Relatives & Relativity by Yahtzee



Summary: In the aftermath of the Time Wars, the newly regenerated Ninth Doctor crashes down in Regency-era England -- where he meets the sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, for a crossover with Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility."
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Ninth Doctor
Characters: None
Genres: Crossover
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2010.03.16
Updated: 2010.03.20


Index

Chapter 1: Chapter One
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Chapter 4: Chapter 4


Chapter 1: Chapter One

Author's Notes: The time period for Nine is after the Time Wars, before "Rose." The time period for S&S is about two-thirds of the way through the story, and the exact timeframe will be evident. Marianne's final speech to the Doctor is modified from a letter by Cassandra Austen, which seemed appropriate in context. All thanks to my beta, Rheanna.


1.

No one would deny there are few more forlorn sights than that of a young lady who has recently been jilted. Two such young ladies make a very unfortunate picture indeed.

It would, perhaps, not be entirely precise to say that Elinor Dashwood had been jilted. Edward Ferrars had given her no reason to hope for anything beyond his sincere friendship. However, Elinor had recently learned that Edward had been secretly engaged for many years to a Miss Lucy Steele, of Plymouth. Privately Elinor felt certain that Miss Steele’s aspirations to matrimony were more of a material nature than an amorous one, but this seemed of no consequence to Elinor’s own prospects. Edward, having given his word, would keep it, even if the cost were a loveless marriage and the loss of his inheritance. Elinor could in honour only wish him well and pretend that she did not believe he would have chosen differently, had he still been free to choose at the time they met.

Marianne Dashwood had quite decidedly been jilted. John Willoughby had wooed her both passionately and publicly, and the entire town had gossiped about their partiality for one another. Yet it was widely felt to be a good match — not least by Elinor herself, who did not doubt the sincerity of the pair’s affections, even when she wished for a more modest display of those feelings. But, alas, the expected engagement did not come to pass. Willoughby had proved himself a libertine, disgraced himself before his aunts and been cut off from his fortune — a turn of events to which he had responded by marrying a Miss Sophia Grey, who had fifty thousand pounds.

This shocking news had had the worst possible effect upon Marianne. Laid low by sorrow, she had developed an infectious fever that had very nearly ended her life.

Reminded of this illness on a morning some weeks later, Marianne made little of it. “I am quite well now, you see, and I do not need two shawls for a walk in the meadow when the weather is so bright.”

“Your cheeks are still pale.” Elinor resolutely wrapped the second shawl about her sister’s shoulders. Once, Marianne would have cast it to the floor rather than be told what to do, but now she submitted to Elinor’s desire.

Elinor would almost rather have prolonged the argument. In many ways, Marianne’s recovery had progressed well. Her appetite had returned, and she again took an interest in the affairs of her mother and sisters. She had even accepted the kind attentions of Colonel Brandon, who, though too wise and patient to press his suit so soon after her crisis, was eager to oblige Marianne in any whim that might speed her return to health.

Yet Marianne’s spirit remained but a shadow of what it had once been. The fire that had made Marianne so ungovernable — yet so happy — seemed to have been extinguished with the receipt of Willoughby’s final letter. This circumstance was, in its way, as frightening as her fever had been.

They did not speak as they wandered through the meadows near Barton Cottage. Marianne blinked against the sunlight, perhaps wondering whether Cum Magna was enjoying weather so fine, and if so, would Willoughby take his new wife for a ride in his carriage. The wind caught at Elinor’s hair, reminding her of a day when she and Edward had gone riding. Easily might they have spent their whole journey in such unhappy thoughts, had they not been most strangely interrupted.

Sudden brilliant light flared in the skies above them, and the ground beneath seemed to slip sideways. Both women tumbled upon the soft meadow grasses. Dimensions unknown to them bent and broke, the phenomena of which were profoundly unsettling. Marianne cried out in fright.

After but an instant, all was again as it had been.

“Do not be frightened, dearest.” Elinor attempted to conceal her own discomfiture, the better to comfort her sister. “It was but a tremor in the earth. We have read of such things.”

“I do not think so. Earth-quakes do not cause lightning, do they?” Despite her weakness, Marianne pushed herself to her feet first. “And as I fell — oh, Elinor, did you not sense it? That ripple around us?”

Elinor had sensed something most peculiar, but she could not account for its connection to this incident. “No doubt we are quite overcome by shock. We must pay it no mind.”

“I found myself thinking of — wonderful things, and terrible too.” Marianne held out her hand to steady Elinor as she, also, rose from the ground. “It was as though — as though, all at once, I could see everything I might ever have done. Every choice I might ever have made. A thousand lives, and each of them mine. Yet the thought of it fades so quickly!”

This statement was most startling to Elinor, who had experienced similar sensations. Of this, nothing remained but a dim image of Edward dancing with her at a London ball. Could a wrenching of the earth create such fancies? She resolved to read more upon the subject soon. “We must hurry home to Mamma. She will be beside herself.”

“Oh! Mamma and Margaret — what if they are hurt?”

“I do not think it was so severe an earth-quake as that. But we should —” Elinor’s voice trained off as she saw the small blue shed in the meadow.

The shed that had not been there before.

“What is that?” Marianne clutched Elinor’s sleeve. “Are we now seeing apparitions?”

Elinor considered it unlikely that they should both see the same apparition at once. “We may have failed to notice it before. I confess that I, at least, was most distracted by my thoughts.”

Marianne admitted the possibility of their distraction, but she could not imagine any reason to build a shed so far away from any person’s residence. Elinor suggested that it might be the work of shepherds, perhaps wishing for a place to shelter during sudden rainstorms. Marianne said no shepherds built such things, and Elinor said then they should certainly consider it as it would be quite practical, and they might have continued bickering in such turn for a long while had not the door of the shed opened.

Both sisters fell silent as a man stumbled forth. His curly hair was longer than any gentleman’s, but his clothing, while odd, did not seem like that of a workingman; his long frock coat was of bottle-green velvet. He staggered like a man unseeing, and blood stained his face and hands. No sooner had he gone five steps before he fell and tumbled out of sight down the little hill.

“He is injured. We must go to him,” Marianne said. Elinor opened her mouth to agree, but then they heard a rough masculine cry — and saw another flash of light, even more brilliant than the one before. They braced themselves against one another, expecting perhaps another of the strange earth-quakes, but the ground remained still.

“This is very peculiar,” Elinor said.

“How can you think of such when a man is hurt?” Marianne ran toward the place where the man had fallen. Elinor was not insensible to his condition, and glad to see the return her sister’s fiery disposition and quick compassion. But she felt unsettled as she hastened after Marianne, certain that this man’s sudden appearance had implications she could not yet fully comprehend.

This conviction was strengthened when they rounded the hill and looked down upon the unconscious man lying there. Still he wore the odd suit with the bottle-green coat; still blood marked his face and hands. But he was not the same man.

He was larger, it seemed. The suit was too short at the ankles and wrists, and his waistcoat pulled so tightly against his chest that the buttons strained the buttonholes. Instead of genteel features, he had a rougher countenance, large of nose and ear. Furthermore, instead of long, curly hair, he had been shorn so close to the scalp that he might as well have had no hair at all.

Marianne whispered, “I don’t understand.”

“We have been greatly surprised. Perceptions can be much altered in times of distress,” Elinor said. Although she was not entirely certain of the truth of her own words, she knew not how else to account for their present situation. “We must not be overcome. Help me, Marianne.”

They knelt by the stranger’s side, the better to ascertain whether he still lived and how serious were his injuries. As Elinor wondered whether she ought to risk the impropriety of taking his pulse, his eyes flew open. His expression was wholly wild.

“Gone,” he rasped, in a thick Lancashire accent. “All of them. Forever.”

“Sir, were you injured in the disturbance?” Elinor could think of no other term suitable to describe the odd events they had witnessed. “Shall we fetch a doctor?”

He laughed. It was a terrible sound, as deeply filled with sadness as Marianne’s weeping had ever been.

Marianne withdrew her kerchief from her pocket and dabbed at the bleeding cut upon his brow. “Do not strain yourself,” she said. “We shan’t leave you alone. We will look after you.”

“Alone,” he said, like a judge pronouncing sentence, but upon himself. Then he sank back into unconsciousness.

Elinor and Marianne exchanged looks of concern. It was Elinor who first suggested they should look within the shed. There might be water there to rinse away the blood and perhaps refresh him, as well as clews to his name and family. She could little have guessed how many answers lay behind the blue door.

As soon as they had opened the door, both sisters cried aloud. “Elinor!” Marianne’s eyes widened in the soft, golden light. “Have you ever beheld such a marvel as this?”

“I have not.” Elinor walked inside — not a shed, but a great space, larger by halves than Mrs. Jennings’ drawing room. The floors, walls and ceilings gleamed like polished brass, and an odd contraption whirred in the centre of it all.

Marianne stepped inside the shed, then out again, then repeated this process several times before she exclaimed, “It is larger within than without! That is impossible. And yet it is true. My eyes do not deceive me.”

“I do not see how it can be, and yet it so appears,” Elinor admitted. “Some strange illusion is at work.”

For the first time in many months, Marianne’s face lit up with true wonder. “Elinor — do you think it could be real — that he could — that he might be a magician?”

“His speech is rather rough, dearest. More likely he is a day-labourer from the North.”

“In a velvet coat? I think not. And how would a day-labourer create such as this?”

Elinor had no answer, but she kept her concentration upon their task. “First we must see to his well-being, and then you may pepper him with as many questions as necessary to ascertain that we have not come upon Merlin newly freed from Broceliande.”

“Do not teaze me,” Marianne said crossly, as she set to work searching. No letters or papers lay about, but a small brass door slid open — apparently of its own accord — revealing a jug of water. Triumphant in this further evidence of magic, Marianne hurried outside with the jug to give succour to the injured man. Elinor found a wardrobe full of all sorts of clothing, some of it highly peculiar. This interested her less than the fact that there were many soft cloths folded within, suitable for use as bandages.

As they knelt beside their patient, daubing blood from the smaller wounds on his hands, Marianne whispered, “Look at the cuts.”

“They are not so severe as we believed,” Elinor said, putting aside her first thought.

Marianne gave that first thought speech. “They are smaller than they were. It is as though he has been healing several days, rather than the span of a few minutes.”

There was nothing to say that would not stoke Marianne’s fantasies of magic, nor make Elinor doubt her own wits. Instead, Elinor began to plan. “Marianne, as soon as we have done what we can for him here, you must hurry home. I shall stay with the poor man; I think I will be safe enough. See if Mamma and Margaret are well, and whether a physician is to be had. Others may have been hurt or panicked by the tremor, and perhaps the doctor will be busy.”

“Not busy at all,” said their patient. “Nothing to do, now. Nothing ever again.”

“You are awake.” Marianne smiled encouragingly. “Do not fear. We will soon fetch help.”

“There’s no help for me.” He pushed himself into a seated position. The makeshift bandage they had tied upon his head obscured his vision slightly, and he tugged the white cloth to the side. For a moment he regarded both Elinor and Marianne with frank scrutiny. “Regency England, then. Good a place as any to face the end.”

“I do not think you will die,” Elinor said. Men were ever prone to exaggerate illness. “Just the same, we shall be glad to find a physician for you if you wish. I feel most strongly that you should be seen.”

“Fat lot of good he’d do me.” Then the stranger seemed to remember himself. “There’s just no point.”

“To getting a doctor?” Marianne asked.

“To anything.”

“May we know your name, sir?” Elinor did not like to leave the man this way. Perhaps he was merely uncouth and obstinate, but she had heard it said that some people behaved strangely after a blow to the head, and that when this was the case, a medical man should certainly be summoned. “Have you acquaintance in town that we might send to your aid?”

“I know no one in all the worlds,” he said, an odd turn of phrase Elinor assumed she had misheard. “They’re gone as if they never were. No — that’s not right. Not ‘as if.’ They truly never were.”

Elinor decided to be firm. “You are not well. Can you walk with us into the village? It is not far, and we could find help for you there.”

He gathered himself. Slowly, unsteadily, he rose to his feet, and they did likewise. “Forgive me. I’m not —” He looked down at the short cuffs of his coat and smiled darkly. “I’m not myself today.”

“All the more reason you should have a doctor,” insisted Marianne.

“I am a doctor,” he said. This seemed unlikely, given his accent, but Elinor’s small acquaintance with people from the North suggested that even learned men there spoke roughly. “I can see to myself. All I need at the moment is to be left alone. I have to — I have to think.”

His voice broke on the last, like a man announcing a great tragedy. Marianne, newly sensitive to the suffering of others, was the first to step slightly away to allow him space. Yet before he could leave, she blurted, “What is the magic inside that shed?”

“No such thing as magic,” said the doctor. “Just a trick of the light. That’s all there is to it.”

For the first time in her life, Elinor felt like arguing with someone who said there was no such thing as magic. She did not believe in incantations, spirits or any of Marianne’s gothic novels, but even if they had not seen “magic” at work, the shed represented more than a mere trick.

But this man’s stony face, and the despair behind his gaze, forestalled any possible argument.

They watched him step back into the shed and reluctantly began their journey back to Barton Cottage. As they walked, one or the other of the sisters would sometimes glance over their shoulder to ascertain whether the shed was still there — as though it might have the power to vanish into thin air. However, it never moved. Perhaps the odd doctor had come to stay.

Back to index


Chapter 2: Chapter 2

2.

Upon their return to Barton Cottage, Elinor and Marianne saw at once Margaret happily climbing the ladder to her tree-house. This reassured them that nothing much was amiss.

“Probably the tremor’s only effect was to knock over some of Mamma’s porcelains,” Elinor said.

“Oh, not the little cat, I hope.” Marianne had always doted upon the china cat.

They went inside to find Mamma in a state of great turmoil, pacing the floor and wringing her kerchief in her hands. “Mamma, calm yourself,” Elinor said. “It was indeed very shocking, but we are quite well.”

“Then you have heard!” Mrs. Dashwood flung her arms around Marianne for a moment before she sank upon her chair. “How brave you both are. For myself I do not know how I shall bear it.”

Her words did not suit the cause. Marianne asked, “Were you much alarmed by the earth-quake?”

“Earth-quake?” Mrs. Dashwood seemed puzzled for but a moment. “You speak metaphorically, I see. Yes, this news might well be an earth-quake to us all. That was nicely put.”

How had their mother failed to perceive the trembling of the earth? Elinor, who had read their father’s book on the terrible disaster in Lisbon in the past century, felt certain that any earth-quake such as they had experienced would be felt over a space of many miles. Yet this question was not the most pressing one to be answered. “Tell us what you have heard, Mamma.”

“I know no more of it than you, only what Mrs. Jennings shared with me — a gossip she may be, but this counsel was kindly meant. She wished to warn us ere the Willoughbys arrive in town. We will try as best we can to retain a distance, but in country society, I fear we cannot prevent a meeting. My poor Marianne!”

Marianne paled, so much so that her face appeared much as it had during the most dangerous time of her illness. Without a word, she turned and ascended the stairs, the corner of one of her shawls dragging behind her unattended. Elinor knew she would need to comfort her sister, but that Marianne would first wish a few hours to compose herself. This was disastrous news indeed.

“Why should Willoughby return here?” She pushed aside the loop with Margaret’s abandoned, snarled attempt at embroidery, so that she might sit on the chair nearest her mother. “His aunts repudiated him for his behaviour toward Colonel Brandon’s ward, and his wife could not wish to arouse public scrutiny by bringing Willoughby so near to a woman with whom he was so lately linked.”

“Who knows what such a woman may or may not like? Perhaps she wishes to revel in her victory over Marianne’s hopes.” This was stern condemnation for a woman whose only fault, so far as they knew, lay in possessing a fortune where Marianne did not. Yet Elinor said nothing, knowing her mother’s feelings to be difficult to brook. “Mrs. Jennings has said that Willoughby’s parents wish for him to be reconciled with his aunts, and given his recent marriage, his aunts are willing to welcome them to their home and witness the supposed ‘reformation of his character.’ What fools they are to be deceived by such a man!”

They had each been deceived by him and thus, by their mother’s judgment, were equally fools. Elinor would have pointed this out, would it not have caused Mrs. Dashwood further remonstrance. In truth, it pained her to think upon the matter herself.

“A meeting is inevitable,” Elinor agreed. “But I believe Willoughby is conscious of his own wrongdoing, at least enough so that he will also attempt to avoid the acquaintance. If they do not stay long, we may not see them upwards of two or three times. We can bear that much.”

“I cannot, and you know that Marianne cannot either. She has been improving, but surely this will finish her!”

Elinor became stern. “Do not speak so. Do not encourage her tendency toward melancholy. We must support and cheer her as best we can. Now I will ask Betsy to make us all some tea.”

“Tea!” Mrs. Dashwood said, with contempt for such modest comfort.

“Yes, tea. Scoff as you like, but you will have a cup all the same.”

When Elinor entered the kitchen, Betsy was not there — probably in town doing the marketing, given the hour. She set about the work herself, much distracted by her thoughts.

Willoughby had dearly loved Marianne, even after spurning her for Miss Grey — no, Mrs. Willoughby, as she must now be called. Elinor knew this because of their conversation during Marianne’s illness. He had made wild protestations of his devotion and blamed his bad behaviour toward Marianne wholly upon his new wife’s influence, though Elinor knew better than to take such statements as gospel truth. Like as not the new Mrs. Willoughby was as good a sort as any other, if perhaps proud in the way many Londoners were.

No, it was not Willoughby’s wife that Elinor feared. It was Willoughby himself. Never able to contain his passions, proven capable of immortal conduct, chafing at the bonds of a loveless marriage — what might he be tempted to do? Elinor had no doubt of Marianne’s virtue, but she knew that any attempted renewal of their romance by Willoughby would have the worst possible effect upon her sister’s spirits.

For a moment she thought of Edward, also soon to be trapped in a marriage of no true affection. His behaviour would always be moderate and correct. Although he would take every care to avoid any future meeting, if one were unavoidable, he would be as kind as possible and prevent Lucy triumphing over her former rival. He would never again allude to the emotions that had once stirred between them.

Despite every element in her character that ought to have been against it, Elinor wished for one moment that he would.

The teakettle whistled, breaking her guilty reverie. She sighed in relief. Tea was indeed a sure remedy for many ills.

**

Not one week had passed before they saw the shining wheels of Willoughby’s curricle upon the path leading into the village. Though the sisters saw it at a distance, there was no mistaking it — no other in the parish owned a curricle, and Willoughby’s bearing and demeanour were unmistakable. Worse yet, the woman seated beside him, with a high jaunty plume upon her bonnet, seemed likely to be his wife.

“I shall be brave,” Marianne said. This was fully half the speech she had uttered since hearing of Willoughby’s return to Delaford. After such ominous silence, her determination came as a welcome surprise to Elinor. “I shall be very brave.”

“We are here with you, dearest.” Elinor looped her arm in Marianne’s.

Margaret also wished to help her sister, but she was too young to be sure of propriety, and weary after their long walk. “Will he not give us a ride in his carriage as he once did?”

“No, and do not ask him. Say nothing save good day.” Elinor remembered what good friends Willoughby and Margaret had once been. Yet when he had broken with Marianne, he had broken with them all.

They resumed walking, pretending not to see Willoughby as long as could be managed. His horses continued apace until Elinor thought he would simply ride past them without a word. She could not decide whether such a gesture would be unforgivable or a kindness. Yet at the last possible moment, he pulled upon the reins and came to a stop opposite them.

His wife was every bit the beauty that the gossips had said. She wore a white pelisse trimmed in brilliant vermillion, as well as the limerick gloves that every girl in London had been dreaming of. An embroidered Lyonese shawl was draped about her shoulders. Around her wrist lay a finely worked silver bracelet that gleamed in the sunlight. The cost of these clothes alone might have kept the Dashwood family in beef and sugar for many months. Elinor noted this with no disgust, only a lively awareness of the difficulties of their situation.

For his part, Willoughby’s handsome features were a perfect mask of ease and contentment he could not possibly have truly possessed. “The misses Dashwood. Good day to you all.”

“Good day,” piped Margaret, first of the three to find her voice. “I hope you enjoy the fine weather.”

“What a cunning child.” Mrs. Willoughby spoke this in tones that suggested she rarely saw children and preferred matters thus. “She must have taught herself manners.”

Conscious of her impoliteness, Elinor quickly said, “We welcome you to town, Mrs. Willoughby. I hope you find the countryside pleasing.”

Mrs. Willoughby’s smile focused upon Marianne, who stood silently by Elinor’s side. “Every place has its unique delights, I find.”

Such a brazen triumph at Marianne’s expense would have shamed any decent woman. Their mother’s assessment of her character had been proved accurate. Elinor turned her head away for a moment, to hide the embarrassment that would have so pleased the scornful Mrs. Willoughby. Before she could think of any possible reply, she glimpsed a familiar figure upon the road, coming toward them: the odd doctor they had met the day of the earth-quake.

Only the turmoil of Willoughby’s arrival in town could have turned her thoughts from this stranger, and the inexplicable events surrounding his arrival and injury. Still he wore the ill-fitting clothes they had seen that day, though he had added to this an extraordinarily long, hairy scarf of many colours. He caught sight of her only a moment after she had glimpsed him, and he responded by waving cheerily.

Any interruption from the present awkwardness was most welcome. “Good sir!” Elinor called. “We are pleased to see you well.”

“Just taking my morning constitutional. Glad to find the two of you about.” His grin proved to be as exaggerated as the rest of his features. Though Elinor could sense some shadows of the melancholy that had affected him before, he appeared determined to make a better show of himself on the present occasion.

“Whom have we here?” Willoughby asked, too eagerly. His composure, untroubled only moments prior, had begun to show the strain of their meeting. Marianne, for her part, looked as though she might faint at any second. They, too, strongly wished for a diversion. “You must be new to the neighbourhood, sir, as I do not believe I have the honour of your acquaintance. John Willoughby, at your service, and this is my wife, Sophia.”

Marianne flinched.

“New to the neighbourhood — you might say that, yes.” The stranger held out a hand, which was most forward but not audacious. “Name’s John Smith, but you’d as well call me the Doctor. Everyone does eventually.”

“The county will be glad of a new physician,” Willoughby said. “Mr. Davies is excellent, but already he has more patients than he has hours in the day.”

“He’ll have to look elsewhere for help with his work load,” the Doctor said. “I consider myself retired.”

“What a pity,” Elinor said, as it seemed the thing to say, though she could not envision the county matrons entrusting their health to an eccentric.

“Retired to live a life of leisure, while still in your prime.” Willoughby smiled. “I like a man who knows the value of pleasure.”

The Doctor’s gaze raked over the lines of the curricle, his smile becoming somehow a harder thing. “No doubt you do.”

Elinor realized that the Doctor had taken Willoughby’s full measure, and accurately so, most swiftly. Would that he had been present to counsel them months earlier.

Sophia Willoughby interjected, “How fortunate you walked by just now. We were just about to invite the misses Dashwood to a ball.” Once more she smiled, too brightly, at Marianne. “In honour of our new marriage. Of course we shall need someone there to dance with the unwed ladies. Will you come as well, Mr. Smith?”

“Doctor, please. And I make no promises. Though isn’t it kind of you to ask?”

The Doctor’s smile widened into an almost indecently broad grin. For a moment, Elinor believed that, although he was a good judge of the character of reckless young men, his wits entirely deserted him when presented with a pretty female. This would scarcely have been surprising, or unique. Then she glimpsed the shadow beneath his smile, the darkness within his gaze. It reminded her of Colonel Brandon, in a way — the sense of ever-constant grief that underlay every movement, though it was harder to spot behind this man’s supposedly merry countenance. He knew well that Mrs. Willoughby was not kind at all — and there was more to his demeanour, besides.

Alone, he had said in the meadow. Although Elinor suspected most of his speech at that time to have been mere ranting, she felt certain that word was this man’s truth.

Mrs. Willoughby told them the ball would be Friday next, and she particularly entreated the Doctor to attend. It was evident by her reactions that she found the Doctor most uncouth and thought him therefore the ideal escort for her former rival; this was the only imaginable motivation for her avid curiosity regarding him. Elinor accepted with the best grace she could muster, glancing frequently at Marianne to see how she fared. Marianne did not weep nor blush; instead she kept her eyes turned toward the Doctor, intent.

“Come, my dear,” Willoughby said, obviously impatient to extricate himself from Marianne’s company. “We must to the Grangers’, for you see it is almost noon.”

The Doctor raised his index finger. “Ah, one thing before you go — about that peacock feather in your hat —“

“They are quite the rage in London, though I can expect you see them but rarely in the country.” Mrs. Willoughby tossed her head, so that the feather would dance prettily.

“So much the rage that there’s quite a business in knockoffs.” The Doctor clasped his hands behind his back and rocked back and forth on his heels. “You’re not wearing peacock. You’re wearing emu. Dyed, I imagine. Just wanted to tell you that you’d best not get it wet.”

Mrs. Willoughby, aghast, put one hand to her bonnet, and her cheeks betrayed her embarrassment. “Sir — Fulham’s is the finest milliner on the West End. Surely you are mistaken.”

“I know my peacocks, and I know my emus — some personally, though we can’t really get into that right now — and that’s emu. And no need to be bashful! It’s easy to make the mistake when you’re not familiar with what’s genuine.” His smile changed slightly as he said, “Now, that bracelet you’ve got on — that’s genuine indeed.”

“Your assertions have been noted,” she said, taking her husband’s arm. “Mr. Willoughby, we must adieu.”

Willoughby raised his hat in farewell. His eyes briefly met Marianne’s, and Elinor felt the shock of their connexion so powerfully she wondered that either of them could bear it. Then he snapped the reins and freed them all from the situation.

As the curricle disappeared down the road, Elinor murmured, “I realize the motive for your interference was honourable, but there was no need to humiliate Mrs. Willoughby about her fashions.”

“Need? No. Desire? Oh, yes indeed.” The Doctor kept looking after the carriage, apparently deep in thought. “Someone has to stand up for the honour of the emu. Noble bird, really, though in appearance it is a bit on the goofy side.”

“Why didn’t you like Mrs. Willoughby?” Margaret piped up. “I mean, I know why we don’t like her, but I don’t know why you feel the same.”

Elinor shot her younger sister a reproving look, but like so many other such looks over the years, it went unheeded.

“It’s not my problem,” the Doctor muttered, as if to himself. Then he focused his attention on Margaret, and his smile proved much more kindly when it was truly felt. “The story’s clear enough. Mr. Willoughby threw over your lovely sister here for another woman. That makes him a cad. His wife is foolish enough to think his behaviour reflects well on her. That makes her all sorts of things it’s not nice to call a lady.”

“He married her because she’s rich, and he’d lost his own money,” Margaret confided.

“Margaret.” Elinor glanced at Marianne, who remained calm, and continued to look at the Doctor. “You must not speak of such things.”

“I didn’t tell him about Willoughby! He already knew! I don’t see why we mightn’t explain if he already knows the really bad parts.”

It was fortunate that the Doctor chose this moment to change the subject of their discourse. “Like I said earlier, I truly am glad to see you.” His voice was less merry than before, and for once he seemed to be talking entirely sensibly. “To thank you for your help when I was hurt. The two of you went to a great deal of trouble to assist a stranger, and one who was being rather rude to you in the bargain. People that good are too rare, on this world or any other.”

There was that odd turn of phrase again, but none of the Dashwood sisters dwelled long upon it.

The Doctor clapped his hands together, cheerful again, except for his eyes. “Now, let’s see, how would you put it these days — ah, yes. Might I have the pleasure of knowing to whom I am indebted?”

“I am Miss Dashwood, of Barton Cottage,” said Elinor. “You remember my sister, Miss Marianne, and this is our youngest sister, Margaret.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” said Margaret, clearly happy to again be on sure social footing.

Marianne finally spoke, “You did not reveal our lack of any prior acquaintance while Willoughby and — while they were still here. You were quite careful to avoid that.”

“Thought it might look better if you had a friend on your side, though I admit I probably cut a strange figure, as friends go,” the Doctor said. His blithe admission — and Marianne’s insight — startled Elinor.

“Your cuts have healed very nicely,” Marianne continued. “In fact, I cannot see any evidence of your injury.”

The Doctor’s smile dimmed, and yet in his countenance Elinor thought she saw a more genuine respect. “Comes of having such fine nurses on hand, I suppose.”

This was no answer, and now that Elinor attended to Marianne’s words, she was startled by the lack of any marks upon the Doctor whatsoever. He had been sorely injured when they came upon him in the field; now, he was whole, when any other would still have been swathed in bandages.

Margaret asked, “Will you not come to tea? You could meet our mother, and then we can all be friends. We can’t be friends with men Mamma hasn’t met.” She added plaintively, “I don’t know why.”

“Yes,” Marianne said, surprising Elinor. “Please do come to tea. I should like to continue our acquaintance, and if you are to remain here, you will wish to join our local society.” She spoke with sincerity, and yet there was that in her words that suggested a test.

“I’ll be around for longer than you can imagine.” The Doctor’s gaze became set and hard. “For many years I was a traveller but — my work is done. I’m finished with all of it. No more travelling.”

“I’m glad you’re having tea with us,” Margaret confided. “We have biscuits, too.”

“Can’t have proper tea without the biscuits.” How odd it was that the Doctor could say such a thing, and smile, and somehow seem sadder than he ever had before.

**

The Doctor was not to be their only guest at tea-time, for when they returned to Barton Cottage, they discovered Mrs. Jennings and Sir John Middleton already in the drawing room. Elinor made what introductions she could, amid Sir John’s hearty invitations to go shooting and Mrs. Jennings’ efforts to determine whether the Doctor was a married man. Upon receiving a rather decided negative answer, Mrs. Jennings’ interest was immediate. Elinor hurried to the kitchen to help Betsy, lest she become the subject of the latest attempt at matchmaking.

Marianne hastened behind her. “Is not this curious?” she whispered. “Our Doctor is a most mysterious figure.”

“Are you proclaiming him a wizard once more?” Elinor put together a new tray as best she could, but Betsy had not made enough biscuits — little wonder, as they had been expecting no guests but had three.

“Follow my reasoning, Elinor — and yes, I too have reason, if I am not always as quick to employ it. The Doctor said he has travelled much, and we may infer that he is truthful from his familiarity with exotic birds. He is a medical man, and therefore not a gentleman, yet he has enough fortune to pursue no profession if he chooses. This fortune he has acquired at no greater an age than that of Colonel Brandon.”

Elinor smiled slightly at this from her sister, who had until recently considered Colonel Brandon to be superannuated beyond the reach of human feeling. Truly, the Colonel’s many kindnesses during her sister’s convalescence were beginning to bear fruit.

“And something very terrible has saddened him,” Marianne said. “For I believe that his past has been much blighted.”

Dearly though Elinor wished to curtail her sister’s tendency toward speculation, she had to admit that all these statements seemed likely. “We must not pry. I think he would little care for that.”

“You are right, I am sure. Perhaps — perhaps he was a physician in the navy, and he married a woman of higher birth. His honour would not permit him to abandon his profession and live upon her fortune. But then she died — oh, I hope not in childbirth, how terrible — she died and left him her wealth. So now he is free as she wished, but can take no pleasure in his change in circumstance.” This poured from Marianne quite breathlessly. “Poor man. How he must suffer!”

“If indeed your story bore any resemblance to fact, it would be tragic indeed. Yet we cannot know that, and we will not be so unkind as to test your wild theories.”

“Those are not wild theories. Those are very sensible theories. We shall require wild theories to explain his house being bigger on the inside, or how he cannot be scarred. There, I do not know what to believe.”

More fantasies, of the sort that would do Marianne no good. Elinor thrust the tea-tray at her. “Do not dwell upon it until we have the leisure to consider. We will feel more settled once tea is served.”

“You think tea solves everything,” Marianne said.

From the parlour they heard the pianoforte, though the song issuing from it was unlike any other with which they were familiar. To Elinor the sound was more like clamour than music, despite its oddly compelling quality. The sisters exchanged a look before hurrying back to the parlour.

The Doctor sat at the pianoforte’s keyboard, bashing out the tune with undisguised glee. Sir John clapped in time, a broad grin upon his face, as Mrs. Jennings and Margaret danced as best they could with only one another for partners. Even Mrs. Dashwood nodded her head and smiled broadly, and when the Doctor finished with a flourish, all applauded.

“What a jaunty tune!” exclaimed Mrs. Jennings. “I swear, I never heard its like. So thrilling! Quite the thing for dancing. Tell us, what is it called?”

“Blue Suede Shoes.” The Doctor closed the pianoforte lid with apparent regret. “Hasn’t quite caught on in London yet, but give it time.”

“Capital!” Sir John thumped the Doctor’s shoulder. “Yes, we’ll want to hear more of your daring new songs. We may demand a recital of you one day. “

Mrs. Jennings interjected, “You see, at our house, you must sing for your supper!”

“An entirely reasonable requirement.” The Doctor did not seem intimidated by Mrs. Jennings in the slightest, which said much for his courage. “Though, truth be told, Mrs. J., it’s best all around if I don’t sing. Let me tickle the ivories and someone else can provide the pipes.”

These peculiar twists of phrase silenced Mrs. Jennings for but a moment. “Such jokes you make. There’s something of the schoolboy in you yet, good Doctor.”

“Hah.” The Doctor accepted his tea and nodded when Elinor offered him a lump of sugar. His too-short coat sleeves showed a fair measure of his wrists, and once again she wondered how he could simultaneously be genteel and uncouth. “I’ve not been a schoolboy in more years than you could count, Mrs. J.”

“Bless you, and me old enough to be your mother.” Mrs. Jennings’ expression took on a cast that was not unfamiliar to Elinor, who winced in anticipation. “Tell me, Doctor, have you never considered having a few schoolboys of your own? Surely there is some woman in the parish who would make you a fine wife. Why, she might be closer than you think.”

She smiled benevolently at Elinor, who felt at that moment it would be better to take to a nunnery than to remain an unmarried woman within reach of Mrs. Jennings.

“I shall live the rest of my days alone,” the Doctor said. He spoke simply, yet there was that in his voice as would ensure the end of any jests about his unwed state, even from the indefatigable Mrs. Jennings. Elinor admired this and hoped someday to emulate it.

“You shall not be alone, not so long as my dear Mamma and I have a place at our table,” declared Sir John. “And that is every day of the week. Rest assured, Doctor, you have friends in Delaford.”

“It seems that I do.” The Doctor looked as though he did not know how to take this news, as well he might not, when presented with Mrs. Jennings and Sir John.

Margaret, still bouncing on her heels from the excitement of the dancing, asked, “Will you play that song at the Willoughbys’ ball? Everyone will like it, I know.”

“The Willoughbys’ ball?” Mrs. Dashwood rose to her feet. “What is this?”

Elinor would have spared Marianne the pain of speaking of it, but Marianne faced the matter bravely, saying, “We met them upon the road, Mamma. They have asked us to a ball at his aunts’ home. No doubt Barton Park will receive an invitation as well. And I fear there is nothing for it but that we must attend.”

“Never shall I set foot in that house!” Mrs. Dashwood swept grandly from the room, though in Barton Cottage she had nowhere to sweep toward, save the kitchen, which was not at all grand. Elinor quickly handed her mother’s tea to Margaret, who dutifully followed after.

Sir John shook his head. “It’s a bad bit of business. Nobody would blame you if you were to absent yourself, my dear.” He petted Marianne’s hand.

“I see that you are acquainted with the sad state of affairs, Doctor.” Mrs. Jennings’ broad face could, at times, reflect genuine sympathy. “Mind you, I am half inclined to avoid their company myself. For I met them in town yesterday afternoon, and so shocking was their conduct!”

This struck Elinor as odd. Though Mrs. Willoughby had been most unkind, her behaviour had not been remarkable save in its venom. Mrs. Jennings was unlikely to notice any deviation from proper decorum unless it was extreme. “What do you mean, Mrs. Jennings?”

“Well. Quite the lady of fashion, so she would have herself. How she kept flashing that bracelet of hers in my eyes! Blinding.” Mrs. Jennings drank deeply of her tea. “Showing off, I expect. And such nerve. ‘I command thee’ this, ‘I command thee’ that. She’ll soon learn I’m not so easily commanded! Willoughby sat there through it all without one word to her. He is a good-for-nothing, Marianne, and you are well rid of him.”

“Yes,” Marianne said. “I believe I am.” Her voice had no feeling, her words no animation to express true emotion.

Elinor frowned. “Doctor?”

The Doctor had put his head in his hands and his elbows on the lid of the pianoforte. Beneath his breath, he was whispering, barely loud enough for Elinor to hear, “It’s not my problem. It’s not my problem.”

But she thought he did not believe his words any more than Marianne.

Sir John said, “Come now, man, out with it. Shall we see you at this ball for the odious Willoughbys, or shall we not?”

Slowly the Doctor raised his head. He said nothing as he took a deep breath and readjusted the woolly scarf around his neck. His expression was determined in a way Elinor had not seen before, and she thought in that moment that she had, at last, beheld the true man.

“Yes,” the Doctor said grimly. “I feel like a spot of dancing.”

Back to index


Chapter 3: Chapter 3

3.


Sir Roger de Coverley was among Elinor’s favourite dances, usually — she liked imagining the dancers like foxes, darting in and out of cover amid the hunt. Also, it allowed for conversation between partners, which she quite enjoyed.

However, at the Willoughbys’ ball, the feeling of being hunted was far too real, and the conversation she overheard was extremely troubling.

“That younger girl is the one who threw herself so audaciously at Willoughby during that London ball I told you about,” a man whispered. “Shocking.”

“I suppose those are the sorts of gowns we can expect to see in the country,” said a woman on the chasse, with a glance at Elinor and Marianne’s simple cotton dresses, trimmed with ribbon yet plain compared to the shimmering silks that bedecked the fashionable set from London.

Elinor was spared the indignity of hearing what Mrs. Willoughby said herself, though her sharp eyes followed both Dashwood sisters about the dance floor without ceasing. Sometimes she seemed to be laughing at them — though, Elinor felt, a better-tempered woman than Mrs. Willoughby might be forgiven for making merry at the sight of Mrs. Jennings loudly giving them counsel, or of Elinor herself trying as best she could to dance with Sir John.

Most worrisome, however, was the conversation she heard between the dancers next to her.

“Tell me, what gave you the idea to wear — that?” Marianne said to her partner.

The Doctor replied, “A wise man once said — or will say, can’t recall at the mo — ‘beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ I intend to make do with what I’ve already got.”

“I suppose a uniform for cricket is not wholly inappropriate for dancing, as both practices are so vigorous. It is not at all the thing for a ball, however. Or so most men would say.” Marianne paused as they took hands with the next couple. “And celery for a boutonniere?”

“It’s in season,” he said blithely.

It was not so much the conversation itself that worried Elinor — after only a brief acquaintance, she was well aware that the Doctor’s talk could be both elliptical and frivolous. What concerned her was the odd note in Marianne’s questions. Her mind was still turning around the puzzle of the Doctor, and no doubt still coming up with magical explanations, as though it would require divine influence for a man to come into possession of a stalk of celery. Such irrationality could not possibly help Marianne navigate the difficult situation in which they found themselves.

When they took a rest to sample the punch, Mrs. Jennings declared, “Doctor, ‘tis too true that you’re out of practice at dancing. Though you followed the steps well enough, you did jostle the poor curate on the glissade.”

“It’s been ages. Literally.” The Doctor’s mind did not seem to be on the conversation, nor on the punch. His gaze remained fixed on a far corner of the ballroom — in particular, on a hallway down which the Willoughbys had briefly parted from the company. “Dare say I’ll get the swing of it.”

“A swing?” Sir John said. “A daring addition to a ballroom, I would think. But who’s to say what these young bucks might get up to?”

The Doctor straightened and placed his cup of punch on the table — avoiding all the other abandoned cups there, though he did not look. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment. Ladies, Sir John.”

“Do not forget our Miss Dashwood at the next allemande!” Mrs. Jennings called. To the sisters, she said, “Droll man. Most curious. And yet I find him quite dear.”

“We too must beg your leave,” Marianne said, taking Elinor’s hand. “Do not fear. We will not long abandon our good chaperone.”

Mrs. Jennings beamed. Elinor was heartened to see that Marianne had at last learned to appreciate the kindly nature of their boisterous hosts. She was less encouraged to realize that Marianne was following the Doctor.

“Marianne, what can you be thinking? Surely the Doctor wishes some privacy.”

“This is not as mundane as ducking behind the screen,” Marianne said, a most shocking statement to make where they might be overheard. But Elinor’s blushing was cooled by her sister’s next words: “I believe that the Doctor has become suspicious of Willoughby’s wife.”

“Suspicious? What can you mean?”

“I hardly know. But there is such in his expression when he looks at her — as though he found her fearsome.”

“As well he might, a woman so proud and unpleasant.” Elinor extricated her hand from her sister’s grip. “Please, you must use good sense. You must display reserve, tact, an immunity to the — cruel situation in which you are caught.”

“Why must I, Elinor? In order to win the good opinion of those whose regard is not worth the having? I care not what these people make of me. But I care very much to know what secrets the Doctor is hiding. This is not mere gossip. Do not you see it, Elinor? That this is more?”

Elinor did not see it. She did, however, see the brightness in Marianne’s eyes and the flush of her cheeks. For the first time since Willoughby had left Barton Cottage forever, Marianne seemed wholly herself. Even happy.

If her bizarre convictions about the Doctor somehow gave her peace — and gave her courage in the face of disapproval that Elinor herself would do well to emulate — then by all means, they would investigate.

“Lead on, Marianne,” Elinor said. Her sister smiled brilliantly, and they hurried down the hallway, following in the Doctor’s footsteps.

A door creaked, and they turned a corner just in time to see the Doctor disappearing into a darkened room quite far away — surely the very edge of the house. The sisters followed. Elinor whispered, “Ought we to make our presence known? I do not wish to be rude.”

“Nor do I. Yet as kind as the Doctor has been to us, he has not told us the whole truth, and he is skilled in the arts of evasion. If we are ever to learn more, we must catch him out.”

Their words stilled as they reached the threshold of the darkened room; the Doctor had not closed the door behind him but had pulled it to, so that only a sliver of the darkness beyond showed around the door’s edges. The sisters exchanged a glance before Marianne pressed her hands to the door and pushed it forward, slowly, so that the hinges might not creak.

The Doctor stood in the middle of what must have once been a sort of library, to judge by the high bookshelves that covered each wall from floor to ceiling. Yet the shelves no longer held books. Instead, glass cylinders, perhaps jars, were piled thickly where the books ought to have gone. And each cylinder held —

What was it? Elinor could not say. Her first thought was fireflies, but that was not correct; fireflies showed as small skittering dots of orange light, and this was another type of brilliance altogether. An arc of light, perhaps, bouncing within each jar, like serpents in water. The glow radiated thereby was enough to illumine the shelves, but not the centre of the room, where the Doctor stood. He stared down into a black square, roughly the dimensions of a billiards table. To judge by the greenish flickering that played upon his sombre face, it was certainly something else. The Doctor took from his pocket a sort of metal contraption, the same size as a letter-opener, and pointed it downward; its tip began to glow, not unlike the light-serpents themselves.

Magic, Elinor thought. She was too astonished to feel chagrin, but could there be any doubt she had been proved wrong?

Marianne took one tentative step within, then, when no disaster befell her, walked quickly toward the Doctor. Elinor kept only a short distance behind. When they were very near, Marianne said, “You will not tell us this is a trick of the light.”

The Doctor jumped. “What the —“ When he saw them, he scowled. “Dancing slippers on thick carpets. Quieter than cats. I’ll have you know every civilized world has outlawed such a thing.”

“Explain,” Elinor said. Her heart beat at an alarming rate. “You must explain this. Explain yourself. Do not mislead us any longer.”

“We wish to be friends,” Marianne added. “True friends do not keep such secrets.”

“True friends can keep secrets you’d never imagine.” The Doctor’s gaze slid sideways, and his sour expression transformed into one of profound unease. “… and it might have been better if we’d tried whispering.”

“What do you mean?” Elinor looked in the same direction as he, and realized that the light-serpents were moving differently now. Instead of gliding about gently within their jars, they now thrashed from side to side, so that all the glass rattled and vibrated.

Marianne clutched Elinor’s arm. “What is happening?”

“We’re running!” The Doctor pushed them both in front of him so that all three began to dash toward the door. As they ran, jars started to shatter, each fall of glass resulting in a louder and louder hiss, as though the work of real serpents. Elinor glanced back once and saw that the lights were meeting one another, forming a larger creature, almost a dragon, that seemed to stare at them — to be pouncing at them —

The Doctor tackled the sisters as a cowherd might an unruly calf, bearing all of them down onto the carpet in the hallway outside. He managed to kick shut the door behind them just before the light-dragon struck it; the wood vibrated with a terrible sound that must have echoed within the whole house and far beyond it.

They stumbled to their feet just before the first partygoers began to venture into the hallway, in search of the source of the noise. “What has happened?” said one fashionable Londoner. Elinor could not think how to explain. The Doctor’s face took on a very odd expression, and she became certain that he was on the verge of inventing some colourful, implausible tale that would reassure no one whatsoever.

Marianne, with what Elinor considered great wisdom and excellent timing, chose that moment to feign a swoon.

When she collapsed against Elinor’s shoulder, all those witnessing were overcome with concern for her — or, as she overheard in various whispers, the need to gossip about Miss Dashwood’s obvious distress at the sight of her former swain and his new bride. The Doctor managed to say that she had fallen, which could not at all have explained a crash so loud. However, as this tale enhanced the dramatic nature of their gossip, the party was satisfied. By supplying a new source of conversation, Marianne had successfully diverted the interrogation.

And, Elinor thought with a worried glance backward, Marianne had also kept anyone from opening the door that held back the terrifying light-dragon.

As Mrs. Jennings helped Marianne into her carriage, Elinor heard Sir John say to the Doctor, “Will you remain at the ball, sir? Surely Miss Dashwood will be well once she is restored to her home. But if you prefer to come with us, you are welcome to stop a while with my dear mamma and myself.”

“I’ll see myself home,” the Doctor said, with a not-unkindly smile. Yet there was that in his voice as presaged great danger.

Elinor, now in the carriage beside her sister, looked down at Marianne. When their eyes met, she knew what they would do, and how they would do it, as surely as though they had planned it some months in advance.

No, she needed no more persuasion to investigate “magic.”

**

Later that night, after Mrs. Jennings and Sir John had left and their mother had fussed over Marianne at length, the sisters Dashwood were at last able to shut the door of their bedroom in the pretence that they wished to sleep. Elinor felt some surprise when Marianne began to undress. Then she realized that it would be most foolish to venture out in their party gowns, and inadequate to the evening chill. Together, without a word, they helped one another into their warmest and sturdiest dresses and coats, the ones they normally reserved for days of labour.

It was fortunate that both Mamma and Margaret were both quick and sound sleepers. Once they were dressed, Marianne and Elinor could immediately set out down the stairs to their front stoop, where they put on their shoes at the door and closed the latch quietly. The moon was near full and the sky cloudless, so silvered light showed them the way toward the meadow where they had first seen the Doctor’s shed.

“Are you afraid, Elinor?” Marianne said.

“We have never walked out so late, it is true, but one never hears of vagrants or other such trouble in this vicinity.”

“I meant, of the Doctor.”

Elinor realized that the question was not an unreasonable one, and yet even upon further consideration she could discern no trace of fear within herself. “I am only curious, I find.”

“I, too.” Marianne smiled so brightly that Elinor thought she might laugh aloud. “Is it not exciting?”

In prudence, Elinor thought, she should say something cautionary. In honesty, she could not entreat her sister to a greater caution than she felt herself. She therefore said nothing as they made their way quickly through the meadow toward the tiny blue shed silhouetted by the moonlight.

When Elinor knocked on the door, there followed a long pause, so long that the sisters glanced at one another in dismay. “Could he have remained at the Willoughbys’ ball?” Marianne asked. “Surely he has not gone back to fight the dragon himself.”

“He would not be so foolish, I think.”

“And yet he had gone to fight it alone before!”

“Then it was several serpents in jars, not a — larger sort of — dragon. Or such.” The necessary vocabulary was most unseemly.

The shed’s door opened, and the Doctor stood there, still in his cricketer’s uniform, plus an odd sort of straw hat with a flat crown and a band decorated with marks of interrogation. “Might’ve known you two couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

Elinor did not take kindly to being growled at. “Had you beheld such as — as that, and you did not understand its nature, could you rest easily without answers?”

The Doctor sighed heavily, yet despite himself seemed somewhat amused. “Well, neither of you has fainted yet. Good a sign as any, I suppose.” He turned and walked inside the mysterious golden interior of the shed, then glanced back after them. “What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation? Get in before you catch your death. It’s chilly out there, and as you’ve seen --- strange things are afoot.”

The sisters walked inside, in no less a feeling of awe than they had felt the first time. “How is this possible?” Marianne said. “This phenomenon of this shed’s true size. Of your transformation when we met you. The earth-quake, if that is indeed what it was.”

“And how all of this can possibly involve Mrs. Willoughby,” Elinor added. When Marianne stared at her, she said, “You had realized the connexion before now.”

“I — yes, I had wondered as much, but I half believed the notion to be only my own mean feeling,” Marianne confessed.

“Sometimes, you even have to trust your petty side,” the Doctor confided. “Because it’s steered you in the right direction this time.”

Enough vagaries. Elinor demanded, “What is this … shed?”

The Doctor looked heavenward. “Shed. A shed, she calls it! Don’t jostle her too much, dear girl; she knows not what she beholds. This, Misses Dashwood, is a TARDIS. That stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space, which is what she can move within. She’s a living thing, no machine … but you wouldn’t expect a machine, would you? More used to horses than to horseless carriages.”

A horseless carriage sounded particularly useless to Elinor, but she had no time to puzzle over his odd phrases. “This — TARDIS moves? Under its own locomotion?”

He grinned. “We can go to Paris. To the West Indies. To the moon. To the indigo grasslands of Levixtian Three, which is a planet orbiting a different star altogether from the sun. And if your discontent with the here and now has more to do with the ‘now’ than the ‘here,’ I can take you back to meet Edward the Confessor. Boudicca. Whoever else strikes your fancy.”

None of it was remotely sensible. None of it had any place beyond the pages of a fairy story. The Doctor was telling lies, mocking them: That was the only rational explanation. Yet Marianne stared at him, her face dawning with wonder, as though she believed every word and had never heard anything so delightful. It was no great surprise that her fanciful nature would accept and even welcome such a tale.

The great surprise was that Elinor — against all logic and inclination — believed it too.

Marianne gaped. “So this is — this is truly — magic.”

“A wise man once said — or will say, honestly, I ought to check the dates in my Bartlett’s sometimes — ‘Any science sufficiently developed will be indistinguishable from magic.’ And that’s what this is. Science. The unfolding of natural law, in ways that haven’t yet been discovered on your planet, in your century.”

“On … our planet,” Elinor said. “Not your planet.”

“What gave me away? It’s the ears, isn’t it? I thought they didn’t quite regenerate correctly this time. Overenthusiastically, at any rate.”

In a far steadier voice than she would have thought possible for such a sentence, Elinor continued, “You are a sort of … scientist-traveller from another world and era, using a living vehicle that is larger on the inside to move great distances or over centuries.”

The Doctor grinned. “Nicely done! As many times as I’ve had to explain, I don’t think I’ve ever made so neat a job of it.”

The sisters’ eyes met, as each sought confirmation of the other’s belief. Marianne brightened as she saw that she would not need to convince Elinor further. “How delightful!” Marianne said. “That seems somehow inadequate to the moment, but I know not what else to say.”

“Delight’s rather nice, actually,” the Doctor said. “I’ll take it.”

Elinor turned these revelations over in her mind once more. What they had learned here — it was not a fancy, not a delusion. Not was it simple, plain fact, to be fitted into the ordinary course of life. It was both logic and illogic, fantasy and science, the merging of her reason and Marianne’s sensibilities. For once, neither of them was wrong; both of them had been completely right, even though their beliefs had been exact opposites!

She laughed aloud. Marianne raised her eyebrows, and even the Doctor seemed to be surprised. Elinor covered her mouth with her hand, but she knew her glee to be ill-concealed. “Delightful,” she said. “Yes.”

The Doctor turned back to the machination at the centre of the TARDIS, and with his long fingers punched at certain bits of metal. An illustration of the light-dragon appeared, though instead of a drawing it seemed to be made of light as well, and it hung in mid-air. Although the sisters gasped at such a marvel, he did not seem to pay much heed. “Looks familiar, hmm? What you see here is a Nalosian Congregation, which is actually several dozen or hundred Nalosians all jumbled together.”

“The Nalosians —“ Marianne hesitated on the unfamiliar word. “Were they the serpents in the jars?”

“Precisely, Marianne!” the Doctor declared, indelicately omitting the proper “Miss” before her name. Then again, Elinor rationalized, they had gotten on rather familiar terms very quickly. “Each Nalosian on its own — hardly worth worrying about. Off their home planet, they’re badly weakened. Worst thing one could do is tip over a vase. Not much to worry about, unless you’re extremely fond of some particular vase. But when you get a Nalosian Congregation, you have something fairly deadly on your hands. The one in the Willoughbys’ home isn’t very large — yet. Given more time, however, I suspect Mrs. Willoughby could work up a proper monster. And I think she means to.”

Elinor interjected, “How is Mrs. Willoughby the cause of this? You suggest that these creatures are from another world, and surely she is not.” A pause. “Is she?”

“Doubt it. To be precise, it’s nothing to do with Mrs. Willoughby itself,” the Doctor said. “It’s the thing that’s taken up residence inside her.”

Marianne paled. “Do you mean … possession? As if by demons?”

“Very like.” The Doctor punched at a small contraption of metal squares and rectangles; the illustration of the Nalosian Congregation vanished and was replaced with an image of a finely worked silver bracelet.

“That is Mrs. Willoughby’s bracelet,” Marianne said. “The one you noted when we all first met on the path that day.”

The Doctor folded his arms, running one finger absently along the stalk of celery pinned to his jumper. “Some people would call it a bracelet. Other people would call it a ‘telepathic tether.’ The Nalosians shoot them out into space, in all different sizes, always bright and shiny. Every planet’s intelligent races love bright and shiny things. We’re all pathetic like that, it turns out. Anyway, somebody eventually takes the tether. That person is then possessed by a Nalosian, and as the possessed person subverts the will of one person after another — turns them into her puppets, whether for an hour or forever — essentially, they make little baby Nalosians.” He paused. “Sorry, was that improper? I keep forgetting, this era’s rather … staid.”

In truth, Elinor’s cheeks had pinked, but she said smoothly, “We are not ignorant of such matters. Pray continue.”

“Well. The more Nalosians that come into being on this world, the larger a Nalosian Congregation we’ll be dealing with. Which raises the prospect of mass hysteria, property destruction on an enormous scale, the occasional murder, and, for some reason, a gigantic increase in the fox population. Something about Nalosian Congregations affects foxes the same way Barry White affects humans. Or will affect them. Really, I’ve got to brush up on my Earth dates.”

Marianne stepped closer to the Doctor, her youthful face alight with hope. “You mean that Mrs. Willoughby — she truly is controlling people’s behaviour? Including Willoughby’s?”

Elinor had thought Willoughby’s protestations of being forced into cruelty by his wife to be merely weak pretexts for his own ill-conduct. Faced with the possibility that this was the literal truth, she no longer knew how to assess her own condemnation of him — or what this might mean for Marianne.

This matter did not bear discussing at the moment, however; a more pressing question had come to Elinor’s mind. “The bracelets are used in the subversion of people’s will, you said?”

“Precisely,” the Doctor replied.

“Just as Mrs. Willoughby tried to subvert Mrs. Jennings’s will, according to what she told us that day at tea.” The story — with the bracelet being flashed about, and commands being given — sounded so different now. “Yet she was unable to subdue Mrs. Jennings.”

“A platoon of Cybermen couldn’t subdue Mrs. Jennings.” At the sisters’ stares of incomprehension, the Doctor further explained, “Highly strong-willed people aren’t as susceptible to the Nalosians’ influence. Mrs. J. fits into that category, wouldn’t you agree?”

“It could not be argued otherwise,” Elinor said, keeping as straight a face as she could manage.

Marianne’s focus had remained unchanged. “If Willoughby is under this infernal creature’s influence, how can we free him? How do we stop her?”

The Doctor took a deep breath. “We go over there, bonk her on the head and get the bracelet back.”

The sisters looked at one another for a moment, then turned back to the Doctor as Elinor said, “… bonk?”

“Hit. Strike. Thump. Whack.” He mimed the motion against the wall of the TARDIS, perhaps in the belief that none of these words would be comprehensible to them. “Whatever it takes to get that bracelet off her wrist. It’s one of the only two ways to break the link between Mrs. Willoughby and the Nalosians; the other involves a soak in a solution including polyphenols, phenolic acids, alkaloids, and — you know, what say we just grab the bracelet? As soon as the link is broken, the Nalosians will begin to fade, and they’ll instantly lose the power to form a Congregation.”

“As surely you will undertake the more combative aspect of this plan, what role do you wish for us to play?” Marianne asked. Elinor started in surprise, but Marianne continued, “I do not believe you would have told us any of this, had you not felt our cooperation necessary.”

The Doctor did not deny this, which Elinor felt to be a compliment to their good sense. “I don’t know what Willoughby was like before. So I don’t know whether he’s merely under her sway, or whether he’s possessed as well.”

“But he wears no bracelet,” Marianne protested. “We would notice anything so peculiar as that!”

“Which is why he’d hide it — as an armband under his shirt, perhaps. But if he’s merely being controlled, you might be able to snap him out of it — bring him back to himself, maybe. If the two of you come with me now, once we’ve parted Mrs. Willoughby from her jewellery, you can tell me whether the problem is solved, or whether he’s going to need bonking on the head as well.”

Elinor privately felt that Willoughby rather deserved a … bonk … on the head, irrespective of whether it was strictly required. “Now? It is the dead of night.”

Marianne interjected, “Every moment we linger potentially adds to her strength. And if we are to slip in secretly, it must be by night.”

“Like thieves?” Elinor protested.

Crossly, Marianne said, “Do you wish to wait for an invitation to dine? If Mrs. Willoughby ever invites us again, it will be with the object of subverting our will, and I would prefer therefore to go when she does not anticipate our arrival.”

The Doctor looked impressed. “You’ve got a knack for this sort of thing, you know that?”

Her words indeed represented good sense. Elinor straightened her bonnet. “Very well,” she said. “Let us begin.”

**


No servants stirred at this hour — even the lowliest scullery maid would have finished her scrubbing up by then and gone to her garret to sleep, and not even the most vigilant footman had yet risen. Thus the Dashwood sisters and the Doctor were able to approach the great house without fear of discovery. The door proved to be locked, but the Doctor’s odd little contraption — which he called a “sonic screwdriver” — undid that in an instant.

“You are a formidable man, Doctor,” Marianne whispered as they pushed the door open, slowly, that the hinges might not squeak. “I shudder to think what it would mean to have you as an enemy, rather than a friend.”

“You do well to shudder.” As the Doctor said this, Elinor studied his face in the moonlight, in the hope that he was jesting. She believed he was not.

They made their way through the ballroom, which showed very little sign of its earlier glamour; already the servants had taken away all the flowers and put up all the candles. Only a lingering scent of gardenias suggested that a dance had taken place this night. Wordlessly, they travelled the way they had come before, toward the room where the Nalosians had been kept in their jars. As they tiptoed down the hallways — carefully, for they were now in boots rather than their soft slippers — they began to hear voices.

“My love,” Willoughby said, all politeness, “the hour grows late. We should to bed.”

Mrs. Willoughby replied, just as sweetly, “We cannot rest until we finish our labours, dearest.”

The doorway from before had been opened, and a sickly green light flickered in the hallway. Elinor felt quite nervous that the Nalosian Congregation — or, as she still thought of it, the light-dragon — could easily come after them. Nothing now held it in place. Yet the Doctor and Marianne kept on, and where they went, Elinor would follow.

When they reached the open door, the Doctor leaned over to peer inside the room with far more confidence than Elinor thought the situation merited. However, when no shrieks of anger greeted this movement, she and Marianne both followed suit.

The light-serpents had returned to their jars — or, as it were, to new jars. Broken glass still littered the floor; no doubt the Willoughbys had told the servants never to enter this room. Willoughby sat, straight-backed, in a chair in one corner, and only a certain stiffness in his posture betrayed that all was not well. His eyes were blank, and his smile handsome as ever, if ill-focused, like a man thinking of someone not present. On the table next to him sat a teapot and two cups, though no steam issued forth — the tea was no doubt long-abandoned, gone cold. In the centre of the room, in front of the strange billiard-table-shaped device, paced Mrs. Willoughby. Still she wore her glittering ballgown, though it was slightly askew now, one of the sleeves pulled entirely off her shoulder in an unseemly manner. Her fair curls had escaped their hairband, but Mrs. Willoughby paid this no notice. Instead she went back and forth, back and forth.

“How can he know?” she whispered. “Who can he be? He smells of a Time Lord, but they are only concerned with their mad wars against the Daleks.”

“Sorry,” the Doctor declared loudly, stepping into the room. “The Time War’s ended. Which puts me back on duty, so to speak.”

What madness was this? Elinor could hardly believe that the Doctor had done anything so foolish as announcing himself to their enemy, particularly while she was surrounded by light-serpents that could band together to do her bidding. But Marianne quickly took her place at the Doctor’s side, leaving Elinor little choice than to do likewise.

Mrs. Willoughby, spying them, began to laugh. “Have you brought along little human girls to do your bidding, Time Lord? How unworthy of you.”

“I haven’t stolen their bodies. Used them like toys in a dollhouse,” the Doctor said. “Like some others I could mention.”

“I do what I must.” Mrs. Willoughby tossed her curls in a manner so natural and familiar that Elinor felt certain this, at least, was something that survived of the true woman, not the demon alien possessing her. “You attempt what you should not.”

She flung out her hands, which crackled with a strange light, like the sparks in woollens on dry cold mornings. And the light-serpents began to writhe.

Why had the Doctor showed himself? Elinor wondered. Yet immediately she comprehended the answer. No opportunity to surprise Mrs. Willoughby had showed itself. Therefore he meant to distract her, leaving any show of force to the Dashwood sisters. Elinor meant to have a word with the Doctor about the imprudence of this plan later, but for now, she slipped away to the side, attempting to get lost in the shadows.

Marianne followed, but more swiftly, and she obviously did not govern her conduct to avoid attention. “Willoughby!” she cried. “Willoughby, you must awaken. You must free yourself from her power!”

Willoughby glanced at Marianne, but absently, as he might look about a ball for any special acquaintance.

“Do you not hear me? Willoughby! We need you — you must overcome her!” Marianne went to Willoughby and shook his shoulders. When this produced no effect, she slapped him across the cheek. “Willoughby!”

As Willoughby made no particular movement, despite having now been “bonked” upon the head, Elinor privately decided that he was not a separate prisoner of the Nalosians, but rather the plaything of his possessed wife. Quietly she tiptoed behind Marianne and Willoughby, glad of the hubbub in the room that would disguise her movements — and increasingly nervous about the thrashing of the light-serpents. She suspected that, if the light-dragon came forth again, this time they would discover its true power.

“Why do you continue to drive us from Earth, Time Lord?” Mrs. Willoughby said, circling the Doctor as their gazes locked. “We will always return, you know. It is so rich for us.”

The Doctor’s smile held no mirth. “You’ll always return,” he agreed. “And you’ll always be wrong. That’s why I’ll always be here to stop you.”

“How grand you think yourself,” Mrs. Willoughby sneered.

Now the Doctor actually seemed amused. “And isn’t that fine, coming from someone who gads about in dyed emu feathers?”

Mrs. Willoughby hissed in the manner of an angry cat. The light-serpents writhed so desperately that the jars began to rattle. Time was running out.

Elinor did not trust the strength of her own blows, but she thought perhaps she might throw something at Mrs. Willoughby. That might prove most forceful. But what could she throw? This room was devoid of books, she dared not shatter even one of the jars. Then an idea came to her. In desperation, Elinor seized the china teapot and threw it directly at Mrs. Willoughby — and missed, only splashing her thoroughly with tea.

But as the teapot fell to the ground and shattered, Mrs. Willoughby began to scream.

The terrible long peal of her cry trembled through the very walls. Slowly, the light-serpents dimmed, darkening the room to near blackness as they faded entirely. Mrs. Willoughby swooned to the floor, quite insensible.

“Miss Dashwood!” the Doctor exclaimed, quite beside himself with glee. “That — that was — it was —“ He struggled in vain for a word, then hit on, “Fantastic!”

Willoughby stood up very suddenly, and Marianne stumbled back a few steps in shock. He said, “My God. You have defeated her. That vile creature. I am myself again.”

“I do not understand,” Elinor confessed. “I did not strike her, and the tea would not have been hot enough to scald.”

“You soaked her in a solution of polyphenols, phenolic acids and alkaloids,” the Doctor pronounced with pleasure. “Did the trick in a jiff. I was hoping you’d catch on when you saw the teapot.”

Marianne said, “Do you mean that all we needed was — a cup of tea?”

The Doctor nodded and folded his arms across his chest. “Tea solves everything.”

Aware that her sister was gaping at her, Elinor revealed no reaction, in an effort not to appear too thoroughly self-satisfied.

Back to index


Chapter 4: Chapter 4

4.


The Doctor took upon himself the complicated task of explaining to Willoughby precisely what had transpired. Of this lengthy and not entirely sensible discourse, the one point Elinor found of particular note was that the Nalosians already upon this world had all passed back into their original dimension, and would trouble them no further. Despite this, Marianne removed Mrs. Willoughby’s silver bracelet as a precaution and slipped it into the pocket of the Doctor’s coat, so that it might later be dismantled in the TARDIS.

Throughout the conversation, Elinor noted, Willoughby did not glance once at the insensate form of his wife on the floor.

“Such an unbelievable tale,” Willoughby said. “And yet it has happened to us, and for the best.”

“The best?” Elinor said, unable to discern his meaning. She understood more when Willoughby turned to her sister and boldly took Marianne’s hands in his own. Marianne gasped, and became quite still.

“My beloved Marianne,” Willoughby said. Warmth was in his every word, and his eyes again shone with the sincere affection they had known from him before. “Now you know why I married Miss Grey, and the truth of the terrible influence she had over me. You must realize now that not one word of that wretched letter I wrote you was an expression of my true feeling.”

Marianne whispered, “I do. I believe that now.”

Willoughby stepped closer to Marianne, so much so that Elinor thought he had quite forgotten she and the Doctor remained in the room. “Can you forgive me, my dearest? Can you at last believe that I still love you, and only you?”

Marianne stared up at him for a few moments, until she said in a small voice, “I believe that you still love me.” Yet as Willoughby smiled, she added, “But I do not forgive you.”

Most shocked, Willoughby protested, “This marriage — this unkindness — it was not at all my own doing or my will!”

“No. It was not.” Marianne’s words gained firmness as she spoke. “However, you were not under Nalosian influence when you seduced Colonel Brandon’s ward, nor when you left her, alone and desolated, while with child. Nor when your aunts took away your money, and you abandoned me to be free to marry another who would have a greater fortune. You did not meet Miss Grey until after that. Those earlier actions were your doing, yours alone.”

Willoughby’s cheeks coloured, and he looked very much as if he wanted to speak — but for once, words did not come easily to his tongue.

Marianne continued, “The bracelets do not overcome the strong-willed, or so the Doctor says. You were overcome quite easily. Yet that fact was not necessary to prove that — you are a weak man, Willoughby. I do not condemn you, for I too have been weak. But I can no longer regret the circumstances that have parted us.”

With that, she stepped away from Willoughby to Elinor’s side. As Elinor petted Marianne’s shoulder, Willoughby protested, “Is this all you have to say to me?”

“Don’t know about Marianne, but I’ve got something to add,” the Doctor said. “What makes you think you’re free to go about protesting your love to her or anyone else besides your wife? You a married man.”

Willoughby protested, “I did not marry of my own free will! I married some — creature that no longer exists!”

The Doctor shook his head. “At least half of her continues to exist. And you’re still quite married.”

As if summoned by his words, Mrs. Willoughby sat upright and rubbed her head. “Goodness,” she said. “Goodness me. I must have taken a spill. The fool servants polished the floors with too much wax. Tomorrow I shall box their ears.”

Her voice was sharp, her manner ill-tempered. The scene about her would have excited the curiosity of the most inobservant witness, and yet Mrs. Willoughby seemed primarily interested in examining her fine ballgown for tears or stains. Elinor detected that Mrs. Willoughby was not insensible to the strangeness of their situation, and this meant she must have some memory of what had transpired — but she seemed to regard it primarily as an embarrassment, a social awkwardness best ignored altogether.

“John?” she whined. “Help me up. I must wake Millie so that she can rinse this dress. If it is tea-stained, I shall not answer for it.”

Willoughby seemed to shrink some inches in stature. Quite suddenly, his dash and vigour had deserted him — and forever, Elinor suspected. Without a word he offered his wife an arm, and she took it, clasping her thin fingers around his forearm so tightly that Elinor was put in mind of the links of a chain.

Mrs. Willoughby deigned to glance at the Dashwood sisters and the Doctor only briefly. “I trust you can show yourselves out?” she said, as she began walking toward the door, Willoughby silent by her side.

“Absolutely!” the Doctor called with great good cheer. “Brilliant party, by the way!”

Very quietly, just as the Willoughbys stepped through the doorway of the room, Marianne whispered, “Goodbye.” Elinor did them both the courtesy of pretending not to notice that Willoughby flinched.

**

They returned to the TARDIS, rather than to Barton Cottage, for Elinor felt certain that sleep remained many hours away for them both. What they had just witnessed must be spoken of before it could be laid to rest. To Elinor’s surprise, the strange golden interior of the TARDIS already felt familiar — almost homely. The Doctor sensibly made them some tea.

“Poor Willoughby,” Elinor said. “He will have such regrets.”

“They are largely of his own making,” Marianne retorted. Her old spirit had returned in full now. “And his purse is no poorer than before. I suppose he will console himself well enough with hunting trips, and a fine house in London, and perhaps a new phaeton or whatever else is the finest carriage in the land this season.”

The Doctor’s straw hat was tipped far back on his head, somehow rendering his grin even more boyish. “We’re in the finest carriage in the land, any season. Pity you don’t know what the TARDIS can do.”

Elinor took another sip. “You were good enough to explain to us, and after the marvels we have beheld, you may rest assured that Marianne and I believe you.”

He hesitated — a pause that flickered, like the first sparks of a fire just as the blaze took hold. “But wouldn’t you rather see for yourselves?”

Surely he was speaking of a journey, one of the wondrous feats of transport of which he claimed the TARDIS to be capable. Elinor protested, “If we are not at home in the morning, Mamma will be most concerned.”

“Time machine, remember?” The Doctor stepped toward the whirring contraption at the centre of the great golden room. “You’ll be back before dawn, make no mistake. Now, where would you two like to go?”

The sisters stared at one another, hardly sure what to do. Although the Doctor had suggested infinite possibilities, such infinity was difficult to sort through at a moment’s notice. Elinor ventured, “Could we … could we even go as far as London before dawn?” Next to her, she saw Marianne looking sceptical, as well she might upon hearing such a wild proposition.

The Doctor laughed. “All the universe before them, and they ask for London! It shows good taste, really. Very well.” He slammed down a lever in the works, and a strange sound — like the one they had heard on the day of the earth-quake — began to hum and whirl within the TARDIS. “I’ll show you London.”

Marianne clutched Elinor’s shoulder as the TARDIS shifted from side to side. “It feels like an earth-quake, and sounds like one as well, but this is different, isn’t it?” Marianne cried.

“Just the TARDIS on her way!” the Doctor shouted over the din. “Hang on, ladies!”

Elinor prepared herself for a long and rocky journey, though she reasoned it was no worse than the average carriage on a bumpy road. Yet within only a few seconds, the rocking had stopped. She and Marianne looked at one another in dismay. Marianne said, “Is it broken?”

The Doctor made a rude sound. “Broken. My TARDIS. Hardly. Well … not again, at any rate. We’re there.”

“You wish us to believe that we have been transported to London? In the blink of an eye?” Elinor protested. By way of answer, the Doctor gestured toward the door.

No doubt this would prove to be another of his odd jokes. Yet as they walked toward the door, Marianne clutched Elinor’s hand in anticipation, an emotion Elinor realized was mutual. She reached out and pushed open the door of the TARDIS —

--to behold pure Bedlam.

Assuredly the TARDIS had moved, for they were no longer in the silent meadow, but upon pavement in the middle of a throng of people. Although the crowds reminded Elinor of London, nothing else did. The buildings around them stretched up as high as palaces, though they were as plain as huts, and windows and lamps along the streets glowed with eerily bright, steady lights. Nor were these crowds like those in London save in number, for these people were loud and raucous, and dressed in a most peculiar and vulgar manner. The women were, in truth, indecent, many of them showing naked legs and some of them in no sleeves at all; furthermore, it seemed that many of them wore paint upon their faces. Though the rouge was less garish than that Elinor had glimpsed before, she knew only actresses or women of ill-repute wore such things. A few individuals held strange metal devices to their ears and spoke to them as though they were other persons.

“Is this —“ Marianne sounded as confused as Elinor felt. They each stepped out from the TARDIS, more in a sort of stunned stupor than through any actual desire to be part of the melee surrounding them. “Is this some sort of carnival? Or a gathering of theatrical performers?”

“This,” the Doctor pronounced with relish, “is a party, one being celebrated by the entire world — including here in London.”

Elinor protested, “This is not London!”

The Doctor said, “This is London, on New Year’s Eve in the year of our Lord 1999.”

1999? Did he mean — could he possibly mean — almost two centuries hence? Elinor knew the Doctor had claimed his TARDIS could travel through time, but surely there could be no means of travelling to an era that did not yet exist. And this swirling cacophony could not be London. He was playing a trick on them, a miraculous trick to be sure but a trick all the same.

Then Marianne seized her arm. “Elinor — Elinor, look!”

Marianne pointed, and Elinor followed the gesture to look across a river, toward an equally tall and eerie city. There, illuminated by the strange, unchanging light, stood St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Elinor gasped, overcome with wonder. St. Paul’s she had seen before in all its beauty and majesty. Surely there could be no other such edifice anywhere else in the world. This truly was London. Once again, the Doctor’s most magical stories had proved to be no more than simple fact.

Next to her, Marianne began to laugh. Elinor joined her, the two sisters clinging to each other in overwhelmed rapture. The Doctor’s smile — though mysteriously almost sad — made him look younger, too, and she knew that their joy was truly shared.

**

Such a night as this Elinor had never before experienced. Occasionally she remembered that they had in fact begun the evening at a ball, but Mrs. Willoughby’s festivities were as nothing compared to this — the party held to celebrate the end of the millennium.

(“But surely that is incorrect,” Elinor had said when the Doctor first told them this. “The millennium will not properly end until the last day of the year 2000.”

“They’ve gotten rotten at arithmetic, in the future,” the Doctor had replied. “Don’t tell them and spoil all the fun, hmm?”)

People drank champagne freely in the streets, and the Dashwood sisters accepted glasses that the Doctor seemed to have collected from thin air. In some of the taverns and clubs, they danced — a peculiar sort of dancing without steps, which involved merely jumping about to rhythmic primitive beats; awkward though it seemed at first, Elinor found the practice easy to master and more enjoyable than she would have anticipated. Though their clothing was very different from that of the gaudy women about them, nobody commented, except for a few people who thought it was lovely that they had worn “costumes.”

Now, the Doctor’s bizarre garb, with his cricketer’s outfit, straw hat and celery — that drew attention.

“That is amazing,” slurred one fellow, fully as tall as the Doctor, and clothed all in black; his leather jacket was polished to the sheen of a finely made saddle. “That’s hilarious, and you’re saying, you’re saying —“

He stumbled to one side, and the Doctor amicably caught him with one arm. “What is it I’m saying, then?”

“You’re saying — I don’t care what they think of me, and to hell with all of them, and it’s — it’s amazing.” The man belched in a most uncouth manner, though Elinor had seen gentlemen far more intoxicated at balls. “I wish I could say that. You know what? I’m sayin’ it. I’m sayin’ it. I’ve got to get one of those hats. Where did you get that hat?”

The Doctor smiled rather wickedly. “What say we try a trade?”

The two gentlemen ducked into a nearby pub, leaving the two sisters alone for a few moments. Together, Elinor and Marianne leaned against the shiny metal railing that now framed the south bank of the Thames. At first they were silent, enjoying being a part of this celebration, and yet apart from it and therefore able to enjoy it all the more.

“Is it not wondrous, Elinor?” Marianne said.

“It is.”

Marianne dimpled. “What? You will not qualify your pleasure? Say that ‘wonder’ is a fancy for children?”

“No,” Elinor said softly. “I shall not say that tonight. Perhaps I shall never say so again. The Doctor — he has a way of convincing one that wonder is as much a part of the world as earth, water or air.”

She expected Marianne to exult in triumph over this, but instead this won only a rueful smile. “I was going to say that the Doctor convinces one to trust one’s own senses and reason. That the reality around us is more splendid than any fairy-tale story.”

The sisters linked arms, utterly content.

Eventually the drunken man stumbled out, now attired in the Doctor’s gaudy gear. The celery had browned a bit over the hours, but otherwise the outfit was none the worse for wear. Behind him strode the Doctor, clothed entirely in black. He brushed his hands along the arms of his leather jacket and appeared altogether well-pleased with himself. “You know, I think this suits me.”

“Does that make this an enterprise requiring new clothes, Doctor?” Marianne asked.

“They say that clothes make the man — or will say–“

“They say it already,” Elinor and Marianne said in unison.

“Thank you. At any rate, it was high time I got something for myself. I think this will do nicely.” He rocked back and forth on his heels. “See anything puzzling while I was away? I’m ready and waiting to explain.”

He had indeed made sense of many of the peculiarities around them; Elinor now felt she had a reasonable understanding of the “mobile phone,” the “double-decker bus” and the “electric light bulb,” though no amount of Doctoral explanation could convince her that the “high heel” would be anything other than torturous. Until now, however, she had felt somewhat intimidated about asking the nature of her — literally — largest source of confusion. Now, at last, she was ready. “Can you tell us what … that … is?”

She pointed at the enormous pale metal structure that stretched up perhaps a quarter of a mile into the sky, a framework like a giant spiderweb, though it stood upon a pedestal.

The Doctor said, “That, my dears, is the London Eye. They said they’d have it ready for tonight — and it’s operational enough — but not yet open for business. Pity. It would be something to see the fireworks from there.” Then his eyes lit up. “Of course, we could open it to certain select members of the public.”

“What do you mean, Doctor?” Marianne said, though an impish light in her eyes suggested she knew the answer.

“Follow me!”

They walked to the base of the London Eye; guards there attempted to impede their progress, but the Doctor held forth a piece of paper that apparently proclaimed them to be “Ferris Wheel Inspectors,” whatever that might be. They were allowed to walk to one of the orb-like protrusions at the end of the wheel’s spokes, and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver opened the glass doors.

“And now, to point this at the main controls.” The Doctor squinted as he aimed his sonic screwdriver at a small structure nearby. “It’s a tricky shot from here, but think I can do it — there!”

Marianne and Elinor each gasped as the wheel began to rotate. Its movement was slow and gentle, but they were unmistakably being borne forward — no, upward.

“We shall be spun high into the air,” Marianne said. “Is it entirely safe?”

“Safe as houses,” the Doctor gently replied. “And you’ll see London as never before.”

“Will our actions not be noticed? And the wheel stopped?” Elinor asked, half-hoping this would occur before the London Eye rose any higher.

The Doctor shook his head. “Moves so slowly, most people can’t even detect the motion. We’re fine. Relax, will you? I brought you across two centuries well enough, and I didn’t do it just to drop you from a mere few hundred feet up.”

Elinor trusted the Doctor’s judgment, but found that she was dizzied by looking down through glass at the ground as it became farther and farther away. She therefore sat on the small wooden benches provided in the centre of the pod. Marianne, however, could not have been more enthralled. Quickly she darted from side to side to marvel at every vista presented, calling out each sight so that Elinor might see too. Throughout all of this, the Doctor stood near the doors, arms folded. His delight, though quieter, was clearly the equal of Marianne’s — but he took pleasure in their pleasure, not this extraordinary view of London. To him, Elinor suspected, almost nothing could be truly “extraordinary.”

“What a miracle is this,” Marianne said, smiling, as they reached the very top of their orbit. “Doctor, we cannot thank you enough for this experience.”

For a moment, the Doctor seemed — however improbably — shy. “You know, there’s no reason we have to stop here.”

“The wheel does not spin free of its moorings, does it?” Elinor felt quite alarmed.

“The London Eye won’t budge; I promise you that.” The Doctor shifted on his feet, clearly both awkward and eager. “I meant, we don’t have to stop travelling in the TARDIS. We can go anywhere. Any time. And still have you back by morning.”

Marianne’s face lit up. “Could we? I thought you said you would journey no more.”

The expression upon the Doctor’s face could only be described as sheepish. “So I said. And so I meant. But — I find I want to show the universe to you. To someone. That means I’ll have to take a look myself, doesn’t it?” He gathered himself, and some of the tragic gravity Elinor had glimpsed in him before was again evident. “After the Time Wars, I’d lost any faith in simple decency. Any sense of pleasure in the world around me. I fought to protect humanity, but I fought so long that I forgot why. And then, when I was alone and helpless and wanted only to forget that I’d ever loved my life — you two came along. You cared about what became of me, even when I didn’t. And that meant I had to care what became of you.”

Such an extraordinary pronouncement. Elinor was unused to such naked emotion from men, but she found that she was not embarrassed, only deeply moved.

Marianne ventured, “Would we really be able to return on the night we left, no matter how long we were actually away?”

“Absolutely.” The Doctor paused. “Well, every once in a while, the TARDIS is a bit … off. Occasionally we miss a date. Or a place. One exemplary passenger of mine wanted to return to London and wound up in, well, Aberdeen.”

The Dashwood sisters gasped.

The Doctor hurriedly added, “But almost certainly I’d get you back safe, sound and on schedule. I’m more reliable than the post coach to London. Good enough for you?”

Certainly it sounded reasonable enough, and Marianne had become as giddy as a small girl. “We could literally go back in time? Or forward yet farther? We could visit …” Her voice trailed off as she clearly searched her mind for the most exotic locale imaginable. “… Japan!”

“Japan it is! Leave the when to me.” The Doctor grinned yet again. “What do you say, Elinor?”

Such infinite possibility — and yet Elinor knew her answer. “Your offer is very kind, Doctor. I know I shall never have a like opportunity again. Yet I must decline.”

How hurt he looked. “If you’re worried about being safe —“

“I feel entirely safe in your company, Doctor,” Elinor said, surprised as ever that it was true. “But, if I were to live more than one night in this way, I think our cottage would come to feel very small. Smaller than it is, I mean. I have never disliked the intimacy of country society, but if I came to find it confining … do not ask me to bear it. If I were to travel with you, I would have to leave my home forever. That I cannot do to my mother, nor to Margaret.” Marianne looked so crestfallen that Elinor hastened to add, “But if my dear sister awakens me in the morning to tell me of her many adventures in other lands, I will be only too happy for her.”

The Doctor nodded slowly. He understood her choice, Elinor felt, at least well enough that her refusal would cause no offence. She did not want to offend him, not only because of his great kindness, but also because she wanted the offer to be open for Marianne.

After all, had Marianne not been the chief subject of the invitation? It was Marianne who had first realized the Doctor’s extraordinary nature, who had responded most swiftly and ingeniously to the strange situations in which they had found themselves. Marianne had ever dreamed of romantic adventure, and travels in the TARDIS would no doubt provide those in ample measure.

Now, too, Marianne knew that she had lost Willoughby forever. Her attachment to Colonel Brandon was still too new to provide greater promise than the Doctor’s offer. Certainly nothing could provide Marianne greater pleasure or satisfaction, and Elinor was determined to be happy for her.

“What do you say, Marianne?” the Doctor said. “We could arrange a chaperone, if you think that’s appropriate. Dare say Sarah Jane’s forgiven me for the whole Aberdeen incident. And oh, the fun we’ll have.”

Marianne smiled, her face aglow. “I thank you so dearly — so much, you will never know! But I must refuse as well.”

“Marianne?” Elinor was startled. “Why will you not go?”

“I cannot leave my sister,” Marianne said. Though she still spoke to the Doctor, she looked only at Elinor. “Once she asked me not to leave her alone, and I never shall.”

Elinor protested, “I will not have time to miss you, dearest, if the Doctor’s words are true. I should hardly know you were gone. Do not surrender such an opportunity for my sake alone.”

Marianne only smiled, and continued speaking to the Doctor. “She is my best friend, such a friend as could never be surpassed. She is the sharer of my daily pleasures, and the soother of my deepest sorrows. We do not conceal any thoughts from one another, not anymore, and to be without her — it would be as though I were without a part of myself.” After a deep breath, she finished, “It does not matter whether she would miss me, for I would miss her terribly. Where she goes, I go. And so we shall go home.”

All Elinor’s arguments vanished into the tight knot in her throat, and her eyes swam with tears. She held one hand out to Marianne, who grasped it tightly. But Elinor managed to say, “Will you not persuade her, Doctor?”

“And come between you? Never,” the Doctor said. His voice sounded almost as affected as Elinor’s. “Neither of you will ever be alone. That’s more precious than anything the stars have to offer.”

At that moment, the sky exploded into brilliance — fireworks, Elinor realized, though she had never seen any so spectacular before. She rose to her feet so that she and Marianne might both stand at the very edge, her fear lost at last in the splendour of the moment.

“The year 2000 is here,” the Doctor said, his voice faraway. “The future. Run from it all you like, and yet it finds you, just the same.”

“Oh, Elinor,” said Marianne. “Is it not beautiful?”

“It is.” Elinor hugged her tightly. “And it always shall be.”

**

The Doctor, true to his word, brought them back to Barton Cottage at daybreak. Elinor saw Margaret’s kite dangling from her treehouse, where it had been abandoned the evening before, so she knew it to be the correct day.

“Will you come to Sir John’s home for dinner tonight?” Elinor said. “For, you remember, we were all invited.”

As she had suspected he would, the Doctor shook his head. “I’ve sat still long enough. Time to move. There’s a certain ocean liner I’ve always meant to visit — the RMS Titanic. No time like the present.”

Marianne asked, “Will we ever see you again?”

“I prefer not to predict these things. I’m always wrong, you see.” The Doctor smiled, more gently than before. “Let’s hope.”

An idea came to Elinor. “If you were to return in a few years, I believe Margaret would prove a most willing companion on your voyages.”

He laughed. “If I return, it’ll be for Mrs. Jennings, and the Cybermen will rue the day.” Then he became more serious. “Goodbye, Elinor and Marianne. Thank you for reminding me that the universe truly is a wondrous place.”

“But you are the one who showed us its marvels,” Marianne protested.

The Doctor shook his head. “What I needed to remember was that it contains people like you.” With that, he strolled to the TARDIS, waving briefly as he stepped inside. Then the odd whirring sound began, and the TARDIS faded — both from view and from existence.

“No one would ever believe it,” Elinor murmured.

“No one else needs to, for we know, and that is quite enough.” Marianne yawned as she studied the brightening horizon. “Goodness, I am tired, and yet there is no point in going to bed at this hour.”

Elinor could not yet turn her mind to such practical concerns. “How do we begin, Marianne? How do we go back to our tasks — to our lives as they were?”

At first they were both silent. Then Marianne straightened and smoothed her skirt. “I believe that I should make us a pot of tea.”

They both smiled, slowly and broadly, in a way that expressed more mirth than the loudest laughter. Briefly Elinor leaned her forehead against Marianne’s in sisterly, conspiratorial happiness.

Elinor said, “I think that would be lovely.”


THE END

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