A Jolly Fourth by Louisa May Alcott

Story type: Literature

Door-step parties were the fashion that year, and it was while a dozen young folks sat chatting on Annie Hadwin’s steps in the twilight that they laid the plan which turned out such a grand success in the end.

“For my part, I am glad we are to be put on a short allowance of gunpowder, and that crackers are forbidden, they are such a nuisance, burning holes in clothes, frightening horses, and setting houses afire,” said sober Fred from the gate, where he and several other fellows were roosting socially together.

“It won’t seem a bit like a regular Fourth without the salutes three times during the day. They are afraid the old cannon will kick, and blow off some other fellow’s arm, as it did last year,” added Elly Dickens, the beau of the party, as he pulled down his neat wristbands, hoping Maud admired the new cuff-buttons in them.

“What shall we do in the evening, since the ball is given up? Just because the old folks are too tired to enjoy dancing, we can’t have any, and I think it is too bad,” said pretty Belle, impatiently, for she danced like a fairy and was never tired.

“The authorities didn’t dare to stop our races in the morning. There would have been an insurrection if they had,” called out long Herbert from the grass, where he lay at the feet of black-eyed Julia.

“We must do something to finish off with. Come, somebody suggest a new, nice, safe, and jolly plan for the evening,” cried Grace, who liked fun, and had just slipped a little toad into Jack Spratt’s pocket as a pleasant surprise when he felt for his handkerchief.

“Let us offer a prize for the brightest idea. Five minutes for meditation, then all suggest a plan, and the best one shall be adopted,” proposed Annie, glad to give a lively turn to her party.

All agreed, and sudden silence followed the chatter, broken now and then by an exclamation of “I’ve got it! No, I haven’t,” which produced a laugh at the impetuous party.

“Time’s up,” announced Fred, looking at “the turnip,” as his big old-fashioned watch was called. Every one had a proposal more or less original, and much discussion followed; but it was finally decided that Herbert’s idea of floating about in boats to enjoy the fireworks on the hill would be romantic, reposeful, and on the whole satisfactory.

“Each boat might have a colored lantern; that would look pretty, and then there would be no danger of running into our neighbors in the dark,” said Annie, who was a little timid on the water in a wherry.

“Why not have lots, and make a regular ‘feast of lanterns,’ as they do in China? I was reading about it the other day, and can show you how to do it. Won’t it be gay?” And Fred the bookworm nearly tumbled off his perch, as an excited gesture emptied his pockets of the library books which served as ballast.

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“Yes! yes!” cried the other lads, with various demonstrations of delight as the new fancy grew upon their lively minds.

“Fred and Annie must have the prize, for their idea is the most brilliant one. Nan can give the flag to the winner of the race, and ‘Deacon’ can lead the boats, for I think it would be fine to have a procession on the river. Fireworks are an old story, so let us surprise the town by something regularly splendid,” proposed Elly, fired in his turn with a bright idea.

“We will! we will!” cried the rest, and at once plunged into the affair with all the ardor of their years.

“Let us dress up,” said Julia, who liked theatricals.

“In different characters,” added Maud, thinking how well her long yellow hair would look as a mermaid.

“And all sing as we go under the bridges,” put in Annie, who adored music.

“What a pity the boats can’t dance, it would be so lovely to see them waltzing round like fireflies!” said Belle, still longing for the ball.

“A lot of fellows are coming up to spend the day with us, and we ought to have some sort of a picnic; city folks think so much of such things,” said Herbert the hospitable, for his house and barn were the favorite resorts of all his mates, and three gentle little sisters always came into his plans if possible.

“I’ve got two girl cousins coming, and they would like it, I guess. I should any way, for Jack will go tagging after Grace and leave me to take care of them. Let’s have a picnic, by all means,” said lazy Fred, who thought all girls but one great plagues.

“I shouldn’t wonder if all our people liked that plan, and we might have a town picnic as we did once before. Let every one ask his or her mother, and see if we can’t do it,” suggested Annie, eager for a whole day of merry-making.

The door-step party was late in breaking up that night; and if half the plans proposed had been carried out, that town would have been considered a large lunatic asylum. Wiser heads remodelled the wild plans, however, and more skilful hands lent their aid, so that only the possible was attempted, though the older folks had bright ideas as well as the boys and girls, and gave the finishing touches to the affair.

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The Fourth was a fine day, with a fresh air, cloudless sky, and no dust. The town was early astir, though neither sunrise cannon nor the Antiques and Horribles disturbed the dawn with their clamor. The bells rang merrily, and at eight all flocked to the Town Hall to hear the Declaration of Independence read by the good and great man of the town, whose own wise and noble words go echoing round the world, teaching the same lesson of justice, truth, and courage as that immortal protest. An Ode by the master of the revels was sung, then every one shouted America with hearty good-will, and before the echoes had fairly died away, the crowd streamed forth to the river-side; for these energetic people were bound to make a day of it.

At nine the races began, and both green banks of the stream were lined with gay groups eagerly watching “our boys” as they swept by in wherries, paddled in canoes, or splashed and tumbled in and out of their tubs amid shouts of laughter from the spectators. The older fellows did the scientific, and their prizes were duly awarded by the judges. But our young party had their share of fun, and Fred and Herbert, who were chums in everything, won the race for the little flag yearly given to the lads for any success on the river. Then the weary heroes loaded the big dory with a cargo of girls, and with the banner blowing gayly in the wind, rowed away to the wide meadow, where seven oaks cast shade enough to shelter a large picnic. And a large one they had, for the mammas took kindly to the children’s suggestion, agreeing to club together in a social lunch, each contributing her stores, her family, and her guests, all being happy together in the free and easy way so pleasant and possible in summer weather.

A merry company they were, and it was a comfortable sight to see the tired fathers lying in the shade, while the housewives forgot their cares for a day, the young folks made table-setting and dishwashing a joke by doing it together, and the children frolicked to their hearts’ content. Even the babies were trundled to the party by proud mammas and took naps in their carriages, or held receptions for admiring friends and neighbors with infantile dignity.

A social, sensible time, and when sunset came all turned homeward to make ready for the evening festivities. It was vaguely rumored that the pretty rustic bridge was to be illuminated, for the older people had taken up the idea and had their surprises ready as well as the young folks. A band was stationed by the river-side, a pretty villa on the hill blazed out with lines of light, and elms and apple-trees bore red and golden lanterns, like glorified fruit. The clerk of the weather was evidently interested in this novel entertainment, for the evening was windless, dark, and cool, so the arch of light that spanned the shadowy river shone splendidly. Fireworks soared up from the hill-top beyond, fireflies lent their dancing sparks to illuminate the meadows, and the three bridges were laden with the crowds, who greeted each new surprise with cries of admiration.

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Higher up the stream, where two branches met about a rocky island, elves seemed gathering for a summer revel.

From all the landings that lined either shore brilliant boats glided to the rendezvous; some hung with luminous globes of blue and silver, some with lanterns fiery-red, flower-shaped, golden, green, or variegated, as if a rainbow were festooned about the viewless masts. Up and down they flashed, stealing out from dusky nooks and floating in their own radiance, as they went to join the procession that wound about the island like a splendid sea-serpent uncoiling itself from sleep and darkness.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” cried even the soberest of the townsfolk, as all turned their backs on the shining bridge and bursting rockets to admire the new spectacle, which was finer than its most enthusiastic advocate expected. All felt proud of their success as they looked, and even the children forgot to shout while watching the pretty pageant that presently came floating by, with music, light, and half-seen figures so charming, grotesque, or romantic that the illusion was complete.

First, a boat so covered with green boughs and twinkling yellow sparks that it looked like a floating island by starlight or a cage of singing-birds, for music came from within and fresh voices, led by Annie, sang sweetly as it sailed along. Then a gondola of lovely Venetian ladies, rowed by the handsome artist, who was the pride of the town. Next a canoe holding three dusky Indians, complete in war-paint, wampum, and tomahawks, paddled before the brilliant barge in which Cleopatra sat among red cushions, fanned by two pretty maids. Julia’s black eyes sparkled as she glanced about her, feeling very queen-like with a golden crown on her head, all the jewelry she could muster on her neck and arms, and grandmother’s yellow brocade shining in the light. Belle and Grace waved their peacock fans like two comely little Egyptian damsels, and the many-colored lanterns made a pretty picture of the whole.

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A boatful of jolly little tars followed, with Tom Brown, Jr., as skipper. Then a party of fairies in white, with silver wings and wands, and lanterns like moon and stars.

Lou Pope, as Lady of the Lake, rowed her own boat, with Jack for a droll little Harper, twanging his zitter for want of a better instrument.

A black craft hung with lurid red lanterns and manned by a crew of ferocious pirates in scarlet shirts, dark beards, and an imposing display of pistols and cutlasses in their belts, not to mention the well-known skull and cross-bones on the flag flying at the masthead, produced a tremendous effect as the crew clashed their arms and roared the blood-thirstiest song they could find. All the boys cheered that, and all the horses pranced as the pirates fired off their pistols, causing timid ladies to shriek, and prudent drivers to retire from the bridges with their carriage-loads of company.

A Chinese junk (or what was intended to look like one, but really resembled a mud-scow), with a party of Mandarins, rich in fans, umbrellas, and pigtails, taking tea on board in a blaze of fantastic lanterns, delighted the children.

Then a long low boat came sliding by softly, lighted with pale blue lamps, and on a white couch lay “Elaine,” the letter in her hand, the golden hair streaming to her knees, and at her feet the dwarf sorrowfully rowing her down to Camelot. Every one recognized that, for the master of the revels got it up as no one else could; and Maud laughed to herself as the floating tableau went under the bridge, and she heard people rushing to the other side, waiting eagerly to see the “lily maid” appear and glide away, followed by applause, as one of the prettiest sights seen that night.

There were eighty boats in all, and as the glittering train wound along the curves of the river smooth and dark as a mirror, the effect was truly beautiful, especially when they all congregated below the illuminated bridge, making an island of many-colored light. An enchanted island it seemed to lookers-on, for music and laughter came from it, and a strange mixture of picturesque faces and figures flitted to and fro.

Elaine sat up and ate bonbons with the faithful dwarf; Ellen Douglas ducked the Harper; the Chinamen invited Cleopatra to tea; the mermaids pelted the pirates with water-lilies; the gallant gondolier talked art with the Venetian ladies; and the jolly little tars danced hornpipes, regardless of danger; while the three Indians, Fred, Herbert, and Elly, whooped and tomahawked right and left as if on the war-path.

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A regular Midsummer Night’s Dream frolic, which every one enjoyed heartily, while the band played patriotic airs, the pretty villa shone like a fairy palace, and the sky was full of dazzling meteors, falling stars, and long-tailed comets, as the rockets whizzed and blazed from the hill-tops.

Just as the fun was at its height the hurried clang of a bell startled the merry-makers, and a cry of “Fire!” came from the town, causing a general stampede. “Post-office all afire! Men wanted!” shouted a breathless boy, racing through the crowd toward the river. Then great was the scampering, for shops stood thickly all about the post-office, and distracted merchants hastily collected their goods, while the firemen smashed windows, ran up and down ladders, broke in doors, and poured streams of water with generous impartiality over everybody and everything in the neighborhood, and the boys flew about, as if this unexpected display of fireworks suited them exactly.

Such noble exertions could not fail of success, and the fire was happily extinguished before the river was pumped dry. Then every one went home, and, feeling the need of refreshment after their labors, had supper all over again, to the great delight of the young folks, who considered this a most appropriate finish to an exciting day.

But the merriest party of all was the one gathered on Fred’s piazza to eat cake and talk over the fun. Such a droll group as they were. The Indians were sadly dilapidated as to feathers and paint, beside being muddy to the knees, having landed in hot haste. Poor Cleopatra had been drenched by the hose, but though very damp still sparkled with unextinguishable gayety. Elaine had tied herself up in a big shawl, having lost her hat overboard. Jack and Grace wore one waterproof, and Annie was hoarse with leading her choir of birds on the floating island. Also several of the pirates wore their beards twisted round behind for the sake of convenience in eating.

All were wet, warm, and weary, but all rejoiced over the success of the day’s delights, and it was unanimously agreed that this had been the jolliest Fourth they had ever known.

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