Everyone lived happily at Delaford and Barton at first. Elinor raised chickens and helped Edward write sermons; Marianne was mistress of a house almost the size of Norland, and her mother visited frequently in order to give advice. Soon Colonel Brandon installed Mrs. Dashwood with Margaret at Delaford so she could have the managing of the household, as Marianne had no head for details. The Ferrars’ were frequent guests at Delaford and all seemed as content as three families rewarded for their virtue by love and comfort could reasonably be expected to be. The cottage at Barton stood empty.
In time, Elinor’s family increased by three, but the Brandons remained childless. Marianne’s happiness faded, and Colonel Brandon grew more grave. Elinor saw with sorrow how Marianne’s temper grew restless, how living quietly and comfortably with her adoring husband no longer suited her youthful romanticism.
"I wish to assure you both," said she, "that I see every thing—as you can desire me to do."
Marianne had never had Elinor’s commitment to duty that could resign her to circumstances less ideal than her wants and desires. Elinor, who once felt relief and quiet triumph at Marianne’s learning more sense than sensibility, came to doubt the efficacy of the lesson.
Marianne sighed, and repeated, "I wish for no change."
The passage of five years brought changes to the neighborhood. Lady Middleton’s eldest girls came out, and finding husbands for them occupied almost all of Mrs. Jennings’ time. Mrs. Smith passed away one winter from a consumption, and Allenham Court passed to Mr. Willoughby and his wife, though Mrs. Willoughby preferred their residence in town, and when conditions forced them into the country, they still had Combe Magna as a recourse. Margaret, too, came out, and the connexions of her sisters’ allowed her to be admired each season when she accompanied Mrs. Jennings and the Middleton sisters to town.
It was Margaret who brought Elinor the news and confirmation of her worst fears. She arrived, on foot and out of breath, her shoes and stockings grimy and her hair barely in its pins. She hardly waited for the servant to show her in to the drawing room where Elinor was putting on her bonnet to go out.
“Elinor! Elinor, I have such news. I don’t know how to tell you.”
“Margaret, my dear! What can it be? Is Mama well?”
“I can hardly tell you. Elinor, it is Marianne! She has gone. She left in the night.”
“Gone? Where has she gone?”
“No one knows. She left Colonel Brandon a letter, but it says nothing of where they are going. And he is married! Poor Mama is quite overcome and begs you to come to her.”
“Of course, of course I shall come. But who is married? Who is she with?”
"One observation may, I think, be fairly drawn from the whole of the story—that all Willoughby's difficulties have arisen from the first offence against virtue, in his behaviour to Eliza Williams. That crime has been the origin of every lesser one, and of all his present discontents."
Marianne assented most feelingly to the remark; and her mother was led by it to an enumeration of Colonel Brandon's injuries and merits, warm as friendship and design could unitedly dictate. Her daughter did not look, however, as if much of it were heard by her.
Thus began the most difficult chapter of Elinor’s life. Ever the comforter, she had to comfort Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret, all the while concerned most of all for Colonel Brandon.
Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.
How could Marianne have done such a thing? Elinor’s grief was so great, she could only guess how terribly Colonel Brandon must feel.
The lovers’ flight caused a great scandal. Colonel Brandon staid home from town, leaving the tale to be told by Marianne’s relations, John and Fanny. The Middletons and Mrs. Jennings, for all their fondness for Marianne and past foolishness, forbore to gossip at Brandon’s expense and gamely staid home from town, as well.
Edward found himself in one of the more difficult positions. The crime was committed by his sister-in-law, the patroness of the village, so he was obliged to deliver sermons against the sin of adultery committed by his own relation as the unstated object of his delivery. For the sake of his wife’s feelings, his tone could not be as resentful as the situation warranted. Half his parishioners criticized his disapprobation as too weak – the other half reveled in the scandal and of his connection to it.
For many months three households mourned. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret removed to Barton cottage, despite Elinor’s concern that it left Colonel Brandon alone. Where once the Colonel had found Willoughby out to challenge him over Willoughby’s treatment of Eliza Williams, in this, even nearer insult, he seemed unmanned. He ceased going out, and would see no callers except Mrs. Dashwood and the Ferrars’. When Mrs. Dashwood could not face visiting her cuckolded son-in-law and Edward had business with the parish, Elinor often came to Delaford alone. One day she found Colonel Brandon in the lowest spirits imaginable.
“Can they not be found, Colonel?” she asked, gently.
He shook his head. “I will not search. He has resources; his wife’s fortune means little to him now that he has come into his own. He has wronged me, but she went willingly; I cannot deny that. I have her letter.” He looked away from Elinor. “I thought she – I allowed myself to believe she – but, I must now see my fondest, dearest wishes as the contemptible delusions of a middle-aged man.”
“Have you given any thought – forgive me, Colonel – but might not a divorce be sought?”
“Divorce? So that HE should be free to marry her? No, under no circumstances. Parliament would grant me permission for the suit, to be sure, but the trial, Mrs. Ferrars, the trial! That I should have my personal affairs paraded in that way, and before Willoughby himself; whom I should have slain when I had the chance. No, by God – forgive me, Mrs. Ferrars – there shall be no divorce. I can accept that she prefers him to me – must accept it – but I’ll put myself to no pains and expense to allow HIM to marry her.”
Elinor said nothing, and quietly chided her own heart that loved her sister and wished her happy; in the face of the Colonel’s suffering, she could say no more. Abruptly he gave thought to her feelings and sat down, very near her. “Mrs. Ferrars, your concern and care of me are very dearly bought, I fear. I cannot imagine how you must feel this. I know how very deeply you care for Marianne—” His voice broke and Elinor twisted her hands together to keep from reaching out to him. “Colonel,” she said, “love for Marianne is something we have always held in common.” She smiled.
“I have always valued your friendship,” he said gravely, “and not only for our common relation. You – I believe we have always shared an understanding of the world not always apprehended by those around us.” Elinor could not explain the flutter of pleasure his words evoked in her. They were near to something Edward said to her in that awful interview where they both believed they were separated from each other forever; yet the understanding he spoke of was something she shared with neither Edward nor Marianne – certainly not with her mother. It was present when Colonel Brandon understood they needed an escort home from town without delay, for Marianne’s sake. It was displayed, to her own benefit, when he insisted on conversing about rain to prevent Mrs. Jennings from embarrassing her; when he entrusted her with the information about Willoughby’s villainy, so she might ease her sister’s suffering; even his offer to Edward of a living – as painful as it was to Elinor to see Edward enabled to marry Lucy – was a kindness Colonel Brandon extended to a stranger because Edward was virtuous, and dear to her. Elinor left Delaford after half an hour -- a lengthy visit – with grief weighing on her mind, but a faint sense of something new dawning in her life.
Public interest in the scandal subsided beneath the grief and terror of a deadly fever that arrived in Devonshire that spring. Colonel Brandon rallied like the military man he was to respond to this threat to the countryside. He, Elinor, Margaret and Mrs. Dashwood worked tirelessly to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved. Edward worked the hardest of all, and each new loss hit him hard. He traveled even into Exeter to assist his fellow clergymen there. Then -- an even harder blow to Elinor’s heart -- swiftly and economically, Edward, himself, was carried off.
Elinor had never missed Marianne more; wished for her, yearned for her even if it meant, as so often it had in the past, that Elinor performed the offices of comforter even as she herself had the most need of comforting. Fortunately her dear mother appeared in Marianne’s stead, crying for Elinor’s support as she endured the devastation of the loss of a treasured son-in-law.
Now was Elinor’s condition the most desperate. She and her three orphaned children had nothing beyond her thousand pounds to live on. Edward’s career had been so brief that no amount of economizing could have resulted in any savings. The living that was Colonel Brandon’s to dispose could, by law, appertain to a clergyman only; there was nothing for his widow.
Grieving, Elinor packed her small house and prepared to move her family into Barton cottage with Mrs. Dashwood, where the combined small fortunes of two might be hoped to support six. As she stood staring at what had been her happy sitting room for all too brief a time, a visitor arrived at her door. She barely had time to remove her apron before Sally, her only remaining servant, showed Colonel Brandon in.
For months the Colonel had shown only a weary grave face on those occasions when he went into society, but now Elinor saw a glimmer of his former self. He wore an expression of resolve, tempered with softness. Elinor was, as always, glad to see him. “Mrs. Ferrars,” he said with a bow.
“Colonel,” Elinor returned the courtesy. With a word to Sally to remove the children, she indicated a seat not covered in parcels and they both sat.
“I understand you shall be at Barton by tomorrow,” said he.
“Yes,” she replied. The village would need a new clergyman, but Elinor couldn’t bring herself to ask him if he planned the living for anyone yet, and Colonel Brandon had never said a word of such thoughts to her.
He seemed to gather resolve and said, “Mrs. Ferrars, -- Elinor – it is my fervent wish that you should live with me at Delaford. Come to my house, not to Barton, I implore you.”
“Colonel,” Elinor said, looking down at her hands, “it is impossible. I thank you with all my heart, but it is impossible. I am your wife’s sister and it is not proper that you should favor me. That is why my mother and sister left your patronage.” She spoke the words of propriety, but it cost her more effort than any speech she could remember giving. Her wishes, desires, were all to the opposite. But to live with Colonel Brandon as a poor relation, never able to – she halted her thoughts. It could not be.
“Elinor—” the Colonel almost blurted before he stopped himself. He stood and paced, in an agitation of mind that surprised her. He took out a small purse and removed a paper. “I have here the letter of permission from the House of Lords. I shall sue for divorce.”
Elinor betrayed her surprise. “You will?”
“My first decision was made in anger and grief; the desire to deprive Willoughby of happiness. I am shamed to admit, I even intended to keep Marianne’s happiness in my own hands. If I refused to divorce, they could never marry, and have no hope of being received in good society, no matter how rich his fortune. I believed that in time, his self-indulgent nature was such that he could not tolerate a life outside society, and, unmarried, he would put her aside. You see now how cruelly my imagination treated your sister! But think not so poorly of me that my visions saw her outcast and suffering – no, I dreamed that I could then take her back and all might be forgiven.”
“But now—” Elinor’s words came breathless.
He looked earnestly at her. “I thought that refusing a divorce would prevent their happiness. I now see that it would prevent mine.”
Elinor had never had a nervous temperament, but rather than hear him placidly while seated, she found that she must stand. “Your happiness?” she inquired, feeling light-headed. “So you –” So you think you might marry again, she had been going to say, but the words would not come.
“Elinor, you are among my dearest friends, and you must know how very much I have always admired you. For some time my admiration has had the force of love. Our thoughts have always been in accord. Your mother and Miss Margaret will also be very welcome at Delaford, but my offer to you is not one of charity. Please bring your family to my house as my wife and relieve my suffering with your own beloved company.”
The distraction of Elinor’s thoughts can scarcely be described. Her own desires, hidden even from herself, would no longer be denied. She felt walls within herself fall and the pain of Edward’s loss lessen. She gave him as gracious a reply as her state of mind allowed, assured him of her own admiration and love, and, as she felt she must, given the inequalities of their situations, tried to thank him for his favor, but he stopped her words at that. No thanks could be allowed but his own; his gratitude that she would consent to be his, even over what must be a wound to her pride.
In time all was arranged as it should be: Colonel Brandon endured the exposure of a trial and acquired a divorce. He and Elinor married within a year, and Edward’s living went to a relation of Brandon’s friend, Sir John Middleton. Willoughby secured his own divorce – his first wife’s beauty and fortune, combined with the general belief in her innocence in the affair, defended her from society’s disapprobation – and made Marianne the mistress of Combe Magna, as she’d always dreamed. Willoughby lived in town, but clandestine correspondence between Marianne and her mother and sisters proceeded to the satisfaction of all the women.
Of all the Dashwoods and their relations, only Edward could not be said to live happily after this time, since, unfortunately, he did not live at all. Everyone felt the injustice of his absence from their felicity, and his memory was honored by all who loved him.
So much contentment proceeded from the sisters’ second marriages that the reader must decide whether my tale serves best as a lesson against marrying prudently in opposition to the heart or as an encouragement to adultery.