tea was always the crowning joy of the day. The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions, for the lads were not required to sit at table, but allowed to partake of refreshment as they liked—freedom being the sauce best beloved by the boyish soul. They availed themselves of the rare privilege to the fullest extent, for some tried the pleasing experiment of drinking milk while standing on their heads, others lent a charm to leapfrog by eating pie in the pauses of the game, cookies were sown broadcast over the field, and apple turnovers roosted in the trees like a new style of bird. The little girls had a private tea party, and Ted roved among the edibles at his own sweet will.
When no one could eat any more, the Professor proposed the first regular toast, which was always drunk at such times—”Aunt March, God bless her!” A toast heartily given by the good man, who never forgot how much he owed her, and quietly drunk by the boys, who had been taught to keep her memory green.
“Now, Grandma’s sixtieth birthday! Long life to her, with three times three!”
That was given with a will, as you may well believe, and the cheering once begun, it was hard to stop it. Everybody’s health was proposed, from Mr. Laurence, who was considered their special patron, to the astonished guinea pig, who had strayed from its proper sphere in search of its young master. Demi, as the oldest grandchild, then presented the queen of the day with various gifts, so numerous that they were transported to the festive scene in a wheelbarrow. Funny presents, some of them, but what would have been defects to other eyes were ornaments to Grandma’s—for the children’s gifts were all their own. Every stitch Daisy’s patient little fingers had put into the handkerchiefs she hemmed was better than embroidery to Mrs. March. Demi’s miracle of mechanical skill, though the cover wouldn’t shut, Rob’s footstool had a wiggle in its uneven legs that she declared was soothing, and no page of the costly book Amy’s child gave her was so fair as that on which appeared in tipsy capitals, the words—”To dear Grandma, from her little Beth.”
During the ceremony the boys had mysteriously disappeared, and when Mrs. March had tried to thank her children, and broken down, while Teddy wiped her eyes on his pinafore, the Professor suddenly began to sing. Then, from above him, voice after voice took up the words, and from tree to tree echoed the music of the unseen choir, as the boys sang with all their hearts the little song that Jo had written, Laurie set to music, and the Professor trained his lads to give with the best effect. This was something altogether new, and it proved a grand success, for Mrs. March couldn’t get over her surprise, and insisted on shaking hands with every one of the featherless birds, from tall Franz and Emil to the little quadroon, who had the sweetest voice of all.
After this, the boys dispersed for a final lark, leaving Mrs. March and her daughters under the festival tree.
“I don’t think I ever ought to call myself ‘unlucky Jo’ again, when my greatest wish has been so beautifully gratified,” said Mrs. Bhaer, taking Teddy’s little fist out of the milk pitcher, in which he was rapturously churning.
“And yet your life is very different from the one you pictured so long ago. Do you remember our castles in the air?” asked Amy, smiling as she watched Laurie and John playing cricket with the boys.
“Dear fellows! It does my heart good to see them forget business and frolic for a day,” answered Jo, who now spoke in a maternal way of all mankind. “Yes, I remember, but the life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now. I haven’t given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I’m sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these,” and Jo pointed from the lively lads in the distance to her father, leaning on the Professor’s arm, as they walked to and fro in the sunshine, deep in one of the conversations which both enjoyed so much, and then to her mother, sitting enthroned among her daughters, with their children in her lap and at her feet, as if all found help and happiness in the face which never could grow old to them.
“My castle was the most nearly realized of all. I asked for splendid things, to be sure, but in my heart I knew I should be satisfied, if I had a little home, and John, and some dear children like these. I’ve got them all, thank God, and am the happiest woman in the world,” and Meg laid her hand on her tall boy’s head, with a face full of tender and devout content.
“My castle is very different from what I planned, but I would not alter it, though, like Jo, I don’t relinquish all my artistic hopes, or confine myself to helping others fulfill their dreams of beauty. I’ve begun to model a figure of baby, and Laurie says it is the best thing I’ve ever done. I think so, myself, and mean to do it in marble, so that, whatever happens, I may at least keep the image of my little angel.”
As Amy spoke, a great tear dropped on the golden hair of the sleeping child in her arms, for her one well-beloved daughter was a frail little creature and the dread of losing her was the shadow over Amy’s sunshine. This cross was