To outsiders, the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things; but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter; for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father.
“I’m not a show, aunty, and no one is coming to stare at me, to criticise my dress, or count the cost of my luncheon. I’m too happy to care what any one says or thinks, and I’m going to have my little wedding just as I like it. John, dear, here’s your hammer;” and away went Meg to help “that man” in his highly improper employment.
Mr. Brooke didn’t even say “Thank you,” but as he stooped for the unromantic tool, he kissed his little bride behind the folding-door, with a look that made Aunt March whisk out her pocket-handkerchief, with a sudden dew in her sharp old eyes.
Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand; and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world.
Jo went prepared to bow down and adore the mighty ones whom she had worshipped with youthful enthusiasm afar off. But her reverence for genius received a severe shock that night, and it took her some time to recover from the discovery that the great creatures were only men and women after all.
She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty; and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, “truth, reverence, and good-will,” then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.
Not until months afterward did Jo understand how she had the strength of mind to hold fast to the resolution she had made when she decided that she did not love her boy, and never could. It was very hard to do, but she did it, knowing that delay was both useless and cruel.
“I’ve done my best, but you won’t be reasonable, and it’s selfish of you to keep teasing for what I can’t give. I shall always be fond of you, very fond indeed, as a friend, but I’ll never marry you; and the sooner you believe it, the better for both of us,—so now!”
That speech was like fire to gunpowder. Laurie looked at her a minute as if he did not quite know what to do with himself, then turned sharply away, saying, in a desperate sort of tone,—
“You’ll be sorry some day, Jo.”
Jo followed a minute after to wave her hand to him if he looked round. He did look round, came back, put his arms about her, as she stood on the step above him, and looked up at her with a face that made his short appeal both eloquent and pathetic.
“O Jo, can’t you?”
That was all, except a little pause; then Laurie straightened himself up, said “It’s all right, never mind,” and went away without another word. Ah, but it wasn’t all right, and Jo did mind; for while the curly head lay on her arm a minute after her hard answer, she felt as if she had stabbed her dearest friend; and when he left her without a look behind him, she knew that the boy Laurie never would come again.
Meg has John and the babies to comfort her, but you must stand by father and mother, won’t you, Jo?”
“If I can; but, Beth, I don’t give up yet; I’m going to believe that it is a sick fancy, and not let you think it’s true,” said Jo, trying to speak cheerfully.
Beth lay a minute thinking, and then said in her quiet way,—
“I don’t know how to express myself, and shouldn’t try, to any one but you, because I can’t speak out, except to my Jo. I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. I’m not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now is the leaving you all. I’m not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.”
He felt that his blighted affections were quite dead now; and, though he should never cease to be a faithful mourner, there was no occasion to wear his weeds ostentatiously. Jo wouldn’t love him, but he might make her respect and admire him by doing something which should prove that a girl’s “No” had not spoilt his life.
By the second week, every one knew perfectly well what was going on, yet every one tried to look as if they were stone-blind to the changes in Jo’s face. They never asked why she sang about her work, did up her hair three times a day, and got so blooming with her evening exercise; and no one seemed to have the slightest suspicion that Professor Bhaer, while talking philosophy with the father, was giving the daughter lessons in love.
Passers-by probably thought them a pair of harmless lunatics, for they entirely forgot to hail a ‘bus, and strolled leisurely along, oblivious of deepening dusk and fog. Little they cared what anybody thought, for they were enjoying the happy hour that seldom comes but once in any life, the magical moment which bestows youth on the old, beauty on the plain, wealth on the poor, and gives human hearts a foretaste of heaven. The Professor looked as if he had conquered a kingdom, and the world had nothing more to offer him in the way of bliss; while Jo trudged beside him, feeling as if her place had always been there, and wondering how she ever could have chosen any other lot.