Happy April! It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?
Last year, a submission call opened for an anthology of stories about classic female literary characters who were done wrong by their authors, either because they were given tragic lives or because they met tragic ends. I just so happened to have a novella-length story based on one of my favorite characters in literature, which, with a lot of revision, I knew would work perfectly for this anthology. I cut it down to the maximum word length allowed, reworked it to fit the theme, and sent it off.
Last week, I received the rejection. The editors were full of praise for my little story, but they had received 250 submissions, and they had to make some hard choices. Such is the life of both the writer and the editor.
I love this story of mine, even though it’s not usually what I write. It’s historical fiction and fan fiction and completely niche. There probably won’t be another call for stories like it in the coming months or even years. I’ve decided, then, to release it to the world right here on my blog.
If you’re a close friend, you know my favorite childhood book–the one I’ve reread the most often–is Little Women. My biggest issue with L.M. Alcott’s famous novel is how she allowed the sweetest, gentlest character in all of classic literature to die. (I have no bones to pick about Jo refusing Laurie’s proposal. I believe it was the best thing to happen to both of them.) The recent submission call finally gave me the opportunity to really ponder the question: What if Beth March had survived her illness and lived?
So, here, Dear Readers, is my answer. Please enjoy:
by Amanda Cook
Orchard House, Concord, Mass
May 30th, 1869
It was so good to hear from you. Your letter arrived just as I was finishing the last stitches on some new play clothes for Meg’s twins. I wish you could see them growing up, but I know your heart is more content in New York. So many people and places to write about there!
You would deny it, dear, but I know you. You were never one for society’s balls and calls. (Isn’t that a funny rhyme?) But how you write about the lectures and the opera! Mr. Bhaer is as good an influence on you as you are for me.
I must tell you, for I neglected it in my duty to keep you informed of all things home and Laurie, when he’s home from college. There’s a nest in the maple tree outside the parlor window. In April, there were four little blue robin’s eggs inside. Mama Robin was in charge of sitting on the nest, and Papa Robin perched at the end of the branch, scolding us whenever we left the house. He was a dutiful partner, keeping his little family safe.
One day, all the eggs hatched, and there was a quartet of little chicks with their beaks wide open. I watched them when I could, and they grew hearty and strong, hopping and chirping outside their nest. Sometimes, Mama and Papa gave them flying lessons. I was so frightened they might fall and get trampled or lost, but they were patient babies. They always listened to their parents. And when they were ready, they all flew away. I left the nest in the tree with the hope the robins will return next spring.
I’m like those little chicks. I feel the same restlessness you felt last winter, after Amy left on the Europe trip that should have been yours. You were right to go to New York, dear, though you would protest about leaving me here alone. I love home, and I am perfectly capable of keeping everything comfortable for Marmee and Father.
But there is a strange feeling in my heart now. It flutters like a baby bird in its nest, waiting for its turn to fledge and fly free. I will be patient and keep watch, as Marmee always tells us to do.
Oh, there is Hannah needing help with the biscuits. All my love to you and send my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Bhaer for all the attention he gives you in my absence.
September 30th, 1869
You will never guess what has happened!
I was on a walk with Hannah into town for the dinner things. We walked into Mr. Chamberlain’s store to put in our order, and who should be there to take it, but Tommy Chamberlain himself! You remember Tommy? He hadn’t been in town because he fell ill the same time I did. His parents sent him to live with a relative on the coast to take in the sea air, but he’s back now and so strong. You wouldn’t know he’d ever been sick.
I couldn’t help but be shy around him—he’d grown so tall while he was away—but he smiled at me before we left and said he’d be happy to deliver our order himself. I met him at the back door when he came, because Hannah was busy. He was oh so polite and brought the heavier things into the kitchen without needing any help at all. I gave him two pennies for his efforts, and he was so pleased, he tipped his hat and whistled a jolly tune as he left. I couldn’t help but laugh after I shut the door.
He delivers our dinner whenever we order it from Mr. Chamberlain’s now, and sometimes, he lingers to have a gossip with Hannah. If I’m in the kitchen, he never leaves without a hearty handshake and goodbye. He’s a real trump, as you would say.
Just today, I was playing my favorite hymn when he showed up with our order. Hannah answered the door, since I was in the parlor. I heard Tommy say hello, and for some reason, I started playing louder and kept my eyes on my music, as though he wasn’t even there. I thought I heard him call a hello from the kitchen, but when I turned around, he was gone.
I felt so queer the whole time he was here, Jo, even though I never said a word to him. My heart started pounding, and my face felt flushed. And when he left, I felt a sort of emptiness inside me, like a hollow in a tree. Why? He’s only Tommy Chamberlain, the grocer’s son.
My head is all in a muddle, Jo Dear. Should I ask Hannah to tell him not to deliver our dinner anymore? Do you think he’s becoming too familiar?
Oh, please tell me what to do. I know you will have the answer.
October 15th, 1869
It was so good to hear from you. What adventures you’re having in New York! And all the stories you’re publishing! Thank you so much for the newspaper clipping you sent. Your story was truly thrilling. It made my heart race when the two lovers were on the point of being murdered by the villain. And then when they fell into each other’s arms in the end, I practically swooned!
I tried to follow your advice concerning Tommy as best I could, but how difficult it is for me! I don’t have your talent for words or Amy’s talent for flirting, and I never will. I will always be Simple, Shy Beth. But I will tell you what has happened, and maybe you can give me more helpful advice.
Tommy called today without a dinner delivery. I tried to tell him how improper it is for him to call on me when there is no one else here but Hannah, who could never sit with me as you or Amy could. Oh, but he looked so lonely! He has no brothers or sisters now. His elder brother died in the war. I think he likes to talk and is desperate to have someone listen to him, someone closer to his age.
With his face so earnest, I just couldn’t tell him to go away! If you were here, I know you would have had him running as though the Lions of Injustice were on his heels, but I daresay even you couldn’t have told him to go.
He tipped his hat and told me he heard me playing the piano before. He likes music and wants to hear me play again someday. I could only flush and nod meekly.
“Perhaps another time when you’re feeling better, Miss March?”
Again, I could only nod and fidget. But, Jo, I was perfectly well! Did he think I didn’t want him there? He never frowned or looked hurt. On the contrary, he smiled and tipped his hat again before he left. And the queerest thing happened. I nearly ran to the door and shouted, “Come back!”
What is wrong with me? Tommy is just like Laurie, all brotherly kindness. I should be able to speak to him, but I can never find anything worth saying. He doesn’t seem to mind, but I would never want to appear rude.
Perhaps I could ask Laurie about Tommy. Oh, but they would never run in the same circles, and Laurie would only tease me about having a beau, which I certainly do not.
I’ve been thinking of inviting Tommy to hear me play. What do you think of that? I know I shouldn’t encourage him. There are other girls in town who deserve the attention more than me.
Oh, Jo Dear! Please write back and help
October 25th, 1869
I did it as you said I should. I invited Tommy to stop in and listen to me play. If you had only been here to see his face when I asked him!
Now, you mustn’t scold like Meg would. Hannah knew of my scheme. She smiled when I told her. Then she made up a plate of cookies and an early tea, all for Tommy and me! It was quite the thing, and I couldn’t be more grateful to her.
My whole body trembled as I showed him to the parlor and asked him to sit. He seemed perfectly shocked, but he took off his hat and followed me willingly. He was ever so grateful for the cookies and stayed politely quiet during my little concertina, even in the breaks. When I finished, he popped up off the old sofa and gave me a standing ovation. I’m sure I flushed as red as an apple. Then we had quite the little visit.
Oh, Jo. He told me all sorts of things. His father, Mr. Chamberlain, inherited the shop from his father, and Mrs. Chamberlain used to help in the front of the store. She helps more now that her sons are grown—and one dead. Tommy was very solemn during that part. He misses his brother dearly. I reminded him of his brother’s sacrifice, which cheered him a little. He told me he wished he could play the piano too, but his parents want him to focus on becoming a shopkeeper.
Now I will tell you something that is truly shocking. When I saw how he longed to play my little piano, I told him I could teach him how, if he wanted. He laughed as though I was teasing him, but I said I would be very happy to teach him, and his eyes grew very soft and wistful again. He said if he ever found the time, he would accept my invitation, and I said, “Well, since you are already here, now is as good a time as any.” And I gave him his first lesson right then and there.
Oh, Jo, he has the gift! He was practicing scales before he left.
I think this is God’s plan for me. I know I was put on this Earth to be a comfort to my family, but I think I could be a comfort to this lonely boy, too. Music would bring such solace to his heart. It has always brought me peace and joy.
I will write more when I can. The Brooke twins are growing so fast, I must help Meg sew up more play clothes for them. Will you be home for Christmas? Please say that you will!
And please don’t think my new friendship will replace the love I have for my dearest sister. I will forever be
November 10th, 1869
How jolly New York sounds, even under all that snow! I’m so glad you have loving friends and a home that keeps you safe and warm. Will Mrs. Kirke let you have time away from your governessing to come home for Christmas?
Tommy accepted my offer of piano lessons, but only when Marmee and Father aren’t around to hear us. He’s afraid news of our little sessions will get back to his parents. He finds some excuse to leave the shop a couple of times a week and shows up with a basket of fruits or sweets. Hannah scolded him at first for delivering the wrong order, and he said, “No, ma’am. This is all compliments of Mr. Chamberlain for the service your family is rendering his son.” Then, he gave her his winningest smile. Hannah looked at him all suspicious-like, but now that she knows what we’re up to, she doesn’t argue anymore.
Tommy’s face whenever I compliment his playing is the best payment I could ever receive. He watches me play first, and then off he goes on his own. Once, when he delivered our regular dinner order, he lingered at the back door, he was so anxious to learn something new. Marmee and Father were out, so I taught him a very short piece, only four bars long. He played it perfectly after hearing it just once. He’s a regular Mozart!
After that, I gave him some blank sheets and showed him how to write his own music, so he could practice it with me later. Oh, how his eyes shone! He’s going to be a maestro someday, I just know it.
There’s nothing improper in our little meetings, Jo. Hannah is always around to keep watch. I don’t know if Marmee or Father have caught on to my scheme, but I like having a secret. Everyone has their little wishes and dreams that they keep to themselves. This one is all mine, and it is precious to me.
I must help Hannah hang the linens.
It’s late here, but I just had to add this piece of news. Tommy made an unexpected call tonight. I was getting ready for bed, when I heard a tapping on the window, as though a tree branch was knocking against it. I went to look, and there was Tommy standing underneath it, throwing stones!
I will shock you even more, Jo, by telling you that I slipped outside and gave him a good scolding for calling at such a late hour. He looked rather abashed and said he wanted to give me a little wreath his mother had made of fall leaves and mums and pine cones. He thought it would look nice on the piano, and now that it’s there, he was right.
When I asked him why his mother would do such a thing for me, he shrugged and said, “I told her your family are some of our finest customers, and I wanted to do something to show our appreciation for you.” It was a fib, because the wreath was truly meant for me, but he didn’t want to tell his mother.
The look he gave me when he spoke of his appreciation made my cheeks burn, and my mouth felt like it was full of Hannah’s sticky toffee. I mumbled my thanks and shooed him away, and he tipped his hat like he always does. Then, he disappeared into the night, like one of the heroes in your stories after he’s rescued the kidnapped princess and brought her home.
Oh, Jo, did I do the right thing? I don’t think I was being rude. I just told him the truth, for he was calling very late. I sometimes wish I were in society more and knew the proper way of doing things. I hope he doesn’t think me ungrateful.
I’ll write him a thank you note, at least, and send it by way of Hannah when she goes to Mr. Chamberlain’s store next. I don’t think I could give it to him personally. It would make me too shy, and I don’t want to be shy around him. I should thank his mother, too. It was awfully kind of her to think of us, even if it was Tommy’s idea.
I’m off to write that note and go to bed, though I don’t know how I’ll ever sleep after tonight’s excitement!
November 12th, 1869
This letter may arrive at the same time as my last one, but I had to write again to share the news on the Tommy front. (Isn’t this so unlike me? You’ve been quite the influence, Jo, for I can’t help but write the words in my heart for you to read them.)
Tommy received my note, and he sent me a reply! His was such a lovely note, too. I can tell he hasn’t had proper schooling like Laurie, but I like him the more for it. I shouldn’t know what to do if he was a Shakespeare or Goethe. But no, he is simple and kindhearted.
He reminds me a little of Frank Vaughn. You remember the Vaughns, don’t you? They had that picnic with us, it seems like ages ago. Frank Vaughn was Fred’s feeble twin, and he got around by using a crutch. I thought he was spoiled at first like his sister and brother, but once I felt comfortable being near him, I discovered he was very kind.
I was so shy of people then, and I still am, even around Tommy when he’s so thoughtful and gentle. I’m afraid of sounding simple to him—or worse, of leading him on.
I’ve decided not to reply to Tommy’s note. I think it best for us to remain as cordial friends and nothing more. There’s an intimacy in letter writing that would only confuse him. I much prefer us as teacher and student, or even as friends, like Laurie is to our family.
Oh, Jo, am I right? My mind and heart are in such a muddle. More soon from
December 15th, 1869
This will be a short letter, for I know you are packing up and leaving soon for home. I am so impatient to see you! Will the wonderful Mr. Bhaer be coming, too? Marmee said Father invited him to Christmas, and Mr. Laurence has a guest room waiting for him. I do so want to meet him. Please say he’s coming!
Tommy continues to call for his music lessons, though his father is keeping him busy at the store. Since his little “embarrassment” with the wreath, he has been all things courteous and thoughtful. I’m much more comfortable around him, and it’s been such fun teaching him. He’s a model student and does his work diligently. His compositions are beautiful in their simplicity. Sometimes, I play them when he’s gone. They are like hymns to me, Jo, sacred and pure.
I must confess that Marmee and Father know my secret now. Yesterday, when Tommy stayed after delivering our dinner, Father came home early and caught us together at the piano. Tommy bolted up like a frightened colt and looked as though he might fly from the house. But Father was so gentle with him. Instead of scolding us, he smiled and held out his hand to shake Tommy’s. After a short introduction, Tommy excused himself. He was still very flustered.
Later, Marmee and Father told me Hannah had confided in them about my secret. She didn’t think it was proper that they shouldn’t know what was going on in their own home, and she is right, Jo, though I am a little hurt. But instead of scolding me, Marmee and Father said they were very proud that I am using my talents to help someone else. They encouraged me to keep giving him lessons, and they think I should advertise myself to some of the local children, too.
Could you imagine it, Jo? Me, teaching children how to play? The very thought makes me tremble. But what if this is what God wants me to do? How could I deny our Creator his plan for me?
There is more I could write, but you will be here soon, and then we can tell each other our hearts’ secrets in person. Give the little Kirke twins a kiss from me and wish everyone in the boarding house a Merry Christmas, especially Mr. Bhaer if we are not to see him when you come. Oh, but please say we will!
January 15th, 1870
I’m so glad you arrived safely in New York and the Kirke twins are well. It’s only been a week, but it feels like ages since you left. The house is much quieter without you and Mr. Bhaer and Laurie in it. Poor Laurie. He was so brave around you and Mr. Bhaer, but I could see the hurt in his eyes.
He may not write you, so I will tell you that he and Mr. Laurence have gone to Europe. Mr. Laurence thinks it will do Laurie some good to have a different “Castle in the Sky” to dream about. Laurie promised Marmee that he would check in on Amy and Aunt March when they are in France, so he won’t be lonely, at least.
Please do be gentle with him if he does write, Jo. He never said anything to me, but I could see his heart breaking when you were here. The time away will do him good, though I will miss him as much as I miss you.
Do you remember the little glass daisy Tommy asked Hannah to hide in my Christmas sock? It’s such a delicate thing. The sunlight sparkles through its petals when I turn it just so, like diamonds or snow! I was embarrassed that I hadn’t got him anything, so I’m knitting him a new scarf. The one he wears looks as though the moths have gotten to it.
Is it too forward of me? If I think of Tommy as I think of Laurie—like a brother—it doesn’t feel wrong to show I care for him. And I do care for him, Jo. I just don’t know the how of it.
I must go and help Hannah with dinner. Have you sold any more stories? I’m impatient to read them!
June 27th, 1870
Have you heard the news? There is to be another wedding!
No, not for me and Tommy. I know you would tease me about such a thing if you were here, and I would have every reason to scold you. No, Laurie proposed to Amy! Can you imagine? I suppose it was inevitable. They have spent so much time together in France. The news may upset you, Jo Dear, but it is the best thing for Laurie. He has found a comfortable home for his heart, just as you have with Mr. Bhaer.
I must confess that Tommy has been an angel all summer. He delivers a little bouquet of daisies to the house once a week, just like the glass one he gave me at Christmas. Marmee thinks they are a sweet gesture between friends, so I refill the little vase on the piano with the newest blooms and secretly admire him when he’s not here.
I told him once that I felt ashamed, because I have nothing to give him in return, besides the knitting. He nodded at the piano and said, “You’ve given me more than you know, Beth.” My heart leapt at that, though I should have told him he was being improper.
Honestly, I’ve been calling him Tommy for a while. I used to greet him as “Mr. Chamberlain,” and he would laugh and reply, “That’s my father!” I don’t mind him calling me Beth, either. With two other Misses March in the family, it’s easier for us, even if it does feel too familiar. I catch him staring while I play, and I forget what I’m doing and have to start over again. He never says it, but I know how he feels, just as you knew how Laurie felt about you.
Is it right for us to continue this way? When did you know you loved your Mr. Bhaer as you do now? Is what I’m feeling even love? It’s not like the swooning adoration you write about in your stories. It’s gentle and quiet. Though I suppose Meg and John never had a fiery romance, either.
Oh, Jo, I wish you were here! We would talk, and you would help me as only a sister could. I know you will do your best in your next letter. You always do. Please reply soon to
November 2nd, 1870
Laurie and Amy are home, and they are married! They couldn’t wait and had a small ceremony in Europe with Aunt March and Mr. Laurence as witnesses. Marmee and Father are delighted the newlyweds have bought a home nearby. Amy is more beautiful—and more humble—than she was when she left Concord. Europe has done her a world of good. She was disappointed to find you still in New York, but I think she understood. We’re both eager for news about your own future plans, and not just the plans you have for your book.
Would it shock you very much that I might be next? You have known my heart for so long now. I thought what I felt for Tommy Chamberlain was like the love between brother and sister, but no, there is more to it. I teach him music and serve him tea. I mend his socks and the buttons on his coat. Any sister would do such things for her brother, but it feels different when I do them for him.
I would say we are in love and have been for a long time. I see it in the way he looks at me as we play the piano together. I feel it in the way we shake hands and in the way he smiles at me. I hear it in the way he calls me “Beth.”
I feel light as a feather, but also as heavy as an anvil. I don’t know if I should accept if he were to propose. I don’t know if I could ever leave home behind. If you and Mr. Bhaer marry, and Tommy proposes to me, what would happen to Marmee and Father?
If Tommy asks me, I think I will tell him I’m still very much needed at home. Oh, but I would hate to break his heart.
Oh, Jo! What should I do? I fear the proposal will happen any day now.
January 2nd, 1871
It has only been hours since you left to return to New York, but I had to write as soon as I could. You have had your proposal from Mr. Bhaer, and as I suspected would happen, I have had one from my Tommy.
See how easily I write “my Tommy”? It’s as natural as breathing.
But I must tell you everything. Tommy had such a warm welcome from everyone at Mr. Laurence’s New Year’s ball, he felt encouraged to go ahead and propose. He waited until after the celebrations, so as not to diminish Mr. Bhaer’s proposal to you, which was so lovely and simple I had to hold myself back from flying into his arms myself.
Today, while Marmee and Father were seeing you off at the train station, Tommy called, though he came to the front door instead of the back. I was quite surprised and thought he was here for his usual lesson.
Instead of going straight to the piano bench, though, he said, “Beth, would you care to take a seat on the sofa next to me?”
I was quite flustered by his request, but I went and sat down next to him. It felt very different than sharing the piano bench. Hannah came into the parlor just then to see who had knocked on the door. When she saw us together, her eyes grew as round as saucers, but bless her, she only asked if Tommy would like some tea and cake.
After she went back to the kitchen, Tommy said, “Beth, I know you’ve been aware of my feelings for some time now. It would’ve been rude of me to speak them aloud, but I had hoped you read my love for you in the flowers and the music.”
A great lump grew in my throat. I was so afraid I would squeak, I only nodded and stared at my lap.
“It would be foolish to ask for your hand before I have a home of my own,” he said. “But I can’t keep my feelings a secret any longer.”
He took my hand then, and it was warm and rough from his work at the store. Jo, I wanted to cling to that hand for the rest of my life. When I looked up at him, his expression was so much like Father’s when he looks at Marmee sometimes.
“Dearest Beth. My Beth. I do love you so. You don’t need to give me an answer just yet, but would you be willing to wait for me as I work to be worthy of you just as Mr. Bhaer does the same for your sister?”
Oh, Jo. I couldn’t help myself! There was so much love in his eyes, and my heart was so full, I nodded and said yes on the spot. Hannah came in with the tea, and when she heard the news, she burst into tears and shook Tommy’s hand as though she might shake his whole arm off!
We waited until Marmee and Father came home, and Tommy asked them for their blessing, which they gave wholeheartedly. They took him at his word that he would work until he could afford a house of his own, but Jo! Such plans I’m making already!
I never saw myself as much. I always thought I would be the spinster aunt doting on her nieces and nephews and caring for Marmee and Father. But I feel so alive now, like I could do anything I set my heart to. You mustn’t worry. I’m still your Beth. But I have new dreams now. I want my own house. I want to take care of Tommy and my own little family. There is so much I want to do now, I can’t believe I have the years ahead to do them in.
Let’s get married together, Jo, if Mr. Bhaer is willing to wait for me and Tommy! We could have a double wedding right here at Orchard House, like Meg and John. Wouldn’t that be grand? I know I could get through such a frightening day with you holding my hand through it all. You can have as much of the attention for yourself, and I’ll be just as happy to say, “I do!”.
Please say yes! I would love nothing more than to have my dearest sister with me as we fly from the nest to make little nests of our own. Oh, Jo, what an adventure it will be too!
Copyright (c) 2023 Amanda Cook
As always, thanks for reading, friends!
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