"I'm glad it's over, because we've got you back," whispered Beth, who sat on her father's knee.
"Rather a rough road for you to travel, my little pilgrims, especially the latter part of it. But you have got on bravely; and I think the burdens are in a fair way to tumble off very soon," said Mr. March, looking with fatherly satisfaction at the four young faces gathered round him.
"How do you know? Did Mother tell you?" asked Jo.
"Not much; straws show which way the wind blows, and I've made several discoveries today."
"Oh, tell us what they are!" cried Meg, who sat beside him.
"Here is one!" and taking up the hand which lay on the ann of his chair, he pointed to the roughened forefinger, a burn on the back, and two or three little hard spots on the palm.
"I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now - for in these seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt-offering has been made of vanity; this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters; and I'm sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time, so much goodwill went into the stitches. Meg, my dear, I value the womanly skill which keeps home happy more than white hands or fashionable accomplishments. I'm proud to shake this good, industrious little hand, and hope I shall not soon be asked to give it away."
If Meg had wanted a reward for hours of patient labour, she received it in the hearty pressure of her father's hand, and the approving smile he gave her.
"What about Jo? Please say something nice; for she has tried so hard, and been so very, very good to me," said Beth, in her father's ear. He laughed, and looked across at the tall girl who sat opposite, with an unusually mild expression in her brown face.
"In spite of the curly crop, I don't see the "son Jo" whom I left a year ago," said Mr. March. "I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale, just now, with watching and anxiety; but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn't bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl; but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied. I don't know whether the shearing sobered our black sheep, but I do know that in all Washington I couldn't find anything beautiful enough to be bought with the five-and-twenty dollars which my good girl sent me."
Jo's keen eyes were rather dim for a minute, and her thin face grew rosy in the firelight, as she received her father's praise, feeling that she did deserve a portion of it.
"Now, Beth," said Amy, longing for her turn, but ready to wait.
"There's so little of her, I'm afraid to say much, for fear she will slip away altogether, though she is not so shy as she used to be," began their father cheerfully; but recollecting how nearly he had lot her, he held her close, saying tenderly, with her cheek against his own, "I've got you safe, my Beth, and I'll keep you so, please God."
After a minute's silence, he looked down at Amy, who sat on the cricket at his feet, and said, with a caress of the shining hair:
"I observed that Amy took drumsticks at dinner, ran errands for her mother all the afternoon, gave Meg her place tonight, and has waited on everyone with patience and good-humour. I also observe that she does not fret much nor look in the glass, and has not even mentioned a very pretty ring which she wears; so I conclude that she has learned to think of other people more and of herself less, and has decided to try
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