No one would deny there are few more forlorn sights than that of a young lady who has recently been jilted. Two such young ladies make a very unfortunate picture indeed.
It would, perhaps, not be entirely precise to say that Elinor Dashwood had been jilted. Edward Ferrars had given her no reason to hope for anything beyond his sincere friendship. However, Elinor had recently learned that Edward had been secretly engaged for many years to a Miss Lucy Steele, of Plymouth. Privately Elinor felt certain that Miss Steele's aspirations to matrimony were more of a material nature than an amorous one, but this seemed of no consequence to Elinor's own prospects. Edward, having given his word, would keep it, even if the cost were a loveless marriage and the loss of his inheritance. Elinor could in honour only wish him well and pretend that she did not believe he would have chosen differently, had he still been free to choose at the time they met.
Marianne Dashwood had quite decidedly been jilted. John Willoughby had wooed her both passionately and publicly, and the entire town had gossiped about their partiality for one another. Yet it was widely felt to be a good match – not least by Elinor herself, who did not doubt the sincerity of the pair's affections, even when she wished for a more modest display of those feelings. But, alas, the expected engagement did not come to pass. Willoughby had proved himself a libertine, disgraced himself before his aunts and been cut off from his fortune – a turn of events to which he had responded by marrying a Miss Sophia Grey, who had fifty thousand pounds.
This shocking news had had the worst possible effect upon Marianne. Laid low by sorrow, she had developed an infectious fever that had very nearly ended her life.
Reminded of this illness on a morning some weeks later, Marianne made little of it. "I am quite well now, you see, and I do not need two shawls for a walk in the meadow when the weather is so bright."
"Your cheeks are still pale." Elinor resolutely wrapped the second shawl about her sister's shoulders. Once, Marianne would have cast it to the floor rather than be told what to do, but now she submitted to Elinor's desire.
Elinor would almost rather have prolonged the argument. In many ways, Marianne's recovery had progressed well. Her appetite had returned, and she again took an interest in the affairs of her mother and sisters. She had even accepted the kind attentions of Colonel Brandon, who, though too wise and patient to press his suit so soon after her crisis, was eager to oblige Marianne in any whim that might speed her return to health.
Yet Marianne's spirit remained but a shadow of what it had once been. The fire that had made Marianne so ungovernable – yet so happy – seemed to have been extinguished with the receipt of Willoughby's final letter. This circumstance was, in its way, as frightening as her fever had been.
They did not speak as they wandered through the meadows near Barton Cottage. Marianne blinked against the sunlight, perhaps wondering whether Cum Magna was enjoying weather so fine, and if so, would Willoughby take his new wife for a ride in his carriage. The wind caught at Elinor's hair, reminding her of a day when she and Edward had gone riding. Easily might they have spent their whole journey in such unhappy thoughts, had they not been most strangely interrupted.
Sudden brilliant light flared in the skies above them, and the ground beneath seemed to slip sideways. Both women tumbled upon the soft meadow grasses. Dimensions unknown to them bent and broke, the phenomena of which were profoundly unsettling. Marianne cried out in fright.
After but an instant, all was again as it had been.
"Do not be frightened, dearest." Elinor attempted to conceal her own discomfiture, the better to comfort her sister. "It was but a tremor in the earth. We have read of such things."
"I do not think so. Earth-quakes do not cause lightning, do they?" Despite her weakness, Marianne pushed herself to her feet first. "And as I fell – oh, Elinor, did you not sense it? That ripple around us?"
Elinor had sensed something most peculiar, but she could not account for its connection to this incident. "No doubt we are quite overcome by shock. We must pay it no mind."
"I found myself thinking of – wonderful things, and terrible too." Marianne held out her hand to steady Elinor as she, also, rose from the ground. "It was as though – as though, all at once, I could see everything I might ever have done. Every choice I might ever have made. A thousand lives, and each of them mine. Yet the thought of it fades so quickly!"
This statement was most startling to Elinor, who had experienced similar sensations. Of this, nothing remained but a dim image of Edward dancing with her at a London ball. Could a wrenching of the earth create such fancies? She resolved to read more upon the subject soon. "We must hurry home to Mamma. She will be beside herself."
"Oh! Mamma and Margaret – what if they are hurt?"
"I do not think it was so severe an earth-quake as that. But we should –" Elinor's voice trained off as she saw the small blue shed in the meadow.
The shed that had not been there before.
"What is that?" Marianne clutched Elinor's sleeve. "Are we now seeing apparitions?"
Elinor considered it unlikely that they should both see the same apparition at once. "We may have failed to notice it before. I confess that I, at least, was most distracted by my thoughts."
Marianne admitted the possibility of their distraction, but she could not imagine any reason to build a shed so far away from any person's residence. Elinor suggested that it might be the work of shepherds, perhaps wishing for a place to shelter during sudden rainstorms. Marianne said no shepherds built such things, and Elinor said then they should certainly consider it as it would be quite practical, and they might have continued bickering in such turn for a long while had not the door of the shed opened.
Both sisters fell silent as a man stumbled forth. His curly hair was longer than any gentleman's, but his clothing, while odd, did not seem like that of a workingman; his long frock coat was of bottle-green velvet. He staggered like a man unseeing, and blood stained his face and hands. No sooner had he gone five steps before he fell and tumbled out of sight down the little hill.
"He is injured. We must go to him," Marianne said. Elinor opened her mouth to agree, but then they heard a rough masculine cry – and saw another flash of light, even more brilliant than the one before. They braced themselves against one another, expecting perhaps another of the strange earth-quakes, but the ground remained still.
"This is very peculiar," Elinor said.
"How can you think of such when a man is hurt?" Marianne ran toward the place where the man had fallen. Elinor was not insensible to his condition, and glad to see the return her sister's fiery disposition and quick compassion. But she felt unsettled as she hastened after Marianne, certain that this man's sudden appearance had implications she could not yet fully comprehend.
This conviction was strengthened when they rounded the hill and looked down upon the unconscious man lying there. Still he wore the odd suit with the bottle-green coat; still blood marked his face and hands. But he was not the same man.
He was larger, it seemed. The suit was too short at the ankles and wrists, and his waistcoat pulled so tightly against his chest that the buttons strained the buttonholes. Instead of genteel features, he had a rougher countenance, large of nose and ear. Furthermore, instead of long, curly hair, he had been shorn so close to the scalp that he might as well have had no hair at all.
Marianne whispered, "I don't understand."
"We have been greatly surprised. Perceptions can be much altered in times of distress," Elinor said. Although she was not entirely certain of the truth of her own words, she knew not how else to account for their present situation. "We must not be overcome. Help me, Marianne."
They knelt by the stranger's side, the better to ascertain whether he still lived and how serious were his injuries. As Elinor wondered whether she ought to risk the impropriety of taking his pulse, his eyes flew open. His expression was wholly wild.
"Gone," he rasped, in a thick Lancashire accent. "All of them. Forever."
"Sir, were you injured in the disturbance?" Elinor could think of no other term suitable to describe the odd events they had witnessed. "Shall we fetch a doctor?"
He laughed. It was a terrible sound, as deeply filled with sadness as Marianne's weeping had ever been.
Marianne withdrew her kerchief from her pocket and dabbed at the bleeding cut upon his brow. "Do not strain yourself," she said. "We shan't leave you alone. We will look after you."
"Alone," he said, like a judge pronouncing sentence, but upon himself. Then he sank back into unconsciousness.
Elinor and Marianne exchanged looks of concern. It was Elinor who first suggested they should look within the shed. There might be water there to rinse away the blood and perhaps refresh him, as well as clews to his name and family. She could little have guessed how many answers lay behind the blue door.
As soon as they had opened the door, both sisters cried aloud. "Elinor!" Marianne's eyes widened in the soft, golden light. "Have you ever beheld such a marvel as this?"
"I have not." Elinor walked inside – not a shed, but a great space, larger by halves than Mrs. Jennings' drawing room. The floors, walls and ceilings gleamed like polished brass, and an odd contraption whirred in the centre of it all.
Marianne stepped inside the shed, then out again, then repeated this process several times before she exclaimed, "It is larger within than without! That is impossible. And yet it is true. My eyes do not deceive me."
"I do not see how it can be, and yet it so appears," Elinor admitted. "Some strange illusion is at work."
For the first time in many months, Marianne's face lit up with true wonder. "Elinor – do you think it could be real – that he could – that he might be a magician?"
"His speech is rather rough, dearest. More likely he is a day-labourer from the North."
"In a velvet coat? I think not. And how would a day-labourer create such as this?"
Elinor had no answer, but she kept her concentration upon their task. "First we must see to his well-being, and then you may pepper him with as many questions as necessary to ascertain that we have not come upon Merlin newly freed from Broceliande."
"Do not teaze me," Marianne said crossly, as she set to work searching. No letters or papers lay about, but a small brass door slid open – apparently of its own accord – revealing a jug of water. Triumphant in this further evidence of magic, Marianne hurried outside with the jug to give succour to the injured man. Elinor found a wardrobe full of all sorts of clothing, some of it highly peculiar. This interested her less than the fact that there were many soft cloths folded within, suitable for use as bandages.
As they knelt beside their patient, daubing blood from the smaller wounds on his hands, Marianne whispered, "Look at the cuts."
"They are not so severe as we believed," Elinor said, putting aside her first thought.
Marianne gave that first thought speech. "They are smaller than they were. It is as though he has been healing several days, rather than the span of a few minutes."
There was nothing to say that would not stoke Marianne's fantasies of magic, nor make Elinor doubt her own wits. Instead, Elinor began to plan. "Marianne, as soon as we have done what we can for him here, you must hurry home. I shall stay with the poor man; I think I will be safe enough. See if Mamma and Margaret are well, and whether a physician is to be had. Others may have been hurt or panicked by the tremor, and perhaps the doctor will be busy."
"Not busy at all," said their patient. "Nothing to do, now. Nothing ever again."
"You are awake." Marianne smiled encouragingly. "Do not fear. We will soon fetch help."
"There's no help for me." He pushed himself into a seated position. The makeshift bandage they had tied upon his head obscured his vision slightly, and he tugged the white cloth to the side. For a moment he regarded both Elinor and Marianne with frank scrutiny. "Regency England, then. Good a place as any to face the end."
"I do not think you will die," Elinor said. Men were ever prone to exaggerate illness. "Just the same, we shall be glad to find a physician for you if you wish. I feel most strongly that you should be seen."
"Fat lot of good he'd do me." Then the stranger seemed to remember himself. "There's just no point."
"To getting a doctor?" Marianne asked.
"May we know your name, sir?" Elinor did not like to leave the man this way. Perhaps he was merely uncouth and obstinate, but she had heard it said that some people behaved strangely after a blow to the head, and that when this was the case, a medical man should certainly be summoned. "Have you acquaintance in town that we might send to your aid?"
"I know no one in all the worlds," he said, an odd turn of phrase Elinor assumed she had misheard. "They're gone as if they never were. No – that's not right. Not 'as if.' They truly never were."
Elinor decided to be firm. "You are not well. Can you walk with us into the village? It is not far, and we could find help for you there."
He gathered himself. Slowly, unsteadily, he rose to his feet, and they did likewise. "Forgive me. I'm not –" He looked down at the short cuffs of his coat and smiled darkly. "I'm not myself today."
"All the more reason you should have a doctor," insisted Marianne.
"I am a doctor," he said. This seemed unlikely, given his accent, but Elinor's small acquaintance with people from the North suggested that even learned men there spoke roughly. "I can see to myself. All I need at the moment is to be left alone. I have to – I have to think."
His voice broke on the last, like a man announcing a great tragedy. Marianne, newly sensitive to the suffering of others, was the first to step slightly away to allow him space. Yet before he could leave, she blurted, "What is the magic inside that shed?"
"No such thing as magic," said the doctor. "Just a trick of the light. That's all there is to it."
For the first time in her life, Elinor felt like arguing with someone who said there was no such thing as magic. She did not believe in incantations, spirits or any of Marianne's gothic novels, but even if they had not seen "magic" at work, the shed represented more than a mere trick.
But this man's stony face, and the despair behind his gaze, forestalled any possible argument.
They watched him step back into the shed and reluctantly began their journey back to Barton Cottage. As they walked, one or the other of the sisters would sometimes glance over their shoulder to ascertain whether the shed was still there – as though it might have the power to vanish into thin air. However, it never moved. Perhaps the odd doctor had come to stay.