Poor Jo would gladly have gone under the table, as one thing after another was tasted and left, while Amy giggled, Meg looked distressed, Miss Crocker pursed her lips, and Laurie talked and laughed with all his might to give a cheerful tone to the festive scene. Jo’s one strong point was the fruit, for she had sugared it well, and had a pitcher of rich cream to eat with it. Her hot cheeks cooled a trifle, and she drew a long breath as the pretty glass plates went round, and everyone looked graciously at the little rosy islands floating in a sea of cream. Miss Crocker tasted first, made a wry face, and drank some water hastily. Jo, who refused, thinking there might not be enough, for they dwindled sadly after the picking over, glanced at Laurie, but he was eating away manfully, though there was a slight pucker about his mouth and he kept his eye fixed on his plate. Amy, who was fond of delicate fare, took a heaping spoonful, choked, hid her face in her napkin, and left the table precipitately.
“Oh, what is it?” exclaimed Jo, trembling.
“Salt instead of sugar, and the cream is sour,” replied Meg with a tragic gesture.
Jo uttered a groan and fell back in her chair, remembering that she had given a last hasty powdering to the berries out of one of the two boxes on the kitchen table, and had neglected to put the milk in the refrigerator. She turned scarlet and was on the verge of crying, when she met Laurie’s eyes, which would look merry in spite of his heroic efforts. The comical side of the affair suddenly struck her, and she laughed till the tears ran down her cheeks. So did everyone else, even ‘Croaker’ as the girls called the old lady, and the unfortunate dinner ended gaily, with bread and butter, olives and fun.
“I haven’t strength of mind enough to clear up now, so we will sober ourselves with a funeral,” said Jo, as they rose, and Miss Crocker made ready to go, being eager to tell the new story at another friend’s dinner table.
They did sober themselves for Beth’s sake. Laurie dug a grave under the ferns in the grove, little Pip was laid in, with many tears by his tender-hearted mistress, and covered with moss, while a wreath of violets and chickweed was hung on the stone which bore his epitaph, composed by Jo while she struggled with the dinner.
Here lies Pip March,
Who died the 7th of June;
Loved and lamented sore,
And not forgotten soon.
At the conclusion of the ceremonies, Beth retired to her room, overcome with emotion and lobster, but there was no place of repose, for the beds were not made, and she found her grief much assuaged by beating up the pillows and putting things in order. Meg helped Jo clear away the remains of the feast, which took half the afternoon and left them so tired that they agreed to be contented with tea and toast for supper.
Laurie took Amy to drive, which was a deed of charity, for the sour cream seemed to have had a bad effect upon her temper. Mrs. March came home to find the three older girls hard at work in the middle of the afternoon, and a glance at the closet gave her an idea of the success of one part of the experiment.
Before the housewives could rest, several people called, and there was a scramble to get ready to see them. Then tea must be got, errands done, and one or two necessary bits of sewing neglected until the last minute. As twilight fell, dewy and still, one by one they gathered on the porch where the June roses were budding beautifully, and each groaned or sighed as she sat down, as if tired or troubled.
“What a dreadful day this has been!” began Jo, usually the first to speak.
“It has seemed shorter than usual, but so uncomfortable,” said Meg.
“Not a bit like home,” added Amy.
“It can’t seem so without Marmee and little Pip,” sighed Beth, glancing with full eyes at the empty cage above her head.
“Here’s Mother, dear, and you shall have another bird tomorrow, if you want it.”
As she spoke, Mrs. March came and took her place among them, looking as if her holiday had not been much pleasanter than theirs.
“Are you satisfied with your experiment, girls, or do you want another week of it?” she asked, as Beth nestled up to her and the rest turned toward her with brightening faces, as flowers turn toward the sun.
“I don’t!” cried Jo decidedly.
“Nor I,” echoed the others.
“You think then, that it is better to have a few duties and live a little for others, do you?”
“Lounging and larking doesn’t pay,” observed Jo, shaking her head. “I’m tired of it and mean to go to work at something right off.”
“Suppose you learn plain cooking. That’s a useful accomplishment, which no woman should be without,” said Mrs. March, laughing inaudibly at the recollection of Jo’s dinner party, for she had met Miss Crocker and heard her account of it.