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"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Excursion to Whitwell


(2011)
Sense and Sensibility
This story begins after Chapter 12 of the novel with the following change: Colonel Brandon does not receive a certain letter while breakfasting at Barton Park, and the outing to Whitwell proceeds as planned.
*WIP*



Part One

Their excursion to Whitwell turned out to be very like what Marianne had expected, yet different in ways she never would have anticipated, not in her wildest imaginings. She had hoped to be entertained, excited, and even enthralled, which she could not have failed to be in the presence of a certain gentleman of her acquaintance; and while the actual event rendered her all of those things, it also effected a shocking change in her circle of friends, in her view of the world, and, most notably, in her heart.

By ten o'clock the whole party were assembled at the park, where they were to breakfast. The morning was certainly favourable—the previous night’s rain was as nothing—for the clouds were dispersing across the sky and the sun forcing its way through them with greater and greater frequency. All were in high spirits and good humour, eager to be happy, and determined to submit to any inconvenience or hardship rather than be otherwise.

The breakfasters were just beginning to rise from the table when the letters were brought in. Sir John, anxious to be gone, gathered them up. He glanced at the first one and smiled in that silly way of his. “Another day, my dear,” he said to his wife, “I should be very glad to read of Mr. Polk’s exploits in town, but I shall defer that particular enjoyment until tomorrow.” He did not wait for any acknowledgement from Lady Middleton but left the room immediately to put the letters away, perusing them as he went.

“Mr. Polk!” exclaimed Mrs. Jennings. “That man thinks entirely too well of himself.” She relayed what she could recall from that gentleman’s previous letter to Sir John, and she was not half done with her account by the time her son-in-law returned. Marianne did her best to ignore the woman’s inane chatter, but the volume of Mrs. Jennings’s voice made it a difficult undertaking.

“Let us be off!” was the host’s cry as he reached the door of Barton Park, and not a moment too soon! As all were ready, they quickly filled the carriages. They made a merry party. There were those who were merry by nature and those whose company rendered them so, and the prospect of the outing was enough to animate even the less lively members of the group.

Marianne sat down and Willoughby sat beside her. She looked back to see Elinor in a carriage with Colonel Brandon, and she pitied her. “Whatever will they talk of?”

Willoughby caught the direction of her glance and shrugged. “Your sister always finds something to say to him. We need not worry about it.”

“I do not know how she does it.”

The colonel was not mentioned again during the remainder of their ride, despite his connection to the owners of the estate they were to visit. There were views to be appreciated, observations to be made, feelings to be treasured; they had not even arrived at their destination, and yet the day already promised to be one that would linger long in Marianne’s memory.

At Whitwell’s entrance, Marianne drew Elinor to her side, thinking to provide her with better companionship in herself and Willoughby than what she had endured during the journey, and they joined the others on the tour. The grand fa├žade, the avenue, the formal garden and the little wilderness to the east of it all pleased the eye and drew forth exclamations of delight. The rooms of the manor house were very fine, fitted up in modern style, but the visitors spent little time indoors. It was a day to be out, and here, where the ground was drier and less dirty than at Barton, they took full advantage of the chance to wander about.

Marianne and Elinor in particular, missing their childhood home, felt all the pleasure of the opportunity afforded them. Acknowledgement of the occasional resemblance to their family seat was mainly restricted to a shared glance after coming upon a familiar-looking stand of trees here, or a certain variety of flower there. Marianne could not keep an exclamation or two from escaping her lips, though she determinedly restrained herself from more, deeming the majority of the hearers unworthy or unable to appreciate what had precipitated them. Elinor had no such difficulty, she knew; a slight nod or raised brow was enough for her, and further expression of sentiment Marianne had long ago been taught not to expect from her elder sister, especially in company.

Yet there arose a moment when the loss did threaten Elinor’s composure: there was a turn in one of the walks that resembled its counterpart at Norland Park to such a degree that neither Dashwood sister could be insensible of it. It was too much even for Elinor, and though the sentiment, Marianne doubted not as they looked at each other, was mirrored in their faces to an unequal degree as befitted the disposition of each, there was no disparity in the sincerity of feeling, which was greatly to the credit of the former and enough to satisfy the latter. Assured that her sister felt as she ought, Marianne was able to turn aside and indulge her own memories.

“You sigh.”

She looked up to see Willoughby staring down at her in attentive concern. “Yes.”

“What troubles you, Marianne?” he spoke in a low voice. Not that they were near enough to anyone else to hear him address her so; not that there would truly be any harm done if anyone heard him do so. How could there be? Nonetheless, it was sweet and accentuated the sense of intimacy and accord she always felt in his company.

“This reminds me—”

“Ah. Of course.”

Of course she did not need to explain. He understood her in this, as in everything else. An allusion to the superiority of her mother’s management of the estate to that of the Mrs. Dashwood now in residence there and her spirits almost rallied. It seemed he always knew the perfect thing to say! There were times she felt his love and loyalty in every spoken phrase, and this was one of them.

Despite Marianne’s love of Norland, she wished at that moment to be exactly where she was, for she was with Willoughby—the one source of unalloyed pleasure she had found in having removed to Devonshire, and her more than sufficient compensation for having to bear the tedious company of some of the others of their set. Then Willoughby happened to look at her and happened to smile, and her adoration of him banished all traces of sorrow in an instant. Surely she would have her own home again soon, first in Somersetshire and later in Devonshire. Surely she was not being presumptuous in thinking so, despite whatever Elinor may say—and however often she may say it!—to impress upon her the wisdom of discretion and caution. Discretion? Caution? Dissemblance and cowardice, more like! In her own case, keeping company with such inferior companions would be unforgivable, for admiration had rapidly turned to love, and that love was certain to lead to matrimony before very long. It was inevitable.

* * *


They were well away from the shore when Sir John called to Colonel Brandon and handed him a piece of paper. The colonel examined it, paled, and ran off to an isolated spot to open and read what appeared to be a letter. Marianne would not have noticed had the colonel not been standing near her when Sir John had sought him out; much like his mother-in-law’s, the baronet’s voice was too loud to shut out completely.

“He is always hovering about,” she said to Willoughby, nodding towards Mr. Brandon.

“Lonely old man.”

We do not want his company.” She huffed and turned away from the sight of him. “Reading a letter, of all things. At least his occupation with it has removed him to a more comfortable distance.”

“That is exactly what I think, Marianne.”

Marianne was not so lucky as to have escaped the colonel’s presence entirely, for he soon returned to speak with Sir John. The latter, not being content with answering his own oft-repeated questions regarding the colonel’s odd behaviour, had attempted unsuccessfully to ply satisfactory explanations from Willoughby and Marianne.

“Can we not,” Colonel Brandon begged as he approached them, “return to shore? I must get back to Barton at once. I have a pressing matter of business, and I—”

“Business!” Sir John exclaimed. “Who can think of business on a day like this?”

“Why did you delay in giving me the letter?”

“You were not the only one to set aside ‘pressing matters’ to-day. One cannot enjoy a party of pleasure otherwise.”

“I can barely believe you carried it on your person for so many hours! Had you dropped it, lost it—No! I will not dwell on that possibility.”

“It was as safe as can be, right here in my pocket,” Sir John assured him, patting the now-empty place where it had been.

“Oh, that I had seen this,” the colonel said, clutching the letter, “before we departed!”

“Eh? Then I am glad I waited as long as I did to give it to you.”

“What! What can you mean by that?”

“That lioness of a housekeeper seemed quite set against admitting us until she saw your face, never mind that I have been here a dozen times over. She might have chased us off the grounds had you not come,” he said, gesturing and chuckling, vastly amused.

Willoughby smirked and then laughed—a short, sharp sound. “There are some people,” he whispered to Marianne, “who cannot bear a party of pleasure. Brandon is one of them. He was afraid of catching cold I dare say, and invented this trick for getting out of it. I would lay fifty guineas the letter was of his own writing.”

“I have no doubt of it,” replied Marianne, noticing that the colonel indeed looked ill at that moment.

“You know, Brandon,” Sir John was saying, “how you are. Had you seen that letter when it arrived, you would have thrown us over in an instant in favour of writing to some solicitor or other, or worse, you would have fled the house and taken yourself off to town to meet with him!”

Marianne, sharing a knowing glance with Willoughby, marvelled that even Sir John had the right of it.

“Oh, yes, Colonel,” said Mrs. Jennings with a laugh. That she had been drawn to the conversation and had now joined it was no surprise; she was quick, Marianne thought, when it came to matters that were none of her concern, the vulgar woman. “Do not deny you would have chosen business over pleasure.”

“I have no wish to deny it!” Brandon replied. “I do wish, however, I dearly wish, that there had been no delay. It is late now for a ride to town. Yet I must go.”

“Then leave at first light,” said Willoughby, and Sir John agreed. “Surely that will be soon enough.”

“Soon enough!” he said as Sir John and Mrs. Jennings wandered off in high spirits, abusing the colonel for his wish to desert the party for the sake of some trifling business matter. “I have waited far too long already. Would that I had gone nine months ago! I might have prevented this.”

Marianne heard him and wondered aloud to Willoughby, “What can he mean by that? Nine months? If his business is that old, there is no occasion to rush to see to it now, is there?” She closed her eyes and savoured the feel of the breeze on her face. “Nine months ago, I was at my dear Norland, never thinking I would have to leave it so soon.” The moment her eyes rested on Willoughby again, she began to smile. “Where were you nine months ago? Can you recall?”

“In town, I imagine. No, I…” He blushed—absolutely blushed! Marianne was astonished to see it. “I was in Bath.” His mouth curved a tiny bit.

“Bath! I should love to see Bath.” Marianne touched his arm, for he seemed lost in thought. “Did you enjoy it? Did you form any interesting acquaintance?”

“No,” he said in a too-quick, too-loud voice. “No. I cannot say that I did.” His face flushed red again.

“Willoughby?”

He refused to meet her eye at first, and when he finally returned her gaze, he looked—why, he looked like a little boy expecting to be scolded! She could not account for it.

“Willoughby, what is this?” she asked him, peering into his face. “We have no reserve between us!” She laughed. “You are hardly shy. I am sure you make friends wherever you go. Any gentleman would be happy to make your acquaintance, and any lady is certain to…” “To adore you,” she whispered, but suddenly that idea was not very comforting. It did not help that Willoughby behaved as if he had some great embarrassment to conceal. “You did meet someone there, then.” She could feel her brow furrow. “A lady?” she asked with a cheerfulness that sounded hollow to her as she tried to convince herself it must be of no consequence.

“You are becoming too skilled,” he said, half-laughing himself, “at discerning my thoughts. If you continue to improve, soon I shall not have to speak at all.”

“Willoughby!” For once she could not tell whether he was jesting or speaking seriously. “Tell me!” She hoped it was a joke.

“Marianne, they were only—”

“THEY?” She saw him swallow.

“They were only”—his voice was not so steady now—“a couple of silly girls.”

“TWO?”

“ONE of them—” He coughed. “One of them was particularly fond of me I admit, but she was nothing to me, truly.” He leant towards her and whispered, “She was certainly nothing to you. You must believe that.”

She gasped. She did not like this at all.

How could there exist any thing having to do with Willoughby that she did not like?

She tried to think. This girl was nothing, and he was still her Willoughby, was he not? “How can I blame any girl for being drawn to you?” she murmured. “That seems ungenerous. As long as you were not drawn to her,” she said, turning over in her mind this prickly, unwieldy feeling of jealousy, “I shall be satisfied.”

“Good,” he said, visibly relieved.

His assurances notwithstanding, she found, after the reflection of a moment, that there was little satisfaction to be had. Either he had loved this girl or he had not—was there anything between love and not love?—and when she reviewed his behaviour, every sign pointed to an attachment. She was partial, exceedingly partial to him, but she was not blind! Despite his words to the contrary, he had blushed and stammered and all but admitted to a romance. Neither was she deaf. His tone had warmed when he had spoken of the girl’s affection for him, as if he had relished it—as if he were proud of having created it! Had the girl’s feelings been completely unrequited and unwelcome, there would have been no cause for embarrassment, no tenderness of expression. They might now laugh together at the lady’s folly if folly it had been, or if not, pity her for having been so unlucky as to have fixed her affections on someone who did not return them.

“You did not sound as though she were nothing to you. Did you care for her a little?” She despised the notion that one she loved so much might be capable of loving merely a little, but she despised even more the notion of being second in his heart. “Did you care for her at all?” she pressed. “And if you did, what happened? Why did it come to nothing, Willoughby?” He who, like herself, did nothing by halves—she was bewildered. “I had thought there had been no one else. It never occurred to me to think otherwise! I had thought that I….” She could not say it. She had believed herself to be the first, the only woman to truly attach him. She had believed a person could love—really love—only one other.

This was a sort of thing she could not fathom.



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