He was so little, the colored boy wedged in Abba's oven. I couldn't believe my eyes. He sat with his knees to his chin, shaking like a blob of jelly, and after a horrified moment I shrieked and slammed the door shut.
Louisa flew into the kitchen, swooped me up and clapped her hand over my mouth. She smelled of cinnamon apple tea. "You naughty girl," she hissed. "You were told to stay out of the kitchen. Why do you pay so little heed? We could go to jail if he were found."
I bawled in mortification. I adored Cousin Louisa. She was the nicest of the Alcott sisters, even though at eighteen she was ten years older than I and almost a grown-up. She put on wonderful plays and I didn't want her to be angry with me. She paused in the act of giving me a good shake, and I could see she was trying mightily to control her temper.
"It's all right, Susan, don't cry," she finally said. "He has to stay in there until dark and we don't want to be making a fuss over his presence. Don't be afraid."
"He won't be cooked, will he?"
"No, no, you silly little goose. He will be taken somewhere safe."
I was getting more interested now, and dying for another peek. "Why does he have to go?"
Louisa's chin, already square and formidable, grew even more so as she replied. "Because he is escaping slavery, which is an abomination. You hear me, Susan? Say it."
"Slavery is an abdom -- " I faltered. I could see the Brown girls watching from the doorway, and hoped their father would not come storming in the room, for he was a glowering man with fierce eyes and dark hair that stood straight up in front: his hair is as much afraid of him as I am, I thought.
"It is evil."
I nodded, clutching Louisa's hand.
She softened and smiled at me with a hint of forgiveness, so I dared to ask more.
"Can he play with me before he leaves?"
"He won't have time to play."
"But I want to be his friend," I said, thinking of those sad, fearful eyes.
Louisa leaned over and kissed the tip of my nose. "I will be your friend, Susan," she said. "I promise...if you obey me."
"Oh, yes," I breathed, delighted. "Always."
And so, on a fine spring day in 1850, it began -- a pledge of friendship that took us through thirty-eight years, warming my life even through pain; now she is gone and I sit here alone at my desk, wondering how to make sense of it all. Out the window, at the end of the short gravel walk from my shop to Main Street, the postman is stuffing yet more tributes in the mailbox, for I have promised to help dear Anna, now the only sister left, answer the overflow. After doing his best to tie the lid shut with a strand of rope, he catches a glimpse of me and mournfully tips his hat. All of Concord is mourning Louisa. Not just Concord; the entire country. Especially the children.
And I am left to face my own life -- my loves and jealousies -- lived so often in counterpoint to an adored friend who lived mainly in her head and on paper.
I want Louisa to be remembered for her good character and sturdy heart, beyond her success and fame -- and certainly beyond her father's trumpeting praise of her as "Duty's faithful child." But I also must trace the path that led us through the tantalizing possibilities she brought to life. What hopes she floated out onto the water! Her sailing ships were fragile vessels of paper filled with life and passion that I cheered on, time after time, wanting back something they could not always give.
I loved Louisa, perhaps more than anyone in my life. As a child, she thrilled me -- she was tall and thin, with gray eyes both fierce and funny, and moved sometimes awkwardly and other times with swift, sure grace. Her clothes always had an indifferent, patched-together look that I, kept harnessed by my proper parents in proper clothes, envied. She was so free and buoyant, she was once able to convince me that if I flapped my arms industriously enough, I would be able to fly. "Can you?" I asked, mouth falling open. "Of course," she said solemnly. "But I'm too busy writing my play to show you right now."
As I grew and changed, I saw her more for the complicated dreamer, the woman of many moods, she truly was. Through everything, my love never wavered.
And yet I betrayed her. Even though our friendship survived, nothing changes that fact.
"Susan, we have endured," she whispered from her deathbed. Was it but a week ago? How can that be, when her voice still echoes in my head?
"Oh Louy, we have. But at times it was a terrible journey," I replied, clinging to her hand.
"Our own Pilgrim's Progress."
I managed to smile, remembering how she would outfit her sisters and me with hats and sticks and lead us from the City of Destruction in the dark cellar to the Celestial City, which was just the dusty attic stocked with fruit and candy rewards. But Lou would dramatize the hazards along our way so vividly, my childish heart would thump with fear.
"I was most afraid of the lions and the hobgoblins," I whispered.
"You were brave, Susan. We had no choice, you know." She tried to smile, then coughed and pulled the quilt to her chin.
What did she mean, I wonder? Now I open the top drawer of my desk and stare at the letter waiting there that must be answered. The request for information from the earnest Ednah Dow Cheney, now clearly determined to become Louisa's biographer. It is time to pick up the pen and take a stab at being Duty's faithful child, at least this once.
Dear Mrs. Cheney,
I pray you will bear me no grudge for not addressing earlier the topic of your letter, but I needed to allow my own grieving to ease before replying. I understand the importance of your questions, but I do wonder if I offer anything that will be of value to you for your biography of Louisa.
In the time we served together as nurses in Washington during the war, there were indeed people who played a larger role in her life than most suspect. Yet that is often true, would you not agree? Especially for someone as celebrated as Louisa.
You ask about us. In truth, our friendship was not a conventional one with a predictable trajectory. It produced a shared lifetime marked by loss and missed opportunities as well as by joy. Do forgive me, but our small story is not one that fits comfortably into the image the world has of the author of Little Women.
I hesitate, then scratch out all but the first two sentences. Mrs. Cheney is too eager to know what happened at Union Hospital. Are there words adequate to convey that experience? I know why soldiers do not want to talk about their wartime adventures, for my own nightmares of pain and death haunted my dreams for years. War leaves memories one can neither face nor forget.
But that is not what pricks her curiosity. Industrious, conscientious writer that she is, her letter asks the question directly. Did Louisa ever find a man she loved? If so, who was he? And what happened? She looks for clues to Louisa's sadness, and she knocks at the right door, but I do not want to let her in. It is a burden I would be tempted to share, but only with one person, and that one person is certainly not Mrs. Cheney. Yet she persists, telling me I owe the story to history. If it isn't told now, she says, Louisa will become folklore, forever blended with her greatest creation, Jo March.
I lay down my pen. It is easier now to go back to staring out the window at the mailbox. Too easy. I am only putting off the inevitable, for although I can avoid Mrs. Cheney, I can no longer avoid my own questions. The memories will shake loose and choose their own course; there is nothing now I can do to stop them. Oh, how painful it is to face what I must ask of myself -- did I lose or find myself through Louisa? Did she consume me or set me free?
So I will start. At the cemetery.
I don my cloak and trudge up Main Street, past Monument Square, up Bedford Street and into the graveyard, wondering what self-punishment I am inflicting to make this journey yet again. My step slowing, I turn onto the narrow, winding path that takes me up the ridge, the cold, hard ground unyielding beneath my boots. A meandering rise, up past the Thoreaus and the Hawthornes, remembering, hearing; stopping at the Alcott plot. The two fresh coffins of Bronson and his daughter are still above the ground. They will remain here for now, for the earth is still too frozen to put them to final rest.
If I concentrate, I hear whispering back and forth. Even the faint echo of Bronson calling across the path to Nathaniel, still trying to break through the man's dark reticence as he was wont to do in life. Their homes were not much farther apart than their graves, and now they lie as neighbors for eternity.
I look to the right, to the next plot. I can hear Henry Thoreau's monotone as he discoursed on the wonders of communing with bullfrogs and Louisa's enthralled responses as she tried to tame this rude, clumsy man whom even Harvard could not civilize. He was certainly a sagacious observer of worms and plants and weather, but she saw more than that, and yearned for him to notice her. When I was a child, perhaps nine or ten, I saw only a cold, remote boor who chewed with his mouth open. I would sit spooning my soup when he came to dinner, watching him talk and slurp, and wonder why Louisa was all moony-eyed as she leaned forward to catch every word he spoke. I took to imitating his slurps, following each of his with one of mine, playing my own sly game. May started to copy me one night and I giggled, then choked, with disastrous consequences. Bronson's disapproval was daunting, but it was Louisa's hurt glance that truly chastened me.
We would laugh about that, now. If we could.
It takes a few moments to traverse the narrow path upward and reach the Emersons, Concord's royal family. Here the first crocuses are emerging, which is fitting, for this is the grandest spot on the hill. In life, Mr. Emerson housed his friends and dug into his pockets to give them money, and none was helped more by him than the philosophizing, work-scorning Bronson. And none more mortified by that kindness than Louisa.
And yet she lived to please her demanding father, even as he lived on the money of others and on her reputation. How should I think of the man? Indeed, Bronson was without band or rivet. But his vague mysticism was frequently contradicted by a furrowed brow and glaring eyes when someone challenged his will. Especially his daughter. Will I ever understand the power he exerted over Louisa? Oh, she would roll her eyes about him, but when he clutched her hand on his deathbed and pleaded, "I am going up, come with me," it took only two days for her to obey. If she had not, I believe he would be scolding her from beyond the grave for not dying on his timetable.
I am too harsh. What is the use of nurturing anger? Wasn't that what Louisa and I had to give up to remain friends? I stand before their graves tasting the sour energy of indignation, but it withers in the face of the memory of this dear family, these dear people, my dear Louisa, all gone. Only Anna remains.
We were third cousins, connected primarily by the abolitionist politics of Bronson and my father. My parents and I lived in New York and visited the Alcotts at least twice a year through my childhood, our visits never lasting more than a fortnight. How I looked forward to them! As an only child, that energetic household of four girls enthralled me. My father and Bronson would huddle with like-minded men in the parlor, arguing over how best to fight the Fugitive Slave Act. The men would shout and argue, but the only visitor who scared me was John Brown. Even my father seemed a bit nonplussed by his fire.
On one of those evenings, I think when I was nine, my thoughts turned back to the little boy I had found hiding in the oven.
"What happened to him?" I asked Louisa before drifting off to sleep.
"He's safe in a new home," she assured me. "Just like the colored man Papa was talking about tonight."
"The one called Shadrack?"
Louisa nodded. "That should teach the government not to try to ensnare a Massachusetts man. They'll not find him now." There was both pride and a touch of nervousness in her voice, for anyone aiding a fugitive was subject to a thousand-dollar fine and six months in jail. I shivered in my bed, wondering what jail was like.
Through those days, my sweet, scattered mother would try to help Abba Alcott make cakes and pies, but she would often wander away from half-worked dough to pick flowers for her hair, singing all the while. My mother -- unlike Louisa's -- never really finished anything. Even her kisses were but promises, coming close to my cheek and then floating away like feathers in the wind.
My cousins were my favorite playmates. Especially Louisa. She was so wonderfully daring, so full of fun. I followed her everywhere, trying to imitate her free and easy stride, her hearty laugh -- everything. No boy could be her friend until she had beaten him in a race. And no girl, unless she liked climbing trees and leaping over fences. Louisa taught me that rules for proper behavior were sometimes absurd and there was joy in breaking them. Around Louisa, I felt less fearful of adult disapproval. Sometimes she would go dark and gloomy, remorseful for some giddy adventure frowned upon by her father, and I would be bereft. But she always brightened again. Once when I was ten she marched me out to her favorite tree, pointed to an alarmingly high branch, and announced it was time for me to learn to hang by my knees. "I can't do that," I said, aghast.
"You wait, you'll be immensely proud of yourself when you succeed," she declared, proceeding to climb the tree and move out onto the branch. She swung herself backward, swaying lazily in the breeze. "Come on, Susan," she commanded.
I climbed, twisting my foot on a gnarled protruding root, beseeching her sympathy for my youth, my timidity, my awkwardness. Anything to keep from following her out onto that branch. And yet something made me go on. Didn't I want to be just like Louisa?
"Oh, stop complaining," she said calmly, swinging to and fro.
I inched outward, trying to tuck my skirts tight beneath my locked knees. With a deep breath, I swung backward.
"See? You're doing it."
"I can't. I'll fall on my head."
"Pretend you're a little monkey. You are, actually."
"I am not. And if Mama sees me, she'll scold me because my britches are showing." I gasped out the words. It was hard to talk, hanging upside down.
"It's worth it. Feel the breeze. Pretend you're hanging by your tail."
My knees were aching. I couldn't hold on much longer. How could she be so serene?
"Can you do handsprings?" she suddenly asked.
"No," I managed.
"I'll teach you. Let's go." She swung upward, grabbing the tree limb with both hands. I did the same, clutching a small branch for balance, wobbling to a sitting position. I climbed slowly down the tree, still dizzy with my own audacity.
Louisa jumped to the ground and brushed off her skirt. "Good job," she said, as I scrambled down behind her. She started to laugh. "I'll tell you a little secret, Susan. You're the only one who's taken my challenge."
"Don't look stricken. Aren't you proud of yourself?"
"Well, I'm willing to take chances," I said quickly.
"I like that. I'd say you are quite daring."
And that was that. I was full of pride and more determined than ever to keep proving to Louisa that her scrawny, undersized cousin was not a timid child.
Anna, the plainest of the four sisters, had quite a lovely singing voice, and although she was a bit prissy -- being the oldest -- she had the patience to listen in a way I learned to value. Once I showed her the sketchbook held with twine that Mama had fashioned for me after catching me sketching one of her lovely ball gowns. "You have quite an eye for fashion detail," Anna said, paging through my childish drawings. She gazed at me thoughtfully. "Here," she said, handing me a modest gown. "Take this old frock and remove all the stitching in the bodice."
I thought I had heard wrong, but she laughed at my surprise and urged me on. Then she jumbled the pieces and said, "Now put it together again, but give it a different neckline." What fun I had! "See? You have a skill," she said when all was done. "You now can cut through fabric without trepidation and make it be what you want."
I found that knowledge quite dazzling, although Louisa hooted down all domestic skills. The tomboy who could throw herself into a stack of dry leaves with a whoop and a holler and care not a fig what anyone thought had little use for needlework. And oh, the plays! After the time of my unfortunate peek into Abba's oven, Louisa wrote a grand one about helping escaping slaves, which she insisted we act out each time I visited -- although, truth be told, I tired of being assigned the part of the little colored boy and always worried someone would fire up the stove with me in it. Louisa was always writing wonderful stories. "I will be a famous writer, wait and see," she would declare, and I believed her totally.
Beth rarely acted, but she would provide musical accompaniment, as she was the only one able to pick out tunes on the wheezy old piano. She always seemed remote and ethereal to me, sitting there, smiling, a blue or pink ribbon bobbing in her curly hair. I overheard Mother whisper once to my father as Beth played, "A bit of a wind could blow that child away."
May, of course, the baby of the family, was the flippant one the adults loved to spoil and, from the start, my competition for attention. She teased me constantly about my nose until I caught her drawing picture of noses one day -- fine, Grecian noses, none of which looked remotely like her own. "Well, mine looks more like those pictures than yours does," I declared. She covered the page with her hand. "It does not," she retorted. "Well, I think it does," I said, "and that means you are envious of me, and that's a sin!" With this righteous declaration, I flounced off, mightily pleased with myself.
But May and I would put aside our differences when it came time to be part of one of Louisa's productions. What fun we had! Louy would retreat to the barn to write a script and then run to the house, hair flying, calling to us to come learn our lines and choose our costumes. She would stand in the loft, arms on her hips, and give a summary of her latest splendid tale with such fervor I would hang on every word. None of us ever questioned the fact that Louy always got to play the dashing hero or, if she so chose, the passionate, enterprising heroine. Why would we? She was always the best on play night, striding to the center of the parlor stage in front of the Emersons, the Channings, and the Hosmers, and whomever else Abba could cajole into coming, her voice ringing clear and strong as she saved threatened damsels and denounced dastardly villains.
"Oh Louy, I love Ernest L'Estrange, he's so romantic," Anna breathed, her plump cheeks flushed with color. It was the day we began rehearsing "The Curse of Castille," Louisa's best play ever, I thought. The hero she created was indeed thrilling, so thrilling that the Queen of Maltonia, denounced as a witch after falling in love with this strange commoner, refuses to betray her lover even as she is about to be burned at the stake. L'Estrange gallops into the flames on his horse, cuts her bonds with his sword, and swoops her up into his arms.
"He cradles her body with great tenderness, holding her with manful strength," Louisa said breathlessly. "Then she wraps her arms around his neck and shivers at the feel of his lips on her throat as they gallop away to safety." She spread her arms out wide and bowed before her enthralled audience of four. "The end."
"Wonderful, so exciting," sighed Anna, as we all clapped. "How do you make him so real?"
"He's the perfect man," Louisa announced. "He is strong and virile, and kind and true. He's the man I would love if I could find him!"
Beth giggled, pale hand to her lips. "I thought you never wanted to marry," she teased.
"I would give my heart to the right man," Lou retorted. "But I suspect he doesn't exist, so I've just had to make him up."
"Well, old Henry isn't Ernest L'Estrange, that's the truth," murmured May, trying to keep her voice low enough so Lou wouldn't hear.
But Louisa did hear. She cast one of her most forbidding frowns at her sister for this disparaging mention of Henry Thoreau. "I'll not stand one word against Henry," she said. "He comes closer to the grand design of what a man should be than anyone."
May wiggled impatiently. No one understood Louisa's fascination with the chilly, awkward Thoreau.
"He's too short," May said, undeterred. "And I'd be afraid he'd kiss me with asparagus in his teeth. Has he kissed you, Louy?"
"May! How dare you?" Louisa demanded angrily.
I kicked May with my foot, alarmed that Louisa would cancel our play and send us all back inside. "She didn't mean it," I said. "Please, let's keep going. It's a lovely play, and all the parts are wonderful! May, say you're sorry."
"I'm sorry, Lou, I'm just having fun. Anyway, I'm tired of practicing my lines. Let's choose costumes -- we have some new ones that Marmee sewed last night." May skipped over to a basket of fabrics by the barn door and plunged her hands in. "Oh, look, green doublets with plush puffs! From Marmee's old draperies, aren't they? Who wears them? Ernest L'Estrange? I want to wear them." She looked fretful, then her face cleared as she spied a large, wicked dagger made from tin. "Ooooh, can I carry that? I'm the villain, won't that work well?"
Louisa, back in the spirit of the day, handed it to her with a flourish just as I spied a garment stitched of red and green silk. I pulled it from the basket and held it up. It was a perfectly splendid cloak with an upright collar and a grand sweep of fabric that took my breath away. There were no goods of such quality in the Alcott home, even I knew that. Abba must have been given the material, perhaps by Mrs. Emerson. Come to think of it, it did look like a gorgeous comforter I had once spied on the Emerson bed.
"I love that," said Beth, her eyes shining.
Louisa, in the act of reaching for it, hesitated as she glanced at her little sister. Beth had one of her headaches that day, but she had loyally rehearsed as Lady Suzette with great eagerness, and Lou didn't want to deny her anything. "Then it is yours to wear," she said.
Beth took the cloak, stroking its folds. It was unusual for her to express a desire for something. She wrapped it around her body and was instantly swallowed up, her slight frame almost disappearing inside its splendor.
"It is pretty on you," offered May, with surprising generosity.
Beth laughed, removing the wrap. "Oh girls, it's too much for me. Lou, you're the only one who can wear this and do it justice. You have the flair for it."
"No -- " Lou began to protest.
Beth was firm. "It's your cloak. It's your glory cloak. You will do wonderful things wearing it, I am sure of it."
"Who is the weaver of tall tales now?" Lou said with a comical smile. But she took what was surely the grandest ever of our costume props and draped it over her shoulders, not all that reluctantly. It looked truly regal.
"Louy, you are the King of Everything," I said shyly.
When the typhoid epidemic hit in 1858, my parents ruled out all visits. I would stare out the window of our New York home each morning watching the death carts clatter by, masked workers stopping to pick up victims shoved out to the street -- sometimes wrapped only in sheets -- by families hoping to clear their houses of infection. As it worsened, we never left our house. I didn't worry when Mother first took to her bed -- she always did during her monthly -- but when I found my father lying on the floor and the servants gone, I knew. Within one week, both were dead. I pinned a ribbon on my mother's bosom and combed my father's hair before wrapping their bodies in our very best damask tablecloths. Then I hauled them out alone, weeping, expecting to be next with none to take care of me.
The epidemic finally ended. At the age of sixteen, although alive through no divine intercession I could perceive, I was spun loose of my moorings. An elderly spinster aunt who lived upstate first took me in, but I found no comfort in a home dominated by religion and righteousness. Aunt Hope confiscated immediately upon my arrival all items of "frivolity," which included not only all my mother's pretty things but my treasured sketchbook and package of charcoal, declaring I was not to be distracted from a responsible life. I soon learned that meant I was to be on my knees night and day thanking God that I had a roof over my head. I would have felt more grateful if Aunt Hope had believed in lighting a warm fire once in a while, but she considered cold toes and fingers somehow purifying. Some three months after my arrival I mustered the courage to protest, and she responded calmly.
"You've been spoiled, child," she proclaimed as we sat in her dingy parlor, inhaling dust from the heavy folds of her ancient, velvet drapes. "Your parents are dead, and God wants you to accept that. No more moping about, no pining, no weeping at night. Do you hear me? Not only is your protracted mourning unhealthy, it hinders your spiritual development. We must work on that. Now make the tea and we will pray together."
I cast about in my mind for an escape. Who could I turn to? Where was the warmth and love that I craved? Only in Concord.
That night I wrote to Louisa, scribbling a long letter smeared by tears, begging for rescue. Posting it secretly was difficult, but post it I did. I resolved not to let Aunt Hope consume me with her unending prayers.
Weeks went by. I checked the mail daily. Had Louisa forgotten me?
And then one cold October night there was an unexpected, sturdy hammering at the door. Aunt Hope opened it with caution, and when I heard the booming voice of Silas Forrest, owner of the hay fields next to the Alcotts' old place in Concord, I knew Louisa had not abandoned me.
"Madam, I'm here at the behest of Mr. and Mrs. Bronson Alcott to collect Miss Susan Gray," he announced in awkwardly formal fashion. "She's to be brought home to Concord, begging your pardon. Per her own wishes, I may add."
Aunt Hope turned to me, with something in her eyes I could not identify at the time, and know now was a form of hurt. I had a brief glimpse of her fragile, spinster-dry heart. She had done only what she was capable of, and the fact that it fell far short of what I needed did not spare her. "You want to leave?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Then you shall," she said, crisp as a cracker. The shift was speedily arranged. There were few necessary good-byes. I took time to nuzzle my aunt's ancient hearth cat, the only warm body in that home, and then packed my bags as quickly as I could, my heart light.
"I wish you well," Aunt Hope said after Mr. Forrest had loaded the carriage. "The Alcotts are the only other relatives you have who will take you, and you are probably delighted they are rabid abolitionists."
"Yes, ma'am." I stood on the porch step, pulling at my shawl.
"What is it, Susan?" she asked impatiently.
"I want my sketchbook."
"My book with my dress designs. You took it, and my mama gave it to me and I want it back."
Silas Forrest sat poised in the driver's seat, saying nothing. I stared at my aunt and refused to budge.
"Trash, your mind has nothing in it but trash," she muttered. She picked up her skirts and retreated to the library. I saw her open a drawer, caught a glimmer of my mother's diamond brooch, and then saw the blue leather cover of my precious book in her hands. My heart began hammering. She stalked back to the porch and thrust it rudely into my hands. "It is time for you to go," she said.
"I want my charcoal."
This time she said nothing as she returned to the library. Again I saw the glimmer of what could only be my mother's brooch as she opened the drawer. But when she withdrew a small chamois drawstring bag and brought it to me, dropping it disdainfully into my hand, I felt whole.
"Thank you," I said.
"So, that godless mother of yours managed to teach you some manners." She stepped back from the buggy, lacing her hands tight in front of her stomach. Clutching my sketchbook and charcoal, I climbed quickly in. Mr. Forrest tipped his hat to Aunt Hope, spoke softly to his horses, and we were off. I could not believe it. I was free. Louisa had saved me. I did not turn to wave good-bye.
Silas Forrest was not much of a talking man, and I traveled somewhat lonesomely, for he would not answer my questions about the family I so eagerly looked forward to joining. They'd had some "hard times," he said, but it wasn't for him to gossip, and they would tell me all. But he did volunteer one thing that kept me warm through that long journey. "Miss Alcott told me to take good care of you, that it's high time someone did," he said. That was worth the extra shawl I lacked to shield me better from the cold.
We stopped at an inn that night and reached Concord the next day near dusk. The Alcotts had moved to the outskirts of town since my last visit, and I squinted into the waning light to see the new home they called Orchard House. It was a simple brown clapboard house with a gabled roof and a center dormer over the entrance, set back from the road against a gentle slope of maple and oak trees. It looked inviting. I could see warm lights within, and my heart was beating fast as I ran up the path, aching to hear the laughter of the girls and smell the comforting cooking from Abba's kitchen.
The door flew open and there was Abba Alcott, comfortable, round Abba, standing in the passageway, her arms flung open in greeting. "Welcome back, dear," she said, her eyes soft and quite wet. "Such sad circumstances for you, and for us."
Behind her stood Louisa, looking much more grown-up than she had a year ago, and I suddenly felt shy. She seemed less tall to me, but her chin was surely as stubborn as my father's, something I hadn't noticed before. Her long, dark hair was parted severely in the center now, pulled so tight that a thin ribbon of pink scalp shone through. Nothing about her looked delightfully scattery, and I caught no liveliness in her eyes. No signal for fun. What had I expected? Furtively, I arranged my face. My parents were dead; what was wrong with me that I had half-skipped into this house, ready to play?
I glanced past Louisa and saw Anna in a plaid dress, her much more rounded body looking eerily like her mother's. May stood in the shadows, pulling on yellow curls and chewing on her fingernails. She, at least, reacted the way I had expected: not exactly welcoming, but with wary curiosity.
"Where is Beth?" I asked.
Abba sank against the door frame, shoulders heaving. With a cry, Anna rushed forward to hold her mother up. What had I done? May made a face, turned and fled. Only Louisa stepped forward and spoke to me directly.
"We've lost her, Susan. She died but a few months ago."
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" I burst into tears, knowing already that anything bad that happened to this family happened also to me. I longed at that moment, overgrown child that I was, for the beloved old rag doll that Aunt Hope had taken from me and tossed out when I first arrived at her home. I wanted to hug it now for comfort. But suddenly, Louisa was hugging me.
When she spoke, it was directly to her mother. "I think, Marmee," she said, her voice breaking slightly, "we now have a new sister to love."
Abba pulled herself straight, drying her tears. Louisa's words had produced the intended effect, and Abba rose to her duty. "Forgive me, Susan, dear. Our loss is still raw, but yours is even more so. Louisa, take her into the parlor, and I will bring in some apple cake."
"Don't worry, we are very happy you are here, especially me," Louisa whispered as she took my hand and led me forward. "Let's go say hello to Papa, who is in full gab. You know, one of his philosophical discourses."
We stepped into a small room with cream walls and dark pine floors. The floor was covered by a round braided rug, frayed at the edges, and Beth's old spinet stood against a wall at the foot of a back stairway. Resting against the outside parlor wall between two windows was a green horsehair sofa. On it, I recognized what we used to call Louisa's "mood pillow." In earlier years, when the pillow leaned at a comfortable angle, that meant Louisa was ready to laugh and play, but if it lay flat, we were supposed to tiptoe by and leave her alone. Tonight, it stood straight as a soldier snapping to attention.
The parlor flowed into a dining room, where a meal at the large cloth-covered table had obviously just been consumed. Bronson Alcott sat at the dining room table, bald on top with stringy gray hair, wearing knee breeches and a stained cravat, gesturing energetically as he argued with a portly companion whose nose had a strikingly prominent beak. I vaguely remembered seeing him before.
Bronson turned toward me without as much as a simple greeting and demanded: "We are discussing the role of women, which is, at its purest, to give moral example. Do you agree?"
"I don't know," I managed.
"Then hear my words, child. Women are more pure than men because they lack the malevolent passions." He redirected his gaze, now self-satisfied, toward his companion. "And that, my friend, is why they are in charge of shaping morality."
"I don't see why women should be responsible for men," I said. I had blurted the first thing that came to mind and immediately saw I had startled Bronson.
The other man chuckled and folded large hands over his waistcoat, tipping back in his chair. "A spirited response, my dear." He cast a slyly triumphant look at his host. "So much for your notion of the self-sacrificing nature of women, Bronson," he said.
"Susan -- " Lou gave my hand a squeeze. "You remember our neighbor, Mr. Emerson, don't you?"
I nodded, mortified. The benefactor of the Alcotts; how could I forget him? My father had warned me often about my impetuous mouth. I wanted to tell them quickly I was properly trained, not someone without manners; that I had a tendency to say what I thought, but, please, I knew better.
"Papa, Susan's been traveling a long time and is quite tired, I'm sure," Louisa said. "I'm going to take her upstairs and tuck her in."
Bronson surveyed me like a befuddled shepherd faced with a balky lamb. "Ah, yes, of course. Welcome. Your father was a fine man, and we will miss him." He gave me a wintry nod and a pat on the shoulder, then turned back to Emerson.
I stood numbly by as they deplored Southern talk of secession from the Union, until Louisa picked up the plate of apple cake Abba had silently set down and beckoned me to follow her. We climbed the narrow staircase in the front hall to her bedroom, where I took off my boots. Louisa pulled the newspaper out that lined them and tossed it away without comment. She tucked the boots into a small closet and handed me a flannel nightgown to wear as I stood shivering in the unfamiliar room. "Oh dear, you look like a scared mouse, Susan," she said as she sniffed my hair, then wrinkled her nose. "Well, I'm glad you're in a house now that can spare soap and water for washing. You were always such a tidy little creature, scrubbing your face and hands after our plays, pinning all that curly hair up on top of your head."
"I've hardly thought of it for many weeks, and wouldn't care if it were never washed again, as long as I could be here." I wiggled into the nightgown, savoring the soft comfort of the well-washed flannel. "I thought I would die in that gloomy, sour place. What would I have done if you hadn't saved me?"
"You're a resourceful girl, although I suspect you would have been glum forever and missed us dreadfully," she said with a smile. "Instead you get to confront Papa and Mr. Emerson and reshape the woman question for the Transcendentalists. Aren't you the fortunate one?"
"Was he angry just now?"
"Papa? Our dear old Plato? No, no, it does him good to get pulled up short once in a while. I've been performing that task since I was a child. And paying the price, of course." She smiled again, somewhat ruefully.
"You were wonderful at not being good all the time," I said, settling my bottom on the bed next to her. "I still remember the night you drank his cider in back of the barn and got tipsy."
"Now why would you remember that? Thinking of it makes me headachy and dizzy all over again."
"You couldn't walk straight," I offered.
"Must you remind me?"
I giggled. I felt warmer; less uncertain. "I emptied two basins for you that night to save you from discovery."
"Oh, Father knew when he saw his wild daughter looking ashen and clutching her stomach. But he never said anything. He did show tolerance." She picked at the rim of lace around her cuffs in an absentminded way. "You bring back such adventurous memories, dear. I'd like to feel that daring, that buoyant, again. But we all have to grow up and put youthful pleasures aside."
Her sober tone made me think of my own sudden somersault into maturity. My eyes filled with tears. "I miss my parents," I said, surprising myself with the blurted words.
"Of course, you do."
"Aunt Hope said I was mourning too much."
"Aunt Hope is an old bag of wind, and knows nothing. You miss them as I miss Beth."
I thought of quiet, timid Beth, who had been so easy to overlook. As a child I had thought of her more as a musical ornament, a pretty, frail girl who seemed happiest at the piano. She used to sneak me extra cookies.
"Do you remember when the five of us were sleeping in the attic that time when the wool-carder came running naked through the orchard..." I began timidly.
"Oh, goodness. Beth spotted him first, didn't she?"
"Under the full moon, dancing away."
Louisa began to giggle in that wonderful, throaty way I remembered. "What a hoot that was! That skinny, spindly man, loping among the trees...I can't remember Beth laughing more."
My voice tripped over the question, but I had to ask. "How did she die?"
Louisa's smile faded. "She was always frail, you know," she said.
I nodded, remembering how Lou would never let any of us quarrel with Beth, and how Abba was always running out to the barn on chilly days to drape an extra shawl over Beth's thin shoulders.
"The doctor called it consumption, but I think it was the aftermath of scarlet fever. She wasted away, slowly, day by day, and we could only watch, unable to do anything. We began bundling her each night in front of the fire, for she wouldn't stop sewing. She wouldn't rest. We would sit after dinner and watch her stitch away, making small remembrances for her friends -- a pen wiper, a needlebook -- until one night she put her needle down for the last time, saying it was too heavy." Louisa covered her face. "We put her to bed and she was gone within days."
"Oh Lou, that is unbearably sad."
"I know it is, but she was too good to live."
"Lou" -- my literal streak won out -- "goodness didn't kill her. Sickness did."
"Yes, of course, but why is it the truly good people who do no wrong to anyone are snatched away? I'm trying, trying to understand."
I nodded, unable to speak, thinking of my poor mother and father.
"She was so gentle, never prone to moods or anger -- oh, I wish I could be like her. If I could be, if I could approach life with her sweet gentleness, I wouldn't fear death." Louisa had pulled her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth. "I might even welcome it."
I could not believe my ears. This, from Lou, my bold friend who loved life with such passion? "Don't say such a dreadful thing," I pleaded. "It's wicked, Lou. Why would you say such a thing?"
"Oh dear, I've forgotten how you drink in my every word." She reached out and squeezed my hand. "Don't worry, I'm not thinking of doing away with myself, but I do so want to be a better person. I have a terrible temper and such an impetuous nature, I tend to spoil things. I can't indulge myself anymore. Papa can't seem to make any money, and when he does, it disappears. I need to support this family, do you understand? But I hate being a teacher. I want to do it with my writing -- and that means disciplining myself and becoming more serious."
Did I sense then that my Lou was already disappearing? Alarmed, I threw my arms around her.
"Spoil? Spoil? That isn't true! Was it impetuous to heed my plea and bring me here? To help a poor girl with nowhere else to turn? No, no, it was a warm and compassionate thing to do, and if that's what you call your 'impetuous nature,' I love it. I will repay it with loyalty all my life!"
She hugged me back, one of those great bear hugs unpoisoned by complexity that one remembers forever. "I rescued you because you are my dear little friend, and I couldn't leave you in such an unhappy place. I don't mean to frighten you. You know my dramatic nature; please don't be alarmed. But I'm sadder than I can say. How do I explain? When Beth died, a vital link in this family was taken away." Her eyes filled with tears that spilled down her cheeks. "We Alcotts are so woven together, the absence of one person alters us. But I'm going to fight. I don't want anything altered, I want us to stay as close and safe with each other as we've always been."
"I can't be Beth, but I will be a good sister, I swear I will. And things will get better."
"They will, I believe that, too. See? You've already raised my spirits. We have to support each other, don't we? If we do, maybe we can survive our losses together."
Her voice was so warm and serious, I hurried to answer. "Yes," I vowed. "Yes, yes."
She kissed the tip of my nose, just as she had that long-ago day in Abba's kitchen. "Now go to sleep. First thing tomorrow morning, we wash your hair."
Copyright © 2004 by Patricia O'Brien
A Novel of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton
The Glory Cloak
A Novel of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton
Through the Civil War and its chaotic aftermath to the apex of Louisa's fame as the author of Little Women and Lincoln's appointment of Clara to the job of finding and naming the war's missing and dead, this novel is ultimately the story of friendship between women -- women who broke the mold society set for them, while still reckoning with betrayal, love, and forgiveness.
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Reading Group Guide
1. In The Glory Cloak, historical fact and fiction blend seamlessly. How did you feel about rediscovering Louisa May Alcott through the eyes of a fictional character? Did reading this novel enhance your understanding of Louisa May Alcott?
2. Describe Susan's role in the Alcott family. How can she be considered both an integral member of the family and an outsider?
3. How would you characterize the early friendship between Louisa and Susan? How does it change over time? Was it realistic for them to think that that form of their friendship would last forever?
4. Quoting Emerson, Louisa says, "it is impossible to extricate ourselves from the times in which we live" (89). How is the novel as a whole guided by that statement? What famous Americans make appearances in the novel, and what do their presence add to the story?
5. At what point does Louisa cease to be the carefree, courageous girl of Susan's memory? Why? What unique burdens does she bear, and why won't she allow herself to enjoy the fruits of her labor?
6. What does Louisa's youthful enthusiasm -- even passion -- for Henry Thoreau reveal about her? How does it foreshadow her eventual relationship with John Sulie?
7. How would you describe Louisa's vision of the ideal family, and how does this vision shape her writing of Little Women? Why is Louisa so unreasonably upset about Anna's marriage? Similarly, what makes her relationship with her father see more