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 sung, 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 broad-brim on a bust of Plato, Jo read her letters.
One from her mother made her cheeks glow and her eyes fill, for it said to her—
“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
“That does me good! that’s worth millions of money and pecks of praise. O 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—
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,
“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 enough 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 fête as seemed necessary and proper. Meg had an extra row of little curl-papers 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.
Sunshine and laughter were good omens for a pleasure party, and soon a lively bustle began in both houses. Beth, who was ready first, kept reporting what went on next door, and enlivened her sisters’ toilets by frequent telegrams from the window.
“There goes the man with the tent! I see Mrs. Barker doing up the lunch in a hamper and a great basket. Now Mr. Laurence is looking up at the sky, and the weathercock; I wish he would go, too. There’s Laurie, looking like a sailor—nice boy! Oh, mercy me! here’s a carriage full of people—a tall lady, a little girl, and two dreadful boys. One is lame; poor thing, he’s got a crutch. Laurie didn’t tell us that. Be quick, girls! it’s getting late. Why, there is Ned Moffat, I do declare. Look, Meg, isn’t that the man who bowed to you one day, when we were shopping?”
“So it is. How queer that he should come. I thought he was at the Mountains. There is Sallie; I’m glad she got back in time. Am I all right, Jo?” cried Meg, in a flutter.
“A regular daisy. Hold up your dress and put your hat straight; it looks sentimental tipped that way, and will fly off at the first puff. Now, then, come on!”
“O Jo, you are not going to wear that awful hat? It’s too absurd! You shall not make a guy of yourself,” remonstrated Meg, as Jo tied down, with a red ribbon, the broad-brimmed, old-fashioned Leghorn Laurie had sent for a joke.
“I just will, though, for it’s capital—so shady, light, and big. It will make fun; and I don’t mind being a guy if I’m comfortable.” With that Jo marched straight away, and the rest followed—a bright little band of sisters, all looking their best, in summer suits, with happy faces under the jaunty hat-brims.
Laurie ran to meet, and present them to his friends, in the most cordial manner. The lawn was the reception-room, and for several minutes a lively scene was enacted there. Meg was grateful to see that Miss Kate, though twenty, was dressed with a simplicity which American girls would do well to imitate; and she was much flattered by Mr. Ned’s assurances that he came especially to see her. Jo understood why Laurie “primmed up his mouth” when speaking of Kate, for that young lady had a stand-off-don’t-touch-me air, which contrasted strongly with the free and easy demeanor of the other girls. Beth took an observation of the new boys, and decided that the lame one was not “dreadful,” but gentle and feeble, and she would be kind to him on that account. Amy found Grace a well-mannered, merry little person; and after staring dumbly at one another for a few minutes, they suddenly became very good friends.
Tents, lunch, and croquet utensils having been sent on beforehand, the party was soon embarked, and the two boats pushed off together, leaving Mr. Laurence waving his hat on the shore. Laurie and Jo rowed one boat; Mr. Brooke and Ned the other; while Fred Vaughn, the riotous twin, did his best to upset both by paddling about in a wherry like a disturbed water-bug. Jo’s funny hat deserved a vote of thanks, for it was of general utility; it broke the ice in the beginning, by producing a laugh; it created quite a refreshing breeze, flapping to and fro, as she rowed, and would make an excellent umbrella for the whole party, if a shower came up, she said. Kate looked rather amazed at Jo’s proceedings, especially as she exclaimed “Christopher Columbus!” when she lost her oar; and Laurie said, “My dear fellow, did I hurt you?” when he tripped over her feet in taking his place. But after putting up her glass to examine the queer girl several times, Miss Kate decided that she was “odd, but rather clever,” and smiled upon her from afar.
Meg, in the other boat, was delightfully situated, face to face with the rowers, who both admired the prospect, and feathered their oars with uncommon “skill and dexterity.” Mr. Brooke was a grave, silent young man, with handsome brown eyes and a pleasant voice. Meg liked his quiet manners, and considered him a walking encyclopedia of useful knowledge. He never talked to her much; but he looked at her a good deal, and she felt sure that he did not regard her with aversion. Ned, being in college, of course put on all the airs which Freshmen think it their bounden duty to assume; he was not very wise, but very good-natured, and altogether an excellent person to carry on a picnic. Sallie Gardiner was absorbed in keeping her white piqué dress clean, and chattering with the ubiquitous Fred, who kept Beth in constant terror by his pranks.
It was not far to Longmeadow; but the tent was pitched and the wickets down by the time they arrived. A pleasant green field, with three wide-spreading oaks in the middle, and a smooth strip of turf for croquet.
“Welcome to Camp Laurence!” said the young host, as they landed, with exclamations of delight.
“Brooke is commander-in-chief; I am commissary-general; the other fellows are staff-officers; and you, ladies, are company. The tent is for your especial benefit, and that oak is your drawing-room; this is the mess-room, and the third is the camp-kitchen. Now, let’s have a game before it gets hot, and then we’ll see about dinner.”
Frank, Beth, Amy, and Grace sat down to watch the game played by the other eight. Mr. Brooke chose Meg, Kate, and Fred; Laurie took Sallie, Jo, and Ned. The Englishers played well; but the Americans played better, and contested every inch of the ground as strongly as if the spirit of ’76 inspired them. Jo and Fred had several skirmishes, and once narrowly escaped high words. Jo was through the last wicket, and had missed the stroke, which failure ruffled her a good deal. Fred was close behind her, and his turn came before hers; he gave a stroke, his ball hit the wicket, and stopped an inch on the wrong side. No one was very near; and running up to examine, he gave it a sly nudge with his toe, which put it just an inch on the right side.
“I’m through! Now, Miss Jo, I’ll settle you, and get in first,” cried the young gentleman, swinging his mallet for another blow.
“You pushed it; I saw you; it’s my turn now,” said Jo sharply.
“Upon my word, I didn’t move it; it rolled a bit, perhaps, but that is allowed; so stand off, please, and let me have a go at the stake.”
“We don’t cheat in America, but you can, if you choose,” said Jo angrily.
“Yankees are a deal the most tricky, everybody knows. There you go!” returned Fred, croqueting her ball far away.
Jo opened her lips to say something rude, but checked herself in time, colored up to her forehead, and stood a minute, hammering down a wicket with all her might, while Fred hit the stake, and declared himself out with much exultation. She went off to get her ball, and was a long time finding it, among the bushes; but she came back, looking cool and quiet, and waited her turn patiently. It took several strokes to regain the place she had lost; and, when she got there, the other side had nearly won, for Kate’s ball was the last but one, and lay near the stake.
“By George, it’s all up with us! Goodbye, Kate. Miss Jo owes me one, so you are finished,” cried Fred excitedly, as they all drew near to see the finish.
“Yankees have a trick of being generous to their enemies,” said Jo, with a look that made the lad redden, “especially when they beat them,” she added, as, leaving Kate’s ball untouched, she won the game by a clever stroke.
Laurie threw up his hat; then remembered that it wouldn’t do to exult over the defeat of his guests, and stopped in the middle of a cheer to whisper to his friend—
“Good for you, Jo! He did cheat, I saw him; we can’t tell him so, but he won’t do it again, take my word for it.”
Meg drew her aside, under pretence of pinning up a loose braid, and said approvingly—
“It was dreadfully provoking; but you kept your temper, and I’m so glad, Jo.”
“Don’t praise me, Meg, for I could box his ears this minute. I should certainly have boiled over if I hadn’t stayed among the nettles till I got my rage under enough to hold my tongue. It’s simmering now, so I hope he’ll keep out of my way,” returned Jo, biting her lips, as she glowered at Fred from under her big hat.
“Time for lunch,” said Mr. Brooke, looking at his watch. “Commissary-general, will you make the fire and get water, while Miss March, Miss Sallie, and I spread the table? Who can make good coffee?”
“Jo can,” said Meg, glad to recommend her sister. So Jo, feeling that her late lessons in cookery were to do her honor, went to preside over the coffeepot, while the children collected dry sticks, and the boys made a fire, and got water from a spring near by. Miss Kate sketched, and Frank talked to Beth, who was making little mats of braided rushes to serve as plates.
The commander-in-chief and his aids soon spread the tablecloth with an inviting array of eatables and drinkables, prettily decorated with green leaves. Jo announced that the coffee was ready, and everyone settled themselves to a hearty meal; for youth is seldom dyspeptic, and exercise develops wholesome appetites. A very merry lunch it was; for everything seemed fresh and funny, and frequent peals of laughter startled a venerable horse who fed near by. There was a pleasing inequality in the table, which produced many mishaps to cups and plates; acorns dropped into the milk, little black ants partook of the refreshments without being invited, and fuzzy caterpillars swung down from the tree, to see what was going on. Three white-headed children peeped over the fence, and an objectionable dog barked at them from the other side of the river with all his might and main.
“There’s salt here, if you prefer it,” said Laurie, as he handed Jo a saucer of berries.
“Thank you, I prefer spiders,” she replied, fishing up two unwary little ones who had gone to a creamy death. “How dare you remind me of that horrid dinner-party, when yours is so nice in every way?” added Jo, as they both laughed, and ate out of one plate, the china having run short.
“I had an uncommonly good time that day, and haven’t got over it yet. This is no credit to me, you know; I don’t do anything; it’s you and Meg and Brooke who make it go, and I’m no end obliged to you. What shall we do when we can’t eat any more?” asked Laurie, feeling that his trump card had been played when lunch was over.
“Have games, till it’s cooler. I brought Authors, and I dare say Miss Kate knows something new and nice. Go and ask her; she’s company, and you ought to stay with her more.”
“Aren’t you company too? I thought she’d suit Brooke; but he keeps talking to Meg, and Kate just stares at them through that ridiculous glass of hers. I’m going, so you needn’t try to preach propriety, for you can’t do it, Jo.”
Miss Kate did know several new games; and as the girls would not, and the boys could not, eat any more, they all adjourned to the drawing-room to play Rigmarole.
“One person begins a story, any nonsense you like, and tells as long as he pleases, only taking care to stop short at some exciting point, when the next takes it up and does the same. It’s very funny when well done, and makes a perfect jumble of tragical comical stuff to laugh over. Please start it, Mr. Brooke,” said Kate, with a commanding air, which surprised Meg, who treated the tutor with as much respect as any other gentleman.
Lying on the grass at the feet of the two young ladies, Mr. Brooke obediently began the story, with the handsome brown eyes steadily fixed upon the sunshiny river.
“Once on a time, a knight went out into the world to seek his fortune, for he had nothing but his sword and his shield. He travelled a long while, nearly eight-and-twenty years, and had a hard time of it, till he came to the palace of a good old king, who had offered a reward to anyone who would tame and train a fine but unbroken colt, of which he was very fond. The knight agreed to try, and got on slowly but surely; for the colt was a gallant fellow, and soon learned to love his new master, though he was freakish and wild. Every day, when he gave his lessons to this pet of the king’s, the knight rode him through the city; and, as he rode, he looked everywhere for a certain beautiful face, which he had seen many times in his dreams, but never found. One day, as he went prancing down a quiet street, he saw at the window of a ruinous castle the lovely face. He was delighted, inquired who lived in this old castle, and was told that several captive princesses were kept there by a spell, and spun all day to lay up money to buy their liberty. The knight wished intensely that he could free them; but he was poor, and could only go by each day, watching for the sweet face, and longing to see it out in the sunshine. At last, he resolved to get into the castle and ask how he could help them. He went and knocked; the great door flew open, and he beheld—”
“A ravishingly lovely lady, who exclaimed, with a cry of rapture, ‘At last! at last!’ ” continued Kate, who had read French novels, and admired the style. “ ‘ ’Tis she!’ cried Count Gustave, and fell at her feet in an ecstasy of joy. ‘Oh, rise!’ she said, extending a hand of marble fairness. ‘Never! till you tell me how I may rescue you,’ swore the knight, still kneeling. ‘Alas, my cruel fate condemns me to remain here till my tyrant is destroyed.’ ‘Where is the villain?’ ‘In the mauve salon. Go, brave heart, and save me from despair.’ ‘I obey, and return victorious or dead!’ With these thrilling words he rushed away, and flinging open the door of the mauve salon, was about to enter, when he received—”
“A stunning blow from the big Greek lexicon, which an old fellow in a black gown fired at him,” said Ned. “Instantly Sir What’s-his-name recovered himself, pitched the tyrant out of the window, and turned to join the lady, victorious, but with a bump on his brow; found the door locked, tore up the curtains, made a rope ladder, got halfway down when the ladder broke, and he went head first into the moat, sixty feet below. Could swim like a duck, paddled round the castle till he came to a little door guarded by two stout fellows; knocked their heads together till they cracked like a couple of nuts, then, by a trifling exertion of his prodigious strength, he smashed in the door, went up a pair of stone steps covered with dust a foot thick, toads as big as your fist, and spiders that would frighten you into hysterics, Miss March. At the top of these steps he came plump upon a sight that took his breath away and chilled his blood—”
“A tall figure, all in white with a veil over its face and a lamp in its wasted hand,” went on Meg. “It beckoned, gliding noiselessly before him down a corridor as dark and cold as any tomb. Shadowy effigies in armor stood on either side, a dead silence reigned, the lamp burned blue, and the ghostly figure ever and anon turned its face toward him, showing the glitter of awful eyes through its white veil. They reached a curtained door, behind which sounded lovely music; he sprang forward to enter, but the spectre plucked him back, and waved threateningly before him a—”
“Snuffbox,” said Jo, in a sepulchral tone, which convulsed the audience. “ ‘Thankee,’ said the knight politely, as he took a pinch, and sneezed seven times so violently that his head fell off. ‘Ha! ha!’ laughed the ghost; and having peeped through the keyhole at the princesses spinning away for dear life, the evil spirit picked up her victim and put him in a large tin box, where there were eleven other knights packed together without their heads, like sardines, who all rose and began to—”
“Dance a hornpipe,” cut in Fred, as Jo paused for breath; “and, as they danced, the rubbishy old castle turned to a man-of-war in full sail. ‘Up with the jib, reef the tops’l halliards, helm hard alee, and man the guns!’ roared the captain, as a Portuguese pirate hove in sight, with a flag black as ink flying from her foremast. ‘Go in and win, my hearties!’ says the captain; and a tremendous fight begun. Of course the British beat; they always do.”
“No, they don’t!” cried Jo, aside.
“Having taken the pirate captain prisoner, sailed slap over the schooner, whose decks were piled with dead, and whose lee-scuppers ran blood, for the order had been ‘Cutlasses, and die hard!’ ‘Bosen’s mate, take a bight of the flying-jib sheet, and start this villain if he don’t confess his sins double quick,’ said the British captain. The Portuguese held his tongue like a brick, and walked the plank, while the jolly tars cheered like mad. But the sly dog dived, came up under the man-of-war, scuttled her, and down she went, with all sail set, ‘To the bottom of the sea, sea, sea,’ where—”
“Oh, gracious! what shall I say?” cried Sallie, as Fred ended his rigmarole, in which he had jumbled together, pell-mell, nautical phrases and facts, out of one of his favorite books. “Well they went to the bottom, and a nice mermaid welcomed them, but was much grieved on finding the box of headless knights, and kindly pickled them in brine, hoping to discover the mystery about them; for, being a woman, she was curious. By and by a diver came down, and the mermaid said, ‘I’ll give you this box of pearls if you can take it up;’ for she wanted to restore the poor things to life, and couldn’t raise the heavy load herself. So the diver hoisted it up, and was much disappointed, on opening it, to find no pearls. He left it in a great lonely field, where it was found by a—”
“Little goose-girl, who kept a hundred fat geese in the field,” said Amy, when Sallie’s invention gave out. “The little girl was sorry for them, and asked an old woman what she should do to help them. ‘Your geese will tell you, they know everything,’ said the old woman. So she asked what she should use for new heads, since the old ones were lost, and all the geese opened their hundred mouths and screamed—”
“ ‘Cabbages!’ ” continued Laurie promptly. “ ‘Just the thing,’ said the girl, and ran to get twelve fine ones from her garden. She put them on, the knights revived at once, thanked her, and went on their way rejoicing, never knowing the difference, for there were so many other heads like them in the world that no one thought anything of it. The knight in whom I’m interested went back to find the pretty face, and learned that the princesses had spun themselves free, and all gone to be married, but one. He was in a great state of mind at that; and mounting the colt, who stood by him through thick and thin, rushed to the castle to see which was left. Peeping over the hedge, he saw the queen of his affections picking flowers in her garden. ‘Will you give me a rose?’ said he. ‘You must come and get it. I can’t come to you; it isn’t proper,’ said she, as sweet as honey. He tried to climb over the hedge, but it seemed to grow higher and higher; then he tried to push through, but it grew thicker and thicker, and he was in despair. So he patiently broke twig after twig, till he had made a little hole, through which he peeped, saying imploringly, ‘Let me in! let me in!’ But the pretty princess did not seem to understand, for she picked her roses quietly, and left him to fight his way in. Whether he did or not, Frank will tell you.”
“I can’t; I’m not playing, I never do,” said Frank, dismayed at the sentimental predicament out of which he was to rescue the absurd couple. Beth had disappeared behind Jo, and Grace was asleep.
“So the poor knight is to be left sticking in the hedge, is he?” asked Mr. Brooke, still watching the river, and playing with the wild rose in his buttonhole.
“I guess the princess gave him a posy, and opened the gate, after a while,” said Laurie, smiling to himself, as he threw acorns at his tutor.
“What a piece of nonsense we have made! With practice we might do something quite clever. Do you know Truth?” asked Sallie, after they had laughed over their story.
“I hope so,” said Meg soberly.
“The game, I mean?”
“What is it?” said Fred.
“Why, you pile up your hands, choose a number, and draw out in turn, and the person who draws at the number has to answer truly any questions put by the rest. It’s great fun.”
“Let’s try it,” said Jo, who liked new experiments.
Miss Kate and Mr. Brooke, Meg, and Ned declined, but Fred, Sallie, Jo, and Laurie piled and drew; and the lot fell to Laurie.
“Who are your heroes?” asked Jo.
“Grandfather and Napoleon.”
“Which lady here do you think prettiest?” said Sallie.
“Which do you like best?” from Fred.
“Jo, of course.”
“What silly questions you ask!” and Jo gave a disdainful shrug as the rest laughed at Laurie’s matter-of-fact tone.
“Try again; Truth isn’t a bad game,” said Fred.
“It’s a very good one for you,” retorted Jo, in a low voice.
Her turn came next.
“What is your greatest fault?” asked Fred, by way of testing in her the virtue he lacked himself.
“A quick temper.”
“What do you most wish for?” said Laurie.
“A pair of boot-lacings,” returned Jo, guessing and defeating his purpose.
“Not a true answer; you must say what you really do want most.”
“Genius; don’t you wish you could give it to me, Laurie?” and she slyly smiled in his disappointed face.
“What virtues do you most admire in a man?” asked Sallie.
“Courage and honesty.”
“Now my turn,” said Fred, as his hand came last.
“Let’s give it to him,” whispered Laurie to Jo, who nodded, and asked at once—
“Didn’t you cheat at croquet?”
“Well, yes, a little bit.”
“Good! Didn’t you take your story out of The Sea-Lion?” said Laurie.
“Don’t you think the English nation perfect in every respect?” asked Sallie.
“I should be ashamed of myself if I didn’t.”
“He’s a true John Bull. Now, Miss Sallie, you shall have a chance without waiting to draw. I’ll harrow up your feelings first, by asking if you don’t think you are something of a flirt,” said Laurie, as Jo nodded to Fred, as a sign that peace was declared.
“You impertinent boy! of course I’m not,” exclaimed Sallie, with an air that proved the contrary.
“What do you hate most?” asked Fred.
“Spiders and rice-pudding.”
“What do you like best?” asked Jo.
“Dancing and French gloves.”
“Well, I think Truth is a very silly play; let’s have a sensible game of Authors, to refresh our minds,” proposed Jo.
Ned, Frank, and the little girls joined in this, and, while it went on, the three elders sat apart, talking. Miss Kate took out her sketch again, and Margaret watched her, while Mr. Brooke lay on the grass, with a book, which he did not read.
“How beautifully you do it! I wish I could draw,” said Meg, with mingled admiration and regret in her voice.
“Why don’t you learn? I should think you had taste and talent for it,” replied Miss Kate graciously.
“I haven’t time.”
“Your mamma prefers other accomplishments, I fancy. So did mine; but I proved to her that I had talent, by taking a few lessons privately, and then she was quite willing I should go on. Can’t you do the same with your governess?”
“I have none.”
“I forgot; young ladies in America go to school more than with us. Very fine schools they are, too, papa says. You go to a private one, I suppose?”
“I don’t go at all; I am a governess myself.”
“Oh, indeed!” said Miss Kate; but she might as well have said, “Dear me, how dreadful!” for her tone implied it, and something in her face made Meg color, and wish she had not been so frank.
Mr. Brooke looked up, and said quickly, “Young ladies in America love independence as much as their ancestors did, and are admired and respected for supporting themselves.”
“Oh, yes; of course it’s very nice and proper in them to do so. We have many most respectable and worthy young women, who do the same and are employed by the nobility, because, being the daughters of gentlemen, they are both well-bred and accomplished, you know,” said Miss Kate, in a patronizing tone, that hurt Meg’s pride, and made her work seem not only more distasteful, but degrading.
“Did the German song suit, Miss March?” inquired Mr. Brooke, breaking an awkward pause.
“Oh, yes! it was very sweet, and I’m much obliged to whoever translated it for me;” and Meg’s downcast face brightened as she spoke.
“Don’t you read German?” asked Miss Kate, with a look of surprise.
“Not very well. My father, who taught me, is away, and I don’t get on very fast alone, for I’ve no one to correct my pronunciation.”
“Try a little now; here is Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and a tutor who loves to teach,” and Mr. Brooke laid his book on her lap, with an inviting smile.
“It’s so hard I’m afraid to try,” said Meg, grateful, but bashful in the presence of the accomplished young lady beside her.
“I’ll read a bit to encourage you;” and Miss Kate read one of the most beautiful passages, in a perfectly correct but perfectly expressionless manner.
Mr. Brooke made no comment, as she returned the book to Meg, who said innocently—
“I thought it was poetry.”
“Some of it is. Try this passage.”
There was a queer smile about Mr. Brooke’s mouth as he opened at poor Mary’s lament.
Meg, obediently following the long grass-blade which her new tutor used to point with, read slowly and timidly, unconsciously making poetry of the hard words by the soft intonation of her musical voice. Down the page went the green guide, and presently, forgetting her listener in the beauty of the sad scene, Meg read as if alone, giving a little touch of tragedy to the words of the unhappy queen. If she had seen the brown eyes then, she would have stopped short; but she never looked up, and the lesson was not spoiled for her.
“Very well indeed!” said Mr. Brooke, as she paused, quite ignoring her many mistakes, and looking as if he did, indeed, “love to teach.”
Miss Kate put up her glass, and, having taken a survey of the little tableau before her, shut her sketchbook, saying, with condescension—
“You’ve a nice accent, and, in time, will be a clever reader. I advise you to learn, for German is a valuable accomplishment to teachers. I must look after Grace, she is romping;” and Miss Kate strolled away, adding to herself, with a shrug, “I didn’t come to chaperone a governess, though she is young and pretty. What odd people these Yankees are; I’m afraid Laurie will be quite spoilt among them.”
“I forgot that English people rather turn up their noses at governesses, and don’t treat them as we do,” said Meg, looking after the retreating figure with an annoyed expression.
“Tutors, also, have rather a hard time of it there, as I know to my sorrow. There’s no place like America for us workers, Miss Margaret;” and Mr. Brooke looked so contented and cheerful, that Meg was ashamed to lament her hard lot.
“I’m glad I live in it then. I don’t like my work, but I get a good deal of satisfaction out of it after all, so I won’t complain; I only wish I liked teaching as you do.”
“I think you would if you had Laurie for a pupil. I shall be very sorry to lose him next year,” said Mr. Brooke, busily punching holes in the turf.
“Going to college, I suppose?” Meg’s lips asked that question, but her eyes added, “And what becomes of you?”
“Yes; it’s high time he went, for he is ready; and as soon as he is off, I shall turn soldier. I am needed.”
“I am glad of that!” exclaimed Meg. “I should think every young man would want to go; though it is hard for the mothers and sisters who stay at home,” she added sorrowfully.
“I have neither, and very few friends, to care whether I live or die,” said Mr. Brooke, rather bitterly, as he absently put the dead rose in the hole he had made and covered it up, like a little grave.
“Laurie and his grandfather would care a great deal, and we should all be very sorry to have any harm happen to you,” said Meg heartily.
“Thank you; that sounds pleasant,” began Mr. Brooke, looking cheerful again; but before he could finish his speech, Ned, mounted on the old horse, came lumbering up to display his equestrian skill before the young ladies, and there was no more quiet that day.
“Don’t you love to ride?” asked Grace of Amy, as they stood resting, after a race round the field with the others, led by Ned.
“I dote upon it; my sister Meg used to ride when papa was rich, but we don’t keep any horses now, except Ellen Tree,” added Amy, laughing.
“Tell me about Ellen Tree; is it a donkey?” asked Grace curiously.
“Why, you see, Jo is crazy about horses, and so am I, but we’ve only got an old sidesaddle, and no horse. Out in our garden is an apple-tree, that has a nice low branch; so Jo put the saddle on it, fixed some reins on the part that turns up, and we bounce away on Ellen Tree whenever we like.”
“How funny!” laughed Grace. “I have a pony at home, and ride nearly every day in the park, with Fred and Kate; it’s very nice, for my friends go too, and the Row is full of ladies and gentlemen.”
“Dear, how charming! I hope I shall go abroad some day; but I’d rather go to Rome than the Row,” said Amy, who had not the remotest idea what the Row was, and wouldn’t have asked for the world.
Frank, sitting just behind the little girls, heard what they were saying, and pushed his crutch away from him with an impatient gesture as he watched the active lads going through all sorts of comical gymnastics. Beth, who was collecting the scattered Author-cards, looked up, and said, in her shy yet friendly way—
“I’m afraid you are tired; can I do anything for you?”
“Talk to me, please; it’s dull, sitting by myself,” answered Frank, who had evidently been used to being made much of at home.
If he had asked her to deliver a Latin oration, it would not have seemed a more impossible task to bashful Beth; but there was no place to run to, no Jo to hide behind now, and the poor boy looked so wistfully at her, that she bravely resolved to try.
“What do you like to talk about?” she asked, fumbling over the cards, and dropping half as she tried to tie them up.
“Well, I like to hear about cricket and boating and hunting,” said Frank, who had not yet learned to suit his amusements to his strength.
“My heart! what shall I do? I don’t know anything about them,” thought Beth; and, forgetting the boy’s misfortune in her flurry, she said, hoping to make him talk, “I never saw any hunting, but I suppose you know all about it.”
“I did once; but I can never hunt again, for I got hurt leaping a confounded five-barred gate; so there are no more horses and hounds for me,” said Frank, with a sigh that made Beth hate herself for her innocent blunder.
“Your deer are much prettier than our ugly buffaloes,” she said, turning to the prairies for help, and feeling glad that she had read one of the boys’ books in which Jo delighted.
Buffaloes proved soothing and satisfactory; and, in her eagerness to amuse another, Beth forgot herself, and was quite unconscious of her sisters’ surprise and delight at the unusual spectacle of Beth talking away to one of the dreadful boys, against whom she had begged protection.
“Bless her heart! She pities him, so she is good to him,” said Jo, beaming at her from the croquet-ground.
“I always said she was a little saint,” added Meg, as if there could be no further doubt of it.
“I haven’t heard Frank laugh so much for ever so long,” said Grace to Amy, as they sat discussing dolls, and making tea-sets out of the acorn-cups.
“My sister Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be,” said Amy, well pleased at Beth’s success. She meant “fascinating,” but as Grace didn’t know the exact meaning of either word, “fastidious” sounded well, and made a good impression.
An impromptu circus, fox and geese, and an amicable game of croquet, finished the afternoon. At sunset the tent was struck, hampers packed, wickets pulled up, boats loaded, and the whole party floated down the river, singing at the tops of their voices. Ned, getting sentimental, warbled a serenade with the pensive refrain—
“Alone, alone, ah! woe, alone,”
and at the lines—
“We each are young, we each have a heart,
Oh, why should we stand thus coldly apart?”
he looked at Meg with such a lackadaisical expression that she laughed outright and spoilt his song.
“How can you be so cruel to me?” he whispered, under cover of a lively chorus. “You’ve kept close to that starched-up Englishwoman all day, and now you snub me.”
“I didn’t mean to; but you looked so funny I really couldn’t help it,” replied Meg, passing over the first part of his reproach; for it was quite true that she had shunned him, remembering the Moffat party and the talk after it.
Ned was offended, and turned to Sallie for consolation, saying to her rather pettishly, “There isn’t a bit of flirt in that girl, is there?”
“Not a particle; but she’s a dear,” returned Sallie, defending her friend even while confessing her shortcomings.
“She’s not a stricken deer, anyway,” said Ned, trying to be witty, and succeeding as well as very young gentlemen usually do.
On the lawn, where it had gathered, the little party separated with cordial goodnights and goodbyes, for the Vaughns were going to Canada. As the four sisters went home through the garden, Miss Kate looked after them, saying, without the patronizing tone in her voice, “In spite of their demonstrative manners, American girls are very nice when one knows them.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Mr. Brooke.