Chapter Four: The Book-Worms
After more than a year of barely daring to hope, Colonel Christopher Brandon began finally to devise offensive tactics for his assault into Marianne Dashwood's heart. He searched his library high and low for the choicest of selections to tempt her, knowing that the way into her good opinion was through her literary sensibilities. He invited her nearly every other day to accompany him, either at their usual rendezvous in the garden or on extended walks through Barton Park, for discussions after breakfast or before supper.
One such discussion, a walk through a particularly remote breadth of Barton land, took place two weeks after the Dashwoods' return from London.
"You know, Colonel, I really must thank you. You are saving me from Elinor's tiresome wedding planning." Marianne smiled brightly. "I never knew marriage was such a tedious endeavor. I should prefer to remain a maid all my life, rather than have to put my family through such torture."
Brandon laughed at Marianne's complaint. "I'm sure Elinor herself is not to blame for the brunt of the frivolity. Our mutual friend Mrs. Jennings, I think, will claim some responsibility."
"Dear God, the woman is half mad. She approached me yesterday, taking me by the shoulders and shaking me until I nearly collapsed, and asked me whether pork or lamb would be more appropriate for the wedding breakfast. She was in quite a state!"
"I'd hate to ask her opinion on the subject of laces; I have a feeling she'd keep me up all night," Brandon commented, and Marianne giggled. "Still, she means well."
"Oh, there is no doubt that she has done more to facilitate this wedding than anyone on this earth. Except you, of course," she added a moment later, in barely more than a whisper.
There was a pause. "It was the least I could have done," Brandon replied in the same tone.
"Perhaps you do not realize with what esteem I have heard you praised, by both Elinor and my mother. You are regarded as something of a saint in our home now."
Brandon groaned inwardly. Since the night of his flight to Cleveland with Mrs. Dashwood, he had regretted letting Marianne's solicitous mother know the nature of his feelings. He had a feeling that she would use this knowledge in an attempt to bring the pair together, much to his embarrassment and further heartache. It seemed that he had been correct in his fears. And yet- there was something wistful in the way Marianne spoke of her mother's reverence for his character that made his breath catch.
"Miss Marianne, I am kind for the simple reason that, in my own youth, so few people were kind to me. I know what it means to love without any hope of ever achieving the full array of happiness one associates with the married state."
Marianne, awed at his plain speech, was emboldened to ask a question that had plagued her for some time. "Colonel, might I ask you a question?"
"Has Miss Eliza yet entered her confinement? Is there anything that we might do for her?"
The older man's expression was unreadable as he gazed down at her for a moment before answering, "She was delivered of a daughter on Wednesday last. She is under the best care I could have given her, considering her state. The child… the child nearly passed away in her first hours, but she seems to be out of danger, and is recovering beyond our expectations. May I… why do you ask?"
Marianne glanced down at the hem of her gown. "As you know, I have many reasons to be concerned for both mother and child." She looked up again into Brandon's eyes. "But foremost is my gratitude to you, Colonel. For everything you have done."
Brandon felt a desire more strong than anything he had ever experienced, a need to take her in his arms at that very moment and make love to her and declare her his very own, but he did not. His voice quavered. "Miss Marianne, you- you cannot know how much your gratitude means to me." And underneath his stiff politeness, he ached in a way that, had Marianne known, would have proved his youth forever.
"Colonel, are you all right?"
"Yes." He took a deep breath and smiled. "I fear I am getting old."
Suppressing a shudder, Marianne continued with this line of questioning. "If there is anything any of us can do for them, please do not hesitate to ask." They walked on in silence for several minutes, Marianne unaware that she slipped her arm through his. The colonel began to wonder if she was torturing him into a slow and painful death. "I never learned of the babe's name," she said.
"Isabelle." Brandon began to steer Marianne toward the cottage once more, as the hour approached six and supper was surely being prepared.
"It is a lovely name."
She stooped to pick a handful of wildflowers, disengaging herself from Brandon's arm, and he watched the proceedings, relaxing. "I believe that if one were in doubt of the existence of God, one could simply turn to daisies for ample proof. Everything perfect in the universe is contained in a daisy." She proffered one of her daisies to her companion.
"Once again, I must disagree." He drew her into one of their pleasant arguments, and she arched an eyebrow in a gesture she could only have gleaned from his example.
"Please, elucidate, I beg of you."
"You see, wildflowers are an everyday sort of lovely. They grow everywhere, with no need for special care or attention."
"Ah, and how better to explain the ubiquitous nature of God's love?" she quipped.
"True, true. However, consider the rose. One must tend it rigorously, and even when it blooms it yields thorns that scratch and tear at the skin. But its blossom is more complex, more precious and more rare than any other."
"Hence giving testament to God's magnificence and power." She grinned warmly.
"Perhaps." He reciprocated her smile. "It speaks, in the language of flowers, of the relationship between God and Man."
"Perhaps we are both correct, Colonel Brandon." She linked arms with him again, this time on purpose. "Are you yourself a gardener?"
"Why, as a matter of fact, I am. You and your family should pay a visit to Delaford to view the gardens. They are considered among the finest in Devonshire." He laughed at himself. "I stretch the truth a bit there."
"Then perhaps we could continue our debate on the theology of flowers?"
"You are, in fact, long overdue for a visit. Our last party was unfortunately cut short." His heart filled to bursting with expectant delight.
"May I play your Broadwood Grand?" She inquired, with a hint of uncharacteristic shyness.
"The pianoforte awaits your accomplished fingers as we speak."
"Then it is settled." She balked. "Awaiting, of course, your formal invitation." Sometimes Marianne reminded herself of her younger sister.
"Very well, Miss Marianne. I cordially invite you and your family to a- shall it be a dinner party? I look to you to help me with the particulars- on… shall we say, Friday?"
"Friday, then. I shall look- we shall look forward to it."
Brandon led Marianne into her home, realizing with surprise that he had her exactly where he wanted her.
So thou, sweet Rose-bud, young and gay,
Shalt beauteous blaze upon the day,
And bless the parent's evening ray
That watch'd thy early morning.
-From 'A Rose-Bud By My Early Walk', by Robert Burns