By Avellina Balestri
Word Count: 7943
Rating: PG-13 (for blood and sensuality)
Summary: An alternate story of how Colonel Brandon and Marianne fell in love.
He was always the quiet one, watching, waiting, it seemed, for something. He was lonely, people said, brooding over past hurts, keeping to himself lest others saw his wounds, going out alone into the wild on his hunting trips, and returning with as little ceremony as he had gone. He accepted invitations rarely, and when he did attend gatherings, he tended to remain on the sidelines of the party. He was the one they all muttered things about, the curious oddity all closeted up inside. He did his best to humor them, even if it stung, like raw exposure.
But no one seemed to think much of it, for Colonel Christopher Brandon was simply a part of the respectable furniture to them. He knew most men commended his rank and record, but most women thought him a bore, the bland colonel who had seen too much of the wars. They said some fighting men loved the parties more for all that, but Brandon was not among them. No, according to them, he would no doubt get duller by the years. And he had no doubt they were right. He was like the rain…gray, gloomy, always coming and going…
But then he had seen her, though she hadn’t seen him, so involved playing a tune on her pianoforte, golden-red curls falling over her porcelain shoulders like sunlight dripping over the white cliffs that ran along the coast. And he was overwhelmed by the warmth of her, the light in her shining through dancing, laughing eyes. He wanted to be a part of this aliveness she seemed to exude at all times. She reminded him of his first love, so many years before.
Marianne Dashwood was living to feel, to dream, to love, to immerse her senses in all that he had cut himself off from for so long. He wished he could be a part of that life, so much that it hurt, but her eyes fell upon him with a cold shade, and it hurt more. He did not blame her, of course. He was not the most attractive of men, not physically or personably. He just was, like a piece of old lawn furniture, part of the atmosphere, but preferably ignored.
But then there was Willoughby. Young, handsome, charming in every way, a winning smile, knowing the right things to say to brighten her eyes, he was everything to her, even as he was nothing to her. He was a rogue, the kind that can win a heart without having a heart. He was the sort who lived for pleasure, even if it caused others pain. He was like the summer sun in tropic islands, brilliant yet burning raw.
And had the day not come when the sun withdrew itself from the flower, and she had found herself alone, soaked by the rain and her own confusion, her own despair? But Brandon had been there, with his rainy countenance, to scoop her up off the ground and bring her home. And seeing her so limp, and pale, and death-like, had he not pleaded to be given something to do to help, lest he go mad? For few could know or realize, but inside him raged a summer storm, with lightening in the eye and thunder in the heart, beating warm.
And when she awoke from her coma, her mother was there, brought cross-country it was said, by a friend. Colonel Brandon, that very friend, was there, looking in the door to see if she was alright, and when her eyes fell on him, he shyly turned his own down and went away. But her words of thanks, however measured, had reached him, she knew that.
She saw much of him as the days passed. She was tired and ill and broken inside, and he looked upon her with a hint of fear, as if dreading that the petals of a rose might drop off and turn to dust. He was gentle with her, although she went as hard on herself as a person might go. He was the one who would not go away, somehow, and she was too tired to try and force him away, too tired to give him the slip anymore.
And in that inability, she gradually found his kindnesses were becoming more welcome. He might not be exciting, but he was steady. He always came. Surely he would always come, and almost every day brought her flowers, as he always had. She used to shove them off to her older sister, as they often seemed in some disarray, as if hastily assembled, like his awkward words to her. They used to embarrass her, like he did, and she had not cared how her actions wounded him. But now she kept the flowers hurriedly yanked from his garden, and she would bury her nose in them. They’d make her feel a little less dead in the heart. And his lonely eyes seemed comforted by it.
She never imagined he would like poetry, but clearly she was wrong. He knew the poets, the richly romantic ones she thought would be beyond his ken. And when she found out he knew, she asked him to read them to her, and he did. His voice was not like Willoughby’s, exuberant and full of applied ardor, but it was deep and even as a ship sailing in calm waters. It often soothed her to sleep, either outside in the lawn chair or sitting on the crimson couch before the hearth. And when she woke up he’d be gone, but a knit quilt would be pulled out over her, and sometimes she thought she might remember the flash of his fingers across her cheek in her sleep, and his voice telling her to have pleasant dreams
Flowers. Poetry. Tea.
They took tea together often, on the porch, or in the gazebo. The cream and sugar questions would go back and forth, and the butter and berry jam on muffins. And when the lights rose or dimmed, the gardens would be the most beautiful, and they would watch the way the flowers opened or closed. And she would ask if all beauty was built on suffering. He said that if it were so, then all suffering was built on love. She asked if it was worth it. He answered that each person would say a different thing. But he believed it was.
Sometimes they’d listen to the rain fall. Sometimes they didn’t have to say anything, and she realized she liked it that way. It was not because she didn’t like him to speak, but rather she liked knowing she could feel safe in the presence of another, even in the quiet. It was the strange sense of sharing a mind sometimes, even in forgetting the separation between the one and the other. Strange and beautiful.
He started to speak a little more, sometimes. Rarely, he’d even try for a joke, when she seemed most deeply depressed. It was frequently self-deprecating, about his own rather silly past efforts to please her. Hearing him do that made her chuckle softly, involuntarily. He would smile at his own expense. He could also calm her when her breathing betrayed her, in the wake of the pneumonia that almost claimed her life. When she was weak, he was the arm she leaned on. When she felt her lungs flutter, he was the one who helped with her inhaler, and counted slowly, methodically, until her breaths became even again…he was there to make her whole again…
“For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”
He was always there. He always had been. She started to imagine he always would be.
But then the day arrived when the streets buzzed with news. It was all quite dramatic, all darkly thrilling really. Bonaparte had escaped from Elba! The bagged fox was on the loose again! Was it somewhat romantic for everyone, to imagine the flurry it would cause?
“It will come to nothing,” the finely dressed citizens said. “That Corsican pretender is making a final swagger, that is all. He is all done and finished.”
And everyone believed them.
But then the evening came when Brandon arrived at the door, and he was dressed in his uniform.
“Colonel,” Marianne blurted in surprise as she surveyed him on the stairs. “What is this?”
“I am to report to my regiment tomorrow, and must leave for Portsmouth on the late coach. I am sorry I could not inform you earlier. The news came suddenly, although I admit to rather expecting it would.”
“I rather thought recalling officers to the field was unnecessary,” she admitted. “The common thought is that this problem should be resolved easily, as Bonaparte has but a handful of men.”
“I…would agree that he will be defeated,” Brandon concurred.
“Defeated?” she blinked. “But I thought he had no army to defeat.”
“I fear those who know little of the man also know little of his ability to attract other men. There is an army, Miss Marianne. He has gathered one again, and it is only a matter of time that they must be met.”
“Would you…I mean, I’m sorry, would you like to come in and have something to eat before you leave?” Her words were awkward, confused. It was common for them to have tea together, though it was rather late in the day for that now. Leaving? Was he really…leaving?
“You are most kind, but I must decline…I must be on my way shortly, and can get something to eat at the halfway point…of course, it would not be as good as meal with friends, of course, but…,” he rambled, then exhaled. “I simply wished to…to relay my thanks to your family, for their friendship, their many kindnesses…”
“Really, colonel, there’s no need for that,” she reproached him, still feeling uneasy at the prospect of him being called back to war. “You’ve been…more than kind, yourself.”
Brandon gazed at her, as if trying to find the words he wanted to say. “I…have never…expressed myself…well,” he confessed. “But, Miss Dashwood, Miss Marianne, I…” He paused, and there was nothing but pain on his face. “I…will miss you, Marianne. Yes, if you believe me capable of any honesty, I…I will miss you…very much.”
“You make it sound like you’re going away forever,” Marianne replied, trying hard to make light of it, but feeling a weight in her chest. “It shan’t be a long separation. You said so yourself; this business with Bonaparte is a foregone conclusion. If battle must come, so be it, but it’s still nothing more than a last stand.”
He smiled slightly, grimly. “Never underestimate last stands, my dear.”
She blinked, suddenly noting the tone in his eyes and realizing what it meant. He thinks he might die…he thinks he might die out there, and he’s trying to say goodbye. “Are you…afraid, colonel?”
“I wish I could be afraid,” he said softly. “It would mean I was not all numb by the action taken, and going to be taken.” He looked wistfully out the window to where Margaret was playing with a wooden sword. “I think…I shall get your sister something in Belgium, if I am able. She might like a memento of the war to show her own children one day…nothing sharp, never fear; I am not that thoughtless. But you would be amazed by the sort of things left over on a battlefield. It is as if all the world has been turned upside down…”
“Colonel.” Marianne’s voice sounded strained, and it brought Brandon out of his strange ramble. Then she exhaled. “You know…Margaret has grown to like you quite a bit.”
“Has she?” His voice was almost innocent in his eagerness to know that. “I…am glad you told me. I would not imagine…well, I’ve just had limited experience with children. Indeed, to be liked is…somewhat difficult for me to achieve.”
“That’s nonsense,” she countered. “We all like you. Everyone of note in the county has good things to say about you.”
“You may have been told already, but I am afraid I am the kind of man who is frequently spoken well of, but rarely cared about.”
Marianne bit her lip, recalling Willoughby’s dismissal of the man, as one who everyone pretended to be delighted to see, but loathed trying to talk to. Now that she thought about it, almost everyone she’d ever seen interact with him treated him that way, like something that had to be there for conventions sake, but which no one truly held any attachment for.
“I think…people simply need to get to know you,” she offered quietly. “Like Margaret. I’ll admit, in the beginning she thought you were…” She paused, trying not to be too forward, not wanting to spill out the words, not wanting to admit that Margaret had called him a boring old bachelor who she’d hate to have for a brother-in-law. And Marianne had agreed with her.
Brandon smiled. “Whatever she thought, she was probably right. She’s a clever girl.”
“But don’t you see? Now you’re…you’re almost…one of us.” She reddened, fearing how that might be taken. “I mean, like…a part of the family…”
He chuckled a little. “Marianne, please…do not fear leading me the wrong way. I may have wished for much, but now my greatest wish is simply to be your friend. All or nothing must flow out of that, and I do not for a moment think myself entitled to anything at all. It is joy enough for me to…have someone like yourself who is gracious enough to put up with my feeble efforts at friendship, and my poor attempts at idle conversation. Believe it or not, it has given me something to live for.” He looked over his shadow at the light cast over the lawn. “I fear it grows late. Please forgive my hasty departure. It is with no intent to abuse your kind hospitality.”
He stepped backwards towards the door, awkwardly.
“Of course, we all understand,” she muttered. “Umm…please, you will…write, won’t you? I mean, even if it’s not long…we’d all appreciate hearing how you are faring.”
He smiled a little. “Can’t give away military secrets, I fear. Margaret might get chattering and inform the world over.”
This caused Marianne to laugh a little. “Oh, well…you’ll have to address your secrets to me alone, then.”
“Alright,” he conceded, and then his eyes fell to her again, softly drinking her in, like the last drink a man was ever going to have before being sentenced to die of thirst. “Be well, Miss Marianne…take care of yourself…remember to eat and sleep as the doctor tells you, and wear your shawl, and keep in out of the rain…”
She giggled a little. “Now you sound very much like my mother.”
He reddened slightly. “Yes, yes, an old mother hen,” he allowed, in good-natured self-deprecation. “I suppose…I’ve gotten used to worrying over you just a little. I am…a silly man.”
“You’re a good man,” she responded quietly.
He swallowed and took her hand in his. She felt his lips against it, tingling her skin. The sensation should have been hot, she thought, but it was cold. And now she was the one who was afraid.
“Goodbye,” he whispered, stepping backwards on the door. “Goodbye, Marianne…”
She watched him go down the path, towards the garden gate as the evening mist fell, and how ten-year-old Margaret stopped her playing and marveled at his uniform, and asked where he was going, and how he told her he was off to join his regiment, and he’d try and bring her something back…and then she hugged him, impulsive little girl that she was.
And although she couldn’t see from that far away, Marianne might have sworn he was forcing back tears as he went out that gate, feeling just a little warmer from Margaret’s hug. And for all the propriety in her, she wished she would have given him the same.
She stood in the town square that was half in a state of rejoicing, half in a state of mourning. The war had gone on for so long, the end of it sent strange shock waves through everyone, each person taking it a different way. Laughter, dancing, trembling, tears. But Marianne merely stood, white as the last rose of summer, bent upon the stem, weak at the knees. And the name of a place was carving deeper and deeper into her mind, her heart, her soul.
Waterloo. That was where the battle had happened, the long expected final confrontation. Victory and death, all wrapped up into one. It was the culmination of months of waiting and watching and wondering. And for her, it was underscored by the starkness of an absence and her own thoughts rushing to fill in the void.
Where is he? Why hasn’t he written? Is he unable to write? What’s happened to him?
All thoughts, rushing around in circles upon circles. And his own predictions about the nature of last stands, and her own memory of the look in his eyes when he left. Did he ever expect to come home, or was something else altogether anticipated? And why did each day feel like a month, until they all accumulated, and it felt like a thousand years?
And here she was, brought to this place, and the casualty list posted in public as bonfires were being lit, and the songs being sung, and the sun was sinking. And she both could not believe and could believe all too well the ink burning through her. It was the longest casualty list she had ever seen, and the first one she had ever been personally invested in. It was as if the ink had all but turned to blood in her eyes as she scanned it, every blessed bit of it, seeking out the regiment feverishly. And then came the words that singed her most:
Colonel Christopher Brandon. Missing.
Missing…? What did that even mean? Is it simply another way of saying blown apart, unrecognizable, left on the field in so many little unidentifiable pieces? Did it simply mean no proof either way, an eternity of uncertainty, confined to a ghost-like sphere? Did it mean, quite simply, no one cared enough to investigate beyond that, that he was honored enough to be listed, but not loved enough to be sought after…even the blood and bone of him?
She felt unable to walk, and yet she walked. It felt like floating, hovering over the confetti-stained cobblestones, jostled by crowds of merrymakers and those wailing for the loss of loved ones. She made no sound. It all was inside. Some strange comfortable silence, and then the twist. She had not felt that since he was last with her. And now…he was no more. Or at least, she did not know more. Oh, he had always known it would be this way, hadn’t he? His soldier’s heart had told him so.
She was in too much of a fog to recognize the faces clearly in the torchlight spread across the square. She had snuck out alone, even unbeknownst to her family. And uncle and aunt would simply lecture her about going out into the tumult so late. It was not appropriate that a young lady should be seen amidst the late night revelry that easily might be commandeered by drunken hooligans. Her sensible sister Elinor also would have cautioned her against it. And high-spirited young Margaret would have wanted to come along. But this night, she did not want to be seen, to be recognized. Anonymity was her cloak.
But faces were one thing; voices were another. Voices, and laughter, blended together, almost like a strange dream. She knew what she was hearing, what invaded her being like a lance. He was sitting high in his carriage, pulled off in the shadows, a bottle in one hand and a full-breasted woman slumped against him in what seemed to be a state of drunken celebratory giddiness. She watched numbly as the flickering torch reached its fingers across the faces of the man and the woman sharing the bottle, the brandy wine dripping down their faces. And then their lips pressing against each other, blood-red against blood-red, moaning with pleasure, while others were moaning in pain…
And then, like a cat’s ears prick up, the man seemed to sense the eyes of another on him. He sat up abruptly and made her out in the shadows. With a quizzical expression on his face, he slipped down from the carriage and came towards her. She was too drained to move at all and just watched him approach.
A strange, almost embarrassed chuckle rose in his throat. “Well, no need to look so very glum, a fair flower of a woman such as yourself…why, you’d think it’d been a defeat from the look on your pretty face.”
She said nothing, just continued staring at him accusingly.
“Here alone, my dove? Surely you should have a fine gentleman to take you about by now?”
“Where is your wife, sir?” she demanded hoarsely.
He shrugged. “Do you think I’d subject her to such a raucous display of gaiety? No, no…she’d much rather be at home!”
“As you would,” she remarked quietly, “instead of on the field.”
“Ohhh…I see now,” he chirped. “You wish I were with him. Get my face blasted off by Boney’s guns, hmm?”
She shut her eyes, but said nothing.
Willoughby, on the other hand, snorted. “An honorable man, such a perfect gentleman, yes? So unimaginative in his perfection, so foolish in his honor. As they say, the paths of glory lead but to the grave…he had a personality for it…”
“What? You yourself once agreed with me that a man of five and thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling, so little could be expected in return for him. But all is not lost. Perhaps his mother might find him worth mourning over…oh, sorry, did he ever even have a mother…?”
His words shattered the last shadow of their past attachment and brought her hand striking across his face like white heat, with the sting of a rose’s thorn. The slap stunned him, and for one instant, Marianne thought it also might have shamed him, perhaps even pained him, as his own words had shamed and pained her, as the memories of their mutually shared cruel jokes ravaged her.
Then for a moment, she genuinely pitied the look on his face of self-realization, his own petty hatred for a man with character that he himself had never had, and it was unlikely he would ever have. And now the last sparkle of what might have been, in the late evening of their love, faded from her eyes, and she turned away from him forever.
But his words had broken something inside her, and she suddenly felt overwhelmed with a pounding realization that no one would go. No one would know. But someone had to find out…someone had to know…someone had to go. And some hard breath flashed through her lungs, and she sensed his thoughts, somewhere, rustling like the wind that struck her shoulder…as she was sure it had his own, somewhere…
And the thoughts melted into an old poem, one Brandon had once read to her, that she now heard someone singing in the night…
One I love
Two she loves
Three, she’s true to me…
And when the fire to ice will run
When the tide no longer turns,
When the rocks melts with the sun
My love for you will have just begun…
To have stolen away, to have gone, blindly, with only a note of farewell. To have bartered for passage across the channel’s tide, and across the torn apart lands. To have found herself in the company of others, desperately seeking out missing loved ones in the aftermath of a battle. To see what he had told her…all the world turned upside down…oh, what a foolish venture…
And yet, of all the impulses of her entire impulsive existence, this one was the most necessary, most strangely assured, even though the risks haunted her, and the sights stung her sorely. It was as if she knew without knowing that this one thing required her, if ever she was required, and that sensibility had to be put aside in favor of the senses. For the senses were beckoning her, telling her to keep going…from hospital tent to hospital tent…
Until one day she found her instincts vindicated. The surgeon at this hospital tent had informed her how he had been lost in the chaos of the battle, had been found later on, in a burnt-out hut he had dragged himself into. And now she stood only a few paces off from him, and she was more afraid to look at him than anything else in her life.
She knew he was there, she could hear his breathing. She never knew she had grown close enough to him to recognize his own from all others, but now she knew that she had. It was imprinted in her mind, her heart, her soul, the inhaling and the exhaling she had thought nothing of previously. The man she had once wanted away from her…now here, still breathing…oh, thank God…
She moved towards the cot, a lump in her throat, and saw blood, all blood and bandages, crisscrossing his chest and stretching across his shoulder. She had been told that a ball had lodged itself in his lung and was too hard to remove, as well as his arm having been nearly severed by the flying projectile. Oh, there was so much blood, soaking through everything!
She sat on the stool that had been left there, and saw how pale he looked, how very weakened, with his white lips murmuring something, inaudibly. And yet she knew what it was, more with her heart than anything else…
And when the fire to ice will run
When the tide no longer turns,
When the rocks melts with the sun
My love for you will have just begun…
Slowly, she moved her hand to his injured arm. He tensed and jerked awake. His eyes flashed to her, hazy at first, then aware. Her presence startled him out of whatever semiconscious state he had been in. “Marianne…?” he croaked. “My God, no…” He swallowed back the dryness in his throat. “Is it a dream…?”
“No, you are awake,” she told him softly. “You were missing. I…came to find you.”
“For the love of God, what…why did you come?”
“I…had to come,” she stated firmly.
“Does your family know you are here?”
“They will soon enough.”
“Miss Dashwood…it was imprudent…”
“Colonel, we might discuss my own imprudence at another time,” she cut him off in a rush. “There are more pressing matters to face.” She straightened her back, trying to steel herself. “The regimental surgeon tells me the arm must come off,” she stated. “He tells me…it’s your only chance…”
“I know,” Brandon whispered. “He…told me the same.”
“Then…why have you refused him?”
He shifted, painfully. “There were…others who required attention sooner than I.”
“That’s not all of it, and you know it. Now tell me the truth.”
He paused for a long time. “Miss Dashwood, I feel…I have done everything…I was meant to do,” he explained haltingly. “I have done everything…I could. I am a content to die…a whole man, uncut.”
“And what of me?” she challenged. “You would leave me alone?”
He smiled a little at her effort. “You could never be alone for long. You have far too much to recommend you…and God knows you can do far better than what I have to offer…”
“I think not.”
“Don’t what? Tell you how I feel?”
“Don’t force yourself to say things you don’t mean in hopes of…”
“Alright, I swear to you I’ll say nothing to you not brought forth in truth,” she vowed. “I’ll say it all out, no hiding behind formalities, no holding back at all.”
“Alright,” he conceded softly, realizing this might be the rare opportunity to hear what she really thought.
“Then I’ll tell you…I’ll tell you how I used to try and avoid you when you came to visit, how I thought you on the wrong side of five and thirty years, and dull, and slow to talk, and didn’t want to waste time to find out if there was anything you had to say,” she spit out. “I wanted a great romance, you see? The kind the poets write about, that sweeps you off your feet and spins you around…and I took every line, every stanza as some great adventure, with flash and color…and I wanted it all to myself, I wanted to drown myself in it…and I just…didn’t see it in you…”
“Not…hard to understand that…” he offered, struggling against a twitch of pain. “I fear I am not…one to get swept up with…”
“But I found out something,” she continued. “I…didn’t like drowning so much, after all. What I wanted was dry, solid land…land with good soil. Oh, I didn’t know that at first, not after Willoughby first left. You were good to me, through my shock and stupidity, but I still took it all for granted. I still spent all my time pining over him, wishing for something I thought would bring my dream to life again in a way you never could. But then…you went away, and…” She shuddered. “Since then, every day, I found myself looking out the window, waiting for you to be there, waiting for you to come through the door, all awkward at the wrong moments, as I used to think, with your messy flowers and kind words. I waited for you on sunny days, for you to come and walk with me, and sometimes we’d talk, and sometimes we’d be quiet, and it was all the same for you made me feel so deeply wanted, so deeply safe. I waited for you on the rainy days, for you to sit down in the study with me, and I feel I can barely drink my tea if you’re not there. When I lay down in bed, I couldn’t sleep until I’d imagined your voice…reading to me…”
“I…didn’t mean to haunt you quite that badly,” he muttered shyly. “I never considered myself the particularly haunting type. I’m…forgettable enough. Not like…others…”
“But don’t you see? Every time I read a poem now, he’s not the one I think of, he’s not the voice I hear…” Her eyes were filling up with tears now, real tears. “It’s you. It’s all you. He was just some silly dream I dreamed…and that’s fine for infatuation, colonel, but not for love. Love must be real…and you’re…real, and I…miss you! I miss you every day, and all the little things we used to do, the things I thought were so dull, that I crave for now more than anything because they’re all a part of you, and I…I can’t bear to keep going on every day without you there…don’t you see? I…I know now…all those things I used to imagine…all the flash and swagger…do you know? All that…that’s not…love…” She sniffled involuntarily. “Love is when…when you can’t help but think of someone…not because they’re so glamorous or silver-tongued…but because you’re in them, and they’re in you, and you didn’t even know it was happening, through all those quiet, dull moments you suddenly realize are worth everything in the world, and you’d give anything to live them over again…”
“Marianne…” he rasped.
“Oh…” Her use of his Christian name made him shut his eyes tight to hide the tears there.
She seized the hand of his half-severed arm and he gasped. “Please…please…I’m begging you…to live…”
She knew she had broken him, in the best kind of way. She sensed he would undergo the sting of the knife now, even if he couldn’t form the words. The surgeon was there in a minute and the tools were being laid out. His eyes were on them briefly, then on her again. They did not seem terribly afraid, rather filled with a strange sort of awe.
“Here,” the surgeon said gruffly, handing Marianne the lantern. “Hold the light so I can make sense of metal and bone…”
“Don’t…make her stay for this,” Brandon rasped.
“I haven’t come this far to leave now,” she responded resolutely. She held the light out in front of her as the doctor offered him a swallow of brandy to dull the pain. He declined, saying it should be saved for someone worse off than him. So he just had a bullet stuffed in his mouth instead. Oh, Brandon, what kind of man are you? she thought as her eyes locked with his.
And she saw many things in his eyes that night, the light flickering across them.
There was a haunted look, yes…
An adoring goodbye that melts like a candle…
A silent prayer that passes like a flash of light…
And pain…that will not cry out…
Deeper and deeper…cutting…
Dreadful wondering if such pain would bring death…
And the shock that contracts, at the sound of the saw…
And awe, fear-wrenched awe…
Tight-shut eyes, biting on the bullet, fighting to breathe…
And a trembling tear he does not want to shed, running down…
Flinching, when soft fingers brush it away…
And thanks, borne from eyes with some lingering glimmer…
And then the dark…
When Brandon opened his eyes late the next day, he found her sitting there next to the cot, though she clearly had fallen asleep. Locks of her hair were falling out of her bun in a disorderly fashion. She looked pale and bruised beneath the eyes. There was blood sprinkling her dress now, splattered from his arm during the amputation. He felt his throat tense, and turned to look at the bandaged stump where his arm had been.
Then…he turned to look at her again. And to him, she had never looked more like an angel, in all her exhausted humanity, with the haze of the evening sun penetrating the tent and burning like a halo on her vibrant hair. He wished he could touch it, or if he was half as romantic as Willoughby had been, to ask her for a favor, to cut himself a piece…but he would never be so forward, or act so infatuated. But he thought back on the way she had instinctively brushed the tear of pain from his cheek the night before, and his heart swelled.
He wished her awake. He felt very much like talking; he knew not why. He rarely wanted to talk so much, but…perhaps being so close to the silence, so close to the stillness pulling on him through the pain that put him to sleep, made him want to let the world know…he was still there.
No, maybe it was not so much the world he cared about. Just her.
But she was asleep, and he didn’t want to frighten her. He thought to himself how he might go about it…should he go about it? Oh, but he did want to talk to her…even a little…
There was a low humming in his throat, an old tune he remembered, one that made him smile just a crack through his pain. And words that formed on a parched tongue, needing water, but unwilling to ask for it, knowing it too was in short supply. It was a song…because songs, strange things, are the life of men…
She opened her eyes slowly as the tune carried, and as soon as consciousness came to them, they immediately found their way to his. The song stopped. And they held each other that way, gaze to gaze, for a long time.
He smiled shyly at her. “Hello, Marianne.”
She shook her head, a hand to her mouth, as one does to hide an emotion, and she whispered, “Hello…” She smiled softly. “I…I think I dreamt you were singing…or was it a dream at all?”
She tilted her head quizzically. “I never knew you could sing.”
“Oh, I do extraordinarily with…with only four notes to work with…” he tried to joke. “Besides, this one…was in French. Anything in French sounds melodious by default…”
She turned her eyes down. “The French…hold little appeal for me at the moment,” she responded shakily, “what with their revolutions and emperors…for what they’ve done to you, to everyone…”
“Now, then…do you not think there are as many suffering souls in their ranks as in ours? Do you not think their wounds run as deep, made even keener by the sting of defeat? Do you think, perhaps, desperation might not have driven revolution, and despair driven them to arms for the emperor as their savior?”
Marianne gazed at him in admiration. “You are magnanimous, colonel.”
“I am a soldier, Miss Marianne, and I know that this war has cost both sides the lives of many honorable men. As we both know from experience, they are often enough hard to find.”
She blinked. “I…believe I found one.”
He regarded her serenely. “I pray I am even half as honorable as my lady is brave.”
“I am not brave,” she refuted. “I very nearly fainted last night…all the blood…”
“But you did not faint. You’ve soldiered on to help others, regardless of rank. And you stood over me with your light shining…” His eyes gleamed. “I am in debt to you for my life.”
“No, surely. If anything it is a debt repaid.”
“Ah…” His expression looked downcast. Then he added quietly. “Then…it is…a settled score?”
She shook her golden locks resolutely. “Do those who hold each other in their hearts ever keep scores to even? Would you even question it?”
“No,” he whispered in reply. “Never.” Then he once again glanced over at the stump of his arm wistfully. “It will be interesting when we get back,” he mused. “I imagine they’ll enjoy having a relic from the battle around, in the form of dullness on display who somehow managed to misplace a limb and sustain a bullet stuck inside him. Might even enhance my status as a party exhibit, yes?”
He smiled at her, meaning it to be a joke. But she looked utterly disturbed. “They don’t know…know what it’s like here.” She wiped a dirty strand of her hair away from her eyes.
“No,” he agreed. “No, I’m afraid they couldn’t…if they haven’t lived it.”
“You know, I don’t believe I ever noticed the servants much before back home,” she mused blearily. “Never saw them really as anything much, just sort of there to do things, not really…living. But now…I…I’ve met so many…just this past week, common as common cloth, all torn up…” She exhaled in exhaustion. “There…there was a boy, on the other side of the hospital. He was even younger than me. He…he was afraid…so very afraid…” She swallowed. “He had family, on the Isle of Skye. He told me about them, poor crofters. He had a sweetheart, with hair like mine, he said. I…I stayed with him…until…”
“Marianne,” he whispered, and stretched his one remaining arm out to her as tears started to fill her eyes.
She looked at him through the saltwater for a long moment, seeing his sincere desire to comfort her even through his own pain. She didn’t need more persuading to be pulled into an embrace, for her sense of propriety was too far broken down by all she had witnessed, and Brandon knew it. She was soon resting her head on his chest and letting her tears fall down on the bandaging. He brought his hand up and gently fingered her hair.
“I’m…I’m sorry…I’m acting like a child,” she choked.
“No, I’m the one who is sorry…sorry you were made to see what you have seen, on my account,” Brandon murmured, and kissed her softly on the forehead.
She stayed there up against him because it felt safe, it felt warm, and the feeling of his breathing under her comforted her, even though it felt weak, wheezing sometimes. The bullet lodged there would tamper with his breathing for the rest of his life, she expected. But who could care? He was breathing, that was all that mattered.
She thought she must have fallen asleep that way, worn out from crying, and that her broken, bruised thoughts turned into shattered, dying starlight and wove into dreams of drumming heartbeats, and she half-heard the surgeon saying something about how she shouldn’t do that, she really shouldn’t…it might hurt him…
“No, no, let her stay,” she heard her man whisper. “Don’t wake her…just let her stay…”
She looked over the edge of the ship, at the cliffs of Dover rising just beyond the horizon. White, with gold light streamed down, and a flood of pinks with an undercurrent of gray, and purples with an undercurrent of deep, dark ebony. It would be night when they stepped on English soil again, but she could drink in the colors and shades of home for the present.
Home. There were moments when she almost forgot what it was, like some distant dream of a child’s first waking moments, or a young girl’s first romance when maturity has taken over. She was going back, and yet she knew…she could never really go back. Not the same way, at least.
She heard footfalls on the deck, and turned to the colonel behind her. He had his empty sleeve tuck into his uniform. He looked just as tired as Marianne felt. Two weeks fresh from amputation, and he was taking it like a true soldier. He winded easily from the wound to his lung, but he still insisted upon walking the deck, strengthening himself as best he was able.
“Have you ever seen this view before, Marianne?” he inquired.
She shook her head. “This is the first time I’ve been far enough away to appreciate it.”
“I’ve seen it before, from a distance like this. And each time, I wondered if it was excitement or dread that I felt. For it was either that she looked so large and I felt so small, or she looked so small and I felt large.”
“I know…what you mean,” she agreed. “It’s like measuring yourself against the past and the future, with the present standing apart, suspended on the sea.”
“Or against blood,” he added morosely.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Blood casts its tint on everything…even the whitest cliffs…”
“Even to the stars,” he whispered looking up at the early ones breaking through the dying streaks of tarnished purple sun, like white bandages, blood-soaked. “No star trembles on thy top,” he recited quietly, “No moonbeam on thy side. But the meteors of death are there: the gray watery forms of ghosts…”
“Night would have descended in sorrow, and morning returned in the shadow
of grief,” she finished for him, and again their eyes met.
“I wish…you did not have to see it,” he stated. “And yet…forgive me for my selfishness, but sharing it with you makes the wound a treasure. I…I hope that does not sound…terrible?”
“No, it doesn’t,” she assured him. “I welcome it.”
He regarded her softly, then cleared his throat. “It’s getting a bit cold. Want…want me to get you a shawl?”
“No, no, I’m fine,” she assured.
“Want…want to walk?” He tried to make a gesture automatically, as if to offer her his right arm, as he was accustomed…forgetting for a precious moment that he no longer hand a right arm to offer, just a twitch of his stump. He blushed at his mistake, then tried to joke to cover. “I’m afraid I’ve made a slight miscalculation…must be getting senile…”
Then he felt her gently weaving her arm between his side and his empty sleeve. There was a brush, the softest brush of her body against his, and he felt a shock run through him as her head leaned against his shoulder.
He closed his eyes and let his face brush against her hair, as she had let her face brush his flowers back home. “I worship you,” he said in the quietest of whispers, as if to himself. “Would…would you…ever…consider…?”
Her breath caught in her throat. “Christopher…”
“I know, I know…I don’t deserve it…deserve you…but I…I can’t help…help but ask…even if it’s in vain…”
“It’s not that,” she responded. “It’s…I have to tell you something…something you should know, that…that happened between me and Willoughby.” Now she really did feel cold, more chilled than any exterior temperature could make her. “I went out with him one evening, out into the woods. We stayed out late, watched the stars come out, lying outstretched in the fallen leaves. The wind was cool, it being autumn, and…he put his arm around me…and…we…spent an hour, there, together…and he said…he said it didn’t matter, in the long run, for we had each other, and…”
“Marianne.” His voice was quiet, calming. “You don’t…have to spell it out. I am…familiar with his ways.”
She looked at him deeply. “Then…you knew?”
“I…supposed it a possibility.”
“Then…then I am not an angel, colonel,” she protested, biting her lip. “I am not something pure and untouched, I…”
“I love you.” His eyes were warm with a passion she had never before seen in them. “Whatever was done…however he betrayed you, body and soul, and damaged your trust, I would seek…seek to win it back…to heal it, if you would let me…let me try.”
“Oh, Christopher…” Her voice, broken as it was, found its silence in the suddenness of lips against lips. The impulsiveness of the act surprised her, yet soon softened, melting into the warmth of her mouth. Her heart raced, and then felt absorbed, swallowed up into the heart of another.
But then something shattered the moment. He pulled away from the kiss abruptly and broke down into a cough. He fumbled for a handkerchief with his only hand and turned to press it to his mouth. Marianne didn’t have to see the color red to know what had happened. She had tasted his blood on her tongue. She knew the ball in his lung was responsible.
“I’m sorry,” he rasped. “I’m…so sorry…it…it won’t happen like that when…I…I’m capable of…” He was shaken, ashamed, and Marianne found herself looking into his eyes, touching his face. Would she have done so before this voyage beyond herself? She doubted it.
He swallowed. “I want to…please you, Marianne, as much as…” He paused. “As…you could want.”
“You are pleasing me,” she murmured, and her lips found their way to his again. A second chance at it, yes, imperfect and pulsating without words unspoken. And their kiss was hot like the sun’s scorch and deep, true like the ocean’s breath.
Neither one knew how long it lasted; it didn’t matter. It was like a breath no one needed to count. And the wind skimming the waters was keen and cool in the darkening dusk, but the kiss outlived it. When it broke, there were breathless words, a poem, on his lips:
“I leaned forward from my shield, and felt the kindling of my soul. Half formed, the words of my song burst forth upon the wind….”
“We rose on the wave with songs,” she continued, completing him. “We rushed, with joy, through the foam of the deep…”