"O Jo! how can you be such a ninny-pinny?"
Taken by surprise, both at Amy's presence at that hour of the evening and at this most unusual greeting from one who commonly modelled all things polite and demure, Jo at once straightened up indignantly, the better to respond in kind. However, both her battle-readiness and her hair, pinned up as ever with a quantity of combs that spoke more of desperation than of style, suffered sadly from this too-quick reaction. When Amy spoke, Jo had wormed more than half her body deep into the upstairs linen closet as she searched out bedding for the school's latest lost lambs, and as she straightened her head came thus full into contact with the underside of one of the shelves. Grimacing at the pain, no less intense for that she knew it to be transitory, Jo backed out rather more swiftly than she had gone in and collapsed in a heap of skirts and sheets, one hand to her abraded brow and the other still triumphantly clutching the least worn of the coverlets she had discovered towards the back of the storage space.
"Ow," she said, rather unnecessarily but with a good deal of force.
Amy--and Meg, whom Jo now saw behind their younger sister in full dove-grey sail--cried out as one and, quarrelsome challenge forgotten, descended upon Jo at once in a flurry of exclamations. Before she knew what they were about, they had settled her in the most comfortable of the room's threadbare chairs; Meg had whisked the coverlet from her hands and was folding it tidily away to be added to the stack of linens already out on the corner table, and Amy was just coming back into the room shepherding Rob before her, the household's medicinal kit bag in one of his small hands and a rather large poultice smelling of oil of comfrey in the other. This latter he laid, with more anxious enthusiasm than care, on his beloved Marmar's head, where it promptly slid down to cover one eye.
"Dearest sister," said Amy with remorse, sinking down to sit on the chair's embroidered footstool at Jo's feet, "I am sorry that I startled you so, and at such an inopportune time. But you must believe me when I tell you that, though I had no desire to effect such injury and will do whatever I may to alleviate it, my haste in visiting you tonight was not without reason--reason, indeed, that yet remains. O Jo!" and here Amy's brow wrinkled with renewed vexation as she gazed up into her sister's careworn face. "How can you be such a ninny-pinny?"
Jo blinked the eye not covered by the poultice, as much at hearing that long-forgotten term emerge from her elegant sister's mouth as at the context in which it had been uttered. "Why, Amy, what can you mean by that? I like to think I have 'wised up,' as the rougher element in those bad books I took from Tommy Bangs is wont to say, and though I am no model of sense I hope I have at least gained sensibilities."
"And so you may have, Jo, though it is no more my place to judge you on that score now than when we were children together, despite what I foolishly thought at that time. No, our sister and I have come tonight on a quite different matter. Put plainly, as you so often ask of me when I am over-conscious of conversational niceties for your taste: although your foolish pride seems to forbid you confiding such things in we who have loved you longest and best, my lord and husband has at last told me of your greatest fear and worry. Though it's plain you and Friedrich will never run short on love for and careful attention to your motley flock of boys, the wherewithal to keep them housed and fed here at Plumfield grows ever scanter. No--" and here Amy held up a hand to forestall Jo's protest--"please, Jo. Don't deny it, for I know it's true, else Laurie would never have said a thing to me, nor I to Meg."
"I shan't deny it," Jo muttered, looking and sounding all at once like her scapegrace self of twenty years before. "Hope I shall never be a liar, whatever else may be said of me. Can't make out how Teddy could have sussed it, though, nor why he went and spilled the beans to you. Poor we may be, certainly, but that's no change from our lives since first we fitted Plumfield out to house our 'flock', as you call 'em, or from years before that, for that matter. And haven't we made a go of it all this time, and don't we still do our level best to take good care of our boys, body and soul, every blessed waif and stray of 'em?" Rising to her feet in agitation, she flung open the medical kit and rummaged in it for the box of plasters, after which, slapping one on the abused forehead, she began to stalk about the room as she had in days of old when her temper threatened to get the better of her and movement seemed the only effective panacea.
"Jo, Jo," Meg chastised gently from the corner to which she had retired, there to busy her hands with the latest knitted work for the children's charity she supplied therewith. "No one is saying otherwise, dear, as you'd realize if you stopped pacing and gave fair consideration to what Amy has said. Your 'wilderness of boys' is a healthier garden than ever I imagined possible when first you told your dream to us so many years ago, and of your listeners then I was the only one with any doubt at all. Father and Mother thought it a good plan from the start, and time has proven them right; Laurie and Amy have long been your staunchest supporters; and you cannot think that Mr. Laurence has anything but the highest opinion of what you and Friedrich have made out of Aunt March's legacy."
For a moment Jo stood frozen, slumped in silhouette against the room's far window. Then she returned to her chair and sank into it gracelessly. "I know," she said, raising a hand to rub the plaster adorning her brow. "I know you all see and support what we try to accomplish here, and do so many things to help that I already feel as though we never will be able to repay you. It isn't you I doubt--not any of you. I doubt myself. For it's true, of course, what Laurie's told you: though we've husbanded Aunt's legacy as prudently as ever we could, in recent years our straits have become what might truly be called dire. Fritz and I have talked it over for months, trying and trying to see a way past the problem, but one might as well try to peer 'round a mountain while stuck on its lowest slopes: the thing cannot be done, and we've been at our wits' end because of it." She sighed, a weary sound that seemed to come from the depths of her being. "And pray, sisters, what solution do you propose to our dilemma? For I'll tell you now, I couldn't bear to be the object of charity."
Meg laughed joyfully, and Amy clasped her hands together where she sat, looking a perfect picture of conspiratorial delight. "No, and nor would any who love you expect it or offer to make you so. No, dear, it is a new plan which we bring to you, one I think you will welcome, though it may take you time to adjust to it. It is--"
Jo twisted her head around to stare at the speaker, who stood smiling in the doorway behind her. "Teddy! Wherever did you come from?" Then, in surprised confusion, "But--we have a school! A perfectly good one, even if it is worn at the elbows and down at the heels, and whatever can you be thinking of to suggest otherwise?"
Laurie laughed. "To be sure you do, and a splendid one at that, and I would sooner try running our nation's army singlehandedly than interfere in its organization or change its essence in any way. I don't mean that sort of school, my dear. I mean a college. A new and unusual college, away from the factories and fumes of town that are hemming in the places where we met and where we grew to adulthood. A college built here on Plumfield's grounds, with this house and its environs a valued and cared-for part of the campus. A college where Fritz and Mr. March may teach as they were born to do without interference from those addicted to the established standards of fashionable learning, where Grandfather may foster the finest of artistic talent in those who otherwise might never have such a chance to find their gifts, and where young men--"
"And girls, Teddy?" Jo's voice held a note of dawning hope.
"And girls--where young people whose passion for learning outstrips their parents' purses or their own may come to learn and, leaving, find their place in the world that much more clearly, having shaped minds and hearts in ways both healthy and happy. Think of it, Jo! Those of your boys whom the Great Teacher outfitted for further study may move in that direction without being forced to leave their first and best home, and the rest can't help but improve themselves by virtue of proximity to such mindful and well-guided effort, even if their own roads lie elsewhere."
For a moment, Jo looked transported, as though she might give up her matriarchal role and enroll herself in such a place, there to fulfill the dreams of learning that had threaded her days since first she turned the pages of her father's books with pudgy baby's fingers. Then her face changed, a weary look of wariness clouding her tired eyes, and her fists clenched where they lay entangled in her skirts. Before she could open her mouth to argue, however, Laurie was there before her, going to his knees by the side of her chair opposite that where his wife sat smiling at them.
"I know what you're going to say, sister mine. Haven't I known you since we danced a German with your skirts all scorched, and aren't I your Teddy, after all? I know the paths your thoughts tread here; I know what troubles you so that your brow furrows and your eyes flash. And I assure you, Jo--I promise you, faithfully--that nothing in this plan I've laid before you is born of charity, or pity, or any of the other things you dread so much. It's my dream, Jo," Laurie said persuasively, looking very like the boy of old, "and isn't it wonderful? and don't you want to help me make it happen? even if it does mean that you won't any longer be able to worry yourself to distraction over making ends meet for your merry band of boys and will have to find something else entirely to occupy your time?"
Jo had opened and closed her mouth several times during this speech, looking so like a fish in the marketplace that all those who watched her struggled mightily not to laugh, knowing that a delicate balance existed here and that one untoward reaction might tip it towards disaster. Finally, she asked, somewhat breathlessly, "And does my Fritz know about all this?"
"He does, my Professorin, and thinks it a plan of such depth and richness that this heart already full comes close to bursting." Disguised from her sight by the quantity of people already therein and her own distractedness in the face of Laurie's proposal, the Professor had entered the room entirely without Jo's noticing. Now he came to stand behind her, looking down into her face, his hands warm on her shoulders and his face alit with the quiet happiness that Jo so loved to see in him.
"I admit to you," he continued, "that it was I who loosed the so-active cat from its bag, when I last week spoke again with our good friend's grandfather to find whether he knew of other boys whom we might take in and teach but who, though it shamed me thus to ask, could perhaps afford to pay a little towards that end. Having made with me an agreement to meet again some days hence, that worthy man at once confided in his grandson, in whose thoughts this plan you now have heard had long been growing. He sought me out and brought me into his confidence, but asked that I hold back from telling you, leaving to him that pleasure; and though it pained me to keep from you this thing, I have done as he asked."
As he spoke, one hand came up to cup Jo's face in a sweet show of affection, and his other hand tightened on her shoulder. "And now you know, my Jo, heart's dearest. Will you do this thing, then? Will you open your great heart to these good friends and work with them to realize their dream, as they have done with us for these years past?"
"Yes, will you, Jo? Do, do!" echoed Laurie from his place below her, looking up into her face with his most winning smile.
Jo looked from one to the other of these men, each in his own way vital to her life, then closed her eyes in thought. For a moment the room was so silent that it seemed everyone in it must be holding in their breath.
Then: "Yes!" and Jo gave so decided a nod that her remaining hairpins flew one way, the plaster on her brow another, and the family gathered round her laughed as its various members ducked or shied to avoid these inadvertent missiles. "Yes, Fritz; yes, Laurie; yes. A capital idea. We'll do it!"
And thus began the next stage of Plumfield's merry ministry, born in love and laughter, the kind of enterprise that comes only with time, care, fortune, and the will to use all in the service of good.