Little Women (Chapter 4)
“Oh, dear, how hard it does seem to take up our packs and go on,” sighed Meg the morning after the party, for now the holidays were over, the week of merrymaking did not fit her for going on easily with the task she never liked.
“I wish it was Christmas or New Year’s all the time. Wouldn’t it be fun?” answered Jo, yawning dismally.
“We shouldn’t enjoy ourselves half so much as we do now. But it does seem so nice to have little suppers and bouquets, and go to parties, and drive home, and read and rest, and not work. It’s like other people, you know, and I always envy girls who do such things, I’m so fond of luxury,” said Meg, trying to decide which of two shabby gowns was the least shabby.
“Well, we can’t have it, so don’t let us grumble but shoulder our bundles and trudge along as cheerfully as Marmee does. I’m sure Aunt March is a regular Old Man of the Sea to me, but I suppose when I’ve learned to carry her without complaining, she will tumble off, or get so light that I shan’t mind her.”
This idea tickled Jo’s fancy and put her in good spirits, but Meg didn’t brighten, for her burden, consisting of four spoiled children, seemed heavier than ever. She had not heart enough even to make herself pretty as usual by putting on a blue neck ribbon and dressing her hair in the most becoming way.
“Where’s the use of looking nice, when no one sees me but those cross midgets, and no one cares whether I’m pretty or not?” she muttered, shutting her drawer with a jerk. “I shall have to toil and moil all my days, with only little bits of fun now and then, and get old and ugly and sour, because I’m poor and can’t enjoy my life as other girls do. It’s a shame!”
So Meg went down, wearing an injured look, and wasn’t at all agreeable at breakfast time. Everyone seemed rather out of sorts and inclined to croak.
Beth had a headache and lay on the sofa, trying to comfort herself with the cat and three kittens. Amy was fretting because her lessons were not learned, and she couldn’t find her rubbers. Jo would whistle and make a great racket getting ready.
Mrs. March was very busy trying to finish a letter, which must go at once, and Hannah had the grumps, for being up late didn’t suit her.
“There never was such a cross family!” cried Jo, losing her temper when she had upset an inkstand, broken both boot lacings, and sat down upon her hat.
“You’re the crossest person in it!” returned Amy, washing out the sum that was all wrong with the tears that had fallen on her slate.
“Beth, if you don’t keep these horrid cats down cellar I’ll have them drowned,” exclaimed Meg angrily as she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.
Jo laughed, Meg scolded, Beth implored, and Amy wailed because she couldn’t remember how much nine times twelve was.
“Girls, girls, do be quiet one minute! I must get this off by the early mail, and you drive me distracted with your worry,” cried Mrs. March, crossing out the third spoiled sentence in her letter.
There was a momentary lull, broken by Hannah, who stalked in, laid two hot turnovers on the table, and stalked out again. These turnovers were an institution, and the girls called them ‘muffs’, for they had no others and found the hot pies very comforting to their hands on cold mornings.
Hannah never forgot to make them, no matter how busy or grumpy she might be, for the walk was long and bleak. The poor things got no other lunch and were seldom home before two.
“Cuddle your cats and get over your headache, Bethy. Goodbye, Marmee. We are a set of rascals this morning, but we’ll come home regular angels. Now then, Meg!” And Jo tramped away, feeling that the pilgrims were not setting out as they ought to do.
They always looked back before turning the corner, for their mother was always at the window to nod and smile, and wave her hand to them. Somehow it seemed as if they couldn’t have got through the day without that, for whatever their mood might be, the last glimpse of that motherly face was sure to affect them like sunshine.
“If Marmee shook her fist instead of kissing her hand to us, it would serve us right, for more ungrateful wretches than we are were never seen,” cried Jo, taking a remorseful satisfaction in the snowy walk and bitter wind.
“Don’t use such dreadful expressions,” replied Meg from the depths of the veil in which she had shrouded herself like a nun sick of the world.
“I like good strong words that mean something,” replied Jo, catching her hat as it took a leap off her head preparatory to flying away altogether.
“Call yourself any names you like, but I am neither a rascal nor a wretch and I don’t choose to be called so.”
“You’re a blighted being, and decidedly cross today because you can’t sit in the lap of luxury all the time. Poor dear, just wait till I make my fortune, and you shall revel in carriages and ice cream and high-heeled slippers, and posies, and red-headed boys to dance with.”
“How ridiculous you are, Jo!” But Meg laughed at the nonsense and felt better in spite of herself.
“Lucky for you I am, for if I put on crushed airs and tried to be dismal, as you do, we should be in a nice state. Thank goodness, I can always find something funny to keep me up. Don’t croak any more, but come home jolly, there’s a dear.”
Jo gave her sister an encouraging pat on the shoulder as they parted for the day, each going a different way, each hugging her little warm turnover, and each trying to be cheerful in spite of wintry weather, hard work, and the unsatisfied desires of pleasure-loving youth.
When Mr. March lost his property in trying to help an unfortunate friend, the two oldest girls begged to be allowed to do something toward their own support, at least. Believing that they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence, their parents consented, and both fell to work with the hearty good will which in spite of all obstacles is sure to succeed at last.
Margaret found a place as nursery governess and felt rich with her small salary. As she said, she was ‘fond of luxury’, and her chief trouble was poverty. She found it harder to bear than the others because she could remember a time when home was beautiful, life full of ease and pleasure, and want of any kind unknown. She tried not to be envious or discontented, but it was very natural that the young girl should long for pretty things, gay friends, accomplishments, and a happy life. At the Kings’ she daily saw all she wanted, for the children’s older sisters were just out, and Meg caught frequent glimpses of dainty ball dresses and bouquets, heard lively gossip about theaters, concerts, sleighing parties, and merrymakings of all kinds, and saw money lavished on trifles which would have been so precious to her. Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy.
Jo happened to suit Aunt March, who was lame and needed an active person to wait upon her. The childless old lady had offered to adopt one of the girls when the troubles came, and was much offended because her offer was declined. Other friends told the Marches that they had lost all chance of being remembered in the rich old lady’s will, but the unworldly Marches only said…
“We can’t give up our girls for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another.”
The old lady wouldn’t speak to them for a time, but happening to meet Jo at a friend’s, something in her comical face and blunt manners struck the old lady’s fancy, and she proposed to take her for a companion. This did not suit Jo at all, but she accepted the place since nothing better appeared and, to every one’s surprise, got on remarkably well with her irascible relative. There was an occasional tempest, and once Jo marched home, declaring she couldn’t bear it longer, but Aunt March always cleared up quickly, and sent for her to come back again with such urgency that she could not refuse, for in her heart she rather liked the peppery old lady.
I suspect that the real attraction was a large library of fine books, which was left to dust and spiders since Uncle March died. Jo remembered the kind old gentleman, who used to let her build railroads and bridges with his big dictionaries, tell her stories about queer pictures in his Latin books, and buy her cards of gingerbread whenever he met her in the street. The dim, dusty room, with the busts staring down from the tall bookcases, the cozy chairs, the globes, and best of all, the wilderness of books in which she could wander where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to her.
The moment Aunt March took her nap, or was busy with company, Jo hurried to this quiet place, and curling herself up in the easy chair, devoured poetry, romance, history, travels, and pictures like a regular bookworm. But, like all happiness, it did not last long, for as sure as she had just reached the heart of the story, the sweetest verse of a song, or the most perilous adventure of her traveler, a shrill voice called, “Josy-phine! Josy-phine!” and she had to leave her paradise to wind yarn, wash the poodle, or read Belsham’s Essays by the hour together.
Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her, and meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, run, and ride as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic. But the training she received at Aunt March’s was just what she needed, and the thought that she was doing something to support herself made her happy in spite of the perpetual “Josy-phine!”
Beth was too bashful to go to school. It had been tried, but she suffered so much that it was given up, and she did her lessons at home with her father. Even when he went away, and her mother was called to devote her skill and energy to Soldiers’ Aid Societies, Beth went faithfully on by herself and did the best she could. She was a housewifely little creature, and helped Hannah keep home neat and comfortable for the workers, never thinking of any reward but to be loved. Long, quiet days she spent, not lonely nor idle, for her little world was peopled with imaginary friends, and she was by nature a busy bee. There were six dolls to be taken up and dressed every morning, for Beth was a child still and loved her pets as well as ever. Not one whole or handsome one among them, all were outcasts till Beth took them in, for when her sisters outgrew these idols, they passed to her because Amy would have nothing old or ugly. Beth cherished them all the more tenderly for that very reason, and set up a hospital for infirm dolls. No pins were ever stuck into their cotton vitals, no harsh words or blows were ever given them, no neglect ever saddened the heart of the most repulsive, but all were fed and clothed, nursed and caressed with an affection which never failed. One forlorn fragment of dollanity had belonged to Jo and, having led a tempestuous life, was left a wreck in the rag bag, from which dreary poorhouse it was rescued by Beth and taken to her refuge. Having no top to its head, she tied on a neat little cap, and as both arms and legs were gone, she hid these deficiencies by folding it in a blanket and devoting her best bed to this chronic invalid. If anyone had known the care lavished on that dolly, I think it would have touched their hearts, even while they laughed. She brought it bits of bouquets, she read to it, took it out to breathe fresh air, hidden under her coat, she sang it lullabies and never went to bed without kissing its dirty face and whispering tenderly, “I hope you’ll have a good night, my poor dear.”
Beth had her troubles as well as the others, and not being an angel but a very human little girl, she often ‘wept a little weep’ as Jo said, because she couldn’t take music lessons and have a fine piano. She loved music so dearly, tried so hard to learn, and practiced away so patiently at the jingling old instrument, that it did seem as if someone (not to hint Aunt March) ought to help her. Nobody did, however, and nobody saw Beth wipe the tears off the yellow keys, that wouldn’t keep in tune, when she was all alone. She sang like a little lark about her work, never was too tired for Marmee and the girls, and day after day said hopefully to herself, “I know I’ll get my music some time, if I’m good.”
There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.
If anybody had asked Amy what the greatest trial of her life was, she would have answered at once, “My nose.” When she was a baby, Jo had accidently dropped her into the coal hod, and Amy insisted that the fall had ruined her nose forever. It was not big nor red, like poor ‘Petrea’s’, it was only rather flat, and all the pinching in the world could not give it an aristocratic point. No one minded it but herself, and it was doing its best to grow, but Amy felt deeply the want of a Grecian nose, and drew whole sheets of handsome ones to console herself.
“Little Raphael,” as her sisters called her, had a decided talent for drawing, and was never so happy as when copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories with queer specimens of art. Her teachers complained that instead of doing her sums she covered her slate with animals, the blank pages of her atlas were used to copy maps on, and caricatures of the most ludicrous description came fluttering out of all her books at unlucky moments. She got through her lessons as well as she could, and managed to escape reprimands by being a model of deportment. She was a great favorite with her mates, being good-tempered and possessing the happy art of pleasing without effort. Her little airs and graces were much admired, so were her accomplishments, for besides her drawing, she could play twelve tunes, crochet, and read French without mispronouncing more than two-thirds of the words. She had a plaintive way of saying, “When Papa was rich we did so-and-so,” which was very touching, and her long words were considered ‘perfectly elegant’ by the girls.
Amy was in a fair way to be spoiled, for everyone petted her, and her small vanities and selfishnesses were growing nicely. One thing, however, rather quenched the vanities. She had to wear her cousin’s clothes. Now Florence’s mama hadn’t a particle of taste, and Amy suffered deeply at having to wear a red instead of a blue bonnet, unbecoming gowns, and fussy aprons that did not fit. Everything was good, well made, and little worn, but Amy’s artistic eyes were much afflicted, especially this winter, when her school dress was a dull purple with yellow dots and no trimming.
“My only comfort,” she said to Meg, with tears in her eyes, “is that Mother doesn’t take tucks in my dresses whenever I’m naughty, as Maria Parks’s mother does. My dear, it’s really dreadful, for sometimes she is so bad her frock is up to her knees, and she can’t come to school. When I think of this deggerredation, I feel that I can bear even my flat nose and purple gown with yellow sky-rockets on it.”
Meg was Amy’s confidant and monitor, and by some strange attraction of opposites Jo was gentle Beth’s. To Jo alone did the shy child tell her thoughts, and over her big harum-scarum sister Beth unconsciously exercised more influence than anyone in the family. The two older girls were a great deal to one another, but each took one of the younger sisters into her keeping and watched over her in her own way, ‘playing mother’ they called it, and put their sisters in the places of discarded dolls with the maternal instinct of little women.
“Has anybody got anything to tell? It’s been such a dismal day I’m really dying for some amusement,” said Meg, as they sat sewing together that evening.
“I had a queer time with Aunt today, and, as I got the best of it, I’ll tell you about it,” began Jo, who dearly loved to tell stories. “I was reading that everlasting Belsham, and droning away as I always do, for Aunt soon drops off, and then I take out some nice book, and read like fury till she wakes up. I actually made myself sleepy, and before she began to nod, I gave such a gape that she asked me what I meant by opening my mouth wide enough to take the whole book in at once.”
“I wish I could, and be done with it,” said I, trying not to be saucy.
“Then she gave me a long lecture on my sins, and told me to sit and think them over while she just ‘lost’ herself for a moment. She never finds herself very soon, so the minute her cap began to bob like a top-heavy dahlia, I whipped the Vicar of Wakefield out of my pocket, and read away, with one eye on him and one on Aunt. I’d just got to where they all tumbled into the water when I forgot and laughed out loud. Aunt woke up and, being more good-natured after her nap, told me to read a bit and show what frivolous work I preferred to the worthy and instructive Belsham. I did my very best, and she liked it, though she only said…
“‘I don’t understand what it’s all about. Go back and begin it, child.'”
“Back I went, and made the Primroses as interesting as ever I could. Once I was wicked enough to stop in a thrilling place, and say meekly, ‘I’m afraid it tires you, ma’am. Shan’t I stop now?'”
“She caught up her knitting, which had dropped out of her hands, gave me a sharp look through her specs, and said, in her short way, ‘Finish the chapter, and don’t be impertinent, miss’.”
“Did she own she liked it?” asked Meg.
“Oh, bless you, no! But she let old Belsham rest, and when I ran back after my gloves this afternoon, there she was, so hard at the Vicar that she didn’t hear me laugh as I danced a jig in the hall because of the good time coming. What a pleasant life she might have if only she chose! I don’t envy her much, in spite of her money, for after all rich people have about as many worries as poor ones, I think,” added Jo.
“That reminds me,” said Meg, “that I’ve got something to tell. It isn’t funny, like Jo’s story, but I thought about it a good deal as I came home. At the Kings’ today I found everybody in a flurry, and one of the children said that her oldest brother had done something dreadful, and Papa had sent him away. I heard Mrs. King crying and Mr. King talking very loud, and Grace and Ellen turned away their faces when they passed me, so I shouldn’t see how red and swollen their eyes were. I didn’t ask any questions, of course, but I felt so sorry for them and was rather glad I hadn’t any wild brothers to do wicked things and disgrace the family.”
“I think being disgraced in school is a great deal tryinger than anything bad boys can do,” said Amy, shaking her head, as if her experience of life had been a deep one. “Susie Perkins came to school today with a lovely red carnelian ring. I wanted it dreadfully, and wished I was her with all my might. Well, she drew a picture of Mr. Davis, with a monstrous nose and a hump, and the words, ‘Young ladies, my eye is upon you!’ coming out of his mouth in a balloon thing. We were laughing over it when all of a sudden his eye was on us, and he ordered Susie to bring up her slate. She was parrylized with fright, but she went, and oh, what do you think he did? He took her by the ear—the ear! Just fancy how horrid!—and led her to the recitation platform, and made her stand there half an hour, holding the slate so everyone could see.”
“Didn’t the girls laugh at the picture?” asked Jo, who relished the scrape.
“Laugh? Not one! They sat still as mice, and Susie cried quarts, I know she did. I didn’t envy her then, for I felt that millions of carnelian rings wouldn’t have made me happy after that. I never, never should have got over such a agonizing mortification.” And Amy went on with her work, in the proud consciousness of virtue and the successful utterance of two long words in a breath.
“I saw something I liked this morning, and I meant to tell it at dinner, but I forgot,” said Beth, putting Jo’s topsy-turvy basket in order as she talked. “When I went to get some oysters for Hannah, Mr. Laurence was in the fish shop, but he didn’t see me, for I kept behind the fish barrel, and he was busy with Mr. Cutter the fish-man. A poor woman came in with a pail and a mop, and asked Mr. Cutter if he would let her do some scrubbing for a bit of fish, because she hadn’t any dinner for her children, and had been disappointed of a day’s work. Mr. Cutter was in a hurry and said ‘No’, rather crossly, so she was going away, looking hungry and sorry, when Mr. Laurence hooked up a big fish with the crooked end of his cane and held it out to her. She was so glad and surprised she took it right into her arms, and thanked him over and over. He told her to ‘go along and cook it’, and she hurried off, so happy! Wasn’t it good of him? Oh, she did look so funny, hugging the big, slippery fish, and hoping Mr. Laurence’s bed in heaven would be ‘aisy’.”
When they had laughed at Beth’s story, they asked their mother for one, and after a moments thought, she said soberly, “As I sat cutting out blue flannel jackets today at the rooms, I felt very anxious about Father, and thought how lonely and helpless we should be, if anything happened to him. It was not a wise thing to do, but I kept on worrying till an old man came in with an order for some clothes. He sat down near me, and I began to talk to him, for he looked poor and tired and anxious.
“‘Have you sons in the army?’ I asked, for the note he brought was not to me.”
“Yes, ma’am. I had four, but two were killed, one is a prisoner, and I’m going to the other, who is very sick in a Washington hospital.’ he answered quietly.”
“‘You have done a great deal for your country, sir,’ I said, feeling respect now, instead of pity.”
“‘Not a mite more than I ought, ma’am. I’d go myself, if I was any use. As I ain’t, I give my boys, and give ’em free.'”
“He spoke so cheerfully, looked so sincere, and seemed so glad to give his all, that I was ashamed of myself. I’d given one man and thought it too much, while he gave four without grudging them. I had all my girls to comfort me at home, and his last son was waiting, miles away, to say good-by to him, perhaps! I felt so rich, so happy thinking of my blessings, that I made him a nice bundle, gave him some money, and thanked him heartily for the lesson he had taught me.”
“Tell another story, Mother, one with a moral to it, like this. I like to think about them afterward, if they are real and not too preachy,” said Jo, after a minute’s silence.
Mrs. March smiled and began at once, for she had told stories to this little audience for many years, and knew how to please them.
“Once upon a time, there were four girls, who had enough to eat and drink and wear, a good many comforts and pleasures, kind friends and parents who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented.” (Here the listeners stole sly looks at one another, and began to sew diligently.) “These girls were anxious to be good and made many excellent resolutions, but they did not keep them very well, and were constantly saying, ‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many things they actually could do. So they asked an old woman what spell they could use to make them happy, and she said, ‘When you feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful.'” (Here Jo looked up quickly, as if about to speak, but changed her mind, seeing that the story was not done yet.)
“Being sensible girls, they decided to try her advice, and soon were surprised to see how well off they were. One discovered that money couldn’t keep shame and sorrow out of rich people’s houses, another that, though she was poor, she was a great deal happier, with her youth, health, and good spirits, than a certain fretful, feeble old lady who couldn’t enjoy her comforts, a third that, disagreeable as it was to help get dinner, it was harder still to go begging for it and the fourth, that even carnelian rings were not so valuable as good behavior. So they agreed to stop complaining, to enjoy the blessings already possessed, and try to deserve them, lest they should be taken away entirely, instead of increased, and I believe they were never disappointed or sorry that they took the old woman’s advice.”
“Now, Marmee, that is very cunning of you to turn our own stories against us, and give us a sermon instead of a romance!” cried Meg.
“I like that kind of sermon. It’s the sort Father used to tell us,” said Beth thoughtfully, putting the needles straight on Jo’s cushion.
“I don’t complain near as much as the others do, and I shall be more careful than ever now, for I’ve had warning from Susie’s downfall,” said Amy morally.
“We needed that lesson, and we won’t forget it. If we do so, you just say to us, as old Chloe did in Uncle Tom, ‘Tink ob yer marcies, chillen!’ ‘Tink ob yer marcies!'” added Jo, who could not, for the life of her, help getting a morsel of fun out of the little sermon, though she took it to heart as much as any of them.