could not disobey: "Don't keep anything back–tell me the worst at once."
"We knew nothing of it," he went on obediently. "Aunt Clara thought he was with me, and no one found him till early this morning. A workman recognized him and he was brought home, dead they thought. I came for Uncle an hour ago. Charlie is conscious now, but awfully hurt, and I'm afraid from the way Mac and Uncle looked at one another that–Oh! Think of it, Rose! Crushed and helpless, alone in the rain all night, and I never knew, I never knew!"
With that, poor Archie broke down entirely and, flinging himself into a chair, laid his face on the table, sobbing like a girl. Rose had never seen a man cry before, and it was so unlike a woman's gentler grief that it moved her very much. Putting by her own anguish, she tried to comfort his and, going to him, lifted up his head and made him lean on her, for in such hours as this women are the stronger. It was a very little to do, but it did comfort Archie, for the poor fellow felt as if fate was very hard upon him just then, and in this faithful bosom he could pour his brief but pathetic plaint.
"Phebe's gone, and now if Charlie's taken, I don't see how I can bear it!"
"Phebe will come back, dear, and let us hope poor Charlie isn't going to be taken yet. Such things always seem worst at first, I've heard people say, so cheer up and hope for the best," answered Rose, seeking for some comfortable words to say and finding very few.
They took effect, however, for Archie did cheer up like a man. Wiping away the tears which he so seldom shed that they did not know where to go, he got up, gave himself a little shake, and said with a long breath, as if he had been underwater: "Now I'm all right, thank you. I couldn't help it–the shock of being waked suddenly to find the dear old fellow in such a pitiful state upset me. I ought to go–are these ready?"
"In a minute. Tell Uncle to send for me if I can be of any use. Oh, poor Aunt Clara! How does she bear it?"
"Almost distracted. I took Mother to her, and she will do all that anybody can. Heaven only knows what Aunt will do if–"
"And only heaven can help her," added Rose as Archie stopped at the words he could not utter. "Now take them, and let me know often."
"You brave little soul, I will." And Archie went away through the rain with his sad burden, wondering how Rose could be so calm when the beloved Prince might be dying.
A long dark day followed, with nothing to break its melancholy monotony except the bulletins that came from hour to hour reporting little change either for better or for worse. Rose broke the news gently to Aunt Plenty and set herself to the task of keeping up the old lady's spirits, for, being helpless, the good soul felt as if everything would go wrong without her. At dusk she fell asleep, and Rose went down to order lights and fire in the parlor, with tea ready to serve at any moment, for she felt sure some of the men would come and that a cheerful greeting and creature comforts would suit them better than tears, darkness, and desolation.
Presently Mac arrived, saying the instant he entered the room: "More comfortable, Cousin."
"Thank heaven!" cried Rose, unclasping her hands. Then seeing how worn out, wet, and weary Mac looked as he came into the light, she added in a tone that was a cordial in itself, "Poor boy, how tired you are! Come here, and let me make you comfortable."
"I was going home to freshen up a bit, for I must be back in an hour. Mother took my place, so I could be spared, and came off, as Uncle refused to stir."
"Don't go home, for if Aunty isn't there it will be very dismal. Step into Uncle's room and refresh, then come back and I'll give you your tea. Let me, let me! I can't help in any other way, and I must do something, this waiting is so dreadful."
Her last words betrayed how much suspense was trying her, and Mac yielded at once, glad to comfort and be comforted. When he came back, looking much revived, a tempting little tea table stood before the fire and Rose went to meet him, saying with a faint smile, as she liberally bedewed him with the contents of a cologne flask: "I can't bear the smell of ether–it suggests such dreadful things."
"What curious creatures women are! Archie told us you bore the news like a hero, and now you turn pale at a whiff of bad air. I can't explain it," mused Mac as he meekly endured the fragrant shower bath.
"Neither can I, but I've been imagining horrors all day and made myself nervous. Don't let us talk about it, but come and have some tea."
"That's another queer thing. Tea is your panacea for all human ills–yet there isn't any nourishment in it. I'd rather have a glass of milk, thank you," said Mac, taking an easy chair and stretching his feet to the fire.
She brought it to him and made him eat something; then, as he shut his eyes wearily, she went away to the piano and, having no heart to sing, played softly till he seemed asleep. But at the stroke of six he was up and ready to be off again.
"He gave me that. Take it with you and put some on his hair. He likes it, and I do so want to help a little," she said, slipping the pretty flagon into his pocket with such a wistful look Mac never thought of smiling at this very feminine request.
"I'll tell him. Is there anything else I can do for you, Cousin?" he asked, holding the cold hand that had been serving him so helpfully.
"Only this–if there is any sudden change, promise to send for me, no matter at what hour it is. I must say 'good-bye'".
"I will come for you. But, Rose, I am sure you may sleep in peace tonight, and I hope to have good news for you in the morning."
"Bless you for that! Come early, and let me see him soon. I will be very good, and I know it will not do him any harm."
"No fear of that. The first thing he said when he could speak was 'Tell Rose carefully,' and as I came away he guessed where I was going and tried to kiss his hand in the old way, you know."
Mac thought it would cheer her to hear that Charlie remembered her, but the sudden thought that she might never see the familiar little gesture anymore was the last drop that made her full heart overflow, and Mac saw the "hero" of the morning sink down at his feet in a passion of tears that frightened him. He took her to the sofa and tried to comfort her, but as soon as the bitter sobbing quieted she looked up and said quite steadily, great drops rolling down her cheeks the while: "Let me cry–it is what I need, and I shall be all the better for it by and by. Go to Charlie now and tell him I said with all my heart, 'Good night!'"
"I will!" And Mac trudged away, marveling in his turn at the curiously blended strength and weakness of womankind.
That was the longest night Rose ever spent, but joy came in the morning with the early message: "He is better. You are to come by and by." Then Aunt Plenty forgot her lumbago and arose; Aunt Myra, who had come to have a social croak, took off her black bonnet as if it would not be needed at present, and the girl made ready to go and say "Welcome back," not the hard "Good-bye."
It seemed very long to wait, for no summons came till afternoon, then her uncle arrived, and at the first sight of his face Rose began to tremble.
"I came for my little girl myself, because we must go back at once," he said as she hurried toward him hat in hand.
"I'm ready, sir." But her hands shook as she tried to tie the ribbons, and her eyes never left the face that was full of tender pity for her.
He took her quickly into the carriage and, as they rolled away, said with the quiet directness which soothes such agitation better than any sympathetic demonstration: "Charlie is worse. I feared it when the pain went so suddenly this morning, but the chief injuries are internal and one can never tell what the chances are. He insists that he is better, but he will soon begin to fail, I fear, become unconscious, and slip away without more suffering. This is the time for you to see him, for he has set his heart on it, and nothing can hurt him now. My child, it is very hard, but we must help each other bear it."
Rose tried to say, "Yes, Uncle" bravely, but the words would not come, and she could only slip her hand into his with a look of mute submission. He laid her head on his shoulder and went on talking so quietly that anyone who did not see how worn and haggard his face had grown with two days and a night of sharp anxiety might have thought him cold.
"Jessie has gone home to rest, and Jane is with poor Clara, who has dropped asleep at last. I've sent for Steve and the other boys. There will be time for them later, but he so begged to see you now, I thought it best to come while this temporary strength keeps him up. I have told him how it is, but he will not believe me. If he asks you, answer honestly and try to fit him a little for this sudden ending of so many hopes."
"How soon, Uncle?"
"A few hours, probably. This tranquil moment is yours–make the most of it and, when we can do no more for him, we'll comfort one another."
Mac met them in the hall, but Rose hardly saw him. She was conscious only of the task before her and, when her uncle led her to the door, she said quietly, "Let me go in alone, please."
Archie, who had been hanging over the bed, slipped away into the inner room as she appeared, and Rose found Charlie waiting for her with such a happy face, she could not believe what she had heard and found it easy to say almost cheerfully as she took his eager hand in both of hers: "Dear Charlie, I'm so glad you sent for me. I longed to come, but waited till you were better. You surely are?" she added, as a second glance showed to her the indescribable change which had come upon the face which at first seemed to have both light and color in it.
"Uncle says not, but I think he is mistaken, because the agony is all gone, and except for this odd sinking now and then, I don't feel so much amiss," he answered feebly but with something of the old lightness in his voice.
"You will hardly be able to sail in the Rajah, I fear, but you won't mind waiting a little while we nurse you," said poor Rose, trying to talk on quietly, with her heart growing heavier every minute.
"I shall go if I'm carried! I'll keep that promise, though it costs me my life. Oh, Rose! You know? They've told you?" And, with a sudden memory of what brought him there, he hid his face in the pillow.
"You broke no promise, for I would not let you make one, you remember. Forget all that, and let us talk about the better time that may be coming for you."
"Always so generous, so kind!" he murmured, with her hand against his feverish cheek; then, looking up, he went on in a tone so humbly contrite it made her eyes fill with slow, hot tears.
"I tried to flee temptation–I tried to say 'no,' but I am so pitiably weak, I couldn't. You must despise me. But don't give me up entirely, for if I live, I'll do better. I'll go away to Father and begin again."
Rose tried to keep back the bitter drops, but they would fall, to hear him still speak hopefully when there was no hope. Something in the mute anguish of her face seemed to tell him what she could not speak, and a quick change came over him as he grasped her hand tighter, saying in a sharp whisper: "Have I really got to die, Rose?"
Her only answer was to kneel down and put her arms about him, as if she tried to keep death away a little longer. He believed it then, and lay so still, she looked up in a moment, fearing she knew not what.
But Charlie bore it manfully, for he had the courage which can face a great danger bravely, though not the strength to fight a bosom sin and conquer it. His eyes were fixed, as if trying to look into the unseen world whither he was going, and his lips firmly set that no word of complaint should spoil the proof he meant to give that, though he had not known how to live, he did know how to die. It seemed to Rose as if for one brief instant she saw the man that might have been if early training had taught him how to rule himself; and the first words he uttered with a long sigh, as his eye came back to her, showed that he felt the failure and owned it with pathetic candor.
"Better so, perhaps; better go before I bring any more sorrow to you and shame to myself. I'd like to stay a little longer and try to redeem the past; it seems so wasted now, but if I can't, don't grieve, Rose. I'm no loss to anyone, and perhaps it is too late to mend."
"Oh, don't say that! No one will find your place among us–we never can forget how much we loved you, and you must believe how freely we forgive as we would be forgiven," cried Rose, steadied by the pale despair that had fallen on Charlie's face with those bitter words.
" 'Forgive us our trespasses!' Yes, I should say that. Rose, I'm not ready, it is so sudden. What can I do?" he whispered, clinging to her as if he had no anchor except the creature whom he loved so much.
"Uncle will tell you–I am not good enough–I can only pray for you." And she moved as if to call in the help so sorely needed.
"No, no, not yet! Stay by me, darling–read something there, in Grandfather's old book, some prayer for such as I. It will do me more good from you than any minister alive."
She got the venerable book–given to Charlie because he bore the good man's name–and, turning to the "Prayer for the Dying," read it brokenly while the voice beside her echoed now and then some word that reproved or comforted.
"The testimony of a good conscience." "By the sadness of his countenance may his heart be made better." "Christian patience and fortitude." "Leave the world in peace." "Amen."
There was silence for a little; then Rose, seeing how wan he looked, said softly, "Shall I call Uncle now?"
"If you will. But first–don't smile at my foolishness, dear–I want my little heart. They took it off–please give it back and let me keep it always," he answered with the old fondness strong as ever, even when he could show it only by holding fast the childish trinket which she found and had given him–the old agate heart with the faded ribbon. "Put it on, and never let them take it off," he said, and when she asked if there was anything else she could do for him, he tried to stretch out his arms to her with a look which asked for more.
She kissed him very tenderly on lips and forehead, tried to say "good-bye," but could not speak, and groped her way to the door. Turning for a last look, Charlie's hopeful spirit rose for a moment, as if anxious to send her away more cheerful, and he said with a shadow of the old blithe smile, a feeble attempt at the familiar farewell gesture: "Till tomorrow, Rose."
Alas for Charlie! His tomorrow never came, and when she saw him next, he lay there looking so serene and noble, it seemed as if it must be well with him, for all the pain was past; temptation ended; doubt and fear, hope and love, could no more stir his quiet heart, and in solemn truth he had gone to meet his Father, and begin again.
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