A Husband for Miss Ward
"Pray, Sir Thomas, stop a moment," Lady Bertram called her husband back as he was on the way out to inspect his young pheasants.
"Is all well?" Sir Thomas enquired, "Is something the matter, my love? How comes it that you are alone, without your sister or Lady Appleby? I invited them to stay, that you might have companionship," for Lady Bertram was in a delicate situation, and Sir Thomas was anxious.
"Oh, no; I am well, very well; LadyAppleby has gone for a walk about the grounds, and my sister is in the kitchen; she has gone to talk to the cook for me. But I wanted to speak to you, husband," she said, "while my sister is out of the way. I have had a letter from my mother."
"A letter from your mamma? Well, that is pleasant for you. And how is Mrs Ward?"
"Well enough, she never ails; but she writes that she wants companionship."
"Well, of course, since your papa died so suddenly. But surely your younger sister is there, surely Miss Frances bears her company?"
"Well, my dear, it seems that... Mama writes that Fanny, oh dear, Fanny is in love with a young man, a very undesirable young man. He is not at all a good catch, but he is very handsome. She does nothing but storm and weep, so Mamma has quite decided that she will go straight away to live with her sister, the judges widow, my aunt Crawley. You know she was thinking about it; and I think it would be a very good idea, for they have always got on well, and if they were together, they would have money enough to live very comfortably. It is quite in the country, five miles from Huntingdon, so that perhaps the young man would forget Fanny. But I do not know where my elder sister would go, for besides that she has but the one spare room.. "
"But cannot Miss Ward and Miss Fanny share a bedroom?"
"Oh no, my dear, it is not that. But last year when she and Fanny staid there, it seems that my sister thought.. you know how she loves to be useful; she thought that she had detected my Aunt Crawley's housekeeper in some dishonest practice, I do not quite know what, but it was all a mistake. There was a great to-do, and the housekeeper gave notice, and said she would not stay where people were meddling and prying. My aunt did not wish to lose her, and she had a great work to get her back. Now here, you see, she has written to Mamma," and she held out the letter to Sir Thomas to read: "I would be happy to have Miss Frances, to get her away from Lieutenant Price; but I cannot have your older girl, I am sorry; I really cannot have Miss Ward, for I do not wish to lose my housekeeper."
"It may not be necessary," said Sir Thomas. "The situation may not arise. Were not you and your mamma not expecting, not hoping that Miss Ward might be married very soon?"
"Oh, my dear, that is the other thing, that is why I wished to speak to you. Mama writes that Mr Timberley is engaged, and is to be married next month. He has proposed to a Miss Young. Mama writes that she is not very pretty; but she has ten thousand pounds. I do not know how I am to tell my poor sister."
"Did she like him very much?" Sir Thomas asked.
"I do not think she liked him particularly, but what is that to say to anything? She is the eldest of the three of us, and not yet married. I think she would have been very glad to take him. But what is she to do now? Even if she were to go to my aunt, and as I said, my aunt does not want to have her, how is she to meet any eligible men? For they will be living in a very quiet way, you know; no balls, no assemblies."
Sir Thomas had no doubt what his response must be. Family feeling, family affection, family pride could dictate only one answer.
"Of course," he said, "your sister must make her home here. That will make everything easy for your mother, and I think it will be a comfort to you, especially now, when we are expecting another happy event."
His wife smiled: the beautiful smile that had enchanted him when he first saw her, young Maria Ward, in a white muslin gown, at the Assembly in Huntingdon, where he had gone to visit his godmother.
"How good you are, Sir Thomas!" she said.
Just at that moment, Miss Ward came into the room.
"The dinner is ordered, Lady Bertram," she said. "I have told cook, there is no need to throw the cod away, only because it is not quite fresh. She must wash it well with vinegar, and then it can very well be cooked up, with a few onions, for the servants' dinner. And I just ran up to the nursery, to see to it that Jenny put good warm caps on the darling children, before she takes them out, for there is a sharp wind blowing. Do you know, that girl grows very pert, for she tossed her head at me in the most impudent way, and said that she was very well able to look after the children, without help from anyone."
Sir Thomas went on his way, and Miss Ward decided that her sister looked tired. She needed something to drink, a glass of negus, to sustain her. "No! sister; do not call the butler, do not call Baddeley; he has his work to do: I will see to it." So Miss Ward went off, to irritate the butler, by demanding wine from his store, and to insult the cook, by preparing it with her own hands; and it being found that by some miscalculation, she had prepared twice the amount needed, she was obliged to drink half of it herself.
Lady Bertram thought she would quite like to have her sister living there; Miss Ward, capable and energetic, and the elder of the sisters, had always ruled, guided, and contrived. She will see the housekeeper to order meals, Lady Bertram thought; she will look in on the schoolroom, and keep an eye on the nurse and nursemaid. She is so good at tacking up my patterns, and she knows just how to do the hard bits of my embroidery. Perhaps she will see to the stillroom and check on the storeroom. I hope she will like to visit round the village, for I know I ought to do it, more often than I can; of course the parson's wife should do that sort of thing, if Dr Grinling's wife were not, unfortunately, dead; but my sister will know just how to talk to the poor people. And I like to have somebody to keep me company while Sir Thomas is out about the place. She can make the tea, too...It is a pity that she does not read aloud well.... And we none of us sing, or play, for our family were not rich enough to have us take lessons... and leaning back on the sofa, Lady Bertram drifted gently off to sleep.
Sir Thomas, walking round his grounds, was not quite so sanguine. Miss Ward was a fine-looking young woman, and Sir Thomas did not dislike her.
But any man of normal sanity, presented with the prospect of an unmarried sister living permanently in his house, must ask himself whether the situation will contribute to his comfort.
Having spent the time he had planned to do, with his gamekeeper, Sir Thomas turned to go home, and saw his godmother, Lady Appleby, approaching through the shrubbery.
"Let us take a turn together, my dear Tom," she said, "So you are to be a father again. I congratulate you."
"I am very fortunate," Sir Thomas replied.
"Yes," the old lady said "There is only one thing; and I warned you of it when you decided to marry that pretty girl. You did well, she is charming; she is good-natured, she is giving you beautiful healthy children; but I warned you. Poor relations, my dear, poor relations."
Sir Thomas disclosed the substance of his conversation with his wife, the defection of Mr Timberley, and his mother-in-law's concern about Miss Fanny.
"A distance of only five miles from her lover, and a complete deprivation of balls and assemblies?" said Lady Appleby, "She will run away with him. I would myself."
"Well," said Lady Appleby said, "you must ask the older sister to live here; you could have done nothing else. Miss Ward is a fine handsome girl, but I will tell you, the servants do not like her. I know, you will tell me that servants never do like poor relations, because they get no vails, but I think there is more to it than that."
Sir Thomas was aware of this, but put it down to the fact that she was always, it seemed, catching them in incompetence.
"And your wife should order the meals, for Miss Ward is far too fond of ordering sago puddings, and countermanding the oysters, and telling us that the cold mutton is being made up into a hash, very cheaply."
"But then," Sir Thomas said, "she is used to contrive, for they are not rich."
"True. I feel sorry for her, as she sits there in the evening in her shabby gown, mending her stockings. Well, your sister needs a husband, that is all. I will see if I can not find someone for her; I will put my mind to it. Surely I can think of someone, for she is still very handsome. How much..?"
"Seven thousand pounds."
"Hm, ten would be better."
"I was wondering," Sir Thomas began, "whether, if I were to make it up to ten thousand.."
"Do not think of it, my dear. You have three children already. Little Maria is a beautiful child, and is likely to become a beautiful young woman. She should make a brilliant match; but a man of rank and fortune will cost you fifteen thousand pounds. Then if this next child is a girl she must have the same; if it's a boy, you will need to purchase him a commission in the Army; and who knows how many more children you may have? You cannot be providing for your wife's family. For if you were to give so much to the elder sister, you know, you must do the same by the younger. And then, when she makes a fool of herself with her Lieutenant of Marines, you will get the blame, for giving her the means of marrying."
"What about the house in town? We have been talking of giving it up; but if a season in London would help..."
"Seasons in town do not produce husbands for young women with only seven thousand pounds. It would be money and trouble wasted. But you must do something; you do not want her living here for ever. Her temper will not improve as she gets older. Maybe I will take the time to think about it tomorrow in church, for I tell you, my dear, there is no listening to that man's sermons."
"He is only a curate. That is another difficulty. I have put him in, because old Dr Grinling cannot do the duty; and to be frank with you, ma'am, when Dr Grinling dies, which will be any day now, I wish to present the living to someone better. I cannot bear the fellow's Methody tendencies. He was preaching a full hour, last Sunday."
"You have not promised him the living?"
"No, ma'am, the living is mine to give to whom I will. I intend to present it to someone, who will hold it until Edmund is of an age to be ordained. But Edmund is only four, and this fellow's ranting sermons are not to be endured for so many years. And not only for myself. I must think of the parish."
"Quite right. You don't want the rustics worrying about their souls; you want a straightforward sermon that will tell them where their duty lies and leave it at that."
"But he has no money, and it seems brutal, to get rid of the poor man."
"Send him to America, to convert the savages; he would go for ten pounds; you can see it in his face. Get rid of him for the price of his passage...and then..." she chuckled.
"And then, ma'am?"
"And then, can you not see how your other problem might resolve itself?"
Lady Appleby chuckled, and whispered something in Sir Thomas's ear..
A few weeks later, Sir Thomas asked his wife to receive the Reverend Mr Norris as a guest. Her own nature, though indolent, was such, that she would never have refused any guest, for after all it was no trouble to her, and she was happy to receive a friend whom Sir Thomas had known for years; besides, Lady Appleby having left, he could make a fourth at whist. But neither she nor her sister could feel much interest in Mr Norris, for, as well as being rather elderly and not at all handsome, he was enjoined, as a fellow of an Oxford College, from marrying.
"He was actually a friend of my father's," her husband explained, "He has never had a parish; he took Orders to get the Fellowship; and my father asked him to keep an eye on me when I was at Oxford. I would visit him once a month or so, in his cold draughty rooms; he would sit there, wrapped in an old shawl, and he would give me a very good glass of port. He had a terrible, fierce old woman, that looked after him. I wonder if she is still alive?"
Yes, Mr Norris confirmed, the old woman servant was still alive, crosser than ever, and always scolding him, for drinking too much port.
"And she is right," he said, "For I know that it gives me the gout, but how else can I keep out the cold, in those draughty rooms up that freezing stairwell?" He coughed. "D.. d bronchitis! I wheeze all winter. I shan't make old bones...You have a very pleasant place here, my dear fellow."
Sir Thomas poured him out another generous glass of port. The two men were sitting together after a very good dinner, of which Sir Thomas had had the ordering.
"You need someone better to look after you," he said.
"Oh, my dear fellow, you can get no-one, in Oxford."
"I did not mean a servant. I meant a wife."
"But, my good sir, you know very well, that as a Fellow, I cannot marry."
Sir Thomas turned his glass, watching the rings of wine settle down along the sides.
"How do you like my sister-in-law?" he asked abruptly.
"Miss Ward? How do I like Miss Ward? She seems a very good girl, a very capable girl. Certainly she is very active; she is useful to your wife, and has a very good notion of economy. I like talking to her, she was telling me of the problems you have here, of the expense you must go to, with your poor people. It struck me that she had a well-informed mind ñ for a woman, of course, for a woman. She is handsome, too."
"She has seven thousand pounds of her own. Do you think she would make some man a good wife?"
"Yes indeed, she would be an excellent, saving wife. The man who married her would not have to worry about waste. But seven thousand pounds.. let me see.. that would yield but a hundred and twenty five pounds a year. And if you were thinking of me, my dear sir, it is not possible, for if I were to marry, you know I must give up my Fellowship."
Sir Thomas took a sip of his wine.
"How much is your Fellowship worth?" he asked.
"A hundred and fifty a year; and I get my rooms, of course."
Sir Thomas set down his glass.
"The living of Mansfield," he said, gently, "is worth eight hundred."
"The living of .. Mansfield?"
"My poor old friend, Dr Grinling, died three weeks ago. The living of Mansfield is vacant."
"Do you mean..?"
"I mean," said Sir Thomas, "that if Miss Ward were to marry a man in Holy Orders, I would be willing to present the living, until my son is old enough to hold it, to her husband."
"Mansfield Parsonage," he added, "is generally reckoned to be one of the most commodious houses in the district. Not a draught in the place."
Mr Norris drank the rest of his wine, slowly. He pondered.
"D'ye think she'd have me?" he asked.
Sir Thomas thought of Mr Timberley; and of Mrs Crawley.
"I think she might," he said.
At the wedding, Sir Thomas found himself a little distracted during the Exhortation. He was thinking, that little Edmund would be of an age to be ordained in seventeen years, or very nearly. Eight hundred a year, multiplied by seventeen: Sir Thomas had difficulty with this sum in his head, but he thought that it would come to nearly fourteen thousand pounds. With no expense for his housing, and a very saving wife, it was indeed a very nice thing for his friend Mr Norris. But Sir Thomas had obtained a parson for Mansfield, who had undertaken never to preach for longer than fifteen minutes. And, into the bargain, he had provided a husband for Miss Ward.