In Friendship and Love: An S&S Vignette
Moment dropped upon moment like raindrops trailing themselves one after the other down the window pain. Christopher Brandon had no more energy to actively sob than he did to lift a hand and dry his eyes. His was the posture of a man defeated-- by time, by circumstances, and by himself. Half slumped as he was now in an arm chair in the darkest corner of the Palmer's library, he was hardly refreshing himself, yet this was the extent of the rest he had taken in something like thirty- six hours. There had been but one thought, one image, one name consistently before him in all that time, divesting him of the ability to sleep, to think, to do aught but bow himself to the all consuming nature of his pain. Marianne Dashwood lay abed, feverish, and in despair of her life. Brandon had to remind himself to breathe ever so often, and this was accompanied by the anguished prescience that if Marianne's life and health were not restored to her, he would have little reason to consider that task anything but bothersome.
The image of Marianne collapsed and half frozen on the far side of the Cleveland estate would not soon be exorcised from his mind or memory. Cold terror had assaulted his heart as he made his way back to the manor, running as though the devil were at his heels. He did not even realize his exhaustion until he had relinquished his precious burden to fresh and trusted arms, at which point he had all but collapsed himself. He had since then remained posted outside the door of the sickroom and only when he felt that his very legs would give out beneath him had he retreated here to the library. A state of quiet fever had attended him ever since the gossip surrounding Marianne's effectual jilting had first reached him. He would have made his way to Mrs. Jennings' house immediately, good taste be hanged, to ascertain the veracity of the rumors, had Miss Dashwood herself not sent for him almost that very hour. Given the employment of escorting the sisters to Cleveland and on to Barton, he had found some refuge from the dark temptations of violence and revenge that plagued him. He had called the libertine out once for his conduct; then, he had been acting in defense of his ward, and no man might blame him for this. This second situation, however, was worse for Brandon by far, in that it could afford him no clear catharsis. He was of no real attachment to the Dashwood family, honored friend though they might count him, and thus he could not demand Willoughby's presence on the field of honor a second time. He was nonetheless tempted to hunt the rake down and hold him physically accountable in some less than rational-- or legal-- fashion, but the wisdom of experience held him in check. Having faced Willoughby down the end of a pistol once already, he knew no such engagement could provide lasting satisfaction. That first time, when all had been said and done, Beth had still been shamed, her child still fatherless, Brandon's heart yet broken and Willoughby still the undoubted possessor of Marianne Dashwood's affections. Though everything within him longed to punish the man, to somehow make him sensible to the claims of honor, Brandon had realized from the first hour that he could serve Marianne best by placing himself at her disposal.
Yes, she undoubtedly needed him here at the moment... He grit his teeth suddenly. But should Willoughby intrude himself upon their lives again, no prudent words of restraint, no advice or logic on heaven or earth would be sufficient to stay his hand. For Christopher Brandon had established himself Marianne Dashwood's guardian until the end of his days, and as he breathed, she would never suffer by mortal hands again.
Brandon found himself surprised and started out of his reverie as the door of the library opened and shut quickly. In his current position, Brandon knew himself to be invisible to a person just entering the room; he determined to keep himself concealed until it seemed necessary to reveal himself. At the moment-- in his current state of mind-- he was not ready to hold conversation with anyone. He sat up in further surprise, as with only the slow, steady rhythm of her footsteps to announce her advance, the fatigue- stooped figure of Miss Dashwood appeared. She had, he doubted not, been without sleep or relief of any sort since she had first requested the doctor's presence two days hence. Despite his own myriad anguish, he felt a rush of concern and tenderness for Elinor; she had been Marianne's sister a fair sight longer than he had been in love with her. It was unlikely, thanks to his rather unique circumstances, that she suffered more than he did-- but he would be willing to wager that they would understand one another's grief very well.
Elinor stopped herself before a window and put a hand up to the lattice. She seemed pensive, though her face was no more troubled than he had ever seen it. Elinor Dashwood was a woman who radiated serenity in a wholly unspoilt way. He esteemed her among the rarest of ladies, but bearing the blood of the Dashwoods as she did, it was hardly surprising he should regard her so warmly.
She stood there in that attitude, still and silent, for so long that Brandon began to grow uneasy. Perhaps he should alert her to his presence? He began to feel uncomfortably a voyeur. He opened his mouth, her name on the edge of his teeth~ and was halted as she suddenly release a short, agonized moan and proceeded to dissolve into violent sobs.
Within a second he was on his feet; within three, he had crossed the length of the room to stand mere inches from the weeping lady. She did not seem to notice him. A hurried mixture of reactions had raced across Brandon's mind as he observed Elinor's sudden breakdown, reactions prompting such quick emotion in him that he had flown across the room almost before realizing he had moved. His first, most troubling idea was that Marianne had fallen into graver danger, or worse-- was slipping away. A slightly secondary concern was that he had never seen Elinor in anything other than a state of perfect composure. That some unhappy circumstance had befallen her with the power to render her thus was nothing short of terrifying to Brandon, and he at last lay a tentative hand on her shoulder.
She gasped loudly, and jumped back before turning to find herself with Colonel Brandon. As soon as she recognized him, she relaxed visibly, but nonetheless made an effort to act as though he had not come across her in so undignified a position. "I did not see you, sir."
"I am sorry, I ought to have made my presence known, but at first I had no wish to disturb you..." She was refusing to meet his eyes. "Miss Dashwood, what-- beyond the obvious-- troubles you so?"
She made an effort to smile. "It is of no great consequence. I would rather inquire after you-- you have certainly neither slept nor eaten since bringing Marianne back to us. I would rather not have another invalid lying abed, Colonel, I beg you to look after yourself."
"A great deal of the same might be said of you, Miss Dashwood. Forgive me-- your beauty is undiminished-- but you look the very death."
She turned away again. Several moments later she replied, sotto voce, "I fear that which troubles me is not of a nature to be remedied by sleep, sir."
He sighed quietly. "Miss Marianne's illness weighs heavily upon us all."
She simply nodded, and looked persistently at nothing through the window.
Brandon placed a hand on her shoulder. "Please, Miss Dashwood, for my sake-- have a seat, and rest yourself awhile."
She turned just enough to catch his gaze, and nodded. Brandon led her to one of the armchairs, then seated himself across from her.
"I have not yet thanked you Colonel, for your unfailing kindness throughout this entire ordeal... First in being so good as to conduct us home from London..."
"Please, Miss Dashwood-" Brandon held up a hand. "I wish no more thanks than your sister's recovery.
"That is something I would most willingly grant you, Colonel," she replied, her mouth twisting with an ironic smile.
Brandon looked down at his hands, then cast glances around the room, endeavoring to create a topic of conversation that could distract himself and interest her. As the seconds ticked by, he realized that he knew little of Elinor Dashwood's tastes or habits, so keenly had he observed and studied her sister's. This realization shamed him, but he promised himself that when circumstances were saner, he would rectify the problem. For the moment, he decided to turn onto their mutual acquaintances.
"How does Mr.. Edward Ferrars? I had a visit from him while in London. I was most impressed by his manner. He seems to be a young man of-- Dear God, Miss Dashwood, what is the matter?" Brandon was quite alarmed now, to observe Elinor Dashwood at an utter loss for composure twice within a quarter of an hour.
"Oh God, I have lost everything..." he discerned, as she wailed softly into her hands. "Everything..."
"Miss Dashwood-- Elinor-- what do you mean?" Brandon felt the panic surge through him again. Had Marianne already...?
"Father, Norland, Edward, now even Marianne slips from me..." Elinor's hands were as white as her face. She drew a deep breath and collapsed against the back of the chair. "I do wish to God I had never set foot in London, Colonel Brandon. I wish it most earnestly."
Brandon regarded her with a dry mouth. It was several seconds before he was able to speak. "Miss Dashwood, I beg of you to elucidate..."
"Forgive me, Colonel Brandon, I have not been myself these many days." Elinor seemed to have recovered herself almost that instant. "I beg you to pay me no heed at present. It seems I cannot speak without committing an indiscretion of some sort."
"Miss Dashwood." Brandon looked down on her. "May I speak frankly?"
She nodded. "Of course, Colonel."
Brandon drew a deep breath, hardly believing that he was about to speak aloud what he had for months cherished in silence. "I know you to be observant and intelligent, as well as a keen judge of character. Therefore, I doubt you are unaware of the... depth of my regard for your sister."
Despite whatever her own suffering was, Brandon noted the compassion that seemed to fill Elinor's eyes like tears, and was touched by it, as well as renewed in his conviction that it was right to make mention of this now. "I do admit that it has seemed to me at times that your solicitousness went beyond the bonds of friendship..."
He nodded. "I feel that it is safe to share this with you, as I wish only to emphasize the extent to which I am committed to your sister... and to yourself." She made some expression of surprise, but he rushed forward. "I confess that I look upon you quite as my own sister. If I may aid you in any way... If you could bring yourself to regard me as a confidante..."
Elinor looked at him as though disbelieving for a moment. "Miss Dashwood, if I could in some way assist you in your personal troubles, I might for a moment persuade myself to forget mine."
Surprise softened to compassion. "I cannot begin to imagine all you suffer, Colonel, but if it will divert you, I will tell you what I can. It is nothing so very remarkable; it only concerns me so particularly because I have suffered from a complete lack of experience in such matters... But-- there was, some time ago, a-- a gentleman," Elinor here blushed most painfully. "I allowed myself to expect... to hope... to dream things of which there was never a question of possibility." Elinor paused here, uncomfortable at the same time as she was truly a bit relieved to speak of these things. Colonel Brandon, however, seemed to misinterpret the pause as the end of all she was willing to share.
"There seem to be an abundance of young men these days, who feel themselves at liberty to treat ladies perfidiously." His eyes and expression were dark.
"Oh, no, Colonel Brandon, you misunderstand!" Elinor cried at once. "Edw-- he is restrained-- it has been none of his doing. He tried to make me understand, but was prevented. In his youth, he made a promise to-- to another lady, and he could not-- cannot break it. It is his honor which has led us-- led me to--"
Elinor was flushed, and could not master herself enough to continue. Instead, Brandon met and held her eyes with a gentle constancy and an understanding smile.
"I think I understand you now. You refer to Edward Ferrars, do you not?" Elinor could only nod, afraid to speak again until she had regained something like her former control over herself. "And I sent you to him bearing the glad tidings which would enforce your separation once and for all."
"Sir, you must not--"
"No, Miss Dashwood, please do not attempt to deny that you suffered upon this occasion, and that it is I who instigated the matter." He smiled again, sadly. "I suppose I hardly need defend my motives, or my ignorance, to you who would not blame me in any case, but permit me to say it anyway-- I am truly sorry. You have suffered long, and quietly, yet your grace is undiminished." He drew a deep breath. "I am truly sorry for the pain you have endured, Miss Dashwood. It is a situation to which I am not entirely unsympathetic."
"Colonel Brandon, sir... It is you who have suffered most cruelly. And I have said to... to Edward... To any who have brought your name before me in conversation or remark-- you are the kindest and best of men, and you do our family honor by your attentions."
Elinor rose. "I must return to Marianne now-- truly, I did not mean to be gone so long as I have..."
Brandon had risen with her. "Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?"
Elinor released a deep sigh. "If action could aid anything, sir, I should be dancing through the corridors... As it is, we can only wait." She twisted a fold of her dress between her fingers. "Thank you, Colonel Brandon. You have been invaluable.. And you shall be more so when my sister begins to recover." Elinor curtsied, and looked at him directly. "She will look to you now, I think."
Brandon stared after her as she glided through the doors of the library as silently and softly as she came. He pitied Edward Ferrars, for it was certain he loved Elinor... How could he not? Yet Fate had bound each of their hands with the same unyielding cords, and they all stood, helpless before what might befall them...
She will look to you now, I think... What the devil had she meant to do by dangling that before him? Give him hope? It was not hers to give. Yet who knew Marianne Dashwood better than Elinor Dashwood? Perhaps... Perhaps...
Brandon rose, and faced the rain streaked window pane and lifted a careless hand to its cool surface. This cursed rain... He stared out onto the horizon. Perhaps it would break soon...
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