I don’t think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters; such hours are beautiful to live, but very hard to describe, so I will leave it to the imagination of my readers; merely saying that the house was full of genuine happiness, and that Meg’s tender hope was realized; for when Beth woke from that long, healing sleep, the first objects on which her eyes fell were the little rose and mother’s face. Too weak to wonder at anything, she only smiled, and nestled close into the loving arms about her, feeling that the hungry longing was satisfied at last. Then she slept again, and the girls waited upon their mother, for she would not unclasp the thin hand which clung to hers, even in sleep. Hannah had “dished up” an astonishing breakfast for the traveller, finding it impossible to vent her excitement in any other way; and Meg and Jo fed their mother like dutiful young storks, while they listened to her whispered account of father’s state, Mr. Brooke’s promise to stay and nurse him, the delays which the storm occasioned on the homeward journey, and the unspeakable comfort Laurie’s hopeful face had given her when she arrived, worn out with fatigue, anxiety and cold.
What a strange, yet pleasant day that was! so brilliant and gay without, for all the world seemed abroad to welcome the first snow; so quiet and reposeful within, for every one slept, spent with watching, and a Sabbath stillness reigned through the house, while nodding Hannah mounted guard at the door. With a blissful sense of burdens lifted off, Meg and Jo closed their weary eyes, and lay at rest like storm-beaten boats, safe at anchor in a quiet harbor. Mrs. March would not leave Beth’s side, but rested in the big chair, waking often to look at, touch, and brood over her child, like a miser over some recovered treasure.
Laurie, meanwhile, posted off to comfort Amy, and told his story so well that Aunt March actually “sniffed” herself, and never once said, “I told you so.” Amy came out so strong on this occasion, that I think the good thoughts in the little chapel really began to bear fruit. She dried her tears quickly, restrained her impatience to see her mother, and never even thought of the turquoise ring, when the old lady heartily agreed in Laurie’s opinion, that she behaved “like a capital little woman.” Even Polly seemed impressed, for he called her “good girl,” blessed her buttons, and begged her to “come and take a walk, dear,” in his most affable tone. She would very gladly have gone out to enjoy the bright wintry weather; but, discovering that Laurie was dropping with sleep in spite of manful efforts to conceal the fact, she persuaded him to rest on the sofa, while she wrote a note to her mother. She was a long time about it; and, when returned, he was stretched out with both arms under his head, sound asleep, while Aunt March had pulled down the curtains, and sat doing nothing in an unusual fit of benignity.
After a while, they began to think he was not going to wake till night, and I’m not sure that he would, had he not been effectually roused by Amy’s cry of joy at sight of her mother. There probably were a good many happy little girls in and about the city that day, but it is my private opinion that Amy was the happiest of all, when she sat in her mother’s lap and told her trials, receiving consolation and compensation in the shape of approving smiles and fond caresses. They were alone together in the chapel, to which her mother did not object when its purpose was explained to her.
“On the contrary, I like it very much, dear,” she said, looking from the dusty rosary to the well-worn little book, and the lovely picture with its garland of evergreen. “It is an excellent plan to have some place where we can go to be quiet, when things vex or grieve us. There are a good many hard times in this life of ours, but we can always bear them if we ask help in the right way. I think my little girl is learning this?”
“Yes, mother; and when I go home I mean to have a corner in the big closet to put my books, and the copy of that picture which I’ve tried to make. The woman’s face is not good, it’s too beautiful for me to draw, but the baby is done better, and I love it very much. I like to think He was a little child once, for then I don’t seem so far away, and that helps me.”
As Amy pointed to the smiling Christ-child on his mother’s knee, Mrs. March saw something on the lifted hand that made her smile. She said nothing, but Amy understood the look, and, after a minute’s pause, she added, gravely, —
“I wanted to speak to you about this, but I forgot it. Aunt gave me the ring today; she called me to her and kissed me, and put it on my finger, and said I was a credit to her, and she’d like to keep me always. She gave that funny guard to keep the torquoise on, as it’s too big. I’d like to wear them, mother; can I?”
“They are very pretty, but I think you’re rather too young for such ornaments. Amy,” said Mrs. March, looking at the plump little hand, with the band of skyblue stones on the forefinger, and the quaint guard, formed of two tiny, golden hands clasped together.
“I’ll try not to be vain,” said Amy; “I don’t think I like it, only because it’s so pretty; but I want to wear it as the girl in the story wore her bracelet, to remind me of something.”
“Do you mean Aunt March?” asked her mother, laughing.
“No, to remind me not to be selfish.” Amy looked so earnest and sincere about it, that her mother stopped laughing, and listened respectfully to the little plan.
“I’ve thought a great deal lately about ‘my bundle of naughties,’ and being selfish is the largest one in it; so I’m going to try hard to cure it, if I can. Beth isn’t selfish, and that’s the reason every one loves her, and feels so bad at the thoughts of losing her. People wouldn’t feel half so bad about me if I was sick, and I don’t deserve to have them; but I’d like to be loved and missed by a great many friends, so I’m going to try and be like Beth all I can. I’m apt to forget my resolutions; but, if I had something always about me to remind me, I guess I should do better. May I try this way?”
“Yes; but I have more faith in the corner of the big closet. Wear your ring, dear, and do your best; I think you will prosper, for the sincere wish to be good is half the battle. Now, I must go back to Beth. Keep up your heart, little daughter, and we will soon have you home again.”
That evening, while Meg was writing to her father, to report the traveller’s safe arrival, Jo slipped upstairs into Beth’s room, and, finding her mother in her usual place, stood a minute twisting her fingers in her hair, with a worried gesture and an undecided look.
“What is it, deary?” asked Mrs. March, holding out her hand with a face which invited confidence.
“I want to tell you something, mother.”
“How quick you guessed! Yes, it’s about her, and though it’s a little thing, it fidgets me.”
“Beth is asleep; speak low, and tell me all about it. That Moffat hasn’t been here, I hope?” asked Mrs. March, rather sharply.
“No; I should have shut the door in his face if he had,” said Jo, settling herself on the floor at her mother’s feet. “Last summer Meg left a pair of gloves over at the Laurences, and only one was returned. We forgot all about it, till Teddy told me that Mr. Brooke had it. He kept it in his waistcoat pocket, and once it fell out, and Teddy joked him about it, and Mr. Brooke owned that he liked Meg, but didn’t dare say so, she was so young and he so poor. Now isn’t it a dreadful state of things?”
“Do you think Meg cares for him?” asked Mrs. March, with an anxious look.
“Mercy me! I don’t know anything about love, and such nonsense!” cried Jo, with a funny mixture of interest and contempt. “In novels, the girls show it by starting and blushing, fainting away, growing thin, and acting like fools. Now Meg don’t do anything of the sort; she eats and drinks, and sleeps, like a sensible creature; she looks straight in my face when I talk about that man, and only blushes a little bit when Teddy jokes about lovers. I forbid him to do it, but he don’t mind me as he ought.”
“Then you fancy that Meg is not interested in John?”
“Who?” cried Jo, staring.
“Mr. Brooke; I call him ‘John’ now; we fell into the way of doing so at the hospital, and he likes it.”
“Oh, dear! I know you’ll take his part; he’s been good to father, and you won’t send him away, but let Meg marry him, if she wants to. Mean thing! to go petting pa and truckling to you, just to wheedle you into liking him;” and Jo pulled her hair again with a wrathful tweak.
“My dear, don’t get angry about it, and I will tell you how it happened. John went with me at Mr. Laurence’s request, and was so devoted to poor father, that we couldn’t help getting fond of him. He was perfectly open and honorable about Meg, for he told us he loved her; but would earn a comfortable home before he asked her to marry him. He only wanted our leave to love her and work for her, and the right to make her love him if he could. He is a truly excellent young man, and we could not refuse to listen to him; but I will not consent to Meg’s engaging herself so young.”
“Of course not; it would be idiotic ! I knew there was mischief brewing; I felt it; and now it’s worse than I imagined. I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family.”
This odd arrangement made Mrs. March smile; but she said, gravely, “Jo, I confide in you, and don’t wish you to say anything to Meg yet. When John comes back, and I see them together, I can judge better of her feelings toward him.”
“She’ll see his in those handsome eyes that she talks about, and then it will be all up with her. She’s got such a soft heart, it will melt like butter in the sun if any one looks sentimentally at her. She read the short reports he sent more than she did your letters, and pinched me when I spoke of it, and likes brown eyes, and don’t think John an ugly name, and she’ll go and fall in love, and there’s an end of peace and fun, and cosy times, together. I see it all! they’ll go lovering round the house, and we shall have to dodge; Meg will be absorbed, and no good to me any more; Brooke will scratch up a fortune somehow, — carry her off and make a hole in the family; and I shall break my heart, and everything will be abominably uncomfortable. Oh, deary me! why weren’t we all boys? then there wouldn’t be any bother!”
Jo leaned her chin on her knees, in a disconsolate attitude, and shook her fist at the reprehensible John. Mrs. March sighed, and Jo looked up with an air of relief.
“You don’t like it, mother? I’m glad of it; let’s send him about his business, and not tell Meg a word of it, but all be jolly together as we always have been.”
“I did wrong to sigh, Jo. It is natural and right you should all go to homes of your own, in time; but I do want to keep my girls as long as I can; and I am sorry that this happened so soon, for Meg is only seventeen, and it will be some years before John can make a home for her. Your father and I have agreed that she shall not bind herself in any way, nor be married, before twenty. If she and John love one another, they can wait, and test the love by doing so. She is conscientious, and I have no fear of her treating him unkindly. My pretty, tender-hearted girl! I hope things will go happily with her.”
“Hadn’t you rather have her marry a rich man?” asked Jo, as her mother’s voice faltered a little over the last words.
“Money is a good and useful thing, Jo; and I hope my girls will never feel the need of it too bitterly, nor be tempted by too much. I should like to know that John was firmly established in some good business, which gave him an income large enough to keep free from debt, and make Meg comfortable. I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I should accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures; I am content to see Meg begin humbly, for, if I am not mistaken, she will be rich in the possession of a good man’s heart, and that is better than a fortune.”
“I understand, mother, and quite agree; but I’m disappointed about Meg, for I’d planned to have her marry Teddy by and by, and sit in the lap of luxury all her days. Wouldn’t it be nice?” asked Jo, looking up with a brighter face.
“He is younger than she, you know,” began Mrs. March; but Jo broke in, —
“Oh, that don’t matter; he’s old for his age, and tall; and can be quite grown-up in his manners, if he likes. Then he’s rich, and generous, and good, and loves us all; and I say it’s a pity my plan is spoilt.”
“I’m afraid Laurie is hardly grown-up enough for Meg, and altogether too much of a weathercock, just now, for any one to depend on. Don’t make plans, Jo; but let time and their own hearts mate your friends. We can’t meddle safely in such matters, and had better not get ‘romantic rubbish,’ as you call it, into our heads, lest it spoil our friendship.”
“Well, I won’t; but I hate to see things going all criss-cross, and getting snarled up, when a pull here, and a snip there, would straighten it out. I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up. But buds will be roses, and kittens, cats, — more’s the pity!”
“What’s that about flat-irons and cats?” asked Meg, as she crept into the room, with the finished letter in her hand.
“Only one of my stupid speeches. I’m going to bed; come on, Peggy,” said Jo, unfolding herself, like an animated puzzle.
“Quite right, and beautifully written. Please add that I send my love to John,” said Mrs. March, as she glanced over the letter, and gave it back.
“Do you call him ‘John’?” asked Meg, smiling, with her innocent eyes looking down into her mother’s.
“Yes; he has been like a son to us, and we are very fond of him,” replied Mrs. March, returning the look with a keen one.
“I’m glad of that; he is so lonely. Good-night, mother, dear. It is so inexpressibly comfortable to have you here,” was Meg’s quiet answer.
The kiss her mother gave her was a very tender one; and, as she went away, Mrs. March said, with a mixture of satisfaction and regret, “She does not love John yet, but will soon learn to.”