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Chapter 6 – Beth Finds The Palace Beautiful

Louisa May AlcottJun 22, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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The big house did prove a Palace Beautiful, though it took
some time for all to get in, and Beth found it very hard to pass
the lions. Old Mr. Laurence was the biggest one, but after he
had called, said something funny or kind to each one of the girls,
and talked over old times with their mother, nobody felt much
afraid of him, except timid Beth. The other lion was the fact that
they were poor and Laurie rich, for this made them shy of accepting
favors which they could not return. But, after a while, they found
that he considered them the benefactors, and could not do enough to
show how grateful he was for Mrs. March’s motherly welcome, their
cheerful society, and the comfort he took in that humble home of
theirs. So they soon forgot their pride and interchanged kindnesses
without stopping to think which was the greater.

All sorts of pleasant things happened about that time, for the
new friendship flourished like grass in spring. Every one liked
Laurie, and he privately informed his tutor that "the Marches were
regularly splendid girls." With the delightful enthusiasm of youth,
they took the solitary boy into their midst and made much of him,
and he found something very charming in the innocent companionship
of these simple-hearted girls. Never having known mother or sisters,
he was quick to feel the influences they brought about him, and
their busy, lively ways made him ashamed of the indolent life he led.
He was tired of books, and found people so interesting now that Mr.
Brooke was obliged to make very unsatisfactory reports, for Laurie
was always playing truant and running over to the Marches’.

"Never mind, let him take a holiday, and make it up afterward,"
said the old gentleman. "The good lady next door says he is studying
too hard and needs young society, amusement, and exercise. I suspect
she is right, and that I’ve been coddling the fellow as if I’d been
his grandmother. Let him do what he likes, as long as he is happy.
He can’t get into mischief in that little nunnery over there, and
Mrs. March is doing more for him than we can."

What good times they had, to be sure. Such plays and tableaux,
such sleigh rides and skating frolics, such pleasant evenings in
the old parlor, and now and then such gay little parties at the
great house. Meg could walk in the conservatory whenever she liked
and revel in bouquets, Jo browsed over the new library voraciously,
and convulsed the old gentleman with her criticisms, Amy copied
pictures and enjoyed beauty to her heart’s content, and Laurie
played ‘lord of the manor’ in the most delightful style.

But Beth, though yearning for the grand piano, could not
pluck up courage to go to the ‘Mansion of Bliss’, as Meg called
it. She went once with Jo, but the old gentleman, not being
aware of her infirmity, stared at her so hard from under his
heavy eyebrows, and said "Hey!" so loud, that he frightened her
so much her ‘feet chattered on the floor’, she never told her
mother, and she ran away, declaring she would never go there
any more, not even for the dear piano. No persuasions or
enticements could overcome her fear, till, the fact coming to
Mr. Laurence’s ear in some mysterious way, he set about mending
matters. During one of the brief calls he made, he artfully
led the conversation to music, and talked away about great
singers whom he had seen, fine organs he had heard, and told
such charming anecdotes that Beth found it impossible to stay
in her distant corner, but crept nearer and nearer, as if
fascinated. At the back of his chair she stopped and stood
listening, with her great eyes wide open and her cheeks red
with excitement of this unusual performance. Taking no more
notice of her than if she had been a fly, Mr. Laurence talked on
about Laurie’s lessons and teachers. And presently, as if the
idea had just occurred to him, he said to Mrs. March . . .

"The boy neglects his music now, and I’m glad of it, for
he was getting too fond of it. But the piano suffers for want
of use. Wouldn’t some of your girls like to run over, and
practice on it now and then, just to keep it in tune, you know,
ma’am?"

Beth took a step forward, and pressed her hands tightly
together to keep from clapping them, for this was an irresistible
temptation, and the thought of practicing on that splendid
instrument quite took her breath away. Before Mrs. March could
reply, Mr. Laurence went on with an odd little nod and smile . . .

"They needn’t see or speak to anyone, but run in at any time.
For I’m shut up in my study at the other end of the house, Laurie
is out a great deal, and the servants are never near the drawing
room after nine o’clock."

Here he rose, as if going, and Beth made up her mind to speak,
for that last arrangement left nothing to be desired. "Please, tell
the young ladies what I say, and if they don’t care to come, why,
never mind." Here a little hand slipped into his, and Beth looked
up at him with a face full of gratitude, as she said, in her earnest
yet timid way . . .

"Oh sir, they do care, very very much!"

"Are you the musical girl?" he asked, without any startling
"Hey!" as he looked down at her very kindly.

"I’m Beth. I love it dearly, and I’ll come, if you are quite
sure nobody will hear me, and be disturbed," she added, fearing to
be rude, and trembling at her own boldness as she spoke.

"Not a soul, my dear. The house is empty half the day, so
come and drum away as much as you like, and I shall be obliged to
you."

"How kind you are, sir!"

Beth blushed like a rose under the friendly look he wore, but she
was not frightened now, and gave the hand a grateful squeeze because
she had no words to thank him for the precious gift he had given her.
The old gentleman softly stroked the hair off her forehead, and,
stooping down, he kissed her, saying, in a tone few people ever heard
. . .

"I had a little girl once, with eyes like these. God bless you,
my dear! Good day, madam." And away he went, in a great hurry.

Beth had a rapture with her mother, and then rushed up to
impart the glorious news to her family of invalids, as the girls
were not home. How blithely she sang that evening, and how they
all laughed at her because she woke Amy in the night by playing
the piano on her face in her sleep. Next day, having seen both
the old and young gentleman out of the house, Beth, after two or
three retreats, fairly got in at the side door, and made her way
as noiselessly as any mouse to the drawing room where her idol
stood. Quite by accident, of course, some pretty, easy music lay
on the piano, and with trembling fingers and frequent stops to
listen and look about, Beth at last touched the great instrument,
and straightway forgot her fear, herself, and everything else but
the unspeakable delight which the music gave her, for it was like
the voice of a beloved friend.

She stayed till Hannah came to take her home to dinner, but she
had no appetite, and could only sit and smile upon everyone in a
general state of beatitude.

After that, the little brown hood slipped through the hedge
nearly every day, and the great drawing room was haunted by a tuneful
spirit that came and went unseen. She never knew that Mr. Laurence
opened his study door to hear the old-fashioned airs he liked. She
never saw Laurie mount guard in the hall to warn the servants away.
She never suspected that the exercise books and new songs which she
found in the rack were put there for her especial benefit, and when
he talked to her about music at home, she only thought how kind he
was to tell things that helped her so much. So she enjoyed herself
heartily, and found, what isn’t always the case, that her granted
wish was all she had hoped. Perhaps it was because she was so grateful
for this blessing that a greater was given her. At any rate she
deserved both.

"Mother, I’m going to work Mr. Laurence a pair of slippers. He
is so kind to me, I must thank him, and I don’t know any other way.
Can I do it?" asked Beth, a few weeks after that eventful call of his.

"Yes, dear. It will please him very much, and be a nice way of
thanking him. The girls will help you about them, and I will pay for
the making up," replied Mrs. March, who took peculiar pleasure in
granting Beth’s requests because she so seldom asked anything for
herself.

After many serious discussions with Meg and Jo, the pattern was
chosen, the materials bought, and the slippers begun. A cluster of
grave yet cheerful pansies on a deeper purple ground was pronounced
very appropriate and pretty, and Beth worked away early and late, with
occasional lifts over hard parts. She was a nimble little needlewoman,
and they were finished before anyone got tired of them. Then she wrote
a short, simple note, and with Laurie’s help, got them smuggled onto
the study table one morning before the old gentleman was up.

When this excitement was over, Beth waited to see what would
happen. All day passed and a part of the next before any
acknowledgement arrived, and she was beginning to fear she had offended
her crochety friend. On the afternoon of the second day, she went out
to do an errand, and give poor Joanna, the invalid doll, her daily
exercise. As she came up the street, on her return, she saw three,
yes, four heads popping in and out of the parlor windows, and the
moment they saw her, several hands were waved, and several joyful
voices screamed . . .

"Here’s a letter from the old gentleman! Come quick, and read it!"

"Oh, Beth, he’s sent you . . ." began Amy, gesticulating with
unseemly energy, but she got no further, for Jo quenched her by
slamming down the window.

Beth hurried on in a flutter of suspense. At the door her
sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession,
all pointing and all saying at once, "Look there! Look there!" Beth
did look, and turned pale with delight and surprise, for there stood
a little cabinet piano, with a letter lying on the glossy lid, directed
like a sign board to "Miss Elizabeth March."

"For me?" gasped Beth, holding onto Jo and feeling as if she
should tumble down, it was such an overwhelming thing altogether.

"Yes, all for you, my precious! Isn’t it splendid of him? Don’t
you think he’s the dearest old man in the world? Here’s the key in
the letter. We didn’t open it, but we are dying to know what he says,"
cried Jo, hugging her sister and offering the note.

"You read it! I can’t, I feel so queer! Oh, it is too lovely!"
and Beth hid her face in Jo’s apron, quite upset by her present.

Jo opened the paper and began to laugh, for the first words she
saw were . . .

"Miss March:
"Dear Madam – "

"How nice it sounds! I wish someone would write to me so!" said
Amy, who thought the old-fashioned address very elegant.

"’I have had many pairs of slippers in my life, but I never had
any that suited me so well as yours,’" continues Jo. "’Heartsease is
my favorite flower, and these will always remind me of the gentle
giver. I like to pay my debts, so I know you will allow ‘the old
gentleman’ to send you something which once belonged to the little
grand daughter he lost. With hearty thanks and best wishes, I remain
"’Your grateful friend and humble servant,
‘JAMES LAURENCE’."

"There, Beth, that’s an honor to be proud of, I’m sure! Laurie
told me how fond Mr. Laurence used to be of the child who died, and
how he kept all her little things carefully. Just think, he’s given
you her piano. That comes of having big blue eyes and loving music,"
said Jo, trying to soothe Beth, who trembled and looked more excited
than she had ever been before.

"See the cunning brackets to hold candles, and the nice green
silk, puckered up, with a gold rose in the middle, and the pretty
rack and stool, all complete," added Meg, opening the instrument
and displaying its beauties.

"’Your humble servant, James Laurence’. Only think of his
writing that to you. I’ll tell the girls. They’ll think it’s
splendid," said Amy, much impressed by the note.

"Try it, honey. Let’s hear the sound of the baby pianny,"
said Hannah, who always took a share in the family joys and sorrows.

So Beth tried it, and everyone pronounced it the most remarkable
piano ever heard. It had evidently been newly tuned and put in apple-
pie order, but, perfect as it was, I think the real charm lay in the
happiest of all happy faces which leaned over it, as Beth lovingly
touched the beautiful black and white keys and pressed the bright
pedals.

"You’ll have to go and thank him," said Jo, by way of a joke,
for the idea of the child’s really going never entered her head.

"Yes, I mean to. I guess I’ll go now, before I get frightened
thinking about it." And, to the utter amazement of the assembled
family, Beth walked deliberately down the garden, through the
hedge, and in at the Laurences’ door.

"Well, I wish I may die if it ain’t the queerest thing I ever
see! The pianny has turned her head! She’d never have gone in
her right mind," cried Hannah, staring after her, while the girls
were rendered quite speechless by the miracle.

They would have been still more amazed if they had seen what
Beth did afterward. If you will believe me, she went and knocked
at the study door before she gave herself time to think, and when
a gruff voice called out, "come in!" she did go in, right up to
Mr. Laurence, who looked quite taken aback, and held out her hand,
saying, with only a small quaver in her voice, "I came to thank you,
sir, for . . ." But she didn’t finish, for he looked so friendly that
she forgot her speech and, only remembering that he had lost the
little girl he loved, she put both arms round his neck and kissed
him.

If the roof of the house had suddenly flown off, the old
gentleman wouldn’t have been more astonished. But he liked it.
Oh, dear, yes, he liked it amazingly! And was so touched and
pleased by that confiding little kiss that all his crustiness
vanished, and he just set her on his knee, and laid his
wrinkled cheek against her rosy one, feeling as if he had got his
own little granddaughter back again. Beth ceased to fear him
from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if
she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and
gratitude can conquer pride. When she went home, he walked with
her to her own gate, shook hands cordially, and touched his hat
as he marched back again, looking very stately and erect, like
a handsome, soldierly old gentleman, as he was.

When the girls saw that performance, Jo began to dance a jig,
by way of expressing her satisfaction, Amy nearly fell out of the
window in her surprise, and Meg exclaimed, with up-lifted hands,
"Well, I do believe the world is coming to an end."

 

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