“Good afternoon. I came to get my umbrella, that is, to see how your father finds himself today,” said Mr. Brooke, getting a trifle confused as his eyes went from one telltale face to the other.
“It’s very well, he’s in the rack. I’ll get him, and tell it you are here.” And having jumbled her father and the umbrella well together in her reply, Jo slipped out of the room to give Meg a chance to make her speech and air her dignity. But the instant she vanished, Meg began to sidle toward the door, murmuring…
“Mother will like to see you. Pray sit down, I’ll call her.”
“Don’t go. Are you afraid of me, Margaret?” and Mr. Brooke looked so hurt that Meg thought she must have done something very rude. She blushed up to the little curls on her forehead, for he had never called her Margaret before, and she was surprised to find how natural and sweet it seemed to hear him say it. Anxious to appear friendly and at her ease, she put out her hand with a confiding gesture, and said gratefully…
“How can I be afraid when you have been so kind to Father? I only wish I could thank you for it.”
“Shall I tell you how?” asked Mr. Brooke, holding the small hand fast in both his own, and looking down at Meg with so much love in the brown eyes that her heart began to flutter, and she both longed to run away and to stop and listen.
“Oh no, please don’t, I’d rather not,” she said, trying to withdraw her hand, and looking frightened in spite of her denial.
“I won’t trouble you. I only want to know if you care for me a little, Meg. I love you so much, dear,” added Mr. Brooke tenderly.
This was the moment for the calm, proper speech, but Meg didn’t make it. She forgot every word of it, hung her head, and answered, “I don’t know,” so softly that John had to stoop down to catch the foolish little reply.
He seemed to think it was worth the trouble, for he smiled to himself as if quite satisfied, pressed the plump hand gratefully, and said in his most persuasive tone, “Will you try and find out? I want to know so much, for I can’t go to work with any heart until I learn whether I am to have my reward in the end or not.”
“I’m too young,” faltered Meg, wondering why she was so fluttered, yet rather enjoying it.
“I’ll wait, and in the meantime, you could be learning to like me. Would it be a very hard lesson, dear?”
“Not if I chose to learn it, but… ”
“Please choose to learn, Meg. I love to teach, and this is easier than German,” broke in John, getting possession of the other hand, so that she had no way of hiding her face as he bent to look into it.
His tone was properly beseeching, but stealing a shy look at him, Meg saw that his eyes were merry as well as tender, and that he wore the satisfied smile of one who had no doubt of his success. This nettled her. Annie Moffat’s foolish lessons in coquetry came into her mind, and the love of power, which sleeps in the bosoms of the best of little women, woke up all of a sudden and took possession of her. She felt excited and strange, and not knowing what else to do, followed a capricious impulse, and, withdrawing her hands, said petulantly, “I don’t choose. Please go away and let me be!”
Poor Mr. Brooke looked as if his lovely castle in the air was tumbling about his ears, for he had never seen Meg in such a mood before, and it rather bewildered him.
“Do you really mean that?” he asked anxiously, following her as she walked away.
“Yes, I do. I don’t want to be worried about such things. Father says I needn’t, it’s too soon and I’d rather not.”
“Mayn’t I hope you’ll change your mind by-and-by? I’ll wait and say nothing till you have had more time. Don’t play with me, Meg. I didn’t think that of you.”
“Don’t think of me at all. I’d rather you wouldn’t,” said Meg, taking a naughty satisfaction in trying her lover’s patience and her own power.
He was grave and pale now, and looked decidedly more like the novel heroes whom she admired, but he neither slapped his forehead nor tramped about the room as they did. He just stood looking at her so wistfully, so tenderly, that she found her heart relenting in spite of herself. What would have happened next I cannot say, if Aunt March had not come hobbling in at this interesting minute.
The old lady couldn’t resist her longing to see her nephew, for she had met Laurie as she took her airing, and hearing of Mr. March’s arrival, drove straight out to see him. The family were all busy in the back part of the house, and she had made her way quietly in, hoping to surprise them. She did surprise two of them so much that Meg started as if she had seen a ghost, and Mr. Brooke vanished into the study.
“Bless me, what’s all this?” cried the old lady with a rap of her cane as she glanced from the pale young gentleman to the scarlet young lady.
“It’s Father’s friend. I’m so surprised to see you!” stammered Meg, feeling that she was in for a lecture now.
“That’s evident,” returned Aunt March, sitting down. “But what is Father’s friend saying to make you look like a peony? There’s mischief going on, and I insist upon knowing what it is,” with another rap.
“We were only talking. Mr. Brooke came for his umbrella,” began Meg, wishing that Mr. Brooke and the umbrella were safely out of the house.
“Brooke? That boy’s tutor? Ah! I understand now. I know all about it. Jo blundered into a wrong message in one of your Father’s letters, and I made her tell me. You haven’t gone and accepted him, child?” cried Aunt March, looking scandalized.
“Hush! He’ll hear. Shan’t I call Mother?” said Meg, much troubled.
“Not yet. I’ve something to say to you, and I must free my mind at once. Tell me, do you mean to marry this Cook? If you do, not one penny of my money ever goes to you. Remember that, and be a sensible girl,” said the old lady impressively.
Now Aunt March possessed in perfection the art of rousing the spirit of opposition in the gentlest people, and enjoyed doing it. The best of us have a spice of perversity in us, especially when we are young and in love. If Aunt March had begged Meg to accept John Brooke, she would probably have declared she couldn’t think of it, but as she was preemptorily ordered not to like him, she immediately made up her mind that she would. Inclination as well as perversity made the decision easy, and being already much excited, Meg opposed the old lady with unusual spirit.