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Chapter 1 – Ten Years Later

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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‘If anyone had told me what wonderful changes were to take place here
in ten years, I wouldn’t have believed it,’ said Mrs Jo to Mrs Meg,
as they sat on the piazza at Plumfield one summer day, looking about
them with faces full of pride and pleasure.

‘This is the sort of magic that money and kind hearts can work. I am
sure Mr Laurence could have no nobler monument than the college he so
generously endowed; and a home like this will keep Aunt March’s
memory green as long as it lasts,’ answered Mrs Meg, always glad to
praise the absent.

‘We used to believe in fairies, you remember, and plan what we’d ask
for if we could have three wishes. Doesn’t it seem as if mine had
been really granted at last? Money, fame, and plenty of the work I
love,’ said Mrs Jo, carelessly rumpling up her hair as she clasped
her hands over her head just as she used to do when a girl.

‘I have had mine, and Amy is enjoying hers to her heart’s content.
If dear Marmee, John, and Beth were here, it would be quite perfect,’
added Meg, with a tender quiver in her voice; for Marmee’s place was
empty now.

Jo put her hand on her sister’s, and both sat silent for a little
while, surveying the pleasant scene before them with mingled sad and
happy thoughts.

It certainly did look as if magic had been at work, for quiet
Plumfield was transformed into a busy little world. The house seemed
more hospitable than ever, refreshed now with new paint, added wings,
well-kept lawn and garden, and a prosperous air it had not worn when
riotous boys swarmed everywhere and it was rather difficult for the
Bhaers to make both ends meet. On the hill, where kites used to be
flown, stood the fine college which Mr Laurence’s munificent legacy
had built. Busy students were going to and fro along the paths once
trodden by childish feet, and many young men and women were enjoying
all the advantages that wealth, wisdom, and benevolence could give
them.

Just inside the gates of Plumfield a pretty brown cottage, very like
the Dovecote, nestled among the trees, and on the green slope
westward Laurie’s white-pillared mansion glittered in the sunshine;
for when the rapid growth of the city shut in the old house, spoilt
Meg’s nest, and dared to put a soap-factory under Mr Laurence’s
indignant nose, our friends emigrated to Plumfield, and the great
changes began.

These were the pleasant ones; and the loss of the dear old people was
sweetened by the blessings they left behind; so all prospered now in
the little community, and Mr Bhaer as president, and Mr March as
chaplain of the college, saw their long-cherished dream beautifully
realized. The sisters divided the care of the young people among
them, each taking the part that suited her best. Meg was the motherly
friend of the young women, Jo the confidante and defender of all the
youths, and Amy the lady Bountiful who delicately smoothed the way
for needy students, and entertained them all so cordially that it was
no wonder they named her lovely home Mount Parnassus, so full was it
of music, beauty, and the culture hungry young hearts and fancies
long for.

The original twelve boys had of course scattered far and wide during
these years, but all that lived still remembered old Plumfield, and
came wandering back from the four quarters of the earth to tell their
various experiences, laugh over the pleasures of the past, and face
the duties of the present with fresh courage; for such home-comings
keep hearts tender and hands helpful with the memories of young and
happy days. A few words will tell the history of each, and then we
can go on with the new chapter of their lives.

Franz was with a merchant kinsman in Hamburg, a man of twenty-six
now, and doing well. Emil was the jolliest tar that ever ‘sailed the
ocean blue’. His uncle sent him on a long voyage to disgust him with
this adventurous life; but he came home so delighted with it that it
was plain this was his profession, and the German kinsman gave him a
good chance in his ships; so the lad was happy. Dan was a wanderer
still; for after the geological researches in South America he tried
sheep-farming in Australia, and was now in California looking up
mines. Nat was busy with music at the Conservatory, preparing for a
year or two in Germany to finish him off. Tom was studying medicine
and trying to like it. Jack was in business with his father, bent on
getting rich. Dolly was in college with Stuffy and Ned reading law.
Poor little Dick was dead, so was Billy; and no one could mourn for
them, since life would never be happy, afflicted as they were in mind
and body.

Rob and Teddy were called the ‘Lion and the Lamb’; for the latter was
as rampant as the king of beasts, and the former as gentle as any
sheep that ever baaed. Mrs Jo called him ‘my daughter’, and found him
the most dutiful of children, with plenty of manliness underlying the
quiet manners and tender nature. But in Ted she seemed to see all the
faults, whims, aspirations, and fun of her own youth in a new shape.
With his tawny locks always in wild confusion, his long legs and
arms, loud voice, and continual activity, Ted was a prominent figure
at Plumfield. He had his moods of gloom, and fell into the Slough of
Despond about once a week, to be hoisted out by patient Rob or his
mother, who understood when to let him alone and when to shake him
up. He was her pride and joy as well as torment, being a very bright
lad for his age, and so full of all sorts of budding talent, that her
maternal mind was much exercised as to what this remarkable boy would
become.

Demi had gone through College with honour, and Mrs Meg had set her
heart on his being a minister – picturing in her fond fancy the first
sermon her dignified young parson would preach, as well as the long,
useful, and honoured life he was to lead. But John, as she called him
now, firmly declined the divinity school, saying he had had enough of
books, and needed to know more of men and the world, and caused the
dear woman much disappointment by deciding to try a journalist’s
career. It was a blow; but she knew that young minds cannot be
driven, and that experience is the best teacher; so she let him
follow his own inclinations, still hoping to see him in the pulpit.
Aunt Jo raged when she found that there was to be a reporter in the
family, and called him ‘Jenkins’ on the spot. She liked his literary
tendencies, but had reason to detest official Paul Prys, as we shall
see later. Demi knew his own mind, however, and tranquilly carried
out his plans, unmoved by the tongues of the anxious mammas or the
jokes of his mates. Uncle Teddy encouraged him, and painted a
splendid career, mentioning Dickens and other celebrities who began
as reporters and ended as famous novelists or newspaper men.

The girls were all flourishing. Daisy, as sweet and domestic as ever,
was her mother’s comfort and companion. Josie at fourteen was a most
original young person, full of pranks and peculiarities, the latest
of which was a passion for the stage, which caused her quiet mother
and sister much anxiety as well as amusement. Bess had grown into a
tall, beautiful girl looking several years older than she was, with
the same graceful ways and dainty tastes which the little Princess
had, and a rich inheritance of both the father’s and mother’s gifts,
fostered by every aid love and money could give. But the pride of the
community was naughty Nan; for, like so many restless, wilful
children, she was growing into a woman full of the energy and promise
that suddenly blossoms when the ambitious seeker finds the work she
is fitted to do well. Nan began to study medicine at sixteen, and at
twenty was getting on bravely; for now, thanks to other intelligent
women, colleges and hospitals were open to her. She had never wavered
in her purpose from the childish days when she shocked Daisy in the
old willow by saying: ‘I don’t want any family to fuss over. I shall
have an office, with bottles and pestle things in it, and drive round
and cure folks.’ The future foretold by the little girl the young
woman was rapidly bringing to pass, and finding so much happiness in
it that nothing could win her from the chosen work. Several worthy
young gentlemen had tried to make her change her mind and choose, as
Daisy did, ‘a nice little house and family to take care of’. But Nan
only laughed, and routed the lovers by proposing to look at the
tongue which spoke of adoration, or professionally felt the pulse in
the manly hand offered for her acceptance. So all departed but one
persistent youth, who was such a devoted Traddles it was impossible
to quench him.

This was Tom, who was as faithful to his child sweetheart as she to
her ‘pestle things’, and gave a proof of fidelity that touched her
very much. He studied medicine for her sake alone, having no taste
for it, and a decided fancy for a mercantile life. But Nan was firm,
and Tom stoutly kept on, devoutly hoping he might not kill many of
his fellow-beings when he came to practise. They were excellent
friends, however, and caused much amusement to their comrades, by the
vicissitudes of this merry love-chase.

Both were approaching Plumfield on the afternoon when Mrs Meg and Mrs
Jo were talking on the piazza. Not together; for Nan was walking
briskly along the pleasant road alone, thinking over a case that
interested her, and Tom was pegging on behind to overtake her, as if
by accident, when the suburbs of the city were past – a little way of
his, which was part of the joke.

Nan was a handsome girl, with a fresh colour, clear eye, quick smile,
and the self-poised look young women with a purpose always have. She
was simply and sensibly dressed, walked easily, and seemed full of
vigour, with her broad shoulders well back, arms swinging freely, and
the elasticity of youth and health in every motion. The few people
she met turned to look at her, as if it was a pleasant sight to see a
hearty, happy girl walking countryward that lovely day; and the
red-faced young man steaming along behind, hat off and every tight
curl wagging with impatience, evidently agreed with them.

Presently a mild ‘Hallo!’ was borne upon the breeze, and pausing,
with an effort to look surprised that was an utter failure, Nan said
affably:

‘Oh, is that you, Tom?’

‘Looks like it. Thought you might be walking out today’; and Tom’s
jovial face beamed with pleasure.

‘You knew it. How is your throat?’ asked Nan in her professional
tone, which was always a quencher to undue raptures.

‘Throat? Oh, ah! yes, I remember. It is well. The effect of that
prescription was wonderful. I’ll never call homoeopathy a humbug
again.’

‘You were the humbug this time, and so were the unmedicated pellets I
gave you. If sugar or milk can cure diphtheria in this remarkable
manner, I’ll make a note of it. O Tom, Tom, will you never be done
playing tricks?’

‘O Nan, Nan, will you never be done getting the better of me?’ And
the merry pair laughed at one another just as they did in the old
times, which always came back freshly when they went to Plumfield.

‘Well, I knew I shouldn’t see you for a week if I didn’t scare up
some excuse for a call at the office. You are so desperately busy all
the time I never get a word,’ explained Tom.

‘You ought to be busy too, and above such nonsense. Really, Tom, if
you don’t give your mind to your lectures, you’ll never get on,’ said
Nan soberly.

‘I have quite enough of them as it is,’ answered Tom with an air of
disgust. ‘A fellow must lark a bit after dissecting corpuses all day.
I can’t stand it long at a time, though some people seem to enjoy it
immensely.’

‘Then why not leave it, and do what suits you better? I always
thought it a foolish thing, you know,’ said Nan, with a trace of
anxiety in the keen eyes that searched for signs of illness in a face
as ruddy as a Baldwin apple.

‘You know why I chose it, and why I shall stick to it if it kills me.
I may not look delicate, but I’ve a deep-seated heart complaint, and
it will carry me off sooner or later; for only one doctor in the
world can cure it, and she won’t.’

There was an air of pensive resignation about Tom that was both comic
and pathetic; for he was in earnest, and kept on giving hints of this
sort, without the least encouragement.

Nan frowned; but she was used to it, and knew how to treat him.

‘She is curing it in the best and only way; but a more refractory
patient never lived. Did you go to that ball, as I directed?’

‘I did.’

‘And devote yourself to pretty Miss West?’

‘Danced with her the whole evening.’

‘No impression made on that susceptible organ of yours?’

‘Not the slightest. I gaped in her face once, forgot to feed her, and
gave a sigh of relief when I handed her over to her mamma.’

‘Repeat the dose as often as possible, and note the symptoms. I
predict that you’ll "cry for it" by and by.’

‘Never! I’m sure it doesn’t suit my constitution.’

‘We shall see. Obey orders!’ sternly.

‘Yes, Doctor,’ meekly.

Silence reigned for a moment; then, as if the bone of contention was
forgotten in the pleasant recollections called up by familiar
objects, Nan said suddenly:

‘What fun we used to have in that wood! Do you remember how you
tumbled out of the big nut-tree and nearly broke your collar-bones?’

‘Don’t I! and how you steeped me in wormwood till I was a fine
mahogany colour, and Aunt Jo wailed over my spoilt jacket,’ laughed
Tom, a boy again in a minute.

‘And how you set the house afire?’

‘And you ran off for your band-box?’

‘Do you ever say "Thunder-turtles" now?’

‘Do people ever call you "Giddy-gaddy"?’

‘Daisy does. Dear thing, I haven’t seen her for a week.’

‘I saw Demi this morning, and he said she was keeping house for
Mother Bhaer.’

‘She always does when Aunt Jo gets into a vortex. Daisy is a model
housekeeper; and you couldn’t do better than make your bow to her, if
you can’t go to work and wait till you are grown up before you begin
lovering.’

‘Nat would break his fiddle over my head if I suggested such a thing.
No, thank you. Another name is engraved upon my heart as indelibly as
the blue anchor on my arm. "Hope" is my motto, and "No surrender",
yours; see who will hold out longest.’

‘You silly boys think we must pair off as we did when children; but
we shall do nothing of the kind. How well Parnassus looks from here!’
said Nan, abruptly changing the conversation again.

‘It is a fine house; but I love old Plum best. Wouldn’t Aunt March
stare if she could see the changes here?’ answered Tom, as they both
paused at the great gate to look at the pleasant landscape before
them.

A sudden whoop startled them, as a long boy with a wild yellow head
came leaping over a hedge like a kangaroo, followed by a slender
girl, who stuck in the hawthorn, and sat there laughing like a witch.
A pretty little lass she was, with curly dark hair, bright eyes, and
a very expressive face. Her hat was at her back, and her skirts a
good deal the worse for the brooks she had crossed, the trees she had
climbed, and the last leap, which added several fine rents.

‘Take me down, Nan, please. Tom, hold Ted; he’s got my book, and I
will have it,’ called Josie from her perch, not at all daunted by the
appearance of her friends.

Tom promptly collared the thief, while Nan picked Josie from among
the thorns and set her on her feet without a word of reproof; for
having been a romp in her own girlhood, she was very indulgent to
like tastes in others. ‘What’s the matter, dear?’ she asked, pinning
up the longest rip, while Josie examined the scratches on her hands.
‘I was studying my part in the willow, and Ted came slyly up and
poked the book out of my hands with his rod. It fell in the brook,
and before I could scrabble down he was off. You wretch, give it back
this moment or I’ll box your ears,’ cried Josie, laughing and
scolding in the same breath.

Escaping from Tom, Ted struck a sentimental attitude, and with tender
glances at the wet, torn young person before him, delivered Claude
Melnotte’s famous speech in a lackadaisical way that was irresistibly
funny, ending with ‘Dost like the picture, love?’ as he made an
object of himself by tying his long legs in a knot and distorting his
face horribly.

The sound of applause from the piazza put a stop to these antics, and
the young folks went up the avenue together very much in the old
style when Tom drove four in hand and Nan was the best horse in the
team. Rosy, breathless, and merry, they greeted the ladies and sat
down on the steps to rest, Aunt Meg sewing up her daughter’s rags
while Mrs Jo smoothed the Lion’s mane, and rescued the book. Daisy
appeared in a moment to greet her friend, and all began to talk.

‘Muffins for tea; better stay and eat ’em; Daisy’s never fail,’ said
Ted hospitably.

‘He’s a judge; he ate nine last time. That’s why he’s so fat,’ added
Josie, with a withering glance at her cousin, who was as thin as a
lath.

‘I must go and see Lucy Dove. She has a whitlow, and it’s time to
lance it. I’ll tea at college,’ answered Nan, feeling in her pocket
to be sure she had not forgotten her case of instruments.

‘Thanks, I’m going there also. Tom Merryweather has granulated lids,
and I promised to touch them up for him. Save a doctor’s fee and be
good practice for me. I’m clumsy with my thumbs,’ said Tom, bound to
be near his idol while he could.

‘Hush! Daisy doesn’t like to hear you saw-bones talk of your work.
Muffins suit us better’; and Ted grinned sweetly, with a view to
future favours in the eating line.

‘Any news of the Commodore?’ asked Tom.

‘He is on his way home, and Dan hopes to come soon. I long to see my
boys together, and have begged the wanderers to come to Thanksgiving,
if not before,’ answered Mrs Jo, beaming at the thought.

‘They’ll come, every man of them, if they can. Even Jack will risk
losing a dollar for the sake of one of our jolly old dinners,’
laughed Tom.

‘There’s the turkey fattening for the feast. I never chase him now,
but feed him well; and he’s "swellin’ wisibly", bless his
drumsticks!’ said Ted, pointing out the doomed fowl proudly parading
in a neighbouring field.

‘If Nat goes the last of the month we shall want a farewell frolic
for him. I suppose the dear old Chirper will come home a second Ole
Bull,’ said Nan to her friend.

A pretty colour came into Daisy’s cheek, and the folds of muslin on
her breast rose and fell with a quick breath; but she answered
placidly: ‘Uncle Laurie says he has real talent, and after the
training he will get abroad he can command a good living here, though
he may never be famous.’

‘Young people seldom turn out as one predicts, so it is of little use
to expect anything,’ said Mrs Meg with a sigh. ‘If our children are
good and useful men and women, we should be satisfied; yet it’s very
natural to wish them to be brilliant and successful.’

‘They are like my chickens, mighty uncertain. Now, that fine-looking
cockerel of mine is the stupidest one of the lot, and the ugly,
long-legged chap is the king of the yard, he’s so smart; crows loud
enough to wake the Seven Sleepers; but the handsome one croaks, and
is no end of a coward. I get snubbed; but you wait till I grow up,
and then see’; and Ted looked so like his own long-legged pet that
everyone laughed at his modest prediction.

‘I want to see Dan settled somewhere. "A rolling stone gathers no
moss", and at twenty-five he is still roaming about the world without
a tie to hold him, except this’; and Mrs Meg nodded towards her
sister.

‘Dan will find his place at last, and experience is his best teacher.
He is rough still, but each time he comes home I see a change for the
better, and never lose my faith in him. He may never do anything
great, or get rich; but if the wild boy makes an honest man, I’m
satisfied,’ said Mrs Jo, who always defended the black sheep of her
flock.

‘That’s right, mother, stand by Dan! He’s worth a dozen Jacks and
Neds bragging about money and trying to be swells. You see if he
doesn’t do something to be proud of and take the wind out of their
sails,’ added Ted, whose love for his ‘Danny’ was now strengthened by
a boy’s admiration for the bold, adventurous man.

‘Hope so, I’m sure. He’s just the fellow to do rash things and come
to glory – climbing the Matterhorn, taking a "header" into Niagara, or
finding a big nugget. That’s his way of sowing wild oats, and perhaps
it’s better than ours,’ said Tom thoughtfully; for he had gained a
good deal of experience in that sort of agriculture since he became a
medical student.

‘Much better!’ said Mrs Jo emphatically. ‘I’d rather send my boys off
to see the world in that way than leave them alone in a city full of
temptations, with nothing to do but waste time, money, and health, as
so many are left. Dan has to work his way, and that teaches him
courage, patience, and self-reliance. I don’t worry about him as much
as I do about George and Dolly at college, no more fit than two
babies to take care of themselves.’

‘How about John? He’s knocking round town as a newspaper man,
reporting all sorts of things, from sermons to prize-fights,’ asked
Tom, who thought that sort of life would be much more to his own
taste than medical lectures and hospital wards.

‘Demi has three safeguards – good principles, refined tastes, and a
wise mother. He won’t come to harm, and these experiences will be
useful to him when he begins to write, as I’m sure he will in time,’
began Mrs Jo in her prophetic tone; for she was anxious to have some
of her geese turn out swans.

‘Speak of Jenkins, and you’ll hear the rustling of his paper,’ cried
Tom, as a fresh-faced, brown-eyed young man came up the avenue,
waving a newspaper over his head.

‘Here’s your Evening Tattler! Latest Edition! Awful murder! Bank
clerk absconded! Powder-mill explosion, and great strike of the Latin
School boys!’ roared Ted, going to meet his cousin with the graceful
gait of a young giraffe.

‘The Commodore is in, and will cut his cable and run before the wind
as soon as he can get off,’ called Demi, with ‘a nice derangement of
nautical epitaphs’, as he came up smiling over his good news.

Everyone talked together for a moment, and the paper passed from hand
to hand that each eye might rest on the pleasant fact that the
Brenda, from Hamburg, was safe in port.

‘He’ll come lurching out by tomorrow with his usual collection of
marine monsters and lively yarns. I saw him, jolly and tarry and
brown as a coffee-berry. Had a good run, and hopes to be second mate,
as the other chap is laid up with a broken leg,’ added Demi.

‘Wish I had the setting of it,’ said Nan to herself, with a
professional twist of her hand.

‘How’s Franz?’ asked Mrs Jo.

‘He’s going to be married! There’s news for you. The first of the
flock, Aunty, so say good-bye to him. Her name is Ludmilla Heldegard
Blumenthal; good family, well-off, pretty, and of course an angel.
The dear old boy wants Uncle’s consent, and then he will settle down
to be a happy and an honest burgher. Long life to him!’

‘I’m glad to hear it. I do so like to settle my boys with a good wife
and a nice little home. Now, if all is right, I shall feel as if
Franz was off my mind,’ said Mrs Jo, folding her hands contentedly;
for she often felt like a distracted hen with a large brood of mixed
chickens and ducks upon her hands.

‘So do I,’ sighed Tom, with a sly glance at Nan. ‘That’s what a
fellow needs to keep him steady; and it’s the duty of nice girls to
marry as soon as possible, isn’t it, Demi?’

‘If there are enough nice fellows to go round. The female population
exceeds the male, you know, especially in New England; which accounts
for the high state of culture we are in, perhaps,’ answered John, who
was leaning over his mother’s chair, telling his day’s experiences in
a whisper.

‘It is a merciful provision, my dears; for it takes three or four
women to get each man into, through, and out of the world. You are
costly creatures, boys; and it is well that mothers, sisters, wives,
and daughters love their duty and do it so well, or you would perish
off the face of the earth,’ said Mrs Jo solemnly, as she took up a
basket filled with dilapidated hose; for the good Professor was still
hard on his socks, and his sons resembled him in that respect.

‘Such being the case, there is plenty for the "superfluous women" to
do, in taking care of these helpless men and their families. I see
that more clearly every day, and am very glad and grateful that my
profession will make me a useful, happy, and independent spinster.’

Nan’s emphasis on the last word caused Tom to groan, and the rest to
laugh.

‘I take great pride and solid satisfaction in you, Nan, and hope to
see you very successful; for we do need just such helpful women in
the world. I sometimes feel as if I’ve missed my vocation and ought
to have remained single; but my duty seemed to point this way, and I
don’t regret it,’ said Mrs Jo, folding a large and very ragged blue
sock to her bosom.

‘Neither do I. What should I ever have done without my dearest Mum?’
added Ted, with a filial hug which caused both to disappear behind
the newspaper in which he had been mercifully absorbed for a few
minutes.

‘My darling boy, if you would wash your hands semi-occasionally, fond
caresses would be less disastrous to my collar. Never mind, my
precious touslehead, better grass stains and dirt than no cuddlings
at all’; and Mrs Jo emerged from that brief eclipse looking much
refreshed, though her back hair was caught in Ted’s buttons and her
collar under one ear.

Here Josie, who had been studying her part at the other end of the
piazza, suddenly burst forth with a smothered shriek, and gave
Juliet’s speech in the tomb so effectively that the boys applauded,
Daisy shivered, and Nan murmured: ‘Too much cerebral excitement for
one of her age.’

‘I’m afraid you’ll have to make up your mind to it, Meg. That child
is a born actress. We never did anything so well, not even the
Witch’s Curse,’ said Mrs Jo, casting a bouquet of many-coloured socks
at the feet of her flushed and panting niece, when she fell
gracefully upon the door-mat.

‘It is a sort of judgement upon me for my passion for the stage when
a girl. Now I know how dear Marmee felt when I begged to be an
actress. I never can consent, and yet I may be obliged to give up my
wishes, hopes, and plans again.’

There was an accent of reproach in his mother’s voice, which made
Demi pick up his sister with a gentle shake, and the stern command to
‘drop that nonsense in public’.

‘Drop me, Minion, or I’ll give you the Maniac Bride, with my best
Ha-ha!’ cried Josie, glaring at him like an offended kitten. Being
set on her feet, she made a splendid courtesy, and dramatically
proclaiming, ‘Mrs Woffington’s carriage waits,’ swept down the steps
and round the corner, trailing Daisy’s scarlet shawl majestically
behind her.

‘Isn’t she great fun? I couldn’t stop in this dull place if I hadn’t
that child to make it lively for me. If ever she turns prim, I’m off;
so mind how you nip her in the bud,’ said Teddy, frowning at Demi,
who was now writing out shorthand notes on the steps.

‘You two are a team, and it takes a strong hand to drive you, but I
rather like it. Josie ought to have been my child, and Rob yours,
Meg. Then your house would have been all peace and mine all Bedlam.
Now I must go and tell Laurie the news. Come with me, Meg, a little
stroll will do us good’; and sticking Ted’s straw hat on her head,
Mrs Jo walked off with her sister, leaving Daisy to attend to the
muffins, Ted to appease Josie, and Tom and Nan to give their
respective patients a very bad quarter of an hour.

 

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