`Oh, I should merely say, quite calmly and decidedly, `Thank you, Mr. Brooke, you are very kind, but I agree with Father that I am too young to enter into any engagement at present; so please say no more, but let us be friends as we were."'
`Hum! that's stiff and cool enough. I don't believe you'll ever say it, and I know he won't be satisfied if you do. If he goes on like the rejected lovers in books, you'll give in, rather than hurt his feelings.'
`No, I won't. I shall tell him I've made up my mind, and shall walk out of the room with dignity.'
Meg rose as she spoke, and was just going to rehearse the dignified exit, when a step in the hall made her fly into her seat and begin to sew as if her life depended on finishing that particular seam in a given time. Jo smothered a laugh at the sudden change, and, when someone gave a modest tap, opened the door with a grim aspect, which was anything but hospitable.
`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 eye went from one tell-tale 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 towards 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.
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