Little Women/Chapter 42
PART TWO: Chapter Forty-two
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 strengthened 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 kernel, 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 kernel 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 lover-like 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?