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In Sickness and Health

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It had been a busy December, a busy Christmas, and the New Year that had only just dawned looked as though it would be even busier than the last. This did not bother Jo in the least, for in laboring over how to begin her little school, she'd fallen into as deep a vortex as had ever been brought about by her writing. Many a happy hour was passed examining texts on subjects ranging from phonics and arithmetic to philosophy, in search of anything which might provide some useful grain of wisdom for her future students.

"I don't hope to produce the next Shakespeare or Plato, you know," she exclaimed laughingly over breakfast with her husband, the estimable Professor Friedrich Bhaer. "I'll be quite satisfied with 'glorious human boys' mischief and all, if only we can teach them to be good and honest as well."

The table that the pair sat at was quite engulfed by the piles of books that Jo had been poring over, so much so that the remnants of their breakfast seemed laughably out of place. That said, Aunt March’s long dining room table was far too vast for Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer to fill alone, even with what little help Franz and Emil had been able to provide before bolting down their eggs and toast and running off to play. Certainly the clutter of literature was but a reasonable concession to the abundance of space around them.

"Do you see much goodness in these books?" Bhaer asked with a smile, for he fully expected a tirade from Jo on their virtues, lover of words that she was.

"Mercy no! Only in a few of them, and some would argue that those are hardly academic. I've asked Teddy before about what he read when he was at school, and it seems to me that a lot of pieces of the greatest intellectual merit aren't the first things that we ought hand over to our boys. Not saying that they shouldn't read them, you know, only that..."

Here Jo waved her hand as if at a loss for words, for she was honestly interested in some of the works that she did not want to teach, and was not sure if she ought to be ashamed for wanting a great deal of knowledge on every subject, or if instead she ought to be proud of that and ashamed of not wanting to teach all of the knowledge that she did have.

"No, you are very and truly right in this thing," the Professor said quickly, seeing the conflict in Jo's face and wishing to alleviate it at once, for she was indeed entirely correct in her instincts here. "The two of us will have a great number... a great amount of strength for influencing their so young minds. It perhaps will be they will think not to question..."

Here Mrs. Bhaer screwed up her face in a funny expression that quite confused her husband, until he heard the sneeze that issued forth, for she could not prevent it.

A handkerchief was procured with surprising rapidity, considering that neither of them usually had the presence of mind to carry one, and having sorted herself out neatly, Jo found herself laughing out loud at Friedrich's frown.

"Serves me right," she said. "Been sniffly all morning, you see, and bent on ignoring it. My nose is just as much a blunderbuss as the rest of me, and will up and make scenes when I don’t attend to it."

Bhaer returned Jo's smile as she had known he would, but she also could feel his eyes upon her, for in admitting that she'd been plagued by a sniffle or two, she'd given him reason to wonder what had caused them.

Stuffy nose aside, Jo was in her most lively of moods, and she looked neither pale nor flushed with fever, or indeed anything other than the hale and industrious little woman that Friedrich knew her to be. Seeing this, he allowed himself to laugh as well, even as he resolved to keep his eyes open for any other signs of illness, in the unlikely event that they should arise.

***

As it turned out, the good Professor did not need to look very hard, for very little was ever subtle with Jo, and she could not catch a cold without it knocking her over the head and ambushing her all at once. For the rest of they day she remembered to carry a handkerchief with her, as her body had taken to reminding her much more sternly than Meg or her mother ever could, and for once she had a real need of it. She did all her usual chores about the house, and would not relent when Professor Bhaer tried to insist that he go to the market to get dinner instead of her. However, by the time night fell it was painfully clear that she was more than usually tired, and Friedrich decided it was better to say nothing when she went to bed a full hour before she usually did, lest any expression of concern on his part should cause her to stay up until midnight demonstrating how Exceedingly Not Ill she was.

For nearly a week Jo seemed to hover somewhere between sickness and health, though she would only admit to the later, and spent most of her mornings trying to do the work of three women, and most of her evenings in a state of exhaustion.

Of course Friedrich did his best to convince her to rest and leave other cares to him, but she balked at the suggestion in the strangest ways, and her passionate refusals to be “coddled”, as she put it, were some of his first indications that the horrible temper she had often alluded to might actually exist.
She is headstrong and will have her way in this, thought Friedrich, however much he hated to see his wife suffer needlessly when she was ready at a moment to jump to her aid. Though they were more than year into their marriage, the pair had yet to have a serious argument, and were still “newlyweds” in that respect; as a result Friedrich was naturally reluctant to bring that to an end by seeming to doubt Jo’s judgment on her own health, and he trusted his own judgment besides, and did not think things had yet become grave . He simply let her know that he was there for her in his quiet way, and watched her carefully to see if her cold would go away on its own or ambush her at some unexpected moment.

***
It was well past midnight when one cough and then another rattled Jo out of her slumber. It took her a minute or two to register her surroundings, and the fact that she really was awake, by which point another cough had come. The room was dark as it always was at this time of the night, and once Jo had managed to quiet herself, the only sound was the familiar one of Friedrich’s snoring. Though Jo could feel the heat of his body beside her under the blankets, she could not help shivering herself, for she was unaccountably cold all of a sudden. She felt as if a ball of tightness had settled itself in her chest just below where her neck ended, and had her suspicions that she would sound deadly hoarse if she tried to speak.

Tired though she was, she was out of bed at once. She'd always been good at nursing, but she wasn't at all used to being sick herself, and meant to fix things quickly if she could. Thankfully she and Friedrich were sensible, and they'd had the foresight to stock a medicine cabinet. She knew that some couples (not to mention Amy and Laurie...) didn't think of such things until they had reason to be sorry for forgetting them.

It only took Jo a few minutes to pad barefoot down Plumfield's long halls and begin her rummage for what she needed. Castor Oil seemed the best bet, being unpleasant enough to chase away just about any ailment, and she took a gulp of it right out of the bottle, with a grimace at the thought of how Aunt March would have been scandalized to see such antics going on in her former residence. If Jo was honest with herself, she knew even Marmee would most likely scold, but the spoons were all the way downstairs in the kitchen, and Jo was cold and suddenly dizzy.

The trip back felt like it took an hour, and it was a great relief to be able to sink into her bed, where Jo fell asleep at once.

The next fit of coughing that woke Jo was as deep and painful as it was persistent.

This time Friedrich did wake up, and Jo didn't know whether to be grateful for the help or annoyed that her body should up and defy her like this when she had done all that could to settle it.

"Ach, it goes badly for thee,” said Friedrich, who sounded far too alert for somebody who had just been awoken from a deep sleep.

"Not very," she said, trying to sound well and failing at the task entirely. "Took medicine."

It must be said that the warm firmness of Friedrich's hands on her shoulder and the small of her back came as something of a relief to poor Jo, who was feeling rather far-off and untethered just then, as her attempts to smother the great hacking coughs in the folds of her pillow proved useless. She did her best to swallow them back, but every time she managed a moment’s silence, another one came to shake her body.

“No, we do not do like this…” Friedrich said, as he gently tugged at the pillow, which had become hot and damp against her face. The coughs came furiously as he helped Jo up into a sitting position, and she rested her head in her hands while Friedrich rubbed her back until she went quiet again at last.

This is what drowning feels like, Jo thought, as concentrated on catching her breathe. To Friedrich she only croaked: “Thank you, I’m better now.”

“Art thou?” He asked.. He touched her cheek, her forehead, and then his own, and frowned. He didn't need to tell her that she was feverish; she could read it in his face as well as in the signs that her own body gave her.

“Maybe not,” she admitted.

"I'll go now for the doctor," he said quickly.

"Don't."

He raised an eyebrow at her, as though surprised at the protest.

"There is something that thou art needing first?" He asked.

Jo sighed, her breath rattling as she did so. Friedrich was using the old Shakespearean forms of address as he did when he was feeling very tender, but the obvious worry in his tone added a plaintiff depth to them that The Bard himself, with all of his eloquent English, rarely impressed so strongly upon her.

"You'd better stay," she said. "Medical men don't like being bothered for trifles."

“What is the trifle here? I see none,” replied Bhaer, who could not begin to conceive a single thing more important than the woman beside him.

“It’s pitch black, and I hate to think of you going off into the night like that. Go in the morning, and I promise I’ll sleep quietly ‘till then if you’re here.”

Bhaer glanced at the window, thinking that it wasn’t very dark, and very much wishing that all of his learning had taught him a way to be in two places at once. Just then another cough shook Jo’s frame, and Friedrich decided that he would not be letting her have her way in this case, at least not entirely.

Reaching for his pocket watch on the bedside table, he glanced at it before saying, “Here. He says it is thirty past five. Morning has come, and will be bright before young Franz reaches the doctor’s home.” With that he rose so decisively that Jo could not say anything, and even if she’d wanted to, most of her effort was spent in trying to breathe.

He was gone for a few minutes, during which time Jo thought she heard the sound of him knocking on the boys’ door, and a few whispered words. Then he was back beside her, quicker than she could have expected.

“There, we’ve settled it, and all will be well soon,” he said very gently, arranging the blanket over her shoulders, and taking her into his arms to sleep until the doctor arrived.

***

It must be said that Jo was perturbed to be woken again after only a very short period of peaceful rest, but having come to the conclusion that she was going to be ill now and there was little she could do about it, she resolved to at least try not to be too troublesome a patient.

The groggy young woman who submitted so quietly to the poking and prodding of Doctor Bangs hardly seemed a thing like the fiery Jo March, but she was as forthcoming as she could be, and the examination went easily.

“Your fever isn’t high, but we’d best watch out for it,” Bangs explained. “Pulse is normal, but you’re congested and your throat is red. ‘Twas most likely some small bug that’s progressed into bronchitis. Don’t suppose it’s phenomena, but you’d best stay in bed and warm less that’s what you want.”

“Absolutely we do not,” Friedrich answered for her, and Jo let him, for there was not much use in talking when her voice was so raspy. She’d sat very straight during most of the examination, moving now and then so that the doctor might listen to her lungs or feel her neck for any unnatural swelling, but now that he was finished she leaned back against the pillows, and let him discuss with Friedrich what medicines she would need and how to administer them. A few more words were exchanged, well wishes for her health, well wishes for their school, and then the doctor was gone, and Jo was left only with Friedrich watching her with such love and concern in his eyes before she closed her own and could not see them any more.

***

Three days passed, and Friedrich had reason to be thankful for the skills that he had learned being a bachelor for as long as he had. He could take care of the house and the boys when he needed to, and did not flounder helplessly at the cooking, but produced meals that were filling, though they were very simple, and lacking in any sort of variety. Things may have become somewhat dustier than usual, and his socks might have acquired holes at a most alarming rate, but no great disaster rocked the grounds of Plumfield, even with the house’s mistress confined to bed.

In the spirit of fairness, it must be said that the Professor’s fine management ability was attributed in part, at least, to the fact that the Professorin was not one of a domestic nature, hardworking though she was, and the housework was not divided so clearly into male and female chores as it was in many another residence, for both parties had a tendency to do whatever task needed doing as they noticed it, whether that task was fetching firewood or refreshing the flower vases. Similarly, Jo was not one to fill the home with artistry or the sorts of little touches that made home life pretty and elegant, and so the Professor had no reason to long for these things. Nonetheless, the Professor missed how Jo’s stray books would always turn up in the oddest places, and Plumfield without her running busily through the halls seemed rather a heartless place.

It is understandable, then, why Friedrich spent much of his time sitting besides Jo in bed, doing what he could to ease her cough and keep her still, for though she tried her best to follow the doctor’s orders and did not feel well enough to do much at any rate, simply lying in one place for days on end could not but make one as young and lively as her restless. He read to her often from works that he knew she’d been curious about but unable to find the time for, and made things as pleasant as he could.

The doctor came each day, and all reports were good, for Jo’s fever subsided within two days, though the cough clung to her tenaciously for more than a week, and Bangs advised her not to speak much, hearing how scratchy and horrible she sounded when she did.

Finally even these symptoms faded, and the good doctor gave Jo a smile as he examined her one last time, as if well pleased with his work.

“I’d suggest you stay in bed one more day,” he said, “as it’s better to be safe than sorry, you know, but I think you’re out of any danger.”

“Was there any danger to begin with?” Asked Jo, sounding alarmed for the first time.

“Not much, but if you’d put off calling me another day, I suspect there would have been.”

Jo touched Friedrich’s hand at this, looking sober and grateful all at once, but the doctor smiled, as if he had good news to tell.

“Now,” he said, “I should not have thought of bothering you with business with you ill as you were, but I’ve not been able to get this school of yours off my mind. What the two of you have done to old ‘Plum is amazing, so different from how the previous owner…”

Here Bangs cleared his throat, as if rather embarrassed. “Well,” he continued, “she was your aunt, and a most excellent woman, but I would have never imagined children in this place before, and now I can hardly imagine this place without them for long. I have a brother, and his son Tommy would most like benefit wonderfully from your establishment. He’s a wild boy, but a good one, and I’m sure my brother would be most grateful if you took him on.”

“Of course we’ll take him!” Exclaimed Jo, not thinking to ask Friedrich, for one glance at his face told her that they were of one mind on this subject.

“Very good of you. I’ll leave you to rest then.”

With that the doctor tipped his hat, gathered up his things, and left.

****

“A student!” Jo exclaimed, not for the first time that evening. It was all that Friedrich could do to keep her in bed, for she looked about ready to sweep through house like a hurricane, preparing everything at once. “Can you believe it?”

“I did not expect it so soon,” Friedrich admitted, “but I shall be glad of it. He will give much company to Emil and Franz, and much good work to us.”

“Things always do go by contraries with me. Good fortune turns to bad, and bad to good, till it’s all a hopeless muddle, but I’m very happy.”

“It’s true that this thing would not have come about if you’d not been sick, but I don't want to try it again.”

“Nor I! You were a perfect angel through and through, but another week in this bed would drive me mad. I long to be out and doing, and I can think about only one thing that would convince me to stay here another minute.”

Friedrich opened his mouth, about to ask what that thing was, but a minute later he caught her look, and put that mouth to much better use by kissing her.