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We Plough the Fields and Scatter

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“They are making a fool of that little girl,” said Major Lincoln to his mother, as they promenaded the edges of the floor, nodding to that lady’s many acquaintances. “I wanted you to see her, but they have spoiled her entirely. She’s nothing but a doll tonight.”

Mrs. Lincoln let her gliding steps carry her beyond the girl’s hearing before she spoke softly to her son. “And why do you think that is, dear?”

“A head easily turned, no doubt. Such a flaw of character—”

“Oh nonsense. She doesn’t look a day over seventeen, even all done up.” She surveyed her son, tall and handsome and broad-shouldered in the fine Prussian-blue frock coat of his parade uniform, complete with shiny gold epaulets. “I didn’t rear my son to be the sort of prig who denies a young girl her foolish pleasures.”

“A tendency to foolishness is not to a quality to be cultivated.”

“We mostly outgrow it. Does this shattered paragon possess a name?”

“She was introduced to me as Daisy March. If you’d seen her before! Such fresh, unspoiled loveliness, with the most speaking blue eyes—”

Mrs. Lincoln swiveled, raising her lorgnette from where it dangled on its chain at her waist. To be seen to stare at a specific girl would be ill-bred, of course, but simply surveying the ballroom was within the purlieu of a doting mama on the hunt for a proper mate for her son.

Used well, a lorgnette also quite intimidated some of the wilder young people in their romps, staving off the moment when her head would ache worse than her feet. The girl was no longer sulking by a window but was dancing a lively German with that Laurence sprig, who looked every inch a Sicilian but had to be accepted for his grandfather’s sake.

This little Daisy—done up as a bachelor button, now—possessed a fine plump figure, a clear complexion (though too bright from tight lacing), gleaming brown hair dressed in intricate braids and curls, and a sweet face only a little touched by obvious cosmetics. She was over-adorned, but all the young girls thought it charming to dump the entire contents of their jewel boxes on their persons. Her borrowed finery was in last year’s best Boston taste, which was to say, a year behind New York and three years behind Paris, so not in the least shocking.

The lines and contours of that sweet little face were familiar, in the indefinite way that young people look like their parents did in one’s youth, only somehow stupider. Caroline Delacroix… no, Thomas Randolph… no, no, of course, Margaret Curtis. Darling Peggy who married that cloud-cuckoo philosopher March and dropped off the list of people one called upon, after that incident with the goat.

“My dear, she’s one of the Mad Marches. It’s a mercy and a miracle she can be turned into a little fashion plate.”

“There’s insanity in her family?”

“Not precisely. Given her parents, I’d expect to find Miss March lecturing on temperance and abolitionism, clad in raiment of calico and sack cloth, rather than drinking champagne at a ball, all dolled up in silk frills. If she’s fitting in with the Moffat set, either she’s rebelled entirely or this is as foreign an experience to her as sailing to China.”

Major Lincoln busied himself with admiring his gold buttons. “Calico and sack cloth, Mama?”

“They haven’t a penny. The father is the sort who lives a life of unstinting virtue based firmly on other people’s self-sacrifices. He’d be considered a charlatan if he weren’t one of our kind and friend of Emerson’s.”

Let dear Erasmus chew on that.

Major Erasmus Lincoln obtained a glass of champagne for his mother and one for himself. “She dressed so plainly because she’s poor?”

“Poor and making a virtue of it. Treat her intelligence with respect, offer her a comfortable home, and you’ll have a prudent and appreciative little wife.” Mrs. Lincoln gave her son a look over the rim of her glass. “You could do worse, and she’ll hardly do better.”

“You approve of her?”

“As much as I can without being introduced. Do you intend to rectify that?”

***

After settling his mother in a spindly little chair next to a pack of fellow matrons, Major Erasmus Lincoln maneuvered himself around the floor so that his path would cross Daisy March’s when young Laurence was done with her. There were three directions he could lead her: to a chaperone, to her friends, and to the refreshments. An ideal vantage in the tulle-draped and ivy-trimmed ballroom allowed Major Lincoln to address any of the three in an instant.

And so he found himself cutting off the Moffat puppy to sweep a bow before Miss March and asking the pleasure of the next dance.

“I don’t think—” the brown Laurence boy started to say.

“It’s all right, Laurie. We’ve been introduced. Major Lincoln, this is Theodore Laurence, our neighbor at home.”

He shook Laurence’s hand, then offered his hand to Miss March. “Would you do me the honor?”

Her smile slipped, and she wavered so thoroughly over whether to accept a dance that her curls and ear bobs swayed. If a young woman refused a partner, she was done dancing for the evening, and it was clear that Miss March loved dancing.

This would be easier without Laurence here, but the boy was determined to hover in the large, collegiate way of a youth eager to swing a punch but with little science in how it landed.

“It may be that I should beg your pardon, Miss March. My mother set me straight that I was entirely wrong in criticizing your dress and manner. Can you forgive me such a grave offense and let me make amends with a dance?”

He put his most earnest expression into the plea. Miss March looked from his face to Laurence’s and back, and the corners of her mouth quirked most appealingly. “In fairness, I must, mustn’t I? Very well, Major Laurence.”

The hand she set in his was delicate, even in its soft glove. A polka was not quite so intimate as a waltz, but a good deal more than a quadrille. Miss March danced lightly, though she seemed a bit flustered by her train. For his own part, Major Lincoln was relieved his injured leg moved soundly with only the slightest ache.

“Mama says I was a prig,” Major Lincoln volunteered.

“You said nothing more than Laurie did, or than Marmee will when I tell her of tonight. I’ve made a little fool of myself, and I know it, and I can’t stop until the clock chimes midnight and Cinderella must put off her borrowed finery.”

The look she gave him was so frank and open that his heart melted. “What if a prince finds your lost slipper?”

“It’s my sister Amy who has the tiny feet. I’d be lost among all the other girls in the kingdom just like me.”

“A true prince would recognize you in an instant.”

“Even when the little doll puts her rags back on?”

“Even in calico and sack cloth.” He chuckled as he said it. After a moment, so did she. “When do you return home?”

“The day after tomorrow.” Daisy March appended a little sigh.

“You miss it?”

“It’s quiet. And comfortable. And my sisters and Marmee are there. I think…” She paused as he whirled her about. “I think perhaps I’ve sat in the lap of luxury long enough.”

“May I call on you at your home?”

“You mustn’t—” She must have seen how his face fell, for she missed a step. “I’m a governess, you see. I’m not home at the polite hour for calls. You’d find my two youngest sisters arguing over math and pencils and dust cloths.”

“Maybe I like dust cloths.”

“Beth would hide behind the sofa, and Amy would be so refined that you’d be struggling not to laugh the whole time. Oh dear. I really am out of place here.”

“You would not be out of place in the finest palace in Europe.”

Miss March colored even brighter, but she let him lead her to his mother. “Mama, may I present Miss March?”

Chapter Text

Even with a train she was clearly unfamiliar with, Miss March made a credible curtsey. Up close, it was clear her complexion had seen mostly fresh country air and soap until now, and her manners were prettily simple.

“Have you a dance free to sit with an old lady and talk?” Mrs. Lincoln asked gently.

“You’re no older than Marmee, and she’s not old at all.” Daisy March glanced at her dance card. “It’s something called a Tempete, and thankfully nobody’s asked me for it, as I don’t know how to do it.”

Miss March settled her wide bachelor-button skirts neatly and without undue fuss. A nod and a raised eyebrow sent the major to busy himself elsewhere. “Now we can have a good coze. How old are you, dear?”

“Almost seventeen. Sixteen. Marmee says children should be children as long as we can.”

“Are you in school, then?”

The girl turned red as a poppy and spoke at her own clasped hands in her lap, but in a tone of defiance. “I’m a governess. It’s right that I earn something to help the family.”

“So you’ve been thrust into adulthood. Don’t glare at me, dear. You’re further from childhood than a twenty-year-old in this set, who goes ’round like a carousel from calls to theater to balls to breakfasts.”

“I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.”

“Childhood isn’t just milk pudding and calico dresses and dolls, my dear. It’s freedom from responsibility.”

“Father says it’s a time to study the lessons that will serve us later in life. If that’s so, I fancy I shall always be a child, as there’s ever more to study, to live and be better.”

Miss March had spirit, then, beneath the sweetness.

“Here’s a lesson for you. Before you go to bed, drink a full glass of vinegar and then as much water as you can stand,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“I can’t trouble the servants.”

“If you’ve consumed a great deal more champagne than is your habit, you will trouble people far more tomorrow, if you don’t take a remedy before you sleep. Should you awaken with a headache, ask for well-boiled cabbage. Don’t be nonsensical about suffering the consequences of your frivolity. It’s a waste to be ill when you have a cure to hand.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

***

Meg gagged on the vinegar but drank it down with resolution that she imagined Jo would have applauded. Some kind soul in the servant’s hall had spiked her water pitcher with mint leaves, which washed the taste from her mouth.

Her ribs had seemed to spring free when her stays were loosened by Annie’s little Irish maid. Meg sat docilely in her loose nightgown as the Rosie deftly and quickly unpinned the elaborate workings of her hair, brushed it out, and put it into braids for the night.

The face that looked back at her in the mirror, cleaned of artifice, was familiar. “You’re beautiful,” she told it.

Rosa laughed. “You’re always beautiful, Miss Daisy. Come get in bed before you fall over.”

Meg’s feet seemed to have spread their bones apart in celebration of freedom after hours of dancing. They ached in places that didn’t seem possible, and she also wanted a word with one particular muscle in her left shoulder that complained of having done yeoman’s duty in hoisting her arm so she could rest a hand on tall young men’s shoulders.

All the young men seemed terribly tall. Perhaps they grew them special somehow in Boston. She’d have to ask Annie tomorrow if there was a special porridge, or if only the very tallest of young men were invited to balls—

“Bed, Miss Daisy.”

Bed was… rocking. If Meg shut her eyes, she felt like she was still whirling around the ballroom.  Opening them… did not still the world as much as she’d hoped. Better to keep them shut.

She must have drifted to sleep, as the candle was out when she woke with a full bladder and a throbbing headache. She relieved herself in the chamber pot, poured and drank two glasses of water with hands that it was an effort to lift, and rolled back into the arms of uneasy sleep.

When Rosie pulled the curtains open in the bright light of late morning, the smell of tea on her tray did not quite tip Meg into wanting to relieve her uneasy stomach of last night’s jellies and pâtés. Her mouth was dry, but her head felt as if it would stay attached to her neck, provided she didn’t make the slightest move in any direction.

“I was told to ask for boiled cabbage,” she whispered.

“That we can do, miss. But let’s sit you up and leave you with a bit of toast.”

Meg groaned as she was hauled into place, sitting up against the pillows. With a great deal of sugar stirred in, the tea was not so bad. Before she’d had to do more than slowly chew a bite of unbuttered toast, Rosie returned with a cunning little bowl full of soft, shredded cabbage leaves in their own broth. The scent ought to have sent Meg’s stomach into an uproar, but she found it oddly comforting. Once she’d finished the cabbage and drunk the broth, she could face finishing two triangles of toast.

By the time the hour for polite calls came, she was dressed in her gray poplin with her hair pulled up in a snood, hemming handkerchiefs in the parlor the Gardiners used for such gatherings. If her stitches were less straight and her conversation less lively than usual, not one of the other girls was in any condition to notice.

The gentlemen also seemed paler and more subdued than was their wont, and their bows over feminine hands were perhaps less deep than previously. Meg participated in the general palaver, passed tea cups, and received compliments with excellent posture and an air of mild distraction, until the arrival of Mr. Laurence was announced.

“Oh, you’ll wish to sit beside Meg,” Annie exclaimed, all but pushing him onto Meg’s settee. Meg blushed, then was ashamed of herself for blushing.

“All right and tidy?” he asked quietly.

“Mrs. Lincoln kindly gave me a remedy for drinking too much champagne. I shall have to write her a note of thanks.”

“Confound it, I’d have told you if I’d thought—”

“It’s all right, Laurie. Just… if you lean so close to me, the girls will never stop gossiping.” Across the room, Clara and Annie were giggling with a group of young men, so perhaps they wouldn’t pay attention to her and Laurie at all.

“I do beg pardon.”

Meg shut her eyes and swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be snappish.”

“Don’t let a few words from silly girls change what you like.”

“I’d like you to behave with the propriety of a friend.”

Laurie lolled back in his seat, carefully several inches away from her at all points. She accepted a tiny sugared cake from a dish passed to her and managed to eat it, separated into two bites to savor the fleeting luxuries that she was both eager and reluctant to give up.

“It’s like that, is it? Your friends think I’m a beau.”

“I did nothing to encourage it.”

“I wouldn’t doubt you for an instant.” The wicked gleam in his eye was familiar and almost comforting. He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “It’s always lovely to see you, dear sister.”

Laurie rose languorously, looked around the little parlor with its curly polished sofas and marble tables, and paused as his gaze fell on Clara. He shook his head as if thunderstruck—this was as good as one of Jo’s plays—put his hand to his heart, and took the distance in two strides, to kneel at Clara Moffat’s feet.

“I don’t know any more who I am, what I do,” he proclaimed, an effect only a little damaged by his voice cracking. “One moment I’m on fire. The next moment, I’m cold as ice. Every woman makes me tremble at the thought of love, of delight.”

Clara tapped him with her fan, giggling, “Don’t be a bad boy.”

“I could never be wicked with you as my light, my guide.” He went on in that vein, embroidering his borrowed speech with bits of Shakespeare when the original words failed him.

He's Sicilian someone whispered. They’re so passionate.

“Major Lincoln,” said the butler. The major made his bows to the ladies, somehow finishing in the spot on the settee beside Meg.

“I owe your mother thanks for her remedies,” Meg said after the proprieties had been satisfied with small talk.

“She’d be delighted to have you deliver them in person.”

“I don’t know when I shall be in Boston again. I’ve quite used up my love of high living.”

“I shall be back with the Army next week. A leg I can dance on is a leg I can fight on.”

Meg looked up into the Major’s eyes—brownish green, not beautiful in themselves, but earnest in expression—and felt consciousness of something that filled the air between them, like the anticipation of spring. “May I pray for your safety?”

“I wish you would.” He held out a hand and she set hers in it, intending only a friendly handshake. “Would your parents allow me to write to you?”

“They’d be honored I’d made a friend of so good a man.”

Not a handsome man—his nose slightly too sharp for classic beauty, his forehead too broad, his hair a plain ordinary light brown—but a man with the bearing of character and kindness, and also with beautifully groomed mutton chop whiskers.

“Mama has told me of your circumstances. You are perhaps too young to think of marriage—”

“Entirely.” Meg pulled her hand back, suddenly hot from head to toe. “I am grateful for your kindness, but I cannot think of… of… such things for years yet.”

She gave great attention to her sewing, to deny a feeling of joy bubbling within her that made her want to weep. She could not be in love with Major Lincoln. She barely knew him, she had no wish to leave home and family, she was not ready—but all the same, it was flattering to have the attention of a good man.

“If you wish to write to my mother, I shall give you the address,” she added.

Chapter Text

Meg’s confession was not a great surprise to Marmee. She’d given way to Meg’s tears and pleading to let her stay with the Moffats partly from inability to bear another moment of whining and partly from a sudden, irrational pang of nostalgia for the life she’d abandoned to marry Robert March.

She would not—she did not—regret one moment of that decision, but she remembered silk gowns and ringlets and flirtations with a fondness that Robert’s lectures on frivolity and vanity should have cured her of.

Robert would call it a failure of character and training, that Meg had succumbed to little vanities. He had never been tempted by fine clothes or pretty manners, so all that must be a snare and a delusion. Certainly Marmee would rather make knit socks for soldiers and pull weeds in the garden than dance all night, and it was better to knit socks and tend gardens than to dance, But she felt strongly that insisting on the corruptness of society would drive Meg right into its powdered arms.

It was better to trust Meg to draw her own conclusions, as she had.

The gossip about Laurie gave Marmee a flash of pure red anger that she concealed beneath a smile as she brushed Meg’s soft hair from her forehead. After almost twenty years of struggle brought by Robert’s idealism—the last few in real, if genteel, poverty, where nobody spoke of how her paid work in the science of charity made sure the butcher’s bill was paid—that anyone could think she, Margaret Curtis March, had a mercenary bone in her body was a thing that beggared common sense. It was the kind of silly, empty-headed meanness that she’d been glad to leave behind on her wedding day.

Meg and Jo both seemed oblivious to any feelings toward Laurie beyond friendship. Jo might protest at her sister growing up and marrying—Marmee struggled with a combined urge to laugh and a nagging worry that Jo would someday simply refuse to be a woman—but neither girl squirmed under Marmee’s lecture about wishing her daughters to be happy, loved, and contented.

She did not say that she wished them to be useful. In this firelit quiet, demanding usefulness and purpose seemed too harsh for girls who hadn’t felt the first giddy rush of mutual adoration. Jo would take it as impetus for her ambitions, but too much focus on usefulness was likely to drive Meg into rebellion.

Then Meg spoke again, color rising and falling in her cheeks. “Marmee, the Major Lincoln I told you about? He’s going to write to you to ask permission to write to me.”

Marmee’s heart felt like she’d missed a step on the crooked back stair. She had meant everything she’d said about hoping and preparing for marriage, but as a guide to modesty and diligence, not… not right now.

“Say no,” Jo was expostulating, back on the track of her previous objections like a freight train. “Meg’s too young, he’s a stranger, he can’t take our Meg away from us.”

“He’s a soldier,” Meg said. “He’s going back to the Army. It’d be comforting…”

“Let his own friends write to him,” Jo said, but her tone faltered.

“You must let me read every letter,” Marmee said. You’re too young. If you fall in love and he breaks your heart by dying, I’ll kill him myself.  “If anything at all seems wrong to me, you must discontinue the correspondence at once.”

***

My dear Peggy—I had no mind to let fifteen years slip by unremarked, so that cooing baby of yours is now a young lady, but here we are and I beg you, for the sake of our shared girlhood, to forgive my laxness.

My son met your oldest girl while she was visiting the Moffats in Boston. Erasmus was taken with her fresh beauty and frank intelligence. Were he not leaving our friendly climes to serve his country once more (he was on home leave from a broken leg attained not in a bold battle charge but in tripping over a tree root at night, but we don’t talk of that), he would call upon you as he ought, but needs must—he has enclosed a note begging your permission to write to your girl and learn her heart, with an eye to courting when (God willing) he returns from this terrible war.

Erasmus is good-tempered, if a little stuffy, neat in his habits, temperate in his pleasures, and will share in the inheritance of his grandfather’s business with his cousin Amos, who is as prudent and frugal a partner as one could wish.

Please, for the sake of our old friendship, allow my son this favor—and permit your old Lucy to call upon you next week on a day and hour of your choosing.

Lucy (Adams) Lincoln

***

Dear Peggy indeed, Marmee thought, willing her hand not to close in a fist that would crumple the letter. True, Lucy had not been one of the circle that mocked Robert mercilessly when she accepted his proposal, saying he was too old, too fusty, too head-in-the-clouds to be a good husband. Lucy had shaken her blond curls and laughingly offered some aphorism about lying in the bed one had made.

Marmee had a happy marriage, unlike her friends who’d sold themselves to beaus who thought of nothing beyond the trading warehouse and the race track and the opera. She and Robert had conversations, they read books, a little economy was no burden.

True, Robert should not be allowed to farm—

She would not take the line about prudent and frugal as a jab toward her current circumstances. Robert’s flaw was generosity… well, idealism… well, a disdain for money that sometimes showed itself as lack of care for having enough in the household accounts. Fortunately, after his unfortunate loan to a friend with even less sense, he’d turned the account books over to Marmee with a sigh. Her management meant they could keep Hannah and the house, as well as have new gloves from time to time.

Lucy means to appeal to me, Marmee told herself as she set the letter on the breakfast table and turned to answer some question of Amy’s. Meg and Jo were deep in an argument about Dickens, while Beth was feeding porridge to one of her dolls.

The note enclosed with Lucy Lincoln’s letter was neat, brief, direct, and unexceptional.

Had Major Lincoln given Marmee a pretext for changing her mind, she would have done so—it would not be a lie or a broken promise to say here is evidence of his character that I did not have before.

Allowing Meg to be courted by one of her old set felt like opening a door Marmee had believed locked and bricked over.

Once Meg and Jo were off to their work, and Amy and Beth were busy over sums neither could ever get straight—how were they to manage a household if they struggled with long division?—Marmee climbed the stairs to the attic. She did not muss with Jo’s writing desk—the girls should have their privacy—or the ephemera of the Pickwick Club, but went straight to a dusty old trunk in a dark corner, to which only she had the key.

Most of the dresses once stored within it had long ago been unpicked for fabric to make new gowns. She lifted from its coffin a rustling silk gown of subdued violet—so different from the garish mauves and purples now in fashion. She could still fit into it—household economy and long walks kept a figure young—though the girls would laugh at the outdated style, and she’d abandoned the ringlets that went with it for a simpler braided coil when she gave up her lady’s maid.

I would rather be happy than have silk dresses every day. I have four lively daughters, a husband who reads the German philosophers aloud to me when he’s at home, a roof over my head, a purpose in helping others. If I’d married in my set, I’d be too old for balls now, sitting on the sidelines watching Meg dance and planning her launch into society, so there’s no point in lamenting. Nothing’s different, other than that I’m a useful woman rather than a fading ornament.

With a firm set to her lips, Marmee locked the dress back in its chest, went down to fetch her writing desk from its corner in her bed chamber, and sat in the parlor to compose two notes she was half-sure she would regret.

The note to Erasmus Lincoln was a matter of a few minutes, once she resolved not to lecture him on the well-being of a daughter he had not yet offered to take on. Grant permission, say frankly that all letters would be read by a parent, express a wish that he be safe throughout the war. It felt as impersonal as making an order to the butcher.

The note to Lucy was a matter of scratching out, blotting, and starting over, so it was an hour before Marmee was satisfied with what she’d written on the cheap paper Jo used for her scribbling and could transfer it to a precious page of proper note paper.

She put one note inside the other, sealed and addressed and stamped the envelope, and thrust it in the corner mail box as if she were tossing away a too-hot potato.

Chapter Text

Erasmus Lincoln’s first letter was entirely unobjectionable. Meg read it aloud as they sat under knitted blankets in the parlor—the spring night was chilly, but a fire was a ridiculous extravagance in May—and the girls talked over his account of the train platform in Boston and the rush to move men and supplies south.

It was not entirely a solemn letter, thanks to Major Lincoln’s inclusion of a story about a private, a newspaper seller, two onions, and a copy of the Boston Daily Courier. It also was not a letter of undue levity: he ended by requesting a prayer for his safety and for the wisdom of the President with whom he shared a surname, and that was all a pious mother could wish.

Meg, for her part, did not blush, nor did she rush to answer it. She played games with the other girls, went to bed without sighs, and did her housework on Saturday morning with her usual diligence. It was well after lunch before she sat down at the dining table with pen and paper.

The letter she wrote was a simple, frank tale of household events, introducing her sisters in their little ways without mockery or sentimentality, telling of her struggles and triumphs without bewailing or boasting.

Marmee nodded as she read it over, kissed her daughter’s cheek and called her a good girl, and sealed it in an envelope that she addressed herself.

Lucy Lincoln’s call—that, Marmee was determined to treat as nothing more than a call from a neighbor. It was to be a Thursday—she had taken leave of her work for the purpose—so that Lucy would first meet Beth and Amy in a quiet house, then Meg could come home prettily and Jo—Jo, she had asked to visit the Laurence house.

It was not shame in her boyish daughter. Jo would blurt something impossible about not wishing Meg to marry, and while it would be a relief to have the matter ended there—Meg would, eventually, marry. Marmee had seen the warm glances Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, threw her daughter when he believed no one was looking, and while Meg appeared entirely insensible of his attention—it was going to happen one way or another.

Giving Meg no choice but a poor tutor of good character would be safe but also a disservice to her daughter. She, Marmee, once called Peggy Curtis, had been allowed the privilege of choice—one of the few true freedoms given to young girls—and married for love, turning down more than one ornament of society. To not allow Meg some array of suitors was to assume that Meg was deficient in character and would choose badly.

On the afternoon of the Great Call—for so it had grown in reputation—the parlor was polished and tidy, with vases of bluebells from the garden arranged by Amy’s artistic hand. Amy, of course, was over the moon at the prospect of a caller from Boston. She would not be swayed from wearing her best dress, and she cajoled Beth into giving her ringlets.

“I shall be my ordinary self, and Mrs. Lincoln will barely notice I’m here,” Beth said when Amy urged her to sit for ringlets of her own. “It isn’t me that she’s here to inspect.”

“She’s here to see if the family is suitable,” Amy said as she tied a ribbon around Beth’s braids.

“She’s my old friend from girlhood, and that’s enough of that,” Marmee said firmly, shutting the door to the girls’ room.

Her own toilette was the simple gray poplin that she wore for best, with a brooch at the neck from the treasure box. If Hannah had made cake, fancier than the girls usually ate in the afternoon, that was Hannah’s look-out: a trustworthy servant must be trusted.

When Lucy Lincoln was ushered into the parlor by Hannah, she flew at Marmee with a cry of joy that meant she could not possibly be estimating the poverty of the family from its belongings.

***

“Darling Peggy!” Mrs. Lincoln cried and flung herself into Mrs. March’s arms with as much speed and fervor as corsets and hoops allowed.

Her son had drilled her well in the value of ambush. Peggy March would have worked herself up to straight-spine defiance over her penny-pinching love-in-a-cottage here in bucolic Concord. Peggy had always been the sort who’d make a principle of a pudding, so she had to be disarmed, or the call would be all formal barbs traded over weak tea, and Lucy would learn nothing of value.

“Dear Lucy. It has been so long.” They clasped hands and stared into each other’s faces. Peggy would be looking for signs of dissipation, so Lucy had not hesitated to use a very good cream, one that blended right into one’s skin, to conceal the dark bags beneath her eyes that she’d had even as a debutante.

Lucy was looking for signs of wear and hardship. She was certain Peggy’s face had seen only soap and water, as her complexion was fresh in a way nobody breathing Boston air could achieve, but fine lines were collecting around her mouth and eyes.

Once seated, waiting as Peggy fussed around with the tea things, Lucy could assess the room without drawing attention to herself. Faded wallpaper in the good taste of thirty years ago… every bit of wood polished to a fine gleam, though the furniture had likely come from someone’s attic and been there since the Revolution, though there was an unexpectedly fine piano… books in profusion, no surprise from that Robert March… bibelots consisting mostly of rocks and shells, plus the sort of vases that were surely handmade and bought from some charity bazaar…

The flowers arranged in said vases were done with a knowing eye and a clever hand. “Does Miss March do your flowers?” Lucy asked as she ran her eye over the silver tea pot (in an antique style, but polished like a mirror) and the china cups that bespoke taste but did not match their saucers.

“My daughter Amy loves such things.”

As if on a signal, a consciously elegant child appeared to make her curtsey. Amy March was all ringlets and rustles and simpers, to the point that Lucy had to stop herself from laughing. What a child to wish on Peggy Curtis!

The shadow behind her was daughter Elizabeth, whose downcast eyes and shrinking manner made Lucy wonder what an ogress the Marches imagined her to be. Daisy seemed to have enjoyed herself—and Erasmus said she’d blushed prettily as she agreed to accept his correspondence—so surely she hadn’t built up Lucy Lincoln as a sour-faced dame in stiff white curls and stiffer dark taffeta!

Not Lucy, who waited eagerly for each Paris fashion to age enough to be worn in Boston, went to the theater and even to improving lectures (well, in January, when there was little else to do)… oh yes, Peggy was going on about fine books and chores and the importance of womanly skills and her little lessons in helpfulness and humbleness.

“Come sit by me, dear,” she said to young Elizabeth, patting the cushion beside her on the sofa. The girl looked confused and almost stubborn, but at a nod from her mother, she did as she was told.

The other girl, Amy, piped up. “May I show her my drawings, Marmee?”

“Perhaps later, dear. Serve the cake please, as you do so well.”

Amy’s style of service incorporated a dozen little quirks and mannerisms of conscious elegance. How delightful that Peggy Curtis should have such a daughter!

“And what do you do with yourself, dear?” Lucy asked the daughter Elizabeth.

The girl struggled to meet her eyes. “Nothing of import. I keep house and play and say my prayers as best I can.”

“Beth!” Amy exclaimed, then lowered her voice at a look from her mother. “You play piano like an angel. She won’t tell you that, she’s always hiding her light under a bushel—”

“It’s wrong to boast,” Elizabeth said with surprising spirit.

“It’s wrong to say you’re nothing, when you’re something.”

“Would you play for us, dear?” Lucy asked. “After you’ve had a bite and a sip, of course. I love nothing better than piano music. And gladly, I’ll see your drawings, Amy.”

“My girls will be spoiled by attention. They mostly keep their talents within the family.”

“How dull for them. Accomplishments should be shared with the world. They’ve as much danger of having their heads turned from lack of others to compare to, as from excess praise by outsiders.”

Well, that was downright of me. But such a sensitive plant as this little Elizabeth will be a chore to bring out if she continues to shrink at the slightest breath of wind.

“I’ve never had lessons,” Elizabeth murmured. Lucy was so struck by her own lack of tact that she had to swallow hard to get her tea down. Of course—the Marches were too poor for lessons and parties. This humbleness and home-centeredness was Peggy making a virtue of necessity.

No wonder young Daisy had her head turned by a pretty dress and some trinkets.

“How does Mr. March do?” Lucy asked.

“My husband volunteered to go as a chaplain to our brave troops. We get on as best we can. No sacrifice is too great for the unity of our country and the freedom of the downtrodden.”

No clues there. One never asked directly if one’s friends were happy, and one never took a smile at face value. Peggy had the conscious merriness of someone deflecting pity for a missing limb or a bloody cough, though she moved with vigor and health.

“And here’s my oldest, Margaret!” Peggy proclaimed.

Young Daisy was fresh but prim in a plain gray suit, trimmed only with a white rosebud pinned at the collar. Her dark hair was neatly braided under a little hat that bore the shadows of retrimming, her gloves were clean but worn, and her curtsey was graceful. “Mrs. Lincoln, it is an honor.”

“Do come here for a kiss, child.”

Daisy looked surprised but allowed it. She smelled of soap and starch. She did not resist being herded to the spot that Elizabeth had vacated, reluctantly, for the piano.

Lucy watched the girl’s manners as she poured tea to refresh the older women’s cups before pouring her own. Simple and unaffected, perhaps a little awkward with nervousness—but Daisy could be flawless with a little polishing.

Poking at the girl’s thoughts revealed nothing troubling. She liked the more melodramatic sorts of theater, but blushed at breeches girls. She’d read Thoreau with her father, nothing beyond children’s books in German or French, a great deal of Dickens but none of the romantic Bell brothers, though she knew a great deal about The Vicar of Wakefield.

“Reading nourishes the brain, just as food nourishes the body,” Peggy opined. “My girls take in nothing but the best in literature. The sensational crowds out space that should be used to cultivate wholesome thoughts.”

If that wasn’t parroting Robert March, Lucy didn’t know feathers.

“A little sugar sweetens the bitter in life,” Lucy ventured.

“Or creates a yearning for more, until plain, wholesome food loses its savor.”

Lucy Lincoln overstayed the polite time for a call by a factor of three—well, it was a long drive from Boston, and she had years to catch up on—but still didn’t catch a glimpse of the fourth daughter that Erasmus said Daisy wrote about, the tomboy Jo. Wasn’t that interesting?

She had her hired carriage drive straight to Plumfield, the mansion of the woman Peggy called Aunt March. It was long past the proper hour for anything, but Lucy was filled with the fire of resolution. If Mrs. George March was too high a stickler to receive a visitor so near the dinner hour… well, contrary to her son’s military advice, she did not have a back-up plan, but she’d have a long retreat to Boston to think of one.

***

Mrs. George March would have thought young people could develop sense by the age of fifty, but it seemed in these enlightened times, fifty was the new twenty-five.

Surely no other excuse could be given for a flibbertigibbet of a Mrs. Lincoln from Boston showing up on her doorstep after the acceptable hour for calls.

The unknown lady ushered into the drawing room seemed respectable enough—and with that surname, there was always the possibility of insulting a relative of the President, which would never do—so she was almost certainly a confidence artist.

This promised amusement straight out of those novels young Jo snuck peeks at when she thought her aunt was asleep. A woman had to close her eyes to concentrate during the writings of the more pious thinkers—

Mrs. March rang for Estelle to bring cordial and crackers. A bite before dinner wouldn’t trigger her dyspepsia too much, and she wanted to see how this stranger comported herself.

This Mrs. Lincoln took two sips of cordial before getting to her business—so neither a drunk nor a charlatan asserting teetotaling virtue, that was something.

“Mrs. March, I want—I intend to invite your oldest grandniece to summer with me.”

“How lovely for her. What has that to do with me?”

“She has one halfway presentable dress and a great deal of pride. She can’t afford a proper set-up, she’ll never allow me to buy it, and so I thought of you.”

“I’m to give you money for this ‘set-up’, am I?”

“Don’t be silly.”

Mrs. March bridled at that, but she was amused. “What do you want, then? They won’t take money from me, either. I would have had one of the girls to raise, but no, they must struggle in the slough. I take the wildest one off their hands for most of the day and slip them a little money by that means, but that’s the most they’ll let me do.”

“I want Miss March to receive an inheritance that’s earmarked for her to spend on frivolities. I’ll put up the money—”

“I can afford it. But she’ll spend it on gifts for her family or luxuries for the poor, The more she wants a pretty dress, the more determined she’ll be not to spend on it, the little fool.”

“Divide the inheritance into four parts. One for her family, one for charity, one for her savings for marriage, and one that she must spend on pretty things for herself or else lose the inheritance entirely.”

Mrs. March laughed in company for the first time since 1859 (she would have to mark her calendar—also, Estelle must not lose this Mrs. Lincoln’s card, she was too good to not keep). “What’s in this for you?”

“A sensible bride for my son. He’s a major in the Army and frankly, a little stuffy. He took a liking to Miss March, she seems suitable enough—but she’s not at all versed in society, and I want to see how she shows and what she can learn before doing more to encourage the match.”

“You seem to be encouraging it now.”

“Erasmus turns up his nose at the flowers of society. He thinks he wants a wife with simple manners, and I think he’ll benefit from one who reads and thinks for herself.” Mrs. Lincoln did nothing so ill-bred as leaning forward or whispering, but some tiny shift in her posture and tone suggested secrecy. “And we can’t leave that girl to be wasted on some starving philosopher or poet. Her parents will encourage her to marry badly, and she’ll be a drudge before she’s thirty.”

“What about the other three?”

“There’s more freedom to do something about them when their sister is properly married.”

Mrs. March nodded decisively. “I’ll have to have you vouched for, of course.”

“Of course. Let me offer some suggestions.” The names Mrs. Lincoln wrote on her visiting card—in lovely legible script, so much more considerate than many of her generation—were recognizable as first families of Boston.

“The money will never pass through your hands.”

“Of course not. Is there an aunt who can help Miss March with choosing dresses?”

There was. Mrs. March was so entirely pleased to shake hands upon the deal to extract Meg March from the foolishness of her family that she invited this mysterious Mrs. Lincoln to stay for dinner and pumped her for all the liveliest Boston gossip.

Chapter Text

“Our Meg is going to summer in Boston,” Miss Josephine March proclaimed as she flung herself onto the couch in the Laurence library in a tragic but most unladylike manner. “Laurie, I can’t bear it. She’ll return engaged, just see, and we’ll lose her entirely to some war hero with mutton-chop whiskers and brass buttons.”

John Brooke, unnoticed behind his pupil—working as a tutor made a tall man surprisingly unnoticeable, to the point that he’d considered burglary as a career—felt the blood drain from his heart.

“All the war heroes being off at a war reduces her chances of that,” replied Master Laurence, never one to resist a distraction from Latin grammar, which he persisted in reducing to a muddle of his childhood dialect. “Unless Meg’s hoping to wed a man missing a leg. That seems more Beth’s lookout—”

“She mustn’t marry anyone at all! Not so soon. She has years before a woman’s considered ‘on the shelf,’ and by then I’ll be a famous author, and nobody will need to get married at all.”

“Not even Amy?”

Miss Josephine took a moment over that. “Amy can marry. Laurie, what are we do to? You have friends in Boston—”

“If I turn up everywhere Meg goes, I’ll be seen as her suitor and ruin her chances entirely. It’s awkward for me and will make her unhappy.”

“She’ll be happy once she realizes she’s better off at home!” Miss Josephine’s thrashing sent her hair tumbling from its birds-nest of pins. “Why can’t your friends surround her and keep her safe?”

Mr. Brooke half-wished for Master Laurence to agree to this plan, though it was all too likely that some Fred or Charlie would lose his heart to fair Miss March. Their parents would most likely forbid the match on grounds of the young lady’s bringing nothing to the marriage but herself. The vision of Miss March crying prettily under a rose arbor, with himself there to comfort her—

“If she’s going as a governess, she can’t be surrounded by young men,” Master Laurence said, reasonably.

“She’s not! That’s the horror of it. She’s been invited by the mother of that Major Lincoln who writes to her, and Marmee allows it. Meg will be treated like a daughter in her house, she says. And Meg has an inheritance that means she can buy dresses and gloves and black umbrellas, and I don’t know what to do.

“I’ll work extra hard to be a sister to you as well as a brother,” Master Laurence said, extending a hand that Miss Josephine batted away.

“Don’t start wanting to go about in lace, or with your hair in papers, Teddy. Long skirts will just trip you up. I wish I could trade mine for pants and make a proper stride.”

John fumbled in his pocket for a ribbon he’d kept there ever since Miss March had dropped it from her hair, months ago. He’d congratulated himself on being subtle in his wooing, but if she was planning to spend the summer with the mother of another suitor, perhaps he’d overdone it.

“It’s an inheritance straight from the wand of a good fairy, if only there was no Major Lincoln,” Miss Josephine went on. “One portion for the family, so we’re all to have new outfits. One for charity, which makes Marmee pleased as punch. One portion to be saved for her marriage, which made Meg blush. And then one entirely for pretty things, and if she refuses to spend it that way, she loses the whole.”

“What did Marmee say to that?”

“Her lips went ever so tight. She clearly wanted Meg to repudiate it, but that’d mean more scrimping for us, more hard work for Meg, and fewer winter clothes for widows and orphans. Then Mrs. Lincoln wrote and promised Meg would go to lectures and hear good music and go to bed at a sensible hour, and Marmee gave her assent to everything.”

While the young people continued to argue, he concealed his roiling thoughts behind the cover of a volume of Meyer. Though Master Laurence needed to be well-versed in Latin and Greek for Harvard, Mr. Laurence had also approved work heavy in German, to counteract the Sicilian tendencies of his grandson.

He could—he should—go to Mrs. March and ask permission to court her oldest daughter. A few words, a tender press of the hand—he had only to nourish the first green sprouts of affection before she left for Boston, only to sow the seeds of doubt about this Major Lincoln whose letters Master Laurence and Miss Josephine quoted at each other, and he could pluck the ripe fruit of her esteem with autumn’s blushing apples.

***

“It might be better to leave her in the country,” Doctor Alec Campbell said.

Mrs. Lincoln compressed her lips in her polite social smile and refilled his teacup with Lapsang Souchong. “Major Lincoln is quite taken with her. She can learn to move in society without becoming silly.”

“Without becoming my sister-in-law Clara, you mean.” His bright blue eyes retained the twinkle she remembered from their youth. Alec Campbell’s cerulean eyes, cleft chin, and sunlit hair had been the subject of many a poem—some of them hers, but one got over the social embarrassment in time.

“Invitations for Mrs. Stephen Campbell’s entertainments are widely sought.” When no invitations had gone forth this past winter due to the oldest Campbell brother’s death, every parvenue in Boston had tried to step into her dainty boot, but none had the sense or connections to obtain the presence of a true Brahmin (a term dear Amelia Holmes’ husband had coined). The competing parties fizzled in a mass of faded floral swags, torn tulle, and orchestra leaders demanding full payment even if there hadn’t been enough couples for a proper cotillion.

“I’ll confess, Mrs. Lincoln, I’m puzzled as to what advice from me you’re seeking.”

“I want Miss March to feel comfortable here.” She gave Dr. Alec a moment to survey the cascading crimson roses and gold scrolls on the wallpaper, their complements in crimson and green on the carpet, and the elaborate curlicues of the Belter furniture. “It’s important that she not feel oppressed or intimidated by splendor that’s foreign to her, but also that she feel herself to be treated as a daughter, not a beggar maid recruited to entertain King Cophetua.”

“Mrs. Stephen has gossiped about my niece Rose’s new chamber,” Dr. Alec guessed.

“Precisely. She criticizes how bare and plain it is, though she admits Miss Campbell has become plumper and more lively since the change. I think something similar might be just the thing to captivate Miss March without intimidating her.”

“So you’ve brought me here to play decorator for you?”

“If you will. Miss March is too old to be a playmate for Miss Campbell, but she has younger sisters who might be prevailed upon to visit.”

“All raised in the country according to the principles of Mr. Thoreau, by way of Mr. Robert March.” Dr. Campbell bit firmly into an almond macaroon, as if it were hardtack, then brushed the resulting shower of crumbs from his blue coat.

“You take my meaning exactly.”

***

“The new coffer is so elegant,” Amy said, pointing to an illustration that showed a lady’s hair done in rolls and braids. “You won’t need to trust anyone with curling tongs, Meg.”

Meg, hemming a nightgown in Marmee’s big chair, ignored her younger sister’s significant glance at the hair framing her face. Meg had trimmed the last straggling bits from Jo’s misadventure over a month ago, though she hadn’t attempted ringlets since the Moffats’ ball.

“Marmee would frown at my wearing a pad on my head.” She leaned forward to admire the illustrations in Godey’s Ladies’ Book, borrowed from Mrs. King with many protestations of gratitude and promises to return it without smudges or crinkles.

“I just want to pander what dress to get. If you get pagoda sleeves, Meg, Marmee will have to let the rest of us have them.”

“Jo will refuse them. But look! Tucks are everywhere, so you needn’t complain about having them so your skirts can be let down as you grow.”

“What do you want as a dress, Beth?” Amy asked their middle sister, who had paused in her effort to recall from memory the sheet music she’d studied in the same issue.

“I’ve asked Marmee if I can use my dress money for Lottie Hummel. It feels wrong to have many dresses when she has to go about in rags, with newspaper in her shoes.”

“There’s a whole quarter of my inheritance for charity,” Meg said, silently vowing that Beth should have the prettiest dress she could find fabric for. Most of her own new wardrobe would be obtained in Boston, under the guidance of Mrs. Lincoln.

“Two for every day and one for best isn’t many,” Amy pointed out. “There are girls who wear that many dresses in a single day. Meg will, in Boston.”

“I can’t see go to concerts or lectures if I’m not suitably dressed,” Meg said quickly, seized by an irrational fear that Marmee would pop through the parlor door and demand everyone give their pretty dresses to the poor. “If I want to advance in the world, I must look respectable.”

“So must Lottie Hummel,” Beth said quietly.

“Then let the people with thousands and thousands of dollars buy it for her,” Amy said, lower lip jutting in a manner Marmee would not approve. “It’s not fair that as soon as we have a little, we have to feel guilty about people who have less, when the people with everything don’t seem to mind.”

Beth fingered a sequence of notes, frowned, and tried it another way. “Charity is the easiest thing in my bundle. I’m not going to put it down because it’s hard for other people.”

Meg brought her Godey’s, open to the sheet music. “Your frock is so tight at the shoulders that a sleeve’s going to rip out while you’re playing. It’s not vanity to wear clothes that fit.”

“I know. I just—it’s so much fuss, and I wish I could just wear one favorite dress forever and not think about it.”

“We’ll get lots of tucks this time, so the frock can be your favorite for years.” She patted Beth’s shoulder, resisting the urge to tug at the straining seam. “I just want everyone to be happy about my visit to Boston.”

***

Marmee had rarely been so angry as when she said yes to Meg’s summer in Boston.

She had been forced into a corner. If Robert had been less idealistic—no, if Robert had had the slightest grain of common sense when it came to money, he preached candor, let’s be candid about this—she could have provided lectures and music and pretty dresses for Meg.

If they’d stopped having children after the stillborn boy, there’d have been only two girls to rear. Marmee had worked hard at loving Beth, trying to stifle her smoldering resentment at a third child under the heavy blanket of doting affection. Then Amy came along, like the ghost of the daughters she could have had, and she tied ribbons in her blond daughter’s hair with secret delight, even as she told her to be less self-centered.

The fairy gift was so obviously a trick by well-meaning friends to “rescue” Meg from the life her mother had chosen.

Like all fairy gifts, it was a test of character, and Marmee was half-sure she’d failed. Was it charity or greed, expedience or selfishness, that had silenced her half-formed pleas to Meg to forgo the entire in order to put aside the vanity of that one quarter intended for frivolity?

Lost in such thoughts a week after the arrival of the fateful invitation, her fingers knitting automatically as she sat in her big chair and stared out the window at the blooming roses, she was startled with John Brooke found her.

“I beg your pardon,” he said automatically.

“No, no—I mean, yes, come in, sit, let Hannah bring you tea, no, lemonade—”

“She’s right behind me with the lemonade. Mrs. March—”

“Hannah is such a treasure.”

Hannah’s bustling in and out allowed Marmee to set her thoughts in tentative order. John Brooke did not visit for light social chatter. “Did Laurie and Jo get up to some mischief?”

“No. Or, rather, probably, but that’s not why I’ve come. Mrs. March, your eldest daughter is no longer a child.”

“I would have her be one a few years longer.” I might as well hold back the tide.

“When Master Laurence goes to college next year, my work here will be done. My prospects are humble, but I have never shirked hard work, and I would be proud to be able, in a few years, to offer Miss March a home, and the heart that goes with it.”

Beads of perspiration stood on Mr. Brooke’s forehead, but he was too much a gentleman to wipe them. Here sat exactly the sort of honest, learned, humble husband Meg had been raised to recognize, in time to assure that the girl had a true choice.

Marmee opened her mouth with every intent to give permission to court Meg, and some contrary temper put other words on her tongue.

“How convenient your timing, that you discover love for my daughter the very week she comes into an inheritance.”

Prove me wrong, she willed him, forcing her hands flat in her lap because otherwise she would cover her face and wail at her own sharp tongue. Be a man, Brooke—tell me no, argue, persuade me.

“I had not thought… I wanted to speak before she left for Boston.” John Brooke seemed to deflate. “You are correct. I am not worthy and will not pursue my suit.”

He bowed himself out with untoward formality. Marmee, left alone in the parlor, rocked back and forth over her knotted hands, ruing the temper she had worked so hard to control.

Chapter Text

Dearest Marmee,

This letter finds me settled in Mrs. Lincoln’s home. I expected to find myself in the Back Bay with the Moffats, where there are barely a handful of houses and everyone takes carriages everywhere—or in the South End where we used to go calling—but no, the Lincolns have lived in the same house on Beacon Hill since Major Lincoln’s great-grandfather built it after the Revolution.

So we are just steps from the Charles River, on a narrow cobblestone street crowded with houses so closely shoulder-to-shoulder that they look like one long house. The street is so crowded with carriages and messengers and children rolling hoops that I felt I would be trampled or lost just getting from Mrs. Lincoln’s carriage to the front door!

Happily, my room is at the back of the house, away from the noise. After the grandeur of the drawing room, all in red and green and gold, I wondered if I was too plain a country mouse, as I’d been at the Moffats. But my own room is as simple and bright and pretty as I could wish, all done in cream and blue flowers that will not keep me awake at night!

Mrs. Lincoln says my bamboo chair and blue patterned jug came from China—see how grand I grow, calling it ‘mine’! But it’s mine to use for the next few months. The desk I write this on belonged to Mrs. Lincoln’s Revolutionary War ancestor! I wish Jo could try it out—her work would be more worthy of its ink stains than my little notes.

Tonight we had supper in a little back sitting room all done in green, with comfortable chairs that presented no danger to the ribbons on my new frock. We supped on pickled oysters, chicken salad, and boiled ham, followed by lemon custard. Keeping my promise to drink no wine or spirits was easy, as Mrs. Lincoln offered only lemonade and tea.

Mrs. Lincoln read me parts of her son’s letters and I read mine to her, so it was all very cozy and easy, though I missed all of you. Tomorrow, we intend to visit the Athenaeum and walk a little on the Common, and also visit Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker. Mrs. Lincoln says we shall be at home to callers so that I can meet a few young people I may find easy to talk with.

The first thing I unpacked here was my little book with its green cover, which I placed on the table beside my bed, so I can read a little each morning just as I do at home. I will think of my Jo and Beth and Amy doing likewise.

Your loving daughter,

Meg

***

“We’ll lose her, see if we don’t, Teddy” Jo said grimly when the read the letter to her friend the next day.

They both sprawled under a favorite tree at the far end of the Laurence garden, exhausted by the effort of translating from the volume of Burkhardt’s Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien spread open in Jo’s lap. Mr. Brooke had all but thrown it at his pupil’s head with the command to make what sense of it he could.

“It’s not like you to begrudge Meg her fun.”

“I don’t care about dresses and parties. It’s this reading of letters together, that’s where the trouble starts.”

“Does it?” Laurie tugged at Jo’s little sailor cap, sending her chestnut braids flying down in a shower of pins.

“Not with us, silly boy. How I wish I had a hat that gave some shade in return for all the trouble it makes.”

“Your wish is my command.”

“Then go and get your grandfather to bring Meg back.”

“Mr. Brooke already asked Grandfather for that.” Laurie let that revelation plop to the grass.

Jo smacked him with her hat. “Why didn’t you tell me? If it’s all arranged—”

“Grandfather said no.” Laurie hadn’t mean to eavesdrop, but to manfully stride into Grandfather’s estate office and petition for an increase to his allowance—only something in the rise and fall of voices had stilled his hand even as he raised it to knock.

“He can’t want Meg to leave us.”

“Grandfather said marrying a gentleman, with the approval of his family, was his hope for Meg, not his fear.”

What do you fear, then? Mr. Brooke had asked—a question Jo echoed as she stabbed futilely at her braids.

“He said…” Laurie’s stomach ached again at the memory. “He said he feared Meg’s love of theater would make her kick over the traces and run away with a traveling player, if she weren’t offered other opportunities.”

“He never! Our Meg, to run off with… with a man of that class… I’ll challenge him to a duel, I swear I will.”

“Don’t, Jo.” Laurie sat up, arms curled around his raised knees. “He’s thinking of my mother. She was so perfectly respectable that her third cousin once removed sits in the Italian parliament. Her operas contained nothing but the purest sentiments! That’s too hard to explain to ‘society,’ so they say she was an opera-singer, as if she traded her virtue for jewels, which she never did, but I have to stand by and pretend I don’t hear the whispering about my mother—” The sob that choked his words was unmanly, but there was only so much a man could bear.

“Dueling is too good for them.”

“If Grandfather had another heir, I don’t know if he would have taken me out of my school in Switzerland and brought me here.”

He waited for Jo to say of course he would have, he is proud of you, not sure if he intended to be reassured or to argue.

She thumped his back instead. “I hate being angry at someone who’s good to us. He’s wrong about your mother, and he’s wrong about Meg, and he’s wrong about Boston being best for her.”

***

Silence awakened Meg to pale golden light, illuminating a dainty room where cream-colored roses climbed wallpaper the color of a summer sky. It was quite odd and lonely to not hear Jo snoring, or Amy muttering in her sleep as she stole blankets from Beth.

Then she remembered—I am in Boston. The thought made her want to burst out of bed, but she was not sure she should. Was it rude to not wait for a breakfast tray? Or was she expected to breakfast downstairs?

In the excitement of arriving, she hadn’t asked. Meg had half-believed Mrs. Lincoln’s house would run like the Moffats’, but she’d seen even less of servants in brass buttons or starched caps than she did at the house where she worked as a governess. One crisp and daunting maid had sent a boy to carry her luggage when she arrived and had served at supper. Another, much younger, with black curls escaping from under her cap, had brought hot milk at bedtime and helped Meg undress.

Meg could dress without help, but should she? She hesitated, half in and half out of bed, one bare foot brushing the matting on the floor. Jo would be dressed and running out to explore, but Jo’s disregard for propriety sometimes verged on rudeness. Meg was determined to show that she’d been raised to be a proper lady in every way.

Beth would busy herself tidying the room until someone came to fetch her, determined not to be a bother. The thought got Meg out of bed and set her to work arranging her dressing table, but that task occupied no more than five minutes. She read her green-covered book for another five minutes, pinning her attention to the words like an uncooperative frill on a dress pattern.

Amy would be quite sure of the right thing to do, no matter what she thought it was. Her notions would come out of a book, or some piece of gossip from her friends—

Meg set the little book aside, made herself clean and fresh, dressed quickly in her old poplin and sensible boots, and set out down the long curving stair to see if anyone was about.

The house was so quiet that even the portraits lining the stair seemed half-asleep. As Meg entered the main hall, she could feel the rustle of activity and hear noise from the street, but both the little parlor where she’d had supper and the dining room with its dark wood carved as deer and fowl wre empty.

In the magnificent red-and-green front parlor, she found the daunting maid dusting.

“Breakfast is at nine, miss,” the maid said before Meg could ask her question. “It’s not eight yet.”

“Thank you.” She didn’t quite have the courage to ask for tea. She ought to creep back up stairs and read one of the books Mrs. Lincoln had kindly placed by her bedside. But the big front door was right there in front of her. It was improper to be seen in public without a hat and gloves, and her entrance to Boston society must be perfect, but surely only maids and tradesmen would be about at this hour.

Meg’s hand closed around the handle, and she pulled the door open. Just one tiny step onto the stoop, and she could see the long rows of red brick houses slumbering behind chestnut trees. Two houses down, a maid was scrubbing the steps.

The air was not as fresh nor the birds as loud as at home, but the morning seemed filled with expectation. She could believe herself the heroine of her favorite sort of play, stepping into a quaint street in an antique town, where her eyes would meet those of a handsome man filled with destiny and darkness. She would smile… he would approach… she would drop her eyes… if only she had a fan to flutter beckoningly…

Her reverie was broken with a blush and a jump by the clatter of hooves and rumble of wheels, announcing the approach of a dog-cart as brilliantly scarlet as Mrs. Lincoln’s parlor, driven by two golden-haired young men in blue-and-green tartan, like young Scottish lairds out of a play. Meg’s breath caught as they pulled to a halt in front of her.

“Ahoy, you must be Miss March,” one said as he swung down from his seat and held out a hand. “I know it’s not right, but we’ll be introduced properly this afternoon and no one will be the wiser. I’m Archie Campbell.”

Meg shook Archie’s brown hand, embarrassed by her lack of gloves. He was a tall, solid young man—no, a boy, no older than she was—with corn-colored curling hair and clear gray eyes. His thinner, paler companion dismounted more gracefully, and when she accepted his hand, he raised hers to his lips and kissed it. “Charlie Campbell, at your service.”

“Our cousin Rose has taken to mucking around in the garden and thought, since you’re a country girl, you might like some of her fresh strawberries,” Archie said as he pulled a parcel from the gay cart. “We thought to surprise you with your strawberries at your breakfast table, but you’re up with the dawn.”

“I’m used to having chores in the morning,” Meg said. She was not sure if she should be intrigued, insulted, or amused. These handsome boys must be from a good family, but nobody in the Moffats’ crowd had driven the streets of Boston, handing out strawberries.

“Rose does that, too, and a cold bath and oatmeal.”

“She’s wondering who we are and how she is to know us,” Charlie said. He was slightly the better-looking of the two, with silver-gilt hair, bright blue eyes, and a manner of elegance she’d never seen outside the theater.

“Our uncle Doctor Alec is a friend of your hostess, Mrs. Lincoln.

“They went to the same balls back when Methuselah was a tot,” Charlie interjected.

“We might be third or fourth cousins to you. We are to most people in Boston.”

“Among the right set, anyway.”

“Are you brothers?” Meg burst out, then blushed at herself.

“We’re cousins,” Archie explained. “First cousins, not the distant kind. Our fathers were all brothers. Would you like to take your strawberries in?”

He held out the package to Meg, so it would have been awkward not to take it. “Thank you. I should write your cousin a note.”

“Pray do,” Charlie said. “You can give it to use when we come to call properly, and we’ll make sure Rose gets it. She’s a good girl.” He sketched a salute instead of kissing her hand. Both boys swung up onto their cart and were away in as fine a fashion as their arrival, leaving Meg with no idea of what to do with the package.

If was for her, but it was also clearly meant to be shared. If she were at home, she’d take the strawberries to the kitchen for Hannah to wash and arrange on a plate—so that’s what she would do.

With some exploration of the hall, she found a door that led down steps to a broad, stone-floored kitchen, where her maid from last night was chopping something and whistling a tune, while an older woman stirred a pot. The place was filled with the homey smells of dried herbs, baked bread, and coffee.

“Excuse me,” Meg said, suddenly unsure how to address servants. At the Kings’ house, she was treated as an upper servant. At the Moffats’, she’d never had to ask for anything. “I’m Miss March and I was brought strawberries. Perhaps they could be served with breakfast?”

Her words set off a great bustling that somehow resulted in Ellen—the younger maid—pouring her a cup of coffee, while Mrs. Reilly the cook washed and hulled the berries. Meg was seated in a plain chair at a sturdy pine table, much like at home, and served milk, oatmeal, and strawberries before she could protest that she didn’t mean to trouble anyone.

“The missus will have her tray in bed,” Mrs. Reilly said. “She said to expect you might be up and about early and make you comfortable.”

Meg had to accept that. The strawberries were very sweet and juicy indeed. Her coffee was hot, her oatmeal was smooth and creamy, and the milk had its froth of cream. Contentment settled around her like a warm shawl, until she felt sentimental for Hannah and Marmee and her sisters, and wondered why she must go out into Boston and subject herself to the judgment of the fashionable.

What if the new gray dress she’d arrived in earned her the same pitying glances as her old things had, despite its pagoda sleeves? It would be days for Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker to fit her out, and even then, she must be practical with dresses that would serve for years.

Meg swallowed a bitter draught of envy with her creamy milk, for she wished at that moment to be rich enough to have lace on her gowns if she wanted, as many ruffles as the style allowed, and a new hat for each season.

When she went upstairs to change into her gray dress, she took a moment to open the little green book, seeking comfort in the beauty of the familiar story.

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?

So armed with Luke the Evangelist’s theory of dress-making, she once more descended the curving stair, chin held high to defy the watching eyes of the Lincoln ancestors.

Chapter Text

“You’re more likely to be overlooked than stared at,” Mrs. Lincoln said between nods to acquaintances as her barouche rolled down Beacon Street. Daisy March, beside her in her half-fashionable gray dress, should be gazing wide-eyed at the Common and the crowd, not sitting with the stiff spine of a person suffering an ill-fitting corset.

Since Mrs. Lincoln was quite sure Daisy wore no corset at all—a matter that must be addressed—the discomfort was more likely of the spirit than the body.

“A little country dove can be a curiosity to city pigeons,” Daisy said. “The Moffats were kind, but the girls did peck so.”

“The Moffats’ set trades money for friends, but since their daughters are pretty, their table is lavish, and their trade is profitable, there are plenty of takers. Don’t frown so! I would not be at their ball if I didn’t think them worth cultivating, and in another generation, they’ll marry Boylstons and Crowninshields.”

“Marmee talked as if they were vulgar, but Annie meant to be kind to me.”

“A good friend offers what she values most, as Annie did to you. A true friend offers what you need most. Friends of that caliber are rare indeed, so we must value our good friends when we make them.”

“May I invite Annie Moffat while I’m here?”

“Of course you may. I have other friends in mind for you, but some are just as silly and harmless, and so will get on together.”

“Are the boys this morning among these friends?”

“They are. Their uncle Alec Campbell was the heartthrob of our youth, but Campbells stay mostly to their own people. Our best families have a habit of cultivating the same crowd from birth to death, and then by three generations of marrying cousins, all the children are sickly or geniuses. They need to marry the occasional Moffat if they aren’t to become giant brains behind blue spectacles, tottering about wheezing and bragging on their lack of chins.”

Daisy turned her attention to the Common, which bustled with playing children, courting couples, pushcart vendors, a military company drilling to the delight of a gaggle of young ladies in thin dresses, and an orator declaiming how the South should be allowed to go its way with no further blood shed from good Union men.

“Papa is said to be a genius, but we all have chins and not even Jo needs spectacles.”

“You were raised with plenty of freedom to run and play. The future professors and jurists are encouraged to pore over their books from dawn to dusk. Alice Phillips used to scold me for limiting my dear Erasmus’ hours of study to four when he was young, but he’s as much a credit to my family as her Edgar is to his, and he’s never had a day of illness.”

The barouche passed the red brick and arched windows of the Old South Meeting House and turned into Milk Street, where sellers of crockery and musical instruments and fabric and every imaginable pretty thing vied for the dollars of Boston.

When Daisy was handed down from her seat in front of the tempting windows of Jordan Marsh, she was graceful enough, but it was apparent in how she handled her skirts that she wore old-fashioned stiffened petticoats rather than a cage crinoline. That would have to be seen to, as well.

Once inside the shop, with its broad counters heaped with rainbows of shining fabric, Mrs. Lincoln suppressed a smile at Daisy’s expression of wonder. Flowered silk spoke to the girl more than the bustle of the city, it seemed.

The quick-witted shopman hurried to unfold the most vibrant of the bolts, sending painted roses and bachelors’ buttons cascading between stripes of brilliant solferino. “A superb thing, just opened, all the rage in Paris. The first to make a walking suit of it will be the envy of her set.”

Daisy ran the shining fabric between her fingers. “It’s lovely.” The distant light in her eyes suggested she was envisioning herself clad in a flowered, striped gown of elegant design, with girls demanding to know how she did it, rather than urging her to dress less dowdily.

Mrs. Lincoln was torn between cheering for the impulse and hinting that fashion is set by the already fashionable, when Daisy pushed the bolt aside with the expression of a heroine renouncing love because she must pay the mortgage.

“If I wear something so striking, everyone will know how few dresses I have and talk of it. I’d like to see some flowered tarlatan, please, appropriate for simple summer suits.”

Though Mrs. Lincoln had been prepared to guide Daisy away from the first bolts shown by a shopman who scented that the girl had more money in her purse than she’d heretofore known, she soon discovered she could stand back or even distract herself with plans for a new walking dress of her own. Poverty had made Daisy sensible to the value of every thread in weft or warp, so she scrutinized each length for flaws in the weave or designs printed awry.

She settled on three flowered lengths for frocks with matching jackets and a plain white for dances. “I shall change it with ribbons, and if people remark on how I always wear the same dress, they shall have to admit it’s a fitting one.”

“Fitting is a topic we shall need to discuss, dear.”

That topic had to wait on scrutiny of ribbons and the selection of a hat. It was with some reluctance that Daisy allowed herself to be guided to another counter in a secluded corner of the shop, where a motherly woman laid out a selection of corsets suitable to a young figure.

“I can’t possibly,” Daisy said. “I could scarcely breathe when I wore one at the Moffats’ ball. Marmee says corsets shorten the breath and push vital organs out of alignment.” She put her hands behind her back as if afraid to touch it.

The shopwoman shook her head. “That’s a corset fitted wrong or laced too tight, as the young ladies will do. Properly sized and laced, all a corset does is keep your figure neat under your frock and help bear the weight of the dress. See how the whalebone flexes?” She bent the corset under her hand and, as Mrs. Lincoln knew it would, the whalebone flexed nicely.

“Health keeps a figure neat,” Daisy said. The way she drew in her shoulders suggested she knew exactly where her figure had changed in recent years, and how health alone did not support the results quite comfortably.

“You need not wear it at home or all the time,” Mrs. Lincoln said, though she knew that once dresses were properly fitted with it, Daisy would not like the fit without it.

“I cannot make myself a person who needs help to dress and undress. Jo would laugh at me and do the lacing crooked, Amy would get it right but take all day about it, and Beth would join Marmee in saying nothing while looking reproachful.”

“Here, now,” the shopwoman said. “A simple spiral lacing lets you do and undo it yourself with one hand. Let me show you how.”

“I can’t wear something that shortens my breath when I run. Though I suppose young ladies don’t run much in Boston.” Daisy’s hand had strayed to the prettily sewn corset.

“Not in public” Mrs. Lincoln said. “We should get you a simple exercise outfit, and you may join some young ladies in doing calisthenics.” Now that would distract dear Peggy from her daughter’s corset and cage crinoline, and there would not be a word to say against it.

After the corset, convincing Daisy of her need for a cage crinoline was almost easy. The lightness and sanitary benefits of substituting a metal frame for layer of petticoats were obvious, and Mrs. Lincoln assured the girl that the metal hoops presented no difficulty in walking, sitting, or riding in a carriage. Mrs. Lincoln suggested a circumference of five yards, knowing she’d be talked down to four, and so it was.

The intimate purchases were all wrapped to be delivered and the ladies were proceeding to the counter that displayed cottons and thin flannels, when Daisy murmured to Mrs. Lincoln: “Is that one of the geniuses?”

She meant, clearly, a tall young man talking with the first shopman as he ran silks through his long hands. That he was a gentleman of an old family was clear from his somber dress and quiet manner. His earnestness accentuated, rather than concealed, his extreme youth, for he was just done with college this spring past.

“That, my dear, is Arthur Sydney, who’s gone into his father’s textile business.” Mrs. Lincoln advanced with the deliberate stateliness she knew Arthur expected of the older generation. “Dear Mr. Sydney, are you bringing new styles?”

Mr. Sydney bowed over her hand, then did the same courtesy to Daisy with such extreme gravity that the girl blushed.

“I am, ma’am. With this trouble in the south, we are making silk the thing for summer. Would you like to see?”

Her own curiosity paled beside the longing in Daisy’s eyes. When young Arthur spread a length of pale green striped silk with panels of daisies, she determined that the girl should buy this for an evening dress to wear when dancing was not planned.

“I cannot do conspicuous designs,” Daisy protested.

“In this case, dear girl, you cannot possibly refuse to. Daisy March, clad in daisies and spring green, will be the cynosure of eyes and deservingly so.”

“Vanity is the heaviest item in my bundle, and I seem to be determined to load myself down with it.”

“My dear, if you put any less vanity into your purchases, you would be setting yourself up as a pattern-card of morality for lesser girls, and that’s vanity of its own sort. You’ve done nothing more than choose what will be neat, flattering, and unexceptional, so that you stand out neither as frivolous nor as reproachfully plain.”

“Then I should not disrupt the balance.” But Daisy’s gloved hand still caressed the shimmering silk.

Young Mr. Sydney looked as if he wished to speak, but he stepped back at the slight shake of Mrs. Lincoln’s head. Flattery from a gentleman would tip the balance in entirely the wrong direction, leaving Daisy determined to be plain and simple lest she be considered a flirt.

“If you devoted your leisure hours to going from shop to shop, seeking rich and grotesque fabrics to ‘set you off,’ that would be vanity indeed,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Here you’ve chanced upon the most delightful silk that suits you in every way, with no effort at all. It would be ungrateful to refuse it.”

Mr. Sydney gestured to the shopman to unfold additional lengths, including the one Daisy had rejected before. “We’re hoping to set a fashion for these. I’m a bit shy of asking every Rose and Violet to try her namesake fabric, so chancing upon a Daisy is the purest luck for me. You’d be doing a great favor in wearing it.”

Mrs. Lincoln expected to hear immediate stammered acceptance, but Daisy only stroked the fabric and said softly: “My pennies must stretch to a great many pretty things, and I’d thought myself entirely equipped for new dresses with what I’ve already chosen.”

That brought both men stumbling over their own words to offer a discount. Daisy smiled demurely and drove so hard a bargain that Mrs. Lincoln had to conceal laughter behind her hand.

***

“I’ve squeezed pennies all my life and expected to do so forever,” Meg explained as she followed her hostess through the crowd along Milk Street. All the packages would be wrapped and sent home in the barouche, but the Athenaeum promised to be a short walk.

She hoped the bundle of her vanity had not been made heavier by a corset, a crinoline, and a great deal of pretty fabric, for while each together was light, in combination they would be a great load to bear.

“A sensible housekeeper is a blessing as a wife,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

Wife was a word that Meg heard with a thrill of anticipation and terror. She had known in the accepting Mrs. Lincoln’s invitation that it was offered in the spirit of a possible mother-in-law, and that this visit was to some degree a test of her suitability as a wife for Major Lincoln—whose letters she enjoyed, but whom she could scarcely say she knew.

“I hope I may be a blessing in the home.” She gazed into a shop window full of blue dishes from China, then another with glass dishes of dainty pastel cakes.

“Let us refresh ourselves from that hard work,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “We’ll have but a minute at the Athenaeum, but I believe you’ll feel at home there and want you to know it immediately.”

Obtaining iced cakes was a matter best left to Mrs. Lincoln, who seemed to know which was filled with almond paste and which with apricot jam. A cake was two bites of intense and delicate sweetness, so different from the hearty turnover Hannah packed for her lunch.

Meg brushed crumbs from her gloves, for they were approaching a building of such great dignity that she must stand tall and resist the urge to straighten her hat. Mrs. Lincoln swept straight through the great door, signed the register, and beckoned Meg into an arcade lined with sculptures in classical attitudes.

“I know little of art, but Amy would swoon at this.”

“You may know nothing, if you like, or everything. The important thing is, it is here.” Mrs. Lincoln led Meg through the aisle of statues, past a pair of plainly dressed girls with sketchbooks. The frail blonde did not look up away from her pencil, but the taller girl offered Meg a smile that transformed her strong, craggy features in a way that reminded Meg of Jo.

Upstairs, Meg felt herself overwhelmed by books. She ought to choose something improving but scarcely knew where to start. She drifted from shelf to shelf, unclear how books were organized, lingering at Emerson, then at a line of history books. The Girlhood of Catherine de’Medici would perhaps sweeten the history with drama and tragedy.

“Trollope is a fine writer, but I’d start with his novels,” Mrs. Lincoln said quietly. “La Beata was a lively read and seems precisely to your tastes.”

Meg left the Athenaeum with La Beata and Bradford’s New England Chronology, for she felt herself surrounded by buildings that had seen the Revolution and could speak to her if she only were introduced.

Upon her return to the Lincoln’s house, she felt herself so embraced by the quiet of her pretty room that she only then realized how much the noise of the Boston streets had battered against her. There was tea waiting for her, along with her new corset and hoop. Ellen helped her take off her plain gray suit and put on her new underthings, before fetching Mrs. Lincoln and the seamstress.

Meg had expected Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress to be an impoverished gentlewoman, or perhaps an Irishwoman with fine sewing skills. She suppressed a gasp at discovering the face beneath a modest bonnet was a deep, rich brown, from which coal-black eyes assessed her figure.

“Mrs. Blake escaped slavery some ten years ago and is now the finest seamstress on the north slope,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“Pleased to meet you,” Meg said, as nothing else seemed possible. She scarcely knew what politeness was exchanged, as she was herded to remove her robe and stand in the light to be measured.

Mrs. Blake’s touch with the tape measure was light and deft. Her accent was unexceptional, her manner cool and calm. “Has Miss March looked over the current styles?”

When Mrs. Lincoln, reclining gracefully in the bamboo chair, said nothing, Meg realized she must present her own choices. “I should like my dresses simple.”

Mrs. Blake gave her a look that Meg felt as a reproof but said nothing beyond: “Please don’t shift your weight to one leg, miss.”

“If you’d prefer to be guided by Mrs. Blake’s taste, which is excellent, tell her how you intend to wear your dresses,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“I have to make a dress last a long time,” Meg said after a pause to collect her thoughts and shift her imaginary pack of flaws. “I live in the country and do my own housework and work as a governess, so I cannot dress more finely than my employer. I should like to be pretty but not decked out in finery where I tear my ruffles with every motion and can’t keep things fresh and crisp. I do still want to be in fashion, but I am not sure how much I dare to be.”

She tried to say it all lightly, but her voice cracked on a pang of envy at the last confession.

Mrs. Blake nodded. “You want neat suits. Sleeves in the latest fashion will give you plenty of fabric to turn or dye if you need to, and the simplest lines that fit to your figure will let you move freely while being easy to remake. Zouave jackets are all the rage and can remake down to almost anything later, there’s so much fabric.”

The matter-of-factness of her voice kept Meg from unlooked-for tears. “That sounds lovely.”

“You’re not the first young lady to need to make her dresses last longer than styles do, nor will you be the last. At least one of your spring suits needs a Garibaldi blouse, to wear at home, in white or cream with pale trim.”

Mrs. Blake finished her measurements, looked over the heaps of shining fabric, suggested a few additions that would do little damage to Meg’s purse, and then named a date for delivering the first dresses, so soon that Meg gasped. “You must stitch day and night to do that!”

Mrs. Blake smiled. “I have a machine that does all but the finest stitching for me. As for the rest, practice gives me speed, and I train young girls in my craft, so many fingers make light work.”

When she had taken her leave, Mrs. Lincoln lingered while Meg put her gray suit back on.

“I have never spoken with a former slave before,” Meg said slowly. “We support emancipation always, but I did not even know people of her kind lived in Boston.”

“They have their own neighborhood on the north slope and get on splendidly, with churches and businesses of all sorts. You did exactly right to speak to Mrs. Blake as you would to any tradesperson, for she is as much a genius in her craft as any man with blue spectacles poring over his books.”

“It must have been a great adventure to escape slavery.” Meg shuddered dramatically, envisioning running from hounds.

“On our next trip to the Athenaeum, you can try her book. She gave public lectures for the first year after coming here, but the strain of memory was so great that she preferred to retire. Since the government then allowed the great evil of slavemasters recapturing their former property, it was best for her safety to draw no further attention to herself.”

“There is an entire world here that I knew nothing of.”

“That, my dear, is no sin at sixteen, provided you do not rest content in ignorance.”

 

Chapter Text

“I wish I was in Boston wearing fine clothes, not trying to figure out how to fence a ridiculously shaped garden without cutting a board,” Amy declared from behind her slate and books.

“Maybe I should have gone with Aunt March,” Jo groaned as she bent over her mending with the grim determination of a soldier under fire.

“I do try,” Beth sighed, rubbing out an equation on her slate. “But if it’s fifty dollars for a horse and thirty for a cow and eight for sheep, I’d just buy three sheep and have some extra.”

“What would you do with sheep?” Amy asked.

“Spin and weave their wool, then make blankets for everyone who needs them.”

“There’s ambition!” Jo crowed, dropping her needle deep into the sofa cushions.

“I’d buy the horse and you can make me a pretty riding habit and I’ll be the sinecure of all eyes as I ride through the town.”

“That leaves me the cows, so I guess I’ll learn to milk them and churn the cream for butter. It has to be better than hunching over a needle for hours.”

“If Meg can play and rest all day, I don’t see why we can’t,” Amy said.

“I've laid in a heap of books, and I’d rather improve my shining hours reading on my perch in the old apple tree, when I'm not having larks.”

Beth pushed her slate away. “I want to learn some new songs, and my children need fitting up for the summer. They are dreadfully out of order and really suffering for clothes.”

“May we, Marmee?” Jo asked, turning to Mrs. March, who sat sewing in what they called ‘Marmee’s corner.’

Marmee turned a shirt in her hands. A month ago, she would have been sure of the lesson to teach—let the girls have their freedom and see how idleness wore upon their spirits—but now, with Meg in Boston, that would also teach them to feel wiser than their absent sister.

That temptation, she must resist. Hope as she might that Meg would decide against fashionable life, there was no telling whether coming home to criticism would break her spirit or stiffen her spine.

“Meg is in Boston to prepare for the life she hopes to lead,” she said at last. “I hope it will be one of usefulness as well as beauty.”

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’” Amy quoted.

“Truth is always beautiful, but surface beauty can hide a rotten heart, like an old tree that has lost its core but still stands. I wish for my daughters to have ambitions greater than being admired for their dress and carriage.”

“No worry of that with me!” Jo said. “I shall write books and get rich and famous, and nobody will dare to tell me that my skirts are scorched or there’s a blot on my nose.”

“My pet wish is to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world” was Amy’s modest desire.

“What about you, Beth?” Marmee asked when her third daughter only watched and smiled.

“Mine is to stay home safe and help take care of the family.”

Amy made a noise that in anyone less ladylike would have been a snort. “You must have wishes more than that, Beth.”

“Since I had my little piano, I am perfectly satisfied. I only wish we may all keep well and be together, nothing else.”

Marmee folded a cuff of the shirt into smaller and smaller segments as she forced herself to smile. Jo was determined to give herself a hard task, but she’d work at it tirelessly if given the chance, and break her heart over it until she succeeded. Amy’s ambition could be arranged if they flattered one wealthy relative or another, and while it galled her to do it, Meg’s adventure had opened that door and it could not be shut.

It was Beth’s simple wish that was so sweet, so unselfish, and so unattainable, that Marmee wanted simultaneously to cry and to shake the child.

She could offer Beth a lamb to rear—no, the thought of farming raised a shudder. “If I let you trade your chores and study for working for your dreams, for the summer, what would you do?”

“I would write such a novel as no one has read before!”

“I would draw and paint and work very hard at it.”

Beth twisted her hands together. “Must I do anything different?”

It would be easy to say of course not, dear, and have one biddable child to help with the housework. But then the other two would learn to rely on having servants, which was the opposite of the lesson Marmee wished to teach.

“If your only wish is to be useful at home, will you start by apprenticing to Hannah in the kitchen?”

After some hesitation, Beth nodded. “I will, Marmee.”

“Here’s what we shall do, then. For a week, the first hour of the day is for chores, and anything left undone stays undone, so choose wisely.” Such a broad hint was, perhaps, putting a thumb on the scale, but any woman in her first home must face such decisions. “Then the remainder of the day is yours to build your castles in the air. At the end of the week, show me what you’ve done and we’ll discuss whether to continue the experiment.”

Marmee’s doubts were stifled by a whirlwind of Jo’s hugs, followed by Beth more gently and Amy with more dignity, amidst shouts of “Yes, Marmee! We will, Marmee! We shall show you what we can do!”

As she sat with three of her daughters arranged on her lap and the arms of her big chair, Marmee wondered why letting them test their wings left her feeling as if one of her own wings was breaking.

***

How to dress to meet Miss March was a matter of great concern for Fanny Shaw. On the one hand (she smoothed her frizzle of front curls with that delicate hand), Miss March was a country cousin, so she’d no doubt have one good black dress and oughtn’t to be made to feel plain by what she lacked.

On the other hand (the one organizing gloves and fan into a dainty bag), Miss Shaw was to be driven to this “little dinner” by Mrs. Stephen Campbell, whose approval could make or break Fanny’s debut when she had it, which could be any time now, thank you. Mrs. Campbell’s style was the envy of fashionable Boston.

“You look like a fairy,” Maud said, standing back from as Fanny revolved slowly before the mirror. Her younger sister’s help in getting dressed had for once been help, not a reluctant tugging at curls and ribbons, capped by tears when Fanny complained of her awkwardness.

“Thank you. It’s not bad at all, if I do say so myself.” Fanny had chosen the simplest of her new gowns, a pale blue silk with not a single flounce on the skirt, worn with a lace capelet that might be said to be sensible, despite its puffed sleeves, because it could be made to go with so many dresses. Blue and silver velvet cord twisted through her blonde curls.

“You must bring me back a treat, for my help.”

“I will if I can, but the Campbells might not think much of pilfering chocolates from the sideboard.”

Campbells might not be quite so high as Cabots or Lowells, but the third brightest star in the social firmament still shown brightly indeed. There was no shame to being a Shaw—there had been Shaws at the Boston Tea Party, though fancy wasting good tea like that!—but there was glory in being a Campbell.

With such happy thoughts filling her head, Fanny descended the stairs. The servant Mrs. Stephen Campbell sent to the door to fetch Fanny provided every sort of courtesy, and so she found herself settled opposite the great lady herself, with a boy she remembered from dances as Archie Campbell beside her, so the slimmer, more fine-featured boy facing him must be Charlie Campbell. Keeping track of Campbells was always a headache, as just when you thought you’d accounted for all of them, another would pop out of the curtains and you had to hope it was one who danced acceptably.

Mrs. Stephen Campbell was dressed in brilliant green silk trimmed with black velvet and tiny silk flowers, with a wide black velvet sash that Fanny immediately wanted for herself. “How delightful to see you again, Miss Shaw,” she said, in a voice so lovely that Fanny forgot sashes, flowers, and shoes entirely.

Fanny could scarcely recall what they spoke of, though she felt sure in her heart it was a test of some sort, more subtle than the conjugation of French verbs. Mrs. Stephen Campbell was gracious in the extreme.

They arrived in a narrow street on Beacon Hill, in front of one of those houses that looked simple outside but could be anything inside, from low ceilings and three sticks of dour furniture that had seen the Revolution, to the very height of fashion.

Oh! The front hall was plain and lined with ancestral portraits, but the red and green parlor was everything Fanny could wish. Her hostess, Mrs. Lincoln, was almost as stylish as Mrs. Stephen Campbell, and then there, rising from the curlicued sofa to be introduced, was Miss March.

“Do call me Daisy,” Miss March said.

“And I shall be Fanny to you.” It was what one said to everyone. The boys, of course, must say Miss March and Miss Shaw, and so be always reminded that girls were to be sought after, not taken for granted.

Miss March’s white tarlatan was flounced in the style of at least two years ago, and the neck wasn’t low, but she had one of those divine wide black velvet sashes, and real white roses tucked in her smooth brown hair. As they sat, she patted her skirt absently, the way little girls did when they weren’t accustomed to hoops.

Conversation among the young people, of course, had to be general. It was established, variously, that Miss March came from bucolic Concord, that she did not go to school but in fact was a governess who’d come into some money and some friends, and so was blessed with a summer of culture and fashion, and that she had three sisters, none of whom went to school at all, but ran free in the country like savages.

“How pleasant it must be to choose your own work, and not be toiling over books all day,” Archie Campbell said.

“Is it so hard to learn lessons?” Daisy asked.

“Confoundedly so, when it’s Latin and Greek that I’ll never have need to use in business. A simple course in mathematics would suit me, and the law of tariffs, and Chinese, for everyone knows I’m to go into the family business. But I’m to go to college first—”

“College puts polish on a man,” Charlie Campbell said. “You can’t spend all your time with account books and ship’s logs. Nobody cares if you swot at Latin, so long as you play games well and aren’t tight with a penny.”

“Tell that to my father.” Archie said it in the tone of a familiar argument. “He won’t make a Mac of me—that’s our other cousin, the bookworm—but he won’t let me slack, either.”

“How many cousins have you?” Daisy asked.

“Infinity,” Charlie said. “Our family tree has roots under every street in Boston.”

“Eight that we count as family for all occasions. I’m the oldest, though Charlie here almost beat me to the post. Then there’s Mac, who has all the brains; his brother Steve, who got all the looks left over after our Prince Charlie; my pair Geordie and Will, who are twins; and Jamie the baby.”

Fanny counted on her fingers, got seven, and tried it again. Daisy had the inward expression of someone doing mental arithmetic—well, she was a governess, she’d have to be a genius at math. “Silly me, I keep getting seven.”

That led to a ruckus of counting, capped with Charlie’s shout of “Rose! You’ve forgotten our cousin Rose!”

The story of Rose was everything pathetic, and Daisy sighed over the poor dear orphan until dinner was announced.

Archie offered his arm to Daisy, and so Charlie gave his to Fanny, for they were to dine like a grown-up party, chaperoned by a dour maid’s eagle eye, while their hostess and Mrs. Stephen Campbell took their dinner in a small parlor.

“What do you do for fun in Concord?” Archie asked as soup was served.

“We have our games and romps. You’ll laugh, but my sister Jo is our playwright and we stage the most blood-curdling tragedies.”

Charlie’s blue eyes widened. “You do theatricals! We must see a script.”

“I shall take you to the theater, Daisy dear, and you’ll see how professionals do it,” Fanny said before the conversation could totally exclude her.

“I am in awe of Miss Kate Reignolds, having seen her twice, and I so wish to make it a third and fourth time. My little acting skills seem as nothing compared to her genius.”

“You admire the north star of our rivals,” Archie said with a short laugh.

Daisy might have seen theater on her own, but she did not know the social scene as Fanny did. Everyone knew that Kate Reignolds had married into the Winslows, who were the biggest competition to the Campbells in the China trade. It had been nothing short of a major scandal, talked of at all the parties, and everyone’s breath was held for whether and when Mrs. Stephen Campbell would invite Mrs. Winslow to her table.

“I should love to be able to put on plays for our set,” Charlie said quickly. “But it’s hard to do when it’s all boys.”

“It’s as hard when it’s all girls. Jo relishes the male parts, but she can’t play all of them, so I’ve put on a mustache from time to time. Amy should do it, but she wants to be the heroine always and can’t remember her lines.”

“Steve used to let himself be put in dresses, but now he says he’s too old, and neither Geordie nor Will looks good in a bonnet.”

“Charlie looks pretty enough and languishes nicely over a fan. Show them, Prince!”

With a blushing show of reluctance, Fanny offered her fan to the handsomer Campbell. Prince Charlie fluttered it with a will, lowering his eyelashes and simpering, until he was interrupted by the arrival of the next course. He kissed the handle lightly and handed it back to her. “I dare say I’m not half so lovely behind it as its owner.”

“Fanny, I can just see you as the beautiful Bianca in Jo’s last play. Do say you love to act.”

“I like nothing better,” said Fanny, who’d never acted in her life but, now that it was brought up, fancied it could not be so hard to look lovely and say pretty words and have handsome men make love to you.

“We must do it,” Charlie said, with his eyes on Daisy. “Will your sister lend us the script?”

“She might. I’ve never acted before anyone but family and a few girls from the neighborhood, though.”

“We have our set who finds our shows funny and charming. Do say you will! A play with actual girls in the girl parts would be something new.”

The rest of the dinner turned on matters of sets and props and who to cast in what role. Fanny made promises of old dresses and paste jewels with reckless hopefulness that her parents would approve all this—Mamma would, for the connection with the Campbells, but with Papa, one never knew.

After the sweet, the girls withdrew in good order to the parlor, leaving the boys to drink watered wine with their walnuts.

Fanny sugared her tea well. “Dear Daisy, one question plagues me. Are you to have a coming-out ball?”

Daisy blinked as if the matter had not occurred to her. “Surely I’m too young to be out. Nothing Mrs. Lincoln suggests as entertainment requires it.”

“Girls as young as fifteen are out, if their parents allow it. Mine are sadly behind the times and say I must wait until I’m eighteen.”

“That’s another year for me, for I’ve just turned seventeen.”

“You can scarcely do better for a sponsor than Mrs. Lincoln, and think how thrilling to have men allowed to come court you.”

Daisy’s blush started from her plump cheeks and spread up to her forehead and down as low as her bodice allowed to be seen.

“You’ve a suitor! Do tell!” Fanny patted the sofa as if to urge Daisy to move closer. This would be a divine piece of gossip.

“I am not ready to think of marriage for some years yet.”

“It’s never too soon to think. There are girls our age who’ve been engaged twice.”

“How sad for them to have given their hearts to men who did not value the gift.”

“Oh no, Trix did the jilting herself! She says you can’t know a man until you’ve been engaged to him.”

“Do young people here not talk and write to one another?” Daisy’s blush deepened until she was brighter scarlet than the carpet, so it was as well her dress was white.

“Oh, every event is such a crush, and young men will say anything to a pair of sparkling eyes. I did adore hearing Frank Moore admiring my cerulean orbs, but he got it from a book and doesn’t care in the slightest for me. Writing is such a bore with anyone but girls.”

“What… what happens if your suitors go to war?”

“Our set can afford not to do that, if they prefer not. Why be shot at by the very people who danced at our parties a few years back, when there’s a need for industry at home? The ones old enough to be lieutenants and majors and generals don’t bother with us girls who aren’t out yet.”

Fanny cooled herself and her tea with her fan, which also allowed her to hide her glee at the change in Daisy’s expression. She had hit the mark, the penny dropped—Daisy’s suitor was Major Lincoln, the officer who’d been so stuffy at the ball for Trix’s friends from New York. Miss Daisy March, country cousin, was to be set up as one of the belles of Boston.

“Have you dressed much in hoops before?” she asked.

“Only once, and I must have been so elated by the occasion that I overlooked any difficulties. How do you make it look so easy?”

“Let me show you.” Fanny rose, letting her skirts settle around her, revolved, and subsided gently into her chair. “At first, you must do it slowly, so you know exactly where each bit is going and stop if something’s awry.”

Daisy tried the maneuver, got herself caught on a sofa leg, tugged herself free and tried again, then tripped upon trying to get up. “I feel like I don’t know where my feet are.”

“Right at the bottom of your legs, as Grandma would say. Let a little skirt pouf onto the seat as you descend, so the rest spreads gracefully. It’s a knack, is all.”

And so when the boys rejoined the girls, they found two pretty young ladies laughing heartily as they popped on and off chairs, pirouetted, and promenaded to the next chair.

*** 

Dearest Marmee,

I’ve had a most delightful evening and met such lovely people. I shall write it all out later, with sketches of my dresses, but I have two questions that will keep me sleepless if I don’t lay them on your bosom by the first possible post.

First, am I to be out? Fanny Shaw, who is the sweetest girl, says I ought to. Mrs. Lincoln says it is your decision and she has assumed nothing, believing I would prefer to begin with a quieter life among young people of my own age. I am entirely grateful for her plans, and for her kindness in introducing me to friends who will play Authors and tell of their romps and not flirt outrageously. Fanny says if I’m receiving suitors, I should be out, and I do not believe Major Lincoln’s attentions are wholly and exclusively friendship, but I have paced the floor this past hour, trying to figure if it is presuming of me to believe his correspondence has a specific aim or faithless to allow others to speak to me. I won’t say I don’t wish to be a belle, for you know what bundle I struggle to bear, but I don’t wish to have to reject sincere suitors because I owe one the time to make his plea.

How conceited I sound! It’s as possible that I could be left standing alone at any ball, save for pity dances arranged by the hostess, as that I could break hearts.

Second, would Jo be so kind to send us a fair copy of her Tragedy of the Ruined Tower? The Campbell boys have got up a plan to put on dramatics, for family and close friends only, and when I recalled the story for them, Charlie Campbell says his heart is set on performing it. Fanny could not be more like Bianca if she were born for the part. I was not sure at first what to make of great boys, but they are easy and friendly in their ways, without boasting or taking liberties. Laurie and Charlie would be fast friends, I’m sure, for they share a love of music and art. Archie is quieter but ‘a good sort of fellow.’

Tomorrow Fanny and I are to see a concert in the afternoon, and the next day, we are to go to Faneuil Hall to hear speakers on the prospects of the freed slaves.

I think so fondly of all of you at home,

Meg

Chapter Text

On the first day of the Great Experiment, before Meg’s letter could arrive to disturb anyone’s peace, Jo splashed flowers into vases, washed dishes so violently that they rattled like Marley’s chains, and beat the rug with vigor that Beth coughed and said gently that it was undoing her dusting.

Amy slid books back onto the shelves, ran the duster over the windowsills, dried dishes with proper gentleness, and on the chime of the clock was ready to take off her big apron, tie on her hat, wrap a bit of bread and cheese in a handkerchief for lunch, and take her drawing kit to the garden.

A seat under the honeysuckle provided a view that was most picturesque, not least because the flowers set off her golden curls. The latest dress from Aunt Carrol’s ragbag was a yellow cotton with blue stripes, so Amy felt her aesthetic sense might almost be satisfied for once.

She had chosen to sketch the stone fence and the trees, with the path zig-zagging toward her. Jo’s plot was a blight in the corner of her view, for sunflower stalks were not a feature of the Tuscan landscapes all the girls learned to copy. It would make Jo laugh if she put a ruin there instead, so she did, with fancy columns just poking into the scene.

Beth ran down the path, ran back up it, ran down again with a basket, and returned some time later, holding the basket with both hands. “Guess what I’m doing?”

“Picking red currants, but I don’t know why.”

“Hannah says we’re to make strawberry jam.”

“Then why aren’t you picking strawberries?”

“Mr. Laurence sent over a flat this morning. Would you like a currant?”

Amy would, but she didn’t dare stain her dress. She would have liked a strawberry more, so it seemed unfair that all should go straight into jam—but if she troubled herself with strawberries, that was less drawing she’d get done, and there were a great many trees to include.

Trees bent delicate branches under her pencil. The path was not so cooperative. Try as she would, squint as she might, shade or erase or crosshatch as she could, it persisted in looking like nothing more than a shining snake slithering through the garden, like a dragon intent on eating the fair maiden in the arbor.

“I could draw that,” she said to herself as she flipped to a fresh page.

Now the snake persisted in being flat and stony, though she gave it wings and a flashing eye. Sketching the girl was a more satisfying matter. That lovely new shading technique gave her skirts of lucid white, ringlets coiled down her back, and if her elbow was a little awkward, a few well-placed honeysuckle blossoms distracted the eye. The girl’s face need only be sketched, but she could have a very nice nose, not snub or blunt at all—

Amy’s concentration was broken by a whistled tune advancing toward her along the troublesome path, connected to a familiar young man in a vest and cap.

“Here’s fun!” Laurie said. “What are you playing at today, Little Raphael?”

“I’m not,” Amy said with dignity that clashed with her hasty reversal of the page. “Marmee says that as Meg is in Boston preparing for her future, so we may prepare for our futures here.”

“And your future is to be a pretty picture making pretty pictures?”

“I should like to be a great artist and study in Rome and Paris. If I happen to be fashionable myself, I don’t see where it’s anyone’s place to judge.”

“Well said.” Laurie leaned in to inspect the garden drawing. “There’s a fine waterfall. Are you planning to join the Hudson River School?”

“It’s the path, and I hate it.” She snapped the sketchbook closed. “And the Hudson River’s in New York, so there’s no way I’d go to school there, even if they admit girls, which they probably don’t.”

“It’s not that kind of school, goose.” Laurie tugged a golden ringlet, a habit Amy disliked almost as much as she disliked being teased over things everyone knew but nobody bothered to tell her. “They paint rivers and mountains and great banks of clouds. It’s not so refined as the great painters of Europe, but the exhibition Grandfather took me to in Boston was fine in its way.”

“All I have to work with is a small hill and a boring river.” Amy reflected briefly on the unfairness of being surrounded by extraordinarily ordinary trees. “How do artists in ordinary places think of anything to draw?”

“Do you take commissions?”

“I might, though I must have something in return.”

“Would one of Grandfather’s prints suit you?”

“Too much. Amateurs are paid in cakes and gloves.” What would help would be a showing her pictures to someone in the know in Boston, but Amy could scarcely ask for that, not without better to show than this.

“Done. Draw me a cartoon, like they do in the papers. You used to illustrate Jo’s stories so nicely.”

“Do you want counts with daggers and castles and horses?” Amy hoped horses were not part of the request. They had so many bends that she could not remember without one in front of her.

“No thank you. Make it the President. I have guests from England coming before too long, and I wouldn’t mind showing them what Americans are about. Do it like the cartoons in the newspapers, where they make pictures of the issues of the day, and everyone has a ribbon of words saying what they mean.”

“Very well, then, Mr. Laurence. Your wish is my command.”

“Thank you, Miss March. I’m off to see if Jo wants to row on your dull river.” Laurie kissed the air in the general direction of Amy’s hand and marched off, whistling again.

Amy opened her sketchbook and set herself to Mr. Lincoln with a will. Caricature came easily to her pencil, and the President was a simple subject. A beanpole body, craggy nose and chin, beard, and a stovepipe hat, and there he was to the life.

Once President Lincoln was planted in the middle of the page, she did not know what to do with him. Politics meant that slavery was wrong and Father must go fight to the save the Union. It meant that women should be allowed to vote and poor people should be allowed to be less poor and there should be a railroad built to the West so young men could make their fortunes.

Beyond that, Amy could think of nothing. Newspaper cartoons made references to things that happened in Congress last week, and Congress was as far away as the Hudson River School.

Well, the President should be giving a speech. Amy erased his arm to move it to a more oracular position.

***

Supper was hashed lamb from last Sunday’s joint, peas and carrots in butter, bread, and strawberry jam. Beth beamed as she passed that last plate. “I made the jam myself. Hannah taught me how.”

Marmee made trying the jam a matter of some ceremony, as each girl spread it on a slice of bread, tasted it, and called it good. With her braids pinned up to keep them out of the way, Beth looked suddenly halfway to being a grown woman, leaving only Amy as a child with curls falling over her shoulder.

“Did Hannah approve your work?”

“She did.” Beth’s little hands showed new blisters, which from time to time the girl looked at proudly.  “When I dropped the sugar nippers in the boiling water, she had to put her apron over her head, I don’t know why, but we pulled them out with a pair of tongs and then everything was all in order. It’s very hot work, filling all those little jars.”

“They will shine like jewels in the pantry when it’s winter, and we’ll be grateful for your toil.” Marmee looked around the table. Amy was her usual fastidious self, eating lamb hash with one little finger elegantly curled, though it was unlike her to be so quiet.

Jo’s reverie was more readily explained. Take an ink blot on her cheek, her hastily re-tidied hair, and the ink-stained handkerchief trailing from one sleeve, and the sum came clear: Jo’s mind was far away with whatever story she was writing.

“We’ve seen the fruits of Beth’s labor. How go my other girls?”

“Splendidly. I’ve written two-thirds of a hair-raising story. The dinner bell caught me just as the highwayman had Count Louis held at pistol point in the forest outside the witch’s cave.”

“You went rowing with Laurie,” Amy said accusingly.

“I did no such thing. I sent him away with kind regrets. I shall be an example of diligence to my boy.”

“How did you fare, Amy?” Marmee asked.

“Well enough.” Amy settled her ruffles and raised her chin. “Do the terms of the Great Experiment allow us to ask questions?”

“They do, and I shall answer as best I can.” This was a dangerous promise to make, but it would be more dangerous to leave her girls to paddle in circles when they knew they were adrift.

“How does an artist decide what to make as art?”

Jo rapped her fork against her plate. “Draw from imagination, as I do, but with morals from life.”

“Make it pretty, as you always do,” Beth said.

Marmee rustled through her memories of receptions and lectures for an answer. Surely she’d quoted confidently from Emerson’s “Thought on Art” in criticizing the daubings of her seminary mates, though all she remembered now was a muddle of admonitions to the artist to live greatly. “Look into your heart and draw what it tells you to.”

“I made a President Lincoln for Laurie. He wanted it like the cartoons in the newspapers, but those are always about something, and I don’t know how to figure out what a picture should say.”

“Political cartoons of that nature are half scandal and sensation, flinging mud for the sake of exciting interest. While I would never discourage my daughters from turning their hands to any hard task, my fond hope is that they choose wholesome work that nourishes the spirit and fits it for higher pursuits.” Marmee grasped for a fragment of Emerson and, catching it, added. “Art must be subordinated to nature.”

Conversation turned for a while to Jo’s writing. Amy was pouring tea when she asked: “If I paint a pretty flower because it’s pretty, I don’t know what nourishment it gives.”

Beth spoke up. “My spirits always lift when I walk through the garden with all the blooming flowers.”

“That’s just it. The flowers are already there. My drawing them doesn’t seem to add anything.”

“The flowers won’t always be there,” Jo said. “Your drawing preserves them for the cold time ahead, just like Beth’s jam.”

“Well said.” Marmee felt Emerson would somehow have approved this sentiment. “We should all think of how to store up beauty for times when the world feels chilly and bleak.”

“Hear, hear!” Jo cried, rapping her fork with vigor that threatened the china. Beth lifted her jam in a toast.

“Very well, I shall draw flowers tomorrow,” Amy said, in a tight tone that Marmee recognized because she herself had used it to end conversations that brought her no satisfaction. Tomorrow she must inquire more closely into what Amy truly meant to ask, for it seemed unlikely that she craved a career of making scurrilous newspaper cartoons.

***

The next morning brought letters from Meg. The first, Marmee read aloud and then set aside to share with Laurie when Jo had a moment to take it to him.

The second, she read and re-read as she prepared herself for the day’s work in visiting the poor, hoping that reports and charity collections and the frantic search for money to buy shoes for a poor family of fourteen would make the questions Meg raised seem less shattering.

She came home that summer evening to a house strangely silent and unhomelike. Beth proved to be in the kitchen, making supper under Hannah’s eye. Jo was writing in the attic, with her hair tied up in an ink rag and the gleam of genius in her eyes, and she answered only in monosyllables when asked whether she’d read Meg’s letter with Laurie. Amy lay in bed with a cold compress over her eyes and an expression of martyrdom to the cause of art.

Marmee settled herself in her big chair with her knitting and set herself to thinking about the questions in Meg’s letter.

Amateur theatricals, she could not forbid. The girls had performed at home in front of an audience of friends, and if she trusted Lucy Lincoln with Meg at all, then she must trust her in this. Campbell boys were surely reared to treat girls with respect—

The existence of Campbell boys of an age with Meg made Marmee feel old in a way that even allowing Meg to be courted had not. The many Campbell brothers had been a subject of fascination in her youth, though some had been too old and some too young for her set.

How Stephen Campbell had been so bowled over by his first sight of Miss Clara Taliaferro, fresh from South Carolina, that he proposed on the spot, had been told and retold, with sighs of envy at the romance of it all. A few girls said they would have refused and made him court them properly, but legend was firm that Clara had married him within the month, wearing the prettiest of the dresses she’d brought with her.

The Campbell brother of Marmee’s youth had been Alec, of course. He was the prettiest young man at any ball, with golden glints to his curls and eyes the color of sky or sea. He was not the silliest, which had recommended him to Marmee when she was Miss Peggy Curtis. His manners and conversation made him an excellent companion for a dance or a supper, but he held every girl at a distance and eventually went to sea.

Let Meg have her fun with the Campbells and Miss Shaw, then. Marmee would leave it to Jo whether she wished to take time to copy out a play, and what response to give Meg if she did not.

Whether Meg was to be Out was either a very easy question or a very difficult one.

Marmee’s instinct was to say no. The girl was barely seventeen, too young for marriage for at least another three years. Let her go to afternoon concerts and family parties, untroubled by suitors, late nights, and the little jealousies that girls got up to when marrying well was their highest aim in life.

If she said no, did this mean she was agreeing Meg ought to marry Major Lincoln, a man who seemed honorable enough in his letters but whom Marmee had never yet met? To make that decision without allowing Meg to look around herself seemed like the opposite of everything Marmee believed about making a prudent choice.

She missed two stitches as she berated herself once again for turning away John Brooke. A rival for Meg’s affection should be welcome in assuring that Meg did not give herself to a man from comfort or obligation.

In the whirlwind of Meg’s inheritance and Lucy Lincoln’s invitation and getting Meg off to Boston, had she ever really asked what Lucy’s intentions for this visit were?

***

The night of the Campbells’ visit, Lucy Lincoln had looked in the mirror while her hair was being brushed out and asked herself the same question.

Daisy’s timorous query—am I to be Out?—would have been less ridiculously awkward if Mrs. Lincoln had been certain of her answer. Clara Campbell had even raised the issue over dinner in the cozy corner, and when Clara spoke on social matters, it paid to listen.

“The little country mouse looks well enough, but what is she to be? Until I received your invitation, I thought her intended as a companion.”

“She’s Peggy Curtis’ daughter,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “I wished to give an old friend’s child a bit of polish and fun.”

Clara raised a delicate eyebrow as she sipped her soup. She would never say Peggy who?, as that would mean admitting some corner of the social scene was unknown to her, but she’d been married before Peggy or Lucy were launched in society. “Is this the Curtis daughter who made such a fuss about marrying that philosopher whose ideals never included blacking his boots?”

“The very one.” Lucy stifled a laugh. Clara was never funny on purpose. “They rusticate now in Concord, in straitened means.”

“Which this girl’s marriage could save them from, if she plays her cards right.”

Rumor in Lucy’s set had been that Clara Taliaferro was turned out of the house by her brother’s new wife, with half her dowry on her back as pretty clothes to lure a wealthy husband. This story had given her a fairytale glamour, the more so when Stephen Campbell swept her away to a life of luxury.

Lucy waited until soup was cleared and fish brought. “My son has begun a correspondence with her.”

“So you’ve brought her here to groom her as his bride.”

Hearing it put that way, Lucy wanted to squirm like a schoolgirl. She’d said more than once that Daisy would make a good wife if dear Erasmus could win her, even that Daisy should gain some polish in Boston to prepare her. “Now I feel like the frightening auntie from some gothic romance, keeping the heroine chained in the house until she can be wed to preserve someone’s fortune.”

“She seems quite comfortable.”

“Have I erred in bringing her here?”

“It’s no more than bending the twig in the way you wish it to go. We all look to my niece Rose to marry one of the boys when she grows up, to keep the property together.” Clara removed a fish bone with impeccable grace. “How did Major Lincoln meet Miss March?”

“The Moffats allowed all their girls to dance at every party, no matter their age.”

“That’s what you get for allowing a family of shoemakers into polite society, solely because they have money and pretty daughters. I watched dancing through the stair bannisters and hoped not to be caught until I was eighteen and ready for a proper launch. There’s no hope she’s been finished, I suppose?”

“None,” Lucy said firmly. She would not tell Clara Campbell that dear Daisy had been working as a governess. Dear Peggy had hated their year at a female seminary, chafed by every restriction of schedule and dictum. Lucy, ever the more easy-going, had won the prize in French by retelling, in that language, her mother’s account of Lafayette’s famous visit to Boston.

That she’d kept her daughters out of school with one of her husband’s plans of education was no surprise. That a Curtis had to work… would have been fine and noble in a son but was a social liability in a daughter. The two proper goals for a Brahmin daughter were to make a good marriage or, if that did not suit, to become a reformer and start a newspaper or a woman’s college.

“These country cousins make such conundrums,” Clara Campbell declared. “If you limit her to afternoon parties and simple pastimes, people will believe your son is marrying your companion. If you launch her in society, everyone will ask why you've taken such an interest in this girl, and you risk losing her for your son."

"I only wish to do what's best for Miss March." That came out prim, as statements of that kind were apt to.

"To do what's best for her, or to prove you can rear her better than her eccentric mother?"

***

Darling Meg,

You shall have a play, but not the one you expect! I have such a one in progress that you will rave over, and all your new friends too.  They sound trumps, though I dispute that any can compare to our own Theodore Laurence. You must make do in Boston with these Campbells until you come back to us again.

Yours in tearing haste,

Jo

***

Ma Chère Marguerite,

Enclosed is a drawing of a Daisy to remind you of home. When you go to the Antherum, I should so love to hear about the etchings. I’ve been working very digitally over my drawings and improve daily. The latest frocks from Aunt Carrol look like Florence’s taste has improved too, but nothing compares to my new dress from your inheritance. I shall think of you whenever I wear it. Do you think of us? Adieu, votre soeur

Amy

***

Dear Meg,

I made strawberry jam yesterday and cooked dinner tonight. I wish I could send you a jar of jam, but there are probably entire shops full of it in Boston.

Hannah says I must go to the market tomorrow. I promised Mother as part of our experiment that I would do whatever Hannah asks, without complaint, but I would rather she had asked me to scrub the whole stove than to go to the market by myself! Please tell me how you manage in such a big place as Boston and spare a thought for your loving

Beth

***

Dearest Meg,

I have referred your first question to Jo, which she took on with cries of glee. Your new friends are the children of people I remember kindly from my youth, so I trust them with your friendship. Do remember nonetheless that people who have not known you from childhood may also not understand how we live, so be alert for misunderstanding and swift to prevent or resolve it.

As for your second question, I had not thought in sending you to Boston to subject you to the courtship of any and every man who can be invited to a ball. Your father and I agreed long ago that you should not marry before age twenty, so that you may know yourself before choosing a mate. Nor, however, had I intended to shelter you so entirely from young men as we have done here, so that you have little experience with which to assess the character and worth behind a pleasing figure and a flattering word.

It is best, therefore, that you are not plunged into ‘society’ as you were at the Moffats. I should like you to know friends your own age, as Mrs. Lincoln has arranged. You are free to go with them to the parties of family and intimates, with her agreement, but there is no call for you to attend the sort of balls where young women try to attract suitors.

A grand coming-out ball, such as I had, is of course impossible, for it would impose on Mrs. Lincoln’s charity, as well as create awkward feeling when you come home and take up your work again.

You should not consider yourself bound to Major Lincoln, but let matters naturally take their course between you.

With love and wishes for your happiness.

Mother