Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Ladies of Norland: Part Five

Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four

Edward departed the following day before breakfast. Elinor was awake to say goodbye, a ceremony conducted with a great deal of awkwardness. His behavior betokened a guilty conscience, and she wondered, watching his carriage pull away, what it was he concealed. Trusting that explanations would likely materialize when next they met, she returned to the house to try and forget her troubles by means of industrial employment.

Summer faded into fall, and fall shortly thereafter succumbed to winter, an occurrence which ought to surprise no one and which was probably rather irrelevant to chronicle. That the John Dashwoods continued their residence at Norland, despite Mrs. Dashwood’s polite urgings to leave, was a great deal more astounding. The motivation for Fanny’s obsequience was ever obvious, but cynicism was not in the widow’s nature. She forbore with her son, his wife, and their child for her late husband and her daughters’ sake, but she parted with them with a graciousness born of perfect sincerity, wishing them joy in both the season and in the bosom of Mrs. Ferrars’ motherly affection.

1798 was but scant days old when the two eldest daughters of the house said goodbye to their home, their mother, and Margaret. Elinor could not find herself in the carriage and beginning a journey to London as her brother’s guest without reflecting on her own charmed existence. She was Miss Dashwood of Norland Park, imbibed by nature with beauty, intelligence, and, by sheer good luck, a fortune and social prominence. Embarking upon what must surely be a successful London debut, in the house of the sister of the one gentleman whom she most esteemed, she had much for which to be grateful. Any remaining uneasiness over Edward’s inexplicable behavior she forcefully pushed aside. So easily might her lot in life have been different had her uncle not been so generous or her own gifts less ample. Fanny’s companionship might be something to forbear rather than enjoy, but irritating relations are a universal constant that even the most blessed must endure. Elinor knew herself quite up to the task. Their certain approbation of her made the obligation less burdensome, and it was with reasonable equanimity that she could survey her prospects.

Marianne could not witness the expectation detectable in the eyes of her usually staid sister without feeling her own future somewhat blank in comparison. How gladly would she have the same certainty of love in view! Yet she was convinced that a very short time must now shed some light on her own prospects, for if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, certainly she must seek them abroad. Regarding the endurance of intolerable relations, it was a subject on which she troubled herself little.

Upon their arrival and settlement in Harley Street, Marianne's self-occupation rendered her behavior a happy specimen of what future complaisance and companionableness to Fanny might be expected to be. She sat in silence almost all the evening, rapt in her own meditations and scarcely ever voluntarily speaking but to ascertain that Edward was in town, to question why he did not dine with them, and inquire when he might be expected to call. To atone for this conduct, Elinor took immediate possession of the civility post which she had assigned to herself, behaving with the greatest attention to Fanny. She talked with her, laughed with her, and listened to her whenever she could. Fanny, meanwhile, treated both sisters with a strange combination of condescension and consequence, as if she could not decide what pleased her the most: the kindness she conferred upon the ladies of Norland, or the lofty attention her guests would surely convey upon herself.

The top order of business the following day was to bedeck the Misses Dashwood in the latest London finery, befitting to their station, or at least to the degree the young ladies would tolerate. It was a mission destined to frustrate Fanny, as the sisters proved perversely unengaged. Elinor at least submitted to the exercise with something akin to patience, but Marianne would not be contained. Every bookstore, music shop, or some equally odious emporium would capture her attention, and Fanny had to make countless promises to return to such premises in order to direct Marianne into the establishment that was their declared destination. Once inside, Marianne could not be made to submit to standing still for measurements or alterations, flitting to the window every time she heard the streets echo with the sounds of the metropolis in action, as horses and hawkers competed to produce the biggest cacophony. When this symphony was interrupted by a particularly discordant fracas, Marianne could not maintain even the semblance of composure any longer. To Fanny’s horror and Elinor’s mortification, she ran from the store without her cloak and entered into the fray.

Marianne had little thought for decorum or her relations’ concern for it as her eyes took in the sight of an informal squadron of officers making their way through the crowds, laughing uproariously, spooking the horses, and teasing any unsuspecting ladies who fell into their paths. In her disheveled state, standing in countrified admiration of such unfamiliar mayhem, Marianne was quickly perceived by one of the gentlemen at the forefront of the band, and soon found herself in the distinctly uncomfortable position of being their latest object of admiration. Her color rose, and suddenly aware of her undress, she quickly turned to go back into the shop when one of the officers was bold enough to block her path, insisting she pay the toll of a smile before he would let her pass. Marianne burned with indignation and had begun to seriously lament her disregard for the strictures prescribed by society when a gentleman, passing within a few yards, perceived her distress and came to her assistance. Admonishing the officers with a few curt but effective words, he offered his services and, without further delay, ushered her back into the fashionable establishment from which she had clearly emerged. Far too stunned to object, Marianne allowed herself to be deposited into the nearest chair while her rescuer called for a glass of restorative wine.

Fanny and Elinor, who had watched the entire occurrence from the window, turned in amazement at their entrance and, indeed, remained in befuddlement equal to Marianne’s for some moments before turning their attention to caring for the distressed damsel. Yet the eyes of each would fix on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration as he apologized for his intrusion in a manner so frank and so graceful that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of the ladies would have been secured, but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance gave an additional interest to his actions.

Marianne thanked him again and again, inviting him to be seated with the sweetness of address which always attended her. This he declined, determined to depart from such feminine surroundings as soon as he was assured of his charge’s well-being. Fanny begged to know to whom she was obliged. His name, he replied, was Willoughby, and he presently resided nearby in Old Bond Street, from whence he hoped she would allow him the honor of calling tomorrow to inquire after Miss Dashwood. Fanny, whose eyes glimmered with recollection when she heard his name, readily granted the honor, supplying the gentleman with the address before he departed.

His manly beauty and more than common gracefulness were instantly the theme of general admiration, and the laugh which his gallantry raised against Marianne received particular spirit from his exterior attractions. Marianne herself had seen less of his person than the rest, for the confusion which crimsoned over her face had somewhat robbed her of the power of regarding him, but she had seen enough of him to join in all the admiration of the others and with an energy which always adorned her praise. His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favorite story, and there was a rapidity of thought in his hasty rescue which particularly recommended the action to her. Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting.

Fanny had more concrete information to supply, as she conjectured this was the very same Mr. Willoughby who was courting one Miss Grey, a great heiress. She had rather hoped Miss Grey might take a liking to her brother, Robert, who required little more than a windfall marriage to fulfill all the wildest ambitions of his relations, but now, having seen the object of Miss Grey’s admiration up close, Fanny could not deceive herself into believing charm alone would turn her attention. Not even the fondest sister could make such a mistake. But should Mr. Willoughby’s admiration shift … well, that was easy enough to conceive. Miss Grey, while certainly a handsome woman, had not Marianne’s fresh-faced innocence, known to be intoxicating to even the most urbane gentleman, nor her well-developed figure. Further, Miss Grey was a cold, formal lady. She might have fifty thousand pounds, but perhaps Marianne’s charms were adequately compensating. She, too, had a dead father. In so much, the ladies were equal. It was not the advantageous match which she had fantasized about securing for her second sister, for Mr. Willoughby was said to be a man of but small property, but she knew, even as she did not comprehend it, how little Mrs. Dashwood regarded such worldly considerations. If it made Miss Marianne happy and simultaneously furthered Robert’s prospects, she was not one to object.


Come back tomorrow for part six!

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