The Doctor took upon himself the complicated task of explaining to Willoughby precisely what had transpired. Of this lengthy and not entirely sensible discourse, the one point Elinor found of particular note was that the Nalosians already upon this world had all passed back into their original dimension, and would trouble them no further. Despite this, Marianne removed Mrs. Willoughby's silver bracelet as a precaution and slipped it into the pocket of the Doctor's coat, so that it might later be dismantled in the TARDIS.
Throughout the conversation, Elinor noted, Willoughby did not glance once at the insensate form of his wife on the floor.
"Such an unbelievable tale," Willoughby said. "And yet it has happened to us, and for the best."
"The best?" Elinor said, unable to discern his meaning. She understood more when Willoughby turned to her sister and boldly took Marianne's hands in his own. Marianne gasped, and became quite still.
"My beloved Marianne," Willoughby said. Warmth was in his every word, and his eyes again shone with the sincere affection they had known from him before. "Now you know why I married Miss Grey, and the truth of the terrible influence she had over me. You must realize now that not one word of that wretched letter I wrote you was an expression of my true feeling."
Marianne whispered, "I do. I believe that now."
Willoughby stepped closer to Marianne, so much so that Elinor thought he had quite forgotten she and the Doctor remained in the room. "Can you forgive me, my dearest? Can you at last believe that I still love you, and only you?"
Marianne stared up at him for a few moments, until she said in a small voice, "I believe that you still love me." Yet as Willoughby smiled, she added, "But I do not forgive you."
Most shocked, Willoughby protested, "This marriage – this unkindness – it was not at all my own doing or my will!"
"No. It was not." Marianne's words gained firmness as she spoke. "However, you were not under Nalosian influence when you seduced Colonel Brandon's ward, nor when you left her, alone and desolated, while with child. Nor when your aunts took away your money, and you abandoned me to be free to marry another who would have a greater fortune. You did not meet Miss Grey until after that. Those earlier actions were your doing, yours alone."
Willoughby's cheeks coloured, and he looked very much as if he wanted to speak – but for once, words did not come easily to his tongue.
Marianne continued, "The bracelets do not overcome the strong-willed, or so the Doctor says. You were overcome quite easily. Yet that fact was not necessary to prove that – you are a weak man, Willoughby. I do not condemn you, for I too have been weak. But I can no longer regret the circumstances that have parted us."
With that, she stepped away from Willoughby to Elinor's side. As Elinor petted Marianne's shoulder, Willoughby protested, "Is this all you have to say to me?"
"Don't know about Marianne, but I've got something to add," the Doctor said. "What makes you think you're free to go about protesting your love to her or anyone else besides your wife? You a married man."
Willoughby protested, "I did not marry of my own free will! I married some – creature that no longer exists!"
The Doctor shook his head. "At least half of her continues to exist. And you're still quite married."
As if summoned by his words, Mrs. Willoughby sat upright and rubbed her head. "Goodness," she said. "Goodness me. I must have taken a spill. The fool servants polished the floors with too much wax. Tomorrow I shall box their ears."
Her voice was sharp, her manner ill-tempered. The scene about her would have excited the curiosity of the most inobservant witness, and yet Mrs. Willoughby seemed primarily interested in examining her fine ballgown for tears or stains. Elinor detected that Mrs. Willoughby was not insensible to the strangeness of their situation, and this meant she must have some memory of what had transpired – but she seemed to regard it primarily as an embarrassment, a social awkwardness best ignored altogether.
"John?" she whined. "Help me up. I must wake Millie so that she can rinse this dress. If it is tea-stained, I shall not answer for it."
Willoughby seemed to shrink some inches in stature. Quite suddenly, his dash and vigour had deserted him – and forever, Elinor suspected. Without a word he offered his wife an arm, and she took it, clasping her thin fingers around his forearm so tightly that Elinor was put in mind of the links of a chain.
Mrs. Willoughby deigned to glance at the Dashwood sisters and the Doctor only briefly. "I trust you can show yourselves out?" she said, as she began walking toward the door, Willoughby silent by her side.
"Absolutely!" the Doctor called with great good cheer. "Brilliant party, by the way!"
Very quietly, just as the Willoughbys stepped through the doorway of the room, Marianne whispered, "Goodbye." Elinor did them both the courtesy of pretending not to notice that Willoughby flinched.
They returned to the TARDIS, rather than to Barton Cottage, for Elinor felt certain that sleep remained many hours away for them both. What they had just witnessed must be spoken of before it could be laid to rest. To Elinor's surprise, the strange golden interior of the TARDIS already felt familiar – almost homely. The Doctor sensibly made them some tea.
"Poor Willoughby," Elinor said. "He will have such regrets."
"They are largely of his own making," Marianne retorted. Her old spirit had returned in full now. "And his purse is no poorer than before. I suppose he will console himself well enough with hunting trips, and a fine house in London, and perhaps a new phaeton or whatever else is the finest carriage in the land this season."
The Doctor's straw hat was tipped far back on his head, somehow rendering his grin even more boyish. "We're in the finest carriage in the land, any season. Pity you don't know what the TARDIS can do."
Elinor took another sip. "You were good enough to explain to us, and after the marvels we have beheld, you may rest assured that Marianne and I believe you."
He hesitated – a pause that flickered, like the first sparks of a fire just as the blaze took hold. "But wouldn't you rather see for yourselves?"
Surely he was speaking of a journey, one of the wondrous feats of transport of which he claimed the TARDIS to be capable. Elinor protested, "If we are not at home in the morning, Mamma will be most concerned."
"Time machine, remember?" The Doctor stepped toward the whirring contraption at the centre of the great golden room. "You'll be back before dawn, make no mistake. Now, where would you two like to go?"
The sisters stared at one another, hardly sure what to do. Although the Doctor had suggested infinite possibilities, such infinity was difficult to sort through at a moment's notice. Elinor ventured, "Could we … could we even go as far as London before dawn?" Next to her, she saw Marianne looking sceptical, as well she might upon hearing such a wild proposition.
The Doctor laughed. "All the universe before them, and they ask for London! It shows good taste, really. Very well." He slammed down a lever in the works, and a strange sound – like the one they had heard on the day of the earth-quake – began to hum and whirl within the TARDIS. "I'll show you London."
Marianne clutched Elinor's shoulder as the TARDIS shifted from side to side. "It feels like an earth-quake, and sounds like one as well, but this is different, isn't it?" Marianne cried.
"Just the TARDIS on her way!" the Doctor shouted over the din. "Hang on, ladies!"
Elinor prepared herself for a long and rocky journey, though she reasoned it was no worse than the average carriage on a bumpy road. Yet within only a few seconds, the rocking had stopped. She and Marianne looked at one another in dismay. Marianne said, "Is it broken?"
The Doctor made a rude sound. "Broken. My TARDIS. Hardly. Well … not again, at any rate. We're there."
"You wish us to believe that we have been transported to London? In the blink of an eye?" Elinor protested. By way of answer, the Doctor gestured toward the door.
No doubt this would prove to be another of his odd jokes. Yet as they walked toward the door, Marianne clutched Elinor's hand in anticipation, an emotion Elinor realized was mutual. She reached out and pushed open the door of the TARDIS –
--to behold pure Bedlam.
Assuredly the TARDIS had moved, for they were no longer in the silent meadow, but upon pavement in the middle of a throng of people. Although the crowds reminded Elinor of London, nothing else did. The buildings around them stretched up as high as palaces, though they were as plain as huts, and windows and lamps along the streets glowed with eerily bright, steady lights. Nor were these crowds like those in London save in number, for these people were loud and raucous, and dressed in a most peculiar and vulgar manner. The women were, in truth, indecent, many of them showing naked legs and some of them in no sleeves at all; furthermore, it seemed that many of them wore paint upon their faces. Though the rouge was less garish than that Elinor had glimpsed before, she knew only actresses or women of ill-repute wore such things. A few individuals held strange metal devices to their ears and spoke to them as though they were other persons.
"Is this –" Marianne sounded as confused as Elinor felt. They each stepped out from the TARDIS, more in a sort of stunned stupor than through any actual desire to be part of the melee surrounding them. "Is this some sort of carnival? Or a gathering of theatrical performers?"
"This," the Doctor pronounced with relish, "is a party, one being celebrated by the entire world – including here in London."
Elinor protested, "This is not London!"
The Doctor said, "This is London, on New Year's Eve in the year of our Lord 1999."
1999? Did he mean – could he possibly mean – almost two centuries hence? Elinor knew the Doctor had claimed his TARDIS could travel through time, but surely there could be no means of travelling to an era that did not yet exist. And this swirling cacophony could not be London. He was playing a trick on them, a miraculous trick to be sure but a trick all the same.
Then Marianne seized her arm. "Elinor – Elinor, look!"
Marianne pointed, and Elinor followed the gesture to look across a river, toward an equally tall and eerie city. There, illuminated by the strange, unchanging light, stood St. Paul's Cathedral.
Elinor gasped, overcome with wonder. St. Paul's she had seen before in all its beauty and majesty. Surely there could be no other such edifice anywhere else in the world. This truly was London. Once again, the Doctor's most magical stories had proved to be no more than simple fact.
Next to her, Marianne began to laugh. Elinor joined her, the two sisters clinging to each other in overwhelmed rapture. The Doctor's smile – though mysteriously almost sad – made him look younger, too, and she knew that their joy was truly shared.
Such a night as this Elinor had never before experienced. Occasionally she remembered that they had in fact begun the evening at a ball, but Mrs. Willoughby's festivities were as nothing compared to this – the party held to celebrate the end of the millennium.
("But surely that is incorrect," Elinor had said when the Doctor first told them this. "The millennium will not properly end until the last day of the year 2000."
"They've gotten rotten at arithmetic, in the future," the Doctor had replied. "Don't tell them and spoil all the fun, hmm?")
People drank champagne freely in the streets, and the Dashwood sisters accepted glasses that the Doctor seemed to have collected from thin air. In some of the taverns and clubs, they danced – a peculiar sort of dancing without steps, which involved merely jumping about to rhythmic primitive beats; awkward though it seemed at first, Elinor found the practice easy to master and more enjoyable than she would have anticipated. Though their clothing was very different from that of the gaudy women about them, nobody commented, except for a few people who thought it was lovely that they had worn "costumes."
Now, the Doctor's bizarre garb, with his cricketer's outfit, straw hat and celery – that drew attention.
"That is amazing," slurred one fellow, fully as tall as the Doctor, and clothed all in black; his leather jacket was polished to the sheen of a finely made saddle. "That's hilarious, and you're saying, you're saying –"
He stumbled to one side, and the Doctor amicably caught him with one arm. "What is it I'm saying, then?"
"You're saying – I don't care what they think of me, and to hell with all of them, and it's – it's amazing." The man belched in a most uncouth manner, though Elinor had seen gentlemen far more intoxicated at balls. "I wish I could say that. You know what? I'm sayin' it. I'm sayin' it. I've got to get one of those hats. Where did you get that hat?"
The Doctor smiled rather wickedly. "What say we try a trade?"
The two gentlemen ducked into a nearby pub, leaving the two sisters alone for a few moments. Together, Elinor and Marianne leaned against the shiny metal railing that now framed the south bank of the Thames. At first they were silent, enjoying being a part of this celebration, and yet apart from it and therefore able to enjoy it all the more.
"Is it not wondrous, Elinor?" Marianne said.
Marianne dimpled. "What? You will not qualify your pleasure? Say that 'wonder' is a fancy for children?"
"No," Elinor said softly. "I shall not say that tonight. Perhaps I shall never say so again. The Doctor – he has a way of convincing one that wonder is as much a part of the world as earth, water or air."
She expected Marianne to exult in triumph over this, but instead this won only a rueful smile. "I was going to say that the Doctor convinces one to trust one's own senses and reason. That the reality around us is more splendid than any fairy-tale story."
The sisters linked arms, utterly content.
Eventually the drunken man stumbled out, now attired in the Doctor's gaudy gear. The celery had browned a bit over the hours, but otherwise the outfit was none the worse for wear. Behind him strode the Doctor, clothed entirely in black. He brushed his hands along the arms of his leather jacket and appeared altogether well-pleased with himself. "You know, I think this suits me."
"Does that make this an enterprise requiring new clothes, Doctor?" Marianne asked.
"They say that clothes make the man – or will say—"
"They say it already," Elinor and Marianne said in unison.
"Thank you. At any rate, it was high time I got something for myself. I think this will do nicely." He rocked back and forth on his heels. "See anything puzzling while I was away? I'm ready and waiting to explain."
He had indeed made sense of many of the peculiarities around them; Elinor now felt she had a reasonable understanding of the "mobile phone," the "double-decker bus" and the "electric light bulb," though no amount of Doctoral explanation could convince her that the "high heel" would be anything other than torturous. Until now, however, she had felt somewhat intimidated about asking the nature of her – literally – largest source of confusion. Now, at last, she was ready. "Can you tell us what … that … is?"
She pointed at the enormous pale metal structure that stretched up perhaps a quarter of a mile into the sky, a framework like a giant spiderweb, though it stood upon a pedestal.
The Doctor said, "That, my dears, is the London Eye. They said they'd have it ready for tonight – and it's operational enough – but not yet open for business. Pity. It would be something to see the fireworks from there." Then his eyes lit up. "Of course, we could open it to certain select members of the public."
"What do you mean, Doctor?" Marianne said, though an impish light in her eyes suggested she knew the answer.
They walked to the base of the London Eye; guards there attempted to impede their progress, but the Doctor held forth a piece of paper that apparently proclaimed them to be "Ferris Wheel Inspectors," whatever that might be. They were allowed to walk to one of the orb-like protrusions at the end of the wheel's spokes, and the Doctor's sonic screwdriver opened the glass doors.
"And now, to point this at the main controls." The Doctor squinted as he aimed his sonic screwdriver at a small structure nearby. "It's a tricky shot from here, but think I can do it – there!"
Marianne and Elinor each gasped as the wheel began to rotate. Its movement was slow and gentle, but they were unmistakably being borne forward – no, upward.
"We shall be spun high into the air," Marianne said. "Is it entirely safe?"
"Safe as houses," the Doctor gently replied. "And you'll see London as never before."
"Will our actions not be noticed? And the wheel stopped?" Elinor asked, half-hoping this would occur before the London Eye rose any higher.
The Doctor shook his head. "Moves so slowly, most people can't even detect the motion. We're fine. Relax, will you? I brought you across two centuries well enough, and I didn't do it just to drop you from a mere few hundred feet up."
Elinor trusted the Doctor's judgment, but found that she was dizzied by looking down through glass at the ground as it became farther and farther away. She therefore sat on the small wooden benches provided in the centre of the pod. Marianne, however, could not have been more enthralled. Quickly she darted from side to side to marvel at every vista presented, calling out each sight so that Elinor might see too. Throughout all of this, the Doctor stood near the doors, arms folded. His delight, though quieter, was clearly the equal of Marianne's – but he took pleasure in their pleasure, not this extraordinary view of London. To him, Elinor suspected, almost nothing could be truly "extraordinary."
"What a miracle is this," Marianne said, smiling, as they reached the very top of their orbit. "Doctor, we cannot thank you enough for this experience."
For a moment, the Doctor seemed – however improbably – shy. "You know, there's no reason we have to stop here."
"The wheel does not spin free of its moorings, does it?" Elinor felt quite alarmed.
"The London Eye won't budge; I promise you that." The Doctor shifted on his feet, clearly both awkward and eager. "I meant, we don't have to stop travelling in the TARDIS. We can go anywhere. Any time. And still have you back by morning."
Marianne's face lit up. "Could we? I thought you said you would journey no more."
The expression upon the Doctor's face could only be described as sheepish. "So I said. And so I meant. But – I find I want to show the universe to you. To someone. That means I'll have to take a look myself, doesn't it?" He gathered himself, and some of the tragic gravity Elinor had glimpsed in him before was again evident. "After the Time Wars, I'd lost any faith in simple decency. Any sense of pleasure in the world around me. I fought to protect humanity, but I fought so long that I forgot why. And then, when I was alone and helpless and wanted only to forget that I'd ever loved my life – you two came along. You cared about what became of me, even when I didn't. And that meant I had to care what became of you."
Such an extraordinary pronouncement. Elinor was unused to such naked emotion from men, but she found that she was not embarrassed, only deeply moved.
Marianne ventured, "Would we really be able to return on the night we left, no matter how long we were actually away?"
"Absolutely." The Doctor paused. "Well, every once in a while, the TARDIS is a bit … off. Occasionally we miss a date. Or a place. One exemplary passenger of mine wanted to return to London and wound up in, well, Aberdeen."
The Dashwood sisters gasped.
The Doctor hurriedly added, "But almost certainly I'd get you back safe, sound and on schedule. I'm more reliable than the post coach to London. Good enough for you?"
Certainly it sounded reasonable enough, and Marianne had become as giddy as a small girl. "We could literally go back in time? Or forward yet farther? We could visit …" Her voice trailed off as she clearly searched her mind for the most exotic locale imaginable. "… Japan!"
"Japan it is! Leave the when to me." The Doctor grinned yet again. "What do you say, Elinor?"
Such infinite possibility – and yet Elinor knew her answer. "Your offer is very kind, Doctor. I know I shall never have a like opportunity again. Yet I must decline."
How hurt he looked. "If you're worried about being safe –"
"I feel entirely safe in your company, Doctor," Elinor said, surprised as ever that it was true. "But, if I were to live more than one night in this way, I think our cottage would come to feel very small. Smaller than it is, I mean. I have never disliked the intimacy of country society, but if I came to find it confining … do not ask me to bear it. If I were to travel with you, I would have to leave my home forever. That I cannot do to my mother, nor to Margaret." Marianne looked so crestfallen that Elinor hastened to add, "But if my dear sister awakens me in the morning to tell me of her many adventures in other lands, I will be only too happy for her."
The Doctor nodded slowly. He understood her choice, Elinor felt, at least well enough that her refusal would cause no offence. She did not want to offend him, not only because of his great kindness, but also because she wanted the offer to be open for Marianne.
After all, had Marianne not been the chief subject of the invitation? It was Marianne who had first realized the Doctor's extraordinary nature, who had responded most swiftly and ingeniously to the strange situations in which they had found themselves. Marianne had ever dreamed of romantic adventure, and travels in the TARDIS would no doubt provide those in ample measure.
Now, too, Marianne knew that she had lost Willoughby forever. Her attachment to Colonel Brandon was still too new to provide greater promise than the Doctor's offer. Certainly nothing could provide Marianne greater pleasure or satisfaction, and Elinor was determined to be happy for her.
"What do you say, Marianne?" the Doctor said. "We could arrange a chaperone, if you think that's appropriate. Dare say Sarah Jane's forgiven me for the whole Aberdeen incident. And oh, the fun we'll have."
Marianne smiled, her face aglow. "I thank you so dearly – so much, you will never know! But I must refuse as well."
"Marianne?" Elinor was startled. "Why will you not go?"
"I cannot leave my sister," Marianne said. Though she still spoke to the Doctor, she looked only at Elinor. "Once she asked me not to leave her alone, and I never shall."
Elinor protested, "I will not have time to miss you, dearest, if the Doctor's words are true. I should hardly know you were gone. Do not surrender such an opportunity for my sake alone."
Marianne only smiled, and continued speaking to the Doctor. "She is my best friend, such a friend as could never be surpassed. She is the sharer of my daily pleasures, and the soother of my deepest sorrows. We do not conceal any thoughts from one another, not anymore, and to be without her – it would be as though I were without a part of myself." After a deep breath, she finished, "It does not matter whether she would miss me, for I would miss her terribly. Where she goes, I go. And so we shall go home."
All Elinor's arguments vanished into the tight knot in her throat, and her eyes swam with tears. She held one hand out to Marianne, who grasped it tightly. But Elinor managed to say, "Will you not persuade her, Doctor?"
"And come between you? Never," the Doctor said. His voice sounded almost as affected as Elinor's. "Neither of you will ever be alone. That's more precious than anything the stars have to offer."
At that moment, the sky exploded into brilliance – fireworks, Elinor realized, though she had never seen any so spectacular before. She rose to her feet so that she and Marianne might both stand at the very edge, her fear lost at last in the splendour of the moment.
"The year 2000 is here," the Doctor said, his voice faraway. "The future. Run from it all you like, and yet it finds you, just the same."
"Oh, Elinor," said Marianne. "Is it not beautiful?"
"It is." Elinor hugged her tightly. "And it always shall be."
The Doctor, true to his word, brought them back to Barton Cottage at daybreak. Elinor saw Margaret's kite dangling from her treehouse, where it had been abandoned the evening before, so she knew it to be the correct day.
"Will you come to Sir John's home for dinner tonight?" Elinor said. "For, you remember, we were all invited."
As she had suspected he would, the Doctor shook his head. "I've sat still long enough. Time to move. There's a certain ocean liner I've always meant to visit – the RMS Titanic. No time like the present."
Marianne asked, "Will we ever see you again?"
"I prefer not to predict these things. I'm always wrong, you see." The Doctor smiled, more gently than before. "Let's hope."
An idea came to Elinor. "If you were to return in a few years, I believe Margaret would prove a most willing companion on your voyages."
He laughed. "If I return, it'll be for Mrs. Jennings, and the Cybermen will rue the day." Then he became more serious. "Goodbye, Elinor and Marianne. Thank you for reminding me that the universe truly is a wondrous place."
"But you are the one who showed us its marvels," Marianne protested.
The Doctor shook his head. "What I needed to remember was that it contains people like you." With that, he strolled to the TARDIS, waving briefly as he stepped inside. Then the odd whirring sound began, and the TARDIS faded – both from view and from existence.
"No one would ever believe it," Elinor murmured.
"No one else needs to, for we know, and that is quite enough." Marianne yawned as she studied the brightening horizon. "Goodness, I am tired, and yet there is no point in going to bed at this hour."
Elinor could not yet turn her mind to such practical concerns. "How do we begin, Marianne? How do we go back to our tasks – to our lives as they were?"
At first they were both silent. Then Marianne straightened and smoothed her skirt. "I believe that I should make us a pot of tea."
They both smiled, slowly and broadly, in a way that expressed more mirth than the loudest laughter. Briefly Elinor leaned her forehead against Marianne's in sisterly, conspiratorial happiness.
Elinor said, "I think that would be lovely."