薄暮时分，乔独自躺在 那张旧沙发上。她看着炉火，脑中思索着。她最喜欢这样打发黄昏时光。没有人打扰她。她总是躺在那儿，枕着贝思的小红枕头，策划着故事，做着梦，充满柔情地 想着妹妹，妹妹似乎根本没有远离她。乔的神情疲惫、严肃、有点悲哀。明天是她的生日。她在想，时光过得多快啊，她就要一天天老起来了，她的成就似乎太少。 马上就二十五岁，却没什么可以炫耀的。乔想错了，她有许多可以炫耀的东西，不久以后，他便发现了它们，并为之感到快意。
“我就要成为老姑娘了，一个喜欢文学的老处女、以笔为配偶，一组故事当孩子，也许二十年之后会有点儿名气。像可怜的约翰逊那样，我老了时，不能享受 名气之乐了，便会感到孤独。没人与我分享快乐，我自食其力，也不需要名气了。哎呀，我不必去做一个愁眉不展的圣徒，或者一个只顾自己的罪人。我敢说，老姑 娘们只要习惯了独身生活，会过得很舒服的。可是--"想到这，乔叹了口气，仿佛这种前景并不诱人。
上了三十岁，她们不再提及此事，而是默默地接受事实。聪明的姑娘们会想到，她们还有二十多年有益的幸福时光，可以学着优雅地打发人生，聊以自慰。亲 爱的姑娘们，别笑话那些老处女们。因为，在那素净的长袍下静静跳动着的心窝里，往往隐藏着非常温柔的爱情悲剧。为青春、健康、抱负以及爱情本身默默作出的 牺牲，使褪色的容颜在上帝的面前变得美丽了。即便是悲哀、阴郁的老姑娘们，也应亲切地对待她们。因为，她们就是为了这才错过了人生最甜美的部分。
先生们，也就是男孩子们，对老姑娘们表示殷勤吧，别管她们多穷、多普通、多古板。因为，唯一值得拥有的骑士精神便是乐意向老人表示敬意，保护弱者， 为妇女们服务。别考虑她们的身份、年龄及肤色，回想一下那些善良的婶子们吧，她们不仅教训过你们，数落过你们，而且也照顾、宠爱过你们，但并不常常得到你 们的感谢。她们帮你们摆脱困境，从她们不多的储蓄中给你们零用钱，她们用衰老的手指耐心地为你们缝制衣服。想想她们心甘情愿为你们做的事吧。你们应该满怀 感激地给那些可亲的老太太们小小的关注，妇女们只要一息尚存，就会乐于接受它们的。眼睛明亮的姑娘很快就会看出你们的这种品格，并会因之更喜欢你们。唯一 能分开母与子的力量便是死亡，假如死亡夺去了你们的母亲，你们肯定会在某个普丽西拉婶子那里得到亲切的欢迎和母亲般的爱抚。在她孤寂的衰老心坎里，为她" 世上最好的侄子"保留着最温暖的一角。
乔躺在那儿，惊讶地默默盯着他看，直到劳里俯身吻她，这才认出他。她一跃而起，高兴地叫着--“哦，特迪！哦，我的特迪！““亲爱的乔，你见到我高 兴了，对吗？““高兴！我幸运的男孩，言语表达不了我的欢喜，艾美呢？““你妈妈把她留在了梅格家。我们顺道在那儿停留了一下，我没法子将我的妻子从她们 手中救出来。““你的什么？“乔叫了起来，劳里不知不觉带着洋洋自得的口气说出了这两个字，泄露了秘密。
枕头没了，然而还是有着障碍--一个自然的障碍，是由时间、分离、变化了的心所造成的。两个都感到了这一点，有一会儿他们对望着，仿佛这个无形的障 碍在他们身上投下了一道小小的阴影。然而，阴影很快便消失了，因为劳里徒劳地试图端着架子说话--“我看着像不像个结了婚的人和一家之主？““一点也不 像，你也决不会像的。你长大些了，也更漂亮了，可是你还是以前的那个淘气鬼。““哎唷，真的，乔，你应该对我尊重些了，“劳里开口说，他对这一切很欣赏。
“你没有必要冒着严寒去接艾美。一会儿他们都会过来的。我等不及了，我想第一个告诉你这个令人惊喜的大事。我想得到那'第一瓶奶油'，就像我们从前 争要奶油时说的那样。““你当然得到了，可是故事开错了头，给弄毁了。好了，开始说吧，全都告诉我，我太想知道了。““嗯，我那样做是想讨艾美的欢心，“ 劳里眨着眼开了口，这使乔叫了起来--“一号小谎言。是艾美想讨你的欢心。接着说，可以的话，讲实话，先生。““哎唷，她开始用太太的口气问话了。听她说 话是不是令人开心？“劳里对着炉火自问道。炉火发着光，闪着亮，似乎十分赞同他。“这是一回事，要知道，她和我已结成了一体。
一个多月以前，我们打算和卡罗尔一家一道回来，可是他们突然改变了主意，决定在巴黎再过一个冬天。爷爷想回家了，他到那儿去是为了让我高兴，我不能 让他独自走，又丢不下艾美。卡罗尔太太脑子里有些英国人的观点，什么女监护人之类的荒唐念头，她不放艾美和我们同行。于是，我便说：'我们结婚吧，这样就 能随心所欲了。'就这样解决了那个难题。““你当然会那么做的，你总是事事如意。““并不总是那样。“劳里声音里有种东西，使乔赶快接话--"你们怎么得 到婶婶同意的？““那可不容易。不过，别讲出去，我们说服了她。我们这一边有许许多多的理由。没有时间写信回家请求允许了，可是你们大家都高兴这样，很快 都会同意的，像我妻子说的那样，这只是'抓住时间马儿的腿'。““我们真为那两个字骄傲，难道我们不喜欢说那两个字吗？“乔打断了她。这次是她对着炉火说 话了。她高兴地注视着炉火，仿佛它在那双眼里燃起了幸福的火花，而她上一次看着它们却那么悲哀忧郁。
“也许那是桩小事。艾美是那样一个迷人的小妇人，我无法不为她骄傲。嗯，当时叔叔和婶婶在那儿当监护人，我们俩相互那么依恋着对方，分开了便什么也 干不了。那个不坏的主意使一切问题迎刃而解，所以我们便结了婚。““什么时候？在哪里？怎样结的？“乔问道，她的问话充满了女人的强烈兴趣与好奇心，自己 却一点儿也没意识到。
“我们本来想让你们大吃一惊的，开始，我们以为会直接回家的，可是我们一结完婚，我那可亲的老先生发现至少在一个月之内不能做好动身准备，所以打发 我们随意去哪儿度蜜月。艾美曾把玫瑰谷叫做公认的蜜月之家，于是，我们便去了那儿，我们过得非常幸福，这种幸福人生只有这一次，千真万确，那真是玫瑰花下 的爱情啊！“劳里有一会儿似乎忘掉了乔，乔感到高兴，因为他这样无拘无束，自然而然地对她讲述这些，使她确信他已完全原谅了她，忘却了以前的爱。她试图抽 出手来，但是他好像猜到了，促使他作出几乎没意识到的冲动念头，紧紧地握住了她的手，他带着她不曾见过的男子汉的严肃神情说道--“乔，亲爱的，我想说件 事，然后我们就把它永远丢开吧，当我写信说艾美一直对我很好时，我在那封信中说，我决不会停止对你的爱，这话是真的，但是那种爱已变了，我明白了这样更 好。艾美和你在我心中变换了位置，就这么回事。我想，事情本来就是这样安排的。假如我按照你的意图去等待，这件事会自然地发生。可是我根本耐不下性子，所 以弄得头疼。那时我是个孩子，任性狂暴，好不容易才认识到错误。乔，正如你说的，那确是个错误。我当了回傻瓜，才明白这一点。
我发誓，有一段时间我脑子里混乱不堪，搞不清楚我更爱谁，你还是艾美，我试图两人都爱，但做不到。当我在瑞士见到艾美时，一切似乎立刻明朗了。你们 俩都站到了适当的位置上。我确信旧的爱完全消失了，才开始了新的爱，因此我能够坦率地与作为妹妹的乔及作为妻子的艾美交心，深深地爱着两人。你愿意相信 吗？愿意回到我们初识时那段幸福的时光吗？““我愿意相信，全心全意相信。但是，特迪，我们再也不是男孩女孩了。愉快的老时光不可能回来了，我们不能这样 企盼。现在我们是男人和女人，有正经的事情要做。游戏时期已经结束，我们必须停止嬉闹了，我相信你也感到了这一点。我在你身上看到了变化，你也会在我身上 看到变化。我会怀念我的男孩，但是我会同样爱那个男人，更加赞赏他，因为他打算做我希望他做的事。我们不可能再当小玩伴了，但是我们会成为兄弟姐妹，我们 一生都会互爱互助，是不是这样，劳里？“他什么也没说，却握住了她递过来的手，将他的脸贴在上面放了一会儿。他感到，从他那男孩气热情的坟墓中，升腾起一 种美丽的牢不可破的友情，使两人都感到幸福。乔不愿使他们的归来蒙上哀愁，所以过了一会，她便愉快地说：“我还是不能确信，你们两个孩子真的结了婚，要开 始持家过日子了。哎呀，好像还是昨天的事，我替艾美扣围裙扣子，你开玩笑时我拽你的头发。天哪，时间过得真快！““两个孩子中有一个比你大，所以你不必像 奶奶那样说话，我自以为我已经是个'长成了的先生'，像佩格蒂说戴维那样。你看到艾美时，你会发现她是个相当早熟的孩子，“劳里说，他看着她母性的神气感 到好笑。
“你可能岁数比我大一点，可是我的心情比你老得多，特迪，女人们总是这样。而且这一年过得那样艰难，我感到我有四十岁了。““可怜的乔！我们丢下你 让你独自承受了这一切，而我们却在享乐。你是老了些。这里有条皱纹，那里还有一条。除了笑时，你的眼神透着悲哀。刚才我摸过枕头时，发现上面有滴泪珠。你 承受了许多痛苦，而且不得不独自忍受。我是个多么自私的家伙啊！“劳里带着自责的神色拽着自己的头发。
然而，乔把那出卖秘密的枕头转了过去，尽力以一种十分轻松愉快的语调回答道：“不，我有爸爸妈妈帮我，有可爱的孩子安慰我，我还想到你和艾美安全、 幸福，这些都使我这里的烦恼容易忍受些了。有的时候我是感到孤独，可是，我敢说那对我有好处，而且--““你再也不会孤独了，“劳里插了嘴。他用胳膊围住 她，仿佛要为她挡住人生所有的艰难困苦。“我和艾美不能没有你。
所以你必须来教'孩子们'管家，就像我们以前那样，凡事均对半分。让我们爱抚你，让我们大家在一起快快乐乐，友好相处。““假如我不碍事的话，我当 然十分乐意。我又开始感到变年轻了，你一来我所有的烦恼似乎都飞走了，你总是让人感到安慰，特迪。“乔将头靠到了劳里的肩上，就像几年前贝思生病躺在那 里，劳里让她靠着那样。
“你还是那个乔，一分钟以前掉泪，转眼又笑了。现在你看着有点淘气，想什么呢，奶奶？““我在想你和艾美在一起怎样过。““过得像天使！““那当 然。开始是这样，可是谁统治呢？““我不在乎告诉你现在是她统治，至少我让她这么认为--这使她高兴，你知道。将来我们会轮流的。因为人们说，婚姻中均分 权力会使责任加倍。““你会像开始那样继续下去，艾美会统治你一生。““嗯，她做得那样让人毫无察觉，我想我不会太在乎的。
劳里表现得不错，他挺起肩膀，带着男子汉的蔑视神情对那攻击一笑置之。他神气活现地回答：“艾美有教养，不会那样做的，我也不是那种屈从的人，我妻 子和我互相非常尊重，不会横强霸道，也不会争吵的。““那我相信。我和艾美从来不像我们俩那样争吵。她是那寓言故事里的太阳，我是风。记得吗？太阳对付男 人最灵。““她既能对他刮风，也能照耀他。“劳里笑了。“我在尼斯受她那样的训话！我得保证那比你任何一次责骂都厉害得多--一个真正的刺激，等什么时候 我来告诉你--她决不会告诉你的，因为她告诉我，说她看不起我，为我感到羞愧，而刚说完，她便爱上了那可鄙的一方，嫁给了那个一无是处的家伙。““那么恶 劣！好吧，假如她再欺负你，到我这儿，我来卫护你。““看上去我需要卫护，是不是？“劳里站起来摆出架子，可这时突然听到了艾美的声音，他的威严神态马上 转为狂喜。艾美叫着：“她在哪？我亲爱的乔呢？“全家人成群结队进屋来了，每个人又重被拥抱亲吻。几次无效的努力后，三个旅游者不得不安坐下来，让大家看 着，为他们高兴。劳伦斯先生还像以前一样老当益壮，和其他人一样，国外旅游使他变得更精神了，因为他的执拗劲好像几乎没了。他那老式的殷勤得到了改善，他 比以前更慈祥了。他称一对新人为"我的孩子们"。看到他对他们微笑真是让人怡悦。更令人怡悦的是艾美对他尽着女儿般的责任与孝道，这完全赢得了他的心。最 好的是看着劳里围着他们两个转，仿佛欣赏不够他俩组成的美景。
那位"女士"是个地地道道、非常优雅有风度的妇人。乔观察着这一对人想着：“他们俩在一起看着多么般配啊！我是对的，劳里找到了美丽、出色的女孩， 她比笨拙苍老的乔更适合他的家庭，她会成为他的骄傲，而不会折磨他。“马奇太太和她丈夫面露喜色，他们点头微笑着。他们看到最小的孩子不仅做事干练，待人 处世知情达理，而且也得到了爱情、自信、幸福这些更好的财富。
黛西的眼睛离不开她的"漂良"（漂亮）阿姨，于是就像叭儿狗似地把自己系在了女主人的腰带上，那里充满了难以抗拒的诱惑。德米先是无动于衷，怔怔地 考虑这新出现的关系，后来便性急地接受了贿赂，妥协了。诱人的贿赂是从伯恩带来的一组木熊玩具。然而，一阵侧面攻击迫使他无条件地就范了，因为劳里知道怎 样对付他。
天哪，那是怎样的谈话啊！先是一人说，再换另一人说，然后大家一起说起来，都想在半小时内把三年的事讲完。幸好茶点准备好了，为大家提供了暂歇机 会，也提供了吃的东西。他们再像那样谈下去，会嗓子沙哑，头昏眼花的。非常幸福的一队人马鱼贯进入了小餐厅。马奇先生自豪地护送着"劳伦斯太太"，马奇太 太则骄傲地依在"我儿子"的臂上，老先生拉着乔的手，瞥了一眼炉火边那个空角落，对她耳语道：“现在你得当我的女孩了。“乔双唇颤抖着低声回答：“我会试 着填补她的位置，先生。“那双胞胎在后面欢跃着，他们感到太平盛世就在眼前，因为大家都为新人忙着，丢下他俩任意胡作非为。可以确信他们充分利用了这个机 会。他们偷偷呷了几口茶，随意吃着姜饼，每人拿了一个热松饼，他们最妄为的违禁事便是每人往小口袋里装了一个诱人的果酱馅饼，结果馅饼给弄得粘乎乎的，成 了碎屑，这教育了他们，馅饼和人性一样脆弱。他们兜里藏着馅饼，心中惴惴不安，担心乔乔阿姨锐利的眼睛会穿透那薄薄的麻纱布衣和美丽奴绒线衣，那下面隐藏 着他们的赃物。所以，小罪犯们紧贴着没戴眼镜的"爷衣"（爷爷）。
“我随便。“乔关上了门，她感到此时食物不是个合适的话题。她站了一会儿，看着在楼上消失的那一帮人，当德米穿着格子呢裤的短腿艰难地爬上最后一个 楼梯时，一阵突如起来的孤独感袭上了她的心头。感觉那样强烈，她眼睛模糊了。她环顾四周，仿佛想找到什么可以依靠的，因为，即便是特迪也丢弃了她。她自言 自语：“我等到上床时再哭，现在不能让人看出情绪消沉。“要是她知道什么样的生日礼物正分分秒秒向她逼近，她就不会这么说了。接着她的手伸向眼睛--因为 她的男孩式习惯之一便是从来不知她的手绢在哪--她刚勉强挤出笑容，就听到门廊有人敲门。
“不，没有，只是家里人。我妹妹和朋友刚刚回家，我们都非常快乐，进来吧，加入到我们中来吧。“虽然巴尔先生善于交际，我认为他还是想有礼貌地走 开，改天再来。可是，乔在他身后关上了门，拿下了他的帽子，他怎好走呢？也许她的表情起了作用，见到他，乔忘了隐瞒高兴的心情，她坦率地表露了出来，这对 那孤寂的人具有异乎寻常的魅力。乔的欢迎大大超出了他最大胆的希求。
他们情不自禁，因为他带着法宝，能打开所有的心。这些纯洁的人们立刻同情其他来，因为他穷，感到更加亲密。贫穷使生活稍好些的人们变得富有起来，贫 穷也是真正热情好客精神的担保。巴尔先生坐在那里环顾四周，他的神情像是旅行者敲开了陌生人的屋门发现自己回到了家。孩子们围着他，像是蜜蜂围着蜜糖罐。 两个孩子一边一个坐在他的腿上，他们以孩子的大胆搜他的口袋，拔他的胡子，检查他的表，想引其他的注意。妇女们相互传递着赞许的信息。马奇先生感到与他心 性相投，便为客人打开了他的话题精疲宝库。寡言的约翰在旁听着，欣赏着，却不发一言。劳伦斯先生发现不可能去睡觉了。
要不是乔在忙着别的事，她会被劳里的表现逗乐的。一阵轻微的刺痛，不是出于忌妒，而是出于类似怀疑的东西，使得这位先生开始时带着兄长般的慎重超然 地观察着新来者，但是持续不长时间，他还没反应过来，便不由自主地产生了兴趣，被吸引进那一圈人中。因为，在这样愉快的氛围里，巴尔先生充分发挥了他的口 才。他侃侃而谈，妙语连珠。他极少对劳里说话，却常看他。他看着这个风华正茂的年轻人，脸上便会掠过一丝阴影，仿佛为自己失去的青春遗憾，然后他的眼睛便 会渴望地转向乔。假如乔看到了他的眼神，她肯定会回答那无声的询问。可是乔得管住自己的双眼，因为不能放任它们。她小心地让眼睛盯着正在织的小短袜上，像 是个模范的独身姨母。
她看着爸爸神情专注的脸，心里想到：“要是他每天都有我的教授这样的谈友，该会多快乐啊！“最后一点，巴尔先生穿着一件新的黑色西服，这使他看上去 比以前更像个绅士。他浓密的头发剪了，梳理得很整齐，可是保持不了太久，因为他一激动起来，便像往常一样，把它们弄得蓬乱不堪。比起平整的头发，乔更喜欢 他的头发乱竖着，因为她认为那样使他漂亮的额头带上了朱庇特似的风味。可怜的乔，她是怎样赞美着那个其貌不扬的人啊！她坐在那儿，那样默默地织着袜子，同 时什么也没逃脱她的眼睛，她甚至注意到巴尔先生洁净的袖口上有着金光闪闪的扣子。
并不是所有的人都到了，可是没有谁感到乔的话缺少考虑、不真实，因为贝思似乎还在他们中间，无形而又无时不在。她比以前更可爱。爱使家庭坚不可摧， 死亡也不能将起拆散。那张小椅子放在老地方，小篮子还放在惯常的架子上，篮子里装着她没完成的针线活，那张心爱的钢琴没有移动地方，现在很少有人去碰它。 贝思安详的笑脸就在钢琴上方，像以前那样，俯视着他们，仿佛在说：“快乐吧，我就在这里。““弹点什么吧，艾美，让大家听听你有了多大的长进，“劳里说。 他对他有出息的学生满怀自豪，这情有可原。
可是艾美热泪盈眶了，她转动着那张褪了色的琴凳，低声说：“今晚不弹了，亲爱的，今晚我不能炫耀。“然而，她确实露了一手，这一手比才华或弹艺更 好，她唱起了贝思常唱的歌来。声音里充满柔情，这是最好的老师也教不出来的。任何其他的灵感都不能赋予她更美更甜的震撼力量。它打动了听者的心弦。屋子里 非常安静，唱到贝思最喜欢的圣歌中最后一句时，那清亮的歌声突然卡住了，很难说--人世间没有天堂治愈不了的痛苦，艾美靠在站在身后的丈夫身上，她感到没 有贝思的亲吻，她回家受到的欢迎便不完美。
“好了，我们以米娘之歌结束吧，巴尔先生会唱，“没等艾美的停顿使人难受起来，乔赶紧说。巴尔先生喜悦地清清嗓子，哼了一声。他走到乔站着的角落说 --“你和我一起唱，好吗？我们俩配合非常好。“顺便说一句，这可是个可爱的谎话，因为，乔和蚱蜢一样对音乐一窍不通。但是，即便教授提议唱整个一出歌 剧，乔也会同意的。她颤声唱了起来，喜悦中也不管是否合拍合调。
她奇怪是什么事务把巴尔先生带到这个城来了，最后认定他被委派到某处就任某种非常体面的工作，只是他太谦虚，不愿提及此事。而他回到了自己的屋子， 安全保险，无人看见了。这时，他看着一个严肃古板年轻女士的像片。这女士头发很厚，她似乎忧愁地凝视着未来。要是乔看到教授这时的神色，特别是当他关掉了 煤气灯，在黑暗中吻着像片时，她也许会把这事弄明白一些。
Jo was alone in the twilight, lying on the old sofa, lookingat the fire, and thinking. It was her favorite way of spendingthe hour of dusk. No one disturbed her, and she used to liethere on Beth's little red pillow, planning stories, dreamingdreams, or thinking tender thoughts of the sister who never seemedfar away. Her face looked tired, grave, and rather sad, for tomorrowwas her birthday, and she was thinking how fast the yearswent by, how old she was getting, and how little she seemed tohave accomplished. Almost twenty-five, and nothing to show forit. Jo was mistaken in that. There was a good deal to show,and by-and-by she saw, and was grateful for it.
"An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster,with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, andtwenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poorJohnson, I'm old and can't enjoy it, solitary, and can't shareit, independent, and don't need it. Well, I needn't be a soursaint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are verycomfortable when they get used to it, but..." And there Josighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.
It seldom is, at first, and thirty seems the end of all thingsto five-and-twenty. But it's not as bad as it looks, and one canget on quite happily if one has something in one's self to fallback upon. At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being oldmaids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirtythey say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and ifsensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twentymore useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to growold gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, foroften very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the heartsthat beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrificesof youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded facesbeautiful in God's sight. Even the sad, sour sisters shouldbe kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetestpart of life, if for no other reason. And looking at themwith compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should rememberthat they too may miss the blossom time. That rosy cheeksdon't last forever, that silver threads will come in the bonniebrown hair, and that, by-and-by, kindness and respect will be assweet as love and admiration now.
Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids,no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalryworth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference tothe old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless ofrank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have notonly lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often withoutthanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tipsthey have given you from their small store, the stitches thepatient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing oldfeet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the littleattentions that women love to receive as long as they live. Thebright-eyed girls are quick to see such traits, and will like youall the better for them, and if death, almost the only power thatcan part mother and son, should rob you of yours, you will be sureto find a tender welcome and maternal cherishing from some AuntPriscilla, who has kept the warmest corner of her lonely old heartfor `the best nevvy in the world'.
Jo must have fallen asleep (as I dare say my reader has duringthis little homily), for suddenly Laurie's ghost seemed tostand before her, a substantial, lifelike ghost, leaning over herwith the very look he used to wear when he felt a good deal anddidn't like to show it. But, like Jenny in the ballad...
She could not think it he,
and lay staring up at him in startled silence, till he stoopedand kissed her. Then she knew him, and flew up, crying joyfully . ..
"Oh my Teddy! Oh my Teddy!"
"Dear Jo, you are glad to see me, then?"
"Glad! My blessed boy, words can't express my gladness.Where's Amy?"
"Your mother has got her down at Meg's. We stopped there bythe way, and there was no getting my wife out of their clutches."
"Your what?" cried Jo, for Laurie uttered those two wordswith an unconscious pride and satisfaction which betrayed him.
"Oh, the dickens! Now I've done it." And he looked soguilty that Jo was down on him like a flash.
"You've gone and got married!"
"Yes, please, but I never will again." And he went downupon his knees, with a penitent clasping of hands, and a facefull of mischief, mirth, and triumph.
"Very much so, thank you."
"Mercy on us. What dreadful thing will you do next?" AndJo fell into her seat with a gasp.
"A characteristic, but not exactly complimentary, congratulation,"returned Laurie, still in an abject attitude, but beamingwith satisfaction.
"What can you expect, when you take one's breath away, creepingin like a burglar, and letting cats out of bags like that? Getup, you ridiculous boy, and tell me all about it."
"Not a word, unless you let me come in my old place, andpromise not to barricade."
Jo laughed at that as she had not done for many a long day,and patted the sofa invitingly, as she said in a cordial tone,"The old pillow is up garret, and we don't need it now. So, comeand fess, Teddy."
"How good it sounds to hear you say `Teddy'! No one ever callsme that but you." And Laurie sat down with an air of great content.
"What does Amy call you?"
"That's like her. Well, you look it." And Jo's eye plainlybetrayed that she found her boy comelier than ever.
The pillow was gone, but there was a barricade, nevertheless,a natural one, raised by time absence, and change of heart. Bothfelt it, and for a minute looked at one another as if that invisiblebarrier cast a little shadow over them. It was gone directlyhowever, for Laurie said, with a vain attempt at dignity...
"Don't I look like a married man and the head of a family?""Not a bit, and you never will. You've grown bigger andbonnier, but you are the same scapegrace as ever."
"Now really, Jo, you ought to treat me with more respect,"began Laurie, who enjoyed it all immensely.
"How can I, when the mere idea of you, married and settled,is so irresistibly funny that I can't keep sober!" answered Jo,smiling all over her face, so infectiously that they had anotherlaugh, and then settled down for a good talk, quite in the pleasantold fashion.
"It's no use your going out in the cold to get Amy, forthey are all coming up presently. I couldn't wait. I wanted tobe the one to tell you the grand surprise, and have `first skim'as we used to say when we squabbled about the cream."
"Of course you did, and spoiled your story by beginning atthe wrong end. Now, start right, and tell me how it all happened.I'm pining to know."
"Well, I did it to please Amy," began Laurie, with a twinklethat made Jo exclaim...
"Fib number one. Amy did it to please you. Go on, and tellthe truth, if you can, sir."
"Now she's beginning to marm it. Isn't it jolly to hear her?"said Laurie to the fire, and the fire glowed and sparkled as if itquite agreed. "It's all the same, you know, she and I being one.We planned to come home with the Carrols, a month or more ago, butthey suddenly changed their minds, and decided to pass anotherwinter in Paris. But Grandpa wanted to come home. He went to pleaseme, and I couldn't let him go along, neither could I leave Amy, andMrs. Carrol had got English notions about chaperons and such nonsense,and wouldn't let Amy come with us. So I just settled the difficultyby saying, `Let's be married, and then we can do as we like'."
"Of course you did. You always have things to suit you."
"Not always." And something in Laurie's voice made Jo sayhastily...
"How did you ever get Aunt to agree?"
"It was hard work, but between us, we talked her over, for wehad heaps of good reasons on our side. There wasn't time to writeand ask leave, but you all liked it, had consented to it by-and-by,and it was only `taking time by the fetlock', as my wife says."
"Aren't we proud of those two word, and don't we like to saythem?" interrupted Jo, addressing the fire in her turn, and watchingwith delight the happy light it seemed to kindle in the eyesthat had been so tragically gloomy when she saw them last."A trifle, perhaps, she's such a captivating little woman Ican't help being proud of her. Well, then Uncle and Aunt werethere to play propriety. We were so absorbed in one another wewere of no mortal use apart, and that charming arrangement wouldmake everything easy all round, so we did it."
"When, where, how?" asked Jo, in a fever of feminine interestand curiosity, for she could not realize it a particle.
"Six weeks ago, at the American consul's, in Paris, a veryquiet wedding of course, for even in our happiness we didn't forgetdear little Beth."
Jo put her hand in his as he said that, and Laurie gentlysmoothed the little red pillow, which he remembered well.
"Why didn't you let us know afterward?" asked Jo, in aquieter tone, when they had sat quite still a minute.
"We wanted to surprise you. We thought we were comingdirectly home, at first, but the dear old gentleman, as soon aswe were married, found he couldn't be ready under a month, atleast, and sent us off to spend our honeymoon wherever we liked.Amy had once called Valrosa a regular honeymoon home, so we wentthere, and were as happy as people are but once in their lives.My faith! Wasn't it love among the roses!"
Laurie seemed to forget Jo for a minute, and Jo was glad ofit, for the fact that he told her these things so freely and sonaturally assured her that he had quite forgiven and forgotten.She tried to draw away her hand, but as if he guessed the thoughtthat prompted the half-involuntary impulse, Laurie held it fast,and said, with a manly gravity she had never seen in him before...
"Jo, dear, I want to say one thing, and then we'll put it byforever. As I told you in my letter when I wrote that Amy hadbeen so kind to me, I never shall stop loving you, but the loveis altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is.Amy and you changed places in my heart, that's all. I think itwas meant to be so, and would have come about naturally, if I hadwaited, as you tried to make me, but I never could be patient, andso I got a heartache. I was a boy then, headstrong and violent,and it took a hard lesson to show me my mistake. For it was one,Jo, as you said, and I found it out, after making a fool of myself.Upon my word, I was so tumbled up in my mind, at one time, that Ididn't know which I loved best, you or Amy, and tried to love youboth alike. But I couldn't, and when I saw her in Switzerland,everything seemed to clear up all at once. You both got intoyour right places, and I felt sure that it was well off with theold love before it was on with the new, that I could honestlyshare my heart between sister Jo and wife Amy, and love them dearly.Will you believe it, and go back to the happy old times when wefirst knew one another?"
"I'll believe it, with all my heart, but, Teddy, we never canbe boy and girl again. The happy old times can't come back, and wemustn't expect it. We are man and woman now, with sober work to do,for playtime is over, and we must give up frolicking. I'm sure youfeel this. I see the change in you, and you'll find it in me. Ishall miss my boy, but I shall love the man as much, and admirehim more, because he means to be what I hoped he would. We can'tbe little playmates any longer, but we will be brother and sister,to love and help one another all our lives, won't we, Laurie?"
He did not say a word, but took the hand she offered him, andlaid his face down on it for a minute, feeling that out of thegrave of a boyish passion, there had risen a beautiful, strongfriendship to bless them both. Presently Jo said cheerfully, forshe didn't the coming home to be a sad one, "I can't make it truethat you children are really married and going to set up housekeeping.Why, it seems only yesterday that I was buttoning Amy's pinafore,and pulling your hair when you teased. Mercy me, how time does fly!"
"As one of the children is older than yourself, you needn'ttalk so like a grandma. I flatter myself I'm a `gentleman growed'as Peggotty said of David, and when you see Amy, you'll find herrather a precocious infant," said Laurie, looking amused at hermaternal air.
"You may be a little older in years, but I'm ever so mucholder in feeling, Teddy. Women always are, and this last year hasbeen such a hard one that I feel forty."
"Poor Jo! We left you to bear it alone, while we went pleasuring.You are older. Here's a line, and there's another. Unless you smile,your eyes look sad, and when I touched the cushion, just now,I found a tear on it. You've had a great deal to bear,and had to bear it all alone. What a selfish beast I've been!"And Laurie pulled his own hair, with a remorseful look.
But Jo only turned over the traitorous pillow, and answered,in a tone which she tried to make more cheerful, "No, I had Fatherand Mother to help me, and the dear babies to comfort me, and thethought that you and Amy were safe and happy, to make the troubleshere easier to bear. I am lonely, sometimes, but I dare say it'sgood for me, and..."
"You never shall be again," broke in Laurie, putting his armabout her, as if to fence out every human ill. "Amy and I can'tget on without you, so you must come and teach `the children' tokeep house, and go halves in everything, just as we used to do,and let us pet you, and all be blissfully happy and friendlytogether."
"If I shouldn't be in the way, it would be very pleasant. Ibegin to feel quite young already, for somehow all my troublesseemed to fly away when you came. You always were a comfort, Teddy."And Jo leaned her head on his shoulder, just as she did years ago,when Beth lay ill and Laurie told her to hold on to him.
He looked down at her, wondering if she remembered the time,but Jo was smiling to herself, as if in truth her troubles hadall vanished at his coming.
"You are the same Jo still, dropping tears about one minute,and laughing the next. You look a little wicked now. What is it,Grandma?"
"I was wondering how you and Amy get on together."
"Yes, of course, but which rules?"
"I don't mind telling you that she does now, at least I lether think so, it pleases her, you know. By-and-by we shall taketurns, for marriage, they say, halves one's rights and doublesone's duties."
"You'll go on as you begin, and Amy will rule you all thedays of your life."
"Well, she does it so imperceptibly that I don't think I shallmind much. She is the sort of woman who knows how to rule well. Infact, I rather like it, for she winds one round her finger as softlyand prettily as a skein of silk, and makes you feel as if she wasdoing you a favor all the while."
"That ever I should live to see you a henpecked husband andenjoying it!" cried Jo, with uplifted hands.
It was good to see Laurie square his shoulders, and smile withmasculine scorn at that insinuation, as he replied, with his "highand mighty" air, "Amy is too well-bred for that, and I am not thesort of man to submit to it. My wife and I respect ourselves andone another too much ever to tyrannize or quarrel."
Jo like that, and thought the new dignity very becoming, butthe boy seemed changing very fast into the man, and regret mingledwith her pleasure.
"I am sure of that. Amy and you never did quarrel as we used to.She is the sun and I the wind, in the fable, and the sun managedthe man best, you remember."
"She can blow him up as well as shine on him," laughed Laurie."such a lecture as I got at Nice! I give you my word it was a dealworse than any or your scoldings, a regular rouser. I'll tell youall about it sometime, she never will, because after telling me thatshe despised and was ashamed of me, she lost her heart to the despicableparty and married the good-for-nothing."
"What baseness! Well, if she abuses you, come to me, and I'lldefend you."
"I look as if I needed it, don't I?" said Laurie, getting upand striking an attitude which suddenly changed from the imposingto the rapturous, as Amy's voice was heard calling, "Where is she?Where's my dear old Jo?"
In trooped the whole family, and everyone was hugged and kissedall over again, and after several vain attempts, the three wandererswere set down to be looked at and exulted over. Mr. Laurence, haleand hearty as ever, was quite as much improved as the others by hisforeign tour, for the crustiness seemed to be nearly gone, and theold-fashioned courtliness had received a polish which made it kindlierthan ever. It was good to see him beam at `my children', as hecalled the young pair. It was better still to see Amy pay himthe daughterly duty and affection which completely won his old heart,and best of all, to watch Laurie revolve about the two, as if nevertired of enjoying the pretty picture they made.
The minute she put her eyes upon Amy, Meg became conscious thather own dress hadn't a Parisian air, that young Mrs. Mofffat would beentirely eclipsed by young Mrs. Laurence, and that `her ladyship' wasaltogether a most elegant and graceful woman. Jo thought, as shewatched the pair, "How well they look together! I was right, andLaurie has found the beautiful, accomplished girl who will becomehis home better than clumsy old Jo, and be a pride, not a torment tohim." Mrs. March and her husband smiled and nodded at each otherwith happy faces, for they saw that their youngest had done well,not only in worldly things, but the better wealth of love, confidence,and happiness.
For Amy's face was full of the soft brightness which betokensa peaceful heart, her voice had a new tenderness in it, and the cool,prim carriage was changed to a gentle dignity, both womanly and winning.No little affectations marred it, and the cordial sweetnessof her manner was more charming than the new beauty or the old grace,for it stamped her at once with the unmistakable sign of the truegentlewoman she had hoped to become.
"Love has done much for our little girl," said her mother softly.
"She has had a good example before her all her life, my dear,"Mr. March whispered back, with a loving look at the worn face and grayhead beside him.
Daisy found it impossible to keep her eyes off her `pitty aunty',but attached herself like a lap dog to the wonderful chatelaine fullof delightful charms. Demi paused to consider the new relationshipbefore he compromised himself by the rash acceptance of a bribe, whichtook the tempting form of a family of wooden bears from Berne. A flankmovement produced an unconditional surrender, however, for Laurie knewwhere to have him.
"Young man, when I first had the honor of making your acquaintanceyou hit me in the face. Now I demand the satisfaction of a gentleman,"and with that the tall uncle proceeded to toss and tousle the small nephewin a way that damaged his philosophical dignity as much as it delightedhis boyish soul.
"Blest if she ain't in silk from head to foot? Ain't it a relishin'sight to see her settin' there as fine as a fiddle, anch a happyprocession as filed away into the little dining room! Mr. Marchproudly escorted Mrs. Laurence. Mrs. March as proudly leaned onthe arm of `my son'. The old gentleman took Jo, with a whispered,"You must be my girl now," and a glance at the empty corner by thefire, that made Jo whisper back, "I'll try to fill her place, sir.
The twins pranced behind, feeling that the millennium was athand, for everyone was so busy with the newcomers that they wereleft to revel at their own sweet will, and you may be sure theymade the most of the opportunity. Didn't they steal sips of tea,stuff gingerbread ad libitum, get a hot biscuit apiece, and as acrowning trespass, didn't they each whisk a captivating little tartinto their tiny pockets, there to stick and crumble treacherously,teaching them that both human nature and a pastry are frail?Burdened with the guilty consciousness of the sequestered tarts,and fearing that Dodo's sharp eyes would pierce the thin disguise ofcambric and merino which hid their booty, the little sinnersattached themselves to `Dranpa', who hadn't his spectacles on. Amy,who was handed about like refreshments, returned to the parlor onFather Laurence's arm. The others paired off as before, and thisarrangement left Jo companionless. She did not mind it at theminute, for she lingered to answer Hannah's eager inquiry.
"Will Miss Amy ride in her coop (coupe), and use all themlovely silver dishes that's stored away over yander?"
"Shouldn't wonder if she drove six white horses, ate off goldplate, and wore diamonds and point lace every day. Teddy thinksnothing too good for her," returned Jo with infinite satisfaction.
"No more there is! Will you have hash or fishballs for breakfast?"asked Hannah, who wisely mingled poetry and prose.
"I don't care." And Jo shut the door, feeling that food was anuncongenial topic just then. She stood a minute looking at theparty vanishing above, and as Demi's short plaid legs toiled up thelast stair, a sudden sense of lonliness came over her so stronglythat she looked about her with dim eyes, as if to find something tolean upon, for even Teddy had deserted her. If she had known whatbirthday gift was coming every minute nearer and nearer, she wouldnot have said to herself, "I'll weep a little weep when I go to bed.It won't do to be dismal now." Then she drew her hand over her eyes,for one of her boyish habits was never to know where herhandkerchief was, and had just managed to call up a smile whenthere came a knock at the porch door.
She opened with hospitable haste, and started as if anotherghost had come to surprise her, for there stood a tall beardedgentleman, beaming on her from the darkness like a midnight sun.
"Oh, Mr. Bhaer, I am so glad to see you!" cried Jo, with aclutch, as if she feared the night would swallow him up beforeshe could get him in.
"And I to see Miss Marsch, but no, you haf a party," and theProfessor paused as the sound of voices and the tap of dancingfeet came down to them.
"No, we haven't, only the family. My sister and friendshave just come home, and we are all very happy. Come in, andmake one of us."
Though a very social man, I think Mr. Bhaer would have gonedecorously away, and come again another day, but how could he,when Jo shut the door behind him, and bereft him of his hat?Perhaps her face had something to do with it, for she forgotto hide her joy at seeing him, and showed it with a franknessthat proved irresistible to the solitary man, whose welcome farexceeded his boldest hopes.
"If I shall not be Monsieur de Trop, I will so gladly seethem all. You haf been ill, my friend?"
He put the question abruptly, for, as Jo hung up his coat,the light fell on her face, and he saw a change in it.
"Not ill, but tired and sorrowful. We have had troublesince I saw you last."
"Ah, yes, I know. My heart was sore for you when I heardthat," And he shook hands again, with such a sympathetic facethat Jo felt as if no comfort could equal the look of the kindeyes, the grasp of the big, warm hand.
"Father, Mother, this is my friend, Professor Bhaer," shesaid, with a face and tone of such irrepressible pride andpleasure that she might as well have blown a trumpet and openedthe door with a flourish.
If the stranger had any doubts about his reception, theywere set at rest in a minute by the cordial welcome he received.Everyone greeted him kindly, for Jo's sake at first, but verysoon they liked him for his own. They could not help it, forhe carried the talisman that opens all hearts, and these simplepeople warmed to him at once, feeling even the more friendlybecause he was poor. For poverty enriches those who live aboveit, and is a sure passport to truly hospitable spirits. Mr.Bhaer sat looking about him with the air of a traveler whoknocks at a strange door, and when it opens, finds himself athome. The children went to him like bees to a honeypot, andestablishing themselves on each knee, proceeded to captivate himby rifling his pockets, pulling his beard, and investigating hiswatch, with juvenile audacity. The women telegraphed theirapproval to one another, and Mr. March, feeling that he had gota kindred spirit, opened his choicest stores for his guest'sbenefit, while silent John listened and enjoyed the talk, butsaid not a word, and Mr. Laurence found it impossible to go tosleep.
If Jo had not been otherwise engaged, Laurie's behaviorwould have amused her, for a faint twinge, not of jealousy, butsomething like suspicion, caused that gentleman to stand aloofat first, and observe the newcomer with brotherly circumspection.But it did not last long. He got interested in spite of himself,and before he knew it, was drawn into the circle. For Mr. Bhaertalked well in this genial atmosphere, and did himself justice.He seldom spoke to Laurie, but he looked at him often, and ashadow would pass across his face, as if regretting his own lostyouth, as he watched the young man in his prime. Then his eyeswould turn to Jo so wistfully that she would have surely answeredthe mute inquiry if she had seen it. But Jo had her own eyes totake care of, and feeling that they could not be trusted, sheprudently kept them on the little sock she was knitting, like amodel maiden aunt.
A stealthy glance now and then refreshed her like sips offresh water after a dusty walk, for the sidelong peeps showedher several propitious omens. Mr. Bhaer's face had lost theabsent-minded expression, and looked all alive with interest inthe present moment, actually young and handsome, she thought,forgetting to compare him with Laurie, as she usually did strangemen, to their great detriment. Then he seemed quite inspired,though the burial customs of the ancients, to which the conversationhad strayed, might not be considered an exhilarating topic.Jo quite glowed with triumph when Teddy got quenched inan argument, and thought to herself, as she watched her father'sabsorbed face, "How he would enjoy having such a man as my Professorto talk with every day!" Lastly, Mr. Bhaer was dressedin a new suit of black, which made him look more like a gentlemanthan ever. His bushy hair had been cut and smoothly brushed, butdidn't stay in order long, for in exciting moments, he rumpledit up in the droll way he used to do, and Jo liked it rampantlyerect better than flat, because she thought it gave his fineforehead a Jove-like aspect. Poor Jo, how she did glorify thatplain man, as she sat knitting away so quietly, yet lettingnothing escape her, not even the fact that Mr. Bhaer actuallyhad gold sleeve-buttons in his immaculate wristbands.
"Dear old fellow! He couldn't have got himself up withmore care if he'd been going a-wooing," said Jo to herself, andthen a sudden thought born of the words made her blush so dreadfullythat she had to drop her ball, and go down after it to hide her face.
The maneuver did not succeed as well as she expected, however,for though just in the act of setting fire to a funeralpyre, the Professor dropped his torch, metaphorically speaking,and made a dive after the little blue ball. Of course theybumped their heads smartly together, saw stars, and both cameup flushed and laughing, without the ball, to resume their seats,wishing they had not left them.
Nobody knew where the evening went to, for Hannah skillfullyabstracted the babies at an early hour, nodding like two rosypoppies, and Mr. Laurence went home to rest. The others satround the fire, talking away, utterly regardless of the lapseof time, till Meg, whose maternal was impressed with a firm convictionthat Daisy had tumbled out of be, and Demi set his nightgownafire studying the structure of matches, made a move to go.
"We must have our sing, in the good old way, for we are alltogether again once more," said Jo, feeling that a good shoutwould be a safe and pleasant vent for the jubilant emotions ofher soul.
They were not all there. But no one found the words thougtlessor untrue, for Beth still seemed among them, a peaceful presence,invisible, but dearer than ever, since death could not breakthe household league that love made disoluble. The littlechair stood in its old place. The tidy basket, with the bit ofwork she left unfinished when the needle grew `so heavy', wasstill on its accustomed shelf. The beloved instrument, seldomtouched now had not been moved, and above it Beth's face, sereneand smiling, as in the early days, looked down upon them, seemingto say, "Be happy. I am here."
"Play something, Amy. Let them hear how much you have improved,"said Laurie, with pardonable pride in his promising pupil.
But Amy whispered, with full eyes, as she twirled the fadedstool, "Not tonight, dear. I can't show off tonight."
But she did show something better than brilliancy or skill,for she sang Beth's songs with a tender music in her voice whichthe best master could not have taught, and touched the listener'shearts with a sweeter power than any other inspiration could havegiven her. The room was very still, when the clear voice failedsuddenly at the last line of Beth's favorite hymn. It was hardto say...
Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal;
and Amy leaned against her husband, who stood behind her, feelingthat her welcome home was not quite perfect without Beth's kiss.
"Now, we must finish with Mignon's song, for Mr. Bhaer singsthat," said Jo, before the pause grew painful. And Mr. Bhaercleared his throat with a gratified "Hem!" as he stepped into thecorner where Jo stood, saying...
"You will sing with me? We go excellently well together."
A pleasing fiction, by the way, for Jo had no more idea ofmusic than a grasshopper. But she would have consented if he hadproposed to sing a whole opera, and warbled away, blissfully regardlessof time and tune. It didn't much matter, for Mr. Bhaersang like a true German, heartily and well, and Jo soon subsidedinto a subdued hum, that she might listen to the mellow voice thatseemed to sing for her alone.
Know'st thou the land where the citron blooms,
used to be the Professor's favorite line, for `das land' meantGermany to him, but now he seemed to dwell, with peculiar warmthand melody, upon the words...
There, oh there, might I with thee,O, my beloved, go
and one listener was so thrilled by the tender invitation that shelonged to say she did know the land, and would joyfully departthither whenever he liked
The song was considered a great success, and the singer retiredcovered with laurels. But a few minutes afterward, he forgot hismanners entirely, and stared at Amy putting on her bonnet, for shehad been introduced simply as `my sister', and on one had calledher by her new name since her came. He forgot himself still furtherwhen Laurie said, in his most gracious manner, at parting...
"My wife and I are very glad to meet you, sir. Please rememberthat there is always a welcome waiting for you over the way."
Then the Professor thanked him so heartily, and looked sosuddenly illuminated with satisfaction, that Laurie thought himthe most delightfully demonstrative old fellow he ever met.
"I too shall go, but I shall gladly come again, if you willgif me leave, dear madame, for a little business in the city willkeep me here some days."
He spoke to Mrs. March, but he looked at Jo, and the mother'svoice gave as cordial an assent as did the daughter's eyes, forMrs. March was not so blind to her children's interest as Mrs.Moffat supposed.
"I suspect that is a wise man," remarked Mr. March, withplacid satisfaction, from the hearthrug, after the last guest hadgone.
"I know he is a good one," added Mrs. March, with decidedapproval, as she wound up the clock.
"I thought you'd like him," was all Jo said, as she slippedaway to her bed.
She wondered what the business was that brought Mr. Bhaer tothe city, and finally decided that he had been appointed to somegreat honor, somewhere, but had been too modest to mention thefact. If she had seen his face when, safe in his own room, helooked at the picture of a severe and rigid young lady, with agood deal of hair, who appeared to be gazing darkly into futurity,it might have thrown some light upon the subject, especially whenhe turned off the gas, and kissed the picture in the dark.