“Don’t try too many messes, Jo, for you can’t make anything but gingerbread and molasses candy fit to eat. I wash my hands of the dinner party, and since you have asked Laurie on your own responsibility, you may just take care of him.”
“I don’t want you to do anything but be civil to him and help to the pudding. You’ll give me your advice if I get in a muddle, won’t you?” asked Jo, rather hurt.
“Yes, but I don’t know much, except about bread and a few trifles. You had better ask Mother’s leave before you order anything,” returned Meg prudently.
“Of course I shall. I’m not a fool.” And Jo went off in a huff at the doubts expressed of her powers.
“Get what you like, and don’t disturb me. I’m going out to dinner and can’t worry about things at home,” said Mrs. March, when Jo spoke to her. “I never enjoyed housekeeping, and I’m going to take a vacation today, and read, write, go visiting, and amuse myself.”
The unusual spectacle of her busy mother rocking comfortably and reading early in the morning made Jo feel as if some unnatural phenomenon had occurred, for an eclipse, an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption would hardly have seemed stranger.
“Everything is out of sorts, somehow,” she said to herself, going downstairs. “There’s Beth crying, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong in this family. If Amy is bothering, I’ll shake her.”
Feeling very much out of sorts herself, Jo hurried into the parlor to find Beth sobbing over Pip, the canary, who lay dead in the cage with his little claws pathetically extended, as if imploring the food for want of which he had died.
“It’s all my fault, I forgot him, there isn’t a seed or a drop left. Oh, Pip! Oh, Pip! How could I be so cruel to you?” cried Beth, taking the poor thing in her hands and trying to restore him.
Jo peeped into his half-open eye, felt his little heart, and finding him stiff and cold, shook her head, and offered her domino box for a coffin.
“Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive,” said Amy hopefully.
“He’s been starved, and he shan’t be baked now he’s dead. I’ll make him a shroud, and he shall be buried in the garden, and I’ll never have another bird, never, my Pip! for I am too bad to own one,” murmured Beth, sitting on the floor with her pet folded in her hands.
“The funeral shall be this afternoon, and we will all go. Now, don’t cry, Bethy. It’s a pity, but nothing goes right this week, and Pip has had the worst of the experiment. Make the shroud, and lay him in my box, and after the dinner party, we’ll have a nice little funeral,” said Jo, beginning to feel as if she had undertaken a good deal.
Leaving the others to console Beth, she departed to the kitchen, which was in a most discouraging state of confusion. Putting on a big apron, she fell to work and got the dishes piled up ready for washing, when she discovered that the fire was out.
“Here’s a sweet prospect!” muttered Jo, slamming the stove door open, and poking vigorously among the cinders.
Having rekindled the fire, she thought she would go to market while the water heated. The walk revived her spirits, and flattering herself that she had made good bargains, she trudged home again, after buying a very young lobster, some very old asparagus, and two boxes of acid strawberries. By the time she got cleared up, the dinner arrived and the stove was red-hot. Hannah had left a pan of bread to rise, Meg had worked it up early, set it on the hearth for a second rising, and forgotten it. Meg was entertaining Sallie Gardiner in the parlor, when the door flew open and a floury, crocky, flushed, and disheveled figure appeared, demanding tartly…
“I say, isn’t bread ‘riz’ enough when it runs over the pans?”
Sallie began to laugh, but Meg nodded and lifted her eyebrows as high as they would go, which caused the apparition to vanish and put the sour bread into the oven without further delay. Mrs. March went out, after peeping here and there to see how matters went, also saying a word of comfort to Beth, who sat making a winding sheet, while the dear departed lay in state in the domino box. A strange sense of helplessness fell upon the girls as the gray bonnet vanished round the corner, and despair seized them when a few minutes later Miss Crocker appeared, and said she’d come to dinner. Now this lady was a thin, yellow spinster, with a sharp nose and inquisitive eyes, who saw everything and gossiped about all she saw. They disliked her, but had been taught to be kind to her, simply because she was old and poor and had few friends. So Meg gave her the easy chair and tried to entertain her, while she asked questions, critsized everything, and told stories of the people whom she knew.
Language cannot describe the anxieties, experiences, and exertions which Jo underwent that morning, and the dinner she served up became a standing joke. Fearing to ask any more advice, she did her best alone, and discovered that something more than energy and good will is necessary to make a cook. She boiled the asparagus for an hour and was grieved to find the heads cooked off and the stalks harder than ever. The bread burned black; for the salad dressing so aggravated her that she could not make it fit to eat. The lobster was a scarlet mystery to her, but she hammered and poked till it was unshelled and its meager proportions concealed in a grove of lettuce leaves. The potatoes had to be hurried, not to keep the asparagus waiting, and were not done at the last. The blanc mange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked, having been skilfully ‘deaconed’.
“Well, they can eat beef and bread and butter, if they are hungry, only it’s mortifying to have to spend your whole morning for nothing,” thought Jo, as she rang the bell half an hour later than usual, and stood, hot, tired, and dispirited, surveying the feast spread before Laurie, accustomed to all sorts of elegance, and Miss Crocker, whose tattling tongue would report them far and wide.