Peter and Emma Scott were more than a little surprised when a boisterous party of eight appeared at their townhouse. Anna was the first to embrace her brother and sisters, then watched as four handsome young people stood to be greeted. She knew Tom Bertram, of course, and curtsied as he introduced his younger brother and two cousins.
She found "Mr. Edmund Bertram" very fine-looking, though he struck her as quiet and reserved. He thought her plain, but conceded to himself that she had a charming smile and happy manners. Tom carefully watched the two of them, for it was his secret fancy that they would fall in love.
Anna decided that "Miss Susan Price" was a delightful girl, and could think only of the word lovely when she saw "Miss Price." To the latter she paid special attention, as that young woman held two claims to her interest. James had written lines and lines in her praise, including his own attachment to her; and Henry Crawford came every few days to learn how she fared.
The party descended on the small sitting room, where servants were obliged to bring in several extra chairs. "I fear that Mr. Scott has not a larger house," said Emma. "I regret that I cannot seat all of you comfortably," she added, suffering herself to sit in a spacious armchair.
"Think nothing of it, Emma," said James cheerfully.
"Anna, what shall we do with your guests?" asked Emma.
The previous night at a ball, Anna had befriended two sisters, and they had arranged to call on Anna that very afternoon.
"It will not be so very bad," remarked Peter Scott. "Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, Mr. Bertram, and I will be leaving shortly to go for a drive."
"A drive!" exclaimed Emma.
"My dear, we discussed this outside." He sighed and added, "You may come, if you like."
"I believe I should, to make room for more guests."
With five gone, Anna could become better acquainted with Edmund Bertram and the Miss Prices; she therefore welcomed the somewhat quieter atmosphere. When Cassy came in to announce "two visitors," Anna smiled happily and requested that they be shown in.
"Who is calling on you, Anna?" asked Charis.
"Mrs. Knightley of Brunswick Square, and her visiting sister, a Miss . . . oh, what is it . . . Woodland? Woodhouse."
As if on cue, the two ladies were shown in, and everyone rose for greetings and introductions.
Emma Woodhouse swept into the room with her usual light, confident step and her pretty head held high. She was either fair or dark, depending on which version you prefer. She smiled and nodded to her new friend -- "not so very plain," she had remarked to Isabella on the way -- and waited to be introduced.
Charis Prescott -- charming! The elegance of her dress marked her as an accomplished young woman, and Emma smiled with approval at such beauty, noting to herself that Charis was as handsome as she.
Edmund Bertram was handsome and carried himself with natural, comfortable dignity. Emma was surprised by how much he initially reminded her of . . .
She found Fanny Price a lovely, fragile sort of creature, and later said of Susan to Isabella, "Quite a pretty, high-spirited girl."
"Please make yourselves comfortable," said Anna.
"It seems that you were already prepared for a large party," remarked Emma.
"Yes; five of us are gone."
"Where can you possibly be putting everyone?"
"My cousin is stuffing her guests anywhere she can."
"And how is Mrs. Scott?" asked Isabella Knightley.
"Very well, I thank you."
"Now, Miss Price," said Emma, "where do you live?"
"My family lives in Portsmouth," she replied. "My sister and I live with the Bertrams at Mansfield Park."
She cannot be wealthy, thought Emma. What a nice little wife she would make for William Larkins!
"And how do you like it?" asked Emma, addressing Susan.
"It is dreadfully dull," came the frank reply.
Emma laughed and immediately fell in love with Susan Price. "What say you, Mr. Bertram, to this?"
"I cannot contradict the truth," smiled Edmund.
He is in love with her. Otherwise he could not be so lighthearted about her remark. Surely his parents could not approve of the match, as she is so poor. I wonder, do they make their feelings known?
They left an hour later, and Emma was disappointed that she would likely never see her new acquaintances again.
Anna left to see her friends out, and Susan thought about the visitors. Mrs. Knightley hadn't said much, but Miss Woodhouse provided such interesting, lively conversation! Susan thought her sensible, with just the right amount of fancy to make her lovable. Quite unlike the other Emma, whom Susan had greatly desired to slap around a few times during the course of the morning.
Susan watched Anna come back and sit down again, and decided that here was another young woman she could greatly admire. She was like Charis, but also unlike, in a way Susan could not pinpoint.
They carried on a comfortable, rather uninvolved conversation until Cassy once again interrupted them.
"Company for you, miss," she told Anna.
"Thank you, Cassy. This room will do."
"More guests!" exclaimed Charis. "You are quite the popular one here in London. Whom are we to meet this time?"
"I have no idea," Anna confessed. "Miss Hampton mentioned that she might drop by; perhaps it is she."
Susan was happy at so much company back and forth, and waited with eagerness for Miss Hampton; would she be someone to laugh at, or to laugh with? But the "company" brought in nothing but dead silence. Susan looked around in bewildered wonder.
Anna looked pale and uncomfortable, and Charis seemed to share Susan's confusion.
But Edmund and Fanny! Fanny had gone white to her lips, and only stared at the newcomers in wide-eyed anxiety. Edmund colored and looked first to Fanny, then down at the floor.
But what on earth? Here was merely a beautiful woman and an oddly handsome man -- what could they have effected? Yet they themselves were uneasy; the lady paled and fixed her eyes on various harmless objects in the room, and the gentleman set his eyes boldly on Fanny.
Susan then realized who they were. She knew about Mary and Henry Crawford, and wished for any other drama than this.
I hope this isn't too confusing, but I'm going to weave in their immediate thoughts for the first several lines. Fanny will be plain text, Edmund bold text, Henry italics, and Mary bold italics.
Henry. . . Fanny! She is even lovelier than I remembered her in Portsmouth. I doubt she will even . . . Should I look at him? I don't want to. Yes, I do . . . but I cannot after what she did . . . After what I did? How can I expect him to . . . look at me . . . I cannot . . . Look at her. She is nothing to Fanny. Nothing . . . I am nothing to her . . . I am nothing to her.
"I . . ." Anna stammered. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Mr. and Miss Crawford, my sister Charis. And, ah, the rest of you, I believe, know each other."
With every passing moment Susan recognized Henry more. What a change in him -- so much that she had not known him at first! In Portsmouth he was tanned, vibrant, healthy, and most obviously in love with Fanny. Now he was thin, drawn, and somewhat unshaven. Hardly the same man!
The awkwardness was unbearable to her; the Crawfords just stood there uncomfortably, Fanny and Edmund were quiet and pale, Anna seemed embarassed, and poor Charis simply looked confused. Susan set her mind to mending the situation.
"How do you do, Mr. Crawford?" she began. Henry seemed completely taken aback by her greeting. "It has been a long time since we last met in Portsmouth." She could not fail to notice, from the corner of her eye, that Anna had settled into a somewhat more relieved posture.
"Indeed it has, Miss Susan Price," he replied, still surprised. "I hear that you too now live at Mansfield Park."
"Ah, Mr. Crawford? Miss Crawford?" said Anna. "Will you not sit down?"
"Thank you, Miss Prescott," said Mary, at last finding her usually prominent voice. She and Henry sat rather stiffly and avoided the eyes of the two ashen cousins across the room.
"Allow me to say what a pleasure it is to meet you both," said Charis warmly, apparently feeling that it was safe to proceed. Susan watched as Henry Crawford turned to the speaker, then seemed to think that pretty young woman worthy of a second, more thorough look. She blocked a giggle by raising a hand to cough.
"Your sister has proved a valuable companion to me, Miss Prescott," Mary answered her, becoming more and more relaxed.
"What have we here!" boomed the voice of Tom Bertram as he came into the room. He was silenced just as suddenly when Henry and Mary turned their heads. Susan watched as he stood there dumbly, while the Scotts brushed past him.
"Miss Crawford!" cooed Emma Scott. "And your dear brother," she added as an afterthought.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Scott," said Mary.
"Let me introduce you to my cousin Ja . . ." She looked around her, saw James in the doorway, and pulled him up beside her. "My cousin Mr. James Prescott" -- here she looked about for the Cookes and then brought them unwillingly forward -- "and my cousin Martha Cooke and her husband."
Susan was again nearly urged to laughter as she watched Mary Crawford look over James. He, for his part, seemed equally willing to pay her the same courtesy. What fun! And to think that they had to leave this exciting place for Derbyshire. But only better things could await them there!
"We have just been for a drive," Emma prattled on, "and what a lovely one it was. I was able to wear my new bonnet, which I must say pleased me to no end. James teased me for being so fond of it . . ."
"Indeed, Emma," James interrupted with a smile, "I was not so concerned with your bonnet."
"He makes light of it, but he teased me mercilessly the whole way. Said he hoped that none of the grapes fell off."
"I trust those majestic fruits were preserved, despite it all?" asked Henry.
"Despite the bumpy ride, the noise, the mockery? Yes, thank heaven."
Susan was surprised to find herself missing Aunt Bertram.
Fanny felt paralyzed. Henry Crawford sat once again in the same room with her, challenging her with his bold, steady gaze. She allowed herself to meet it now and then, and felt her cheeks flush hotly each time.
She could not, however, bring herself to glance at Mary.
Was she unnerved because Mary was evil, or because Mary was really not so evil? Because Mary was so different . . . or because Mary was what she secretly wished to be?
What crime in ready wit, what sin in endless vitality and sparkle?
Was Mary's selfishness any worse than her own self-righteousness?
Mary was a frustrating riddle; Fanny understood her so much that nothing about her made sense. In one way, Fanny was frightened, for there was something that she shared with Mary Crawford, something that made both of them fall in love with Edmund Bertram. Yet she had not the faintest notion what it could be.
"Henry, you cannot mean that you want to follow them to Derbyshire!" protested Mary. "We should leave them alone."
"Why? Because the two of us have somehow managed to make their lives miserable."
"But I love Fa . . ."
"I never believed it then, and you certainly cannot make me believe it now."
He paused for a moment. "And what about Edmund?" he asked pointedly.
"What about him?"
"Oh, nothing. Come now, Mary. I know exactly where they are going. Oakbridge is only a few miles from Pemberley."
"You and George Wickham," murmured Mary, shaking her head.
"Then it is settled."
"It is nothing of the kind! Henry, where would we stay? Come to your senses -- we must forget about them, and they will surely want to forget about us."
"Did you see the way Fanny was looking at me?"
"The way she avoided looking at you? Yes, I did."
Henry heaved a great sigh and flopped into the nearest chair. "You could see that Mr. Prescott again," he said with a grin.
"Who? Oh . . ." Mary blushed. "Why would I want to see him again?"
"No particular reason." Henry gave an expression of innocence and pretended to examine his fingernails.
"And what about his sister?" she asked, not to be outdone.
"I confess I like her very much, though she is rather plain."
"Plain! How can you . . . oh, you speak of Anna Prescott. I was referring to Charis Prescott."
"Henry," Mary laughed, "you cannot deny it. I saw you paying special attention to her."
"What an imagination you have."
"It is no wilder than yours. Following them to Derbyshire, indeed!"
"I shall just go without you. There is a nice little inn at Lambton; I shall stay there."
"You will do nothing of the kind! Henry, if you really cared about little Fanny Price, you would let her alone and leave her for . . . for . . . you know."
"You can't even say it, can you?" he asked.
"How ridiculous of you! Of course I can: Edmund."
"It agitates you that you lost him to her."
"What? Lost him to whom?"
"Nonsense. He had never thought of her before we parted ways." Mary began fidgeting with a seam on her dress.
"You think so?"
"I know so."
"Interesting. And grossly mistaken."
"Henry, what do you mean?" cried Mary, becoming more and more uncomfortable. "He was in love with me!"
Henry shook his head and gave a tiny smile. "He was in love with Fanny." She had no response and he added, "And it infuriates you."
"You are out of your head today, Henry. Are you drunk again?"
"Could you even bear to notice the way he looked at her this afternoon?"
"Stop it, Henry."
"And she loves him -- always did. I was too idiotic and self-absorbed to know it."
"I want nothing more to do with you." With that, she stood up briskly from her chair and lifted her head with all the confidence she had left.
Henry reached out and took her wrist. "Come to Derbyshire with me."
"You are crazy."
"And so are you. Chase after Edmund, chase after Mr. Prescott -- whichever suits your fancy. Chase after both! But come with me."
"What do you plan to do?"
"Months ago I determined to win the heart of Fanny Price, and I have not given up yet."
"But you just said she loves Edmund! That you were self-absorbed and idiotic!"
"I never claimed to have changed, did I? No, Mary. I will have Fanny Price, and I leave for Derbyshire tomorrow with or without you."
She stood there quietly for a long time before she finally said, "With me."
Fanny curled up in her bed and pulled the covers snugly around her. Her guest room at Oakbridge was beautiful and comfortable, and she had retreated to it rather early that evening. Travel and emotional strain had worked together to completely exhaust her.
Mrs. Prescott, whose supposed illness brought her children home, had been ready to greet them at the door when they arrived. Fanny liked her despite her foolishness. Her manners were relaxed and affectionate, and she was a remarkably handsome woman. Fanny could see James and Charis in her face.
Mr. Prescott was tall and handsome in an asymetrical, undefinable way. Fanny was surprised at the gentleness of his voice when she first heard it. He was clearly a sensible man, and spoke with good humor.
Stephen Prescott had come from Oak Hill to welcome his cousins, and to greet the newcomers. He was very good-looking and very young; Fanny guessed that he could not be more than twenty. She found it difficult to believe that he could be the brother of Emma Scott, for he was all sense and charm.
Fanny sighed contentedly and breathed in the clean smell of her pillow. How lovely to be off the dusty roads, out of strange company, and all to one's self! She closed her eyes, but sleep would not come. She knew what thoughts nagged her mind; she had tried constantly not to entertain them.
But how could she help it? How could she be expected to suddenly encounter Henry and Mary Crawford, and then to think nothing of it? No, she had felt his stares, as her flushed cheeks made evident at the time.
The sight of Mary, too, had upset her, though somewhat more on Edmund's behalf. What was he thinking? They had not yet had the opportunity for one of their conversations. Did he realize that he loved her still, or just the reverse?
Everything was confusing to her, and only the thought that she would surely never see them again provided the comfort which allowed her to sleep at last.
Fanny left the house alone the next morning before breakfast. She wanted to enjoy the magnificent scenery of Derbyshire by herself for a little while. As she reached the top of a gently sloping hill, she almost ran into another woman.
"Please excuse me," she murmured, looking away and meaning to walk on quickly.
"No trouble," replied the lady. "I don't believe I recognize you; are you visiting here?"
"Yes, I am staying with the Prescotts at Oakbridge."
"Are you! I know them well. Forgive me, I am Elizabeth Darcy. And you are?"
Fanny lifted her head at last. Mrs. Darcy was pretty in a lively, sparkling way, and her eyes seemed to hold some secret laughter. "My name is Fanny Price," she replied. "I live with the Bertrams at Mansfield Park."
"Tell me, Miss Price -- have you seen a rather tall, quiet gentleman on your walk this morning? I seem to have misplaced my husband," she said with a laugh.
"I have seen no one other than yourself," said Fanny.
"Ah well. I trust that I shall find him at length. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Price. In fact, I am sure we shall see each other again. The Prescotts and the Darcys are never long separated." Mrs. Darcy smiled at her warmly and curtsied, then continued on her way.
Fanny was still thinking about Mrs. Darcy when Henry Crawford stepped in front of her on the path. In complete shock, she dropped her eyes and turned to walk away from him. What was he doing here?
"Fanny, stop," he said.
"I will not, Mr. Crawford," she replied, quickening her step. "Please go away."
"I came all the way to Derbyshire to see you. Will you not stop and speak with me for ten minutes?"
"Not ten, nor five."
"You would have me come all this way for nothing?" He walked beside her now, matching his pace with hers.
"I did not have you come at all, sir."
Henry was forced to smile despite himself. This unfamiliar, feisty side of Fanny both amused and captivated him. "Come now, Fanny, can we not be friends again?"
Fanny stopped and boldly met his eyes. "I am not aware that we ever were."
"What has come into you today, Fanny? Your words are sharp and quick. I must confess that I find it irresistible."
Fanny was in fact surprised at herself, and struggled not to allow her confidence to falter. If she could just be strong for a few minutes, perhaps she could rid herself of him forever. Under no circumstance could she reveal the weakness she actually felt.
"It was the most ill-judged thing in the world for you to come here," she said.
"I cannot agree with you. When asked to choose between drinking myself into oblivion every night and strolling the Derbyshire countryside with you, the choice, I should think, is fairly clear."
Fanny bit her lower lip and started walking again, and Henry continued at her side. "Mr. Crawford," she said a few moments later, "why do you insist on following me? I will not speak with you, and I do not desire your company."
"You are so different, Fanny! Can months really effect such a change? If so, given a year or so, you may develop some wit to add to your other perfections."
"You flatter me." Fanny blinked back the tears that were forming in her eyes. She could not keep this up much longer, and prayed silently that he would leave before she broke.
"Would you expect anything else from me?"
"I will stay in Derbyshire until you speak with me. And if you do not, I shall follow you wherever you go from here, be it Mansfield or Mexico."
Fanny gave a small cry and fell to her knees. "Please go away," she wept.
"Miss Price!" called a familiar voice. Fanny looked up and saw Mrs. Darcy, who had evidently found her "misplaced" husband, approaching. "What is the matter?" she asked, kneeling down by Fanny. "Mr. Darcy, will you help Miss Price to her feet?" There was no response. "Mr. Darcy?" she said again.
Both women looked up at Mr. Darcy, who was staring at Henry Crawford with an odd expression on his face. "Good day, Fanny," said the latter briskly, then took quick strides away from them.
"Mr. Darcy," said Mrs. Darcy again.
"Forgive me," he said, helping Fanny up.
"Miss Price, my husband Mr. Darcy," said Mrs. Darcy. "What on earth happened?"
"I should not have walked so far," Fanny replied. "Thank you for your help, but I will be able to walk back to Oakbridge."
"Are you certain?" asked Mr. Darcy. "It would be no trouble for us to help you back."
"Thank you for your kindness, sir, but I believe I can manage."
The Darcys watched as Fanny walked away. "She seems to be unhappy, Fitzwilliam. When we next see the Prescotts, I shall make it my first priority to befriend her," said Mrs. Darcy. His thoughts were more on the young man than on Miss Price, though he chose to let the matter go as he offered his arm to his wife.
Fanny returned to Oakbridge with a pale face and trembling hands; the sound of her own name startled her as Edmund approached her. "Fanny," he said again. He frowned and took one of her hands. "Fanny, what is the matter?"
She could only close her eyes and bow her head, and Edmund anxiously reached for her other hand. "Please, Fanny . . ."
"I saw Hen . . . Mr. . . . I saw Henry Crawford," she replied in a whisper.
"But . . . I don't understand. Why would he be in Derbyshire?"
"He followed me here."
"And he spoke to you?"
"Yes. I was walking, and he met me, and . . . I also met . . ." Unable to continue, she began crying softly.
Surely the other had not come too. Would neither of them leave Fanny in peace? He looked down at her, longing to hold her gently against him, to smooth her hair, to kiss -- he colored and released her hands as he backed away a little. "Mary?" he asked.
Fanny raised her head and looked at him directly with pain-filled eyes. After all he had said about loving her, and still all he could think of was Mary Crawford. She held his gaze for a few moments more, then stepped aside and walked away from him quickly.
"What did you say to her?"
Edmund turned around to see James Prescott coming towards him. "Nothing to upset her," he replied, more than a little confused at Fanny's behavior.
"Really. Judging from her reaction, I would say . . . perhaps you remarked on the weather this morning?"
"Excuse me, Mr. Prescott, but . . ."
"What can you mean by leaving your church and following the poor girl here?"
"I am not following the young woman anywhere, and there is a good man taking my place at Thornton Lacey, and I do not see what place you have to concern yourself in my affairs! Or in hers, for that matter!"
"I only want to know what you did to upset her."
"Nothing!" exclaimed Edmund in exasperation. He sighed and lowered the tone of his voice. "I met her as she was coming in, and she looked very upset. We only spoke briefly, and then she left me. I would never dream of hurting Fanny."
James looked down and combed his fingers through his hair. "Forgive me. I have no idea what came over me. I saw her crying, and . . . I'm sorry."
Edmund went to James and shook his hand. "Think nothing of it. It seems we neither of us can stand seeing her unhappy."
Susan found breakfast a little dull; Mr. Prescott was silent and his wife rattled on and on. Charis and Tom conversed mainly with each other, Anna had nothing to say, and James was strangely quiet. Her sister and Edmund were even worse than usual.
After breakfast, though, Stephen Prescott was shown in. "Stephen!" his uncle exclaimed, clapping him on the back. "I fear no one can entertain you this morning."
"Will everyone be out?"
"Not at all, but we all have our little . . . Miss Susan Price!"
Susan looked up, startled. "Yes, sir?"
"Do you have time for my nephew?"
"I suppose so," she replied.
As the others sat down around the sitting room, therefore, Stephen went to Susan with a smile. "I met you yesterday, Miss Price, but I don't believe I had the pleasure of speaking with you." Susan could tell that he was shy, though he was open-tempered, and she liked him immediately.
Later that afternoon, Fanny sat alone in her room. In the back of her thoughts was Henry; would he try to approach her again? What did he have in mind? Despite the emotional strain of meeting Henry, however, she was much more upset over her brief conversation with Edmund.
Fanny worried that she was merely a substitute for Mary in his affections. If Mary had indeed come to Derbyshire, as Edmund seemed to hope she had, would she herself be forgotten once more?
She was interrupted by a servant bearing a note from "Pemberley." With great curiosity, she opened it and discovered that it was from the Mrs. Darcy she had met that morning.
Mr. Darcy and I send our best wishes for your health; you did not look well when you left us this morning. I hope you will regard our short meeting as basis enough for a visit to Pemberley tomorrow? Please give us the pleasure of your company, as we both would like to know you better. Sincerely &tc. Elizabeth Darcy.
Fanny followed a kind housekeeper named Mrs. Reynolds into the library at Pemberley. She looked around with appreciation at the first home that inspired her awe as much as Mansfield did.
"Mr. Darcy," said the housekeeper, "Miss Price has arrived."
Fanny saw the tall gentleman whom she had met the other day with Mrs. Darcy. He lowered his book and smiled at her, and she found him quite handsome. "How do you do, Miss Price?" he asked, rising.
"Very well, I thank you sir," she replied, looking around for Mrs. Darcy.
He followed her gaze. "I fear my wife had to leave for a short while - some matter in the village. I hope my company is not an unwelcome substitute while we await her return?"
"Oh . . . I . . . surely not, sir."
"Please sit down, Miss Price," he said, motioning to a chair.
"What a beautiful library is this!" Fanny exclaimed as they sat down. "I should never leave it."
Darcy grinned, and a dimple animated his dignified face. "My wife tends to share your opinion, Miss Price. How often does she abandon the company of her poor husband for the charms of this room! Now tell me, Miss Price, what brings you to Oakbridge?"
"I was invited by Mr. and Miss Prescott when they came to visit us at Mansfield Park."
"And the gentleman you were speaking with the other day when Mrs. Darcy and I met you - is he a friend of yours as well?" Darcy asked smoothly.
"Mr. Crawford and his sister were frequent visitors at Mansfield some months ago, but some circumstances . . . no, he is not a friend of mine."
Satisfied, Darcy continued. "And how do you find the Prescotts?"
"Oh, I like them very much indeed."
"Mrs. Darcy and I share your opinion of them, Miss Price. My wife is a close friend of Lady Prescott at Oak Hill, and associates often with the young people - James, Charis, Anna, Stephen. I can only imagine that you are a worthy addition to their company."
Fanny blushed. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy."
"And where does your family live, Miss Price?"
"In Portsmouth, sir. My elder brother is at sea, and one of my sisters lives with me at Mansfield."
"Do you see your brother often?" he asked, rising to pour some tea.
She took the cup he offered her. "Thank you. I could never see William as often as I would like, of course, but I do see him fairly often. I saw him a few months ago."
"And has he risen at all in rank? Has he yet advanced to Admiral of the Fleet?"
Fanny laughed. "He was promoted only months ago, thanks to the patronage of Admiral Cr . . . to a friend of the Bertrams." She could not bear thinking about the Crawfords any more.
"Would that be Admiral Croft, by any chance? He was one of the closest friends of my father."
"Croft? No, sir."
"A good man, Croft. And I loved Mrs. Croft almost as much as I did my own mother!" Darcy smiled at these recollections, then returned to Fanny. "You must have been proud of your brother."
"I have never been prouder."
"How lucky for Mr. Price to have such an affectionate sister! Very few men are counted that blessing."
"Do you have any sisters, Mr. Darcy?"
"I have a younger sister, Georgiana. She is presently away visiting my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley."
"Miss Price!" They both turned at the spirited voice of Mrs. Darcy. "Welcome to Pemberley! It seems my husband has been keeping you all to himself. What can you mean by it, Mr. Darcy?"
Fanny watched as he went to his wife and performed an awkward, ostentatious bow. "My apologies, madam."
"Yes, yes, you may go now," she told him, looking away from him with her nose in the air. "Unless Miss Price has the good grace to desire you to stay."
Fanny had never come across such delightful interplay between a husband and wife. At that moment, she felt that she had seen, for the first time, what a marriage should be. Lost in her reflections, she forgot to reply.
"Miss Price will not speak for you, sir. I pray you, be gone."
"Oh!" said Fanny. A smile inched across her face. "Perhaps we might let Mr. Darcy stay."
"Are you quite certain?" asked Mrs. Darcy solemnly.
"I am, Mrs. Darcy," said Fanny with equal gravity.
"Very well. You may stay, sir, provided that you kiss my hand and behave very nicely."
Mr. Darcy rose and smiled. "I shall attempt to do both - especially the former - to the very best of my ability."
Fanny returned to Oakbridge hours later in the best of moods. She found the society of the Darcys marvelously infectious. Their playful manners, affectionate teasing, and genuine interest in others had drawn her out as no one had done before.
"Hello there, Fanny," said Edmund, meeting her in the hall. "Where have you been?"
It was almost a game. What would Mrs. Darcy say? "Have you been so desolated without my company, Mr. Bertram, that you stoop to inquiring so impertinently after my personal affairs?"
The dazed look on Edmund's face was priceless, and Fanny felt that she had never had so much fun with him. But she could not break; she could not laugh at him yet.
"I . . . I . . . Fanny?" he sputtered.
"Yes, Fanny. Or Miss Price, if you choose to be more respectful. Good day to you, sir." With a smile hidden from him, she swept past him and started on her way down the hall.
"Wait!" cried Edmund. He caught up to her and stepped in front of her. "What has come over you?"
Fanny could stop her laughter no longer - what previously unknown, marvelous freedom was this! In one afternoon, she had been taught to laugh at herself, to be silly, to lose herself in light-hearted foolishness.
"Fanny," said Edmund again, more seriously. "Are you ill?"
This prompted another wave of laughter, and Fanny sank to the floor, hugging her sides. It amazed her that one woman could have so quickly and effectively opened her eyes to joy. For the first time, Fanny felt that she understood the mad fire in Henry and Mary Crawford. She saw it, too, in Mrs. Darcy, only tempered by sincere goodness. How exquisite to give onself over so completely to laughter!
"This is most unlike you, Fanny," Edmund continued, kneeling beside her on the floor. "Shall I fetch Susan to help you to bed?"
Fanny stopped laughing and took one of his hands in both her own. "I am as well as I have ever been, Edmund," she told him, somewhat breathily. "No - better."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I was beginning to think you had gone mad."
Fanny smiled. "Are you an expert in that field?"
"I shall fetch Susan," said Edmund.
He tried to pull his hand away, but she held on to it more tightly. "I tell you there is nothing wrong with me," she insisted.
She looked into his eyes, pleading silently with him to comprehend her new happiness, but there was no spark of recognition. Fanny sighed and released his hand, and they stood up.
Edmund gave her one more puzzled look, then walked away, shaking his head. Fanny stood there for some moments, and when she entered the sitting room to join everyone, some of the color was gone, and she was her old self. She would have been depressed if she didn't have tomorrow afternoon at Pemberley to look forward to.
The sitting room was empty, and Fanny settled herself into a chair by the window, enjoying the quiet. However, in a house filled with so many, one could not expect her solitude to proceed long uninterrupted, and within five minutes, James Prescott joined her.
"Miss Price!" he greeted her cheerfully. "How did you like Pemberley?"
"It was absolutely wonderful," she replied, feeling that she could not exaggerate her delight.
"I see you share my opinion," said James with a smile, dropping lazily onto the sofa. "Charis and I visit often. I understand the Darcys will join us for dinner this evening?"
"Yes, your father asked me to extend the invitation, and they were happy to accept."
"Excellent. What do you think of them, apart from their estate?" he asked with a wink. "For many people form their opinions of others based on the extent of the grounds, or the elegance of the furniture, or the cost of the silver."
"Apart from the house?" asked Fanny. "I could not say. I should not have enjoyed their conversation half as much if I had supposed they had an acre less."
James laughed. "Mrs. Darcy has cast her spell on you, Miss Price. Mr. Darcy could not escape it, nor has anyone in Derbyshire since her arrival. It is plain that you liked them a great deal."
"I did. A very great deal."
James stood up rather abruptly. "Charis and I are going into Lambton, and I was sent to invite you to join us. She will be wondering what has kept me so long."
Just as he finished his statement, Charis herself entered with Edmund at her side. "James, you have taken an eternity! Has he even extended the invitation to you yet, Miss Price?"
"Just this minute," replied Fanny, "but I think you should forgive him. We were talking about Pemberley."
Charis smiled. "Now there is a topic worthy enough to delay anyone who has the privilege of being acquainted with it. Did you like Mrs. Darcy? And Mr. Darcy? Is he not the handsomest, most dignified man you have ever seen?"
"No more of these raptures," said James, before Fanny could reply. "Mr. Bertram, has my sister persuaded you to come with us?"
"She has indeed," Edmund replied. He turned to Fanny and studied her face. "Will you come, Fanny?"
"If the three of you don't mind, I would like to sit at home. I have only just returned from Pemberley, and the Darcys are coming here this evening. A little time of quiet would greatly suit me. But," she continued as a sparkle leapt into her eye, "if you find that Mr. Darcy has an identical twin living in Lambton, you may expect my company on every future visit."
James and Charis laughed; Edmund frowned. "You assume that I would be generous enough not to keep him for myself," said Charis.
"I can take no more of this," said James. "I can bear the sighing and swooning of females for only so long before my good humor runs out. Unless, of course, they are swooning over me, in which case they may continue as long as they like."
"And these instances are rare indeed," replied his sister. "Come along, James. Mr. Bertram?"
The three of them walked out and Fanny sat down again. She sighed, frustrated with Edmund. Why was he so determined to be solemn and cheerless?
Perhaps, she mused, the fault was her own. Could it be somehow wrong to tease? Did Edmund feel it unsuitable for a clergyman - or for a clergyman's wife? Fanny felt her cheeks grow hot, and hardly knew why she had thought such a thing! A clergyman's wife, indeed! . . . Edmund's wife.
She shifted her mind quickly back to her original question, and answered it just as quickly herself. No! Of course there was nothing wrong with teasing and wit, for a clergyman or anyone! As long as no mean spirit was involved, and . . . She smiled to herself. Perhaps even then, there was nothing wrong. And Edmund was too sensible to think such a thing.
Was Edmund simply confused by so sudden a change in her behavior? That would be perfectly understandable. But had she changed so much, after all? She was still soft-spoken, still rather shy - just with a little more spirit, which must have been there all the time, to have been brought forward so easily.
Edmund himself could not explain his discomposure. He had come to adore every aspect of Fanny, and for her to be so suddenly transformed! As he rode with James and Charis to Lambton, he sat in quiet thought, and finally came to the conclusion that this was yet another characteristic for him to love. And that was something he could be cheerful about.
He was forced to smile as he recalled her glowing eyes and delighted smiles, and resolved to lighten his mood with her now that he was accustomed to her new manner.
Edmund was now also most interested in meeting the Darcys, of whom he had already heard such praise. He could not deny the tiny pangs of jealousy he had felt when Fanny and Charis were talking about Mr. Darcy, and was especially intrigued by what that gentleman would prove to be. And what of Mrs. Darcy, who had effected such animation in Fanny!
Yes, he looked forward to meeting them both, and was still lost in his thoughts when Charis exclaimed "Oh, look! The Crawfords!"
Edmund flinched, and his eyes flew around until they rested on Henry and Mary strolling idly down the street. James, sensitive to the relationship between the Bertrams and Crawfords, whispered, "Do you mind if we greet them?"
"I . . . Pay no mind to me," Edmund replied.
James hesitated a moment, then called, "Mr. Crawford! Miss Crawford!"
Henry and Mary looked in their direction; the former recognized Charis Prescott from London, and the latter's attention was focused immediately on Edmund. They approached the carriage. Henry put his hands in his pockets and looked at Charis with much appreciation, while Mary folded her hands in front of her and stared at the ground.
The conversation was brief, as well as uncomfortable for more than one. They exchanged the requisite "How are you?" and "Lovely weather this afternoon, is it not?" before the interlude was mercifully over.
Charis gave one last smile to Henry, and turned her head just a little to follow him as he and Mary walked away. James was no less ignorant of Charis, thinking her just as stunning as she was in London. Edmund only wanted to be away, back with Fanny
When the Darcys arrived at Oakbridge that evening, the entire household was eager to see them, and Stephen Prescott came from Oak Hill to join them as well. "Good evening to all the Prescotts!" Mrs. Darcy exclaimed, laughing.
"And to you, madam," said Mr. Prescott. "Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy, allow me to introduce our guests. Miss Price, you know already, I believe. This is Mr. Tom Bertram and Mr. Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park, and Miss Susan Price."
"This is a pleasure indeed, sir," said Mr. Darcy. "I am particularly glad to see Miss Price again."
"Yes, indeed," added his wife. "I hope the Prescotts can spare Miss Price again soon."
Delighted to be so singled out by them, Fanny beamed and thanked them.
Fanny watched as greetings were exchanged, and smiled as Stephen devoted his attention to her sister. The group started to move for the dining room, and Fanny began to follow them when she felt a hand at her elbow. She turned to find Edmund at her side. "Edmund," she said, a little surprised.
"Will you?" he asked, offering his arm. Fanny slid her hand into the crook of his arm with a blush. "You look very well this evening, Miss Price," he said. "Perhaps as well as I do."
A smile crept over her face, but she did not look up. "Thank you, Mr. Bertram. I shall try to take that as a compliment."
"You flatter me."
"Indeed I do."
"It is, perhaps, unfortunate that all gentleman cannot look like your Mr. Darcy."
"Very unfortunate," she agreed. "And just as great a pity that they cannot all look like you." She flushed as she said it, but still did not look up, and so missed her cousin's elated smile.
Fanny went to Pemberley the next morning as she had promised, and again found Mrs. Darcy gone. "Good morning, Miss Price," Mr. Darcy greeted her. "My wife has gone for a walk outside. Shall I take you out to her?"
"Yes, of course, Mr. Darcy," said Fanny.
As they left the house, Mr. Darcy cleared his throat. "I hope you will pardon my impertinence, Miss Price, but I simply must inquire. You will perhaps recall that I asked you about Henry Crawford yesterday?"
"Yes, sir," said Fanny, stiffening a little.
"This morning my steward mentioned to me that he had seen that gentleman in Lambton. Do you . . . that is . . . are you quite certain that you know nothing about his sudden appearance in Derbyshire?"
"I do know, but I would rather not say, if you would forgive me."
"Will you tell me at least, Miss Price, that it has nothing to do with me or my family?"
Fanny frowned. "Nothing at all," she replied. "I don't understand why you ask."
"I do not wish to be very particular, for the sake of the persons involved, but Henry Crawford was once very much acquainted with Pemberley," said Mr. Darcy slowly. "He met Mr. Wickham - that is a young man who once lived with us here - in town one winter, and they became close friends. Mr. Crawford and his sister came to spend the summer at Pemberley . . . a summer I would rather choose to forget, Miss Price."
"Not at all; I introduced the subject. Miss Crawford befriended my sister and made great efforts to recommend herself to me." He cleared his throat again. "Both of them became great favorites with Mrs. Younge, who looked after my sister. To be brief, it was the Crawfords who convinced Mrs. Younge to invite Mr. Wickham to Ramsgate one summer, where he tried to elope with my sister."
"I had no idea that . . ."
"Miss Price! Allow me to rescue you from my husband's company," said Mrs. Darcy, approaching them with an armful of flowers.
"And so Mr. Darcy knows the Crawfords," said Edmund in disbelief.
Fanny nodded. "He was concerned that they might have come to trifle more with his family. I told him nothing of our connection with them, of course - just enough to relieve his anxiety."
"It is easy to believe such a thing of Mr. Crawford . . . but Mary! I really cannot believe it, though I have a great respect for Mr. Darcy. Do you really think . . ." Edmund stopped. Fanny had lowered her head and closed her eyes. "Fanny, what in heaven's name is the matter?"
"Are you even now unable to believe any evil of her, Edmund?" she asked, lifting her head again and meeting his gaze steadily.
Edmund rose and went to kneel at the arm of her chair. "That is not what I meant. You know I never think of her from one day to the next."
"Do I?" She blinked and a tear escaped from the corner of her eye.
"Of course you do, Fanny." Edmund swept his thumb lightly over her cheek to catch the tear. "Because I am thinking always of you."
Fanny didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and so did a little of both. "Do you not find that somewhat tiring?" she asked.
Edmund laughed. "Extremely." He took one of her hands and kissed it. "Fanny, I love you."
Her eyes widened in surprise and she shook her head. "Edmund . . ."
"Please, let me say this. I love everything about you, everything you do. When you are reserved and quiet, and when you are teasing me. When your patience would make a saint envious, and when you are giving me a scolding I well deserve. Your goodness, Fanny, your grace, your intelligence . . ." He stumbled, searching for the words he wanted to use. At last he shook his head in frustration and said frankly, "I would give anything in the world if you would let me be your husband."
Fanny sat quietly for some time, her face expressionless. Finally, she started laughing and, with her free hand, briskly wiped away the tears that had strayed down her face while he spoke. She slipped from the chair and knelt in front of him on the floor, taking both of his hands. "You may be my husband if you promise to love me as much as I do you."
Edmund smiled. "And how much is that, Miss Price?"
She released his hands and leaned closer to embrace him. "More than anything."
"I hope Mr. Darcy will not be jealous," he laughed, returning her embrace.
Edmund and Fanny left the house and walked together outside. He reached for her hand and they laced their fingers together; Fanny could not think of a time when she had known such happiness. They walked slowly and talked about almost everything until Fanny's weariness led them to rest at the foot of a massive oak tree. They did not separate their hands, and Fanny ventured to lean her head against his shoulder.
Edmund rested his head on the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes, lost in utter contentment. He wondered how his misguided, faulty steps could still have kept him on this path, leading him to this end. He remembered ardently watching a lively, beautiful girl play her harp in front of a window; now he asked himself how he could have done so when Fanny, with all her precious ways, was back at Mansfield Park.
"What are you thinking of, Edmund?" she asked.
The corners of his mouth curled up. "Mary Crawford."
"I did not expect to be forsaken so soon," said Fanny. She tightened her hold on his hand a little, and he returned the pressure. "These reflections were only in passing, I hope?"
"I will choose to believe you, for I am too comfortable here to trouble myself by becoming upset."
"You sound like my mother," Edmund laughed.
"Well, well, well."
Fanny lifted her head from his shoulder, and Edmund sat up and opened his eyes to see Henry Crawford standing in front of them. He felt Fanny stiffen beside him. "Mr. Crawford," he said coolly. "What are you doing here?"
"How do you do, Mr. Bertram? You don't mind if I step into your bit of shade here for a moment, surely? I have come to see my friend, Miss Anna Prescott." Henry turned to Fanny. "You look very well, Miss Price."
"Thank you," Fanny replied softly.
"You and your cousin look very, ah . . . comfortable. Taking more than the usual enjoyment in the outdoors, Mr. Bertram?" he asked with a wink.
Edmund coughed. "I believe the whole family is at home, Mr. Crawford. The younger Miss Prescott is most likely to be found in the library."
"Very well, Bertram, you shall be rid of me," laughed Henry. He cast one enigmatic glance - somehow both hard and soft - at Fanny, then walked away.
"I'm sorry, Fanny," said Edmund after the space of a few minutes. "Do you want to go in?" He heard no answer, and when he turned to look at her, she managed a small nod.
"Why, Mr. Crawford, how surprising it is to see you! How long have you been in Derbyshire?" Anna left her chair immediately to meet him.
"I came to see Miss Price," he muttered.
Anna frowned and colored. "Oh . . . I . . ."
"She is outside with that fool Edmund, and I have no doubt that they are finally engaged." Henry sank down into a chair and passed a hand over his eyes.
Anna determined herself to let his rudeness go, and returned to her own seat. "Why should you care about that so much, Mr. Crawford?" she asked carefully.
To her very great shock, the young man leaned forward in his chair and rested his head in his arms. Anna opened her mouth to speak again, but could find no words other than, "Mr. Crawford . . . sir?"
"I am such a fool. I walked here just now to apologize to her, Miss Prescott. To tell her that I wanted to be her friend, and that was all. 'Miss Price - Fanny,' I would say, 'Can you forgive a fool?' Or something like that. You understand, Miss Prescott. But when I saw her with him, I acted very rudely and upset her." Henry sat up again, a self-mocking smile on his lips. "If you only knew how I continually seem to throw away my happiness."
"Do you mean to sound this pitiful on purpose, sir, or can it be possible that a sensible man such as yourself is not aware of it?" Anna lowered her head immediately. "Forgive me. That was unkind . . . it was not my place."
"If I didn't care for your opinion, I would not have come to you, Miss Prescott. I am never averse to hearing the truth."
"When one faces a friend, sir, it is sometimes a much harder business to speak the truth if you know it will give pain." She paused a moment, then continued cautiously. "What exactly are your feelings for Miss Price?"
"Is it not obvious, Miss Prescott? Pray do not do your intuition such discredit."
"In such cases, I find it safer to make no assumptions, Mr. Crawford, and so I ask you again: what do you feel for Miss Price?"
"I love her."
Naturally, this was no revelation, and Anna took it steadily. "But you . . ." She felt herself blushing as she stumbled forward. "You went away with the wife of a married man."
"I need not hear any lectures!" he exclaimed. "My own guilt is sufficient."
"I assume she is the reason you came to Derbyshire."
"Without a doubt. I was determined to have her. I am still."
"You must pardon my speaking frankly, Mr. Crawford. You are the most self-absorbed, conceited young man I have ever met. Do you honestly think that you can play a respectable and sensible woman like a puppet? You have been inconstant, you have been selfish, and you have been cruel. On what foundation, may I ask, did you intend Miss Price to build her affection?"
Anna succeeded in what few others had ever accomplished before her: she silenced Henry Crawford. Seeing that he would make no answer, she went on, all the while amazed at her own boldness.
"I am almost ashamed to be speaking to you. Unless you have business with some other member of my family, you may take your leave. I want nothing more to do with you, and Miss Price has evidently found her happiness in someone who deserves her."
Henry did not wait for a second dismissal; he rose and bowed politely to her as he always did, then left.
Mary heard Henry come in, and went to meet him. Seeing his pale face, she asked anxiously, "Henry, what on earth is the matter?"
"I went to see Fanny."
Mary sighed and stepped back from him a little. "I wish you would leave her alone."
"How easy for you to say that!" he exclaimed, moving briskly past her. He stopped a few feet away, but kept his back to her. "She has no use for me anymore."
"Did she ever have any use for you, Henry?" asked Mary, remaining where he'd left her.
Henry ignored her remark. "She and Edmund appear to be engaged."
Mary allowed her feelings to betray themselves on her face, as no one could see her. She closed her eyes briefly and swallowed hard, then set her shoulders back and stood a little taller. "I am very happy for them."
"It seems you will not get Edmund now."
In one swift current of emotion, Mary turned on her heel and went to her brother. Taking his arms, she spun him around to face her. "What is wrong with you? You . . . this thing you have turned into . . . you are not the Henry I have always loved! Where are you, Henry? Tell me you have not gone away for good!"
She gave him no opportunity to tell her anything, however, and disappeared behind the nearest door.
Mary went to her small room in the inn, sat on her bed, and wept, holding her slender frame tightly in her arms. She wept for Henry, whom she no longer recognized; she wept for Edmund and for what she had so carelessly thrown away; she wept for the way she had treated Fanny - her mean, selfish motives gilded with a thoughtful front.
Since she came with Henry into Derbyshire, she had spent much of her time alone at the inn, and was exhausted with her own reflections. Mary stood up and walked to a window overlooking the bustling street; she could see her own still reflection mirrored over the lively scene below. She was determined to return to London, and hoped that Henry would come to his senses enough to join her.
James entered the library and, seeing Anna, inquired after Fanny. He could not dispel the image of Mary Crawford from his mind, and was determined to draw out from Fanny the details of the affair between the Bertrams and the Crawfords.
"I have not seen Miss Price," she replied. She seemed somewhat distracted, but James left to continue his search for Fanny.
Hearing sudden laughter from the music room, he opened the door and looked in. Charis sat at the pianoforte, and Tom Bertram stood directly behind her. When they heard the door, they both looked up; the lady blushed and the young man gave a sheepish smile. "Ah . . . excuse me, Charis, Mr. Bertram," said James uncomfortably. He backed from the room in embarrassment and shut the door.
He went to the sitting room, and there found Fanny, along with his father, Edmund Bertram, and Susan Price. Smiling to each, he quietly settled himself in with them.
"I do not know, Miss Susan," said his father, "how we can manage such a visit. I am absolutely certain that it will rain tomorrow, and you must not go out by yourself in such conditions."
"Where does Miss Susan Price wish to go?" asked James.
His father waved his hand carelessly. "Lady Prescott invited her to visit with her and Stephen tomorrow."
"That will be no great loss to you," James said cheerfully to Susan. "You will have many more opportunities to visit Oak Hill. Certainly you would prefer calling in pleasant weather."
Susan, however, could not be happy. She had been so excited upon receiving the personal invitation from Oak Hill, and was delighted at the prospect of spending more time with Stephen and Lady Prescott. They were so lively! So charming! Fanny saw and understood her sister's feelings, and was silently displeased that James went against her.
"If you would be so generous as to lend me a carriage, sir, I would be happy to convey her to Oak Hill," Edmund volunteered. Susan turned her gaze on him with an expression quite the opposite of the one she usually reserved for him.
"Are you sure?" asked Mr. Prescott. "It would be just as easy for her to wait another day."
"And the mud on the way to Oak Hill is something incredible," James added.
"It is no trouble at all, I assure you," said Edmund.
"Very well," Mr. Prescott agreed. "You shall have the carriage tomorrow morning." He pulled out his watch, then rose from his seat. "Please excuse me," he said. He gave a bow and a smile to his guests, then left the room.
When he had gone, Susan stood up too. "Edmund," she breathed, "I can never thank you enough!" Her smile encompassed every feature of her pretty, still childish face. Twisting her fingers with nervous energy, she went away as well.
"That was very good of you, Mr. Bertram," said James. "I would not venture out in all that mud - and neither would you, if you could see it. Then again," he added, turning to the door as if he could still see Susan there, "to see that young lady so pleased, one would be willing to do almost anything." He watched as Fanny murmured something to Edmund. "I hope you are not slandering me in those guarded tones, Miss Price."
"Not at all, sir," said Fanny. "Edmund and I have something to tell you." She stopped and smiled at her cousin, expecting him to continue.
"Fanny and I are engaged," he said.
James smiled broadly. "Engaged! Excellent!"
"You are the first to know," said Fanny, blushing.
"I feel privileged indeed!" He left his seat and shook Edmund's hand energetically. "You are a lucky fellow."
"He certainly is." Fanny gave Edmund a tiny, teasing smile.
"No other woman would want him, I venture. At least not of your caliber, Miss Price." Fanny's smile vanished, and James worried that he had somehow offended her. "Pardon me . . ."
"No, no, do not apologize," she stopped him. "Mr. Prescott, how far is Oak Hill from Lambton?"
"Why, less than a mile. Why do you ask?"
"Edmund," said Fanny, too distracted to answer his question, "will you take me to Lambton tomorrow when you drive Susan to Oak Hill?"
"I don't understand, Fanny," Edmund said, now just as confused as James.
"I want to visit Mary Crawford."
"What? Why?" As Edmund asked this of his cousin, James discreetly slipped from the room and left them alone.
"I don't know why," Fanny admitted. "I just want to see her. Please take me, Edmund."
"But you do not know the inn, or . . ."
"It is very simple to inquire," she insisted. "Please, Edmund."
"Perhaps if I understood your reasoning for it . . . Fanny, what are you about?"
"I will walk, then," she declared, tilting her chin a little higher.
"All that way! No, I will drive you, my love. I only wish to comprehend . . . What about Henry?"
"I am not afraid of him. I care nothing about him." She sighed. "Mary saw something in you, Edmund, that made her love you. And I do believe that she loved you, in her own way."
"But . . . but what does this have to do with . . ."
"Somehow," said Fanny slowly, "Mary and I are alike." She stood up and wandered a few steps forward.
"You and Mary Crawford!" he protested, also rising.
"Yes." Since their first meetings, Fanny had tendered a steady and increasing dislike of Mary. She saw nothing but selfishness, conceit, and manipulation. Looking back, however, Fanny could recognize and appreciate Mary's vitality and spirit. Ashamed of her blindness, she suddenly realized that behind the musical laughter and gay, carefree conversation, Mary Crawford might well be hurt and unhappy. She was reminded of Mary's uncharacteristic silence in London.
At that moment, Fanny felt nothing but the most earnest desire to go to Lambton. What hidden motivation lay within her, she was unable to describe. She didn't know she was crying until Edmund came closer to her and dried her face with his handkerchief. "Would you like me to come with you?" he offered, taking both of her hands.
"No, thank you, Edmund. You go with Susan as you planned."
"Are you certain?"
She nodded. "Yes." She gently removed her hands from his and started to walk away.
"Fanny." He reached out and brought her back to him. "I love you." He kissed her briefly on the lips, and she looked up at him, her eyes glistening again. Her heart pounded with a combination of her previous confusion and this first sweet token of intimacy.
As she smiled at him, she knew that she was ready to meet Mary Crawford again; in fact, she was ready to like her.
When James left Edmund and Fanny, he returned to the music room, where he found Tom Bertram and Charis still occupied at the pianoforte. He hated to interrupt them, but needed desperately to talk to Charis. "Mr. Bertram, pray forgive me, but may I steal my sister from you for a little while?"
"No trouble, Mr. Prescott," said Tom amiably. He bowed to Charis and shook James' hand on the way out.
Charis left her instrument and went to her brother. "What is it, James?"
"Miss Price has accepted Edmund Bertram."
"I am so happy for both of them!" She paused. "But you cannot be so jovial."
"You may be certain of my mirth when I congratulated them just now," he replied, trying to smile.
Charis moved closer to embrace him. "How much do you really feel, James? Tell me the truth."
"She has become such a dear friend to me - how could I not love her?"
She stepped back from him again. "Are you certain that you don't mistake your admiration for her as love?"
"I have no idea," James admitted. "In any case, he deserves her more than I do. After that deplorably back-handed stunt I tried not long ago . . ."
"James, I know you better than anyone does. You are not one to pine away with sadness and regret."
"You have nothing to fear on that score," he assured her. "I will be the same as I always have. No one except you will know of this momentary lapse."
"That's my James," she said with a smile, wrapping her arms around him again. "I have no doubt that soon there will be another."
James laughed. "May the Fates give ear to their splendid Charis." At that moment he was taken aback - and a little dismayed - when his sister's words brought forth Mary Crawford in his mind. He rejected the thought just as quickly, however. He knew nothing of her after all!
When he left his sister, his next object was Fanny, whom he had been looking for to begin with; his desire to learn more about the Crawfords had by no means abated . . . quite the contrary. Only Edmund was in the sitting room now. "I fear she has left me already, Mr. Prescott," said Edmund with a smile. "I did not expect her to tire of me so quickly."
"Already! That is unfortunate, indeed. And to what room of my home have you lost her?"
James guessed that she was talking with Anna, but this time upon entering the library, he found his sister gone.
"Mr. Prescott!" Fanny greeted him. "You have just missed your sister. She went to her room only a moment ago with a headache."
"No matter. It is you I want to see, Miss Price," he said, claiming the chair nearest to her.
"Oh . . . very well, sir."
"Miss Price, I beg you to tell me what you know of the Crawfords."
Fanny frowned. "Why?"
"Suffice it to say that I have a personal interest in the matter."
"If the particulars involved only me, Mr. Prescott, I should be glad to relieve your mind. But I feel that it is not my place . . ."
She sighed and averted her eyes for a moment. "Very well."
For the next half-hour, Fanny told him what she knew, with great care to protect the privacy of those involved as much as possible. She even told him of the story Mr. Darcy had related to her.
"I can see why you no longer desire their company," he said. Mary Crawford was not someone he wanted to pursue.
"Actually, Mr. Prescott, I plan to visit Miss Crawford tomorrow morning."
"Yes, I heard you say so earlier. And like your cousin, I have no idea why you wish to do so."
"Because I feel for the first time - and I cannot explain what has led me to the conclusion - that she is actually a good person, and that I could begin to like her, even love her."
Here was something that could change his mind. "What makes you say so?"
"Frankly, I do not know," she confessed. "If you like, I may tell you more of what I think tomorrow after my visit."
"I would appreciate that more than anything," he told her. "Good evening, Miss Price. And please accept my congratulations once again."
"That is very kind of you." James left, and Fanny sat for some time in silent contemplation.
Meanwhile, Anna sat in her room trying to organize her chaotic thoughts, which were divided between the incident with Henry and the letter she had received from Emma Scott.
My dear, darling girl,
You cannot imagine how wretched I am without you! Do you know, Mrs. Cooper told me yesterday that I am pale? I am afraid that will shock you, Anna, but it is true. I believe I was pale. And if not, I was very near being so! I cannot think that a pallid complexion is healthy - and even if it were, I should not like to have one, as it diminishes one's beauty to such a horrid extent!
You must see how much I am suffering without you. Mr. Scott only shakes his head at me, but I know you will understand. You have always been such a dear friend to me in that respect. Will you come back to me in London? Surely your mother is well by now, if, indeed, she ever was ill, which I must sincerely doubt based on my knowledge of Mrs. Prescott (I hope you are not offended).
If you write me some lines, I shall send Mr. Scott for you directly. You cannot know what a state I am in! Do come to me before my youth and vitality is only just a memory! Also, I have got some lace which I do not care for, but perhaps you might. You shall have it if you like, but you must come and see it. I myself think it vile. Yours ever &tc. Emma.
Even upon subsequent readings, Anna was forced to laugh at her cousin in nearly every line. She had to admit, though, that London would be a welcome escape. Even the constant parties and outings she could bear, so long as they pushed Henry Crawford from her thoughts.
Besides, she had no real friends in the house. The Bertrams and Prices clearly belonged to James and Charis, which was only natural, as they had become acquainted with each other long before they met her. On the other hand, Anna still longed to know Fanny Price better.
She could not decide whether to go to London or not; each option had its significant drawbacks. The wisest decision, Anna determined, was to bide her time for a few more days.
"Edmund," said Fanny, rushing into the sitting room.
"What is it?" he asked. He threw a book aside and leapt up. "What's wrong?"
Fanny laughed. "Nothing is wrong. I only wanted to ask a favor of you."
"What if you were to get stuck in Mr. Prescott's 'incredible' mud after all tomorrow?" she asked with twinkling eyes.
Edmund grinned, unable to resist Fanny's infectious smile. "What on earth do you mean?"
"Yes, and send word back here that he is needed to fetch me in Lambton."
"What are you up to, Miss Price?" he asked, though he knew full well. He slipped an arm around her waist and kissed her forehead.
"Oh . . . nothing."
The next morning, Martha and her husband left Oakbridge to return to their estate in Sussex. Their departure was soon followed by a less significant one - that of Edmund, Fanny, and Susan to Oak Hill and Lambton. One of the servants happened to know where "Mr. and Miss Crawford, the elegant lady and gent as were here a few years ago" had taken their lodgings, saving Fanny the trouble of inquiring in the village.
Edmund left the carriage to help Fanny down, squeezing her hand and smiling at her reassuringly. Fanny stood at the door until the carriage had clattered away, then drew in several calming breaths. She knocked and was welcomed inside. "Miss Crawford, please," she said, untying her bonnet.
Five minutes later, she stood before Mary herself, with the bonnet clenched tightly in both hands as though it provided some sort of protection or support. Somewhat comforting was the fact that Mary seemed equally at a loss. "Miss Price! I . . . that is . . . I did not quite expect . . . will you sit down?"
When they had seated themselves, Mary attempted a smile, looked away at the window once or twice, and twisted her fingers in her lap. Fanny was too nervous and uncomfortable even to fidget, and could only clasp her bonnet tighter; she kept her eyes on the floor. Now that she had managed to come here and face Mary, every coherent thought seemed to have abandoned her.
"It is good to see you again, Miss Crawford," she said weakly.
"What? Oh! Thank you! You are looking very well."
"Thank you." Fanny now acknowledged to herself that her mind was empty. What to say? What to say? Should she remain silent, or open her mouth at the risk of producing foolish gibberish? Fortunately, she was saved by Mary.
"I . . . ah . . . is this about Henry?"
Fanny lifted her head quickly. "Mr. Crawford? Why, not at all."
Mary continued as though she had prepared an answer for the opposite response. She either had not heard Fanny's reply, or was not ready with anything else to say. "I told him to leave you alone, but you know how stubborn he can be. Indeed, if it were up to me, we would have gone back to London already . . . but . . . but you know how stubborn he can be." The words rushed from her mouth in a quick, rambling stream.
Fanny could only cock her head a little to the side and give Mary a bemused look.
"Did you say that this is not about Henry?" asked Mary.
"No - I mean, yes - I mean, no, it is not about Henry," Fanny stumbled.
"Oh." Mary managed another discomposed smile. They sat in awkward silence for some time until a genuine smile inched its way across Mary's face, followed by the gay laughter that was so familiar to Fanny. "Is it not terribly funny and shocking that we cannot keep up a conversation?"
Fanny was able to smile a little. Here was the Mary she knew. "We are being rather stupid about it," she said.
At this uncharacteristic remark from Fanny, Mary's eyes widened in pleasant surprise. She grew more serious however, and looked down at her fidgety hands. "Why did you come?" she asked, raising her head again.
Fanny forced herself to piece together her thoughts. "I don't know, Mary," she admitted. "Edmund took Susan to Oak Hill this morning, and I asked him to bring me here."
"Edmund." She paused. "I understand that the two of you are engaged."
"Yes," Fanny smiled. "We are very happy."
"You deserve to be," said Mary. "Fanny," she began again, casting aside her formality, "there are so many things I must tell you."
"We will not think of those things," Fanny replied gently. Oh, why did I come? What am I doing?
"But I must," she insisted. "Since we last . . . since all those terrible things . . . heavens, my tongue is stupid today." Mary glanced up at the ceiling and breathed deeply. Her hands stilled. "Please allow me to apologize for both myself and for Henry. Especially for myself."
"I did not come here for your apologies, Miss Crawford."
"Please - Mary. You have them all the same." Mary stood up and paced a little around her chair. "I ask you again, Fanny: why did you come?"
"Yes, Fanny, why did you come?" came a voice accompanied by approaching footsteps.
Fanny recognized the voice behind her and closed her eyes, praying for strength and composure.
"Leave this minute, Henry!" Mary said coolly.
"I only want to see Fanny for one moment." His tone was softer and kinder, and Fanny fought the temptation to give in.
"Miss Price is my guest, and if she chooses not to see you, that is none of your concern - and I certainly wouldn't blame her!" Mary sat down and gripped the arms of her chair.
With the greatest sadness, Fanny sat in silence and listened to them argue back and forth. All the time she had disliked them at Mansfield, she had ever acknowledged the steady fondness and friendship between the brother and sister. What a change was this!
". . . is why I want you to leave." Fanny turned her mind back to the present moment and caught the end of Mary's sentence.
"Perhaps," Fanny broke in, "I might see your brother for a few minutes?"
The surprise of both Crawfords was made evident by the complete silence following Fanny's suggestion. At last, Mary sighed, "Very well. Would you prefer to speak to her in private, Henry?"
Fanny felt her heard pounding madly as the door shut and Henry took Mary's seat. She was able to meet his eyes, and waited quietly for him to begin.
"I shall only keep you for a few moments, Fanny," he said. He ran a hand through his hair and leaned forward. "I want to apologize for being such a beast."
Fanny was struck completely dumb. She could only sit in silence, hoping he would say more.
"I am very happy for you and Edmund . . . very happy for Edmund." Fanny was still unable to respond. "And," he continued, "if you have nothing to say, that is all. Let me fetch Mary." He rose and moved to the door.
"Wait!" Fanny stood up and went to face him. "Thank you, Henry," she said with a reassuring smile.
Henry returned her smile. "Am I forgiven, then?"
"Yes, until I give you further notice."
Henry laughed and shook his head. "Goodbye, Fanny. Give my regards to Edmund." He left, and Mary returned to Fanny.
"It appears that Mr. Prescott's rain and mud will not grace us after all," Edmund remarked to Susan as they left Lambton.
"Thank goodness, I say! The sun is a great deal better."
"I am inclined to agree with you, Susan." Edmund cleared his throat. "I have something to tell you, which I hope you will be happy to hear."
"What is that?" Susan asked eagerly.
"Can you not guess?" he teased her.
"Please tell me, Edmund!"
"Fanny and I are engaged!"
Susan smiled. "Are you teasing me, Edmund?"
"Indeed, I am not," he replied. "Look, I shall tell everyone." Edmund put his head through the window and shouted, "I am engaged to Fanny!"
Susan laughed at him and grabbed his coat to pull him back inside. "What are you doing? Are you crazy?" She was not strong enough to pull him in. Shrugging, she moved to the other window and followed his example. "Edmund has gone absolutely mad!" she shouted to the wind in her face.
"Susan makes herself very ridiculous by yelling from carriages!" he returned.
"I am following the poor example of my mature cousin!" Susan retorted.
They sat down in their seats again, colored, windblown, and laughing. Susan wondered that she had never liked him before. Then again, she had never seen him lend himself to such silliness before.
Feeling the carriage stop, they looked at each other in confusion until they saw James Prescott outside on horseback. Edmund opened the door and he and Susan stepped out. "Mr. Prescott, what . . ."
"My sister and her husband have overturned in the road," James interrupted breathlessly. "You must turn the carriage and follow me."
"But Fanny is still in Lambton!" Susan protested.
"Oh, yes . . . then I shall ride there and tell her what has happened. And do not worry - we have sent word to Oak Hill." James then addressed the driver. "I must go to Lambton. You know which road the Cookes set out on this morning?"
"I do, sir."
"Take this carriage there, then, as fast as you possibly can."
Edmund and Susan hurried back into the carriage and were knocked against their seats as the driver urged the horses into a gallop. Susan looked out from the window and watched as James disappeared over the hill towards Lambton.
Continued in Part 3
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