4 - Burdens

"Oh, dear, how hard it seems to pick up our burdens and go on," sighed Meg, the morning after the party, for now that the holidays were over, the week of celebrations kept her from going on easily with the job she had never liked.
"I wish it were Christmas or New Year's all the time. Wouldn't it be fun?" answered Jo, yawning.
"We wouldn't enjoy ourselves half as much as we do now. But it seems so nice to have bouquets of flowers, and go to parties, and drive home in a carriage, and read and rest, and not work. It's how other people live, you know. I always envy girls who get to do things like that. I just love luxuries," said Meg, trying to decide which of two shabby dresses was the least shabby.
"Well, we can't always have luxuries, so let's not grumble, but put our burdens on our shoulders and trudge along as cheerfully as Marmee does. I'm sure Aunt March is a regular bundle of rocks to me, but I suppose when I've learned to carry her without complaining, she will tumble off, or get so light that I won't mind her."
This idea made Jo grin, but Meg did not brighten up, for her burden, consisting of four spoiled children, seemed heavier than ever. She did not have enough heart even to make herself pretty, as usual, by putting on a blue necklace and fixing her hair in the prettiest way.
"What's the use of looking nice, when no one sees me all day but those annoying kids? No one cares whether I'm pretty or not," she muttered, shutting her drawer with a jerk. "I'll have to toil endlessly my whole life, 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 like other girls do. It's a shame!"
So Meg went downstairs wearing an injured look, and wasn't at all nice to her sisters at breakfast time. Everyone seemed a little crabby.
Beth had a headache and lay on the sofa, trying to comfort herself with the cat and three kittens. Amy was whining because her homework wasn't done, and she couldn't find her boots. Jo kept whistling and making a great big racket while she was getting ready.
Mrs. March was very busy trying to finish writing a letter, which must be mailed right away, and Hannah was being a grump because she had been  up so late the night before.
"There never was such a crabby family as ours!" cried Jo, losing her temper when she had knocked over an inkstand, broken both boot laces, and sat down right on her hat.
"You're the most crabbified person in it!" returned Amy, washing out the math problem that was all wrong with the tears that had fallen on her slate.
"Beth, if you don't keep these cats down in the 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 begged, and Amy wailed because she couldn't remember how much nine times twelve was.
"Girls, girls, do be quiet one minute! I have to get this letter in the mail, and you're driving me crazy by fighting," 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 a tradition, and the girls called them "muffs," for they 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. The poor things got no other lunch and were seldom home before two."Cuddle your cats and get over your headache, Beth. Goodbye, Marmee. We're a bunch of rascals this morning, but we'll come home angels. Ready, Meg?" And Jo tramped away.
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 gotten through the day without that, for whatever their mood might be, the last glimpse of their mother's face was just like sunshine.
"If Marmee shook her fist instead of blowing kisses to us, it would serve us right. We're just ungrateful wretches – that's what we are," cried Jo, experiencing to the full the snowy walk and bitter wind.
"Don't use such terrible expressions," replied Meg.
"I like good strong words that mean something," replied Jo, catching her hat as it took a leap off her head, getting ready to fly away altogether.
"Call yourself any names you want to, but I am not a rascal or a wretch, and I don't want to you to say things like that about me."
"You're a mixed-up mess today because you can't sit in the lap of luxury all the time. Poor dear! Just wait till I make my fortune. Then you'll always get to have carriages and ice cream and high-heeled shoes and bouquets of flowers and red-headed boys to dance with."
"How ridiculous you are, Jo!" But Meg laughed at the nonsense and felt better anyway.
"It's lucky for you that I am. Think what it would be like if I acted as though all my dreams had been crushed, like you do. Thank goodness, I can always find something funny to keep my spirits up. Don't gripe any more, but come home happy, okay?"
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 unsatisfied wishes.
When Mr. March lost his property in trying to help an unfortunate friend, the two oldest girls begged to be allowed to work to support themselves. Their parents agreed, since they believed that it was never too soon to develop energy, industry, and independence. So both young women went to work with the good attitude which – in spite of all obstacles – is sure to succeed at last.
Margaret found a place as a children's governess and felt rich with her small salary. As she said, she just loved luxuries, and her biggest problem was being poor. She found it harder to bear than the others because she could remember a time when her home was beautiful and her life full of ease and pleasure, and when she'd never had to go without. She tried not to be envious or discontented, but it was very natural that the young girl would long for pretty things, well-to-do friends, accomplishments, and a happy life.
At the Kings' home, she saw all she wanted every day, for the children's older sisters were about her own age. Meg caught frequent glimpses of dainty ball dresses and bouquets, heard lively gossip about theaters, concerts, and sleighing parties, , and saw money spent freely on odds and ends which would have been so precious to her. Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes. She had not yet realized how rich she was in the only blessings which can make life happy.
Jo happened to fit Aunt March's needs, since she was unable to walk and needed an active person to help her out. 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 Marches only said, "We can't give up our girls – not for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will stay together and be happy to be with each other, no matter what."
The old lady wouldn't speak to them for a time, but happening to meet Jo at a friend's home, something in her comical face and blunt manners struck the old lady's fancy. Aunt March then proposed to take Jo for a companion. This did not suit Jo at all, but she accepted the place since nothing better appeared, and to everyone's surprise, got on remarkably well with her irritable great aunt.
There was an occasional blowup between them, and once Jo marched home, declaring she couldn't bear it any longer. But Aunt March always apologized soon, and asked her to come back again with such urgency that she could not refuse. After all, in her heart, she rather liked the quick-tempered old lady.
Probably the real attraction was a large collection 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 odd pictures in his Latin books, and buy her gingerbread whenever he met her in the street. 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 dim, dusty room a place of true happiness for 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 soon as she had just reached the heart of the story, the sweetest verse of a song, or the most dangerous adventure of her traveler, a shrill voice called, "Josephine! Josephine!" Then she would have 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 biggest problem in the fact that she couldn't read, run, and ride horses as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into mischief. So her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comical 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 "Josephine!"
Beth was too bashful to go to school. It had been tried, but she suffered so much that it was given up. 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 Soldier's Aid Societies, Beth went faithfully on by herself and did the best she could. She helped Hannah keep home neat and comfortable for the workers, never thinking of any reward but to be loved. Her days were long and quiet, but she was neither lonely nor idle, since she depended on her imaginary friends, and she was by nature a busy bee.
There were six dolls to be dressed every morning, for Beth was a child still and loved her dolls as much as ever. There was not one whole or pretty one among them. All were outcasts till Beth took them in, for when her sisters outgrew their dolls, they passed them on 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 bodies. No harsh word were ever said to them. No neglect ever saddened the heart of the most repulsive. Instead, all the little dolls were fed and clothed, nursed and caressed, with an affection which never failed.
One forlorn fragment of a doll had belonged to Jo, and having led a hard life, was left a wreck in the rag bag, from which it was rescued by Beth. Since Joanna had no top to her head, Beth tied on a neat little cap, and as both arms and legs were gone, she hid these missing parts by folding Joanna in a blanket and setting aside her best bed for this chronic invalid.
If anyone had known the care showered on that doll, it would have touched their hearts, even while they laughed. She brought it bits of bouquets. She read to it and 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. Not being an angel, but a very human little girl, she often had a good cry because she couldn't take music lessons and have a fine piano. She love 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, which wouldn't stay in tune, when she was all alone. She sang while she was working, and was never too tired to play for Marmee and the girls. Day after day, she said hopefully to herself, "I know I'll get better at my music sometime, 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, and Amy insisted that the fall had ruined her nose forever. It was not big or red – 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 that she wanted a Grecian nose. She drew whole sheets of handsome ones to console herself.
"Little Raphael," as Amy's sisters called her, had a definite talent for drawing. She was never so happy as when she was copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories. Her teachers complained that instead of doing her math problems, she covered her slate with animals. The blank pages of her atlas were used to copy maps on, and absurd caricatures came fluttering out of all her books at unlucky moments.
She got through her lessons as well as she could, and managed to escape scoldings by being so well-behaved. She was popular with her classmates, and she seemed able to please people without any effort. Her accomplishments were admired for besides her drawing, she could play twelve tunes on the piano, crochet, and read French without mispronouncing more than two-thirds of the words. She had a melancholy way of saying, "When Papa was rich we did such-and-such," which was very touching. Also, her long words were considered perfectly elegant by the girls she went to school with.
Amy was a bit spoiled, for everyone pampered her, and she tended to be vain and selfish at times. One thing, however, squelched her vanity. She had to wear her cousin Florence's clothes. Since Florence's mama didn't have a particle of taste, Amy suffered deeply from having to wear a red bonnet instead of a blue one, funny-looking dresses, and aprons that did not fit. Everything was good, well made, and little worn, but Amy's artistic eyes were very disappointed, 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 hem up my dresses whenever I'm naughty, as Maria Parks's mother does. It's just terrible, because sometimes she is so bad that her dress is up to her knees, and she can't come to school. When I think of Maria Parks's humbiliation, I feel that I can put up with even my flat nose and purple dress with yellow polka dots on it."
Meg listened to Amy's secrets and kept her on the right path. By some strange attraction of opposites, Jo did the same for gentle Beth. To Jo alone did the shy child tell her thoughts. Beth unconsciously exercised more influence over her reckless sister Jo than did anyone else in the family. The two older girls meant a lot to each other, but each took one of the younger sisters into her keeping and watched over her in her own way. They called it "playing mother," 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 gloomy day. I'm really dying to hear something funny," said Meg, as they sat sewing together that evening.
"I had a strange time with Aunt March today, and as I got the best of it, I'll tell you about it," began Jo, who really loved to tell stories. "I was reading that everlasting Belsham's Essays, and droning away as I always do. Usually, Aunt March drops off pretty soon, and then I take out some nice book, and read like crazy till she wakes up. I actually made myself sleepy, and before she began to nod, I gave such a gaping yawn 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 sassy.
"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 sunflower, I whipped the Vicar of Wakefield out of my pocket, and read away, with one eye on my book and one on Aunt March. I'd just gotten to where they all tumbled into the water when I forgot and laughed out loud.
"Aunt March woke up and, being more good-natured after her nap, told me to read a bit and show what frivolous book 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 to the beginning, 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. Don't you want me to stop now?'
"She grabbed her knitting, which had dropped out of her hands, gave me a sharp look through her glasses, and said, 'Finish the chapter, and don't be impertinent, miss.' "
"Did she admit that she liked it?" asked Meg.
"Oh, bless you, no! But she let old Belsham take a rest, and when I ran back to get my gloves this afternoon, there she was, reading the Vicar so carefully that she didn't hear me laugh as I broke into a dance in the hallway because of the good time coming. What a pleasant life she might have if only she chose to! 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 you all. It isn't funny, like Jo's story, but I thought about it a lot as I was coming home. At the Kings' home today everybody was all stirred up, and one of the children said that her oldest brother had done something bad, 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 went past 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. I'm actually glad I don't have any wild brothers to do wicked things and disgrace the family."
"I think being called down in school is a lot more trouble than anything bad boys can do," said Amy, shaking her head. "Susie Perkins came to school today with a lovely red ruby ring. I wanted it so bad, 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. 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 parrialyzed with fright, but she went, and oh, what do you think he did? He took her by the ear – the ear!– and he led her to the 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.
"Laugh? Not one! They sat still as mice, and Susie cried quarts of tears – I know she did. I didn't envy her then, for I felt that millions of ruby rings wouldn't have made me happy after that. I never, never could have gotten 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, because I stayed behind the fish barrel. He was busy with Mr. Cutter, the fishmonger.
A poor woman came in with a pail and a mop. She asked Mr. Cutter if he would let her do some scrubbing for a bit of fish, because she didn't have any dinner for her children, and her regular job hadn't worked out today.
Mr. Cutter was in a hurry and said 'No,' bluntly.
So she was going away, looking hungry and sad, 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 in 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 saying she hoped Mr. Laurence's bed in heaven would be cozy."
When they had laughed at Beth's story, they asked their mother for one. After a moment's thought, she said seriously, "As I sat cutting out blue flannel jackets today at the Soldiers' Aid Society, I felt very anxious about Father, and thought about how lonely and helpless we would 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, since he looked poor and tired and anxious.
" 'Do you have sons in the army?' I asked.
" 'Yes, ma'am,' he said.' I had four, but two were killed, one is a prisoner, and I'm going to my other son, 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 bit more than I ought to, ma'am. I'd go myself, if I was any use. Since I'm not, I give my boys, and give them freely.'
"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 was too much, while he gave four without reluctance. I had all my girls to comfort me at home, and his last son was waiting, miles away, to say good-bye to him, perhaps. I felt so rich, so happy, thinking of my blessings, that I made him a nice bundle, and gave him some money, and thanked him for the lesson he had taught me."
"Tell another story, Mother, one with a moral to it. 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. 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. They had enough to eat and drink and wear, had plenty to keep them comfortable and happy, had kind friends, and parents who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented."
(At this point, the listeners glanced at each other, and then 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 they 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.' Being sensible girls, they decided to try her advice, and soon they were surprised to see how well off they were.
"One girl discovered that money couldn't keep shame and sorrow out of rich people's houses. Another girl learned that, though she was poor, she was a much happier, with her youth, health, and good spirits, than a certain fretful, feeble old lady who couldn't enjoy her comforts. The third girl realized that even though it was annoying to have to help make dinner, it was even harder to go begging for it. And the fourth girl discovered that even ruby rings were not as valuable as good behavior.
"So they agreed to stop complaining, to enjoy the blessings they already had, and try to deserve them, in case the blessings would 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 sneaky 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, you just say to us, 'Think of your blessings, children. Think of your blessings!'" added Jo, taking the little sermon to heart as much as any of them.

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