Posted on 2008-12-27
Author's Note: This is my first time taking on Sense and Sensibility (whether that means I lack the aforementioned qualities is for others to determine). However, for the sake of this story, we will have to assume that Elinor and Marianne returned to Barton immediately after Willoughby announced his engagement and returned Marianne's letters and lock of hair. (at least that way the readers don't have to listen to Lucy Steele) The "present time" of the start of this story is approximately a year and a half before the canon beginning of Pride and Prejudice.
"I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad." - Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 31
Colonel Brandon took his leave of Miss Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood and found himself alone outside the entrance to Barton Cottage. His horse was tethered to a nearby section of the fence marking the border between the garden of the cottage and the grounds of Barton Park. With slow, heavy steps he moved in that general direction, but once he had reached the fence, he found himself unable to move further, surrendering to the onslaught of his thoughts and emotions.
In the five and thirty years of his life, Christopher Brandon had faced many things. He had seen the woman that he had loved so many years ago ordered into a loveless marriage with his brother, and had later seen her die as a result of her own folly and degradation. He had faced hostile armies and the palpable threat of death on three different continents. He had seen hundreds of young men, including several that he considered friends, cut down in the prime of life, and on some occasions delivered the news of their demise to their families. However, facing himself and what on this day he deemed the culmination of all his failures in life, was by far worse than all the other things put together.
The Colonel let loose with an exclamation that would have shocked all those acquainted with his soft-spoken and genteel behaviour in society. "Oh, damn and blast it all to bloody Hell and back!"
Had Colonel Brandon been in a condition to think more rationally, he would have noticed that his voice was loud enough to be heard inside Barton Cottage. And by one person silently observing his departure from an upstairs window, it was.
"I have made a botched job of everything. All my bloody life, except for the Army. What was it that Wellesley called me? Cautious Christopher. All this caution has served me quite ill. Why did I not seek Eliza's hand, or at least its promise, when I was nineteen? Because I felt it would be imprudent to declare my feelings. What came of that? Both she and James were left monstrously unhappy, and within a few years, both died. At least I could be honourable and take her daughter under my care -- little Eliza, after I had seen her mother waste away to nothing. And then I failed her, the sweet girl, as well -- had I been a more attentive guardian, had I taught her more of the ways of the world, she would have known to protect herself, she could not have been deceived by such a rake!
As though that were not enough, to discover that the man that ruined her was no other than John Willoughby! Immediately after leaving girl of no more than fifteen years with child -- that was when it must have happened -- he turned up here in Devonshire and began paying his attentions to Miss Marianne. Had I but known of his deeds at the time I could have exposed the scoundrel. Perhaps her elder sister would have believed me if I told her that the man simply seemed too unctuous and charming to be sincere, but not Marianne. She would follow nothing but her own heart, and our acquaintance was not close enough for me to deliver any kind of warning. She was flattered by the impression of a man in love with her and could believe in nothing else. Certainly not that quiet admiration could also be intensely felt -- once again, I was too bloody cautious to declare myself, or at least to show behaviour that might have made her see me differently. Instead, at best I may have appeared to her as a sort of friend or brother, just as Eliza thought of me back then. As I came to be with Miss Dashwood."
In his mind, he saw before him Eliza Williams, her face streaked with tears and her body trembling. Those were not only the tears of being deceived by a man's false promises, or even the tears of pain and illness due to the unforeseen changes taking place in her body. They were tears caused by the awareness that one impetuous mistake had led to her girlhood, her reputation, and quite possibly her life being ruined. Unforgiving and hypocritical as society was, she could expect a very limited lot from here on. The dismal lodging that she now occupied in one of the worst parts of London seemed merely a harbinger of misfortunes to come.
"Christopher," she could not raise her eyes to his, "will you cast me off now -- for what I did?"
"Never, Eliza," he took her chin in his hand. "I have given my pledge to your mother and my brother that I would always stand by you. You and my sister in Avignon are the only family that I have left. I will take care of you."
"I do not deserve your care," the girl sobbed, "you are the best of men." If that is true, why does no woman ever come close to recognizing it?
"You shall have my care nonetheless," he said with finality. "You need only tell me the name of the cad who dishonoured you."
"Do you truly need to know?" It took half an hour's entreaties and persuasion before she could divulge this information. And when she did, her reply was barely above a whisper: "John Willoughby."
Within the hour, Colonel Brandon was writing an express to the brother of a longtime friend of his. If only providence would allow the presence of his friend in London -- since the latter man's duties often precluded this -- then Brandon would avail himself of the aid of a true expert in locating scoundrels.
"EXPRESS to Mr. James Stephen Clover, Westborough Summit, Kent.
Dear Mr. Clover,
Your brother John Robert may have spoken to you of me in the past, as he often does to me of you. I only regret that circumstances have not yet allowed our meeting in person. Jack and I have been comrades in arms for many years, since my return from India. He has told me that since his location is uncertain and often dictated by factors beyond his control, my best option would be to contact you and await his response. I would ask your assistance in contacting him, for if by chance he should be in London, I would eagerly seek his collaboration on a matter of the utmost discretion. I can be found at my lodging in Saint James Street or at my club, which Jack knows well. If you have any cause to come to Devonshire, I would eagerly offer my friend's brother every hospitality at Delaford.
Col. Christopher Brandon."
Within three days Jack came to meet him at the club. Jack Clover was five years younger than Brandon and had recently been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. However, the nature of the duties entrusted to him by the War Office was such that his being in the Crown's service was not allowed to be publicly known.
"Another glass of port, Colonel Brandon?" Had he not recognized his friend's voice, Colonel Brandon would not have moved his head, since he was deep in thought. In this case, he beheld his friend, a soldier for the last twelve years, in the guise of a waiter, and might not have known him by sight, since he seemed to have lost a stone of weight and grown a rather thick mustache. Clover proceeded to bend his head down, as though listening to a request, and added in a near-whisper "and don't bloody laugh."
"That would be quite fine, my good man," Brandon replied, and then added in a low voice "We need to speak somewhere less public."
"I shall have that for you in a minute, Sir," Clover said with a crisp nod and made his way through the crowd. When he returned he brought the port and a brief note.
"Darrow's Inn, Blankenship Street, three hours from now. Ask for the tradesman from Kent. The food will be better than here." Brandon raised his eyebrows in surprise. His friend was asking him to meet in a most unfashionable part of London with exaggerated trappings of secrecy.
"Why did you have me come here?" Brandon asked Clover once they had gone up to Jack's room and asked the innkeeper's son to bring them a hot meal on a tray and some wine.
"You said 'somewhere less public', Christopher. I am staying here because a Frenchman would stick out like a sore thumb in these parts. Many of them are quite angry at me. If I am recognized even once by one of the wrong people, that might be my end -- or more importantly, that of my work. But enough about me -- tell me how I may assist you."
Colonel Brandon told Jack all the details of the situation, not leaving anything out, not even his own admiration of Miss Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby's courtship of the young lady -- which might possibly have resulted in an engagement to her.
"You are fortunate that I am here," Clover replied in a heavy voice. "I do know your man. Let us have this business finished as soon as possible; in twenty days I am bound for Spain again."
Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the young Darrow lad with their repast. After they had been left alone again, Brandon said, "For a man who is rarely in England, Jack, you have quite a widespread acquaintance."
"Friends in high and low places," Jack agreed between bites of chicken, "and everywhere in between. Your Mr. Willoughby is friends with a man I would prefer not to think about."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Lord Gregory Arnold." The way that Clover said his name clearly indicated his displeasure; Brandon could understand this, for the man was known to be a definite coxcomb and if not currently a rake, he had surely been one in the past. "I would not be surprised if he had been the one to teach Willoughby his ways. Last year we both admired a beautiful young lady. He prevailed. Miss Veronica Thackeray is no more; a Lord with a ready estate and nine thousand a year, no matter how questionable his past or reputation, had all the advantages over a man who cannot admit to his true occupation or say where he will be in two months."
"Jack, was there nothing you could say to satisfy the lady?"
"I can lie convincingly in seven languages," Jack said with a pause to empty his glass, "but the language of love is not among them. By the standards of our society, I was not the better man. It is too late for me, my friend, but hopefully it will not be so for you. Give me a few days to find your scoundrel, and then you may skewer him properly. With me as your second, of course."
Brandon frowned. Sometimes Jack expressed himself too coarsely for his taste.
Clover's inquiries were successful. Willoughby was to arrive in town that very day, and apparently the next evening he would be attending a performance of theatre at Covent Garden, in Lord Arnold's box. If he and Brandon attended the same performance, they could find Willoughby as he departed; if not, he would probably be dining with Lord and Lady Arnold afterward at Rockwater House.
Colonel Brandon would be hard-pressed to remember a single detail of the performance or those who were in attendance. All that occupied his mind was his upcoming meeting with Willoughby, and what its outcome might be. Clover was aware of his companion's mood and attempted little, if any conversation. As the production of King Lear came to its end, Clover put his hand on Brandon's shoulder and said "Let us move quickly. If we go now, we can cut through the crowds and catch him outside where the carriages are brought."
With all the precision of a military exercise, the two men made their way to the exit and the street outside. It was not long before they saw Willoughby taking his leave of a young black-haired lady wearing an elaborate feathered head-dress and an obviously expensive gown. As soon as it was possible without attracting excessive notice, they stopped in his path. Rather than the customary slap of the face, Colonel Brandon actually grabbed Willoughby by the ear.
"Pistols or swords, Willoughby?"
"I say, what do you think you are about, Colonel Brandon?" was the younger man's rejoinder, with more than a hint of a sneer.
"You toyed with my ward and left her with child. I will meet you on the field of honour. Choose your weapon." To drive Brandon's point home with greater intensity, Clover took two steps forward and squared his shoulders as if ready to strike.
"Rather brave of you to take on a man two on one. Did they teach you that in the Army?"
Brandon's reply to this piece of impertinence was to give Willoughby's ear a further twist, causing a yelp of pain. Clover leaned in even closer and said in a deeper voice than was usual for him, "The choice is yours. Grass before breakfast or broken bones before supper. It makes no difference to me. Now answer the bloody question."
Willoughby was taller than Clover and close to Brandon's height, but was not as broad in the shoulders and chest as either man. After beholding the look of determination in their faces, he muttered "Swords,"
Brandon quickly released his ear and took a step back. "You will be hearing from my second. Enjoy your evening."
"That would be myself," Clover was quick to add as Brandon turned away.
"And I shall be his," Lord Arnold had come close enough to overhear the discussion and stood at his friend's side. Clover shot him a black look.
"Your choice of wife is far more commendable than your taste in friends, your Lordship," were Brandon's final words as he gave Clover a brief tug on the arm to show that the meeting was finished.
"Solidarity among rakes, I see. Personally, Brandon, I would just as soon have crippled him and left him there," Jack said to him after they had walked a short distance.
Two days later they met at dawn on a field north of London. The day promised clouds, rather appropriately for Brandon's dark mood. Lord Arnold's suggestion of alternative resolutions had been rebuffed by Brandon with the words "Your friend ruined the life of a young lady; he deserves to face the end of his own."
Colonel Brandon watched for the drop of the handkerchief. His field of vision narrowed to Willoughby. This time, he could not take his old fencing master's advice and see the man opposite him as merely an opponent to be bested and not a person. This time, he could not observe a technique in order to find a strategy for victory: his anger was too potent for that, anger on behalf of Eliza, and if he wished to be honest with himself, for the fact that the same man's charm had also had an effect on Miss Marianne, and his own had not.
Like many gentlemen of his time, Willoughby had practiced fencing, and could give a respectable account of himself. However, it was one thing to face a man in a club, with no more than a reputation for skill and possibly a monetary wager at stake, and another thing to face a man enraged to the point of murder, as Brandon was now. The latter man immediately took the offensive in such a rapid and vicious succession of thrusts that Willoughby could only parry and backtrack, with little possibility of attempting counterstrokes of his own. His face was contorted with tension and streamed with sweat as he did all that he could to defend himself. Brandon could see the fear in his opponent's face and simply increased the intensity of his onslaught. For Eliza and Marianne, for honour and love.
In an upward movement, Brandon locked the two blades together. Eventually, one man would be forced to expose his body to a thrust and the contest would be decided. After some time, Willoughby's strength failed him and his sword was forced outward. His effort to bring it back, coupled with Brandon's move forward, unbalanced him and made the sword slip from his grasp. Within a second he had fallen and Colonel Brandon's blade was at the side of his throat. One further movement would mean his end.
Brandon observed his opponent visibly quailing. He could feel no compassion for him, and Willoughby was unable to speak a single word of entreaty. His life was in Brandon's hands now.
Clover's words returned to his mind. I would just as soon have crippled him and left him there. He saw Eliza's face before him; what kind of care, what sort of future could he promise her if he were put on trial and gaoled for a killing? And then Marianne; she might never forgive him if he had blood on his hands. Punishment did not necessarily mean destruction. She deserved better than a murderer, even a justified one. Below him, Willoughby had lowered his head, reduced to a whimpering heap of fear. A drop of blood fell beside him.
It is too late for me, my friend, but hopefully it will not be so for you. Clover's words again.
In one fluid motion, Brandon removed his sword from Willoughby's throat and then his right boot connected with the scoundrel's jaw, knocking him to the ground but not rendering him unconscious. With a clipped "Honour is satisfied" he turned his back on the scene.
After a few seconds, Lord Arnold and the surgeon moved forward to lift a dazed Willoughby to his feet. "Congratulations, Colonel Brandon," Lord Arnold said in a flat voice, "You are most skillful."
The only reply to this came from Clover. It was a rather foul Italian curse that began with the letter "V".
"And so I let him live," Colonel Brandon continued to castigate himself in the garden at Barton. "In that one moment, I could not bring myself to end his life. The conduct that I could not prevent, but only avenge, is free to continue. How do I know now that he will not prey upon another girl in the same manner, merely choosing one that does not have a guardian? In spite of all this, he has managed to insinuate himself into the good graces of one of the wealthiest heiresses of the ton. If anything has been known, it will soon be forgotten, and he will retain a respected place in society."
"What was it that Jack called me? A brother to the world. That seems to be my lot. A guardian, a confidant, a friend. Always respected, never loved. Cautious Christopher, neither showing nor inspiring the slightest emotion. Even if Marianne comes to know of Willoughby's villainous nature, that does not mean she will alter her perception of me in the slightest. Unless I give in to some miserable marriage of convenience, I should prepare myself to end my days alone, and I have not even the comfort to think that it may be soon."
"But what am I doing thinking of myself, when she will not even allow me to speak to her, and continues to suffer over his spectre, punishing herself with the news that he is to wed another? Miss Dashwood has told me that she no longer eats nor leaves her bed, and they despair of her health. One more life may be ruined by that blackguard; her as well I will have failed!"
The prospect of this was more than he could bear. His military experience, his usually composed demeanour, and the esteem that he inspired in others were all for naught as he bent his head down, leaned on his horse's side, and wept.
Colonel Brandon was so lost to himself that he did not notice the sound of a window opening.
A soft voice spoke to him. "Colonel Brandon, weep no longer. I do not deserve your tears."
Red-faced with mortification, he turned around slowly and beheld Miss Marianne, clothed in a white robe, with her long brown hair falling past her shoulders. He had imagined seeing her for so long that to be faced with her reality, her actual appearance, left him unable to speak.
"You acted in honour," she continued, "on behalf of one wronged. You should not censure yourself for that."
He raised his eyes to hers, noticing the pallor of her complexion, the wanness of her gaze. "And you should not torture yourself, Miss Marianne, over Willoughby," he said slowly, "your innocent heart was ill-used, as was that of my ward. He is no loss to you."
"I was not so innocent, Colonel," she said, "I allowed him -- perhaps more than I should have. His attentions were so enjoyable to me that I sought to encourage them. It all felt perfect, so I thought not to question anything."
"Speak no further of that, Miss Marianne, I entreat you. If you claim not to be worth my tears, ten thousand Willoughbys could not be worth yours. It is my suspicion that beyond your beauty and the charm of your spirit, he chose to approach you because you have no father or brother nearby."
"You see me as I am now," she said, gesturing towards her own face, "and consider me beautiful?"
Colonel Brandon moved closer to her window. "Beauty is more than the appearance of a moment, my lady. Since I first saw you I regarded you thus, more than any other I have known or beheld. I am not as cold and emotionless as you believe me -- you have seen that now. Please, Miss Marianne, promise me that you will allow me to see you in health."
"I promise, Colonel," she said with a slow nod. "if you will bring your ward to see us one day. I would speak with her and have her know that there is at least one house where she will not be shunned."
"I shall suggest it to her," he replied decisively, "on this very day. But now perhaps I should take my leave of you and allow you to recover."
"Please return, Colonel Brandon," she said feelingly, "you have heard my mother and Elinor say often that you are welcome here at any time."
"Shall I be welcome to you, Miss Marianne?" he said with a fraction of a smile.
"I cannot conceal anything from you, Colonel," she said, "my regard is not equal to yours. But that does not mean it can never be so."
"Allow me to be near you," he said, looking directly at your eyes, "for our acquaintance to grow, and then you may decide. I ask nothing more of you."
She did allow him. They explored together nature and perceptions, the past and the present, the words of many learned quills, and the music of the pianoforte. And then one fine spring day, as he knelt before her with a bunch of wildflowers in his hand, she reached her decision. To become Mrs. Brandon and the mistress of Delaford, and to seal their understanding with a tender kiss.The End