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Chapter 13 – Both Sides

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

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Steve’s engagement made a great stir in the family a pleasant one
this time, for nobody objected, everything seemed felicitous, and
the course of true love ran very smoothly for the young couple,
who promised to remove the only obstacle to their union by
growing old and wise as soon as possible. If he had not been so
genuinely happy, the little lover’s airs would have been unbearable,
for he patronized all mankind in general, his brother and elder
cousins in particular.

"Now, that is the way to manage matters," he declared, standing
before the fire in Aunt Clara’s billiard room a day or two after the
ball, with his hands behind his back. "No nonsense, no delay, no
domestic rows or tragic separations. Just choose with taste and
judgment, make yourself agreeable through thick and thin, and
when it is perfectly evident that the dear creature adores the
ground you walk on, say the word like a man, and there you are."

"All very easy to do that with a girl like Kitty, who has no
confounded notions to spoil her and trip you up every time you
don’t exactly toe the mark," muttered Charlie, knocking the balls
about as if it were a relief to hit something, for he was in a
gloriously bad humor that evening, because time hung heavy on
his hands since he had forsworn the company he could not keep
without danger to himself.

"You should humor those little notions, for all women have them,
and it needs tact to steer clear of them. Kitty’s got dozens, but I
treat them with respect, have my own way when I can, give in
without growling when I can’t, and we get on like a couple of – "

"Spoons," put in Charlie, who felt that he had not steered clear and
so suffered shipwreck in sight of land.

Steve meant to have said "doves," but his cousin’s levity caused
him to add with calm dignity, "reasonable beings," and then
revenged himself by making a good shot which won him the game.

"You always were a lucky little dog, Steve. I don’t begrudge you a
particle of your happiness, but it does seem as if things weren’t
quite fair sometimes," said Archie, suppressing an envious sigh,
for, though he seldom complained, it was impossible to contrast
his own and his cousin’s prospects with perfect equanimity.

"His worth shines forth the brightest who in hope

Always confides: the Abject soul despairs,"

observed Mac, quoting Euripides in a conversational tone as he lay
upon a divan reposing after a hard day’s work.

"Thank you," said Archie, brightening a little, for a hopeful word
from any source was very comfortable.

"That’s your favorite Rip, isn’t it? He was a wise old boy, but you
could find advice as good as that nearer home," put in Steve, who
just then felt equal to slapping Plato on the shoulder, so elated was
he at being engaged "first of all the lot," as he gracefully expressed
it.

"Don’t halloo till you are out of the wood, Dandy Mrs. Kit has
jilted two men, and may a third, so you’d better not brag of your
wisdom too soon, for she may make a fool of you yet," said
Charlie, cynically, his views of life being very gloomy about this
time.

"No, she won’t, Steve, if you do your part honestly. There’s the
making of a good little woman in Kitty, and she has proved it by
taking you instead of those other fellows. You are not a Solomon,
but you’re not spoilt yet, and she had the sense to see it," said Mac
encouragingly from his corner, for he and his brother were better
friends than even since the little scene at the Van Tassels’.

"Hear! Hear!" cried Steve, looking more than ever like a cheerful
young cockerel trying to crow as he stood upon the hearth rug with
his hands under his coat tails, rising and falling alternately upon
the toes and heels of his neat little boots.

"Come, you’ve given them each a pat on the head haven’t you got
one for me? I need it enough, for if ever there was a poor devil
born under an evil star, it is C. C. Campbell," exclaimed Charlie,
leaning his chin on his cue with a discontented expression of
countenance, for trying to be good is often very hard work till one
gets used to it.

"Oh, yes! I can accommodate you." And, as if his words suggested
the selection, Mac, still lying flat upon his back, repeated one of
his favorite bits from Beaumont and Fletcher, for he had a
wonderful memory and could reel off poetry by the hour together.

"Man is his own star; and the soul that can

Render an honest and a perfect man

Commands all light, all influence, all fate.

Nothing to him falls early or too late.

Our acts our angels are; or good or ill,

Our fatal shadows that walk by us still."

"Confoundedly bad angels they are too," muttered Charlie ruefully,
remembering the one that undid him.

His cousins never knew exactly what occurred on New Year’s
night, but suspected that something was amiss, for Charlie had the
blues, and Rose, though as kind as ever, expressed no surprise at
his long absences. They had all observed and wondered at this
state of things, yet discreetly made no remark till Steve, who was
as inquisitive as a magpie, seized this opportunity to say in a
friendly tone, which showed that he bore no malice for the dark
prophecy regarding his Kitty’s faithfulness: "What’s the trouble,
Prince? You are so seldom in a bad humor that we don’t know
what to make of it and all feel out of spirits when you have the
blues. Had a tiff with Rose?"

"Never you mind, little boy, but this I will say the better women
are, the more unreasonable they are. They don’t require us to be
saints like themselves, which is lucky, but they do expect us to
render an ‘honest and a perfect man’ sometimes, and that is asking
rather too much in a fallen world like this," said Charlie, glad to
get a little sympathy, though he had no intention of confessing his
transgressions.

"No, it isn’t," said Mac, decidedly.

"Much you know about it," began Charlie, ill pleased to be so
flatly contradicted.

"Well, I know this much," added Mac, suddenly sitting up with his
hair in a highly disheveled condition. "It is very unreasonable in us
to ask women to be saints and then expect them to feel honored
when we offer them our damaged hearts or, at best, one not half as
good as theirs. If they weren’t blinded by love, they’d see what a
mean advantage we take of them and not make such bad bargains."

"Upon my word, the philosopher is coming out strong upon the
subject! We shall have him preaching ‘Women’s Rights’ directly,"
said Steve, much amazed at this outburst.

"I’ve begun, you see, and much good may it do you," answered
Mac, laying himself placidly down again.

"Well, but look here, man you are arguing on the wrong side," put
in Archie, quite agreeing with him, but feeling that he must stand
by his order at all costs.

"Never mind sides, uphold the right wherever you find it. You
needn’t stare, Steve I told you I was going to look into this matter,
and I am. You think I’m wrapped up in books, but I see a great deal
more of what is going on around me than you imagine, and I’m
getting on in this new branch, let me tell you, quite as fast as is
good for me, I daresay."

"Going in for perfection, are you?" asked Charlie, both amused and
interested, for he respected Mac more than he owned even to
himself, and though he had never alluded to the timely warning,
neither forgot.

"Yes, I think of it."

"How will you begin?"

"Do my best all-round keep good company, read good books, love
good things, and cultivate soul and body as faithfully and wisely as
I can."

"And you expect to succeed, do you?"

"Please God, I will."

The quiet energy of Mac’s last words produced a momentary
silence. Charlie thoughtfully studied the carpet; Archie, who had
been absently poking the fire, looked over at Mac as if he thanked
him again, and Steve, forgetting his self-conceit, began to wonder
if it was not possible to improve himself a little for Kitty’s sake.
Only a minute, for young men do not give much time to thoughts
of this kind, even when love stirs up the noblest impulses within
them. To act rather than to talk is more natural to most of them, as
Charlie’s next question showed, for, having the matter much at
heart, he ventured to ask in an offhand way as he laughed and
twirled his cue: "Do you intend to reach the highest point of
perfection before you address one of the fair saints, or shall you
ask her to lend a hand somewhere short of that?"

"As it takes a long lifetime to do what I plan, I think I shall ask
some good woman ‘to lend a hand’ when I’ve got anything worth
offering her. Not a saint, for I never shall be one myself, but a
gentle creature who will help me, as I shall try to help her, so that
we can go on together and finish our work hereafter, if we haven’t
time to do it here."

If Mac had been a lover, he would not have discussed the subject
in this simple and sincere fashion, though he might have felt it far
more deeply, but being quite heart-free, he frankly showed his
interest and, curiously enough, out of his wise young head
unconsciously gave the three lovers before him counsel which they
valued, because he practiced what he preached.

"Well, I hope you’ll find her!" said Charlie heartily as he went back
to his game.

"I think I shall." And while the others played, Mac lay staring at
the window curtain as contentedly as if, through it, he beheld "a
dream of fair women" from which to choose his future mate.

A few days after this talk in the billiard room, Kitty went to call
upon Rose, for as she was about to enter the family she felt it her
duty to become acquainted with all its branches. This branch,
however, she cultivated more assiduously than any other and was
continually running in to confer with "Cousin Rose," whom she
considered the wisest, dearest, kindest girl ever created. And Rose,
finding that, in spite of her flighty head, Kitty had a good heart of
her own, did her best to encourage all the new hopes and
aspirations springing up in it under the warmth of the first genuine
affection she had ever known.

"My dear, I want to have some serious conversation with you upon
a subject in which I take an interest for the first time in my life,"
began Miss Kitty, seating herself and pulling off her gloves as if
the subject was one which needed a firm grasp.

"Tell away, and don’t mind if I go on working, as I want to finish
this job today," answered Rose, with a long-handled paintbrush in
her hand and a great pair of shears at her side.

"You are always so busy! What is it now? Let me help I can talk
faster when I’m doing something," which seemed hardly possible,
for Kitty’s tongue went like a mill clapper at all hours.

"Making picture books for my sick babies at the hospital. Pretty
work, isn’t it? You cut out, and I’ll paste them on these squares of
gay cambric then we just tie up a few pages with a ribbon and
there is a nice, light, durable book for the poor dears to look at as
they lie in their little beds."

"A capital idea. Do you go there often? How ever do you find the
time for such things?" asked Kitty, busily cutting from a big sheet
the touching picture of a parent bird with a red head and a blue tail
offering what looked like a small boa constrictor to one of its
nestlings, a fat young squab with a green head, yellow body, and
no tail at all.

"I have plenty of time now I don’t go out so much, for a party uses
up two days generally one to prepare for it and one to get over it,
you know."

"People think it is so odd of you to give up society all of a sudden.
They say you have ‘turned pious’ and it is owing to your peculiar
bringing-up. I always take your part and say it is a pity other girls
haven’t as sensible an education, for I don’t know one who is as
satisfactory on the whole as you are."

"Much obliged. You may also tell people I gave up gaiety because
I value health more. But I haven’t forsworn everything of the kind,
Kit. I go to concerts and lectures, and all sorts of early things, and
have nice times at home, as you know. I like fun as well as ever,
but I’m getting on, you see, and must be preparing a little for the
serious part of life. One never knows when it may come," said
Rose, thoughtfully as she pasted a squirrel upside down on the
pink cotton page before her.

"That reminds me of what I wanted to say. If you’ll believe me, my
dear, Steve has got that very idea into his head! Did you or Mac
put it there?" asked Kitty, industriously clashing her shears.

"No, I’ve given up lecturing the boys lately they are so big now
they don’t like it, and I fancy I’d got into a way that was rather
tiresome."

"Well, then, he is ‘turning pious’ too. And what is very singular, I
like it. Now don’t smile I really do and I want to be getting ready
for the ‘serious part of life,’ as you call it. That is, I want to grow
better as fast as I can, for Steve says he isn’t half good enough for
me. Just think of that!"

Kitty looked so surprised and pleased and proud that Rose felt no
desire to laugh at her sudden fancy for sobriety but said in her
most sympathetic tone: "I’m very glad to hear it, for it shows that
he loves you in the right way."

"Is there more than one way?"

"Yes, I fancy so, because some people improve so much after they
fall in love, and others do not at all. Have you never observed
that?"

"I never learned how to observe. Of course I know that some
matches turn out well and some don’t, but I never thought much
about it."

"Well, I have, for I was rather interested in the subject lately and
had a talk with Aunt Jessie and Uncle about it."

"Gracious! You don’t talk to them about such things, do you?"

"Yes, indeed. I ask any questions I like, and always get a good
answer. It is such a nice way to learn, Kitty, for you don’t have to
pore over books, but as things come along you talk about them and
remember, and when they are spoken of afterward you understand
and are interested, though you don’t say a word," explained Rose.

"It must be nice, but I haven’t anyone to do so for me. Papa is too
busy, and Mama always says when I ask question, ‘Don’t trouble
your head with such things, child,’ so I don’t. What did you learn
about matches turning out well? I’m interested in that, because I
want mine to be quite perfect in all respects."

"After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that Uncle was
right, and it is not always safe to marry a person just because you
love him," began Rose, trying to enlighten Kitty without betraying
herself.

"Of course not if they haven’t money or are bad. But otherwise I
don’t see what more is needed," said Kitty wonderingly.

"One should stop and see if it is a wise love, likely to help both
parties and wear well, for you know it ought to last all one’s
lifetime, and it is very sad if it doesn’t."

"I declare it quite scares me to think of it, for I don’t usually go
beyond my wedding day in making plans. I remember, though, that
when I was engaged the first time you don’t know the man; it was
just after you went away, and I was only sixteen someone very
ill-naturedly said I should ‘marry in haste and repent at leisure,’ and
that made me try to imagine how it would seem to go on year after
year with Gustavus who had a dreadful temper, by the way and it
worried me so to think of it that I broke the engagement, and was
so glad ever afterward."

"You were a wise girl and I hope you’ll do it again if you find, after
a time, that you and Steve do not truly trust and respect as well as
love one another. If you don’t, you’ll be miserable when it is too
late, as so many people are who do marry in haste and have a
lifetime to repent it. Aunt Jessie says so, and she knows."

"Don’t be solemn, Rose. It fidgets me to think about life-times, and
respecting, and all those responsible things. I’m not used to it, and I
don’t know how to do it."

"But you must think, and you must learn how before you take the
responsibility upon yourself. That is what your life is for, and you
mustn’t spoil it by doing a very solemn thing without seeing if you
are ready for it."

"Do you think about all this?" asked Kitty, shrugging up her
shoulders as if responsibility of any sort did not sit comfortably on
them.

"One has to sometimes, you know. But is that all you wanted to
tell me?" added Rose, anxious to turn the conversation from
herself.

"Oh, dear, no! The most serious thing of all is this. Steve is putting
himself in order generally, and so I want to do my part, and I must
begin right away before my thoughts get distracted with clothes
and all sorts of dear, delightful, frivolous things that I can’t help
liking. Now I wish you’d tell me where to begin. Shouldn’t I
improve my mind by reading something solid?" And Kitty looked
over at the well-filled bookcase as if to see if it contained anything
large and dry enough to be considered "solid."

"It would be an excellent plan, and we’ll look up something. What
do you feel as if you needed most?"

"A little of everything I should say, for when I look into my mind
there really doesn’t seem to be much there but odds and ends, and
yet I’m sure I’ve read a great deal more than some girls do. I
suppose novels don’t count, though, and are of no use, for,
goodness knows, the people and things they describe aren’t a bit
like the real ones."

"Some novels are very useful and do as much good as sermons,
I’ve heard Uncle say, because they not only describe truly, but
teach so pleasantly that people like to learn in that way," said
Rose, who knew the sort of books Kitty had read and did not
wonder that she felt rather astray when she tried to guide herself by
their teaching.

"You pick me out some of the right kind, and I’ll apply my mind to
them. Then I ought to have some ‘serious views’ and ‘methods’ and
‘principles.’ Steve said ‘principles,’ good firm ones, you know." And
Kitty gave a little pull at the bit of cambric she was cutting as
housewives pull cotton or calico when they want "a good firm
article."

Rose could not help laughing now, though much pleased, for Kitty
was so prettily in earnest, and yet so perfectly ignorant how to
begin on the self-improvement she very much needed, that it was
pathetic as well as comical to see and hear her.

"You certainly want some of those, and must begin at once to get
them, but Aunt Jessie can help you there better than I can, or Aunt
Jane, for she has very ‘firm’ ones, I assure you," said Rose, sobering
down as quickly as possible.

"Mercy on us! I should never dare to say a word about it to Mrs.
Mac, for I’m dreadfully afraid of her, she is so stern, and how I’m
ever to get on when she is my mother-in-law I don’t know!" cried
Kitty, clasping her hands in dismay at the idea.

"She isn’t half as stern as she looks, and if you go to her without
fear, you’ve no idea how sensible and helpful she is. I used to be
frightened out of my wits with her, but now I’m not a bit, and we
get on nicely. Indeed, I’m fond of her, she is so reliable and upright
in all things."

"She certainly is the straightest woman I ever saw, and the most
precise. I never shall forget how scared I was when Steve took me
up to see her that first time. I put on all my plainest things, did my
hair in a meek knob, and tried to act like a sober, sedate young
woman. Steve would laugh at me and say I looked like a pretty
nun, so I couldn’t be as proper as I wished. Mrs. Mac was very
kind, of course, but her eye was so sharp I felt as if she saw right
through me, and knew that I’d pinned on my bonnet strings, lost a
button off my boot, and didn’t brush my hair for ten minutes every
night," said Kitty in an awe-stricken tone.

"She likes you, though, and so does Uncle, and he’s set his heart on
having you live with them by and by, so don’t mind her eyes but
look straight up at her, and you’ll see how kind they can grow."

"Mac likes me, too, and that did please me, for he doesn’t like girls
generally. Steve told me he said I had the ‘making of a capital little
woman in me.’ Wasn’t it nice of him? Steve was so proud, though
he does laugh at Mac sometimes."

"Don’t disappoint them, dear. Encourage Steve in all the good
things he likes or wants, make friends with Mac, love Aunt Jane,
and be a daughter to Uncle, and you’ll find yourself a very happy
girl."

"I truly will, and thank you very much for not making fun of me. I
know I’m a little goose, but lately I’ve felt as if I might come to
something if I had the right sort of help. I’ll go up and see Aunt
Jessie tomorrow. I’m not a bit afraid of her, and then if you’ll just
quietly find out from Uncle Doctor what I must read, I’ll work as
hard as I can. Don’t tell anyone, please, they’ll think it odd and
affected, and I can’t bear to be laughed at, though I daresay it is
good discipline."

Rose promised, and both worked in silence for a moment, then
Kitty asked rather timidly: "Are you and Charlie trying this plan
too? Since you’ve left off going out so much, he keeps away also,
and we don’t know what to make of it."

"He has had what he calls an ‘artistic fit’ lately, set up a studio, and
is doing some crayon sketches of us all. If he’d only finish his
things, they would be excellent, but he likes to try a great variety at
once. I’ll take you in sometime, and perhaps he will do a portrait of
you for Steve. He likes girls’ faces and gets the likenesses
wonderfully well."

"People say you are engaged but I contradict it, because, of course,
I should know if you were."

"We are not."

"I’m glad of it, for really, Rose, I’m afraid Charlie hasn’t got ‘firm
principles,’ though he is a fascinating fellow and one can’t scold
him. You don’t mind my saying so, do you, dear?" added Kitty, for
Rose did not answer at once.

"Not in the least, for you are one of us now, and I can speak
frankly and I will, for I think in one way you can help Steve very
much. You are right about Charlie, both as to the principles and
the fascination. Steve admires him exceedingly, and always from a
boy liked to imitate his pleasant ways. Some of them are very
harmless and do Steve good, but some are not. I needn’t talk about
it, only you must show your boy that you depend on him to keep
out of harm and help him do it."

"I will, I will! And then perhaps, when he is a perfect model,
Charlie will imitate him. I really begin to feel as if I had a great
deal to do." And Kitty looked as if she was beginning to like it
also.

"We all have and the sooner we go to work the better for us and
those we love. You wouldn’t think now that Phebe was doing
anything for Archie, but she is, and writes such splendid letters,
they stir him up wonderfully and make us all love and admire her
more than ever."

"How is she getting on?" asked Kitty, who, though she called
herself a "little goose," had tact enough to see that Rose did not
care to talk about Charlie.

"Nicely, for you know she used to sing in our choir, so that was a
good recommendation for another. She got a fine place in the new
church at L – – , and that gives her a comfortable salary, though she
has something put away. She was always a saving creature and
kept her wages carefully. Uncle invested them, and she begins to
feel quite independent already. No fear but my Phebe will get on
she has such energy and manages so well. I sometimes wish I
could run away and work with her."

"Ah, my dear! We rich girls have our trials as well as poor ones,
though we don’t get as much pity as they do," sighed Kitty.
"Nobody knows what I suffer sometimes from worries that I can’t
talk about, and I shouldn’t get much sympathy if I did, just because
I live in a big house, wear good gowns, and have lots of lovers.
Annabel used to say she envied me above all created beings, but
she doesn’t now, and is perfectly absorbed in her dear little
Chinaman. Do you see how she ever could like him?"

So they began to gossip, and the sober talk was over for that time,
but when Kitty departed, after criticizing all her dear friends and
their respective sweethearts, she had a helpful little book in her
muff, a resolute expression on her bright face, and so many
excellent plans for self-improvement in her busy brain that she and
Steve bid fair to turn out the model couple of the century.

 

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