THE FIRST of June! The Kings are off to the seashore to-morrow, and I m free. Three months vacation,how I shall enjoy it! exclaimed Meg, coming home one warm day to find Jo laid upon the sofa in an unusual state of exhaustion, while Beth took off her dusty boots, and Amy made lemonade for the refreshment of the whole party.
Aunt March went to-day, for which, oh, be joyful! said Jo. I was mortally afraid she d ask me to go with her; if she had, I should have felt as if I ought to do it; but Plumfield is about as gay as a churchyard, you know, and I d rather be excused. We had a flurry getting the old lady off, and I had a fright every time she spoke to me, for I was in such a hurry to be through that I was uncommonly helpful and sweet, and feared she d find it impossible to part from me. I quaked till she was fairly in the carriage, and had a final fright, for, as it drove of, she popped out her head, saying, Josyphine, wont you? I did nt hear any more, for I basely turned and fled; I did actually run, and whisked round the corner, where I felt safe.
I shall lie abed late, and do nothing, replied Meg, from the depths of the rocking-chair. I ve been routed up early all winter, and had to spend my days working for other people; so now I m going to rest and revel to my hearts content.
They all drank it merrily, and began the experiment by lounging for the rest of the day. Next morning, Meg did not appear till ten oclock; her solitary breakfast did not taste nice, and the room seemed lonely and untidy; for Jo had not filled the vases, Beth had not dusted, and Amys books lay scattered about. Nothing was neat and pleasant but Marmees corner, which looked as usual; and there Meg sat, to rest and read, which meant yawn, and imagine what pretty summer dresses she would get with her salary. Jo spent the morning on the river, with Laurie, and the afternoon reading and crying over The Wide, Wide World, up in the apple-tree. Beth began by rummaging everything out of the big closet, where her family resided; but, getting tired before half done, she left her establishment topsy-turvy, and went to her music, rejoicing that she had no dishes to wash. Amy arranged her bower, put on her best white frock, smoothed her curls, and sat down to draw, under the honeysuckles, hoping some one would see and inquire who the young artist was. As no one appeared but an inquisitive daddy-long-legs, who examined her work with interest, she went to walk, got caught in a shower, and came home dripping.
At tea-time they compared notes, and all agreed that it had been a delightful, though unusually long day. Meg, who went shopping in the afternoon, and got a sweet blue muslin, had discovered, after she had cut the breadths off, that it would nt wash, which mishap made her slightly cross. Jo had burnt the skin off her nose boating, and got a raging headache by reading too long. Beth was worried by the confusion of her closet, and the difficulty of learning three or four songs at once; and Amy deeply regretted the damage done her frock, for Katy Browns party was to be the next day; and now, like Flora McFlimsey, she had nothing to wear. But these were mere trifles; and they assured their mother that the experiment was working finely. She smiled, said nothing, and, with Hannahs help, did their neglected work, keeping home pleasant, and the domestic machinery running smoothly. It was astonishing what a peculiar and uncomfortable state of things was produced by the resting and revelling process. The days kept getting longer and longer; the weather was unusually variable, and so were tempers; an unsettled feeling possessed every one, and Satan found plenty of mischief for the idle hands to do. As the height of luxury, Meg put out some of her sewing, and then found time hang so heavily that she fell to snipping and spoiling her clothes, in her attempts to furbish them up à la Moffat. Jo read till her eyes gave out, and she was sick of books; got so fidgety that even good-natured Laurie had a quarrel with her, and so reduced in spirits that she desperately wished she had gone with Aunt March. Beth got on pretty well, for she was constantly forgetting that it was to be all play, and no work, and fell back into her old ways now and then; but something in the air affected her, and, more than once, her tranquillity was much disturbed; so much so, that, on one occasion, she actually shook poor dear Joanna, and told her she was a fright. Amy fared worst of all, for her resources were small; and when her sisters left her to amuse and care for herself, she soon found that accomplished and important little self a great burden. She did nt like dolls, fairy-tales were childish, and one could nt draw all the time; tea-parties did nt amount to much, neither did picnics, unless very well conducted. If one could have a fine house, full of nice girls, or go travelling, the summer would be delightful; but to stay at home with three selfish sisters and a grown-up boy was enough to try the patience of a Boaz, complained Miss Malaprop, after several days devoted to pleasure, fretting, and ennui.
No one would own that they were tired of the experiment; but, by Friday night, each acknowledged to herself that she was glad the week was nearly done. Hoping to impress the lesson more deeply, Mrs. March, who had a good deal of humor, resolved to finish off the trial in an appropriate manner; so she gave Hannah a holiday, and let the girls enjoy the full effect of the play system.
Mother is nt sick, only very tired, and she says she is going to stay quietly in her room all day, and let us do the best we can. It s a very queer thing for her to do, she does nt act a bit like herself; but she says it has been a hard week for her, so we must nt grumble, but take care of ourselves.
In fact it was an immense relief to them all to have a little work, and they took hold with a will, but soon realized the truth of Hannahs saying, Housekeeping aint no joke. There was plenty of food in the larder, and, while Beth and Amy set the table, Meg and Jo got breakfast, wondering, as they did so, why servants ever talked about hard work.
So a tray was fitted out before any one began, and taken up, with the cooks compliments. The boiled tea was very bitter, the omelette scorched, and the biscuits speckled with saleratus; but Mrs. March received her repast with thanks, and laughed heartily over it after Jo was gone.
Poor little souls, they will have a hard time, I m afraid; but they wont suffer, and it will do them good, she said, producing the more palatable viands with which she had provided herself, and disposing of the bad breakfast, so that their feelings might not be hurt,a motherly little deception, for which they were grateful.
Many were the complaints below, and great the chagrin of the head cook at her failures. Never mind, I ll get the dinner, and be servant; you be mistress, keep your hands nice, see company, and give orders, said Jo, who knew still less than Meg about culinary affairs.
This obliging offer was gladly accepted; and Margaret retired to the parlor, which she hastily put in order by whisking the litter under the sofa, and shutting the blinds, to save the trouble of dusting. Jo, with perfect faith in her own powers, and a friendly desire to make up the quarrel, immediately put a note in the office, inviting Laurie to dinner.
Oh, there s corned beef and plenty of potatoes; and I shall get some asparagus, and a lobster, for a relish, as Hannah says. We ll have lettuce, and make a salad. I dont know how, but the book tells. I ll have blanc-mange and strawberries for dessert; and coffee, too, if you want to be elegant.
Dont try too many messes, Jo, for you cant make anything but gingerbread and molasses candy, fit to eat. I wash my hands of the dinner-party; and, since you have asked Laurie on your own responsibility, you may just take care of him.
Get what you like, and dont disturb me; I m going out to dinner, and cant worry about things at home, said Mrs. March, when Jo spoke to her. I never enjoyed housekeeping, and I m going to take a vacation to-day, and read, write, go visiting, and amuse myself.
The unusual spectacle of her busy mother rocking comfortably, and reading, early in the morning, made Jo feel as if some natural phenomenon had occurred; for an eclipse, an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption would hardly have seemed stranger.
Everything is out of sorts, somehow, she said to herself, going down stairs. There s Beth crying; that s a sure sign that something is wrong with this family. If Amy is bothering, I ll shake her.
Feeling very much out of sorts herself, Jo hurried into the parlor to find Beth sobbing over Pip, the canary, who lay dead in the cage, with his little claws pathetically extended, as if imploring the food for want of which he had died.
He s been starved, and he shant 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, dont 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.
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, flushed, and dishevelled figure appeared, demanding tartly,
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, criticised 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 burned 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 meagre 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 blanc-mange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked, having been skilfully deaconed.
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 before 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. Jos 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 every one 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 had 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.
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 Lauries 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 every one else, even Croaker, as the girls called the old lady; and the unfortunate dinner ended gayly, with bread and butter, olives and fun.
I have nt 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 friends dinner-table.
They did sober themselves, for Beths sake; Laurie dug a grave under the ferns in the grove, little Pip was laid in, with many tears, by his tender-hearted 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:
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 in the porch where the June roses were budding beautifully, and each groaned or sighed as she sat down, as if tired or troubled.
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.
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 Jos dinner-party; for she had met Miss Crocker, and heard her account of it.
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 dont think you were very happy or amiable; so I thought, as a little lesson, I would show you what happens when every one thinks only of herself. Dont 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?
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 every one; 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.
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 Beths 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 dont 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.