“Sir John presses me most earnestly to visit Barton Park this autumn,” she said, turning to address her daughters. “I have no wish to be away from Norland at this time, but perhaps you, Elinor, and Marianne might wish to take advantage of the invitation. The scenery is spectacular, and Sir John, who is an avid hunter, promises a multitude of entertainments: picnics, dinners, balls, and I imagine whatever else Lady Middleton can tolerate.” She smiled fondly. “My cousin is quite the enthusiast.”
“My dear Mrs. Dashwood, there is no need for you to remain so sequestered throughout your period of bereavement. You should all journey to Barton and reacquaint yourselves with such worthy relations. John and I can stay on and manage Norland.”
“You have already been so long from your own home, Fanny. I am sure you must wish to return.”
She was quick to demure. “No, indeed not! Little Harry has his heart set on remaining longer, that he might continue riding every day, do you not, my dear?”
“I like pony.”
“You might take the pony with you,” Marianne could not help but suggest.
Harry lit up, but his mother was quick to assert, “Your stables are so much finer than our own. I am sure he is happier here.”
“Thank you for your consideration,” Mrs. Dashwood replied, not specifying whether she referred to her daughter-in-law’s concern for herself or for the well-being of the pony, “but I truly have no desire to travel. That does not mean I am so cruel as to deprive my daughters of adequate diversion. Should you care to see Devonshire, Elinor?”
“I should be very happy to see the countryside, Mama, but I would much rather remain here with you. I, too, have no longing to part from Norland.”
“Certainly not!” Marianne agreed. “I am sure Devonshire is very fine, but I could never leave Norland in autumn.”
Elinor, though in full agreement, opted to tease her sister, a favorite pastime, rendered all the more pleasurable by Marianne’s tendency to think her earnest. “I am sure the trees can undergo their annual metamorphosis even without your valued guidance.”
“But who should remain to properly revere them?” she seriously questioned.
“And what of the poor trees in Essex? How are they to thrive without your admiration?”
“I leave the trees of Devonshire to the Devonians. I can claim no responsibility for any trees but my own, and while they may not even perceive my presence beneath their shady branches, I do feel they must benefit from my enjoyment.”
“Where in Devonshire is Barton Park located?” Edward asked in tones rather severe.
“I believe it is about four miles northward of Exeter.”
“Edward knows the area well. He was tutored near Exeter.”
“Mr. Pratt is located near Plymouth, Fanny,” he corrected.
“Nevertheless, ‘tis all Devonshire. Perhaps you could escort the ladies on their journey?”
“Thank you for the offer of Edward’s services, but we all appear resigned to remaining at home for the time being, in the company of our beloved oaks,” Mrs. Dashwood said with a smile for her middle child.
Edward looked relieved by this assurance, a circumstance for which most of the ladies at the table believed no explanation was required.
“Perhaps you might meet Sir John and his family in town next year?” John suggested, somewhat oblivious to the undercurrents of the conversation, which he only half attended from behind his newspaper. “I do hope you will join us, Mother, or at the very least allow Fanny the pleasure of chaperoning my sisters.”
“I do not believe Sir John is often in town. He has a large and young family, and his pleasures seem to be all in the country, but I should be very happy to indulge my girls in a season, if they will submit to going.” She looked at them speculatively, attempting to gauge whether the pleasures of London outweighed the price of enduring Fanny’s company.
“I have little care for the pleasures of London society,” Marianne scoffed, “but I should enjoy having access to the music and book shops. And I should like to tour Mantagu House and see Captain Cook’s treasures.”
Fanny looked somewhat askance at this suggestion but managed to force a smile. “There is so much to see and do in London, but if you will remain throughout the season, I am sure we will have ample time for it all.”
“There!” declared John. “You see how happy it should make her, and I certainly have no objections to escorting three beautiful ladies about town. What say you, Elinor? Shall we enjoy the pleasure of your company?”
Elinor looked to Edward, trying to penetrate the meaning of his subdued countenance. “I should be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the season. Thank you, Fanny. ‘Tis very kind of you.”
“Then it is settled!” she gleefully replied. “We shall all remain at Norland for the time being, snug in our family party, and then Elinor and Marianne can come to us in London in the New Year. We are promised to my mother for Christmas, but should you have need of us here, Mrs. Dashwood, I am sure she will be happy to oblige you.”
“I would not dream of so depriving your mother,” Mrs. Dashwood readily replied. “And what are your plans, Edward? Shall you linger with us in the country, or have you affairs to attend to that will deprive us of your company?”
He hesitated a moment before saying firmly, as if he were taking himself in hand, “I have, alas, already intruded far too long upon your hospitality. My brother writes of some business matters he wishes to discuss with our lawyers. I shall leave for London as soon as I can prepare for the journey.”
“Robert writes of business matters? Nonsense! I made sure you would remain until Michaelmas.”
Edward smiled wearily. “I should not wonder if the contents of his letters to you are rather different than those he pens to me.”
“‘Tis a wonder that he writes at all!”
John chuckled. “Very true, my dear.”
“Wonderful as it may be, I have an appointment in London I must attend.”
“This is very unfortunate. Your business will not detain you from us long, I hope," said Mrs. Dashwood with concern.
He colored as he replied, "You are very kind, but I have no idea of returning to Sussex immediately. My business is of a nature to detain me for some time."
"We shall be very sorry to lose your company. Know that you are always welcome at Norland Park. You need not wait for an invitation here."
His color increased, and he said with his eyes fixed on his plate, "You are too good."
Mrs. Dashwood looked at Elinor with surprise. Elinor felt equal amazement, which she struggled to contain, while Marianne looked as though she might burst into tears. For a few moments everyone was silent. Fanny spoke first.
“This is a disagreeable surprise, Edward. Very disagreeable! But why I should be surprised at all, I know not. You were always disobliging,” she grumbled.
He looked at her with a faint smile. “I am sorry, Fanny. It has never been my intention to inconvenience you.”
Fanny accepted his contrition with a dissatisfied, “Hmph!”
Marianne, appalled by her sister’s acquiescence to this abandonment, could contain herself no longer. “But we shall see you in London, Edward, shan’t we?”
He smiled more easily. “I am certain that you shall.”
This confirmation steadied the nerves of the mother and her daughters, though countless questions remained unanswered. Marianne pressed her sister on the subject later that day.
“For once, and may it remain infrequent, Fanny and I are of like mind. I could not be more surprised by Edward’s sudden determination to depart. Had you any notion of it?”
“None at all,” Elinor replied steadily.
“Do you not think it unusual that he said nothing sooner? He had no missive this morning, yet his manner suggested it was a recent decision.”
“Perhaps he has been deliberating on it for some time,” she sighed, “but as we cannot know what calls him away, and as it is certainly inappropriate for us to speculate upon the matter, I had rather let the subject alone.”
Marianne stared at her in amazement. “How can you be so calm? Were it me, I should confront him at once and demand an explanation. I think he owes you that much.”
“He owes me nothing, and you are not me.”
“No, indeed.” She paused to consider. “So there is really no understanding between you?”
Elinor shook her head. “We have discussed this before.”
“But have you no intimation that he loves you? No spark in his eyes? Surely, the symptoms must be detectable.”
Elinor hesitated. “Eyes might be misread. We have not discussed the matter, and I will trust to nothing but plain language in matters of the heart. They are far too easy to misinterpret.”
“If you can remain so calm at such a time, I think I understand you.”
“You think me unfeeling?” she cried. “Have a care, Marianne. You wound me deeply, and yes, I have a heart to deeply wound. Just because I restrain my sentiments, do not mistake their depths.”
“I am sorry, dearest Elinor!” Marianne exclaimed, falling to her knees and grasping her sister’s hands. “Forgive me my callousness, as you always do. You are but too good. I know not how you manage it.”
Quite in spite of herself, Elinor smiled fondly. “I have had two years of additional practice.”
Marianne forced a disenchanted laugh and regained her feet. “Well, we shall at least see Edward in London. That is something to look forward to. I fear it will be immeasurably dreary, surrounded by Fanny’s friends day in and day out.”
“Surely London, with all its diversions, will not so deprive you of interesting companionship. I know you do not care for Edward’s society as much as I do.”
Marianne made a face. “Fanny suggested that I should find Robert Ferrars’ company agreeable. I think that unlikely.”
“From the little that Edward has said of him, most.” Elinor laughed, her equanimity largely restored.