The house next door
‘It’s so nice to go to parties and drive home in carriages,’ said Meg, the next morning. ‘Other people live like that all the time, and I wish we could. I wish we were rich.’
‘Well, we’re not,’ said Jo. ‘So we must do our work with a smile, the way Mother does.’
Mr March had lost most of his money helping a friend. When the two older girls discovered this, they wanted to do something to earn some money for the family, and as soon as they were old enough, they found work. Meg got a job teaching four small children. It was hard for her to be poor because she could remember the time when their home had been beautiful, with everything they wanted. And every day at Mrs King’s house she saw pretty dresses, and heard talk of parties and the theatre — all the things which Meg loved.
Jo went to Aunt March, who needed someone to fetch and carry things, and read to her. She was a difficult old lady who complained a lot, but Jo did her best.
Beth was much too shy to go to school with other children, so she studied at home with her father. When he went away, and her mother was busy with war work, Beth continued to study by herself and helped Hannah keep the home tidy for the others. She also spent long, quiet hours alone, talking to her dolls or playing the old piano. Beth loved music and, although the family could not afford music lessons or a good make herself a better musician.
Amy drew the most beautiful pictures and wanted to be a famous painter one day. She was a favourite with everyone, except when she complained about having to wear her cousin’s old clothes because her mother could not afford to buy new ones for her.
One afternoon a week or two later, Jo went outside to clear the snow away from some of the garden so that Beth could walk there when the sun came out. She looked across to the house next door — a big stone house with lovely things inside that Jo occasionally saw through the open curtains at the windows. But it seemed a lonely, lifeless kind of house, as no children played outside, no motherly face smiled at the windows, and not many people went in and out, except the old gentleman and his grandson.
She had not seen the Laurence boy lately and wondered if he was away, but suddenly she saw him looking out of an upstairs window. She threw up a handful of soft snow and called out, ‘Are you ill?’
Laurie opened the window. ‘I’m almost better, thank you,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a bad cold.’
‘What do you find to do?’ said Jo.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘They won’t let me.’
‘Why don’t you get someone to come and see you?’
‘I don’t know anyone.’
‘You know us,’ said Jo.
‘So I do!’ laughed Laurie. ‘Will you come, please?’
‘I’ll come if Mother will let me. I’ll go and ask her. Shut the window and wait until I come.’
Laurie was excited and began to get ready for Jo’s visit. He brushed his hair and tried to make his room tidy. Soon after, he heard voices downstairs, then a surprised servant ran up to his room.
‘There’s a young lady to see you, sir,’ she said.
A moment later, Jo appeared with a box in one hand and Beth’s three small cats in the other. ‘Mother sends her love,’ she said. ‘Meg asked me to bring some of her cake, and Beth thought you would like to play with her cats. Isn’t she funny?’
Laurie laughed. ‘How kind you all are,’ he said.
‘Shall I read to you?’ said Jo.
‘I’d rather talk,’ he said.
‘I can talk all day,’ said Jo, smiling. ‘Beth says I never know when to stop.’
‘Is Beth the one who stays at home?’
‘Yes, that’s Beth. She’s a good girl.’
‘The pretty one is Meg, and the curly-haired one is Amy, is that right?’ he said.
‘Yes. How did you know?’
Laurie’s face became red. ‘I hear you calling to each other, and you always seem to be having so much fun. Sometimes, in the evenings, you forget to close your curtains and I can see you sitting round the fire with your mother. I haven’t got a mother.’
Jo saw the sadness in his eyes. ‘Why don’t you come over and see us? Would your grandfather let you?’
‘Perhaps, if your mother asked him,’ said Laurie. ‘He spends a lot of time among his books, and Mr Brooke, my tutor, doesn’t live here. So I haven’t anyone to go out with. Do you like your school?’
‘I don’t go to school. I go out to work — to my aunt’s,’ said Jo. She described the difficult old lady and made him laugh with her stories. She told him all about her sisters, the plays they acted, and their hopes and fears for their father. Then they talked about books, and Jo discovered that Laurie loved them as much as she did.
‘Come and see our library,’ he said. ‘Grandfather is out, so you needn’t be afraid.’
‘I’m not afraid of anything,’ replied Jo.
He took her down to a room where the walls were covered with books and pictures.
‘You should be the happiest boy in the world!’ said Jo, sitting in a big armchair and looking round.
‘A person can’t live on books,’ he said.
Suddenly, a bell rang.
Jo jumped up out of the chair. ‘It’s your grandfather!’ she said.