“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frost-bitten garden.
“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.
“If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month,” said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.
“I dare say; but nothing pleasant ever does happen in this family,” said Meg, who was out of sorts. “We go grubbing along day after day, without a bit of change, and very little fun. We might as well be in a treadmill.”
“My patience, how blue we are!” cried Jo. “I don’t much wonder, poor dear, for you see other girls having splendid times, while you grind, grind, year in and year out. Oh, don’t I wish I could manage things for you as I do for my heroines! You’re pretty enough and good enough already, so I’d have some rich relation leave you a fortune unexpectedly; then you’d dash out as an heiress, scorn every one who has slighted you, go abroad, and come home my Lady Something, in a blaze of splendor and elegance.”
“People don’t have fortunes left them in that style now-a-days; men have to work, and women to marry for money. It’s a dreadfully unjust world,” said Meg bitterly.
“Jo and I are going to make fortunes for you all; just wait ten years, and see if we don’t,” said Amy, who sat in a corner, making mud pies, as Hannah called her little clay models of birds, fruit, and faces.
“Can’t wait, and I’m afraid I haven’t much faith in ink and dirt, though I’m grateful for your good intentions.”
Meg sighed, and turned to the frost-bitten garden again; Jo groaned, and leaned both elbows on the table in a despondent attitude, but Amy spatted away energetically; and Beth, who sat at the other window, said, smiling, “Two pleasant things are going to happen right away: Marmee is coming down the street, and Laurie is tramping through the garden as if he had something nice to tell.”
In they both came, Mrs. March with her usual question, “Any letter from father, girls?” and Laurie to say in his persuasive way, “Won’t some of you come for a drive? I’ve been working away at mathematics till my head is in a muddle, and I’m going to freshen my wits by a brisk turn. It’s a dull day, but the air isn’t bad, and I’m going to take Brooke home, so it will be gay inside, if it isn’t out. Come, Jo, you and Beth will go, won’t you?”
“Of course we will.”
“Much obliged, but I’m busy;” and Meg whisked out her work-basket, for she had agreed with her mother that it was best, for her at least, not to drive often with the young gentleman.
“We three will be ready in a minute,” cried Amy, running away to wash her hands.
“Can I do anything for you, Madam Mother?” asked Laurie, leaning over Mrs. March’s chair, with the affectionate look and tone he always gave her.
“No, thank you, except call at the office, if you’ll be so kind, dear. It’s our day for a letter, and the postman hasn’t been. Father is as regular as the sun, but there’s some delay on the way, perhaps.”
A sharp ring interrupted her, and a minute after Hannah came in with a letter.
“It’s one of them horrid telegraph things, mum,” she said, handing it as if she was afraid it would explode and do some damage.
At the word “telegraph,” Mrs. March snatched it, read the two lines it contained, and dropped back into her chair as white as if the little paper had sent a bullet to her heart. Laurie dashed down stairs for water, while Meg and Hannah supported her, and Jo read aloud, in a frightened voice,—
“Your husband is very ill. Come at once.
“Blank Hospital, Washington”
How still the room was as they listened breathlessly, how strangely the day darkened outside, and how suddenly the whole world seemed to change, as the girls gathered about their mother, feeling as if all the happiness and support of their lives was about to be taken from them. Mrs. March was herself again directly; read the message over, and stretched out her arms to her daughters, saying, in a tone they never forgot, “I shall go at once, but it may be too late. O children, children, help me to bear it!”
For several minutes there was nothing but the sound of sobbing in the room, mingled with broken words of comfort, tender assurances of help, and hopeful whispers that died away in tears. Poor Hannah was the first to recover, and with unconscious wisdom she set all the rest a good example; for, with her, work was the panacea for most afflictions.
“The Lord keep the dear man! I won’t waste no time a cryin’, but git your things ready right away, mum,” she said, heartily, as she wiped her face on her apron, gave her mistress a warm shake of the hand with her own hard one, and went away, to work like three women in one.
“She’s right; there’s no time for tears now. Be calm, girls, and let me think.”
They tried to be calm, poor things, as their mother sat up, looking pale, but steady, and put away her grief to think and plan for them.
“Where’s Laurie?” she asked presently, when she had collected her thoughts, and decided on the first duties to be done.
“Here, ma’am. Oh, let me do something!” cried the boy, hurrying from the next room, whither he had withdrawn, feeling that their first sorrow was too sacred for even his friendly eyes to see.
“Send a telegram saying I will come at once. The next train goes early in the morning. I’ll take that.”
“What else? The horses are ready; I can go anywhere, do anything,” he said, looking ready to fly to the ends of the earth.
“Leave a note at Aunt March’s. Jo, give me that pen and paper.”
Tearing off the blank side of one of her newly copied pages, Jo drew the table before her mother, well knowing that money for the long, sad journey must be borrowed, and feeling as if she could do anything to add a little to the sum for her father.
“Now go, dear; but don’t kill yourself driving at a desperate pace; there is no need of that.”
Mrs. March’s warning was evidently thrown away; for five minutes later Laurie tore by the window on his own fleet horse, riding as if for his life.
“Jo, run to the rooms, and tell Mrs. King that I can’t come. On the way get these things. I’ll put them down; they’ll be needed, and I must go prepared for nursing. Hospital stores are not always good. Beth, go and ask Mr. Laurence for a couple of bottles of old wine: I’m not too proud to beg for father; he shall have the best of everything. Amy, tell Hannah to get down the black trunk; and, Meg, come and help me find my things, for I’m half bewildered.”
Writing, thinking, and directing, all at once, might well bewilder the poor lady, and Meg begged her to sit quietly in her room for a little while, and let them work. Every one scattered like leaves before a gust of wind; and the quiet, happy household was broken up as suddenly as if the paper had been an evil spell.
Mr. Laurence came hurrying back with Beth, bringing every comfort the kind old gentleman could think of for the invalid, and friendliest promises of protection for the girls during the mother’s absence, which comforted her very much. There was nothing he didn’t offer, from his own dressing-gown to himself as escort. But that last was impossible. Mrs. March would not hear of the old gentleman’s undertaking the long journey; yet an expression of relief was visible when he spoke of it, for anxiety ill fits one for travelling. He saw the look, knit his heavy eyebrows, rubbed his hands, and marched abruptly away, saying he’d be back directly. No one had time to think of him again till, as Meg ran through the entry, with a pair of rubbers in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, she came suddenly upon Mr. Brooke.
“I’m very sorry to hear of this, Miss March,” he said, in the kind, quiet tone which sounded very pleasantly to her perturbed spirit. “I came to offer myself as escort to your mother. Mr. Laurence has commissions for me in Washington, and it will give me real satisfaction to be of service to her there.”
Down dropped the rubbers, and the tea was very near following, as Meg put out her hand, with a face so full of gratitude, that Mr. Brooke would have felt repaid for a much greater sacrifice than the trifling one of time and comfort which he was about to make.
“How kind you all are! Mother will accept, I’m sure; and it will be such a relief to know that she has some one to take care of her. Thank you very, very much!”
Meg spoke earnestly, and forgot herself entirely till something in the brown eyes looking down at her made her remember the cooling tea, and lead the way into the parlor, saying she would call her mother.
Everything was arranged by the time Laurie returned with a note from Aunt March, enclosing the desired sum, and a few lines repeating what she had often said before,—that she had always told them it was absurd for March to go into the army, always predicted that no good would come of it, and she hoped they would take her advice next time. Mrs. March put the note in the fire, the money in her purse, and went on with her preparations, with her lips folded tightly, in a way which Jo would have understood if she had been there.
The short afternoon wore away; all the other errands were done, and Meg and her mother busy at some necessary needle-work, while Beth and Amy got tea, and Hannah finished her ironing with what she called a “slap and a bang,” but still Jo did not come. They began to get anxious; and Laurie went off to find her, for no one ever knew what freak Jo might take into her head. He missed her, however, and she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret, in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying, with a little choke in her voice, “That’s my contribution towards making father comfortable and bringing him home!”
“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?
“No, it’s mine honestly; I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it; and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.
“Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “O Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” “My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”
As every one exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive any one a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush, and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth. It will be good for my vanity; I was getting too proud of my wig. It will do my brains good to have that mop taken off; my head feels deliciously light and cool, and the barber said I could soon have a curly crop, which will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order. I’m satisfied; so please take the money, and let’s have supper.”
“Tell me all about it, Jo. I am not quite satisfied, but I can’t blame you, for I know how willingly you sacrificed your vanity, as you call it, to your love. But, my dear, it was not necessary, and I’m afraid you will regret it, one of these days,” said Mrs. March.
“No, I won’t!” returned Jo stoutly, feeling much relieved that her prank was not entirely condemned.
“What made you do it?” asked Amy, who would as soon have thought of cutting off her head as her pretty hair.
“Well, I was wild to do something for father,” replied Jo, as they gathered about the table, for healthy young people can eat even in the midst of trouble. “I hate to borrow as much as mother does, and I knew Aunt March would croak; she always does, if you ask for a ninepence. Meg gave all her quarterly salary toward the rent, and I only got some clothes with mine, so I felt wicked, and was bound to have some money, if I sold the nose off my face to get it.”
“You needn’t feel wicked, my child: you had no winter things, and got the simplest with your own hard earnings,” said Mrs. March, with a look that warmed Jo’s heart.
“I hadn’t the least idea of selling my hair at first, but as I went along I kept thinking what I could do, and feeling as if I’d like to dive into some of the rich stores and help myself. In a barber’s window I saw tails of hair with the prices marked; and one black tail, not so thick as mine, was forty dollars. It came over me all of a sudden that I had one thing to make money out of, and without stopping to think, I walked in, asked if they bought hair, and what they would give for mine.”
“I don’t see how you dared to do it,” said Beth, in a tone of awe.
“Oh, he was a little man who looked as if he merely lived to oil his hair. He rather stared, at first, as if he wasn’t used to having girls bounce into his shop and ask him to buy their hair. He said he didn’t care about mine, it wasn’t the fashionable color, and he never paid much for it in the first place; the work put into it made it dear, and so on. It was getting late, and I was afraid, if it wasn’t done right away, that I shouldn’t have it done at all, and you know when I start to do a thing, I hate to give it up; so I begged him to take it, and told him why I was in such a hurry. It was silly, I dare say, but it changed his mind, for I got rather excited, and told the story in my topsy-turvy way, and his wife heard, and said so kindly,—
“‘Take it, Thomas, and oblige the young lady; I’d do as much for our Jimmy any day if I had a spire of hair worth selling.’”
“Who was Jimmy?” asked Amy, who liked to have things explained as they went along.
“Her son, she said, who was in the army. How friendly such things make strangers feel, don’t they? She talked away all the time the man clipped, and diverted my mind nicely.”
“Didn’t you feel dreadfully when the first cut came?” asked Meg, with a shiver.
“I took a last look at my hair while the man got his things, and that was the end of it. I never snivel over trifles like that; I will confess, though, I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table, and felt only the short, rough ends on my head. It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off. The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep. I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”
Mrs. March folded the wavy, chestnut lock, and laid it away with a short gray one in her desk. She only said “Thank you, deary,” but something in her face made the girls change the subject, and talk as cheerfully as they could about Mr. Brooke’s kindness, the prospect of a fine day to-morrow, and the happy times they would have when father came home to be nursed.
No one wanted to go to bed, when, at ten o’clock, Mrs. March put by the last finished job, and said, “Come, girls.” Beth went to the piano and played the father’s favorite hymn; all began bravely, but broke down one by one, till Beth was left alone, singing with all her heart, for to her music was always a sweet consoler.
“Go to bed and don’t talk, for we must be up early, and shall need all the sleep we can get. Good-night, my darlings,” said Mrs. March, as the hymn ended, for no one cared to try another.
They kissed her quietly, and went to bed as silently as if the dear invalid lay in the next room. Beth and Amy soon fell asleep in spite of the great trouble, but Meg lay awake, thinking the most serious thoughts she had ever known in her short life. Jo lay motionless, and her sister fancied that she was asleep, till a stifled sob made her exclaim, as she touched a wet cheek,—
“Jo, dear, what is it? Are you crying about father?”
“No, not now.”
“My—my hair!” burst out poor Jo, trying vainly to smother her emotion in the pillow.
It did not sound at all comical to Meg, who kissed and caressed the afflicted heroine in the tenderest manner.
“I’m not sorry,” protested Jo, with a choke. “I’d do it again to-morrow, if I could. It’s only the vain, selfish part of me that goes and cries in this silly way. Don’t tell any one, it’s all over now. I thought you were asleep, so I just made a little private moan for my one beauty. How came you to be awake?”
“I can’t sleep, I’m so anxious,” said Meg.
“Think about something pleasant, and you’ll soon drop off.”
“I tried it, but felt wider awake than ever.”
“What did you think of?”
“Handsome faces,—eyes particularly,” answered Meg, smiling to herself, in the dark.
“What color do you like best?”
“Brown—that is, sometimes; blue are lovely.”
Jo laughed, and Meg sharply ordered her not to talk, then amiably promised to make her hair curl, and fell asleep to dream of living in her castle in the air.
The clocks were striking midnight, and the rooms were very still, as a figure glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlid here, settling a pillow there, and pausing to look long and tenderly at each unconscious face, to kiss each with lips that mutely blessed, and to pray the fervent prayers which only mothers utter. As she lifted the curtain to look out into the dreary night, the moon broke suddenly from behind the clouds, and shone upon her like a bright, benignant face, which seemed to whisper in the silence, “Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”