Beth did have the fever, and was much sicker than anyone but Hannah and
the doctor suspected. The girls knew nothing about illness, and Mr.
Laurence was not allowed to see her, so Hannah had everything her own
way, and busy Dr. Bangs did his best, but left a good deal to the
excellent nurse. Meg stayed at home, lest she should infect the Kings,
and kept house, feeling very anxious and a little guilty when she wrote
letters in which no mention was made of Beth's illness. She could not
think it right to deceive her mother, but she had been bidden to mind
Hannah, and Hannah wouldn't hear of 'Mrs. March bein' told, and worried
just for sech a trifle.'
Jo devoted herself to Beth day and night, not a hard task, for Beth was
very patient, and bore her pain uncomplainingly as long as she could
control herself. But there came a time when during the fever fits she
began to talk in a hoarse, broken voice, to play on the coverlet as if
on her beloved little piano, and try to sing with a throat so swollen
that there was no music left, a time when she did not know the familiar
faces around her, but addressed them by wrong names, and called
imploringly for her mother. Then Jo grew frightened, Meg begged to be
allowed to write the truth, and even Hannah said she 'would think of
it, though there was no danger yet'. A letter from Washington added to
their trouble, for Mr. March had had a relapse, and could not think of
coming home for a long while.
How dark the days seemed now, how sad and lonely the house, and how
heavy were the hearts of the sisters as they worked and waited, while
the shadow of death hovered over the once happy home. Then it was that
Margaret, sitting alone with tears dropping often on her work, felt how
rich she had been in things more precious than any luxuries money could
buy—in love, protection, peace, and health, the real blessings of
life. Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room, with that
suffering little sister always before her eyes and that pathetic voice
sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of
Beth's nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all
hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth's unselfish ambition to
live for others, and make home happy by that exercise of those simple
virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more
than talent, wealth, or beauty. And Amy, in her exile, longed eagerly
to be at home, that she might work for Beth, feeling now that no
service would be hard or irksome, and remembering, with regretful
grief, how many neglected tasks those willing hands had done for her.
Laurie haunted the house like a restless ghost, and Mr. Laurence locked
the grand piano, because he could not bear to be reminded of the young
neighbor who used to make the twilight pleasant for him. Everyone
missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher inquired how she
did, poor Mrs. Hummel came to beg pardon for her thoughtlessness and to
get a shroud for Minna, the neighbors sent all sorts of comforts and
good wishes, and even those who knew her best were surprised to find
how many friends shy little Beth had made.
Meanwhile she lay on her bed with old Joanna at her side, for even in
her wanderings she did not forget her forlorn protege. She longed for
her cats, but would not have them brought, lest they should get sick,
and in her quiet hours she was full of anxiety about Jo. She sent
loving messages to Amy, bade them tell her mother that she would write
soon, and often begged for pencil and paper to try to say a word, that
Father might not think she had neglected him. But soon even these
intervals of consciousness ended, and she lay hour after hour, tossing
to and fro, with incoherent words on her lips, or sank into a heavy
sleep which brought her no refreshment. Dr. Bangs came twice a day,
Hannah sat up at night, Meg kept a telegram in her desk all ready to
send off at any minute, and Jo never stirred from Beth's side.
The first of December was a wintry day indeed to them, for a bitter
wind blew, snow fell fast, and the year seemed getting ready for its
death. When Dr. Bangs came that morning, he looked long at Beth, held
the hot hand in both his own for a minute, and laid it gently down,
saying, in a low voice to Hannah, "If Mrs. March can leave her husband
she'd better be sent for."
Hannah nodded without speaking, for her lips twitched nervously, Meg
dropped down into a chair as the strength seemed to go out of her limbs
at the sound of those words, and Jo, standing with a pale face for a
minute, ran to the parlor, snatched up the telegram, and throwing on
her things, rushed out into the storm. She was soon back, and while
noiselessly taking off her cloak, Laurie came in with a letter, saying
that Mr. March was mending again. Jo read it thankfully, but the heavy
weight did not seem lifted off her heart, and her face was so full of
misery that Laurie asked quickly, "What is it? Is Beth worse?"
"I've sent for Mother," said Jo, tugging at her rubber boots with a
"Good for you, Jo! Did you do it on your own responsibility?" asked
Laurie, as he seated her in the hall chair and took off the rebellious
boots, seeing how her hands shook.
"No. The doctor told us to."
"Oh, Jo, it's not so bad as that?" cried Laurie, with a startled face.
"Yes, it is. She doesn't know us, she doesn't even talk about the
flocks of green doves, as she calls the vine leaves on the wall. She
doesn't look like my Beth, and there's nobody to help us bear it.
Mother and father both gone, and God seems so far away I can't find
As the tears streamed fast down poor Jo's cheeks, she stretched out her
hand in a helpless sort of way, as if groping in the dark, and Laurie
took it in his, whispering as well as he could with a lump in his
throat, "I'm here. Hold on to me, Jo, dear!"
She could not speak, but she did 'hold on', and the warm grasp of the
friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her
nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble.
Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but no fitting
words came to him, so he stood silent, gently stroking her bent head as
her mother used to do. It was the best thing he could have done, far
more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jo felt the unspoken
sympathy, and in the silence learned the sweet solace which affection
administers to sorrow. Soon she dried the tears which had relieved
her, and looked up with a grateful face.
"Thank you, Teddy, I'm better now. I don't feel so forlorn, and will
try to bear it if it comes."
"Keep hoping for the best, that will help you, Jo. Soon your mother
will be here, and then everything will be all right."
"I'm so glad Father is better. Now she won't feel so bad about leaving
him. Oh, me! It does seem as if all the troubles came in a heap, and
I got the heaviest part on my shoulders," sighed Jo, spreading her wet
handkerchief over her knees to dry.
"Doesn't Meg pull fair?" asked Laurie, looking indignant.
"Oh, yes, she tries to, but she can't love Bethy as I do, and she won't
miss her as I shall. Beth is my conscience, and I can't give her up.
I can't! I can't!"
Down went Jo's face into the wet handkerchief, and she cried
despairingly, for she had kept up bravely till now and never shed a
tear. Laurie drew his hand across his eyes, but could not speak till
he had subdued the choky feeling in his throat and steadied his lips.
It might be unmanly, but he couldn't help it, and I am glad of it.
Presently, as Jo's sobs quieted, he said hopefully, "I don't think she
will die. She's so good, and we all love her so much, I don't believe
God will take her away yet."
"The good and dear people always do die," groaned Jo, but she stopped
crying, for her friend's words cheered her up in spite of her own
doubts and fears.
"Poor girl, you're worn out. It isn't like you to be forlorn. Stop a
bit. I'll hearten you up in a jiffy."
Laurie went off two stairs at a time, and Jo laid her wearied head down
on Beth's little brown hood, which no one had thought of moving from
the table where she left it. It must have possessed some magic, for
the submissive spirit of its gentle owner seemed to enter into Jo, and
when Laurie came running down with a glass of wine, she took it with a
smile, and said bravely, "I drink— Health to my Beth! You are a good
doctor, Teddy, and such a comfortable friend. How can I ever pay you?"
she added, as the wine refreshed her body, as the kind words had done
her troubled mind.
"I'll send my bill, by-and-by, and tonight I'll give you something that
will warm the cockles of your heart better than quarts of wine," said
Laurie, beaming at her with a face of suppressed satisfaction at
"What is it?" cried Jo, forgetting her woes for a minute in her wonder.
"I telegraphed to your mother yesterday, and Brooke answered she'd come
at once, and she'll be here tonight, and everything will be all right.
Aren't you glad I did it?"
Laurie spoke very fast, and turned red and excited all in a minute, for
he had kept his plot a secret, for fear of disappointing the girls or
harming Beth. Jo grew quite white, flew out of her chair, and the
moment he stopped speaking she electrified him by throwing her arms
round his neck, and crying out, with a joyful cry, "Oh, Laurie! Oh,
Mother! I am so glad!" She did not weep again, but laughed
hysterically, and trembled and clung to her friend as if she was a
little bewildered by the sudden news.
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 liked 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 corner, 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 a rather neat thing of
"That's the interferingest chap I ever see, but I forgive him and do
hope Mrs. March is coming 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 encouragingly, "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
of 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 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
"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 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
As if awaked 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
"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!