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 workbasket, for she had agreed with her mother that it was best, for her at least, not to drive too 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, handling 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 downstairs 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. Oh, 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 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.