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Little Women

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CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

FRIEND

Though very happy in the social atmosphere about her, and very busy with the daily work that earned her bread and made it sweeter for the effort, Jo still found time for literary labors. The purpose which now took possession of her was a natural one to a poor and ambitious girl, but the means she took to gain her end were not the best. She saw that money conferred power, money and power, therefore, she resolved to have, not to be used for herself alone, but for those whom she loved more than life. The dream of filling home with comforts, giving Beth everything she wanted, from strawberries in winter to an organ in her bedroom, going abroad herself, and always having more than enough, so that she might indulge in the luxury of charity, had been for years Jo’s most cherished castle in the air.

The prize-story experience had seemed to open a way which might, after long traveling and much uphill work, lead to this delightful chateau en Espagne. But the novel disaster quenched her courage for a time, for public opinion is a giant which has frightened stouter-hearted Jacks on bigger beanstalks than hers. Like that immortal hero, she reposed awhile after the first attempt, which resulted in a tumble and the least lovely of the giant’s treasures, if I remember rightly. But the ‘up again and take another’ spirit was as strong in Jo as in Jack, so she scrambled up on the shady side this time and got more booty, but nearly left behind her what was far more precious than the moneybags.

She took to writing sensation stories, for in those dark ages, even all-perfect America read rubbish. She told no one, but concocted a ‘thrilling tale’, and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the Weekly Volcano. She had never read Sartor Resartus, but she had a womanly instinct that clothes possess an influence more powerful over many than the worth of character or the magic of manners. So she dressed herself in her best, and trying to persuade herself that she was neither excited nor nervous, bravely climbed two pairs of dark and dirty stairs to find herself in a disorderly room, a cloud of cigar smoke, and the presence of three gentlemen, sitting with their heels rather higher than their hats, which articles of dress none of them took the trouble to remove on her appearance. Somewhat daunted by this reception, Jo hesitated on the threshold, murmuring in much embarrassment...

“Excuse me, I was looking for the Weekly Volcano office. I wished to see Mr. Dashwood.”

Down went the highest pair of heels, up rose the smokiest gentleman, and carefully cherishing his cigar between his fingers, he advanced with a nod and a countenance expressive of nothing but sleep. Feeling that she must get through the matter somehow, Jo produced her manuscript and, blushing redder and redder with each sentence, blundered out fragments of the little speech carefully prepared for the occasion.

“A friend of mine desired me to offer—a story—just as an experiment—would like your opinion—be glad to write more if this suits.”

While she blushed and blundered, Mr. Dashwood had taken the manuscript, and was turning over the leaves with a pair of rather dirty fingers, and casting critical glances up and down the neat pages.

“Not a first attempt, I take it?” observing that the pages were numbered, covered only on one side, and not tied up with a ribbon—sure sign of a novice.

“No, sir. She has had some experience, and got a prize for a tale in the Blarneystone Banner.”

“Oh, did she?” and Mr. Dashwood gave Jo a quick look, which seemed to take note of everything she had on, from the bow in her bonnet to the buttons on her boots. “Well, you can leave it, if you like. We’ve more of this sort of thing on hand than we know what to do with at present, but I’ll run my eye over it, and give you an answer next week.”

Now, Jo did not like to leave it, for Mr. Dashwood didn’t suit her at all, but, under the circumstances, there was nothing for her to do but bow and walk away, looking particularly tall and dignified, as she was apt to do when nettled or abashed. Just then she was both, for it was perfectly evident from the knowing glances exchanged among the gentlemen that her little fiction of ‘my friend’ was considered a good joke, and a laugh, produced by some inaudible remark of the editor, as he closed the door, completed her discomfiture. Half resolving never to return, she went home, and worked off her irritation by stitching pinafores vigorously, and in an hour or two was cool enough to laugh over the scene and long for next week.

When she went again, Mr. Dashwood was alone, whereat she rejoiced. Mr. Dashwood was much wider awake than before, which was agreeable, and Mr. Dashwood was not too deeply absorbed in a cigar to remember his manners, so the second interview was much more comfortable than the first.

“We’ll take this (editors never say I), if you don’t object to a few alterations. It’s too long, but omitting the passages I’ve marked will make it just the right length,” he said, in a businesslike tone.

Jo hardly knew her own MS. again, so crumpled and underscored were its pages and paragraphs, but feeling as a tender parent might on being asked to cut off her baby’s legs in order that it might fit into a new cradle, she looked at the marked passages and was surprised to find that all the moral reflections—which she had carefully put in as ballast for much romance—had been stricken out.

“But, Sir, I thought every story should have some sort of a moral, so I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.”

Mr. Dashwoods’s editorial gravity relaxed into a smile, for Jo had forgotten her ‘friend’, and spoken as only an author could.

“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” Which was not quite a correct statement, by the way.

“You think it would do with these alterations, then?”

“Yes, it’s a new plot, and pretty well worked up—language good, and so on,” was Mr. Dashwood’s affable reply.

“What do you—that is, what compensation—” began Jo, not exactly knowing how to express herself.

“Oh, yes, well, we give from twenty-five to thirty for things of this sort. Pay when it comes out,” returned Mr. Dashwood, as if that point had escaped him. Such trifles do escape the editorial mind, it is said.

“Very well, you can have it,” said Jo, handing back the story with a satisfied air, for after the dollar-a-column work, even twenty-five seemed good pay.

“Shall I tell my friend you will take another if she has one better than this?” asked Jo, unconscious of her little slip of the tongue, and emboldened by her success.

“Well, we’ll look at it. Can’t promise to take it. Tell her to make it short and spicy, and never mind the moral. What name would your friend like to put on it?” in a careless tone.

“None at all, if you please, she doesn’t wish her name to appear and has no nom de plume,” said Jo, blushing in spite of herself.

“Just as she likes, of course. The tale will be out next week. Will you call for the money, or shall I send it?” asked Mr. Dashwood, who felt a natural desire to know who his new contributor might be.

“I’ll call. Good morning, Sir.”

As she departed, Mr. Dashwood put up his feet, with the graceful remark, “Poor and proud, as usual, but she’ll do.”

Following Mr. Dashwood’s directions, and making Mrs. Northbury her model, Jo rashly took a plunge into the frothy sea of sensational literature, but thanks to the life preserver thrown her by a friend, she came up again not much the worse for her ducking.

Like most young scribblers, she went abroad for her characters and scenery, and banditti, counts, gypsies, nuns, and duchesses appeared upon her stage, and played their parts with as much accuracy and spirit as could be expected. Her readers were not particular about such trifles as grammar, punctuation, and probability, and Mr. Dashwood graciously permitted her to fill his columns at the lowest prices, not thinking it necessary to tell her that the real cause of his hospitality was the fact that one of his hacks, on being offered higher wages, had basely left him in the lurch.

She soon became interested in her work, for her emaciated purse grew stout, and the little hoard she was making to take Beth to the mountains next summer grew slowly but surely as the weeks passed. One thing disturbed her satisfaction, and that was that she did not tell them at home. She had a feeling that Father and Mother would not approve, and preferred to have her own way first, and beg pardon afterward. It was easy to keep her secret, for no name appeared with her stories. Mr. Dashwood had of course found it out very soon, but promised to be dumb, and for a wonder kept his word.

She thought it would do her no harm, for she sincerely meant to write nothing of which she would be ashamed, and quieted all pricks of conscience by anticipations of the happy minute when she should show her earnings and laugh over her well-kept secret.

But Mr. Dashwood rejected any but thrilling tales, and as thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums, had to be ransacked for the purpose. Jo soon found that her innocent experience had given her but few glimpses of the tragic world which underlies society, so regarding it in a business light, she set about supplying her deficiencies with characteristic energy. Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons. She studied faces in the street, and characters, good, bad, and indifferent, all about her. She delved in the dust of ancient times for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed. She thought she was prospering finely, but unconsciously she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman’s character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us.

She was beginning to feel rather than see this, for much describing of other people’s passions and feelings set her to studying and speculating about her own, a morbid amusement in which healthy young minds do not voluntarily indulge. Wrongdoing always brings its own punishment, and when Jo most needed hers, she got it.

I don’t know whether the study of Shakespeare helped her to read character, or the natural instinct of a woman for what was honest, brave, and strong, but while endowing her imaginary heroes with every perfection under the sun, Jo was discovering a live hero, who interested her in spite of many human imperfections. Mr. Bhaer, in one of their conversations, had advised her to study simple, true, and lovely characters, wherever she found them, as good training for a writer. Jo took him at his word, for she coolly turned round and studied him—a proceeding which would have much surprised him, had he known it, for the worthy Professor was very humble in his own conceit.

Why everybody liked him was what puzzled Jo, at first. He was neither rich nor great, young nor handsome, in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant, and yet he was as attractive as a genial fire, and people seemed to gather about him as naturally as about a warm hearth. He was poor, yet always appeared to be giving something away; a stranger, yet everyone was his friend; no longer young, but as happy-hearted as a boy; plain and peculiar, yet his face looked beautiful to many, and his oddities were freely forgiven for his sake. Jo often watched him, trying to discover the charm, and at last decided that it was benevolence which worked the miracle. If he had any sorrow, ‘it sat with its head under its wing’, and he turned only his sunny side to the world. There were lines upon his forehead, but Time seemed to have touched him gently, remembering how kind he was to others. The pleasant curves about his mouth were the memorials of many friendly words and cheery laughs, his eyes were never cold or hard, and his big hand had a warm, strong grasp that was more expressive than words.

His very clothes seemed to partake of the hospitable nature of the wearer. They looked as if they were at ease, and liked to make him comfortable. His capacious waistcoat was suggestive of a large heart underneath. His rusty coat had a social air, and the baggy pockets plainly proved that little hands often went in empty and came out full. His very boots were benevolent, and his collars never stiff and raspy like other people’s.

“That’s it!” said Jo to herself, when she at length discovered that genuine good will toward one’s fellow men could beautify and dignify even a stout German teacher, who shoveled in his dinner, darned his own socks, and was burdened with the name of Bhaer.

Jo valued goodness highly, but she also possessed a most feminine respect for intellect, and a little discovery which she made about the Professor added much to her regard for him. He never spoke of himself, and no one ever knew that in his native city he had been a man much honored and esteemed for learning and integrity, till a countryman came to see him. He never spoke of himself, and in a conversation with Miss Norton divulged the pleasing fact. From her Jo learned it, and liked it all the better because Mr. Bhaer had never told it. She felt proud to know that he was an honored Professor in Berlin, though only a poor language-master in America, and his homely, hard-working life was much beautified by the spice of romance which this discovery gave it. Another and a better gift than intellect was shown her in a most unexpected manner. Miss Norton had the entree into most society, which Jo would have had no chance of seeing but for her. The solitary woman felt an interest in the ambitious girl, and kindly conferred many favors of this sort both on Jo and the Professor. She took them with her one night to a select symposium, held in honor of several celebrities.

Jo went prepared to bow down and adore the mighty ones whom she had worshiped with youthful enthusiasm afar off. But her reverence for genius received a severe shock that night, and it took her some time to recover from the discovery that the great creatures were only men and women after all. Imagine her dismay, on stealing a glance of timid admiration at the poet whose lines suggested an ethereal being fed on ‘spirit, fire, and dew’, to behold him devouring his supper with an ardor which flushed his intellectual countenance. Turning as from a fallen idol, she made other discoveries which rapidly dispelled her romantic illusions. The great novelist vibrated between two decanters with the regularity of a pendulum; the famous divine flirted openly with one of the Madame de Staels of the age, who looked daggers at another Corinne, who was amiably satirizing her, after outmaneuvering her in efforts to absorb the profound philosopher, who imbibed tea Johnsonianly and appeared to slumber, the loquacity of the lady rendering speech impossible. The scientific celebrities, forgetting their mollusks and glacial periods, gossiped about art, while devoting themselves to oysters and ices with characteristic energy; the young musician, who was charming the city like a second Orpheus, talked horses; and the specimen of the British nobility present happened to be the most ordinary man of the party.

Before the evening was half over, Jo felt so completely disillusioned, that she sat down in a corner to recover herself. Mr. Bhaer soon joined her, looking rather out of his element, and presently several of the philosophers, each mounted on his hobby, came ambling up to hold an intellectual tournament in the recess. The conversations were miles beyond Jo’s comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms, and the only thing ‘evolved from her inner consciousness’ was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before, that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God. Jo knew nothing about philosophy or metaphysics of any sort, but a curious excitement, half pleasurable, half painful, came over her as she listened with a sense of being turned adrift into time and space, like a young balloon out on a holiday.

She looked round to see how the Professor liked it, and found him looking at her with the grimmest expression she had ever seen him wear. He shook his head and beckoned her to come away, but she was fascinated just then by the freedom of Speculative Philosophy, and kept her seat, trying to find out what the wise gentlemen intended to rely upon after they had annihilated all the old beliefs.

Now, Mr. Bhaer was a diffident man and slow to offer his own opinions, not because they were unsettled, but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken. As he glanced from Jo to several other young people, attracted by the brilliancy of the philosophic pyrotechnics, he knit his brows and longed to speak, fearing that some inflammable young soul would be led astray by the rockets, to find when the display was over that they had only an empty stick or a scorched hand.

He bore it as long as he could, but when he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth—an eloquence which made his broken English musical and his plain face beautiful. He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well, but he didn’t know when he was beaten and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo. The old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new. God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again, and when Mr. Bhaer paused, outtalked but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him.

She did neither, but she remembered the scene, and gave the Professor her heartiest respect, for she knew it cost him an effort to speak out then and there, because his conscience would not let him be silent. She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty, and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, ‘truth, reverence, and good will’, then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.

This belief strengthened daily. She valued his esteem, she coveted his respect, she wanted to be worthy of his friendship, and just when the wish was sincerest, she came near to losing everything. It all grew out of a cocked hat, for one evening the Professor came in to give Jo her lesson with a paper soldier cap on his head, which Tina had put there and he had forgotten to take off.

“It’s evident he doesn’t look in his glass before coming down,” thought Jo, with a smile, as he said “Goot efening,” and sat soberly down, quite unconscious of the ludicrous contrast between his subject and his headgear, for he was going to read her the Death of Wallenstein.

She said nothing at first, for she liked to hear him laugh out his big, hearty laugh when anything funny happened, so she left him to discover it for himself, and presently forgot all about it, for to hear a German read Schiller is rather an absorbing occupation. After the reading came the lesson, which was a lively one, for Jo was in a gay mood that night, and the cocked hat kept her eyes dancing with merriment. The Professor didn’t know what to make of her, and stopped at last to ask with an air of mild surprise that was irresistible. . .

“Mees Marsch, for what do you laugh in your master’s face? Haf you no respect for me, that you go on so bad?”

“How can I be respectful, Sir, when you forget to take your hat off?” said Jo.

Lifting his hand to his head, the absent-minded Professor gravely felt and removed the little cocked hat, looked at it a minute, and then threw back his head and laughed like a merry bass viol.

“Ah! I see him now, it is that imp Tina who makes me a fool with my cap. Well, it is nothing, but see you, if this lesson goes not well, you too shall wear him.”

But the lesson did not go at all for a few minutes because Mr. Bhaer caught sight of a picture on the hat, and unfolding it, said with great disgust, “I wish these papers did not come in the house. They are not for children to see, nor young people to read. It is not well, and I haf no patience with those who make this harm.”

Jo glanced at the sheet and saw a pleasing illustration composed of a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper. She did not like it, but the impulse that made her turn it over was not one of displeasure but fear, because for a minute she fancied the paper was the Volcano. It was not, however, and her panic subsided as she remembered that even if it had been and one of her own tales in it, there would have been no name to betray her. She had betrayed herself, however, by a look and a blush, for though an absent man, the Professor saw a good deal more than people fancied. He knew that Jo wrote, and had met her down among the newspaper offices more than once, but as she never spoke of it, he asked no questions in spite of a strong desire to see her work. Now it occurred to him that she was doing what she was ashamed to own, and it troubled him. He did not say to himself, “It is none of my business. I’ve no right to say anything,” as many people would have done. He only remembered that she was young and poor, a girl far away from mother’s love and father’s care, and he was moved to help her with an impulse as quick and natural as that which would prompt him to put out his hand to save a baby from a puddle. All this flashed through his mind in a minute, but not a trace of it appeared in his face, and by the time the paper was turned, and Jo’s needle threaded, he was ready to say quite naturally, but very gravely...

“Yes, you are right to put it from you. I do not think that good young girls should see such things. They are made pleasant to some, but I would more rather give my boys gunpowder to play with than this bad trash.”

“All may not be bad, only silly, you know, and if there is a demand for it, I don’t see any harm in supplying it. Many very respectable people make an honest living out of what are called sensation stories,” said Jo, scratching gathers so energetically that a row of little slits followed her pin.

“There is a demand for whisky, but I think you and I do not care to sell it. If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel that the living was honest. They haf no right to put poison in the sugarplum, and let the small ones eat it. No, they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing.”

Mr. Bhaer spoke warmly, and walked to the fire, crumpling the paper in his hands. Jo sat still, looking as if the fire had come to her, for her cheeks burned long after the cocked hat had turned to smoke and gone harmlessly up the chimney.

“I should like much to send all the rest after him,” muttered the Professor, coming back with a relieved air.

Jo thought what a blaze her pile of papers upstairs would make, and her hard-earned money lay rather heavily on her conscience at that minute. Then she thought consolingly to herself, “Mine are not like that, they are only silly, never bad, so I won’t be worried,” and taking up her book, she said, with a studious face, “Shall we go on, Sir? I’ll be very good and proper now.”

“I shall hope so,” was all he said, but he meant more than she imagined, and the grave, kind look he gave her made her feel as if the words Weekly Volcano were printed in large type on her forehead.

As soon as she went to her room, she got out her papers, and carefully reread every one of her stories. Being a little shortsighted, Mr. Bhaer sometimes used eye glasses, and Jo had tried them once, smiling to see how they magnified the fine print of her book. Now she seemed to have on the Professor’s mental or moral spectacles also, for the faults of these poor stories glared at her dreadfully and filled her with dismay.

“They are trash, and will soon be worse trash if I go on, for each is more sensational than the last. I’ve gone blindly on, hurting myself and other people, for the sake of money. I know it’s so, for I can’t read this stuff in sober earnest without being horribly ashamed of it, and what should I do if they were seen at home or Mr. Bhaer got hold of them?”

Jo turned hot at the bare idea, and stuffed the whole bundle into her stove, nearly setting the chimney afire with the blaze.

“Yes, that’s the best place for such inflammable nonsense. I’d better burn the house down, I suppose, than let other people blow themselves up with my gunpowder,” she thought as she watched the Demon of the Jura whisk away, a little black cinder with fiery eyes.

But when nothing remained of all her three month’s work except a heap of ashes and the money in her lap, Jo looked sober, as she sat on the floor, wondering what she ought to do about her wages.

“I think I haven’t done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time,” she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, “I almost wish I hadn’t any conscience, it’s so inconvenient. If I didn’t care about doing right, and didn’t feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can’t help wishing sometimes, that Mother and Father hadn’t been so particular about such things.”

Ah, Jo, instead of wishing that, thank God that ‘Father and Mother were particular’, and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood.

Jo wrote no more sensational stories, deciding that the money did not pay for her share of the sensation, but going to the other extreme, as is the way with people of her stamp, she took a course of Mrs. Sherwood, Miss Edgeworth, and Hannah More, and then produced a tale which might have been more properly called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it. She had her doubts about it from the beginning, for her lively fancy and girlish romance felt as ill at ease in the new style as she would have done masquerading in the stiff and cumbrous costume of the last century. She sent this didactic gem to several markets, but it found no purchaser, and she was inclined to agree with Mr. Dashwood that morals didn’t sell.

Then she tried a child’s story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it. The only person who offered enough to make it worth her while to try juvenile literature was a worthy gentleman who felt it his mission to convert all the world to his particular belief. But much as she liked to write for children, Jo could not consent to depict all her naughty boys as being eaten by bears or tossed by mad bulls because they did not go to a particular Sabbath school, nor all the good infants who did go as rewarded by every kind of bliss, from gilded gingerbread to escorts of angels when they departed this life with psalms or sermons on their lisping tongues. So nothing came of these trials, and Jo corked up her inkstand, and said in a fit of very wholesome humility...

“I don’t know anything. I’ll wait until I do before I try again, and meantime, ‘sweep mud in the street’ if I can’t do better, that’s honest, at least.” Which decision proved that her second tumble down the beanstalk had done her some good.

While these internal revolutions were going on, her external life had been as busy and uneventful as usual, and if she sometimes looked serious or a little sad no one observed it but Professor Bhaer. He did it so quietly that Jo never knew he was watching to see if she would accept and profit by his reproof, but she stood the test, and he was satisfied, for though no words passed between them, he knew that she had given up writing. Not only did he guess it by the fact that the second finger of her right hand was no longer inky, but she spent her evenings downstairs now, was met no more among newspaper offices, and studied with a dogged patience, which assured him that she was bent on occupying her mind with something useful, if not pleasant.

He helped her in many ways, proving himself a true friend, and Jo was happy, for while her pen lay idle, she was learning other lessons besides German, and laying a foundation for the sensation story of her own life.

It was a pleasant winter and a long one, for she did not leave Mrs. Kirke till June. Everyone seemed sorry when the time came. The children were inconsolable, and Mr. Bhaer’s hair stuck straight up all over his head, for he always rumpled it wildly when disturbed in mind.

“Going home? Ah, you are happy that you haf a home to go in,” he said, when she told him, and sat silently pulling his beard in the corner, while she held a little levee on that last evening.

She was going early, so she bade them all goodbye overnight, and when his turn came, she said warmly, “Now, Sir, you won’t forget to come and see us, if you ever travel our way, will you? I’ll never forgive you if you do, for I want them all to know my friend.”

“Do you? Shall I come?” he asked, looking down at her with an eager expression which she did not see.

“Yes, come next month. Laurie graduates then, and you’d enjoy commencement as something new.”

“That is your best friend, of whom you speak?” he said in an altered tone.

“Yes, my boy Teddy. I’m very proud of him and should like you to see him.”

Jo looked up then, quite unconscious of anything but her own pleasure in the prospect of showing them to one another. Something in Mr. Bhaer’s face suddenly recalled the fact that she might find Laurie more than a ‘best friend’, and simply because she particularly wished not to look as if anything was the matter, she involuntarily began to blush, and the more she tried not to, the redder she grew. If it had not been for Tina on her knee. She didn’t know what would have become of her. Fortunately the child was moved to hug her, so she managed to hide her face an instant, hoping the Professor did not see it. But he did, and his own changed again from that momentary anxiety to its usual expression, as he said cordially...

“I fear I shall not make the time for that, but I wish the friend much success, and you all happiness. Gott bless you!” And with that, he shook hands warmly, shouldered Tina, and went away.

But after the boys were abed, he sat long before his fire with the tired look on his face and the ‘heimweh’, or homesickness, lying heavy at his heart. Once, when he remembered Jo as she sat with the little child in her lap and that new softness in her face, he leaned his head on his hands a minute, and then roamed about the room, as if in search of something that he could not find.

“It is not for me, I must not hope it now,” he said to himself, with a sigh that was almost a groan. Then, as if reproaching himself for the longing that he could not repress, he went and kissed the two tousled heads upon the pillow, took down his seldom-used meerschaum, and opened his Plato.

He did his best and did it manfully, but I don’t think he found that a pair of rampant boys, a pipe, or even the divine Plato, were very satisfactory substitutes for wife and child at home.

Early as it was, he was at the station next morning to see Jo off, and thanks to him, she began her solitary journey with the pleasant memory of a familiar face smiling its farewell, a bunch of violets to keep her company, and best of all, the happy thought, “Well, the winter’s gone, and I’ve written no books, earned no fortune, but I’ve made a friend worth having and I’ll try to keep him all my life.”


CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

HEARTACHE

Whatever his motive might have been, Laurie studied to some purpose that year, for he graduated with honor, and gave the Latin oration with the grace of a Phillips and the eloquence of a Demosthenes, so his friends said. They were all there, his grandfather—oh, so proud—Mr. and Mrs. March, John and Meg, Jo and Beth, and all exulted over him with the sincere admiration which boys make light of at the time, but fail to win from the world by any after-triumphs.

“I’ve got to stay for this confounded supper, but I shall be home early tomorrow. You’ll come and meet me as usual, girls?” Laurie said, as he put the sisters into the carriage after the joys of the day were over. He said ‘girls’, but he meant Jo, for she was the only one who kept up the old custom. She had not the heart to refuse her splendid, successful boy anything, and answered warmly...

“I’ll come, Teddy, rain or shine, and march before you, playing ‘Hail the conquering hero comes’ on a jew’s-harp.”

Laurie thanked her with a look that made her think in a sudden panic, “Oh, deary me! I know he’ll say something, and then what shall I do?”

Evening meditation and morning work somewhat allayed her fears, and having decided that she wouldn’t be vain enough to think people were going to propose when she had given them every reason to know what her answer would be, she set forth at the appointed time, hoping Teddy wouldn’t do anything to make her hurt his poor feelings. A call at Meg’s, and a refreshing sniff and sip at the Daisy and Demijohn, still further fortified her for the tete-a-tete, but when she saw a stalwart figure looming in the distance, she had a strong desire to turn about and run away.

“Where’s the jew’s-harp, Jo?” cried Laurie, as soon as he was within speaking distance.

“I forgot it.” And Jo took heart again, for that salutation could not be called lover-like.

She always used to take his arm on these occasions, now she did not, and he made no complaint, which was a bad sign, but talked on rapidly about all sorts of faraway subjects, till they turned from the road into the little path that led homeward through the grove. Then he walked more slowly, suddenly lost his fine flow of language, and now and then a dreadful pause occurred. To rescue the conversation from one of the wells of silence into which it kept falling, Jo said hastily, “Now you must have a good long holiday!”

“I intend to.”

Something in his resolute tone made Jo look up quickly to find him looking down at her with an expression that assured her the dreaded moment had come, and made her put out her hand with an imploring, “No, Teddy. Please don’t!”

“I will, and you must hear me. It’s no use, Jo, we’ve got to have it out, and the sooner the better for both of us,” he answered, getting flushed and excited all at once.

“Say what you like then. I’ll listen,” said Jo, with a desperate sort of patience.

Laurie was a young lover, but he was in earnest, and meant to ‘have it out’, if he died in the attempt, so he plunged into the subject with characteristic impetuousity, saying in a voice that would get choky now and then, in spite of manful efforts to keep it steady...

“I’ve loved you ever since I’ve known you, Jo, couldn’t help it, you’ve been so good to me. I’ve tried to show it, but you wouldn’t let me. Now I’m going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can’t go on so any longer.”

“I wanted to save you this. I thought you’d understand...” began Jo, finding it a great deal harder than she expected.

“I know you did, but the girls are so queer you never know what they mean. They say no when they mean yes, and drive a man out of his wits just for the fun of it,” returned Laurie, entrenching himself behind an undeniable fact.

“I don’t. I never wanted to make you care for me so, and I went away to keep you from it if I could.”

“I thought so. It was like you, but it was no use. I only loved you all the more, and I worked hard to please you, and I gave up billiards and everything you didn’t like, and waited and never complained, for I hoped you’d love me, though I’m not half good enough...” Here there was a choke that couldn’t be controlled, so he decapitated buttercups while he cleared his ‘confounded throat’.

“You, you are, you’re a great deal too good for me, and I’m so grateful to you, and so proud and fond of you, I don’t know why I can’t love you as you want me to. I’ve tried, but I can’t change the feeling, and it would be a lie to say I do when I don’t.”

“Really, truly, Jo?”

He stopped short, and caught both her hands as he put his question with a look that she did not soon forget.

“Really, truly, dear.”

They were in the grove now, close by the stile, and when the last words fell reluctantly from Jo’s lips, Laurie dropped her hands and turned as if to go on, but for once in his life the fence was too much for him. So he just laid his head down on the mossy post, and stood so still that Jo was frightened.

“Oh, Teddy, I’m sorry, so desperately sorry, I could kill myself if it would do any good! I wish you wouldn’t take it so hard, I can’t help it. You know it’s impossible for people to make themselves love other people if they don’t,” cried Jo inelegantly but remorsefully, as she softly patted his shoulder, remembering the time when he had comforted her so long ago.

“They do sometimes,” said a muffled voice from the post. “I don’t believe it’s the right sort of love, and I’d rather not try it,” was the decided answer.

There was a long pause, while a blackbird sung blithely on the willow by the river, and the tall grass rustled in the wind. Presently Jo said very soberly, as she sat down on the step of the stile, “Laurie, I want to tell you something.”

He started as if he had been shot, threw up his head, and cried out in a fierce tone, “Don’t tell me that, Jo, I can’t bear it now!”

“Tell what?” she asked, wondering at his violence.

“That you love that old man.”

“What old man?” demanded Jo, thinking he must mean his grandfather.

“That devilish Professor you were always writing about. If you say you love him, I know I shall do something desperate;” and he looked as if he would keep his word, as he clenched his hands with a wrathful spark in his eyes.

Jo wanted to laugh, but restrained herself and said warmly, for she too, was getting excited with all this, “Don’t swear, Teddy! He isn’t old, nor anything bad, but good and kind, and the best friend I’ve got, next to you. Pray, don’t fly into a passion. I want to be kind, but I know I shall get angry if you abuse my Professor. I haven’t the least idea of loving him or anybody else.”

“But you will after a while, and then what will become of me?”

“You’ll love someone else too, like a sensible boy, and forget all this trouble.”

“I can’t love anyone else, and I’ll never forget you, Jo, Never! Never!” with a stamp to emphasize his passionate words.

“What shall I do with him?” sighed Jo, finding that emotions were more unmanagable than she expected. “You haven’t heard what I wanted to tell you. Sit down and listen, for indeed I want to do right and make you happy,” she said, hoping to soothe him with a little reason, which proved that she knew nothing about love.

Seeing a ray of hope in that last speech, Laurie threw himself down on the grass at her feet, leaned his arm on the lower step of the stile, and looked up at her with an expectant face. Now that arrangement was not conducive to calm speech or clear thought on Jo’s part, for how could she say hard things to her boy while he watched her with eyes full of love and longing, and lashes still wet with the bitter drop or two her hardness of heart had wrung from him? She gently turned his head away, saying, as she stroked the wavy hair which had been allowed to grow for her sake—how touching that was, to be sure! “I agree with Mother that you and I are not suited to each other, because our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable, if we were so foolish as to...” Jo paused a little over the last word, but Laurie uttered it with a rapturous expression.

“Marry—no we shouldn’t! If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like.”

“No, I can’t. I’ve tried and failed, and I won’t risk our happiness by such a serious experiment. We don’t agree and we never shall, so we’ll be good friends all our lives, but we won’t go and do anything rash.”

“Yes, we will if we get the chance,” muttered Laurie rebelliously.

“Now do be reasonable, and take a sensible view of the case,” implored Jo, almost at her wit’s end.

“I won’t be reasonable. I don’t want to take what you call ‘a sensible view’. It won’t help me, and it only makes it harder. I don’t believe you’ve got any heart.”

“I wish I hadn’t.”

There was a little quiver in Jo’s voice, and thinking it a good omen, Laurie turned round, bringing all his persuasive powers to bear as he said, in the wheedlesome tone that had never been so dangerously wheedlesome before, “Don’t disappoint us, dear! Everyone expects it. Grandpa has set his heart upon it, your people like it, and I can’t get on without you. Say you will, and let’s be happy. Do, do!”

Not until months afterward did Jo understand how she had the strength of mind to hold fast to the resolution she had made when she decided that she did not love her boy, and never could. It was very hard to do, but she did it, knowing that delay was both useless and cruel.

“I can’t say ‘yes’ truly, so I won’t say it at all. You’ll see that I’m right, by-and-by, and thank me for it...” she began solemnly.

“I’ll be hanged if I do!” and Laurie bounced up off the grass, burning with indignation at the very idea.

“Yes, you will!” persisted Jo. “You’ll get over this after a while, and find some lovely accomplished girl, who will adore you, and make a fine mistress for your fine house. I shouldn’t. I’m homely and awkward and odd and old, and you’d be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel—we can’t help it even now, you see—and I shouldn’t like elegant society and you would, and you’d hate my scribbling, and I couldn’t get on without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn’t done it, and everything would be horrid!”

“Anything more?” asked Laurie, finding it hard to listen patiently to this prophetic burst.

“Nothing more, except that I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man.”

“I know better!” broke in Laurie. “You think so now, but there’ll come a time when you will care for somebody, and you’ll love him tremendously, and live and die for him. I know you will, it’s your way, and I shall have to stand by and see it,” and the despairing lover cast his hat upon the ground with a gesture that would have seemed comical, if his face had not been so tragic.

“Yes, I will live and die for him, if he ever comes and makes me love him in spite of myself, and you must do the best you can!” cried Jo, losing patience with poor Teddy. “I’ve done my best, but you won’t be reasonable, and it’s selfish of you to keep teasing for what I can’t give. I shall always be fond of you, very fond indeed, as a friend, but I’ll never marry you, and the sooner you believe it the better for both of us—so now!”

That speech was like gunpowder. Laurie looked at her a minute as if he did not quite know what to do with himself, then turned sharply away, saying in a desperate sort of tone, “You’ll be sorry some day, Jo.”

“Oh, where are you going?” she cried, for his face frightened her.

“To the devil!” was the consoling answer.

For a minute Jo’s heart stood still, as he swung himself down the bank toward the river, but it takes much folly, sin or misery to send a young man to a violent death, and Laurie was not one of the weak sort who are conquered by a single failure. He had no thought of a melodramatic plunge, but some blind instinct led him to fling hat and coat into his boat, and row away with all his might, making better time up the river than he had done in any race. Jo drew a long breath and unclasped her hands as she watched the poor fellow trying to outstrip the trouble which he carried in his heart.

“That will do him good, and he’ll come home in such a tender, penitent state of mind, that I shan’t dare to see him,” she said, adding, as she went slowly home, feeling as if she had murdered some innocent thing, and buried it under the leaves. “Now I must go and prepare Mr. Laurence to be very kind to my poor boy. I wish he’d love Beth, perhaps he may in time, but I begin to think I was mistaken about her. Oh dear! How can girls like to have lovers and refuse them? I think it’s dreadful.”

Being sure that no one could do it so well as herself, she went straight to Mr. Laurence, told the hard story bravely through, and then broke down, crying so dismally over her own insensibility that the kind old gentleman, though sorely disappointed, did not utter a reproach. He found it difficult to understand how any girl could help loving Laurie, and hoped she would change her mind, but he knew even better than Jo that love cannot be forced, so he shook his head sadly and resolved to carry his boy out of harm’s way, for Young Impetuosity’s parting words to Jo disturbed him more than he would confess.

When Laurie came home, dead tired but quite composed, his grandfather met him as if he knew nothing, and kept up the delusion very successfully for an hour or two. But when they sat together in the twilight, the time they used to enjoy so much, it was hard work for the old man to ramble on as usual, and harder still for the young one to listen to praises of the last year’s success, which to him now seemed like love’s labor lost. He bore it as long as he could, then went to his piano and began to play. The windows were open, and Jo, walking in the garden with Beth, for once understood music better than her sister, for he played the ‘Sonata Pathetique’, and played it as he never did before.

“That’s very fine, I dare say, but it’s sad enough to make one cry. Give us something gayer, lad,” said Mr. Laurence, whose kind old heart was full of sympathy, which he longed to show but knew not how.

Laurie dashed into a livelier strain, played stormily for several minutes, and would have got through bravely, if in a momentary lull Mrs. March’s voice had not been heard calling, “Jo, dear, come in. I want you.”

Just what Laurie longed to say, with a different meaning! As he listened, he lost his place, the music ended with a broken chord, and the musician sat silent in the dark.

“I can’t stand this,” muttered the old gentleman. Up he got, groped his way to the piano, laid a kind hand on either of the broad shoulders, and said, as gently as a woman, “I know, my boy, I know.”

No answer for an instant, then Laurie asked sharply, “Who told you?”

“Jo herself.”

“Then there’s an end of it!” And he shook off his grandfather’s hands with an impatient motion, for though grateful for the sympathy, his man’s pride could not bear a man’s pity.

“Not quite. I want to say one thing, and then there shall be an end of it,” returned Mr. Laurence with unusual mildness. “You won’t care to stay at home now, perhaps?”

“I don’t intend to run away from a girl. Jo can’t prevent my seeing her, and I shall stay and do it as long as I like,” interrupted Laurie in a defiant tone.

“Not if you are the gentleman I think you. I’m disappointed, but the girl can’t help it, and the only thing left for you to do is to go away for a time. Where will you go?”

“Anywhere. I don’t care what becomes of me,” and Laurie got up with a reckless laugh that grated on his grandfather’s ear.

“Take it like a man, and don’t do anything rash, for God’s sake. Why not go abroad, as you planned, and forget it?”

“I can’t.”

“But you’ve been wild to go, and I promised you should when you got through college.”

“Ah, but I didn’t mean to go alone!” and Laurie walked fast through the room with an expression which it was well his grandfather did not see.

“I don’t ask you to go alone. There’s someone ready and glad to go with you, anywhere in the world.”

“Who, Sir?” stopping to listen.

“Myself.”

Laurie came back as quickly as he went, and put out his hand, saying huskily, “I’m a selfish brute, but—you know—Grandfather—”

“Lord help me, yes, I do know, for I’ve been through it all before, once in my own young days, and then with your father. Now, my dear boy, just sit quietly down and hear my plan. It’s all settled, and can be carried out at once,” said Mr. Laurence, keeping hold of the young man, as if fearful that he would break away as his father had done before him.

“Well, sir, what is it?” and Laurie sat down, without a sign of interest in face or voice.

“There is business in London that needs looking after. I meant you should attend to it, but I can do it better myself, and things here will get on very well with Brooke to manage them. My partners do almost everything, I’m merely holding on until you take my place, and can be off at any time.”

“But you hate traveling, Sir. I can’t ask it of you at your age,” began Laurie, who was grateful for the sacrifice, but much preferred to go alone, if he went at all.

The old gentleman knew that perfectly well, and particularly desired to prevent it, for the mood in which he found his grandson assured him that it would not be wise to leave him to his own devices. So, stifling a natural regret at the thought of the home comforts he would leave behind him, he said stoutly, “Bless your soul, I’m not superannuated yet. I quite enjoy the idea. It will do me good, and my old bones won’t suffer, for traveling nowadays is almost as easy as sitting in a chair.”

A restless movement from Laurie suggested that his chair was not easy, or that he did not like the plan, and made the old man add hastily, “I don’t mean to be a marplot or a burden. I go because I think you’d feel happier than if I was left behind. I don’t intend to gad about with you, but leave you free to go where you like, while I amuse myself in my own way. I’ve friends in London and Paris, and should like to visit them. Meantime you can go to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, where you will, and enjoy pictures, music, scenery, and adventures to your heart’s content.”

Now, Laurie felt just then that his heart was entirely broken and the world a howling wilderness, but at the sound of certain words which the old gentleman artfully introduced into his closing sentence, the broken heart gave an unexpected leap, and a green oasis or two suddenly appeared in the howling wilderness. He sighed, and then said, in a spiritless tone, “Just as you like, Sir. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do.”

“It does to me, remember that, my lad. I give you entire liberty, but I trust you to make an honest use of it. Promise me that, Laurie.”

“Anything you like, Sir.”

“Good,” thought the old gentleman. “You don’t care now, but there’ll come a time when that promise will keep you out of mischief, or I’m much mistaken.”

Being an energetic individual, Mr. Laurence struck while the iron was hot, and before the blighted being recovered spirit enough to rebel, they were off. During the time necessary for preparation, Laurie bore himself as young gentleman usually do in such cases. He was moody, irritable, and pensive by turns, lost his appetite, neglected his dress and devoted much time to playing tempestuously on his piano, avoided Jo, but consoled himself by staring at her from his window, with a tragic face that haunted her dreams by night and oppressed her with a heavy sense of guilt by day. Unlike some sufferers, he never spoke of his unrequited passion, and would allow no one, not even Mrs. March, to attempt consolation or offer sympathy. On some accounts, this was a relief to his friends, but the weeks before his departure were very uncomfortable, and everyone rejoiced that the ‘poor, dear fellow was going away to forget his trouble, and come home happy’. Of course, he smiled darkly at their delusion, but passed it by with the sad superiority of one who knew that his fidelity like his love was unalterable.

When the parting came he affected high spirits, to conceal certain inconvenient emotions which seemed inclined to assert themselves. This gaiety did not impose upon anybody, but they tried to look as if it did for his sake, and he got on very well till Mrs. March kissed him, with a whisper full of motherly solicitude. Then feeling that he was going very fast, he hastily embraced them all round, not forgetting the afflicted Hannah, and ran downstairs as if for his life. Jo followed a minute after to wave her hand to him if he looked round. He did look round, came back, put his arms about her as she stood on the step above him, and looked up at her with a face that made his short appeal eloquent and pathetic.

“Oh, Jo, can’t you?”

“Teddy, dear, I wish I could!”

That was all, except a little pause. Then Laurie straightened himself up, said, “It’s all right, never mind,” and went away without another word. Ah, but it wasn’t all right, and Jo did mind, for while the curly head lay on her arm a minute after her hard answer, she felt as if she had stabbed her dearest friend, and when he left her without a look behind him, she knew that the boy Laurie never would come again.


CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

BETH’S SECRET

When Jo came home that spring, she had been struck with the change in Beth. No one spoke of it or seemed aware of it, for it had come too gradually to startle those who saw her daily, but to eyes sharpened by absence, it was very plain and a heavy weight fell on Jo’s heart as she saw her sister’s face. It was no paler and but littler thinner than in the autumn, yet there was a strange, transparent look about it, as if the mortal was being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining through the frail flesh with an indescribably pathetic beauty. Jo saw and felt it, but said nothing at the time, and soon the first impression lost much of its power, for Beth seemed happy, no one appeared to doubt that she was better, and presently in other cares Jo for a time forgot her fear.

But when Laurie was gone, and peace prevailed again, the vague anxiety returned and haunted her. She had confessed her sins and been forgiven, but when she showed her savings and proposed a mountain trip, Beth had thanked her heartily, but begged not to go so far away from home. Another little visit to the seashore would suit her better, and as Grandma could not be prevailed upon to leave the babies, Jo took Beth down to the quiet place, where she could live much in the open air, and let the fresh sea breezes blow a little color into her pale cheeks.

It was not a fashionable place, but even among the pleasant people there, the girls made few friends, preferring to live for one another. Beth was too shy to enjoy society, and Jo too wrapped up in her to care for anyone else. So they were all in all to each other, and came and went, quite unconscious of the interest they excited in those about them, who watched with sympathetic eyes the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away.

They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it, for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very hard to overcome. Jo felt as if a veil had fallen between her heart and Beth’s, but when she put out her hand to lift it up, there seemed something sacred in the silence, and she waited for Beth to speak. She wondered, and was thankful also, that her parents did not seem to see what she saw, and during the quiet weeks when the shadows grew so plain to her, she said nothing of it to those at home, believing that it would tell itself when Beth came back no better. She wondered still more if her sister really guessed the hard truth, and what thoughts were passing through her mind during the long hours when she lay on the warm rocks with her head in Jo’s lap, while the winds blew healthfully over her and the sea made music at her feet.

One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she lay so still, and putting down her book, sat looking at her with wistful eyes, trying to see signs of hope in the faint color on Beth’s cheeks. But she could not find enough to satisfy her, for the cheeks were very thin, and the hands seemed too feeble to hold even the rosy little shells they had been collecting. It came to her then more bitterly than ever that Beth was slowly drifting away from her, and her arms instinctively tightened their hold upon the dearest treasure she possessed. For a minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when they cleared, Beth was looking up at her so tenderly that there was hardly any need for her to say, “Jo, dear, I’m glad you know it. I’ve tried to tell you, but I couldn’t.”

There was no answer except her sister’s cheek against her own, not even tears, for when most deeply moved, Jo did not cry. She was the weaker then, and Beth tried to comfort and sustain her, with her arms about her and the soothing words she whispered in her ear.

“I’ve known it for a good while, dear, and now I’m used to it, it isn’t hard to think of or to bear. Try to see it so and don’t be troubled about me, because it’s best, indeed it is.”

“Is this what made you so unhappy in the autumn, Beth? You did not feel it then, and keep it to yourself so long, did you?” asked Jo, refusing to see or say that it was best, but glad to know that Laurie had no part in Beth’s trouble.

“Yes, I gave up hoping then, but I didn’t like to own it. I tried to think it was a sick fancy, and would not let it trouble anyone. But when I saw you all so well and strong and full of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I could never be like you, and then I was miserable, Jo.”

“Oh, Beth, and you didn’t tell me, didn’t let me comfort and help you? How could you shut me out, bear it all alone?”

Jo’s voice was full of tender reproach, and her heart ached to think of the solitary struggle that must have gone on while Beth learned to say goodbye to health, love, and life, and take up her cross so cheerfully.

“Perhaps it was wrong, but I tried to do right. I wasn’t sure, no one said anything, and I hoped I was mistaken. It would have been selfish to frighten you all when Marmee was so anxious about Meg, and Amy away, and you so happy with Laurie—at least I thought so then.”

“And I thought you loved him, Beth, and I went away because I couldn’t,” cried Jo, glad to say all the truth.

Beth looked so amazed at the idea that Jo smiled in spite of her pain, and added softly, “Then you didn’t, dearie? I was afraid it was so, and imagined your poor little heart full of lovelornity all that while.”

“Why, Jo, how could I, when he was so fond of you?” asked Beth, as innocently as a child. “I do love him dearly. He is so good to me, how can I help It? But he could never be anything to me but my brother. I hope he truly will be, sometime.”

“Not through me,” said Jo decidedly. “Amy is left for him, and they would suit excellently, but I have no heart for such things, now. I don’t care what becomes of anybody but you, Beth. You must get well.”

“I want to, oh, so much! I try, but every day I lose a little, and feel more sure that I shall never gain it back. It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped.”

“It shall be stopped, your tide must not turn so soon, nineteen is too young, Beth. I can’t let you go. I’ll work and pray and fight against it. I’ll keep you in spite of everything. There must be ways, it can’t be too late. God won’t be so cruel as to take you from me,” cried poor Jo rebelliously, for her spirit was far less piously submissive than Beth’s.

Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. It shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father and Mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and they only, could teach and strengthen heart and spirit for this life and the life to come. She did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches, only loved her better for her passionate affection, and clung more closely to the dear human love, from which our Father never means us to be weaned, but through which He draws us closer to Himself. She could not say, “I’m glad to go,” for life was very sweet for her. She could only sob out, “I try to be willing,” while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together.

By and by Beth said, with recovered serenity, “You’ll tell them this when we go home?”

“I think they will see it without words,” sighed Jo, for now it seemed to her that Beth changed every day.

“Perhaps not. I’ve heard that the people who love best are often blindest to such things. If they don’t see it, you will tell them for me. I don’t want any secrets, and it’s kinder to prepare them. Meg has John and the babies to comfort her, but you must stand by Father and Mother, won’t you Jo?”

“If I can. But, Beth, I don’t give up yet. I’m going to believe that it is a sick fancy, and not let you think it’s true.” said Jo, trying to speak cheerfully.

Beth lay a minute thinking, and then said in her quiet way, “I don’t know how to express myself, and shouldn’t try to anyone but you, because I can’t speak out except to my Jo. I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. I’m not like the rest of you. I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up. I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now is the leaving you all. I’m not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.”

Jo could not speak, and for several minutes there was no sound but the sigh of the wind and the lapping of the tide. A white-winged gull flew by, with the flash of sunshine on its silvery breast. Beth watched it till it vanished, and her eyes were full of sadness. A little gray-coated sand bird came tripping over the beach ‘peeping’ softly to itself, as if enjoying the sun and sea. It came quite close to Beth, and looked at her with a friendly eye and sat upon a warm stone, dressing its wet feathers, quite at home. Beth smiled and felt comforted, for the tiny thing seemed to offer its small friendship and remind her that a pleasant world was still to be enjoyed.

“Dear little bird! See, Jo, how tame it is. I like peeps better than the gulls. They are not so wild and handsome, but they seem happy, confiding little things. I used to call them my birds last summer, and Mother said they reminded her of me—busy, quaker-colored creatures, always near the shore, and always chirping that contented little song of theirs. You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone. Meg is the turtledove, and Amy is like the lark she writes about, trying to get up among the clouds, but always dropping down into its nest again. Dear little girl! She’s so ambitious, but her heart is good and tender, and no matter how high she flies, she never will forget home. I hope I shall see her again, but she seems so far away.”

“She is coming in the spring, and I mean that you shall be all ready to see and enjoy her. I’m going to have you well and rosy by that time,” began Jo, feeling that of all the changes in Beth, the talking change was the greatest, for it seemed to cost no effort now, and she thought aloud in a way quite unlike bashful Beth.

“Jo, dear, don’t hope any more. It won’t do any good. I’m sure of that. We won’t be miserable, but enjoy being together while we wait. We’ll have happy times, for I don’t suffer much, and I think the tide will go out easily, if you help me.”

Jo leaned down to kiss the tranquil face, and with that silent kiss, she dedicated herself soul and body to Beth.

She was right. There was no need of any words when they got home, for Father and Mother saw plainly now what they had prayed to be saved from seeing. Tired with her short journey, Beth went at once to bed, saying how glad she was to be home, and when Jo went down, she found that she would be spared the hard task of telling Beth’s secret. Her father stood leaning his head on the mantelpiece and did not turn as she came in, but her mother stretched out her arms as if for help, and Jo went to comfort her without a word.