(Originally aired 2021/09/25 - listen here)
One of the lovely things about not having the podcast all pre-planned in all details is that sometimes there’s the chance for a spontaneity and surprise. When I was preparing last week’s Jane Austen show, I went looking to see if the stories in the out of print anthology A Certain Persuasion had been reprinted. And when author Eleanor Musgrove told me that my very favorite of the collection, her story “Margaret,” was still looking for a new home, I impulsively asked if we could include it in the podcast. I enjoy doing bonus fiction reprints on occasion, separate from the regular series of new fiction, and I was delighted when the answer was yes. Since then, Eleanor has also reissued the story as a stand-alone on various e-book platforms, so if you enjoy it here, consider buying a copy to keep to support the author.
This story was originally published in 2016 in the anthology A Certain Persuasion: Modern LGBTQ+ fiction inspired by Jane Austen’s novels edited by Julie Bozza and published by Manifold Press. The field of queer historical fiction was seriously diminished when Manifold Press shut down. The put out some excellent and unusual work. I’m happy to be able to reissue this one small part.
Eleanor Musgrove is an author from the South of England, and graduated from the University of Kent. Formerly published by Manifold Press, she is now in the process of republishing her out-of-print stories and, of course, always working on something new. At the moment, it's a sci-fi adventure through an unfamiliar universe - one that might be closer than it first appears. She also mentions working on a fictitious travel podcast, which sounds intriguing. You can find links to her blog and facebook in the show notes.
I will be your narrator today.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
by Eleanor Musgrove
Margaret Dashwood had never been as enthusiastic about the prospect of marriage as the rest of her family. Oh, she adored Edward, and she had come to be very fond of Colonel Brandon, but though her mother and sisters had now begun to talk of Margaret's own marriage, she could not bring herself to take any real interest in the prospect.
She found herself in rather a predicament, however, when it came to understanding her feelings on the subject. She longed for a confidante, but for various reasons neither her mother, nor either one of her sisters, could be counted on to give satisfactory advice. After all, she already knew what they would say.
Elinor, of course, would tell her that, unfortunate as it was, a woman's financial security was tied to her marriage. She and Edward did not have much but, carefully managed as it was, they lived quite comfortably.
"Besides," her eldest sister was bound to continue, "marriage to a man one both respects and loves is an exceedingly pleasant union, to say nothing of the joy of children." Margaret was sure that was true, if one loved a gentleman, but she could not even imagine having such feelings for any man. As for children, she loved her nieces and nephews dearly – young Henry Ferrars, and the three little Brandons she so doted on – but she was quite happy to remain an aunt, forgoing motherhood in favour of the relief one felt when, exhausted, one handed a child back to his or her parents.
Marianne's advice would be something else entirely. "Oh, to be in love – truly in love – is wonderful, Margaret! And love, though I did not believe it once, can be learned – but it cannot be forced. You must follow your heart," she would say, "and be cautious of false trails which might tempt you from your destined partner. Forget all practical considerations, and pursue happiness wherever you find it, whether it be in the overtures of an earl or the arms of a stable boy." That was all very well, but her sister had wasted no opportunity to encourage Margaret to marry, and soon. How was she to find an epic love to last the ages when she did not even understand what made a man any more attractive than, for example, a well-arranged vase of flowers or a scenic country view? And, having observed Willoughby's attentions to her sister those six years ago, she could not help but think that a charming and handsome man, just as a scenic view, was best regarded from the top of a tree, or else a still greater distance.
Margaret's mother, of course, saw only calamity in any deviation from the plans she had made for herself and her family. She would share Marianne's romantic sentiments and use Elinor's more practical arguments to full advantage. "You simply must be married, dear child, though it will grieve me to have my youngest fly the nest – marriage is wonderful beyond words, Margaret, and surely you would not deprive me of the comfort, in my advancing years, of seeing you settled with a house and children of your own? Would you be an old maid, never feeling the true passion of being loved so deeply and eternally?" No doubt it would go on forever, if the subject were broached.
It was with a heavy heart, then, that she resolved to ask her family what they thought when next they all dined at Delaford together. Before the women separated from the men after dinner, however, Colonel Brandon surprised her by asking if she might assist him with some advice of her own when the parties rejoined. She agreed, and readily so, but his request so piqued her curiosity that she quite forgot to speak to her sisters about her own dilemma. On the gentlemen's arrival, she had only to wait for Colonel Brandon to exchange a few words with Marianne before he came to join her where she was sitting a little apart from the others.
"I do not think we have spoken of my ward," he began uncomfortably, "though perhaps Marianne has confided in you."
Margaret replied that she had heard only that he had a ward, a young woman – though in truth she also knew that whatever story had led to Colonel Brandon's acquiring said ward had increased Elinor's respect for him tenfold and had led Marianne to declare that he was a true hero, worthy of all accolades but forced by circumstance and his own sense of honour to go unsung. Margaret had to admit that the thought of being included in the secret sent a flurry of butterflies aflutter in her stomach; she had always loved adventure, and now it seemed she might be about to hear of a real one. Colonel Brandon, however, did not elaborate.
"Let me add, then, only that she is a young lady – perhaps two years your senior, at most – unmarried, and that she has a son of five years old. The circumstances of his birth I shall not relate, but as the boy has grown, the family with whom Eliza – for that is her name – has lodged all this time have become unable to continue to accommodate them. They are becoming elderly, and the child – "
"I imagine he wishes to climb trees, and track mud through the house." Margaret smiled knowingly, recalling fond memories of her own rather wild childhood. "And a younger home, or else their own place, might suit them better, if it can be managed. But forgive me – on what subject did you want my advice?"
Colonel Brandon laughed, a short soft sound that seemed to startle him, as if he had not expected to find merriment in the conversation. "You have already touched upon the heart of it. Eliza is of an age to live independently, now, and since she is unlikely to marry I mean to settle her, with her son, in a cottage on my estate. It has stood vacant these two years, and is past due to be put to good use once more." He paused. "I trust Eliza, and she has grown in wisdom since the events which led to her downfall. Still, I would not see her exposed unduly to the temptation which comes with being alone. You are sensible, of course, but much of an age with my ward. Would you be offended if your guardian, having only kind intentions, insisted that you accept a female companion to guide you?"
Margaret considered the question for a few moments. She had spent much of her life without a ready companion of her own age, but even so she could imagine the frustration of being paired with somebody she might not much care for, whose sole purpose was to curtail her few freedoms and pleasures. In fact, she did not need to imagine: back at Norland, she had had a governess. She could think of nothing worse than having a governess well into adulthood.
"I think that it would depend on the woman involved, and perhaps upon the companion, but I cannot pretend I might not feel a little stifled, especially if the arrangement were put to me in just those terms. Perhaps if you suggested that you feared she would be lonely … But surely you could watch over her yourself, if she is to be so close by?"
Colonel Brandon nodded slowly. "Still," he confided, "I would rather she had somebody with her in the house. An unmarried woman alone, especially in Eliza's circumstances … People will not be kind – she is used to that, I'm afraid – and I fear that dishonourable men might presume upon her hospitality. I shall take your advice into consideration, and give the matter further thought. And if I can ever advise you, please do not hesitate to – "
"Do you think I should marry?"
Colonel Brandon raised an eyebrow. "Well, you certainly don't hesitate." She opened her mouth to beg his pardon, but he held up a hand to stop her. "No, don't apologise; I offered advice, and I meant it sincerely." With an anxious glance across the room towards his own wife, he continued. "Forgive me for not being fully apprised of the situation, but who might be your intended?"
It was Margaret's turn to surprise herself by laughing. "Oh, I don't have an intended. It's just that there are several people suggesting that I should endeavour to marry very soon, and to tell you the truth, I don't relish the prospect."
"And why should you, indeed," Colonel Brandon exclaimed, "when you have formed no such attachment? Marriage should not be rushed into out of a sense of obligation. Though I understand that there can be a lot of pressure on a young woman, I myself have no regrets in waiting until I found the perfect woman before I married, and I hope my wife would agree that it was for the best that I did. You have years ahead of you, Margaret, in which to decide whether to marry or not. If you truly want my advice – "
"I do," she assured him.
"Well, then I should advise you not to rush into such things. You deserve only the best."
She smiled at him, then, relieved beyond belief. "Thank you. I fear you have been far more helpful to me than I to you."
"Not at all. Now, I see that your mother has rather decisively won the card game. Perhaps we should rejoin for the next, or else persuade Marianne to play for us." This meeting with her agreement, they rejoined the party and the evening proceeded with much cheer and merriment. Margaret, for one, felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and only hoped that she had offered her brother-in-law some measure of the same consolation.
The following day, her mother was invited to the Middletons' house for the third time that week. Mrs Jennings, Lady Middleton's mother, was beginning to feel her age and found the company of her fellow widow comforting. Mrs Dashwood seemed to enjoy these visits more than Margaret could ever have expected, and always answered such summons with great alacrity and enthusiasm. Margaret herself liked to take advantage of her mother's absence on these occasions by climbing her favourite tree with a good book and settling down to read, and so from her lofty roost she was able to observe her mother's demeanour long before she neared the gate on her return that afternoon. Margaret had not seen her look so thoughtful in a long time; she hardly even cast a disapproving look at Margaret's scuffed and grubby clothing as she greeted her.
"Is everything all right, Mama?"
Her mother nodded, then sighed. "Yes, but I can't help but feel I'm disappointing a very dear friend."
"Mrs Jennings? You haven't delayed visiting after even one of her notes. How could you possibly disappoint her?"
"It's only that … Well, Lady Middleton is always very busy, and Sir John too, and she can't get out and about as much as she used to – I fear she's quite lonely up there, poor soul. And she did ask if I would like to move in as a companion, but of course I can't do that."
"Do you want to?" Margaret was surprised; she had had no idea they were so close.
Her mother sighed dramatically. "I wasn't sure, the first time she asked. But we do understand one another, and it is good to have somebody who's had similar experiences to talk to. It might be nice."
Margaret nodded. "Then why … Oh. It's just you they've invited."
"And I don't intend to leave you on your own."
Margaret sighed; she could not really argue with that, and trying would be futile. "I'm sorry," she told her, and excused herself for a walk to clear her head.
It was during another such walk, two days later, that a brilliant thought occurred to Margaret – a thought so brilliant that she had turned towards the Delaford estate and was halfway there before she realised that she might be acting rashly, without even consulting her mother first. Well, she had come too far to turn around now. By the time she arrived at Marianne's house, she had forgotten her possible impropriety altogether, swept up in the excitement of a new adventure.
"Marianne," she asked when she had been shown through to her sister's drawing room and exchanged the necessary formalities, "is Colonel Brandon at home? I wanted to speak to him about something we discussed the other day." It had not really occurred to her that he might not be there until she had already said it. She was fortunate, however.
"About Eliza? He told me he'd asked your advice. He's in his study, reading to William, but I think he'd be glad of your perspective. He's worried about what's best for her. I'll come with you and get William; his father has been keeping him more than his fair share, of late." Marianne's besotted smile belied her words, but there was no denying that both mother and son seemed very happy to leave Margaret and the colonel together.
"He was getting restless, anyway," Colonel Brandon assured her when she apologised for her intrusion. "I suppose at four years old, it is rather a stretch to hope that Songs of Innocence would hold his attention for long. What can I do for you?"
"Have you raised the idea of a companion with your ward yet, Colonel?"
He sat back a little in his seat, looking almost embarrassed. "No. I mean to do so within the next few days, but I haven't yet worked out how best to broach the subject. I confess, I am rather afraid that if I wound her pride, she won't come at all."
Margaret did not pry into the reasons behind his expression, which spoke of real grief and fear; instead, she set about trying to relieve his anxiety. "Well, I think I know a way you can suggest it without causing any offence. As it happens, I might soon be in need of companionship myself; perhaps you would be so kind as to ask a young lady of your acquaintance if she might oblige, as a very great favour?"
"Well, that could hardly cause offence," the Colonel conceded, "but how could I then explain the substitution of another girl in your place?"
"Well, unless you think me unsuitable, I don't believe you would have to make any such substitution. I have not consulted with my mother yet, but I would be happy to act as companion to your ward if she agrees."
"Truly? You would do that?" He relaxed for a moment, relief clear on his face, before frowning suddenly. "But why would your mother give up her own companion for my ward, a perfect stranger? Surely she has need of you at home."
"I believe that, were she free to do so, she would like to accept Mrs Jennings' request to keep her company up at Barton Park. We may ask, at least. Can your letter to your ward wait a couple of days?"
"Yes. Yes, I should think so. Thank you, Margaret."
"No, thank you. If this works out, it will be to the benefit of us all, I hope."
Margaret was about to stand and return to Marianne when the Colonel spoke again.
"Margaret, I care deeply about Eliza, but I also care a great deal about you. I don't want you to be … ignorant of the situation. Eliza is likely to attract a certain amount of talk, even if she claims to be a widow, which she prefers not to do. If there is one quality Eliza has in abundance, it is honesty. But her experiences in life are very different from your own, especially in recent years. Living alongside her may not be easy. Do you understand?"
"Of course. I'm sure Elinor would have similar words of caution for me if she were here. Or perhaps not – she is a vicar's wife now, and she was never much for gossip."
"A trait I have always admired. But Christian charity can only go so far."
"Well, let us try, if you will. Let me ask my mother how she feels about the scheme, and then write to Miss … ?" She trailed off; she did not know Eliza's surname.
"Miss Williams. Yes, very well. I should be most grateful."
"I think you may be able to move up to the big house after all, Mama," Margaret told her mother on her return later that afternoon – Marianne had sent her in the carriage, thank God – and proceeded to explain how it could be achieved.
"The ward of Colonel Brandon? Well, if she wants for a companion, then I suppose nothing could be more simple and convenient. Has she any family of note?"
"None, save her young son. Colonel Brandon is most keen that she should not be alone."
"Her son? A widow, then – I was sure Marianne had told me his ward had never married … "
Margaret braced herself for the moment realisation dawned. She did not have long to wait.
"Do you mean to say that you intend to live alongside some sort of fallen woman? Margaret, you can't. I absolutely forbid it! Who knows what manner of misdeeds she may be involved in!"
"With both a guardian and a respectable companion close by to watch over her, I imagine there will be very few misdeeds. Besides, Colonel Brandon trusts her, and I trust his judgement. Don't you?"
It took a great deal more discussion to convince Mrs Dashwood to agree to the plan, but Margaret triumphed eventually. A note was dispatched to Delaford, and another to Mrs Jennings, and soon everything was settled to the satisfaction of all parties.
"Since she is not such a wild girl as I had supposed," Mrs Dashwood murmured absently to herself one evening, and did not trouble herself to finish the thought.
For all Margaret's ardent defence of Miss Williams' character and honour, as the time approached for their meeting, she felt her certainty waning. Indeed, by the time she sat in the parlour of the little cottage, among the possessions she had had brought over earlier that day, she was half convinced that the sound of hooves she awaited would herald the arrival of some sort of wild animal, a changeling child, and a string of disreputable men to heap attention on both women. It was too late to change her mind now; she would rather share a cottage with a rabid dog than disappoint Colonel Brandon at this juncture. No, she would try to make it work, and if it were truly unbearable after a few weeks, she would simply ask him to find a new companion for his ward.
The anticipated hoofbeats, when they came, were accompanied by yapping, and for a fleeting moment Margaret feared that she might actually have to live with a rabid dog. She quickly pulled herself together, however, and made her way out into the dusk. Relief flooded through her as her eyes settled on a little black and white dog, who did not look rabid in the slightest despite the commotion he was causing. Looking up, she found that the creature was on a lead which disappeared behind a smartly-dressed young lady. Her clothing was not fashionable, Margaret suspected, but she did seem to be wearing the proper type and number of garments, at least. The way Mrs Dashwood had spoken, Margaret had half expected the girl to arrive in a state of undress.
Colonel Brandon was the first to notice Margaret's presence. "Ah! Miss Dashwood, my apologies – we had hoped to arrive earlier. May I introduce my ward, Miss Eliza Williams? Eliza, Miss Margaret Dashwood, my sister-in-law." The two women curtseyed formally, though Miss Williams was encumbered by a small person clinging to the back of her skirts and a small dog trying to wind the lead around her legs. Margaret, intrigued by the little boy she could not see, decided to take the initiative.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Miss Williams. Forgive me, but I was under the impression that you were to be accompanied by another gentleman?" That did not work at all as she had hoped; Miss Williams narrowed her eyes as if unsure whether or not she was being mocked.
Colonel Brandon, however, followed the line of her gaze and let out a short bark of laughter. "Good Lord, you're right! Eliza, we seem to have misplaced Christopher – perhaps he is riding to meet us from the last stop?"
The woman's eyes widened and she turned to look over her shoulder, staring blankly past her son. "Oh … no, we shall have to go back and fetch him – I was sure he was attached to the dog."
That, it seemed, was too much for the dignity of any five-year-old to bear.
"Mama! Shep is attached to me! Look!" He popped out from behind his mother and tugged at her sleeve until she looked at him … then scuttled back to hide behind her as she feigned surprise.
"Oh, thank goodness … Forgive us, Miss Dashwood – Christopher is a little shy around new people. As for the dog, I apologise for surprising you with him – a friend decided to give him to Christopher as a parting gift. Colonel Brandon assures me that he will gladly keep the dog at his house if you would rather not have him here."
At this, a pair of dark eyes appeared over the dog's head and little arms wrapped protectively around the creature.
"Well," Margaret pretended to think about it, "I never had a dog of my own as a child, so I think Shep can stay on the condition that I am allowed to scratch him behind the ears every now and then. What do you think, Master Williams? Do you think Shep will agree to those terms?"
"Oh, yes, he won't mind that at all! Thank you, Miss!" With that, shyness was forgotten, and Colonel Brandon suggested that they move inside, out of the chill of the evening, and let the footmen set about unloading the Williams' possessions.
Once they were all seated in the drawing room, where a warm fire crackled, Margaret had the opportunity to better observe her new acquaintances. Young Christopher, still a little ill at ease, was tucked close against his mother's body where they shared a chaise longue, and kept turning between Colonel Brandon and Shep with only the occasional glance towards Margaret. She was able to discern, however, that he seemed healthy, and that the shade of his hair was a lighter brown than she had previously suspected – the same as his mother's. Miss Williams, when she turned her face towards the fire, was a handsome woman with delicate features, the light reflecting in her eyes to give them a rich amber glow. In sunlight, Margaret was sure that they would be a glorious brown colour, lighter than Christopher's.
"Miss Dashwood, I would like to extend my thanks to you for allowing us to share your new home."
"Oh." Margaret snapped out of her thoughts about the proper way to describe the colour of Miss Williams' hair – like dark honey, perhaps, but that did not quite capture the browner tones that matched her son's – and shook her head. "Oh, no – on the contrary, I should be thanking you. It does not do to live alone. And please, since we are to live together, call me Margaret."
"Very well. Then of course you must call me Eliza, if you wish."
"And Christopher!" piped a little voice as the boy turned away from Colonel Brandon, who took the opportunity to stand.
"Forgive me, ladies, but if you can manage without me from here, I ought to return to my own family."
"Of course, Colonel, we'll be quite all right. Won't we, Christopher?" Eliza smiled encouragingly, and her son hesitated before turning to Colonel Brandon.
"You will come back?"
"Of course, my boy. And I'm sure you'll come to visit me before very long. Good night, ladies. I hope this will be the first of many very comfortable nights here." Then, after embracing Eliza and Christopher, he took his leave with a bow. The footmen followed.
The three remaining occupants of the cottage were then left alone – four, including Shep, who was now sniffing around every nook and cranny, lead trailing behind him – and it was not long before Christopher began to yawn.
"Tired? Well, let's see if we can find you something to eat, and then we'll find your bedroom."
"My mother's housekeeper sent some cold meats and other temptations for travellers at the end of a long day. There should be more than enough for all of us – Shep too."
"Are you quite certain? We would be very grateful, then. Please, lead the way."
When they reached the kitchen, Eliza sent Shep out into their little garden, where Margaret imagined more sniffing would ensue. Only when they had eaten as much as they wanted was Christopher permitted to let him in, and to feed him a meal of leftover meat which the puppy seemed to enjoy thoroughly. Margaret was then left to mind both the dog and the dying fire in the drawing room while Eliza got her son settled into his new bed upstairs.
Shep, as it transpired, was quite happy, after a cursory sniff around the room, to fall asleep at Margaret's feet, one hind leg splayed out awkwardly across the rug. From her new vantage point, slightly above the creature, Margaret could see a copper-brown colour nestled in a long streak along his sides, between the black fur of his back and the white fur of his stomach. It had seemed strange that a predominantly black and white animal should have red markings only on his face and legs; Margaret found, for no reason she could discern, a certain satisfaction in discovering that the splash of brighter colour extended elsewhere. By the time Eliza returned, some half an hour later, Shep had flopped onto his side, head resting on Margaret's feet, and was snoring softly.
"He certainly trusts you," Eliza commented from the doorway. "They say dogs show excellent judgement in these matters."
"I hope to be worthy of it," Margaret replied.
Eliza, though she seemed quite exhausted by the trials of a day on the road, sat down opposite Margaret and regarded her frankly. "I suppose you will wish to hear my story, sooner or later, and I would rather Christopher were not present. I hardly care, any more, what is said or known about me, but my son is an innocent child and I would spare him what I can."
"Your story?" Margaret thought about it for a moment. "By all means, I will listen to you and keep your confidences – but are you not rather tired tonight? There will be time enough to share our histories as we live together."
"Please, I know you will have questions. You will wish to know what manner of woman you have accepted into your house."
"It is your guardian's house, not mine, and I believe that I can learn your character in just the same way as I would learn that of any other person, through familiarity. Already I can tell that you are a devoted mother."
Eliza took a deep breath, then set her shoulders as if braced for battle. "You need not be polite; when I am introduced to new acquaintances, I am quite used to relating the circumstances of my shame."
"Not to me," Margaret told her firmly, "not unless you wish to. Although I do have one rather pressing question."
"Ah." Eliza sighed, as if to say that she had known it all along. "Simply ask it; I will hide nothing."
"Where is the dog to sleep? I think it might be wise for us all to go to bed early."
Eliza stared at her for a moment in stunned silence, and then she laughed, a musical sound. "I expect he can sleep in the kitchen, though he has been accustomed to sleeping at the foot of Christopher's bed while we travelled."
"Can he not do so tonight? It may be comforting to your son if his pet is there when he wakes for the first time in a strange place."
But after a moment's consideration, Eliza shook her head. "No – he will only want it to continue, and I'm sure you don't want a dog roaming the cottage all night. Come, Shep. Kitchen. At least you'll be warm." The dog did not follow immediately, perhaps too young to understand the command, but a gentle tug on the lead soon had him moving, tail wagging. Eliza closed the door behind him, having released him from the lead, and offered a candle to Margaret to light her way to bed.
"Thank you," Margaret said, and then, "I hope that you don't mind taking the room nearest to your son's?"
"Not at all. That's perfect. Thank you."
At the top of the stairs, on the narrow landing, they parted.
"Good night, Eliza."
"Good night, Margaret. I look forward to seeing you in daylight."
As Margaret slipped between the sheets, minutes later, she felt a strange warmth bloom in her chest. She looked forward to it, too.
The next day dawned bright and clear, and Margaret woke to a hesitant tap on her door. Wrapping a shawl around her shoulders, she opened it to find Eliza on the other side.
"I'm sorry to wake you," she said, "but I've just got up to make the house ready for the day and there are a couple of servants here that Colonel Brandon has engaged for us. I thought I should warn you, so that you are not startled as I was."
In truth, Margaret had not even considered that there would not be servants at least coming in once or twice a day, but it seemed that Eliza had been expecting to fend for herself. She thanked her for the warning, and Eliza smiled.
"I also wondered if you would like to come and see something very sweet, before the maid reaches the kitchen."
Intrigued, Margaret followed her downstairs and allowed herself to be led into the kitchen.
"Oh … "
The sight that met her eyes was very touching indeed: little Christopher Williams must have crept downstairs in the night and was now slumbering peacefully on the hard stone floor, curled around his beloved dog. Shep looked up at them with soulful eyes and thumped his tail softly in greeting.
"Well, I think the dog had better sleep upstairs, in future," Margaret whispered, to a nod of agreement from Eliza, and they both crept away to dress.
When Margaret returned, the outer door was open and, beyond it, Shep was chasing an early butterfly. Christopher was sitting up on the floor, looking a little confused by the maid now unpacking provisions onto the table.
"Good morning, Christopher," Margaret greeted him politely, and he frowned for a moment, rubbing his eyes, before he seemed to remember where he was.
"Good morning, Miss Margaret." His attention was caught by movement over her shoulder. "Good morning, Mama."
"Good morning, little one."
Margaret interrupted the morning greetings with a sudden exclamation.
"Oh! Eliza, is Shep hurt? His leg – "
Both of her new companions turned to look, then relaxed.
"Oh, no, don't worry," Eliza assured her. "That leg is the reason he's never going to be a sheepdog. He walks well enough, but when he runs … " Margaret nodded. Shep was lurching alarmingly from side to side as he frolicked, but it did not seem to dampen his enjoyment of the chase at all.
"Was there some kind of accident?"
"No, he was just born wrong, like me."
"Christopher! You were not born wrong. You're perfect, just perfect. Come here." Eliza gathered her son protectively against her skirts. "The only people who did anything wrong to make you were your father and I, and I cannot regret the results. There's nothing wrong with you, nothing. Do you understand?" She did not let go until he nodded. "Good boy. Come, let's see what can be found for breakfast."
The maid seemed surprised, but not unhappy, when Eliza told her they would see to their own meals, and declared that she would stop in later that day to see to the evening's tasks. She was gone, heading back to her duties at the main house, before Margaret could protest that she did not know how to cook.
Eliza, however, seemed unperturbed when she told her. "Well, I can handle all that. I could teach you, if you'd like."
That sounded lovely, and Margaret said so. This agreed, Eliza set about making breakfast while Margaret supervised Shep and Christopher's antics in the garden. More accurately, Margaret stood in the doorway and kept half an eye on the pair while most of her attention was focused on watching Eliza bustle around the kitchen, moving fluidly from cupboard to cupboard with surprising grace considering that she did not know where anything was kept. It was not long at all before the three of them were comfortably seated around the table, eating and exchanging trivial stories about their lives, and getting to know one another.
" … And the cook looked away for a few minutes to make the pastry, and by the time either of us turned back to look, this little imp had eaten half a basket of blackberries and was sitting there as innocent as could be, covered in purple juice."
Christopher grinned, unrepentant, but had clearly lost interest in the conversation and soon ran off to chase Shep around their little garden, exploring together.
Eliza turned to Margaret. "How about you? Do you have any wild tales from your childhood to tell?"
Margaret could only oblige with tales of imaginary adventures, battling pirates on the high seas – or rather, the high lawns. "And you? Did you drive any governesses to distraction?"
"I'm afraid I was a terribly well-behaved child, so I have no such stories, until I met Christopher's father."
Margaret hesitated, but Eliza had now raised the difficult subject more than once, and she remembered Colonel Brandon telling her that honesty was Eliza's defining trait.
"Would you like to tell me that story?"
"Some of it, perhaps. But if Christopher returns – "
"Of course. I wouldn't want to pry, anyway."
Eliza frowned. "I believe you. Most people, in my experience, want to know everything before they risk becoming connected to me in any way. My guardian tells me you asked him very little. But you should know some things, at least. The gossips in the village certainly will." She took a deep breath and released it slowly before she began.
"He was charming, you know. He made me feel, for the first time in my life, that I belonged to someone. With someone. I was young, and foolish, and I didn't understand why my guardian had to keep his distance. I was somebody's natural daughter, and everyone knew it – they would have assumed I was his. But I didn't understand, then – I just felt abandoned, left with a family who couldn't quite – I mean to say that – They were very kind. But none of us ever forgot what I was … He came along and he didn't care about that. He treated me like a duchess, even a queen. He told me he loved me. And then, when I found out that Christopher was growing inside me … He left. I don't know if … I think he would have left me even if I hadn't been with child. Abandoned me, like everyone else. But this time, it was my own fault. I was foolish, I believed him when he said … Colonel Brandon tells me that there was someone else, but she never – "
Eliza stopped, turning to stare out at the garden, but her glazed expression suggested that she did not really see anything. Finally, her eyes settled on Christopher, still playing with the dog in blissful ignorance.
"But I have him. Because of what I did … I have him. And I will never let him feel the way I felt. I may be ashamed of my actions, but I will never be ashamed of him."
Margaret did not know what to say to that, so she poured them each another cup of tea, stalling for time. At last, she dared to look Eliza in the eyes. "Did you love him? Christopher's father?"
For a moment, it was as if she did not know how to answer. " … I thought I did."
"Then I don't see that there's anything to be ashamed of. I've never been in love, but my sisters … I've seen how hard it is to fight it."
Just then, Shep bounded in, Christopher in pursuit, and so all Eliza could do was offer a quiet "thank you" before the matter was closed.
Over the next few weeks, Margaret dined with Marianne and her family on several occasions, but Eliza had declined every such invitation, citing a lack of suitable attire and the need for somebody to stay at home with Christopher. Margaret had offered to look after him, but despite their growing friendship the two women were still almost strangers and so it was hardly surprising that she preferred to invite her guardian to their house instead. Eventually, however, both women were invited to dinner and asked to bring Christopher and Shep with them. Colonel Brandon warned his ward that short of grave illness, Marianne would brook no further excuse. They duly dressed for the occasion and made sure both boy and dog were presentable before climbing into the carriage that had been sent for them.
"Are you nervous?" Margaret asked her friend as they settled their skirts around them.
Eliza nodded. "A little. Colonel Brandon speaks so highly of your sisters."
"He speaks just as highly of you," Margaret assured her, but this did not seem to calm her at all.
"Then he is too kind – how can I ever hope to match up to his praise?"
Margaret reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently. "Believe me, you match up."
Eliza blushed – and then they were off. When they arrived, Christopher leapt from the carriage and helped the ladies down like a proper little gentleman. Eliza had to let go of Margaret's hand in order to take her son's, and Margaret realised with a start that she had found their contact reassuring, too.
Distracted by Shep, whose lead she had somehow ended up holding, Margaret paid little attention to the introductions taking place until she heard her sister gasp. She looked up to see Marianne staring, chalk-white, into Christopher's eyes.
"Willoughby – " she breathed, and then abruptly shook her head. "Er – I mean, that is, er – "
Fortunately, the Colonel was on hand and cut in smoothly with, "I think what Mrs Brandon means, Christopher, is that Will – our son, William, he's just a little younger than you – will be waiting to meet you in the nursery. But first, perhaps Miss Dashwood would like to assist me in introducing you and Shep to the rest of the family? Mrs Dashwood has brought her friend, Mrs Jennings, and Mr and Mrs Ferrars are here."
Marianne was now speaking to Eliza in a low, urgent voice, standing very close to her, and Margaret agreed with Colonel Brandon that Christopher would be better off distracted. It was with great pleasure that she introduced the little boy to her family and friends, and when she glanced back at Eliza and Marianne she was just in time to see the two women share a slightly tearful embrace. Edward, bless his soul, managed to hold Christopher's attention while handkerchiefs were produced and put to use, and then it was Eliza's turn to meet everybody.
Margaret was relieved to see that her mother and Mrs Jennings seemed to be behaving themselves, though no doubt they would be full of gossip and speculation later. Elinor had made the effort to keep Eliza talking while the Colonel and his wife entertained the older women, and all seemed to be going well. Margaret was all but lost in her thoughts, watching the candlelight playing on Eliza's hair and face, when her attention was caught once more by Christopher.
"You're a vicar, aren't you, Mr Ferrars? Does that mean God listens to you?"
Edward seemed rather taken aback, but he smiled as he answered. "Well, I think the thing to remember is that He listens to everyone."
But Christopher would not be so easily satisfied. "Would you ask Him to please love Mama and me again?"
A stunned sort of silence rippled outward from Christopher, his question falling like a rock dropping in a pool and causing just as much disturbance.
Edward, unusually, was the first to recover. "I don't need to do that. God loves everybody, especially children."
"But the people at church said He couldn't love us. They said we were bad. I don't want to be bad."
"Ah," Edward asked him, with a knowing glint in his eye, "but were those people vicars?"
"One of them was."
"Oh." Edward looked mildly affronted, frowning thoughtfully. "Well, I'm afraid you must not have had a very good vicar. The most important thing you need to know about God, Christopher, is that He loves you. He loves everyone, even if they're bad. And I don't think you look like somebody who's bad. I can still pray for you, though, if you'd like. And for your mother."
Christopher nodded firmly. "Thank you, Mr Ferrars." He turned to Colonel Brandon. "Can I meet your son now?"
"Of course. My daughters and Henry Ferrars, too. Let's take your mother with us, shall we? I'm sure they'll all want to meet her. And Shep, of course."
With Eliza and Christopher gone, there was nothing to stop Margaret joining her sisters and trying to find out what had just happened.
"Marianne? Why did you – I mean, what's wrong?"
Elinor placed a hand on Marianne's arm, a caution. "I think it's up to Eliza to explain that, Margaret, if she chooses to."
"But you know."
"I do. I found out before we knew Eliza. You know her, and it should be her choice whether or not she explains this to you."
"But it's Marianne who – "
"Margaret, please. Let it go, for now."
Marianne nodded her agreement, and then called out for Eliza to sit with them as she returned to the room. Mrs Dashwood soon insisted that she and Colonel Brandon make up the numbers at cards, and it was not until they were all in the carriage on the way home that Margaret had a chance to speak to Eliza again. With Christopher sitting there, however, it did not seem right to broach the subject. Whatever had spooked Marianne, it seemed to be something to do with him – and Eliza was fiercely protective of him.
Later, when Christopher was safely tucked up in bed, Margaret ventured the question. "Are you all right?"
"I am. It was a nice evening." But Eliza seemed withdrawn, pensive somehow.
"Marianne didn't upset you, I hope?"
"No. No, I rather think I upset her, but she was very kind."
"May I ask what happened? She said Willoughby."
"I had no idea, I promise you, Margaret. I didn't know she was the other lady he pursued."
"You mean … Willoughby is – ?"
"Mr John Willoughby is Christopher's father, yes. Christopher doesn't know, and I'd rather you didn't tell him."
"Of course not. Good Lord, the two have nothing in common."
"No, thank God. Except his eyes. That's what startled your sister."
"There's no need. If you don't mind, I'm very tired. I think I shall retire."
Margaret let her go, but not before she patted her arm and apologised again for prying.
"That's quite all right." Eliza smiled wearily at her. "You're a good friend; I don't mind you knowing my secrets. I know I can trust you. Good night, Margaret."
As the summer days grew longer, so Eliza and Margaret grew closer. They spent as much time as they could out of doors together, walking and taking the air, utterly untroubled by those who pointed out that their skin would turn darker than was fashionable. Christopher and Shep had become accustomed to having the run of the estate, and seemed to have made firm friends with the manual workers of the countryside.
"That's how he came to have Shep," Eliza confided, when Margaret mentioned it. "He used to spend a lot of time with one of the shepherds, watching the sheep and so forth. Old Zeke took him under his wing, rather, and then when Shep was born with a twisted leg … He didn't want anyone else to have him but Christopher."
"Well, Shep was clearly the best present a boy could ask for."
While boy and dog rushed ahead, the ladies would follow at their own pace – Christopher knew better than to stray too far – and they would talk of nothing and everything. Sometimes, they walked arm in arm. When one of them was upset, they walked hand in hand, close together. And gradually, as time wore on, they began to realise that no topic was out of bounds between them.
"May I ask you something rather improper?" It was Eliza who started the conversation; usually she was the more proper of the two, having rather more at stake. Today was different, it seemed.
"Of course, but I shan't promise to answer until I have heard it."
"Have you ever felt the slightest inclination towards loving any man?" That could have been a rather impertinent question, but coming from Eliza it did not feel like that at all.
"I can't say that I have. Perhaps one day I will, but until now … " She had not felt the faintest stirrings of romantic interest in a man. Honestly, Margaret fancied that she was closer to Eliza than she could ever be to anybody she might one day marry. How could a gentleman ever know or understand her as well as her dearest friend? "What's it like?"
"Exciting, I suppose. It carries you away, at first. But then … it all went wrong, for me. And there are some things I don't think I'd like to do again."
"What sort of – ? Oh." Margaret blushed as she caught up with her friend's thoughts.
"I'm sorry. I was just thinking aloud … people don't usually ask me about romance."
"Is … the … er, union … not pleasant?"
"Perhaps it is because it was a sin. I think it was enjoyable for John, but … perhaps it is because men aren't as soft. When you and I share a friendly embrace, there are no hard angles, no pain. A man who feels for you is … different. I think I prefer the softer touch of a woman." Eliza stopped short, flustered. "I mean, not in the same way, obviously."
"Of course," Margaret assured her. "I can imagine that a more gentle embrace would be preferable." Then, after a few moments, "Do you think the blackberry harvest will be good this year?"
"I hope so," Eliza replied with some relief, "for Christopher and I love to pick them as we walk, and this year you might join us."
"I should think you would have some difficulty if you tried to stop me," Margaret told her solemnly, and they continued to walk.
Margaret was taking tea with her mother and Mrs Jennings when the conversation abruptly turned to her companion.
"There's no denying that the boy is very sweet," Mrs Jennings acknowledged, "and it is very gentlemanly of him to bring flowers from your garden whenever he visits the main house at Delaford."
"Perhaps too gentlemanly," Mrs Dashwood interjected. "I do hope he isn't following in the footsteps of his father."
"He's a little young to be chasing Marianne, don't you think? No, the boy is a fine lad, no doubt due to the influence of Colonel Brandon and the family he entrusted his wards to. It's his mother who makes me uneasy."
"His mother?" Margaret protested. "Why on earth would you say that?"
"Well, besides her dubious moral character – though what can one expect, when by all accounts her mother was just as foolish – there is the way she carries herself so guardedly, as if all the world was out to attack her. I simply cannot trust a person who trusts nobody." Mrs Jennings nodded decisively, and Margaret had just long enough to think that she could not imagine why Eliza was guarded, given the current conversation, before her mother joined in.
"She doesn't guard her tongue, though. Elinor told me – in the strictest confidence, of course – that she had no compunction whatsoever about telling her story to anybody who showed an interest."
"If she told you in confidence," Margaret countered, "you ought not to mention it at all. I, for one, appreciate Eliza's honesty. It is a great comfort to know that there are still some people who will give their truthful opinion when one asks them, rather than saying what they think one wants to hear to one's face and saying something quite different behind one's back."
If either of the older women took her meaning, they gave no sign of it. It was not until a good half hour later that the real reason for Mrs Jennings' disapprobation became clear.
"The girl looks positively faded, as if she should have been a fine, respectable brunette, but the colour has worn out of her with too much use."
"Too much use is exactly the problem," Mrs Dashwood told her, "and I shouldn't be surprised if one's appearance alters to reflect one's soul. It seems only fair that respectable people should have some way of being forewarned."
"Well, I think she's beautiful," Margaret declared, rising without ceremony, "and since I cannot convince you of her virtues I intend to return home and appreciate them for myself. Goodbye, Mother. Mrs Jennings."
Then she turned and walked out of the house without a single thought for propriety or respect for one's elders. If Eliza did not mind what people thought of her, why should Margaret? It seemed much more freeing to speak as one felt, where it did no harm.
At least, Margaret had thought that Eliza did not mind what people thought. When she returned home, however, she found Christopher and Shep playing alone in the kitchen, getting under the maid's feet in a way that Eliza would never usually permit.
"Christopher, Susan is trying to stock our cupboards for us. Perhaps you and Shep could play in the drawing room instead?"
"Oh! Sorry, Miss Susan. Come on, Shep."
Margaret exchanged a fondly exasperated look with the maid before following the boy into the drawing room, where Susan had already stoked a fire and set the guard in front of the grate. "Where is your mother, Christopher?"
"She's in bed. She didn't feel well."
"Oh, well, that's no good, is it? Will you be very good and stay away from the fire while I see if I can fetch her anything?"
"I'll be good. I'll make sure Shep's good, too." Christopher leant in conspiratorially, which meant he ended up addressing her waist. "He's a bit scared of the fire, but he likes to sit near it and keep warm."
"Well, just you mind you don't get any closer than that rug there, and I'll be back as quickly as I can." Nonetheless, she asked Susan to listen out for trouble before she hurried upstairs in search of her friend.
A knock at the door raised no response, and Margaret felt she had better push the door open to make sure that Eliza was just sleeping peacefully and not altogether more unwell than expected. When she did, however, she found Eliza lying fully clothed atop the covers, face buried in the pillow, sobbing her heart out.
Afraid that Christopher would hear his mother's weeping, Margaret stepped inside and closed the door swiftly behind her. "Eliza? Whatever has happened?"
"Margaret!" Eliza sat up, brushing her hands across her eyes in an attempt to stem the flow of tears. "I – I didn't expect you back until later."
"Well, here I am. And it's just as well, isn't it? Please, tell me what's wrong."
"It's nothing, I'm just being silly – "
"Nonsense." Margaret crossed the room and took her hands, perching on the edge of the bed with her. "You're not silly, and I want to help. What's happened?"
"Nothing – I just, at church yesterday … "
Margaret stiffened; she had hoped that Eliza had not heard the gossips starting up again. There was little chance of that, however – they had taken no pains to keep their voices down, and it now seemed that if ever a so-called gentleman returned to his wife smelling of an unfamiliar perfume, Eliza was to be blamed.
"Everybody seems to think that I am having an affair with Mr Rowley, and last month I was supposedly receiving frequent visits from Mr Sedgewick." Eliza sighed. "Frankly, I wonder that they think I have the time, with Christopher to look after – to say nothing of the inclination."
"Would you like me to put them right? I spend all my time with you, and I have seen no such gentlemen around."
"No, no – that's quite all right. They would think you were simply lying to defend me, or else that those gentlemen callers had been here to see you as well. I won't have your honour questioned, especially since it would do no good to mine anyway."
They sat quietly for a few moments, until it seemed that Eliza could be silent no more.
"I'm tired of people talking about me," she burst out. "Nobody sees past what I did."
"The people who love you do. Colonel Brandon does. Marianne and Elinor, Edward … I do."
"I'm afraid that Christopher will realise what they say about me. That he will despise me, when he learns what I am."
"What you are?" Margaret squeezed Eliza's hands gently in reassurance. "Let me tell you what you are, Eliza."
"I'm a silly girl who threw her virtue away."
"No. Listen. You are the bravest woman I know. You're kind, and a good mother, and you keep going no matter what people say about you. You make me brave. And on top of all that, you happen to be absolutely beautiful. You're my best friend. And nothing in your past changes any of those things."
Eliza stared at her for a moment. "You think I'm beautiful?"
"Well, yes." Margaret blushed, feeling suddenly awkward. "I have eyes. And brave, and kind. And Christopher would be lost without you."
Eliza let go of her hands with a smile that seemed to warm the room. "He would be. Oh, goodness, he's probably driving Susan to distraction. Thank you for saying those kind things, Margaret. Now let's go and see if we can get my son out of trouble."
Margaret was not entirely convinced that her words had been believed, but she let it go. Christopher was, after all, likely to be driving the maid to distraction.
Margaret found, a few weeks after that fateful day she had found Eliza crying, that she had rather an awful headache.
"I'm quite well within myself," she told her friend, "but I think it best that I stay indoors for today and rest. You and Christopher must go on your walk without me, I'm afraid."
"Are you quite certain that you're all right?"
"It's only a minor headache. It will soon pass, and we cannot keep Christopher cooped up all day."
"No," Eliza conceded, "he is in rather a frolicsome mood. Better that you have some peace to aid your recovery. Come along, Christopher."
"Make sure you tell me all about your adventures when you come back!"
Christopher shouted back from the door that he would, and then they were gone, Shep bounding along in front.
Margaret settled with a cup of tea by her bedroom window and closed her eyes, trying to rest as well as she could without moving away from the pleasant breeze drifting in. She must have fallen asleep, because when she opened her eyes again the last dregs of her tea were cold, the shadows falling in the room were longer than they had been and pointing in a different direction, and Christopher's voice could be heard in the hallway.
"Shh, remember that Margaret has a headache. Quietly. Go into the garden and see if you can get all of that grass out of Shep's fur while I see if she's all right." The noise died down into 'shhh' sounds and footsteps, and then there was a tap at the door. "May I come in, Margaret?"
"Of course, Eliza."
Her friend came in as quietly as a mouse, and closed the door silently behind her before holding out a bunch of purple flowers.
"Violets. I thought you might like them."
"I do, thank you. They're lovely."
Eliza beamed. "I'm glad." She pushed aside some of the larger leaves to reveal more purple blooms underneath. "We added some lavender from the garden, to help relax you a little. I always find the scent so soothing, especially when my head aches."
"That's very thoughtful of you." Margaret took the flowers and set them down on her dresser, intending to find a vase for them later. "Thank you. Please, sit with me awhile."
The bedchamber was small, and so the only reasonable place for them both to alight together was on Margaret's bed. They sat, side by side on the edge, and Margaret could not help but notice how close they were sitting to one another. Where her arm almost touched Eliza's, there seemed to be a sort of heat, far more than the usual warmth of a body, and it spread through her own body as they stayed close.
"Eliza?" She took a deep breath. "I've only ever really lived with my mother. So I don't know much about the world. But … you know more, don't you?"
Eliza hummed softly to herself, as if in thought. "Of some things, perhaps."
"If I ask you something, will you promise not to judge me?" She took Eliza's answering hum as agreement and stumbled on before she could change her mind. "Are there any … are there women who prefer … other women, the way most women prefer men?"
"I … I think so."
"Are you one of them?"
Eliza began stuttering a denial, but Margaret cut her off.
"Because – I think I might be. And, well, you mean a lot to me. More than you should. I look at you, and I understand what Marianne has been talking about all these years."
Eliza stared at her blankly for a few long, painful moments, and Margaret felt as though she was watching their friendship disintegrate.
"So … you find me a temptation? Or a bad influence? You'd like Christopher and me to leave?"
"No! No. You must stay, of course. I wouldn't have you anywhere else. But … well, I understand. It's not right, and I didn't expect you to – "
Eliza reached out and covered Margaret's hand with her own. "I am. One of those women. But nobody … even Christopher … nobody can ever know."
Margaret smiled sadly. "What is there to know? Surely just having feelings can't get us into too much trouble."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not." Eliza sighed. "But this might." Then she leant in, very slowly, and pressed their lips together in Margaret Dashwood's very first kiss.
This special bonus fiction episode presents “Margaret” by Eleanor Musgrove, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.
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