1 - Four Sisters

Part One of Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott:
Retold in Today's English by Sharon Rose





"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, who was lying on the rug.

"It's just plain awful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at her cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, "We don't have Father, and we won't have him for a long time." She didn't say, "maybe never," but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

Nobody spoke for a minute. Then Meg said, "You know the reason Mother suggested our not having any presents this Christmas was because it's going to be a hard winter for everyone. She thinks we shouldn't be spending money for pleasure, while our men are suffering so much in the army.

"We can't do much, but we can make some sacrifices, and we should be doing it cheerfully. But I'm afraid I don't feel cheerful about it at all.'" Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

"But I don't think the little we'd spend would do any good. We've each got a dollar, and the army wouldn't be much helped by our giving that. I'll agree not to expect anything from Mother or you, but I do want to buy a book for myself' – the one I've wanted for so long," said Jo, who was a bookworm.

"I planned to spend mine on new music," said Beth, with a little sigh.

"I'll get a nice box of 'drawing pencils. I really need them," said Amy.

"Mother didn't say anything about our own money, and she 'wouldn't want us to give up everything. Let's each buy what we want, and have a little fun. I'm sure we work hard enough to earn it," cried Jo.

"I know I do – teaching those annoying children nearly all day, when I'm dying to enjoy myself at home," complained Meg.

"You don't have half as bad a time as I do," said Jo. "How would you like to be locked up for hours with a fussy old lady who is never satisfied, and bothers you till you you're ready to cry?"

"'I know it's not right to complain," put in Beth, "but I do think washing dishes and keeping things clean is the worst work in the world. It makes me grumpy, and my hands get so stiff, I can't practice the piano well at all."

"I don't believe any of you have a rough time like I do," cried Amy, "because you don't have to go to school with girls who make fun of you if you don't get good grades, and laugh at your dresses, and squander your father if he isn't rich, and insult you when your nose isn't perfect."

"If you mean slander, then say so, and quit talking about squandering our father, as if he were a wad of cash," said Jo, laughing.

"I know what I mean, and you 'don't have to be sarcasmical about it. We're supposed' to use good words, and improve our vocabillary," replied Amy, with dignity.

"Don't tease each other," said Meg. "Jo, don't you wish we had the money Papa lost when we were little? Just think how happy and good we'd be, if we didn't have anything to worry about!"

"You said the other day you thought we were a lot happier than the children you teach, because they were fighting and whining all the time, in spite of their money."

"That's right. I did, Beth. Well, I think we are. Even though we have to work, we have fun together, and we're an upbeat clique, as Jo would say."

"Jo uses way too many slang words!" observed Amy.

Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle.

"Don't whistle, Jo. It's so boyish!"

"That's why I do it."

"I can't stand girls who are rude and unladylike!"

"Well, I hate girls who are fake and prissy!"

"Birds in their little nests agree," sang Beth, the peacemaker, with such a funny face that both sharp voices softened to a laugh, and the "pecking" ended.

"Really, girls, you are both at fault," said Meg, beginning to lecture as eldest sisters sometimes do."You are old enough to quit playing boyish tricks, and to behave better, Josephine. It didn't matter so much when you were a little girl, but now that you are so tall, and wear your hair up, you should remember that you are a young lady."

"I'm not! And if wearing my hair up makes me one, I'll wear it in pigtails till I'm twenty," cried Jo, pulling off her hair net, and shaking down her long, chestnut-colored hair. "I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns! It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment at not being allowed to act like a boy. And it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a frumpy old woman!"

And Jo shook the blue army sock till the knitting needles rattled and her ball of yarn bounced across the room.

"Poor Jo! It's too bad, but it can't be helped. So you've got to try to be contented with making your name boyish, and acting as both sister and brother to us girls," said Beth, stroking Jo's head with a gentle hand.

"As for you, Amy," continued Meg, "you are altogether too particular and prim. ''I like your nice manners and refined ways of speaking, when you don't try to be elegant. But your absurd words are as bad as Jo's slang."

"And what about me?" asked Beth, ready to share the lecture.

"You're a dear, and nothing else," answered Meg warmly, and no one contradicted her, for 'Beth was the pet of the family.

As young readers like to know how people look', we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within. It was a comfortable room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture very plain. A good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the bookshelves, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home peace pervaded it.

Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes,  soft brown hair, and a sweet mouth.

Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and tan. She resembled a colt, since she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were alternately fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Jo had round shoulders, big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it.

Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression. Her father called her Little Miss Tranquility, and the name suited her well, for she seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved.

Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her own opinion at least. She hadblue eyes and yellow hair, curling on her shoulders. She was pale and slender, and always carried herself like a young lady mindful of her manners.

What the characters of the four sisters were we will leave to be found out.

The clock struck six and, having swept up the hearth, Beth put a pair of slippers down beside the fire to warm up. Somehow the sight of the old shoes had a good effect upon the girls, for Mother was coming, and everyone brightened to welcome her. Meg stopped lecturing, and lighted the lamp. Amy got out of the easy chair without being asked, and Jo forgot how tired she was as she sat up to hold the slippers nearer to the blaze.

"They are quite worn out. Marmee must have a new pair."

"I thought I'd get her some with my dollar," said Beth.

"No, I shall!" cried Amy.

"I'm the oldest," began Meg, but Jo cut in with a decided, "I'm the man of the family now Papa is away, and I shall provide the slippers, for he told me to take special care of Mother while he was gone."

"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Beth, "let's each get her something for Christmas, and not get anything for ourselves."

"'Leave it to Beth to think of something so sweet!" exclaimed Jo. "What will we get?"

Everyone thought carefully for a minute, and then Meg announced, as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands, "I'm going to give her a nice pair of gloves."

"The best shoes in the store," cried Jo.

"Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed," said Beth.

"I'll get a little bottle of cologne. She likes it, and it won't cost much, so I'll have some left to buy my pencils," added Amy.

"How will we give her the things?" asked Meg.

"Put them on the table, and bring her in and watch her open the packages. Don't you remember how we used to do on our birthdays?" answered Jo.

"I used to be so frightened when it was my turn to sit in the chair with the crown on, and see you all come marching by me to give the presents, with a kiss. I liked the gifts and the kisses, but it was awful to have you sit looking at me while I opened the packages," said Beth. She was toasting her face and the bread for tea at the same time, holding the bread up to the fire on a long fork.

"Let Marmee think we are getting things for ourselves, and then we'll surprise her. We can go shopping tomorrow afternoon, Meg. There is so much to do about the play for Christmas night," said Jo, marching up and down, with her hands behind her back, and her nose in the air.

"I don't plan on acting any more after this time. I'm getting too old for such things," observed Meg, who was as much a child as ever about playing dress-up.

"You won't stop, I know, as long as you can trail around in a white gown with your hair down, and wear gold paper jewelry. You are the best actress we've got, and it will all be over if you quit," said Jo. "We ought to rehearse tonight. Come here, Amy, and do the fainting scene, for you are as stiff as a poker in that."

"I can't help it. I never saw anyone faint, and I don't want to make myself all black and blue, tumbling down flat like you do. If I can go down easily, I'll drop. If I can't, I'm going tofall into a chair and be graceful. I don't care if Hugo does come at me with a pistol," returned Amy. She was not gifted with dramatic power, but was chosen because she was small enough to be carried out shrieking by the villain.

"Do it this way. Clasp your hands like this, and stagger across the room, crying frantically, `Roderigo! Save me! Save me!' and away went Jo, with a melodramatic scream, which was truly thrilling.

Amy followed, but she poked her hands out stiffly before her, and jerked herself along as if she went by machinery, and her "Ow!" sounded more like pins were being run into her than like a cry of fear and anguish. Jo gave a despairing groan, and Meg laughed outright, while Beth let her bread burn as she watched the fun with interest.

"It's no use! Do the best you can when the time comes, and if the audience laughs, don't blame me. Come on, Meg."

"Then things went smoothly, for Don Pedro defied the world in a speech of two pages without a single break. Hagar, the witch, chanted an incantation over her kettleful of simmering toads, with weird effect. Roderigo tore his chains apartmanfully, and Hugo died in agonies of remorse and arsenic, with a wild,"Ha! Ha!"

"It's the best we've done so far," said Meg, as the dead villain sat up and rubbed his elbows.

"I don't see how you can write and act such splendid things, Jo. You're a regular Shakespeare!" exclaimed Beth, who firmly believed that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in all things.

"Not quite," replied Jo modestly. "I do think The Witch's Curse: An Operatic Tragedy is rather good. But I'd like to try acting in Macbeth, which was penned by the real Shakespeare. I always wanted to do the killing part. 'Is that a dagger that I see before me?' " muttered Jo, rolling her eyes and clutching at the air.

"No, it's the toasting fork, with Mother's shoe on it instead of the bread. Beth's stage-struck!" cried Meg, and the rehearsal ended in a general burst of laughter.

"Glad to find you so happy, my girls," said a cheery voice at the door, and actors and audience turned to welcome a tall, motherly lady. She was not elegantly dressed, but she was a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world.

"Well, sweethearts, how have you got on today? There was so much to do, getting the boxes ready to go tomorrow, that I didn't come home to dinner. Has anyone called, Beth? How is your cold, Meg? Jo, you look tired to death. Come and kiss me, baby."

While making these maternal inquiries, Mrs. March got her wet things off, her warm slippers on, and sitting down in the easy chair, pulled Amy onto her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hour of her busy day. The girls hurried around, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table. Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, over-turning, and clattering everything she touched. Beth trotted to and fro between parlor kitchen, quiet and busy, while Amy gave directions to everyone, as she sat with her hands folded.

As they gathered about the table, Mrs. March said, with a particularly happy face, "I've got a treat for you after supper."

A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine. Beth clapped her hands, regardless of the biscuit she held, and Jo tossed up her napkin, crying, "A letter! A letter! Three cheers for Father!"

"Yes, a nice long letter. He is well, and thinks that he'll get through the cold season better than we feared. He sends all sorts of loving wishes for Christmas, and a special message to you girls," said Mrs. March, patting her pocket as if she had a treasure there.

"Hurry and get done! Don't take your good old time, Amy," cried Jo, choking on her tea and dropping her bread, butter side down, on the carpet in her haste to get at the treat.

Beth ate no more, but slipped away to sit in her shadowy corner and brood over the delight to come, till the others were ready.

"I think it was wonderful of Father to go as chaplain when he was too old to be drafted, and not strong enough for a soldier," said Meg warmly.

"I wish I could go as a drummer or a nurse, so I could be near him and help him," exclaimed Jo, with a groan.

"It must be very disagreeable to sleep in a tent, and eat all sorts of bad-tasting things, and drink out of a tin mug," sighed Amy.

"When will he come home, Marmee?" asked Beth, with a little quiver in her voice.

"Not for many months, dear, unless he gets sick. He will stay and do his work faithfully as long as he can, and we won't ask for him back a minute sooner than he can be spared. Now come and hear the letter."

They all gathered closer to the fire, Mother in the big chair with Beth at her feet, Meg and Amy perched on either arm of the chair, and Jo leaning on the back, where no one would see any sign of emotion if the letter should happen to be touching. Very few letters were written in those hard times that were not touching, especially those which fathers sent home. In this one little was said of the hardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered. It was a cheerful, hopeful letter, full of lively descriptions of camp life, marches, and military news. Only at the end did the writer's heart overflow with fatherly love and longing for the little girls at home.

"Give them all of my love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and am always comforted by their love. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we can all work, so that these hard days won't be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their best faithfully, and will fight their enemies so bravely that when I come back to them I'll be prouder than ever of my little women."

Everybody sniffed when they came to that part. Jo wasn't ashamed of the large tear that dropped off the end of her nose, and Amy never cared thather curls were getting messed up when she hid her face on her mother's shoulder and sobbed out, "I am a selfish girl! But I'll really try to be better, so he 'won't be disappointed in me."

"We all will," cried Meg. "I think too much of my looks, and I hate to work, but I won't anymore, if I can help it."

"I'll try to be what he loves to call me, a 'little woman,' and not be rough and wild, but do my best here, instead of wanting to be somewhere else," said Jo, thinking that keeping her temper at home was a much harder task than facing a Rebel or two down South.

Beth said nothing, but wiped away her tears with the blue army sock and began to knit with all her might, losing no time in doing the job that was right in front of her. She thought about her own struggles with dishes and dusters, and envying girls with nice pianos, and being afraid of people. And Beth resolved in her quiet little soul to be all that Father hoped to find her when the year brought round the happy homecoming.

The girls and their mother sang, as usual, before they went to bed. No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano, but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the songs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoiled the dreamiest tunes.

They had always done this from the time they could lisp, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," and it had become a household custom, for their mother was a born singer. The first sound in the morning was her voice as she went about the house singing like a lark, and the last sound at night was the same cheery sound, for the girls never grew too old for that familiar lullaby.

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