FictionForest

Chapter 9 – New Year’s Calls

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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"Now I’m going to turn over a new leaf, as I promised. I wonder
what I shall find on the next page?" said Rose, coming down on
New Year’s morning with a serious face and a thick letter in her
hand.

"Tired of frivolity, my dear?" asked her uncle, pausing in his walk
up and down the hall to glance at her with a quick, bright look she
liked to bring into his eyes.

"No, sir, and that’s the sad part of it, but I’ve made up my mind to
stop while I can because I’m sure it is not good for me. I’ve had
some very sober thoughts lately, for since my Phebe went away
I’ve had no heart for gaiety, so it is a good place to stop and make a
fresh start," answered Rose, taking his arm and walking on with
him.

"An excellent time! Now, how are you going to fill the aching
void?" he asked, well pleased.

"By trying to be as unselfish, brave, and good as she is." And Rose
held the letter against her bosom with a tender touch, for Phebe’s
strength had inspired her with a desire to be as self-reliant. "I’m
going to set about living in earnest, as she has; though I think it
will be harder for me than for her, because she stands alone and
has a career marked out for her. I’m nothing but a commonplace
sort of girl, with no end of relations to be consulted every time I
wink and a dreadful fortune hanging like a millstone round my
neck to weigh me down if I try to fly. It is a hard case, Uncle, and I
get low in my mind when I think about it," sighed Rose, oppressed
with her blessings.

"Afflicted child! How can I relieve you?" And there was
amusement as well as sympathy in Dr. Alec’s face as he patted the
hand upon his arm.

"Please don’t laugh, for I really am trying to be good. In the first
place, help me to wean myself from foolish pleasures and show me
how to occupy my thoughts and time so that I may not idle about
and dream instead of doing great things."

"Good! We’ll begin at once. Come to town with me this morning
and see your houses. They are all ready, and Mrs. Gardner has half
a dozen poor souls waiting to go in as soon as you give the word,"
answered the doctor promptly, glad to get his girl back again,
though not surprised that she still looked with regretful eyes at the
Vanity Fair, always so enticing when we are young.

"I’ll give it today, and make the new year a happy one to those poor
souls at least. I’m so sorry that it’s impossible for me to go with
you, but you know I must help Aunty Plen receive. We haven’t
been here for so long that she had set her heart on having a grand
time today, and I particularly want to please her because I have not
been as amiable as I ought lately. I really couldn’t forgive her for
siding against Phebe."

"She did what she thought was right, so we must not blame her. I
am going to make my New Year’s calls today and, as my friends
live down that way, I’ll get the list of names from Mrs. G. and tell
the poor ladies, with Miss Campbell’s compliments, that their new
home is ready. Shall I?"

"Yes, Uncle, but take all the credit to yourself, for I never should
have thought of it if you had not proposed the plan."

"Bless your heart! I’m only your agent, and suggest now and then.
I’ve nothing to offer but advice, so I lavish that on all occasions."

"You have nothing because you’ve given your substance all away
as generously as you do your advice. Never mind you shall never
come to want while I live. I’ll save enough for us two, though I do
make ‘ducks and drakes of my fortune.’"

Dr. Alec laughed at the toss of the head with which she quoted
Charlie’s offensive words, then offered to take the letter, saying, as
he looked at his watch: "I’ll post that for you in time for the early
mail. I like a run before breakfast."

But Rose held her letter fast, dimpling with sudden smiles, half
merry and half shy.

"No thank you, sir. Archie likes to do that, and never fails to call
for all I write. He gets a peep at Phebe’s in return and I cheer him
up a bit, for, though he says nothing, he has a hard time of it, poor
fellow."

"How many letters in five days?"

"Four, sir, to me. She doesn’t write to him, Uncle."

"As yet. Well, you show hers, so it’s all right and you are a set of
sentimental youngsters." And the doctor walked away, looking as
if he enjoyed the sentiment as much as any of them.

Old Miss Campbell was nearly as great a favorite as young Miss
Campbell, so a succession of black coats and white gloves flowed
in and out of the hospitable mansion pretty steadily all day. The
clan was out in great force, and came by in installments to pay
their duty to Aunt Plenty and wish the compliments of the season
to "our cousin." Archie appeared first, looking sad but steadfast,
and went away with Phebe’s letter in his left breast pocket feeling
that life was still endurable, though his love was torn from him, for
Rose had many comfortable things to say and read him delicious
bits from the voluminous correspondence lately begun.

Hardly was he gone when Will and Geordie came marching in,
looking as fine as gray uniforms with much scarlet piping could
make them and feeling peculiarly important, as this was their first
essay in New Year’s call-making. Brief was their stay, for they
planned to visit every friend they had, and Rose could not help
laughing at the droll mixture of manly dignity and boyish delight
with which they drove off in their own carriage, both as erect as
ramrods, arms folded, and caps stuck at exactly the same angle on
each blond head.

"Here comes the other couple Steve, in full feather, with a big
bouquet for Kitty, and poor Mac, looking like a gentleman and
feeling like a martyr, I’m sure," said Rose, watching one carriage
turn in as the other turned out of the great gate, with its arch of
holly, ivy, and evergreen.

"Here he is. I’ve got him in tow for the day and want you to cheer
him up with a word of praise, for he came without a struggle
though planning to bolt somewhere with Uncle," cried Steve,
falling back to display his brother, who came in looking
remarkably well in his state and festival array, for polishing had
begun to tell.

"A happy New Year, Aunty, same to you, Cousin, and best wishes
for as many more as you deserve," said Mac, heeding Steve no
more than if he had been a fly as he gave the old lady a hearty kiss
and offered Rose a quaint little nosegay of pansies.

"Heart’s-ease do you think I need it?" she asked, looking up with
sudden sobriety.

"We all do. Could I give you anything better on a day like this?"

"No thank you very much." And a sudden dew came to Rose’s
eyes, for, though often blunt in speech, when Mac did do a tender
thing, it always touched her because he seemed to understand her
moods so well.

"Has Archie been here? He said he shouldn’t go anywhere else, but
I hope you talked that nonsense out of his head," said Steve,
settling his tie before the mirror.

"Yes, dear, he came but looked so out of spirits I really felt
reproached. Rose cheered him up a little, but I don’t believe he will
feel equal to making calls and I hope he won’t, for his face tells the
whole story much too plainly," answered Aunty Plenty, rustling
about her bountiful table in her richest black silk with all her old
lace on.

"Oh, he’ll get over it in a month or two, and Phebe will soon find
another lover, so don’t be worried about him, Aunty," said Steve,
with the air of a man who knew all about that sort of thing.

"If Archie does forget, I shall despise him, and I know Phebe won’t
try to find another lover, though she’ll probably have them she is so
sweet and good!" cried Rose indignantly, for, having taken the pair
under her protection, she defended them valiantly.

"Then you’d have Arch hope against hope and never give up,
would you?" asked Mac, putting on his glasses to survey the thin
boots which were his especial abomination.

"Yes, I would, for a lover is not worth having if he’s not in
earnest!"

"Exactly. So you’d like them to wait and work and keep on loving
till they made you relent or plainly proved that it was no use."

"If they were good as well as constant, I think I should relent in
time."

"I’ll mention that to Pemberton, for he seemed to be hit the hardest,
and a ray of hope will do him good, whether he is equal to the ten
years’ wait or not," put in Steve, who liked to rally Rose about her
lovers.

"I’ll never forgive you if you say a word to anyone. It is only Mac’s
odd way of asking questions, and I ought not to answer them. You
will talk about such things and I can’t stop you, but I don’t like it,"
said Rose, much annoyed.

"Poor little Penelope! She shall not be teased about her suitors but
left in peace till her Ulysses comes home," said Mac, sitting down
to read the mottoes sticking out of certain fanciful bonbons on the
table.

"It is this fuss about Archie which has demoralized us all. Even the
owl waked up and hasn’t got over the excitement yet, you see. He’s
had no experience, poor fellow, so he doesn’t know how to
behave," observed Steve, regarding his bouquet with tender
interest.

"That’s true, and I asked for information because I may be in love
myself someday and all this will be useful, don’t you see?"

"You in love!" And Steve could not restrain a laugh at the idea of
the bookworm a slave to the tender passion.

Quite unruffled, Mac leaned his chin in both hands, regarding
them with a meditative eye as he answered in his whimsical way:
"Why not? I intend to study love as well as medicine, for it is one
of the most mysterious and remarkable diseases that afflict
mankind, and the best way to understand it is to have it. I may
catch it someday, and then I should like to know how to treat and
cure it."

"If you take it as badly as you did measles and whooping cough, it
will go hard with you, old fellow," said Steve, much amused with
the fancy.

"I want it to. No great experience comes or goes easily, and this is
the greatest we can know, I believe, except death."

Something in Mac’s quiet tone and thoughtful eyes made Rose
look at him in surprise, for she had never heard him speak in that
way before. Steve also stared for an instant, equally amazed, then
said below his breath, with an air of mock anxiety: "He’s been
catching something at the hospital, typhoid probably, and is
beginning to wander. I’ll take him quietly away before he gets any
wilder. Come, old lunatic, we must be off."

"Don’t be alarmed. I’m all right and much obliged for your advice,
for I fancy I shall be a desperate lover when my time comes, if it
ever does. You don’t think it impossible, do you?" And Mac put the
question so soberly that there was a general smile.

"Certainly not you’ll be a regular Douglas, tender and true,"
answered Rose, wondering what queer question would come next.

"Thank you. The fact is, I’ve been with Archie so much in his
trouble lately that I’ve gotten interested in this matter and very
naturally want to investigate the subject as every rational man
must, sooner or later, that’s all. Now, Steve, I’m ready." And Mac
got up as if the lesson was over.

"My dear, that boy is either a fool or a genius, and I’m sure I should
be glad to know which," said Aunt Plenty, putting her bonbons to
rights with a puzzled shake of her best cap.

"Time will show, but I incline to think that he is not a fool by any
means," answered the girl, pulling a cluster of white roses out of
her bosom to make room for the pansies, though they did not suit
the blue gown half so well.

Just then Aunt Jessie came in to help them receive, with Jamie to
make himself generally useful, which he proceeded to do by
hovering around the table like a fly about a honey pot when not
flattening his nose against the windowpanes to announce excitedly,
"Here’s another man coming up the drive!"

Charlie arrived next in his most sunshiny humor, for anything
social and festive was his delight, and when in this mood the
Prince was quite irresistible. He brought a pretty bracelet for Rose
and was graciously allowed to put it on while she chid him gently
for his extravagance.

"I am only following your example, for you know ‘nothing is too
good for those we love, and giving away is the best thing one can
do,’" he retorted, quoting words of her own.

"I wish you would follow my example in some other things as well
as you do in this," said Rose soberly as Aunt Plenty called him to
come and see if the punch was right.

"Must conform to the customs of society. Aunty’s heart would be
broken if we did not drink her health in the good old fashion. But
don’t be alarmed I’ve a strong head of my own, and that’s lucky, for
I shall need it before I get through," laughed Charlie, showing a
long list as he turned away to gratify the old lady with all sorts of
merry and affectionate compliments as the glasses touched.

Rose did feel rather alarmed, for if he drank the health of all the
owners of those names, she felt sure that Charlie would need a
very strong head indeed. It was hard to say anything then and there
without seeming disrespect to Aunt Plenty, yet she longed to
remind her cousin of the example she tried to set him in this
respect, for Rose never touched wine, and the boys knew it. She
was thoughtfully turning the bracelet, with its pretty device of
turquoise forget-me-nots, when the giver came back to her, still
bubbling over with good spirits.

"Dear little saint, you look as if you’d like to smash all the punch
bowls in the city, and save us jolly young fellows from tomorrow’s
headache."

"I should, for such headaches sometimes end in heartaches, I’m
afraid. Dear Charlie, don’t be angry, but you know better than I that
this is a dangerous day for such as you so do be careful for my
sake," she added, with an unwonted touch of tenderness in her
voice, for, looking at the gallant figure before her, it was
impossible to repress the womanly longing to keep it always as
brave and blithe as now.

Charlie saw that new softness in the eyes that never looked
unkindly on him, fancied that it meant more than it did, and, with a
sudden fervor in his own voice, answered quickly: "My darling, I
will!"

The glow which had risen to his face was reflected in hers, for at
that moment it seemed as if it would be possible to love this
cousin who was so willing to be led by her and so much needed
some helpful influence to make a noble man of him. The thought
came and went like a flash, but gave her a quick heartthrob, as if
the old affection was trembling on the verge of some warmer
sentiment, and left her with a sense of responsibility never felt
before. Obeying the impulse, she said, with a pretty blending of
earnestness and playfulness, "If I wear the bracelet to remember
you by, you must wear this to remind you of your promise."

"And you," whispered Charlie, bending his head to kiss the hands
that put a little white rose in his buttonhole.

Just at that most interesting moment they became aware of an
arrival in the front drawing room, whither Aunt Plenty had
discreetly retired. Rose felt grateful for the interruption, because,
not being at all sure of the state of her heart as yet, she was afraid
of letting a sudden impulse lead her too far. But Charlie, conscious
that a very propitious instant had been spoiled, regarded the
newcomer with anything but a benignant expression of
countenance and, whispering, "Good-bye, my Rose, I shall look in
this evening to see how you are after the fatigues of the day," he
went away, with such a cool nod to poor Fun See that the amiable
Asiatic thought he must have mortally offended him.

Rose had little leisure to analyze the new emotions of which she
was conscious, for Mr. Tokio came up at once to make his
compliments with a comical mingling of Chinese courtesy and
American awkwardness, and before he had got his hat on Jamie
shouted with admiring energy: "Here’s another! Oh, such a swell!"

They now came thick and fast for many hours, and the ladies stood
bravely at their posts till late into the evening. Then Aunt Jessie
went home, escorted by a very sleepy little son, and Aunt Plenty
retired to bed, used up. Dr. Alec had returned in good season, for
his friends were not fashionable ones, but Aunt Myra had sent up
for him in hot haste and he had good-naturedly obeyed the
summons. In fact, he was quite used to them now, for Mrs. Myra,
having tried a variety of dangerous diseases, had finally decided
upon heart complaint as the one most likely to keep her friends in
a chronic state of anxiety and was continually sending word that
she was dying. One gets used to palpitations as well as everything
else, so the doctor felt no alarm but always went and prescribed
some harmless remedy with the most amiable sobriety and
patience.

Rose was tired but not sleepy and wanted to think over several
things, so instead of going to bed she sat down before the open fire
in the study to wait for her uncle and perhaps Charlie, though she
did not expect him so late.

Aunt Myra’s palpitations must have been unusually severe, for the
clock struck twelve before Dr. Alec came, and Rose was preparing
to end her reverie when the sound of someone fumbling at the hall
door made her jump up, saying to herself: "Poor man! His hands
are so cold he can’t get his latchkey in. Is that you, Uncle?" she
added, running to admit him, for Jane was slow and the night as
bitter as it was brilliant.

A voice answered, "Yes." And as the door swung open, in walked,
not Dr. Alec, but Charlie, who immediately took one of the hall
chairs and sat there with his hat on, rubbing his gloveless hands
and blinking as if the light dazzled him, as he said in a rapid,
abrupt sort of tone, "I told you I’d come left the fellows keeping it
up gloriously going to see the old year out, you know. But I
promised never break my word and here I am. Angel in blue, did
you slay your thousands?"

"Hush! The waiters are still about. Come to the study fire and
warm yourself, you must be frozen," said Rose, going before to roll
up the easy chair.

"Not at all never warmer looks very comfortable, though. Where’s
Uncle?" asked Charlie, following with his hat still on, his hands in
his pockets, and his eye fixed steadily on the bright head in front of
him.

"Aunt Myra sent for him, and I was waiting up to see how she
was," answered Rose, busily mending the fire.

Charlie laughed and sat down upon a corner of the library table.
"Poor old soul! What a pity she doesn’t die before he is quite worn
out. A little too much ether some of these times would send her off
quite comfortably, you know."

"Don’t speak in that way. Uncle says imaginary troubles are often
as hard to bear as real ones," said Rose, turning around displeased.

Till now she had not fairly looked at him, for recollections of the
morning made her a little shy. His attitude and appearance
surprised her as much as his words, and the quick change in her
face seemed to remind him of his manners. Getting up, he hastily
took off his hat and stood looking at her with a curiously fixed yet
absent look as he said in the same rapid, abrupt way, as if, when
once started, he found it hard to stop, "I beg pardon only joking
very bad taste I know, and won’t do it again. The heat of the room
makes me a little dizzy, and I think I got a chill coming out. It is
cold I am frozen, I daresay though I drove like the devil."

"Not that bad horse of yours, I hope? I know it is dangerous, so late
and alone," said Rose, shrinking behind the big chair as Charlie
approached the fire, carefully avoiding a footstool in his way.

"Danger is exciting that’s why I like it. No man ever called me a
coward let him try it once. I never give in and that horse shall not
conquer me. I’ll break his neck, if he breaks my spirit doing it. No I
don’t mean that never mind it’s all right," and Charlie laughed in a
way that troubled her, because there was no mirth in it.

"Have you had a pleasant day?" asked Rose, looking at him
intently as he stood pondering over the cigar and match which he
held, as if doubtful which to strike and which to smoke.

"Day? Oh, yes, capital. About two thousand calls, and a nice little
supper at the Club. Randal can’t sing any more than a crow, but I
left him with a glass of champagne upside down, trying to give
them my old favorite:

"’Tis better to laugh than be sighing,"

and Charlie burst forth in that bacchanalian melody at the top of
his voice, waving an allumette holder over his head to represent
Randal’s inverted wineglass.

"Hush! You’ll wake Aunty," cried Rose in a tone so commanding
that he broke off in the middle of a roulade to stare at her with a
blank look as he said apologetically, "I was merely showing how it
should be done. Don’t be angry, dearest look at me as you did this
morning, and I’ll swear never to sing another note if you say so. I’m
only a little gay we drank your health handsomely, and they all
congratulated me. Told ’em it wasn’t out yet. Stop, though I didn’t
mean to mention that. No matter I’m always in a scrape, but you
always forgive me in the sweetest way. Do it now, and don’t be
angry, little darling." And, dropping the vase, he went toward her
with a sudden excitement that made her shrink behind the chair.

She was not angry, but shocked and frightened, for she knew now
what the matter was and grew so pale, he saw it and asked pardon
before she could utter a rebuke.

"We’ll talk of that tomorrow. It is very late. Go home now, please,
before Uncle comes," she said, trying to speak naturally yet
betraying her distress by the tremor of her voice and the sad
anxiety in her eyes.

"Yes, yes, I will go you are tired I’ll make it all right tomorrow."
And as if the sound of his uncle’s name steadied him for an instant,
Charlie made for the door with an unevenness of gait which would
have told the shameful truth if his words had not already done so.
Before he reached it, however, the sound of wheels arrested him
and, leaning against the wall, he listened with a look of dismay
mingled with amusement creeping over his face. "Brutus has
bolted now I am in a fix. Can’t walk home with this horrid
dizziness in my head. It’s the cold, Rose, nothing else, I do assure
you, and a chill yes, a chill. See here! Let one of those fellows
there lend me an arm no use to go after that brute. Won’t Mother
be frightened though when he gets home?" And with that empty
laugh again, he fumbled for the door handle.

"No, no don’t let them see you! Don’t let anyone know! Stay here
till Uncle comes, and he’ll take care of you. Oh, Charlie! How
could you do it! How could you when you promised?" And,
forgetting fear in the sudden sense of shame and anguish that came
over her, Rose ran to him, caught his hand from the lock, and
turned the key; then, as if she could not bear to see him standing
there with that vacant smile on his lips, she dropped into a chair
and covered up her face.

The cry, the act, and, more than all, the sight of the bowed head
would have sobered poor Charlie if it had not been too late. He
looked about the room with a vague, despairing look, as if to find
reason fast slipping from his control, but heat and cold, excitement
and reckless pledging of many healths had done their work too
well to make instant sobriety possible, and owning his defeat with
a groan, he turned away and threw himself face-downward on the
sofa, one of the saddest sights the new year looked upon as it came
in.

As she sat there with hidden eyes, Rose felt that something dear to
her was dead forever. The ideal, which all women cherish, look
for, and too often think they have found when love glorifies a
mortal man, is hard to give up, especially when it comes in the
likeness of the first lover who touches a young girl’s heart. Rose
had just begun to feel that perhaps this cousin, despite his faults,
might yet become the hero that he sometimes looked, and the
thought that she might be his inspiration was growing sweet to her,
although she had not entertained it until very lately. Alas, how
short the tender dream had been, how rude the awakening! How
impossible it would be ever again to surround that fallen figure
with all the romance of an innocent fancy or gift it with the high
attributes beloved by a noble nature!

Breathing heavily in the sudden sleep that kindly brought a brief
oblivion of himself, he lay with flushed cheeks, disordered hair,
and at his feet the little rose that never would be fresh and fair
again a pitiful contrast now to the brave, blithe young man who
went so gaily out that morning to be so ignominiously overthrown
at night.

Many girls would have made light of a trespass so readily forgiven
by the world, but Rose had not yet learned to offer temptation with
a smile and shut her eyes to the weakness that makes a man a
brute. It always grieved or disgusted her to see it in others, and
now it was very terrible to have it brought so near not in its worst
form, by any means, but bad enough to wring her heart with shame
and sorrow and fill her mind with dark forebodings for the future.
So she could only sit mourning for the Charlie that might have
been while watching the Charlie that was with an ache in her heart
which found no relief till, putting her hands there as if to ease the
pain, they touched the pansies, faded but still showing gold among
the somber purple, and then two great tears dropped on them as
she sighed: "Ah, me! I do need heart’s-ease sooner than I thought!"

Her uncle’s step made her spring up and unlock the door, showing
him such an altered face that he stopped short, ejaculating in
dismay, "Good heavens, child! What’s the matter?" adding, as she
pointed to the sofa in pathetic silence, "Is he hurt? ill? dead?"

"No, Uncle, he is – " She could not utter the ugly word but
whispered with a sob in her throat, "Be kind to him," and fled
away to her own room, feeling as if a great disgrace had fallen on
the house.

 

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