"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbledJo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down ather old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty ofpretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy,with an injured sniff.
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Bethcontentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightenedat the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,"We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time."She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinkingof Father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone,"You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents thisChristmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone;and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, whenour men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we canmake our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I amafraid I don't." And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfullyof all the pretty things she wanted.
"But I don't think the little we should spend would do anygood. We've each got a dollar, and the army wouldn't be much helpedby our giving that. I agree not to expect anything from Mother oryou, but I do want to buy UNDINE AND SINTRAM for myself. I'vewanted it so long," said Jo, who was a bookworm.
"I planned to spend mine in new music," said Beth, with alittle sigh, which no one heard but the hearth brush and kettleholder.
"I shall get a nice box of Faber's drawing pencils. Ireally need them," said Amy decidedly.
"Mother didn't say anything about our money, and she won'twish us to give up everything. Let's each buy what we want, andhave a little fun. I'm sure we work hard enough to earn it," criedJo, examining the heels of her shoes in a gentlemanly manner.
"I know I do--teaching those tiresome children nearly allday, when I'm longing to enjoy myself at home," began Meg, in thecomplaining tone again.
"You don't have half such a hard time as I do," said Jo."How would you like to be shut up for hours with a nervous, fussyold lady, who keeps you trotting, is never satisfied, and worriesyou till you you're ready to fly out the window or cry?"
"It's naughty to fret, but I do think washing dishes andkeeping things tidy is the worst work in the world. It makes mecross, and my hands get so stiff, I can't practice well at all."And Beth looked at her rough hands with a sigh that any one couldhear that time.
"I don't believe any of you suffer as I do," cried Amy, "foryou don't have to go to school with impertinent girls, who plagueyou if you don't know your lessons, and laugh at your dresses, andlabel your father if he isn't rich, and insult you when your noseisn't nice."
"If you mean libel, I'd say so, and not talk about labels, asif Papa was a pickle bottle," advised Jo, laughing.
"I know what I mean, and you needn't be statirical about it.It's proper to use good words, and improve your vocabilary,"returned Amy, with dignity.
"Don't peck at one another, children. Don't you wish wehad the money Papa lost when we were little, Jo? Dear me! Howhappy and good we'd be, if we had no worries!" said Meg, whocould remember better times.
"You said the other day you thought we were a deal happierthan the King children, for they were fighting and fretting allthe time, in spite of their money."
"So I did, Beth. Well, I think we are. For though we dohave to work, we make fun of ourselves, and are a pretty jollyset, as Jo would say."
"Jo does use such slang words!" observed Amy, with areproving look at the long figure stretched on the rug.
Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, andbegan to whistle.
"Don't, Jo. It's so boyish!"
"That's why I do it."
"I detest rude, unladylike girls!"
"I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!"
"Birds in their little nests agree," sang Beth, thepeacemaker, with such a funny face that both sharp voicessoftened to a laugh, and the "pecking" ended for that time.
"Really, girls, you are both to be blamed," said Meg,beginning to lecture in her elder-sisterly fashion."You are oldenough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better,Josephine. It didn't matter so much when you were a littlegirl, but now you are so tall, and turn up your hair, you shouldremember that you are a young lady."
"I'm not! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I'llwear it in two tails till I'm twenty," cried Jo, pulling offher net, and shaking down a chestnut mane. "I hate to thinkI've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns,and look as prim as a China Aster! It's bad enough to be agirl, anyway, when I like boy's games and work and manners! Ican't get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it'sworse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa.And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!"
And Jo shook the blue army sock till the needles rattledlike castanets, and her ball bounded across the room.
"Poor Jo! It's too bad, but it can't be helped. So youmust try to be contented with making your name boyish, andplaying brother to us girls," said Beth, stroking the roughhead with a hand that all the dish washing and dusting in theworld could not make ungentle in its touch.
"As for you, Amy," continued Meg, "you are altogetherto particular and prim. Your airs are funny now, but you'llgrow up an affected little goose, if you don't take care. II like your nice manners and refined ways of speaking, whenyou don't try to be elegant. But your absurd words are as badas Jo's slang."
"If Jo is a tomboy and Amy a goose, what am I, please?"asked Beth, ready to share the lecture.
"You're a dear, and nothing else," answered Meg warmly,and no one contradicted her, for the `Mouse' was the pet of thefamily.
As young readers like to know `how people look', we willtake this moment to give them a little sketch of the foursisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while theDecember snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackledcheerfully within. It was a comfortable room, though the carpetwas faded and the furniture very plain, for a good picture ortwo hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemumsand Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasantatmosphere of home peace pervaded it.
Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty,being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, asweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of acolt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs,which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comicalnose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, andwere by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hairwas her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to beout of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet,a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance ofa girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it.Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timidvoice, and a ;peaceful expression which was seldom disturbed. Herfather called her `Little Miss Tranquility', and the name suitedher excellently, for she seemed to live in a happy world of herown, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved.Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her ownopinion at least. A regular snow maiden, with blue eyes, andyellow hair curling on her shoulders, pale and slender, and alwayscarrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners. Whatthe characters of the four sisters were we will leave to be found out.
The clock struck six and, having swept up the hearth, Bethput a pair of slippers down to warm. Somehow the sight of the oldshoes had a good effect upon the girls, for Mother was coming, andeveryone brightened to welcome her. Meg stopped lecturing, andlighted the lamp, Amy got out of the easy chair without being asked,and Jo forgot how tired she was as she sat up to hold the slippersnearer to the blaze.
"They are quite worn out. Marmee must have a new pair."
"I thought I'd get her some with my dollar," said Beth.
"No, I shall!" cried Amy.
"I'm the oldest," began Meg, but Jo cut in with a decided,"I'm the man of the family now Papa is away, and I shall providethe slippers, for he told me to take special care of Mother whilehe was gone."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Beth, "let's each get hersomething for Christmas, land not get anything for ourselves."
"That's like you, dear! What will we get?" exclaimed Jo.
Everyone thought soberly for a minute, then Meg announced, asif the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands,"I shall give her a nice pair of gloves."
"Army shoes, best to be had," cried Jo.
"Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed," said Beth.
"I'll get a little bottle of cologne. She likes it, and it won'tcost much, so I'll have some left to buy my pencils," added Amy.
"How will we give the things?" asked Meg.
"Put them on the table, and bring her in and see her openthe bundles. Don't you remember how we used to do on ourbirthdays?" answered Jo.
"I used to be so frightened when it was my turn to sit in thechair with the crown on, and see you all come marching round togive the presents, with a kiss. I liked the things and the kisses,but it was dreadful to have you sit looking at me while I openedthe bundles," said Beth, who was toasting her face and the breadfor tea at the same time.
"Let Marmee think we are getting things for ourselves, andthen surprise her. We must go shopping tomorrow afternoon, Meg.There is so much to do about the play for Christmas night," saidJo, marching up and down, with her hands behind her back, and hernose in the air.
"I don't mean to act any more after this time. I'm gettingtoo old for such things," observed Meg, who was as much a childas ever about `dressing-up' frolics.
"You won't stop, I know, as long as you can trail round in awhite gown with your hair down, and wear gold-paper jewelry.You are the best actress we've got, and there'll be an endof everything if you quit the boards," said Jo. "We oughtto rehearse tonight. Come here, Amy, and do the fainting scene,for you are as stiff as a poker in that."
"I can't help it. I never saw anyone faint, and I don't chooseto make myself all black and blue, tumbling flat as you do. If Ican go down easily, I'll drop. If I can't, I shall fall into achair and be graceful. I don't care if Hugo does come at me witha pistol," returned Amy, who was not gifted with dramatic power,but was chosen because she was small enough to be borne out shriekingby the villain of the piece.
"Do it this way. Clasp your hands so, and stagger across theroom, crying frantically, `Roderigo Save me! Save me!' and awaywent Jo, with a melodramatic scream which was truly thrilling.
Amy followed, but she poked her hands out stiffly before her,and jerked herself along as if she went by machinery, and her "Ow!"was more suggestive of pins being run into her than of fear andanguish. Jo gave a despairing groan, and Meg laughed outright,while Beth let her bread burn as she watched the fun with interest."It's no use! Do the best you can when the time comes, and ifthe audience laughs, don't blame me. Come on, Meg."
"Then things went smoothly, for Don Pedro defied the world ina speech of two pages without a single break. Hagar, the witch,chanted an awful incantation over her kettleful of simmering toads,with weird effect. Roderigo rent his chains asunder manfully, andHugo died in agonies of remorse and arsenic, with a wild, "Ha! Ha!"
"It's the best we've had yet," said Meg, as the dead villainsat up and rubbed his elbows.
"I don't see how you can write and act such splendid things,Jo. You're a regular Shakespeare!" exclaimed Beth, who firmlybelieved that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in allthings.
"Not quite," replied Jo modestly. "I do think THE WITCHES CURSE,an Operatic Tragedy is rather a nice thing, but I'd like to tryMcBETH, if we only had a trapdoor for Banquo. I always wanted todo the killing part. `Is that a dagger that I see before me?"muttered Jo, rolling her eyes and clutching at the air, as she hadseen a famous tragedian do.
"No, it's the toasting fork, with Mother's shoe on it insteadof the bread. Beth's stage-struck!" cried Meg, and the rehearsalended in a general burst of laughter.
"Glad to find you so merry, my girls," said a cheery voice atthe door, and actors and audience turned to welcome a tall, motherlylady with a `can I help you' look about her which was truly delightful.She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and thegirls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the mostsplendid mother in the world.
"Well, dearies, how have you got on today? There was so much todo, getting the boxes ready to go tomorrow, that I didn't come hometo dinner. Has anyone called, Beth? How is your cold, Meg? Jo,you look tired to death. Come and kiss me, baby."
While making these maternal inquiries Mrs. March got her wetthings off, her warm slippers on, and sitting down in the easychair, drew Amy to her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hourof her busy day. The girls flew about, trying to make thingscomfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table, Jobrought wood and set chairs, dropping, over-turning, and clatteringeverything she touched. Beth trotted to and fro between parlorkitchen, quiet and busy, while Amy gave directions to everyone, asshe sat with her hands folded.
As they gathered about the table, Mrs. March said, with aparticularly happy face, "I've got a treat for you after supper."
A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine.Beth clapped her hands, regardless of the biscuit she held,and Jo tossed up her napkin, crying, "A letter! A letter! Threecheers for Father!"
"Yes, a nice long letter. He is well, and thinks he shallget through the cold season better than we feared. He sends allsorts of loving wishes for Christmas, and an especial messageto you girls," said Mrs. March, patting her pocket as if shehad got a treasure there.
"Hurry and get done! Don't stop to quirk your little fingerand simper over your plate, Amy," cried Jo, choking on her teaand dropping her bread, butter side down, on the carpet in herhaste to get at the treat.
Beth ate no more, but crept away to sit in her shadowy cornerand brood over the delight to come, till the others were ready.
"I think it was so splendid in Father to go as chaplainwhen he was too old to be drafted, and not strong enough fora soldier," said Meg warmly.
"Don't I wish I could go as a drummer, a vivan--what's itsname? Or a nurse, so I could be near him and help him," exclaimedJo, with a groan.
"It must be very disagreeable to sleep in a tent, and eatall sorts of bad-tasting things, and drink out of a tin mug,"sighed Amy.
"When will he come home, Marmee? asked Beth, with a littlequiver in her voice.
"Not for many months, dear, unless he is sick. He will stayand do his work faithfully as long as he can, and we won't askfor him back a minute sooner than he can be spared. Now come andhear the letter."
They all drew to the fire, Mother in the big chair with Bethat her feet, Meg and Amy perched on either arm of the chair, andJo leaning on the back, where no one would see any sign of emotionif the letter should happen to be touching. Very few letters werewritten in those hard times that were not touching, especiallythose which fathers sent home. In this one little was said of thehardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered.It was a cheerful, hopeful letter, full of lively descriptionsof camp life, marches, and military news, and only at the enddid the writer's heart over-flow with fatherly love and longingfor the little girls at home.
"Give them all of my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I thinkof them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfortin their affection at all times. A year seems very long to waitbefore I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may allwork, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they willremember all I said to them, that they will be loving children toyou, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely,and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to themI may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women."Everybody sniffed when they came to that part. Jo wasn'tashamed of the great tear that dropped off the end of her nose, andAmy never minded the rumpling of her curls as she hid her face onher mother's shoulder and sobbed out, "I am a selfish girl! ButI'll truly try to be better, so he mayn't be disappointed in meby-and-by."
We all will," cried Meg. "I think too much of my looks andhate to work, but won't any more, if I can help it."
"I'll try and be what he loves to call me, `a little woman'and not be rough and wild, but do my duty here instead of wantingto be somewhere else," said Jo, thinking that keeping her temperat home was a much harder task than facing a rebel or two down South.
Beth said nothing, but wiped away her tears with the blue armysock and began to knit with all her might, losing no time in doingthe duty that lay nearest her, while she resolved in her quietlittle soul to be all that Father hoped to find her when the yearbrought round the happy coming home.
Mrs. March broke the silence that followed Jo's words, bysaying in her cheery voice, "Do you remember how you used to playPilgrims Progress when you were little things? Nothing delightedyou more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens,give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travelthrough the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction,up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things youcould collect to make a Celestial City."
"What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fightingApollyon, and passing through the valley where the hob-goblinswere," said Jo.
"I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbleddownstairs," said Meg.
"I don't remember much about it, except that I was afraid ofthe cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milkwe had up at the top. If I wasn't too old for such things, I'drather like to play it over again," said Amy, who began to talkof renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.
"We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a playwe are playing all the time in one way or another. Out burdens arehere, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness andhappiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles andmistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my littlepilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest,and see how far on you can get before Father comes home."
"Really, Mother? Where are our bundles?" asked Amy, who wasa very literal young lady.
"Each of you told what your burden was just now, except Beth.I rather think she hasn't got any," said her mother.
"Yes, I have. Mine is dishes and dusters, and envying girlswith nice pianos, and being afraid of people."
Beth's bundle was such a funny one that everybody wanted tolaugh, but nobody did, for it would have hurt her feelings verymuch.
"Let us do it," said Meg thoughtfully. "It is only anothername for trying to be good, and the story may help us, for thoughwe do want to be good, it's hard work and we forget, and don't doour best."
"We were in the Slough of Despond tonight, and Mother cameand pulled us out as Help did in the book. We ought to have ourroll of directions, like Christian. What shall we do about that?"asked Jo, delighted with the fancy which lent a little romance tothe very dull task of doing her duty.
"Look under your pillows christmas morning, and you willfind your guidebook," replied Mrs. March.
They talked over the new plan while old Hannah cleared thetable, then out came the four little work baskets, and the needlesflew as the girls made sheets for Aunt March. It was uninterestingsewing, but tonight no one grumbled. They adopted Jo's plan ofdividing the long seams into four parts, and calling the quartersEurope, Asia, Africa, and America, and in that way got on capitally,especially when they talked about the different countries as theystitched their way through them.
At nine they stopped work, and sang, as usual, before theywent to bed. No one but Beth could get much music out of the oldpiano, but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys andmaking a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meghad a voice like a flute, and she and herr mother led the littlechoir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airsat her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with acroak or a quaver that spoiled the most pensive tune. They hadalways done this from the time they could lisp...
Crinkle, crinkle, 'ittle 'tar, and it had become a household custom, for the mother was a bornsinger. The first sound in the morning was her voice as she wentabout the house singing like a lark, and the last sound at nightwas the same cheery sound, for the girls never grew too old forthat familiar lullaby.