A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IV." by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
From: An Old-Fashioned Girl. by Louisa May Alcott. Originally published: Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1870. This edition: Boston: Little, Brown, 1950 (copyright 1870; 1897, 1898, 1910, 1911.)

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



"IT 'S so wainy, I can't go out, and evwybody is so cwoss they won't play with me," said Maud, when Polly found her fretting on the stairs, and paused to ask the cause of her wails.

"I 'll play with you; only don't scream and wake your mother. What shall we play?"

"I don't know; I 'm tired of evwything, 'cause my toys are all bwoken, and my dolls are all sick but Clawa," moaned Maud, giving a jerk to the Paris doll which she held upside down by one leg in the most unmaternal manner.

"I 'm going to dress a dolly for my little sister; would n't you like to see me do it?" asked Polly, persuasively, hoping to beguile the cross child and finish her own work at the same time.

"No, I should n't, 'cause she 'll look nicer than my Clawa. Her clothes won't come off; and Tom spoilt 'em playing ball with her in the yard."

"Would n't you like to rip these clothes off, and have me show you how to make some new ones, so you can dress and undress Clara as much as you like?"

"Yes; I love to cut." And Maud's, face brightened; for destructiveness is one of the earliest traits of childhood, and ripping was Maud's delight.

Establishing themselves in the deserted dining-room, the children fell to work; and when Fanny discovered them, Maud was laughing with all her heart at poor Clara, who, denuded of her finery, was cutting up all sorts of capers in the hands of her merry little mistress.

"I should think you 'd be ashamed to play with dolls, Polly. I have n't touched one this ever so long," said Fanny, looking down with a superior air.

"I ain't ashamed, for it keeps Maud happy, and will please my sister Kitty; and I think sewing is better than prinking or reading silly novels, so, now." And Polly stitched away with a resolute air, for she and Fanny had had a little tiff; because Polly would n't let her friend do up her hair "like other folks," and bore her ears.

"Don't be cross, dear, but come and do something nice, it 's so dull to-day," said Fanny, anxious to be friends again, for it was doubly dull without Polly.

"Can't; I 'm busy."

"You always are busy. I never saw such a girl. What in the world do you find to do all the time?" asked Fanny, watching with interest the set of the little red merino frock Polly was putting on to her doll.

"Lots of things; but I like to be lazy sometimes as much as you do; just lie on the sofa, and read fairy stories, or think about nothing. Would you have a white-muslin apron or a black silk?" added Polly, surveying her work with satisfaction.

"Muslin, with pockets and tiny blue bows. I 'll show you how." And forgetting her hate and contempt for dolls, down sat Fanny, soon getting as much absorbed as either of the others.

The dull day brightened wonderfully after that, and the time flew pleasantly, as tongues and needles went together. Grandma peeped in, and smiled at the busy group, saying, "Sew away, my dears; dollies are safe companions, and needlework an accomplishment that 's sadly neglected nowadays. Small stitches, Maud; neat buttonholes, Fan; cut carefully, Polly, and don't waste your cloth. Take pains; and the best needlewoman shall have a pretty bit of white satin for a doll's bonnet."

Fanny exerted herself, and won the prize, for Polly helped Maud, and neglected her own work; but she did n't care much, for Mr. Shaw said, looking at the three bright faces at the tea-table, "I guess Polly has been making sunshine for you to-day."

"No, indeed, sir, I have n't done anything, only dress Maud's doll."

And Polly did n't think she had done much; but it was one of the little things which are always waiting to be done in this world of ours, where rainy days come so often, where spirits get out of tune, and duty won't go hand in hand with pleasure. Little things of this sort are especially good work for little people; a kind little thought, an unselfish little act, a cheery little word, are so sweet and comfortable, that no one can fail to feel their beauty and love the giver, no matter how small they are. Mothers do a deal of this sort of thing, unseen, unthanked, but felt and remembered long afterward, and never lost, for this is the simple magic that binds hearts together, and keeps home happy. Polly had learned this secret.

She loved to do the "little things" that others did not see, or were too busy to stop for; and while doing them, without a thought of thanks, she made sunshine for herself as well as others. There was so much love in her own home, that she quickly felt the want of it in Fanny's, and puzzled herself to find out why these people were not kind and patient to one another. She did not try to settle the question, but did her best to love and serve and bear with each, and the good will, the gentle heart, the helpful ways and simple manners of our Polly made her dear to every one, for these virtues, even in a little child, are lovely and attractive.

Mr. Shaw was very kind to her, for he liked her modest, respectful manners; and Polly was so grateful for his many favors, that she soon forgot her fear, and showed her affection in all sorts of confiding little ways, which pleased him extremely. She used to walk across the park with him when he went to his office in the morning, talking busily all the way, and saying "Good-by" with a nod and a smile when they parted at the great gate. At first, Mr. Shaw did not care much about it; but soon he missed her if she did not come, and found that something fresh and pleasant seemed to brighten all his day, if a small, gray-coated figure, with an intelligent face, a merry voice, and a little hand slipped confidingly into his, went with him through the wintry park. Coming home late, he liked to see a curly, brown head watching at the window; to find his slippers ready, his paper in its place, and a pair of willing feet, eager to wait upon him. "I wish my Fanny was more like her," he often said to himself, as he watched the girls, while they thought him deep in politics or the state of the money market. Poor Mr. Shaw had been so busy getting rich, that he had not found time to teach his children to love him; he was more at leisure now, and as his boy and girls grew up, he missed something. Polly was unconsciously showing him what it was, and making child-love so sweet, that he felt he could not do without it any more, yet did n't quite know how to win the confidence of the children, who had always found him busy, indifferent, and absentminded.

As the girls were going to bed one night, Polly kissed grandma, as usual, and Fanny laughed at her, saying, "What a baby you are! We are too old for such things now."

"I don't think people ever are too old to kiss their fathers and mothers," was the quick answer.

"Right, my little Polly;" and Mr. Shaw stretched out his hand to her with such a kindly look, that Fanny stared surprised, and then said, shyly, "I thought you did n't care about it, father."

"I do, my dear:" And Mr. Shaw put out the other hand to Fanny, who gave him a daughterly kiss, quite forgetting everything but the tender feeling that sprung up in her heart at the renewal of the childish custom which we never need outgrow.

Mrs. Shaw was a nervous, fussy invalid, who wanted something every five minutes; so Polly found plenty of small things to do for her and did, them so cheerfully, that the poor lady loved to have the quiet, helpful child near, to wait upon her, read to her, run errands, or hand the seven different shawls which were continually being put on or off.

Grandma, too, was glad to find willing hands and feet to serve her; and Polly passed many happy hours in the quaint rooms, learning all sorts of pretty arts, and listening to pleasant chat, never dreaming how much sunshine she brought to the solitary old lady.

Tom was Polly's rock ahead for a long time, because he was always breaking out in a new place, and one never knew where to find him. He tormented yet amused her; was kind one day, and a bear the next; at times she fancied he was never going to be bad again, and the next thing she knew he was deep in mischief, and hooted at the idea of repentance and reformation. Polly gave him up as a hard case; but was so in the habit of helping any one who seemed in trouble, that she was good to him simply because she could n't help it.

"What 's the matter? Is your lesson too hard for you?" she asked one evening, as a groan made her look across the table to where Tom sat scowling over a pile of dilapidated books, with his hands in his hair, as if his head was in danger of flying asunder with the tremendous effort he was making.

"Hard! Guess it is. What in thunder do I care about the old Carthaginians? Regulus was n't bad; but I 'm sick of him!" And Tom dealt "Harkness's Latin Reader" a thump, which expressed his feelings better than words.

"I like Latin, and used to get on well when I studied it with Jimmy. Perhaps I can help you a little bit," said Polly, as Tom wiped his hot face and refreshed himself with a peanut.

"You? pooh! girls' Latin don't amount to much anyway," was the grateful reply.

But Polly was used to him now, and, nothing daunted, took a look at the grimy page in the middle of which Tom had stuck. She read it so well, that the young gentleman stopped munching to regard her with respectful astonishment, and when she stopped, he said, suspiciously, "You are a sly one, Polly, to study up so you can show off before me. But it won't do, ma'am; turn over a dozen pages, and try again."

Polly obeyed, and did even better than before, saying, as she looked up, with a laugh, "I 've been through the whole book; so you won't catch me that way, Tom."

"I say, how came you to know such a lot?" asked Tom, much impressed.

"I studied with Jimmy, and kept up with him, for father let us be together in all our lessons. It was so nice, and we learned so fast!"

"Tell me about Jimmy. He 's your brother, is n't he?"

"Yes; but he 's dead, you know. I 'll tell about him some other time; you ought to study now, and perhaps I can help you," said Polly, with a little quiver of the lips.

"Should n't wonder if you could." And Tom spread the book between them with a grave and business-like air, for he felt that Polly had got the better of him, and it behooved him to do his best for the honor of his sex. He went at the lesson with a will, and soon floundered out of his difficulties, for Polly gave him a lift here and there, and they went on swimmingly, till they came to some rules to be learned. Polly had forgotten them, so they, both committed them to memory;–Tom, with hands in his pockets, rocked to and fro, muttering rapidly, while Polly twisted the little curl on her forehead and stared at the wall, gabbling with all her might.

"Done!" cried Tom, presently.

"Done!" echoed Polly; and then they heard each other recite till both were perfect

"That 's pretty good fun," said Tom, joyfully, tossing poor Harkness away, and feeling that the pleasant excitement of companionship could lend a charm even to Latin Grammar.

"Now, ma'am, we 'll take a turn at algibbera. I like that as much as I hate Latin."

Polly accepted the invitation, and soon owned that Tom could beat her here. This fact restored his equnimity; but he did n't crow over her, far from it; for he helped her with a paternal patience that made her eyes twinkle with suppressed fun, as he soberly explained and illustrated, unconsciously imitating Dominie Deane, till Polly found it difficult to keep from laughing in his face.

"You may have another go at it any, time you like," generously remarked Tom, as he shied the algebra after the Latin Reader.

"I 'll come every evening, then. I 'd like to, for I have n't studied a bit since I came. You shall try and make me like algebra, and I 'll try and make you like Latin, will you?"

"Oh, I 'd like it well enough, if there was any one explain it to me. Old Deane puts us through double-quick, and don't give a fellow time to ask questions when we read."

"Ask your father; he knows."

"Don't believe he does; should n't dare to bother him, if he did."

"Why not?"

"He 'd pull my ears, and call me a 'stupid,' or tell me not to worry him."

"I don't think he would. He 's very kind to me, and I ask lots of questions."

"He likes you better than he does me."

"Now, Tom!–it 's wrong of you to say so. Of course he loves you ever so much more than he does me," cried Polly, reprovingly.

"Why don't he show it then?" muttered Tom, with a half-wistful, half-defiant glance toward the library door, which stood ajar.

"You act so, how can he?" asked Polly, after a pause, in which she put Tom's question to herself, and could find no better reply than the one she gave him.

"Why don't he give me my velocipede? He said, if I did well at school for a month, I should have it; and I 've been pegging away like fury for most six weeks, and he don't do a thing about it. The girls get their duds, because they tease. I won't do that anyway; but you don't catch me studying myself to death, and no pay for it."

"It is too bad; but you ought to do it because it 's right, and never mind being paid," began Polly, trying to be moral, but secretly sympathizing heartily with poor Tom.

"Don't you preach, Polly. If the governor took any notice of me, and cared how I got on, I would n't mind the presents so much; but he don't care a hang, and never even asked if I did well last declamation day, when I 'd gone and learned 'The Battle of Lake Regillus,' because he said he liked it."

"Oh, Tom! Did you say that? It 's splendid! Jim and I used to say Horatius together, and it was such fun. Do speak your piece to me, I do so like 'Macaulay's Lays.'"

"It 's dreadful long," began Tom; but his face brightened, for Polly's interest soothed his injured feelings, and he was glad to prove his elocutionary powers. He began without much spirit; but soon the martial ring of the lines fired him, and before he knew it, he was on his legs thundering away in grand style, while Polly listened with kindling face and absorbed attention. Tom did declaim well, for he quite forgot himself, and delivered the stirring ballad with an energy that made Polly flush and tingle with admiration and delight, and quite electrified a second listener, who had heard all that went on, and watched the little scene from behind his newspaper.

As Tom paused, breathless, and Polly clapped her hands enthusiastically, the sound was loudly echoed from behind him. Both whirled round, and there was Mr. Shaw, standing in the doorway, applauding with all his might.

Tom looked much abashed, and said not a word; Polly ran to Mr. Shaw, and danced before him, saying, eagerly, "Was n't it splendid? Did n't he do well? May n't he have his velocipede now?"

"Capital, Tom; you 'll be an orator yet. Learn another piece like that, and I 'll come and hear you speak it. Are you ready for your velocipede, hey?"

Polly was right; and Tom owned that "the governor" was kind, did like him and had n't entirely forgotten his promise. The boy turned red with pleasure, and picked at the buttons on his jacket, while listening to this unexpected praise; but when he spoke, he looked straight up in his father's face, while his own shone with pleasure, as he answered, in one breath, "Thankee, sir. I 'll do it, sir. Guess I am, sir!"

"Very good; then look out for your new horse tomorrow, sir." And Mr. Shaw stroked the fuzzy red head with a kind hand, feeling a fatherly pleasure in the conviction that there was something in his boy after all.

Tom got his velocipede next day, named it Black Auster, in memory of the horse in "The Battle of Lake Regillus," and came to grief as soon as he began to ride his new steed.

"Come out and see me go it," whispered Tom to Polly, after three days' practice in the street, for he had already learned to ride in the rink.

Polly and Maud willingly went, and watched his struggles, with deep interest, till he got an upset, which nearly put an end to his velocipeding forever.

"Hi, there! Auster's coming!" shouted Tom, as came rattling down the long, steep street outside the park.

They stepped aside, and he whizzed by, arms and legs going like mad, with the general appearance of a runaway engine. It would have been a triumphant descent, if a big dog had not bounced suddenly through one of the openings, and sent the whole concern helter-skelter into the gutter. Polly laughed as she ran to view the ruin. for Tom lay flat on his back with the velocipede atop him, while the big dog barked wildly, and his master scolded him for his awkwardness. But when she saw Tom's face, Polly was frightened, for the color had all gone out of it, his eyes looked strange and dizzy, and drops of blood began to trickle from a great cut on his forehead. The man saw it, too, and had him up in a minute; but he could n't stand, and stared about him in a dazed sort of way, as he sat on the curbstone, while Polly held her handkerchief to his forehead, and pathetically begged to know if he was killed.

"Don't scare mother,–I 'm all right. Got upset, did n't I?" he asked, presently, eyeing the prostrate velocipede with more anxiety about its damages than his own.

"I knew you 'd hurt yourself with that horrid thing just let it be, and come home, for your head bleeds dreadfully, and everybody is looking at us," whispered Polly, trying to tie the little handkerchief over the ugly cut.

"Come on, then. Jove! how queer my head feels! Give us a boost, please. Stop howling, Maud, and come home. You bring the machine, and I 'll pay you, Pat." As he spoke, Tom slowly picked himself and steadying himself by Polly's shoulder, issued commands, and the procession fell into line. First, the big dog, barking at intervals; then the good-natured Irishman, trundling "that divil of a whirligig," as he disrespectfully called the idolized velocipede; then the wounded hero, supported by the helpful Polly; and Maud brought up the rear in tears, bearing Tom's cap.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Shaw was out driving with grandma, and Fanny was making calls; so that there was no one but Polly to stand by Tom, for the parlor-maid turned faint at the sight of blood, and the chamber-maid lost her wits in the flurry. It was a bad cut, and must be sewed up at once, the doctor said, as soon as he came. "Somebody must hold his head;" he added, as he threaded his queer little needle.

"I 'll keep still, but if anybody must hold me, let Polly. You ain't afraid, are you?" asked Tom, with imploring look, for he did n't like the idea of being sewed a bit.

Polly was just going to shrink away, saying, "Oh I can't!" when she remembered that Tom once called her a coward. Here was a chance to prove that she was n't; besides, poor Tom had no one else to help him; so she came up to the sofa where he lay, and nodded reassuringly, as she put a soft little hand on either side of the damaged head.

"You are a trump, Polly," whispered Tom. Then he set his teeth, clenched his hands, lay quite still, and bore it like a man. It was all over in a minute or two, and when he had had a glass of wine, and was nicely settled on his bed, he felt pretty comfortable, in spite of the pain in his head; and being ordered to keep quiet, he said, "Thank you ever so much, Polly," and watched her with a grateful face as she crept away.

He had to keep the house for a week, and laid about looking very interesting with a great black patch on his forehead. Every one 'petted him;' for the doctor said, that if the blow had been an inch nearer the temple, it would have been fatal, and the thought of losing him so suddenly made bluff old Tom very precious all at once. His father asked him how he was a dozen times a day; his mother talked continually of "that dear boy's narrow escape"; and grandma cockered him up with every delicacy she could invent; and the girls waited on him like devoted slaves. This new treatment had an excellent effect; for when neglected Tom got over his first amazement at this change of base, he blossomed out delightfully, as sick people do sometimes, and surprised his family by being unexpectedly patient, grateful, and amiable. Nobody ever knew how much good it did him; for boys seldom have confidences of this sort except with their mothers, and Mrs. Shaw had never found the key to her son's heart. But a little seed was sowed then that took root, and though it grew very slowly, it came to something in the end. Perhaps Polly helped it a little. Evening was his hardest time, for want of exercise made him as restless and nervous as it was possible for a hearty lad to be on such a short notice.

He could n't sleep so the girls amused him;–Fanny played and read aloud; Polly sung, and told stories; and did the latter so well, that it got to be a regular thing for her to begin as soon as twilight came, and Tom was settled in his favorite place on grandma's sofa.

"Fire away, Polly," said the young sultan, one evening, as his little Scheherazade sat down in her low chair, after stirring up the fire till the room was bright and cosy.

"I don't feel like stories to-night, Tom. I 've told all I know, and can't make up any more," answered Polly, leaning her head on her hand with a sorrowful look that Tom had never seen before. He watched her a minute, and then asked, curiously, "What were you thinking about, just now, when you sat staring at the fire, and getting soberer and soberer every minute?

"I was thinking about Jimmy."

"Would you mind telling about him? You know, you said you would some time; but don't, if you 'd rather not," said Tom, lowering his rough voice respectfully.

"I like to talk about him; but there is n't much to tell," began Polly, grateful for his interest. "Sitting here with you reminded me of the way I used to sit with him when he was sick. We used to have such happy times, and it 's so pleasant to think about them now."

"He was awfully good, was n't he?"

"No, he was n't; but he tried to be, and mother says that is half the battle. We used to get tired of trying; but we kept making resolutions, and working hard to keep 'em. I don't think I got on much; but Jimmy did, and every one loved him."

"Did n't you ever squabble, as we do?"

"Yes, indeed, sometimes; but we could n't stay mad, and always made it up again as soon as we could. Jimmy used to come round first, and say, 'All serene, Polly,' so kind and jolly, that I could n't help laughing and being friends right away."

"Did he not know a lot?"

"Yes, I think he did, for he liked to study, and wanted to get on, so he could help father. People used to call him a fine boy, and I felt so proud to hear it; but they did n't know half how wise he was, because he did n't show off a bit. I suppose sisters always are grand of their brothers; but I don't believe many girls had as much right to be as I had."

"Most girls don't care two pins about their brothers; so that shows you don't know much about it."

"Well, they ought to, if they don't; and they would if the boys were as kind to them as Jimmy was to me."

"Why, what did he do?"

"Loved me dearly, and was n't ashamed to show it," cried Polly, with a sob in her voice, that made her answer very eloquent.

"What made him die, Polly?" asked Tom, soberly, after little pause.

"He got hurt coasting, last winter; but he never told which boy did it, and he only lived a week. I helped take care of him; and he was so patient, I used to wonder at him, for he was in dreadful pain all time. He gave me his books, and his dog, and his speckled hens, and his big knife, and said, 'Good-by, Polly,'–and kissed me the last thing–and then–O Jimmy! Jimmy! If he only could come back!"

Poor Polly's eyes had been getting fuller and fuller, lips trembling more and more, as she went on; when she came to that "good-by," she could n't get any further, but covered up her face, and cried as her heart would break. Tom was full of sympathy, but did n't know how to show it; so he sat shaking up the camphor bottle, and trying to think of something proper and comfortable to say, when Fanny came to the rescue, and cuddled Polly in her arms, with soothing little pats and whispers and kisses, till the tears stopped, and Polly said, she "did n't mean to, and would n't any more. I 've been thinking about my dear boy all the evening, for Tom reminds me of him," she added, with a sigh.

"Me? How can I, when I ain't a bit like him?" cried Tom, amazed.

"But you are in some ways."

"Wish I was; but I can't be, for he was good, you know."

"So are you, when you choose. Has n't he been good and patient, and don't we all like to pet him when he 's clever, Fan?"' said Polly, whose heart was still aching for her brother, and ready for his sake to find virtues even in tormenting Tom.

"Yes; I don't know the boy lately; but he 'll be as bad as ever when he 's well," returned Fanny, who had n't much faith in sick-bed repentances.

"Much you know about it," growled Tom, lying down again, for he had sat bolt upright when Polly made the astounding declaration that he was like the well-beloved Jimmy. That simple little history had made a deep impression on Tom, and the tearful ending touched the tender spot that most boys hide so carefully. It is very pleasant to be loved and admired, very sweet to think we shall be missed and mourned when we die; and Tom was seized with a sudden desire to imitate this boy, who had n't done anything wonderful, yet was so dear to his sister, that she cried for him a whole year after he was dead; so studious and clever, the people called him "a fine fellow"; and so anxious to be good, that he kept on trying, till he was better even than Polly, whom Tom privately considered a model of virtue, as girls go.

"I just wish I had a sister like you," he broke out, all of a sudden.

"And I just wish I had a brother like Jim," cried Fanny, for she felt the reproach in Tom's words, and knew she deserved it.

"I should n't think you 'd envy anybody, for you 've got one another," said Polly, with such a wistful look, that it suddenly set Tom and Fanny to wondering why they did n't have better times together, and enjoy themselves, as Polly and Jim did.

"Fan don't care for anybody but herself," said Tom.

"Tom is such a bear," retorted Fanny.

"I would n't say such things, for if anything should happen to either of you, the other one would feel so sorry. Every cross word I ever said to Jimmy comes back now, and makes me wish I had n't."

Two great tears rolled down Polly's cheeks, and were quietly wiped away; but I think they watered that sweet sentiment, called fraternal love, which till now had been neglected in the hearts of this brother and sister. They did n't say anything then, or make any plans, or confess any faults; but when they parted for the night, Fanny gave the wounded head a gentle pat (Tom never would have forgiven her if she had kissed him), and said, in a whisper, "I hope you 'll have a good sleep, Tommy, dear."

And Tom nodded back at her, with a hearty "Same to you, Fan."

That was all; but it meant a good deal, for the voices were kind, and the eyes met full of that affection which makes words of little consequence. Polly saw it; and though she did n't know that she had made the sunshine, it shone back upon her so pleasantly, that she fell happily asleep, though her Jimmy was n't there to say "good-night."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This book has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the Celebration of Women Writers through the combined work of:
Doug Vanderploeg, Leslee Suttie, and Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom