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An Unexpected Attachment

Chapter Text

 

The uneven progress of Marianne’s illness had begun to quietly wear on Elinor by the end of the third day.

 

Since the day before, Marianne had alternated between joking about trifling little colds that could not keep a Dashwood woman down for long, demanding to be taken downstairs, and being so miserable that she could barely speak. Elinor had insisted she stay in her room to rest and had stayed by her side most of the time, reading to her. Poems to increase Marianne’s energy; dry texts to make her doze.

 

At mealtimes and for short periods during the day, Elinor joined the others. She was beyond grateful that the Colonel had chosen to stay on with them, seeing to it that their every need was met, and Mrs Jennings, whilst never breaching the sickroom herself, had an eager interest in Marianne’s health that could not help but endear her to Elinor. The method said interest was expressed in, however, with such excessive and disproportionate fretting, was not always easy to bear – especially since Elinor could see it causing the Colonel concern. His childhood friend, she remembered, had died of consumption, and she could not help but think seeing another woman he cared about ill must bring him pain.  

 

Mrs Jennings tried to be kind that evening, but it was the sort of kindness that brought no relief to anyone but herself. Elinor struggled to do more than smile tersely, thank her, and repeat over and over again that the apothecary had said there was no cause for concern when he visited that morning.

 

“I still wonder that you can focus on your book while your sister is so… Well, we shall not speak of it any longer.” Mrs Jennings gave another huge sigh, then rose and bid them goodnight.

 

A minute after she had left the room, Elinor carefully closed her book and laid it to one side. “In truth, I cannot concentrate,” she admitted to her watchful companion. The headache that had been plaguing her for several hours now drew a tight line across her forehead, and she smoothed across her brow with two fingers. It spoke poorly of her patience to admit it, but she had mainly been holding the book to have an excuse to avoid conversation.

 

“She means well,” Colonel Brandon said, and Elinor gave him a tired smile. It was so exactly the sort of thing she herself might have said to Marianne, not two weeks ago, and it was strange to have it said to her by another.

 

“I know. She has been very good to us.”

 

“She is right that you have remained very composed throughout your sister’s illness.”

 

His voice did not contain the censure of Mrs Jennings’s. Elinor’s apparent lack of feeling over Marianne’s illness had been Mrs Jennings’s third favourite subject to remark upon that day, falling shortly behind bewailing Marianne’s poor short life and attempting to fix Elinor’s interest with Colonel Brandon. Why everyone believed that, merely because she was female, she should be going into hysterics, was quite beyond Elinor.

 

“Remarkably calm,” he continued. “I confess, I find it comforting.”

 

About to comment, calmly, that she was merely reassured by what the apothecary had said, her train of thought was interrupted when he continued: “Which I suppose is why you do it.”

 

She hesitated, taken aback. He kept his gaze on the folded paper in his hands. “It does not go unnoticed, Miss Dashwood, how unfailingly thoughtful you are of the cares of others. I have seen it a hundred times; with your sister, your mother, Mrs Jennings. With me.” and here his eyes flickered up to meet hers, and she felt strangely unable to look away. “But this is perhaps an instance where your thoughts and feelings ought to come first, and you should not have to be overly nice towards others.”

 

Apparently realizing he had quite disarmed her, he gave her a small smile and then pretended to once again be fully occupied by his reading.

 

What Elinor was feeling was very hard to describe, but she felt it very intensely. Perhaps the most wondrous thing was that the issue she had been confronted over – appearing less worried over her sister’s health than she really was, in order to provide comfort to others – was one where she felt she was being honest. Marianne was genuinely no worse than she’d been in the past when she had a cold, and, given the apothecary’s expert knowledge and confidence, Elinor could think of no reason to be overly concerned. But the words the Colonel had spoken could have been applied to so many other instances in her life – instances that the Colonel said had also been noted by him – and been unerringly accurate.

 

Elinor lived with a mother and sister with overly romantic tendencies, prone to express every passing joy or sorrow as dramatically as possible, and another sister too young to filter such things through a screen of sense. She herself was not naturally inclined to the same outlook and tried to always apply a sense of proportion and rationality to everything that might come her way. But it was true – it had been true more than ever in the past year – that because she did not wish to cause them extra distress, and, more selfishly, because she did not wish to cope with said distress, she was used to diminishing and concealing her own troubles and pains.

 

“I-“ she started, hardly knowing what she might say, and cut herself off almost before she began. “I am truly not overly worried about Marianne,” she said more slowly, “but your concern and thoughtfulness are much appreciated, Colonel.”

 

 

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Elinor was in the habit of self-reflection, frequently finding comfort in analysing events and of her own thoughts and feelings towards them. Having checked on Marianne before bed, she had gone to her room and lain for quite some time in the dark dwelling on what the Colonel had said and how it applied to her. She went over again the current situation, forcing herself to more deeply consider her reaction to it. She had said to herself that she was not concerned over the state of affairs, but in truth…? In truth she was feeling a more than a little strained. To have this now, after months of worrying about Marianne and Willoughby…  she was reaching the end of her reserves and wished that they were at home with the rest of their family. While Marianne’s suffering would surely be over soon, it was true that the words of the apothecary had been most effective in their reassurance immediately after he had uttered them. 

 

“You were perhaps right,” she admitted to Colonel Brandon the following afternoon, after Mrs Jennings had ushered them to take a turn about the garden while the weather allowed. He looked curiously at her, and she thought to herself, not for the first time, that he drew more confidences from her with his quiet attentiveness than Mrs Jennings with all her loud forebodings. “I am not entirely at ease. I suppose I had not allowed myself to realise it until after our conversation.”

 

“It is quite reasonable, when someone you love is unwell.” They set off down a path lined by tall hedges, the Colonel offering his arm. “Even if there is, as you say, little danger.”

 

“Do not let Mrs Jennings hear you say that.”

 

He gave a brief smile that was more of a grimace. “I believe she considers the two of you as quite part of her family.”

 

Mrs Jennings had been all that was good and kind to them, and certainly taken good care of them in town. She just seemed prone to overindulging in flights of fancy. Elinor worried again that the lady might be over alarming the Colonel. “I am sorry if Mrs Jennings’s words regarding Marianne alarm you,” she offered hesitantly.

 

He gave her a brief smile. “I feel those ought to be my words to you. But no,” he held up a hand to forestall her, “I comprehend your meaning. Indeed, I have noticed myself that I feel an… elevated degree of concern over any illnesses of my friends after the loss of someone I cared so deeply for.” They walked a few more paces, Elinor’s heart aching on his behalf.

 

“It is strange, perhaps, that I have been fated to know three women of such similar disposition. Indeed, Marianne’s low spirits since her… disappointment are an echo of my little Eliza’s, and it pains me now to see her so ill.”

 

“Do you think they would like each other?” Elinor asked, and surprised a brief smile from him.

 

“I believe so. Eliza does not have Marianne’s deep appreciation for verse, but she could be easily brought to it. I daresay they could have a great many passionate discussions about their favourites. And I believe that she would like you very much also, Miss Dashwood. Your kindness and steadiness would be just what she needs.”

 

It was strange to think that she was only two years older than the Colonel’s ward; stranger still to think that Marianne was the same age.

 

“How is she? And the child?”

 

He smiled again. “Both are well. I have found a quiet family for them to live with who are willing to claim the boy as their own.”

 

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At dinner, Elinor redirected Mrs Jennings’s attempts at engaging the Colonel in discussion of the dangers of colds by asking for more details on her family. As Mrs Jennings was successfully diverted, Elinor was conscious of the weight of Colonel Brandon’s gaze. Turning her eyes to his, she found appreciation and the slightest wry amusement. The sight of it warmed her a little.

 

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By the fifth day, she felt as if they had achieved a surreal routine. She met Colonel Brandon for breakfast, taking a few things from the sideboard and sitting at the other end of the table from him.

 

He cleared his throat. “How is the patient?”

 

“I left her sleeping. I think perhaps she is a little better this morning, but it is hard to tell.”

 

“You take a great deal of care of her.”

 

Elinor smiled, a pale and wan smile that was all she could find the energy to summon at present. “She is deserving of it.”

 

He looked his agreement, and they ate the rest of their breakfast in companionable silence. Elinor was secretly glad that Mrs Jennings had not yet come down, as that lady’s continuing gloomy prophecies regarding Marianne’s health were more than she wished to face so early in the morning.

 

Afterwards, she checked that Marianne was still asleep and then went to write her letters in the blue room. The first was a short update for Mrs Palmer, and by extension, Mr Palmer, relating that the illness was still ongoing, expressing her gratitude once again for all of their arrangements on the sisters’ behalf, etc. etc. The second was for their mother, and Elinor contemplated its composition for a full ten minutes before setting pen to paper. She had already written twice, in the days after Marianne had fallen ill, to let her mother know there might be some delay of their planned return. She had delayed a further letter, waiting upon some definite sign of Marianne’s improvement. Grieved to be unable to give it, she wrote of what Mr Harris had said on his daily visits – that it was infectious but should not be serious, that Marianne seemed alert and cheerful at times, and that she surely needed merely a few more days of rest to be quite herself again.

 

She took the letters down and left them with a servant, hoping that tomorrow she might have better news.

 

The evening instead brought further worries. She had just dined with the others, the Colonel exerting himself to divert her even while she could see the cares upon his own face, when she returned to her sister’s room and found her flushed and agitated.

 

“Rest for a moment, dearest,” she murmured to Marianne, pressing her gently back into the pillows, and then sank into a chair by the bed and watched as Marianne twitched and stirred restlessly. Her sister had been slightly feverish on previous days, but now her skin felt as though it might burn Elinor’s fingertips. This seemed more serious.

 

Elinor stared at her sister as though willing her to feel better. “We must get Mr Harris,” she said out loud, but it took another few seconds before the words allowed her to move.

 

She called a maid to sit with Marianne and found the Colonel in the drawing-room, knocking quietly at the open door and entering at his acknowledgement. He looked up at her from his paper, and something in her face must have given away her concern because he instantly stood and came closer. “Miss Dashwood?”

 

“I fear-“ She swallowed. “I fear we must call the apothecary again. Marianne has a high fever.”

 

His eyes were fixed on her face. For her to be saying this, when for days she had been so staunchly convinced of Marianne’s imminent recovery, strongly impressed upon him the seriousness of the situation.

 

“Yes,” he said immediately. “Yes, of course. I will go – let me get my horse.”

 

He was out of the room in another moment, and Elinor’s lips closed around her second request, which would have been that perhaps her mother should be fetched. She could not, upon consideration, say whether or not it would be warranted – she would not wish to cause undue concern to her mother were it unnecessary, but on the other hand surely her mother would wish to know, and Marianne would want her here.

 

Mrs Jennings, apparently summoned by the sudden activity downstairs as the Colonel left, appeared at the top of the stairs in her dressing gown as Elinor started up them again.

 

“What is going on?” she asked, and Elinor summarized the change in Marianne’s condition, deliberating again over whether to add that perhaps her mother ought to be fetched. It was worth hearing what the apothecary thought first, she decided, since he had already been sent for.

 

Mrs Jennings, in whose mind Marianne had been in great and agonizingly danger for days, was so spurred by the acknowledgment of her own fears that she called a manservant immediately, ordering him to go after the Colonel to find the apothecary and to founder every horse in the stables to ensure that he arrived as soon as possible. Elinor tried to smile, but found she could not, and upon further reflection Mrs Jennings had meant it so earnestly that a serious mien was the correct response after all.

 

She went to sit with Marianne again. Her sister was the same, restless and hot to the touch, although she was sleeping again. Sleep was good, the apothecary had told her days before, it would help her heal.

 

She discovered later that the fact that both the Colonel and manservant had been sent out, at different times and on different paths, meant that the apothecary was brought to the house several hours earlier than he might have been otherwise. All she knew at the time was that it was not two hours after the Colonel had left that she heard the noise of them arriving back.

 

The apothecary was slightly hesitant, as he had not been previously, in delivering his verdict, but still told Elinor, “I believe this is part of the natural progress of the infection. I shall check on her every few hours, and I believe that she will be well.”

 

For the first time since Marianne had first developed the cold, Elinor was truly worried. Mr Harris was very experienced, and if he said it would be well, it would surely be well, she told herself again and again. Still, she spent the night in Marianne’s room, watching her feverish sleep, reading and singing softly to her. Every time the apothecary entered, he seemed pleased with her state, but to Elinor it did not appear particularly better than it had before. Still her sister had fever, still she tossed and turned.

 

“Come, Marianne,” she said to her sister as she sat beside her on the bed, holding her hand, “You will make me quite worried.”

 

At last, near dawn, the fever broke, and Elinor took a new pile of linens and cloths from the maid with a sign of relief.

 

“Very good, very good,” said the apothecary, and not long afterwards Marianne woke properly, muzzy and tired but coherent and aware.

 

Thank you, Elinor said to God.

 

She stayed in the room with Marianne and wrote to their mother, telling her that Marianne’s fever had briefly worsened overnight but that she had been well taken care of and was now on the mend, providing many details about the apothecary and how she and her sister were both being looked after. She allowed her relief over the situation to shine through, knowing that it would be the best way to comfort her mother that all was truly well. She would write again tomorrow, she penned, and then sent the letter off with the maid.

 

“Elinor?” said Marianne from the bed, and Elinor went to her.

 

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At some point, she ventured from Marianne’s room to refresh herself, hardly knowing whether it was morning or evening and surprised to discover from the clock in the hall that it was late afternoon. She stayed there, contemplating the clock-face, and was startled when footsteps came on the hardwood floor - a strong steady pace and “Miss Dashwood?”

 

She started to turn, recognising the voice as the Colonel’s, but the suddenness of her own movement made her falter.

 

How strange, she thought as the world swayed around her, and then there was a faint roaring sound and it was as though she were viewing her surroundings through a screen of muslin – hazy and indistinct.

 

“Miss Dashwood!”

 

She did not even realise she had been falling until an arm caught her, a band of iron to lean against as the world valiantly attempted to right itself. She would have brought up a hand of her own to grasp it but felt too weak to move; the world swam in front of her, and she closed her eyes to try and make the effect go away.

 

“Miss Dashwood? Can you hear me?” The tone was gentler now, lacking the urgent haste of before, but no less insistent.

 

“Yes, I-“ she swallowed. “I am alright. Thank you,” she added, carefully straightening. She lifted a trembling hand to brush a few strands of hair out of her eyes and then slowly moved a step away. His hands seemed oddly reluctant to release her.

 

“You are ill,” he said gravely. “You must-“

 

“Not ill. Just a little tired.”

 

“More than a little,” he said, but seemed reassured. “When did you last eat?”

 

Opening her mouth to reply, she found that she could not quite recall.

 

He frowned. “You have not joined us since yesterday, and you hardly ate then.”

 

“I-“

 

“Come with me,” he murmured, and did not so much offer her his arm as insist upon her taking it. She leant on him more heavily than she would normally have allowed herself, and he led her to the nearest room across the hall, a small sitting room.

 

She still felt weak and unlike herself as he rang for a servant and came to crouch beside her.

 

“I am terribly sorry,” she said, “to put you to so much trouble. You are quite right; I was not paying attention and did not eat.”

 

“You were too focused on taking care of your sister, and not enough on taking care of yourself.”

 

She felt her mouth tremble, too tired to be able to easily brush off his concern. “You are right,” she said again, and absently patted his hand where it rested on the arm of the chair.

 

“It is admirable - to take such care of others. But it worries me that you have neglected yourself.” This conversation seemed to strangely echo the one that they had had two days prior. “Forgive me,” he said, “you are still weak, I should not remonstrate with you so.”

 

She went to pat his hand again, but this time left her own there, gently resting on top of his. “I shall take more care,” she said quietly. Then, trying for a wry tone, “Normally I pride myself on my good sense.”

 

“You are perhaps the most sensible woman of my acquaintance.” His smile was warm, if still concerned, and it drew her gaze. She had not had so many occasions to see him smile of late. “But here is the servant-“ He rose to meet the man who had come to the door, the tug of his hand from under hers surprising her with the feel of its absence.

 

Having requested something to eat and drink, the Colonel sat beside her on the sofa, talking of small, inconsequential things and attentive to every movement she made until she felt the need to comment, a little dryly, that she was not the invalid in the house.   

 

“But now you have shown me that you need someone to pay attention to your needs whilst you attend to everyone else’s – I am therefore at your service.”

 

His comment was earnest but had  gentle element of humour to it that left Elinor unsure of what to say in reply. She huffed slightly. “You will paint me as quite a different character than I am.”

 

“I think not,” he said, his gaze having turned considering.

 

The servant returned with a small tray of bread and cheese and a hot drink. “This should serve until dinner,” the Colonel said. For all that she had not eaten in almost a day, Elinor did not feel any particular hunger, but she pushed herself to eat regardless. What use would she be to her sister or to the Colonel and Mrs Jennings, if she were to take sick herself?

 

“And now,” he added as she finished the plate, “perhaps you might rest in your room until dinner?”

 

A very good idea. She frowned though, thinking aloud, “Marianne- “

 

“Can be amply looked after by a maid.” Elinor was inclined to agree with him, but could not help thinking again of how ill her sister had been through the night. Upon seeing her expression, the Colonel asked, “How is your sister today, truly?”

 

Elinor paused for a moment, smoothing her skirts with one hand. “She is improving more and more. Still sleeping much of the time, but the apothecary said that was a good sign.”

 

“I cannot imagine Miss Marianne being happy at the thought of you overworking yourself on her behalf.”

 

Elinor smiled faintly. “I see that you must have been an excellent strategist in your time in the army, Colonel.”

 

He stood, offering her his arm. “You flatter me, Miss Dashwood. I frequently think that if the army had you on its side, its increased efficiency would lead to immediate victory in all our campaigns.” His words surprised a laugh out of her as he led her back towards the guest rooms. She paused as they passed the room where she had left Marianne.

 

“I will go in and settle her and call a maid,” she said, and gently squeezed his arm. “Thank you,” she added more haltingly, “for your kindness. To both myself and my sister. I – we both appreciate it more than can be expressed.”

 

His eyes were intent upon her face, and he seemed to weigh his words before speaking them. “It is not kindness, Miss Dashwood. Do not think that I behave unselfishly…” He hesitated. She thought, for one suspended moment, that he might openly refer to his feelings for her sister as reason for his actions. The following words, however, were not what she expected. “I feel that we have become great friends, you and I, Miss Dashwood, and I derive much pleasure from your company. I must ensure that you are well enough to bestow it upon me.”

 

With that he bowed over her hand and withdrew, leaving her standing in the corridor feeling puzzled. Oh, it had been a polite and attentive reply, to be sure, which she had come to expect from the Colonel, but it nonetheless left her feeling strange and unsettled.

 

In Marianne’s room, she smoothed back the hair from her sleeping sister’s forehead, humming to herself as she found the skin just the right shade of warm. She fussed over the covers for a moment, then said aloud, “Great friends.”

 

It was true, of course. Over the past few months her conversations with Colonel Brandon had been one of her greatest consolations. All of her energy had been sapped from her in consoling Marianne over Willoughby, in dealing with Marianne’s disappointment on Elinor’s behalf regarding Edward, and in being gracious to their hosts. Only in the Colonel had she found sympathy and understanding enough to rejuvenate her. Certainly, she considered him a good friend – why had his acknowledgement of the fact sent such a thrill through her?

 

After a few minutes, she called for the maid and went back to her room. A rest before dinner would do her a great deal of good.

 

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“Elinor!” said Marianne with some cheerfulness as Elinor entered the room. Then, “You look very pretty.”

 

Elinor had dressed for dinner with greater care than in most of the preceding week, when she had rather thought that the fact the three of them were all staying on due to her sister’s ill health meant that no particular effort might be expected. Now that Marianne was improving again, Elinor’s spirits had lifted once more. Indeed, she had not realized how low they had been until now, when they were no longer oppressed.

 

“Come here,” Marianne said, reaching out her hands. The maid had propped her up on the pillows, and, though her cheeks were still pale, she seemed so improved that Elinor could scarcely credit how ill she had been not a day before.

 

“It is good to see you looking so much better,” Elinor said, and sat beside her sister on the bed. “We have all been worried about you.”

 

“Oh, I am quite well!” said her sister, as though her illness had been merely a day long and not six.

 

“I am glad to hear it. Would you like anything before I go?”

 

Marianne requested a particular volume, though Elinor suspected that despite her optimism she would be too tired to get far with it, and a kiss, both of which were willingly bestowed. Elinor smiled at the maid as she exited and thanked her for all her excellent work.

 

“And how is the patient?” cried Mrs Jennings as Elinor entered the dining room. “We have been so afeared! I told the Colonel this morning that nothing but your sister being on her deathbed would keep you from us, and he was trembling with agitation, the poor dear.”

 

Colonel Brandon eyed Mrs Jennings but forbore commenting. “How is Miss Marianne this evening, Miss Dashwood?”

 

“Much improved,” she said, joining them. “She was sitting up and seemed to be feeling much better, though I think she will still need some days of quiet rest to recover.”

 

“Oh, the poor dear!”

 

“I am very glad to hear it,” said the Colonel, and waited for a servant to draw out her chair before he resumed his seat. “Miss Marianne must find it difficult to be abed for so long.”

 

Elinor remembered her sister’s fractious temper at the beginning of her sickness and how desperate she had been to sit downstairs or in the garden. Just the thought of tomorrow being spent combatting similar inclinations was enough to threaten a headache. “It is true that she does not do well with being confined.”

 

“We shall be very glad to have her company again, once she is well enough,” put in Mrs Jennings. “You must tell her she has been missed. Though I’m sure the Colonel has been more than pleased with the company he has had,” she added slyly.

 

Elinor barely managed to avoid closing her eyes in exasperation. She largely managed to find humour in the woman’s attempts to see her married to Colonel Brandon, but she rather worried such comments must be annoying to him, especially given her own observations suggesting he felt certain tender emotions for her sister.

 

“I am delighted with the company of all the Dashwood’s,” the Colonel replied tactfully. “Though of course Miss Margaret is the only one who truly shares my love of foreign countries.”

 

Elinor smiled; the reply was so entirely like him.

 

“You cannot marry Miss Margaret!” came the sly reply.

 

As with many of the sentences that came from Mrs Jennings’s mouth, Elinor spent a few seconds confirming ‘why yes, she did actually say that,’ as she internally regrouped. Then, “I am not sure that Margaret has much inclination to marry anyone at present. While the life of a pirate may have lost its attraction, I believe that the focus on her planned geological expeditions consumes the entirety of her romantic soul.”

 

The Colonel nodded. “Indeed, such travels are not to be undertaken lightly. I shall have to ask her, when we return, if she has further updated her itinerary.”

 

For the rest of dinner, Elinor and the Colonel managed the conversation between them, with Mrs Jennings chiming in with anecdotes or gossip that she derived great delight from retelling. It was much the same as their previous dinners, except that Elinor was conscious of the dynamics in a very heightened fashion - of how harmoniously she and Colonel Brandon worked together to achieve a continuous and pleasant conversation.

 

She was still mulling this over the following day, in between bouts of forbidding Marianne to go downstairs, when Marianne asked her what was on her mind.

 

“Oh, nothing much,” said Elinor, pulling some mending into her lap and picking up where she had left off. The maid here, she was sure, would have been scandalized to see it. “I was thinking about how much more pleasant it is to be at table when the Colonel is present.”

 

“Because you are not left all alone with Mrs Jennings.” Marianne’s tone was slightly tart, and Elinor looked reprovingly at her. “Well, it is unsurprising, that is all.”

 

“You must have noticed that he tries to keep the conversation pleasing to everyone,” Elinor said. Marianne just looked puzzled.

 

“He doesn’t seem to say much at all to me. I assume he doesn’t have anything interesting to talk about.”

 

Elinor thought of the man’s education, his rich and varied history and travels, and his sad losses. “No, nothing at all, I’m sure,” she said dryly.

 

“Elinor,” said Marianne, and waited until Elinor glanced up until she continued. “Why do you care so much about the Colonel?” Elinor’s brows dipped in a frown, but Marianne continued before she could say anything. “You are always talking about him and asking me to be nice to him, and if I didn’t know you loved Edward, I would suspect that Mrs Jennings is right.”

 

Quite unaccountably, Elinor felt herself flush. “You cannot tell me that you listen to anything Mrs Jennings has to say.”

 

Marianne looked at her. “She kept saying that you looked at the Colonel with so much admiration that she was sure you would be married by Midsummer.”

 

“Showing a firm grasp of the situation, I’m sure.” Elinor’s tone was dry, but she felt a strange tightness in her chest.

 

Marianne fell into her usual snide imitation of Mrs Jennings. “I made the match myself you know,” she said in a low pitched, gossiping voice, “but the Colonel scarcely needed encouragement, and Miss Dashwood was all for it.” She snorted. “I knew that she was wrong, because – Elinor?”

 

Elinor was standing, the mending carefully put to one side. “I just need some air,” she made herself say calmly, and kissed Marianne’s cheek before quickly moving out of the room.

 

Elinor found it difficult to fully pay attention to her path, thoughts turned entirely inwards. The panels on the walls seemed to blur together as she moved past, leaving the house by the side entrance and walking swiftly to the square garden. It was not raining, but there was a chill in the air, and she drew her wrap more tightly around herself as she sat on a stone bench.

 

Why do you care so much about the Colonel?

 

It had been an innocent question and should have had an innocent answer – that he was their friend, that he had been so kind to their whole family. It was a shock to her that the answer had a less innocent echo.

 

You looked at the Colonel with so much admiration…

 

Was it true? She had never hidden her esteem for the Colonel, but nor had she ever thought anyone might interpret it in such a manner. Elinor had always viewed him as a lover for her sister – even as he had talked to her, he had still often gazed at Marianne. Certainly Mrs Jennings and Elinor’s brother, John, had made comments, but Elinor had always thought those were born more out of a desire to see Elinor well settled than any belief in preference on either side.

 

Certainly, Colonel Brandon had never shown any preference for her.

 

Had she… any such preference for him?

 

It was hard to analyse, far harder than she thought it would be. Harder still, given the complicated knot of misery settled to one side of her heart with regards to Edward Ferrars.

 

For some reason, Elinor’s first reaction was to say that she had never considered the Colonel in that way. But that was untrue; she had, especially soon after first meeting him.

 

Colonel Brandon was an eligible bachelor. Well read and well educated, with sensible and varied conversation, good habits and a nice property. In the weeks after being first introduced to him, although indeed thinking that the age gap was too large to consider it very seriously, she had… speculated. It was only her perception that his attention had become focused on her sister that had made her cast such thoughts aside. And she had. Entirely. Only to find now that, in spite of shutting such an idea out in the cold, her feelings had grown regardless.

 

When she said he was the kindest and best of men, she had not known her feelings. When she expressed the greatest esteem for him, she had not known them. But how many people might have heard her words and very reasonably thought that they represented an attachment on her side?

 

Good God – what did he think of her? She had always thought there was such an accord between the two of them that he must have taken her words in the spirit of friendship that they were meant – to now find that perhaps there had been a deeper layer of feeling beneath that on her side threw her into self-doubt. Had he perceived this? Did he suspect that she felt more for him than friendship? How awkward must he have felt in some of their encounters; how was his kindness now thrown into even greater relief.

 

She felt such discomposure at this train of thought that her mother and Marianne would have felt deeply satisfied with her kindred spirit even as they wept with her. And she was weeping, she realized, reaching up to wipe the silent tears away, the cold from the stone bench seeping through her skirts as if in empathy.

 

“Miss Dashwood?” came a voice, and oh, it was a voice she would have given anything not to hear at that moment. She swallowed, gave herself a stern internal reprimand, and finished drying her eyes just as Colonel Brandon rounded the hedge. “Ah, Miss Dashwood. The servant said that you had–“ Here he broke off on more closely observing her.

 

“Colonel-“

 

“You are distressed.”

 

She tried a smile. Unfortunately, she rather supposed that ‘watery’ would be the most apt descriptor for the result. “Forgive me, I am quite well.”

 

Seating himself beside her, he shifted uncertainly. “It is not your sister?” Elinor shook her head. “Your family?”

 

“No, no. Please… it was just a moment of self-“ she hesitated “-indulgence on my part. Nothing to be concerned over.”

 

He looked away from her then, out over the gardens. “I cannot imagine anyone on this Earth less prone to self-indulgent fits of crying,” he said after a moment.

 

“And yet,” she said dryly, “I must bear you false witness.”

 

“Will you not tell me what is wrong? Perhaps I may be able to help?”

 

They sat in silence for a minute, she still and spent and he full of the repressed need to do something to aid her.

 

“Do you think it is possible to ever truly know oneself?” she said eventually.

 

He gave this the consideration it deserved. “It is a difficult question,” he said finally. “One’s thoughts and feelings may change over time and, indeed, are changed through knowing other people. I often think…” His voice grew softer, more reflective. “I often think that one of the compensations of growing older is the slow move away from old thoughts and old hurts – that they haunt you less each year.”

 

“Yes,” she murmured, thinking of what he had told her of his past.

 

He turned his eyes on her. “You cannot have so many old hurts to wish to move on from?” he said gravely, then the look in his eyes grew shrewd. “New ones, perhaps? You received a letter this morning?”

 

“Yes,” she answered absently, still trying to puzzle out his prior comment. “From my brother John. I wrote to him when we first arrived; he must have assumed he should address it here.”

 

“Ah,” he said, and fell silent. The silence was not a comfortable one, and after a moment she turned to him and inquired as to his comment. He seemed hesitant to respond. “You will think me impertinent, but I had wondered if while we were in town… If something occurred to make you unhappy, specifically, as well as your concern for Marianne.”

 

Her eyes flew to his face, but he appeared to be taking in the view of the gardens with great concentration.

 

“I-“ she said uncertainly, then stopped.

 

“We… have spoken about a great many things, Miss Dashwood, in our conversations.”

 

“Yes,” she said, on more solid ground here.

 

“And,” he continued delicately, “some of them you spoke of with such understanding and empathy that I thought perhaps -“ he paused again, and she wound her fingers together in her lap, “- perhaps you might have experienced disappointment of your own.” Now his eyes sought hers, and the corner of his mouth curled in a wry half-smile. “It is a rare thing, your gift to understand the feelings of others, Miss Dashwood. But it is made all the more powerful when the person you are speaking to feels that there may be in some way… a commonality of feeling and experience.”

 

She had been listening so closely that it felt like a shock to hear him finish. Each word he had spoken had felt as though – she hardly knew. Her throat and chest felt tight, and she did not know how to address what he had said. Casting around for another train of thought, she said, “And the letter…”

 

“Yes,” he said. “From your brother, you said. I imagine he was writing to you about affairs in Town, and of the family.” His eyes were kind, and her stomach suddenly went cold. Wanting to hide her discomposure, she angled her face away a little. She heard him hesitate before he spoke again. “I may be wrong, of course, Mrs Jennings’s accidental intuition notwithstanding, but… Miss Dashwood, I have for many weeks wished to apologise to you for the office I forced upon you with regard to informing your friend of the curacy.” Elinor said nothing. “At the time, I thought that I was merely increasing the chance of his acceptance by the offer coming through a friend. It wasn’t until more recently that I realized it may have been an act of great cruelty on my part, and I am saddened to be responsible for it.” A minute passed. “Miss Dashwood?”

 

She made a slight gesture with one hand, and he subsided. They sat on the bench for some few minutes more.  

 

“Please understand,” she said, when she felt she could properly speak again, “that although the situation was awkward, it was not deeply painful. I had-“ she hesitated “-known of Mr Ferrars’s engagement for some time – almost as soon as I met Lucy. I had ample time to prepare myself for their engagement being made public, and I wish them both very happy. You have done me no injury.”

 

He smiled sadly. “I suspect that you would not admit it if I had. I am very sorry for you. I am no longer certain,” and here he eyed her carefully, “if Mr Ferrars is as honourable a man as I had presumed.”

 

Her answering smile was also sad. “Mr Ferrars only fault, I fear, is of slight thoughtlessness as to the feelings of others, and much of that may be due to over-modesty. He has behaved in every way with honour.”

 

The Colonel inclined his head. “I am very glad to hear it. I would counsel you as I recommended you counsel your sister, but you have heard all of those words before.”

 

She swallowed around a lump in her throat. “By all means,” she said. “Let me hear them again.”

 

Turning more fully towards her, he reached for her hand and took it between both of his. His voice, when he spoke, was earnest and full of feeling. “Allow yourself time, Miss Dashwood. Take comfort in your friends and family. You will be happy again.”

 

“I thank you,” she said, a fine sheen of tears in her eyes, because how strange for them to be having this conversation given that the original cause of her distress had not been Edward at all. “I confess, it has been a difficult year. Our father dying, then…” she found it too uncomfortable to name Edward as a cause of unhappiness, “Then Willoughby. I wanted so much to see Marianne happy.”

 

“You will again,” he said gently.

 

“She is trying, I think,” said Elinor. “It is not a natural fit for her, to have to try. But I am grateful for it, because I think in time it will become truth.”

 

“She is most fortunate to have you for a sister,” he said, and the honest warmth in his voice made her blush. “At times she reminds me so strongly of Eliza.” Elinor stilled to listen. “Now in her melancholy, of course, but also before that in her lightness of spirit and playfulness. I missed that very much when I sent her to school.”

 

It took several very confused moments for Elinor to follow his train of thought, because she had assumed he was talking about the childhood friend that he had loved, and now realized he was instead comparing Marianne to her daughter. They were the same age, Elinor realized all over again, Marianne and the girl he considered a daughter. How strange. She was not much older herself, of course, but somehow in the case of Marianne it seemed particularly discordant. Perhaps because Elinor still sometimes thought of Marianne as a child herself, nearly eighteen or no.  

 

They went into the house soon after, Colonel Brandon remonstrating with himself that he had kept her out so long in the cool air. Marianne was subdued when Elinor went back to her, clearly aware that she had upset her sister but not quite certain as to how.

 

It had been a very long afternoon.

 

---------------------

 

Marianne joined the party downstairs for an hour or two the following day. Despite Elinor’s outwards calm, she remained particularly attuned to any interaction between the Colonel and Marianne. Marianne, she noted, made more of an effort to be amiable than usual, presumably because of their conversation the day before. The Colonel asked all the usual questions about her health, prompted her to talk a little, and then went back to his usual habits of talking with Elinor and occasionally watching Marianne. Did he look at her less now than he used to? Elinor spent some time analysing the situation until she was teasingly scolded by the Colonel for her inattention to their conversation. She apologized, excusing it as concern over Marianne, and exerted herself to keep her thoughts firmly where they belonged.

 

-------------------

 

Elinor was beginning to think that she was perhaps a little more romantic and a little less sensible than she had always claimed. She wrote that exact sentence in a letter to her mother while her mind drifted, instantly regretting it but not quite enough to cross it out. Crossing it out would have made it far more important and mysterious an object to their mother, whereas left as an absent sentence she could claim it as a moment of whimsy.

 

Having realized that she had feelings for the Colonel, Elinor’s heart and mind seemed to have formed an alliance to ensure she thought of nothing else. It was a new experience for her; always before, her head had held firm reins over her heart. Though she could say to herself that there was little possibility the Colonel might care for her, she found it almost impossible for this practicality to influence the progress of her thoughts. Every interaction in the entirety of their acquaintance was mentally scrutinized and re-lived. Every small conversation, every smile and look. Every time he had expressed concern for her wellbeing, every time he had turned to her before anyone else. It was, in a word, excruciating. When she had found out Edward was engaged to Lucy, her doubts had only lived for a day or two before Lucy had put them quite firmly to rest. Whatever Edward might have felt for Elinor, he was most definitely engaged to someone else. Here, there were only her own previous observations and certainties to contend with – Elinor had prided herself on being more astute than anyone else in detecting Colonel Brandon’s interest in Marianne, and now she wished fiercely that she might have been wrong. She knew that she had not been - knew that twisting her observations to fit her own expectations would not lead to anything useful.

 

Mirroring her thoughts about Edward and Lucy, she thought that at least if Marianne loved Colonel Brandon, if they were well suited, Elinor could have at least been happy with that. But Marianne seemed as disinterested as ever, if a great deal more civil, and Elinor watched all of their limited interactions with the same certainty that they would not have a particularly happy or harmonious marriage even if her sister could be worked upon to accept him.

 

No, things were not satisfactory at all.

 

--------------------

 

It was a few days after Marianne was quite well again that their mother arrived unexpectedly one evening. She had come by coach and was extremely fatigued. She and Marianne wept and hugged each other and kissed and said that there was no greater felicitation in the world than being together again… Elinor stood and smiled and was very glad of her family.

 

There then passed a few calm days for their mother to recover from the journey before they all set out to go home. Elinor, Marianne, their mother and Mrs Jennings travelled together in Mrs Jennings’s carriage. The Colonel rode, and Elinor occasionally glimpsed his figure as she glanced out of the window through the mist. Conversation in the carriage was initially lively, with their mother telling them again all of the things that had passed at home and Mrs Jennings giving her opinion on everything, and Elinor secretly wished they would be a little less enthusiastic so that she might sleep for an hour or two.

 

She got her wish after they stopped for lunch at an inn, when the mood in the carriage turned drowsy and quiet. Her eyes slipped closed and startled open again several times, and then she slept.

 

-----------------

 

Despite Mrs Jennings’s insistence that they should stay with her after they arrived back in ____shire, it being already so late, Marianne was so passionate in voicing her need to be home again that it was arranged they should be delivered there before the others carried on. Elinor felt the same need scarcely less, and she was grateful to have Marianne to voice it for her. Their mother’s solicitude towards Marianne had freed Elinor to spend much of the day-long journey lost in her own thoughts, and she was grateful for that too, as the time had been sorely needed.

 

Arriving with a clatter of hooves at Barton Cottage, they were met by a grinning Margaret and long-suffering Betsy, the open Cottage door a bright glow in the surrounding dark. Margaret immediately wished to show Elinor various wildlife she had collected in jars, to which Elinor gave a hasty refusal, and her progress in French, to which Elinor smiled and said she would be very pleased. Margaret had felt the absence of her sisters keenly – it was their first real separation, and she had now come to appreciate that their company made life a great deal more interesting. For the first day or two of their return, she was always to be found close to them, importuning them for stories or chiming for attention. Rather like a neglected cat, Elinor thought idly to herself, and resolved to show her as much patience and kindness as possible. Even after she put a frog in Elinor’s apron pocket.

 

They dined at Barton Park on the third day after their return; Sir John had put together one of his parties of young people in the hope of pleasing them. A small party this time, at least, and mainly composed of ladies and gentlemen they had met on previous occasions. Colonel Brandon was there, of course, and Elinor was gratified when he came to speak to her.

 

“Your sister is looking well,” he commented after all the other usual pleasantries had been disposed of.

 

“Yes.” Elinor observed her. Marianne was more thoughtful and sombre than she might have been a year ago, but she was reasonably animated and following the conversation around her. “She is doing better than I had hoped.”

 

“She is young,” said the Colonel, and there was a note of something in his voice that Elinor could not quite interpret. “She will find someone to liven her spirits soon enough. One of her attendees, perhaps.” He nodded towards the small crowd she was with, which contained several young men that had long admired Marianne.

 

Elinor was not sure what answer to make him. Indeed, it was her dearest wish that Marianne might find love again, and in Elinor’s opinion she was far more likely to have a fancy for Mr Travis, or Mr Burton, than for the Colonel. But surely the Colonel must be hoping, now that the way was clear, that Marianne might turn her eyes his way?

 

“She, of course, swears that she will never fall in love again,” Elinor said eventually, with a slight inflection that confided she thought this to be unlikely. “I would like to think that she will be a little more cautious, the next time, but… She has not changed in essentials. I think she will fall in love just as rapidly and deeply again.”

 

“And you?” She turned a querying look on the Colonel, and he shifted uncomfortably. It took her a moment to deduce his question and then she blushed a little.

 

“I have always been different to Marianne,” she said. “For me, love comes with knowing another’s character over time, with ease of conversation and feeling true esteem for the other person.”

 

“That is surely an admirable way to form an attachment.”

 

“Is it? I had always thought so, previously, but I suppose I too am now more cautious, and wonder if one can ever really know the character of another in advance.”

 

“I think-“ But she was never to know what he thought, because at that moment Sir John began to cajole people to dance, and in short order had five couples walking to the floor and another lady talked into sitting at the instrument.

 

“Brandon,” he cried, coming to them with short, hurried steps, as though he might at any moment burst into a run with enthusiasm. “You must dance. You must! You will partner our Miss Dashwood, will you not? Miss Marianne is already on the floor, and her sister must not be left out!”

 

The Colonel turned to her with a small smile and offered his hand. “Indeed, Sir John,” he said as she accepted it, “I shall be very glad to.”

 

They had danced together before, at Sir John’s parties and in town, and Elinor had always taken pleasure in the Colonel’s partnership. He was an accomplished dancer, always aware of his partner’s movements and providing light conversation during appropriate moments. This, however, was the first time she had danced with him since the new awareness of her feelings towards him, and she could not be quite easy. She felt as though the high colour in her cheeks must give her away, and that she could not pay attention to the steps as she normally did. Had she but known it, her slight flush added to her attraction, and certainly nobody there, least of all the Colonel, noticed any lack of grace in her movements. 

 

“Thank you, Miss Dashwood,” he said at the end of their dance, and led her to the side of the room. He took up a place beside her, watching as four of the other couples, including Marianne, began a new dance, and they watched quietly for some time. “I hope that eventually my Eliza will begin to revive thus,” he said as the couples danced to and fro.

 

“You must worry for her a great deal,” Elinor murmured. He glanced at her.

 

“Yes and no. I have said that she is of a temperament as your sister – she has had great reason to feel the depths of despair, but in time I believe that she will again be easily influenced to feel great happiness. It is one of the reasons,” he said a moment later, “that I observe your sister so closely. I feel almost as though by seeing her progress, I am seeing that of Eliza’s a step in advance.”

 

Elinor’s mind whirled. “I always thought,” she began, then thought the better of it. He turned to her inquiringly, however, and so she grimaced and continued slowly, “that you saw your childhood companion when you looked at Marianne.”

 

He turned his gaze back to the dance, meditative. “You are right, perhaps – I said that Marianne reminded me of her in some ways ,” he said. “Certainly for some months after first meeting you both. But...” He considered for a moment. “Mayhap it was their shared association with Mr Willoughby and abandonment by him that made me associate her more closely with my ward.” He gave Elinor a careful glance, but she was uncertain how to interpret this information. Was he saying that he no longer considered Marianne in the light of a lover? That the interest Elinor had noted in his observations of Marianne was now more akin to the feelings he had for his ward?

 

Before she had much time to analyse his words, the two of them were brought back into the rest of the party with the end of the second dance, and Elinor busied herself with making herself agreeable to all. Later in the evening, when she noticed the strain showing on Marianne’s face, she took her sister’s arm and maneuvered her to a quiet corner.

 

“Why can people not keep their insipid opinions to themselves?” said Marianne, thankfully quietly.

 

“Dearest-“

 

“One cannot make it through a conversation without a sly reference to matrimony or some person or another’s interest, or the unworthiness of-“ Marianne’s breath faltered, and she fell silent. Elinor took her hand.

 

“I am sorry,” she said quietly, believing that this would go far further with Marianne than a lecture on controlling her feelings. Indeed, she was right, because although Marianne’s eyes welled with tears, she immediately became calm and docile again.

 

“Thank you, Elinor,” she said, and quite surprised her sister by drawing her into a brief embrace. “You are so good. You knew that I could not stand there another moment. But I am quite alright now.”

 

Elinor was not so convinced of her own goodness, because a large part of the reason she had pulled Marianne aside was for fear of her making an unpleasant spectacle of herself if she lost her temper.

 

“We need not stay much longer,” she said.

 

“Oh, but you have been enjoying yourself,” said Marianne. Elinor looked at her, rather surprised that Marianne had been paying any attention to her whatsoever. “Elinor,” said Marianne, suddenly turning to her with great earnestness, “when I have spoken previously regarding second attachments – I wish you to know that I… that is… I would wish it possible.”

 

“I-“

 

“Indeed, I think it very possible,” Marianne insisted.  

 

“Marianne-“ she started to say, but Marianne was already pulling away from her and walking towards the others.

 

Elinor frowned, puzzled, then joined the nearest group of people and forced herself to attend to their conversation. All the while she was conscious that Marianne had moved to speak to the Colonel, seeing them converse out of the corner of her eye, and felt alarm at the thought of Marianne’s sudden energy.

 

---------------------

 

On saying goodbye to the Colonel that evening, Elinor had been unable to discern anything unusual in his expression, but when he visited the cottage the following day, she thought he seemed unusually hesitant. It was quite normal for him to visit them, or had been before they went to London, and previously he had always been easy and comfortable in their company.

 

“Are you quite well, Colonel?” she asked as her mother and Marianne entered into a spirited discussion on the other side of the room. Margaret’s large eyes flickered between her mother and sister as she passionately supported each one in turn, and Elinor despaired again of her ever learning a modicum of restraint with such examples. “You seem a little restless today.”

 

“Restless? No… Well perhaps, yes. Miss Dashwood, I wonder if I might put a case to you and ask for your opinion.”

 

“Of course.”

 

He opened his mouth, then hesitated and looked at her family. A delicate subject then. “Would you care for a walk?”

 

“Let me fetch my wrap.”

 

As they set off across the hill, he seemed unsure of how to start. Hoping to help prompt him, she asked, “Whom does the case concern?”

 

He ran a finger over his lips. “Someone very dear to me, who is currently recovering from…” He trailed off, but she understood. Eliza.

 

“Of course,” she said.

 

“Well,” he said, and cleared his throat. “I have received information that there is… that she is…” He stopped. She stopped beside him, and for a few moments they admired the trees swaying in the wind past the nearby fence. “Let us imagine for a moment that a man came to her guardian, asking for her hand. She is acquainted with this man; indeed, they are friends. They would do well together, and the man loves her, he has for some time. But still, she has suffered much sadness and so recently, and she is yet young…”

 

Elinor organised this in her head. “Does she care for him?”

 

“I am…” he worked his jaw for a moment, “uncertain. Perhaps.” He hesitated again. “Surely it is too soon for…”

 

She thought about Eliza’s situation. “Does this man know all that has happened?” she asked doubtfully.

 

“Much of it.”

 

Well. A man who knew that a woman had given birth to a child out of wedlock and still wished to marry her.

 

“He must care for her very much,” she said. Then raised her eyes to his face. “If your concern is whether she might be able to care for him, then surely that is something only the lady can decide.”

 

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. But you do not think it too soon?”

 

It had been, what, four or five months since he had found Eliza? Some nine months earlier that Willoughby had left her? “I do not know the lady in question.” But her temperament was supposedly similar to Marianne’s. “But I might imagine that for the right person it would not be too soon. Indeed, perhaps it might help heal the wound sooner.”

 

“Yes,” he murmured again, his gaze turning inwards. “Perhaps I must speak to her of it then.”

 

“Or the gentleman or another friend might-“ she began, wondering if perhaps Eliza might not be comfortable confiding in someone she considered as a father, in whose eyes she might worry she was disgraced.

 

Hard on the heels of this thought came a strange shift, as though the whole world had shaken around her, as she intuited that he was referring to himself as the gentleman in question. He had not actually said of whom he was speaking; Elinor had merely assumed. But his words could easily apply to another, could easily apply to Marianne.    

 

Marianne.

 

“It must be the right person,” she said again, suddenly anxious for his feelings should he attempt to make his addresses to her sister.

 

Altered though Marianne was since Willoughby’s actions, Elinor was sure she was right that the Colonel’s interest would be neither welcomed nor reciprocated. Good God, what had Marianne said to him that had made him think he should press his suit?

 

A self-mocking smile twisted his face. “And am I not the right person, Miss Dashwood?” he asked softly.

 

It was so unfair, Elinor thought, eyes fixed on his. So unfair that so fine a gentleman should be rejected due to age and lack of whatever specific quality Marianne looked for in a lover. Boring, Marianne had called him more than once, but he was not boring, he was just not suited for her.

 

Elinor twisted her fingers together, interlacing them in front of her. “You have known my sister some time, Colonel,” she tried to prevaricate. “And I am sure that you must be guided by your own observations.”

 

He frowned. “I have never known her to be dishonest, especially with regards to those she loves.”

 

Those she loves.

 

“My own observations I find harder to trust, but I – Miss Dashwood, you must know that I-“

 

A tear escaped the corner of her eye, unanticipated and uncontrolled. She waited for him to declare his love for her sister, to ask her again her advice. Instead he stopped and looked at her most tenderly.

 

“You are crying,” he said.

 

“It is the wind; it stings my eyes.” It was not a lie, the wind whipped fiercely at her hair and skirts. She raised her hand to dab at her cheek, only for her fingers to encounter his as he reached to perform the same office.

 

“It is too soon,” he said awkwardly, withdrawing. “Or,” more sadly, “I am not the right man. I am-“ he cleared his throat “-very sorry to have distressed you, Miss Dashwood. It is the very last thing I would have wished to do.”

 

Her head was feeling muddled with the effort of concealing her emotions, but even so his words made her pause, made her shake her head to clear it and reach out to place a hand on his arm.

 

“Stay,” she said, and he waited as she had commanded him. “I-“ she let out a hitched breath. “I think I have been confused this whole while.”

 

He looked at her, grave and steady.

 

“I thought you spoke of Eliza, when I offered my advice,” she said slowly. “And then I thought perhaps you did not – that you had cloaked it as such to make it easier to speak of. I-“ she paused, feeling her way through the conversation. “I thought then that you must speak of Marianne,” she saw him start, “and I was worried that she would not – that you would not… That you would not be successful, with her.”

 

He appeared very solemn, and finally stirred himself to say, in understanding, “You were afraid my feelings would be hurt, if I paid my addresses to your sister and she rejected me.”

 

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. But I – but now I am so confused.”

 

They stood for a long minute in silence, the wind blustering past them and the low cries of sheep in the distance.

 

“Shall I speak again?” he asked eventually, and another tear slipped free.

 

This time, his was the only hand that rose, and he carefully brushed its trail away.

 

“Miss Dashwood, you have been the best companion I could have ever asked for in the last year. I have never had such a confidant, someone whose advice and opinions I could rely upon so absolutely. Someone’s whose tastes and ideas aligned so perfectly with my own. I had never expected to find such a person, and I had,” he smiled wryly, “never expected to fall in love again.”

 

Her breath caught, and caught again. Another tear fell, and this one he captured with his thumb.

 

“Please believe that any passing inclination I felt for Marianne had fallen away by the time I met with you in London. I was still concerned for her - I still care for her, but as a… well, I hope, as a sister.”

 

“I-“ She found she could not speak after all, and instead raised her hand to clasp his where it cradled the side of her face.

 

“Once I became aware of your own disappointment - and put together information from several sources that indicated it might have been a severe one - I was cautious about how to proceed. I knew that you enjoyed my company, and I was not flattering myself to think that you gained equal pleasure from our conversations, but I thought it might have just been as a friend. I would not have wished to place the burden of my feelings upon you while you were still grieving. At Cleveland I started to hope, and then last night your sister said-”

 

She tilted her head and pressed a kiss to his palm, and this time it was his breath that caught.

 

“I have loved you, Elinor,” he said, and she could see in his features the great pleasure he took in saying her name, “for many months. It is you that I envisage by my side. If it is too soon for you to seriously consider an engagement, then I shall ask merely for you to-“

 

“It is not.” She found her voice. “It is not too soon.” He gave a quick, almost boyish smile, full of feeling. “I did not comprehend my feelings for you until we were at Cleveland. I had been quite overwhelmed by the realisation of them, that day you came upon me in the garden. It was a trifling comment that Marianne made, about how I always looked at you with such admiration that Mrs Jennings might be right.” She laughed unevenly. “I had not allowed myself to be aware of my feelings before that – I was so convinced you were in love with Marianne that I never thought on it. But there the feelings were, nonetheless, having grown of their own volition.”

 

“Elinor,” he said warmly, and took a step closer to her. They gazed at each other for a moment. Then she felt there was something more she must say.

 

“I was hurt,” she confessed in a hushed voice, “by Mr Ferrars’s and Lucy’s engagement – the more so because it was she who told me, and with such expectation and delight in wounding me. His actions after that I of course completely support, but I wish that he had been… more honest with me. Or, at least, more guarded. Knowing that through his own actions he placed us all in the roles of a farce shook my regard over those months, and I am sorry for him.” Her voice lowered. “I pity the both of them, trapped in a marriage where neither will be content with the other. I would not want that, for myself.”

 

He tipped her face up with thumb and forefinger under her chin. “You will never want for anything,” he said. “I shall endeavour to make you happy every day of our lives.”

 

Her tremulous smile grew wider. “You are already succeeding,” she said.

 

“Elinor.”

 

“Yes, Colonel?”

 

“Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

 

He was still standing very close to her, and for a moment her only thought was that Margaret would be disappointed that he did not kneel when he proposed.

 

“Yes,” she said simply, and could not stop smiling.