"Why, Mother, she has seemed unusually well since the babies came."
"It's not her health that troubles me now, it's her spirits. I'm sure there i_omething on her mind, and I want you to discover what it is."
"What makes you think so, Mother?"
"She sits alone a good deal, and doesn't talk to her father as much as sh_sed. I found her crying over the babies the other day. When she sings, th_ongs are always sad ones, and now and then I see a look in her face that _on't understand. This isn't like Beth, and it worries me."
"Have you asked her about it?"
"I have tried once or twice, but she either evaded my questions or looked s_istressed that I stopped. I never force my children's confidence, and _eldom have to wait for long."
Mrs. March glanced at Jo as she spoke, but the face opposite seemed quit_nconscious of any secret disquietude but Beth's, and after sewin_houghtfully for a minute, Jo said, "I think she is growing up, and so begin_o dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why o_eing able to explain them. Why, Mother, Beth's eighteen, but we don't realiz_t, and treat her like a child, forgetting she's a woman."
"So she is. Dear heart, how fast you do grow up," returned her mother with _igh and a smile.
"Can't be helped, Marmee, so you must resign yourself to all sorts of worries, and let your birds hop out of the nest, one by one. I promise never to ho_ery far, if that is any comfort to you."
"It's a great comfort, Jo. I always feel strong when you are at home, now Me_s gone. Beth is too feeble and Amy too young to depend upon, but when the tu_omes, you are always ready."
"Why, you know I don't mind hard jobs much, and there must always be one scru_n a family. Amy is splendid in fine works and I'm not, but I feel in m_lement when all the carpets are to be taken up, or half the family fall sic_t once. Amy is distinguishing herself abroad, but if anything is amiss a_ome, I'm your man."
"I leave Beth to your hands, then, for she will open her tender little hear_o her Jo sooner than to anyone else. Be very kind, and don't let her thin_nyone watches or talks about her. If she only would get quite strong an_heerful again, I shouldn't have a wish in the world."
"Happy woman! I've got heaps."
"My dear, what are they?"
"I'll settle Bethy's troubles, and then I'll tell you mine. They are not ver_earing, so they'll keep." and Jo stitched away, with a wise nod which set he_other's heart at rest about her for the present at least.
While apparently absorbed in her own affairs, Jo watched Beth, and after man_onflicting conjectures, finally settled upon one which seemed to explain th_hange in her. A slight incident gave Jo the clue to the mystery, she thought, and lively fancy, loving heart did the rest. She was affecting to write busil_ne Saturday afternoon, when she and Beth were alone together. Yet as sh_cribbled, she kept her eye on her sister, who seemed unusually quiet. Sittin_t the window, Beth's work often dropped into her lap, and she leaned her hea_pon her hand, in a dejected attitude, while her eyes rested on the dull, autumnal landscape. Suddenly some one passed below, whistling like an operati_lackbird, and a voice called out, "All serene! Coming in tonight."
Beth started, leaned forward, smiled and nodded, watched the passer-by til_is quick tramp died away, then said softly as if to herself, "How strong an_ell and happy that dear boy looks."
"Hum!" said Jo, still intent upon her sister's face, for the bright colo_aded as quickly as it came, the smile vanished, and presently a tear la_hining on the window ledge. Beth whisked it off, and in her half-averted fac_ead a tender sorrow that made her own eyes fill. Fearing to betray herself, she slipped away, murmuring something about needing more paper.
"Mercy on me, Beth loves Laurie!" she said, sitting down in her own room, pal_ith the shock of the discovery which she believed she had just made. "I neve_reamed of such a thing. What will Mother say? I wonder if her… " there J_topped and turned scarlet with a sudden thought. "If he shouldn't love bac_gain, how dreadful it would be. He must. I'll make him!" and she shook he_ead threateningly at the picture of the mischievous-looking boy laughing a_er from the wall. "Oh dear, we are growing up with a vengeance. Here's Me_arried and a mamma, Amy flourishing away at Paris, and Beth in love. I'm th_nly one that has sense enough to keep out of mischief." Jo thought intentl_or a minute with her eyes fixed on the picture, then she smoothed out he_rinkled forehead and said, with a decided nod at the face opposite, "No than_ou, sir, you're very charming, but you've no more stability than _eathercock. So you needn't write touching notes and smile in that insinuatin_ay, for it won't do a bit of good, and I won't have it."
Then she sighed, and fell into a reverie from which she did not wake till th_arly twilight sent her down to take new observations, which only confirme_er suspicion. Though Laurie flirted with Amy and joked with Jo, his manner t_eth had always been peculiarly kind and gentle, but so was everybody's.
Therefore, no one thought of imagining that he cared more for her than for th_thers. Indeed, a general impression had prevailed in the family of late that
'our boy' was getting fonder than ever of Jo, who, however, wouldn't hear _ord upon the subject and scolded violently if anyone dared to suggest it. I_hey had known the various tender passages which had been nipped in the bud, they would have had the immense satisfaction of saying, "I told you so." Bu_o hated 'philandering', and wouldn't allow it, always having a joke or _mile ready at the least sign of impending danger.
When Laurie first went to college, he fell in love about once a month, bu_hese small flames were as brief as ardent, did no damage, and much amused Jo, who took great interest in the alternations of hope, despair, and resignation, which were confided to her in their weekly conferences. But there came a tim_hen Laurie ceased to worship at many shrines, hinted darkly at one all- absorbing passion, and indulged occasionally in Byronic fits of gloom. Then h_voided the tender subject altogether, wrote philosophical notes to Jo, turne_tudious, and gave out that he was going to 'dig', intending to graduate in _laze of glory. This suited the young lady better than twilight confidences, tender pressures of the hand, and eloquent glances of the eye, for with Jo, brain developed earlier than heart, and she preferred imaginary heroes to rea_nes, because when tired of them, the former could be shut up in the ti_itchen till called for, and the latter were less manageable.
Things were in this state when the grand discovery was made, and Jo watche_aurie that night as she had never done before. If she had not got the ne_dea into her head, she would have seen nothing unusual in the fact that Bet_as very quiet, and Laurie very kind to her. But having given the rein to he_ively fancy, it galloped away with her at a great pace, and common sense, being rather weakened by a long course of romance writing, did not come to th_escue. As usual Beth lay on the sofa and Laurie sat in a low chair close by, amusing her with all sorts of gossip, for she depended on her weekly 'spin', and he never disappointed her. But that evening Jo fancied that Beth's eye_ested on the lively, dark face beside her with peculiar pleasure, and tha_he listened with intense interest to an account of some exciting cricke_atch, though the phrases, 'caught off a tice', 'stumped off his ground', and
'the leg hit for three', were as intelligible to her as Sanskrit. She als_ancied, having set her heart upon seeing it, that she saw a certain increas_f gentleness in Laurie's manner, that he dropped his voice now and then, laughed less than usual, was a little absent-minded, and settled the afgha_ver Beth's feet with an assiduity that was really almost tender.
"Who knows? Stranger things have happened," thought Jo, as she fussed abou_he room. "She will make quite an angel of him, and he will make lif_elightfully easy and pleasant for the dear, if they only love each other. _on't see how he can help it, and I do believe he would if the rest of us wer_ut of the way."
As everyone was out of the way but herself, Jo began to feel that she ought t_ispose of herself with all speed. But where should she go? And burning to la_erself upon the shrine of sisterly devotion, she sat down to settle tha_oint.
Now, the old sofa was a regular patriarch of a sofa—long, broad, well- cushioned, and low, a trifle shabby, as well it might be, for the girls ha_lept and sprawled on it as babies, fished over the back, rode on the arms, and had menageries under it as children, and rested tired heads, dreame_reams, and listened to tender talk on it as young women. They all loved it, for it was a family refuge, and one corner had always been Jo's favorit_ounging place. Among the many pillows that adorned the venerable couch wa_ne, hard, round, covered with prickly horsehair, and furnished with a knobb_utton at each end. This repulsive pillow was her especial property, bein_sed as a weapon of defense, a barricade, or a stern preventive of too muc_lumber.
Laurie knew this pillow well, and had cause to regard it with deep aversion, having been unmercifully pummeled with it in former days when romping wa_llowed, and now frequently debarred by it from the seat he most coveted nex_o Jo in the sofa corner. If 'the sausage' as they called it, stood on end, i_as a sign that he might approach and repose, but if it lay flat across th_ofa, woe to man, woman, or child who dared disturb it! That evening Jo forgo_o barricade her corner, and had not been in her seat five minutes, before _assive form appeared beside her, and with both arms spread over the sof_ack, both long legs stretched out before him, Laurie exclaimed, with a sig_f satisfaction…
"Now, this is filling at the price."
"No slang," snapped Jo, slamming down the pillow. But it was too late, ther_as no room for it, and coasting onto the floor, it disappeared in a mos_ysterious manner.
"Come, Jo, don't be thorny. After studying himself to a skeleton all the week, a fellow deserves petting and ought to get it."
"Beth will pet you. I'm busy."
"No, she's not to be bothered with me, but you like that sort of thing, unles_ou've suddenly lost your taste for it. Have you? Do you hate your boy, an_ant to fire pillows at him?"
Anything more wheedlesome than that touching appeal was seldom heard, but J_uenched 'her boy' by turning on him with a stern query, "How many bouquet_ave you sent Miss Randal this week?"
"Not one, upon my word. She's engaged. Now then."
"I'm glad of it, that's one of your foolish extravagances, sending flowers an_hings to girls for whom you don't care two pins," continued Jo reprovingly.
"Sensible girls for whom I do care whole papers of pins won't let me send them
'flowers and things', so what can I do? My feelings need a 'vent'."
"Mother doesn't approve of flirting even in fun, and you do flirt desperately, Teddy."
"I'd give anything if I could answer, 'So do you'. As I can't, I'll merely sa_hat I don't see any harm in that pleasant little game, if all partie_nderstand that it's only play."
"Well, it does look pleasant, but I can't learn how it's done. I've tried, because one feels awkward in company not to do as everybody else is doing, bu_ don't seem to get on", said Jo, forgetting to play mentor.
"Take lessons of Amy, she has a regular talent for it."
"Yes, she does it very prettily, and never seems to go too far. I suppose it'_atural to some people to please without trying, and others to always say an_o the wrong thing in the wrong place."
"I'm glad you can't flirt. It's really refreshing to see a sensible, straightforward girl, who can be jolly and kind without making a fool o_erself. Between ourselves, Jo, some of the girls I know really do go on a_uch a rate I'm ashamed of them. They don't mean any harm, I'm sure, but i_hey knew how we fellows talked about them afterward, they'd mend their ways, I fancy."
"They do the same, and as their tongues are the sharpest, you fellows get th_orst of it, for you are as silly as they, every bit. If you behaved properly, they would, but knowing you like their nonsense, they keep it up, and then yo_lame them."
"Much you know about it, ma'am," said Laurie in a superior tone. "We don'_ike romps and flirts, though we may act as if we did sometimes. The pretty, modest girls are never talked about, except respectfully, among gentleman.
Bless your innocent soul! If you could be in my place for a month you'd se_hings that would astonish you a trifle. Upon my word, when I see one of thos_arum-scarum girls, I always want to say with our friend Cock Robin…
> "Out upon you, fie upon you, > Bold-faced jig!"
It was impossible to help laughing at the funny conflict between Laurie'_hivalrous reluctance to speak ill of womankind, and his very natural dislik_f the unfeminine folly of which fashionable society showed him many samples.
Jo knew that 'young Laurence' was regarded as a most eligible parti by worldl_amas, was much smiled upon by their daughters, and flattered enough by ladie_f all ages to make a coxcomb of him, so she watched him rather jealously, fearing he would be spoiled, and rejoiced more than she confessed to find tha_e still believed in modest girls. Returning suddenly to her admonitory tone, she said, dropping her voice, "If you must have a 'vent', Teddy, go and devot_ourself to one of the 'pretty, modest girls' whom you do respect, and no_aste your time with the silly ones."
"You really advise it?" and Laurie looked at her with an odd mixture o_nxiety and merriment in his face.
"Yes, I do, but you'd better wait till you are through college, on the whole, and be fitting yourself for the place meantime. You're not half good enoug_or—well, whoever the modest girl may be." and Jo looked a little quee_ikewise, for a name had almost escaped her.
"That I'm not!" acquiesced Laurie, with an expression of humility quite new t_im, as he dropped his eyes and absently wound Jo's apron tassel round hi_inger.
"Mercy on us, this will never do," thought Jo, adding aloud, "Go and sing t_e. I'm dying for some music, and always like yours."
"I'd rather stay here, thank you."
"Well, you can't, there isn't room. Go and make yourself useful, since you ar_oo big to be ornamental. I thought you hated to be tied to a woman's apro_tring?" retorted Jo, quoting certain rebellious words of his own.
"Ah, that depends on who wears the apron!" and Laurie gave an audacious twea_t the tassel.
"Are you going?" demanded Jo, diving for the pillow.
He fled at once, and the minute it was well, "Up with the bonnets of bonni_undee," she slipped away to return no more till the young gentleman departe_n high dudgeon.
Jo lay long awake that night, and was just dropping off when the sound of _tifled sob made her fly to Beth's bedside, with the anxious inquiry, "What i_t, dear?"
"I thought you were asleep," sobbed Beth.
"Is it the old pain, my precious?"
"No, it's a new one, but I can bear it," and Beth tried to check her tears.
"Tell me all about it, and let me cure it as I often did the other."
"You can't, there is no cure." There Beth's voice gave way, and clinging t_er sister, she cried so despairingly that Jo was frightened.
"Where is it? Shall I call Mother?"
"No, no, don't call her, don't tell her. I shall be better soon. Lie down her_nd 'poor' my head. I'll be quiet and go to sleep, indeed I will."
Jo obeyed, but as her hand went softly to and fro across Beth's hot forehea_nd wet eyelids, her heart was very full and she longed to speak. But young a_he was, Jo had learned that hearts, like flowers, cannot be rudely handled, but must open naturally, so though she believed she knew the cause of Beth'_ew pain, she only said, in her tenderest tone, "Does anything trouble you, deary?"
"Yes, Jo," after a long pause.
"Wouldn't it comfort you to tell me what it is?"
"Not now, not yet."
"Then I won't ask, but remember, Bethy, that Mother and Jo are always glad t_ear and help you, if they can."
"I know it. I'll tell you by-and-by."
"Is the pain better now?"
"Oh, yes, much better, you are so comfortable, Jo."
"Go to sleep, dear. I'll stay with you."
So cheek to cheek they fell asleep, and on the morrow Beth seemed quit_erself again, for at eighteen neither heads nor hearts ache long, and _oving word can medicine most ills.
But Jo had made up her mind, and after pondering over a project for some days, she confided it to her mother.
"You asked me the other day what my wishes were. I'll tell you one of them, Marmee," she began, as they sat along together. "I want to go away somewher_his winter for a change."
"Why, Jo?" and her mother looked up quickly, as if the words suggested _ouble meaning.
With her eyes on her work Jo answered soberly, "I want something new. I fee_estless and anxious to be seeing, doing, and learning more than I am. I broo_oo much over my own small affairs, and need stirring up, so as I can b_pared this winter, I'd like to hop a little way and try my wings."
"Where will you hop?"
"To New York. I had a bright idea yesterday, and this is it. You know Mrs.
Kirke wrote to you for some respectable young person to teach her children an_ew. It's rather hard to find just the thing, but I think I should suit if _ried."
"My dear, go out to service in that great boarding house!" and Mrs. Marc_ooked surprised, but not displeased.
"It's not exactly going out to service, for Mrs. Kirke is your friend—th_indest soul that ever lived—and would make things pleasant for me, I know.
Her family is separate from the rest, and no one knows me there. Don't care i_hey do. It's honest work, and I'm not ashamed of it."
"Nor I. But your writing?"
"All the better for the change. I shall see and hear new things, get ne_deas, and even if I haven't much time there, I shall bring home quantities o_aterial for my rubbish."
"I have no doubt of it, but are these your only reasons for this sudde_ancy?"
"May I know the others?"
Jo looked up and Jo looked down, then said slowly, with sudden color in he_heeks. "It may be vain and wrong to say it, but—I'm afraid—Laurie is gettin_oo fond of me."
"Then you don't care for him in the way it is evident he begins to care fo_ou?" and Mrs. March looked anxious as she put the question.
"Mercy, no! I love the dear boy, as I always have, and am immensely proud o_im, but as for anything more, it's out of the question."
"I'm glad of that, Jo."
"Because, dear, I don't think you suited to one another. As friends you ar_ery happy, and your frequent quarrels soon blow over, but I fear you woul_oth rebel if you were mated for life. You are too much alike and too fond o_reedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happil_ogether, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as wel_s love."
"That's just the feeling I had, though I couldn't express it. I'm glad yo_hink he is only beginning to care for me. It would trouble me sadly to mak_im unhappy, for I couldn't fall in love with the dear old fellow merely ou_f gratitude, could I?"
"You are sure of his feeling for you?"
The color deepened in Jo's cheeks as she answered, with the look of mingle_leasure, pride, and pain which young girls wear when speaking of firs_overs, "I'm afraid it is so, Mother. He hasn't said anything, but he looks _reat deal. I think I had better go away before it comes to anything."
"I agree with you, and if it can be managed you shall go."
Jo looked relieved, and after a pause, said, smiling, "How Mrs. Moffat woul_onder at your want of management, if she knew, and how she will rejoice tha_nnie may still hope."
"Ah, Jo, mothers may differ in their management, but the hope is the same i_ll—the desire to see their children happy. Meg is so, and I am content wit_er success. You I leave to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it, for onl_hen will you find that there is something sweeter. Amy is my chief care now, but her good sense will help her. For Beth, I indulge no hopes except that sh_ay be well. By the way, she seems brighter this last day or two. Have yo_poken to her?'
"Yes, she owned she had a trouble, and promised to tell me by-and-by. I sai_o more, for I think I know it," and Jo told her little story.
Mrs. March shook her head, and did not take so romantic a view of the case, but looked grave, and repeated her opinion that for Laurie's sake Jo should g_way for a time.
"Let us say nothing about it to him till the plan is settled, then I'll ru_way before he can collect his wits and be tragic. Beth must think I'm goin_o please myself, as I am, for I can't talk about Laurie to her. But she ca_et and comfort him after I'm gone, and so cure him of this romantic notion.
He's been through so many little trials of the sort, he's used to it, and wil_oon get over his lovelornity."
Jo spoke hopefully, but could not rid herself of the foreboding fear that this
'little trial' would be harder than the others, and that Laurie would not ge_ver his 'lovelornity' as easily as heretofore.
The plan was talked over in a family council and agreed upon, for Mrs. Kirk_ladly accepted Jo, and promised to make a pleasant home for her. The teachin_ould render her independent, and such leisure as she got might be mad_rofitable by writing, while the new scenes and society would be both usefu_nd agreeable. Jo liked the prospect and was eager to be gone, for the hom_est was growing too narrow for her restless nature and adventurous spirit.
When all was settled, with fear and trembling she told Laurie, but to he_urprise he took it very quietly. He had been graver than usual of late, bu_ery pleasant, and when jokingly accused of turning over a new leaf, h_nswered soberly, "So I am, and I mean this one shall stay turned."
Jo was very much relieved that one of his virtuous fits should come on jus_hen, and made her preparations with a lightened heart, for Beth seemed mor_heerful, and hoped she was doing the best for all.
"One thing I leave in your especial care," she said, the night before sh_eft.
"You mean your papers?" asked Beth.
"No, my boy. Be very good to him, won't you?"
"Of course I will, but I can't fill your place, and he'll miss you sadly."
"It won't hurt him, so remember, I leave him in your charge, to plague, pet, and keep in order."
"I'll do my best, for your sake," promised Beth, wondering why Jo looked a_er so queerly.
When Laurie said good-by, he whispered significantly, "It won't do a bit o_ood, Jo. My eye is on you, so mind what you do, or I'll come and bring yo_ome."