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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

HEARTACHE

Whatever his motive might have been, Laurie studied to some purpose
that year, for he graduated with honor, and gave the Latin oration with
the grace of a Phillips and the eloquence of a Demosthenes, so his
friends said. They were all there, his grandfather–oh, so proud–Mr.
and Mrs. March, John and Meg, Jo and Beth, and all exulted over him
with the sincere admiration which boys make light of at the time, but
fail to win from the world by any after-triumphs.

“I’ve got to stay for this confounded supper, but I shall be home early
tomorrow. You’ll come and meet me as usual, girls?” Laurie said, as he
put the sisters into the carriage after the joys of the day were over.
He said ‘girls’, but he meant Jo, for she was the only one who kept up
the old custom. She had not the heart to refuse her splendid,
successful boy anything, and answered warmly…

“I’ll come, Teddy, rain or shine, and march before you, playing ‘Hail
the conquering hero comes’ on a jew’s-harp.”

Laurie thanked her with a look that made her think in a sudden panic,
“Oh, deary me! I know he’ll say something, and then what shall I do?”

Evening meditation and morning work somewhat allayed her fears, and
having decided that she wouldn’t be vain enough to think people were
going to propose when she had given them every reason to know what her
answer would be, she set forth at the appointed time, hoping Teddy
wouldn’t do anything to make her hurt his poor feelings. A call at
Meg’s, and a refreshing sniff and sip at the Daisy and Demijohn, still
further fortified her for the tete-a-tete, but when she saw a stalwart
figure looming in the distance, she had a strong desire to turn about
and run away.

“Where’s the jew’s-harp, Jo?” cried Laurie, as soon as he was within
speaking distance.

“I forgot it.” And Jo took heart again, for that salutation could not
be called lover-like.

She always used to take his arm on these occasions, now she did not,
and he made no complaint, which was a bad sign, but talked on rapidly
about all sorts of faraway subjects, till they turned from the road
into the little path that led homeward through the grove. Then he
walked more slowly, suddenly lost his fine flow of language, and now
and then a dreadful pause occurred. To rescue the conversation from
one of the wells of silence into which it kept falling, Jo said
hastily, “Now you must have a good long holiday!”

“I intend to.”

Something in his resolute tone made Jo look up quickly to find him
looking down at her with an expression that assured her the dreaded
moment had come, and made her put out her hand with an imploring, “No,
Teddy. Please don’t!”

“I will, and you must hear me. It’s no use, Jo, we’ve got to have it
out, and the sooner the better for both of us,” he answered, getting
flushed and excited all at once.

“Say what you like then. I’ll listen,” said Jo, with a desperate sort
of patience.

Laurie was a young lover, but he was in earnest, and meant to ‘have it
out’, if he died in the attempt, so he plunged into the subject with
characteristic impetuousity, saying in a voice that would get choky now
and then, in spite of manful efforts to keep it steady…

“I’ve loved you ever since I’ve known you, Jo, couldn’t help it, you’ve
been so good to me. I’ve tried to show it, but you wouldn’t let me.
Now I’m going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can’t go
on so any longer.”

“I wanted to save you this. I thought you’d understand…” began Jo,
finding it a great deal harder than she expected.

“I know you did, but the girls are so queer you never know what they
mean. They say no when they mean yes, and drive a man out of his wits
just for the fun of it,” returned Laurie, entrenching himself behind an
undeniable fact.

“I don’t. I never wanted to make you care for me so, and I went away
to keep you from it if I could.”

“I thought so. It was like you, but it was no use. I only loved you
all the more, and I worked hard to please you, and I gave up billiards
and everything you didn’t like, and waited and never complained, for I
hoped you’d love me, though I’m not half good enough…” Here there was
a choke that couldn’t be controlled, so he decapitated buttercups while
he cleared his ‘confounded throat’.

“You, you are, you’re a great deal too good for me, and I’m so grateful
to you, and so proud and fond of you, I don’t know why I can’t love you
as you want me to. I’ve tried, but I can’t change the feeling, and it
would be a lie to say I do when I don’t.”

“Really, truly, Jo?”

He stopped short, and caught both her hands as he put his question with
a look that she did not soon forget.

“Really, truly, dear.”

They were in the grove now, close by the stile, and when the last words
fell reluctantly from Jo’s lips, Laurie dropped her hands and turned as
if to go on, but for once in his life the fence was too much for him.
So he just laid his head down on the mossy post, and stood so still
that Jo was frightened.

“Oh, Teddy, I’m sorry, so desperately sorry, I could kill myself if it
would do any good! I wish you wouldn’t take it so hard, I can’t help
it. You know it’s impossible for people to make themselves love other
people if they don’t,” cried Jo inelegantly but remorsefully, as she
softly patted his shoulder, remembering the time when he had comforted
her so long ago.

“They do sometimes,” said a muffled voice from the post. “I don’t
believe it’s the right sort of love, and I’d rather not try it,” was
the decided answer.

There was a long pause, while a blackbird sung blithely on the willow
by the river, and the tall grass rustled in the wind. Presently Jo said
very soberly, as she sat down on the step of the stile, “Laurie, I want
to tell you something.”

He started as if he had been shot, threw up his head, and cried out in
a fierce tone, “Don’t tell me that, Jo, I can’t bear it now!”

“Tell what?” she asked, wondering at his violence.

“That you love that old man.”

“What old man?” demanded Jo, thinking he must mean his grandfather.

“That devilish Professor you were always writing about. If you say you
love him, I know I shall do something desperate;” and he looked as if
he would keep his word, as he clenched his hands with a wrathful spark
in his eyes.

Jo wanted to laugh, but restrained herself and said warmly, for she
too, was getting excited with all this, “Don’t swear, Teddy! He isn’t
old, nor anything bad, but good and kind, and the best friend I’ve got,
next to you. Pray, don’t fly into a passion. I want to be kind, but I
know I shall get angry if you abuse my Professor. I haven’t the least
idea of loving him or anybody else.”

“But you will after a while, and then what will become of me?”

“You’ll love someone else too, like a sensible boy, and forget all this
trouble.”

“I can’t love anyone else, and I’ll never forget you, Jo, Never!
Never!” with a stamp to emphasize his passionate words.

“What shall I do with him?” sighed Jo, finding that emotions were more
unmanagable than she expected. “You haven’t heard what I wanted to
tell you. Sit down and listen, for indeed I want to do right and make
you happy,” she said, hoping to soothe him with a little reason, which
proved that she knew nothing about love.

Seeing a ray of hope in that last speech, Laurie threw himself down on
the grass at her feet, leaned his arm on the lower step of the stile,
and looked up at her with an expectant face. Now that arrangement was
not conducive to calm speech or clear thought on Jo’s part, for how
could she say hard things to her boy while he watched her with eyes
full of love and longing, and lashes still wet with the bitter drop or
two her hardness of heart had wrung from him? She gently turned his
head away, saying, as she stroked the wavy hair which had been allowed
to grow for her sake–how touching that was, to be sure! “I agree with
Mother that you and I are not suited to each other, because our quick
tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable, if we
were so foolish as to…” Jo paused a little over the last word, but
Laurie uttered it with a rapturous expression.

“Marry–no we shouldn’t! If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect
saint, for you could make me anything you like.”

“No, I can’t. I’ve tried and failed, and I won’t risk our happiness by
such a serious experiment. We don’t agree and we never shall, so we’ll
be good friends all our lives, but we won’t go and do anything rash.”

“Yes, we will if we get the chance,” muttered Laurie rebelliously.

“Now do be reasonable, and take a sensible view of the case,” implored
Jo, almost at her wit’s end.

“I won’t be reasonable. I don’t want to take what you call ‘a sensible
view’. It won’t help me, and it only makes it harder. I don’t believe
you’ve got any heart.”

“I wish I hadn’t.”

There was a little quiver in Jo’s voice, and thinking it a good omen,
Laurie turned round, bringing all his persuasive powers to bear as he
said, in the wheedlesome tone that had never been so dangerously
wheedlesome before, “Don’t disappoint us, dear! Everyone expects it.
Grandpa has set his heart upon it, your people like it, and I can’t get
on without you. Say you will, and let’s be happy. Do, do!”

Not until months afterward did Jo understand how she had the strength
of mind to hold fast to the resolution she had made when she decided
that she did not love her boy, and never could. It was very hard to
do, but she did it, knowing that delay was both useless and cruel.

“I can’t say ‘yes’ truly, so I won’t say it at all. You’ll see that
I’m right, by-and-by, and thank me for it…” she began solemnly.

“I’ll be hanged if I do!” and Laurie bounced up off the grass, burning
with indignation at the very idea.

“Yes, you will!” persisted Jo. “You’ll get over this after a while,
and find some lovely accomplished girl, who will adore you, and make a
fine mistress for your fine house. I shouldn’t. I’m homely and awkward
and odd and old, and you’d be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel–we
can’t help it even now, you see–and I shouldn’t like elegant society
and you would, and you’d hate my scribbling, and I couldn’t get on
without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn’t done it, and
everything would be horrid!”

“Anything more?” asked Laurie, finding it hard to listen patiently to
this prophetic burst.

“Nothing more, except that I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m
happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it
up for any mortal man.”

“I know better!” broke in Laurie. “You think so now, but there’ll come
a time when you will care for somebody, and you’ll love him
tremendously, and live and die for him. I know you will, it’s your
way, and I shall have to stand by and see it,” and the despairing lover
cast his hat upon the ground with a gesture that would have seemed
comical, if his face had not been so tragic.

“Yes, I will live and die for him, if he ever comes and makes me love
him in spite of myself, and you must do the best you can!” cried Jo,
losing patience with poor Teddy. “I’ve done my best, but you won’t be
reasonable, and it’s selfish of you to keep teasing for what I can’t
give. I shall always be fond of you, very fond indeed, as a friend,
but I’ll never marry you, and the sooner you believe it the better for
both of us–so now!”

That speech was like gunpowder. Laurie looked at her a minute as if he
did not quite know what to do with himself, then turned sharply away,
saying in a desperate sort of tone, “You’ll be sorry some day, Jo.”

“Oh, where are you going?” she cried, for his face frightened her.

“To the devil!” was the consoling answer.

For a minute Jo’s heart stood still, as he swung himself down the bank
toward the river, but it takes much folly, sin or misery to send a
young man to a violent death, and Laurie was not one of the weak sort
who are conquered by a single failure. He had no thought of a
melodramatic plunge, but some blind instinct led him to fling hat and
coat into his boat, and row away with all his might, making better time
up the river than he had done in any race. Jo drew a long breath and
unclasped her hands as she watched the poor fellow trying to outstrip
the trouble which he carried in his heart.

“That will do him good, and he’ll come home in such a tender, penitent
state of mind, that I shan’t dare to see him,” she said, adding, as she
went slowly home, feeling as if she had murdered some innocent thing,
and buried it under the leaves. “Now I must go and prepare Mr.
Laurence to be very kind to my poor boy. I wish he’d love Beth,
perhaps he may in time, but I begin to think I was mistaken about her.
Oh dear! How can girls like to have lovers and refuse them? I think
it’s dreadful.”

Being sure that no one could do it so well as herself, she went
straight to Mr. Laurence, told the hard story bravely through, and then
broke down, crying so dismally over her own insensibility that the kind
old gentleman, though sorely disappointed, did not utter a reproach.
He found it difficult to understand how any girl could help loving
Laurie, and hoped she would change her mind, but he knew even better
than Jo that love cannot be forced, so he shook his head sadly and
resolved to carry his boy out of harm’s way, for Young Impetuosity’s
parting words to Jo disturbed him more than he would confess.

When Laurie came home, dead tired but quite composed, his grandfather
met him as if he knew nothing, and kept up the delusion very
successfully for an hour or two. But when they sat together in the
twilight, the time they used to enjoy so much, it was hard work for the
old man to ramble on as usual, and harder still for the young one to
listen to praises of the last year’s success, which to him now seemed
like love’s labor lost. He bore it as long as he could, then went to
his piano and began to play. The windows were open, and Jo, walking
in the garden with Beth, for once understood music better than her
sister, for he played the ‘Sonata Pathetique’, and played it as he
never did before.

“That’s very fine, I dare say, but it’s sad enough to make one cry.
Give us something gayer, lad,” said Mr. Laurence, whose kind old heart
was full of sympathy, which he longed to show but knew not how.

Laurie dashed into a livelier strain, played stormily for several
minutes, and would have got through bravely, if in a momentary lull
Mrs. March’s voice had not been heard calling, “Jo, dear, come in. I
want you.”

Just what Laurie longed to say, with a different meaning! As he
listened, he lost his place, the music ended with a broken chord, and
the musician sat silent in the dark.

“I can’t stand this,” muttered the old gentleman. Up he got, groped
his way to the piano, laid a kind hand on either of the broad
shoulders, and said, as gently as a woman, “I know, my boy, I know.”

No answer for an instant, then Laurie asked sharply, “Who told you?”

“Jo herself.”

“Then there’s an end of it!” And he shook off his grandfather’s hands
with an impatient motion, for though grateful for the sympathy, his
man’s pride could not bear a man’s pity.

“Not quite. I want to say one thing, and then there shall be an end of
it,” returned Mr. Laurence with unusual mildness. “You won’t care to
stay at home now, perhaps?”

“I don’t intend to run away from a girl. Jo can’t prevent my seeing
her, and I shall stay and do it as long as I like,” interrupted Laurie
in a defiant tone.

“Not if you are the gentleman I think you. I’m disappointed, but the
girl can’t help it, and the only thing left for you to do is to go away
for a time. Where will you go?”

“Anywhere. I don’t care what becomes of me,” and Laurie got up with a
reckless laugh that grated on his grandfather’s ear.

“Take it like a man, and don’t do anything rash, for God’s sake. Why
not go abroad, as you planned, and forget it?”

“I can’t.”

“But you’ve been wild to go, and I promised you should when you got
through college.”

“Ah, but I didn’t mean to go alone!” and Laurie walked fast through the
room with an expression which it was well his grandfather did not see.

“I don’t ask you to go alone. There’s someone ready and glad to go
with you, anywhere in the world.”

“Who, Sir?” stopping to listen.

“Myself.”

Laurie came back as quickly as he went, and put out his hand, saying
huskily, “I’m a selfish brute, but–you know–Grandfather–”

“Lord help me, yes, I do know, for I’ve been through it all before,
once in my own young days, and then with your father. Now, my dear boy,
just sit quietly down and hear my plan. It’s all settled, and can be
carried out at once,” said Mr. Laurence, keeping hold of the young man,
as if fearful that he would break away as his father had done before
him.

“Well, sir, what is it?” and Laurie sat down, without a sign of
interest in face or voice.

“There is business in London that needs looking after. I meant you
should attend to it, but I can do it better myself, and things here
will get on very well with Brooke to manage them. My partners do
almost everything, I’m merely holding on until you take my place, and
can be off at any time.”

“But you hate traveling, Sir. I can’t ask it of you at your age,”
began Laurie, who was grateful for the sacrifice, but much preferred to
go alone, if he went at all.

The old gentleman knew that perfectly well, and particularly desired to
prevent it, for the mood in which he found his grandson assured him
that it would not be wise to leave him to his own devices. So,
stifling a natural regret at the thought of the home comforts he would
leave behind him, he said stoutly, “Bless your soul, I’m not
superannuated yet. I quite enjoy the idea. It will do me good, and my
old bones won’t suffer, for traveling nowadays is almost as easy as
sitting in a chair.”

A restless movement from Laurie suggested that his chair was not easy,
or that he did not like the plan, and made the old man add hastily, “I
don’t mean to be a marplot or a burden. I go because I think you’d feel
happier than if I was left behind. I don’t intend to gad about with
you, but leave you free to go where you like, while I amuse myself in
my own way. I’ve friends in London and Paris, and should like to visit
them. Meantime you can go to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, where you
will, and enjoy pictures, music, scenery, and adventures to your
heart’s content.”

Now, Laurie felt just then that his heart was entirely broken and the
world a howling wilderness, but at the sound of certain words which the
old gentleman artfully introduced into his closing sentence, the broken
heart gave an unexpected leap, and a green oasis or two suddenly
appeared in the howling wilderness. He sighed, and then said, in a
spiritless tone, “Just as you like, Sir. It doesn’t matter where I go
or what I do.”

“It does to me, remember that, my lad. I give you entire liberty, but
I trust you to make an honest use of it. Promise me that, Laurie.”

“Anything you like, Sir.”

“Good,” thought the old gentleman. “You don’t care now, but there’ll
come a time when that promise will keep you out of mischief, or I’m
much mistaken.”

Being an energetic individual, Mr. Laurence struck while the iron was
hot, and before the blighted being recovered spirit enough to rebel,
they were off. During the time necessary for preparation, Laurie bore
himself as young gentleman usually do in such cases. He was moody,
irritable, and pensive by turns, lost his appetite, neglected his dress
and devoted much time to playing tempestuously on his piano, avoided
Jo, but consoled himself by staring at her from his window, with a
tragic face that haunted her dreams by night and oppressed her with a
heavy sense of guilt by day. Unlike some sufferers, he never spoke of
his unrequited passion, and would allow no one, not even Mrs. March, to
attempt consolation or offer sympathy. On some accounts, this was a
relief to his friends, but the weeks before his departure were very
uncomfortable, and everyone rejoiced that the ‘poor, dear fellow was
going away to forget his trouble, and come home happy’. Of course, he
smiled darkly at their delusion, but passed it by with the sad
superiority of one who knew that his fidelity like his love was
unalterable.

When the parting came he affected high spirits, to conceal certain
inconvenient emotions which seemed inclined to assert themselves. This
gaiety did not impose upon anybody, but they tried to look as if it did
for his sake, and he got on very well till Mrs. March kissed him, with
a whisper full of motherly solicitude. Then feeling that he was going
very fast, he hastily embraced them all round, not forgetting the
afflicted Hannah, and ran downstairs as if for his life. Jo followed a
minute after to wave her hand to him if he looked round. He did look
round, came back, put his arms about her as she stood on the step above
him, and looked up at her with a face that made his short appeal
eloquent and pathetic.

“Oh, Jo, can’t you?”

“Teddy, dear, I wish I could!”

That was all, except a little pause. Then Laurie straightened himself
up, said, “It’s all right, never mind,” and went away without another
word. Ah, but it wasn’t all right, and Jo did mind, for while the
curly head lay on her arm a minute after her hard answer, she felt as
if she had stabbed her dearest friend, and when he left her without a
look behind him, she knew that the boy Laurie never would come again.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

BETH’S SECRET

When Jo came home that spring, she had been struck with the change in
Beth. No one spoke of it or seemed aware of it, for it had come too
gradually to startle those who saw her daily, but to eyes sharpened by
absence, it was very plain and a heavy weight fell on Jo’s heart as she
saw her sister’s face. It was no paler and but littler thinner than in
the autumn, yet there was a strange, transparent look about it, as if
the mortal was being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining
through the frail flesh with an indescribably pathetic beauty. Jo saw
and felt it, but said nothing at the time, and soon the first
impression lost much of its power, for Beth seemed happy, no one
appeared to doubt that she was better, and presently in other cares Jo
for a time forgot her fear.

But when Laurie was gone, and peace prevailed again, the vague anxiety
returned and haunted her. She had confessed her sins and been
forgiven, but when she showed her savings and proposed a mountain trip,
Beth had thanked her heartily, but begged not to go so far away from
home. Another little visit to the seashore would suit her better, and
as Grandma could not be prevailed upon to leave the babies, Jo took
Beth down to the quiet place, where she could live much in the open
air, and let the fresh sea breezes blow a little color into her pale
cheeks.

It was not a fashionable place, but even among the pleasant people
there, the girls made few friends, preferring to live for one another.
Beth was too shy to enjoy society, and Jo too wrapped up in her to care
for anyone else. So they were all in all to each other, and came and
went, quite unconscious of the interest they excited in those about
them, who watched with sympathetic eyes the strong sister and the
feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long
separation was not far away.

They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it, for often between ourselves
and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is
very hard to overcome. Jo felt as if a veil had fallen between her
heart and Beth’s, but when she put out her hand to lift it up, there
seemed something sacred in the silence, and she waited for Beth to
speak. She wondered, and was thankful also, that her parents did not
seem to see what she saw, and during the quiet weeks when the shadows
grew so plain to her, she said nothing of it to those at 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
what thoughts were passing through her mind during the long hours when
she lay on the warm rocks with her head in Jo’s lap, while the winds
blew healthfully over her and the sea made music at her feet.

One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she lay so still,
and putting down her book, sat looking at her with wistful eyes, trying
to see signs of hope in the faint color on Beth’s cheeks. But she
could not find enough to satisfy her, for the cheeks were very thin,
and the hands seemed too feeble to hold even the rosy little shells
they had been collecting. It came to her then more bitterly than ever
that Beth was slowly drifting away from her, and her arms instinctively
tightened their hold upon the dearest treasure she possessed. For a
minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when they cleared, Beth
was looking up at her so tenderly that there was hardly any need for
her to say, “Jo, dear, I’m glad you know it. I’ve tried to tell you,
but I couldn’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 Beth tried to comfort and sustain her, with her arms about
her and the soothing words she whispered in her ear.

“I’ve known it for a good while, dear, and now I’m used to it, it isn’t
hard to 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
it then, and keep it to yourself so long, did you?” asked Jo, refusing
to see or say that it was best, but glad to know that Laurie had no
part in Beth’s trouble.

“Yes, I gave up hoping then, but I didn’t like to own it. I tried to
think it was a sick fancy, and would not let it trouble anyone. But
when I saw you all so well and strong and full of happy plans, it was
hard to feel that I could never 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?
How could you shut me out, bear it all alone?”

Jo’s voice was full of tender reproach, and her heart ached to think of
the solitary struggle that must have gone on while Beth learned to say
goodbye to health, 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
said anything, and I hoped I was mistaken. It would have been selfish
to frighten you all when Marmee was so anxious about Meg, and Amy away,
and you so happy with Laurie–at least I thought so then.”

“And I thought you loved him, Beth, and I went away because I
couldn’t,” cried Jo, glad to say all the truth.

Beth looked so amazed at the idea that Jo smiled in spite of her pain,
and added softly, “Then you didn’t, dearie? I was afraid it was so, and
imagined your poor little heart full of lovelornity all that while.”

“Why, Jo, how could I, when he was so fond of you?” asked Beth, as
innocently as a child. “I do love him dearly. He is so good to me,
how can I help It? But he could never be anything to me but my
brother. I hope he truly will be, sometime.”

“Not through me,” said Jo decidedly. “Amy is left for him, and they
would suit excellently, but I have no heart for such things, now. I
don’t care what becomes 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 more sure 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 keep you in spite of everything. There must be ways, it
can’t be too late. God won’t be so cruel as to take you from me,”
cried poor Jo rebelliously, for her spirit was far less piously
submissive than Beth’s.

Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. It shows
itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than
homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the
faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and
cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she asked no
questions, but left everything to God and nature, 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 to come. She
did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches, only loved her better for her
passionate affection, and clung more closely to the dear human love,
from which our Father never means us to be weaned, but through which He
draws us closer to Himself. She could not say, “I’m glad to go,” for
life was very sweet for her. She could only sob out, “I try to be
willing,” while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this
great sorrow broke over them together.

By and by Beth said, with recovered serenity, “You’ll tell them this
when we go home?”

“I think they will see it without words,” sighed Jo, for now it seemed
to her that Beth changed every day.

“Perhaps not. I’ve heard that the people who love best are often
blindest to such things. If they don’t see it, you will tell them for
me. I don’t want any secrets, and it’s kinder to prepare them. Meg
has John and the babies to comfort 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 a sick fancy, and not let you think it’s true.” said Jo, trying
to speak cheerfully.

Beth lay a minute thinking, and then said in her quiet way, “I don’t
know how to express myself, and shouldn’t try to anyone but you,
because I can’t speak out except to my Jo. I only mean to say that I
have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. I’m not
like the rest of you. I never made any 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 little Beth, trotting about
at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away, and
the hard part now is the leaving you all. I’m not afraid, but it seems
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 of the wind and the lapping of the tide. A white-winged gull flew
by, with the flash of sunshine on its silvery breast. Beth watched it
till it vanished, and her eyes were full of sadness. A little
gray-coated sand bird came tripping over the beach ‘peeping’ softly to
itself, as if enjoying the sun and sea. It came quite close to Beth,
and looked at her with a friendly eye and sat upon a warm stone,
dressing its wet feathers, quite at home. Beth smiled and felt
comforted, for the tiny thing seemed to offer its small friendship and
remind her that a pleasant world was still to be enjoyed.

“Dear little bird! See, Jo, how tame it is. I like peeps better than
the gulls. They are not so wild and handsome, but they seem happy,
confiding little things. I used to call them my birds last summer, and
Mother said they reminded her of me–busy, quaker-colored creatures,
always near the shore, and always 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, and happy all alone. Meg is the
turtledove, and Amy is like the lark she writes about, trying to get up
among the clouds, but always dropping down into its nest again. Dear
little girl! She’s so ambitious, but her heart is good and tender, and
no matter how high she flies, she never will forget home. I hope I
shall 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
see and 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 quite unlike bashful Beth.

“Jo, dear, don’t hope any more. It won’t do any good. I’m sure of
that. We won’t be miserable, but enjoy being together while we wait.
We’ll have happy times, for I don’t suffer much, and I think the tide
will go out easily, if you help me.”

Jo leaned down to kiss the tranquil face, and with that silent kiss,
she dedicated herself soul and body to Beth.

She was right. There was no need of any words when they got home, for
Father and Mother saw plainly now what they had prayed to be saved from
seeing. Tired with her short journey, Beth went at once to bed, saying
how glad she was to be home, and when Jo went down, she found that she
would be spared the hard task of telling Beth’s secret. Her father
stood leaning his head on the mantelpiece and did not turn as she came
in, but her mother stretched out her arms as if for help, and Jo went
to comfort her without a word.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

NEW IMPRESSIONS

At three o’clock in the afternoon, all the fashionable world at Nice
may be seen on the Promenade des Anglais–a charming place, for the
wide walk, bordered with palms, flowers, and tropical shrubs, is
bounded on one side by the sea, on the other by the grand drive, lined
with hotels and villas, while beyond lie orange orchards and the hills.
Many nations are represented, many languages spoken, many costumes
worn, and on a sunny day the spectacle is as gay and brilliant as a
carnival. Haughty English, lively French, sober Germans, handsome
Spaniards, ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy Americans, all
drive, sit, or saunter here, chatting over the news, and criticizing
the latest celebrity who has arrived–Ristori or Dickens, Victor
Emmanuel or the Queen of the Sandwich Islands. The equipages are as
varied as the company and attract as much attention, especially the low
basket barouches in which ladies drive themselves, with a pair of
dashing ponies, gay nets to keep their voluminous flounces from
overflowing the diminutive vehicles, and little grooms on the perch
behind.

Along this walk, on Christmas Day, a tall young man walked slowly, with
his hands behind him, and a somewhat absent expression of countenance.
He looked like an Italian, was dressed like an Englishman, and had the
independent air of an American–a combination which caused sundry pairs
of feminine eyes to look approvingly after him, and sundry dandies in
black velvet suits, with rose-colored neckties, buff gloves, and orange
flowers in their buttonholes, to shrug their shoulders, and then envy
him his inches. There were plenty of pretty faces to admire, but the
young man took little notice of them, except to glance now and then at
some blonde girl in blue. Presently he strolled out of the promenade
and stood a moment at the crossing, as if undecided whether to go and
listen to the band in the Jardin Publique, or to wander along the beach
toward Castle Hill. The quick trot of ponies’ feet made him look up,
as one of the little carriages, containing a single young lady, came
rapidly down the street. The lady was young, blonde, and dressed in
blue. He stared a minute, then his whole face woke up, and, waving his
hat like a boy, he hurried forward to meet her.

“Oh, Laurie, is it really you? I thought you’d never come!” cried Amy,
dropping the reins and holding out both hands, to the great
scandalization of a French mamma, who hastened her daughter’s steps,
lest she should be demoralized by beholding the free manners of these
‘mad English’.

“I was detained by the way, but I promised to spend Christmas with you,
and here I am.”

“How is your grandfather? When did you come? Where are you staying?”

“Very well–last night–at the Chauvain. I called at your hotel, but
you were out.”

“I have so much to say, I don’t know where to begin! Get in and we can
talk at our ease. I was going for a drive and longing for company.
Flo’s saving up for tonight.”

“What happens then, a ball?”

“A Christmas party at our hotel. There are many Americans there, and
they give it in honor of the day. You’ll go with us, of course? Aunt
will be charmed.”

“Thank you. Where now?” asked Laurie, leaning back and folding his
arms, a proceeding which suited Amy, who preferred to drive, for her
parasol whip and blue reins over the white ponies’ backs afforded her
infinite satisfaction.

“I’m going to the bankers first for letters, and then to Castle Hill.
The view is so lovely, and I like to feed the peacocks. Have you ever
been there?”

“Often, years ago, but I don’t mind having a look at it.”

“Now tell me all about yourself. The last I heard of you, your
grandfather wrote that he expected you from Berlin.”

“Yes, I spent a month there and then joined him in Paris, where he has
settled for the winter. He has friends there and finds plenty to amuse
him, so I go and come, and we get on capitally.”

“That’s a sociable arrangement,” said Amy, missing something in
Laurie’s manner, though she couldn’t tell what.

“Why, you see, he hates to travel, and I hate to keep still, so we each
suit ourselves, and there is no trouble. I am often with him, and he
enjoys my adventures, while I like to feel that someone is glad to see
me when I get back from my wanderings. Dirty old hole, isn’t it?” he
added, with a look of disgust as they drove along the boulevard to the
Place Napoleon in the old city.

“The dirt is picturesque, so I don’t mind. The river and the hills are
delicious, and these glimpses of the narrow cross streets are my
delight. Now we shall have to wait for that procession to pass. It’s
going to the Church of St. John.”

While Laurie listlessly watched the procession of priests under their
canopies, white-veiled nuns bearing lighted tapers, and some
brotherhood in blue chanting as they walked, Amy watched him, and felt
a new sort of shyness steal over her, for he was changed, and she could
not find the merry-faced boy she left in the moody-looking man beside
her. He was handsomer than ever and greatly improved, she thought, but
now that the flush of pleasure at meeting her was over, he looked tired
and spiritless–not sick, nor exactly unhappy, but older and graver
than a year or two of prosperous life should have made him. She
couldn’t understand it and did not venture to ask questions, so she
shook her head and touched up her ponies, as the procession wound away
across the arches of the Paglioni bridge and vanished in the church.

“Que pensez-vous?” she said, airing her French, which had improved in
quantity, if not in quality, since she came abroad.

“That mademoiselle has made good use of her time, and the result is
charming,” replied Laurie, bowing with his hand on his heart and an
admiring look.

She blushed with pleasure, but somehow the compliment did not satisfy
her like the blunt praises he used to give her at home, when he
promenaded round her on festival occasions, and told her she was
‘altogether jolly’, with a hearty smile and an approving pat on the
head. She didn’t like the new tone, for though not blase, it sounded
indifferent in spite of the look.

“If that’s the way he’s going to grow up, I wish he’d stay a boy,” she
thought, with a curious sense of disappointment and discomfort, trying
meantime to seem quite easy and gay.

At Avigdor’s she found the precious home letters and, giving the reins
to Laurie, read them luxuriously as they wound up the shady road
between green hedges, where tea roses bloomed as freshly as in June.

“Beth is very poorly, Mother says. I often think I ought to go home,
but they all say ‘stay’. So I do, for I shall never have another
chance like this,” said Amy, looking sober over one page.

“I think you are right, there. You could do nothing at home, and it is
a great comfort to them to know that you are well and happy, and
enjoying so much, my dear.”

He drew a little nearer, and looked more like his old self as he said
that, and the fear that sometimes weighed on Amy’s heart was lightened,
for the look, the act, the brotherly ‘my dear’, seemed to assure her
that if any trouble did come, she would not be alone in a strange land.
Presently she laughed and showed him a small sketch of Jo in her
scribbling suit, with the bow rampantly erect upon her cap, and issuing
from her mouth the words, ‘Genius burns!’.

Laurie smiled, took it, put it in his vest pocket ‘to keep it from
blowing away’, and listened with interest to the lively letter Amy read
him.

“This will be a regularly merry Christmas to me, with presents in the
morning, you and letters in the afternoon, and a party at night,” said
Amy, as they alighted among the ruins of the old fort, and a flock of
splendid peacocks came trooping about them, tamely waiting to be fed.
While Amy stood laughing on the bank above him as she scattered crumbs
to the brilliant birds, Laurie looked at her as she had looked at him,
with a natural curiosity to see what changes time and absence had
wrought. He found nothing to perplex or disappoint, much to admire and
approve, for overlooking a few little affectations of speech and
manner, she was as sprightly and graceful as ever, with the addition of
that indescribable something in dress and bearing which we call
elegance. Always mature for her age, she had gained a certain aplomb
in both carriage and conversation, which made her seem more of a woman
of the world than she was, but her old petulance now and then showed
itself, her strong will still held its own, and her native frankness
was unspoiled by foreign polish.

Laurie did not read all this while he watched her feed the peacocks,
but he saw enough to satisfy and interest him, and carried away a
pretty little picture of a bright-faced girl standing in the sunshine,
which brought out the soft hue of her dress, the fresh collar of her
cheeks, the golden gloss of her hair, and made her a prominent figure
in the pleasant scene.

As they came up onto the stone plateau that crowns the hill, Amy waved
her hand as if welcoming him to her favorite haunt, and said, pointing
here and there, “Do you remember the Cathedral and the Corso, the
fishermen dragging their nets in the bay, and the lovely road to Villa
Franca, Schubert’s Tower, just below, and best of all, that speck far
out to sea which they say is Corsica?”

“I remember. It’s not much changed,” he answered without enthusiasm.

“What Jo would give for a sight of that famous speck!” said Amy,
feeling in good spirits and anxious to see him so also.

“Yes,” was all he said, but he turned and strained his eyes to see the
island which a greater usurper than even Napoleon now made interesting
in his sight.

“Take a good look at it for her sake, and then come and tell me what
you have been doing with yourself all this while,” said Amy, seating
herself, ready for a good talk.

But she did not get it, for though he joined her and answered all her
questions freely, she could only learn that he had roved about the
Continent and been to Greece. So after idling away an hour, they drove
home again, and having paid his respects to Mrs. Carrol, Laurie left
them, promising to return in the evening.

It must be recorded of Amy that she deliberately prinked that night.
Time and absence had done its work on both the young people. She had
seen her old friend in a new light, not as ‘our boy’, but as a handsome
and agreeable man, and she was conscious of a very natural desire to
find favor in his sight. Amy knew her good points, and made the most
of them with the taste and skill which is a fortune to a poor and
pretty woman.

Tarlatan and tulle were cheap at Nice, so she enveloped herself in them
on such occasions, and following the sensible English fashion of simple
dress for young girls, got up charming little toilettes with fresh
flowers, a few trinkets, and all manner of dainty devices, which were
both inexpensive and effective. It must be confessed that the artist
sometimes got possession of the woman, and indulged in antique
coiffures, statuesque attitudes, and classic draperies. But, dear
heart, we all have our little weaknesses, and find it easy to pardon
such in the young, who satisfy our eyes with their comeliness, and keep
our hearts merry with their artless vanities.

“I do want him to think I look well, and tell them so at home,” said
Amy to herself, as she put on Flo’s old white silk ball dress, and
covered it with a cloud of fresh illusion, out of which her white
shoulders and golden head emerged with a most artistic effect. Her hair
she had the sense to let alone, after gathering up the thick waves and
curls into a Hebe-like knot at the back of her head.

“It’s not the fashion, but it’s becoming, and I can’t afford to make a
fright of myself,” she used to say, when advised to frizzle, puff, or
braid, as the latest style commanded.

Having no ornaments fine enough for this important occasion, Amy looped
her fleecy skirts with rosy clusters of azalea, and framed the white
shoulders in delicate green vines. Remembering the painted boots, she
surveyed her white satin slippers with girlish satisfaction, and
chasseed down the room, admiring her aristocratic feet all by herself.

“My new fan just matches my flowers, my gloves fit to a charm, and the
real lace on Aunt’s mouchoir gives an air to my whole dress. If I only
had a classical nose and mouth I should be perfectly happy,” she said,
surveying herself with a critical eye and a candle in each hand.

In spite of this affliction, she looked unusually gay and graceful as
she glided away. She seldom ran–it did not suit her style, she
thought, for being tall, the stately and Junoesque was more appropriate
than the sportive or piquante. She walked up and down the long saloon
while waiting for Laurie, and once arranged herself under the
chandelier, which had a good effect upon her hair, then she thought
better of it, and went away to the other end of the room, as if ashamed
of the girlish desire to have the first view a propitious one. It so
happened that she could not have done a better thing, for Laurie came
in so quietly she did not hear him, and as she stood at the distant
window, with her head half turned and one hand gathering up her dress,
the slender, white figure against the red curtains was as effective as
a well-placed statue.

“Good evening, Diana!” said Laurie, with the look of satisfaction she
liked to see in his eyes when they rested on her.

“Good evening, Apollo!” she answered, smiling back at him, for he too
looked unusually debonair, and the thought of entering the ballroom on
the arm of such a personable man caused Amy to pity the four plain
Misses Davis from the bottom of her heart.

“Here are your flowers. I arranged them myself, remembering that you
didn’t like what Hannah calls a ‘sot-bookay’,” said Laurie, handing her
a delicate nosegay, in a holder that she had long coveted as she daily
passed it in Cardiglia’s window.

“How kind you are!” she exclaimed gratefully. “If I’d known you were
coming I’d have had something ready for you today, though not as pretty
as this, I’m afraid.”

“Thank you. It isn’t what it should be, but you have improved it,” he
added, as she snapped the silver bracelet on her wrist.

“Please don’t.”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing.”

“Not from you, it doesn’t sound natural, and I like your old bluntness
better.”

“I’m glad of it,” he answered, with a look of relief, then buttoned her
gloves for her, and asked if his tie was straight, just as he used to
do when they went to parties together at home.

The company assembled in the long salle a manger, that evening, was
such as one sees nowhere but on the Continent. The hospitable
Americans had invited every acquaintance they had in Nice, and having
no prejudice against titles, secured a few to add luster to their
Christmas ball.

A Russian prince condescended to sit in a corner for an hour and talk
with a massive lady, dressed like Hamlet’s mother in black velvet with
a pearl bridle under her chin. A Polish count, aged eighteen, devoted
himself to the ladies, who pronounced him, ‘a fascinating dear’, and a
German Serene Something, having come to supper alone, roamed vaguely
about, seeking what he might devour. Baron Rothschild’s private
secretary, a large-nosed Jew in tight boots, affably beamed upon the
world, as if his master’s name crowned him with a golden halo. A stout
Frenchman, who knew the Emperor, came to indulge his mania for dancing,
and Lady de Jones, a British matron, adorned the scene with her little
family of eight. Of course, there were many light-footed,
shrill-voiced American girls, handsome, lifeless-looking English ditto,
and a few plain but piquante French demoiselles, likewise the usual set
of traveling young gentlemen who disported themselves gaily, while
mammas of all nations lined the walls and smiled upon them benignly
when they danced with their daughters.

Any young girl can imagine Amy’s state of mind when she ‘took the
stage’ that night, leaning on Laurie’s arm. She knew she looked well,
she loved to dance, she felt that her foot was on her native heath in a
ballroom, and enjoyed the delightful sense of power which comes when
young girls first discover the new and lovely kingdom they are born to
rule by virtue of beauty, youth, and womanhood. She did pity the Davis
girls, who were awkward, plain, and destitute of escort, except a grim
papa and three grimmer maiden aunts, and she bowed to them in her
friendliest manner as she passed, which was good of her, as it
permitted them to see her dress, and burn with curiosity to know who
her distinguished-looking friend might be. With the first burst of the
band, Amy’s color rose, her eyes began to sparkle, and her feet to tap
the floor impatiently, for she danced well and wanted Laurie to know
it. Therefore the shock she received can better be imagined than
described, when he said in a perfectly tranquil tone, “Do you care to
dance?”

“One usually does at a ball.”

Her amazed look and quick answer caused Laurie to repair his error as
fast as possible.

“I meant the first dance. May I have the honor?”

“I can give you one if I put off the Count. He dances divinely, but he
will excuse me, as you are an old friend,” said Amy, hoping that the
name would have a good effect, and show Laurie that she was not to be
trifled with.

"Nice little boy, but rather a short Pole to support…

A daughter of the gods,
Divinely tall, and most divinely fair,"

was all the satisfaction she got, however.

The set in which they found themselves was composed of English, and Amy
was compelled to walk decorously through a cotillion, feeling all the
while as if she could dance the tarantella with relish. Laurie
resigned her to the ‘nice little boy’, and went to do his duty to Flo,
without securing Amy for the joys to come, which reprehensible want of
forethought was properly punished, for she immediately engaged herself
till supper, meaning to relent if he then gave any signs penitence. She
showed him her ball book with demure satisfaction when he strolled
instead of rushed up to claim her for the next, a glorious polka
redowa. But his polite regrets didn’t impose upon her, and when she
galloped away with the Count, she saw Laurie sit down by her aunt with
an actual expression of relief.

That was unpardonable, and Amy took no more notice of him for a long
while, except a word now and then when she came to her chaperon between
the dances for a necessary pin or a moment’s rest. Her anger had a
good effect, however, for she hid it under a smiling face, and seemed
unusually blithe and brilliant. Laurie’s eyes followed her with
pleasure, for she neither romped nor sauntered, but danced with spirit
and grace, making the delightsome pastime what it should be. He very
naturally fell to studying her from this new point of view, and before
the evening was half over, had decided that ‘little Amy was going to
make a very charming woman’.

It was a lively scene, for soon the spirit of the social season took
possession of everyone, and Christmas merriment made all faces shine,
hearts happy, and heels light. The musicians fiddled, tooted, and
banged as if they enjoyed it, everybody danced who could, and those who
couldn’t admired their neighbors with uncommon warmth. The air was
dark with Davises, and many Joneses gamboled like a flock of young
giraffes. The golden secretary darted through the room like a meteor
with a dashing French-woman who carpeted the floor with her pink satin
train. The serene Teuton found the supper-table and was happy, eating
steadily through the bill of fare, and dismayed the garcons by the
ravages he committed. But the Emperor’s friend covered himself with
glory, for he danced everything, whether he knew it or not, and
introduced impromptu pirouettes when the figures bewildered him. The
boyish abandon of that stout man was charming to behold, for though he
‘carried weight’, he danced like an India-rubber ball. He ran, he
flew, he pranced, his face glowed, his bald head shown, his coattails
waved wildly, his pumps actually twinkled in the air, and when the
music stopped, he wiped the drops from his brow, and beamed upon his
fellow men like a French Pickwick without glasses.

Amy and her Pole distinguished themselves by equal enthusiasm but more
graceful agility, and Laurie found himself involuntarily keeping time
to the rhythmic rise and fall of the white slippers as they flew by as
indefatigably as if winged. When little Vladimir finally relinquished
her, with assurances that he was ‘desolated to leave so early’, she was
ready to rest, and see how her recreant knight had borne his punishment.

It had been successful, for at three-and-twenty, blighted affections
find a balm in friendly society, and young nerves will thrill, young
blood dance, and healthy young spirits rise, when subjected to the
enchantment of beauty, light, music, and motion. Laurie had a waked-up
look as he rose to give her his seat, and when he hurried away to bring
her some supper, she said to herself, with a satisfied smile, “Ah, I
thought that would do him good!”

“You look like Balzac’s ‘Femme Peinte Par Elle-Meme’,” he said, as he
fanned her with one hand and held her coffee cup in the other.

“My rouge won’t come off.” and Amy rubbed her brilliant cheek, and
showed him her white glove with a sober simplicity that made him laugh
outright.

“What do you call this stuff?” he asked, touching a fold of her dress
that had blown over his knee.

“Illusion.”

“Good name for it. It’s very pretty–new thing, isn’t it?”

“It’s as old as the hills. You have seen it on dozens of girls, and
you never found out that it was pretty till now–stupide!”

“I never saw it on you before, which accounts for the mistake, you see.”

“None of that, it is forbidden. I’d rather take coffee than
compliments just now. No, don’t lounge, it makes me nervous.”

Laurie sat bold upright, and meekly took her empty plate feeling an odd
sort of pleasure in having ‘little Amy’ order him about, for she had
lost her shyness now, and felt an irrestible desire to trample on him,
as girls have a delightful way of doing when lords of creation show any
signs of subjection.

“Where did you learn all this sort of thing?” he asked with a quizzical
look.

“As ‘this sort of thing’ is rather a vague expression, would you kindly
explain?” returned Amy, knowing perfectly well what he meant, but
wickedly leaving him to describe what is indescribable.

“Well–the general air, the style, the self-possession,
the–the–illusion–you know”, laughed Laurie, breaking down and
helping himself out of his quandary with the new word.

Amy was gratified, but of course didn’t show it, and demurely answered,
“Foreign life polishes one in spite of one’s self. I study as well as
play, and as for this”–with a little gesture toward her dress–“why,
tulle is cheap, posies to be had for nothing, and I am used to making
the most of my poor little things.”

Amy rather regretted that last sentence, fearing it wasn’t in good
taste, but Laurie liked her better for it, and found himself both
admiring and respecting the brave patience that made the most of
opportunity, and the cheerful spirit that covered poverty with flowers.
Amy did not know why he looked at her so kindly, nor why he filled up
her book with his own name, and devoted himself to her for the rest of
the evening in the most delightful manner; but the impulse that wrought
this agreeable change was the result of one of the new impressions
which both of them were unconsciously giving and receiving.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

ON THE SHELF

In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married,
when ‘Vive la liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone
knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy
their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually
abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into a seclusion
almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet.
Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as
soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim,
as did a very pretty woman the other day, “I’m as handsome as ever, but
no one takes any notice of me because I’m married.”

Not being a belle or even a fashionable lady, Meg did not experience
this affliction till her babies were a year old, for in her little
world primitive customs prevailed, and she found herself more admired
and beloved than ever.

As she was a womanly little woman, the maternal instinct was very
strong, and she was entirely absorbed in her children, to the utter
exclusion of everything and everybody else. Day and night she brooded
over them with tireless devotion and anxiety, leaving John to the
tender mercies of the help, for an Irish lady now presided over the
kitchen department. Being a domestic man, John decidedly missed the
wifely attentions he had been accustomed to receive, but as he adored
his babies, he cheerfully relinquished his comfort for a time,
supposing with masculine ignorance that peace would soon be restored.
But three months passed, and there was no return of repose. Meg looked
worn and nervous, the babies absorbed every minute of her time, the
house was neglected, and Kitty, the cook, who took life ‘aisy’, kept
him on short commons. When he went out in the morning he was
bewildered by small commissions for the captive mamma, if he came gaily
in at night, eager to embrace his family, he was quenched by a “Hush!
They are just asleep after worrying all day.” If he proposed a little
amusement at home, “No, it would disturb the babies.” If he hinted at
a lecture or a concert, he was answered with a reproachful look, and a
decided–“Leave my children for pleasure, never!” His sleep was broken
by infant wails and visions of a phantom figure pacing noiselessly to
and fro in the watches of the night. His meals were interrupted by the
frequent flight of the presiding genius, who deserted him, half-helped,
if a muffled chirp sounded from the nest above. And when he read his
paper of an evening, Demi’s colic got into the shipping list and
Daisy’s fall affected the price of stocks, for Mrs. Brooke was only
interested in domestic news.

The poor man was very uncomfortable, for the children had bereft him of
his wife, home was merely a nursery and the perpetual ‘hushing’ made
him feel like a brutal intruder whenever he entered the sacred
precincts of Babyland. He bore it very patiently for six months, and
when no signs of amendment appeared, he did what other paternal exiles
do–tried to get a little comfort elsewhere. Scott had married and
gone to housekeeping not far off, and John fell into the way of running
over for an hour or two of an evening, when his own parlor was empty,
and his own wife singing lullabies that seemed to have no end. Mrs.
Scott was a lively, pretty girl, with nothing to do but be agreeable,
and she performed her mission most successfully. The parlor was always
bright and attractive, the chessboard ready, the piano in tune, plenty
of gay gossip, and a nice little supper set forth in tempting style.

John would have preferred his own fireside if it had not been so
lonely, but as it was he gratefully took the next best thing and
enjoyed his neighbor’s society.

Meg rather approved of the new arrangement at first, and found it a
relief to know that John was having a good time instead of dozing in
the parlor, or tramping about the house and waking the children. But
by-and-by, when the teething worry was over and the idols went to sleep
at proper hours, leaving Mamma time to rest, she began to miss John,
and find her workbasket dull company, when he was not sitting opposite
in his old dressing gown, comfortably scorching his slippers on the
fender. She would not ask him to stay at home, but felt injured
because he did not know that she wanted him without being told,
entirely forgetting the many evenings he had waited for her in vain.
She was nervous and worn out with watching and worry, and in that
unreasonable frame of mind which the best of mothers occasionally
experience when domestic cares oppress them. Want of exercise robs
them of cheerfulness, and too much devotion to that idol of American
women, the teapot, makes them feel as if they were all nerve and no
muscle.

“Yes,” she would say, looking in the glass, “I’m getting old and ugly.
John doesn’t find me interesting any longer, so he leaves his faded
wife and goes to see his pretty neighbor, who has no incumbrances.
Well, the babies love me, they don’t care if I am thin and pale and
haven’t time to crimp my hair, they are my comfort, and some day John
will see what I’ve gladly sacrificed for them, won’t he, my precious?”

To which pathetic appeal Daisy would answer with a coo, or Demi with a
crow, and Meg would put by her lamentations for a maternal revel, which
soothed her solitude for the time being. But the pain increased as
politics absorbed John, who was always running over to discuss
interesting points with Scott, quite unconscious that Meg missed him.
Not a word did she say, however, till her mother found her in tears one
day, and insisted on knowing what the matter was, for Meg’s drooping
spirits had not escaped her observation.

“I wouldn’t tell anyone except you, Mother, but I really do need
advice, for if John goes on much longer I might as well be widowed,”
replied Mrs. Brooke, drying her tears on Daisy’s bib with an injured
air.

“Goes on how, my dear?” asked her mother anxiously.

“He’s away all day, and at night when I want to see him, he is
continually going over to the Scotts’. It isn’t fair that I should
have the hardest work, and never any amusement. Men are very selfish,
even the best of them.”

“So are women. Don’t blame John till you see where you are wrong
yourself.”

“But it can’t be right for him to neglect me.”

“Don’t you neglect him?”

“Why, Mother, I thought you’d take my part!”

“So I do, as far as sympathizing goes, but I think the fault is yours,
Meg.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Let me show you. Did John ever neglect you, as you call it, while you
made it a point to give him your society of an evening, his only
leisure time?”

“No, but I can’t do it now, with two babies to tend.”

“I think you could, dear, and I think you ought. May I speak quite
freely, and will you remember that it’s Mother who blames as well as
Mother who sympathizes?”

“Indeed I will! Speak to me as if I were little Meg again. I often
feel as if I needed teaching more than ever since these babies look to
me for everything.”

Meg drew her low chair beside her mother’s, and with a little
interruption in either lap, the two women rocked and talked lovingly
together, feeling that the tie of motherhood made them more one than
ever.

“You have only made the mistake that most young wives make–forgotten
your duty to your husband in your love for your children. A very
natural and forgivable mistake, Meg, but one that had better be
remedied before you take to different ways, for children should draw
you nearer than ever, not separate you, as if they were all yours, and
John had nothing to do but support them. I’ve seen it for some weeks,
but have not spoken, feeling sure it would come right in time.”

“I’m afraid it won’t. If I ask him to stay, he’ll think I’m jealous,
and I wouldn’t insult him by such an idea. He doesn’t see that I want
him, and I don’t know how to tell him without words.”

“Make it so pleasant he won’t want to go away. My dear, he’s longing
for his little home, but it isn’t home without you, and you are always
in the nursery.”

“Oughtn’t I to be there?”

“Not all the time, too much confinement makes you nervous, and then you
are unfitted for everything. Besides, you owe something to John as
well as to the babies. Don’t neglect husband for children, don’t shut
him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is
there as well as yours, and the children need him. Let him feel that
he has a part to do, and he will do it gladly and faithfully, and it
will be better for you all.”

“You really think so, Mother?”

“I know it, Meg, for I’ve tried it, and I seldom give advice unless
I’ve proved its practicability. When you and Jo were little, I went on
just as you are, feeling as if I didn’t do my duty unless I devoted
myself wholly to you. Poor Father took to his books, after I had
refused all offers of help, and left me to try my experiment alone. I
struggled along as well as I could, but Jo was too much for me. I
nearly spoiled her by indulgence. You were poorly, and I worried about
you till I fell sick myself. Then Father came to the rescue, quietly
managed everything, and made himself so helpful that I saw my mistake,
and never have been able to get on without him since. That is the
secret of our home happiness. He does not let business wean him from
the little cares and duties that affect us all, and I try not to let
domestic worries destroy my interest in his pursuits. Each do our part
alone in many things, but at home we work together, always.”

“It is so, Mother, and my great wish is to be to my husband and
children what you have been to yours. Show me how, I’ll do anything
you say.”

“You always were my docile daughter. Well, dear, if I were you, I’d
let John have more to do with the management of Demi, for the boy needs
training, and it’s none too soon to begin. Then I’d do what I have
often proposed, let Hannah come and help you. She is a capital nurse,
and you may trust the precious babies to her while you do more
housework. You need the exercise, Hannah would enjoy the rest, and
John would find his wife again. Go out more, keep cheerful as well as
busy, for you are the sunshine-maker of the family, and if you get
dismal there is no fair weather. Then I’d try to take an interest in
whatever John likes–talk with him, let him read to you, exchange
ideas, and help each other in that way. Don’t shut yourself up in a
bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and
educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it all
affects you and yours.”

“John is so sensible, I’m afraid he will think I’m stupid if I ask
questions about politics and things.”

“I don’t believe he would. Love covers a multitude of sins, and of
whom could you ask more freely than of him? Try it, and see if he
doesn’t find your society far more agreeable than Mrs. Scott’s suppers.”

“I will. Poor John! I’m afraid I have neglected him sadly, but I
thought I was right, and he never said anything.”

“He tried not to be selfish, but he has felt rather forlorn, I fancy.
This is just the time, Meg, when young married people are apt to grow
apart, and the very time when they ought to be most together, for the
first tenderness soon wears off, unless care is taken to preserve it.
And no time is so beautiful and precious to parents as the first years
of the little lives given to them to train. Don’t let John be a
stranger to the babies, for they will do more to keep him safe and
happy in this world of trial and temptation than anything else, and
through them you will learn to know and love one another as you should.
Now, dear, good-by. Think over Mother’s preachment, act upon it if it
seems good, and God bless you all.”

Meg did think it over, found it good, and acted upon it, though the
first attempt was not made exactly as she planned to have it. Of
course the children tyrannized over her, and ruled the house as soon as
they found out that kicking and squalling brought them whatever they
wanted. Mamma was an abject slave to their caprices, but Papa was not
so easily subjugated, and occasionally afflicted his tender spouse by
an attempt at paternal discipline with his obstreperous son. For Demi
inherited a trifle of his sire’s firmness of character, we won’t call
it obstinacy, and when he made up his little mind to have or to do
anything, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not change
that pertinacious little mind. Mamma thought the dear too young to be
taught to conquer his prejudices, but Papa believed that it never was
too soon to learn obedience. So Master Demi early discovered that when
he undertook to ‘wrastle’ with ‘Parpar’, he always got the worst of it,
yet like the Englishman, baby respected the man who conquered him, and
loved the father whose grave “No, no,” was more impressive than all
Mamma’s love pats.

A few days after the talk with her mother, Meg resolved to try a social
evening with John, so she ordered a nice supper, set the parlor in
order, dressed herself prettily, and put the children to bed early,
that nothing should interfere with her experiment. But unfortunately
Demi’s most unconquerable prejudice was against going to bed, and that
night he decided to go on a rampage. So poor Meg sang and rocked, told
stories and tried every sleep-prevoking wile she could devise, but all
in vain, the big eyes wouldn’t shut, and long after Daisy had gone to
byelow, like the chubby little bunch of good nature she was, naughty
Demi lay staring at the light, with the most discouragingly wide-awake
expression of countenance.

“Will Demi lie still like a good boy, while Mamma runs down and gives
poor Papa his tea?” asked Meg, as the hall door softly closed, and the
well-known step went tip-toeing into the dining room.

“Me has tea!” said Demi, preparing to join in the revel.

“No, but I’ll save you some little cakies for breakfast, if you’ll go
bye-bye like Daisy. Will you, lovey?”

“Iss!” and Demi shut his eyes tight, as if to catch sleep and hurry the
desired day.

Taking advantage of the propitious moment, Meg slipped away and ran
down to greet her husband with a smiling face and the little blue bow
in her hair which was his especial admiration. He saw it at once and
said with pleased surprise, “Why, little mother, how gay we are
tonight. Do you expect company?”

“Only you, dear.”

“Is it a birthday, anniversary, or anything?”

“No, I’m tired of being dowdy, so I dressed up as a change. You always
make yourself nice for table, no matter how tired you are, so why
shouldn’t I when I have the time?”

“I do it out of respect for you, my dear,” said old-fashioned John.

“Ditto, ditto, Mr. Brooke,” laughed Meg, looking young and pretty
again, as she nodded to him over the teapot.

“Well, it’s altogether delightful, and like old times. This tastes
right. I drink your health, dear.” and John sipped his tea with an air
of reposeful rapture, which was of very short duration however, for as
he put down his cup, the door handle rattled mysteriously, and a little
voice was heard, saying impatiently…

“Opy doy. Me’s tummin!”

“It’s that naughty boy. I told him to go to sleep alone, and here he
is, downstairs, getting his death a-cold pattering over that canvas,”
said Meg, answering the call.

“Mornin’ now,” announced Demi in joyful tone as he entered, with his
long nightgown gracefully festooned over his arm and every curl bobbing
gayly as he pranced about the table, eyeing the ‘cakies’ with loving
glances.

“No, it isn’t morning yet. You must go to bed, and not trouble poor
Mamma. Then you can have the little cake with sugar on it.”

“Me loves Parpar,” said the artful one, preparing to climb the paternal
knee and revel in forbidden joys. But John shook his head, and said to
Meg…

“If you told him to stay up there, and go to sleep alone, make him do
it, or he will never learn to mind you.”

“Yes, of course. Come, Demi,” and Meg led her son away, feeling a
strong desire to spank the little marplot who hopped beside her,
laboring under the delusion that the bribe was to be administered as
soon as they reached the nursery.

Nor was he disappointed, for that shortsighted woman actually gave him
a lump of sugar, tucked him into his bed, and forbade any more
promenades till morning.

“Iss!” said Demi the perjured, blissfully sucking his sugar, and
regarding his first attempt as eminently successful.

Meg returned to her place, and supper was progressing pleasantly, when
the little ghost walked again, and exposed the maternal delinquencies
by boldly demanding, “More sudar, Marmar.”

“Now this won’t do,” said John, hardening his heart against the
engaging little sinner. “We shall never know any peace till that child
learns to go to bed properly. You have made a slave of yourself long
enough. Give him one lesson, and then there will be an end of it. Put
him in his bed and leave him, Meg.”

“He won’t stay there, he never does unless I sit by him.”

“I’ll manage him. Demi, go upstairs, and get into your bed, as Mamma
bids you.”

“S’ant!” replied the young rebel, helping himself to the coveted
‘cakie’, and beginning to eat the same with calm audacity.

“You must never say that to Papa. I shall carry you if you don’t go
yourself.”

“Go 'way, me don’t love Parpar.” and Demi retired to his mother’s
skirts for protection.

But even that refuge proved unavailing, for he was delivered over to
the enemy, with a “Be gentle with him, John,” which struck the culprit
with dismay, for when Mamma deserted him, then the judgment day was at
hand. Bereft of his cake, defrauded of his frolic, and borne away by a
strong hand to that detested bed, poor Demi could not restrain his
wrath, but openly defied Papa, and kicked and screamed lustily all the
way upstairs. The minute he was put into bed on one side, he rolled
out on the other, and made for the door, only to be ignominiously
caught up by the tail of his little toga and put back again, which
lively performance was kept up till the young man’s strength gave out,
when he devoted himself to roaring at the top of his voice. This vocal
exercise usually conquered Meg, but John sat as unmoved as the post
which is popularly believed to be deaf. No coaxing, no sugar, no
lullaby, no story, even the light was put out and only the red glow of
the fire enlivened the ‘big dark’ which Demi regarded with curiosity
rather than fear. This new order of things disgusted him, and he
howled dismally for ‘Marmar’, as his angry passions subsided, and
recollections of his tender bondwoman returned to the captive autocrat.
The plaintive wail which succeeded the passionate roar went to Meg’s
heart, and she ran up to say beseechingly…

“Let me stay with him, he’ll be good now, John.”

“No, my dear. I’ve told him he must go to sleep, as you bid him, and
he must, if I stay here all night.”

“But he’ll cry himself sick,” pleaded Meg, reproaching herself for
deserting her boy.

“No, he won’t, he’s so tired he will soon drop off and then the matter
is settled, for he will understand that he has got to mind. Don’t
interfere, I’ll manage him.”

“He’s my child, and I can’t have his spirit broken by harshness.”

“He’s my child, and I won’t have his temper spoiled by indulgence. Go
down, my dear, and leave the boy to me.”

When John spoke in that masterful tone, Meg always obeyed, and never
regretted her docility.

“Please let me kiss him once, John?”

“Certainly. Demi, say good night to Mamma, and let her go and rest,
for she is very tired with taking care of you all day.”

Meg always insisted upon it that the kiss won the victory, for after it
was given, Demi sobbed more quietly, and lay quite still at the bottom
of the bed, whither he had wriggled in his anguish of mind.

“Poor little man, he’s worn out with sleep and crying. I’ll cover him
up, and then go and set Meg’s heart at rest,” thought John, creeping to
the bedside, hoping to find his rebellious heir asleep.

But he wasn’t, for the moment his father peeped at him, Demi’s eyes
opened, his little chin began to quiver, and he put up his arms, saying
with a penitent hiccough, “Me’s dood, now.”

Sitting on the stairs outside Meg wondered at the long silence which
followed the uproar, and after imagining all sorts of impossible
accidents, she slipped into the room to set her fears at rest. Demi
lay fast asleep, not in his usual spreadeagle attitude, but in a
subdued bunch, cuddled close in the circle of his father’s arm and
holding his father’s finger, as if he felt that justice was tempered
with mercy, and had gone to sleep a sadder and wiser baby. So held,
John had waited with a womanly patience till the little hand relaxed
its hold, and while waiting had fallen asleep, more tired by that
tussle with his son than with his whole day’s work.

As Meg stood watching the two faces on the pillow, she smiled to
herself, and then slipped away again, saying in a satisfied tone, “I
never need fear that John will be too harsh with my babies. He does
know how to manage them, and will be a great help, for Demi is getting
too much for me.”

When John came down at last, expecting to find a pensive or reproachful
wife, he was agreeably surprised to find Meg placidly trimming a
bonnet, and to be greeted with the request to read something about the
election, if he was not too tired. John saw in a minute that a
revolution of some kind was going on, but wisely asked no questions,
knowing that Meg was such a transparent little person, she couldn’t
keep a secret to save her life, and therefore the clue would soon
appear. He read a long debate with the most amiable readiness and then
explained it in his most lucid manner, while Meg tried to look deeply
interested, to ask intelligent questions, and keep her thoughts from
wandering from the state of the nation to the state of her bonnet. In
her secret soul, however, she decided that politics were as bad as
mathematics, and that the mission of politicians seemed to be calling
each other names, but she kept these feminine ideas to herself, and
when John paused, shook her head and said with what she thought
diplomatic ambiguity, “Well, I really don’t see what we are coming to.”

John laughed, and watched her for a minute, as she poised a pretty
little preparation of lace and flowers on her hand, and regarded it
with the genuine interest which his harangue had failed to waken.

“She is trying to like politics for my sake, so I’ll try and like
millinery for hers, that’s only fair,” thought John the Just, adding
aloud, “That’s very pretty. Is it what you call a breakfast cap?”

“My dear man, it’s a bonnet! My very best go-to-concert-and-theater
bonnet.”

“I beg your pardon, it was so small, I naturally mistook it for one of
the flyaway things you sometimes wear. How do you keep it on?”

“These bits of lace are fastened under the chin with a rosebud, so,”
and Meg illustrated by putting on the bonnet and regarding him with an
air of calm satisfaction that was irresistible.

“It’s a love of a bonnet, but I prefer the face inside, for it looks
young and happy again,” and John kissed the smiling face, to the great
detriment of the rosebud under the chin.

“I’m glad you like it, for I want you to take me to one of the new
concerts some night. I really need some music to put me in tune. Will
you, please?”

“Of course I will, with all my heart, or anywhere else you like. You
have been shut up so long, it will do you no end of good, and I shall
enjoy it, of all things. What put it into your head, little mother?”

“Well, I had a talk with Marmee the other day, and told her how nervous
and cross and out of sorts I felt, and she said I needed change and
less care, so Hannah is to help me with the children, and I’m to see to
things about the house more, and now and then have a little fun, just
to keep me from getting to be a fidgety, broken-down old woman before
my time. It’s only an experiment, John, and I want to try it for your
sake as much as for mine, because I’ve neglected you shamefully lately,
and I’m going to make home what it used to be, if I can. You don’t
object, I hope?”

Never mind what John said, or what a very narrow escape the little
bonnet had from utter ruin. All that we have any business to know is
that John did not appear to object, judging from the changes which
gradually took place in the house and its inmates. It was not all
Paradise by any means, but everyone was better for the division of
labor system. The children throve under the paternal rule, for
accurate, steadfast John brought order and obedience into Babydom, while
Meg recovered her spirits and composed her nerves by plenty of
wholesome exercise, a little pleasure, and much confidential
conversation with her sensible husband. Home grew homelike again, and
John had no wish to leave it, unless he took Meg with him. The Scotts
came to the Brookes’ now, and everyone found the little house a
cheerful place, full of happiness, content, and family love. Even
Sallie Moffatt liked to go there. “It is always so quiet and pleasant
here, it does me good, Meg,” she used to say, looking about her with
wistful eyes, as if trying to discover the charm, that she might use it
in her great house, full of splendid loneliness, for there were no
riotous, sunny-faced babies there, and Ned lived in a world of his own,
where there was no place for her.

This household happiness did not come all at once, but John and Meg had
found the key to it, and each year of married life taught them how to
use it, unlocking the treasuries of real home love and mutual
helpfulness, which the poorest may possess, and the richest cannot buy.
This is the sort of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent
to be laid, safe from the restless fret and fever of the world, finding
loyal lovers in the little sons and daughters who cling to them,
undaunted by sorrow, poverty, or age, walking side by side, through
fair and stormy weather, with a faithful friend, who is, in the true
sense of the good old Saxon word, the ‘house-band’, and learning, as
Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor
the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

LAZY LAURENCE

Laurie went to Nice intending to stay a week, and remained a month. He
was tired of wandering about alone, and Amy’s familiar presence seemed
to give a homelike charm to the foreign scenes in which she bore a
part. He rather missed the ‘petting’ he used to receive, and enjoyed a
taste of it again, for no attentions, however flattering, from
strangers, were half so pleasant as the sisterly adoration of the girls
at home. Amy never would pet him like the others, but she was very
glad to see him now, and quite clung to him, feeling that he was the
representative of the dear family for whom she longed more than she
would confess. They naturally took comfort in each other’s society and
were much together, riding, walking, dancing, or dawdling, for at Nice
no one can be very industrious during the gay season. But, while
apparently amusing themselves in the most careless fashion, they were
half-consciously making discoveries and forming opinions about each
other. Amy rose daily in the estimation of her friend, but he sank in
hers, and each felt the truth before a word was spoken. Amy tried to
please, and succeeded, for she was grateful for the many pleasures he
gave her, and repaid him with the little services to which womanly
women know how to lend an indescribable charm. Laurie made no effort
of any kind, but just let himself drift along as comfortably as
possible, trying to forget, and feeling that all women owed him a kind
word because one had been cold to him. It cost him no effort to be
generous, and he would have given Amy all the trinkets in Nice if she
would have taken them, but at the same time he felt that he could not
change the opinion she was forming of him, and he rather dreaded the
keen blue eyes that seemed to watch him with such half-sorrowful,
half-scornful surprise.

“All the rest have gone to Monaco for the day. I preferred to stay at
home and write letters. They are done now, and I am going to Valrosa
to sketch, will you come?” said Amy, as she joined Laurie one lovely
day when he lounged in as usual, about noon.

“Well, yes, but isn’t it rather warm for such a long walk?” he answered
slowly, for the shaded salon looked inviting after the glare without.

“I’m going to have the little carriage, and Baptiste can drive, so
you’ll have nothing to do but hold your umbrella, and keep your gloves
nice,” returned Amy, with a sarcastic glance at the immaculate kids,
which were a weak point with Laurie.

“Then I’ll go with pleasure.” and he put out his hand for her
sketchbook. But she tucked it under her arm with a sharp…

“Don’t trouble yourself. It’s no exertion to me, but you don’t look
equal to it.”

Laurie lifted his eyebrows and followed at a leisurely pace as she ran
downstairs, but when they got into the carriage he took the reins
himself, and left little Baptiste nothing to do but fold his arms and
fall asleep on his perch.

The two never quarreled. Amy was too well-bred, and just now Laurie
was too lazy, so in a minute he peeped under her hatbrim with an
inquiring air. She answered him with a smile, and they went on
together in the most amicable manner.

It was a lovely drive, along winding roads rich in the picturesque
scenes that delight beauty-loving eyes. Here an ancient monastery,
whence the solemn chanting of the monks came down to them. There a
bare-legged shepherd, in wooden shoes, pointed hat, and rough jacket
over one shoulder, sat piping on a stone while his goats skipped among
the rocks or lay at his feet. Meek, mouse-colored donkeys, laden with
panniers of freshly cut grass passed by, with a pretty girl in a
capaline sitting between the green piles, or an old woman spinning with
a distaff as she went. Brown, soft-eyed children ran out from the
quaint stone hovels to offer nosegays, or bunches of oranges still on
the bough. Gnarled olive trees covered the hills with their dusky
foliage, fruit hung golden in the orchard, and great scarlet anemones
fringed the roadside, while beyond green slopes and craggy heights, the
Maritime Alps rose sharp and white against the blue Italian sky.

Valrosa well deserved its name, for in that climate of perpetual summer
roses blossomed everywhere. They overhung the archway, thrust
themselves between the bars of the great gate with a sweet welcome to
passers-by, and lined the avenue, winding through lemon trees and
feathery palms up to the villa on the hill. Every shadowy nook, where
seats invited one to stop and rest, was a mass of bloom, every cool
grotto had its marble nymph smiling from a veil of flowers and every
fountain reflected crimson, white, or pale pink roses, leaning down to
smile at their own beauty. Roses covered the walls of the house, draped
the cornices, climbed the pillars, and ran riot over the balustrade of
the wide terrace, whence one looked down on the sunny Mediterranean,
and the white-walled city on its shore.

“This is a regular honeymoon paradise, isn’t it? Did you ever see such
roses?” asked Amy, pausing on the terrace to enjoy the view, and a
luxurious whiff of perfume that came wandering by.

“No, nor felt such thorns,” returned Laurie, with his thumb in his
mouth, after a vain attempt to capture a solitary scarlet flower that
grew just beyond his reach.

“Try lower down, and pick those that have no thorns,” said Amy,
gathering three of the tiny cream-colored ones that starred the wall
behind her. She put them in his buttonhole as a peace offering, and he
stood a minute looking down at them with a curious expression, for in
the Italian part of his nature there was a touch of superstition, and
he was just then in that state of half-sweet, half-bitter melancholy,
when imaginative young men find significance in trifles and food for
romance everywhere. He had thought of Jo in reaching after the thorny
red rose, for vivid flowers became her, and she had often worn ones
like that from the greenhouse at home. The pale roses Amy gave him
were the sort that the Italians lay in dead hands, never in bridal
wreaths, and for a moment he wondered if the omen was for Jo or for
himself, but the next instant his American common sense got the better
of sentimentality, and he laughed a heartier laugh than Amy had heard
since he came.

“It’s good advice, you’d better take it and save your fingers,” she
said, thinking her speech amused him.

“Thank you, I will,” he answered in jest, and a few months later he did
it in earnest.

“Laurie, when are you going to your grandfather?” she asked presently,
as she settled herself on a rustic seat.

“Very soon.”

“You have said that a dozen times within the last three weeks.”

“I dare say, short answers save trouble.”

“He expects you, and you really ought to go.”

“Hospitable creature! I know it.”

“Then why don’t you do it?”

“Natural depravity, I suppose.”

“Natural indolence, you mean. It’s really dreadful!” and Amy looked
severe.

“Not so bad as it seems, for I should only plague him if I went, so I
might as well stay and plague you a little longer, you can bear it
better, in fact I think it agrees with you excellently,” and Laurie
composed himself for a lounge on the broad ledge of the balustrade.

Amy shook her head and opened her sketchbook with an air of
resignation, but she had made up her mind to lecture ‘that boy’ and in
a minute she began again.

“What are you doing just now?”

“Watching lizards.”

“No, no. I mean what do you intend and wish to do?”

“Smoke a cigarette, if you’ll allow me.”

“How provoking you are! I don’t approve of cigars and I will only
allow it on condition that you let me put you into my sketch. I need a
figure.”

“With all the pleasure in life. How will you have me, full length or
three-quarters, on my head or my heels? I should respectfully suggest
a recumbent posture, then put yourself in also and call it ‘Dolce far
niente’.”

“Stay as you are, and go to sleep if you like. I intend to work hard,”
said Amy in her most energetic tone.

“What delightful enthusiasm!” and he leaned against a tall urn with an
air of entire satisfaction.

“What would Jo say if she saw you now?” asked Amy impatiently, hoping
to stir him up by the mention of her still more energetic sister’s name.

“As usual, ‘Go away, Teddy. I’m busy!’” He laughed as he spoke, but
the laugh was not natural, and a shade passed over his face, for the
utterance of the familiar name touched the wound that was not healed
yet. Both tone and shadow struck Amy, for she had seen and heard them
before, and now she looked up in time to catch a new expression on
Laurie’s face–a hard bitter look, full of pain, dissatisfaction, and
regret. It was gone before she could study it and the listless
expression back again. She watched him for a moment with artistic
pleasure, thinking how like an Italian he looked, as he lay basking in
the sun with uncovered head and eyes full of southern dreaminess, for
he seemed to have forgotten her and fallen into a reverie.

“You look like the effigy of a young knight asleep on his tomb,” she
said, carefully tracing the well-cut profile defined against the dark
stone.

“Wish I was!”

“That’s a foolish wish, unless you have spoiled your life. You are so
changed, I sometimes think–” there Amy stopped, with a half-timid,
half-wistful look, more significant than her unfinished speech.

Laurie saw and understood the affectionate anxiety which she hesitated
to express, and looking straight into her eyes, said, just as he used
to say it to her mother, “It’s all right, ma’am.”

That satisfied her and set at rest the doubts that had begun to worry
her lately. It also touched her, and she showed that it did, by the
cordial tone in which she said…

“I’m glad of that! I didn’t think you’d been a very bad boy, but I
fancied you might have wasted money at that wicked Baden-Baden, lost
your heart to some charming Frenchwoman with a husband, or got into
some of the scrapes that young men seem to consider a necessary part of
a foreign tour. Don’t stay out there in the sun, come and lie on the
grass here and ‘let us be friendly’, as Jo used to say when we got in
the sofa corner and told secrets.”

Laurie obediently threw himself down on the turf, and began to amuse
himself by sticking daisies into the ribbons of Amy’s hat, that lay
there.

“I’m all ready for the secrets.” and he glanced up with a decided
expression of interest in his eyes.

“I’ve none to tell. You may begin.”

“Haven’t one to bless myself with. I thought perhaps you’d had some
news from home…”

“You have heard all that has come lately. Don’t you hear often? I
fancied Jo would send you volumes.”

“She’s very busy. I’m roving about so, it’s impossible to be regular,
you know. When do you begin your great work of art, Raphaella?” he
asked, changing the subject abruptly after another pause, in which he
had been wondering if Amy knew his secret and wanted to talk about it.

“Never,” she answered, with a despondent but decided air. “Rome took
all the vanity out of me, for after seeing the wonders there, I felt
too insignificant to live and gave up all my foolish hopes in despair.”

“Why should you, with so much energy and talent?”

“That’s just why, because talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy
can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a
common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try any more.”

“And what are you going to do with yourself now, if I may ask?”

“Polish up my other talents, and be an ornament to society, if I get
the chance.”

It was a characteristic speech, and sounded daring, but audacity
becomes young people, and Amy’s ambition had a good foundation. Laurie
smiled, but he liked the spirit with which she took up a new purpose
when a long-cherished one died, and spent no time lamenting.

“Good! And here is where Fred Vaughn comes in, I fancy.”

Amy preserved a discreet silence, but there was a conscious look in her
downcast face that made Laurie sit up and say gravely, “Now I’m going
to play brother, and ask questions. May I?”

“I don’t promise to answer.”

“Your face will, if your tongue won’t. You aren’t woman of the world
enough yet to hide your feelings, my dear. I heard rumors about Fred
and you last year, and it’s my private opinion that if he had not been
called home so suddenly and detained so long, something would have come
of it, hey?”

“That’s not for me to say,” was Amy’s grim reply, but her lips would
smile, and there was a traitorous sparkle of the eye which betrayed
that she knew her power and enjoyed the knowledge.

“You are not engaged, I hope?” and Laurie looked very elder-brotherly
and grave all of a sudden.

“No.”

“But you will be, if he comes back and goes properly down on his knees,
won’t you?”

“Very likely.”

“Then you are fond of old Fred?”

“I could be, if I tried.”

“But you don’t intend to try till the proper moment? Bless my soul,
what unearthly prudence! He’s a good fellow, Amy, but not the man I
fancied you’d like.”

“He is rich, a gentleman, and has delightful manners,” began Amy,
trying to be quite cool and dignified, but feeling a little ashamed of
herself, in spite of the sincerity of her intentions.

“I understand. Queens of society can’t get on without money, so you
mean to make a good match, and start in that way? Quite right and
proper, as the world goes, but it sounds odd from the lips of one of
your mother’s girls.”

“True, nevertheless.”

A short speech, but the quiet decision with which it was uttered
contrasted curiously with the young speaker. Laurie felt this
instinctively and laid himself down again, with a sense of
disappointment which he could not explain. His look and silence, as
well as a certain inward self-disapproval, ruffled Amy, and made her
resolve to deliver her lecture without delay.

“I wish you’d do me the favor to rouse yourself a little,” she said
sharply.

“Do it for me, there’s a dear girl.”

“I could, if I tried.” and she looked as if she would like doing it in
the most summary style.

“Try, then. I give you leave,” returned Laurie, who enjoyed having
someone to tease, after his long abstinence from his favorite pastime.

“You’d be angry in five minutes.”

“I’m never angry with you. It takes two flints to make a fire. You are
as cool and soft as snow.”

“You don’t know what I can do. Snow produces a glow and a tingle, if
applied rightly. Your indifference is half affectation, and a good
stirring up would prove it.”

“Stir away, it won’t hurt me and it may amuse you, as the big man said
when his little wife beat him. Regard me in the light of a husband or
a carpet, and beat till you are tired, if that sort of exercise agrees
with you.”

Being decidedly nettled herself, and longing to see him shake off the
apathy that so altered him, Amy sharpened both tongue and pencil, and
began.

“Flo and I have got a new name for you. It’s Lazy Laurence. How do you
like it?”

She thought it would annoy him, but he only folded his arms under his
head, with an imperturbable, “That’s not bad. Thank you, ladies.”

“Do you want to know what I honestly think of you?”

“Pining to be told.”

“Well, I despise you.”

If she had even said ‘I hate you’ in a petulant or coquettish tone, he
would have laughed and rather liked it, but the grave, almost sad,
accent in her voice made him open his eyes, and ask quickly…

“Why, if you please?”

“Because, with every chance for being good, useful, and happy, you are
faulty, lazy, and miserable.”

“Strong language, mademoiselle.”

“If you like it, I’ll go on.”

“Pray do, it’s quite interesting.”

“I thought you’d find it so. Selfish people always like to talk about
themselves.”

“Am I selfish?” the question slipped out involuntarily and in a tone of
surprise, for the one virtue on which he prided himself was generosity.

“Yes, very selfish,” continued Amy, in a calm, cool voice, twice as
effective just then as an angry one. “I’ll show you how, for I’ve
studied you while we were frolicking, and I’m not at all satisfied with
you. Here you have been abroad nearly six months, and done nothing but
waste time and money and disappoint your friends.”

“Isn’t a fellow to have any pleasure after a four-year grind?”

“You don’t look as if you’d had much. At any rate, you are none the
better for it, as far as I can see. I said when we first met that you
had improved. Now I take it all back, for I don’t think you half so
nice as when I left you at home. You have grown abominably lazy, you
like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things, you are contented to
be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and
respected by wise ones. With money, talent, position, health, and
beauty, ah you like that old Vanity! But it’s the truth, so I can’t
help saying it, with all these splendid things to use and enjoy, you
can find nothing to do but dawdle, and instead of being the man you
ought to be, you are only…” there she stopped, with a look that had
both pain and pity in it.

“Saint Laurence on a gridiron,” added Laurie, blandly finishing the
sentence. But the lecture began to take effect, for there was a
wide-awake sparkle in his eyes now and a half-angry, half-injured
expression replaced the former indifference.

“I supposed you’d take it so. You men tell us we are angels, and say
we can make you what we will, but the instant we honestly try to do you
good, you laugh at us and won’t listen, which proves how much your
flattery is worth.” Amy spoke bitterly, and turned her back on the
exasperating martyr at her feet.

In a minute a hand came down over the page, so that she could not draw,
and Laurie’s voice said, with a droll imitation of a penitent child, “I
will be good, oh, I will be good!”

But Amy did not laugh, for she was in earnest, and tapping on the
outspread hand with her pencil, said soberly, “Aren’t you ashamed of a
hand like that? It’s as soft and white as a woman’s, and looks as if
it never did anything but wear Jouvin’s best gloves and pick flowers
for ladies. You are not a dandy, thank Heaven, so I’m glad to see
there are no diamonds or big seal rings on it, only the little old one
Jo gave you so long ago. Dear soul, I wish she was here to help me!”

“So do I!”

The hand vanished as suddenly as it came, and there was energy enough
in the echo of her wish to suit even Amy. She glanced down at him with
a new thought in her mind, but he was lying with his hat half over his
face, as if for shade, and his mustache hid his mouth. She only saw
his chest rise and fall, with a long breath that might have been a
sigh, and the hand that wore the ring nestled down into the grass, as
if to hide something too precious or too tender to be spoken of. All in
a minute various hints and trifles assumed shape and significance in
Amy’s mind, and told her what her sister never had confided to her.
She remembered that Laurie never spoke voluntarily of Jo, she recalled
the shadow on his face just now, the change in his character, and the
wearing of the little old ring which was no ornament to a handsome
hand. Girls are quick to read such signs and feel their eloquence.
Amy had fancied that perhaps a love trouble was at the bottom of the
alteration, and now she was sure of it. Her keen eyes filled, and when
she spoke again, it was in a voice that could be beautifully soft and
kind when she chose to make it so.

“I know I have no right to talk so to you, Laurie, and if you weren’t
the sweetest-tempered fellow in the world, you’d be very angry with me.
But we are all so fond and proud of you, I couldn’t bear to think they
should be disappointed in you at home as I have been, though, perhaps
they would understand the change better than I do.”

“I think they would,” came from under the hat, in a grim tone, quite as
touching as a broken one.

“They ought to have told me, and not let me go blundering and scolding,
when I should have been more kind and patient than ever. I never did
like that Miss Randal and now I hate her!” said artful Amy, wishing to
be sure of her facts this time.

“Hang Miss Randal!” and Laurie knocked the hat off his face with a look
that left no doubt of his sentiments toward that young lady.

“I beg pardon, I thought…” and there she paused diplomatically.

“No, you didn’t, you knew perfectly well I never cared for anyone but
Jo,” Laurie said that in his old, impetuous tone, and turned his face
away as he spoke.

“I did think so, but as they never said anything about it, and you came
away, I supposed I was mistaken. And Jo wouldn’t be kind to you? Why,
I was sure she loved you dearly.”

“She was kind, but not in the right way, and it’s lucky for her she
didn’t love me, if I’m the good-for-nothing fellow you think me. It’s
her fault though, and you may tell her so.”

The hard, bitter look came back again as he said that, and it troubled
Amy, for she did not know what balm to apply.

“I was wrong, I didn’t know. I’m very sorry I was so cross, but I
can’t help wishing you’d bear it better, Teddy, dear.”

“Don’t, that’s her name for me!” and Laurie put up his hand with a
quick gesture to stop the words spoken in Jo’s half-kind,
half-reproachful tone. “Wait till you’ve tried it yourself,” he added
in a low voice, as he pulled up the grass by the handful.

“I’d take it manfully, and be respected if I couldn’t be loved,” said
Amy, with the decision of one who knew nothing about it.

Now, Laurie flattered himself that he had borne it remarkably well,
making no moan, asking no sympathy, and taking his trouble away to live
it down alone. Amy’s lecture put the matter in a new light, and for
the first time it did look weak and selfish to lose heart at the first
failure, and shut himself up in moody indifference. He felt as if
suddenly shaken out of a pensive dream and found it impossible to go to
sleep again. Presently he sat up and asked slowly, “Do you think Jo
would despise me as you do?”

“Yes, if she saw you now. She hates lazy people. Why don’t you do
something splendid, and make her love you?”

“I did my best, but it was no use.”

“Graduating well, you mean? That was no more than you ought to have
done, for your grandfather’s sake. It would have been shameful to fail
after spending so much time and money, when everyone knew that you
could do well.”

“I did fail, say what you will, for Jo wouldn’t love me,” began Laurie,
leaning his head on his hand in a despondent attitude.

“No, you didn’t, and you’ll say so in the end, for it did you good, and
proved that you could do something if you tried. If you’d only set
about another task of some sort, you’d soon be your hearty, happy self
again, and forget your trouble.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Try it and see. You needn’t shrug your shoulders, and think, ‘Much
she knows about such things’. I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am
observing, and I see a great deal more than you’d imagine. I’m
interested in other people’s experiences and inconsistencies, and
though I can’t explain, I remember and use them for my own benefit.
Love Jo all your days, if you choose, but don’t let it spoil you, for
it’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the
one you want. There, I won’t lecture any more, for I know you’ll wake
up and be a man in spite of that hardhearted girl.”

Neither spoke for several minutes. Laurie sat turning the little ring
on his finger, and Amy put the last touches to the hasty sketch she had
been working at while she talked. Presently she put it on his knee,
merely saying, “How do you like that?”

He looked and then he smiled, as he could not well help doing, for it
was capitally done, the long, lazy figure on the grass, with listless
face, half-shut eyes, and one hand holding a cigar, from which came the
little wreath of smoke that encircled the dreamer’s head.

“How well you draw!” he said, with a genuine surprise and pleasure at
her skill, adding, with a half-laugh, “Yes, that’s me.”

“As you are. This is as you were.” and Amy laid another sketch beside
the one he held.

It was not nearly so well done, but there was a life and spirit in it
which atoned for many faults, and it recalled the past so vividly that
a sudden change swept over the young man’s face as he looked. Only a
rough sketch of Laurie taming a horse. Hat and coat were off, and
every line of the active figure, resolute face, and commanding attitude
was full of energy and meaning. The handsome brute, just subdued,
stood arching his neck under the tightly drawn rein, with one foot
impatiently pawing the ground, and ears pricked up as if listening for
the voice that had mastered him. In the ruffled mane, the rider’s
breezy hair and erect attitude, there was a suggestion of suddenly
arrested motion, of strength, courage, and youthful buoyancy that
contrasted sharply with the supine grace of the ‘Dolce far Niente
sketch. Laurie said nothing but as his eye went from one to the other,
Amy saw him flush up and fold his lips together as if he read and
accepted the little lesson she had given him. That satisfied her, and
without waiting for him to speak, she said, in her sprightly way…

“Don’t you remember the day you played Rarey with Puck, and we all
looked on? Meg and Beth were frightened, but Jo clapped and pranced,
and I sat on the fence and drew you. I found that sketch in my
portfolio the other day, touched it up, and kept it to show you.”

“Much obliged. You’ve improved immensely since then, and I
congratulate you. May I venture to suggest in ‘a honeymoon paradise’
that five o’clock is the dinner hour at your hotel?”

Laurie rose as he spoke, returned the pictures with a smile and a bow
and looked at his watch, as if to remind her that even moral lectures
should have an end. He tried to resume his former easy, indifferent
air, but it was an affectation now, for the rousing had been more
effacious than he would confess. Amy felt the shade of coldness in his
manner, and said to herself…

“Now, I’ve offended him. Well, if it does him good, I’m glad, if it
makes him hate me, I’m sorry, but it’s true, and I can’t take back a
word of it.”

They laughed and chatted all the way home, and little Baptiste, up
behind, thought that monsieur and madamoiselle were in charming
spirits. But both felt ill at ease. The friendly frankness was
disturbed, the sunshine had a shadow over it, and despite their
apparent gaiety, there was a secret discontent in the heart of each.

“Shall we see you this evening, mon frere?” asked Amy, as they parted
at her aunt’s door.

“Unfortunately I have an engagement. Au revoir, madamoiselle,” and
Laurie bent as if to kiss her hand, in the foreign fashion, which
became him better than many men. Something in his face made Amy say
quickly and warmly…

“No, be yourself with me, Laurie, and part in the good old way. I’d
rather have a hearty English handshake than all the sentimental
salutations in France.”

“Goodbye, dear,” and with these words, uttered in the tone she liked,
Laurie left her, after a handshake almost painful in its heartiness.

Next morning, instead of the usual call, Amy received a note which made
her smile at the beginning and sigh at the end.

My Dear Mentor, Please make my adieux to your aunt, and exult within
yourself, for ‘Lazy Laurence’ has gone to his grandpa, like the best of
boys. A pleasant winter to you, and may the gods grant you a blissful
honeymoon at Valrosa! I think Fred would be benefited by a rouser.
Tell him so, with my congratulations.

Yours gratefully, Telemachus

“Good boy! I’m glad he’s gone,” said Amy, with an approving smile. The
next minute her face fell as she glanced about the empty room, adding,
with an involuntary sigh, “Yes, I am glad, but how I shall miss him.”

CHAPTER FORTY

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW

When the first bitterness was over, the family accepted the inevitable,
and tried to bear it cheerfully, helping one another by the increased
affection which comes to bind households tenderly together in times of
trouble. They put away their grief, and each did his or her part
toward making that last year a happy one.

The pleasantest room in the house was set apart for Beth, and in it was
gathered everything that she most loved, flowers, pictures, her piano,
the little worktable, and the beloved pussies. Father’s best books
found their way there, Mother’s easy chair, Jo’s desk, Amy’s finest
sketches, and every day Meg brought her babies on a loving pilgrimage,
to make sunshine for Aunty Beth. John quietly set apart a little sum,
that he might enjoy the pleasure of keeping the invalid supplied with
the fruit she loved and longed for. Old Hannah never wearied of
concocting dainty dishes to tempt a capricious appetite, dropping tears
as she worked, and from across the sea came little gifts and cheerful
letters, seeming to bring breaths of warmth and fragrance from lands
that know no winter.

Here, cherished like a household saint in its shrine, sat Beth,
tranquil and busy as ever, for nothing could change the sweet,
unselfish nature, and even while preparing to leave life, she tried to
make it happier for those who should remain behind. The feeble fingers
were never idle, and one of her pleasures was to make little things for
the school children daily passing to and fro, to drop a pair of mittens
from her window for a pair of purple hands, a needlebook for some small
mother of many dolls, penwipers for young penmen toiling through
forests of pothooks, scrapbooks for picture-loving eyes, and all manner
of pleasant devices, till the reluctant climbers of the ladder of
learning found their way strewn with flowers, as it were, and came to
regard the gentle giver as a sort of fairy godmother, who sat above
there, and showered down gifts miraculously suited to their tastes and
needs. If Beth had wanted any reward, she found it in the bright
little faces always turned up to her window, with nods and smiles, and
the droll little letters which came to her, full of blots and gratitude.

The first few months were very happy ones, and Beth often used to look
round, and say “How beautiful this is!” as they all sat together in her
sunny room, the babies kicking and crowing on the floor, mother and
sisters working near, and father reading, in his pleasant voice, from
the wise old books which seemed rich in good and comfortable words, as
applicable now as when written centuries ago, a little chapel, where a
paternal priest taught his flock the hard lessons all must learn,
trying to show them that hope can comfort love, and faith make
resignation possible. Simple sermons, that went straight to the souls
of those who listened, for the father’s heart was in the minister’s
religion, and the frequent falter in the voice gave a double eloquence
to the words he spoke or read.

It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as
preparation for the sad hours to come, for by-and-by, Beth said the
needle was ‘so heavy’, and put it down forever. Talking wearied her,
faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil
spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble
flesh. Ah me! Such heavy days, such long, long nights, such aching
hearts and imploring prayers, when those who loved her best were forced
to see the thin hands stretched out to them beseechingly, to hear the
bitter cry, “Help me, help me!” and to feel that there was no help. A
sad eclipse of the serene soul, a sharp struggle of the young life with
death, but both were mercifully brief, and then the natural rebellion
over, the old peace returned more beautiful than ever. With the wreck
of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong, and though she said little,
those about her felt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim
called was likewise the fittest, and waited with her on the shore,
trying to see the Shining Ones coming to receive her when she crossed
the river.

Jo never left her for an hour since Beth had said “I feel stronger when
you are here.” She slept on a couch in the room, waking often to renew
the fire, to feed, lift, or wait upon the patient creature who seldom
asked for anything, and ‘tried not to be a trouble’. All day she
haunted the room, jealous of any other nurse, and prouder of being
chosen then than of any honor her life ever brought her. Precious and
helpful hours to Jo, for now her heart received the teaching that it
needed. Lessons in patience were so sweetly taught her that she could
not fail to learn them, charity for all, the lovely spirit that can
forgive and truly forget unkindness, the loyalty to duty that makes the
hardest easy, and the sincere faith that fears nothing, but trusts
undoubtingly.

Often when she woke Jo found Beth reading in her well-worn little book,
heard her singing softly, to beguile the sleepless night, or saw her
lean her face upon her hands, while slow tears dropped through the
transparent fingers, and Jo would lie watching her with thoughts too
deep for tears, feeling that Beth, in her simple, unselfish way, was
trying to wean herself from the dear old life, and fit herself for the
life to come, by sacred words of comfort, quiet prayers, and the music
she loved so well.

Seeing this did more for Jo than the wisest sermons, the saintliest
hymns, the most fervent prayers that any voice could utter. For with
eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart softened by the tenderest
sorrow, she recognized the beauty of her sister’s life–uneventful,
unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which ‘smell sweet, and
blossom in the dust’, the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on
earth remembered soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible
to all.

One night when Beth looked among the books upon her table, to find
something to make her forget the mortal weariness that was almost as
hard to bear as pain, as she turned the leaves of her old favorite,
Pilgrims’s Progress, she found a little paper, scribbled over in Jo’s
hand. The name caught her eye and the blurred look of the lines made
her sure that tears had fallen on it.

“Poor Jo! She’s fast asleep, so I won’t wake her to ask leave. She
shows me all her things, and I don’t think she’ll mind if I look at
this”, thought Beth, with a glance at her sister, who lay on the rug,
with the tongs beside her, ready to wake up the minute the log fell
apart.

MY BETH

Sitting patient in the shadow
Till the blessed light shall come,
A serene and saintly presence
Sanctifies our troubled home.
Earthly joys and hopes and sorrows
Break like ripples on the strand
Of the deep and solemn river
Where her willing feet now stand.

O my sister, passing from me,
Out of human care and strife,
Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
Which have beautified your life.
Dear, bequeath me that great patience
Which has power to sustain
A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit
In its prison-house of pain.

Give me, for I need it sorely,
Of that courage, wise and sweet,
Which has made the path of duty
Green beneath your willing feet.
Give me that unselfish nature,
That with charity divine
Can pardon wrong for love's dear sake--
Meek heart, forgive me mine!

Thus our parting daily loseth
Something of its bitter pain,
And while learning this hard lesson,
My great loss becomes my gain.
For the touch of grief will render
My wild nature more serene,
Give to life new aspirations,
A new trust in the unseen.

Henceforth, safe across the river,
I shall see forever more
A beloved, household spirit
Waiting for me on the shore.
Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,
Guardian angels shall become,
And the sister gone before me
By their hands shall lead me home.

Blurred and blotted, faulty and feeble as the lines were, they brought
a look of inexpressible comfort to Beth’s face, for her one regret had
been that she had done so little, and this seemed to assure her that
her life had not been useless, that her death would not bring the
despair she feared. As she sat with the paper folded between her
hands, the charred log fell asunder. Jo started up, revived the blaze,
and crept to the bedside, hoping Beth slept.

“Not asleep, but so happy, dear. See, I found this and read it. I knew
you wouldn’t care. Have I been all that to you, Jo?” she asked, with
wistful, humble earnestness.

Oh, Beth, so much, so much!” and Jo’s head went down upon the pillow
beside her sister’s.

“Then I don’t feel as if I’d wasted my life. I’m not so good as you
make me, but I have tried to do right. And now, when it’s too late to
begin even to do better, it’s such a comfort to know that someone loves
me so much, and feels as if I’d helped them.”

“More than any one in the world, Beth. I used to think I couldn’t let
you go, but I’m learning to feel that I don’t lose you, that you’ll be
more to me than ever, and death can’t part us, though it seems to.”

“I know it cannot, and I don’t fear it any longer, for I’m sure I shall
be your Beth still, to love and help you more than ever. You must take
my place, Jo, and be everything to Father and Mother when I’m gone.
They will turn to you, don’t fail them, and if it’s hard to work alone,
remember that I don’t forget you, and that you’ll be happier in doing
that than writing splendid books or seeing all the world, for love is
the only thing that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the
end so easy.”

“I’ll try, Beth.” and then and there Jo renounced her old ambition,
pledged herself to a new and better one, acknowledging the poverty of
other desires, and feeling the blessed solace of a belief in the
immortality of love.

So the spring days came and went, the sky grew clearer, the earth
greener, the flowers were up fairly early, and the birds came back in
time to say goodbye to Beth, who, like a tired but trustful child,
clung to the hands that had led her all her life, as Father and Mother
guided her tenderly through the Valley of the Shadow, and gave her up
to God.

Seldom except in books do the dying utter memorable words, see visions,
or depart with beatified countenances, and those who have sped many
parting souls know that to most the end comes as naturally and simply
as sleep. As Beth had hoped, the ‘tide went out easily’, and in the
dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first
breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving
look, one little sigh.

With tears and prayers and tender hands, Mother and sisters made her
ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again, seeing with
grateful eyes the beautiful serenity that soon replaced the pathetic
patience that had wrung their hearts so long, and feeling with reverent
joy that to their darling death was a benignant angel, not a phantom
full of dread.

When morning came, for the first time in many months the fire was out,
Jo’s place was empty, and the room was very still. But a bird sang
blithely on a budding bough, close by, the snowdrops blossomed freshly
at the window, and the spring sunshine streamed in like a benediction
over the placid face upon the pillow, a face so full of painless peace
that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked
God that Beth was well at last.

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

LEARNING TO FORGET

Amy’s lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it
till long afterward. Men seldom do, for when women are the advisers,
the lords of creation don’t take the advice till they have persuaded
themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act
upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the
credit of it. If it fails, they generously give her the whole. Laurie
went back to his grandfather, and was so dutifully devoted for several
weeks that the old gentleman declared the climate of Nice had improved
him wonderfully, and he had better try it again. There was nothing the
young gentleman would have liked better, but elephants could not have
dragged him back after the scolding he had received. Pride forbid, and
whenever the longing grew very strong, he fortified his resolution by
repeating the words that had made the deepest impression–“I despise
you.” “Go and do something splendid that will make her love you.”

Laurie turned the matter over in his mind so often that he soon brought
himself to confess that he had been selfish and lazy, but then when a
man has a great sorrow, he should be indulged in all sorts of vagaries
till he has lived it down. He felt that his blighted affections were
quite dead now, and though he should never cease to be a faithful
mourner, there was no occasion to wear his weeds ostentatiously. Jo
wouldn’t love him, but he might make her respect and admire him by
doing something which should prove that a girl’s ‘No’ had not spoiled
his life. He had always meant to do something, and Amy’s advice was
quite unnecessary. He had only been waiting till the aforesaid
blighted affections were decently interred. That being done, he felt
that he was ready to ‘hide his stricken heart, and still toil on’.

As Goethe, when he had a joy or a grief, put it into a song, so Laurie
resolved to embalm his love sorrow in music, and to compose a Requiem
which should harrow up Jo’s soul and melt the heart of every hearer.
Therefore the next time the old gentleman found him getting restless
and moody and ordered him off, he went to Vienna, where he had musical
friends, and fell to work with the firm determination to distinguish
himself. But whether the sorrow was too vast to be embodied in music,
or music too ethereal to uplift a mortal woe, he soon discovered that
the Requiem was beyond him just at present. It was evident that his
mind was not in working order yet, and his ideas needed clarifying, for
often in the middle of a plaintive strain, he would find himself
humming a dancing tune that vividly recalled the Christmas ball at
Nice, especially the stout Frenchman, and put an effectual stop to
tragic composition for the time being.

Then he tried an opera, for nothing seemed impossible in the beginning,
but here again unforeseen difficulties beset him. He wanted Jo for his
heroine, and called upon his memory to supply him with tender
recollections and romantic visions of his love. But memory turned
traitor, and as if possessed by the perverse spirit of the girl, would
only recall Jo’s oddities, faults, and freaks, would only show her in
the most unsentimental aspects–beating mats with her head tied up in a
bandanna, barricading herself with the sofa pillow, or throwing cold
water over his passion a la Gummidge–and an irresistable laugh spoiled
the pensive picture he was endeavoring to paint. Jo wouldn’t be put
into the opera at any price, and he had to give her up with a “Bless
that girl, what a torment she is!” and a clutch at his hair, as became
a distracted composer.

When he looked about him for another and a less intractable damsel to
immortalize in melody, memory produced one with the most obliging
readiness. This phantom wore many faces, but it always had golden
hair, was enveloped in a diaphanous cloud, and floated airily before
his mind’s eye in a pleasing chaos of roses, peacocks, white ponies,
and blue ribbons. He did not give the complacent wraith any name, but
he took her for his heroine and grew quite fond of her, as well he
might, for he gifted her with every gift and grace under the sun, and
escorted her, unscathed, through trials which would have annihilated
any mortal woman.

Thanks to this inspiration, he got on swimmingly for a time, but
gradually the work lost its charm, and he forgot to compose, while he
sat musing, pen in hand, or roamed about the gay city to get some new
ideas and refresh his mind, which seemed to be in a somewhat unsettled
state that winter. He did not do much, but he thought a great deal and
was conscious of a change of some sort going on in spite of himself.
“It’s genius simmering, perhaps. I’ll let it simmer, and see what
comes of it,” he said, with a secret suspicion all the while that it
wasn’t genius, but something far more common. Whatever it was, it
simmered to some purpose, for he grew more and more discontented with
his desultory life, began to long for some real and earnest work to go
at, soul and body, and finally came to the wise conclusion that
everyone who loved music was not a composer. Returning from one of
Mozart’s grand operas, splendidly performed at the Royal Theatre, he
looked over his own, played a few of the best parts, sat staring at the
busts of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bach, who stared benignly back
again. Then suddenly he tore up his music sheets, one by one, and as
the last fluttered out of his hand, he said soberly to himself…

“She is right! Talent isn’t genius, and you can’t make it so. That
music has taken the vanity out of me as Rome took it out of her, and I
won’t be a humbug any longer. Now what shall I do?”

That seemed a hard question to answer, and Laurie began to wish he had
to work for his daily bread. Now if ever, occurred an eligible
opportunity for ‘going to the devil’, as he once forcibly expressed it,
for he had plenty of money and nothing to do, and Satan is proverbially
fond of providing employment for full and idle hands. The poor fellow
had temptations enough from without and from within, but he withstood
them pretty well, for much as he valued liberty, he valued good faith
and confidence more, so his promise to his grandfather, and his desire
to be able to look honestly into the eyes of the women who loved him,
and say “All’s well,” kept him safe and steady.

Very likely some Mrs. Grundy will observe, “I don’t believe it, boys
will be boys, young men must sow their wild oats, and women must not
expect miracles.” I dare say you don’t, Mrs. Grundy, but it’s true
nevertheless. Women work a good many miracles, and I have a persuasion
that they may perform even that of raising the standard of manhood by
refusing to echo such sayings. Let the boys be boys, the longer the
better, and let the young men sow their wild oats if they must. But
mothers, sisters, and friends may help to make the crop a small one,
and keep many tares from spoiling the harvest, by believing, and
showing that they believe, in the possibility of loyalty to the virtues
which make men manliest in good women’s eyes. If it is a feminine
delusion, leave us to enjoy it while we may, for without it half the
beauty and the romance of life is lost, and sorrowful forebodings would
embitter all our hopes of the brave, tenderhearted little lads, who
still love their mothers better than themselves and are not ashamed to
own it.

Laurie thought that the task of forgetting his love for Jo would absorb
all his powers for years, but to his great surprise he discovered it
grew easier every day. He refused to believe it at first, got angry
with himself, and couldn’t understand it, but these hearts of ours are
curious and contrary things, and time and nature work their will in
spite of us. Laurie’s heart wouldn’t ache. The wound persisted in
healing with a rapidity that astonished him, and instead of trying to
forget, he found himself trying to remember. He had not foreseen this
turn of affairs, and was not prepared for it. He was disgusted with
himself, surprised at his own fickleness, and full of a queer mixture
of disappointment and relief that he could recover from such a
tremendous blow so soon. He carefully stirred up the embers of his
lost love, but they refused to burst into a blaze. There was only a
comfortable glow that warmed and did him good without putting him into
a fever, and he was reluctantly obliged to confess that the boyish
passion was slowly subsiding into a more tranquil sentiment, very
tender, a little sad and resentful still, but that was sure to pass
away in time, leaving a brotherly affection which would last unbroken
to the end.

As the word ‘brotherly’ passed through his mind in one of his reveries,
he smiled, and glanced up at the picture of Mozart that was before
him…

“Well, he was a great man, and when he couldn’t have one sister he took
the other, and was happy.”

Laurie did not utter the words, but he thought them, and the next
instant kissed the little old ring, saying to himself, “No, I won’t! I
haven’t forgotten, I never can. I’ll try again, and if that fails, why
then…”

Leaving his sentence unfinished, he seized pen and paper and wrote to
Jo, telling her that he could not settle to anything while there was
the least hope of her changing her mind. Couldn’t she, wouldn’t
she–and let him come home and be happy? While waiting for an answer he
did nothing, but he did it energetically, for he was in a fever of
impatience. It came at last, and settled his mind effectually on one
point, for Jo decidedly couldn’t and wouldn’t. She was wrapped up in
Beth, and never wished to hear the word love again. Then she begged
him to be happy with somebody else, but always keep a little corner of
his heart for his loving sister Jo. In a postscript she desired him
not to tell Amy that Beth was worse, she was coming home in the spring
and there was no need of saddening the remainder of her stay. That
would be time enough, please God, but Laurie must write to her often,
and not let her feel lonely, homesick or anxious.

“So I will, at once. Poor little girl, it will be a sad going home for
her, I’m afraid,” and Laurie opened his desk, as if writing to Amy had
been the proper conclusion of the sentence left unfinished some weeks
before.

But he did not write the letter that day, for as he rummaged out his
best paper, he came across something which changed his purpose.
Tumbling about in one part of the desk among bills, passports, and
business documents of various kinds were several of Jo’s letters, and
in another compartment were three notes from Amy, carefully tied up
with one of her blue ribbons and sweetly suggestive of the little dead
roses put away inside. With a half-repentant, half-amused expression,
Laurie gathered up all Jo’s letters, smoothed, folded, and put them
neatly into a small drawer of the desk, stood a minute turning the ring
thoughtfully on his finger, then slowly drew it off, laid it with the
letters, locked the drawer, and went out to hear High Mass at Saint
Stefan’s, feeling as if there had been a funeral, and though not
overwhelmed with affliction, this seemed a more proper way to spend the
rest of the day than in writing letters to charming young ladies.

The letter went very soon, however, and was promptly answered, for Amy
was homesick, and confessed it in the most delightfully confiding
manner. The correspondence flourished famously, and letters flew to
and fro with unfailing regularity all through the early spring. Laurie
sold his busts, made allumettes of his opera, and went back to Paris,
hoping somebody would arrive before long. He wanted desperately to go
to Nice, but would not till he was asked, and Amy would not ask him,
for just then she was having little experiences of her own, which made
her rather wish to avoid the quizzical eyes of ‘our boy’.

Fred Vaughn had returned, and put the question to which she had once
decided to answer, “Yes, thank you,” but now she said, “No, thank you,”
kindly but steadily, for when the time came, her courage failed her,
and she found that something more than money and position was needed to
satisfy the new longing that filled her heart so full of tender hopes
and fears. The words, “Fred is a good fellow, but not at all the man I
fancied you would ever like,” and Laurie’s face when he uttered them,
kept returning to her as pertinaciously as her own did when she said in
look, if not in words, “I shall marry for money.” It troubled her to
remember that now, she wished she could take it back, it sounded so
unwomanly. She didn’t want Laurie to think her a heartless, worldly
creature. She didn’t care to be a queen of society now half so much as
she did to be a lovable woman. She was so glad he didn’t hate her for
the dreadful things she said, but took them so beautifully and was
kinder than ever. His letters were such a comfort, for the home
letters were very irregular and not half so satisfactory as his when
they did come. It was not only a pleasure, but a duty to answer them,
for the poor fellow was forlorn, and needed petting, since Jo persisted
in being stonyhearted. She ought to have made an effort and tried to
love him. It couldn’t be very hard, many people would be proud and
glad to have such a dear boy care for them. But Jo never would act
like other girls, so there was nothing to do but be very kind and treat
him like a brother.

If all brothers were treated as well as Laurie was at this period, they
would be a much happier race of beings than they are. Amy never
lectured now. She asked his opinion on all subjects, she was
interested in everything he did, made charming little presents for him,
and sent him two letters a week, full of lively gossip, sisterly
confidences, and captivating sketches of the lovely scenes about her.
As few brothers are complimented by having their letters carried about
in their sister’s pockets, read and reread diligently, cried over when
short, kissed when long, and treasured carefully, we will not hint that
Amy did any of these fond and foolish things. But she certainly did
grow a little pale and pensive that spring, lost much of her relish for
society, and went out sketching alone a good deal. She never had much
to show when she came home, but was studying nature, I dare say, while
she sat for hours, with her hands folded, on the terrace at Valrosa, or
absently sketched any fancy that occurred to her, a stalwart knight
carved on a tomb, a young man asleep in the grass, with his hat over
his eyes, or a curly haired girl in gorgeous array, promenading down a
ballroom on the arm of a tall gentleman, both faces being left a blur
according to the last fashion in art, which was safe but not altogether
satisfactory.

Her aunt thought that she regretted her answer to Fred, and finding
denials useless and explanations impossible, Amy left her to think what
she liked, taking care that Laurie should know that Fred had gone to
Egypt. That was all, but he understood it, and looked relieved, as he
said to himself, with a venerable air…

“I was sure she would think better of it. Poor old fellow! I’ve been
through it all, and I can sympathize.”

With that he heaved a great sigh, and then, as if he had discharged his
duty to the past, put his feet up on the sofa and enjoyed Amy’s letter
luxuriously.

While these changes were going on abroad, trouble had come at home.
But the letter telling that Beth was failing never reached Amy, and
when they next found her the grass was green above her sister. The sad
news met her at at Vevay, for the heat had driven them from Nice in
May, and they had travelled slowly to Switzerland, by way of Genoa and
the Italian lakes. She bore it very well, and quietly submitted to
the family decree that she should not shorten her visit, for since it
was too late to say goodbye to Beth, she had better stay, and let
absence soften her sorrow. But her heart was very heavy, she longed
to be at home, and every day looked wistfully across the lake, waiting
for Laurie to come and comfort her.

He did come very soon, for the same mail brought letters to them both,
but he was in Germany, and it took some days to reach him. The moment
he read it, he packed his knapsack, bade adieu to his fellow
pedestrians, and was off to keep his promise, with a heart full of joy
and sorrow, hope and suspense.

He knew Vevay well, and as soon as the boat touched the little quay, he
hurried along the shore to La Tour, where the Carrols were living en
pension. The garcon was in despair that the whole family had gone to
take a promenade on the lake, but no, the blonde mademoiselle might be
in the chateau garden. If monsieur would give himself the pain of
sitting down, a flash of time should present her. But monsieur could
not wait even a ‘flash of time’, and in the middle of the speech
departed to find mademoiselle himself.

A pleasant old garden on the borders of the lovely lake, with chestnuts
rustling overhead, ivy climbing everywhere, and the black shadow of the
tower falling far across the sunny water. At one corner of the wide,
low wall was a seat, and here Amy often came to read or work, or
console herself with the beauty all about her. She was sitting here
that day, leaning her head on her hand, with a homesick heart and heavy
eyes, thinking of Beth and wondering why Laurie did not come. She did
not hear him cross the courtyard beyond, nor see him pause in the
archway that led from the subterranean path into the garden. He stood
a minute looking at her with new eyes, seeing what no one had ever seen
before, the tender side of Amy’s character. Everything about her mutely
suggested love and sorrow, the blotted letters in her lap, the black
ribbon that tied up her hair, the womanly pain and patience in her
face, even the little ebony cross at her throat seemed pathetic to
Laurie, for he had given it to her, and she wore it as her only
ornament. If he had any doubts about the reception she would give him,
they were set at rest the minute she looked up and saw him, for
dropping everything, she ran to him, exclaiming in a tone of
unmistakable love and longing…

“Oh, Laurie, Laurie, I knew you’d come to me!”

I think everything was said and settled then, for as they stood
together quite silent for a moment, with the dark head bent down
protectingly over the light one, Amy felt that no one could comfort and
sustain her so well as Laurie, and Laurie decided that Amy was the only
woman in the world who could fill Jo’s place and make him happy. He
did not tell her so, but she was not disappointed, for both felt the
truth, were satisfied, and gladly left the rest to silence.

In a minute Amy went back to her place, and while she dried her tears,
Laurie gathered up the scattered papers, finding in the sight of sundry
well-worn letters and suggestive sketches good omens for the future.
As he sat down beside her, Amy felt shy again, and turned rosy red at
the recollection of her impulsive greeting.

“I couldn’t help it, I felt so lonely and sad, and was so very glad to
see you. It was such a surprise to look up and find you, just as I was
beginning to fear you wouldn’t come,” she said, trying in vain to speak
quite naturally.

“I came the minute I heard. I wish I could say something to comfort
you for the loss of dear little Beth, but I can only feel, and…” He
could not get any further, for he too turned bashful all of a sudden,
and did not quite know what to say. He longed to lay Amy’s head down
on his shoulder, and tell her to have a good cry, but he did not dare,
so took her hand instead, and gave it a sympathetic squeeze that was
better than words.

“You needn’t say anything, this comforts me,” she said softly. “Beth
is well and happy, and I mustn’t wish her back, but I dread the going
home, much as I long to see them all. We won’t talk about it now, for
it makes me cry, and I want to enjoy you while you stay. You needn’t
go right back, need you?”

“Not if you want me, dear.”

“I do, so much. Aunt and Flo are very kind, but you seem like one of
the family, and it would be so comfortable to have you for a little
while.”

Amy spoke and looked so like a homesick child whose heart was full that
Laurie forgot his bashfulness all at once, and gave her just what she
wanted–the petting she was used to and the cheerful conversation she
needed.

“Poor little soul, you look as if you’d grieved yourself half sick!
I’m going to take care of you, so don’t cry any more, but come and walk
about with me, the wind is too chilly for you to sit still,” he said,
in the half-caressing, half-commanding way that Amy liked, as he tied
on her hat, drew her arm through his, and began to pace up and down the
sunny walk under the new-leaved chestnuts. He felt more at ease upon
his legs, and Amy found it pleasant to have a strong arm to lean upon,
a familiar face to smile at her, and a kind voice to talk delightfully
for her alone.

The quaint old garden had sheltered many pairs of lovers, and seemed
expressly made for them, so sunny and secluded was it, with nothing but
the tower to overlook them, and the wide lake to carry away the echo of
their words, as it rippled by below. For an hour this new pair walked
and talked, or rested on the wall, enjoying the sweet influences which
gave such a charm to time and place, and when an unromantic dinner bell
warned them away, Amy felt as if she left her burden of loneliness and
sorrow behind her in the chateau garden.

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