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Chapter 21 – How Phebe Earned Her Welcome

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

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Dr. Alec had not arrived, but bad tidings had, as Rose guessed the
instant her eyes fell upon Aunt Plenty, hobbling downstairs with
her cap awry, her face pale, and a letter flapping wildly in her hand
as she cried distractedly: "Oh, my boy! My boy! Sick, and I not
there to nurse him! Malignant fever, so far away. What can those
children do? Why did I let Alec go?"

Rose got her into the parlor, and while the poor old lady lamented,
she read the letter which Phebe had sent to her that she might
"break the news carefully to Rose."

DEAR MISS PLENTY, Please read this to yourself first, and tell
my little mistress as you think best. The dear doctor is very ill, but
I am with him, and shall not leave him day or night till he is safe.
So trust me, and do not be anxious, for everything shall be done
that care and skill and entire devotion can do. He would not let us
tell you before, fearing you would try to come at the risk of your
health. Indeed it would be useless, for only one nurse is needed,
and I came first, so do not let Rose or anybody else rob me of my
right to the danger and the duty. Mac has written to his father, for
Dr. Alec is now too ill to know what we do, and we both felt that
you ought to be told without further delay. He has a bad malignant
fever, caught no one can tell how, unless among some poor
emigrants whom he met wandering about quite forlorn in a strange
city. He understood Portuguese and sent them to a proper place
when they had told their story. But I fear he has suffered for his
kindness, for this fever came on rapidly, and before he knew what
it was I was there, and it was too late to send me away.

Now I can show you how grateful I am, and if need be give my life
so gladly for this friend who has been a father to me. Tell Rose his
last conscious word and thought were for her. "Don’t let her come;
keep my darling safe." Oh, do obey him! Stay safely at home and,
God helping me, I’ll bring Uncle Alec back in time. Mac does all I
will let him. We have the best physicians, and everything is going
as well as can be hoped till the fever turns.

Dear Miss Plenty, pray for him and for me, that I may do this one
happy thing for those who have done so much for
Your ever dutiful and loving

PHEBE

As Rose looked up from the letter, half stunned by the sudden
news and the great danger, she found that the old lady had already
stopped useless bewailing and was praying heartily, like one who
knew well where help was to be found. Rose went and knelt down
at her knee, laying her face on the clasped hands in her lap, and for
a few minutes neither wept nor spoke. Then a stifled sob broke
from the girl, and Aunt Plenty gathered the young head in her
arms, saying, with the slow tears of age trickling down her own
withered cheeks: "Bear up, my lamb, bear up. The good Lord won’t
take him from us I am sure and that brave child will be allowed to
pay her debt to him. I feel she will."

"But I want to help. I must go, Aunty, I must no matter what the
danger is," cried Rose, full of a tender jealousy of Phebe for being
first to brave peril for the sake of him who had been a father to
them both.

"You can’t go, dear, it’s no use now, and she is right to say, ‘Keep
away.’ I know those fevers, and the ones who nurse often take it,
and fare worse for the strain they’ve been through. Good girl to
stand by so bravely, to be so sensible, and not let Mac go too near!
She’s a grand nurse Alec couldn’t have a better, and she’ll never
leave him till he’s safe," said Miss Plenty excitedly.

"Ah, you begin to know her now, and value her as you ought. I
think few would have done as she has, and if she does get ill and
die, it will be our fault partly, because she’d go through fire and
water to make us do her justice and receive her as we ought," cried
Rose, proud of an example which she longed to follow.

"If she brings my boy home, I’ll never say another word. She may
marry every nephew I’ve got, if she likes, and I’ll give her my
blessing," exclaimed Aunt Plenty, feeling that no price would be
too much to pay for such a deed.

Rose was going to clap her hands, but wrung them instead,
remembering with a sudden pang that the battle was not over yet,
and it was much too soon to award the honors.

Before she could speak Uncle Mac and Aunt Jane hurried in, for
Mac’s letter had come with the other, and dismay fell upon the
family at the thought of danger to the well-beloved Uncle Alec.
His brother decided to go at once, and Aunt Jane insisted on
accompanying him, though all agreed that nothing could be done
but wait, and leave Phebe at her post as long as she held out, since
it was too late to save her from danger now and Mac reported her
quite equal to the task.

Great was the hurry and confusion till the relief party was off.
Aunt Plenty was heartbroken that she could not go with them, but
felt that she was too infirm to be useful and, like a sensible old
soul, tried to content herself with preparing all sorts of comforts
for the invalid. Rose was less patient, and at first had wild ideas of
setting off alone and forcing her way to the spot where all her
thoughts now centered. But before she could carry out any rash
project, Aunt Myra’s palpitations set in so alarmingly that they did
good service for once and kept Rose busy taking her last directions
and trying to soothe her dying bed, for each attack was declared
fatal till the patient demanded toast and tea, when hope was again
allowable and the rally began.

The news flew fast, as such tidings always do, and Aunt Plenty
was constantly employed in answering inquiries, for her knocker
kept up a steady tattoo for several days. All sorts of people came:
gentlefolk and paupers, children with anxious little faces, old
people full of sympathy, pretty girls sobbing as they went away,
and young men who relieved their feelings by swearing at all
emigrants in general and Portuguese in particular. It was touching
and comforting to see how many loved the good man who was
known only by his benefactions and now lay suffering far away,
quite unconscious how many unsuspected charities were brought
to light by this grateful solicitude as hidden flowers spring up
when warm rains fall.

If Rose had ever felt that the gift of living for others was a poor
one, she saw now how beautiful and blessed it was how rich the
returns, how wide the influence, how much more precious the
tender tie which knit so many hearts together than any breath of
fame or brilliant talent that dazzled but did not win and warm. In
after years she found how true her uncle’s words had been and,
listening to eulogies of great men, felt less moved and inspired by
praises of their splendid gifts than by the sight of some good man’s
patient labor for the poorest of his kind. Her heroes ceased to be
the world’s favorites and became such as Garrison fighting for his
chosen people; Howe restoring lost senses to the deaf, the dumb,
and blind; Sumner unbribable, when other men were bought and
sold and many a large-hearted woman working as quietly as Abby
Gibbons, who for thirty years had made Christmas merry for two
hundred little paupers in a city almshouse, besides saving
Magdalens and teaching convicts.

The lesson came to Rose when she was ready for it, and showed
her what a noble profession philanthropy is, made her glad of her
choice, and helped fit her for a long life full of the loving labor and
sweet satisfaction unostentatious charity brings to those who ask
no reward and are content if "only God knows."

Several anxious weeks went by with wearing fluctuations of hope
and fear, for Life and Death fought over the prize each wanted, and
more than once Death seemed to have won. But Phebe stood at her
post, defying both danger and Death with the courage and devotion
women often show. All her soul and strength were in her work,
and when it seemed most hopeless, she cried out with the
passionate energy which seems to send such appeals straight up to
heaven: "Grant me this one boon, dear Lord, and I will never ask
another for myself!"

Such prayers avail much, and such entire devotion often seems to
work miracles when other aids are in vain. Phebe’s cry was
answered, her self-forgetful task accomplished, and her long vigil
rewarded with a happy dawn. Dr. Alec always said that she kept
him alive by the force of her will, and that, during the hours when
he seemed to lie unconscious, he felt a strong, warm hand holding
his, as if keeping him away from the swift current trying to sweep
him away. The happiest hour of all her life was that in which he
knew her, looked up with the shadow of a smile in his hollow eyes,
and tried to say in his old cheery way: "Tell Rose I’ve turned the
corner, thanks to you, my child."

She answered very quietly, smoothed the pillow, and saw him drop
asleep again before she stole away into the other room, meaning to
write the good news, but could only throw herself down and find
relief for a full heart in the first tears she had shed for weeks. Mac
found her there, and took such care of her that she was ready to go
back to her place now indeed a post of honor while he ran off to
send home a telegram which made many hearts sing for joy and
caused Jamie, in his first burst of delight, to propose to ring all the
city bells and order out the cannon: "Saved thanks to God and
Phebe."

That was all, but everyone was satisfied, and everyone fell
a-crying, as if hope needed much salty water to strengthen it. That
was soon over, however, and then people went about smiling and
saying to one another, with handshakes or embraces, "He is better
no doubt of it now!" A general desire to rush away and assure
themselves of the truth pervaded the family for some days, and
nothing but awful threats from Mac, stern mandates from the
doctor, and entreaties from Phebe not to undo her work kept Miss
Plenty, Rose, and Aunt Jessie at home.

As the only way in which they could ease their minds and bear the
delay, they set about spring cleaning with an energy which scared
the spiders and drove charwomen distracted. If the old house had
been infected with smallpox, it could not have been more
vigorously scrubbed, aired, and refreshed. Early as it was, every
carpet was routed up, curtains pulled down, cushions banged, and
glory holes turned out till not a speck of dust, a last year’s fly, or
stray straw could be found. Then they all sat down and rested in
such an immaculate mansion that one hardly dared to move for
fear of destroying the shining order everywhere visible.

It was late in April before this was accomplished, and the
necessary quarantine of the absentees well over. The first mild
days seemed to come early, so that Dr. Alec might return with
safety from the journey which had so nearly been his last. It was
perfectly impossible to keep any member of the family away on
that great occasion. They came from all quarters in spite of express
directions to the contrary, for the invalid was still very feeble and
no excitement must be allowed. As if the wind carried the glad
news, Uncle Jem came into port the night before; Will and
Geordie got a leave on their own responsibility; Steve would have
defied the entire faculty, had it been necessary; and Uncle Mac and
Archie said simultaneously, "Business be hanged today."

Of course the aunts arrived in all their best, all cautioning
everybody else to keep quiet and all gabbling excitedly at the least
provocation. Jamie suffered the most during that day, so divided
was he between the desire to behave well and the frantic impulse
to shout at the top of his voice, turn somersaults, and race all over
the house. Occasional bolts into the barn, where he let off steam by
roaring and dancing jigs, to the great dismay of the fat old horses
and two sedate cows, helped him to get through that trying period.

But the heart that was fullest beat and fluttered in Rose’s bosom as
she went about putting spring flowers everywhere; very silent, but
so radiant with happiness that the aunts watched her, saying softly
to one another, "Could an angel look sweeter?"

If angels ever wore pale green gowns and snowdrops in their hair,
had countenances full of serenest joy, and large eyes shining with
an inward light that made them very lovely, then Rose did look
like one. But she felt like a woman and well she might, for was not
life very rich that day, when Uncle, friend, and lover were coming
back to her together? Could she ask anything more, except the
power to be to all of them the creature they believed her, and to
return the love they gave her with one as faithful, pure, and deep?
Among the portraits in the hall hung one of Dr. Alec, done soon
after his return by Charlie in one of his brief fits of inspiration.
Only a crayon, but wonderfully lifelike and carefully finished, as
few of the others were. This had been handsomely framed and now
held the place of honor, garlanded with green wreaths, while the
great Indian jar below blazed with a pyramid of hothouse flowers
sent by Kitty. Rose was giving these a last touch, with Dulce close
by, cooing over a handful of sweet "daffydowndillies," when the
sound of wheels sent her flying to the door. She meant to have
spoken the first welcome and had the first embrace, but when she
saw the altered face in the carriage, the feeble figure being borne
up the steps by all the boys, she stood motionless till Phebe caught
her in her arms, whispering with a laugh and a cry struggling in her
voice: "I did it for you, my darling, all for you!"

"Oh, Phebe, never say again you owe me anything! I never can
repay you for this," was all Rose had time to answer as they stood
one instant cheek to cheek, heart to heart, both too full of
happiness for many words.

Aunt Plenty had heard the wheels also and, as everybody rose en
masse, had said as impressively as extreme agitation would allow,
while she put her glasses on upside down and seized a lace tidy
instead of her handkerchief: "Stop! All stay here, and let me
receive Alec. Remember his weak state, and be calm, quite calm,
as I am.’

"Yes, Aunt, certainly," was the general murmur of assent, but it
was as impossible to obey as it would have been to keep feathers
still in a gale, and one irresistible impulse carried the whole
roomful into the hall to behold Aunt Plenty beautifully illustrating
her own theory of composure by waving the tidy wildly, rushing
into Dr. Alec’s arms, and laughing and crying with a hysterical
abandonment which even Aunt Myra could not have surpassed.

The tearful jubilee was soon over, however, and no one seemed
the worse for it, for the instant his arms were at liberty, Dr. Alec
forgot himself and began to make other people happy by saying
seriously, though his thin face beamed paternally, as he drew
Phebe forward: "Aunt Plenty, but for this good daughter I never
should have come back to be so welcomed. Love her for my sake."

Then the old lady came out splendidly and showed her mettle, for,
turning to Phebe, she bowed her gray head as if saluting an equal
and, offering her hand, answered with repentance, admiration, and
tenderness trembling in her voice: "I’m proud to do it for her own
sake. I ask pardon for my silly prejudices, and I’ll prove that I’m
sincere by where’s that boy?"

There were six boys present, but the right one was in exactly the
right place at the right moment, and, seizing Archie’s hand, Aunt
Plenty put Phebe’s into it, trying to say something appropriately
solemn, but could not, so hugged them both and sobbed out: "If I
had a dozen nephews, I’d give them all to you, my dear, and dance
at the wedding, though I had rheumatism in every limb."

That was better than any oration, for it set them all to laughing,
and Dr. Alec was floated to the sofa on a gentle wave of
merriment. Once there, everyone but Rose and Aunt Plenty was
ordered off by Mac, who was in command now and seemed to
have sunk the poet in the physician.

"The house must be perfectly quiet, and he must go to sleep as
soon as possible after the journey, so all say ‘good-bye’ now and
call again tomorrow," he said, watching his uncle anxiously as he
leaned in the sofa corner, with four women taking off his wraps,
three boys contending for his overshoes, two brothers shaking
hands at short intervals, and Aunt Myra holding a bottle of strong
salts under his devoted nose every time there was an opening
anywhere.

With difficulty the house was partially cleared, and then, while
Aunt Plenty mounted guard over her boy, Rose stole away to see if
Mac had gone with the rest, for as yet they had hardly spoken in
the joyful flurry, though eyes and hands had met.

 

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