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Chapter 16 – Good Works

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

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The Rajah was delayed awhile, and when it sailed poor Mrs. Clara
was on board, for everything was ready. All thought she had better
go to comfort her husband, and since her boy died she seemed to
care very little what became of her. So, with friends to cheer the
long voyage, she sailed away, a heavyhearted woman, yet not quite
disconsolate, for she knew her mourning was excessively
becoming and felt sure that Stephen would not find her altered by
her trials as much as might have been expected.

Then nothing was left of that gay household but the empty rooms,
silence never broken by a blithe voice anymore, and pictures full
of promise, but all unfinished, like poor Charlie’s life.

There was much mourning for the bonny Prince, but no need to tell
of it except as it affected Rose, for it is with her we have most to
do, the other characters being of secondary importance.

When time had soothed the first shock of sudden loss, she was
surprised to find the memory of his faults and failings, short life
and piteous death, grew dim, as if a kindly hand had wiped out the
record and given him back to her in the likeness of the brave,
bright boy she had loved, not as the wayward, passionate young
man who had loved her.

This comforted her very much, and folding down the last blotted
leaf where his name was written, she gladly turned back to reopen
and reread the happier chapters which painted the youthful knight
before he went out to fall in his first battle. None of the bitterness
of love bereaved marred this memory for Rose, because she found
that the warmer sentiment, just budding in her heart, had died with
Charlie and lay cold and quiet in his grave. She wondered, yet was
glad, though sometimes a remorseful pang smote her when she
discovered how possible it was to go on without him, feeling
almost as if a burden had been lifted off, since his happiness was
taken out of her hands. The time had not yet come when the
knowledge that a man’s heart was in her keeping would make the
pride and joy of her life, and while she waited for that moment she
enjoyed the liberty she seemed to have recovered.

Such being her inward state, it much annoyed her to be regarded as
a brokenhearted girl and pitied for the loss of her young lover. She
could not explain to all the world, so let it pass, and occupied her
mind with the good works which always lie ready to be taken up
and carried on. Having chosen philanthropy as her profession, she
felt that it was high time to begin the task too long neglected.

Her projects were excellent, but did not prosper as rapidly as she
hoped, for, having to deal with people, not things, unexpected
obstacles were constantly arising. The "Home for Decayed
Gentlewomen," as the boys insisted on calling her two newly
repaired houses, started finely and it was a pleasant sight to see the
comfortable rooms filled with respectable women busy at their
various tasks, surrounded by the decencies and many of the
comforts which make life endurable. But, presently, Rose was
disturbed to find that the good people expected her to take care of
them in a way she had not bargained for. Buffum, her agent, was
constantly reporting complaints, new wants, and general discontent
if they were not attended to. Things were very neglected, water
pipes froze and burst, drains got out of order, yards were in a mess,
and rents behind-hand. Worst of all, outsiders, instead of
sympathizing, only laughed and said, "We told you so," which is a
most discouraging remark to older and wiser workers than Rose.

Uncle Alec, however, stood by her staunchly and helped her out of
many of her woes by good advice and an occasional visit of
inspection, which did much to impress upon the dwellers there the
fact that, if they did not do their part, their leases would be short
ones.

"I didn’t expect to make anything out of it, but I did think they
would be grateful," said Rose on one occasion when several
complaints had come in at once and Buffum had reported great
difficulty in collecting the low rents.

"If you do this thing for the sake of the gratitude, then it is a failure
but if it is done for the love of helping those who need help, it is a
success, for in spite of their worry every one of these women feel
what privileges they enjoy and value them highly," said Dr. Alec as
they went home after one of these unsatisfactory calls.

"Then the least they can do is to say ‘thank you.’ I’m afraid I have
thought more of the gratitude than the work, but if there isn’t any, I
must make up my mind to go without," answered Rose, feeling
defrauded of her due.

"Favors often separate instead of attracting people nearer to one
another, and I’ve seen many a friendship spoilt by the obligation
being all on one side. Can’t explain it, but it is so, and I’ve come to
the conclusion that it is as hard to give in the right spirit as it is to
receive. Puzzle it out, my dear, while you are learning to do good
for its own sake."

"I know one sort of people who are grateful and I’m going to
devote my mind to them. They thank me in many ways, and
helping them is all pleasure and no worry. Come into the hospital
and see the dear babies, or the Asylum, and carry oranges to
Phebe’s orphans they don’t complain and fidget one’s life out, bless
their hearts!" cried Rose, cheering up suddenly.

After that she left Buffum to manage the "Retreat," and devoted
her energies to the little folks, always so ready to receive the
smallest gift and repay the giver with their artless thanks. Here she
found plenty to do, and did it with such sweet goodwill that she
won her way like sunshine, making many a little heart dance over
splendid dolls, gay picture books, and pots of flowers, as well as
food, fire, and clothes for the small bodies pinched with want and
pain.

As spring came new plans sprang up as naturally as dandelions.
The poor children longed for the country; and, as the green fields
could not come to them, Rose carried them to the green fields.
Down on the Point stood an old farmhouse, often used by the
Campbell tribe for summer holidays. That spring it was set to
rights unusually early, several women installed as housekeeper,
cook, and nurses, and when the May days grew bright and warm,
squads of pale children came to toddle in the grass, run over the
rocks, and play upon the smooth sands of the beach. A pretty sight,
and one that well repaid those who brought it to pass.

Everyone took an interest in the "Rose Garden," as Mac named it,
and the womenfolk were continually driving over to the Point for
something for the "poor dears." Aunt Plenty sowed gingerbread
broadcast; Aunt Jessie made pinafores by the dozen while Aunt
Jane "kept her eye" on the nurses, and Aunt Myra supplied
medicines so liberally that the mortality would have been awful if
Dr. Alec had not taken them in charge. To him this was the most
delightful spot in the world and well it might be, for he suggested
the idea and gave Rose all the credit of it. He was often there, and
his appearance was always greeted with shrieks of rapture, as the
children gathered from all quarters creeping, running, hopping on
crutches, or carried in arms which they gladly left to sit on "Uncle
Doctor’s" knee, for that was the title by which he went among
them.

He seemed as young as any of his comrades, though the curly head
was getting gray, and the frolics that went on when he arrived were
better than any medicine to children who had never learned to
play. It was a standing joke among the friends that the bachelor
brother had the largest family and was the most domestic man of
the remaining four, though Uncle Mac did his part manfully and
kept Aunt Jane in a constant fidget by his rash propositions to
adopt the heartiest boys and prettiest girls to amuse him and
employ her.

On one occasion Aunt Jane had a very narrow escape, and the
culprit being her son, not her husband, she felt free to repay herself
for many scares of this sort by a good scolding, which, unlike
many, produced excellent results.

One bright June day, as Rose came cantering home from the Point
on her pretty bay pony, she saw a man sitting on a fallen tree
beside the road and something in his despondent attitude arrested
her attention. As she drew nearer he turned his head, and she
stopped short, exclaiming in great surprise: "Why, Mac! What are
you doing here?"

"Trying to solve a problem," he answered, looking up with a
whimsical expression of perplexity and amusement in his face
which made Rose smile till his next words turned her sober in a
twinkling: "I’ve eloped with a young lady, and don’t know what to
do with her. I took her home, of course, but mother turned her out
of the house, and I’m in a quandary."

"Is that her baggage?" asked Rose, pointing with her whip to the
large bundle which he held while the wild idea flashed through her
head that perhaps he really had done some rash deed of this sort.

"No, this is the young lady herself." And, opening a corner of the
brown shawl, he displayed a child of three so pale, so thin and tiny
that she looked like a small scared bird just fallen from the nest as
she shrank away from the light with great frightened eyes and a
hand like a little claw tightly clutched a button of Mac’s coat.

"Poor baby! Where did it come from?" cried Rose, leaning down to
look.

"I’ll tell you the story, and then you shall advise me what to do. At
our hospital we’ve had a poor woman who got hurt and died two
days ago. I had nothing to do with her, only took her a bit of fruit
once or twice, for she had big, wistful sort of eyes that haunted me.
The day she died I stopped a minute, and the nurse said she’d been
wanting to speak to me but didn’t dare. So I asked if I could do
anything for her and, though she could hardly breathe for pain
being almost gone she implored me to take care of baby. I found
out where the child was, and promised I’d see after her for the poor
soul couldn’t seem to die till I’d given her that comfort. I never can
forget the look in her eyes as I held her hand and said, ‘Baby shall
be taken care of.’ She tried to thank me, and died soon after quite
peacefully. Well, I went today and hunted up the poor little wretch.
Found her in a miserable place, left in the care of an old hag who
had shut her up alone to keep her out of the way, and there this
mite was, huddled in a corner, crying ‘Marmar, marmar!’ fit to
touch a heart of stone. I blew up at the woman and took the baby
straightaway, for she had been abused. It was high time. Look
there, will you?"

Mac turned the little skinny arm and showed a blue mark which
made Rose drop her reins and stretch out both hands, crying with a
tender sort of indignation: "How dared they do it? Give her to me,
poor little motherless thing!"

Mac laid the bundle in her arms, and Rose began to cuddle it in the
fond, foolish way women have a most comfortable and effective
way, nevertheless and baby evidently felt that things were
changing for the better when warm lips touched her cheeks, a soft
hand smoothed her tumbled hair, and a womanly face bent over
her with the inarticulate cooings and purrings mothers make. The
frightened eyes went up to this gentle countenance and rested there
as if reassured; the little claw crept to the girl’s neck, and poor
baby nestled to her with a long sigh and a plaintive murmur of
"Marmar, marmar" that certainly would have touched a stony
heart.

"Now, go on. No, Rosa, not you," said the new nurse as the
intelligent animal looked around to see if things were all right
before she proceeded.

"I took the child home to mother, not knowing what else to do, but
she wouldn’t have it at any price, even for a night. She doesn’t like
children, you know, and Father has joked so much about ‘the
Pointers’ that she is quite rampant at the mere idea of a child in the
house. She told me to take it to the Rose Garden. I said it was
running over now, and no room even for a mite like this. ‘Go to the
Hospital,’ says she. ‘Baby isn’t ill, ma’am,’ says I. ‘Orphan Asylum,’
says she. ‘Not an orphan got a father who can’t take care of her,’
says I. ‘Take her to the Foundling place, or Mrs. Gardener, or
someone whose business it is. I will not have the creature here,
sick and dirty and noisy. Carry it back, and ask Rose to tell you
what to do with it.’ So my cruel parent cast me forth but relented as
I shouldered baby, gave me a shawl to put her in, a jumble to feed
her with, and money to pay her board in some good place.
Mother’s bark is always worse than her bite, you know."

"And you were trying to think of the ‘good place’ as you sat here?"
asked Rose, looking down at him with great approval as he stood
patting Rosa’s glossy neck.

"Exactly. I didn’t want to trouble you, for you have your house full
already, and I really couldn’t lay my hand on any good soul who
would be bothered with this little forlornity. She has nothing to
recommend her, you see not pretty; feeble; shy as a mouse; no end
of care, I daresay yet she needs every bit she can get to keep soul
and body together, if I’m any judge."

Rose opened her lips impulsively, but closed them without
speaking and sat a minute looking straight between Rosa’s ears, as
if forcing herself to think twice before she spoke. Mac watched her
out of the corner of his eyes as he said, in a musing tone, tucking
the shawl around a pair of shabby little feet the while, "This seems
to be one of the charities that no one wants to undertake, yet I can’t
help feeling that my promise to the mother binds me to something
more than merely handing baby over to some busy matron or
careless nurse in any of our overcrowded institutions. She is such a
frail creature she won’t trouble anyone long, perhaps, and I should
like to give her just a taste of comfort, if not love, before she finds
her ‘Marmar’ again."

"Lead Rosa I’m going to take this child home, and if Uncle is
willing, I’ll adopt her, and she shall be happy!" cried Rose, with the
sudden glow of feeling that always made her lovely. And gathering
poor baby close, she went on her way like a modern Britomart,
ready to redress the wrongs of any who had need of her.

As he led the slowly stepping horse along the quiet road, Mac
could not help thinking that they looked a little like the Flight into
Egypt, but he did not say so, being a reverent youth only glanced
back now and then at the figure above him, for Rose had taken off
her hat to keep the light from baby’s eyes and sat with the sunshine
turning her uncovered hair to gold as she looked down at the little
creature resting on the saddle before her with the sweet
thoughtfulness one sees in some of Correggio’s young Madonnas.

No one else saw the picture, but Mac long remembered it, and ever
after there was a touch of reverence added to the warm affection
he had always borne his cousin Rose.

"What is the child’s name?" was the sudden question which
disturbed a brief silence, broken only by the sound of pacing hoofs,
the rustle of green boughs overhead, and the blithe caroling of
birds.

"I’m sure I don’t know," answered Mac, suddenly aware that he had
fallen out of one quandary into another.

"Didn’t you ask?"

"No, the mother called her ‘Baby,’ and the old woman, ‘Brat.’ And
that is all I know of the first name the last is Kennedy. You may
christen her what you like."

"Then I shall name her Dulcinea, as you are her knight, and call
her Dulce for short. That is a sweet diminutive, I’m sure," laughed
Rose, much amused at the idea.

Don Quixote looked pleased and vowed to defend his little lady
stoutly, beginning his services on the spot by filling the small
hands with buttercups, thereby winning for himself the first smile
baby’s face had known for weeks.

When they got home Aunt Plenty received her new guest with her
accustomed hospitality and, on learning the story, was as warmly
interested as even enthusiastic Rose could desire, bustling about to
make the child comfortable with an energy pleasant to see, for the
grandmotherly instincts were strong in the old lady and of late had
been beautifully developed.

In less than half an hour from the time baby went upstairs, she
came down again on Rose’s arm, freshly washed and brushed, in a
pink gown much too large and a white apron decidedly too small;
an immaculate pair of socks, but no shoes; a neat bandage on the
bruised arm, and a string of spools for a plaything hanging on the
other. A resigned expression sat upon her little face, but the
frightened eyes were only shy now, and the forlorn heart evidently
much comforted.

"There! How do you like your Dulce now?" said Rose, proudly
displaying the work of her hands as she came in with her habit
pinned up and carrying a silver porringer of bread and milk.

Mac knelt down, took the small, reluctant hand, and kissed it as
devoutly as ever good Alonzo Quixada did that of the Duchess
while he said, merrily quoting from the immortal story: "’High and
Sovereign Lady, thine till death, the Knight of the Rueful
Countenance.’"

But baby had no heart for play and, withdrawing her hand, pointed
to the porringer with the suggestive remark: "Din-din, now."

So Rose sat down and fed the Duchess while the Don stood by and
watched the feast with much satisfaction.

"How nice she looks! Do you consider shoes unhealthy?" he asked,
surveying the socks with respectful interest.

"No, her shoes are drying. You must have let her go in the mud."

"I only put her down for a minute when she howled, and she made
for a puddle, like a duck. I’ll buy her some new ones clothes too.
Where do I go, what do I ask for, and how much do I get?" he said,
diving for his pocketbook, amiably anxious but pitiably ignorant.

"I’ll see to that. We always have things on hand for the Pointers as
they come along and can soon fit Dulce out. You may make some
inquiries about the father if you will, for I don’t want to have her
taken away just as I get fond of her. Do you know anything about
him?"

"Only that he is in State Prison for twenty-one years, and not likely
to trouble you."

"How dreadful! I really think Phebe was better off to have none at
all. I’ll go to work at once, then, and try to bring up the convict’s
little daughter to be a good woman so that she will have an honest
name of her own, since he has nothing but disgrace to give her."

"Uncle can show you how to do that if you need any help. He has
been so successful in his first attempt, I fancy you won’t require
much," said Mac, picking up the spools for the sixth time.

"Yes, I shall, for it is a great responsibility, and I do not undertake
it lightly," answered Rose soberly, though the double-barreled
compliment pleased her very much.

"I’m sure Phebe has turned out splendidly, and you began very
early with her."

"So I did! That’s encouraging. Dear thing, how bewildered she
looked when I proposed adopting her. I remember all about it, for
Uncle had just come and I was quite crazy over a box of presents
and rushed at Phebe as she was cleaning brasses. How little I
thought my childish offer would end so well!" And Rose fell
a-musing with a happy smile on her face while baby picked the last
morsels out of the porringer with her own busy fingers.

It certainly had ended well, for Phebe at the end of six months not
only had a good place as choir singer but several young pupils and
excellent prospects for the next winter.

"Accept the blessing of a poor young man,
Whose lucky steps have led him to your door,
and let me help as much as I can.
Good-bye, my Dulcinea."

And, with a farewell stroke of the smooth head, Mac went away to
report his success to his mother, who, in spite of her seeming
harshness, was already planning how she could best befriend this
inconvenient baby.

 

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