Right, the following fic is set during episode 23, the one where Marianne St. John (the respectable, possibly-romance-novel-writing woman people think is destined for Manly) has been blinded by the poisoned bookbinding glue and everyone thinks she's going to die.
My theory is that we don't *know* for sure that it is Manly at the bedside, thanks to the hooded cloak; if he was there, how did Hubert retrieve the antidote so quickly on his own? We know that Elspeth Turpin is a master (mistress?) of disguise, so the following fic suggested itself.... Please note that I have followed some other fans in assuming that Elspeth is illegitimate, as she is unmarried yet has a different surname from her brother. I've tried to keep to the melodramatic tone of the series as much as possible; I don't know if I've managed. Unbeta'd.
"I'm dying, aren't I?"
For Marianne, the words fell into blackness. Even the blurs of light and motion that had remained to her for some hours after the poison blighted her eyesight were gone now, and the world was dark.
She heard the footsteps come closer to the bed, boot-heels striking on the hard floor. A hand touched her forehead, and she breathed in the familiar, reassuring scent of books and Russian leather and glue. Familiar fingers, callused by needle and sword, brushed the sweat-damp hair from her brow.
His silence only confirmed what she already knew. "Hubert isn't back, is he? The antidote...." Her voice failed her, but she rallied her strength. "The antidote won't get here in time. I'm dying."
"You mustn't..." His voice was cracked, hoarse with grief. "You mustn't give up hope, Marianne. There's still time...."
"Don't lie to me, Manly," she said, gently. "Not now. No - " She held up her own hand, weakly. "Just - just listen."
She drew a shuddering breath. It had been so long; how could she now find the words to speak her heart to him? And yet she surely must, for this was the end of it, and after this only the blackness awaited.
"I know...I know I haven't much time left. I'm so sorry, Manly - sorry I never had time to become the woman you wanted me to be, the kind of woman who was worthy of you. I'm...I'm not brave, like you and Elspeth; I'm not strong or courageous, or even clever like Hubert. But...but I have a loving heart, Manly, even if that's all that God gave to me, and I want you to know - "
The breath caught in her throat in a little gasping sob, and she felt his strong hands steady her until the spasm stopped. "I want you to know," she said, into her darkness, "that I always loved you, Manly. Even though - even though I know I'm not the kind of woman you could ever truly love. Sometimes - sometimes I even wondered if you could ever love any - any woman at all. But that's past now. There's no more time for wondering. I just...." She felt the tears come now; she could be brave no longer. "I just want to know...if I must die, I want to know that you felt *something* for me. So many times I've thought you must, and then...."
She couldn't speak any more; the darkness was spinning around her. She felt him gather her up against his chest and just hold her as she fought for breath, and she wept all the more for being at last where she had yearned for so long to me, and for the dreadful irony of how she had come to be there.
"I...." His voice, when he spoke, was uncharacteristically halting: broken, uncertain, rough with pain. "I always loved you, Marianne. Always. I shall never cease to love you. Know that, and believe it, if you believe nothing else that I have ever said. You - you are more than worthy of me. It's I who am not worthy of you."
"Manly," she said, with the very last of her breath, "Manly, don't cry, not for me...." And she felt, wonderingly, the brief wet warmth of his tear upon her cheek as the darkness swirled up and took her down at last.
As Marianne slipped into unconsciousness, the hooded figure at the bedside held her for a moment more, then - so gently, so very tenderly - laid her down upon the rich covers. The callused fingers pushed another stray lock of hair from the pale, lovely face, lingered a moment, moved away.
Elspeth Turpin put her face down and wept, like any woman, for all the silent years, for all the words unsaid, and for her own honest, loyal, finally-broken heart.