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Chapter 19 – Little Heart’s-Ease

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

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WHEN it was all over, the long journey home, the quiet funeral, the
first sad excitement, then came the bitter moment when life says to
the bereaved: "Take up your burden and go on alone." Christie’s had
been the still, tearless grief hardest to bear, most impossible to
comfort; and, while Mrs. Sterling bore her loss with the sweet
patience of a pious heart, and Letty mourned her brother with the
tender sorrow that finds relief in natural ways, the widow sat among
them, as tranquil, colorless, and mute, as if her soul had followed
David, leaving the shadow of her former self behind.

"He will not come to me, but I shall go to him," seemed to be the
thought that sustained her, and those who loved her said
despairingly to one another: "Her heart is broken: she will not
linger long."

But one woman wise in her own motherliness always answered
hopefully: "Don’t you be troubled; Nater knows what’s good for us,
and works in her own way. Hearts like this don’t break, and sorrer
only makes ’em stronger. You mark my words: the blessed baby that’s
a comin’ in the summer will work a merrycle, and you’ll see this
poor dear a happy woman yet."

Few believed in the prophecy; but Mrs. Wilkins stoutly repeated it
and watched over Christie like a mother; often trudging up the lane
in spite of wind or weather to bring some dainty mess, some
remarkable puzzle in red or yellow calico to be used as a pattern
for the little garments the three women sewed with such tender
interest, consecrated with such tender tears; or news of the war
fresh from Lisha who "was goin’ to see it through ef he come home
without a leg to stand on." A cheery, hopeful, wholesome influence
she brought with her, and all the house seemed to brighten as she
sat there freeing her mind upon every subject that came up, from the
delicate little shirts Mrs. Sterling knit in spite of failing
eyesight, to the fall of Richmond, which, the prophetic spirit being
strong within her, Mrs. Wilkins foretold with sibylline precision.

She alone could win a faint smile from Christie with some odd
saying, some shrewd opinion, and she alone brought tears to the
melancholy eyes that sorely needed such healing dew; for she carried
little Adelaide, and without a word put her into Christie’s arms,
there to cling and smile and babble till she had soothed the bitter
pain and hunger of a suffering heart.

She and Mr. Power held Christie up through that hard time,
ministering to soul and body with their hope and faith till life
grew possible again, and from the dust of a great affliction rose
the sustaining power she had sought so long.

As spring came on, and victory after victory proclaimed that the war
was drawing to an end, Christie’s sad resignation was broken, by
gusts of grief so stormy, so inconsolable, that those about her
trembled for her life. It was so hard to see the regiments come home
proudly bearing the torn battle-flags, weary, wounded, but
victorious, to be rapturously welcomed, thanked, and honored by the
grateful country they had served so well; to see all this and think
of David in his grave unknown, unrewarded, and forgotten by all but
a faithful few.

"I used to dream of a time like this, to hope and plan for it, and
cheer myself with the assurance that, after all our hard work, our
long separation, and the dangers we had faced, David would get some
honor, receive some reward, at least be kept for me to love and
serve and live with for a little while. But these men who have
merely saved a banner, led a charge, or lost an arm, get all the
glory, while he gave his life so nobly; yet few know it, no one
thanked him, and I am left desolate when so many useless ones might
have been taken in his place. Oh, it is not just! I cannot forgive
God for robbing him of all his honors, and me of all my happiness."

So lamented Christie with the rebellious protest of a strong nature
learning submission through the stern discipline of grief. In vain
Mr. Power told her that David had received a better reward than any
human hand could give him, in the gratitude of many women, the
respect of many men. That to do bravely the daily duties of an
upright life was more heroic in God’s sight, than to achieve in an
enthusiastic moment a single deed that won the world’s applause; and
that the seeming incompleteness of his life was beautifully rounded
by the act that caused his death, although no eulogy recorded it, no
song embalmed it, and few knew it but those he saved, those he
loved, and the Great Commander who promoted him to the higher rank
he had won.

Christie could not be content with this invisible, intangible
recompense for her hero: she wanted to see, to know beyond a doubt,
that justice had been done; and beat herself against the barrier
that baffles bereaved humanity till impatient despair was wearied
out, and passionate heart gave up the struggle.

Then, when no help seemed possible, she found it where she least
expected it, in herself. Searching for religion, she had found love:
now seeking to follow love she found religion. The desire for it had
never left her, and, while serving others, she was earning this
reward; for when her life seemed to lie in ashes, from their midst,
this slender spire of flame, purifying while it burned, rose
trembling toward heaven; showing her how great sacrifices turn to
greater compensations; giving her light, warmth, and consolation,
and teaching her the lesson all must learn.

God was very patient with her, sending much help, and letting her
climb up to Him by all the tender ways in which aspiring souls can
lead unhappy hearts.

David’s room had been her refuge when those dark hours came, and
sitting there one day trying to understand the great mystery that
parted her from David, she seemed to receive an answer to her many
prayers for some sign that death had not estranged them. The house
was very still, the window open, and a soft south wind was wandering
through the room with hints of May-flowers on its wings. Suddenly a
breath of music startled her, so airy, sweet, and short-lived that
no human voice or hand could have produced it. Again and again it
came, a fitful and melodious sigh, that to one made superstitious by
much sorrow, seemed like a spirit’s voice delivering some message
from another world.

Christie looked and listened with hushed breath and expectant heart,
believing that some special answer was to be given her. But in a
moment she saw it was no supernatural sound, only the south wind
whispering in David’s flute that hung beside the window.
Disappointment came first, then warm over her sore heart flowed the
tender recollection that she used to call the old flute "David’s
voice," for into it he poured the joy and sorrow, unrest and pain,
he told no living soul. How often it had been her lullaby, before
she learned to read its language; how gaily it had piped for others;
how plaintively it had sung for him, alone and in the night; and now
how full of pathetic music was that hymn of consolation fitfully
whispered by the wind’s soft breath.

Ah, yes! this was a better answer than any supernatural voice could
have given her; a more helpful sign than any phantom face or hand; a
surer confirmation of her hope than subtle argument or sacred
promise: for it brought back the memory of the living, loving man so
vividly, so tenderly, that Christie felt as if the barrier was down,
and welcomed a new sense of David’s nearness with the softest tears
that had flowed since she closed the serene eyes whose last look had
been for her.

After that hour she spent the long spring days lying on the old
couch in his room, reading his books, thinking of his love and life,
and listening to "David’s voice." She always heard it now, whether
the wind touched the flute with airy fingers or it hung mute; and it
sung to her songs of patience, hope, and cheer, till a mysterious
peace carne to her, and she discovered in herself the strength she
had asked, yet never thought to find. Under the snow, herbs of grace
had been growing silently; and, when the heavy rains had melted all
the frost away, they sprung up to blossom beautifully in the sun
that shines for every spire of grass, and makes it perfect in its
time and place.

Mrs. Wilkins was right; for one June morning, when she laid "that
blessed baby" in its mother’s arms, Christie’s first words were:

"Don’t let me die: I must live for baby now," and gathered David’s
little daughter to her breast, as if the soft touch of the fumbling
hands had healed every wound and brightened all the world.

"I told you so; God bless ’em both!" and Mrs. Wilkins retired
precipitately to the hall, where she sat down upon the stairs and
cried most comfortable tears; for her maternal heart was full of a
thanksgiving too deep for words.

A sweet, secluded time to Christie, as she brooded over her little
treasure and forgot there was a world outside. A fond and jealous
mother, but a very happy one, for after the bitterest came the
tenderest experience of her life. She felt its sacredness, its
beauty, and its high responsibilities; accepted them prayerfully,
and found unspeakable delight in fitting herself to bear them
worthily, always remembering that she had a double duty to perform
toward the fatherless little creature given to her care.

It is hardly necessary to mention the changes one small individual
made in that feminine household. The purring and clucking that went
on; the panics over a pin-prick; the consultations over a pellet of
chamomilla; the raptures at the dawn of a first smile; the solemn
prophecies of future beauty, wit, and wisdom in the bud of a woman;
the general adoration of the entire family at the wicker shrine
wherein lay the idol, a mass of flannel and cambric with a bald head
at one end, and a pair of microscopic blue socks at the other.
Mysterious little porringers sat unreproved upon the parlor fire,
small garments aired at every window, lights burned at unholy hours,
and three agitated nightcaps congregated at the faintest chirp of
the restless bird in the maternal nest.

Of course Grandma grew young again, and produced nursery
reminiscences on every occasion; Aunt Letty trotted day and night to
gratify the imaginary wants of the idol, and Christie was so
entirely absorbed that the whole South might have been swallowed up
by an earthquake without causing her as much consternation as the
appearance of a slight rash upon the baby.

No flower in David’s garden throve like his little June rose, for no
wind was allowed to visit her too roughly; and when rain fell
without, she took her daily airing in the green-house, where from
her mother’s arms she soon regarded the gay sight with such
sprightly satisfaction that she seemed a little flower herself
dancing on its stem.

She was named Ruth for grandma, but Christie always called her
"Little Heart’s-ease," or "Pansy," and those who smiled at first at
the mother’s fancy, came in time to see that there was an unusual
fitness in the name. All the bitterness seemed taken out of
Christie’s sorrow by the soft magic of the child: there was so much
to live for now she spoke no more of dying; and, holding that little
hand in hers, it grew easier to go on along the way that led to
David.

A prouder mother never lived; and, as baby waxed in beauty and in
strength, Christie longed for all the world to see her. A sweet,
peculiar, little face she had, sunny and fair; but, under the broad
forehead where the bright hair fell as David’s used to do, there
shone a pair of dark and solemn eyes, so large, so deep, and often
so unchildlike, that her mother wondered where she got them. Even
when she smiled the shadow lingered in these eyes, and when she wept
they filled and overflowed with great, quiet tears like flowers too
full of dew. Christie often said remorsefully:

"My little Pansy! I put my own sorrow into your baby soul, and now
it looks back at me with this strange wistfulness, and these great
drops are the unsubmissive tears I locked up in my heart because I
would not be grateful for the good gift God gave me, even while he
took that other one away. O Baby, forgive your mother; and don’t let
her find that she has given you clouds instead of sunshine."

This fear helped Christie to keep her own face cheerful, her own
heart tranquil, her own life as sunny, healthful, and hopeful as she
wished her child’s to be. For this reason she took garden and
green-house into her own hands when Bennet gave them up, and, with a
stout lad to help her, did well this part of the work that David
bequeathed to her. It was a pretty sight to see the mother with her
year-old daughter out among the fresh, green things: the little
golden head bobbing here and there like a stray sunbeam; the baby
voice telling sweet, unintelligible stories to bird and bee and
butterfly; or the small creature fast asleep in a basket under a
rose-bush, swinging in a hammock from a tree, or in Bran’s keeping,
rosy, vigorous, and sweet with sun and air, and the wholesome
influence of a wise and tender love.

While Christie worked she planned her daughter’s future, as mothers
will, and had but one care concerning it. She did not fear poverty,
but the thought of being straitened for the means of educating
little Ruth afflicted her. She meant to teach her to labor heartily
and see no degradation in it, but she could not bear to feel that
her child should be denied the harmless pleasures that make youth
sweet, the opportunities that educate, the society that ripens
character and gives a rank which money cannot buy. A little sum to
put away for Baby, safe from all risk, ready to draw from as each
need came, and sacredly devoted to this end, was now Christie’s sole
ambition.

With this purpose at her heart, she watched her fruit and nursed
her flowers; found no task too hard, no sun too hot, no weed too
unconquerable; and soon the garden David planted when his life
seemed barren, yielded lovely harvests to swell his little
daughter’s portion.

One day Christie received a letter from Uncle Enos expressing a wish
to see her if she cared to come so far and "stop a spell." It both
surprised and pleased her, and she resolved to go, glad that the old
man remembered her, and proud to show him the great success of her
life, as she considered Baby.

So she went, was hospitably received by the ancient cousin five
times removed who kept house, and greeted with as much cordiality as
Uncle Enos ever showed to any one. He looked askance at Baby, as if
he had not bargained for the honor of her presence; but he said
nothing, and Christie wisely refrained from mentioning that Ruth was
the most remarkable child ever born.

She soon felt at home, and went about the old house visiting
familiar nooks with the bitter, sweet satisfaction of such returns.
It was sad to miss Aunt Betsey in the big kitchen, strange to see
Uncle Enos sit all day in his arm-chair too helpless now to plod
about the farm and carry terror to the souls of those who served
him. He was still a crabbed, gruff, old man; but the narrow, hard,
old heart was a little softer than it used to be; and he sometimes
betrayed the longing for his kindred that the aged often feel when
infirmity makes them desire tenderer props than any they can hire.

Christie saw this wish, and tried to gratify it with a dutiful
affection which could not fail to win its way. Baby unconsciously
lent a hand, for Uncle Enos could not long withstand the sweet
enticements of this little kinswoman. He did not own the conquest in
words, but was seen to cuddle his small captivator in private;
allowed all sorts of liberties with his spectacles, his pockets, and
bald pate; and never seemed more comfortable than when she
confiscated his newspaper, and sitting on his knee read it to him in
a pretty language of her own.

"She’s a good little gal; looks consid’able like you; but you warn’t
never such a quiet puss as she is," he said one day, as the child
was toddling about the room with an old doll of her mother’s lately
disinterred from its tomb in the garret.

"She is like her father in that. But I get quieter as I grow old,
uncle," answered Christie, who sat sewing near him.

"You be growing old, that’s a fact; but somehow it’s kind of
becomin’. I never thought you’d be so much of a lady, and look so
well after all you’ve ben through," added Uncle Enos, vainly trying
to discover what made Christie’s manners so agreeable in spite of
her plain dress, and her face so pleasant in spite of the gray hair
at her temples and the lines about her mouth.

It grew still pleasanter to see as she smiled and looked up at him
with the soft yet bright expression that always made him think of
her mother.

"I’m glad you don’t consider me an entire failure, uncle. You know
you predicted it. But though I have gone through a good deal, I
don’t regret my attempt, and when I look at Pansy I feel as if I’d
made a grand success."

"You haven’t made much money, I guess. If you don’t mind tellin’,
what have you got to live on?" asked the old man, unwilling to
acknowledge any life a success, if dollars and cents were left out
of it.

"Only David’s pension and what I can make by my garden."

"The old lady has to have some on’t, don’t she?" "She has a little
money of her own; but I see that she and Letty have two-thirds of
all I make."

"That ain’t a fair bargain if you do all the work." "Ah, but we
don’t make bargains, sir: we work for one another and share every
thing together."

"So like women!" grumbled Uncle Enos, longing to see that "the
property was fixed up square."

"SHE’S A GOOD LITTLE GAL! LOOKS CONSID’ABLE LIKE YOU."

"How are you goin’ to eddicate the little gal? I s’pose you think as
much of culter and so on as ever you did," he presently added with a
gruff laugh.

"More," answered Christie, smiling too, as she remembered the old
quarrels. "I shall earn the money, sir. If the garden fails I can
teach, nurse, sew, write, cook even, for I’ve half a dozen useful
accomplishments at my fingers’ ends, thanks to the education you and
dear Aunt Betsey gave me, and I may have to use them all for Pansy’s
sake."

Pleased by the compliment, yet a little conscience-stricken at the
small share he deserved of it, Uncle Enos sat rubbing up his glasses
a minute, before he led to the subject he had in his mind.

"Ef you fall sick or die, what then?"

"I’ve thought of that," and Christie caught up the child as if her
love could keep even death at bay. But Pansy soon struggled down
again, for the dirty-faced doll was taking a walk and could not be
detained. "If I am taken from her, then my little girl must do as
her mother did. God has orphans in His special care, and He won’t
forget her I am sure."

Uncle Enos had a coughing spell just then; and, when he got over it,
he said with an effort, for even to talk of giving away his
substance cost him a pang:

"I’m gettin’ into years now, and it’s about time I fixed up matters
in case I’m took suddin’. I always meant to give you a little
suthing, but as you didn’t ask for’t, I took good care on ‘t, and it
ain’t none the worse for waitin’ a spell. I jest speak on’t, so you
needn’t be anxious about the little gal. It ain’t much, but it will
make things easy I reckon."

"You are very kind, uncle; and I am more grateful than I can tell. I
don’t want a penny for myself, but I should love to know that my
daughter was to have an easier life than mine."

"I s’pose you thought of that when you come so quick?" said the old
man, with a suspicious look, that made Christie’s eyes kindle as
they used to years ago, but she answered honestly:

"I did think of it and hope it, yet I should have come quicker if
you had been in the poor-house."

Neither spoke for a minute; for, in spite of generosity and
gratitude, the two natures struck fire when they met as inevitably
as flint and steel.

"What’s your opinion of missionaries," asked Uncle Enos, after a
spell of meditation.

"If I had any money to leave them, I should bequeath it to those who
help the heathen here at home, and should let the innocent Feejee
Islanders worship their idols a little longer in benighted peace,"
answered Christie, in her usual decided way.

"That’s my idee exactly; but it’s uncommon hard to settle which of
them that stays at home you’ll trust your money to. You see Betsey
was always pesterin’ me to give to charity things; but I told her it
was better to save up and give it in a handsome lump that looked
well, and was a credit to you. When she was dyin’ she reminded me
on’t, and I promised I’d do suthing before I follered. I’ve been
turnin’ on’t over in my mind for a number of months, and I don’t
seem to find any thing that’s jest right. You’ve ben round among the
charity folks lately accordin’ to your tell, now what would you do
if you had a tidy little sum to dispose on?"

"Help the Freed people."

The answer came so quick that it nearly took the old gentleman’s
breath away, and he looked at his niece with his mouth open after an
involuntary, "Sho!" had escaped him.

"David helped give them their liberty, and I would so gladly help
them to enjoy it!" cried Christie, all the old enthusiasm blazing
up, but with a clearer, steadier flame than in the days when she
dreamed splendid dreams by the kitchen fire.

"Well, no, that wouldn’t meet my views. What else is there?" asked
the old man quite unwarmed by her benevolent ardor.

"Wounded soldiers, destitute children, ill-paid women, young people
struggling for independence, homes, hospitals, schools, churches,
and God’s charity all over the world."

"That’s the pesky part on ‘t: there’s such a lot to choose from; I
don’t know much about any of ’em," began Uncle Enos, looking like a
perplexed raven with a treasure which it cannot decide where to
hide.

"Whose fault is that, sir?"

The question hit the old man full in the conscience, and he winced,
remembering how many of Betsey’s charitable impulses he had nipped
in the bud, and now all the accumulated alms she would have been so
glad to scatter weighed upon him heavily. He rubbed his bald head
with a yellow bandana, and moved uneasily in his chair, as if he
wanted to get up and finish the neglected job that made his
helplessness so burdensome.

"I’ll ponder on ‘t a spell, and make up my mind," was all he said,
and never renewed the subject again.

But he had very little time to ponder, and he never did make up his
mind; for a few months after Christie’s long visit ended, Uncle Enos
"was took suddin’," and left all he had to her.

Not an immense fortune, but far larger than she expected, and great
was her anxiety to use wisely this unlooked-for benefaction. She was
very grateful, but she kept nothing for herself, feeling that
David’s pension was enough, and preferring the small sum he earned
so dearly to the thousands the old man had hoarded up for years. A
good portion was put by for Ruth, something for "mother and Letty"
that want might never touch them, and the rest she kept for David’s
work, believing that, so spent, the money would be blest.

 

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