by Louisa May Alcott
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Chapter 20. What Mac Did.
Rose, meantime, was trying to find out what the sentiment was with which she regarded her cousin Mac. She could not seem to reconcile the character she had known so long with the new one lately shown her, and the idea of loving the droll, bookish, absentminded Mac of former times appeared quite impossible and absurd, but the new Mac, wide awake, full of talent, ardent and high-handed, was such a surprise to her, she felt as if her heart was being won by a stranger, and it became her to study him well before yielding to a charm which she could not deny.
Affection came naturally, and had always been strong for the boy; regard for the studious youth easily deepened to respect for the integrity of the young man, and now something warmer was growing up within her; but at first she could not decide whether it was admiration for the rapid unfolding of talent of some sort or love answering to love.
As if to settle that point, Mac sent her on New Year's Day a little book plainly bound and modestly entitled Songs and Sonnets. After reading this with ever-growing surprise and delight, Rose never had another doubt about the writer's being a poet, for though she was no critic, she had read the best authors and knew what was good. Unpretentious as it was, this had the true ring, and its very simplicity showed conscious power for, unlike so many first attempts, the book was not full of "My Lady," neither did it indulge in Swinburnian convulsions about"The lilies and languors of peace,
The roses and raptures of love.";
or contain any of the highly colored medieval word pictures so much in vogue. "My book should smell of pines, and resound with the hum of insects," might have been its motto, so sweet and wholesome was it with a springlike sort of freshness which plainly betrayed that the author had learned some of Nature's deepest secrets and possessed the skill to tell them in tuneful words. The songs went ringing through one's memory long after they were read, and the sonnets were full of the subtle beauty, insight, and half-unconscious wisdom, which seem to prove that "genius is divine when young." Many faults it had, but was so full of promise that it was evident Mac had not "kept good company, read good books, loved good things, and cultivated soul and body as faithfully as he could" in vain. It all told now, for truth and virtue had blossomed into character and had a language of their own more eloquent than the poetry to which they were what the fragrance is to the flower. Wiser critics than Rose felt and admired this; less partial ones could not deny their praise to a first effort, which seemed as spontaneous and aspiring as a lark's song; and, when one or two of these Jupiters had given a nod of approval, Mac found himself, not exactly famous, but much talked about. One set abused, the other set praised, and the little book was sadly mauled among them, for it was too original to be ignored, and too robust to be killed by hard usage, so it came out of the fray none the worse but rather brighter, if anything, for the friction which proved the gold genuine.
This took time, however, and Rose could only sit at home reading all the notices she could get, as well as the literary gossip Phebe sent her, for Mac seldom wrote, and never a word about himself, so Phebe skillfully extracted from him in their occasional meetings all the personal news her feminine wit could collect and faithfully reported it.
It was a little singular that without a word of inquiry on either side, the letters of the girls were principally filled with tidings of their respective lovers. Phebe wrote about Mac; Rose answered with minute particulars about Archie; and both added hasty items concerning their own affairs, as if these were of little consequence.
Phebe got the most satisfaction out of the correspondence, for soon after the book appeared Rose began to want Mac home again and to be rather jealous of the new duties and delights that kept him. She was immensely proud of her poet, and had little jubilees over the beautiful fulfillment of her prophecies, for even Aunt Plenty owned now with contrition that "the boy was not a fool." Every word of praise was read aloud on the housetops, so to speak, by happy Rose; every adverse criticism was hotly disputed; and the whole family was in a great state of pleasant excitement over this unexpectedly successful first flight of the Ugly Duckling, now generally considered by his relatives as the most promising young swan of the flock.
Aunt Jane was particularly funny in her new position of mother to a callow poet and conducted herself like a proud but bewildered hen when one of her brood takes to the water. She pored over the poems, trying to appreciate them but quite failing to do so, for life was all prose to her, and she vainly tried to discover where Mac got his talent from. It was pretty to see the new respect with which she treated his possessions now; the old books were dusted with a sort of reverence; scraps of paper were laid carefully by lest some immortal verse be lost; and a certain shabby velvet jacket fondly smoothed when no one was by to smile at the maternal pride with filled her heart and caused her once severe countenance to shine with unwonted benignity.
Uncle Mac talked about "my son" with ill-concealed satisfaction, and evidently began to feel as if his boy was going to confer distinction upon the whole race of Campbell, which had already possessed one poet. Steve exulted with irrepressible delight and went about quoting Songs and Sonnets till he bored his friends dreadfully by his fraternal raptures.
Archie took it more quietly, and even suggested that it was too soon to crow yet, for the dear old fellow's first burst might be his last, since it was impossible to predict what he would do next. Having proved that he could write poetry, he might drop it for some new world to conquer, quoting his favorite Thoreau, who, having made a perfect pencil, gave up the business and took to writing books with the sort of indelible ink which grows clearer with time.
The aunts of course had their "views," and enjoyed much prophetic gossip as they wagged their caps over many social cups of tea. The younger boys thought it "very jolly," and hoped the Don would "go ahead and come to glory as soon as possible," which was all that could by expected of "Young America," with whom poetry is not usually a passion.
But Dr. Alec was a sight for "sair een," so full of concentrated contentment was he. No one but Rose, perhaps, knew how proud and pleased the good man felt at this first small success of his godson, for he had always had high hopes of the boy, because in spite of his oddities he had such an upright nature, and promising little, did much, with the quiet persistence which foretells a manly character. All the romance of the doctor's heart was stirred by this poetic bud of promise and the love that made it bloom so early, for Mac had confided his hopes to Uncle, finding great consolation and support in his sympathy and advice. Like a wise man, Dr. Alec left the young people to learn the great lesson in their own way, counseling Mac to work and Rose to wait till both were quite certain that their love was built on a surer foundation than admiration or youthful romance.
Meantime he went about with a well-worn little book in his pocket, humming bits from a new set of songs and repeating with great fervor certain sonnets which seemed to him quite equal, if not superior, to any that Shakespeare ever wrote. As Rose was doing the same thing, they often met for a private "read and warble," as they called it, and while discussing the safe subject of Mac's poetry, both arrived at a pretty clear idea of what Mac's reward was to be when he came home.
He seemed in no hurry to do this, however, and continued to astonish his family by going into society and coming out brilliantly in that line. It takes very little to make a lion, as everyone knows who has seen what poor specimens are patted and petted every year, in spite of their bad manners, foolish vagaries, and very feeble roaring. Mac did not want to be lionized and took it rather scornfully, which only added to the charm that people suddenly discovered about the nineteenth cousin of Thomas Campbell, the poet. He desired to be distinguished in the best sense of the word, as well as to look so, and thought a little of the polish society gives would not be amiss, remembering Rose's efforts in that line. For her sake he came out of his shell and went about seeing and testing all sorts of people with those observing eyes of his, which saw so much in spite of their nearsightedness. What use he meant to make of these new experiences no one knew, for he wrote short letters and, when questioned, answered with imperturbable patience: "Wait till I get through; then I'll come home and talk about it."
So everyone waited for the poet, till something happened which produced a greater sensation in the family than if all the boys had simultaneously taken to rhyming.
Dr. Alec got very impatient and suddenly announced that he was going to L-- to see after those young people, for Phebe was rapidly singing herself into public favor with the sweet old ballads which she rendered so beautifully that hearers were touched as well as ears delighted, and her prospects brightened every month.
"Will you come with me, Rose, and surprise this ambitious pair who are getting famous so fast they'll forget their homekeeping friends if we don't remind them of us now and then?" he said when he proposed the trip one wild March morning.
"No, thank you, sir--I'll stay with Aunty; that is all I'm fit for--and I should only be in the way among those fine people," answered Rose, snipping away at the plants blooming in the study window.
There was a slight bitterness in her voice and a cloud on her face, which her uncle heard and saw at once, half guessed the meaning of, and could not rest till he had found out.
"Do you think Phebe and Mac would not care to see you?" he asked, putting down a letter in which Mac gave a glowing account of a concert at which Phebe surpassed herself.
"No, but they must be very busy," began Rose, wishing she had held her tongue.
"Then what is the matter?" persisted Dr. Alec.
Rose did not speak for a moment, and decapitated two fine geraniums with a reckless slash of her scissors, as if pent-up vexation of some kind must find a vent. It did in words also, for, as if quite against her will, she exclaimed impetuously: "The truth is, I'm jealous of them both!"
"Bless my soul! What now?" ejaculated the doctor in great surprise.
Rose put down her water pot and shears, came and stood before him with her hands nervously twisted together, and said, just as she used to do when she was a little girl confessing some misdeed: "Uncle, I must tell you, for I've been getting very envious, discontented, and bad lately. No, don't be good to me yet, for you don't know how little I deserve it. Scold me well, and make me see how wicked I am."
"I will as soon as I know what I am to scold about. Unburden yourself, child, and let me see all your iniquity, for if you begin by being jealous of Mac and Phebe, I'm prepared for anything," said Dr. Alec, leaning back as if nothing could surprise him now.
"But I am not jealous in that way, sir. I mean I want to be or do something splendid as well as they. I can't write poetry or sing like a bird, but I should think I might have my share of glory in some way. I thought perhaps I could paint, and I've tried, but I can only copy--I've no power to invent lovely things, and I'm so discouraged, for that is my one accomplishment. Do you think I have any gift that could be cultivated and do me credit like theirs?" she asked so wistfully that her uncle felt for a moment as if he never could forgive the fairies who endow babies in their cradles for being so niggardly to his girl. But one look into the sweet, open face before him reminded him that the good elves had been very generous and he answered cheerfully: "Yes, I do, for you have one of the best and noblest gifts a woman can possess. Music and poetry are fine things, and I don't wonder you want them, or that you envy the pleasant fame they bring. I've felt just so, and been ready to ask why it didn't please heaven to be more generous to some people, so you needn't be ashamed to tell me all about it."
"I know I ought to be contented, but I'm not. My life is very comfortable, but so quiet and uneventful, I get tired of it and want to launch out as the others have, and do something, or at least try. I'm glad you think it isn't very bad of me, and I'd like to know what my gift is," said Rose, looking less despondent already.
"The art of living for others so patiently and sweetly that we enjoy it as we do the sunshine, and are not half grateful enough for the great blessing."
"It is very kind of you to say so, but I think I'd like a little fun and fame nevertheless." And Rose did not look as thankful as she ought.
"Very natural, dear, but the fun and the fame do not last, while the memory of a real helper is kept green long after poetry is forgotten and music silent. Can't you believe that, and be happy?"
"But I do so little, nobody sees or cares, and I don't feel as if I was really of any use," sighed Rose, thinking of the long, dull winter, full of efforts that seemed fruitless.
"Sit here, and let us see if you really do very little and if no one cares." And, drawing her to his knee, Dr. Alec went on, telling off each item on one of the fingers of the soft hand he held.
"First, an infirm old aunt is kept very happy by the patient, cheerful care of this good-for-nothing niece. Secondly, a crotchety uncle, for whom she reads, runs, writes, and sews so willingly that he cannot get on without her. Thirdly, various relations who are helped in various ways. Fourthly, one dear friend never forgotten, and a certain cousin cheered by praise which is more to him than the loudest blast Fame could blow. Fifthly, several young girls find her an example of many good works and ways. Sixthly, a motherless baby is cared for as tenderly as if she were a little sister. Seventhly, half a dozen poor ladies made comfortable; and, lastly, some struggling boys and girls with artistic longings are put into a pleasant room furnished with casts, studies, easels, and all manner of helpful things, not to mention free lessons given by this same idle girl, who now sits upon my knee owning to herself that her gift is worth having after all."
"Indeed, I am! Uncle, I'd no idea I had done so many things to please you, or that anyone guessed how hard I try to fill my place usefully. I've learned to do without gratitude--now I'll learn not to care for praise, but to be contented to do my best, and have only God know."
"He knows, and He rewards in His own good time. I think a quiet life like this often makes itself felt in better ways than one that the world sees and applauds, and some of the noblest are never known till they end, leaving a void in many hearts. Yours may be one of these if you choose to make it so, and no one will be prouder of this success than I, unless it be--Mac."
The clouds were quite gone now, and Rose was looking straight into her uncle's face with a much happier expression when that last word made it color brightly and the eyes glance away for a second. Then they came back full of a tender sort of resolution as she said: "That will be the reward I work for," and rose, as if ready to be up and doing with renewed courage.
But her uncle held her long enough to ask quite soberly, though his eyes laughed: "Shall I tell him that?"
"No, sir, please don't! When he is tired of other people's praise, he will come home, and then--I'll see what I can do for him," answered Rose, slipping away to her work with the shy, happy look that sometimes came to give to her face the charm it needed.
"He is such a thorough fellow, he never is in a hurry to go from one thing to another. An excellent habit, but a trifle trying to impatient people like me," said the doctor and, picking up Dulce, who sat upon the rug with her dolly, he composed his feelings by tossing her till she crowed with delight.
Rose heartily echoed that last remark, but said nothing aloud, only helped her uncle off with dutiful alacrity and, when he was gone, began to count the days till his return, wishing she had decided to go too.
He wrote often, giving excellent accounts of the "great creatures," as Steve called Phebe and Mac, and seemed to find so much to do in various ways that the second week of absence was nearly over before he set a day for his return, promising to astonish them with the account of his adventures.
Rose felt as if something splendid was going to happen and set her affairs in order so that the approaching crisis might find her fully prepared. She had "found out" now, was quite sure, and put away all doubts and fears to be ready to welcome home the cousin whom she was sure Uncle would bring as her reward. She was thinking of this one day as she got out her paper to write a long letter to poor Aunt Clara, who pined for news far away there in Calcutta.
Something in the task reminded her of that other lover whose wooing ended so tragically, and opening a little drawer of keepsakes, she took out the blue bracelet, feeling that she owed Charlie a tender thought in the midst of her new happiness, for of late she had forgotten him.
She had worn the trinket hidden under her black sleeve for a long time after his death, with the regretful constancy one sometimes shows in doing some little kindness all too late. But her arm had grown too round to hide the ornament, the forget-me-nots had fallen one by one, the clasp had broken, and that autumn she laid the bracelet away, acknowledging that she had outgrown the souvenir as well as the sentiment that gave it.
She looked at it in silence for a moment, then put it softly back and, shutting the drawer, took up the little gray book which was her pride, thinking as she contrasted the two men and their influence on her life--the one sad and disturbing, the other sweet and inspiring--"Charlie's was passion--Mac's is love."
"Rose! Rose!" called a shrill voice, rudely breaking the pensive reverie, and with a start, she shut the desk, exclaiming as she ran to the door: "They have come! They have come!"
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