When Jo came home that spring, she had been struck with the change in Beth. N_ne spoke of it or seemed aware of it, for it had come too gradually t_tartle those who saw her daily, but to eyes sharpened by absence, it was ver_lain and a heavy weight fell on Jo's heart as she saw her sister's face. I_as no paler and but littler thinner than in the autumn, yet there was _trange, transparent look about it, as if the mortal was being slowly refine_way, and the immortal shining through the frail flesh with an indescribabl_athetic beauty. Jo saw and felt it, but said nothing at the time, and soo_he first impression lost much of its power, for Beth seemed happy, no on_ppeared to doubt that she was better, and presently in other cares Jo for _ime forgot her fear.
But when Laurie was gone, and peace prevailed again, the vague anxiet_eturned and haunted her. She had confessed her sins and been forgiven, bu_hen she showed her savings and proposed a mountain trip, Beth had thanked he_eartily, but begged not to go so far away from home. Another little visit t_he seashore would suit her better, and as Grandma could not be prevailed upo_o leave the babies, Jo took Beth down to the quiet place, where she coul_ive much in the open air, and let the fresh sea breezes blow a little colo_nto her pale cheeks.
It was not a fashionable place, but even among the pleasant people there, th_irls made few friends, preferring to live for one another. Beth was too sh_o enjoy society, and Jo too wrapped up in her to care for anyone else. S_hey were all in all to each other, and came and went, quite unconscious o_he interest they exited in those about them, who watched with sympatheti_yes the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they fel_nstinctively that a long separation was not far away.
They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it, for often between ourselves an_hose nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very har_o overcome. Jo felt as if a veil had fallen between her heart and Beth's, bu_hen she put out her hand to lift it up, there seemed something sacred in th_ilence, and she waited for Beth to speak. She wondered, and was thankfu_lso, that her parents did not seem to see what she saw, and during the quie_eeks when the shadows grew so plain to her, she said nothing of it to thos_t 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 wha_houghts were passing through her mind during the long hours when she lay o_he warm rocks with her head in Jo's lap, while the winds blew healthfull_ver her and the sea made music at her feet.
One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she lay so still, an_utting down her book, sat looking at her with wistful eyes, trying to se_igns of hope in the faint color on Beth's cheeks. But she could not fin_nough to satisfy her, for the cheeks were very thin, and the hands seemed to_eeble to hold even the rosy little shells they had been collecting. It cam_o her then more bitterly than ever that Beth was slowly drifting away fro_er, and her arms instinctively tightened their hold upon the dearest treasur_he possessed. For a minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when the_leared, Beth was looking up at her so tenderly that there was hardly any nee_or her to say, "Jo, dear, I'm glad you know it. I've tried to tell you, but _ouldn'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 Bet_ried to comfort and sustain her, with her arms about her and the soothin_ords she whispered in her ear.
"I've known it for a good while, dear, and now I'm used to it, it isn't har_o 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 i_hen, and keep it to yourself so long, did you?" asked Jo, refusing to see o_ay that it was best, but glad to know that Laurie had no part in Beth'_rouble.
"Yes, I gave up hoping then, but I didn't like to own it. I tried to think i_as a sick fancy, and would not let it trouble anyone. But when I saw you al_o well and strong and full of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I coul_ever 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? Ho_ould you shut me out, bear it all alone?"
Jo's voice was full of tender reproach, and her heart ached to think of th_olitary struggle that must have gone on while Beth learned to say goodbye t_ealth, 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 sai_nything, and I hoped I was mistaken. It would have been selfish to frighte_ou all when Marmee was so anxious about Meg, and Amy away, and you so happ_ith Laurie—at least I thought so then."
"And I thought you loved him, Beth, and I went away because I couldn't," crie_o, glad to say all the truth.
Beth looked so amazed at the idea that Jo smiled in spite of her pain, an_dded softly, "Then you didn't, dearie? I was afraid it was so, and imagine_our poor little heart full of lovelornity all that while."
"Why, Jo, how could I, when he was so fond of you?" asked Beth, as innocentl_s a child. "I do love him dearly. He is so good to me, how can I help It? Bu_e could never be anything to me but my brother. I hope he truly will be,
"Not through me," said Jo decidedly. "Amy is left for him, and they would sui_xcellently, but I have no heart for such things, now. I don't care wha_ecomes 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 mor_ure 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 kee_ou in spite of everything. There must be ways, it can't be too late. Go_on't be so cruel as to take you from me," cried poor Jo rebelliously, for he_pirit was far less piously submissive than Beth's.
Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. It shows itself i_cts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies o_rotestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave he_ourage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like _onfiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God an_ature, 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 t_ome. She did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches, only loved her better fo_er passionate affection, and clung more closely to the dear human love, fro_hich our Father never means us to be weaned, but through which He draws u_loser to Himself. She could not say, "I'm glad to go," for life was ver_weet for her. She could only sob out, "I try to be willing," while she hel_ast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over the_ogether.
By and by Beth said, with recovered serenity, "You'll tell them this when w_o home?"
"I think they will see it without words," sighed Jo, for now it seemed to he_hat Beth changed every day.
"Perhaps not. I've heard that the people who love best are often blindest t_uch things. If they don't see it, you will tell them for me. I don't want an_ecrets, and it's kinder to prepare them. Meg has John and the babies t_omfort 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 _ick fancy, and not let you think it's true." said Jo, trying to spea_heerfully.
Beth lay a minute thinking, and then said in her quiet way, "I don't know ho_o express myself, and shouldn't try to anyone but you, because I can't spea_ut except to my Jo. I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it neve_as intended I should live long. I'm not like the rest of you. I never mad_ny 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 littl_eth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted t_o away, and the hard part now is the leaving you all. I'm not afraid, but i_eems 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 o_he wind and the lapping of the tide. A white-winged gull flew by, with th_lash of sunshine on its silvery breast. Beth watched it till it vanished, an_er eyes were full of sadness. A little gray-coated sand bird came trippin_ver the beach 'peeping' softly to itself, as if enjoying the sun and sea. I_ame quite close to Beth, and looked at her with a friendly eye and sat upon _arm stone, dressing its wet feathers, quite at home. Beth smiled and fel_omforted, for the tiny thing seemed to offer its small friendship and remin_er that a pleasant world was still to be enjoyed.
"Dear little bird! See, Jo, how tame it is. I like peeps better than th_ulls. They are not so wild and handsome, but they seem happy, confidin_ittle things. I used to call them my birds last summer, and Mother said the_eminded her of me—busy, quaker-colored creatures, always near the shore, an_lways 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, an_appy all alone. Meg is the turtledove, and Amy is like the lark she write_bout, trying to get up among the clouds, but always dropping down into it_est again. Dear little girl! She's so ambitious, but her heart is good an_ender, and no matter how high she flies, she never will forget home. I hope _hall 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 se_nd 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 quit_nlike bashful Beth.
"Jo, dear, don't hope any more. It won't do any good. I'm sure of that. W_on't be miserable, but enjoy being together while we wait. We'll have happ_imes, for I don't suffer much, and I think the tide will go out easily, i_ou help me."
Jo leaned down to kiss the tranquil face, and with that silent kiss, sh_edicated herself soul and body to Beth.
She was right. There was no need of any words when they got home, for Fathe_nd Mother saw plainly now what they had prayed to be saved from seeing. Tire_ith her short journey, Beth went at once to bed, saying how glad she was t_e home, and when Jo went down, she found that she would be spared the har_ask of telling Beth's secret. Her father stood leaning his head on th_antelpiece and did not turn as she came in, but her mother stretched out he_rms as if for help, and Jo went to comfort her without a word.