But dredging a heart is work and as time passed Marianne knew that she was draining her body of life as well. "Life is sorrow, and to rid myself of sorrow is to rid myself of life," Marianne wrote to her sister shortly after their mother's death. What Marianne didn't write was that once the sorrow was drained, all that would remain would be the calcified lump of a heart John Willoughby had left her with after he had deserted her ten years earlier. She often thought how he had taken the soft, malleable heart she had given him so long ago and had molded it and alloyed it with his own, shaping it with poetry and sun-drenched songs, adorning it with flowery garlands and youth's bubbling laughter. He had struck it in the fire, tempering it and hardening it with love's first passion, making it so she could never really love any man but him. And then he had gone, leaving her with a still glowing, still hardening heart that floated deep within a well of sorrow that would forever bathe yet never cool its fire. Making music could ease all of Marianne's sorrows but one-making music could never touch the heart that Willoughby had forged.
At first, Marianne had thought that the fire in her heart would burn her up in the fever that had overtaken her as she and Elinor fled London after Willoughby's marriage. She had wanted it to. Willing to lie on the funeral pyre of disappointed hopes, willing to let her body be consumed by her own desire, Marianne had lain for days in limbo between death's release and life's demands. Almost against her will, her dear Colonel and dearer sister had conspired to smother the fire within her with their own brand of love and devotion. She emerged from the inferno chastened and, after a time of healing, had married the Colonel and lived with him at Delaford. She had brought him much happiness and contentment. She hadn't balked or even flinched when he proposed that they adopt Eliza's baby, Robert, when it was clear that they were not to be blessed with children of their own.
Eliza, the love-child born out of the Colonel's own youthful weaknesses. Not that he had fathered Eliza, but he had let her mother, his own childhood love, fall by the wayside because he would not stand tall against his father's vaulting ambition. Eliza, the woman, barely more than a girl, whom Willoughby had seduced shortly before he had met Marianne. Eliza, the mother who died giving birth to a son who would have no name, a child who would have no father.
Marianne remembered the first time she had held Robert in her arms, before she had even married the Colonel. She had gone with Elinor and Edward, newly married, to dine with the Colonel at Delaford. The baby had just come to live there, after his mother had been buried in the Brandon family crypt. His infantile blond hair was wet and matted. The lips of his thin rosebud mouth lips were cracked and dry. "Starving for love," Marianne thought, holding Willoughby's son in her arms. And she silently vowed that she would be his mother and he would never hang his head in shame and he would never be nameless. And so she married the Colonel, and Robert, bastard son of Eliza, became Robert Brandon, Esquire, beloved son of Colonel and Marianne Brandon, heir of Delaford, keeper of the flame.
From the day she was married, Marianne and baby Robert were inseparable. In the morning, she lifted him to the window to see the world fresh and clean-washed with dew. In the evening, they watched windswept clouds chase the moon and hide the stars. And all day long, she cooed and sang to him as they walked in the woods. She caressed his baby cheeks when they stopped to rest in the ash grove, and she tickled his baby toes with grass and flowers when they played in the meadow and fields of Delaford. The Colonel knew better than to banish Robert to the nursery and Marianne to the drawing room. Though her own womb remained barren, Marianne never felt the longing for her own flesh to be reborn-Robert filled her horizons and the Colonel was well content.
During the year after the Colonel's death, Marianne played her pianoforte almost continuously, imagining the drawing room flooded with her sorrow at his passing. Robert sat by her side or played at her feet while she made her music. A strapping boy of eight, Robert was still tow-headed and sweet-lipped, and every day looked more like his nameless father. "Especially when he reads to me," Marianne thought, struck by the expression in Robert's eyes and the curve of his mouth as he struggled to catch the rhythm and cadence of a Cowper rhyme to Marianne's satisfaction.
Then one day, two years after the Colonel's death, Robert came to his mother and asked about his parents. Marianne's throat went dry. She and the Colonel had agreed never to tell Robert of his real parentage-they wouldn't lie to him, they simply agreed that it would never come up. It needn't come up. His natural mother was a testament to the Colonel's shame, and his natural father, a testament to Marianne's. Living quietly at Delaford, with Mrs. Jennings permanently removed to London and Sir John Middleton growing dotty with age and Lady Middleton more indolent than ever, they felt sure that they could keep the past at bay and blanket their son in such security and love that all remembrance of past indiscretions would be as nothing.
"Upstairs Nelly says that I'm a bastard," Robert declared, flushed with indignation. "And Nelly's scared of haunts and spooks and things, and so I know she'd never lie. Please Mama, tell me who I am."
The next month Marianne Brandon and her son Robert took a house on Sackville Street in London. "There are better masters in London," Marianne explained to Elinor when her sister questioned their quitting Delaford so suddenly. "I want Robert to have the finest education England can offer."
Elinor raised her eyebrows but held her tongue. Instead she put her hand on Marianne's arm and quietly kissed her cheek. Their eyes met, and Marianne knew that Elinor disapproved of the path Marianne had chosen. Marianne smiled softly, "Don't worry, dearest, I buried my heart years ago. He cannot touch me now, but Robert has a right to know." Her sister shook her head in warning, but Marianne set her mouth stubbornly, determined to stay the course.
The morning after mother and son were installed in their new house in London, a footman sallied forth on a mission to post a letter addressed to Mr. Willoughby of Harley Street.
John Willoughby turned the letter over in his hands, running his fingers inside the curves of the red waxed B that sealed the letter, and then tracing the lines of his name as writ by the most feminine of hands. His first impulse, childish in its petulance, was to send it back unopened, just as Marianne had returned all of his overtures since her marriage. First he had written to apologize and explain, cloaking his request for forgiveness in words of congratulation and friendship. Then he had written to praise and charm, yearning for the solace of a sensitive soul who understood the raptures of his heart and would feast upon the romance of his soul. Finally he had written to console, hoping that the death of Brandon would open the door to reconciliation. And reconciliation with Marianne, he had decided, was what he needed most in the world. Never had he met a woman so able to soothe his spirits and excite his admiration as Marianne. Never had he met a woman who could unite such grace with passion, such intelligence with excitement.
The Willoughby's marriage was one of convenience, and after Sophia's first spat of jealousy, triggered by Marianne's own trio of letters that reached him on the brink of that marriage, John and Sophia Willoughby found they were entirely comfortable sharing a name and children, an estate and townhouse, and occasionally even a bed without needing to care much for one another. And though Sophia enjoyed the company of a series of merry young men who were eager for an introduction to the ton, Willoughby chose to be faithful to the one true love of his life. In loving not his wife but the wife of his nemesis, he deemed himself a romantic of the highest order. If it had not been for Colonel Brandon's words to Mrs. Allen of Allenham, Willoughby knew that he would never have been forced to abandon Marianne for Sophia Grey's fortune. Brandon blamed him for his ward Eliza's disgrace, when in fact, he had only been one of many Eliza Williams had dallied with in Bath. He had simply been unfortunate enough to be the last, and Brandon had never forgiven him because in him Brandon had seen manifest his own neglect. And then the scoundrel had bided his time, wooed the fair maiden, and had settled down to a comfortable life, shrouding the brightest gem in the land away in dull old Delaford. They had had a son, he knew, "probably born old, like his father," thought Willoughby with a sneer as he opened the letter and began to read.
Though his pupil did not know it, Mr. Hayes was struggling to formulate the final rhyming couplet in a love sonnet to a certain Miss Bennet of Gracechurch Street. Gideon had met Miss Jane Bennet while he was retained as dancing master for a neighborhood of young ladies and gentlemen in Hertfordshire in the spring and had fallen completely in love with the charming, graceful, and sweet-tempered eldest of the five Bennet sisters. The familia pater, that is, Mr. Bennet, had laughingly sent the young master packing when his ardor started to intrude on family life, but Gideon had the last laugh on Mr. Bennet when, on his return to London, he happened to spy Miss Bennet at Vauxhall Gardens. It was the work of a moment to gain an introduction to her companions, who turned out to be her aunt and uncle at whose home she was visiting, and within half-an-hour the delightful Mr. Hayes had secured all the assurances he required to call at Gracechurch Street. Two calls later and he was hard at work on the lines that would win for him the most loving of hearts. After all, poetry is the very food of love, and Gideon, though confident of his own heart, feared that Miss Bennet's slight inclination might be in need of nourishment.
Robert Brandon, however, was completely unaware of the poetic struggles his master was experiencing. Instead, he was trying to figure out how he could talk Mr. Hayes into giving him a reprieve from his daily dosage of Greek so that they could hop on down to the Royal Society and listen to Thaddeus Grey, lately returned from his native Edinburgh, who was due to address the academy on his arguments for free infant vaccinations for smallpox. Both Robert and his master were enthralled with Dr. Grey, whose friendship with Edward Jenner, the army surgeon who developed the vaccination, led him to publish tracts and deliver rousing speeches on the germ theory of infectious diseases and the need for all of the population, not just the royals, to be protected. Robert knew that Mr. Hayes was every bit as eager to hear Dr. Grey's speech for it was he who had told Robert of it, but Robert also knew that his tutor took his mother's orders regarding his education seriously and was loathe to vary the regimen. Marianne Brandon may have the face of an angel, but Gideon had quickly learned that she did not suffer fools lightly and her tongue was as sharp as her face was soft.
In truth, Marianne had been well pleased with Gideon Hayes for the fortnight he had been in her employ, though she was careful to show him that he was still under careful scrutiny. Even before mother and son had taken up residence in London, Marianne had written her brother, John Dashwood, to solicit his advice in procuring appropriate masters for her young son. John had risen to the occasion and was more than pleased to have an opportunity to once again fulfill his promise to his father that he would always look after and help his sisters. A few words discreetly spoken over brandies at his club, and the name Gideon Hayes was soon at top of the list John was able to present to his sister. Gideon's father, old Lord --, liked the look of John Dashwood and felt comfortable knowing that his natural son would soon be living well, if the Brandon coffers were anything near to what they were reputed to be. Lord -- didn't recommend his son to just any family, but a rich young widow with an impressionable son seemed just the thing for his Gideon.
So while Gideon was mulling over whether "platitude" or "gratitude" would work best with "fortitude" and whether Miss Bennet's eyes were "starry" as "all of heaven's skies" or "lustrous" as "deep velvety pools of magic," Robert was scheming as to how to get them out of the house most expeditiously and with his mother's blessing.
"Mr. Hayes," Robert ventured. He had picked up his pen and had resumed transcribing so that his master could see him hard at Homer when he turned around. "Didn't you tell me that Dr. Grey is a man of poetry as well as science?"
Gideon turned and looked down his aquiline nose into his pupil's innocent young face. Two weeks had taught him that Robert hid a keen intelligence behind his cherubic face and unruly blond curls. Like his mother, Robert's softly dimpled demeanor belied a steely temperament that swung wildly between passionate interest in a wide variety of subjects and arrogant practicality when it came to situation and circumstance.
What are you after my young charge? Gideon thought as he held the gaze of the boy momentarily before answering, "Yes, he was among the audience at Scot's Hall for Coleridge's lecture last month."
"Mama wishes she could have attended that lecture. She says that I am to read everything that Mr. Coleridge writes, both poetry and prose." Robert paused for effect, "Don't you think she would like me to learn what Dr. Grey has to say about poetry? Do you think in his talk today he will embrace Mr. Coleridge's opinions on organic form in his discussion of the treatment and elimination of the disease?"
Gideon, good-tempered young man that he was, had to smile at Robert's effort. "Skip all the big words, Robert, and just say that you want to run away from your Greek today and go and listen to a first-rate medical man raise the roof of the Royal Society. Much as I applaud your efforts to find a link between your mother's admiration for Mr. Coleridge and Dr. Grey's lecture today, you must admit, your argument is thin."
Robert blushed and then laughed, leaping to his feet, "Then can we go, Mr. Hayes? I promise to do forty pages tomorrow if I can just get to see Dr. Grey himself. My Uncle Edward says he thunders when he speaks, and makes the clergy seem like mewing lambs when his blood is up."
Gideon, torn between fear of Marianne and his own desire to see the thundering orator in action, wavered and then nodded towards the door. Minutes later, the ten-year-old boy and his twenty-year-old tutor had donned their coats and were flying down the steps of number 21 Sackville Street on their way to the lecture hall. They were in such a hurry that they didn't notice the tall handsome man who had just emerged from an extremely smart curricle and was headed up the steps of number 21. Though being male, Robert and Gideon did, of course, notice the curricle and both made a mental note to discuss its ornamentation and the fact that it was drawn by a single horse instead of a pair-but later, they were on their way to hear Thaddeus Grey and everything else faded into noise.
The owner of the curricle did notice the pair, however, and curled his lips into a sneer as they nearly bowled him over-apparently Brandon's boy had at least a spark of mischief in him, which was more than his old man had ever displayed! This was the third call John Willoughby had paid to Marianne Brandon since he had received her letter and had yet to speak with her privately. Each time he called, he frustratingly found himself as but one of a growing coterie of admirers, mostly men masquerading as poets and painters to gain access to Marianne was Willoughby's jaded view of his rivals, but there were also a few women clustering around whom he saw as merely flatterers. He was surprised that Marianne had become such a worldly woman and would engage in romantic intrigue and drawing room flirtations. During all the years in which he had been banished from her she had remained the same sweet seventeen-year-old whose heart he had stolen-he wasn't quite sure how he felt about the grown-up Marianne. But, he thought, his eyes glinting dangerously as he watched the merry widow playing the coquette with her fan and her curls, it might be fun to find out.
Like theatre, he realized, Marianne is staging a play. How like her after all. All the world's a stage and we are but players... From courtiers and courtesans to ladies and lackeys, the room was filled with the spectrum of society in which Marianne now moved. Willoughby, used to wearing his stylish cynicism with aplomb, scanned the room with growing amusement until he spied Marianne herself, dressed in white and gold, like Aphrodite transported from Elysian Fields, playing a harp within a pool of admirers. She seemed to be actually glowing with an inner light that made her skin translucent and wrapped her in a halo.
Watching Marianne, Willoughby remembered the sweet scenes they had orchestrated together in Barton Cottage. Conspirators perhaps, or merely artists creating a romantic tableau, both had relished the pretty pictures they had presented to Marianne's family and neighbors. Too late he realized that for Marianne, art imitated life. Now, it seemed, she was asking him to once again be a player on her stage.
He scanned the room, recognizing many, until Marianne finished her song and met his eye. After holding his gaze for a moment, she slowly smiled an invitation to him. But by the time he crossed the room, he found her deep in conversation with another man. And so the visit went-she would smile and beckon and he would answer the call only to find her gone before he could claim her attention. Was she mocking him? Leading him on a merry chase only to assert her power over him? Regardless, he found himself unwilling to resist her. She seemed ethereal, fairy-like in her ability to dissolve almost before his eyes, and then reappear just out of reach. At last, she gave him respite from the chase when she announced that the eminent Sir Roderick Ghastly, lately returned from a continental tour in which he delighted the courts of Europe, would honor them with a scene from The Tempest.
And so while Sir Roderick berated Caliban, Willoughby slowly shifted his stance until he had worked his way around room and was now but a foot or two from Marianne, stationed next to a bank of windows. As Sir Roderick ended and his audience applauded, Willoughby reached out and boldly gripped Marianne's hand. She gasped slightly as he turned them away from the room and toward the window, and quickly lifted her fingers, brushing them lightly with his lips. Then, releasing her hand, he turned and looked her full in the face.
The glittering, dripping room slipped out of focus as she heard his words, low and urgent. "You summoned me with a letter two weeks ago. And I came then, and again, and now. But nothing. No words from you. Nothing that says I am forgiven, nothing except what I read in your eyes. Do you delight in torturing me, my lady?" He paused for her to answer, but she only raised her eyebrows delicately and cocked her head, as if amused. He picked up on her lightness and playfully went on, "I see. I am to win back your regard. I need to earn the right to wear your colors. Pray, what tasks will you lay down for me, my lady?"
She graced him with another teasing smile that warmed him until her heard the chill in her voice as she answered, "Your wife is your lady, sir. My colors are retired. I seek no champion..." She turned and looked out of the windows as she went on, "No quest for chalice, no May Day jousting, no fine words can change that fact...." She gazed up at the gray London sky, amazed that her heart remained flinty in his presence. It had been risky coming here and seeking him out. She hadn't been sure what her heart would do when she was finally face-to-face with him again. She still blushed when she remembered the last words she had spoken to him, fraught with the passionate exuberance of a seventeen-year-old whose highest ambition then had been to live her life as an open book. But here she had stood not only face-to-face but hand-to-hand with him and had been able to hide her agitation. And it was imperative that she hide her feelings if she was to uncover the facts she needed to decide whether to tell her son that his father was Willoughby and his mother was Eliza Williams.
That day in the library at Delaford when Robert had come to her asking for an explanation of the gossip he had heard from the servants, Marianne had deftly dismissed the stories of his illegitimacy as but the workings of idle, uneducated minds. She believed she had satisfied her son with her answer, but his inquiries had stirred old doubts that perhaps she and her husband had been wrong to hide Robert's parentage from him and the world. He should wear no shame in what his father and mother did. He bore the Brandon name and would inherit the Brandon estate. Better for him to know his origins than be deluded into thinking that one's worth was caught up in one's birth.
What risk is there in telling him the truth, Marianne wondered. I risk more in his finding out the truth on his own and therein losing his trust. And servants remember more than they let on. They seem to have longer memories than we gentle folk, and they can't help but talk. And Robbie grows more like Willoughby in looks every day. People, not just servants, will notice, and then they'll remember and then they'll talk. And what if people were to think that I betrayed my husband with Willoughby? Robbie could lose everything then, if the will were contested. Christopher told me that his cousins never thought he would marry and produce an heir. If they were to think that I betrayed Christopher...I can't bear to think of it. But what if Willoughby denies Robbie just as he denied Eliza and then me? And so Marianne resolved to go to London to discover what manner of man Willoughby had become and whether she should let the world and her son know of his true parentage.
"Then why are you here, and why did you summon me?" Willoughby asked, drawing Marianne back from her reverie.
Before Marianne could answer, their attention was arrested by a carriage clattering up the street at an alarming rate. Marianne's eyes widened as the carriage stopped in front of their door, and Gideon Hayes leapt out and bounded up the stairs. He was followed closely by a tall man in a greatcoat who was carrying the limp body of Robert Brandon.
Marianne was across the salon and through the door, lifting her skirts as she ran down the hall. Gideon heard her coming long before he saw her, her eyes wild with fear, her face blanched and taut. He ran to her, telling her that Robert had fallen and broken his ankle and had fainted from the pain. She clutched him for an instant, searching his eyes to see whether he lied, and then ran up to the man carrying her son.
"Robbie, Robbie-my love, speak to your mama," she cried out on reaching him.
The boy stirred and fluttered his eyelids and then groaned in pain.
"Show me where to lay him down, madam, and I'll put him right soon enough," the man said.
Marianne bade him carry the boy into her drawing room and lay him on the settee.
"Are you a surgeon, sir?" she asked, as the man laid the boy down gently and then commenced removing his boots.
"That and more," he answered briefly. "Now then, where's t'other lad? The tall, gangly one with two left feet?"
"Here I am, sir," Gideon replied stepping forward.
"Get yourself over to this address," the man said, pulling a card from his waistcoat. "And fetch my medical bag. Ask for Hobson and tell him I've a broken bone to set. And be quick about it, laddie, your mistress here is out for your blood as it is, I'll be bound, and any dawdling will make it go the worse for you."
"Right, sir." Gideon started off, and then stopped to ask, "And the Society, sir? Should I send a message that you've been detained?"
The man looked up from where he was working on the boy. "Tell Hobson to send word to Mallory." He shook his head ruefully, "As if I had time for boys' nonsense..." The man then waved Marianne off, "Now then, madam, you'll not help the boy by mithering over him. Give me room."
Marianne stepped back, still wringing her hands, while the man pulled a vial out of the depths of his greatcoat and put it to Robert's lips. Instantly Robert opened his eyes and attempted to stand, but was checked by the man.
"Dr. Grey?" he murmured, surprised and apologetic. "We wanted a better view..."
"Well, you got it, lad. As fair a view of this ugly mug as you'd ever want, and you ruined my speech to boot. I'll have to talk to your mother here about keeping tabs on you boys instead of letting you roam the streets of London while she eats dainties and gossips about the goings-on at Carlton House."
Willoughby, who had followed Marianne out of the salon and down the hall, stood in the drawing room door and watched amazed as Marianne begin to sputter indignantly while still attempting to comfort her son. Finally, Marianne was able formulate a coherent sentence in which she imperiously asked the man who he was.
"Mama," Robert interjected, said surprised, "this is Dr. Grey, Dr. Thaddeus Grey." He bowed his head, "Whom Mr. Hayes and I were going to hear address the Royal Society..."
Marianne blushed hotly and extended her hand to Dr. Grey, thanking him for assisting her son, who, she assured him, had been very naughty in running away from his studies. She had been deceived into believing his tutor was to be trusted, and she would be dealing with him accordingly.
Again, Dr. Grey waved her aside and suggested that if she really wanted to be useful she might procure some tea for him and the boy. Willoughby smiled as he withdrew-interesting how annoyed Marianne could become at being treated so inconsequentially. But he stopped when he heard Dr. Grey call out, "Ho there John, let's not have you slink away like some dog who's lost his dinner. Step forward and be counted."
John Willoughby emerged from the doorway and quickly came over to shake hands with Dr. Grey. Marianne looked from one to the other, surprised that they clearly knew each other, yet unsure as to whether they were on friendly terms.
"I hadn't heard you were back in London," Willoughby said.
Dr. Grey smiled slightly at Marianne. "Mr. Willoughby is part of your circle?"
"I have no circle, sir." She replied indignantly. "I resent your implications, and I must ask you to leave. I will summon my own doctor."
"Nonsense, child. Don't get yourself in a pique. Your boy here is better off with me than anyone else in the kingdom."
"Oh, quite high and mighty are we?"
"I'm the best surgeon there is, and a thinking man beyond that. Settle yourself, woman, you're agitating the boy."
At this Marianne shot Dr. Grey a dangerous look and stooped again to soothe her son.
"Water, Mama, may I have a drink of water?"
Marianne looked for affirmation from Dr. Grey. He nodded, and she quickly quitted the room to get water and order tea.
As soon as she left the room, Dr. Grey addressed Willoughby, "And how is Sophie?"
"As well as she's been anytime these past six months."
"She keeps to the regimen I subscribed?"
"It is difficult for her. She is much depressed."
"And you think these little forays of yours into ladies' salons relieve her spirits?"
"Your sarcasm has never been part of your charm, Thaddeus."
"Pray, tell your dear lady friend, the mother of this boy here, that I do have some charms. She thinks me quite devoid of any of the graces you cavaliers parade."
"Oh stop it, man. She's not my lady friend, but an old acquaintance, and watch your tongue before her son."
Dr. Grey glanced at the boy, who had closed his eyes again.
"And how is Amelia?" He said quietly.
At this question, Willoughby's eyes softened. "She's eating better, and laughing more. She loves the garden."
"Do you take her riding?"
"Sophie won't let her leave the house."
Dr. Grey sighed. "I'll speak to her again. Amelia must go out into the world. There are worse ailments than being born with a harelip, and you'd all be better off if you'd accept that."
"Sophie blames herself."
"I've tried to make her happy."
"Then why are you here?"
"Marianne...that is, Mrs. Brandon, asked me to come."
"And her husband?"
"Dead, two years."
"Do you still love her?"
Willoughby glanced at Robert Brandon, apparently asleep on the settee. He neither nodded nor shook his head, but his eyes spoke of years of heartache and regret compounded by guilt mixed with love for his misshapen little daughter.
"If Sophie and I could have another child, an unblemished child...but she won't..."
Before Dr. Grey could answer or interrupt or protest or scoff, Gideon Hayes returned, flushed with the success of having obtained the doctor's medical bag and convinced that he was well on his way to becoming invaluable to the notorious doctor-philosopher once the mishap at the lecture hall was forgotten.
Dr. Grey, insensible to the bond that Hayes now saw as forged between them, merely grabbed the bag from the younger man's hands and rid the room of both Hayes and Willoughby. In short order, he set Robert's ankle and administered more medicine to ease the boy's pain and was ready for the tea tray when Marianne finally returned.
She had fixed the tray herself, wanting to be useful in some way, and while doing so had resolved to stop arguing with the strange, gruffly handsome doctor who had brought her injured son home and was so confident in his ability to heal him.
The doctor was sitting in a chair near the settee, leaning his head back, his eyes closed, when Marianne placed the tray on a table next to him.
"Two sugars in my tea, if you please," he instructed her from under lidded eyes.
She bit back the hot words that bubbled again at his tone, and then glanced over to see that he was smiling slightly, as if at a private joke.
She poured his tea and then stood before him, until he opened his eyes and looked up at her. He took the cup and thanked her, then bade her sit down and listen to his instructions regarding her son's ankle.
She listened, and when he had finished she thanked him and offered her hand, "I'm Mrs. Brandon," she said simply. "I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself earlier. Thank you for your trouble, and I apologize for the trouble my son and his tutor caused you today."
Dr. Grey stood and bowed low over her hand. "And I, madam, am Thaddeus Grey, your servant. And as your friend, Mr. Willoughby, can tell you, I am never so happy as when I can be of service. Although he calls it being an 'infernal busybody.'"
At this Marianne laughed, and Dr. Grey went on, "And do not punish young Robert or Mr. Hayes either. Your son and his master are not troublesome but curious, and I make it a practice never to dissuade curiosity. It is such a rare commodity these days. Your son is lucky to have such an energetic teacher, and ankles do heal, you know, when set properly."
Marianne, emboldened by Dr. Grey's teasing tone, asked, "And how do you know Mr. Willoughby so well?"
"He is married to my sister Sophie, who has made it her business to know yours."
Marianne paled at this, but resolutely went on, "And what has she learned about my business?"
"That you are in London, though none know why."
"What manner of house does she keep? Are her servants liveried? Are all her floors really marble?"
In answer to his sister's questions, Thaddeus Grey laughed and replied, "Sophia, Sophia. One question at a time, and does it really matter all that much whether Mrs. Brandon's floors are marble or maple?"
"It does to me," Sophia Willoughby answered shortly. "Now then, brother, I expect a full accounting, for you know I am not well enough to go out in public with my husband, though he does insist on going..."
Thaddeus sighed, "It is only your fancies that keep you to your bed, sister. As I've told you, you have no ailments but what fresh air and exercise would cure. You suffer from ennui. But, take heart, for if I'm not mistaken, Mrs. Brandon's sojourn in town may prove to be the tonic I've been seeking for you."
He leaned back in his chair, stretching out his long legs in front of him and running his fingers through his hair until it stood up on end. Then he smiled indulgently at his sister as she lay upon the settee in her morning room. The air in the room was close and heavy-"No wonder you cannot move, he continued, "you're drugged into somnolence by the air you breathe. Thank God I'm not a woman and confined to such a life..."
"Don't be tiresome, Teddy. Tell me about Mrs. Brandon's situation."
"You always were the jealous type, Sophia. I do believe it's your chief fault as well as your chief virtue, for it spurs you on like nothing else. All right, I'll tell you. Mrs. Brandon keeps a fine house, in the Empire style. Rest assured, she spends her late husband's money well. She has good taste-expensive taste. Her servants are not liveried. She's too modern for such affectation. The floor of her entrance hall is indeed marble, Italian I daresay. She has thick carpets in her drawing room. The other rooms I did not see. I would venture to guess that she has not more marble than taste allows."
Thaddeus walked over to the window and flung open the heavy damask curtains, smiling to himself as his sister shielded her eyes from the light. Though the day was cloudy, the light streaming through the now bared window was brighter than any she had seen in more than a fortnight at least. He glanced at the sky and then impatiently tapped his riding crop against his thigh. He turned, addressing Sophia once more, "And now, dear sister, will you ride out today with Amelia and me or do you insist on hiding behind curtains and waiting for gossip to come calling?"
The lady groaned and let her lip quiver. "You're a mean, hateful brother to take my daughter out when you know she cannot ever really be 'out'..."
Thaddeus looked steadily at his sister until she blushed under his gaze. Then he silently walked over to her prone figure and bent low until his face was quite close to hers and she could smell tobacco mingled with coffee on his warm breath. He said very quietly, "This child is a child. Luckily her face is not her fortune. But if you do not let her out into the world, her face will be her fate. Locked away from the world, her soul will twist and her spirit will wither. She is not the only child, not the only girl, not the only heiress to be born deformed in body. But she is my only niece and I'll be d---- if I let you warp her spirit because she embarrasses you."
Sophia turned her face from his angrily and he stood up again. His eyes, hard and grim while he was talking, now softened as he gazed down on the woman whom he had loved and cared for, scolded and comforted since the day his mother had laid her in his arms and told him that he was now a big brother and it was his duty to watch over his baby sister, always and forever. She hadn't been an easy charge, headstrong and petulant when thwarted, easily flattered, loyal and loving when given half a chance, clever and witty when challenged, beautiful when she thought no one was looking, tender when she let her guard down. She had been motherless for so long, more than half her life, and fatherless for almost as long. Shuttled amongst her guardians and aunts before she married, she clung to Thaddeus when he was in town, but his work and his interests had taken him from her side more often than not.
"I understand, Sophia, really I do."
"How can you understand?" she said to the wall. "You have no children. You have no wife. Your work is your life. How can you understand how my dearest wishes all died with Amelia? You have no idea how difficult it is for me. You flit here and there. Over to Paris on a whim. Home to Edinburgh whenever you feel like it. To America, even, just because you're curious. You have no idea of the burdens I carry. You have no idea how lonely I am when you're gone," she concluded with a sob.
She rolled over and then sat up and looked into her brother's eyes directly. "Why did you let me marry John? You must have known what manner of man he was? Why did you let me do it?"
He sat next to her and took her hand in his and squeezed her fingers gently, "I had no choice, Sophia dear. You know that, don't you? If I had interfered, you would never have forgiven me, and then were would we be?"
"It was Pamela that did it."
"Pamela Walker. Lady Hornwell now. She stole every beau of mine from the day I met her at Mrs. Fullerton's when I was sixteen. She ruined my season, you know. Made me into a laughing stock. Two years later, I went with the Ellisons to Bath. And the Walkers were there as well. Everywhere I turned, there was Pamela on the arm of the handsomest man I had ever laid eyes on. In the assembly rooms, at the balls, at concerts and lectures, even at the library, always showing off with John Willoughby-John Willoughby of Combe Magna, John Willoughby, the heir of Allenham. I would have strangled her if I thought I could have gotten away with it. Then one day I was in Mollands when that dreadful friend of yours, George Westhaven, spied me, discovered I was unaccompanied, and insisted on escorting me home...oh, you can chuckle all you like, big brother, but your friends were forever bothering me until John rescued me."
"Yes, rescued me. He could tell that I didn't appreciate Mr. Westhaven's attentions, so he claimed me for himself. He told Mr. Westhaven that I was under his protection, and he walked me home, bold as brass, as if we were old friends...and we hadn't even been properly introduced. He was such a madcap, handsome young fool. He could talk poetry one minute and whisper such nonsense in my ear the next. I would've fallen in love with him even if Pamela Walker hadn't been part of the equation. But besting her, stealing her beau for once was too much for me to resist. I turned a deaf ear to all the gossip about him-oh, and there was gossip aplenty-all my girlfriends were more than eager to tell me that he was dallying with the actresses at Beaufort Square and the barmaids at the taverns and spending more money than he should on carriages and hunters."
Sophia, warming to her subject, let her eyes twinkle mischievously and a little smile danced across her face, illuminating it more than her brother had seen in a very long while. She continued coyly, "Actually, Teddy, the gossip just made him all the more attractive, if that were possible. When I saw him ride by on that black mount of his, I swear I almost swooned. Then one morning he came by to tell me that he was leaving Bath for a duty visit to Devonshire, to Allenham actually, to visit old Mrs. Allen. He asked me if I was going to be in London for the winter. When I said yes, he smiled so...so...warmly. I thought he was going to declare himself then and there, but he didn't. He asked for a lock of my hair and I let him snip a piece. When he lifted it to his lips, I thought that surely he would declare himself then, but he didn't. As soon as he left Bath I started mentally shopping for my trousseau."
"While he was in Devonshire, I went on with the Ellisons to London. I half-expected him to write. He never was one to bow to the strictures of society, at least not in those days. We were engaged almost as soon as he arrived in London. I think he came to see me even before he went to his lodgings in Bond Street. And I don't need to tell you how pleased the Ellisons were with the match. Though some of their pleasure was getting me off their hands...me and my fifty thousand pounds."
She paused and looked down at her hands-"I was worth a lot in those days. I thought I had bought myself the best husband a girl could want. And it was almost worth it. Almost worth saving John from his debtors just to crow from the rooftops that I had stolen Pamela Walker's beau, except that...I found out that..." Sophia stopped and looked at her brother, her eyes glistening as she felt afresh the pain of knowing that the man she loved did not return the feeling. Thaddeus took her hands in his and held her gaze, as if willing her to go on and to find strength in going on.
She bit her lip and then chutted out her chin, "...that he may have been Pamela's beau in Bath, but he left his heart in Devonshire in the care of a silly, overwrought, penniless girl. The rumors were flying thick around us, but I knew for certain the night of the party at xxx that he would never be mine, not really. I thought I would die when she accosted him from across the room. And for a horrible moment, I thought he was going to abandon me for her. The look in his eyes when she called him out on the floor to acknowledge her made my blood run cold. I knew real fear then. Real fear that he would shame me in front of everybody. The Ellisons, the Walkers-oh yes, Pamela was there with a new man on her arm. But he didn't. He turned away from her and stayed by my side."
She shrugged and wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, "I should have let him go, should have made him go, but I couldn't bear to have all the world think that I lost John to a little miss nobody like that. And now little miss nobody is Mrs. Brandon. Beautiful, young, rich, widowed Mrs. Brandon. Mrs. Brandon, whose soirees are the talk of the town. Mrs. Brandon, the poetess. Mrs. Brandon with the beautiful son. She has a beautiful son while I have a daughter whose face the world cannot bear to look at."
Sophia spat out the last and collapsed onto her brother's shoulder, wailing, "Oh Teddy, it's all my fault. I knew I was with child when we went to Combe Magna for the hunt ball. But I wanted to be a belle again. I wanted to show off to all John's friends and remind him of the prize he had in me. I wanted to be the girl who could ride all day and lead the ball at night. But a hare crossed my path. Ran right in front of Ginger as we rode the last leg. I was hell bent on keeping up with the pack and scarcely thought anything of it but that it slowed us down. But later, later, after Amelia was born, after John looked at her and cursed and walked away from us, I remembered that d---- hare. That accursed hare that crossed my path and marked my unborn child. It stole her beauty just like John stole that poor girl's heart. And now she's come to town to take back what's hers and I don't know what to do about it."
"I'll tell you a secret, Sophia." Thaddeus waited while his sister calmed herself, knowing that the promise of a secret would do more than all the hugs and sympathy he could offer. When she was sufficiently composed, he said evenly, "I have a friend in France, a master of surgery, who has been studying the cleft palate. He is convinced that within three years he will be able to surgically reduce the disfiguration and increase the enunciation of the patient. He is experimenting now and perfecting his technique."
"Oh, Teddy! Oh, merciful heavens! Is it true? This doctor, your friend, can heal Amelia? Can make her pretty? Can help her speak clearly?"
"She will never be pretty, at least not in the way most people think of as pretty, but he says that he thinks he can minimize the effect..."
"But a Frenchman, brother!" Sophia interrupted. "They're butchers, they are."
Now it was Thaddeus's turn to interrupt. "You are an ignorant woman for all your fine finishing schools," he laughed. "France is putting out the best surgeons in the world, and make no mistake about it. The hospitals in Paris are marvelous places, where a man can really study and learn about the human body instead of this damnable guesswork we make such a fuss about here. So, dear heart, are you willing to let Amelia go under a French knife?"
Sophia's face glowed her answer as she nodded and then flung her arms around Thaddeus and hugged him to her. Then her eyes grew large and she drew back, "But what will John say? Her birth was a blow to him, but I know he loves her dearly and pets her and protects her and brings her sweets and reads to her. He may not agree."
Thaddeus waved her concern aside, "He'll agree. In an instant, what parent would not? But, there is a condition, my friend will only agree to do this type of surgery on healthy patients. You have three years, sister, three years in which to ensure that my niece is happy and healthy. And that means, she must have fresh air; she must ride every day, and play in the garden."
"She must wear her veil."
Thaddeus kissed Sophia's forehead and murmured, "As you wish, dear sister."
"Get on with you then. As I wish? It's as you wish, I should say. But three years hence, I expect you to right the wrong that nature did my child."
Broken ankles, when set properly, do heal. And Robert Brandon's broken ankle was no exception. Six weeks passed and Robert's ankle was mended and his Latin reduced back to his pre-accident quota. The Brandon household settled into a comfortable morning routine in which Robert studied Latin, Marianne transcribed her favorite pianoforte pieces for the harp, and Gideon chewed his pens while composing dreadful lines of love to a girl he didn't realize was not yet sixteen.
And so we find them, at the beginning of our next chapter comfortably composed in Marianne's oh-so-tasteful morning room...
"Ahoy, matey-the Ghastley girls are comin' hard a port. Must hie me hither, and out of 'arms way," Gideon Hayes bellowed as he scuttled from the window and made for the door.
"Hold it right there, young man," Marianne called after him in her most imperious voice. "You are not abandoning Robbie and I to the likes of them. You will stand your post and do your duty to Miss Honoria Ghastley and Miss Eugenie. And if their brother, Sir Roderick, is with them," she sighed and smiled impishly, "you have my leave to tell the servants that 'We are not at home.'"
Honoria Ghastley drained her teacup, set it down, and then drew herself up to her full five feet, eleven inches, pronouncing, "I was the best Titania London has ever seen, or ever will see for that matter. I had Oberon shaking in his shoes, I did."
Gideon Hayes, to whom she addressed this statement of fact, blinked quickly twice and assured Miss Ghastley that he had no doubt that she did cause her Oberon to quake and shake upon the stage. Under his breath he added, "For you have quite the same effect upon me!"
Honoria did not hear Gideon's aside, but Marianne did and rewarded the impudent tutor with a discreet but effective pinch on the knee.
"My brother," continued the elder Miss Ghastley, "implores me to return to the stage. Doesn't he, Eugenie?"
"Never fall out with your bread and butter," the younger sister answered calmly.
Now, people who are not intimately acquainted with the sisters Ghastley might wonder at this enigmatic reply. They might puzzle over the connection between the question and the answer. They might ponder whether the sisters were on entirely good terms, in fact. But Marianne Brandon, her son, and Mr. Hayes had come to be on such familiar footing with the sisters that they barely even exchanged a mirthful glance at Eugenie's latest contribution to the conversation.
Since the day of Robert's accident, when Sir Roderick Ghastley and his sisters had been part of the throng in Marianne's salon, the Ghastleys had claimed a friendship that they then set about to create. Not a week passed without the sisters calling on Marianne, and their brother was almost as diligent in his attentions. Of course, the reason for the visits soon surfaced.
Sir Roderick's ambition had recently taken a turn skywards when a play he had written was produced and had been wildly acclaimed in the hinterlands. With this encouragement, he decided the time had come for him to turn from merely acting to writing and even producing theatrical works, and he saw in Mrs. Brandon the one person who could swiftly give wings to his ambition. She had buckets of money and no husband to keep her from spending it. She loved the theatre and music. She had been to see him twice, first as Lear and then again as Prospero. She had told him outright that there were no fresh ideas on the London stages and that she would give anything to see an original farce. There was no doubt in his mind that Marianne Brandon was an easy mark and Sir Roderick expected the fair widow to underwrite his venture without hesitation. Once he had reached this point in his musings, the next logical thought was that he should make her his wife. She was certainly pretty enough, and her fiery speeches on the dearth of passion were, well, stimulating. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea of first marrying Marianne, and then, with her at his side, they could launch the Ghastley Theatre.
Needless to say, Marianne found the idea of underwriting Ghastley theatricals to be almost as absurd as marrying the bombastic thespian himself. It wasn't that he wasn't a handsome man-No, thought Marianne, he's even prettier than I am, and that will never do. It wasn't that he wasn't a talented actor-he himself boasted that he could make strong men weep and weak women wail. And it wasn't that he wasn't a tender man-sensitive to the core, he felt each emotion fully, wearing his heart on his sleeve for all the world to admire. But he was a Ghastley, and that was enough to damn him completely and forever as marriage material. Marianne Brandon would no more consent to join that mad family whose ups and downs had been the stuff of court intrigue since time immemorial than she would consent to waste a rainy afternoon on Fordyce's sermons. Besides, she had no intention of marrying again. She had loved once and married once, and had lost both men. The Colonel's money made a second marriage unnecessary and her son's welfare made it undesirable. It was enough that she had Robert to dote upon and raise, and she certainly wasn't going to throw away her son's inheritance on a venture as shaky as a theatre.
Even after Marianne had gently but firmly told Sir Roderick that neither her heart nor her hand nor her money were to be his, the family continued to court Marianne as assiduously as if she had not shown him the door. They called. They met in the shops and in the gardens. They dined together and exchanged books and ideas and gossip. And Marianne found much to enjoy in the visits of Sir Roderick and the Ghastley girls, as Gideon had come to call them.
Tall, domineering Honoria, with her feathers and plumes, turbans and masks, was diverting company. Intelligent, well-read, and an acclaimed actress in her own right, Honoria had retired from the stage two years earlier to find a husband. So far, she had found nothing but puppies and scamps, but was hopeful that a real man would surface before she left her girlhood too far behind.
Eugenie at nineteen was the youngest of the family. Elfin in eye and aura, she seemed to speak only in proverbs, and then so softly that much of what she said was trampled before it even entered the atmosphere. Neither Sir Roderick nor Honoria thought to explain their sister's oddities and Marianne had come to relish the gentle irony that Eugenie frequently infused into the conversation.
The Ghastley girls had come this morning to invite Marianne to a fancy dress ball that they and their brother were giving on Wednesday se'ennight. "And Mr. Hayes too," Honoria added with a coy smile that sent Gideon's heart careening with fear into his throat. Honoria had announced that she would be dressed as Titania from Shakespeare's noted play, and it was not a role unfamiliar to her. Eugenie, of course, would be Ophelia.
"She is always Ophelia," Honoria explained. "If ever an actress was destined for a role, my sister was born to play Ophelia."
Marianne inquired as to whether the girl had ever actually played the part, but no, "Alas, Eugenie's health doesn't allow her to brave the rigors of the stage. Isn't that right, dearest?"
With a shy smile, Eugenie agreed that "danger and delight grow on one stalk."
Gideon looked as if he might ask whether Miss Eugenie's acting was more dangerous than delightful, when Marianne curbed his tongue with a good swift kick to his ankle. She then smiled sweetly at him and bid him accompany Robert to his riding lesson. As Gideon and Robert were taking their leave, Marianne assured the Ghastley sisters that both she and Mr. Hayes would attend their ball. Gideon looked daggers at Marianne but then brightened as a thought entered his mind, and he spoke up, "Miss Ghastley, I assume you are inviting all the subscribing members of the Theatre Royal..."
"Why, yes, Mr. Hayes, my brother is raising the funds to launch a new theatrical venture," here she cast a reproachful look at Marianne, which Marianne deftly reflected, "and believes these worthy citizens should have the first opportunity to invest in it."
"Just so, just so, Miss Ghastley, brilliant idea, really!" He beamed at Marianne as he bounded out the door, pausing just long enough to mouth the words "Gardiners of Gracechurch subscribe!"
Marianne groaned then sighed. She really had to tell the boy that Miss Jane Bennet was not yet 'out' and so would not be at the ball and moreover he needed to stop pestering the child with his cloying verse. He would drive her into a convent if he didn't cease and desist, or worse yet, he might drive her aunt and uncle in thinking he was serious in his attachment to their niece.
No sooner had Gideon and Robert departed than Honoria pulled up a chair and said confidentially to Marianne that "Eugenie has made a conquest." Marianne immediately assumed that the girls had mistaken Gideon's teasing exuberance for admiration and was about to rectify the assumption when Honoria went on to reveal that Eugenie's admirer was none other than Dr. Thaddeus Grey. Apparently, he had told Honoria when they had all met at Vauxhall that Eugenie was "as rare a flower as he would ever hope to find, and studying her for a life time would not reveal all her secrets."
Honoria had taken this as the good doctor's subtle way of declaring his interest in marrying the rare flower if the Ghastley family approved. Marianne wasn't so sure. In the six weeks during which Robert's ankle was healing, Marianne had gotten to know Dr. Grey well enough to know that he was not only a confirmed bachelor, but a fairly crotchety one at that, and any interest he had in a woman or her body was purely scientific. He had as good as told Marianne when they met at a concert last week that souls didn't interest him in the least. When he had found a microscope that could reveal the contours and physical properties of the soul, he told her, then he would be more than interested in discussing them with her, until that time he would let her precious poets have the field to themselves.
Such a statement was as good as declaring war. Marianne had looked at Dr. Grey as coldly as she could, unconsciously imitating Gideon's long-nose gaze, and responded with, "I have always viewed doctors as shallow animals. You think the whole of a person can be reduced to gut and body. You look down your microscope and think you can see what people are made of."
But despite her heated words, the good doctor had laughed at her yet again, infuriating her further. "But it was your man, Blake, who said that we could see a whole world in a grain of sand. If you like that idea so much, does it not follow that I can see the whole system of things through my microscope?" And before Marianne could answer, the doctor went on, "And Coleridge said 'whole system of things' not 'the whole of a person.' Mrs. Brandon, I need hardly remind you that changing his words when you quote him changes the meaning, and I don't think you do him a service by misquoting him."
Luckily Marianne's brother and his wife interrupted the tete-a-tete before Thaddeus could goad her into doing him an injury. He went back to his seat thinking that Mrs. Brandon's eyes were not unattractive when they sparkled with the fire of indignation, and she went back to hers thinking that a more boorish man than Dr. Grey would be difficult to find.