IX. Meg Goes to Vanity Fair
“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.
“And so nice of Annie Moffat not to forget her promise. A whole fortnight of fun will be regularly splendid,” replied Jo, looking like a windmill, as she folded skirts with her long arms.
“And such lovely weather; I’m so glad of that,” added Beth, tidily sorting neck and hair ribbons in her best box, lent for the great occasion.
“I wish I was going to have a fine time, and wear all these nice things,” said Amy, with her mouth full of pins, as she artistically replenished her sister’s cushion.
“I wish you were all going; but, as you can’t, 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.
“A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash. I wanted the violet silk; but there isn’t time to make it over, so I must be contented with my old tarlatan.”
“It will look nicely over my new muslin skirt, and the sash will set it off beautifully. I wish I hadn’t 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-suit—just curl up the feather in my hat, Beth,—then my poplin, for Sunday, and the small party,—it looks heavy for spring, doesn’t it? The violet silk would be so nice; oh, dear!”
“Never mind; you’ve got the tarlatan for the big party, and you always look like an angel in white,” said Amy, brooding over the little store of finery in which her soul delighted.
“It isn’t low-necked, and it doesn’t 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 isn’t a bit the fashion, and my bonnet doesn’t look like Sallie’s; I didn’t 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 Annie’s silk one with a gold top,” sighed Meg, surveying the little umbrella with great disfavor.
“Change it,” advised Jo.
“I won’t be so silly, or hurt Marmee’s 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.
“Annie Moffat has blue and pink bows on her night-caps; would you put some on mine?” she asked, as Beth brought up a pile of snowy muslins, fresh from Hannah’s hands.
“No, I wouldn’t; for the smart caps won’t match the plain gowns, without any trimming on them. Poor folks shouldn’t rig,” said Jo decidedly.
“I wonder if I shall ever be happy enough to have real lace on my clothes, and bows on my caps?” said Meg impatiently.
“You said the other day that you’d be perfectly happy if you could only go to Annie Moffat’s,” observed Beth, in her quiet way.
“So I did! Well, I am happy, and I won’t fret; but it does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t 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 had 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 Moffat’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Sallie’s 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.
“It’s for Belle, of course; George always sends her some, but these are altogether ravishing,” cried Annie, with a great sniff.
“They are for Miss March, the man said. And here’s a note,” put in the maid, holding it to Meg.
“What fun! Who are they from? Didn’t know you had a lover,” cried the girls, fluttering about Meg in a high state of curiosity and surprise.
“The note is from mother, and the flowers from Laurie,” said Meg simply, yet much gratified that he had not forgotten her.
“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 didn’t strike her as so very shabby now.
She enjoyed herself very much that evening, for she danced to her heart’s 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 “didn’t 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 a 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,—
“How old is he?”
“Sixteen or seventeen, I should say,” replied another voice.
“It would be a grand thing for one of those girls, wouldn’t it? Sallie says they are very intimate now, and the old man quite dotes on them.”
“Mrs M. has made her plans, I dare say, and will play her cards well, early as it is. The girl evidently doesn’t think of it yet,” said Mrs. Moffat.
“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.
“She’s proud, but I don’t believe she’d mind, for that dowdy tarlatan is all she has got. She may tear it to-night, and that will be a good excuse for offering a decent one.”
“We’ll see. I shall ask young Laurence, as a compliment to her, and we’ll have fun about it afterward.”
Here Meg’s 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 man’s 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,—
“Daisy, dear, I’ve sent an invitation to your friend, Mr. Laurence, for Thursday. We should like to know him, and it’s only a proper compliment to you.”
Meg colored, but a mischievous fancy to tease the girls made her reply demurely,—
“You are very kind, but I’m afraid he won’t come.”
“Why not, chérie?” asked Miss Belle.
“He’s too old.”
“My child, what do you mean? What is his age, I beg to know!” cried Miss Clara.
“Nearly seventy, I believe,” answered Meg, counting stitches, to hide the merriment in her eyes.
“You sly creature! Of course we meant the young man,” exclaimed Miss Belle, laughing.
“There isn’t any; Laurie is only a little boy,” and Meg laughed also at the queer look which the sisters exchanged as she thus described her supposed lover.
“About your age,” Nan said.
“Nearer my sister Jo’s; I am seventeen in August,” returned Meg, tossing her head.
“It’s very nice of him to send you flowers, isn’t it?” said Annie, looking wise about nothing.
“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.
“It’s evident Daisy isn’t out yet,” said Miss Clara to Belle, with a nod.
“Quite a pastoral state of innocence all round,” returned Miss Belle, with a shrug.
“I’m going out to get some little matters for my girls; can I do anything for you, young ladies?” asked Mrs. Moffat, lumbering in, like an elephant, in silk and lace.
“No, thank you, ma’am,” replied Sallie. “I’ve got my new pink silk for Thursday, and don’t want a thing.”
“Nor I,—” began Meg, but stopped, because it occurred to her that she did want several things, and could not have them.
“What shall you wear?” asked Sallie.
“My old white one again, if I can mend it fit to be seen; it got sadly torn last night,” said Meg, trying to speak quite easily, but feeling very uncomfortable.
“Why don’t you send home for another?” said Sallie, who was not an observing young lady.
“I haven’t got any other.” It cost Meg an effort to say that, but Sallie did not see it, and exclaimed, in amiable surprise,—
“Only that? How funny—” She did not finish her speech, for Belle shook her head at her, and broke in, saying kindly,—
“Not at all; where is the use of having a lot of dresses when she isn’t 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, won’t you, dear?”
“You are very kind, but I don’t mind my old dress, if you don’t; it does well enough for a little girl like me,” said Meg.
“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 sha’n’t 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 couldn’t 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 silver holder finished her off; and Miss Belle surveyed her with the satisfaction of a little girl with a newly dressed doll.
“Mademoiselle is charmante, très jolie, is she not?” cried Hortense, clasping her hands in an affected rapture.
“Come and show yourself,” said Miss Belle, leading the way to the room where the others were waiting.
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 don’t any of you disturb the charming work of my hands,” said Belle, as she hurried away, looking well pleased with her success.
“I’m afraid to go down, I feel so queer and stiff and half-dressed,” said Meg to Sallie, as the bell rang, and Mrs. Moffat sent to ask the young ladies to appear at once.
“You don’t 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; don’t be so careful of them, and be sure you don’t 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 March—father a colonel in the army—one 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.”
“Dear me!” said the old lady, putting up her glass for another observation of Meg, who tried to look as if she had not heard, and been rather shocked at Mrs. Moffat’s fibs.
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.
“Silly creatures, to put such thoughts into my head! I won’t care for it, or let it change me a bit,” thought Meg, and rustled across the room to shake hands with her friend.
“I’m glad you came, I was afraid you wouldn’t,” she said, with her most grown-up air.
“Jo wanted me to come, and tell her how you looked, so I did;” answered Laurie, without turning his eyes upon her, though he half smiled at her maternal tone.
“What shall you tell her?” asked Meg, full of curiosity to know his opinion of her, yet feeling ill at ease with him, for the first time.
“I shall say I didn’t know you; for you look so grown-up, and unlike yourself, I’m quite afraid of you,” he said, fumbling at his glove-button.
“How absurd of you! The girls dressed me up for fun, and I rather like it. Wouldn’t Jo stare if she saw me?” said Meg, bent on making him say whether he thought her improved or not.
“Yes, I think she would,” returned Laurie gravely.
“Don’t you like me so?” asked Meg.
“No, I don’t,” was the blunt reply.
“Why not?” in an anxious tone.
He glanced at her frizzled head, bare shoulders, and fantastically trimmed dress, with an expression that abashed her more than his answer, which had not a particle of his usual politeness about it.
“I don’t like fuss and feathers.”
That was altogether too much from a lad younger than herself; and Meg walked away, saying petulantly,—
“You are the rudest boy I ever saw.”
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,—
“They are making a fool of that little girl; I wanted you to see her, but they have spoilt her entirely; she’s nothing but a doll, to-night.”
“Oh, dear!” sighed Meg; “I wish I’d been sensible, and worn my own things; then I should not have disgusted other people, or felt so uncomfortable and ashamed myself.”
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,—
“Please forgive my rudeness, and come and dance with me.”
“I’m afraid it will be too disagreeable to you,” said Meg, trying to look offended, and failing entirely.
“Not a bit of it; I’m dying to do it. Come, I’ll be good; I don’t like your gown, but I do think you are—just splendid;” and he waved his hands, as if words failed to express his admiration.
Meg smiled and relented, and whispered, as they stood waiting to catch the time,—
“Take care my skirt don’t trip you up; it’s the plague of my life, and I was a goose to wear it.”
“Pin it round your neck, and then it will be useful,” said Laurie, looking down at the little blue boots, which he evidently approved of.
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.
“Laurie, I want you to do me a favor; will you?” said Meg, as he stood fanning her, when her breath gave out, which it did very soon, though she would not own why.
“Won’t I!” said Laurie, with alacrity.
“Please don’t tell them at home about my dress to-night. They won’t understand the joke, and it will worry mother.”
“Then why did you do it?” said Laurie’s eyes, so plainly that Meg hastily added,—
“I shall tell them, myself, all about it, and ‘fess to mother how silly I’ve been. But I’d rather do it myself; so you’ll not tell, will you?”
“I give you my word I won’t; only what shall I say when they ask me?”
“Just say I looked pretty well, and was having a good time.”
“I’ll say the first, with all my heart; but how about the other? You don’t 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,—
“No; not just now. Don’t think I’m horrid; I only wanted a little fun, but this sort doesn’t pay, I find, and I’m getting tired of it.”
“Here comes Ned Moffat; what does he want?” said Laurie, knitting his black brows, as if he did not regard his young host in the light of a pleasant addition to the party.
“He put his name down for three dances, and I suppose he’s coming for them. What a bore!” said Meg, assuming a languid air, which amused Laurie immensely.
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 wouldn’t Meg; your mother doesn’t 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.
“Wish to-morrow was here, then,” muttered Laurie, walking off, ill-pleased at the change he saw in her.
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.
“Remember!” she said, trying to smile, for the splitting headache had already begun.
“Silence à la mort,” replied Laurie, with a melodramatic flourish, as he went away.
This little bit of by-play excited Annie’s curiosity; but Meg was too tired for gossip, and went to bed, feeling as if she had been to a masquerade, and hadn’t enjoyed herself as much as she expected. She was sick all the next day, and on Saturday went home, quite used up with her fortnight’s 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 isn’t 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 children’s 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 Beth’s stool, leaned her elbows on her mother’s knee, saying bravely,—
“Marmee, I want to ‘’fess.’”
“I thought so; what is it, dear?”
“Shall I go away?” asked Jo discreetly.
“Of course not; don’t I always tell you everything? I was ashamed to speak of it before the children, but I want you to know all the dreadful things I did at the Moffat’s.”
“We are prepared,” said Mrs. March, smiling, but looking a little anxious.
“I told you they dressed me up, but I didn’t tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate. Laurie thought I wasn’t proper; I know he did, though he didn’t 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.”
“Is that all?” asked Jo, as Mrs. March looked silently at the downcast face of her pretty daughter, and could not find it in her heart to blame her little follies.
“No; I drank champagne and romped and tried to flirt, and was altogether abominable,” said Meg self-reproachfully.
“There is something more, I think;” and Mrs. March smoothed the soft cheek, which suddenly grew rosy, as Meg answered slowly,—
“Yes; it’s very silly, but I want to tell it, because I hate to have people say and think such things about us and Laurie.”
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 Meg’s innocent mind.
“Well, if that isn’t the greatest rubbish I ever heard,” cried Jo indignantly. “Why didn’t you pop out and tell them so, on the spot?”
“I couldn’t, it was so embarrassing for me. I couldn’t help hearing, at first, and then I was so angry and ashamed, I didn’t remember that I ought to go away.”
“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! Won’t 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.
“If you tell Laurie, I’ll never forgive you! She mustn’t, must she, mother?” said Meg, looking distressed.
“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.”
“Don’t be sorry, I won’t 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 can’t 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.
“Mother, do you have ‘plans,’ as Mrs. Moffat said?” asked Meg bashfully.
“Yes, my dear, I have a great many; all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat’s, 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 men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”
“Poor girls don’t stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward,” sighed Meg.
“Then we’ll be old maids,” said Jo stoutly.
“Right, Jo; better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands,” said Mrs. March decidedly. “Don’t 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.”
“We will, Marmee, we will!” cried both, with all their hearts, as she bade them good-night.