Little women, p.28
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       Little Women, p.28

         Part #1 of Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott
 

  “Yes, but you won’t do it,” answered Laurie, who wished to make up, but felt that his outraged dignity must be appeased first.

  “If I can manage the young one I can the old one,” muttered Jo, as she walked away, leaving Laurie bent over a railroad map with his head propped up on both hands.

  “Come in!” And Mr. Laurence’s gruff voice sounded gruffer than ever, as Jo tapped at his door.

  “It’s only me, sir, come to return a book,” she said blandly, as she entered.

  “Want any more?” asked the old gentleman, looking grim and vexed, but trying not to show it.

  “Yes, please. I like old Sam so well, I think I’ll try the second volume,” returned Jo, hoping to propitiate him by accepting a second dose of Boswell’s Johnson,dk as he had recommended that lively work.

  The shaggy eyebrows unbent a little as he rolled the steps toward the shelf where the Johnsonian literature was placed. Jo skipped up, and sitting on the top step, affected to be searching for her book, but was really wondering how best to introduce the dangerous object of her visit. Mr. Laurence seemed to suspect that something was brewing in her mind, for after taking several brisk turns about the room, he faced round on her, speaking so abruptly that Rasselasdltumbled face downward on the floor.

  “What has that boy been about? Don’t try to shield him. I know he has been in mischief by the way he acted when he came home. I can’t get a word from him, and when I threatened to shake the truth out of him he bolted upstairs and locked himself into his room.”

  “He did do wrong, but we forgave him, and all promised not to say a word to anyone,” began Jo reluctantly.

  “That won’t do; he shall not shelter himself behind a promise from you softhearted girls. If he’s done anything amiss, he shall confess, beg pardon, and be punished. Out with it, Jo, I won’t be kept in the dark.”

  Mr. Laurence looked so alarming and spoke so sharply that Jo would have gladly run away, if she could, but she was perched aloft on the steps, and he stood at the foot, a lion in the path, so she had to stay and brave it out.

  “Indeed, sir, I cannot tell. Mother forbade it. Laurie has confessed, asked pardon, and been punished quite enough. We don’t keep silence to shield him, but someone else, and it will make more trouble if you interfere. Please don’t; it was partly my fault, but it’s all right now; so let’s forget it, and talk about the Ramblerdm or something pleasant.”

  “Hang the Rambler! Come down and give me your word that this harum-scarum boy of mine hasn’t done anything ungrateful or impertinent. If he has, after all your kindness to him, I’ll thrash him with my own hands.”

  The threat sounded awful, but did not alarm Jo, for she knew the irascible old gentleman would never lift a finger against his grandson, whatever he might say to the contrary. She obediently descended, and made as light of the prank as she could without betraying Meg or forgetting the truth.

  “Hum—ha—well, if the boy held his tongue because he promised, and not from obstinacy, I’ll forgive him. He’s a stubborn fellow and hard to manage,” said Mr. Laurence, rubbing up his hair till it looked as if he had been out in a gale, and smoothing the frown from his brow with an air of relief.

  “So am I, but a kind word will govern me when all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn‘t,” said Jo, trying to say a kind word for her friend, who seemed to get out of one scrape only to fall into another.

  “You think I’m not kind to him, hey?” was the sharp answer.

  “Oh, dear, no, sir, you are rather too kind sometimes, and then just a trifle hasty when he tries your patience. Don’t you think you are?”

  Jo was determined to have it out now, and tried to look quite placid, though she quaked a little after her bold speech. To her great relief and surprise, the old gentleman only threw his spectacles onto the table with a rattle and exclaimed frankly—

  “You’re right, girl, I am! I love the boy, but he tries my patience past bearing, and I don’t know how it will end, if we go on so.”

  “I’ll tell you, he’ll run away.” Jo was sorry for that speech the minute it was made; she meant to warn him that Laurie would not bear much restraint, and hoped he would be more forbearing with the lad.

  Mr. Laurence’s ruddy face changed suddenly, and he sat down, with a troubled glance at the picture of a handsome man, which hung over his table. It was Laurie’s father, who had run away in his youth, and married against the imperious old man’s will. Jo fancied he remembered and regretted the past, and she wished she had held her tongue.

  “He won’t do it unless he is very much worried, and only threatens it sometimes, when he gets tired of studying. I often think I should like to, especially since my hair was cut, so if you ever miss us, you may advertise for two boys and look among the ships bound for India.”

  She laughed as she spoke, and Mr. Laurence looked relieved, evidently taking the whole as a joke.

  “You hussy, how dare you talk in that way? Where’s your respect for me, and your proper bringing up? Bless the boys and girls! What torments they are, yet we can’t do without them,” he said, pinching her cheeks good-humoredly. “Go and bring that boy down to his dinner, tell him it’s all right, and advise him not to put on tragedy airs with his grandfather. I won’t bear it.”

  “He won’t come, sir; he feels badly because you didn’t believe him when he said he couldn’t tell. I think the shaking hurt his feelings very much.”

  Jo tried to look pathetic but must have failed, for Mr. Laurence began to laugh, and she knew the day was won.

  “I’m sorry for that, and ought to thank him for not shaking me, I suppose. What the dickens does the fellow expect?” And the old gentleman looked a trifle ashamed of his own testiness.

  “If I were you, I’d write him an apology, sir. He says he won’t come down till he has one, and talks about Washington, and goes on in an absurd way. A formal apology will make him see how foolish he is, and bring him down quite amiable. Try it; he likes fun, and this way is better than talking. I’ll carry it up, and teach him his duty.”

  Mr. Laurence gave her a sharp look, and put on his spectacles, saying slowly, “You’re a sly puss, but I don’t mind being managed by you and Beth. Here, give me a bit of paper, and let us have done with this nonsense.”

  The note was written in the terms which one gentleman would use to another after offering some deep insult. Jo dropped a kiss on the top of Mr. Laurence’s bald head, and ran up to slip the apology under Laurie’s door, advising him through the keyhole to be submissive, decorous, and a few other agreeable impossibilities. Finding the door locked again, she left the note to do its work, and was going quietly away, when the young gentleman slid down the banisters, and waited for her at the bottom, saying, with his most virtuous expression of countenance, “What a good fellow you are, Jo! Did you get blown up?” he added, laughing.

  “No, he was pretty mild, on the whole.”

  “Ah! I got it all round. Even you cast me off over there, and I felt just ready to go to the deuce,”dn he began apologetically.

  “Don’t talk in that way, turn over a new leaf and begin again, Teddy, my son.”

  “I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end,” he said dolefully.

  “Go and eat your dinner, you’ll feel better after it. Men always croak when they are hungry,” and Jo whisked out at the front door after that.

  “That’s a ‘label’ on my ‘sect,’” answered Laurie, quoting Amy, as he went to partake of humble-pie dutifully with his grandfather, who was quite saintly in temper and overwhelmingly respectful in manner all the rest of the day.

  Everyone thought the matter ended and the little cloud blown over, but the mischief was done, for though others forgot it Meg remembered. She never alluded to a certain person, but she thought of him a good deal, dreamed dreams more than ever, and once Jo, rummaging her sister’s desk for stamps, found a
bit of paper scribbled over with the words, “Mrs. John Brooke,” whereat she groaned tragically and cast it into the fire, feeling that Laurie’s prank had hastened the evil day for her.

  22

  Pleasant Meadows

  Like sunshine after storm were the peaceful weeks which fol lowed. The invalids improved rapidly, and Mr. March began to talk of returning early in the new year. Beth was soon able to lie on the study sofa all day, amusing herself with the well-beloved cats at first, and in time with doll’s sewing, which had fallen sadly behindhand. Her once active limbs were so stiff and feeble that Jo took her a daily airing about the house in her strong arms. Meg cheerfully blackened and burned her white hands cooking delicate messes for “the dear,” while Amy, a loyal slave of the ring, celebrated her return by giving away as many of her treasures as she could prevail on her sisters to accept.

  As Christmas approached, the usual mysteries began to haunt the house, and Jo frequently convulsed the family by proposing utterly impossible or magnificently absurd ceremonies, in honor of this unusually merry Christmas. Laurie was equally impracticable, and would have had bonfires, skyrockets, and triumphal arches, if he had had his own way. After many skirmishes and snubbings, the ambitious pair were considered effectually quenched and went about with forlorn faces, which were rather belied by explosions of laughter when the two got together.

  Several days of unusually mild weather fitly ushered in a splendid Christmas Day. Hannah “felt in her bones” that it was going to be an unusually fine day, and she proved herself a true prophetess, for everybody and everything seemed bound to produce a grand success. To begin with, Mr. March wrote that he should soon be with them, then Beth felt uncommonly well that morning, and, being dressed in her mother’s gift—a soft crimson merino wrapper—was borne in triumph to the window to behold the offering of Jo and Laurie. The Unquenchables had done their best to be worthy of the name, for like elves they had worked by night and conjured up a comical surprise. Out in the garden stood a stately snow maiden, crowned with holly, bearing a basket of fruit and flowers in one hand, a great roll of new music in the other, a perfect rainbow of an Afghan round her chilly shoulders, and a Christmas carol issuing from her lips, on a pink paper streamer:

  THE JUNGFRAUdo TO BETH

  God bless you, dear Queen Bess!

  May nothing you dismay,

  But health and peace and happiness

  Be yours, this Christmas Day.

  Here’s fruit to feed our busy bee,

  And flowers for her nose;

  Here’s music for her pianee,

  An Afghan for her toes.

  A portrait of Joanna, see,

  By Raphael No. 2,

  Who labored with great industry

  To make it fair and true.

  Accept a ribbon red, I beg,

  For Madam Purrer’s tail;

  And ice cream made by lovely Peg,—

  A Mont Blancdp in a pail.

  Their dearest love my makers laid

  Within my breast of snow:

  Accept it, and the Alpine maid,

  From Laurie and from Jo.

  How Beth laughed when she saw it, how Laurie ran up and down to bring in the gifts, and what ridiculous speeches Jo made as she presented them!

  “I’m so full of happiness, that, if Father was only here, I couldn’t hold one drop more,” said Beth, quite sighing with contentment as Jo carried her off to the study to rest after the excitement, and to refresh herself with some of the delicious grapes the “Jungfrau” had sent her.

  “So am I,” added Jo, slapping the pocket wherein reposed the long-desired Undine and Sintram.

  “I’m sure I am,” echoed Amy, poring over the engraved copy of the Madonna and Child, which her mother had given her in a pretty frame.

  “Of course I am!” cried Meg, smoothing the silvery folds of her first silk dress, for Mr. Laurence had insisted on giving it.

  “How can I be otherwise?” said Mrs. March gratefully, as her eyes went from her husband’s letter to Beth’s smiling face, and her hand caressed the brooch made of gray and golden, chestnut and dark brown hair, which the girls had just fastened on her breast.

  Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort that is. Half an hour after everyone had said they were so happy they could only hold one drop more, the drop came. Laurie opened the parlor door and popped his head in very quietly. He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up, though he only said, in a queer, breathless voice, “Here’s another Christmas present for the March family.”

  Before the words were well out of his mouth, he was whisked away somehow, and in his place appeared a tall man, muffled up to the eyes, leaning on the arm of another tall man, who tried to say something and couldn’t. Of course there was a general stampede, and for several minutes everybody seemed to lose their wits, for the strangest things were done, and no one said a word. Mr. March became invisible in the embrace of four pairs of loving arms; Jo disgraced herself by nearly fainting away, and had to be doctored by Laurie in the china closet; Mr. Brooke kissed Meg entirely by mistake, as he somewhat incoherently explained; and Amy, the dignified, tumbled over a stool, and, never stopping to get up, hugged and cried over her father’s boots in the most touching manner. Mrs. March was the first to recover herself, and held up her hand with a warning, “Hush! Remember Beth!”

  But it was too late; the study door flew open, the little red wrapper appeared on the threshold—joy put strength into the feeble limbs—and Beth ran straight into her father’s arms. Never mind what happened just after that, for the full hearts overflowed, washing away the bitterness of the past and leaving only the sweetness of the present.

  It was not at all romantic, but a hearty laugh set everybody straight again, for Hannah was discovered behind the door, sobbing over the fat turkey, which she had forgotten to put down when she rushed up from the kitchen. As the laugh subsided, Mrs. March began to thank Mr. Brooke for his faithful care of her husband, at which Mr. Brooke suddenly remembered that Mr. March needed rest, and, seizing Laurie, he precipitately retired. Then the two invalids were ordered to repose, which they did, by both sitting in one big chair and talking hard.

  Mr. March told how he had longed to surprise them, and how, when the fine weather came, he had been allowed by his doctor to take advantage of it, how devoted Brooke had been, and how he was altogether a most estimable and upright young man. Why Mr. March paused a minute just there, and after a glance at Meg, who was violently poking the fire, looked at his wife with an inquiring lift of the eyebrows, I leave you to imagine; also why Mrs. March gently nodded her head and asked, rather abruptly, if he wouldn’t have something to eat. Jo saw and understood the look, and she stalked grimly away to get wine and beef tea, muttering to herself as she slammed the door, “I hate estimable young men with brown eyes!”

  There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned, and decorated; so was the plum pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy reveled like a fly in a honeypot. Everything turned out well, which was a mercy, Hannah said, “For my mind was that flustered, mum, that it’s a merrycle I didn’t roast the pudding, and stuff the turkey with raisins, let alone bilin‘dq of it in a cloth.”

  Mr. Laurence and his grandson dined with them, also Mr. Brooke—at whom Jo glowered darkly, to Laurie’s infinite amusement. Two easy chairs stood side by side at the head of the table, in which sat Beth and her father, feasting modestly on chicken and a little fruit. They drank healths, told stories, sang songs, “reminisced,” as the old folks say, and had a thoroughly good time. A sleigh ride had been planned, but the girls would not leave their father; so the guests departed early, and as twilight gathered, the happy fam
ily sat together round the fire.

  “Just a year ago we were groaning over the dismal Christmas we expected to have. Do you remember?” asked Jo, breaking a short pause which had followed a long conversation about many things.

  “Rather a pleasant year on the whole!” said Meg, smiling at the fire, and congratulating herself on having treated Mr. Brooke with dignity.

  “I think it’s been a pretty hard one,” observed Amy, watching the light shine on her ring with thoughtful eyes.

  “I’m glad it’s over, because we’ve got you back,” whispered Beth, who sat on her father’s knee.

  “Rather a rough road for you to travel, my little pilgrims, especially the latter part of it. But you have got on bravely, and I think the burdens are in a fair way to tumble off very soon,” said Mr. March, looking with fatherly satisfaction at the four young faces gathered round him.

  “How do you know? Did Mother tell you?” asked Jo.

  “Not much. Straws show which way the wind blows, and I’ve made several discoveries today.”

  “Oh, tell us what they are!” cried Meg, who sat beside him.

  “Here is one.” And taking up the hand which lay on the arm of his chair, he pointed to the roughened forefinger, a burn on the back, and two or three little hard spots on the palm. “I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now—for in these seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt offering has been made of vanity, this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters; and I’m sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time, so much goodwill went into the stitches. Meg, my dear, I value the womanly skill which keeps home happy more than white hands or fashionable accomplishments. I’m proud to shake this good, industrious little hand, and hope I shall not soon be asked to give it away.”

  If Meg had wanted a reward for hours of patient labor, she received it in the hearty pressure of her father’s hand and the approving smile he gave her.

 
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