I DO think it was the most fortunate thing in the world that those children should have the measles just now, said Meg, one April day, as she stood packing the go abroady trunk in her room, surrounded by her sisters.
I wish you were all going; but as you cant, I shall keep my adventures to tell you when I come back. I m sure it s the least I can do, when you have been so kind, lending me things, and helping me get ready, said Meg, glancing round the room at the very simple outfit, which seemed nearly perfect in their eyes.
What did mother give you out of the treasure-box? asked Amy, who had not been present at the opening of a certain cedar chest, in which Mrs. March kept a few relics of past splendor, as gifts for her girls when the proper time came.
It will look nicely over my new muslin skirt, and the sash will set it off beautifully. I wish I had nt smashed my coral bracelet, for you might have had it, said Jo, who loved to give and lend, but whose possessions were usually too dilapidated to be of much use.
There is a lovely old-fashioned pearl set in the treasure-box; but mother said real flowers were the prettiest ornament for a young girl, and Laurie promised to send me all I want, replied Meg. Now, let me see; there s my new gray walking-suitjust curl up the feather in my hat, Beth,then my poplin, for Sunday, and the small party,it looks heavy for spring, does nt it? The violet silk would be so nice; oh, dear!
It is nt low-necked, and it does nt sweep enough, but it will have to do. My blue house-dress looks so well, turned and freshly trimmed, that I feel as if I d got a new one. My silk sacque is nt a bit the fashion, and my bonnet does nt look like Sallies; I did nt like to say anything, but I was sadly disappointed in my umbrella. I told mother black, with a white handle, but she forgot, and bought a green one, with a yellowish handle. It s strong and neat, so I ought not to complain, but I know I shall feel ashamed of it beside Annies silk one with a gold top, sighed Meg, surveying the little umbrella with great disfavor.
I wont be so silly, or hurt Marmees feelings, when she took so much pains to get my things. It s a nonsensical notion of mine, and I m not going to give up to it. My silk stockings and two pairs of new gloves are my comfort. You are a dear to lend me yours, Jo. I feel so rich, and sort of elegant, with two new pairs, and the old ones cleaned up for common; and Meg took a refreshing peep at her glove-box.
So I did! Well, I am happy, and I wont fret; but it does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, does nt it? There, now, the trays are ready, and everything in but my ball-dress, which I shall leave for mother to pack, said Meg, cheering up, as she glanced from the half-filled trunk to the many-times pressed and mended white tarlatan, which she called her ball-dress, with an important air.
The next day was fine, and Meg departed, in style, for a fortnight of novelty and pleasure. Mrs. March had consented to the visit rather reluctantly, fearing that Margaret would come back more discontented than she went. But she begged so hard, and Sallie had promised to take good care of her, and a little pleasure seemed so delightful after a winter of irksome work, that the mother yielded, and the daughter went to take her first taste of fashionable life.
The Moffats were very fashionable, and simple Meg was rather daunted, at first, by the splendor of the house and the elegance of its occupants. But they were kindly people, in spite of the frivolous life they led, and soon put their guest at her ease. Perhaps Meg felt, without understanding why, that they were not particularly cultivated or intelligent people, and that all their gilding could not quite conceal the ordinary material of which they were made. It certainly was agreeable to fare sumptuously, drive in a fine carriage, wear her best frock every day, and do nothing but enjoy herself. It suited her exactly; and soon she began to imitate the manners and conversation of those about her; to put on little airs and graces, use French phrases, crimp her hair, take in her dresses, and talk about the fashions as well as she could. The more she saw of Annie Moffats pretty things, the more she envied her, and sighed to be rich. Home now looked bare and dismal as she thought of it, work grew harder than ever, and she felt that she was a very destitute and much-injured girl, in spite of the new gloves and silk stockings.
She had not much time for repining, however, for the three young girls were busily employed in having a good time. They shopped, walked, rode, and called all day; went to theatres and operas, or frolicked at home in the evening; for Annie had many friends, and knew how to entertain them. Her older sisters were very fine young ladies, and one was engaged, which was extremely interesting and romantic, Meg thought. Mr. Moffat was a fat, jolly old gentleman, who knew her father; and Mrs. Moffat, a fat, jolly old lady, who took as great a fancy to Meg as her daughter had done. Every one petted her; and Daisy, as they called her, was in a fair way to have her head turned.
When the evening for the small party came, she found that the poplin would nt do at all, for the other girls were putting on thin dresses, and making themselves very fine indeed; so out came the tarlatan, looking older, limper, and shabbier than ever beside Sallies crisp new one. Meg saw the girls glance at it and then at one another, and her cheeks began to burn, for, with all her gentleness, she was very proud. No one said a word about it, but Sallie offered to dress her hair, and Annie to tie her sash, and Belle, the engaged sister, praised her white arms; but in their kindness Meg saw only pity for her poverty, and her heart felt very heavy as she stood by herself, while the others laughed, chattered, and flew about like gauzy butterflies. The hard, bitter feeling was getting pretty bad, when the maid brought in a box of flowers. Before she could speak, Annie had the cover off, and all were exclaiming at the lovely roses, heath, and fern within.
Oh, indeed! said Annie, with a funny look, as Meg slipped the note into her pocket, as a sort of talisman against envy, vanity, and false pride; for the few loving words had done her good, and the flowers cheered her up by their beauty.
Feeling almost happy again, she laid by a few ferns and roses for herself, and quickly made up the rest in dainty bouquets for the breasts, hair, or skirts of her friends, offering them so prettily that Clara, the elder sister, told her she was the sweetest little thing she ever saw; and they looked quite charmed with her small attention. Somehow the kind act finished her despondency; and when all the rest went to show themselves to Mrs. Moffat, she saw a happy, bright-eyed face in the mirror, as she laid her ferns against her rippling hair, and fastened the roses in the dress that did nt strike her as so very shabby now.
She enjoyed herself very much that evening, for she danced to her hearts content; every one was very kind, and she had three compliments. Annie made her sing, and some one said she had a remarkably fine voice; Major Lincoln asked who the fresh little girl, with the beautiful eyes, was; and Mr. Moffat insisted on dancing with her, because she did nt dawdle, but had some spring in her, as he gracefully expressed it. So, altogether, she had a very nice time, till she overheard a bit of conversation, which disturbed her extremely. She was sitting just inside the conservatory, waiting for her partner to bring her an ice, when she heard a voice ask, on the other side of the flowery wall,
She told that fib about her mamma, as if she did know, and colored up when the flowers came, quite prettily. Poor thing! she d be so nice if she was only got up in style. Do you think she d be offended if we offered to lend her a dress for Thursday? asked another voice.
Here Megs partner appeared, to find her looking much flushed and rather agitated. She was proud, and her pride was useful just then, for it helped her hide her mortification, anger, and disgust at what she had just heard; for, innocent and unsuspicious as she was, she could not help understanding the gossip of her friends. She tried to forget it, but could not, and kept repeating to herself, Mrs. M. has made her plans, that fib about her mamma, and dowdy tarlatan, till she was ready to cry, and rush home to tell her troubles and ask for advice. As that was impossible, she did her best to seem gay; and, being rather excited, she succeeded so well that no one dreamed what an effort she was making. She was very glad when it was all over, and she was quiet in her bed, where she could think and wonder and fume till her head ached and her hot cheeks were cooled by a few natural tears. Those foolish, yet well-meant words, had opened a new world to Meg, and much disturbed the peace of the old one, in which, till now, she had lived as happily as a child. Her innocent friendship with Laurie was spoilt by the silly speeches she had overheard; her faith in her mother was a little shaken by the worldly plans attributed to her by Mrs. Moffat, who judged others by herself; and the sensible resolution to be contented with the simple wardrobe which suited a poor mans daughter, was weakened by the unnecessary pity of girls who thought a shabby dress one of the greatest calamities under heaven.
Poor Meg had a restless night, and got up heavy-eyed, unhappy, half resentful toward her friends, and half ashamed of herself for not speaking out frankly, and setting everything right. Everybody dawdled that morning, and it was noon before the girls found energy enough even to take up their worsted work. Something in the manner of her friends struck Meg at once; they treated her with more respect, she thought; took quite a tender interest in what she said, and looked at her with eyes that plainly betrayed curiosity. All this surprised and flattered her, though she did not understand it till Miss Belle looked up from her writing, and said, with a sentimental air,
Yes, he often does, to all of us; for their house is full, and we are so fond of them. My mother and old Mr. Laurence are friends, you know, so it is quite natural that we children should play together; and Meg hoped they would say no more.
Not at all; where is the use of having a lot of dresses when she is nt out? There s no need of sending home, Daisy, even if you had a dozen, for I ve got a sweet blue silk laid away, which I ve outgrown, and you shall wear it, to please me, wont you, dear?
Now do let me please myself by dressing you up in style. I admire to do it, and you d be a regular little beauty, with a touch here and there. I shant let any one see you till you are done, and then we ll burst upon them like Cinderella and her godmother, going to the ball, said Belle, in her persuasive tone.
Meg could nt refuse the offer so kindly made, for a desire to see if she would be a little beauty after touching up, caused her to accept, and forget all her former uncomfortable feelings towards the Moffats.
On the Thursday evening, Belle shut herself up with her maid; and, between them, they turned Meg into a fine lady. They crimped and curled her hair, they polished her neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched her lips with coralline salve, to make them redder, and Hortense would have added a soupçon of rouge, if Meg had not rebelled. They laced her into a sky-blue dress, which was so tight she could hardly breathe, and so low in the neck that modest Meg blushed at herself in the mirror. A set of silver filagree was added, bracelets, necklace, brooch, and even ear-rings, for Hortense tied them on, with a bit of pink silk, which did not show. A cluster of tea-rosebuds at the bosom, and a ruche, reconciled Meg to the display of her pretty white shoulders, and a pair of high-heeled blue silk boots satisfied the last wish of her heart. A laced handkerchief, a plumy fan, and a bouquet in a shoulder holder finished her off; and Miss Belle surveyed her with the satisfaction of a little girl with a newly dressed doll.
As Meg went rustling after, with her long skirts trailing, her ear-rings tinkling, her curls waving, and her heart beating, she felt as if her fun had really begun at last, for the mirror had plainly told her that she was a little beauty. Her friends repeated the pleasing phrase enthusiastically; and, for several minutes, she stood, like the jackdaw in the fable, enjoying her borrowed plumes, while the rest chattered like a party of magpies.
While I dress, do you drill her, Nan, in the management of her skirt, and those French heels, or she will trip herself up. Take your silver butterfly, and catch up that long curl on the left side of her head, Clara, and dont any of you disturb the charming work of my hands, said Belle, as she hurried away, looking well pleased with her success.
You dont look a bit like yourself, but you are very nice. I m nowhere beside you, for Belle has heaps of taste, and you re quite French, I assure you. Let your flowers hang; dont be so careful of them, and be sure you dont trip, returned Sallie, trying not to care that Meg was prettier than herself.
Keeping that warning carefully in mind, Margaret got safely down stairs, and sailed into the drawing-rooms, where the Moffats and a few early guests were assembled. She very soon discovered that there is a charm about fine clothes which attracts a certain class of people, and secures their respect. Several young ladies, who had taken no notice of her before, were very affectionate all of a sudden; several young gentlemen, who had only stared at her at the other party, now not only stared, but asked to be introduced, and said all manner of foolish but agreeable things to her; and several old ladies, who sat on sofas, and criticised the rest of the party, inquired who she was, with an air of interest. She heard Mrs. Moffat reply to one of them,
Daisy Marchfather a colonel in the armyone of our first families, but reverses of fortune, you know; intimate friends of the Laurences; sweet creature, I assure you; my Ned is quite wild about her.
The queer feeling did not pass away, but she imagined herself acting the new part of fine lady, and so got on pretty well, though the tight dress gave her a side-ache, the train kept getting under her feet, and she was in constant fear lest her ear-rings should fly off, and get lost or broken. She was flirting her fan, and laughing at the feeble jokes of a young gentleman who tried to be witty, when she suddenly stopped laughing, and looked confused; for, just opposite, she saw Laurie. He was staring at her with undisguised surprise, and disapproval also, she thought; for, though he bowed and smiled, yet something in his honest eyes made her blush, and wish she had her old dress on. To complete her confusion, she saw Belle nudge Annie, and both glance from her to Laurie, who, she was happy to see, looked unusually boyish and shy.
Feeling very much ruffled, she went and stood at a quiet window, to cool her cheeks, for the tight dress gave her an uncomfortably brilliant color. As she stood there, Major Lincoln passed by; and, a minute after, she heard him saying to his mother,
She leaned her forehead on the cool pane, and stood half hidden by the curtains, never minding that her favorite waltz had begun, till some one touched her; and, turning, she saw Laurie, looking penitent, as he said, with his very best bow, and his hand out,
Away they went, fleetly and gracefully; for, having practised at home, they were well matched, and the blithe young couple were a pleasant sight to see, as they twirled merrily round and round, feeling more friendly than ever after their small tiff.
I ll say the first, with all my heart; but how about the other? You dont look as if you were having a good time; are you? and Laurie looked at her with an expression which made her answer, in a whisper,
He did not speak to her again till supper-time, when he saw her drinking champagne with Ned and his friend Fisher, who were behaving like a pair of fools, as Laurie said to himself, for he felt a brotherly sort of right to watch over the Marches, and fight their battles whenever a defender was needed.
You ll have a splitting headache to-morrow, if you drink much of that. I would nt, Meg; your mother does nt like it, you know, he whispered, leaning over her chair, as Ned turned to refill her glass, and Fisher stooped to pick up her fan.
I m not Meg, to-night; I m a doll, who does all sorts of crazy things. To-morrow I shall put away my fuss and feathers, and be desperately good again, she answered, with an affected little laugh.
Meg danced and flirted, chattered and giggled, as the other girls did; after supper she undertook the German, and blundered through it, nearly upsetting her partner with her long skirt, and romping in a way that scandalized Laurie, who looked on and meditated a lecture. But he got no chance to deliver it, for Meg kept away from him till he came to say good-night.
This little bit of by-play excited Annies curiosity; but Meg was too tired for gossip, and went to bed, feeling as if she had been to a masquerade, and had nt enjoyed herself as much as she expected. She was sick all the next day, and on Saturday went home, quite used up with her fortnights fun, and feeling that she had sat in the lap of luxury long enough.
It does seem pleasant to be quiet, and not have company manners on all the time. Home is a nice place, though it is nt splendid, said Meg, looking about her with a restful expression, as she sat with her mother and Jo on the Sunday evening.
I m glad to hear you say so, dear, for I was afraid home would seem dull and poor to you, after your fine quarters, replied her mother, who had given her many anxious looks that day; for motherly eyes are quick to see any change in childrens faces.
Meg had told her adventures gayly, and said over and over what a charming time she had had; but something still seemed to weigh upon her spirits, and, when the younger girls were gone to bed, she sat thoughtfully staring at the fire, saying little, and looking worried. As the clock struck nine, and Jo proposed bed, Meg suddenly left her chair, and, taking Beths stool, leaned her elbows on her mothers knee, saying bravely,
I told you they dressed me up, but I did nt tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate. Laurie thought I was nt proper; I know he did, though he did nt say so, and one man called me a doll. I knew it was silly, but they flattered me, and said I was a beauty, and quantities of nonsense, so I let them make a fool of me.
Then she told the various bits of gossip she had heard at the Moffats; and, as she spoke, Jo saw her mother fold her lips tightly, as if ill pleased that such ideas should be put into Megs innocent mind.
Just wait till I see Annie Moffat, and I ll show you how to settle such ridiculous stuff. The idea of having plans, and being kind to Laurie, because he s rich, and may marry us by and by! Wont he shout, when I tell him what those silly things say about us poor children? and Jo laughed, as if, on second thoughts, the thing struck her as a good joke.
No; never repeat that foolish gossip, and forget it as soon as you can, said Mrs. March gravely. I was very unwise to let you go among people of whom I know so little,kind, I dare say, but worldly, ill-bred, and full of these vulgar ideas about young people. I am more sorry than I can express for the mischief this visit may have done you, Meg.
Dont be sorry, I wont let it hurt me; I ll forget all the bad, and remember only the good; for I did enjoy a great deal, and thank you very much for letting me go. I ll not be sentimental or dissatisfied, mother; I know I m a silly little girl, and I ll stay with you till I m fit to take care of myself. But it is nice to be praised and admired, and I cant help saying I like it, said Meg, looking half ashamed of the confession.
That is perfectly natural, and quite harmless, if the liking does not become a passion, and lead one to do foolish or unmaidenly things. Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.
Margaret sat thinking a moment, while Jo stood with her hands behind her, looking both interested and a little perplexed; for it was a new thing to see Meg blushing and talking about admiration, lovers, and things of that sort; and Jo felt as if, during that fortnight, her sister had grown up amazingly, and was drifting away from her into a world where she could not follow.
Yes, my dear, I have a great many; all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffats, I suspect. I will tell you some of them, for the time has come when a word may set this romantic little head and heart of yours right, on a very serious subject. You are young, Meg, but not too young to understand me; and mothers lips are the fittest to speak of such things to girls like you. Jo, your turn will come in time, perhaps, so listen to my plans, and help me carry them out, if they are good.
Jo went and sat on one arm of the chair, looking as if she thought they were about to join in some very solemn affair. Holding a hand of each, and watching the two young faces wistfully, Mrs. March said, in her serious yet cheery way,
I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg; right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it; so that, when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world,marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing,and, when well used, a noble thing,but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I d rather see you poor mens wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.
Right, Jo; better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands, said Mrs. March decidedly. Dont be troubled, Meg; poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time; make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my girls: mother is always ready to be your confidant, father to be your friend; and both of us trust and hope that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.