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Little Women

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CASTLES IN THE AIR

Laurie lay luxuriously swinging to and fro in his hammock one warm September afternoon, wondering what his neighbors were about, but too lazy to go and find out. He was in one of his moods, for the day had been both unprofitable and unsatisfactory, and he was wishing he could live it over again. The hot weather made him indolent, and he had shirked his studies, tried Mr. Brooke’s patience to the utmost, displeased his grandfather by practicing half the afternoon, frightened the maidservants half out of their wits by mischievously hinting that one of his dogs was going mad, and, after high words with the stableman about some fancied neglect of his horse, he had flung himself into his hammock to fume over the stupidity of the world in general, till the peace of the lovely day quieted him in spite of himself. Staring up into the green gloom of the horse-chestnut trees above him, he dreamed dreams of all sorts, and was just imagining himself tossing on the ocean in a voyage round the world, when the sound of voices brought him ashore in a flash. Peeping through the meshes of the hammock, he saw the Marches coming out, as if bound on some expedition.

“What in the world are those girls about now?” thought Laurie, opening his sleepy eyes to take a good look, for there was something rather peculiar in the appearance of his neighbors. Each wore a large, flapping hat, a brown linen pouch slung over one shoulder, and carried a long staff. Meg had a cushion, Jo a book, Beth a basket, and Amy a portfolio. All walked quietly through the garden, out at the little back gate, and began to climb the hill that lay between the house and river.

“Well, that’s cool,” said Laurie to himself, “to have a picnic and never ask me! They can’t be going in the boat, for they haven’t got the key. Perhaps they forgot it. I’ll take it to them, and see what’s going on.”

Though possessed of half a dozen hats, it took him some time to find one, then there was a hunt for the key, which was at last discovered in his pocket, so that the girls were quite out of sight when he leaped the fence and ran after them. Taking the shortest way to the boathouse, he waited for them to appear, but no one came, and he went up the hill to take an observation. A grove of pines covered one part of it, and from the heart of this green spot came a clearer sound than the soft sigh of the pines or the drowsy chirp of the crickets.

“Here’s a landscape!” thought Laurie, peeping through the bushes, and looking wide-awake and good-natured already.

It was a rather pretty little picture, for the sisters sat together in the shady nook, with sun and shadow flickering over them, the aromatic wind lifting their hair and cooling their hot cheeks, and all the little wood people going on with their affairs as if these were no strangers but old friends. Meg sat upon her cushion, sewing daintily with her white hands, and looking as fresh and sweet as a rose in her pink dress among the green. Beth was sorting the cones that lay thick under the hemlock near by, for she made pretty things with them. Amy was sketching a group of ferns, and Jo was knitting as she read aloud. A shadow passed over the boy’s face as he watched them, feeling that he ought to go away because uninvited; yet lingering because home seemed very lonely and this quiet party in the woods most attractive to his restless spirit. He stood so still that a squirrel, busy with its harvesting, ran down a pine close beside him, saw him suddenly and skipped back, scolding so shrilly that Beth looked up, espied the wistful face behind the birches, and beckoned with a reassuring smile.

“May I come in, please? Or shall I be a bother?” he asked, advancing slowly.

Meg lifted her eyebrows, but Jo scowled at her defiantly and said at once, “Of course you may. We should have asked you before, only we thought you wouldn’t care for such a girl’s game as this.”

“I always like your games, but if Meg doesn’t want me, I’ll go away.”

“I’ve no objection, if you do something. It’s against the rules to be idle here,” replied Meg gravely but graciously.

“Much obliged. I’ll do anything if you’ll let me stop a bit, for it’s as dull as the Desert of Sahara down there. Shall I sew, read, cone, draw, or do all at once? Bring on your bears. I’m ready.” And Laurie sat down with a submissive expression delightful to behold.

“Finish this story while I set my heel,” said Jo, handing him the book.

“Yes’m.” was the meek answer, as he began, doing his best to prove his gratitude for the favor of admission into the ‘Busy Bee Society’.

The story was not a long one, and when it was finished, he ventured to ask a few questions as a reward of merit.

“Please, ma’am, could I inquire if this highly instructive and charming institution is a new one?”

“Would you tell him?” asked Meg of her sisters.

“He’ll laugh,” said Amy warningly.

“Who cares?” said Jo.

“I guess he’ll like it,” added Beth.

“Of course I shall! I give you my word I won’t laugh. Tell away, Jo, and don’t be afraid.”

“The idea of being afraid of you! Well, you see we used to play Pilgrim’s Progress, and we have been going on with it in earnest, all winter and summer.”

“Yes, I know,” said Laurie, nodding wisely.

“Who told you?” demanded Jo.

“Spirits.”

“No, I did. I wanted to amuse him one night when you were all away, and he was rather dismal. He did like it, so don’t scold, Jo,” said Beth meekly.

“You can’t keep a secret. Never mind, it saves trouble now.”

“Go on, please,” said Laurie, as Jo became absorbed in her work, looking a trifle displeased.

“Oh, didn’t she tell you about this new plan of ours? Well, we have tried not to waste our holiday, but each has had a task and worked at it with a will. The vacation is nearly over, the stints are all done, and we are ever so glad that we didn’t dawdle.”

“Yes, I should think so,” and Laurie thought regretfully of his own idle days.

“Mother likes to have us out-of-doors as much as possible, so we bring our work here and have nice times. For the fun of it we bring our things in these bags, wear the old hats, use poles to climb the hill, and play pilgrims, as we used to do years ago. We call this hill the Delectable Mountain, for we can look far away and see the country where we hope to live some time.”

Jo pointed, and Laurie sat up to examine, for through an opening in the wood one could look cross the wide, blue river, the meadows on the other side, far over the outskirts of the great city, to the green hills that rose to meet the sky. The sun was low, and the heavens glowed with the splendor of an autumn sunset. Gold and purple clouds lay on the hilltops, and rising high into the ruddy light were silvery white peaks that shone like the airy spires of some Celestial City.

“How beautiful that is!” said Laurie softly, for he was quick to see and feel beauty of any kind.

“It’s often so, and we like to watch it, for it is never the same, but always splendid,” replied Amy, wishing she could paint it.

“Jo talks about the country where we hope to live sometime—the real country, she means, with pigs and chickens and haymaking. It would be nice, but I wish the beautiful country up there was real, and we could ever go to it,” said Beth musingly.

“There is a lovelier country even than that, where we shall go, by-and-by, when we are good enough,” answered Meg with her sweetest voice.

“It seems so long to wait, so hard to do. I want to fly away at once, as those swallows fly, and go in at that splendid gate.”

“You’ll get there, Beth, sooner or later, no fear of that,” said Jo. “I’m the one that will have to fight and work, and climb and wait, and maybe never get in after all.”

“You’ll have me for company, if that’s any comfort. I shall have to do a deal of traveling before I come in sight of your Celestial City. If I arrive late, you’ll say a good word for me, won’t you, Beth?”

Something in the boy’s face troubled his little friend, but she said cheerfully, with her quiet eyes on the changing clouds, “If people really want to go, and really try all their lives, I think they will get in, for I don’t believe there are any locks on that door or any guards at the gate. I always imagine it is as it is in the picture, where the shining ones stretch out their hands to welcome poor Christian as he comes up from the river.”

“Wouldn’t it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true, and we could live in them?” said Jo, after a little pause.

“I’ve made such quantities it would be hard to choose which I’d have,” said Laurie, lying flat and throwing cones at the squirrel who had betrayed him.

“You’d have to take your favorite one. What is it?” asked Meg.

“If I tell mine, will you tell yours?”

“Yes, if the girls will too.”

“We will. Now, Laurie.”

“After I’d seen as much of the world as I want to, I’d like to settle in Germany and have just as much music as I choose. I’m to be a famous musician myself, and all creation is to rush to hear me. And I’m never to be bothered about money or business, but just enjoy myself and live for what I like. That’s my favorite castle. What’s yours, Meg?”

Margaret seemed to find it a little hard to tell hers, and waved a brake before her face, as if to disperse imaginary gnats, while she said slowly, “I should like a lovely house, full of all sorts of luxurious things—nice food, pretty clothes, handsome furniture, pleasant people, and heaps of money. I am to be mistress of it, and manage it as I like, with plenty of servants, so I never need work a bit. How I should enjoy it! For I wouldn’t be idle, but do good, and make everyone love me dearly.”

“Wouldn’t you have a master for your castle in the air?” asked Laurie slyly.

“I said ‘pleasant people’, you know,” and Meg carefully tied up her shoe as she spoke, so that no one saw her face.

“Why don’t you say you’d have a splendid, wise, good husband and some angelic little children? You know your castle wouldn’t be perfect without,” said blunt Jo, who had no tender fancies yet, and rather scorned romance, except in books.

“You’d have nothing but horses, inkstands, and novels in yours,” answered Meg petulantly.

“Wouldn’t I though? I’d have a stable full of Arabian steeds, rooms piled high with books, and I’d write out of a magic inkstand, so that my works should be as famous as Laurie’s music. I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

“Mine is to stay at home safe with Father and Mother, and help take care of the family,” said Beth contentedly.

“Don’t you wish for anything else?” asked Laurie.

“Since I had my little piano, I am perfectly satisfied. I only wish we may all keep well and be together, nothing else.”

“I have ever so many wishes, but the pet one is to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world,” was Amy’s modest desire.

“We’re an ambitious set, aren’t we? Every one of us, but Beth, wants to be rich and famous, and gorgeous in every respect. I do wonder if any of us will ever get our wishes,” said Laurie, chewing grass like a meditative calf.

“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen,” observed Jo mysteriously.

“I’ve got the key to mine, but I’m not allowed to try it. Hang college!” muttered Laurie with an impatient sigh.

“Here’s mine!” and Amy waved her pencil.

“I haven’t got any,” said Meg forlornly.

“Yes, you have,” said Laurie at once.

“Where?”

“In your face.”

“Nonsense, that’s of no use.”

“Wait and see if it doesn’t bring you something worth having,” replied the boy, laughing at the thought of a charming little secret which he fancied he knew.

Meg colored behind the brake, but asked no questions and looked across the river with the same expectant expression which Mr. Brooke had worn when he told the story of the knight.

“If we are all alive ten years hence, let’s meet, and see how many of us have got our wishes, or how much nearer we are then than now,” said Jo, always ready with a plan.

“Bless me! How old I shall be, twenty-seven!” exclaimed Meg, who felt grown up already, having just reached seventeen.

“You and I will be twenty-six, Teddy, Beth twenty-four, and Amy twenty-two. What a venerable party!” said Jo.

“I hope I shall have done something to be proud of by that time, but I’m such a lazy dog, I’m afraid I shall dawdle, Jo.”

“You need a motive, Mother says, and when you get it, she is sure you’ll work splendidly.”

“Is she? By Jupiter, I will, if I only get the chance!” cried Laurie, sitting up with sudden energy. “I ought to be satisfied to please Grandfather, and I do try, but it’s working against the grain, you see, and comes hard. He wants me to be an India merchant, as he was, and I’d rather be shot. I hate tea and silk and spices, and every sort of rubbish his old ships bring, and I don’t care how soon they go to the bottom when I own them. Going to college ought to satisfy him, for if I give him four years he ought to let me off from the business. But he’s set, and I’ve got to do just as he did, unless I break away and please myself, as my father did. If there was anyone left to stay with the old gentleman, I’d do it tomorrow.”

Laurie spoke excitedly, and looked ready to carry his threat into execution on the slightest provocation, for he was growing up very fast and, in spite of his indolent ways, had a young man’s hatred of subjection, a young man’s restless longing to try the world for himself.

“I advise you to sail away in one of your ships, and never come home again till you have tried your own way,” said Jo, whose imagination was fired by the thought of such a daring exploit, and whose sympathy was excited by what she called ‘Teddy’s Wrongs’.

“That’s not right, Jo. You mustn’t talk in that way, and Laurie mustn’t take your bad advice. You should do just what your grandfather wishes, my dear boy,” said Meg in her most maternal tone. “Do your best at college, and when he sees that you try to please him, I’m sure he won’t be hard on you or unjust to you. As you say, there is no one else to stay with and love him, and you’d never forgive yourself if you left him without his permission. Don’t be dismal or fret, but do your duty and you’ll get your reward, as good Mr. Brooke has, by being respected and loved.”

“What do you know about him?” asked Laurie, grateful for the good advice, but objecting to the lecture, and glad to turn the conversation from himself after his unusual outbreak.

“Only what your grandpa told us about him, how he took good care of his own mother till she died, and wouldn’t go abroad as tutor to some nice person because he wouldn’t leave her. And how he provides now for an old woman who nursed his mother, and never tells anyone, but is just as generous and patient and good as he can be.”

“So he is, dear old fellow!” said Laurie heartily, as Meg paused, looking flushed and earnest with her story. “It’s like Grandpa to find out all about him without letting him know, and to tell all his goodness to others, so that they might like him. Brooke couldn’t understand why your mother was so kind to him, asking him over with me and treating him in her beautiful friendly way. He thought she was just perfect, and talked about it for days and days, and went on about you all in flaming style. If ever I do get my wish, you see what I’ll do for Brooke.”

“Begin to do something now by not plaguing his life out,” said Meg sharply.

“How do you know I do, Miss?”

“I can always tell by his face when he goes away. If you have been good, he looks satisfied and walks briskly. If you have plagued him, he’s sober and walks slowly, as if he wanted to go back and do his work better.”

“Well, I like that? So you keep an account of my good and bad marks in Brooke’s face, do you? I see him bow and smile as he passes your window, but I didn’t know you’d got up a telegraph.”

“We haven’t. Don’t be angry, and oh, don’t tell him I said anything! It was only to show that I cared how you get on, and what is said here is said in confidence, you know,” cried Meg, much alarmed at the thought of what might follow from her careless speech.

“I don’t tell tales,” replied Laurie, with his ‘high and mighty’ air, as Jo called a certain expression which he occasionally wore. “Only if Brooke is going to be a thermometer, I must mind and have fair weather for him to report.”

“Please don’t be offended. I didn’t mean to preach or tell tales or be silly. I only thought Jo was encouraging you in a feeling which you’d be sorry for by-and-by. You are so kind to us, we feel as if you were our brother and say just what we think. Forgive me, I meant it kindly.” And Meg offered her hand with a gesture both affectionate and timid.

Ashamed of his momentary pique, Laurie squeezed the kind little hand, and said frankly, “I’m the one to be forgiven. I’m cross and have been out of sorts all day. I like to have you tell me my faults and be sisterly, so don’t mind if I am grumpy sometimes. I thank you all the same.”

Bent on showing that he was not offended, he made himself as agreeable as possible, wound cotton for Meg, recited poetry to please Jo, shook down cones for Beth, and helped Amy with her ferns, proving himself a fit person to belong to the ‘Busy Bee Society’. In the midst of an animated discussion on the domestic habits of turtles (one of those amiable creatures having strolled up from the river), the faint sound of a bell warned them that Hannah had put the tea ‘to draw’, and they would just have time to get home to supper.

“May I come again?” asked Laurie.

“Yes, if you are good, and love your book, as the boys in the primer are told to do,” said Meg, smiling.

“I’ll try.”

“Then you may come, and I’ll teach you to knit as the Scotchmen do. There’s a demand for socks just now,” added Jo, waving hers like a big blue worsted banner as they parted at the gate.

That night, when Beth played to Mr. Laurence in the twilight, Laurie, standing in the shadow of the curtain, listened to the little David, whose simple music always quieted his moody spirit, and watched the old man, who sat with his gray head on his hand, thinking tender thoughts of the dead child he had loved so much. Remembering the conversation of the afternoon, the boy said to himself, with the resolve to make the sacrifice cheerfully, “I’ll let my castle go, and stay with the dear old gentleman while he needs me, for I am all he has.”


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

SECRETS

Jo was very busy in the garret, for the October days began to grow chilly, and the afternoons were short. For two or three hours the sun lay warmly in the high window, showing Jo seated on the old sofa, writing busily, with her papers spread out upon a trunk before her, while Scrabble, the pet rat, promenaded the beams overhead, accompanied by his oldest son, a fine young fellow, who was evidently very proud of his whiskers. Quite absorbed in her work, Jo scribbled away till the last page was filled, when she signed her name with a flourish and threw down her pen, exclaiming...

“There, I’ve done my best! If this won’t suit I shall have to wait till I can do better.”

Lying back on the sofa, she read the manuscript carefully through, making dashes here and there, and putting in many exclamation points, which looked like little balloons. Then she tied it up with a smart red ribbon, and sat a minute looking at it with a sober, wistful expression, which plainly showed how earnest her work had been. Jo’s desk up here was an old tin kitchen which hung against the wall. In it she kept her papers, and a few books, safely shut away from Scrabble, who, being likewise of a literary turn, was fond of making a circulating library of such books as were left in his way by eating the leaves. From this tin receptacle Jo produced another manuscript, and putting both in her pocket, crept quietly downstairs, leaving her friends to nibble on her pens and taste her ink.

She put on her hat and jacket as noiselessly as possible, and going to the back entry window, got out upon the roof of a low porch, swung herself down to the grassy bank, and took a roundabout way to the road. Once there, she composed herself, hailed a passing omnibus, and rolled away to town, looking very merry and mysterious.

If anyone had been watching her, he would have thought her movements decidedly peculiar, for on alighting, she went off at a great pace till she reached a certain number in a certain busy street. Having found the place with some difficulty, she went into the doorway, looked up the dirty stairs, and after standing stock still a minute, suddenly dived into the street and walked away as rapidly as she came. This maneuver she repeated several times, to the great amusement of a black-eyed young gentleman lounging in the window of a building opposite. On returning for the third time, Jo gave herself a shake, pulled her hat over her eyes, and walked up the stairs, looking as if she were going to have all her teeth out.

There was a dentist’s sign, among others, which adorned the entrance, and after staring a moment at the pair of artificial jaws which slowly opened and shut to draw attention to a fine set of teeth, the young gentleman put on his coat, took his hat, and went down to post himself in the opposite doorway, saying with a smile and a shiver, “It’s like her to come alone, but if she has a bad time she’ll need someone to help her home.”

In ten minutes Jo came running downstairs with a very red face and the general appearance of a person who had just passed through a trying ordeal of some sort. When she saw the young gentleman she looked anything but pleased, and passed him with a nod. But he followed, asking with an air of sympathy, “Did you have a bad time?”

“Not very.”

“You got through quickly.”

“Yes, thank goodness!”

“Why did you go alone?”

“Didn’t want anyone to know.”

“You’re the oddest fellow I ever saw. How many did you have out?”

Jo looked at her friend as if she did not understand him, then began to laugh as if mightily amused at something.

“There are two which I want to have come out, but I must wait a week.”

“What are you laughing at? You are up to some mischief, Jo,” said Laurie, looking mystified.

“So are you. What were you doing, sir, up in that billiard saloon?”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, it wasn’t a billiard saloon, but a gymnasium, and I was taking a lesson in fencing.”

“I’m glad of that.”

“Why?”

“You can teach me, and then when we play Hamlet, you can be Laertes, and we’ll make a fine thing of the fencing scene.”

Laurie burst out with a hearty boy’s laugh, which made several passers-by smile in spite of themselves.

“I’ll teach you whether we play Hamlet or not. It’s grand fun and will straighten you up capitally. But I don’t believe that was your only reason for saying ‘I’m glad’ in that decided way, was it now?”

“No, I was glad that you were not in the saloon, because I hope you never go to such places. Do you?”

“Not often.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“It’s no harm, Jo. I have billiards at home, but it’s no fun unless you have good players, so, as I’m fond of it, I come sometimes and have a game with Ned Moffat or some of the other fellows.”

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, for you’ll get to liking it better and better, and will waste time and money, and grow like those dreadful boys. I did hope you’d stay respectable and be a satisfaction to your friends,” said Jo, shaking her head.

“Can’t a fellow take a little innocent amusement now and then without losing his respectability?” asked Laurie, looking nettled.

“That depends upon how and where he takes it. I don’t like Ned and his set, and wish you’d keep out of it. Mother won’t let us have him at our house, though he wants to come. And if you grow like him she won’t be willing to have us frolic together as we do now.”

“Won’t she?” asked Laurie anxiously.

“No, she can’t bear fashionable young men, and she’d shut us all up in bandboxes rather than have us associate with them.”

“Well, she needn’t get out her bandboxes yet. I’m not a fashionable party and don’t mean to be, but I do like harmless larks now and then, don’t you?”

“Yes, nobody minds them, so lark away, but don’t get wild, will you? Or there will be an end of all our good times.”

“I’ll be a double distilled saint.”

“I can’t bear saints. Just be a simple, honest, respectable boy, and we’ll never desert you. I don’t know what I should do if you acted like Mr. King’s son. He had plenty of money, but didn’t know how to spend it, and got tipsy and gambled, and ran away, and forged his father’s name, I believe, and was altogether horrid.”

“You think I’m likely to do the same? Much obliged.”

“No, I don’t—oh, dear, no!—but I hear people talking about money being such a temptation, and I sometimes wish you were poor. I shouldn’t worry then.”

“Do you worry about me, Jo?”

“A little, when you look moody and discontented, as you sometimes do, for you’ve got such a strong will, if you once get started wrong, I’m afraid it would be hard to stop you.”

Laurie walked in silence a few minutes, and Jo watched him, wishing she had held her tongue, for his eyes looked angry, though his lips smiled as if at her warnings.

“Are you going to deliver lectures all the way home?” he asked presently.

“Of course not. Why?”

“Because if you are, I’ll take a bus. If you’re not, I’d like to walk with you and tell you something very interesting.”

“I won’t preach any more, and I’d like to hear the news immensely.”

“Very well, then, come on. It’s a secret, and if I tell you, you must tell me yours.”

“I haven’t got any,” began Jo, but stopped suddenly, remembering that she had.

“You know you have—you can’t hide anything, so up and ’fess, or I won’t tell,” cried Laurie.

“Is your secret a nice one?”

“Oh, isn’t it! All about people you know, and such fun! You ought to hear it, and I’ve been aching to tell it this long time. Come, you begin.”

“You’ll not say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do. You get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you. Fire away.”

“Well, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo, in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children, for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say, but I couldn’t rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

“It won’t fail. Why, Jo, your stories are works of Shakespeare compared to half the rubbish that is published every day. Won’t it be fun to see them in print, and shan’t we feel proud of our authoress?”

Jo’s eyes sparkled, for it is always pleasant to be believed in, and a friend’s praise is always sweeter than a dozen newspaper puffs.

“Where’s your secret? Play fair, Teddy, or I’ll never believe you again,” she said, trying to extinguish the brilliant hopes that blazed up at a word of encouragement.

“I may get into a scrape for telling, but I didn’t promise not to, so I will, for I never feel easy in my mind till I’ve told you any plummy bit of news I get. I know where Meg’s glove is.”

“Is that all?” said Jo, looking disappointed, as Laurie nodded and twinkled with a face full of mysterious intelligence.

“It’s quite enough for the present, as you’ll agree when I tell you where it is.”

“Tell, then.”

Laurie bent, and whispered three words in Jo’s ear, which produced a comical change. She stood and stared at him for a minute, looking both surprised and displeased, then walked on, saying sharply, “How do you know?”

“Saw it.”

“Where?”

“Pocket.”

“All this time?”

“Yes, isn’t that romantic?”

“No, it’s horrid.”

“Don’t you like it?”

“Of course I don’t. It’s ridiculous, it won’t be allowed. My patience! What would Meg say?”

“You are not to tell anyone. Mind that.”

“I didn’t promise.”

“That was understood, and I trusted you.”

“Well, I won’t for the present, anyway, but I’m disgusted, and wish you hadn’t told me.”

“I thought you’d be pleased.”

“At the idea of anybody coming to take Meg away? No, thank you.”

“You’ll feel better about it when somebody comes to take you away.”

“I’d like to see anyone try it,” cried Jo fiercely.

“So should I!” and Laurie chuckled at the idea.

“I don’t think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that,” said Jo rather ungratefully.

“Race down this hill with me, and you’ll be all right,” suggested Laurie.

No one was in sight, the smooth road sloped invitingly before her, and finding the temptation irresistible, Jo darted away, soon leaving hat and comb behind her and scattering hairpins as she ran. Laurie reached the goal first and was quite satisfied with the success of his treatment, for his Atlanta came panting up with flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks, and no signs of dissatisfaction in her face.

“I wish I was a horse, then I could run for miles in this splendid air, and not lose my breath. It was capital, but see what a guy it’s made me. Go, pick up my things, like a cherub, as you are,” said Jo, dropping down under a maple tree, which was carpeting the bank with crimson leaves.

Laurie leisurely departed to recover the lost property, and Jo bundled up her braids, hoping no one would pass by till she was tidy again. But someone did pass, and who should it be but Meg, looking particularly ladylike in her state and festival suit, for she had been making calls.

“What in the world are you doing here?” she asked, regarding her disheveled sister with well-bred surprise.

“Getting leaves,” meekly answered Jo, sorting the rosy handful she had just swept up.

“And hairpins,” added Laurie, throwing half a dozen into Jo’s lap. “They grow on this road, Meg, so do combs and brown straw hats.”

“You have been running, Jo. How could you? When will you stop such romping ways?” said Meg reprovingly, as she settled her cuffs and smoothed her hair, with which the wind had taken liberties.

“Never till I’m stiff and old and have to use a crutch. Don’t try to make me grow up before my time, Meg. It’s hard enough to have you change all of a sudden. Let me be a little girl as long as I can.”

As she spoke, Jo bent over the leaves to hide the trembling of her lips, for lately she had felt that Margaret was fast getting to be a woman, and Laurie’s secret made her dread the separation which must surely come some time and now seemed very near. He saw the trouble in her face and drew Meg’s attention from it by asking quickly, “Where have you been calling, all so fine?”

“At the Gardiners’, and Sallie has been telling me all about Belle Moffat’s wedding. It was very splendid, and they have gone to spend the winter in Paris. Just think how delightful that must be!”

“Do you envy her, Meg?” said Laurie.

“I’m afraid I do.”

“I’m glad of it!” muttered Jo, tying on her hat with a jerk.

“Why?” asked Meg, looking surprised.

“Because if you care much about riches, you will never go and marry a poor man,” said Jo, frowning at Laurie, who was mutely warning her to mind what she said.

“I shall never ‘go and marry’ anyone,” observed Meg, walking on with great dignity while the others followed, laughing, whispering, skipping stones, and ‘behaving like children’, as Meg said to herself, though she might have been tempted to join them if she had not had her best dress on.

For a week or two, Jo behaved so queerly that her sisters were quite bewildered. She rushed to the door when the postman rang, was rude to Mr. Brooke whenever they met, would sit looking at Meg with a woe-begone face, occasionally jumping up to shake and then kiss her in a very mysterious manner. Laurie and she were always making signs to one another, and talking about ‘Spread Eagles’ till the girls declared they had both lost their wits. On the second Saturday after Jo got out of the window, Meg, as she sat sewing at her window, was scandalized by the sight of Laurie chasing Jo all over the garden and finally capturing her in Amy’s bower. What went on there, Meg could not see, but shrieks of laughter were heard, followed by the murmur of voices and a great flapping of newspapers.

“What shall we do with that girl? She never will behave like a young lady,” sighed Meg, as she watched the race with a disapproving face.

“I hope she won’t. She is so funny and dear as she is,” said Beth, who had never betrayed that she was a little hurt at Jo’s having secrets with anyone but her.

“It’s very trying, but we never can make her commy la fo,” added Amy, who sat making some new frills for herself, with her curls tied up in a very becoming way, two agreeable things that made her feel unusually elegant and ladylike.

In a few minutes Jo bounced in, laid herself on the sofa, and affected to read.

“Have you anything interesting there?” asked Meg, with condescension.

“Nothing but a story, won’t amount to much, I guess,” returned Jo, carefully keeping the name of the paper out of sight.

“You’d better read it aloud. That will amuse us and keep you out of mischief,” said Amy in her most grown-up tone.

“What’s the name?” asked Beth, wondering why Jo kept her face behind the sheet.

“The Rival Painters.”

“That sounds well. Read it,” said Meg.

With a loud “Hem!” and a long breath, Jo began to read very fast. The girls listened with interest, for the tale was romantic, and somewhat pathetic, as most of the characters died in the end. “I like that about the splendid picture,” was Amy’s approving remark, as Jo paused.

“I prefer the lovering part. Viola and Angelo are two of our favorite names, isn’t that queer?” said Meg, wiping her eyes, for the lovering part was tragical.

“Who wrote it?” asked Beth, who had caught a glimpse of Jo’s face.

The reader suddenly sat up, cast away the paper, displaying a flushed countenance, and with a funny mixture of solemnity and excitement replied in a loud voice, “Your sister.”

“You?” cried Meg, dropping her work.

“It’s very good,” said Amy critically.

“I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my Jo, I am so proud!” and Beth ran to hug her sister and exult over this splendid success.

Dear me, how delighted they all were, to be sure! How Meg wouldn’t believe it till she saw the words. “Miss Josephine March,” actually printed in the paper. How graciously Amy criticized the artistic parts of the story, and offered hints for a sequel, which unfortunately couldn’t be carried out, as the hero and heroine were dead. How Beth got excited, and skipped and sang with joy. How Hannah came in to exclaim, “Sakes alive, well I never!” in great astonishment at ‘that Jo’s doin’s’. How proud Mrs. March was when she knew it. How Jo laughed, with tears in her eyes, as she declared she might as well be a peacock and done with it, and how the ‘Spread Eagle’ might be said to flap his wings triumphantly over the House of March, as the paper passed from hand to hand.

“Tell us about it.” “When did it come?” “How much did you get for it?” “What will Father say?” “Won’t Laurie laugh?” cried the family, all in one breath as they clustered about Jo, for these foolish, affectionate people made a jubilee of every little household joy.

“Stop jabbering, girls, and I’ll tell you everything,” said Jo, wondering if Miss Burney felt any grander over her Evelina than she did over her ‘Rival Painters’. Having told how she disposed of her tales, Jo added, “And when I went to get my answer, the man said he liked them both, but didn’t pay beginners, only let them print in his paper, and noticed the stories. It was good practice, he said, and when the beginners improved, anyone would pay. So I let him have the two stories, and today this was sent to me, and Laurie caught me with it and insisted on seeing it, so I let him. And he said it was good, and I shall write more, and he’s going to get the next paid for, and I am so happy, for in time I may be able to support myself and help the girls.”

Jo’s breath gave out here, and wrapping her head in the paper, she bedewed her little story with a few natural tears, for to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

A TELEGRAM

“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

“If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month,” said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.

“I dare say, but nothing pleasant ever does happen in this family,” said Meg, who was out of sorts. “We go grubbing along day after day, without a bit of change, and very little fun. We might as well be in a treadmill.”

“My patience, how blue we are!” cried Jo. “I don’t much wonder, poor dear, for you see other girls having splendid times, while you grind, grind, year in and year out. Oh, don’t I wish I could manage things for you as I do for my heroines! You’re pretty enough and good enough already, so I’d have some rich relation leave you a fortune unexpectedly. Then you’d dash out as an heiress, scorn everyone who has slighted you, go abroad, and come home my Lady Something in a blaze of splendor and elegance.”

“People don’t have fortunes left them in that style nowadays, men have to work and women marry for money. It’s a dreadfully unjust world,” said Meg bitterly.

“Jo and I are going to make fortunes for you all. Just wait ten years, and see if we don’t,” said Amy, who sat in a corner making mud pies, as Hannah called her little clay models of birds, fruit, and faces.

“Can’t wait, and I’m afraid I haven’t much faith in ink and dirt, though I’m grateful for your good intentions.”

Meg sighed, and turned to the frostbitten garden again. Jo groaned and leaned both elbows on the table in a despondent attitude, but Amy spatted away energetically, and Beth, who sat at the other window, said, smiling, “Two pleasant things are going to happen right away. Marmee is coming down the street, and Laurie is tramping through the garden as if he had something nice to tell.”

In they both came, Mrs. March with her usual question, “Any letter from Father, girls?” and Laurie to say in his persuasive way, “Won’t some of you come for a drive? I’ve been working away at mathematics till my head is in a muddle, and I’m going to freshen my wits by a brisk turn. It’s a dull day, but the air isn’t bad, and I’m going to take Brooke home, so it will be gay inside, if it isn’t out. Come, Jo, you and Beth will go, won’t you?”

“Of course we will.”

“Much obliged, but I’m busy.” And Meg whisked out her workbasket, for she had agreed with her mother that it was best, for her at least, not to drive too often with the young gentleman.

“We three will be ready in a minute,” cried Amy, running away to wash her hands.

“Can I do anything for you, Madam Mother?” asked Laurie, leaning over Mrs. March’s chair with the affectionate look and tone he always gave her.

“No, thank you, except call at the office, if you’ll be so kind, dear. It’s our day for a letter, and the postman hasn’t been. Father is as regular as the sun, but there’s some delay on the way, perhaps.”

A sharp ring interrupted her, and a minute after Hannah came in with a letter.

“It’s one of them horrid telegraph things, mum,” she said, handling it as if she was afraid it would explode and do some damage.

At the word ‘telegraph’, Mrs. March snatched it, read the two lines it contained, and dropped back into her chair as white as if the little paper had sent a bullet to her heart. Laurie dashed downstairs for water, while Meg and Hannah supported her, and Jo read aloud, in a frightened voice...

Mrs. March:
Your husband is very ill. Come at once.
S. HALE
Blank Hospital, Washington.

How still the room was as they listened breathlessly, how strangely the day darkened outside, and how suddenly the whole world seemed to change, as the girls gathered about their mother, feeling as if all the happiness and support of their lives was about to be taken from them.

Mrs. March was herself again directly, read the message over, and stretched out her arms to her daughters, saying, in a tone they never forgot, “I shall go at once, but it may be too late. Oh, children, children, help me to bear it!”

For several minutes there was nothing but the sound of sobbing in the room, mingled with broken words of comfort, tender assurances of help, and hopeful whispers that died away in tears. Poor Hannah was the first to recover, and with unconscious wisdom she set all the rest a good example, for with her, work was panacea for most afflictions.

“The Lord keep the dear man! I won’t waste no time a-cryin’, but git your things ready right away, mum,” she said heartily, as she wiped her face on her apron, gave her mistress a warm shake of the hand with her own hard one, and went away to work like three women in one.

“She’s right, there’s no time for tears now. Be calm, girls, and let me think.”

They tried to be calm, poor things, as their mother sat up, looking pale but steady, and put away her grief to think and plan for them.

“Where’s Laurie?” she asked presently, when she had collected her thoughts and decided on the first duties to be done.

“Here, ma’am. Oh, let me do something!” cried the boy, hurrying from the next room whither he had withdrawn, feeling that their first sorrow was too sacred for even his friendly eyes to see.

“Send a telegram saying I will come at once. The next train goes early in the morning. I’ll take that.”

“What else? The horses are ready. I can go anywhere, do anything,” he said, looking ready to fly to the ends of the earth.

“Leave a note at Aunt March’s. Jo, give me that pen and paper.”

Tearing off the blank side of one of her newly copied pages, Jo drew the table before her mother, well knowing that money for the long, sad journey must be borrowed, and feeling as if she could do anything to add a little to the sum for her father.

“Now go, dear, but don’t kill yourself driving at a desperate pace. There is no need of that.”

Mrs. March’s warning was evidently thrown away, for five minutes later Laurie tore by the window on his own fleet horse, riding as if for his life.

“Jo, run to the rooms, and tell Mrs. King that I can’t come. On the way get these things. I’ll put them down, they’ll be needed and I must go prepared for nursing. Hospital stores are not always good. Beth, go and ask Mr. Laurence for a couple of bottles of old wine. I’m not too proud to beg for Father. He shall have the best of everything. Amy, tell Hannah to get down the black trunk, and Meg, come and help me find my things, for I’m half bewildered.”

Writing, thinking, and directing all at once might well bewilder the poor lady, and Meg begged her to sit quietly in her room for a little while, and let them work. Everyone scattered like leaves before a gust of wind, and the quiet, happy household was broken up as suddenly as if the paper had been an evil spell.

Mr. Laurence came hurrying back with Beth, bringing every comfort the kind old gentleman could think of for the invalid, and friendliest promises of protection for the girls during the mother’s absence, which comforted her very much. There was nothing he didn’t offer, from his own dressing gown to himself as escort. But the last was impossible. Mrs. March would not hear of the old gentleman’s undertaking the long journey, yet an expression of relief was visible when he spoke of it, for anxiety ill fits one for traveling. He saw the look, knit his heavy eyebrows, rubbed his hands, and marched abruptly away, saying he’d be back directly. No one had time to think of him again till, as Meg ran through the entry, with a pair of rubbers in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, she came suddenly upon Mr. Brooke.

“I’m very sorry to hear of this, Miss March,” he said, in the kind, quiet tone which sounded very pleasantly to her perturbed spirit. “I came to offer myself as escort to your mother. Mr. Laurence has commissions for me in Washington, and it will give me real satisfaction to be of service to her there.”

Down dropped the rubbers, and the tea was very near following, as Meg put out her hand, with a face so full of gratitude that Mr. Brooke would have felt repaid for a much greater sacrifice than the trifling one of time and comfort which he was about to take.

“How kind you all are! Mother will accept, I’m sure, and it will be such a relief to know that she has someone to take care of her. Thank you very, very much!”

Meg spoke earnestly, and forgot herself entirely till something in the brown eyes looking down at her made her remember the cooling tea, and lead the way into the parlor, saying she would call her mother.

Everything was arranged by the time Laurie returned with a note from Aunt March, enclosing the desired sum, and a few lines repeating what she had often said before, that she had always told them it was absurd for March to go into the army, always predicted that no good would come of it, and she hoped they would take her advice the next time. Mrs. March put the note in the fire, the money in her purse, and went on with her preparations, with her lips folded tightly in a way which Jo would have understood if she had been there.

The short afternoon wore away. All other errands were done, and Meg and her mother busy at some necessary needlework, while Beth and Amy got tea, and Hannah finished her ironing with what she called a ‘slap and a bang’, but still Jo did not come. They began to get anxious, and Laurie went off to find her, for no one knew what freak Jo might take into her head. He missed her, however, and she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying with a little choke in her voice, “That’s my contribution toward making Father comfortable and bringing him home!”

“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”

“No, it’s mine honestly. I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”

As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” “My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth. It will be good for my vanity, I was getting too proud of my wig. It will do my brains good to have that mop taken off. My head feels deliciously light and cool, and the barber said I could soon have a curly crop, which will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order. I’m satisfied, so please take the money and let’s have supper.”

“Tell me all about it, Jo. I am not quite satisfied, but I can’t blame you, for I know how willingly you sacrificed your vanity, as you call it, to your love. But, my dear, it was not necessary, and I’m afraid you will regret it one of these days,” said Mrs. March.

“No, I won’t!” returned Jo stoutly, feeling much relieved that her prank was not entirely condemned.

“What made you do it?” asked Amy, who would as soon have thought of cutting off her head as her pretty hair.

“Well, I was wild to do something for Father,” replied Jo, as they gathered about the table, for healthy young people can eat even in the midst of trouble. “I hate to borrow as much as Mother does, and I knew Aunt March would croak, she always does, if you ask for a ninepence. Meg gave all her quarterly salary toward the rent, and I only got some clothes with mine, so I felt wicked, and was bound to have some money, if I sold the nose off my face to get it.”

“You needn’t feel wicked, my child! You had no winter things and got the simplest with your own hard earnings,” said Mrs. March with a look that warmed Jo’s heart.

“I hadn’t the least idea of selling my hair at first, but as I went along I kept thinking what I could do, and feeling as if I’d like to dive into some of the rich stores and help myself. In a barber’s window I saw tails of hair with the prices marked, and one black tail, not so thick as mine, was forty dollars. It came to me all of a sudden that I had one thing to make money out of, and without stopping to think, I walked in, asked if they bought hair, and what they would give for mine.”

“I don’t see how you dared to do it,” said Beth in a tone of awe.

“Oh, he was a little man who looked as if he merely lived to oil his hair. He rather stared at first, as if he wasn’t used to having girls bounce into his shop and ask him to buy their hair. He said he didn’t care about mine, it wasn’t the fashionable color, and he never paid much for it in the first place. The work put into it made it dear, and so on. It was getting late, and I was afraid if it wasn’t done right away that I shouldn’t have it done at all, and you know when I start to do a thing, I hate to give it up. So I begged him to take it, and told him why I was in such a hurry. It was silly, I dare say, but it changed his mind, for I got rather excited, and told the story in my topsy-turvy way, and his wife heard, and said so kindly, ‘Take it, Thomas, and oblige the young lady. I’d do as much for our Jimmy any day if I had a spire of hair worth selling.”

“Who was Jimmy?” asked Amy, who liked to have things explained as they went along.

“Her son, she said, who was in the army. How friendly such things make strangers feel, don’t they? She talked away all the time the man clipped, and diverted my mind nicely.”

“Didn’t you feel dreadfully when the first cut came?” asked Meg, with a shiver.

“I took a last look at my hair while the man got his things, and that was the end of it. I never snivel over trifles like that. I will confess, though, I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table, and felt only the short rough ends of my head. It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or leg off. The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep. I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by, for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Mrs. March folded the wavy chestnut lock, and laid it away with a short gray one in her desk. She only said, “Thank you, deary,” but something in her face made the girls change the subject, and talk as cheerfully as they could about Mr. Brooke’s kindness, the prospect of a fine day tomorrow, and the happy times they would have when Father came home to be nursed.

No one wanted to go to bed when at ten o’clock Mrs. March put by the last finished job, and said, “Come girls.” Beth went to the piano and played the father’s favorite hymn. All began bravely, but broke down one by one till Beth was left alone, singing with all her heart, for to her music was always a sweet consoler.

“Go to bed and don’t talk, for we must be up early and shall need all the sleep we can get. Good night, my darlings,” said Mrs. March, as the hymn ended, for no one cared to try another.

They kissed her quietly, and went to bed as silently as if the dear invalid lay in the next room. Beth and Amy soon fell asleep in spite of the great trouble, but Meg lay awake, thinking the most serious thoughts she had ever known in her short life. Jo lay motionless, and her sister fancied that she was asleep, till a stifled sob made her exclaim, as she touched a wet cheek...

“Jo, dear, what is it? Are you crying about father?”

“No, not now.”

“What then?”

“My... My hair!” burst out poor Jo, trying vainly to smother her emotion in the pillow.

It did not seem at all comical to Meg, who kissed and caressed the afflicted heroine in the tenderest manner.

“I’m not sorry,” protested Jo, with a choke. “I’d do it again tomorrow, if I could. It’s only the vain part of me that goes and cries in this silly way. Don’t tell anyone, it’s all over now. I thought you were asleep, so I just made a little private moan for my one beauty. How came you to be awake?”

“I can’t sleep, I’m so anxious,” said Meg.

“Think about something pleasant, and you’ll soon drop off.”

“I tried it, but felt wider awake than ever.”

“What did you think of?”

“Handsome faces—eyes particularly,” answered Meg, smiling to herself in the dark.

“What color do you like best?”

“Brown, that is, sometimes. Blue are lovely.”

Jo laughed, and Meg sharply ordered her not to talk, then amiably promised to make her hair curl, and fell asleep to dream of living in her castle in the air.

The clocks were striking midnight and the rooms were very still as a figure glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlet here, settling a pillow there, and pausing to look long and tenderly at each unconscious face, to kiss each with lips that mutely blessed, and to pray the fervent prayers which only mothers utter. As she lifted the curtain to look out into the dreary night, the moon broke suddenly from behind the clouds and shone upon her like a bright, benignant face, which seemed to whisper in the silence, “Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”