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"I should infinitely prefer a book." -- Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice
"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
"I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be." -- Chapter 20, Pride and Prejudice

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Monday, October 17, 2011

The Excursion to Whitwell, Part 3

The colonel did not stop at the manor house but proceeded directly to the cottage. As soon as the carriage drew to a halt, Marianne moved to jump down.

“My dear Miss Marianne,” implored the colonel as he hurriedly caught and steadied her, “please take care! We would not want you to injure your ankle again.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” Marianne heard Elinor say. “You are very kind.”

“Yes,” agreed Marianne, distracted by the task before her. All her attention had been for the front door and the matter of getting through it as quickly as possible. She turned to the man at her side, who, she noticed then, had not quite let her go. She had had the fleeting awareness of being held, and she had welcomed it, or at least had welcomed the freedom to think of things other than her physical safety, for her mind was wrapped up almost entirely in the business with Willoughby. Colonel Brandon at last released her and offered his arm; this she took, trusting him to deliver her rapidly to her mother’s side just as she had trusted him to deliver her to Barton Cottage.

Elinor led the way into the parlour, said something about refreshments, and turned to go.

Marianne stopped her. “I shall go to Mama, Elinor.”

“No,” her sister said. “You must rest. Let me see if she is well enough to come down.” Elinor hurried out.

“Her cold!” Marianne exclaimed, having recalled why it was her mother had not accompanied them. “Poor, dear Mama!” she fretted.

“Miss Marianne, please sit a moment. Your sister will not be long. Miss Marianne,” the colonel repeated.

“I cannot sit. I cannot be still.”

His look was one of understanding. “You want to be doing something.”

“Yes! Do you not feel that way?”

“Of course. I want to be on the road to London.”

“Oh, oh!” cried Marianne. “And I am delaying you from your duty! I am sorry. I did not even think of it.” She continued to pace. “Do not let me keep you further.”

“I cannot leave you in such distress.”

“Why ever not? I am safe at home now, and I am nothing to you, certainly compared to your ward.”

Rather than seeing relief on his countenance and hearing his rushed goodbyes, Marianne watched Colonel Brandon’s face redden. She stood still and stared at him in confusion.

“If you seek to remind me of my duty, there is no need.” His voice sounded stiff, even angry. “I assure you, I feel it, and my failure to discharge it, acutely.”

“I would not dare,” Marianne mumbled, wondering at this sudden change.

The colonel was not done. “But to say you are nothing to me, to think that I could abandon you at a time like this! How…” He stopped speaking and began to walk back and forth in front of the sofa.

She marvelled at his show of temper, marvelled at his being so greatly offended, until tiredness threatened to overtake her. Then she stopped trying to wrestle with what she could not comprehend and instead allowed her mind to fix on what it would. It fixed on the scene before her.

Such a small space; such contained, precise movement; nothing careless or carefree in his bearing, Marianne observed. The comparison to Willoughby followed, of course. It could hardly be helped. Willoughby, who was so often with them, who moved fluidly and familiarly through their public rooms, would never look upon her with such a sober expression. Willoughby, whose handsome face and charming manners brightened up any place where he was, would be at pains to appear as though the world were falling down about him, even if it were. This man, however, seemed to have darkened the space surrounding him with his solemn, restless energy. ‘Yet this,’ Marianne thought, her eyes tracking the colonel’s path, ‘is not a man who would seduce a young girl and leave her.’ And Willoughby, who had delivered heartbreak and worse to one who had had the misfortune to entrust herself to him, would probably never come here again. “Willoughby!” Her mouth formed the name in silence, and she felt empty.

Sadness settled over her. She sank down and sat at last, waiting for tears that did not fall. Perhaps her eyes were too weary to create any more of them. Her head ached, but the pain was a pittance compared to everything else.

She was jarred from her thoughts by the colonel’s tug on her fingers. “Miss Marianne?” He tapped the back of her hand in a light, rhythmic manner. “I believe you were about to faint.”

“No, I…” And then she realised she had leant over and rested her head on the cushion at an odd angle. A little farther and she might have slipped to the floor.

“Miss Marianne,” she heard the colonel whisper. “Marianne, please rally. Please,” he begged, “do not let him get the better of you, too.” She felt a gentle hand press against her cheek and shift her head until she sat upright again, and then the pillows were moved to support her. She blinked.

“Promise me you will not fall while I fetch you a glass of wine.”

“What?” Marianne raised a hand to her brow and thought about each word she had heard until they all made sense to her. “Yes, thank you,” she said, striving to stay steady while her head spun.

The colonel returned to her side, and she drank under his watchful eye. When he appeared satisfied, he relieved her of the glass. Unfortunately, the sounds that spilled into the room gave him such a start that he nearly splattered the remaining liquid over them both.

“Show me to Miss Marianne.” Mrs. Jennings’s voice rang through the hall. “I must see how she does.”

“Why did she not come to the Park first? It would have been faster.” Sir John inquired. “Besides, I had thought her remarkably improved when Brandon handed her into the carriage...”

Then they heard Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood in the hall, greeting their unexpected guests.

“No,” Marianne whispered. “No!”

“I will go,” the colonel said before Marianne’s incredulity and indignation found further expression. “I will send your mother and sister to you as soon as I can extract them.” He dashed from the room, and she was left alone to think. And think she did, first and foremost about that which could give her no pleasure.

It was not in her nature to withdraw her love, but Willoughby did not deserve it or even value it, if his behaviour was any indication. Had she been the one at fault—had there been some defect in her, something wanting in her character, that had pushed him away—oh, how she would mourn him! She would seek him out at once to make her apologies, to beg his forgiveness! Even so, she mourned him. She longed for and despised and missed and regretted him, and her great disappointment warred with the vestiges of her affection and held on stubbornly to her heart.

It was also not in her nature to reconsider her first impressions, but she found herself doing just that, not only with Willoughby but also with Colonel Brandon. Considering the colonel’s inextricable involvement in the dreadful business, she was surprised at how well she could bear his presence. She had never paid him any mind before today and she wondered how he had suddenly become so useful to her, a usefulness approaching indispensability with his increasing attention to her comfort. Comfort was what she had requested of Willoughby, and he had been worse than useless, she was both horrified and ashamed to admit, having only heaped upon her more anxiety and pain. Of the two men, she had the colonel to thank for any relief she felt at present, any palliation of her miserable state.

Elinor came in, followed by her mother. “Marianne,” said the latter, “my dear child, you do not look well at all. Have you too become ill?”

“We would have come sooner,” Elinor explained, “but I had to see Mama guarded against a chill, and I sent Margaret out to pick flowers for her room. Then—” She lowered her voice. “Well, I suppose you heard what happened then.”

“I could hardly avoid hearing it. But you are here now.”

“What is it you must tell me?” Mrs. Dashwood sat next to her daughter. “Elinor said you have had quite a shock.”

Marianne was ready to reveal everything, to condemn Willoughby as the worst of men, but the compassion in her mother’s eyes and the concern in her sister’s undid her. She cried out and flung herself into her mother’s embrace.

The colonel joined them. “They are gone!” he informed them. “They are gone. But did I hear—Miss Marianne!” He rushed towards her and stopped just short of reaching her.

“Colonel,” Marianne said, her voice hoarse, “tell them.”

“Are you certain?” he asked after a moment’s pause.

“I cannot do it myself.” She turned her head back towards her mother and cried out again, the sound muffled by the matron’s shoulder.

“All of it?”

“Anything! Everything. Whatever you wish.”

Marianne heard the colonel sigh, heard him pace, heard him cease pacing, heard him sit.

“I suppose the truth cannot be concealed in any case,” he said at last, and Marianne felt yet another pang. She had asked—no, commanded—him to tell his private woes to her family, to make public the ruin of his ward! She recalled how he had deliberated, silently and intensely, before handing her Eliza’s letter.

“Have I no heart at all?” she cried. He owed her nothing, and yet he had shown over and over to-day that he was ready and willing to give her anything she required; he had deferred to her at every turn, regardless of what it had cost him.

“It was wrong of me,” she said in a voice dulled by the sting of her shame, “to ask it of you. You need not reveal anything.”

To her shock, she felt his brief, firm touch on her hand—she knew his touch by now—and she drew strength from it. To her further surprise, though perhaps she should not have been surprised at all, he spoke not to her but to her mother and sister.

“This afternoon,” he began, “while we were sailing at Whitwell, Sir John handed me a letter.”

To hear the story recounted was difficult, but Marianne faced this penance for her regrettable request with determination, if not with eagerness. She winced as the colonel mentioned certain details in the letter that identified the man responsible for his ward’s condition; each one felt like a new injury at the site of an old wound. She shuddered when she recalled how she had felt upon first hearing the news, and then she shuddered when she imagined what might have occurred had the news never been made known to her. Had the colonel seen the letter at breakfast, would there have been a terrible scene there at the table? Or would he, with the means to depart at once, have ridden off without taking the time to read the letter again more carefully and thereby discover that the culprit was in their midst?

The culprit. Why had Willoughby done it?

Why had Marianne not seen what he was—that his ease with her must be a practiced ease with women in general? Oh, she knew he had not sought Elinor’s company as he had sought hers; she did not doubt that he cared particularly for her, in his way, but his way could no longer be trusted.

The colonel mentioned Eliza’s age in the retelling. Marianne stared. “Not yet seventeen! To be a mother, and so alone! I cannot imagine it!”

“She was too young to leave in the care of her friends. I should not have let her go to Bath.”

“Colonel,” Mrs. Dashwood interposed, “I would not hesitate to allow my daughters to travel with friends I trusted. You could not have known Miss Williams would receive so little supervision. You certainly could not have known Willoughby—Mr. Willoughby—would seek her out for such a purpose and succeed.”

“Colonel Brandon,” Marianne said, “Mama is right. You did nothing wrong. I know you feel it; I can see that you feel it, but this was not your doing.” She could tell he wanted to interrupt her and was glad he did not. “But you must go to her. You must prepare for your journey now. I have kept you too long.”

“I ought to go. There is no more to tell, or at least there will not be more until I have seen her and spoken to her myself.” He stood. “But are you certain, Miss Marianne, that you are well enough—”

“Here in this room, I am with those who love me best of all. I could wish to be nowhere else.”

The look in his eyes was striking. It captivated her. Marianne could not make out its full meaning, but she knew it signified a sort of friendship at the very least. They were forever connected through this sad affair, and she acknowledged that with a look of her own which she hoped conveyed both her sympathy and her appreciation of all he had done for her.

* * *

“What a kind man,” Mrs. Dashwood observed when the colonel had gone.

“He is kind,” Marianne agreed. “I never saw it before.”

“I tried to tell you,” Elinor reminded her, “that he is a man worth knowing.”

“Yes, I remember. You tried to tell us…” Marianne’s voice quieted as she recalled the day Elinor had defended Colonel Brandon. It was Willoughby, of course, who had begun that conversation by disparaging the man.

She was feeling generous towards the colonel, and at that moment she wished more for him than a lonely trip to town with nothing at the end of it but a guardian’s dreary responsibilities. “What a pity,” she said, not without effort, “that he is beyond the age for love and romance. Romance has done me no favours, I know,”—she was amazed at herself for having said those words without faltering—“but he, surely, would have made an attentive, caring husband to somebody. What a shame he has never married.”

Elinor appeared almost amused. “I am surprised to hear you say that, Marianne.”

“Why should I not say it, if it is what I think? Ah, Elinor,” she said, looking about the room. She tried not to fix on any object that reminded her of Willoughby’s frequent presence there, but the memories assaulted her at every turn. “Perhaps I should not have said it after all. For what good is marriage? How has it served our family? Mama is a widow; Willoughby is a rake and unfit for consideration; John is shackled to a harridan. And Edward—where is he? I will not say he is another Willoughby, but why does he avoid us? No, Elinor,” she continued, stopping her sister from interrupting. “You shall not defend even Edward. Margaret alone is fortunate among us, being too young for suitor or husband.”

“I trust, my dear,” said Mrs. Dashwood, “that you will not always hold that opinion.”

“Mama, I am done with men and marriage.”

“You are still young.”

“Older now than I was this morning, Mama.”

Margaret burst into the room, carrying a bouquet of wildflowers almost entirely of yellow. “I thought I saw the colonel drive away. What was he doing here?”

Margaret favoured the colour yellow more than her mother did, Marianne thought, frowning. She ignored Margaret’s question. She was so tired now.

Margaret’s loose hold on the stems allowed the blooms to droop, but she did not seem to notice. “What of Whitwell, Marianne? You must tell me all about it! Elinor would not say anything.” She twisted the stems. A few cuttings fell to the floor. “I wish I had gone, too. Sir John said it is a marvellous estate. Was he wrong?”

“No,” Marianne answered. “No, he was not wrong. It is a beautiful place.”

“Then why do you look so sad? And where is Willoughby? He did not come back to dine with us?”

Marianne said nothing but released a shuddering sigh.

“Margaret,” Mrs. Dashwood said, tightening her hold on Marianne, “after your sisters have had a chance to rest, I am sure they will tell you all about their journey. You were such a good girl to keep me company and forego the pleasure of the outing.”

Marianne thought it just as well that Margaret had remained at home. It was a moment before she realised her mother was speaking to her now and not her sister.

“Yes, Mama?”

“I said go upstairs, Marianne, and rest. I am certain you will be asleep within the hour.”

“I am very tired.”

“Margaret, see your sister to her room, please. I shall stay here awhile. It is pleasant to be away from my room. Sit with me, Elinor, if you are not too tired yourself.”

“Certainly, Mama.” Elinor gathered the dropped flowers and handed them to Margaret before sitting down again.

The door was not yet shut on them when Marianne heard her mother say something of the colonel’s interest, to which Elinor replied; and then, as she and Margaret proceeded to the stairs, the only other word she could discern was her mother’s anguished cry of that once-beloved name: “Willoughby!”

Despite Mrs. Dashwood’s earlier words, Margaret tried her best to prod Marianne into discussing the day’s outing. Marianne was simply too weary to answer her sister’s many and varied questions, and whenever she tried to tell her so, the pressure of tears closed her throat. At last she gave Margaret a look so expressive that the latter ceased her inquiries and wished Marianne a good rest.

* * *

Marianne did not sleep as her mother had predicted, but stared at the ceiling of her room, her throat raw and her body aching with exhaustion. She did not come down to dinner. To take nourishment was not of any importance or interest to her, and when Elinor came up with a tray to coax her to eat something, she cooperated but little.

At times she lay as still as stone, fancying her nightgown a shroud and wishing herself done with this world. Far more often, she turned her head this way and that, uttering sighs and moans, or held it steady as tears coursed down her cheeks and over her ears and into her hair. At these times she savoured every physical sensation and every painful emotion that told her she was still very much alive; she knew that she wanted to live, even if she would never be happy again.

Had there been only the loss of Willoughby to occupy her thoughts, she would have been without the means or desire of staunching the flow of her grief. However, the alteration in Willoughby himself repulsed her as much as his former manner had attracted her, and her sense of having seen his true character prevented her desiring the false one.

Having dwelt on her own despair and even having shed a sympathetic tear for the plight of Miss Williams, her thoughts drifted to the two men, to the differences in their words and behaviour. She thought of the tone of voice of one as he had spoken to her in anger and of the expression of the other as he had bidden her farewell with great reluctance.

Suddenly she sat up. A wave of dizziness made her resolve at once to lie down again, but her heart raced at her sudden burst of understanding. At last she knew—with astonishing certainty she knew—what that parting look of Colonel Brandon’s had signified.

She was so sure because she realised she had been in expectation every day of just such a look from Willoughby, and had Willoughby given her that look, she would have believed him on the verge of offering for her and would have flown into his arms before he had finished uttering the words.

But the colonel could not be thinking of her in that way. He was…. She was…. No, he simply could not.

Could he?

She groaned. How had the world gone mad in a single day?