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Chapter 4 – Ward No. 2

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

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Things were not so gay in Ward No. 2, for Mrs. Pecq was very busy,
and Jill had nothing to amuse her but flying visits from the girls,
and such little plays as she could invent for herself in bed.
Fortunately, she had a lively fancy, and so got on pretty well, till
keeping still grew unbearable, and the active child ached in every
limb to be up and out. That, however, was impossible, for the least
attempt to sit or stand brought on the pain that took her breath
away and made her glad to lie flat again. The doctor spoke cheerfully,
but looked sober, and Mrs. Pecq began to fear that Janey was to be a
cripple for life. She said nothing, but Jill’s quick eyes saw an
added trouble in the always anxious face, and it depressed her spirits,
though she never guessed half the mischief the fall had done.

The telegraph was a great comfort, and the two invalids kept up a
lively correspondence, not to say traffic in light articles, for
the Great International was the only aerial express in existence.
But even this amusement flagged after a time; neither had much to
tell, and when the daily health bulletins had been exchanged,
messages gave out, and the basket’s travels grew more and more
infrequent. Neither could read all the time, games were soon used
up, their mates were at school most of the day, and after a week
or two the poor children began to get pale and fractious with the
confinement, always so irksome to young people.

"I do believe the child will fret herself into a fever, mem, and I’m
clean distraught to know what to do for her. She never used to
mind trifles, but now she frets about the oddest things, and I can’t
change them. This wall-paper is well enough, but she has taken a
fancy that the spots on it look like spiders, and it makes her
nervous. I’ve no other warm place to put her, and no money for a
new paper. Poor lass! There are hard times before her, I’m fearing."

Mrs. Pecq said this in a low voice to Mrs. Minot, who came in as
often as she could, to see what her neighbor needed; for both
mothers were anxious, and sympathy drew them to one another.
While one woman talked, the other looked about the little room,
not wondering in the least that Jill found it hard to be contented
there. It was very neat, but so plain that there was not even a
picture on the walls, nor an ornament upon the mantel, except the
necessary clock, lamp, and match-box. The paper was ugly, being
a deep buff with a brown figure that did look very like spiders
sprawling over it, and might well make one nervous to look at day
after day.

Jill was asleep in the folding chair Dr. Whiting had sent, with a
mattress to make it soft. The back could be raised or lowered at
will; but only a few inches had been gained as yet, and the thin
hair pillow was all she could bear. She looked very pretty as she
lay, with dark lashes against the feverish cheeks, lips apart, and a
cloud of curly black locks all about the face pillowed on one arm.
She seemed like a brilliant little flower in that dull place, – for the
French blood in her veins gave her a color, warmth, and grace
which were very charming. Her natural love of beauty showed
itself in many ways: a red ribbon had tied up her hair, a gay but
faded shawl was thrown over the bed, and the gifts sent her were
arranged with care upon the table by her side among her own few
toys and treasures. There was something pathetic in this childish
attempt to beautify the poor place, and Mrs. Minot’s eyes were full
as she looked at the tired woman, whose one joy and comfort lay
there in such sad plight.

"My dear soul, cheer up, and we will help one another through the
hard times," she said, with a soft hand on the rough one, and a look
that promised much.

"Please God, we will, mem! With such good friends, I never
should complain. I try not to do it, but it breaks my heart to see my
little lass spoiled for life, most like;" and Mrs. Pecq pressed the
kind hand with a despondent sigh.

"We won’t say, or even think, that, yet. Everything is possible to
youth and health like Janey’s. We must keep her happy, and time
will do the rest, I’m sure. Let us begin at once, and have a surprise
for her when she wakes."

As she spoke, Mrs. Minot moved quietly about the room, pinning
the pages of several illustrated papers against the wall at the foot
of the bed, and placing to the best advantage the other comforts
she had brought.

"Keep up your heart, neighbor. I have an idea in my head which I
think will help us all, if I can carry it out," she said, cheerily, as she
went, leaving Mrs. Pecq to sew on Jack’s new night-gowns, with
swift fingers, and the grateful wish that she might work for these
good friends forever.

As if the whispering and rustling had disturbed her, Jill soon began
to stir, and slowly opened the eyes which had closed so wearily on
the dull December afternoon. The bare wall with its brown spiders
no longer confronted her, but the colored print of a little girl
dancing to the tune her father was playing on a guitar, while a
stately lady, with satin dress, ruff, and powder, stood looking on,
well pleased. The quaint figure, in its belaced frock, quilted
petticoat, and red-heeled shoes, seemed to come tripping toward
her in such a life-like way, that she almost saw the curls blow
back, heard the rustle of the rich brocade, and caught the sparkle
of the little maid’s bright eyes.

"Oh, how pretty! Who sent them?" asked Jill, eagerly, as her eye
glanced along the wall, seeing other new and interesting things
beyond: an elephant-hunt, a ship in full sail, a horse-race, and a
ball-room.

"The good fairy who never comes empty-handed. Look round a bit
and you will see more pretties all for you, my dearie;" and her
mother pointed to a bunch of purple grapes in a green leaf plate, a
knot of bright flowers pinned on the white curtain, and a gay little
double gown across the foot of the bed.

Jill clapped her hands, and was enjoying her new pleasures, when
in came Merry and Molly Loo, with Boo, of course, trotting after
her like a fat and amiable puppy. Then the good times began; the
gown was put on, the fruit tasted, and the pictures were studied
like famous works of art.

"It’s a splendid plan to cover up that hateful wall. I’d stick pictures
all round and have a gallery. That reminds me! Up in the garret at
our house is a box full of old fashion-books my aunt left. I often
look at them on rainy days, and they are very funny. I’ll go this
minute and get every one. We can pin them up, or make paper
dolls;" and away rushed Molly Loo, with the small brother
waddling behind, for, when he lost sight of her, he was desolate
indeed.

The girls had fits of laughter over the queer costumes of years
gone by, and put up a splendid procession of ladies in full skirts,
towering hats, pointed slippers, powdered hair, simpering faces,
and impossible waists.

"I do think this bride is perfectly splendid, the long train and veil
are so sweet," said Jill, revelling in fine clothes as she turned from
one plate to another.

"I like the elephants best, and I’d give anything to go on a hunt
like that!" cried Molly Loo, who rode cows, drove any horse she
could get, had nine cats, and was not afraid of the biggest dog that
ever barked.

"I fancy ‘The Dancing Lesson;’ it is so sort of splendid, with the
great windows, gold chairs, and fine folks. Oh, I would like to live
in a castle with a father and mother like that," said Merry, who was
romantic, and found the old farmhouse on the hill a sad trial to her
high-flown ideas of elegance.

"Now, that ship, setting out for some far-away place, is more to my
mind. I weary for home now and then, and mean to see it again
some day;" and Mrs. Pecq looked longingly at the English ship,
though it was evidently outward bound. Then, as if reproaching
herself for discontent, she added: "It looks like those I used to see
going off to India with a load of missionaries. I came near going
myself once, with a lady bound for Siam; but I went to Canada
with her sister, and here I am."

"I’d like to be a missionary and go where folks throw their babies
to the crocodiles. I’d watch and fish them out, and have a school,
and bring them up, and convert all the people till they knew
better," said warm-hearted Molly Loo, who befriended every
abused animal and forlorn child she met.

"We needn’t go to Africa to be missionaries; they have ’em nearer
home and need ’em, too. In all the big cities there are a many, and
they have their hands full with the poor, the wicked, and the
helpless. One can find that sort of work anywhere, if one has a
mind," said Mrs. Pecq.

"I wish we had some to do here. I’d so like to go round with
baskets of tea and rice, and give out tracts and talk to people.
Wouldn’t you, girls?" asked Molly, much taken with the new idea.

"It would be rather nice to have a society all to ourselves, and have
meetings and resolutions and things," answered Merry, who was
fond of little ceremonies, and always went to the sewing circle
with her mother.

"We wouldn’t let the boys come in. We’d have it a secret society,
as they do their temperance lodge, and we’d have badges and
pass-words and grips. It would be fun if we can only get some
heathen to work at!" cried Jill, ready for fresh enterprises of every
sort.

"I can tell you someone to begin on right away," said her mother,
nodding at her. "As wild a little savage as I’d wish to see. Take
her in hand, and make a pretty-mannered lady of her. Begin at
home, my lass, and you’ll find missionary work enough for a
while."

"Now, Mammy, you mean me! Well, I will begin; and I’ll be so
good, folks won’t know me. Being sick makes naughty children
behave in story-books, I’ll see if live ones can’t;" and Jill put on
such a sanctified face that the girls laughed and asked for their
missions also, thinking they would be the same.

"You, Merry, might do a deal at home helping mother, and setting
the big brothers a good example. One little girl in a house can do
pretty much as she will, especially if she has a mind to make plain
things nice and comfortable, and not long for castles before she
knows how to do her own tasks well," was the first unexpected
reply.

Merry colored, but took the reproof sweetly, resolving to do what
she could, and surprised to find how many ways seemed open to
her after a few minutes’ thought.

"Where shall I begin? I’m not afraid of a dozen crocodiles after
Miss Bat;" and Molly Loo looked about her with a fierce air,
having had practice in battles with the old lady who kept her
father’s house.

"Well, dear, you haven’t far to look for as nice a little heathen as
you’d wish;" and Mrs. Pecq glanced at Boo, who sat on the floor
staring hard at them, attracted by the dread word "crocodile." He
had a cold and no handkerchief, his little hands were red with
chilblains, his clothes shabby, he had untidy darns in the knees of
his stockings, and a head of tight curls that evidently had not been
combed for some time.

"Yes, I know he is, and I try to keep him decent, but I forget, and
he hates to be fixed, and Miss Bat doesn’t care, and father laughs
when I talk about it."

Poor Molly Loo looked much ashamed as she made excuses, trying
at the same time to mend matters by seizing Boo and dusting him
all over with her handkerchief, giving a pull at his hair as if ringing
bells, and then dumping him down again with the despairing
exclamation: "Yes, we’re a pair of heathens, and there’s no one to
save us if I don’t."

That was true enough; for Molly’s father was a busy man, careless
of everything but his mills, Miss Bat was old and lazy, and felt as
if she might take life easy after serving the motherless children for
many years as well as she knew how. Molly was beginning to see
how much amiss things were at home, and old enough to feel
mortified, though, as yet, she had done nothing to mend the matter
except be kind to the little boy.

"You will, my dear," answered Mrs. Pecq, encouragingly, for she
knew all about it. "Now you’ve each got a mission, let us see how
well you will get on. Keep it secret, if you like, and report once a
week. I’ll be a member, and we’ll do great things yet."

"We won’t begin till after Christmas; there is so much to do, we
never shall have time for any more. Don’t tell, and we’ll start fair
at New Year’s, if not before," said Jill, taking the lead as usual.
Then they went on with the gay ladies, who certainly were heathen
enough in dress to be in sad need of conversion, – to common-sense
at least.

"I feel as if I was at a party," said Jill, after a pause occupied in
surveying her gallery with great satisfaction, for dress was her
delight, and here she had every conceivable style and color.

"Talking of parties, isn’t it too bad that we must give up our
Christmas fun? Can’t get on without you and Jack, so we are not
going to do a thing, but just have our presents," said Merry, sadly,
as they began to fit different heads and bodies together, to try droll
effects.

"I shall be all well in a fortnight, I know; but Jack won’t, for it will
take more than a month to mend his poor leg. May be they will
have a dance in the boys’ big room, and he can look on," suggested
Jill, with a glance at the dancing damsel on the wall, for she dearly
loved it, and never guessed how long it would be before her light
feet would keep time to music again.

"You’d better give Jack a hint about the party. Send over some
smart ladies, and say they have come to his Christmas ball,"
proposed audacious Molly Loo, always ready for fun.

So they put a preposterous green bonnet, top-heavy with plumes,
on a little lady in yellow, who sat in a carriage; the lady beside her,
in winter costume of velvet pelisse and ermine boa, was fitted to a
bride’s head with its orange flowers and veil, and these works of
art were sent over to Jack, labelled "Miss Laura and Lotty Burton
going to the Minots’ Christmas ball," – a piece of naughtiness on
Jill’s part, for she knew Jack liked the pretty sisters, whose gentle
manners made her own wild ways seem all the more blamable.

No answer came for a long time, and the girls had almost forgotten
their joke in a game of Letters, when "Tingle, tangle!" went the
bell, and the basket came in heavily laden. A roll of colored papers
was tied outside, and within was a box that rattled, a green and
silver horn, a roll of narrow ribbons, a spool of strong thread, some
large needles, and a note from Mrs. Minot: –

"Dear Jill, – I think of having a Christmas tree so that our invalids
can enjoy it, and all your elegant friends are cordially invited.
Knowing that you would like to help, I send some paper for
sugar-plum horns and some beads for necklaces. They will
brighten the tree and please the girls for themselves or their dolls.
Jack sends you a horn for a pattern, and will you make a
ladder-necklace to show him how? Let me know if you need
anything.

"Yours in haste,

"Anna Minot"

"She knew what the child would like, bless her kind heart," said
Mrs. Pecq to herself, and something brighter than the most silvery
bead shone on Jack’s shirt-sleeve, as she saw the rapture of Jill
over the new work and the promised pleasure.

Joyful cries greeted the opening of the box, for bunches of
splendid large bugles appeared in all colors, and a lively discussion
went on as to the best contrasts. Jill could not refuse to let her
friends share the pretty work, and soon three necklaces glittered on
three necks, as each admired her own choice.

"I’d be willing to hurt my back dreadfully, if I could lie and do
such lovely things all day," said Merry, as she reluctantly put down
her needle at last, for home duties waited to be done, and looked
more than ever distasteful after this new pleasure.

"So would I! Oh, do you think Mrs. Minot will let you fill the
horns when they are done? I’d love to help you then. Be sure you
send for me!" cried Molly Loo, arching her neck like a proud
pigeon to watch the glitter of her purple and gold necklace on her
brown gown.

"I’m afraid you couldn’t be trusted, you love sweeties so, and I’m
sure Boo couldn’t. But I’ll see about it," replied Jill, with a
responsible air.

The mention of the boy recalled him to their minds, and looking
round they found him peacefully absorbed in polishing up the floor
with Molly’s pocket-handkerchief and oil from the little
machine-can. Being torn from this congenial labor, he was carried
off shining with grease and roaring lustily.

But Jill did not mind her loneliness now, and sang like a happy
canary while she threaded her sparkling beads, or hung the gay
horns to dry, ready for their cargoes of sweets. So Mrs. Minot’s
recipe for sunshine proved successful, and mother-wit made the
wintry day a bright and happy one for both the little prisoners.

 

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