Chapter 17 – The Woman Who Did Not Dare

Louisa May Alcott2016年11月05日'Command+D' Bookmark this page

Light off Small Medium Large

POLLY wrote enthusiastically, Ned answered satisfactorily, and
after much corresponding, talking, and planning, it was decided
that Tom should go West. Never mind what the business was; it
suffices to say that it was a good beginning for a young man like
Tom, who, having been born and bred in the most conservative
class of the most conceited city in New England, needed just the
healthy, hearty, social influences of the West to widen his views
and make a man of him.

Of course there was much lamentation among the women, but
every one felt it was the best thing for him; so while they sighed
they sewed, packed visions of a brilliant future away with his new
pocket handkerchiefs, and rejoiced that the way was open before
him even in the act of bedewing his boots with tears. Sydney stood
by him to the last, "like a man and a brother" (which expression of
Tom’s gave Fanny infinite satisfaction), and Will felt entirely
consoled for Ned’s disappointment at his refusal to go and join
him, since Tom was to take the place Ned had kept for him.

Fortunately every one was so busy with the necessary preparations
that there was no time for romance of any sort, and the four young
people worked together as soberly and sensibly as if all sorts of
emotions were not bottled up in their respective hearts. But in spite
of the silence, the work, and the hurry, I think they came to know
one another better in that busy little space of time than in all the
years that had gone before, for the best and bravest in each was up
and stirring, and the small house was as full of the magnetism of
love and friendship, self-sacrifice and enthusiasm, as the world
outside was full of spring sunshine and enchantment. Pity that the
end should come so soon, but the hour did its work and went its
way, leaving a clearer atmosphere behind, though the young folks
did not see it then, for their eyes were dim because of the partings
that must be.

Tom was off to the West; Polly went home for the summer; Maud
was taken to the seaside with Belle; and Fanny left alone to wrestle
with housekeeping, "help," and heartache. If it had not been for
two things, I fear she never would have stood a summer in town,
but Sydney often called, till his vacation came, and a voluminous
correspondence with Polly beguiled the long days. Tom wrote
once a week to his mother, but the letters were short and not very
satisfactory, for men never do tell the interesting little things that
women best like to hear. Fanny forwarded her bits of news to
Polly. Polly sent back all the extracts from Ned’s letters concerning
Tom, and by putting the two reports together, they gained the
comfortable assurance that Tom was well, in good spirits, hard at
work, and intent on coming out strong in spite of all obstacles.

Polly had a quiet summer at home, resting and getting ready in
mind and body for another winter’s work, for in the autumn she
tried her plan again, to the satisfaction of her pupils and the great
joy of her friends. She never said much of herself in her letters,
and Fanny’s first exclamation when they met again, was an anxious
"Why, Polly, dear! Have you been sick and never told me?"

"No, I ‘m only tired, had a good deal to do lately, and the dull
weather makes me just a trifle blue. I shall soon brighten up when
I get to my work again," answered Polly, bustling about to put
away her things.

"You don’t look a bit natural. What have you been doing to your
precious little self?" persisted Fanny, troubled by the change, yet
finding it hard to say wherein it lay.

Polly did not look sick, though her cheeks were thinner and her
color paler than formerly, but she seemed spiritless, and there was
a tired look in her eyes that went to Fanny’s heart.

"I ‘m all right enough, as you ‘ll see when I ‘m in order. I ‘m proper
glad to find you looking so well and happy. Does all go smoothly,
Fan?" asked Polly, beginning to brush her hair industriously.

"Answer me one question first," said Fanny, looking as if a sudden
fear had come over her. "Tell me, truly, have you never repented
of your hint to Sydney?"

"Never!" cried Polly, throwing back the brown veil behind which
she had half hidden her face at first.

"On your honor, as an honest girl?"

"On my honor, as anything you please. Why do you suspect me of
it?" demanded Polly, almost angrily.

"Because something is wrong with you. It ‘s no use to deny it, for
you ‘ve got the look I used to see in that very glass on my own face
when I thought he cared for you. Forgive me, Polly, but I can’t help
saying it, for it is there, and I want to be as true to you as you were
to me if I can."

Fanny’s face was full of agitation, and she spoke fast and frankly,
for she was trying to be generous and found it very hard. Polly
understood now and put her fear at rest by saying almost
passionately, "I tell you I don’t love him! If he was the only man in
the world, I would n’t marry him, because I don’t want to."

The last three words were added in a different tone, for Polly had
checked herself there with a half-frightened look and turned away
to hide her face behind her hair again.

"Then if it ‘s not him, it ‘s some one else. You ‘ve got a secret,
Polly, and I should think you might tell it, as you know mine," said
Fanny, unable to rest till everything was told, for Polly’s manner
troubled her.

There was no answer to her question, but she was satisfied and
putting her arm round her friend, she said, in her most persuasive
tone, "My precious Polly, do I know him?"

"You have seen him."

"And is he very wise, good, and splendid, dear?"


"He ought to be if you love him. I hope he is n’t bad?" cried Fan,
anxiously, still holding Polly, who kept her head obstinately

"I ‘m suited, that ‘s enough."

"Oh, please just tell me one thing more. Don’t he love back again?"

"No. Now don’t say another word, I can’t bear it!" and Polly drew
herself away, as she spoke in a desperate sort of tone.

"I won’t, but now I ‘m not afraid to tell you that I think, I hope, I do
believe that Sydney cares a little for me. He ‘s been very kind to us
all, and lately he has seemed to like to see me always when he
comes and miss me if I ‘m gone. I did n’t dare to hope anything, till
Papa observed something in his manner, and teased me about it. I
try not to deceive myself, but it does seem as if there was a chance
of happiness for me."

"Thank heaven for that!" cried Polly, with the heartiest satisfaction
in her voice. "Now come and tell me all about it," she added,
sitting down on the couch with the air of one who has escaped a
great peril.

"I ‘ve got some notes and things I want to ask your opinion about,
if they really mean anything, you know," said Fanny, getting out a
bundle of papers from the inmost recesses of her desk. "There ‘s a
photograph of Tom, came in his last letter. Good, is n’t it? He
looks older, but that ‘s the beard and the rough coat, I suppose.
Dear old fellow, he is doing so well I really begin to feel quite
proud of him."

Fan tossed her the photograph, and went on rummaging for a
certain note. She did not see Polly catch up the picture and look at
it with hungry eyes, but she did hear something in the low tone in
which Polly said, "It don’t do him justice," and glancing over her
shoulder, Fan’s quick eye caught a glimpse of the truth, though
Polly was half turned away from her. Without stopping to think,
Fan dropped her letters, took Polly by the shoulders, and cried in a
tone full of astonishment, "Polly, is it Tom?"

Poor Polly was so taken by surprise, that she had not a word to say.
None were needed; her telltale face answered for her, as well as
the impulse which made her hide her head in the sofa cushion, like
a foolish ostrich when the hunters are after it.

"Oh, Polly, I am so glad! I never thought of it you are so good, and
he ‘s such a wild boy, I can’t believe it but it is so dear of you to
care for him."

"Could n’t help it tried not to but it was so hard you know, Fan, you
know," said a stifled voice from the depths of the very fuzzy
cushion which Tom had once condemned.

The last words, and the appealing hand outstretched to her, told
Fanny the secret of her friend’s tender sympathy for her own love
troubles, and seemed so pathetic, that she took Polly in her arms,
and cried over her, in the fond, foolish way girls have of doing
when their hearts are full, and tears can say more than tongues.
The silence never lasts long, however, for the feminine desire to
"talk it over" usually gets the better of the deepest emotion. So
presently the girls were hard at it, Polly very humble and
downcast, Fanny excited and overflowing with curiosity and

"Really my sister! You dear thing, how heavenly that will be," she

"It never will be," answered Polly in a tone of calm despair.

"What will prevent it?"

"Maria Bailey," was the tragic reply.

"What do you mean? Is she the Western girl? She shan’t have Tom;
I ‘ll kill her first!"

"Too late, let me tell you is that door shut, and Maud safe?"

Fanny reconnoitered, and returning, listened breathlessly, while
Polly poured into her ear the bitter secret which was preying on her

"Has n’t he mentioned Maria in his letters?"

"Once or twice, but sort of jokingly, and I thought it was only
some little flirtation. He can’t have time for much of that fun, he ‘s
so busy."

"Ned writes good, gossipy letters I taught him how and he tells me
all that ‘s going on. When he ‘d spoken of this girl several times
(they board with her mother, you know), I asked about her, quite
carelessly, and he told me she was pretty, good, and well educated,
and he thought Tom was rather smitten. That was a blow, for you
see, Fan, since Trix broke the engagement, and it was n’t wrong to
think of Tom, I let myself hope, just a little, and was so happy!
Now I must give it up, and now I see how much I hoped, and what
a dreadful loss it ‘s going to be."

Two great tears rolled down Polly’s cheeks, and Fanny wiped them
away, feeling an intense desire to go West by the next train, wither
Maria Bailey with a single look, and bring Tom back as a gift to

"It was so stupid of me not to guess before. But you see Tom
always seems so like a boy, and you are more womanly for your
age than any girl I know, so I never thought of your caring for him
in that way. I knew you were very good to him, you are to every
one, my precious; and I knew that he was fond of you as he is of
me, fonder if anything, because he thinks you are perfect; but still I
never dreamed of his loving you as more than a dear friend."

"He does n’t," sighed Polly.

"Well, he ought; and if I could get hold of him, he should!"

Polly clutched Fan at that, and held her tight, saying sternly, "If
you ever breathe a word, drop a hint, look a look that will tell him
or any one else about me, I ‘ll yes, as sure as my name is Mary
Milton I ‘ll proclaim from the housetops that you like Ar " Polly
got no further, for Fan’s hand was on her mouth, and Fan’s alarmed
voice vehemently protested, "I won’t! I promise solemnly I ‘ll
never say a word to a mortal creature. Don’t be so fierce, Polly;
you quite frighten me."

"It ‘s bad enough to love some one who don’t love you, but to have
them told of it is perfectly awful. It makes me wild just to think of
it. Oh, Fan, I ‘m getting so ill-tempered and envious and wicked, I
don’t know what will happen to me."

"I ‘m not afraid for you, my dear, and I do believe things will go
right, because you are so good to every one. How Tom could help
adoring you I don’t see. I know he would if he had stayed at home
longer after he got rid of Trix. It would be the making of him; but
though he is my brother, I don’t think he ‘s good enough for you,
Polly, and I don’t quite see how you can care for him so much,
when you might have had a person so infinitely superior."

"I don’t want a ‘superior’ person; he ‘d tire me if he was like A. S.
Besides, I do think Tom is superior to him in many things. Well,
you need n’t stare; I know he is, or will be. He ‘s so different, and
very young, and has lots of faults, I know, but I like him all the
better for it, and he ‘s honest and brave, and has got a big, warm
heart, and I ‘d rather have him care for me than the wisest, best,
most accomplished man in the world, simply because I love him!"

If Tom could only have seen Polly’s face when she said that! It was
so tender, earnest, and defiant, that Fanny forgot the defence of her
own lover in admiration of Polly’s loyalty to hers; for this faithful,
all absorbing love was a new revelation to Fanny, who was used to
hearing her friends boast of two or three lovers a year, and
calculate their respective values, with almost as much coolness as
the young men discussed the fortunes of the girls they wished for,
but "could not afford to marry." She had thought her love for
Sydney very romantic, because she did not really care whether he
was rich or poor, though she never dared to say so, even to Polly,
for fear of being laughed at. She began to see now what true love
was, and to feel that the sentiment which she could not conquer
was a treasure to be accepted with reverence, and cherished with

"I don’t know when I began to love Tom, but I found out that I did
last winter, and was as much surprised as you are," continued
Polly, as if glad to unburden her heart. "I did n’t approve of him at
all. I thought he was extravagant, reckless, and dandified. I was
very much disappointed when he chose Trix, and the more I
thought and saw of it, the worse I felt, for Tom was too good for
her, and I hated to see her do so little for him, when she might
have done so much; because he is one of the men who can be led
by their affections, and the woman he marries can make or mar

"That ‘s true!" cried Fan, as Polly paused to look at the picture,
which appeared to regard her with a grave, steady look, which
seemed rather to belie her assertions.

"I don’t mean that he ‘s weak or bad. If he was, I should hate him;
but he does need some one to love him very much, and make him
happy, as a good woman best knows how," said Polly, as if
answering the mute language of Tom’s face.

"I hope Maria Bailey is all he thinks her," she added, softly, "for I
could n’t bear to have him disappointed again."

"I dare say he don’t care a fig for her, and you are only borrowing
trouble. What do you say Ned answered when you asked about this
inconvenient girl?" said Fanny turning hopeful all at once.

Polly repeated it, and added, "I asked him in another letter if he did
n’t admire Miss B. as much as Tom, and he wrote back that she
was ‘a nice girl,’ but he had no time for nonsense, and I need n’t get
my white kids ready for some years yet, unless to dance at Tom’s
wedding. Since then he has n’t mentioned Maria, so I was sure
there was something serious going on, and being in Tom’s
confidence, he kept quiet."

"It does look bad. Suppose I say a word to Tom, just inquire after
his heart in a general way, you know, and give him a chance to tell
me, if there is anything to tell." "I ‘m willing, but you must let me
see the letter. I can’t trust you not to hint or say too much."

"You shall. I ‘ll keep my promise in spite of everything, but it will
be hard to see things going wrong when a word would set it right."

"You know what will happen if you do," and Polly looked so
threatening that Fan trembled before her, discovering that the
gentlest girls when roused are more impressive than any shrew; for
even turtle doves peck gallantly to defend their nests.

"If it is true about Maria, what shall we do?" said Fanny after a

"Bear it; People always do bear things, somehow," answered Polly,
looking as if sentence had been passed upon her.

"But if it is n’t?" cried Fan, unable to endure the sight.

"Then I shall wait." And Polly’s face changed so beautifully that
Fan hugged her on the spot, fervently wishing that Maria Bailey
never had been born.

Then the conversation turned to lover number two, and after a long
confabulation, Polly gave it as her firm belief that A. S. had
forgotten M. M., and was rapidly finding consolation in the regard
of F. S. With this satisfactory decision the council ended after the
ratification of a Loyal League, by which the friends pledged
themselves to stand staunchly by one another, through the trials of
the coming year.

It was a very different winter from the last for both the girls. Fanny
applied herself to her duties with redoubled ardor, for "A. S." was
a domestic man, and admired housewifely accomplishments. If
Fanny wanted to show him what she could do toward making a
pleasant home, she certainly succeeded better than she suspected,
for in spite of many failures and discouragements behind the
scenes, the little house became a most attractive place, to Mr.
Sydney at least, for he was more the house-friend than ever, and
seemed determined to prove that change of fortune made no
difference to him.

Fanny had been afraid that Polly’s return might endanger her
hopes, but Sydney met Polly with the old friendliness, and very
soon convinced her that the nipping in the bud process had been
effectual, for being taken early, the sprouting affection had died
easy, and left room for an older friendship to blossom into a
happier love.

Fanny seemed glad of this, and Polly soon set her heart at rest by
proving that she had no wish to try her power. She kept much at
home when the day’s work was done, finding it pleasanter to sit
dreaming over book or sewing alone, than to exert herself even to
go to the Shaws’.

"Fan don’t need me, and Sydney don’t care whether I come or not,
so I ‘ll keep out of the way," she would say, as if to excuse her
seeming indolence.

Polly was not at all like herself that winter, and those nearest to
her saw and wondered at it most. Will got very anxious, she was so
quiet, pale and spiritless, and distracted poor Polly by his
affectionate stupidity, till she completed his bewilderment by
getting cross and scolding him. So he consoled himself with Maud,
who, now being in her teens, assumed dignified airs, and ordered
him about in a style that afforded him continued amusement and

Western news continued vague, for Fan’s general inquiries
produced only provokingly unsatisfactory replies from Tom, who
sang the praises of "the beautiful Miss Bailey," and professed to be
consumed by a hopeless passion for somebody, in such half-comic,
half-tragic terms, that the girls could not decide whether it was "all
that boy’s mischief," or only a cloak to hide the dreadful truth.

"We ‘ll have it out of him when he comes home in the spring," said
Fanny to Polly, as they compared the letters of their brothers, and
agreed that "men were the most uncommunicative and provoking
animals under the sun." For Ned was so absorbed in business that
he ignored the whole Bailey question and left them in utter

Hunger of any sort is a hard thing to bear, especially when the
sufferer has a youthful appetite, and Polly was kept on such a short
allowance of happiness for six months, that she got quite thin and
interesting; and often, when she saw how big her eyes were
getting, and how plainly the veins on her temples showed,
indulged the pensive thought that perhaps spring dandelions might
blossom o’er her grave. She had no intention of dying till Tom’s
visit was over, however, and as the time drew near, she went
through such alternations of hope and fear, and lived in such a
state of feverish excitement, that spirits and color came back, and
she saw that the interesting pallor she had counted on would be an
entire failure.

May came at last, and with it a burst of sunshine which cheered
even poor Polly’s much-enduring heart. Fanny came walking in
upon her one day, looking as if she brought tidings of such great
joy that she hardly knew how to tell them.

"Prepare yourself somebody is engaged!" she said, in a solemn
tone, that made Polly put up her hand as if to ward off an expected
blow. "No, don’t look like that, my poor dear; it is n’t Tom, it ‘s I!"

Of course there was a rapture, followed by one of the deliciously
confidential talks which bosom friends enjoy, interspersed with
tears and kisses, smiles and sighs.

"Oh, Polly, though I ‘ve waited and hoped so long I could n’t
believe it when it came, and don’t deserve it; but I will! for the
knowledge that he loves me seems to make everything possible,"
said Fanny, with an expression which made her really beautiful,
for the first time in her life.

"You happy girl!" sighed Polly, then smiled and added, "I think
you deserve all that ‘s come to you, for you have truly tried to be
worthy of it, and whether it ever came or not that would have been
a thing to be proud of."

"He says that is what made him love me," answered Fanny, never
calling her lover by his name, but making the little personal
pronoun a very sweet word by the tone in which she uttered it. "He
was disappointed in me last year, he told me, but you said good
things about me and though he did n’t care much then, yet when he
lost you, and came back to me, he found that you were not
altogether mistaken, and he has watched me all this winter,
learning to respect and love me better every day. Oh, Polly, when
he said that, I could n’t bear it, because in spite of all my trying, I
‘m still so weak and poor and silly."

"We don’t think so; and I know you ‘ll be all he hopes to find you,
for he ‘s just the husband you ought to have."

"Thank you all the more, then, for not keeping him yourself," said
Fanny, laughing the old blithe laugh again.

"That was only a slight aberration of his; he knew better all the
time. It was your white cloak and my idiotic behavior the night we
went to the opera that put the idea into his head," said Polly,
feeling as if the events of that evening had happened some twenty
years ago, when she was a giddy young thing, fond of gay bonnets
and girlish pranks.

"I ‘m not going to tell Tom a word about it, but keep it for a
surprise till he comes. He will be here next week, and then we ‘ll
have a grand clearing up of mysteries," said Fan, evidently feeling
that the millennium was at hand.

"Perhaps," said Polly, as her heart fluttered and then sunk, for this
was a case where she could do nothing but hope, and keep her
hands busy with Will’s new set of shirts.

There is a good deal more of this sort of silent suffering than the
world suspects, for the "women who dare" are few, the women
who "stand and wait" are many. But if work-baskets were gifted
with powers of speech, they could tell stories more true and tender
than any we read. For women often sew the tragedy or comedy of
life into their work as they sit apparently safe and serene at home,
yet are thinking deeply, living whole heart-histories, and praying
fervent prayers while they embroider pretty trifles or do the weekly


Leave a Review