Mistress of a Family
Sarah and the children returned in the second week of December, Philippe and Christophe claiming to have grown even during this brief absence and Louise and Marie having certainly done so. They would stay through the New Year, and had come so early in the season because the work at Whitwell had been interrupted by several setbacks, caused, predictably, by a general disorganization among the workmen.
"I had forgotten how cold and damp the winter is here," Sarah declared, when asked how they were adjusting to being English. "We are all accustomed to sun! My nose will not stop running, and I shall be hopelessly rheumatic by Christmas!" She sat nearest the fire, and wanted her tea and coffee almost scalding hot.
"And have you yet had time to meet very many of your neighbors?" asked Marianne.
"Enough of them that I am certain they all think me coarse and uninhibited," her sister replied with a laugh. "The French are very talkative, you know, with a tendency to gesticulate" (a wild waving of her arms for the purpose of illustration), "and I suppose I have adopted some of their manner. When I am in company I begin to realize that they are staring dazedly at me and that I have been dominating the conversation. Philippe and Christophe do not seem to provoke the same reaction; boys, evidently, are expected to be loud."
"Remember it was your intention to shock them," Marianne pointed out. "Perhaps you are succeeding!"
"Well, they will think me an angel when Monsieur Dupuy arrives. Monsieur Dupuy," she explained very grandly, "is a French cook. He is at present at an estate in Kent, but he will give up his place there for the modest considerations of--you will see the lengths to which I will go--a starting inducement of ten pounds, the promise of a rise in salary after six months of mutual satisfaction, and specified modifications to the Whitwell kitchen!"
"My dear Sarah, you will bankrupt your husband!" her brother expostulated, his features struggling between dismay and amusement. "After all your concessions you had better contract with him for not one day less than two years. But I am glad you have located this paragon, for while you are here you will be served nothing but charred mutton and cabbage boiled into mush."
She laughed. "At least you do not consume the entire sheep at a single meal. I am amazed at the quantities my neighbors eat and drink--the English should not wonder that they are all fat and gouty. But the two of you are so abstemious you could be French. I am glad you follow my advice to be moderate in your habits." She herself had kept her figure despite middle-age and her numerous pregnancies.
"Moderation was good enough for the ancient Greeks. Besides, any inclination to gluttony I might once have had was stifled by years of subaltern's rations. I learned to be satisfied with moderation."
Marianne pointed out, with logic but not a great deal of sympathy, "If so many did not have gout, Bath would lure a much smaller clientele and thus offer fewer amenities."
"That is true," Sarah agreed. "Oh! Have you heard that Madame d'Aulan will perform there this winter? Claude and I travelled to see her in Marseilles before she fled the Terror. She was magnificent, and is said to be still in good voice."
"Yes, we are planning to go to hear her in the new year--"
Until their journey to Bath, however, George and his fiddle were their music, and were summoned almost nightly to the drawing room, to be sometimes accompanied by his mistress on the pianoforte; but the coachman did not mind, for his master was always generous with his shillings for such extra service. Edward and Elinor often joined the family party; and by the middle of the month Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret had come from Barton, having remained there long enough to attend the Middletons' annual Christmas ball. This time they stayed at the manor house, willingly adding their voices and their feet to the frequent singing and dancing. Philippe and Christophe would dance only with Margaret, but their host danced with all the ladies, even with little Louise, teaching her a few steps as she clung for balance with her whole hand to two of his fingers.
"You look expansive and benevolent," said his wife, "though to really carry it off you should be rotund, and your cheeks flushed with good wine."
He laughed as he surveyed the revelry with a bright, proud eye. "Perhaps I should aspire to become like my great-great-grandfather William, portly and tippling and gouty, who presided over balls and dinner parties from a divan, and died at ninety much beloved, it was said, by all who knew him." She rejoiced in his high spirits, and reflected upon how solitary his life had long been. As if reading her thoughts, he added, "Delaford has not welcomed so many guests at Christmas for years. And to have Sarah and her family only a few hours' drive away--I can hardly credit it! If these are the pleasures deriving from being head of this family, I believe I shall finally learn to enjoy it."
Being head of the family also carried a certain responsibility, and in the absence of their father Brandon felt it incumbent upon him to continue Claude's instruction of his sons in the duties they would face not very many years hence. In addition to their more leisurely pursuits of fishing and shooting and galloping about with Margaret, he insisted that they ride with him over the home farm and the estate, that they accompany him to a demonstration of a new threshing machine that Mr. Wilverton had arranged at Wilverton Hall, and to see Mr. Increase Jones's progress with the new drains. Not surprisingly, Philippe and Christophe did not find drains a very compelling subject for study, and protested that their stewards would always see to such mundane details. "But how will you know that your steward is competent if you do not understand these mundane details yourselves?" their uncle countered, and from their groans he knew that they had heard the same argument numerous times from their father. Both yet believed that La Tonnelle would fall to Philippe and Whitwell to Christophe, and he urged their mother to set them right. But she wanted to wait for Claude's arrival so that he could explain the arrangements he had made. "And it is always possible that the sale will not be completed," she pointed out, "and then I will have upset them without cause, after so much upheaval in their lives already." Marianne, too, provided her share of instruction, taking the boys with her on several visits, for they must know what the lady of an English manor was expected to do, and what they must do themselves until they had wives to do it on their behalf. Brandon himself had often visited his tenants who were sick or infirm--a compassionate and interested gesture of which his father and brother could rarely have been accused; during their tenures a given tenant might not have been visited at all unless his rent were in arrears.
Soon the balls of the season began in earnest, at Wilverton Hall and Marchley, at Ledford Grange and Heathercote and every other notable house in the neighborhood--each busier, noisier, and more bounteous than the last for having taken account of and improved upon all that had gone before. Marianne had been dismayed to learn, upon assuming her new situation at Delaford, that the married ladies of the neighborhood did not often attend a ball unless they were burdened with marriageable daughters, and that if they did attend it was their habit to dance only two or three dances and then retire to the card room. She herself had defied this practice from her first appearance; having only recently discovered the pleasure of dancing with her husband she had no intention of giving it up, and though she might be soon a mother she was yet too young to consider herself matronly. "I believe it is quite irrational for married women to give up music and dancing," she declared. "Marriage should be a beginning, not an end; a threshold, not a wall!" Since her arrival she had never avoided a ball, and had danced with her own husband for the greater portions of them. Observing with proud amusement that this season some of the other young matrons were emulating her, she now began to see how well her new influence might be wielded in a cause of which she approved. "You will soon erect a shrine to dead leaves," Edward teased her, "and organize long walks in the rain. If you could only carry your pianoforte, the children would trail behind you spellbound, as they did behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin."
"You have convinced me that I must learn a new instrument--"
Delaford, too, gave a ball, to which came from St. Ives, to Sarah's infinite and oft-expressed delight, the jovial Sergeant Jonah Masters, upon whom she could at last bestow her warmest gratitude for the service he had rendered her brother so many years before. Masters brought with him his two eldest nephews--and a wife!--and how he did laugh at his hosts' surprise! She had been Miss Gerrens, the youngest daughter of a respected Cornish shipping family, and had established herself in a dressmaking shop in St. Ives. They had been acquainted for about a year, having met when Masters was trying to fulfill a commission on behalf of a sister for some riband of a particular color; at a party or two subsequently, they had danced a little and talked a little more, and Masters had always been glad to hear of his sister's beginning a new hat or dress. After his visit to the newly wed Brandons in the summer, however, the sergeant had found that he wanted no specific reason to visit Miss Gerrens's shop almost every day. For a time he had nevertheless disguised his calls, and his sister now boasted a handsome collection of riband that she had never ordered. And then disguise had been left behind, and the result of this explosion of feeling was that he and Miss Gerrens had been married at the end of October. She was short and round, perhaps inclined to physical indolence, but possessing a very keen mind; she had not given up her shop, though she did spend fewer hours of the day there, and she read very widely. "She civilizes me," said the happy sergeant, to which Brandon replied with a laugh, "I see no evidence of that at all."
Masters being the sort of bluff, rough-hewn, joking man to whom teenaged boys are often drawn, Philippe and Christophe hovered round him to listen to his colorful anecdotes of India, delivered with rather less modesty than they were accustomed to hear from their uncle. "Did you know that your uncle Brandon once saved me from a sea of quicksand?" he asked of them, and they gasped satisfactorily.
"A puddle, more like," Brandon demurred. "If you had only not flailed about so--"
"You wouldn't have called it a puddle if it had been your knees sinking fast out of sight and no firm ground within your reach to grab for. Flailing about--bah! And has he told you that he dragged me out of harm's way at Ahmedabad with a Sindhi ball in my leg? Without he did that I'd have been trampled for certain."
"You returned that favor at Chauk, when that Maratha fellow came at me with a bayonet," Brandon countered, though the debt of sanity that he owed Jonah Masters perhaps outweighed even the debt of life. He noted with wry amusement that his nephews' eyes were enormous.
The sergeant's own nephews, brothers Robert and Henry Masters, were eighteen and seventeen respectively, and took advantage of their French counterparts' distraction to attach themselves to Margaret, who flirted thoughtlessly with both of them until Elinor, seeing a need for prudence, joined them and questioned the young men about their apprenticeships with a sail-maker. This conversation proving much less engrossing, they soon moved on to flirt with Susan Wilverton, who had no use for them at all.
The perpetual social activity of the season provided Marianne with the unexpected opportunity to exercise a different sort of influence, less direct but equally effective and rewarding.
"I want to ask your advice," Elinor said to her one day.
They were engaged in the project of adorning the parsonage dining room with prints that Elinor had chosen from the collections she had purchased and the engravings of the Lakes that the Brandons had brought her from their wedding trip. Most of their usual companions were abroad, Brandon escorting Sarah to the homes of some old family friends to renew acquaintance and show off her children, and Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret walking in the shrubbery, happily planning next year's additions. Edward, however, was closeted in his study working on his Christmas sermon, taking advantage of Rosalind's being sound asleep--for when she was awake he could hardly bring himself to do aught but tug on her fingers and toes to make her smile. Marianne had not slept well the night before after the Sacks-Iversons' ball and was at the moment more temperamentally suited to this quiet pursuit than to visiting.
"My advice?" said she, putting down her scissors. "Usually you give advice to me!"
"You seem to want less of it in recent weeks. You are becoming quite an accomplished gad-fly, and it is in that capacity that I believe you can help me--or, more precisely, Edward."
It seemed that Mr. Perryman, a tenant of Mr. Wilverton, was in a difficulty about his wall. By the terms of their agreement it was Mr. Wilverton's responsibility to maintain this permanent structure; but it had fallen into disrepair, and despite Mr. Perryman's most valiant efforts with stones and wood and daub, his sheep repeatedly escaped its confines and made fodder of his crops. Mr. Perryman had approached Mr. Wilverton's steward on two separate occasions and received assurances, but the repair had not yet been accomplished. He was reluctant to insist; being a new tenant without a solid acquaintance with his landlord, he did not wish to be thought a complainer and risk an increase in his rent. Elinor had heard this narrative from Mrs. Perryman, who, tired of watching her too-patient husband's hard work go for naught, had come to ask "if Rector might somehow put in a word." "Mr. Wilverton is without question a good and honest landlord," Elinor concluded, "but he is too often thinking of a future election rather than the present running of his estate, and as his steward is naturally lazy, work beyond the immediate necessities simply does not get done."
"But how can I help? Surely it is Christopher you want to talk to Mr. Wilverton."
"No, Mrs. Perryman especially wanted Edward, as a neutral party, neither owner nor tenant. And besides, if the colonel intervened, Mr. Wilverton might feel he was incurring a debt to be paid in a vote, and I would not want to place Colonel Brandon in that position."
"What is wanted, then," Marianne said thoughtfully, "is a way to remind Mr. Wilverton of his responsibilities without appearing to be lecturing him."
"Yes, and as Mr. Wilverton can be choleric, and as you are better acquainted with him than either Edward or myself, we thought you might be able to suggest one."
After some minutes' reflection, Marianne could. "Mr. Wilverton loves to expound upon doing one's duty. 'We each have a role in society, and our duty as husband or wife, parent or child, master or servant, etc., consists of behaving as that role requires, otherwise the entire fabric of society will unravel, etc.' Perhaps at the Smedleys' card party tomorrow night, I might introduce the subject when Mr. Wilverton is feeling very amiable over his punch, and then Edward could, as if at a sudden thought, mention Mr. Perryman's difficulties. Thus the problem could be addressed informally, rather than as a result of an official call paid by Edward for the purpose. I would wager that Mr. Wilverton will have the steward in the next morning, and vent his choler upon him rather than upon poor Mr. Perryman."
This plan was executed without mishap; and though it was not known to what degree the steward might have suffered for his oversight, several days later Elinor was able to report that the finest stonemason in Delaford would be at work on Mr. Perryman's wall as soon as the prevailing dreary weather permitted.
So buoyed was Marianne by this success, so pleased with having been of measurable use to her sister--not to mention the Perrymans and even Mr. Wilverton, in showing him his duty--that she immediately began to consider how she might be of use to others. She conceived the notion of beginning a subscription within the Book Society for the support of poor but intelligent children, to pay the school fees their parents could not afford, modest though they were; to buy them books and maps to study at home; and perhaps even to finance private tuition with the schoolmaster or mistress in the evening hours. "It is wrong," she said to Edward, who could name without effort several children who would profit from such benevolence, "that for want of a few pence or shillings while they are young they will be ignorant and unskilled and a trial to the parish all their lives. We do not want a dozen more like Jemmy Rivers. And it would be a misery to them as well, possessing as they do a sensibility beyond their station." But when she began to put forward the idea to her acquaintance she was stymied by the fact of the Society's having already fallen into arrears; for Mrs. Bagglesham was untalented in arithmetic, and had overspent on decorations and refreshments for the annual card party in November. Marianne suggested that Mrs. Bagglesham might find Mrs. Holcombe's advice useful in such a situation, but Mrs. Bagglesham, though she thanked Marianne with all the politeness of which she was capable on such a sore point, did not rush to consult that lady, for fear of hearing the terrible word, "retrenchment."
So matters stood when Eliza arrived with John just before dinner-time on Christmas Eve, having been sewing lace and pearls onto fine ball gowns until the last moment that morning. She was at liberty for a week, Mrs. Sutton having gone to visit her son in Poole until the New Year. John was now in breeches, and looked much more the little boy than the infant. He had grown in energy as well as in height, and when he pelted away toward the park, Polly had to run very fast to catch him before he pelted right into a stew-pond.
Affected by her own burst of confidence and energy after her encouraging visit in October, Eliza too had joined a book society, that presided over by Lady Everdell in Oakhill. Through Mrs. Sutton she had inquired whether she would be welcome, none of the other young apprentices ever having had occasion to set a precedent, and upon being told that there were no society rules against it and that several of the members approved her desire to join, she had attended the very next meeting before her courage failed her. She had written of this important step to Marianne, who sent warm congratulations from herself and her husband; and now, the subject of book societies and their irritations being very much on Marianne's own mind, she brought it up as soon as possible and asked Eliza how she got on.
"Pretty well, I believe," was the answer. "When first I joined they were discussing a volume of Mr. Blair's sermons, and, as I thought that perhaps it would be unwise for someone in my situation to offer comment in any debate on moral behavior, I merely listened, which made them think me either timid or stupid. But now we are reading Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by Mr. Locke, and as I have studied that work closely, I have had a thing or two to say, which quite startles some of them. But nobody has asked me to withdraw, so I suppose that is something. I believe one or two would not hesitate to do so, however, if they could plausibly claim that their daughters' chances of marriage might be harmed by such an indirect association with a--a fallen woman."
"Every society seems to have those members who think they are better than all the others," Marianne declared, from her wide experience of two such societies during two months of membership.
"Yes--and do your societies boast someone who always has a scheme to put forward, something that will cost everybody else both time and money?"
"Currently in our book society, that individual is myself," Marianne said with a laugh, brushing aside Eliza's "Oh dear!" with a wave of her hand--though Eliza was not nearly so flustered by her gaffe as she would have been two months before. Marianne explained her scheme and then added, "I would wager that there are one or two in the society here who very much wish I had fallen so that they could deny me!"
On Christmas Eve the Delaford caroling was exuberant and the visiting singers in hearty if not entirely sober voice, the plum pudding was sweet and the brandy sauce rich, and Marianne was permitted a few sips of potent almond ratafia; and on Christmas Day Edward's sermon, on the virtues of the season and society's pressing need to keep them all the year, was impressive.
On the Monday following, Mrs. Holcombe came to call.
Marianne, Elinor, and Eliza were in the drawing room, readying the gift boxes to be presented to the servants at their dinner that night and to the children at the tenants' dinner two nights hence. Aware of their occupation, Mrs. Baynes herself came to announce Mrs. Holcombe so as to spare any of the maids the temptation to peek, and resolutely fixed her eyes on the bust of Beethoven atop the pianoforte so that she herself would not catch an unintentional glimpse.
Eliza began to excuse herself. "I shall go up to my room--"
"Nonsense," said Marianne firmly. "You are my guest as much as my sister."
Eliza might yet have gone, but that Mrs. Holcombe had arrived in the doorway, and there was no getting around her without disarranging her hat (berry-laden holly and a tiny bird's nest). And then the chance was lost entirely, for Mrs. Holcombe was speaking to her. "And it is so very nice to see you again, Miss Williams--it has been three or four years, I believe, since we have met. I trust you are enjoying your stay with your cousin?"
"Yes--yes, ma'am--" Eliza stammered, almost with alarm.
"And your son is well? You must bring him to see me before you go. I make a very fine ginger cake that my grandchildren always enjoy. I shall prepare some for your visit."
"That is--very thoughtful of you, ma'am." Eliza shot anxious glances toward Marianne and Elinor, but they were as disconcerted as she by such a quantity of civility.
"I understand you are apprenticed to a dressmaker. Do you intend one day to have your own establishment?"
"I--I hope to--yes, ma'am."
"I hope you will come to Delaford so that I might have you make my dresses. Mrs. Moore is a dear soul but she is getting quite blind and will not admit it. I shall certainly be your first client if you come--and I like a new dress every month, you know."
In response to this, poor Eliza could not even stammer, and Marianne, for her part, was forced to accept that her attempt to startle Mrs. Holcombe by presenting her with a fallen woman who was yet treated with all the courtesy due a relation, had in fact only provided Mrs. Holcombe with an opportunity to startle her.
Mrs. Holcombe now turned her attention to Elinor. "I am particularly glad to see you as well, Mrs. Ferrars. I stopped at the parsonage but was told Mr. Ferrars is gone for the day."
"Yes, to distribute the Sacrament money and then to dine with some old university friends in Beaminster."
"I wanted to tell him that I had just passed an hour with old Rector Norton's daughters, who could not stop talking about the relevance of his Christmas sermon, the wisdom of his message, and so on. They said it was as fine as any they ever heard their dear father preach. In truth it was very much finer than Mr. Norton's usual, but I did not say so to them." Upon a very definite bob of her head, one of the holly berries broke away, rolled around the hat brim, and dropped onto the sofa. Mrs. Holcombe did not notice, but Marianne had to press her lips very tightly together.
"I shall certainly convey your report to my husband, Mrs. Holcombe. He worked very hard on his sermon--so hard, in fact, that he is threatening to give it again next Christmas and all the Christmases thereafter."
"The lower orders can hardly hear too often a sermon on love and charity and forgiveness, is my opinion, Mrs. Ferrars, and you may tell your husband that I say so." Elinor promised faithfully, knowing that Mrs. Holcombe would ask Edward the next time she saw him if she had. "I only hope that Mr. Ferrars does not couch his message in language too complex for them."
"He tries always to be both challenging and comprehensible."
"That is a difficult balance to strike. Balance of any sort, in fact, is difficult to strike." Satisfied with their nods of agreement, she launched herself onto a tangent. "I have always thought Colonel Brandon rather excelling at balance, if I might compliment your husband, Mrs. Brandon, as well as your sister's. A gentleman who has sufficient interests and responsibilities to keep him from idleness; a reading man who yet does not disdain the occasional hunt or cricket match; a politically informed man who yet does not take politics as his only food and drink; a willing companion for ladies--before his marriage, of course!--yet not one to take advantage of their sensibilities or think too well of himself because of their flattery." The amazement that Marianne felt at hearing such an evaluation of her husband from a woman with whom she was not at all on intimate terms, can perhaps be imagined--as can, no doubt, her eager wish that Mrs. Holcombe would say more. The wish was granted, in abundance. "I am not the only one--besides yourself!--who thinks him peerless, you know. Mrs. Bagglesham and Mrs. Thornton both tried to catch him for one of their daughters when he first returned to the neighborhood, and you know they each have three, so there were many attempts. They made themselves look rather foolish, for he was impregnable. They had finally dismissed him as a confirmed and eccentric old bachelor when he married after all--so very mortifying for them." Marianne's smile was gracious but perhaps a trifle smug, for it is hardly displeasing to be told that one has the exclusive power to touch the heart of a man who could have had any of a dozen or two desirable (and generously dowried) young ladies. "I hope I have not been too forward, but I have been wanting to suggest to you the reason why they cannot warm to you."
To this last Marianne hardly knew how to reply. Mrs. Holcombe had, in point of fact, been far too forward, but her audience, regrettably, had been riveted. In any case, Mrs. Holcombe gave her no time to formulate the sort of diplomatic response that was now called for but at which Marianne was never very quick. Rising with a "Well, I must be going--," she and her holly berries bobbed out the door ("such a nice visit--do call when you have time--"), and they could only rise with her and be stunned in her wake.
"That woman," Marianne began after a moment's silence, "does not know the meaning of discretion. I wonder what she is saying about me to all and sundry in the neighborhood!" At Elinor's look of disbelief she rolled her eyes. "Yes, I have come to accept that what people think might be of some importance. You may crow."
"I hope I am not inclined to crow, even when I would be justified," Elinor replied, "but I shall point out that we have just been given proof of the very truth it must pique you severely to admit. I cannot but think that Mrs. Holcombe might not have been so welcoming to Miss Williams had not Colonel Brandon always taken pains to conduct himself in a manner that would erase, or at least dim, the memory of the scandals his family has suffered. The neighborhood is probably willing to forgive him anything, and they will extend that consideration to those under his protection." Suddenly appalled, she turned quickly to Eliza. "Oh! my dear Miss Williams, I hope you do not think me insensitive! I am afraid my sister's outspokenness sometimes influences me for ill--"
"Not at all," Eliza hastened to assure her, while Marianne rolled her eyes again. "I had certainly been wondering to what I could ascribe her very kind interest, and I think you have hit upon the explanation. I had never considered coming here to live, but now--if Cousin Brandon would have me near--"
"Of course he would!" Marianne declared, but Eliza still looked dubious.
"Your cousin apparently can do no wrong," said Elinor, "at least in the eyes of those who had not marked him as a potential son-in-law, and your own exemplary behavior, Marianne, has only reinforced Mrs. Holcombe's good opinion. I never thought I could consider vanity a virtue--or if not precisely a virtue," stepping back from actual condonation, "a sometimes useful trait. She will take it upon herself, I believe, to guide the neighborhood should you decide to settle here, Miss Williams."
"Dictate to them, you mean," countered Marianne, but without the resentment she would once have shown, for she was remembering Mrs. Holcombe's avowed interest in educating the laboring class, and musing that here might be a suitable, if unlikely, ally for her own interrupted scheme. And I would have thought of her weeks ago had I ever taken the trouble to become acquainted with her. Would that I had learned some lessons sooner!
During the ensuing several days it began to seem to Marianne that Eliza had become somewhat preoccupied. John often had to say "Mama!" twice or three times to fully engage her attention, to show her that he had arranged his wooden alphabet in almost perfect order or spelled out his name (though often without the H), or to complain that Louise still refused to play with him, but instead sat quietly to one side with her arms wrapped around her doll. Louise, in fact, was far too subdued for a child of three years and a half. Of her new acquaintance she gravitated only to her Uncle Brandon. "She misses her Papa," said Sarah, "and finds him a little in Christopher." Claude never failed to include a special note to his "ch└re Lou-lou," as well as to all his children, in the long letters that always made Sarah's eyes fill with missing him. He wrote every day, but his letters often arrived several at once owing to the vagaries of the post from France. Five letters arrived during Eliza's visit, two on one morning and three the next, and to Marianne she seemed especially intent to see Sarah and the boys taking turns reading the letters aloud, to Louise and to each other. Her expression softened into wistfulness as she tried not to listen, tried not to observe the sweet familial scene, and Marianne wondered if Eliza yet believed she had thrown away all hope of ever being part of such a scene herself. Did she dream of it with Willoughby? She would not have known it with him. Selfish and spoiled, Willoughby was not capable of placing a wife's or a child's needs and wants above his own. He would not possess the energy or the foresight to alter his will and arrange his finances almost the moment he knew that a child was on the way, as her own husband had done. Mrs. Jennings, not understanding that her correspondent might be more pained than pleased by news of Willoughby's vices, had reported that he now spent even more freely than he had; how soon would Miss Grey's money be gone, and the Allenham fortune afterward? He would not write notes to an infant, as Claude did to tiny Marie--even to an infant he chose to acknowledge.
How fortunate she was to have been spared a life with such a man! Had she married him and only then learned of his treatment of Eliza and John, she could never have forgiven him, could never again have looked at him with love. She would have lost him, without being free of him. And Eliza and John would have been only the instruments of her agony, of the destruction of her marriage; she could never have opened her heart to them, could never have concerned herself with Eliza's peace of mind or John's future--though they would have been no more to blame in that altered circumstance than they were now. She would never have been able to help John with his letters, or sit him on her lap at the pianoforte and teach him a few notes, or sing to him her favorite songs--treating this child who might have been hers as she would soon treat the child of her own happy union.
With such a large family party it was inevitable that they should attempt the reading of a play. As the suggestion of Much Ado about Nothing was Eliza's, it was she who was delegated to assign parts, and during several afternoons she and Marianne together instructed Philippe and Christophe and Margaret in some of their lines. (Privately Marianne thought that Edward and Elinor would be most in need of direction, but she said nothing on the subject; that lesson she had learned well.) When they gathered in the sitting room for the reading, Brandon was a romantic and amusing Benedick, Marianne a dramatic and vivacious Beatrice, the boys zealous as the noble Don Pedro and the villainous Don John, and even Edward and Elinor, caught up in the shared good spirits, did not dishonor themselves as Claudio and Hero. Eliza reserved for herself the droll Dogberry, her exuberance in her role coaxing greater energy from everybody else. Coffee and tea and sweets were generously supplied and consumed, and Marianne thought that she would rather have such an evening as this than any assembly or ball, no matter how gay.
"Wasn't Eliza wonderful!" she exclaimed to her husband later. "Such energy and humor--I knew she was an actress at heart."
"Yes, she was delightful, almost as of old. She always liked to read to me when she visited, and was particularly adept at humor. When she was twelve she read all of Gulliver's Travels, altering her voice for every character. She has not wanted to perform in that way for quite a long time, and I was overjoyed to watch her. But--do you not think that something is troubling her?"
"You have noticed, too."
"Yes. Then you do not know what it is?"
"No, she has said nothing to me. But we mustn't let her brood--"
"I will talk to her before she goes, if she says nothing before then."
It was not until the night before Eliza and John returned to Oakhill that Eliza's concerned hosts learned what was the cause of her preoccupation. After seeing John into bed she came into the sitting room, where the Brandons were savoring the warmth of coffee and brandy and each other's company on a frosty night.
"May I speak with you, Cousin Brandon?" she asked from the doorway.
"My dear Eliza, how can you think you must ask my permission? Do come in and sit with us, and say whatever you like."
"I shall see if Sarah and Madeleine need any assistance with the girls--"
"Please, Mrs. Brandon, I should like you to stay, if you will." Marianne remained in her chair, and Eliza sat rather stiffly facing them both. "It is an awkward matter that I wish to discuss--a sensitive matter--two, in fact--" She drew a deep breath in an effort to collect herself. "I do not know, Cousin, whether Mrs. Brandon has told you of what Mrs. Holcombe said to me when she called the other day."
Brandon smiled. "About engaging you to make her dresses? Yes, she told me, and I was delighted to hear it. Will you also design her hats?"
Marianne giggled, and was glad to see that Eliza seemed to relax a little at his jest. "Do you then approve?" Eliza asked. "Of--of my settling in Delaford?"
"I would not think of opposing Mrs. Holcombe's wishes," he replied gravely, but instantly allowed his smile to reappear. "Of course I approve, dear Eliza. What is this uncertainty? I did not know before if you could be happy here--if you would be accepted--but one could not ask for any more positive indication. When the time comes we shall find you a comfortable house in the village, or down a side lane if you prefer a quieter location."
Listening to his proposed generosity, Eliza was suddenly shy. "My own establishment--" she said softly. "I shall be glad to be less of a burden upon you."
"Of course that is a few years distant. The vicar at Oakhill might have swept you off your feet by then."
She laughed with sudden cheer. "As the vicar is above seventy years old, with ten children and twenty-two grandchildren thus far--I think that not very likely!"
"He will soon need a curate, then--a good sort of fellow who will be looking for a wife-- Lord bless me!--I am sounding like Mrs. Jennings!" They all three shared a laugh, for Eliza could remember when Mrs. Jennings had brought her daughter Charlotte to Delaford in an attempt to storm the impregnable fortress that was its master. "What is the other matter?"
Instantly Eliza sobered, and began to rub and twist her fingers together. "The other matter--is rather more difficult--more intrusive--and if you object you must tell me--you must be as honest with me as you have always been." He assured her most sincerely that he would be. "It is about John, and--and his name."
"His name?" Brandon exchanged a puzzled glance with Marianne.
"You never approved of my naming him John after his father, and--and I have come to see that you were right." Brandon's eyebrows lifted, but he did not interrupt her. "But I cannot change it now; John is old enough to be confused by such a step, and besides, the name is so common that it is impossible that anyone should make a connection based solely upon that. What I should like to do instead--" Here she faltered, and for some moments could not go on; her hands were quite red from the violence of her fingers. "What I ask your leave to do instead," she continued at last in a faint voice, "is to--to add the name Brandon, so that he will be John Brandon Williams--so that he will know, and that others will know, what good gentleman has always concerned himself with his welfare." Brandon simply stared at her, and she continued in a rush. "I suggest it to do you honor--though I do not deny that I also suggest it as a repudiation of Mr. Willoughby--but I am aware that by asking you this I also ask you to acknowledge John in a way his own father would not, and if you feel it more insult than honor I will understand. You need not enumerate the reasons--I told them all to myself over and over when deciding whether to ask such a great favor-- If you feel it an insult, I shall withdraw my request at once, and never mention it again." She had spoken faster and faster, so that the last few sentences had been said with hardly one drawn breath.
Brandon was stunned. Marianne could see that he was, that he had never considered that Eliza, prone to the dramatic gesture as she was, might ever suggest this. She was certain that with any other child he would have consented at once, but with this child-- Could he, even to recognize and strengthen Eliza's complete and decisive rejection of her seducer, allow Willoughby's son to bear his name?
To Eliza it must have seemed an hour or a day, but Brandon's silence lasted in actuality only a few seconds. Marianne saw his face change, saw surprise give way to decision; saw before Eliza did the light appear in his eyes and the smile take hold of his lips. He rose and crossed to Eliza's chair, hands outstretched, and as she gripped them and was drawn up into his embrace a sob escaped her throat. He pressed her to his breast, saying in a rough voice, "I would be so pleased, my dearest Beth, so pleased--and very deeply honored. I thank you. And I honor you, for having the courage to make this final break."
Dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief, she freed herself enough that she could look past his shoulder directly at Marianne. "I was shown a proper example."
In the second week of January the Brandons and the Marchbankses travelled together to Bath to exclaim over the magnificent arias and ballads of Madame d'Aulan. Afterward Sarah and the children returned to Whitwell, while Brandon and Marianne remained until the end of the month, bowling at Sydney Gardens and daring the labyrinth there, and eating too many Sally Lunn buns. Their stay felt something like a second wedding-trip, and Marianne was glad to have this time alone with her husband before having to face the distractions and emergencies that would inevitably arrive with their child. Brandon, too, delighted in once again being able to focus his attentions entirely upon his wife rather than also upon estate and army business and parish meetings, but their stay was not pleasant solely because of what the days lacked. He was at ease in these environs as he had not been for quite some time, his constant awareness of Eliza's past misery here fading before the knowledge of her present good fortune and cheerful spirits; and Marianne, sensing her husband put aside more and more of those old concerns almost by the hour, thought that by next season she herself might even contemplate with pleasure a stay in London, the site of her own past grief. When a voice inside whispered that she might meet Willoughby there, she smiled into her dressing table mirror and said softly but firmly, "I hope it is when I am with Christopher, so that he may see how happy I am without him. That would be very satisfying indeed."
They passed the mornings in walks and shopping, returning to their rooms in the afternoon so that Marianne could put her feet up before dinner and the evening's concert or theatrical. She was feeling quite well, but she had grown large and ungainly enough that frequent pauses were necessary as they went about the town. For these she continually apologized, until Brandon said, "When all the labor of bearing our children is yours, do you think I feel inconvenienced by a few moments' rest now and then?"
"For that very considerate thought I would kiss you," she said with a bright-eyed smile, "were we alone." They had taken a table in Molland's for marzipan and tea, the day being too chilly for sitting out of doors, and in response to her remark Brandon pressed his thigh against hers under the tablecloth.
"Do you realize," she said, keeping to their innocent subject though her eyes expressed appreciation of the warmth transferring from his body to hers, "that our first child will be born in the first year of the nineteenth century? And in the spring as well, when the elder will be out, and the willow and hawthorn and bluebells, and the sun will be warm and bright again." She indulged a secret hope that their firstborn would be a girl, for she thought it might be useful to gain some experience with a child of the less vigorous sex; having now spent some time in the close company of boys of various ages--she had previously avoided whenever possible the Middleton boys and her nephew Harry Dashwood, finding them all intolerable from being spoiled and conceited--she had decided that she found even civilized male children somewhat overwhelming and rather incomprehensible, and was glad of this respite from them. But with Christopher as their model, of course, her sons could never be anything less than perfect gentlemen. "Perhaps he--or she--will live to be a hundred and usher in the twentieth!"
"I should not want to live to be a hundred, to become frail and toothless and a burden to my children."
"You would not necessarily lose all your teeth," Marianne pointed out, with the usual unconcern of youth. "But in any case, you must do your best to live as long as I do. I have ached so for Sarah these last months. She must feel something like a widow, separated from her husband for so long. Please do not be offended, but I confess it is a relief to be away from her for a while, for she makes me imagine what I would feel to be in her place, separated from you. I do not think I would be as brave."
He wanted very much to kiss her hands. "I am quite certain you would be."
"I am quite certain I should be every bit as miserable. --Oh dear, I am making myself cry. I cry so easily these days. I must say something funny-- Did I tell you that Mrs. Holcombe compared you to a fortress? She said that no matter how they tried, Mrs. Bagglesham and Mrs. Thornton could not breach your walls for their daughters."
"My walls crumbled of their own accord as I came to love you, my Marianne."
"Oh, Christopher!" she wailed softly, digging into her reticule for her handkerchief. "Now you are making me cry!"
Though he regretted most sincerely being the cause of her tears, and helped her to recover by not subjecting her to another tender word until they had safely regained the walk, he was as always encouraged--nay, transported!--by such evidence of the continual strengthening of her affection for him. Moments like these sustained him when he heard no special resonance in her voice as she read romantic poems to him, or speeches in a play, or sang ballads of love. While he had struggled not to invest Benedick's revelation with the undercurrent of his own wistfulness--"By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me"--Marianne had given no hint that Beatrice's answer held for her anything like the significance it held for Beatrice: "I was about to protest I loved you. . . . I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest."1 She had had no consciousness of the effect of those words upon her most attentive listener. (But if those lines had contained no personal relevance, perhaps he need not have felt a twinge of melancholy when Benedick had teased, "Then you do not love me?", and Beatrice had responded, "No, truly, but in friendly recompense."2) And in these more recent days, though she had wanted to add to their library several romances that they had seen performed, and had purchased music for many of the love songs they had heard at concerts, he knew that the passion with which she would read and sing those pieces would not--yet--be meant especially for him. In time, however, it would, and oh! what boundless joy he would feel on that day!
They enjoyed themselves immensely, filling every day with as much activity as they possibly could, and returned home, as is proper after a journey for the purpose of relaxation and amusement, in a state of near-exhaustion. Within a few days of their arrival, work commenced on the enlargement and redecorating of the nursery--a project that had begun with the idea of simply knocking down an interior wall to incorporate a small corner bedroom, but had then expanded, upon the generally unsought advice of family and friends, to encompass grander windows, a raised ceiling, a larger fireplace, water pipes, and a miniature castle. Brandon, however, though generous perhaps to a fault, could not be tempted by wastefulness; the original plan to remove the single wall prevailed, with the modest addition of more colorful wallpaper and curtains. Marianne had hoped to escape the noise and debris and dust by having the work done during their absence, but her cautious husband had not had the slightest intention of allowing workmen into his house with sledgehammers unless he was present to supervise. He apologized for exposing her to irritation and inconvenience, but she took refuge frequently at the parsonage to sew or to work on her accounts, or, if the day was fine, sat reading in the pale sun on the lawn, and was really not very much disturbed.
A moving but somewhat upsetting distraction was offered by her husband's old letters, brought by Sarah at Christmas after she had fully unpacked her trunks. Amidst all the company and bustle of the season Marianne had not been able to devote uninterrupted hours to them, and now unfolded the pages eagerly. Curious, yet highly conscious of this invasion of his privacy--no less an invasion because he had consented to it--she read with care and respect, warmed by this portrait of a youth she could never know but chilled by what that youth had suffered. The handwriting was recognizably his own but less confident, less controlled; the words formed by that almost-familiar hand were heartrending. I do not understand how he can deny us. Have I been so very disappointing a son? Has Eliza been such a burden to him? What have we done to deserve such ruthless treatment? They are cold, unfeeling--they do not know what torment they inflict-- And when he had reached India, after a long and miserable voyage: This place terrifies me--I believe I must have found my way to Hell itself. The heat is unbearable, the baking sun remorseless--I have fainted three times this week on the parade ground. But I have not yet died, as so many do, sometimes only days after their arrival. I think I will fail at soldiering, Sal, for I am not made to order men about. Would it be worse, I wonder, to fail or to die? Though she was his confidante, he had not written to Sarah of the battles into which he had been thrust almost the moment of his arrival, wanting no doubt to spare her the horrible particulars, and for that Marianne was grateful; she would not have wanted to picture him in such terrible danger. She could see its effects, however, in the face that gazed at her from the miniature Sarah had included, a face that was much too haggard, lined with too many cares, to belong to a man but one and twenty years of age. Battle, however, had not been his greatest trial. A few months later: Charles writes that Father died in August. I cannot grieve for him. I am glad I am away from home and not faced with the choice of dishonoring myself by attending the funeral, or disgracing the family by staying away. He willed to me the staggering sum of one thousand pounds--did you know? Of course the estate cannot pay it just now, says Charles, with proper protestations of regret. I do not care. Probably I shall not live long enough to make any use of it-- Reading these passages, the miniature clutched to her breast, Marianne wanted to run to her husband to put her arms around him, to comfort the boy he no longer was. He had faced these blows to his hopes and spirit when he was younger than she was now and all but alone in the world, faced them and conquered them, but had not been unmarked by them.
She was very glad to be able to read Sarah's replies as well, for Brandon had obtained his sister's permission to share them with her. It was Sarah who had insisted, over and over again, that he was not to blame, that he had not brought this punishment, if punishment it was, upon himself. In a sweeping, decisive hand, she had written, Dearest Kit, you must stop reproaching yourself for the sins of those who abuse their power over you. You have done nothing to bring this fate upon yourself; their actions are purely venal, and therefore impersonal. I will say it and say it again until you believe it. . . . You must take care of yourself! What shall I do without my favorite brother in the world? If you die because you neglect your health and safety I shall tell all your nieces and nephews that their uncle was the greatest fool on earth--casting his life away before he had even begun to live it. You are so very young, dear Kit. You can recover if you will only try . . . It was no wonder he adored her; for all Jonah Masters's interest, if not one person in his family, no one who was truly acquainted with the situation, had supported him--
But his own strength of spirit, bolstered by friendship and sibling affection, had triumphed. By his last year in India he was writing of how much he had come to respect that fascinating land--its dark and beautiful people and their strange but thought-provoking beliefs, its perturbing contrasts of wretchedness and grace. His letters even began to include a little humor--I shall never regard a cow in quite the same way again. They are sacred here, and to look at them I do believe they know it. . . . You may keep your macaroons and your meringues, my dear epicurean sister. Today Masters has finally got me to chew some betel nut, wrapped with lime and cardamom and aniseed in a betel leaf. I am a ghastly sight!--my mouth and lips and teeth stained a hideous blood red. My good friend swears it is a temporary effect . . .--and Sarah wrote of her relief at reading page after page that contained no disturbing sentiments. He had learned to be a soldier as well, and wrote of commendations from his superiors, convivial evenings at the officers' tables, and a proper respect shown to him by the majority of his men--The rascals threaten to mutiny once or twice a week, but they do it with a wink and a smile as they are devouring the extra rations I have procured for them out of my own pocket. I confess I shall miss them when I transfer to England, for shared hardship breeds a certain esprit de corps that ease does not--
Spending time in a past that touched her so deeply and yet was not hers, contemplating on almost the eve of the birth of her first child the profound differences between her husband's parents and her own, led Marianne to investigate that girlhood she seemed sometimes to have left very far behind. She retrieved her old diaries from the chest in her dressing room, in which she kept not only her juvenile ruminations but also the letters her mother had written to her before Margaret's birth and her own. She would write such a letter to the child she carried, to speak of her love and her dreams for him or her, in case--in case the worst should occur and that child's mother be taken from this world. When such thoughts came to her she felt as though she had never been young, for what girl of five or ten or fifteen dwells for more than a moment upon her own mortality? While she was in this frame of mind, her diaries revealed to her a girl she barely remembered, forming convictions without mature reflection, possessing sarcasm without humor, intelligence without humility. She smiled at her own harsh judgment of herself; what would she think ten, or even five years from now, when she read again her recent complaints about her neighbors? No doubt she would think herself insufferable!
And then she gave a little gasp, for she had come upon a passage she had utterly forgotten she had ever written, a distillation of all the wisdom she had possessed at the advanced age of fourteen upon the interconnected subjects of husbands and marriages. I will never utter a falsehood or wear a mask to "catch a husband." What an offensive phrase that is!--and representative of an offensive attitude, that men and women are mere objects, or prey, to be reeled in by bait upon a hook just like a trout--the worm being fortune, and the larger the worm the more valued the possessor. How stifling and unjust to be measured by fortune alone! Elinor asserts that I discount the importance of money at my peril, but though I should certainly wish to marry a man with an impressive fortune, I should much rather be poor and loved than rich and neglected. And I must be loved for myself, for my honest claims to virtue and wit and talent, rather than for how well I conform to a shallow, artificial ideal of Woman. It will be an intelligent man who attracts me, a witty, perceptive man, secure in his own opinions and tastes and not bound by those of society. He must be amiable and virtuous, a man of honor but not of pride, able to converse readily on any subject but not at all inclined to show off his knowledge. Of course she proceeded in her next paragraphs to such silly pronouncements as that a handsome face and form and a passionate love of dancing were perfect indicators of such desired internal qualities in a man--her former blindness had a very long history indeed!--but she felt a small thrill of pride that even when so young she had in fact possessed a little insight.
"I was describing you," she said to her husband when she showed him the passage that night, "though I did not even know you."
"I am flattered-- No, no--forgive me--you do not flatter! I am honored that you consider me worthy of such a glowing description as this." Intrigued by this revealing glimpse of her younger self, he ventured to ask, "May I read more?"
She all but snatched the book from his hands. "Oh no! Most of it is an embarrassment--full of childish idiocies. I know it is unfair, when you have been so generous with your letters, but if you were to read these all your illusions about me would be completely destroyed. I cannot allow it."
The tiny lines at the corners of his eyes deepened with amusement. "I have no illusions about you, my Marianne."
"You are fully aware, then, that I am rude and immodest and opinionated?"
"You are candid and spirited and intelligent, and I would not have you any other way."
"And what if our daughters are all like me? Can you endure a houseful of candid and spirited women?"
He placed a gentle hand upon her swollen belly. "I hope all our children, girls and boys, are like you."
"What an awful thought! I am certain that I cannot endure a houseful of spirited boys--oh!" The baby had kicked, hard. When she had caught her breath, she continued with a laugh, "It must be a boy, and that was a protest on behalf of his sex."
His hand had not shifted its position, and she was sincerely affected by the look of wonder on his face. He did not often feel the baby move, for to guarantee it he would, as he said, have to attach his hand to her belly like a leech. But he would not go to sleep without feeling the stir of life within her. "I shall never become accustomed to this marvel, no matter how many children we should have. --But I so wish I could make you more comfortable--" This as Marianne was trying to find a position on her side which would allow her to breathe with some ease.
"I wish you could as well. And Elinor and Mama and Eliza assure me that it will be worse in the final month, as will the aching back and swollen ankles and general sleeplessness. It really seems quite unfair," she added with great indignation, "that a woman should begin motherhood in a state of exhaustion!"
1William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, IV.1.274; IV.1.283-4, 286-7.
Perhaps the Brandons heard something like these songs and instrumental pieces in Bath (Pemberley links to Amazon.com pages with sound clips).
"I do look forward," Sarah said, with a kind of weary resignation, "to the day when you can enjoy Whitwell's hospitality." She contemplated the leaves at the bottom of her tea cup as if she might divine the future. "I wonder if it will occur before the year is out." More delays in the work at Whitwell--some of the plasterer's men had given notice, and the carpenters had caused further damage to the roof--had necessitated the Marchbankses' removal to Delaford for the celebration of Philippe's fifteenth birthday.
"I am just as pleased that you have come here," Brandon replied. "Marianne is less than a month away from her delivery, and though Avery has said that so short a journey as to Whitwell would be no danger to her, I would rather she not risk it."
His sister studied him. "I believe the two of you will be excellent parents. Young parents can sometimes be too indulgent, but if Marianne has that tendency you will correct it, for you know the value of discipline."
"We have discussed this very issue, in fact, and have decided that Marianne is too impatient to be indulgent, and I too afraid of calamity. Our children will never be allowed to do anything and will very likely be miserable."
She laughed gaily. "The most pitiable in England, no doubt!" She was occupied for a moment in pouring herself another cup of tea, and when she looked up again saw that he had become serious.
"I want us to be as you and Claude are with your children, or as Mrs. Dashwood is with her daughters. For years I believed that all families were as disharmonious as ours, until I was out in the world and learned that there are also loving fathers and strong mothers."
His last comment interested her greatly. "Then you do not think Mama would have intervened for you and Eliza."
He gave a little shake of his head. "I did once, but not any longer. It was a sad, difficult realization. The world also taught me a certain comprehension of human nature, even in those I love. She would have done what Father ordered, and thus his victims would have been three rather than two, for it would have torn her heart to be forced to choose between husband and son." He added softly, "If she had to be taken from us too soon, I am glad she was taken before she was made to suffer that."
"She would be so happy for you now."
"Yes, and for you. A strong marriage, wonderful children-- How goes it with Claude? Have you received any letters of late?"
"A bundle arrived just this morning before we left, the most recent written a month ago. At that time he believed he would be with us by summer. But so much can change in a month-- He worries that Louise will not know him. Marie certainly will not--"
"They will, with a little time."
"Yes, and in the meanwhile he is so thankful that the boys can turn to you--"
And they did so readily, though perhaps not in the manner their father assumed. On this occasion they set out to mock him, begging at dinner with feigned excitement to be taken immediately to see Mr. Increase Jones's drains. "We shall not rest until we examine them, Uncle Colonel. Have they increased in number--?" Philippe's witticism was greeted by Christophe with appreciative elbowing and snorting. But both subsided at once when Brandon announced, with a gleam in his eye that made Marianne stifle an unladylike snort herself, that as they were such excellent young fellows and so devoted to their duty, he would be pleased to escort them to Mr. Jones's farm without delay at seven o'clock the following morning. "And what a fine birthday present that will be for Philippe--I cannot think of a better!" But he was not truly such an old ogre as that; the party did not actually set out the next day until nine, and as Philippe had entered the breakfast room to see a fine new saddle and pair of boots on a rack next his chair, he did not find the ride very onerous.
It was about two o'clock when Marianne heard her husband's firm step in the hallway outside her sitting room, where she and Sarah were sewing new linen shirts for both boys; though it might not be Christophe's birthday, he was growing at least as quickly as his brother. "You have had a long ride!" she exclaimed when he appeared in the doorway. "Exactly how many drains has Mr. Jones installed?"
"We have not, in fact, spent all our time with Mr. Jones. Sarah, I bring someone to see you--"
He did his best to sound nonchalant, but when she looked up from her seam and saw his face, the blood surged to her cheeks and her hands began to tremble. In an instant she had rushed from the room.
"Oh, Christopher--is it Claude?"
"Yes! He is safely arrived at last, stopping here on his way from Dover as he knew the family might well be with us."
Marianne hurried down the hallway but halted in the shadows of the entry hall, her eyes filling at the sight of the noisy rejoicing before her in the sweep. Christopher coming up very close beside her, she slipped her arm through his and felt his hand curl around hers, and silently they shared in the happiness of the moment. So inundated was the new arrival with embraces and kisses from his wife and sons that it was some minutes before Marianne could even see him, but finally he was able to extricate himself and be introduced to his sister-in-law. His countenance and bearing were open and pleasant but determined, and, though her judgment was no doubt influenced by what she knew of him, she could easily imagine him masterfully avoiding confrontation in Avignon no matter what faction was ascendant at any given time, yet risking fortune and safety to protect his family.
With the exception of the landing port, Claude's journey had followed much the same pattern and route as his family's, though he had not waited as long in Minorca for a British vessel. Upon landing at Dover and realizing that he might arrive in time for his son's birthday, he had been travelling all the previous day and night with only brief respites. "Bonaparte has already caused me to miss my Marie's first birthday--though she does not know it, at least. By God, he would not make me miss this one!" Had he not found his family at Delaford he would have quickly paid his respects and hurried on to Whitwell. He was soon settled in the breakfast room with a pot of tea and a plate of sandwiches, in his haste having had nothing to eat since the night before. He was tired and rumpled and unshaven, and quite obviously the most wonderful sight any of his family had ever seen; they clustered around him at the table, engrossed in his every word. Little Marie was happy to sit in his lap and sip milk from the cup he held for her, and Louise, though she had not yet spoken to him, did not run away but regarded him thoughtfully from her mother's lap, and smiled whenever he said "ch└re Lou-lou" in the way she had always liked. "And how my sons have grown! I should hardly have recognized you had you not been with your uncle!"
His observation pleased both boys greatly, though they stoutly denied that he should not have known them. While on the turnpike they had been startled by shouts of "Philippe!" and "Christophe!" from a passing post-chaise. Slowing, puzzled--for who in this neighborhood could be well enough acquainted with them to halloo them from a carriage?--they saw the chaise pulling up, discommoding several vehicles behind it, and the passenger fumbling at the latch in his hurry to exit. When they saw who emerged they jumped off their horses, shouting "Papa! Papa!" in their turn, and Brandon, though he was almost as glad to see Claude as his nephews, was obliged to be sensible and suggest that perhaps the reunion might be better held on the verge rather than in the road. "And I wanted to race back to tell you, Mama, but I could not tear myself away--"
"Dear Christophe, I would not have wanted you to tear yourself away from your papa--"
Claude reported that the threatened uprising had come to naught, the worst of the royalist agitators having found few sympathetic listeners and given up their cause--for the moment. "It is a relief to have calm in the region for a time. But still I am not sorry to have left it all behind, so weary am I of living from moment to moment. The France we loved is dead, and when Bonaparte falls, as he eventually must, who can say what new chaos will prevail?"
The boys wanted to know then about La Tonnelle--whether the crops were faring well and whether their friends and their favorite tenants and servants were in good health. Their parents' eyes met briefly over the table, and the Brandons sensed their silent agreement not to taint a day of celebration with the sad tidings Claude had brought. But the next morning after breakfast they were closeted with their sons in the library for over an hour, and when the door was at last flung open both boys ran out of the house in different directions. Later they rode together for several hours, and by dinner-time they were able to join the others with a dignity that made their parents proud, their training as gentlemen and the strength they had gained from their recent ordeal supporting them well through the experience of learning that the events of their lives would not often be theirs to control. Their grief was also partly assuaged by circumstance, the loss of stones and mortar and fields dimming in significance beside the joy of their family's restoration. Philippe understood, with his head if not yet his heart, that he would learn to transfer his interest and affection to Whitwell, and Christophe similarly understood that he would learn to appreciate the advantages of purchasing an estate of his own choosing some years in the future; and after dinner both young men were more than ready to help their aunt and uncle plan a party for a date one week hence to celebrate their father's return.
The festivities were very well attended given such brief notification, with upward of fifty guests. Few had ever met Claude in former years, but many by now were acquainted with Sarah, and were happy to honor her husband for her sake. In any case, Marianne's musical sensibilities had ensured that the Brandons quickly earned a reputation for engaging the finest musicians available, and word had also been spread very efficiently that for this occasion Monsieur Dupuy was to be summoned from Whitwell to augment the tables with French delicacies. Brandon declared that the Whitwell staff would probably welcome a brief return to simple pork and celery and beet-root, to which Sarah retorted that he need not fear for his own palate, for Monsieur Dupuy would not deign to serve an unappreciative audience.
The colonel looked on with indulgent amusement as his sister ordered his servants about, and pressed upon Claude all his best fishing tackle so that he and his sons--and little Louise, who had actually requested to be taken along--could escape the preparatory chaos. "You are looking benevolent again," said his wife, when he came into the drawing room to be assured that she was not overtaxing herself by selecting the music for a planned duet with Susan Wilverton.
"I am feeling benevolent. You worried once about disrupting my family, but in truth you have brought my family together."
She beamed at him, but objected mildly, "You give me too much credit. I had nothing to do with your sister's family's leaving Avignon."
"No, but you have made the home that has welcomed them. And my gratitude for your attentions to Eliza is beyond my capacity to express. And best of all, within a very short time I shall be a father, beginning a role I had thought I would never play. My Marianne--" His voice trailed off, and for a moment he simply gazed at her. Then he clasped her hands. "Are you very certain this party is not too much a burden for you?"
"Quite certain. All the authorities say that it is better for a woman near her delivery to do what feels right for herself. I cannot sit idly about and be anxious for the next two to three weeks; such a mood would not be healthy for me or for the baby." She had written her letter to her unborn child one bright day when she was feeling very energetic and not morbid at all, and then tried to put all her fears out of her mind. "It is much better to be busy. Oh, Christopher--I received a note from John and Fanny today. I am sorry to tell you that they will be pleased to attend the party, and we may expect them by three o'clock tomorrow afternoon."
"Well, I would much rather endure them than offend them. I wonder what value they will place on Monsieur Dupuy?"
She burst into giggles not unshaded with surprise. She had never expected that their union would be so filled with laughter; but as time passed her husband recovered more and more of that part of himself that had been buried for so many years. He was positively lively as they greeted their guests the following evening, trading political witticisms with Mr. Wilverton and rhapsodizing over Mrs. Holcombe's hat (some lovely early crocuses and daffodils nestled amidst tufts of bright, spring-green grass). She could not often be near him, for she was feeling heavy and slow and had no difficulty keeping her promise to him to sit down frequently--though her back was aching and, as movement seemed to lend some relief, she would soon get up and walk around again. But no matter on which chair or sofa she came to rest he would soon find her, to bring her the latest compliments from a guest regarding the food or the wine or the music. "You are a marvel, my Marianne. No one would know that this party had not been planned for weeks. But I do wish I could dance with you. You are so very beautiful tonight."
"I am round and red-faced and panting."
"You are beautiful, and I am looking forward to the return of your strength and energy--for many reasons."
"You are a flatterer! It is no wonder that every woman in Dorset wanted to marry you. But now you must stop whispering sentiments that will make me blush even redder than I am already, and go and dance with Mrs. Holcombe so that I can admire your figure from afar."
"Is it fair then, lady, to make your husband blush?" He obeyed, however, and she was soon trying to repress a fit of chortling, for he was sufficiently taller than Mrs. Holcombe that his nose was exactly at the level of her bobbing daffodils.
"What is so funny?" Eliza, bright-eyed and flushed from dancing, had taken a seat beside her. Marianne could only point, but Eliza comprehended at once as Brandon and Mrs. Holcombe joined in a turn. "Oh dear! But look at my cousin--he is unfazed--it is just like him."
"He has had many years of practice being unfazed by Mrs. Holcombe and her hats. How is John Brandon?"
"He is permitted to watch from the landing until half past ten. It is much too late for him to be up, but he was so excited. He is disappointed, however, that you will not sing him his lullaby tonight--but I promised you would sing to him in the morning. Louise was with him, and they were actually talking--though not very intelligibly--about what they would wear to their first balls. Heaven only knows what the fashion in hats will be then! Did you ever watch parties and balls from the landing?"
"Oh yes--I was known to bruise my cheekbones, so eagerly did I press against the balusters at Norland. I could not wait until I was old enough to attend. And you?"
"I did not ever visit Delaford until Cousin Brandon inherited, and his parties did not usually include dancing; but I did peer downstairs to watch the ladies and gentlemen in their fine clothes arrive for card parties. On one occasion, though, he hosted a tremendous celebration in honor of Lord Somebody-or-other, with at least a hundred guests and an orchestra, and he allowed me to stay up as long as I wanted; I fell asleep on the landing about four o'clock and was carried to bed by a footman!"
Even as primarily an observer, Marianne was caught up in the evening, in the snatches of overheard complaints about the income tax and the rising poor rates and debate over whether Britain should come to terms with France, in playing duets with Miss Wilverton while the musicians were granted a brief respite in the servants' hall, in graciously answering the many queries about her health. Claude and Sarah danced and talked together as if they were newly wed, and she was filled with a deep contentment to picture herself and her husband behaving in like fashion after a marriage of five and twenty years--though she hoped that they would never suffer such a lengthy separation. Mrs. Holcombe, inevitably, sought her out to give advice, with which she had been generous ever since Marianne had called upon her in the matter of the school subscription. That endeavor, once begun by the Book Society in response to Mrs. Holcombe's exhortations--Mrs. Bagglesham and Mrs. Thornton being in town for the season and no longer an obstacle--was an unqualified success; the first dozen children so supported were showing great improvement in their characters and their knowledge, according to the schoolmaster and mistress, who were happy to benefit from the added employment. Marianne replied now, as she had replied every time Mrs. Holcombe had been similarly helpful, "Thank you, ma'am--that is very useful information. I must present it to Mr. Avery" (who had, no doubt, already been told by Mrs. Holcombe herself).
The baby was kicking and squirming a little, and she could not but think it equally stimulated by music and chatter and the mingled aromas of food and candles and the scents of many different perfumes and sweetwaters. She smiled to think that it would not be any time at all before her own sons and daughters were pressed against the balusters, impatient to grow up and enter the bright world below. So immersed was she in the merriment all around her, in fact, that it was not until after one o'clock, when she was actually beginning to think of taking a brief nap in her sitting room, that she realized that these spasms of discomfort were striking at regular intervals.
"How long--?" Marianne asked when she could speak without first crying out. Gradually the pain receded and her breath ceased to come in gasps.
Elinor consulted the library clock. "Eighteen minutes."
"We had better get you upstairs, my dear," said Mrs. Dashwood cheerily, dabbing with her handkerchief at the sheen of perspiration on her daughter's forehead. "You will be much more comfortable."
"But it could be hours yet. I would rather not make an exhibition--everyone would know-- Oh, why did Mr. Avery's estimate have to be too generous rather than the reverse?"
"Everyone will know as soon as the surgeon arrives," Elinor pointed out. Swearing Tim to secrecy among his fellow servants, Marianne had sent him for her mother and sister and then for the surgeon and nurse, long engaged for about this time and only awaiting the summons. She had not yet sent for her husband, for she was not at all certain she wanted him to witness any portion of the indignities she would soon suffer. "And so will Colonel Brandon," Elinor added, more urgently. "Let me bring him to you, Marianne."
"No, Elinor, your sister is right. This is not a situation in which men excel."
Marianne leaped to her husband's defense. "Christopher is highly competent, Mama, and hardly squeamish! I simply do not want to worry him--or to be worried by him."
But her attempt to spare them both was successful only five minutes longer. Coming in search of her to begin his usual loving interrogation as to whether she had stayed too long on her feet or desired another sandwich or cup of punch, at the sight of her mother and sister flanking her on the sofa he understood instantly what was occurring, and went white. "Marianne, are you all right? Good God--why did you not inform me?" All his early anxieties, that had been subdued by her robust health and his own constant exertions, now threatened to inundate him. "How could you keep this from me?"
His agitation in turn upset her and made her defensive. "I thought it was only the baby kicking, and it has been but a few minutes, and besides, there is nothing you can do."
That she did not deny his accusation did not escape his notice. When would she have summoned him? In half an hour, an hour--not at all? "Nonsense. I shall send for Avery and the nurse, and have your room prepared--"
"It is already done. Tim has gone for Mr. Avery and Nurse Tarville, and Elinor and Mama have seen to the room."
"Than what can I do?" he burst out in frustration, some of the color returning to his face. "Marianne, I am a part of this as much as you--"
"You did your part nine months ago!" Marianne cried, an absurd and panicked lashing-out; then immediately burst into tears at his stricken expression, at his small exhale of shock, as at a blow. "Oh Christopher, I am sorry, that was terribly unfair--"
Elinor began to think that Marianne and her mother had been correct after all to want to keep the colonel in ignorance as long as possible, for Marianne's sake if not for his own; she had been calm until his arrival. He was kneeling before her now, offering her his handkerchief. "Colonel, I think perhaps Marianne would be more at ease upstairs--"
"Yes, of course." He stood and held out his hands. "Can you walk, my love?"
"Certainly I can walk. The pains are still eighteen minutes apart. Christopher, I wish you would go back to the party--"
"Back to the party?" He was incredulous, and hurt by her dismissal. "Marianne, you--you cannot seriously ask that of me--"
"Would it not be better to continue this discussion upstairs?" Elinor pressed them. "If you do not want your guests to know, it would be best to remove from the public rooms."
This appeal to reason prevailed, and they were all soon arranged in the bedroom that Marianne had chosen for her lying-in chamber--the largest of the spare rooms, well-ventilated, that had been scrubbed from ceiling to floor and fitted with clean linens and furniture covers according to Mr. Avery's instructions. "Christopher, please--"
"Really, Colonel," said Mrs. Dashwood, clasping his hands, her voice rich with sympathy but firm with maternal protectiveness, "there is no need for you to worry. We shall make Marianne comfortable, and your guests will be wondering what has happened to their hosts." It was obvious, however, that the host was prepared to let his guests fend for themselves. "Do you not want to go down and wait for Mr. Avery?"
On that point he surrendered. "Yes, yes, all right." Again he knelt beside Marianne. "If this is how I can help you best--"
She smiled as she brushed away her tears. "For now, yes. Please." He went, though with great reluctance, and when his step could no longer be heard in the hallway she said, "Thank you, Mama. He is a man who must always help."
"He will not stay away a moment longer than necessary," Elinor predicted, having witnessed the intensity of his anxiety once before.
Again Marianne was more relaxed without her husband's anxious gaze upon her, for her mother and sister's concern was more practical and brusque as they helped her out of her gown and into her shift. Within the hour Mr. Avery had arrived, Tim having ridden swiftly and the surgeon having been immediately available. Brandon was at his heels, almost underfoot as Avery washed his hands and arms in the basin of hot water brought by a maid.
"I congratulate you on your timeliness, Mrs. Brandon. Mrs. Clement at the opposite end of the parish is approaching her lying-in as well, and I was very much afraid that both your babies would choose the same day to enter the world. Though I am quite a talented surgeon, you know, I cannot be in two places at once."
The colonel, banished to the hallway during Mr. Avery's examination and unable to see the smile his jocularity brought to Marianne's face, was not at all pleased by the surgeon's seeming lack of appropriate gravity. "I will thank you, sir, not to jest where my wife's health is at risk," he said, advancing on Mr. Avery the moment he emerged from the bedchamber.
But Mr. Avery, having faced many overwrought fathers-to-be in his thirty years as a medical man, was wholly unperturbed. "Mrs. Brandon's health is excellent, Colonel--though," he added very sternly, "you do not aid her resolution by talking of risk."
Edward reached the scene in time to hear this last, and suggested that if his patron felt the need to vent his anxiety he might find suitable targets downstairs. "There was no hiding a surgeon with his bag, and now the whole assembly know why he has come. I fear that nobody has any intention of leaving."
"They cannot all stay until the baby is born!" Marianne cried. She was pacing the room, having found that continued movement provided some slight balm to her nerves. "Christopher--!"
"I shall go and explain to them," he said, and once more departed--more readily this time, and she knew she had hurt him again.
By the time he returned, however, he was more composed, his own nerves having been eased by the performance of a necessary task, and the sheer physical activity of navigating a staircase and a crowded drawing room. "Sarah and Claude have appointed themselves our surrogates, so all is well below. They send their warmest wishes but will not add to the clutter, as they say, up here. I have indicated to our guests that your needs must dictate our actions, and that as your preference is for quiet and privacy they would do you the greatest favor by departing. Most are calling for their carriages, but a few, alas, are determined to wait it out with us." A hubbub of conversation in the entry hall against a fainter backdrop of musical accompaniment drifted up the stairwell. "In addition, I have been lectured by every parent in the house. Some assert that I must not let go your hand for the next twelve hours--"
"--others that I must immediately take myself off to the nearest alehouse--"
"Of what use are they as husbands, then?"
"Some wives, my dear, would rather their husbands were not in the way at such a time," Mrs. Dashwood pointed out serenely, while Elinor glanced quickly at her brother in fear that he might assume that this remark applied to the present situation.
But he had eyes, and ears, only for Marianne. "Most, however, suggested that I could be of some use by providing distraction. I thought--that I might read to you?" Elinor now saw that he held in his hand a volume of Shakespeare, but he spoke hesitantly, pleading rather than demanding to be included.
"I should like that," said Marianne, aching to make amends, though she paid him only intermittent attention as he began The Merry Wives of Windsor. She did not want to be read to. She did not want to be confined--that awful word--to this room for hours, days. She wanted this ordeal behind her, longed to be holding her child and gazing at her husband with affection again rather than with this strange, vague, unjust irritation--even as he read himself hoarse to give her something on which to concentrate besides her own apprehensions and the pains that assaulted her. They came steadily faster--fifteen minutes apart, then twelve, then ten--and strengthened in intensity until she doubled over with each one and clutched at his strong hands until her own ached. Eliza had come upstairs with him; she added the benefit of her own experience to that of Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood, suggesting that Marianne should breathe this way or sit that way, and some of her recommendations did seem to help. She also fetched wine for her cousin's parched throat and gave him respite from reading, glad to be able to keep vigil with him as he had for her--though when he was not reading he was no longer distracted from his own apprehensions, and the anxious lines around his eyes and mouth deepened into canyons. Marianne appreciated all their efforts more than she could say, even as she fought to keep from screaming at them that she would rather be walking in her beloved woods, amidst the night breeze and the crickets rather than in this expectant chamber whose walls seemed to be moving nearer.
How could her mother and sister doze off in their chairs, no matter that three, and four, and then five o'clock had passed them by, and leave her defenseless against Christopher's hollow stare and unceasing efforts to cheer her? Even Mr. Avery was snoring softly in a corner, unconcerned and uninvolved unless a real crisis developed, for he was a strict non-interventionist, believing that to interfere unnecessarily with the process Nature had prescribed could actually increase the danger to both mother and child. Surrounded by people, she felt very much alone. With her mother and sister or with her husband separately she could be unguarded, but with all of them here together, with guests in the house--John and Fanny--! Of all her sins, which had been so vile that she should deserve John and Fanny at this of all times? She could hear them as if they were in the room with her--their comforts inconvenienced, such a long journey only to have their pleasures interrupted, why could their sister not have waited a day or two?--and of course Fanny had not made one offer of assistance. That was in truth something of a blessing, for Marianne did not at all desire her sister's cold interest--how had such a woman ever produced a child?--but might she not have offered?
Dawn was breaking, and Brandon and Eliza--and Margaret, who had begged to be of some use--had nearly reached the end of As You Like It, when Edward came to report that the stamina of most of the remaining guests had at last been worn down, and that only the Wilvertons and Mrs. Holcombe were yet in the house. "Except for John and Fanny, of course, who went to bed hours ago." He himself sported purplish circles around his eyes.
"Well, that is typical," was Elinor's frosty comment. "Gone to bed as if nothing extraordinary is happening."
Her husband's expression reflected her sentiment. He further reported that the musicians and the additional servants had been told to return in a day or two for their wages, with the exception of three who claimed a desperate need of funds, whom he had paid himself. Brandon was just beginning to thank him for his thoughtful assistance, when Mrs. Holcombe's strident voice could be heard in the hallway, demanding to see Mr. Avery. Marianne froze in her pacing, which she had hardly ceased for the past hour. Her pains were five minutes apart and seemed determined to fix there forever, and one more strain she could not bear. "Christopher," she said desperately, taking little care to lower her voice, "I do not care how much we both respect her. I cannot abide her just now not ten feet away." He rose at once and started for the door. "And--and perhaps you would like to go downstairs for a time--you must want some fresh air--"
Elinor never knew how he managed even the faintest of smiles--or the lie. "Yes, I--I do."
His voice was so raspy she could hardly make out the words. He laid the book on a chair and was gone. With her eyes and a gesture she pleaded with Edward to follow, to be of what comfort he could, at the same time smiling to think that in this situation the younger man was more experienced by far than the elder.
When the two men were out of earshot she confronted her sister. "How could you send him away just now? Did you see his face?"
"Of course I saw his face! I know I have hurt him! But if this continues I shall be snapping at everyone within reach, and I would rather snap at those less sensitive than he is-- Oh my dear sister, please forgive me--I am saying all the wrong things--"
Elinor clasped her hands and pressed her forehead against Marianne's. "Dearest, if you cannot be forgiven for saying the wrong thing now, there is no justice in the world. Only explain to him later and all will be well."
"Will there be a later? I am beginning to feel that I shall be trapped in this state for the rest of my days!"
But Mr. Avery, awakened by her frantic voice, upon examining her again pronounced himself satisfied with her progress. He checked to make certain that Nurse Tarville, whom he knew well and had recommended, had arrived and was arranging for cloths and blankets and hot water, and then slid complacently back into his doze.
Having at last dispatched the Wilvertons and even Mrs. Holcombe homeward in their carriages--though not without having to endure hearty blessings from the former and relentless advice from the latter even as she was trotting down the drive--Brandon stood indecisive on the porch. The stone radiated a chill in the thin early morning light. He was stumbling with sleeplessness; he was unnaturally alert. He could sleep on these very stones; he would never sleep again. Sarah and Claude were napping in the library, having been helpful to the point of falling asleep even while talking, but they had not succumbed to fatigue without extracting a promise to be awakened in time for the birth itself. "She will be all right, Kit," Sarah had said to him again and again. "Trust Mr. Avery and try not to worry so. The important thing, you know, is that Monsieur Dupuy's fruit tarts did not go to waste." He could not smile, but he embraced her tightly in gratitude for her attempt to hearten him. Claude, however, having suffered his own agonies through Sarah's most dangerous pregnancies and the subsequent grievous losses, rested an arm briefly across his brother's shoulders before trudging wearily down the hall. Brandon cast an anguished look toward a particular window above, imagining that he could hear Marianne's every gasp of pain. He felt utterly, irrelievably helpless.
"Can I interest you in a walk in the garden, Colonel?" He had not heard Edward's approach. "The air is bracing, and the birds chipper--" Edward thought that Marianne, if she could know, would be pleased with him for thinking to mention birds.
After another glance toward the window, Brandon nodded dully. "But I must stay near the house."
"Of course. I have already told the servants where they might find you."
They walked for a long while in silence, Edward waiting to be shown what sort of comfort his friend and patron might want, Brandon lost in his own morose thoughts. Did Marianne truly resent him? Tension always made her petulant, and though her comments might sometimes sting he knew that she would not make them were she not completely at ease with him, did she not feel completely free to speak her mind to him. But pregnancy and childbirth, a burden even in the most companionable of marriages, surely must be intolerable for a woman who did not love the man who was responsible for her condition--
"Wives must hate their husbands at this time," he said, gloomily.
"If they do it is but a temporary animosity." Brandon greeted Edward's reply with a weak smile. "Elinor says the pain does not linger."
"If all goes well."
"It usually does."
Brandon knew full well that even in Edward's brief tenure as Delaford's rector, two of his parishioners had died in childbed. He tried to stretch the knots of tension from his shoulders, but the muscles only bunched again. "You have had some practice soothing fearful husbands."
"Some. Many of them drown their anxiety in liquor. I always thought that a cowardly remedy until I was in their place."
"I remember how calm you were. How did you do it?"
Edward gave a little laugh. "Did I appear calm to you? I was only petrified. As to how I retained any sort of coherence-- Prayer. Quite a lot of prayer, actually."
"I have tried it, to no avail. Mr. Ferrars--is it wrong to wish to remain childless rather than lose the woman one loves?"
"Good Lord, no--I think it is perfectly understandable. But that is a choice God has not seen fit to give us. To remain childless deliberately would mean denying both husband and wife what should be one of the sacred pleasures of marriage."
Brandon directed another bleak glance toward the window. "A pleasure that can carry a terrible price." Before Edward could try to combat this morbid sentiment, however, Brandon was able to rouse himself a little. "As it happens, I have a new case of port in the cellar. Perhaps I should break it open--"
Though it might be doubted whether the colonel would have acted upon his own suggestion, the truth will never be known, for at that moment Mrs. Baynes's cry rang across the garden. "Colonel Brandon, sir!" (urgently beckoning). "Only a little while now--"
But he hardly heard this happy postscript as he dashed across the garden and into the house, up the stairs two and three at a time and down the hallway and into the lying-in chamber, not even seeing John and Fanny in the breakfast room eating their bread and cake and tea in sleepy unconcern, or the several servants who scuttled out of his way with smiles and giggles, having never seen their master in such a state. At his first sight of Marianne, positioned now in the usual manner upon her left side, with her mother and sister clutching her hands and bathing her face--he had never known such terror. But in the next instant he realized that all the faces that greeted him were cheerful, that the comments he heard were bolstering and untroubled; and he dragged air into his lungs and commanded, from a place inside himself he had not known he possessed, tranquility.
Elinor said with great kindness, "She has been asking for you, Colonel. Come and take my place."
"Christopher?" Marianne's voice was a weak sob.
He did as he was told, sitting in the chair Elinor vacated and kissing Marianne's sweaty hair. "Yes, my love, I am here." Her shift was tucked up under her arms and an old petticoat covered her lower body, to provide her a little modesty in this cruelly immodest situation.
"Please do not leave me."
"You know I shan't ever leave you."
Mrs. Dashwood was quite taken aback to see a husband in the actual delivery room, but her daughter had insisted upon it and Mr. Avery had recommended indulging her, "as long as he will not faint." But a soldier is certainly no stranger to pain or to blood, and even though watching his beloved in her suffering and labor was torment for him, Brandon was not in the slightest danger of a swoon. In fact, Elinor thought with amazement, with the possible exception of Mr. Avery himself her brother was the most steadfast person in the room. He bathed Marianne's face and neck and hands with a cloth soaked in cool water, soothed her with his hoarse voice and gentle caresses, kissed her hair and her brow and her cheek and let her clutch his free hand until it was bruised.
But even his calm had its limits. "How much longer must she endure this?" he finally demanded of Avery, after thirty minutes that seemed an eternity.
The surgeon, restoring the petticoat after an examination, could but reply, "Until it is over. I can only tell you, Colonel, that though Mrs. Brandon's labor is slow it is progressing steadily. I shall remind you that a slower delivery means less chance of laceration. Mrs. Brandon, please remember not to push--" (as she was racked by another contraction).
Brandon bit back a sharp retort that would only frighten Marianne. In an effort to be well informed he had read all the medical literature on pregnancy and childbirth he could find, and now knew every possible complication that she and their child might yet face. He had kept those texts from Marianne and wished now he had not read them himself, wished he could have faith in Avery's placid, low-voiced assurances.
And then, somehow giving an impression of suddenness even after so many interminable hours, Mr. Avery announced, in the aftermath of a frightful cry from Marianne, that the infant's head was delivered. Marianne gripped her husband's hands as if drawing strength from him during her last and most intense pains; and in a few moments a tiny wail was heard in the room, and Mr. Avery was saying with as much pride as if the labor had been his own, "We have a girl."
"You may come in now, Colonel," said Mrs. Dashwood, beaming at the new father. He had been banished to the hallway once again while Nurse Tarville washed the baby, Marianne was made presentable by her mother and sister, and the maids put clean linens on the bed, so that when he tentatively entered the room he saw no mess or disorder, but only the astonishing vision of his wife suckling their newborn daughter.
He could hardly take his eyes from them, but he managed to thank Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood for all they had done. "I am so glad you were able to be here to support her--to support both of us."
Mrs. Dashwood kissed his unshaven cheek. "Dear Colonel Brandon, you were really quite wonderful yourself. Now, the three of you need some time alone without any intrusions, before all the household comes in later to stare. Margaret, for one, is beside herself, and John Brandon insists that Marianne promised to sing to him--though of course we have told him that he must wait until she is strong enough. Elinor and I shall tumble into a bed for a few hours, but Nurse is just outside, and Sarah and Eliza are downstairs should you need anything. God bless you both!" Elinor added her kisses and blessings, and reminded them that Edward was ready to christen the new arrival as soon as she had been given a name.
And then they were alone. The room was gently lit with the spring sun filtered through half-closed draperies, freshened by a mild breeze from the partly open window. Brandon sank into the upholstered chair that had been brought near the bed, and simply watched the two nearly motionless figures on the bed before him. Quiet prevailed, so that the small, sucking sounds of the babe were clearly audible. Marianne, propped against a mountain of pillows, gazed down at her child with that familiar unworldly expression almost universal in paintings of the Madonna or any maternal figure; he had thought it an idealization of Motherhood, a romanticization--but it was genuine. And then she looked up and smiled, a radiant, proud smile, and was again his own Marianne, exhausted and content and disbelieving that this long-anticipated event had finally arrived. "Are you in any pain now?" he asked her, his voice soft and slow with fatigue, and thought the baby stirred a little in response to the sound.
"Only the pain of hard physical effort, but I am so happy I hardly notice it--especially, I must admit, when I lie very still."
He wanted to gather her into his arms, to envelop her with the love and gratitude that overwhelmed him, but he was under orders from Mr. Avery to be careful of her--"She is somewhat fragile now, you know." The surgeon would not leave the house for several more hours, perhaps as long as a day; having made use of a basin and ewer he was now presentable himself, and was taking a hearty breakfast downstairs. Fragile in body Marianne might be, but she showed no sign of being emotionally unbalanced by the recent assault to her delicate feelings. Brandon was beginning to suspect that to designate women the weaker sex was a vast oversimplification. Had he escaped to the nearest alehouse, or even into the library, he would not know it. "You must promise me," he said, "to obey all of Avery's instructions as to rest and diet, and to allow us all to wait upon you for at least two weeks."
"Yes, I promise--though I do not look forward eagerly to four days of only tea and gruel."
"Shall I come and eat some with you, so you do not suffer alone?"
"Oh, such a noble gesture--my dear husband! The greatest favor you will pay me will be to keep me company when I become restless from being shut up here in this room. At the moment, however, I haven't the strength to be restless." The infant moved a little in her arms. "Look at her, Christopher. Is she not incredible? I am already worried to death that I could lose her. Mama says that the anxiety of a parent never goes away, even when one's children are grown." She shifted the babe to her other breast. "Christopher--are you pleased--is it really all right that I have had a girl?"
He regarded her with all the incredulity he retained energy for. "Marianne, when I offered myself to you I did not care whether or not you had any children at all. I wanted you. I do not think of you as some sort of brood mare."
"Christopher!" So surprised was she to hear such an indelicate comment from him, so near to laughter, that she nearly dislodged the baby. Clearly his behavior, too, was adversely affected by tension.
He passed his hands over his face, as if to rub away weariness. "Good lord! Forgive me, please, for speaking so bluntly. What a comment to make to one's wife!"
"You are only tired."
"I am tired? You are exhausted, and still you tolerate my ravings. My dearest, if I had intended to allow this estate to take precedence over my own happiness, I would have married years ago." He smiled at last. "So--you may have as many girls as you like."
"As many as I like? Then you will not mind providing ten or fifteen marriage portions?"
He gave a little cough. "Ten or fifteen! I see that I had better increase my rent rolls, and locate some new investments." He was quietly amused that he was able to contemplate tin mines and shipping fleets while still in a state of awe at having witnessed the miracle of birth. "I am glad you have chosen to nurse her yourself."
"The arguments in favor of it are so persuasive. I always wanted to, even before, and now, having known the--the-- 'Pleasure' hardly begins to describe it-- The sense of a bond forming, perhaps-- I cannot imagine any woman denying herself, no matter the inconvenience, if she is physically able." Her forehead wrinkled in brief distaste, remembering who was at the moment a guest in their house. "No, I am wrong--I can imagine some women."
He agreed with a wry smile, then said, "Actually, my love, I meant--because you will delay conceiving. I would happily finish out my life without enduring this dread again. Wilverton tells me that succeeding births are less terrifying because husband and wife have gained experience, but I cannot believe it. No measures we might take would provide certainty--but every precaution will lessen the risk for you."
"Be thankful Mrs. Jennings was unable to attend our party. When she learned of my pregnancy from Mama, she wrote to me a letter of congratulation that detailed every ghastly emergency she had ever heard of. She had performed the same service for Elinor, so I knew to expect it, but I dared not show such a recitation to you!"
Her affectionate concern touched him deeply. "You were very kind to protect me, but as it happens I was rather harrowingly well informed myself." He explained about his researches and his reaction to them. "Next time, perhaps, we can be more forthcoming about our qualms."
"Should there be a next time. There is one positive way of not conceiving, you know."
He felt his insides congeal. His lips moved but for a moment no sound emerged. "Y-yes," he was able to say at last, "if you were to ask me--" Other husbands would be angry, he knew, but all he could feel was a stunned and empty grief. If the risk genuinely frightened her, however, did he have the right--
Had she thought her legs could hold her, Marianne would have lunged off the bed and thrown her arms around him. "Christopher, I would never ask that of you! I would never ask it of myself unless it meant my life. How can you think I would? My dearest husband, I was only teasing you--I am so sorry--I only wanted to make you smile--"
The wave of relief made him dizzy, and it was a moment before he could manage a soft, weak chuckle. "I should have realized it. Fatigue has made me too sensitive."
Chagrined, she replied, "How can you not be sensitive when I have been so unfeeling toward you, so concerned with my own fears that I was unable to accommodate yours? I only sent you away, you know, so I should not compound my offense."
He blinked in surprise. "Offense? I had forgotten it, truly. You asked for me at the end--that was enough. To be present when my child was born-- Marianne, you cannot know what that meant to me."
"I felt so much stronger for having you there." She was stirred by an infinite tenderness as she observed him, as he gazed in wonder at the tiny bundle she held, blinking back moisture, his nerves and emotions still raw and beyond his complete control. She felt that they were conjoined in a way they had not been before, that they had embarked upon shared elations and fears, that when they had married they had been stepping toward one another, but now stepped forward along life's path together. The infant's sucking had become intermittent, sleepy, and now the tiny mouth fell away from her breast, the small form sagging into slumber in her arms. She closed the slit of her nursing dress and shifted to one side of the bed. Softly she said to him, "Come and hold your daughter."
He was hesitant, alarmed, but she was gently insistent, and he rose onto unsteady legs and slid carefully into the bed beside her. The baby's entire length fit into his two spread hands. "My God," he whispered, and no longer tried to stop his tears. He cradled her in the crook of his arm, pulled aside the soft blanket and traced each small finger and toe, the delicate shells of her ears, caressed the fine strands of corn-silk hair. "It is so light."
"It will probably darken, as mine did."
"We have made her, you and I."
Marianne nestled against him, feeling the catches in his breath, seeing the trembling of his hands. "Kiss me," she said, and he did, gently at first and then with an intensity that contained nothing of passion or desire, but only gratitude and love, his stubbled cheeks and chin rough against her face, his tears salty on her lips. When they drew apart, she said, "You must choose her name."
"You." Gently she dried his face with her handkerchief. "I shall accept anything you suggest."
"You are very tired--should you make such a concession now?"
She laughed sleepily. "I am reasonably coherent. Whatever you choose will be perfect."
"Even Elizabeth or Jane or Susan?"
"Even those. All three if you like."
He was too tired to laugh but his smile was warm and rich to the very depths of his eyes. Pondering all the disparate and often unhappy events in his life that had led him to this blessed moment, he said softly, "Joy. I should like to name her Joy--because joy is what I feel when I look at her, and at you."
She gazed at him for a long moment. "It is perfect, as I said it would be. Perfect."
She pressed tighter against him and slipped one arm around his back and the other across his stomach and the precious, trusting burden he held, and as she allowed sleep to claim her she felt only a deep, abiding sense of safety and peace.
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