Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy (eds), The Journals of Louisa May Alcott
pg 88Editor’s Note1858
January, 1858. — Lizzie much worse; Dr. G. says there is no hope.1 A hard thing to hear; but if she is only to suffer, I pray she may go soon. She was glad to know she was to "get well," as she called it, and we tried to bear it bravely for her sake. We gave up plays; Father came home; and Anna took the housekeeping, so that Mother and I could devote ourselves to her. Sad, quiet days in her room, and strange nights keeping up the fire and watching the dear little shadow try to wile away the long sleepless hours without troubling me. She sews, reads, sings softly, and lies looking at the fire, — so sweet and patient and so worn, my heart is broken to see the change. I wrote some lines one night on "Our Angel in the House."2
[Jo and Beth. — L. M. A.]
Dear Betty is slipping away, and every hour is too precious to waste, so I'll keep my lamentations over Nan's [affairs] till this duty is over.
Lizzie makes little things, and drops them out of windows to the schoolchildren, smiling to see their surprise. In the night she tells me to be Mrs. Gamp, when I give her her lunch, and tries to be gay that I may keep up.3 Dear little saint! I shall be better all my life for these sad hours with you.
March 14th. — My dear Beth died at three this morning, after two years of patient pain.4 Last week she put her work away, saying the needle was "too heavy," and having given us her few possessions, made ready for the parting in her own simple, quiet way. For two days she suffered much, begging for ether, though its effect was gone. Tuesday she lay in Father's arms, and called us round her, smiling contentedly as she said, "All here!" I think she bid us good-by then, as she held our hands and kissed us tenderly. Saturday she slept, and at midnight became unconscious, quietly breathing pg 89her life away till three; then, with one last look of the beautiful eyes, she was gone.
A curious thing happened, and I will tell it here, for Dr. G. said it was a fact. A few moments after the last breath came, as Mother and I sat silently watching the shadow fall on the dear little face, I saw a light mist rise from the body, and float up and vanish in the air. Mother's eyes followed mine, and when I said, "What did you see?" she described the same light mist. Dr. G. said it was the life departing visibly.
For the last time we dressed her in her usual cap and gown, and laid her on her bed, — at rest at last. What she had suffered was seen in the face; for at twenty-three she looked like a woman of forty, so worn was she, and all her pretty hair gone.
On Monday Dr. Huntington read the Chapel service, and we sang her favorite hymn. Mr. Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Sanborn, and John Pratt, carried her out of the old home to the new one at Sleepy Hollow chosen by herself.5 So the first break comes, and I know what death means, — a liberator for her, a teacher for us.
April. — Came to occupy one wing of Hawthorne's house (once ours) while the new one was being repaired.6 Father, Mother, and I kept house together; May being in Boston, Anna at Pratt farm, and, for the first time, Lizzie absent. I don't miss her as I expected to do, for she seems nearer and dearer than before; and I am glad to know she is safe from pain and age in some world where her innocent soul must be happy.
Death never seemed terrible to me, and now is beautiful; so I cannot fear it, but find it friendly and wonderful.
May. — A lonely month with all the girls gone, and Father and Mother absorbed in the old house, which I don't care about, not liking Concord.7
On the 7th of April, Anna came walking in to tell us she was engaged to John Pratt; so another sister is gone. J. is a model son and brother, — a true man, — full of fine possibilities, but so modest one does not see it at once. He is handsome, healthy, and happy; just home from the West, and so full of love he is pleasant to look at.
I moaned in private over my great loss, and said I'd never forgive J. for taking Anna from me; but I shall if he makes her happy, and turn to little May for my comfort.
[Now that John is dead, I can truly say we all had cause to bless the day he came into the family; for we gained a son and brother, and Anna the best husband ever known.
pg 90For ten years he made her home a little heaven of love and peace; and when he died he left her the legacy of a beautiful life, and an honest name to his little sons. — L. M. A., 1873.]
June. — The girls came home, and I went to visit L[ouisa]. W[illis]. in Boston. Saw Charlotte Cushman, and had a stagestruck fit.8 Dr. W[illis]. asked Barry to let me act at his theatre, and he agreed. I was to do Widow Pottle, as the dress was a good disguise and I knew the part well. It was all a secret, and I had hopes of trying a new life; the old one being so changed now, I felt as if I must find interest in something absorbing. But Mr. B. broke his leg, so I had to give it up; and when it was known, the dear, respectable relations were horrified at the idea. I'll try again by-and-by, and see if I have the gift. Perhaps it is acting, not writing, I'm meant for. Nature must have a vent somehow.
July. — Went into the new house and began to settle. Father is happy; Mother glad to be at rest; Anna is in bliss with her gentle John; and May busy over her pictures. I have plans simmering, but must sweep and dust and wash my dish-pans a while longer till I see my way.
Worked off my stage fever in writing a story, and felt better;9 also a moral tale, and got twenty-five dollars, which pieced up our summer gowns and bonnets all round. The inside of my head can at least cover the outside.
August. — Much company to see the new house. All seem to be glad that the wandering family is anchored at last. We won't move again for twenty years if I can help it. The old people need an abiding place; and now that death and love have taken two of us away, I can, I hope, soon manage to care for the remaining four.
The weeklies will all take stories; and I can simmer novels while I do my housework, so see my way to a little money, and perhaps more by-and-by if I ever make a hit.
. . . . . . . .
My fit of despair was soon over, for it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over I could n't do it. So I said firmly, "There is work for me, and I'll have it," and went home resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.
Sunday Mr. Parker preached a sermon on "Laborious Young Women." Just pg 91what I needed; for it said: "Trust your fellow-beings, and let them help you. Don't be too proud to ask, and accept the humblest work till you can find the task you want."
"I will," said I, and went to Mr. P.'s. He was out; but I told Mrs. P. my wants, and she kindly said Theodore and Hannah would be sure to have something for me.10 As I went home I met Mrs. L[overing]., who had not wanted me, as Alice went to school. She asked if I was engaged, and said A. did not do well, and she thought perhaps they would like me back. I was rejoiced, and went home feeling that the tide had begun to turn. Next day came Miss H. S. to offer me a place at the Girls' Reform School at Lancaster, to sew ten hours a day, make and mend. I said I'd go, as I could do anything with a needle; but added, if Mrs. L. wants me I'd rather do that.
"Of course you had. Take it if it comes, and if not, try my work." I promised and waited. That eve, when my bag was packed and all was ready for Lancaster, came a note from Mrs. L. offering the old salary and the old place. I sang for joy, and next day early posted off to Miss S. She was glad and shook hands, saying "It was a test, my dear, and you stood it. When I told Mr. P. that you would go, he said, 'That is a true girl; Louisa will succeed.'"
I was very proud and happy; for these things are tests of character as well as courage, and I covet the respect of such true people as Mr. P. and Miss S.
So away to my little girl with a bright heart! for with tales and sewing for Mary, which pays my board, there I am fixed for the winter and my cares over. Thank the Lord!
My twenty-sixth birthday on the 29th. Some sweet letters from home, and a ring of A[nna].'s and J[ohn].'s hair as a peace-offering. A quiet day, with many thoughts and memories.
The past year has brought us the first death and betrothal, — two events that change my life. I can see that these experiences have taken a deep hold, and changed or developed me. Lizzie helps me spiritually, and a little success makes me more self-reliant. Now that Mother is too tired to be wearied with my moods, I have to manage them alone, and am learning that work of head and hand is my salvation when disappointment or weariness burden and darken my soul.
In my sorrow I think I instinctively came nearer to God, and found comfort in the knowledge that he was sure to help when nothing else could.
A great grief has taught me more than any minister, and when feeling pg 92most alone I find refuge in the Almighty Friend. If this is experiencing religion I have done it; but I think it is only the lesson one must learn as it comes, and I am glad to know it.
After my fit of despair I seem to be braver and more cheerful, and grub away with a good heart. Hope it will last, for I need all the courage and comfort I can get.
I feel as if I could write better now, — more truly of things I have felt and therefore know. I hope I shall yet do my great book, for that seems to be my work, and I am growing up to it. I even think of trying the "Atlantic." There's ambition for you! I'm sure some of the stories are very flat. If Mr. L. takes the one Father carried to him, I shall think I can do something.13
May came to B[oston]. and stayed with me while she took drawing lessons.14 Christmas at home. Write an Indian story.
["Notes and Memoranda"]
Concord. New home preparing. Buy lot at Sleepy Hollow & March 14th Lizzie goes to her new home after two years of suffering. We stay at Dr Peabody's till the house is ready.15 In April Nan is engaged to John Pratt. Pass the summer getting the house in order. In the fall Ab goes to the School of Design. I teach Alice Lovering & stay at Mr Seawall's. The others busy at home & things prospering. No more sewing or going to service for a living, thank the Lord!
Only An Actress.