家里最舒适的屋子腾出来给了贝思，她最喜欢的东西都集中到屋里来了--花朵、像片、她的钢琴、小工作桌，以及得宠的猫咪们。爸爸最好的书本也进了 屋，还有妈妈的安乐椅，乔的写作桌，艾美最好的素描草图。梅格每天带两个孩子过来，虔诚地拜望贝思阿姨，为她制造快乐。约翰默默地留出一小笔钱，以保证病 人能有她喜欢吃的和想吃的水果，这样他也能心有所安。老罕娜嬷嬷不厌其烦地烹制爽口的菜肴，来提高她那时好时坏的食欲；她一边做菜一边流泪。从大洋那边没 有冬日的国度邮递过来的一些小礼品和信函送给她温温爱意、馥馥香馨。
贝思坐在这里，像是供奉在壁龛里的家庭圣贤。她像往常一样宁静、忙碌，什么也改变不了她那甜美、无私的品性，即便准备告别人世，她也试图使留下来继 续活下去的人们快乐一些。她那虚弱的手指从未闲过，她的乐事之一便是为每天从旁经过的学童们制作小东西--在窗口放一两双手套，这是为冻紫了的手准备的； 放个书形针盒，给某位拥有许多玩具娃娃的小母亲；放一些擦笔尖布，给那些在歪七竖八的笔划丛林里辛勤劳作的小书法家们；再放一些剪贴簿，给那些爱画画的孩 子们；还有各种各样令人愉快的小玩意，直到那些极不情愿地攀登着学问阶梯的孩子们发现，他们的前进道路上鲜花灿烂。这时他们把那亲切的馈赠者看作是童话中 的仙女。她坐在那上边，神秘地为他们抛投各种各样的心想之物。那些明亮的小脸蛋常出现在她的窗口，朝她点头笑着。
开始的几个月非常幸福。贝思常常环视屋内，说：“这多美妙啊！“大家都在她洒满阳光的屋子里坐在一起。两个孩子在地上踢着、欢闹着；妈妈和姐姐们在 近旁做着活儿；爸爸用悦耳的声音读着那些古老而又充满智慧的书。书本里似乎有大量劝慰人的善言，如同几个世纪前写出时一样，一点也没有过时。这屋子成了一 个小教堂，充当牧师的父亲在给他的羔羊们讲解那所有人必须学会的艰难课程，他试图向她们指出，希望能抚慰爱心，信仰能使人听从命运安排。简单的说教直入听 者的心灵，爸爸沉浸在牧师的教义中，他那时而发颤的声音使他宣讲或朗读的语句愈加具有穿透力。
大家都很满意，因为他们享有了这段宁静的时光，为迎接那些悲哀时刻的到来做好了准备。不久，贝思便说针"太重了"，她永远地放下了针；说话使她疲 倦，看到人们的脸孔使她心烦；疼痛攫住了她，病痛搅乱了她那平静的心灵，侵扰着她那虚弱的肉体。哦，天哪！多么沉重的白天！多么漫长的夜晚！多么痛苦的心 灵！多么虔诚的祈祷！那些深爱她的人们被迫看着她哀求地向她们伸出瘦弱的双手，听着她痛苦地叫着：“救救我！救救我！“同时也懂得了绝望的滋味。一个安祥 的灵魂惨然销蚀，一个年轻的生命与死神展开激烈的搏斗。仁慈的是，灵与肉的搏斗为时不长。后来，那种本能的反抗便结束了，她又恢复了以前的那种宁静状态而 且更加动人。带着虚弱的病体，贝思的精神愈发坚强了。尽管她不说什么，但她身边的人们感觉到了她已做好远行的准备。他们晓得，被召唤的第一个朝圣者是品行 最合格的人眩他们和她一起在岸边等候，希望在她驶向彼岸之时能看见前来迎接她的光彩夺目的天使们。
贝思对乔说：“你在这里我感到有力些。“她这样说过后，乔离开她的时间再也没超过一小时。她睡在屋里的长沙发上，夜里常醒来添点火，喂她食物，搀扶 她坐起或服侍汤药，而这个病人极少使唤她，“尽量不成为麻烦"。乔整天留在屋里，不满意那些护士，她为能陪伴贝思感到自豪，这种自豪超过了生活带给她的任 何荣耀。这些时光对乔来说既宝贵又有益。
乔夜里醒来时，常发现贝思在读着她那本翻得很旧了的小书，听到她低低地唱着，以打发不眠之夜，有时贝思手捧着脸，眼泪慢慢地从那透明的指缝里滴下 来。这时，乔总是躺着注视着她。乔想得很深，顾不得流泪了。她觉着，贝思用她那种简单、无私的方式，通过神圣的安慰话语、静静的祈祷以及她深爱的音乐，在 试图使自己脱离这宝贵的人生，适应来世的生活。
最有智慧的说教、最圣洁的赞美诗，以及任何声音能说出的最炽烈的祷告，都不及看到的这些对乔的影响深巨。流了许多泪，眼睛反倒看清楚了。经受了最震 撼人心的痛苦，心也变软了。她看到了妹妹的生命之美――平平淡淡、朴朴实实，可是都充满了真正的美德，“散发着芬芳，在尘埃中怒放"。那种忘我的品德使世 间最谦卑的人在天堂被人间永久铭记。这种真正的成功每个人都可能得到。
“那么我就感到似乎没有浪费生命。我并不像你写的那样好，但是我只想去做正确的事情。现在，想开始做更好的事也已经晚了。可是知道了有人这么爱我， 感到我似乎帮助过她们，真的是令人无上安慰。““我爱你胜过世上任何人，贝思。我过去认为我不能放你走，可是我学着体会到我并没有失去你，你比以前对我的 意义更大，死亡隔不开我们，尽管看上去是这样。““我知道隔不开的，我不再害怕了。我确信我仍然是你的贝思，我会比以前更爱你，更好地帮助你。乔，我走后 你得代替我，做爸爸妈妈的贴心人。他们会依赖你的，别让他们失望。要是孤独很难忍受，记住我没有忘记你。记住做那些事，你会感到比写那些伟大的书，或者周 游整个世界更加快乐。因为，我们离开人世时爱是唯一能带走的东西，它使生命的结束变得轻松。““我会做到的，贝思。“乔当时当地放弃了她以前的抱负，发誓 实现这一新的、更好的抱负。她承认了其他愿望的空泛。
早晨来临时，这许多月中的第一次，炉火熄灭了，乔的位置空了，屋子里寂静无声。然而，附近一只鸟栖息在正发芽的树枝上欢快地唱着，窗边的雪花莲刚刚 绽开。春日的阳光泻进屋里，照在枕头上那宁静的脸庞上，像是为她祝福--那张脸充满了没有疼痛的宁静。于是深爱她的人们透过泪眼笑了，她们感谢上帝，贝思 终于得救了。
When the first bitterness was over, the family acceptedthe inevitable, and tried to bear it cheerfully, helping oneanother by the increased affection which comes to bind householdstenderly 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 belovedpussies. Father's best books found their way there, Mother'seasy chair, Jo's desk, Amy's finest sketches, and every dayMeg brought her babies on a loving pilgrimage, to make sunshinefor Aunty Beth. John quietly set apart a little sum, that hemight enjoy the pleasure of keeping the invalid supplied withthe fruit she loved and longed for. Old Hannah never weariedof concocting dainty dishes to tempt a capricious appetite,dropping tears as she worked, and from across the sea camelittle gifts and cheerful letters, seeming to bring breathsof warmth and fragrance from lands that know no winter.
Here, cherished like a household saint in its shrine, satBeth, tranquil and busy as ever, for nothing could change thesweet, unselfish nature, and even while preparing to leavelife, she tried to make it happier for those who should remainbehind. The feeble fingers were never idle, and one of herpleasures was to make little things for the school childrendaily passing to and fro, to drop a pair of mittens from herwindow for a pair of purple hands, a needlebook for some smallmother of many dolls, penwipers for young penmen toiling throughforests of pothooks, scrapbooks for picture-loving eyes, andall manner of pleasant devices, till the reluctant climbers ofthe ladder of learning found their way strewn with flowers, asit were, and came to regard the gentle giver as a sort of fairygodmother, who sat above there, and showered down gifts miraculouslysuited to their tastes and needs. If Beth had wanted anyreward, she found it in the bright little faces always turned upto her window, with nods and smiles, and the droll little letterswhich came to her, full of blots and gratitude.
The first few months were very happy ones, and Beth oftenused to look round, and say "How beautiful this is!" as theyall sat together in her sunny room, the babies kicking and crowingon the floor, mother and sisters working near, and fatherreading, in his pleasant voice, from the wise old books whichseemed rich in good and comfortable words, as applicable now aswhen written centuries ago, a little chapel, where a paternalpriest taught his flock the hard lessons all must learn, tryingto show them that hope can comfort love, and faith make resignationpossible. Simple sermons, that went straight to the souls ofthose who listened, for the father's heart was in the minister'sreligion, and the frequent falter in the voice gave a doubleeloquence to the words he spoke or read.
It was well for all that this peaceful time was given themas preparation for the sad hours to come, for by-and-by, Bethsaid the needle was `so heavy', and put it down forever. Talkingwearied her, faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own,and her tranquil spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the illsthat vexed her feeble flesh. Ah me! Such heavy days, such long,long nights, such aching hearts and imploring prayers, when thosewho loved her best were forced to see the thin hands stretched outto them beseechingly, to hear the bitter cry, "Help me, help me!"and to feel that there was no help. A sad eclipse of the serenesoul, a sharp struggle of the young life with death, but both weremercifully brief, and then the natural rebellion over, the old peacereturned more beautiful than ever. With the wreck of her frail body,Beth's soul grew strong, and though she said little, those about herfelt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim called was likewisethe fittest, and waited with her on the shore, trying to see theShining Ones coming to receive her when she crossed the river.
Jo never left her for an hour since Beth had said "I feelstronger when you are here." She slept on a couch in the room,waking often to renew the fire, to feed, lift, or wait upon thepatient creature who seldom asked for anything, and `tried not tobe a trouble'. All day she haunted the room, jealous of any othernurse, and prouder of being chosen then than of any honor her lifeever brought her. Precious and helpful hours to Jo, for now herheart received the teaching that it needed. Lessons in patiencewere so sweetly taught her that she could not fail to learn them,charity for all, the lovely spirit that can forgive and trulyforget unkindness, the loyalty to duty that makes the hardesteasy, and the sincere faith that fears nothing, but trusts undoubtingly.
Often when she woke Jo found Beth reading in her well-wornlittle book, heard her singing softly, to beguile the sleeplessnight, or saw her lean her face upon her hands, while slow tearsdropped through the transparent fingers, and Jo would lie watchingher with thoughts too deep for tears, feeling that Beth, inher simple, unselfish way, was trying to wean herself from thedear old life, and fit herself for the life to come, by sacredwords of comfort, quiet prayers, and the music she loved so well.
Seeing this did more for Jo than the wisest sermons, thesaintliest hymns, the most fervent prayers that any voice couldutter. For with eyes made clear by many tears, and a heartsoftened by the tenderest sorrow, she recognized the beauty ofher sister's life--uneventful, unambitious, yet full of thegenuine virtues which `smell sweet, and blossom in the dust',the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth rememberedsoonest 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 thatwas almost as hard to bear as pain, as she turned the leaves ofher old favorite, Pilgrims's Progress, she found a little paper,scribbled over in Jo's hand. The name caught her eye and theblurred look of the lines made her sure that tears had fallenon it.
"Poor Jo! She's fast asleep, so I won't wake her to askleave. She shows me all her things, and I don't think she'llmind if I look at this", thought Beth, with a glance at hersister, who lay on the rug, with the tongs beside her, readyto wake up the minute the log fell apart.
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 patienceWhich 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 devine
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, theybrought a look of inexpressible comfort to Beth's face, for her oneregret had been that she had done so little, and this seemed to assureher that her life had not been useless, that her death would not bringthe despair she feared. As she sat with the paper folded between herhands, 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?" sheasked, with wistful, humble earnestness.
"OH, Beth, so much, so much!" And Jo's head went down upon thepillow beside her sister's.
"Then I don't feel as if I'd wasted my life. I'm not so goodas you make me, but I have tried to do right. And now, when it'stoo late to begin even to do better, it's such a comfort to knowthat 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 Icouldn't let you go, but I'm learning to feel that I don't loseyou, that you'll be more to me than ever, and death can't partus, though it seems to."
"I know it cannot, and I don't fear it any longer, for I'msure I shall be your Beth still, to love and help you more thanever. You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to Fatherand Mother when I'm gone. They will turn to you, don't failthem, and if it's hard to work alone, remember that I don'tforget you, and that you'll be happier in doing that than writingsplendid books or seeing all the world, for love is the only thingthat we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the go easy."
"I'll try, Beth." And then and there Jo renounced her oldambition, pledged herself to a new and better one, acknowledgingthe poverty of other desires, and feeling the blessed solace ofa belief in the immortality of love.
So the spring days came and went , the sky grew clearer, theearth greener, the flowers were up fairly early, and the birdscame back in time to say goodbye to Beth, who, like a tired buttrustful child, clung to the hands that had led her all her life,as Father and Mother guided her tenderly through the Valley ofthe 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 thosewho have sped many parting souls know that to most the endcomes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth had hoped, the`tide went out easily', and in the dark hour before dawn, onthe bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietlydrew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one littlesigh.
With tears and prayers and tender hands, Mother and sistersmade her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again,seeing with grateful eyes the beautiful serenity that soon replacedthe pathetic patience that had wrung their hearts so long, andfeeling with reverent joy that to their darling death was abenignant angel, not a phantom full of dread.
When morning came, for the first time in many months thefire 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 snowdropsblossomed freshly at the window, and the spring sunshine streamedin like a benediction over the placid face upon the pillow,a face so full of painless peace that those who loved it bestsmiled through their tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.