A Death at Delaford
At about the same moment Marianne was setting out in her carriage for Allenham, Colonel Brandon was handing his servant the latest of many expresses to Delaford. Almost as soon as Tim had disappeared from sight in the warren of iron walkways, however, he wished he could call his letter back, such was his anxiety with regard to the feelings its contents might provoke in its recipient. "You are so very good to try to understand my position, my love, though it cause you such distress, so good to wish to see me to discuss the matter; and I myself want nothing more than to see you, for I agree that conversation might bring us both a measure of repose; but once again I cannot sanction your visit, though I beg you believe it wrings my heart to refuse you after reading so moving a plea as you have sent me. John Barnes, the poor fellow who suffers from consumption, was taken very ill yesterday. The prison surgeon believes it is simply questionable meat or foul air acting upon a constitution already mortally weakened, rather than the initial case of an epidemic of gaol fever--for the onset was very sudden, and there are as yet no lesions on his skin--but until he is certain, you must not think of coming. I have sent a note to Sarah and Claude, but there is no hope of their heeding my warning--after surviving revolution they think themselves indestructible. (I believe Jonah Masters is indestructible.) But I know that I can depend upon my Marianne to honor my request, though it be made, and received, most unwillingly. You must trust me to judge when it might be safe for you to come--"
It was as much as a promise to allow her to visit him, a promise he never should have made; and that he had made it demonstrated that continued separation and his overall depression were inexorably diluting his will. He had been very susceptible to the obvious agitation of spirit in which she had written her last two letters. Gone was any effort to cheer him, any attempt to conceal her fears. He had scarcely slept the night before, her letter having been brought him so late, and had written several drafts of his reply before being satisfied with its tone and substance--a satisfaction that had now deserted him. He was forced to accept, however, that he was powerless to stop her should she really set her mind on coming. He would not stoop to ordering her: he was far from being an authoritarian husband, and hardly wished to add to her depression by continually rejecting her entreaties. He also regretted very much the probability of having frightened her into a belief that the entire gaol would be carried off by fever within the week; such an apprehension would induce her to climb into the carriage almost the moment his letter was in her hands. But though he could not be sanguine about her arrival within the next several days, he had at last been persuaded that the only likelihood of his being able to bring her opinion into something like sympathy with his own lay in the tete-a-tete she so desperately sought. And even while he feared for her safety when she should come, he could not but hope, though he felt the inappropriateness of such a hope at such a time, that the intensity of her desire to see him and talk with him might betoken a strengthening of her esteem and affection into--
No--he would not think it, would not articulate that secret yearning even in his own mind, would not increase the poignancy of their necessarily brief reunion, whenever it should occur, by the anticipation of a particular event and the consequent despondency should that event not occur.
He was glad to be spared the embarrassment of further self-pity by Edward's arrival, though sorry he had not known his brother planned to come today, so that he might have warned him as well of the possible danger. "Forgive me for arriving at such an early hour, Colonel, but I am engaged for dinner with the bishop's representative and I must leave you by one o'clock. Have you breakfasted?"
"Not yet, but I am not the least hungry. Do not think me un welcoming, Mr. Ferrars, but you ought rather to leave now--one of the inmates is very ill."
"So Mr. Henley told me--he was going out as I was coming in. He believes it is not gaol fever, and the symptoms do not sound it to me either."
"All the same, I should not wish you to risk your health by coming to see me."
"May I point out that many of my flock are housed in less wholesome accommodations than these, and I do not avoid them."
To this Brandon could not but concede, but he would not be prevented from being grateful. "The general accommodations of your flock are not twenty miles or more out of your way. I very much appreciate your coming so often."
"It is not as often as I would like--you and your colleagues should have had the new gaol built nearer Delaford. And you will not be so appreciative when you hear that my primary task today is to urge you to allow your wife to visit you."
"She has enlisted your aid, has she?" Brandon said with a smile. "On the contrary, I shall always appreciate your concern for Marianne's feelings. You will perhaps be pleased on her behalf to learn that I am on the brink of surrender. Once it is certain that the air here is no more than usually noxious, I must yield to her importunities, if I am to have any hope of persuading her of the justification of my position."
"I am persuaded that you have no prospect at all of success."
Brandon sighed in a kind of defeat. "I expect events will bear you out. Her last two letters have disturbed me very much--she is allowing her imagination to fuel her fears." Abruptly he turned his gaze away. "It shames me to say that I am guilty of the same weakness. --It is a curious phrase they use, in the newspaper accounts and the execution records: 'launched into eternity,' they say. What does eternity hold for me, I wonder, and will I truly be launched into it before my time? Before--" He stopped himself from the inadvertent disclosure of that particular longing, and stared for some minutes at the wall. When he faced Edward again his expression was bleak.
Quite taken aback, Edward struggled to formulate a coherent and meaningful response. "Of-of all the responsibilities of my profession, I find most difficult the giving of comfort when there is nothing ahead but further affliction. Indeed I find it sometimes impossible. I do not claim a greater understanding of the mysteries of life and death simply because I wear a black suit and a surplice, and have read a number of religious meditations. I have certainly never had to offer solace to anybody in exactly your situation-- I have felt that I--am failing you--"
Brandon was greatly moved by this confession. "I assure you, Mr. Ferrars, you are very far from failing me in any way. I value our conversations highly."
"And I value your reassurance, Colonel, very much." When Edward continued it was with noticeably more confidence. "I do not call it solace, but we are promised that what awaits us is more joyful than the life we know as mortal beings."
A harsh smile played about Brandon's mouth. "Once I heard a man protest from the scaffold that he was very satisfied with this life if he would but be permitted to stay in it. I cannot conceive of a life more joyful than that I have known these eighteen months." To this Edward had no answer. "The prison chaplain, your spiritual colleague, eyes me warily as he goes about his visitations. It is his duty, by diligent instruction and sharp reproach, to bring the prisoners to contrition, and to ensure that the condemned are so prostrate with remorse that they will not resist the hangman and their fate. But having listened to my regular and vigorous protestations of innocence, he despairs, I believe, of having any success with me." Edward could not fathom the expression in his eyes. "I am confident the angels will know the truth."
"Really, Colonel," Edward interjected, very unsettled indeed by the turn of the conversation, "it is much too early to be talking of angels. I refuse to believe that it will not be many years before they have their opportunity of judging you--"
"Who will be judging whom?" Sarah asked brightly, coming into the cell before Tim could announce her. She was accompanied by her husband and Jonah Masters, and also Mr. Haydock, and all wore the air of having been engaged in intensive conversation.
Brandon made a little shake of his head to Edward, to tell him that he did not want his sister to know the morbid direction of his thoughts. "Mr. Ferrars is going to judge the quality of the next meal I offer him. Good morning to you all. Haydock, I did not expect to see you today--"
"We met him outside the livery stable and insisted he join us," Masters explained.
"I am glad to see you all, but I fear that really you should go, as one of the prisoners is ill--"
"And you, dear brother, are the only person within these walls who believes it is gaol fever. Do stop trying to shove us out the door. How would we talk to you--by wrapping notes around stones and tossing them through the bars? Come and eat these muffins I have brought you from the inn."
"I see that Tim has been very informative," Brandon commented, and gave up trying to save them from the consequences of their good intentions. Tim was sent for a tea cart, and every body partook of muffins and jam while talking of politics and grape-growing and travel and the latest excesses of fashionable society. Brandon took genuine pleasure in the agreeable noise of numerous company, and for a brief time could almost forget the reason they had come.
And then he said, "Haydock, why are you here? Is there news?"
A silence fell, and he realized that the determined cheerfulness of his latest visitors had been prompted by the ulterior motivation of delaying some blow. Haydock cleared his throat. "I have had a letter from Mr. Parker. He is giving up his search along the turnpike. I came especially to tell you, as it seemed very cold to put it to paper so bluntly as that."
After a pause, Brandon said in a strained voice, "I see," and then, "You are very considerate." He then drew a breath and willed himself to be steady, for this was hardly an unexpected development and he must not allow it to disturb him unduly. "We must call in the thief takers, then."
"My clerk is drafting inquiries this morning to the two most highly recommended. However, Parker does intend to visit Mr. Willoughby's estate at Combe Magna, and possibly to return to Allenham. Perhaps he will learn something yet."
Brandon set down his cup and began to pace, but the cell was so well occupied that he could take only two steps before he reached the outer wall and was forced to turn back. Facing Haydock once again, he asked as if in challenge, "You do not urge me afresh to change my plea?"
The lawyer's eyebrows rose. "I can perceive when effort is useless, Colonel. But it is early days yet."
"My position will not alter--though the dearest person in the world ask it of me." Brandon attempted anew to pace, was again brought up short, and pivoted sharply. "Good God, man, do you believe I wish to hang? If you have no confidence in your ability to convince a jury that I do not take leave of my senses at the sight of a man I dislike, I will offer my own justification. I will speak of my home and family and the happiness I find therein, and of my disinclination to risk any portion of that happiness, my own or that of my loved ones, on the reckless redress of an ancient grievance."
His voice had grown rough with barely controlled emotion, but Haydock was unmoved. "Do you not see, sir, how that argument could be turned against you? Humphries could assert that you might think to protect your happiness by preventing Mr. Willoughby from interfering with it. Every argument you advance could be countered as easily."
"What we want is an explanation for that d----- button," said Sergeant Masters, so engrossed in the problem that he forgot he was in the presence of a lady. "They couldn't counter that."
He meant only to think aloud, but Brandon in his agitation felt it as an attack. "I have said repeatedly that I cannot explain the confounded button! It is absurd, it is laughable, that my very life should depend upon an item so commonplace and insignificant. Do you know that I am beset with nightmares about buttons--of buttons all around me but I am blind to them; of tearing apart my house board by board and stone by stone in search of a button; of spying it at last, dangling before my eyes as the drop slides back and the noose jerks at my neck--"
Such an uncharacteristic outburst from a man so usually collected shocked his listeners into silence. Not one of them moved or spoke; the broken inhale and exhale of his breathing was the only sound. At last Masters stepped over to the small cabinet against the wall and returned with the second bottle of arrack. "You want something a bit stronger than tea."
Brandon let out a long, shuddering sigh, and sank into a chair. "You are all very good to endure me. I beg you forgive my shameful display."
At this manifestation of her brother's courage and his constant preference never to trouble others even at great cost to himself, Sarah's eyes filled with tears. Had they been alone she would have embraced him, but now could only take his hand and be grateful that he did not pull away, and even responded with an answering pressure.
"The colonel would perhaps prefer his own company," Edward suggested. "We ought to take our leave--"
There was immediate general agreement, if also regret on Sarah's part, but Brandon found himself loath to see them go. "In actuality I have been too much in my own company of late, as I believe my tension this morning indicates. I shall even talk of buttons to keep you here for a time--"
His tone was faintly pleading--indeed he had quite forgotten that not a long while before he had been imploring them to depart--and when they saw that he was sincere, they arranged themselves on the chairs and beds and proceeded to a discussion all the more spirited for having so many participants. "Was he certain he could trust all his servants? -- Was he certain he could trust his tailor? -- Did Mrs. Brandon really know how many buttons should be in the button box? -- Was there a tenant or villager who might bear a grudge against him, for an eviction or an unfavorable judgment?" These were some of the questions that were asked; and Brandon's replies, as if he strove to make amends for having caused his guests discomfort, were patient and clear. "Yes, he trusted all his servants; the newest had been with him since his marriage and nothing had been noticed missing. -- His tailor could also be trusted, unless he had taken inexplicable offense after eight years of mutual satisfaction. -- Yes, Mrs. Brandon had placed the order herself. -- Undoubtedly there were tenants and miscreants who were not his friends, but he could think of no one who would exact any but trivial revenge." He had answered all such questions before, from Humphries and Melgrove and Haydock himself, but the process seemed less onerous now, such was the energy and stimulation generated by the application of several minds to the same problem.
"Well--" Masters expostulated, galled anew by their not having solved together in an hour what none had solved separately in nearly a fortnight, "--haven't you got other coats somewhere in the house? Up in the attic, or in a remote closet that every body always forgets?"
"Marianne has searched in every room and closet in the house, under every bed and inside every cupboard. There are some trunks in the attic, but these cursed buttons, which I never will use again, are a more recent addition to my wardrobe than anything they contain. She examined every item in them, however, nonetheless. In any case, I do not retain coats or suits when I have ceased to wear them--I give them to--"
He stopped abruptly with a curious choking sound, then closed his eyes while a series of thoughts blazed through his brain, to culminate in a realization that nearly turned him faint. "Tim!" His shout came without warning, causing them all to start in their seats. "I give them to the servants," he said, "to the servants! Tim!" He had sprung up from his chair and had reached the doorway by the time Tim appeared in it, and thus they nearly collided. "Tim, the greatcoat I gave to you about three or four months ago--what did you do with it?"
"Kit!" Sarah exclaimed, while a buzz of incredulity rose from her companions. "Do you mean to say--"
"Yes--that that very coat was adorned with those stupid, those ridiculous, those--I have run out of civilized epithets--buttons! I had intended to ask Polly to exchange them, but as I had never had occasion to do so before--" His shoulders lifted in a bemused shrug; he seemed not to know whether to whoop for joy at a possible deliverance or rail against the cruel tricks of memory. "--I forgot." He turned again to his manservant with an air of cautious hope held tightly in check.
The alarm of poor Tim, as he began to understand that he must be somehow responsible for his master's jeopardy, was almost palpable. His face turned white and his eyes darted in supplication from Brandon to Mr. Haydock and back again. "I--I sold it, sir. I understood you to say that I might, as I always do--"
"Of course, of course. I accuse you of nothing, Tim--I want only to know how you disposed of it."
Tim attempted to direct his narrative toward his master, but Haydock, with a severe look, continually interrupted for the purpose of clarifying this or that detail, or establishing this or that hour or location. His tone was barbed, his manner that of a prosecutor seeking flaws in a witness's testimony. Brandon comprehended his method, but felt for his quaking servant nonetheless. Having received the coat as a customary perquisite of his employment in a great house, Tim had waited until the next market day before attempting to sell it, in the expectation of obtaining a better price due to there being many more people in the village as well as several itinerant merchants. His audience, appalled by the thought of searching for a travelling peddler, were relieved to hear that he had not met with any success among them--until Mr. Haydock pointed out that such persons often adhered to a regular route, so that tracing one of them might have been a very simple matter indeed.
Discouraged and warm, for it was then almost summer and the sun was merciless, Tim had at last sought a mug of ale at the George, and there had met with a man who after some haggling had relieved him of the fine coat for two guineas. "I'm sure he doesn't live in Delaford parish, but I had seen him about now and then, at market or the inns, and maybe in the shops or the post office. I remember his face but not his name, though I fancy it were something like two Christian names, like John Henry, or Ned Williams, or some such. Oh God, sir, I didn't know! I always check the pockets to be sure you've left nothing in them, but I carried that coat half the day and I never saw those buttons. I swear I didn't know--!"
"Calm yourself, Tim. You are not a valet; it is not your duty to notice the details of every item of clothing I own. You had no reason to know that the buttons on that coat were any different from the buttons on any other coat I had ever given to you before. And even if you had, you had no reason to think that the man to whom you sold it would murder an old enemy of your master's several months later. I tell you again you are accused of nothing."
Mr. Haydock's next questions, however, seemed to belie this assurance. "Why have you not come forward with this information? Why did you not mention it when I interviewed you?"
"But sir, you didn't ask me about an old coat. You asked about the coats the colonel has now, whether I knew if any were missing, and whether I ever saw a stranger about who might have stolen one, and so forth, and I swear I told you everything I knew."
"And all the discussions of greatcoats did not prompt you to think that even an old coat might be of some relevance?"
"Remember he has been at Delaford for but a few hours since my arrest," Brandon interrupted, "and during those few hours he was working without pause or visiting his family; thus he had no opportunity for talking with his fellow servants. It was, in any case, before Mrs. Brandon began her searches. And he has not been present at any of our discussions of the case here."
Tim was vigorously shaking his head, and looking his thanks to his master for this defense. "And I was that nervous talking to Mr. Haydock, sir--for he does seem to think I ought to be guilty of something--that I did well to remember my own name."
Haydock did not look appeased, but neither did he seem inclined to further interrogation, and so Brandon dismissed Tim with instructions to come to him with any particular he might yet remember. The unfortunate Tim was so relieved to escape into the walkway that he did not in the least regret being deprived of the opportunity to hear something of interest.
The tumult of felicitation and jubilation, of astonished comment and hopeful conjecture, that greeted Tim's report can be imagined. Every body talked at once; every body finished every body else's sentences; every body was full of congratulation and gaiety and playfulness--until they noticed Haydock's unsmiling countenance, and no longer knew whether they were permitted to be happy.
Brandon had been too stunned to say anything more, and dared turn to his lawyer only when Edward, who could no longer contain himself, demanded, "Well, Haydock? Is not this very good news indeed?"
Haydock frowned and said tersely, "I think it a suspicious story. The man might be better acquainted with this convenient coat-buyer than he allows. He might be the guilty party himself. He has admitted a temporary possession of the coat; perhaps he never did actually sell it."
"Of course he sold it," Brandon said. "With the price he can get for one of my coats he can buy a coat for himself of lesser make but equal warmth and have a pocketful of coin left over. Tim is not a fool, nor is he a murderer or an accomplice. Do not harass him, Haydock. He has been loyal to me, and I intend to keep him in my employ as long as he will stay."
"He admitted to me that you had on two occasions docked his wages for his being hung-over and unable to work. Might he not bear a grudge as much as any tenant or felon?"
"For so minor a punishment? No. One of those occasions was his coming of age, when his family gave a party in his honor. The other was the safe birth of his nephew after his sister's long and frightening labor. Had he been able to work at all I would not have docked him a penny, and told him so. I would have been within my rights to discharge him, and he knew it. He has never held those instances against me."
"Your confidence is admirable, sir. I hope it is not misplaced."
"Really, it does no good for us to doubt this man's veracity, for whatever reason," Claude pointed out. "Assuming he tells the truth, how useful is his information? Is it enough for my brother to obtain bail? Is this a something or a nothing?"
"Well, of course it is more than a nothing," was Haydock's less disputatious reply. "But how much more, I cannot predict. Though a jury will usually prefer not to convict a gentleman for murder if there is the slightest evidence in his favor, I cannot be wholly confident that Tim's statement in and of itself will be sufficient to ensure an acquittal, let alone to induce Lord Melgrove and Mr. Wilverton to grant bail. The man is a servant, they will say, and the testimony of a servant is easily bought--particularly that of a loyal servant, and this man has already demonstrated his loyalty to Colonel Brandon by consenting to be locked away with him."
"He is not locked away," Brandon countered. "He comes and goes freely. Nor has he consented to be here; he is contracted to perform whatever duties I require of him, in whatever location I might find myself."
"Under these circumstances, sir, many a servant would be away to London, regardless of his contract. Your man's willingness to remain is indicative of a degree of loyalty that a prosecutor and jury will find significant."
"It is also indicative of his honesty, and an honest man would not perjure himself to save an employer."
"A prosecutor would try to convince a jury that he would, if he believed in that employer's innocence."
"Now we are returned to distrusting Tim," said Edward, "and I agree with Mr. Marchbanks that that is not helpful. We must assume that this John or Ned exists, and we must try to find him. Even if he did not retain the coat he can tell us what he did with it."
"He appears to have a regular connection to Delaford," said Masters. "Somebody must know something about him--maybe the proprietor of the inn where the sale was made."
"Mr. Havers clearly remembers a great many things he hears," Brandon said in a wry tone. "Perhaps this time what he remembers will aid rather than harm my cause."
"Perhaps so," said Haydock, "but we must yet prove a connection between this man and Mr. Willoughby. We must find the coat in his possession--still lacking its button--or locate someone who will swear to have seen the two together at some time just prior to the murder--preferably at the height of a vicious quarrel. We must at the very least place this man and his coat somewhere along Mr. Willoughby's route, in which case an ambush for the purpose of robbery is certainly plausible. It is very difficult, however, to prove a random murder. Even highwaymen usually do not kill in cold blood--ahem, you will forgive me, Mrs. Marchbanks."
"Mr. Haydock, I am rather less dainty even than Mrs. Brandon--you need not be so protective of my sensibilities." Sarah's voice betrayed the excitement with which she had trembled from the moment Tim had begun to speak. "Perhaps the person in Delaford--whom I am convinced we shall uncover--can also provide the link with Mr. Willoughby--perhaps even is that link."
"In which case the said person will be very difficult to uncover, my dear," said her husband. "Indeed, if John or Ned himself be the sort of man who goes about shooting people in the road, it would not be surprising if he should use many different names."
"But surely he has not an infinite store of aliases?--else he would risk forgetting which he was using from one moment to the next."
"We must hope for that. I also wonder again whether this might not be some attempt to cast suspicion deliberately upon my brother. A button is very easily closed in a dying man's hand."
Haydock shook his head. "No--I do believe we are faced with an extraordinary--and extraordinarily harmful--coincidence. For the case to be as you postulate, this man must not only bear a murderous grudge against Colonel Brandon, he must be cognizant of a great many facts. He must know that the coat Tim wished to sell had been owned by the colonel, and that its buttons were so readily identifiable that they could be used to incriminate him--this even when Tim himself did not know of his master's sartorial refinements. He must know of the colonel's earlier connection to Mr. Willoughby, and that it was sufficiently acrimonious to have led to a challenge and a duel. He must by extension be aware of certain--intimate--circumstances relating to Mrs. Brandon and Miss Williams. He then must know that Mr. Willoughby would be riding through Delaford at an hour for which most men with families would have an alibi but the colonel would not, due to an entirely unexpected escalation of a tenants' dispute-- You see the chain of improbability. I do not deny that cases of such complexity have been documented, and therefore I cannot say absolutely that this is not such a case, but I do believe it unlikely."
"It occurs to me," said Edward, "that the very same coincidence that has endangered Colonel Brandon might also protect him. It is true that Tim's selling the coat did lead to the colonel's arrest; but without that transaction there would still have been a murder, the colonel would still have been a suspect without an alibi, and we would not now be a little nearer to finding the guilty man. Of course, sir, you would always have had your character in your favor, but solid evidence will exonerate you much more swiftly and unquestionably."
"It will if we stop talking and get after it," Jonah Masters grumbled--and was answered by a burst of hilarity from all, even Haydock, their sudden optimism all the more exhilarating for the long days of hopelessness that had preceded it.
There followed a commotion of suggestion and planning, in the course of which it was decided that Mr. Haydock and Tim would journey immediately to Delaford, where they would first interview Mr. Havers at the George and then continue to Wilverton Hall so that Tim could give his deposition before Mr. Wilverton. Deposition in hand, Haydock would then urge Wilverton to accompany him to Melgrove Lodge, in an effort to persuade Lord Melgrove to reverse his decision on the granting of bail. Tim would visit his family overnight and then return to Dorchester by coach. Jonah Masters would accompany them, for the purpose of conveying to Marianne a hasty communication from her husband and a complete description of the morning's developments, and would then offer his services to Constable Parker, who was expected to return to Delaford that evening or on the morrow. Claude was eager to renew his assaults on the chief justice and the newspapers in the light of the new evidence; Sarah--whose allotted hour, her brother was horrified to discover, had long since elapsed--looked forward to writing a happier letter to her sons than she had yet been able; while poor Edward, having never looked forward less to a dinner engagement, must away alone, though he threatened to knock Mr. Haydock out of bed at midnight to learn what had transpired during his isolation.
After an embrace from his sister and warm handshakes from his friends, and words of hearty encouragement from them all, Brandon accompanied them as near to the entrance lodge as he was permitted to go, and thanked them all most sincerely--though, he felt, inadequately--for their efforts on his behalf. "I deeply regret that my troubles have inconvenienced so many of my friends and family," he said; but they dismissed his apology as being unnecessary and entirely unwarranted, the whole situation owing to no fault of his own. As Masters took his leave on the iron walkway, Brandon said to him, "Thank heaven you were here to prod my memory."
The sergeant smiled. "You'd have recalled that coat on your own."
"Perhaps--but when? In another month, or two, or six? I have been blind to buttons. As a penalty I shall no doubt dream about buttons all the remaining nights of my life. Godspeed, Jonah. Please tell Marianne that I shall write again later today."
"That I shall, sir. Take heart--it will be over soon now." The sergeant's voice was newly robust with a conviction it had lacked during all his previous visits.
So great was the turmoil of Brandon's thoughts that he hardly noticed the other prisoners as he made his way back to his cell. At once he was vexed by his being dependent on others for rescue, and also deeply grateful to have so many friends so determined to save him. Once again in his cell he could not sit still, and paced about until he grew dizzy. Was this truly a breaking through of all the obstacles of the case? So it seemed to be, but so often had his hopes been disappointed that he could not be wholly cheerful. He was already regretting the buoyant tone of his note to Marianne, fearing that he had raised her hopes for naught--and yet he could not prevent hope from leaping about a little within his own breast, could not entirely subdue an absurd inclination to weep with relief.
A short time after he had returned to his cell he was paid a visit by Mr. Henley, with Padgett at his heels.
"You missed breakfast, Colonel," said the keeper, solicitude mingling with inquisitiveness in his tone. "I trust you do not starve?"
"No, thank you. I was occupied by an important discussion with visitors--and my sister had brought some muffins. I beg your pardon for neglecting to send word to you."
"Yes, Padgett did tell me you were hosting quite a crowd of people. But they have all hurried away, even your servant."
"He will return tomorrow--but might I make use of Samuel in an hour or two to take a letter to the post office?"
"Yes, of course. Has there been some progress in your case?"
"Let us say that there is the possibility."
When Brandon offered no further explanation, Henley bowed and exited reluctantly, his curiosity un assuaged; but in a moment he reappeared in the doorway. "I came also to tell you, Colonel, that John Barnes is recovering. He is somewhat stronger and his color is improved, and the cell has been cleaned and his clothing burnt. I believe we can safely say that we have avoided a general outbreak."
"I am very glad to hear it, for his own sake as well as ours." A sudden happy scheme presented itself for Brandon's internal examination. "As we have been granted that reprieve--Mr. Henley, I should like to put an idea to you--"
"My dearest Marianne," he wrote, little knowing how many hours would elapse, or what startling events would fill them, before she would be able to read the words. "What a morning it has been here--I hardly know what to feel. I shall pass a second solitary night in my fine cell, but I have never felt less lonely, such are the heartening developments of the day. By now you have heard the news from Masters, and so I will not use this space to talk of it, except to say that my cheer today is not forced, not in the least, and I believe that neither will yours be in your next to me. I offer now other information that will perhaps increase your glad spirits, as it does mine; might even allow you to forgive any earlier offense. I cannot know how much longer I will remain incarcerated. It might be only days, should the discovery of this morning result in bail or even exoneration; but it might yet be the full span until the assizes. Marianne, if Haydock is unable to sway Wilverton and Melgrove, I wish very much to see you. You will think me quite indecisive, writing that sentiment so soon after having written its opposite, but I can tell you now not only that John Barnes is improved, but also that I have had a talk with Mr. Henley and arranged a meeting for us outside the prison walls. He was very dubious at first, but I reminded him that there is no explicit prohibition in Lord Melgrove's commitment order, and that as some prisoners regularly work on the roads, there is ample precedent. Our reunion would not be private, as the charming Mr. Padgett has volunteered to guard me, and I shall be required to wear an astonishingly ugly smock stamped with 'Dorset Gaol'; but there is a pleasant little patch of grass, and a great oak beneath which two chairs or a bench might be placed, and if you will consent to be seen with such an unappetizing figure of a husband, I should very much like to see you within the coming week. It is my belief that there would be no risk to your health, for I shall bathe before we meet and don clean clothing from head to foot. I do hope you will come soon, earlier in the week rather than later. I shall be so glad to see you, my Marianne, now that we may share a smile instead of tears. --I am, with love, your Christopher."
"It is a very beautiful house," Margaret said, peering eagerly out of the window as the carriage turned into the drive of Allenham Court.
"Yes, it is," her sister replied. "Very beautiful." And it might have been mine.
The memory of her sole previous visit to this house was vivid in Marianne's mind. Deprived of the expedition Colonel Brandon had arranged to Whitwell, she and Willoughby had made their own outing. A lovely autumn day, like today; Willoughby's curricle as swift as the breeze, her eyes watering in the wind; their shared laughter when his hat blew off and skittered away from the groom as he chased it down--such a perfect combination of mood and event could hardly have been dreamed. It had been a day of bliss, totally free of any care--for she had not known then the reason for the colonel's sudden departure. Willoughby had brought her up this drive with pride, full of praise for the design of the venerable house and the park, and pausing so that she might enjoy his favorite views; but also full of plans for the improvement of the windows and the sweep, and a complete rebuilding of the stables where Queen Mab, the horse she had been unable to accept from him, might one day have welcomed her. He had shown her over every portion of the house except the apartments of his elderly cousin, commenting on the generally pleasing dimensions of the rooms and assuring Marianne that when the house was his own he would lose no time in replacing all the furnishings, which were every bit as elderly as his cousin. Having purchased new draperies and several chairs herself since her marriage, she now had a clearer notion of the staggering sum that would be required to revive every room at Allenham.
Her thoughts had not turned so steadily on Willoughby since she had learned of his death nearly a fortnight before, her constant anxiety for her husband, now fully comprehended, leaving her neither time nor energy to spare him a thought. But here where they had been happy together, she felt she owed him some measure of grief. Walking through the house and the gardens, they had brimmed with plans and expectations spoken and unspoken. Their behavior had been most indiscreet, but as they had not been conscious of indiscretion, or possibly had even been stimulated by it, the luster of the day was not shadowed by concern for what others might say. She had believed herself in the company of the man who would be her husband, and on that day perhaps he had really loved her; but now it was bittersweet to remember that day in the full knowledge of her good fortune in having escaped marriage to him. She had loved him then, unrestrainedly, but her experiences with him would have been of the kind that wear away at love, that destroy it with selfishness and disrespect. Even had there been no Eliza in his past, there would have been expenses and debts in his future: a man who does not live within his means at six or seven hundred a year does not learn economy when his means increase. And there had been one Eliza; she could never have felt secure of there not being others--and other John Brandons. Would Willoughby have been less indifferent toward his legitimate children? And what example would he have set for them, being himself idle, profligate, and undisciplined?--for a man's character is pretty generally fixed by the age of five-and-twenty. Of course such marriages were contracted every day--she could point to examples all about her; but that was not the sort of marriage on which she had determined for herself, not the sort of union on which she cared to bestow mind, body, and heart. With that sort of union was she blessed now, and she would not lose it, would not lose the man who had given it to her, if it were in her power to save him.
She had anticipated Elinor's initial appalled objection to her scheme, and had almost reached the escape of the carriage by the time her sister, her arms burdened with Rosalind, caught up with her to remonstrate.
"You cannot be going to Allenham!"
"Yes, I can. I have a carriage and post horses, and a coachman and postilion to drive them--"
"Marianne--" (in exasperation)--
"Well--and why not? Constable Parker believes that Mrs. Smith was not surprised by Willoughby's having met an untimely and--and violent end. She must therefore know something of his habits and his acquaintance, and as Mr. Parker cannot be in two places at once, even should he be inclined to journey to Allenham a second time, I have resolved to make further inquiries myself."
"But surely Mr. Parker asked all necessary questions, and if Mrs. Smith had subsequently recalled any relevant information she would have written to him as he requested."
"Why should she ponder the matter further, when thanks to Lord Melgrove and Mr. Humphries she believes the guilty man already apprehended? My purpose is to insist otherwise--with far more conviction than Mr. Parker could ever display--and urge her to consider who among Willoughby's acquaintance might have better reason than Christopher for doing away with him. You need not concern yourself with my safety, for the roads are good and the weather is fine, and I doubt whether Mrs. Smith will set the dogs upon me."
"I do not think of danger; I think of impropriety."
"Impropriety! Can you truly think I care that people will point to me? They will say, 'here is a woman trying to save her husband.' I will not regret being talked about in that fashion. Neither would you, if your being an object of interest or even derision would save Edward from some awful fate. Christopher would not shrink from any course for my sake, and I shall not for his. Do not talk to me of impropriety when my husband's life is at stake!"
Elinor could not but admire her sister's fierce courage, even while suffering qualms about the rash behavior to which it might lead her. "His life is not at stake today--you must calm yourself if you can. You have never been introduced to Mrs. Smith--she might not receive you. Write to her first. She is said to be very old-fashioned; if you offend her she might never talk to you at all. And I question whether Margaret should accompany you--"
"Mama has given her permission, Elinor," Margaret said rather importantly, "and it is not for you to contradict her."
Elinor drew breath to reply, but Marianne quickly averted any further dispute between her sisters; every moment spent in argument was a moment she was not on her way. "Willoughby said she is old-fashioned; I should not trust his judgment of anybody's character except possibly his own. Oh, I could not bear the wait. Besides, if I should write and she refuse or not respond, then my giving offense upon going would be assured--for I would go, regardless of her silence or refusal. She will find it more difficult to deny a caller already on her doorstep, especially such a caller as I, with my reason for coming. I have written a note to send in with my card, explaining my motivation. I know he was her cousin and her heir, but if there is any compassion in her heart, she must yet be able to feel for me. Oh Elinor, though I am happy in my discovery I am also in agony that I have reached it too late-- I must do all I can to save him--" Her handkerchief being incapable of absorbing any more tears, she stuffed it into her reticule and withdrew another. "Please do not delay me further. Despite everything you can say against it, I will go, and if I hurry I can perhaps bring some useful information to Mr. Haydock and yet reach Dorchester this evening. Perhaps I will see Christopher before we sleep tonight. Oh, that I may have good news for him!"
"I believe that one particular piece of good news you convey will carry him through many more days or weeks of uncertainty," Elinor said with great affection. She voiced no more protest, and sent them down the lane with her most generous blessings.
Marianne hardly knew how she had borne the passage of the hours. Though she beseeched George and the postilion for all the speed that was safe--she would be hindered indeed should they lame a horse--it seemed to her agitated perceptions that the miles rolled away in a leisurely fashion as if they took a pleasant Sunday drive, far too slowly to give her peace.
Neither was she granted peace by her companion. She had intended to bring Polly with her, but Margaret, upon hearing her instructions to the maid, begged to come in her stead, and Marianne had consented. She soon, however, had reason to regret her indulgence, for Margaret kept up a constant nervous chatter. "I really do feel that Elinor is at times overly attentive to etiquette, do not you, Marianne? And why she must so often lecture and censure me as if I were still but ten years old I cannot understand. I know that she is good and kind and has only my welfare at heart, but really one does get so tired of being told what to so when one is almost grown up! I do hope she will cease her matronly scrutiny once I am married--but she has not yet ceased with you, has she?--"
After a mile or two of such complaint, which Marianne wished her sister would keep to herself though she did agree with some portion of it, Margaret then proceeded to a commentary upon the reason for their expedition. "I hope that if my husband ever is in difficulty I am the one to rescue him. Perhaps I shall marry Philippe, and he will steal into France to recover La Tonnelle and be captured by the Bonapartists. Or perhaps I shall marry Christophe, and he will join the navy and be captured by a French frigate--"
"Margaret!--must you prattle so? This is not a game!"
Margaret's surprise at this stinging attack was very quickly succeeded by injured dignity. "I know it is not a game! Can you believe that I regard revolution as an amusement, or that I find enjoyment in Colonel Brandon's situation?"
"No, of course not, but--"
"Marianne, are you not excited to be helping your husband? Is it not a relief to be acting, rather than always waiting for news?"
"Well, yes--yes, it is. And I do feel something like excitement, I suppose. I am sorry I snapped at you. I am overwrought, and easily irritated. --I must confess that I do feel very clever and resourceful for having thought of a way to help Christopher without disregarding his wishes--though I will disregard them when I go to see him tonight or tomorrow. But he will forgive me that transgression when he hears what I will tell him."
Noting the significance in her smile, Margaret was all curiosity. "What will you tell him? You said to Elinor that you have made a discovery--"
"Oh, merely a something between a husband a wife."
Margaret's boundless romanticism soon erased any mild disgruntlement that she might have felt in consequence of her sister's secrecy. "I hope I will soon have a husband with whom to share a something."
"Wait for the right husband, dear Margaret, and try to recognize him when he appears somewhat more quickly than I did."
Margaret sat back in her seat and pondered this tender advice for a little while. Presently she said,
"You have seemed older to me since Mama and I arrived. You remind me of Mrs. Holcombe."
"Yes. She always looks as though she is daring anybody to cross her, and that is the expression you have worn all this morning."
Recalling Mrs. Holcombe's investigation of Mr. Haydock's competence, her letters to Lord Melgrove and to the newspapers, and her demand for an explanation of Mr. Wilverton's reticence, Marianne decided that to be compared with Mrs. Holcombe under the present circumstances was very far from being an insult; overbearing that lady might be, but her principles were exacting, and her courage admirable.
Glad once again that she had brought her sister as her companion rather than a maid, with whom she could not talk as freely and thus distract herself a little from the thought of her destination and the reason for her impatience to arrive, she entered into Margaret's earlier fanciful musings by saying, "La Tonnelle was sold, you know, not confiscated; and I understood Christophe to say recently that he wants to follow his uncle into the army."
Thus challenged, Margaret exerted herself. "Then perhaps I shall marry one of those newspaper correspondents, and he will be kidnapped by highwaymen and I shall ransom him--"
They proceeded eagerly to attach Margaret in succession to a desert Bedouin with a camel, an explorer of the South Seas, a privateer cruising the Mediterranean, a rajah with gold and jewels and an elephant, and a dozen other deliriously romantic gentlemen who led sufficiently perilous lives that their being in need of rescue at least once by a brave and ingenious consort was a certainty. This exercise occupied nearly an hour and eight or ten miles with genuine amusement, but by the time they reached the village of Allenham they had long since exhausted their supply of adventurers, and Marianne was wishing for the company of a maid after all, though a different maid from her own: Mrs. Jennings's Betty, who had once been a useful source of information about the household she would soon encounter for the second time in her life.
All was quiet as they slowed to a halt in the sweep, as quiet as it had been during her previous visit. She would have expected a greater amount of activity after the death of the heir to the estate--callers, guests, lawyers, and not least a horde of hopeful and fawning relations; her own house had hardly known a moment's tranquility. But Mrs. Smith was old and infirm, and perhaps conducted all her business by post, or even entrusted it to her steward or housekeeper. A stableboy dashed out to be ready in case he were wanted, and it struck her that he wore no mourning ribbon, nor did the footman who accepted her card and note from George at the door. She would not expect Mrs. Smith's servants to be prostrate with grief, but she would expect so proper a lady to require some acknowledgment of her loss throughout her household.
This mild puzzlement gave her but a moment's respite, however, from her general agony of suspense. Her palms perspired inside her gloves and her heart raced, but she willed herself calm so that Margaret would not worry, as she had during the periods of their journey when her sister's emotions had escaped her governance and tears had seeped continually from her eyes. Would Mrs. Smith consent to see her? All Elinor's admonitions returned to her in force. She was inclined to overstep the bounds of correct behavior, had once prided herself on that trait, but had since learned the value of curbing its most extreme manifestations; had she now done her husband's cause irreparable harm by gratifying her own craving for haste? The minutes crept along, while George was patient at the door, and the postilion and groom gossiped with the stableboy as they watered the horses. Elinor was surely correct; even now Mrs. Smith must be instructing her footman to eject her impudent visitor, or writing an irate letter of dismissal--
The door opened again and the footman conferred with George, who returned to the carriage with a smile. "Mrs. Smith's compliments, ma'am, and will you please to come up to her sitting room?"
Marianne's sigh of relief was almost a sob. She pressed Margaret's hands and then descended from the carriage, her legs shaking so badly that she was very glad to cling to George's hand. The invitation not having extended to her, it was Margaret's lot to wait in the carriage; and she could not decide whether she should be more offended by the exclusion, regretful that she was deprived of the opportunity to support her sister, or relieved that she had been spared what promised to be an awkward scene. When the front door had closed behind Marianne, she flung herself back into her seat and wished that she had emulated Elinor's sensible practice of always bringing her work-bag so as to make profitable use of such unexpected waits as this.
Marianne followed the wigged and liveried footman up the stairs and down a wide and musty hall, toward the very sitting room that Willoughby had implied would be her own. She blushed to think of talking with Mrs. Smith there, but the footman turned into the adjoining wing and she was much relieved. All the furnishings yet looked old and dilapidated, but they did not provoke in her a feeling of offense or superiority as they had when she had viewed them as an intolerant and arrogant girl. The generally staid atmosphere, however, did speak of the character of the lady to whom she would in a moment be introduced: a lady who valued economy above fashion, and who possessed principle enough to disinherit Willoughby for his refusing to marry the girl whom he had seduced and abandoned. Her principle had been sufficiently flexible, however, to allow her to relent after he had married a lady of good fortune and family; nor had this lady of principle ever herself offered aid to Eliza or her child.
She was shown to a door; she was announced. Formal greetings were exchanged, courtesies made and received, and she was directed to a chair. Mrs. Smith was small and frail, rather birdlike and very wrinkled; but there was in her open countenance, particularly in her lively eyes, a resemblance to Willoughby that Marianne found inexpressibly poignant. Tears threatened once again--this time, if only in this place at this moment, for the one of the men she had loved who was beyond earthly troubles. Silenced by heartache and confusion, she could not at once speak--and was not at all certain, in any case, that it was her place to do so, she having come here, after all, to pry--and so it fell to Mrs. Smith to begin the conversation.
"I was very surprised to receive your card and note, Mrs. Brandon. I should have thought you and your husband constantly occupied with lawyers and magistrates and newspapers in recent days. I am at a loss as to how I can possibly be of assistance to you at this late date, but you are most welcome to ask me anything you like."
Marianne had intended to begin her share of the dialogue with condolences and an apology for disturbing her hostess during a time of sorrow, but the callousness of this opening, the complete insensitivity it demonstrated, incensed her and returned to her the power of speech. "Surprised! Surprised that a wife should attempt to uncover any scrap of information that might free her innocent husband? The names of Mr. Willoughby's friends in this part of the country, of the establishments he frequented--that is all I wished to obtain from you, if you know them. But perhaps you have no pity for the sufferings of others. How can you, when you display not the slightest bit of grief for your own loss? I have seen no sign of mourning in this household, not even the smallest bit of black on your own clothing, Madam. I am well aware, perhaps more so than most, that Mr. Willoughby was a weak and selfish young man, but he was your relation, and a regular guest in your house. Do you feel no sadness that he is dead? Is there nothing of his memory that you wish to honor? Oh!--I see now that it was hopeless--it was folly to seek aid in this place! I should never have come--far better that I had gone to Dorchester--to my husband--" Her tears were now primarily of defeat and disappointment, that all her effort had been futile; and her annoyance that she should succumb to them before an unsympathetic stranger only made them flow all the harder.
Mrs. Smith was silent in the face of her attack, though her shock and anger were obvious. She motioned to the footman, who, following the custom of an earlier era, had never left the room. "Mrs. Brandon, I must ask you to excuse me for a brief time--please forgive me. I hope that you will consent to be entertained by Mrs. Willoughby in the parlor."
For a moment Marianne feared that she might faint. Mrs. Willoughby! Mrs. Willoughby here? She had not intended to say one word to Sophia Willoughby ever in her life, though she had seen her two or three times at parties in Barton since first beholding her across that fateful room in London. To be alone with Willoughby's widow, to be forced to be polite, to commiserate with the woman who had dictated so hateful a letter to her--she could not imagine a greater ordeal. But the thought of her husband gave her courage; for him she could slay dragons. She steadied herself with a deep breath. "I should be pleased to meet Mrs. Willoughby."
By the time she had reached the downstairs parlor in the main portion of the house, she had realized that Mrs. Smith might by her desertion actually have granted her a favor, though it were unintentional. An opportunity to talk with the one person who would be best informed as to Willoughby's friends and habits, who could perhaps explain his movements during the final hours of his life, whose own whereabouts had been so mysteriously unaccounted for--she could not have asked for a greater benefaction. All the same, it was with trepidation that she entered the room, with a qualm that she rested her eyes upon the lady who looked up from her desk with the usual curiosity at the opening of a door, with utter astonishment at the announcement of her name.
If there had ever been any doubt that Sophia would be able to connect the name Mrs. Marianne Brandon with the memory of a distraught girl pleading for the attentions of her own fiance in a crowded card room, the newspaper accounts had removed it, the correspondents having located a great many willing informants, who had rushed to explain that the wife of the accused had once been so publicly attached to the deceased that they had been thought to be engaged. Her cold glare told Marianne that she had read those accounts thoroughly. She was not a handsome woman, though fine hair, good teeth, and smooth skin lent her some attraction, and were embellished as far as possible by the exquisite cut of her gown, the dressing of her hair, and, Marianne was certain, the faintest dusting of rouge upon her cheeks. She curtsied, and after a moment Mrs. Willoughby rose and did the same, though her disdainful air did not promise any great candor or civility in the forthcoming conversation. And what encouragement had she for being civil? She had been confronted unexpectedly with the wife of the man charged with the murder of her husband, the woman who might somehow, if only by her very existence, have enticed Willoughby into a foolhardy excursion to Delaford. But as Sophia, strange as it seemed, would be a natural ally in her investigation--for surely she must want punished the man who had actually committed the crime--Marianne knew that she must persuade her of Christopher's innocence, or at the very least instill sufficient doubt that Sophia would be willing to discuss the matter with her.
"Please forgive my intrusion, Mrs. Willoughby. Mrs. Smith requested that I wait for her here."
A delicate eyebrow lifted. "Did she? Then I suppose you had better sit down, as this is yet her house and she may offer its hospitality to whomever she likes."
Marianne blanched at this coarse insult, and for some moments had very great difficulty in conjuring a shred of empathy with the woman who had issued it. Again she relied on a deep breath to calm herself--several deep breaths, if truth be told, for if her throat and lungs were occupied with inhalation they could not articulate the ire roiling within her. She must appease if she could, for without appeasement there would be no assistance.
At last she accepted the chair that Sophia had so grudgingly indicated. "Please allow me to offer my condolences for the loss of your husband, Mrs. Willoughby. I do assure you--I beg you believe--that it was not my husband who killed him. Colonel Brandon is a man of integrity and self-restraint; he would never act in so cowardly or vicious a manner."
She was unable to decipher the expression on Sophia's face. It contained something of bewilderment, but also of calculation; of surprise, but also understanding. It came to her suddenly that Sophia also wore no mourning at all, when she, with her attention to fashion, could be expected to purchase a new black dress for the occasion. Was it possible, then, that she had only just arrived at Allenham, and had therefore only recently learned of her husband's fate? So soon, then, to be compelled to converse with the woman to whom he had been so warmly attached--such a blow to her heightened feelings--could anything have been more cruel? And yet--her composure was remarkable, so striking that it put Marianne in mind of a comment from Mrs. Jennings, that Sophia "would perhaps not consider herself very unfortunate--she has the dignity and freedom of widowhood, and no longer any danger that her husband will spend or wager her fortune away." Willoughby had described his wife in the most ungenerous language, and Marianne began to wonder whether he had not perhaps been more fair than she and Elinor had surmised. But if Sophia possessed a heart at all, surely it could be touched by her own obvious suffering. She had been fond enough of her husband to be exceedingly jealous of him; perhaps she could recognize a more profound emotion even in a woman she despised.
In the absence of courtesy on the part of her hostess, Marianne decided to be direct, in the hope at least of ending their shared discomfort as quickly as possible. "It is very evident that we can be secure in our mutual dislike, Mrs. Willoughby, but I hope you will nonetheless admit of there being between us the possibility of mutual trust. I entreat you to permit me the further intrusion of inquiring as to Mr. Willoughby's friends and habits, in the hope of learning some information that might be useful to those pursuing my husband's case. I know it is a great deal to ask of you, especially at this time, but speed is essential if there is to be any hope of catching the guilty man. I do not apologize for any offense I may give you; where my husband's safety is at stake I know no modesty or inhibition. Please, Mrs. Willoughby--will you help me?"
Sophia frowned, seeming really disconcerted by this appeal. Marianne thought she could detect a softening of her features, perhaps even a wistfulness, as if in being shown that her jealousy, at least on Marianne's account, had no longer any justification, she was capable of admiring and honoring an attachment founded on a more noble emotion. In Sophia's expression was also something that Marianne could not name with certainty, almost a smug satisfaction or a bitter pleasure, but she had the sense that that feeling was directed inward--a private contemplation or insight. She could not trouble herself, however, with the complexities of Sophia's thoughts; she wanted to know only whether she could depend upon Sophia's help. If not, she would take her leave of Mrs. Smith and start for Dorchester, where she would find solace and joy, if also further anguish, in her husband's embrace.
Sophia's reply came at last, and to Marianne's surprise it was in a tone of greater respect and frankness, from which some of her earlier defensiveness had disappeared. "Mrs. Brandon--I must tell you now, before you say anything more--"
At that moment they became aware of voices outside the door, and Sophia subsided with an air of having been forestalled. Marianne's attention was divided between an urgent desire that she complete her information before they should be interrupted, and curiosity regarding who might have accompanied Mrs. Smith downstairs--for one of the newcomers was certainly she.
As the door opened, words could abruptly be distinguished. "Cousin, will you allow me to explain the delay--"
Marianne began to tremble, for the voice sounded to her ears familiar--but it was of course impossible, incredible, unimaginable. A man was entering the room; she saw a shoulder, a boot, a hand. More than that was blocked by the door, but the form and step, the shape of the calf and fingers, seemed known to her. Her gaze, unblinking, was riveted; Sophia, though at her side, now absolutely forgotten.
"It is not to me that you owe an explanation," Mrs. Smith said, her tone very sharp, and her little hand pushed the door fully open.
Marianne gasped. The man froze, the color draining from his face. "Good God!--Marianne--"
Marianne was perfectly assured that for the space of several breaths her heart ceased to beat. The man was Willoughby--and he was, unless sight, hearing, and reason had all deserted her, very much alive.
"Willoughby," she said, but she could make no sound at all and only mouthed his name, could not speak because the room was roaring and whirling all around her. She had risen to her feet--though she could not have said at what moment she had done it--and now her legs gave way and she half sat, half fell into her chair. Her lips moved again. "Willoughby."
All at once he was kneeling before her, and she gasped again when his hands--warm, living hands--closed about hers and began to rub the feeling back into them. "Sophia--your salts!" in the voice she knew so well-- The salts were passed beneath her nose--the biting aroma shocked her from her swoon--the room steadied and her foggy vision cleared.
She clutched at his hands, at last able to force a sound from her throat. "Willoughby! God in heaven!--but, how--"
"Well, it was all a great mistake, of course," he said, laughing. "The dead man found at Delaford obviously was not I."
She was obliged to release one hand so that she could fumble in her reticule for a handkerchief with which to mop up tears of joy. "But--he--he was in possession of your cards and card-case--your watch, which is engraved with your name--your seal--"
Without letting go her hand he reached for a chair and pulled it close so that he could sit facing her. "I will tell you how I believe it happened." The color had returned to his cheeks; he was yet halfway to laughter, delighted and touched by her genuine pleasure and relief at seeing him restored to the living. "I had business in Bridport, and upon its conclusion I was invited to a whist club, where I was beset with very bad luck and lost a few valuables to a fellow named Brownlow."
"And so this Mr. Brownlow was mistaken for you! But how could that be? Let me see-- Constable Parker has a sketch, that he has been showing up and down the turnpike--but I never saw it--I did not want to look upon it. My husband was not consulted immediately because the evidence implicated him, and so he never saw the--the body. Edward did, but you and he had never met! Oh, Willoughby! What a perfectly horrible series of lost chances it has been-- But it is all over now--oh!--it is all over! Oh--but was the man then a friend of yours?" (trying and failing to summon an appropriate gravity).
"No, merely a business associate, but a pleasant gentleman and hardly deserving of such a fate. The man I suspect of killing him, I had only that evening met. He had lost even more heavily than I, and was badly in liquor and very angry to be so thoroughly outplayed. I begin to wonder if he is not rather a practiced criminal--he seems to have left behind every item that could be traced to me, and thus to him. Brownlow's own card-case and so forth were not engraved, that I recall, and could be sold with little risk."
It occurred to Marianne that Willoughby did not seem at all surprised or dismayed that a man with whom he had associated, however briefly, might be discovered to be a murderer. Was he then accustomed to gaming with such men? "Perhaps when you give his name and description to the authorities they will recognize him. --But Willoughby--Constable Parker interviewed every body in this house. It was he who informed them of your--your supposed death. How is it that they did not know the truth?"
"I do not find it necessary to inform this house or Combe of my every movement; my business in Bridport was not long foreseen, and so nobody but my own party knew I had gone there. As to why I was late in arriving here--I had begun to feel ill earlier in that day, but mistakenly thought it a minor indisposition. By evening I was suffering from headache and some dizziness, and it was that, I suppose, caused me to neglect to remove my cards from the case when I handed it over to Brownlow. I fell from my horse on my way back to the inn and injured my head and shoulder, and lay no more than half-conscious for above a week."
"Your being in liquor yourself doubtless had nothing whatever to do with your forgetfulness or your fall." Sophia's barb startled them; her continued presence had not been noted by either.
Willoughby glared at her but did not deny the charge, and Marianne received the distinct impression that she enjoyed humiliating him in front of someone whose opinion he valued more than her own. "My good wife," he sneered in retaliation, "tended me lovingly from the moment I staggered back to the inn until I could leave my bed, sparing only several hours each day for her own shopping and touring and walking the sea-paths." He shifted in his seat so that his good wife would not be visible even from the corner of his eye; Sophia merely smiled, and leaned a little to one side to reclaim her view. "I did not see a newspaper in all that time, and then what do you think?--the innkeeper asked whether I were a relation of the John Willoughby who had been murdered at Delaford! And then, of course, I sent for all the papers that could be had--"
Marianne brought up her hands to touch his face, heedless for a moment of her tears. "Oh Willoughby, I am so glad to see you--my heart is full to bursting-- It will all be over now! You will explain everything to the magistrates and my husband will be freed--" A sudden coldness washed over her; her hands fell away and he could not catch them. "Willoughby--when exactly did you see the papers?"
His glance, suddenly guilty, darted in the direction of his cousin and then back again. "Not long ago, Marianne, I swear to you--only a few days. I was ill, you see, as feeble as a baby--"
"He has been in my house these last two days, and saw the papers two days before," Mrs. Smith said in her stern, reedy voice. Marianne could hardly tear her eyes away from Willoughby, but as she was keenly interested in Mrs. Smith's every word she cast repeated quick looks at her, and this seemed to be felt by the lady to be sufficient attention. "He drove into the sweep with no warning, rather enjoying the effect of his resurrection upon the household--hoping, no doubt, that I would expire from the shock." Willoughby's face was frozen and flushed. "Mrs. Brandon, I owe you, and especially your husband, an apology--indeed, several apologies. Mr. Willoughby promised he would rectify the situation at once, but as I have long known that I can place more faith in my servants than in him, I should have given the matter my personal attention. I would also have been wiser, as events have proved, to have instructed my lawyer to oversee the case in Delaford more closely; had he seen the body the error would have been discovered at once. I was swayed, however, by Lord Melgrove's assurance that the culprit had been already apprehended. I also offer apology for my earlier reticence--had I not been so angry with Mr. Willoughby I would have thought to prepare you for the sight of him. But as all these grievances pale before his offenses, I give you leave to abuse him as you see fit. You will remain here, Willoughby, until Mrs. Brandon chooses to dismiss you. I believe your charm will succeed as little with her as it has with me. And now," she said, rising with the footman's aid from the chair she had occupied while Marianne recovered, "we shall leave you to the tete-a-tete that I suspect he now desires rather less than he did only a few moments ago. Come, Sophia!"
Sophia obeyed without hesitation, though her disgruntlement at being torn away from this fascinating encounter was obvious. "It is my hope," she said to them, "that you both will find the remaining portion of your conversation as enlightening as the first," and swept out.
Mrs. Smith, much hampered in her movements by age and infirmity and thus slower to exit though she was closer to the door, turned a last time toward Marianne. "I perfectly understand that this house will long hold distressing memories for you, Mrs. Brandon, but I should very much like to see you again, and to be introduced to your husband, should you be moved to call the next time you visit your mother at Barton."
Marianne could hardly stammer a reply, but the good lady did not seem to expect one. With a last scowl at Willoughby, she hobbled from the room, holding for balance to the footman's arm.
"The harridan and the martinet," Willoughby said bitterly, "in combination against me. Are you acquainted with any other man thus doubly afflicted, Marianne? Mrs. Smith was so indignant that she invaded my rooms, sank her fingers into my arm, and did not release it until she had made certain I could not escape the censure she imagined I would receive from you. She even came downstairs before dinner-time!" He had stood as his wife and cousin passed from the room, and now, with a sigh of relief, resumed his seat and at the same time pulled it nearer. "But we are alone together now--we have not been alone since so very long ago at Barton. Oh Marianne, how great a pleasure it is to see you! Had I known such a visit would result, I might have arranged a shooting in Delaford Turnpike long before now!"
Marianne said nothing, preferring to study the countenance that had formerly been so dear, while the character that lay behind it was more exposed with Willoughby's every word. In the necessity of clear thought, her amazement had subsided quickly, though she would be at liberty to feel it in even larger measure at a later hour. She had not seen Willoughby at such an intimate distance since their accidental meeting in London two years and a half before. The signs of dissipation were written in his face, of too much drink and not enough sleep, of too much coming and going hither and yon, to town and friends and relations, for the purpose of avoiding societal responsibility and conjugal discord at Combe. His words shocked her, as did his apparent assumption that his cousin was mistaken in her interpretation of their guest's feelings; his air was that of a child who knows he has done wrong but believes all possibility of punishment safely behind him.
"Willoughby--" she said, when her silence had extended far enough that he was growing puzzled by it, "how much longer would you have waited before coming forward?"
"Oh, a few days--no more." For an instant a trace of savage amusement darkened his expression. "The colonel wanted humbling, I always thought. And Sophia, you know, was not averse, still nursing her old resentment against you."
Marianne was not exempt from a flare of anger toward Sophia for allowing her to talk on and on, offering condolence and apology and alliance when all three were wholly superfluous. She suspected that Sophia had wanted to test her feelings, to determine whether Marianne were any threat to such domestic contentment as she enjoyed, wanted to observe her reaction to her first sight of Willoughby returned to the world. And yet, she had been going to reveal all--Marianne was certain of it. Was she, after all, less a stranger to conscience than her husband?
"The scheme was yours, then, and not hers. You devised it yourself, rather than obeying her order, as you did at least once before."
Willoughby blanched, but then seemed to seize on this criticism as an indication of something more pleasing. "Your sister told you, then, of my visit to Cleveland when you were so ill."
"She promised you she would, and my sister keeps her word." Marianne would not be diverted, however, by reminders of the past. "Your wife being in some way attached to you, I am glad for her that she was spared the belief that you were dead. You were cruel not to warn Mrs. Smith."
"Cruel to disappoint my cousin in her pleasure with regard to my untimely death?"
"Pleasure!" was Marianne's appalled response.
His shoulders lifted in a nonchalant shrug. "Satisfaction, then. She has a low opinion of me and was, I doubt not, glad to be proven right. She warns me often of the company I keep."
"Yes--according to Constable Parker she did not seem surprised by your apparent fate. But have you ever given her reason to have other than a low opinion of you?"
A sound escaped his lips, perhaps an uncertain beginning to a laugh, and he drew a little back from her. "This is a strange mood, Marianne--"
"Four days," she said, very quietly. "Four days longer than necessary--that might have extended into a week or a fortnight--you have allowed my husband to be locked away in that awful place in fear for his life, allowed his name to be bandied in the papers, his expenses to mount--and to you it is all a jest."
She could see that her icy fury was at last beginning to penetrate his consciousness. "You do not consider what I felt to read the newspaper accounts. For what I knew, Colonel Brandon might really have fired the shot, and I had been merely fortunate that he had mistaken Brownlow for me."
Marianne sprang to her feet. "You dare to say that of him? You might cheat in an affair of honor, Mr. Willoughby, but he would die before he shot a man in the back!"
In a sudden agitation, Willoughby jumped up in his turn and paced a few steps away. "I should have expected your husband," with a sneer, "to share that detail with you, the papers having avoided anything that smells of libel."
"An assertion is not libelous when it is true; but Colonel Brandon did not tell me, nor has he spoken to the papers--I learned it from another source entirely. Nor did he tell us of his meeting with you or the reason for it until you had already demonstrated your cowardice by your engagement to Miss Grey. He has repeatedly chosen to spare my feelings and what of a gentleman's dignity you possess, and this is how you repay him. You are fortunate that he is the man of honor you are not--another guardian might have killed you no matter how you grovelled."
"Such strong feeling, Marianne!" He forced a lively smile, in an attempt to disguise his being really disconcerted by her knowing so much of his disgrace, and badly shaken by her hostility. "I only wished a little revenge, attended by no real suffering."
"No real suffering! You have kept him from his home, his wife, and his child; you have kept him in fear of the gallows, in danger of mortal illness--"
"May I remind you," with a burst of indignation, "that he very readily put me in fear for my life."
"Not readily. You left him no choice. Once I did not fully understand his challenge of you, but I have a daughter now, and if any man ever subject her to the degradation to which you subjected Miss Williams, I will myself put the pistol into my husband's hand. --And your life was in less danger than his, was it not, until you were caught?" A sudden curiosity struck her. "I wonder were your wife and cousin aware of that incident, and in Mrs. Willoughby's case the reason for it, before they saw the newspaper accounts of my husband's case?" His expression, at once angry and mortified, betrayed him. "John Brandon is indeed your son--his resemblance to you is marked. Oh yes, the colonel has given him his name--you may look startled, for of course you would not know, as you have taken no interest in him."
"You know that I cannot acknowledge him, even if he be mine. The insult to my wife--she would forbid it--" His voice trailed away.
"You mean you will not acknowledge him. Mrs. Willoughby could not prevent your doing what is right were you determined upon it. But he has already a better guardian than you could ever be." He offered no reply, seeming to understand the futility of it, and she took leave of the subject. Though she then resumed her seat, he did not rejoin her, but remained standing in the center of the room. "Did you never think of me, Willoughby, when you designed your heartless plan? Did you never consider that you would hurt me as well? If you were capable of genuine feeling, you would have spared every hour of my suffering you could, even if you cared nothing for my husband's."
"You?" he replied, in a tone that told her he had not thought of her at all. "How could it hurt you?"
"He is my husband, Willoughby!"
With some genuine pain he said, "I am aware of that, Marianne." And then, with something like a sniff of repugnance, "Well--were you not relieved to be rid of him for a time?"
"Rid of him?"
"Yes, I thought-- You do not mean to say-- Marianne--you are not actually fond of him?"
She was at first incredulous; and then calm with a new perception. "If you believe I could marry a man without feeling for him something approaching affection, then you never had any real knowledge of my heart, or my soul."
"Do not say that, Marianne. Do not say that. If I had not married Sophia-- If I had married you, secured you to myself before--"
"--before I learned of Eliza? I could never have been content with you in the full knowledge of your ruthless behavior toward Eliza. I could never have esteemed you as I do Colonel Brandon, or put my trust in your character as I do in his. And what if Mrs. Smith had not regarded a penniless girl, though from a good family, as a suitable wife for you? In that case she would not have reinstated you, and then your debts would have multiplied, and with them your resentment toward me. It is a bleak portrait of a marriage, is it not? As long as all were well, we might have known some measure of felicity. But life consists of a series of tests, Willoughby, one of which, a significant one, you had already failed before we had ever met. Knowing what I know now, of you and of myself, I am irrevocably convinced that in the course of years I could never have been as happy with you as I will be with my husband."
Willoughby appeared stunned. "I had heard-- But--Mrs. Jennings and Sir John see only what they wish to believe-- I was confident you had allowed yourself to be persuaded by your sister--"
"How little you truly know us, then, to think Elinor so cold as to urge me into a marriage of pecuniary convenience, and to think I would so betray my own heart, simply because you married with such a shallow inducement. We are different now; were we always? Our tastes are similar, but our characters--? Did you think I could never learn to appreciate Colonel Brandon's courage, his compassion, his steadfastness, his protectiveness?--all those virtues for which you both dislike and envy him." She had during the past three years given some thought to what she might say to him should she ever be presented with the opportunity; she did not speak in anger, however, but in simple, incontrovertible explanation. "I was but a girl when I loved you--when I participated in your disparagement of him. You encouraged the worst aspects of my character, and it shames me to remember it; he encourages the best, and I take pride in his thinking me worthy of his regard. The longer I know him the more clearly I see your flaws. You were formed at five-and-twenty, while at only seventeen I still could mature; and I matured a great deal in consequence of my experience with you."
"You sound very like your sister, who used so often to reproach me as you do now."
"If I do, I am glad, for I have learned to appreciate her merits, as well, far better than I once did. You have a conscience, I know, and it pricks you on occasion. It was your conscience that made you come to Cleveland, and made you express such sincere repentance to Elinor. It is your conscience that makes you so obviously aware of the wrong you have done now. And so I can be confident that you will understand when I say, that though I have long since forgiven you for the harm you did me, I shall never forgive you for the harm you have done my husband."
"My God," he said softly, "you are magnificent in his defense! I would never have thought to see that look upon your face when talking of him. Is it possible-- Can you--love him, Marianne?"
"The extent of my feelings for my husband is none of your concern, but--" She wished she could say it first to Christopher, but at the same time she was elated simply to say it. "--I do." Her chin lifted. "Yes, I do love him."
"Then--I truly have lost you--" as if, despite all, he had not ever quite believed it until he was shown it by her.
She could not be unmoved by the genuine anguish in his face, for she knew that he did possess a heart as well as a conscience, though he might consult it as seldom. She did feel, in general, a certain measure of regret for his situation, for she had once loved him and she could see that he was unhappy; but as his unhappiness was all his own doing, she could not conjure any actual sympathy, and at that moment wanted only to be on her way to the man who, though he did not yet know it, could count her whole heart among his riches.
She allowed his lament to pass without comment. "Mr. Willoughby, can I trust you to do at once whatever is necessary to begin to correct this situation, or must I accompany you?"
His lips tightened at this jab, but knowing it to be just he did not protest, and went to the door and called for a servant to order his carriage immediately. Returning, he obtained from her the location of Melgrove Lodge, and then said, "A matter of hours should end it. I must obtain a letter verifying my identity from a local magistrate and convey it to Lord Melgrove, who should then be willing to take my deposition and agree to bail until further details are confirmed. I promise you, Marianne, I shall make all haste."
"And when that is done, you will write to the papers and explain?"
"I assure you I will make amends." His voice was toneless, his movements lacking their usual vitality. "What will you do now?"
"I shall stop a moment at Delaford to tell every body what has happened, and then proceed to Dorchester."
"It will be nightfall before you arrive."
"Perhaps, but I might yet see my husband before the doors are locked, if only for a moment. I must try. I shall at least be with him as early as possible tomorrow morning." At last she smiled again, and it was evident in his face that he knew her smile was not for him. As she started for the door and her waiting carriage, he offered his arm; she did not take it, but rather drew a little farther away from him. Her final words to him were: "Mr. Willoughby, should we ever again find ourselves in conversation, I would ask that you address me properly as 'Mrs. Brandon.'"
He blinked, and gave a nod, and they parted.
Brandon's agitation had steadily increased during the course of the day, despite all his efforts to enforce within himself a state resembling composure. Presented with such evidence as had been uncovered, in the place of Lord Melgrove and Mr. Wilverton he would agree to bail an accused prisoner of general good character such as himself, there being a very good chance that a grand jury would not now indict. Of Wilverton's agreement he was almost certain, but he could not discount the influence upon Lord Melgrove of Mr. Humphries, who might well be disinclined to accept the word of a servant, possessing as he did the not uncommon contempt of the rising classes toward those beneath them, a contempt often found in reverse proportion to the length of time such persons had felt secure in their new rank. Under Humphries's unsubtle direction, Melgrove might insist on waiting until Parker and Masters discovered some evidence corroborating Tim's story, might even insist on the matter being brought before the assizes. If the grand jury were then to indict, Brandon thought it very probable that the trial jury would not convict--and yet juries were made up of men, who were not only fallible but also unpredictable. Without the actual apprehension of the guilty man, his ordeal might well be far from over, his vindication far from certain.
Thus his thoughts had gone round and round, from new confidence to familiar dread. He could not read, or write, or be still. He paced about the cell until its walls oppressed him, then walked through the yards until the thought of remaining confined within them, which felt a greater insult now for his having contemplated the real possibility of imminent release, drove him back into the cell again. He missed Tim, with whom he had become accustomed to talk about their respective reading, and who would frequently, copying Sarah's example of trying to cheer him a little, relate a humorous tale he had heard at an inn or in Mr. Henley's kitchen. So poor was his concentration that he could not absorb the facts of a case presented to him by a new prisoner desirous of his help, and was forced to send the fellow away with the promise of a hearing at another time.
To this general perturbation of his mind and spirit had been added a growing particular alarm, which gradually overshadowed any consideration of his own situation: he had not yet that day received a letter from Marianne. She was always very quick to reply to his of the mornings, and sometimes wrote again before the day was done. It was possible, even probable, that the express rider from Delaford had simply been slowed by a fall or a lame horse, and that a letter would be brought to him any moment; but he could not suppress a worry that there had been some trouble at home. His earlier letter rejecting her plea to visit him might have offended her to the extent that her reply had been delayed while she deliberated how she should respond. But the news of Tim's evidence conveyed by Masters, followed so quickly by his own plea that she should come after all, surely would have extinguished any possible vexation. No, he could not but believe that some emergency had prevented her writing, and what else could that be but a recurrence of his daughter's illness? At about four o'clock he had sent an anxious note begging for prompt news or reassurance, this time directing it to Mrs. Baynes, in the event that an unrelated crisis--a fire in the village, perhaps, or some disaster at Norland--had called all the family away; but he had not yet received a reply.
It was now nearly seven, and dusk was gathering. He had been served his dinner by Samuel, but had eaten so little that it had hardly been worth the poor fellow's trouble to set the table and carry the several trays back and forth; a plate of cold meat and a loaf would have been more than he could stomach. He did not trouble to light his candles, as no poem or essay would make sense to him in his present state, no caricature would ease his frown, and alternately paced or lay on his cot while the shadows deepened around him.
A knock sounded at the door and he lunged forward, hoping for an express to be put into his hand; but Samuel had only an invitation to offer, from Mr. Henley, who wished to see him at once. The servant could not tell him why, and Brandon followed in curiosity and trepidation: had Henley received some awful news from Delaford, with a request to relay it in person? It was not a very probable circumstance, but in his present state of uneasiness the most devastating possibilities seemed the most likely.
When he walked into the keeper's office, he saw Henley at his desk, busily perusing some papers; three other men were with him. One was Mr. Haydock, who stood over Henley's shoulder and now and then pointed out some passage or other; he smiled delightedly at Brandon's entrance. The second stood slightly apart and half turned away, lightly slapping his hat against his thigh; but Brandon hardly noticed him upon seeing that the third man was Mr. Humphries. The shock, the burst of hope, upon seeing him and Haydock's smile together, consumed his entire attention. "Haydock, I hardly expected to see you again so soon--and Mr. Humphries, I did not expect to see you at all. May I assume-- Does your coming indicate that the discovery of the morning has at last swayed Lord Melgrove's opinion in my favor?"
Several things then happened in quick succession. Humphries and Haydock gave Brandon an odd look, which he was attempting to decipher when the second man began to turn, the movement catching his eye; and Humphries was just saying sourly, "It was rather more persuasive that the gentleman you had such an indisputable motive for killing has turned out not to be dead," when Brandon realized that the man across the room, frowning at him in obvious puzzlement, was John Willoughby himself.
Willoughby was speaking, but Brandon could neither hear nor understand, and stared rather stupidly at all four of them. Only momentarily, however, was his brain stunned into inaction. Willoughby--alive! It was a matter of seconds to leap ahead to the happy consequences of such a timely and miraculous turn of events. It was explanation, it was exoneration--for there was very little danger of his being suspected of killing a stranger, the mystery of the button being now solved. Willoughby alive! He really could not decide whether to embrace the rogue or strangle him--from an immediate conviction of Willoughby's somehow bearing responsibility for every evil that had befallen him. "Mr.--Willoughby--," he said slowly, "--I never once thought that I would at any time in my life be pleased to see you." He found it suddenly necessary to reach for a chair. "You will excuse me if I sit--"
At last what Willoughby was saying penetrated his consciousness. "Please, Colonel--bestir yourself-- Do you mean to say that you did not know until this moment--?" He looked toward the door as if expecting to see an additional person there. "Has not Mar--Mrs. Brandon arrived?"
"Marianne? She knows about--you?" (with a weak nod and a vague wave of the hand in Willoughby's direction).
"Yes--she visited Allenham earlier today, discovered me and heard my accounting, and planned to come here after a brief stop at Delaford."
"Marianne coming here? She visited Allenham, you say?"
With some impatience, Willoughby related what had occurred--though it might be confidently assumed that, safe from Marianne's amendments, he accentuated the facts of his reappearance and coming forward rather than the delay attending both. Despite his continuing amazement, Brandon was fully conscious of the heavy irony of his being dependent upon the same man for both peril and rescue. He thought that Willoughby looked very hale for one who professed to have just risen from his sickbed, and also that it was a remarkable coincidence that Marianne should happen to journey to Allenham on the very day that Willoughby was about to journey to Dorchester for the purpose of saving him; but so charitably disposed was he toward the young man simply for his not being deceased, that he could for the moment set aside any present suspicion, as well as any former desire of altering that state.
"He arrived at Melgrove Lodge with his letter of identity and his version of events very soon after Mr. Wilverton and myself," Haydock said. "His lordship himself took his deposition, and when it was seen that his description of the probable murderer matched Tim's description of the man to whom he sold your coat, his lordship and Mr. Wilverton readily agreed to bail you at once, with the final settling of the details to be completed in the coming week. Of course we will not know beyond doubt the identity of the murdered man until we exhume the body, but of its being Mr. Brownlow I believe we can be reasonably assured. Mr. Willoughby insisted that we bring the order immediately, and you can imagine that I also lent my voice to his urgings; but he was in such haste that Humphries's coachman and my own could hardly keep up with him. We can now provide Constable Parker and Sergeant Masters, if he is still disposed to assist in a search, with not only a face but a name--a name which Mr. Havers, incidentally, was unable--or unwilling--to supply."
"The name he gave Mr. Willoughby was Bill Robb," said Henley, "and I see you recognize it as well as I, sir--an alias of our friend William Roberts, old Wrecker Bill himself. The description matches, too. We might get him for good this time. And you will not object, I think, to paying your fifty pounds to the man who was presumed dead!"
"Oh no, Mr. Henley," Willoughby demurred, "I would not accept Colonel Brandon's money--I am glad to do what I can, especially as I did in a way cause his predicament." This pretty speech made all of them but one think what a modest and generous young gentleman he was. "You can give thanks for my resurrection later, Colonel--now will you please tell me whether you have had any communication from your wife?"--hoping, even as he expressed genuine concern for Marianne, that Brandon's own worry would distract him from an effort to discern the true particulars of the story he had been told.
Though Willoughby's information did serve to relieve Brandon's anxiety as to the health of his daughter, for Marianne would never have left Delaford had Joy been ill--and in fact had herself departed before ever receiving either of his letters--at the same time it only increased his anxiety for the safety of his wife, for something had certainly delayed her arrival in Dorchester. Again he thought first of accident, though the delay could just as easily be explained by a carriage wheel needing repair or by a section of road so deteriorated by the recent rains that she had been forced to travel by an alternate route. She might also have reached Delaford at a late enough hour that she had thought it imprudent to proceed, and had already sent him a note informing him of her intention to arrive on the morrow. But as the possibility of her being in danger, and the reason for it, sank into his awareness, all his previous benevolent feeling toward Willoughby vanished as if it had never been.
"No, I have not." His legs having recovered their strength, he rose from the chair and advanced. Willoughby took an involuntary step backward, but he was not swift enough to prevent Brandon's hands from gripping his lapels. "Be assured, Mr. Willoughby, that having today escaped an unjust fate I shall not court a just one. Your life is secure; indeed, only briefly have I ever regretted sparing it when it was in my hands. But if harm has come to my wife because of anything you have done or neglected to do, I swear I will give you a caning you will never forget."
"You--you would not dare to cane a gentleman!" Willoughby sputtered.
"You are correct. I would not cane a gentleman. But I would with pleasure cane you."
Standing so close to him, Brandon could see the nervous tremors about Willoughby's eyes and mouth, the perspiration on his upper lip. Satisfied that the knave was properly cowed, he was about to release him--when a flicker of surprise on Willoughby's face, a drawn breath, as at the sight of something over Brandon's shoulder, and a cry of "Mis-ter Padgett!" from Henley behind him, gave him warning.
Padgett's stick descended toward his skull with all the willfully vicious force its owner, an animal growl emitting from his throat, could give it. Brandon flung up his left forearm in time to shield his head, and felt the impact of the blow through his flesh and bone all the way to his shoulder. His right hand still clutching Willoughby's lapel, in staggering backward he pulled Willoughby slightly around, so that Willoughby's body was interposed between himself and Padgett. Willoughby in his turn trying to recover his balance, and Padgett hesitating so as not to strike him, Brandon was granted the necessary seconds to get his feet beneath him, shove Willoughby out of his way, and spring forward, his right fist aiming squarely for Padgett's stomach. With the obstruction of Willoughby removed, Padgett was able to bring up his stick again, but before he could land a second blow Brandon's own jab, driven by long-repressed rage as well as present anger at this gratuitous attack, struck solidly, and Padgett doubled over with a satisfying grunt.
Into this pause both Willoughby and Henley inserted themselves, Henley with a frantic admonition to Padgett as to why he should restrain himself from breaking Brandon's head, Willoughby perhaps from the automatic indignation of a gentleman at seeing one of his class set upon by a rowdy.
"Well, I didn't know he was to be let go, did I?" Padgett shouted in a defensive fury, clutching at his stomach. "I sees him about to thrash a gentleman who I took to be a visitor, didn't I?" But he backed away as his erstwhile victim, quickly recovering his breath and carefully holding his arm motionless against his waist, started toward him.
Brandon halted with his face only inches from that of his nemesis. "Daniel Padgett, I hereby charge you with assault, and commit you to this gaol to await trial." His good hand closed around Padgett's stick and wrested it from his grasp. "Mr. Haydock, will you prepare the order, and the recognizances to bind these gentlemen over to appear as witnesses?"
"At once, sir," Haydock said, with enthusiasm. Padgett's face was livid as Henley, having no other choice in response to a commitment order from a magistrate, summoned the second turnkey to take him into custody.
"Shall I call the surgeon, Colonel?" Henley then inquired, somewhat timorously. "Your arm--"
"No--it is not broken, only bruised." Trembling a little now with reaction, and with the knowledge of how near he had come to losing his life when just on the point of having it restored to him, he sank again into the chair he had so recently vacated. "I must start for Delaford immediately."
"My carriage is yours," Willoughby said, an instant before Brandon would have demanded it; one could not be hired in less than an hour.
It required but another signature here or there, and Brandon--so suddenly after such long uncertainty and apprehension--was a free man. "I will keep your belongings safe until you can send a servant for them--under lock and key, as it were, ahem--" Henley was jabbering as Brandon exited the office and started through the entry lodge, Willoughby at his heels. The turnkey could not get the gate open quickly enough for him, but once outside he halted a moment, feeling the blessed open space all around him, breathing in the freshness of the air, and looked back at the long high walls disappearing into the evening gloom, at the shadowed rooftop on which he might have died. And then he stepped into the carriage, his own ordeal all but forgotten in his new fear for Marianne.
Willoughby had ordered his coachman to make all possible speed, and while Brandon had no wish to request otherwise, so tender was his arm that though he cradled it against his midriff, every bump in the road was as a fresh blow. He could not completely conceal his distress, and after a time Willoughby said, "Do you want laudanum? I always carry it in a travelling kit--"
"No--I will need my wits about me."
Willoughby seemed to take his remark as a kind of accusation. Tense and self-conscious at finding himself alone with Brandon without the possibly ameliorating influence of Marianne, he began to talk in a quick, breathless fashion. "Colonel, you must believe I never meant to hurt Marianne--Mrs. Brandon. If anything has happened to her--or to Miss Dashwood--"
Brandon's head snapped up. "Margaret as well?"
"Yes, I saw her as they drove away."
"Dear God-- Mr. Willoughby, your progress through the world is littered with unintentional harm. Did you never mean to hurt Miss Eliza Williams?"
"This has nothing to do with Eliza!"
"Any relations between us, Mr. Willoughby, have everything to do with Eliza. Do you not see--have you not yet learned--that it is your very lack of forethought that causes such grave difficulties for others? Had you come forward at once--so you did delay; I see it in your face--it would not have been necessary for Mrs. Brandon to visit Allenham and she would therefore not be in her current apparent danger. It is true that it was my wife's own--selfless decision--" (with a slight breaking of his voice) "--to pursue such a line of inquiry, but it is also true that she would have had no reason to do so were it not for your own selfish desire to lash out at me. To say nothing of the thoughtless risk you took in gaming in a place that would admit such a vile specimen as William Roberts. And you thought to bring Marianne into that world!"
"You cannot blame me for the actions of William Roberts twenty miles from where I encountered him. And do you really believe that I would have continued in that world had I not lost Marianne?"
"Lost?" Brandon said harshly.
"All right, then! Gave her up, cast her aside-- Is that what you wish to hear?"
"It is the truth."
"I shall not beg your forgiveness, Colonel, for I know you will never give it me, and rightly so. But I do ask you to accept my pledge that I shall do all in my power to find Marianne and bring her home safely." After a moment Willoughby added, with a bitterness that might have moved any other man, or even his present companion at any other time, "Home to you. I congratulate you on having gained that love I cast aside."
The current pessimistic tendencies of Brandon's imagination made Willoughby's words a lance through his heart. "Do not speak to me further, Mr. Willoughby, of my wife or any other subject."
"You believe I have no feeling at all--!"
"Do not speak to me," Brandon said again, more quietly, and there was that in his face and voice that rendered Willoughby, perhaps contemplating the dark, lonely road, and the degree of loyalty of his coachman and groom, mute for the remainder of the journey.
Their arrival at Delaford occasioned the greatest commotion that that fine old house had ever known. The servants had never seen Willoughby and paid him no more regard than they would any guest--rather less, in fact, due to their being so disconcerted by their master's unexpected arrival. It was, rather, Mrs. Baynes's astonished "Colonel Brandon, sir!" that brought Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor--who with Rosalind was spending the evening with her mother while Edward at his dinner was missing more events of interest than he had ever envisioned--and Jonah Masters rushing from the parlor into the foyer, where they had not time to ask the first question before beholding Willoughby standing just inside the door. They were all three then overcome in their separate ways, Mrs. Dashwood being in danger of a swoon, Elinor in danger of never again moving her limbs or making a sound, and Masters in danger of uttering a very shocking volley of oaths.
Willoughby was startled and not a little dismayed to find himself in the presence of the man who had discovered his deceit, but he possessed sufficient poise to bow to Elinor with a conscious smile and show concern for Mrs. Dashwood--though in Brandon's house he was hesitant to put himself forward to offer aid, particularly under the cold, penetrating glare of Sergeant Masters. Colonel Brandon, being neither overcome nor hesitant, was the quickest to help Mrs. Dashwood to a chair, to obtain salts from Mrs. Baynes, to see her supported into the parlor by the housekeeper and Polly. He then turned to Elinor.
"Are your sisters here?"--though by their not having appeared to investigate all the noise, he had already been given his answer.
Elinor had to exert herself to turn her eyes away from Willoughby and to recover her speech, but her brother's need of information from her was a welcome stimulus, for she would not have wanted to remain dumb and rooted as a post for any longer than was absolutely necessary. "No, they have not arrived. We received your inquiry and sent an immediate, though incomplete, explanation that Marianne had been out all day and had not yet read your earlier letter--probably you passed the rider within the last hour. We had expected Marianne to leave Margaret here on her way to Dorchester, but assumed she had been unable to spare the time. They did not come to you, then?" Her own concern growing every second, she grasped his arms, and though her grip had not been very forceful, he jerked the left away with a gasp of pain. "Colonel!--are you hurt?"
Hearing this, Masters suspended his wordless persecution of Willoughby and stepped to his friend's side. "What happened?"
Brandon had ample reason to regret his sudden motion; the fiery throbbing of his arm travelled throughout his body, and black spots danced before his eyes. "Padgett," he said through gritted teeth.
"I knew you'd run afoul of him--or he of you. I hope you did equal damage to him. Is it broken?"
"No--that is, I do not think so. The hand and fingers move as they ought, though with some difficulty and discomfort."
"The surgeon did not examine it? Let me have a look, then."
"We haven't time--"
"If it's broken it must be set before the muscles spasm. Besides, they have to change the horses and affix more lamps to the carriage." With a glance Masters indicated that Willoughby should see to these tasks; the latter complied without protest, but not without a strong display of indignation at being thus ordered about, to which Masters paid no attention.
The sergeant helped Brandon off with his coat, the sleeve being very tight over the injured arm, and when the shirt sleeve was pushed up it was seen that the arm was badly swollen and a dozen awful shades of purple and red. "You're lucky that wasn't your head."
"It was intended to be," Brandon replied tersely, and Elinor shuddered. "Mr. Padgett will not stand straight for several days, and will not see the outside of Dorset Gaol for very much longer than that--and he will never be employed in another if I can prevent it. I do regret, however, that if I had to be so uncivilized as to brawl with him, I was not given a few more seconds in which to smash his nose. I beg your pardon, Mrs. Ferrars." Elinor, having heard a comment or two about Padgett from both Masters and Sarah Marchbanks, granted it readily.
Masters's thorough prodding, which Brandon endured wordlessly though the color drained from his face and he breathed very hard, determined to the relief of all that the bones were intact. The sergeant--who had clearly gained some medical knowledge during the course of his army career--hoped for ice, but the ice house had given up the last of its store the previous month, and he therefore contented himself with the sheets and strips of bandaging that Elinor brought for the fashioning of a protective wrapping and sling.
"All we can do," Brandon said, fretting at being deprived of mobility during their treatment, "is proceed toward Allenham and hope to meet them, or at the least obtain a report at a turnpike gate or an inn. Jonah, may I ask--"
"Of course I'll come, sir."
"Shall we expect the Marchbankses tomorrow?" Elinor asked, calculating whether Mrs. Baynes should make up more beds.
"Good God--Sarah! I neglected to inform them--"
"I will send a message. Do not worry--they will understand."
He pressed her hand in thanks. "Bless you, Mrs. Ferrars--now they will not arrive as usual tomorrow morning and think I have been taken to the gallows prematurely."
While the torch lit bustle continued in the sweep and a rumble of thunder could be heard overhead, Brandon led Masters into his study; when they returned each carried a sword, pistols, and rifle. Elinor's eyes widened, and he hastened to reassure her. "No doubt I am overcautious, but we do not know what we shall find, and I will not be unprepared."
"Will you go up to see Joy before you go? She is asleep, but--"
"I cannot. I cannot risk any contamination until I have bathed and changed my clothing, and there is not time when every hour might be critical to the safety of her mother." He looked up in the direction of the nursery, wondering whether his family would be complete once more within hours, or whether he now faced a new grief. "Will you--kiss her for me?"
The misery on his face, the roughness of his voice, affected Elinor very much. "My dear Colonel, of course I will."
Minutes later, Willoughby came in to inform them that the carriage was ready, and blanched to see that he would be forced to ride with two enemies so impressively armed. With promises to exercise careful haste and to send word if they should be kept overnight, they were gone, leaving Elinor and her mother, now recovered, and all the servants to exclaim and wonder and be uneasy together.
The light from the carriage lamps made rivulets of gold on the rain-spattered windows, the patterns playing over the faces of the three silent men within. Brandon stared out into the darkness, unable to find the slightest enjoyment in his reinstated ability to ride about the country, for what was freedom, what was life, without Marianne?
Masters stared at Willoughby, who shifted constantly on his seat and did not know what to stare at, Brandon making him guilty and Masters making him timid, and both together making him resentful. Finally he demanded, "Why do you examine me in that manner?"
"If truth be told," Masters answered easily, "I'm thinking how long it's been since I had occasion to flog a man."
Brandon was well aware that Masters never approached that grim duty with anything but revulsion, but could not persuade himself that Willoughby deserved to be similarly informed.
Willoughby gave a weak laugh. "You will have to wait until I have recuperated from my caning," he said, in the obvious hope that a self-deprecating humor might appease.
"Are you going to cane him?" (to Brandon).
"I threatened it."
"That's all right, then; I'm a patient man."
In the darkness, Willoughby could not very well see their faces, could not divine whether they seriously meant to administer these tortures. Boldly he declared, "You would both be court-martialled--!"
"Only if witnesses could be found," Masters replied, and Willoughby said nothing more for quite some time.
They had stopped at the Leighton farm to separate Tim from his family yet again, not knowing how many men might be useful in the management of a disabled carriage and four possibly frightened or escaped horses, and he and Willoughby's groom, Joseph, were employed in dashing through the rain to inns and turnpike tollhouses seeking reports of any accident. As the negative responses mounted, Brandon could not keep his thoughts from turning to the several old bridges on their route and the cold streams and canals they crossed--as well as the possibility that Marianne and Margaret had for some reason taken another route entirely and had met their unknown mishap God knew where.
"She's quite safe, Colonel, I assure you," Willoughby said desperately after one of these fruitless halts, unnerved by Brandon's weighty silence. "It is only a broken wheel or axle, with no post office in easy reach. Delaford would have received word in the morning--"
Brandon did not move, only shifted his gaze; he was very tired and in considerable pain, and wished to conserve as much of his strength as he could in case it should be needed. "I envy you your confidence, Mr. Willoughby--if you truly feel it." He looked out again at the night.
At last, at about eleven o'clock, they received vital information at the Markham gate. They halted, and Tim and Joseph hopped down and splashed toward the tollhouse. A few moments later they knocked at the carriage door and presented the gatekeeper, who said, "You won't get far the way you're headed, gentlemen. I'm to warn all travellers that there's a bread riot up ahead, in Pimmerton. You must go round by way of Milton Grange if you're set on getting through tonight."
Brandon thanked him and gave him sixpence for being made to stand in the rain; and once the toll was paid and the gate raised they started forward again, only to take the first turning to the right. "That is what has held her up, then," said Willoughby, much relieved on Marianne's account and his own. "She could not progress farther, and has taken rooms for the night. An express rider would have been diverted as well, and is perhaps even now pounding at Delaford's door."
"I grant you that a carriage accident seems less probable," Brandon replied, "but you talk as if what has apparently befallen them does not cause you the least concern! Two ladies alone at night, possibly beset by a mob, with only a coachman and groom to protect them--and you are not alarmed?" His fingers flexed as if taking hold of a cane.
"Good God, Brandon--you cannot blame me for a bread riot as well!"
"No, but I do blame you for the behavior that might have put my wife and sister in the thick of it."
"Upon my oath, I have never met such a worrier as you. They are perfectly safe!"
"You had better pray that you are right."
Continued in Part 5