"Jo! Jo! Where are you?" cried Meg at the foot of the attic stairs.
"Here!" answered a husky voice from above. Running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over a book, wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo's favorite refuge, and here she loved to relax with half a dozen apples and a nice book, to enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived nearby and didn't mind her presence a bit. As Meg appeared, Scrabble whisked into his hole. Jo shook the tears off her cheeks and waited to hear the news."We'll have so much fun! Just look at this! An invitation from Mrs. Gardiner for tomorrow night!" cried Meg, waving the precious paper and then reading it aloud with girlish delight.
" 'Mrs. Gardiner would be happy to see Miss March and Miss Josephine at a little dance on New Year's Eve.' Marmee is willing for us go. Now what shall we wear?""What's the use of asking that, when you know we're going to wear our dresses made of poplin, because we haven't got anything else?" answered Jo, with her mouth full.
"If I only had a silk dress!" sighed Meg. "Mother says maybe I can get one when I'm eighteen, but two years is forever to have to wait.""I'm sure our dresses look like silk, and they are nice enough for us. Yours is as good as new, but I forgot about the burn and the tear in mine. What am I going to do? The burn shows badly, and I can't take any of the fabric out."
"You must sit still all you can and keep your back out of sight. The front is all right. I'm going to have a new ribbon for my hair, and Marmee will lend me her little pearl pin, and my new slippers are lovely, and my gloves will be all right, though they aren't as nice as I'd like.""My gloves are spoiled with lemonade, and I can't get any new ones, so I'll have to go without them," said Jo, who never cared much about what she wore.
"You must have gloves, or I won't go," cried Meg decidedly. "Gloves are more important than anything else. You can't dance without them, and if you don't I would be so embarrassed.""Then I'll stay still. I don't care much for dancing at parties. It's no fun to dance smoothly and perfectly. I like to skip and hop when I dance."
"You can't ask Mother for new gloves – they are so expensive, and you are so careless. She said when you spoiled the others that she wouldn't get you any more this winter. Can't you make them do?""I can hold them crumpled up in my hand, so no one will know how stained they are. That's all I can do. No! I know what we can do – each wear one good one and carry a bad one. What do you think?"
"Your hands are bigger than mine, and you'll stretch my glove terribly," began Meg."Then I'll go without them. I don't care what people say!" cried Jo, taking up her book.
"You can have my glove then! Only don't stain it, and do behave nicely. Don't put your hands behind you, or stare, or say 'Christopher Columbus!' All right?""Don't worry about me. I'll be as polite as can be and not get into any trouble, if I can help it. Now go and answer your note, and let me finish this splendid story."
So Meg went away to accept the invitation, look over her dress, and sing happily as she prepared her one real lace frill. Meanwhile, Jo finished her story and her four apples, and had a fun time with Scrabble.On New Year's Eve, the front room was deserted, for the two younger girls were helping the two elder girls with the all-important business of getting ready for the party. Even though their preparations were simple, there was a lot of running up and down, laughing and talking.
At one time a strong smell of burned hair spread throughout the house. Meg wanted a few curls around her face, and Jo took the job of pinching the papered locks of hair with a pair of hot tongs."Should they be smoking like that?" asked Beth from her perch on the bed.
"It's the dampness drying," replied Jo."What a strange smell! It's like burned feathers," observed Amy, smoothing her own pretty curls with a superior attitude.
"There, now I'll take off the papers and you'll see fluffy little ringlets," said Jo, putting down the tongs.She did take off the papers, but no fluffy ringlets appeared, for the hair came off with the papers, and the horrified hairdresser laid a row of little scorched bundles on the bureau before her victim.
"Oh, oh, oh! What have you done? My hair's ruined! I can't go! My hair, oh, my hair!" wailed Meg, looking with despair at the uneven frizz on her forehead."Just my luck! You shouldn't have asked me to do it. I always spoil everything. I'm so sorry, but the tongs were too hot, and so I've made a mess," groaned poor Jo, looking down at the little black pancakes with tears of regret.
"It isn't spoiled. Just crimp it, and tie your ribbon so the ends come on your forehead a bit, and it will look like the latest fashion. I've seen many girls do their hair that way," said Amy sympathetically."Serves me right for trying to be fancy. I wish I'd let my hair alone," cried Meg.
"So do I – it was so smooth and pretty. But it will soon grow out again," said Beth, coming to kiss and comfort the shorn sheep.After various other problems, Meg was finished at last, and by the united contributions of the entire family Jo's hair was fixed up and her dress put on. They looked very well in their simple dresses. Meg wore a silvery gray dress with lace frills and the pearl pin, as well as a blue velvet hat with a hair net attached. Jo wore maroon, with a stiff linen collar, and a white chrysanthemum or two for her only ornament. Each put on one nice light glove, and carried one stained one, and everyone said the effect was fine.
Meg's high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not admit it, and Jo's nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable, but, dear me, let us be elegant or die.
"Have a good time, sweethearts!" said Mrs. March, as the sisters strolled down the walkway. "Don't eat much supper, and come home at eleven when I send Hannah for you." As the gate clashed behind them, a voice cried from a window, "Girls, girls! Have you you both got nice pocket handkerchiefs?""Yes, yes, perfectly nice, and Meg has perfume on hers," cried Jo, adding with a laugh as they went on, "I'll bet Marmee would ask that if we were all running away from an earthquake.
"It is one of her aristocratic tastes. A real lady is always known by neat boots, gloves, and handkerchief," replied Meg, who had quite a few little 'aristocratic tastes' of her own."Now don't forget to keep the damaged part of your dress out of sight, Jo. Is my sash right? And does my hair look very bad?" said Meg, as she turned from the mirror in Mrs. Gardiner's dressing room after primping for quite a while.
"I know I'm going to forget. If you see me doing anything wrong, just remind me by a wink, will you?" returned Jo, giving her collar a twitch and her head a hurried brush."No, winking isn't ladylike. I'll lift my eyebrows if anything is wrong, and nod my head if you are all right. Now hold your shoulders straight, and take short steps, and don't shake hands if you are introduced to anyone. It isn't appropriate."
"How do you learn all the proper ways? I never can. Isn't that music happy?"Down they went, feeling a bit shy, for they seldom went to parties. Informal as this little gathering was, it was an event to them. Mrs. Gardiner, a stately old lady, greeted them kindly and handed them over to the eldest of her six daughters. Meg knew Sallie and was at her ease very soon. But Jo, who didn't care much for girls or girlish gossip, hung around, with her back carefully against the wall, and felt as much out of place as a colt in a flower garden.
Several young men were noisily talking about ice skates in another part of the room, and she was wishing she could go and join them, for skating was one of the things she loved to do. She motioned to Meg what she wanted to do, but the eyebrows went up so alarmingly that she didn't dare move from her spot. No one came to talk to her, and one by one the group dwindled away till she was left alone. She couldn't roam around and amuse herself, for the burned part would show, so she stared at people rather sadly till the dancing began.
Meg was asked to dance right away, and the tight slippers skipped about so briskly that no one would have guessed the pain their wearer suffered with a smile. Jo saw a big red-headed fellow approaching her corner. Feeling afraid that he would ask her to dance, she slipped into a curtained alcove, intending to peek out and enjoy herself in peace. Unfortunately, another bashful person had chosen the same refuge, for, as the curtain fell behind her, she found herself face to face with the Laurence boy."Oh, sorry, I didn't know anyone was here!" stammered Jo, preparing to back out as speedily as she had bounced in.
But the boy laughed and said pleasantly, though he looked a little startled, "Don't mind me – stay if you like.""Won't I disturb you?"
"Not a bit. I only came here because I don't know many people and felt embarrassed at first, you know.""So did I. Don't go away, please, unless you'd rather."
The boy sat down again and looked at his shoes, till Jo said, trying to be polite and relaxed, "I think I've had the pleasure of seeing you before. You live near us, don't you?""Next door." And he looked up and laughed outright, for Jo's polite way of speaking was funny when he remembered how they had chatted about baseball when he brought her cat home.
The Laurence boy's laugh put Jo at her ease and she laughed too, as she told him enthusiastically, "You know, we had such a good time over your nice Christmas present.""Grandpa sent it."
"But you put the idea into his head, didn't you, now?""How is your cat, Miss March?" asked the boy, trying to look serious while his black eyes shone with fun.
"Nicely, thank you, Mr. Laurence. But I am not Miss March – I'm only Jo," returned the young lady."I'm not Mr. Laurence – I'm only Laurie."
"Laurie Laurence – what an odd name.""My first name is Theodore, but I don't like it, because some of the guys called me Dora, so I made them say Laurie instead."
"I hate my name, too – so sentimental! I wish everyone would say Jo instead of Josephine. How did you make the boys stop calling you Dora?""I beat them up."
"I can't beat up Aunt March, so I suppose I'll have to bear it." And Jo resigned herself with a sigh."Don't you like to dance, Miss Jo?" asked Laurie, looking as if he thought the name suited her.
"I like it if there is plenty of room, and everyone is lively. In a place like this I'm sure to knock something over, step on people's toes, or do something awful! So I keep out of mischief and let my sister Meg be the dancer in our family. Don't you dance?""Sometimes. You see I've been abroad a good many years, and haven't beenhere long enough yet to know how you do things here."
"Abroad!" cried Jo. "Oh, tell me about it! I love to hear people describe their travels."Laurie didn't seem to know where to begin, but Jo's eager questions soon set him going, and he told her how he had been at school in Vevay, where the boys never wore hats and had a fleet of boats on the lake, and for vacation went on walking trips through Switzerland with their teachers.
"Oh! I wish I'd been there!" cried Jo. "Did you go to Paris?""We spent last winter there."
"Can you talk French?""We were not allowed to speak anything else at Vevay."
"Say something in French! I can read it, but I can't pronounce it."Then Laurie said something in French good-naturedly. "How nicely you do it! Let me see . . . you said, 'Who is the young lady in the pretty slippers,' didn't you?"
"Oui, mademoiselle.""It's my sister Margaret, and you knew it was! Do you think she's pretty?"
"Yes, she makes me think of the German girls. She looks so fresh and quiet, and dances like a lady."Jo glowed with pleasure at this boyish praise of her sister, and she determined to repeat it to Meg later. Both Laurie and Jo peeked out and criticized and chatted till they felt like old acquaintances. Laurie's bashfulness soon wore off, for Jo's tomboyish talk made him want to grin. Jo was her merry self again, because her dress was forgotten and nobody lifted their eyebrows at her.
She liked the Laurence boy better than ever and took several good looks at him, so that she could describe him to the girls. Jo and her sisters had no brothers and very few male cousins, and boys were almost unknown creatures to them. She thought it over: "Curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet, taller than I am, very polite, for a boy, and altogether jolly. I wonder how old he is?"It was on the tip of Jo's tongue to ask, but she checked herself in time and, with unusual tact, tried to find out in a round-about way. "I suppose you are going to college soon . . . I've seen you studying hard."
Laurie answered with a shrug. "Not for a year or two. I won't go before I turn seventeen, in any case.""Aren't you about fifteen?" asked Jo, looking at the tall young man, whom she had imagined seventeen already.
"I'll be sixteen next month.""How I wish I was going to college! You don't look as if you liked it."
"I hate it! Nothing but cramming or goofing off. And I don't like the way the guys act in this country.""What do you like?"
"To live in Italy, and to enjoy myself in my own way."Jo wanted very much to ask what his own way was, but his black eyebrows looked rather threatening, so she changed the subject by saying, as her foot kept time, "That's a splendid polka! Why don't you go and try it?"
"If you will come too," he answered, with a gallant little bow."I can't, for I told Meg I wouldn't, because . . ." There Jo stopped, and looked undecided whether to tell or to laugh.
"Because what?""You won't tell?"
"Never!""Well, I have a bad trick of standing before the fire, and so I burn my dresses, and I scorched this one, and though it's nicely mended, it shows. And Meg told me to keep still so no one would see it. You can laugh, if you want to. It is funny, I know."
But Laurie didn't laugh. He only looked down a minute, and the expression of his face puzzled Jo when he said very gently, "Never mind that. I'll tell you how we can manage. There's a long hall out there, and we can dance as much as we want, and no one will see us. Please come."Jo thanked him and gladly went, wishing she had two neat gloves when she saw the nice, pearl-colored ones her partner wore. The hall was empty, and they had a grand polka, for Laurie danced well, and taught her the German step, which delighted Jo, being full of swing and spring.
When the music stopped, they sat down on the stairs to get their breath, and Laurie was in the middle of a story about a students' festival at Heidelberg when Meg appeared in search of her sister. She beckoned, and Jo reluctantly followed her into a side room, where she found her on a sofa, holding her foot, and looking pale."I've sprained my ankle. That stupid high heel turned.. It aches so much that I can hardly stand, and I don't know how I'm ever going to get home," she said, rocking to and fro in pain.
"I knew you'd hurt your feet with those silly shoes. I'm sorry. But I don't see what you can do, except get a carriage, or stay here all night," answered Jo, softly rubbing the poor ankle as she spoke."I can't have a carriage without its costing a whole lot. I probably can't get one at all, for most people come in their own, and it's a long way to the stable, and we don't know who we could send."
"I'll go.""No, you won't! It's past nine, and dark as anything. I can't stay here overnight, since the bedrooms are filled. Sallie has some girls staying with her. I'll rest till Hannah comes, and then do the best I can."
"I'll ask Laurie. He can go," said Jo," looking relieved as the idea occurred to her."For goodness' sake, no! Don't ask or tell anyone. Get me my boots, and put these slippers with our things. I can't dance anymore, but as soon as supper is over, watch for Hannah and tell me the minute she comes."
"They are going out to supper now. I'll stay with you. I'd rather.""No, Jo, please bring me some coffee. I'm so tired I can't even get up."
So Meg rested, with her boots well hidden, and Jo went blundering away to the dining room, which she found after going into a china closet. Darting directly to the table, she grabbed the coffee, which she immediately spilled, which made the front of her dress as bad as the back."Oh, dear, what a klutz I am!" exclaimed Jo, ruining Meg's glove by scrubbing her gown with it.
"Can I help you?" said a friendly voice. And there was Laurie, with a full coffee cup in one hand and a dish of ice cream in the other."I was trying to get something for Meg, who is very tired, and someone bumped into me, and now I'm a mess," answered Jo, glancing sadly from the stained skirt to the coffee-colored glove.
"Too bad! I was looking for someone to give this to. Shall I take it to your sister?""Oh, thank you! I'll show you where she is. I don't offer to take it myself, for I should only get into another mess if I did."
Jo led the way, and as if used to waiting on ladies, Laurie drew up a little table, brought a second installment of coffee and ice cream for Jo, and was so helpful that even Meg, who was picky, decided he was a nice boy. They enjoyed eating some chocolates, and were in the midst of a quiet game with two or three other young people who had strayed in, when Hannah appeared. Meg forgot about her foot and got up so quickly that she was forced to grab hold of Jo, with an exclamation of pain."Hush! Don't say anything," she whispered, adding aloud, "It's nothing. I turned my foot a little, that's all," and limped upstairs to put her cloak on. Hannah scolded, Meg cried, and Jo was at her wits' end, till she decided to take things into her own hands. Slipping out, she ran down and, finding a servant, asked if he could get her a carriage. It happened to be a hired waiter who knew nothing about the neighborhood. Jo was looking round for help when Laurie, who had heard what she said, came up and offered his grandfather's carriage, which had just come for him, he said.
"It's so early! Surely you're not going yet?" began Jo. looking relieved but hesitating to accept the offer."I always go early. Please let me take you home. It's on my way, you know, and it's going to rain, they say."
That settled it, and telling him about Meg's problem, Jo gratefully accepted and rushed up to bring down the rest of the party. Hannah hated rain as much as a cat does, so she made no complaint. They rolled away in the luxurious closed carriage, feeling very festive and elegant. Laurie rode up front so Meg could keep her foot up inside the carriage, and the girls talked over their party in freedom."I had a wonderful time. Did you?" asked Jo, rumpling up her hair, and making herself comfortable.
"Yes, till I hurt myself. Sallie's friend, Annie Moffat, took a fancy to me, and asked me to come and spend a week with her when Sallie does. She is going in the spring when the opera comes, and it will be perfectly splendid, if Mother only lets me go," answered Meg, cheering up at the thought."I saw you dancing with the red-headed man I ran away from. Was he nice?"
"Oh. very! His hair is auburn, not red, and he was very polite, and I had a great dance with him.""He looked like a grasshopper in a fit when he did the new step. Laurie and I couldn't help laughing. Did you hear us?"
"No, but it was very rude. What were you doing all that time, hidden away there?"
Jo told her adventures, and by the time she had finished they were at home. With many thanks, they said good night and tiptoed in, hoping to disturb no one, but the instant their door creaked, two little heads bobbed up, and two sleepy but eager voices cried out, "Tell us about the party! Tell us about the party!"Jo had saved some chocolate for the little girls, and they soon were ready to sleep, after hearing the most thrilling events of the evening.
"You know, it really seems like being a fine young lady, to come home from the party in a carriage and sit in my dressing gown with a maid to wait on me," said Meg, as Jo bandaged up her foot with a pain reliever and brushed her hair."I don't believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove apiece and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them." And I think Jo was quite right.