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Chapter 4 – Burdens

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

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

"I wish it was Christmas or New Year’s 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, and read and rest, and not
work. 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 us 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 spoiled children, seemed heavier than ever.
She had not 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. Everyone 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 tears 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 which had scrambled 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 spoiled sentence
in her letter.

There was a momentary lull, broken by Hannah, who stalked in,
laid two hot turnovers on the table, and stalked out again.
These turnovers 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 two.

"Cuddle your cats and get over your headache, Bethy.
Goodbye, 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 wretches
than we are were never seen," cried Jo, taking a remorseful
satisfaction in the snowy walk and bitter wind.

"Don’t use such dreadful expressions," replied 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 wretch 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 turnover, 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 governess 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 theaters, concerts, sleighing parties,
and merrymakings 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 everyone 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 marched home, declaring she couldn’t bear
it longer, but Aunt March always cleared up quickly, and
sent for her to come 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 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 bookcases, the cozy 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 easy 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
a song, or the most perilous adventure of her traveler, 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 as yet, 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 poorhouse 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 anyone
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 fresh air, hidden under her coat, she sang
it lullabies 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 practiced away so patiently at
the jingling old instrument, that it did seem as if someone
(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 sang like a little lark about her work, never was too
tired 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 accidently 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 besides 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 spoiled, for everyone 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 mama 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 doesn’t take tucks in my dresses whenever I’m
naughty, as Maria Parks’s 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 fell that I can bear even my flat nose and
purple gown with yellow skyrockets 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 anyone
in the family. The two older girls were a great deal to one
another, but each took one of the younger sisters into her
keeping and watched over her in her 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 today, 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 only she 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
think," 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’ today 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 and
swollen 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 today 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 parrylized 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 the slate so everyone
could see."

"Didn’t the girls laugh at the picture?" asked Jo, who
relished the scrape.

"Laugh? Not one! They sat 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 wouldn’t 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 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 the fish barrel, and he was busy with Mr. Cutter the fishman.
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 into 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
good 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 moments thought, she said soberly, "As I sat
cutting out blue flannel jackets today 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
clothes. 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 afterward, 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 they did not keep them very well, and were
constantly saying, ‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If we could only do
that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many
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 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 romance!"
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 so,
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.

 

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