Excerpt from Little Women (Alcott, 1868), Chapter 28. This is the part where Meg hurt her dear husband by telling him that it’s hard to be poor 😦 I love the way she made up the remedy.
She knew her husband’s income, and she loved to feel that he trusted her, not only with his happiness, but what some men seem to value more–his money. She knew where it was, was free to take what she liked, and all he asked was that she should keep account of every penny, pay bills once a month, and remember that she was a poor man’s wife. Till now she had done well, been prudent and exact, kept her little account books neatly, and showed them to him monthly without fear. But that autumn the serpent got into Meg’s paradise, and tempted her like many a modern Eve, not with apples, but with dress. Meg didn’t like to be pitied and made to feel poor.
But the trifles cost more than one would imagine, and when she cast up her accounts at the end of the month the sum total rather scared her. John was busy that month and left the bills to her, the next month he was absent, but the third he had a grand quarterly settling up, and Meg never forgot it. A few days before she had done a dreadful thing, and it weighed upon her conscience. Sallie had been buying silks, and Meg longed for a new one, just a handsome light one for parties, her black silk was so common, and thin things for evening wear were only proper for girls. Aunt March usually gave the sisters a present of twenty-five dollars apiece at New Year’s. That was only a month to wait, and here was a lovely violet silk going at a bargain, and she had the money, if she only dared to take it. John always said what was his was hers, but would he think it right to spend not only the prospective five-and-twenty, but another five-and-twenty out of the household fund?
When she got home, she tried to assuage the pangs of remorse by spreading forth the lovely silk, but it looked less silvery now, didn’t become her, after all, and the words ‘fifty dollars’ seemed stamped like a pattern down each breadth. She put it away, but it haunted her, not delightfully as a new dress should, but dreadfully like the ghost of a folly that was not easily laid. When John got out his books that night, Meg’s heart sank, and for the first time in her married life, she was afraid of her husband. The kind, brown eyes looked as if they could be stern, and though he was unusually merry, she fancied he had found her out, but didn’t mean to let her know it. The house bills were all paid, the books all in order. John had praised her, and was undoing the old pocketbook which they called the ‘bank’, when Meg, knowing that it was quite empty, stopped his hand, saying nervously . . .”You haven’t seen my private expense book yet.”
John never asked to see it, but she always insisted on his doing so, and used to enjoy his masculine amazement at the queer things women wanted, and made him guess what piping was, demand fiercely the meaning of a hug-me-tight, or wonder how a little thing composed of three rosebuds, a bit of velvet, and a pair of strings, could possibly be a bonnet, and cost six dollars. That night he looked as if he would like the fun of quizzing her figures and pretending to be horrified at her extravagance, as he often did, being particularly proud of his prudent wife.
“Well, I don’t know that fifty is much for a dress, with all the furbelows and notions you have to have to finish it off these days.”
“It isn’t made or trimmed,” sighed Meg, faintly, for a sudden recollection of the cost still to be incurred quite overwhelmed her.
“Twenty-five yards of silk seems a good deal to cover one small woman, but I’ve no doubt my wife will look as fine as Ned Moffat’s when she gets it on,” said John dryly.
“I know you are angry, John, but I can’t help it. I don’t mean to waste your money, and I didn’t think those little things would count up so. I can’t resist them when I see Sallie buying all she wants, and pitying me because I don’t. I try to be contented, but it is hard, and I’m tired of being poor.” (my, not Alcott’s, italics)
The last words were spoken so low she thought he did not hear them, but he did, and they wounded him deeply, for he had denied himself many pleasures for Meg’s sake. She could have bitten her tongue out the minute she had said it, for John pushed the books away and got up, saying with a little quiver in his voice, “I was afraid of this. I do my best, Meg.” If he had scolded her, or even shaken her, it would not have broken her heart like those few words. She ran to him and held him close, crying, with repentant tears, “Oh, John, my dear, kind, hard-working boy. I didn’t mean it! It was so wicked, so untrue and ungrateful, how could I say it! Oh, how could I say it!”
He was very kind, forgave her readily, and did not utter one reproach, but Meg knew that she had done and said a thing which would not be forgotten soon, although he might never allude to it again. She had promised to love him for better or worse, and then she, his wife, had reproached him with his poverty, after spending his earnings recklessly. It was dreadful, and the worst of it was John went on so quietly afterward, just as if nothing had happened, except that he stayed in town later, and worked at night when she had gone to cry herself to sleep. A week of remorse nearly made Meg sick, and the discovery that John had countermanded the order for his new greatcoat reduced her to a state of despair which was pathetic to behold. He had simply said, in answer to her surprised inquiries as to the change, “I can’t afford it, my dear.”
Meg said no more, but a few minutes after he found her in the hall with her face buried in the old greatcoat, crying as if her heart would break.
They had a long talk that night, and Meg learned to love her husband better for his poverty, because it seemed to have made a man of him, given him the strength and courage to fight his own way, and taught him a tender patience with which to bear and comfort the natural longings and failures of those he loved.
Next day she put her pride in her pocket, went to Sallie, told the truth, and asked her to buy the silk as a favor. The good- natured Mrs. Moffat willingly did so, and had the delicacy not to make her a present of it immediately afterward. Then Meg ordered home the greatcoat, and when John arrived, she put it on, and asked him how he liked her new silk gown. One can imagine what answer he made, how he received his present, and what a blissful state of things ensued. John came home early, Meg gadded no more, and that greatcoat was put on in the morning by a very happy husband, and taken off at night by a most devoted little wife.