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His Heart in Silence

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His Heart In Silence

 

There were times, indeed, when honor was an intolerable burden. He would not choose, nor would ever have chosen, a less than honorable path, not if given any choice at all. He had not made such a mistake since his youthful indiscretions had led to the loss of the woman he had held so dear. But there were times that even his rigorous discipline and control, and his hard-fought-for honor, was strained.

There were times when the burden of comporting himself respectably was intolerable.

Watching Marianne Dashwood fall into Willoughby's clutches was one of them.

He knew Willoughby for what he was, a shallow, feckless young man, worse than he had ever been. He knew, from his own torturous experience, what kind of cad, what kind of self-serving rake, the young man was. For half a farthing, he would have dragged him into the street and thrashed him. But his was not the only reputation at stake, and he'd no wish to wound those others who would be exposed and shamed by such conduct. For that and that alone, he stayed his hand.

And yet…

He watched Marianne fall under Willoughby's spell, his youthful charms, and his spirit ached. He had long since fallen under his own enchantment, bespelled and quite likely besotted by the lovely and lively young Marianne Dashwood. But he was no callow youth, to foolishly press his suit. He offered his courtesy and his affection, but recognized well enough that his deeper feelings were not returned by the young woman. A lesser man, or perhaps a braver man, might have pressed the matter further, but he was neither.

He was wise enough to let the lady have her choice, much though it distressed him, and to content himself with her friendship, and his ability to remain in pleasant countenance with her mother and elder sister. Mere acquaintance was a poor substitute for all he wished he might have from her, but better far than nothing.

But Willoughby…

He stood by as the boy pronounced his affections, and won Marianne's heart.

His own heart broke when Willoughby disappeared, leaving Marianne aggrieved and disconsolate in his wake.

When the girls went for the London Season, he felt cold, and when Elinor wrote him and begged his presence, he felt near sick with concern for what might have happened to cause the eldest Dashwood sister to issue such an entreaty.

Everything had transpired as his worst imaginings had led him to fear. Willoughby had abandoned Marianne for another, and shamed her. He shamed her publicly, in London,  and with no warning.

He answered Elinor's summons with all speed, and it was all he could do to keep his composure when he arrived upon the doorstep and was ushered into the parlor.

Not since his first discovery of Beth, with child and humiliated and alone, had he felt so helpless as he did when he heard of Marianne's grief and heartache. And the pain he felt on her behalf was, in its own way, nearly comparable to that which he had experienced when he had found Eliza on her deathbed.

For that, he unbent his pride enough to reveal to Elinor the truths he knew of Willoughby. It was painful to speak of Beth's circumstances, and outright mortifying to admit that Willoughby might indeed have possessed honorable intentions toward Marianne. But he could do no less.

He was grateful that Elinor possessed a cool and analytical temperament. She offered him no censure and no rebuttals for his disclosures. Instead, she accepted his words both in their frankness and as the poor offering for her sister that they were, and thanked him for his assistance in returning them to their home. It was assistance he was only too happy to offer, and he was gratified that she had come to him for escort.

The first leg of their journey to Cleveland was uneventful. Mrs. Palmer talked and talked, of everything under the sun and, most particularly, their new son. Mr. Palmer offered polite conversation where necessary, and equally respectful silence when called for. He was not the most genial sort, but he was good company, particularly at a time when he himself did not feel much up to social niceties. Marianne's gloom cast a pall on the group, and made his heart ache in a manner that might have caused him to fear some affliction, had he not already known its cause.

And then things changed.

Their arrival at Cleveland was uneventful, but the rain came soon enough. The rain itself held no consternation for him, for they were inside the walls of the Palmer home, and he had weathered far worse with less shelter.

And then Elinor came to him, and informed him that Marianne was missing. She had gone for a walk upon their arrival, and had not returned.

His heart near stopped. He barely held his composure as he offered to find her, and was far too flustered by her urgency and his own to bother with his hat or his cloak to shield him from the rain.

By the time he discovered that Marianne was not in the gardens, he was wet, and more than flustered. It needed no imagination to guess that Marianne, with her wounded heart and passionate temperament, might have gone across the moors toward Willoughby's ancestral home.

The moors in the rain were a treacherous, dangerous place, even for one who was paying attention. For her...for her…

He raced out into the moors without even stopping to tell his hosts of his suspicions, following the path toward the Willoughby estate. Within minutes, he was soaked to the skin, even through his heavy coat and waistcoat. The rain nearly blinded him, streaming into his eyes from his dripping hair. But that mattered nothing to him, and he ceased to take notice of it entirely when he spotted the slender white figure crumpled on the hillside that overlooked the Willoughby estate.

She was soaked, and entirely too cold. Had his coat been one whit less drenched than her own garments, he would have flung it around her. Even so, he gathered her into his arms, pulling her close and offering what little warmth his own chilled body could provide.

In any other circumstances, he would have cherished being able to hold her so near. But like this…

She was too cold, too pale, and when her eyes flickered open briefly, they were dull, lifeless, empty. There was no recognition in her expression, nothing but blank misery.

He secured her in his arms, his heart pounding as hard as it had four months prior, when he'd received word that Beth had finally been found. Once he was sure of his grip, he rose to his feet, staggering and sliding on the rain-soaked heath. There was mud on his clothes, and water in his boots...and he could not have cared less as he turned to stagger back to the house.

There were two miles between the estates. It felt like a hundred as he made his way back towards Cleveland. His arms burned, his hands were nearly white-knuckled with the force of his grip. Cold rain soaked his body, chilling him to his very core. He gave it no mind.

He thought of nothing. Nothing but Marianne's still, limp form in his arms. Nothing but the chill and pallor of her skin. Nothing but the horrifying blankness of her eyes before she closed them again. He had no goal, save to return her safely to her sister, to get her somewhere warm and dry where she could be looked after.

He was staggering, heart pounding fit to burst and limbs shaking by the time he stumbled onto the carefully arranged garden lawn of Cleveland estate. So numb from the cold and water that he scarce noticed it any more. He was far more aware of the blue tinge to Marianne's lips and hands, the waxy paleness of her skin, and the slight shivering of her slender frame in his arms.

It was fortunate indeed that Mr. Palmer, and most likely Elinor, were watching for his return. He could not have managed the heavy oak doors, burdened as he was. But they were attentive and waiting as he staggered inside, nearly collapsing to the hard stone of the front parlor. It was only his fear that he might hurt Marianne in falling that kept him on his feet at all.

Then Mr. Palmer was sweeping Marianne from his drenched and shaking arms into his own warmer and stronger ones. Elinor was there, patting her sister's hands and face, pale and concerned. Mrs. Palmer fluttered about, twittering uselessly, until her husband sent her to ring the maids for hot water, and some brandy.

Then they were gone, bearing Marianne into the privacy of the room she shared with her sister, where she could be dressed in dry, warm clothes and tucked between warmed sheets with a hot brick in flannel at her feet and a measure of hot tea and brandy to warm and soothe her from the chill she had taken.

Had he not been exhausted beyond all reckoning, he might have followed. He was too weary to take another step, but his eyes followed her. His arms, shaking though they were with his weariness, felt cold and empty without her weight in them.

Mr. Palmer came and found him later, slumped in the chair he had finally staggered into. He was oddly solicitous, far more gentle and congenial than his usual manner, as he aided him to stand. With his help and that of a footman, he was soon clothed in his own warm and dry garments, settled before a fire with a glass of stiff brandy in hand, and a hot towel draped about his neck.

It was warm, and it was comfortable, and it was a relief after the chill of the rain. The brandy, and a good meal of hot food, brought up by a servant, did much to restore the strength to his aching limbs. But nothing, not even the fire and the brandy, could warm the cold chill in his heart, borne in and fueled by his fear for Marianne.

A fear well-founded, much to his dismay. His own weariness drew him deep enough into slumber that he did not hear Elinor’s footsteps when she sought the master and mistress of Cleveland Estate, but it was not enough to hold him in blessed unconsciousness when the household roused. He was stirring already when he heard the opening and closing of the heavy oaken doors to the front lawn, and busy with the fastenings of his robe when he beheld the servants fastening up the carriage on the front drive, then clattering away urgently into the still dripping night.

It took but moments to seek the butler and ascertain the cause of such a late-night departure, and when he did, he felt as though his whole being had been seized by some icy shade from the darkness of the underworld.

Marianne was ill. And no trifling illness, a sniffle or a cough or a sore throat, such as might be easily treated with home remedies and a hot tea or hot toddy. No, her ailment was something far more serious, something so grave that it had driven sensible and practical Eleanor to wake her hosts in the middle of the night, despite the rudeness of it.

He did not dare to disturb Elinor, nor draw her away from her sister’s bedside. Not when Marianne’s condition was so dire that it had necessitated sending a servant for the physician at such an hour. And there was little need to disturb Miss Dashwood in any case. The Palmers had roused, and it was not long before Mr. Palmer, taking up his duties as master of the house, emerged from his quarters. And from him, it was easy enough to glean the particulars, what was known of them.

The knowledge was no comfort. A fever had taken hold of Marianne, high and hectic, already matched by a descent into delirium and a shivering, as though she yet remained chilled in some innermost fastness of her being.

He was grateful that the Palmer Esquire did not comment upon his evident agitation at the news. He was even more grateful when the man rang a servant and supplied him with a bottle of stiff brandy, to steady his nerves and fortify his aching heart. Not for the world would he consider a descent into drunkenness at such a crucial time, but the fire and the burn of the potent drink was a welcome balm to his spirit, chilled by his fear for one who was so dear to him.

By the time the physician came, he was dressed and outwardly composed. He waited with the Palmers in the drawing-room, while the doctor examined Marianne and took counsel with Elinor. He could not restrain the agitation that led him to pace, nor drive away the chill that kept him close by the fire. Fortunately, his hosts were too worried for their younger guests to pay him much heed.

It took all the control he had ever mastered, and all the strength of his being, to maintain his composure when finally the doctor emerged from Marianne’s sickroom. And even more, a strength he had only twice before been called upon to muster, when the man presented the results of his examination.

The fever was dangerously high. Worse, it was combined with delirium, chills, and a congestion of the lungs that made Marianne’s breathing difficult. And most dangerous, perhaps, was the bleakness of spirit that seemed to accompany the malady, which prevented Marianne herself from mustering those defenses that a young woman of her usual robust health might be expected to have.

Mr. and Mrs. Palmer left Cleveland to return to either London or Lady Palmer’s mother’s estates before the morning had gone. He could not fault them, not when they had their first child, still a babe, to be concerned about. Not with the doctor’s warnings about Marianne’s precarious condition, and their uncertainty of whether it was a malady unique to her, or one that might spread to all the household.

No, he gave the Palmers no fault and no censure, and knew that Elinor likewise watched them go with gratitude. For all their departure, those that remained knew full well the kindness the Palmers offered, to let their guests abide in their home, unchaperoned as they were. It was a gracious courtesy, and more than many a man might have offered in such circumstances.

Mrs. Palmer spent the interval before their departure leaving instructions and supplies for Elinor and her sister, and the doctor’s use if they should prove beneficial. Mr. Palmer spent the same interval in offering him words for the servants and their instruction while the family was gone. That he also opened his study, should he have need of engaging in some form of business, was a great generosity, as were the decanters of spirits and the glasses he left available for all those who might require their fortitude.

He watched them go with mixed feelings. Relief that the child should be safe from potential dangers. Worry, that they might encounter some unexpected trouble upon the road. A vague unease.

For all the concern the physician had voiced, he himself felt that Marianne’s condition was unlikely to be one which would prove catching among the others, either those who remained or those who had sought safer environs. Had not the doctor said that one of it’s most dangerous components was the bleakness of spirit?

To a more pertinent point, was it any wonder that Marianne, exposed to wind and rain and chill as she had been, so thoroughly soaked and so keenly frozen as she had been, would be the one to fall so gravely ill? For all that he could not fault the Palmers their caution, he privately suspected that if any were to fall ill following the younger Dashwood sister, it would be himself. Was he not the only one among them who had sustained such a similar chill and soaking? Mr. Palmer might be aloof and generally cold. Still, his nature, which was predisposed to such fundamental and undisturbed calm, was also fortitude against the melancholy that could prove so risky. Not so himself, he knew that quite well.

Elinor might perhaps be at risk, given her close attachment to Marianne, and her hours spent at her sister’s bedside, but she was possessed of a similar temperament to Mr. Palmer’s, if somewhat gentled by her gender. He deemed her far too sensible to succumb to such an ailment, and far too fiercely devoted to her sister’s care to risk its neglect by falling into ill health herself.

He resolved, as he turned back into the house, to find within himself similar reserves of fortitude and endurance. No more than Elinor would he wish to endanger Marianne by taking care and attention she needed away from her by contracting some malady of his own.

To that end, he fortified himself with a good hot meal and a glass of spirits, only one, and set about to find himself some occupation to bide his time, that he might not make of himself a nuisance in always asking after Marianne’s condition.

A letter to his own estates was essential, to explain the delay that he had encountered, as well as the uncertainty of its duration. He knew his household was run by competent staff, but it did not do to have them wait upon a master who might be weeks in returning, rather than days. He was determined to remain and offer what little assistance he could, for as long as Elinor and the doctor would permit.

He thought of sending a letter on to Barton cottage, but as far as he knew, neither Elinor nor Marianne had informed their mother of their plans for and after departing London, and he could not ask for confirmation. Besides, what good would it do to worry Mrs. Dashwood and the youngest child, who had no conveyance of their own to make the journey to Cleveland? It would only set Marianne’s mother ill at ease, to receive news of her daughter’s illness.

And indeed, on further consideration, it was far better that Mrs. Dashwood should receive the news from Elinor herself. Elinor would know best how to address her mother, how to make the information less painful to accept. Elinor’s letter would be expected correspondence, even if the content were not anticipated. Whereas his own, however carefully worded, was likely to raise confusion and concern even before the message had been opened.

His business managed, his letters sent, it was left to him to find other ways to occupy his time. It was in this that he felt the absence of his hosts keenly. Mrs. Palmer, for all her foibles and sometimes exasperating manner, could be counted on to fill the silences and the hours with talk and general good cheer. Mr. Palmer, for all his silence, was a restful presence when his wife’s chatter grew wearying. Without their company, and with Marianne languishing and all Elinor’s attention on her sister, there was nothing to fill the silence of the house.

In his own estate, he usually valued such stillness. But now it seemed hollow, empty, cold.

He took some time reading the periodicals that Mr. Palmer had carefully archived. They both had businesses to look after and attend to, those functions and occupations which served to maintain their estates in good order. And, given that he had lately extended an offer to young Edward Ferrars for the occupation of his parish, he felt honor-bound to see that his estates were in good order, and nothing on the horizon which might have a negative impact, such as might cause young Mr. Ferrars to feel he had been taken advantage of, or made a mockery of.

When he had done with those, he turned his attention to the books that graced the shelves of the Palmer’s reading room. Those, however, gave him no aid. Either they were dull books of facts and figures, or religious texts which offered him little comfort or aid, or they were books of poetry and stories, such as Marianne loved to read.

He tried to comfort himself by reading a few of the poetry volumes, imagining the phrases and flowing words as she would read them, but that only made his heart ache, and his soul feel chilled and leaden. He gave up that endeavor quickly enough. He tried to immerse himself in other texts, but his attempts at reading religious volumes only petered out into desperate, half-formed prayers for Marianne, and the others he could not focus on at all.

In desperation, he put on his cloak and took himself out into the garden, seeking fresh air to calm his nerves. The rain had let up, though the skies were as leaden as his spirits. At any other time, the rain-soaked earth might have been a balm to his troubled mind, the scents soothing and encouraging tranquility. But now it brought to mind only the memory of his desperate search of a day ago, and the staggering weariness and fear of his return, carrying Marianne’s soaked and chilled body in his shaking arms.

He felt briefly ashamed of himself. He had been a soldier, he had seen the horrors of war, and other atrocities as well. He had dealt with loss and tragedy in his youth and in his adulthood. And was it not only a few months ago that he had ridden from his own estates to London, to seek out his dear Beth in her time of distress, as he had once ridden to the aid of her mother? Eliza’s passing had been many years ago, and Beth’s condition nothing near as grave, but the scars remained of grief and loss and fear, and he felt that they ought to have fortified him better against the tempest which raged within him now.

He might hold Marianne dear, but it was not an affection she returned. There was no understanding between them, as he had once shared with Eliza. He was an acquaintance, nothing more, and he had resigned himself to such ever since Willoughby had intruded into their social circle.

He told himself all these things as day turned to night. He sought a report from Elinor, when she emerged seeking supper. Marianne was not faring well. The fever remained, despite the tonics and cool cloths and even a little bloodletting by the physician. The delirium remained as well, troubling her mind and allowing her no peace in which she might rest and rally. Elinor still stood strong and determined, but she was weary, and the doctor’s face, when he came to deliver the supper dishes later, was grave.

Both tried to be encouraging, but he had seen enough sickbeds to know what they did not say. Marianne’s condition was severe, and as the ordeal wore away her strength, all too soon, she would decline. And there was not much room for her to decline before she fell into a coma, and most likely the darkness of eternal sleep.

He would have been happier not to know. The knowledge kept him awake, burning in his mind, in his heart, stealing sleep, and all forms of peace. He might have taken some poppy, or some laudanum, both of which he knew the location of within the house, but he could not bear to. What if he was needed, and too deep within the hold of the drugs to hear their calls for his aid?

By the time dawn began to brighten the sky, he knew he was lost. He could not bear another day of forced inaction, of waiting. He could not endure another day of silence, or another night of fear with no distraction. Let Elinor ask what she would of him, even simple servant’s tasks – anything to keep the madness of fear away.

To that end, he dressed in shirt and trousers and shoes, though he had no energy for more, and presented himself to stand outside the sickroom, to wait until Elinor emerged. He told himself he stood watch, in case he should be needed, and knew it for a half-truth. The whole truth would be that he stood waiting, because he needed to be doing something, even if only that.

Finally, Elinor emerged. He might have asked after Marianne’s condition, but the weary grief in her face left no reason. And so it was different words that emerged. “What can I do?”

She started to demur, began to protest his kindnesses, but he could not listen, could not endure being sent away to remain idle. Such was his weariness, his need for some task, that he looked at her and spoke a truth he might not ordinarily have voiced otherwise. “Give me some occupation, or I shall run mad.”

From the look of astonishment on Elinor’s face, he thought he might have spoken too forwardly, too abruptly, for a lady of her sensibilities. But, brave and solid soul that she was, she shook away her bemusement a moment later and answered him. “I...she would rest better, I think, if our mother were here.”

It took him a moment longer than it ought to have, to comprehend her request. But once he had, once his wearied and tumultuous mind had made sense of the words, hope and relief flamed within him. For this was a task he could accomplish in good heart. And not simple work as might be done by another, with only dubious good to come of it, but a task that he alone might fulfill adequately, and that would most certainly be to Marianne’s betterment, and most likely Elinor’s as well.

Of course. I shall go at once.”

Within the hour a horse was saddled, and his cloak and hat were donned for the journey. He informed the servants, trusting that Elinor would see to informing the doctor. Then he mounted and urged the horse into a fast canter.

The journey seemed interminable. Had he been astride his own steed, he would have pushed harder, ridden faster. But the horse was not his own, and he knew not its limits nor its endurance. And, despite the urgency of his errand, he was unwilling to risk the laming or foundering of a horse that he had borrowed. So he went as fast as the road and the horse could safely take, and consoled himself that it was still quicker than word might have traveled otherwise.

His own estates were between Cleveland and Barton cottage. Mindful that he would have others with him on the return, he stopped at his own door. There he had the tired horse stabled and fed and cared for, and two of his own hitched to his carriage. He availed himself of some bread and meat and cheese, and a tankard of beer while that was being accomplished, and took time to make himself slightly more presentable. Urgent his news and errand might be, but there was no reason to alarm Mrs. Dashwood by appearing as a ruffian when he knocked on her door.

From the way the sky was darkening, he would arrive outside proper social hours anyway. Hopefully, he could reach Barton cottage before Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret retired.

He was up beside his driver as soon as all was ready, blankets and a basket of food stashed safely within for the comfort of his future passengers. A word, and they were en route to Barton at the best pace the carriage could make.

It took too long, in his opinion. But then, the entire journey had taken too long for his peace of mind. And it was only half done.

The carriage drew up outside Barton cottage in the last of the fading light. He was glad to see candles in the window, a sign that the household was not yet abed. He dismounted, cleared his throat nervously, then strode forward.

The door opened before he reached it, to reveal the Dashwood matron. “Why, Colonel Brandon! What brings you here, and at this hour?”

He stopped. Swallowed again. “I...I come with news, of Elinor and Marianne.”

Well, come inside!” The Dashwood matriarch bustled him inside and into the parlor. “I had heard from Elinor that the intended to cut their time in London short, and would be returning with Lady Palmer and her husband...”

Indeed. I rode with them, as an escort, having completed my own business in London shortly before I heard that they were departing.”

Well, that was very kind of you. But...if you were riding with them...” Mrs. Dashwood trailed off with a look out the window, as if she expected to see her daughters coming up the path at any moment.

I...yes...I...I am sorry...there is no easy way to say...” He cursed his tongue for betraying his nerves as the older woman turned pale, visible even in the lamplight.

Has something...happened?” Mrs. Dashwood sank into a chair. There was a clatter at the door, and Margaret tumbled in. She had been listening. For once, her mother did not scold her, but gathered her close.

I fear it has.” Best to get it over with, so they might get on the road sooner. “Marianne had...suffered some disappointment in London, and was in melancholy spirits. When we arrived at Cleveland, she went for a walk, to clear her mind, she said. But there was a storm, and she was caught in it. She was not injured, but she has since become...very ill. Too ill to be moved at this time. The Palmer’s physician and Elinor are giving her round-the-clock care. It was Elinor’s suggestion that she might do better if she had her mother’s presence to comfort her, and her request that I come to fetch you with all haste.”

Mrs. Dashwood’s complexion had paled even further, but she was not the matriarch of her household for nothing. She rallied swiftly and nudged her youngest to her feet. “Hurry Margaret, dress and pack your things. And ring up a servant to pack mine.” The youngest Dashwood darted away at once. Only when the sound of her footsteps had faded did Mrs. Dashwood turn back to him. “What is Marianne’s condition, Colonel? You say she is very ill?”

Yes.” He hesitated, but it would do no good for her to arrive at Cleveland unprepared, should the worst happen. “A high fever, and delirious ramblings. She shivers as with chill, despite the fever. And I...that is to say, the physician fears that her earlier melancholy may be hindering her chances for recovery. The doctor and Elinor apply cool cloths frequently, and try to induce her to sip water and tea. The doctor has once attempted to bring down her fever and restore her body by means of blood-letting. So far, her condition remains unchanged, and very grave.”

Oh.” For a moment, he feared the Dashwood matron would swoon. But again she rallied, a mother’s instinct overcoming a mother’s fear. “We must go at once.” And with that, she bustled away, not even taking the time to offer him refreshment. He did not fault her for the discourtesy. He himself wished not to waste a moment, and would likely have declined had anything been offered.

Packing was done with all haste, though full darkness had descended by the time the women were ready, and the night sky was in full view. Fortunately, both he and his driver had foreseen such, and the carriage lanterns were lit to guide their way through the night. He saw the ladies well situated, pointed out the hamper to slake their hunger and thirst, should they require it, and swung back into his seat. The carriage turned, and they were off.

The ride to Barton Cottage, swift as it had been, had felt endless. The return, held to the pace of a carriage over sometimes uncertain roads, with not enough visibility to mark the passing of miles, felt so long that eternity might have been a brief sojourn by comparison. He noted the passage of the moon through patchy clouds, counted the beats of the horses' hooves, and strained his eyes for any tell-tale mark to show their progress onward.

He was weary beyond measure, what with the interrupted sleep of two nights previous, and the entire lack of sleep the night before. And yet, he found himself possessed of a restless, gnawing fear that made any thoughts of slumber quite elusive. The fear that they would return too late, with Marianne having passed in their absence.

He feared they would arrive in Cleveland only to have both failed in the errand of providing a mother’s succor, but also in any opportunity to speak a final farewell.

He consoled himself that there was no point in fearing the worst before it came to pass. And that, if he must be haunted by old failures and current fears, at least he would not arouse either impropriety – by sharing the carriage with two unmarried ladies – nor concern, by risking his neck falling asleep in his seat.

Such thoughts occupied his mind throughout the long and darkened hours, a stillness that, while not purposeless as his previous night, was nonetheless a trial to his fortitude. He dared not show either of his passengers, nor his driver, anything less than perfect composure, lest he cause them to be concerned. The driver could ill afford distractions, and the ladies needed no other sources of worry to tax their sensibilities. So he held his emotions in check, despite the effort it took, and kept his silence except for the occasional brief stop, during which he would give his passengers an update on their progress, as much as he could.

It was little solace that he was not the only one who was sleepless. Margaret succumbed to slumber within a few hours, but Mrs. Dashwood remained awake, and he suspected her thoughts were much like his own.

Finally, a little more than an hour after dawn, they turned up the drive to Cleveland, and drove up to the house. The weather was gray and sullen, a match to his own mood, and the stillness of the household did nothing to settle his nerves.

He wasted no time in alighting from the carriage as it stopped, and helping his two passengers down from their seats. Margaret was now wide awake, and her mother’s worry had made her solemn and still. He led them both to the door, directing his driver around to the carriage house, where the Palmer’s groom would be already stirring, bringing food and water around to the animals. He was confident that between the two of them, his horses would be well looked after, and his driver was certainly informed enough to provide all the particulars of the condition of the mount he had borrowed that any groom might wish.

He ought, perhaps, to have ridden the horse back, but he would attend to that matter later. And in truth, he would not have willingly risked the animal in a return journey of such haste, and thought the Palmer esquire would appreciate his forbearance, rather than expressing irritation.

Then thoughts of the horses were entirely driven from his mind as the doorman opened the great portals to Cleveland and ushered them inside. None of them were minded to take even the time to divest themselves of their cloaks, and hurried onward, his direction leading them to the wing where Marianne’s sickroom was housed.

Elinor met them halfway there, her eyes shining, relief and joy written on her usually calm countenance. She met her mother with an embrace. “It is good you are here.”

Marianne?”

A smile burst forth, overwhelming all the weariness that still showed in her posture and her face. “The fever...it broke sometime in the night. She had only just roused, the first time in days, when I heard your carriage.”

Mrs. Dashwood looked as though she might swoon. He himself felt perilously close to a similar condition, and leaned unobserved against the wall for support. He might have been embarrassed, but the Dashwoods were all too concerned with each other to mind him, and their hearts too full of Marianne to pay him any heed. Indeed, he rather thought they would not have noticed had he collapsed right there in the hall, mortifying as such a thing might be.

The fever was broken, and Marianne roused. Such news would have provided cheer in the darkest of hours, and the relief he felt was nigh unparalleled. All through his long journey, he had feared the worst, feared to return to a place of mourning, and prepared himself for loss. To find instead that she was at last recovering, that Marianne was on the mend instead of declining as he had feared, to hear that she had at last rallied and freed herself from the despondency and malady that might have taken her forever…

Such great relief as he felt made his steps light as he followed the Dashwoods to Marianne’s sickroom. He did not enter, did not intrude upon the reunion of mother and child. Marianne was still far from well, that much was evident in her pale, drawn face and the weakness of her speech. He did not care to tax her strength by his intrusion. It was enough to remain in the doorway, to hear her speak, to see her arm reach out to her mother and younger sister.

It was enough to see the joy of their meeting, and to know that he had played some small part in the easing of her spirits. He was preparing to turn away and seek his own rest when the soft call of his name brought him back.

Marianne was looking in his direction, ill and tired, but alert and aware. As their eyes met, she smiled, a genuine smile like the sunrise after days of cold rain. “Thank you.”

The gratitude that fairly shown out of her words took him by surprise and rendered him speechless. All the weariness, all the fear he had felt in the past days melted away, ice thawed and evaporated by the warmth of her regard, and his own joy at seeing her recovery. He could do nothing save dip his head in acknowledgment, before leaving the ladies to their conversation. And likely, some much needed rest for all of them. Margaret alone might be energetic this morning, but he doubted highly if any other member of the household, visitor or staff, would be of a mind for anything more than rest and quiet.

He himself could feel the strain of exhaustion creeping over him. Two sleepless nights and one of broken rest were taking their toll, even on his constitution, fortified by his training as a soldier as it had been. As he traversed the hall toward his own quarters, weariness made him stumble slightly. A hand caught his arm, and he blinked to see the doctor, his aged face lined with his own fatigue, but more rested than his own.

It would be best if you got some rest, Colonel. No sense in wearing yourself out until you come over ill as well.”

No. Indeed.”

Kind eyes regarded him. “I have been much involved with the care of young Marianne Dashwood, but she is recovering, and I can attend to other matters. I was given to understand that you were out in the weather that induced her illness as well?”

I...was. Though for a shorter time.”

Then I shall prescribe a tisane for you. You may not be ill, but there is no doubt your fortitude has been under some strain, what with the soaking you must have had, and the journey you have just undertaken for those young ladies. It is best not to take chances.”

Of course. I shall take whatever you prescribe.” It was true that Marianne was out of danger, but he still had no wish to cause strain or sorrow by falling ill.

Very good, Colonel.” The doctor clapped him once on the shoulder. “Then it is my recommendation that you go and take some rest. Get out of those damp garments of yours, and I shall send a servant round with your tisane shortly. Drink it all, with a little bit of brandy if you like, and let it do its work. Be warned that it will send you to sleep, but that’s all for the best. I would venture you need sleep above all else.”

As you say.” He nodded, and the doctor released him.

A fire had been laid in his rooms, its warmth welcome. He washed in a basin of warm water that a manservant brought him, then dressed in a clean shirt and trousers, and his house-coat. By the time he had finished his ablutions, the promised medicine had been delivered, along with a meal and the suggested brandy. He partook of all of them, left a message with the servants, should anyone require him, and retired.

The bed was a welcome softness as he sank into it. The sheets had been warmed as well, banishing the last of the night’s chill from his bones. He settled in, feeling the drowsiness of the warm food, good brandy, and medicine converging upon him. Idly, his drowsy mind returned to Marianne.

She was recovering, but he knew well enough that an illness such as hers would bear careful watching. And even when all were satisfied that the malady itself was gone, such conditions often left lingering effects, and a lingering lassitude. Marianne would likely be confined to her home for some time, while her constitution recovered. Young and vibrant spirit that she was, even with this recent melancholy that had descended, she would not much like being so hampered in her pursuits.

But perhaps…perhaps he might undertake to assist in keeping her entertained. He was well-read, a thing he had noted she heartily approved of. His reading style was not so energetic and passionate as she might prefer, but he had been told that he had a soothing voice, and that might suit her better in her recovery. Too, he had opinions enough to engage her in a gentle debate, if she fancied such, and he was well-informed as to the happenings of both local estates and distant ones. He was no true musician, but at least he knew something of the subject, and he could carry a tune. Though her skills far outstripped his own, he might be able to play for her, if she yearned for music.

Yes. He could keep her entertained in her recovery. He doubted that any of her family would refuse him. Mrs. Dashwood thought well of him, Elinor counted him a friend, and Margaret liked his stories of his travels in the military, and abroad on business. Only Marianne might turn him away, and he did not think, if he presented himself only as a friend come in her hour of need, that she would do so.

The thought cheered him, and sent him gently into sleep, to dream of the possibilities and days to come.