“I shall marry whom I please, Aunt March, and you can leave your money to anyone you like,” she said, nodding her head with a resolute air.
“Highty-tighty! Is that the way you take my advice, Miss? You’ll be sorry for it by-and-by, when you’ve tried love in a cottage and found it a failure.”
“It can’t be a worse one than some people find in big houses,” retorted Meg.
Aunt March put on her glasses and took a look at the girl, for she did not know her in this new mood. Meg hardly knew herself, she felt so brave and independent, so glad to defend John and assert her right to love him, if she liked. Aunt March saw that she had begun wrong, and after a little pause, made a fresh start, saying as mildly as she could, “Now, Meg, my dear, be reasonable and take my advice. I mean it kindly, and don’t want you to spoil your whole life by making a mistake at the beginning. You ought to marry well and help your family. It’s your duty to make a rich match and it ought to be impressed upon you.”
“Father and Mother don’t think so. They like John though he is poor.”
“Your parents, my dear, have no more worldly wisdom than a pair of babies.”
“I’m glad of it,” cried Meg stoutly.
Aunt March took no notice, but went on with her lecture. “This Rook is poor and hasn’t got any rich relations, has he?”
“No, but he has many warm friends.”
“You can’t live on friends, try it and see how cool they’ll grow. He hasn’t any business, has he?”
“Not yet. Mr. Laurence is going to help him.”
“That won’t last long. James Laurence is a crotchety old fellow and not to be depended on. So you intend to marry a man without money, position, or business, and go on working harder than you do now, when you might be comfortable all your days by minding me and doing better? I thought you had more sense, Meg.”
“I couldn’t do better if I waited half my life! John is good and wise, he’s got heaps of talent, he’s willing to work and sure to get on, he’s so energetic and brave. Everyone likes and respects him, and I’m proud to think he cares for me, though I’m so poor and young and silly,” said Meg, looking prettier than ever in her earnestness.
“He knows you have got rich relations, child. That’s the secret of his liking, I suspect.”
“Aunt March, how dare you say such a thing? John is above such meanness, and I won’t listen to you a minute if you talk so,” cried Meg indignantly, forgetting everything but the injustice of the old lady’s suspicions. “My John wouldn’t marry for money, any more than I would. We are willing to work and we mean to wait. I’m not afraid of being poor, for I’ve been happy so far, and I know I shall be with him because he loves me, and I… ”
Meg stopped there, remembering all of a sudden that she hadn’t made up her mind, that she had told ‘her John’ to go away, and that he might be overhearing her inconsistent remarks.
Aunt March was very angry, for she had set her heart on having her pretty niece make a fine match, and something in the girl’s happy young face made the lonely old woman feel both sad and sour.
“Well, I wash my hands of the whole affair! You are a willful child, and you’ve lost more than you know by this piece of folly. No, I won’t stop. I’m disappointed in you, and haven’t spirits to see your father now. Don’t expect anything from me when you are married. Your Mr. Brooke’s friends must take care of you. I’m done with you forever.”
And slamming the door in Meg’s face, Aunt March drove off in high dudgeon. She seemed to take all the girl’s courage with her, for when left alone, Meg stood for a moment, undecided whether to laugh or cry. Before she could make up her mind, she was taken possession of by Mr. Brooke, who said all in one breath, “I couldn’t help hearing, Meg. Thank you for defending me, and Aunt March for proving that you do care for me a little bit.”
“I didn’t know how much till she abused you,” began Meg.
“And I needn’t go away, but may stay and be happy, may I, dear?”
Here was another fine chance to make the crushing speech and the stately exit, but Meg never thought of doing either, and disgraced herself forever in Jo’s eyes by meekly whispering, “Yes, John,” and hiding her face on Mr. Brooke’s waistcoat.
Fifteen minutes after Aunt March’s departure, Jo came softly downstairs, paused an instant at the parlor door, and hearing no sound within, nodded and smiled with a satisfied expression, saying to herself, “She has seen him away as we planned, and that affair is settled. I’ll go and hear the fun, and have a good laugh over it.”
But poor Jo never got her laugh, for she was transfixed upon the threshold by a spectacle which held her there, staring with her mouth nearly as wide open as her eyes. Going in to exult over a fallen enemy and to praise a strong-minded sister for the banishment of an objectionable lover, it certainly was a shock to behold the aforesaid enemy serenely sitting on the sofa, with the strongminded sister enthroned upon his knee and wearing an expression of the most abject submission. Jo gave a sort of gasp, as if a cold shower bath had suddenly fallen upon her, for such an unexpected turning of the tables actually took her breath away. At the odd sound the lovers turned and saw her. Meg jumped up, looking both proud and shy, but ‘that man’, as Jo called him, actually laughed and said coolly, as he kissed the astonished newcomer, “Sister Jo, congratulate us!”
That was adding insult to injury, it was altogether too much, and making some wild demonstration with her hands, Jo vanished without a word. Rushing upstairs, she startled the invalids by exclaiming tragically as she burst into the room, “Oh, do somebody go down quick! John Brooke is acting dreadfully, and Meg likes it!”
Mr. and Mrs. March left the room with speed, and casting herself upon the bed, Jo cried and scolded tempestuously as she told the awful news to Beth and Amy. The little girls, however, considered it a most agreeable and interesting event, and Jo got little comfort from them, so she went up to her refuge in the garret, and confided her troubles to the rats.
Nobody ever knew what went on in the parlor that afternoon, but a great deal of talking was done, and quiet Mr. Brooke astonished his friends by the eloquence and spirit with which he pleaded his suit, told his plans, and persuaded them to arrange everything just as he wanted it.