贝思果然得了猩红热， 病情比大家估计的要严重得多，但罕娜和医生认为并无大碍。姑娘们对疾病一无所知，劳伦斯先生又因医生的嘱咐不能来看她，于是一切都由罕娜做主，忙碌的邦斯 医生也尽力而为，但把许多功夫留给优秀护理乔来做。梅格为避免把病传染给金斯一家而留在家里料理家事，每当她提起笔来写信时，心里就焦虑不安，并有一种负 罪感，因为她不能在信中提及贝思的玻她觉得瞒着母亲并不对，但母亲吩咐过要听罕娜的话，而罕娜却不愿"让马奇太太知道，为这么一桩小事而操心"。乔日以继 夜地侍候贝思--这任务并不艰巨，因为贝思十分坚强，一声不吭地忍受着身体上的痛苦，只要她能控制住自己。但有一次猩红热发作时，她声音嘶哑地说起了胡 话，把床罩当作自己心爱的小钢琴弹起来，并试图唱歌，终因喉咙肿胀而无法唱出来；另一次，她连身边那几张熟悉的面孔也认不出来，竟把亲人叫错了，还一声声 地哀叫母亲。乔被吓坏了，梅格也求罕娜让她写信告知真相，甚至罕娜也说：“虽然还没有危险，但同意考虑考虑。“而此时，华盛顿又发来一信，告知她们马奇先 生病情恶化了，短期内不可能回家，这更增添了她们的烦恼。
日子变得黯然无光，屋子里满目凄凉，冷冷清清，一度幸福洋溢的家现在笼罩在一片死寂般的阴影下，姐妹们边干边等待，心情是何等沉重！梅格常常独坐一 角，一面干活一面掉眼泪。她深深体会到有些宝贵的东西是无法用金钱买到的--爱、平安、健康和真正的人生幸福，自己以前能拥有这一切是多么富足。乔住在阴 沉的房间里，亲眼看着妹妹遭受病痛的折磨，听到妹妹因病痛而发出的呻吟声，更体会到贝思的天性是多么善良、美好，她在大家心目中的位置又是多么重要。为他 人无私奉献、为家庭创造幸福，每个人都应该把这当作比财富、美貌都更有价值的东西来热爱和珍惜。
寄人篱下的艾美热切地盼望着能够回家为贝思尽点心意，她现在不再觉得家务是件令人烦闷的苦差事了。每当想到贝思自愿为她做的许多被忽略掉的活儿时， 她就又是惭愧又是心酸。劳里整日愁眉锁眼，像个不安宁的鬼魂一样在屋子里游转。劳伦斯先生锁上了大钢琴，因为他无法忍受一看到大钢琴就想到他的小邻居曾给 他带来多少黄昏的慰藉。大家都惦记着贝思。送奶的、面包师傅、杂货店老板、肉贩都询问她的情况，可怜的赫梅尔太太过来为明娜拿寿衣时请求大家原谅她的愚昧 无知，邻居们也纷纷送上各式各样的慰问品和祝福，连最熟悉她的人此刻都诧异，腼腆的小贝思竟然交了这么多朋友。
此时贝思躺在床上，身边是她心爱的乔安娜，即使在神志恍惚之际她也没有忘记这个身世悲惨的玩偶。她也舍不得那几只猫儿，但因担心它们会染上病而没有 让人把它们放在身边。病情安定的时候，她总是忧心忡忡，唯恐乔会有个三长两短。她问候艾美，请姐妹们告诉母亲她很快就会写信去，并常常求她们给她纸和笔， 勉强写上片言只语，使父亲不至于以为自己忽略了他。但不久这种短暂的清醒状态也结束了，她一卧不起，在床上翻来覆去，语无伦次地说些胡话，有时又昏昏睡 去，醒来时仍然气息奄奄。邦斯医生一天来两次，罕娜晚间守夜，梅格写好一封电报放在书桌上，准备随时发出，乔更是不敢从贝思身边移开半步。
十二月一日对她们来说是个名符其实的严冬。这天寒风呼啸、大雪纷飞，似乎预示着这一年气数已荆当邦斯医生这天早上过来的时候，他久久望着贝思，把她 那热得烫人的手放在自己双手里紧紧握了一会，然后轻轻放下，声调低沉地对罕娜说：“如果马奇太太能够离开丈夫，最好现在回来一趟。“罕娜点点头，说不出一 句话语，只是紧张得双唇不断地抖动；梅格闻听此言，仿佛四肢的力量被抽了个精光，一下跌倒在椅子上；乔脸色煞白地呆了一会，跑到客厅，一把抓起电报，仓皇 披上衣帽，一头冲进狂风暴雪之中。她很快便回来了，正轻轻脱下大衣的时候，劳里手持一封信走进来，告诉她马奇先生的病情又好转了。乔激动地把信读了一遍， 但心情仍然异常沉重，劳里见她神情悲恸，忙问：“怎么了？贝思的病又重了吗？““我已经通知了妈妈，“乔说，阴沉着脸使劲脱她的胶靴。
“正是这么糟糕；她已认不出我们，也不谈她的绿鸽子了，她原来一直把爬在墙上的藤叶叫做绿鸽子的。她变得不像我的贝思了。现在没有人能帮助我们，爸 爸妈妈都不在，上帝也似乎遥不可及。“泪水顺着乔的双颊大滴大滴滚落，她六神无主地伸出手，仿佛在黑暗中摸索，劳里一把把她的手握住，只觉得喉咙也哽住 了，好不容易才轻声说道：“我在这里呢。抓紧我吧，乔，亲爱的！“乔说不出话，但却真的把他"抓紧"了。这样执着劳里温暖友好的手，她又酸又痛的心舒缓了 一些，在她遇到困境的时候可以独立支撑她的上帝之手仿佛也离她更近了些。劳里很想说几句贴心的宽慰话，一时却找不到合适的词语，只是一言不发地站着，无限 怜爱地轻轻抚摸着她低下来的脑袋。
“谢谢你，特迪，我现在好些了，也没那么绝望了。万一真的发生什么不测，我也会勇敢面对的。““保持乐观，那会给你力量的，乔。你妈妈很快就会回 来，那时一切都会好起来的。““幸好爸爸病情好转了；这样妈妈回来也不至于放心不下。噢，老天！怎么灾祸来了一个又一个，我身上的担子比？谁的都重。“乔 叹了一口气，把她的湿手绢打开，铺在膝头上风干。
“噢，分的，她也努力分担，但她不能像我这样爱贝思，也不会像我那么怀念她。贝思是我的心肝，我不能失去她。我不能！我不能！“乔把脸埋在湿手绢 里，失声痛哭，刚才她一直坚强地忍着，没有流一滴泪。劳里用手抹抹眼睛，想说点什么，但只觉得嗓子眼被什么东西堵住了，嘴唇也在不停颤抖。这也许没有男子 气，但他忍不住，我对此深感高兴。一会儿，待乔的啜平静了下来，他这才满怀希望地说：“我想她不会死的；她这么善良，我们又这么爱她，我不信上帝就这样把 她夺走。““好人总是活不长，“乔咕咕哝哝地说道，不过她止住了哭，因为尽管她心里充满了怀疑和恐惧，但朋友的话却使她精神一振。
“可怜的姑娘，你是累坏了。你不是这么悲观的人。歇口气儿，我这就让你抖擞起来。“劳里两级并作一级跑上楼去，乔把昏沉沉的脑袋伏在贝思那顶棕色小 帽上面。这顶小帽子被主人放在桌子上，一直原封未动。大概它拥有一种魔力，因为乔似乎变得跟它的主人一样柔顺。此时劳里捧着一杯酒跑下楼来，她微笑着接 过，坚强地说：“我喝--为贝思的身体健康！你是个好医生，特迪，又是个这么善解人意的朋友，我不知道怎样才能报答你？“她又加了一句，这时酒恢复了她的 体力，劳里的宽慰话也让她的精神为之一振。
乔刹那间如梦方醒。她扶着楼梯扶手，把他轻轻推开，气喘吁吁地说：“噢，别这样！我刚才昏了头，不是故意要扑向你，你这么听话，竟然不顾罕娜的反对 给妈妈发电报，所以我忍不祝把事情经过告诉我吧，别再给我酒喝了，它令我胡作非为。““这我倒不介意，“劳里笑道，一面理好领带，“是这样，你知道我和爷 爷都十分焦急，我们认为罕娜僭越职权，而你妈妈应该知道这事。如果贝思--如果一旦出了事，她永远都不会原谅我们。所以我让爸爸说出该采取行动这话，昨天 便飞快赶到邮局，你也知道医生神色严峻，而罕娜一听说发电报就几乎要拧下我的脑袋。我一向不能忍受被人'管制'，于是打定主意，把电报发了。你妈妈就要回 来，我知道火车凌晨两点到站，我去接，你只需收敛一下你的狂喜之情，安顿好贝思，专候佳音。““劳里，你是个天使！我该如何谢你？““扑向我吧；我真喜欢 那样，“劳里调皮地说。他足足两个星期没有露出这种神色了。
梅格不露声色地狂喜一番，然后对信沉思；乔整理病房，罕娜则在"赶快做两个饼，免得还有什么人会一起来"。屋子里仿佛吹过了一阵清风，寂静的房间也 被什么比阳光还要明亮的东西照得亮堂起来。每种事情都好像感觉到了这充满希望的变化；贝思的小鸟开始重新鸣唱，艾美的花丛里发现了一朵半开的玫瑰；炉火也 燃烧得特别欢畅；梅格和乔每次碰面，苍白的脸上都绽出笑容，她们紧紧拥抱，悄声鼓励：“妈妈就要回来了，亲爱的！妈妈就要回来了！“大家都欢欣鼓舞，只有 贝思昏迷不醒，躺在床上，无知无觉，无喜无忧。她的形容令人心碎--原来红润的脸庞变得没有一点血色，原来灵巧的双手瘦得只剩下皮包骨头，原来微笑的双唇 几乎找不到气息，原来漂亮整齐的头发零乱不堪地散落在枕头上。整整一天她都这么躺着，只是偶尔醒来才含混不清地说一声：“水！“由于唇干舌燥，声音几乎发 不出来；乔和梅格整天都在她身边侍候，照看着、等待着、盼望着，相信上帝和母亲能创造奇迹；整整一天大雪纷飞，狂风怒吼，时间过得特别缓慢。最后，黑夜终 于降临。姐妹俩仍然各坐在床的一边，每当时钟敲响便互相交换一下眼色，眼睛闪闪发亮，因为时钟每响一下，希望就拉近一步。医生来过，说大约午夜时分病情就 可见分晓，或是好转，或是恶化，他届时再来看视。
此时时钟敲响十二下，两人一心守护着贝思，早就忘掉了自己，恍惚间觉得那张状如死灰的脸庞掠过一丝变化。屋里依然一片死寂，只有呼号的狂风打破这深 深的寂静。倦极的罕娜仍在酣睡，姐妹两人看到贝思的脸色开始泛白，犹如有一个白色的幽灵在床上作祟。一个小时过去了，情况依旧，只听到劳里的车悄悄往车站 去了。又过了一个小时--仍不见有人来，姐妹俩心里开始七上八下，一会儿担心母亲被暴风雪耽搁，一会儿又担心路上发生意外，更害怕华盛顿那边发生什么不 测。
已是深夜两点多钟，乔站在窗边，正在感叹这雪花漫卷的世界是多么乏味，突然听到床边什么东西响了一下，赶紧回头一望，只见梅格掩脸跪在母亲的安乐椅 前。乔吓得心胆俱裂，浑身发凉，暗暗想道：“贝思去了，梅格不敢告诉我。“她立即走回床前，激动的双眼仿佛看到了惊人的变化。贝思退了烧，痛苦的神情已经 消失，仿佛沉沉睡去，那张可爱的小脸显得异常苍白而平静，乔见状竟感觉不到生离死别的痛苦。她弯下身子，注视着这位自己最疼爱的妹妹，在她湿漉漉的额头上 深深一吻，轻声说道：“再见！我的贝思，再见！“也许是听到了响动，罕娜蓦然惊醒，三步并作两步走到床前，看看贝思，摸摸她的双手，听一下鼻息，接着把围 裙向头上一抛，坐在椅子上摇来摇去，压低声音叫道：“烧热退掉了！她正在熟睡，皮肤汗津津的，气息也平和了。谢天谢地！噢，老天可怜！“姐妹两人尚在半信 半疑，医生进来证实了这个喜讯。医生是一个普通的男人，但此刻她们觉得他的面孔简直是超凡卓绝。他用慈父般的眼神看着她们，微笑说：“不错，好孩子，我想 小姑娘这次可以闯过难关的。保持房间安静，让她睡去，她醒来的时候，给她--"到底给她什么，两人都没有听到，她们悄悄走进漆黑的大厅，坐在楼梯上，互相 紧紧拥抱，心中那份狂喜非笔墨可以形容。当她们走回去接受忠诚的罕娜的吻和拥抱时，她们发现贝思像往常一样，手枕脸颊而睡，原来死灰般的脸色已经变得有了 生气，呼吸轻柔，仿佛刚刚进入梦乡。
“看，“梅格手持一朵半开的白玫瑰走过来说道，“我原以为这朵花明天还不能绽开，赶不及放到贝思手中，如果她--离开我们的话。但它竟在夜间开了， 我这就把它插到花瓶里供着，摆在这儿，这样等好贝思醒来的时候，她第一眼看见的就是这朵小玫瑰和妈妈的面孔。“痛苦的漫漫长夜终于过去了，第二天一早，不 眠不歇地守了整整一夜的乔和梅格睁着疲倦的眼睛向外望去，只见云蒸霞蔚，整个世界显得异常美丽动人。
Beth did have the fever, and was much sicker than anyone butHannah and the doctor suspected. The girls knew nothing aboutillness, and Mr. Laurence was not allowed to see her, so Hannah hadeverything her own way, and busy Dr. Bangs did his best, but left agood deal to the excellent nurse. Meg stayed at home, lest sheshould infect the Kings, and kept house, feeling very anxious and alittle guilty when she wrote letters in which no mention was made ofBeth's illness. She could not think it right to deceive her mother,but she had been bidden to mind Hannah, and Hannah wouldn't hear of`Mrs. March bein' told, and worried just for sech a trifle.'
Jo devoted herself to Beth day and night, not a hard task, forBeth was very patient, and bore her pain uncomplainingly as long asshe could control herself. But there came a time when during thefever fits she began to talk in a hoarse, broken voice, to play onthe coverlet as if on her beloved little piano, and try to sing witha throat so swollen that there was no music left, a time when shedid not know the familiar faces around her, but addressed them bywrong names, and called imploringly for her mother. Then Jo grewfrightened, Meg begged to be allowed to write the truth, and evenHannah said she `would think of it, though there was no dangeryet'. A letter from Washington added to their trouble, for Mr.March had had a relapse, and could not think of coming home for along while.
How dark the days seemed now, how sad and lonely the house,and how heavy were the hearts of the sisters as they worked andwaited, while the shadow of death hovered over the once happy home.Then it was that Margaret, sitting alone with tears dropping oftenon her work, felt how rich she had been in things more preciousthan any luxuries money could buy--in love, protection, peace, andhealth, the real blessings of life. Then it was that Jo, living inthe darkened room, with that suffering little sister always beforeher eyes and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned tosee the beauty and to sweetness of Beth's nature, to feel how deepand tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge theworth of Beth's unselfish ambition to live for others, and makehome happy by that exercise of those simple virtues which all maypossess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth,or beauty. And Amy, in her exile, longed eagerly to be at home, thatshe might work for Beth, feeling now that no service would be hard orirksome, and remembering, with regretful grief, how many neglectedtasks those willing hands had done for her. Laurie haunted the houselike a restless ghost, and Mr. Laurence locke the grand piano, becausehe could not bear to be reminded of the young neighbor who used tomake the twilight pleasant for him. Everyone missed Beth. The milkman,baker, grocer, and butcher inquired how she did, poor Mrs. Hummelcame to beg pardon for her thoughtlessness and to get a shroudfor Minna, the neighbors sent all sorts of comforts and good wishes,and even those who knew her best were surprised to find how manyfriends shy little Beth had made.
Meanwhile she lay on her bed with old Joanna at her side, foreven in her wanderings she did not forget her forlorn protege. Shelonged for her cats, but would not have them brought, lest theyshould get sick, and in her quiet hours she was full of anxietyabout Jo. She sent loving messages to Amy, bade them tell her motherthat she would write soon, and often begged for pencil and paper totry to say a word, that Father might not think she had neglected him.But soon even these intervals of consciousness ended, and she layhour after hour, tossing to and fro, with incoherent words on herlips, or sank into a heavy sleep which brought her no refreshment.Dr. Bangs came twice a day, Hannah sat up at night, Meg kept atelegram in her desk all ready to send off at any minute, and Jonever stirred from Beth's side.
The first of December was a wintry day indeed to them, for abitter wind blew, snow fell fast, and the year seemed getting readyfor its death. When Dr. Bangs came that morning, he looked long atBeth, held the hot hand in both his own for a minute, and laid itgently down, saying, in a low voice to Hannah, "If Mrs. March canleave her husband she'd better be sent for."
Hannah nodded without speaking, for her lips twitched nervously,Meg dropped down into a chair as the strength seemed to go out ofher limbs at the sound of those words, and Jo, standing with a paleface for a minute, ran to the parlor, snatched up the telegram, andthrowing on her things, rushed out into the storm. She was soonback, and while noiselessly taking off her cloak, Laurie came inwith a letter, saying that Mr. March was mending again. Jo readit thankfully, but the heavy weight did not seem lifted off herheart, and her face was so full of misery that Laurie asked quickly,"What is it? Is Beth worse?"
"I've sent for Mother," said Jo, tugging at her rubber bootswith a tragic expression.
"Good for you, Jo! Did you do it on your own responsibility?"asked Laurie, as he seated her in the hall chair and took off therebellious boots, seeing how her hands shook.
"No. The doctor told us to."
"Oh, Jo, it's not so bad as that?" cried Laurie, with astartled face.
"Yes, it is. She doesn't know us, she doesn't even talk aboutthe flocks of green doves, as she calls the vine leaves on the wall.She doesn't look like my Beth, and there's nobody to help us bear it.Mother and father both gone, and God seems so far away I can't findHim."
As the tears streamed fast down poor Jo's cheeks, she stretchedout her hand in a helpless sort of way, as if groping in the dark,and Laurie took it in his, whispering as well as he could with alump in his throat, "I'm here. Hold on tome, Jo, dear!"
She could not speak, but she did `hold on', and the warm graspof the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed tolead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her inher trouble.
Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but nofitting words came to him, so he stood silent, gently stroking herbent head as her mother used to do. It was the best thing he couldhave done, far more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jofelt the unspoken sympathy, and in the silence learned the sweetsolace which affection administers to sorrow. Soon she dried thetears which had relieved her, and looked up with a grateful face.
"Thank you, Teddy, I'm better now. I don't feel so forlorn,and will try to bear it if it comes."
"Keep hoping for the best, that will help you, Jo. Soon yourmother will be here, and then everything will be all right."
"I'm so glad Father is better. Now she won't feel so bad aboutleaving him. Oh, me! It does seem as if all the troubles came ina heap, and I got the heaviest part on my shoulders," sighed Jo,spreading her wet handkerchief over her knees to dry.
"Doesn't Meg pull fair?" asked Laurie, looking indignant.
"Oh, yes, she tries to, but she can't love Bethy as I do, andshe won't miss her as I shall. Beth is my conscience, and I can'tgive her up. I can't! I can't!"
Down went Jo's face into the wet handkerchief, and she crieddespairingly, for she had kept up bravely till now and never sheda tear. Laurie drew his hand across his eyes, but could not speaktill he had subdued the choky feeling in his throat and steadied hislips. It might be unmanly, but he couldn't help it, and I am gladof it. Presently, as Jo's sobs quieted, he said hopefully, "Idon't think she will die. She's so good, and we all love her somuch, I don't believe God will take her away yet."
"The good and dear people always do die," groaned Jo, but shestopped crying, for her friend's words cheered her up in spite ofher own doubts and fears.
"Poor girl, you're worn out. It isn't like you to be forlorn.Stop a bit. I'll hearten you up in a jiffy."
Laurie went off two stairs at a time, and Jo laid her weariedhead down on Beth's little brown hood, which no one had thought ofmoving from the table where she left it. It must have possessedsome magic, for the submissive spirit of its gentle owner seemedto enter into Jo, and when Laurie came running down with a glassof wine, she took it with a smile, and said bravely, "I drink--Health to my Beth! You are a good doctor, Teddy, and such a comfortablefriend. How can I ever pay you?" she added, as the winerefreshed her body, as the kind words had done her troubled mind.
"I'll send my bill, by-and-by, and tonight I'll give you some-thing that will warm the cockles of your heart better than quartsof wine," said Laurie, beaming at her with a face of suppressedsatisfaction at something.
"What is it?" cried Jo, forgetting her woes for a minute in her wonder.
"I telegraphed to your mother yesterday, and Brooke answeredshe'd come at once, and she'll be here tonight, and everything willbe all right. Aren't you glad I did it?"
Laurie spoke very fast, and turned red and excited all in a minute,for he had kept his plot a secret, for fear of disappointingthe girls or harming Beth. Jo grew quite white, flew outof her chair, and the moment he stopped speaking she electrified himby throwing her arms round his neck, and crying out, with a joyfulcry, "Oh, Laurie! Oh, Mother! I am so glad!" She did not weepagain, but laughed hysterically, and trembled and clung to herfriend as if she was a little bewildered by the sudden news.
Laurie, though decidedly amazed, behaved with greatpresence of mind. He patted her back soothingly, and finding thatshe was recovering, followed it up by a bashful kiss or two, whichbrought Jo round at once. Holding on to the banisters, she puthim gently away, saying breathlessly, "Oh, don't! I didn't meanto, it was dreadful of me, but you were such a dear to go and doit in spite of Hannah that I couldn't help flying at you. Tellme all about it, and don't give me wine again, it makes me act so."
"I don't mind," laughed Laurie, as he settled his tie. "Why,you see I got fidgety, and so did Grandpa. We thought Hannah wasoverdoing the authority business, and your mother ought to know.She'd never forgive us if Beth... Well, if anything happened,you know. So I got grandpa to say it was high time we did something,and off I pelted to the office yesterday, for the doctor looked sober,and Hannah most took my head off when I proposed a telegram. I nevercan bear to be `lorded over', so that settled my mind, and I did it.Your mother will come, I know, and the late train is in at two A.M.I shall go for her, and you've only got to bottle up your rapture,and keep Beth quiet till that blessed lady gets here."
"Laurie, you're an angel! How shall I ever thank you?"
"Fly at me again. I rather liked it," said Laurie, lookingmischievous, a thing he had not done for a fortnight.
"No, thank you. I'll do it by proxy, when your grandpa comes.Don't tease, but go home and rest, for you'll be up half the night.Bless you, Teddy, bless you!"
Jo had backed into a corner, and as she finished her speech,she vanished precipitately into the kitchen, where she sat downupon a dresser and told the assembled cats that she was "happy,oh, so happy!" while Laurie departed, feeling that he had made arather neat thing of it.
"That's the interferingest chap I ever see, but I forgivehim and do hope Mrs. March is coming right away," said Hannah,with an air of relief, when Jo told the good news.
Meg had a quiet rapture, and then brooded over the letter,while Jo set the sickroom in order, and Hannah `knocked up acouple of pies in case of company unexpected". A breath offresh air seemed to blow through the house, and something betterthan sunshine brightened the quiet rooms. Everything appearedto feel the hopeful change. Beth's bird began to chirp again,and a half-blown rose was discovered on Amy's bush in the window.The fires seemed to burn with unusual cheeriness, and every timethe girls met, their pale faces broke into smiles as they huggedone another, whispering encouragingly, "Mother's coming, dear!Mother's coming!" Every one rejoiced but Beth. She lay in thatheavy stupor, alike unconscious of hope and joy, doubt and danger.It was a piteous sight, the once rosy face so changed and vacant,the once busy hands so weak and wasted, the once smiling lipsquite dumb, and the once pretty, well-kept hair scattered roughand tangled on the pillow. All day she say so, only rousing nowand then to mutter, "Water!" with lips so parched they couldhardly shape the word. All day Jo and Meg hovered over her,watching, waiting, hoping, and trusting in God and Mother, andall day the snow fell, the bitter wind raged, and the hoursdragged slowly by. But night came at last, and every timethe clock struck, the sisters, still sitting on either side ofthe bed, looked at each other with brightening eyes, for eachhour brought help nearer. The doctor had been in to say thatsome change, for better or worse, would probably take placeabout midnight, at which time he would return.
Hannah, quite worn out, lay down on the sofa at the bed'sfoot and fell fast asleep, Mr. Laurence marched to and fro in theparlor, feeling that he would rather face a rebel battery thanMrs. March's countenance as she entered. Laurie lay on the rug,pretending to rest, but staring into the fire with the thoughtfullook which made his black eyes beautifully soft and clear.
The girls never forgot that night, for no sleep came to themas they kept their watch, with that dreadful sense ofpowerlessness which comes to us in hours like those.
"If God spares Beth, I never will complain again," whisperedMeg earnestly.
"If god spares Beth, I'll try to love and serve Him all mylife," answered Jo, with equal fervor.
"I wish I had no heart, it aches so," sighed Meg, after a pause.
"If life is often as hard as this, I don't see how we evershall get through it," added her sister despondently.
Here the clock struck twelve, and both forgot themselves inwatching Beth, for they fancied a change passed over her wan face.The house was still as death, and nothing but the wailing of thewind broke the deep hush. Weary Hannah slept on, and no one butthe sisters saw the pale shadow which seemed to fall upon thelittle bed. An hour went by, and nothing happened except Laurie'squiet departure for the station. Another hour, still no one came,and anxious fears of delay in the storm, or accidents by the way,or, worst of all, a great grief at Washington, haunted the girls.
It was past two, when Jo, who stood at the window thinkinghow dreary the world looked in its winding sheet of snow, hearda movement by the bed, and turning quickly, saw Meg kneelingbefore their mother's easy chair with her face hidden. A dreadfulfear passed coldly over Jo, as she thought, "Beth is dead, and Megis afraid to tell me."
She was back at her post in an instant, and to her excitedeyes a great change seemed to have taken place. The fever flushand the look of pain were gone, and the beloved little face lookedso pale and peaceful in its utter repose that Jo felt no desire toweep or to lament. Leaning low over this dearest of her sisters,she kissed the damp forehead with her heart on her lips, and softlywhispered, "Goodby, my Beth. Goodby!"
As if awaked by the stir, Hannah started out of her sleep,hurried to the bed, looked at Beth, felt her hands, listened ather lips, and then, throwing her apron over her head, sat downto rock to and fro, exclaiming, under her breath, "The fever'sturned, she's sleepin' nat'ral, her skin's damp, and she breatheseasy. Praise be given! Oh, my goodness me!"
Before the girls could believe the happy truth, the doctorcame to confirm it. He was a homely man, but they thought hisface quite heavenly when he smiled and said, with a fatherly lookat them, "Yes, my dears, I think the little girl will pull throughthis time. Keep the house quiet, let her sleep, and when she wakes,give her..."
What they were to give, neither heard, for both crept intothe dark hall, and, sitting on the stairs, held each other close,rejoicing with hearts too full for words. When they went back tobe kissed and cuddled by faithful Hannah, they found Beth lying,as she used to do, with her cheek pillowed on her hand, thedreadful pallor gone, and breathing quietly, as if just fallenasleep.
"If Mother would only come now!" said Jo, as the winter nightbegan to wane.
"See," said Meg, coming up with a white, half-opened rose,"I thought this would hardly be ready to lay in Beth's handtomorrow if she--went away from us. But it has blossomed in thenight, and now I mean to put it in my vase here, so that whenthe darling wakes, the first thing she sees will be the littlerose, and Mother's face."
Never had the sun risen so beautifully, and never had theworld seemed so lovely as it did to the heavy eyes of Meg and Jo,as they looked out in the early morning, when their long, sadvigil was done.
"It looks like a fairy world," said Meg, smiling to herself,as she stood behind the curtain, watching the dazzling sight.
"Hark!" cried Jo, starting to her feet.
Yes, there was a sound of bells at the door below, a cryfrom Hannah, and then Laurie's voice saying in a joyful whisper,"Girls, she's come! She's come!"