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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Story Of Experience - Chapter I. CHRISTIE
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A Story Of Experience - Chapter I. CHRISTIE Post by :BizSuccess Category :Long Stories Author :Louisa May Alcott Date :February 2011 Read :1115

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A Story Of Experience - Chapter I. CHRISTIE

CHAPTER I. CHRISTIE

"AUNT BETSEY, there's going to be a new Declaration of
Independence."

"Bless and save us, what do you mean, child?" And the startled old
lady precipitated a pie into the oven with destructive haste.

"I mean that, being of age, I'm going to take care of myself, and
not be a burden any longer. Uncle wishes me out of the way; thinks I
ought to go, and, sooner or later, will tell me so. I don't intend
to wait for that, but, like the people in fairy tales, travel away
into the world and seek my fortune. I know I can find it."

Christie emphasized her speech by energetic demonstrations in the
bread-trough, kneading the dough as if it was her destiny, and she
was shaping it to suit herself; while Aunt Betsey stood listening,
with uplifted pie-fork, and as much astonishment as her placid face
was capable of expressing. As the girl paused, with a decided thump,
the old lady exclaimed:

"What crazy idee you got into your head now?"

"A very sane and sensible one that's got to be worked out, so please
listen to it, ma'am. I've had it a good while, I've thought it over
thoroughly, and I'm sure it's the right thing for me to do. I'm old
enough to take care of myself; and if I'd been a boy, I should have
been told to do it long ago. I hate to be dependent; and now there's
no need of it, I can't bear it any longer. If you were poor, I
wouldn't leave you; for I never forget how kind you have been to me.
But Uncle doesn't love or understand me; I am a burden to him, and I
must go where I can take care of myself. I can't be happy till I do,
for there's nothing here for me. I'm sick of this dull town, where
the one idea is eat, drink, and get rich; I don't find any friends
to help me as I want to be helped, or any work that I can do well;
so let me go, Aunty, and find my place, wherever it is."

"But I do need you, deary; and you mustn't think Uncle don't like
you. He does, only he don't show it; and when your odd ways fret
him, he ain't pleasant, I know. I don't see why you can't be
contented; I've lived here all my days, and never found the place
lonesome, or the folks unneighborly." And Aunt Betsey looked
perplexed by the new idea.

"You and I are very different, ma'am. There was more yeast put into
my composition, I guess; and, after standing quiet in a warm corner
so long, I begin to ferment, and ought to be kneaded up in time, so
that I may turn out a wholesome loaf. You can't do this; so let me
go where it can be done, else I shall turn sour and good for
nothing. Does that make the matter any clearer?" And Christie's
serious face relaxed into a smile as her aunt's eye went from her to
the nicely moulded loaf offered as an illustration.

"I see what you mean, Kitty; but I never thought on't before. You be
better riz than me; though, let me tell you, too much emptins makes
bread poor stuff, like baker's trash; and too much workin' up makes
it hard and dry. Now fly 'round, for the big oven is most het, and
this cake takes a sight of time in the mixin'."

"You haven't said I might go, Aunty," began the girl, after a long
pause devoted by the old lady to the preparation of some compound
which seemed to require great nicety of measurement in its
ingredients; for when she replied, Aunt Betsey curiously interlarded
her speech with audible directions to herself from the receipt-book
before her.

AUNT BETSEY'S INTERLARDED SPEECH.

"I ain't no right to keep you, dear, ef you choose to take (a pinch
of salt). I'm sorry you ain't happy, and think you might be ef you'd
only (beat six eggs, yolks and whites together). But ef you can't,
and feel that you need (two cups of sugar), only speak to Uncle, and
ef he says (a squeeze of fresh lemon), go, my dear, and take my
blessin' with you (not forgettin' to cover with a piece of paper)."

Christie's laugh echoed through the kitchen; and the old lady smiled
benignly, quite unconscious of the cause of the girl's merriment.

"I shall ask Uncle to-night, and I know he won't object. Then I
shall write to see if Mrs. Flint has a room for me, where I can stay
till I get something to do. There is plenty of work in the world,
and I'm not afraid of it; so you'll soon hear good news of me.
Don't look sad, for you know I never could forget you, even if I
should become the greatest lady in the land." And Christie left the
prints of two floury but affectionate hands on the old lady's
shoulders, as she kissed the wrinkled face that had never worn a
frown to her.

Full of hopeful fancies, Christie salted the pans and buttered the
dough in pleasant forgetfulness of all mundane affairs, and the
ludicrous dismay of Aunt Betsey, who followed her about rectifying
her mistakes, and watching over her as if this sudden absence of
mind had roused suspicions of her sanity.

"Uncle, I want to go away, and get my own living, if you please,"
was Christie's abrupt beginning, as they sat round the evening fire.

"Hey! what's that?" said Uncle Enos, rousing from the doze he was
enjoying, with a candle in perilous proximity to his newspaper and
his nose.

Christie repeated her request, and was much relieved, when, after a
meditative stare, the old man briefly answered:

"Wal, go ahead."

"I was afraid you might think it rash or silly, sir."

"I think it's the best thing you could do; and I like your good
sense in pupposin' on't."

"Then I may really go?"

"Soon's ever you like. Don't pester me about it till you're ready;
then I'll give you a little suthing to start off with." And Uncle
Enos returned to "The Farmer's Friend," as if cattle were more
interesting than kindred.

Christie was accustomed to his curt speech and careless manner; had
expected nothing more cordial; and, turning to her aunt, said,
rather bitterly:

"Didn't I tell you he'd be glad to have me go? No matter! When I've
done something to be proud of, he will be as glad to see me back
again." Then her voice changed, her eyes kindled, and the firm lips
softened with a smile. "Yes, I'll try my experiment; then I'll get
rich; found a home for girls like myself; or, better still, be a
Mrs. Fry, a Florence Nightingale, or"--

"How are you on't for stockin's, dear?"

Christie's castles in the air vanished at the prosaic question; but,
after a blank look, she answered pleasantly:

"Thank you for bringing me down to my feet again, when I was soaring
away too far and too fast. I'm poorly off, ma'am; but if you are
knitting these for me, I shall certainly start on a firm
foundation." And, leaning on Aunt Betsey's knee, she patiently
discussed the wardrobe question from hose to head-gear.

"Don't you think you could be contented any way, Christie, ef I make
the work lighter, and leave you more time for your books and
things?" asked the old lady, loth to lose the one youthful element
in her quiet life.

"No, ma'am, for I can't find what I want here," was the decided
answer.

"What do you want, child?"

"Look in the fire, and I'll try to show you."

The old lady obediently turned her spectacles that way; and Christie
said in a tone half serious, half playful:

"Do you see those two logs? Well that one smouldering dismally away
in the corner is what my life is now; the other blazing and singing
is what I want my life to be."

"Bless me, what an idee! They are both a-burnin' where they are put,
and both will be ashes to-morrow; so what difference doos it make?"

Christie smiled at the literal old lady; but, following the fancy
that pleased her, she added earnestly:

"I know the end is the same; but it does make a difference how they
turn to ashes, and how I spend my life. That log, with its one dull
spot of fire, gives neither light nor warmth, but lies sizzling
despondently among the cinders. But the other glows from end to end
with cheerful little flames that go singing up the chimney with a
pleasant sound. Its light fills the room and shines out into the
dark; its warmth draws us nearer, making the hearth the cosiest
place in the house, and we shall all miss the friendly blaze when it
dies. Yes," she added, as if to herself, "I hope my life may be like
that, so that, whether it be long or short, it will be useful and
cheerful while it lasts, will be missed when it ends, and leave
something behind besides ashes."

Though she only half understood them, the girl's words touched the
kind old lady, and made her look anxiously at the eager young face
gazing so wistfully into the fire.

"A good smart blowin' up with the belluses would make the green
stick burn most as well as the dry one after a spell. I guess
contentedness is the best bellus for young folks, ef they would only
think so."

"I dare say you are right, Aunty; but I want to try for myself; and
if I fail, I'll come back and follow your advice. Young folks always
have discontented fits, you know. Didn't you when you were a girl?"

"Shouldn't wonder ef I did; but Enos came along, and I forgot 'em."

"My Enos has not come along yet, and never may; so I'm not going to
sit and wait for any man to give me independence, if I can earn it
for myself." And a quick glance at the gruff, gray old man in the
corner plainly betrayed that, in Christie's opinion, Aunt Betsey
made a bad bargain when she exchanged her girlish aspirations for a
man whose soul was in his pocket.

"Jest like her mother, full of hifalutin notions, discontented, and
sot in her own idees. Poor capital to start a fortin' on."

Christie's eye met that of her uncle peering over the top of his
paper with an expression that always tried her patience. Now it was
like a dash of cold water on her enthusiasm, and her face fell as
she asked quickly:

"How do you mean, sir?"

"I mean that you are startin' all wrong; your redic'lus notions
about independence and self-cultur won't come to nothin' in the long
run, and you'll make as bad a failure of your life as your mother
did of her'n."

"Please, don't say that to me; I can't bear it, for I shall never
think her life a failure, because she tried to help herself, and
married a good man in spite of poverty, when she loved him! You call
that folly; but I'll do the same if I can; and I'd rather have what
my father and mother left me, than all the money you are piling up,
just for the pleasure of being richer than your neighbors."

"Never mind, dear, he don't mean no harm!" whispered Aunt Betsey,
fearing a storm.

But though Christie's eyes had kindled and her color deepened, her
voice was low and steady, and her indignation was of the inward
sort.

"Uncle likes to try me by saying such things, and this is one reason
why I want to go away before I get sharp and bitter and distrustful
as he is. I don't suppose I can make you understand my feeling, but
I'd like to try, and then I'll never speak of it again;" and,
carefully controlling voice and face, Christie slowly added, with a
look that would have been pathetically eloquent to one who could
have understood the instincts of a strong nature for light and
freedom: "You say I am discontented, proud and ambitious; that's
true, and I'm glad of it. I am discontented, because I can't help
feeling that there is a better sort of life than this dull one made
up of everlasting work, with no object but money. I can't starve my
soul for the sake of my body, and I mean to get out of the treadmill
if I can. I'm proud, as you call it, because I hate dependence where
there isn't any love to make it bearable. You don't say so in words,
but I know you begrudge me a home, though you will call me
ungrateful when I'm gone. I'm willing to work, but I want work that
I can put my heart into, and feel that it does me good, no matter
how hard it is. I only ask for a chance to be a useful, happy woman,
and I don't think that is a bad ambition. Even if I only do what my
dear mother did, earn my living honestly and happily, and leave a
beautiful example behind me, to help one other woman as hers helps
me, I shall be satisfied."

Christie's voice faltered over the last words, for the thoughts and
feelings which had been working within her during the last few days
had stirred her deeply, and the resolution to cut loose from the old
life had not been lightly made. Mr. Devon had listened behind his
paper to this unusual outpouring with a sense of discomfort which
was new to him. But though the words reproached and annoyed, they
did not soften him, and when Christie paused with tearful eyes, her
uncle rose, saying, slowly, as he lighted his candle:

"Ef I'd refused to let you go before, I'd agree to it now; for you
need breakin' in, my girl, and you are goin' where you'll get it, so
the sooner you're off the better for all on us. Come, Betsey, we may
as wal leave, for we can't understand the wants of her higher nater,
as Christie calls it, and we've had lecterin' enough for one night."
And with a grim laugh the old man quitted the field, worsted but in
good order.

"There, there, dear, hev a good cry, and forgit all about it!"
purred Aunt Betsey, as the heavy footsteps creaked away, for the
good soul had a most old-fashioned and dutiful awe of her lord and
master.

"I shan't cry but act; for it is high time I was off. I've stayed
for your sake; now I'm more trouble than comfort, and away I go.
Good-night, my dear old Aunty, and don't look troubled, for I'll be
a lamb while I stay."

Having kissed the old lady, Christie swept her work away, and sat
down to write the letter which was the first step toward freedom.
When it was done, she drew nearer, to her friendly confidante the
fire, and till late into the night sat thinking tenderly of the
past, bravely of the present, hopefully of the future. Twenty-one
to-morrow, and her inheritance a head, a heart, a pair of hands;
also the dower of most New England girls, intelligence, courage, and
common sense, many practical gifts, and, hidden under the reserve
that soon melts in a genial atmosphere, much romance and enthusiasm,
and the spirit which can rise to heroism when the great moment
comes.

Christie was one of that large class of women who, moderately
endowed with talents, earnest and true-hearted, are driven by
necessity, temperament, or principle out into the world to find
support, happiness, and homes for themselves. Many turn back
discouraged; more accept shadow for substance, and discover their
mistake too late; the weakest lose their purpose and themselves; but
the strongest struggle on, and, after danger and defeat, earn at
last the best success this world can give us, the possession of a
brave and cheerful spirit, rich in self-knowledge, self-control,
self-help. This was the real desire of Christie's heart; this was to
be her lesson and reward, and to this happy end she was slowly yet
surely brought by the long discipline of life and labor.

Sitting alone there in the night, she tried to strengthen herself
with all the good and helpful memories she could recall, before she
went away to find her place in the great unknown world. She thought
of her mother, so like herself, who had borne the commonplace life
of home till she could bear it no longer. Then had gone away to
teach, as most country girls are forced to do. Had met, loved, and
married a poor gentleman, and, after a few years of genuine
happiness, untroubled even by much care and poverty, had followed
him out of the world, leaving her little child to the protection of
her brother.

Christie looked back over the long, lonely years she had spent in
the old farm-house, plodding to school and church, and doing her
tasks with kind Aunt Betsey while a child; and slowly growing into
girlhood, with a world of romance locked up in a heart hungry for
love and a larger, nobler life.

She had tried to appease this hunger in many ways, but found little
help. Her father's old books were all she could command, and these
she wore out with much reading. Inheriting his refined tastes, she
found nothing to attract her in the society of the commonplace and
often coarse people about her. She tried to like the buxom girls
whose one ambition was to "get married," and whose only subjects of
conversation were "smart bonnets" and "nice dresses." She tried to
believe that the admiration and regard of the bluff young farmers
was worth striving for; but when one well-to-do neighbor laid his
acres at her feet, she found it impossible to accept for her life's
companion a man whose soul was wrapped up in prize cattle and big
turnips.

Uncle Enos never could forgive her for this piece of folly, and
Christie plainly saw that one of three things would surely happen,
if she lived on there with no vent for her full heart and busy mind.
She would either marry Joe Butterfield in sheer desperation, and
become a farmer's household drudge; settle down into a sour
spinster, content to make butter, gossip, and lay up money all her
days; or do what poor Matty Stone had done, try to crush and curb
her needs and aspirations till the struggle grew too hard, and then
in a fit of despair end her life, and leave a tragic story to haunt
their quiet river.

To escape these fates but one way appeared; to break loose from this
narrow life, go out into the world and see what she could do for
herself. This idea was full of enchantment to the eager girl, and,
after much earnest thought, she had resolved to try it.

"If I fail, I can come back," she said to herself, even while she
scorned the thought of failure, for with all her shy pride she was
both brave and ardent, and her dreams were of the rosiest sort.

"I won't marry Joe; I won't wear myself out in a district-school for
the mean sum they give a woman; I won't delve away here where I'm
not wanted; and I won't end my life like a coward, because it is
dull and hard. I'll try my fate as mother did, and perhaps I may
succeed as well." And Christie's thoughts went wandering away into
the dim, sweet past when she, a happy child, lived with loving
parents in a different world from that.

Lost in these tender memories, she sat till the old moon-faced clock
behind the door struck twelve, then the visions vanished, leaving
their benison behind them.

As she glanced backward at the smouldering fire, a slender spire of
flame shot up from the log that had blazed so cheerily, and shone
upon her as she went. A good omen, gratefully accepted then, and
remembered often in the years to come.

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