Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 10


Autumn at Norland had always been a season of more than usual beauty — the wild leafy glories of Nature fenced by the delights of a well-tended estate. But Devonshire was a wet country. Lady Middleton might repeat at every opening that there had never been such a season for rain, never that she could recall, and Colonel Brandon regaled them all with such dreadful tales about the hurricanes in the East Indies, and Sir John declared that the hunting was as good sport as ever you’d see, but Mrs. Dashwood could find little relief from the hopeless drizzle. The cottage was new and tight, with never a leak in attic or at window. But one could walk each room with but a few steps, back and forth, back and forth. She had not the heart to refuse Margaret when she begged to go outside, though she watched with an anxious eye for the first croaks of an impending cold.

And then — oh, joy!— a bright ray of hope pierced the clouds. Marianne’s ankle was sprained, which was of course a lamentable affair, but in the most fairy tale manner a man had actually carried her right over the doorstep. And such a man! Even Margaret, who had witnessed the whole thrilling episode (and had related it to everyone who came to offer their sympathies), was captivated by Mr. Willoughby. He was just what a proper gentleman should be, so prompt to act when a lovely girl tumbled down the hill to land at his feet. According to Margaret, Marianne had been swooning when Mr. Willoughby swept her up in his arms and bore her heroically to the cottage door, with stride unchecked. Mrs. Dashwood could not quite credit that; she had seen Willoughby stagger into the sitting room and gratefully lower Marianne onto the sofa. But all slight awkwardnesses were as nothing compared to the elegance and sincerity with which he begged leave to call again. Mrs. Dashwood had not needed the hint from her daughter’s bright eye to invite him to inquire about Marianne the very next day, at his earliest convenience. 

From that moment the gray skies held no menace. If they were at home, Willoughby was there too. His presence was a tonic. Marianne, with her remarkable ability to set the mood of the entire household, was always in charity these days, moved to raptures at the least provocation. Often Mrs. Dashwood smiled over her work in the corner of the room, as she listened to Marianne and Willoughby discover that their views on all subjects were exactly in harmony. Well she remembered the bliss of her own first, instant love. Daggers of nostalgia stabbed her heart, as she saw her own happy story playing out once more. It was only natural; everyone remarked on how like Marianne was to her, and here was another proof. For it was love at first sight. Mrs. Dashwood knew how it would be when she saw her daughter, who had never even been touched by a man, in Willoughby’s arms. If she had had even the slightest hesitation over his character, she would have prevented him from returning, and so let Marianne’s first lightning shock of physical contact wear off before it could develop into obsession, but Willoughby was all that a gentleman should be, and spoke exactly as he ought.

Willoughby was not the only caller. During Marianne’s week of confinement, all the world, or at least the portion of it that visited at Barton Cottage, dropped in with fruit or flowers or a new book for the invalid. Margaret took to keeping watch at the window each morning, to give the first news of the day’s company.

“Mama, come see!” she exclaimed one morning. “Mrs. Whitaker is here, with her matched bays, and see, even Philip on his stick!”

A youth, leaning on what might have been a dandy’s cane, moved up the path with deliberate steps, accompanied by a tender woman, the careworn model of her son’s fragile beauty. 

Mrs. Dashwood hurried to place the most comfortable chair near the fire. 

“You shall sit here, if you please,” she said as she welcomed Philip Whitaker, who hesitated in the doorway of the sitting room under the smiles of a bevy of rosy-cheeked girls.

“Yes, we shall recline together, and refuse to let our mamas fuss over us for at least an hour!” cried Marianne, ready to cosset a fellow sufferer. “And you shall have my cushion. Elinor shall arrange it just so; she is an excellent nurse.”

Mrs. Whitaker and Mrs. Dashwood sat at the small table near the window, just far enough from the children that they could converse uninterrupted, if they spoke softly enough.

“I am so glad to see Miss Marianne in spirits,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “It grieves me to see young folk suffer. There is time enough for that when they are older.”

“You are very kind,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Yet a sprained ankle is almost no suffering, soon comforted by thoughtful friends and healing day by day. In this case, youth is the best medicine.”

“But not medicine enough, I know, to prevent the the irreparable loss your family has already suffered. Forgive my want of consideration; I thought only of the difficulties of my own child. I would give much to see this light always in his eyes.” 

“There is nothing to forgive,” said Mrs. Dashwood, offering her guest a fragrant cup of tea. “How can one compare grief? It must be shared, not divided into shares.”

As she sipped her tea, Mrs. Whitaker gazed thoughtfully at the corner near the fireplace, where Marianne was in peals of laughter over some clever remark of Philip’s, while Elinor pressed him with sandwiches and blankets, and Margaret wriggled gleefully on the ottoman.

“Your daughters do you much credit, Mrs. Dashwood,” she said. “One does not often meet with such true amiability and taste in young ladies, even among what are counted as our best families.” 

“They are good girls,” said Mrs. Dashwood modestly.

“You must have great ambitions for them.”

“Not as the world defines the word. I would have them marry well; that is, with mutual love, with respect, with comfort but not ostentation. Happiness in marriage is not a matter of chance, I believe, but it has more chance to prosper when it is built on a solid foundation of friendship. Such friendship is my great ambition for them.” Mrs. Dashwood paused, but honesty forced her to speak. “My daughters, however, are fortunate enough to have nothing to tempt fortune hunters. Their character must be their dowry.

“I, too, wish such happiness for Philip,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “But he has neither the safeguard of poverty or of health to guard him from an adventuress who cares more for an advantageous match than for character.” She studied her cup as if the leaves held any wisdom. “But to a young lady who could be his true friend, he could offer great friendship in kind, as well as security for her —  and for her family. And the Misses Dashwood seem to have a talent for friendship.”

Both mothers now affected to read the tea leaves. By the fireplace, Marianne had pressed a volume of her favorite verse on Philip, saying, “There is but one poet today, Cowper. But I insist upon his being read with true feeling, or not at all.” 

“She is in deadly earnest,” Elinor said with mock terror. “If you do not come up to her standard, she will seize the book and show you how it should be done — if she does not first fling it at your head.”

Philip did not seem the least bit frightened. “I will submit with good grace to any penalty of your choosing,” he said. “But I must give fair warning that you could not have selected a trial more to my liking. When one is denied the opportunity to train the body, one must train the voice instead.”

He opened the book, found some familiar lines, and began to read:

"Candid and generous and just,
Boys care but little whom they trust,
An error soon corrected —
For who but learns in riper years,
That man, when smoothest he appears,
Is most to be suspected?"

His was no idle boast; his voice was flexible and sensitive, now dwelling richly on some poignant vowel, now playing lightly over rhyme and rhythm. Such power and grace supported by such a frail body drew the stinging tears to Mrs. Dashwood’s eyes. And not hers alone; Marianne gave a shuddering sigh as Philip shut the book.

“You have found Cowper’s very soul,” she breathed, with shining eyes. “I must hear the second stanza again.”

The general clamor gave the suddenly reticent Mrs. Dashwood the cover to speak in Mrs. Whitaker’s private ear.

“Dear Mrs. Whitaker,” she said, tracing the design of her spoon with agitated fingers, “You well understand a mother’s fondest wish for her daughters, and I am fully conscious of the honor you do my family. But I find I must mention, though I am not fully at liberty to say much, you understand, that Miss Dashwood and Miss Marianne have both already set their first foot upon that path. There is a young man that Elinor knew at Norland, a quiet, sensible, open gentleman, whom I am sure, though she has not confided in me, will make an offer when next he comes to visit. As for Marianne…”

A clamor outside drew both their attention to the window, as several visitors converged on the cottage at once.

“Well, you shall see yourself, ma’am,” Mrs. Dashwood concluded, in a diminished voice. Never before had she been conflicted at Willoughby’s visit, but she could wish that he had not chosen this moment to appear. However, his presence put an end to the necessity of explanation. At his entrance into the room, Marianne was transformed. Though her courtesy to Philip did not lessen, she took no pains to conceal that her entire being was attuned to Willoughby’s presence.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Whitaker with quiet regret. “I see.”

And so did Philip. And so did Colonel Brandon, entering with Sir John upon Willoughby’s heels, and so did Elinor, and she and the Colonel acknowledged one another, across Willoughby’s breezy banter with Marianne, with a narrowed, allied glance.

1 comment:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

You have brightened my entire morning.