Read CHAPTER XIII - WHAT BECOMES OF THE PINS of Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag‚Vol. 5 Jimmy's Cruise in the Pinafore‚Etc., free online book, by Louisa May Alcott, on

Miss Ellen was making a new pincushion, and a very pretty one it promised to be, for she had much taste, and spent half her time embroidering chair-covers, crocheting tidies, and all sorts of dainty trifles.  Her room was full of them; and she often declared that she did wish some one would invent a new sort of fancy-work, since she had tried all the old kinds till she was tired of them.  Painting china, carving wood, button-holing butterflies and daisies onto Turkish towelling, and making peacock-feather trimming, amused her for a time; but as she was not very successful she soon gave up trying these branches, and wondered if she would not take a little plain sewing for a change.

The old cushion stood on her table beside the new one; which was ready for its trimming of lace and ribbon.  A row of delicate new pins also lay waiting to adorn the red satin mound, and in the old blue one still remained several pins that had evidently seen hard service.

Miss Ellen was putting a dozen needles into her book, having just picked them out of the old cushion, and, as she quilted them through the flannel leaves, she said half aloud, —

“It is very evident where the needles go, but I really do wish I knew what becomes of the pins.”

“I can tell you,” answered a small, sharp voice, as a long brass pin tried to straighten itself up in the middle of a faded blue cornflower, evidently prepared to address the meeting.

Miss Ellen stared much surprised, for she had used this big pin a good deal lately, but never heard it speak before.  As she looked at it she saw for the first time that its head had a tiny face, with silvery hair, two merry eyes, and a wee mouth out of which came the metallic little voice that pierced her ear, small as it was.

“Dear me!” she said; then added politely, “if you can tell I should be very happy to hear, for it has long been a great mystery, and no one could explain it.”

The old pin tried to sit erect, and the merry eye twinkled as it went on like a garrulous creature, glad to talk after long silence: —

“Men make many wonderful discoveries, my dear, but they have never found that out, and never will, because we belong to women, and only a feminine ear can hear us, a feminine mind understand our mission, or sympathize with our trials, experiences, and triumphs.  For we have all these as well as human beings, and there really is not much difference between us when we come to look into the matter.”

This was such a curious statement that Miss Ellen forgot her work to listen intently, and all the needles fixed their eyes on the audacious pin.  Not a whit abashed it thus continued: —

“I am called ‘Granny’ among my friends, because I have had a long and eventful life.  I am hearty and well, however, in spite of this crick in my back, and hope to serve you a good while yet, for you seem to appreciate me, stout and ordinary as I look.

“Yes, my dear, pins and people are alike, and that rusty darning-needle need not stare so rudely, for I shall prove what I say.  We are divided into classes by birth and constitution, and each can do much in its own sphere.  I am a shawl pin, and it would be foolish in me to aspire to the duties of those dainty lace pins made to fasten a collar.  I am contented with my lot, however, and, being of a strong make and enterprising spirit, have had many adventures, some perils, and great satisfactions since I left the factory long ago.  I well remember how eagerly I looked about me when the paper in which I lived, with some hundreds of relations, was hung up in a shop window, to display our glittering ranks and tempt people to buy.  At last a purchaser came, a dashing young lady who bought us with several other fancy articles, and carried us away in a smart little bag, humming and talking to herself, in what I thought a very curious way.

“When we were taken out I was all in a flutter to see where I was and what would happen next.  There were so many of us, I could hardly hope to go first, for I was in the third row, and most people take us in order.  But Cora was a hasty, careless soul, and pulled us out at random, so I soon found myself stuck up in a big untidy cushion, with every sort of pin you can imagine.  Such a gay and giddy set I never saw, and really, my dear, their ways and conversation were quite startling to an ignorant young thing like me.  Pearl, coral, diamond, jet, gold, and silver heads, were all around me as well as vulgar brass knobs, jaunty black pins, good for nothing as they snap at the least strain, and my own relations, looking eminently neat and respectable among this theatrical rabble.  For I will not disguise from you, Miss Ellen, that my first mistress was an actress, and my life a very gay one at the beginning.  Merry, kind, and careless was the pretty Cora, and I am bound to confess I enjoyed myself immensely, for I was taken by chance with half a dozen friends to pin up the folds of her velvet train and mantle, in a fairy spectacle where she played the queen.  It was very splendid, and, snugly settled among the soft folds, I saw it all, and probably felt that I too had my part; humble as it was, it was faithfully performed, and I never once deserted my post for six weeks.

“Among the elves who went flitting about with silvery wings and spangled robes was one dear child who was the good genius of the queen, and was always fluttering near her, so I could not help seeing and loving the dear creature.  She danced and sung, came out of flowers, swung down from trees, popped up from the lower regions, and finally, when all the queen’s troubles are over, flew away on a golden cloud, smiling through a blaze of red light, and dropping roses as she vanished.

“When the play ended, I used to see her in an old dress, a thin shawl, and shabby hat, go limping home with a tired-looking woman who dressed the girls.

“I thought a good deal about ‘Little Viola,’ as they called her, — though her real name was Sally, I believe, — and one dreadful night I played a heroic part, and thrill now when I remember it.”

“Go on, please, I long to know,” said Miss Ellen, dropping the needle-book into her lap, and leaning forward to listen better.

“One evening the theatre took fire,” continued the old pin impressively.  “I don’t know how, but all of a sudden there was a great uproar, smoke, flames, water pouring, people running frantically about, and such a wild panic I lost my small wits for a time.  When I recovered them, I found Cora was leaning from a high window, with something wrapped closely in the velvet mantle that I pinned upon the left shoulder just under a paste buckle that only sparkled while I did all the work.

“A little golden head lay close by me, and a white face looked up from the crimson folds, but the sweet eyes were shut, the lips were drawn with pain, a horrible odor of burnt clothes came up to me, and the small hand that clutched Cora’s neck was all blistered with the cruel fire which would have devoured the child if my brave mistress had not rescued her at the risk of her own life. She could have escaped at first, but she heard Sally cry to her through the blinding smoke, and went to find and rescue her.  I dimly recalled that, and pressed closer to the white shoulder, full of pride and affection for the kind soul whom I had often thought too gay and giddy to care for anything but pleasure.

“Now she was calling to the people in the street to put up a ladder, and, as she leaned and called, I could see the crowds far down, the smoke and flame bursting out below, and hear the hiss of water as it fell upon the blazing walls.  It was a most exciting moment, as we hung there, watching the gallant men fix the long ladder, and one come climbing up till we could see his brave face, and hear him shout cheerily, —

“‘Swing from the window-sill, I’ll catch you.’

“But Cora answered, as she showed the little yellow head that shone in the red glare, —

“‘No, save the child first!’

“‘Drop her then, and be quick:  it’s hot work here,’ and the man held up his arms with a laugh, as the flames licked out below as if to eat away the frail support he stood on.

“All in one breathless moment, Cora had torn off the mantle, wrapped the child in it, bound her girdle about it, and finding the gaudy band would not tie, caught out the first pin that came to hand, and fastened it. I was that pin; and I felt that the child’s life almost depended upon me, for as the precious bundle dropped into the man’s hands he caught it by the cloak, and, putting it on his shoulder, went swiftly down.  The belt strained, the velvet tore, I felt myself bending with the weight, and expected every minute to see the child slip, and fall on the stones below.  But I held fast, I drove my point deeply in, I twisted myself round so that even the bend should be a help, and I called to the man, ‘Hold tight, I’m trying my best, but what can one pin do!’

“Of course he did not hear me, but I really believe my desperate efforts were of some use; for, we got safely down, and were hurried away to the hospital where other poor souls had already gone.

“The good nurse who undid that scorched, drenched, and pitiful bundle, stuck me in her shawl, and resting there, I saw the poor child laid in a little bed, her burns skilfully cared for, and her scattered senses restored by tender words and motherly kisses.  How glad I was to hear that she would live, and still more rejoiced to learn next day that Cora was near by, badly burned but not in danger, and anxious to see the child she had saved.

“Nurse Benson took the little thing in her arms to visit my poor mistress, and I went too.  But alas!  I never should have known the gay and blooming girl of the day before.  Her face and hands were terribly burnt, and she would never again be able to play the lovely queen on any stage, for her fresh beauty was forever lost.

“Hard days for all of us; I took my share of trouble with the rest, though I only suffered from the strain to my back.  Nurse Benson straightened me out and kept me in use, so I saw much of pain and patience in that great house, because the little gray shawl which I fastened covered a tender heart, and on that motherly bosom many aching heads found rest, many weary creatures breathed their last, and more than one unhappy soul learned to submit.

“Among these last was poor Cora, for it was very hard to give up beauty, health, and the life she loved, so soon.  Yet I do not think she ever regretted the sacrifice when she saw the grateful child well and safe, for little Sally was her best comforter, and through the long weeks she lay there half blind and suffering, the daily visit of the little one cheered her more than anything else.  The poor mother was lost in the great fire, and Cora adopted the orphan as her own, and surely she had a right to what she had so dearly bought.

“They went away together at last, one quite well and strong again, the other a sad wreck, but a better woman for the trial, I think, and she carried comfort with her.  Poor little Sally led her, a faithful guide, a tender nurse, a devoted daughter to her all her life.”

Here the pin paused, out of breath, and Miss Ellen shook a bright drop off the lace that lay in her lap, as she said in a tone of real interest, —

“What happened next?  How long did you stay in the hospital?”

“I stayed a year, for Nurse used me one day to pin up a print at the foot of a poor man’s bed, and he took such comfort in it they let it hang till he died.  A lovely picture of a person who held out his arms to all the suffering and oppressed, and they gathered about him to be comforted and saved.  The forlorn soul had led a wicked life, and now lay dying a long and painful death, but something in that divine face taught him to hope for pardon, and when no eye but mine saw him in the lonely nights he wept, and prayed, and struggled to repent.  I think he was forgiven, for when at last he lay dead a smile was on his lips that never had been there before.  Then the print was taken down, and I was used to pin up a bundle of red flannel by one of the women, and for months I lay in a dark chest, meditating on the lessons I had already learned.

“Suddenly I was taken out, and when a queer round pin-ball of the flannel had been made by a nice old lady, I was stuck in it with a party of fat needles, and a few of my own race, all with stout bodies and big heads.

“’The dear boy is clumsy with his fingers, and needs strong things to use,’ said the old lady, as she held the tomato cushion in both hands and kissed it before she put it into a soldier’s ‘comfort bag.’

“‘Now I shall have a lively time!’ I thought, and looked gaily about me, for I liked adventures, and felt that I was sure of them now.

“I cannot begin to tell you all I went through with that boy, for he was brave as a lion and got many hard knocks.  We marched, and camped, and fought, and suffered, but we never ran away, and when at last a Minie ball came smashing through the red cushion (which Dick often carried in his pocket as a sort of charm to keep him safe, for men seldom use pins), I nearly lost my head, for the stuffing flew out, and we were all knocked about in a dreadful way.  The cushion and the old wallet together saved Dick’s life, however, for the ball did not reach his brave heart, and the last I saw of him as I fell out of the hasty hand that felt for a wound was a soft look in the brave bright eyes, as he said to himself with a smile, —

“‘Dear old mother hasn’t lost her boy yet, thank God!’

“A colored lad picked me up, as I lay shining on the grass, and pins being scarce in those parts, gave me to his mammy, who kept me to fasten her turban.  Quite a new scene I found, for in the old cabin were a dozen children and their mothers making ready to go North.  The men were all away fighting or serving the army, so mammy led the little troop, and they marched off one day following the gay turban like a banner, for she had a valiant soul, and was bound to find safety and freedom for her children at all risks.

“In my many wanderings to and fro, I never made so strange a journey as that one, but I enjoyed it, full of danger, weariness and privation as it was; and every morning when mammy put on the red and yellow handkerchief I was proud to sit aloft on that good gray head, and lead the forlorn little army toward a land of liberty.

“We got there at last, and she fell to work over a washtub to earn the bread for the hungry mouths.  I had stood by her through all those weary weeks, and did not want to leave her now, but went off pinning a paper round some clean clothes on a Saturday morning.

“‘Now I wonder what will come next!’ I thought, as Thomas Jefferson, or ‘Jeff,’ as they called him, went whistling away with the parcel through the streets.

“Crossing the park, he spied a lovely butterfly which had strayed in from the country; caught and pinned it on his hat to please little Dinah when he got home.  The pretty creature soon writhed its delicate life away, but its beauty attracted the eye of a pale girl hurrying along with a roll of work under her arm.

“‘Will you sell me that?’ she asked, and Jeff gladly consented, wondering what she would do with it.  So did I, but when we got to her room I soon saw, for she pinned the impaled butterfly against a bit of blue paper, and painted it so well that its golden wings seemed to quiver as they did in life.  A very poor place it was, but full of lovely things, and I grew artistic with just looking about me at the pictures on the walls, the flowers blooming on plates and panels, birds and insects kept for copies, and gay bits of stuff used as back-grounds.

“But more beautiful than anything she made was the girl’s quiet, busy life alone in the big city; for, she was hoping to be an artist, and worked day and night to compass her desire.  So poor, but so happy, I used to wonder why no one helped her and kept her from such hard, yet patient, waiting.  But no one did, and I could watch her toiling away as I held the butterfly against the wall, feeling as if it was a symbol of herself, beating her delicate wings in that close place till her heart was broken, by the cruel fate that held her there when she should have been out in the free sunshine.  But she found a good customer for her pretty work, in a rich lady who had nothing to do but amuse herself, and spent much time and money in fancy-work.

“I know all about it; for, one day an order came from the great store where her designs were often bought, and she was very happy painting some purple pansies upon velvet, and she copied her yellow butterfly to float above them.

“The poor insect was very dry, and crumbled at a touch, so my task there was done, and as my mistress rolled up the packet, she took me to fasten it securely, singing as she did so, for every penny was precious.

“We all went together to the rich lady, and she embroidered the flowers on a screen very like that one yonder.  I thought she would throw me away, I was so battered now, but she took a fancy to use me in various ways about her canvas work, and I lived with her all winter.  A kind lady, my dear, but I often wished I could suggest to her better ways of spending her life than everlasting fancy-work.  She never seemed to see the wants of those about her, never lent an ear to the poor, or found delight in giving of her abundance to those who had little, to brighten their lives; but sighed because she had nothing to do when the world was full of work, and she blessed with so many good gifts to use and to enjoy.  I hope she will see her mistake some day, and not waste all her life on trifles, else she will regret it sadly by and by.”

Here the pin paused with a keen glance at Miss Ellen, who had suddenly begun to sew with a bright color in her cheeks, for the purple pansies were on the screen that stood before her fire-place, and she recognized the portrait of herself in that last description.  But she did not fancy being lectured by a pin, so she asked with a smile as she plaited up her lace, —

“That is all very interesting, but you have not yet told me what becomes of the pins, Granny.”

“Pins, like people, shape their own lives, in a great measure, my dear, and go to their reward when they are used up.  The good ones sink into the earth and turn to silver, to come forth again in a new and precious form.  The bad ones crumble away to nothing in cracks and dust heaps, with no hope of salvation, unless some human hand lifts them up and gives them a chance to try again.  Some are lazy, and slip out of sight to escape service, some are too sharp, and prick and scratch wherever they are.  Others are poor, weak things, who bend up and lose their heads as soon as they are used.  Some obtrude themselves on all occasions, and some are never to be found in times of need.  All have the choice to wear out or to rust out.  I chose the former, and have had a useful, happy life so far.  I’m not as straight as I once was, but I’m bright still, my point is sharp, my head firm, and age has not weakened me much, I hope, but made me wiser, better, and more contented to do my duty wherever I am, than when I left my native paper long ago.”

Before Miss Ellen could express her respect for the worthy old pin, a dismal groan was heard from the blue cushion, and a small voice croaked aloud, —

“Alas, alas, I chose to rust out, and here I am, a miserable, worthless thing, whom no one can use or care for.  Lift the ruffle, and behold a sad contrast to the faithful, honest, happy Granny, who has told us such a varied tale.”

“Bless me, what possesses everything to-day!” exclaimed Miss Ellen, looking under the frill of the old cushion to see who was speaking now.  There to be sure she found a pin hidden away, and so rusty that she could hardly pull it out.  But it came creaking forth at the third tug, and when it was set up beside Granny, she cried out in her cheery way, —

“Try Dr. Emery, he can cure most cases of rust, and it is never too late to mend, neighbor.”

“Too late for me!” sighed the new comer.  “The rust of idleness has eaten into my vitals while I lay in my silken bed, and my chance is gone forever.  I was bright, and strong, and sharp once, but I feared work and worry, and I hid, growing duller, dimmer, and more useless every day.  I am good for nothing, throw me away, and let the black pins mourn for a wasted life.”

“No,” said Miss Ellen, “you are not useless, for you two shall sit together in my new cushion, a warning to me, as well as to the other pins, to choose the right way in time, and wear out with doing our duty, rather than rust out as so many do.  Thank you, Granny, for your little lecture.  I will not forget it, but go at once and find that poor girl, and help her all I can.  Rest here, you good old soul, and teach these little things to follow your example.”

As she spoke, Miss Ellen set the two pins in the middle of the red satin cushion, stuck the smaller pins round them, and hastened to put on her shawl lest something should prevent her from going.

“Take me with you; I’m not tired, I love to work! use me, dear mistress, and let me help in the good work!” cried Granny, with a lively skip that sent her out upon the bureau.

So Miss Ellen pinned her shawl with the old pin instead of the fine brooch she had in her hand, and they went gaily away together, leaving the rusty one to bemoan itself, and all the little ones to privately resolve that they would not hide away from care and labor, but take their share bravely and have a good record to show when they went, at last where the good pins go.