The morning of the hunt was very fine, clear skies with crisp air.
Brandon was aware that Marianne despised the very idea of attending, but amends had to be made with Morton, if only for her own sake.
It had been some years since Brandon had hunted, now with the addition of Sir John, it was going to be like old times.
“Is Mrs Jennings attending?” asked Marianne.
“I believe she will be” replied Brandon. “I doubt she would miss a day to socialise”
“So I am to be embarrassed beyond my wits and listen to her conversations” concluded Marianne, “glorious”
“Would you rather leave things as they are?” asked Brandon. “Leave with Morton thinking that is how you behave?”
“Of course not” she proclaimed. “I have a reputation, or what’s left of it, to uphold. I won’t have it known that I’m a drunk”
“There,” said Brandon. “Shall we be off?”
The courtyard of Combe Magnor was alive with activity, a large pack of dogs were assembled, horses being led from the stables and a host of servants preparing the weapons.
Marianne had barely stepped out of the carriage and saw and heard Mrs Jennings waving her handkerchief.
“There you are” she called. “I had thought you had decided against it!”
“No Madam, not with the prospect of your company” replied Marianne.
Mrs Jennings laughed. “You pay me such compliments, my dear!”
Hearing a noise, Morton appeared in the doorway, followed closely by Sir John. “Brandon!” he exclaimed. “There you are!”
“Apologies, the horses were not travelling well” called Brandon.
“I am glad to see you both” smiled Morton, helping Marianne up the steps. “I trust you feel well Madam?”
“Much better I thank you” she replied. “And before anything else, I must apologise for my behaviour at your Ball, I don’t know what came over me”
“Warm Heart can be deceptive, as long as you are well I am pleased. I have quite forgotten the whole affair” he assured.
“That’s very noble of you,” she replied,
Brandon joined her on the steps, politely greeting Morton before the party went inside.
“We shan’t be here for long,” said Morton. “Ladies you are welcome to stay at the house, I can’t imagine you’d find the prospect of shooting pleasurable”
“Certainly not” cried, Mrs Jennings. “I will, however, enjoy the prizes on the dinner table tonight”
Marianne agreed, “I shall walk a while I think, but only around the house”
“You must avoid the woods,” said Brandon. “I would never live with myself if you were mistakenly hurt”
“I have no intention of walking into the middle of a hunt” assured Marianne. “You have my word”
Marianne was unsure how to react upon seeing Miss Morton. From what she remembered and from what Brandon had told her, it seemed the encouragement of excessive drinking might have been used to somehow compromise her.
Eliza Morton smiled and rose as Marianne entered the library. “Ah my dear, my brother does listen to my demands”
“It is lovely to see you Eliza” replied Marianne. “I hope we may enjoy each other’s company today, without the need for alcohol”
Eliza laughed. “I confess I did indulge you that night, not for malicious reasons of course. But you were so tense and afraid, I had hoped it would relax you”
“It did” agreed Marianne. “Just a little too much”
“Well, there is nothing but tea in sight” proclaimed Eliza. “That I can promise you”
She retreated back to her sofa whilst Marianne looked about the room. She had only ever been in the library briefly with Willoughby, admiring him more than his collections.
“Its beautiful room isn’t it?” observed Eliza. “The finest in the house”
“Yes, it’s a beautiful house,” said Marianne. “It’s such a pity that every memory I have here is bad”
“Willoughby is a deplorable man,” said Eliza. “A libertine like no other”
“You know him well?”
“He is my cousin, himself, Thomas and I grew up together” replied Eliza. “He was always a troublesome boy but he had such an eloquent way of speaking that he rarely was punished”
“A habit he has carried into adulthood it seems” remarked Marianne, sitting beside her.
“You are aware that he has fled London?” added Eliza. “My brother spoke of the subject so freely with me I assumed you must have been told?”
“Yes he wrote in little detail to the Colonel, but we did not bother ourselves with the intimacies of his situation” replied Marianne.
“I have not been at liberty to speak of it” confessed Eliza. “But I feel that perhaps you could assist us in what to do now”
“I don’t understand?”
Eliza moved and closed the door to the library. “You know he was engaged to Miss Grey of Mayfair?”
“Yes” replied Marianne. “I remember her icy gaze from the Ball last summer”
“Well you know that engagement fell apart,” said Eliza, reseating herself.
Marianne nodded, “I was informed that Miss Grey had learnt the full extent of Willoughby’s crimes and resolved to never see him again”
“That was the official story released to the papers and London’s gossip, but I am afraid Miss Grey did not care at all for yourself or for the Colonel’s ward” replied Eliza. “Her reasons were far more personal”
“I do not understand?” remarked Marianne.
“Miss Grey had a younger sister living with them in London”
Marianne felt a sickness rise in her, “Please no…”
“Sophia Grey, a girl of fifteen” said Eliza despairingly. “He seduced her and again began a secret affair, but was discovered by her father as a servant who had suspected something was occurring”
“Lord Grey apparently almost killed Willoughby on the spot, threatening that if he did not leave London before the day was through that he’d face mob justice. Sophia Grey has been sent to the continent for a ‘holiday’ and the elder Miss Grey annulled the engagement publically”
“No decent family would take him in, as Lord Grey warned his closest friends about his wayward behaviour, he was left virtually homeless, utterly in debt and fled”
Marianne sat utterly horrified, “Was this before or after my wedding?”
“He stole a horse it seemed and rode directly to your ceremony, the affair ending only two days previous,” said Eliza.
“He is the most unforgivable creature I have ever come across,” said Marianne. “He does not know nor cares for consequences or the feelings of others”
“We do not know whose company he is with, or what lies he has told to keep a roof over his head” replied Eliza. “Our family has abandoned him and we lost track of his movements in Hertfordshire”
“That is not far north,” said Marianne, “You are sure he has ventured further?”
“Whispers mostly” replied Eliza. “Nothing for certain, tales of France, Scotland, even as close as Bath”
“I think my wedding taught him to keep his distance,” remarked Marianne. “I doubt the Colonel would be able to restrain himself if he saw that man again”
“Nor would my brother” added Eliza. “Thomas is fit to draw blood”
Marianne gently laid her hand over hers, “I hope and pray it will not come to that”
Eliza nodded, “We could certainly do without it”
Brandon, Morton and Sir John had ridden into the woodlands surrounding Combe Magnor, the dogs were released into a clearing, almost instantly sending several pheasants flapping into the air.
"There they go!" cried Sir John, aiming at the sky.
The three men send shots into the sky, Morton missing quite terribly but Brandon managed to strike down a bird, which was happily retrieved by one of the dogs.
Sir John protested, "One of them was mine Brandon"
"I am not so sure" he replied, "Perhaps your eyes are failing you"
"Eyes indeed" laughed Sir John, playfully pretending to hit Brandon with his rifle. "I will go and find a spot to shoot, where no one will dispute me"
Brandon and Morton continued to shoot, one collecting far more bounty than the other.
“You said you had not shot in years” remarked Morton, watching as Brandon shot down a second bird.
“How do you think I became a Colonel?” replied Brandon. “It was certainly not handed to me”
“And you never wanted to be a General?” humoured Morton.
“The end of the war put a stop to that” smiled Brandon.
“Colonel, I have a question to ask you,” said Morton, after a pause.
“Please” replied Brandon.
“Yourself and Marianne-“
Brandon stopped him. “If you are going to remark on temperament, age, mine or her own past I suggest we continue to hunt”
“No, not exactly any of those things,” replied Morton hurriedly. “I would like your advice”
“I do not have much to offer” replied Brandon.
“But you gained a wife, you must have some great skill I seem to lack,” said Morton. “I’m already six and twenty and no woman has ever so much as shown an interest”
“The only skill I possess is patience” replied Brandon. “I waited near twenty years for Marianne to enter my life”
“I do not know if I have that much patience” confessed Morton. “I am a young man with a demanding mother”
“As I am, or once was” smiled Brandon. “Is this the true reason you wanted myself away from Marianne, so you could take note of how I managed to woo her?”
Morton coloured. “You make it sound so twisted”
“I’ll tell you the truth of it,” said Brandon. “I loved her the first moment I set eyes on her. But I knew that she would never gain the feelings I longed for. So I contented myself to love her as a brother, protect her and defend her regardless. Did I ever imagine she would grow to love me? I confess it still puzzles me but I would not change it for anything”
“I must be patient, even if the woman I love will never love me?” questioned Morton. “Despite any obvious encouragement?”
“If you love them enough seeing them happy will bring you peace, even if that means they love another” replied Brandon. “But you are young, love is destined”
“I’m not sure” muttered Morton. “I can’t find her”
“Then perhaps you are not looking hard enough,” said Brandon. “Go further than Devonshire”
“With respect Colonel, Marianne Dashwood fell into your arms, you did not seek a woman out from a different county, she came to you”
“I was not looking” reminded Brandon. “I had no intention of marriage until I saw Marianne. I was contented living my life alone”
“I should wait until a woman moves into the area?”
“Well no, but if you are determined, seek out the right women,” said Brandon. “Learn about their character before their family”
“My mother is the one who will decide, I can only look at the women I am presented with” replied Morton. “She is never satisfied. And now after this Willoughby business, no woman wants to be associated with me”
“Then you must distance yourself from him as much as possible, perhaps leaving this residence will help” suggested Brandon.
“I must care for the property” replied Morton. “My mother loves this house, forever appalled that Willoughby received it instead of me in my Uncles will. I am to keep it forever”
“I would not presume to go against the wishes of your parents” replied Brandon. “But consider urging her to act if you are so unhappy”
After hearing Eliza’s words Marianne needed fresh air, the weight of yet another girl ruined by Willoughby turned her stomach.
She wandered with purpose but no direction. Leaving the gardens she soon found herself in the woodlands. Unsure as to how she had entered she was determined to look for Brandon or a way out, in whatever order.
The sun was beginning to sneak behind the trees, the winter night closing in. She spotted the house up a small trail and decided to use it.
However as she walked in that direction in the lane before her, she heard footsteps and froze.
A woman alone in the darkness could be prey to all such manner of foul things. Gypsies were not known to this area, but tales of such had kept boys and girls confined to their beds from sundown.
She stood very still as the footsteps grew louder still, praying silently for it to be a child or a woman, even a friendly man.
The figure that did emerge from the fading light was none other than John Willoughby.
His appearance was more put together than on the day of the wedding. Smart clothing, a fine hat and a walking cane led her to believe that perhaps the wedding between himself and Miss Grey had indeed gone ahead.
He was equally surprised to see her and Marianne turned away upon seeing him smile.
“Mrs Brandon!” he called mockingly. “Out a little late are we not?”
Marianne started to walk faster.
“You see this land is still in the family” he called. “I decided to pay my cousins a visit and see what they’ve done to it”
“Where is your husband?” he added, walking at a pace towards her. “I was wanting to come and see you, I heard you have become close to my cousins”
“Please leave me be” asked Marianne, calling back over her shoulder.
“I have not married if that is what you have been led to believe. I have gained a patroness” he revealed.
She stopped, “a what?”
“A noblewoman from the North” he replied. “Childless and dying, desperately wanting to pass the wealth of her family onto a worthy young man”
“You have deceived her as you did with all of us” cried, Marianne. “Worthless man!”
“Don’t you see” he exclaimed, reaching for her hands. “Money can’t harm us now, I am secure, everything is as it was”
Marianne pulled back. “Nothing can ever be as it was. You do not have my love, it belongs to another”
“Come come dearest” laughed Willoughby. “That old man can never truly make you happy? How are your nights together? I imagine short and unbearable!”
“Christopher Brandon is a fine man and a fine lover” she proclaimed, her bashfulness knowing no limit. “He makes me happier than you ever could”
Willoughby almost looked taken aback. “Truly?” left his lips without his knowledge.
“Yes truly” she replied. “Is it that incomprehensible to imagine that I could love someone other than yourself”
“Well yes,” he replied. “You know I still adore you, I always will adore you and you will always think of me”
“You only cross my mind with contempt at your crimes against my sex” snapped Marianne. “My love for you was childlike, the love I possess now is that of a woman”
“And he’s made you a woman, has he?”
Her cheeks involuntary rose with colour.
“Even after I tried” he added.
Without restraint, she threw her hand and slapped it across his smug face.
The expression that followed was one she had not seen on the face of that charming man. “You dare to strike me?”
“It is no worse than you treated me” she cried. “The whole county despises you, I despise you! Run back to your woman dripping in gold, you shall find no love here”
He moved towards her with violence but Marianne broke into a run.
“You get back here to me!” Willoughby shouted, beginning to chase her.
Trying desperately to remember where she had walked from Marianne suddenly saw another man walking towards her.
The hat upon his head and the dog beside him led her to believe it could only be one person. He still carried his rifle over his shoulder, obviously heading back to the house ahead of the party.
“Christopher!” she screamed, hoisting up her skirts to run faster.
Brandon held up the lantern he was carrying and saw Marianne running as if a wild beast were pursuing her. Throwing it and his rifle to the ground as he saw the figure of Willoughby close behind her, breaking into a charge.
“Pilot” he barked, urging the dog to defend her.
The large dog flew towards Marianne, who felt relieved to have some protection.
Within moments Brandon had her in his arms.
Shaking and terrified she begged him to take her home, but he would not leave until he had justice.
Willoughby had slowed into a steady walk as he saw Marianne in Brandon’s embrace.
Retreating further as Pilot growled and stood protectively in front of his Master.
“Hunting dog is he?” he mused.
“He hunts vermin on my property, rats and mice and libertines” replied Brandon smoothly.
“Ha” smirked Willoughby. “Still the same as always aren’t you Brandon?”
“Go and crawl back into whatever hole you came from” ordered Brandon. “I won’t ask again”
“I’ve come to see Miss Marianne-“
“She will not see you” replied Brandon. “Not today not ten years from now”
“Perhaps in ten years you won’t be alive to protect her?” mocked Willoughby. “Have you considered that dearest, loveliest Marianne?”
“You cannot bear to lose can you?” snapped Marianne. “It’s not in your nature”
“You observe me well, see how good we could be together” he replied.
“Just as good as you would have been with Beth?. She is the poor girl whose affections you should be pleading for, not mine!” she added. “And now poor Sophia Grey, you disgust me”
Willoughby’s eyes widened and even Brandon did not expect her to speak of it.
“Some would say you won in those stories, you got your share of their love and virtue, no doubt something you could brag about to your friends,” Marianne said boldly.
“But what you cannot bear is that you lost me. You held all the cards in your hand and suddenly they were blown away. I believe if I had not had my mother and my sister to check us, you would have used me in the same abominable way. Would that have finally satisfied you?”
Willoughby listened to her speech with a blank expression. “Are you quite finished Madam?”
“I love another” she smiled, “who is more romantic, kind, generous and good-tempered than you will ever hope to be in your lifetime. Nothing you can say or do will make me leave him. Even when death parts us I will not even entertain your name”
“Quite the wife you have here old man,” remarked Willoughby.
“Yes” agreed Brandon. “She is a fine woman and a fine wife”
“Clearly inexperienced and deluded” mused Willoughby.
“Is it so hard to believe that a man only ten years your senior is incapable of pleasing a woman?” asked Brandon.
“Yes,” he replied. “Marianne, I cannot understand how you can desire him? The age between you almost leaves a bad taste in the mouth”
“And the seduction and abandonment of an innocent child is tasteful? she cried. “Our love is what repulses you not how old my husband is”
“You cannot possibly satisfy her!” exclaimed Willoughby.
Brandon raised an eyebrow, snaking his arm around her back. “I have yet to hear her sound unsatisfied at my efforts?”
Willoughby, however, looked disgusted. “I will not believe it!”
“Go home little boy” ordered Brandon. “You will have no joy here”
Marianne’s gaze traced his appearance coldly. “I am sure your woman misses you”
Seeing Willoughby stand motionless, Brandon turned for home with Marianne, leaving Pilot guarding their escape, preventing Willoughby from following them.
The pair walked briskly until they could not hear Willoughby’s mutterings.
“If I cannot have you Marianne” he breathed. “No one can!”
Pilot gave an angry bark and Brandon heard an unmistakable sound, swinging in front of Marianne as the sound of a gunshot rang out.