Little Women (Chapter 39)
Laurie went to Nice intending to stay a week, and remained a month. He was tired of wandering about alone, and Amy’s familiar presence seemed to give a homelike charm to the foreign scenes in which she bore a part. He rather missed the ‘petting’ he used to receive, and enjoyed a taste of it again, for no attentions, however flattering, from strangers, were half so pleasant as the sisterly adoration of the girls at home. Amy never would pet him like the others, but she was very glad to see him now, and quite clung to him, feeling that he was the representative of the dear family for whom she longed more than she would confess. They naturally took comfort in each other’s society and were much together, riding, walking, dancing, or dawdling, for at Nice no one can be very industrious during the gay season. But, while apparently amusing themselves in the most careless fashion, they were half-consciously making discoveries and forming opinions about each other. Amy rose daily in the estimation of her friend, but he sank in hers, and each felt the truth before a word was spoken. Amy tried to please, and succeeded, for she was grateful for the many pleasures he gave her, and repaid him with the little services to which womanly women know how to lend an indescribable charm. Laurie made no effort of any kind, but just let himself drift along as comfortably as possible, trying to forget, and feeling that all women owed him a kind word because one had been cold to him. It cost him no effort to be generous, and he would have given Amy all the trinkets in Nice if she would have taken them, but at the same time he felt that he could not change the opinion she was forming of him, and he rather dreaded the keen blue eyes that seemed to watch him with such half-sorrowful, half-scornful surprise.
“All the rest have gone to Monaco for the day. I preferred to stay at home and write letters. They are done now, and I am going to Valrosa to sketch, will you come?” said Amy, as she joined Laurie one lovely day when he lounged in as usual, about noon.
“Well, yes, but isn’t it rather warm for such a long walk?” he answered slowly, for the shaded salon looked inviting after the glare without.
“I’m going to have the little carriage, and Baptiste can drive, so you’ll have nothing to do but hold your umbrella, and keep your gloves nice,” returned Amy, with a sarcastic glance at the immaculate kids, which were a weak point with Laurie.
“Then I’ll go with pleasure.” and he put out his hand for her sketchbook. But she tucked it under her arm with a sharp…
“Don’t trouble yourself. It’s no exertion to me, but you don’t look equal to it.”
Laurie lifted his eyebrows and followed at a leisurely pace as she ran downstairs, but when they got into the carriage he took the reins himself, and left little Baptiste nothing to do but fold his arms and fall asleep on his perch.
The two never quarreled. Amy was too well-bred, and just now Laurie was too lazy, so in a minute he peeped under her hatbrim with an inquiring air. She answered him with a smile, and they went on together in the most amicable manner.
It was a lovely drive, along winding roads rich in the picturesque scenes that delight beauty-loving eyes. Here an ancient monastery, whence the solemn chanting of the monks came down to them. There a bare-legged shepherd, in wooden shoes, pointed hat, and rough jacket over one shoulder, sat piping on a stone while his goats skipped among the rocks or lay at his feet. Meek, mouse-colored donkeys, laden with panniers of freshly cut grass passed by, with a pretty girl in a capaline sitting between the green piles, or an old woman spinning with a distaff as she went. Brown, soft-eyed children ran out from the quaint stone hovels to offer nosegays, or bunches of oranges still on the bough. Gnarled olive trees covered the hills with their dusky foliage, fruit hung golden in the orchard, and great scarlet anemones fringed the roadside, while beyond green slopes and craggy heights, the Maritime Alps rose sharp and white against the blue Italian sky.
Valrosa well deserved its name, for in that climate of perpetual summer roses blossomed everywhere. They overhung the archway, thrust themselves between the bars of the great gate with a sweet welcome to passers-by, and lined the avenue, winding through lemon trees and feathery palms up to the villa on the hill. Every shadowy nook, where seats invited one to stop and rest, was a mass of bloom, every cool grotto had its marble nymph smiling from a veil of flowers and every fountain reflected crimson, white, or pale pink roses, leaning down to smile at their own beauty. Roses covered the walls of the house, draped the cornices, climbed the pillars, and ran riot over the balustrade of the wide terrace, whence one looked down on the sunny Mediterranean, and the white-walled city on its shore.
“This is a regular honeymoon paradise, isn’t it? Did you ever see such roses?” asked Amy, pausing on the terrace to enjoy the view, and a luxurious whiff of perfume that came wandering by.
“No, nor felt such thorns,” returned Laurie, with his thumb in his mouth, after a vain attempt to capture a solitary scarlet flower that grew just beyond his reach.
“Try lower down, and pick those that have no thorns,” said Amy, gathering three of the tiny cream-colored ones that starred the wall behind her. She put them in his buttonhole as a peace offering, and he stood a minute looking down at them with a curious expression, for in the Italian part of his nature there was a touch of superstition, and he was just then in that state of half-sweet, half-bitter melancholy, when imaginative young men find significance in trifles and food for romance everywhere. He had thought of Jo in reaching after the thorny red rose, for vivid flowers became her, and she had often worn ones like that from the greenhouse at home. The pale roses Amy gave him were the sort that the Italians lay in dead hands, never in bridal wreaths, and for a moment he wondered if the omen was for Jo or for himself, but the next instant his American common sense got the better of sentimentality, and he laughed a heartier laugh than Amy had heard since he came.
“It’s good advice, you’d better take it and save your fingers,” she said, thinking her speech amused him.
“Thank you, I will,” he answered in jest, and a few months later he did it in earnest.
“Laurie, when are you going to your grandfather?” she asked presently, as she settled herself on a rustic seat.
“You have said that a dozen times within the last three weeks.”
“I dare say, short answers save trouble.”
“He expects you, and you really ought to go.”
“Hospitable creature! I know it.”
“Then why don’t you do it?”
“Natural depravity, I suppose.”
“Natural indolence, you mean. It’s really dreadful!” and Amy looked severe.
“Not so bad as it seems, for I should only plague him if I went, so I might as well stay and plague you a little longer, you can bear it better, in fact I think it agrees with you excellently,” and Laurie composed himself for a lounge on the broad ledge of the balustrade.
Amy shook her head and opened her sketchbook with an air of resignation, but she had made up her mind to lecture ‘that boy’ and in a minute she began again.
“What are you doing just now?”
“No, no. I mean what do you intend and wish to do?”
“Smoke a cigarette, if you’ll allow me.”
“How provoking you are! I don’t approve of cigars and I will only allow it on condition that you let me put you into my sketch. I need a figure.”
“With all the pleasure in life. How will you have me, full length or three-quarters, on my head or my heels? I should respectfully suggest a recumbent posture, then put yourself in also and call it ‘Dolce far niente’.”
“Stay as you are, and go to sleep if you like. I intend to work hard,” said Amy in her most energetic tone.
“What delightful enthusiasm!” and he leaned against a tall urn with an air of entire satisfaction.
“What would Jo say if she saw you now?” asked Amy impatiently, hoping to stir him up by the mention of her still more energetic sister’s name.
“As usual, ‘Go away, Teddy. I’m busy!'” He laughed as he spoke, but the laugh was not natural, and a shade passed over his face, for the utterance of the familiar name touched the wound that was not healed yet. Both tone and shadow struck Amy, for she had seen and heard them before, and now she looked up in time to catch a new expression on Laurie’s face—a hard bitter look, full of pain, dissatisfaction, and regret. It was gone before she could study it and the listless expression back again. She watched him for a moment with artistic pleasure, thinking how like an Italian he looked, as he lay basking in the sun with uncovered head and eyes full of southern dreaminess, for he seemed to have forgotten her and fallen into a reverie.
“You look like the effigy of a young knight asleep on his tomb,” she said, carefully tracing the well-cut profile defined against the dark stone.
“Wish I was!”
“That’s a foolish wish, unless you have spoiled your life. You are so changed, I sometimes think—” there Amy stopped, with a half-timid, half-wistful look, more significant than her unfinished speech.
Laurie saw and understood the affectionate anxiety which she hesitated to express, and looking straight into her eyes, said, just as he used to say it to her mother, “It’s all right, ma’am.”
That satisfied her and set at rest the doubts that had begun to worry her lately. It also touched her, and she showed that it did, by the cordial tone in which she said…
“I’m glad of that! I didn’t think you’d been a very bad boy, but I fancied you might have wasted money at that wicked Baden-Baden, lost your heart to some charming Frenchwoman with a husband, or got into some of the scrapes that young men seem to consider a necessary part of a foreign tour. Don’t stay out there in the sun, come and lie on the grass here and ‘let us be friendly’, as Jo used to say when we got in the sofa corner and told secrets.”
Laurie obediently threw himself down on the turf, and began to amuse himself by sticking daisies into the ribbons of Amy’s hat, that lay there.
“I’m all ready for the secrets.” and he glanced up with a decided expression of interest in his eyes.
“I’ve none to tell. You may begin.”
“Haven’t one to bless myself with. I thought perhaps you’d had some news from home..”
“You have heard all that has come lately. Don’t you hear often? I fancied Jo would send you volumes.”
“She’s very busy. I’m roving about so, it’s impossible to be regular, you know. When do you begin your great work of art, Raphaella?” he asked, changing the subject abruptly after another pause, in which he had been wondering if Amy knew his secret and wanted to talk about it.
“Never,” she answered, with a despondent but decided air. “Rome took all the vanity out of me, for after seeing the wonders there, I felt too insignificant to live and gave up all my foolish hopes in despair.”
“Why should you, with so much energy and talent?”
“That’s just why, because talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try any more.”
“And what are you going to do with yourself now, if I may ask?”
“Polish up my other talents, and be an ornament to society, if I get the chance.”
It was a characteristic speech, and sounded daring, but audacity becomes young people, and Amy’s ambition had a good foundation. Laurie smiled, but he liked the spirit with which she took up a new purpose when a long-cherished one died, and spent no time lamenting.
“Good! And here is where Fred Vaughn comes in, I fancy.”
Amy preserved a discreet silence, but there was a conscious look in her downcast face that made Laurie sit up and say gravely, “Now I’m going to play brother, and ask questions. May I?”
“I don’t promise to answer.”
“Your face will, if your tongue won’t. You aren’t woman of the world enough yet to hide your feelings, my dear. I heard rumors about Fred and you last year, and it’s my private opinion that if he had not been called home so suddenly and detained so long, something would have come of it, hey?”
“That’s not for me to say,” was Amy’s grim reply, but her lips would smile, and there was a traitorous sparkle of the eye which betrayed that she knew her power and enjoyed the knowledge.
“You are not engaged, I hope?” and Laurie looked very elder-brotherly and grave all of a sudden.
“But you will be, if he comes back and goes properly down on his knees, won’t you?”
“Then you are fond of old Fred?”
“I could be, if I tried.”
“But you don’t intend to try till the proper moment? Bless my soul, what unearthly prudence! He’s a good fellow, Amy, but not the man I fancied you’d like.”
“He is rich, a gentleman, and has delightful manners,” began Amy, trying to be quite cool and dignified, but feeling a little ashamed of herself, in spite of the sincerity of her intentions.
“I understand. Queens of society can’t get on without money, so you mean to make a good match, and start in that way? Quite right and proper, as the world goes, but it sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.”
A short speech, but the quiet decision with which it was uttered contrasted curiously with the young speaker. Laurie felt this instinctively and laid himself down again, with a sense of disappointment which he could not explain. His look and silence, as well as a certain inward self-disapproval, ruffled Amy, and made her resolve to deliver her lecture without delay.
“I wish you’d do me the favor to rouse yourself a little,” she said sharply.
“Do it for me, there’s a dear girl.”
“I could, if I tried.” and she looked as if she would like doing it in the most summary style.
“Try, then. I give you leave,” returned Laurie, who enjoyed having someone to tease, after his long abstinence from his favorite pastime.
“You’d be angry in five minutes.”
“I’m never angry with you. It takes two flints to make a fire. You are as cool and soft as snow.”
“You don’t know what I can do. Snow produces a glow and a tingle, if applied rightly. Your indifference is half affectation, and a good stirring up would prove it.”
“Stir away, it won’t hurt me and it may amuse you, as the big man said when his little wife beat him. Regard me in the light of a husband or a carpet, and beat till you are tired, if that sort of exercise agrees with you.”
Being decidedly nettled herself, and longing to see him shake off the apathy that so altered him, Amy sharpened both tongue and pencil, and began.
“Flo and I have got a new name for you. It’s Lazy Laurence. How do you like it?”
She thought it would annoy him, but he only folded his arms under his head, with an imperturbable, “That’s not bad. Thank you, ladies.”
“Do you want to know what I honestly think of you?”
“Pining to be told.”
“Well, I despise you.”
If she had even said ‘I hate you’ in a petulant or coquettish tone, he would have laughed and rather liked it, but the grave, almost sad, accent in her voice made him open his eyes, and ask quickly…
“Why, if you please?”
“Because, with every chance for being good, useful, and happy, you are faulty, lazy, and miserable.”
“Strong language, mademoiselle.”
“If you like it, I’ll go on.”
“Pray do, it’s quite interesting.”
“I thought you’d find it so. Selfish people always like to talk about themselves.”
“Am I selfish?” the question slipped out involuntarily and in a tone of surprise, for the one virtue on which he prided himself was generosity.
“Yes, very selfish,” continued Amy, in a calm, cool voice, twice as effective just then as an angry one. “I’ll show you how, for I’ve studied you while we were frolicking, and I’m not at all satisfied with you. Here you have been abroad nearly six months, and done nothing but waste time and money and disappoint your friends.”
“Isn’t a fellow to have any pleasure after a four-year grind?”
“You don’t look as if you’d had much. At any rate, you are none the better for it, as far as I can see. I said when we first met that you had improved. Now I take it all back, for I don’t think you half so nice as when I left you at home. You have grown abominably lazy, you like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things, you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones. With money, talent, position, health, and beauty, ah you like that old Vanity! But it’s the truth, so I can’t help saying it, with all these splendid things to use and enjoy, you can find nothing to do but dawdle, and instead of being the man you ought to be, you are only…” there she stopped, with a look that had both pain and pity in it.
“Saint Laurence on a gridiron,” added Laurie, blandly finishing the sentence. But the lecture began to take effect, for there was a wide-awake sparkle in his eyes now and a half-angry, half-injured expression replaced the former indifference.
“I supposed you’d take it so. You men tell us we are angels, and say we can make you what we will, but the instant we honestly try to do you good, you laugh at us and won’t listen, which proves how much your flattery is worth.” Amy spoke bitterly, and turned her back on the exasperating martyr at her feet.
In a minute a hand came down over the page, so that she could not draw, and Laurie’s voice said, with a droll imitation of a penitent child, “I will be good, oh, I will be good!”
But Amy did not laugh, for she was in earnest, and tapping on the outspread hand with her pencil, said soberly, “Aren’t you ashamed of a hand like that? It’s as soft and white as a woman’s, and looks as if it never did anything but wear Jouvin’s best gloves and pick flowers for ladies. You are not a dandy, thank Heaven, so I’m glad to see there are no diamonds or big seal rings on it, only the little old one Jo gave you so long ago. Dear soul, I wish she was here to help me!”
“So do I!”
The hand vanished as suddenly as it came, and there was energy enough in the echo of her wish to suit even Amy. She glanced down at him with a new thought in her mind, but he was lying with his hat half over his face, as if for shade, and his mustache hid his mouth. She only saw his chest rise and fall, with a long breath that might have been a sigh, and the hand that wore the ring nestled down into the grass, as if to hide something too precious or too tender to be spoken of. All in a minute various hints and trifles assumed shape and significance in Amy’s mind, and told her what her sister never had confided to her. She remembered that Laurie never spoke voluntarily of Jo, she recalled the shadow on his face just now, the change in his character, and the wearing of the little old ring which was no ornament to a handsome hand. Girls are quick to read such signs and feel their eloquence. Amy had fancied that perhaps a love trouble was at the bottom of the alteration, and now she was sure of it. Her keen eyes filled, and when she spoke again, it was in a voice that could be beautifully soft and kind when she chose to make it so.
“I know I have no right to talk so to you, Laurie, and if you weren’t the sweetest-tempered fellow in the world, you’d be very angry with me. But we are all so fond and proud of you, I couldn’t bear to think they should be disappointed in you at home as I have been, though, perhaps they would understand the change better than I do.”
“I think they would,” came from under the hat, in a grim tone, quite as touching as a broken one.
“They ought to have told me, and not let me go blundering and scolding, when I should have been more kind and patient than ever. I never did like that Miss Randal and now I hate her!” said artful Amy, wishing to be sure of her facts this time.
“Hang Miss Randal!” and Laurie knocked the hat off his face with a look that left no doubt of his sentiments toward that young lady.
“I beg pardon, I thought…” and there she paused diplomatically.
“No, you didn’t, you knew perfectly well I never cared for anyone but Jo,” Laurie said that in his old, impetuous tone, and turned his face away as he spoke.
“I did think so, but as they never said anything about it, and you came away, I supposed I was mistaken. And Jo wouldn’t be kind to you? Why, I was sure she loved you dearly.”
“She was kind, but not in the right way, and it’s lucky for her she didn’t love me, if I’m the good-for-nothing fellow you think me. It’s her fault though, and you may tell her so.”
The hard, bitter look came back again as he said that, and it troubled Amy, for she did not know what balm to apply.
“I was wrong, I didn’t know. I’m very sorry I was so cross, but I can’t help wishing you’d bear it better, Teddy, dear.”
“Don’t, that’s her name for me!” and Laurie put up his hand with a quick gesture to stop the words spoken in Jo’s half-kind, half-reproachful tone. “Wait till you’ve tried it yourself,” he added in a low voice, as he pulled up the grass by the handful.
“I’d take it manfully, and be respected if I couldn’t be loved,” said Amy, with the decision of one who knew nothing about it.
Now, Laurie flattered himself that he had borne it remarkably well, making no moan, asking no sympathy, and taking his trouble away to live it down alone. Amy’s lecture put the matter in a new light, and for the first time it did look weak and selfish to lose heart at the first failure, and shut himself up in moody indifference. He felt as if suddenly shaken out of a pensive dream and found it impossible to go to sleep again. Presently he sat up and asked slowly, “Do you think Jo would despise me as you do?”
“Yes, if she saw you now. She hates lazy people. Why don’t you do something splendid, and make her love you?”
“I did my best, but it was no use.”
“Graduating well, you mean? That was no more than you ought to have done, for your grandfather’s sake. It would have been shameful to fail after spending so much time and money, when everyone knew that you could do well.”
“I did fail, say what you will, for Jo wouldn’t love me,” began Laurie, leaning his head on his hand in a despondent attitude.
“No, you didn’t, and you’ll say so in the end, for it did you good, and proved that you could do something if you tried. If you’d only set about another task of some sort, you’d soon be your hearty, happy self again, and forget your trouble.”
“Try it and see. You needn’t shrug your shoulders, and think, ‘Much she knows about such things’. I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am observing, and I see a great deal more than you’d imagine. I’m interested in other people’s experiences and inconsistencies, and though I can’t explain, I remember and use them for my own benefit. Love Jo all your days, if you choose, but don’t let it spoil you, for it’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the one you want. There, I won’t lecture any more, for I know you’ll wake up and be a man in spite of that hardhearted girl.”
Neither spoke for several minutes. Laurie sat turning the little ring on his finger, and Amy put the last touches to the hasty sketch she had been working at while she talked. Presently she put it on his knee, merely saying, “How do you like that?”
He looked and then he smiled, as he could not well help doing, for it was capitally done, the long, lazy figure on the grass, with listless face, half-shut eyes, and one hand holding a cigar, from which came the little wreath of smoke that encircled the dreamer’s head.
“How well you draw!” he said, with a genuine surprise and pleasure at her skill, adding, with a half-laugh, “Yes, that’s me.”
“As you are. This is as you were.” and Amy laid another sketch beside the one he held.
It was not nearly so well done, but there was a life and spirit in it which atoned for many faults, and it recalled the past so vividly that a sudden change swept over the young man’s face as he looked. Only a rough sketch of Laurie taming a horse. Hat and coat were off, and every line of the active figure, resolute face, and commanding attitude was full of energy and meaning. The handsome brute, just subdued, stood arching his neck under the tightly drawn rein, with one foot impatiently pawing the ground, and ears pricked up as if listening for the voice that had mastered him. In the ruffled mane, the rider’s breezy hair and erect attitude, there was a suggestion of suddenly arrested motion, of strength, courage, and youthful buoyancy that contrasted sharply with the supine grace of the ‘Dolce far Niente‘ sketch. Laurie said nothing but as his eye went from one to the other, Amy saw him flush up and fold his lips together as if he read and accepted the little lesson she had given him. That satisfied her, and without waiting for him to speak, she said, in her sprightly way…
“Don’t you remember the day you played Rarey with Puck, and we all looked on? Meg and Beth were frightened, but Jo clapped and pranced, and I sat on the fence and drew you. I found that sketch in my portfolio the other day, touched it up, and kept it to show you.”
“Much obliged. You’ve improved immensely since then, and I congratulate you. May I venture to suggest in ‘a honeymoon paradise’ that five o’clock is the dinner hour at your hotel?”
Laurie rose as he spoke, returned the pictures with a smile and a bow and looked at his watch, as if to remind her that even moral lectures should have an end. He tried to resume his former easy, indifferent air, but it was an affectation now, for the rousing had been more effacious than he would confess. Amy felt the shade of coldness in his manner, and said to herself…
“Now, I’ve offended him. Well, if it does him good, I’m glad, if it makes him hate me, I’m sorry, but it’s true, and I can’t take back a word of it.”
They laughed and chatted all the way home, and little Baptiste, up behind, thought that monsieur and madamoiselle were in charming spirits. But both felt ill at ease. The friendly frankness was disturbed, the sunshine had a shadow over it, and despite their apparent gaiety, there was a secret discontent in the heart of each.
“Shall we see you this evening, mon frere?” asked Amy, as they parted at her aunt’s door.
“Unfortunately I have an engagement. Au revoir, madamoiselle,” and Laurie bent as if to kiss her hand, in the foreign fashion, which became him better than many men. Something in his face made Amy say quickly and warmly…
“No, be yourself with me, Laurie, and part in the good old way. I’d rather have a hearty English handshake than all the sentimental salutations in France.”
“Goodbye, dear,” and with these words, uttered in the tone she liked, Laurie left her, after a handshake almost painful in its heartiness.
Next morning, instead of the usual call, Amy received a note which made her smile at the beginning and sigh at the end.
My Dear Mentor, Please make my adieux to your aunt, and exult within yourself, for ‘Lazy Laurence’ has gone to his grandpa, like the best of boys. A pleasant winter to you, and may the gods grant you a blissful honeymoon at Valrosa! I think Fred would be benefited by a rouser. Tell him so, with my congratulations.
Yours gratefully, Telemachus
“Good boy! I’m glad he’s gone,” said Amy, with an approving smile. The next minute her face fell as she glanced about the empty room, adding, with an involuntary sigh, “Yes, I am glad, but how I shall miss him.”