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Chapter 36 – Beth’s Secret

Louisa May AlcottJun 23, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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When Jo came home that spring, she had been struck with
the change in Beth. No one spoke of it or seemed aware of it,
for it had come too gradually to startle those who saw her
daily, but to eyes sharpened by absence, it was very plain and
a heavy weight fell on Jo’s heart as she saw her sister’s face.
It was no paler and but littler thinner than in the autumn, yet
there was a strange, transparent look about it, as if the mortal
was being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining through
the frail flesh with an indescribably pathetic beauty. Jo saw
and felt it, but said nothing at the time, and soon the first
impression lost much of its power, for Beth seemed happy, no
one appeared to doubt that she was better, and presently in
other cares Jo for a time forgot her fear.

But when Laurie was gone, and peace prevailed again, the
vague anxiety returned and haunted her. She had confessed
her sins and been forgiven, but when she showed her savings
and proposed a mountain trip, Beth had thanked her heartily,
but begged not to go so far away from home. Another little
visit to the seashore would suit her better, and as Grandma
could not be prevailed upon to leave the babies, Jo took Beth
down to the quiet place, where she could live much in the
open air, and let the fresh sea breezes blow a little color
into her pale cheeks.

It was not a fashionable place, but even among the pleasant
people there, the girls made few friends, preferring to live for
one another. Beth was too shy to enjoy society, and Jo too
wrapped up in her to care for anyone else. So they were all in
all to each other, and came and went, quite unconscious of the
interest they exited in those about them, who watched with sympathetic
eyes the strong sister and the feeble one, always
together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation
was not far away.

They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it, for often between
ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve
which it is very hard to overcome. Jo felt as if a veil
had fallen between her heart and Beth’s, but when she put out
her hand to lift it up, there seemed something sacred in the
silence, and she waited for Beth to speak. She wondered, and
was thankful also, that her parents did not seem to see what
she saw, and during the quiet weeks when the shadows grew so
plain to her, she said nothing of it to those at home, believing
that it would tell itself when Beth came back no better.
She wondered still more if her sister really guessed the hard
truth, and what thoughts were passing through her mind during
the long hours when she lay on the warm rocks with her head in
Jo’s lap, while the winds blew healthfully over her and the sea
made music at her feet.

One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she lay
so still, and putting down her book, sat looking at her with
wistful eyes, trying to see signs of hope in the faint color on
Beth’s cheeks. But she could not find enough to satisfy her,
for the cheeks were very thin, and the hands seemed too feeble
to hold even the rosy little shells they had been collecting.
It came to her then more bitterly than ever that Beth was
slowly drifting away from her, and her arms instinctively
tightened their hold upon the dearest treasure she possessed.
For a minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when they
cleared, Beth was looking up at her so tenderly that there was
hardly any need for her to say, "Jo, dear, I’m glad you know
it. I’ve tried to tell you, but I couldn’t."

There was no answer except her sister’s cheek against her
own, not even tears, for when most deeply moved, Jo did not
cry. She was the weaker then, and Beth tried to comfort and
sustain her, with her arms about her and the soothing words
she whispered in her ear.

"I’ve known it for a good while, dear, and now I’m used
to it, it isn’t hard to think of or to bear. Try to see it so
and don’t be troubled about me, because it’s best, indeed it is."

"Is this what made you so unhappy in the autumn, Beth? You
did not feel it then, and keep it to yourself so long, did you?"
asked Jo, refusing to see or say that it was best, but glad to
know that Laurie had no part in Beth’s trouble.

"Yes, I gave up hoping then, but I didn’t like to own it.
I tried to think it was a sick fancy, and would not let it
trouble anyone. But when I saw you all so well and strong and
full of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I could never be
like you, and then I was miserable, Jo."

"Oh, Beth, and you didn’t tell me, didn’t let me comfort and
help you? How could you shut me out, bear it all alone?"

Jo’s voice was full of tender reproach, and her heart ached
to think of the solitary struggle that must have gone on while
Beth learned to say goodbye to health, love, and life, and take
up her cross so cheerfully.

"Perhaps it was wrong, but I tried to do right. I wasn’t sure,
no one said anything, and I hoped I was mistaken. It would have
been selfish to frighten you all when Marmee was so anxious about
Meg, and Amy away, and you so happy with Laurie – at least I thought
so then."

"And I thought you loved him, Beth, and I went away because
I couldn’t," cried Jo, glad to say all the truth.

Beth looked so amazed at the idea that Jo smiled in spite
of her pain, and added softly, "Then you didn’t, dearie? I was
afraid it was so, and imagined your poor little heart full of
lovelornity all that while."

"Why, Jo, how could I, when he was so fond of you?" asked
Beth, as innocently as a child. "I do love him dearly. He is
so good to me, how can I help It? But he could never be anything
to me but my brother. I hope he truly will be, sometime."

"Not through me," said Jo decidedly. "Amy is left for him,
and they would suit excellently, but I have no heart for such
things, now. I don’t care what becomes of anybody but you, Beth.
You must get well."

"I want to, oh, so much! I try, but every day I lose a little,
and feel more sure that I shall never gain it back. It’s like the
tide, Jo, when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped."

"It shall be stopped, your tide must not turn so soon, nineteen
is too young, Beth. I can’t let you go. I’ll work and pray
and fight against it. I’ll keep you in spite of everything. There
must be ways, it can’t be too late. God won’t be so cruel as to
take you from me," cried poor Jo rebelliously, for her spirit was
far less piously submissive than Beth’s.

Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. It
shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence
than homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or
explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up
life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she
asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father
and Mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and they only,
could teach and strengthen heart and spirit for this life and
the life to come. She did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches,
only loved her better for her passionate affection, and clung
more closely to the dear human love, from which our Father never
means us to be weaned, but through which He draws us closer to
Himself. She could not say, "I’m glad to go," for life was very
sweet for her. She could only sob out, "I try to be willing,"
while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this
great sorrow broke over them together.

By and by Beth said, with recovered serenity, "You’ll tell
them this when we go home?"

"I think they will see it without words," sighed Jo, for now
it seemed to her that Beth changed every day.

"Perhaps not. I’ve heard that the people who love best are
often blindest to such things. If they don’t see it, you will tell
them for me. I don’t want any secrets, and it’s kinder to prepare
them. 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 anyone
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."

Jo could not speak, and for several minutes there was no
sound but the sigh of the wind and the lapping of the tide. A
white-winged gull flew by, with the flash of sunshine on its
silvery breast. Beth watched it till it vanished, and her eyes
were full of sadness. A little gray-coated sand bird came tripping
over the beach ‘peeping’ softly to itself, as if enjoying
the sun and sea. It came quite close to Beth, and looked at her
with a friendly eye and sat upon a warm stone, dressing its wet
feathers, quite at home. Beth smiled and felt comforted, for
the tiny thing seemed to offer its small friendship and remind
her that a pleasant world was still to be enjoyed.

"Dear little bird! See, Jo, how tame it is. I like peeps
better than the gulls. They are not so wild and handsome, but
they seem happy, confiding little things. I used to call them
my birds last summer, and Mother said they reminded her of me
– busy, quaker-colored creatures, always near the shore, and
always chirping that contented little song of theirs. You are
the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind,
flying far out to sea, and happy all alone. Meg is the turtledove,
and Amy is like the lark she writes about, trying to get
up among the clouds, but always dropping down into its nest
again. Dear little girl! She’s so ambitious, but her heart is
good and tender, and no matter how high she flies, she never
will forget home. I hope I shall see her again, but she seems
so far away."

"She is coming in the spring, and I mean that you shall be
all ready to see and enjoy her. I’m going to have you well and
rosy by that time," began Jo, feeling that of all the changes
in Beth, the talking change was the greatest, for it seemed to
cost no effort now, and she thought aloud in a way quite unlike
bashful Beth.

"Jo, dear, don’t hope any more. It won’t do any good. I’m
sure of that. We won’t be miserable, but enjoy being together
while we wait. We’ll have happy times, for I don’t suffer much,
and I think the tide will go out easily, if you help me."

Jo leaned down to kiss the tranquil face, and with that
silent kiss, she dedicated herself soul and body to Beth.

She was right. There was no need of any words when they
got home, for Father and Mother saw plainly now what they had
prayed to be saved from seeing. Tired with her short journey,
Beth went at once to bed, saying how glad she was to be home,
and when Jo went down, she found that she would be spared the
hard task of telling Beth’s secret. Her father stood leaning
his head on the mantelpiece and did not turn as she came in,
but her mother stretched out her arms as if for help, and Jo
went to comfort her without a word.

 

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