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The Only Air Worth Breathing

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She’d known he was going to do it.

A proposal was, after all, the expected continuation of a courtship between a gentleman and a young lady. It was only right that Fred Vaughn should propose after however many months of carriage rides and dances and gifts and chaste kisses, and only right that Amy, in return, should accept.

And Amy March was no fool.

Of course it’s not something one said - “Oh yes, we’re here in Paris so that I may take painting lessons and also find a rich husband so that my family might not become utterly destitute” - but it was the truth nonetheless.

The fact of the matter was simply that until recently, this hadn’t exactly bothered Amy.

She liked Paris.

She liked carriage rides through the long, tree-lined Haussmannian boulevards, the cafes and shops and houses all perfectly ordered with their perfect wrought iron balconies and perfect tall windows. She liked attending balls in beautiful dresses, and partaking in witty conversation with a delicate coupe glass of champagne in her hand and a full dance card hanging off her wrist. And she liked the beautiful gifts that Fred brought her - fox fur stoles and kid skin gloves, ribboned hats and painted lace fans - things she’d never had but had admired so fervently as a child.

Most of all, she liked being somewhere where it was not thought vulgar to appreciate beauty - nor a crime to like nice things, or to want them. Her sisters had always thought her something of a snob - shallow, they might have said behind her back. Or in front of it, had it been Jo.

Amy could admit it now - her silliness and vanity as a child. But weren’t all children afforded such weaknesses of character? The rest of her sisters had hardly been angels - excepting Beth, of course, who had always been perfectly lovely, and sweet, and good.

But that silly, vain girl who had kept books full of drawings of noses and thrown temper tantrums and dreamed of high society, had grown into an altogether charming, genteel, and mature young woman, ready and willing to do her duty and secure a rich husband to assist her family in the only way she could.

Fred Vaughn was perfectly acceptable in every way. He was kind hearted, good looking, and richer even than Aunt March could have hoped for. Did he stir any great passion in her when his eyes swept over her décolletage, or his hand lingered on her waist? Did she feel that particularly delicious sort of thrill when his kisses became longer than perhaps she should have allowed, or when they strayed, as they did every so often, to the sensitive, pale skin of her neck?

No.

She did not.

But this was hardly poor Fred’s fault, as the only person who could have done those things had been head over heels in love with her older sister Jo for as long as Amy could remember. Indeed, they had hardly spent two minutes alone together in each others’ company since they had first become acquainted, so many years ago.

Yes, Theodore Lawrence with his perfect nose and his riotous brown curls and his endless love and affection for her family had indeed been the greatest - and only - love of Amy March’s life. She had spent many hours ruminating on the sorry state of the whole thing, wallowing, as she was wont to do as a child, in self pity that he hardly looked at or paid notice to her.

For so long it had been such a fixture in her life - her preoccupation with him. She’d wake up and think on what she might wear that day, in case he should come by the house. Or what she might say to him if he should speak to her. She’d used up countless scraps of paper on little sketches of him, his angular face the preferred shape her pen would take when nothing else inspired her. And - didn’t it make sense that she should harbour such feelings? With him looking as he did and being who he was with his ease and humour and joie de vivre? And with all those times he’d come to her aid - bringing her into his grand old house and consoling her after the incident with Mr. Davis, helping to wrap her wound and letting her look through all the fine books in his library? Or when he’d acted so quickly to save her life after she’d carelessly walked out on the ice and fallen through? It was only natural, Amy thought, that she should admire such a heroic and chivalrous figure from her childhood.

What seemed so unnatural (and so deeply unfair) was that Laurie should be in love with Jo, who didn’t even want him!

It wasn’t that Jo wasn’t worthy of his love - Amy had admired her older sister her whole life, and had only ever sought to tag along on all of Jo’s adventures and be included in all her schemes and intrigues. Jo, who was witty and fiery and rebellious and electric and so sure of herself every minute of the day, was the perfect foil for Laurie’s easy going and indulgent nature. And they made a fine pair, the two of them - both tall and lithe and constantly entangled. But as attuned as Amy was to Laurie’s love lorn gaze that followed Jo everywhere, she was even more aware of Jo’s own detachment from it. Jo never longed for Laurie - she never sighed after him or sneaked glances at him when his head was turned, hoping to catch just another second of him before she had to turn away. She never blushed over him or stammered or became aggravated when the others would rib her over him. There was never any sense of tension on her part - it was all easy and natural and perfectly normal for them to be as close as they were, two sides of the exact same coin, in the purest expression of fraternal and brotherly affection. Jo, who was always Jo and never Josephine, with her tomboyish ways and her love of swearing and pipes and roughhousing, treated Laurie like the cherished brother they’d never had.

And something about that made the whole situation so much worse.

It would have been one thing if Laurie had been in love with Jo who had loved him back with all her heart. The sweetness and romance of it would have been something that not even she, with all her own secret and yearning affection, could have resisted. But for Laurie to love Jo so ardently and have it wasted! It seemed a cruel trick that Jo could throw away so easily what Amy wanted so desperately.

But life went on.

And Amy March, the baby of the family, did as all others eventually do - She grew up.

Other preoccupations came into her life. Beth’s illness, her own removal to the grand and cold home of Aunt March, and of course, her singular opportunity for advancement and education and a life away from their own small American town, in Paris. And it was a sort of heroism of her own, she thought, to be the one boldly adventuring in a foreign land, learning new things and meeting new people, on a quest for self-fulfillment and to secure the future of her family at the same time. After all, they couldn’t all be soldiers and swashbucklers and radicals like Jo - some of them had to go about life another way.

And so.

She’d put her love for Laurie in a gilded box in her mind, a beautiful memory she could take out and look at when she needed it, and put it back, safely, when other things became more important. Over time that box had slowly become dusted over, opened less and less, until one day, hardly at all.

But of course - life does play tricks, doesn’t it?

 

*

 

One fine Parisian afternoon, all the feelings Amy had thought she’d forgotten came rushing back again, upon seeing Theodore Laurence strolling somberly along the Parc du Champ de Mars.

It had seemed like something right out of one of Jo’s plays, (the hero enters: stage left) an occurrence so unexpected and unlikely that it could only be brought about by the playwright’s own hand. Amy had reacted to this sighting of him in much in the same way she’d imagine one would if they’d been struck by lightning, or hit in the face with an opening door. That is to say - she’d been momentarily struck both deaf and dumb, before frantically yelling his name while jumping out of the (practically still moving) carriage.

Laurie, Laurie, Laurie, Laurie!

They’d received a letter from him informing them of his trip to Paris and his desire to meet them at their hotel - this type of missive was de rigeur considering their families’ attachment. Amy had received the news of his impending arrival with the sort of removed happiness that she’d schooled herself to have, keeping that gilded box firmly shut away. And she had been right to, hadn’t she? For he hadn’t ended up coming to see them after all, and what an emotional debacle it would have been if she’d allowed herself that indulgence.

But to just see him, out of the blue? No amount of previous emotional quashing could have tamped down her unbridled joy at the sight of him. The lid on the gilded box wobbled precariously.

He was handsome, as always, and charming, as always  - Well maybe I didn’t recognize you because you’re so beautiful now! - he’d said, and how proud she was of her own reply! - Oh, stop it - even though upon hearing it she’d felt like a flock of birds had taken up residence in her stomach.

But  - he was sad, too. She’d heard, of course, of Jo’s refusal - Meg had sent word some time ago, in her careful way:

 

And something which we had long anticipated did indeed happen, Amy, but Jo has decided against it - 

Laurie, we think, will go to Europe with his grandfather. The whole thing has caused quite a stir but is perhaps for the best…

 

A funny sort of pensiveness had overtaken Amy upon the reading of it. She’d turned the letter over and over in her hands, sitting quietly for a long while. Proposals were supposed to be a beginning, but this one had been an ending. And, she could admit to herself - an ungracious thorniness had sprung up in her, just for a moment. Good, she’d thought maliciously, for him to feel the same kind of bitter desperation she’d felt for so long at being ignored and looked over.

But holding him at arms length in front her, she’d expressed her rather more true regret for him. I’m so sorry, she’d said, genuinely. I couldn’t believe Jo turned you down.

Don’t be, Amy, he’d replied. I’m not.

The slump of his shoulders and the crispness of his tone said differently though, she’d thought, getting back into the carriage and chancing one last, wistful look at him as he walked away.

And she’d been right, after all.

The New Years Party had been a complete disaster, starting from the quick. This time she had allowed herself the indulgence of opening the gilded box as she decided on which dress (which dress would Laurie like? ), and which earrings (which ones would Laurie like? ) and which hair style (would Laurie like it? ). She’d smiled secretly to herself as her maid had whipped her golden hair into a shining arrangement, and helped her into the beautiful black and gold gown she’d chosen.

She’d thought of what he would say upon seeing her in the beautiful lobby of their hotel. Perhaps My lady, you are a vision! even bowing as he was wont to be dramatic; Or, Why Miss March, not even a painting in the Louvre could compare! ; or even just Amy, you look beautiful. Shall we go?

And then the minutes began to tick on. I’m sure he’s adjusting his cravat perfectly, she’d thought, with a good natured roll of her eyes at his vanity. Another ten minutes passed, and she’d convinced herself he had stopped to bring her a rose, or some other ridiculous frippery that she’d graciously allow him to pin to her bodice while teasing him - Laurie, it’s completely unnecessary, really - but since you went to the trouble…

At a half hour, she began to worry. Perhaps something had happened to the carriage? But as the hour closed in, she’d realized the truth. For whatever reason, he simply wasn’t coming and he’d left her there on her own. Picking herself up off the velvet settee she’d perched on, she’d walked regally to the concierge and requested a carriage, not letting one ounce of the humiliation she was feeling show.

She’d used that carriage ride to steel herself against her anger and disappointment - after all, the one she should really be mad at was herself. This was why that gilded box was there, and why it stayed closed - because whenever she allowed herself to open it, reality came rushing back in. And the reality was that she was an absolute idiot, the stupidest girl in France, pining over someone who was not only still in love with someone else, but who also apparently cared so little for her that he was willing to abandon her in a Parisian hotel!

You will be the most charming, delightful, and beguiling guest at this ball, she told herself. Everyone will love you, especially Fred Vaughn who you will allow multiple dances, and a kiss at midnight.

And then.

Then he had shown up, drunk, with two women hanging off of him, and she’d watched as he’d thrown himself onto a sofa and draped himself over one of their laps, his glass wobbling and his cravat (which was beautiful, damn him) in a shambles.

I waited an hour for you, she’d said calmly, steel in her voice.

And she’d proceeded to let him have it, deriding him soundly for his laziness and self-pity, his selfishness and oafishness, and for his all around wastefulness. Especially considering his talent, health, and beauty - which of course he had to single out and which she knew she’d blushed at mentioning, which was both mortifying and infuriating.

I’ll be good for you Saint Amy, I’ll be good! he’d mocked, grabbing her hand roughly in a parody of fealty.

That ring is ridiculous, she’d parried back - knowing that it would sting, as she knew where it had come from. Sure enough, it hit the mark. Jo gave me this ring, he’d answered, some degree of solemness and self-pity making its way into his voice.

She’d wrenched her hand away and looked at him then - really looked at him, at his glassy eyes and sallow complexion. I feel sorry for you, I really do, she’d said. I just wish you bore it better.

You don’t have to feel sorry for me, Amy, he’d thrown back. You’ll feel the same way one day.

How ironic! She’d have laughed, if she hadn’t been so angry. How dare he take his sadness and flaunt around Europe with it as if he was the only one in the world who’d suffered such a blow? Why couldn’t he bear it with dignity as she had borne it all these years?

No, she’d said, the weight of her own miserable love for him making her words heavy. I’d be respected if I couldn’t be loved.

He’d thrown one last humiliating jibe in her direction about spending Fred Vaughn’s fortune before taking his leave and leaving her to pick up the pieces.

She’d gone home that night after pacifying Fred - who’d not been angry but just very confused - and, after being helped out of her dress, sat in her room alone, slowly undoing herself. She took out each pin, one by one, and wiped off all the powder from her cheeks. She sat there for a long time, staring at herself quietly in the mirror. She was pretty, she thought - even if she would never like her nose. She was pretty, and smart, and funny, and she would make a good wife to sweet Fred Vaughn.

She put the lid back on the gilded box. She secured it with nails made of diamonds, and twine made of finely dyed silk. And she crawled into bed, and went to sleep.

 

*

 

The next time she saw him, she was calm, composed, and cooly disinterested. I don’t want to see you, she’d said to him as he’d loped into the room she used for her painting lessons, begging her forgiveness. Oh, Amy, I’m so sorry for how I behaved, he’d demurred, the notes of an inexpensive vintage following along as he drew closer to her.

Why are you being so hard on me? He’d asked.

Someone has to do it, she’d replied.

In truth, Amy had already come to the conclusion that her own artistic merits were not enough to make her out to be anything other than a painter of cheap imitations, and the realization of her own shortcomings after such a tightly held dream had taken its toll somewhat on her pride. It would have been a shame, she thought, for the same to happen to Laurie out of sheer apathy and indolence. He, at least, could make something of himself. And all her anger could not dispel the fondness that, even still, permeated her every thought of him.

That’s quite a statement to make at twenty, he’d said at her reveal of this decision. Then he made her laugh as effortlessly he always could, by hopping up on the portrait stage to demand that her last portrait be of him.

What a picture he’d made that day, she thought - with his fine clothes and mischievous, energetic expression. The scene would make a fine portrait, but she’d drawn him so many times, both on paper and in her mind, that she hardly needed him in front of her to achieve his likeness.

All right, she’d laughed, knowing of course, that she never would.

He’d asked then about Fred, with mocking in his tone; Don’t be mean she’d chastised, not able to bear his laughter at her expense. I only said his name! he teased back, and she realized he had not meant to cut - only to scratch, perhaps.

You are not engaged, I hope? A funny question, in her opinion.

No.

But you will be, he continued, if he…goes down properly on one knee?

…Most likely, yes, she’d answered, wanting desperately to know why he was even asking such questions and what he hoped to glean from her responses. She felt - compelled, then, to add on a justification for her decision. He’s rich, she all but blurted out. Richer than you, even.

And how easy it was for him to deride her for this! He, who had lived his whole life with money and had never once worried where his supper might come from, or spent hours mending and re-mending skirts that had been mended thrice already, or woken up on Christmas morning with no presents, or seen their sibling sell their own hair to afford a train ticket.

It does sound odd, he’d said, coming from one of your mothers’ girls.

And what, she wanted to ask, could you possibly know about my mother and her dreams? 

Instead, she parried. She had always known she would marry rich -  why should she be ashamed of it?

There is nothing to be ashamed of, he’d answered quickly, as long as you love him.

Ah, love. He couldn’t know, of course, that love was a luxury few could afford; least of all Amy, the hope of her family. And how horribly ironic, to be having this conversation with him, of all people!

I believe we have some power over who we love, she’d answered carefully, her voice smooth and calm and not in danger of breaking at all. It isn’t something that just happens to a person.

I think the poets might disagree, he’d replied.

She’d smiled, then, just a little. it wasn’t as if he was wrong, after all. But she wasn’t a poet, was she? She was just a woman, trying to make her way in this world built for men. And what a hard way it was.

Perhaps he hadn’t expected such a speech from her, as he looked startled and sheepish after she finished speaking. Good, she’d thought smugly.

And then the very subject of their conversation had pulled up in his carriage, and she’d turned around so that he might help her with her apron.

He had been close enough that she could feel each exhale on the back of her neck, his long fingers exerting just the slightest pressure as they removed button from hook, and ribbon from bow. How funny it was, she thought. In her youth she had dreamed whole days away on scenarios just like this. In her dreams he wouldn’t have let her go - he would have kept his hands on her waist, and turned her around to face him, and kissed her like he’d been thinking about it for ages and ages and ages

In real life, Fred Vaughn was waiting outside, and Amy was still not a poet. So she drew away, thanking him, and, turning back one last time before running outside, asked him a question.

How do I look?

You look beautiful, he’d answered, with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. You are beautiful.

He’d stood there at the door, staring out at her as she’d run up to Fred, kissing both his cheeks, before settling into his beautiful carriage.

Was that Laurie? Fred had asked politely, gathering up the reins. How is the old boy?

She glanced back at him, still standing there on the threshold, an odd expression on his face. it seemed to be her lot in life, she thought, to be always staring back at him as she moved further and further away.

He’s fine, she’d said quietly, before brightening. What wonderful adventures have you been having in London? Drinking and gambling and flirting, I suppose, she’d teased.

Oh Amy, Fred had demurred shyly, a ruddy blush staining his cheeks. You know I wouldn’t.

In fact, she did know. Fred would never have done such a thing, and it endeared him endlessly to her. He was so good, and sweet, and kind, and she hardly deserved him.

Not for the first time, she thought what a shame it was that she did not love him.

For the first time, it bothered her.

 

*

 

Fred was away again in London on business, and it would be a longer trip  as he was going to spend time with his family.

I’ve some…things I must discuss with Mother and Father he’d told her, that same ruddy blush giving him away.

She’d known then that he was going to ask for the ring.

She’d given him a kiss as he’d left on his way to Calais, and forced herself to stand there, staring after him in his carriage until he was out of sight.

It - wasn’t that she wasn’t happy, exactly. It was more that she thought she’d be happier.

In any case, it was all such a relief, wasn’t it? Everything had gone exactly to plan because Fred Vaughn was, indeed, going to make her his wife.

Amy stubbornly ignored the churning of her stomach whenever she thought on this, and preoccupied herself with the only other person she knew well in Paris, which was Laurie.

She saw him many times over the next few weeks. He even came for tea twice with Aunt March and insisted on kissing her on the cheek each time, which was endlessly entertaining for all involved except Aunt March.

They walked along the Ile de la Cité, and to her surprise Laurie brought a pad and charcoals with him for her to sketch Notre Dame. We’ll be here all afternoon, Laurie! she’d admonished, more pleased than she ought to be at his thoughtfulness. You’ll be bored in twenty minutes, she’d insisted.

Why should I be? he’d replied, smiling, stretching out along the bench they were sat on. I’m not likely to find something better to do than sit here with you, am I? Come now, Raphaella, he’d cajoled. Teach me everything I don’t know about the French gothic.

He’d sat dutifully at her side the whole time, breaking only to persuade a waiter from the cafe down the street to bring them some wine and cheese and a bit of bread and paté for their lunch.

As she drew, they’d named all the gargoyles they could see and wondered at whether Quasimodo was up there in his tower, staring down at them. She’d felt uncharacteristically shy in showing her finished drawing to him, but her fears abated as he’d declared it beautiful and noted how well she’d rendered the flying buttresses on the sides of the cathedral.

They took a carriage ride out to the Bois de Boulogne and walked through it, visiting the newly formed Jardin d’Acclimatation with its exotic plants and zoo and great aviary. They walked through the grounds of the massive metal structure shaped like a birdcage, where the peacocks, kings of the aviary, wandered freely. Amy saw a gentleman handling beautiful rainbow coloured parrots with long feathered tails, and Laurie noticed her interest.

Shall we go over, Miss March?

The gentleman offered for her to hold one of the birds and she’d looked to Laurie for a moment - seeking, she supposed, his approval at this unorthodoxy. He only nodded excitedly, and stood close to her as the parrot with his long beautiful feathers was placed on her arm. The bird flapped its large wings unexpectedly and then settled, but not before Laurie had placed his own hand under hers to help support the weight of the beast.

They took tea at fashionable pátisseries and marvelled at the dozens of beautiful pastries that looked too perfect to eat. One day as they were leaving, Laurie had her wait outside as he ran back in to make a purchase. Just wait, oh impatient one! he’d teased. You’ll see what the fuss is about in a minute. So she had waited there, only for him to re-emerge moments later with a box of perfectly regular looking chocolates. Out of the whole shop, these are what you so desperately needed? She’d asked skeptically, one delicate eyebrow raised.

See for yourself, he’d said, holding up one of the little balls for her to taste.

For a moment she’d thought he’d meant for her to take it by mouth from his hand, the mental image of which would have caused a riotous blush if she’d not been so skilled at managing such things. She'd tugged off one glove and took it gently from his fingers, keeping a look of skepticism on her face until the very moment she'd bit into it and - oh!

Her eyes had widened in delight as Laurie had laughed, satisfied indeed with her reaction - they were filled with champagne!

Well? Were they worth your waiting? He’d teased as they’d eaten the rest of them on their way back to her hotel, where, upon arrival, she’d had to take an uncharacteristic afternoon nap and blamed it on the weather.

It had all been completely harmless, she had reasoned. They were childhood friends and their families had been acquainted for years. Why shouldn’t she enjoy herself with an old friend before her engagement began and her life would change forever? And if she felt any particular sense of anticipation or eagerness for his company in particular, it was only due to the fact of their childhood knowledge of each other and ease in each others’ company. After all - she was going to marry Fred, and she was delighted in the fact that she was going to marry Fred. The nails and twine that kept the gilded box closed were still firmly in place. There was no reason for worry, she had said to herself - She was perfectly in control.

Two days later, she’d received a letter from Fred. He was happy to tell her that he was almost finished with his business in London and that his visit with his family had gone especially well. He would be back in two weeks, and could he call on her and her Aunt March upon his arrival?

 

Two weeks.

 

*

 

The next day, she and Laurie had sat on the grounds of the hotel estate, a blanket spread under them and a picnic lunch between them. He’d been bothering her for days about that portrait she’d promised him, and had declared that their lunch today would be the perfect opportunity for it. So, he’d lain on his side before her, chatting idly while she’d sketched him distractedly, Fred’s letter colouring everything in her minds eye like a pair of coloured glasses.

When are you going back to your Grandfather? She’d asked, in an inexplicably sour mood since she’d woken that morning.

He’d answered her with the same kind of careless triviality she was used to, and Amy could feel her aggravation building. He expects you, she’d carried on, so why don’t you do it?

Natural depravity, I suppose, he had answered, before Amy had quickly corrected him - Natural Indolence, you mean - her churlish mood on full display.

I’ll only plague him if I go, so I might as well stay and plague you a little longer, he’d said, reaching out one finely boned hand to lightly take hold of her chin. You can bear it, he’d said, grinning - In fact, I think it agrees with you.

She’d batted his hand away, not at all in the mood for his teasing. Stop it, she’d said sternly. Stop.

What are you doing? She’d asked him slowly.

I’m looking at you, he’d answered, that same facetious smile still on his face.

She had humphed out a breath, at that. No. I mean what do you intend to do.

With life? he’d asked, and at her nod, began to joke again - I’ve been writing an Opera, I’d be the central figure -

-that’s a waste of time, she’d interrupted, and he’d been quiet for a moment.

What would you have me do? he’d asked, indulging her mood as he lay back down, smiling at her.

Go back and work for your Grandfather and make something of yourself, she’d replied, at which point he'd risen, complaining with a sigh that she was not playing fair.

After a moment she had stood as well, and, feeling as though she was standing on a precipice, handed him her drawing palette - Here - before walking away.

A surprised chuckle left him as he viewed the drawing. That’s very good, he’d said, before picking up the paper to study it more closely and seeing another, much older drawing underneath. Slowly Amy watched him lift it, confusion on his face, and her stomach somersaulted. It had been a stupid, emotional decision to bring the drawing, let alone show it to him.

When did you do this one? he’d asked, turning the paper so she could see.

She’d managed a small smile, her voice quiet. That day at the beach, she’d said. The first time I met Fred.

That’s right, he’d answered slowly, before walking to her and handing her back the palette with the sketches. 

What’s he doing? Laurie had asked then, and she had looked up at him, confused for a second, before realizing he was asking about Fred.

He’s in London on business, she’d answered quietly, embarrassed somehow and aggravated by it. He’ll be back in a few weeks.

A moment passed.

And then he’d said it.

Don’t marry him.

Her head had snapped up, the same blankness that had overtaken her months ago when she’d first seen him walking through the park suddenly back, like an unwanted friend.

What?

Don’t marry him, he’d repeated, walking towards her.

Why?

Why? He’d parroted back, even closer now. You know why.

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Amy did know why. He’d even said it himself, a few moments earlier -  I’ll only plague him if I go, so I might as well stay and plague you a little longer.

It must have seemed a perfectly natural thing to him - that he should flee to Europe to escape his utter devastation over Jo’s rejection and find another pretty March girl waiting there to entertain him. What a cruel twist of fate it was indeed, that she should love him so desperately, and that he should view her as simply a good enough replacement for the sister who had stolen his own heart so many years ago.

And she was half to blame, wasn’t she? Oh, she’d thought herself so wise! - so careful and clever, believing that she could spend time with him every day and not be so in love with him that it poured out of her like water from a fountain. How very agreeable it must have made her, how very sweet and gay! What an utter fool she’d been. Standing there, she recalled another instance of her own foolishness - the night of Fred Vaughn’s ball. The stupidest girl in France, she’d declared herself then. It would have been hard to believe, in that moment, that the disappointment she’d felt then at his absence could have been dwarfed by anything, but -

life had always played tricks, hadn’t it?

It would have been better not to meet again at all, she thought. Better to have him forget her than to have him want her, but not love her. How did he think she would bear it? Perhaps he thought it would be easy for her - after all, she’d been perfectly willing to marry Fred Vaughn, hadn’t she?

Hadn’t she?

I’d be respected if I couldn’t be loved, she’d once said to him.  She’d meant it then, and still meant it, even now. Even more, now, when all she had left, perhaps, was this. Was her dignity.

And so - she’d said no.

You’re being mean, she’d told him, batting his hand away from where he’d tried to lay it on her cheek.

Why - how am I being mean? he’d asked, somehow managing to make it worse.

I have been second to Jo my whole life, in everything , she’d started,  and I will not be the person you settle for just because you cannot have her. I won’t  - I won’t do it. I won’t - and her voice had broken here, for which she would never, ever forgive herself - not when I’ve spent my entire life loving you!

There.

It was over.

It was over and there was nothing else to be done for it except to walk away.

And so she did.

 

*

 

She refused to sulk.

She refused to sulk because she did not deserve the satisfaction of sulking - not when her own stupidity had played such a starring role in what had happened.

And so she got up every morning, and put on one of her fine dresses, and had her hair coiffed to perfection, and began her day. She rode in their fine carriage and took tea, and read her books, and sat quietly as Aunt March entertained visitors, and she thought about screaming the entire time.

 

*

 

She’d known he was going to do it.

Fred returned the next week, and for the second time in as many weeks, Amy March refused a man.

The ring was beautiful - a series of diamonds set in an ornate circle that sparkled in the afternoon light.

“Is it - Is it Laurie?” he asked, hesitantly, which caused her head to shoot up and her cheeks to blaze in embarrassment, and, inexplicably - shame

“No”, she said, almost gasping with it. “It’s not him, or - or anyone else. I just - I don’t love you as I should, Fred, and I’m sorry for that. I wish this hadn’t happened and that I hadn’t hurt you, but I did, and I’m so sorry for it.

You’re going to find someone else, Fred,” she continued, her voice wobbling. “Someone else - a better woman than me - to wear that ring. I know it.”

And as she began to cry, Fred Vaughn proved once and for all that he was perhaps the most decent man in the world, as he came close to her and held her, and procured his fine silk handkerchief to dry her eyes.

 

*

 

“I see,” Aunt March said slowly, at her news about Fred. “Well…this does change things, doesn’t it?” She paused. “I suppose it’s this Laurence boy, then?”

Amy almost snorted in incredulity at her bad luck - of course she’d get the same question from both Fred and Aunt March, and the only explanation was that there was no justice in the world and that she was cursed. 

“No, it isn’t the Lawrence boy” she said lowly, at last giving in to some measure of the pity she felt for herself. “In any case, he’s gone to London just as you said, so what does it matter? I’m sure we’ll not see him again.”

Aunt March regarded her for a long time before speaking. “I’m not so sure of that,” she said carefully, her quizzing glass tipped just so, before looking back down to the bible verse she was studying in her hand.

“I suppose we will need to start packing, as we can hardly stay now that news of your refusal will be making its way around. A disappointment, to be sure…but - perhaps…it has not been a complete waste,” she finished, those shrewd, dark eyes boring into Amy as if the older woman knew something she did not and did not deign to share the news.

 

*

 

And then, in the midst of their packing and planning to return to Massachusetts, something else happened that Amy did not expect.

Beth recovered.

Marmee’s letter arrived to the hotel postmarked ‘urgent’, and Amy had anticipated the worst news upon seeing it. But opening the folded paper had brought with it the most wonderful news - Beth was well!!

 

By the Grace of God our sweet Beth has recovered from her fever at long last,

thanks to all our efforts, especially dear Jo who has nursed her day and night.

She is not fully well and perhaps will never be - we believe she will require the use

of a wheeled chair to help preserve her strength throughout the days to come. We

know not for how long we may have her with us still, and - even though dear Beth

felt so strongly about not interrupting your trip, I do not think she would argue this

point now…sweet Amy, come home to us!

 

“Oh god,” Amy breathed out, tears rapidly clouding her vision. “Oh - god!” she repeated, louder this time, laughing and crying and scrambling to share the news. “Aunt March! AUNT MARCH!!”

She found the older woman in her rooms, directing a maid on how to properly negotiate pleats on a gown while stuffing it into a traveling case. She must have looked an absolute sight, barging in and banging the door wide open, crying and yelling!

“What is it, girl??” Aunt March demanded, shocked at the outburst.

“Oh, god, Aunt March - there’s  - Marmee sent news. Beth is well!” she had fallen by this point - onto the floor, in front of her Aunts long skirts. She sniffled, holding out the letter for he to read.  “Beth is well and she wants us to come home!”

Aunt March read the letter, slowly, through the lens of her quizzing glass, and upon finishing it, she hmmed. “It seems providence has had a hand in this, as in all other worldly dispensations. A relief, I’m sure, to your poor, long-suffering Mother.” She handed the letter back. “Alright then, Alright,” the older woman murmured, not unkindly, as Amy continued to cry.  “There now girl, we must compose ourselves, mustn’t we.” Amy nodded and sniffled, inelegantly wiping her nose on her sleeve and patting her own cheeks to calm down.

“There we are,” Aunt March continued. “Save your tears for something else, my girl - the Atlantic is an unforgiving mistress and we may well be crying out of sheer misery before our journey is through!” Even though it was not meant to cheer her, Amy laughed at this truly Aunt March-ian display of hyperbole, and threw her arms around her Aunt before being pushed off to continue packing.

 

*

 

In truth, their trip back to Concord was not so bad as Aunt March had feared; the comfort and opulence of their first class rooms aboard the steamship were, in Amy’s opinion, not so very different from their rented rooms in Paris - albeit smaller, and with a different view.

Months and months ago, Amy had used her time on the massive steamer as an opportunity to acquaint herself with those other members of high society who were traveling back to Europe. She’d met members of the peerage - so foreign and exotic to her American understanding; she’d taken supper with oil barons and esteemed lawyers and doctors, and even rich tradesmen -  and all of their wives, of course! Beautiful, sparkling women in gowns of white satin, with orange blossoms and roses pinned in their braided hair, and the candle-light of the supper hour reflecting in their jewels. How long ago it all seemed, Amy mused, sitting on deck in her cape and blanket - another life completely. How many mistakes she’d made since then! How much she’d learned, and failed to learn. How much older she was - in body, but mostly in spirit.

Heartbreak did have a tendency to age a person, she thought wryly, smoothing down the folds and ripples of the wooden blanket sat atop her lap and staring out at the wide ocean. Once the elation of Beth’s recovery had worn off some, an air of bleakness had fallen over her which she tried hard to dispel. She didn’t wan’t to think about Laurie, and of the utter mess she’d made, but this was of course, completely impossible. Especially since, as Aunt March abhorred sea travel and spent most of her time in bed on principle, Amy was left alone to reckon with her thoughts most hours of the day.

How ironic and unfortunate, she thought, that she should be years older and still wrestling with the same feelings for the same boy! Was she doomed to spend the rest of her life thinking about Theodore Laurence?

That gilded box she had constructed to house her feelings for him so many years ago was in tatters now, but it didn’t mean that she should allow her feelings to run amok and spiral her into melancholia. What she needed to learn, she thought, was to let those feelings come and go without flinching, as opposed to boxing them away in the darkness. Perhaps that was where she’d gone wrong, before.

Even though the good lord had spared her with the providence of his going to London, Amy could hardly live the rest of her life without hearing about him - he lived next door! And surely Jo would speak about him, or Meg, or sweet Beth, who was the favourite of the elder Mr. Laurence who doted on her.

“Mr. Laurence has heard from Laurie,” one of them might say; “He has been arrested in London for public drunkenness and spent the evening in care of a constable-”

No- that was uncharitable, she admitted. It was more likely to be this:

“Mr. Laurence has heard from Laurie - he has been doing well in London and sends his love and regards for all the Marches…”, or “Laurie has sent word from London about all his adventures there, and hopes to be home for Christmas and see us all,” or even, “Laurie has written to tell us of his happy engagement to some fine girl with beautiful auburn hair and her own stunning fortune, and that the wedding shall be here, in Concord, as soon as the weather permits…”

Any one  - or all - of those scenarios was a likely occurrence, Amy thought. She resolved that until the day the steamer pulled into the busy and bustling port of Boston, she would allow herself the comfort of her self-pity. There was little harm in it here, she supposed, where she had no responsibilities and no one to care if she spent all day sitting by her lonesome, lost in her own thoughts.

Yes.

And every day, she would practice. She would practice receiving the news they might get of him, and she’d practice the conferring of her christian charity upon him, and hope for his continued health and happiness. He’d gone to London to…well, ostensibly to make something of himself, as she’d suggested that day in her churlish mood. With all his good fortune and talent - and beauty , she recalled from that one disastrous conversation at the New Years Party - she was sure he’d succeed, and succeed well.

And so.

Amy March sat, and pondered, and watched the ocean rise up and calm itself; rise up again, and calm itself once more. If it can be done by the vast sea, she thought, it can be done by Amy March.

 

*

 

Boston was mild and beautiful in its springtime when the steamer docked in Port. The trip back to Concord would be done by private coach, and privately Amy thought that this would be the most arduous leg of the trip, never mind that they’d just crossed the great Atlantic.

But all in all it was not too bad, and she was comforted more than she’d expected by the scenery and smells and sounds as they rode along through Somerville and Medford and North Cambridge, and on further to the streets and sweet fields of home.

They stopped first at Meg’s little house, who, upon hearing the wheels of the carriage outside, swung open the front door and was overcome with emotion. Dear, sweet Meg, who was more beautiful in her simple dress with her joy shining out of her eyes and glowing cheeks than a hundred society girls done up in pomade and powder, who kissed both her cheeks and held her tightly, and laughed brightly when Daisy and Demi threw themselves at Amy’s skirts and, in their excitement, almost toppled her!

“Oh, Amy,” Meg said, her lovely hands cupping her cheeks, “You are such a sight for sore eyes! Look at you - so beautiful and fine! Paris must have been a delight and you must miss it so - but I don’t feel guilty at all in saying I’m so glad you’re home with us.”

Amy embraced her. “Don’t be sad on my account, Meg,” she said, hugging her tightly. “It was wonderful, but not even the Champs Élysée could compare to the sight of your faces - and the news of Beth’s recovery is a sweeter thing to me than all the chocolate in Paris.”

Meg smiled, before sobering a little. “You…didn’t say in your letter,” she asked delicately, “but we thought…maybe we’d see you accompanied by Fred Vaughn..?”

Of course - how could she have forgotten? Amy hadn’t written about her news at all in the letter she’d sent home informing her family of their impending return.

“No, Meg, we - we aren’t engaged,” she said, feeling rather foolish and small.

Surprise and concern coloured Meg’s face. “Did he not…?” she trailed off, her meaning implied - he’d been so attentive to Amy during her travels that his proposal had been almost guaranteed. It would have been considered quite the slight for him not to.

“No, he did, Meg, and he was lovely - the loveliest, really. I just….” she sighed, weary of it all. “I just…couldn’t”.

Meg nodded, concern still staining her features, but she let it drop and hugged her comfortingly. “Well, it’s no matter now, my sweet girl - we can talk about it later, can’t we? Here I am accosting you and you look about ready to drop! I’m sure you’re eager to get to the house and see Beth.”

She was eager, and she told Aunt March that she’d prefer to walk the distance rather than go to Plumfield in the carriage and onto the house from there. So she left Meg’s and began to walk, the route as familiar to her as the back of her hand, up the road to Orchard House.

She’d still been a child, the last time she walked this path, Amy thought. But she was hardly a child now - a woman grown, really, with all a woman’s secrets and longings and dreams and disappointments.

The sun was low in the sky when she saw the house again for the first time, its familiar frame silhouetted in shades of gold and amber. A feeling of completeness and the most bittersweet nostalgia overcame her as she stood there, all her memories rushing up to meet her at once. It’s the feeling, she thought, of not knowing something is even missing, and then upon seeing it again, wondering how you could have possibly lived without it, for even one day.

Suddenly there was movement at the door, which opened to reveal, all at once -

Jo.

Jo, who stood there at the threshold, silent, her long hair ablaze in the low sunlight, and wearing a terribly ugly blue checked dress.

For a moment they neither of them moved, until - at last, a smile split Jo’s features, and - a whooping laugh! And she ran towards Amy, arms wide, and Amy herself began to laugh, and cry too.

She hugged Jo to her as they collided, laughing and crying both, and she watched as Beth - their sweet darling Beth - appeared also in the doorway, wrapped in one of Marmee’s quilts and smiling like the happiest girl in the world.

Welcome home!” Jo whispered, kissing her cheek.

Suddenly Meg came up behind them, flushed from her own hurried walk, and they embraced all three, and walked to the door and gathered Beth, whose sweet laugh sounded out like a bell on a cold day.

What a life they had built, Amy thought, carved out of so much sorrow and ache, so much heartbreak and waiting. But, somehow, full of sweetness still.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm! - she thought, borrowing from Shakespeare. The bard himself - now he had been a true genius.  But as she was bundled into the house, her family all around her, Amy thought to add one thing he had forgotten -

These women.