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Chapter 38 – On The Shelf

Louisa May AlcottJun 23, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are
married, when ‘Vive la liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America,
as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence,
and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons
usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into a
seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means
as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put
upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most
of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day,
"I’m as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because
I’m married."

Not being a belle or even a fashionable lady, Meg did not
experience this affliction till her babies were a year old,
for in her little world primitive customs prevailed, and she
found herself more admired and beloved than ever.

As she was a womanly little woman, the maternal instinct
was very strong, and she was entirely absorbed in her children,
to the utter exclusion of everything and everybody else. Day
and night she brooded over them with tireless devotion and
anxiety, leaving John to the tender mercies of the help, for
an Irish lady now presided over the kitchen department. Being
a domestic man, John decidedly missed the wifely attentions he
had been accustomed to receive, but as he adored his babies, he
cheerfully relinquished his comfort for a time, supposing with
masculine ignorance that peace would soon be restored. But
three months passed, and there was no return of repose. Meg
looked worn and nervous, the babies absorbed every minute of
her time, the house was neglected, and Kitty, the cook, who took
life ‘aisy’, kept him on short commons. When he went out in
the morning he was bewildered by small commissions for the captive
mamma, if he came gaily in at night, eager to embrace his
family, he was quenched by a "Hush! They are just asleep after
worrying all day." If he proposed a little amusement at home,
"No, it would disturb the babies." If he hinted at a lecture
or a concert, he was answered with a reproachful look, and a
decided – "Leave my children for pleasure, never!" His sleep was
broken by infant wails and visions of a phantom figure pacing
noiselessly to and fro in the watches of the night. His meals
were interrupted by the frequent flight of the presiding genius,
who deserted him, half-helped, if a muffled chirp sounded from
the nest above. And when he read his paper of an evening,
Demi’s colic got into the shipping list and Daisy’s fall affected
the price of stocks, for Mrs. Brooke was only interested in domestic
news.

The poor man was very uncomfortable, for the children had
bereft him of his wife, home was merely a nursery and the perpetual
‘hushing’ made him feel like a brutal intruder whenever
he entered the sacred precincts of Babyland. He bore it very
patiently for six months, and when no signs of amendment appeared,
he did what other paternal exiles do – tried to get a little comfort
elsewhere. Scott had married and gone to housekeeping not
far off, and John fell into the way of running over for an hour
or two of an evening, when his own parlor was empty, and his
own wife singing lullabies that seemed to have no end. Mrs.
Scott was a lively, pretty girl, with nothing to do but be
agreeable, and she performed her mission most successfully. The
parlor was always bright and attractive, the chessboard ready,
the piano in tune, plenty of gay gossip, and a nice little supper
set forth in tempting style.

John would have preferred his own fireside if it had not
been so lonely, but as it was he gratefully took the next best
thing and enjoyed his neighbor’s society.

Meg rather approved of the new arrangement at first, and
found it a relief to know that John was having a good time
instead of dozing in the parlor, or tramping about the house
and waking the children. But by-and-by, when the teething
worry was over and the idols went to sleep at proper hours,
leaving Mamma time to rest, she began to miss John, and find
her workbasket dull company, when he was not sitting opposite
in his old dressing gown, comfortably scorching his slippers
on the fender. She would not ask him to stay at home, but felt
injured because he did not know that she wanted him without
being told, entirely forgetting the many evenings he had waited
for her in vain. She was nervous and worn out with watching
and worry, and in that unreasonable frame of mind which the best
of mothers occasionally experience when domestic cares oppress
them. Want of exercise robs them of cheerfulness, and too much
devotion to that idol of American women, the teapot, makes them
feel as if they were all nerve and no muscle.

"Yes," she would say, looking in the glass, "I’m getting
old and ugly. John doesn’t find me interesting any longer, so
he leaves his faded wife and goes to see his pretty neighbor,
who has no incumbrances. Well, the babies love me, they don’t
care if I am thin and pale and haven’t time to crimp my hair,
they are my comfort, and some day John will see what I’ve
gladly sacrificed for them, won’t he, my precious?"

To which pathetic appeal Daisy would answer with a coo,
or Demi with a crow, and Meg would put by her lamentations for
a maternal revel, which soothed her solitude for the time being.
But the pain increased as politics absorbed John, who was always
running over to discuss interesting points with Scott, quite
unconscious that Meg missed him. Not a word did she say, however,
till her mother found her in tears one day, and insisted
on knowing what the matter was, for Meg’s drooping spirits had
not escaped her observation.

"I wouldn’t tell anyone except you, Mother, but I really
do need advice, for if John goes on much longer I might as well
be widowed," replied Mrs. Brooke, drying her tears on Daisy’s
bib with an injured air.

"Goes on how, my dear?" asked her mother anxiously.

"He’s away all day, and at night when I want to see him,
he is continually going over to the Scotts’. It isn’t fair
that I should have the hardest work, and never any amusement.
Men are very selfish, even the best of them."

"So are women. Don’t blame John till you see where you
are wrong yourself."

"But it can’t be right for him to neglect me."

"Don’t you neglect him?"

"Why, Mother, I thought you’d take my part!"

"So I do, as far as sympathizing goes, but I think the fault
is yours, Meg."

"I don’t see how."

"Let me show you. Did John ever neglect you, as you call it,
while you made it a point to give him your society of an evening,
his only leisure time?"

"No, but I can’t do it now, with two babies to tend."

"I think you could, dear, and I think you ought. May I
speak quite freely, and will you remember that it’s Mother who
blames as well as Mother who sympathizes?"

"Indeed I will! Speak to me as if I were little Meg again.
I often feel as if I needed teaching more than ever since these
babies look to me for everything."

Meg drew her low chair beside her mother’s, and with a little
interruption in either lap, the two women rocked and talked lovingly
together, feeling that the tie of motherhood made them more one
than ever.

"You have only made the mistake that most young wives make – forgotten
your duty to your husband in your love for your children.
A very natural and forgivable mistake, Meg, but one that
had better be remedied before you take to different ways, for
children should draw you nearer than ever, not separate you, as
if they were all yours, and John had nothing to do but support
them. I’ve seen it for some weeks, but have not spoken, feeling
sure it would come right in time."

"I’m afraid it won’t. If I ask him to stay, he’ll think I’m
jealous, and I wouldn’t insult him by such an idea. He doesn’t
see that I want him, and I don’t know how to tell him without
words."

"Make it so pleasant he won’t want to go away. My dear,
he’s longing for his little home, but it isn’t home without you,
and you are always in the nursery."

"Oughtn’t I to be there?"

"Not all the time, too much confinement makes you nervous,
and then you are unfitted for everything. Besides, you owe
something to John as well as to the babies. Don’t neglect husband
for children, don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach
him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours, and
the children need him. Let him feel that he has a part to do, and
he will do it gladly and faithfully, and it will be better for you
all."

"You really think so, Mother?"

"I know it, Meg, for I’ve tried it, and I seldom give advice unless
I’ve proved its practicability. When you and Jo were little, I went
on just as you are, feeling as if I didn’t do my duty unless I
devoted myself wholly to you. Poor Father took to his books, after I
had refused all offers of help, and left me to try my experiment
alone. I struggled along as well as I could, but Jo was too much for
me. I nearly spoiled her by indulgence. You were poorly, and I
worried about you till I fell sick myself. Then Father came to the
rescue, quietly managed everything, and made himself so helpful that
I saw my mistake, and never have been able to got on without him
since. That is the secret of our home happiness. He does not let
business wean him from the little cares and duties that affect us
all, and I try not to let domestic worries destroy my interest in
his pursuits. Each do our part alone in many things, but at home we
work together, always."

"It is so, Mother, and my great wish is to be to my husband
and children what you have been to yours. Show me how, I’ll do
anything you say."

"You always were my docile daughter. Well, dear, if I were
you, I’d let John have more to do with the management of Demi,
for the boy needs training, and it’s none too soon to begin.
Then I’d do what I have often proposed, let Hannah come and
help you. She is a capital nurse, and you may trust the precious
babies to her while you do more housework. You need the exercise,
Hannah would enjoy the rest, and John would find his wife again.
Go out more, keep cheerful as well as busy, for you are the
sunshine-maker of the family, and if you get dismal there is no
fair weather. Then I’d try to take an interest in whatever John
likes – talk with him, let him read to you, exchange ideas, and
help each other in that way. Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox
because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and
educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it
all affects you and yours."

"John is so sensible, I’m afraid he will think I’m stupid if
I ask questions about politics and things."

"I don’t believe he would. Love covers a multitude of sins,
and of whom could you ask more freely than of him? Try it, and
see if he doesn’t find your society far more agreeable than Mrs.
Scott’s suppers."

"I will. Poor John! I’m afraid I have neglected him sadly,
but I thought I was right, and he never said anything."

"He tried not to be selfish, but he has felt rather forlorn,
I fancy. This is just the time, Meg, when young married people
are apt to grow apart, and the very time when they ought to be
most together, for the first tenderness soon wears off, unless
care is taken to preserve it. And no time is so beautiful and
precious to parents as the first years of the little lives
given to them to train. Don’t let John be a stranger to the
babies, for they will do more to keep him safe and happy in
this world of trial and temptation than anything else, and
through them you will learn to know and love one another as
you should. Now, dear, good-by. Think over Mother’s preachment,
act upon it if it seems good, and God bless you all."

Meg did think it over, found it good, and acted upon it,
though the first attempt was not made exactly as she planned
to have it. Of course the children tyrannized over her, and
ruled the house as soon as they found out that kicking and
squalling brought them whatever they wanted. Mamma was an
abject slave to their caprices, but Papa was not so easily
subjugated, and occasionally afflicted his tender spouse by
an attempt at paternal discipline with his obstreperous son.
For Demi inherited a trifle of his sire’s firmness of character,
we won’t call it obstinacy, and when he made up his
little mind to have or to do anything, all the king’s horses and
all the king’s men could not change that pertinacious little
mind. Mamma thought the dear too young to be taught to conquer
his prejudices, but Papa believed that it never was too
soon to learn obedience. So Master Demi early discovered that
when he undertook to ‘wrastle’ with ‘Parpar’, he always got
the worst of it, yet like the Englishman, baby respected the
man who conquered him, and loved the father whose grave "No,
no," was more impressive than all Mamma’s love pats.

A few days after the talk with her mother, Meg resolved
to try a social evening with John, so she ordered a nice
supper, set the parlor in order, dressed herself prettily, and
put the children to bed early, that nothing should interfere
with her experiment. But unfortunately Demi’s most unconquerable
prejudice was against going to bed, and that night he decided
to go on a rampage. So poor Meg sang and rocked,
told stories and tried every sleep-prevoking wile she could
devise, but all in vain, the big eyes wouldn’t shut, and long
after Daisy had gone to byelow, like the chubby little bunch
of good nature she was, naughty Demi lay staring at the light,
with the most discouragingly wide-awake expression of countenance.

"Will Demi lie still like a good boy, while Mamma runs
down and gives poor Papa his tea?" asked Meg, as the hall
door softly closed, and the well-known step went tip-toeing
into the dining room.

"Me has tea!" said Demi, preparing to join in the revel.

"No, but I’ll save you some little cakies for breakfast,
if you’ll go bye-bye like Daisy. Will you, lovey?"

"Iss!" and Demi shut his eyes tight, as if to catch sleep
and hurry the desired day.

Taking advantage of the propitious moment, Meg slipped
away and ran down to greet her husband with a smiling face
and the little blue bow in her hair which was his especial
admiration. He saw it at once and said with pleased surprise,
"Why, little mother, how gay we are tonight. Do you expect
company?"

"Only you, dear."

"Is it a birthday, anniversary, or anything?"

"No, I’m tired of being dowdy, so I dressed up as a
change. You always make yourself nice for table, no matter
how tired you are, so why shouldn’t I when I have the time?"

"I do it out of respect for you, my dear," said old-fashioned John.

"Ditto, ditto, Mr. Brooke," laughed Meg, looking young
and pretty again, as she nodded to him over the teapot.

"Well, it’s altogether delightful, and like old times. This tastes
right. I drink your health, dear." and John sipped his tea with an
air of reposeful rapture, which was of very short duration however,
for as he put down his cup, the door handle rattled mysteriously,
and a little voice was heard, saying impatiently . . .

"Opy doy. Me’s tummin!"

"It’s that naughty boy. I told him to go to sleep alone,
and here he is, downstairs, getting his death a-cold pattering
over that canvas," said Meg, answering the call.

"Mornin’ now," announced Demi in joyful tone as he entered,
with his long nightgown gracefully festooned over his arm and
every curl bobbing gayly as he pranced about the table, eyeing
the ‘cakies’ with loving glances.

"No, it isn’t morning yet. You must go to bed, and not
trouble poor Mamma. Then you can have the little cake with
sugar on it."

"Me loves Parpar," said the artful one, preparing to climb
the paternal knee and revel in forbidden joys. But John shook
his head, and said to Meg . . .

"If you told him to stay up there, and go to sleep alone,
make him do it, or he will never learn to mind you."

"Yes, of course. Come, Demi," and Meg led her son away,
feeling a strong desire to spank the little marplot who hopped
beside her, laboring under the delusion that the bribe was to
be administered as soon as they reached the nursery.

Nor was he disappointed, for that shortsighted woman
actually gave him a lump of sugar, tucked him into his bed,
and forbade any more promenades till morning.

"Iss!" said Demi the perjured, blissfully sucking his sugar,
and regarding his first attempt as eminently successful.

Meg returned to her place, and supper was progressing
pleasantly, when the little ghost walked again, and exposed
the maternal delinquencies by boldly demanding, "More sudar,
Marmar."

"Now this won’t do," said John, hardening his heart against
the engaging little sinner. "We shall never know any peace till
that child learns to go to bed properly. You have made a slave of
yourself long enough. Give him one lesson, and then there will
be an end of it. Put him in his bed and leave him, Meg."

"He won’t stay there, he never does unless I sit by him."

"I’ll manage him. Demi, go upstairs, and get into your bed,
as Mamma bids you."

"S’ant!" replied the young rebel, helping himself to the
coveted ‘cakie’, and beginning to eat the same with calm audacity.

"You must never say that to Papa. I shall carry you if you
don’t go yourself."

"Go ‘way, me don’t love Parpar." and Demi retired to his
mother’s skirts for protection.

But even that refuge proved unavailing, for he was delivered
over to the enemy, with a "Be gentle with him, John,"
which struck the culprit with dismay, for when Mamma deserted
him, then the judgment day was at hand. Bereft of his cake,
defrauded of his frolic, and borne away by a strong hand to
that detested bed, poor Demi could not restrain his wrath, but
openly defied Papa, and kicked and screamed lustily all the
way upstairs. The minute he was put into bed on one side, he
rolled out on the other, and made for the door, only to be
ignominiously caught up by the tail of his little toga and
put back again, which lively performance was kept up till the
young man’s strength gave out, when he devoted himself to
roaring at the top of his voice. This vocal exercise usually
conquered Meg, but John sat as unmoved as the post which is
popularly believed to be deaf. No coaxing, no sugar, no
lullaby, no story, even the light was put out and only the
red glow of the fire enlivened the ‘big dark’ which Demi
regarded with curiosity rather than fear. This new order
of things disgusted him, and he howled dismally for ‘Marmar’,
as his angry passions subsided, and recollections of his
tender bondwoman returned to the captive autocrat. The
plaintive wail which succeeded the passionate roar went to
Meg’s heart, and she ran up to say beseechingly . . .

"Let me stay with him, he’ll be good now, John."

"No, my dear. I’ve told him he must go to sleep, as you
bid him, and he must, if I stay here all night."

"But he’ll cry himself sick," pleaded Meg, reproaching herself
for deserting her boy.

"No, he won’t, he’s so tired he will soon drop off and then
the matter is settled, for he will understand that he has got to
mind. Don’t interfere, I’ll manage him."

"He’s my child, and I can’t have his spirit broken by harshness."

"He’s my child, and I won’t have his temper spoiled by
indulgence. Go down, my dear, and leave the boy to me."

When John spoke in that masterful tone, Meg always obeyed,
and never regretted her docility.

"Please let me kiss him once, John?"

"Certainly. Demi, say good night to Mamma, and let her go and rest,
for she is very tired with taking care of you all day."

Meg always insisted upon it that the kiss won the victory,
for after it was given, Demi sobbed more quietly, and lay quite
still at the bottom of the bed, whither he had wriggled in his
anguish of mind.

"Poor little man, he’s worn out with sleep and crying. I’ll
cover him up, and then go and set Meg’s heart at rest," thought
John, creeping to the bedside, hoping to find his rebellious
heir asleep.

But he wasn’t, for the moment his father peeped at him,
Demi’s eyes opened, his little chin began to quiver, and he put
up his arms, saying with a penitent hiccough, "Me’s dood, now."

Sitting on the stairs outside Meg wondered at the long
silence which followed the uproar, and after imagining all
sorts of impossible accidents, she slipped into the room to
set her fears at rest. Demi lay fast asleep, not in his usual
spreadeagle attitude, but in a subdued bunch, cuddled close in
the circle of his father’s arm and holding his father’s finger,
as if he felt that justice was tempered with mercy, and had
gone to sleep a sadder and wiser baby. So held, John had waited
with a womanly patience till the little hand relaxed its hold,
and while waiting had fallen asleep, more tired by that tussle
with his son than with his whole day’s work.

As Meg stood watching the two faces on the pillow, she
smiled to herself, and then slipped away again, saying in a
satisfied tone, "I never need fear that John will be too harsh
with my babies. He does know how to manage them, and will be
a great help, for Demi is getting too much for me."

When John came down at last, expecting to find a pensive
or reproachful wife, he was agreeably surprised to find Meg
placidly trimming a bonnet, and to be greeted with the request
to read something about the election, if he was not
too tired. John saw in a minute that a revolution of some
kind was going on, but wisely asked no questions, knowing
that Meg was such a transparent little person, she couldn’t
keep a secret to save her life, and therefore the clue would
soon appear. He read a long debate with the most amiable
readiness and then explained it in his most lucid manner,
while Meg tried to look deeply interested, to ask intelligent
questions, and keep her thoughts from wandering from the
state of the nation to the state of her bonnet. In her secret
soul, however, she decided that politics were as bad as mathematics,
and that the mission of politicians seemed to be calling
each other names, but she kept these feminine ideas to herself,
and when John paused, shook her head and said with what she
thought diplomatic ambiguity, "Well, I really don’t see what
we are coming to."

John laughed, and watched her for a minute, as she poised
a pretty little preparation of lace and flowers on her hand,
and regarded it with the genuine interest which his harangue
had failed to waken.

"She is trying to like politics for my sake, so I’ll try and like
millinery for hers, that’s only fair," thought John the Just, adding
aloud, "That’s very pretty. Is it what you call a breakfast cap?"

"My dear man, it’s a bonnet! My very best go-to-concert-and-theater
bonnet."

"I beg your pardon, it was so small, I naturally mistook
it for one of the flyaway things you sometimes wear.
How do you keep it on?"

"These bits of lace are fastened under the chin with a rosebud, so,"
and Meg illustrated by putting on the bonnet and regarding
him with an air of calm satisfaction that was irresistible.

"It’s a love of a bonnet, but I prefer the face inside, for
it looks young and happy again," and John kissed the smiling
face, to the great detriment of the rosebud under the chin.

"I’m glad you like it, for I want you to take me to one
of the new concerts some night. I really need some music to
put me in tune. Will you, please?"

"Of course I will, with all my heart, or anywhere else you
like. You have been shut up so long, it will do you no end of
good, and I shall enjoy it, of all things. What put it into
your head, little mother?"

"Well, I had a talk with Marmee the other day, and told
her how nervous and cross and out of sorts I felt, and she
said I needed change and less care, so Hannah is to help me
with the children, and I’m to see to things about the house more,
and now and then have a little fun, just to keep me from getting
to be a fidgety, broken-down old woman before my time. It’s
only an experiment, John, and I want to try it for your sake
as much as for mine, because I’ve neglected you shamefully
lately, and I’m going to make home what it used to be, if I
can. You don’t object, I hope?"

Never mind what John said, or what a very narrow escape
the little bonnet had from utter ruin. All that we have any
business to know is that John did not appear to object, judging
from the changes which gradually took place in the house
and its inmates. It was not all Paradise by any means, but
everyone was better for the division of labor system. The
children throve under the paternal rule, for accurate, stedfast
John brought order and obedience into Babydom, while Meg
recovered her spirits and composed her nerves by plenty of
wholesome exercise, a little pleasure, and much confidential
conversation with her sensible husband. Home grew homelike
again, and John had no wish to leave it, unless he took Meg
with him. The Scotts came to the Brookes’ now, and everyone
found the little house a cheerful place, full of happiness,
content, and family love. Even Sallie Moffatt liked to go
there. "It is always so quiet and pleasant here, it does me
good, Meg," she used to say, looking about her with wistful
eyes, as if trying to discover the charm, that she might use
it in her great house, full of splendid loneliness, for there
were no riotous, sunny-faced babies there, and Ned lived in
a world of his own, where there was no place for her.

This household happiness did not come all at once, but
John and Meg had found the key to it, and each year of married
life taught them how to use it, unlocking the treasuries
of real home love and mutual helpfulness, which the poorest
may possess, and the richest cannot buy. This is the sort
of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent to be
laid, safe from the restless fret and fever of the world,
finding loyal lovers in the little sons and daughters who
cling to them, undaunted by sorrow, poverty, or age, walking
side by side, through fair and stormy weather, with a faithful
friend, who is, in the true sense of the good old Saxon word,
the ‘house-band’, and learning, as Meg learned, that a woman’s
happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling
it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.

 

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