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Chapter 16 – Bread And Button-Holes

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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"What in the world is my girl thinking about all alone here, with
such a solemn face?" asked Dr. Alec, coming into the study, one
November day, to find Rose sitting there with folded hands and a
very thoughtful aspect.

"Uncle, I want to have some serious conversation with you, if you
have time," she said, coming out of a brown study, as if she had
not heard his question.

"I’m entirely at your service, and most happy to listen," he
answered, in his politest manner, for when Rose put on her
womanly little airs he always treated her with a playful sort of
respect that pleased her very much.

Now, as he sat down beside her, she said, very soberly

"I’ve been trying to decide what trade I would learn, and I want you
to advise me."

"Trade, my dear?" and Dr. Alec looked so astonished that she
hastened to explain.

"I forgot that you didn’t hear the talk about it up at Cosey Corner.
You see we used to sit under the pines and sew, and talk a great
deal all the ladies, I mean and I liked it very much. Mother
Atkinson thought that everyone should have a trade, or something
to make a living out of, for rich people may grow poor, you know,
and poor people have to work. Her girls were very clever, and
could do ever so many things, and Aunt Jessie thought the old lady
was right; so when I saw how happy and independent those young
ladies were, I wanted to have a trade, and then it wouldn’t matter
about money, though I like to have it well enough."

Dr. Alec listened to this explanation with a curious mixture of
surprise, pleasure, and amusement in his face, and looked at his
little niece as if she had suddenly changed into a young woman.
She had grown a good deal in the last six months, and an amount
of thinking had gone on in that young head which would have
astonished him greatly could he have known it all, for Rose was
one of the children who observe and meditate much, and now and
then nonplus their friends by a wise or curious remark.

"I quite agree with the ladies, and shall be glad to help you decide
on something if I can," said the Doctor seriously. "What do you
incline to? A natural taste or talent is a great help in choosing, you
know."

"I haven’t any talent, or any especial taste that I can see, and that is
why I can’t decide, uncle. So, I think it would be a good plan to
pick out some very useful business and learn it, because I don’t do
it for pleasure, you see, but as a part of my education, and to be
ready in case I’m ever poor," answered Rose, looking as if she
rather longed for a little poverty so that her useful gift might be
exercised.

"Well, now, there is one very excellent, necessary, and womanly
accomplishment that no girl should be without, for it is a help to
rich and poor, and the comfort of families depends upon it. This
fine talent is neglected nowadays, and considered old-fashioned,
which is a sad mistake, and one that I don’t mean to make in
bringing up my girl. It should be a part of every girl’s education,
and I know of a most accomplished lady who will teach you in the
best and pleasantest manner."

"Oh, what is it?" cried Rose eagerly, charmed to be met in this
helpful and cordial way.

"Housekeeping!" answered Dr. Alec.

"Is that an accomplishment?" asked Rose, while her face fell, for
she had indulged in all sorts of vague, delightful dreams.

"Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts
a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting,
writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and
comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you
may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a
good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not
interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part
of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now
that you are well and strong."

"Who is the lady?" asked Rose, rather impressed by her uncle’s
earnest speech.

"Aunt Plenty."

"Is she accomplished?" began Rose in a wondering tone, for this
great-aunt of hers had seemed the least cultivated of them all.

"In the good old-fashioned way she is very accomplished, and has
made this house a happy home to us all, ever since we can
remember. She is not elegant, but genuinely good, and so beloved
and respected that there will be universal mourning for her when
her place is empty. No one can fill it, for the solid, homely virtues
of the dear soul have gone out of fashion, as I say, and nothing new
can be half so satisfactory, to me at least."

"I should like to have people feel so about me. Can she teach me to
do what she does, and to grow as good?" asked Rose, with a little
prick of remorse for even thinking that Aunt Plenty was a
commonplace old lady.

"Yes, if you don’t despise such simple lessons as she can give. I
know it would fill her dear old heart with pride and pleasure to
feel that anyone cared to learn of her, for she fancies her day gone
by. Let her teach you how to be what she has been a skilful, frugal,
cheerful housewife; the maker and the keeper of a happy home,
and by and by you will see what a valuable lesson it is."

"I will, uncle. But how shall I begin?"

"I’ll speak to her about it, and she will make it all right with Dolly,
for cooking is one of the main things, you know."

"So it is! I don’t mind that a bit, for I like to mess, and used to try
at home; but I had no one to tell me, so I never did much but spoil
my aprons. Pies are great fun, only Dolly is so cross, I don’t believe
she will ever let me do a thing in the kitchen."

"Then we’ll cook in the parlour. I fancy Aunt Plenty will manage
her, so don’t be troubled. Only mind this, I’d rather you learned
how to make good bread than the best pies ever baked. When you
bring me a handsome, wholesome loaf, entirely made by yourself,
I shall be more pleased than if you offered me a pair of slippers
embroidered in the very latest style. I don’t wish to bribe you, but
I’ll give you my heartiest kiss, and promise to eat every crumb of
the loaf myself."

"It’s a bargain! it’s a bargain! Come and tell aunty all about it, for
I’m in a hurry to begin," cried Rose, dancing before him toward the
parlor, where Miss Plenty sat alone knitting contentedly, yet ready
to run at the first call for help of any sort, from any quarter.

No need to tell how surprised and gratified she was at the
invitation she received to teach the child the domestic arts which
were her only accomplishments, nor to relate how energetically
she set about her pleasant task. Dolly dared not grumble, for Miss
Plenty was the one person whom she obeyed, and Phebe openly
rejoiced, for these new lessons brought Rose nearer to her, and
glorified the kitchen in the good girl’s eyes.

To tell the truth, the elder aunts had sometimes felt that they did
not have quite their share of the little niece who had won their
hearts long ago, and was the sunshine of the house. They talked it
over together sometimes, but always ended by saying that as Alec
had all the responsibility, he should have the larger share of the
dear girl’s love and time, and they would be contented with such
crumbs of comfort as they could get.

Dr. Alec had found out this little secret, and, after reproaching
himself for being blind and selfish, was trying to devise some way
of mending matters without troubling anyone, when Rose’s new
whim suggested an excellent method of weaning her a little from
himself. He did not know how fond he was of her till he gave her
up to the new teacher, and often could not resist peeping in at the
door to see how she got on, or stealing sly looks through the slide
when she was deep in dough, or listening intently to some
impressive lecture from Aunt Plenty. They caught him at it now
and then, and ordered him off the premises at the point of the
rolling-pin; or, if unusually successful, and, therefore, in a milder
mood, they lured him away with bribes of ginger-bread, a stray
pickle, or a tart that was not quite symmetrical enough to suit their
critical eyes.

Of course he made a point of partaking copiously of all the
delectable messes that now appeared at table, for both the cooks
were on their mettle, and he fared sumptuously every day. But an
especial relish was given to any dish when, in reply to his honest
praise of it, Rose coloured up with innocent pride, and said
modestly

"I made that, uncle, and I’m glad you like it."

It was some time before the perfect loaf appeared, for
bread-making is an art not easily learned, and Aunt Plenty was
very thorough in her teaching; so Rose studied yeast first, and
through various stages of cake and biscuit came at last to the
crowning glory of the "handsome, wholesome loaf." It appeared at
tea-time, on a silver salver, proudly borne in by Phebe, who could
not refrain from whispering, with a beaming face, as she set it
down before Dr. Alec

"Ain’t it just lovely, sir?"

"It is a regularly splendid loaf! Did my girl make it all herself?" he
asked, surveying the shapely, sweet-smelling object with real
interest and pleasure.

"Every particle herself, and never asked a bit of help or advice
from anyone," answered Aunt Plenty, folding her hands with an air
of unmitigated satisfaction, for her pupil certainly did her great
credit.

"I’ve had so many failures and troubles that I really thought I never
should be able to do it alone. Dolly let one splendid batch burn up
because I forgot it. She was there and smelt it, but never did a
thing, for she said, when I undertook to bake bread I must give my
whole mind to it. Wasn’t it hard? She might have called me at
least," said Rose, recollecting, with a sigh, the anguish of that
moment.

"She meant you should learn by experience, as Rosamond did in
that little affair of the purple jar, you remember."

"I always thought it very unfair in her mother not to warn the poor
thing a little bit; and she was regularly mean when Rosamond
asked for a bowl to put the purple stuff in, and she said, in such a
provoking way, ‘I did not agree to lend you a bowl, but I will, my
dear.’ Ugh! I always want to shake that hateful woman, though she
was a moral mamma."

"Never mind her now, but tell me all about my loaf," said Dr. Alec,
much amused at Rose’s burst of indignation.

"There’s nothing to tell, uncle, except that I did my best, gave my
mind to it, and sat watching over it all the while it was in the oven
till I was quite baked myself. Everything went right this time, and
it came out a nice, round, crusty loaf, as you see. Now taste it, and
tell me if it is good as well as handsome."

"Must I cut it? Can’t I put it under a glass cover and keep it in the
parlor as they do wax flowers and fine works of that sort?"

"What an idea, uncle! It would mould and be spoilt. Besides,
people would laugh at us, and make fun of my old-fashioned
accomplishment. You promised to eat it, and you must; not all at
once, but as soon as you can, so I can make you some more."

Dr. Alec solemnly cut off his favourite crusty slice, and solemnly
ate it; then wiped his lips, and brushing back Rose’s hair, solemnly
kissed her on the forehead, saying, heartily

"My dear, it is perfect bread, and you are an honour to your
teacher. When we have our model school I shall offer a prize for
the best bread, and you will get it."

"I’ve got it already, and I’m quite satisfied," said Rose, slipping into
her seat, and trying to hide her right hand which had a burn on it.

But Dr. Alec saw it, guessed how it came there, and after tea
insisted on easing the pain which she would hardly confess.

"Aunt Clara says I am spoiling my hands, but I don’t care, for I’ve
had such good times with Aunt Plenty, and I think she has enjoyed
it as much as I have. Only one thing troubles me, uncle, and I want
to ask you about it," said Rose, as they paced up and down the hall
in the twilight, the bandaged hand very carefully laid on Dr. Alec’s
arm.

"More little confidences? I like them immensely, so tell away, my
dear."

"Well, you see I feel as if Aunt Peace would like to do something
for me, and I’ve found out what it can be. You know she can’t go
about like Aunty Plen, and we are so busy nowadays that she is
rather lonely, I’m afraid. So I want to take lessons in sewing of her.
She works so beautifully, and it is a useful thing, you know, and I
ought to be a good needlewoman as well as housekeeper, oughtn’t
I?"

"Bless your kind little heart, that is what I was thinking of the
other day when Aunt Peace said she saw you very seldom now,
you were so busy I wanted to speak of it, but fancied you had as
much on your hands as you could manage. It would delight the
dear woman to teach you all her delicate handicraft, especially
button-holes, for I believe that is where young ladies fail; at least,
I’ve heard them say so. So, do you devote your mind to
button-holes; make ’em all over my clothes if you want something
to practice on. I’ll wear any quantity."

Rose laughed at this reckless offer, but promised to attend to that
important branch, though she confessed that darning was her weak
point. Whereupon Uncle Alec engaged to supply her with socks in
all stages of dilapidation, and to have a new set at once, so that she
could run the heels for him as a pleasant beginning.

Then they went up to make their request in due form, to the great
delight of gentle Aunt Peace, who got quite excited with the fun
that went on while they would yarn, looked up darning needles,
and fitted out a nice little mending basket for her pupil.

Very busy and very happy were Rose’s days now, for in the
morning she went about the house with Aunt Plenty attending to
linen-closets and store-rooms, pickling and preserving, exploring
garret and cellar to see that all was right, and learning, in the good
old-fashioned manner, to look well after the ways of the
household.

In the afternoon, after her walk or drive, she sat with Aunt Peace
plying her needle, while Aunt Plenty, whose eyes were failing,
knitted and chatted briskly, telling many a pleasant story of old
times, till the three were moved to laugh and cry together, for the
busy needles were embroidering all sorts of bright patterns on the
lives of the workers, though they seemed to be only stitching
cotton and darning hose.

It was a pretty sight to see the rosy-faced little maid sitting
between the two old ladies, listening dutifully to their instructions,
and cheering the lessons with her lively chatter and blithe laugh. If
the kitchen had proved attractive to Dr. Alec when Rose was there
at work, the sewing-room was quite irresistible, and he made
himself so agreeable that no one had the heart to drive him away,
especially when he read aloud or spun yarns.

"There! I’ve made you a new set of warm night-gowns with four
button-holes in each. See if they are not neatly done," said Rose,
one day, some weeks after the new lessons began.

"Even to a thread, and nice little bars across the end so I can’t tear
them when I twitch the buttons out. Most superior work, ma’am,
and I’m deeply grateful; so much so, that I’ll sew on these buttons
myself, and save those tired fingers from another prick."

"You sew them on?" cried Rose, with her eyes wide open in
amazement.

"Wait a bit till I get my sewing tackle, and then you shall see what
I can do."

"Can he, really?" asked Rose of Aunt Peace, as Uncle Alec
marched off with a comical air of importance.

"Oh, yes, I taught him years ago, before he went to sea; and I
suppose he has had to do things for himself, more or less, ever
since; so he has kept his hand in."

He evidently had, for he was soon back with a funny little
work-bag, out of which he produced a thimble without a top; and,
having threaded his needle, he proceeded to sew on the buttons so
handily that Rose was much impressed and amused.

"I wonder if there is anything in the world that you cannot do," she
said, in a tone of respectful admiration.

"There are one or two things that I am not up to yet," he answered,
with a laugh in the corner of his eye, as he waxed his thread with a
flourish.

"I should like to know what?"

"Bread and button-holes, ma’am."

 

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