Monday, 23 November 2009

Little Men

Extract from the classic novel Little Men by Lewis Marr Alcott, in two parts.

Martin goes to Vanity Fair

“I do think it was the most fortunate thing in the world that those children should have the measles just now,” said Martin, one April day, as he stood packing the ‘go abroady’ trunk in his room, surrounded by his brothers.

“And so nice of Archie Moffat not to forget his promise. A whole fortnight of fun will be regularly splendid,” replied Joe, looking like a windmill as he folded skirts with his long arms.

“And such lovely weather, I’m so glad of that,” added Bertie, tidily sorting neck and hair ribbons in his best box, lent for the great occasion.

“I wish I was going to have a fine time and wear all these nice things,” said Andy with his mouth full of pins, as he artistically replenished his brother’s cushion.

“I wish you were all going, but as you can’t, I shall keep my adventures to tell you when I come back. I’m sure it’s the least I can do when you have been so kind, lending me things and helping me get ready,” said Martin, glancing round the room at the very simple outfit, which seemed nearly perfect in their eyes.

“What did Father give you out of the treasure box?” asked Andy, who had not been present at the opening of a certain cedar chest in which Mr. March kept a few relics of past splendor, as gifts for his boys when the proper time came.

“A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash. I wanted the violet silk, but there isn’t time to make it over, so I must be contented with my old tarlatan.”

“It will look nice over my new muslin skirt, and the sash will set it off beautifully. I wish I hadn’t smashed my coral bracelet, for you might have had it,” said Joe, who loved to give and lend, but whose possessions were usually too dilapidated to be of much use.

“There is a lovely old-fashioned pearl set in the treasure chest, but Father said real flowers were the prettiest ornament for a young boy, and Laura promised to send me all I want,” replied Martin. “Now, let me see, there’s my new gray walking suit, just curl up the feather in my hat, Bertie, then my poplin for Sunday and the small party, it looks heavy for spring, doesn’t it? The violet silk would be so nice. Oh, dear!”

“Never mind, you’ve got the tarlatan for the big party, and you always look like an angel in white,” said Andy, brooding over the little store of finery in which his soul delighted.

“It isn’t low-necked, and it doesn’t sweep enough, but it will have to do. My blue housedress looks so well, turned and freshly trimmed, that I feel as if I’d got a new one. My silk sacque isn’t a bit the fashion, and my bonnet doesn’t look like Sammy’s. I didn’t like to say anything, but I was sadly disappointed in my umbrella. I told Father black with a white handle, but he forgot and bought a green one with a yellowish handle. It’s strong and neat, so I ought not to complain, but I know I shall feel ashamed of it beside Archie’s silk one with a gold top,” sighed Martin, surveying the little umbrella with great disfavor.

“Change it,” advised Joe.

“I won’t be so silly, or hurt Papee’s feelings, when he took so much pains to get my things. It’s a nonsensical notion of mine, and I’m not going to give up to it. My silk stockings and two pairs of new gloves are my comfort. You are a dear to lend me yours, Joe. I feel so rich and sort of elegant, with two new pairs, and the old ones cleaned up for common.” And Martin took a refreshing peep at his glove box.

“Archie Moffat has blue and pink bows on his nightcaps. Would you put some on mine?” he asked, as Bertie brought up a pile of snowy muslins, fresh from Harold’s hands.

“No, I wouldn't, for the smart caps won’t match the plain gowns without any trimming on them. Poor folks shouldn’t rig,” said Joe decidedly.

“I wonder if I shall ever be happy enough to have real lace on my clothes and bows on my caps?” said Martin impatiently.

“You said the other day that you’d be perfectly happy if you could only go to Archie Moffat’s,” observed Bertie in his quiet way.

“So I did! Well, I am happy, and I won’t fret, but it does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t it? There now, the trays are ready, and everything in but my ball dress, which I shall leave for Father to pack,” said Martin, cheering up, as he glanced from the half-filled trunk to the many times pressed and mended white tarlatan, which he called his ‘ball dress’ with an important air.

The next day was fine, and Martin departed in style for a fortnight of novelty and pleasure. Mr. March had consented to the visit rather reluctantly, fearing that he would come back more discontented than he went. But he begged so hard, and Sammy had promised to take good care of him, and a little pleasure seemed so delightful after a winter of irksome work that the father yielded, and the son went to take his first taste of fashionable life.

The Moffats were very fashionable, and simple Martin was rather daunted, at first, by the splendor of the house and the elegance of its occupants. But they were kindly people, in spite of the frivolous life they led, and soon put their guest at his ease. Perhaps Martin felt, without understanding why, that they were not particularly cultivated or intelligent people, and that all their gilding could not quite conceal the ordinary material of which they were made. It certainly was agreeable to fare sumptuously, drive in a fine carriage, wear his best frock every day, and do nothing but enjoy himself. It suited him exactly, and soon he began to imitate the manners and conversation of those about him, to put on little airs and graces, use French phrases, crimp his hair, take in his dresses, and talk about the fashions as well as he could. The more he saw of Archie Moffat’s pretty things, the more he envied him and sighed to be rich. Home now looked bare and dismal as he thought of it, work grew harder than ever, and he felt that he was a very destitute and much-injured boy, in spite of the new gloves and silk stockings.

He had not much time for repining, however, for the three young boys were busily employed in ‘having a good time’. They shopped, walked, rode, and called all day, went to theaters and operas or frolicked at home in the evening, for Archie had many friends and knew how to entertain them. His older brothers were very fine young gents, and one was engaged, which was extremely interesting and romantic, Martin thought. Mrs. Moffat was a fat, jolly old lady, who knew his mother, and Mr. Moffat, a fat, jolly old gent, who took as great a fancy to Martin as his son had done. Everyone petted him, and ‘Daisy’, as they called him, was in a fair way to have his head turned.

When the evening for the small party came, he found that the poplin wouldn’t do at all, for the other boys were putting on thin dresses and making themselves very fine indeed. So out came the tarlatan, looking older, limper, and shabbier than ever beside Sammy’s crisp new one. Martin saw the boys glance at it and then at one another, and his cheeks began to burn, for with all his gentleness he was very proud. No one said a word about it, but Sammy offered to dress his hair, and Archie to tie his sash, and Beau, the engaged brother, praised his white arms. But in their kindness Martin saw only pity for his poverty, and his heart felt very heavy as he stood by himself, while the others laughed, chattered, and flew about like gauzy butterflies. The hard, bitter feeling was getting pretty bad, when the page brought in a box of flowers. Before he could speak, Archie had the cover off, and all were exclaiming at the lovely roses, heath, and fern within.

“It’s for Beau, of course, Georgia always sends him some, but these are altogether ravishing,” cried Archie, with a great sniff.

“They are for Master March,” the woman said. “And here’s a note,” put in the page, holding it to Martin.

“What fun! Who are they from? Didn’t know you had a lover,” cried the boys, fluttering about Martin in a high state of curiosity and surprise.

“The note is from Father, and the flowers from Laura,” said Martin simply, yet much gratified that she had not forgotten him.

“Oh, indeed!” said Archie with a funny look, as Martin slipped the note into his pocket as a sort of talisman against envy, vanity, and false pride, for the few loving words had done him good, and the flowers cheered him up by their beauty.

Feeling almost happy again, he laid by a few ferns and roses for himself, and quickly made up the rest in dainty bouquets for the breast, hair, or skirts of his friends, offering them so prettily that Clive, the elder brother, told him he was ‘the sweetest little thing he ever saw’, and they looked quite charmed with his small attention. Somehow the kind act finished his despondency, and when all the rest went to show themselves to Mr. Moffat, he saw a happy, bright-eyed face in the mirror, as he laid his ferns against his rippling hair and fastened the roses in the dress that didn’t strike him as so very shabby now.

He enjoyed himself very much that evening, for he danced to his heart’s content. Everyone was very kind, and he had three compliments. Archie made him sing, and some one said he had a remarkably fine voice. Major Lincoln asked who ‘the fresh little boy with the beautiful eyes’ was, and Mrs. Moffat insisted on dancing with him because he ‘didn’t dawdle, but had some spring in him’, as she gracefully expressed it. So altogether he had a very nice time, till he overheard a bit of conversation, which disturbed him extremely. He was sitting just inside the conservatory, waiting for his partner to bring him an ice, when he 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 boys, wouldn’t it? Sammy says they are very intimate now, and the old woman quite dotes on them.”

“Mr. M. has made his plans, I dare say, and will play his cards well, early as it is. The boy evidently doesn’t think of it yet,” said Mr. Moffat.

“He told that fib about his papa, as if he did know, and colored up when the flowers came quite prettily. Poor thing! He’d be so nice if he was only got up in style. Do you think he’d be offended if we offered to lend him a dress for Thursday?” asked another voice.

“He’s proud, but I don’t believe he’d mind, for that dowdy tarlatan is all he has got. He may tear it tonight, and that will be a good excuse for offering a decent one.”

Here Martin’s partner appeared, to find him looking much flushed and rather agitated. He was proud, and his pride was useful just then, for it helped him hide his mortification, anger, and disgust at what he had just heard. For, innocent and unsuspicious as he was, he could not help understanding the gossip of his friends. He tried to forget it, but could not, and kept repeating to himself, “Mr. M. has made his plans,” “that fib about his papa,” and “dowdy tarlatan,” till he was ready to cry and rush home to tell his troubles and ask for advice. As that was impossible, he did his best to seem gay, and being rather excited, he succeeded so well that no one dreamed what an effort he was making. He was very glad when it was all over and he was quiet in his bed, where he could think and wonder and fume till his head ached and his hot cheeks were cooled by a few natural tears. Those foolish, yet well meant words, had opened a new world to Martin, and much disturbed the peace of the old one in which till now he had lived as happily as a child. His innocent friendship with Laura was spoiled by the silly speeches he had overheard. His faith in his Father was a little shaken by the worldly plans attributed to him by Mr. Moffat, who judged others by himself, and the sensible resolution to be contented with the simple wardrobe which suited a poor woman’s son was weakened by the unnecessary pity of boys who thought a shabby dress one of the greatest calamities under heaven.

Poor Martin had a restless night, and got up heavy-eyed, unhappy, half resentful toward his friends, and half ashamed of himself for not speaking out frankly and setting everything right. Everybody dawdled that morning, and it was noon before the boys found energy enough even to take up their worsted work. Something in the manner of his friends struck Martin at once. They treated him with more respect, he thought, took quite a tender interest in what he said, and looked at him with eyes that plainly betrayed curiosity. All this surprised and flattered him, though he did not understand it till Master Beau looked up from his writing, and said, with a sentimental air...

“Daisy, dear, I’ve sent an invitation to your friend, Miss Laura, for Thursday. We should like to know her, and it’s only a proper compliment to you.”

Martin colored, but a mischievous fancy to tease the boys made him reply demurely, “You are very kind, but I’m afraid she won’t come.”

“Why not, dear?” asked Master Beau.

“She’s too old.”

“My child, what do you mean? What is her age, I beg to know!” cried Master Clive.

“Nearly seventy, I believe,” answered Martin, counting stitches to hide the merriment in his eyes.

“You sly creature! Of course we meant the young woman,” exclaimed Master Beau, laughing.

“There isn’t any, Laura is only a little girl.” And Martin laughed also at the queer look which the brothers exchanged as he thus described his supposed lover.

“About your age,” Niles said.

“Nearer my brother Joe’s; I am seventeen in August,” returned Martin, tossing his head.

“It’s very nice of her to send you flowers, isn’t it?” said Archie, looking wise about nothing.

“Yes, she often does, to all of us, for their house is full, and we are so fond of them. My Father and old Mrs. Laura are friends, you know, so it is quite natural that we children should play together,” and Martin hoped they would say no more.

“It’s evident Daisy isn’t out yet,” said Master Clive to Beau with a nod.

“Quite a pastoral state of innocence all round,” returned Master Beau with a shrug.

“I’m going out to get some little matters for my boys. Can I do anything for you, young gents?” asked Mr. Moffat, lumbering in like an elephant in silk and lace.

“No, thank you, sir,” replied Sammy. “I’ve got my new pink silk for Thursday and don’t want a thing.”

“Nor I...” began Martin, but stopped because it occurred to him that he did want several things and could not have them.

“What shall you wear?” asked Sammy.

“My old white one again, if I can mend it fit to be seen, it got sadly torn last night,” said Martin, trying to speak quite easily, but feeling very uncomfortable.

“Why don’t you send home for another?” said Sammy, who was not an observing young gent.

“I haven’t got any other.” It cost Martin an effort to say that, but Sammy did not see it and exclaimed in amiable surprise, “Only that? How funny...” He did not finish his speech, for Beau shook his head at him and broke in, saying kindly...

“Not at all. Where is the use of having a lot of dresses when he isn’t out yet? There’s no need of sending home, Daisy, even if you had a dozen, for I’ve got a sweet blue silk laid away, which I’ve outgrown, and you shall wear it to please me, won’t you, dear?”

“You are very kind, but I don’t mind my old dress if you don’t, it does well enough for a little lad like me,” said Martin.

“Now do let me please myself by dressing you up in style. I admire to do it, and you’d be a regular little beauty with a touch here and there. I shan’t let anyone see you till you are done, and then we’ll burst upon them like Cinders and his godfather going to the ball,” said Beau in his persuasive tone.

Martin couldn’t refuse the offer so kindly made, for a desire to see if he would be ‘a little beauty’ after touching up caused him to accept and forget all his former uncomfortable feelings toward the Moffats.

On the Thursday evening, Beau shut himself up with his page, and between them they turned Martin into a fine gentleman. They crimped and curled his hair, they polished his neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched his lips with coralline salve to make them redder, and Horatio would have added ‘a soupcon of rouge’, if Martin had not rebelled. They laced him into a sky-blue dress, which was so tight he could hardly breathe and so low in the neck that modest Martin blushed at himself in the mirror. A set of silver filagree was added, bracelets, necklace, brooch, and even earrings, for Horatio tied them on with a bit of pink silk which did not show. A cluster of tea-rose buds at the bosom, and a ruche, reconciled Martin to the display of his pretty, white shoulders, and a pair of high-heeled silk boots satisfied the last wish of his heart. A lace handkerchief, a plumy fan, and a bouquet in a shoulder holder finished him off, and Master Beau surveyed him with the satisfaction of a little boy with a newly dressed doll.

“Monsieur is charmant, tres joli, is he not?” cried Horatio, clasping his hands in an affected rapture.

“Come and show yourself,” said Master Beau, leading the way to the room where the others were waiting.

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