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Chapter 2 – A Merry Christmas

Louisa May AlcottJun 22, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning.
No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she
felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little
sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then
she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under
her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew
it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best
life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for
any pilgrim going on a long journey. She woke Meg with a "Merry
Christmas," and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-
covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few
words written by their mother, which made their one present very
precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage
and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other
blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the
east grew rosy with the coming day.

In spite of her small vanities, Margaret had a sweet and
pious nature, which unconsciously influenced her sisters,
especially Jo, who loved her very tenderly, and obeyed her
because her advice was so gently given.

"Girls," said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head
beside her to the two little night-capped ones in the room beyond,
"Mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we
must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it, but since
Father went away and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have
neglected many things. You can do as you please, but I shall keep
my book on the table here and read a little every morning as soon
as I wake, for I know it will do me good and help me through the day."

Then she opened her new book and began to read. Jo put her
arm round her and, leaning cheek to cheek, read also, with the
quiet expression so seldom seen on her restless face.

"How good Meg is! Come, Amy, let’s do as they do. I’ll
help you with the hard words, and they’ll explain things if we
don’t understand," whispered Beth, very much impressed by the
pretty books and her sisters, example.

"I’m glad mine is blue," said Amy. and then the rooms were
very still while the pages were softly turned, and the winter
sunshine crept in to touch the bright heads and serious faces
with a Christmas greeting.

"Where is Mother?" asked Meg, as she and Jo ran down to
thank her for their gifts, half an hour later.

"Goodness only knows. Some poor creeter came a-beggin’, and
your ma went straight off to see what was needed. There never was
such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes and firin’,"
replied Hannah, who had lived with the family since Meg was born,
and was considered by them all more as a friend than a servant.

"She will be back soon, I think, so fry your cakes, and have
everything ready," said Meg, looking over the presents which were
collected in a basket and kept under the sofa, ready to be produced
at the proper time. "Why, where is Amy’s bottle of cologne?"
she added, as the little flask did not appear.

"She took it out a minute ago, and went off with it to put a
ribbon on it, or some such notion," replied Jo, dancing about the
room to take the first stiffness off the new army slippers.

"How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they? Hannah washed
and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself," said Beth,
looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her
such labor.

"Bless the child! She’s gone and put ‘Mother’ on them instead
of ‘M. March’. How funny!" cried Jo, taking one up.

"Isn’t that right? I thought it was better to do it so,
because Meg’s initials are M.M., and I don’t want anyone to use
these but Marmee," said Beth, looking troubled.

"It’s all right, dear, and a very pretty idea, quite sensible
too, for no one can ever mistake now. It will please her very much,
I know," said Meg, with a frown for Jo and a smile for Beth.

"There’s Mother. Hide the basket, quick!" cried Jo, as a door
slammed and steps sounded in the hall.

Amy came in hastily, and looked rather abashed when she saw
her sisters all waiting for her.

"Where have you been, and what are you hiding behind you?"
asked Meg, surprised to see, by her hood and cloak, that lazy Amy
had been out so early.

"Don’t laugh at me, Jo! I didn’t mean anyone should know till
the time came. I only meant to change the little bottle for a big
one, and I gave all my money to get it, and I’m truly trying not
to be selfish any more."

As she spoke, Amy showed the handsome flask which replaced
the cheap one, and looked so earnest and humble in her little
effort to forget herself that Meg hugged her on the spot, and Jo
pronounced her ‘a trump’, while Beth ran to the window, and picked
her finest rose to ornament the stately bottle.

"You see I felt ashamed of my present, after reading and talking
about being good this morning, so I ran round the corner and changed
it the minute I was up, and I’m so glad, for mine is the handsomest
now."

Another bang of the street door sent the basket under the sofa,
and the girls to the table, eager for breakfast.

"Merry Christmas, Marmee! Many of them! Thank you for our
books. We read some, and mean to every day," they all cried in
chorus.

"Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at
once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word
before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman
with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed
to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to
eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were
suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your
breakfast as a Christmas present?"

They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour,
and for a minute no one spoke, only a minute, for Jo exclaimed
impetuously, "I’m so glad you came before we began!"

"May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children?"
asked Beth eagerly.

"I shall take the cream and the muffings," added Amy, heroically
giving up the article she most liked.

Meg was already covering the buckwheats, and piling the bread
into one big plate.

"I thought you’d do it," said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied.
"You shall all go and help me, and when we come back we will have
bread and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinnertime."

They were soon ready, and the procession set out. Fortunately
it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw
them, and no one laughed at the queer party.

A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no
fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group
of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to
keep warm.

How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls
went in.

"Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!" said the poor
woman, crying for joy.

"Funny angels in hoods and mittens," said Jo, and set them to
laughing.

In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been
at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and
stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs.
March gave the mother tea and gruel, and comforted her with promises
of help, while she dressed the little baby as tenderly as if it had
been her own. The girls meantime spread the table, set the children
round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing,
talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English.

"Das ist gut!" "Die Engel-kinder!" cried the poor things as
they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze.
The girls had never been called angel children before, and
thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered
a ‘Sancho’ ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast,
though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away,
leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city
four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away
their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk
on Christmas morning.

"That’s loving our neighbor better than ourselves, and I
like it," said Meg, as they set out their presents while their
mother was upstairs collecting clothes for the poor Hummels.

Not a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of
love done up in the few little bundles, and the tall vase of
red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which
stood in the middle, gave quite an elegant air to the table.

"She’s coming! Strike up, Beth! Open the door, Amy! Three
cheers for Marmee!" cried Jo, prancing about while Meg went to
conduct Mother to the seat of honor.

Beth played her gayest march, Amy threw open the door, and
Meg enacted escort with great dignity. Mrs. March was both
surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full as she
examined her presents and read the little notes which accompanied
them. The slippers went on at once, a new handkerchief was slipped
into her pocket, well scented with Amy’s cologne, the rose was
fastened in her bosom, and the nice gloves were pronounced a perfect
fit.

There was a good deal of laughing and kissing and explaining,
in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home festivals so
pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and
then all fell to work.

The morning charities and ceremonies took so much time that
the rest of the day was devoted to preparations for the evening
festivities. Being still too young to go often to the theater,
and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private
performances, the girls put their wits to work, and necessity being
the mother of invention, made whatever they needed. Very clever
were some of their productions, pasteboard guitars, antique lamps
made of old-fashioned butter boats covered with silver paper,
gorgeous robes of old cotton, glittering with tin spangles from
a pickle factory, and armor covered with the same useful diamond
shaped bits left in sheets when the lids of preserve pots were
cut out. The big chamber was the scene of many innocent revels.

No gentleman were admitted, so Jo played male parts to her
heart’s content and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet
leather boots given her by a friend, who knew a lady who knew an
actor. These boots, an old foil, and a slashed doublet once used
by an artist for some picture, were Jo’s chief treasures and
appeared on all occasions. The smallness of the company made it
necessary for the two principal actors to take several parts
apiece, and they certainly deserved some credit for the hard work
they did in learning three or four different parts, whisking in
and out of various costumes, and managing the stage besides. It
was excellent drill for their memories, a harmless amusement, and
employed many hours which otherwise would have been idle, lonely,
or spent in less profitable society.

On christmas night, a dozen girls piled onto the bed which
was the dress circle, and sat before the blue and yellow chintz
curtains in a most flattering state of expectancy. There was a
good deal of rustling and whispering behind the curtain, a trifle
of lamp smoke, and an occasional giggle from Amy, who was apt to
get hysterical in the excitement of the moment. Presently a bell
sounded, the curtains flew apart, and the operatic tragedy began.

"A gloomy wood," according to the one playbill, was represented
by a few shrubs in pots, green baize on the floor, and a
cave in the distance. This cave was made with a clothes horse
for a roof, bureaus for walls, and in it was a small furnace in
full blast, with a black pot on it and an old witch bending over
it. The stage was dark and the glow of the furnace had a fine
effect, especially as real steam issued from the kettle when the
witch took off the cover. A moment was allowed for the first
thrill to subside, then Hugo, the villain, stalked in with a
clanking sword at his side, a slouching hat, black beard,
mysterious cloak, and the boots. After pacing to and fro in much
agitation, he struck his forehead, and burst out in a wild
strain, singing of his hatred for Roderigo, his love for Zara,
and his pleasing resolution to kill the one and win the other.
The gruff tones of Hugo’s voice, with an occasional shout when
his feelings overcame him, were very impressive, and the audience
applauded the moment he paused for breath. Bowing with the air
of one accustomed to public praise, he stole to the cavern and
ordered Hagar to come forth with a commanding, "What ho, minion!
I need thee!"

Out came Meg, with gray horsehair hanging about her face,
a red and black robe, a staff, and cabalistic signs upon her
cloak. Hugo demanded a potion to make Zara adore him, and one
to destroy Roderigo. Hagar, in a fine dramatic melody, promised
both, and proceeded to call up the spirit who would bring the
love philter.

Hither, hither, from thy home,

Airy sprite, I bid thee come!

Born of roses, fed on dew,

Charms and potions canst thou brew?

Bring me here, with elfin speed,

The fragrant philter which I need.

Make it sweet and swift and strong,

Spirit, answer now my song!

A soft strain of music sounded, and then at the back of the
cave appeared a little figure in cloudy white, with glittering
wings, golden hair, and a garland of roses on its head. Waving
a wand, it sang . . .

Hither I come,

From my airy home,

Afar in the silver moon.

Take the magic spell,

And use it well,

Or its power will vanish soon!

And dropping a small, gilded bottle at the witch’s feet, the
spirit vanished. Another chant from Hagar produced another apparition,
not a lovely one, for with a bang an ugly black imp appeared and,
having croaked a reply, tossed a dark bottle at Hugo and disappeared
with a mocking laugh. Having warbled his thanks and put the potions
in his boots, Hugo departed, and Hagar informed the audience that
as he had killed a few of her friends in times past, she had cursed
him, and intends to thwart his plans, and be revenged on him. Then
the curtain fell, and the audience reposed and ate candy while
discussing the merits of the play.

A good deal of hammering went on before the curtain rose again,
but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage carpentery
had been got up, no one murmured at the delay. It was truly superb.
A tower rose to the ceiling, halfway up appeared a window with a
lamp burning in it, and behind the white curtain appeared Zara in
a lovely blue and silver dress, waiting for Roderigo. He came in
gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks, a
guitar, and the boots, of course. Kneeling at the foot of the tower,
he sang a serenade in melting tones. Zara replied and, after a
musical dialogue, consented to fly. Then came the grand effect of
the play. Roderigo produced a rope ladder, with five steps to it,
threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend. Timidly she crept
from her lattice, put her hand on Roderigo’s shoulder, and was
about to leap gracefully down when "Alas! Alas for Zara!" she
forgot her train. It caught in the window, the tower tottered,
leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers
in the ruins.

A universal shriek arose as the russet boots waved wildly
from the wreck and a golden head emerged, exclaiming, "I told you
so! I told you so!" With wonderful presence of mind, Don Pedro,
the cruel sire, rushed in, dragged out his daughter, with a hasty
aside . . .

"Don’t laugh! Act as if it was all right!" and, ordering
Roderigo up, banished him from the kingdom with wrath and scorn.
Though decidedly shaken by the fall from the tower upon him,
Roderigo defied the old gentleman and refused to stir. This
dauntless example fired Zara. She also defied her sire, and he
ordered them both to the deepest dungeons of the castle. A stout
little retainer came in with chains and led them away, looking very
much frightened and evidently forgetting the speech he ought to
have made.

Act third was the castle hall, and here Hagar appeared, having
come to free the lovers and finish Hugo. She hears him coming and
hides, sees him put the potions into two cups of wine and bid the
timid little servant, "Bear them to the captives in their cells,
and tell them I shall come anon." The servant takes Hugo aside to
tell him something, and Hagar changes the cups for two others which
are harmless. Ferdinando, the ‘minion’, carries them away, and
Hagar puts back the cup which holds the poison meant for Roderigo.
Hugo, getting thirsty after a long warble, drinks it, loses his wits,
and after a good deal of clutching and stamping, falls flat and dies,
while Hagar informs him what she has done in a song of exquisite
power and melody.

This was a truly thrilling scene, though some persons might
have thought that the sudden tumbling down of a quantity of long red
hair rather marred the effect of the villain’s death. He was called
before the curtain, and with great propriety appeared, leading Hagar,
whose singing was considered more wonderful than all the rest of the
performance put together.

Act fourth displayed the despairing Roderigo on the point of
stabbing himself because he has been told that Zara has deserted him.
Just as the dagger is at his heart, a lovely song is sung under his
window, informing him that Zara is true but in danger, and he can
save her if he will. A key is thrown in, which unlocks the door,
and in a spasm of rapture he tears off his chains and rushes away
to find and rescue his lady love.

Act fifth opened with a stormy scene between Zara and Don Pedro.
He wishes her to go into a convent, but she won’t hear of it, and
after a touching appeal, is about to faint when Roderigo dashes in
and demands her hand. Don Pedro refuses, because he is not rich.
They shout and gesticulate tremendously but cannot agree, and
Rodrigo is about to bear away the exhausted Zara, when the timid
servant enters with a letter and a bag from Hagar, who has mysteriously
disappeared. The latter informs the party that she bequeaths
untold wealth to the young pair and an awful doom to Don Pedro, if
he doesn’t make them happy. The bag is opened, and several quarts of
tin money shower down upon the stage till it is quite glorified with
the glitter. This entirely softens the stern sire. He consents
without a murmur, all join in a joyful chorus, and the curtain falls
upon the lovers kneeling to receive Don Pedro’s blessing in attitudes
of the most romantic grace.

Tumultuous applause followed but received an unexpected check,
for the cot bed, on which the dress circle was built, suddenly shut
up and extinguished the enthusiastic audience. Roderigo and Don
Pedro flew to the rescue, and all were taken out unhurt, though many
were speechless with laughter. The excitement had hardly subsided
when Hannah appeared, with "Mrs. March’s compliments, and would the
ladies walk down to supper."

This was a surprise even to the actors, and when they saw the
table, they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was
like Marmee to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine
as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was
ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and
fruit and distracting french bonbons and, in the middle of the
table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers.

It quite took their breath away, and they stared first at the
table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it
immensely.

"Is it fairies?" asked Amy.

"Santa Claus," said Beth.

"Mother did it." And Meg smiled her sweetest, in spite of her
gray beard and white eyebrows.

"Aunt March had a good fit and sent the supper," cried Jo, with
a sudden inspiration.

"All wrong. Old Mr. Laurence sent it," replied Mrs. March.

"The Laurence boy’s grandfather! What in the world put such a
thing into his head? We don’t know him!" exclaimed Meg.

"Hannah told one of his servants about your breakfast party.
He is an odd old gentleman, but that pleased him. He knew my father
years ago, and he sent me a polite note this afternoon, saying he
hoped I would allow him to express his friendly feeling toward my
children by sending them a few trifles in honor of the day. I
could not refuse, and so you have a little feast at night to make
up for the bread-and-milk breakfast."

"That boy put it into his head, I know he did! He’s a capital
fellow, and I wish we could get acquainted. He looks as if he’d
like to know us but he’s bashful, and Meg is so prim she won’t let
me speak to him when we pass," said Jo, as the plates went round,
and the ice began to melt out of sight, with ohs and ahs of
satisfaction.

"You mean the people who live in the big house next door, don’t
you?" asked one of the girls. "My mother knows old Mr. Laurence,
but says he’s very proud and doesn’t like to mix with his neighbors.
He keeps his grandson shut up, when he isn’t riding or walking with
his tutor, and makes him study very hard. We invited him to our
party, but he didn’t come. Mother says he’s very nice, though he
never speaks to us girls."

"Our cat ran away once, and he brought her back, and we
talked over the fence, and were getting on capitally, all about
cricket, and so on, when he saw Meg coming, and walked off. I
mean to know him some day, for he needs fun, I’m sure he does,"
said Jo decidedly.

"I like his manners, and he looks like a little gentleman, so
I’ve no objection to your knowing him, if a proper opportunity comes.
He brought the flowers himself, and I should have asked him in, if
I had been sure what was going on upstairs. He looked so wistful
as he went away, hearing the frolic and evidently having none of
his own."

"It’s a mercy you didn’t, Mother!" laughed Jo, looking at
her boots. "But we’ll have another play sometime that he can
see. Perhaps he’ll help act. Wouldn’t that be jolly?"

"I never had such a fine bouquet before! How pretty it is!"
And Meg examined her flowers with great interest.

"They are lovely. But Beth’s roses are sweeter to me," said
Mrs. March, smelling the half-dead posy in her belt.

Beth nestled up to her, and whispered softly, "I wish I
could send my bunch to Father. I’m afraid he isn’t having such
a merry Christmas as we are."

 

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