With what words might Miss Elinor Dashwood's turbulent emotions be best described, upon the unexpected arrival of Colonel Brandon at Mrs Jennings' home in Berkeley-street? She had not, perhaps, the open sensibility of her sister Marianne, but to be twice disappointed in love, to know herself for ever divided from the object of her most tender affections, and then, when she had barely begun to recover from the revelation of a previous claim to that man's honour, to develop a new appreciation for one who would never look her way in more than friendship — that threatened even her equanimity.
And now: to have Colonel Brandon appear before her, knowing on what pretext he must have come; to anticipate his comments on the expectations of her sister, who had just now fled his coming with a degree of dismay that could not but be evident to him; it was above all things abhorrent to her; it was all she could do not to quit the room herself.
But that would be unkind to the colonel, for how could Elinor expect him to command his feelings to any more prudence than she had managed her own? And indeed, on any other occasion, she should have been happy to sit with him for howsoever long he might stay. In he alone, of all the new acquaintance she had formed since leaving Norland, had she found a person who could in any degree claim the respect of abilities, excite the interest of friendship, or give pleasure as a companion. And she had also the benefit of knowing that there could be no secret engagement lurking at the back of his regard; his habitual reserve wanted only the slightest acquaintance to be apparent as the diminished spirits of one who has himself known disappointment, rather than a guilty concealment.
She would be equal to this; if she could bear the well-meaning raillery of Mrs Jennings, and face the gloating confidences of Lucy Steele without betraying her discomfort, then she could listen to a dear friend speak of her sister's engagement with no loss of composure.
Elinor brushed absently at the skirts of her navy day gown to give her a few seconds more to gather herself, then rose to greet him and offered her best attempt at a creditable smile. In truth, it was not so difficult once she had fixed her eyes upon the colonel's face; though he might not be the most handsome man of her acquaintance, there was no fault to be found in his features or his dress, and it had been some months since she had thought of any other with more appreciation.
"Colonel. What a pleasure to see you. Have you been in London all this while?"
Colonel Brandon inclined his head in acknowledgement, though he seemed in no better spirits than she, his brow furrowing as he replied. "Forgive me, Miss Dashwood. I have heard such reports through town as ... that is to say...." He paused, checked himself, then continued in surer tones. "I understand I am soon to congratulate you on the acquisition of a brother?"
By no angry glance or bitter twist of expression did he convey the knowledge of that circumstance which must make such an assurance doubly odious to him, but Elinor could not help but be conscious of it as she replied. She glanced briefly toward the door, then with effort returned her attention to a spot just above his eyes, where one errant lock of tawny hair curled intriguingly upon his brow. "That is very kind of you. Indeed, Mr Willoughby spoke to Lady Allen not one week after your departure from Delaford, and secured her approval of my sister as ... as a woman of character, if not fortune."
"A woman of character," Colonel Brandon repeated in a tone of astonishment; as well he might, for who, knowing Marianne as they both did, would ever summarise her sister with such a statement? Character she had, and virtue aplenty, but these were far from the most remarked upon of the second Miss Dashwood's attributes.
That had been Elinor's first warning, before Marianne had confided in her, that there might be any blight upon the perfect happiness of her sister's engagement; that Lady Allen should value that quality so highly implied a notable want of it in someone of her acquaintance. And who did that elderly lady ever admit to her company, but the heir she referred to as her nephew?
"Indeed," Elinor replied, briefly allowing her gaze to meet his once more before returning her attention to that lone golden-brown curl. She gripped her fingers more tightly together to prevent their trembling, and kept her voice as even as she could. This might be the last time they spoke in such close company, if the subject pained him as much as she believed; she would not mar her memories of the occasion with the evidence of strained nerves. "They are to be married within the month."
Colonel Brandon swallowed, then moved slightly further into the room, closing the space between them until she could clearly discern his scent — a nearness that on better days might have sent her heart racing. That did send it racing, despite knowing herself to be ridiculous.
"Then ... to your sister, I wish all imaginable happiness," he said, in a rough, kind voice, "and to Willoughby, that he may endeavour to deserve her."
That was almost too much to be borne; Elinor felt her lip quiver, then mastered herself with an effort, forcing herself not to turn away as she replied. "Though at present ... though we can not help but feel a, a certain degree of apprehension...." she began, then cut herself off; not even to Colonel Brandon could she expand further upon that point, and only the certain knowledge that he was as aware of the situation that brought the pause to her speech as she, had induced her to speak of it even so far.
She cleared her throat, then continued. "We have the highest hopes for their future felicity."
He understood her, that was plain; and just as plainly, she could see that he did not want to have understood her. Or perhaps more accurately — wondered that she had the knowledge she must possess to have spoken of it in the first place. He coloured, then turned hastily away, stopping before the window with his hands braced against a piece of convenient furniture.
"I can not ... that is, I will not dissemble, Miss Dashwood," he said after a stilted interval. Somehow, her understanding had wrecked his composure more than the situation itself had occasioned. "Please tell me what it is that you know, or think you know, to Mr Willoughby's discredit."
Elinor, affected both by his discomfort and by her own distress, could not speak; he seemed to sense this, and turned back toward her, gently taking one of her hands and pressing it. "I am sorry. Miss Dashwood...."
That broke through her frozen stillness. "You are sorry!" she exclaimed, unable to repress a rueful laugh. His hand was warm against hers, solid and callused and dear; its strength lent her the will to continue.
"Forgive me, Colonel; it is only that I had the tale from my sister in the strictest confidence. She forbid me even to speak of it our mother, so as not to spoil her joy. But it must of course be known to you that a distant relation of Lady Allen's passed certain information to her not long after your sudden departure for town, including your ... your connexion to the affair."
The faint, weathered lines around his eyes tightened at that remark. "Beth," he said, briefly. "My cousin's child."
She nodded, relieved she did not have to elaborate further. Willoughby might have left the aforementioned Miss Williams with no knowledge of his whereabouts, but she had had his name; her tentative enquiries, upon realizing the full consequences of their liaison, had alerted at least one of his relatives before Colonel Brandon's man had found her. Whether Willoughby had known prior to that day of his victim's connexion to the colonel, or even whether the rumour Lady Allen had added to the story was true and the girl was in fact Colonel Brandon's daughter — though Elinor was inclined to think not, for he was not the sort of man to conceal that fact given all the other proofs of his care for her — the circumstances were tragic enough, and Elinor felt no need to pain the colonel by digging further.
"The news arrived the very morning after Mr Willoughby's proposal, and resulted in his immediate ejection from Allenham. Though Lady Allen did refrain from cutting him off entirely for Marianne's sake, provided ... provided he take a certain measure of financial responsibility. He is a careless, selfish man, but not a deliberately cruel one, and appears genuinely in love with Marianne; he related to her the whole and offered to free her from her promise, but she would not hear of it."
"Naturally." His posture relaxed slightly; she had expected an increase in his hauteur, but to her surprise, she saw only a pained degree of care for her emotions as he laid his other hand atop their joined fingers. "I would not have afflicted you with this knowledge for the world," he added lowly. "Only an earnest conviction of its being useful to you could have brought me to reveal it; but with every thing fixed, finally fixed between them, it seemed ... cruel to spoil your happiness."
He seemed almost to be apologising for Willoughby, a situation Elinor could bear even less than his imagined rejection. She shook her head at him, buoyed by the tingling of her skin against his and the warmth in his amber-coloured eyes, though knowing it not meant for herself.
"You once said that I should not wish my sister a closer acquaintance with the ways of the world. Perhaps you are right; perhaps Willoughby should have concealed the truth from her, or else broken with her entirely. But — I believe — happiness may still be theirs; it may be that honesty between them now will preserve that free union of spirits which hidden guilt must have eventually corrupted. Indeed, she views herself in the light of a romantic heroine; that as wrongly as he acted then, so strongly does he love her now, and shall inevitably be reformed by it. Marianne bid me grieve for her sake, and for the attendant loss of your friendship, but not on her own account."
"Then I hope, for her part, that she is right," he replied, smiling faintly at her. There was a shadow of some darker emotion beneath that offered comfort, but it remained a shadow; he did not let it taint his reply. "Though you may ease her mind on one point; that she has not, by the continued exercise of the sensibilities I so valued in her, damaged my friendship with your family so badly as that. Though the thought of such a connexion can not but give me pain, I...."
He stopt there, a faint flush staining his cheeks as his gaze traced over her face. "Your arrival at Barton Cottage was a breath of fresh air in the settled, melancholy existence I had fallen into; a reminder that life does continue in spite of disappointments. Forgive me for speaking so plainly, but...."
Elinor's eyes widened. He surely could not mean...? His partiality for Marianne, which had so early been teazed about by his friends, had not become perceptible to her until it ceased to be noticed by them — when Mr Willoughby had first appeared upon the scene. But all she had observed since had only confirmed that conclusion. Surely she could not have so misjudged the object of his interest?
Though they had often been thrown together thereafter; though she had only grown to further appreciate his sense, intelligence, and good nature; though he had conversed with Elinor far more than he ever had with Marianne, Colonel Brandon had more than once compared her sister to a woman he would not name, and spoke of her with such affectionate terms as convinced Elinor he would never think of her any more than Marianne would think of him. Had she mistaken the nature of that regard?
"Please, do; for I am afraid I do not understand you." Elinor would have thought that now that the fatal subject had been aired, her nerves would have calmed; but her hands were trembling, her pulse fluttering even more violently than before.
The colonel had not yet released her hand; his grip tightened on hers, all too clearly apprehending her emotions. "It is true that Miss Marianne greatly resembles one who was once very dear to me; but as I am not the same man that I was when I knew that young lady, your sister deserves more than to be a replacement for my lost Eliza. I could not know her and not have the warmest interest in her happiness; but no more, and had it not been for the continual, the certain hints of Sir John, Mrs Jennings and all your family about a certain Mr F...."
Elinor knew instantly to which hints he referred; she had wished many times that Edward had told her of his engagement to Lucy Steele in such a way as to permit her to reveal it to her family, and that Margaret might never have revealed that initial to Mrs Jennings, nor Marianne discouraged their younger sister in such a way as to fix its importance in the lady's mind. Could it truly be that Colonel Brandon should have held back from expressing a regard for her for that very reason, at a time when she had finally begun to reconcile herself to Edward's loss, and perceive that here was a man whose happiness she might gladly spend the rest of her life supporting?
"There never was a Mr F," she hastened to reply; then at his knowing glance, decided it would not violate either Edward's or Lucy's confidences to admit a very little more. "At least, not one that ever could have been mine, though I did not know it until we had been some time acquainted."
His expression instantly lightened, lending a youthful enough air to his countenance that Elinor would defy anyone to call him aged, and the noise of comprehension he made gave her to believe that no further words were necessary. She felt the turbulence of her heart begin to settle as they shared a rueful smile of perfect understanding.
"I once asked after your sister's opinion on second attachments," he said in the warmest of tones, "I see now that I ought to have asked after yours, instead."
"At nineteen, to already be on my second attachment!" Elinor laughed bemusedly. She felt as though a great weight had lifted from off her shoulders, and that at any moment her feet should float free of the ground.
"And I, in my flannel waistcoat," he said with an echoing touch of dry humour, proving he had indeed heard some of Marianne's remarks on the subject. "Shall you then contemplate with contentment the 'duties of a nurse', in exchange for the provision and security of...."
Her breath caught; but Colonel Brandon stopt again, giving her another rueful smile. "But now I am the one run away with sensibility. No doubt ... no doubt you will agree, it would be better to resume our discussion in that vein after your sister has wed and retired to Combe Magna, and I need not risk encountering her fiancé alone. I have already been obliged to meet with Willoughby once, for Beth's sake; we may have parted without serious injury then, but I believe it would be wiser not to tempt fate at present."
Elinor had long since admitted to herself that the colonel cut a fine figure; that the straightness of his carriage, the not-unpleasing arrangement of his features, the noble manner in which he sat a horse, among other equally striking features, quite appealed to her. The idea of Colonel Brandon with a duelling sword in hand, crossing blades with her soon-to-be brother-in-law, at once shortened her breath and struck her with the irrational fear that she might have lost him, too, before he could become hers. There was but one response she could give.
"It would not be the first time I have concealed my hopes or disappointments for the ease of one dear to me," she admitted, then fixed him with a wry look. Relief was still making free with her tongue; she recalled Willoughby once saying that in defence of the colonel she could even be saucy, and found that same impulse assailing her in teazing him directly, as well. "Though I will not forgive you should you delay your return for one moment longer than necessary. Having yielded to the existence of a second attachment, I will not hesitate to give it over in favour of a third."
"And so I am warned," he murmured, lifting her hand to press a kiss to it. "My best wishes to your family; and such assurances as will satisfy Mrs Jennings of my continued good health."
"And to me?" she dared to say.
"My dear Miss Dashwood," he said warmly.
"Elinor," she corrected him.
"Christopher, then," he replied, smiling. "If a slightly clandestine correspondence would not injure your sensibilities too much, then perhaps you will discover soon enough."
There was quite the romantic hidden behind the colonel's wall of reserve; Elinor had always suspected it must be so, but to know it and to experience it were two quite different things. To participate in a clandestine correspondence — her, not Marianne! Elinor imagined a letter addressed to her in his strong script, tucked away in her pocket as a touchstone during Lucy Steele's next visit, and blushed by way of answer.
"Then I will add only that I look forward to our next meeting," she replied.
He bowed over her hand, eyes brightening, and with that was gone. Elinor stood with the hand he had kissed curled before her long after the front door had shut and his profile disappeared from her view of the street outside.
Elinor now found the difference between hope of a pleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself. It seemed that her vaunted coolness of judgment, so long deprecated by her mother and sisters in comparison to their own ungoverned sensibility, could carry her only so far; beyond a certain degree of joy, even the most prudent mind could not help but give way. For many hours after her meeting with Colonel Brandon — with Christopher — she caught herself smiling at even the most tedious of daily tasks, and frequently losing track of conversations even when speaking with her mother and sisters.
It was the work of days, in fact, to restore to Elinor an appearance of her usual tranquillity, if of a slightly rosier hue than before. It was fortunate, then, that Marianne and their mother had such engrossing tasks as the purchase of wedding clothes and frequent social engagements to distract them, and that Margaret could readily be bribed away from impertinent questions with the promise of a new map.
Even Mrs Jennings was entirely caught up in the social whirl around the upcoming event, too busy speaking to her friends about delightful Marianne and dashing Willoughby to pay much attention to Elinor or even much miss the company of her son-in-law's particular friend. The unkind insinuations of a certain Miss Grey — closer to the truth than Elinor would like, though neither Mrs Jennings nor Mrs Dashwood were aware of it — and how Mrs Ferrars' intentions for her sons' advancement would impact their attendance were of far more moment to the effusive matron than whether or not Miss Dashwood smiled more frequently in London than she had in Devonshire, or the exact identity of the sender of the notes Pigeon occasionally delivered to her young friend.
It was as though Elinor had gone from famine to feast; after making do with so little for so long, in heart as much as in more material matters, even the sight of her name in the colonel's slanting handwriting was enough to buoy her spirits for hours. And the contents; what few doubts she may have yet possessed about the nature of his regard were swiftly dismissed by his enumeration of all her best qualities, and by the wry commentary he penned regarding his daily activities, shared in such a way as to invite her to smile along with him. Finding the joys and the absurdity in the smallest of moments — she had known him for a keen observer and an intelligent conversationalist, but had not suspected a sense of humour so well matched to her own.
In such security of affection, she was able to bear even the prospect of meeting with Edward at a ball with no loss of equanimity, and to observe Lucy's astonishment to be presented with Mr Robert Ferrars instead with rather more amusement than regret. Her previous experience of secrets had been all to her detriment, but she found now, to her bemusement, that there could be pleasure in them as well; and that perhaps that was for the best, as had she been at liberty to speak she might have destroyed her reputation as the prudent Dashwood sister once and for all.
It had become clear to Elinor that she and Marianne were not so different as she had once supposed; it was only that she gave more weight to matters of fiscal prudence and social disapprobation, not less to matters of the heart. And that that lack might even be the better choice for her sister ... should Willoughby not further disappoint her. And with such a sister, and such a brother, to keep an eye on him — not to mention such a happy and well-matched bride — the future seemed more hopeful than might have been otherwise.
Such hopes made it easier to reconcile what he had done in the past, though Elinor would not ever forget it; a fortunate circumstance, as they were thrown much together in the weeks before the wedding. They even, at times, managed an approximation of their former warm friendship on Marianne's behalf, though he had difficulty meeting her eye; Willoughby clearly knew, or at least suspected, that her sister had shared all with her. Elinor pretended not to notice, and the awkwardness soon passed without rising to anyone else's attention.
It was less easy, unfortunately, to dispel the awkwardness attendant upon her forced friendship with Lucy Steele. Even after that young lady attained an invitation to stay with John and Fanny, an event that could not but advance her hopes while further depressing any Elinor may still have maintained of becoming Mrs Ferrars, she still returned again and again to the house off Portman Square to clasp Elinor's hands and relate every minute triumph.
Lucy was the sort of woman, Elinor had long since realised, who battened on the unhappiness of other women; who would be for ever comparing the household furniture of every person she visited unfavourably with her own, and sabotaging every one of her husband's friendships with the opposite sex to make herself more important. She did not seem to know what to do with an opponent who reacted to her sly jabs with complacent amusement rather than swiftly hidden pain and an attempt to change the subject, other than to increase her efforts.
For her own part, Elinor would have gladly cut the acquaintance entirely; but though the thought of Edward was no longer as dear to her as it had once been, she still felt a warm friendship for him, and a desire to ease the hardships that would inevitably result from keeping his promise to Lucy. Her mother and Marianne still thought warmly of him as well; and as for Margaret, whom he had made a great effort to befriend at Norland even before he began spending so much time with Elinor — the youngest Miss Dashwood would take any action on the eldest's part that would estrange 'Captain Margaret's servant' from them very much to heart. That made maintaining an amicable relationship with Lucy a necessity, even if it led to many more such intolerable visits.
At least, she could console herself, they would not continue for ever; at some as yet undetermined future point, Lucy's confidences would fall on the visibly contented ears of a Mrs Brandon rather than a presumably disappointed Miss Dashwood, which must materially lessen their gloating tenor. And even if they did not — even if Lucy managed to convince herself that Elinor had made as mercenary a choice as she, and still preferred Edward to Christopher — then at least she might have that friendship to look forward to; she might take comfort in watching the two men advance in the good opinion of each other as they advanced their acquaintance. Their resemblance in good principles and good sense, in disposition and manner of thinking, would be sure to unite them in friendship even without any other attraction; and she did not say so only as a woman who had been in love with both.
The final test of her assurance of that happy future came mere days before Marianne's wedding, when Edward arrived — undoubtedly to convey his congratulations — while Lucy was with her. It was a very awkward moment; Edward seemed to have as great an inclination to walk out of the room again, as to actually drop a word into the sudden silence that had fallen. Elinor was immediately struck by the contrast between his behaviour, and Lucy's clear attempt to look tender toward him without betraying aloud that she had exposed their secret. The realisation pained her — but it was not the pain of one supplanted, which she had secretly feared might still rear up at such an inconvenient moment, merely the consciousness of a good friend for another's unpleasant circumstances.
"What a pleasure to see you," she smiled, determined not to be dissuaded from paying him those attentions which were his due by the jealous eyes of his secret fiancé. "You know Miss Steele, of course?"
"Of — of course," he managed to reply, glancing between them both as if grateful for the lifeline, but uncertain what would be safe to say next. He did manage to greet Lucy with an appearance of being welcome to see her; and she likewise managed to imply, by her response, that he had meant to call on her by this visit, having not found her at his sister's, an exchange completely to Elinor's expectations of them both.
She smiled to herself, and bowed out to fetch Marianne; and thought of that meeting all throughout her next clandestine letter to Christopher. She could not address the subject directly, not while she was still bound to secrecy, but the harmful constraints of honour on the connexions between men and women generally was a subject they had canvassed before, and was, she felt, safe enough to mention.
When your ward feels well enough to return to town, she concluded near the bottom of her page, or if the opportunity should arise elsewhere, I should be very glad to be introduced to her. Perhaps some occupation can be found for her at Delaford? A story of an imprudent runaway wedding and tragic widowing on the way back from Gretna Green might perhaps be concocted if she fears exposure; the truth behind her disappearance is not widely known, and Willoughby's support, though begrudging, should make it possible to smooth over the worst of the difficulties. In any event, I feel Beth, too, deserves better than the first hand fate has dealt her.
The warmth of his reply was tucked close to her bosom all the rest of the days leading up to the wedding; and afterward, when she set her hand in the colonel's as the guests all exited the church.
"Miss Dashwood," he said, lifting her hand to his lips again as they parted, a tender curl under the words that sent shivers up her spine. "Would you grant me the honour of an interview tomorrow, before you depart for Barton Cottage?"
The rest of the guests might not have existed; Elinor felt her face warm and her heart swell, the last lingering doubts that she might be disappointed yet again fading away like the morning's fog. "Of course. You are always welcome; and I am sure my mother and Mrs Jennings can make their farewell visits without me."
"Until tomorrow, then," he smiled; and Elinor pressed her hands to her cheeks after he turned away, certain that there could be no felicity in the world superior to what she felt in that moment.
Save, of course, that which she would feel on the morrow — and hopefully, every morrow after that.
In what manner Colonel Brandon expressed himself the next morning, and how he was received, would require more than mere insufficient words to express; much to the surprise of Elinor's mother and youngest sister, who confusedly asked her, more than once, if she was sure she did not mean Edward.
She was very sure; though she kept to herself all her observations on the way his lips had felt against hers, or the texture of his sideburns as they prickled against her palms, or the indelicate knowledge she now possessed that none of the breadth of his chest was due to padding — and the ease with which he'd lifted her against him for a more thorough kiss. Prudent restraint had prevented any further explorations, but had also opened within her expectations for the future that she had never before considered in her comprehension of marriage.
Fortunately for future relations between the sisters, however, one further piece of news arrived by the astonished flutterings of Mrs Jennings before their departure: the revelation of Lucy and Edward's engagement, incautiously whispered by the lady herself into Mrs John Dashwood's ear. Stories of Fanny's throwing her out on her ear, of Edward's disinheritance when he refused to break the engagement, and of his intent to take orders were endlessly chewed over throughout their journey, entirely supplanting the litany of impertinent remarks attending Elinor's engagement for which she had been prepared. Even in this, it seemed, Lucy's brazenness had worked out to Elinor's benefit.
She looked out the window of the carriage toward Colonel Brandon, riding alongside them, and thought of his promise to offer Edward the living at Delaford; of Lucy, calculating the penniless future before her against the one she must have expected when she had first attached herself to the elder Ferrars son, and wondered how long their engagement would now last; and of Margaret's continuing indignation, and compared the difference in ages between twelve and twenty-four, aged up perhaps five years, to a certain couple's nineteen and thirty-six. Edward might feel only a brotherly affection for Margaret now, but much could change in a little time; Elinor had only to look to her own situation not to rule it out.
Perhaps that was a thought equal in silliness to any of Lucy's imaginings — but as Cowper had mused on his Castaway, "misery still delights to trace Its semblance in another's case", and the same, Elinor was finding — and did not doubt Marianne had discovered before her — was just as true of joy.
In any event, the future would take care of itself. In the moment, Elinor gazed upon the pleasing countenance of her own future husband, and could wish for nothing more.