Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, combined in a Little Women story. 19th century New England, as Alcott had it.
Disclaimer: Anything that you recognize from Jane Austen's work, or Louisa May Alcott's work, is not mine. Please bear in mind that many of the lines are direct quotes, and Alcott should take the credit for creating them, not me.
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Elizabeth, lying on the rug.
"Not that is a truth universally acknowledged," cried Emma, laughing, plopping down next to her.
Jane was sitting on the rocker, and she looked up from the army sock she was knitting. "Poor Lizzy," she said sympathetically. "You did so want that book, didn't you?"
A few chords groaned from the old piano, where Anne sat. "We do have Father and Mother, and each other, do we not?" she said.
Elizabeth gazed sombrely at her. "We do not have Father, and shan't have him for a long time." She didn't say, "Perhaps never", but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away where the fighting was. Emma bit her lip and absent-mindedly took one of Lizzy's heavy chestnut braids, twirling it around her hand.
No one spoke for a while; then Jane said in a gentle tone, "You know Mother thinks we ought not to spend money on pleasure and frivolity, because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone. We ought to make our own small sacrifices, and do it gladly, for the poor men in the army." But she sighed, and thought regretfully of the pretty things she used to have, and would still like to have. Jane was more generous than most, with a philanthropic nature, but she had her vanity like any beautiful girl naturally would.
"We've each got a dollar, and I'd wager that it wouldn't help a whole army much. We should spend it and make ourselves happy; I don't expect anything from you or Marmee, but I do so want to buy Undine and Sintram for myself," said Elizabeth, all the while feeling rather selfish, and hoping for Jane or Emma or Anne to say it was perfectly all right.
"I had wanted some new music," said Anne, with a quiet little sigh.
"And I wanted new drawing pencils. I shall get them," decided Emma.
"Yes, let's spend it, and have a little fun! Marmee wouldn't wish for us to give up everything, and it is our own dollar. We work hard enough to earn it," said Elizabeth, a sudden hint of defiance in her tone.
Jane looked despondently down at her knitting. "To be honest, it is rather tiresome, teaching those King children."
"It's naughty of me, but I do think doing chores and washing dishes is ever so disagreeable. My hands always become so stiff, that I can scarcely practice anymore," said Anne, with another sigh.
"My position in our uncle's shop is quite odious. Dealing with cranky and argumentative customers is a hard lot, I should think, more so than any," declared Emma.
"It's not half so bad as attending to a stiff, overbearing old lady, who's never satisfied with anything, and worries you till you want to fly out the window – or bash her head in!" exclaimed Elizabeth. Her tone left her sisters in no doubt as to what course of action she preferred to take.
Jane admonished her. "Lizzy! She is our aunt – and even if she weren't, you shouldn't say such things. Isn't that right, Emma?"
Emma shrugged. "Do not call her 'aunt'; she evidently does not care to admit us poor destitute relations. And Jane, remember that she is the Lady Catherine, thank you very much." She wrinkled her nose derisively.
"She does mean well," said Anne, though try as she might, she couldn't keep a tiny note of doubt from her voice.
Elizabeth gave an inelegant snort. "And pigs can fly, I suppose! Stuffy, mean old lady. Obscenely wealthy, yet never sparing a penny for any of us."
"She and Mother did quarrel. Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding."
"Heaven forbid that anyone is responsible! Heaven forbid that we must think ill of anyone!"
"Lizzy, Lizzy!" chided Jane, waving her army sock in an authoritative manner. "Do not distress poor Annie. And if sitting idly makes you cross, you had better take up your half-done knitting directly. You too, Emma. And Annie dear, will you not put the kettle on the stove?"
Elizabeth stuck her tongue out at Jane, but she and Emma fetched their work obediently, and were soon knitting away. Anne hummed a soft lullaby as she filled the kettle with water, and set it on the stove.
We will take this opportunity, then, to draw a sketch of the cozy scene. The light from the fire cast a warm glow on the sisters' cheeks, and outside the twilight was falling dark, and the December snow fell softly against the windowpane. The furniture was plain, but adorned with colourful ornaments and cheery anecdotes. On the walls hung several pictures; the girls' favourite was the portrait of the entire March family, done by Emma's seven-year-old hand. Father looked owlish in his reading spectacles, and Mother held baby Annie in her arms.
That was eight years ago. Now, Father was away, and Mother had streaks of grey in her pretty dark hair. Anne was thin and pale, small for eleven, and Jane's face was careworn.
Jane was the prettiest and the eldest at sixteen, fair and blue-eyed, with soft blonde hair and an angelic countenance. Emma was fifteen, and dark where Jane was fair, although she had the same blue eyes. Her ears were rather large, which was her main complaint; her mouth seemed made for laughing, and she had a small inquisitive nose. Elizabeth, or Lizzy as she was generally called, was dark-haired like Emma, and the only one of the sisters who had their father's brown eyes. Hers was a piquant face, and she had on an impish expression more often than not. Anne was delicate and slight, sort of a faded version of Jane; her hair and complexion were slightly paler, and she appeared so fragile, that her mother often looked upon her with worry.
The clock struck six and, having swept the hearth, Anne put a pair of slippers down to warm. The sight of the old shoes had a good effect on the girls, for Mother was nearly home, and they brightened to
welcome her. Jane set her knitting aside, and rose from the rocker, for it was Marmee's favourite seat; Emma got up to light the lamp; and Elizabeth forgot how tired she was as she set the slippers closer to the blaze. She regarded them contemplatively.
"They are quite worn out. Marmee must have a new pair."
"I thought I'd get her one, with my dollar," said Anne.
"No, I shall!" insisted Emma.
"I'm the oldest," began Jane, but Elizabeth interjected with a decided, "I'm the man of the family now that Papa is away, and he did tell me particularly to take special care of Marmee and you girls. So I shall provide the slippers," she ended triumphantly.
Emma rolled her eyes at her younger sister. "He only told you that to make you pleased, so you wouldn't throw a fit when he went, for you were – and are – such a child and a tomboy." Elizabeth poked her in the shoulder. "Ow!"
"Why don't we each give her something for Christmas, and not get anything for ourselves?" said Anne.
"That's like you, dear! What will we get?" exclaimed Elizabeth.
Jane glanced up thoughtfully from where she was preparing the tea. "I think I shall buy her a pair of gloves. Her hands are often cold when she comes home."
"And I will get the slippers! Army ones, best to be had," cried Elizabeth.
"Do you think she'd like some new handkerchiefs?" wondered Anne.
"I'll give her a small bottle of cologne; she likes it, and it won't cost much, so I'll have enough left to buy my pencils," added Emma.
"How will we give the things?" asked Jane.
"Put them on the table, and bring her in, and see her open the bundles. Don't you remember how we used to do on our birthdays?" answered Elizabeth.
"Let Marmee think we're getting things for ourselves, then surprise her. We'll go shopping tomorrow," said Emma.
"Do you think she'd like new handkerchiefs?" said Anne again.
"Of course, darling," said Jane, and Emma and Elizabeth both echoed her, adding reassurances of their own. Anne, pleased, smiled and reached up to set out the teacups. Elizabeth and Emma continued knitting by the fire, and Anne and Jane moved about busily.
"Christopher Columbus!" Elizabeth yelled suddenly.
"What is it, what is it?"
They all laughed then; Elizabeth's braid had caught fire, from sitting too close to the source. It had burned for a whole half-minute, before Elizabeth noticed anything awry. A whole chunk was a different shade than the rest, and Elizabeth shot a murderous glare at the fireplace.
"Glad to find you so merry, girls," said a cheerful voice, very dear to each of the sisters, for to their mind it belonged to the most splendid mother in the world.
"Marmee," said Elizabeth, the pout disappearing from her face.
"Dear Lizzy, what happened to your hair? And how tired you look! Was your aunt very difficult today? Emma, how is your cold? Did you have a pleasant day, Jane? Come and kiss me, Annie."
Mrs March, while saying this, shed her wet things, and put her warm slippers on. She sat down on the rocker, and drew Anne to her lap, while the girls went about being helpful in their own particular ways. Jane arranged the tea table, Elizabeth flew about here and there, clattering everything she touched, tripping over chairs and dropping napkins, while Emma hovered about her mother's rocker affectionately, draping a blanket over her and Anne, drawing a footstool near, and occasionally giving directions to Jane and Lizzy.
As they all gathered about the table, Mrs March said, with a happy expression, "I've got a treat for you all after supper."
The girls all beamed a quick, bright smile. Anne's face lit up, Jane bit into her bread, forgetting the poor texture of it, and Emma laughed delightedly. Elizabeth tossed up her napkin, crying, "A letter! A letter! Three cheers for Father!"
"Yes, it's a nice long letter, and he sends all sorts of loving wishes for Christmas, and an especial message for you girls," said Mrs March, patting her pocket as if there was a treasure there.
Anne ate no more, but sat quietly, waiting for the others to finish, in anticipation of the letter. Elizabeth, in her haste to get to the same treat, dropped her bread, butter side down. Jane and Emma laughed fondly at her, and Mrs March bade her be careful.
"I think it was splendid of Father to go as chaplain, when he was too old to be drafted, and not strong enough for soldier," said Jane softly.
"Don't I wish I could have gone!" said Elizabeth, sighing regretfully.
"Oh, do you, Lizzy? What would you have gone as?" said Emma, laughing.
"Oh, as a drummer, or such, or even a nurse, just so I can be near Father and help him," said Elizabeth, with such a sober mien that Emma stopped laughing and patted her younger sister's hand comfortingly.
"When will he come home, Marmee?" said Anne, in a small voice, her lip quivering slightly.
"Not for many months yet, my darling. He will stay and do his work faithfully, and we will not ask for him a minute sooner than he is needed. Now come, dears, and hear the letter."
They all drew to the fire, Mother in the rocker, with Anne in her lap. Jane and Emma perched on either side of her, on the armrests, and Elizabeth sat at her feet, drawing her knees under her chin, and biting the singed end of her braid pensively.
Mrs March drew out the letter with one hand, and began reading; her other arm was holding Anne protectively in a comforting embrace. Elizabeth leaned back against her mother's leg, and listened attentively. Emma's dark head was bent, and Jane laid a hand on her mother's shoulder. Father's letters were always touching, though hopeful and cheery, but when he mentioned "the soldiers bravely marching forth down the hill, with the sun shining benevolently, a picture that dear Emma would delight in drawing", a tear rolled down Emma's cheek, and she thought of how much gladder she should be to see dear Father than a whole troop of splendidly dressed soldiers, drums, and trumpets.
"... and give a hug and kiss to my dear girls, whose affection I hold near my heart always, and keeps me marching no matter how long or dreary the day. A year seems a very long time to wait, but tell them that while we wait we may work, so that the time need not be wasted. I know they will be loving children to you, and do their duty faithfully with good nature. Tell them not to lose heart, and tell them always to remember that Father is thinking of his little women."
A sound suspiciously like a sniffle escaped Elizabeth, and Anne buried her face in her mother's shoulder. Jane observed quietly, "We will all do as he said, and truly try to improve ourselves, so that he may be proud of us when he returns, won't we?"
"Indeed! I'm a selfish girl, and so I'll start with thinking of others, sometimes, before myself," cried Emma.
"And I shan't be so wild and thoughtless anymore, only try to be patient like Jane, considerate like Anne, and try not to get mad at Lady Cat," said Elizabeth, thinking that keeping her temper was much harder than facing a rebel or two down south.
"I'll try to be less vain sometimes, but it is hard, for I like being pretty, and a lady," said Jane pensively.
"I'll try to learn some of Father's courage," mumbled Anne into her mother's shoulder. "And Lizzy's."
"Lizzy's isn't courage! It's recklessness," said Emma, teasing. Then she sighed, and said, "And I'll try to be kinder, too."
"Those are good resolutions, girls," said Mrs March gently. Then she continued, "Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim's Progress when you were little? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie 'burdens' to your backs, and let you travel through the house from the cellar to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things to make a Celestial City.
"And so we play it all our lives," she continued. "Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and kindness is our guide. Now, little pilgrims, suppose you began again, not in play, but in earnest, and seek to improve yourselves before Father returns."
"I should like that," said Jane, after a moment's silence.
"So should I," Anne said.
"But what of our burdens?" frowned Elizabeth.
"You each just named yours," reminded Mrs March. "Jane's is vanity; Emma's is selfishness; Annie wants for courage; and you wanted to learn patience and sympathy. Now come, my children, and gather your knitting; for as Father said we must not be idle."
And so the March girls knitted away by the lamp and firelight. Jane's fingers darted nimbly, and her rows were even and precise; Emma paid meticulous attention to every stitch; Elizabeth's piece resembled a sort of bundled handkerchief rather than a sock, but she knitted with zeal; and Anne hummed softly as she carefully stitched each row.
As they knitted Hannah cleared the table, and when the clock struck nine the girls put their socks away and gathered round the piano for their evening song. Only Anne could coax any tune from the old worn instrument, and she sang in a delicate lilting voice that at once commanded both tears and smiles. Mrs March and Jane were born singers, so led the little choir, and Emma's rich voice added tint to the song. Elizabeth wandered through the melody at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a quaver or a croak that spoiled the most pensive tune. She was the little duckling amidst the swans; but somehow added rather than took from the performance.