coldness and reserve mortified Elinor severely. She was vexed and angry, but resolving to regulate her behavior to him by the past rather than the present, she avoided every appearance of resentment or displeasure and treated him as she thought he ought to be treated from the family connection. “Have you been in London these many months?” she inquired.
“No. I have but recently returned from Plymouth.”
“Where you were educated? Do you maintain many connections in the area?”
“Yes. Several.” He then pointedly turned his attention to greeting Marianne, who was as mystified by his behavior as her sister and displayed that astonishment a great deal more.
His mother frowned on this performance, commenting curtly, “Edward spends more and more time in Devonshire. I should like to know what he finds so charming about it.”
He turned to his mother with something like relief. “The countryside is exquisite. Miss Marianne, who is very well-versed in matters of the picturesque, would understand my passion.”
Marianne could not but laugh in disbelief. “I never knew you to be an admirer of landscape scenery.”
“No. I know nothing of such matters, but I can enjoy a fine prospect as well as anyone else. I have been introduced to your relation, Sir John Middleton of Barton Park. He sends his greetings and hopes to reacquaint himself with his cousins in the not too distant future. He is a warm, hospitable man, a great lover of the hunt, and the sponsor of endless diversions and entertainments for the young people of the area.”
“Were you introduced on one such occasion?” asked Elinor.
“Indeed. He has some distant connection to Mr. Pratt, through his wife.”
“Well, Edward, while you have been so occupied with diversions, we have been deprived of your company, and I could have used your assistance at Norland,” Fanny admonished. “I shan’t forgive you for so neglecting me. Whether my sisters will be more lenient with you, we shall have to see.” She looked eagerly to Elinor, hoping she would seize the provided opportunity for flirtation.
“We must not tease Mr. Ferrars on the subject,” was Elinor’s disappointing advance, and with that, the subject closed, the business of eating taking precedence over all foolish matters of the heart.
When the gentlemen rejoined the ladies that evening, John prevailed upon Marianne to entertain them with some music. Her audience was not as attentive as she could wish, but the lack of appreciation troubled her little while she could indulge her own tastes upon the pianoforte and lose herself in agreeable recollections from the morning, without the disruption of the far less agreeable evening she was presently enduring.
The rest of the party engaged in stilted conversation until it was time for tea, when Marianne withdrew from the instrument, remarking on how quickly the time had passed. Fanny undertook the distribution of the refreshment, a task in which Elinor, who had not found the time to pass so swiftly as her sister, readily volunteered to assist. Mrs. Ferrars nodded her commendation. She had found the eldest Miss Dashwood to be what she had hoped, but she had not found Edward to be as smitten as her daughter had implied. She studied her son’s features as he reached to take his tea from Elinor, looking for signs of affection, when his hand passed so directly before her as to make a ring, with a plait of hair in the center, very conspicuous on one of his fingers.
"I never saw you wear a ring before, Edward," she cried, rather unthinkingly. "Surely, that is not Fanny's hair, which is darker."
The room grew silent and turned as one towards Edward, who colored very deeply, in expectation of his reply. When none surfaced, Fanny went halfway towards clarifying the situation by confirming that she had never bestowed a lock upon Edward, and no one in the room was so foolish as to think a brother would stealthily procure such a trophy from his sister. Many looked to Elinor now, and then back at the ring. It was her turn to redden. Neither had she ever presented a lock of hair to Edward, but that did not negate the possibility that it was hers. The color, in the candlelight, looked to be exactly the shade of her own, but she could not conceive how he contrived to obtain it. She was not in a humor, however, to regard it as an affront, and the first stirrings of hope she had allowed herself all evening began to bubble and brew.
Edward's embarrassment lasted some time, and it ended only when John, whose own ruminations had led him to conclude that he really ought, perhaps, be affronted on his sister’s behalf, rose to a haughty posture and said in icy, challenging tones, “Have you an announcement you wish to make, Edward? As most of your closest connections are here assembled, as well as those of whom it may be said hold the greatest interest in the matter, I think we are deserving of an explanation.” He paused, looking to both his wife and Mrs. Ferrars for their approbation before continuing. “I myself have never been approached by you on the subject of your intentions towards my sister, nor has my mother indicated that you have so petitioned her, though we have, amongst ourselves, long suspected there was a growing attachment. The time has come for transparency. Well, sir? What have you to say for yourself?”
Elinor’s complexion blazed, but it went unperceived. All eyes were upon Edward. Hers as well.
“It is not Miss Dashwood’s hair, if that is what you are suggesting, John. She is far too delicate to bestow such a token on any gentleman other than her rightfully intended.”
Elinor’s hopes sank, and John nearly shouted in frustration, “Then who does it belong to, man?”
Quietly, Edward replied, “It belongs to the niece of Mr. Pratt, to whom I have been secretly betrothed these past five years.”
For those who take pleasure in rather gruesome spectacles – for example, touring the wards of Bedlam – the scene that now unfolded might be cause for some amusement, but for those who endured it, please be assured, it was most horrid. Fanny screamed, then fainted, and her husband was too distracted to catch her. It was Marianne who came to her rescue, her quick mind an asset in such a crisis, though she really had not the strength for the task. Fortunately, John regained his senses and came to her assistance before she buckled under his wife’s dead weight, all while Mrs. Ferrars unleashed a torrent of abuse upon her son.
“Have I, with the truest affection, been planning a most eligible connection for you while all the time you have been secretly engaged to another person? Such a suspicion could never have entered my head! Have you lost all notion of your duty and honor? It is outrageous, Edward, and I insist you bring an end to the affair at once!”
“I cannot do that, ma’am. It pains me to have deceived you all this time. In that respect, know that I have long suffered what I ought. I was young and foolish to have proceeded in such a clandestine fashion,” he admitted, looking to Elinor and pleading with his eyes, “but I cannot now, in good conscience, break my troth to Miss Steele. She is innocent of wrongdoing, having been urged by me into secrecy, and it would be an even greater sin to so repay her faithfulness than ever was the deception of those dearest to me.”
“I will bestow the Norfolk property on you immediately,” his mother yelled, understanding little of what he said, “and better yet, add to its annual income an additional two hundred pounds, but you must end the engagement immediately! Do this at once, or mark me well, Edward: you shall have nothing but what is already your own! I shall not support a son who so betrays his family!”
“That is very generous,” John eagerly contributed as Fanny began to revive. “Do be reasonable, Edward. A man cannot live on the interest of two thousand pounds, let alone support a family.”
“You call it generous?” Marianne burst forth, unable to contain her indignation any longer. “Never had I imagined such odious happenings might plague those so closely connected to myself! How could you, Edward?” she demanded, turning on him with uncharacteristic ferocity.
“Please, Marianne,” Elinor interrupted firmly, though she was only able to do so by means of the greatest exertion. “Let us say nothing more of this. Mrs. Dashwood is unwell, and it grows late. I think we had best be leaving.”
“Quite right, Elinor. You are ever wise,” commended John with a mixture of pride and resentment, even as he looked loathe to depart a scene of such suspense. The Dashwood party made as rapid a retreat as they could, the two young ladies supporting their chaperone while her husband bid hasty parting counsel upon his obdurate brother.