Her Eyes Opened: 17th and final chapter
Tonight, Brandon did not miss Delaford. Other times when he had been away he would rather have returned to his home at the end of the day, but during this time away he had realized that he first and foremost missed Marianne, and Delaford came second. Even then it was really the possibility of Delaford with Marianne as its mistress that he longed for when waiting for his condition to improve on those long nights at the field hospital and in the military hospital in Cadiz. Here, at Barton Cottage, he was as much home as he had desired.
Cups of tea and more questions and catching up had taken place that afternoon before Sir John and Mrs Jennings left, taking Brandon's affairs over in-so-far as his horse and ride to Delaford were concerned. Sir John took the horse to be cared for in his stables and he'd be back the following day with a carriage (and the horse) and would take Brandon to Delaford so the man would not need to ride horseback again. He was tired and hurt, it was obvious to everyone.
Mrs Dashwood explained they had just a simple supper planned for the evening and hoped that Colonel Brandon wouldn't find that too objectionable.
"The tea alone was more nourishing than what we were offered on so many of the days in the continent. I am happy and satisfied with anything, rest assured." Was Brandon's reply and it carried no slick smugness in it at all: the man was relaxed and more open than Mrs Dashwood had had a chance to witness before. The formal proposal, perhaps, had broken some invisible barrier. Or was it the relief of being able to come back home in once piece?
The early evening was balmy and saturated with beautiful, warm light, and Marianne practically ordered the Colonel to take the garden daybed. It was the same daybed she herself had spent so much time on when she was still recovering from her fever. She wanted to care for him like he had for her. Wanted to show him he was precious and loved. She fussed around him, laying a blanket over his legs when he rested his head back and closed his eyes. Perhaps he did not intend to do more than rest his eyes for a moment, but almost as soon as he had done so Marianne could tell he was fast asleep.
His features relaxed and an expression that to Marianne told of ease and even – dare she think it? – happiness. Brandon was comfortable and relaxed and this was a great source of joy to Marianne. She fetched the blanket and softly spread it on the sleeping man before taking her chair next to his. Sitting under the tree earlier, leaning into him had been nothing short of bliss to Marianne: she had felt complete and at home all at once. She had belonged in a way she had never known before. She timidly reached for his hand now and laced her fingers through his, careful not to wake him up. She was unaware of her mother keeping on eye on her through one of the windows, smiling at the couple. Mrs Dashwood could not be happier now that the Colonel was back.
Lost in her thoughts Marianne did not notice Brandon wake up quietly, opening his eyes. He observed her silhouette as her gaze was somewhere in the distance.
"What has you in such deep thoughts, dearest?" he asked tightening his hold on her hand a little. What sweet joy it had been to wake up with her there, holding his hand. Not startled but surprised, Marianne turned to look at him, smiling so beautifully Brandon thought he might never be able to breath steadily in her presence again.
"Nothing in particular, joy, gratitude," she replied after a short pause to think how to put her thoughts into words. Brandon's expression was asking her to explain further.
"You are back. After se received the awful news of your injury, I refused to hear a word anyone said that perhaps we should fear the worst, yet I cannot deny that I had begun to worry. Privately. But then you came out of nowhere and the world is right again. I feel joy: bright, vibrant joy that you were able to return. And I feel grateful that your injury was not worse than it was and that, rather selfishly I suppose, I can be in your company again." Marianne was still smiling, but there was no mistake to how serious she was about what she was saying.
Brandon tightened his hold a little more, wrapping his hand around hers even more firmly.
"If that is selfish then I am guilty as well," he replied, and continued:
"For weeks and weeks I have waited for nothing but my condition to allow me to take one of the ships back to England and back to you. I must have you for my own, or my life will be completely void of meaning. And if that is not selfish, I do not know what is." Brandon, too, was smiling. It was finally coming true: this incredible girl he had so easily and irrevocably fallen in love with all that time ago when he least expected it had now agreed to marry him. What better: she loved him as he loved her.
"There are things to discuss though, I 'm afraid. I hope you do not mind it too much and indulge this old fool, Marianne?" he asked. It was Marianne's turn to wait for him to continue.
"You know of my past with the late Eliza Williams and, consequently, her daughter Beth. Beth and her child stayed in the country ever since she took there for her confinement. The child has grown, of course, and I cannot abandon Beth and the child now. What I wanted to ask you was to do with this arrangement." Brandon tried to talk calmly, but he was quite uncomfortable: he would be continuing a commitment he had made to his first love all those years ago and even extending it to include an illegitimate child by a man who had hurt his Marianne so much.
"Does this arrangement make you uncomfortable, dearest?" All he could do was to ask it directly and hope for the best. Marianne kept her eyes on him, clearly taking some time to think about what he was saying.
"Elinor did tell me about Eliza Williams, Beth and the child. Willoughby's child. And you mentioned your commitment to Beth and the child in your letter." Saying this, Marianne reached for her book on the table and pulled out, as a page marker, the almost tattered envelope containing Brandon's parting letter.
"The way you look after people close to you is impossible not to love, Colonel. You do not abandon those who need you and I am full of admiration towards you for how you spared no effort in looking after Beth. After I heard the history I decided that one day I should like to meet Beth, if that was agreeable to you. She is a part of your life and I wish to learn everything about you and your life." Marianne then explained.
"But you are not upset because the child is…"
"Willoughby's? No. That man is now just someone I used to know for the briefest of times. His actions hurt me then, but from you I have learned about true care and love and this has helped me heal many times over and allowed me to stand on my own feet. I feel happy now to be able to stand on my own feet by your side. The child is innocent of who the father is."
Marianne's words made Brandon smile again. What had he ever done to deserve this woman?
"You truly are a one of a kind, Marianne," he whispered, reaching his other hand to hold hers between his, pulling her gently closer to him.
The tension, positive tension, between them was tangible and Marianne felt her self pulled closer to him. Brandon lifted himself up from the daybed and quietly and gently meeting half way, their lips found each other's in a warm, gentle and caressing kiss that sealed their commitment to each other. Christopher Brandon had found solace and peace at last and could not wait for their life as a husband and wife to begin.
Just a quick thank you to all who have kept with this story all the way. I hope it's provided a bit of fun and food for imagination. Apologies for hasty (or complete lack of!) editing. Thanks! G.