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Chapter 10 – The Sad And Sober Part

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

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"How will he look? What will he say? Can anything make us
forget and be happy again?" were the first questions Rose asked
herself as soon as she woke from the brief sleep which followed a
long, sad vigil. It seemed as if the whole world must be changed
because a trouble darkened it for her. She was too young yet to
know how possible it is to forgive much greater sins than this,
forget far heavier disappointments, outlive higher hopes, and bury
loves compared to which hers was but a girlish fancy. She wished
it had not been so bright a day, wondered how her birds could sing
with such shrill gaiety, put no ribbon in her hair, and said, as she
looked at the reflection of her own tired face in the glass, "Poor
thing! You thought the new leaf would have something pleasant on
it. The story has been very sweet and easy to read so far, but the
sad and sober part is coming now."

A tap at the door reminded her that, in spite of her afflictions,
breakfast must be eaten, and the sudden thought that Charlie might
still be in the house made her hurry to the door, to find Dr. Alec
waiting for her with his morning smile. She drew him in and
whispered anxiously, as if someone lay dangerously ill nearby, "Is
he better, Uncle? Tell me all about it I can bear it now."

Some men would have smiled at her innocent distress and told her
this was only what was to be expected and endured, but Dr. Alec
believed in the pure instincts that make youth beautiful, desired to
keep them true, and hoped his girl would never learn to look
unmoved by pain and pity upon any human being vanquished by a
vice, no matter how trivial it seemed, how venial it was held. So
his face grew grave, though his voice was cheerful as he answered:
"All right, I daresay, by this time, for sleep is the best medicine in
such cases. I took him home last night, and no one knows he came
but you and I."

"No one ever shall. How did you do it, Uncle?"

"Just slipped out of the long study window and got him cannily off,
for the air and motion, after a dash of cold water, brought him
around, and he was glad to be safely landed at home. His rooms
are below, you know, so no one was disturbed, and I left him
sleeping nicely."

"Thank you so much," sighed Rose. "And Brutus? Weren’t they
frightened when he got back alone?"

"Not at all. The sagacious beast went quietly to the stable, and the
sleepy groom asked no questions, for Charlie often sends the horse
round by himself when it is late or stormy. Rest easy, dear no eye
but ours saw the poor lad come and go, and we’ll forgive it for
love’s sake."

"Yes, but not forget it. I never can, and he will never be again to
me the Charlie I’ve been so proud and fond of all these years. Oh,
Uncle, such a pity! Such a pity!"

"Don’t break your tender heart about it, child, for it is not
incurable, thank God! I don’t make light of it, but I am sure that
under better influences Charlie will redeem himself because his
impulses are good and this his only vice. I can hardly blame him
for what he is, because his mother did the harm. I declare to you,
Rose, I sometimes feel as if I must break out against that woman
and thunder in her ears that she is ruining the immortal soul for
which she is responsible to heaven!"

Dr. Alec seldom spoke in this way, and when he did it was rather
awful, for his indignation was of the righteous sort and such
thunder often rouses up a drowsy soul when sunshine has no
effect. Rose liked it, and sincerely wished Aunt Clara had been
there to get the benefit of the outbreak, for she needed just such an
awakening from the self-indulgent dream in which she lived.

"Do it, and save Charlie before it is too late!" she cried, kindling
herself as she watched him, for he looked like a roused lion as he
walked about the room with his hand clenched and a spark in his
eye, evidently in desperate earnest and ready to do almost
anything.

"Will you help?" he asked, stopping suddenly with a look that
made her stand up straight and strong as she answered with an
eager voice: "I will."

"Then don’t love him yet."

That startled her, but she asked steadily, though her heart began to
beat and her color to come: "Why not?"

"Firstly, because no woman should give her happiness into the
keeping of a man without fixed principles; secondly, because the
hope of being worthy of you will help him more than any prayers
or preaching of mine. Thirdly, because it will need all our wit and
patience to undo the work of nearly four and twenty years. You
understand what I mean?"

"Yes, sir."

"Can you say ‘no’ when he asks you to say ‘yes’ and wait a little for
your happiness?"

"I can."

"And will you?"

"I will."

"Then I’m satisfied, and a great weight taken off my heart. I can’t
help seeing what goes on, or trembling when I think of you setting
sail with no better pilot than poor Charlie. Now you answer as I
hoped you would, and I am proud of my girl!"

They had been standing with the width of the room between them,
Dr. Alec looking very much like a commander issuing orders,
Rose like a well-drilled private obediently receiving them, and
both wore the air of soldiers getting ready for a battle, with the
bracing of nerves and quickening of the blood brave souls feel as
they put on their armor. At the last words he went to her, brushed
back the hair, and kissed her on the forehead with a tender sort of
gravity and a look that made her feel as if he had endowed her
with the Victoria Cross for courage on the field.

No more was said then, for Aunt Plenty called them down and the
day’s duties began. But that brief talk showed Rose what to do and
fitted her to do it, for it set her to thinking of the duty one owes
one’s self in loving as in all the other great passions or experiences
which make or mar a life.

She had plenty of time for quiet meditation that day because
everyone was resting after yesterday’s festivity, and she sat in her
little room planning out a new year so full of good works, grand
successes, and beautiful romances that if it could have been
realized, the Millennium would have begun. It was a great comfort
to her, however, and lightened the long hours haunted by a secret
desire to know when Charlie would come and a secret fear of the
first meeting. She was sure he would be bowed down with
humiliation and repentance, and a struggle took place in her mind
between the pity she could not help feeling and the disapprobation
she ought to show. She decided to be gentle, but very frank; to
reprove, but also to console; and to try to improve the softened
moment by inspiring the culprit with a wish for all the virtues
which make a perfect man.

The fond delusion grew quite absorbing, and her mind was full of
it as she sat watching the sun set from her western window and
admiring with dreamy eyes the fine effect of the distant hills clear
and dark against a daffodil sky when the bang of a door made her
sit suddenly erect in her low chair and say with a catch in her
breath: "He’s coming! I must remember what I promised Uncle and
be very firm."

Usually Charlie announced his approach with music of some sort.
Now he neither whistled, hummed, nor sang, but came so quietly
Rose was sure that he dreaded this meeting as much as she did
and, compassionating his natural confusion, did not look around as
the steps drew near. She thought perhaps he would go down upon
his knees, as he used to after a boyish offense, but hoped not, for
too much humility distressed her, so she waited for the first
demonstration anxiously.

It was rather a shock when it came, however, for a great nosegay
dropped into her lap and a voice, bold and gay as usual, said
lightly: "Here she is, as pretty and pensive as you please. Is the
world hollow, our doll stuffed with sawdust, and do we want to go
into a nunnery today, Cousin?"

Rose was so taken aback by this unexpected coolness that the
flowers lay unnoticed as she looked up with a face so full of
surprise, reproach, and something like shame that it was
impossible to mistake its meaning. Charlie did not, and had the
grace to redden deeply, and his eyes fell as he said quickly, though
in the same light tone: "I humbly apologize for coming so late last
night. Don’t be hard upon me, Cousin. You know America expects
every man to do his duty on New Year’s Day."

"I am tired of forgiving! You make and break promises as easily as
you did years ago, and I shall never ask you for another," answered
Rose, putting the bouquet away, for the apology did not satisfy her
and she would not be bribed to silence.

"But, my dear girl, you are so very exacting, so peculiar in your
notions, and so angry about trifles that a poor fellow can’t please
you, try as he will," began Charlie, ill at ease, but too proud to
show half the penitence he felt, not so much for the fault as for her
discovery of it.

"I am not angry I am grieved and disappointed, for I expect every
man to do his duty in another way and keep his word to the
uttermost, as I try to do. If that is exacting, I’m sorry, and won’t
trouble you with my old-fashioned notions anymore."

"Bless my soul! What a rout about nothing! I own that I forgot I
know I acted like a fool and I beg pardon. What more can I do?"

"Act like a man, and never let me be so terribly ashamed of you
again as I was last night." And Rose gave a little shiver as she
thought of it.

That involuntary act hurt Charlie more than her words, and it was
his turn now to feel "terribly ashamed," for the events of the
previous evening were very hazy in his mind and fear magnified
them greatly. Turning sharply away, he went and stood by the fire,
quite at a loss how to make his peace this time, because Rose was
so unlike herself. Usually a word of excuse sufficed, and she
seemed glad to pardon and forget; now, though very quiet, there
was something almost stern about her that surprised and daunted
him, for how could he know that all the while her pitiful heart was
pleading for him and the very effort to control it made her a little
hard and cold?

As he stood there, restlessly fingering the ornaments upon the
chimneypiece, his eye brightened suddenly and, taking up the
pretty bracelet lying there, he went slowly back to her, saying in a
tone that was humble and serious enough now: "I will act like a
man, and you shall never be ashamed again. Only be kind to me.
Let me put this on, and promise afresh this time I swear I’ll keep it.
Won’t you trust me, Rose?"

It was very hard to resist the pleading voice and eyes, for this
humility was dangerous; and, but for Uncle Alec, Rose would have
answered "yes." The blue forget-me-nots reminded her of her own
promise, and she kept it with difficulty now, to be glad always
afterward. Putting back the offered trinket with a gentle touch, she
said firmly, though she dared not look up into the anxious face
bending toward her: "No, Charlie I can’t wear it. My hands must be
free if I’m to help you as I ought. I will be kind, I will trust you, but
don’t swear anything, only try to resist temptation, and we’ll all
stand by you."

Charlie did not like that and lost the ground he had gained by
saying impetuously: "I don’t want anyone but you to stand by me,
and I must be sure you won’t desert me, else, while I’m mortifying
soul and body to please you, some stranger will come and steal
your heart away from me. I couldn’t bear that, so I give you fair
warning, in such a case I’ll break the bargain, and go straight to the
devil."

The last sentence spoiled it all, for it was both masterful and
defiant. Rose had the Campbell spirit in her, though it seldom
showed; as yet she valued her liberty more than any love offered
her, and she resented the authority he assumed too soon resented it
all the more warmly because of the effort she was making to
reinstate her hero, who would insist on being a very faulty and
ungrateful man. She rose straight out of her chair, saying with a
look and tone which rather startled her hearer and convinced him
that she was no longer a tenderhearted child but a woman with a
will of her own and a spirit as proud and fiery as any of her race:
"My heart is my own, to dispose of as I please. Don’t shut yourself
out of it by presuming too much, for you have no claim on me but
that of cousinship, and you never will have unless you earn it.
Remember that, and neither threaten nor defy me anymore."

For a minute it was doubtful whether Charlie would answer this
flash with another, and a general explosion ensue, or wisely
quench the flame with the mild answer which turneth away wrath.
He chose the latter course and made it very effective by throwing
himself down before his offended goddess, as he had often done in
jest. This time it was not acting, but serious, earnest, and there was
real passion in his voice as he caught Rose’s dress in both hands,
saying eagerly: "No, no! Don’t shut your heart against me or I shall
turn desperate. I’m not half good enough for such a saint as you,
but you can do what you will with me. I only need a motive to
make a man of me, and where can I find a stronger one than in
trying to keep your love?"

"It is not yours yet," began Rose, much moved, though all the
while she felt as if she were on a stage and had a part to play, for
Charlie had made life so like a melodrama that it was hard for him
to be quite simple even when most sincere.

"Let me earn it, then. Show me how, and I’ll do anything, for you
are my good angel, Rose, and if you cast me off, I feel as if I
shouldn’t care how soon there was an end of me," cried Charlie,
getting tragic in his earnestness and putting both arms around her,
as if his only safety lay in clinging to this beloved fellow creature.

Behind footlights it would have been irresistible, but somehow it
did not touch the one spectator, though she had neither time nor
skill to discover why. For all their ardor the words did not ring
quite true. Despite the grace of the attitude, she would have liked
him better manfully erect upon his feet, and though the gesture
was full of tenderness, a subtle instinct made her shrink away as
she said with a composure that surprised herself even more than it
did him: "Please don’t. No, I will promise nothing yet, for I must
respect the man I love."

That brought Charlie to his feet, pale with something deeper than
anger, for the recoil told him more plainly than the words how
much he had fallen in her regard since yesterday. The memory of
the happy moment when she gave the rose with that new softness
in her eyes, the shy color, the sweet "for my sake" came back with
sudden vividness, contrasting sharply with the now averted face,
the hand outstretched to put him back, the shrinking figure, and in
that instant’s silence, poor Charlie realized what he had lost, for a
girl’s first thought of love is as delicate a thing as the rosy morning
glory, which a breath of air can shatter. Only a hint of evil, only an
hour’s debasement for him, a moment’s glimpse for her of the
coarser pleasures men know, and the innocent heart, just opening
to bless and to be blessed, closed again like a sensitive plant and
shut him out perhaps forever.

The consciousness of this turned him pale with fear, for his love
was deeper than she knew, and he proved this when he said in a
tone so full of mingled pain and patience that it touched her to the
heart: "You shall respect me if I can make you, and when I’ve
earned it, may I hope for something more?"

She looked up then, saw in his face the noble shame, the humble
sort of courage that shows repentance to be genuine and gives
promise of success, and, with a hopeful smile that was a cordial to
him, answered heartily: "You may."

"Bless you for that! I’ll make no promises, I’ll ask for none only
trust me, Rose, and while you treat me like a cousin, remember
that no matter how many lovers you may have you’ll never be to
any of them as dear as you are to me."

A traitorous break in his voice warned Charlie to stop there, and
with no other good-bye, he very wisely went away, leaving Rose to
put the neglected flowers into water with remorseful care and lay
away the bracelet, saying to herself: "I’ll never wear it till I
feel as I did before. Then he shall put it on and I’ll say ‘yes.’"

 

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