The Cross on the
Old Church Tower
by Louisa May Alcott
UP the dark stairs that led to his poor home strode a
gloomy-faced young man with despair in his heart and these words on
"I will struggle and suffer no longer; my last hope has failed, and
life, become a burden, I will rid myself of at once."
As he muttered his stern purpose, he flung wide the door and was
about to enter, but paused upon the threshold; for a glance told him
that he had unconsciously passed his own apartment and come up
higher, till he found himself in a room poorer but more cheerful than
Sunshine streamed in through the one small window, where a caged
bird was blithely singing, and a few flowers blossomed in the light.
But blither than the bird's song, sweeter than the flowers, was the
little voice and wan face of a child, who lay upon a bed placed where
the warmest sunbeams fell.
The face turned smiling on the pillow, and the voice said
"Come in, sir, Bess will soon be back if you will wait."
"I want nothing of Bess. Who is she and who are you?" asked the
intruder pausing as he was about to go.
"She is my sister, sir, and I'm 'poor Jamie' as they call me. But
indeed, I am not to be pitied, for I am a happy child, though it may
not seem so."
"Why do you lie there? are you sick?"
"No, I am not sick, though I shall never leave my bed again. See,
this is why;" and, folding back the covering, the child showed his
little withered limbs.
"How long have you lain here, my poor boy?" asked the stranger,
touched and interested in spite of himself.
"Three years, sir."
"And yet you are happy! What in Heaven's name have you to render
you contented, child?"
"Come sit beside me, and I'll tell you, sir; that is, if you please
I should love to talk with you, for it's lonely here when Bess is
Something in the child's winning voice, and the influence of the
cheerful room, calmed the young man's troubled spirit and seemed to
lighten his despair. He sat down at the bedside looking gloomily upon
the child, who lay smiling placidly as with skilful hands he carved
small figures from the bits of wood scattered round him on the
"What have you to make you happy, Jamie? Tell me your secret, for I
need the knowledge very much," said his new friend earnestly.
"First of all I have dear Bess," and the child's voice lingered
lovingly upon the name; "she is so good, so very good to me, no one
can tell how much we love each other. All day, she sits beside my bed
singing to ease my pain, or reading while I work; she gives me flowers
and birds, and all the sunshine that comes in to us, and sits there in
the shadow that I may be warm and glad. She waits on me all day; but
when I wake at night, I always see her sewing busily, and know it is
for me,—my good kind Bess!
"Then I have my work, sir, to amuse me; and it helps a little too,
for kind children always buy my toys, when Bess tells them of the
little boy who carved them lying here at home while they play out
among the grass and flowers where he can never be."
"What else, Jamie?" and the listener's face grew softer as the
cheerful voice went on.
"I have my bird, sir, and my roses, I have books, and best of all,
I have the cross on the old church tower. I can see it from my pillow
and it shines there all day long, so bright and beautiful, while the
white doves coo upon the roof below. I love it dearly."
The young man looked out through the narrow window and saw, rising
high above the house-tops, like a finger pointing heavenward, the old
gray tower and the gleaming cross. The city's din was far below, and
through the summer air the faint coo of the doves and the flutter of
their wings came down, like peaceful country sounds.
"Why do you love it, Jamie?" he asked, looking at the thoughtful
face that lit up eagerly as the boy replied,—
"Because it does me so much good, sir. Bess told me long ago about
the blessed Jesus who bore so much for us, and I longed to be as like
him as a little child could grow. So when my pain was very sharp, I
looked up there, and, thinking of the things he suffered, tried so
hard to bear it that I often could; but sometimes when it was too bad,
instead of fretting Bess, I'd cry softly, looking up there all the
time and asking him to help me be a patient child. I think he did; and
now it seems so like a friend to me, I love it better every day. I
watch the sun climb up along the roofs in the morning, creeping higher
and higher till it shines upon the cross and turns it into gold. Then
through the day I watch the sunshine fade away till all the red goes
from the sky, and for a little while I cannot see it through the dark.
But the moon comes, and I love it better then; for lying awake through
the long nights, I see the cross so high and bright with stars all
shining round it, and I feel still and happy in my heart as when Bess
sings to me in the twilight."
"But when there is no moon, or clouds hide it from you, what then,
Jamie?" asked the young man, wondering if there were no cloud to
darken the cheerful child's content.
"I wait till it is clear again, and feel that it is there, although
I cannot see it, sir. I hope it never will be taken down, for the
light upon the cross seems like that I see in dear Bessie's eyes when
she holds me in her arms and calls me her 'patient Jamie.' She never
knows I try to bear my troubles for her sake, as she bears hunger and
cold for mine. So you see, sir, how many things I have to make me a
"I would gladly lie down on your pillow to be half as light of
heart as you are, little Jamie, for I have lost my faith in everything
and with it all my happiness;" and the heavy shadow which had lifted
for a while fell back darker than before upon the anxious face beside
"If I were well and strong like you, sir, I think I should be so
thankful nothing could trouble me;" and with a sigh the boy glanced
at the vigorous frame and energetic countenance of his new friend,
wondering at the despondent look he wore.
"If you were poor, so poor you had no means wherewith to get a
crust of bread, nor a shelter for the night; if you were worn-out with
suffering and labor, soured by disappointment and haunted by
ambitious hopes never to be realized, what would you do, Jamie?"
suddenly asked the young man, prompted by the desire that every human
heart has felt for sympathy and counsel, even from the little creature
before him ignorant and inexperienced as he was.
But the child, wiser in his innocence than many an older
counsellor, pointed upward, saying with a look of perfect trust,—
"I should look up to the cross upon the tower and think of what
Bess told me about God, who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers,
and I should wait patiently, feeling sure he would remember me."
The young man leaned his head upon his folded arms and nothing
stirred in the room, but the wind that stole in through the roses to
fan the placid face upon the pillow.
"Are you weary waiting for me, Jamie dear? I could not come
before;" and as her eager voice broke the silence, Sister Bess came
The stranger, looking up, saw a young girl regarding him from
Jamie's close embrace, with a face whose only beauty was the light
her brother spoke of, that beamed warm and bright from her mild
countenance and made the poor room fairer for its presence.
"This is Bess, my Bess, sir," cried the boy, "and she will thank
you for your kindness in sitting here so long with me."
"I am the person who lodges just below you; I mistook this room for
my own; pardon me, and let me come again, for Jamie has already done
me good," replied the stranger as he rose to go.
"Bess, dear, will you bring me a cup of water?" Jamie said; and as
she hastened away, he beckoned his friend nearer, saying with a timid
"Forgive me, if it's wrong, but I wish you would let me give you
this; it's very little, but it may help some; and I think you'll take
it to please 'poor Jamie.' Won't you, sir?" and as he spoke, the child
offered a bright coin, the proceeds of his work.
Tears sprung into the proud man's eyes; he held the little wasted
hand fast in his own a moment, saying seriously,—
"I will take it, Jamie, as a loan wherewith to begin anew
the life I was about to fling away as readily as I do this;" and with
a quick motion he sent a vial whirling down into the street. "I'll try
the world once more in a humbler spirit, and have faith in you,
at least, my little Providence."
With an altered purpose in his heart, and a brave smile on his
lips, the young man went away, leaving the child with another happy
memory, to watch the cross upon the old church tower.
It was mid-winter; and in the gloomy house reigned suffering and
want. Sister Bess worked steadily to earn the dear daily bread so
many pray for and so many need. Jamie lay upon his bed, carving with
feeble hands the toys which would have found far readier purchasers,
could they have told the touching story of the frail boy lying meekly
in the shadow of the solemn change which daily drew more near.
Cheerful and patient always, poverty and pain seemed to have no
power to darken his bright spirit; for God's blessed charity had
gifted him with that inward strength and peace it so often brings to
those who seem to human eyes most heavily afflicted.
Secret tears fell sometimes on his pillow, and whispered prayers
went up; but Bess never knew it, and like a ray of sunshine, the
boy's tranquil presence lit up that poor home; and amid the darkest
hours of their adversity, the little rushlight of his childish faith
never wavered nor went out.
Below them lived the young man, no stranger now, but a true friend,
whose generous pity would not let them suffer any want he could
supply. Hunger and cold were hard teachers, but he learned their
lessons bravely, and though his frame grew gaunt and his eye hollow,
yet, at heart, he felt a better, happier man for the stern discipline
that taught him the beauty of self-denial and the blessedness of
loving his neighbor better than himself.
The child's influence remained unchanged, and when anxiety or
disappointment burdened him, the young man sat at Jamie's bedside
listening to the boy's unconscious teaching, and receiving fresh hope
and courage from the childish words and the wan face, always cheerful
With this example constantly before him, he struggled on, feeling
that if the world were cold and dark, he had within himself one true
affection to warm and brighten his hard life.
"Give me joy, Jamie! Give me joy, Bess! the book sells well, and we
shall yet be rich and famous," cried the young author as he burst
into the quiet room one wintry night with snow-flakes glittering in
his hair, and his face aglow with the keen air which had no chill in
it to him now.
Bess looked up to smile a welcome, and Jamie tried to cry "Hurrah;"
but the feeble voice faltered and failed, and he could only wave his
hand and cling fast to his friend, whispering, brokenly,—
"I'm glad, oh, very glad; for now you need not rob yourself for us.
I know you have, Walter; I have seen it in your poor thin face and
these old clothes. It never would have been so, but for Bess and me."
"Hush, Jamie, and lie here upon my arm and rest; for you are very
tired with your work,—I know by this hot hand and shortened breath.
Are you easy now? Then listen; for I've brave news to tell you, and
never say again I do too much for you,—the cause of my success."
"I, Walter," cried the boy; "what do you mean?"
Looking down upon the wondering face uplifted to his own, the young
man answered with deep feeling,—
"Six months ago I came into this room a desperate and despairing
man, weary of life, because I knew not how to use it, and eager to
quit the struggle because I had not learned to conquer fortune by
energy and patience. You kept me, Jamie, till the reckless mood was
passed, and by the beauty of your life showed me what mine should be.
Your courage shamed my cowardice; your faith rebuked my fears; your
lot made my own seem bright again. I, a man with youth, health, and
the world before me, was about to fling away the life which you, a
helpless little child, made useful, good, and happy, by the power of
your own brave will. I felt how weak, how wicked I had been, and was
not ashamed to learn of you the lesson you so unconsciously were
teaching. God bless you, Jamie, for the work you did that day."
"Did I do so much?" asked the boy with innocent wonder; "I never
knew it, and always thought you had grown happier and kinder because
I had learned to love you more. I'm very glad if I did anything for
you, who do so much for us. But tell me of the book; you never would
With a kindling eye Walter replied,—
"I would not tell you till all was sure; now, listen. I wrote a
story, Jamie,—a story of our lives, weaving in few fancies of my own
and leaving you unchanged,—the little counsellor and good angel of
the ambitious man's hard life. I painted no fictitious sorrows. What I
had seen and keenly felt I could truly tell,—your cheerful patience,
Bess's faithful love, my struggles, hopes, and fears. This book,
unlike the others, was not rejected; for the simple truth, told by an
earnest pen, touched and interested. It was accepted, and has been
kindly welcomed, thanks to you, Jamie; for many buy it to learn more
of you, to weep and smile over artless words of yours, and forget
their pity in their reverence and love for the child who taught the
man to be, not what he is, but what, with God's help, he will yet
"They are very kind, and so are you, Walter, and I shall be proud
to have you rich and great, though I may not be here to see it."
"You will, Jamie, you must; for it will be nothing without you;"
and as he spoke, the young man held the thin hand closer in his own
and looked more tenderly into the face upon his arm.
The boy's eyes shone with a feverish light, a scarlet flush burned
on his hollow cheek, and the breath came slowly from his parted lips,
but over his whole countenance there lay a beautiful serenity which
filled his friend with hope and fear.
"Walter bid Bess put away that tiresome work; she has sat at it all
day long, never stirring but to wait on me;" and as he spoke, a
troubled look flitted across the boy's calm face.
"I shall soon be done, Jamie, and I must not think of rest till
then, for there is neither food nor fuel for the morrow. Sleep,
yourself, dear, and dream of pleasant things; I am not very tired."
And Bess bent closer to her work, trying to sing a little song,
that they might not guess how near the tears were to her aching eyes.
From beneath his pillow Jamie drew a bit of bread, whispering to
his friend as he displayed it,—
"Give it to Bess; I saved it for her till you came, for she will
not take it from me, and she has eaten nothing all this day."
"And you, Jamie?" asked Walter, struck by the sharpened features of
the boy, and the hungry look which for a moment glistened in his eye.
"I don't need much, you know, for I don't work like Bess; but yet
she gives me all. Oh, how can I bear to see her working so for me,
and I lying idle here!"
As he spoke, Jamie clasped his hands before his face, and through
his slender fingers streamed such tears as children seldom shed.
It was so rare a thing for him to weep that it filled Walter with
dismay and a keener sense of his own powerlessness. Ho could bear any
privation for himself alone, but he could not see them suffer. He had
nothing to offer them; for though there was seeming wealth in store
for him, he was now miserably poor. He stood a moment, looking from
brother to sister, both so dear to him, and both so plainly showing
how hard a struggle life had been to them.
With a bitter exclamation, the young man turned away and went out
into the night, muttering to himself,—
"They shall not suffer; I will beg or steal first."
And with some vague purpose stirring within him, he went swiftly on
until he reached a great thoroughfare, nearly deserted now, but
echoing occasionally to a quick step as some one hurried home to his
"A little money, sir, for a sick child and a starving woman;" and
with outstretched hand Walter arrested an old man. But he only
wrapped his furs still closer and passed on, saying sternly,—
"I have nothing for vagrants. Go to work, young man."
A woman poorly clad in widow's weeds passed at that moment, and, as
the beggar fell back from the rich man's path, she dropped a bit of
silver in his hand, saying with true womanly compassion,—
"Heaven help you! it is all I have to give."
"I'll beg no more," muttered Walter, as he turned away burning with
shame and indignation; "I'll take from the rich what the poor
so freely give. God pardon me; I see no other way, and they
must not starve."
With a vague sense of guilt already upon him, he stole into a more
unfrequented street and slunk into the shadow of a doorway to wait
for coming steps and nerve himself for his first evil deed.
Glancing up to chide the moonlight for betraying him, he started;
for there, above the snow-clad roofs, rose the cross upon the tower.
Hastily he averted his eyes, as if they had rested on the mild,
reproachful countenance of a friend.
Far up in the wintry sky the bright symbol shone, and from it
seemed to fall a radiance, warmer than the moonlight, clearer than the
starlight, showing to that tempted heart the darkness of the yet
That familiar sight recalled the past; he thought of Jamie, and
seemed to hear again the childish words, uttered long ago, "God will
Steps came and went along the lonely street, but the dark figure in
the shadow never stirred, only stood there with bent head, accepting
the silent rebuke that shone down upon it, and murmuring, softly,—
"God remember little Jamie, and forgive me that my love for him led
As Walter raised his hand to dash away the drops that rose at the
memory of the boy, his eye fell on the ring he always wore for his
dead mother's sake. He had hoped to see it one day on Bess's hand,
but now a generous thought banished all others and with the energy of
an honest purpose be hastened to sell the ring, purchase a little food
and fuel, and borrowing a warm covering of a kindly neighbor, he went
back to dispense these comforts with a satisfaction he had little
thought to feel.
The one lamp burned low; a few dying embers lay upon the earth, and
no sound broke the silence but the steady rustle of Bess's needle,
and the echo of Jamie's hollow cough.
"Wrap it around Bess; she has given me her cloak, and needs it more
than I,—these coverings do very well;" and as he spoke, Jamie put
away the blanket Walter offered, and suppressing a shiver, hid his
purple hands beneath the old, thin cloak.
"Here is bread, Jamie; eat for Heaven's sake, no need to save it
now;" and Walter pressed it on the boy, but he only took a little,
saying he had not much need of food and loved to see them eat far
So in the cheery blaze of the rekindled fire, Bess and Walter broke
their long fast, and never saw how eagerly Jamie gathered up the
scattered crumbs, nor heard him murmur softly, as he watched them
with loving eyes,—
"There will be no cold nor hunger up in heaven, but enough for
all,—enough for all."
"Walter, you'll be kind to Bess when I am not here?" he whispered
earnestly, as his friend came to draw his bed within the ruddy circle
of the firelight gleaming on the floor.
"I will, Jamie, kinder than a brother," was the quick reply. "But
why ask me that with such a wistful face?"
The boy did not answer, but turned on his pillow and kissed his
sister's shadow as it flitted by.
Gray dawn was in the sky before they spoke again. Bess slept the
deep, dreamless sleep of utter weariness, her head pillowed on her
arms. Walter sat beside the bed, lost in sweet and bitter musings,
silent and motionless, fancying the boy slept. But a low voice broke
the silence, whispering feebly.
"Walter, will you take me in your strong arms and lay me on my
little couch beside the window? I should love to see the cross again,
and it is nearly day."
So light, so very light, the burden seemed, Walter turned his face
aside lest the boy should see the sorrowful emotion painted there,
and with a close embrace he laid him tenderly down to watch the first
ray climbing up the old gray tower.
"The frost lies so thickly on the window-panes that you cannot see
it, even when the light comes, Jamie," said his friend, vainly trying
to gratify the boy's wish.
"The sun will melt it soon, and I can wait,—I can wait, Walter;
it's but a little while;" and Jamie, with a patient smile, turned his
face to the dim window and lay silent.
Higher and higher crept the sunshine till it shone through the
frostwork on the boy's bright head; his bird awoke and carolled
blithely, but he never stirred.
"Asleep at last, poor, tired little Jamie; I'll not wake him till
the day is warmer;" and Walter, folding the coverings closer over the
quiet figure, sat beside it, waiting till it should wake.
"Jamie dear, look up, and see how beautifully your last rose has
blossomed in the night when least we looked for it;" and Bess came
smiling in with the one white rose, so fragrant but so frail.
Jamie did not turn to greet her, for all frost had melted from the
boy's life now; another flower had blossomed in the early dawn, and
though the patient face upon the pillow was bathed in sunshine,
little Jamie was not there to see it gleaming on the cross. God had
Spring showers had made the small mound green, and scattered
flowers in the churchyard. Sister Bess sat in the silent room alone,
working still, but pausing often to wipe away the tears that fell upon
a letter on her knee.
Steps came springing up the narrow stairs and Walter entered with a
beaming face, to show the first rich earnings of his pen, and ask her
to rest from her long labor in the shelter of his love.
"Dear Bess, what troubles you? Let me share your sorrow and try to
lighten it," he cried with anxious tenderness, sitting beside her on
the little couch where Jamie fell asleep.
In the frank face smiling on her, the girl's innocent eyes read
nothing but the friendly interest of a brother, and remembering his
care and kindness, she forgot her womanly timidity in her great
longing for sympathy, and freely told him all.
Told him of the lover she left years ago to cling to Jamie, and how
this lover went across the sea hoping to increase his little fortune
that the helpless brother might be sheltered for love of her. How
misfortune followed him, and when she looked to welcome back a
prosperous man, there came a letter saying that all was lost and he
must begin the world anew and win a home to offer her before he
claimed the heart so faithful to him all these years.
"He writes so tenderly and bears his disappointment bravely for my
sake; but it is very hard to see our happiness deferred again when
such a little sum would give us to each other."
As she ceased, Bess looked for comfort into the countenance of her
companion, never seeing through her tears how pale it was with sudden
grief, how stern with repressed emotion. She only saw the friend whom
Jamie loved and that tie drew her toward him as to an elder brother to
whom she turned for help, unconscious then how great his own need was.
"I never knew of this before, Bess; you kept your secret well" he
said, trying to seem unchanged.
The color deepened in her cheek; but she answered simply, "I never
spoke of it, for words could do no good, and Jamie grieved silently
about it, for he thought it a great sacrifice, though I looked on it
as a sacred duty, and he often wearied himself to show in many loving
ways how freshly he remembered it. My grateful little Jamie."
And her eyes wandered to the green tree-tops tossing in the wind,
whose shadows flickered pleasantly above the child.
"Let me think a little, Bess, before I counsel you. Keep a good
heart and rest assured that I will help you if I can," said Walter,
trying to speak hopefully.
"But you come to tell me something; at least, I fancied I saw some
good tidings in your face just now. Forgive my selfish grief, and see
how gladly I will sympathize with any joy of yours."
"It is nothing, Bess, another time will do as well," he answered,
eager to be gone lest he should betray what must be kept most closely
"It never will be told, Bess,—never in this world," he sighed
bitterly as he went back to his own room which never in his darkest
hours had seemed so dreary; for now the bright hope of his life was
"I have it in my power to make them happy," he mused as he sat
alone, "but I cannot do it, for in this separation lies my only hope.
He may die or may grow weary, and then to whom will Bess turn for
comfort but to me? I will work on, earn riches and a name, and if that
hour should come, then in her desolation I will offer all to Bess and
surely she will listen and accept. Yet it were a generous thing to
make her happiness at once, forgetful of my own. How shall I bear to
see her waiting patiently, while youth and hope are fading slowly, and
know that I might end her weary trial and join two faithful hearts?
Oh, Jamie, I wish to Heaven I were asleep with you, freed from the
temptations that beset me. It is so easy to perceive the right, so
hard to do it."
The sound of that familiar name, uttered despairingly, aloud, fell
with a sweet and solemn music upon Walter's ear. A flood of tender
memories swept away the present, and brought back the past. He
thought of that short life, so full of pain and yet of patience, of
the sunny nature which no cloud could overshadow, and the simple
trust which was its strength and guide.
He thought of that last night and saw now with clearer eyes the
sacrifices and the trials silently borne for love of Bess.
The beautiful example of the child rebuked the passion of he man,
and through the magic of affection strengthened generous impulses and
banished selfish hopes.
"I promised to be kind to Bess, and with God's help I will keep my
vow. Teach me to bear my pain, to look for help where you found it,
little Jamie;" and as he spoke, the young man gazed up at the shining
cross, striving to see in it not merely an object of the dead boy's
love, but a symbol of consolation, hope, and faith.
"It is a noble thing to see an honest man cleave his own heart in
twain to fling away the baser part of it."
These words came to Walter's mind and fixed the resolution wavering
there, and as his glance wandered from the gray tower to the
churchyard full of summer stillness, he said within himself,—
"This is the hardest struggle of my life, but I will conquer and
come out from the conflict master of myself at least, and like Jamie,
try to wait until the sunshine comes again, even if it only shine upon
me, dead like him."
It was no light task to leave the airy castles built by love and
hope, and go back cheerfully to the solitude of a life whose only
happiness for a time was in the memory of the past. But through the
weeks that bore one lover home, the other struggled to subdue his
passion, and be as generous in his sorrow as he would have been in
It was no easy conquest; but he won the hardest of all victories,
that of self, and found in the place of banished pride and bitterness
a patient strength, and the one desire to be indeed more generous than
a brother to gentle Bess. He had truly, "cleft his heart in twain and
flung away the baser part."
A few days before the absent lover came, Walter went to Bess, and,
with a countenance whose pale serenity touched her deeply, he laid
his gift before her, saying,—
"I owe this all to Jamie; and the best use I can make of it is to
secure your happiness, as I promised him I'd try to do. Take it and
God bless you, Sister Bess."
"And you, Walter, what will your future be if I take this and go
away to enjoy it as you would have me?" Bess asked, with an
earnestness that awoke his wonder.
"I shall work, Bess, and in that find content and consolation for
the loss of you and Jamie. Do not think of me; this money will do me
far more good in your hands than my own. Believe me it is best to be
so, therefore do not hesitate."
Bess took it, for she had learned the cause of Walter's restless
wanderings and strange avoidance of herself of late, and she judged
wisely that the generous nature should be gratified, and the hard-won
victory rewarded by the full accomplishment of its unselfish end. Few
words expressed her joyful thanks, but from that time Walter felt that
he held as dear a place as Jamie in her grateful heart, and was
Summer flowers were blooming when Bess went from the old home a
happy wife, leaving her faithful friend alone in the little room
where Jamie lived and died.
Years passed, and Walter's pen had won for him an honored name.
Poverty and care were no longer his companions; many homes were open
to him, many hearts would gladly welcome him, but he still lingered
in the gloomy house, a serious, solitary man, for his heart lay
beneath the daisies of a child's grave.
But his life was rich in noble aims and charitable deeds, and with
his strong nature softened by the sharp discipline of sorrow, and
sweetened by the presence of a generous love, he was content to dwell
alone with the memory of little Jamie, in the shadow of "the cross
upon the tower."