One day while the ladies were out, Willoughby left his card. Marianne, highly excited, expected him to call the next day, but he did not. When a letter arrived from Lady Middleton "announcing their arrival in Conduit Street the night before, and requesting the company of her mother and cousins the following evening," Elinor had great trouble in persuading Marianne to go with them. During the party, Marianne was upset to learn that Willoughby had been invited but had refused the invitation.
The following day Elinor wrote to her mother, urging her to "demand from Marianne an account of her real situation." She had just finished when Colonel Brandon called. He seemed disturbed and asked Elinor whether congratulations were in order for Marianne's engagement. Everyone, it seemed, believed that Marianne was engaged to Willoughby, and he himself had seen a letter by Marianne in a servant's hand, addressed to Willoughby. He seemed to want to know whether there was any hope for him, and Elinor, not wanting to lead him on, told him that Willoughby and her sister had a mutual affection.
For the next four days, Marianne was "wholly dispirited." She went with Elinor to a party at Lady Middleton's and, "not in spirits for moving about," sat down with her sister. Soon Elinor perceived Willoughby "in earnest conversation with a very fashionable-looking young woman." He bowed but did not approach them. Marianne's exclamation brought him to her side, and when she asked him if he had received her messages, he seemed embarrassed but answered that he had. Then he "turned hastily away with a slight bow."
Marianne, "looking dreadfully white, . . . sank into her chair." She begged Elinor to tell Willoughby that she "must speak to him instantly." Elinor waited and, seeing Willoughby leave the room, told Marianne that he was gone. Marianne then begged her sister to ask Lady Middleton to take them home.
Marianne, "in a silent agony, too much oppressed even for tears," went to bed as soon as they arrived at Mrs. Jennings'. Deeply worried, Elinor pondered Willoughby's strange behavior. "Absence might have weakened his regard," she thought, "and convenience might have determined him to overcome it, but that such a regard had formerly existed she could not bring herself to doubt."
In this, as in all Austen's novels, there is a great deal of gossip. Everybody is interested in everybody else, and the heroines suffer from a lack of privacy. Colonel Brandon surprises Elinor by telling her, "Your sister's engagement to Mr. Willoughby is very generally known." When Elinor replies, "It cannot be generally known, for her own family do not know it," the colonel tells her, "their marriage is universally talked of . . . by some of whom you know nothing, by others with whom you are most intimate.
That Elinor desperately wants to avoid gossip about Marianne and Willoughby is seen in her attempts to calm Marianne and prevent her from demanding an explanation from Willoughby during the dance. "No, my dearest Marianne, you must wait," she says. "This is not a place for explanations. Wait only till tomorrow."
Notice Elinor's reserve with her own sister. Although the two girls are close, she must write her mother to demand from Marianne an account of her behavior.