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Laurie's Labours of Love

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When Amy March was accepting a second proposal to become Mrs. Fred Vaughn, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was in Munich, Germany, precisely, at the Munich Hofoper Opera House at the premiere of Wagner’s “Die Walkϋre”. At the end while he rose with the crowd to give his unrestrained ovation, Laurie immediately, and as usual within the last six months, thought of Amy. She was right. It was either genius or nothing. This opera was genius! His entire life he wished to aspire to such greatness and here was Wagner who just showcased why it was important for Laurie to give up on his own melodramatic self-reflection manifesting in the form of a middling opera. Far from inspiring to greatness, Wagner only served to highlight how mediocre Laurie’s own solipsistic musical endeavours were. He immediately understood Amy’s point of view on her own artistic undertakings and he desired to write to her at once.

He poured out into the courtyard with the rest of the giddy crowd which were characterized with many interruptions, lots of effusive talking, high pitched drunk laughter, slightly erotic caresses from delicate gloved hands on black, velvet clothed arms. It was nearly midnight and all around him the glittering and talkative people of the opera got into carriages, laughing and making plans to meet at this restaurant or that hotel for a nightcap or maybe heading to the after party at Liszt’s hotel. As Laurie entered into a carriage early, begging off by feigning sickness from a late dinner at Liszt’s with Saint-Saens and his companions, he started composing his letter to Amy in his mind.

“June 26, 1870
Dearest Amy,
Please accept my sincerest apologies for the lack of correspondence after my sudden departure. I must confess I was ashamed after the second rejection by a March sister. I’m making quite a habit of rejected marriage proposals from the March ladies with alarming frequency! While the last time I weighed my options as suicide or fleeing to Europe and composing an opera, this time after my latest March girl marriage rejection, I’ve decided my options were suicide or flee to England and work for my grandfather. Well there appears to be worse things than death. I’ve just realized my utter mediocrity in opera composition. Thankfully my work in London has been invigorating for both mind and spirit. And it is all thanks to you.

"Were it not for you I would not have had the courage to become better. You have unleashed a potential by striking hither fore untapped reserves of industriousness and tenacity. You have inspired me to become better, be better. The ironic thing is that for centuries women such as yourself have been muses to so many, inspiring greatness and truth, but the truth that you have inspired within me is that I would have to do the work myself. The way I thought was clearly faulty and you have been the person to show me the way.”

By now Laurie had arrived in his hotel room. He immediately sat down at his writing desk to compose his letter, loosening his cravat as he did so. He flung off his coattails and the top hat too, rolling up his shirtsleeves with determination as he put ink to paper.

All worries of Amy rejecting his romance of her was tamped down with a stiff drink that he poured himself. He went to stand at the window staring at the dark early morning sky. Who is to say what or when reminders of a lover or almost lover would present itself? He ran his tongue over his top teeth as the notes of citrus and rose from his drink wafted over him and his mind catapulted him to an early evening with Amy at the hotel in Paris in February.

Aunt March had already dozed off in the armchair near the fire, the flames casting flickering shadows adding to the depth of beauty of the hotel room. The room had been plunged into a quiet sedative as he sat at the piano, Amy bent against it, chin propped up by her delicate fist as she languidly sketched. The conversation had grown sporadic but conspiratorial. Now both their heads were down, absorbed in their art. Arched over the piano, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his notes were raw and sombre and stilted. He looked up and was caught off guard by the image he saw. There she was, head bent over while she sketched, as she stood underneath the overhead lamp, the light framing her blond curls just so resulting in the image looking like sunlight was breaking down from the clouds and shining down on her. His notes changed, seemingly without his intent and she looked up. He was staring right back at her as his long fingers skimmed over the keys. She looked amazed, at his talent? At his beauty? Her lips parted slowly as he watched her, absorbed her. Now the music was a bit sultrier, full of yearning and romance, the dynamic still very soft but slowly reaching. His gaze slipped down to her throat and further still to her low cut evening dress. He saw the goosebumps crest upon her bosom like a sensual wave. He locked his gaze with her in time to see the rise of slight colour on her cheeks, like a peach in the first snowfall.

“Oh Laurie, that piece is quite stirring. What is it called?” Aunt March said and the spell was broken.

“I was just about to ask that.” Amy said as she straightened up, her voice duskier than usual.

Amy handed him his nightcap which he took gratefully, the notes of citrus and rose hitting him first. Laurie only smiled like a loon as he muttered purposely in German knowing that neither woman spoke the language, “Heaven can’t help me now” and licked his top teeth as he looked at Amy. She immediately took up her fan and fanned furiously as she moved away from him. He smirked into his drink as he knocked it back, the liquid burning his throat, which he relished.

“I’ve never heard of it.” Aunt March said and Laurie smiled some more. Even if he hadn’t composed the piece on the spot inspired entirely by Amy’s beauty and his yearning for her, Laurie was positive that Aunt March would not have recognized it – and he truly believed this – because she did not know that such feelings were possible.

Now, he had abandoned his hosts at the opera with a single goal on his mind – he must write to Amy, he must beg her forgiveness for his shameful behaviour, he must change her mind. He turned back to the writing desk. He had ended up in Germany for just a short bit after receiving an invitation from Cosima von Bϋlow, who was Wagner’s mistress, for him and his grandfather to attend the premiere of Wagner’s opera. His grandfather declined, but Laurie decided not to let the opportunity slip. Originally his plan was to invite Amy to the opera, to meet him in Munich so that he’d have a chance to beg her to reconsider. His plan had some merit since he had heard that Amy rejected Fred’s proposal and Fred had fled to London in shame. Laurie smirked in smug satisfaction. When he heard the news he didn’t immediately run to her side because then he would come across shallow and like an opportunist trying to capitalize on her suffering. Now was the time to prove that he was willing and able to listen to her. He had gone to London to join his grandfather’s company and he had even refused a cushier position, but instead started at the bottom of the ladder, joining his granfather’s legal team as their assistant. He had even joined one of the women’s groups in their support to abolish coverture. After Amy’s speech on why she had to marry Fred Vaughn, he genuinely believed that a woman’s legal rights and obligations shouldn’t be subsumed by her husband.

But he hesitated and wavered. Should he risk calling on her? Did she still despise him? Their friendship was precious. He couldn’t afford to lose the friendship of both Jo and Amy. Two weeks passed and he never sent the invitation, instead saying that he would send a telegram. He never did that either. How coward was he?! She had once told him that she would be respected if she couldn’t be loved, but he seemed to be failing at both fronts.

It had been months since he thought of Jo in any sort of romantic way, but he knew it would be Amy’s biggest concern. They were sisters and his love for Jo would obviously invite comparison from Amy. The idea now seemed preposterous! And his rather histrionic flight to Europe equally shameful. But for all things a purpose, since were it not for Jo’s rejection he would not have fled to Europe to drown his sorrow in women and alcohol and he would not have met Amy who would not have been able to cut through his fog of melancholia and bring light to his eyes again.

He began to write feverishly as he told her of his love for her. “There was no other in this heart. My darling, I get so lonely just thinking of you. I can feel you in every fabric of my life, deep in my mind, my heart, my bones. I see you in my dreams. I see you when the morning clears. Every time I hear your name, every time I see a woman with your golden hair colour, every time I get your phantom scent. Imperceptibly you have stolen into my heart like a thief in the night and brought me to my knees. You are the one that lives within me. I want no one but you. I loved Jo as a sister and my love for you, Amy sweetheart, is different and deeper. My Raphaella, in the depths of my darkness, you have driven her out of my depressed, indolent fugue-like mind. You’ve left your mark, driving out all interlopers, reminding me to forget any before you. You have claimed this heart as yours. Only love could do that, true love.”

Laurie paused. A sense of urgency overtook him. He should say these things to her in person. He should take the next train to Paris. Fred Vaughn was still in London licking his wounds last he heard.

He stood up abruptly. This was madness! He felt giddy with excitement. He was being irrational. His eyes skittered over the objects in the room and he felt a spasm in his heart. Yes, yes he was going to do it. No more dillydallying, it was time for action. It was time to chase her.

When he woke a few hours later he thought his impulsiveness would have ebbed, but no, it was only heightened. He hurried to the train station only stopping at the post office to send a quick telegram to his grandfather to let him know that his presence in London will be delayed, heading to Paris. He debated sending a telegram to Amy, but he didn’t want to spook her. He hurried to the train station, his usual loping gait uncharacteristically quickened. He smiled at every passing face and even laughed to himself at the questioning looks.

“I’m in love!” He shouted.

“Good for you! Congratulations!”

As he tried to rein in his beating heart and tamp down his smile with a great trembling effort, unbidden, a memory came upon him. He remembered a beautiful day he spent with Amy in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais.

Again, Fred Vaughn was away for two weeks in London on business. Aunt March and Amy travelled to Nice for the warmer weather. Laurie travelled with them, as he tended to do of late, becoming a March again. The women were grateful for the male presence as they travelled and Laurie was only too happy to inject some masculinity into the party.

The Promenade des Anglais was packed during the spring, the temperature a comfortable 23 degrees. They stayed at the very luxurious and very English hotel, The West End Hotel. It was a Tuesday afternoon and on Tuesdays on the Promenade there was music in the Jardin Public and a crowd would appear. Aunt March hated crowds and instead chose to sit on the veranda of the hotel and sip at her tea while Laurie and Amy walked down to the boardwalk to wait for the musicians to set up. They took to strolling along the boardwalk where they bought shaved ice drowned in syrup in paper cups and looked around at the bevy of women all garishly dressed in bright jewel-toned colours of green, purple, red and blue. Laurie couldn’t help but compare Amy to these women. Usually her colours were subdued, but she was no shrinking wallflower, for when she passed heads turned appreciatively. She was dressed in white with tasteful black trimmings. Despite the high neckline, the sleeves of her dress and the back of her gown was sheer white lace that tapered to her waist lending her an elegant eroticism to the otherwise demure gown and that he found electric. When he faltered in his step and walked behind her for a moment he caught a glimpse of the mole on her lower back. His eyes travelled down as the lace narrowed to her petite waist and his mind’s eye wandered. The muscles at the base of his stomach tightened and he hurried her to a seat.

“This entire place looked inspired by a postcard.” Amy said as she gazed out at the sea. “I almost wish I could paint it, but I wouldn’t be able to do justice to God’s exquisite workmanship.” She stared forlornly as she gestured and for one mad moment he thought her gesture encompassed him.

So many discussions they’d had on art subsequent to that fateful conversation in her studio when she decided that she wanted to be great or nothing at all. Honestly, it was one long debate that they’d been having for months and he looked forward to it every time.

“Is it only beauty that can be considered art? Or is it beautiful because it is called art?” He looked at the garishly dressed women with their sombrely dressed companions. They looked like crows at a feast. He slouched and stretched out languidly on the bench.

“I suppose art makes you pause. It makes you think, it keeps you up at night.” Amy hit his thigh with the back of her fan and he hurled himself upright immediately.

“Sounds like you’re describing love.”

“Oh? Is that how love is supposed to be?”

“You’re supposed to feel indescribable chemistry, butterflies and deep longing. The world around you is supposed to disappear. You think of them and a smile comes to your face. Or so they say.”

She opened her mouth as if to say something but decided against it. Eventually, she settled on,

“Is that how you feel about your opera?”

He laughed out loud at that. He thought she was going to bring up his dead and dusty love for Jo, but her courage either pittered out or her compassion won. Both reasons were amusing to him. “My Raphaella, did you feel that way about your paintings? Do you feel that way about Fred Vaughn?”

She did not take his obvious bate. “Are you saying that art and love are equals?”

“Hmm, I believe that genuinely, they inspire each other. What really connects us to the world is suffering and love. The most fundamental of all feelings are suffering and love. You give your charity to these beggars because you know what it is like to not have. So many times we suffer and think that we are alone or we fall in love and want to shout it to everyone because we want everyone to know how we feel. That’s how art has come about. We want people to know how we feel. Whether it is through music or poetry or painting or words, we want people to feel that emotional resonance, that visceral kick. Deep down we want to share, we want to know that we are not alone in either suffering or love. That’s why artist produce. And that’s why people flock to art no matter the medium. People need to know that they are not alone in what they feel.”

Amy was silent for a while, turning over his words.

“Then, I should be able to produce something noteworthy and exceptional.”

“Why? Because of your love for Fred Vaughn?”

“No, I need to tap into my suffering.”

Laurie’s grin broadened.

“Oh? And how have you suffered, my Raphaella?” He grabbed her hand in a parody of emotional empathy.

She looked at him, really looked at him and he stilled. She heaved a sigh and looked out at the ocean waves. She pulled away her hand and he decided not to put her emotions up for slaughter, not yet. Instead he said,

“I suppose life is most painful with that,” he said as he touched her chin. “What?” She looked down reflexively. “That nose,” and he flicked her nose.

“Laurie!” He laughed heartily and ducked away from her as she attempted to throw her shaved ice at him. She chased after him laughing.

That was a good day, he mused with a quiet smile. He took out his pocket watch and noted that when he got off in Stuttgart he would have to hurry to catch his connecting train to Paris. There was only a break of 10 minutes to catch the connection, no time to buy a snack or have a tea or use the WC. There was no time to waste. So of course the train endured mechanical problems somewhere in the middle of a wetland in Germany. One couldn’t even get out to stretch the legs as they had shut down in the middle of nowhere! Two hours later the problem was fixed, but by then he had to overnight in Stuttgart. The next available train was at three the next afternoon. Despite this setback, he was still optimistic, maybe even delusionally so.

He arrived in Paris late in the night, tired and hungry. He missed Paris. The sound of hooves on cobblestone, the cracking of a whip. Theatre scalpers cried that they had the last few seats of the latest opera and of course the water carriers whose shouts sounded like the wail of a cow whose calf was just taken from her. He loved Paris for all of its sights and sounds, but he knew that he loved the city because it was where he fell in love with Amy. Before when he was passing his time with hedonistic pleasures, supposedly writing his opera but in truth doing nothing more than drink, smoke and lay about, he did not even notice the city. But Amy opened his eyes once more to beauty. “You look beautiful, you are beautiful,” he had told her and he meant it. She gave beauty its anatomy. He tried to stay at the hotel that he knew Amy to be staying at, but they were full so he went down the street to the next, a little annoyed at this latest setback, but not dejected. It was too late to call on her anyway, but he would do so first thing in the morning. Laurie went to bed that night with the dream of white lace, pale skin and shrieks of laughter – all good things.

When he came down to the lobby the next morning there was a telegram waiting for him. It was from his grandfather. He stood there in the hotel lobby looking like he just got hit upside the head. Beth was dead.

He’d known the possibility of this happening was high. Yet when it happened it still shook him. Beth with her compulsive desire to help others and whose personality was honey sweet was too good for this world. Oh Amy, he immediately thought, you must be devastated. And Jo and Meg and Marmee! Oh dear Marmee to lose a child is to lose a part of your soul. And Grandfather! To have to suffer through such loss again. Beth’s life had touched so many for the better.

He immediately set out to offer condolences to the March family via telegram. After, he took off down the street to Amy’s hotel. He knew that Aunt March had not been well the last time he was in Paris nearly two months ago, so he wondered if she would be fit to travel. It was summer in Paris and the heat was nearing unbearable. If Aunt March could not travel he would accompany Amy. He could not let her travel alone.

When he called upon them, Aunt March was unable to even get out of bed.

“Oh Aunt March, please accept my most sincere condolences.” He said as he kissed her cheek and she swatted him away.

“Thank you. I’m afraid Beth was too good for this world and the dear Lord has requested her presence sooner than we thought.”

He nodded in agreement as he took up a seat next to the bed. “How have you been? Has your health improved in any way?”

Aunt March gave him a look of unamused consideration. He shrivelled under her no nonsense gaze.

“My dear boy, quit with the pleasantries. She has left already.”

“What?” A sense of dread had begun to creep in.

“Amy has left already. She may already be on the boat.”

“But she shouldn’t travel alone.” He weakly protested at this windfall. He felt her absence like the sudden drop in temperature and the sense of dread only heightened. Everything was so calm like the silence after a gun fires.

“Oh but she’s not alone. Mr. Vaughn has returned and will accompany her as her intended.”

“What?!” He flew up off the bedside chair so violently that it fell leaving in its wake Aunt March’s stunned expression in the face of Laurie’s outburst.

“But he was in London,” He objected lamely, petulantly. He stared at her as if he was asking for a miracle. Tears were already beginning to well in his eyes.

“Yes and then he came here yesterday morning.” He said patiently as if talking to a particularly slow child.

Laurie began to pace the room wildly. He was supposed to arrive here yesterday. If it wasn’t for the damned train! I should have never have gone to the bloody opera in Godforsaken Munich. I should have written to her. How could she reconsider Fred Vaughn’s proposal? She wasn’t in love with him; she was in love with me! All of her life she’s been in love with me!

“Mr. Laurence get a hold of yourself at once!”

He stopped and stared at her but really seeing through her and through her. Aunt March grew concerned and in a rare showcase of sympathy asked, “Laurie, are you alright?”

“I was a coward before. I won’t flee this time. I won’t give up for this is worth it.”

“What on Earth are you on about?”

“What’s the name of the ship?”

She stared at him in shock. Was he really going to chase after Amy? The scandal this would bring. “Get out. Don’t you dare sully Amy’s good standing with your tempestuous Italian wildness! So inconsiderate! Careless!”

Laurie only heard the tail end of Aunt March’s rant as he ran out the door and took the stairs two at a time. He flung himself into the nearest carriage, cutting off a gentleman who was about to clamber in.

“Get me to the port now! I’ll pay you whatever!”

No need to be told twice. With the harsh crack of a whip the carriage took off at full speed.

Laurie sat in the carriage with his face set into a rictus of determination. He was not going to give up on Amy. She had told him to make something of himself. Well then he would make himself hers.