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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Old and New Attachments (Expanded Version)


(2010)
Sense and Sensibility
“May Is for Merriment”
Mrs. Smith offers Willoughby a choice.



“John.” Mrs. Smith nodded to Willoughby. “Sit down. I have received a letter from Mrs. Rutledge.”

Willoughby had no idea who the lady was. “I hope she is well.”

“She is tolerable. Her news, however, is scandalous.”

“I am sorry to hear it.”

“You ought to be, as it principally involves you.”

“In what way?” He could not fathom how that could be, considering that he and the lady were not even acquainted.

“What were you thinking, dallying with the daughter of a gentleman, the ward of a gentleman?”

Genuinely confused, he made no answer. He hoped that Sophia was not playing some trick. Daughter of a gentleman! Fresh from the taint of trade she was, having been foisted upon the Ellisons at the death of her father. She had gone so far as to hint of marriage when last they met. They had shared a few kisses, but no more than that. He owed her nothing and would not be drawn in by her schemes. He had found something better, after all, just when he had begun to doubt he ever would.

“Does the name Eliza Williams mean nothing to you?”

“Eliza!” He had not thought of her for an age. “A gentleman’s daughter? Miss Williams is the natural daughter of someone. I believe she never knew her father.”

“It appears her child may suffer the same fate.”

“Her child?” He had last seen her eight months ago, perhaps nine. Impossible—or just possible! The memory of holding her, touching her, brought guilt and a flush of pleasure, followed by distaste and more guilt because of the pleasure. The thought that those few frivolous assignations would forever connect him to that girl stupefied him, and he let a word or two slip from his mouth that he would not have uttered in his cousin’s company under any less dreadful a circumstance.

“I would reprimand you for your language,” Mrs. Smith said, her scowl deepening, “but we have more important matters to discuss.”

“I...” He had been too unguarded to deny everything now. “I am very sorry.”

I need none of your apologies! That poor girl!”

“But why has Eliza said nothing before now?”

“A misguided attempt to protect you, I imagine. Fancies herself in love, I dare say, like that Dashwood girl that you paraded all over this house. My servants keep me well informed.”

Willoughby just barely heard the rest of Mrs. Smith’s speech: Eliza’s confession; Colonel Brandon’s—Brandon’s!—anger; gossiping servants; Mrs. Rutledge’s hurry to inform her friend.

He did not hear her question until she repeated it. “Well, which one will it be?”

“Which...what?”

“I said you must marry either Miss Williams or Miss Dashwood! Even the latter’s reputation is bound to suffer if she is not your choice, thanks to your imprudent behaviour. You have not compromised her as well, have you?”

“No! No.” He had contemplated it not long ago, and his subsequent uneasiness had made him realise the nature of his feelings towards Marianne. Those feelings had grown to the point where he had become convinced he should offer for her. A more loving family than the Dashwoods he could not imagine marrying into; a more adoring and adorable wife than the middle daughter he could not hope to find. He considered what Mrs. Smith had just said and began to feel a release from the anxiety that had gripped him. “You will be satisfied if I marry Marianne Dashwood?”

“I will not be satisfied unless you preserve, or restore, the respectability of one or the other of these women.”

“I will see to it this very day,” he assured her. Had he not been still reeling from the shock, he would have grinned for all the world to witness, such was his elation. When the idea of marriage had first occurred to him, he had merely hoped Mrs. Smith would not be too displeased with his choice—with the smallness of Marianne’s dowry, that is, for to Marianne herself she could have no objection. Never would he have dared to dream that he would be ordered to wed the woman of his choosing.

“Good.” Mrs. Smith sniffed. “Had you refused, you would have been dismissed from my house.”

His cousin then dismissed him from the room. In the hall he leant against the wall and exhaled. Their conversation had concluded much more favourably than he could have imagined after such a wretched beginning.

~*~


Mrs. Dashwood and her eldest and youngest daughters returned from their visit to Barton Park to be presented with news of the happiest kind. Marianne ran to them with tears of joy flowing down her face, answering their questioning looks with enthusiastic affirmatives and glancing every other moment at her betrothed.

“Oh! Oh!” Mrs. Dashwood lifted her hands to her eyes to brush away the beginnings of her own happy tears. “Dearest Marianne! Dear, dear Willoughby! I could not ask for a better son.” She hugged her daughter and kissed Willoughby’s cheek. Marianne pulled her sisters into their embrace.

Margaret looked at Elinor with wide eyes and moved to whisper in her ear. “If only Edward would come!”

Elinor’s smile faltered at her sister’s words. She was by no means certain Edward’s arrival would lead to the sort of celebration now occurring in Barton Cottage.

~*~


Not many days later, a very different sort of scene, with very different emotions, unfolded in London.

Mrs. Jennings, upon learning of Marianne’s engagement, had offered to escort her to town to assist with her wedding clothes. Elinor had accompanied them. Willoughby, too, had departed Devonshire and had been their earliest visitor in Berkeley Street.

Before long, a disturbing rumour reached the ears of the new arrivals: someone had accused Willoughby of serious misconduct. They wondered, they exclaimed, they protested, but none knew what to make of it; and as Willoughby himself did not immediately appear to clarify or contradict the report, they could do naught but continue to speculate.

The next morning, Mrs. Jennings returned from her errands with the startling intelligence that their friend’s name had been connected to some poor, ruined girl very near her delivery.

“Was it truly our Willoughby,” Elinor inquired, “who was named as the culprit?”

“Oh, yes,” answered Mrs. Jennings.

“Might the lady have meant that rake, Mr. Wickham, or some other disreputable person? Surely that was it,” said Marianne.

“No,” Mrs. Jennings insisted, “for I had it directly from Sarah, who had it from Miss Donovan. She is Mr. Donovan’s sister, you know, and so she hears much that goes on. You may trust her not to get the names confused, I dare say. It is most certainly Mr. Willoughby.”

When Willoughby called in the evening, Elinor expected him to either confirm or deny the report, but he did neither. His assurances to Marianne that all would be well, that there was only the matter of an unfortunate misunderstanding that would soon be resolved, provided no relief while his smiles appeared forced and his manner far from easy.

Marianne would not hear of the slightest possibility of guilt on his part. “How could anyone believe it of you, dear Willoughby?” and “Who would dare to tell such horrid lies?” were wondered aloud over and over by her, with only slight variations in wording and tone. All her blame was focussed upon the nameless villain who had brought this dark cloud over all of their heads.

Mrs. Jennings was the intrepid soul who introduced the subject the other two ladies had assiduously avoided out of fear or delicacy by asking Willoughby directly, “Well, is there to be a duel after all, and will you be in it?” Willoughby went pale and gave no reply. The conversation abruptly ceased. Mrs. Jennings then decided to retire early, accepting the fact that she would gain no new information from their guest.

The other three sat and looked at one another, eyes barely meeting before shying away again, until Marianne stood with such rapidity that her chair rocked and almost toppled backwards. “I shall never forgive him,” she hissed, “whoever he is!” She pressed her fists on the table and opened her mouth as if to say more, but tears overcame her, and at last she ran crying from the room. Elinor could only stare after her and marvel at how quickly—in the space of a week—her sister’s spirits had plummeted from perfect happiness to perfect misery.

Although not prone to excuse the often-vulgar behaviour of their hostess, neither could Elinor bring herself to censure Mrs. Jennings too harshly for posing the question that had occupied their minds for the majority of the day. Moreover, Willoughby’s refusal to speak convinced Elinor that Mrs. Jennings’s question had been as relevant as it had been inappropriate. She lamented the fancied necessity of such a barbarous practice, and as his future sister she felt the right to intervene if she could. “You have made Marianne miserable by your silence. Will you truly risk your life? Would you destroy her peace forever?” She had no desire to see him dead or injured. She recoiled at the idea that something might threaten his engagement to Marianne; how would her sister ever recover from the heartbreak? “If the rumours are false, declare them so. If there is some truth to them, can you not tell us that as well? We are to be family, Willoughby! Surely you can do that much.”

“No!”

He looked up, and Elinor saw the fear in his eyes. She refused to look away, however. The matter was too important.

“Very well,” he conceded. “I will tell you, Elinor, if you promise not to tell Marianne.”

“I cannot promise that.”

“Please!”

“No.”

He sighed. “I trust your judgement, but I beg you, do not burden her unnecessarily.”

“As you have done?”

“Elinor, I...” He swore. “No more delays. I have not much time.”

Elinor listened to all he had to say. When he had done, she considered he might have very little time left, indeed.

~*~


Neither Willoughby’s death nor Colonel Brandon’s was announced at breakfast. Elinor did not doubt that Mrs. Jennings would have contrived a means of availing herself of the latest gossip and took the lack of tidings from that lady as a hopeful sign. Soon afterwards, the ladies’ anxiety was relieved by the appearance in Berkeley Street of Willoughby himself, hale and happy as ever. After the first raptures were over and he had assured them no one had suffered injury, he imparted some news he had heard that morning.

“Mrs. Ferrars took ill yesterday and lies near death. She is your brother’s mother-in-law, is she not?”

“Oh, Elinor! If she should—” Marianne had wisdom enough to check herself, and she blushed and said no more.

Elinor understood what had remained unspoken. With his mother dead, Edward would be free to make his own choice. Elinor’s sense of decency, however, prevented hope from taking root, and her affection for Edward forbade her wishing any of his family ill.

Thereafter, Willoughby called each morning and took Marianne on walks or escorted her to the shops. His presence in town unharmed and in the company of a pretty young lady eventually quelled the gossip.

Elinor, while delighted for the couple, marvelled at how quickly and how thoroughly they had put the matter of the duel behind them. They behaved no differently than they had in Devonshire. No hint of soberness clouded their countenances; no increase of caution tempered their joy. They were light-hearted and gay and disregarded anything that could detract from their happiness.

For her part, Elinor was anxious for news of Edward but could do little more than wait. She considered calling on John and Fanny, assuming they would have been summoned to town, but she could not imagine that the latter would be pleased to see her or would credit her interest in Mrs. Ferrars’s welfare to anything but pure ambition. Affection was surely a foreign concept to one such as her sister-in-law.

Colonel Brandon eventually called in Berkeley Street to offer congratulations. “Miss Marianne,” said he, “I wish you all imaginable happiness. Mr. Willoughby, may you endeavour to deserve her.” Elinor gathered that his real aim was twofold: first, to dispel any notion of resentment between the gentlemen, by the gesture if not by the words themselves; second, to warn Willoughby against future missteps as the husband of a woman the colonel himself admired and possibly even loved.

Marianne, who knew nothing of his involvement in Willoughby’s recent troubles, laughingly dismissed the colonel’s coldness to her betrothed. “I pity him,” she told Elinor afterwards. “He is of an age beyond the reach of romantic sensibilities.”

~*~

One day while Willoughby and Marianne were out, Elinor and her hostess stopped in a milliner’s in Holborn after calling on one of the latter’s friends in that part of town. Mrs. Jennings’s attention had been drawn to a bonnet with bright-coloured satin trim on display in the window, and she and Elinor entered the shop just as two other ladies were completing their purchases. Elinor’s eyes met those of the gentleman accompanying them, and she gasped.

“Edward! Mr. Ferrars, what a pleasure it is to see you again.”

“Miss Dashwood! How fortunate to meet you here.” Edward appeared tired and pale, and his words held no warmth.

“Oho, Elinor! Mr. Ferrars with an F. You see, I have not forgotten.” Mrs. Jennings had whispered, but her significant looks were easily interpreted by all assembled.

As Edward neither introduced his friends nor made to leave, Elinor performed the civilities as far as she could, and soon Mrs. Jennings was animatedly conversing with the ladies. Edward continued silent and dull.

“May I ask how your family are?” Elinor ventured. “Is your mother well?”

“Not at all. She had a seizure and has been very ill since. The doctor believes the end is imminent.”

“I am very sorry. If there is anything I can do...”

“There is nothing. I am sorry.” He spoke to her but looked at the pretty girl by Mrs. Jennings’s side. The girl looked back at them. “I am sorry,” Edward repeated, though Elinor knew not why he felt any apology necessary.

“Miss Dashwood, Mr. Ferrars, you will never guess: Miss Steele and Miss Lucy are my cousins!” Mrs. Jennings recounted the details of their discovery and insisted on walking with the party before they returned to Bartlett's buildings, where the Misses Steele were staying. “We shall visit the shops to-morrow, Elinor.”

Elinor gladly would have taken Edward’s arm had he offered it, but he did not offer it. Furthermore, Miss Lucy took every opportunity to place herself between Elinor and Edward. Finally, Elinor turned to Miss Steele and talked to her with great perseverance, an effort that afforded her little pleasure.

~*~


“Girls,” said Mrs. Jennings, rushing into the room one afternoon, “you will never believe this! Old Mrs. Ferrars is dead, but that was not unexpected. Here is the surprise: Lucy has been secretly engaged these four years to Mr. Edward Ferrars! And to think, Elinor, I teased you about him because he shares the initial of your Mr. Forster, or Mr. Finch, or whoever the elusive Mr. F is! Lucy was bemoaning the delay, now Edward is in mourning, but I told her, ‘You have waited four years. What is one more?’ At least she is able to make her engagement public now. They had feared his mother’s disapproval. Mrs. Ferrars would have disinherited Edward and settled her estate on his brother, who, by Lucy’s account, is a great coxcomb.”

Marianne started and stared and seemed robbed of her powers of speech.

Elinor suffered from no such malady. “I hope…” Her voice trembled only a little. “I hope they will be very happy.” More than that she could not manage. She rose from her seat and walked out of the room, not hesitating even when she heard Marianne’s voice return, full of disbelief and indignation. Elinor did not pause until she reached her chamber. She locked herself in and leant her head against the door, staring at nothing and seeing the hollow look in Edward’s eyes when he had last spoken to her. His apology echoed in her mind.

The tears would not even come at first, but when they finally did come, it felt as if they would never stop.

~*~


On the day that Marianne Dashwood transformed from beautiful Miss into beautiful bride, Elinor stood with her sister, almost completely happy. Marianne glowed with joy. Willoughby, cutting quite the figure in his new coat, looked conscious of the treasure he was acquiring in his wife. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret wore continual smiles.

Elinor felt only a moment of agony when the vows were exchanged. The vicar’s eyes were the colour of Edward’s, and when he glanced at her during that part of the ceremony, she nearly started. She tried to banish the image of another couple that would be standing before another altar in a matter of months.

She reminded herself that Edward Ferrars had never been free to choose her. Whether his mother or his betrothed had presented the obstacle to her happiness mattered not; that the obstacle had been insurmountable was the material point.

Those present needed and merited her attention, she decided, not others of whom she would rarely hear and whom she might never see again. She closed her eyes for an instant, and when she opened them, she found she could return the vicar’s occasional glances with equanimity.

~*~


Not long after Marianne’s wedding, Elinor sat in Barton Cottage with Colonel Brandon, who once again was staying a few weeks with the Middletons. Margaret had fallen ill that day with a trifling cold, and after a comfortable chat, Mrs. Dashwood had excused herself to attend her youngest daughter upstairs. The moment Elinor had their guest’s company all to herself, she determined to use the circumstance to advantage. “There is something I have been longing to ask you, although I should not.” She took a deep breath before proceeding. “How fares Miss Williams?”

“You know of her? Mrs. Jennings told you.”

“Most of what I know I heard from my brother Willoughby.”

The colonel appeared incredulous. “Does Mrs. Willoughby know?”

“He never told her. I believe he never will.”

“Perhaps that is for the best.” He looked at her a long time before continuing. “Eliza is not my daughter, as some believe, but the daughter of my cousin.” Then the whole story poured forth: his love, his loss, and the tragedies that had followed.

“What of you, Miss Dashwood?” the colonel asked when he had related his account. “You have an air of melancholy about you of late. Do you miss your sister so very much?”

Something in his tone of voice made Elinor suspicious; he seemed to imply that she longed for the company of one who was definitely not Marianne. She would not allow him to think she had tender feelings for Willoughby. He was too much of a gentleman to suggest it openly, but she could imagine that he might wonder at Willoughby’s having taken her into his confidence.

Thus, she repaid Colonel Brandon’s openness with her own. She told him everything. She talked to him as she had not talked to her own mother or even to Marianne, who would only exclaim at Edward’s having harboured such a great secret and Elinor’s being so apparently unmoved by it before she again became distracted by her own concerns and pleasures in anticipation of the wedding. Colonel Brandon listened as if there were nothing he would rather do. He seemed to take in her words, and as she spoke, she saw her own emotions subtly reflected back on his face.

Their talk ended when Mrs. Dashwood called them both to dinner. Her mother interrupted their tête-à-tête at such a perfect moment that Elinor suspected she had for some time been waiting for a convenient pause in their conversation.

Upon taking his seat, the colonel remarked on a drawing affixed to the dining room wall. “That landscape...the sense of perspective, the balance of light and dark...remarkably well done.”

“Elinor’s handiwork,” Mrs. Dashwood informed him, smiling.

“Truly?” He smiled in turn at Miss Dashwood. “You are quite talented.”

Elinor thanked him and tried not to blush, though she admitted to herself the very great pleasure of having her work not only admired but also understood by a man of sense and education.

~*~


Colonel Brandon had walked to Barton Cottage that day with no other aim than to be near those who were dear to the woman he had recently begun to love.

She was too young for him, he knew; she cared nothing for him, he knew; she loved another (unworthy as he was), he knew.

Now she was married, and there was an end to it.

If only his endings were not so unhappy, perhaps he would truly be able to commit them to the past.

He was well aware of the similarities between Miss Marianne, or Mrs. Willoughby, as he ought to think of her now, and the elder Eliza. Over the years, other women had piqued his interest but none as quickly or as thoroughly. None was as reminiscent of his first love as she. The same warmth of heart, the same eagerness of fancy and spirits characterised both. Just a glimpse of Marianne’s eyes stirred fond memories of the very same features in Eliza.

It was the expression in those eyes when they turned to him that broke the spell again and again, for not once had Mrs. Willoughby looked upon him with anything like affection. And despite his low opinion of her husband, he hoped she would have a fate as far removed from that of the former Mrs. Brandon as possible.

As the mere second son, Brandon had had no means by which to stay the destructive force that had laid to waste nearly everything and everyone connected with Delaford. Even Willoughby’s thoughtless treatment of young Eliza seemed but a faint echo of the elder Brandons’ behaviour towards that branch of the family. Brandon himself had only been able to worry and wait at a distance, arriving only in time to sort the broken pieces left behind by everybody else.

It was too late now for restoration or restitution. Perhaps it was too late for self-recrimination as well, he considered. After all, what good had it done him? It had changed absolutely nothing.

He stood before Barton Cottage and knew, in those moments before the door was opened, that he would have to let her go. As he crossed the threshold and this truth lingered in his mind, he hardly knew which her he meant. Marianne? Eliza? Young Eliza and her child, or at least his hopes for them?

He was met in the passage by Mrs. Dashwood, a bit preoccupied with Miss Margaret’s illness but pleasant as ever. Miss Dashwood sat in the parlour and greeted him, as she always did, with a sincerity of manner that made him feel he was not merely not an inconvenience to be borne but instead a welcome addition to their party. After Mrs. Dashwood left them alone, he spoke of his ward with Miss Dashwood at her particular request. As she began to tell her own story, he felt a kinship he had not anticipated but most certainly appreciated.

Much later that evening, Colonel Brandon took leave of his hostesses. Mrs. Dashwood made her farewells and disappeared upstairs again to see to Miss Margaret. Miss Dashwood accompanied him outside, and they lingered on the lawn.

“I value your friendship,” he told her. Even as he said the word, he realised the term ‘friendship’ did not encompass all that he wanted to express, but he could think of nothing better. “If you should wish to revisit the subject of our earlier conversation, know that I will always be ready to listen.”

“Thank you, Colonel, but I hope our discussion at dinner proved that I shall be able to talk to you of something other than that sad business! Not that I would not do the same for you. Please feel free to raise the subject whenever you like. It is just that I try not to dwell on what will only depress my spirits. I prefer to exert myself. And I do feel so much better now for having told you. I would have you know that.”

He wondered if it might do him good to adopt her method of dealing with disappointment.

Not much more was said before the colonel started for Barton Park. He turned back at the hillside and looked towards the cottage, where he could just make out Miss Dashwood’s silhouette at the door. He waved and continued his solitary moonlit walk.

As he reflected on the unexpected pleasures of this day spent with friends, Colonel Brandon realised that for the first time in a long time, he was more than simply content.

He was happy.

~*~


After their intimate revelations, Elinor and Colonel Brandon saw each other nearly every day. They talked; they rambled across the countryside; they danced whenever Sir John felt obliged to entertain his young neighbours. They visited Whitwell once with a large party and once with only Margaret to chaperone them. They withstood the good-natured, vulgar teasing of Mrs. Jennings and Sir John and the gentle pressure of Mrs. Dashwood, until one day they admitted the possibility that they had been designed for each other.

Brandon and Elinor surprised no one with their engagement, except, perhaps, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby. —The wedding occurred within a twelvemonth of Marianne’s, and Mrs. Dashwood was consoled for every past affliction by the sincere attachments her daughters had inspired in their husbands.


~The End~