Louisa May Alcott: The woman who wrote “Little Women” (1922)

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Louisa Alcott as a war nurse

One week, the customary letter did not arrive, and a hush of suspense fell upon us. Then came an official dispatch from the front: Miss Louisa Alcott had caught the fever, and was being invalided home.

The homeward journey was long, and to our misgivings, it was almost like a funeral, with the pain of uncertainty to boot. On my way home from school, I would call at the house for news, and go away heavy-hearted. Mrs Alcott would shake her head, pale and sad, and Abby’s eyelids were red and her smiles gone.

She came at last, a white, tragic mask of what she had been, but with a glimmer of a smile in the depths of her sunken eyes. Her spirit was indomitable, and it pulled her through. After some weeks she could be carried out of the house to sit in the sunshine; she got well, and her cheeriness and social animation returned, but there were occasional tones in her voice and expressions of eyes and mouth that indicated depths of which she could not speak.

Various little festivals and fairs were got up for the benefit of the soldiers, and Louisa was a natural protagonist. Her histrionic ability was marked, and she and her sisters would play scenes from Dickens; Mrs Gamp was Louisa’s favorite impersonation, and Anne was inimitable as Betsey Prig. Louisa organized the fairs and gatherings, and the “bees” for the making of socks and shirts for the army. Once it was learned that a company of soldiers were to come down the Boston highway — I forget for what reason — and would pass Apple Slump. It was decided that Concord should give them another sort of welcome than that stern one that met the British in 1775.

All households in the neighborhood contributed lemons and sugar, pitchers, bowls and glasses; we all set to work, and before the appointed hour lemonade enough had been made to flavor Walden Pond, almost, had it been emptied into it. Long boards resting on sawbucks served as tables and were placed alongside the road; lumps of ice of all sizes were brought, carefully protected; star-spangled banners filled the air. The Alcott girls and a score more of the prettiest in the village stood in white frocks to serve out the drinks. Louisa, in her hospital costume, conducted the ceremonies.

After anxious waiting outposts reported the appearance of a cloud of dust down the road. The boys in blue were coming! There was a gleam of gun barrels above ranks of bronzed visages and uniforms thick with dust, and the rhythmic undulation of marching men. They came on at a round pace, without music, and silent save for the serried tramp of their feet. As the commanding officers passed in the lead we waved our flags and shouted, the girls held up the brimming glasses; I saw a tear run down Louisa’s cheek. But the little column kept on without pausing; every man had his eyes to the front, for after two or three years of war, discipline was in the marrow of every Yankee soldier. There was a moment of consternation in our little group. Could it be that the rigidity of army rule would not permit the acceptance of our offering?

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The center and soul of the scene

Suddenly, when the central file of the company was opposite Apple Slump gate, the captain swung round on his heel and drew his sword; he uttered a command, the ranks halted, and out burst the beat and scream of drum and fife. The butts of sixty rifles thumped the ground as one: “Parade rest!” The men-at-arms relaxed into human beings, stretched their shoulders, tipped back their caps, wiped the sweat from their faces, and allowed their thirsty glances to rest upon the ice-tinkling refreshment awaiting them.

A pretty sight it was, those shy, excited, spotless girls fluttering up and down the line, back to the tables and forward again, fetching and carrying the dripping cups to and from the tanned and grimy fellows, who were part of those who stood between our pastoral tranquility and hell! Occasionally, while a man drank, a soft girl hand would venture to stroke the shining shaft of a rifle, or touch the hilt of the belted bayonet, with a caress that the man must have felt was meant for him.

But Louisa was the center and soul of the scene. Her greeting to the officer was cordial but brief; her chosen place was with the rank and file; she mingled and talked with them; those great black eyes of hers dimmed and brightened by turns; she knew the soldiers’ language and was sister and mother to them all. When one of our young Hebes would seek orders from her for a moment, the look she would turn upon her was unseeing and her words were mechanical; she was far away on the battlefields and in the hospitals, amid the wounded and the dying. Deep tremors passed through her; her smiles had the pathos of remembered pain. A kind of grandeur and remoteness invested her simple, familiar figure; scarlet flushes alternated with pallor in her checks. During that ten minutes’ halt she lived a lifetime.

The commands came sharp and short; the lines reformed instantly, rifles on shoulders, and fife and drum spoke again. The clump of men receded rapidly down the road, the afternoon sun making a vaporous veil of the dust that hung upon their steps. The bevy of girls, boys and old folks gazed after them, waving flags and handkerchiefs, till the soldiers had passed on to their destiny and the throb of music was stilled in the distance. But today, after sixty years, I can hear it, and see the little column turn the bend of the road past Moore’s barn.

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The insufferable English visitor

Louisa had been standing a little apart from the rest, one hand resting on a post of her father’s rustic fence. After the column had vanished she didn’t stir for several moments, while we busied ourselves with stripping the tables and removing the half-empty bowls and buckets. At last her old mother went up to her and put an arm gently round her waist. Then the tall girl faltered and drooped, and rested her forehead on her mother’s shoulder; but she recovered herself quickly and passed hurriedly up the pathway to the porch of the old house and disappeared within. We saw no more of her that day.

Pilgrims occasionally came from foreign parts to taste the transcendental springs at their source — Anthony Trollope and others; but they couldn’t divert the attention of us young folks from one another. One episode, however, touched me nearly.

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For some days, Abby and Louisa had been letting fall obscure allusions to the anticipated visit at Apple Slump of some relative of theirs, a young Englishman of rank, as I gathered, and distinguished in the London fashionable set. They seemed quite excited about it, Abby especially; he was said to be handsome and fascinating, and what was termed in those days “a sad dog.” As has been stated, I was in love with Abby myself, and I didn’t like her hardly disguised interest in the expected visitor; but I tried to calm myself with the reflection that he would be more apt to admire Louisa.

The date of his arrival was not fixed; March came and went and there was no news of him. I began to hope that his plans might have been changed. On the first day of the next month, the school had to play an important match game of hockey; it was not decided till near sunset, and by the time I came abreast of Apple Slump on my way home it was dusk. At the gate, chatting with Abby, I described a figure who could be no other than the Englishman. Abby beckoned me to approach.

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Much as my jealousy bristled against this person, I couldn’t deny his grace, charm and high-society bearing. He was slender and dark, and wore a black broadcloth suit and a soft black felt hat. His waistcoat and cravat, however, were rather too decorative for my taste; he twirled an absurd switch cane and occasionally caressed the points of a tiny black mustache; and as I came up, rough and disheveled in my hockey rig, he inserted a monocle in his right eye and fixed me with what Tennyson would have called “a stony British stare.”

I didn’t like him, the rather that in putting up the monocle he relinquished Abby’s hand, which he couldn’t have been holding without her consent.

On being introduced, however, he greeted me with insufferable condescension, and spoke in an airy, smiling tone, with marked English intonations. Meanwhile, by a quick contraction of the eye, he projected the monocle from its place, and with the easiest air imaginable slipped his arm ’round Abby’s waist. Nor did she flinch from him; on the contrary! I asked her where Louisa was. She said Louisa had to change her dress.

I felt sure I could thrash this fellow — he wasn’t so big as I; but my tenderness for Abby had been kept secret from the world, and one cannot protect the girl he cares for if she obviously does not want to be protected. I stepped back, and haughtily said that I guessed I’d be going home.

“Oh, I say, don’t be in a hurry, my dear child,” drawled this intolerable creature, flirting his cane with an effeminate gesture. “Do you know, I find you quite amusing.”

I stepped up to him again with my fists clenched; my wrath must have been visible in my crimson and distorted countenance. “Child” indeed!

He snatched off his hat and tossed it up in the air, thereby letting a thick mass of black hair fall down to his waist. He and Abby burst into shouts of laughter, and with arms around each other performed a wild saraband.

Then, enchanted with the success of her masquerade, and perhaps embarrassed at her pantaloons, Louisa fled up the path and into the house, “April fool!” coming back to me over her shoulder. Abby leaned against the gate, breathless and giggling; my own emotions were mingled and indescribable. There was not even anybody to be thrashed!

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