她唱歌总唱悲哀的歌。脸上的神情也时常让我捉摸不透。这不像贝思，我真担心。““你可问过她？““我试过一两次，可是她要么回避，要么显得很难过， 我只好不问。我从不强迫我的孩子们向我吐露心事。我也极少要等很长时间，她们会告诉我的。“马奇太太一边说着，一边扫视着乔。但是对面那张脸上的表情似乎 完全不知道贝思的心事。乔若有所思地做了会针线，然后说：“我想她是长大了，开始做梦了，她希望着，担心着，又烦躁不安，她不知道为什么，也没法儿解释。 哎呀，妈，贝思已经十八岁了，我们却没有意识到。我们忘了她是个女人，还把她当孩子待。““可不是嘛，亲爱的宝贝们，你们那么快就长大了。“妈妈笑着又叹 了一口气。
“妈咪，这可是没办法的事。所以您就别操那样的烦心事了，让你的小鸟们一只接一只地飞出去吧。我保证我不会飞得很远的，如果那样能使你得到安慰的 话。“那真让人宽慰，乔。现在梅格出了门，只要你在家，我总感到有力量。贝思太虚弱，艾美太年轻，依靠不上她们。可是每逢有苦活重活，你都能帮我一把。“ “哎呀，你知道我不太在乎干重活的。一个家总得有一个擦擦洗洗的人。艾美擅长做精美的艺术品，而我不行。可要是家里的地毯都需要清理，或者家里有一半人同 时生了病，我便感到适得其所。艾美在国外干得很出色。假如家里出了什么事，我就是你的帮手。““那我就把贝思交给你了，因为，她会最先向她的乔敞开她小小 的柔弱的心房。要非常友善，别让她以为别人在观察她，谈论她。只要她能重新强健起来，愉快起来，我什么也不希求了。““幸福的女人！我也有一大堆烦恼。“ “亲爱的，什么烦恼？““我先解决好贝思的烦心事，然后再把我的告诉你。我的不是太烦人，随它去吧。“乔贤慧地点点头，继续缝着。这使妈妈至少在目前不为 她担忧了。
乔表面上忙于自己的事，暗中却在观察着贝思。她作出许多推测，又一一推翻，最后她拿准了一种，似乎能解释贝思的变化。她认为，是一件小事为她提供了 解开秘密的线索，剩下的则是由活跃的想象和一颗爱心去解决的。那是一个星期六的下午，她和贝思单独在一起。她假装忙着写东西，可是她一边胡乱写着，一边注 意着贝思。贝思看上去很安静。她坐在窗口，针线活不时掉到膝盖上，也不在意，她情绪低落地用手抚着头，目光停留在窗外萧索的秋色上。忽然，有人像爱唱歌的 画眉一样吹着口哨从窗下走过，然后便听到一个声音：“一切都好，我今晚来！“贝思一惊，她倾过身子，微笑着点点头，注视着这个过路人，直到他急促的脚步声 消失。然后她自言自语般地轻声说：“那可爱的男孩看上去多么健壮，多么快乐啊！““呀！“乔仍然目不转睛地看着妹妹的脸。那张脸上的红晕来得快去得也快， 笑容也没了，一转眼，窗台上滴上了一滴闪光的泪珠。贝思赶忙将它擦去，担心地瞥了一眼乔，乔正在奋笔疾书，显然她全神贯注于《奥林匹亚的誓言》。可是贝思 一转头，乔又开始注意她，她看到贝思不止一次地轻轻用手擦眼睛，从贝思半偏的脸上乔察觉到一种动人的哀婉，乔的眼泪也涌出来了。她担心让贝思看见，便嘟囔 着还需要些纸，赶紧走开了。
“我的天哪，贝思爱上了劳里！“她在自己房里坐下，为她刚才的发现惊得面色发白。“我做梦也没想到过这种事。妈妈会怎么说呢？我不知道他--"乔打 住话头，她突然想起什么，脸红了。“要是他也不爱她，会是多么可怕啊！他一定得爱贝思，我得让他这么做！“她威胁地朝墙上劳里的照片摇了摇头。“哦，天 啊，我们已经完全长大了。梅格结了婚做了妈妈，艾美在巴黎活跃非凡，贝思在恋爱，只有我一个人还有足够的理智不胡闹。“乔盯着照片专心致志地想了一会儿， 然后她抚平额上的皱纹，坚定地朝对面墙上的那张脸点点头说道：“不，谢谢你，先生。你是很迷人，但是，你和风向标一样不稳定，随风倒。你不必写那些动人的 纸条，也不用那样令人肉麻地微笑。一点用处没有，我可不要那些。“然后，她又叹息着，陷入了沉思，直到薄暮时分才回过神来，下了楼再去观察，结果更证实了 她的猜测。虽然劳里和艾美嬉闹，和乔开玩笑，但她对贝思的态度总是特别友善、亲切，可每个人对贝思都是这样的呀，所以没人想到过劳里对贝思比对其他人更关 心。确实，这些天全家人普遍感到"我们的男孩"越来越喜欢乔了，而乔对此事一个字也不愿听，假如谁胆敢提及，她就怒骂谁。要是家人知道过去一年里他俩之间 说过种种甜言蜜语，或者，想说些甜言蜜语却无法出口，他们必定会非常满意地说：“和你这样说过吧？“然而乔讨厌"调情"，不允许有这种事情。她随时准备着 一个笑话或一个微笑，要把方露端倪、迫在眉睫的危险应付过去。
劳里去上大学的时候，大概每月恋爱一次。但是这些小小的恋火燃烧得炽烈却短暂，没起什么坏作用，也让乔感到很好笑。每个星期她和劳里会面时，劳里都 向她倾诉。他情绪反复无常，先是希望，继而绝望，最后放弃，乔对这很感兴趣。然而劳里曾一度不再崇拜众多偶像了，他隐约地暗示出一种专心一意的热情，偶尔 又处于一阵阵拜伦式的忧郁心境中。后来他又完全避开柔情的话题。他给乔写冷静的便条，变得用起功来。他宣称打算"钻研"了，要以优异的成绩非常荣光地毕 业。较之黄昏时分的交心，温柔的手拉手，意味深长的眼色，劳里这些变化更适合这个年轻的女士。因为，对乔来说，头脑比感情成熟得早些。她更喜欢想象中的英 雄，而不是真实的英雄。厌倦了他们时，她可以把想象中的英雄关到她那蹩脚的灶间，需要时再让他出来。可是真实的英雄却不好对付。
当乔有了那个重大发现时，情况就是这样。那天晚上，乔以从来没有过的神情注视着劳里。要是她脑中没有这个新的想法，她就不会从贝思很安静，而劳里待 她很客气这个事实中发现异样。然而，她让活跃的想象自由发挥，任其飞奔。由于长期写作浪漫传奇，她的常识减弱了，帮不上忙。像往常一样，贝思躺在沙发上， 劳里坐在旁边的一张低椅子上，对她天南海北地吹着，逗她，贝思依赖这种每周的"故事"，他也从不让她失望。可是，那天晚上，乔总觉得贝思带着特别快乐的神 情，眼睛盯着身旁那张充满生气的黝黑的面孔。她带着极大的兴趣听他讲述一些激动人心的板球赛，虽然那些语句"截住一个贴板球"、"击球员出局"、“一局中 三球"对她像梵语一样高深。乔全神贯注地观察他俩，认为劳里的态度更加亲切了。他有时放低声音，笑得比往常少，还有点心不在焉。他殷勤地用软毛毯盖住贝思 的脚，那可真算是至柔之情。
“谁知道呢？更奇怪的事已发生了，“乔在屋子里东转西转地这样想着，“只要他们相爱，她将把他变得相当可爱，他会使他亲爱的人儿生活得舒适、愉快。 我看他会这么做的，我真的相信，如果我们其他人不挡道，他会的。“由于除了她以外，没有人在挡道，乔开始感到她应该尽快给自己找个位置。可是她到哪儿去 呢？她怀着热情炽烈的姐妹之情，坐下来解决这个问题。
眼下，那张旧沙发成了公认的沙发鼻祖--又长，又宽，填充得饱满，低低的，有点破，也该破了。姑娘们还是婴孩的时候在上面睡觉，躺卧。孩提时，她们 在沙发背后掏过东西，也骑过沙发扶手，还把沙发底部当过动物园。长大成小妇人，她们又将疲乏的脑袋靠在上面休息，她们坐在沙发上做着梦，听着柔情绵绵的谈 话。大家都爱这张沙发，它是家庭的避难所。沙发的一角一直是乔最喜欢的休息位置。这张历史悠久的长沙发上有许多枕头，其中一个又硬又圆，用有点刺人的马毛 呢包住，两头各钉了钮扣，这个叫人不舒服的枕头倒是乔的特殊财产，她用它作防御武器，用它设障，用它严格地防止过多的睡眠。
劳里对这个枕头很熟悉，他完全有理由十分讨厌它。以前允许他们顽皮嬉闹时，他被枕头无情地痛击过。现在他非常渴求能坐在沙发这一角乔的身边，可是枕 头经常挡道。假如他们所称的这个"腊肠球"竖起来放着，这就是暗示他可以接近。但是假如枕头平放在沙发中间，谁还敢去烦她！不管是大人还是小孩，男人还是 女人，都得倒霉。那天晚上，乔忘了把她的角落堵住，她在沙发上坐下来还不到五分钟，身旁就出现了个巨大的身体，两只胳膊平放在沙发背上，两条长腿伸在前 面。劳里心满意足地叹了口气，叫道--“哎唷，坐这位子可真不容易。““别说俏皮话，“乔厉声说。她砰地丢下枕头，可是太晚了，枕头没地方放了。枕头滑落 到地上，非常神秘地不知滚到哪里去了。
“喂，乔，别那样满身长刺。整整一星期人家苦苦学习，弄得骨瘦如柴。他配得到爱抚，也应该得到爱抚。““贝思会爱抚你的，我忙着呢。““不，她不会 让我烦她的。而你喜欢，除非你突然没了兴致，是不是？你恨你的男孩子吗？想用枕头砸他？“她从未听过比这更有诱惑力的动人的恳求。然而，她扑灭了"她的男 孩"的热情，转向他严厉地问道：“这星期你送给兰德尔小姐多少束花？““一束也没送，我保证。她已经订了婚，怎么样？““我很高兴，那可是你的一种愚蠢的 放纵行为--送花和礼物给那些你根本不在乎的女孩们，“乔责备地接着说。
“可是我很在乎的女孩子们却不让我送'花和礼物'，我能怎么办呢？我的感情得有所寄托。““妈妈不允许谈情说爱，哪怕是闹着玩也不行。特迪，你太过 分了。“要是我能说：'你也这样，'我愿放弃一切。可你不是这样。我只能说，假如大家都懂得那只是一种游戏，我看这种令人愉快的小节目没什么危害。““是 的，看上去是令人愉快，可是这个游戏我学不会，我试过，因为大家在一起时，要是不能和别人一样，那挺让人尴尬。不过，我似乎没什么进步。“乔已忘记她指导 人的角色。
“向艾美学着点，她在这方面颇具才能。““是的。她做得很不错，似乎从不过分。我想，对一些人来说，不用学自然就能讨人喜欢，另一些人总是不分场合 说错话，办错事。““很高兴你不会调情。一个聪明的、坦率的姑娘真是让人耳聪目明。她快乐、和善却不闹笑话。乔，别对人讲，我认识的一些女孩子太疯了，我 都为她们不好意思。她们肯定没有恶意，但是，如果她们知道我们男孩子背后是怎么议论她们的，我想，她们会改正的。““男孩子们一样疯。你们的舌头最刻薄， 因此失败的通常是你们，而且你们和女孩子一样傻，完全一样。要是你们举止得体，女孩们也会这样，可是她们知道你们喜欢听她们的疯话，她们也就这样说。可你 们反过来又责备人家。““你懂得可真不少，小姐，“劳里超然地说，“我们不喜欢嬉闹、调情，尽管我们有时表现出喜欢的样子。我们从不议论漂亮、其实的女孩 子，除非男士们之间怀着尊敬谈起她们。
劳里这种滑稽而又相互矛盾的态度令人忍俊不禁。一方面他骑士般地不愿说女性的坏话；另一方面他又很自然地讨厌不娴淑的愚行，在上流社会他看到了许多 这样的例子。乔知道，“年轻的劳伦斯"被世俗的母亲们当作最适当的嫁女对象，他也颇得女孩子们的欢心。他还备受老少女士们的宠爱，使他成了个花花公子。所 以，乔相当忌妒地注意着他，担心他被宠坏。当她发现他仍然喜欢其实的女孩子时，倒掩饰不住内心的高兴。她突然又用起了忠告的语调，放低声音说：“假如你非 要有个'寄托'的话，特迪，就全心全意去爱一个你确实尊重的'漂亮、其实'的女孩吧，别把时间花在那些傻姑娘们身上。““你真这么建议？“劳里看着她，脸 上的表情奇怪、复杂，又是焦急又是高兴。
你在这里躺下，摸摸我'可怜'的脑袋吧。我会平静下来睡着的，我会的。“乔照着她的话做了。但是，她用手轻轻地来回抚摸着贝思滚烫的额头和潮湿的眼 睑时，心中似有千言万语，极想说出来。可是，虽然乔还年轻，她已经懂得心灵和花朵一样，不能粗暴对待，得让其自然开放。所以，尽管她相信自己知道贝思新的 痛苦的原因，她还是用亲切的语调说：“你有烦恼，宝贝儿，是不是？““是的，乔，“沉默了好长一会儿，贝思答道。
“那我就不问了。但请记住，小贝思，假如能够，妈妈和乔总会高兴地听你诉说烦恼，帮助你。““我知道，将来我会告诉你的。““现在痛苦好些了吗？“ “是的，好多了。乔，你真会安慰人。““睡吧，亲爱的，我和你在一起睡。“于是，她们脸贴着脸地睡着了。第二天，贝思看上去又恢复了正常。处在十八岁的年 龄，头疼、心疼都持续不长，一个爱的字眼便可医治大部分的痛苦。
今年冬天没什么事需要我，因此我想飞到不太远的地方，试试我的翅膀。““你往哪里飞呢？““往纽约飞，昨天我想到一个好主意，是这样的，你知道，柯 克太太写过信给你，问有没有品行端正的年轻人愿意教她的孩子并帮着缝缝补补。要找到合适的相当不容易，但我想假如我去试试，我会适合干那工作的。““我的 天哪！到那个大公寓去做仆人！“马奇太太好像很惊奇，但并非不快。
她家和外界隔开了，那里也没人认识我，就是认识，我也不在乎。这是个正正派派的工作，我不以为耻。““我也是这样看，可你的写作呢？““变换一下环 境对写作更有好处。我会接受新的事物，产生新的想法。即使我在那儿呆不久；我也会带回来许许多多的材料写我那些拙劣的东西。““我毫不怀疑。这是不是你突 然要走的唯一原因？““不，妈妈。““能让我知道别的原因吗？“乔朝上看看，又向下看看，脸突然红了。她慢慢地说：“这么说也许是自夸，也许错了，但是 --我恐怕--劳里越来越过于喜欢我了。““他开始喜欢你，这是很明显的，难道你不是同样喜欢他吗？“马奇太太神色焦急地问道。
“亲爱的，因为我认为你们两个不适合。作为朋友你们能快乐地相处，你们经常发生的争执很快就烟消云散。但是我担心，要是你们终身结合在一起，两个人 都会反抗。你们俩太相像了，太喜欢自由了，更不要说你们的火暴脾气和坚强的个性。这些不能使你们幸福地过活，而幸福的生活不仅需要爱，还需要巨大的容忍与 克制。““虽然我表达不出来，但我就是这样想的。我很高兴你认为他只是刚开始喜欢我。要是使他不幸福，我会感到非常不安的。我不能仅仅出于感激而爱上那可 爱的小伙子，是吧？““你确信他爱你？“乔的脸更红了，她脸上的表情混杂着快乐、骄傲和痛苦，年轻姑娘谈起初恋对象时都会这样。她回答说：“恐怕是这样， 妈妈。他什么也没说，可是表情很能说明问题。我想，我最好在事情挑明前避开。““你说得对，假如这么着有效果你就去吧。“乔舒了口气。她停了一会儿，笑着 说：“莫法特太太要是知道了，她会大惊小怪地说你管教子女不严，同时又为安妮仍然有希望得到劳里而欣喜不已。““哦，乔，母亲们管教子女的方式可能不同， 但对子女的希望是相同的--希望看到她们的孩子幸福。梅格过得幸福，我为她的成功感到满足。你嘛，我由着你去，直到你厌倦了自由，只有到那时，你才会发现 还有更美好的事情。现在，我最挂心的是艾美，但是她清醒的头脑会帮她的。至于贝思，除了希望她身体好起来，我没有别的奢望了。顺便问问，这两天她情绪似乎 好点儿了，你和她谈过吗？““是的，她承认她有烦恼，答应以后告诉我。我没有再问，我想我已经知道了。“乔接着说出了她的小小经历。
“计划实施之前我们什么也别对劳里说。然后，没等他回过神来悲伤，我已经走了。贝思会以为我离开是让自己高兴，事实也是这样。我不能对贝思说起劳 里。但是，我走后，她能和他亲昵，安慰他，使他从这种浪漫情绪中解脱出来。劳里已经历过许多这种小考验，他已经习惯了，很快就能摆脱失恋的痛苦。“乔充满 希望地说着，但是她心里仍有一种预感，担心这个"小考验"会比其他的那些更难接受，而劳里也不会像以前那样容易地摆脱"失恋"的痛苦。
在家庭会议上大家讨论并通过了这个计划。柯克太太很高兴地接受了乔，保证给她个愉快的家。教学工作能使她自立，她的闲暇时间可用来写作，而新景色、 新交往既有益处又令人愉悦。这种前景令乔激动不已，她急切地想走。家已变得太窄了，盛不下她那种不安的个性和爱冒险的精神。一切都落实了，她战战兢兢地告 诉了劳里。可使她惊奇的是，劳里平静地接受了这件事。最近他比往日严肃，但仍然很开朗。
"Jo, I'm anxious about Beth."
"Why, Mother, she has seemed unusually well since thebabies came."
"It's not her health that troubles me now, it's her spirits.I'm sure there is something on her mind, and I want you to discoverwhat it is."
"What makes you think so, Mother?"
"She sits alone a good deal, and doesn't talk to her fatheras much as she used. I found her crying over the babies theother day. When she sings, the songs are always sad ones, andnow and then I see a look in her face that I don't understand.This isn't like Beth, and it worries me."
"Have you asked her about it?'
"I have tried once or twice, but she either evaded myquestions or looked so distressed that I stopped. I neverforce my children's confidence, and I seldom have to waitfor long."
Mrs. March glanced at Jo as she spoke, but the faceopposite seemed quite unconscious of any secret disquietudebut Beth's, and after sewing thoughtfully for a minute, Josaid, "I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams,and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why orbeing able to explain them. Why, Mother, Beth's eighteen, butwe don't realize it, and treat her like a child, forgettingshe's a woman."
"So she is. Dear heart, how fast you do grow up," returnedher mother with a sigh and a smile.
"Can't be helped, Marmee, so you must resign yourself toall sorts of worries, and let your birds hop out of the nest,one by one. I promise never to hop very far, if that is anycomfort to you."
"It's a great comfort, Jo. I always feel strong when youare at home, now Meg is gone. Beth is too feeble and Amy tooyoung to depend upon, but when the tug comes, you are alwaysready."
"Why, you know I don't mind hard jobs much, and theremust always be one scrub in a family. Amy is splendid in fineworks and I'm not, but I feel in my element when all the carpetsare to be taken up, or half the family fall sick at once.Amy is distinguishing herself abroad, but if anything is amissat home, I'm your man."
"I leave Beth to your hands, then, for she will open hertender little heart to her Jo sooner than to anyone else. Bevery kind, and don't let her think anyone watches or talksabout; her. If she only would get quite strong and cheerfulagain, I shouldn't have a wish in the world."
"Happy woman! I've got heaps."
"My dear, what are they?"
"I'll settle Bethy's troubles, and then I'll tell you mine.They are not very wearing, so they'll keep." And Jo stitched away,with a wise nod which set her mother's heart at rest about her forthe present at least.
While apparently absorbed in her own affairs, Jo watchedBeth, and after many conflicting conjectures, finally settledupon one which seemed to explain the change in her. A slightincident gave Jo the clue to the mystery, she thought, andlively fancy, loving heart did the rest. She was affectingto write busily one Saturday afternoon, when she and Beth werealone together. Yet as she scribbled, she kept her eye on hersister, who seemed unusually quiet. Sitting at the window, Beth'swork often dropped into her lap, and she leaned her head upon herhand, in a dejected attitude, while her eyes rested on the dull,autumnal landscape. Suddenly some one passed below, whistlinglike an operatic blackbird, and a voice called out, "All serene!Coming in tonight."
Beth started, leaned forward, smiled and nodded, watched thepasser-by till his quick tramp died away, then said softly as ifto herself, "How strong and well and happy that dear boy looks."
"Hum!" said Jo, still intent upon her sister's face, for thebright color faded as quickly as it came, the smile vanished, andpresently a tear lay shining on the window ledge. Beth whiskedit off, and in her half-averted face read a tender sorrow thatmade her own eyes fill. Fearing to betray herself, she slippedaway, murmuring something about needing more paper.
"Mercy on me, Beth loves Laurie!" she said, sitting down inher own room, pale with the shock of the discovery which shebelieved she had just made. "I never dreamed of such a thing.What will Mother say? I wonder if her..." there Jo stoppedand turned scarlet with a sudden thought. "If he shouldn't loveback again, how dreadful it would be. He must. I'll make him!"And she shook her head threateningly at the picture of the mischievous-looking boy laughing at her from the wall. "Oh dear, we aregrowing up with a vengeance. Here's Meg married and a mamma,Amy flourishing away at Paris, and Beth in love. I'm the onlyone that has sense enough to keep out of mischief." Jo thoughtintently for a minute with her eyes fixed on the picture, thenshe smoothed out her wrinkled forehead and said, with a decidednod at the face opposite, "No thank you, sir, you're verycharming, but you've no more stability than a weathercock. Soyou needn't write touching notes and smile in that insinuatingway, for it won't do a bit of good, and I won't have it."
Then she sighed, and fell into a reverie from which shedid not wake till the early twilight sent her down to take newobservations, which only confirmed her suspicion. ThoughLaurie flirted with Amy and joked with Jo, his manner to Bethhad always been peculiarly kind and gentle, but so was everybody's.Therefore, no one thought of imagining that he cared morefor her than for the others. Indeed, a general impressionhad prevailed in the family of late that `our boy' was gettingfonder than ever of Jo, who, however, wouldn't hear a word uponthe subject and scolded violently if anyone dared to suggest it.If they had known the various tender passages which had beennipped in the bud, they would have had the immense satisfactionof saying, "I told you so." But Jo hated `philandering', andwouldn't allow it, always having a joke or a smile ready at theleast sign of impending danger.
When Laurie first went to college, he fell in love aboutonce a month, but these small flames were as brief as ardent,did no damage, and much amused Jo, who took great interest inthe alternations of hop, despair, and resignation, which wereconfided to her in their weekly conferences. But there came atime when Laurie ceased to worship at many shrines, hinteddarkly at one all-absorbing passion, and indulged occasionallyin Byronic fits of gloom. Then he avoided the tender subjectaltogether, wrote philosophical notes to Jo, turned studious,and gave out that he was going to `dig', intending to graduatein a blaze of glory. This suited the young lady better thantwilight confidences, tender pressures of the hand, andeloquent glances of the eye, for with Jo, brain developedearlier than heart, and she preferred imaginary heroes toreal ones, because when tired of them, the former could beshut up in the tin kitchen till called for, and the latterwere less manageable.
Things were in this state when the grand discovery wasmade, and Jo watched Laurie that night as she had never donebefore. If she had not got the new idea into her head, shewould have seen nothing unusual in the fact that Beth wasvery quiet, and Laurie very kind to her. But having given therein to her lively fancy, it galloped away with her at a greatpace, and common sense, being rather weakened by a long courseor romance writing, did not come to the rescue. As usual Bethlay on the sofa and Laurie sat in a low chair close by, amusingher with all sorts of gossip, for she depended on her weekly`spin', and he never disappointed her. But that evening Jofancied that Beth's eyes rested on the lively, dark facebeside her with peculiar pleasure, and that she listened withintense interest to an account of some exciting cricket match,though the phrases, `caught off a tice', `stumped off his ground",and `the leg hit for three', were as intelligible to her asSanskrit. She also fancied, having set her heart upon seeing it,that she saw a certain increase of gentleness in Laurie's manner,that he dropped his voice now and then, laughed less than usual,was a little absent--minded, and settled the afghan over Beth'sfeet with an assiduity that was really almost tender.
"Who knows? Stranger things have happened," thought Jo,as she fussed about the room. "She will make quite an angelof him, and he will make life delightfully easy and pleasantfor the dear, if they only love each other. I don't see how hecan help it, and I do believe he would if the rest of us were out ofthe way."
As everyone was out of the way but herself, Jo began tofeel that she ought to dispose of herself with all speed. Butwhere should she go? And burning to lay herself upon the shrineof sisterly devotion, she sat down to settle that point.
Now, the old sofa was a regular patriarch of a sofa--long,broad, well-cushioned, and low, a trifle shabby, as well it mightbe, for the girls had slept and sprawled on it as babies,fished over the back, rode on the arms, and had menageriesunder it as children, and rested tired heads, dreamed dreams,and listened to tender talk on it as young women. They all lovedit, for it was a family refuge, and one corner had always beenJo's favorite lounging place. Among the many pillows that adornedthe venerable couch was one, hard, round, covered with pricklyhorsehair, and furnished with a knobby button at each end. Thisrepulsive pillow was her especial property, being used as a weaponof defense, a barricade, or a stern preventive of too much slumber.
Laurie knew this pillow well, and had cause to regard it withdeep aversion, having been unmercifully pummeled with it in formerdays when romping was allowed, and now frequently debarred by itfrom the seat he most coveted next ot Jo in the sofa corner. If`the sausage' as the called it, stood on end, it was a sign thathe might approach and repose, but if it lay flat across the sofa,woe to man, woman, or child who dared disturb it! That eveningJo forgot to barricade her corner, and had not been in her seatfive minutes, before a massive form appeared beside her, and withboth arms spread over the sofa back, both long legs stretched outbefore him, Laurie exclaimed, with a sigh of satisfaction...
"Now, this is filling at the price."
"No slang," snapped Jo, slamming down the pillow. But it wastoo late, there was no room for it, and coasting onto the floor,it disappeared in a most mysterious manner.
"Come, Jo, don't be thorny. After studying himself to askeleton all the week, a fellow deserves petting and ought to getit."
"Beth will pet you. I'm busy."
"No, she's not to be bothered with me, but you like that sortof thing, unless you've suddenly lost your taste for it. Have you?Do you hate your boy, and want to fire pillows at him?"
Anything more wheedlesome than that touching appeal was seldomheard, but Jo quenched `her boy' by turning on him with a sternquery, "How many bouquets have you sent Miss Randal this week?"
"Not one, upon my word. She's engaged. Now then."
"I'm glad of it, that's one of your foolish extravagances,sending flowers and things to girls for whom you don't care twopins," continued Jo reprovingly.
"Sensible girls for whom I do care whole papers of pins won'tlet me send them `flowers and things', so what can I do? My feelingsneed a` vent'."
"Mother doesn't approve of flirting even in fun, and you doflirt desperately, Teddy."
"I'd give anything if I could answer, `So do you'. As I can't,I'll merely say that I don't see any harm in that pleasant littlegame, if all parties understand that it's only play."
"Well, it does look pleasant, but I can't learn how it's done.I've tried, because one feels awkward in company not to do aseverybody else id doing, but I don't seem to get on", said Jo,forgetting to play mentor.
"Take lessons of Amy, she has a regular talent for it."
"Yes, she does it very prettily, and never seems to go toofar. I suppose it's natural to some people to please withouttrying, and others to always say and do the wrong thing in thewrong place."
"I'm glad you can't flirt. It's really refreshing to see asensible, straightforward girl, who can be jolly and kind withoutmaking a fool of herself. Between ourselves, Jo, some of thegirls I know really do go on at such a rate I'm ashamed of them.They don't mean any harm, I'm sure, but if they knew how wefellows talked about them afterward, they'd mend their ways, Ifancy."
"They do the same, and as their tongues are the sharpest,you fellows get the worst of it, for you are as silly as they,every bit. If you behaved properly, they would, but knowingyou like their nonsense, they keep it up, and then you blamethem."
"Much you know about it, ma'am," said Laurie in a superior tone."We don't like romps and flirts, though we may act as ifwe did sometimes. The pretty, modest girls are nevertalked about, except respectfully, among gentleman.Bless your innocent soul! If you could be in my placefor a month you'd see things that would astonish you a trifle.Upon my word, when I see one of those harum-scarum girls,I always want to say with our friend Cock Robin...
"Out upon you, fie upon you,
It was impossible to help laughing at the funny conflictbetween Laurie's chivalrous reluctance to speak ill of womankind,and his very natural dislike of the unfeminine folly ofwhich fashionable society showed him many samples. Jo knewthat `young Laurence' was regarded as a most eligible partiby worldly mamas, was much smiled upon by their daughters,and flattered enough by ladies of all ages to make a coxcombof him, so she watched him rather jealously, fearinghe would be spoiled, and rejoiced more than she confessedto find that he still believed in modest girls. Returningsuddenly to her admonitory tone, she said, dropping hervoice, "If you must have a `went', Teddy, go and devoteyourself to one of the `pretty, modest girls' whom you dorespect, and not waste your time with the silly ones."
"You really advise it?" And Laurie looked at her withan odd mixture of anxiety and merriment in his face.
"Yes, I do, but you'd better wait till you are throughcollege, on the whole, and be fitting yourself for the placemeantime. You're not half good enough for--well, whoeverthe modest girl may be." And Jo looked a little queer likewise,for a name had almost escaped her.
"That I'm not!" acquiesced Laurie, with an expression ofhumility quite new to him, as he dropped his eyes and absentlywound Jo's apron tassel round his finger.
"Mercy on us, this will never do," thought Jo, addingaloud, "Go and sing to me. I'm dying for some music, andalways like yours."
"I'd rather stay here, thank you."
"Well, you can't, there isn't room. Go and make yourselfuseful, since you are too big to be ornamental. I thought youhated to be tied to a woman's apron string?" retorted Jo,quoting certain rebellious words of his own.
"Ah, that depends on who wears the apron!" and Lauriegave an audacious tweak at the tassel.
"Are you going?" demanded Jo, diving for the pillow.
He fled at once, and the minute it was well, "Up with thebonnets of bonnie Dundee," she slipped away to return no moretill the young gentleman departed in high dudgeon.
Jo lay long awake that night, and was just dropping offwhen the sound of a stifled sob made her fly to Beth's bedside,with the anxious inquiry, "What is it, dear?"
"I thought you were asleep," sobbed Beth.
"Is it the old pain, my precious?'
"No, it's a new one, but I can bear it." And Beth triedto check her tears.
"Tell me all about it, and let me cure it as I often didthe other."
"You can't, there is no cure." There Beth's voice gaveway, and clinging to her sister, she cried so despairinglythat Jo was frightened.
"Where is it? Shall I call Mother?"
"No, no, don't call her, don't tell her. I shall bebetter soon. Lie down here and `poor' my head. I'll bequiet and go to sleep, indeed I will."Jo obeyed, but as her hand went softly to and fro acrossBeth's hot forehead and wet eyelids, her heart was very fulland she longed to speak. But young as she was, Jo had learnedthat hearts, like flowers, cannot be rudely handled, but mustopen naturally, so though she believed she knew the cause ofBeth's new pain, she only said, in her tenderest tone, "Doesanything trouble you, deary?"
"Yes, Jo," after a long pause.
"Wouldn't it comfort you to tell me what it is?"
"not now, not yet."
"Then I won't ask, but remember, Bethy, that Mother andJo are always glad to hear and help you, if they can."
"I know it. I'll tell you by-and-by."
"Is the pain better now?"
"Oh, yes, much better, you are so comfortable, Jo."
"Go to sleep, dear. I'll stay with you."
So cheek to cheek they fell asleep, and on the morrowBeth seemed quite herself again, for at eighteen neither headsnor hearts ache long, and a loving word can medicine most ills.
But Jo had made up her mind, and after pondering over aproject for some days, she confided it to her mother.
"You asked me the other day what my wishes were. I'lltell you one of them, Marmee," she began, as they sat alongtogether. "I want to go away somewhere this winter for achange."
"Why, Jo?" And her mother looked up quickly, as if thewords suggested a double meaning.
With her eyes on her work Jo answered soberly, "I wantsomething new. I feel restless and anxious to be seeing,doing, and learning more than I am. I brood too much overmy own small affairs, and need stirring up, so as I can bespared this winter, I'd like to hop a little way and try mywings."
"Where will you hop?"
"To New York. I had a bright idea yesterday, and this isit. You know Mrs. Kirke wrote to you for some respectableyoung person to teach her children and sew. It's rather hardto find just the thing, but I think I should suit if I tried."
"My dear, go out to service in that great boarding house!"And Mrs. March looked surprised, but not displeased.
"It's not exactly going out to service, for Mrs. Kirke isyour friend--the kindest soul that ever lived--and would makethings pleasant for me, I know. Her family is separate fromthe rest, and no one knows me there. Don't care if they do.It's honest work, and I'm not ashamed of it."
"Nor I. But your writing?"
"All the better for the change. I shall see and hear newthings, get new ideas, and even if I haven't much time there,I shall bring home quantities of material for my rubbish."
"I have no doubt of it, but are these your only reasons forthis sudden fancy?'
"May I know the others?"
Jo looked up and Jo looked down, then said slowly, withsudden color in her cheeks. "It may be vain and wrong tosay it, but--I'm afraid--Laurie is getting too fond of me."
"Then you don't care for him in the way it is evident hebegins to care for you?' And Mrs. March looked anxious as sheput the question.
"Mercy, no! I love the dear boy, as I always have, andam immensely proud of him, but as for anything more, it's outof the question."
"I'm glad of that, Jo."
"Because, dear, I don't think you suited to one another. Asfriends you are very happy, and your frequent quarrels soon blowover, but I fear you would both rebel if you were mated for life.You are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mentionhot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in arelation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as wellas love."
"That's just the feeling I had, though I couldn't express it.I'm glad you think he is only beginning to care for me. It wouldtrouble me sadly to make him unhappy, for I couldn't fall in lovewith the dear old fellow merely out of gratitude, could I?"
"You are sure of his feeling for you?"
The color deepened in Jo's cheeks as she answered, withthe look of mingled pleasure, pride, and pain which younggirls wear when speaking of first lovers, "I'm afraid it isso, Mother. He hasn't said anything, but he looks a great deal.I think I had better go away before it comes to anything."
"I agree with you, and if it can be managed you shall go."
Jo looked relieved, and after a pause, said, smiling, "HowMrs. Moffat would wonder at your want of management, if sheknew, and how she will rejoice that Annie may still hope."
"AH, Jo, mothers may differ in their management, but thehope is the same in all--the desire to see their children happy.Meg is so, and I am content with her success. You I leave toenjoy your liberty till you tire of it, for only then will youfind that there is something sweeter. Amy is my chief carenow, but her good sense will help ;her. For Beth, I indulgeno hopes except that she may be well. By the way, she seemsbrighter this last day or two. Have you spoken to her?'
"Yes, she owned she had a trouble, and promised to tellme by-and-by. I said no more, for I think I know it," AndJo told her little story.
Mrs. March shook her head, and did not take so romantica view of the case, but looked grave, and repeated her opinionthat for Laurie's sake Jo should go away for a time.
"Let us say nothing about it to him till the plan is settled,then I'll run away before he can collect his wits and be tragic.Beth must think I'm going to please myself, as I am, for I can'ttalk about Laurie to her. But she can pet and comfort him afterI'm gone, and so cure him of this romantic notion. He's beenthrough so many little trials of the sort, he's used to it, andwill soon get over his lovelornity."
Jo spoke hopefully, but could not rid herself of the forebodingfear that this `little trial' would be harder than the others,and that Laurie would not get over his `lovelornity' as easilyas heretofore.
The plan was talked over in a family council and agreedupon, for Mrs. Kirke gladly accepted Jo, and promised tomake a pleasant home for her. The teaching would renderher independent, and such leisure as she got might be madeprofitable by writing, while the new scenes and society wouldbe both useful and agreeable. Jo liked the prospect and waseager to be gone, for the home nest was growing too narrowfor her restless nature and adventurous spirit. When all wassettled, with fear and trembling she told Laurie, but to hersurprise he took it very quietly. He had been graver thanusual of late, but very pleasant, and when jokingly accusedof turning over a new leaf, he answered soberly, "So I am,and I mean this one shall stay turned."
Jo was very much relieved that one of his virtuous fitsshould come on just then, and made her preparations with alightened heart, for Beth seemed more cheerful, and hopedshe was doing the best for all.
"One thing I leave in your especial care," she said, thenight before she left.
"You mean your papers?" asked Beth."No, my boy. Be very good to him, won't you?"
"Of course I will, but I can't fill your place, and he'llmiss you sadly."
"It won't hurt him, so remember, I leave him in yourcharge, to plague, pet, and keep in order."
"I'll do my best, for your sake," promised Beth, wonderingwhy Jo looked at her so queerly.
When Laurie said good-by, he whispered significantly, "Itwon't do a bit of good, Jo. My eye is on you, so mind what youdo, or I'll come and bring you home."