An Old-Fashioned Girl – Louisa May Alcott
Very few of even our best writers can compass a book for the young which shall be all that it ought to be, avoiding on the one hand extravagant sentimentality, and a standard so high as to be outside human nature altogether; on the other, vapid silliness which no grown girl can accept as fitting food for her mind at all, and which irritates, as all pretense and make-believe must. Some American books are, perhaps, the best of their kind for the present generation, leaving untouched our old favorites, which, however, have by this time acquired a certain musty and rococo air, and are not quite in harmony with the times. If we might single out one which seems to us perhaps the best of all, it would be ‘An Old-Fashioned Girl.’ In this American story there is, beside its intrinsic value as work of art, a certain homely practicality and quaintness that lends it a special charm. Their very diction is as amusing to us as its plot, and things which we should write as humorous caricature is set down in the most matter-of-fact sobriety. The characters of this little book are so lifelike, the story is so pleasant, the morality so sound, and the whole tone and treatment so brisk and healthful, that no one can read it without both pleasure and amusement, while its influence over the young would be, we should say, decidedly powerful as well as useful.
An Old-Fashioned Girl.
Excerpt from the text:
“IT’S time to go to the station, Tom.”
“Come on, then.”
“Oh, I’m not going; it’s too wet. Shouldn’t have a crimp left if I went out such a day as this; and I want to look nice when Polly comes.”
“You don’t expect me to go and bring home a strange girl alone, do you?” And Tom looked as much alarmed as if his sister had proposed to him to escort the wild woman of Australia.
“Of course I do. It’s your place to go and get her; and if you was n’t a bear, you’d like it.”
“Well, I call that mean! I supposed I’d got to go; but you said you’d go, too. Catch me bothering about your friends another time! No, sir!” And Tom rose from the sofa with an air of indignant resolution, the impressive effect of which was somewhat damaged by a tousled head, and the hunched appearance of his garments generally.
“Now, don’t be cross; and I’ll get mamma to let you have that horrid Ned Miller, that you are so fond of, come and make you a visit after Polly’s gone,” said Fanny, hoping to soothe his ruffled feelings.
“How long is she going to stay?” demanded Tom, making his toilet by a promiscuous shake.
“A month or two, maybe. She’s ever so nice; and I shall keep her as long as she’s happy.”
“She won’t stay long then, if I can help it,” muttered Tom, who regarded girls as a very unnecessary portion of creation. Boys of fourteen are apt to think so, and perhaps it is a wise arrangement; for, being fond of turning somersaults, they have an opportunity of indulging in a good one, metaphorically speaking, when, three or four years later, they become the abject slaves of “those bothering girls.”
“Look here! how am I going to know the creature? I never saw her, and she never saw me. You’ll have to come too, Fan,” he added, pausing on his way to the door, arrested by the awful idea that he might have to address several strange girls before he got the right one.
“You’ll find her easy enough; she’ll probably be standing round looking for us. I dare say she’ll know you, though I’m not there, because I’ve described you to her.”
“Guess she won’t, then;” and Tom gave a hasty smooth to his curly pate and a glance at the mirror, feeling sure that his sister hadn’t done him justice. Sisters never do, as “we fellows” know too well.
“Do go along, or you’ll be too late; and then, what will Polly think of me?” cried Fanny, with the impatient poke which is peculiarly aggravating to masculine dignity.
“She’ll think you cared more about your frizzles than your friends, and she’ll be about right, too.”
Feeling that he said rather a neat and cutting thing, Tom sauntered leisurely away, perfectly conscious that it was late, but bent on not being hurried while in sight, though he ran himself off his legs to make up for it afterward.
“If I was the President, I’d make a law to shut up all boys till they were grown; for they certainly are the most provoking toads in the world,” said Fanny, as she watched the slouchy figure of her brother strolling down the street. She might have changed her mind, however, if she had followed him, for as soon as he turned the corner, his whole aspect altered; his hands came out of his pockets, he stopped whistling, buttoned his jacket, gave his cap a pull, and went off at a great pace.
The train was just in when he reached the station, panting like a race-horse, and as red as a lobster with the wind and the run.
“Suppose she’ll wear a top-knot and a thingumbob, like every one else; and however shall I know her? Too bad of Fan to make me come alone!” thought Tom, as he stood watching the crowd stream through the depot, and feeling rather daunted at the array of young ladies who passed. As none of them seemed looking for any one, he did not accost them, but eyed each new batch with the air of a martyr. “That’s her,” he said to himself, as he presently caught sight of a girl in gorgeous array, standing with her hands folded, and a very small hat perched on the top of a very large “chig-non,” as Tom pronounced it. “I suppose I’ve got to speak to her, so here goes;” and, nerving himself to the task, Tom slowly approached the damsel, who looked as if the wind had blown her clothes into rags, such a flapping of sashes, scallops, ruffles, curls, and feathers was there.
“I say, if you please, is your name Polly Milton?” meekly asked Tom, pausing before the breezy stranger.
“No, it is n’t,” answered the young lady, with a cool stare that utterly quenched him.
“Where in thunder is she?” growled Tom, walking off in high dudgeon. The quick tap of feet behind him made him turn in time to see a fresh-faced little girl running down the long station, and looking as if she rather liked it. As she smiled, and waved her bag at him, he stopped and waited for her, saying to himself, “Hullo! I wonder if that’s Polly?”
Up came the little girl, with her hand out, and a half-shy, half-merry look in her blue eyes, as she said, inquiringly, “This is Tom, is n’t it?”
“Yes. How did you know?” and Tom got over the ordeal of hand-shaking without thinking of it, he was so surprised.
“Oh, Fan told me you’d got curly hair, and a funny nose, and kept whistling, and wore a gray cap pulled over your eyes; so I knew you directly.” And Polly nodded at him in the most friendly manner, having politely refrained from calling the hair “red,” the nose “a pug,” and the cap “old,” all of which facts Fanny had carefully impressed upon her memory.
“Where are your trunks?” asked Tom, as he was reminded of his duty by her handing him the bag, which he had not offered to take.
“Father told me not to wait for any one, else I’d lose my chance of a hack; so I gave my check to a man, and there he is with my trunk;” and Polly walked off after her one modest piece of baggage, followed by Tom, who felt a trifle depressed by his own remissness in polite attentions. “She is n’t a bit of a young lady, thank goodness! Fan didn’t tell me she was pretty. Don’t look like city girls, nor act like’em, neither,” he thought, trudging in the rear, and eyeing with favor the brown curls bobbing along in front.
As the carriage drove off, Polly gave a little bounce on the springy seat, and laughed like a delighted child. “I do like to ride in these nice hacks, and see all the fine things, and have a good time, don’t you?” she said, composing herself the next minute, as if it suddenly occurred to her that she was going a-visiting.
“Not much,” said Tom, not minding what he said, for the fact that he was shut up with the strange girl suddenly oppressed his soul.
“How’s Fan? Why didn’t she come, too?” asked Polly, trying to look demure, while her eyes danced in spite of her.
“Afraid of spoiling her crinkles;” and Tom smiled, for this base betrayal of confidence made him feel his own man again.
“You and I don’t mind dampness. I’m much obliged to you for coming to take care of me.”
It was kind of Polly to say that, and Tom felt it; for his red crop was a tender point, and to be associated with Polly’s pretty brown curls seemed to lessen its coppery glow. Then he hadn’t done anything for her but carry the bag a few steps; yet, she thanked him. He felt grateful, and in a burst of confidence, offered a handful of peanuts, for his pockets were always supplied with this agreeable delicacy, and he might be traced anywhere by the trail of shells he left behind him.
As soon as he had done it, he remembered that Fanny considered them vulgar, and felt that he had disgraced his family. So he stuck his head out of the window, and kept it there so long, that Polly asked if anything was the matter. “Pooh! who cares for a countrified little thing like her,” said Tom manfully to himself; and then the spirit of mischief entered in and took possession of him.
“He’s pretty drunk; but I guess he can hold his horses,” replied this evil-minded boy, with an air of calm resignation.
“Is the man tipsy? Oh, dear! let’s get out! Are the horses bad? It’s very steep here; do you think it’s safe?” cried poor Polly, making a cocked hat of her little beaver, by thrusting it out of the half-open window on her side.
“There’s plenty of folks to pick us up if anything happens; but perhaps it would be safer if I got out and sat with the man;” and Tom quite beamed with the brilliancy of this sudden mode of relief.
“Oh, do, if you ain’t afraid! Mother would be so anxious if anything should happen to me, so far away!” cried Polly, much distressed.
“Don’t you be worried. I’ll manage the old chap, and the horses too;” and opening the door, Tom vanished aloft, leaving poor victimized Polly to quake inside, while he placidly revelled in freedom and peanuts outside, with the staid old driver.
Fanny came flying down to meet her “darling Polly,” as Tom presented her, with the graceful remark, “I’ve got her!” and the air of a dauntless hunter, producing the trophies of his skill. Polly was instantly whisked up stairs; and having danced a double-shuffle on the door-mat, Tom retired to the dining-room, to restore exhausted nature with half a dozen cookies.
“Ain’t you tired to death? Don’t you want to lie down?” said Fanny, sitting on the side of the bed in Polly’s room, and chattering hard, while she examined everything her friend had on.
“Not a bit. I had a nice time coming, and no trouble, except the tipsy coachman; but Tom got out and kept him in order, so I was n’t much frightened,” answered innocent Polly, taking off her rough-and-ready coat, and the plain hat without a bit of a feather.
“Fiddlestick! he was n’t tipsy; and Tom only did it to get out of the way. He can’t bear girls,” said Fanny, with a superior air.