那个春天乔回到家时， 贝思身上的变化使她大吃一惊。没有人说起，似乎也没有人意识到，因为变化是渐渐的，每天看到她的人不会吃惊。而出门在外能使人眼睛锐利起来。乔看着妹妹的 脸，心头沉甸甸的，妹妹的变化显而易见，她的脸和秋天时一样苍白，而又瘦削了些。然而她脸上有一种奇怪而透彻的神色，好像凡人的东西给慢慢地提炼完了，而 神的东西照耀着那脆弱的肉体，赋予它一种无法描述的悲壮之美。乔看着这张脸感到了这一点，但是当时她没说什么。很快地，第一眼印象失去了效力，因为贝思似 乎很快乐，没有人表示对她身体好转有怀疑。不久，乔陷于别的烦心事里，暂时忘记了她的忧虑。
然而劳里走后，家里又安宁下来。那种模模糊糊的忧虑又袭上她的心头，挥之不去。她向家里人认了罪，也得到了宽耍但是，当她拿出存款提出去山间旅行 时，贝思衷心地感激她，却请求不要到离家那么远的地方去，再去海边小住会更适合她。正如奶奶无论如何丢不下孩子，乔带着贝思去了那个安静的地方。在那里贝 思可以在户外呆很长时间，让鲜艳的海风往她苍白的面颊抹上一点颜色。
她们确实感觉到了这一点，但是谁也不提起，因为在我们与最亲近的人们之间，经常存在着难以打破的隔阂。乔感到她和贝思之间落下了一道帷幕，可是，在 她伸手去揭开帷幕时，似乎在静默中又有某种神圣的东西。于是，她等待贝思先说出来。她看出来的事情她的父母似乎毫无觉察，她感到奇怪，同时也感到欣慰。在 那安静的几个星期里，阴影越来越明显了，她对留在家里的人只字未提。她相信贝思回家时情况不会好转，那本身就能说明问题。她更想知道妹妹是否猜到了这个严 酷的真相。贝思躺在温暖的岩石上，头枕着乔的膝，有益健康的海风吹拂着她，脚下大海弹着奏鸣曲。在每天这长长的几个小时里，贝思脑子里在想着什么呢？
一天贝思告诉了她。她那样静静地躺着，乔以为她睡着了。她放下书，忧郁地看着贝思，想从那脸颊的淡晕中找到希望的迹象。可是她找不到足以令她满意的 东西：脸颊非常瘦削，双手似乎太虚弱了，甚至拿不住她们搜来的粉红色小贝壳。当时，她异常痛苦地想到，贝思正慢慢地离她而去。她的手臂不由自主地抱紧了她 所拥有的最亲爱的宝贝。有一会儿，她的眼睛潮湿了，看不见东西了。待眼睛再能看清楚时，贝思正抬头看着她。贝思的目光那样温柔，没有必要再说什么了。“ 乔，亲爱的，很高兴你知道了，我试图告诉你，可是我不能。“没有回答。姐妹俩只是脸贴着脸，甚至没有眼泪，因为，受到最深的感动时，乔是不会哭的。当时， 乔成了弱者，贝思试着安慰她，支撑她。贝思双手搂着她，在她耳边低声说着安慰的话。
“我已经知道很长时间了，亲爱的。现在我已习惯，想起这件事，或者忍受它已不是难做的事了。你也试着这样，别为我烦恼了。这样最好，真的最好。“ “秋天里是这件事让你那样不开心吗，贝思？你不会是那时就有感觉，并且独自承受了这么长时间吧，对吗？“乔问，她不愿看到也不愿说那样最好，但知道了贝思 的烦恼没有劳里的份，她心里感到高兴。
“也许我那样做不对，可是，我是想做对的。我不能确定，对谁也没说什么，我希望我想错了。可那时我要是吓坏你们大家，我就太自私了。妈妈那样牵挂着 梅格，艾美出门在外，你和劳里那么幸福--至少，我那时是这样认为的。““可我还以为你在爱着劳里呢，贝思。我离开了是因为我不能爱他，“乔叫着，高兴地 说出了事情的全部真相。
贝思听了这话大为惊奇，乔尽管痛苦还是不由地笑了起来，她轻轻地接着说：“那么你不爱他，宝贝？我担心你爱他，想象着你那可怜的小小心灵那段时间里 承受着失恋的痛苦。““哎唷，乔，他那么喜欢你，我怎么能那样？“贝思像孩子般地天真。“我的确深爱着他，他对我那么好，我怎能不爱他呢？但是，他除了做 我的哥哥，根本不可能做别的。我希望有一天他真的成为我的哥哥。““不是通过我，“乔决然说道，“艾美留给他了，他们俩会非常般配。可是我现在没心思谈这 种事情。别人发生什么事我不管，我只在乎你，贝思，你必须好起来。““我想好起来，哦，真想！我努力着，可是每天我都在衰弱，我越来越确信我的健康再也恢 复不了了。就像潮汐，乔，当它转向退潮时，尽管是渐渐减退，却不可阻挡。““它将被阻挡住，你的潮汐不能这么快就退。贝思，十九岁太年轻了，我不能放走 你。我要工作、祈祷，和它作斗争。
纯洁诚挚的人们极少奢谈虔诚，行动能说明一切而不是言语，而且行动比说教或声明更具影响力。贝思无法论证或解释她的信念，这个信念给了她放弃生命的 勇气与耐心，使她能快乐地等待死亡。她像一个轻信的孩子，不提问题，而是将一切交付上帝与大自然--我们大家的父亲和母亲。她确信只有他们才能开导人，使 人精神振作地面对今生和来世。
她没有用圣人般的话语责备乔，而是为她炽热的情感更加爱她了，她更加紧紧地拥抱这种可贵的人类之爱。上帝从不打算让我们断绝这种爱。通过它我们被吸 引得离他更近了。她不能说：“我乐意离开这个世界。“因为生命对她来说是非常甜美的；她只能抽泣着说：“我努力做到愿意离开。“她紧紧地抱着乔，第一次， 这种巨大痛苦的浪头吞没了姐妹俩。
“也许看不出。我听说深爱着的人们对这种事最盲目。要是他们没看出，你就替我告诉他们。我不想有秘密，让他们作好准备更仁慈些。梅格有约翰和两个孩 子安慰她，而你必须帮助爸爸妈妈，好不好，乔？““如果我行的话。但是，贝思，我还没有放弃希望。我要相信这确实是一种病态的想象，我不要你认为那是真 的。“乔试图用一种轻松的语调说出这些。
贝思躺着想了一会儿，然后像往常一样安静地说：“我不知道该怎样表达我的意思。除了你，我也不会再向别人说什么。因为，除了对我的乔，我不能说出心 里话。我只是想说，我有种感觉，上帝从来就没有打算让我活长。我不像你们起余的人，我从来不做长大了干什么的计划，我也从没像你们大家那样想过结婚。我似 乎想象不出我能做什么，我只是愚笨的小贝思，在家里跑跑跳跳，除了在家，在哪里都没用。我从来不想离家，现在离开你们大家心中分外难受。我不害怕，但是好 像即使人在天堂，我也会想家想你们的。“乔说不出话来了。好几分钟的沉默，只听见风的叹息和海浪的拍击声。一只白翼海鸥飞过去了，它的银色胸脯涂着一抹阳 光。贝思注视着直到它消失，她的眼睛里充满了悲哀。
“可爱的小鸟！看，乔，它多么温顺。比起海鸥，我更喜欢小鸟。它们不那么野性，也不那么漂亮，但是它们似乎是快乐天真的小东西。去年夏天我总是称它 们我的鸟儿们。妈妈说它们让她想起了我--那些棕色的小鸟，总是贴近海岸，总是唧唧啾啾唱着心满意足的小调。乔，你像是海鸥：强舰难以约束、喜欢狂风暴 雨，远远飞向大海，自得其乐。梅格像是斑鸠。而艾美就像她描述的云雀，想在云雾中飞行，又总是飞落回小巢。可爱的小姑娘！她抱负那么大，心眼却善良温柔。 不管她飞得多么高，她决不会忘记家的。我希望能再见到她，她似乎离我们那么远。““她春天回来。我是说你要准备好见她，享受会面时的快乐。到那时我要让你 身体健康，面色红润，“乔说。她感到贝思所有的变化中，言谈的变化最大。她现在说话好像不怎么费劲了，自言自语，全然不像以前那样害羞了。
她是对的：她们回到家时没必要说什么，因为爸爸妈妈现在清楚地看到了他们一直祈祷着不要见到的东西。短暂的旅途使贝思感到了疲倦，她立刻上了床，说 她回到家那么高兴。乔下楼来时，发现她已不用做那件艰难的工作了，也就是不用讲述贝思的秘密。爸爸站在那，头靠在壁炉架上，乔进去他也没回头；可是妈妈向 她伸出了胳膊像是恳求帮助。乔走过来，默默无声地安慰着她。
When Jo came home that spring, she had been struck withthe change in Beth. No one spoke of it or seemed aware of it,for it had come too gradually to startle those who saw herdaily, but to eyes sharpened by absence, it was very plain anda 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, yetthere was a strange, transparent look about it, as if the mortalwas being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining throughthe frail flesh with an indescribably pathetic beauty. Jo sawand felt it, but said nothing at the time, and soon the firstimpression lost much of its power, for Beth seemed happy, noone appeared to doubt that she was better, and presently inother cares Jo fora time forgot her fear.
But when Laurie was gone, and peace prevailed again, thevague anxiety returned and haunted her. She had confessedher sins and been forgiven, but when she showed her savingsand proposed a mountain trip, Beth had thanked her heartily,but begged not to go so far away from home. Another littlevisit to the seashore would suit her better, and as Grandmacould not be prevailed upon to leave the babies, Jo took Bethdown to the quiet place, where she could live much in theopen air, and let the fresh sea breezes blow a little colorinto her pale cheeks.
It was not a fashionable place, but even among the pleasantpeople there, the girls made few friends, preferring to live forone another. Beth was too shy to enjoy society, and Jo toowrapped up in her to care for anyone else. So they were all inall to each other, and came and went, quite unconscious of theinterest they exited in those about them, who watched with sympatheticeyes the strong sister and the feeble one, alwaystogether, as if they felt instinctively that a long separationwas not far away.
They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it, for often betweenourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reservewhich it is very hard to overcome. Jo felt as if a veilhad fallen between her heart and Beth's, but when she put outher hand to lift it up, there seemed something sacred in thesilence, and she waited for Beth to speak. She wondered, andwas thankful also, that her parents did not seem to see whatshe saw, and during the quiet weeks when the shadows grew soplain to her, she said nothing of it to those at home, believingthat it would tell itself when Beth came back no better.She wondered still more if her sister really guessed the hardtruth, and what thoughts were passing through her mind duringthe long hours when she lay on the warm rocks with her head inJo's lap, while the winds blew healthfully over her and the seamade music at her feet.
One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she layso still, and putting down her book, sat looking at her withwistful eyes, trying to see signs of hope in the faint color onBeth's cheeks. But she could not find enough to satisfy her,for the cheeks were very thin, and the hands seemed too feebleto hold even the rosy little shells they had been collecting.It came to her then more bitterly than ever that Beth wasslowly drifting away form her, and her arms instinctivelytightened their hold upon the dearest treasure she possessed.For a minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when theycleared, Beth was looking up at her so tenderly that there washardly any need for her to say, "Jo, dear, I'm glad you knowit. I've tried to tell you, but I couldn't."
There was no answer except her sister's cheek against herown, not even tears, for when most deeply moved, Jo did notcry. She was the weaker then, land Beth tried to comfort andsustain her, with her arms about her and the soothing wordsshe whispered in her ear.
"I've known it for a good while, dear, and now I'm usedto it, it isn't hard to think of or to bear. Try to see it soand don't be troubled about me, because it's best, indeed it is."
"Is this what made you so unhappy in the autumn, Beth? Youdid not feel it then, land keep it to yourself so long, did you?"asked Jo, refusing to see or say that it was best, but glad toknow 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 ittrouble anyone. But when I saw you all so well and strong andfull of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I could never belike you, and then I was miserable, Jo."
"Oh, Beth, and you didn't tell me, didn't let me comfort andhelp you? How could you shut me out, bear it all alone?"
Jo's voice was full of tender reproach, and her heart achedto think of the solitary struggle that must have gone on whileBeth learned to say goodbye to health, love, and live, and takeup 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 havebeen selfish to frighten you all when Marmee was so anxious aboutMeg, and Amy away, and you so happy with Laurie--at least I thoughtso then."
"And I thought you loved him, Beth, and I went away becauseI couldn't," cried Jo, glad to say all the truth.
Beth looked so amazed at the idea that Jo smiled in spiteof her pain, and added softly, "Then you didn't, dearie? I wasafraid it was so, and imagined your poor little heart full oflovelornity all that while."
"Why, Jo, how could I, when he was so fond of you?" askedBeth, as innocently as a child. "I do love him dearly. He isso good to me, how can I help It? But he could never be anythingto 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 suchthings, 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 thetide, Jo, when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can't be stopped.."
"It shall be stopped, your tide must not turn so soon, nineteenis too young, Beth. I can't let you go. I'll work and prayand fight against it. I'll keep you in spite of everything. Theremust be ways, it can't be too late. God won't be so cruel as totake you from me," cried poor Jo rebelliously, for her spirit wasfar less piously submissive than Beth's.
Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. Itshows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influencethan homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon orexplain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give uplife, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, sheasked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Fatherand Mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and they only,could teach and strengthen heart and spirit for this life andthe life to come. She did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches,only loved her better for her passionate affection, and clungmore closely to the dear human love, from which our Father nevermeans us to be weaned, but through which He draws us closer toHimself. She could not say, "I'm glad to go," for life was verysweet for her. She could only sob out, "I try to be willing,"while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of thisgreat sorrow broke over them together.
By and by Beth said, with recovered serenity, "You'll tellthem this when we go home?"
"I think they will see it without words," sighed Jo, for nowit seemed to her that Beth changed every day.
"Perhaps not. I've heard that the people who love best areoften blindest to such things. If they don't see it, you will tellthem for me. I don't want any secrets, and it's kinder to preparethem. Meg has John and the babies to comfort her, but you muststand by Father and Mother, won't you Jo?"
"If I can. But, Beth, I don't give up yet. I'm going to believethat 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 anyonebut you, because I can't speak out except to my Jo. I only meanto say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I shouldlive long. I'm not like the rest of you. I never made any plansabout 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 anythingbut stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywherebut there. I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now isthe leaving you all. I'm not afraid, but it seems as if I shouldbe homesick for you even in heaven."
Jo could not speak, and for several minutes there was nosound but the sigh of the wind and the lapping of the tide. Awhite-winged gull flew by, with the flash of sunshine on itssilvery breast. Beth watched it till it vanished, and her eyeswere full of sadness. A little gray-coated sand bird came trippingover the beach `peeping' softly to itself, as if enjoyingthe sun and sea. It came quite close to Beth, and looked at herwith a friendly eye and sat upon a warm stone, dressing its wetfeathers, quite at home. Beth smiled and felt comforted, forthe tiny thing seemed to offer its small friendship and remindher that a pleasant world was still to be enjoyed.
"Dear little bird! See, Jo, how tame it is. I like peepsbetter than the gulls. They are not so wild and handsome, butthey seem happy, confiding little things. I used to call themmy birds last summer, and Mother said they reminded her of me--busy, quaker-colored creatures, always near the shore, andalways chirping that contented little song of theirs. You arethe 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 write about, trying to getup among the clouds, but always dropping down into its nestagain. Dear little girl! She's so ambitious, but her heart isgood and tender, and no matter how high she flies, she neverwill forget home. I hope I shall see her again, but she seemsso far away."
"She is coming in the spring, and I mean that you shall beall ready to see and enjoy her. I'm going to have you well androsy by that time." began Jo, feeling that of all the changesin Beth, the talking change was the greatest, for it seemed tocost no effort now, and she thought aloud in a way quite unlikebashful Beth.
"Jo, dear, don't hope any more. It won't do any good. I'msure of that. We won't be miserable, but enjoy being togetherwhile 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 thatsilent kiss, she dedicated herself soul and body to Beth.
She was right. There was no need of any words when theygot home, for Father and Mother saw plainly now what they hadprayed 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 thehard task of telling Beth's secret. Her father stood leaninghis head on the mantelpiece and did not turn as she came in,but her mother stretched out her arms as if for help, and Jowent to comfort her without a word.