A Delaford Vignette
It was a day to stir the soul--the sky roiling with heavy, gray clouds, the fitful breeze chilly and damp. Marianne Dashwood wrapped her shawl more tightly about her shoulders and drawn-up knees and, from her perch on the hill at the edge of Delaford village, watched the cloud-shadows scurry over the fields--rather in the way her thoughts seemed today to scurry through her brain. She had escaped all the noisy activity and chatter at the parsonage only to find herself, now that she was alone in the exhilarating open air, strangely out of sorts and desirous of company. She and Margaret and their mother had arrived only that forenoon for an extended visit, their first Christmas at the parsonage, Elinor and Edward having been married only in September. Elinor fairly glowed with quiet wedded contentment, and Edward had gained greatly in confidence upon acquiring a definite station in life as well as the wife he preferred. He was, however, as resistant as ever to the beauty of a tangled copse or drift of fallen leaves, and could not comprehend why his sister should want a walk on a threatening day such as this. She was anticipating with much amusement their familiar debate on the subject, and took special note of each wind-blasted shrub and weed-enshrouded roadside cairn so that she might tease him with every detail over supper.
A usual member of their party would be absent tonight, for Colonel Brandon, who always upon their arrival invited the family to Delaford House for after-supper brandy and chocolate, had been called out of town on business and was not expected to return until the following afternoon. Marianne was conscious of a certain disappointment, even disgruntlement, for she had planned to discuss with him the dozen or so books she had borrowed from his library on her previous visit, eager to test her own judgments against his. This would be their first opportunity for lengthy conversation in quite some time, for in recent months the colonel had been much occupied with overseeing the improvements to the parsonage, with his unofficial stewardship of his brother-in-law's estate at Whitwell, and with his annual summer visit to his sister and said brother-in-law at Avignon, while she herself had been useful in Elinor's wedding preparations and in helping her sister to settle into her new home. During the weeks of her slow convalescence she had become so accustomed to his attentive company--for in that period he had divided his time almost equally between Delaford and Barton--that she had almost regretted her steady improvement. She had missed the hours of their reading aloud, each to the other, on the cottage lawn--the colonel's reading, unlike dear Edward's, was everything it should be, with careful attention to rhythm and mood and the proper dramatic emphasis given to every syllable. She had missed also the long discussions that followed, sometimes on the lawn, sometimes on walks with Elinor and Edward when the latter visited his betrothed--though as they naturally preferred their own company they tended to dawdle or walk briskly ahead, so that she and the colonel might well have been alone. Of course she could not expect to receive so much of his attention now that she was no longer a patient in need of coddling, but she did hope he would not be called away again during her stay.
She had also been eager to demonstrate her mastery of a particularly challenging concerto he had sent to her from London two weeks before, eager as well to hear the notes resound from his fine Broadwood Grand. He had insisted she was welcome to make use of the instrument even when he was not at home, but she could not bring herself to do so, for it seemed an intrusion to enter the house in its master's absence. Once she had possessed no such scruples. How could she have seen no wrong in Willoughby's taking her into Allenham without an invitation from Mrs. Smith, without that lady's even being present? It had been a criminal affront to manners and propriety and, upon reflection, she wondered that Elinor had not been even more censorious. She had said to Elinor--with what chagrin she recalled it--that if her behavior had been wrong she should have been sensible of it. What a childish argument those words had been! Nay, they hardly deserved the distinction of "argument," for they could boast of no logic or reason. And from one who had once prided herself on the volume of her reading! Of what benefit was reading if one gained no insight from it? It was testament to Elinor's patience that she could ever have tolerated such a foolish sister.
"Good afternoon, Miss Dashwood."
So well did she know his voice that she had turned before the first word was complete. "Colonel Brandon--good afternoon! I could not have asked for a more pleasant surprise. We were told we would not see you today."
The unexpected delight in her smile for a moment robbed him of coherent speech. But he told himself that it was merely a trick of the uncertain light, and found his tongue once again. "I--was able to conclude my business in R---- sooner than I had anticipated." Upon learning that the dinner to which he was invited that evening was in honor of a member of Parliament whom he detested, he had seized upon the chance to extricate himself, ignoring the obvious surprise of his friends at his haste. He stepped farther down the hill, so that she could easily converse with him without straining her neck. "I hope your journey was uneventful."
"It was, and quite comfortable. It is so kind of you to send your carriage for us. Have you been to the parsonage?"
"I have. I was immediately commissioned by your mother to pursue you and remind you to come in to tea. She had just seen you pass by." A gust of wind whipped at his hair, and he lifted his gaze to the darkening sky. "This is a tempestuous day on which to be abroad."
"I am no longer a fragile convalescent, Colonel," Marianne said very firmly, though she did truly appreciate his kind concern--a concern that was, he could not quite hide it, at the same time mingled with amusement: he was not surprised to find her out of doors. "I am warm from my walk, and my shawl is a dense wool--for I have learned from my own imprudence." He, of course, was wearing his customary flannel waistcoat, its fine gray weave visible when his cloak billowed in the wind. The magnitude of her foolishness, when she had based her judgment of his character and tastes upon no more evidence than an article of clothing--she was mortified to recall it. Elinor had discovered Brandon's worth during a single conversation. How much lively discourse she herself had missed by so lightly dismissing him! "And you have been abroad on this tempestuous day yourself," she added, with a pointed glance at the telltale mud on his boots. Bits of leaf clung to his cloak, and the hat he had removed upon meeting her was damp, as if he had perhaps ridden under a branch hanging low with moisture.
He had been puzzling over her expression, trying to put a name to the frown that had tugged for an instant at her mouth and brow--noticeable, perhaps, only to one who observed her as intently as he--a frown of disapproval but directed inward, as if she were scolding herself for some transgression. He conceded her point with a smile. "I beg your pardon for my shabby appearance--though I did fare better than my horse. The R---- road becomes a bog after such a rain as we had two days past. I saw no fewer than three carriages sunk to the axles." But what care I for a wet road, when you are at the end of it? "May I escort you back to the parsonage?"
"I should be delighted."
He offered his hand and she took it to rise, and he wished he had thought to remove his riding gloves no matter the cold, so as to feel her soft fingers in his. She had made some purchases in the village, and he carried her several parcels while she strode beside him with an energy he rejoiced to see, for he remembered too well when she could hardly totter to the cottage gate without trembling like the dried leaves of which she was so fond.
"I have brought with me all the books I borrowed," she was saying. "I hope you will have a little time to discuss them--" She said this with some diffidence, hoping he would not think her too demanding when he had just returned from a tiring journey.
"I shall look forward to it." --To evenings both peaceful and lively, her family present but cheerfully conspiring to allow them frequent private conversation.
"And Margaret is impatient to hear more of your stories about the East Indies. But you must not hesitate to put her off," she admonished him. "She is already much too spoiled. I declare if she did not have a tree house of her own at Barton you would build her one in your mulberry tree. She has in fact already decided which of your horses she will ride each day we are here. You are far too generous with her, Colonel."
"On the contrary--" His eyes crinkled at the corners with gentle humor. "--I cannot fathom how my stableman copes when Miss Margaret is not here to help exercise my horses. In truth a bachelor hardly needs so many."
"You have only three besides the matched pair for your carriage," she countered, with that firmness of opinion he found so engaging. "It is barely enough for a gentleman of your standing--" She noted his indulgent look and smiled, and his heart gave a little thump in his chest.
He saw, not without some wistfulness, that she was indeed no longer fragile; in fact she exuded more spirit than she had since her happiest days with Willoughby. All the former wanness of her complexion was gone, and with it that tightness about her eyes that spoke of too much reflection upon an inner pain. Her cheeks were once more a healthy pink, her eyes lively, and the fullness of her figure, that had been so wasted, was restored. She was fully recovered at last, and his heart was gladdened by the sight, but with returned energy came, inevitably, independence. He was well aware that her recent cordiality toward him stemmed from gratitude, but he had hoped--without much confidence, to be sure, but hoped nonetheless--that some deeper feeling might grow upon that foundation. But she was demonstrating that she needed him no longer as caretaker, and he could not deflect the gloomy apprehension that she would never need him in any other way, that their encounters would now become superficial, merely polite.
"Colonel--" she began, and then stopped, and drew her shawl closer about her shoulders. He was about to offer her his cloak when she spoke again, on her face a pensive frown as she cast about for the words that would accurately express her thoughts. "Have you ever known a day, or even a moment, when everything you think and feel seems to change, to shift, when you seem to become a new person and see the old in a clearer light, when you put away old likes and dislikes, or respond to familiar situations in unfamiliar ways--when the world itself seems to change?"
He almost stumbled over the pebbles in the road. In all their wide-ranging conversations on poetry and philosophy and literature, she had never ventured so searching a question--a question that asked him to reveal something of himself even as it revealed something of her. Had she recently been visited with such a change of perception? With what inspiration? With what result?
"Yes, I have known one or two such moments."
The very quietness of his tone caused Marianne to utter a small gasp. How stupid, how insensitive she was! She had vowed to herself never to remind him of Eliza, never to cause him an instant's regret for his unselfish attempt to assuage her guilt and confusion about Willoughby at the irredeemable sacrifice of his own privacy. Would she never learn to restrain her tongue? "I should have realized-- I am sorry, Colonel--I did not think--"
So astonished was he by her tender effort to spare his feelings that it was a moment before he could speak and relieve her distress. "You allude, I believe, to--certain events of which I spoke to your sister--" Her miserable nod was both acknowledgment and apology. "That was one such time, of course."
He said this in an even tone, without the surprising rush of anger she felt on his behalf, not only toward his villainous father and brother, but also toward Eliza herself: so much of his suffering could have been prevented had Eliza only resisted--as he would have, Marianne was certain. But she should not presume to judge, she who had shown so little fortitude in the face of adversity, who had squandered weeks of precious life in shameful self-pity after Willoughby's betrayal.
He had fallen silent, noting her preoccupation; her smile, however, encouraged him to continue. "But the first such moment I remember--oddly enough, your question called it to mind--was the occasion of my mother's death."
Dismay clouded her eyes, thickened her voice. "Oh Colonel--please believe that I never intended to arouse hurtful recollections--" A gentle shake of his head, however, dismissed her renewed contrition. "But I suppose it is often those events that change us the most. Father's death changed all our lives more than we could ever have imagined." Without her family's removal to Devon she should never have met John Willoughby. But she should also never have met Colonel Brandon-- "Were you very young when your mother died?" Elinor would scold her for prying, but he, after all, had broached the subject--
"Nine years of age. Old enough to understand that beauty and reason had departed my world." Her face softened with compassion, and he feared that she might think he overstated his grief in order to elicit her pity. "I beg your pardon--I speak too dramatically--" He had, in fact, startled even himself with the degree of melancholy that had edged each word.
"Not at all." Her voice was soft with honest sympathy. "There are days when I grieve for Father as intensely as I did just after he died, as if no time has passed, let alone healed. Do you--remember your mother?"
"Quite well, in fact. She would read to me, and I to her, every day after my lessons, and we took long walks together. She insisted on civilized conduct and a devotion to duty. And she loved games, all sorts of games--I can still hear her laughter. My sister, Katherine, who is some years older than I, always encouraged me to talk of our mother so that my memories of her would not fade. She is very like her in appearance and sensibilities, but she is stronger of will, and did battle for me against our father and brother to the extent that she could."
"You must love her very much."
"I do indeed. I hope you will meet her someday. I believe you would like her." And Katherine in her turn would at last understand the cause of his uncharacteristic distraction during his most recent visit.
"I am sure I should like anyone of whom you think and speak so highly." Marianne's dark eyebrows arched in sudden impishness. "Have I not learned to appreciate even the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings?" And you, she added to herself, giving thanks again, as she had many times, that while he had certainly been aware of her former indifference to him he had not known the full extent of her childish disdain. She had not wounded him except with neglect, and atonement for that was within her power.
He was smiling fondly at her mention of their mutual friends. "I find that I turn to John Middleton when I feel in need of uncomplicated, if sometimes overpowering, good cheer, and though Mrs. Jennings' tongue is much too busy for anybody's benefit except her own, her heart is warm and good."
"They, too, have been very kind to us, as have the Palmers at Cleveland."
Mrs. Jennings' daughter and her husband were another pair of irritating people she had learned to appreciate. Surely there must be in the world some irritating people who had no redeeming qualities? Though she would never be in complete agreement with Elinor on exactly when or how often to practice the social niceties, she did concede that a certain measure of patience with the foibles of one's neighbors was in fact of some value in maintaining the overall harmony of a household or a community, that only a child lives solely in the moment and spares no thought for possible consequences or the feelings of others. It was a lesson that Willoughby had never learned.
"So many people have been kind to us! I shall have to find someone to be kind to as well."
He smiled at her exuberant determination. "Do I foresee a career of good works?"
She turned her face into the wind and let it toy with her hair, heedless of dishevelment, the changing currents seeming to match her variable mood, first calm and settled, then restless and wild.
"And you, Miss Dashwood--do you now see the world in a new way?" How he missed the relative familiarity of "Miss Marianne," not least because the new form of address emphasized her growing maturity, and his consequent fear that she would grow away from him.
Her visible delight in the bluster of the damp wind faded. The frown she wore now he had seen often, when she wrestled with ideas that challenged her preconceived notions. "I do not know-- I cannot explain-- Perhaps--I simply feel older. Elinor is married, and I must accustom myself to daily life without her, when we have shared so much-- I am called 'Miss Dashwood' now, even though I feel an impostor when I answer to it--" And "Miss Dashwood" she would always be, Willoughby having stolen the single opportunity of her lifetime for marital happiness. She was convinced that she could never know such intensity of feeling again, and she would never marry without it; on that point her opinion could not be altered. Surely if it were possible to form a second attachment, her present companion, with his romantic sensibilities, would have done so.
They rounded a bend and a lovely valley opened before them, its slow stream a dull pewter under the half-hidden sun. Marianne paused a moment to watch the changing patterns of light and shadow, the creeping puffs of white that were sheep grazing in the emerald pastures below. "This is one of my favorite views in all Delaford."
"My mother placed a bench in the yew arbor to overlook this valley. She intended it as a place for quiet reflection. May I show it to you sometime?"
"I should like that very much." She was touched by his invitation, that he should want to share with her a place that he valued. "Were you surprised to inherit Delaford?"
He gave a resigned sigh. "I regret to say, no. My brother's dissolute habits were well established before I was sent away, and age had not matured him. He was a careless driver even when sober; drink made him a menace. When I received word that he had overturned his carriage and broken his neck, my initial reaction was simply to be thankful that he had killed only himself."
Despite her knowledge that he had actually dueled with Willoughby to avenge the honor of his ward, Marianne could hardly credit that this generous and even-tempered man was capable of such cold indifference--though she did not blame him in the least. "Did you find it difficult to return?"
He turned to her, amazed at her perception. Not one soul had ever asked him that particular question. "Yes. I did." Even Katherine had assumed he would be glad to take possession, as if in a kind of vengeance. "I was tempted to stay away, but the estate and the village had suffered too much neglect. At the very least it was my duty to repair the damage my father and brother had inflicted. And so I came home."
"And is it home?"
He felt himself responding to her gentle, compassionate probing, unable, unwilling, to deflect her polite interest as he would, and often had, that of any other person. "More so now than it was, now that friends wave from the parsonage as I pass, and call me over to converse, and join me often for supper or invite me to their own table." He assisted her over a stile, though she was so agile she hardly needed his hand under her elbow, and when they were both on level ground again he heard himself uttering words to her that he would not have dared only an hour before. "Friends who in their turn invite such delightful guests for prolonged visits."
With a bright smile she replied, "I'm relieved to know that you do not consider me a pest, Colonel," and he knew that she had been unconscious of the deeper emotion underlying his compliment. And that was for the best, he thought, reminding himself of her abrupt aloofness in response to Mrs. Jennings' blatant efforts to throw them together; in trying to advance his cause, that kind-hearted lady had done far more harm than good.
They were on the grounds of Delaford now, the path leading them across a small, tidy field toward the parsonage. "You have cleared the estate's debts so quickly," Marianne remarked with approval. "Baynes has nothing but praise for you."
Baynes was Delaford's steward, and that Marianne had shown such an interest in his affairs as to talk with him filled Brandon with an absurd sense of walking on springs. "It--can be done with a little care and thought."
"And a great deal of frugality," she rejoined, allowing him no modesty. He had slashed expenses to the barest essentials, Baynes had told her, had sold every painting, chair, cabinet, and mirror that was not a family heirloom to save the estate from ruin--sensible measures that Willoughby, in his selfish profligacy, had not been willing to take. And he had not begun to restore the manor house and grounds until every tenant's cottage was in good repair.
"Yes, my stable was a poor thing then, Miss Dashwood--only one riding horse and a very plain curricle. And the pair that drew it," he added in a lowered voice as if imparting a shameful secret, "were not matched." The genuine twinkle that brightened his eyes reminded her of his delicate teasing during her convalescence. His natural good humor was more evident each time she saw him, awakening, like Edward's, to the warm friendship of her family. Once she would have thought it impossible that this man could ever make her laugh.
But her laughter died as she recalled something else that Baynes had told her. "Is it true that your father and brother had discarded most of your childhood possessions?"
"Yes, it is true."
"I cannot imagine the pain of such a discovery."
Very softly, he said, "For there to be hurt, there must first be affection," and she was visited with the certainty that where he had been wounded deeply he did not easily forgive. "You also were turned out of your home."
"Not so coldly as you were, and even John and Fanny have stored some of our things at Norland. Compared to your family's behavior theirs is positively self-sacrificing." A peevish distaste wrinkled her nose. "I shall not enjoy thinking of them so charitably!"
"Not to worry--they will soon give you cause to recover your former opinion of them."
She laughed again. "I have no doubt of it." And then her lips pressed together in a harsh line. "I am glad I shall never meet your father and brother. I believe I would find it difficult to hold my tongue. Their treatment of you was unconscionable." She found that she could pity Eliza as well as condemn her, so cruelly had she been exploited by those who should have been her protectors.
Her companion was regarding her with an intensity she had never seen before, and she was suddenly mindful of her earlier meditation upon social harmony. "Forgive me, Colonel--I was perhaps too forward--"
"Not at all," he hastened to reply, hoping to put her at her ease--though he himself was as far from ease as it was possible for a man to be.
One of her finest qualities was her fiercely protective loyalty toward her family and friends. He had never loved her more than when she had confronted the awful Mrs. Ferrars on Elinor's behalf, and had hardly dared to dream that he might someday be the grateful beneficiary of such warm sentiment. This was no mere polite interest that she displayed. He had feigned polite interest often enough, as had any man who wished to live comfortably beside his neighbors, that he could recognize a feeling rather stronger.
Marianne Dashwood cared for him.
She cared for him--not as a lover, perhaps never so much as that, but as more than a caretaker or mentor--as a devoted friend, constant and true. With her impulsive, unfeigned curiosity she had encouraged him to reveal some of his most private emotions and had then shown that she understood them. How easily he had spoken to her of those feelings! He would not have presumed to do so before today--but before today she would not have asked. Today they had shared laughter and the remembrance of tears. They were ending this walk closer in spirit, more intimately connected than they had ever been before, and he could not have said which of them had taken the larger steps toward the other.
Yes, Marianne, I have known moments that changed my life.
Just ahead, beyond the last low fence, the parsonage awaited them, cozy and welcoming, tucked against the great oaks and beeches of Delaford wood. Above the dark shapes of the trees the chimneys of the great house were visible against the evening sky. Brandon assisted Marianne over the stile and pushed open the gate, through which they stepped very quickly so as to forestall the escape of the chickens.
As they neared the door he said, "If you like I shall collect the books and take them to the house. You may come when you will to select more--perhaps after supper, if you are not too tired. I have several new volumes which might interest you--I am determined, you see, to keep ahead of your voracious appetite for the wisdom of the ages."
"You are also determined to spoil me as well as my sister! I shall come--but surely you will first stay to supper?"
"But you have only just arrived. I do not wish to intrude--"
"Nonsense," she said firmly, and with that she grasped his free hand and led him inside.
Margaret attached herself to him even before he had deposited Marianne's parcels upon a table. "Colonel Brandon, Edward says I must ask you for permission to send smoke signals to Delaford from the chimney!"
To his credit the colonel did not so much as blanch--but his reply deftly averted potential conflagration, and drew a wink from Edward at his desk. "Have I told you that the natives in the Indies signal to each other with conch shells?"
"Elinor, we must set another place at table," Marianne announced. "Colonel Brandon is staying to supper. Margaret, do not annoy him--he has been riding half the day--"
"But he does not look at all tired! You are not tired, are you, Colonel?"
Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood were at their needlework, giving no sign that very recently Elinor had been urging her worthy mother away from the window and the riveting sight of Marianne clasping "dear Colonel Brandon's" hand. And if, as Marianne fetched dishes and silver from the cabinet, and the colonel tried, without great success, to sketch a conch shell in Margaret's pocket-book, at length pressing Elinor's drawing talents into service--if over this happy bustle in the parlor there passed a look of significance among Elinor, Edward, and Mrs. Dashwood, at least one of its subjects was blissfully insensible of it.
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