Mistress of a Family
She could not have said how long she stood fastened to the step. Long enough for Christopher to exhaust his words of welcome and explanation, long enough for Eliza to send anxious glances her way, her composure visibly faltering.
And then she heard Eliza say, "Perhaps I should go," and she was shamed. After travelling for most of a forenoon, Eliza--her guest--was proposing to turn right around and go home again. She at least had had a little time to accept the new arrangements; poor Eliza, as yet uncertain of her exact standing in her hostess's eyes, must be badly taken aback, having probably counted on the colonel just as Marianne had to direct the conversation and give her hints as to appropriate behavior.
"Nonsense," she said, at last able to coax movement from her legs, words from her lips, and taking strength from Christopher's reassuring smile. "Of course you must stay." When Brandon introduced Eliza to her, she met Eliza's curtsy with a handshake to make amends for her earlier hesitation, and she could see that Eliza was both surprised and encouraged. "And we shall hope your cousins arrive as planned so you may see them while you are here."
"That would be lovely. I have a vague memory of my cousins Marchbanks, but I have never seen the children at all." Eliza's voice was soft and of a medium pitch; she spoke with some hesitation, as if afraid to be thought trying to dominate the opening moments of conversation. She was pretty without being striking, with a subdued air that might result from either nervousness or a natural gravity. Her resemblance to her cousin was not remarkable, but it was plain enough that Marianne thought it not surprising that Mrs. Jennings and others might believe her his own daughter. She could see Eliza examining her though trying not to, and knew she must be wondering what sort of woman had been so fortunate as to win her cousin's affection. And I have yet done precious little to make her think me worthy of him.
Some progress was made, perhaps, in the guest room, where Eliza exclaimed with delight upon seeing her mother's wardrobe and desk restored to a place of dignity, and expressed shy gratitude when Brandon revealed that the suggestion had been all Marianne's. But delight faded before renewed alarm when he was forced, with further apologies and promises to return as soon as he possibly could, to take his leave of her. He and Marianne withdrew to allow her to refresh herself and tend to the usual needs of children younger than a certain age. They did not proceed immediately downstairs, however, but slipped into their own bedroom for a last quick embrace.
When they drew apart he placed his hand gently against her abdomen, firm now but not yet much rounded. "Do take care of yourself and our child, my love."
"Do not worry--I shall keep all my promises." She had to make herself let him go, and when she had seen him to the carriage and he was off, she stood in the sweep until after the vehicle had passed from sight, until she could no longer hear the wheels in the lane.
Recollecting only then that she had left Eliza in her room with no suggestions as to their activity, she directed reluctant steps toward the stairs--but saw Polly taking John's small things to the laundry and asked where were Miss Williams and her son. "In the garden, ma'am," was the answer, and Marianne turned toward the back of the house, reflecting that Eliza was actually more at home at Delaford than she yet was herself.
When she joined them, Eliza immediately began to offer explanation for what she clearly feared her hostess might consider a liberty. "I thought I should give John opportunity to tire himself, or he will never nap--"
And indeed the child was displaying a boisterous energy--just like Willoughby's, Marianne thought--squatting to study a flower and then trying to eat it, thrusting a hand into the pool in an attempt to grab a fish, racing down the paths shrieking with glee as his mother chased him. When he was briefly still, poking at the gravel with a stick, she said, by way of attempting conversation, "I understand that Mrs. Sutton employs a nurse for all the children where you live?"
"Yes, ma'am--there are four little ones there now, all younger than three and walking, so she is very busy." And then Eliza quieted, and seemed grateful when John resumed his spirited investigations.
Marianne was unable to take advantage of the most natural way to pass the time when a child is present, by playing with him or talking about him, for she could not look at Willoughby's son without a pang of remembered mortification and grief, and felt a constriction in her chest until Polly took him upstairs and out of her sight. She had then to fear that Eliza, like most doting parents, would want to boast about her child, and waited in sick expectation for the inevitable recitation of his accomplishments and genius, for it would not require anything like the usual quantity of such sentiment to make her writhe. Eliza, however, spoke not a word of him, and that was worse, because the fear only grew from not being satisfied by actuality.
Marianne offered tea in her sitting room, glad of the little subjects for chat provided by the familiar ritual, on whether or not they liked cream and sugar, on favorite varieties and techniques of preparation, on preferred sweets and savories. But these topics filled but ten minutes, and then they were silent. Resigned, she plunged into her mother's and sister's suggestions for conversation one after another. Inviting Eliza to name her favorite books and paintings, she found that they had similar tastes, but had little to say to each other about any given novel or play or watercolor, each perhaps recalling comparable discussions with Willoughby. When they had finished their tea they walked through the house, Eliza politely complimenting the new paper and chairs in Marianne's sitting room and the general shine all about, the rooms having been scrubbed and polished to welcome the new mistress. But Marianne's thoughts were full of her tour of Allenham with Willoughby, of how happy she had been that day, and of her later understanding of how wrong she had been to go there with him. What had happened to Eliza might so easily have happened to her--there, that day. What if he had pressed her? Would she not have hesitated, refused, distrustful of any urgency when he had the approval of her family? Would she not?
Eliza knew more of the history of Delaford and the family than Marianne had yet learned--which Brandon ancestor had fought for the martyred Charles I, which had sailed for America and married a red Indian, which had raised horses renowned throughout the county--but conveyed it only in snippets as they inspected this portrait and that, perhaps apprehensive that Marianne would think her suggesting that she had some claim on the house besides that of emotion. They talked of the countryside surrounding the estate, and of the neighbors and village life in general, Marianne always, as a dutiful hostess, carrying the burden of opening a new subject when an old one died, Eliza seeming to prefer to follow wherever she led rather than put forward a suggestion herself. She was too diffident for Marianne's taste, reluctant to express an opinion without seeming first to estimate its possible effect on her listener. She could be interesting, even animated, on subjects in which she could claim a certain expertise--her favorite receipts, for instance, and of course sewing and embroidery, for she truly enjoyed her work at Mrs. Sutton's establishment. She had, in fact, sent the Brandons as a wedding present two silk pillowcases embroidered with woodland scenes, and Marianne took this opportunity to compliment her skills anew, having already done so in her letter of thanks. Eliza blushed and professed herself honored by Marianne's praise--and that was all that was said of embroidery. To Marianne this interviewing style of discourse was every bit as formal as she had anticipated, but she preferred it to the silence they would have faced had their conversation depended upon Eliza's initiative; always when Eliza had talked uninterrupted for a minute or two, she would let a thought trail away unless a question or remark from Marianne brought her back to it. They spoke with each other in this unnatural manner until John awoke noisily from his nap just before the dinner hour, and Marianne--and probably Eliza as well--was relieved that the child and the need to dress separated them for an hour. During dinner they complimented each other's gowns minutely, every bit of lace and riband, and then proceeded desperately to a long discussion of china and silver patterns.
In all the interminable afternoon and evening the only subject they did not address was the one on which they had most in common.
After dinner John was brought to the drawing room to be adorable, which he did with many smiles that made Marianne think of Willoughby; but his mother could not be at ease when she could sense that her child's presence was unwelcome, and despite his protests sent him up to bed earlier than his usual time, informing him that after his long journey he was very much tireder than he realized. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret walked up about half past nine, and it was all Marianne could do not to throw her arms about her mother and plead for rescue. They brought regrets from Elinor and Edward, who had not liked the sound of Rosalind's cry when they arrived home from the Caseboroughs'. "I told them it is only the colic," said Mrs. Dashwood, "and Nurse Garmey agrees, but I promised we should not be away long." They stayed but half an hour, only long enough to exchange pleasantries with Eliza and accept an invitation to breakfast. But it was half an hour filled and done away with, and when they had departed it had grown late enough that Marianne, without seeming very rude, could suggest that Eliza also might like to retire, and Eliza could acquiesce without appearing too relieved.
Marianne fell into bed exhausted by the effort of being amiable enough for two, but she could not sleep; anxiety made her ill for the first time in weeks. How she did regret her boast to her husband--we shall be the best of friends. She could carry on an easier conversation with Mrs. Holcombe, for Mrs. Holcombe would allow it. As hostess she was responsible for the awkwardness of the afternoon, and yet surely in fairness Eliza must share some of the blame. But as hostess it was her place to make her guest feel at ease, and at that she had clearly failed. She herself was not at ease, and was quite incapable of pretending that she was; she wished for some of Elinor's ability, not to mention her husband's, to conceal emotions. Was it even possible that they could ever be comfortable with one another? After such a day she thought there was little hope of it. Christopher would be so hurt, that two of those he loved most in the world could not be friends.
She longed for his arms around her, his soothing voice in her ear, longed to pour out her frustrations to him and beg him to help her find a way to assuage them. He knew both Eliza and herself so well, and was so accustomed to difficult situations; were he here this awkwardness would be less painful, might not even have occurred at all. By now he would be safely--please God, safely--in Plymouth, happy in reunion with Sarah, yet wishing, no doubt, that he could be at Delaford as well. She conjured his image in her mind as if to wish him good-night. How she did miss him! The bed was cold and lonely, the room oddly silent without the whisper of his breathing and the soft rustle of the bedclothes as he moved in his sleep. They had slept apart only during her monthly indispositions and once when he had had a cold and had not wanted to awaken her with his sneezes, but then she had known he was only as far away as the next room, and that she would see him in the morning as usual. Tomorrow's would be the first morning of their married life that she would not begin her day with his smile--and on a day when she most needed to see it, needed to take strength from his confidence in her. The thought made her ache for him, and she murmured his name into the darkness; but the murmur became a sob, and the churning mixture of her feelings at last found an outlet in tears.
"My God, you look well!" Sarah exclaimed, stepping back from her brother's embrace but keeping hold of his hands. "I have not seen you so relaxed in years. Dear Kit," falling back upon his boyhood nickname, "you look as if you've put aside all your cares at last. Philippe, Christophe!--here is your Uncle Colonel! Come in, come in--you see we have a very comfortable parlor, and you must be tired, coming all that way so quickly. And how does Marianne?"
"She is feeling very well, much improved since the first weeks. She is so looking forward to meeting you all."
"Not as much as I am to meeting her, especially now that I see what she has done for you."
Brandon's nephews, fourteen and twelve respectively, had thundered out of their bedroom, and he saluted them and shook their hands and gave them the bag of sweetmeats he had bought during his brief stop for dinner in Ashburton. "You should have seen Mama when your letter came," they shouted, each continually interrupting the other so as to have the first honor of telling it. "She let out a great shriek--and plastered us all with kisses--and swung Papa around the room--until they were both dizzy!"
"Did she really--my dignified Sal? I should like to have seen that."
"Well, I had worried about you for such a long time, you know," said their mother. "But on the evidence of my eyes I believe I can stop worrying now." His wide smile was her answer.
He followed her into the second bedroom to pay his respects to Louise, aged three, who could not decide whether to be fascinated or frightened by him, and her sister, Marie, just eight months old, whom he was seeing now for the first time. All the children were blessed, or cursed, with the prominent Roman nose shared by their mother and uncle, but in their other features, somewhat narrow and sharp, they resembled their father more. Philippe was named after Claude's father, Christophe after himself; neither of Sarah's other three boys, who had all died in infancy, had been named after Gilbert or Charles Brandon. She had sided with her youngest brother in the ugly family quarrel, and after his exile had never spoken again to her father or to Charles.
It being now past nine o'clock, Sarah ordered coffee and brandy for accompaniment to the narrative of their travels, her note by the express having contained few details. They owed their safe passage to a merchant friend, whose carriage had conveyed them from La Tonnelle, their estate outside Avignon, to one of his ships at Marseilles; this had taken them to Minorca, where they had found passage to England in a British frigate. The voyage around the Iberian peninsula and through the strait of Gibraltar, though not perilous, had been rough, and they had been glad to be put off onto the wharf at Plymouth two weeks later.
"We were all ill for a few days at first--but only a little," put in Philippe and Christophe. They were fluent in English, but spoke it with a noticeable accent. "Except for Nurse Madeleine--she was very bad."
"Yes, she was, poor dear. I do not know what I should have done without my good boys to help me. Louise was also ill, and Marie needed nursing--I would happily have paid the sailors if not for my fine boys." And they blushed at their mother's praise and tried not to look immodestly pleased with themselves.
They did not appear very alarmed at this sudden removal from their home or very concerned about the perhaps uncertain fate of their father, and thus Brandon suspected that Sarah had not been wholly forthcoming with them about the danger. When they had at last gone to bed about midnight and the door was safely shut, he poured her another brandy and spoke in a low voice, lest a sharp young ear be pressed to the keyhole.
"And now, what is really happening? You look very tired, and you are thinner than I like to see you." Though she was the elder by five years, he could be at least as solicitous of her wellbeing as she was of his.
"Well, I do not lament that," she said with surprising cheer, and as always he admired the flexible strength that had allowed her to live with something like aplomb in what had been, in the early years of the Revolution, one of the most volatile areas of France. "Christophe told me after Marie was born that I looked like a brioche!"
"My namesake is kindness itself. You are not ill, then?"
"Oh no, only anxious. An unhappy time for us--"
"Is there anything I can do? I have an adventurous contact or two at Minorca--"
She was shaking her head. "You know that Claude is not too proud to ask, but really we think it will be all right." She sighed and picked at an embroidered rose on her dress. "He is selling La Tonnelle to an uncle. The laws concerning Emigres are relaxed now, but by tomorrow they might be as harsh as they ever were, and we should lose everything. I haven't told the boys yet--why upset them until it is all settled? Of course Philippe expects it to come to him. I suppose it will be many years before any of us can return. At least it will be in the family. Claude will follow when he can get free of the lawyers. He is going to plant acres of grapes in the home farm at Whitwell and become famous throughout the county for his wine!" Her smile was wistful, and her eyes swam a little. "Of course we are very fortunate to have Whitwell, but La Tonnelle had become home to me. I shall miss it."
"It is a lovely place--I shall miss visiting there. But as sorry as I am for the loss, I am so relieved that you are finally quitting France, and I cannot but be overjoyed at the prospect of your living so near. I want my children to know their aunt and uncle and cousins. It is selfish of me, I know."
"But so very sweet. And to hear you talking of your children! Is marriage all you hoped?"
He drew a deep, reflective breath. "I feel--alive again."
"Yes," his sister said with great satisfaction. "I shall definitely like her. And of course she thinks you the most wonderful man on earth."
His hesitation was very brief, but she noticed it and gave him a puzzled look. "I hope--I believe--she would not have married me otherwise, but--well, I confess that of the two of us I am the more completely infatuated."
"Oh, I see. Don't worry, dear Kit, it will come. I love Claude more with every passing year. It is inevitable that love should grow after shared experiences--or affection become love." She looked briefly self-pitying. "I have never been separated from him as long as this. He looked so forlorn on the dock as our boat pulled away-- I must try to stay busy."
"You will have your work cut out for you at Whitwell. Does Mrs. MacIntyre know you're coming?"
"Yes, I wrote to her at the same time I wrote to you, telling her to engage more servants and consider which workmen we shall need first."
"We have kept it in one piece for you, but it does need attention." A leaking roof in a remote wing had gone unnoticed for a time and had resulted in some damage to joists and ceilings. Brandon, with the assistance of the housekeeper and steward, had overseen the roof repairs, but had been going to put off the interior work until after the rents were collected. "The village will be pleased to have the house occupied again."
"I do wish we had been able to find a satisfactory tenant--absentee landowners are such an evil--but then who knows how long we should have to trespass on your generosity now?"
"My dear Sarah, Delaford is your home as much as it is mine."
"It will feel it with you as master. How strange it will be to live in England again. It is true we shall live well, and not be forced like some of our friends to make straw hats or paint watercolors to sell at the Emigre bazaars--but the differences of culture, of habit--" Her own speech was laced with the faintest touch of foreignness. "You will have to give me helpful instruction."
"Stay with us as long as you like--do not feel you must hurry your arrangements. We have even got new mattresses in the guest rooms."
"How domestic you sound!"
"Our next task is to ready the nursery," he added with a smile, furthering the impression. "Will you want to travel tomorrow?"
"Yes, we have not even unpacked completely. I know you want to return home as soon as you can."
"It is a joy to have a reason to go home. But beyond that--Eliza is there, you see."
He explained about the visit she had inadvertently interrupted. "They were so uncomfortable with each other, and I do feel as if I have abandoned them."
"But why should they be uncomfortable? They'll have great fun talking about you."
"I had forgotten--I have not yet had the opportunity to tell you of Marianne's earlier experience. The details are of course hers to reveal if she chooses, but she loved a worthless young man who encouraged her affections and then deserted her for an heiress--and it is that very cad who is the father of Eliza's child."
"Oh dear. That is awkward. But if they wanted so badly to meet each other they must have thought they could survive it."
"No doubt, but the indications were not very promising when I left."
"And you would like to rescue them, hmm? Well, I am sorry to have pulled you away. You should have explained in your note and told me to travel post."
"With four children and but one nurse? I would not have it."
"And so you charged to our rescue as well. Bless you, my dear. It will be so nice to see Eliza all grown up--and of course make myself foolish over little John. My own boys are almost young men now. Poor child--she has not made herself an easy life."
"No, she has not. But she is bearing it with resolution, and I am proud of her."
"If she is, you taught it to her--she did not inherit resolution from either of her parents. I'm sorry--I know that is painful. But it is true. You were deserted for an heir, you know." His look said he agreed with her. "But now you have got your just reward!" And his contented smile as he sipped his brandy told her he agreed with that as well.
Marianne woke at dawn to John's lusty demands for attention and his mother's vain attempts to quiet him, audible as Polly opened and closed the guest room door to bring the boy's porridge or carry out his linens. After her purging flood of tears she had at last been able to relax enough that needed slumber could overtake her, and she felt somewhat refreshed; but though her determination had strengthened, she really wanted only to remain in bed until her husband drove up the sweep. She would not shrink from her duty, however, from her own tempest; and though it was only half past six she forced herself to put feet to floor, to dress, to go out for a walk in the dewy woods among the glistening spider webs and the golden beech leaves half-hidden by the mist, Tim following at a discreet distance.
The exercise and the landscape renewed her as they always did, and by the time she returned to the house with her shoes and hems soaked through and went upstairs to change, she realized how unreasonable it had been, given her anxiety at the very idea of gazing upon Willoughby's son, to expect to be able to quickly conquer that aversion. Her own stiffness had been most to blame the day before, but Eliza too had obviously suffered nerves even as the cart had come up the drive, and probably on the entire journey that morning. They had done rather well simply to meet and converse in a general atmosphere of cordiality; the first overtures had been made with some degree of success, and today's encounters would no doubt proceed more smoothly.
She lost much of her new confidence and optimism, however, when almost the first words Eliza spoke to her--she not having the benefit of Marianne's ambulatory reflections--were of apology.
"Good morning, Mrs. Brandon. I hope you will forgive us for disturbing you." They had met in the hallway, both on their way to await their breakfast guests, Polly having taken John outside to play. Eliza's brow was creased a little with apprehension.
To her own astonishment Marianne found herself telling one of those polite lies she had always abhorred from Elinor's lips. "Oh, you did not wake me--my condition does not always allow me to sleep well, and I sometimes go for an early walk." She realized as never before that Elinor was not deceiving herself when she asserted that such distortions of truth--for it was true that her condition did at times disrupt her sleep--were usually meant only to spare the listener's feelings.
They had no sooner reached the entry hall when Mrs. Dashwood, Margaret, and Edward were heard chatting amiably in the sweep, and within a very few minutes all five were seated in the dining room around platters of toast and cakes and pots of butter and jam. Rosalind was recovered, the happy grandmother reported, but Elinor had been awake with her very late and was still asleep.
"She hopes, however, that you both will call on her later in the morning," Edward put in, "and if we may we shall all come to dinner."
Marianne really wanted to kiss him, and suspected from his look that he knew it, but she said with admirable steadiness, "You know you are always welcome."
It seemed to her, however, that Eliza did not share her enthusiasm, and gradually it began to penetrate her observation that Edward made Eliza nervous. She had never thought what effect Edward's clerical garb might have on her guest; to her he was her brother first and a clergyman second. But she felt she should have thought about it, should have realized that of course Eliza could not know that Edward was not judgmental, that he knew very well what agony youthful folly could bring in after years. She could say nothing in explanation, could only wish the meal over and Edward, for Eliza's sake, gone to his meeting with some lawyers about a recent bequest to the parish, but she could not but be amused at the notion of her gentle brother inspiring terror in anyone but the inattentive children he chided from the lectern.
Margaret had been admonished severely not to say anything that might embarrass Miss Williams, and had responded with justified indignation that she should be thought so wholly lacking in discretion. She therefore meant nothing at all but simple, friendly curiosity by the question she now asked. "What sort of place do you live in at Oakhill, Miss Williams?"
She meant only was it a house or a school or lodgings; but Eliza's tension caused her to assign it a darker significance and answer somewhat sharply, with a quaver of resentment in her voice. "It is a home kept by a very kind Evangelical lady for young women who have borne children out of wedlock and must learn to support themselves."
There was an awful silence. Eliza's cheeks flamed red and she stared at her empty plate in mute mortification. A lady, of course, if revealing particulars at all, would have said "for young women in my situation." A lady would hardly have blurted such a phrase as "out of wedlock" among a mixed company of near-strangers at the breakfast table!
It was Mrs. Dashwood who spoke first, desiring to smooth over the awkwardness for the sake of the daughter who, though not understanding how, knew she had erred, of the daughter who was sensible that it was her place as hostess to salvage the conversation but who looked desperately toward her mother for aid, and for the poor lost guest who was certain she had now ruined herself equally in their eyes as in the eyes of society. "We have an Evangelical curate and his family in Barton now. Though he does make rather a nuisance of himself with his constant visiting, they are very pleasant people, and their ideas about helping the poor, and Sunday-schools to teach reading, and such like are not as strange or nonsensical as one might think to judge by what one hears--I know you will forgive me, Edward."
"And did you not attend my sermon on tolerance these two Sundays past, Mama?" Edward retorted, with a wink at Margaret, who was immediately cheered.
"Barton is such a pretty place," Mrs. Dashwood went on, when no one else seemed inclined to talk about Evangelicals. "Margaret and I do not think of giving it up entirely, though we do spend a great deal of our time here. I have such plans for our cottage! One of the upstairs rooms will become a library, and I am going to install a water closet. You must come and visit, Miss Williams, with my daughter and Colonel Brandon."
If it were possible, Marianne loved her all the more for her gesture, and Eliza's expressions of gratitude were no less moving for their being barely audible.
At last Edward departed for the church, and the ladies withdrew with their work-bags to Marianne's sitting room. John was brought in, and the first reaction from Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret to his appearance, though Marianne had warned them in an undertone, was so marked that she wished for her brother's return, for he had never seen Willoughby and would not be disconcerted. But on the whole Eliza was more at ease in his absence, and she was glad of it. Eliza could not be wholly calm while John was in the room, however, and glanced repeatedly at Marianne as if trying to gauge her mood; but after the initial shock Mrs. Dashwood was warm and Margaret was intrigued, and she could hardly snatch him away. She gained some deliverance, however, when Margaret, a little afraid of making another blunder, took him outside to see the ducks on the pond while Polly prepared a snack for him in the kitchen.
"He will want to stay for half an hour," Eliza said, and sounded relieved by the prospect. "He does love the ducks on the canal through Oakhill. We feed them a little bread every day."
"And what of your neighbors in Oakhill?" asked Mrs. Dashwood. "Are there many Evangelicals? They seem always to form societies to attack some problem or other."
"Yes, ma'am--the vicar and his curate are both staunchly Evangelical, and a number of the villagers are following their lead. There is a reform society that publishes pamphlets against cruel sports and the game laws; an abolition society; a poor relief subscription society; and a prison reform society. The library and musical societies are very active as well, though not so dominated by Evangelical tastes." It was obvious that Eliza found all this activity exciting, and so Marianne was surprised when she added, "Of course, I do not belong to any of them--"
Watching her converse with others, Marianne began to realize, or to articulate what she had noticed the day before, that Eliza tended to retreat from enthusiasm, as though she believed, like the prudish Miss Sherbrooke, that a display of spirit or energy was not in genteel taste, or as though she were almost afraid of her passions, even those that were harmless.
When this understanding burst upon her, she stopped sewing and did not hear anything that was said for nearly a full minute. And why should not Eliza be afraid of her passions? It was her passions, after all, that had led her into disgrace; she was wise to fear them. After her own, partly self-induced illness and despondency, she herself had tried to disdain passion, had turned for a time almost entirely to reason to guide her thoughts and behavior. But her family and the man who would become her husband had not allowed her to alter herself into a completely unrecognizable creature; time had reconciled her to her natural spirits and she had again embraced literature as well as the philosophy and history she had been reading exclusively, had begun again to play romantic concertos rather than always an exacting minuet. She had certainly soon enough given up rising at six every morning! Eliza, too, must learn to accept herself, must learn not to fear her natural passions, even if they had once misled her. Marianne realized that she would cross the boundary between candor and rudeness if she were to address such an intimate subject openly--and thus it was all the more vital that she somehow reveal more of her own spirit, in the hope that Eliza would respond.
When Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret departed, having promised to accompany Elinor on a visit or two, Marianne was called to the guest rooms to approve the sheets the maids and village seamstresses had cut and sewn so very quickly. That done, she returned to the sitting room, and found that Eliza was minding John while Polly attacked the mud his dress had collected at the edge of the pond. The boy was playing on the carpet with a set of wooden letters that Polly had brought out of the nursery, Eliza having been granted free use during their visits of anything that remained within its trunks and shelves.
"Mrs. Brandon, I must say again that it was most kind and generous of you to invite both of us. John is at a difficult age for visiting"--this just as the boy's eye wandered to a little glass bluebird on a table, his hand inevitably following, and Eliza firmly redirected his attention to the appropriate playthings.
Marianne was ashamed that her guest should feel it necessary to compliment her in the hope of assuaging her evident disquiet. A little, or perhaps more than a little, nervous already, how much more shaken must Eliza have been by this chilly reception of her son after the warm notes they had exchanged, Eliza writing to wish Miss Dashwood all happiness in her marriage and to assure her she was marrying quite the finest man on earth, Marianne sending heartfelt thanks for those sentiments. Eliza's letter enclosed with her wedding gift had been more cautious, for by then she had learned of the connection of her cousin's fiancee to Willoughby--and what a cold shock that information must have been to her! But Marianne's reply on that occasion had been no less warm than her earlier correspondence; Eliza could have had no reason to expect anything but a cordial welcome, anything but the healthy sort of nerves borne of wanting to please. He is himself, Christopher had said. She must concentrate on that.
She seated herself in her chair and picked up her sewing, but held it unworked in her lap. "I must confess, Miss Williams, that the resemblance between your son and his father troubles me more than I ever thought it would." Eliza blinked, startled by this sudden openness. "But that is no reflection on John. He's a lovely boy." There, it was said! How proud her husband would be!
Her sentiment was so obviously genuine that Eliza was moved to respond with equally genuine warmth. "Thank you, I do think so." She retrieved John from under a chair. "I have often wished--" She could not finish the sentence, or thought better of it, and ruffled the boy's hair instead, which he thought quite unnecessary.
"That his father could see him?"
"Yes. I hesitated because--well, because--"
"It is no offense to speak of Mr. Willoughby to me, if that eases your mind." Eliza nodded gratefully but said nothing more, and it was up to Marianne to continue the subject now that it was raised. "I know that my husband has told you of my--I was going to say acquaintance, then paused because it was more than that, but in the most important ways it was perhaps only an acquaintance after all--my acquaintance with him. I waited to invite you until I thought I was quite certain I could look upon you and your son without resentment--not toward yourselves, of course, but toward the past. But time has not made it easier after all, and so I wish now that I had not waited so long."
"It is very kind of you to say so."
"And you--I also thought that it might be difficult for you to meet me." She could hear Elinor's reprimand as if she were in the room. "Forgive me!--I am inclined to be too forward--"
"No--I appreciate that you speak plainly. In truth I have been very nervous, wondering if it would be better after all to go--the circumstances are so awkward for both of us-- Yes, it has been more difficult than I anticipated as well. There was a time when I thought Mr. Willoughby would come back to me when once he knew about John. Even after my cousin informed me that he was courting another young woman in the country, still I believed it. But when we learned of his engagement--my hopes were destroyed."
"As were mine," said Marianne, very softly.
"It has been difficult to meet you because now that I compare your advantages and charms to my own, and realize that still he could give you up, I know that I never had any claim at all on his heart."
Marianne's half-smile was part modest acknowledgment of her compliment--though it also crossed her mind that while she might have the advantage of a legitimate family connection, in the practical terms of monetary fortune that Willoughby most valued it was Eliza who could claim the advantage, for her guardian, now that he was a man of means, intended to provide her a generous marriage portion--and part an indication that she too knew what it was to learn that whatever charms she possessed had been insufficient. "It is a painful realization. And that is not the only pain he caused you."
"I cannot blame him entirely, you know. I received all the usual warnings about predatory young men--from our schoolmistresses, from the vicar, even from one of the housemaids at school who was discharged when it became obvious that she was with child and not even betrothed. My cousin was especially firm in his admonitions, reminding me in letters and when he came to visit me that my position is more precarious than that of other young ladies and so I must take care that my behavior is above reproach. In his letter granting me permission to go to Bath he warned me again! But it all deserted me when I heard Mr. Willoughby's flattery."
By the close of this recitation her words were coming faster and faster and her pleasant voice was hoarse with bitterness and unshed tears, so that she had to compose herself with a deep breath and was glad to find distraction in stopping John from tangling the fringe on a pillow. Polly appeared then, and took her charge back outside to dirty this dress as happily as he had dirtied the former.
"Did he not know the name of your guardian?" Marianne asked when they were alone again, hoping she did not offend. "He had met Colonel Brandon any number of times, though he did not know him well."
Far from being offended, Eliza returned to the subject with an alacrity that surprised even Marianne. "Not at first--though I thought he did. When his attentions to me became marked I thought I should be honest with him, and so I told him of my--my status. As you might imagine, it--it took some--some courage to do so, and when he smiled--he does have a winning smile--and said did I not think that he would make it his business to investigate a young lady who had so--so captivated his attention, and that he thought it cruel to judge a person by the errors of his parents--well, I think I probably fell in love with him at that very moment, for I had always believed that no gentleman would ever consider me as a wife. I assumed then that he had learned who my guardian was, and we spoke no more about it until one day, about two weeks after our first becoming acquainted, I said to him that I was eager to tell my cousin Brandon about him. This was before we had--before I had--taken that irreversible step-- 'Brandon?' he asked, with a little start that I hardly noticed at the time. 'My guardian,' I replied, '--you remember.' 'Oh yes,' said he, with a careless smile, as if to suggest that he had simply forgotten the name--which itself should have struck me as odd, that he should forget the name of my guardian. Such inattention in a lover? But I now believe that that was the first hint he had, for soon thereafter he wanted to hear about my guardian's estate--what were my favorite features, and what did I like to do when I visited--and so he was able to confirm that it was indeed the same Colonel Brandon with whom he was acquainted. 'He does sound a fine gentleman,' he said. 'I shall look forward to meeting him.' Knowing now the dislike he already felt toward my cousin, it is hard not to believe that his determination to--have his way with me was only strengthened by the knowledge of the connection between us."
Marianne's scruples were embattled. She knew she should be disapproving of Eliza's extreme candor, should try to put a stop to it by uttering a dignified comment such as "Please, Miss Williams, for both our sakes, perhaps we should not discuss this matter any further"; but of course the very private nature of these details and their arguable relevance to her own experience only made them all the more alluring. What she said was, "I think it likely. He would not have considered possible consequences, and if he had he would not have cared much for them." He would have believed that Eliza, as a girl of genteel upbringing, would never dare tell her guardian of her fall; but that if she did confess, that guardian would disown her; and that even if he did not he would not take any action against her seducer. How completely he had misjudged the man he had wronged--as had she. How fitting that we should be alike in that.
And he had known whom he had wronged. Until now she had not been certain when Willoughby had learned the identity of Eliza's guardian. She began to revise her opinion of him. She had judged him thoughtless rather than deliberate, but in this case he had clearly not been swept away by irresistible passion. He had intentionally seduced a young woman, powerless already by virtue of her sex and even more so by the stain of her birth. A gentleman would have withdrawn after Eliza's admission. He had willingly proceeded with that seduction even knowing himself acquainted with the young woman's guardian, had then boldly accepted that guardian's hospitality--the proposed outing at Whitwell, arranged by Colonel Brandon at some trouble to himself--while casually denigrating him at every opportunity, enjoying the secret knowledge of the offense he had committed.
With disgust, she said, "And I would have married him had he asked." How fortunate she had been to escape; the more she learned the more it was proven. Her disgust was also directed at herself. She too had insulted her host; she too had been guilty, had allowed Willoughby to encourage the most unappealing aspect of her nature, that which had believed herself superior to others. She felt anew, and most strongly, the injustice she had formerly done her husband.
"Yes, you would have married him before--" Eliza stopped abruptly, at last seeming to feel that she had spoken too freely.
But Marianne did not allow her time for humiliation. "I believe he did not tempt me as he tempted you." What if she had herself come to know Willoughby not in the restrained, supervised circle of family and neighbors but in Bath or in London itself, in a whirl of parties and theater and pleasure gardens with their remote, poorly lighted lanes, with no one but a humorless and intolerant (as she had thought then) sister and an elderly chaperone to protect her? To what folly might she have allowed him to lead her under those circumstances?
"That he did not," Eliza said, "is an indication of how differently he thought of us--of you as a lady, and of me--"
"He did promise you marriage," Marianne countered, in an effort to assuage her guilt.
"But what intelligent woman surrenders her virtue in exchange for a promise?" Eliza cried. "Even my friend, who had introduced me to Mr. Willoughby and, I believe, had some idea of his character, did not go so far with her gentleman friend. I knew I was ruined almost as soon as he left me. Something in the manner of his leave taking warned me, even though he said he went to speak to his relation, wanting, he said, to understand his own position before he spoke to my cousin. 'She is a very strict lady,' he said, 'but I shall brave any such dragon for you.'"
Here Marianne recognized the sort of romantic language Willoughby had used in the beginning of her own association with him; but with her he had changed, had grown more serious, coming to regard her with true affection--affection which he had ultimately betrayed.
"But as he stepped into his carriage he said, 'It has been delightful, dear Eliza,' and something in his tone gave me a chill, something in the way the door clicked shut, in the way he did not turn once to look at me as the carriage rolled away--" On her face was an echo of the desolation she must then have felt. "But I did not admit to myself what had happened. I drifted through the days, waiting anxiously for the post, telling myself that he had simply had some difficulty with his cousin and could not think how to tell me. By the time three weeks had passed I was certain that I was--that the worst--and I knew then that he would not return."
"Was your friend any help to you?"
"She helped me arrange my journey to London and gave me most of her pocket money, and I had some remaining from the generous allowance my cousin had sent me for the trip. I was thus able to afford respectable lodgings, recommended to me by a fellow passenger. I did not need to find work--though the days might have passed more swiftly if I had."
"Did you then search for Willoughby?"
"At first I did. I believed--or tried to make myself believe--that could he but be made aware of my predicament, he would want me again, want his child, want to share his home with us. Though he had not given me his direction--adding, when I considered it, yet greater intensity to the cold I seemed always to feel--he had mentioned a few clubs that he frequented. I inquired there, but of course they would tell me nothing. I suppose I could have ascertained how to write to him at his estate; he had not told me its name but I knew it was in Somerset. But I soon lost heart and energy for such a haphazard search for someone who did not want to be found--at least not by me--and I believe at this period my thoughts were never quite clear. When I had at last admitted my loss, I believe I had some idea of remaining in town for my lying-in--depending on the kindness of my landlady far more than was wise or fair--and then leaving the child at a church or foundling hospital and returning to Bath. I cannot imagine why I ever believed that would be any less a scandal, why my guardian would be any less ashamed of me, but it was something like a plan and it kept me sane through the long weeks. I read a great deal, and walked, and stood outside Vauxhall and listened to the orchestras, and thought all the time about my foolishness and dishonor. I was too much alone, and I began to despair. I think I came very near-- But no, I will not say that to you--"
"If you believe I have never known despair," Marianne said quietly, "you are mistaken."
This seemed to touch Eliza deeply. She dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief, and Marianne realized that throughout her long narrative to this point she had not shed one tear, having perhaps already pretty well exhausted all the tears she could devote to this particular misery. "You are so good, Mrs. Brandon, to listen to these outpourings. I never had intention of burdening you-- But it is a great relief-- I could hardly say these things to my cousin Brandon, when he has had to deal with the consequences of my behavior--"
"If I can help you by listening I am glad to do so. I had a mother and sister to listen to me." That very same reserved, too-wise sister had been always by her side, supporting her, strengthening her. "Could you talk to your friend?"
"I wrote to her a few times but did not give her my direction, for I did not want her to inform my cousin. When at last I let him know my whereabouts, he at first forbade any further correspondence between us, for she had been obstinate and unhelpful during his search for me and his anger was still very fresh. That enforced separation gave me time to realize how unhealthy had been our intimacy--she willingly leading me astray and I willingly following--and I lost the desire to resume it."
"What led you finally to contact Colonel Brandon?"
"Terror," Eliza said with a quivering smile. "As my time approached I grew more and more frightened at the prospect of enduring childbirth completely alone, and decided I wanted, needed, his care even at the cost of his disappointment--for I knew he would come, and would not forsake me."
"He started for London the moment he received your letter. It came to him at Barton, on a morning when he was to host an expedition to Whitwell. He would not delay even a few hours."
"I did not know I had so disarranged his plans--he never told me. He looked very tired and severe when he arrived. His step was measured as he came in and he sat rigidly on the sofa. I was desperately glad to see him but so afraid of losing his regard as well as his protection. My handkerchief was damp and wadded beyond recognition. I wondered if he would be sympathetic and forgiving like the fathers in all those sad novels about seduced maidens, or if he would see me through my crisis and then disown me. If I could no longer claim him as a relation, my plight would be hopeless indeed! But the first words past his lips were not censure or recrimination, but comfort. 'All will be well,' he said, and I burst into tears, such hard, tearing sobs that he began to fear I would harm the child or force the birth. He brought me some tea and made me lie down, and then wanted to know my story. At that time I told him very little--I wanted only to pretend it had never happened. Though he pressed me, I would not tell him Mr. Willoughby's name. For days I would not tell him. I do not know why. Perhaps it was pride--I did not want to be thought so trivial and unloved that I must force a man to marry me. He let me have my way at first, and busied himself arranging for the surgeon and nurses, for I was very near my delivery. That done, he began to ask repeatedly for the name of my--my seducer, and though he would not say it I guessed that he wanted to know in case I did not survive the birth. He is apprehensive about childbirth in general, as I am sure you have discovered, but in my case his fear was justified, for I had not had proper food or rest or ease of mind for the whole of my pregnancy. Should I die, he wanted to know whom to punish. So at last I told him, my strength to resist his importunities having given out--and of course I knew that he would succeed in finding Mr. Willoughby where I had failed, so even after all that time I must have wanted him found. I still remember how his face changed when I said the name; he turned so white I thought he would be ill.
"John was born only three days later. Cousin Brandon saw me through the birth, never leaving the hallway through nearly twenty hours, and it was a great comfort to me to know he was there. When it was clear that I would recover, he sought out Mr. Willoughby. The result of that meeting you must know."
"Yes. He said--it was the cause of some estrangement between you."
Eliza bowed her head. "I was hateful to him. I had no notion that he would go so far as to challenge him--but I have so little understanding of men, and less of soldiers. When he told me what was to occur--he wanted me to know what provisions he had made for John and me--I railed at him, accused him of contemplating murder, begged him not to proceed. And if he were killed, defending my honor--I was consumed with guilt at the thought! My anger was also born of fear--for how should I cope if I were left alone in the world? He bore my fury until I was too spent to say more, and then he kissed my forehead and went away. When it was over he came to me and said, 'Mr. Willoughby has survived.' He was so cold and awful, and I was so relieved for both their sakes, that I flung at him, 'I am glad!'--and that is the last we have spoken of it."
"Willoughby survived," Marianne informed her, "because Colonel Brandon would not murder him. He collapsed in terror and begged for mercy--and was granted it."
"Oh," said Eliza, in the manner of a sigh. "He spared me knowledge of that."
"He tried to spare me, but I insisted. I think it right that you should know as well."
"I was sometimes curious, but did not dare ask him-- Poor Mr. Willoughby--one can almost feel sorry for him--"
"Almost," said Marianne, who in fact felt rather less sorry for him now than she had an hour before. "How long did you remain in London?"
"About two months. Cousin Brandon was tireless on my behalf, though I hardly spoke to him. He was angry at me as well, for naming my son John. But in spite of that he stood godfather for John at his baptism, and he talked to the surgeon about my progress, and sent out inquiries and learned of Mrs. Sutton, and went to interview her and inspect her house, and took us there in his own carriage."
Marianne was fascinated by this glimpse of her husband, in an area of his life about which she would never question him. "He did what needed to be done," she said, remembering how subdued he had been when he visited Mrs. Jennings in London and only now fully understanding why. The usual anxiety for the health of a new mother and child, the new worry about what would become of Eliza, whose future had always been of great concern to him, the pain of the rupture between them and the uncertainty of its ever healing--she admired anew his great capacity for love and duty, and gave thanks that she had matured enough to appreciate him.
"He always does. After I was fully recovered and embarked on my new life, I spent a great deal of time comparing my cousin and Mr. Willoughby. I found Mr. Willoughby rather wanting."
"I did the same! I could point to so many similar instances in which Willoughby had spoken or acted out of selfishness and my husband out of generosity. It makes one feel very small for ever having been attracted by such a man, does it not?"
"Perhaps--but we were both very young, and he so much more experienced."
"The colonel has already announced that he will never allow his daughters out of his sight until they are thirty."
"And I have vowed that my son will not be such a man as his father if there is anything I can do to prevent it. And yet, I still wonder--if he would not be moved to look at John, to see the resemblance between them. Would he not be proud--or at least interested?" She looked at her hands. "It is foolish, I know. But still I wonder."
Marianne leaned forward and said in an exaggerated whisper, "We must never let Willoughby know what a profound effect he has had upon us all. It will go straight to his head!"
For the first time they shared a laugh, and both would probably have said it was only appropriate that their mirth should be at that particular person's expense.
Elinor, ready to be comforting and cleverly diverting, was not at all prepared for the sight of Marianne and Eliza chatting gaily in the parsonage lane, and Marianne stooping to set John on his feet again when he tripped over the root of an oak and went sprawling.
"What has happened?" she asked her sister in a low voice, Eliza and John having joined Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret in the parlor. "Mama and Margaret returned this morning with very ominous predictions. How are you and Eliza now so companionable?"
"We talked about Willoughby," Marianne replied, as if that explained all. And perhaps it did, Elinor thought, remembering how much time she and Edward had devoted to an examination of Lucy Steele's actions and motives, allowing her specter to intrude between them with the object of then banishing it together.
On the heels of this oblique reflection upon the strength of her bond with her husband, she was immediately forced to hope that he did not come home very soon, for he would be most discomfited by the subjects that soon dominated the conversation, inevitable among four women when one had recently given birth, one was with child, and two were mothers of varying experience. Marianne complained and worried and was given advice, and Margaret listened with curiosity and alarm, and declared that "she did not ever wish to breed," so unpleasant and inconvenient did it sound, with its sickness and swellings and achings and exhaustion--and they all smiled wisely and made her feel very young and far outside that timeless circle of female experience.
Dinner was the same, Eliza continuing to exhibit the blend of drama and humility that Marianne had begun to see that morning. Following the example that her hostess was now able to set, she was more comfortable even in Edward's presence, though that might have been due rather to his wearing an ordinary brown suit than to any increase in her confidence, and she talked readily about visits to Delaford in former days and how much she looked forward to meeting her Marchbanks cousins.
Again Marianne tumbled into bed very fatigued, but this time happily so. Tomorrow Christopher would be home, and she could tell him how much she liked Eliza, how easily they talked now, their enforced intimacy having made them friends very much faster than in the usual process of becoming acquainted. How awful if he had been with her the previous night!--to be assailed by such a confused outburst of sentiments that were better kept private. Though he might speak of Eliza to his wife he did not inflict upon her the intimate particulars of his old grief. Better that she had not been able to subject him to clumsy attempts to explain her inability to cope with this small but powerful reminder of how foolish she had been--and how much in love. Her feelings for Willoughby had been without foundation, based as they had been on the deceitful image he presented to the world, but they had been real, and it was perhaps only natural that she should feel renewed stirrings of a long-healed regret. Better, however, that that partial resurrection be given no voice, even to stress its ultimate insignificance, to the one who would be most wounded by it. The danger was too great of his reading more into it than it warranted, just as he had assumed painful implications when she had questioned him about the duel. She would have been guilty of taking advantage of his love, of placing him in an intolerable position--for it would have hurt him to listen but also hurt him to deny her. But the very separation that she had lamented and feared had kept him safe. As she had the night before, she murmured his name, this time with a smile into her pillow rather than sobs--for tomorrow night she would be able to murmur it to its owner, would be able to take him in her arms and welcome him home.
When breakfast had concluded and no message had yet arrived from her husband, Marianne was able to say to Eliza with some assurance and an inward stir of pleasant anticipation, "I think we shall see Colonel Brandon return today with your cousins. He would have sent word if they had been delayed." She had to stop herself from looking out the window every time cart wheels crunched in the sweep; the chaise could really not be expected until the afternoon.
"He is the most considerate gentleman." Eliza was showing John the pictures of elephants and tigers and cobras in some of the colonel's books about the East Indies, but he broke away frequently to pound a few notes on the pianoforte, which Marianne had opened for him. "Do you know--I used to wish he were my father, but no longer. I would not want to be guilty of disappointing a father as I have disappointed him. He paid for my education even when he had little to spare himself so that I could make my way in future as a governess or schoolmistress. But now I could never get a respectable post as either, unless I gave up John, which I will never do. --Softly, John! --And when he inherited Delaford, an early concern was to provide a generous portion for me--but who will want it now? I shall probably always be a burden to him."
"But your education will hardly be wasted. You will educate your son, and an education will help to ensure that his birth will be less a hindrance to him. And your manners will also help to make him a place, manners which you would not have but for your schooling."
"Yes, that is all true. I do my best to behave irreproachably, because it is so important to both of us, though I confess it is a strain. I was, if I may say so, especially concerned about impressing you, for I feared Cousin Brandon would think less of me if I offended you. But you are so warm and unpretentious--" Marianne was gratified to hear that her new role had not yet spoiled her. "It is a relief, really," Eliza continued, "to be at Mrs. Sutton's, with others like myself. We understand one another."
"I wonder if you are not perhaps too sensitive?"
"I do not believe so. All of us have been cut now and then--in the shops, on the streets. Everyone in Oakhill knows us, of course. We would be far less conspicuous in a city, but I felt utterly lost in London and wanted only to return to familiar country surroundings, even though they might offer their own difficulties. --John, come and look at this strange animal--it is called a mongoose. --We simply learn to avoid those who do not want us--but that it is a humiliation I will not deny."
"The other young women--are their stories similar to yours?"
"Oh yes--we are all guilty only of foolishly believing in false promises. My cousin would never allow me to live with--with women of that kind, no matter how repentant they might be. He still has hopes of my marrying someday."
"And why should you not? In purely pragmatic terms, you will always be able to depend on the portion he has promised you, and John will never be a financial burden on the man who marries you." Brandon had already invested funds with which to send John to university, purchase a commission or an apprenticeship, or establish him in a business, whichever he seemed best suited for--all those provisions that Willoughby should be making for his son. "And I shall point out--say what you will about my bluntness--that there are natural children of both sexes."
Eliza looked as though she really had not considered that England was scattered with men who would have no just grounds on which to snub her. "That is so." A spark of spirit shone in her eye, the same spirit that would have attracted Willoughby, that enabled her to cope with her present difficulties. "Perhaps I should advertise-- 'Natural sons only need apply'!"
It was while they were caught up in gales of laughter that a figure appeared in the doorway. Between their own chatter and John's vigorous musical accompaniment, they had not heard his approach or the bustle in the hallway that had preceded it. "As the servants have all converged upon the carriage," he said, when their merriment had subsided a little, "I come to announce myself."
This time it was Eliza who held back, looking on with some wistfulness as Marianne jumped up from her chair, casting her sewing anywhere, and sprang forward to clasp her husband's hands and press them to her lips. "You are so much earlier than we expected. I am so glad to see you!" And indeed she fairly glowed as she looked at him, and he gazed down in wonder upon a smile as radiant as any he had ever seen her give to Willoughby, as well as a promise in her eyes that stole his breath away, of a more abandoned welcome when they should be alone.
And to hear laughter from Eliza, when her spirits had been low for so long!--she and Marianne sharing genuine mirth was the last sight he had expected to meet his eyes as he came into the house, dreading not only continued awkwardness between them but also some resentment toward himself. He greeted Eliza with delight and affection, and called out a hello to John, who was much too busy hiding behind the draperies to pay him any mind. While Eliza flushed her son from cover, Marianne, still with a tight grasp on her husband's hands, began to ask about Sarah and the children.
"They are well, though tired. We reached Honiton yesterday, and so did not have far to come this morning. Sarah is directing the removal of the luggage--"
"No, she is not," said his sister from behind him in the hallway. "I could not wait a moment longer. Hello, my dear--it is such a pleasure to meet you at last."
Though Marianne, in her anxiety about meeting Eliza, had had no time to be anxious about meeting Sarah, she would by this time really have been very little troubled, for she felt that she and her new sister had already reached a certain level of familiarity in their correspondence throughout the summer. In minutes they had agreed to call each other by their Christian names, and were conversing as eagerly as if resuming an old friendship rather than beginning a new one.
"Your sister captured you very well," Sarah pronounced, "though I believe you do look more composed and certain of yourself than in her sketch. And you, dear Eliza--" turning with her hands outstretched "--you have grown up to look even more like your mother than you did as a little girl." She and her brother regarded Eliza with tenderness and regret, remembering long-ago innocent days before the hard world had intruded. "And here is little John--tell me, are you going to call your second son Robin? What a handsome lad you are!" She picked him up but almost immediately was forced to put him down again. "And a wriggle-worm, too, I see! My boys were the same. They are already exploring your stables, Christopher--you will never keep them away--you might as well let them sleep in the straw under horse blankets."
"I shall ask George to spruce up one of the empty stalls--"
As the servants were now carrying in the cases and trunks, the next little while was taken up with settling the new arrivals in the guest rooms and nursery. A note from Marianne brought the parsonage denizens up to the manor house, and the afternoon passed very pleasantly in a family party, everybody being actually as delighted to meet everybody else as they professed to be. John and Louise studied each other but were slow to make any friendly advance, she being less accustomed than he to other young children and more comfortable in her mother's arms, and he being too much occupied trying to open the pianoforte so that he might charm them all with his talent. Margaret enjoyed acting the lady with Philippe and Christophe--a role she would throw off as soon as an opportunity presented itself to demonstrate her equestrian expertise. They too set out to impress and behaved in very gentlemanlike fashion, despite the bits of hay clinging to their suits.
Marianne and Eliza were especially easy together, cooing over Rosalind and Marie and recommending novels to each other. Observing them, Sarah said softly to her brother, "I am sorry to have to tell you, my dear, but I do not think they needed you at all."
He smiled at her over his tea, for he had noticed as well and was glad that the scene he had witnessed earlier had apparently become the normal state of affairs. "Perhaps I simply misread the situation--"
"No, you did not," Marianne said to him later, as they talked into the night following a proper reunion, warm in each other's arms. "That first day was horrible, so stiff and unpleasant, and the fault was mine because I could not separate poor little John from his father. But yesterday I made myself confront my reluctance and brought up the subject of Willoughby, and Eliza seemed really eager to talk about her experience."
"I can tell already how greatly you have helped her. I have not seen her so cheerful since before she ever knew Willoughby, before her sweet eagerness was defeated by her ordeal-- It was very generous of you to sacrifice your own privacy for her sake. I cannot thank you enough."
"If I have helped her I am glad. Sometimes simply talking about a problem can ease it a little."
"We never could manage it. She was frightened and ashamed, and I was disappointed and worried. All I could think of was watching her mother die, ruined because of her sin. I was terrified that Beth's own despair would drive her down the same path--but she is stronger than Eliza."
"You must not think I mean to criticize you! She could never have talked with you the way she could with another woman, especially one who could understand at least something of what she felt. --I like her very much. She is lively and passionate and interesting--but a little indiscreet and thoughtless. Having once been very like her, I can easily understand how she might have been swept up in the emotion of the moment and simply not considered consequences. I like the way she speaks--she is very dramatic, as I imagine actresses must be."
He looked at her with surprise. "She has not been so with me for a long while, not since she begged me--'with all her heart and soul,' she wrote--to allow her to go to Bath. I should have been less susceptible."
"She says you warned her most carefully and frequently--that the blame for succumbing is all her own." He made a sound of disagreement in his throat, but then kissed her for her effort. Though he might blame himself in no small measure for Eliza's situation, it mattered greatly to him that Marianne did not. "Christopher--I told her what you told me of the duel."
She felt him start against her. "Did she ask you?"
"No--she said you had not discussed it. But I thought she should know."
"It was difficult to know what to tell her, what she would listen to, or believe--what she should be burdened with at such a time." He sighed. "And having had to let Willoughby walk away from me unpunished-- I confess I was in no state of mind to revisit it."
"I thought--I thought perhaps it would help her let go the hope that he will ever have the courage to acknowledge John, to show any interest in him at all, or in herself. There was a time when I wanted to confront him, to make him explain to me how he could have done what he did. But as the months passed I really came not to care; he was not worth such constant thought. I was ready to go forward. Eliza must find a way to do that as well."
Continued in Part 3
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