Epithalamion, or, A Lyric Ode in Honor of a Bride and Bridegroom
Note: Special thanks to the folks on the Life and Times board, especially Caroline, for providing an invaluable resource. Renewed homage as well to Dorothy L. Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon for the title of, and inspiration for, this piece. Feedback always welcome!
Before Marianne Brandon opened her eyes she was conscious of soft morning light and the happy warbling of thrushes and skylarks all trying to outsing each other--and of the steady breathing of her husband in the bed beside her, of his warmth against her back. She lay for a time without moving, smiling with the memory of the night just past, considering her own thoughts and emotions in an effort to determine whether she sensed any fundamental alteration in her nature. She had left girlhood behind forever--and yet in truth girlhood had deserted her long before, so that this step, this further initiation into womanhood, had not seemed as abrupt as she had once imagined it would be. It had been, however, rather awkward and embarrassing and untidy, and quite astonishingly painful. She no longer wondered why some brides were horrified by the events of their wedding nights and dreaded the nights thereafter--those who had married with little affection or regard, who perhaps had gone to their marriage beds in ignorance, whose husbands had little inclination to take care. She could not imagine enduring such discomfort from a man for whom she felt no esteem or trust. Now even more than before she knew her own husband to be tender and considerate, knew she could have faith in his assurances, given amidst loving apologies for his clumsiness--for he had been at least as nervous as she!--that soon the painful aspect would pass and this new excitement and wonder would be unalloyed.
At last she looked upon the walls and furnishings that had heretofore gone unnoticed. She stretched, and turned--to see Christopher sitting back against the pillows in his dressing gown, gazing down upon her with a joyful but tentative smile.
"Good morning--Mrs. Brandon."
Her answering smile was shy, but only briefly; in an instant it became open and warm, for how could she be shy after such a night? "Good morning, sir." For a moment she merely contemplated him, this man with whom she had begun a new and fascinating journey. Her husband--protector, friend, lover. And then she reached for his hand, and the force with which he gripped hers, his relieved exhale of breath, told her that he had been somewhat uncertain how she would greet him. She pressed her lips against his palm to show him he need not have doubted. "Have you been sitting there very long?"
"Only a few moments. I fear I woke you--I should have sat in the chair."
"So far away? And I cannot imagine anything more dull than watching someone sleep."
"When the someone is one's bride, and when one has never before had the opportunity to watch her sleep, the sight is infinitely enchanting." He spoke very softly, as if reluctant to disturb the peace that suffused the room.
"Your bride," she said. "And you are my husband."
And then she could think of nothing else to say. What did one say when one had been--intimate--with a gentleman? She had said many things to him in the night, as he had to her, and she had fallen asleep in the sheltering circle of his arms with no thought that the light of day might bring a new embarrassment. She was very conscious of, of all things, his bare ankles between the hem of his dressing gown and his slippers.
"You're staring at me. Is my hair standing on end?"
"Am I? Forgive me-- No, your hair is but a little mussed. It is only that--I have never waked to find a gentleman in my bed!"
He smiled, eyes bright with recollection, and gently brushed her cheekbone with the backs of his fingers. Only after a few moments did it occur to him that beneath her humor might lie a more serious implication. "Perhaps--I should have slept elsewhere--" He must not expect too much intimacy of her too quickly.
"No--I did not mean to imply that it was an unpleasant surprise!"
"Then--you do not mind--you do not expect that I--" He glanced toward his dressing room and the bedroom beyond it.
"Not at all! Of course I expect to share a bed with you!"
As a result of this declaration they both became thoroughly red in the face. Brandon could think of only one response to it--to kiss his bride, which he did at length, to her delight and satisfaction. "But I would ask," she said, after some little while, "to be left alone for a few minutes just now--"
"Yes, forgive me--I should have realized--" He made himself disengage from her embrace. "But I assure you they will seem endless minutes--" The latch clicked softly behind him.
Marianne's belongings had been sent the day before and had been neatly arranged by the maids in her dressing room, and after she had tended to necessities and brushed her hair and splashed some water on her face, she donned her own dressing gown and began to explore what was now her bedchamber. An unpretentious bachelor's room, it was rather sparsely furnished in well-crafted walnut and mahogany, with in addition to the bed a table and two chairs, two bedside tables, and a bookcase so amply filled that not even a pamphlet could have been squeezed into the shelves. She peeked into her husband's dressing room, reminded by the sight of razor and shaving brush, boots and breeches and shirts, and the spicy scent of Imperial water of her father's--though his had never been so tidy unless the maid had just that moment been in. In the chamber again she opened the draperies, made of a fine, dark-blue brocade, and by the morning light thus admitted she could see that the wainscot had been freshly polished. Several prints of country scenes adorned the papered walls, but her eye was drawn most to a large painting nearest her side of the bed, either new or recently cleaned, of a scene which she thought must be from the Lakes--of rugged, mist-enshrouded fells jutting up from mirror-still water, and a sky dark and heavy with approaching storm.
She was just beginning to wonder what was keeping her colonel--had he tired of her already and gone for a walk? would he turn to estate business in every spare moment? but surely neither in his dressing gown!--when he returned with a large tray filled with china and utensils and steaming plates under silver covers.
She held the door wide for him. "Did you not give the servants the day off?"
"I did. But I can find my way to my own kitchen--and it is my kitchen, despite Mrs. Howell's assertions to the contrary--and even produce a meal from it when I like. A simple meal, at any rate. I offer you eggs, kippers, toast, ham, and strawberries." He set the tray on the table and removed the covers, then reached for her hand to lead her to a chair. "Do you like the painting? We'll replace it if you do not."
"I love the painting. Is it of the Lakes?"
"Yes, of Buttermere, in fact. When I saw it in a gallery in town last week I succumbed to a romantic hope that the view from our cottage will be very like that."
"You bought a painting for me?"
"For us, rather--of the place where we shall spend our first weeks as man and wife--"
She kissed the hand that held hers, and he drew her into his arms, and such was the fervor of her response that he gave her a long, questioning look and then a slow smile, and very deliberately replaced the covers over the breakfast plates.
"I like Sergeant Masters very much--I do remember that. Such wit he displayed! I'm so glad you asked him to be your groomsman."
"He was a friend to me when I needed one more than once in years past. He has invited us to make free of his lodgings in St. Ives--though I'm not at all certain I should risk your going near him again. He was really quite taken with my choice of bride."
"He will simply have to find his own bride," Marianne retorted, "for I am firmly settled where I am. Mrs. Jennings and Sir John were truly incorrigible, did you not think?--but I have forgiven them. And did you see Fanny make John pick up the coins? She is worse than the most grasping usurer. I am so very sorry to inflict upon you such a horrible brother and sister!"
It was now about noon, the morning having passed very pleasantly, and they were walking about the grounds in the enjoyment of being quite alone, with no one observing them--even as casually as her family had observed them--to ensure that they should obey the proprieties. They had revisited their wedding and celebratory breakfast in every detail they could recall, all the while amazed that in many particulars their memories were not entirely clear. Some outrageous behaviors and comments, however, had taken firm root in both their minds.
"But you have also brought me two charming sisters and the most affectionate mother-in-law a man could wish for, and in any event your brother and his wife have never been less than polite to me."
Though she had beamed at his praise of her immediate family, now her face wore an indignant frown. "Never less than fawning over you, you mean. But perhaps you secretly like to be fawned over--"
"Only by you--"
This he said in a husky voice, and there followed one of those frequent pauses which Marianne hoped was not witnessed by any servants who might remain on the grounds.
"Perhaps your wealth will protect you from their coarseness. Their manners will be impeccable to you."
"Then you will be protected as well."
"Yes, I am no longer a poor relation, am I? They have long since forgotten that their sisters might have had dowries but for them." She tightened her hand on his arm. "But I shall never complain about their stinginess again, for it has brought me you."
Here he stopped again, and pressed her hands to his lips. "My Marianne--I hope you know how you warm my heart when you say such things."
"I hope you know how sincerely I mean them--"
Some little while later, after they had travelled every corner of the garden and the yew arbor without really seeing any part of them, he asked if she would like to ride over the park. She assented readily, for they had ridden together only a few times and never alone. She had not visited Delaford since knowing it was to be her home, and found herself looking about with new eyes, noticing details of landscape and vegetation she had not noticed before. The horses had been pastured for the day and she expected the colonel to lure two to the fence with a handful of feed so he could halter them, but instead he led her into the stables, where the sound of their voices brought to their stall doors Odysseus, his usual mount, and an alert chestnut she did not recognize.
She went to make the animal's acquaintance. "And who is this? I'm sure I have not seen her before."
At his tone of studied nonchalance she looked at him once and then again, and realized what he had done. "For me?"
He smiled broadly at her expression, delighted by his success. "You have her on trial from a breeder in Stinton. Perhaps I should not have bought her when we are about to go away, but I was impressed with her responsiveness and stride and didn't want to risk losing the chance at her. An afternoon's ride should tell you if she suits. Her name at present is Daisy, though I expect you'll wish to change it to something more imaginative if you keep her."
Marianne flung her arms around him and kissed him soundly. "I have married the most generous man in the world!"
She hurried into the house to change into the sapphire blue riding habit that had been a gift from Mrs. Jennings, while the colonel saddled and bridled the horses, who twitched their ears at the cheerful melody he was humming under his breath. When Marianne returned he suggested that they exit by the rear stable door, in so casual a tone that she knew there was something else he wanted her to see.
In one of the carriage alcoves sat a fine travelling chaise, shiny and black with all its fittings burnished to a high gloss. She handed him Daisy's reins and went over to admire it, opening the door and examining the plush seats and rich curtains. "And have you hired it for our whole journey?" What a pleasant indulgence it would be not to have to change carriages as well as horses at each post inn!
He looked mildly indignant. "I have bought it, dear lady."
"Bought it! Such extravagance--for me?"
He replied with some diffidence, but with a twinkle in his eye. "I should like to ride in it as well." She laughed, and he continued. "Travel by post is all well and good for a bachelor, but my wife will travel in style."
"Your 'wife,'" she said with a sigh. "I shall never tire of hearing those two words!"
He had said many prayers that she would not, that he had not rushed her into this irrevocable step--though when he had confessed his anxiety during his last visit to Barton she had assured him he was not doing so and had reminded him that the suggestion to marry without delay had in fact been hers--for she was less cautious than he, less scarred by experience, even now. If she had felt her own small doubts she had never let him sense them; if the old adage "Married in haste, we may repent at leisure" had ever troubled her as it did himself on her behalf, she had never let him know.
He had said many prayers of thanksgiving as well, for the new happiness he could not yet wholly trust, for the steady restoration of life and liveliness to his spirit that had begun the moment she first looked at him with friendship at Cleveland and had surged and swelled upon her acceptance of his proposal. He flattered himself that she, too, looked happy as they rode through meadows golden with buttercups and coppices lush with bluebells, through fragrant orchards of crab apple and apple and pear, she very pleased indeed with the mare and beginning to try out new names for her, and surveying their surroundings with a new and more personal interest. Sometimes when she turned to respond to his question or comment he thought he saw a trace of surprise in her smile, but always the surprise turned to warm delight and he chose to believe that she was only a little startled, as was he whenever he considered it, by these reminders of the very fact of her married state, rather than attribute the expression to any feeling of regret for having forever attached herself to him--for that was a possibility he had neither heart nor strength to contemplate.
She had not seemed the least regretful the night before, he told himself, even at a moment when some brides, he imagined, would be nearly faint with anxious mortification. She had been brave and determined, even when he himself had nearly faltered, so wretched and brutish had he felt for causing her pain. Having brought her to the bedchamber and closed the door on the outside world, he had been very mindful of his sister's unsought but sound advice--though he had hardly needed that additional inducement to make him tremble with nerves. Marianne had seemed to welcome his every touch, but so fearful had he been, nevertheless, of disgusting her, of destroying her affection before it might grow into love, that he had at last tried to spare himself further agonizing insecurity by posing a tentative question.
"Marianne, may I assume that you understand-- Did your mother and sister explain to you--" But he could not continue, for she was staring at him in utter incomprehension. His heart sank to his toes. Dear God, would it actually be necessary for him to describe for her the--the intricacies--dear God--
But she had saved him, understanding flooding into her face so suddenly that he realized it had never occurred to her that he might wonder. "Yes, oh yes. I was not at first certain what you referred to-- Yes, they did."
For a moment he had felt quite in danger of collapsing with relief. "I cannot picture myself--explanations--the details--" He very much wished that he could recover the ability to speak in complete sentences.
And then, to his continuing astonishment, she had opened her eyes very wide and said, "Christopher--do you not know what to do? Must I explain?"
He gaped at her, speechless, and then saw that she was trying to repress a grin--and he burst into laughter all the more exuberant for its being so necessary to restore his confidence. She began to giggle as well, and he opened his arms and she came into his embrace and they clung to each other in shared mirth, but laughter very quickly succumbed to other emotion and he found it necessary to beg her pardon for forgetting himself. "I so want the experience to be pleasurable for you--one must be careful--"
She clasped both his hands and said, in a voice that would have been firm but that it quavered so, "I assure you, my husband, I am a fount of information. Please proceed."
And, amazed and delighted by her forwardness, he did.
(ch. 1 con'd)
The afternoon passed in alternating conversation and silence, in further reminiscence and planning for the future, in consultation over which books and magazines they should take with them on their wedding trip--in short, in unceasing diversions the pleasures of which were obvious primarily to their two participants. Brandon had further cause for relief at dinner, which they took at the parsonage with almost the whole of Marianne's family, Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret having come to help Elinor ready the nursery for its expected occupant. Upon their arrival the bride's mother, elder sister, and brother all looked her over unobtrusively and seemed to judge her whole and sane and her husband therefore satisfactory, and that gentleman chose to take as a compliment the blush on Marianne's cheeks as she exchanged a significant glance with Elinor. Only young Margaret was surprised that they did not stay long after evening service and tea, and only she gave any credence to their excuse of having to make preparations for their journey.
They departed the next morning after an early breakfast at the parsonage accompanied by embraces and well-wishing. During the first few days of their journey, the clear skies, dry roads, and the expertise of their coachman with regard to the route allowed so brisk a pace, despite several diversions, that they were at risk of arriving at Buttermere, where they had taken their cottage for a month, a day or perhaps even two before they were to obtain the key from the agent. But such a pace sustained over so long a journey was, they well knew, unlikely.
They stopped first at Glastonbury, where they disagreed vehemently with Mr. Gilpin's assertion that the ruins of the Abbey were not quite worthy of being called picturesque, and laughed over an old-fashioned party actually using a Claude glass, turning away from the genuine beauties before them to gaze at their reflection in a framed, blue-tinted mirror. They reached Wells that evening, and, the next day's being Sunday, first attended services in the great cathedral and exclaimed over the many exquisite statues along its west front (which Mr. Gilpin had thought "too much ornament"), then explored the limestone caverns at Wookey Hole, eerie by lamplight with their dark and secretive underground river and lake, and walked the floor of Cheddar Gorge and picnicked at the very rim. Setting out early the following morning, they did not pause at Bath, but promised themselves a return during the winter for concerts and theatre, Brandon feeling that with Marianne at his side he could disregard even the painful memory of his frantic but vain search for news of Eliza after her disappearance from those elegant environs. At the cathedral at Gloucester, after a scenic passage through the Vale between the gentle Cotswold Hills and the primeval Forest of Dean, they sighed over the tomb of the murdered Edward II and took some rubbings with linen and wax from several of the smaller brasses. Their interests, their opinions, their reactions, were almost exactly similar; in admiration or disdain, in curiosity or indifference, every day saw the deepening of their perfect accord.
While on the road the hours and the miles were taken up with posing riddles and singing favorite songs, and most often with reading to each other from the books and tracts in the box on the opposite seat--their current subjects being the latest of Mr. Wilberforce's polemics, the Dorset poems of William Barnes, and Sir Thomas More's thought-provoking Utopia. Occasionally--for even among the newly married conversation might lag for five minutes at a time--they silently perused recent issues of Gentleman's Magazine and The Lady's Monthly Museum that they had not had time even to glance at while preparing for their wedding, but always an item would strike one or the other as worthy of sharing and thus an entirely new subject would occupy the succeeding half-hour. Marianne looked over the music she had brought--for the colonel had made certain to secure a house that offered her a pianoforte--and wished she had included more Beethoven, while Brandon read through accumulated correspondence. The bride discovered the protective feeling that can be inspired by watching a husband sleep, as well as the amusement of his chagrin, when the jolting of the carriage woke him, at having been caught in less than constant attention to her. She, too, was known to doze, and woke more than once to his kisses.
"Christopher! The curtains are open--we shall scandalize the countryside from here to Buttermere!"
The greatest portion of her alarm was feigned, and his smile showed that he knew it, but saying, "Allow me to safeguard your reputation, madam," he reacted decisively and drew the panels closed, thus exciting her admiration of his competence.
"Where else should we travel," he asked, pulling her against him to cradle her from some of the bumps of the road, "now that we have got a fine new chaise?"
"Oh, everywhere! To Scotland and Wales and the fen country and the Cotswolds and the Peaks--we must explore everywhere that is picturesque--and we simply must go to visit John and Fanny in style. And perhaps even to Ireland, which everybody says is very beautiful. And the Greek Isles and the Alps and the Black Forest--everywhere! How I wish I had Elinor's talent for sketching. Her pictures from our family's stay in Canterbury bring back such wonderful memories."
"Would you ever like to go to India? I have quite a few friends still posted there."
"India! It is so far. But with you as my guide--perhaps someday--" He had described for her many of the thrilling sights and strange customs he had witnessed in that hot and dangerous land--like the magnificent Taj Mahal, that glorious monument to love (on which Elinor's only comment had been, "Why did the shah not build something his wife could enjoy while she was alive?"), and the awful practice of suttee, a widow's burning herself on her husband's funeral pyre, which extreme behavior even Marianne could not condone. He of all her acquaintance had truly had adventures. How could she ever have thought him dull! "Shall you dress in a turban and teach me to ride an elephant?"
He laughed. "If you like." A comprehending look came into his eyes. "By your proud expression I deduce that you are taking Sarah's instructions to heart."
"I promised her to be the best wife I can possibly be, and she did tell me to make you laugh often. She has known you all your life--she must be my guide."
"Only be yourself, and you will be the best possible wife for me."
"Have I told you that I have taken a vow to steal kisses from you in wooded ravines--like this--and this--"
"Mmm-- Have you? I think you will not find it necessary to steal them-- We must query the agent closely on which walks present the best opportunity--for I don't suppose the guidebooks include such information--"
"A criminal lapse--"
On the fourth day they stopped in the late morning in the market town of Tewkesbury for the coachman to see to a squeaking wheel. Strolling along the bustling street arm in arm, admiring the many half-timbered medieval buildings and making a few small purchases--lace and riband for Marianne and a watch fob for the colonel--they felt very satisfied with themselves and their new situation. While they partook of muffins and tea at the ancient Black Bear, Brandon told Marianne of some of Delaford's tenants with whom she would soon become acquainted, and she shared with him the plans she and Edward and Elinor had already formulated for the expansion of the parish school.
She was learning that one says to a gentleman with whom one has become intimate just what one has always said, with the pleasant addition of more earnest flirtation and an awareness and expectation of what private moments might bring. After some little self-consciousness each morning--which her husband seemed to share--she was soon feeling as comfortable with him as she had ever felt, with the exception of, in response to his touch or even his glance, slight lurches of her stomach or flutterings and warmth in her secret places--reminders that their association was not what it had been, that it never would be again. Her body was learning to accommodate him just as her heart had done, and each night she made room for him in their bed with greater familiarity and eagerness, in the anticipation not only of pleasant physical sensation but also, and with surprise, the sense of a growing spiritual bond.
Upon gaining their room that evening at the Peacock in Halmiston, after a day on which the carriage curtains had been most often closed, they modestly resisted the temptation to test at once the utility and comfort of the bed, though they did require rather longer to dress for dinner than was strictly necessary. The colonel could not but be relieved--a frequent state of mind in recent days, he reflected wryly--that his bride had forgiven him the initial discomfort of her marital duties and in fact seemed as ready as he to share the pleasures of the body as well as the mind. He had never lain with someone less knowledgeable than himself in such matters, and he found it both exciting and humbling that Marianne had so completely trusted him with the innocence of her body even after experience had shattered the innocence of her heart.
During the plain but hearty meal he was in such a state of distraction, captive of a potent combination of desire and astonishment, that he was certain she must sense it as if his mind had touched hers across the table. But her own self-possession and cheerful conversation were unaffected, and he realized that in fact she was unaware of his thoughts--and that she would quite likely not understand them if she were. Though she knew what it was to lose her heart's desire she did not know what it was to attain it. She could not understand his elation in drifting into slumber each night beside the very companion for whom he had yearned so long and waking each morning enveloped in her warmth--in sensing the first hesitant conjoining of her soul with his own. He had rather expected that he would soon become accustomed to this change in his circumstances, but he had vastly underestimated the capacity for emotion of his own rejuvenated heart, for, on the contrary, as the moments and hours of their new life accumulated the alteration seemed to him even more wondrous and profound. At times he almost could not conceal from her the full intensity of his love, but he must, for she must never feel constrained to show him more affection than she could honestly feel. To love her too much might well be to lose her.
After dinner they walked through the homely village in the gathering dusk, and came upon a small assembly room from whose open windows and doors spilled light and music and a fever pitch of laughter that could be explained only by the liberal flow of strong liquid refreshment. A gentleman in evening clothes was just hopping up the steps past a gaggle of children spying through the door; he paused on the landing when he caught sight of them.
"What's kept you? You've missed all the fun! Charlie and Bess drove away hours ago. No trouble on the road, I hope?" And then, peering at them with vision perhaps not entirely clear as they stepped into a square of light, "Oh, I do beg your pardon--I thought you must be the Petersons--you do resemble them in these shadows. Who are you, then?"
Marianne was rather put off by the blunt manner that originated, perhaps, in both country habit and drink, but the colonel smoothly introduced himself and his wife and explained that they were stopping at the inn. The man offered his hand.
"My name's Norwood--you passed my lands on the south road as you came in. My eldest, Charles, has finally made up his mind to take a wife--he's five-and-twenty, you know, well past time--and we've all waited so long that there was nothing for it but to invite the whole village to the breakfast, which we started about ten o'clock this morning."
Marianne exchanged a look of amazement with her husband, whose own eyes were already alight with humor at the notion that a man more than ten years his junior might be considered dilatory in his pursuit of matrimony. "This is yet the breakfast, sir?" she asked, suspecting that Sir John Middleton, were he present, would have met his match.
Their companion shouted with laughter. "I told Charlie that if I've spent all his inheritance it's his own bloody fault! Do come in and have some cake and ale. No, I insist--do come in--it's the least I can offer after accosting you this way, and besides, all of Halmiston is invited and here you are in Halmiston--"
Brandon queried with a look and Marianne assented with a lively smile, and they were soon assaulted by noise and bustle and a flurry of introductions to no fewer than fifty people whose names they immediately forgot. If all of Halmiston was not present a cross-section certainly was, and the wives and daughters of finely dressed merchants and gentleman-farmers danced readily with blacksmiths and laborers while their husbands and sons danced with dairy maids and dressmakers. Squire Norwood's lady wife was a jolly woman who made love with every man in the room whether young or old, and immediately claimed Brandon as a partner, while Marianne found herself swept onto the well-scuffed floor by a sweating plowman and an elegant schoolmaster who for this one evening had declared themselves bosom friends. Within five minutes it was somehow discovered that the late arrivals were also newly wed, and they instantly became secondary guests of honor, plied with as much food and drink as they could safely consume after a plentiful meal.
"We shall remember this 'breakfast,' I think," the colonel called out to his wife as he crossed behind her, and she could only laugh in reply as she was spun away. By the fourth or fifth set, however, she had secured him as a partner, and, all etiquette obviously having been forsaken for the evening, refused to give him up for the remainder of the two hours they stayed. It was their own nuptials, and the delirious joy of the night, all over again, and the moon had set before they slept.
Had they been fond of gambling, they could have doubled their fortune by wagering on the capriciousness of the weather, the roads, and any other variable that could conceivably go against them.
The first of their misfortunes struck not long after they had left Halmiston in the midst of boisterous May-Day preparations. The slowing and stopping of the carriage awoke both from a doze, and Brandon stepped out to see the coachman and postilion clucking over the near front hoof of the postilion's mount. "What's the matter?"
"He's thrown a shoe, sir," said George to his master with a sigh. "Prob'ly that stony patch a ways back."
"Can he continue safely?"
The postilion touched his cap. "Aye, sir, if we take it slow. The hoof's not cracked, just a bit tender, I'm thinking. There's a smith in Laurelton up ahead."
"Very well. There's no need for haste--do what is necessary to spare the horse."
"Aye, sir, and thank you, sir."
Proceeding at a careful walk, they were a full hour in reaching Laurelton, but as the slow pace offered a smoother ride, they napped to good advantage and emerged from the chaise in a better humor than the postilion was accustomed to see from gentry vexed by similar inconvenience.
While the postilion and the coachman oversaw the blacksmith, the Brandons walked alongside a tranquil stream, whose bank had been softened almost to mud by an overnight rain. A ceiling of clouds promised further inundation later in the afternoon.
"If those let fall we'll not make five more miles today," the colonel remarked, without seeming unduly perturbed.
"But we are so much before our time we shall hardly notice the delay," Marianne pointed out.
Just behind them walked their manservant and maid, engaged in conversation equally taxing. Handing them some coin, Brandon sent them to the inn for cakes and beer for the entire party and for the smith as well, in the hope of inspiring efficiency. Whether this stratagem was successful or the man was naturally quick about his work, they were under way within the hour, not long after Tim and Polly had returned the mugs and napkins to the inn, and just in time for the heavens to break apart and release their burden.
Man and maid accepted with alacrity their master's invitation to ride inside the chaise, showing no great sympathy for their comrades confined to the saddle and the box with only their hats and greatcoats for protection from the elements. While the rain spattered on the tarpaulin thrown over the trunks and cases and ran in rivulets along the glass, obscuring the suddenly gray world outside, Marianne took the opportunity to become a little acquainted with these two of her servants. Her several questions about their respective families and her attention to their replies put them sufficiently at ease with their new mistress that Polly could be persuaded to recite some clever limericks of her own composition and Tim to repeat some of the less vulgar jokes dispensed with the ale at the Cock and Bull in Delaford.
Again their pace was tedious, slackening further as the ruts and potholes deepened under the onslaught of the rain, and it became rather wearisome to always be thrusting one's arms out to the walls to keep from being bounced onto a neighbor's lap or the floor. When the coach slowed, hope rose within them that they might be nearing their next destination or at least turning onto a less antagonistic road; but the hope was dashed as George explained, opening the panel only slightly and holding his hat over the gap in an attempt to prevent water from getting inside, that in the gloom and wet they had overshot the Birmingham road and must now turn back to search for it. Unable to distinguish many details of the washed-out landscape only a short distance away, Marianne could easily comprehend how a slender signpost might have been hidden by curtains of rain. But the error was even more readily explained than that, for when they located the crossroads some thirty minutes later, after a total loss of an hour's time, they found that the signpost had expired entirely, its anchoring foundation having turned to unstable mud, and lay where it had fallen on the sodden ground.
Given these incessant difficulties it was remarkable that they reached the post inn at Lichfield as early as three o'clock, Birmingham itself having made little impression other than of wet walls and drenched pedestrians and factory chimneys disappearing into mist. As the weather had already cost them the time they had meant to devote to the cathedral, and as by this time the rain had eased substantially and the sky promised to be blue again very soon, they thought to attempt a further seven miles to Black's Heath before stopping. But again they were stymied: the Marquess of G---- had come through an hour before with a large party and taken all the horses.
"They be back in an hour, sir," the hostler predicted. "You can have a team then, and there be a nice warm fire inside to wait by."
"Two hours, more like, Colonel," said George as he wiped the coating of mud from the body of the chaise, "if their road be like ours was. And the horses but half-rested when they get back."
Brandon stepped over to Marianne, who had walked about the stable to stretch her legs and was now petting a friendly old tabby curled into a ball on a bale of hay. "Do you wish to go on? The weather is clearing quickly, and we could obtain horses from another inn."
She looked up at him with apology written on her face. "I must confess that I have got a headache from all the bouncing, and I'm quite sure that if I come to rest now I shan't want to rouse up and go on at a later hour."
He pressed her hands in instant protective sympathy. "Dear Marianne, you should have said so at once. Of course we shall stay the night here."
With the quick-thinking efficiency he always displayed when there was something to be done, he began to arrange matters to suit their needs. Polly was sent to secure a room and Tim instructed to bring down and place the luggage and then return to help clean the chaise, while poor wet George was to have the best food and drink the inn could boast. The postilion received two shillings for conveying them in safety and the hostler the same for reserving his swiftest team for them on the morrow. As for Marianne, a hearty meal by the fire, a warm glass of wine, and a quiet game of backgammon completed the restoration of energy that the relief from vibration and the cat's soothing purr had begun, and she willingly demonstrated to her husband that she bore him no ill will for his trouncing her at the game.
Morning brought a bright yellow sun and a cloudless azure sky, and as they took their seats in the carriage they felt such optimism that the previous day's obstacles might never have occurred. But they soon learned that they had not yet paid the full price for the rain: before they had gone two miles they learned from a passing itinerant artist that the Black's Heath bridge, which they had particularly counted on, had been washed away the night before by a river swollen with rainwater draining from the surrounding hills.
After consultation with the postilion and his own encyclopedic knowledge of the highways of England, George announced, with an air that plainly said he would rather announce anything else no matter how terrible, "Nothing for it, sir, but to go back through Lichfield and take the Havenstone road east, then go north to the Wexford bridge. They'll never get a ferry set up at Black's Heath 'til the water goes down."
"We should have continued yesterday," Marianne said mournfully. "We missed getting across only because of my silly headache."
"Your headache may well have kept us from being swept away with the bridge," her husband countered. "Besides, if we had got there and seen it weakened by flood, we would have had to choose this same alternative, with even more time lost. Nothing for it, George, as you say. Let us be about it."
While George regained his box and the postilion his saddle, the artist, with an admirable eye for opportunity, here offered to sell them a sketch he had made of the lamented structure only the morning before. Marianne, not without a sense of absurdity, bought it, while the colonel wryly congratulated the young man on reaching his desired bank of the river before the extinction of the way across.
Back they went southward to Lichfield, stopping briefly to inform the hostler and the innkeeper of the disaster to the north, and on to the Havenstone road, for a total loss thus far in one morning of nearly five miles--the colonel trying unsuccessfully all the while not to keep a count. They were slow miles, as well, for the road had drained but slightly overnight, and the rocking and rattling of the chaise was only a little less violent than it had been the day before. Again he cradled Marianne almost on his lap to try to protect her from the worst of the turbulence, but presently she began to frown and rub at her neck and press the bridge of her nose, and he knew his efforts to spare her another headache had been frustrated. "Perhaps you would feel better if we walked a while--? The path looks to be fairly dry--"
"I should have thought of that myself. I do have a clever husband!"
As a result of a cool breeze against her face, steady ground underfoot, and the free movement of her limbs, she began to smile again, and looked at him from under the brim of her straw bonnet with such a grateful smile that he felt rather pleased with himself for having been her savior. For a time they alternated riding and walking, and spirit as well as body benefited from the variation, but at length even the footpath became so muddy and rough that they were forced back into confinement. Reading and singing were difficult when every third word was broken by a pothole, and the most pleasant distraction of the early days of their journey was impossible given the not unamusing risk of bruised lips and blackened eyes. The scenery crawled by no more quickly than the hours, prompting a feeble attempt at humor from Marianne: "I do believe the Lakes are receding from us." The colonel tried to smile, but he could not look at her drawn face without hearing a wistfulness and fatigue he was powerless to alleviate. He even questioned George as to whether there were any country houses in the vicinity they might visit as a respite from the road, but the coachman's response, after a brief look in the copy of Paterson's that he always carried in his box, was disheartening.
"We're nearest Selby Hall, sir, but e'en that's eight miles, with a change of horses at Yarborough, and then we'd have to come back to this road to be able to meet the turnpike again."
"A lengthier delay than slow travel, then."
In spite of their shared misgivings the colonel put the suggestion to Marianne, but was not surprised when she declined. "We're encountering delays enough without any deliberate effort on our part."
"So we are," he replied, helplessly. His own head was beginning to throb. "All right, George, continue on."
Though they sought no further impediment they found one nonetheless, its being market day in Stone and thus requiring the better part of an hour to creep the half-mile clogged with wagons, horses, and carriages, as well as pedestrians who seemed to think they could best a chaise and four in any competition for a place in the road. They squandered no time during changes of horses or in stopping for refreshment, instead breaking out the sack of bread and cheese and cakes they had purchased at the inn that morning, but it was not until nearly seven o'clock that they climbed down from the coach in the courtyard of the Hawthorne Inn at Briarton, having travelled many miles but made little northward progress.
Of the private rooms only the smallest was available, and that at an exorbitant rate if they wanted to ensure that further latecomers would not be imposed upon them. With pounding heads and aching joints they climbed the stairs, and when they saw their accommodations--"It isn't a room, but a closet," Brandon muttered as the maid pushed open the door--thought it no more than a fitting end to the day that it should hold a bed too narrow for two and but one thinly upholstered chair. Dinner was brought up to them willingly enough, but as it had been prepared for serving at five the roast beef was dry and the vegetables cold, and needed several glasses of wine to make them palatable.
Polly had brought a pot of chamomile tea, and by the time Marianne laid her head on the lavender-scented pillow its thrumming had eased considerably. She could not sleep, however, for the bed was cold and inhospitable without her husband to share it--he having made himself as comfortable as possible in the chair and fallen asleep while reading by the light of a single candle. Though she knew that sleep would be the best restorative for herself as well, after such a trying day she wanted to feel his arms around her, wanted to hear his soft voice in her ear, murmuring those sentiments that could not be voiced across so vast a distance as the three or four feet that separated the chair from the bed--wanted to whisper affectionate words to him in return, for such had been his own fatigue that even during dinner he had said little and rarely even smiled.
She must have dozed off while watching him, for her next awareness was of the candle guttering in its holder and her colonel's eyes, wide open and dark, resting upon her. The flickering light made him look glum, even apprehensive, but the impression was false, for as soon as he saw that she was awake a smile of shy embarrassment, that she had witnessed his silent adoration, no doubt, swept all other expression from his face. With an answering smile she held out her hand, and he threw off his blanket and came to her, and they found that the bed offered room enough for two after all.
They set out the next morning with renewed fortitude, their spirits lifted further by a noticeable improvement in the roads: they were not yet dry but the passage of heavily laden coaches and farm wagons had compressed them and somewhat filled in the worst of the ruts and potholes. Reading and songs and riddles resumed, and at times the curtains were closed again.
And then, a little past noon, the carriage abruptly sank beneath them with an ominous sucking and slurping, and came to a halt. Filled with foreboding, Brandon slowly opened the door--to see a sinister, brownish-gray mud bubbling and popping about the step as the carriage settled deeper. The oath he uttered was one, Marianne supposed, with which only military men were acquainted.
George appeared at the door, slogging through muck to his knees, looking ready to weep. "I do beg pardon, sir, I do beg pardon. We knew it be soft right here, being at the bottom of a hill, but the horses had sure footing even past this spot."
"Ruts down at the bottom, that's what it is," offered the postilion, who was steadying the horses as they were inclined to be fretful.
Brandon reined in his temper, for he could see that he was shocking his wife, and in any case a display of biliousness would not free a stuck chaise. "We must unload the heaviest items and then break it out. George, since you are already muddy I shall ask you to assist Mrs. Brandon to dry ground. Tim, hand me down my heavy boots, then help Polly down and take off the cases."
All this being done, Marianne and Polly seated themselves on the luggage well out of range of splashing mud, while the men debated what system of leverage might be best employed. There were no farmhouses in the immediate vicinity so it would take some time to locate assistance, but the four horses would be capable of pulling the carriage forward if the power of the suction could only be overcome. Brandon, recalling an occasion on the march in Bengal of having to break a cannon out of a quagmire, suggested a method that the others thought promising. As the operation would need three men, the colonel himself, with apologies to the ladies, removed his coat and neckcloth and rolled up his shirt sleeves. One of the coachman's aprons further protected his clothing, and the men set to work gathering stones and branches and chopping sturdy oak saplings from the surrounding fields and woods. Marianne folded the clothing still warm from her husband's body and held it on her lap, and watched him direct his servants and work alongside them with a feeling of pride in his capability. He placed George at one wheel and himself at the other, with Tim, the strongest of the three, at the rear. The postilion continued to hold and soothe the horses, and presently, when the chaise seemed to be a little freed from its restraint, urged them from side to side in a further effort against the suction.
At last, with a loud gurgle of complaint, the bog gave up its prize and the vehicle lurched forward, the postilion half-dragged for several feet by the straining horses, the others sweaty and panting and muddy to their thighs. George examined the wheels and axles and pronounced them sound, and the men rinsed their faces and hair and cleaned their clothing as well as they could in a nearby stream, the cold water bracing after their exertions. For his efforts Tim had received a gash on his arm, and Marianne, glad of an opportunity to be useful, rummaged for salve and a bandage in the medicine box Mrs. Baynes had prepared. The wound dressed and the luggage reloaded, they were again on their way.
The colonel was subdued during the remainder of the day's journey, having little energy for any of the pastimes of the morning, but Marianne could hardly wonder at this, for she felt a sympathetic ache in her own muscles just thinking about such heavy toil. Probably he would order a hot bath that night, and she thought with a secret smile that perhaps she would insist on remaining in the room, in case he should want to be handed a sponge or a towel, or possibly need assistance with scrubbing his back. She could feel herself blushing furiously at these pleasurably indecent thoughts, but it was proof of his weariness, had she needed further indication, that he did not notice.
Once they were safely ensconced in a pleasant, and acceptably spacious, room at the Swan in Leek--which, in the first stroke of good luck within, it seemed, living memory, they had not reached on market day--Brandon expressed a desire to purchase a new shirt, for his had torn at one shoulder. "I saw a haberdasher's shop as we came into town--he should have something suitable. I haven't brought so many shirts that I can ignore an opportunity to replace this one. I shall return shortly."
Marianne had been making certain the rubbings and the contents of the book box had not been damaged; now she looked up, startled. "Do you not want me to come with you?"
The hurt in her look and voice surprised him, for he had assumed she would welcome a respite from his company. "Yes, of course--if you like. But if you have other tasks--"
"Of course I want to come. Why ever should you think I would not?" As he helped her don her pelisse, she said brightly, "Won't Mrs. Baynes be amazed when she sees our accounting! So many inns--new clothing-- She will think I have been an unsound influence on you!"
"I trust that Mrs. Baynes will adjust her ledgers as required without comment about either of us."
With her back to him she could not see his face, but his cold tone shocked her and she spun around--but he was already shaking his head and running a tired hand through his hair. "Forgive me, Marianne--I have exhibited entirely too much temper today."
Her confused tension dissipated at once, and she took his arm. "I think we have all had cause for temper today."
Oddly, he seemed to stiffen at her touch, and she could not completely dispel the impression of a faint sigh of resignation; but by the time they reached the street he was smiling down at her and tucking her arm snugly against his ribs, and she decided she must have imagined that brief but troubling darkening of his mood. Her designs on him for the evening, however, were thwarted, for he did not order a bath, but was instead satisfied with the basin and one pail of hot water; and though the bed was ample in size nothing without or within the room disturbed their slumber.
It was with no little trepidation, unspoken but genuine, that they stepped into the chaise the next morning after lingering over a delicious breakfast--with no little thrill of anxiety that they heard George chirrup the horses into a trot. Any of a hundred mishaps could befall travellers--which would they suffer today?
It was as they were crossing with care a narrow causeway between two low fields, all the passengers smiling at George's loud complaints that "any fool" would lay a road not wide enough for two carriages to pass abreast "without what their outside wheels have to go on a prayer," that a small flock of grouse exploded from a hedge right in front of the horses.
Upon hearing George's sudden shouts of "Spur 'im--spur 'im!" and the cracking of his whip, the Brandons traded looks of alarm. The colonel was reaching for the panel when the chaise began to lurch and sway in a sickening fashion and threw him back into the seat. And then, despite the frantic efforts of coachman and postilion, it surged backward and the right rear wheel dropped off the bank and there was no holding it on the road.
Clinging to the straps as the carriage went over, Marianne was aware of the neighs of horses and the curses of men, of Polly's screams and Tim's shouts to "Jump, Pol--jump!"--of items tumbling from the seats and cabinets and Christopher trying to shield her with his body, of his grunt and gasp of pain as something heavy struck him from behind and he crashed against her, pinning her to the wall.
The last thing she heard was her own voice crying his name--
"Marianne? Marianne! Dear God--"
Brandon was oblivious to the commotion outside the chaise as the men tried to calm the terrified horses, to the shifting of the vehicle as the animals' thrashing jerked at the traces, oblivious to everything but keeping his balance amid the chaos of their belongings while he sought to revive Marianne, who lay unconscious on the carriage wall. He rubbed her hands and face, wishing for some cool water and a cloth, for their water bottle had been flung against the ceiling and had broken. He searched for her reticule in the hope that she carried smelling salts, but it was buried God knew where under newspapers and books and parcels.
And then she stirred, and murmured his name. "Marianne! Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Marianne--"
"Christopher--" Her eyelids fluttered open and she blinked once or twice--and then drew in a breath sharp with memory and attempted to sit up. "Christopher! I heard you cry out--"
He tried to keep her still with gentle pressure against her shoulders. "You must not move too quickly--"
"I'm not hurt--I think I only fainted."
"No--I knocked the breath from you when I fell against you--forgive me, my love--"
"Yes, I remember now--something hit you--" Dismay widened her eyes and she surged upright, heedless of his protests, her hands gripping his arms. "It was the box of books, wasn't it? Tell me--are you hurt?"
He sat back on his heels, for he was kneeling beside her, and she did not miss his grimace of pain. "I think my back will soon sport an impressive bruise, but nothing is broken." He clutched her to his breast, kissed her neck, her face, her lips. "Thank God you aren't hurt."
"A few bumps--that is all, truly. But you--the box might have struck your head--" Her voice quavered; she could not but recall that his own brother had died in a carriage accident. She clung to him, trembling now with reaction, though she kept her hands fastened to his shoulders so as not to cause him further discomfort. "What is happening outside?"
"They seem to have settled the horses--the chaise has stopped moving. I must see if anyone is injured."
With a last grateful kiss he released her and reached for the door overhead; he moved very slowly, for the twisting motion exacerbated his own injury. But just then the door was flung back and Tim's anxious face appeared above them. "Colonel? Mrs. Brandon? Are ye all right?"
Brandon stood and looked out over the scene. George and the postilion had managed to disentangle and unharness the horses and had removed them a little distance from the havoc they had caused, and Polly was beginning to gather the cases and sacks that had been thrown from the boot and the roof. "Yes, we're only unnerved. What about all of you, and the horses?"
"Polly's got a sprained finger but the rest of us is all right. The horses are settling. One's got a cut leg, bad enough he shouldn't work it for a few days, the p'stillon says. He'll take 'em back to Leek and bring us a fresh team."
"He may need to bring a fresh carriage as well. Send George over to have a look."
As Tim jogged away, the colonel helped Marianne to extricate herself from the chaise, first lifting her to a seat on the outside wall and then climbing down himself to lift her to the ground and steady her, for her legs were wobbly. During these maneuverings he could not silence the hiss of painful effort that escaped his lips, or bring color to a face white with strain.
"You are hurt," Marianne said with a worried frown, "--you cannot deny it. You should rest."
"It's better now that I can stand erect. Please, Marianne, do not distress yourself on my account--though I appreciate that you do." He smiled as he said this last, if weakly, and pressed her hand, and her mind was easier about him as she joined Polly in collecting their scattered luggage, first binding the maid's damaged finger to its sound neighbor so that she should not harm it further.
At this point they were approached by two out-of-breath laborers, who had witnessed the accident from the far end of the field in which they had been working and come running, bringing their hoes and rakes in the event the chaise should need to be shifted from the road. But the horses had done so thorough a job that the chaise was completely in the ditch, and the laborers stood ready to be of what other assistance they could.
George had joined his master and they now determined, to the astonishment of neither, that the rear axle was cracked, having apparently collided with a large stone at an unfortunate angle; one window was also broken into several pieces, but otherwise the chaise looked sound, having rather slid than fallen down the bank once it had tipped over. The laborers here proved their worth, offering the information that "Tom Gunn, he be yer man--got a carpentry shop in Pindleby, yonder two mile" (pointing). Pindleby, they said, did not boast an inn or even a public house, but "Mr. William Moss, at the nearest farm but one to here, he's taken in folk before."
As there was yet no way of speculating how much time repairs to the carriage would require, Brandon sent the postilion back to Leek with the promise of sending for another team in a few days. Then, having obtained directions from the laborers to both Tom Gunn's shop and William Moss's farm, he dispatched Tim to make the necessary arrangements.
There was now little to do but wait, and be thankful that the day was warm and dry. Marianne and Polly used some of George's rags to wipe off cases and clean those items that had spilled into the dirt, while the coachman recounted the whole incident in every lurid detail to the laborers, who displayed no overpowering desire to return to their work. But at last they took themselves off, happy with the shillings Brandon gave them for their information and kind offers of aid. Marianne would have liked to go back into the chaise to make a start on straightening the mess, but she did not want to ask her husband's assistance and she knew he would not delegate the duty to George. He seemed in no humor for Polly's limericks or George's jokes, and tended to avoid the rest of the party, keeping to his feet rather than sitting down with them, and stretching tentatively so that his back would not stiffen; and though he did ask her repeatedly if she was very certain she was unhurt, he would not accept further solicitude from her.
Traffic was sparse on the road, but several farmers and gentlemen did stop to offer assistance, which was turned down with thanks as unnecessary. A mail coach thundered by, at the gallop to make up time and badly overloaded with passengers as they tended to be; Brandon thought it unlikely that it could have been halted safely had the chaise still blocked the road, as the bend just before the causeway would probably have hidden the mishap from the coachman's view. As dusk gathered he laid his sword and pistols across a case where they would be easy to hand, and ordered the ladies into the concealment of a nearby stand of trees; while highwaymen were not as common as in former days they were hardly unknown, and he did not want to advertise that there were women in the party. George never went abroad without a stout stick, and this he fetched from its rest behind his seat. Polly began to wonder aloud "what was slowing Tim," but before Marianne could suggest that he might simply have had to wait for the carpenter to return to his shop or the farmer to come in from his fields, the rattling of an empty wagon was heard and soon the vehicle itself emerged from the twilight, with Tim and a fellow manservant on the seat.
"Tom Gunn be here at first light, sir," Tim reported to the colonel, "and this here's Martin, works for Mr. Moss. And I've got sandwiches for me and George."
Martin hopped down from the wagon and doffed his cap. "Mr. Moss says you're welcome to stay as long as need be, sir."
"That is very kind of your master; I hope we shan't impose upon him for more than a few days."
So many hands made short work of loading the wagon with baggage and everything portable from inside the chaise, and then all but George and Tim, who were to guard the chaise and who were at present exploring the contents of the sack Mrs. Moss had prepared, climbed aboard.
Mr. and Mrs. Moss met the wagon in the yard of a large but unpretentious, well-tended farmhouse. They were a sturdy couple in their middle years, who as they showed their guests into the house offered many effusions of sympathy, which were equaled by the Brandons' many effusions of gratitude. "We'll put you in our bedroom," said Mrs. Moss, "--no, don't say a word against it--as we've a new mattress, and Mr. Moss and I will take our daughter Nell's room, she being married now and living in Ashbourne. We've held dinner for you, and please don't trouble to dress, for you must be half-starved! Mary will show you to the room so you can refresh yourselves, and when you're ready the dining-parlor is just through here--"
While they had been thus pleasantly detained in the hall, Martin and the maids had carried in the luggage, and they found Polly shaking and brushing the wrinkles from Marianne's dresses. "I think the green silk has survived best, ma'am, though the blue an't too bad. The colonel's suits seem all right--"
"Thank you, Polly, but we've been excused from dressing tonight--I think the Mosses are as hungry as we are. Please do see if you can help in the kitchen."
When the maid had left, Marianne got out a clothes brush and made her husband's suit more presentable, using only the lightest touch across his back. He could barely bend over the wash basin and she could not but ask, "Are you certain you do not need an apothecary?"
"I assure you, I am only stiff."
A slight testiness edged his tone, and she vowed she would not ask him again--at least until bedtime. "I want to hold you, but I daren't for fear of hurting you."
This seemed to touch him deeply; he caressed her cheek with his fingertips. "I will cherish the thought. Shall we go?"
"Yes--the sooner we eat the sooner you can rest. Surely they will not expect us to be much interested in company tonight."
This time she knew she did not imagine the brief thinning of his lips, the tightening of his jaw, but he had opened the door and Martin was waiting on the landing to show them in to dinner, and she could not ask for explanation. He must know that he need not fear she would be rude to their hosts, no matter how the evening might drag on, but she could not understand why he might object to her wish that it would not.
Though one daughter might be married there were still a number of young Mosses at home, six or seven at least, ranging from eight to eighteen in age, all exceedingly well-mannered in honor of their guests despite their being the cause of a delay in the meal. They in particular enjoyed hearing of the colonel's army service, a favorite uncle having also chosen that career and being presently posted to Jamaica. Marianne discovered a fellow lover of music in the youngest daughter, aged ten, and promised to help her copy out some of the songs she had brought. She was glad to learn that the modest pianoforte she had glimpsed as she passed the sitting room was no mere pretense to gentility, for she did not want her liking for the Mosses, already warm, to be tarnished by such a common fault. The parents, though obviously proud of their offspring and having encouraged them to be at a respectful ease when talking with their betters, did not allow them to dominate the conversation, and were themselves full of assurances that Tom Gunn would soon put the travellers right. "Folk for miles around get Tom for their carpentering," said Mr. Moss. "He should do a good job on an axle, if not on the finer parts. And you can get that window replaced in Manchester." Their hosts also offered helpful suggestions as to how they might occupy their time in the surrounding countryside, in walks to the local ruins--"from the Romans, they do say"--or perhaps a call on Squire Lloyd out at Chilicombe Lodge--"for he's a genial host if you ever can find him at home."
"With all due respect to your environs, Mr. Moss," said the colonel, "and to the elusive Squire Lloyd, we shall want to be on our way as soon as possible. We had planned to reach Buttermere in another day or two; as you see we have lost a great deal of time."
"We are on our wedding trip," Marianne said brightly. She heard Christopher's indrawn breath, and saw him reach for his wine glass with a serious mien. Did he perhaps consider her remark indiscreet? But Tim had not been told to keep their circumstances to himself--
"Yes, your man did say so," said Mrs. Moss, confirming her suspicion. "Please allow us to wish you joy."
"As much as we've had," her husband added, indicating his large brood with an inclusive waggling of his fingers, whereupon every one of them giggled, the older ones from having some idea of what he meant, the younger ones because they did not want to be thought less knowledgeable than their siblings. "I do think there must be a proverb about a bad wedding trip making a good marriage."
"If there is, you will think of it, my dear. He is so fond of an apt proverb."
"You might enjoy our Polly's limericks, then," Marianne said. "She did help keep my spirits up today."
As the meal progressed, she found herself assuming more and more of her husband's place in the conversation. He had done his best to take an interest in the talk of politics and farming, and his color was good and his hands steady, but his shoulders were unnaturally taut and he did not allow his back to touch the chair. Whether he would admit it or not he was clearly exhausted, and she was glad when after the dessert plates had been removed Mrs. Moss said, "Now, don't think you have to be sociable any longer. Of course we'd be most pleased to have you join us in the sitting room, but I know if I'd had such a fright I'd want to be early to bed."
"You are most understanding," Marianne said quickly, before Christopher could pretend to energy. "I am really very tired, and my husband was in fact slightly injured--"
This disclosure naturally produced more expressions of concern, which the colonel endured with his usual politeness, and offers of sending for the apothecary, which he declined with a look of something like dismay.
At last the good-nights had been said and they escaped to their room. Marianne did not wait to be asked, but positioned herself to help her husband doff his coat and waistcoat. As the alternative was to sleep in his clothing, he accepted this assistance, but refused to allow her to remove his shoes and stockings. While she hung his coat in the wardrobe the Mosses had emptied for them, he slid his feet into his slippers, and was reaching for his dressing gown when she said, "Do you not want me to treat your wound?"
He saw that she had retrieved some liniment and a cloth from the medicine box. "I had intended to read for a while."
There was about him a definite air of resistance. "But I should like to go to bed," Marianne informed him, "and I cannot until you let me treat your wound."
For a moment he made no move to obey, but as she obviously had no intention of relenting, and looked at him in complete expectation of triumph, he surrendered to the inevitable and began to tug his shirt from his breeches. Pride, however, made him say, if a little hesitantly, "I would have preferred that you had not mentioned my injury to the Mosses."
Her sigh was full of regret. "I knew it, ever since I spoke of it. Forgive me--I did not expect it to produce such a reaction." Her expression turned flirtatious. "But now they will not be surprised if you should be unable to leave your bed in the morning--"
He jerked the linen free from its last restraint. "Marianne, please stop this, I beg you. What must I do to convince you that I am fine? All your fussing is entirely unnecessary."
She stood frozen before him, stunned by his rejection. She had intended only playfulness by her teasing exaggeration, but she had obviously erred in her judgment of his mood. "But--is not a wife expected to fuss over her husband?" Confusion, hurt, and impatience all mingled in her voice. "Do you want a wife or don't you, Colonel?"
She had spoken very quietly, but he blinked as if she had shouted--and then enfolded her in a suppliant embrace from which, he was overjoyed to feel, she did not in the slightest pull away. "My dearest Marianne, please forgive me-- How can I be so unappreciative? I suppose it is unreasonable to feel elderly and decrepit as the result of a wife's ministrations. Perhaps I simply don't yet know how to accept being fussed over-- Do I want a wife? Good God--how can you ask such a question?"
After a time, when his lips had at last released hers, she said, "I really did mean only to help."
With reluctance he freed her, and tenderly applied his handkerchief to the corners of her eyes. "Please don't make me feel even more a lout by offering apology yourself."
She had never put down the liniment and cloth, and now, with a smile and a last kiss bestowed upon the tip of his nose, turned him around and completed the exposing of his back, the requirements of the emergency effectively overriding any feelings of immodesty she might have been suffering. But her smile, and any lingering anger and hurt, were forgotten at her first sight of his injury, which brought a gasp and a sob to her lips. Only a bruise, he had said! From a black and purple center where evidently an edge had struck between two ribs, a lighter red and brown discoloration spread as large as her open hand. "Oh, Christopher--it looks dreadful!" She was no longer amazed that he had been out of sorts; with a wound like that she herself would make certain all the world knew her misery.
"I thought it might. I didn't want to worry you further."
"My dear husband, can you really believe you have married such a delicate flower as that? I helped nurse my father, you know, and I have bandaged many of Margaret's scrapes as well as my own. I was only surprised at the sight, as you would be if you could see it. I shall find a second mirror tomorrow and prove it to you--it will look even worse by then. Now please undress and get into bed and let me tend you. I know you are accustomed to taking orders as well as giving them."
He made a noise of disagreement in his throat as he submitted. "Rarely the sort of orders whose object was to ensure my own well-being."
Very gently she applied the liniment, its scent tangy in her nostrils. "Is that better?"
"Actually, it is. Very soothing--"
His words were not quite distinct, and by the time she had shed her own clothing and put on her night-gown he was fast asleep. But he came half-awake when she joined him, and had never held her more tightly than he held her that night.
The next morning Marianne awakened alone, and immediately felt a stab of anxiety. Had her husband simply not wanted to disturb her by remaining in the room, or did he suffer renewed resentment? Did he consider her disclosure about his health, mild though it had been, and her persistent attentions to be very great violations of that privacy he guarded so assiduously?
As she washed and dressed her gaze fell repeatedly upon his belongings--razor, shaving soap, tooth-brush and -powder, the shirt that still smelled of liniment--and she hoped he would walk in at any moment; but she was disappointed. As she descended the stairs she listened for his voice, but that hope, too, was unfulfilled. In the kitchen, to which she was led by busy female conversation, she learned that he had eaten an early breakfast with Mr. Moss and gone to see how the carriage fared. With this indication that he would not return very soon, she sent Polly up to tidy the room, and sat down to her own breakfast in the dining-parlor, where Mrs. Moss joined her for a cup of tea.
It was nearly ten o'clock; she was surprised that she had slept so late. Apparently she had needed rest even more than her husband--though he was accustomed to rising earlier than she. She was also surprised at the aching and stiffness that had invaded her every joint and muscle, but she was in no serious discomfort and could enjoy her eggs and ham.
"I do hope you passed a comfortable night," said her hostess. "I wish we could offer you finer accommodation."
"Oh, Mrs. Moss, you have such a comfortable home, and you are so generous to give us your very own room. You must not apologize for anything at all!" Marianne smiled to herself at the thought of what liberal reward these good people would receive from her husband--far more, she was certain, than the cost to them of supporting unexpected guests through a visit of several days. Having noticed quite a few books in the sitting room the evening before, she asked what her hosts liked to read, and there ensued a pleasant exchange on the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe and the plays of Shakespeare, though Mrs. Moss confessed that she did not enjoy poetry unless birds were prominently featured, for she was very fond of birds and the poets "did have such a knack of describing their song and all their habits."
Mrs. Moss always turned to her sewing at this time of the morning, the sunlight being very bright in the sitting room, and Marianne went upstairs to fetch the work she had brought with her, several caps and gowns for her first nephew or niece, whose satchel had come through its various travails with only a few grass stains. Polly had straightened the dressing table and was inspecting their clothing to see if any repairs were necessary, and requested some guidance as to what her activities ought to be while in their temporary abode. Marianne was just starting away when from the window she spied Christopher returning along the lane. She could see that he still held his torso carefully, but on the whole his movements were less awkward than they had been the night before, and she was much relieved.
And then as he neared the yard his step slowed. He came to a halt and stood for a moment, seemingly without purpose, without direction. He cast his gaze up toward the window at which she stood--though given the pattern of light and shadow she thought it probable that he could not see her. The distance was too great for her to exactly distinguish his expression, but there was that in the particular tilt of his head, in the sag of his neck when he dropped his gaze to the ground as if strength in those muscles had briefly deserted him, in the rounding of his shoulders as he sat down on the old dry stump of an oak, that suggested both a quandary of some kind and a reluctance to inform her of it. Had his injury in fact worsened? Was the carriage after all beyond repair? Dear Heaven--had Tim and George run afoul of brigands in the night?
But before her vivid imagination could carry her very far down that track, he moved and thus recaptured her full attention, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, fingers interlaced behind his neck. He straightened soon thereafter, and looked toward the house as if bidding himself to enter, but while he had assumed it the posture had spoken to her of utter defeat.
She stood fixed to the carpet, gripped by both a sudden realization and chagrin that it had not gripped her sooner: her husband was deeply troubled, and she had only just now, through happenstance, seen the extent of his distress. The mood had been upon him for days--she perceived it now. It had begun long before the accident; she had been wrong to attribute his uncharacteristic snappishness the night before to so simple a cause as physical pain, though that had undoubtedly been a factor. Those hours in the chaise lacking even wordless communication, those hints of unease in his manner--all had been indications of some weighty preoccupation, and she had not understood their import until this moment.
She knew he would not tell her what disturbed him. She reminded herself now of what she had had some reason during the past few weeks to forget, that though his character was similar to hers, his behavior was very like her sister's: Elinor, too, was inclined to hide or disguise her feelings if displaying them was likely to upset others. Though she and her husband both possessed sensitive natures, where she was open, he was reserved. And just as she had learned to look beneath Elinor's surface calm--seldom, perhaps, with success, but at least she now knew not to assume an understanding of Elinor's deepest feelings based solely on her outward demeanor--she must also learn to read her husband's subtle indicators of mood. He would not readily turn to her for comfort, for he had had little practice or encouragement in seeking solace outside his own heart. His one confidante was in a foreign land, able to judge his state of mind only by what he chose to impart in correspondence. "He will always be scrupulously honest with you," Sarah had written, but, not being acquainted with her brother as a lover, she had not known to offer the further insight that he would not always be forthcoming, that he would not impose his feelings even upon the woman who had pledged to be his helpmate. When she and Elinor could not find common ground they could agree to go their separate ways, but surely if a husband and wife, ideally so intimately concerned in the circumstances of each other's lives, ever once took an initial step along diverging paths, subsequent such steps would be less wrenching, less heartbreaking, and thus more frequent.
Though she could smile at herself for such excessive pessimism, that she could see in one sorrowful moment an unalterable estrangement within a marriage only a few days old, the distress was real and present, and if he would not voice it, she must. He had pledged candor; he would not deny her explanation if she asked. But what would she risk by venturing such a question? Would she learn that he was uncomfortable with their new intimacy? Can our friendship survive our marriage?
At the whisper of her skirts across the grass he looked up, and smiled when he saw it was she. Now that she knew to look closely, however, she saw that the smile did not wholly engage his eyes, that it was muted by as yet undefined anxiety.
"Good morning--Mrs. Brandon. Did you sleep well?"
She sat down on the low stone wall surrounding the garden. "I did, sir. And you--are you mending today?"
"I am much improved. I have been out to the carriage--" He proceeded to tell her that Tom Gunn had taken away the damaged axle so as to use it as a pattern to make a new one, that when the repair was complete some laborers and horses would be engaged to right the chaise and it would then be seen what further repairs or adjustments might be necessary. "It is a sad sight, Marianne, I can tell you, the wheels off and the suspension in pieces. Our fine new chaise--"
Now that she knew to listen with attention, she could hear a self-directed wry bitterness, overlain with the tentativeness of wavering confidence. She heard him out with all due politeness, but when he was done she said nothing of axles or suspension in reply. "Please do not pretend to be cheerful, my husband. I saw you from the window."
He met her words with a startled glance toward the house, a sigh of resignation that she had chanced to be in that crucial spot at that one revealing moment.
"Will you not tell me what has upset you?" Her throat tightened on her next words, and it took all her courage to force them out. "Have I--have I offended you?" What else could it be, if he could not tell her? He will always be scrupulously honest--
But he was staring at her, incredulous. "You? Of course you haven't, my--dearest Marianne--" He had been going to say "my love," but he had spoken that most intimate endearment the day before; if she heard it too often it might become intrusive, and therefore unwelcome. "On the contrary, I have thought I have offended you, and that you were simply being generous and forbearing."
It was her turn to gape at him. "Now I am more lost than I was. Whatever makes you believe that you have offended me?"
"The many delays, the constant discomforts; your comments about the lakes receding, and our expenses, and having cause for temper--" At her obvious bewilderment he stopped, and then gave a great sigh. "I have misinterpreted them all, haven't I?"
Earnestly she replied, "If you thought they were complaints, yes, you have--I assure you. The first two were only jests, if poor ones--my attempts to make you laugh, you know--" At once he felt a cold-hearted villain; her remarks had been efforts to cheer him, and he had spurned them. "And by the third I meant only that I sympathized with your frustration--how could I not?"
"My frustration--you do not know my frustration." Had he been trapped into this confession a day or two earlier he might have gotten to his feet to pace, but by now he had passed beyond frustration to weary resignation, all energy for futile anger having been battered out of him. "You might find it difficult to believe, but I have actually organized the efficient movement of companies and regiments and got them to their posts before time. I have supervised the purchase of supplies, hauled cannon through swamps and over mountains--"
"I most certainly do believe it. Christopher, you cannot influence the weather, the roads, or a horse's nerves!"
"I am not so conceited as to believe I can. But--I so wanted everything on our journey to be perfect for you, and when I thought you were disgusted by my ineptitude--"
"Ineptitude! Dearest Christopher, I think you have been splendid. I have been admiring your competence in dealing with all our annoyances. I have long admired your competence, ever since Elinor told me of the much more serious troubles you have faced. You are reliable in a crisis, such as when you brought Mama to Cleveland, and you are reliable every day, as in the responsible management of an estate. I can see that I must teach you not to blame yourself for circumstances entirely beyond your control. And the journey is perfect, for I am with you." She paused for breath, her face flushed with the indignant passion of her speech.
A smile had taken hold of his features, an unfeigned smile of gratitude and relief and astonishment--and a certain consciousness of his own obtuseness. She was not angry or disappointed; not once had she complained. Refreshed by a sound sleep, he had already come to realize that it had been his own fatigue and tension that had made him see in her praise of her maid's good cheer a negative opinion of her husband's aloofness, and in her failure to contradict Mr. Moss's assumption that their wedding trip had so far been a hopeless muddle a disillusionment she would not openly admit. And once Marianne had won the day with regard to the liniment he had also realized that it had been the injury itself, not her worry, that had made him feel feeble. But even earlier in their journey he had allowed his own doubt of her true feelings for him to cause him to be too sensitive, to imagine slights where none really existed. He had always admired her ability to adapt to her family's change of fortune; he should not have assumed that she would react badly to passing inconvenience.
While he had been engaged in these enlightening reflections, she, too, had grown thoughtful. "I can understand, however, how you might have thought I was complaining, because you were already agitated yourself. If I had only seen that you were--but I do not discern the emotions of others very well, especially those of reserved people. Besides, you will always know if I am ever truly upset. I am a great pouter, you know--only ask Elinor. You must take your cue from me. You must learn to rant and gnash your teeth and pull your hair--" She had got him laughing now, and rejoiced to see the light returned to his eyes, the crinkles etched deeply at the corners. "In future I shall guard my remarks more carefully, and you must share your emotions, especially if whatever troubles you has at all to do with me."
"I shall try. I promise you I shall try." He drew a deep breath, and she could see the tension easing from his neck and shoulders. "Burns was correct, it seems--" (and here he actually adopted a Scottish accent!) "'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley'-- But the next lines do not at all apply."
She had giggled happily at his performance, at his open expression of restored spirits, but now regarded him with a quieter contentment. "No," she agreed, banishing all the poet's dour sentiment from her mind: An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, / For promis'd joy! Notwithstanding their frequent uninhibited conversation as friends, as man and wife they yet had something to learn about true communication; but she had the sense that they had reached a new level of intimacy as a result of this misunderstanding. The day suddenly seemed very bright. She had not before noticed the exuberant reds and purples of peonies and violets in the small garden and the glorious golden profusion of laburnum at the edge of the wood; she had not before heard the trilling chatter of the sparrows and chaffinches, who seemed to express her own rising spirits in song. "You are wearing the waistcoat I made for you."
"So I am--it was rather chilly earlier. It is the best waistcoat I have ever owned."
"It is the best I have ever made." A look passed between them, and they each gave a sigh--and then smiled at the circumstance of so nearly matching each other's mood. The Lakes would still be there a few days hence; their cottage would still await them; the footpaths would still beckon. And then Marianne said, "I have decided to name my horse Penelope. Some might think it an obvious choice, since your horse is called Odysseus, but I would never name a horse without a great deal of consideration."
He was staggered by an inward rush of love for her. That she should choose Penelope, beloved wife of the long-wandering Odysseus, perhaps the finest exemplar in all of literature of marital fidelity and commitment-- His own beloved wife was showing him, in a symbolic way that underscored her straightforward assurances, that her vows to him were unshakable, even by his own insecurities. "Thank you, my Marianne. It is--beyond my ability to express-- I thank you." Suddenly he gave out a low, rich laugh. "It occurs to me that Odysseus, too, was beset with more than his share of travel difficulties." Again their laughter mingled, but presently they were silent, and his look was so intent that she blushed. "There is one very powerful emotion that I should like to share with you just now."
She sat very still with her hands clasped in her lap, but the ardor in her eyes and the trembling of her voice belied her demure posture. "I should like that very much--but I'm afraid Polly is working in our room."
He rubbed his own hands briskly on his thighs and looked about. "It isn't the Lake District, but that looks to be a pretty stream over there, with a pleasant little wood. Perhaps we might find a sheltered ravine--?"
"Yes, perhaps we might."
When she took his arm it seemed as if a current of energy pulsed from one heart to the other through flesh and bone and clothing, heightened emotion leading naturally to heightened sensation. Soon they were within the cool, shadowed privacy of the trees, and might have stayed there even until the ringing of the dinner bell--but that it began to rain!
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