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Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience—or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.

- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

 

With just a few words, Lucy Steele had shattered Elinor’s hopes and dreams, and broken her heart. She now knew herself to be divided from Edward forever. To marry Edward was but a dream, and it would never come true. Lucy had the prior claim, so all that was left for Elinor was to give him up. She had to live in the world as it was, not as she wished it to be. She wanted every happiness for Edward, and being pulled in multiple directions was not happiness. She would need to overcome her feelings, maybe even forget him (as much as one could forget the brother of one’s sister-in-law), and at the very least suppress any feeling that was not pure friendship for him. She could admit herself to be fond of him, but nothing more. She needed to achieve the disinterest within herself she professed to Mrs Jennings and Sir John.

She could admit to herself that he probably had harboured some sense of attachment to her during those weeks they spent together at Norland, but she now knew that he had been unable to speak due to a prior engagement. Still, the conversations and the moments they had shared clearly did mean something to him, just as they had meant something to her. In a way, it was comforting to know that she had not been reading too much into it and given in to Marianne-style wishful thinking. That there had been a true connection between them. But that did not help much, because even if there had been a connection, even if he did feel for her as she felt for him, there was no future in it. He was as lost to her as if he hadn’t reciprocated the feelings at all. In a way, it might even be worse, because now she knew that he probably suffered just as she did.

*

With both Marianne and Elinor suffering heartbreak and romantic disappointment (although only one of those was widely known), Mrs Jennings invited them to town, no doubt so that they could have the opportunity to run into Mr F and Mr W, respectively. Elinor was reluctant, as she had no wish to run into Mr F, or indeed to put up with Fanny’s snide comments implying she was the worst kind of fortune-hunter (obliquely, of course, as she was family, but present nonetheless), but she was overruled. They would go to London, and Elinor would attempt to be happy about it.

But their stay in London was not to be. Mrs Jennings, while going up the stairs one day, tripped over her hem, and fell. The doctor pronounced her fine, aside from two broken legs, which he splinted and gave her strict orders to stay off for at least six weeks, possibly even two or three months. Being jostled about in a carriage on a two-day long trip to London was completely out of the question, and naturally they could not go without a chaperone.

Elinor had not wanted particularly to go to London, but she was very sorry indeed for her friend’s misfortune, and Marianne had so pinned her hopes on going to London and seeing Willoughby, that she was quite desolate, and of course, when Marianne was desolate, all the Dashwoods knew it.

The one bright spot in all of this was that the Palmers departed and took the Steeles with them, as they did not want to burden the Middletons with additional guests at such a troublesome time. Elinor had a suspicion that they it was less that they did not wish to trouble Mrs Jennings in her difficult time, and more that they did not wish to be troubled by Mrs Jennings’ uncharacteristic dourness in her difficult time, although she did not voice her suspicions to anyone (she also suspected that Mrs Dashwood harboured the same suspicions, even if neither of them would speak of it). Elinor did not begrudge Mrs Jennings for dealing with her condition in a less than ideal manner, even if it did make visits to Barton Park more of an ordeal than it usually was.

There was one other bright spot that appeared some weeks after Mrs Jennings’ fall – Colonel Brandon returned from his urgent business. He gave no details about it, but from his countenance Elinor supposed it had gone reasonably well – he did not seem unduly anxious or upset, but rather grimly determined.

He did enquire after Marianne, who had upon seeing Colonel Brandon come to call, once again dragged Margaret out for a long walk, and asked if the engagement between her and Willoughby had been finalised. Elinor knew of no such engagement, and told him so, but also told him that it did seem inevitable, or at least it had before Willoughby had left them: they all supposed that his aunt did not approve, and that rather than staying to press her, he had left, hoping some time apart might change her mind. It did not quite make sense to Elinor, but the thought processes of romantics, as both Willoughby and Marianne were, often eluded her.

“That being the case to your sister I wish all imaginable happiness. And to Willoughby, that he may endeavour to deserve her,” the Colonel said. “And yourself – are you well? Forgive my rudeness, but you seem slightly tired.”

Elinor assured him that she knew it came from a place of concern, not rudeness, and that she was well indeed – merely worried about Mrs Jennings and Marianne. It was clear that Colonel Brandon did not entirely believe her, but he did not press, for which she was very thankful.

*

Into this misery came the news that Mr Willoughby was engaged to be married to a Miss Grey. There was no note from Willoughby himself, no warning that this might come, no apologies for his terrible misconduct towards Marianne – they had to read it in the notices in the paper, like their acquaintance meant nothing to him at all. Marianne, who had already been dejected, turned positively inconsolable. She begged off all social engagements, in fact she barely left her room. Elinor conveyed her apologies to their neighbours, and blamed illness, but most people knew the truth of it, even if they were too good to remark on it. Elinor privately reflected that it might be a good thing that Marianne did not come – she was in no state to put up with the suggestive and censorious remarks from their assorted neighbours, and even the well-meant sympathy from friends such as Sir John and Colonel Brandon might be beyond her ability to bear.

Colonel Brandon was the one who came the closest to making things well again, by relating to Elinor the depths of Willoughby’s villainy, which she then passed on to Marianne; the latter took it as well as could be expected, but transferred some of the recriminations from herself to where Elinor felt they truly belonged.

Elinor commiserated with Brandon, and asked after Eliza’s situation, to which Brandon responded that she was as well situated as possible, given the circumstances. Elinor thought it said a great deal about the quality of Brandon’s character that he should take responsibility for Eliza and her child, and not cast them out, despite that by some people’s reckoning, Eliza would have been seen to invite the misfortune she suffered herself. But Brandon was clearly of a more generous, understanding, and forgiving nature. Elinor hoped that the future Mrs Brandon was likewise, and that poor Eliza wouldn’t find herself without her protector should Brandon ever marry. She comforted herself with the belief and hope that Brandon had such good sense that he would not marry someone who was below himself in kindness, understanding, and generosity.

*

All in all, it was a difficult time. They spent some very desolate months in Barton Cottage, when even the society in Barton Park was less lively, as much of that revolved around Mrs Jennings, who was not at all as cheerful as was her habit; she was used to a much more active life, and her legs were healing far too slowly for her liking, and she had many complaints about the chair used to wheel her around and about, since it was too uncomfortable, and too slow for her liking, and she did not have complete control over it. The end result was that fewer invitations were sent to the Daswoods to dine at the house. Elinor was on the one hand somewhat grateful, for it meant that there was no need to put on a show of good humour, but on the other hand, it would have been nice to occasionally get away from the oppressive desolation that was Barton Cottage.

Instead of dinner parties, they kept themselves to shorter visits, to cheer up Mrs Jennings without tiring her overmuch. Elinor and Mrs Dashwood went daily, Marianne and Margaret when they were bullied into coming along by one or other of the former two. By the time Mrs Jennings was suitably recovered to be able to undertake the journey to London, the Season was over, and anyone who was worth meeting in London would have retreated to the country for shooting, so there was no point in going at all.

But throughout it all, there was Brandon, steady and supportive. He came to call at the cottage every day, or near enough as to not be improper. He entertained Margaret with tales from India and the West Indies, and other far-off places he had been to, flattered Mrs Dashwood, was sympathetic to Marianne when she would deign to meet with him, and would spend many an hour deep in conversation with Elinor, listening to her fears and worries, and sharing his own. Elinor eventually stopped putting away her mending and taking out embroidery when he visited – there did not seem much point in pretending that they were not as poor as they were, and she was comfortable enough with him to be confident that he would not spread it, nor think worse of them for it. He wouldn’t judge when he found Elinor in an apron, and not doing stillroom work (which was on the border of respectability for a lady to do herself – it was always good to have some fruit wine or jam made by one’s own hands to give as a gift), but actual housework that the maid had not gotten round to (having but two servants meant they had to do a great deal of the housework themselves). He even, on one memorable occasion, found her shelling peas, and offered to help. They sat in companionable silence, watching the pile of peas in one bowl and empty shells in another grow in half the time it would have taken Elinor to do them herself. Brandon, she thought, was probably the most considerate, thoughtful, honest and admirable man of her acquaintance.

*

“I don’t wish to pry, and if I overstep feel no hesitation to tell me so, but is the business with Marianne the only thing weighting your spirits down?” Brandon asked one day as he and Elinor were taking a walk, Margaret alternatively skipping along in front of them and complaining about the length of the walk to them. “I don’t want to listen too much to Mrs Jennings and Sir John, because I know they are keen to read romantic attachments into relationships where there are none, but am I incorrect in thinking that your Mr F came to call? Is everything well on that front?”

She did not mind taking Brandon into her confidence, not after he had taken her into his, and after he had been so very helpful to them all summer (she did wonder that he hadn’t gone to London for the Season, but supposed he was most at home in the countryside, just as she was), so she replied cautiously.

“I did once have high hopes of a certain gentleman, although it never came so far as to reach an actual understanding. He was a great friend to me. But I have since learnt that he is secretly engaged elsewhere, and thus propriety forbids any kind of further attachment between us. But his engagement is a great secret, so please don’t mention it to anyone. I doubt he even knows that I am aware of it.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” he said and, in his eyes, she could see his sincerity and sympathy, and liked him a great deal for it. “It must be very hard for you, to bear the teasing of your friends and family, and not be able to speak of your pain to anyone. Of course you can rely on my utmost discretion – I shall mention it to no one.”

“Thank you – I knew I could rely on you. I try not to dwell, and to move on – there is more than one gentleman in the world who can give me happiness, I believe. Marianne has this very Romantic notion of a One True Love, but I believe that there are several people we can love, and we choose among them who can give us what we believe we want. True love stems from two people choosing each other over the other potential people they could have chosen. I suppose you might think that unromantic of me, but that will hardly be the first time someone has levelled such an accusation at me.”

“‘If I was not with you, my dear, I would no doubt be with someone else. But how nice that I have chosen you, and you have chosen me, instead of all those others’,” Brandon quoted softly. Elinor looked at him in some surprise.

“Yes, exactly!” she said. “That is precisely what I mean.”

“It’s a quote by Voltaire – an Enlightenment philosophy, rather than a Romantic one. I find it a rather nice thought.”

“I do too,” said Elinor with some pleasure. Not since Edward had she felt herself so thoroughly understood.

*

“Colonel Brandon seems to like you very much, Elinor,” said Marianne. “You should be careful not to lead him on.”

“We’re good friends, that’s all,” said Elinor.

“That’s exactly what you say about Edward,” Marianne protested. “But I know there’s more to it.”

She did not specify if she meant with Brandon, or with Edward.

“And it is as true when I say it about Edward as it is when I say it about Brandon,” Elinor said, and was surprised to find it’s true: her feelings of warmth and fondness, her admiration, her little spark of joy when she saw him was the same for Brandon and Edward. Did that mean that she was also in love with Brandon, or that she had never been in love with Edward? Was she inconstant? Was it so easy for her to overcome what she had thought was a great love, even though she had protested otherwise to all who knew her? Was she truly happy to let Edward go?

She thought of Edward and Lucy, and felt a sharp stab of pain – Lucy did not deserve him. Lucy’s ambitions were on the level of Mrs Ferrars, and Edward’s were much lower, as he had confessed to them all. They would be very unhappy together, and she hated the thought of Edward unhappy with Lucy, when she knew that he could be happy with her, Elinor.

Perhaps she was not as over her feelings as she had thought. But she could see herself falling in love with Colonel Brandon, as much as she had loved Edward, and Edward was lost to her, while Brandon was not. She believed as she had said to Brandon earlier, that love was a choice, and she chose Brandon.

*

It was soon clear to all that Colonel Brandon was courting Mss Dashwood. His asking Mrs Dashwood for consent to formally court her merely allowed them all to speak of what they had been dancing around, for fear of reading too much into an innocent friendship – for none could imagine Colonel Brandon and Miss Dashwood to engage in any sort of impropriety, and indeed, as soon as their friendship began to even hint that there could be more to it than friendship, the Colonel was seen to call on Mrs Dashwood to ask her permission.

“I expect you’ll forget all about Mr F, now that you have Colonel B hanging onto your every word,” said Mrs Jennings with a wink. Elinor didn’t quite know how to reply to this, for she did not wish them to connect either gentleman’s name with hers before anything was settled. She had seen first-hand the unhappy consequences of rumours of an engagement being spread before the actual engagement, especially when there was no engagement to follow. While she did not believe Colonel Brandon to make promises and implications he did not intend to follow through on, neither had she believed such of Edward, and yet here they were. Luckily, she was spared answering by Sir John.

“I thought he was setting his cap on Marianne, he always seemed so mournful whenever she was around.”

“I think he has a brotherly – perhaps even fatherly – regard for her,” said Elinor. “She reminds him of a young lady under his protection.”

Mrs Jennings looked knowledgeable and mysterious – Elinor was aware she thought Miss Williams to be Colonel Brandon’s natural daughter. Elinor knew better, but as the exact connection between them had been revealed to her in confidence, she did not say anything to correct Mrs Jennings’ misapprehension. She would keep his confidence, as he had kept hers.

“Thank goodness for that,” said Marianne. “He is very amiable, and I do like him, but I couldn’t imagine spending my life with someone I don’t love, and since he’s been such a good friend to us, I’d so hate to have to disappoint him.”

“We are all very glad you’re spared that unpleasantness,” said Mrs Dashwood, “for there are few things so upsetting as disappointing a good friend. But what of you, Elinor? Can you truly be happy with him? We are not so poor to make it a necessity for you to settle for the first person to ask. He is a good friend, but he is not…”

She trailed off. Elinor knew what it was she didn’t say – they’d all made it quite clear that they had specific hopes for Elinor’ future spouse, even Elinor herself.

“He is not Edward,” said Elinor, “and I know you dearly wished to see a union between myself and Edward, but there has never been any sort of understanding between myself and Edward, nor has he made any signs of wanting one.”

“How can you say that?” Marianne asked. “His partiality was marked and obvious, even to Margaret!”

“There may have been a partiality, but nothing beyond that. Whereas Colonel Brandon has made his intentions clear, and he is good, and kind, and entirely honourable. He shows good insight and has been very helpful to us, and I enjoy spending time with him. I believe I can be truly happy with him.”

“As long as you’re content, I will very happily give my blessing,” said Mrs Dashwood.

“It hasn’t quite come to that yet,” said Elinor.

“Not come to that! Are you not courting?” asked Mrs Jennings.

“A courtship is not binding,” said Elinor. “Although I do confess I look forward to its logical conclusion – if there is one.”

“Of course there will be one!” said Marianne. “He seems very fond of you, and not at all the sort to lead a woman on without having intentions to follow through.”

The ‘unlike some of our acquaintance’ was unsaid, but heard by everyone.

*

“You do go for the most staid and stolid men,” Marianne said to Elinor as they were bedding down that night. “But I suppose they’ve both been good men, so I give you leave to like them. I just don’t understand what you could possibly see in them.”

“The world needs all kinds of people,” replied Elinor. “You have your preferences, and I have mine. And that is a very good thing, for otherwise we would be romantic rivals, and I should not like that one bit.”

“Assuming I’ll ever have another romance,” said Marianne dramatically. “I shall end up a spinster, giving out advice to the young women in the neighbourhood, and occasionally hinting at my own tragic romance.”

“I do believe there is more than one gentleman out there who has both a romantic sensibility and a good character. You have not lost your chance forever, my dear.”

“Oh, let’s not talk about me,” said Marianne for perhaps the first time ever. “Not when you have such exciting prospects. At least this one enjoys poetry and music, so I will have something to talk to him about. And he has been very solicitous of all of us. I suppose I shall quite grow to like him as a brother-in-law.”

And with those words, the two sisters turned over, and slept.

*

“I think you have for some time now come to realise the regard I hold for you,” said Colonel Brandon after he had asked for an interview with Elinor, alone, in their front parlour. “I hope the fact that I have been allowed to court you these past months is an indication that what I have to say will not be entirely a surprise, nor hopefully entirely unwelcome.”

Mrs Dashwood had hurried her other two daughters out with enthusiasm and gusto, and Elinor had put down her darning to pay attention to Colonel Brandon, who had spent a minute or two searching for words before starting what was clearly a rehearsed speech. It touched Elinor, that he should be so nervous, and have put so much time into it. He went down on one knee and took both her hands in his.

“You are perhaps one of the finest women of my acquaintance. Your heart is gentle and forgiving, your understanding is superior, your dignity is something to strive for, and your generosity and sympathy are unparalleled. Words fail me when I try to express my admiration for you, for such a boundless thing cannot be captured and contained, and every try renders it something pitiful and small, but I hope you know how much you mean to me. I know I may not be your first choice, but I am willing to choose you, if you would be willing to choose me. Elinor Dashwood, would you do me the honour of agreeing to be my wife?”

Elinor, overcome with emotion, could but nod.

“I do,” she said through the tears that threatened to overcome her, that she tried to force down, because such displays of emotion were unbecoming of her. “I do choose you.”

Colonel Brandon – Christopher – gently dried her cheeks and beamed at her through tear-filled eyes of his own.

*

Elinor would have been content with a quiet, private ceremony, with just their closest friends and family, but Christopher was a Colonel in the army and one of the main local landlords, so propriety dictated a more formal, larger affair, with other officers of his regiment and guests from far and wide travelling in for the wedding. She received many compliments, and well-wishes, from both friends and strangers.

John and Fanny Dashwood were there; John was very complimentary about her having snagged a rich, handsome man, and Fanny felt it in herself to be magnanimous since the rich, handsome man was not related to her in any wyay, so it was not quite as bad as Elinor had feared.

But what meant perhaps the most to her, aside from seeing Christopher so happy and receiving the blessings and well-wishes from her mother and sisters, was the figure who sat at the back of the Church and halfway through the ceremony had to sneak out to nurse her child. Eliza Williams had come to the ceremony. Elinor spoke with her and found her a charming young girl, but one who bore a great sorrow and had had her naïveté forcibly ripped from her.

Miss Williams and Marianne seemed to get on very well, although Fanny made disparaging remarks about not allowing Marianne near someone whose morals were so much to be wanted – not when Marianne herself had shown a distinct lack of judgement and therefore should have her companionship even more tightly regulated. She also commented on the inappropriateness of Eliza being there at all. She did perhaps have a point, but Eliza meant so much to Christopher, and it made him so very happy to see her safe and sound, restored to him, that Elinor could not begrudge her presence. She thought she could grow fond of Eliza, and Eliza of her, given time.

Mrs Jennings, in an uncharacteristic show of spite towards Fanny, invited Miss Williams to stay with her as her companion for the month of November, before she took Marianne to London after Christmas for the start of the Season. Despite her unfortunate birth, despite her recent missteps, Miss Williams still had powerful interests looking out for her well-being.

*

They spent a few weeks in London after their honeymoon, to settle some of Christopher’s business matters and to buy the few things they needed to equip the house for their new married life. Christopher seemed to take it mostly as an opportunity to buy books, and Elinor found several patterns for new dresses that she wished to try out, both for herself, and for her mother, Marianne and Margaret.

Elinor hadn’t forgotten, but she had managed to supress from her conscious thought, that Edward Ferrars now made his home in London. Which was why he caught her and Christopher unawares when he came to call on them – they had been at home to visitors, but had she known Edward might come, she would have, well, she didn’t quite know what she would have done differently, but probably something to prepare herself for possibly meeting him. As it was, she found herself ill at ease and more than usually aware of the fine new dress she was wearing, the comfortable furnishings in Christopher’s town house on a fashionable street, and of her husband looking fine in his regimentals. She was aware that to most people, she had definitely married up, and she was worried that it might look to Edward as if she had married Christopher for his money. Was he wondering at her inconsistency? Did he hold their past against her? As far as he was aware, she knew nothing of his connection to Miss Steele, so to him it must seem as if she had led him on, perhaps flirted with both Christopher and Edward, and accepted the first one to be so good as to make an offer.

As Colonel and Mrs Brandon rose to receive Mr Ferrars, Elinor put her hand in the crook of Christopher’s arm for support. She plastered on a welcoming smile.

“Edward! I didn’t know you were in London! How do you do? You know my husband, Colonel Brandon, I presume.”

The two gentlemen bowed stiffly to each other and confirmed that they had met (once, in Kent, when Edward was visiting the Dashwoods, although that went unsaid by everyone), and then an awkward silence descended over the group.

“Congratulations on your happy news,” Edward said, and looked like he was searching for words. Elinor did not interrupt, for it looked like he had more to say. “I… I thank you for your kind invitation to the wedding, but unfortunately business kept me elsewhere. I would have dearly loved to come,” he said, looking like he would have liked nothing less.

“Thank you, you are too kind. You were much missed at the reception,” said Elinor, who was secretly relieved that he hadn’t come, as she wouldn’t have liked to be confronted with her past hopes and dreams on what was a day to celebrate the love between herself and Christopher. “I hope your business was concluded satisfactorily,” she continued, suspecting that the business that kept him away was entirely imaginary, or at the very least not so pressing as he made it out to be.

“I – yes. It was.” He looked around the room, as if casting about for another topic of conversation. “I trust the ceremony was to your satisfaction?”

They spent a few more minutes discussing the ceremony and following festivities, but eventually that conversational avenue was also exhausted.

“Will you be in London long?” he asked eventually.

“I don’t believe so,” Christopher answered for her. He seemed very stern and decided, as he was wont in situations where he felt uncomfortable, and she knew that he didn’t entirely approve of Edward Ferrars for the way he had inadvertently encouraged Elinor’s hopes while knowing himself to be promised elsewhere – it was touching to see him so defensive of her, even if she didn’t need it, and she put a calming hand on his arm. Edward’s eyes immediately went to the spot where her hand rested on Christopher’s arm, and, upon noticing this, Christopher put his other hand on hers, as if to mark that they belonged together.

“We will make our home in Delaford,” Elinor said. “A quiet country lifestyle will suit both of us. We will certainly be gone by the start of the Season.”

That conversational topic seemed also to have been depleted, and again an awkward silence descended. Elinor wondered if the requisite 15 minutes for a social visit had passed, but a glance at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room told her that there were still seven minutes remaining.

“Have you met the Miss Steeles?” Elinor asked in a fit of desperation. “I believe they are staying with the Middletons. Miss Lucy Steele mentioned you had a previous acquaintance when we met them in Kent, and she was particularly looking forward to meeting you again – and your family. Have you had the opportunity to meet while you have both been in town?”

His face blanched as she brought up the Miss Steeles. Had she worked out that she knew? Surely he must – for why else would she bring them up out of nowhere.

“Ah, no. I have not had… had the pleasure of seeing them. I don’t believe my mother and the Middletons move in many of the same circles, and it’s not an acquaintance my mother has sought. I did know them when I was at school in Plymouth, but it’s not easy to revive the acquaintanceship when we have so few mutual connections. And… my mother wouldn’t approve of me maintaining and association with the nieces of my schoolmaster, unfortunately.”

“But surely, if the Colonel and I introduce you again, there can be nothing to object to? We are in a unique position to do so, as the Middletons are very good friends of ours, and we are practically family, through Fanny! That way, Mrs Ferrars can meet the Miss Steeles, and you may revive the acquaintance to your heart’s content.”

He seemed a bit dazed as he accepted, and the weak smile he held fell off his face almost immediately.

*

“Is Miss Steele Mr Ferrars’ fiancée you mentioned?” Christopher asked as they were climbing into their shared bed that night (Elinor did have her own rooms, but she hardly ever used them, being used to sharing a bed with Marianne, although Christopher was a much better bedfellow – he didn’t kick).

Elinor confirmed that she was, and again reiterated the need for secrecy.

“It’s a generous thing you did, offering to smooth the way for him and Miss Steele, especially given your history.”

“I still think very highly of him. I wish him nothing but happiness,” Elinor said with honesty.

“He does seem like a good sort,” Christopher allowed, “despite the way he toyed with your heart. I find it difficult to forgive him that.”

He took her into his arms, and she melted into his embrace.

“He didn’t intend to, and reflecting back, I think he toyed with his own as much, if not more. And truthfully, I do believe I got the better deal, since I ended up with you, and he is to marry Miss Steele. I don’t dislike Miss Steele – ” this was unfortunately a lie, although she wished she could like Miss Steele – even though she disliked Miss Steele for her opportunism, forced intimacy, and falseness, it felt too much like petty jealousy to dislike her romantic rival and she felt like she should be above such things, “ – but I do think our marriage will be substantially more happy than theirs. I can be magnanimous in victory.”

“My dear, when are you ever not magnanimous?” Christopher asked with a fond smile.

“I’m glad you think so. But you should know, I have many flaws and unworthy moments, just as anyone else.”

“I refuse to believe it. You are perfect in every way.”

“I hope you will never feel differently.”

“Never,” he said with confidence. Elinor kissed him deeply. What was Edward Ferrars to Christopher Brandon?

*

Fanny Dashwood had become much more conciliatory towards Elinor since it became obvious that she would not be able to be an obstacle to Edward’s great destiny by tying him to such an unsuitable prospect as herself, with no fortune, no high connections, and no great beauty. Since her marriage to Christopher, Fanny had become positively friendly and warm in her manner towards Elinor, and would of course be delighted to make the acquaintance of her good friends the Middletons and the Miss Steeles.

What would Fanny make of the Miss Steeles, Elinor wondered, seeing as they had as little money as Elinor, and their connections were even less desirable (Elinor, being related to Mr John Dashwood – if only as a half-sister – on one side and Sir John Middleton on the other, was reasonably well-connected despite her own personal lack of funds).

Fanny was initially quite inclined to like the Miss Steeles, for they showed her proper deference and were willing to cede to her opinion in all things, and Elinor thought that perhaps things would work out for the better for all involved. However, the days before she and Christopher were to depart his London residence to spend Christmas at Delaford with Eliza and Elinor’s family, they received shocking news that Edward Ferrars had been disinherited for his engagement to Lucy Steele. Elinor wasn’t quite sure how Mrs Ferrars had found out about it before Edward and Lucy had been ready, but in the confused ramblings of Lady Middleton, who was the one to bring the news to them, it seemed like Anne had possibly been the one to let the secret out.

Elinor felt vaguely responsible, since she had been the one to facilitate the Miss Steeles’ introduction to the Ferrars family. She was again uncomfortably aware of how much better things had turned out for her than Edward – she had married a man she loved, with an estate and a comfortable income, while Edward was to marry someone he probably had loved once, with no estate and a very limited income. She confessed as much to Christopher, who always understood her and made her feel supported and loved, even in her weak and unworthy moments.

“I do have a proposal,” said Christopher, “but I wished to run it past you first. I know you still feel friendship for Edward, and as I said, he seems like a decent fellow. The parsonage at Delaford is free, and I was thinking we could perhaps offer it to him. I believe you mentioned he wished to go into the Church. But only if it won’t pain you to have him close, my dear.”

Elinor considered this. Would it pain her to live in such close proximity to Edward and Lucy Ferrars, and be expected to dine with them regularly? She would likely be witnessing proof of their unhappy marriage, and it would pain her to see Edward unhappy. On the other hand, if their marriage was not unhappy, she would be forced to witness Edward being intimate and happy with a woman who was not her. It might pain her, either way.

But if they did not offer him the parsonage, what were his options? He did not have enough money to buy a commission in the army, and the navy did not take men after the age of 16. He had expressed a disinclination to go into law, but it would offer him and Lucy an income to live on – at the expense of his happiness. Was she truly selfish enough to deny him this opportunity, simply because it might be a bit uncomfortable for her to see him regularly? No, she was not so selfish. She cared about Edward, and wished the best for him.

She would not let her feelings get in the way of his happiness, and she would have to deal with her feelings so that they did not cause any discomfort to anyone. Hopefully proximity and familiarity would make it easier to settle into a rhythm, and they would soon stop wondering what might have been, had things been different.

“I think that a fine idea, and very generous,” she told Christopher. “I truly have the best husband.”

She melted into his embrace.

*

“You and Colonel Brandon wish to give me a parsonage?” Edward asked in disbelief when she invited him to convey the news to him. “Why? I mean – I’m grateful, of course, but – ”

He bit off what he wished to say. Elinor could guess at the sentiment.

“You have been a very good friend to me,” she said. “And both Christopher and I think well of you.”

“Thank you very much, both of you. I know I owe this to your generosity.”

“No, sir, to you own merit.”

“Every time we have met, it has seemed impossible to say what I really think and feel,” said Edward.

“Yes,” Elinor agreed.

“And now more than ever.”

“Yes.” She could not think of anything else to say – it was indeed more impossible than ever to share how they felt, with her married and him engaged.

“Why do you not think badly of me?” he asked, somewhat despondently.

“You never deceived me,” she explained. “And when I heard when I was told of your engagement, everything became clear. You have done nothing wrong. I wouldn't think so highly of you, if you had acted differently.”

It was painful for her to say, and it seemed like it was painful for him to hear, but she thought it was good pain, cathartic, and that they could move on as friends, despite the regrets and the thousand things unsaid between them.

*

Edward Ferrars moved into the parsonage a few weeks into the new year, just before Mrs Jennings was due to take Marianne to London for the Season. Christopher and Elinor considered going as well – not because they didn’t trust Mrs Jennings to adequately chaperone Marianne, but because they felt better to be near her – after all, Mrs Jennings was a fine friend, but she was not someone to share confidences with unless one wished them spread over the entire neighbourhood, and for that reason, was not in the best place to offer advice to young ladies meeting society for the first time. But in the end, they decided against it – not even Marianne could tempt them away from their retiring, comfortable life at Delaford, near Elinor’s mother and the cottage that Christopher had bestowed on Eliza.

Mrs Dashwood and Marianne were initially somewhat cold to Edward, who they felt had treated Elinor quite badly and led her on, knowing himself to be engaged. They clearly weren’t as willing to forgive as Elinor herself, even though he had done the honourable thing and remained faithful to his first love, even when that engagement might have become more of a hindrance to his happiness than a conduit for it.

Margaret was old enough to pick up on the general mood, and that Mrs Dashwood and Marianne weren’t entirely pleased to see Edward, but she was also very happy to see her good friend, who had spent time with her and treated her with nothing but respect for her opinions and indulged her whims and fancies, so there was at least one person who welcomed him without any awkwardness.

He came alone.

“Will Mrs Ferrars be joining later?” Christopher asked, to spare Elinor having to ask. She felt her customary fondness and admiration she always felt when he did something thoughtful for her.

“Ah – no. I doubt my mother will want to visit the parsonage.”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“I believe Christopher was referring to Mrs Edward Ferrars,” Mrs Dashwood said delicately.

“There is no Mrs Edward Ferrars – surely you mean Mrs Robert Ferrars? You have not heard,” Edward looked surprised. “My brother is lately married to Miss Lucy Steele. When my mother made over my inheritance to Robert, Miss Steele made over her affections also, thus releasing me from my engagement.”

He said this rather wryly, and it did not seem to cause him undue pain to say. There was another awkward pause.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” said Elinor.

“You must be kicking yourself over youthful mistakes that lead to missed chances,” said Marianne a bit snidely. Elinor kicked her leg under the table. She didn’t want to make Edward feel bad, and she was very happy with Christopher – she didn’t want to rub salt in Edward’s wounds, for he was no doubt wishing that things could be different.

*

Mrs Jennings and Marianne went to London for the Season, and things in Kent settled down into a slow routine. Elinor managed the household at Delaford, using both lessons from observing her mother at Norland, and more recent lessons from managing on £500 a year at Barton Cottage, while Christopher managed the estate, and occasionally went to London on military matters (he was on half-pay leave over the winter, but would probably be called up to go to France again in the spring). The servants at Delaford were well-behaved and well-managed, but there was still a period of settling in for them to get used to her, and her to get used to them, before everything was running smoothly. Elinor entertained the neighbourhood, and oversaw the local Sunday school, organised together with Edward.

She spent a fair amount of time at the parsonage, helping Edward manage – he had help, but he was a bit inept at living on a budget and without the cadre of servants he was used to, although each day he grew more adept, and learning to do a great deal on his own – like Elinor had had to do in Barton Cottage. Now she was the one with servants to see to her every need, and he was the one struggling to get by. For his sake, she invited him to Delaford as often as possible.

Christopher also seemed to sense that Edward was scrambling for something to be, looking for his identity having been cast off from his family and not having a wife to provide for. They went on long walks, and went fishing together, and occasionally shooting, even though it was far out of season. She thought the point wasn’t the shooting, the point was to go out among the woods to where they could speak in private, or not, as the fancy took them. She didn’t know what they spoke of, but something in Edward seemed more settled whenever they returned. Christopher was always good at calming people, at seeing beyond the surface to who they truly were, and making them feel valued for it. She was glad he could give some of that stability to Edward.

They dined, regularly, almost every night. Occasionally Mrs Dashwood, Marianne and Margaret joined them, but they often went to the Middletons, as they were closer to Barton Cottage, leaving Christopher, Elinor and Edward on their own (aside from the large dinner parties when they all came together to dine and dance, which were more often than Elinor would prefer, but less often than Marianne wished). Elinor liked the evenings when it was just the three of them best. Christopher and Edward gave up on the pretence of having port and cigars after dinner very quickly, and they would instead retreat all three to the drawing room, where Christopher would play for them, Elinor would sketch, and Edward would work on his sermons and try out parts on them to hear their thoughts. Occasionally Christopher would discuss some estate business with Edward, who saw Christopher’s tenants as their parson, not as their landlord, and therefore sometimes had a different angle or new insights to give. Christopher listened to Edward’s opinions with a grave face, and seemed to give them much weight. They did sometimes have different opinions on land management, but Christopher confessed that since Edward had come to them, his policies were better for the opportunity to air them in private first, and those he implemented were those who survived the rigorous testing of being debated by himself and Edward. It did her good to see the two men who were the dearest to her heart get on so well.

Edward also brought her news from the parish, people she might do well to visit, families in need of extra support from the lady of the house, which she accepted gratefully, and they would discuss together how best to help those in need, and whether the help should come from him representing the Church, or Christopher and her as the landlord and -lady. She would share stories from her day, her trials and tribulations from dealing the servants, and particularly amusing or exasperating stories from Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Jennings, Lady Middleton, Marianne and Margaret. Although neither gentleman was particularly experienced with the concerns of the duties of household management that were a lady’s particular concern, they were always sympathetic and even sometimes helpful.

These evenings seemed almost intimate to Elinor, and gave her a glimpse of what married life with Edward would have been like, and she could even feel a sense of regret that such was not her life. But then Christopher would say or do something particularly generous and considerate, and her heart would again fill with love for him, and she could not regret that her path had led her to this wonderful husband of hers. Her love for Edward had not in any way displaced her love for Christopher, nor vice versa. She loved them both, equally, at the same time. She had chosen Christopher and was very happy with her choice, but she could just as easily have chosen Edward, had circumstances been different. The thought both comforted and saddened her.

*

Sometimes she thought Edward seemed a bit wistful and melancholy – perhaps he too was thinking of what might have been had he and Elinor married. He didn’t have the comfort of having found love and happiness elsewhere, no wife he could turn to the way Elinor turned to Christopher. Like Elinor once suffered all the punishment of an attachment without enjoying any of the advantages, Edward now seemed to suffer all the punishment of having lost his family, his future, and many of his friends when he was disinherited, and none of the advantages of domestic comfort that Elinor enjoyed, even though he tried to put a brave face on it. Elinor recognised it for what it was, as she too had once tried to put on a brave face on her happiness. Her heart ached for his unhappiness.

*

“Do you recall that conversation we had, before our engagement,” Christopher asked one night as they were bedding down to sleep. Since they had had many conversations before their engagement, Elinor merely gave a questioning hum. “‘If I was not with you, my dear, I would no doubt be with someone else. But how nice that I have chosen you, and you have chosen me, instead of all those others’,” he quoted.

“I remember,” she said.

“I wonder, and please don’t believe me to be jealous or to suspect you of anything untoward, but if you had the chance, if we were not married, would you choose Edward?”

Elinor turned into his embrace.

“Don’t ask me that,” she begged. “I chose you, and I am very happy with my choice.”

She knew would choose Christopher under any circumstances that permitted it. She just wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t also choose Edward.

“I am aware, and as I said, I don’t accuse you of anything. But,” he hesitated, “do you believe it is possible for people to chose more than one other person? For all involved to choose one another?”

This touched upon something Elinor had been struggling with within herself for some time, so she held her breath, then said quietly:

“Yes.”

“Yes,” Christopher affirmed. “You must know that I… admire Edward a great deal. I consider him one of the finest men of my acquaintance.”

He stopped, and opened his mouth a few times as if to say something, then closed it again, clearly struggling for words. For all that they were lying face to face, he would not look her in the eyes. Elinor took pity on him, and gently prompted him along.

“Would you choose Edward, if it were possible for a man to choose another man, and you had not met me? Would you choose Edward now, if you could choose him and me at the same time?”

“Would you feel disgust if I said yes? Would that change your opinion of me?”

“Not one bit,” she reassured him.

“It might shock you,” he said, even though she was far from shocked, “but it happens frequently in boys’ schools, that boys are with boys, as an experiment, or to relieve tensions, when there is a lack of female companionship. Of course, it’s frowned upon and discouraged in the strongest of terms, but occasionally you will get a Master or a Prefect who will turn a blind eye. Most give it up in adulthood, when female companionship is once again available, but not all. And in some military circles, it still happens, that men seek out the company of men, even though there are women around. Men who prefer the company of their own kind.”

“It doesn’t shock me,” said Elinor, even though she had never known such a man. She had not thought of it before now, but it did not seem so inconceivable to her. After all, if she could love two men, even though society told her that there was but One True Love for each person, what was to say that two men could not love each other?

“Are you such a man?” she asked.

“No,” he said quickly. “Believe me, my love and attraction to you are entirely genuine.”

She had not doubted it, for throughout their courtship and marriage he showed such a depth of feeling as was probably impossible to fake, but hearing him confirm it still settled something in her chest.

“But the thought isn’t inimical to me,” he continued. “I think I have within me the possibility to fall in love with either men or women. And I have sometimes wondered if Edward might not also be such a man, that the thought is not inimical to him either. I know he looks at you with love, and sometimes I think…” he paused, took a deep breath, and continued. “Sometimes I think he looks at me also.”

“And that thought does not bother you?” she asked.

“No. Does it bother you?”

“No.”

*

The confession rested between them for some days, unspoken of again, but a new understanding had entered the relationship between Christopher and Elinor, now that they knew that not only would they chose each other, they would also choose the same third. They would exchange glances when Edward said something particularly sweet, and if one of them would end up sitting quite close to Edward on the settee, the other would look over with an slight smile.

Edward seemed to pick up on that something was different, but did not quite seem to be able to put his finger on what, so the poor man was quite confused and a little unsettled. They decided to put him out of his misery one night in Elinor’s drawing room, having had a few glasses of wine each for courage.

They settled on the sofa, on either side of him.

“My dear Edward,” began Elinor. “You must know how much Christopher and I value and esteem your friendship.”

“And I yours,” he replied, somewhere between a statement and a question.

“What Elinor means is that we have a delicate, perhaps shocking proposal to put to you,” Christopher said.

“Now I’m intrigued,” he said, having matched them in the amount of wine drunk. “Please, go on.”

“It’s not something we have ever said outright, but I believe you once had feelings for me?” Elinor asked gently.

He swallowed, and looked first briefly at Christopher, before looking down in his lap.

“I confess I did. But you two have been the very best of friends to me, and I would never do anything to inspire jealousy or threaten your relationship in any way. I have seen how well suited and happy you are. You must believe me,” he pleaded, looking up at them both.

Christopher put his hand on Edward’s shoulder, and Elinor reached out to take one of his hands in hers. He swallowed again and looked at them with a question in his eyes.

“We are not accusing you,” Christopher said. “We know you to be honourable in every way.”

“Then… I don’t… Why bring it up?” Edward trailed off.

“Do you still have such feelings?” Elinor asked gently. “We will not be upset at all if you do.”

He stilled, withdrew his hand from Elinor’s and said in a very small voice:

“Yes.”

He drew a breath.

“You have my deepest apologies. I thought I had done a better job of hiding them. If it poses a problem, I will of course withdraw immediately. It will cause me great pain to lose your friendship, but it would pain me even more to have caused a wedge in your marriage.”

“That is not what our proposal is,” said Christopher, still keeping his hand on Edward’s shoulder.

“I don’t… then, what is… why do you bring it up?” he repeated plaintively.

“Because we wish to see if, perhaps, we could come to an arrangement, all three of us?” Elinor said. “If you do not wish it, then we will pretend this conversation never happened and never mention it again.”

“Wh – I don’t – all three? How? I mean… how?”

“In any way you would wish,” said Christopher. “If you would wish an equal relationship, all three, I would be very willing to entertain it. But, if the thought of that fills you with disgust, and if you wish to have your own relationship with Elinor, sperate from mine, I would be willing to take a step back and see if we can work out an arrangement that allows all of us to flourish in our own way.”

Elinor was overcome with love for both of her men, so willing to put the happiness of others above their own, so generous, so unselfish, so full of love for their fellow humans, men and women alike.

“I don’t understand why you would do this?”

“Because we love you,” Elinor said. “Both of us. And we believe you might love us, too. But if so, you would have to agree to share. I will not give up my husband, not for anything.”

She looked at Christopher over Edward’s head and saw the depths of his love for her in his eyes, and hoped hers conveyed every bit of hers to him.

“I…” Edward began, and took a steadying breath. He seemed to have made up his mind. “No, the thought does not fill with disgust. I had my share of schoolboy exploration, you know. If you think we could make it work, I would not be at all adverse to an equal relationship all three.”

Very tentatively, one of his hands reached out to grab hers, and the other Christopher’s. They both clutched at his hands in love and support.

“In practicalities, to some extent we are already in a three-person marriage,” said Elinor. “And Edward stays over many nights – we will have to pretend that he still has his own guest bedroom, of course, but I believe our bed is big enough to fit three, don’t you?”

She levelled what was meant to be somewhere between a teasing and an enticing look at both of them.

“There is only one way to find out,” said Christopher with a smile.

It turned out their bed did indeed fit three. Very little talking occurred after that.

*

The arrangement was a happy one indeed. They settled into a real domesticity, rather than the half-version they had had before spelling things out. In practicality, not much changed, as Elinor had predicted. Aside from in the bedroom, all that really changed was that now they did the household accounts together, and that Christopher would buy romantic gifts for both of them, rather than just Elinor. It just served to highlight how close they had already come to a three-person marriage. Elinor no longer felt torn between what was and what could have been, and she thought both Edward and Christopher seemed happier as well.

“It does bring me comfort that you shall be well looked after when I am away on campaign, my dears,” said Christopher to them both after they had withdrawn to Elinor’s drawing room after dinner as usual, “and that I shan’t have to worry about you being lonely.”

“Don’t say that,” protested Edward. “We’ll both pine dreadfully after you, you know. I’m sure we’ll be quite miserable.”

His tone of voice conveyed that he was half joking, half serious. Elinor agreed with him – it would not be the same when Christopher left. But that was borrowing trouble, and for now, she was quite content to sit beside the men she loved the most, taking comfort from their steady presences next to her.

*

Naturally, their arrangement did not go unremarked, despite the efforts at hiding the true nature of it. Nonetheless, people observed that Edward was spending more time at Delaford than the parsonage, and, given the history between Elinor and Edward was widely known (or at least widely assumed), it raised some eyebrows.

“Edward spends a great deal of time with you,” commented Mrs Jennings after a dinner party at Barton Park, when the gentlemen were still at their port and cigars, and the ladies had withdrawn to Lady Middleton’s drawing room. “Are you sure he’s not pining? One does feel for him, poor soul, how unlucky he’s been, missing out the chance with his true love due to an inadvisable teenage romance. I wouldn’t want him to be unhappy.”

“Quite right,” agreed Mrs Dashwood. “He might not have acted as he ought, encouraging you while knowing he was engaged, but I do hope you’re not toying with that man’s heart.”

Elinor opened her mouth to protest – well, she did not know what to protest first, that Edward’s behaviour at Norland had been in any way inappropriate, or that she was cruelly leading him on while being married to Christopher, but before she got a word in edgewise, Mrs Jennings continued:

“And you should be careful of Brandon, as well. You don’t want to make your husband jealous, especially when he’ll be away on campaign soon and will only have the thought of you waiting faithfully for him at home to carry with him in his dark, lonely days on the road. You must remember that he also has a heart you can break.”

“I assure you,” Elinor said, before Mrs Dashwood could pick up on this thread, or before Marianne got ideas about poor Christopher’s heartbreak, in addition to Edward’s, as she already considered Edward a tragically heroic figure, who had sacrificed his all for love, only to be disappointed. That she knew Edward to be a rather mundane and pragmatic figure did nothing to prevent her from imagining his quiet suffering and admiring him for it. Had it been but a few weeks ago, Elinor might have agreed with her to some extent (without the unnecessary dramatization), but she knew now that Edward was far from a tragic hero of a Romantic novel. “Edward is not pining, for me or anyone else. And Christopher is not jealous, nor does he have any cause to be. We are all very good friends, who can speak openly and honestly with each other about our past and present circumstances. Nothing underhanded is going on that can lead to any hearts being broken. We are quite content.”

*

Christopher broke the news that he was considering selling out at dinner one evening.

“I don’t want to leave either of you,” he said. “And it seems to me unconscionable to leave the estate without proper management – not to say that I don’t trust you to do it my absence, my dears, but you have your own duties at the Church and with the household.”

“If that is what would make you happy,” said Elinor, “then by all means. But if it is in response to Edward’s teasing about how unhappy it would make both of us to see you go on campaign, don’t pay too much attention to it. While I would be delighted to have you with me at all times, I am sure we will manage, if you wish to stay in the army.”

“In truth, I had considered it long before I even met either of you, but had no real reason to, and nothing else to give my life purpose.”

“Well, in that case, you should definitely sell out and be with us forever,” was Edward’s decided opinion.

“There is nothing I would like more,” said Christopher.

Elinor could see the rest of her life take shape before her – managing the household, giving advice and support to her husband in his management of the estate, maintaining an “unusually close friendship” with the bachelor vicar, and helping him manage the parsonage out of “the goodness of her heart”, and having the two men she liked most by her side all her evenings, and perhaps there might even be a little boy with Christopher’s eyes or a girl with Edward’s nose running about the estate. She had to admit, the vision before her seemed exceptionally pleasant. She smiled at them both, openly and joyfully, and saw them smile back at her.

“Indeed, I think it sounds like a most agreeable prospect,” she said.