Volume I

Chapter IV: Burdens

Oh dear, how hard it does seem to take up our packs and go on,” sighed Meg, the morning after the partly; for now the holidays were over, the week of merry-making did not fit her for going on easily with the task she never liked.

“I wish it was Christmas or New-Year 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 in a carriage, and read and rest, and not grub. 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’s 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 spoilt children, seemed heavier than ever. She hadn’t 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. Every one 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 fears 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, who had swarmed 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 spoilt sentence in her letter.

There was a momentary lull, broken by Hannah, who bounced in, laid two hot turn-overs on the table, and bounced out again. These turn-overs 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 three.

“Cuddle your cats, and get over your headache, Bethy. Good-by, 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 minxes than we are were never seen,” cried Jo, taking a remorseful satisfaction in the slushy road and bitter wind.

“Don’t use such dreadful expressions,” said 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 minx, 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 turn-over, 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 governness, 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 theatres, concerts, sleighing parties and merry-makings 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 every one 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 had marched home, declaring she couldn’t bear it any longer; but Aunt March always cleared up quickly, and sent for her 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 the 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 book-cases, the cosy 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 big 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 the song, or the most perilous adventure of her traveller, 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, 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 poor-house 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 any one 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 the air, hidden under her coat; she sung it lullabys, 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 practised away so patiently at the jingling old instrument, that it did seem as if some one (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 sung like a little lark about her work, never was too tired to play 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 accidentally 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 beside 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 spoilt; for every one 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 mamma 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 don’t take tucks in my dresses whenever I’m naughty, as Maria Parks’ 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 any one in the family. The two older girls were a great deal to each other, but both took one of the younger into their keeping, and watched over them in their 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 to-day, 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 she only 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 guess,” 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 to-day 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 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 to-day 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 parry-lized 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 that slate so every one could see.”

“Didn’t the girls shout at the picture?” asked Jo, who relished the scrape.

“Laugh! not a one; they sat as 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 would’nt 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 that 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 a 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 in 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 nice 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 moment’s thought, she said soberly, —

“As I sat cutting out blue flannel jackets to-day, 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 things. 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 afterwards, 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 somehow they did not keep them very well, and were constantly saying, ‘If we only had this,’ or ‘if we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many pleasant 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 have 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 ‘spin,'” 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, 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.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (Little Women by Louisia May Alcott) is free of known copyright restrictions.