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Chapter 26 – Artistic Attempts

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

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It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent
and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was
learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking
enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with
youthful audacity. For a long time there was a lull in the ‘mud-pie’
business, and she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing,
in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork
proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused
pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker-sketching.
While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a
conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at
all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency,
red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed
without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of
fire. Raphael’s face was found boldly executed on the underside of
the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A
chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts
to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time.

From fire to oil was a natural transition for burned fingers,
and Amy fell to painting with undiminished ardor. An artist friend
fitted her out with his castoff palettes, brushes, and colors, and
she daubed away, producing pastoral and marine views such as were
never seen on land or sea. Her monstrosities in the way of cattle
would have taken prizes at an agricultural fair, and the perilous
pitching of her vessels would have produced seasickness in the most
nautical observer, if the utter disregard to all known rules of
shipbuilding and rigging had not convulsed him with laughter at the
first glance. Swarthy boys and dark-eyed Madonnas, staring at you
from one corner of the studio, suggested Murillo; oily brown shadows
of faces with a lurid streak in the wrong place, meant Rembrandt;
buxom ladies and dropiscal infants, Rubens; and Turner appeared in
tempests of blue thunder, orange lightning, brown rain, and purple
clouds, with a tomato-colored splash in the middle, which might be
the sun or a bouy, a sailor’s shirt or a king’s robe, as the
spectator pleased.

Charcoal portraits came next, and the entire family hung in a
row, looking as wild and crocky as if just evoked from a coalbin.
Softened into crayon sketches, they did better, for the likenesses
were good, and Amy’s hair, Jo’s nose, Meg’s mouth, and Laurie’s
eyes were pronounced ‘wonderfully fine’. A return to clay and
plaster followed, and ghostly casts of her acquaintances haunted
corners of the house, or tumbled off closet shelves onto people’s
heads. Children were enticed in as models, till their incoherent
accounts of her mysterious doings caused Miss Amy to be regarded in
the light of a young ogress. Her efforts in this line, however,
were brought to an abrupt close by an untoward accident, which
quenched her ardor. Other models failing her for a time, she
undertook to cast her own pretty foot, and the family were one day
alarmed by an unearthly bumping and screaming and running to the rescue,
found the young enthusiast hopping wildly about the shed with her
foot held fast in a pan full of plaster, which had hardened with
unexpected rapidity. With much difficulty and some danger she was
dug out, for Jo was so overcome with laughter while she excavated
that her knife went too far, cut the poor foot, and left a lasting
memorial of one artistic attempt, at least.

After this Amy subsided, till a mania for sketching from nature set
her to haunting river, field, and wood, for picturesque studies, and
sighing for ruins to copy. She caught endless colds sitting on damp
grass to book ‘a delicious bit’, composed of a stone, a stump, one
mushroom, and a broken mullein stalk, or ‘a heavenly mass of
clouds’, that looked like a choice display of featherbeds when done.
She sacrificed her complexion floating on the river in the midsummer
sun to study light and shade, and got a wrinkle over her nose trying
after ‘points of sight’, or whatever the squint-and-string
performance is called.

If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy
had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite
of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing
that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

She was learning, doing, and enjoying other things, meanwhile,
for she had resolved to be an attractive and accomplished woman,
even if she never became a great artist. Here she succeeded better,
for she was one of those happily created beings who please without
effort, make friends everywhere, and take life so gracefully and
easily that less fortunate souls are tempted to believe that such
are born under a lucky star. Everybody liked her, for among her
good gifts was tact. She had an instinctive sense of what was
pleasing and proper, always said the right thing to the right person,
did just what suited the time and place, and was so self-possessed
that her sisters used to say, "If Amy went to court without any
rehearsal beforehand, she’d know exactly what to do."

One of her weaknesses was a desire to move in ‘our best society’,
without being quite sure what the best really was. Money, position,
fashionable accomplishments, and elegant manners were most desirable
things in her eyes, and she liked to associate with those who
possessed them, often mistaking the false for the true, and admiring
what was not admirable. Never forgetting that by birth she was a
gentlewoman, she cultivated her aristocratic tastes and feelings, so
that when the opportunity came she might be ready to take the place
from which poverty now excluded her.

"My lady," as her friends called her, sincerely desired to be
a genuine lady, and was so at heart, but had yet to learn that money
cannot buy refinement of nature, that rank does not always confer
nobility, and that true breeding makes itself felt in spite of
external drawbacks.

"I want to ask a favor of you, Mamma," Amy said, coming in
with an important air one day.

"Well, little girl, what is it?" replied her mother, in whose
eyes the stately young lady still remained ‘the baby’.

"Our drawing class breaks up next week, and before the girls
separate for the summer, I want to ask them out here for a day. They
are wild to see the river, sketch the broken bridge, and copy some
of the things they admire in my book. They have been very kind to
me in many ways, and I am grateful, for they are all rich and I know
I am poor, yet they never made any difference."

"Why should they?" and Mrs. March put the question with what
the girls called her ‘Maria Theresa air’.

"You know as well as I that it does make a difference with
nearly everyone, so don’t ruffle up like a dear, motherly hen, when
your chickens get pecked by smarter birds. The ugly duckling turned
out a swan, you know." and Amy smiled without bitterness, for she
possessed a happy temper and hopeful spirit.

Mrs. March laughed, and smoothed down her maternal pride as
she asked, "Well, my swan, what is your plan?"

"I should like to ask the girls out to lunch next week, to take
them for a drive to the places they want to see, a row on the river,
perhaps, and make a little artistic fete for them."

"That looks feasible. What do you want for lunch? Cake,
sandwiches, fruit, and coffee will be all that is necessary, I
suppose?"

"Oh, dear, no! We must have cold tongue and chicken, French
chocolate and ice cream, besides. The girls are used to such things,
and I want my lunch to be proper and elegant, though I do work for
my living."

"How many young ladies are there?" asked her mother, beginning
to look sober.

"Twelve or fourteen in the class, but I dare say they won’t all come."

"Bless me, child, you will have to charter an omnibus to carry
them about."

"Why, Mother, how can you think of such a thing? Not more than
six or eight will probably come, so I shall hire a beach wagon and
borrow Mr. Laurence’s cherry-bounce." (Hannah’s pronunciation of
char-a-banc.)

"All of this will be expensive, Amy."

"Not very. I’ve calculated the cost, and I’ll pay for it myself."

"Don’t you think, dear, that as these girls are used to such
things, and the best we can do will be nothing new, that some simpler
plan would be pleasanter to them, as a change if nothing more, and
much better for us than buying or borrowing what we don’t need, and
attempting a style not in keeping with our circumstances?"

"If I can’t have it as I like, I don’t care to have it at all.
I know that I can carry it out perfectly well, if you and the girls
will help a little, and I don’t see why I can’t if I’m willing to pay
for it," said Amy, with the decision which opposition was apt to
change into obstinacy.

Mrs. March knew that experience was an excellent teacher, and
when it was possible she left her children to learn alone the lessons
which she would gladly have made easier, if they had not objected to
taking advice as much as they did salts and senna.

"Very well, Amy, if your heart is set upon it, and you see your
way through without too great an outlay of money, time, and temper,
I’ll say no more. Talk it over with the girls, and whichever way
you decide, I’ll do my best to help you."

"Thanks, Mother, you are always so kind." and away went Amy to
lay her plan before her sisters.

Meg agreed at once, and promised her aid, gladly offering
anything she possessed, from her little house itself to her very
best saltspoons. But Jo frowned upon the whole project and would
have nothing to do with it at first.

"Why in the world should you spend your money, worry your family,
and turn the house upside down for a parcel of girls who don’t care a
sixpence for you? I thought you had too much pride and sense to
truckle to any mortal woman just because she wears French boots and
rides in a coupe," said Jo, who, being called from the tragic climax
of her novel, was not in the best mood for social enterprises.

"I don’t truckle, and I hate being patronized as much as you do!"
returned Amy indignantly, for the two still jangled when such
questions arose. "The girls do care for me, and I for them, and
there’s a great deal of kindness and sense and talent among them, in
spite of what you call fashionable nonsense. You don’t care to make
people like you, to go into good society, and cultivate your manners
and tastes. I do, and I mean to make the most of every chance that
comes. You can go through the world with your elbows out and your
nose in the air, and call it independence, if you like. That’s not
my way."

When Amy had whetted her tongue and freed her mind she usually got
the best of it, for she seldom failed to have common sense on her
side, while Jo carried her love of liberty and hate of
conventionalities to such an unlimited extent that she naturally
found herself worsted in an argument. Amy’s definition of Jo’s idea
of independence was such a good hit that both burst out laughing,
and the discussion took a more amiable turn. Much against her will,
Jo at length consented to sacrifice a day to Mrs. Grundy, and help
her sister through what she regarded as ‘a nonsensical business’.

The invitations were sent, nearly all accepted, and the following
Monday was set apart for the grand event. Hannah was out of humor
because her week’s work was deranged, and prophesied that "ef the
washin’ and ironin’ warn’t done reg’lar, nothin’ would go well
anywheres". This hitch in the mainspring of the domestic machinery
had a bad effect upon the whole concern, but Amy’s motto was ‘Nil
desperandum’, and having made up her mind what to do, she proceeded
to do it in spite of all obstacles. To begin with, Hannah’s cooking
didn’t turn out well. The chicken was tough, the tongue too salty,
and the chocolate wouldn’t froth properly. Then the cake and ice cost
more than Amy expected, so did the wagon, and various other expenses,
which seemed trifling at the outset, counted up rather alarmingly
afterward. Beth got a cold and took to her bed. Meg had an unusual
number of callers to keep her at home, and Jo was in such a divided
state of mind that her breakages, accidents, and mistakes were
uncommonly numerous, serious, and trying.

If it was not fair on Monday, the young ladies were to come on
Tuesday, an arrangement which aggravated Jo and Hannah to the last
degree. On Monday morning the weather was in that undecided state
which is more exasperating than a steady pour. It drizzled a little,
shone a little, blew a little, and didn’t make up its mind till it
was too late for anyone else to make up theirs. Amy was up at dawn,
hustling people out of their beds and through their breakfasts, that
the house might be got in order. The parlor struck her as looking
uncommonly shabby, but without stopping to sigh for what she had not,
she skillfully made the best of what she had, arranging chairs over
the worn places in the carpet, covering stains on the walls with
homemade statuary, which gave an artistic air to the room, as did the
lovely vases of flowers Jo scattered about.

The lunch looked charming, and as she surveyed it, she sincerely
hoped it would taste well, and that the borrowed glass, china, and
silver would get safely home again. The carriages were promised, Meg
and Mother were all ready to do the honors, Beth was able to help
Hannah behind the scenes, Jo had engaged to be as lively and amiable
as an absent mind, and aching head, and a very decided disapproval of
everybody and everything would allow, and as she wearily dressed, Amy
cheered herself with anticipations of the happy moment when, lunch
safely over, she should drive away with her friends for an afternoon
of artistic delights, for the ‘cherry bounce’ and the broken bridge
were her strong points.

Then came the hours of suspense, during which she vibrated from
parlor to porch, while public opinion varied like the weathercock. A
smart shower at eleven had evidently quenched the enthusiasm of the
young ladies who were to arrive at twelve, for nobody came, and at two
the exhausted family sat down in a blaze of sunshine to consume the
perishable portions of the feast, that nothing might be lost.

"No doubt about the weather today, they will certainly come, so
we must fly round and be ready for them," said Amy, as the sun woke
her next morning. She spoke briskly, but in her secret soul she wished
she had said nothing about Tuesday, for her interest like her cake was
getting a little stale.

"I can’t get any lobsters, so you will have to do without salad
today," said Mr. March, coming in half an hour later, with an
expression of placid despair.

"Use the chicken then, the toughness won’t matter in a salad,"
advised his wife.

"Hannah left it on the kitchen table a minute, and the kittens got at
it. I’m very sorry, Amy," added Beth, who was still a patroness of cats.

"Then I must have a lobster, for tongue alone won’t do," said Amy
decidedly.

"Shall I rush into town and demand one?" asked Jo, with the
magnanimity of a martyr.

"You’d come bringing it home under your arm without any paper,
just to try me. I’ll go myself," answered Amy, whose temper was
beginning to fail.

Shrouded in a thick veil and armed with a genteel traveling basket,
she departed, feeling that a cool drive would soothe her ruffled spirit
and fit her for the labors of the day. After some delay, the object of
her desire was procured, likewise a bottle of dressing to prevent
further loss of time at home, and off she drove again, well pleased
with her own forethought.

As the omnibus contained only one other passenger, a sleepy old
lady, Amy pocketed her veil and beguiled the tedium of the way by
trying to find out where all her money had gone to. So busy was she
with her card full of refractory figures that she did not observe a
newcomer, who entered without stopping the vehicle, till a masculine
voice said, "Good morning, Miss March," and, looking up, she beheld
one of Laurie’s most elegant college friends. Fervently hoping that
he would get out before she did, Amy utterly ignored the basket at her
feet, and congratulating herself that she had on her new traveling
dress, returned the young man’s greeting with her usual suavity and
spirit.

They got on excellently, for Amy’s chief care was soon set at
rest by learning that the gentleman would leave first, and she was
chatting away in a peculiarly lofty strain, when the old lady got out.
In stumbling to the door, she upset the basket, and – oh horror! – the
lobster, in all its vulgar size and brilliancy, was revealed to the
highborn eyes of a Tudor!

"By Jove, she’s forgotten her dinner!" cried the unconscious
youth, poking the scarlet monster into its place with his cane, and
preparing to hand out the basket after the old lady.

"Please don’t – it’s – it’s mine," murmured Amy, with a face nearly
as red as her fish.

"Oh, really, I beg pardon. It’s an uncommonly fine one, isn’t it?"
said Tudor, with great presence of mind, and an air of sober interest
that did credit to his breeding.

Amy recovered herself in a breath, set her basket boldly on the
seat, and said, laughing, "Don’t you wish you were to have some of the
salad he’s going to make, and to see the charming young ladies who are
to eat it?"

Now that was tact, for two of the ruling foibles of the masculine
mind were touched. The lobster was instantly surrounded by a halo of
pleasing reminiscences, and curiosity about ‘the charming young ladies’
diverted his mind from the comical mishap.

"I suppose he’ll laugh and joke over it with Laurie, but I shan’t
see them, that’s a comfort," thought Amy, as Tudor bowed and departed.

She did not mention this meeting at home (though she discovered
that, thanks to the upset, her new dress was much damaged by the
rivulets of dressing that meandered down the skirt), but went through
with the preparations which now seemed more irksome than before, and
at twelve o’clock all was ready again. Feeling that the neighbors
were interested in her movements, she wished to efface the memory of
yesterday’s failure by a grand success today, so she ordered the
‘cherry bounce’, and drove away in state to meet and escort her guests
to the banquet.

"There’s the rumble, they’re coming! I’ll go onto the porch and
meet them. It looks hospitable, and I want the poor child to have a
good time after all her trouble," said Mrs. March, suiting the action
to the word. But after one glance, she retired, with an indescribable
expression, for looking quite lost in the big carriage, sat Amy and
one young lady.

"Run, Beth, and help Hannah clear half the things off the table.
It will be too absurd to put a luncheon for twelve before a single
girl," cried Jo, hurrying away to the lower regions, too excited to
stop even for a laugh.

In came Amy, quite calm and delightfully cordial to the one
guest who had kept her promise. The rest of the family, being of
a dramatic turn, played their parts equally well, and Miss Eliott
found them a most hilarious set, for it was impossible to control
entirely the merriment which possessed them. The remodeled lunch
being gaily partaken of, the studio and garden visited, and art
discussed with enthusiasm, Amy ordered a buggy (alas for the elegant
cherry-bounce), and drove her friend quietly about the neighborhood
till sunset, when ‘the party went out’.

As she came walking in, looking very tired but as composed as
ever, she observed that every vestige of the unfortunate fete had
disappeared, except a suspicious pucker about the corners of Jo’s
mouth.

"You’ve had a loverly afternoon for your drive, dear," said
her mother, as respectfully as if the whole twelve had come.

"Miss Eliott is a very sweet girl, and seemed to enjoy herself,
I thought," observed Beth, with unusual warmth.

"Could you spare me some of your cake? I really need some, I
have so much company, and I can’t make such delicious stuff as yours,"
asked Meg soberly.

"Take it all. I’m the only one here who likes sweet things, and
it will mold before I can dispose of it," answered Amy, thinking with
a sigh of the generous store she had laid in for such an end as this.

"It’s a pity Laurie isn’t here to help us," began Jo, as they sat
down to ice cream and salad for the second time in two days.

A warning look from her mother checked any further remarks, and
the whole family ate in heroic silence, till Mr. March mildly observed,
"salad was one of the favorite dishes of the ancients, and Evelyn . . ."
Here a general explosion of laughter cut short the ‘history of salads’,
to the great surprise of the learned gentleman.

"Bundle everything into a basket and send it to the Hummels. Germans
like messes. I’m sick of the sight of this, and there’s no reason you
should all die of a surfeit because I’ve been a fool," cried Amy, wiping
her eyes.

"I thought I should have died when I saw you two girls rattling
about in the what-you-call-it, like two little kernels in a very big
nutshell, and Mother waiting in state to receive the throng," sighed
Jo, quite spent with laughter.

"I’m very sorry you were disappointed, dear, but we all did our
best to satisfy you," said Mrs. March, in a tone full of motherly
regret.

"I am satisfied. I’ve done what I undertook, and it’s not my
fault that it failed. I comfort myself with that," said Amy with a
little quiver in her voice. "I thank you all very much for helping
me, and I’ll thank you still more if you won’t allude to it for a
month, at least."

No one did for several months, but the word ‘fete’ always produced
a general smile, and Laurie’s birthday gift to Amy was a tiny
coral lobster in the shape of a charm for her watch guard.

 

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