A Barton Vignette
To Guy--without whom, etc.
Mrs. Dashwood's picnic party, organized in late March when the sun was warm but the breeze was that temperature that might be called invigorating by some and chilly by others, was judged by all present to be a tremendous success. Her kitchen produced such quantities of foodstuffs both savory and sweet that everybody was certain she must have doubled it in size, and threatened, to her alarm, to invade the house and see for themselves. All the immediate neighborhood attended, some two dozen guests of varying ages--the Middletons with their brood, the Careys with theirs, the Whitakers with theirs, and the seven members of a new family, the Trevors; with these last the Dashwoods had quickly become acquainted thanks to Sir John's thoughtfulness in inviting them to every party in the area, whether or not he himself was host. So many young persons in one location set an interesting challenge before Mrs. Jennings. That worthy lady, having recently married off a niece and a god-daughter in London, was now arranging all the local romances with equal industry, and Marianne thought herself very fortunate that Mrs. Jennings had finally come to regard her as quite a confirmed spinster and therefore not a subject for her schemes.
Mr. Whitaker, however, almost twenty-one years of age, and the eldest Miss Trevor, who had just turned seventeen, hardly needed Mrs. Jennings' aid. Unless directly addressed they spoke to no one but each other, and changed their seats often, huddling first to one side of the gathering and then another, in the hope that no one should notice how much time they spent in each other's company. Everybody expected that he would offer for her as soon as he came of age and into the possession of the small estate that had been willed to him by an uncle.
"Were Willoughby and I as bad as that?" Marianne asked her sister, who had just sat down beside her on the blanket with a plate of cakes.
"Worse," Elinor replied emphatically. "The two of you did not even pretend to observe the proprieties."
Marianne helped herself to a cake. "I cannot imagine what they can be talking about. He has hardly one original thought in his head." And yet she observed the couple with a certain wistfulness, trying not to envy them the life they would soon embrace.
"He seems to have no political or literary aspirations, and to run an estate does not necessarily require original thought. Consider brother John."
Marianne burst into laughter, and then leaned nearer to say in a low voice, "Beware, Elinor--your condition is loosening your tongue. I believe you are positively ill-bred. Mrs. Ferrars would have apoplexy if she but knew."
"Then I pray you will not inform her," Elinor said dryly, "for she might feel obligated to confirm your report in person."
Marianne's rejoinder was interrupted by the clop-clop of hoof beats in the road. Quickly she rose to her knees to see over the heads of the guests; but it was only a tradesman on his way to the Park, and she sighed, a frown of worry creasing her forehead.
"The colonel is only later leaving Delaford than he intended," Elinor said, when Marianne had sunk back down on the blanket and begun to pick at the remains of her cake. "Probably he was delayed by some business."
"But he is hours late--there might have been an accident. You know he often rides here rather than use his carriage--he might have had a fall. Perhaps I should send Thomas to search for him--"
"Such a vivid imagination, Marianne," said Edward, seating himself next to his wife and favoring her with a solicitous glance before proceeding to tease Marianne. "It is not enough for you that his horse might simply have thrown a shoe and required a stop at a blacksmith's. No, he must have been pitched from his saddle while plunging up a muddy bank, and even now lies half-drowned in the cold river."
"Oh, Edward, do not jest. It might have happened just as you say!"
"But it did not, for there he is." Marianne sought the rail at the bottom of the hill just as Colonel Brandon's familiar dignified form was dismounting from his horse. Edward's eyes twinkled. "You see, all your fretting was completely without reason."
"You saw him riding in but chose to mock me instead of relieving my fears. Is that suitable behavior for a clergyman?" Edward, however, was unrepentant, and Marianne gave an exasperated but amused sigh and hastened to join her mother in greeting their long-awaited friend.
He at once assured them of his safety and offered apologies for his tardiness. "The Plaxford bridge has at last rotted through, and I found myself with the unenviable choice of arriving punctually but soaking wet, or late but presentable. I chose the latter, and came by way of Stinton."
"There is not one inn on that road," Marianne said. "You must be hungry."
"Famished," he replied with a laugh, and she took charge of him, summoning Betsy with a plate and a cup. Margaret, hoop and stick in hand, skipped up to him and announced that they had made sure to prepare all his favorite foods. He expressed a proper gratitude to them all for this consideration, though his glance, slightly questioning, briefly touched Marianne's. He thanked her for her assistance and watched as she returned to her seat, only then making his own way among the guests, carefully avoiding among so many relative strangers any appearance of particular interest in Marianne. Mrs. Jennings, whose speculative gaze seemed to follow him about, was much too near for comfort.
Marianne at this point found herself in a predicament. The space at her right hand, which in her own mind she had of course assigned to Colonel Brandon, had just been occupied by the eldest of the Trevor boys, a fair, smiling lad of nineteen. But he was not talking to her, having determined on several earlier occasions that she did not think him very fascinating, but to the younger Miss Carey at his other side. As she could not ask Elinor to take herself away, she could only hope that Miss Carey would accept Mr. Trevor's invitation to a stroll on the lawn and that no one else would sit down before the colonel could extricate himself from other conversation. She could just catch snippets of his remarks to the Whitakers about the roads, to the Middletons about horses, to the Trevors about politics, and to all of them about their children, skillfully turning aside impertinent queries about why he had not passed the season in town looking for a wife with compliments about young William's height or little Jane's fine new pony. At last he joined them, just as Mr. Trevor succeeded in his object--he had hardly left his space before the colonel claimed it. Mrs. Dashwood, having seen that her guests were stuffed full of every delicacy, also came to sit with them, and the five enjoyed the typical conversation of good friends, covering many subjects and one mood, that of convivial cheer.
At length, with many effusive expressions of thanks--they had never in their lives passed a finer afternoon, there could be no more generous neighbor in the world than Mrs. Dashwood, etc.--the guests began to depart in their various family groups. Upon seeing Colonel Brandon accompanying the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings to their carriage--for Lady Middleton would not walk even the half-mile from the Park--Marianne asked, "Do you go as well, Colonel?" in a voice that declared she wished he would not. "You have only just come."
It was more than two hours since he had arrived and he had passed most of that time at her side, but his heart swelled to know that she considered this insufficient attention. "I should be delighted to stay if you are not too tired of playing the hostess."
"I do not need to play the hostess with you--you are as family to us."
"Of course you are!" exclaimed Mrs. Dashwood, with an undertone of meaning of which Marianne was unaware.
"Stay and let the ladies pamper you," Sir John commanded with a hearty laugh. "We will see you for supper--a late supper," he added, giving his full stomach a pat.
"Perhaps a short walk?" The Colonel looked around at all the family, but did not think it very strange that Elinor should plead fatigue, Edward express a proper husbandly obligation, and Mrs. Dashwood wave helplessly at the food and linens strewn about the lawn.
"May I come?" Margaret inquired, but her hopes were dashed by her mother's insistence that she was desperately needed in the kitchen.
"I shall be back soon to help," Marianne called to them as they all started up the hill, leaving her with Colonel Brandon at the bottom of the path. "Shall we walk by the estuary?"
This they did, carefully avoiding the mud among the reeds where the tide had begun to ebb. "I was pleased to meet the Trevors after hearing so much of them from Sir John," the colonel remarked. "Young Charles seems pleasant enough."
"All the pleasantness in the world cannot hide a weak mind. He has read very little and his opinions are not judicious, and yet he is astonished when I disagree with them. And this from a young man who has had a tutor these eight years!"
He found her dismissive portrait of the unsuspecting Mr. Trevor very encouraging to his own aspirations. He was as anxious as a lovesick boy adoring from afar, knowing it was much too soon to profess his own feelings but terrified that each new arrival might steal his love's affections. But in these last few months he had come to believe that he did not hope in vain. Not only did Marianne spurn all the young men of the neighborhood and, according to Mrs. Dashwood, who kept him apprised of such matters, all the young men who approached her in Exeter, she did not pine to go husband-hunting in London and had even declined an invitation for that purpose from Mrs. Jennings. Upon his asking her why she had chosen to remain in the country, she had informed him that the activities of the season struck her as frivolous and superficial, and that she could hardly be expected to marry a man with whom she had traded three sentences in the middle of a dance. She actively sought his company when she visited Delaford, and, if Mrs. Dashwood was to be believed, was usually the instigator of her mother's frequent invitations to Barton. Perhaps in a few months' time he might at last address her. Perhaps this summer would be a joyous one.
Suddenly she hopped down a short, sloping peninsula to the water's edge. She bent down to pluck something from the black mud, rinsed her fingers, and then rejoined him, reaching out as she scrambled back to the path for his supporting hand as if she knew it would be there--as it was. She held out for his inspection a pretty pink shell. "Margaret will like this for her collection. I am almost certain she has not one exactly this color. --Why do you look at me with a smile?"
His eyebrows lifted at her ingenuous query. How could he not smile to look at her, so lovely with her hair in disarray, her cheeks flushed with exertion, her eyes aglow with enthusiasm? "I am simply sharing your mood. You seem in high spirits today."
She gave a contented sigh and looked out over the water; when she started forward again he fell into step beside her. "I suppose I am. Do you know that at this time a year past I thought that I should never be happy again?"
"You are more resilient than you knew."
This possibility had not occurred to her. "Perhaps so. I should like to think that I have redeemed myself for my earlier weakness. And of course I have had loving family and good friends to support me."
Her smile was very warm, and he returned it. "I am so pleased that I was able to be useful--"
"'Useful!'" she repeated, in a tone that indicated very clearly that the word was an enormous understatement. "Colonel--I have been wanting to ask you something--"
Her voice trailed off and she began to turn the shell over and over in her hands, and he wondered at her uncertainty when during these last months they had formed the habit of frank conversation. "Why do you hesitate?" He leaned a little toward her. "You know I can deny you nothing."
She smiled sweetly at this delicate, and to her ears no doubt wholly inconsequential, bit of flirtation, but she had taken several more steps before she replied. "I am afraid you will assign it a significance it does not warrant--that you will think I spend my days brooding about--about a particular subject--"
"That is unlikely, for I know that you are no longer so inclined to brood." Still she said nothing. "Please, Miss Dashwood, you must ask it now, or I shall perish from unsatisfied curiosity."
This time his witticism failed to elicit her usual appreciative response, and by the time she sat down on a bench and began to pick at the rough wood with her fingernail he was truly puzzled. He could not in his most pessimistic moments have imagined what she was about to say.
"Will you tell me about the--about your--encounter--with Willoughby?"
He stepped back as if she had struck him. He could not quite take a full breath. Never--not on a single occasion--had she spoken to him of Willoughby. What could her query signify? "Miss Dashwood--you do not realize--please do not ask me to describe that scene--"
"You must not try to protect me from unpleasantness, Colonel," she said firmly. If she had been more fully aware of the blows that life could deal she might not have lost her heart so swiftly or so completely to one who was unworthy of it. "You must think it shocking and very unladylike of me to ask, but you are the only one to whom I can turn--"
She loved Willoughby. Still she loved the villain. He saw it now. He had convinced himself that she was done with him, that she had fixed him in the past where he could hurt her no more. But the blackguard still held sway over her heart. This one thing about him she did not know, and that she sought the answer from him told him that she sensed nothing of his regard for her, that she felt nothing of the same for him. And he had flattered himself that she might soon welcome more serious attentions from him. Not within a few months. Not ever.
His neckcloth was choking him and his flesh was hot as if feverish; the air was cold on the perspiration that moistened his upper lip and forehead. He could not lie, but the truth would grieve her. His whole soul wanted to protect her, and yet it was not her nature to seek protection. He had as much as promised to answer; he must speak. He wished himself anywhere but here on this shore with her. Why, dear God, had she asked him this? She was gazing at him in growing consternation, and he realized that he was pacing with tight little steps. He made himself stand still before her; but before he could speak, words began to tumble from her own lips.
"I do not mean to pry into your affairs, Colonel-- Had I thought my question would offend you I should never have asked it--but we have always spoken freely to each other-- Please--tell me how I have erred--"
His stance lost some of its rigidity. "You have not erred--but your question startled me--it is not a pretty subject--"
All at once she understood. Her gaze dropped to her hands, then lifted again. "He behaved--badly, did he not? In a--a cowardly manner, and you want to spare my sensibilities--" His sober expression was her answer. She looked away in painful contemplation. "I suppose I am not surprised to hear it. He proved himself a moral coward, without substance. His is the softened character of the hedonist."
"Soft, perhaps." Brandon's words were taut, clipped. "But had he been a thorough coward he would have agreed to marry Miss Williams. He stood his ground on that point." He forced himself to add, "It is a frightful situation in which to find oneself." And he had never expected to place another man in it. Dueling was a barbaric practice, but in such a case civilized measures too often yielded no result, and a gentleman could hope for justice only through the hand of Providence.
His apparent sympathy was wholly unexpected. "Was that not your purpose--to frighten him? Why should you defend him in the slightest?" His expression changed, from severity to slow amazement and then to a dull but horrified resignation--and she realized that she had been proceeding under a misapprehension. If he, too, had found the situation frightful-- "Do you mean--you did not intend merely to threaten him and then let him go? You intended to--" The edges of the shell bit into her palm and fingers as her hands clenched around it. She had assumed that Willoughby could have survived an encounter with Brandon--a military man and, according to Sir John, an excellent shot with pistol as well as rifle--only because Brandon himself had never meant to shed Willoughby's blood. "--to--kill him?"
He had thought she understood--understood what had occurred and had forgiven him. But why should that assumption be correct when others had been wrong? "Yes." Though it would have killed me in your eyes--yes. "Because Miss Williams still, inexplicably, cherished an affection for him, I offered him the chance to marry her. He refused, as he also refused to acknowledge the child or provide for him. He left me no choice but to issue challenge." It was not until that moment that he had seen the smallest regret in Willoughby's eyes.
Marianne could not but compare the behavior of a man who would ignore his own natural child to that of a man who allowed himself to be thought the father of another's, rather than reveal her true, most unfortunate background--who in fact defended that child's honor as if she were his own daughter. She hoped fervently that Miss Williams recognized her exceptional fortune in having such a protector, and that she was liberal in her feelings and expressions of gratitude toward him.
He had fallen silent, but she said very quietly, "Tell me the rest."
His eyes appealed to her to spare him; but hers implored him to speak. He would have sighed had he been able to draw sufficient breath. He was taken back to a cold dawn in a dim wood, to silence broken by sobs. Abruptly he said, "He begged me for his life on his knees. I could not murder him. He was humiliated and honor was to some extent satisfied."
He prayed that she would not press him for details. He could not tell her that Willoughby's collapse had been brought about by his being discovered in an attempt to cheat, by using pistols with rifled barrels--those more accurate and powerful weapons being expressly prohibited by the Code. Deprived of his shameful advantage by Brandon's second, who had examined Willoughby's pistols very closely and replaced them with the spare set he had brought, the young man had succumbed to panic; the risk of death being now all too real, he trembled so violently that he could not stand, let alone aim and fire a weapon. Nor could he tell her that he had advanced upon the pathetic figure, had stood over him and said, "Providence has spared you here, but I swear by that Providence that if I should learn of such conduct on your part with any other young woman--I believe you take my meaning--I will be her avenger as well. I will hunt you down as the villain you are." He could not tell her these things.
She had turned her face away. She would abhor him now. He would have killed the man she loved, though God be his witness he would have taken no pleasure in it. He was conscious of the awful irony of asserting that he could deny her nothing and then in almost the next breath admitting to having been willing to deny her happiness. "Marianne--do not believe that I did not curse Providence for forcing me to choose between the honor of one young woman and--and a certain protective feeling toward another. Those conflicting emotions-- Some part of me will always hope that Providence would have spoiled my aim. But I cannot be certain--I can never be certain. I can only know what I was then resolved to do." How could he speak to a lady of such matters--to this lady of this matter--how could he speak with such lack of restraint? But she had encouraged candor; she had insisted upon it; and he could deny her nothing. "Do not think that I felt anything but agony when I contemplated being known to you forever as he who had killed the man you love."
She turned then; and yet he received from her the impression of a pensive stillness. She was very pale. "'Love'? I loved him then, but I do not love him now. I have no feeling at all for him now."
"You do not-- But I thought-- Why else should you want to know?"
She appeared surprised that he could not intuit the answer. "I wanted to close that chapter of my life. I knew everything but that. I felt as if--I had read an epic poem but been cheated of the ending verse. It helped me greatly to learn what you had related to my sister--I do not think I have ever told you so--and it also helped to learn what Willoughby professed when he came to Cleveland--did you know he had come?" He managed to nod; Elinor had told him a little. "I thought I should know the last of it." She rubbed at the red marks that the shell had left on her hands. "I hope it is not simply a romantic desire for the sensational. I waited so long to ask because I did not want to indulge any such feeling even if I were unaware of it. Once I would have thought a duel the height of romantic adventure. Now I think it is horrible." Brandon's grimness also made her mindful that he had risked his own life as well; dear God, she might have lost him, too, before ever coming to know him. Willoughby had, she was convinced, thought it all a great joke, until he had seen the implacable resolve in his accuser's eyes. She could pity him for his terror, for his was the thoughtless evil of selfishness, not the deliberate evil of malice. "How could I continue to esteem a man who had behaved so dishonorably?"
She did not love Willoughby. She did not love him. He had done her an injustice to believe otherwise, even for these few awful moments, for she was more insightful than his poor, ruined Beth, able to see Willoughby for what he was. "I should have informed your family of his character earlier than I did. Though I believed you engaged, I should have informed you." Notwithstanding his threat, he had thought that he could safeguard her from any further attention from Willoughby by reporting to her mother what had transpired, but before he could act he had heard of Marianne's supposed betrothal. As any breach at that point would have disgraced her in the eyes of society, he had not spoken.
She gave a little sigh. "I do not know. I have considered the question. Probably I would not have believed you then, or, believing you, been too willing to excuse him. But by the time you did inform us, his own behavior had already demonstrated the truth of what you imparted. I forgave him--we must forgive those who have wronged us--but my love for him was dead."
"I beg your pardon--I should not have presumed to know your heart--"
"I beg pardon, Colonel, for raising the subject at all. It should have been left alone, buried in the past and harmless. And there is no one who knows my heart better than you. Do you not know that you are my dearest friend?"
God help him--would he faint from the shocks she heaped upon him, all unknowing? But now she was holding out her hand to him, her merciful, soothing hand, and he was stepping forward to take it, his movements stiff with lingering tension. And yet he could still think--he could still fear that she considered him too much a friend ever to regard him as a lover. "You do me great honor, Miss Dashwood."
"You do me honor. You pay me the compliment of the truth, even when it is painful."
"I told you I cannot deny you," he said hoarsely, drained of all strength as if he had staggered to the end of a forced march, wondering if hope could return or if the truth had destroyed it just as irreparably as a lasting attachment for Willoughby on her part would have done.
In unspoken mutual consent they started back to the cottage, neither in the spirit for further conversation. The colonel was so uncommunicative that Marianne began to fear her offense had been greater than he would admit. She had soured their congenial mood, by presuming upon his generous nature--though she had thought herself well enough acquainted with him now that she could not commit such a transgression. She did not fully understand why the subject had so disturbed him--far more than it had disturbed her, despite his concern. Perhaps she could never understand, the experience being one that she would never have. Though she was glad to know the entire story, glad to possess at last a complete picture of events, she prayed that she had not caused a rift in their friendship, not now when it had come to mean so much to her.
He halted at the foot of the path, and she understood that he did not want to come to the house, did not have the energy for further sociability. He did not, as he usually did, thank her for joining him in a walk, but only asked if he might call when he returned to the Park in a week or ten days; he had stopped for the picnic on his way to visit an old comrade who now resided in St. Ives.
She was relieved that he wanted to come again, though her relief was diminished by the gravity in his countenance, a gravity she was no longer accustomed to see there. "Please do. I shall look forward to your company."
Her sincere warmth in its turn gave him a measure of comfort, but as he rode away he could not rid himself of the apprehension that her feelings would be less warm after she had opportunity to reflect upon what she had learned.
(Part One--Anguish) (section 2 of 2)
The door to Marianne's bedroom opened in response to Elinor's soft knock. "I came to make certain you are not ill. You were very quiet at supper--"
Once Elinor would not have inquired as to her sister's state of mind, but given their earlier experience she would prefer to be guilty of an intrusion rather than allow a mystery to progress without intervention. As Marianne had learned the value of restraint, she had learned the value of disclosure. If she and Edward had been more forthright with each other, he would have realized her attachment to him and she would have known the truth about Lucy; if she and her mother had pressed Marianne or Willoughby for explanation of their conduct, they might have averted, if not Marianne's misery, at least her public humiliation.
Once Marianne would have shut her out, keeping up a pretense that all was well while she concealed the true disquiet in her heart. But now she pulled the door wide and stepped away so that Elinor could enter the room, then went to the window and looked toward the Park, whose lights were just visible through the trees like stars in the night sky. "Colonel Brandon and I have had a--an awkward conversation. I fear I might have caused some estrangement." She brushed away tears and resumed her pacing.
Elinor sat down on the bed. "I wondered that he did not stay to supper. Do you wish to tell me what happened?"
"I am not certain I comprehend it." Perhaps Elinor, as an experienced married woman, could offer insight into the strong feelings a man was wont to conceal. "I only asked him to tell me of his encounter with Willoughby." At Elinor's expression of horror she hurried on, "I know you think me too forward, but the colonel has often said I may ask him anything--"
"He could not have meant anything to do with Willoughby!"
"Why should Willoughby be a proscribed topic between us? I have long been capable of discussing him without undue emotion, and the colonel has no particular reason to avoid--"
Revelation struck her as if she had been lifted off her feet and hurled into an icy sea. Her hands flew to her hot cheeks. "Oh Elinor--" As if he stood before her she recalled all that he had said that afternoon and with what emotion he had said it. Agony, he had said; it had been agony. In his agitation he had revealed more than he intended. It would not have been agony unless he cared for her. Unless he loved her. Tears spilled onto her cheeks. "You knew." He had called her Marianne. With what sadness he had said her name. In a rush she recalled a thousand acts of courtesy and consideration to which she had heretofore given little thought. Mrs. Jennings had been right, all those long months before. "You knew."
Though Elinor chastised herself for her unthinking remark, she spoke to her sister very gently. "Did you think that all his attentions meant nothing?"
"But we have all benefitted from his kindness and generosity--all of us--"
"Oh Marianne, how can you be so perceptive of other men and so blind to the best of them? How can you not see in his face his devotion? It is obvious to everyone but you!"
Marianne sank into the window seat. "I have hurt him terribly. I would not have done so for the world." Her tears were flowing in earnest now, and Elinor came to sit beside her.
"He knows it was unintentional, dearest."
Marianne scrubbed at her eyes, but succeeded only in making them redder. "His misery was obvious but I did not understand its cause--" Remembering the naked anguish in his face, she felt as if her own heart had been pierced through. "He told me what I wanted to know, and every word was torment for him because he thought I still loved Willoughby. And now I must hurt him again--and this time with full awareness." It was frightening to realize the extent of her power, that she could lacerate his heart with a word.
"Hurt him again? Whatever do you mean?"
"I must tell him that I do not return his feelings."
"But he has not admitted his. He might have no intention of doing so--he is well aware that yours are not as strong."
"Then I must find some way to show him."
"But he has enjoyed your friendship thus far, when your feelings were unequal to his. Why should that situation change?"
"I did not know that our feelings were unequal. Now that I do, it would be wrong to enjoy his friendship when I can promise nothing more."
After several minutes' pondering, Elinor replied, "I think perhaps it would be a mistake for someone other than Colonel Brandon to decide what is best for him, even one who is as intimately acquainted with him as you are."
"But do you not see? If I reveal that I am aware of his feelings without also indicating that I cannot return them, he will continue to hope. I cannot be so unkind."
"Must you reveal that you know?"
"Of course I must. How can I be less than candid with him? But I am learning that candor, like any ideal, is more difficult than it sounds. It is easy to be candid when one harbors no special feeling for the person one might injure, when candor simply advances one's own selfish desires. But to contemplate hurting someone for whom one cares very much, all in the name of truth--that is hard. And yet not to do so would be the more cruel."
He had not quailed before that obligation. When faced with her naŒve ignorance he had not kept secret his past actions and intentions but had confessed them, in the full knowledge that, when eventually he did declare himself, she might consider them all the more reprehensible because he did love her, just as Willoughby's betrayal had been the worse because of his genuine regard for her.
"He must understand that I never once thought of marrying him. After Willoughby I never thought of marrying anybody." Her cheeks flushed a deeper pink. "But you and Edward are so happy-- Of late I have begun to think that I should like after all to be married," (with a glance at Elinor's softly rounded belly) "to have children--"
"You could not ask for a more sensible provider or a more faithful protector."
"I know it." Marianne laughed weakly and reached for a handkerchief. "We have married him off already, when he has not said one word." He had meant to give her time to heal before he made his feelings known to her. "Oh Elinor, what if he does ask me? What shall I do?"
Elinor rubbed her arm, trying to give solace. "Be kind to him."
"You look pensive, my love."
Elinor, taking down her hair in front of the mirror, looked at Edward's reflection and smiled. He was reading in bed, but had looked up from his book to study her with tender and ardent appreciation.
Her answering smile was wry. "I do not call myself a romantic, and yet I find myself advising Marianne in matters of the heart. Surely there cannot be a less suitable counselor for her than I."
"What has happened?"
She turned with a sigh. "She asked the colonel about the--the affair with Willoughby."
"Good God! The poor man--having to relive that."
"I am confident that she feels more for him than she realizes--he could not be so much at ease in her company if he felt no hint of affection from her--but I fear it is not yet enough to guard his feelings as carefully as he guards hers."
"And yet if they are someday to build a marriage they must be candid with one another, do you not think--perhaps about that subject especially?"
"Candor is often painful."
"Yes, but Marianne's trial has strengthened her, and the colonel as you know is as solid as granite. They are not the sort to hide from truth."
"Dearest, you are an optimist."
"How can I be otherwise, having gained you against all reasonable expectation? Whatever happens, Elinor, they will survive it. They have each survived worse."
"That is true." Somewhat reassured, she applied her hairbrush with vigor. "If nothing else another layer of drama has been added to the affair, which ought to appeal to Marianne. If Colonel Brandon would only fall from his horse and break a leg or his head, her devotion would be assured." She finished at the dressing table and joined her husband, who looked rather taken aback by her remark. "How can such a custom even exist in a civilized society?"
"It exists because the laws of our civilized society do not address certain kinds of insults." Elinor raised her eyebrows at this rational explanation of an irrational practice. "I assure you I do not condone dueling, but I can understand it. The colonel resorted to it only after all other alternatives had failed him."
Elinor drew away from him, incredulous. "What? Do you know something of the matter? He said that word had not gotten around."
Caught in an indiscretion, Edward began to stammer. "W--word always gets around--especially when it is very scandalous. R--Robert was talking about it one day to--to friends and I--uh, overheard." He fidgeted with his bookmark.
"You never told me!"
"I did not want to spread such a report, even about Mr. Willoughby. A c--clergyman should not stoop to gossip."
Elinor had to do internal battle between renewed admiration for her husband's unshakable principles and a very unladylike disgruntlement that those principles had deprived her of essential information. Surely a clergyman was permitted to repeat gossip to his wife. "I hope that your brother's having information about an affair of honor does not suggest that he and his associates view them as worthy pastimes."
"Oh dear me, no. Duels are very messy, you know--dirt and sweat and--and--" Elinor's eyes were growing very round and he thought perhaps he should not speak of blood to a woman in a delicate state. "Well--Robert would never risk soiling his clothes."
She laughed. "That is very true." She clasped his hand and settled against his shoulder. "Oh Edward, I want Marianne and the colonel to be as happy as we are." She had once thought Colonel Brandon a most incompatible match for her sister, but so much had Marianne matured that it was Willoughby now with whom she would have little affinity.
Edward kissed her forehead, and then her lips. "My dear one, I do believe your condition is turning you romantic after all."
If his route had led past the cottage, Colonel Brandon, leaving the Park at dawn so as to make the most of the daylight, as is often the habit of even a retired soldier, would have seen the glow of lamplight against the curtains of Marianne's window long before the cottage was generally astir. She had sat up very late and had slept only fitfully, allowing her reflections to rob her of slumber even though she knew they could lead to only one decision. Oh, that they could set back time!--that she had not discovered what he obviously wished her not to know. What did it mean that he could have formed an attachment for her, he who had already loved so passionately in his youth? What did it mean that such a development was even possible? She had thought her experience had brought her to some comprehension of the relations between men and women. Clearly she had been mistaken. But just as clearly she knew she could not encourage him in any way. Candor, though it be bitter, was the only just course. She would not be so selfish as to cling to his friendship at the cost to him of a false hope; she could not bear to be the instrument of any more of his suffering than could not be avoided.
She must send him away. She must not see him again.
(Part Two-Resolution) (section 1 of 2)
She could not tell him straight out-that was certain enough. The colonel, having returned to the Park from St. Ives the evening before, was expected for breakfast, and she could not simply greet him on the path with, "Colonel Brandon, I do not love you." That would be a rude, a gross invasion of his privacy. Marianne walked round and round the cottage, shredding blades of grass until her fingers turned green, not unconscious of the peculiar niceties of feeling that made her concerned with mere discourtesy when she contemplated a much greater ruthlessness. Why could she not be sanguine about a decision to which she had sacrificed sleep, sustenance, and tranquility of mind, a decision that should have brought her at least the somber peace of an unpleasant task completed? As she could not presume to tell him the nature of his own feelings, she must find a way to let him know hers. She could not be comfortable in his society leaving so much unsaid. How should she broach the subject? It was their habit after a meal to walk in the fields or to talk a while. He would no doubt have a new book to share, but she would not let him read to her; she would not let him hope a moment longer, or invest further effort in an outcome that could never be. She must be very cool toward him, and perhaps begin to talk admiringly of Mr. Charles Trevor. But there he was on the road-he was stepping onto the path-and she ran into the house before he should see her.
She had little to say during the meal, but she hoped he would not notice as he related the news he had learned from his former comrade and some naval officers on leave to whom he had been introduced. He was so obviously pleased to be among her family again that she hated herself for planning such a campaign against him; he had no way to defend himself from the blow she would soon deliver-for of course one consequence of her rejection would be a certain isolation from his friends. In their separate groups they could ignore a sad estrangement between two of their number, but they could not all be together again in such conviviality. She felt wretched to contemplate that loss.
Colonel Brandon, whose powers of observation were the equal of those of any other man in love, that is to say very keen with regard to the object of his affection, had noticed the change in Marianne from his first sight of her. The strain around her eyes, the smudges under her lashes, told him that she had not been sleeping well, and he felt what in a friend would be concern but in a lover is anxiety. She did not press him for news as she usually did, nor did she ask what new books he had purchased. She showed no interest in his descriptions of the wild Cornish moors, though he strove for her pleasure to make his account exciting. She did not laugh with everyone else when he imitated a Cornishman's incomprehensible accent. She did not smile or meet his gaze when he offered her more tea. He could not put a name to her discomfiture; he had never seen this mood before. He had feared that upon reflection she would condemn him for his conduct toward Willoughby, but in that instance he would expect a cold aloofness, a quivering anger, not this solemn nervous tension.
He had brought a new book, and when he carried the chairs out to the lawn Marianne followed along with her sewing as if being led to the gallows. She would tell him she was not interested in reading, and he would be so astonished that he would ask what troubled her. But that would gain her nothing: the burden of raising the subject would still be hers. She might just as well out with it now, blurt it with all the subtlety of a Mrs. Jennings.
"Allow me to read you a passage I believe you will appreciate," he was saying, and she could not make herself object. He must already have told her the author and title, but she had not heard.
His voice was both soothing and stirring, but half-lost in thought she hardly distinguished the words. Perhaps, she thought with some relief, he did intend to say nothing after all. But should she wish for that? Should she wish them to proceed in falsehood, both guilty of concealment, he of his feelings, she of her knowledge? But if he were to speak- All the women of her acquaintance (as well as her brother John) would be aghast that she would even consider refusing the attentions of such an eligible bachelor. She more than any of them could speak to his goodness, but he was also pleasantly tall, and fit, for he was a temperate, active man. It was true that he was not especially handsome, but intelligence and virtue always lent attraction, and there was such kindness in his eyes-
How could she be thinking of him thus, when not one word had he said!
He looked up from the page for her response, and was startled at the intensity of her gaze-toward him but curiously inward as well, and with something of appraisal in it. He had never seen this look before, either. As if in reaction to his falling silent her gaze altered its focus, but when their eyes met she looked quickly away, and directed her attention to her needlework. He resumed reading, but he was suddenly incapable of pronouncing a full line without stumbling, and apologized for his clumsy efforts. Her look of alarm, that of a schoolroom child caught in inattention, told him that she knew nothing of his errors, that she had not heard him at all. But instead of simply begging his forgiveness for her distraction-as sometimes happened when she was absorbed in the power of descriptive language, seeing in her mind's eye the scene depicted-and urging him to go on, she blushed hotly and again turned away.
Dear God-she knew. Her unaccustomed shyness and modesty could have only one explanation-that she had guessed his true attachment to her. He had been more unguarded in his speech than even he had realized, and upon reflection she had perceived its true import. Despair settled around his shoulders like a mantle and pressed him toward the earth with its unforgiving weight. She knew. And the knowledge had not brought her pleasure, for clearly she had no idea what to say to him now, no notion how to act. Perhaps her confusion stemmed from uncertainty. She was young and inexperienced; perhaps she was not positive what name to give to the feelings she had sensed from him, and feared to embarrass herself or him by too dramatic an assumption. Whichever was the case, an unspoken tension now existed between them, a tension that he had caused and must now address.
He closed the book and set it aside. "Miss Dashwood."
Marianne had long since stopped trying to sew, for her thread was tangled beyond saving. At the gravity of his tone she stiffened, and then turned slowly toward him, but she could not quite meet his eyes.
How would she greet the confession of his feelings? But he must confess them, for he must help her to name what she had sensed, must ease the way for her to speak. He knew he risked their friendship, but due to his carelessness their friendship was already forever changed; it could no longer progress in innocence. "Miss Dashwood-" He knew she would not deceive him. If his attentions were now unwelcome she would turn him away just as she had turned away her other would-be suitors. She was compassionate; she would not permit him to hope without cause. He would welcome such directness, for he would hardly like to be with her if she were always feeling sorry for him, treading carefully to protect his heart. "I fear I may have been too free in my speech at our last meeting." Her cheeks colored and she looked down at her hands, wadding her cloth into a ball. "I believe that you are now aware-that I allowed you to sense the-the true extent of my regard for you."
She drew a shuddering breath and somehow found the courage to lift her gaze to his, but did not know what she should say, the situation being entirely unfamiliar to her. Not once had Willoughby declared himself. She had assumed his affection, but she had never heard him speak of it. Still she was torn between a desire to confront the issue and a fervent wish that her companion should say no more. Now, before he continued further-she must tell him now. But she sat mute-for if he could nerve himself to speak she must nerve herself to listen. There should be no secrets between intimate friends.
"Miss Dashwood-Marianne-I will say the words, if you will permit me. I do love you, with all my soul." Her blush deepened; the cloth was damp between her palms. "I know you do not at present return my affections to that same degree, but if you believe that your regard for me is sufficient- If you believe that in time- Will you do me the honor of accepting my offer of marriage?"
He had never imagined uttering such a tedious, formal proposal to her. When he had dared to conjure the moment he had imagined clasping her hands and pouring out his love into her receptive heart. He had imagined joy, not dread. But it was too soon for such ardent expression. He had been forced by his own indiscretion to address her before the time was right. He had meant to wait until she gave him some indication that she would welcome an offer. Had he never received such a signal he would never have spoken, would never willingly have jeopardized the level of intimacy he had gained. He must proceed with great care, must try to read beneath the taut agitation in her face. Did she resent his implied assumption that her undoubted fondness for him was sufficient to bring her happiness in marriage? She equated love with grande passion, and he had known such fervor once when he had been young; but in his maturity he had learned that there are far more layers than that to love. Was it presumptuous-or naŒve-to believe that in time she would make the same discovery? Was he right to ask this woman to marry without love? But once the emotion was proclaimed it could not then be repressed again; it must be granted its natural expression. He could trust her not to admit to feelings she did not possess; he could trust her not to marry him out of pity. He waited, the breath stopped in his throat, for her answer.
Though her eyes were very wide and her cheeks very red, though her own breath came almost in gasps, she was relieved that the problem was now before her, that it had been freed from the excesses of her imagination and brought into the light where she could consider it with some degree of rationality, where it was somehow rendered less terrifying. "You do me great honor, Colonel." Her voice was soft and not very steady. "As you have surmised, this has been rather a sudden revelation to me." A look of both yearning and apprehension had taken possession of his features. Others must have seen such a look from him, but never she. If he had ever once shown such a look to her- "May I ask-for a little time to consider? May I give you my answer tomorrow?"
He was relieved that she had not said no straightaway, disheartened that she had not said yes. "Of-of course. Perhaps-I might call after breakfast?"
Her pulse thrilled with alarm. Did he want an answer quite so soon? But after he had waited so long already, it seemed heartless to make him wait even another hour. And had she not really been considering the question during the entire nine days of his absence? Surely she could be resolved by morning. She gave a nod.
There was a short silence. And then he said, with wry sadness and an attempt at a smile, "I feel as though I should beg your forgiveness."
The absolute understanding in her look was something of a balm to his heart. "No," she said, "never that."
"I had best take my leave. Will you return to the cottage?"
The questions that would greet her there!-why had the colonel left so soon, why did she seem so distressed? "No, I shall walk a while." Later, when the timbre of her voice would prompt no curiosity in its hearers, she could say that he had recalled other business.
He bowed to her, and she watched him down the path and onto the road, watched him until he disappeared around the bend. He always carried himself well but he seemed now to be holding his shoulders with unnatural stiffness. He believes I will say no. And indeed why had she not? Why did she delay the inevitable result? For surely it was inevitable. What other answer could she possibly give?
She saw that he had left the book in his chair. She turned to the page marked by the ribbon and began to read the poem that he had tried to share with her. So moving were the lines, so perfectly had he chosen, that she wept.
She accomplished little during the remainder of the day. She walked and reflected for a time, and then picked up her sewing again, but she soon had to pull out most of the stitches. She was quiet at supper, and unresponsive to Elinor's querying glances across the table. But when Elinor retired early Marianne followed her upstairs, very thankful that her sister would not depart for several more days. She was not at all confident that her mother, whose approval of Colonel Brandon was unconditional, would be capable of understanding her hesitation.
When the door was safely closed, Marianne sank into a chair as if exhausted. "He has asked me, Elinor. He has proposed. And I do not know what answer to give him."
Elinor sat back against the bed pillows. "You knew quite well Tuesday last." Her tone mingled sympathy and a certain helpless frustration. She wished she could embrace her sister as Marianne had embraced her when Edward had proposed, but she was deprived of this most natural reaction and uncertain what advice to give-or whether, in fact, she should give any at all.
Marianne's tone echoed her sister's. "I thought I knew."
"He is the best of men-"
"Oh, he is, without a doubt he is-but Elinor, I do not love him. I mean, I am not in love with him. Of course I have great affection for him as a friend."
Elinor reflected that though Marianne's regard for the colonel might be stronger than she realized, a feeling could not truly be called love unless the one in whose heart it reposed was sensible of it. "Do you compare what you feel for him to what you felt for Willoughby?"
"To what else could I compare it? I have loved only Willoughby."
"And I have loved only Edward. But should he be taken from me and should I then someday come to love another-" It was not lost on Elinor that Marianne did not immediately scoff at this notion as she would have done not a very long while before. "-I would not expect the feeling to be exactly the same. Is any experience as intense the second time as it is the first? The first time one sees the cliffs of Dover, or reads a particular poem- Even unpleasant experiences are diluted by familiarity, such as visiting a dentist, or talking to Fanny-"
Marianne had been listening with a thoughtful frown, but now she interjected, "On that point I will dispute you. To me Fanny seems more horrible with each passing year." They shared a laugh; and though she sobered quickly Marianne found that the laughter had dispelled some of her tension. "Then-how will I know if I have formed a second attachment if I have nothing to which to compare the feeling?" To think that she-she-could even admit the possibility-! Once she could sooner have imagined that the earth could stop turning.
Elinor considered carefully before answering; she must not put notions into her sister's head. "Perhaps you could compare your feelings for Colonel Brandon to what you feel or do not feel for other men of your acquaintance."
"All other men are wanting compared to him." Marianne spoke without an instant's hesitation. "They are young and shallow and unformed, and I would not consider marrying any of them. I value his society more than anyone's in the world save yours and Mamma's and Margaret's."
Elinor smiled, not least at Marianne's own surprise at the vehemence of her response. "Such strong esteem is hardly a poor foundation for a marriage."
"But it is not love. I swore I would never marry but for love."
"You swore that when but a girl. We change our minds about many things as we get older. People for whom love can only be a dizzying passion are always falling out of it, you know. That sort of love is not a suitable foundation for a marriage-a foundation should not make one dizzy."
Even as she considered her sister's points, Marianne was aware that such objective dissection of emotion was entirely foreign to her long-cherished ideal of love as ardor beyond resistance; and yet at the same time she could not imagine not consulting her own heart and mind on so vital an issue as this. Did not the poets, even Cowper and Byron and Spenser, examine emotion? How else could they describe feelings so well that their words struck sympathetic chords in a reader's heart?
"You might ask him to wait," Elinor was saying. "You could decide over the course of a month or two. Considering him as a suitor is new to you."
"But all our conversations would be so terribly awkward. I think he would not subject himself-or me-to such a strain."
"A separation could be beneficial. You might suggest it."
Very softly, Marianne said, "An entire month-two-without his company?"
"When are you to give him your answer?"
Marianne's shoulders sagged. "Tomorrow after breakfast."
"Do not hesitate to tell him you need more time. He will understand."
Marianne nodded sadly, trying not to picture the anxiety that would surely darken his face upon hearing such a request. She said then, "I am only thinking aloud and keeping you from your bed when you need to rest. Elinor, please do not tell anyone, even Edward-not just yet."
Elinor gave her promise and Marianne withdrew to her own room. She did not immediately prepare for bed, however, but rather sat in the chilly window seat with her chin propped on her hand, looking out at the night. Did he sit wakeful as she did?
Elinor was right: she was no longer a girl. But more than that, she had suffered in love. It was natural that she should be less headlong in her feelings. And she had ceased to consciously heighten the intensity of whatever emotion visited itself upon her, as if coaxing an ember into a blaze-any emotion, that is, of a sensational nature, for in serenity, of course, she had formerly had no interest. She must also consider that there might exist different kinds of intensity-not only the crashing wave, but also the slow, relentless swell, each with its own staggering power.
She found, to her astonishment, that it was not in the slightest strange to think of him as her husband, to imagine the pattern of her days in a life with him. Already they spent more time together than many couples of her acquaintance, and certainly were more congenial. Sir John and Lady Middleton might dwell in the same house but they seemed hardly to speak to one another. Mr. Palmer, now that he had been elected to Parliament, spent every minute he could away from Cleveland and his sweet but silly wife. She and the colonel-if they should marry-would be more like her own dear mother and father, companionable in the evenings before the fire as they watched over their children, who might on occasion sense that wordless communication between their parents that Marianne had sometimes sensed between hers.
It went without saying that there would be little passion in a marriage with a man of mature years. Although she had realized by now that the colonel was in fact quite a safe distance from that dotage to which she had once sentenced him-with a nurse!-yet union with him must almost inevitably be more of the mind than of the body, and this she must accept. She could not expect raptures from him. But she was no longer as deeply in thrall to the idea of rapture as she once had been. Emotional abandon could wreak havoc within the hearts of oneself and others, the present situation providing apt example: were they two not in this dilemma because his feelings had escaped his control?
Suddenly she recalled a long-ago argument between herself and her sister on the very subject of their new acquaintance's vitality. The colonel had just departed the cottage, having conducted a long and polite conversation with Elinor in which they had read no poetry at all. Willoughby was expected, and Marianne was feeling very smug. Betsy chanced to enter the room, and Marianne, seeking support for her contention that the colonel was decidedly lacking in any trait that could be called lively, and still being of that age and willfulness when she had been prone to utter almost every indiscriminate thought that sprang into her head, asked the maid if her Thomas, who was about the colonel's age, was in his declining years still capable of any sort of passion. Elinor had nearly expired from shock; and poor Betsy had turned a violent crimson and succumbed to a fit of giggles. But she had finally, after looking about as if to make certain Thomas himself could not hear, nerved herself to respond with a look and tone both embarrassed and proud, "Oh, I should say, Miss!" And when Betsy had escaped this thoughtless interrogation, Elinor, after scolding her sister roundly for her rudeness, had informed her in a rather superior manner that Mamma had obviously been happy in all aspects of her marriage until dear Papa had died, and Papa had been twenty years or more Colonel Brandon's senior.
Perhaps she was after all doing him an injustice. Perhaps she could expect more from an evening with him than stimulating conversation. Who, in point of fact, would expect raptures from such a quiet soul as Edward, and yet under insistent questioning Elinor had admitted that that aspect of marriage was rather less perturbing, in actuality far more pleasing, than she had anticipated. But her husband was of course still quite young, and Elinor loved him. Love no doubt made all the difference in the matter. Could she love her suitor someday? His devotion was beyond question; he deserved nothing less from the woman he married. She was assuredly his devoted friend-but would that be enough? Could it be right to allow him to accept so little in return for love?
Unresolved, she fell into a restless sleep.
Brandon woke to the dawn in his eyes and a bustling somewhere near, and found that he had fallen asleep in the drawing room, where a maid was now cleaning the fire-grate. She gave a little gasp when she noticed him stirring in the chair, but begged his pardon and went about her work when he indicated that he had no need of her. He climbed upstairs to his room to wash and shave, surprised that he had been able to sleep at all. He had shot at targets with Sir John the previous afternoon and, to the open-mouthed amazement of his host, had missed almost everything he had aimed at. He had tried to read, but his every choice reminded him of Marianne, as something they had read together. Though the moon was only at its first quarter he had gone out for a walk near midnight; seeing a light in her window, he had found no reassurance in what that suggested about the difficulty of the choice she must make.
And why should she choose him? There were others such as he, not only landed gentlemen but also merchants and military men newly wealthy with prize money, who did not need an heiress for a wife. She would catch the eye of a man of discernment, who wanted a companion for his heart and mind more than he wanted an addition to his purse. She was young, with life before her-young, but no longer a girl. He would have lived without her rather than see her suffer as she had, but her suffering had matured her, just as his had matured him-though her maturity was not lacking in spirit. At eighteen he had been morose, but she was blithe; he was young with her, renewed. She was becoming what he had believed she could become, all those months before; she had no compelling reason to limit herself to him.
When he was presentable he made his way downstairs, but he had no appetite for breakfast and instead walked about the grounds. The gardens of the Park were more formal than those at Delaford, reflecting the character of its mistress rather than its master; the clean lines and angles of the shrubbery were in stark contrast to his inner turmoil. She would say yes, or she would say no-the matter was as simple as that. She would offer him joyous completion, or commit him to an emptiness all the more bleak because for a time he had thought something more within his grasp. Well, he knew how to be a solitary old bachelor-though relinquishing the hope he had cherished nearly a twelvemonth would be hard. But in time he might forget that he had ever hoped, and she might forget that he had strained the bonds of friendship farther than they could bear, and perhaps when she came to visit at the parsonage they could meet without intolerable embarrassment.
The hands of his watch indicated an acceptable hour. He set his steps toward the cottage and his fate.
(Part Two-Resolution)(section 2 of 2)
Seeing him on the road, Marianne went to meet him at the foot of the hill, to spare his having to make pleasant conversation with her family, who were just sitting down to table. His expression alternated between apprehension and resignation, and she wished she knew what to say to him.
"Miss Dashwood." He spoke very tentatively, unable to decipher the thoughts behind her wide-eyed, unsmiling expression.
She did not at once reply. A change came over her-a very subtle alteration in posture perhaps, in the tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders-he could not describe it. A succession of emotions crossed her face, none staying more than an instant, not long enough for him to name it. And then one expression remained-he would call it serenity, perhaps, a calm awareness of her own mind that could bode either well or ill for him. But there seemed to be affirmation in her look, encouragement. Her eyes seemed to glow in the morning sunlight. What was she feeling now?
The silence stretched between them. What she was feeling was certainty. At that moment she could not recall any feeling other than certainty. With his utterance of two formerly ordinary words, every scrap of her confusion had vanished before a sudden coalescing of her various trains of thought. She looked into his eyes. "I think," she said, with a smile that was half shy, half wise, "not for very much longer."
For a moment he could not move. He could not speak. He could only stare down into her face and wonder if he had heard correctly. But she stretched out her hands to him, with only a little hesitation, and he closed his fingers lightly around hers, and felt her answering clasp. "Are you certain, Marianne?"
The trembling of his voice touched her heart, and in that instant she felt the elder of the two. "I have never been more certain of anything."
Her declaration was a commitment to him, to their union, and upon the hearing of it a smile split his face, a smile of wonder and joy that swept all trace of melancholy from his countenance. She had never seen such a smile in her life. His hands tightened on hers and he drew closer. "I know you dislike trite phrases, my Marianne, but you have truly made me the happiest man on earth."
Far from recoiling from the sentiment, she was in fact surprised to feel an answering swell of emotion in her own breast, and the sting of tears in her eyes. It was no small privilege to be the cause of another's happiness, and while that was not sufficient reason in and of itself to marry him-for she did not believe in a total subjugation of one's own well-being to another's-yet there was deep and genuine pleasure in it, and she looked forward to many occasions of seeing that same glad expression. "And you have made me happy as well." He wondered at this, but she was sincere. All his tender care had helped to heal her, and without healing she could never have been happy again. It was to his steady, undemanding concern that she owed the restoration of her capacity to trust.
The colonel could have uttered a dozen, a hundred trite phrases and not begun to describe his elation. An erupting fountain, birds surging into flight, the sun bursting through clouds-all apt metaphors; all wholly inadequate. He wanted to crush her to his breast, but he must not overwhelm her. He had held her once-on that endless nightmare return to Cleveland through the storm, she half-frozen and insensible in his arms, his prayers for a passing farmer or tradesman with a cart unanswered, hardly aware of his own exhaustion until he could deposit her into the safety of Elinor's care-but when next he embraced her the sensation would exist in a vastly different universe of feeling. He brushed her cheek with his fingertips, but did not attempt to kiss her, fearing that this alteration of their relationship was yet too fragile to sustain so bold an action. There would be plenty of time for kisses. But what was this? Was she gazing at him with- Surely it was expectation that parted her lips, tugged them into the slightest of impatient smiles. Naturally she would have formed certain notions about the proper behavior of a lover on such an occasion, and if he wished to keep her he had better conduct himself accordingly, had he not? He lifted her hands to his lips.
He kissed one palm and then the other, and then each knuckle and fingertip, and as his breath caressed her skin she felt as if a breeze stirred within her. Her hands had never received such kisses, bestowed by him with great care and attention. Standing so near him that the folds of her dress billowed about his legs, she could hear his breathing, could see the pulse beat at his throat. Every movement of his hands and lips was deliberate, minute, yet she swayed with their effect. She had been going to turn him away-with utter bewilderment she reflected upon it-she had been resolved!-and yet here she stood, satisfied, content, to let him kiss her hands, and trace each crease and vein with his fingertip. She had never before noticed the shape of his own hands, the fine hairs scattered across the backs. His eyes closed as his lips once more pressed against her skin; when they opened to meet hers a slow flush rose into her face.
She must have looked somewhat discomposed, for he stepped back a little and drew a deep breath, and said with a curious resonance to his voice, "Pardon me if I overstep-"
"Not at all-" Her own voice was barely a whisper.
He allowed their hands to fall, but did not release hers. "Would you-like to walk, or sit down?"
"Yes. Either. The day is very fine." She cast her gaze heavenward in supplication. After all their conversations was she now reduced to inanities at this most critical juncture? But how could she be expected to speak when her mouth was parched and her heart was leaping about in her breast?
"Yes, it is. A perfect day." He offered her his arm and they set out along the path.
She was intensely conscious of the nearness of his body, of the pressure of his arm tucking hers against his ribs, his other hand resting warm and strong over hers. She had never been so close to him-for her memory of that day at Cleveland was very faint and muddled, a vague sensation of floating through the air, so cold and numb that she could not feel the cradle of his arms against her back and legs. She found herself looking at him and then quickly away, and knew that he was doing the same, for once or twice their eyes met. So enormous a change, so sudden a transformation, was difficult to grasp. She would soon be this man's wife-the banns would be posted and she would marry him-him and his flannel waistcoat! She laid her hand over his, and heard his slight exhale, and after a moment curled her fingers underneath his palm.
He stared for a moment at their entwined hands, and then his thumb began lightly to stroke her wrist. His gaze traveled over her hair, her face, as if over the most pleasing sight that had ever met his eyes, until she blushed under his steady contemplation. "I-hardly know what to say to you," he ventured, and she was amused and relieved that he should suffer the same affliction as she. "I confess-I expected you to refuse me. I was walking late and saw that you were yet awake. If I may ask, what decided you?"
She was not unaffected by the amazement in his voice; it reflected her own. "I did give the matter a great deal of thought. Even when I rose this morning I was unsure of my answer. But there on the path I looked at you-and knew I could not bear to lose you." She gave a little shrug. "And the decision was made."
He brushed a fingertip underneath each of her eyes. "You are certain it is not a lack of sleep that accounts for it?" She laughed and shook her head. "How long will it be, I wonder, before I am convinced I am not dreaming?"
"Perhaps I should pinch you occasionally." It felt perfectly natural, even familiar, to be flirtatious with him-and did she spy a tinge of pink on his cheekbones above his delighted smile?
They walked for a while, exchanging happy glances, talking but little while they accustomed themselves to their new condition as an engaged couple. After some interval of time that neither could have named, he said, "Perhaps we should return to the cottage. They will think I have abducted you."
"Mamma will hope we are halfway to Gretna Green!" She added in a tone of mock accusation, "I realize now why we were invited to the parsonage so often."
"I plead innocence-though of course I was all in favor, else I would have had to take up permanent residence at the Park, and then you could hardly have remained unaware. Do you wish me- Shall I-speak to your mother this morning, or would you prefer that I wait?"
She realized that he was yet, even now, offering her more time, refusing to risk either her heart or her reputation on an engagement into which she might have entered with too little forethought. "This morning, by all means." She spoke with all the fullness of her promise to him, her wholehearted resolution, and his joyful expression showed that he had understood her. "I think you do not need to wonder what her answer will be."
"No. In effect I already have it. When I brought her to Cleveland, on the long carriage ride we had nothing to do but talk or be silent. She talked of you, and I tried to be silent, but her anxiety echoed my own and-I cannot remember exact words-so great was my despondence I think I was not very coherent-but I did, without any prior intent, confess that to me her daughter was" (with a tender look that yet spoke of too-recent fear) "the dearest creature in the world. She very kindly, then and subsequently, encouraged me despite all my own doubts, and determined to promote our marriage any way she could."
"Oh, clever Mamma!" Marianne exclaimed. "I could do nothing but succumb!" But at the flicker of apprehension across his face she clasped his arm very tightly and favored him with her most radiant smile to show him she only jested.
"But I shall not rest secure," he staunchly declared, his confidence now restored, "until I have made an official application. I have never asked for a lady's hand, and I shall have you properly!"
They came into the sitting room as the family were finishing the last scone and egg, and though neither had breakfasted the tumult of their separate emotions was such that eating did not much tempt them. The others looked up and offered their usual greetings, and were about to return their attention to their plates when first Elinor and then the rest became conscious that Marianne was on the colonel's arm. As he seated her next to her sister he allowed his fingers to very lightly brush her arms; her intake of breath was soft but he heard it, and upon his sitting down, their eyes met repeatedly across the table. These looks, if not the amorous gesture that had preceded them, were noticed by all but Margaret, as were Marianne's silence and pink cheeks and the colonel's uncommon distraction. At that moment he wished for some of Marianne's former impudence, for the boldness to address her mother before them all, for he thought he could be assured that upon this of all occasions they would forgive him a lapse in manners. But though he would not so lightly disconcert his beloved or himself, he did rather frequently cast his eye over Mrs. Dashwood's plate to monitor her progress with her toast. When that good woman took note-which she did really within a few minutes of their sitting down, though it seemed an eternity to them-she pushed back from the table, saying in a firm voice that she was sated and would now work on the household accounts in the parlor.
Brandon sprang around the table to catch her chair before Edward, who sat just next to her, could even think of doing so. "May I speak with you, ma'am?"
Receiving her knowing assent, he accompanied her, and a tingling silence fell over the room. Marianne stared fixedly at her plate, upon which she had not yet placed a single bit of food. Elinor clasped her hand, a silent query, and was overjoyed to see the brimming excitement in her sister's face when she raised her head. Edward found it difficult to chew with his lips stretched into such a broad smile, and Margaret, having at last deduced from everyone's giddy behavior what great events were transpiring, felt herself very grown-up for keeping silent in such an atmosphere. But she was not long required to maintain her stoical pose, for the petitioner and his hearer emerged from the parlor in much less than a minute. Mrs. Dashwood announced, to the astonishment of no one present, that Colonel Brandon had asked permission to marry Marianne and she had given it, and then while everybody was embracing everybody else she was able to finish her breakfast.
"Tell me exactly what you said to Mamma!"
Eyes laughing, the colonel hopped up from the bench by the estuary and struck a pose facing his betrothed. "I stood before her thus, with my hands behind my back like a suppliant child. 'Madam,' I said to her, 'I know I do not need to profess to you my limitless affection for your daughter. I can tell you now, most humbly and joyfully, that I have addressed her and she has accepted me. May we have your permission and your blessing?'-and I could hardly get out the words before she was clasping my hands and pouring out her own happiness!" He sat down again very close to her, and rejoiced to find her hand at once in his. "When shall we announce at the Park?"
"I should really like a day to savor it before the news is all about the neighborhood. We are invited for supper tomorrow, before Elinor and Edward depart. May we wait until then?"
"Of course. But I'll wager my demeanor will give it away tonight."
"Then you will simply have to wait here until they are all in bed!"
They talked effortlessly now, their accustomed mutual ease having been restored by food and drink and congratulations, and the fact of their engagement now being several hours old.
"You will not return to Delaford just yet?" she asked.
"I am determined to remain at your side every moment until the wedding, and ever after. Shall we go on a wedding trip?"
"Oh, may we?"
"Of course! Where shall we go?"
"I should like to walk the paths of the Lake District with you."
"Then the Lake District it shall be." He would steal kisses from her in the solitude of wooded ravines. "And then may we visit Avignon?-if the region remains as tranquil as at present, that is. I should like Katherine and her family to meet you without delay." She nodded eagerly. "Such pleasure I will take in introducing you as my wife! And then we shall come home to Delaford. You must make any changes there that you like."
"I cannot imagine what I should want to change-I love the place as it is! I am a little nervous, however, about managing the household. I confess I paid but little attention when Mamma and Elinor tried to instruct me at Norland. I do not want to disappoint you-"
"You could never disappoint me. But my housekeeper is very competent-you may do as much or as little as you like."
"In that case-I believe I would rather direct my energies toward the tenants and the village."
His eyebrows rose. "Those good works we spoke of?"
"Yes-and I never dreaming that you would provide me opportunity!"
He talked for a while of his plans for the estate, of adding this and restoring that at the manor and of improving the strains of his crops and cattle, and Marianne, who by now knew the house and grounds quite well, applauded his every scheme. "I have been slow to proceed," he said. "There seemed so little point. Oh Marianne, I really did not think it possible for a single heart to contain so much joy! -Forgive me, I embarrass you-" For she had looked a little startled, and he reminded himself that he must exercise restraint; he must not inundate her with avowals of love.
"You know I believe in complete candor. We must pledge never to be less than straightforward with each other."
"I swear it, my Marianne."
A recent conversation played itself over in her mind. "You have already honored that vow, even before you made it."
He looked at her very intently, and after a minute or two he said, "I would not ask this but that you have raised the subject-your desire for frankness- May I understand that you bear me no resentment on Mr. Willoughby's account?" He wanted, needed, to know whether she truly comprehended his actions, or was simply prepared to forgive them.
She looked first quite taken aback, and then introspective. "To be truthful, Colonel, I had hardly begun to reflect upon that matter when another-" (blushing) "-much more pressing-required my full concentration." She frowned. "It is all so long ago now." After some minutes' consideration, during which he was very much heartened that she did not let go his hand, she began to speak, with careful attention to her words. "It was not easy for me to learn your intentions toward Willoughby, but I should have understood them from the first."
"Perhaps you could not conceive that a gentleman of your acquaintance would seek such ugly conflict with serious purpose."
"Perhaps. But you are that poor girl's protector. He did leave you no choice. Colonel, you must believe that if I bore you the slightest resentment I could never have accepted your proposal. I do not say that in your place I would have taken the same action-if it is not too ridiculous to try to imagine what I might have done-but women do not think in such terms, and I do admire your courage in doing what you believed was your duty, no matter the cost." Willoughby, in contrast, had fled his obligations to Miss Williams and to herself. "And I understand now" (shyly) "that you chose the course you would have found most difficult to live with." It did not surprise her that he and Edward had become fast friends. They were men of similar principle, both willing to place honor before personal feeling-for Edward had been prepared to sacrifice his own and his beloved's happiness to his promise to Lucy. "Just as you cannot know whether your aim would have been true, I cannot know whether I could have become friendly with you had you-had the outcome of that meeting been otherwise. I suspect I could not, certainly not at once-but I would soon have learned the truth about his engagement and his treatment of Miss Williams. His character would still have been before me. Could I have forgiven you then? I cannot know-but I think his ghost might always have been between us. I am so glad his behavior made the question moot. Perhaps that was the hand of Providence as well. God was good to spare all three of us."
During her long monologue his attention had not wavered for an instant. "Certainly from this day forward, I shall feel blessed. Thank you for-your candor." A new faith that the issue, left unexamined, would not fester silently and destroy their union from within, swelled within him. Willoughby's punishment would increase a thousandfold were he to learn that his enemy had gained Marianne's hand by talking of him. Brandon could not feel much sympathy at the thought. He reached up and followed the curves of one ringlet with a delicate finger, let the strands curl around his knuckle as it brushed against her cheek. "Perhaps you will be so kind as to favor me with a lock of your hair."
Her chin lifted slightly; her shoulders drew back. "I would rather- Please do not misunderstand- Do not take this amiss, Colonel, but I would rather give you something else-"
He dropped his hand, and the other loosened its clasp. He had never thought she would shrink from physical intimacies, had never suspected that her regard might be of such relative coolness that she would deny him the usual testament of a lady's attachment. "Of course-as you prefer." He was also angry that he had forgotten to proceed cautiously; her warm sentiment during the day had made him forget.
She sensed his shock and dismay, and knew that she had erred once again. In this new area she was uncertain how to behave. How strange it was to know him so well and yet not know him at all! "Please- I do not mean to suggest-" Words failed her, and in a kind of desperation she reached for his hand and restored it to its place against her curls-a gesture of such artless intimacy that a small sigh escaped his throat. His frown of confusion told her that she must try to explain. "I would rather first give you-something I had never given-anyone to whom I was not engaged."
A wash of relief and comprehension lent him a brimming humor. "And have you been engaged many times?"
"No! That is not- I did not mean to imply-" And then she noticed the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the amused pursing of his lips. "Will you tease me throughout our marriage, then?"
"That is certainly my plan, Miss Dashwood-but rest assured it will always be with affection. And what is this unique gift that you are anxious to bestow?"
Crimson flooded her cheeks. "Not anxious-but I thought- It does seem-" Not in all the years of her life had she been reduced to stammering as often as during this one day. Shy but valiant, she pressed on. "Well-we are engaged-dearest Christopher-" She had not consciously intended to address him so familiarly, but she at once decided that she liked the sound of it on her lips and tongue.
His heart began to pound. Her use of his name-conjoined with an endearment!-her offering-she stunned him with her generosity. He determined to give her no cause to regret it. "So we are."
His words were the merest exhalation of breath, but they aroused in her breast a strange commotion, as did the trembling of his fingers when he brushed them against her lips. And then his lips, warm and soft, pressed against her forehead, her eyebrows, her cheekbones, her nose, her chin. Carefully, but with less hesitation as he progressed, he bestowed upon every part of her face his slow, sweet kisses, stopping after each to gaze intently into her eyes to make certain he did not frighten her. It was true that her head seemed to have floated away from her body, and that it was filled with the roaring of the sea, but these phenomena were causing her no significant alarm. His fingertips traced patterns on her face; she clung to his other hand with both her own. And then, at last, he slid his hand around her neck and pulled her quite irresistibly toward him and melded his lips to hers-and the foolish girl who had once believed that a man of such advanced years as seven-and-thirty was incapable of passion, that such a man could stir no answering sensation in her, was well and truly disabused of her misconceptions.
At last he drew away, and she was pleased to see that he looked as flustered and exhilarated as she felt. Gazing down into her eyes, he said, only partly in jest, "You do realize that every day we are together I will ask if you are certain."
She freed a hand and caressed his cheek, marveling at the slight roughness of the new growth of his beard. "I had better be certain now, had I not?" Willoughby's lips had never touched hers-for until the end his conduct toward her had always been gentlemanly-and now she was glad. Oh, how she was glad! She lifted a few strands of hair away from her dear friend's eyes. "And every day I will profess that I am, until your heart is free from doubt."
And one day, she felt quite certain of it, she would profess her love.
© 2000 Copyright held by author