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On a day in July, Beth is delivering the "mail" from the little "Post Office" in the hedge between the March and Laurence houses. This batch of mail includes a small bunch of flowers for Mrs. March from Laurie, a translation of a German song by Mr. Brooke for Meg (along with a glove that she left at the Laurences' house), and two letters, a hat, and a book for Jo.
Jo unfolds and reads the first letter. It is from her mother and commends her for her efforts to keep her temper and learn to be a calmer person. The letter makes her tear up happily, because she thought that nobody had noticed.
Jo unfolds and reads the second letter. It is from Laurie, telling her that some English boys and girls about their age, the Vaughns, are going to be visiting him. Laurie invites Jo and her sisters to come to a picnic with them tomorrow.
The girls ask their mother if they can attend the picnic and she agrees. They talk about what it will be like. Jo tells Meg that there are four Vaughns, Kate, Fred, Frank, and Grace. Kate is a little older than Meg, Fred and Frank are twins of Jo's age, and Grace is a little girl around Amy's age.
Jo and Meg talk about what they will wear to the picnic. Jo convinces Beth to come to the picnic despite her extreme shyness.
Amy comes in and shows the mail that she received – a box of chocolates and a picture. Beth has received a letter from Mr. Laurence asking her to come over and play the piano for him.
The girls spend the rest of the day doing extra chores so that they will be free to attend the picnic tomorrow.
Overnight, each of the girls makes extra preparations for the picnic. Meg has the hair around her face in curling papers, Jo has slept wearing face cream (we assume she has acne, although Alcott is too delicate to say so), Beth slept with her favorite doll to apologize for leaving it behind all day, and Amy slept with a clothespin on her nose because she wants to reshape it.
In the morning, the girls dress for the picnic and watch the preparations next door. The notice several other people they know, including Sallie Gardiner and Ned Moffat, arriving also. They also notice that one of the Vaughn boys is on crutches.
The March girls are ready to go. Meg is distressed to learn that Jo is planning to wear the silly hat Laurie sent her.
Laurie introduces the March girls to the Vaughns on the lawn in front of their houses. Everyone notices that Kate Vaughn is kind of stuck-up. Beth feels compassion for Frank, the sickly twin. Amy and Grace, the two little girls, hit it off well.
The party sets off for the picnic site in several boats. Jo and Laurie row one boat, while Mr. Brooke and Ned row the other. Fred Vaughn paddles around in a little boat of his own making mischief.
Soon they arrive at Longmeadow, where a tent has been pitched and a croquet ground prepared.
They start by playing a game of croquet. Frank, Beth, Amy, and Grace, who are too unwell, too shy, or too young to play, sit and watch. The others divide into two teams: Mr. Brooke, Meg, Kate, and Fred on one team, and Laurie, Sallie, Jo, and Ned on the other.
The English play well, but the Americans play better. At one point, Jo is ahead of Fred, who is close behind her. He goes over to look at his croquet ball and cheats by pushing it through the wicket.
Jo accuses Fred of cheating and he denies it. There's a lot of banter about Brits versus Yankees. Jo starts to get really angry, but takes some time by herself looking for her croquet ball to cool down.
Jo manages to get ahead in the game again and, in the end, she wins for her team.
Laurie and Meg both privately congratulate Jo on keeping her temper. Jo says that she is still pretty angry.
Next, everyone lends a hand making preparations for lunch. The meal is jolly and fun, even though there are insects in the food and the table keeps wobbling and spilling things. Jo and Laurie sit together and share a plate.
Laurie asks Jo what they should do next. Jo says they should play a quiet game until the afternoon sun cools off a little. She tells Laurie to ask Kate to suggest the game, out of politeness to the guests.
Kate suggests a game that she calls "Rig-marole." One person starts telling a story and then breaks off at an exciting point. The next person continues the story and does the same thing. Kate orders Mr. Brooke to start.
Mr. Brooke begins the story and describes a lonely knight on a quest who falls in love with a captive princess.
Kate continues the story and makes it dramatic and sensational.
Ned takes a turn telling the story, and his narration is action-packed and exciting.
Next Meg tells part of the story, giving it a creepy, Gothic feel.
Jo starts to take up the story and make it comical, but when she pauses to take a breath, Fred jumps in and turns it into a story about pirates.
Sallie is next and doesn't know what to say. She adds some mermaids and a fairy-tale feel.
Amy tells a little of the story, introducing a little goosegirl and making it more like a fable.
Laurie jumps in and tries to tie up most of the loose ends in the story – he brings several murdered knights back to life and reunites the first knight with the princess. Then he turns to Frank to finish.
Frank says that he's not playing. Beth is hiding behind Jo because she is too shy to take a turn, and Grace is asleep, so that's as far as the story goes.
Next, they decide to play Truth. (This is basically a more boring version of the game you might know as Truth or Dare.) They draw lots, and whoever is chosen has to answer three questions put by the group truthfully.
Laurie is first. In answer to his friends' questions, he says that his grandfather and Napoleon are his heroes, Meg is the prettiest girl there, and Jo is his favorite.
Jo is next. She admits that a quick temper is her worst fault, that her greatest desire is to be a genius, and that the virtues she most admires in a man are courage and honesty.
Fred is next. Jo and Laurie gang up on him; Jo makes him admit that he cheated at croquet, and Laurie makes him admit that he took his part of the story out of The Sea-Lion. He also says, in response to Sallie's question, that he thinks England is perfect.
Sallie is next. She claims in a flirtatious way that she's not a flirt, says that she hates spiders and rice pudding, and that she loves dancing and French gloves.
Next the group play Authors, which is a card game kind of like Go Fish, in which the cards have pictures of famous authors and you try to collect sets of them.
While the others play, Meg watches Kate sketch and Mr. Brooke lies near them, sort of reading a book.
Kate and Meg, who are the two oldest girls there, chat about their circumstances. Kate is patronizing and snobby when she discovers that Meg works as a governess. Mr. Brooke intervenes and defends the hard-working character of the American woman.
Mr. Brooke tutors Meg in German. Even though Kate is a much more correct reader of German, Meg has more of a feel for the musical quality of the language and for the poetic form.
Kate leaves Mr. Brooke and Meg alone, deciding that she doesn't need to chaperone a mere governess.
Meg and Mr. Brooke talk about their respective jobs as teachers. Mr. Brooke says that there's no place like America for workers.
Meg asks Mr. Brooke what he will do after Laurie goes to college next year. Mr. Brooke says that he will enlist as a solider. (Did you remember that this book takes place during the Civil War? It's easy to forget, since the war is far away from the March girls' everyday experience.)
Meg says that she's glad Mr. Brooke is going to serve his country. Mr. Brooke says that he's alone in the world and nobody cares whether he lives or dies anyway. Meg says that the Laurences and Marches all care.
Meanwhile, Amy and Grace are talking about riding. Grace, as an upper-class English girl, goes riding a lot and has her own pony. Amy rides "Ellen Tree," which is a low-hanging branch on the family's apple tree. Sometimes Jo puts a saddle on the tree branch and Amy pretends to ride it.
Close by, Beth and Frank are talking. They don't have much in common, but Beth lets Frank talk about the differences in hunting between England and America, and they end up discussing buffaloes.
They play some more games, and at sunset they take down the tent and row their boats back home.
On the way back, Ned tries to flirt with Meg, who is too sweet and proper to flirt back.
As the March girls return home, Kate says that American girls are quite nice when you get to know them, and Mr. Brooke agrees.