Their intended excursion to Whitwell turned out very different from what Elinor had expected. She was prepared to be wet through, fatigued, and frightened; but the event was still more unfortunate, for they did not go at all.
By ten o'clock the whole party was assembled at the park, where they were to breakfast. The morning was rather favourable, though it had rained all night, as the clouds were then dispersing across the sky, and the sun frequently appeared. They were all in high spirits and good humour, eager to be happy, and determined to submit to the greatest inconveniences and hardships rather than be otherwise.
While they were at breakfast the letters were brought in. Among the rest there was one for Colonel Brandon; - he took it, looked at the direction, changed colour, and immediately left the room.
"What is the matter with Brandon?" said Sir John.
Nobody could tell.
"I hope he has had no bad news," said Lady Middleton. "It must be something extraordinary that could make Colonel Brandon leave my breakfast table so suddenly."
In about five minutes he returned.
"No bad news, Colonel, I hope;" said Mrs. Jennings, as soon as he entered the room.
"None at all, ma'am, I thank you."
"Was it from Avignon? I hope it is not to say that your sister is worse."
"No, ma'am. It came from town, and is merely a letter of business."
"But how came the hand to discompose you so much, if it was only a letter of business? Come, come, this won't do, Colonel; so let us hear the truth of it."
"My dear madam," said Lady Middleton, "recollect what you are saying."
"Perhaps it is to tell you that your cousin Fanny is married?" said Mrs. Jennings, without attending to her daughter's reproof.
"No, indeed, it is not."
"Well, then, I know who it is from, Colonel. And I hope she is well."
"Whom do you mean, ma'am?" said he, colouring a little.
"Oh! you know who I mean."
"I am particularly sorry, ma'am," said he, addressing Lady Middleton, "that I should receive this letter today, for it is on business which requires my immediate attendance in town."
"In town!" cried Mrs. Jennings. "What can you have to do in town at this time of year?"
"My own loss is great," he continued, "in being obliged to leave so agreeable a party; but I am the more concerned, as I fear my presence is necessary to gain your admittance at Whitwell."
What a blow upon them all was this!
"But if you write a note to the housekeeper, Mr. Brandon," said Marianne, eagerly, "will it not be sufficient?"
He shook his head.
"We must go," said Sir John. - "It shall not be put off when we are so near it. You cannot go to town till tomorrow, Brandon, that is all."
"I wish it could be so easily settled. But it is not in my power to delay my journey for one day!"
"If you would but let us know what your business is," said Mrs. Jennings, "we might see whether it could be put off or not."
"You would not be six hours later," said Willoughby, "if you were to defer your journey till our return."
"I cannot afford to lose ONE hour." -
Elinor then heard Willoughby say, in a low voice to Marianne, "There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure. Brandon is one of them. He was afraid of catching cold I dare say, and invented this trick for getting out of it. I would lay fifty guineas the letter was of his own writing."
"I have no doubt of it," replied Marianne.
"There is no persuading you to change your mind, Brandon, I know of old," said Sir John, "when once you are determined on anything. But, however, I hope you will think better of it. Consider, here are the two Miss Careys come over from Newton, the three Miss Dashwoods walked up from the cottage, and Mr. Willoughby got up two hours before his usual time, on purpose to go to Whitwell."
Colonel Brandon again repeated his sorrow at being the cause of disappointing the party; but at the same time declared it to be unavoidable.
"Well, then, when will you come back again?"
"I hope we shall see you at Barton," added her ladyship, "as soon as you can conveniently leave town; and we must put off the party to Whitwell till you return."
"You are very obliging. But it is so uncertain, when I may have it in my power to return, that I dare not engage for it at all."
"Oh! he must and shall come back," cried Sir John. "If he is not here by the end of the week, I shall go after him."
"Ay, so do, Sir John," cried Mrs. Jennings, "and then perhaps you may find out what his business is."
"I do not want to pry into other men's concerns. I suppose it is something he is ashamed of."
Colonel Brandon's horses were announced.
"You do not go to town on horseback, do you?" added Sir John.
"No. Only to Honiton. I shall then go post."
"Well, as you are resolved to go, I wish you a good journey. But you had better change your mind."
"I assure you it is not in my power."
He then took leave of the whole party.
"Is there no chance of my seeing you and your sisters in town this winter, Miss Dashwood?"
"I am afraid, none at all."
"Then I must bid you farewell for a longer time than I should wish to do."
To Marianne, he merely bowed and said nothing.
"Come Colonel," said Mrs. Jennings, "before you go, do let us know what you are going about."
He wished her a good morning, and, attended by Sir John, left the room.
The complaints and lamentations which politeness had hitherto restrained, now burst forth universally; and they all agreed again and again how provoking it was to be so disappointed.
"I can guess what his business is, however," said Mrs. Jennings exultingly.
"Can you, ma'am?" said almost every body.
"Yes; it is about Miss Williams, I am sure."
"And who is Miss Williams?" asked Marianne.
"What! do not you know who Miss Williams is? I am sure you must have heard of her before. She is a relation of the Colonel's, my dear; a very near relation. We will not say how near, for fear of shocking the young ladies." Then, lowering her voice a little, she said to Elinor, "She is his natural daughter."