When Henry turned to leave Fanny, he did so with a wide smile on his face. He could not remember the last time he had felt truly satisfied with himself - indeed, proud of himself! Mary brushed past him without a word and without even meeting his eyes, but he hardly noticed. Fanny had forgiven him!
He had come a long way within the space of a single day; but after the regrets and reproofs of his own mind, after the harsh scolding from the sister he adored, and after the bitter words from Anna, a woman he respected more than any other . . . respected? . . . Henry could do nothing but loathe himself.
When Mary had left him the day before, he set out immediately for a drink. He stopped in his way, however, when he noticed some children playing in the street. Henry saw nothing remarkable about them; they were poorly dressed and very dirty. Yet he stopped and leaned against a wall, his arms folded across his chest.
"Tess!" shouted one of the boys to a small girl. "Let us have your doll!"
"No, no, no!" she cried. Tess knelt on the ground, her small body hunched over to shield the dirty bundle of rags which served as her doll.
Henry watched as one of the boys whispered to his friends, then crept up to Tess and knelt down beside her. "Now then, Tessy," he said soothingly. "Let me protect your doll, and you run along home and get mummy."
Tess looked up at him, wiped her nose on her sleeve, and smiled as he slowly withdrew the doll from her arms. A second later the boy was standing up waving the doll in triumph. "There now!" he shouted. Then, as Tess remained on the ground crying, the boys ran off, tossing their prize roughly back and forth.
When they had gone, Henry approached Tess without any clear idea of why he was doing so. He stopped in front of her, not knowing exactly what to say. She looked up at him, again substituting a filthy sleeve for a handkerchief. "What do you want?" she asked.
Henry pulled a handkerchief from his coat and offered it to her. "Now, Miss Tess," he said, squatting down beside her as she wiped her face, "are you having a bit of trouble with the young gentlemen?"
She sniffled and nodded. Henry said nothing as she stuffed his handkerchief into her dress. "Gentlemen's not what I'd call them," she said indignantly. "Not behaving like that."
"I think you are quite right," said Henry. "Here now, get up." He stood and helped her up, then dropped several coins into her palm. "Go and buy yourself something pretty, Miss Tess." The child looked up at him in disbelief, then ran off in the direction of her playmates.
Henry sighed and stood still for a moment, noticing from the corner of his eye that several people had been watching this little scene. He started back in the direction he had come and when he reached his lodging, went straight to his room and sat in front of his window for the remainder of the night.
Henry remembered this now as he put on his hat and opened the door. To his surprise, he came face to face with a breathless James Prescott. "Mr. Prescott!" he exclaimed. "What . . ."
"Is Miss Price here?"
"Why yes, she . . ."
"Take me to her."
Henry dared not refuse, seeing the usually calm man in such a state. When they burst into the room together, Mary and Fanny jumped up at once. "Henry!" said Mary. "What are you doing?"
Fear sped through Fanny instantly. "Edmund?" she asked. "My sister? What has happened to them?"
"Do not worry, Miss Price," said James. "It has nothing to do with them, though they will be unable to fetch you - which is why I have come. My sister and her husband overturned in the road, and we are needed there as soon as possible. If Mr. Crawford would be so good as to lend us another horse?"
"Certainly not! I shall drive you in my barouche," Henry insisted.
They encountered the mangled carriage soon enough, and were relieved to find that the Cookes were unharmed, though Mrs. Cooke had been fainting on and off the entire time. Fanny, James, and Henry went to Edmund and Susan, who were helping the servants move trunks on to the other carriage.
Anna walked over to them and looked slightly discomposed when she saw Henry. She quickly recovered herself, though, and explained to them what had happened. Five minutes later, a man on horseback reined in and jumped to the ground.
"Mr. Darcy!" exclaimed Fanny, going to meet him.
"How do you do, Miss Price? I was hoping to see you again under less . . ." His words trailed off when his eyes fixed on Henry. "Less . . . upsetting circumstances," he finished absently.
With so many people on hand to help, the group was able to leave within half an hour. Fanny walked with Darcy to his horse. "Thank you for coming to help us," she said.
He mounted his horse and looked at Henry again. "Be careful, Miss Price," he said. "You know what I refer to."
"I do, and you may be assured that I no longer have any anxieties in that quarter."
Before Darcy could reply, Edmund joined them and put a hand protectively on Fanny's back. "Good of you to come, Mr. Darcy," he said brightly.
"My pleasure, Mr. Bertram. And allow me to give you my congratulations!" He urged on his horse and galloped away.
"Well," said Edmund dryly, "Mr. Prescott went to Lambton. I wager he had no time to recommend himself to Mary. What did she say to you?"
"Naturally. And did you believe her?"
"Of course I did. As I did Mr. Crawford."
"Mr. Crawford too! Did the devil himself come to confess his sins to you today, Fanny?"
"How can you so easily dismiss their sincerity?" asked Fanny, slightly irritated.
"I would be happy to learn that they had mended their ways, Fanny," he assured her. "But throughout the time we have known them, they have shown themselves to be backhanded and untrustworthy. You know this to be true."
"Yes, I do, but in this case, I have no doubt of their sincerity."
"I pray you, do not misunderstand me when I tell you to be on your guard anyway. Come now," he said in a lighter tone, "Mr. Prescott was just telling me that his good friend Mr. Tilney has arrived at Oakbridge. He sounds like a pleasant fellow; at least, his friend praises him well enough."
The Cookes set off again and Henry walked to his barouche to return to Lambton. "Mr. Crawford!" Henry turned to see Anna Prescott hurrying towards him. She really was not so plain; there was an expression in her eyes, a turn of her mouth . . .
"Yes?" he asked, climbing up into his barouche and taking the reins. He looked away from her, sensing the possible danger to his affections. There could be no advantage in allowing himself to love her. She hated him, and he in no way deserved her.
"Thank you for coming to help us," she said.
"My pleasure, Miss Prescott," he replied distantly, keeping his eyes fixed ahead.
"I . . . I want . . ." She cleared her throat. "Excuse me. I wish you a good day, sir."
His eyes betrayed him and wandered over to her. "Thank you." Henry drove off and could not stop himself from looking around. Anna stood where he had left her, watching him drive away.
Mr. Darcy had sent a carriage from Pemberley to take them back to Oakbridge, and the group squeezed in. They were all jumpy and tired, and scarcely a word was spoken on the way.
They reached Oakbridge and trudged wearily into the house, where they were greeted with an exuberant, "James! Hello there!"
James grinned and took quick steps to his friend. "Henry! Now I may receive you properly."
"The Cookes were unharmed, I hear?"
"Yes, and on their way home again. Let me introduce you to my friends. Henry Tilney, this is Mr. Edmund Bertram, Miss Fanny Price, and Miss Susan Price."
"Glad to meet you," said Henry. "I presume that Mr. Edmund Bertram is the brother of Mr. Tom Bertram, whom I just met?"
"Yes indeed," said Edmund.
Henry laughed. "I am glad to hear it. Every day brings new evidence that I am not a clod. Let me be bold and venture further - are the two Miss Prices sisters?"
"If your intelligence depends upon it, sir," Fanny smiled.
"You are too gracious," said Henry with a gallant bow.
Henry Crawford returned to Lambton and settled down wearily with a book. "Henry." He looked up as Mary came in and joined him. "I hope no one was hurt?" she asked quietly.
"I am glad to hear it." Neither of them said anything for a long time; Mary finally broke the silence. "Henry, what has happened to us?"
Henry closed his book and stared down at its brown leather cover. "Perhaps that we have always managed to encourage each other in detestable behavior."
"What did you say to Fanny this morning?"
"I apologized to her. For everything."
Mary could not disguise the look of shock on her face. "You made an apology?"
"I regret betraying any signs of human decency," he replied with a hint of a smile, "but yes, I did."
"If she had not been so headstrong - if she had not refused you - none of this . . ."
"Let me stop you now from saying something bitter and untrue."
"You must not be too concerned for others, Henry, or your poor sister will not recognize you."
"Mary," said Henry, flinging his book aside with irritation, "must you make the task of reformation so difficult? Is it not common for one to be supported in such attempts?"
"My support is in direct proportion to the degree of sincerity I perceive."
"Ah! You doubt my sincerity then."
"As any person of your acquaintance would."
"Fanny did not."
"Fanny must always be the exception to every rule. She has not the amount of original sin that so blemishes us mortals."
"Mary, why must you be so ridiculous?" He lowered his voice. "What did you say to Fanny?"
Mary gave a small laugh. "I apologized to her as well. Now you may mock my sincerity! Go on, Henry - you are well entitled to do so."
"Of course I will not."
"Your new halo is most unnerving to me, Henry. Would you mind removing it?"
Henry jumped up from his seat and paced to the other end of the room. "Mary, let me remind you of your question, which started this friendly discussion: What has happened to us? How has our past affection and devotion been twisted into this?"
"I'm sorry, Henry," she said softly. She smiled a little. "It seems that we were always remarkably good at encouraging each other to behave badly. But now that we are trying to be good . . ."
"We can only hate each other," he finished with a laugh. Henry returned to his chair and reached for Mary's hand. "Might we not be as we were before? It is not nearly as fun to encourage others to be good, I know, but we must be good sports about it. 'Why, Mary, how kind that was!'"
Mary grinned. "How very patient of you, Henry!" she replied, playing along. "This is not nearly as fun. How has Fanny been able to get on all these years?"
"Edmund," he replied simply.
"Ah! So we must find people to reform us!" laughed Mary.
Henry wondered how she could have misunderstood him. Edmund reforming Fanny? Ridiculous notion! He meant that Fanny loved Edmund, and therefore wanted to be her best for him. It was precisely this idea that made him realize the shallowness of his own love for Fanny.
For it was another woman who had brought about this change in him. With her on his mind, he helped little Tess in the street, apologized to Fanny, and made peace with his sister. And it was on her behalf that he intended to forget her - to leave her behind and go home to Norfolk.
Henry was about to tell Mary of this sudden decision when they were interrupted by a servant. "Mr. Crawford, Miss Crawford," she said with a curtsy, "a Mr. Wickham is here to see you."
"Henry! Mary!" exclaimed Wickham as the servant slipped from the room and closed the door. "I was passing through to settle some debts, and someone mentioned the Crawfords. I was hoping he meant you two! It has been entirely too long!" He clapped Henry on the back and embraced Mary.
"It certainly has," said Henry warmly. "Sit down, George."
"Thank you, I shall." He flopped down in a chair and leaned back, resting his elbows comfortably on the arms. "Mary, you are even more beautiful than I remembered."
"Save your flattery," said Mary, waving one hand at him.
"Yes, save some for me," Henry laughed. "Do I look more beautiful than ever?"
"I will say what I always have: you cannot get any worse, Henry." Wickham winked at Mary.
"Why, thank you."
"Do stop, George - you will make him more vain than he already is," Mary said, smiling at her brother.
"Is Mrs. Wickham with you?" Henry asked with a wink.
"No, she was happier at home."
"That is rather surprising to me," said Mary. "From what I know of her, I should think her very eager to see her family here."
Wickham looked at Mary quizically. "Eager to see her family? Have you met her, Mary?"
"How can you be so silly!" Mary laughed. "Have I met Georgiana, indeed!" Mary remembered the time she had spent at Pemberley, and with shame recollected her attempts to win Mr. Darcy.
It was Wickham's turn to laugh as he realized the misunderstanding. "Mrs. Wickham is not Georgiana."
"What are you talking about?" asked Henry.
"And her family here is in connection with Mrs. Darcy," Wickham added, enjoying their confusion.
"But . . . but . . . Ramsgate," Henry sputtered. "I thought . . ."
"Her brother came to see her unannounced and put an end to everything. Georgiana shed many tears, as did I, but there was nothing we could do. However, I find myself happy with the woman I did marry. She is the youngest sister of Mrs. Darcy, and," said Wickham with a grin for Mary, "she is never inclined to see her family here."
"Poor Georgiana," said Mary. "You always told us of Darcy's dark character, but I would never believe him capable of making his sister unhappy."
"Actually, that reminds me - I saw Darcy today," Henry remarked. "He was helping with the carriage. A friend of ours, Fanny," he clarified for Mary, "is quite fond of him."
Wickham nodded and sighed. "He fools people so easily."
"But for Fanny Price to be fond of someone so unworthy," Mary murmured, almost to herself.
"Well, so long!" said Wickham, standing up suddenly.
"What?" blurted Henry. "Where are you going?"
"Business, my friends, business. Perhaps we will all bump into each other again in a few years."
"You cannot be leaving already," Henry protested. "It has only been five minutes!"
"And that was five minutes too long," said Wickham. "I am already late."
"It would have been better for you not to come at all, than to raise our spirits and then crush them just as unexpectedly," said Mary.
"My apologies," said Wickham, bending to kiss her hand. "Farewell to the Crawfords! May the brother get some good looks, and may the sister learn to accept flattery from old friends." With that, he disappeared behind the door, leaving Henry and Mary alone.
They looked at each other and started laughing. "What a comfort it is to know that we have such close friends. You see how attached he is to us," said Mary, motioning to the closed door.
Henry smiled and shook his head. "Some people never change." He was thoughtful for a moment, and then continued, "I cannot help but pity poor Georgiana."
"Yes," Mary agreed. "When George told us how deeply they were in love, we exerted all our influence on Mrs. Younge - and all to no avail. Poor, dear thing."
"I never would have thought this of Darcy. He treated others infamously, it is true, but I was under the impression that he loved Georgiana more than anything!"
"What a scoundrel."
"Surely Fanny cannot know his true nature," Henry mused. "Perhaps I should tell her."
Fanny laughed and snapped her book shut. "Please, Mr. Tilney! I beg you, no more!"
"Do you not want to hear the end of my story?" he asked, affecting a hurt look.
"No, or I shall die laughing."
"That is most unfair to me, but I pride myself on my chivalry. Therefore, Miss Price, I shall display more concern for your feelings than for my own."
"You are very good."
"Indeed, I am not. Now, I shall begin another, so that you do not die laughing." Henry cleared his throat and looked grave. "I knew a young lady who spent all her extra money on a pair of beautiful, delicate slippers. Well, I should not say all, for she had just enough left over to purchase some cheaply made pattens. Pardon me, Miss Price, but why do you smile? This is a very serious and moving story."
"The pattens were no good, and the streets were very muddy, and what do you think happened, Miss Price?"
"She ruined her slippers," said Fanny solemnly.
"If only she had!" he cried. "No. She called her dear brother to come for her in the carriage. And that good-hearted fellow got mud spattered all over his new coat. Now what is this, Miss Price? Surely you are not laughing? I see now that your heart is made of stone."
"Forgive me, sir. I am very sorry about your coat."
"You assume that I am the victim of my tragic parable. You women are always jumping to conclusions."
"And you men are always telling stories about yourselves, which is how I knew."
Henry grinned. "I confess, you have bested me, Miss Price. What response can I make to that?" He stood and bowed. "Please excuse me, I must write a letter to my sister. I shall be most eloquent on the point of spending money wisely."
Fanny smiled as he left, then picked up her book. She was interrupted minutes later by James. "Good morning, Fanny," he greeted her cheerfully. "Mr. Bertram mentioned that you wanted to speak to me about something."
Fanny closed her book again. "Yes. I was wondering, Mr. Prescott . . . that is . . ."
"Yes?" he prompted.
"The Crawfords are staying at Lambton, as you know."
"Of course." James searched her face, trying to guess what she was thinking.
"Perhaps you could invite them to more comfortable lodgings here?"
His surprise was unmistakably written on his face. "Invite the Crawfords to Oakbridge? May I safely assume, then, that your visit with them went very well?"
"It did, Mr. Prescott." He said nothing, so Fanny continued softly, "I hope you don't think me rude."
"Not at all. I shall speak with my father."
In no more than twenty minutes, James had returned to Fanny; this time, he found Edmund sitting with her. From the color that crept into her cheeks, he could tell that he had just interrupted a rather private conversation. They gave no signs that his intrusion was unwelcome, however, and he made himself comfortable.
"Were you not able to speak with your father?" Fanny asked.
"On the contrary, Miss Price, I did speak with him. My quick return is evidence of his eager approval."
She turned and smiled at Edmund, who looked slightly less than happy. "I must thank your father for being so generous," she said, turning back to James.
"Actually, there is something that will delay their coming here - my father would rather wait until Mr. Tilney has left. Our household is bursting."
"Oh, I understand completely," Fanny assured him. "Thank you, Mr. Prescott. If you will excuse me, I would like to go and thank your father now," she said impetuously. She rose and moved to the door and stopped. "Or perhaps he is too busy at the moment?"
"Not at all, Miss Price," said James. "He is reading in his study."
"Thank you." She left and shut the door so softly that neither of the gentlemen heard it close.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for some minutes. Edmund devoted himself to studying the pattern on the wallpaper, and James looked at various features of the room in turn. Finally, Edmund cleared his throat and said, "What do you think of all this?"
"What do you mean?" asked James.
"This business of Fanny's - inviting the Crawfords here."
"I hardly know them, Mr. Bertram. If I were acquainted with them as much as your family is, perhaps I might make a firmer judgment. I will venture to say, however, that her opinion of them - as I was aware of it, at least - has changed drastically . . . almost too quickly."
Edmund nodded. "You share my view of it, then. I will not slander the Crawfords, Mr. Prescott, but I believe you already know of the strained relationship between them and my family."
"Their relative Dr. Grant holds the position at Mansfield parsonage, though his wife practically lives with Miss Crawford in London. He is almost entirely unconnected with the unfortunate events that took place, yet even with him there can be no ease. I tell you this only to further demonstrate the extraordinary change in Fanny."
"Are you suggesting that I ask my father to change his mind?"
"Not at all," said Edmund hurriedly. "Please do not misunderstand me. If Fanny wants them here, and if your family has no objection, I shall not interfere. My purpose is more to advise you to . . . to . . ." He broke off, not knowing exactly what he wanted to say.
"To be on my guard?"
"Precisely. Mr. Prescott, I do not want to see Fanny hurt."
"Naturally!" James agreed warmly. "Let me assure you that the moment they cause Miss Price discomfort, they will be asked to leave."
"Thank you," said Edmund.
"Do you have any idea what could have affected Miss Price so?"
"Not really. We have talked about it, and she says only that they apologized. That cannot be the whole truth! And even if it were, I trust Fanny is sensible enough to doubt their sincerity after all she knows of them! None of it makes sense to me," Edmund admitted, shaking his head.
"Forgiveness never does," said James with the smallest trace of a smile.
Fanny's return prevented Edmund from replying. "Your father is so good," she told James as she opened the door, "to regard the whims of a guest!"
"I have always thought so, Miss Price," said James lightly. "The only question that remains is: when are we to be rid of Mr. Tilney?"
"Rid of Mr. Tilney?" asked that gentleman, following Fanny into the room. Fanny sat down with a broad smile on her face, but Henry went to stand by James. "James, your affection is like the purest oasis in a parched desert, like a blind man's first glimpse of sunlight, like . . ."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Henry," laughed James. "Sit down and be quiet."
"Why sit down when I will so soon be driven away? Why not remain standing? Or better yet, why not leave and pack my bags?" He lifted his right hand to cover his heart and closed his eyes gravely.
"I will not let them drive you out, Mr. Tilney," said Fanny merrily. "Do sit down and be civilized."
"Civilized?" he repeated. "Do you find the finer sensibilities barbaric, Miss Price?"
"The finer sensibilities? Not at all, sir."
"I see your meaning! Alas, there is no accounting for taste," sighed Henry. "But I will be a martyr," he added, sitting down.
As it was, Henry Tilney had already decided to be "driven out" the following day, and told them so in his own, more intelligent, voice. An invitation was sent, therefore, to the Crawfords.
Fanny was eager to see them, believing them to be really reformed. Edmund had the gravest doubts, but was willing to give them a chance if Fanny really believed in them. Susan had always been, and was still, absolutely intrigued by them.
James had not forgotten his initial attraction and fascination with Mary Crawford, and was secretly most anxious to finally meet her properly. Would actually knowing her prove to be just as agreeable as thinking about her? He had a vague outline, and was ready to see it filled in and colored with her real vibrance.
"Henry!" cried Mary, rushing into the room. She found her brother asleep on the sofa, with a book lying open across his chest. "Henry," she said again, setting the book aside and shaking him.
"What?" he grumbled without opening his eyes.
"You will never guess!"
"Then leave me alone." He shifted his position.
Mary rolled her eyes, then pulled him off the sofa. "Henry Crawford!"
He opened his eyes and gave her an irritated look. "What? I was concentrating on Milton."
"Asleep?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No, that was actually the final result," he said with a grin.
Mary playfully slapped the back of his head. "Well, the world is 'all before us' - look at this!" She shoved the invitation at him and waited breathlessly as he read it.
"Invited to stay at Oakbridge?" he asked in disbelief.
"This is Fanny's doing."
"Of course. But I would have thought that the Bertrams - especially Edmund - would bring about its undoing. Shall we accept?"
"Can there be any doubt that we should?"
"Well . . . yes. I planned to make peace with Fanny, then go home to Norfolk to forget her." He neglected to say that Fanny was not the her whom he wished to forget.
"But Fanny has forgiven us, Henry!" protested Mary. "What better way to prove that we have changed - to her, to the Bertrams, to ourselves - than to accept this invitation?"
"It is too soon. As much as we like to say it, Mary, we cannot have changed already."
"You don't think so?"
"No. At least, I have not."
Mary paused, then said, "In that case, I should think it necessary for you to go. Changing is easy when it is effected by running away from the problem." Henry still looked unconvinced, and Mary sighed and sat down on the sofa. "Do you believe us so incapable of starting over with Fanny, Edmund, and Tom? We were all friends once."
"Friends," muttered Henry.
"Well . . . I am only trying to say that I want to do it right this time. We cannot turn down this chance to repair things, to . . ." She sighed with exasperation. "To prove to Fanny that there was something behind our apologies!"
After a long time, Henry said, "Yes, you're right. They expect us tomorrow?"
Edmund sat alone in the library at Oakbridge, drumming the fingers of one hand against the arm of his chair and supporting his head with the other. A small clock ticked its steady, endless rhythm a few feet away, and Edmund watched the ornate minute hand make its way slowly past each Roman numeral.
He hardly knew what he should think about first and found it easier to concentrate on the clock. The minute hand crept forward another step. About an hour before, Tom had found him and breathlessly declared that he was engaged to Charis. Earlier still, soon after the announcement to the household that the Crawfords would be coming, Anna informed everyone that she would accept her cousin's invitation to return to London.
"The clock," Edmund told himself. He closed his eyes and listened to the welcome monotony - nothing unexpected there. But his mind would constantly go back to the subject that really troubled him. He opened his eyes to find the features of the clock blurred together.
He could not block out Fanny. Her new liveliness he had taken in stride, acknowledging that it was becoming a part of his own nature - and that the change was decidedly for the better. Yet somehow, suddenly, he could no longer recognize her. Had he been in some sort of trance during the last day or two?
It must have something to do with the Crawfords, he reasoned. From the very beginning he had suspected that something else must have taken place during their visit. Why would Fanny not tell him, though? He had never heard her utter a lie, and she assured him that nothing took place but apologies, which she believed to be sincere. That in itself was beyond his comprehension.
Where on earth was the woman he loved? Had she decided to punish him for all his years of blindness, transforming herself into this new person? "I don't want a new person!" he longed to tell her. "I want you!"
His head snapped up, and he ran his fingers distractedly through his hair. "Hello, Fanny," he said without looking at her.
She sat down close to him and clasped her hands tightly in her lap. "I have been looking for you everywhere."
"Really?" I have been looking for you everywhere. He lifted his eyes to her face, taking in each beloved feature. The light eyes, so full of warmth and goodness; the small, pretty mouth; the honest, open countenance.
He watched as she parted her lips to say something, then evidently changed her mind. A moment later, she began with, "Mr. Tilney has decided to stay, since the younger Miss Prescott is leaving. Mr. Prescott convinced him."
For some reason, his mind flew back to the sitting room at Mansfield, to the day he had watched Fanny quietly pluck the thread from his mother's sleeve. "Fanny," he said suddenly. "I have a thread loose, here in my sleeve. Would you pull it out for me?"
"Can you not get it yourself, Edmund?" she asked, smiling.
He leaned his head in his hand again and glanced quickly at the clock. "So Mr. Tilney is staying," he said lightly.
"Yes." Her voice was quiet. "Are you angry with me, Edmund?"
He turned to her again. "Angry with you, Fanny? How could I be?"
"I shall pull the thread for you, if you like."
He sighed heavily and reached out for her hand, comforted by the first touch of her slender, delicate fingers. "There is no thread, Fanny, and if there were, I assure you I would pull it out myself."
A confused look swept over her face. "But . . . why . . ."
"Fanny, I love you." He stopped, realizing that he had nothing else to say.
"And I love you!" she said, tightening her fingers around his. "Every day I try to evolve further into what you want!"
In that second, his questions were answered. Edmund met her shining eyes, which were accompanied by the sweetest of smiles. "What I want?" he repeated in disbelief. "What can you mean? Fanny, you always have been what I want!"
She released his hand and looked down at her lap. When she raised her head again, a tear was slipping down her left cheek. "I thought I must have something in common with Mary Crawford," she told him in a broken voice. "Or why would you love me?"
"Fanny," said Edmund, shaking his head. He went to kneel down by her chair and reclaimed her hand. "You spoke of being like Mary before, but everything you said was so cryptic, I . . . you went to visit her because . . ." He had to pause and take command of his voice before he could continue. "Because you wanted to discover what it was that made me love you?"
"It sounds so completely silly when you actually say it," she said as she wiped her tear away with the back of her hand.
"Fanny, look at me," he said gently. Edmund reached up and brushed his fingers down her cheek. "You are nothing like Mary Crawford. Nothing. Not to say that she is a bad person - only to say that I love you so much better. "
"Oh, Fanny," he laughed. "Really. You are everything that is good and sensible - and now you even tease," he added, squeezing her hand. "You love and value the same things I do. Mary would never be happy spending the rest of her life in a parsonage, anchoring her life and her passion to the church, and I was too stupid to know it. Please don't change, Fanny."
"Do you think I was right, even so, to arrange for the Crawfords to come here?"
"I honestly don't know," said Edmund. "But I am confident that everything will turn out for the best." He was thoughtful for a moment. "They really only apologized to you?"
Fanny smiled. "Yes."
He shook his head and grinned. "I hope you will not forsake me for Henry Crawford," he teased.
"If I wanted a Henry instead of an Edmund, I assure you that Mr. Crawford is not the one I would choose."
Edmund laughed and rose up on his knees to kiss her lightly. "Simply give up one clergyman for another, I suppose?"
"Never," she said, returning his kiss.
Sorry this took so long; I was out of town being maid of honor for my best friend. =)
As far as noble intentions go, unhappy results are quite often the only rewards for one's endeavors. When Henry Crawford stepped into Oakbridge with Mary, his mind was fixed only on proper behavior and making amends. They were welcomed warmly by their hosts; Tom set aside his discomfort admirably to introduce them to Mr. and Mrs. Prescott, and to Mr. Tilney.
"You are both very welcome," said Mr. Prescott amiably. "You must be aware that your coming here is the work of Miss Price. I think you will agree with me that her friends are the luckiest people in England."
Fanny blushed scarlet at this gallantry, feeling that a great deal of it was undeserved. Mary agreed with Mr. Prescott, however, adding her own praise: "Oh! Miss Price is the sweetest, most patient creature in the world."
Mrs. Prescott, feeling that her own daughters must be included in any discussion of feminine virtue, said, "Yes, her sweetness reminds me of my own dear Anna." She sighed and waited for one of them to notice the absence of her subject.
Henry had noticed immediately, and now welcomed this opportunity to inquire after her. "Where is Miss Anna Prescott?" he asked.
Mrs. Prescott gave him a gracious smile. "She has returned to her cousin in town." Henry colored and longed for more, but he was not to be satisfied; the lady had moved on to another of her offspring. "And my dear Charis has only just become engaged."
Seeing that her brother was unequal to showing similar interest in Charis, Mary exclaimed, "Indeed! This is happy news. What man has been so fortunate?"
Tom laughed and beamed. "The man who least deserved it."
"Though I do not wish to offend you, I can only think that you mean yourself," smiled Mary. "Congratulations to you both."
"Thank you, Miss Crawford," said Charis.
"I could not have wished a better husband for her," said Mrs. Prescott proudly. "I wish James and Anna might do as well." The Crawfords smiled.
Seeing that his friend was a little embarrassed, Henry Tilney made light of the remark, declaring gravely, "I will see to it, ma'am." Mrs. Prescott laughed and declared him "a wonderful silly fellow."
Henry and Mary settled in quite contentedly. Their rooms were comfortable and the people at Oakbridge provided lively, intelligent conversation. When Henry found Fanny alone in the library later that evening, he decided to take that opportunity to voice his concerns.
They traded polite nothings for a few minutes, then Henry said carefully, "I saw that Mr. Darcy came to help the Cookes the other day."
Fanny looked surprised that he would bring up Darcy. "Yes. He is a great friend of this family."
"And are you very much acquainted with him?"
"I have been visiting Pemberley often to see him and Mrs. Darcy, yes," she replied, wondering where he was taking this conversation. "They are two of the best people I have ever known," she added.
It pained Henry to have to tell Fanny of Darcy's true nature. He doubted himself for a moment, but just as quickly remembered his decision to earn her friendship and trust. "You would not say so if you knew certain things."
Fanny tightened her hands in her lap. "What do you mean, Mr. Crawford?"
"You will be surprised to hear that Mary and I know Mr. Darcy." Fanny had no reply to give him, and he went on. "Have you met his sister?"
"No," she tried to say, but her voice was gone. "No," she repeated. Fanny could scarcely believe that he was destroying her faith in him already.
"She is one of the prettiest, most good-hearted girls who ever lived," he told her. "Yet her brother pays no regard to her feelings - is plainly cruel to her, in fact. One summer he destroyed all her hope of happiness with the man she loved."
Fanny marveled that he could lie so hideously and still maintain such an expression of earnest concern.
"I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Darcy," Henry continued, "but a close friend of mine is married to one of her sisters, and informed me that his wife never desires to see her sister."
She felt anger building up steadily within her; for him to slander such people as Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy was unthinkable. "Mr. Crawford," she began quietly, "I have no reason to think . . ."
He mistook her subdued tone for sadness and hopeful disbelief and interrupted, "It pains me greatly to tell you these things, for you must be very fond of the Darcys. But please believe me, and understand that I have told you with the purest concern for . . ."
"Mr. Crawford," said Fanny, closing her eyes. "Please go."
She opened her eyes and looked at him sadly. "I had thought you changed," she told him. "But on the first renewal of our acquaintance, you tell the most dreadful lies! Why? Am I still only an object of your sport?"
"You misunderstand me!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, I did misunderstand you," she replied as a tear slipped down her cheek. "But I will not let it happen again. I have simply been foolish, and have only myself to blame."
"It is not your fault," he protested. "How could you have known about his cruel nature?"
"Oh, why do you persist?" she asked in miserable frustration. She rose and turned away from him. "I will not let the Prescotts know of this incident, but please honor my wishes and do not speak to me again while we are together here."
Fanny left and Henry remained sitting in dumbfounded confusion.
By the time Fanny found Edmund, she was quite unable to contain her tears. He was studying portraits in the gallery, standing relaxed with his hands clasped behind him. Edmund heard her before he saw her, and turned in alarm. "Fanny!" he exclaimed, going to her immediately. He put his arms around her and held her head protectively against his shoulder.
"Fanny," he said again. "What is the matter?" His mind settled upon something which could leave her so distraught. "Surely . . . surely nothing has happened to William?"
"No," came her muffled voice. Then, after a hesitant pause -- "It is Mr. Crawford."
His jaw tightened. "Already?"
He felt her nod and another sob escaped her. "I thought he had changed," she cried. "I so wanted to believe it, Edmund! I am such a fool."
"No, Fanny. Of course you wished the best from him." He stroked her hair and lightly kissed the top of her head. "Tell me what happened."
She stepped away from his embrace and walked to a window, turning her back to him. Edmund remained where she had left him, at once admiring her graceful silhouette and entertaining thoughts on how best to kill Henry Crawford.
"He was telling me the most dreadful lies about Mr. Darcy," Fanny told him in a more controlled voice. "I cannot understand why he would do such a thing."
"Mr. Darcy?" asked Edmund, completely bemused.
"The Crawfords are acquainted with Mr. Darcy," she explained. "And they used him and his sister very ill."
Edmund joined her at the window and looked vaguely out at the breathtaking countryside of Derbyshire. "Did Mr. Crawford try to make excuses to you?" he asked.
"No," she replied, shaking her head. "He was evidently unaware that Mr. Darcy had told me everything, and pretended that his purpose was to warn me. He described Mr. Darcy's cruel nature and bad character."
"What did you say to him?"
"I accused him of lying, though I did not tell him how I knew. Then I asked him not to speak to me again."
"Yet he confessed nothing, even after this?"
Edmund frowned. "This behavior does not make sense -- not even for Henry Crawford. What can he have gained by this?"
"Revenge on Mr. Darcy, perhaps?"
"If so, it was a pathetic attempt for one so clever. No, there must be some other explanation."
Fanny turned to him in surprise. "How could there be?"
"Perhaps he wasn't lying to you," said Edmund carefully.
"Are you suggesting that Mr. Darcy lied to me?"
"No, indeed!" he quickly replied. "I am suggesting that Mr. Crawford made a mistake."
Fanny could not hide her astonishment. "Could you think so well of him as that?"
"I have never thought particularly well of Henry Crawford," Edmund sighed. "I base my assumption more on my idea of logical behavior, and this step on the part of Mr. Crawford simply does not make sense. He must have some explanation."
"I wish it were so," Fanny murmured.
"Are the Darcys sending their carriage for you today?"
"Yes." She turned back to the window and studied the shadow patterns on the ground.
"Tell them about this incident . . . tell them what he said exactly, as much as you can remember. Perhaps they may know of something to explain his behavior."
"I feel so foolish," she said, bowing her head.
Edmund moved closer to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "You are anything but foolish," he said affectionately.
Susan removed her bonnet and raised her face to the sun. "Just think of all the freckles there will be to reward this behavior," said Stephen Prescott, who walked beside her. "I just saw one pop onto your nose."
"It makes no difference," she replied carelessly.
"Actually, it does. It is a huge freckle. And -- what's this?" He put his finger under her chin and squinted at her face. "Why, it is spreading!"
Susan swatted his hand away. "Go away." She laughed and quickened her step.
"Forgive me for saying this, but you have forced me to bring up the point," he said, catching up with her and matching her strides. "This is my land."
"Very well, then I shall leave." She turned on her heel and started walking the other way.
Stephen followed her and suddenly snatched her bonnet.
"Return that to me at once!" she demanded, laughing.
"Why?" he teased, backing away from her with the bonnet behind his back. "It can hardly do you any good now." Stephen paused, grinned at her, then put the bonnet on his own head. "Perhaps it will serve me better."
"You look ridiculous," said Susan, putting her hands on her hips.
Stephen tied the ribbons under his chin. "How do you do, Miss Price?" he asked in a squeaky falsetto. He batted his eyes and clasped his hands in front of him.
Susan crossed her arms. "I do not like it when other young ladies copy my fashions," she said. "Please return my bonnet, Miss Prescott."
He removed the bonnet and held it out to her. "Very well," he said in his own voice. She came forward to get it back, but Stephen laughed, turned around, and started running. Susan followed close behind him as they ran over a small hill and towards the shallow stream near the house.
When they reached the stream, Stephen stepped easily across, then stood on the other side taunting Susan with her bonnet. She gave him an evil look, then stepped onto a small rock in the middle of the stream. "Oh!" she cried. The rock slipped from under her and she landed with a big splash into the water.
Susan jumped up quickly and waded through the waist-high water to the other side. Stephen stood above her, doubled over in laughter. Brushing the wet strands of hair from her face, she lifted her hand and glared up at him. "Well?"
He took her hand and helped her up. She leaned over to wring out her dress as much as she could, then stood up straight. Stephen cleared his throat, still grinning devilishly. "Here is your bonnet."
"Thank you," she said crisply. She put it on her wet head, but did not tie it. "Now, sir," she said, looking at Stephen. "See what you have done!"
"Perhaps I could regret it, if it were not quite so funny." He smiled at her and shrugged off his coat. "Here," he said, wrapping it around her shoulders.
One corner of her mouth tilted up, followed soon by the other, until finally, Susan was laughing along with him. She closed the coat and held it to her with one hand, and with the other, she took the arm that Stephen offered.
"I'm very sorry about that," he said, still grinning. "What a horrid afternoon for you! Soaking through and through, freckled nose . . ."
"Beastly companion . . ."
"Beastly! You have broken my heart." They turned to each other and smiled, then walked on in silence until Stephen asked, "When do you return to Mansfield, Susan?"
"I'm not sure," she replied.
"I wish you could stay here," he said, fixing his eyes vacantly ahead.
Susan blushed. "I . . ." What to say? She searched frantically for a response. "I . . ." He looked at her and she swallowed. "So do I."
"Of course, Stephen!" she exclaimed. "You are the best friend I have ever known!"
"That means a great deal to me," he said. He left it at that, changing the conversation back to the spreading freckle on her nose.
Henry remained where Fanny left him. An open book rested in his lap, but he had not read a single word of it. Only one question raced through his mind: What did I do? No explanation could satisfy him. She had accused him of lying; perhaps Mr. Darcy told her a different story, and she didn't know the truth.
Naturally, she would be more inclined to believe Mr. Darcy of Pemberley than Henry Crawford, the man who succeeded in making her life miserable for so many months. Should he try to speak to her again, or would it only make matters worse?
More than anything, though, he wanted to see Anna. He believed that she had gone to London to avoid him, and indeed, he could hardly blame her. Since their brief friendship in London, Henry had begun to long more and more for one of their long, open conversations.
She was not beautiful, not by any means. Quite plain, in fact. Yet her absence was a presence in itself to Henry. Each time he recalled her harsh rebuke, fresh pain built up inside him. The fact that he had never deserved anything so much only made it worse.
At the moment Henry realized that he loved Anna Prescott, Emma Scott was sending her back home: "My dear Anna, I think I may get on quite well, now that I have seen you again for a little while. And since Peter bought that precious necklace for me! Yes, I am quite well indeed! Would you not much rather go home and spend time with all your guests? Of course you would. I hope you will come again at Christmas."
I am going out of town for a week, so part 33 will not be till next weekend.
Anna leaned her head back and closed her eyes as the carriage jostled her ever nearer to Oakbridge. Her feelings were divided between anger at Emma for allowing her to come all that way for nothing, and anxiety over the situation with Henry Crawford. The latter, she admitted to herself, occupied much more of her mind.
Would he want to speak with her again? Even considering the close friendship they had shared, would any man concern himself with a woman who had so harshly set him down? Perhaps if the woman were beautiful, Anna thought with a wry smile, but she quickly drove away that unfair notion.
She opened her eyes and watched the scenery move past her window. Her reflection was vaguely visible, and with no glad feelings, she studied the imperfections of her face. The driver was particularly rough for some reason, and she felt herself growing more and more dizzy.
Perhaps Henry would want to speak to her again, despite everything. For such a thing to be possible, he would have to change, and Anna prayed that he had. She felt secure in hoping the best, for Fanny Price, the woman whom he had wronged perhaps more than any other, wanted him at Oakbridge.
She wondered if her own words had . . . no, she would not flatter herself. And if he did want to speak to her? She asked herself if she wanted to hear him. Her mind and her heart gave her two different answers.
He had treated her in the worst manner, there could be no doubt. For a few minutes she comforted herself by remembering his arrogance, his shallow feelings, and his selfishness. No, he certainly did not deserve her. Her thoughts then turned to the things she had grown to love in their conversations - his intelligence, wit, and humor; his earnest, determined passion for the things (or persons) that interested him, however misguided.
The countryside outside her window was that of Derbyshire, and she knew she was close to home.
"Anna! My dear girl!" exclaimed Mrs. Prescott, embracing her daughter. "What has prompted this sudden return? I hope you and Emma have not argued?"
"No indeed, Mamma," Anna assured her mother. "She informed me that she was quite well by herself, after all."
Mrs. Prescott frowned a little. "That acknowledgment on her part would have served you better before you left."
"I learned long ago not to expect prudence from Emma. Where is my father?"
"Oh, somewhere," said Mrs. Prescott, waving her hand carelessly. "How surprised he will be to see you here! The house is fairly bursting with people."
"Mr. Tilney is still here?"
"Yes, but he leaves on Saturday."
"The rest are still here, too, I suppose?"
"The Bertrams, the Price girls, the Crawfords - yes." Anna could not stop herself from blushing, but Mrs. Prescott was oblivious. "I shall go and find your father." She embraced her daughter again and kissed her cheek.
Anna watched her mother leave, then sighed. She remained standing in the middle of the hall, her body and mind completely exhausted from travel and anxiety. She was not to relax yet, however, for only a few minutes after her mother left her, the very object of her worries happened upon her as he came into the house.
"Anna," said Henry in surprise, removing his hat. "Miss Prescott." He was apparently unable to say anything else, and they stood looking at each other in a brief, uncomfortable silence.
"Mr. Crawford," Anna finally managed. She averted her eyes, ordering them to focus on any object but the one they most wanted to see.
"I thought you were gone . . . that you were in London . . . in town with your cousin," Henry stumbled.
"Forgive me for disappointing you, Mr. Crawford." She regretted her harshness even as she spoke the words, and her eyes found the floor.
Had she seen the look of self-distrust and hurt on his face, had she known how vulnerable he was as he dealt with his newly realized feelings for her, she would have felt worse. But Henry gave himself a pause and replied, "I am always happy to see you." His voice was soft, almost wounded.
Anna lifted her eyes to him at last, at once taking in every familiar feature of him. He was not handsome; she had decided that the first day she met him. But she could still appreciate his well-built figure and the easy confidence of his countenance. The latter, however, was not evident to her now - rather the reverse.
"Forgive me," she told him. "I should not have spoken so harshly." He gave her no reply but a nod. "My cousin no longer needed me, and I came home."
And you are certainly needed here, Henry longed to say, but he dared not.
Fanny found Mrs. Darcy alone, and happily exchanged general pleasantries with her for some time. She realized how unsuccessfully she was hiding her concerns when Mrs. Darcy asked, "Is something wrong, Miss Price? You look pale."
"I could attribute it to my weak constitution and my desire to go home soon. But I confess there is something I wanted to discuss with you and Mr. Darcy, if you will allow me too."
"Would it be too much for my ears alone?" smiled Mrs. Darcy. "Would you rather wait until my husband returns?"
"It is not so very important. It concerns Mr. Crawford."
"Mr. Crawford?" Mrs. Darcy repeated. "I know practically nothing of him, but I might be able to help you. Has he hurt you?"
"Oh, no!" said Fanny quickly. "That is, not exactly. He was telling me the most vicious lies about your husband and yourself, but Edmund suggested that he might have been misinformed. He has only just recently apologized to me for the pain he gave me, and for him to transform again so soon . . ." Fanny realized that she had been rambling, and stopped.
"You mentioned that he might have been misinformed," said Mrs. Darcy. "Have you any reason to think that someone told him these things?"
"He mentioned a friend who knew you."
Mrs. Darcy lifted an eyebrow in interest. "Really? And did he give you a name?"
"No, but . . ." Fanny closed her eyes for a moment, trying to remember what Henry had told her. "But he said that his friend was married to one of your sisters."
The look of suspicion that overtook Mrs. Darcy's face was unmistakable. "No doubt the same friend whom he helped at . . ." Mrs. Darcy trailed off, apparently concerned that she could betray too much.
"At Ramsgate," Fanny finished.
Seeing that Fanny knew everything, Mrs. Darcy continued, "You know of Mr. Wickham, then."
"Mr. Wickham is your brother?"
"Thanks to my youngest sister, yes," replied Mrs. Darcy, smiling a little. "Mr. Darcy and I cannot escape the acquaintance." She then grew more serious. "If Mr. Wickham is the man who told Mr. Crawford these things, you ought to forgive him for repeating them to you. From personal experience, I can tell you that Mr. Wickham has an uncanny ability to turn sensible people into fools."
"You think that he made an honest mistake?"
"Not only do I think that; from what you told me of his sudden reformation, I have an idea that he was trying to do something good . . . that he was trying to prove himself to you somehow, by putting you on your guard with information he firmly believed to be true."
"If it is so, then I have treated him most unjustly," said Fanny softly.
"Mr. Wickham has often been the means of leading a woman to say unjust things to a well-meaning gentleman." Mrs. Darcy smiled broadly. "Ask Mr. Crawford if he was given this information by Mr. Wickham, and if so, set him right and forgive him."
"Thank you for telling me all these things, Mrs. Darcy," said Fanny. "I shall try to speak with him this evening!"
"I cannot help feeling curious - what exactly did he tell you about us?"
"That Mr. Darcy had been cruel to his sister, not letting her marry the man she loved. That your sister had no desire to see you . . . nonsense, all of it."
Mrs. Darcy nodded thoughtfully. "It is good, I think, that you discussed this with me alone. Mr. Darcy has no kind feelings towards Mr. Crawford, and may not have been so understanding in his advice. Before you leave, Miss Price, it would do well for you to help clear Mr. Crawford's character to my husband, if indeed it deserves to be cleared."
"You have my word on that, Mrs. Darcy."
Mary Crawford tilted her head back and laughed merrily. "How can you be so ridiculous!" she exclaimed to Henry Tilney, the agent of her amusement.
"It is not so very hard, I confess," he replied. "I have always observed that being ridiculous is quite easily achieved."
"Yes, it certainly is," Mary agreed, her thoughts flying instantly to Mr. Rushworth. But the thought of him brought Mrs. Rushworth to her mind, and she dismissed them both quickly.
"Well, Miss Crawford," said Mr. Tilney, rising and bowing to her, "I am going to take a walk about the grounds before I go up to my room to begin packing my trunks. You are welcome to join me."
"Thank you, Mr. Tilney, I will," Mary replied.
He had to go to his room for a moment to get his watch, and Mary stood patiently in the hall waiting for him. While she waited, James Prescott encountered her and stopped to speak with her.
Mary found him rather dull; he said practically nothing to her, and could not make her laugh. This confused her a great deal, for she often heard other people relating one of his stories or jokes. Why must he always be so silent around her? Perhaps he did not like her, she reasoned; that was regrettable, for she thought him very handsome indeed.
He ended their brief conversation by inviting her to join him in the library.
"Thank you, Mr. Prescott," she replied, "but I am about to take a walk with Mr. Tilney."
James smiled, made some polite response, and walked away, while Mary watched expectantly for Mr. Tilney. She was soon rewarded by his presence, and they walked out of the house together.
Fanny widened her eyes in disbelief. "Gone?" she repeated weakly.
"Yes, Miss Price," replied the servant she had questioned upon returning from Pemberley, "Mr. Crawford left just minutes ago."
"Th - thank you," said Fanny. She stood in shocked stillness and watched the servant walk away from her. Henry was gone? Fanny prayed that he had not left in anger, though he had every right to do so. She walked with heavy steps to the drawing room and entered it with her head low.
To her surprise, she saw Anna Prescott sitting there alone with a book. "Miss Prescott!" she exclaimed.
Anna smiled at her. "How do you do, Miss Price? I see my presence is unexpected. My cousin did not want me, and sent me back home." She paused, colored, and looked down at the cover of the book she had closed. "Just in time, it seems," she continued, "to replace Mr. Crawford." Like Fanny, Anna wondered unhappily, Did he leave because of me?
"I was just told," said Fanny. "Do you know where he went?" she asked, trying to hold her voice steady against the lump in her throat.
Anna shook her head. "No. London, perhaps."
"Or to his estate in Norfolk," Fanny spoke her absent thoughts aloud. "And his reason for leaving?"
"He said he had affairs to settle."
Both women thought the same thing: it was a vague excuse to hide his evident desire to leave Oakbridge. And each blamed his sudden departure on herself.
Henry had come into the drawing room briefly to say goodbye to Anna. He wished her well, kissed her hand, and left. Sitting with Fanny and recalling those minutes, Anna felt the warmth of a blush spreading over her face. So many men had kissed her hand in the past; Anna always considered the gesture tired and over-used. But the lips of Henry Crawford on her hand . . . . . .
"I suppose he does not plan to return," said Fanny.
"I suppose not."
Despite his unhappiness, Henry could only smile as his carriage drew him towards London. For the first time in his life, he was proud of himself. Fanny had called him a liar, Mary declared him a fool for leaving Oakbridge so impulsively, and Anna would not even look at him when he told her goodbye - when he could not resist the desire to kiss her perfect, perfect hand before he left.
Even so, Henry was proud of himself. He wanted to stay at Oakbridge more than he had longed for anything in his life, but he loved Anna too much to stay. He reflected on his past treatment of Fanny and the Bertram sisters, and felt that he could not trust himself. With pain he realized that leaving would be the best thing he could do for Anna.
Yet . . . God, how he needed her.
Henry was also sorry that he had left Fanny with such a bad opinion of him. He ran their last conversation over and over again in his head, and still could not understand the source of her anger. A liar, she had called him! Why?
Henry Tilney was packing his trunks to leave the following day, when he heard a knock on his door. "Come in," he said, draping a wrinkled shirt over his arm.
James Prescott came in and saw what his friend was doing. "Are you really this eager to leave?" he smiled.
"No indeed," said Henry. "This quick packing is more for the sake of sanitation." He lifted up the shirt on his arm and held it briefly to his nose. "You see, this simply must be packed away." He balled it up and tossed it over his shoulder. "What brings you into this den of uncleanliness?"
"We became aware of a most powerful odor downstairs," said James with a grin and a shrug, "but now that I have discovered its source . . ." He turned and started to move to the door.
"Ha ha. Not so hasty."
James turned around again and grew more serious. "Henry, you have always been one of my most trusted friends. In view of that fact, I wanted to discuss a very important matter with you before you leave."
"Of course, James. What is it?"
"Well . . . I, ah . . . it involves Miss Crawford."
"You have spent a great deal of time with her since their arrival, and I was wondering what you think of her."
"You hardly need a second opinion on the question of her beauty. But, on to the things that really matter - unless, of course, you happen to be my brother. She is lively, she tells a good story, she is intelligent." Henry hesitated.
"But . . .?"
"Underneath her smiles and clever words, there is a darker spirit."
"Henry," said James, attempting a smile, "I have never seen you so serious before."
Henry shook off his gravity. "I am convinced that her hardened character proceeds more from some unfulfilled need than from simple ill nature."
"And that need is?" prompted James.
"I cannot say. God? A husband?" Henry shrugged and sat down heavily on his bed, nearly tipping over one of his trunks.
"Neither could do her harm."
"Well, as in all things, that depends. Whom did you have in mind for a husband?" asked Henry, looking at his friend pointedly.
Peter Scott stared at his attorney. "How many thousands of pounds?" He had gone to Mr. Finley for a routine discussion of his finances, and found that he was grossly in debt.
"Four thousand, sir," Finley replied.
"Impossible. My ledgers show that I have an extra five hundred pounds."
Finley shook his head and stared down at the figures before him. "Nothing is incorrect here, Mr. Scott. What with all these dresses and hats and this barouche and . . ." he said, pointing down at the paper.
Finley frowned and looked up. "Did you not purchase a barouche last week, Mr. Scott?"
"I most certainly did not!" Peter relaxed and settled back in his chair. "You obviously have the wrong set of figures."
Finley looked down, then looked up again, his eyes conveying the unwelcome truth.
"But I did not purchase a barouche. And certainly Mrs. Scott did not, could not . . ." His words trailed off and he squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "What can I do?"
Henry strolled slowly down a London street, though all around him rushed to finish their business before the heavy, dark clouds above them burst finally into rain. As he walked, his mind was occupied with only Anna. What did she think of him? What was she doing? What . . . His foot suddenly caught on a stone and he fell to the ground, breaking his fall with his hands. He heard unconcerned laughter around him, and silently cursed himself for doing something so foolish.
He felt a strong hand on his shoulder and looked up into the kind face of a middle-aged man. Beside him stood a very pretty younger woman -- his daughter? His wife? One could never tell. "Are you all right?" asked the man.
"Yes," Henry replied, rising to his feet and brushing himself off. "Thank you for stopping." He offered his hand. "Henry Crawford."
The man shook his hand warmly. "I am Colonel Brandon, and this is my wife."
She nodded at Henry and gave him a lovely smile. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Crawford. I wish there had been another means of effecting it."
Henry laughed. "No more than I do, Mrs. Brandon."
Colonel Brandon looked at his wife, questioning her with his eyes; apparently he received the response he expected, for he turned back to Henry and said, "Perhaps you would do us the honor of calling on us soon?"
"I would be glad to, sir." As Brandon scribbled their address on a scrap of paper, thunder rumbled in the overcast sky. "Perhaps we had all best get indoors," said Henry, looking up as he stuffed the address into his pocket.
"No, it will not rain," said Mrs. Brandon. "We have an hour or two before . . ." A rain drop fell right on her nose.
"Before the streets are completely flooded," her husband finished for her, laughing. "Come, my dear. Goodbye, Mr. Crawford!" They walked away with quick strides, both of them evidently very active people.
Henry stood watching them for a few moments as rain fell refreshingly down his face. There was a time when he would have hated them for having something he wanted. Their forms gradually disappeared in the swiftly moving crowd, and Henry continued on his way.
As he hurried past a group of men, he heard the words "Peter Scott" and "trouble." He stopped immediately and stood close to the group, but they were finished with the topic that interested him. He heard only, ". . . get rid of the barouche, or that stupid woman, at the very least."
The rain was falling harder now, and Henry ducked into the closest shop to gather his thoughts. After noticing an irritated look from the shopkeeper, he looked down at the puddle forming at his feet. Dropping some coins in front of the man, Henry ventured out once again into the rain. Many people had left the streets, and those who did brave the weather carried umbrellas.
Henry squinted his eyes as he walked through the driving, stinging downpour. Mrs. Brandon was indeed a poor predictor of weather. Fortunately, the Scott house was only a few streets over.
"Sir!" a voice called. Henry did not stop, assuming that the man called for someone else. "Sir!" came the voice again. Henry turned and saw a carriage stopped in the street. "Do you want a ride, sir?"
"Most desperately," Henry laughed, running to the carriage. He climbed in and smiled sheepishly at a warm, middle-aged couple.
"Where are you off to?" asked the gentleman. Henry told him, and he directed the driver. "I am Edward Gardiner, and this is my wife."
"Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner." He lifted his soaking hat. "Henry Crawford."
Within minutes they were in front of the Scott house. Henry thanked the couple profusely and stepped out into the rain. He crossed his arms and shivered as he waited for someone to answer the door. A servant appeared at last and stared at him disdainfully. "Is Mr. Scott home?" asked Henry.
"May I see him?" Henry pressed, wondering when this impudent knave would let him in from the rain.
The servant stood aside and Henry walked in. "Follow me, sir."
Henry was let into a very small study, where he recognized Peter Scott sitting behind a desk. The face was familiar, though somewhat drawn and weary. "Mr. Crawford," said Peter when the servant had gone. He ran his eyes over Henry's wet figure. "I would offer you a seat, but . . ."
"No, no, I understand."
"Anna is not here."
I know. "No matter, for it is you I want to see."
"Oh . . . ah . . . precisely what about?"
"I understand that there is a barouche you wish to sell?"
"A barouche. To sell? Well, actually, n -- yes."
"I am willing to pay you handsomely for it. I hear that it is a fine one, and I would value it all the more if it came from a friend."
Peter seemed all amazed confusion. "Perhaps I could loan you some dry clothes."
"It is really so very kind of you to buy that horrid thing from us!" exclaimed Emma Scott to Henry at dinner that evening. "If I had known how perfectly horrid everything would be, I never would have arranged . . . Do you like the soup, Mr. Crawford? It is very fine, is it not?"
"Quite delicious, Mrs. Scott."
"It is Anna's favorite. Tell me, how does my cousin?"
"She and her family are all well," Henry assured her.
"I asked her to visit me, and she did not come until it was too late. I simply had to send her home again. She is always inconsiderate about some things."
Henry kept his eyes on the soup, which was indeed very good. He still felt chilled from the rain, and the hot broth was soothing on his throat. He found Emma just as insufferable as ever, and wondered what had possessed the apparently sensible and amiable Peter to marry such a woman. Why was the room so very cold?
"Mr. Crawford, are you ill?" asked Peter.
"N-no. I feel wonderful . . . fine."
"You do not look well."
Henry gave a laugh. "It is all the rain fr - fr ---" He quickly pulled out his handkerchief and sneezed. "Pardon me. All the rain from earlier."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "Very well."
"Oh, my dear," cooed Emma. "I forgot to tell you what Mrs. Byron told me today. Could you ever guess? I should imagine not." As Emma rattled on, Peter looked up, met Henry's eyes, and exchanged a knowing smile with him. ". . . which is why we need never mention anything about gloves to Miss Grey again."
"Quite so," Peter mumbled.
When Henry left the Scotts that evening, he drove away in a new barouche, troubling himself with something he did not need, and leaving Peter Scott in perfect peace.
Henry, I hope this letter finds you well. Are you still behaving yourself in town? For my part, I believe I am not half so wicked as I once was (and have not half the fun). I write to tell you that Mr. and Mrs. Prescott will give a ball at Oakbridge in honor of the Bertrams, for they (and I) will leave within a week. I add my own voice to that of all the others in begging you to return and dance with us. Until then, I remain yours affectionately &tc.
I hope this letter finds you well. Are you still behaving yourself in town? For my part, I believe I am not half so wicked as I once was (and have not half the fun). I write to tell you that Mr. and Mrs. Prescott will give a ball at Oakbridge in honor of the Bertrams, for they (and I) will leave within a week. I add my own voice to that of all the others in begging you to return and dance with us. Until then, I remain yours affectionately &tc.
Mary sealed her letter and handed it to a servant. "Mr. Prescott," she said gaily, drawing his attention away from his book.
"Yes?" James replied.
"If my wicked brother does not return for the ball, will you promise to dance with me? For I would cry if I had no one to dance with all evening."
"Certainly, Miss Crawford." James smiled at her and resumed his reading.
"What are you reading?"
"Which one?" Mary pressed.
"The Bible." Grinning, he continued, "Henry insisted."
"Oh. What a pity he had to leave before the ball."
"A pity? If he had stayed one day longer in his room, the servants could never have restored it."
Mary laughed. "Will you take a walk with me?"
"And tear myself away from these tabernacle guidelines? Impossible."
"But since you insist . . ." James snapped the book shut and rose. "Do you think your brother will come back?" he asked as they went outside.
"For a ball? I have no doubt of it. Besides, he could not refuse the opportunity to dance with . . . me."
James looked at her pointedly and lifted an eyebrow. "I see."
Darcy greeted Fanny with a bow and a friendly smile. "Good morning, Miss Price. My wife is not here; you certainly seem to have bad luck in that regard."
"But good luck in that you are always her substitute, sir," Fanny smiled. She hesitated. "Actually, it is you I want to see, Mr. Darcy."
"Please, come and sit down." He led her to a sofa and seated himself in a chair. "How may I be of service?"
Fanny twisted her fingers nervously in her lap. How could she possibly -- ? "I wanted . . . that is . . ." She lowered her gaze. "I want to ask a favor."
"What can I do?"
"Something rather simple to say, and much harder to do. I want to beg you to forgive someone."
"Much easier said than done."
"I apologize. I -- I presume too much."
"Not at all, Miss Price." She looked up and he smiled at her. "I need the practice. Forgiveness is not my most refined virtue. For whom do you intercede?"
Fanny was forced to look away from him again. How could she ask him to forgive Henry Crawford, the man responsible for almost ruining his sister? I promised Mrs. Darcy. "Henry Crawford." Her voice was almost a whisper.
There was no reply; perhaps he had not heard her. Fanny looked at him cautiously. His face was colored, and his head was turned to the side, his eyes focused on some vacant point. Yes, he heard. She lowered her eyes again.
Darcy was silent for so long that his voice startled her. "May I ask why you take his part?" he asked evenly.
Fanny felt the most earnest desire to run away from Pemberley into Edmund's comforting arms. "A mistake . . . I believe it was all a mistake. He thought . . . he did not mean . . ."
"He almost delivered my sister into the hands of George Wickham." His voice was so calm, so steady -- how did he manage it?
"Mr. Wickham lied to him."
"It is not so easy."
"I understand that, Mr. Darcy." She gave him a moment to respond, then went on. "Mr. Wickham came to Lambton. Did you know?"
"I did not."
"Mr. Crawford thought he had married your sister, and was most surprised to hear that you two were brothers instead through Mrs. Darcy."
"Mr. Wickham told him the worst lies about you and Mrs. Darcy, and Mr. Crawford in turn told me. But not to slander you," she hurried on. "Rather to warn me, I believe. I have no doubt of his good intentions."
"I cannot help but have every doubt, Miss Price."
"I have seen how much he has tried to change recently." Fanny looked up and boldly met his gaze. "You are not the only one to see the worst in Henry Crawford. I have just as many reasons to dislike him -- to hate him. But I have also seen the good in him."
"How can you trust someone known primarily for his deceit?"
"What hope is there for any of us, if we are not allowed to change ourselves?" Fanny asked softly.
Darcy sighed. "I cannot do what you ask of me, Miss Price. I confessed my resentful nature to you before, and you see the evidence of it now. Do not think that I heard nothing, however -- I will keep everything in mind."
Fanny shook her head. "I should not have taken it upon myself to say these things."
"Why not? You have convinced me that Henry Crawford may be reforming himself. I still have doubts on the subject, but you must realize that simply lessening my ill feelings towards him is quite a feat." Darcy laughed. "I am never known to be forgiving when it comes to my sister. Would you like to meet her?"
This suggestion took Fanny completely by surprise. "Meet Miss Darcy? Is she here?"
"She will be presently," Darcy replied with a smile. He sent for his sister, and within five minutes Georgiana joined them. With no traces of his former gravity, Darcy introduced them, and they greeted each other with the same smiling reserve.
Fanny liked Georgiana immediately, and returned to Oakbridge with nothing but the highest praise of her.
After weeks, I'm finally back home and relieving myself of severe Pemberley withdrawal! Here is the conclusion to my story -- sorry it has been so long.
Anna Prescott gave one final curtsy to her partner - she had forgotten his name entirely - and moved wearily to the edge of the room. The silks and feathers around her were only a blur as she bestowed a smile here and a nod there. "Splendid ball, Miss Prescott." "What a lovely dress, Miss Prescott!" And, unspoken: "You really look almost more than plain tonight, Miss Prescott."
Anna found a seat, collapsed into it with as much grace as she could summon, and looked around for the otherMiss Prescott, who undoubtedly was being flattered from every direction. Anna smiled in spite of herself. Charis was, indeed, surrounded by a mob of enraptured gentlemen. Anna noticed with satisfaction that her sister paid mind to only Tom.
"Is she not lovely tonight?"
Anna started and turned to face her brother. "James! You sneak!" She laughed. "I am not used to having young men at my side."
"Nonsense. What makes you so bitter tonight? Ah! I know. You have not yet danced with your charming brother." He offered his hand, but Anna shook her head.
"Not now, James."
"Very well. But cheer up, or I shall drag you into the set with me."
Anna gave him a stupidly wide smile. "Will that do?" she asked.
"I warned you," said James. He grasped her hand and started to pull her up from the chair.
"I am cheerful, I am cheerful," she laughed, straining to free her hand.
James released her. "That's better." He sat down next to her and took a glance at his watch, then slipped it back into his pocket. "You look very pretty tonight, Anna. No, no! I see your lips preparing to refute me, but I will not withdraw the compliment!"
"On the contrary, I have every wish to believe you. Only Miss Price has told me so this evening." Edmund and Fanny sat across the room, talking and laughing with the Darcys. Anna saw her cousin Stephen near them with the younger Miss Price - a not uncommon sight of late.
"I dread the day she leaves us," James mused. "Charis will pine for Bertram, and I for Miss Price."
Anna looked at him in amazement. "James, surely you do not . . ."
"Oh, no, I assure you. My attachment to her is something completely different." He remained with her only a moment more, then jumped up abruptly to join a small circle of his friends.
Anna allowed her thoughts to wander as she observed the whirl of music and activity around her. Her mind, when left to itself, was prone to settle on Henry Crawford, and tonight she indulged the impulse. Her heart was with him always; when she devoted her thoughts to him as well, the conflicting emotions nearly suffocated her.
In spite of everything - in spite of her own reasoning to the contrary - she loved him. And with as much certainty as she understood her feelings, she knew she would not see him again. With much less certainty, she tried to convince herself that it would be better that way.
She noticed Mary Crawford, also circled with admirers. Had Henry told her anything?
Even more confusing to her was the letter she had received from Emma, going on and on about the kindness of "your friend Mr. Crawford."
Her mother walked by her and laid a hand gently on her shoulder. "My dear, you do not look well at all. Step outside a few minutes and take some fresh air."
"I am perfectly well, Mother," Anna replied, straightening herself in her chair.
"Darling, will you amuse me and go out for a little while?"
Anna sighed and smiled up at her mother. "Yes, ma'am." Mrs. Prescott patted her shoulder affectionately and moved on.
Anna wandered from the room out into the hall. Air is much nicer when one has it all to oneself, and Anna felt immediately refreshed. Perhaps I should listen to my mother more often. The hall was empty of servants, so she took advantage of the solitude. She adjusted her dress and smoothed her hair, then studied herself shamelessly in the mirror.
"I tend to think that nothing can be added to perfection."
Anna closed her eyes but did not turn. She knew the voice. "Mr. Crawford."
She lowered her head and commanded her heart to still, but the heart is very much like a child - noisy and not at all inclined to obey. "Miss Crawford told us you could not come. That you were ill."
Henry sneezed. "Pardon me. I am ill."
Anna heard the smile in his voice, and could not help smiling herself. "Then do not come near me, for I am in a very satisfactory state of health."
"I hope you don't mean that."
"What? That I am healthy?"
She felt his hand on her arm as he turned her around. "The first part," he said softly. Anna opened her eyes to see his smile. His nearness made her almost dizzy.
"My mother sent me out here for air, but I am finding it rather difficult to breathe at the moment."
"I am too - but then I have a cold."
Anna laughed. "I love you." Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth. "I mean . . . that is . . ." she stumbled.
Henry did not seem taken aback at all - his face betrayed only relieved happiness. "Do you love me?"
"Yes," she heard herself say.
"Then I hope I have been redeemed enough to earn a fraction of your love."
"You must earn nothing. I have given you all of it."
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.
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 her -- his wife!
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?"
Tom Bertram married Charis Prescott within six months and "became what he ought to be: useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself."
Susan Price "became the stationary niece . . . she was established at Mansfield, with every appearance of equal permanency" -- until she was nineteen. For then she was finally married to her faithful Stephen Prescott, and her place was taken by the next Miss Price.
Henry Crawford, in reforming himself, was worthy of the woman whom he "rationally as well as passionately loved." He brought Anna Prescott to his home in Norfolk, from which they departed often to visit their dear friends the Bertrams, the Prescotts, and the Darcys.
While Mary Crawford continued to search for someone "who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired," James Prescott found happiness elsewhere.
Apart from "continued good conduct and rising fame," William Price also won the love of the only woman who could compare to his sister in sense and goodness - Georgiana Darcy.
As for Fanny and Edmund, their happiness "must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be." Sir Thomas could not have desired a better daughter, and found at last that "his liberality had a rich repayment."
© 1999 Copyright held by author