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One frosty November afternoon, the March girls are sitting at home. Meg is feeling especially bitter about being poor and having to work hard. Jo and Amy try to comfort her and say they are going to make their fortunes as an author and an artist, but Meg says she doesn't have any faith in that plan. Beth tries to comfort Meg by pointing out that Laurie is coming over and Marmee just arrived home.
Laurie invites the girls to come with him while he drives Mr. Brooke home in the carriage. Everyone agrees except Meg, who is being very proper and trying not to go out too often with the young men. Laurie also agrees to go by the post office – the real one, not the box in the hedge between their houses – and check for letters from Mr. March.
They are interrupted by the doorbell. Hannah answers and receives a telegram from the postman.
Mrs. March snatches the telegram from Hannah and reads it. It says that her husband is very ill at a hospital in Washington and she needs to go there immediately.
The girls gather around their mother and many tears are shed. Hannah pulls herself together and begins packing a bag for Mrs. March.
Mrs. March asks Laurie to send a telegram in reply, saying that she will come right away – on the next train in the morning. She also asks him to take a note to Aunt March, telling her what has happened and asking to borrow money for the journey.
Next, Mrs. March sends Jo out to buy some things she might need for nursing their father back to health, just in case the hospital is running short. Beth is sent next door to ask Mr. Laurence for some bottles of wine. (Surprising True Fact: Wine was considered a good medicine for illness, injury, and shock in the nineteenth century.) Amy and Meg are given chores at home.
Beth comes back, bringing Mr. Laurence with her. He gives Mrs. March wine and everything else he can think of that she might need. He wants to escort her on the journey, but she won't let him because he's a bit too frail to travel.
Mr. Laurence sends Mr. Brooke to accompany Mrs. March instead. Meg, especially, is very grateful.
Almost everything has been done when Laurie returns with a note from Aunt March, which encloses the money Mrs. March will need, but also includes an "I told you so" letter.
Everyone has finished their preparations and they are getting ready to have tea (the evening meal), but Jo hasn't returned yet. They start to worry about her.
Jo comes home with $25 – a lot of money in those days! – which she says is her contribution to making her father comfortable. Everyone wonders where she got it until she takes off her bonnet – and reveals that she cut and sold her hair! (Historical Background Lesson: Nineteenth-century women always had long hair, so having short hair marks Jo as being especially poor and needy, and also eccentric. There was a market for hair to make wigs and hairpieces.)
Jo's family is surprised by her sacrifice, but Jo explains that she wanted to do something to help, and this was an honest way of earning money on her own.
Jo describes her experience at the hair salon. She was wandering around downtown, wondering what she could do for money, and then she saw hairpieces and wigs in the barber's window. She went in and asked if the barber would buy her hair.
The barber told Jo that her hair was an unfashionable color and that it was a lot of work to make the hairpieces. He wasn't going to buy her hair, but then she told the story about her father being sick in Washington, and the barber's wife convinced him to do her a favor.
Jo has saved one lock for her mother to keep. Her mother puts it beside another lock of hair, a gray one, that is already in the desk. (We're guessing this belongs to Mr. March?)
The girls try to be cheerful until bedtime. When they sing before bed, everyone breaks down crying.
As they go to bed, Beth and Amy fall asleep, but Meg lies awake. She hears Jo crying and asks if it's about their father – but Jo says it's about her hair!
Jo asks what Meg has been thinking about as she lay awake. Meg says that she was thinking about handsome, brown-eyed faces. (John Brooke, of course, has brown eyes.)
Finally Meg and Jo fall asleep, but their mother is still awake, roaming through the house kissing her daughters on their sleeping cheeks and praying.