Mistress of a Family
To Guy, with special thanks to two advance readers, who know who they are
The Brandons did not go to France. The remainder of their wedding trip having progressed, after its disconcerting beginning, in fine idyllic fashion, with many walks in sheltered ravines and almost daily outings on the tranquil meres, their conversation on the journey home turned naturally toward the upcoming visit, Marianne alternately excited and nervous at the prospect of meeting her husband's closest relations, he amused and reassuring. But a letter from Sarah awaited them at Delaford when they returned early in June, there having been no time to forward it to Buttermere. "We have heard more royalist rumblings in the area and several of our republican servants have given notice--and we already had none to spare, as you know, and one or two really did not want to go but felt that to stay would betray the ideals of brothers or cousins or somebody--a notion I cannot accept, for what good is a revolution for liberte, »galite, et fraternite if one is not free to make up one's own mind and each new brotherhood sets about ruling everyone's lives as much as the old regime ever did? But when emotions run high reason is nowhere to be found. We have had words with neighbors, some having pushed Claude's sympathies too far, and once again we do not go into the city. We fear a renewal of last autumn's violence, and so think you had better not come just now."
Thus began a somewhat anxious summer, every letter from France both longed for and dreaded, all the news devoured, the colonel questioning every MP and general he knew for information that might not have come out in the papers. Though Claude Marchbanks was wealthy, having inherited a modest estate and a respected winery from his French mother, he was not of the aristocracy and in fact supported some of the goals of the Revolution if very few of its practices. Brandon had long feared that his brother-in-law could not indefinitely sit atop such a shaky fence, but Claude, unfailingly optimistic, had brushed aside his worries. He was no fool, however; he watched events carefully, always aware that for their own safety he might be forced to send his wife and children to Whitwell.
But the weeks passed without serious upheaval across the Channel, as Bonaparte solidified his position in the wake of his coup of the previous October, and they were not very much distracted from the many tasks that claimed their attention--Brandon concerning himself with accumulated estate, parish, and army business, while Marianne added their wedding presents to the household inventory that was now her responsibility, and wrote letters of thanks. (She put off a note to John and Fanny as long as possible, they having sent only a small crystal vase--with apologies for its simplicity, but they had so many expenses this year, what with enclosures and the new pavilion and diverting the stream, etc., etc.). One cloudless, balmy day the master of Delaford treated all his tenants to meat and cake and ale on the lawn in honor of the new mistress, and Marianne was welcomed with cheers and thanks for being the inspiration for such liberality. Above all there was the succession of wedding-visits from all the neighbors, one or two each day for at least a month. Marianne found these far more tiresome than did her husband, for his duty on such occasions consisted mainly of listening to compliments on her beauty and manners and talent, and on his own cleverness and luck in securing her affections--hardly an odious task for a new husband. Her duty was to be gracious and charming and modest, qualities which, though she had improved with greater maturity, did not come as naturally to her as to her elder sister. She had no patience with polite but empty chat, or with answering the same questions time and again about what fabric she would choose for the dining room curtains and when they would host their first ball and, most impertinently, whether she thought she would find it trying to live so near her sister.
"Like it or not you will simply have to suffer them," Elinor declared, without much sympathy, having herself suffered a similar evaluation only the autumn before. "Your behavior reflects upon your husband, and his status in society determines yours."
"But Christopher likes my forward ways," Marianne pointed out, quite rightly.
"He will not like them as well if they alienate him from all his neighbors," Elinor rejoined, also rightly, and so Marianne dedicated herself to finding something to admire in each of their next several callers, especially those who were brief. But soon she was chafing again.
"How do you bear it?" she demanded of her husband one evening, pacing about the sitting room while he reclined on the sofa amidst a litter of newspapers and magazines, his coat and waistcoat comfortably unbuttoned. "Such insipid conversation, so banal, without one original thought to be heard in a parade of twenty people! Mr. Ormonset is such a boor--I cannot abide those who believe they must repeat a joke several times as if that will make it funnier. And Miss Sherbrooke--so completely humorless and prim. She dreads liking balls and assemblies because public pleasures 'twist the soul'; she lives for 'instructive conversation with rational friends.' She makes Elinor look as scandalous as Lady Hamilton!"
Brandon knew quite well that she was not angry with him, and so could admire as always the forthright way she expressed herself and also be amused by her energy, vexation in another being often entertaining to those who are not the objects of it. "I don't generally meet with them one after the other, you know. Some I will not see for months at a time."
"Mrs. Holcombe cannot be one of those. She would not leave you to yourself for more than a week. How do you put up with such officiousness--telling you how to manage the turnpike trust, or administer the poor relief, or whom to charge with poaching? I could never be so patient!"
"Mrs. Holcombe is the widow of a widely respected gentleman and entitled to a certain indulgence. She is also very intelligent and her ideas are often sound. But she can be trying, I will grant you. She is well acquainted with every official in the parish and orders us all about. We listen politely and then do as we please." His expression was quietly impish, and her own features mirrored it as she caught his mood. "It is only that you have been inundated with so many new acquaintances at once. You will learn the best strategies for dealing with each. I found them rather overwhelming, too, when I came here as master."
She ceased her pacing and came to sit on a footstool, facing him. "I had not thought of that--that you also had to accustom yourself to being an object of curiosity. Well--if you can, I can. I don't ever want to disappoint you."
"My dearest Marianne, that is hardly likely. But remember that Delaford has been without a mistress for many years. The entire village and especially all the tenants have been in a buzz about your coming. A mistress will make this house the center of parish activity, as it ought to be. They have had to tolerate my austere tastes, but a mistress, you see, will demand parties, thus necessitating additional kitchen and serving staff; she will buy furnishings and clothing and engage seamstresses and laundresses; she will demand a complete reconstruction of the house, thus employing many carpenters and masons and plumbers; she will enlarge the gardens and build a gazebo in the shrubbery; and when there are children" (here a shy smile) "we will need nurses and teachers and even more seamstresses and laundresses--"
His intention was to tease, but from this exaggerated prediction of the steady drain on his wealth Marianne gained not only amusement but also a greater understanding of the importance of her position. Though she would have insisted otherwise only a few weeks before, she realized now that she had really given only minimal thought to the obligations she faced. Suddenly she felt very young, and turned with momentary desperation to a jest: "Perhaps we had better order new curtains after all." She reached for his hand. "I shall do my best to please everyone, for your sake."
"But it isn't possible to please everyone, my Marianne. I had to learn that as well. Only be yourself and you will please everyone whose good opinion is worth having." He ran a finger over her gold wedding band. Though he could not but be a little stung on behalf of his neighbors, many of whom he found congenial company more often than not, at the same time he admitted the truth of much of what she was saying. "Haven't there been any whom you like?" The mistress of Delaford could not retire behind its gray stone walls; she must be out in the parish, a part of village life. But what if Marianne truly had difficulty making herself a place here? A country life offered very limited society, and could be stifling if one found no kindred spirits within easy visiting distance. He was grateful for Elinor's proximity.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, there have been," she admitted, to his great relief. "I like the Wilvertons quite a lot, as you told me I would. They manage to disdain formality without being vulgar, and their daughter Susan is surprisingly well read and very musical. I hope we may have them to dinner often."
"Whenever you like. I have tended to host the occasional large card party to dispense with many obligations at once in return for all my dinners out. It will be a pleasure to invite one or two families for a more intimate gathering." He leaned forward to stroke her hair, and she pressed her head against his palm. "A pleasure you have brought me--"
She had brought him so many. His friends had all commented on his new animation, some declaring that they had never been so happy in matrimony even when they were newly wed. What joy it was to come home to a wife, a friend, a partner, instead of to an empty house, to have conversation at breakfast and dinner instead of silence broken only by the clink of silver and the rustle of newspapers. He took greater pride in a thriving estate, knowing that he acted now for the benefit of someone dear to him rather than solely for himself, or for heirs whom he did not much like. She had brought music back into the house, and often he interrupted his own business to sit a while in the drawing room and listen to her coax intricate, powerful melodies from the keys. Listen--and watch, for she was lovely in the slanting golden light that fell upon her pages. He planned to commission a portrait of her in just that pose, with that intent, exalted expression on her face as she played. She would finish a piece and then they would talk a while, one subject giving way easily to another as on their wedding trip, and he would return to his work filled anew with love for her. It was true that he had not yet heard a declaration of love from her own lips, but after these weeks together he believed that in time he would, and so that cloud was but a tiny one, hardly noticeable, never dimming the sunlight that seemed to follow him even through the rain. Though their growing companionship in these last weeks might have sparked an unrealistic hope that he would hear those words sooner than he had dreamed, he had always known it would take time, and he had learned patience in his life. He was secure in her affection. He had proof of it every day, in her smile upon seeing him each morning and when he entered a room in which she worked, in the sensual way she fitted herself against him each night, in the figurine of the couple reading, her gift to him, which overlooked their evening tete-›-tete from its place of honor on the mantel, in the lock of hair kept safely on his watch fob. Knowing he would not ask again, she had presented him with the golden curl the day after she had promised herself to him, and had never once given him reason to believe that she regretted the gesture or what it symbolized. Her affection was his own, and for now that was enough.
Marianne, too, looked upon married life with great contentment. In her capacity as patroness of a village she was often yet uncertain of herself, a fact which caused Edward some fond amusement. "Can my bold sister's nerve be faltering?" he asked, with a smirk most unbecoming to a parson. "I thought never to see it. Now you will understand what I felt to preach my first sermon here, with the eyes of my fiancee, her mother and sisters, and my patron all upon me! Yours was the loudest, as I recall, of the voices ridiculing my fears." In every moment she spent with her husband, however, she found nothing but fulfillment and satisfaction. "It's a different house since you came, madam," Mrs. Baynes had told her, and Marianne was glad to know she had made such a positive alteration in her husband's life, that he understood how much she cared for him. She had not--yet--felt that jolt of love, but her affection for him deepened by the day, and no second thought had shaken her certainty that she had been right to marry him. Even the passion of her attachment--for it was an attachment, of a kind--was growing, though to reflect upon that, and the naivete of her former attitudes, made her feel very foolish indeed. She had only to look at him now, at his hands or his shoulders or his hair, to conjure thoughts and memories that she never would have dreamed she could associate with him. She had many opportunities for such reflection, for she often worked in his study on her accounts while he answered and filed correspondence, where they might easily exchange a glance or a smile across the room, and he came to see her in her sunny sitting room several times a day if their respective chores parted them. He never left the house without telling her where he was going, and she showed him the same respect, never going to visit Elinor or even the stables and her dear Penelope without letting him know. They also walked and rode often, and each evening felt a little better acquainted than they had that morning. She marveled that she could ever have thought him sedate. He did not bound about like a bumptious youth--certainly not--but in their first acquaintance she had seen him only at the Middletons' and her mother's, at his leisure. Even then he had ridden from Barton to Honiton without blinking upon receipt of that fateful communication from Eliza, but so stupid and blind had she been she could not admit even the energy she herself had witnessed. Now she saw him as master of Delaford, with all the demands on his constitution that position entailed. She herself was generally awake by eight o'clock in the morning, and he had often risen an hour or two earlier. Unless he had left very early for a meeting, in which case he would wake her to say farewell for the day, he always came to see her while she was dressing, often smelling of earth and grass and leather and horses, having ridden out with Baynes to look at crops or the cattle or to visit a tenant. She realized with some surprise that without several meetings with him the day was not quite complete or worthwhile, and as her admiration for him increased she realized as well the compliment he paid her by loving her.
She was also charmed by her new home, primarily because Christopher inhabited it but also because of its own old-fashioned, comfortable grace and its furnishings rich with family history. She could see by the inventory and accounts that Brandon had sold most of the pieces acquired by his brother and his wife, ostentatious gilt and china and plate, bought because they were fashionable, not because they were needed. Charles's gaming and Eliza's extravagance had quickly sunk the estate back into the morass of debt from which Eliza's fortune had briefly rescued it. Though some expenditures had been for useful additions to the house and grounds--a portico, an ice house, a more efficient design for the kitchen chimney--they had nevertheless been unwise; the liquidation of enough extraneous luxuries to fill three large rooms had barely begun to repair the damage. Studying these pages made Marianne feel, unreasonably perhaps, that she was spying upon those who had lived here before her, particularly, of course, Eliza. In recent years Brandon himself, with some assistance from Mrs. Baynes, had kept the household records up to date, and his neat hand filled several pages. Previous leaves, however, were covered with a careless, feminine script. For the first time she consciously thought, "Eliza lived here, walked these halls, sat and talked and dined and sewed in these rooms nearly all the years of her life." It was a minor but secret and guilty source of satisfaction and relief to her that Christopher had not kept frivolous items simply because Eliza had purchased them.
Evidence of his sound financial management was everywhere in the more recent pages--a regular schedule of payments to tradesmen and lawyers and creditors from the day he returned until the estate's debts were completely cleared four years later; meticulous annual budgets listing all taxes and servants' wages, including bonuses for Christmas and for those whose terms of service had reached five years; investments made with foresight and attention to variety, with references in turn to the sensible administration of the companies involved. And because he was economical, he could therefore be generous. He could always be counted on to support a worthy charity, and in fact was a primary benefactor of the parish schools and hospital. He had paid for substantial improvements to the parsonage, always ordered in grain and coal for his tenants when harvests were bad and prices consequently soared, and only the previous month had bought a cow for an elderly tenant whose own had died.
Beyond relieving her husband of certain domestic responsibilities, and being aware of necessary details such as that Monday was laundry day, Marianne paid little attention to the daily operation of the household, Mrs. Baynes being sharp-eyed and efficient and omnipresent. She was thus free to receive her guests and return their calls and talk over her impressions with her husband and sister, and by the time she and Christopher hosted their first dinner party she knew which individuals should at all costs be kept apart and which could safely be thrown together to create an interesting and amicable group. She knew which parents refused to go anywhere without their spoiled children and thus could be invited only in fine weather so that the children could play outside under the watchful eyes of well-compensated servants. She knew which subjects to avoid or introduce depending on the political and religious views of the company, and which foods to serve or not to serve out of respect for whose irritable digestions or gouty constitutions. For their first modest endeavor they invited the pleasing Wilvertons, the amusing Howes, the broadminded Sacks-Iversons, and of course Elinor and Edward. Marianne, heeding Elinor's advice, kept the menu elegantly simple and limited the entertainment to cards and conversation, with a brief appearance by George, the coachman, with his fiddle; the evening passed remarkably well, her husband so proud of her performance that he almost could not wait until the door had closed behind the last guest before kissing her soundly in the entry hall. Experienced now, she found the second such evening rather less nerve wracking even though the company was not as congenial, Elinor and Edward, upon whom she had particularly depended for support, having to beg to be excused because of Elinor's feeling very tired and a little unwell. "I shall waddle up the drive for your next, however, never fear," Elinor wrote in a brief note, her wit dispelling any concern they might have felt for her safety.
Some three weeks after the newly-weds' return, Brandon's cousins Wilfrid and Fanny and some of their respective families paid their obligatory visits in quick succession. Wilfrid came to examine Marianne and Fanny to welcome her. She conceived no great warmth for any of them, though none in Fanny's bunch gave any offense; theirs was a brusque but genuine regard for Brandon, and Marianne felt, like her husband, that she would be pleased to visit them at their home near Durham whenever they might be invited. Wilfrid and his family, however, struck her at once as cold and venal and did nothing during the remainder of their brief stay to soften that impression. It was obvious they believed that she had married Brandon for his fortune and resented that supposed fact; she in turn resented their groundless assumptions about her own character and her husband's judgment, and saw no reason to show them any but her coolest, rudest face. Brandon, for his part, having never had a very high opinion of his cousin and glad that Delaford would not now be likely to pass to that branch of the family, had to admit, when she caught him hiding a smile at one of her caustic comments, that he rather took pleasure in watching her do it.
Once they had successfully orchestrated a dozen or so dinner and card parties, their confidence and ambition would not be satisfied until they had hosted a ball. Elinor, though she was entering the eighth month of her pregnancy, would not be kept away, but she was glad that her mother had arrived to give Marianne the aid and comfort to which she really did not feel equal to providing herself, and consented to be conveyed the negligible distance to the manor house in a carriage. Mrs. Dashwood having presided over a number of balls at Norland, her advice and suggestions were welcomed and followed by both daughter and son-in-law, for the latter was very little more experienced in the actual arranging of a ball than his wife, though he had of course attended many more of them. Elinor, however, even sitting on a sofa, served a purpose by not allowing her sister to shirk her duties by sitting on the sofa with her. "Try to coax young Mr. Casson to ask you to dance. He is terribly shy and needs all the encouragement he can get. Do watch your feet, though, for he is clumsy, poor boy." "The Norton sisters look as if they are longing to present some of their reform ideas to you." "You really must go and talk to Mrs. Holcombe--she is all alone there by the punch." And Marianne obeyed each time, though she rolled her eyes and demanded all the praise that was her due for such dedication to her role. She regained the sofa, however, whenever her patience wore thin and her husband was claimed by a guest, and so she was with Elinor when Edward threaded his way to them through the merry crowd.
"Dance with me, my lady," he said to his wife, bowing formally--but his eyes were twinkling, for he knew what she would say.
"You cannot be serious," was her retort. "If I tried and fell it would take three strong men and an ox to get me to my feet again."
Edward, undaunted, clasped her hand and stepped very prettily around the end of the sofa and back, while Elinor and Marianne both giggled at his high spirits. Marianne sometimes could not believe how he had blossomed, the gradual change in his sermons offering example. They had begun by being very short and made up of simple dos and don'ts and musts and must-nots, but had increased in length and complexity as his confidence grew, employing genuine argument and even occasionally the quiet wit that she had over time learned to appreciate. At first his diffidence had made him embarrassed if anyone seemed to pay attention to him, but now he complained when they did not. "They come to church, if they come to church, more to ogle each other's dresses or hats, or to make lover's eyes, or to bicker over seating or continue a quarrel that began the night before at the tavern." In fact they came more often than they had, for Edward had restored an evening service on Sundays for the primary benefit of servants and laborers who could not attend in the morning, and the worry of the gentry that the lower classes would defect en masse to the hymn-singing Methodists in the next village was much abated. He was earning a reputation as a reserved but kind young man, always ready to recommend a worthy youngster for a post at one of the great houses, reproaching this farmer and that for drunkenness but helping if necessary to pay their rents; and though most of his parishioners would not know his history with Lucy Steele, there was in his bearing an air of sincerity and strength that made them listen to him. And Marianne had learned, and had immediately conveyed the information to her brother for the express purpose of seeing him blush, that more than one young lady in the neighborhood thought it a great pity that he was already married.
Tonight he was all good humor, perhaps trying not to contemplate the enormous responsibility of imminent fatherhood that would soon be upon him. Having "danced" with his wife as well as he was able, he went in search of other partners, and snatched his sister Margaret away from her brother the colonel, teasing her about flirting with married men in fancy dress.
The Ferrarses were by far the Brandons' favorite and most frequent guests, to the extent that they began to wonder if they really were intruding and had to be assured most vigorously that nothing could be further from the truth. "Perhaps we should then all live in the same house and share the servants," quipped Edward--and in truth they very nearly did, Brandon lending carpenters and painters and gardeners and maids for work at the parsonage, Elinor spending many of her days at the manor house, helping Marianne to sew sheets and pillowcases for new beds and plan menus for the next dinner party, and most importantly to absorb her many complaints about enforced civility so she would not tax her husband's good nature. Elinor also helped to introduce her sister to the parish, a task hardly made easier by Marianne's relative lack of social graces; but Marianne, Elinor was glad to see, was earnestly determined to be worthy of the colonel's confident regard, and with her children's parties and her gifts of food and medicines and her quick summons for the apothecary upon hearing a bad cough or seeing a wan cheek, rapidly gained a reputation for a benevolent generosity the equal of her husband's. Marianne, in fact, when Elinor herself had grown too large for convenient or safe mobility, had with Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret, who would be in residence through Elinor's lying-in and recovery, assumed many of her duties outside the parsonage, with the result that the parishioners did not feel in the least neglected.
"I believe she would be a better parson's wife than I am," Elinor commented wryly to Edward, after describing how Marianne had read to old blind Mrs. Tolbert for an hour that afternoon.
"Not for this parson," replied he with a smile.
"I am certainly glad to hear it. But Edward, I am really surprised by her ability to put herself forward for others; I would not have thought her capable of it, and indeed it was my one reservation about the match. It is true that she hasn't the patience and mild temper to do it all the day long--she would really make rather a poor parson's wife--but for the short periods required of her she's quite splendid. The colonel evidently saw more promise in her in this area than I did." Nor was Marianne's beauty a paltry asset: young Mr. Casson of the ball was half in love with her, and Elinor suspected that he would not be the last.
"Lovers are like that, you know. You saw more in me than most people did."
"And I thought love was blind--"
"Oh no, sometimes quite the opposite. The longer I love you the more remarkable I think you."
Briefly overcome by tenderness, she replied, "And I can say the same about you. --But surely that is proof of the maxim."
"All to the good of lovers, then. --Perhaps Marianne, like most of us, I believe, did not know what she was capable of until she was presented with a challenge she deemed worthy of her efforts."
Perhaps she had not, Elinor thought--and wondered more than once what else Marianne might not realize about herself. Was she aware, for instance, that she was in very great danger of falling in love with her husband?
Once when all three sisters were working together in the parsonage garden, Margaret had asked Marianne a question she had asked Elinor some while before. "What is it like to be married?"
Margaret was now fifteen, and beginning to regard the young men of Barton and Exeter as something more than, or at least different from, playfellows. She was quite a pretty girl, with Marianne's golden coloring and Elinor's quiet eyes that made her appear more solemn than she really was, so that when her broad smile broke over her face as it frequently did, an observer tended to feel a little surprise, and consequently interest. Though she was too young to realize that she was doing so, she was struggling to reconcile her own natural tendency toward a thoughtless romanticism with the painful experiences of her sisters to the extent that she had witnessed and comprehended them. She quite adored both her brothers-in-law, but she understood, without knowing how, that the affection between husband and wife was of an entirely different quality and effect.
Elinor knew that her answer to this question had not satisfied her youngest sister at all. She was uncomfortable discussing her feelings, little moved by the vocabulary of love except sometimes with the object of her own, and could not, even for Margaret's sake, address the subject without her usual ironic overtone. She had stressed affection but also prudence and economy, and Margaret had sniffed disdainfully, declared that she made love sound like an accounts ledger with its debits and credits all reaching balance, and gone off to read Romeo and Juliet for the seventeenth time. Elinor was intensely interested in what Marianne, a romantic who had not married for love, would say in response.
"Ideally, of course, it is a meeting of hearts and minds on all important issues, or at least a striving for it, a commitment to companionship with one person above all others. Strangely enough I do not think it requires love, though if one can marry with love, that must be the greatest happiness."
"But is not love a meeting of hearts and minds, and a commitment to companionship?"
"Of course, but love is more than that. It is a burning, a desperation, a need, another level of feeling beyond the quiet contentment of friendship. It is a volcanic energy, a belief that with this one person you can face anything, that you wantto face anything, want to be challenged, to prove the strength of your love to the world, to meet any trial and solve it together--" A dreamy, inward look had taken over her features and her voice had become very soft and wistful, but then she seemed to give herself a little shake, and glanced at Elinor, and smiled. "Of course, love is not like that for everyone."
To which Elinor replied, "I am glad to hear you will not try to fill Margaret's head with your own notions," all the while wondering how much of those powerful emotions Marianne had come to feel for Colonel Brandon, how much she would be able to feel, how much Willoughby had taken from her. Could one who had been disappointed in love--nay, betrayed--ever feel so strongly again? The colonel evidently could, or near enough that in his reserved way he doted openly and shamelessly upon his wife, but he had been many years recovering from his own broken heart. Would he have to wait so long for Marianne?
"But how does one know when one is in love?" was Margaret's next, not unexpected question--a question that must have been asked by every young person of every older sibling since the beginning of time.
Marianne smiled, and her smile held that inward contemplation that Elinor had first seen when she was recovering from her illness. "One simply knows."
Margaret gave a frustrated, resigned sigh. "That is what Elinor said. It isn't very helpful."
"You will find it so when you feel it, when you see the world and yourself differently from one moment to the next. But you must be certain, beyond all doubt, that you know yourself and the recipient of your love very well before you decide to marry. You must be certain that with him you can be yourself completely, that you do not have to restrain any aspect of your nature, that you do not have to pretend to feel something you do not, even to yourself. And of course he must not pretend with you." Elinor reflected that this was very true, even for her; she felt that Edward's love for and acceptance of every aspect of her character made her freer in expressing herself, in word and deed. Her drawings and her letters were less restrained, were more open, less exact--not so much that others would notice, but she could see and read the change. If Marianne felt this way with her own husband--and how could she speak to the point so positively if she did not?--then she could not but respond in time. "If you do not turn this much reason on your emotions," Marianne continued, and Elinor smiled to hear such a phrase from her lips, "you could be--hurt."
"Like you and Willoughby," Margaret said wisely.
"Yes, like Willoughby and me."
"But now you have Colonel Brandon and you're happy again!"
A look crossed Marianne's face that Elinor had not seen before, a look containing contemplation and self-knowledge but also a secretive puzzlement--gone in a second to be replaced by a bright smile. "Yes, now I have Christopher, and I am happy again."
And Elinor wondered how often Marianne's husband glimpsed that look, and whether he might be so happy precisely because he saw her more clearly than she saw herself.
If Marianne could not enjoy the company of her sister and brother, she would choose her husband's fellow soldiers, several of whom he had known in India, others he had met on his various posts in England. She liked these unpretentious army friendships, among gentlemen whose characters had been honed by hardship, and based upon personal merits rather than the superficial considerations valued by such as Sir John Middleton, namely, how many birds a man could shoot of a morning. These were energetic, travelling men like her husband, who had married interesting and sometimes adventurous ladies; one wife, in fact, was eager for her husband to procure an exchange back to India, now that their five sons and daughters were established in marriages and professions. "We came home only because we couldn't bear to be so far away from them while they were in school, and miss all their growing up, but now we can return, because we do find England rather tame--" Though they had in general read more history and political philosophy than literature, still they could discuss intelligently what they read and bring insight to consideration of the news of the day, and the conversation when such guests were in the house was never dull. Her favorite was Sergeant Jonah Masters, who had served as her husband's groomsman. He was a younger son of a Plymouth merchant, who had learned enough of finance at his father's knee to make very wise investments in several trading companies in the East Indies and thus accumulate a handsome income to accompany his army pay. Nevertheless he lived modestly in his St. Ives lodgings, spending his money on the education and apprenticeships of four nephews rather than on himself. "He taught me how to live frugally and even to save money," Brandon had told her, "lessons I had never learned while a boy." Masters was a smiling, warm-hearted man of about five-and-forty, who proclaimed that he was now really determined to take a wife very soon, having seen "what a world of good" marriage had brought to his friend. Upon hearing this, Marianne slipped her arm through her husband's and said, "And to me as well, I assure you," and gazed happily up at him when she heard his small exhale of surprised pleasure.
He was fulfilled in marriage in part because he had learned to let her be a wife. Though it had perhaps required conscious effort at first, he had quickly formed the habit of sharing with her his frustrations over parish squabbles, his anxiety for the crops if the days brought too much or too little rain, or his concern over rising prices and resulting tensions in the village. More often than not he even admitted when he was tired, and was now content to let her rub liniment into his shoulders and back and thighs after a long day's riding about the estate or mediating a dispute among his tenants, and took delight in performing the same service for her if her hands and arms were aching after hours in the garden or still-room, or if she had overtaxed her legs and feet in a longer than usual walk or ride. What generally followed these ministrations may be imagined, and so it could hardly have been a surprise to the colonel when his wife indicated to him that they were to enjoy the natural result of their frequent congress.
One morning over breakfast she said, as she stirred sugar into her tea, "I shall have to pay very close attention during Elinor's lying-in--'confinement' does sound so medieval, do you not think, with its suggestion of imprisonment--" but he had grasped her hand and was gazing at her with such breathless hope that she could not continue her teasing tone, could only nod to him with a countenance all shining.
"Oh Marianne," he said, when he could trust himself to speak, "my Marianne. I had given up ever knowing what it was to have a child--"
She kissed his hand, and then said very firmly, "Promise you will not spoil him--or her. We must not be those parents we complain about."
"I shall do my utmost. And you must consult a surgeon at once. You shall have the best of care--"
"Mr. Avery is coming today. Elinor has been very pleased with him."
"Yes, he is a fine choice; I always find him current with the latest knowledge. And you will be delighted to know that Mrs. Holcombe has also given him her endorsement."
She made a face. "Mama will be here, and Elinor if she feels able." Her hand tightened on his, and her voice faltered a little. "Christopher, will you-- I wonder if you might stay in the house as well--"
"My dearest Marianne, I would not be anywhere else."
Mr. Avery pronouncing Marianne fit and strong, the parents-to-be then embarked upon what can be the greatest challenge parents ever face--the quest for a name--for they were decided that their offspring should not bear the same names as half of England--or rather Marianne flatly declared that hers would not, and the colonel was in a frame of mind to agree to whatever she desired. Turning first to the classics, they began a list of such possibilities as Helen and Homer and Virgil, but rejected others such as Achilles and Clytemnestra and Diogenes as perhaps a little overpowering. They consulted the Bible and Shakespeare and English history, and all their favorite poems and plays and songs, emptying entire bookcases in the library evening after evening and reducing each other to giggles with more and more absurd suggestions:
"Oh, we shall never decide!" Marianne wailed, slamming shut the hundredth--or was it the thousandth?--volume. "There are too many!"
"I fear you will be forced to choose George or Elizabeth after all."
"Never! Well, we have nearly eight more months--perhaps inspiration will strike before then--"
Sarah sent ecstatic congratulations, along with best wishes from her family, and warned her brother not to give in to the apprehensions she knew he would feel. "It is all out of our hands, you know, my dear. Your worrying will only waste energy that Marianne will need to draw upon when her condition is most trying for her. And do not be hurt if she seems at times a different creature from the one you married--I become quite ferocious when I am breeding." Though Brandon tried to heed his sister's advice, and though he was filled with a constant elation--he really was incapable of uttering the simple sentence "My wife is with child" without the bursting forth of a wide smile--he was never free of a little, a more than a little, anxiety. Their own mother had died of a virulent fever after being delivered of a stillborn daughter; while Sarah herself had suffered a stillbirth and two miscarriages before being delivered of her first healthy boy nearly ten years into her marriage, and had again been very ill for long, frightening months after two severe miscarriages in quick succession only two years before. He tried, however, to keep these fears to himself and show Marianne only his joy, for she had enough worries of her own without being beset with his. She was often ill during the first three months, and no matter that Mr. Avery and every experienced parent of their acquaintance pronounced this a very encouraging sign, he could not hide his distress whenever he saw her lying pale and perspiring in bed in the middle of the afternoon. He made her promise never to walk unaccompanied and never to ride at all, and visited her at least every hour; he accosted Mr. Avery for a report after each consultation and monitored her indulgence in sweets and wine--until Marianne, uncomfortable and insomniac, was thoroughly exasperated. "Christopher, if you worry in this manner for the next seven months you will drive me mad! Haven't you some meeting to attend--in another county?" Properly contrite, he begged and was awarded her forgiveness, and chastised himself for succumbing to panic. He had trusted to Providence many times before; he must do so now, and pray for the strength to face whatever might come.
In between bouts of sickness Marianne in fact felt very well, well enough to be appalled by her snappishness and beg his forgiveness in turn, and to laugh that they seemed to spend a good deal of time these days apologizing to one another. She missed her long walks in perfect solitude but understood the necessity of caution, and could usually locate her husband when she felt in need of a ramble through the woods. She missed as well her usual enjoyment of food and drink, for so many things now seemed to turn her stomach. She could no longer tolerate even the smells of the exotic spices Brandon obtained from friends in India and sprinkled on his food as others used salt and pepper; she had been developing a taste for them herself, but now she was forced to ask him to remove them from the table. Her ankles swelled and her breasts were sore, and her back began to ache, but she minded none of these discomforts, rather welcoming them as signs of the new life growing within her womb.
Elinor said that she had felt the same, "but I suspect that by the fifth or sixth child these discomforts will have lost their charm."
"Why should I have five or six? Mama had only three, and John and Fanny have only little Harry."
Elinor simply looked at her, and Marianne blushed very becomingly, while Margaret tried to puzzle out what they meant, somehow knowing that they would not tell her.
Elinor in particular was delighted by the Brandons' announcement, for it drew some attention away from her during these wearisome final weeks. "Keep the news from Mrs. Jennings as long as you can," she advised, "for she will tell you every horrific experience she has ever heard of. She especially delights in telling me that she has known surgeons to err by as much as two months in their predictions of the date of birth, but I am so large now I really cannot think it will be very much longer. I can hardly breathe!" Mrs. Dashwood was invaluable both in ensuring that Marianne took care with her health and in reassuring her husband; she thrived on having two grown and married daughters who yet needed her, and gave thanks that she could be with them both. But everyone thought only of Elinor once again on the last day of August, when Marianne was summoned to the parsonage by the Ferrarses' maid at two o'clock in the morning.
By this time Brandon was in general not quite so overly protective, but under these circumstances he devoted himself during the long fifteen hours that followed to ensuring that Marianne did not become overtired. "Your mother and sister are here--you must rest," he said to her frequently.
"Oh, I could never sleep--"
"Only rest, my love--here, lie back against me--they will call you--"
Her mother also urging care, Marianne reluctantly obeyed, and took brief naps in her husband's embrace on the parlor sofa, while Edward stared unseeing toward Elinor's many drawings on the walls and tried not to hear the cries issuing from the next room. But they all forgot the greater part of their anxiety and fatigue and sleeplessness upon beholding little Rosalind Ferrars in her mother's arms.
"Is she not beautiful?" the new father enthused, gazing upon her as if at an angel, and of her two parents only Elinor, exhausted but not blind, could see that her mouth was a little crooked and one ear was set higher than the other, and that she was quite as bald as an egg. But of course she thought her perfect, nonetheless.
Elinor was soon ready to sleep, and Edward carried his daughter into the parlor to hold her for a while before the nurse put her to bed in her cradle. Having now had some practice holding and soothing infants at baptisms, he was only a little awkward, and was very reluctant to give her up even to her aunts. Brandon was entranced by the sight of Marianne holding her niece, as something like a vision of their own near future, but would not hold the babe himself for fear, he said, that he might drop her. Perhaps it was just as well that Elinor was not awake to hear him, for she would likely have commented that such a jolt might straighten out Rosalind's ears, which her very tired audience would possibly not have found amusing.
Marianne spent much of the next two weeks at the parsonage, helping her mother and Margaret see to the household while Elinor recovered. Except for the addition of little Rosalind, over whom they cooed endlessly, they might have been back at Barton Cottage, working together at their chores, for Edward was often out paying calls or seeking male company at his brother's house. It fell to Marianne and Margaret to visit those parishioners who needed aid or solace, Mrs. Dashwood unwilling to leave the house for more than a brief walk in the fresh summer air. By the end of September, Mr. Avery continued pleased with the health of mother and child, and ceased his almost daily visits. Elinor began gradually to resume her regular activities and to display her daughter to all the parish, who called in twos and threes; and Marianne, not as essential at the parsonage and feeling much better herself, could return her full attention to her own home. Guest rooms would be needed for the planned visits of family and friends during the autumn and winter, and she wanted to make new linens and curtains and perhaps rearrange some of the furniture. "Though I cannot think why I am so concerned," she said to her sister one day. "They will spend all their time here looking at Rosalind. Poor Elinor! You will have to listen to Lady Middleton compare her to her new little Martha."
When she returned to the house, Elinor's manservant having accompanied her, Mrs. Baynes met her at the door and helped her off with her hat and her pelisse. "Where might I find my husband, Mrs. Baynes?" She had remembered having seen some interesting pieces in the attic, and wondered if they might be suitable for the guest rooms.
"He's in the drawing room with Mrs. Holcombe, ma'am."
"Oh dear, not Mrs. Holcombe!" Marianne cried--and immediately reproached herself. Really she must be careful what she said! Speaking her mind was all well and good, but she hardly wanted to embarrass Christopher in the eyes of those who had been his family's neighbors for decades, even generations. But she was fortunate in her blunder, for Mrs. Baynes was not a gossiping chambermaid; she could be trusted not to repeat such a comment in the servants' hall. "Thank you, Mrs. Baynes," she said, a little sheepishly, and thought she spied a glint of amused agreement in that good woman's eye.
Mrs. Holcombe had just arrived, and so Marianne was in time to hear first her gracious appreciation for the ball and then her apologies for being so late in conveying them; she had been called to the sickbed of a dear friend and had returned to Delaford only the day before. Marianne gave proper thanks that the friend had fully recovered, and was thinking to herself that perhaps Mrs. Holcombe did know what good manners were after all, when the lady then proceeded to a harangue on the general deterioration of the parish during her absence. "The roads, Colonel Brandon, the roads! The recent rains have made the roads very inconvenient; I do believe my internal organs have all shifted places, such was the bouncing I have received today."
"On that point I can reassure you, Mrs. Holcombe," Brandon said smoothly, offering her a small bowl of blackberries with her tea. "I have urged the surveyor to action, and the crews will begin repairs Monday next."
"I am glad to hear it." Mrs. Holcombe was a tall, elegant, vain woman, who favored large hats decorated with several varieties of garden flower; she had a habit of punctuating such firm declarations with a sharp bob of her colorful head, which always made her adornments dance to amusing effect. "Perhaps you can assign that young hooligan James Rivers to a crew. If he has enough time on his hands to sit by the road and throw pebbles at carriages, he wants more employment. Either that or a month at hard labor." Her pansies and petunias jostled and waved.
The colonel frowned. "I hope that you are not seriously considering a prosecution, Mrs. Holcombe. Jemmy Rivers is but ten years old, and to confine him with habitual and violent criminals would only harden him. But he has been reprimanded for this before. I shall speak to him again, and perhaps threaten him with an hour in the stocks."
"That will be satisfactory. And now, Colonel, about the church bell--do you think it is really in tune--?"
By the time Mrs. Holcombe departed a quarter of an hour later, Marianne's jaw was sore from gritting her teeth behind her polite smile. She refrained from comment, however, and when they were back in the drawing room began to talk about mattresses and chests of drawers, until her husband interrupted her. "You may say it."
"What you are thinking." His eyes were crinkled deeply at the corners; his lips twitched.
Marianne obliged. "That woman!" He burst out laughing, and she drew a deep breath and let it out, feeling very unladylike but considerably calmer. "May we go up to the attic now?"
"By all means. But it holds very little of any value--"
He had taken her on a tour of the entire house from cellar to attic upon their return from the Lakes, but she had not then had reason to study each individual item. Now she guided him through the shadows to a wardrobe and desk, that in the dim light of the small window looked as though they were a set. "These are lovely pieces, that a guest could make good use of. I cannot see them clearly--is the color disgusting? Is that why you've hidden them up here in the dark?" She became aware that he had grown very quiet. "What is it?"
She could not see his face clearly in the dimness, but she had the impression she had startled him. "Those belong to Beth," he said, and she thought his voice held a hint of strain. "She hasn't room for them at Mrs. Sutton's. When she has her own establishment in a few years I shall have them delivered to her."
"Why then aren't they in a room downstairs--?" But before he answered, she knew.
"They were her mother's."
"Oh. I see."
Afraid that he had offended her with his abrupt reply and its inherent significance, he struggled to sound nonchalant, to be purely informative with no emotional overtone--but he did not succeed. "They are lovely pieces, dating from about 1580--they came to her from an aunt. I had really forgotten they were here. I had them brought up when I inherited the estate. I could not look at them. They were--especially painful reminders."
He remembered gazing at Eliza while she worked at that desk, writing letters or entries in her diary, or simply daydreaming before a window opening onto park and sky. He remembered angry, tormented confrontation: Father, you cannot mean this--Charles--but Eliza and I are betrothed!-- He remembered his final meeting with his brother, when he had sought to learn what had become of Eliza, remembered Charles's utter lack of interest in the welfare of the cousin whose fortune he had appropriated by the most despicable means; Charles's only concern had been that he was still required to pay Eliza's maintenance annuity of two hundred pounds even though she had sold it to another. It was one of the few times in Brandon's life that his usual self-control had deserted him; that recollection was mortifying, though he had had just cause for the abuse he had shouted, for the blows he had struck. Returning to these walls, these grounds eight years later had held nothing of pleasure. But Eliza was now beyond pain, and those who had harmed her were beyond earthly retribution, and when Marianne had joined him the house had once again become a home.
He turned to her with a smile, and in the same moment realized how long he had been lost in reflection. She had seated herself on a trunk full of old clothing, and he sat beside her and took her hand and pressed it to his lips. "Forgive me."
She could not deny that his withdrawal had disconcerted her. She had been curious about Eliza upon being told his history--and how strange it was to know his history without ever having heard it from him; but that early curiosity had faded, so engrossed had she been in learning to know the man he had become. It had been revived upon her becoming mistress of what had been Eliza's house--inevitable given her encounters with the traces, both tangible and ephemeral, that Eliza had left behind; a silent but pervasive legacy. It had faded again in the press of activity and duty, in the excitement surrounding her pregnancy and in the proof of his love that that pregnancy represented. It had been revived yet again now, here; but his kisses, with their reminders of all they had shared, all that he had said to her, had become to her, completely dispelled any faint anxiety, any faint suspicion that Eliza was yet too much alive in his memory. His withdrawal had been no more than recollection, and a wistfulness about what might have been without any wish that the present were altered--a complex mingling of feelings that she well understood.
"For what?" she asked softly. "For remembering someone you loved? You cannot erase that love--or your disappointment."
"It doesn't trouble you that I mention her?"
"Does it trouble you if I refer to Willoughby?"
"No," he replied, but found that he could not bear to deceive her even slightly. "A little, sometimes--but only a little, and only sometimes."
"It is the same with me. Isn't it strange to wish some sad experience had never happened and yet at the same time be grateful for it, because it has made you the person you are? Even for your sake I cannot wholly regret Eliza, for if not for your experience of her you could not be so understanding about Willoughby."
"Nor would I be able to appreciate your strength in coping with his betrayal, in moving on with your life much more quickly than I did with mine. Of course I met no one then who could give me reason to."
"But I did. I would have spent a much longer time brooding about Willoughby had not a true gentleman been before me. He had long been there, of course, but I could not see him then, because I was blind. I cannot be sorry, you know, that you did not meet someone sooner who was more worthy of your devotion, because if you had you would not then have been free when I was no longer blind."
There was not a great deal of room on the trunk for a tender, passionate embrace, but with perseverance and ingenuity they accomplished it nonetheless. After a time, Marianne asked, "Are there many of Eliza's things left for Beth?"
"Very few. Some jewelry I recognized--of sentimental value only; a few dresses overlooked in the attic. What personal items she had taken with her she had long since sold, and my brother had purged the house of what remained. He burned her diaries and letters."
"Such bitterness-- It seems harsh to try to obliterate even her memory."
"He was a harsh man--though I hope his actions were motivated at least in part by guilt; they had, after all, once been friends. It is true she had offended him, but he deserved no less. The law, however, favors husbands, not wives. Even so, if she had been more prudent, her allowance would have been sufficient to sustain her and her child." His tone held no condemnation, only sadness. "But she had expected to marry her lover, and despaired when he abandoned her."
"What if--she had come to you?"
"To me?" The question shocked him; but he could not refuse to answer. He knew her feelings toward Willoughby; she had a right to know his toward Eliza. He realized that in fact he had never spoken to her of Eliza, and this surprised him, for surely she knew everything about him by now. "We could not have married. She was my sister by law."
"That same law that favors cruel husbands over mistreated wives?"
He silently accepted her implied point that unfair laws could be evaded--on the Continent, perhaps, or in the East. "I don't--" He had had several brief liaisons over the years, with genteel widows as lonely as he. What might it have been to regain Eliza? His feelings toward her had been so confused, even when he saw her again in the last weeks of her life. The actions of his father and brother had been indefensible, but she might have resisted, might have waited for him-- "It clearly never occurred to her to contact me. But even if she had done so, even if she had repented her surrender--I felt that she had betrayed me--" How it had hurt to be so angry with her! "I do not believe we could have recovered our attachment. Perhaps she did not believe it either."
"I feel the same about Willoughby. I know that he did repent, but he had already destroyed my love for him. There was no going back. There was only forward--to you."
"My Marianne--" He pressed his lips to hers and for some minutes there was no sound but their sighs, and murmured wishes for a straw pallet and a lock on the attic door.
At length Marianne pulled a little away and began to smooth his hair with her fingers. "Christopher, I have an idea."
He took possession of one of her hands and began to kiss her palm. "What is that?"
"Perhaps we could move the pieces into the finest guest room, and then--it could be Eliza's whenever she visits."
She had startled him again. "Do you mean--?"
"I have been giving the matter a great deal of thought. You haven't the time to go to see her as often as you would like--you have said something of it--and you have had to postpone at least one journey because of parish business. I do not like that my presence is keeping her from coming here as she used to do."
"She doesn't think of Delaford as her home in that sense, you know."
"Perhaps, but she has been accustomed to visit you whenever she liked, and she cannot now because of me. Has it ever been this long between her visits?" He had to admit that it had not; and he had managed to visit Oakhill only once since their return. "Christopher, I do not want to disrupt your family."
"You are very generous, my Marianne, and very brave. I do want the two of you to meet, but I do not want you to invite her before you are ready, simply because I wish it."
"And do you believe you have such influence over me, sir?"
He laughed softly. "No, never to influence you to do what is not right for you."
"I do want to meet her, and she seems to want to meet me. I can see no reason to put it off any longer. I do not want her to think I am uncomfortable at the prospect."
"But aren't you?"
"If I am it is because she reminds me of Willoughby, and I cannot--and do not wish to--shy away from every reminder of him." How many painful memories this house must hold for her husband, yet he had found the courage to return. She was determined for his sake to fill these walls with happy memories now. "If I dwell on those recollections then he still has power over me, and I will not let that happen. I will not let him interfere with my happiness with you."
He gazed at her a moment, and then said very seriously, "I adore you."
She clasped his hands, and her smile seemed to light the large space to its darkest corners. He was well aware that she did not profess to adore him in return, but he was also aware that his feelings for her gave her pleasure, and he was less inhibited now in his expression of them. But he was sometimes a little afraid of the intensity of such feelings, with their accompanying apprehension that she would never return them, and it was he this time who injected a more prosaic note. "Will you invite her child as well?"
She frowned slightly at his apparent coldness. "Of course I will, and his name is John."
"Yes, I know. I cannot but wish it were not. An unwise connection to his father--so many lingering emotions-- Surely a clean break would have been less distressing. I urged her to choose another name but at the time she was still enamored of Willoughby, still hoping he would return to her. To name a child after her seducer! I could not believe she would really do it."
"Does she still care for him?"
"I do not know--we don't speak of it any more. It led only to angry words. I hope she, too, is looking forward. --But at the moment I am more concerned about the boy as a reminder for you."
"I never called Willoughby by his Christian name, you know--and anyway every other boy and man one meets is called John. But I am concerned, to be truthful," and she looked and sounded less certain of herself, "about the resemblance he bears his father."
"It is pronounced, and I think growing more so. But it is surprising how quickly one ceases to notice it. He is himself. Beth resembles her mother greatly, and yet I rarely think of Eliza--in the sense of a flood of renewed grief--when I look at her, for she is herself." It had not always been the case. To look upon Eliza's daughter in the first months of his guardianship had always been poignant, and it had been so again years later when it seemed that Beth had ruined her life beyond repair just as her mother had done. But he had been able to thrust aside those onslaughts of memory, and so would Marianne when she came to know Willoughby's son.
"You encourage me. I so want to like him. After all, he is not to blame. But are you certain Eliza wants to come? I would not wish her to regard an invitation as a summons--"
"I assure you she is eager to come, but only if you are comfortable."
Marianne laughed. "It appears that each of us will be frantic to put the other at her ease!"
The invitation was dispatched and gratefully accepted, and a day in mid-October set for Eliza's arrival for a stay of ten days, all that Mrs. Sutton could spare her at present. Elinor, who witnessed more of her sister's nerves concerning the visit than did Brandon, remarked that it was generally preferable for a visit to be too short than too long.
The day arrived, and such was Marianne's agitation that she could eat only a small piece of dry toast. "I hope Eliza will be pleased when she sees the wardrobe and desk in her room."
"You've placed them beautifully," said her husband. "The light from the window will fall perfectly across her page. They look so well there that perhaps I shall make her wait until she marries to claim them."
She smiled at his jest, and then said, "'Until' she marries?"
"I have not lost hope of it--though sometimes I believe she has."
"Surely your patronage will be an asset to her."
"I do hope so."
"Is her father still alive?"
"No. He died a very few years after her birth. Looking back I can see that he was then showing the first signs of consumption."
"What? Did you meet him?"
"I did. I called upon him to insist that he support his child." His expression and tone were briefly wry, as if to say "I really do not intend to make a habit of such encounters"; but then he sobered again. "He refused to acknowledge her--and in truth there was not the compelling evidence of resemblance, for Beth is a mirror image of her mother in almost every feature--and, unlike her daughter, Eliza had not been blameless since. But to avoid further scandal he offered a hundred pounds, and to my shame I took it."
"Why to your shame?" she asked, with some indignation.
"Because had I investigated him more thoroughly I would have learned that he was estranged from his father and in danger of being disinherited as punishment for his many sordid affairs. That is why he did not marry Eliza; his father was very devout and would not have accepted a divorced woman into the family. He probably would have paid much more--though an acknowledgment of his child would have been impossible for the same reason."
"I think you were very clever to get such a large sum at all. I admire your courage in confronting him--you were but two-and-twenty."
"I had been a soldier for five years and had learned how to give orders to other men," he pointed out. "But this man reminded me so much of my brother that--I found it difficult to face him."
"Then I admire you all the more for doing so."
His frown of self-blame and castigation faded before a self-conscious smile. "I did not marry you with the expectation that you should flatter me, you know."
"I do not flatter, sir, and if you believe I do then you do not know me at all and should not call yourself my husband."
"Oh, but I must call myself your husband, and so I will never again accuse you of flattery--I swear it."
"I accept your promise." They were completely alone in the breakfast room, it being their habit to dismiss the maids after the meal was brought, and they took full advantage of their privacy. And then he continued, as he applied his napkin to a smudge of jam that had migrated from his finger to her ear, "That hundred pounds allowed me to place Eliza in a better school than I could have afforded, and gave me time to save enough from my pay and appointments to maintain her there when that initial sum was exhausted. So for all his faults her father did fulfill more of his obligations to her than--"
He stopped abruptly with a guilty glance toward her, and Marianne finished the sentence for him. "Than Willoughby has done for Eliza and John."
He nodded. "If he had gone even so far, I would not have challenged him, for the fault was of course partly hers."
"Does Eliza know about the--the encounter?"
"Yes. It was a cause of estrangement between us for some months, but she seems to have forgiven me. We have never discussed it since."
"No doubt she realized she should be grateful for your intervention."
"Perhaps, but I hope it was more than that. I hope she came to understand the necessity of some sort of punishment for his crime. He was so callous when I confronted him, so unfeeling with regard to her predicament. He knew she could not sue him for breach of promise, for all his promises had been uttered where no ears but hers could hear them. He knew that I could not bring suit for seduction because I am not her father. And even if either of those remedies had been available to us, he knew I would never subject her to a public trial, when not only her history but also her mother's would be brought into the record, possibly even published. Such selfish calculation--" Again he halted, but not before Marianne had seen and heard some of the rigidly controlled but inexorable wrath he must have directed at Willoughby on that awful morning. "Forgive me. No matter your current feelings, I should not speak of him that way to you."
"Why not? It is all true. Do not think I have never wondered whether I would have succumbed had he tempted me, and how he would have behaved toward me afterward, especially had I conceived. Would his respect and admiration for me--given his subsequent behavior, I cannot call it love--have survived that intimacy? I do rather doubt it. And then I would have lost not only him, but you as well."
"No," he said softly, "not me as well."
His look said, you see how deep and strong is my love, and as she met that look with one of grateful amazement she thought of tempests, and how this man had never quailed before them.
The aromas of slow-roasting hams, baking bread, and cooling apple and berry pies filled the air as Marianne and Mrs. Baynes made lists of all the items Mrs. Howell insisted she needed in her kitchen and pantry. More frequent entertaining, argued the worthy cook, required additional crockery and utensils, sponges and washtubs, and Mrs. Baynes and Tim were to be dispatched into the village on an expedition to procure them.
"A half-dozen more mixing spoons would be of use, madam, and another pastry slab--"
The worthy cook was interrupted by the crunch of fast hooves in the sweep and a spraying of gravel against the stone steps. Marianne went to investigate, thinking that such a dramatic arrival did not suggest the post-boy delivering Eliza in his pony-cart. She reached the door in time to see Christopher tear open the sealed missive delivered into his hand by an express rider, who stood off to one side holding the reins of his blowing horse. He looked up at her approach, astonishment written on his features.
"It is from Sarah. She and the children are at Plymouth."
"The tension in Avignon is increasing, and Claude thought it prudent to send them on. There wasn't time for her to write. Marianne--" A look of dismay and frustration came over his face. "I must go to them."
"But--" she began, unable to stop herself even though she feared he would be disappointed in her--and that possibility all at once let her reclaim her courage. "Of course you must go. I am weak to utter even one syllable of protest." His look had changed to one of relief and pride; he knew the upcoming encounter would be difficult for her and applauded her determination to see it through almost alone. "But can you not stay until Eliza arrives? It should not be above two more hours."
"I would not go without seeing her. In the first hour I shall dress and pack; the second--" he brushed leather-scented fingers across her lips "--I shall spend in saying a sweet farewell." He called out to George, who had also heard the rider's approach and was hovering at the stable doors in the event his services were wanted, to ready the chaise. He then glanced toward the house as if to enter, but could not seem to tear himself away from Marianne. "The best laid schemes--" Wistful apology was in his smile. "We should not be gone above three days, but I did expect to be here to ease the way for you and Eliza."
"My dear Christopher, we are two grown women. We should be ashamed of ourselves if we cannot sustain an intelligent conversation between us. By the time you return we shall be the best of friends."
But her bravado deserted her as soon as he started for his study to pen a hasty reply to his sister, and she hurried down the lane toward the parsonage, forgetting entirely to ask anyone to accompany her.
In minutes she had laid the crisis before her relations, but they offered her no relief. Thinking it only appropriate that Marianne's first meeting with Eliza be conducted in the privacy of her own family, they had not hesitated to accept a last-minute dinner engagement with neighbors who wanted to celebrate the news of a son's promotion to first mate.
"Can you not come for an hour later in the evening, then?"
"If we return in time," Elinor said, "and if we can pry Edward loose from Rosalind after an entire evening away from her."
Her husband looked up from his newspaper. "And who was it who would not even take a drive Sunday last after church?" he asked archly, and then winked at Marianne.
Elinor's smile admitted the truth of his accusation. "But Marianne, the Caseboroughs will want to toast Martin half the night. Do not depend on our being able to come away early. We cannot be rude to them, even in such a dire emergency as this."
"Mock me if you like--I have no pride. I did so count on Christopher's being there. If Eliza and I found we had nothing to say to one another we could always talk to him. But now what shall we do?"
"Remember it is you who must make her feel at ease," her mother said. "She is probably more nervous than you are. Ask about her interests, and her work with Mrs. Sutton, the sort of people she meets, her plans--"
"But such conversation is so stilted and artificial."
"One must begin somewhere. Ask her then what she reads--does she like music and painting--
"And have her think I want to display my own taste at her expense?"
"Take her about the house to show her the changes you have made," Elinor suggested.
"And have her think I only want compliments from her?"
Elinor gave it up and returned her attention to the bonnet she was sewing for her child. "If you did not want our suggestions why did you ask for them?"
"I thought you would think of something useful, but you do not care--"
"Marianne!" from her mother.
A tiny wail was heard from the bedroom, and Elinor said evenly, "I do have my own concerns, Marianne." The nurse appeared and reported that little Rosalind was awake and demanding to be fed.
"Of course you do. I am sorry, Elinor. I'm so dreadfully nervous--Christopher is so pleased that I have invited Eliza and I want the visit to go well. Will you please try to come?"
"We shall try, my dear," said Mrs. Dashwood, patting her hand, but as Marianne hurried back to the manor house, nearly tripping over the stable lad George had assigned to follow her, she felt only the slightest bit heartened, for it would be many hours before she could begin to hope for that support.
She was glad to have the distraction of consultation with Mrs. Baynes as to whether extra towels, soap, etc., should be purchased in the village for the impending influx of guests. When they had added several items to the shopping list, she went to Christopher's dressing room and found him clad in a comfortable suit for travelling, and directing Tim to take his case out to the chaise. When they were alone, he pulled her into a tight embrace, wrapping his arms about her as if to make her part of himself so that they would not truly be separated, so that she would always be with him. "I shall miss you, my Marianne."
"And I shall miss you." She returned his embrace with equal fervor, though she was aware that at the moment she clung to him with a certain desperation that she would not have felt in other circumstances. "Take care on your journey, and please tell Sarah and the children that I look forward to meeting them."
"I shall. I'll reach Plymouth tonight, but I expect we shall break the return journey into two parts. If we look not to return by evening of the day after tomorrow, I shall send an express to let you know. I shall be at the Prince George, in the event you should need me."
He rested his cheek against her rose-scented hair, felt her warmth flowing into his body. To have someone with whom to exchange farewells, someone to embrace him and concern herself with his safety; to know that she would be waiting when he returned, perhaps looking up from her work at every hoof beat in the sweep with the same eagerness he would feel as he turned in at the gate, was nothing short of overwhelming. After Eliza was taken from him he had spent quite some time in a state of distracted misery alleviated only by the determined efforts of Jonah Masters, who had taken an interest in a comrade who was far too young to consign himself to melancholy for the rest of his days. Once admitting the possibility, thanks to Masters's badgerings, that he might love again, he conversed and danced with every daughter of the army he could meet on posts and at balls, his willingness to do so ensuring that he was invited to every gathering at which young marriageable ladies were present, especially as his rank and pay increased. This practice he continued after he became master of Delaford and found himself and his assets in even greater demand, but within a year it had become mere habit, for by then, having met every such young lady, it seemed, in three or four counties, he had accepted that he would find no one who could touch his heart as Eliza had done so long before, who could rekindle the youthful liveliness and joy he had lost. To then meet such a one, after giving up any dream of doing so--and to be shown very soon that she was hopelessly beyond his ability to captivate her--had been inexpressibly poignant. To find that situation overturned, to feel her arms around him, to see fondness in her eyes when she looked at him, was quite beyond anything he was capable of wholly believing.
"You will not disappear?" he murmured. "You will be here when I return?"
"I will be here. Come home soon, my dearest Christopher."
"It does feel like home now, with you here, rather than merely a place I sleep and store my clothing."
"I am so glad you feel that way." She began to demonstrate her sincerity, but their kisses were interrupted by the sound of jogging hoofbeats in the sweep. She clutched his arms and drew a deep breath, he pressed his lips against her forehead, and together they went downstairs to meet Eliza.
She was just stepping out of the post-boy's cart, her grip on its side more white-knuckled than one might think necessary for her to steady herself. Marianne hung back while Brandon strode out onto the gravel to welcome her with warm hand clasps and kisses, thanking Polly for her service as Eliza's travelling companion. Then he reached to give little John's chubby shoulder a pat where he squirmed in the chambermaid's arms. She would serve as his nurse during his stay, having gained much experience in caring for six younger siblings at home before going into service. Marianne's eye, thus drawn toward the boy by her husband's gesture, then fixed upon him to the exclusion of all others within her sight.
Nearly two years old now, he was Willoughby in miniature. He possessed Willoughby's curly dark hair and laughing brown eyes, his fine nose and chin and brow, his same open, lively expression. God help me, she thought. What a fool I have been. I cannot see this through--
Continued in Part 2
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