A/N: Before we continue, I want to clarify a thing or two, just to make things easier (I hope—Sorry about the excessive A/Ns. I had thought to be done with them by now).
I did say that I'd try to mesh book and movie in this story, and I will. For simplicity's sake, however, I'm going to leave out the book's details about Brandon's brother and his relationship with the first Eliza, and just work from the information that Brandon and Mrs. Jennings supply in the movie.
I'm having ENTIRELY too much fun with this story, but as I don't consider it my magnum opus, I'm not concerned with being strict with the overall timeline. Therefore, any comments like "actually, according to the book, Eliza's baby would have been this old by now" and "they got married this time of year, so at this point it should be this season" will be lovingly and enthusiastically ignored. ;-) That said, any other reviews, including constructive criticism, remain welcome. Happy reading!
P.S. How twisted is it that I'm writing this as I watch the Tim Burton version of Sweeney Todd? Well, gives me something to do while I'm staying home sick from work, and I'm sure the Alan Rickman fans out there will appreciate the humor in it. (Oh, yes, I know you are out there…)
Marianne held out one hand. "Wait here," she said to Eliza, "and I will speak to him first." Moving toward the parlor door, she paused to say, "Everything will be all right."
Relieved to see Eliza smile a little, Marianne continued to the foyer. She felt a sympathy for this young woman that she had never expected. Of course, she had never thought she would actually meetEliza in the first place, but Marianne's sprawling imagination had considered the possibility a time or two. Jealousy she had expected, even though Willoughby met Eliza long before Marianne had come along. Anger was another emotion with which she was intimately familiar, but this had been, surprisingly, targeted more toward her husband than the unwelcome visitor. This compassion, almost a bond between them, was as unsettling as it was surprising.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," she said, closing the parlor door behind her. Brandon and Sir John smiled and greeted her, shaking their hats and cloaks. Those dark clouds had turned into rain before they reached the house, but they did not seem troubled by the weather's nasty turn.
"Mrs. Brandon, good afternoon!" Sir John said. "Your husband, you know, has all the luck of the devil. You should see the gorgeous birds he shot today before that blasted rain started."
"Indeed," Marianne said. She looked at Brandon, whose little smile was obviously proud. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourselves."
"We were about to come up to the library in search of you," Brandon said. "I had expected you to be comfortably reading in weather like this."
"So had I," Marianne said, no longer able to maintain any kind of cheerful façade. "But I received a surprise visit instead."
Eyebrows raised, Brandon glanced at the parlor door, as though the person behind it would suddenly reveal herself. "From whom?"
Marianne hesitated. Her eyes darted to Sir John and back to her husband. All she knew was that she did not want to discuss this in front of Sir John. No matter how kindhearted and generous he was, he was not the sort of person in front of whom one would want to discuss an uncomfortable, confidential problem. Already he would have seen and heard enough to generate speculation, but Marianne wanted to make sure he gathered nothing more. If Mrs. Jennings, or Lady Middleton, or Elinor, or even her mother got wind of some gossip, Marianne wanted to make sure that anything passed on was formed wholly in Sir John's imagination.
As a more perceptive man than his companion, and more familiar with the workings of his wife's mind than she acknowledged, Brandon recognized Marianne's uncertainty to speak. He smiled at her, and suddenly she felt relieved. He turned to his friend.
"Sir John, I believe my wife has some household matter she wants to bring to my attention. If you would show yourself into the study, there should be a fire there and you can dry off and be comfortable. I'll join you in a few minutes."
"Of course, Brandon," the older gentleman said. "Don't let me interfere with anything here. Take as long as you like. Good afternoon, Marianne."
"Good afternoon, Sir John." She did not realize that she held her breath, but she did so until she was sure he was well out of earshot. Brandon watched her and waited. At last she said, "I suppose you would like to know who was in the parlor with me, Colonel."
"It has attracted my curiosity, certainly."
"You don't know, then."
"Of course not. My dear Marianne, whatever is the matter?"
Marianne had hoped to coax him into admitting that he had, indeed, expected a visitor in the form of Eliza Williams. It seemed rather obvious now that he had not intentionally invited her to Delaford. Perhaps he had, and forgot. It hardly mattered anymore, Marianne decided. She sighed.
"Miss Eliza Williams is here," she said, her voice a little harder than she had meant it to be. "She arrived only half an hour ago, and now I do not know what to do with her."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she watched his face carefully. She detected no hint of any attempt to conceal the confusion and exasperation that flashed across his features. Although she was relieved that he had not concealed anything from her, it did not make her feel any better about the presence of the young woman in the parlor. Sympathy or not, Marianne did not want her there. It was already awkward enough to play the role of Delaford's mistress and Colonel Brandon's wife. To have, under their roof, a living, breathing reminder of the tragedies both she and her husband had experienced and wanted to forget was almost too much. Marianne was constantly praised for her wit and spirit and generous heart, but at the moment she possessed none of those things; she wanted to run to the library and hide behind a book. Even more so, she wished she could leave the house entirely and fly down the hill to her sister's home, and sit before the fire with Elinor and Edward and talk about anything and nothing.
"Marianne, I confess I do not know what to say to you," Brandon murmured. "I did not invite her, and I had no warning that she was coming. Forgive me for not being here when she arrived."
Marianne made a gesture with one hand, dismissing his apology. "If you did not know, then you cannot blame yourself for going out. I just…It was so unexpected."
"Of course." He paused to clear his throat. "Well, I ought to speak to her, then."
"Please do," Marianne said, stepping aside from the door. She followed him inside, watching Eliza's reaction. The poor girl looked like a dog about to be punished, or a child who had been caught stealing from the larder. She looked even paler, sicker, and her eyes more shadowed than when she had first walked into the house; for the first time Marianne noticed how tiny she was.
"Oh, Colonel!" Eliza gasped, wringing her hands. "Please don't be angry that I came. I'm sorry I didn't write—I just couldn't. Please understand, I had nowhere else to go, and I had to leave the Bramwells' house."
He held up one hand. "Time enough for apologies later, I think. I need to know how you got here and why you came in the first place. Do Mr. and Mrs. Bramwell know you're here?"
Marianne could not see his face, but his tone was firm and restrained, no doubt one that Eliza had heard from him before. The younger woman lowered her eyes and shook her head.
"I didn't tell them where I'd gone, but they probably guessed. Or they might have thought I went to Louisa's house and decided to look there first." She added in a grumble, "If they bothered looking, which I doubt."
"You know that seeing Miss Strickland was absolutely out of the question. You were never to associate with her again after that incident in Bath."
His words stung Marianne with memories just as they must have stung Eliza. It was so strange for her to hear him speak to Eliza as though she were a child, even if she was only a few years younger than his wife. Eliza pouted in response, looking even more childish.
"I didn't," she said. "And anyway, 'tisn't fair. She had nothing to do with it."
"Perhaps not," Brandon said, "but her company did you no favors."
A chill went through Marianne when he said that. To see Christopher Brandon caught unawares, to witness this man—usually so patient, gentle, and steady—speaking tensely and using scolding words was unlike anything she had experienced. She felt as though her world had tipped sideways, and even when it righted itself again, all the contents would remain scattered and in disarray. She wanted to beg Eliza to say nothing more to provoke him. There was something—intriguing—about hearing him speak so, but it was far too unsettling.
Another few moments of silence, and Marianne could bear it no more. She moved around Brandon and approached the young woman. Laying a hand on her shoulder, Marianne said, "Now that you're here, Miss Williams, we certainly cannot turn you out. I can show you the room you will stay in, and later you and the Colonel can discuss what's to be done. You must be exhausted from your journey." She glanced at her husband, silently entreating him to confirm what she said.
Instead of the hardness and anger she expected to see in his face, his expression was all grief and defeat, though she could not understand why that would be.
"By all means," he said softly.
The rain cleared, Sir John had gone, and supper was finished long before Brandon left Eliza's room and joined Marianne in the library. He settled into a chair and rubbed his face as though exhausted.
"Marianne," he groaned, "I cannot tell you how sorry I am. This should not have happened—she was never meant to come here. I had planned to visit her soon, but I did not intend for you to have to see her, as well."
"She told me she ran away," Marianne said after a pause.
"Yes." He sighed. "What utter folly! I shall have to write the Bramwells and inform them of her whereabouts. I've never seen evidence of any cruelty, and yet she insists her escape was justified. I don't know what drove her to something so drastic."
"Perhaps it was something that came over her in childbirth. I've heard of such things happening…I think."
"Her child is far too old—" Brandon stopped himself and looked at his wife. Marianne was holding a book, but her eyes were not moving, and a new flush spread across her cheeks. Whatever tome she held, she was not really reading it. Only guessing the thoughts that passed through her mind, Brandon stood and approached her chair. "Marianne."
He crouched beside her. Her eyes darted toward him but a moment before she shuddered and focused again on a single letter on the page.
"All will be well, my dear, I promise," he said. "Had I known how to prevent then, I certainly would have. It must have been a dreadful shock for you to see her there, and learn who she was, after all that has happened."
"What's done is done," Marianne said. "I've long ago reconciled with the past."
"Have you?" When she said nothing, he stood up straight. "She will not stay long. When I hear back from the Bramwells, I'll see that she is sent back."
"There is no hurry. She is your ward, after all. She's your responsibility, is she not? Goodness, what is it to me if she stays here forever? By all means, have her send for her child, as well. She was certainly your responsibility even before you met me, and before…everything…"
The rest of her words hung in the air, unspoken, though just as clearly understood as if she had shouted them.
Brandon closed his eyes, pained by her sorrow. This happened too soon. They had not been prepared to face such a thing together, and now they were forced to carry on as two broken individuals, not united as he would have wished. Were the bonds of holy matrimony strong enough to endure every blow from the past? If he had not promised Eliza…If he had been less indulgent of her daughter…Perhaps then, they might have had a better chance at happiness.
No, neither of those things were so terrible. But had it not been for Willoughby, it might have been better for them. Brandon silently cursed the young rake, seeing his damage even now taking effect in Marianne. She could not have reconciled with the past. Every moment since their wedding day had told him quite clearly the opposite. She could never hide her emotions, even when she tried. Did she mean to make a fool of him? Or was she only trying to hide her pain to spare him? He desperately hoped the latter was true. Perhaps then there was a chance for him.
"Marianne, there is no need for that," he said. "You are my wife now, and of course you must take precedence in all things. I will not forsake you on behalf of a foolish young girl who should have known better."
She looked up, wide-eyed, at his remark. "Sir, you shouldn't speak so harshly. If you were not there, you cannot judge her. You must have forgotten how easily a young girl can is beguiled by handsome young men and empty promises." Looking down at her book again, she added, in a quieter voice, "I do pity her, Colonel. Do not trouble yourself over her return—she may stay as long as necessary."
Brandon heaved a tiny sigh of relief. As frustrating as this must be for Marianne, of course she would see some similarity—only slight, thank God!—between herself and the unfortunate Eliza. Even in such times, he should have known he could count on her compassion. Perhaps it would not make their environment any more comfortable, but it could make their plight a bit easier overall.
"I appreciate your consideration, Marianne, and I apologize for my 'harshness' as you called it,. Eliza told me that she has received nothing but kindness since she arrived. She thinks very highly of you, and wished for me to convey her gratitude for your hospitality."
"It was nothing," she said absently.
Brandon bowed his head slightly. "Well, then, my dear, hospitality or not, I must go and write that letter."
As he left the room, he knew that his wife's benevolence would last as long as Eliza needed it. Her patience, however, he was not sure would hold out. He was sure that his own, in fact, would be thoroughly tested.