Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter 10. The Sad and Sober Part
"How will he look? What will he say? Can anything make us forget and be happy again?" were the first questions Rose asked herself as soon as she woke from the brief sleep which followed a long, sad vigil. It seemed as if the whole world must be changed because a trouble darkened it for her. She was too young yet to know how possible it is to forgive much greater sins than this, forget far heavier disappointments, outlive higher hopes, and bury loves compared to which hers was but a girlish fancy. She wished it had not been so bright a day, wondered how her birds could sing with such shrill gaiety, put no ribbon in her hair, and said, as she looked at the reflection of her own tired face in the glass, "Poor thing! You thought the new leaf would have something pleasant on it. The story has been very sweet and easy to read so far, but the sad and sober part is coming now.?
A tap at the door reminded her that, in spite of her afflictions, breakfast must be eaten, and the sudden thought that Charlie might still be in the house made her hurry to the door, to find Dr. Alec waiting for her with his morning smile. She drew him in and whispered anxiously, as if someone lay dangerously ill nearby, "Is he better, Uncle? Tell me all about it I can bear it now.?
Some men would have smiled at her innocent distress and told her this was only what was to be expected and endured, but Dr. Alec believed in the pure instincts that make youth beautiful, desired to keep them true, and hoped his girl would never learn to look unmoved by pain and pity upon any human being vanquished by a vice, no matter how trivial it seemed, how venial it was held. So his face grew grave, though his voice was cheerful as he answered: "All right, I daresay, by this time, for sleep is the best medicine in such cases. I took him home last night, and no one knows he came but you and I.?
"No one ever shall. How did you do it, Uncle??
"Just slipped out of the long study window and got him cannily off, for the air and motion, after a dash of cold water, brought him around, and he was glad to be safely landed at home. His rooms are below, you know, so no one was disturbed, and I left him sleeping nicely.?
"Thank you so much," sighed Rose. "And Brutus? Weren't they frightened when he got back alone??
"Not at all. The sagacious beast went quietly to the stable, and the sleepy groom asked no questions, for Charlie often sends the horse round by himself when it is late or stormy. Rest easy, dear no eye but ours saw the poor lad come and go, and we'll forgive it for love's sake.?
"Yes, but not forget it. I never can, and he will never be again to me the Charlie I've been so proud and fond of all these years. Oh, Uncle, such a pity! Such a pity!?
"Don't break your tender heart about it, child, for it is not incurable, thank God! I don't make light of it, but I am sure that under better influences Charlie will redeem himself because his impulses are good and this his only vice. I can hardly blame him for what he is, because his mother did the harm. I declare to you, Rose, I sometimes feel as if I must break out against that woman and thunder in her ears that she is ruining the immortal soul for which she is responsible to heaven!?
Dr. Alec seldom spoke in this way, and when he did it was rather awful, for his indignation was of the righteous sort and such thunder often rouses up a drowsy soul when sunshine has no effect. Rose liked it, and sincerely wished Aunt Clara had been there to get the benefit of the outbreak, for she needed just such an awakening from the self-indulgent dream in which she lived.
"Do it, and save Charlie before it is too late!" she cried, kindling herself as she watched him, for he looked like a roused lion as he walked about the room with his hand clenched and a spark in his eye, evidently in desperate earnest and ready to do almost anything.
"Will you help?" he asked, stopping suddenly with a look that made her stand up straight and strong as she answered with an eager voice: "I will.?
"Then don't love him yet.?
That startled her, but she asked steadily, though her heart began to beat and her color to come: "Why not??
"Firstly, because no woman should give her happiness into the keeping of a man without fixed principles; secondly, because the hope of being worthy of you will help him more than any prayers or preaching of mine. Thirdly, because it will need all our wit and patience to undo the work of nearly four and twenty years. You understand what I mean??
"Can you say 'no' when he asks you to say 'yes' and wait a little for your happiness??
"And will you??
"Then I'm satisfied, and a great weight taken off my heart. I can't help seeing what goes on, or trembling when I think of you setting sail with no better pilot than poor Charlie. Now you answer as I hoped you would, and I am proud of my girl!?
They had been standing with the width of the room between them, Dr. Alec looking very much like a commander issuing orders, Rose like a well-drilled private obediently receiving them, and both wore the air of soldiers getting ready for a battle, with the bracing of nerves and quickening of the blood brave souls feel as they put on their armor. At the last words he went to her, brushed back the hair, and kissed her on the forehead with a tender sort of gravity and a look that made her feel as if he had endowed her with the Victoria Cross for courage on the field.
No more was said then, for Aunt Plenty called them down and the day's duties began. But that brief talk showed Rose what to do and fitted her to do it, for it set her to thinking of the duty one owes one's self in loving as in all the other great passions or experiences which make or mar a life.
She had plenty of time for quiet meditation that day because everyone was resting after yesterday's festivity, and she sat in her little room planning out a new year so full of good works, grand successes, and beautiful romances that if it could have been realized, the Millennium would have begun. It was a great comfort to her, however, and lightened the long hours haunted by a secret desire to know when Charlie would come and a secret fear of the first meeting. She was sure he would be bowed down with humiliation and repentance, and a struggle took place in her mind between the pity she could not help feeling and the disapprobation she ought to show. She decided to be gentle, but very frank; to reprove, but also to console; and to try to improve the softened moment by inspiring the culprit with a wish for all the virtues which make a perfect man.
The fond delusion grew quite absorbing, and her mind was full of it as she sat watching the sun set from her western window and admiring with dreamy eyes the fine effect of the distant hills clear and dark against a daffodil sky when the bang of a door made her sit suddenly erect in her low chair and say with a catch in her breath: "He's coming! I must remember what I promised Uncle and be very firm.?
Usually Charlie announced his approach with music of some sort. Now he neither whistled, hummed, nor sang, but came so quietly Rose was sure that he dreaded this meeting as much as she did and, compassionating his natural confusion, did not look around as the steps drew near. She thought perhaps he would go down upon his knees, as he used to after a boyish offense, but hoped not, for too much humility distressed her, so she waited for the first demonstration anxiously.
It was rather a shock when it came, however, for a great nosegay dropped into her lap and a voice, bold and gay as usual, said lightly: "Here she is, as pretty and pensive as you please. Is the world hollow, our doll stuffed with sawdust, and do we want to go into a nunnery today, Cousin??
Rose was so taken aback by this unexpected coolness that the flowers lay unnoticed as she looked up with a face so full of surprise, reproach, and something like shame that it was impossible to mistake its meaning. Charlie did not, and had the grace to redden deeply, and his eyes fell as he said quickly, though in the same light tone: "I humbly apologize for coming so late last night. Don't be hard upon me, Cousin. You know America expects every man to do his duty on New Year's Day.?
"I am tired of forgiving! You make and break promises as easily as you did years ago, and I shall never ask you for another," answered Rose, putting the bouquet away, for the apology did not satisfy her and she would not be bribed to silence.
"But, my dear girl, you are so very exacting, so peculiar in your notions, and so angry about trifles that a poor fellow can't please you, try as he will," began Charlie, ill at ease, but too proud to show half the penitence he felt, not so much for the fault as for her discovery of it.
"I am not angry I am grieved and disappointed, for I expect every man to do his duty in another way and keep his word to the uttermost, as I try to do. If that is exacting, I'm sorry, and won't trouble you with my old-fashioned notions anymore.?
"Bless my soul! What a rout about nothing! I own that I forgot I know I acted like a fool and I beg pardon. What more can I do??
"Act like a man, and never let me be so terribly ashamed of you again as I was last night." And Rose gave a little shiver as she thought of it.
That involuntary act hurt Charlie more than her words, and it was his turn now to feel "terribly ashamed," for the events of the previous evening were very hazy in his mind and fear magnified them greatly. Turning sharply away, he went and stood by the fire, quite at a loss how to make his peace this time, because Rose was so unlike herself. Usually a word of excuse sufficed, and she seemed glad to pardon and forget; now, though very quiet, there was something almost stern about her that surprised and daunted him, for how could he know that all the while her pitiful heart was pleading for him and the very effort to control it made her a little hard and cold? As he stood there, restlessly fingering the ornaments upon the chimneypiece, his eye brightened suddenly and, taking up the pretty bracelet lying there, he went slowly back to her, saying in a tone that was humble and serious enough now: "I will act like a man, and you shall never be ashamed again. Only be kind to me. Let me put this on, and promise afresh this time I swear I'll keep it. Won't you trust me, Rose??
It was very hard to resist the pleading voice and eyes, for this humility was dangerous; and, but for Uncle Alec, Rose would have answered "yes." The blue forget-me-nots reminded her of her own promise, and she kept it with difficulty now, to be glad always afterward. Putting back the offered trinket with a gentle touch, she said firmly, though she dared not look up into the anxious face bending toward her: "No, Charlie I can't wear it. My hands must be free if I'm to help you as I ought. I will be kind, I will trust you, but don't swear anything, only try to resist temptation, and we'll all stand by you.?
Charlie did not like that and lost the ground he had gained by saying impetuously: "I don't want anyone but you to stand by me, and I must be sure you won't desert me, else, while I'm mortifying soul and body to please you, some stranger will come and steal your heart away from me. I couldn't bear that, so I give you fair warning, in such a case I'll break the bargain, and go straight to the devil.?
The last sentence spoiled it all, for it was both masterful and defiant. Rose had the Campbell spirit in her, though it seldom showed; as yet she valued her liberty more than any love offered her, and she resented the authority he assumed too soon resented it all the more warmly because of the effort she was making to reinstate her hero, who would insist on being a very faulty and ungrateful man. She rose straight out of her chair, saying with a look and tone which rather startled her hearer and convinced him that she was no longer a tenderhearted child but a woman with a will of her own and a spirit as proud and fiery as any of her race: "My heart is my own, to dispose of as I please. Don't shut yourself out of it by presuming too much, for you have no claim on me but that of cousinship, and you never will have unless you earn it. Remember that, and neither threaten nor defy me anymore.?
For a minute it was doubtful whether Charlie would answer this flash with another, and a general explosion ensue, or wisely quench the flame with the mild answer which turneth away wrath. He chose the latter course and made it very effective by throwing himself down before his offended goddess, as he had often done in jest. This time it was not acting, but serious, earnest, and there was real passion in his voice as he caught Rose's dress in both hands, saying eagerly: "No, no! Don't shut your heart against me or I shall turn desperate. I'm not half good enough for such a saint as you, but you can do what you will with me. I only need a motive to make a man of me, and where can I find a stronger one than in trying to keep your love??
"It is not yours yet," began Rose, much moved, though all the while she felt as if she were on a stage and had a part to play, for Charlie had made life so like a melodrama that it was hard for him to be quite simple even when most sincere.
"Let me earn it, then. Show me how, and I'll do anything, for you are my good angel, Rose, and if you cast me off, I feel as if I shouldn't care how soon there was an end of me," cried Charlie, getting tragic in his earnestness and putting both arms around her, as if his only safety lay in clinging to this beloved fellow creature.
Behind footlights it would have been irresistible, but somehow it did not touch the one spectator, though she had neither time nor skill to discover why. For all their ardor the words did not ring quite true. Despite the grace of the attitude, she would have liked him better manfully erect upon his feet, and though the gesture was full of tenderness, a subtle instinct made her shrink away as she said with a composure that surprised herself even more than it did him: "Please don't. No, I will promise nothing yet, for I must respect the man I love.?
That brought Charlie to his feet, pale with something deeper than anger, for the recoil told him more plainly than the words how much he had fallen in her regard since yesterday. The memory of the happy moment when she gave the rose with that new softness in her eyes, the shy color, the sweet "for my sake" came back with sudden vividness, contrasting sharply with the now averted face, the hand outstretched to put him back, the shrinking figure, and in that instant's silence, poor Charlie realized what he had lost, for a girl's first thought of love is as delicate a thing as the rosy morning glory, which a breath of air can shatter. Only a hint of evil, only an hour's debasement for him, a moment's glimpse for her of the coarser pleasures men know, and the innocent heart, just opening to bless and to be blessed, closed again like a sensitive plant and shut him out perhaps forever.
The consciousness of this turned him pale with fear, for his love was deeper than she knew, and he proved this when he said in a tone so full of mingled pain and patience that it touched her to the heart: "You shall respect me if I can make you, and when I've earned it, may I hope for something more??
She looked up then, saw in his face the noble shame, the humble sort of courage that shows repentance to be genuine and gives promise of success, and, with a hopeful smile that was a cordial to him, answered heartily: "You may.?
"Bless you for that! I'll make no promises, I'll ask for none only trust me, Rose, and while you treat me like a cousin, remember that no matter how many lovers you may have you'll never be to any of them as dear as you are to me.?
A traitorous break in his voice warned Charlie to stop there, and with no other good-bye, he very wisely went away, leaving Rose to put the neglected flowers into water with remorseful care and lay away the bracelet, saying to herself: "I'll never wear it till I feel as I did before. Then he shall put it on and I'll say 'yes.' ?