JO was alone in the twilight, lying on the old sofa, looking at the fire, and thinking. It was her favorite way of spending the hour of dusk; no one disturbed her, and she used to lie there on Beths little red pillow, planning stories, dreaming dreams, or thinking tender thoughts of the sister who never seemed far away. Her face looked tired, grave, and rather sad; for to-morrow was her birthday, and she was thinking how fast the years went by, how old she was getting, and how little she seemed to have accomplished. Almost twenty-five, and nothing to show for it. Jo was mistaken in that; there was a good deal to show, and by and by she saw, and was grateful for it.
An old maid, that s what I m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps; when, like poor Johnson, I m old and cant enjoy it, solitary, and cant share it, independent, and dont need it. Well, I need nt be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner; and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it; but and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.
It seldom is, at first, and thirty seems the end of all things to five-and-twenty; but it s not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in ones self to fall back upon. At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be; at thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and, if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Dont laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in Gods sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason; and, looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time; that rosy cheeks dont last forever, that silver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by and by, kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now.
Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks; the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live. The bright-eyed girls are quick to see such traits, and will like you all the better for them; and if death, almost the only power that can part mother and son, should rob you of yours, you will be sure to find a tender welcome and maternal cherishing from some Aunt Priscilla, who has kept the warmest corner of her lonely old heart for the best nevvy in the world.
Jo must have fallen asleep (as I dare say my reader has during this little homily), for suddenly Lauries ghost seemed to stand before her,a substantial, lifelike ghost,leaning over her with the very look he used to wear when he felt a good deal and did nt like to show it. But, like Jenny in the ballad,
She could not think it he,
and lay staring up at him in startled silence, till he stooped and kissed her. Then she knew him, and flew up, crying joyfully,
The pillow was gone, but there was a barricade, nevertheless,a natural one, raised by time, absence, and change of heart. Both felt it, and for a minute looked at one another as if that invisible barrier cast a little shadow over them. It was gone directly, however, for Laurie said, with a vain attempt at dignity,
How can I, when the mere idea of you, married and settled, is so irresistibly funny that I cant keep sober! answered Jo, smiling all over her face, so infectiously that they had another laugh, and then settled down for a good talk, quite in the pleasant old fashion.
It s no use your going out in the cold to get Amy, for they are all coming up presently. I could nt wait; I wanted to be the one to tell you the grand surprise, and have first skim, as we used to say when we squabbled about the cream.
Now she s beginning to marm it; is nt it jolly to hear her? said Laurie to the fire, and the fire glowed and sparkled as if it quite agreed. It s all the same, you know, she and I being one. We planned to come home with the Carrols, a month or more ago, but they suddenly changed their minds, and decided to pass another winter in Paris. But grandpa wanted to come home; he went to please me, and I could nt let him go alone, neither could I leave Amy; and Mrs. Carrol had got English notions about chaperons and such nonsense, and would nt let Amy come with us. So I just settled the difficulty by saying, Let s be married, and then we can do as we like.
It was hard work; but, between us, we talked her over, for we had heaps of good reasons on our side. There was nt time to write and ask leave, but you all liked it, had consented to it by and by, and it was only taking Time by the fetlock, as my wife says.
Are nt we proud of those two words, and dont we like to say them? interrupted Jo, addressing the fire in her turn, and watching with delight the happy light it seemed to kindle in the eyes that had been so tragically gloomy when she saw them last.
A trifle, perhaps; she s such a captivating little woman I cant help being proud of her. Well, then, uncle and aunt were there to play propriety; we were so absorbed in one another we were of no mortal use apart, and that charming arrangement would make everything easy all round; so we did it.
We wanted to surprise you; we thought we were coming directly home, at first; but the dear old gentleman, as soon as we were married, found he could nt be ready under a month, at least, and sent us off to spend our honeymoon wherever we liked. Amy had once called Valrosa a regular honeymoon home, so we went there, and were as happy as people are but once in their lives. My faith! was nt it love among the roses!
Laurie seemed to forget Jo for a minute, and Jo was glad of it; for the fact that he told her these things so freely and naturally assured her that he had quite forgiven and forgotten. She tried to draw away her hand; but, as if he guessed the thought that prompted the half-involuntary impulse, Laurie held it fast, and said, with a manly gravity she had never seen in him before,
Jo, dear, I want to say one thing, and then we ll put it by forever. As I told you in my letter, when I wrote that Amy had been so kind to me, I never shall stop loving you; but the love is altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is. Amy and you change places in my heart, that s all. I think it was meant to be so, and would have come about naturally, if I had waited, as you tried to make me; but I never could be patient, and so I got a heartache. I was a boy then, headstrong and violent; and it took a hard lesson to show me my mistake. For it was one, Jo, as you said, and I found it out, after making a fool of myself. Upon my word, I was so tumbled up in my mind, at one time, that I did nt know which I loved best, you or Amy, and tried to love you both alike; but I could nt, and when I saw her in Switzerland, everything seemed to clear up all at once. You both got into your right places, and I felt sure that it was well off with the old love before it was on with the new; that I could honestly share my heart between sister Jo and wife Amy, and love them dearly. Will you believe it, and go back to the happy old times when we first knew one another?
I ll believe it, with all my heart; but, Teddy, we never can be boy and girl again: the happy old times cant come back, and we must nt expect it. We are man and woman now, with sober work to do, for playtime is over, and we must give up frolicking. I m sure you feel this; I see the change in you, and you ll find it in me. I shall miss my boy, but I shall love the man as much, and admire him more, because he means to be what I hoped he would. We cant be little playmates any longer, but we will be brother and sister, to love and help one another all our lives, wont we, Laurie?
He did not say a word, but took the hand she offered him, and laid his face down on it for a minute, feeling that out of the grave of a boyish passion, there had risen a beautiful, strong friendship to bless them both. Presently Jo said cheerfully, for she did nt want the coming home to be a sad one,
I cant make it true that you children are really married, and going to set up housekeeping. Why, it seems only yesterday that I was buttoning Amys pinafore, and pulling your hair when you teased. Mercy me, how time does fly!
As one of the children is older than yourself, you need nt talk so like a grandma. I flatter myself I m a gentleman growed, as Peggotty said of David; and when you see Amy, you ll find her rather a precocious infant, said Laurie, looking amused at her maternal air.
Poor Jo! we left you to bear it alone, while we went pleasuring. You are older; here s a line, and there s another; unless you smile, your eyes look sad, and when I touched the cushion, just now, I found a tear on it. You ve had a great deal to bear, and had to bear it all alone. What a selfish beast I ve been! and Laurie pulled his own hair, with a remorseful look.
No, I had father and mother to help me, the dear babies to comfort me, and the thought that you and Amy were safe and happy, to make the troubles here easier to bear. I am lonely, sometimes, but I dare say it s good for me, and
You never shall be again, broke in Laurie, putting his arm about her, as if to fence out every human ill. Amy and I cant get on without you, so you must come and teach the children to keep house, and go halves in everything, just as we used to do, and let us pet you, and all be blissfully happy and friendly together.
If I should nt be in the way, it would be very pleasant. I begin to feel quite young already; for, somehow, all my troubles seemed to fly away when you came. You always were a comfort, Teddy; and Jo leaned her head on his shoulder, just as she did years ago, when Beth lay ill, and Laurie told her to hold on to him.
I dont mind telling you that she does, now; at least I let her think so,it pleases her, you know. By and by we shall take turns, for marriage, they say, halves ones rights and doubles ones duties.
Well, she does it so imperceptibly that I dont think I shall mind much. She is the sort of woman who knows how to rule well; in fact, I rather like it, for she winds one round her finger as softly and prettily as a skein of silk, and makes you feel as if she was doing you a favor all the while.
She can blow him up as well as shine on him, laughed Laurie. Such a lecture as I got at Nice! I give you my word it was a deal worse than any of your scoldings,a regular rouser. I ll tell you all about it sometime,she never will, because, after telling me that she despised and was ashamed of me, she lost her heart to the despicable party and married the good-for-nothing.
In trooped the whole family, and every one was hugged and kissed all over again, and, after several vain attempts, the three wanderers were set down to be looked at and exulted over. Mr. Laurence, hale and hearty as ever, was quite as much improved as the others by his foreign tour, for the crustiness seemed to be nearly gone, and the old-fashioned courtliness had received a polish which made it kindlier than ever. It was good to see him beam at my children, as he called the young pair; It was better still to see Amy pay him the daughterly duty and affection which completely won his old heart; and best of all, to watch Laurie revolve about the two, as if never tired of enjoying the pretty picture they made.
The minute she put her eyes upon Amy, Meg became conscious that her own dress had nt a Parisian air, that young Mrs. Moffat would be entirely eclipsed by young Mrs. Laurence, and that her ladyship was altogether a most elegant and graceful woman. Jo thought, as she watched the pair, How well they look together! I was right, and Laurie has found the beautiful, accomplished girl who will become his home better than clumsy old Jo, and be a pride, not a torment to him. Mrs. March and her husband smiled and nodded at each other with happy faces, for they saw that their youngest had done well, not only in worldly things, but the better wealth of love, confidence, and happiness.
For Amys face was full of the soft brightness which betokens a peaceful heart, her voice had a new tenderness in it, and the cool, prim carriage was changed to a gentle dignity, both womanly and winning. No little affectations marred it, and the cordial sweetness of her manner was more charming than the new beauty or the old grace, for it stamped her at once with the unmistakable sign of the true gentlewoman she had hoped to become.
Daisy found it impossible to keep her eyes off her pitty aunty, but attached herself like a lap-dog to the wonderful châtelaine full of delightful charms. Demi paused to consider the new relationship before he compromised himself by the rash acceptance of a bribe, which took the tempting form of a family of wooden bears from Berne. A flank movement produced an unconditional surrender, however, for Laurie knew where to have him.
Young man, when I first had the honor of making your acquaintance you hit me in the face: now I demand the satisfaction of a gentleman; and with that the tall uncle proceeded to toss and tousle the small nephew in a way that damaged his philosophical dignity as much as it delighted his boyish soul.
Blest if she aint in silk from head to foot? Aint it a relishin sight to see her settin there as fine as a fiddle, and hear folks calling little Amy, Mis. Laurence! muttered old Hannah, who could not resist frequent peeks through the slide as she set the table in a most decidedly promiscuous manner.
Mercy on us, how they did talk! first one, then the other, then all burst out together, trying to tell the history of three years in half an hour. It was fortunate that tea was at hand, to produce a lull and provide refreshment, for they would have been hoarse and faint if they had gone on much longer. Such a happy procession as filed away into the little dining-room! Mr. March proudly escorted Mrs. Laurence; Mrs. March as proudly leaned on the arm of my son; the old gentleman took Jo, with a whispered You must be my girl now, and a glance at the empty corner by the fire, that made Jo whisper back, with trembling lips, I ll try to fill her place, sir.
The twins pranced behind, feeling that the millennium was at hand, for every one was so busy with the newcomers that they were left to revel at their own sweet will, and you may be sure they made the most of the opportunity. Did nt they steal sips of tea, stuff gingerbread ad libitum, get a hot biscuit apiece, and, as a crowning trespass, did nt they each whisk a captivating little tart into their tiny pockets, there to stick and crumble treacherously, teaching them that both human nature and pastry are frail? Burdened with the guilty consciousness of the sequestered tarts, and fearing that Dodos sharp eyes would pierce the thin disguise of cambric and merino which hid their booty, the little sinners attached themselves to Dranpa, who had nt his spectacles on. Amy, who was handed about like refreshments, returned to the parlor on Father Laurences arm; the others paired off as before, and this arrangement left Jo companionless. She did not mind it at the minute, for she lingered to answer Hannahs eager inquiry,
I dont care; and Jo shut the door, feeling that food was an uncongenial topic just then. She stood a minute looking at the party vanishing above, and, as Demis short plaid legs toiled up the last stair, a sudden sense of loneliness came over her so strongly that she looked about her with dim eyes, as if to find something to lean upon, for even Teddy had deserted her. If she had known what birthday gift was coming every minute nearer and nearer, she would not have said to herself, I ll weep a little weep when I go to bed; it wont do to be dismal now. Then she drew her hand over her eyes,for one of her boyish habits was never to know where her handkerchief was,and had just managed to call up a smile when there came a knock at the porch door.
Though a very social man, I think Mr. Bhaer would have gone decorously away, and come again another day; but how could he, when Jo shut the door behind him, and bereft him of his hat? Perhaps her face had something to do with it, for she forgot to hide her joy at seeing him, and showed it with a frankness that proved irresistible to the solitary man, whose welcome far exceeded his boldest hopes.
Ah, yes, I know. My heart was sore for you when I heard that; and he shook hands again, with such a sympathetic face that Jo felt as if no comfort could equal the look of the kind eyes, the grasp of the big, warm hand.
Father, mother, this is my friend, Professor Bhaer, she said, with a face and tone of such irrepressible pride and pleasure that she might as well have blown a trumpet and opened the door with a flourish.
If the stranger had had any doubts about his reception, they were set at rest in a minute by the cordial welcome he received. Every one greeted him kindly, for Jos sake at first, but very soon they liked him for his own. They could not help it, for he carried the talisman that opens all hearts, and these simple people warmed to him at once, feeling even the more friendly because he was poor; for poverty enriches those who live above it, and is a sure passport to truly hospitable spirits. Mr. Bhaer sat looking about him with the air of a traveller who knocks at a strange door, and, when it opens, finds himself at home. The children went to him like bees to a honey-pot; and, establishing themselves on each knee, proceeded to captivate him by rifling his pockets, pulling his beard, and investigating his watch, with juvenile audacity. The women telegraphed their approval to one another, and Mr. March, feeling that he had got a kindred spirit, opened his choicest stores for his guests benefit, while silent John listened and enjoyed the talk, but said not a word, and Mr. Laurence found it impossible to go to sleep.
If Jo had not been otherwise engaged, Lauries behavior would have amused her; for a faint twinge, not of jealousy, but something like suspicion, caused that gentleman to stand aloof at first, and observe the new-comer with brotherly circumspection. But it did not last long. He got interested in spite of himself, and, before he knew it, was drawn into the circle; for Mr. Bhaer talked well in this genial atmosphere, and did himself justice. He seldom spoke to Laurie, but he looked at him often, and a shadow would pass across his face, as if regretting his own lost youth, as he watched the young man in his prime. Then his eye would turn to Jo so wistfully that she would have surely answered the mute inquiry if she had seen it; but Jo had her own eyes to take care of, and, feeling that they could not be trusted, she prudently kept them on the little sock she was knitting, like a model maiden aunt.
A stealthy glance now and then refreshed her like sips of fresh water after a dusty walk, for the sidelong peeps showed her several propitious omens. Mr. Bhaers face had lost the absent-minded expression, and looked all alive with interest in the present moment, actually young and handsome, she thought, forgetting to compare him with Laurie, as she usually did strange men, to their great detriment. Then he seemed quite inspired, though the burial customs of the ancients, to which the conversation had strayed, might not be considered an exhilarating topic. Jo quite glowed with triumph when Teddy got quenched in an argument, and thought to herself, as she watched her fathers absorbed face, How he would enjoy having such a man as my Professor to talk with every day! Lastly, Mr. Bhaer was dressed in a new suit of black, which made him look more like a gentleman than ever. His bushy hair had been cut and smoothly brushed, but did nt stay in order long, for, in exciting moments, he rumpled it up in the droll way he used to do; and Jo liked it rampantly erect better than flat, because she thought it gave his fine forehead a Jove-like aspect. Poor Jo, how she did glorify that plain man, as she sat knitting away so quietly, yet letting nothing escape her, not even the fact that Mr. Bhaer actually had gold sleeve-buttons in his immaculate wristbands.
Dear old fellow! He could nt have got himself up with more care if he d been going a-wooing, said Jo to herself; and then a sudden thought, born of the words, made her blush so dreadfully that she had to drop her ball, and go down after it to hide her face.
The manuvre did not succeed as well as she expected, however; for, though just in the act of setting fire to a funeral-pile, the Professor dropped his torch, metaphorically speaking, and made a dive after the little blue ball. Of course they bumped their heads smartly together, saw stars, and both came up flushed and laughing, without the ball, to resume their seats, wishing they had not left them.
Nobody knew where the evening went to; for Hannah skilfully abstracted the babies at an early hour, nodding like two rosy poppies, and Mr. Laurence went home to rest. The others sat round the fire, talking away, utterly regardless of the lapse of time, till Meg, whose maternal mind was impressed with a firm conviction that Daisy had tumbled out of bed, and Demi set his night-gown afire studying the structure of matches, made a move to go.
They were not all there. But no one found the words thoughtless or untrue; for Beth still seemed among them, a peaceful presence, invisible, but dearer than ever, since death could not break the household league that love made indissoluble. The little chair stood in its old place; the tidy basket, with the bit of work she left unfinished when the needle grew so heavy, was still on its accustomed shelf; the beloved instrument, seldom touched now, had not been moved; and above it Beths face, serene and smiling, as in the early days, looked down upon them, seeming to say, Be happy. I am here.
But she did show something better than brilliancy or skill; for she sang Beths songs with a tender music in her voice which the best master could not have taught, and touched the listeners hearts with a sweeter power than any other inspiration could have given her. The room was very still, when the clear voice failed suddenly at the last line of Beths favorite hymn. It was hard to say,
Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal;
and Amy leaned against her husband, who stood behind her, feeling that her welcome home was not quite perfect without Beths kiss.
Now, we must finish with Mignons song; for Mr. Bhaer sings that, said Jo, before the pause grew painful. And Mr. Bhaer cleared his throat with a gratified Hem! as he stepped into the corner where Jo stood, saying,
A pleasing fiction, by the way; for Jo had no more idea of music than a grasshopper. But she would have consented if he had proposed to sing a whole opera, and warbled away, blissfully regardless of time and tune. It did nt much matter; for Mr. Bhaer sang like a true German, heartily and well; and Jo soon subsided into a subdued hum, that she might listen to the mellow voice that seemed to sing for her alone.
Knowst thou the land where the citron blooms,
used to be the Professors favorite line, for das land meant Germany to him; but now he seemed to dwell, with peculiar warmth and melody, upon the words,
There, oh there, might I with thee,
O my beloved, go!
and one listener was so thrilled by the tender invitation that she longed to say she did know the land, and would joyfully depart thither whenever he liked.
The song was considered a great success, and the singer retired covered with laurels. But a few minutes afterward, he forgot his manners entirely, and stared at Amy putting on her bonnet; for she had been introduced simply as my sister, and no one had called her by her new name since he came. He forgot himself still further when Laurie said, in his most gracious manner, at parting,
He spoke to Mrs. March, but he looked at Jo; and the mothers voice gave as cordial an assent as did the daughters eyes; for Mrs. March was not so blind to her childrens interest as Mrs. Moffat supposed.
She wondered what the business was that brought Mr. Bhaer to the city, and finally decided that he had been appointed to some great honor, somewhere, but had been too modest to mention the fact. If she had seen his face when, safe in his own room, he looked at the picture of a severe and rigid young lady, with a good deal of hair, who appeared to be gazing darkly into futurity, it might have thrown some light upon the subject, especially when he turned off the gas, and kissed the picture in the dark.