Genius, Taste & Spirit: The Courtship of Marianne Dashwood
"And wilt thou weep when I am low? Sweet lady, speak those words again..."
*I would be lucky if she noticed it particularly enough to cast a glance in my direction.*
Colonel Christopher Brandon tried to focus farther on the lines of verse he read, though the crimson light of evening's break was rapidly disappearing in the western sky. "But if it grieve thee, speak not so; I would not give thy bosom pain." *Would God I were in danger of evoking anything like grief-- no. I will not think so; I would rather she never thought of me at all than that I wound her.*
Delaford today hosted the contents of Barton Park, Barton Cottage, and Cleveland. It had been a custom of theirs for some months to keep themselves together in one lively party, taking turns about each other's houses; but with the rather unexpected addition of the latter estate at the beginning of this particular excursion, it was considered in the best interest of all to remove to Delaford, the location most capable of comfortably containing the entire number. They were all within at present; it was their custom to pass the time with cards and other such diversions until they got it in mind to retire, which might not be until the early hours of the morning. Brandon, never a less than a dutiful and conscientious host, would not dream of asking them to behave other than according to their inclination, but had nonetheless wearied of their amusements and was now seeking the refuge of one of Delaford's lesser known chambers, to read by the light of a dying sun.
Eliza's chamber had not changed since she quitted it last; Alexander Brandon had never bothered to learn where it was, and upon his death, Christopher Brandon could not bear to spread the furnishings throughout other parts of the house where his eye would continually fall upon them, and so had simply kept this chamber entire, and the door locked. After time it had turned into a refuge of sorts; Eliza's pianoforte was here still, and he took the trouble to keep it tuned. He had long since eschewed the practice of performing for an audience; but here, he played on a regular basis. And now, as the light truly disappeared, he closed his book. He did not want to bother about lighting a candle, as he did not mean to keep in the room for much longer, but neither did he want to quit it directly, so he sat himself at the pianoforte, and began to play.
It had been many years since he had been able to look about this place without bitterness. This had slowly began to change over the last twenty four months-- he confessed it freely-- since meeting Marianne Dashwood. He began to understand that the pain he felt was not for a love that had been lost, but regret for a life squandered, for youth, and innocence, stolen away. He had believed himself in love with Eliza, most certainly, and after a fashion he *had* loved her-- but the regret, and the guilt he bore for his part in her downfall, was what stayed with him.
The piece he was now playing was a song he had written many years ago, in memory of Eliza; the lyrics were Shakespeare's sonnet twenty four. The words had seemed appropriate at the time, but only now, after the passage of years, did their meaning begin to deepen for him.
Mine eye hath played the painter, and hath steeled
Thy beauty's form in table of my heart
My body is the frame wherein 'tis held
And perspective, it is best painter's art
He had also begun to understand of late that a portion of the regret which assailed him upon entering this room was not only for Eliza's wasted life, but for the wasted years of his own. His heart, just now awakening to new love, was reminded of his youthful passions, but his mind perceived between those sensations a distance of such gravity that he began to wonder how could have ever imagined himself in love with a person other than Marianne Dashwood. But she believed he did not feel-- could not feel-- was too old, and tired, to feel. And in his most reflective moments, Brandon was forced to admit the truth of it; he had blocked himself off from sensation and society for most of his life, on the strength of one supposed tragedy. It was no wonder that Marianne, whose passions were continually stirred, could hardly suppose him capable of anything but polite affections.
It almost made him smile. How precisely was one supposed to acquaint a young lady with the depth of one's passion, and not insult her? He imagined she might take offense if he commissioned a portrait of her likeness and hung it in the front hall. Or if he kept her awake at night by standing outside her window and reading poetry to her.
His hands skidded to an abrupt stop on the keyboard, and he looked up, flushed, to see Marianne standing at the door. Had he not locked it after him as he entered? He was growing careless in his dotage.
"Miss Dashwood." He stood, and tried to not appear as off balance as her presence made him feel.
"I was taking a walk to get away from... From the drawing room, and I heard music down this hall; I thought it was ghost, at first!" She smiled and took a step into the room.
Brandon returned the smile. "If one were to find any ghosts in Delaford, this would be the place for them, I believe."
Marianne looked thoughtful, and ephemerally lovely in the shadows of Eliza's room. She came toward him slowly, and asked, "What is the name of the song you were playing? It was beautiful."
*So she will think until she learns its authorship.* "It is a piece of my own composition, Miss Dashwood."
He watched as Marianne stopped short, and regarded him with frank surprise, almost bordering on disbelief. "Your composition, Colonel Brandon? I had not thought... That is..." She blushed. "I knew that you were a musician but I had not known that you were also a composer. It is a much rarer gift. Why do you not play before the rest of your company in the evenings?"
Brandon looked down. *Now she will think you are conceited, as well as a fool.* "I would mortify myself in any attempts to rival your performances, Miss Dashwood."
She blushed again. "I would very much like to hear you perform for us some evenings, Colonel. Would you... that is... do you have any duets which I might learn? I do not know any, but it would give me great pleasure to... to play with you." She seemed almost shy of asking this, but she pronounced it with her usual charm, and Brandon, in the short space of time from the beginning of her sentence to the end, was completely undone.
*She is asking to play with you, old man. Speak to her!* "I... I believe I have some pieces here from... yes, I have several duets. I would be happy to find them for you... I would love to play with you some evening." *Could you sound any more awkward, Brandon? Would it be possible?*
But Marianne only smiled. "I will look most forward to it."
When she had left him there alone again, he stood, shakily, and went to the little writing desk that stood in the corner of the room-- one of the untouched relics of Eliza's girlhood. The top right hand drawer contained a stack of papers bound by a faded pink ribbon, some dried flowers, and a black leather notebook. The last object he withdrew, and, overcoming his agitation, he seated himself at the chair, which was too small for his long legged frame, and opening the notebook, found a pencil on the desk and began writing.
*I once thought that I would not be worthy of my own feelings if I did not make myself a martyr to a lost passion; that I would betray Eliza if I could not die for love. Now I know that it is much harder, and much worthier to live-- and love again...*
PART II: The ardour of August...
"It is a very fine day, do you not think?" Marianne, walking briskly to Brandon's side, paused there. "I prefer autumn to every other season. The air is absolutely alive."
*And now she is waiting for you to affirm her suspicions that your frail and infirm constitution can not stand a blast of wind.* "Indeed, Miss Dashwood, I quite agree. Autumn is certainly my favorite season of the year. My time in India has prejudiced me against heat; I find that there is something in the cold air that knocks life into the lungs." *If that does not convince her, God himself could not.*
She turned a look on him then which seemed to be surprise at the vehemence of his affirmation, and Brandon cursed himself inwardly for his pettiness. "I would like to hear about India someday, Colonel. It must have been fascinating."
He chuckled. "You could always spare yourself my company and ask Miss Margaret, who undoubtedly knows the details of my campaigns as thoroughly as I."
"Why should I have any wish to spare myself your company?"
*Down, man, she is simply being polite.* There was no way to reply to this, lacking in presence of mind as he currently was, so he simply bowed. But Marianne was not finished with him. "Elinor, Edward and I had in mind to take a picnic to the Park, and you must join us, for I must have company to amuse myself when my sister and her husband become lost gazing into each other's eyes."
Brandon's smile was immediate and full of joy. "I would be delighted, Miss Dashwood."
It was delightful indeed, to be in their company, though it was also very trying; the Ferrar's marital bliss was a sharp reminder both of his own unattached state, and Marianne's proximity. Marianne, on the other hand, appeared the height of nonchalance.
At some length, Marianne quite predictably produced a volume of poetry. Edward made a sharp exclamation as it appeared. "Aha! You must want me to read to you! Very good, give it over."
Marianne held it out of his reach as he attempted to snatch for it. "You needn't worry Edward, I've no idea of troubling you so today."
"What? Marianne, I don't begin to understand you-- you've always said that you love to hear me read!"
"Stop teasing her, Edward, or she will let you." Elinor surveyed them in amusement from beneath heightened brows.
Brandon found himself smiling as Edward seemed to visibly pale, and stopped trying for the book. He could only imagine that they were making a joke from some instance in their shared history-- and though their felicity was pleasant to observe, he began to feel somewhat out of place. *I don't think there is any sound in the world so exclusive as laughter between people of which you have no part.*
But such exquisite anguish was not be permitted a lengthy residence in Brandon's heart that day; Marianne turned instantly to him, and pressed the book into his hand. "Our dear Colonel shall read to us today."
*Our dear Colonel?* Brandon hoped fervently that the expression he had not prevented from taking control of his features had slipped by the notice of his companions. *She called you dear. Our dear Colonel.*
Aloud, he said, "Anything to oblige you, Miss Dashwood. What shall I read?"
She handed him the book, and indicated a poem of which the first stanza was underlined with bold ink strokes. "There."
Brandon received the volume with more pleasure than he dared express, treasuring the brief proximity of her hand. Did she begin to comprehend the power she wielded over his faculties? He glanced down at the underlined poem, and scanned it once, then lifted it to eye level and began to read.
"Oh, say not, my love, with that mortified air
That your spring time of pleasure is flown
Nor bid me to maids that are younger repair
For those raptures that still are thine own..."
Brandon paused, and made a conscious effort to moisten his mouth, which had gone mysteriously dry. He glanced over the top of the book to see Marianne looking at him with steady, gentle eyes that seemed to implore him to continue. And so he did.
"Though April his temples may wreathe with the vine
It's tendrils in infancy curl'd,
'Tis the ardour of August matures us the wine
Whose life blood enlivens the world."
*She cannot be serious-- This could't possibly be-- But she underlined it-- Asked me to read it-- Marianne, why must you do this to me?*
That seemed to be all she required of him for the moment; she took the book back from him as he paused in another attempt to compose himself. "Are you fond of Scott, Colonel?"
"Yes; though I confess he is somewhat new to me." *I only began to read him when I learned you were fond of him.* "I am very fond of the works of Lord Byron; he was recommended to me by the Giaour. The eastern flavor was remniscent of my time in India." *Byron is safe; let us speak of Byron. Pray, Marianne, be fond of Byron...*
Marianne smiled, and looked off to the side, as she softly began to quote, "When Friendship or love our sympthies move... When truth in a glance should appear... The lips may beguile with a dimple or smile, but the test of affection's a tear."
And Brandon was left to control himself, as Marianne took herself off then to pick wild flowers in the neighboring field.
PART III: I am undone tonight...
I am sorely at odds with myself on this matter. I cannot for the life of me divine which is the better course; everyday it is implied that Marianne returns my feelings, but if I propose to her and find that I have merely been gratifying my own vanity, I will surely destroy whatever friendship we have enjoyed these last few months. But if I have not been mistaken, then Marianne deserves no less than decisiveness and conviction in the man who would make her his wife...
Brandon lay the pen just to the side of the black notebook and stared down at the words for a few moments. *If only I could be certain of what was in her heart..."
"Good morning, Colonel!" A bright voice interrupted his musings, and he looked up from his pensive literary endeavors to see Margaret Dashwood skipping past. He straightened himself and snapped a salute to her. She immediately stopped and reciprocated, then went dashing off again, giggling as she did so.
From a few feet behind them, Elinor smiled at the brief exchange on the lawn. "I think Margaret must marry an officer, or she will never let Colonel Brandon go."
Marianne looked up from her basket work beside her sister, and glanced out the window. "I hope we shall none of us ever have to let him go."
Elinor glanced at her sharply, but did not reply further in that vein. Instead, she glanced behind her at Edward, who was composing the following Sunday's sermon at the kitchen table. "I believe it was when I first noticed the time and energy Edward devoted to Margaret when first we met him at Nor land that I began to love him. Any man so gentle and attentive to a child must have a heart worth knowing."
It was Marianne's turn to turn a sharp look on her sister, who was too focused upon her needle to notice. "I see things about Colonel Brandon everyday that I failed to notice before. He has such a quiet way about him, that it is easy to miss the genius of his pursuits. And though our tastes are not in every point the same, they are similar enough that the differences between them is the stuff of discourse and interesting conversation. There is only a lack of energy about him at times that I find disquieting. But for it, I would be in considerable danger..." Here, Marianne broke off with a blush which Elinor pretended not to see.
"I think, just as it required a stronger acquaintance to become sensible of those other facets of his personality which you eventually discovered, you will soon find within him all the spirit you could possibly desire."
Marianne did not answer, but looked thoughtfully towards the lawn for a while until the Colonel joined them inside at tea time.
Marianne found herself in her grove that afternoon, an hour or so after tea. She was very fond of the party gathered now at Delaford, but she was accustomed to having some privacy in which to collect her thoughts... And her thoughts so often strayed to a member of their party that she was afraid to remain among them while dwelling there, for fear some action or look would betray her.
A great deal had changed in the last six months, since her illness, less from her physical circumstances than from the development of new understanding in her heart. The pain of loss, of the realization that she had brought suffering upon others, of being forced to confront her own vanity-- these had wrought within her significant and lasting changes which, though they served to make her a bit more grave, and a bit less inclined to dash about the countryside in open chaises, had also deepened her compassion and sensitivity. They had also heightened her awareness of others, and her effect upon them-- most especially, upon Colonel Christopher Brandon.
She had spoken more to Elinor that morning than she had intended to; and she had revealed more about her feelings than she had yet confront even within herself. The Colonel was indeed slowly proving himself to be a very different sort than she had imagined him for so long before she took the trouble to know him. She had called him feeble-- but he carried her three miles through the rain. She thought him without genius or taste-- but just last night she had stumbled upon him in a forsaken quarter of the house, playing, not for audience or applause, an original composition of such heartbreaking beauty and sadness that she had stood in the doorway for a quarter hour listening and dabbing tears from her eyes. He had read to them from Scott with feeling and animation... In short, he was nearly everything she found admirable. But he was still so grave, so unmoved, so unmoveable... Could he love, as she had loved? As she would love again, if she could ever meet a man capable of coaxing her heart from the frightened dormancy it had assume since its careless treatment at Willoughby's hands?
She was stirred from her reverie by a sound in the distance. It did not move her unreasonably, as she was not so far from the Delaford party that someone else might not have decided to come off by themself in this direction, and chance upon her here. She did not feel moved at all, actually, until the advancing figure stepped from shadow and revealed its familiar form.
Marianne felt herself pale. "Willoughby?"
He seemed no less pale, or uncertain, than she. But he stepped resolutely forward, almost a bit unsteady. "Marianne."
She scrambled to her feet; instinctively, she had no wish to be in a position of vulnerability near him. "What are you doing here? I can assure you that Colonel Brandon will not welcome you on his property--"
"I have no intention of putting Brandon out in the least. I only want to talk to you."
Marianne steeled herself. She reminded herself of the anguish that was not so far from her heart that it could not be tasted afresh to impart strength-- "I cannot imagine that you would have aught to say to me, Mr. Willoughby."
"Don't do this to me, Marianne." Willoughby stumbled another step forward. "I know I've played the knave's part with you, but it will not help either of us to prolong the grief with angry recriminations. I've come to set things right."
Marianne found herself trembling in the shadows of the grove, though with what emotion, she could hardly tell. "Sir, you have already spoken your excuses to my sister; they were repeated to me. You have my free and full forgiveness, and I wish you the greatest joy in your life with Mrs. Willoughby. That is all that can be done to set things aright; and now I think you had better go."
"Gracious God, Marianne! Do not speak of her; of that. It has nothing to do with us. You are what I require for my happiness, and I know that I can make you happy as well. I have come to bring you back to Allenham with me. We'll stay there the night, then be off; Sophia is in London, and will know nothing. It is *my* honor I risk in this, but I would give up far more for you."
Marianne felt laughter rise to her lips. "I cannot tell you how moved I am to hear it, knowing how *dear* your honor has always been to you." She drew a deep breath, and spoke with quiet determination. "I will go nowhere with you, Willoughby. You must learn to do better by your wife than you did by me, for you will mend no injuries by creating them afresh."
Willoughby was obviously stricken; it seemed that he had come with no doubt of his reception. He took several long steps until he was closer to her than she would willingly have brought him. "I do not love her, Marianne. It is you I love, and you know it. You must!"
" 'Love... Is an ever fix'd mark...that looks on tempests and is not moved...' " Marianne quoted softly. "You know me better than to think I could be satisfied with affectation in the place of constancy."
Willoughby was confused, it was apparent; but he also seemed to grow annoyed. "You are speaking nonsense."
It was then that Marianne realized that her would- be lover was intoxicated. Funny, that-- he always seemed to be so when he started spouting regret.
"I think, sir, that you would be best served by returning to your home. I will speak of this to no one, if you will have the goodness not to repeat your visit."
"Marianne!" Genuine distress seemed to afflict him upon this pronouncement. "You cannot be so hard! What can make you speak so? Unless..." Willoughby's countenance began to grow dark. "He has got to you, hasn't he? That doddering old lech--"
Marianne's hand flew out before she was sensible of her actions, and struck Willoughby, without much force, but smartly, across the face, and instantly recoiled in shock at her own action. She had never been moved to violence of any kind in all her life-- but something instinctive had snapped upon hearing a treasured friend spoken of so meanly by such as Willoughby.
She had not much time to reflect upon it, though, before a far heavier hand struck a reciprocal blow across her own face with far crueler force than any of which she was even capable. She stumbled under it, but did not fall, as she fell back against tree under whose shade she had been resting before Willoughby came upon her.
She raised a hand to her face, and ignored the smart of tears in her eyes as she regarded Willoughby with no less horror than seemed to register on his own face. His mouth dropped open a little ways-- he made a few gasping sounds in his throat that seemed to be attempts at a word-- then shut his mouth tightly, and stepped away from her.
"I-- I--" The brutal exchange seemed to have sobered him. "Forgive me." He turned then, and fled. She did not follow his retreat-- she continued in the same attitude as she first fell against the tree, until she felt her legs would support her again.
She took a step forward, then collapsed to her knees and began to cry.
She returned to the main grounds of Delaford as soon as she had regained mastery of herself. She dried her eyes as best she could, but was conscious that the tenderness on the side of her face would not be got rid of by means so simple.
The lot of them would likely be assembled on the lawn or the drawing room in these few hours before dinner, and she had no wish to confront them or be confronted *by* them at the moment, and so entered through the servant's door toward the back of the mansion house. The stairs, followed past the entrance to the wine cellar, led to a wing of the house that seemed largely unused-- it was, in fact, the part in which she had been wandering when she came across Colonel Brandon, engaged in his musical pursuits.
*If one were to find any ghosts in Delaford, this would be the place for them...* The Colonel's words echoed in her mind as she traced her way through the dark corridors. If she wandered about too long, she might lose her way entirely, but it was imperative she discover a route to her room where she might tend to the swelling in her face before it was found out by anyone.
"Miss Dashwood?" a dear and familiar voice hailed her from a few paces behind.
She paused, and let out an involuntary sigh. The Colonel-- well, better he than Mrs. Jennings or Sir John.
She turned slowly, as the Colonel made his way toward her with his usual confident stride. "I had not thought to find you returned from your walk so soon, but I am glad of it, for I have found the duet you requested of me yesterday-- Miss Dashwood, are you quite well?"
Marianne was praying that the shadows in the hall would do their work and disguise the bruise which she was quite sure was on its way. It did not, however, disguise the uncertainty of her step or wounded temerity of her posture, and with his usual attentive concern, her host had noted it.
"I am--well, Colonel Brandon, but I-- I think I should lie down for a bit-- I confess, I am not anxious for a crowd--"
"Of course," he responded, immediately sensitive to her unspoken wish to avoid the more gregarious members of their party. "If you'll follow me, I can conduct you to your room without attracting the notice of... extraneous parties."
He led her through a series of twists and turns that she could not have retraced for her life; she eventually found herself in a familiar and well lit hall. She spied her door, and turned to bid him farewell; but before she could speak, he was looking at her in consternation.
"Miss Dashwood-- I am sorry-- but how did you come by that mark? You have fallen?" Concern was etched in the lines of his eyes. He half lifted a hand to her face, and quite without meaning to, she flinched. He withdrew his hand immediately, and she covered the mark with her hand.
"I-- that is, I--" Falsehood was so contrary to her nature that she could hardly conceive of speaking one, especially to a friend so dear as Colonel Brandon. But to tell him the truth-- how would he bear such a revelation? "You cannot think well of me if I say, Colonel..."
"My dear Miss Dashwood," he replied. "If something has caused you injury here, then as your host, it is my right to deal with it. You must tell me. I insist."
Marianne lifted her eyes to the Colonel's. "If I tell you sir, you must swear to me that you will not reveal it to anyone, as I must apprise my family in my own time."
He nodded tersely. "You have my word, Miss Dashwood, but now you *must* tell me, or I shall go mad in wondering."
She held herself very straight, and with a deep intake of air, she replied, "I came upon Mr. Willoughby during my walk. We-- we quarreled."
An eyebrow arched, and Brandon's voice rose on a note of disbelief. "He *struck* you?"
"I struck him first," she replied, her voice small. "He... spoke disparagingly of.. a dear friend, and he had already made me so angry, that I struck him." She glanced up with a smile. "You must think me shocking."
"Shocking?" Brandon was regarding her with a look so absolutely unfathomable that it nearly unnerved her. "I-- I cannot--"
He spun sharply on his heel and moved a few paces away, his back toward her. She stared after him in consternation, and started to take a step after him, but the rigidity of his posture arrested her. Marianne searched for something to say-- she was at a loss to understand his reaction-- but she began to get a hint of his feelings when she saw that the fist at his side was rhythmically clenching and unclenching.
"Colonel Brandon, I wish you would not be upset-- I do not want any unpleasantness to arise because of me--"
Immediately, he turned to face her again; his face was dark, and his mouth was tense, but his voice was gentle as he spoke to her.
"Miss Dashwood-- You must make allowances for me-- I am a soldier, and I cannot help thinking like one." He took a step toward her, and reached for her hand, which he held with such a gentle strength that she could not help but be reassured, despite the dark tempest of feeling in his eyes. "It both grieves-- and-- infuriates me, that he-- he has hurt you. But more than that, I am the master of Delaford, and such insult applied to a guest under my protection may not-- *must* not be allowed to pass without rebuke. I have the greatest regard for your feelings, and I will not allow news of it to be published abroad if I can help it, but this--" He lifted a hand toward her face. "I cannot allow such perfidy to go unpunished."
"Colonel, do not expose yourself to any danger because of me-- if harm came to you on my account, I would suffer more cruelly than from any blow. I wish this had never happened-- I wish I had not allowed myself to be observed at all--" here, she dissolved into tears. Colonel Brandon would surely think her insulting and ungrateful now, but she could not endure the thought that he and Willoughby would-- no, it was unthinkable.
"Miss Dashwood-- Marianne-- please--" Brandon released her hand and placed his own on her shoulders. It was a liberty he would never have taken, had not so many feelings been turned over in the last few minute's exchange that he could not see her taking any possible offense. "I promise-- for your sake-- I shall stay well. You have my word upon it."
"Colonel Brandon... I wonder... would you be so good as to fetch my sister?"
Brandon released her, and took a step back. "Of course Miss Dashwood."
"Thank you, Colonel Brandon..." She lay a hand briefly on his. "I know that you have nothing but the noblest of intentions, and I thank you for them."
Brandon nodded, and reached around her to open the door of her room, and hold it for her. "I will send your sister to you directly."
She took a step into the room, and he began to step away, but just as she would have closed the door, he called out to her. "Miss Dashwood-- I wonder-- that is..." He cleared his throat. "You indicated that your-- altercation-- with Mr. Willoughby was begun when he defamed a friend of yours. What friend might that have been?"
Marianne paused, and looked over her shoulder at him. "You, Colonel Brandon. It was you."
She did not observe the expression of his face before she shut the door.
PART IV: I sold my soul-- you bought it back for me
Christopher Brandon stalked through the halls of Delaford, a man utterly undone.
*He spoke disparagingly of a good friend... so angry that I struck him... You, Colonel Brandon. It was you...*
His fists were clenched tightly to his side. Never in his life had he been so completely torn between exultation and fury-- never so totally at a loss as to the appropriate course of action. Brandon was a soldier; more than one man had entered immortality under his aegis. But until the moment in which Marianne named Willoughby as her assailant, he had never before *wanted* to kill. It was an urge that dissipated almost as quickly as it presented itself, but it left him shaken by the force of the emotion. That anyone should willfully do Marianne a harm was in itself enough to divest him of his senses-- but that it should have been *Willoughby*! That man had been the agent of more sorrow in a twelvemonth than any mortal should be permitted in a lifetime! It would be a blessing on all their heads if he were to simply run the blackguard through with his sword... More than anything, he wanted now to transport himself to Allenham by means of his fastest horse, and call Willoughby to task for his behavior-- preferably from the business end of a pistol-- but he could not impel himself to do anything of the sort. Truth to be told, he had very little right to act on Marianne Dashwood's behalf. His being master of Delaford would not justify his dashing off to Allenham to confront Willoughby. Treasured friend of the family though he might be, he held no tangible relation to Marianne; defending her was the natural office of John Dashwood, or even, possibly, her brother in law (God knew Edward Ferrars was more in their hearts than their blood brother ever troubled himself to be). As for him... he was only the man who loved her with without hope. As her betrothed-- even as her suitor-- but he was neither.
*Yet she defended me. She upheld my name where I would never have known the difference. Dear God, but what am I to think of that? She cannot be indifferent...*
He sought the support of a nearby wall, and groped his way to the top of the staircase that descended to the foyer. He prayed there silently and quickly, for wisdom and discernment, then made his way down the steps, and turned toward the parlor where the rest of his guests were assembled.
They were quietly occupied for once, the elder members of the party playing cards, whilst the Ferrars were conversing with the Palmers-- that is to say, with Mr. Palmer, as Mrs Palmer was silently dandling her baby and observing the others. Brandon stood quietly in the doorway until he was noticed, then informed Elinor that her sister was indisposed, and now asking for her. She immediately disengaged herself from the conversation, and came to his side. He made his excuses to his guests, who had immediately begun to clamor for his company, and moved away with Mrs. Ferrars.
"She is ill, you say?" Elinor questioned as they started on their way.
"She is..." He did not want to lie and upset her, for the memory of Marianne's last illness was fresh in all their minds. "I believe that the nature of her malady is such as will be best described by herself."
"You are pale, Colonel. Are you well yourself?" Touched though he was by her solicitousness, he silently cursed her powers of observation.
"I will be perfectly well when your sister has recovered completely." And when those who caused her injury have been duly chastised.
He conducted her the rest of the way in silence, and paused only long enough at the younger sister's door to hear Elinor's exclamation of dismay at the sight of her sisters face, before taking himself off again.
He found himself at the village tavern before sunset.
Brandon did not often drink, and even now, with all the weight of the world pressing upon him, he barely paid attention to the ale before him. He had ordered it only to patronize the proprietor, who otherwise might have begrudged him the table he hoped to keep for a fair portion of the night. Being at the tavern itself was a move calculated to keep him away from Delaford, away from his eager and talkative guests, and most especially away from Marianne and the reality of the afternoon's exchange.
"Well Brandon, I cannot imagine that anyone meets you here often," a low voice drawled as it came up close beside him.
Brandon could feel himself pale at the sound of that voice. He did not quite dare to imagine it, but it seemed that there was but one man who spoke with such amiable insolence, whose words were as handsome as his visage, whose ease was as infuriating as his impudence. He looked in the direction from whence the voice came, and, not much to his surprise, he found John Willoughby almost at his shoulder. Fortunately for the younger man, Brandon was too greatly affected to speak or move for a moment, permitting Willoughby to take a seat across the table from him.
When at last Brandon found his tongue again, his voice was low and quiet. "You play a dangerous game, sir."
"I do not play games." Willoughy motioned to the bartender, who immediately serviced him with a pint of his customary brew. "They do not suit me. Too unpredictable. I prefer an ordered set of circumstances upon which I may depend. And one thing which I have come to look upon as a comforting constant in my life," he took a long draught of the noxious liquid, "is your thorough disapprobation of me. I would be lost if I did not know that Colonel Christopher Brandon, master of Delaford, held me in the highest contempt." He set the tankard down. "But you have yet to disappoint me on this score, so I feel myself quite safe."
Brandon permitted himself one very small smile. "Safe, sir, is the last thing which you should feel at this moment."
"What will you do to me then? Run me through? Hang me from the nearest tree?" Willoughby's voice was something of a mixture between resignation and curiosity. "I am here to save you the trouble of seeking me out. I knew it would be only a matter of time until you took it upon yourself to be the fair lady's avenger. Marianne is your... guest, after all." His voice was heavy with implied meaning. "And you are a soldier."
Brandon began to feel himself at a frustrated loss. Willoughby's unflinching grasp of the situation made him strangely less fiendish in the Colonel's perception. "What is it you think to accomplish by presenting yourself to me in this manner?"
"Atonement." Willoughby's voice was flat. "If one can conceive of such an absurdly monastic notion originating in the mind of so flagrant a libertine. I never meant to hurt her. Granted, I was not nearly as drunk then as I am *now*... But then, I am now *very* drunk. You must recognize the truth of this by my present behavior."
"You have in the past proven yourself a man with very little regard for the honor of women. You may be sure that any surprise I felt upon being apprised of your conduct this afternoon arose from an astonishment that you, who have in the past shown yourself so thoroughly devoted to your personal interests, would act with so little care for your own person, as you could not doubt that retaliation on her behalf would be swift."
Willoughby laughed. "Listen to you. Lecturing and sermonizing when the honor of the lady you supposedly *love* has been compromised. That was the personal failing which Marianne used to delight most in ridiculing you. That you could feel nothing but polite affections." He shook his head. "Had any man, during the span of our courtship, laid a finger upon her, you may be sure that *I* would ha--!"
There were, perhaps, men in the world more patient than Christopher Brandon, though I daresay not many; but even their threshold of forebearance would certainly have been crossed while listening to that outrageous speech. In one swift motion, he had reached across the table, taken the younger man by the cravat, and thrown him against the nearby wall, his hand clenched tighly about the pale, aristocratic throat so that the passage of air was dangerously impeded.
He was dimly aware of a pleading behind him, the proprietor in his oily wheedling tones, begging him where he would have angrily commanded any other man, to not create a scene in his establishment, that he would have the man so foolish as to offend him put out immediately. Brandon did not reply to the man; he instead relaxed (but did not release) his grip on Willoughby's throat, only to take him additionally by the lapels and move him through the open door to the outside of the tavern. As the door swung shut behind them, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice.
"This will be the last time I address you in any manner, save one. If you attempt to harm Marianne Dashwood or otherwise offend her in any way, I will come for you myself, and you may be certain that I shall not allow you to depart unscathed as you came away from our last engagement. If you again set foot upon Delaford while my guests are present, you will be shot. If you so much as speak to her in a manner that distresses her, I will kill you. If I have in any way left you uncertain of my *feelings* in this matter, kindly inform me, and I will take pains to enlighten you."
"I have your meaning, sir," Willoughby managed to rasp.
Brandon drew a long, shaky breath, and released him, Willoughby gasped for air, and brought a hand to his bruised throat, looking upon Brandon in an unfathomable manner. He very quickly stumbled to his horse, tethered nearby, and was gone before Brandon lifted his eyes again.
But Brandon did not notice his figure galloping off into the distance, even when he was looking in that direction. He noticed nothing about him, nothing of the night or his surroundings. There was but one thought in his mind, and turned it over and over again before saying it softly aloud. "She thinks I do not feel. She thinks I cannot feel..."
My dear Miss Dashwood-- I cannot think how I am to begin. In light of this day's events, I have been driven to serious consideration of a subject which I have long attempted to put from my mind as hopeless, irrational, even foolish. That I undertake to discuss it now is not any indication that I have come to see it differently-- only that these facts, however true, are no longer able to persuade me against that which my heart insists upon so violently.
I make a humble request of you, Miss Dashwood. Would you read the contents of this book at your leisure? It is my personal journal, kept over the course of the last two years. Unseemly as it may be to express myself in this manner, I find it my only option. I am no orator, and I could not possibly request of you the patience to suffer me as I attempted to speak these sentiments.
When you have done, you will find an additional letter inscribed upon the last page that will further explain what I am attempting to communicate with this gesture. I pray of you, do not read the second note until you have read the pages in between.
Brandon slipped the book, with the note attached, just inside her door, which he opened a crack as she slept. His mind whirled with the incredulity of what he was doing. He was mad-- quite mad-- but in the light of what he was risking, that was almost a comforting thought. Marianne would never speak to him again after she read that journal. She would know him inside and out; his fear, his longings, his regrets, his pain-- and if she had mocked him when she barely knew him, how great would her contempt be once she became more intimately acquainted with his character than any other living person? But-- what was most important-- after she had finished with that book, she could no longer be in any doubt whatever that he did, indeed, *feel*.
In the last entry, he detailed his altercation with Willoughby. While glossing over a few of the more indelicate details, he made one thing abundantly clear; no matter of his fate at her hands, he was eternally her servant, eternally her protection, eternally her benefactor, even if she never allowed him to be more.
Though, God forgive him, if she ever married another man... He groaned, and laid his head upon the desk. If God would grant him strength, he *might* live through it.
(Whether the groom would live through it or not was another matter, the irresistible thought crossed his mind, and he drove it away with an annoyed hand, as though it were a bothersome fly.)
He took to his bed, to stare at the underside of the canopy until dawn should bring him some relief.
That next morning brought him to Eliza's room, where he intended to collect himself into one last attempt at tranquility, resignation, and acceptance before his imminent descent into the cold night of rejection and distance. He was arrested at the door by a sweet sound from within, that alternately froze and heated his blood with disbelief and incredulous hope.
As he looked upon her, playing and singing with the simple, unaffected grace he had so admired in her since the earliest moments of their acquaintance, he felt a violent wrench within him. He had never loved another as much as he loved her. He would never love another again-- as long as they both lived, he was bound to her, as though by a string knotted tightly under his ribs, that strained under distance and separation and which she could not help but eventually sever entirely, to leave him broken and empty.
The song seemed to reach its conclusion; silence filled the room once more, and Brandon watched for another minute or so before he made a move to go. He had not taken a step, however, before her voice held him.
"It must not have sounded right. It is a duet, you see, but I had no partner." She looked up at him through the crack in the door. "If you would play with me, I am sure it would be perfect."
Automatically, he took a step forward, opening the door wide enough to enter through it. She watched him as he approached, rising as he neared.
"Miss Dashwood--" his voice caught in his throat. "I cannot endure--"
She interrupted him. "It is not in my nature to trifle, sir." She came toward him, and in her, she clutched his journal. Brandon felt just a bit sick inside, but waited for her to speak.
"I cannot blame you for thinking me so blind, so insensate. I was a very foolish girl when first we met. But I hope I have changed-- that I have matured-- since that time. And that I have learned to open my eyes to the value of things that might have escaped my notice two years ago." She looked down. "I do not deserve the consideration you have bestowed upon me."
Fierce rebuttal was on Brandon's lips, when her quiet voice continued. "But I hope that you will allow me to endeavor toward deserving it."
Then she met his eyes, and there was no hint of sacrifice or resignation within them. She gave a very small smile, and held the journal close to her heart. "I could never ask to know a better man, or a more open heart."
Brandon felt like a man with in a dream, his mind hardly allowing him to accept the sincerity of her pronouncements, but her every look, gesture, and intonation of voice seemed to affirm it. She was looking up at him expectantly, and there was no uncertainty to her posture.
Brandon was ready to lose all self control, but he took strength from his conviction that here, upon this moment, he might atone for the unhappiness he had caused and suffered half a lifetime ago. Very deliberately, he sank to one knee, and took Marianne's hand in his. And though his voice trembled, his words were sure. "Marianne Dashwood-- I am already devoted to you in mind in spirit for the rest of my life. Will you now do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
Whatever ghost had skulked about in that heretofore unhappy chamber was driven out by the rays of light in Marianne's joyful reception, and in that moment, it, as well as all the other shades of Delaford, took flight for some other less happy habitation, never to return.
© 2000 Copyright held by author