Posted on 2015-10-31
"I beg of you, dearest, do not go." Mrs. Edward Ferrars had tried to reason with her sister, Marianne Brandon, widow of the late Col. Brandon, but the other lady would not hear anything Elinor said.
"I shall do as I please," Marianne said with a sniff. She had a home - Brandon had left Delaford to her, as it was not entailed - but she had no life. Now that the children were grown, she was lonely. It was time for more.
"But you must recall the Palmers!" Elinor shuddered whenever she remembered that mass poisoning at Cleveland.
"An unfortunate incident," Marianne said with another sniff. "And I spared young Thomas." She smiled at the thought. All of that young man's relatives having succumbed to Marianne doctoring the soup, the Brandons had stepped in to raise the boy. If only Charlotte had not made mention one too many times of Marianne's despondency after the Willoughby affair. A shame to waste almost the entire family, but Mrs. Palmer never had learned to keep her mouth shut. Poison had been the perfect answer.
"And as much as I appreciate your handling of my mother-in-law, I cannot believe her suffocation was determined to be her passing in her sleep. However did you manage that?"
Marianne buffed her nails on the lapel of her stylish traveling costume.
Marianne loved Elinor more than anyone except her own late husband, but she esteemed her even more for her ability to keep secrets. Where they once had not confided enough in each other, they had come to open up in their later years. Elinor did not judge. Especially since her own enemies were as apt to end up dead as anyone who had ever crossed Marianne.
Now, however, Elinor seemed to have a slight change of heart, just when Marianne was about to embark on her ultimate act of revenge: The Willoughbys.
"Marianne, Willoughby himself is gone. The rest of that family has done nothing to you."
"No? Not even the former Miss Grey? I think she has a lot to answer for, Elinor!" In a huff, Marianne ascended into her carriage. "It shall be my finest moment, Elinor, watch and see!" With a wave out the window, she gave her coachman leave to drive on, leaving her sister alone on the steps of the Delaford parsonage. With a sigh, Elinor went indoors.
"So, she is gone." Edward said, waiting for her in the front hall. He folded his beloved wife in a warm embrace and thought he was quite indebted to Marianne. Not only had she taken out his mother, but the fire at his brother's house had also put paid to most of the rest of his family, including Robert and Lucy. That Marianne had taken in and raised his rescued niece and nephew had been a nice touch.
His own favorite murder had been that of John Dashwood, his own sister, Fanny, and their nasty brood of brats. The carriage that had killed them all in a tragic accident had been an unfortunate incident. One he could not regret.
He knew all of this because, like Elinor with Marianne, there were no secrets between himself and his wife. Considering their past, the absolute truth had always been one of the foundations of their long marriage.
"She has to do this," he now reminded Elinor.
"I know," she said with another sigh. "What do you suppose it will be this time?"
"And still come off as an unfortunate incident?"
"She is clever. I should not worry."
"And she will spare the grandchildren."
"It is too late for the son, perhaps," Edward agreed. "And it is better that way."
Marianne did not mind raising Thomas Palmer and Robert's lads, but the years had come and gone, and it would have been painful for her to take in Willoughby's child. A child that should have been hers. No, it had to be the next generation this time. Where Edward and Elinor had filled the parsonage with offspring and much laughter, the Brandons had been childless except for their orphans.
"Speaking of grandchildren," he said.
Elinor smiled. "They arrive tomorrow."
Marianne had carefully cultivated this particular relationship over the years. She had made friends with the Willoughby son quite effortlessly, ensuring that Thomas had shared a room with the lad at Eton. And why not, considering at one time they had been neighbors.
Marianne was known now as 'aunt' to the Willoughbys' only child and his offspring, a secret acquaintance, having convinced the gullible young man not to speak her name to his parents.
Now, as she alighted in front of the pretentious portico of the ridiculously named Combe Magna Carta (Willoughby had added onto the name at the insistence of his wealthy, idiotic bride, Mrs. John Willoughby, nee Grey), she smiled broadly as the grandchildren of her former love spilled out of the house to greet her.
"I brought presents!" Marianne sang as they hauled her into the house. "But later, after I am settled." She had carefully orchestrated this visit, as she had never been there before, having seen the family mostly in London, so that she did not see Mrs. Willoughby until dinner. And by then everything should be arranged to her satisfaction.
"We will show you to your room, Aunt Marianne," John Willoughby Junior said, taking charge and leading her toward the massive staircase.
After she was placed in a beautiful room with a lovely view of the garden, Marianne begged a moment of John's time. The children were dismissed.
"I have something important to tell you." They sat in brocade chairs facing the fire and all she could think was, 'Of all this, I might have been mistress.' "Do you recall your father?" she wondered.
"I never told you that he and I were lovers, did I?"
"Before he married your mother." Marianne knew that his mother had barely had any hand in raising him. It had been so easy to gain his confidence as a lad - neither of his parents had given him much attention, and she had showered him with it. "We should have married, but your father betrayed me. I have no regrets, of course." No, none at all, except perhaps that she might have to sacrifice this Willoughby in order to kill his mother.
"You might have been my mother?"
"Oh, yes. But your mother had more money, and some men are weak. They cannot see past a chequebook in order to appreciate true love."
"Your mother was not much better." Preying on John's long-standing disdain of his parents as, well, parents, Marianne told him about the London ball when she had been snubbed by Willoughby and Miss Grey, and was made a laughingstock of the Ton.
"The devil you say!"
"I fear it is true. I am only telling you this because..."
"It is time for revenge."
"Exactly." Maybe she would not have to throw away his life, and that sat fine with her. She had always adored him. "What do you think we should do?"
"I have an idea..."
In the end, it was said that an old love of Mrs. Willoughby's finally exacted his revenge. At least that was what the servants said when her son discovered her the next morning, a rose in one hand, blood on the Aubusson carpet and a pistol near the open window. Mr. Willoughby agreed with their assessment, had them give their statements to the magistrate, and went into deep mourning. His wife could not praise Mrs. Brandon enough for arriving in the nick of time to help the family through its crisis. If anyone recalled that she was once scorned by Willoughby Senior, no one ever said a word.
As the young Willoughbys loved Aunt Marianne more than they did their grandmother, and were more than content with their gifts, it was agreed that Combe Magna (the name having been changed at the death of the wealthy, idiotic Mrs. John Willoughby, nee Grey) would be shut up and the entire family removed to Delaford, where they all lived happily ever after.
Thomas Palmer, who had returned to Cleveland to raise his own family a few years before, would occasionally visit his adopted mother at Delaford and be reunited with old friends. And then he would return to his own estate, growing children and roses in equal amounts. Without any regrets.The End