Marianne Willoughby sat in her sun-drenched parlour, her face pale with shock.
"Pray, sir, what do you mean?"
"I am sorry, Mrs. Willoughby," the magistrate said. "Your husband's solicitor is here, as well." The magistrate gestured to Mr. Parnell behind him, and the gangly man flickered his hands in a loose attempt at a salute, accompanied by a half-hearted bow. Parnell nodded to Withycombe the magistrate, who took himself out.
Marianne turned wide, unseeing eyes on Mr. Parnell. "Sir?"
"Mrs. Willoughby, I have some unhappy news. I wish I could avoid adding to your distress on this, of all days, but" -- Mr. Parnell gave her a measuring look -- "I am afraid that the creditors will wait no longer."
"You are certain..." Marianne's voice cracked.
"That Mr. Willoughby is dead? Yes, Mrs. Willoughby, I am afraid that I am. I am the one who found his body, madam," Parnell hesitated upon meeting her gaze. "We had an appointment for today on this very subject."
Marianne swallowed. "How -- how did it happen?" she asked, her voice quavering. "Mr. -- Mr. Withycombe d-d-did not say."
"It is... difficult to say, madam, " Parnell evaded.
A flash of temper rose in Marianne's eye. "Do not dance around the subject, Mr. Parnell. What was it? I must know."
"Hmmm... he fell from his horse, madam," Parnell replied.
Marianne's eyes grew pained. "Why."
"Beg pardon, Mrs. Willoughby?"
"Why did he fall, Mr. Parnell? Drink? Exhaustion?"
Parnell pulled his gaze away and shuffled his papers. "It appears he -- it is hardly my place to say, Mrs. Willoughby!" But her eyes demanded an answer from him, and a true one. "It -- it appears he was wounded by a gunshot, Mrs. Willoughby. From a pistol." Parnell had not thought that Mrs. Willoughby could grow any more pale, but her face went absolutely white, and when she spoke, her voice was barely audible and shook.
"A dueling pistol?" she asked. Parnell could only nod. Her mouth opened, as if she would speak, but no sound came from her moving lips. She wet her lips and tried again. "It killed him?"
Parnell fidgeted. "Doctor Smythe told me that your husband fell from his horse and died of exposure. If he had not been shot, he would have been able to climb back on his mount, but... his ... he could not... Please, Mrs. Willoughby, let us focus on business!"
Marianne stared at the solicitor. "Business, Mr. Parnell?"
"Yes," the man sighed, relieved to be back to the subject he had intended to address. "Business. And it is not good, Mrs. Willoughby."
"I am not surprised, Mr. Parnell. John calls you -- called you -- the bearer of bad tidings."
Parnell nodded. "And I bear more, madam. For you are about to lose this house."
Marianne's eyes grew round. "Lose Coombe Magna? Whatever do you mean?"
"Your husband has -- had -- a number of debts, with numerous individuals, countless merchants and some number of horse sellers. These businessmen want their money, Mrs. Willoughby, for which your husband pledged this estate. The house and the lands will have to be sold to clear those debts."
Marianne looked unsteadily around her. "But where shall I go? How shall I live?"
Parnell checked his papers. "The small funds you brought to the marriage, as stated in the contracts, are reserved to you by the contracts and cannot be taken against your husband's debts. But all items in the house, except your personal effects, shall go to sale against those debts."
"Is it too late to manage some other way to save this house? I have been so happy here," Marianne said. "I do not want to lose this blessed place..." She, at last, began to cry. Parnell offered her a handkerchief and shook his head.
"No, Mrs. Willoughby. I am sorry. It is too late." Uncomfortably, he watched her cry, turning his face away in embarrassment. "Surely you have some family."
"Yes," Marianne sobbed. "At Barton and Delaford."
"Then you shall have to go to them, Mrs. Willoughby. You have no choice."
A week later saw Marianne on the road back to Barton Cottage. She had written her mother that very day and told her she would soon follow the letter home, in the last trip of her husband's equipage before it was claimed by his creditors. As she sat, staring out the windows at the gray, misting rain, she saw a rider approaching from the other direction, a handsome carriage pulled by a pair of matched bays and an outrider pacing before it. The black-clad figure seemed familiar. As they drew equal to each other, on the thick, muddy road, Marianne saw her mother -- and her mother saw her at the same moment. Both pounded on the roof of their carriages to stop. Marianne flung open the door and dropped down to the muddy road. She took the two steps to her mother's arms, threw herself into them and wept.
Her mother stroked her hair, murmured her name. Marianne could hear commotion behind her. Her footmen -- soon to be released from her service -- were transferring her goods to her mother's carriage, under the direction of the outrider.
"Colonel Brandon." She curtseyed as best she could, given the mud and the wet mess of her curls.
"Miss Mar-- Mrs. Willoughby." He coloured and turned his attention back to her mother. "Mrs. Dashwood, I believe you and Mrs. Willoughby should get back inside the carriage. Your health is at risk, standing in the rain as you are." He coloured again, and rowled the head of his horse around with more force than necessary.
Marianne looked down at her clothes and blushed. Her gown was drenched and clung to her body, exposing more than was seemly. "Y-yes, Colonel. A very good idea." Soon, her former equipage was excused and sent back to Coombe Magna, the servants released from their positions and Marianne was cozily ensconced with her mother, a collection of blankets and a heated brick in Colonel Brandon's comfortable carriage, on the way to Barton Cottage.
Marianne Willoughby looked around at the room she had never thought to see again. The last time she had slept in Barton Cottage, she had shared this room with her sister Elinor. It was here she spent hours talking to Elinor about her happiness, about her hopes, about what she saw her life with John Willoughby was to become. It was here that her sister had, so very delicately, tried to persuade Marianne to think of John's finances. It was here in this room that her mother told her of the nature of marriage, of the duties of a wife. She had not known that her mother could still blush.
Marianne looked back on that time with a half-amazed wonder at her own na´vetÚ. She had not known what marriage would mean. The practical realities of it -- she shuddered at thinking such words. She had been so certain that the bliss she and John had would remain unchanged and unchanging. But John changed. Or something did, she did not know what. And though she had seen it, she had seen no solution to it... Marianne's thoughts were interrupted by a knock on her door.
"Yes?" she asked. The door swung open. "Margaret!" Marianne exclaimed and slipped across the room, enveloping her sister in a warm embrace. She looked up at her younger sister's face. "Margaret, you are taller than me!"
Margaret blushed and fidgeted awkwardly. "I'm sorry."
Marianne smiled. "Do not be sorry. You shall be tall, like Papa. Like Elinor. The only problem you shall have will be finding men tall enough to dance with."
Her sister wrinkled her nose. "And finding gowns I don't grow out of. Every time I find something I like, Mama has to add a flounce to it before I can wear it a second time. I am getting very tired of sewing flounces," the youngest Dashwood said.
Marianne clasped her sister's hand. "It shall stop soon enough, Margaret."
Margaret grimaced. "I hope it stops soon, Marianne, or I shall be taller than Colonel Brandon! I don't want to be THAT tall!" She looked down at her elder sister, whose face bore a familiar expression. "And stop looking at me that way, Marianne. You look just like Elinor when you do that."
"I've missed you, Margaret."
"I've missed you, too, Marianne. Mama told me to tell you that it's almost time for tea. Will you join us? Colonel Brandon always does, when he's visiting Sir John. But he isn't today. Shall I tell Mama that you are coming downstairs?"
Marianne looked askance at her sister. "Colonel Brandon comes for tea?"
Margaret stared back, nonplused. "Oh, yes. He doesn't come as often as he used to, when Elinor and you were both still here. But he still takes tea with us, when he can. I have learned so many other things about the East since you went away. Let us go down to tea and I shall show you all the places on the atlas."
To which enthusiasm, Marianne could only nod.
"Ever since Edward took up the living at Delaford, Elinor says the Colonel spends a great deal of time there. He is a regular caller at the parsonage," Mrs. Dashwood said.
"We are invited, too, Marianne!" announced Margaret. "Elinor says we may come and visit in May! The Colonel says he shall host a picnic to welcome us to Delaford."
Marianne gave her a watery smile. "I shall not be able to attend, Margaret. I shall still be in mourning."
Margaret sat back, temporarily deflated. "Oh."
Mrs. Dashwood looked thoughtfully at her second daughter, then glanced back to her youngest. "Margaret? Please help Betsy with the tea things. I shall require your sister's help with the sewing. We have to add another flounce to your blue dress." She rose and led Marianne to the front room, where both their sewing baskets had been placed near the fire. She and Marianne settled in chairs before it and picked up their work.
Aside from a few murmurs of "here," and "pin it there," and "yes, that shall do nicely," the room was silent. Margaret could be heard rattling around in the dining room, pencil scratching as she made best use of the large window to trace maps.
Mrs. Dashwood waited for her daughter to speak and Marianne did not fail to oblige her. "I see that Margaret is still a hopeless lover of adventure."
"Yes," Mrs. Dashwood replied. "Colonel Brandon has been very kind, loaning her a journal he kept when he was in the East. He read part of it one evening and Margaret was utterly entranced. She claims she shall set out on an excursion to India the day she turns one-and-twenty."
Marianne gave her mother a soft, half-hearted smile. "It is good to see that Margaret has plans for her life." Her face stilled. "I did, too, when I was her age. I hope -- I hope hers fare better than mine." She sewed silently for a few moments. "Oh, Mama!" Marianne threw Margaret's gown down and fell to her knees, burying her face in her mother's lap. "It was not at all what I thought it would be!"
Crying into that familiar lap, Marianne could not see the anger in her mother's face.
Marianne sighed. "I shall have to write Elinor and thank her for being practical."
The next morning had dawned grey and damp and worsened as the day progressed. The residents of Barton Cottage found themselves confined indoors by the weather and by the simple demands of Marianne's wardrobe. Elinor, in a signature gesture of practicality and utility, had saved all her black ribbons from the mourning period for their father. Marianne, as soon as was feasible, had discarded hers. So now she was sewing them onto the dull dark gowns she hated. She had not worn any of them in the three years since her father died and she had met John Willoughby.
Marianne wondered if she would ever be done with weeping. She was exhausted with weeping, had wept for what seemed like hours in the parlour with her mother, and long into the night after everyone else had gone to bed. She had wept herself ill and was, this morning, too nauseous to contemplate breakfast. So she had turned herself, instead, to the practical concerns of mourning clothes.
Her mother nodded. "Elinor will be glad to hear from you. If the Colonel has not informed her of your situation, my letter should have reached her by now. She will be terribly worried about you."
Marianne mumbled an incoherent agreement, biting off a thread. "I shall never throw away mourning clothes again. There shall always be something to mourn. I see that now." The last sentence was delivered in a hollow, bitter tone that raised gooseflesh on the back of her mother's neck.
Marianne knelt in the garden in front of Barton Cottage, pulling weeds from between the vegetables. The potatoes and carrots were coming up well, though the squash appeared to have been somewhat thwarted by the dallying frost. "No squash this year," she muttered, cradling a blackened blossom. She sighed and shifted her skirt, put out one hand to balance herself and made to stand. Suddenly, there was an arm beneath her elbow; startled, she stumbled.
"Miss Mar--Mrs. Willoughby," the Colonel said. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, just a little startled, sir. I did not notice you were there. I have been somewhat self-involved of late. I am terribly sorry, Colonel," Marianne replied, frowning down at the lettuce. The marigolds were not keeping the rabbits away after all... "My mother is inside, if you wish to speak with her."
"Certainly, Mrs. Willoughby. Are you going in as well?"
"In a moment. I must collect my things." And the Colonel, hearing that, would not hear of Marianne carrying into the cottage the hand rake, hoe and weeding spike which she had somehow managed to carry _out_ of the cottage without incident.
"And do you enjoy gardening, Mrs. Willoughby?" the Colonel asked, refusing her assistance.
"It has its uses, Colonel," Marianne replied. "It is halfway between the hothouse and nature, which shows that God does allow compromise." She rubbed the back of her hand under her eye, leaving, unbeknownst her, a slight smudge. "You will have to tell Elinor that I am becoming distressingly practical in my dotage, Colonel. Here --" she took the tools from the Colonel's grasp and tucked them into a tiny closet in the cottage hallway. "Thank you, sir. My mother should be right inside." Marianne curtseyed absently to Brandon, then pulled off her bonnet in the hallway and brushed vainly at the dirt on her apron. Thankfully almost all the dirt was limited to the apron and not the skirt of her workdress. Turning around for the stairway, Marianne discovered the Colonel was still standing in the hall, the crease between his brows deepening. He returned the courtesy with a grave and thoughtful bow, then knocked at the parlour door. Marianne trotted up the stairwell to her room.
Washing in the bowl, she discovered the smudge on her face, mingled with the dust and the strain. Dressing her own hair this morning, Marianne had pulled her curls back into a severe, utilitarian knot. Looking in the mirror, she did not recognize the red-eyed pale face she saw there.
Changing into another dark dress, she smoothed down the newly-applied black ribbons, gathered her shawl and went down for tea.
"The Colonel is joining us for tea today, Betsy," Marianne heard her mother say as she entered the room. The gentleman himself rose at Marianne's entrance and bowed. Marianne curtseyed and moved to her chair by the fire. Though it had stopped raining, the interior of the cottage was still damp and stale from winter, try as they might to burn out the clammy air. Marianne picked up Margaret's green dress, torn from hip to shin, and began to repair it.
"Marianne," her mother said, "have you written to your sister yet?"
Marianne looked up. "Yes. I was hoping Thomas could take it to the post tomorrow."
Mrs. Dashwood looked pleased. "The Colonel has volunteered to carry our letters to Delaford with him when he leaves day after next."
Marianne gave Brandon a tired, grateful smile. "Thank you, sir. That shall save us money on the post. We may have to use it for more seed -- I think we will have no squash this year, Mama. The blossoms are black; the frost has blighted them. They were planted too soon."
Brandon looked concerned. "Is there no hope for a second blooming?"
Marianne shook her head. "Not after such a frost, Colonel. Some things will not bloom twice -- the squash is but one of them."
Marianne had nodded absently. "And here guardian's name?" she had asked.
"Christopher Brandon," Withycombe had replied, not knowing that the name meant anything to her.
Christopher Brandon. The Colonel, who had called himself her friend, had shot her husband in a duel.
Not that Marianne was surprised that someone had called John out. No. She'd gotten the first letter six months after her and John's wedding.
Marianne had been waiting for the post, eagerly anticipating Elinor's first letter as a married woman. Elinor would tell her all about Delaford, about the parsonage, about Edward. She would describe Edward's first sermon, and how Colonel Brandon introduced them to the neighborhood.
Marianne, feeling icy despair breathe upon her marriage, had wondered if Elinor--who she had believed had married with much less feeling than Marianne herself--would suffer less or more as Edward's passion cooled.
Perhaps, she'd thought then, since Edward and Elinor felt less, they would suffer less than she herself was.
Marianne Willoughby eyed this version of her earlier self with a wondering contempt. The girl--for she had still been a girl in so many ways--who had waited for Elinor's letter had aged years in the hour it had taken to read the letter which did arrive. For the letter she received that day had not been from Elinor. Instead, it had been from Mrs. Beatrice Whitsun, who Marianne had never met.
I beg that you pardon the impropriety of this letter, for we have never introduced, but I hardly know how to begin. I am a widow, my husband having been dead these four years, living outside of Millgate in Sussex. I have but child, a daughter Virginia, who has been my joy and comfort since her father's death. What I wish to inform you of pertains to my daughter--"
Marianne had felt a solid, sinking weight pulling her heart through her ribcage to the floor. She had imagined she could feel her heart hit every rib on its way to the hard floor, like a child dragging a doll by its feet down a stairwell, the doll's head bouncing off each tread on the way down. She knew.
It had been only the first of many such letters. It seemed that the publication of her and John's wedding announcement had given John's former... objects d'amour... the vital direction of his address, which he had neglected, somehow, to supply the girls with.
And they had all been girls, the eldest no more than 17. Discreet liaisons with lonely young widows had not appeared to satisfy John; no, he had wooed and seduced more than a score of marriageable girls. At the time, Marianne had breathed a sigh of relief that none of them claimed a liaison from after her marriage. But she had wondered. And then it appeared that John had started an affair after their marriage as well. And gotten careless.
If anyone had been watching Marianne from the Cottage or from the road, they would have imagined her utterly entranced by the setting sun before her. But such an observer would be wrong.
It was the stillness born of guilt and shame and the scrabbled-for tatters of self-respect to cover them with that held her motionless, on her knees, in the garden of the Barton Cottage.
For she could not feel anything but relief that John was gone.
The next day, Marianne Willoughby sat sewing in the sunlight outside Barton Cottage when her mother and sister returned early from Delaford. Sir John's carriage rattled up the road. When it pulled up to the Cottage, Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret hurried out, Mrs. Dashwood briefly clutching Sir John's hand and murmuring. As they came up the path, Marianne could see that Margaret's eyes were red-rimmed, her face flushed. Marianne took one look at her mother's pale, pinched face and knew something serious had occurred. This was not one of Margaret's whim-thwarted pouts.
After Mrs. Dashwood chivvied Margaret upstairs and into bed, she came back down the narrow stair with a slow, heavy tread. Marianne set the quickly assembled tea things on the drawing room table, before the open window. The warm air floated in, redolent of blooming apples.
"Mama?" Marianne asked as she turned toward the door. She was surprised to find a grim and frightened expression on her mother's face. Mrs. Dashwood's mouth tightened and she closed the door behind her.
"Marianne, I have some news..."
Marianne again felt that instant of knowing. "Colonel Brandon shot John. Was he arrested?"
At that calm question, Mrs. Dashwood stared at the cool, almost serene, changeling who had taken the place of her daughter Marianne. "How--" she began.
"How did I know?" Marianne asked and pour her mother's tea. "Mr. Withycombe stopped here on his way to Delaford."
"No," her mother continued weakly, "I knew that. He said he had spoken to you first. But... Marianne! How can you be so calm? It is the Colonel! Our dear friend! He has been arrested and detained! Marianne, how can you be so..."
Mrs. Dashwood gaped.
"I never understood Elinor before now. It is very soothing to be like Elinor, Mama. Everything is smooth, like glass. I can sit here and drink my tea and everything is on the other side of that window. John is out there, and the Colonel. And the squash, which is not doing very well. Margaret's pouts are there. The marigolds, which are not keeping the rabbits from the greens as they ought, are also there. And the window is shut, Mama. And locked tight." Here Marianne suited actions to words.
Mrs. Dashwood's face drained of its remaining color during her daughter's soliloquy. "Marianne..." she whispered. Marianne turned and moved across the room to the sewing. She poked around in her workbasket.
"Yes, Mama? Would you like to work on Margaret's rose gown now? I think that this flounce shall be the last. We could add a strip of decoration over the seam, to cover up my very poor, uneven stitches. I took this tatted band out of my things. I think it will look lovely." Marianne laid the ivory lace riband down over the seam and held up the result to her mother's inspection. "What do you think, Mama?"
There was no reply.
Mrs. Dashwood sat, straight-backed in her chair, her face chalk-white and her teacup held aloft only through sheer force of habit. Marianne took the cup and saucer from her mother's nerveless hands. Mrs. Dashwood blinked once, twice and reached up to her daughter's face.
"Marianne, my little poetess Marianne..." her mother whispered and burst into tears.