2 - A Merry Christmas

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 stocking had fallen down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother's promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, pulled out a little red 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 by saying, "Merry Christmas!" and told her to 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. Soon Beth and Amy woke up and hunted for their little books also, one cream-colored, the other blue. They all sat looking at their gifts and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day.

Margaret had a sweet nature, which unconsciously influenced her sisters, especially Jo, who loved her very tenderly, and did what Meg said because her advice was so gently given.
"Girls," said Meg seriously, looking from Jo's face beside her to the two faces in the other room,  "Mother wants us to read and love and pay attention to these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it, but since Father went away and all this trouble with the war upset us, we've been neglecting many things. You can do what you like, but I'm going to keep my book on the table here and read a little every morning as soon as I wake up. I know it will do me good and help me throughout the day."

Then she opened her new book and began to read. Jo put her arm around her and read also, with a quiet expression so seldom seen on her restless face.
"How good Meg is! Come on, Amy, let's do the same thing. 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 creature came begging, and your mother went straight off to see what was needed. There never was such a woman for giving away food and drink, clothes and firewood," replied Hannah, who had lived with the family since Meg was born. They all considered Hannah to be more a friend than a servant.
"Mother will be back soon, I think, so fry the pancakes, and have everything ready," said Meg. Then she began looking over the presents, which were collected in a basket and kept under the sofa, ready to be brought out at the right time. "Why, where is Amy's bottle of cologne?" she asked.

"She took it out a minute ago, and went off with it to put a ribbon on it, I think," replied Jo, dancing about the room to take the stiffness out of the new slippers.
"How nice my handkerchiefs look, don't they? Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I embroidered them all myself," said Beth, looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her she had worked on so diligently.

"Look, Meg! She's gone and put 'Mother' on them instead of 'M. March.' How funny!" cried Jo, picking one up.
"Isn't that all right? I thought it was better to do it that way, because Meg's initials are M.M., and I don't want anyone to use these but Marmee," said Beth, looking worried.

"It's all right, dear, and a very nice idea—quite sensible too, for no one can ever get them mixed up now. It will please her very much, I know," said Meg, with a frown for Jo and a smile for Beth.
"Here comes Mother. Hide the basket, quick!" cried Jo, as a door slammed and steps sounded in the hall.

Amy came in hastily, and looked a little embarrassed 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, judging by her hood and cloak, that lazy Amy had been out so early.

"Don't laugh at me, Jo! I didn't mean for anyone to know till the time came. I only went to exchange 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 anymore."
As she spoke, Amy showed them the fancy perfume bottle which replaced the cheap one. She looked so earnest and humble  that Meg hugged her on the spot, 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 exchanged it the minute I was up, and I'm so glad, for mine is the prettiest now."
Another bang of the street door sent the basket under the sofa, and the girls hurried to the table, eager for breakfast.

"Merry Christmas, Marmee! Thank you for our books. We read some, and we're going to read more every day," they all cried in chorus.
"Merry Christmas, little daughters! I'm glad you began at got started right away, and I hope you will keep it up. But I want to say something to youbefore we sit down. Not far away from here there's a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, because they don't have any 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 started to eat!"
"May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children?" asked Beth eagerly.

"I'll take the cream and the muffins," added Amy, heroically giving up the things she liked most.
Meg was already covering the pancakes, and piling the bread into one big plate.

"I thought you'd do it," said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied. "You can all go and help me, and when we come back we'll have bread and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinnertime."
They were soon ready, and they headed out. Fortunately it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw them, and no one laughed at the funny-looking group.

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

"Funny angels in hoods and mittens," said Jo, and made them laugh.
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 windowpanes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs. March gave the mother tea and oatmeal, and comforted her with promises of help, while she dressed the little baby as tenderly as if she had been her own. The girls meantime spread food on the table, set the children round the fire, and fed them like little hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English.

"This is good!" "It's angel children!" cried the poor children as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze. The girls had never been called angel children before, and they liked it very much. That was a very happy breakfast, even though they didn't get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, in the whole city, there were not any merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfast and were content 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.

The presents did not make a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of love packaged up in the few little bundles. Besides, the tall vase of red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which stood in the middle, made the table look quite elegant.
"She's coming! Start playing, 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 happiest tune, Amy threw open the door, and Meg became a very dignified escort. Mrs. March was both surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full of tears while she examined her presents and read the little notes which came with them. The slippers went on right away A new handkerchief was slipped into her pocket, scented with Amy's cologne. The rose was fastened to her dress, and the nice gloves were a perfect fit.
There was a whole lot of laughing and kissing and explaining, in the simple, loving way that makes these celebrations at home so enjoyable at the time and so sweet to remember long afterward.

Next, everyone got down to work. The rest of the day was spent on preparations for the activities that evening. The girls were still too young to go to the theater very often,  and they were not rich enough to spend very much on their private performances. So the girls put their wits to work and made whatever they needed. Some of their inventions were very clever: cardboard guitars, antique lamps made of old-fashioned butter containers covered with silver paper,  gorgeous robes of old cotton glittering with tin spangles, and armor covered with diamond shaped bits they got by cutting out the lids of jelly jars.
The big room upstairs was the scene of many plays and parties. No boys were allowed in, so Jo played male parts to her heart's content and loved wearing a pair of brown leather boots which she had received from a friend, who knew a lady who knew an actor. These boots, an old fencing sword, and a Renaissance jacket were Jo's special treasures and appeared in every play. The smallness of the company made it necessary for the two principal actors to take several parts apiece. They certainly deserved 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, and sat before the blue and yellow chintz curtains in a very flattering state of expectancy. There was a lot of rustling and whispering behind the curtain, a little bit of lamp smoke, and a few giggles from Amy, who was especially excited. Then a bell sounded, the curtains flew apart, and the operatic tragedy began.
"A gloomy wood," as described in the program, was represented by a few shrubs in pots, green fabric on the floor, and a cave in the distance. This cave was made with a drying rack for a roof and 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 spooky effect, especially when real steam escaped 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 song. He sang about his hatred towards Roderigo, his love for Zara, and his 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 attitude of someone who was used to public praise, he marched to the cavern and ordered Hagar to come forth with a commanding, "Come here, slave! I need you!"
Out came Meg, with gray horsehair hanging about her face,  a red and black robe, a staff, and mysterious symbols on her cloak. Hugo demanded a potion to make Zara adore him, and one to destroy Roderigo. Hagar, in a fine dramatic melody, promised to give him both, and began to call up the spirit who would bring the love potion.

Closer, closer, from your home,
Graceful pixie, I tell you come!
Born of roses, fed on dew,
Charms and potions you can brew.
Bring me here, with fairy speed,
The fragrant potion which I need.
Make it sweet and swift and strong,
Spirit, answer now my song!
A soft melody 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 her head. Waving a wand, she sang,

Here I come,
From my lofty home,
Far off in the silver moon.
Take the magic spell,
And use it well,
Or its power will vanish soon!
And dropping a small gold bottle at the witch's feet, the spirit vanished. Another chant from Hagar produced another sudden appearance – not a lovely one – for with a bang an ugly black imp appeared. Having croaked a reply, the imp tossed a dark bottle at Hugo and disappeared with a mocking laugh.

Hugo warbled his thanks, put the potions in his boots, and departed. Then Hagar informed the audience that since he had killed a few of her friends in times past, she had cursed him, and intended to thwart his plans and get revenge for what he had done. Then the curtain fell, and the audience relaxed and ate candy while discussing the play.
A lot of hammering went on before the curtain rose again, but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage carpentry had been done, no one complained about the wait. It was truly amazing.

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 attire, with a feathered cap, red cloak, auburn hair, a guitar, and the boots, of course. Kneeling at the foot of the tower, he sang a of his love for her in melting tones. Zara replied and, after a musical dialogue, agreed to run away with him.
Then came the most important event of the play. Roderigo produced a rope ladder, with five steps to it, threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend. Timidly she leaned out of her window, put her hand on Roderigo's shoulder, and was about to leap gracfully down when – "Oh, no! Poor Zara!" – she forgot the train of her dress. It caught in the window. The tower tottered, leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers in ruins.

Everyone screamed as the brown boots waved wildly from the wreck and a golden head came up, exclaiming, "I told you so! I told you so!" With wonderful presence of mind, Don Pedro, the cruel father, rushed in, and dragged out his daughter, muttering hurriedly, "Don't laugh! Act as if it's all right!" Don Pedro ordered Roderigo to get up and angrily banished him from the kingdom.
Though shaken by the fall of the tower upon him, Roderigo defied the old gentleman and refused to go away. This fearless example inspired Zara. She also defied her father, and he ordered them both to the deepest dungeons of the castle. A stout little servant came in with chains and led them away, looking very much frightened and evidently forgetting the speech he was supposed to make.
Act Three was held in the castle hall, and here Hagar appeared, having come to free the lovers and do away with Hugo. She hears him coming and hides, sees him put the potions into two cups of wine and tell the timid little servant, "Take these to the captives in their cells, and tell them I'll be coming shortly."

The servant takes Hugo aside to tell him something, and Hagar changes the cups for two others which are harmless. Ferdinando, the servant, 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 whole lot 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 people when a bunch of long red hair suddenly tumbled down, it somewhat spoiled the effect of the villain's death. He came back on stage to bow, leading Hagar, whose singing was considered more wonderful than all the rest of the performance put together.

Act Four 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 to him but in danger, and he can save her if he tries. A key is thrown in, which unlocks the door, and he tears off his chains and rushes away to find and rescue his lady love.
Act Five opened with a stormy scene between Zara and Don Pedro. He wants her to go into a convent, but she won't agree to it. After a touching appeal to her father, Zara is about to faint when Roderigo dashes in and demands her hand in marriage. Don Pedro refuses, because Roderigo is not rich. They shout and point fingers, but cannot agree.

Rodrigo is about to carry away the exhausted Zara, when the timid servant enters with a letter and a bag from Hagar, who has mysteriously disappeared. Hagar's letter informs them that she is giving great wealth to the young couple 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 shining with glitter. This entirely softens the stern father. He consents to the marriage, all of them join in a joyful chorus, and the curtain falls upon the lovers kneeling to receive Don Pedro's blessing in postures of the most romantic grace.
Loud applause followed but stopped unexpectedly, for the cot bed, on which the enthusiastic audience was sitting, suddenly closed up with the audience inside. 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 came up, saying, "Would the ladies please come down to supper?"

This was a surprise even to the actors, and when they saw the table, they looked at one another in amazement. It was like Marmee to prepare a little treat for them, but anything so wonderful as this was unheard of. There was ice cream – actually two dishes of it, pink and white – and cake and fruit and adorable French candies and, in the middle of the table, four huge bouquets of flowers.
It quite took their breath away, and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she really enjoyed it.

"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 surprises for Christmas. I could not refuse, and so you have a little feast at night to make up for the bread-and-milk breakfast."
"That boy gave him the idea – I know he did! He's a first-rate fellow, and I wish we could get to know him. 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 go by," said Jo, as the plates went round, and the ice cream began to melt out of sight, with oohs 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 inside, 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 along well, talking all about baseball, and so on, when he saw Meg coming, and walked off. I want to get to know him some day, because he needs to have more fun – I'm sure he does," said Jo.

"I like his manners, and he looks like a little gentleman, so I have no objection to your knowing him, if an opportunity comes. He brought the flowers himself, and I would have asked him in, if I had been sure what was going on upstairs. He looked so wistful as he went away, hearing the party and evidently having none of his own."
"Thank goodness you didn't, Mother!" laughed Jo, looking at her boots. "But we'll have another play sometime that he can see. Maybe he'll help act. Wouldn't that be fun?"

"I never had such a beautiful 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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