March a novel, p.14

March: a novel, page 14


March: a novel

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  Now, when I can view the matter at some emotional remove, I don’t think he saw himself as misleading any one of us. He truly believed-he had completely convinced himself-that there would be profit enough to cover all he had spent. When the canal was routed elsewhere and the land was sold as nearly worthless, my claim was only one of several of equal merit, none of which could be satisfied. In the end, I used the last of my wealth to pay off his other creditors, rather than see him jailed for fraud and his work for abolition ended.

  “But must it have been our entire capital?” Marmee asked, the day I unfolded to her the desperate state of our fortune. She was standing half turned away from me at the parlor window. Her hand stroked her swollen belly, for the news of my ruin had come as we awaited the birth of our fourth child. I moved to her, and embraced her, letting my hands rest on top of her own. I could not say that I had done it entirely to win her approbation. It would have been too cruel, and in any case, it was not, by then, entirely true. For if Brown had in some way seduced her, then he had seduced me, also. “He gives himself, entire.” I laid my face alongside hers and whispered my words in her ear. “He risks his very life. I was asked to risk only money. How then offer any less than all?” We stood there for some time, silent. I felt her body shuddering, and I knew that she wept. “The ravens feed the prophets,” I said. She turned her face then, and gave a crooked smile. “Do they so? Well, I hope someone has instructed them the way to Concord.” I kissed her tears away. We did not speak of it again.

  What does a man really need, after all, in a material way? Bread, shelter, a little raiment. The latter we had, even to being able to sell some excess cottons, silks, and woolens. What man can wear two coats, after all? I was glad to give up the garments on the peg rail that spoke to me of slave labor, worm slaughter, and sheep theft-for is not fleece the rightful property of the sheep? And why should the humble silkworm be sentenced to death for our finery? The one suit I kept was my humblest linen homespun.

  Our bread we could raise, thanks to my familiarity with the rites of the soil. Shelter, too, we had, although our lives within the large house had to undergo some substantial alteration. For the servants, we had to find other situations-all but the loyal Hannah, who insisted that she would stay with us no matter how paltry the amount we could now pay. We sold the horses and carriage, and went instead on foot or by the public conveyance. The elegant elm-wood dining table went elsewhere, replaced with a simple piece I fashioned myself The French sofas, likewise, departed to new homes, as did the silver service and the porcelain plate. Yet each loss was somehow compensated by Marmee’s genius and industry. When we let go a beloved painted screen, she dressed the place instead with yellow branches of maple or twists of scarlet woodbine. Her busy needle embroidered colorful cushions for the simple stools that had replaced our silken upholstery. And so we were rescued from deformity and dreariness by her graceful plainkeeping. If she lamented the end of her leisure, she did not let me see it: she sang those days more often than she ever had, and found time for merry play with the girls. The sound of their laughter was sweetened when, in the waning days of summer, it was seasoned with the piquancy of our newborn Amy’s cries.

  We had been very quiet about our reduced circumstances, partly out of a natural reticence and partly out of anxiety for Brown, whom neither of us wished to expose to public opprobrium. But friends could not help but notice the carts coming to take our belongings. And despite our best economies, before very long I became behindhand with my debts. Tradesmen will talk in the taverns, and so eventually all Concord knew that we were in a most depleted state. Good friends such as the Emersons and the Thoreaus helped us, with tact, inviting us more often to dine at their table, pleading surfeit of some produce or other and sending baskets to our door.

  I did note this, and set it down as yet one more of life’s injustices: that the man who has been wealthy is dunned more civilly than the fellow who has ever been poor. My creditors would come to me most graciously, diffident, if not downright apologetic, for asking what was theirs. It was as if I would be doing them a great, unlooked for kindness if only I would pay them a trifling sum on my outstanding debts. I would give them tea, and polite conversation, and, even when my answer to their just entreaty had to be a regretful, “Nothing, sir,” my mortification was always entirely self-inflicted, for their civility never failed.

  You might wonder that I did not start again and build a second fortune. But one must have seed capital to grow wealth and I was not a footloose youth anymore, who could take to the Virginia byways for as long as it took to earn an honest nest egg. What I could make with my pen and my preachments was spent before it was earned, servicing our debt and that one luxury that neither I nor Marmee could forswear; giving our mite to those unfortunates even poorer than we.

  And this, also: I had come in stages to a different belief about how one should be in this life. I now felt convinced that the greater part of a man’s duty consists in abstaining from much that he is in the habit of consuming. If I prolong my dark hours by the consumption of costly oil, then I waste both the life of the beast slaughtered for the purpose, and the clarity of mind which comes from timely sleep. If I indulge in coffee then I pay to pollute myself, when instead I could have a cleansing draught of water at no charge at all. None in our household ate meat, but now we learned to do without milk and cheese also, for why should the calf be deprived of its mother’s milk? Further, we found that by limiting our own consumption to two meals a day, we were able to set aside a basket of provisions from which the girls were able to exact a pleasure far greater than sating an animal appetite. Once a week, they carried the fruits of their sacrifice as a gift to a destitute brood of German immigrants.

  My aunt, who might have been liberal in our misfortune, chose instead to offer only a kind of assistance that she must have known would be entirely unwelcome. My uncle had died thinking me amply situated, and had quite reasonably therefore not made any provision for myself or my girls. Apart from some bequests to various Spindle Hill relations, that good man had left his entire estate in the bejeweled hands of his already wealthy wife. When she became apprised of my descent into poverty, she arrived at our home, unannounced and uninvited, and proceeded to hector me in the most scathing terms imaginable. She took no note of the fact that my two eldest, Meg and Jo, were present in the drawing room (our little Beth, even then, would flee at the mere rumor of company, and the baby was at her nap). I saw Marmee’s color rising, and planted my finger across my lips with the most meaning look I could muster. I saw her slight nod of acknowledgment, and the struggle in her face as she strove for self-mastery.

  But then, having done at last with berating me, Aunt March turned to her true object. She waved a lace-clad arm in the direction of our darling Meg. “I am willing to take her,” she declared with an exaggerated sigh of resignation. “I will adopt her forthwith, thus relieving you of the burden of at least one mouth to feed.”

  I glanced at my wife. No gesture from me would gainsay her now. The hand on my lips raised itself, instinctively, as a man would raise an arm to fend off a weight about to crash down upon his head.

  “Burden? You dare to call my darling girl a burden?” She was on her feet as if the chair had a spring which had propelled her upward, and was advancing on Aunt March most menacingly. I, too, was affronted, but I could not have my wife behave so. Not to an elderly relative who, whatever her conduct, had a claim on our respect. And not, certainly, in front of our impressionable little women.

  “Girls,” I said, low but urgent, “go outside now and play.” Meg, moist-eyed, mouth trembling, scuttled from the room. Jo, however, rose slowly, her brows drawn low over a pair of brown eyes that glinted-not with tears, but anger. She was glaring at her aunt, the very mirror of her mother’s fierce, wild face. “Go!” I said, raising my voice. The last thing I wanted was for her, especially, to witness her mother’s behavior, or the means by which I now felt compelled to curb it.

For the first time in such a case, I asserted myself, moving quickly toward Marmee and wrapping my arms around her as if she were one of the children, in the thrall of a childish tantrum. Yet she was no tiny girl, but a woman, and a strong one. She turned on me, swiveling in my arms, her face twisted in rage, and began to abuse me. I truly thought she might strike me. I tightened the grip of my right arm around her and clapped my left hand over her mouth. Using brute strength, I pushed her to the door and thrust her through it. As I let go my grip she wheeled around to face me, and I saw with dismay that the pressure of my hand had left a red mark on her cheek. As she began to push her way back into the room I had no alternative but to slam the door in her furious face. She pounded upon it with an angry fist. “Go into the garden, I beg you, my dear, and compose yourself,” I said, as calmly as I was able. “I will join you there directly.”

  “Don’t trouble!” came the terse, wrathful response from the other side of the door. I heard the quick tread of her step as she retreated, and then Hannah’s earthy, soothing voice, and I knew she was in safe hands. Hannah had long experience with the management of that temper.

  When I turned from the door and met my aunt’s eye, I saw a look of vindictive triumph. My affront at her want of tact turned then to an anger of my own. “We don’t give up our girls for a dozen fortunes, Aunt. Rich or poor, we will keep this family together and find a happiness in true affection that some will never know, because all the wealth in the world cannot buy it.”

  Aunt March’s lips thinned. She stood and limped past me, letting her silver-handled cane land heavily on floorboards laid bare by the sale of our Turkey carpet. At the door, she paused and turned. “Affection ? From that serpent-tongued harridan? I wish you joy of her.” And with that, she left our home, and our lives, for ten long years.

  I am not, as I have said, in the habit of imbibing ardents. But after that exchange I found myself in pursuit of the dregs of the portwine that I had been used, in better days, to offer to my guests. The chiffonier where I had stored such things was gone, and I was obliged to call on Hannah to find where the decanter might have been relocated. “Decanter?” She laughed. “We sold that a fortnight ago.” She handed me a preserve jar containing a finger-depth of fluid. Thus, only slightly fortified, I went in quest of Marmee.

  I found her in the pleasance, pacing the muddy brookside, ruining what I knew to be her last pair of decent boots. I saw to my dismay that the storm had not yet broken. I had learned the meteorology of Marmee’s temper: the plunging air pressure as a black cloud gathered, blotting out the radiance of her true nature; the noisy thunder of her rage; and finally the relief of a wild and heavy rain-tears, in copious cataracts, followed by a slew of resolutions to reform. But the dark cast of her expression told me we were still within the thunderhead, and as I approached she confirmed this by raising her voice to me.

  “You stifle me! You crush me! You preach emancipation, and yet you enslave me, in the most fundamental way. Am I not to have the freedom to express myself, in my own home? In the face of such insult ? You call our girls your ‘little women’; well, I am your belittled woman, and I am tired of it. Tired of suppressing my true feelings, tired of schooling my heart to order, as if I were some errant pupil and you the schoolmaster. I will not be degraded in this way.”

  “It is you,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, though my pulse beat in my head. “It is you who degrade yourself, when you forgo self-mastery.”

  At this, she stooped, picked up a clod of mud, and flung it at me. I tasted dirt. I did not move to wipe my face, but just stood there, letting the silt slide down my cheek, and turned my palms toward her in a speaking gesture. Then I reached for a switch from the weeping birch tree, and handed it to her. “Go ahead,” I said.

  She took the switch. It whipped through the air with a whistle. I felt the burn where it sliced against my cheek.

  Then the cloudburst. She ran toward me, the tears falling, and touched my bleeding face. I took the muddy fingers into my own hands and kissed them, was obliged to turn aside and spit a slimy fragment of leaf mold from my mouth. We laughed, and embraced, and as so often happened, the ardor of her anger turned to a more welcome sort of ardor, and we had to make our way privily back to the house so that Hannah and the girls would not see our disarray. From that day, her struggle for self-mastery took a more serious turn. “It might have been one of the children I struck,” she said, looking ill at the thought. The work was not accomplished in a month, or even a year. Perhaps it is still not done, entirely. But never since that day have the storms threatened to so completely engulf us.

  Effecting a reconciliation with my aunt also was not the work of a week. I thought it unseemly, in such a small town as ours, to be shunned by a near relation. As part of her penance, and her new resolution with regard to her conduct, Marmee called early on my Aunt March to offer an apology. But my aunt repulsed that, and every subsequent overture, maintaining an embittered silence. And so I could not go to her when it became necessary to mortgage the large house; even less when I was forced to sell it. Fortunately, the Emersons knew of a small brown cottage close to their home which was available for a trifling rental. To fund the sum, I chopped wood, and earned the princely figure of a dollar a day. By such measures we were able to remain in our beloved Concord. Meg and Jo wept bitterly on the day we left the only home they had known, but Jo soon found herself a writer’s aerie in the attic, and, using the skills I had learned as a boy on Spindle Hill, where all we had we made, I built her a drop-leaf table to use as a desk in the confined space. Marmee involved Meg in schemes for covering the shabby walls with rose bowers outside and pretty curtains within, and the girls helped in the design of our home’s first necessity, a safe place for our runaways. In doing this, their sense of their own misfortune fell into perspective and we saw no more tears.

  Not long after this move, Aunt March came to visit our neighbor, one James Laurence, a man of substance who had made his fortune in the India trade. The man was reclusive, and often abroad, and we had not come to know him. Aunt March, however, had known his wife, and kept up a slight acquaintance with the widower. As she was leaving our neighbor’s grand stone house, she was almost toppled over by Jo, racketing homeward with her head in a book. In her usual comical, blunt way, our wild girl cracked through ten years of ice. Those years had seen Aunt March become enfeebled, her lameness a real obstacle to her daily routines. And she was, I think, lonely in her large and dusty house; in any case, she offered Jo a paid position as her companion for part of each day. Since Meg had already gone out as a governess to help ease the family finances, Jo, too, was eager to find some way to contribute. But while Jo was widely liked by the families of our town, no one seemed to want a governess who was more disheveled, fey, and reckless than her young charges. So Jo took the position with my aunt, and to general surprise the seemingly ill-matched pair did remarkably well together. Jo was thick-skinned enough to brush off Aunt March’s barbs, and cheerful enough to brighten the old lady’s dull days.

  As well as the money, which was welcome, Jo’s compensation was the freedom she had of my uncle’s library. For some period each day, when my aunt napped or was occupied by company, she availed herself of the opportunity to read. If she had loved the place as a child, it was bliss to her now. Had I retained my fortune, I would have provided her tutors as fine as could be found, in this country or even abroad. Instead, she was left to scramble herself into whatever learning she could, with only her mother and myself for guidance. That room, full of its neglected books, became her university.

  For my Meg, I would have afforded leisure and the refinements of life, for which I know she pined, seeing them every day in the wealthy home of the King family. The elder sisters of the children for whom she cared were close to her in age, and just out. My Margaret saw the ball gowns and the hair ornaments that she could not have, and had to listen to merry chatter of theater parties and concerts that she could not join. It was a trial for
her indeed, for she was old enough to have formed expectations based on her privileged childhood, and could make a picture in her mind of what her life ought to have been.

  But would it have been better so? I am not convinced of it. For instead of idleness, vanity, or an intellect formed by the spoon-feeding of others, my girls have acquired energy, industry, and independence. In times as hard as these are now become, I cannot think this an unfortunate barter.


  Learning’s Altar

  Oak Landing, March 30, 1862

  My dearest,

  Today, at last, began the ginning of the cotton harvest. The apartment known as the lint room resembles nothing so much as Concord in a snowstorm, the fibers swirling like flakes, with a most wondrous lightness, and piling in a soft blanket on the floor. I was obliged to speak sternly to any number of the boys, who make a game of stealing into the lint room, to tumble in the soft cotton, their shiny faces standing out like lumps of coal. While the young ones love to play so, the work of supervising the ginning is not a task much sought after, as the cotton dust is inevitably drawn into one’s nostrils and from thence into the lungs. The men tie cloths about their faces to work in this unwholesome space.

  Now that our late harvest is in, I am hopeful that Mr. Canning may relax his stern regime. He already proves himself amenable to hints and suggestabns which lighten the lot of our laborers. I must thank you in advance for your work in securing those goods of which we stand so much in need. I know your powers of persuasion, and I look forward every day to a boat bearing the fruits of your offices. I have now written to all those I hope hold me still in some esteem, explaining the exigent situation here.

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