LIKE bees swarming after their queen, mother and daughters hovered about Mr. March the next day, neglecting everything to look at, wait upon, and listen to the new invalid, who was in a fair way to be killed by kindness. As he sat propped up in a big chair by Beths sofa, with the other three close by, and Hannah popping in her head now and then to peek at the dear man, nothing seemed needed to complete their happiness. But something was needed, and the elder ones felt it, though none confessed the fact. Mr. and Mrs. March looked at one another with an anxious expression, as their eyes followed Meg. Jo had sudden fits of sobriety, and was seen to shake her fist at Mr. Brookes umbrella, which had been left in the hall; Meg was absent-minded, shy, and silent, started when the bell rang, and colored when Johns name was mentioned; Amy said Every one seemed waiting for something, and could nt settle down, which was queer, since father was safe at home, and Beth innocently wondered why their neighbors did nt run over as usual.
Laurie went by in the afternoon, and, seeing Meg at the window, seemed suddenly possessed with a melodramatic fit, for he fell down upon one knee in the snow, beat his breast, tore his hair, and clasped his hands imploringly, as if begging some boon; and when Meg told him to behave himself and go away, he wrung imaginary tears out of his handkerchief, and staggered round the corner as if in utter despair.
Dont say my John, it is nt proper or true; but Megs voice lingered over the words as if they sounded pleasant to her. Please dont plague me, Jo; I ve told you I dont care much about him, and there is nt to be anything said, but we are all to be friendly, and go on as before.
We cant, for something has been said, and Lauries mischief has spoilt you for me. I see it, and so does mother; you are not like your old self a bit, and seem ever so far away from me. I dont mean to plague you, and will bear it like a man, but I do wish it was all settled. I hate to wait; so if you mean ever to do it, make haste and have it over quickly, said Jo pettishly.
I cant say or do anything till he speaks, and he wont, because father said I was too young, began Meg, bending over her work, with a queer little smile, which suggested that she did not quite agree with her father on that point.
Oh, I should merely say, quite calmly and decidedly, Thank you, Mr. Brooke, you are very kind, but I agree with father that I am too young to enter into any engagement at present; so please say no more, but let us be friends as we were.
Hum! that s stiff and cool enough. I dont believe you ll ever say it, and I know he wont be satisfied if you do. If he goes on like the rejected lovers in books, you ll give in, rather than hurt his feelings.
Meg rose as she spoke, and was just going to rehearse the dignified exit, when a step in the hall made her fly into her seat, and begin to sew as if her life depended on finishing that particular seam in a given time. Jo smothered a laugh at the sudden change, and, when some one gave a modest tap, opened the door with a grim aspect, which was anything but hospitable.
It s very well, he s in the rack, I ll get him, and tell it you are here, and having jumbled her father and the umbrella well together in her reply, Jo slipped out of the room to give Meg a chance to make her speech and air her dignity. But the instant she vanished, Meg began to sidle towards the door, murmuring,
Dont go; are you afraid of me, Margaret? and Mr. Brooke looked so hurt that Meg thought she must have done something very rude. She blushed up to the little curls on her forehead, for he had never called her Margaret before, and she was surprised to find how natural and sweet it seemed to hear him say it. Anxious to appear friendly and at her ease, she put out her hand with a confiding gesture, and said gratefully,
Shall I tell you how? asked Mr. Brooke, holding the small hand fast in both his own, and looking down at Meg with so much love in the brown eyes, that her heart began to flutter, and she both longed to run away and to stop and listen.
This was the moment for the calm, proper speech, but Meg did nt make it; she forgot every word of it, hung her head, and answered, I dont know, so softly, that John had to stoop down to catch the foolish little reply.
He seemed to think it was worth the trouble, for he smiled to himself as if quite satisfied, pressed the plump hand gratefully, and said, in his most persuasive tone, Will you try and find out? I want to know so much; for I cant go to work with any heart until I learn whether I am to have my reward in the end or not.
Please choose to learn, Meg. I love to teach, and this is easier than German, broke in John, getting possession of the other hand, so that she had no way of hiding her face, as he bent to look into it.
His tone was properly beseeching; but, stealing a shy look at him, Meg saw that his eyes were merry as well as tender, and that he wore the satisfied smile of one who had no doubt of his success. This nettled her; Annie Moffats foolish lessons in coquetry came into her mind, and the love of power, which sleeps in the bosoms of the best of little women, woke up all of a sudden and took possession of her. She felt excited and strange, and, not knowing what else to do, followed a capricious impulse, and, withdrawing her hands, said petulantly, I dont choose. Please go away and let me be!
He was grave and pale now, and looked decidedly more like the novel heroes whom she admired; but he neither slapped his forehead nor tramped about the room, as they did; he just stood looking at her so wistfully, so tenderly, that she found her heart relenting in spite of her. What would have happened next I cannot say, if Aunt March had not come hobbling in at this interesting minute.
The old lady could nt resist her longing to see her nephew; for she had met Laurie as she took her airing, and, hearing of Mr. Marchs arrival, drove straight out to see him. The family were all busy in the back part of the house, and she had made her way quietly in, hoping to surprise them. She did surprise two of them so much that Meg started as if she had seen a ghost, and Mr. Brooke vanished into the study.
That s evident, returned Aunt March, sitting down. But what is fathers friend saying to make you look like a peony? There s mischief going on, and I insist upon knowing what it is, with another rap.
Brooke? That boys tutor? Ah! I understand now. I know all about it. Jo blundered into a wrong message in one of your fathers letters, and I made her tell me. You have nt gone and accepted him, child? cried Aunt March, looking scandalized.
Not yet. I ve something to say to you, and I must free my mind at once. Tell me, do you mean to marry this Cook? If you do, not one penny of my money ever goes to you. Remember that, and be a sensible girl, said the old lady impressively.
Now Aunt March possessed in perfection the art of rousing the spirit of opposition in the gentlest people, and enjoyed doing it. The best of us have a spice of perversity in us, especially when we are young and in love. If Aunt March had begged Meg to accept John Brooke, she would probably have declared she could nt think of it; but as she was peremptorily ordered not to like him, she immediately made up her mind that she would. Inclination as well as perversity made the decision easy, and, being already much excited, Meg opposed the old lady with unusual spirit.
Aunt March put on her glasses and took a look at the girl, for she did not know her in this new mood. Meg hardly knew herself, she felt so brave and independent,so glad to defend John, and assert her right to love him, if she liked. Aunt March saw that she had begun wrong, and, after a little pause, made a fresh start, saying, as mildly as she could, Now, Meg, my dear, be reasonable, and take my advice. I mean it kindly, and dont want you to spoil your whole life by making a mistake at the beginning. You ought to marry well, and help your family; it s your duty to make a rich match, and it ought to be impressed upon you.
That wont last long. James Laurence is a crotchety old fellow, and not to be depended on. So you intend to marry a man without money, position, or business, and go on working harder than you do now, when you might be comfortable all your days by minding me and doing better? I thought you had more sense, Meg.
I could nt do better if I waited half my life! John is good and wise; he s got heaps of talent; he s willing to work, and sure to get on, he s so energetic and brave. Every one likes and respects him, and I m proud to think he cares for me, though I m so poor and young and silly, said Meg, looking prettier than ever in her earnestness.
Aunt March, how dare you say such a thing? John is above such meanness, and I wont listen to you a minute if you talk so, cried Meg indignantly, forgetting everything but the injustice of the old ladys suspicions. My John would nt marry for money, any more than I would. We are willing to work, and we mean to wait. I m not afraid of being poor, for I ve been happy so far, and I know I shall be with him, because he loves me, and I
Well, I wash my hands of the whole affair! You are a wilful child, and you ve lost more than you know by this piece of folly. No, I wont stop; I m disappointed in you, and have nt spirits to see your father now. Dont expect anything from me when you are married; your Mr. Books friends must take care of you. I m done with you forever.
And, slamming the door in Megs face, Aunt March drove off in high dudgeon. She seemed to take all the girls courage with her; for, when left alone, Meg stood a moment, undecided whether to laugh or cry. Before she could make up her mind, she was taken possession of by Mr. Brooke, who said, all in one breath, I could nt help hearing, Meg. Thank you for defending me, and Aunt March for proving that you do care for me a little bit.
Here was another fine chance to make the crushing speech and the stately exit, but Meg never thought of doing either, and disgraced herself forever in Jos eyes by meekly whispering, Yes, John, and hiding her face on Mr. Brookes waistcoat.
Fifteen minutes after Aunt Marchs departure, Jo came softly downstairs, paused an instant at the parlor door, and, hearing no sound within, nodded and smiled, with a satisfied expression, saying to herself, She has seen him away as we planned, and that affair is settled. I ll go and hear the fun, and have a good laugh over it.
But poor Jo never got her laugh, for she was transfixed upon the threshold by a spectacle which held her there, staring with her mouth nearly as wide open as her eyes. Going in to exult over a fallen enemy, and to praise a strong-minded sister for the banishment of an objectionable lover, it certainly was a shock to behold the aforesaid enemy serenely sitting on the sofa, with the strong-minded sister enthroned upon his knee, and wearing an expression of the most abject submission. Jo gave a sort of gasp, as if a cold shower-bath had suddenly fallen upon her,for such an unexpected turning of the tables actually took her breath away. At the odd sound, the lovers turned and saw her. Meg jumped up, looking both proud and shy; but that man, as Jo called him, actually laughed, and said coolly, as he kissed the astonished new-comer, Sister Jo, congratulate us!
That was adding insult to injury,it was altogether too much,and, making some wild demonstration with her hands, Jo vanished without a word. Rushing upstairs, she startled the invalids by exclaiming tragically, as she burst into the room, Oh, do somebody go down quick; John Brooke is acting dreadfully, and Meg likes it!
Mr. and Mrs. March left the room with speed; and, casting herself upon the bed, Jo cried and scolded tempestuously as she told the awful news to Beth and Amy. The little girls, however, considered it a most agreeable and interesting event, and Jo got little comfort from them; so she went up to her refuge in the garret, and confided her troubles to the rats.
Nobody ever knew what went on in the parlor that afternoon; but a great deal of talking was done, and quiet Mr. Brooke astonished his friends by the eloquence and spirit with which he pleaded his suit, told his plans, and persuaded them to arrange everything just as he wanted it.
The tea-bell rang before he had finished describing the paradise which he meant to earn for Meg, and he proudly took her in to supper, both looking so happy that Jo had nt the heart to be jealous or dismal. Amy was very much impressed by Johns devotion and Megs dignity, Beth beamed at them from a distance, while Mr. and Mrs. March surveyed the young couple with such tender satisfaction that it was perfectly evident Aunt March was right in calling them as unworldly as a pair of babies. No one ate much, but every one looked very happy, and the old room seemed to brighten up amazingly when the first romance of the family began there.
The joys come close upon the sorrows this time, and I rather think the changes have begun, said Mrs. March. In most families there comes, now and then, a year full of events; this has been such an one, but it ends well, after all.
Hope the next will end better, muttered Jo, who found it very hard to see Meg absorbed in a stranger before her face; for Jo loved a few persons very dearly, and dreaded to have their affection lost or lessened in any way.
You have only to wait; I am to do the work, said John, beginning his labors by picking up Megs napkin, with an expression which caused Jo to shake her head, and then say to herself, with an air of relief, as the front door banged, Here comes Laurie. Now we shall have a little sensible conversation.
But Jo was mistaken; for Laurie came prancing in, overflowing with spirits, bearing a great bridal-looking bouquet for Mrs. John Brooke, and evidently laboring under the delusion that the whole affair had been brought about by his excellent management.
I knew Brooke would have it all his own way, he always does; for when he makes up his mind to accomplish anything, it s done, though the sky falls, said Laurie, when he had presented his offering and his congratulations.
Much obliged for that recommendation. I take it as a good omen for the future, and invite you to my wedding on the spot, answered Mr. Brooke, who felt at peace with all mankind, even his mischievous pupil.
I ll come if I m at the ends of the earth; for the sight of Jos face alone, on that occasion, would be worth a long journey. You dont look festive, maam; what s the matter? asked Laurie, following her into a corner of the parlor, whither all had adjourned to greet Mr. Laurence.
I dont approve of the match, but I ve made up my mind to bear it, and shall not say a word against it, said Jo solemnly. You cant know how hard it is for me to give up Meg, she continued, with a little quiver in her voice.
Well, now, dont be dismal, there s a good fellow. It s all right, you see. Meg is happy; Brooke will fly round and get settled immediately; grandpa will attend to him, and it will be very jolly to see Meg in her own little house. We ll have capital times after she is gone, for I shall be through college before long, and then we ll go abroad, or some nice trip or other. Would nt that console you?
I think not, for I might see something sad; and every one looks so happy now, I dont believe they could be much improved; and Jos eyes went slowly round the room, brightening as they looked, for the prospect was a pleasant one.
Father and mother sat together, quietly re-living the first chapter of the romance which for them began some twenty years ago. Amy was drawing the lovers, who sat apart in a beautiful world of their own, the light of which touched their faces with a grace the little artist could not copy. Beth lay on her sofa, talking cheerily with her old friend, who held her little hand as if he felt that it possessed the power to lead him along the peaceful way she walked. Jo lounged in her favorite low seat, with the grave, quiet look which best became her; and Laurie, leaning on the back of her chair, his chin on a level with her curly head, smiled with his friendliest aspect, and nodded at her in the long glass which reflected them both.