Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)
One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she lay so still, and putting down her book, sat looking at her with wistful eyes, trying to see signs of hope in the faint color on Beth’s cheeks. But she could not find enough to satisfy her, for the cheeks were very thin, and the hands seemed too feeble to hold even the rosy little shells they had been collecting. It came to her then more bitterly than ever that Beth was slowly drifting away from her, and her arms instinctively tightened their hold upon the dearest treasure she possessed. For a minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when they cleared, Beth was looking up at her so tenderly that there was hardly any need for her to say, “Jo, dear, I’m glad you know it. I’ve tried to tell you, but I couldn’t.”
“Is this what made you so unhappy in the autumn, Beth? You did not feel it then, and keep it to yourself so long, did you?” asked Jo, refusing to see or say that it was best […]
“Yes, I gave up hoping then, but I didn’t like to own it. I tried to think it was a sick fancy, and would not let it trouble anyone. But when I saw you all so well and strong and full of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I could never be like you, and then I was miserable, Jo.”
“Oh, Beth, and you didn’t tell me, didn’t let me comfort and help you? How could you shut me out, bear it all alone?”
Jo’s voice was full of tender reproach, and her heart ached to think of the solitary struggle that must have gone on while Beth learned to say goodbye to health, love, and life, and take up her cross so cheerfully.
“Perhaps it was wrong, but I tried to do right. I wasn’t sure, no one said anything, and I hoped I was mistaken. It would have been selfish to frighten you all when Marmee was so anxious about Meg, and Amy away, and you so happy with Laurie––at least I thought so then.”
“I want to [get better], oh, so much! I try, but every day I lose a little, and feel more sure that I shall never gain it back. It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped.”
“It shall be stopped, your tide must not turn so soon, nineteen is too young, Beth. I can’t let you go. I’ll work and pray and fight against it. I’ll keep you in spite of everything. There must be ways, it can’t be too late. God won’t be so cruel as to take you from me,” cried poor Jo rebelliously, for her spirit was far less piously submissive than Beth’s.
When the first bitterness was over, the family accepted the inevitable, and tried to bear it cheerfully, helping one another by the increased affection which comes to bind households tenderly together in times of trouble. They put away their grief, and each did his or her part toward making that last year a happy one.
The pleasantest room in the house was set apart for Beth, and in it was gathered everything that she most loved, flowers, pictures, her piano, the little worktable, and the beloved pussies. […] Here, cherished like a household saint in its shrine, sat Beth, tranquil and busy as ever, for nothing could change the sweet, unselfish nature, and even while preparing to leave life, she tried to make it happier for those who should remain behind.
It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come, for by–and–by, Beth said the needle was ‘so heavy’, and put it down forever. Talking wearied her, faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble flesh. Ah me! Such heavy days, such long, long nights, such aching hearts and imploring prayers, when those who loved her best were forced to see the thin hands stretched out to them beseechingly, to hear the bitter cry, “Help me, help me!” and to feel that there was no help. A sad eclipse of the serene soul, a sharp struggle of the young life with death, but both were mercifully brief, and then the natural rebellion over, the old peace returned more beautiful than ever. With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong, and though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim called was likewise the fittest, and waited with her on the shore, trying to see the Shining Ones coming to receive her when she crossed the river.
Seldom except in books do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances, and those who have sped many parting souls know that to most the end comes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth had hoped, the ‘tide went out easily’, and in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.
Posted: 22nd July 2019Categories: Literature