Back windows by Louisa May Alcott

Story type: Literature

As I sit working at my back window, I look out on a long row of other people’s back windows; and it is quite impossible for me to help seeing and being interested in my neighbours. There are a good many children in those houses; and though I don’t know one of their names, I know them a great deal better than they think I do. I never spoke a word to any of them, and never expect to do so; yet I have my likes and dislikes among them, and could tell them things that they have said and done, which would astonish them very much, I assure you.

First, the babies,–for there are three: the aristocratic baby, the happy-go-lucky baby, and the forlorn baby. The aristocratic baby lives in a fine, well-furnished room, has a pretty little mamma, who wears white gowns, and pink ribbons in her cap; likewise, a fond young papa, who evidently thinks this the most wonderful baby in Boston. There is a stout, motherly lady, who is the grandma, I fancy, for she is always hovering about ‘the dear’ with cups, blankets, or a gorgeous red worsted bird to amuse it. Baby is a plump, rosy, sweet-faced little creature, always smiling and kissing its hand to the world in general. In its pretty white frocks, with its own little pink or blue ribbons, and its young mamma proudly holding it up to see and be seen, my aristocratic neighbour has an easy life of it, and is evidently one of the little lilies who do nothing but blossom in the sunshine.

The happy-go-lucky baby is just able to toddle; and I seldom pull up my curtain in the morning without seeing him at his window in his yellow flannel night-gown, taking a look at the weather. No matter whether it rains or shines, there he is, smiling and nodding, and looking so merry, that it is evident he has plenty of sunshine bottled up in his own little heart for private use. I depend on seeing him, and feel as if the world was not right until this golden little sun rises to shine upon me. He don’t seem to have any one to take care of him, but trots about all day, and takes care of himself. Sometimes he is up in the chambers with the girl, while she makes beds, and he helps; then he takes a stroll into the parlour, and spins the gay curtain-tassels to his heart’s content; next, he dives into the kitchen (I hope he does not tumble downstairs, but I dare say he wouldn’t mind if he did), and he gets pushed about by all the busy women, as they ‘fly round.’ I rather think it gets too hot for him there about dinner-time; for he often comes out into the yard for a walk at noon, and seems to find endless wonders and delights in the ash barrel, the water-but, two old flower-pots, and a little grass plat, in which he plants a choice variety of articles, in the firm faith they will come up in full bloom. I hope the big spoon and his own red shoe will sprout and appear before any trouble is made about their mysterious disappearance. At night I see a little shadow bobbing about on the curtain, and watch it, till with a parting glimpse at a sleepy face at the window, my small sun sets, and I leave him to his dreams.

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The forlorn baby roars all day, and I don’t blame him; for he is trotted, shaken, spanked, and scolded by a very cross nurse, who treats him like a meal bag. I pity that little neighbour, and don’t believe he will stand it long; for I see him double up his tiny fists, and spar away at nothing, as if getting ready for a good tussle with the world by and by, if he lives to try it.

Then the boys,–bless their buttons!–how amusing they are. One young man, aged about ten, keeps hens; and the trials of that boy are really pathetic. The biddies get out every day or two, and fly away all over the neighbourhood, like feathers when you shake a pillow. They cackle and crow, and get up on sheds and fences, and trot down the streets, all at once, and that poor fellow spins round after them like a distracted top. One by one he gets them and comes lugging them back, upside down, in the most undignified attitude, and shuts them up, and hammers away, and thinks they are all safe, and sits down to rest, when a triumphant crow from some neighbouring shed tells him that that rascally black rooster is out again for another promenade. I’m not blood-thirsty; but I really do long for Thanksgiving that my neighbour Henry may find rest for the sole of his foot; for, not till his poultry are safely eaten will he ever know where they are.

Another boy has a circus about once a week, and tries to break his neck jumping through hoops, hanging to a rope by his heels, turning somersaults in the air, and frightening his mother out of her wits by his pranks. I suspect that he has been to see Leotard, and I admire his energy, for he is never discouraged; and, after tumbling flat, half-a-dozen times, he merely rubs his elbows and knees, and then up and takes another.

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There is a good, domestic boy, who brushes and curls his three little sisters’ hair every morning, and must do it very gently, for they seem to like it; and I often see them watch at the back gate for him, and clap their hands, and run to meet him, sure of being welcomed as little sisters like to be met by the big brothers whom they love. I respect that virtuous boy.

The naughty boy is very funny; and the running fight he keeps up with the cross cook is as good as a farce. He is a torment, but I think she could tame him, if she took the right way. The other day she wouldn’t let him in because she had washed up her kitchen and his boots were muddy. He wiped them on the grass, but that wouldn’t do; and, after going at her with his head down, like a battering ram, he gave it up, or seemed to; for, the minute she locked the door behind her and came out to take in her clothes, that sly dog whipped up one of the low windows, scrambled in, and danced a hornpipe all over the kitchen, while the fat cook scolded and fumbled for her key, for she couldn’t follow through the window. Of course he was off upstairs by the time she got in; but I’m afraid he had a shaking, for I saw him glowering fiercely as he came out later with a basket, going some ‘confounded errand.’ Occasionally his father brings him out and whips him for some extra bad offence, during which performance he howls dismally; but when he is left sitting despondently and miraculously on an old chair without any seat, he soon cheers up, boos at a strange cat, whistles to his dog,–who is just like him,–or falls back on that standing cure for all the ills that boys are heir to, and whittles vigorously. I know I ought to frown upon this reprehensible young person, and morally close my eyes to his pranks; but I really can’t do it, and am afraid I find this little black sheep the most interesting of the flock.

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The girls have tea-parties, make calls, and play mother, of course; and the sisters of the good boy have capital times up in a big nursery, with such large dollies that I can hardly tell which are the babies and which the mammas. One little girl plays about at home with a dirty face, tumbled hair, and an old pinafore on. She won’t be made tidy, and I see her kick and cry when they try to make her neat. Now and then there is a great dressing and curling; and then I see her prancing away in her light boots, smart hat, and pretty dress, looking as fresh as a daisy. But I don’t admire her; for I’ve been behind the scenes, you see, and I know that she likes to be fine rather than neat.

So is the girl who torments her kitty, slaps her sister, and runs away when her mother tells her not to go out of the yard. But the house-wifely little girl who tends the baby, washes the cups, and goes to school early with a sunshiny face and kiss all round, she, now, is a neighbour worth having, and I’d put a good mark against her name if I knew it.

I don’t know as it would be proper for me to mention the grown-up people over the way. They go on very much as the children do; for there is the lazy, dandified man, who gets up late, and drinks; the cross man, who swears at the shed-door when it won’t shut; the fatherly man, who sits among his children every evening, and the cheery old man up in the attic, who has a flower in his window, and looks out at the world with very much the same serene smile as my orange-coloured baby.

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The women, too, keep house, make calls, and play mother; and some don’t do it well either. The forlorn baby’s mamma never seems to cuddle and comfort him; and some day, when the little fist lies cold and quiet, I’m afraid she’ll wish she had. Then the naughty boy’s mother. I’m very sure, if she put her arms round him sometimes, and smoothed that rough head of his, and spoke to him as only mothers can speak, that it would tame him far better than the scoldings and thrashings: for I know there is a true boy’s heart, warm and tender, somewhere under the jacket that gets dusted so often. As for the fine lady who lets her children do as they can, while she trims her bonnet, or makes panniers, I wouldn’t be introduced to her on any account. But as some might think it was unjustifiable curiosity on my part to see these things, and an actionable offence to speak of them, I won’t mention them.

I sometimes wonder if the kind spirits who feel an interest in mortals ever take a look at us on the shady side which we don’t show the world, seeing the trouble, vanities, and sins which we think no one knows. If they love, pity, or condemn us? What records they keep, and what rewards they prepare for those who are so busy with their work and play that they forget who may be watching their back windows with clearer eyes and truer charity than any inquisitive old lady with a pen in her hand?

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