But For The Grace Of God
By Laura Schiller
Based on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The first time the March family come to Annegret Hummel's door, she's too dazed with fever, hunger and the aftereffects of childbirth to feel much of anything at all. She notes the ladylike Mrs. March putting a fresh diaper on the baby (better cloth than any in the house); the stout, rosy Miss Marches piling wood on the hearth and food on the table; she hears her children laughing and squealing with joy; she feels a cool hand on her forehead, hears a soft American voice saying words she only half understands, but knows to be kind.
She finds herself crying, and butchering the English she tried so hard to learn – Sank you, Madam, Gott bless you – while asking herself what in Heaven's name these people could want in return and whether she is even able to give it. When she offers to clean their house and wash their clothes, they brush her off with smiling speeches about Christmas and being neighborly. Without the brightness of their presence, the shack feels smaller and filthier than ever before.
"Must you go bringing our case and begging before strangers?" she asks her eldest son, who brought the Marches. "What will they think of us?"
"What was I do to, Mutti," Klaus snaps, "Leave you and the baby to die?"
"You could have at least waited until your father got home."
Her nine-year-old gives her a look, far too cynical for his age. They both know that since Annegret is too ill to pick up his wages at the factory gates, he will drink them up at the nearest tavern instead.
"No, you did right," she murmurs, holding out her hand from her prone position in the bed. "I am not angry. Come here."
Klaus squeezes her hand as gently as if she were a china doll, in danger of breaking.
Nine months later, scarlet fever is making the rounds of Concord's poor. Baby Thomas and three-year-old Minna are both dead, and when Klaus comes home from one of his begging expeditions with a white linen shroud, Annegret chokes on her unshed tears and is half tempted to tear the perfectly clean cloth to pieces.
"Never wore anything this fine in life, did she?" she mutters, wrapping up her daughter's small body with hands too quick to tremble. "So, now they remember us. Where's Miss Beth, then? Has she finally grown bored with her charity cases, like the rest of them?"
She knows she is being unjust, that the ladies are worried about their sick father in Washington and Miss Beth has been as kind and helpful as her shyness permits. At the moment, with Miss Beth not showing her face for two weeks, Annegret is disinclined to be just.
"Miss Beth is sick too," Klaus replies. "Because I fetched her when the baby was sick. If she dies too it will all be our fault."
Looking up, she sees shiny streaks on his cheeks and under his nose. For once, he looks his age.
"Ach mein Gott," is all Annegret can manage to say.
How will she ever look Mrs. March in the face again?
"No," she insists, as soon as Miss Beth appears at the door two months later. "No. You must not come to see us. No more."
The very sight of the girl, thin and white and half disappearing into her too-long coat, is enough to prove Annegret right.
"But why?" Beth's gray eyes open wider than ever in dismay. "I've missed you so, Mrs. Hummel, and the children too. If I've done anything to offend you, I am truly sorry – "
"No, no, Miss, nothing like that. Only – you cannot come here and make yourself ill again, yes? It is not safe. Your mother will not like it."
Miss Beth wilts like a snowdrop in a late frost, handing over the pan of fresh bread she has come to deliver.
"All right," she says. "I shan't come, if you prefer. Only, one more thing … "
"Meg and Mr. Brooke are engaged to be married … and she told me to ask if Lotty would be willing to keep house for them."
"Oh, I don't know … when Mr. Brooke returns from the war, probably."
Annegret is skeptical. Factory work pays better, to be sure, but the working conditions in those places are decidedly unhealthy. A house servant's position would be a fine thing for Lottchen, all things considered. However, if this betrothed of Miss Margaret's is killed, or breaks the engagement, all their hopes could still come to nothing.
Annegret remembers, with a heavy heart, just how much she needs a second source of income. Her husband is dead – the cause of one drink and one bar fight too many – and it is up to her to ensure the children's survival.
"If Miss Margaret gets married, Miss Beth, she is welcome to speak to us."
"Gather 'round, everybody," calls Lottchen, setting down a basket on the table with a promising thump. "Look what the gnädige Frau has given us!"
The children crowd around the table like puppies as she pulls out one foodstuff after another.
"One pot roast, which I daresay is very good between the raw and the burnt places … one flat but flavorful loaf of bread … one pot of porridge she dropped the saltshaker into when Master grabbed her from behind." The other children burst into giggles. "And last but not least, three jars of currant jelly. Mind it doesn't run off the bread." She grins to herself, savoring a funny story to tell them later.
Klaus stands off to one side, scowling, his arms folded. "What do they think we are," he mutters, quiet enough for only Annegret to hear. "Their own personal sewage system?"
"Oh, hold your tongue," says Annegret, glaring at him, even though she secretly agrees.
It has been five months since the Hummels heard the news of Miss Beth's passing away. They did not come to the funeral, having nothing appropriate to wear; however, they do visit her grave along with Minna's and the baby's after church.
That was the last they heard of the Marches – therefore, they are all the more surprised at the appearance of Miss Josephine March herself. She is tall, auburn-haired and distinctive as ever, holding the arm of a bearded gentleman in a tweed suit and fingerless gloves. Annegret feels nervous enough to be thankful that is is spring and the children are paying outside; no one will witness the scene if she makes a fool of herself.
"Miss Jo … ?"
"Mrs. Bhaer, if you please." Jo beams. "Allow me to present my husband, Professor Friedrich Bhaer. Fritz, this is Mrs. Hummel, our old friend and neighbor."
"Angenehm," says the Professor, shaking hands. "Wie geht es Ihnen?"
The name, the words and oh, that deferential form in which no one has spoken to her in ten years, all combine to hit her with a staggering wave of homesickness. She clings to his hand with both of hers, reluctant to let go.
"Professor, are you from Germany too?" she asks him in their native language.
"Yes, I am." He smiles. "From Berlin, to be exact. I was a lecturer on modern literature at the Humboldt University. How about you, Frau Hummel? You are from the South, am I correct?"
She can hear his polished High German accent by now, and she realizes that back home, they would most likely never have met. Today, however, she is far too happy to be ashamed of her country dialect as she replies.
"Yes, indeed, from Bayern. My husband was a farmer, until the crops failed and he brought us here to make our fortune. Not that we found one exactly," with an ironic laugh and a sweep of the hand indicating the one-roomed cottage. "But I get by."
"What do you do for a living, Frau Hummel?" asks the Professor, as gravely and politely as if he couldn't see the stains from the leaky roof or smell the reheated cabbage.
"Whatever I can, sir. I scrub floors, I take in washing." I turn a blind eye to my children begging and stealing. "My eldest daughter helps me. She's the maid at Herr and Frau Brooke's."
The Professor glances at his bride, who nods back. Just as Annegret wonders if she's being rude, ignoring one guest while focusing exclusively on the other, Mrs. Bhaer steps forward and smiles down at the older woman like a child on Christmas day.
"We came to ask you," she says, in surprisingly clear if accented German, "To work for us. My husband and me. We are going to open a school in the country, in a place called Plumfield, and you and the children can live with us, eat good food and wear good clothes. What do you say?"
"It is not charity, my good woman," the Professor adds, mock-sternly, but with twinkling eyes. "Mrs. Bhaer and I will expect you to do your duty conscientiously. As to your children, they will join the school and get an education, so that they may be fit to earn a better living – your service being all the payment required."
Annegret cannot stop the tears from overflowing her eyes and blurring her view of his friendly face. This is what she has longed for, all these years – for a chance to work, to pay off the debt. To reclaim her dignity.
"But why … why?" she asks. "Why do this for me, when you hardly know me?"
"English speakers have a saying," the Professor replies. "There, but for the grace of God, go I. Two years ago, I was a poor tutor in New York. I had to darn my own socks, patch my own coat … a queer sight, let me tell you." Annegret had to smile.
"When my brilliant wife employed me to teach at Plumfield, I knew my real life had finally begun. And since I cannot pay her back –"
"Oh, I could show you!" Mrs. Bhaer interrupted saucily.
" – I have decided to pay forward instead." He nodded to Annegret. "Well then, Frau Hummel? Do you have an answer to our offer?"
She does not hesitate to shake the Professor's hand this time: a fierce pump up and down, already signaling the energy she will throw into earning her living and her children's education.
"Yes. I accept. And I thank you, Professor and Madam, thank you with all my heart!"