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Chapter 40 – The Valley Of The Shadow

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

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When the first bitterness was over, the family accepted
the inevitable, and tried to bear it cheerfully, helping one
another by the increased affection which comes to bind households
tenderly together in times of trouble. They put away their grief,
and each did his or her part toward making that last year a happy one.

The pleasantest room in the house was set apart for Beth,
and in it was gathered everything that she most loved, flowers,
pictures, her piano, the little worktable, and the beloved
pussies. Father’s best books found their way there, Mother’s
easy chair, Jo’s desk, Amy’s finest sketches, and every day
Meg brought her babies on a loving pilgrimage, to make sunshine
for Aunty Beth. John quietly set apart a little sum, that he
might enjoy the pleasure of keeping the invalid supplied with
the fruit she loved and longed for. Old Hannah never wearied
of concocting dainty dishes to tempt a capricious appetite,
dropping tears as she worked, and from across the sea came
little gifts and cheerful letters, seeming to bring breaths
of warmth and fragrance from lands that know no winter.

Here, cherished like a household saint in its shrine, sat
Beth, tranquil and busy as ever, for nothing could change the
sweet, unselfish nature, and even while preparing to leave
life, she tried to make it happier for those who should remain
behind. The feeble fingers were never idle, and one of her
pleasures was to make little things for the school children
daily passing to and fro, to drop a pair of mittens from her
window for a pair of purple hands, a needlebook for some small
mother of many dolls, penwipers for young penmen toiling through
forests of pothooks, scrapbooks for picture-loving eyes, and
all manner of pleasant devices, till the reluctant climbers of
the ladder of learning found their way strewn with flowers, as
it were, and came to regard the gentle giver as a sort of fairy
godmother, who sat above there, and showered down gifts miraculously
suited to their tastes and needs. If Beth had wanted any
reward, she found it in the bright little faces always turned up
to her window, with nods and smiles, and the droll little letters
which came to her, full of blots and gratitude.

The first few months were very happy ones, and Beth often
used to look round, and say "How beautiful this is!" as they
all sat together in her sunny room, the babies kicking and crowing
on the floor, mother and sisters working near, and father
reading, in his pleasant voice, from the wise old books which
seemed rich in good and comfortable words, as applicable now as
when written centuries ago, a little chapel, where a paternal
priest taught his flock the hard lessons all must learn, trying
to show them that hope can comfort love, and faith make resignation
possible. Simple sermons, that went straight to the souls of
those who listened, for the father’s heart was in the minister’s
religion, and the frequent falter in the voice gave a double
eloquence to the words he spoke or read.

It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as
preparation for the sad hours to come, for by-and-by, Beth said the
needle was ‘so heavy’, and put it down forever. Talking wearied her,
faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil
spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble
flesh. Ah me! Such heavy days, such long, long nights, such aching
hearts and imploring prayers, when those who loved her best were
forced to see the thin hands stretched out to them beseechingly, to
hear the bitter cry, "Help me, help me!" and to feel that there was
no help. A sad eclipse of the serene soul, a sharp struggle of the
young life with death, but both were mercifully brief, and then the
natural rebellion over, the old peace returned more beautiful than
ever. With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong, and
though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready, saw
that the first pilgrim called was likewise the fittest, and waited
with her on the shore, trying to see the Shining Ones coming to
receive her when she crossed the river.

Jo never left her for an hour since Beth had said "I feel
stronger when you are here." She slept on a couch in the room,
waking often to renew the fire, to feed, lift, or wait upon the
patient creature who seldom asked for anything, and ‘tried not to
be a trouble’. All day she haunted the room, jealous of any other
nurse, and prouder of being chosen then than of any honor her life
ever brought her. Precious and helpful hours to Jo, for now her
heart received the teaching that it needed. Lessons in patience
were so sweetly taught her that she could not fail to learn them,
charity for all, the lovely spirit that can forgive and truly
forget unkindness, the loyalty to duty that makes the hardest
easy, and the sincere faith that fears nothing, but trusts
undoubtingly.

Often when she woke Jo found Beth reading in her well-worn
little book, heard her singing softly, to beguile the sleepless
night, or saw her lean her face upon her hands, while slow tears
dropped through the transparent fingers, and Jo would lie watching
her with thoughts too deep for tears, feeling that Beth, in
her simple, unselfish way, was trying to wean herself from the
dear old life, and fit herself for the life to come, by sacred
words of comfort, quiet prayers, and the music she loved so well.

Seeing this did more for Jo than the wisest sermons, the
saintliest hymns, the most fervent prayers that any voice could
utter. For with eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart
softened by the tenderest sorrow, she recognized the beauty of
her sister’s life – uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the
genuine virtues which ‘smell sweet, and blossom in the dust’,
the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered
soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible to all.

One night when Beth looked among the books upon her table,
to find something to make her forget the mortal weariness that
was almost as hard to bear as pain, as she turned the leaves of
her old favorite, Pilgrims’s Progress, she found a little paper,
scribbled over in Jo’s hand. The name caught her eye and the
blurred look of the lines made her sure that tears had fallen
on it.

"Poor Jo! She’s fast asleep, so I won’t wake her to ask
leave. She shows me all her things, and I don’t think she’ll
mind if I look at this", thought Beth, with a glance at her
sister, who lay on the rug, with the tongs beside her, ready
to wake up the minute the log fell apart.

MY BETH

Sitting patient in the shadow

Till the blessed light shall come,

A serene and saintly presence

Sanctifies our troubled home.

Earthly joys and hopes and sorrows

Break like ripples on the strand

Of the deep and solemn river

Where her willing feet now stand.

O my sister, passing from me,

Out of human care and strife,

Leave me, as a gift, those virtues

Which have beautified your life.

Dear, bequeath me that great patience

Which has power to sustain

A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit

In its prison-house of pain.

Give me, for I need it sorely,

Of that courage, wise and sweet,

Which has made the path of duty

Green beneath your willing feet.

Give me that unselfish nature,

That with charity devine

Can pardon wrong for love’s dear sake –

Meek heart, forgive me mine!

Thus our parting daily loseth

Something of its bitter pain,

And while learning this hard lesson,

My great loss becomes my gain.

For the touch of grief will render

My wild nature more serene,

Give to life new aspirations,

A new trust in the unseen.

Henceforth, safe across the river,

I shall see forever more

A beloved, household spirit

Waiting for me on the shore.

Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,

Guardian angels shall become,

And the sister gone before me

By their hands shall lead me home.

Blurred and blotted, faulty and feeble as the lines were, they
brought a look of inexpressible comfort to Beth’s face, for her one
regret had been that she had done so little, and this seemed to
assure her that her life had not been useless, that her death would
not bring the despair she feared. As she sat with the paper folded
between her hands, the charred log fell asunder. Jo started up,
revived the blaze, and crept to the bedside, hoping Beth slept.

"Not asleep, but so happy, dear. See, I found this and read it.
I knew you wouldn’t care. Have I been all that to you, Jo?" she
asked, with wistful, humble earnestness.

"Oh, Beth, so much, so much!" and Jo’s head went down upon the
pillow beside her sister’s.

"Then I don’t feel as if I’d wasted my life. I’m not so good
as you make me, but I have tried to do right. And now, when it’s
too late to begin even to do better, it’s such a comfort to know
that someone loves me so much, and feels as if I’d helped them."

"More than any one in the world, Beth. I used to think I
couldn’t let you go, but I’m learning to feel that I don’t lose
you, that you’ll be more to me than ever, and death can’t part
us, though it seems to."

"I know it cannot, and I don’t fear it any longer, for I’m
sure I shall be your Beth still, to love and help you more than
ever. You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to Father
and Mother when I’m gone. They will turn to you, don’t fail
them, and if it’s hard to work alone, remember that I don’t
forget you, and that you’ll be happier in doing that than writing
splendid books or seeing all the world, for love is the only thing
that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy."

"I’ll try, Beth." and then and there Jo renounced her old
ambition, pledged herself to a new and better one, acknowledging
the poverty of other desires, and feeling the blessed solace of
a belief in the immortality of love.

So the spring days came and went, the sky grew clearer, the
earth greener, the flowers were up fairly early, and the birds
came back in time to say goodbye to Beth, who, like a tired but
trustful child, clung to the hands that had led her all her life,
as Father and Mother guided her tenderly through the Valley of
the Shadow, and gave her up to God.

Seldom except in books do the dying utter memorable words,
see visions, or depart with beatified countenances, and those
who have sped many parting souls know that to most the end
comes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth had hoped, the
‘tide went out easily’, and in the dark hour before dawn, on
the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly
drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little
sigh.

With tears and prayers and tender hands, Mother and sisters
made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again,
seeing with grateful eyes the beautiful serenity that soon replaced
the pathetic patience that had wrung their hearts so long, and
feeling with reverent joy that to their darling death was a
benignant angel, not a phantom full of dread.

When morning came, for the first time in many months the fire was
out, Jo’s place was empty, and the room was very still. But a bird
sang blithely on a budding bough, close by, the snowdrops blossomed
freshly at the window, and the spring sunshine streamed in like a
benediction over the placid face upon the pillow, a face so full of
painless peace that those who loved it best smiled through their
tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.

 

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