第二天母亲和女儿们围 着马奇先生转来转去，正如蜜蜂围着它们的蜂后转一样，她们把一切置诸脑后，只顾侍候这位新病人，看着他，听他说话，把个马奇先生弄得差点招架不住了。他靠 在贝思沙发旁边的一张大椅子上，另外三个女儿围坐身边，罕娜不时探头进来，“偷偷看一眼这位好人"，此时此刻，一切都似乎达到了完美的境地。但空气中又似 乎有点什么不对劲儿，除了两个妹妹外，大家都感觉到了，只是都不说出来。马奇先生和太太不时看一眼梅格，然后忧心忡忡地互相交换一个眼色。乔有时突然变得 十分严肃，大家甚至看到她对布鲁克先生遗落在大厅里的雨伞晃起拳头；梅格像失去了魂儿，腼腆不安，沉默寡言，一听到门铃响便心惊肉跳，一听到约翰的名字便 脸红耳热；艾美说：“每个人都似乎在等待什么，显得心神不定，这就奇怪了，因为爸爸已经平安回来了呀。“贝思则天真地猜疑为何邻居们不像以前一样往这边 跑。
“别说我的约翰，这不合适，也并非事实。“但梅格的声音却恋恋不舍地在这四个字上头慢慢拖过，似在品尝其中滋味。“别烦我了，乔，我跟你说过我对他 并没有特别的意思，这事也没什么可说的，我们还像以前一样友好来往。““我们办不到，因为已经说出来了，劳里的恶作剧已毁了你在我心中的形象。我看出来 了，妈妈也一样；你完完全全换了一个人，似乎离我那么遥远。我不想烦你，而且会像一个男子汉一样承受此事，但我很想它有个了断。我痛恨等待，所以如果你有 意的话，就请快刀斩乱麻，“乔没好气地说。
“如果他真的开口了，你就不知道如何是好，只会哭鼻子，脸红，让他得偿所愿，而不是明智、坚决地说一声'不'。““我可不是你想象的那么傻，那么软 弱。我知道该说什么，因为我已经计划好了，免得措手不及；谁也不知道会发生什么事，我希望自己有备无患。“看到梅格不知不觉摆出一副煞有介事的神气，脸颊 上两朵美丽的红晕变幻不定，十分动人，乔禁不住微笑起来。
“哦，我只会十分沉着十分干脆地说：'谢谢你，布鲁克先生，你的心意我领了，但我和爸爸都认为我还太年轻，暂且不宜订约，此事请不必再提，我们仍如 以前一样做朋友。'““哼！说得真够气派！我不信你会这样说，即使说了他也不会甘心。如果他像小说里头那些遭到拒绝的年青人一样纠缠不休，你就会答应他， 而不愿伤害他的感情。““不，我不会。我会告诉他我主意已定，然后很有尊严地走出房间。“梅格说着站起来，正准备排练那尊严退出的一幕，突然客厅里传来一 阵脚步声，她吓得飞身走回座位，赶紧拿起针线活，飞快地缝起来，仿佛她的生命全系于那一针一线之间。
“很好，他在搁物架上，我去找他，告诉它你来了。“乔回答时把父亲和雨伞混为一谈，然后溜出房间，给梅格一个显示尊严的说话机会。但她的身影刚一消 失，梅格便侧身向门口行去，吞吞吐吐地说--“妈妈一定很高兴见你。请坐下，我去叫她。““别走。你是不是怕我，玛格丽特？“布鲁克先生显得十分沮丧，梅 格以为自己干了什么极端无礼粗鲁的事情。他以前从来没叫过她玛格丽特，现在这话从他口里发出，她不知为何脸涨得红至发根。她急于表明自己的善意和轻松心 情，于是做了个信任的姿势，伸出一只手来，感激地说--“你对爸爸这么好，我怎么会怕你呢？感谢你还不及呢。““要不要我告诉你怎样谢？“布鲁克先生问 道，双手紧紧握住那只小手，低头望着梅格，棕色的眼睛流露出无限爱意。
他说得情真意切，但梅格含羞偷偷看他一眼，却看到他一双含情脉脉的眼睛藏着喜意，嘴角挂着一丝成功在握的微笑，十分得意，心中不觉着了恼。此时安 妮·莫法特教给她的愚蠢的卖俏邀宠之道，闯进了她的脑海，一股潜藏于小妇人内心深处的支配欲在心中突然升起，令她失去自制。由于兴奋激动，她头昏眼花，手 足无措，一时冲动，竟把双手抽出，怒声说道：“我不想学。请走开。别烦我！“可怜的布鲁克先生神色大变，仿佛他那漂亮的空中楼阁在身边轰然倒落。他以前从 来没见过梅格发这样的大火，心中不觉糊涂起来。
马奇婶婶从未见过这个姑娘如此动气，于是戴上眼镜把她仔细审视一番。梅格此时几乎不知道自己是谁，只感到勇气十足，毫无羁束--十分高兴能为约翰说 话并维护自己爱他的权利，如果她愿意。马奇婶婶发现自己开错了头，寻思了少顷，决定再开一次，于是尽量温和地说：“嗳，梅格，好孩子，懂事，听我的话。我 是一片好心，不希望你一开始便走错路，因此一生尽毁。你应该寻头好亲，帮补家庭；你有责任嫁一个有钱人，这话你一定要记祝““爸爸妈妈可不这么看，虽然约 翰穷，他们也一样喜欢他。““你的父母，好孩子，幼稚得跟两个婴儿一样，根本不懂世故。““我为此感到高兴，“梅格坚定不移地大声说。
马奇婶婶并不在意，继续说教。“这妻子不但穷，也没有什么有钱的亲戚，对吗？““对。但他有很多热心的朋友。““你不能靠朋友生活，有事求他们时你 就知道他们会变得多么冷淡。他没有什么生意吧？““还没有。劳伦斯先生准备帮助他。““这不会持久。詹姆士·劳伦斯是个怪老头，靠不祝这么说来你是打算嫁 给一个没有地位、没有生意的穷小子，干比现在更苦的活儿，而不愿听我一句话，嫁头好亲，过一辈子安乐日子啰？我以为你更有头脑呢，梅格。““即使我等上半 生也不会做得比这更好！约翰善良聪明，才华横溢，他愿意工作，也一定会做出成绩，他是这样勇敢，这样充满活力。大家都喜欢地，尊敬他。他喜欢我，不计较我 家道清贫、年幼无知，我感到很自豪，“梅格说，神情因激动而显得异常美丽。
“他知道你的亲戚有钱，孩子；我猜这就是他喜欢你的原因。““马奇婶婶，你怎么能这样说话？约翰不是这种卑鄙小人，如果你这样说下去，我一分钟都不 要再听，“梅格气得叫起来，对老太太的不公正猜测感到十分愤慨，“我不会为钱而嫁，我的约翰更不会为钱而娶。我们愿意自食其力，也打算等待。我不怕穷，因 为我一直都很快乐。我知道我会跟他在一起，因为他爱我，而我也--"说到此处梅格止住了，突然想起自己还没有打定主意，而且已经叫"她的约翰"走开，或许 他这会正在偷听她这番自相矛盾的话呢。
“很好，这事我从此放开不理！你是个一意孤行的孩子，这番傻话将令你蒙受重大损失。不，我还有话说。我对你感到万分失望，现在也没有心情见你父亲 了。你结婚时别指望我给你一分钱；等你那位布鲁克先生的朋友们来照顾你吧。我俩从今以后一刀两断。“马奇婶婶当着梅格的面把门砰地一关，怒气冲冲地登上 车，绝尘而去。她似乎把姑娘的勇气也全带走了。她一走，梅格便一个人站着发呆，不知是笑好还是哭好。她还没来得及理清头绪，便被布鲁克先生一把抱住，只听 他一口气说道：“我忍不住留下来偷听，梅格。感谢你这样维护我，也感谢马奇婶婶证明了你心里确实有我。““直到她诋毁你时我才知道自己是多么在乎，“梅格 说。
在马奇婶婶离去十五分钟之后，乔轻轻走下楼梯，在大厅门口稍立片刻，听到里头悄然无声，点头满意而笑，自语道：“她已按计划把他打发走了，此事已经 了断。让我去听听这个趣话儿，痛痛快快笑一常"不过可怜的乔永远也笑不出来，她刚踏入门口便吓得呆若木鸡，身子牢牢钉在门坎上，嘴巴张得几乎跟圆瞪着的眼 睛一样大。只见布鲁克先生沉着地坐在沙发上，而意志坚强的姐姐则高高坐在他的膝上，脸上挂着一副天底下最卑下的百依百顺的神情。她原要进去为击退了敌人而 狂欢一番，称赞姐姐意志坚强，终将讨厌的情人逐出门外，不料却见到这番景象，这一惊非同小可。乔猛吸了一口冷气，犹如一盆冷水兜头泼下--绝没料到情形变 得如此恶劣，不禁大惊失色。
听到响声，这对恋人回过头来，看到了她。梅格跳起来，神情既骄傲又腼腆，但"那个男人"，如乔所称，竟自笑起来，吻了吻惊得目噔口呆的乔，冷静地说 道：“乔妹妹，祝贺我们吧！“这无异于伤害之外又加侮辱--这口气如何咽得下去--乔怒不可遏，两手狠狠一甩，一声不发便冲了出去。她跑上楼，一头闯进房 间，痛心疾首地大叫：“啊，你们快下楼；约翰·布鲁克正在干不要脸的事，而梅格竟然喜欢！“把两个病人吓得大惊失色。
他正在描绘自己打算为梅格创造的乐园，用茶的铃声响了。他骄傲地携梅格入席，两人全都喜形于色，乔见状早已无心妒忌或苦闷。艾美对约翰的忠心耿耿和 梅格的端庄高贵印象尤深，贝思远远望着他们微笑致意，而马奇先生夫妇万分怜爱地望着这对年轻人，显得十分满意，可见马奇婶婶所言不差，他们确实"像两个不 懂世故的婴儿一样"。大家吃得不多，但显得喜气洋洋，旧房间也仿佛由于家里发生了第一桩喜事而变得不可思议地亮堂起来。
“你只需等着，活由我来干，“约翰边说边付诸行动，捡起梅格的餐巾，脸上的表情令乔直摇脑袋。这时前门砰地响了一声，乔松了一口气，自忖道：“劳里 来了。我们终于可以谈点正经事了。“但乔想错了。只见劳里兴冲冲地雀跃而入，手里捧着一大束似模似样的"喜花"，送给"约翰·布鲁克太太"，俨然把自己当 成了这桩好事的促成者。
“嗳，好了，别愁眉苦脸啦，这就对了。这事并没有什么不好，你瞧。梅格感到幸福，布鲁克很快就能成家立业。爷爷会帮助他。看到梅格在自己的小屋里该 是多么令人羡慕。她走后我们会过得十分开心，因为我很快就读完大学，那时我们便结伴到国外好好游览一下。这样你心里好受了吧？““但愿能够如此。但谁知道 这三年里会发生什么事情，“乔心事重重地说。
父亲和母亲坐在一起，悄悄重温着他们约二十年前的初恋情节。艾美正把一对恋人画下来，他们独自坐在一边，如痴如醉，爱情在他们的验庞上轻轻抹上了一 层光辉，给他们蒙上一种描画不出来的美。贝思躺在沙发上，和她的老朋友劳伦斯先生愉快地交谈，老人执着她的手，仿佛觉得它有一种力量，可以领着他走过她所 走的宁静的道路。乔靠在自己最喜欢的低椅上，沉静深思，别具一种风韵，劳里倚在她的椅背，下巴贴在她的鬈发上面，在映着两人形容的穿衣镜里头向她点头由衷 而笑。
Like bees swarming after their queen, mother and daughtershovered about Mr. March the next day, neglecting everything tolook at, wait upon, and listen to the new invalid, who was in afair way to be killed by kindness. As he sat propped up in abig chair by Beth's sofa, with the other three close by, andHannah popping in her head now and then `to peek at the dearman', nothing seemed needed to complete their happiness. Butsomething was needed, and the elder ones felt it, though noneconfessed the fact. Mr. and Mrs. March looked at one anotherwith an anxious expression, as their eyes followed Meg. Johad sudden fits of sobriety, and was seen to shake her fist atMr. Brooke's umbrella, which had been left in the hall. Megwas absent-minded, shy, and silent, started when the bell rang,and colored when John's name was mentioned. Amy said,"Everyone seemed waiting for something, and couldn't settle down,which was queer, since Father was safe at home," and Beth innocentlywondered why their neighbors didn't run over as usual.
Laurie went by in the afternoon, and seeing Meg at the window,seemed suddenly possessed with a melodramatic fit, for he felldown on one knee in the snow, beat his breast, tore his hair,and clasped his hands imploringly, as if begging some boon.And when Meg told him to behave himself and go away, he wrungimaginary tears out of his handkerchief, and staggered round thecorner as if in utter despair.
"What does the goose mean?" said Meg, laughing and trying tolook unconscious.
"He's showing you how your John will go on by-and-by.Touchin, isn't it?" answered Jo scornfully.
"Don't say my John, it isn't proper or true," but Meg's voicelingered over the words as if they sounded pleasant to her. "Pleasedon't plague me, Jo, I've told you I don't care much about him, andthere isn't to be anything said, but we are all to be friendly, andgo on as before."
"We can't, for something has been said, and Laurie's mischiefhas spoiled you for me. I see it, and so does Mother. You are notlike your old self a bit, and seem ever so far away from me. Idon't mean to plague you and will bear it like a man, but I do wishit was all settled. I hate to wait, so if you mean ever to do it,make haste and have it over quickly," said Jo pettishly.
"I can't say anything till he speaks, and he won't, becauseFather said I was too young," began Meg, bending over her workwith a queer little smile, which suggested that she did not quiteagree with her father on that point.
"If he did speak, you wouldn't know what to say, but wouldcry or blush, or let him have his own way, instead of giving agood, decided no."
"I'm not so silly and weak as you think. I know just whatI should say, for I've planned it all, so I needn't be takenunawares. There's no knowing what may happen, and I wished tobe prepared."
Jo couldn't help smiling at the important air which Meg hadunconsciously assumed and which was as becoming as the prettycolor varying in her cheeks.
"Would you mind telling me what you'd say?" asked Jo morerespectfully.
"Not at all. You are sixteen now, quite old enough to bemy confidente, and my experience will be useful to you by-and-by,perhaps, in your own affairs of this sort."
"Don't mean to have any. It's fun to watch other peoplephilander, but I should feel like a fool doing it myself," saidJo, looking alarmed at the thought.
"I think not, if you liked anyone very much, and he likedyou." Meg spoke as if to herself, and glanced out at the lanewhere she had often seen lovers walking together in the summertwilight.
"I thought you were going to tell your speech to that man,"said Jo, rudely shortening her sister's little reverie.
"Oh, I should merely say, quite calmly and decidedly, `Thankyou, Mr. Brooke, you are very kind, but I agree with Father thatI am too young to enter into any engagement at present, so pleasesay no more, but let us be friends as we were."
"Hum, that's stiff and cool enough! I don't believe you'llever say it, and I know he won't be satisfied if you do. If hegoes on like the rejected lovers in books, you'll give in, ratherthan hurt his feelings."
"No, I won't. I shall tell him I've made up my mind, andshall walk out of the room with dignity."
Meg rose as she spoke, and was just going to rehearse thedignified exit, when a step in the hall made her fly into herseat and begin to sew as fast as if her life depended on finishingthat particular seam in a given time. Jo smothered a laughat the sudden change, and when someone gave a modest tap, openedthe door with a grim aspect which was anything but hospitable.
"Good afternoon. I came to get my umbrella, that is, to seehow your father finds himself today," said Mr. Brooke, getting atrifle confused as his eyes went from one telltale face to the other.
"It's very well, he's in the rack. I'll get him, and tell ityou are here." And having jumbled her father and the umbrella welltogether in her reply, Jo slipped out of the room to give Meg achance to make her speech and air her dignity. But the instant shevanished, Meg began to sidle toward the door, murmuring...
"Mother will like to see you. Pray sit down, I'll call her."
"Don't go. Are you afraid of me, Margaret?" And Mr. Brookelooked so hurt that Meg thought she must have done something veryrude. She blushed up to the little curls on her forehead, for hehad never called her Margaret before, and she was surprised tofind how natural and sweet it seemed to hear him say it. Anxiousto appear friendly and at her ease, she put out her hand with aconfiding gesture, and said gratefully...
"How can I be afraid when you have been so kind to Father?I only wish I could thank you for it."
"Shall I tell you how?" asked Mr. Brooke, holding the smallhand fast in both his own, and looking down at Meg with so muchlove in the brown eyes that her heart began to flutter, and sheboth longed to run away and to stop and listen.
"Oh no, please don't, I'd rather not," she said, trying towithdraw her hand, and looking frightened in spite of her denial.
"I won't trouble you. I only want to know if you care forme a little, Meg. I love you so much, dear," added Mr. Brooketenderly.
This was the moment for the calm, proper speech, but Megdidn't make it. She forgot every word of it, hung her head, andanswered, "I don't know," so softly that John had to stoop downto catch the foolish little reply.
He seemed to think it was worth the trouble, for he smiledto himself as if quite satisfied, pressed the plump handgratefully, and said in his most persuasive tone, "Will you try andfind out? I want to know so much, for I can't go to work withany heart until I learn whether I am to have my reward in the endor not."
"I'm too young," faltered Meg, wondering was she was sofluttered, yet rather enjoying it.
"I'll wait, and in the meantime, you could be learning tolike me. Would it be a very hard lesson, dear?"
"Not if I chose to learn it, but. . ."
"Please choose to learn, Meg. I love you to teach, and thisis easier than German," broke in John, getting possession of theother hand, so that she had no way of hiding her face as he bentto look into it.
His tone was properly beseeching, but stealing a shy lookat him, Meg saw that his eyes were merry as well as tender, andthat he wore the satisfied smile of one who had no doubt of hissuccess. This nettled her. Annie Moffat's foolish lessons incoquetry came into her mind, and the love of power, which sleepsin the bosoms of the best of little women, woke up all of asudden and took possession of her. She felt excited andstrange, and not knowing what else to do, followed acapricious impulse, and, withdrawing her hands, said petulantly,"I don't choose. Please go away and let me be!"
Poor Mr. Brooke looked as if his lovely castle in the airwas tumbling about his ears, for he had never seen Meg in sucha mood before, and it rather bewildered him.
"Do you really mean that?" he asked anxiously, followingher as she walked away.
"Yes, I do. I don't want to be worried about such things.Father says I needn't, it's too soon and I'd rather not."
"Mayn't I hope you'll change your mind by-and-by? I'llwait and say nothing till you have had more time. Don't playwith me, Meg. I didn't think that of you."
"Don't think of me at all. I'd rather you wouldn't," saidMeg, taking a naughty satisfaction in trying her lover's patienceand her own power.
He was grave and pale now, and looked decidedly more likethe novel heroes whom she admired, but he neither slapped hisforehead nor tramped about the room as they did. He just stoodlooking at her so wistfully, so tenderly, that she found herheart relenting in spite of herself. What would have happenednext I cannot say, if Aunt March had not come hobbling in atthis interesting minute.
The old lady couldn't resist her longing to see her nephew,for she had met Laurie as she took her airing, and hearing ofMr. March's arrival, drove straight out to see him. The familywere all busy in the back part of the house, and she had madeher way quietly in, hoping to surprise them. She did surprisetwo of them so much that Meg started as if she had seen aghost, and Mr. Brooke vanished into the study.
"Bless me, what's all this?" cried the old lady with a rapof her cane as she glanced from the pale young gentleman to thescarlet young lady.
"It's Father's friend. I'm so surprised to see you!" stammered Meg,feeling that she was in for a lecture now.
"That's evident," returned Aunt March, sitting down. "Butwhat is Father's friend saying to make you look like a peony?There's mischief going on, and I insist upon knowing what itis," with another rap.
"We were only talking. Mr. Brooke came for his umbrella,"began Meg, wishing that Mr. Brooke and the umbrella were safelyout of the house.
"Brooke? That boy's tutor? Ah! I understand now. I knowall about it. Jo blundered into a wrong message in one of yourFather's letters, and I made her tell me. You haven't gone andaccepted him, child?" cried Aunt March, looking scandalized.
"Hush! He'll hear. Shan't I call Mother?" said Meg, muchtroubled.
"Not yet. I've something to say to you, and I must free mymind at once. Tell me, do you mean to marry this Cook? If youdo, not one penny of my money ever goes to you. Remember that,and be a sensible girl," said the old lady impressively.
Now Aunt March possessed in perfection the art of rousingthe spirit of opposition in the gentlest people, and enjoyeddoing it. The best of us have a spice of perversity in us,especially when we are young and in love. If Aunt March hadbegged Meg to accept John Brooke, she would probably havedeclared she couldn't think of it, but as she was preemptorilyordered not to like him, she immediately made up her mind thatshe would. Inclination as well as perversity made the decisioneasy, and being already much excited, Meg opposed the old ladywith unusual spirit.
"I shall marry whom I please, Aunt March, and you canleave your money to anyone you like," she said, nodding herhead with a resolute air.
"Highty-tighty! Is that the way you take my advice, Miss?You'll be sorry for it by-and-by, when you've tried love in acottage and found it a failure."
"It can't be a worse one than some people find in bighouses," retorted Meg.
Aunt March put on her glasses and took a look at the girl,for she did not know her in this new mood. Meg hardly knewherself, she felt so brave and independent, so glad to defendJohn and assert her right to love him, if she liked. Aunt Marchsaw that she had begun wrong, and after a little pause, made afresh start, saying as mildly as she could, "Now, Meg, my dear,be reasonable and take my advice. I mean it kindly, and don'twant you to spoil your whole life by making a mistake at thebeginning. You ought to marry well and help your family. It'syour duty to make a rich match and it ought to be impressedupon you."
"Father and Mother don't think so. They like John thoughhe is poor."
"Your parents, my dear, have no more worldly wisdom than apair of babies."
"I'm glad of it," cried Meg stoutly.
Aunt March took no notice, but went on with her lecture."This Rook is poor and hasn't got any rich relations, has he?"
"No, but he has many warm friends."
"You can't live on friends, try it and see how cool they'llgrow. He hasn't any business, has he?"
"Not yet. Mr. Laurence is going to help him."
"That won't last long. James Laurence is a crotchety oldfellow and not to be depended on. So you intend to marry a manwithout money, position, or business, and go on working harderthan you do now, when you might be comfortable all your daysby minding me and doing better? I thought you had more sense,Meg."
"I couldn't do better if I waited half my life! John isgood and wise, he's got heaps of talent, he's willing to workand sure to get on, he's so energetic and brave. Everyone likesand respects him, and I'm proud to think he cares for me, thoughI'm so poor and young and silly," said Meg, looking prettier thanever in her earnestness.
"He knows you have got rich relations, child. That's thesecret of his liking, I suspect."
"Aunt March, how dare you say such a thing? John is abovesuch meanness, and I won't listen to you a minute if you talk so,"cried Meg indignantly, forgetting everything but the injustice ofthe old lady's suspicions. "My John wouldn't marry for money, anymore than I would. We are willing to work and we mean to wait. I'mnot afraid of being poor, for I've been happy so far, and I know Ishall be with him because he loves me, and I..."
Meg stopped there, remembering all of a sudden that she hadn'tmade up her mind, that she had told `her John' to go away, and thathe might be overhearing her inconsistent remarks.
Aunt March was very angry, for she had set her heart on havingher pretty niece make a fine match, and something in the girl'shappy young face made the lonely old woman feel both sad and sour.
"Well, I wash my hands of the whole affair! You are a willfulchild, and you've lost more than you know by this piece of folly.No, I won't stop. I'm disappointed in you, and haven't spirits tosee your father now. Don't expect anything from me when you aremarried. Your Mr. Book's friends must take care of you. I'm donewith you forever."
And slamming the door in Meg's face, Aunt March drove off inhigh dudgeon. She seemed to take all the girl's courage with her,for when left alone, Meg stood for a moment, undecided whether tolaugh or cry. Before she could make up her mind, she was takenpossession of by Mr. Brooke, who said all in one breath, "I couldn'thelp hearing, Meg. Thank you for defending me, and Aunt March forproving that you do care for me a little bit."
"I didn't know how much till she abused you," began Meg.
"And I needn't go away, but my stay and be happy, may I, dear?"
Here was another fine chance to make the crushing speechand the stately exit, but Meg never thought of doing either,and disgraced herself forever in Jo's eyes by meekly whispering,"Yes, John," and hiding her face on Mr. Brooke's waistcoat.
Fifteen minutes after Aunt March's departure, Jo came softlydownstairs, paused an instant at the parlor door, and hearing nosound within, nodded and smiled with a satisfied expression, sayingto herself, "She has seen him away as we planned, and that affairis settled. I'll go and hear the fun, and have a good laugh over it."
But poor Jo never got her laugh, for she was transfixed uponthe threshold by a spectacle which held her there, staring withher mouth nearly as wide open as her eyes. Going in to exult overa fallen enemy and to praise a strong-minded sister for thebanishment of an objectionable lover, it certainly was a shockto behold the aforesaid enemy serenely sitting on the sofa, with thestrongminded sister enthroned upon his knee and wearing an expression ofthe most abject submission. Jo gave a sort of gasp, as if a coldshower bath had suddenly fallen upon her, for such an unexpectedturning of the tables actually took her breath away. At the oddsound the lovers turned and saw her. Meg jumped up, looking bothproud and shy, but `that man', as Jo called him, actually laughedand said coolly, as he kissed the astonished newcomer, "Sister Jo,congratulate us!"
That was adding insult to injury, it was altogether too much,and making some wild demonstration with her hands, Jo vanishedwithout a word. Rushing upstairs, she startled the invalids byexclaiming tragically as she burst into the room, "Oh, do somebodygo down quick! John Brooke is acting dreadfully, and Meg likes it!"
Mr. and Mrs. March left the room with speed, and casting herselfupon the be, Jo cried and scolded tempestuously as she told the awfulnews to Beth and Amy. The little girls, however, considered it amost agreeable and interesting event, and Jo got little comfort fromthem, so she went up to her refuge in the garret, and confided hertroubles to the rats.
Nobody ever knew what went on in the parlor that afternoon, buta great deal of talking was done, and quiet Mr. Brooke astonished hisfriends by the eloquence and spirit with which he pleaded his suit,told his plans, and persuaded them to arrange everything just as hewanted it.
The tea bell rang before he had finished describing the paradisewhich he meant to earn for Meg, and he proudly took her in to supper,both looking so happy that Jo hadn't the heart to be jealous or dismal.Amy was very much impressed by John's devotion and Meg's dignity, Bethbeamed at them from a distance, while Mr. and Mrs. March surveyed theyoung couple with such tender satisfaction that it was perfectlyevident Aunt March was right in calling them as `unworldly as a pairof babies'. No one ate much, but everyone looked very happy, and theold room seemed to brighten up amazingly when the first romance ofthe family began there.
"You can't say nothing pleasant ever happens now, can you, Meg?"said Amy, trying to decide how she would group the lovers in a sketchshe was planning to make.
"No, I'm sure I can't. How much has happened since I said that!It seems a year ago," answered Meg, who was in a blissful dreamlifted far above such common things as bread and butter.
"The joys come close upon the sorrows this time, and I ratherthink the changes have begun," said Mrs. March. "In most familiesthere comes, now and then, a year full of events. This has been sucha one, but it ends well, after all."
"Hope the next will end better," muttered Jo, who found it veryhard to see Meg absorbed in a stranger before her face, for Jo loveda few persons very dearly and dreaded to have their affection lostor lessened in any way.
"I hope the third year from this will end better. I mean itshall, if I live to work out my plans," said Mr. Brooke, smiling atMeg, as if everything had become possible to him now.
"Doesn't it seem very long to wait?" asked Amy, who was in ahurry for the wedding.
"I've got so much to learn before I shall be ready, it seemsa short time to me," answered Meg, with a sweet gravity in her facenever seen there before.
"You have only to wait, I am to do the work," said John beginninghis labors by picking up Meg's napkin, with an expression whichcaused Jo to shake her head, and then say to herself with an airof relief as the front door banged, "Here comes Laurie. Now weshall have some sensible conversation."
But Jo was mistaken, for Laurie came prancing in, overflowingwith good spirits, bearing a great bridal-looking bouquet for `Mrs.John Brooke', and evidently laboring under the delusion that thewhole affair had been brought about by his excellent management.
"I knew Brooke would have it all his own way, he always does,for when he makes up his mind to accomplish anything, it's donethough the sky falls," said Laurie, when he had presented hisoffering and his congratulations.
"Much obliged for that recommendation. I take it as a goodomen for the future and invite you to my wedding on the spot,"answered Mr. Brooke, who felt at peace with all mankind, even hismischievous pupil.
"I'll come if I'm at the ens of the earth, for the sight ofJo's face alone on that occasion would be worth a long journey.You don't look festive, ma'am, what's the matter?" asked Laurie,following her into a corner of the parlor, whither all had adjournedto greet Mr. Laurence.
"I don't approve of the match, but I've made up my mind to bearit, and shall not say a word against it," said Jo solemnly. "Youcan't know how hard it is for me to give up Meg," she continuedwith a little quiver in her voice.
"You don't give her up. You only go halves," said Laurieconsolingly.
"It can never be the same again. I've lost my dearest friend,"sighed Jo.
"You've got me, anyhow. I'm not good for much, I know, butI'll stand by you, Jo, all the days of my life. Upon my word I will!"And Laurie meant what he said.
"I know you will, and I'm ever so much obliged. You are alwaysa great comfort to me, Teddy," returned Jo, gratefully shaking hands."Well, now, don't be dismal, there's a good fellow. It's allright you see. Meg is happy, Brooke will fly round and get settledimmediately, Grandpa will attend to him, and it will be very jollyto see Meg in her own little house. We'll have capital times aftershe is gone, for I shall be through college before long, and thenwe'll go abroad on some nice trip or other. Wouldn't that console you?"
"I rather think it would, but there's no knowing what may happenin three years," said Jo thoughtfully.
"That's true. Don't you wish you could take a look forward andwee where we shall all be then? I do," returned Laurie.
"I think not, for I might see something sad, and everyone looksso happy now, I don't believe they could be much improved." And Jo'seyes went slowly round the room, brightening as they looked, for theprospect was a pleasant one.
Father and Mother sat together, quietly reliving the firstchapter of the romance which for them began some twenty years ago.Amy was drawing the lovers, who sat apart in a beautiful world oftheir own, the light of which touched their faces with a grace thelittle artist could not copy. Beth lay on her sofa, talking cheerilywith her old friend, who held her little hand as if he felt that itpossessed the power to lead him along the peaceful way she walked.Jo lounged in her favorite low seat, with the grave quiet look whichbest became her, and Laurie, leaning on the back of her chair, hischin on a level with her curly head, smiled with his friendliestaspect, and nodded at her in the long glass which reflected them both.
So the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Whether itever rises again, depends upon the reception giveN the first act ofthe domestic drama called LITTLE WOMEN.