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. Everyone 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 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 momma, 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 tarlaton is all she has got. She may tear it tonight, and that will be a good excuse for offering a decent one.”
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 tarlaton,” 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