Little Women (Chapter 38)
ON THE SHELF
In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when ‘Vive la liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into a seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day, “I’m as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because I’m married.”
Not being a belle or even a fashionable lady, Meg did not experience this affliction till her babies were a year old, for in her little world primitive customs prevailed, and she found herself more admired and beloved than ever.
As she was a womanly little woman, the maternal instinct was very strong, and she was entirely absorbed in her children, to the utter exclusion of everything and everybody else. Day and night she brooded over them with tireless devotion and anxiety, leaving John to the tender mercies of the help, for an Irish lady now presided over the kitchen department. Being a domestic man, John decidedly missed the wifely attentions he had been accustomed to receive, but as he adored his babies, he cheerfully relinquished his comfort for a time, supposing with masculine ignorance that peace would soon be restored. But three months passed, and there was no return of repose. Meg looked worn and nervous, the babies absorbed every minute of her time, the house was neglected, and Kitty, the cook, who took life ‘aisy’, kept him on short commons. When he went out in the morning he was bewildered by small commissions for the captive mamma, if he came gaily in at night, eager to embrace his family, he was quenched by a “Hush! They are just asleep after worrying all day.” If he proposed a little amusement at home, “No, it would disturb the babies.” If he hinted at a lecture or a concert, he was answered with a reproachful look, and a decided—”Leave my children for pleasure, never!” His sleep was broken by infant wails and visions of a phantom figure pacing noiselessly to and fro in the watches of the night. His meals were interrupted by the frequent flight of the presiding genius, who deserted him, half-helped, if a muffled chirp sounded from the nest above. And when he read his paper of an evening, Demi’s colic got into the shipping list and Daisy’s fall affected the price of stocks, for Mrs. Brooke was only interested in domestic news.
The poor man was very uncomfortable, for the children had bereft him of his wife, home was merely a nursery and the perpetual ‘hushing’ made him feel like a brutal intruder whenever he entered the sacred precincts of Babyland. He bore it very patiently for six months, and when no signs of amendment appeared, he did what other paternal exiles do—tried to get a little comfort elsewhere. Scott had married and gone to housekeeping not far off, and John fell into the way of running over for an hour or two of an evening, when his own parlor was empty, and his own wife singing lullabies that seemed to have no end. Mrs. Scott was a lively, pretty girl, with nothing to do but be agreeable, and she performed her mission most successfully. The parlor was always bright and attractive, the chessboard ready, the piano in tune, plenty of gay gossip, and a nice little supper set forth in tempting style.
John would have preferred his own fireside if it had not been so lonely, but as it was he gratefully took the next best thing and enjoyed his neighbor’s society.
Meg rather approved of the new arrangement at first, and found it a relief to know that John was having a good time instead of dozing in the parlor, or tramping about the house and waking the children. But by-and-by, when the teething worry was over and the idols went to sleep at proper hours, leaving Mamma time to rest, she began to miss John, and find her workbasket dull company, when he was not sitting opposite in his old dressing gown, comfortably scorching his slippers on the fender. She would not ask him to stay at home, but felt injured because he did not know that she wanted him without being told, entirely forgetting the many evenings he had waited for her in vain. She was nervous and worn out with watching and worry, and in that unreasonable frame of mind which the best of mothers occasionally experience when domestic cares oppress them. Want of exercise robs them of cheerfulness, and too much devotion to that idol of American women, the teapot, makes them feel as if they were all nerve and no muscle.
“Yes,” she would say, looking in the glass, “I’m getting old and ugly. John doesn’t find me interesting any longer, so he leaves his faded wife and goes to see his pretty neighbor, who has no incumbrances. Well, the babies love me, they don’t care if I am thin and pale and haven’t time to crimp my hair, they are my comfort, and some day John will see what I’ve gladly sacrificed for them, won’t he, my precious?”
To which pathetic appeal Daisy would answer with a coo, or Demi with a crow, and Meg would put by her lamentations for a maternal revel, which soothed her solitude for the time being. But the pain increased as politics absorbed John, who was always running over to discuss interesting points with Scott, quite unconscious that Meg missed him. Not a word did she say, however, till her mother found her in tears one day, and insisted on knowing what the matter was, for Meg’s drooping spirits had not escaped her observation.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone except you, Mother, but I really do need advice, for if John goes on much longer I might as well be widowed,” replied Mrs. Brooke, drying her tears on Daisy’s bib with an injured air.
“Goes on how, my dear?” asked her mother anxiously.
“He’s away all day, and at night when I want to see him, he is continually going over to the Scotts’. It isn’t fair that I should have the hardest work, and never any amusement. Men are very selfish, even the best of them.”
“So are women. Don’t blame John till you see where you are wrong yourself.”
“But it can’t be right for him to neglect me.”
“Don’t you neglect him?”
“Why, Mother, I thought you’d take my part!”
“So I do, as far as sympathizing goes, but I think the fault is yours, Meg.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Let me show you. Did John ever neglect you, as you call it, while you made it a point to give him your society of an evening, his only leisure time?”
“No, but I can’t do it now, with two babies to tend.”
“I think you could, dear, and I think you ought. May I speak quite freely, and will you remember that it’s Mother who blames as well as Mother who sympathizes?”
“Indeed I will! Speak to me as if I were little Meg again. I often feel as if I needed teaching more than ever since these babies look to me for everything.”
Meg drew her low chair beside her mother’s, and with a little interruption in either lap, the two women rocked and talked lovingly together, feeling that the tie of motherhood made them more one than ever.
“You have only made the mistake that most young wives make—forgotten your duty to your husband in your love for your children. A very natural and forgivable mistake, Meg, but one that had better be remedied before you take to different ways, for children should draw you nearer than ever, not separate you, as if they were all yours, and John had nothing to do but support them. I’ve seen it for some weeks, but have not spoken, feeling sure it would come right in time.”
“I’m afraid it won’t. If I ask him to stay, he’ll think I’m jealous, and I wouldn’t insult him by such an idea. He doesn’t see that I want him, and I don’t know how to tell him without words.”
“Make it so pleasant he won’t want to go away. My dear, he’s longing for his little home, but it isn’t home without you, and you are always in the nursery.”
“Oughtn’t I to be there?”
“Not all the time, too much confinement makes you nervous, and then you are unfitted for everything. Besides, you owe something to John as well as to the babies. Don’t neglect husband for children, don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours, and the children need him. Let him feel that he has a part to do, and he will do it gladly and faithfully, and it will be better for you all.”
“You really think so, Mother?”
“I know it, Meg, for I’ve tried it, and I seldom give advice unless I’ve proved its practicability. When you and Jo were little, I went on just as you are, feeling as if I didn’t do my duty unless I devoted myself wholly to you. Poor Father took to his books, after I had refused all offers of help, and left me to try my experiment alone. I struggled along as well as I could, but Jo was too much for me. I nearly spoiled her by indulgence. You were poorly, and I worried about you till I fell sick myself. Then Father came to the rescue, quietly managed everything, and made himself so helpful that I saw my mistake, and never have been able to get on without him since. That is the secret of our home happiness. He does not let business wean him from the little cares and duties that affect us all, and I try not to let domestic worries destroy my interest in his pursuits. Each do our part alone in many things, but at home we work together, always.”
“It is so, Mother, and my great wish is to be to my husband and children what you have been to yours. Show me how, I’ll do anything you say.”
“You always were my docile daughter. Well, dear, if I were you, I’d let John have more to do with the management of Demi, for the boy needs training, and it’s none too soon to begin. Then I’d do what I have often proposed, let Hannah come and help you. She is a capital nurse, and you may trust the precious babies to her while you do more housework. You need the exercise, Hannah would enjoy the rest, and John would find his wife again. Go out more, keep cheerful as well as busy, for you are the sunshine-maker of the family, and if you get dismal there is no fair weather. Then I’d try to take an interest in whatever John likes—talk with him, let him read to you, exchange ideas, and help each other in that way. Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.”
“John is so sensible, I’m afraid he will think I’m stupid if I ask questions about politics and things.”
“I don’t believe he would. Love covers a multitude of sins, and of whom could you ask more freely than of him? Try it, and see if he doesn’t find your society far more agreeable than Mrs. Scott’s suppers.”
“I will. Poor John! I’m afraid I have neglected him sadly, but I thought I was right, and he never said anything.”
“He tried not to be selfish, but he has felt rather forlorn, I fancy. This is just the time, Meg, when young married people are apt to grow apart, and the very time when they ought to be most together, for the first tenderness soon wears off, unless care is taken to preserve it. And no time is so beautiful and precious to parents as the first years of the little lives given to them to train. Don’t let John be a stranger to the babies, for they will do more to keep him safe and happy in this world of trial and temptation than anything else, and through them you will learn to know and love one another as you should. Now, dear, good-by. Think over Mother’s preachment, act upon it if it seems good, and God bless you all.”
Meg did think it over, found it good, and acted upon it, though the first attempt was not made exactly as she planned to have it. Of course the children tyrannized over her, and ruled the house as soon as they found out that kicking and squalling brought them whatever they wanted. Mamma was an abject slave to their caprices, but Papa was not so easily subjugated, and occasionally afflicted his tender spouse by an attempt at paternal discipline with his obstreperous son. For Demi inherited a trifle of his sire’s firmness of character, we won’t call it obstinacy, and when he made up his little mind to have or to do anything, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not change that pertinacious little mind. Mamma thought the dear too young to be taught to conquer his prejudices, but Papa believed that it never was too soon to learn obedience. So Master Demi early discovered that when he undertook to ‘wrastle’ with ‘Parpar’, he always got the worst of it, yet like the Englishman, baby respected the man who conquered him, and loved the father whose grave “No, no,” was more impressive than all Mamma’s love pats.
A few days after the talk with her mother, Meg resolved to try a social evening with John, so she ordered a nice supper, set the parlor in order, dressed herself prettily, and put the children to bed early, that nothing should interfere with her experiment. But unfortunately Demi’s most unconquerable prejudice was against going to bed, and that night he decided to go on a rampage. So poor Meg sang and rocked, told stories and tried every sleep-prevoking wile she could devise, but all in vain, the big eyes wouldn’t shut, and long after Daisy had gone to byelow, like the chubby little bunch of good nature she was, naughty Demi lay staring at the light, with the most discouragingly wide-awake expression of countenance.
“Will Demi lie still like a good boy, while Mamma runs down and gives poor Papa his tea?” asked Meg, as the hall door softly closed, and the well-known step went tip-toeing into the dining room.
“Me has tea!” said Demi, preparing to join in the revel.
“No, but I’ll save you some little cakies for breakfast, if you’ll go bye-bye like Daisy. Will you, lovey?”
“Iss!” and Demi shut his eyes tight, as if to catch sleep and hurry the desired day.
Taking advantage of the propitious moment, Meg slipped away and ran down to greet her husband with a smiling face and the little blue bow in her hair which was his especial admiration. He saw it at once and said with pleased surprise, “Why, little mother, how gay we are tonight. Do you expect company?”
“Only you, dear.”
“Is it a birthday, anniversary, or anything?”
“No, I’m tired of being dowdy, so I dressed up as a change. You always make yourself nice for table, no matter how tired you are, so why shouldn’t I when I have the time?”
“I do it out of respect for you, my dear,” said old-fashioned John.
“Ditto, ditto, Mr. Brooke,” laughed Meg, looking young and pretty again, as she nodded to him over the teapot.
“Well, it’s altogether delightful, and like old times. This tastes right. I drink your health, dear.” and John sipped his tea with an air of reposeful rapture, which was of very short duration however, for as he put down his cup, the door handle rattled mysteriously, and a little voice was heard, saying impatiently…
“Opy doy. Me’s tummin!”
“It’s that naughty boy. I told him to go to sleep alone, and here he is, downstairs, getting his death a-cold pattering over that canvas,” said Meg, answering the call.
“Mornin’ now,” announced Demi in joyful tone as he entered, with his long nightgown gracefully festooned over his arm and every curl bobbing gayly as he pranced about the table, eyeing the ‘cakies’ with loving glances.
“No, it isn’t morning yet. You must go to bed, and not trouble poor Mamma. Then you can have the little cake with sugar on it.”
“Me loves Parpar,” said the artful one, preparing to climb the paternal knee and revel in forbidden joys. But John shook his head, and said to Meg…
“If you told him to stay up there, and go to sleep alone, make him do it, or he will never learn to mind you.”
“Yes, of course. Come, Demi,” and Meg led her son away, feeling a strong desire to spank the little marplot who hopped beside her, laboring under the delusion that the bribe was to be administered as soon as they reached the nursery.
Nor was he disappointed, for that shortsighted woman actually gave him a lump of sugar, tucked him into his bed, and forbade any more promenades till morning.
“Iss!” said Demi the perjured, blissfully sucking his sugar, and regarding his first attempt as eminently successful.
Meg returned to her place, and supper was progressing pleasantly, when the little ghost walked again, and exposed the maternal delinquencies by boldly demanding, “More sudar, Marmar.”
“Now this won’t do,” said John, hardening his heart against the engaging little sinner. “We shall never know any peace till that child learns to go to bed properly. You have made a slave of yourself long enough. Give him one lesson, and then there will be an end of it. Put him in his bed and leave him, Meg.”
“He won’t stay there, he never does unless I sit by him.”
“I’ll manage him. Demi, go upstairs, and get into your bed, as Mamma bids you.”
“S’ant!” replied the young rebel, helping himself to the coveted ‘cakie’, and beginning to eat the same with calm audacity.
“You must never say that to Papa. I shall carry you if you don’t go yourself.”
“Go ‘way, me don’t love Parpar.” and Demi retired to his mother’s skirts for protection.
But even that refuge proved unavailing, for he was delivered over to the enemy, with a “Be gentle with him, John,” which struck the culprit with dismay, for when Mamma deserted him, then the judgment day was at hand. Bereft of his cake, defrauded of his frolic, and borne away by a strong hand to that detested bed, poor Demi could not restrain his wrath, but openly defied Papa, and kicked and screamed lustily all the way upstairs. The minute he was put into bed on one side, he rolled out on the other, and made for the door, only to be ignominiously caught up by the tail of his little toga and put back again, which lively performance was kept up till the young man’s strength gave out, when he devoted himself to roaring at the top of his voice. This vocal exercise usually conquered Meg, but John sat as unmoved as the post which is popularly believed to be deaf. No coaxing, no sugar, no lullaby, no story, even the light was put out and only the red glow of the fire enlivened the ‘big dark’ which Demi regarded with curiosity rather than fear. This new order of things disgusted him, and he howled dismally for ‘Marmar’, as his angry passions subsided, and recollections of his tender bondwoman returned to the captive autocrat. The plaintive wail which succeeded the passionate roar went to Meg’s heart, and she ran up to say beseechingly…
“Let me stay with him, he’ll be good now, John.”
“No, my dear. I’ve told him he must go to sleep, as you bid him, and he must, if I stay here all night.”
“But he’ll cry himself sick,” pleaded Meg, reproaching herself for deserting her boy.
“No, he won’t, he’s so tired he will soon drop off and then the matter is settled, for he will understand that he has got to mind. Don’t interfere, I’ll manage him.”
“He’s my child, and I can’t have his spirit broken by harshness.”
“He’s my child, and I won’t have his temper spoiled by indulgence. Go down, my dear, and leave the boy to me.”
When John spoke in that masterful tone, Meg always obeyed, and never regretted her docility.
“Please let me kiss him once, John?”
“Certainly. Demi, say good night to Mamma, and let her go and rest, for she is very tired with taking care of you all day.”
Meg always insisted upon it that the kiss won the victory, for after it was given, Demi sobbed more quietly, and lay quite still at the bottom of the bed, whither he had wriggled in his anguish of mind.
“Poor little man, he’s worn out with sleep and crying. I’ll cover him up, and then go and set Meg’s heart at rest,” thought John, creeping to the bedside, hoping to find his rebellious heir asleep.
But he wasn’t, for the moment his father peeped at him, Demi’s eyes opened, his little chin began to quiver, and he put up his arms, saying with a penitent hiccough, “Me’s dood, now.”
Sitting on the stairs outside Meg wondered at the long silence which followed the uproar, and after imagining all sorts of impossible accidents, she slipped into the room to set her fears at rest. Demi lay fast asleep, not in his usual spreadeagle attitude, but in a subdued bunch, cuddled close in the circle of his father’s arm and holding his father’s finger, as if he felt that justice was tempered with mercy, and had gone to sleep a sadder and wiser baby. So held, John had waited with a womanly patience till the little hand relaxed its hold, and while waiting had fallen asleep, more tired by that tussle with his son than with his whole day’s work.
As Meg stood watching the two faces on the pillow, she smiled to herself, and then slipped away again, saying in a satisfied tone, “I never need fear that John will be too harsh with my babies. He does know how to manage them, and will be a great help, for Demi is getting too much for me.”
When John came down at last, expecting to find a pensive or reproachful wife, he was agreeably surprised to find Meg placidly trimming a bonnet, and to be greeted with the request to read something about the election, if he was not too tired. John saw in a minute that a revolution of some kind was going on, but wisely asked no questions, knowing that Meg was such a transparent little person, she couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, and therefore the clue would soon appear. He read a long debate with the most amiable readiness and then explained it in his most lucid manner, while Meg tried to look deeply interested, to ask intelligent questions, and keep her thoughts from wandering from the state of the nation to the state of her bonnet. In her secret soul, however, she decided that politics were as bad as mathematics, and that the mission of politicians seemed to be calling each other names, but she kept these feminine ideas to herself, and when John paused, shook her head and said with what she thought diplomatic ambiguity, “Well, I really don’t see what we are coming to.”
John laughed, and watched her for a minute, as she poised a pretty little preparation of lace and flowers on her hand, and regarded it with the genuine interest which his harangue had failed to waken.
“She is trying to like politics for my sake, so I’ll try and like millinery for hers, that’s only fair,” thought John the Just, adding aloud, “That’s very pretty. Is it what you call a breakfast cap?”
“My dear man, it’s a bonnet! My very best go-to-concert-and-theater bonnet.”
“I beg your pardon, it was so small, I naturally mistook it for one of the flyaway things you sometimes wear. How do you keep it on?”
“These bits of lace are fastened under the chin with a rosebud, so,” and Meg illustrated by putting on the bonnet and regarding him with an air of calm satisfaction that was irresistible.
“It’s a love of a bonnet, but I prefer the face inside, for it looks young and happy again,” and John kissed the smiling face, to the great detriment of the rosebud under the chin.
“I’m glad you like it, for I want you to take me to one of the new concerts some night. I really need some music to put me in tune. Will you, please?”
“Of course I will, with all my heart, or anywhere else you like. You have been shut up so long, it will do you no end of good, and I shall enjoy it, of all things. What put it into your head, little mother?”
“Well, I had a talk with Marmee the other day, and told her how nervous and cross and out of sorts I felt, and she said I needed change and less care, so Hannah is to help me with the children, and I’m to see to things about the house more, and now and then have a little fun, just to keep me from getting to be a fidgety, broken-down old woman before my time. It’s only an experiment, John, and I want to try it for your sake as much as for mine, because I’ve neglected you shamefully lately, and I’m going to make home what it used to be, if I can. You don’t object, I hope?”
Never mind what John said, or what a very narrow escape the little bonnet had from utter ruin. All that we have any business to know is that John did not appear to object, judging from the changes which gradually took place in the house and its inmates. It was not all Paradise by any means, but everyone was better for the division of labor system. The children throve under the paternal rule, for accurate, steadfast John brought order and obedience into Babydom, while Meg recovered her spirits and composed her nerves by plenty of wholesome exercise, a little pleasure, and much confidential conversation with her sensible husband. Home grew homelike again, and John had no wish to leave it, unless he took Meg with him. The Scotts came to the Brookes’ now, and everyone found the little house a cheerful place, full of happiness, content, and family love. Even Sallie Moffatt liked to go there. “It is always so quiet and pleasant here, it does me good, Meg,” she used to say, looking about her with wistful eyes, as if trying to discover the charm, that she might use it in her great house, full of splendid loneliness, for there were no riotous, sunny-faced babies there, and Ned lived in a world of his own, where there was no place for her.
This household happiness did not come all at once, but John and Meg had found the key to it, and each year of married life taught them how to use it, unlocking the treasuries of real home love and mutual helpfulness, which the poorest may possess, and the richest cannot buy. This is the sort of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent to be laid, safe from the restless fret and fever of the world, finding loyal lovers in the little sons and daughters who cling to them, undaunted by sorrow, poverty, or age, walking side by side, through fair and stormy weather, with a faithful friend, who is, in the true sense of the good old Saxon word, the ‘house-band’, and learning, as Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.