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The ecstasy to guess

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The snow had started to fall in the late afternoon, unnoticed at first as they had been expecting the night to fall. The dusk, so short and soft, was a confusion of light at this time of year. The house had been merry, Emil and Franz playing with toys Marmee had unearthed from the garret. Hannah had poked her head in now and then to gaze fondly upon them all and comment “it’s like when the girls were little but it took all four to raise such a thunder!” For a time, Jo’s father had even taken to the Turkey rug to help delineate a map of buried treasure when the boys begged and Friedrich had beamed to see them all together, the man who was to be his father with the boys who had become his sons. Jo had found herself finally taking a deep breath, a certain tranquility descending on her ordinarily busy brain with the knowledge that those she held dearest were all under one roof with her.

She had prepared herself for Emil and Franz to be a bit diffident with her but it hadn’t proven to be the case; Emil had run straight into her arms the moment he’d seen her two weeks ago, nearly bowling her over, and Franz had not needed much encouragement to sit beside her and listen to stories of her madcap girlhood before he then told a tale or two of their recent trip out West. She found them both so endearing and had to remind herself how young they were and yet how widely-traveled, how much they must miss their mother and how well Friedrich had cared for them. And sometimes, before they looked up, she had to remind herself that neither was Amy at eight, bright curls against the familiar rug, the comforting shadows collected beside the fire; as soon as she blinked, she saw how differently the boys moved, how square their little jaws were, and neither had the dark lashes and brows that so set off Amy’s blue eyes, such an unusual contrast to her blonde beauty.

The house had rung with the boys’ happy cries and no one had remarked upon the first lacy flurries, not even Hannah, who had a penchant for worrying and fewer objects since the March girls had grown up. They’d all made a good supper and the adults had smiled to see the boys’ hearty appetites, their earnest attempt at good manners, and their unconcealed delight at being offered another helping of chicken and dumplings, Hannah’s molasses cake liberally covered in custard. They’d been content to look at some books with finely colored plates while coffee was served. Jo had been content with Friedrich’s gaze, the way he caught her hand a moment as they walked from the table back to the sitting room, his thumb stroking the inside of her wrist. It was sometime within that hour of sipping coffee and pleasant conversation, listening to her father and her lover discuss philosophy with the ease of truly learned men, that Jo finally realized the snow was falling swiftly and heavily. The roads were already covered, the garden an alien world of white and whiter and whitest; the cloud animals of the summer sky were transported, cavorting very slowly on earth where in July the roses climbed and the arbor stood. She’d been about to speak when Marmee glanced at her and then the window where the curtains had not been fully drawn.

“My dears, I think you must stay the night. It seems the snow means to make quite an impression on us and the walk to Plumfield is not worth the risk. I’m sure the morning will be soon enough to hazard your return. Professor Bhaer, Emil and Franz may sleep in Amy’s old room and the guest room is ready for you. If you two boys are not too particular, I think we may find some clean nightclothes and you will be well-rewarded with Hannah’s popovers in the morning. Our Jo can attest to their quality, can’t you?” Marmee said, setting everything to rights without any trouble.

For now the boys were equally eager for their bed and their breakfast and Friedrich looked relieved; Jo did not see the wrinkle in his brow that would have spoken of his anxiety shepherding the boys home through the storm or at the sudden effusion of March hospitality. Jo nodded and smiled at her mother and then smiled even more broadly when she saw the approving, amused light in her mother’s eye. She knew her mother had only wanted her girls to marry for love and Margaret March made no secret of her satisfaction with Jo’s response to Friedrich Bhaer and his to her. He was not rich, but in learning and affection, or renowned, but he was the equal of John Brooke’s virtue and Teddy Laurence’s charming devotion. And beyond even that, he was happy to converse with Reverend March on topics esoteric, eschatologic, aesthetic or eremitic for several hours or even only a few minutes when his nephews, his children really, called for his immediate attention.

“Oh yes! Hannah’s popovers are a great treat and there will be plenty of porridge and cream as well. But perhaps we should start preparing the rooms then, and their inhabitants… there will be a mighty trek to be made tomorrow, through an icy tundra!” Jo said. She must try to remember she was to be mother, not merely friend and aunt, and she must start as she meant to go on but she could not refrain from a little excitable adventurousness in her speech. The boys nodded and looked so bright-eyed, she hoped it would not be too difficult for them to settle down to sleep.

It took far less time that Jo had imagined to see the boys in a pair of nightshirts, snug under quilts pieced in Jo’s childhood, the curtains drawn tight against the snowy night. She had been touched by their simple, devout prayers beside their adopted beds, to hear herself numbered with Uncle and Mamma as she and Fritz stood a few steps behind them. And then to see how gently Fritz ruffled their curls, the brief, solemn kiss to each forehead, and the warm smile he gave before reminding them to wait a bit for the popovers in the morning “let us not hear you two on the stairs, quick as cowboys, heavy as buffalo, before the day has barely begun.” He blew out the lamp but the room was still lit by the reflected light of the falling snow and the two boys, covered in the bleached linens, also seemed to be a part of the snowy vista. Friedrich tilted his head, an entreaty to return to the parlor, the firelight and more conversation.

They found Jo’s father had also retired for the night and Marmee and Hannah bustled about in the kitchen; the two women had worked together so many years, they were quite easy with each other and even the unexpected guests did not change the regular melody of their voices, the washing of dishes and morning preparations a familiar harmony. Jo and Friedrich chose to sit on the comfortable sofa that rested beneath a low, wide window overlooking the garden, but Jo was a decorous distance away and Friedrich did not take up her hand where it lay between them, though he glanced at it and she saw his tender regard. There was silence between them but it was mostly filled with contentedness and the lulling sense of the snow steadily falling outside. Jo felt a little sleepy and wished she might lay her head against Friedrich’s tweed shoulder when her mother opened the door and stepped forward just a little.

“Jo, I’m joining your father now. Everything should be ready for Professor Bhaer, but I trust you may take care of anything I have forgotten. I wish you both good night and I’m sure the good Professor already knows, but Jo, I wouldn’t stay up too late—the boys will be up with the sun and eager for their breakfast and then, I would guess, to tumble about the yard. The first snowfall always seems to affect children the same way.”

“Good night, dear Marmee and to Father as well. And I remember how eager I was to play in the snow—I expect nothing less from Franz and Emil but I welcome your advice,” Jo replied.

“I also bid you good night, Mrs. March, and thank you for your hospitality and your wisdom. I am still becoming accustomed to the New England winter,” Friedrich added.

“Just so, my dears,” Jo’s mother said and closed the door behind her. They heard her light tread upon the stair, the weather adding to the mild creaking throughout the house, until she reached the top. Then it was quiet again with only the cheerful crackle of the fire and the sound of the questing wind curling around the house.

“Wilt thou come sit a little closer by me, my Jo? Unless…” Friedrich asked softly.

Jo did not wait, did not want him to imagine she could ever prefer to be far when she could be near to him, when the past year apart had been so long. She moved from the corner of the sofa to the place beside Friedrich, her full skirts brushing against his legs, and it was not a moment before he picked up her hand where it rested in her lap and held it in his. She leaned against him a little and felt the roughness of his tweed coat against her cheek. The fire leapt in the hearth, the flames seeming to dance and Jo became aware that Friedrich was carefully stroking her hand, tracing the creases of her palm, the calluses, the small, healing burn at the base of her thumb; she had again underestimated the copper tea kettle. The space between them seemed subtly changed, the edges dissolving like a meringue. The light in the room was evenly balanced with the shadow and Jo felt herself so much easier with the touch of Friedrich’s hand on hers. She was aware of his eyes resting on her without shame, on her palm, her grey eyes, her throat where her collar parted and showed the skin fair and sensitive. She thought this was how it would be to be married, to sit thus on their own sofa, their own fire, with children sleeping soundly above them. And then Friedrich began to speak.

“Josephine, heart’s dearest, dost thou—dost thou know, what is desire?”

Jo was startled but the light, the falling snow, Friedrich’s hand on hers, all made her feel a languor unfamiliar but appealing and safe. She did not know the tone he used though it reminded her of when he’d spoken to her in New York of her writing but now he was so tender… Even that, the writer within her noted, always cataloging everything, even that was not entirely accurate, there was something else, a quality she had no context for, a charge, his accent wrapping around the words. “Desire” was the word he uttered but not the one he had chosen for it within his mind. She did not know enough to guess what it would be.

“It is… longing, isn’t it? What I felt when you were away, so far away,” Jo answered. She had thought she was correct but Friedrich moved a little, there was a gleam in his eye she did not recognize except that she had not satisfied him. And yet, he did not seem like the Professor frustrated with his student’s failings, not at all.

“That is part of it, Liebchen, but not all. We will be married soon, in a matter of weeks, and I wouldst not have thee afraid or surprised but perhaps thou wouldst not speak of these things before thou art my wife,” he said. There had been a smile in his tone but it had faded as he spoke and then uncertainty had crept in. She still felt beguiled, the firelight and the snow, his hand upon hers and his dark eyes seeing into her heart.

“But then, why did you ask? I think, if you think we should speak of it, we should. If I do not know what I ought… I mean to be a good wife, but I know I have so many shortcomings and faults,” Jo said, trying to be direct and straightforward when everything felt like it was smoke and shadow, mystery and enchantment.

She felt confused but not as distressed as she might have imagined. He was warm beside her and to have him near when he had been so far, almost like a dream that she’d feared would never come true—she would learn whatever was needed and he would not ask her anything that would not suit her.

“Oh, Josephine, thou wilt be the best wife I could ever have, better than I deserve, of that I have no doubt. I am selfish and greedy, that I would ask thee now, but thou art so lovely. And I confess, I am moved by this first snowfall, how much it reminds me of home, and thou beside me… I should have said nothing, should have only held thy sweet hand in mine,” he said.

She could not say what it was that made her do it, what word or expression he had uttered, to hear her name said like the empress’s-- whether it had been the play of light in his dark eyes or his square palm pressed against hers, but she reached her hand up to caress his bearded cheek when he stopped speaking. He let her hand rest there a moment and then turned his head, took her hand in his and kissed the center of her palm very softly but with an intent she was transfixed by.

“Heart’s dearest,” he breathed and then he laid her hand back in her lap and put both his upon her face, his thumbs stroking her cheeks delicately. Friedrich was looking at her with such love in his eyes and she knew that whatever she believed, he thought she was entirely, unusually beautiful, and she blushed with the unexpected delight of seeming so, being so to him.

So schön,” he murmured and his hands were still, then his mouth was on hers. They had kissed before—under the umbrella in the cold rain, she had reached up for him and felt how soft his lips were amid the tickle of his beard. When he had returned from the West, at her parents’ door, he had bent his head in impetuous greeting and he had been swift and ardent. She had not been swept away, not completely, for the first time the damp and the bundles round their feet had recalled her and the second, Emil had barreled around and secured himself to her skirts like a limpet and the moment had ended with laughter.

This, the third kiss, she might have expected to be different; she was a writer and, even longer, a reader of fairy tales and she knew the significance of the third iteration. And especially a kiss! She might have expected but she could expect nothing, imagine nothing but what there was—she perceived first only the entrancing sweetness of it, then the heat of his mouth on hers, the way he shifted little by little, each movement another kiss, deeper and more urgent, till she parted her lips hoping for something more she could not name. She was not satisfied, but overwhelmed when he kept kissing her, breathing her breath, beginning to taste her and letting her do what she would with him; she laid a hand against his cheek and another at the back of his head, each stroking him so that he would come ever closer to her. His hands had dropped, stolen round her waist and one was laid against her back so that he seemed to be everywhere around her and yet, and yet! there was an unspoken cry within her that he was too far! She arched towards him and he slid the hand at her waist upwards till he touched her ribs through the bodice of her dress, that gentle hand exploring and finally grazing her breast, deliberate and sure and male. This caused such a shock of pleasure, such a fierce, commanding thrill that she gasped and he broke away, just far enough to look at her flushed face, her exhilarated grey eyes, her lips reddened. He laughed, a satisfied, proud laugh, and said,

This is desire, Josephine. I thought, I hoped it would be so for thee, that I might delight thee as I knew thou wouldst delight me and we have made such a beginning!”

“I—this, this is proper? To feel so, so much and still to want…something? You would, you must tell me if I am immodest, Friedrich,” she replied, making an effort to reflect, to consider her response and express herself appropriately, but finding herself drawing closer to him. She pushed herself further into his grasp, tilting her head so he might answer her with words or without them.

“It is the most proper, Liebchen, for I love thee and I think thou lovest me. Between us, there can be nothing immodest, for God Himself decrees that we should incline towards each other,” he said and then matched his actions to his words and returned to kissing her again.

He was very gentle but tenacious and curious, seeking her response, what incited her and what soothed. He reached to the ribbon that tied her snood and paused to let her agree if she would; he allowed her slightest nod to be his answer and pulled the silk apart, drew the black netting from her and let her hair fall over her shoulders. Now, he gasped to feel what was familiar to Jo, the weight and spill of her hair, grown long again since she had cut it early in the War, and he stopped kissing her to whisper in her ear,

“Now, thou art revealed to me, ‘thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes,’” and he’d begun to kiss her neck, her throat, folding back the lace collar but making no move to unbutton it.

Jo felt the urge to do so within her own hands, her own collar or his, to loosen his cravat and find the way beneath. Everything, every reaction within herself and in Friedrich, was a revelation. She had been so happy when he proposed, having lost hope of him, and while he was away, her gladness had become a contentment that she would have her dear companion back, first in months, then weeks. The night before he arrived, she had not thought she would sleep but she had and had dreamed joyfully until the morning came. Each day since, she had found all the little interstitial times she was smiling, sentimentally giddy as she had hardly ever been as a young girl, eager for his return and for the day approaching after which he would always be only as far as the other room.

But this extraordinary embrace had up-ended all her glad certainty about what a marriage could be and the way he stroked her unbound hair, his sighs against the sensitive skin of her throat, made her wonder what their bedrock would be. Was this always the way of true love and only she had been too blind or dull to see it? Or was this something new, unique, without precedent? Who was this Jo March who sighed and murmured and clung? She had never put much stock in the physicality of things, had not appreciated the crispness of fresh muslin or the ripple and swish of a silk skirt as Meg did, or Amy’s yearning for marble under her hands, the depths of cobalt and vermilion in her paint-pots. She had not really understood even Beth’s sunny smile at the changing weight of a frisky kitten in her lap, a piano finely tuned; Jo knew she had lived for words and the castles in the sky she could construct with them, but she began to wonder at what she might have dismissed. As delicious his caresses were, she wanted most now to talk with Friedrich, to hear his grounding perspective on what was happening between them, his words even now more valuable than the touch of his hand, his mouth, the remarkable warmth of his skin.

“Friedrich?”

She had only to say his name and he had pulled away from her, enough to look right at her. His dark hair was tousled and his eyes so bright; he was animated in a way she had not seen much of before but it was not that he seemed a younger version of himself. He was the same Friedrich Bhaer in a tweed coat and worn fawn vest, his dark beard and temples touched with grey, but she thought this man was first Josephine March’s lover and that was the difference.

Liebchen, yes? What is it?”

“I don’t know—I’m not even sure what, how to ask my question. This, what you, what thou hast shown me,” she paused and saw his smile even more affectionate as she used the language he preferred, “is this only what everyone experiences and it’s only that it’s not discussed? I thought I understood love, loving thee, but now I am…uncertain? Please don’t worry, I am saying it all so poorly, I hadn’t thought there were ways to love thee that I did not already know but this evening, to be in thy arms…Is there even more, is this all?”

“Oh my Josephine! I have never met thy equal, anyone with the courage to ask questions as thou dost. Thou art a better student than I am a professor! But I must try to tell thee what I know and thou wilt know if I have spoken truly, thy honest heart will tell thee. What is between us, how thou… kindle me and how affected thou art in turn, this is always possible when there is love, but not required. I have not found it is the ordinary way of it.”

“Among men, it is spoken of a little, a very little, this sort of… synchrony and I think among women, gently-raised, likely not at all. Thy family is unusual, thou and thy sisters were educated nearly as boys might have been, expected to address others and thy God as independent, responsible souls and thou knew nothing of this, so I must imagine it is the same in America as Germany… that the quality of love we bear for each other is rare, a rare gift,” he said. He lifted his hand and then just as quickly dropped it down.

“What did thou mean to do, just then?” Jo asked.

“Only this,” he replied and moved back a lock of hair that had fallen forward and brushed against her cheek. If she had done so for herself, she would not have remembered; it was such a small gesture, so frequently undertaken, and yet to feel his fingertips against her skin, along the angle of her jaw and fleetingly against her earlobe was like the spell that awakened the princess to the world she had missed behind her briar.

“Oh! When you, when thou touch me… I haven’t words for it, isn’t that silly? Jo March, who styles herself such a writer? How dost thou know what, how to do that? To evoke such… elation in me?”

Friedrich laughed, a rich, low laugh that was cognizant of the hour, the snow continuing to fall outside the window, the shy blush on Jo’s cheeks and her determined look, her wish to understand. “I fear I have not such great expertise, Liebchen, but that thou art untouched and thou told the truth, 'Die erste Liebe ist die beste,' that thou dost givest me all as thou promised.”

“I’m not sure I believe thee, Friedrich. I’m sure that can’t be all there is,” Jo insisted, narrowing her eyes a bit. Friedrich laughed again, more merrily.

“Well, I am not a young man, Josephine, and once I had my own wilder days in Berlin, at university… it was the way to go to public houses, the first Biergärtens copied from the ones in Munich, there were serving girls who were not averse to… attention from the patrons,” he said. “Liebchen! I have shocked thee with this but thou must remember, I was not always the solemn professor, I have been a boy like thy friend Mr. Laurence and his compatriots, the young men you remember from the boarding house in New York and their many scrapes. I am not proud of my own small transgressions-- the stolen kisses, my youthful follies, but I must think more kindly of them now, I suppose.”

“I suppose,” Jo repeated.

She was not marrying a boy and she was not a girl, she must accept that her Friedrich had lived a varied life before he met her even if her own had been rather circumscribed other than her literary voyages. Had Aunt March chosen her and not Amy…she thought it would have made little difference. She could not imagine she would have spent her time abroad flirting and making cow eyes at likely or unlikely gentlemen crossing her path. It was hard to reconcile the man before her, still learned and kind above all, even if she had discovered his passionate nature, with the boy he described, cavorting about Berlin, making blonde serving-maids blush.

Liebchen, meine süße Josephine, I wish thou would not trouble thyself. My love for thee is all that I could have ever hoped for, thou art a woman I could never have dreamed of—and to know thou wilt be my wife! My past is so distant and I mean to keep thee so near! This night should only be the brightest harbinger of our marriage—how blessed we are by God, to have been brought together, to be reunited so easily, and to find we are matched even better than we had imagined. You are my dearest companion and my sweetest, most desirable lover, and soon enough, the aunt to two Junglings who are already half in love with thee. And they will wake us, all of us, earlier than you think, so we must say good night I believe,” Friedrich said, resting a hand on her wrist for an instant before rising and reaching out to take her hand as they walked towards the stairs. The fire had dimmed to embers, barely needing to be banked.

At the foot of the stairs, Friedrich stopped and bent to kiss her; this kiss was only the lightest brush of his mouth on hers but he took her in his arms and pressed her against him. His hands slowly stroked her loosened hair and she thought fleetingly of how she would need to braid it before she slept. Then he spoke, very quietly,

“Thou asked if this was all and I did not answer. But I shall tell thee, there is more left for us, more to be given. I had been a little afraid that ours would be a marriage of two dear friends because I have always, always longed for thee, desired thee and I did not think I should expect more than thou had already given so generously, but tonight! Tonight I have learnt that what calls to thee in my heart also lives in thine, that ours will be a love complete and fulfilled, if only I do everything in my power to gladden thee…and I will. Now I hope thou will sleep well, knowing I will dream of thee every night until thou art my bride and even then, when thou art held in my arms, I will fall to sleep with thy name on my lips and wake to whisper, Liebchen, in your ear. I will dream of snow and firelight and thy grey eyes and how they looked after I kissed thee.”

Jo knew they must stop, must go to bed and yet she wished to stand beside the newel post and listen to such devoted love-making till the dawn broke. But the boys would wake and Hannah’s popovers would not wait and she meant to be a good wife, not merely an adored bride, so she laid a finger on Friedrich’s mouth to silence him and smiled, a crooked smile she knew he would remember, and flew up the stairs before she could fly back to the man she loved so. She ran down the hall and into her room and she heard his soft chuckle rising up the stairs. She thought she too would dream tonight and now she knew what she dreamt of and what to call it.