Your Shadow To Guide Me
His eyes shut, not completely, but enough to reveal how weary he was. Brandon slumped into one of the comfortable armchairs he suspected of being Mr. Palmer's favorites. The ride back to Cleveland had been quite exhausting. For as soon as he'd arrived at Barton, the night before, he'd retrieved Mrs. Dashwood and begun the journey back. Christopher could still recall with vivid clarity the alarm written on Mrs. Dashwood's features when she'd learned of her darling child's illness. Her eyes, dark like Marianne's, took on a worried fire, and she'd nearly rushed into the Colonel's arms for comfort. But, she didn't-only gasped and tugged on his wet jacket sleeve.
"Take me to her, my friend."
"That was my intention." He spoke calmly. If Brandon betrayed the dread he felt to the core of his being, the pain at possibly losing the woman he cared about most in this world, Mrs. Dashwood would become all the more distressed. "Please, pack your things. I shall wait for as long as you need. If you like, I can take Miss Margaret up to the house, so that Mrs. Jennings and John may look after her during your absence. . . ?"
"Yes, please. Thank you, Colonel." The alarmed woman tracked down the hallway towards her bedroom, her steps eager and frantic. "Margaret! Margaret?"
Brandon shrugged his shoulders, the muscles in his back still tense, and waited. It was the only thing he could do at the moment. He'd sped from Cleveland as quickly as Elinor had suggested that her mother's presence might quell some of Marianne's pain. Now, eight hours later, he'd arrived at Barton Cottage, prepared to leave just as quickly.
"Colonel Brandon!" A light soprano squeal echoed through the foyer. "Mama says you are to take me to the big house!" The adorable child was seemingly unaware of the dire state of her older sister's health, and skipped up to Brandon, excitement ringing through her bright face.
"That would be correct, Captain." He forced a smile for her sake, and offered a sharp salut, clicking the heels of his boots together as was the custom when he saw the littlest Dashwood. He often wondered if Marianne had resembled Margaret at that age. . . It would be best not to inform the girl of her sister's condition. After all, if her mother had not, then it was definitely not Brandon's place to do so. "Shall we go?" Carrying on the masquerade of cheerful adventure, he extended his arm towards the door in a gentlemanly flourish.
"Of course." Margaret beamed and let her tall friend help her onto his horse.
It had been easy to deposit Margaret with Mrs. Jennings-the woman was absolutely delighted. However alarmed she'd been when he'd whispered of Marianne's condition, the woman had, for once, kept her lips sealed to save the little captain from bouts of tears. After promising John and Mrs. Jennings that he would write them when he arrived again at Cleveland, Christopher Brandon headed back to the cottage, John's carriage right behind him and his own horse, to escort Mrs. Dashwood to his ill love.
It had rained horribly the whole way back. It was almost as if the swollen grey clouds followed their every turn and step. Brandon had departed Cleveland in dire haste, not taking his hat or a thicker cloak. Luckily, Mrs. Dashwood was dry and warm inside the brougham-it would not do to have more than one sickened Dashwood. They made no stops on the journey. it was imperative to arrive as quickly as possible. There was no telling what state Miss Marianne would be in when they arrived. Brandon shuddered. . .his ghosts had returned, and to a far greater strength. Death might claim the woman he loved to the very depths of his being. His love for Marianne Dashwood ran through every limb of his body, coursed through the stems of his soul. No, he was not going to lose her. Even if they'd never share a life together, they'd at least share another breath.
Elinor was racing from the large oak front doors when they arrived, her wrinkled day gown flowing back and hitting at her legs. "She's going to be all right, Mama! She's going to live!" Pushing away her mussed hair, Miss Dashwood rushed into her mother's arms, the sadness present on her features when Brandon had fled now replaced by a illuminated happiness. Elinor looked over her mother's shoulder to the Colonel, mouthing a silent and sincere thank you. It was enough. He felt he would never ask anything more of the world, of God, now that Marianne was safe. His fervent prayers, pleadings actually, had been heard, he realized, following the women into the house. Before he stepped inside, he inhaled some fresh air, squinting his slavic, hazel eyes in the sun. It was morning. . .
He did not take the time to remove his cloak or straighten his outward appearance before making the journey to Marianne's chamber. Miss Dashwood had insisted he accompagny them when he'd protested that this time should be intimate-for the family.
"Colonel, you are kinder than any family has ever been to us. Please, come. . ." She'd said, ushering him forward.
He stood in the doorway, his weight supporting by the wooden frame. he was so tired, so very worried and relieved all at once. Again, watching Mrs. Dashwood hug her recovering daughter, Christopher felt useless. He had done his part, and only wished to be of more service. But, what could they ask of him, or, more likely, what would they even want to ask of him? Miss Marianne would soon be out of danger and would only require a few weeks of relaxation, refraining from her cursed rainlit strolls. She would not need the assistance or company of a man she considered feeble and dull.
"Colonel Brandon?" A familiar, if not wavering voice, roused Brandon from his melancholy reverie, and he lifted his eyes to meet those of Miss Marianne. He didn't answer her, but acknowledged her with a look that could only be defined as deeply moved and relieved. "Thank you. . ."
Brandon's heart clenched as if caught in a vice. He'd never heard something so sweet and truthful. It was pure anguish and joy all at once. Was he crying? Had he been since she'd taken ill? He knew that to be the truth. But, he had not tried to mask it. He did not care who knew his feelings, his ardent concern and love. He gazed into his beloved's own tear-glistened eyes, not moving yet, but savoring the unvarnished tones of her still weak voice. Brandon nodded with sincerity and left the room, his fingers sliding from the doorframe in a slow silence.
Now, surrending to his weariness in Mr. Palmer's library, the Colonel gave free flow to his emotions. In the privacy of leatherbound tomes and a deteriorating fire, Christopher Brandon wept. He cried for Eliza, and for Beth, but not without realizing how the pain he'd suffered for them, with them, was so small in comparison to what he'd just felt. He'd been able to move on after the lost of his dear Eliza. And, he knew, with fatalistic certainty, that had Marianne Dashwood surrendered her life, he would then have taken his own. "Marianne. . ." his own, velvet-lined voice now wavered, and he took his face in his chilled hands. Sleep enveloped Christopher Brandon without his knowing it, the name of his dear girl caught on the edge of his lips.
Sunlight crept through the newly parted drapes of the window facing west, washing across Brandon's face. He lifted his head from his arm, only a little so that he might peek out to glance around the room. It was morning, that much was certain, and he would have called it beautiful if he'd been asked to describe it. Inhaling deeply, the weary Colonel sat up, blinking a few times to clear his eyes.
"Good morning, Colonel. It is going to be a lovely day, don't you think?" Elinor appeared before him, chirping and smiling, her mood altered to the opposite extreme it had been only a few days past.
"Yes, that it is." His lips turned up on the corners. It was a genuine smile, but not bright as it might have been had he rested longer. Of course, how could Elinor have known he'd been awake most of the night?
"I am glad to see the happiness restored to your face, Miss Dashwood. It is a welcome change." Pushing down on the arms of his seat, Brandon rose and stepped to the large bay window. "And, I am thankful that your sister will also be able to cherish this weather." He did not think he was revealing too much in this statement. But, what did it matter? If anyone was aware of his ardent regard for Marianne, it was surely her own sister. A sister who'd, over the last few months become a dear friend to the Colonel, a unique and trusted confidante.
"As am I, Colonel."
With only slight trepidation, he posed a question, that he knew, he had every right and conceivable reason to ask. "Miss Dashwood, how is your sister this morning? Or, is she still asleep?" His fingertips grazed the windowpane, tracing the outline of the faraway hills. "I carried her in my arms. . ." He mused, silently, staring out across the rich green moors. "She shivered, and cried. . .how she cried. . ."
"The doctor is in with Marianne at the moment." She answered rather plainly, her eyes following Brandon's movements, the wistful manner in which he stared out over the landscape.
"Is she all right?" He spun around to Elinor, dropping his hand to his side, struck with the thought that the darling girl might have relapsed.
"My friend, do not be alarmed, he is simply assuring that she is progressing with her recovery." Elinor lightly touched his arm in comfort. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must be getting back to her. She will be asking for me as soon as he leaves." Elinor turned on her heel, after a kind curtsy, and departed the library, closing the door soundlessly behind her.
Brandon bowed in return and resumed a seat at the window, pressing his smooth palm to the glass. He glanced at his fingers, wondering if they had actually been the same ones that he'd wrapped around a quivering Marianne, the same hand she'd taken . . .
"Marianne!" Brandon ran through the rain as if demons were at his feet. Pouring and icy rain cut across his face, forcing him to shut his eyes in reaction and then to sheild them with his arm. This was definitely not walking weather, especially too harsh for such a delicate young woman as Miss Marianne Dashwood. He'd traveled at least a mile already,and had yet to decrease his speed. Life in the army had taught him endurance and strength, and chasing after a maiden through a rainstorm could be considered a very undaunting task compared with his East Indian days. But, unlike his military days, the goal of this trek was far more precious.
"Miss Marianne!" He halted abruptly, the rest of his body wanting to move forward where his feet stopped. Her opalescent skin, and fragile, enchanting frame stood high on the hill directly ahead of him. But, she did not turn around-his urgent calls were swallowed by the storm. Brandon did not wish to startle her by creeping up without a sound. Still, he pushed forward, wondering if he was only imagining this. For, she stood as motionless as a statue, lovely as Aphrodite, but more delicate.
"Marianne." His voice was no more than a whisper now, the distance between them only a foot or so. "Miss-" He stepped forward and met her eyes.
"Colonel Brandon?" She could barely speak, it seemed her own words had been crushed by the chill winds as they escaped her whitened lips. Her whole face was puffy with tears and cold, and her shawl rendered transparent by the downpour. It was doing more harm than good, keeping the ice against her instead of fending it off. She started to say more, but weakness prevented it. The look she offered him that moment had been of realization-that they'd both suffered so terribly, in much the same way. Marianne took a step towards the stricken Colonel, to a man whose friendship she had forsaken for so long, a friendship offered so selflessly and without any expectation of its return.
"We must get you inside." It was all he could say. Finding his love in such a state had rendered him half the man he'd been before taking out from the house. Clearly, Marianne was falling. Her breathing came in forced gasps, and her words had evaporated before they'd been given sound. Christopher took in the sight of her shaking legs, her reddened fingers clutched tightly around her arms.
And then, she'd advanced a step towards him, only to collapse midstride. The lady did not even have the strength to cry out, but surrendered herself to the man whose arms instictively went out,catching her before the soaked grass stopped her descent. "Marianne!" He hefted her up and watched her eyes close. She was giving up. Brandon cradled her against his chest, feeling one arm drape weakly across his shoulders, a cheek lull against the sopping fabric of his shirt. His only instinct was to run, back to the house. The Colonel was certain he'd just witnessed the most perfect spirit leave her body, and he wasn't about to let the life drain of her as well.
It was an eternity before he reached the doors of Cleveland Manor. The entire way back he'd kept his eyes on Marianne-the precious weight in his trembling arms. What had she meant to say to him? He knew it would not have been an avowal of love; but any words from her lips were treasures to his heart. Seconds before the doors had opened-they'd been watching for his return-Christopher Brandon had gazed down at the ailing angel, her hair turned scarlet by water, water and tears coursing down her temples and ashen cheeks. She was so lovely, so irreplacable. Unwillingly to fight it, and realizing that he might never again have the opportunity, Christopher bent his head low and placed an innocent, depthless kiss to her forehead.
Then, the doors had opened and everyone had swarmed around them as he carried her in. "She is not hurt, but we must get her warm!" They'd taken her from him, all gasping and clamoring to help the fallen girl. Brandon had not said what he longed to-that he loved her beyond all reason. . .that if she died. . .
The precious weight gone from his arms-not that he'd felt it-Brandon fell to his knees. Was she aware of his kiss or the way he'd carried her, as if she were made finer than any crystal? He thought her lips had moved as he'd kissed her forehead. Had she meant to protest? It did not matter. He wanted her to be certain that someone loved her more than money or station, beyond reason.
The hall was empty, dry. His first thought was to make for Marianne's chamber, where he was sure she'd been taken. But, instead, he collapsed, and the world fell along with him. Time seemed to stop. He knew he was still alive, only because he could feel his heart beating like a hammer in his chest, because his lungs were continuing to draw in air and push it out again. Because he sensed his soul shattering into a million pieces. And, he could feel a single tear trickling down his right cheek.
"I hate to intrude upon you again Colonel, but Marianne has asked to see you." Elinor's voice roused him, and he averted his eyes to the library door. Miss Dashwood blushed hotly, as if she'd just interrupted a private moment.
"She has asked for me?" His tone remained unchanged-calm and friendly, but his eyes spoke worlds to Elinor.
"Yes, she would like to speak to you . . .very soon is how she put it." Elinor grinned, sharing in the Colonel's hopes.
"Then, I shall be there very shortly."
His steps were unhurried as he made his way down the hall. She could probably hear the delicious hollow click of his footfalls from her room. The door was wide open and only a feet away, now. Brandon paused right before reaching the door and leaned against the wall, head in his hands. He wouldn't know what to say to her. So, why had she asked for him? Brandon wasn't even sure if he could handle another sincere 'thank you', if he could remain calm when her fine eyes locked his. It was undeniable that Marianne had seen his tears yesterday. She might ask what had upset him, even if she knew the answer to that question. But, it all came down to one thing-Marianne Dashwood had asked for his company, and very soon at that. It was something she'd never requested before, his presence, and the significance of her action could not be thrown away with all of Brandon's fears and rationality.
Inhaling deeply and hoping that his trepidations did not reveal themselves on his face, the besotted Colonel, knocked on the open door, peering in to see the lovely invalid with her head propped up on a number of plush pillows. "Miss Marianne?"
Marianne's pale features lit with a smile, and she pushed down on the mattress so she might sit upright. "Do come in, Colonel." Her light voice was still weak and dry. Had he been in his right mind, Christopher would have thought to bring a glass of water for her.
Hesistantly, he stepped over the threshold, hands stiff at his sides. He was so tense,when he'd hoped to be calm and collected, or at least give the appearance of such. "Good morning," He managed without stuttering, and flashed a kind smile.
"It is a fine morning. Elinor could not stop talking about what a nice day it is going to be. . ." Marianne looked anywhere but in the Colonel's eyes. In reality, Brandon should not have worried how he would appear to her-for she was feeling quite at a loss for words. Small talk, if nothing else, might ease any tension and quell a it of the awkwardity.
"Yes, she came in the library about half an hour ago and drew the drapes back. I think she was a bit surprised to find me asleep in one of Mr. Palmer's armchairs."
Had the Colonel actually just laughed? Marianne bit her lip, imprisoning a tiny grin from spreading across her still sunken cheeks. "I take it that she woke you, too, then?"
"Yes, she did. It was the sunlight coming through the windows, I think. . .it could have been her laughter when she found me."
Marianne wondered how late the Colonel had been up. His amber blonde hair was rustled, and his jacket showed signs of wrinkling. She would have believed him to be quite tired had it not been for the bright relief showing in his expressive hazel eyes. It occured to her that she'd never really studied him, as she had most men and women in her circle. Often, Marianne spent hours examining every mannerism and speech pattern of those she came in contact with, and made guesses about their favorite color, flower, if they read or attended the theatre. But, she'd never wondered over the Colonel's loves, his hobbies, or the kind of music he enjoyed. The thought now came to her that she might ask him to play the pianoforte. Mrs. Jennings had once mentioned something to that effect, but it had been only a meddling quip. Still, Brandon had received the teasing gracefully, transfering praise to Marianne's musical abilities.
The whole time these musings were careening through Marianne's active mind, Brandon had been silent. The few seconds that had passed were uncomfortable for him, but not without some reward. For, she was still smiling, her eyes were still lit with renewing strength. It seemed to him that he should say something to fill the silent void, so he asked the first thing that came to mind. Thankfully it was a valid question. "How are you feeling, Miss Marianne?"
"Better. . .but still very weak. I cannot wait until my energy is restored. So, I might be able to play the pianoforte and help my mother."
Conquering a little of his concealment, he added, "We shall all be very glad to hear you sing again." His hands ran nervously over his knees, his fingers tightening like talons then releasing as he exhaled.
"It occurs to me, my friend, that I have yet to hear you play." Marianne noticed the Colonel's face darken then relax, as if he had been surprised but then come to terms with a response.
"There are not many people that have heard my playing, Miss Marianne. I must admit, that I can be a rather reclusive pianist."
"But, you should not have reason to be. Mrs. Jennings speaks of your abilities with much praise."
"Mrs. Jennings had the misfortune to creep upon me as I was undertaking a Beethoven Sonata in her music room." Another chuckle issued from his full lips. They were both pleasantly surprised by his change in humor.
"Well, perhaps, one day I might have the 'misfortune'," she smirked, "of hearing you play."
"Let's hope that you are luckier than that."
"All kidding aside, Colonel, I would very much like to hear you play some Beethoven for me. Is he your favorite composer? He's very popular in Vienna, right now."
Could she be aware of his love of Beethoven's music? He couldn't simply answer yes, without going on to say how greatly he felt the man's music, how, to him, the composer's works presented and augmented every emotion with perfect beauty.
"Colonel?" Marianne touched his arm, lightly to regain his attention.
"Yes," He cleared his throat and found his voice. "I find that Beethoven's compositions have something not found in any other music," He searched for the right phrasing, "a perfect grasp and understanding of the human heart. . ."
Marianne was undone by his comment; how could she have thought him to be devoid of feeling, and unappreciative of all things beautiful? His answer could very well have been issued from her own two lips, which now felt quite immobile and useless. "I could not have stated it better myself."
"Well, you must need your rest, Miss Marianne. I have kept you far too long." Brandon made a motion to rise. It was obvious that he felt he'd overstepped his limits, stayed in her company to long for her liking.
"But, you've only just come. And there is so much that I should like to ask you."
"I shall see you this evening, if you like?" He straightened his coattails and looked to the door.
Marianne was not satiafied with that dismissal and pressed on. "Before you go, Colonel, I would very much like it if you would read something to me. . ." From under her pillow, Marianne removed a small book, its pages of gilt, and a red ribbon poking out from the edges.
"You would like me to read to you?" His gaze was all uncertain timidity. What if she asked for a Shakespeare Sonnet?
"I would like it very much. . .Please?"
Brandon resumed his chair, looking for approval from Marianne before scooting closer to her side of the bed.
"I've marked the page with that red ribbon." Her hand extended, she offered him her book, which, after a moment's hesitation, he took from her fingers and opened.
Brandon did not take the time to scan the words, but began immediately, in a soothing, deep baritone.
I have not forgotten my past deceptions
The demons I could not blink away,
Nor the pains I might have beat upon your breast.
I fell to the flame, as a foolish moth
Seeking its destruction.
A breath put out that malicious fire,
before I'd seared my fate, a blade
Held by a hidden knight-
Whose scarlet rose he offered when
He gave of his heart.
I could not ask it off you, now,
And only plead for those deserving thorns:
My friend, whose name is understanding,
Forgive me, it was your shadow cast against the wall,
the ghost of your fingers that stole my tears
To shed them for my sake."
Brandon shut his eyes and closed the book. His hands were shaking as he offered it back to Marianne.
"Thank you, Colonel." She breathed, moved, but unsure of how to proceed. The tension was as thick and inpenetrable as the London fog.
"No, thank you." With all the uncertain timidity of a schoolboy, Christopher took her frail hand in his and pressed a kiss to its surface.
As he was making for the door, Marianne's voice stopped him. "This evening, then?"
"Yes, of course," He choked on his grief, not turning back to look at her. As he traveled back to his own quarters, in hopes of recovering himself, it did not escape him that the poem Marianne had asked him to recite had been handwritten, the ink barely dry.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Miss Dashwood," He bowed to the waist. The expression painted across his face was not one of plain joy and satisfaction as Elinor had expected, nor was her friend grinning from ear to ear. Instead, he seemed rather solemn, his lips closed but relaxed, and his irises appeared darker and more intense.
"Is everything all right, my friend?" Elinor, ever curious, still knew better than to ask him precisely how his meeting with her sister had progressed.
"Yes, your sister seems to be recovering very quickly."
"That is good to hear. I imagine she had much to say, then? After all, it has been more than an hour since I left her this morning." Elinor almost bit her tongue. How could she prod him with such barely veiled inquiries? Well, when one spent too much time around Mrs. Jennings, a bit of her nature was bound to rub off.
Not sure of how to answer-these Dashwood women had a manner of keeping their company on their toes-Christopher took a moment to think. He had every reason to be frank with Elinor, it was not as if she did not know the nature of his feelings. He'd even come to her while they were staying in London to learn the state of Marianne's relationship with John Willoughby. Still, the Colonel would not reveal but a fraction of his conversation with Marianne. However innocent their words had been, they were still private. It would be the girl's choice whether she wished her older sister to be made aware of the particulars of their meeting. Besides, the romantic in Brandon feared he might wake and find it had all been a dream if he gave it further voice. "She spoke rather enthusiastically, Miss Dashwood. I think she finds conversation to be healing; it makes her feel as if she is once again a member of the revolving world."
"She enjoys spending time with her true friends, Colonel."
"I am extremely grateful that I may be of service to your sister. It has been my dearest desire that she and I might be friends. . ."
Something had definitely changed in the Colonel, and it had not gone unnoticed by Elinor Dashwood. He'd begun to speak freely and share his true thoughts, although, he'd never done anything to the contrary. But there was now a want in him that he do so, an enjoyment in bringing sound to his feelings and opinions. Brandon had always been a clever and handsome man, and over the last twenty-four hours he'd grown vigorous and youthful once more. It was as if the despair that had masked his heart and life was now evaporating, allowing the man to indulge in his prime years. Elinor thought it a welcome change. "She is very lucky to have your trust. Now, if you will be so good as to excuse me, I must bring Marianne her lunch."
Elinor passed down the corridor, her mind filled with aspirations and wishes for the happiness of two very dear people.
* * * * * * * * * *
Situated behind a finely carved, rolltop desk, Christopher Brandon set to the task of fulfilling his promise to John and Mrs. Jennings. He scavenged through the desk drawers and retrieved a smooth sheet of stationary and a seal. Of course, he'd not brought his own crest, but the residents of Barton Park would identify the letter and the purpose of its contents. After taking a short time to plan his account, Brandon dipped his quill in a full inkpot and touched it to the paper.
My dear friends,
I shall not waste your time and Mr. Palmer's ink with further greetings and niceties, but instead speak of the subject of which you are longing to hear. When Mrs. Dashwood and I departed Barton two nights ago, we left knowing that Miss Marianne was suffering from a violent, life-threatening fever. Needless, to say our hearts were heavy with sadness and dread of what we might find when reaching Cleveland. First of all, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to you John, for the use of your carriage and driver, without such the journey might have been all the more difficult for Mrs. Dashwood. Although we sped through the night, it seemed the trip would never end-that we might be too late.
I can not express in words what we felt upon arriving early the next morning. Miss Dashwood met us at the front door, her face full of relief and happiness. Miss Marianne's fever had broken over the evening! Mother and ailing daughter were soon reunited under the circumstances of joy, not grief. At the present, Miss Marianne is still weak and pale, but she is eager to regain her strength and return to her usual activities. I spoke with her at some length this morning, and to my pleasure, I found her in high spirits, anxious to return to her music and reading.
My friends, I hope this news will cease your worries. The doctor has adviced that Miss Marianne stay at Cleveland for at least another week. When no question remains concerning a full recovery, and when she is fit for traveling, I shall escort your dear cousins home to Barton.
Brandon read over the finished letter and carefully folded it. He took a long, dripping taper and held it over the sheet, allowing a few drops of crimson wax to pool on the paper. Quickly he pushed the seal into the puddle-the letter was ready to go.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Marianne, will you not eat your soup? I don't have to tell you that skipping meals is not the best method of recovering your strength."
"Elinor, I have no intention of starving myself." She stuck her tongue out in a childlike gesture, before picking up her spoon. "It's just very hot. I will eat it when it cools off a bit."
"You will have to forgive me. I worry for you."
"Yes, I am glad that you do, but how shall I recover fully if you watch over me every second of the day? I already have one mother, I do not require another." Marianne opened her mouth and sipped at a spoonful of the warm broth. When she swallowed it, the liquid soothed her dry throat.
"I am aware of that, Marianne. But, we must also assure that you do not over exert yourself. Your energy will be completely restored, but it will not happen in just twenty-four hours." Elinor's eyes scanned the room, falling on a small leatherbound book lying open on the chest next to Marianne's bed.
"You've been writing in your journal. That is a good sign, indeed. I do not believe I've seen you take up your pen since we arrived in London all those weeks past."
"Yes," Marianne answered nervously, her fingers immediately moving to the little book and closing it up. "But, only a page or two. I had been working on a poem since you woke me this morning. I finished it right before the Colonel arrived."
Elinor's interest sparked, but she did not add a comment.
"I asked him to read it aloud to me. . .to see how it sounded to someone else, of course." Marianne was fiddling with the red ribbon that served as a bookmark, rolling it between the pads of her fingertips.
"You did not criticize his reading as you did poor Edward's, I hope?" A pang of heartache raced through Elinor's blood as she thought of him, soon to be married to Miss Lucy Steele and established in Delaford parish.
Marianne's reaction was one of melodramatic horror. Yes, she was returning to her normal state of romanticism and felicity. "Of course not, Elinor! How could you think that, when the Colonel has been so very kind. . ."
"The Colonel's kindness never stopped you from throwing insults behind his back."
"There is no reason to remind me of my past mistakes. I feel badly enough for so mistreating a friend."
"Just be sure, Marianne, that you do not act kindly to the Colonel only to soothe your guilt. That is not worthy of him, it is not worthy of you. Seek him as a friend because you want to, not because it will ease your conscience or please your family."
Wounded, Marianne remained silent for a moment, and thumbed through her journal searching for her latest composition. "Elinor, when have I ever acted simply to please others? If I befriend the Colonel, it is only because it is my sincere wish to do so."
"Then, I apologize."
"Besides," the younger sister added, smile spreading across her lips, "Colonel Brandon reads extremely well, with a clear and expressive voice."
Elinor patted her sister's hand. "Such praise for a man you once spoke of as dull and frail." Again, Marianne blushed, ashamed of her harsh and inaccurate judgements.
"Well, I have made my peace with the Colonel and offered my apologies for treating him so ill, in the truest and best of ways." Without giving further explanation, Marianne handed her journal to her older sister.
Elinor started to ask her reasoning, but was silenced by a look from Marianne. Eyes to the page, Miss Dashwood read her sister's heartfelt words and kind apology. After finishing, she was silent, placing the book on the nightstand and making for the door. "Just be sure that you do not toy with his emotions, Marianne. Colonel Brandon is the kindest and best of men; see that you do not hurt him." Knowing her words had been heeded, Elinor exited the room, praying that in time, feelings greater than friendship would bloom in her sister's soul.
"To hell with it," he muttered. And before he could talk himself out of it, Christopher Brandon found himself knocking on the oak door of Marianne Dashwood's bedroom. "Miss Marianne?"
The sound of shuffling objects and rustling sheets touched on his ears, soon accompanied by a familair soprano. "Colonel Brandon? Please, do come in. The door is unlocked."
With some hesitancy, Brandon circled the doorknob with his palm and turned. He listened to the sound of his own breathing in tune to the click of his heels on the varnished wood floor. The Queen Anne chair had been pulled up close to the bed, and a few more candles had been lit. "I am glad to see you, there is much I would like to discuss." Marianne smiled, her back propped up on two feather pillows, her hands folded one on top of the other across her quilted lap.
"I shall be happy to speak of whatever you wish." Quietly, he started to sit, but spied a pitcher of water and an empty glass positioned on the windowsill. Brandon stepped over and poured a fresh, cool glass for Marianne, setting it on the beside table so she might reach it. "You might grow thirsty." He added, smile tugging on his lips.
"I had hoped you woud say so. For, I do not intend to make idle chit-chat of your time." Marianne lifted the glass to her lips and sipped as if she'd been crawling along desert sands for forty days. When she finally placed the drink back on the chest of drawers, the cup was empty. "Thank you." A flush pinkened her ivory cheeks, washing away the pale.
Brandon filled the glass again, staring into the swirling water. "Miss Marianne, if you wish to ask me anything. . .to speak frankly, I will readily comply."
For once in her short but glorious life, Marianne did not spew out words as quickly as they became thought, but waited and formed them in an acceptable manner. "Colonel Brandon, as you surely must be aware, my sister Elinor was so good as to relay one of her past conversations with you, in the hopes that it might serve to ease my pain." A long pause in which Christopher lifted his head and met the sweet girl's eyes.
"Yes?" This was definitely not going to be an easy conversation, not comfortable in the least.
"What Elinor failed to tell me, and what I would now mist like to know, if there is anything to be known, is this-"
Brandon's throat went dry and he began to wonder if he was still breathing. What would she ask of him?
"Due to the circumstances which involved your ward and Mr. Willoughby," To Brandon, the way she still hinted at a sigh when speaking his name was enough proof that she still loved the blackguard. "I was very curious to know if you have had further dealings with him. Please, Colonel, it has been much on my mind." Then, she did something completely unexpected. Marianne reached over and covered his hand with both of her own.
"Miss Marianne. . .it is in the past, and nothing came of it." Had she only asked him to come in hopes of learning any news on her lover, to drive the nails deeper into Brandon's chest? How could there have been any other pretext? After all, she'd nearly abandoned her very life in grieving for the scoundrel. But the kindness and honesty in her face, the concern when she touched his hand. She lacked all callousness and did not display any great affection for John Willoughby as she spoke his name. How he wanted to leave the room and withhold his answer! Marianne would drive him mad with love, as she had very nearly done already.
"My friend. . ."
"Miss Marianne, I challenged Mr. Willoughby. We met, he to defend, I to punish his conduct."
He could have only been imagining it, but it seemed that Marianne's irises had darkened. "But, you both walked away?"
"Willoughby missed his shot, the bullet landing in a tree far off to the right. . ." Brandon's face seemed to eminate shadows of doubt and impending sadness.
"And what of your shot?" She squeezed his hands with a reassuring firmness.
"I. . .I also missed."
The evidence that he was now lying to her was clear on his features. After all, for a man who never decieved anyone, lying was not a natural action. "Colonel, I can not believe that. You are a military man, and supposedly the best shot around."
"Miss Marianne, you will think me a fool-"
"I will only think less of you if you do not tell me, but I shall never think you a fool."
"I shot my pistol into the air."
Marianne paled lighter than she'd ever been in her illness. "But why!?"
"Because I could not kill him." His voice was grave and weighted with sorrow.
"I would not wish him dead, Colonel, but you had every reason."
Unable to bear it any longer, Christopher released her hands and rose abruptly from his chair. "I could not do it because you loved him, because you still love him. . .and I could never hurt you, Marianne!" Before Marianne might answer, Brandon had dashed out of the room, head in hands.
"Because I could never hurt you. . ." The words reverberated in her ears, through her temples and pulse until she could do nothing but bury her head in her pillow and weep.
Here's more! By the way, anyone know how I can send pics to the boards from my own files and not a web addy?-Jessica, who is usually very web-literate.
* * * * * * * * * *
Marianne wiped at her face with the back of her hand. The tears were sticky and tightened her skin, flushed her cheeks. The pillow she'd buried herself in was very damp, and she shoved it off the bed with an angry push. She was so tired of lying in the bed, so mad at having to look at the same boring walls everyday, and being confined to lay back and rest. It wasn't as if she'd broken any limbs or contracted some exotic plague. On the way to recovery, Marianne Dashwood saw no reason why she should remain cooped up in her drab room with only a bed, a journal and the thrice daily meal to keep her occupied. And now, it didn't seem as if she'd be receiving any visitors besides Elinor. Her frank mouth had done it again, as surely as she might have shot the Colonel with her own two hands.
"He won't speak with me anymore." Marianne sighed, sitting up and hanging her weak legs over the side of the bed. Distressed, the young woman promised herself that she would not be the cause of further suffering to her dear friend, and that he would not be allowed to storm out of her chambers without explanation. So, Marianne set her bare feet on the hardwood floor, and gripping the bedpost, she stood. If the Colonel would not come to her, she would go to him. Every single thing he'd said in their last, tense conversation had more than astonished her. It seemed Brandon was a man consumed by emotion, a prison to his heart, his mind holding the keys. This discovery had come quite unexpectedly, but not without bringing some joy to Marianne's breast. It all seemed like a great novel or play, so passionate, so many elements and twists. For all the pain, Marianne's old romantic nature could not have been more satisfied. Beneath that calm, brooding exterior beat a heart as alive and haunted as her own.
Marianne stepped into her long-neglected slippers, still stained and damp from the rain. Placing her feet inside them brought back memories, not of her injured ankle or of Willoughby's 'rescue', but of that storming afternoon when the Colonel had cradled her in his arms and brought her back to Cleveland where it was warm and safe. He was warm and safe, and kind. . .good. . .intelligent. . .and considerate. Elinor's words rushed and reverberated through her mind, "He is the kindest and best of men." Marianne combed through her hair with splayed fingers, then walked to her armoire to pick out a fresh day dress. If she was going to make amends and to step out among the living it would not do look like a drenched ragdoll. How could Colonel Brandon take her seriously if she appeared as a street urchin? She must make the best impression. His friendship had become extremely important to her these last few days, and it would hurt her more than she could fathom to have him snatch it away.
Marianne slipped the gown over her head, then straightened it over her body. It struck the young lady that she had been thinking much these nights if a man she had once regarded as dull and grave, ignorant in the affairs of the heart. As she pinched her cheeks to add some color, a thought crept into her head. . .could she possibly be developing feelings for-"No, ridiculous!" She muttered aloud, testing her balance. "I could never love more than once in my life, and any lesser fancy would be out of the question." And, although she denied it with her strange brand of reason, Marianne's feet urged her down the long corridors of Cleveland, in search of a man she told herself she could only greatly esteem and admire.
* * * * * * * * * *
Brandon dismissed the timid maid who'd brought his food, sending her back to the kitchen with all the hot coffee and stew she'd arrived with. Elinor had been so good as to send the meal to her friend when he'd not shown up for dinner. But, Christopher could not eat, he was having difficulties enough trying to think in a sane manner. How could he have left her so abruptly, as a cild throwing a tantrum? It was not his custom. He'd always been so good at controlly his frustrations, his sadness and anger. But, she'd changed him-cracked his armor. And, now, after having a glimpse inside the real Christopher Brandon, Marianne Dashwood would most definitely wish to see no more of him.
The cognac was warm and wet against the back of his throat, and he swallowed it greedily. Brandon did not often indulge in spirits-his own real ghosts were enough-but he didn't want to think of how he'd stormed out of Marianne's room, or of the pathetic truth he had bestowed upon her. His glass was empty before he'd even taken a seat. All the better-he wouldn't have to get up in order to pour a second. He paced the room, agitated and completely uncertain of what to say to her, how to act when next they met. And they must meet again, it was inevitable. In a short time he'd also promised to escort her and her mother and sister back to Barton. How would Marianne tolerate it? She'd think him a slobbery hound at her heels. A fire of anger and self loathing amassed inside his soul. To quench a spontaneous desire, the Colonel hurled his glass at the far wall. Not even the cracking sound of shattered crystal could satisfy his demons. He would not scream, nor would he run any longer. It was all so useless, so futile, he finally realized. It always had been. Marianne Dashwood would never love him. It was time to return to concealment, to rebuild the shell.
Marianne rushed down the long, carpet covered hallway. She made it to the open door of the library in just enough time to watch a passionately irate Colonel crash his wine glass at the back wall. "Brandon!" Her scream fled from her lips faster than her legs pushed her into the room. His broad back faced her, motionless except for the rising and falling of his shoulders, silent save his violent heaves. "Brandon. . ."
Continued in Part 2
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