FictionForest

Chapter 42 – All Alone

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

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It was easy to promise self-abnegation when self was
wrapped up in another, and heart and soul were purified by a
sweet example. But when the helpful voice was silent, the
daily lesson over, the beloved presence gone, and nothing remained
but loneliness and grief, then Jo found her promise very
hard to keep. How could she ‘comfort Father and Mother’ when
her own heart ached with a ceaseless longing for her sister,
how could she ‘make the house cheerful’ when all its light and
warmth and beauty seemed to have deserted it when Beth left the
old home for the new, and where in all the world could she ‘find
some useful, happy work to do’, that would take the place of the
loving service which had been its own reward? She tried in a
blind, hopeless way to do her duty, secretly rebelling against
it all the while, for it seemed unjust that her few joys should
be lessened, her burdens made heavier, and life get harder and
harder as she toiled along. Some people seemed to get all sunshine,
and some all shadow. It was not fair, for she tried more
than Amy to be good, but never got any reward, only disappointment,
trouble and hard work.

Poor Jo, these were dark days to her, for something like
despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life
in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures,
and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier. "I can’t do it.
I wasn’t meant for a life like this, and I know I shall break away
and do something desperate if somebody doesn’t come and help me,"
she said to herself, when her first efforts failed and she fell
into the moody, miserable state of mind which often comes when
strong wills have to yield to the inevitable.

But someone did come and help her, though Jo did not recognize
her good angels at once because they wore familiar shapes and used
the simple spells best fitted to poor humanity. Often she started
up at night, thinking Beth called her, and when the sight of the
little empty bed made her cry with the bitter cry of unsubmissive
sorrow, "Oh, Beth, come back! Come back!" she did not stretch out
her yearning arms in vain. For, as quick to hear her sobbing as
she had been to hear her sister’s faintest whisper, her mother came
to comfort her, not with words only, but the patient tenderness
that soothes by a touch, tears that were mute reminders of a greater
grief than Jo’s, and broken whispers, more eloquent than prayers,
because hopeful resignation went hand-in-hand with natural sorrow.
Sacred moments, when heart talked to heart in the silence of the
night, turning affliction to a blessing, which chastened grief and
strengthned love. Feeling this, Jo’s burden seemed easier to bear,
duty grew sweeter, and life looked more endurable, seen from the
safe shelter of her mother’s arms.

When aching heart was a little comforted, troubled mind likewise
found help, for one day she went to the study, and leaning
over the good gray head lifted to welcome her with a tranquil smile,
she said very humbly, "Father, talk to me as you did to Beth. I
need it more than she did, for I’m all wrong."

"My dear, nothing can comfort me like this," he answered,
with a falter in his voice, and both arms round her, as if he too,
needed help, and did not fear to ask for it.

Then, sitting in Beth’s little chair close beside him, Jo told
her troubles, the resentful sorrow for her loss, the fruitless
efforts that discouraged her, the want of faith that made life look
so dark, and all the sad bewilderment which we call despair. She
gave him entire confidence, he gave her the help she needed, and
both found consolation in the act. For the time had come when they
could talk together not only as father and daughter, but as man and
woman, able and glad to serve each other with mutual sympathy as well
as mutual love. Happy, thoughtful times there in the old study which
Jo called ‘the church of one member’, and from which she came with
fresh courage, recovered cheerfulness, and a more submissive spirit.
For the parents who had taught one child to meet death without fear,
were trying now to teach another to accept life without despondency
or distrust, and to use its beautiful opportunities with gratitude
and power.

Other helps had Jo – humble, wholesome duties and delights that
would not be denied their part in serving her, and which she slowly
learned to see and value. Brooms and dishcloths never could
be as distasteful as they once had been, for Beth had presided
over both, and something of her housewifely spirit seemed to
linger around the little mop and the old brush, never thrown
away. As she used them, Jo found herself humming the songs
Beth used to hum, imitating Beth’s orderly ways, and giving the
little touches here and there that kept everything fresh and
cozy, which was the first step toward making home happy, though
she didn’t know it till Hannah said with an approving squeeze
of the hand . . .

"You thoughtful creeter, you’re determined we shan’t miss
that dear lamb ef you can help it. We don’t say much, but we
see it, and the Lord will bless you for’t, see ef He don’t."

As they sat sewing together, Jo discovered how much improved
her sister Meg was, how well she could talk, how much she knew
about good, womanly impulses, thoughts, and feelings, how happy
she was in husband and children, and how much they were all doing
for each other.

"Marriage is an excellent thing, after all. I wonder if I should
blossom out half as well as you have, if I tried it?, always
‘perwisin’ I could," said Jo, as she constructed a kite for Demi
in the topsy-turvy nursery.

"It’s just what you need to bring out the tender womanly half
of your nature, Jo. You are like a chestnut burr, prickly outside,
but silky-soft within, and a sweet kernal, if one can only get at
it. Love will make you show your heart one day, and then the rough
burr will fall off."

"Frost opens chestnut burrs, ma’am, and it takes a good shake
to bring them down. Boys go nutting, and I don’t care to be bagged
by them," returned Jo, pasting away at the kite which no wind that
blows would ever carry up, for Daisy had tied herself on as a bob.

Meg laughed, for she was glad to see a glimmer of Jo’s old spirit,
but she felt it her duty to enforce her opinion by every argument in
her power, and the sisterly chats were not wasted, especially as two
of Meg’s most effective arguments were the babies, whom Jo loved
tenderly. Grief is the best opener of some hearts, and Jo’s was
nearly ready for the bag. A little more sunshine to ripen the nut,
then, not a boy’s impatient shake, but a man’s hand reached up to
pick it gently from the burr, and find the kernal sound and sweet.
If she suspected this, she would have shut up tight, and been more
prickly than ever, fortunately she wasn’t thinking about herself, so
when the time came, down she dropped.

Now, if she had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she
ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly,
renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified
bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn’t a
heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of
others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless,
or energetic, as the mood suggested. It’s highly virtuous
to say we’ll be good, but we can’t do it all at once, and it takes
a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some
of us even get our feet set in the right way. Jo had got so far,
she was learning to do her duty, and to feel unhappy if she did
not, but to do it cheerfully, ah, that was another thing! She
had often said she wanted to do something splendid, no matter how
hard, and now she had her wish, for what could be more beautiful
than to devote her life to Father and Mother, trying to make home
as happy to them as they had to her? And if difficulties were
necessary to increase the splendor of the effort, what could be
harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own
hopes, plans, and desires, and cheerfully live for others?

Providence had taken her at her word. Here was the task, not
what she had expected, but better because self had no part in it.
Now, could she do it? She decided that she would try, and in her
first attempt she found the helps I have suggested. Still another
was given her, and she took it, not as a reward, but as a comfort,
as Christian took the refreshment afforded by the little arbor
where he rested, as he climbed the hill called Difficulty.

"Why don’t you write? That always used to make you happy,"
said her mother once, when the desponding fit over-shadowed Jo.

"I’ve no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my
things."

"We do. Write something for us, and never mind the rest of
the world. Try it, dear. I’m sure it would do you good, and
please us very much."

"Don’t believe I can." But Jo got out her desk and began to
overhaul her half-finished manuscripts.

An hour afterward her mother peeped in and there she was, scratching
away, with her black pinafore on, and an absorbed expression, which
caused Mrs. March to smile and slip away, well pleased with the
success of her suggestion. Jo never knew how it happened, but
something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of
those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over
it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular
magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but
others requested. Letters from several persons, whose praise was
honor, followed the appearance of the little story, newspapers
copied it, and strangers as well as friends admired it. For a small
thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when
her novel was commended and condemned all at once.

"I don’t understand it. What can there be in a simple little
story like that to make people praise it so?" she said, quite
bewildered.

"There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret. Humor and pathos
make it alive, and you have found your style at last. You wrote
with no thoughts of fame and money, and put your heart into it,
my daughter. You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do
your best, and grow as happy as we are in your success."

"If there is anything good or true in what I write, it isn’t
mine. I owe it all to you and Mother and Beth," said Jo, more
touched by her father’s words than by any amount of praise from
the world.

So taught by love and sorrow, Jo wrote her little stories,
and sent them away to make friends for themselves and her, finding
it a very charitable world to such humble wanderers, for they were
kindly welcomed, and sent home comfortable tokens to their mother,
like dutiful children whom good fortune overtakes.

When Amy and Laurie wrote of their engagement, Mrs. March
feared that Jo would find it difficult to rejoice over it, but
her fears were soon set at rest, for though Jo looked grave at
first, she took it very quietly, and was full of hopes and plans
for ‘the children’ before she read the letter twice. It was a
sort of written duet, wherein each glorified the other in loverlike
fashion, very pleasant to read and satisfactory to think of,
for no one had any objection to make.

"You like it, Mother?" said Jo, as they laid down the closely
written sheets and looked at one another.

"Yes, I hoped it would be so, ever since Amy wrote that she
had refused Fred. I felt sure then that something better than
what you call the ‘mercenary spirit’ had come over her, and a
hint here and there in her letters made me suspect that love
and Laurie would win the day."

"How sharp you are, Marmee, and how silent! You never said
a word to me."

"Mothers have need of sharp eyes and discreet tongues when
they have girls to manage. I was half afraid to put the idea
into your head, lest you should write and congratulate them before
the thing was settled."

"I’m not the scatterbrain I was. You may trust me. I’m
sober and sensible enough for anyone’s confidante now."

"So you are, my dear, and I should have made you mine,
only I fancied it might pain you to learn that your Teddy loved
someone else."

"Now, Mother, did you really think I could be so silly and
selfish, after I’d refused his love, when it was freshest, if not
best?"

"I knew you were sincere then, Jo, but lately I have thought
that if he came back, and asked again, you might perhaps, feel like
giving another answer. Forgive me, dear, I can’t help seeing that
you are very lonely, and sometimes there is a hungry look in your
eyes that goes to my heart. So I fancied that your boy might fill
the empty place if he tried now."

"No, Mother, it is better as it is, and I’m glad Amy has learned to
love him. But you are right in one thing. I am lonely, and perhaps
if Teddy had tried again, I might have said ‘Yes’, not because I
love him any more, but because I care more to be loved than when he
went away."

"I’m glad of that, Jo, for it shows that you are getting on.
There are plenty to love you, so try to be satisfied with Father
and Mother, sisters and brothers, friends and babies, till the
best lover of all comes to give you your reward."

"Mothers are the best lovers in the world, but I don’t mind
whispering to Marmee that I’d like to try all kinds. It’s very
curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of
natural affections, the more I seem to want. I’d no idea hearts
could take in so many. Mine is so elastic, it never seems full
now, and I used to be quite contented with my family. I don’t
understand it."

"I do," and Mrs. March smiled her wise smile, as Jo turned
back the leaves to read what Amy said of Laurie.

"It is so beautiful to be loved as Laurie loves me. He isn’t
sentimental, doesn’t say much about it, but I see and feel it in
all he says and does, and it makes me so happy and so humble that
I don’t seem to be the same girl I was. I never knew how good and
generous and tender he was till now, for he lets me read his heart,
and I find it full of noble impulses and hopes and purposes, and
am so proud to know it’s mine. He says he feels as if he ‘could
make a prosperous voyage now with me aboard as mate, and lots of
love for ballast’. I pray he may, and try to be all he believes
me, for I love my gallant captain with all my heart and soul and
might, and never will desert him, while God lets us be together.
Oh, Mother, I never knew how much like heaven this world could be,
when two people love and live for one another!"

"And that’s our cool, reserved, and worldly Amy! Truly, love
does work miracles. How very, very happy they must be!" and Jo
laid the rustling sheets together with a careful hand, as one
might shut the covers of a lovely romance, which holds the reader
fast till the end comes, and he finds himself alone in the workaday
world again.

By-and-by Jo roamed away upstairs, for it was rainy, and she
could not walk. A restless spirit possessed her, and the old
feeling came again, not bitter as it once was, but a sorrowfully
patient wonder why one sister should have all she asked, the other
nothing. It was not true, she knew that and tried to put it away,
but the natural craving for affection was strong, and Amy’s happiness
woke the hungry longing for someone to ‘love with heart
and soul, and cling to while God let them be together’.
Up in the garret, where Jo’s unquiet wanderings ended stood
four little wooden chests in a row, each marked with its owners
name, and each filled with relics of the childhood and girlhood
ended now for all. Jo glanced into them, and when she came to
her own, leaned her chin on the edge, and stared absently at the
chaotic collection, till a bundle of old exercise books caught
her eye. She drew them out, turned them over, and relived that
pleasant winter at kind Mrs. Kirke’s. She had smiled at first,
then she looked thoughtful, next sad, and when she came to a
little message written in the Professor’s hand, her lips began
to tremble, the books slid out of her lap, and she sat looking
at the friendly words, as they took a new meaning, and touched
a tender spot in her heart.

"Wait for me, my friend. I may be a little late, but I shall
surely come."

"Oh, if he only would! So kind, so good, so patient with me
always, my dear old Fritz. I didn’t value him half enough when I
had him, but now how I should love to see him, for everyone seems
going away from me, and I’m all alone."

And holding the little paper fast, as if it were a promise
yet to be fulfilled, Jo laid her head down on a comfortable rag
bag, and cried, as if in opposition to the rain pattering on the
roof.

Was it all self-pity, loneliness, or low spirits? Or was it
the waking up of a sentiment which had bided its time as patiently
as its inspirer? Who shall say?

 

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