I know Mansfield Park is not the most popular of the six novels, but I have never been completely satisfied with the abrupt conclusion of the situation between Edmund and Fanny. I have also wondered about the futures of the other characters. In this story I will attempt to follow Susan, William, the reformed Tom, Mary Crawford, and, of course, Edmund and Fanny. It begins at some point in the last chapter of the novel. =)
Fanny turned a page of her book and shifted her position a little. The only sounds in the room were a quietly ticking clock nearby, the restless shufflings of Pug in Lady Bertram's lap, and the light tappings of a drizzle on the window. Though her book held her attention, Fanny knew exactly what was going on around her.
Her aunt was trying not to be annoyed at a thread she found dangling from her sleeve, for it was too much trouble for her to be anything but contented. Besides this occupation of ignoring a thread, she stroked Pug.
Fifteen-year-old Susan sat near a window doing satin-stitch, her impatient mutterings occasionally interrupting the silence and drawing a smile from her older sister. Now and then she would set down her work and look out the window, each time hoping that the rain would obey her wishes and cease.
Foremost in her thoughts was Edmund, who sat across the room from her. An open book rested in his lap, but he did not pretend to read it; his eyes were on the wall. The passing of a few weeks had made no difference. Fanny could not wonder at it much, for even now when she glanced up, she almost expected to see the lovely face and radiant countenance of Mary Crawford; still she remembered the musical laugh. And Henry.
As Fanny turned another page, she heard a soft sigh escape her aunt, and finally offered with a small, knowing smile, "Is there something I might do for you, Aunt?"
"I fear it is too much trouble, Fanny. Chapman will take care of it later. But perhaps you might try to see to it? It is this thread." Fanny rose and knelt by her aunt, then plucked the thread quickly and neatly from the sleeve. Lady Bertram patted her hand. "You are such a good girl, Fanny," she said as her niece returned to her seat.
As she lifted her book again, Fanny glanced at Susan, who raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes at their ridiculous aunt. She moved her gaze to Edmund, for whom her concern (and, she confessed to herself, frustration) was growing daily, and was surprised to find him smiling at her warmly.
Fanny returned to her book, trying to focus on the rhythmic ticking and tapping of her surroundings.
Only a minute passed before she heard Edmund leave his chair, and she watched over the edge of her book as he paced the length of the room a few times, then finally left. Lady Bertram either did not notice or did not care. Susan watched him, then returned to her stitching with an expression of boredom and resignation.
Fanny, however, closed her book without marking her place, and left it behind her on the chair as she went to find Edmund. He stood right outside in the hallway looking through a window. He leaned towards it slightly, his hands resting on the ledge, and he stood at such an angle that his back was to her.
Edmund seemed to know she was there, however, and said simply, "Fanny."
She said nothing in response, but joined him at the window. The sky was beginning to clear and the edge of the sun peered over one of the clouds. Fanny was pleased on Susan's behalf.
"What were you reading?" he asked, trying to begin a conversation.
"Nothing," she replied.
"Oh." Edmund smiled. "Dearest Fanny," he continued affectionately, "you have the greatest patience in the world."
"Do not say so."
"Fanny, I have never known you to discourage speaking the truth! No, you will be called patient; I shall not take it back."
She could feel the flush in her cheeks. "What makes you think so?"
"Anyone else would have left the thread for Chapman," he laughed softly. "But I shall be serious. The way you deal with all of us, Fanny. Especially . . . especially with me." Fanny remained silent. "I have come to the point, you know," he went on after giving her time to reply, "that I cannot imagine why I loved her."
A pair of vibrant, laughing eyes flashed before Fanny, and she forced herself to clear her thoughts. Did they belong to Mary or Henry? She could not tell; they were Crawford eyes, and that was all. "What has brought you to that conclusion at last?" she asked.
"At last?" he repeated, then laughed again. "Yes, you have put it properly. I do not know why I loved her, but I miss her dreadfully. I know that is nonsense, but . . ."
"It may indeed be nonsense, Edmund, but I think it is natural."
"You have always been too good to me." He leaned over and kissed her forehead, then took on a lighter tone. "Now, my dear Fanny, what are your thoughts on our ball tonight?"
"I look forward to it with pleasure -- especially the occasion it celebrates." Tom would return from an extended visit to town later that afternoon, and Sir Thomas decided to give a ball, both to welcome back his son, and to cheer the members of his household.
"Yes, I will be most happy to see my brother again. I understand that he has changed so much for the better! And, you know, he brings several friends with him."
They were both silent for a long time. Fanny watched the gradual emergence of the sun, and Edmund watched Fanny.
"I must go to my father now," Edmund said at last. "Good afternoon, Fanny." He pressed her hand briefly, then walked off, leaving Fanny in a not uncommon whirl of confusion.
Sir Thomas saw his niece coming down the stairs and complimented her on her looks. She wore a sweetly simple white dress, and her hair was done up in a lovely crown of curls and flowers. William's cross hung from Edmund's gold chain in the hollow of her throat.
"And where is your sister, my little Fanny?" he asked kindly, offering his arm.
"She will be soon behind me." Fanny knew how excited Susan was over her first ball.
The ballroom looked splendid, though this affair was not quite as grand as the one held not long ago in her honor. It may not have been much to the satisfaction of Mrs. Norris, however.
"Fanny!" Tom exclaimed warmly when he saw her. He came instantly to her side and kissed her hand. "May I steal her from you, Father? I have friends to introduce!"
Fanny blushed as Tom led her to a group of his friends. "Fanny, may I introduce Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, and her sister and brother, Mr. James Prescott and Miss Charis Prescott. My cousin, Miss Price."
The Cookes greeted her politely, then moved away to speak with Lady Bertram. Tom and Miss Prescott were soon engaged, and Fanny was surprised to find herself conversing easily with Mr. Prescott.
Like Fanny, he was shy, but they managed to draw each other out. He had soon claimed her hand for the first two dances, then reluctantly left her, as Tom had other people for him to meet.
Edmund came to her with two glasses of wine, and offered her one. "Fanny, you look beautiful."
"Thank you," she replied, staring down into her glass.
"Will you dance the first with me?" he asked.
"I would love to, Edmund, but I have already promised the first two to Mr. Prescott. I'm sorry."
Edmund glanced over at his brother's friends, who were just then meeting Susan Price. He could not help but notice the handsome face and figure of James Prescott, and felt jealousy stirring within him. Confused, he bowed rather abruptly, and went to join his mother and the Cookes.
It was a wonderful night for Fanny; she had not once felt fatigued, and was most pleased with the Prescotts. She was even more delighted to find that they would remain two weeks at Mansfield Park. She was happy for her sister, who appeared quite satisfied with her first ball and eager for her next. Her only regret as she fell asleep that night was the rather depressed look of Edmund all evening. But to that, she reminded herself, she was much accustomed.
Breakfast was especially lively the next morning, owing to the conversation topics provided by the ball, and the additional company. Edmund was at Thornton Lacey and Susan was still asleep, understandably exhausted from her first ball. Mr. and Mrs. Cooke spoke chiefly with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, while Tom occupied himself with Charis Prescott. Fanny, therefore, was left quite satisfactorily to the conversation of James.
James Prescott was the brother of three younger sisters, and made his father proud by being "the most responsible, sensible, and unaffected young man in the country." His friends, however, valued him more for his charm and endless good humor, which overcame his shyness when he was among those he knew well. He stood to inherit Oakbridge, an estate of seven thousand a year, which was located near the tiny village of Lambton in Derbyshire.
Charis was her brother's closest friend and confidant, a girl who possessed not only the virtue of beauty, but those not insignificant ones of sense and sweetness. Above all things, Charis loved to laugh. She and James were admired and respected by everyone within a day's ride of Oakbridge, and claimed steady friendships with the families of Chatsworth, Edgecombe, and Pemberley.
Martha Cooke was nothing like James and Charis. She was beautiful, to be sure, a characteristic which her husband could appreciate enough to marry her. But Martha was known for her sincere kindness, a trait which made her well-liked despite her deficiencies in common sense.
Anna was the youngest, at nineteen. She was like Charis in every respect but good looks; some went so far as to pronounce her "ugly" until they knew her -- then she became "rather plain." Unfortunately, her sharp mind, thoughtful nature, and ready laugh were undervalued in company, for the same traits could be found in Charis, with the added profit of a pretty face. Anna had met Tom in London with her brother and sisters, but was unable to accept the invitation to Mansfield due to prior engagement.
After breakfast, James asked Fanny to accompany him on a walk about the grounds, which she readily accepted. He had already come to like Fanny a great deal. He discovered that, like himself, she was quiet and timid until she was encouraged and given the opportunity to say what she was thinking. What some had never learned after knowing Fanny for years, James understood and appreciated immediately.
He loved listening to her; his breakfast had remained almost entirely untouched. She spoke with knowledge and enthusiasm on subjects that were important to her, and listened eagerly in return. James generally confined his end of the conversation to questions, merely for the sake of hearing Fanny talk as much as possible. When she asked him a question, he made his answer short and waited for her to continue. Nor could he be insensible of her natural, understated loveliness.
For her part, Fanny was growing equally fond of James. In her mind, he was a model of everything that was good in Henry Crawford, and he possessed other characteristics which she found lacking in Henry. She was glad to have the chance to befriend James, but could not forget whom she really loved.
"Tell me, Miss Price," said James, snapping a leaf from a bush as they passed by, "how did you come to live at Mansfield Park?"
"My family is very poor, and my uncle and aunt offered to raise me. I arrived here when I was ten years old."
"Were you not unhappy?"
Fanny looked at him in wonder, amazed that he could understand her so completely. Perhaps it was an easy assumption; Mrs. Norris, with all her speeches about gratitude, was hardly characteristic of the general population. But Fanny had never been quite reconciled to the fact that her initial misery was natural, and had certainly never been reassured to that end by anyone else. "What would make you think so?" she asked him softly.
"Of course, it was kind of the Bertrams to take you in, and your life has changed for the better. But to take a child -- that is, such a child as you must have been, Miss Price -- so suddenly away from her family! To have separated you from William, whom you have told me so much about!"
Fanny smiled. "I hardly know how to express my gratitude to you, Mr. Prescott."
"Gratitude? For what?"
"For . . . I suppose I could say, for understanding."
When Edmund arrived from Thornton Lacey, he greeted everyone and kissed his mother on the cheek. He immediately noticed one particular absence. "But where is Fanny?" he asked, looking around.
Tom turned his attention briefly away from Charis. "She's out walking with Prescott," he answered with his usual cheer.
"Ah." Edmund tried to ignore the flood of disappointment and jealousy, and went instead to talk to Susan. Susan had never liked Edmund very much, but bore his conversation politely.
Fanny and James returned a half-hour later, and as soon as Edmund heard them outside the room, his words trailed off and he turned to the door. Susan gave a small shrug and returned to her satin stitch, not really caring one way or the other about Edmund's attention.
The pair entered the room and Edmund noted how colored, healthy, and radiant his cousin looked. He watched every move she made -- how she untied the ribbons under her chin, how she removed her bonnet with one hand and gently smoothed her hair with the other, how she tucked a small flower behind her ear (had he given it to her?), how she turned the bonnet slowly in her hands as they stood talking.
Edmund marveled that the others in the room did not seem to notice her unstudied perfection; he envied James Prescott the smile on Fanny's lips, without quite knowing why he did.
Henry Crawford watched rather absently as his brandy glass was refilled -- was it the second time or the sixty-fourth? He neither knew nor cared as he stared at a vague reflection of himself in the glass. A month ago, he would not have recognized himself, but he had gradually grown accustomed to the image that mocked him in every mirror.
For the first time in his selfish, indulged life, Henry knew the meaning of regret. Every morning when he opened his eyes, he remembered that he had thrown away Fanny Price . . . and for Maria Rushworth, whom he despised. He hated the foolish pride in himself that had led him to pursue Maria, and in that to ruin his chances with the woman he loved. What had he been thinking?
Henry took another drink of brandy and exhaled deeply. He dreaded going home alone; the steady noise of the bar was a blessing compared to the silence that allowed him to think even more. But he didn't want to drink himself into an oblivion either. He abhorred self-pity, and fought actively against it.
Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a handful of money -- he had no idea how much -- and laid it on the counter. "Crawford, you're not leaving already, eh?" asked his neighbor, slapping him heartily on the shoulder.
Henry forced a smile, and for a moment the dashing Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park could be detected, but he disappeared just as quickly. "G'night, boys," he said in the most light-hearted voice he could manage.
He knew that he was walking down the street in a straight line, and he knew he was thinking clearly. He must not have drunk much. The afternoon's rainfall still shone on the ground, and the street was dark. As he walked, Henry studied the stars reflected in the puddles, and as he sloshed through them, he watched as the sharp images scattered into blurry sparkles.
He longed to see Fanny -- he wanted to tell her that she had taught him to appreciate the stars in mud puddles. But he had made that impossible.
When he reached his door, he paused and looked to his right. There were no lights on next door. He didn't know the time, but it must have been very late indeed, for even Mary to be asleep.
Henry went in and stumbled around in the darkness until he found his room and then his bed. He pulled off his boots and went to sleep still fully clothed.
Anna Prescott turned her head to the side and patted her hair, admiring the work her maid had done. She faced the mirror directly again and stared at her reflection. Plain brown eyes stared back at her from an even plainer face. She smiled back at herself, though, for she was not one to be in ill-humor. Standing, she smoothed her dress and reminded herself that she had a handsome figure.
"Are you ready, Anna?" came the voice of her cousin from the hall.
"Yes!" she called back, picking up her fan as she hurried out of the room.
Emma Scott stood at the door and held her husband's arm. "Come along, Cousin!" she said gaily when she saw Anna. "Tell me truthfully now: am I wearing the right necklace?"
"I could not suggest a better," Anna replied, without glancing to see what she had approved of.
It seemed that life in London was one never-ending ball. At home, balls were rare and special occasions; they made one excited and nervous. Anna could look forward to familiar company -- Louise Hawthorne, Elizabeth Darcy, Miranda Kemp . . . but in London! Every night was filled with crowds of strangers.
She followed the Scotts into yet another ballroom. They all looked the same to her now. Anna placed herself in a comfortable position that afforded her a good view of everyone, and was prepared to sit there most of the evening. Though she was tired of balls, Anna always loved to watch the dances.
As she tapped her foot in time to the music and enjoyed the pageantry, Anna was startled by a hand on her shoulder. "Pardon me. Do you mind if we sit here?"
Anna looked up into the face of a young woman who seemed almost to glow with beauty and vitality. "Not at all."
She thanked her and motioned to another woman, and they sat down together. "How are you this evening?" she asked Anna.
"Very well, thank you. My name is Anna Prescott."
"Lovely to meet you, Miss Prescott. I am Mary Crawford, and this is my sister, Mrs. Grant."
"And do you live in London, Miss Crawford?"
"Yes, I live here with my sister," she replied. "And you?"
"I am staying with a cousin," said Anna. "I come from Derbyshire."
"Ah! that is beautiful country." After a moment, she went on, "Now I do not mean to sit here all night! I must have a dance."
"Patience, patience," said Mrs. Grant.
"Do not scold me. You know I am not serious. How long have you been in town?" she asked, addressing Anna again.
"But two weeks." Anna noticed that though her face and countenance were full of life and laughter, Mary's eyes were unhappy.
"And do you like London?"
"I prefer the country," said Anna frankly.
"I have come to prefer the country as well." She was quiet a moment then said again, "I must have a dance!"
Mary was obliged to sit only another moment before her wish was granted. Smiling, she stood up to dance with a handsome, amiable-looking gentleman.
As Anna watched Mary join the set, she could not help but wonder about her, and later pulled Emma aside to point her out. "What do you know about that lady?" she asked.
"Do you mean the blond one? Mary Crawford?"
Emma laughed. "How is it possible that you know nothing of Mary Crawford? Everyone loves her. No doubt her beauty and her fortune have something to do with that. Tell me, Anna, do you really, honestly think I wore the right necklace tonight?"
"Yes. Is that all you know?"
"She has a brother named Henry, but no one speaks of him anymore. I do believe I should have worn the pearls." Emma reached up and twisted her necklace lazily with two fingers.
"What has he done?"
"Henry Crawford," Anna replied, trying to have patience.
"According to rumor, he ran off with a married woman. A Mrs. Rushworth, once one of the Miss Bertrams of Mansfield Park."
"Mansfield Park! Bertram!" exclaimed Anna. Tom had never mentioned . . . well, of course he hadn't. "Are you certain?"
"Quite. I heard that he killed her husband and stole a great deal of money. But all of that, I cannot believe. I am afraid that this dress calls for pearls. How could I not have worn them?"
"Lay the blame on me for not pointing it out to you before we left, and let the subject be."
"If you insist. But now that I think on it, you should have told me to wear the pearls, when I asked you before."
Anna returned to her seat, and found that Mary was back as well. "Miss Prescott! I was just asking my sister where you had run off to. Do you not mean to dance?"
"If I am asked, I will certainly not decline," Anna replied as she sat down.
Mary laughed prettily. "I do love to dance."
Anna was grateful for Mary's conversation, and the ball passed quickly for her, much to her relief. She was asked to dance twice and found both of her partners pleasant. To further her happiness, she was invited to have tea with Mary Crawford the following afternoon.
She left the ball in the highest spirits, and even agreed to Emma's suggestion that they exchange necklaces for the carriage ride home. "Now, if only my hair . . ." were the last words Anna heard from her cousin before she was lost in her own reflections.
"Miss Prescott!" Mary exclaimed as Anna was shown in to her. "How delightful to see you again! Please, sit down."
"I hope you will not mind if a third party joins us?"
"Not at all; I would be glad to see your sister again," Anna replied good-naturedly.
Mary laughed. "Not my sister! No, no -- my brother."
Anna hardly knew what to think about meeting Henry Crawford; Emma had told her such terrible things about him! On the other hand, it would be unjust not to give him a fair chance. "Your brother," murmured Anna in confusion. How should she respond? Was Mary aware of her brother's reputation?
"Yes, my brother Henry. He came to visit me this afternoon (he lives next door, you know, when he is away from Norfolk), and I thought it would not be unpleasant for him to join us. If you object, though" -- here Mary lowered her voice -- "I will understand. I know what people say about him." She did not seem about to contest or confirm the accuracy of the rumors.
"I would be glad to meet him," said Anna. She was not one to be swayed by the opinions of others, and chose to form her own opinion of Henry Crawford.
"Wonderful!" Mary replied, visibly relieved. "Let me summon him." Mary left her alone for only a minute before she returned with the much talked-of Henry.
As Anna rose to meet him, she was surprised to find that he was not especially good-looking. After all, it is generally understood that a rogue of ill-repute is also handsome; otherwise he would not be so inspirational. Perhaps a truer smile, or a little life in his eyes, might have rendered his face more pleasing. His demeanor and presence, though, she found immediately attractive, and his figure was pleasing.
Henry merely surmised that she was nothing to Fanny Price -- as was everyone he met, so this was no significantly critical reflection.
"Miss Prescott, my brother, Mr. Crawford. Henry, Miss Prescott."
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Prescott," said Henry, hoping he had not been rude in his boredom.
They sat down, and Mary seemed the natural choice for the responsibility of keeping up the conversation. "Tell me more about your family," she encouraged Anna. "Where are they while you are in town?"
"My brother and sisters were here with me, for a time."
"And who are they?"
"James and Charis Prescott, and Mrs. Martha Cooke."
Mary furrowed her brows. "The names are not familiar. Henry?" He shook his head, and Mary returned to Anna. "Were they not pleased with London?"
"Quite the contrary! The Cookes invited us to stay in town with them, and we had a wonderful time."
"How is it that they are gone, while you are still here?"
"A new acquaintance invited the five of us (I include Mr. Cooke) to join him when he went home again." Anna carefully avoided speaking the name of Tom Bertram, for the comfort of both her hosts.
"But you chose not to go?"
"I had already promised my cousin a visit. Are you familiar with Emma Scott?"
"Oh yes, I have spoken with Mrs. Scott on numerous occasions. And who was your new friend?"
Best to say it quickly and then try to move on once it was out. "A Mr. Tom Bertram."
The brother and the sister colored. Mary cleared her throat. "T-Tom Bertram. Yes, ah . . . Henry and I are familiar with that family."
"Your brother and sisters are at Mansfield Park now, then?" asked Henry, unable to contain the curiosity that accompanied his awkwardness. He coveted every minute they sat in a room with Fanny.
"Yes, they are there still." Anna quickly decided on a safe topic; the mention of a mutual acquaintance might relieve some of their discomfort. "I received a letter from my brother just this morning. There is one young lady there whom he praises to the skies -- are you familiar with a Miss Price?"
Anna immediately saw that she had unintentionally increased their tension. Mary looked down at her lap, and Henry's face had paled from red to white. "Fanny Price." Mary spoke the name with some puzzling mixture of reverence and bitterness. "Yes, your Tom's young cousin from Portsmouth." Mary then changed her tone dramatically and smiled broadly, "I am such a silly wretch! I have not offered you any tea, Miss Prescott."
Before Anna could reply, Henry said in a carefully steady voice, "Excuse me," and rose from his seat. "I hope to see you again soon, Miss Prescott," he said, gallant as always. "I hope you will not be offended if a sudden headache calls me away from your company?"
Henry bowed and left the room, and passed Mrs. Grant in the hall as he took quick strides towards the door. "Henry?" she called after him, but he shut the door decidedly behind him. Are you familiar with a Miss Price? He would have a little brandy.
For her part, Anna felt wretched as she bid farewell to Mary an hour later. She had caused both of them pain, and had succeeded in driving the brother away. As Emma welcomed her back with a pressing question about hat trimmings, Anna knew it would be remarkable if they ever sought her company again.
Fanny heard a knock on her door and looked up from her writing-desk. "Come in," she said, laying down her pen. As soon as breakfast ended, she had accepted an invitation from James to ride into the village that afternoon, and had then retreated to her room to be alone for a while.
The door's opening gave her Edmund. "Good morning, Fanny. You look well."
"Thank you," she said, blushing.
"I hope I am not interrupting you -- what were you writing?"
"A letter to William."
"I should have known. I still remember the day I found you crying and helped you write your little letter to William."
Fanny smiled fondly at the memory. "It was that gesture of kindness that first made me think I could be happy here."
"Nonsense! . . . do you mean it?" Edmund asked, secretly most gratified at the idea.
"Of course I do." She ventured nothing else, apparently waiting for him to tell her what had prompted this visit.
"Will you accompany me back to Thornton Lacey and stay the afternoon, Fanny?"
"Do you have more books?" she asked. A fortnight ago, she had spent several days assisting Edmund as he reorganized his modest library.
He looked puzzled for a moment. "More books?" He seemed to recollect then, and continued, "No, no. Why should you think so?"
"I can think of no other reason for you to need me there," she explained, the confession stinging both of them in its different ways.
"I wouldn't say need, exactly," he stumbled. "I simply . . . I only wanted your company."
Hearing this, Fanny smiled with the most sincere pleasure. "Really? I would be glad to go with you, Edmund. And . . ." Her words trailed off and her smile faded.
"What is it?" he asked anxiously.
"Edmund, I'm sorry! I already promised Mr. Prescott that I would ride with him into the village this afternoon. Perhaps tomorrow . . .?"
"Don't worry about it," he said hurriedly. "It is of no matter. I hope you have an agreeable outing!" With that, he came nearer, touched her shoulder affectionately, and left her alone again. He saved the evidence of his hurt and disappointment until he was out of her presence.
James straightened his hat and pulled on his gloves as he stood waiting for Fanny. He heard someone descending the stairs and looked up to see only Edmund. He bowed and smiled shyly, for he knew practically nothing of his friend's younger brother.
"Good afternoon, Prescott," Edmund greeted him. He paused and appeared ready to start a conversation.
"I am rather surprised to see you," said James. "Were you not intending to leave after breakfast?"
"I altered my plans," Edmund explained with a shrug. "I understand that you and Fanny are to go on a little outing this afternoon."
"Yes," he replied with a smile. "I am waiting for her now."
"I spoke with her only an hour ago, and I believe she is looking forward to it with pleasure."
"What a cousin you have there, Bertram, if I may presume to say so."
"I am never averse to hearing Fanny praised," said Edmund warmly.
"Then you must agree with me that she is the most excellent of creatures -- lovely, good, sensible, talkative . . ."
"Pardon me, I meant it in the best sense," James said hurriedly, wondering if he had offended Edmund.
"Oh, I have no doubt of that. I . . . I was only surprised that you would use that word to describe Fanny."
"I confess, you must know her better than I, after ten years."
"I should." For a moment Edmund studied the wallpaper over James' left shoulder, then both men turned at the voice of Fanny herself.
"Edmund! You are still here!" she exclaimed, smiling at him.
He bowed. "I was just leaving, Fanny. Enjoy your outing!" With that, he went abruptly away. Edmund was slowly realizing the foolish mistakes he had made, and repented of them each time he saw Fanny look with admiration at James Prescott.
Fanny followed him with disappointed eyes until she heard James speaking to her. "You surprised us both, Miss Price. Your step is so light, we didn't even hear you coming down the stairs. Are you ready to leave?" he asked, offering his arm.
Fanny checked to make sure that her bonnet was secure, then took his arm.
"Tell me about your cousin Edmund," James suggested as they rode along. Fanny was finding the outing thoroughly enjoyable, and had been sitting in reflective silence for some time as she watched the warm summer countryside roll by.
"He lives at Thornton Lacey, as I believe you are aware. What specifically did you want to know?"
"The question was not so much out of interest in your cousin; I wanted to hear you talking again."
"Oh." Fanny blushed deeply and turned back to sightseeing.
Anna reclined comfortably on a couch in the sitting room, quite content with the stillness and silence as she read her book. Emma sat nearby pinning flowers on a bonnet; no other occupation could have kept her as quiet.
Anna and Emma had once been very close; Emma was the only daughter of Anna's uncle, Sir Howard Prescott of Oak Hill. They lived within two miles of each other, and were born in the same year. These circumstances seeming favorable, they had grown up the best of friends.
After the passing of ten years, it became evident that Emma was more like her cousin Martha in her tendency to be rather stupid. This was unfortunate, as Sir Howard and Lady Prescott were widely regarded for their sense and wit, as was their only son Stephen, the special friend of James and Charis.
Anna had kept up a daily acquaintance with Emma, however, until the latter's marriage to Peter Scott, a respected London attorney who did not realize at the time whom he was vowing to spend his life with. Anna could not therefore turn down the invitation to live with the Scotts for a few weeks in June.
Anna was disturbed from her reading (and Emma from her matter of Great Importance) by the entrance of the housekeeper to announce a visitor.
"If you please, Miss Prescott, there is a young man here to see you."
Anna marked her place and laid her book aside. "Did he give his name?"
"Henry Crawford, ma'am."
Her heart leapt into her throat, but Anna gave no outward sign of her nervous surprise. "You may show him into the library, Cassy."
After the girl had curtsied and left, Emma laid down her blooming bonnet and whispered, "Henry Crawford! Why are you seeing him, of all people?"
"I have no idea why he came here. I only met him yesterday when I had tea with Mary Crawford."
"Do be careful, Anna," warned Emma in a solemn tone that made Anna want to laugh out loud.
"Thank you, Emma, I will," she managed with a straight face.
Henry bowed as Anna walked into the library and closed the door. "Good afternoon, Mr. Crawford," she said. Apparently preoccupied, he nodded his answer. "Will you sit down?" she offered as she took a chair, and he followed her example.
"I realize how strange my coming here must seem to you, Miss Prescott," Henry began.
"I confess that I am quite at a loss," Anna told him. He studied her face and decided that she was not so very plain, on closer acquaintance.
"The truth is, I have a request to make of you . . . a request which will seem a trifle odd. You mentioned yesterday that your brother has befriended a Miss Price."
"Yes," Anna replied, surprised that he would introduce a topic so close to Mansfield Park and the Bertram family.
"While I was visiting . . ." He stopped for a moment and cleared his throat. "I was once friends with Miss Price -- to such an extent, in fact, that I am still very much interested in her welfare. My request to you, Miss Prescott, is that you let me know how Fa -- ah, Miss Price -- is faring, when your brother writes about her."
Anna turned this speech over in her mind for some minutes. It was so peculiar; it gave her a powerful feeling that something, perhaps many somethings, had remained unsaid. Even so, she reasoned, what harm could be done in occasionally informing Mr. Crawford that his Miss Price was "well"?
"Certainly, Mr. Crawford, though I am rather bewildered."
"Understandably so. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to you, Miss Prescott."
They left each other then, and Anna returned in much confusion to Emma, who seemed relieved to find that her cousin seemed as virtuous as she had before. Henry, meanwhile, walked happily home with the knowledge that he had found some way to hear about Fanny.
That evening the party at Mansfield received word from Edmund that he would eat supper at Thornton Lacey. Fanny often cast a forlorn glance at his empty chair during the meal. "I, for one, will not miss him," Susan whispered to her at one point.
After they had eaten, Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and the Cookes decided to play cards, Susan settled on going to bed as the best relief of her boredom, and Tom mentioned that there was a particular book he wished to show Charis in the library. James and Fanny were therefore left to themselves once again, a situation which neither of them disliked.
They were both merrier than usual, remembering their drive into the village. It had been a wonderful day. Together they had wandered in and out of shops, and even stopped for a small picnic on the way home.
Fanny was happier than she ever had been before. For the first time in her life, someone was doing things purely for her. Her wishes were his only consideration and he genuinely enjoyed her company. To Fanny, James was a perfect mixture of Edmund and Henry, possessing one quality which neither of them had ever seemed to understand.
He treated her as a person . . . and as a person equal to him. Not as the frail cousin who must be protected and guided. Not as the young lady whom he must stubbornly pursue. Not as the pretty, sweet, little niece. Not as the constant irritation who dared to want a fire in her room. Not as the inferior cousin who knew nothing of the principal rivers in Russia. James treated her as William always had.
When they sat down together, he began the conversation by asking her to tell him more about the Bertrams. "Besides Tom and Edmund, did they have any other children?"
"Yes," she replied, "but Sir Thomas will see neither of them. He has two daughters, Maria Rushworth and Julia Yates."
"What could they possibly have done?"
"I do not feel comfortable telling you; it is not my place."
"Forgive me, Miss Price. You are perfectly right; it was rude of me to inquire. Maria Rushworth and Julia Yates," he mumbled. "Maria Ru -- oh! I know about one of them. But tell me, where are they now?"
"Maria lives with my Aunt Norris, and our two households do not communicate. Indeed, they live much like hermits." Fanny almost cringed at the recollection of Mrs. Norris, the woman who had so terrorized her childhood and youth. However, she tried to remind herself, were it not for Mrs. Norris, she would never have come to Mansfield Park. "Julia is now living in London, I believe."
James then changed the subject to something more pleasant, and they spent the rest of the evening laughing.
Edmund, meanwhile, ate his light supper alone, then went to his library to think -- and there was much thinking to be done.
He thought of Mary Crawford. He had been completely taken in by her beauty and charm, and gradually allowed himself to look over her every fault. She had never been the right woman for him; why could he only just now realize that? And to be fair, he was entirely the wrong man for her. Yet he had wasted so many months trying to win her, trying to convince her that he deserved her. Fanny, he realized, knew it all the time.
Having now thought of her, Edmund could not stop himself from dwelling on her. Looking back, he could now see and appreciate the quiet strength of little Fanny Price.
Fanny grew up with two girls who looked down on her and mocked her, who treated her almost as another servant. Yet she was the one who remained still at Mansfield Park, rewarded by her own integrity. She was the pride of her uncle and the comfort of her aunt; time and again she had proved herself their daughter and their anchor.
From the time she came to them, Fanny was hurt and suppressed by Mrs. Norris. She was the pawn, the scapegoat, the whipping-boy -- whichever role Mrs. Norris desired her to fill at the time. Yet Mrs. Norris would spend the rest of her life in poverty, devoting herself to a selfish young woman who would never love her for it. But Fanny was resilient, and Sir Thomas now sought her for advice.
Fanny was the only one of them who recognized the faults of the Crawfords. Nothing escaped her quiet, perceptive wisdom. In fact, she knew the worst in them all. Fanny knew what Maria was. She knew that Julia was so starved for attention and affection that she would risk her reputation. She knew the secret visciousness of Mary Crawford. And she knew the mind of Henry Crawford when everyone else -- even her own William -- was fooled.
Edmund could not leave out his own wrongs. All the time, Fanny had seen his blind self-righteousness. She had watched him sacrifice his principles on the altar of pleasing Mary Crawford. She had borne all his condescension. He knew he had always behaved towards Fanny with the best intentions, and would never consciously hurt her. But everything he had ever done now seemed backwards and misguided.
Yet for all this, nothing was more amazing to him than the simple fact that despite everything, Fanny loved all of them. It was in her that the worst of them could find grace.
As he turned these thoughts over and over in his mind that evening, Edmund was finally able to see that Fanny Price was not his fragile cousin -- she was a woman in whom strength and gentleness were united into unaffected goodness.
He was no longer confused; on the contrary, his thoughts were very clear now. He was in love with Fanny.
"Anna, I have good news for you! There is to be another ball tonight!" Emma gushed at breakfast. "You will come with us, won't you dear?" she asked, turning to her husband.
Mr. Scott took a bite of his sausage and nodded.
"Of course. You have nothing else to do," Emma reasoned (I flatter her). "Though I have been lately occupied with my new bonnet, I may spare the time this evening to attend a ball."
"Are you certain, darling?" he asked. "Have you not more cauliflower and pheasants to attach?"
"Oh, you do talk nonsense! Pheasants, indeed! It is a flower hat."
"Fancy that," he mumbled, spearing another sausage with his fork.
"Mr. Scott, you do not appreciate what is involved. The colors to be considered, the arrangement to be settled upon! It might astonish you."
"You mistake me; I would not be astonished at the degree of your mental exertions."
Emma looked well-pleased. "You flatter me."
"Indeed, I do not."
Emma turned to Anna, who had been listening with the greatest amusement. "Is he not the best of men, Anna darling?"
"Certainly," she replied, stealing a wink at Mr. Scott.
They were interrupted when Cassy came in with a message for Anna. Cassy left, and Anna turned over the envelope, which bore in a pretty feminine hand, "Miss Anna Prescott." She opened the letter, and her eyes fell on the signature of Mary Crawford at the end. It consisted of only a few lines -- the substance being that Mary had enjoyed having tea with her, etc. and hoped to see her at the ball that night.
"Well?" asked Emma impatiently.
"It is only a polite little note from Miss Crawford," Anna explained as she slipped the letter back into its envelope.
"Anna, dearest, as your cousin and your friend, I must advise you to be more careful. Consider the reputation of these people!"
"You told me two nights ago that everyone loves Miss Crawford," was Anna's calm reply.
"It is not her so much as the brother. Take care!"
"I see no reason . . ."
"You insist on not trusting me, but Anna, be advised . . ."
"My dear," broke in Mr. Scott. "Our previous conversation has made me wonder: do you design your bonnets yourself, or do you look at patterns?"
"Patterns! Oh, how can you be so ridiculous! I always . . ."
"You look happy, Fanny," Edmund told her as they walked together in the garden the next afternoon.
"More than I have ever been," she said warmly. How could she not be, she mused, with the friendship of Mr. Prescott and the daily companionship of Edmund?
Edmund instantly wondered if James Prescott could be the reason, then just as quickly pushed his rival from his mind. "It makes me happy on your behalf." Her only response was a blush, and he continued, "You still owe me an afternoon at Thornton Lacey, you know."
"You still want me to come?"
"Why, Fanny, of course! We both know that I am a blind fool, but am I so hopeless as that?"
"A blind fool? How can you say so?"
"How could I not say so? You see, Fanny, I am only admitting what you have always known." She made no answer, but Edmund stopped and took one of her hands. "Fanny?"
She met his gaze evenly, though his touch made her mind anything but steady. "What do you want me to tell you, Edmund?" she asked.
"The things you've always wanted to tell me."
Before she quite knew what she had done, she jerked away her hand. "Why should you care now?"
"What . . .? I . . ."
"You have never valued my opinion, Edmund."
"What? But I asked your advice on countless . . ."
"But did it ever matter?" She gave him no time to respond. "Did it really matter, Edmund, what I thought when Mary Crawford took my horse, or during the play, or when you left me alone at Sotherton, or when I watched you surrender your strongest convictions one by one? Please, leave me alone! I've had enough!"
Even as she spoke the words, Fanny was barely conscious of what she was saying, except that this was the outpouring of years of frustration and hurt, and that it felt uncommonly good.
Who could blame Edmund for standing there stunned and immobile as Fanny buried her face in her hands and started running back towards the house?
"Fanny, wait!" he cried, returning to his senses. She would not turn around, and only started walking faster. "Fanny!" he called again. Edmund started running and caught up to her fairly quickly. "Please stop," he pleaded, walking beside her.
She gave another sob and shook her head. "Leave me alone," she said softly.
"Then I shall speak to you like this."
"Fanny, you were perfectly right. All those things you said . . . they were perfectly right. Except one. Shall I tell you what it is?" Fanny gave no response one way or the other, so Edmund continued. "When you said that I don't care. That I have no regard for what you think. I have often done a frightful job of showing it, Fanny, but I care a great deal about what you think. I could hardly blame you if you choose not to believe me, but I do entreat you to give credit to my words."
"You must pay no mind to what I have said."
"Nonsense, Fanny! No truer words were ever spoken!"
"I did not mean them."
He took her hand and finally she stopped walking, though her eyes were still on the ground. Fresh tears streamed slowly down her cheeks. "You meant every word, Fanny," he said gently.
Another small sob escaped her. "I did," she replied, almost inaudibly.
Edmund lifted her chin with one finger and smiled at her. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
Fanny laughed in spite of herself and shook her head.
Still holding her hand, he led her to a little bench. When they sat down, he gave her his handkerchief, and waited as she dried her eyes and her face. "Now, Fanny," he said when she was done, "I want you to tell me what you think."
"Because it matters to me more than anything in the world. Tell me about Mary and your horse, and be as brutal as you can to me."
"I was very hurt that you would allow her to keep my horse for so long. It was very . . . very selfish and inconsiderate."
"Perfectly true. Fanny, I am sorry for allowing my selfishness to hurt you in any way. Now the play."
"It was wrong of you to give up your principles so easily. It would have been better for you to say directly that you wanted to participate, than to disguise your motives under the pretense of supervision. You knew what was due to your father, and you had no regard for it."
"I'm sorry," he murmured sincerely.
This time Fanny went on without his encouragement. "It was very wrong of you to leave me alone in the gardens at Sotherton, when you and Miss Crawford went away for so long. It was most inconsiderate of you, and hurt me deeply."
He nodded his acknowledgment and she went on. "When you urged me to wear Mary's chain instead of yours, and had her feelings in mind more than you did mine . . . I did not want to wear it, but I did it for you. I wish I had not."
"So do I. Go on, Fanny."
"All those months you blindly ignored the faults in Miss Crawford, gradually forgetting your own dearest beliefs. She . . . she made a fool of you, Edmund." He was silent, and his face was grave. "Forgive me," she whispered.
"No, no, that is my request."
"Edmund, it is only fair that I make sure you understand the things you did right." He met her gaze, and she smiled at him reassuringly. "The fact that I had a horse -- that was your doing. You were the reason I was able to go to Sotherton in the first place. It was kind and thoughtful of you to buy me a chain that I could wear with William's cross. Although you believed I should marry Mr. Crawford, it was from a sincere wish for my happiness, and you took my part with your father. All the countless times you defended me . . . you must see that all of these things make your wrongs entirely unimportant to me."
"I'm glad that these grievances are no longer between us, Fanny. From now on, I expect you to say openly, 'Edmund, you are a fool.'"
Fanny only laughed.
"Promise me!" he insisted, smiling himself. She nodded and he went on. "How fine and orange the sky looks today, Fanny." When she made no answer, he grinned at her (Edmund grinning! she reflected) and cleared his throat.
"Edmund, you are a fool."
"Quite so, Fanny, quite so."
They sat in silence for several minutes, enjoying the stillness. Finally, they looked at each other and began laughing again spontaneously, then Edmund became more serious. "You know my faults perhaps better than I know them myself . . . you see people for what they are." He fixed his eyes on her and took her hand again. "Will it come as a surprise to you, then, Fanny, to discover that I love you?"
Evidently it did. She blushed deeply and looked away from him. "Edmund . . . I . . . don't say that to me."
She closed her eyes in her confusion. There had been a time when these words . . .! But she had so many new things to sort through -- James Prescott being not the least of these. Fanny wasn't sure how she felt about Mr. Prescott, she had been hurt by the brief affair between Edmund and Mary, and Henry still nagged at her thoughts occasionally.
"You are almost like a brother to me, Edmund," she said lamely. She hardly knew what words were rambling out. "We have always been friends. You are rather like a guardian to me."
He released her hand and bowed his head. "I understand. Now would be a most opportune time to hear, 'Edmund, you are a fool,' would it not?"
"Oh, no, Edmund! I . . ."
"Forgive me," he mumbled without meeting her eyes. He kissed the top of her head as he often did, and left her alone.
Fanny remained motionless on the bench as she watched Edmund walk away from her. She was painfully aware of how much she had hurt him, but there was no other choice. She loved him -- of course she did! She always had. But . . .
"Are you unwell, Miss Price?"
Fanny looked up into the concerned face of James Prescott, the source of her simultaneous confusion and comfort. She realized how she must appear to him, with tears still streaming down her face, and raised the handkerchief to her eyes with a blush.
James sat down next to her. "Shall I help you into the house?" he offered.
"No, thank you."
"What is the matter? Can you tell me?"
"Nothing is . . . nothing is wrong. I was just speaking with Edmund, that is all."
James had seen them together on many occasions, and often noticed the way the younger Mr. Bertram watched his cousin. With his uncanny understanding of Fanny, he immediately knew what had happened.
"I know the two of you are close," he remarked. Not knowing what other response to make, Fanny merely nodded, and James continued. "He may as well be your brother."
"My brother," she murmured.
"Two cousins growing up together . . . yes, and I have seen the way he protects you. You could want no other guardian."
She flinched slightly as he used the word which had just hurt Edmund so deeply. "True."
"Why," James went on cheerfully, "he is practically another William!"
Another William. Could this really be the nature of her love for Edmund? The idea sounded reasonable to her, and she resolved to give it her special consideration.
"Perhaps a brief walk would refresh you, Miss Price," he suggested, rising to his feet and offering his arm.
". . . so I told Mrs. Henley, 'My dear girl, what can you be thinking?' And she said, 'I find daisies rather charming, and I am sure I never asked your opinion, Mrs. Scott.' You can imagine what I felt, Anna. Yes, I can see your offense at the remark. Only imagine how I took it! For I am a woman of greater sensibility than yourself. I held my temper in check, however, and replied in the most cordial way, 'Mrs. Henley, I am sure that for you, any flower would be rather charming.' It was the most civil remark I could think to make at the time, and I meant it in the best way, but she seemed rather miffed. She dropped a stiff little curtsey and went on her way. And I turned to Miss Crawford and said, 'Have you ever seen such rude behavior, my dear Miss Crawford?' And she replied, 'Indeed I have not, Mrs. Scott.' Now there! Wasn't that a nice reply for her to make? I always told you she was a sweet, pretty girl. If it were not for her brother, I can only think that we should be the best of friends. I think Miss Crawford is . . ."
"Dear, did you chance to call on Mrs. Stafford?" Peter Scott broke in.
"Indeed I did. She still looks very ill. Her doctor claims that she is improving remarkably, but I am sure that I see none of it. Were I in the medical profession, I should make things quite different."
"I imagine you would," said he. "Was Mr. Stafford in?"
"No, thank heaven, for I quite detest him. He had the nerve, one night at a ball . . . oh! just to think of it makes me angry! 'Mrs. Scott,' he said to me . . ."
"Pardon me," said Cassy, coming into the dining room. "There is a caller for Miss Prescott."
"If it is Miss Crawford, Anna, pray give her my warmest regards. If it is anyone else, wish her a good day."
Anna laid her napkin down on the table and followed Cassy out of the room. When the door was shut behind them, she exhaled deeply. "Good heavens," she murmured, and Cassy smothered a giggle with her hand. "Who is it, Cassy?"
"Mr. Crawford, miss. You will find him in the sitting room."
Anna smiled warmly, reached into her pocket, and pressed some coins into Cassy's hand. "For your discretion." Stealing a glance around them, Anna added, "I should never hear the end of it otherwise."
"My pleasure, Miss Prescott."
Emma was well aware that Henry called on her cousin, but Anna knew that if she realized how often these visits took place, the lectures would never cease.
Anna took a quick glance at herself as she passed a mirror, then entered the sitting room. Henry removed his hat and bowed. "How do you do, Miss Prescott?"
"I am very well, thank you, sir. Will you sit down?" she asked as she took her own advice.
Henry sat and studied her as she picked up her sewing. Every time he met with her, she seemed less and less plain. Her figure was pleasing, and her smile most becoming. "Have you heard from your brother since last I called?"
"I have indeed," she answered. "Everything is well at Mansfield. He informs me that my sister will soon, in all probability, be engaged to Mr. Bertram."
"I am happy to hear it. Tom is an excellent fellow. And your sister -- forgive me, but I forgot her name."
"Of course. Grace, what a lovely name."
"You know Greek, Mr. Crawford?"
"I do consider myself a gentleman," he laughed. "My education was not entirely wasted."
"Forgive me . . . I did not mean to offend you."
"Offend me! Impossible! Does your brother write of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, or Edmund? And Miss Price -- what has he to say about Miss Price?"
"Much of the latter," Anna smiled.
"Really." Henry felt the little stabs of jealousy and quickly pushed them from his mind.
"Being a good friend of Miss Price, I would suppose that you especially will be glad to hear my brother's news."
Oh God, no. He had found the loss of Fanny to be somewhat bearable, as long as he knew that no other man would have her. Selfish, certainly, but Henry had never flattered himself to be otherwise.
"Pray tell me the good news at once, Miss Prescott," he said with forced levity.
"Nothing is quite definite yet, of course," she replied, "but my brother confides in me that he intends to propose to your friend within the next day or two.
Susan Price sighed as she set her sewing down in her lap and looked around the room in boredom. All she heard was the ticking clock; only Fanny and her aunt were in the sitting room with her, the former reading and the latter occupied chiefly with breathing.
Pug jumped off the lap of his mistress and went to Susan, who scooped him up and began scratching his ears.
"Fanny," said Lady Bertram.
"I do not wish to trouble you, my dear, but . . . I do need your help."
Susan gave a wry smile to her sister, but Fanny was looking at their aunt. "No trouble. What is it?"
"Pug left a few hairs on my dress here, you see."
Brush them off! Susan cried in her mind. But she knew that Fanny would do no such thing.
"I see," said Fanny. She left her seat, brushed off the dress, and sat down again.
"Thank you, dear. You are so good to me."
The door creaked open, and Pug wiggled away from Susan to return to Lady Bertram. A servant entered with a message for Fanny, and Susan watched as her sister thanked the messenger, looked at the envelope, and colored.
"And who sends you a message, Fanny?" asked Lady Bertram.
"It is from Edmund, ma'am," she replied as she opened it. "I am sure . . . he must need more help with his library . . . I believe." Susan estimated it to be not much more than a note, judging by how quickly Fanny read it. It said, in fact:
My dear Fanny,
Forgive me for so unsettling you two days ago. I hope to make you amends. Will you join me this afternoon at Thornton Lacey? You did promise me an afternoon here, and we shall be as we were before. Yours very truly &tc.
"Yes," Fanny continued in a voice Susan strained to hear. "His library."
Lady Bertram smiled. "Go to him, then, Fanny. I suppose I might spare you this afternoon, as I have dear Susan here with me."
Drat, thought that generous niece.
The door opened again, and Susan looked up to see who was joining them this time, hoping that it would not be Edmund. Her fears were relieved when James Prescott appeared.
He was a man she liked very much, and she was pleased to notice his constant attentions to Fanny. Perhaps now Fanny would leave off adoring that pitiful Edmund so much, and attach herself to a man who deserved her! Susan grinned to herself at the thought.
"Good morning, Lady Bertram, Miss Price, Miss Susan Price," he greeted them.
"Please join us, Mr. Prescott," said Lady Bertram. Pug gave a little bark and Susan stifled a giggle.
"Thank you, ma'm," he replied with a bow, "but I was just going out for a turn in the garden. Perhaps Miss Price would join me?"
Susan smiled broadly as Fanny set aside her book and accepted the invitation with flushed cheeks. As she watched her sister leave with Mr. Prescott, her heart swelled with happiness that Fanny had found her match.
"It is a fine morning," Lady Bertram commented when they had gone. "Were I not so busy here, I should venture out myself."
"Have you seen Mr. Bertram today?" James inquired of Fanny when they were outside.
"I saw him in the library with your sister, but only briefly."
"I meant Mr. Edmund Bertram," he clarified with a laugh.
Fanny paled. "Oh. No."
"Has he still not come up from Thornton Lacey, then?"
"Not these two days," she replied.
"You especially must desire to have his company again." She still had not told him directly of the proposal, but he continually hoped that she would confide in him. "Who, indeed, would not miss such a kind brother? I wonder, Miss Price, if you take as much pleasure in my company?"
"Yes . . . I mean . . . yes," said Fanny in uncomfortable confusion. She could feel the color rising in her cheeks.
"I must say that I return the compliment. No woman has ever intrigued me as much as you do, Miss Price. I am of a rather shy nature among new acquaintances, but with you, I was immediately at ease. In fact . . ."
"I think my aunt may need me again, Mr. Prescott." Fanny stopped and seemed about to turn the other direction.
"Your sister will attend to her needs, I am sure." James placed a hand on her arm. "Will you not hear me?" he asked softly, his meaning quite evident in his expression.
Fanny bowed her head and closed her eyes. "Please . . . I am so confused. I cannot hear you now, Mr. Prescott. Forgive me."
James tried to hide the disappointment in his voice. "Perhaps I am being insensitive to speak of such things after . . . after . . ."
"How do you know?" she asked, looking up at him again. "But no," she continued, thinking better of it, "it is of little matter." They were both quiet for a long time, neither knowing quite what to say. Finally Fanny mentioned, "I am going to see Edmund this afternoon."
"Are you sure that is wise?" he asked. Perhaps he could prevent her from going . . .
"Why, what do you mean?"
"It seems wrong of him to ask you to come, and secondly, you would only confuse your own feelings if you went." He watched the emotions shift on her face, and fully realized what a low thing he was doing. James Prescott! he berated himself. Of all the selfish, backhanded . . .! But his jealousy would get the better of him, and he felt powerless to stop it.
"Yes, but . . . perhaps you are right," she sighed. "But would it not hurt him terribly?"
"Not at all, if you were to write him a polite note."
"A polite note," she repeated absently. Fanny felt she would burst with all her conflicting emotions. She so wanted to spend a pleasant afternoon alone with Edmund! It could only serve to mend the uneasiness between them, which had kept him away from Mansfield for two days. But then again, James spoke sensibly. Would it really only make things worse? James certainly had her best interest in mind; perhaps she should listen.
Later that afternoon, therefore, Edmund welcomed not Fanny, but a few lines politely declining his invitation. This note he crumpled up and threw across the room, trying not to think that he had ruined everything between them.
Charis Prescott received a kiss on the cheek from her brother and smiled at him as they sat down together. "What is it that bothers you, James?" she asked gently, much used to these conversations.
His shyness took over and he averted his eyes from her. "I suppose you have noticed Miss Price, Charis?"
"Oh, yes. She is a sweet, pretty little thing, isn't she? And so attached to Tom's younger brother!"
"Do you suppose . . . that is . . . have you ever considered that she might be attached to me?"
Charis laughed and twisted a curl thoughtfully around one of her long, slender fingers. "I would not declare it impossible," she replied. "James," she said with amused inflection, "are you falling in love with Miss Price?"
"I tried to propose to her," he said frankly.
If an attachment on his part was surprising to her, this was even more so. "Surely she could not have refused you!"
"Not exactly. She would not let me propose."
"What can she be about? Does she know of Oakbridge? Of our connection with the Darcys . . . the Hawthornes?"
"Charis, you surprise me," said James, steadily meeting her gaze. "I have never known you to be so mercenary."
"Mercenary, James? Hardly! Sensible and resourceful, perhaps. Only think -- Tom informed me that her family lives in the most dreadful conditions in Portsmouth."
"And she therefore must love the heir of Oakbridge. Can you explain the logic to me, Charis?"
She clasped her fidgety hands in her lap and sighed. "Perhaps I just cannot understand any woman who would refuse you."
"You would not say so if you knew what I did this morning."
"Such a statement can only prompt me to ask: what did you do?"
"I am convinced that the younger Mr. Bertram paid his addresses to her recently, and that she was, for some reason, upset by the declaration. This morning she received an invitation from him to spend the afternoon with him at Thornton Lacey. I am sure he intended to mend the breach between them."
He paused and Charis could not contain her impatience. "And?"
James bowed his head. "I was jealous . . . she had just refused to hear me, Charis!"
"But, my dear brother, what did you do?" She reached out and took one of his hands.
"I advised her against going to visit her cousin this afternoon," he confessed without lifting his head.
Charis had no ready response. She felt for her brother, but could not help but be angry at such deception on his part. Releasing his hand, she sank back into her chair and bit her lower lip.
"What do you intend to do about it?" she asked finally.
"You do plan to tell her the truth . . .?"
"How could I, Charis? I was rather hoping to mend the situation."
"I need your help," James replied, looking up at her again.
"My help? It seems to me that only you can make things right. What part could I possibly play?"
"Talk to Miss Price . . . ask her to walk with you to Thornton Lacey this afternoon. I want her to go - both for her sake, and for Mr. Bertram's, and she will, if you give her a reason."
"You are laying this on my shoulders, then, James?"
"I would like to say no, but frankly -- yes."
She sighed. "Very well. But I want you to know that I do this for the sake of Miss Price. My kindness is for her, and not for you, so do not thank me for it." Charis rose abruptly and left her troubled brother alone behind her.
Charis opened the door of the sitting room, and found herself almost unnerved by the silence. Every time she entered this room, she imagined that the clock itself had grown lazy and slowed its ticking. Her sister and Lady Bertram sat together in quiet, mutual inactivity, and Fanny had placed herself near the window to read. Framed by the light outside and situated in a position of such artless grace, Fanny was lovely.
"Miss Price," said Charis softly. "May I see you one moment?"
"Certainly." Fanny followed Charis out and closed the door. "What is it, Miss Prescott?"
"It is such a lovely day; I was hoping that I might convince you to walk with me to Thornton Lacey. Mr. Bertram has told me so much about the place, and I long to see it. Will you join me?"
"Oh, I . . . I could not walk so far," said Fanny.
"Perhaps we could drive, then. I am simply yearning to see it!" Charis tried not to wince at her affected sensibility.
Fanny seemed to be pondering the matter, then answered at last in a hesitant voice, "Very well, Miss Prescott."
As they prepared to leave, however, their intentions were proved unnecessary by the entrance of Edmund. He came in with a rather agitated manner, but instantly softened when his eyes rested on Fanny. "Fanny, where are you going?" he asked, approaching her.
She blushed and looked at her feet. "Miss Prescott and I were actually coming to visit Thornton Lacey," she replied.
"Were you!" he exclaimed, a smile further lightening his face.
"I . . . Good afternoon, Mr. Bertram; forgive me, but I just remembered something that I must tell my brother," said Charis, desiring to leave them alone.
Her bit of civility brought her to his attention. "I am very sorry for not greeting you properly, Miss Prescott," he told her, suddenly realizing his rudeness.
"Think nothing of it," she replied as she walked away.
"Do you think she is angry with me?" he asked, turning again to Fanny.
"Not at all."
"Are you angry with me?"
"Of course not!"
"I was very hurt when you declined my invitation, Fanny."
Fanny removed her bonnet and held it to her as if she needed to place something -- anything -- between them. "I'm sorry, Edmund."
"You did nothing wrong. I was only wondering why you stayed away."
"I don't know, to tell you the truth, Edmund," she replied.
"It is my own fault for confusing you," he said, shaking his head. "Shall we put it behind us?"
He offered her an amiable handshake, which she accepted. When they had done, however, they did not break the touch. Edmund stepped slightly closer to her and ran his thumb lightly over the back of her hand. Fanny felt her face grow hot, and was surprised at herself for so boldly meeting his eyes.
But he averted his gaze distractedly and released her hand. "Do you know where Tom is?" he asked casually.
Fanny managed an unhelpful, almost incoherent answer, and Edmund, clearing his throat and carefully avoiding her gaze, went off in search of his brother. She watched him leave, and when he had gone, she felt shakily behind her for the wall and relaxed against it. What on earth . . .
She and Edmund had shaken hands countless times, but what had just happened? Not separating their hands, maintaining that steady, penetrating gaze . . .! Her flushed cheeks, his fervent brown eyes!
Fanny had not the vaguest notion what to think of it, and could only now return to the sitting room, where her aunt and Mrs. Cooke had been dutifully taking care of each other's needs. She went to her place by the window and sat down, then quickly stood up again to remove the book from the chair.
"Dear, are you unwell?" asked Lady Bertram. "I fear all this excessive activity might have done you in!"
"N-no, Aunt," Fanny replied, sitting down again. Her knuckles were white as both of her slender hands held on to the book. "I have only been out in the hall."
"But you must have been gone for ten minutes, at least! Such a space of time standing in the hall! Fanny, my dear, do consider more carefully next time."
"Indeed," contributed Martha Cooke, "my younger sister -- you remember her, Lady Bertram, Anna? -- yes, well, she had an acquaintance whose cousin's dearest friend caught a draft in a hallway, and she passed from this world no later than that same evening!"
"No!" said Lady Bertram.
"You cannot fail to heed the warning of such a dreadful story, Fanny." Lady Bertram shook her head, as if she had already resigned herself to Fanny's tragic end.
In fact, there would be much more for Lady Bertram to resign herself to.
The large group gathered for dinner, which was not as lively as it had been recently. James and Charis were exceptionally quiet, not only because of their feelings and their earlier argument, but also owing to a letter which they had just received from their father. Mr. and Mrs. Cooke were the same as always -- silent and hungry.
Edmund would not remove his eyes from his plate, and Lady Bertram was much satisfied that her son was so involved with his food. He sat across the table from Fanny, and she could not keep herself from looking at him frequently; each time she did, she remembered the look in his eyes.
At one point, she even dropped her fork clumsily on the table, and Edmund raised his head to meet her gaze for only a moment, then just as quickly returned to examining his meal.
"Well, why so quiet?" asked Tom cheerfully, lifting his wine glass. "I demand some conversation."
"One should not be too prone to talking when one is eating," said Lady Bertram placidly. "It cannot be good for digestion."
Apparently unconcerned with this medical advice, Tom went on, "Mr. Prescott, say something interesting for us!"
James glanced at Charis, who gave him a slight nod. "The fact is," he explained, "we must all leave you soon."
This sparked enough conversation and noise to satisfy even Tom. Even Lady Bertram momentarily set aside her concerns to say what she thought. "Goodness," was her contribution.
"Now, Prescott, what can you mean by this?" exclaimed Tom.
Charis answered for her brother, smiling sweetly at Tom. "Sir, our father writes that our mother is ill . . ."
Here James cleared his throat and stifled a laugh, drawing the stares of everyone present. "Pardon me," he said quickly. "I, ah . . . I choked."
"You must eat more slowly, James," instructed Martha Cooke.
"Our mother is ill, and desires us to be with her," Charis finished. "We are to go to London to fetch our sister . . ."
"So out of the way!" exclaimed Sir Thomas.
"There is no other option, sir," said James. "Anna is in London still, and must be taken home with us. One of the nights on our trip will be spent there with our cousin Emma Scott and her husband." He paused a moment and looked at Charis again. "This sudden departure is really not so bad. We considered taking along some guests to Oakbridge."
"A fine plan," said Sir Thomas. "Do remove some of these young upstarts from my hands, Mr. Prescott."
"I will do it with the greatest pleasure, sir, I assure you. Only, we would be in need of another carriage."
"Certainly, certainly. Now who will go?"
"Well," said James, looking around the table, "the two Mr. Bertrams, of course." He let his eyes linger on Fanny. "And Miss Price."
Fanny blushed, but still kept her wits, and cocked her head a little to her right, where Susan sat looking dejectedly into her lap.
"Perhaps also Miss Susan Price, if she would join us," said Charis, who had been watching the exchange and caught the hint. Susan lifted her head to reveal a wide smile, and Fanny gave Charis a small nod of appreciation.
"But I cannot do without Susan!" protested Lady Bertram. "What could I possibly do without Susan?"
No one spoke up for a long time, for indeed, who else could there be? Finally, Fanny offered, "Let me stay with you, Aunt." At this suggestion, more than one masculine heart sank.
"Very well, Fanny."
Edmund looked again at Fanny. He suspected that she was becoming attached to James Prescott; why should she be denied a trip which could only afford her the greatest pleasure -- in more than one respect? He had been foolish enough to disregard her until it was too late, but he still had the power to seek her happiness. He would lose Fanny, but she would not lose James Prescott.
"Would I not do as well for you, Mother?"
Lady Bertram looked over at Edmund. "I suppose, but you are always at Thornton Lacey."
"I will stay in my old room here. It will not be such an inconvenience, for just a little while."
"I am inclined to think that you could do without all our young people for such a short period of time, my dear," said Sir Thomas, wishing to save both his son and his niece. "You will always have Chapman."
"I suppose," murmured Lady Bertram. "But I shall be very much put out."
The matter was then settled, and the merry group would leave Mansfield in two days. Susan Price, besides regarding Edmund with softer feelings, was nearly bursting with happiness -- a night in London, and a visit to Derbyshire! What better things could life hold?
"Anna, you cannot be leaving me already!" Emma wailed. She watched as her cousin packed, too grief-stricken to offer her help.
"This is just as unexpected to me," said Anna patiently. "When my father summons, we go."
"Then James, Charis, and Martha will be leaving Mansfield?"
"Yes. They may have left already. Will you hand me that white muslin there?"
Emma reached for the gown with one hand, and with the other pressed her handkerchief to her face. "What can your father possibly want that is important enough to tear you away from me?"
"It is my mother," Anna explained calmly. "She is rather like Martha, you understand, and . . ." Anna hesitated and briefly studied her sniffling cousin. "Well, you wouldn't understand. My mother has decided that she is ill, and desires her children at home to be with her in her final hours."
"Her final hours!" This prompted another wave of tears. "Oh, my poor, dear Aunt Caroline!"
Anna realized that Emma had taken her dry humor in the most serious manner, and quickly added, "The doctor has seen her, and has the highest hopes."
"But she will die, I know she will! I can feel these things, Anna."
"But of course. Will you get that wool for me?"
"Anna! How can you ask me to get a dress when my heart is utterly breaking?"
Anna sighed and went for the dress herself. "True, how very insensitive of me, Emma."
"Dear Aunt Caroline," murmured Emma reflectively as she sat down on the bed. "My fondest memory of her is the day she came up to Oak Hill and . . . oh! It pains me too much to recall it. Have my parents called on her?"
"My father writes nothing of them, though I am sure that Lady Prescott, at least, has called." . . . and likely thought Mrs. Prescott just as foolish as Anna did.
"And my brother?"
"No word about Stephen."
"My heart is breaking. I shall go and visit Mrs. Sidney, for she has some new evening gloves ready for me. You have no need of my help here, do you?" she asked, shutting the door behind her.
"No, thank you," said Anna to the empty room.
Continued in Part 2
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