Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter 5. Prince Charming
The old glove lay upon the floor forgotten while Rose sat musing, till a quick step sounded in the hall and a voice drew near, tunefully humming.
"As he was walkin' doun the street
"Sae licht he jumped up the stair,
sang Rose as the voice paused and a tap came at the door.
"Good morning, Rosamunda, here are your letters, and your most devoted ready to execute any commissions you may have for him," was Charlie's greeting as he came in looking comely, gay, and debonair as usual.
"Thanks. I've no errands unless you mail my replies, if these need answering, so by your leave, Prince," and Rose began to open the handful of notes he threw into her lap.
"Ha! What sight is this to blast mine eyes?" ejaculated Charlie, as he pointed to the glove with a melodramatic start, for, like most accomplished amateur actors, he was fond of introducing private theatricals into his daily talk and conversation.
"Uncle left it.?
" 'Tis well. Methought perchance a rival had been here," and, picking it up, Charlie amused himself with putting it on the head of a little Psyche which ornamented the mantelpiece, softly singing as he did so, another verse of the old song:
"He set his Jenny on his knee,
Rose went on reading her letters, but all the while was thinking of her conversation with her uncle as well as something else suggested by the newcomer and his ditty.
During the three months since her return she had seen more of this cousin than any of the others, for he seemed to be the only one who had leisure to "play with Rose," as they used to say years ago. The other boys were all at work, even little Jamie, many of whose play hours were devoted to manful struggles with Latin grammar, the evil genius of his boyish life. Dr. Alec had many affairs to arrange after his long absence; Phebe was busy with her music; and Aunt Plenty still actively superintended her housekeeping. Thus it fell out, quite naturally, that Charlie should form the habit of lounging in at all hours with letters, messages, bits of news, and agreeable plans for Rose. He helped her with her sketching, rode with her, sang with her, and took her to parties as a matter of course, for Aunt Clara, being the gaiest of the sisters, played chaperon on all occasions.
For a time it was very pleasant, but, by and by, Rose began to wish Charlie would find something to do like the rest and not make dawdling after her the business of his life. The family was used to his self-indulgent ways, and there was an amiable delusion in the minds of the boys that he had a right to the best of everything, for to them he was still the Prince, the flower of the flock, and in time to be an honor to the name. No one exactly knew how, for, though full of talent, he seemed to have no especial gift or bias, and the elders began to shake their heads because, in spite of many grand promises and projects, the moment for decisive action never came.
Rose saw all this and longed to inspire her brilliant cousin with some manful purpose which should win for him respect as well as admiration. But she found it very hard, for though he listened with imperturbable good humor, and owned his shortcomings with delightful frankness, he always had some argument, reason, or excuse to offer and out-talked her in five minutes, leaving her silenced but unconvinced.
Of late she had observed that he seemed to feel as if her time and thoughts belonged exclusively to him and rather resented the approach of any other claimant. This annoyed her and suggested the idea that her affectionate interest and efforts were misunderstood by him, misrepresented and taken advantage of by Aunt Clara, who had been most urgent that she should "use her influence with the dear boy," though the fond mother resented all other interference. This troubled Rose and made her feel as if caught in a snare, for, while she owned to herself that Charlie was the most attractive of her cousins, she was not ready to be taken possession of in this masterful way, especially since other and sometimes better men sought her favor more humbly.
These thoughts were floating vaguely in her mind as she read her letters and unconsciously influenced her in the chat that followed.
"Only invitations, and I can't stop to answer them now or I shall never get through this job," she said, returning to her work.
"Let me help. You do up, and I'll direct. Have a secretary, do now, and see what a comfort it will be," proposed Charlie, who could turn his hand to anything and had made himself quite at home in the sanctum.
"I'd rather finish this myself, but you may answer the notes if you will. Just regrets to all but two or three. Read the names as you go along and I'll tell you which.?
"To hear is to obey. Who says I'm a 'frivolous idler' now?" And Charlie sat down at the writing table with alacrity, for these hours in the little room were his best and happiest.
"Order is heaven's first law, and the view a lovely one, but I don't see any notepaper," he added, opening the desk and surveying its contents with interest.
"Right-hand drawer violet monogram for the notes, plain paper for the business letter. I'll see to that, though," answered Rose, trying to decide whether Annabel or Emma should have the laced handkerchief.
"Confiding creature! Suppose I open the wrong drawer and come upon the tender secrets of your soul?" continued the new secretary, rummaging out the delicate notepaper with masculine disregard of order.
"I haven't got any," answered Rose demurely.
"What, not one despairing scrawl, one cherished miniature, one faded floweret, etc., etc.? I can't believe it, Cousin," and he shook his head incredulously.
"If I had, I certainly should not show them to you, impertinent person! There are a few little souvenirs in that desk, but nothing very sentimental or interesting.?
"How I'd like to see 'em! But I should never dare to ask," observed Charlie, peering over the top of the half-open lid with a most persuasive pair of eyes.
"You may if you want to, but you'll be disappointed, Paul Pry. Lower left-hand drawer with the key in it.?
" 'Angel of goodness, how shall I requite thee? Interesting moment, with what palpitating emotions art thou fraught!' " And, quoting from the "Mysteries of Udolpho," he unlocked and opened the drawer with a tragic gesture.
"Seven locks of hair in a box, all light, for 'here's your straw color, your orange tawny, your French crown color, and your perfect yellow' Shakespeare. They look very familiar, and I fancy I know the heads they thatched.?
"Yes, you all gave me one when I went away, you know, and I carried them round the world with me in that very box.?
"I wish the heads had gone too. Here's a jolly little amber god with a gold ring in his back and a most balmy breath," continued Charlie, taking a long sniff at the scent bottle.
"Uncle brought me that long ago, and I'm very fond of it.?
"This now looks suspicious man's ring with a lotus cut on the stone and a note attached. I tremble as I ask, who, when, and where??
"A gentleman, on my birthday, in Calcutta.?
"I breathe again it was my sire??
"Don't be absurd. Of course it was, and he did everything to make my visit pleasant. I wish you'd go and see him like a dutiful son, instead of idling here.?
"That's what Uncle Mac is eternally telling me, but I don't intend to be lectured into the treadmill till I've had my fling first," muttered Charlie rebelliously.
"If you fling yourself in the wrong direction, you may find it hard to get back again," began Rose gravely.
"No fear, if you look after me as you seem to have promised to do, judging by the thanks you get in this note. Poor old governor! I should like to see him, for it's almost four years since he came home last and he must be getting on.?
Charlie was the only one of the boys who ever called his father "governor," perhaps because the others knew and loved their fathers, while he had seen so little of his that the less respectful name came more readily to his lips, since the elder man in truth seemed a governor issuing requests or commands, which the younger too often neglected or resented.
Long ago Rose had discovered that Uncle Stephen found home made so distasteful by his wife's devotion to society that he preferred to exile himself, taking business as an excuse for his protracted absences.
The girl was thinking of this as she watched her cousin turn the ring about with a sudden sobriety which became him well; and, believing that the moment was propitious, she said earnestly: "He is getting on. Dear Charlie, do think of duty more than pleasure in this case and I'm sure you never will regret it.?
"Do you want me to go?" he asked quickly.
"I think you ought.?
"And I think you'd be much more charming if you wouldn't always be worrying about right and wrong! Uncle Alec taught you that along with the rest of his queer notions.?
"I'm glad he did!" cried Rose warmly, then checked herself and said with a patient sort of sigh, "You know women always want the men they care for to be good and can't help trying to make them so.?
"So they do, and we ought to be a set of angels, but I've a strong conviction that, if we were, the dear souls wouldn't like us half as well. Would they now?" asked Charlie with an insinuating smile.
"Perhaps not, but that is dodging the point. Will you go?" persisted Rose unwisely.
"No, I will not.?
That was sufficiently decided and an uncomfortable pause followed, during which Rose tied a knot unnecessarily tight and Charlie went on exploring the drawer with more energy than interest.
"Why, here's an old thing I gave you ages ago!" he suddenly exclaimed in a pleased tone, holding up a little agate heart on a faded blue ribbon. "Will you let me take away the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh?" he asked, half in earnest, half in jest, touched by the little trinket and the recollections it awakened.
"No, I will not," answered Rose bluntly, much displeased by the irreverent and audacious question.
Charlie looked rather abashed for a moment, but his natural lightheartedness made it easy for him to get the better of his own brief fits of waywardness and put others in good humor with him and themselves.
"Now we are even let's drop the subject and start afresh," he said with irresistible affability as he coolly put the little heart in his pocket and prepared to shut the drawer. But something caught his eye, and exclaiming, "What's this? What's this?" he snatched up a photograph which lay half under a pile of letters with foreign postmarks.
"Oh! I forgot that was there," said Rose hastily.
"Who is the man?" demanded Charlie, eyeing the good-looking countenance before him with a frown.
"That is the Honorable Gilbert Murray, who went up the Nile with us and shot crocodiles and other small game, being a mighty hunter, as I told you in my letters," answered Rose gaily, though ill pleased at the little discovery just then, for this had been one of the narrow escapes her uncle spoke of.
"And they haven't eaten him yet, I infer from the pile of letters?" said Charlie jealously.
"I hope not. His sister did not mention it when she wrote last.?
"Ah! Then she is your correspondent? Sisters are dangerous things sometimes." And Charlie eyed the packet suspiciously.
"In this case, a very convenient thing, for she tells me all about her brother's wedding, as no one else would take the trouble to do.?
"Oh! Well, if he's married, I don't care a straw about him. I fancied I'd found out why you are such a hard-hearted charmer. But if there is no secret idol, I'm all at sea again." And Charlie tossed the photograph into the drawer as if it no longer interested him.
"I'm hard-hearted because I'm particular and, as yet, do not find anyone at all to my taste.?
"No one?" with a tender glance.
"No one" with a rebellious blush, and the truthful addition "I see much to admire and like in many persons, but none quite strong and good enough to suit me. My heroes are old-fashioned, you know.?
"Prigs, like Guy Carleton, Count Altenberg, and John Halifax I know the pattern you goody girls like," sneered Charlie, who preferred the Guy Livingston, Beauclerc, and Rochester style.
"Then I'm not a 'goody girl,' for I don't like prigs. I want a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and I can wait, for I've seen one, and know there are more in the world.?
"The deuce you have! Do I know him?" asked Charlie, much alarmed.
"You think you do," answered Rose with a mischievous sparkle in her eye.
"If it isn't Pem, I give it up. He's the best-bred fellow I know.?
"Oh, dear, no! Far superior to Mr. Pemberton and many years older," said Rose, with so much respect that Charlie looked perplexed as well as anxious.
"Some apostolic minister, I fancy. You pious creatures always like to adore a parson. But all we know are married.?
"Give a name, for pity's sake I'm suffering tortures of suspense," begged Charlie.
"Uncle? Well, upon my word, that's a relief, but mighty absurd all the same. So, when you find a young saint of that sort, you intend to marry him, do you?" demanded Charlie much amused and rather disappointed.
"When I find any man half as honest, good, and noble as Uncle, I shall be proud to marry him if he asks me," answered Rose decidedly.
"What odd tastes women have!" And Charlie leaned his chin on his hand to muse pensively for a moment over the blindness of one woman who could admire an excellent old uncle more than a dashing young cousin.
Rose, meanwhile, tied up her parcels industriously, hoping she had not been too severe, for it was very hard to lecture Charlie, though he seemed to like it sometimes and came to confession voluntarily, knowing that women love to forgive when the sinners are of his sort.
"It will be mail time before you are done," she said presently, for silence was less pleasant than his rattle.
Charlie took the hint and dashed off several notes in his best manner. Coming to the business letter, he glanced at it and asked, with a puzzled expression: "What is all this? Cost of repairs, etc., from a man named Buffum??
"Never mind that I'll see to it by and by.?
"But I do mind, for I'm interested in all your affairs, and though you think I've no head for business, you'll find I have if you'll try me.?
"This is only about my two old houses in the city, which are being repaired and altered so that the rooms can be let singly.?
"Going to make tenement houses of them? Well, that's not a bad idea such places pay well, I've heard.?
"That is just what I'm not going to do. I wouldn't have a tenement house on my conscience for a million dollars not as they are now," said Rose decidedly.
"Why, what do you know about it, except that people live in them and the owners turn a pretty penny on the rents??
"I know a good deal about them, for I've seen many such, both here and abroad. It was not all pleasure with us, I assure you. Uncle was interested in hospitals and prisons, and I sometimes went with him, but they made me sad so he suggested other charities that I could be of help about when we came home. I visited infant schools, working women's homes, orphan asylums, and places of that sort. You don't know how much good it did me and how glad I am that I have the means of lightening a little some of the misery in the world.?
"But, my dear girl, you needn't make ducks and drakes of your fortune trying to feed and cure and clothe all the poor wretches you see. Give, of course everyone should do something in that line and no one likes it better than I. But don't, for mercy's sake, go at it as some women do and get so desperately earnest, practical, and charity-mad that there is no living in peace with you," protested Charlie, looking alarmed at the prospect.
"You can do as you please. I intend to do all the good I can by asking the advice and following the example of the most 'earnest,' 'practical,' and 'charitable' people I know so, if you don't approve, you can drop my acquaintance," answered Rose, emphasizing the obnoxious words and assuming the resolute air she always wore when defending her hobbies.
"You'll be laughed at.?
"I'm used to that.?
"And criticized and shunned.?
"Not by people whose opinion I value.?
"Women shouldn't go poking into such places.?
"I've been taught that they should.?
"Well, you'll get some dreadful disease and lose your beauty, and then where are you?" added Charlie, thinking that might daunt the young philanthropist.
But it did not, for Rose answered, with a sudden kindling of the eyes as she remembered her talk with Uncle Alec: "I shouldn't like it. But there would be one satisfaction in it, for when I'd lost my beauty and given away my money, I should know who really cared for me.?
Charlie nibbled his pen in silence for a moment, then asked, meekly, "Could I respectfully inquire what great reform is to be carried on in the old houses which their amiable owner is repairing??
"I am merely going to make them comfortable homes for poor but respectable women to live in. There is a class who cannot afford to pay much, yet suffer a great deal from being obliged to stay in noisy, dirty, crowded places like tenement houses and cheap lodgings. I can help a few of them and I'm going to try.?
"May I humbly ask if these decayed gentlewomen are to inhabit their palatial retreat rent-free??
"That was my first plan, but Uncle showed me that it was wiser not make genteel paupers of them, but let them pay a small rent and feel independent. I don't want the money, of course, and shall use it in keeping the houses tidy or helping other women in like case," said Rose, entirely ignoring her cousin's covert ridicule.
"Don't expect any gratitude, for you won't get it; nor much comfort with a lot of forlornities on your hands, and be sure that when it is too late you will tire of it all and wish you had done as other people do.?
"Thanks for your cheerful prophecies, but I think I'll venture.?
She looked so undaunted that Charlie was a little nettled and fired his last shot rather recklessly: "Well, one thing I do know you'll never get a husband if you go on in this absurd way, and by Jove! you need one to take care of you and keep the property together!?
Rose had a temper, but seldom let it get the better of her; now, however, it flashed up for a moment. Those last words were peculiarly unfortunate, because Aunt Clara had used them more than once when warning her against impecunious suitors and generous projects. She was disappointed in her cousin, annoyed at having her little plans laughed at, and indignant with him for his final suggestion.
"I'll never have one, if I must give up the liberty of doing what I know is right, and I'd rather go into the poorhouse tomorrow than 'keep the property together' in the selfish way you mean!?
That was all but Charlie saw that he had gone too far and hastened to make his peace with the skill of a lover, for, turning to the little cabinet piano behind him, he sang in his best style the sweet old song:
"Oh were thou in the cauld blast,?
dwelling with great effect, not only upon the tender assurance that
but also that, even if a king,
It was very evident that Prince Charming had not gone troubadouring in vain, for Orpheus himself could not have restored harmony more successfully. The tuneful apology was accepted with a forgiving smile and a frank "I'm sorry I was cross, but you haven't forgotten how to tease, and I'm rather out of sorts today. Late hours don't agree with me.?
"Then you won't feel like going to Mrs. Hope's tomorrow, I'm afraid," and Charlie took up the last note with an expression of regret which was very flattering.
"I must go, because it is made for me, but I can come away early and make up lost sleep. I do hate to be so fractious," and Rose rubbed the forehead that ached with too much racketing.
"But the German does not begin till late I'm to lead and depend upon you. Just stay this once to oblige me," pleaded Charlie, for he had set his heart on distinguishing himself.
"No I promised Uncle to be temperate in my pleasures and I must keep my word. I'm so well now, it would be very foolish to get ill and make him anxious not to mention losing my beauty, as you are good enough to call it, for that depends on health, you know.?
"But the fun doesn't begin till after supper. Everything will be delightful, I assure you, and we'll have a gay old time as we did last week at Emma's.?
"Then I certainly will not, for I'm ashamed of myself when I remember what a romp that was and how sober Uncle looked as he let me in at three in the morning, all fagged out my dress in rags, my head aching, my feet so tired that I could hardly stand, and nothing to show for five hours' hard work but a pocketful of bonbons, artificial flowers, and tissue-paper fool's caps. Uncle said I'd better put one on and go to bed, for I looked as though I'd been to a French bal masque. I never want to hear him say so again, and I'll never let dawn catch me out in such a plight anymore.?
"You were all right enough, for mother didn't object and I got you both home before daylight. Uncle is notional about such things, so I shouldn't mind, for we had a jolly time and we were none the worse for it.?
"Indeed we were, every one of us! Aunt Clara hasn't gotten over her cold yet. I slept all the next day, and you looked like a ghost, for you'd been out every night for weeks, I think.?
"Oh, nonsense! Everyone does it during the season, and you'll get used to the pace very soon," began Charlie, bent on making her go, for he was in his element in a ballroom and never happier than when he had his pretty cousin on his arm.
"Ah! But I don't want to get used to it, for it costs too much in the end. I don't wish to get used to being whisked about a hot room by men who have taken too much wine, to turn day into night, wasting time that might be better spent, and grow into a fashionable fast girl who can't get along without excitement. I don't deny that much of it is pleasant, but don't try to make me too fond of gaiety. Help me to resist what I know is hurtful, and please don't laugh me out of the good habits Uncle has tried so hard to give me.?
Rose was quite sincere in her appeal, and Charlie knew she was right, but he always found it hard to give up anything he had set his heart on, no matter how trivial, for the maternal indulgence which had harmed the boy had fostered the habit of self-indulgence, which was ruining the man. So when Rose looked up at him, with a very honest desire to save him as well as herself from being swept into the giddy vortex which keeps so many young people revolving aimlessly, till they go down or are cast upon the shore, wrecks of what they might have been, he gave a shrug and answered briefly: "As you please. I'll bring you home as early as you like, and Effie Waring shall take your place in the German. What flowers shall I send you??
Now, that was an artful speech of Charlie's, for Miss Waring was a fast and fashionable damsel who openly admired Prince Charming and had given him the name. Rose disliked her and was sure her influence was bad, for youth made frivolity forgivable, wit hid want of refinement, and beauty always covers a multitude of sins in a man's eyes. At the sound of Effie's name, Rose wavered, and would have yielded but for the memory of the "first mate's" last words. She did desire to "keep a straight course"; so, though the current of impulse set strongly in a southerly direction, principle, the only compass worth having, pointed due north, and she tried to obey it like a wise young navigator, saying steadily, while she directed to Annabel the parcel containing a capacious pair of slippers intended for Uncle Mac: "Don't trouble yourself about me. I can go with Uncle and slip away without disturbing anybody.?
"I don't believe you'll have the heart to do it," said Charlie incredulously as he sealed the last note.
"Wait and see.?
"I will, but I shall hope to the last." And kissing his hand to her, he departed to post her letters, quite sure that Miss Waring would not lead the German.
It certainly looked for a moment as if Miss Campbell would, because she ran to the door with the words "I'll go" upon her lips. But she did not open it till she had stood a minute staring hard at the old glove on Psyche's head; then like one who had suddenly gotten a bright idea, she gave a decided nod and walked slowly out of the room.