FOR a week the amount of virtue in the old house would have supplied the neighborhood. It was really amazing, for every one seemed in a heavenly frame of mind, and self-denial was all the fashion. Relieved of their first anxiety about their father, the girls insensibly relaxed their praiseworthy efforts a little, and began to fall back into old ways. They did not forget their motto, but hoping and keeping busy seemed to grow easier; and after such tremendous exertions, they felt that Endeavor deserved a holiday, and gave it a good many.
Jo caught a bad cold through neglect to cover the shorn head enough, and was ordered to stay at home till she was better, for Aunt March did nt like to hear people read with colds in their heads. Jo liked this, and after an energetic rummage from garret to cellar, subsided on the sofa to nurse her cold with arsenicum and books. Amy found that housework and art did not go well together, and returned to her mud pies. Meg went daily to her pupils, and sewed, or thought she did, at home, but much time was spent in writing long letters to her mother, or reading the Washington despatches over and over. Beth kept on, with only slight relapses into idleness or grieving.
All the little duties were faithfully done each day, and many of her sisters also, for they were forgetful, and the house seemed like a clock whose pendulum was gone a-visiting. When her heart got heavy with longings for mother or fears for father, she went away into a certain closet, hid her face in the folds of a dear old gown, and made her little moan and prayed her little prayer quietly by herself. Nobody knew what cheered her up after a sober fit, but every one felt how sweet and helpful Beth was, and fell into a way of going to her for comfort or advice in their small affairs.
All were unconscious that this experience was a test of character; and, when the first excitement was over, felt that they had done well, and deserved praise. So they did; but their mistake was in ceasing to do well, and they learned this lesson through much anxiety and regret.
I have been every day, but the baby is sick, and I dont know what to do for it. Mrs. Hummel goes away to work, and Lottchen takes care of it; but it gets sicker and sicker, and I think you or Hannah ought to go.
So Beth lay down on the sofa, the others returned to their work, and the Hummels were forgotten. An hour passed: Amy did not come; Meg went to her room to try on a new dress; Jo was absorbed in her story, and Hannah was sound asleep before the kitchen fire, when Beth quietly put on her hood, filled her basket with odds and ends for the poor children, and went out into the chilly air, with a heavy head, and a grieved look in her patient eyes. It was late when she came back, and no one saw her creep upstairs and shut herself into her mothers room. Half an hour after Jo went to mothers closet for something, and there found Beth sitting on the medicine chest, looking very grave, with red eyes, and a camphor-bottle in her hand.
It was nt dreadful, Jo, only so sad! I saw in a minute that it was sicker, but Lottchen said her mother had gone for a doctor, so I took baby and let Lotty rest. It seemed asleep, but all of a sudden if gave a little cry, and trembled, and then lay very still. I tried to warm its feet, and Lotty gave it some milk, but it did nt stir, and I knew it was dead.
I just sat and held it softly till Mrs. Hummel came with the doctor. He said it was dead, and looked at Heinrich and Minna, who have sore throats. Scarlet fever, maam. Ought to have called me before, he said crossly. Mrs. Hummel told him she was poor, and had tried to cure baby herself, but now it was too late, and she could only ask him to help the others, and trust to charity for his pay. He smiled then, and was kinder; but it was very sad, and I cried with them till he turned round, all of a sudden, and told me to go home and take belladonna right away, or I d have the fever.
Dont be frightened, I guess I shant have it badly. I looked in mothers book, and saw that it begins with headache, sore throat, and queer feelings like mine, so I did take some belladonna, and I feel better, said Beth, laying her cold hands on her hot forehead, and trying to look well.
If mother was only at home! exclaimed Jo, seizing the book, and feeling that Washington was an immense way off. She read a page, looked at Beth, felt her head, peeped into her throat, and then said gravely, You ve been over the baby every day for more than a week, and among the others who are going to have it; so I m afraid you are going to have it, Beth. I ll call Hannah, she knows all about sickness.
The good soul was wide awake in a minute, and took the lead at once, assuring Jo that there was no need to worry; every one had scarlet fever, and, if rightly treated, nobody died,all of which Jo believed, and felt much relieved as they went up to call Meg.
Now I ll tell you what we ll do, said Hannah, when she had examined and questioned Beth; we will have Dr. Bangs, just to take a look at you, dear, and see that we start right; then we ll send Amy off to Aunt Marchs, for a spell, to keep her out of harms way, and one of you girls can stay at home and amuse Beth for a day or two.
Amy rebelled outright, and passionately declared that she had rather have the fever than go to Aunt March. Meg reasoned, pleaded, and commanded: all in vain. Amy protested that she would not go; and Meg left her in despair, to ask Hannah what should be done. Before she came back, Laurie walked into the parlor to find Amy sobbing, with her head in the sofa-cushions. She told her story, expecting to be consoled, but Laurie only put his hands in his pockets and walked about the room, whistling softly, as he knit his brows in deep thought. Presently he sat down beside her, and said, in his most wheedlesome tone, Now be a sensible little woman, and do as they say. No, dont cry, but hear what a jolly plan I ve got. You go to Aunt Marchs, and I ll come and take you out every day, driving or walking, and we ll have capital times. Wont that be better than moping here?
That s the very reason you ought to go away at once, so that you may escape it. Change of air and care will keep you well, I dare say; or, if it does not entirely, you will have the fever more lightly. I advise you to be off as soon as you can, for scarlet fever is no joke, miss.
It wont be dull with me popping in every day to tell you how Beth is, and take you out gallivanting. The old lady likes me, and I ll be as sweet as possible to her, so she wont peck at us, whatever we do.
She is lying down on mothers bed, and feels better. The babys death troubled her, but I dare say she has only got cold. Hannah says she thinks so; but she looks worried, and that makes me fidgety, answered Meg.
What a trying world it is! said Jo, rumpling up her hair in a fretful sort of way. No sooner do we get out of one trouble than down comes another. There does nt seem to be anything to hold on to when mothers gone; so I m all at sea.
Well, dont make a porcupine of yourself, it is nt becoming. Settle your wig, Jo, and tell me if I shall telegraph to your mother, or do anything? asked Laurie, who never had been reconciled to the loss of his friends one beauty.
That is what troubles me, said Meg. I think we ought to tell her if Beth is really ill, but Hannah says we must nt, for mother cant leave father, and it will only make them anxious. Beth wont be sick long, and Hannah knows just what to do, and mother said we were to mind her, so I suppose we must, but it does nt seem quite right to me.
Dr. Bangs came, said Beth had symptoms of the fever, but he thought she would have it lightly, though he looked sober over the Hummel story. Amy was ordered off at once, and provided with something to ward off danger, she departed in great state, with Jo and Laurie as escort.
No more than I expected, if you are allowed to go poking about among poor folks. Amy can stay and make herself useful if she is nt sick, which I ve no doubt she will be,looks like it now. Dont cry, child, it worries me to hear people sniff.