The halls of Delaford rang with the master’s pounding of the keys on the pianoforte. He bashed out the most harrowing music he could find in his collection; he let the noise, for that was what resulted, speak for him in this ungodly hour. The servants, sent to bed hours before and yet awake to tend to the master’s unspoken needs, stared at one another with no small measure of concern.
It lasted some time, and when it was concluded, a ragged, panting Colonel Brandon emerged from the music room. He clutched the doorframe, resting his forehead against his hand. Catharsis had come, and he was spent. His valet, ears ringing, asked his master if anything was needed.
“I thought I told you before, I need my solitude this night.”
Brandon pushed past the worried valet, who promptly went downstairs to tell the remaining staff to go ahead and get some shut-eye, for he would clean up alone.
No one could say for sure, then, the next day, whether Colonel Brandon had been drunk. The decanter and glasses were spotless, and in their proper place.
Crumpled in his hand when he woke was the note, sent the day before from Barton Park, alerting the Colonel to news no hastily scrawled missive had been capable of surprising him with.
Marianne Dashwood is lately married to John Willoughby of Combe Magna and Allenham.
What shocked him most was how little that sentence affected him, read now in clear daylight, and the certainty that even the night before, it had not been that which upset him and the household. Marianne Dashwood belonged to Willoughby from the moment he came upon her in the rain. That was a fact to which Brandon had long been reconciled; she had no ear for a voice that was not Willoughby’s, nor eye for a face other than his. Brandon’s own ear had become attuned to another voice, and though it rang out less often in gay and happy laughter, it occasionally tripped into a wry sort of knowing that he wanted to soothe. He wanted so much to find out what brought on the tone of resignation that colored any joy, and he wished for the sobriety of it to temper his own excitable romanticism.
She, though, was as attached as her sister, or he’d been given to understand. And that was what overtook him, in the vulnerable state he’d been in hours earlier.
Unfolding the paper now, eyes sticky and protesting the light, he re-read the rest. An invitation to shooting, to an upcoming house party, to dinner, to tea – Middleton’s door was open to Colonel Brandon, if not the entire county, at the first opportunity. And yes, the remaining Dashwood girls would be there.
And Miss Dashwood does remain, indeed, though we had thought her heart gone; her Mr. F. was no loyal pup awaiting her from afar, if ever he was hers at all. And there, Mrs. Jennings’ musings infect my own, and you’ll forgive me reminding you that our Miss Dashwood is still quite pretty, no bloom rubbed off though she be older than her sister.
Brandon could hear the wry, teasing note in his old friend’s voice, though the page belied nothing more.
He tossed the pages aside, and made ready for the day, calling his valet and apologizing silently for the night before. He’d never tested the man’s patience and was wordlessly assured he still had not.
“Would you prefer the riding jacket sent from London, sir?”
But he would not ride, not today. “I’ll be in my study today, Watson. See to it that Mr. Walters is alerted I will require his presence in an hour.”
Delaford had been neglected of late. He would concentrate on that and consider a visit to the Middletons another time.
Elinor brushed the dust off the shelf where Marianne’s books had been. She’d taken them all, when she’d gone to Combe Magna, leaving behind just the imprint where they’d rested.
Elinor’s fancy, well-developed if rarely uttered, felt keenly the comparison – Marianne herself had left an imprint, too, more keenly felt. Margaret was downstairs even now, tinkling at the keys of the small pianoforte in the parlor, a dusty shadow of Marianne’s impassioned skill at the instrument. This evening they would read aloud, and Elinor’s dry intonations would scratch at her mother’s ear, though Mrs. Dashwood would smile and thank Elinor for her efforts.
Six months now. The dust on the shelf was thick.
Marianne wrote letters, full of stardust and dreams, fanciful writing that still left so much to the imagination. She would have them all to Combe Magna, and soon, but for now they were traveling, they were in London, dear John had plans for renovations and Marianne would have them see it all when finished and not before.
Mrs. Dashwood would read it aloud, and sigh, looking to the chair Marianne preferred or the pianoforte, or out to the lane as if Marianne would drive up just then.
Her mother walked in, folded paper in her hand.
Elinor straightened, and brushed her hands off on her apron. “Yes, mother? Is that a letter from Marianne?”
Her eagerness to hear from her sister was impossible to hide. Even cautious, careful Elinor had her limit.
She was denied. “No, it is an invitation to Barton Park. Mrs. Jennings has particularly asked for your company this evening. I believe we should go.”
It was not an unusual request, nor an unusual plan. They were often in company with the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings; they had been at Barton Park just two nights before, in fact. And Elinor had faced with equanimity the gossip about the former Miss Lucy Steele and her “catch,” whose name was never uttered in Elinor’s hearing. Not by those good people, nor her own mother, though the former were still given to knowing looks and significant drops in their tone of voice.
Thus it had been, for several months now, Lucy’s good fortune coinciding with Marianne’s. In all that time, though there had been visits innumerable to Barton Park, not once had Mrs. Dashwood sought Elinor out so specially to tell her of an invitation, and never once had Mrs. Jennings sent a particular wish for Elinor’s company.
Elinor had to admit, she was intrigued.
“Mother, what is in that note besides this invitation? It is not so momentous, surely, to cause such a stir of emotion.” For Mrs. Dashwood’s color was high, her bottom lip swollen from chewing in agitation. Elinor was very familiar with both.
“Colonel Brandon is to be there this evening.”
Elinor blinked, and all that was heard for several moments was Margaret’s rushed attempt at a melancholy favorite of Marianne’s.
Of his departure, Mrs. Dashwood had only the slightest information. It was Elinor who had the clearer recollection. He’d come to the cottage, dressed for travel, to take his leave of them. Elinor recalled his pallor, the look of a man who had not slept and likely would not, so disturbed was his frame of mind. She’d been alone – her mother and Margaret were on a walk to collect berries, or more likely to have a conversation about Elinor.
For she’d only that morning received confirmation of what she’d known was going to happen, what Lucy Steele had forced her to understand in the cruelest way. She’d taken it well, for what was there to surprise or upset her at this point?
But if Colonel Brandon was disheveled, Elinor was discomposed as well. She wore her work apron, forgetful of her company manners. She had cried, loathe though she was to admit it, and it showed on her face, to one who knew her better than either understood just then.
“Forgive me, Colonel, I did not know to expect you.”
“No, Miss Dashwood, tis I who must ask forgiveness. I am…I need to say….”
And he stopped altogether, never finishing his sentence.
The next few moments, Elinor would never forget. Neither said a word. Colonel Brandon had stepped toward her, a look on his face of wonder and concentration. He lifted a gloved hand to her face and rubbed his thumb over her cheek.
She’d stood so still, unable to move, captivated. And whatever might have happened next did not, for Margaret’s excited voice carried over the nearby hill and started them both.
“I am leaving,” he said, firmly, as he turned to his horse. “I need…there is business to which I must attend. I know not when I shall return, and Miss Dashwood….” Here he faltered, here he turned and might have come toward her once more. Only she had backed away, giving him space, heart pounding and feelings oppressed.
He nodded then and sighed. He climbed his horse and told her to give his regrets and goodbyes, that he should surely miss seeing them all – all? – and away went Colonel Brandon, until, apparently, this very day.
None of what had passed was known. Elinor had been in a tumult that entire day – first, from news of Edward, which truly only had the power to scratch. Then from the Colonel, whose own feelings had to have been confused, surely.
“Elinor?” Her mother was not so well deceived as all that – she sensed something amiss, Elinor knew.
“Of course we should go. It will be good to see the Colonel, after all this time. Perhaps he’s had some adventure and will regale us with his tales. I’ll finish the chores and get ready to go; let Margaret know, I’ll help her with her hair, if she comes up quickly.”
Elinor’s steady character was an asset to her in most times, not least of all when her mother was looking for a dramatic interlude to liven their lives, and she herself was romanticizing the dust on the shelves.
He’d stayed away longer than he had intended, and it was entirely due to those few moments at Barton Cottage.
For some time, Brandon knew he’d never been in love with Marianne Dashwood. Sir John and Mrs. Jennings had decided it and declared it and it was therefore the gospel truth, to everyone but the man himself. Marianne was young and beautiful, and reminded Brandon painfully of a lost love – that much was true. And he wanted to love her, had thought he could, though he was too aware of her feelings on the matter. It couldn’t last, a love unrequited and dismissed so thoroughly.
That she would marry Willoughby was a blow, but by the time Brandon was aware of just how great a blow, it had been too late. Vows had been made, consecrated. And he had no proof.
The frustration of it all was great, and he determined to see Beth and the child settled far from Devonshire. It had been on that mission he was bound when he went to take his leave at the cottage. He had expected Mrs. Dashwood, and a short interview in the parlor, where the ladies would take pains to conceal their poverty and in turn he would take pains not to see it. He had brought a nosegay of flowers to brighten their day, and it had been forgotten in his saddlebag when he was confronted with Elinor. Devastated, bruised Elinor, whose eyes had shone despite her obvious sadness.
In that moment, as he tried to simply say goodbye, to go, he’d met her steady gaze. Some news had reached her, perhaps, or she was lonely for Marianne. He did not know – but, ah, he could guess after all. Mrs. Jennings had, on their last visit, gone on for some time about her nieces, the Miss Steeles, and their prospects. Elinor had visibly recoiled at the mention of Lucy Steele’s upcoming nuptials.
Brandon felt the injustice of it. Elinor, a worthy woman, a good and true heart, losing out to a grasping gossip such as Miss Steele.
The parallel, for him, was stark. He’d reached out to her without thinking. He’d wanted to offer comfort, to tell her, she was not alone.
And perhaps she would not need to be.
The thought had come to him so quickly, with such conviction, and he’d been startled. Ten minutes before, he’d regretted her sister. Loved her, no, but regretted her all the same.
He’d gone then. And dwelt on Elinor’s face, Elinor’s voice, Elinor’s calm. Elinor’s tumult.
His return was no sooner than anticipated; neither had he prolonged his trip to avoid her. He had no idea of her feelings but had no expectations. They had been friends, and he hoped, fervently, that was still so.
‘Twould be difficult in company, if not.
Sir John sat him down and asked questions as probing as ever; Brandon let his old friend know as much as he could without giving away the true purpose for his absence. But then, that was probably to Sir John’s liking. Just enough information to cause a mystery and let Sir John’s imagination run without going wild.
The Dashwood family was announced and the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings turned their attention; guests were ever the idol at Barton Park, and these no less than others, for company is company, and Sir John and his wife dearly loved company. It was a small party that night, “family,” in Mrs. Jennings’ pronouncement. They would dine and there would be cards and music, and merciless teasing for all.
In such a setting, Brandon had little choice but to avoid saying too much or too little to Miss Dashwood, lest his intentions become suspect and both of them exposed to matchmaking of the acutest kind. So he greeted her mother, bowed over her hand, and let slip a teasing remark to her sister, all of it under Mrs. Jennings’ eagle eye.
He avoided detection, and Mrs. Jennings turned her pronouncements of spring weddings on Margaret Dashwood, who bemusedly ventured a sally in return.
Mrs. Dashwood had turned to Lady Middleton and engaged that woman on the topic of her children, prompting a summoning of said offspring and a show-and-tell.
Elinor was left to speak to the men, and she exchanged pleasantries with them both and listened attentively to Sir John’s explanation of the intent of the evening. “Brandon, what do you say, care to regale us over supper with tales of high seas adventure?”
It had been neither on the high seas nor much in the way of adventure, but he inclined his head, and his host declared it a capital evening and moved to join his wife in showing off the children’s talents.
Elinor did not look up at Colonel Brandon right away. She let silence lay between them, to see if it could be comfortable.
They sat down on the same settee, respectable distance between them. Their small party made noise enough to cover for any lack of conversation between the naturally taciturn.
Elinor offered a small smile, and the Colonel returned it. She tried to convey something of what she was feeling in her looks – Marianne would have no trouble with such a thing, and would, indeed, scoff were she there to see this. Just tell him already, Elinor! Why hide your feelings when you know them to be true?
Know them to be true? How could she know her feelings true if she had scarce made their acquaintance?
But the Colonel returned her gaze, and said so much with that one glance that Elinor blushed, and was glad suddenly for the fire close by, and the excuse of sitting in a warm room.
Though there was something to say, Brandon knew. His heart had formed a design, of which he’d scarcely been aware. Sitting here now, seeing her fully for the first time in months, and seeing no trace of the melancholy in which he’d been sure he’d found her that day, he could feel all the certainty of a deeper connection.
They had been friends, Brandon and Elinor. They were going to be so much more.
He came the next day to the cottage, to reacquaint himself properly with her mother. He brought flowers again, this time not forgotten to wilt, and discussed the goings-on in the village and his hopes for spring planting at Delaford to the extent which a lady of breeding could be expected to care.
“This weather is fine, ‘twould be a shame to waste it. Miss Dashwood, Miss Margaret, would you join me for a short walk?”
“Margaret needs to sit down to her studies just now, Colonel. But I’m sure Elinor would be happy to join you.”
So, Mrs. Dashwood was not blind to all that went on around her, after all.
Elinor agreed to the scheme and got a wrap. They ventured out, promising not to go too far.
Silence, that oldest of sure companions, so comfortable the night before, could hardly be expected to stand up to the pressure of their situation. And Brandon had no intention of letting it.
“Miss Dashwood, when I left. The day I left, that is. I came here intending no more than to take my leave, to be sure I didn’t leave you all without a word.”
“I know,” she replied, and watched him.
“I wanted to kiss you.”
Both were taken aback by his bald declaration, knowing it to be true. Elinor remembered his hand on her cheek and put hers there now in imitation of it.
“Miss Dashwood – Elinor – there are many things which need to be said. Not least of which is this – the gossip had it that my heart belonged to another. It might have, had there been fertile soil in which to grow any kind of attachment. I knew, very early on, that it wasn’t to be, and I allowed no such attachment. My heart was free, so far as I knew, until that morning, right over there on the lane.”
Elinor took in a breath and nodded.
For she knew and had understood. She had not wanted syllables when actions were so plain. She wanted them now. She took a deep breath, and spoke.
“My heart, I thought lost. I thought, I believed myself, that is…I cannot tell you I was similarly struck, that day. But it has come to me, and I believe you and I are…that is, my heart was free, until it wasn’t. Over there, on the lane.”
He took hold of her then and kissed her, in such a way as to leave no doubt of his intention or his passion.
Elinor Dashwood returned her lover’s ardor in full, so that any who saw them would blush, and they themselves would recall with satisfaction and desire in later days.
It was never said, in times to come, that Colonel Brandon and Elinor Dashwood ever loved others. Instead it was believed – for it was Sir John Middleton who proclaimed it to be so, and who ever doubted that good man’s proclamations – that theirs had been a slow and gradual kind of love, that burned no less fiercely for having taken time to grow.