Little women, p.17
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       Little Women, p.17

         Part #1 of Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott
 

  “It’s all my fault—I forgot him—there isn’t a seed or a drop left. Oh, Pip! Oh, Pip! How could I be so cruel to you?” cried Beth, taking the poor thing in her hands and trying to restore him.

  Jo peeped into his half-open eye, felt his little heart, and finding him stiff and cold, shook her head, and offered her domino box for a coffin.

  “Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive,” said Amy hopefully.

  “He’s been starved, and he shan’t be baked now he’s dead. I’ll make him a shroud, and he shall be buried in the garden, and I’ll never have another bird, never, my Pip! For I am too bad to own one,” murmured Beth, sitting on the floor with her pet folded in her hands.

  “The funeral shall be this afternoon, and we will all go. Now, don’t cry, Bethy; it’s a pity, but nothing goes right this week, and Pip has had the worst of the experiment. Make the shroud and lay him in my box, and after the dinner party, we’ll have a nice little funeral,” said Jo, beginning to feel as if she had undertaken a good deal.

  Leaving the others to console Beth, she departed to the kitchen, which was in a most discouraging state of confusion. Putting on a big apron, she fell to work and got the dishes piled up ready for washing, when she discovered that the fire was out.

  “Here’s a sweet prospect!” muttered Jo, slamming the stove door open, and poking vigorously among the cinders.

  Having rekindled the fire, she thought she would go to market while the water heated. The walk revived her spirits, and flattering herself that she had made good bargains, she trudged home again, after buying a very young lobster, some very old asparagus, and two boxes of acid strawberries. By the time she got cleared up, the dinner arrived, and the stove was red-hot. Hannah had left a pan of bread to rise, Meg had worked it up early, set it on the hearth for a second rising, and forgotten it. Meg was entertaining Sallie Gardiner in the parlor, when the door flew open and a floury, crocky,br flushed, and disheveled figure appeared, demanding tartly—

  “I say, isn’t bread ‘riz’ enough when it runs over the pans?”

  Sallie began to laugh, but Meg nodded and lifted her eyebrows as high as they would go, which caused the apparition to vanish and put the sour bread into the oven without further delay. Mrs. March went out, after peeping here and there to see how matters went, also saying a word of comfort to Beth, who sat making a winding sheet, while the dear departed lay in state in the domino box. A strange sense of helplessness fell upon the girls as the gray bonnet vanished round the corner, and despair seized them when a few minutes later Miss Crocker appeared, and said she’d come to dinner. Now, this lady was a thin, yellow spinster, with a sharp nose and inquisitive eyes, who saw everything and gossiped about all she saw. They disliked her, but had been taught to be kind to her, simply because she was old and poor and had few friends. So Meg gave her the easy chair and tried to entertain her, while she asked questions, criticized everything, and told stories of the people whom she knew.

  Language cannot describe the anxieties, experiences, and exertions which Jo underwent that morning, and the dinner she served up became a standing joke. Fearing to ask any more advice, she did her best alone, and discovered that something more than energy and good will is necessary to make a cook. She boiled the asparagus for an hour and was grieved to find the heads cooked off and the stalks harder than ever. The bread turned black, for the salad dressing so aggravated her that she let everything else go till she had convinced herself that she could not make it fit to eat. The lobster was a scarlet mystery to her, but she hammered and poked till it was unshelled and its meager proportions concealed in a grove of lettuce leaves. The potatoes had to be hurried, not to keep the asparagus waiting, and were not done at last. The blancmange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked, having been skillfully “deaconed.”bs

  “Well, they can eat beef and bread and butter, if they are hungry, only it’s mortifying to have to spend your whole morning for nothing,” thought Jo, as she rang the bell half an hour later than usual, and stood, hot, tired, and dispirited, surveying the feast spread for Laurie, accustomed to all sorts of elegance, and Miss Crocker, whose curious eyes would mark all failures and whose tattling tongue would report them far and wide.

  Poor Jo would gladly have gone under the table, as one thing after another was tasted and left, while Amy giggled, Meg looked distressed, Miss Crocker pursed up her lips, and Laurie talked and laughed with all his might to give a cheerful tone to the festive scene. Jo’s one strong point was the fruit, for she had sugared it well, and had a pitcher of rich cream to eat with it. Her hot cheeks cooled a trifle, and she drew a long breath as the pretty glass plates went round, and everyone looked graciously at the little rosy islands floating in a sea of cream. Miss Crocker tasted first, made a wry face, and drank some water hastily. Jo, who refused, thinking there might not be enough, for they dwindled sadly after the picking over, glanced at Laurie, but he was eating away manfully, though there was a slight pucker about his mouth and he kept his eye fixed on his plate. Amy, who was fond of delicate fare, took a heaping spoonful, choked, hid her face in her napkin, and left the table precipitately.

  “Oh, what is it?” exclaimed Jo, trembling.

  “Salt instead of sugar, and the cream is sour,” replied Meg with a tragic gesture.

  Jo uttered a groan and fell back in her chair, remembering that she had given a last hasty powdering to the berries out of one of the two boxes on the kitchen table, and had neglected to put the milk in the refrigerator. She turned scarlet and was on the verge of crying, when she met Laurie’s eyes, which would look merry in spite of his heroic efforts; the comical side of the affair suddenly struck her, and she laughed till the tears ran down her cheeks. So did everyone else, even “Croaker,” as the girls called the old lady, and the unfortunate dinner ended gaily, with bread and butter, olives and fun.

  “I haven’t strength of mind enough to clear up now, so we will sober ourselves with a funeral,” said Jo, as they rose; and Miss Crocker made ready to go, being eager to tell the new story at another friend’s dinner table.

  They did sober themselves for Beth’s sake; Laurie dug a grave under the ferns in the grove, little Pip was laid in, with many tears by his tenderhearted mistress, and covered with moss, while a wreath of violets and chickweed was hung on the stone which bore his epitaph, composed by Jo while she struggled with the dinner:

  Here lies Pip March,

  Who died the 7th of June;

  Loved and lamented sore,

  And not forgotten soon.

  At the conclusion of the ceremonies, Beth retired to her room, overcome with emotion and lobster; but there was no place of repose, for the beds were not made, and she found her grief much assuaged by beating up pillows and putting things in order. Meg helped Jo clear away the remains of the feast, which took half the afternoon and left them so tired that they agreed to be contented with tea and toast for supper. Laurie took Amy to drive, which was a deed of charity, for the sour cream seemed to have had a bad effect upon her temper. Mrs. March came home to find the three older girls hard at work in the middle of the afternoon, and a glance at the closet gave her an idea of the success of one part of the experiment.

  Before the housewives could rest, several people called, and there was a scramble to get ready to see them; then tea must be got, errands done, and one or two necessary bits of sewing neglected till the last minute. As twilight fell, dewy and still, one by one they gathered on the porch where the June roses were budding beautifully, and each groaned or sighed as she sat down, as if tired or troubled.

  “What a dreadful day this has been!” began Jo, usually the first to speak.

  “It has seemed shorter than usual, but so uncomfortable,” said Meg.

  “Not a bit like home,” added Amy.

  “It can’t seem so without Marmee and little Pip,” sighed Beth, glancing with full eyes at the empty cage above her head.

  “Here’s Mother, dear, and you
shall have another bird tomorrow, if you want it.”

  As she spoke, Mrs. March came and took her place among them, looking as if her holiday had not been much pleasanter than theirs.

  “Are you satisfied with your experiment, girls, or do you want another week of it?” she asked, as Beth nestled up to her and the rest turned toward her with brightening faces, as flowers turn toward the sun.

  “I don‘t!” cried Jo decidedly.

  “Nor I,” echoed the others.

  “You think, then, that it is better to have a few duties and live a little for others, do you?”

  “Lounging and larking doesn’t pay,” observed Jo, shaking her head. “I’m tired of it and mean to go to work at something right off.”

  “Suppose you learn plain cooking; that’s a useful accomplishment, which no woman should be without,” said Mrs. March, laughing inaudibly at the recollection of Jo’s dinner party, for she had met Miss Crocker and heard her account of it.

  “Mother, did you go away and let everything be, just to see how we’d get on?” cried Meg, who had had suspicions all day.

  “Yes, I wanted you to see how the comfort of all depends on each doing her share faithfully. While Hannah and I did your work, you got on pretty well, though I don’t think you were very happy or amiable; so I thought, as a little lesson, I would show you what happens when everyone thinks only of herself. Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, and to bear and forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?”

  “We do, Mother, we do!” cried the girls.

  “Then let me advise you to take up your little burdens again, for though they seem heavy sometimes, they are good for us, and lighten as we learn to carry them. Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.”

  “We’ll work like bees, and love it too, see if we don‘t!” said Jo. “I’ll learn plain cooking for my holiday task, and the next dinner party I have shall be a success.”

  “I’ll make the set of shirts for Father, instead of letting you do it, Marmee. I can and I will, though I’m not fond of sewing; that will be better than fussing over my own things, which are plenty nice enough as they are,” said Meg.

  “I’ll do my lessons every day, and not spend so much time with my music and dolls. I am a stupid thing, and ought to be studying, not playing,” was Beth’s resolution, while Amy followed their example by heroically declaring, “I shall learn to make buttonholes, and attend to my parts of speech.”

  “Very good! Then I am quite satisfied with the experiment, and fancy that we shall not have to repeat it, only don’t go to the other extreme and delve like slaves. Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty.”

  “We’ll remember, Mother!” And they did.

  12

  Camp Laurence

  Beth was postmistress, for, being most at home, she could attend to it regularly, and dearly liked the daily task of unlocking the little door and distributing the mail. One July day she came in with her hands full, and went about the house leaving letters and parcels like the penny post.

  “Here’s your posy, Mother! Laurie never forgets that,” she said, putting the fresh nosegay in the vase that stood in “Marmee’s corner” and was kept supplied by the affectionate boy.

  “Miss Meg March, one letter and a glove,” continued Beth, delivering the articles to her sister, who sat near her mother, stitching wristbands.

  “Why, I left a pair over there, and here is only one,” said Meg, looking at the gray cotton glove. “Didn’t you drop the other in the garden?”

  “No, I’m sure I didn‘t, for there was only one in the office.”

  “I hate to have odd gloves! Never mind, the other may be found. My letter is only a translation of the German song I wanted. I think Mr. Brooke did it, for this isn’t Laurie’s writing.”

  Mrs. March glanced at Meg, who was looking very pretty in her gingham morning gown, with the little curls blowing about her forehead, and very womanly, as she sat sewing at her little worktable, full of tidy white rolls, so unconscious of the thought in her mother’s mind as she sewed and sang, while her fingers flew and her thoughts were busied with girlish fancies as innocent and fresh as the pansies in her belt, that Mrs. March smiled and was satisfied.

  “Two letters for Doctor Jo, a book, and a funny old hat, which covered the whole post office, stuck outside,” said Beth, laughing as she went into the study where Jo sat writing.

  “What a sly fellow Laurie is! I said I wished bigger hats were the fashion, because I burn my face every hot day. He said, ‘Why mind the fashion? Wear a big hat, and be comfortable!’ I said I would if I had one, and he has sent me this to try me. I’ll wear it for fun, and show him I don’t care for the fashion.” And hanging the antique broadbrim on a bust of Plato,bt Jo read her letters.

  One from her mother made her cheeks glow and her eyes fill, for it said to her—

  MY DEAR:

  I write a little word to tell you with how much satisfaction I watch your efforts to control your temper. You say nothing about your trials, failures, or successes, and think, perhaps, that no one sees them but the Friend whose help you daily ask, if I may trust the well-worn cover of your guidebook. I, too, have seen them all, and heartily believe in the sincerity of your resolution, since it begins to bear fruit. Go on, dear, patiently and bravely, and always believe that no one sympathizes more tenderly with you than your loving

  MOTHER.

  “That does me good! That’s worth millions of money and pecks of praise. Oh, Marmee, I do try! I will keep on trying, and not get tired, since I have you to help me.”

  Laying her head on her arms, Jo wet her little romance with a few happy tears, for she had thought that no one saw and appreciated her efforts to be good, and this assurance was doubly precious, doubly encouraging, because unexpected and from the person whose commendation she most valued. Feeling stronger than ever to meet and subdue her Apollyon, she pinned the note inside her frock, as a shield and a reminder, lest she be taken unaware, and proceeded to open her other letter, quite ready for either good or bad news. In a big, dashing hand, Laurie wrote—

  DEAR Jo,

  What ho!

  Some English girls and boys are coming to see me tomorrow and I want to have a jolly time. If it’s fine, I’m going to pitch my tent in Longmeadow, and row up the whole crew to lunch and croquet-have a fire, make messes, gypsy fashion, and all sorts of larks. They are nice people, and like such things. Brooke will go, to keep us boys steady, and Kate Vaughn will play propriety for the girls. I want you all to come, can’t let Beth off at any price, and nobody shall worry her. Don’t bother about rations—I’ll see to that and everything else—only do come, there’s a good fellow!

  In a tearing hurry,

  Yours ever, LAURIE.

  “Here’s richness!” cried Jo, flying in to tell the news to Meg.

  “Of course we can go, Mother? It will be such a help to Laurie, for I can row, and Meg see to the lunch, and the children be useful in some way.

  “I hope the Vaughns are not fine, grown-up people. Do you know anything about them, Jo?” asked Meg.

  “Only that there are four of them. Kate is older than you, Fred and Frank (twins) about my age, and a little girl (Grace), who is nine or ten. Laurie knew them abroad, and liked the boys; I fancied, from the way he primmed up his mouth in speaking of her, that he didn’t admire Kate much.”

  “I’m so glad my French print is clean, it’s just the thing and so becoming!” observed Meg complacently. “Have you anything decent, Jo?”

  “Scarlet and gray boating suit, good en
ough for me. I shall row and tramp about, so I don’t want any starch to think of. You’ll come, Bethy?”

  “If you won’t let any of the boys talk to me.”

  “Not a boy!”

  “I like to please Laurie, and I’m not afraid of Mr. Brooke, he is so kind; but I don’t want to play, or sing, or say anything. I’ll work hard and not trouble anyone, and you’ll take care of me, Jo, so I’ll go.”

  “That’s my good girl; you do try to fight off your shyness, and I love you for it. Fighting faults isn’t easy, as I know, and a cheery word kind of gives a lift. Thank you, Mother.” And Jo gave the thin cheek a grateful kiss, more precious to Mrs. March than if it had given back the rosy roundness of her youth.

  “I had a box of chocolate drops, and the picture I wanted to copy,” said Amy, showing her mail.

  “And I got a note from Mr. Laurence, asking me to come over and play to him tonight, before the lamps are lighted, and I shall go,” added Beth, whose friendship with the old gentleman prospered finely.

  “Now let’s fly round, and do double duty today, so that we can play tomorrow with free minds,” said Jo, preparing to replace her pen with a broom.

  When the sun peeped into the girls’ room early next morning to promise them a fine day, he saw a comical sight. Each had made such preparation for the fete as seemed necessary and proper. Meg had an extra row of little curlpapers across her forehead, Jo had copiously anointed her afflicted face with cold cream, Beth had taken Joanna to bed with her to atone for the approaching separation, and Amy had capped the climax by putting a clothespin on her nose to uplift the offending feature. It was one of the kind artists use to hold the paper on their drawing boards, therefore quite appropriate and effective for the purpose to which it was now put. This funny spectacle appeared to amuse the sun, for he burst out with such radiance that Jo woke up and roused all her sisters by a hearty laugh at Amy’s ornament.

 
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