Little women, p.25
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       Little Women, p.25

         Part #1 of Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott
 

  Laurie, though decidedly amazed, behaved with great presence of mind; he patted her back soothingly, and finding that she was recovering, followed it up by a bashful kiss or two, which brought Jo round at once. Holding on to the banisters, she put him gently away, saying breathlessly, “Oh, don‘t! I didn’t mean to, it was dreadful of me, but you were such a dear to go and do it in spite of Hannah that I couldn’t help flying at you. Tell me 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 was overdoing 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 never can 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 like it,” said Laurie, looking mischievous—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 comer, and as she finished her speech, she vanished precipitately into the kitchen, where she sat down upon a dresser and told the assembled cats that she was “happy, oh, so happy!” while Laurie departed, feeling that he had made rather a neat thing of it.

  “That’s the interferingest chap I ever see, but I forgive him and do hope Mrs. March is coming on 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 a couple of pies in case of company unexpected.” A breath of fresh air seemed to blow through the house, and something better than sunshine brightened the quiet rooms. Everything appeared to 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 time the girls met, their pale faces broke into smiles as they hugged one another, whispering encourag ingly, “Mother’s coming, dear! Mother’s coming!” Every one rejoiced but Beth; she lay in that heavy 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 lips quite dumb, and the once pretty, well-kept hair scattered rough and tangled on the pillow. All day she lay so, only rousing now and then to mutter, “Water!” with lips so parched they could hardly shape the word; all day Jo and Meg hovered over her, watching, waiting, hoping, and trusting in God and Mother; and all day the snow fell, the bitter wind raged, and the hours dragged slowly by. But night came at last, and every time the clock struck, the sisters, still sitting on either side the bed, looked at each other with brightening eyes, for each hour brought help nearer. The doctor had been in to say that some change, for better or worse, would probably take place about midnight, at which time he would return.

  Hannah, quite worn out, lay down on the sofa at the bed’s foot and fell fast asleep, Mr. Laurence marched to and fro in the parlor, feeling that he would rather face a rebel battery than Mrs. March’s anxious countenance as she entered. Laurie lay on the rug, pretending to rest, but staring into the fire with the thoughtful look which made his black eyes beautifully soft and clear.

  The girls never forgot that night, for no sleep came to them as they kept their watch, with that dreadful sense of powerlessness which comes to us in hours like those.

  “If God spares Beth, I never will complain again,” whispered Meg earnestly.

  “If God spares Beth, I’ll try to love and serve Him all my life,” 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 ever shall get through it,” added her sister despondently.

  Here the clock struck twelve, and both forgot themselves in watching Beth, for they fancied a change passed over her wan face. The house was still as death, and nothing but the wailing of the wind broke the deep hush. Weary Hannah slept on, and no one but the sisters saw the pale shadow which seemed to fall upon the little bed. An hour went by, and nothing happened except Laurie’s quiet 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 poor girls.

  It was past two, when Jo, who stood at the window thinking how dreary the world looked in its winding sheet of snow, heard a movement by the bed, and, turning quickly, saw Meg kneeling before their mother’s easy chair with her face hidden. A dreadful fear passed coldly over Jo, as she thought, “Beth is dead, and Meg is afraid to tell me.”

  She was back at her post in an instant, and to her excited eyes a great change seemed to have taken place. The fever flush and the look of pain were gone, and the beloved little face looked so pale and peaceful in its utter repose that Jo felt no desire to weep or to lament. Leaning low over this dearest of her sisters, she kissed the damp forehead with her heart on her lips, and softly whispered, “Good-by, my Beth; good-by!”

  As if waked by the stir, Hannah started out of her sleep, hurried to the bed, looked at Beth, felt her hands, listened at her lips, and then, throwing her apron over her head, sat down to rock to and fro, exclaiming, under her breath, “The fever’s turned, she’s sleepin’ nat‘ral, her skin’s damp, and she breathes easy. Praise be given! Oh, my goodness me!”

  Before the girls could believe the happy truth, the doctor came to confirm it. He was a homely man, but they thought his face quite heavenly when he smiled and said, with a fatherly look at them, “Yes, my dears, I think the little girl will pull through this time. Keep the house quiet, let her sleep, and when she wakes, give her—”

  What they were to give, neither heard, for both crept into the dark hall, and, sitting on the stairs, held each other close, rejoicing with hearts too full for words. When they went back to be kissed and cuddled by faithful Hannah, they found Beth lying, as she used to do, with her cheek pillowed on her hand, the dreadful pallor gone, and breathing quietly, as if just fallen asleep.

  “If Mother would only come now!” said Jo, as the winter night began 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 hand tomorrow if she—went away from us. But it has blossomed in the night, and now I mean to put it in my vase here, so that when the darling wakes, the first thing she sees will be the little rose, and Mother’s face.”

  Never had the sun risen so beautifully, and never had the world 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, sad vigil 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 cry from Hannah, and then Laurie’s voice saying in a joyful whisper, “Girls, she’s come! She’s come!”

  19

  Amy’s Will

  While these things were happening at home, Amy was having hard times at Aunt March’s. She felt her exile deeply, and, for the first time in her life, realized how much she was beloved and petted at home. Aunt March never petted any one; she did not approve of it; but she meant to be kind, for the well-behaved little girl pleased her very much, and Aunt March had a soft
place in her old heart for her nephew’s children, though she didn’t think proper to confess it. She really did her best to make Amy happy, but, dear me, what mistakes she made! Some old people keep young at heart in spite of wrinkles and gray hairs, can sympathize with children’s little cares and joys, make them feel at home, and can hide wise lessons under pleasant plays, giving and receiving friendship in the sweetest way. But Aunt March had not this gift, and she worried Amy very much with her rules and orders, her prim ways, and long, prosy talks. Finding the child more docile and amiable than her sister, the old lady felt it her duty to try and counteract, as far as possible, the bad effects of home freedom and indulgence. So she took Amy in hand, and taught her as she herself had been taught sixty years ago—a process which carried dismay to Amy’s soul, and made her feel like a fly in the web of a very strict spider.

  She had to wash the cups every morning, and polish up the old-fashioned spoons, the fat silver teapot, and the glasses till they shone. Then she must dust the room, and what a trying job that was! Not a speck escaped Aunt March’s eye, and all the furniture had claw legs and much carving, which was never dusted to suit. Then Polly must be fed, the lap dog combed, and a dozen trips upstairs and down to get things or deliver orders, for the old lady was very lame and seldom left her big chair. After these tiresome labors, she must do her lessons, which was a daily trial of every virtue she possessed. Then she was allowed one hour for exercise or play, and didn’t she enjoy it? Laurie came every day, and wheedled Aunt March till Amy was allowed to go out with him, when they walked and rode and had capital times. After dinner, she had to read aloud, and sit still while the old lady slept, which she usually did for an hour, as she dropped off over the first page. Then patchwork or towels appeared, and Amy sewed with outward meekness and inward rebellion till dusk, when she was allowed to amuse herself as she liked till teatime. The evenings were the worst of all, for Aunt March fell to telling long stories about her youth, which were so unutterably dull that Amy was always ready to go to bed, intending to cry over her hard fate, but usually going to sleep before she had squeezed out more than a tear or two.

  If it had not been for Laurie, and old Esther, the maid, she felt that she never could have got through that dreadful time. The parrot alone was enough to drive her distracted, for he soon felt that she did not admire him, and revenged himself by being as mischievous as possible. He pulled her hair whenever she came near him, upset his bread and milk to plague her when she had newly cleaned his cage, made Mop bark by pecking at him while Madam dozed, called her names before company, and behaved in all respects like a reprehensible old bird. Then she could not endure the dog—a fat, cross beast who snarled and yelped at her when she made his toilet, and who lay on his back with all his legs in the air and a most idiotic expression of countenance when he wanted something to eat, which was about a dozen times a day. The cook was bad-tempered, the old coachman deaf, and Esther the only one who ever took any notice of the young lady.

  Esther was a Frenchwoman, who had lived with “Madame,” as she called her mistress, for many years, and who rather tyrannized over the old lady, who could not get along without her. Her real name was Estelle, but Aunt March ordered her to change it, and she obeyed, on condition that she was never asked to change her religion. She took a fancy to Mademoiselle, and amused her very much with odd stories of her life in France, when Amy sat with her while she got up Madame’s laces. She also allowed her to roam about the great house, and examine the curious and pretty things stored away in the big wardrobes and the ancient chests, for Aunt March hoarded like a magpie. Amy’s chief delight was an Indian cabinet, full of queer drawers, little pigeonholes, and secret places, in which were kept all sorts of ornaments, some precious, some merely curious, all more or less antique. To examine and arrange these things gave Amy great satisfaction, especially the jewel cases, in which on velvet cushions reposed the ornaments which had adorned a belle forty years ago. There was the garnet set which Aunt March wore when she came out, the pearls her father gave her on her wedding day, her lover’s diamonds, the jet mourning rings and pins, the queer lockets, with portraits of dead friends and weeping willows made of hair inside, the baby bracelets her one little daughter had worn, Uncle March’s big watch, with the red seal so many childish hands had played with, and in a box all by itself lay Aunt March’s wedding ring, too small now for her fat finger, but put carefully away like the most precious jewel of them all.

  “Which would Mademoiselle choose if she had her will?” asked Esther, who always sat near to watch over and lock up the valuables.

  “I like the diamonds best, but there is no necklace among them, and I’m fond of necklaces, they are so becoming. I should choose this if I might,” replied Amy, looking with great admiration at a string of gold and ebony beads from which hung a heavy cross of the same.

  “I, too, covet that, but not as a necklace; ah, no! To me it is a rosary, and as such I should use it like a good Catholic,” said Esther, eying the handsome thing wistfully.

  “Is it meant to use as you use the string of good-smelling wooden beads hanging over your glass?” asked Amy.

  “Truly, yes, to pray with. It would be pleasing to the saints if one used so fine a rosary as this, instead of wearing it as a vain bijou.”dd

  “You seem to take a great deal of comfort in your prayers, Esther, and always come down looking quiet and satisfied. I wish I could.”

  “If Mademoiselle was a Catholic, she would find true comfort; but as that is not to be, it would be well if you went apart each day to meditate and pray, as did the good mistress whom I served before Madame. She had a little chapel and in it found solacement for much trouble.”

  “Would it be right for me to do so too?” asked Amy, who in her loneliness felt the need of help of some sort, and found that she was apt to forget her little book, now that Beth was not there to remind her of it.

  “It would be excellent and charming, and I shall gladly arrange the little dressing room for you if you like it. Say nothing to Madame, but when she sleeps go you and sit alone a while to think good thoughts, and pray the dear God to preserve your sister.”

  Esther was truly pious, and quite sincere in her advice, for she had an affectionate heart, and felt much for the sisters in their anxiety. Amy liked the idea, and gave her leave to arrange the light closet next her room, hoping it would do her good.

  “I wish I knew where all these pretty things would go when Aunt March dies,” she said, as she slowly replaced the shining rosary and shut the jewel cases one by one.

  “To you and your sisters. I know it, Madame confides in me. I witnessed her will, and it is to be so,” whispered Esther, smiling.

  “How nice! but I wish she’d let us have them now. Pro-cras-ti-nation is not agreeable,” observed Amy, taking a last look at the diamonds.

  “It is too soon yet for the young ladies to wear these things. The first one who is affianced will have the pearls—Madame has said it; and I have a fancy that the little turquoise ring will be given to you when you go, for Madame approves your good behavior and charming manners.”

  “Do you think so? Oh, I’ll be a lamb, if I can only have that lovely ring! It’s ever so much prettier than Kitty Bryant’s. I do like Aunt March, after all.” And Amy tried on the blue ring with a delighted face and a firm resolve to earn it.

  From that day she was a model of obedience, and the old lady complacently admired the success of her training. Esther fitted up the closet with a little table, placed a footstool before it, and over it a picture taken from one of the shut-up rooms. She thought it was of no great value, but, being appropriate, she borrowed it, well knowing that Madame would never know it, nor care if she did. It was, however, a very valuable copy of one of the famous pictures of the world, and Amy’s beauty-loving eyes were never tired of looking up at the sweet face of the divine mother, while tender thoughts of her own were busy at her heart. On the table she laid her little Testament and hymnbook, kept a vase
always full of the best flowers Laurie brought her, and came every day to “sit alone, thinking good thoughts, and praying the dear God to preserve her sister.” Esther had given her a rosary of black beads with a silver cross, but Amy hung it up and did not use it, feeling doubtful as to its fitness for Protestant prayers.

  The little girl was very sincere in all this, for being left alone outside the safe home nest, she felt the need of some kind hand to hold by so sorely that she instinctively turned to the strong and tender Friend, whose fatherly love most closely surrounds his little children. She missed her mother’s help to understand and rule herself, but having been taught where to look, she did her best to find the way and walk in it confidingly. But Amy was a young pilgrim, and just now her burden seemed very heavy. She tried to forget herself, to keep cheerful, and be satisfied with doing right, though no one saw or praised her for it. In her first effort at being very, very good, she decided to make her will, as Aunt March had done, so that if she did fall ill and die, her possessions might be justly and generously divided. It cost her a pang even to think of giving up the little treasures which in her eyes were as precious as the old lady’s jewels.

  During one of her play hours she wrote out the important document as well as she could, with some help from Esther as to certain legal terms, and when the good-natured Frenchwoman had signed her name, Amy felt relieved and laid it by to show Laurie, whom she wanted as a second witness. As it was a rainy day, she went upstairs to amuse herself in one of the large chambers, and took Polly with her for company. In this room there was a wardrobe full of old-fashioned costumes with which Esther allowed her to play, and it was her favorite amusement to array herself in the faded brocades, and parade up and down before the long mirror, making stately curtsies, and sweeping her train about with a rustle which delighted her ears. So busy was she on this day that she did not hear Laurie’s ring nor see his face peeping in at her as she gravely promenaded to and fro, flirting her fan and tossing her head, on which she wore a great pink turban, contrasting oddly with her blue brocade dress and yellow quilted petticoat. She was obliged to walk carefully, for she had on high-heeled shoes, and, as Laurie told Jo afterward, it was a comical sight to see her mince along in her gay suit, with Polly sidling and bridling just behind her, imitating her as well as he could, and occasionally stopping to laugh or exclaim, “Ain’t we fine? Get along, you fright! Hold your tongue! Kiss me, dear! Ha! ha!”

 
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