When young Mrs. Rushworth ran away with Mr. Crawford, there was a good deal of talk. When a woman, beautiful, fashionable, and scarce six months married, leaves a husband -- and that husband worth twelve thousand pounds a year! - of course there will be talk. The matter was actually the subject of a paragraph in the newspapers, to the great increase of the distress and mortification of their families.
We all know that nobody reads the scandalous information printed in newspapers; anyone caught reading such a paragraph has merely stumbled upon it by accident while looking whether there might be a good horse to be bought cheap; and the people referred to, in those impertinent paragraphs, only by initials, could be anybody. So it was astonishing, how many people understood that the "beautiful Mrs. R.. " was the wife of Mr. Rushworth, of Harley Street, and the daughter of Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park; and that Mr. Rushworth had as well a splendid seat in Northamptonshire, called Sotherton.
Most of the fashionable world already knew, as well, that the "captivating Mr. C.. " of the newspaper account, was Henry Crawford, the very man who had, actually a week before, been proposing marriage to Mrs. Rushworth's cousin, Sir Thomas' adopted niece, a girl called Fanny Price, taken in by the family out of charity, without a shilling to her name! What her mortification must be!
And everyone who knew, told everyone who did not, that the brother of Mrs. Rushworth, Mr. Edmund Bertram, had been on the point of proposing marriage to the sister of Mr. Crawford, but now the marriage was off. Many said Sir Thomas had forbidden him to marry her, but others said no: on learning of the circumstances of the elopement, he had scolded her so violently that she had refused to have him.
"And a very good thing, too," said Mrs. Fraser to her sister, Lady Stornoway. "Mary Crawford, with her beauty, her wit, and twenty thousand pounds, to sit down in a country parsonage on eight hundred a year! She could marry into the peerage, a younger son at any rate."
"But he is a handsome fellow," her sister said, "Mr. Edmund Bertram is very good looking, and he is stupid besides. It is a husband's duty to be stupid enough to be deceived a little, in case his wife were to become ennuyee in the country. Besides, I understand the elder brother is quite sickly."
"Unfortunately, no; it is true that he was very sick, but it was only a fever, brought on by too much drinking, and they have been ill-advised enough to cure him, and reform him too. No, Mary is well out of it, and she will live to know that it is so."
"But tell me, I never did understand why Miss Bertram, as she was, did not marry Henry in the first place: for they met at Mansfield Park, and I understand they were much taken with each other. I know that she was already engaged to Mr. Rushworth, but surely a young woman, a pretty young woman with so much address, could get out of that."
"Oh, but you see he went down there to be with poor Mary, who was obliged to live in the country, with her sister. Henry would not live at his home, at Everingham, for her sake, and she had no place to go. Then there were two sisters -- they have always two pretty sisters, in these country places, in case of young men; and since Miss Maria was already engaged, they tried to push the younger sister on to Henry."
"And Henry is not to be driven.."
"so he made himself agreeable to the older, who was safe, being bespoke. Then there was a play.."
"Oh, say no more! if there was a play! there is always mischief, why, do you recall, when we were all staying at Marlby, and they were to give Romeo and Juliet, you and young Francis Mickleby.."
"Yes, yes indeed, but it was all in the play, we were only rehearsing, everything was in the action of the play; it has all been explained to my lord and master, and it is all forgotten, only I am never to go to Marlby again, but... " and the conversation was conducted from then on in whispers.
Everyone who read of these events naturally professed to be very sorry for all those concerned, except of course that no-one pitied the guilty couple. Many who knew Sir Thomas were, indeed, genuinely distressed; others were only thankful that such a disgrace had happened in someone else's family.
Some months later, when Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth decided to separate, the situation was very different. The newspaper, which had so righteously trumpeted their disgraceful connection, did not think it necessary to inform the public of the ending of it. The only person to give it more than a few minutes' thought was Miss Fraser, for Mrs. Fraser, her step-mother, had informed her of the circumstance, being apprised of it in a letter from her friend Mary Crawford, Henry's sister. Margaret Fraser did pass a very thoughtful half-hour. She was on the point of accepting a proposal of marriage from the rather elderly Mr. Alford; but now Henry Crawford was relieved of his disgraceful connection. Suppose him to be wishing to return into society? Suppose him to have a heart sorely wounded, responsive, grateful for her continuing affection, after the regrets, the disappointment, the chagrin he must be feeling? Suppose, to put the matter less poetically, she could get him? But the matrimonial prospects of Mr. Alford were in no wise injured, for Henry Crawford did not return to town. It was soon known that he had withdrawn to his Norfolk estate; and the engagement between Miss Fraser and Mr. Alford was shortly thereafter announced.
Henry Crawford had a home to go to; and he had never compromised his reputation with his servants or his neighbours, by taking Mrs. Rushworth there. But the outstanding question for Mrs. Rushworth's connections was: where could she be placed? What could be done with a woman who, at twenty-two years old, had so disgraced her family, so alienated her friends, that no-one, except her doting Aunt Norris, wanted even to see her, let alone house her?
The problem was long and anxiously discussed, while she remained solitary, in the hunting box Crawford had hired from a friend. Maria herself, sore and wretched, gave little thought to the question. She had lived half a year with Henry Crawford, she had hoped to marry him. Now, that hope was at an end. She knew him now; and she thought with a new respect of Fanny Price. Fanny had understood what he was! Fanny, timid, unassuming, had stood out against the attempts of her family to urge, and almost to force her to marry him! for she had seen through the veneer of wit, of lively manners and apparent sensitivity, to the cold selfishness underneath! And yet, every hour of the cold, sad days, as Maria walked from room to room, and as she tossed and turned during the night, she thought of him with longing; she could think of nothing else. She supposed they would send her somewhere, she did not care.
Even if she had wished to, she could not return to her husband's house. Stupid as Mr. Rushworth was, he was not insensitive. He had been fond of his wife, and her behaviour had wounded him deeply, even before she had left. He knew now that she had never cared for him; a fact of which his mother did not fail to remind him at least once a day. To his unhappiness was added the effects of hurt pride. He intended, on his mother's advice, to marry again and forget the whole sorry business.
Twenty thousand pounds had been Maria's portion, paid over at the time of the marriage. It belonged by law to her husband, and the costs of a parliamentary divorce might be expected to eat up every shilling. However, Sir Thomas was informed that five thousand pounds would be returned, along with the handsome diamond necklace that had been her father's gift to the bride, if Sir Thomas would agree to be responsible, henceforth, for his daughter's maintenance; he might make whatever arrangement he chose. Sir Thomas felt he must agree, for if he did not, in a few years' time, his daughter's well-being would be at the mercy of those who had no interest in her welfare, and to whom she would simply be an unwanted expense.
Here was a problem! Here was a difficulty! for no-one wanted her, shamed and disgraced as she was. She could not live at Mansfield Park, or even in Mansfield village, and where could they send her?
Long and anxiously discussed, the question was unexpectedly solved, by the acquisition of some property in a northern county. A few years previously, Tom Bertram, in obliging one of his friends -- one of his many intimate friends -- with a loan, had accepted, without much thought, a lien on the friend's property. The amount was a substantial one, for Jack Leveredge intended to start a racing stable, which with very little trouble was to make all of their fortunes. The fortune was never made, and the matter was forgotten, until news arrived at Mansfield Park in the form of a lawyer's letter.
The optimistic Mr. Leveredge had been killed in a hunting accident, and his affairs were found to be in such disorder that no repayment of the full amount could be anticipated. However, the arrangement had been legally and properly made; the property, such as it was, belonged to Mr. Bertram. The land and buildings had been somewhat neglected, but there was a gentleman's house, in fairly good repair, though not in the best of order, since Mr. Leveredge had been a bachelor.
Here was an unexpected answer to their difficulties!
"It is the best we can do," said Sir Thomas, gravely. "It is all she can want, for how is she to live, but in a very quiet way? And it is certainly all she deserves. Maria has brought this upon herself, and we can only hope that she understands the gravity of her offense."
Maria was neither ashamed nor penitent; she was furious. She could not feel anger toward her father, who had tried, wisely she now realized, to advise her against her marriage; and for her husband she felt nothing but contempt. But she was angry with Henry Crawford for refusing her the protection of marriage; with the various fashionable friends who had one and all, with many professions of affection, refused to house her; and most of all she was angry with herself. What a fool she had been! What prosperity, what consequence, she had thrown away -- and on what? not even the promise of happiness, for Henry Crawford had promised her nothing; only, beguiled by his attraction, that teasing, seductive manner , that seemed to promise everything, but never in words, she had left home, family, wealth and security for ever, and thrown herself into his arms.
There was no-one who was not relieved when Mrs. Norris declared her intention of going into the wilderness to live with her niece; no-one, that is, except Maria herself. There was no companion whom she would willingly have accepted, except possibly her sister; but Julia was separated from her by the fact of her rash marriage, occasioned as it had been by Maria's own elopement. Certainly she did not wish for the presence of an aunt whom she had never much cared for, and from whom she had parted, upon her marriage, with feeling of the most complete indifference. Aunt Norris, chaperoning Maria and her sister to balls and parties, arranging their toilettes, and looking out for husbands for them, had been useful; she had not been loved.
However, when the time came, when she actually met her aunt at the appointed rendezvous, Maria was surprised to find herself glad to see her. The fact is, that meeting an acquaintance, however distant, in a strange place, is a pleasure out of all proportion to the closeness of the connection.
The sense of pleasure carried them through the first day or so of travel, with unexpected cheerfulness, in discussing all Mrs. Norris' news: -- Julia expecting to be confined in a few months -- the Grants having come back to Mansfield -- Mary Crawford staying with the Stornoways, Fanny and Edmund married ("such a poor, quiet wedding, my dear, compared with yours! and Edmund so grave. But Fanny smiled enough for two, and well she might, she has done very well for herself, has Fanny"), and the damage the winter storms had done to Sir Thomas' apricot and peach trees.
But it could not last; Maria's experiences were too recent, her feelings too bitter, and there were too many distressing scenes that she could not talk about to her aunt, but could not forget. She was mechanically saying "Yes, ma'am," and "Of course, aunt," while her mind re-read that last cold communication from Henry Crawford, a note written by his man of business, that any effects she might have had to leave at the house, from want of space in her luggage, "would be duly forwarded."
The journey was long, in early spring weather that was more like late winter. Sir Thomas, perhaps not trusting his daughter in a post chaise, had sent them in the family carriage, with his own coachman and horses, so travel was tediously slow, and there seemed to be more than the usual number of delays due to broken traces, etc. Toward the end, Maria sat in gloomy silence, left every arrangement at the inns to her aunt, and scarce roused herself to look out of the carriage window, for however fine might be the view of fells and moorland in fine weather, under heavy cloud and mizzling rain, all was dank, gloomy and cheerless.
It was at the close of a wet, cold day when they arrived at the small town of Lingfell. "Only five miles, my dear," said Mrs. Norris, "they do not think it can be more, but it is getting dark, and it rains so very hard, and they are not quite sure of the road. If we go on, we shall save the cost of the rooms, but Sir Thomas will pay, you know. What do you think? Shall we stay, and go on in the morning?"
"Oh, stay," said Maria. She felt no curiosity, no desire to be at her new home. Her stiffened limbs felt the need of a good fire, but she paid little attention to her surroundings, and was at first scarcely aware of an elderly gentleman who, on hearing Mrs. Norris asking questions of the inn servant, was advancing toward them.
But the gentleman had no intention of being ignored. "Good Heavens!" he cried. "You must be.. forgive me, are you not the two ladies for Birtkthwaite?" and he proceeded to grasp Mrs. Norris' hand, and shake it warmly. "Jevons!" he cried. "Here they are! The two ladies! Birkthwaite, you know! We are so pleased," he added, "you cannot imagine how pleased we are."
The other gentleman, who had been standing quietly by, bowed to them.
"Oh yes, sir," said the landlord, officiously, "the ladies were just enquiring about the way to Birkthwaite."
"Excellent, excellent!" cried the gentleman. "I am your neighbour, ma'am; Strickland, John Strickland, very much at your service. To have ladies at the old place again; we are delighted.. oh yes, we know all about you. You must be Mrs. Norris, our good Brinkstone, the attorney, you know, told me Mrs. Norris had been writing for ever. And her daughter, or did he say a niece..?" and turning to Maria, with a beaming smile , he held out his hand.
"My niece.. " said Mrs. Norris.
"Her niece," said Maria, taking the extended hand. "Yes, I am. We must introduce ourselves. This is Mrs. Norris, and I am Mrs. Ward. We are happy to make your acquaintance. " As if accidentally, she smoothed down the lace at her wrist with her left hand, from which the wedding ring had not yet been removed.
It was done! and long though she had thought about it, she had not known before time whether she would do it. She had done it! She had given a false name!
"What a fortunate thing, is it not, Jevons?" Mr. Strickland cried "that we should meet them like this? My wife is so pleased," turning back to Mrs. Norris, "and so is her mother, who lives with us, for we have few close neighbours. And the house. It was an old manor, you know; oh, a very ancient place. Very run-down, you know, poor Leveredge did not keep it up as he should. Maybe if he had lived.. a bad business, that, ma'am, a very bad business, shocking. I was there, I saw him fall. The wall he rode at was one of his own, and quite rotten, the horse put one foot on it, and it came down with the horse and him. Stone dead, you know, when they took him up. He should have looked after things better. But never mind all that! Things will be better now. Ladies always put things right. And my wife and her mother are longing to meet you."
Mrs. Norris was a fair talker, and would probably have been able to make some way against this torrent of information, but Maria's announcement had knocked the breath out of her. Now she recovered, and began with her thanks "but they planned to live very retired, could not entertain.. " The gentleman would have none of it.
"Oh, we shall not let you do that," he exclaimed. "positively, we shall not allow it. My wife is longing to meet you, and her mother, Mrs. Hughes, a very good woman. And Jevons here; no, he is not a close neighbour, much as we wish he were, but his sister lives only three miles, or so, from us; her husband is the Rector of the parish, and he comes to see us very often, do you not, Jevons? Oh, but you must dine with us now, we will take a private parlour, you will not like the ordinary," and they understood that Mr. Strickland actually expected them to dine with him and his friend, then and there.
At this point, seeing their dismayed expressions, Mr. Jevons intervened, with a civil enquiry after their journey. Mrs. Norris detailed it, and asked his advice as to whether they should proceed.
"I would advise against it, ma'am," he said. "It is already late, and if you were to find the house not well prepared.."
"Certainly not," said Mr. Strickland. "You must not go on; indeed you must not. It is no place to be arriving late, and there is Birkthwaite Hill, very bad, poor Leveredge did not keep things up.."
"Were you acquainted with Mr. Leveredge, ma'am?" Mr. Jevons asked Maria.
"Not at all, sir," she replied. "My.. my family acquired the property after his death."
Mr. Strickland broke in again, with his proposal for all dining together, but Mr. Jevons would not support him. "Come, Strickland," he said. "We must leave them; much as we should like" bowing to Mrs. Norris "to further the acquaintance, we must deny ourselves that pleasure, we must wait; they are fagged to death."
It was true. A slight repast in their chamber, which had already been ordered, was all that they felt equal to. Mr. Strickland was forced to content himself with renewed expressions of goodwill, with instructing the landlord that every attention was to be paid to the two ladies, and with giving very exact directions to the postboys as to how Birkthwaite was to be reached on the morrow.Chapter 02
"But how came you to do such a thing?" Mrs. Norris asked, for the twentieth time. I cannot conceive why you would do it. It put me out of all countenance."
"Aunt Norris, ma'am, I have already told you. I told you last night. I did not want to say that my name is.. is Rushworth. For one thing, it is not, or it soon will not be. And the other matter is the scandal; I do not want to be known, nor do I want you to be associated with the bad name I have got for myself.. I know I ought to have spoken to you about my resolve; but I was taken by surprise. I had to do it then, or not at all."
"But to come out with it like that! I am sure, I do not know what they may think, if they ever find out.."
"That my name is not Ward? But how should they find out? And for all we know, we may never see them again. In any case, I had to do it then, or my real name might be known in all the country."
"But" said poor Mrs. Norris, "you can see that we will see more of them; that gentleman was not to be gainsaid. I do not even know what we may have undertaken, I was so put out; but we have promised the acquaintance; and how could we know that they were even gentlemen, or who they might be?"
"Oh, come, aunt; by everything about them; their dress, no, not so much their dress, but their manner, their assurance; and the landlord, look at the way he spoke to them. And I am sure, ma'am, that the landlord must have told you something of who they are, for I saw you enquire of him, this morning."
"Well, my dear, it is true; I did just enquire, but what would you have me do? Here we are, two women alone, and Heaven knows what kind of mischief you have begun in; then there is the receiving office; what will they think, when letters come?"
"Oh, no-one will write to me. If you are concerned, you may write to my mother, and tell her that if there is any business, they are to write to you. I warrant you will find, they will be just as happy, for me not to be known. I thought of saying that I was Mrs. Bertram, but no-one would be pleased at that, would they? I am sure that my father, and my brothers would not like it, especially Edmund. And Ward is a family name, is it not? Was not that my mother's maiden name: Miss Ward?"
"Certainly not, she was Miss Maria. Iwas Miss Ward."
"Well now, tell me, what did you find out about the gentlemen?"
"Why, my dear, very little, for I am not one to waste my time in idle gossip, as you know; only that Mr. Strickland is the principal landowner of the place, and that they think a great deal of him, for his family is a very old one. They live, it seems, quite close to us; well, what they call close, about three miles away. They do not seem to know the other gentleman quite so well, except that he lives near Lingfell, and he is not married, and his sister is married to the Rector of the parish."
"That I know, for they told us so themselves last night."
"Yes, but it seems that Mr. Jevons had the presentation of the living at Lingfell, , and intended to be ordained and to occupy it, but that coming into an inheritance that he did not expect, he resigned, and gave it to his sister's husband; and they said that he has a great many business interests, and that he is very charitable, and does a great deal of good among the poor people."
"And did they tell you why he is not married? And what he likes to eat for his breakfast, as well?"
But Mrs. Norris was not to be put off. She was fond of her niece -- injudiciously fond; but Maria's impulsive action had frightened her. Her questions and her recriminations were unending, for nothing Maria said could reassure her. Maria could only repeat, with increasing impatience, that she hated the name of Rushworth, and did not expect to have the right to bear it, much longer; she must have a new name, and she wished no-one to know her story. The thing was done; she was not sorry.
They had got on their way early, sped on by the assurance of two waiters and the chambermaid that they'd knowed all along that they were the two ladies for Birkthwaite. The morning was fine and clear, and their road lay among hills. As the carriage slowed to take another slope, Maria cried out that she would not stay in the carriage, she could not stand the jolting; she would get out and walk. Almost before the carriage had stopped, she sprang down, and was off, up the hill.
The road, very ill-kept, was lined by green grass slopes, with sheep grazing by the unfenced edge. Here and there, stone walls bounded the landscape; there were none of the green hedges of Northamptonshire. Further up the hill were patches of brown dried bracken. On the higher hill tops, a little snow still lay, and a stream ran down beside the road: Maria had never seen such clear, brown water. The day was one of those when blue sky alternates with black clouds, and the winds are fresh and chilly; but she had on a thick pelisse and the walk uphill was brisk enough to warm her.
Sheep grazed everywhere, with their lambs beside them. Few human beings can watch the antics of very young lambs without being amused, and for the first time in months, Maria felt her spirits rising.
She found, on thinking it over, that her reasons for her conduct, the night before, were quite clear in her own mind, however puzzling they might seem to Mrs. Norris -- but there were things she could not tell her aunt, things she could tell no-one. From the previous May, until she had come north, she had lived in a hunting box rented from a friend of Crawford's. But there are limits to what can be done in a hunting box, when no neighbour will visit; and the solitude in which he and she had found themselves, day after day, with almost nothing to do, had led to endless quarrels, and eventually to mutual hatred. She knew very well that if she and Mrs. Norris were to be shut up together, a lifetime of such quarrels was all that they could look forward to. Also, although she felt indifferent for herself, she knew that Mrs. Norris required society. But if they were to make their way among new people, in a new neighbourhood, no-one must know her miserable history.
The problem was, she thought, that recognition was always possible. Her brother, so far as she knew, had never visited this part of the world, but there might be friends of friends, and she and Tom were much alike. As well, it was always possible that some acquaintance of hers might arrive, on some errand of business or pleasure. If this happened, the consequences would be distressing. However, Maria was no Fanny Price. She had lived for some time with lies, with deceit, with possibilities of exposure, the very thought of which would have given Fanny a severe head-ache, or driven her to bed with palpitations. But unlike Fanny, she was not in a position to entertain delicate scruples. She was firmly convinced that, even supposing that she were to be at some time recognized, and thrust forth from society, she could hardly be any worse off, than if she had refused all overtures of friendship from the first day. As for Mrs. Norris, she could always go back to Mansfield Park!
The mention of "Brinkstone" had introduced a new set of ideas. For the first time, she realized that every transaction with the lawyer, every arrangement, had been done by her aunt. "She enjoys doing it," she thought. "She loves arranging and managing. " It was true, yet her aunt's activity had been directed towards her comfort -- if comfort there was to be.
For the immediate prospect was daunting. The scenery was not so fine nor so grand as that of the Lakes, but it was equally bare, if not more so. The countryside appeared empty. As she came near the top, hills, heath, bracken and heather were all Maria could see; and she wondered how, in such a desert, it would be possible to ensure all their needs, or even obtain so much as a clean pocket handkerchief. The hill was not very steep, but the walk had tired her, stiff as she was after several days of inactivity, and she was glad to get back into the carriage.
"But it has done me good," she told her aunt. "I hope we reach Birkthwaite in time to get a walk. " Though Mrs. Norris did not know it, it was the first time in many weeks that Maria had mentioned hope. She herself was too concerned with the prospect of the weather turning off, and the fear that they might arrive during a shower of rain, to be interested in Maria's experiences.
In fact, they were almost arrived. A brief descent, and the carriage turned off the road onto a stony lane. In a few minutes, Birkthwaite was before them, a rambling grey stone building, obviously once a place of some consideration. Its age showed in its mullioned windows, variety of building stiles, and the abundance of moss and ivy shrouding its walls. One wing appeared to be actually close to ruin, with empty windows and slates missing from the roof. No carriage drive led to it; the lane led past a weed-filled space, that might once have been a pleasure garden, to the yard behind the house.
Servants came out, and led them through a hall hung with masculine cloaks and greatcoats, to a parlour, a good-sized room with three windows. A fire had been lit, and some attempt at sweeping and dusting had been made, for the traces of it appeared on the corners of the tables, and round the furniture. The tables, bookshelves and chairs were littered with gloves, pipes, whips and other masculine paraphernalia; the room smelled faintly of tobacco smoke. It was clear that, during the lifetime of the previous occupier, nothing had been done here; and it continued to be done.
Some tea and bread and butter were offered, however, and were very welcome, and by the time it had been eaten, they were told that their things had been moved into the house. The bedrooms that had been prepared for them appeared shabby and dusty, but fairly clean. The rest of the house, however, was a warren of rambling passages, with room after room full of dust, rubbish and decay. Maria commented, leaving one cobweb-encrusted bedroom, that she felt herself to have strayed into the pages of one of Mrs. Ratcliffe's novels of the Gothic. "I am no novel reader, my dear," her aunt said, "but I believe I understand what you mean."
The kitchen, however, brought them sharply back to reality. The house was not a mansion in a novel, that would be gone when they turned the pages and closed the volume; it was real, and they must live in it. That so much dirt, grease and rubbish could exist in any house belonging to her family! that so much disorder could belong to Mansfield Park! What would Sir Thomas have said?
The reason for the state of the house was immediately clear: the elderly couple in charge were old servants of Mr. Leveredge. In his time, little had been demanded of them, except to provide food, such as bread and cheese, and sometimes a roast of beef, and to serve plentiful drink for his hunting friends. When Leveredge did, they had simply stayed on, probably having nowhere else to go. They had been told to prepare the empty house for occupancy, since no-one else lived near by. Instructions given by Mrs. Norris to the agent had not been lacking, and had probably been passed on; but no inspection of the place had been made. Unused to female employers, the servants had no understanding of what was wanted, and no means of providing it if they had known. The dirt in the kitchen was the result of years of neglect, and it had been beyond their power to remove it themselves, or to order others to do so.
Mrs. Norris, however, had no doubts and no hesitation. Shocked she might be, and angry, but she knew what to do, and she certainly knew how to make herself obeyed. Within a quarter of an hour, the fire was blazing up, water was heating, and a message was sent to a farm near by, where somebody had a daughter out of a place, with orders that she was to come at once! and she must bring as much soap as she could get; it would all be bought. The full work of cleaning might take weeks; a more immediate consideration was the provision of something for dinner. As far as could be ascertained, dinner was likely to consist of the same bread and butter and tea which had been provided when they arrived.
Maria soon realized that there was no place for her; her aunt was fully occupied and needed nothing. She went outside.
The rain had held off. The air smelled pleasant after the mustiness of the house. Under the apple trees in the garden, daffodils were budding. She could see that the house stood in a pleasant situation, in a sheltered valley with a river, or rather a large stream, running near by. She made her way round the corner of the house, and stood staring in surprise.
The stable block was before her, and so ample was it, so modern and well designed, that she could have imagined herself in the stableyard at Mansfield Park, except that grass was growing between the cobblestones. Then she recalled her aunt saying something to her -- that her brother and a friend had intended to build a racing stables. Here it was. There was even a farrier's shop, silent and forlorn, with furnace intact, but all the smithy tools gone.
As she stood staring, an elderly man, bearing all the appearance of a gentleman's groom, came hurrying toward her, and in the rough local accent, welcomed her to Birkthwaite. "This way, ma'am, this way, if you please. " It was easier to follow than to question, and she followed him meekly around the block.
He stopped at each box. Over the door of each, names could still be read: Queen Mab, Hurricane, Ginger Boy, and through a mist of confusion she could hear him, extolling the virtues of this or that splendid goer, or great broodmare. His name, she learned, was Peter Withernshaw, and he had been Mr. Leveredge's head groom, and had been in charge of the stable. "Retired now, like, ma'am, pensioned; it were old Mr. Leveredge what took care of that, long before the troubles came on the young master; what they call an annuity, and they couldn't take it off of me when they took the rest for young Mr. Leveredge's debts. This here, this was Lady Susan, ma'am, a lovely three-year-old she were, and a right one to go; fetched four hundred pound when we was sold up. Yes, pensioned, ma'am. They just brought me in to see to yours, till you get suited-like. Will you be having her out today, ma'am?"
There was no understanding this, and Maria, busy with her own thoughts, hardly attended. Sir Thomas's coach was already on the way back to Northamptonshire; but clearly, in this isolated spot, it would be necessary to have, not only horses, but some kind of conveyance. There could not be an inn, or a livery stable, within miles; and how was she to buy a horse?
They came to the end box. There, to her astonishment, Maria saw a horse, a real, a living horse. Its light chestnut coat and white blaze reminded her, with a pang, of the pretty mare she had been used to ride each day, when she was living with Crawford. What was an animal doing in this deserted place, let alone one so very like her own?
Then she realized -- this was her horse. It was her very own -- or rather, Crawford's mare; it was "Golden Girl. " For a dizzying moment, Maria wondered what, or who else she was going to see. Who else was there? What trick was being played on her? But there was no-one; the stable yard and the other boxes were empty.
She must take control of her senses; she must appear reasonable. She set herself to enquire, as calmly as she could, of Peter Withernshaw. It soon transpired that "Golden Girl" had been delivered only the previous day; and, as far as she could ascertain by careful enquiry, some other agent must have been used than Crawford's grooms. She recalled the horses, carriages and other impedimenta being sent off, several days before she herself left Crawford's house -- yes, there had been plenty of time for a horse to be brought up here, before they arrived -- there were the delays on the way, due to the old carriage breaking down, and the Sunday, when Mrs. Norris' scruples would not allow them to travel...but why had Henry Crawford done this? had his agent, misunderstanding his instructions, thought it part of her property, to be "duly forwarded"? or had he not wanted to keep the horse, but not quite liked to sell it; and, not reckoning the expense, simply ordered it to be sent off? It was the kind of act, of thoughtless generosity, of which he was perfectly capable. There was no way of knowing, no way of finding out. It must remain a mystery.Chapter 03
She would ride; she would ride that very afternoon! That was her first thought; but as she walked back to the house, other considerations arose. The more she thought about it, the more she asked herself; should not the horse be sold?
Henry Crawford had paid more for the mare than Maria, in her present circumstances, had for a whole year's income. She was a light-boned, pretty creature, bred for a rich man's pleasure. To try to make her draw a carriage, over these roads, would be cruel as well as useless. Yet it was a carriage that Maria and Aunt Norris needed, not for pleasure, but for necessity. The sale of the horse, well-bred and beautiful as she was, would more than cover, she thought, the cost of a gig or other simple conveyance, and of a useful road horse. There was the cost of a groom, and of feed, too... Yes, poor Golden Girl must be sold. Maria had never in her life faced such a necessity. But for that afternoon, at least, she would ride!
She returned to the house, and to her surprise, found Mrs. Norris in a fine flow of spirits. A basket had arrived "with Mr. and Mrs. Strickland's compliments" containing two fine ducks, and some preserves. The garden, though untidy, had winter vegetables in it; she had arranged for a chimney sweep to be sent for, through the good offices of the housemaid's brother; and she had been up to the attics, and into the cellars. She had assured herself that the roof was sound and the house pretty dry "which is more than we could expect, my dear, considering how things have been neglected, and a great blessing, for there is nothing worse, nothing harder to remedy, than a damp house. " The ruinous portion, it appeared, was quite separate; it had been walled off, and had been scheduled to be knocked down some years previous, but a stone falling, and one of the workmen being killed, it had all been abandoned.
Mrs. Norris' surprise was great when she heard of the discovery at the stables. Knowing her aunt's parsimony, Maria did not expect any opposition to her proposal of selling the horse: Mrs. Norris was well aware of the cost of such an animal's keep, and she had been at pains for years to use Sir Thomas's horses and never possess one of her own. To her astonishment, Mrs. Norris did oppose the plan: "It would present such a very odd appearance, on our first coming into the country, to seek for a buyer, and how would we find one? The cost, of one riding horse, would not be so very great, I am sure that we could contrive. We need not have a groom, you know; any young fellow, I am sure, might be hired, for a shilling or so a week, to come in once a day; and be glad of the work, I dare say."
"But, aunt, I am to have but two hundred pounds a year, and how can I live on that, if I begin by keeping a riding horse? For we will still need a road horse, and a carriage; you cannot ride."
"But have you not considered, my dear? This means, that Mr. Crawford knows your direction. He may well intend to come here; and only suppose, if he did? What would he think, if his horse, his gift, were gone?"
"That is not likely, aunt; I will go further, it is not possible, indeed it is not. Believe me, I know."
"Not possible, my dear! when he has just made you a most expensive present! Any thing is possible."
It was true, as she had suspected! Her aunt still hoped to arrange a marriage for her, with Henry Crawford! She knew that it was not possible. That which had been the subject of every thought, every hope, for a whole year, the infatuation that had taught her to lie, scheme and cheat, was ended in hopeless misery. She knew him now; his dislike of constancy or continuity; the cupidity that always desired what belonged most closely to someone else. She knew his selfish pre-occupation with his own whims, and the casual cruelty that emerged under a combination of boredom and guilt. He was happiest meddling with that which rightfully belonged to others: other people's houses, other people's lives. He only wanted me, she thought, while I belonged to someone else. Yet the charm was still strong; in the stableyard, thinking for a moment that he might be there, she had experienced exquisite pain; even remembering his faults, she had felt an agony of longing for him, for his presence, his smile, the enticing glint in his dark eyes.
She had hardly been attending to what her aunt was saying, and coming to herself, realized with a shock that Mrs. Norris was actually intending to pay the household expenses. "Or better still, my dear, if you will take on the cost of the stables, and the garden, and the outdoors generally, I will manage within doors; you have been very ill-used, among them all, and you have nothing like the income that should be yours. Though you might, perhaps, like to bear the cost of a carpenter, by the day, you know, for there are so many things in the attic that need attention. I assure you, everything that has got a little shabby, or needed mending, has been thrown away up there, and there are enough chairs and sofas to make us very comfortable, if they were but repaired; very old-fashioned, you know, but what should we care for that?"
This was astonishing! As she tried to arrange her things in her dirty, shabby bedchamber, Maria felt her interest roused for the first time in months. It seemed so completely out of keeping with all she knew of her aunt's character. Aunt Norris, who would forgo any meeting, if going to it meant she must hire horses, and go any where, if she could but contrive to use Sir Thomas' carriage! whose wardrobe consisted entirely of cast-off dresses of her sister's, furbished up; whose whole pleasure in life lay, it seemed, in the economies she might make!
Yet, Maria thought, there might be reasons for her aunt's apparent change of character. Had Mrs. Norris, perhaps, always been saving, from having no pleasures, to which the spending of money could contribute? She did not enjoy music, or riding, or dancing, and seemed to have no pleasure in dress, beyond that of seeing her nieces fine. She had no children, and had not cared much, if at all, for her husband. Her habit of sponging might be due to being with people who were much richer than she. Had she perhaps felt angry that her sister, Maria's mother, originally no more beautiful than she, should without effort have made a very good marriage? Given such a sister, idle and complacent, it was not surprising that, with her superior energy and intelligence, she had developed a love of managing and interfering, especially in matters that were not, properly speaking, her concern. Well! There was a great deal here that needed managing!.. and the chest of drawers stuck, and would not open. The cupboard would not stay closed, everything smelled of mice, and when she rang, nobody came, for the bell was broken.
But meanwhile, whether a sale were arranged, or not, the horse must be exercised. A lady's saddle, old but serviceable, was found in a pile of abandoned things in the old coach-house; and riding out, she could almost feel herself once again Miss Bertram, of Mansfield Park. The only difference, the tremendous difference, was that she was unaccompanied. She had never in her life ridden out alone: her sister, her brothers, friends, and lately her lover had been her companions. This was a melancholy reflection. The possible dangers of a solitary ride concerned her not at all, except in so far as her solitude brought back all the misery of her position.
She, the rich and brilliant Mrs. Rushworth, had come to this! She had gone from one of the best houses in London, from fashionable clothing and splendid jewellery, balls and parties every night, to this! Maria knew she could blame neither her husband, nor her father for her situation. And while she did blame Henry Crawford, with bitter anger, for refusing to marry her, she must admit that the initiative, the beginning of the relationship, had been hers. She it was who had insisted on leaving her husband and the protection of her home, and throwing herself into his hands.
An afternoon of these reflections was followed by an evening of listening to Mrs. Norris' worryings. Her good mood had not lasted long. Mrs. Mattersley, the housekeeper, had ignored her directions, and followed her own method of dressing the ducks; and Mrs. Mattersley knew nothing, and countered every instruction that Mrs. Norris gave her, by saying that "they had never done it that way", or that "she did not know how". Fortunately, her aunt was as weary as Maria, and at an unusually early hour, she was free to seek her bed.
Over the next few days, riding out each morning, she realized that the countryside was not bare: the farms were tucked snugly into the valleys, under the shelter of the hill slopes. There were several farms near by, and a hamlet not far away, but no other house of any size. There was no church spire to be seen from Birkthwaite, but in the course of the second day's ride, she discovered the parish church, and the Stricklands' home, Morton Hall, quite close to it. The next morning, she ventured as far as the town of Lingfell, and found it a pleasant small place, with a few decent shops.
That afternoon, as the two ladies were at work in the parlour, there was heard the sound of a carriage in the laneway. "Mr. and Mrs. Strickland, ma'am, and Mrs. Hughes," were announced, and three people walked into the room.
"How do you do? How do you go on?" was the greeting of Mr. Strickland. "Now, you must meet my wife, Mary, and this is her mother, Mrs. Hughes. You must be wondering why we did not come before, but they would not let me; they said you would not be wanting visitors."
Mrs. Strickland, a quiet-looking woman, explained that they had wished to come before "but knowing how poorly the house had been kept, ma'am, we thought you might wish for some time to bring it into order before you received visitors. My goodness, this poor old room looks so much brighter! You have made a difference already!"
"So, Mrs. Ward, how have you enjoyed your rides?" Mr. Strickland asked. "Oh yes, we know all about it; you have been into Lingfell, and you have ridden past the Rectory, and you have a very fine horse. Everyone has seen you; everybody knows about you."
"It is very strange," said Maria, "how in the country, things seem to get known. In the publicity and glare of a great town, any thing can be hidden, while in the isolation of the countryside, everything is found out."
But Mr. Strickland had no taste for such philosophical reflections. The purpose of the visit, as far as he was concerned, was a simple one: it was to invite the two ladies to dinner. He would take no refusal. Any day, any time was convenient, and any weather; the carriage would be sent for them on whatever day they should name "though Monday would be a good day; there will be moonlight, at any rate, as long as the weather stays fine. We usually dine at four. But any time! Any time at all! We can wait. " Mrs. Strickland added her assurance, in a quieter way "for we see so few people, it would really be a very great pleasure, especially for my mother. She was used to live in Lingfell, but she seldom gets there now, and she misses her friends."
It was impossible to refuse an invitation so warmly given; to do so would invite the very kind of particularity, the very curiosity and speculation, that they most wished to avoid. There was nothing to do, but thank, and accept, and agree that Monday would be a good day.
Meanwhile, she could propose a form of entertainment most congenial to the gentleman, a walk to the stables to see the Golden Girl. The ladies were happy to come along, for Mrs. Norris was anxious to set up her poultry house as soon as possible, and where to house the birds was a question. Mrs. Hughes, who had brought a famous henwoman with her to Morton Hall, was pleased to be consulted, and Mrs. Strickland was happy to do anything, and talk to anyone, and to be equally interested in horses and hens.
Mr. Strickland was duly impressed with the mare; and while the three ladies wandered away to inspect the garden, and lament its neglect, Maria took her courage in both hands, confided to Mr. Strickland her thoughts on selling the horse, and asked his advice. "Indeed, she felt she must sell; the horse had been given to her by.. by a family member, who did not understand her present position. She was in no desperate straits, but was not in a position to be riding a pedigree animal, when a good road horse, and a simple carriage were what was needed."
He listened carefully, and seemed neither surprised nor shocked by her disclosure. "Yes, yes, of course, you can hire nothing here, you must have something of your own. Even if your aunt could ride, the weather, we get all weathers here.. but this is not the time to be selling a horse."
He explained. "This is the end of the hunting season, when your fine gentlemen sell their horses, and cut down on their stables. It is too much trouble; they want to be dashing around, and cutting a figure in town, not keeping an eye on their stables; so they sell. Then they buy, at double the price, at the beginning of the next season. You might sell a farm horse now, but not a beautiful creature like this -- too many of them on the market. You have first-rate grazing here -- why sell a beast as good as this for seventy pounds, that would fetch two hundred in October? And this is not the kind of cattle we sell at our local horse fairs. Eh, sweetheart?" fondling the mare's soft nose, "pretty girl, pretty girl. Yes, you are too good, too good."
Leaving the box, he paced around, looking at the deserted yard. "I have seen this place, Mrs. Ward, when there were thirty horses here, hunters and racehorses; and the grooms, and the ostlers, and the bustle! It was like an inn yard. Now look at it, not so much as a cat. But... " he was walking slowly out of the yard as he spoke, hands behind his back, "see now, when they built the new stables, they just left the old, the coach house and all, everything. Waste, eh? But that was how it was. Now, in here," and he threw open the door of an old stone outbuilding, to disclose the pile of refuse that Maria, by now, had come to expect, whenever any door was opened. "Now that," said Mr. Strickland, pointing with his cane, "that, ma'am, is what you want. Mrs. Leveredge's pony carriage."
"But... was Mr. Leveredge married?" Maria asked, surprised.
"Bless you, no, ma'am. His mamma. Old Mrs. Leveredge. Nothing in the new coach house now, you know that. They sold the phaetons, and the curricle, and the sulkies, everything, when they sold the horses. But do you get that out. Oh yes, it looks like nothing, under all that rubbish, and it may well need a wheel mending, or some axle work, and new tires. Do you get Musgrave, up at Skelghyll farm, to lend you a cart, and get it conveyed to the smithy in Lingfell. Mention my name, and Musgrove will lend you a cart. Stay, I must see him tomorrow, I will drop him a word."
Maria could only smile, and thank, and be impressed.
"And do you continue your rides, Mrs. Ward," he continued. "The countryside is very safe hereabouts, no bad characters; and everybody knows you."Chapter 04
Dinner at four o'clock in the country!
The last time Maria had appeared at a dinner party, it had been at Richmond. Her gown, of very fine silk, had been sewn with pearls, and her maid had twisted more pearls into her lavishly curled hair. Now she hunted among her gowns, for one that might offer protection against the draughts of an unknown country house in March. Mrs. Norris, coming into the room as she finished dressing, was shocked at the plainness of her hair, and would have dressed it herself in a more becoming style, only that when she sent for the tongs, they seemed not to have been unpacked, at any rate, nobody was able to find them.
At the least, it was better than another dreary evening in the tobacco-smelling parlour at Birkthwaite! Maria had had no expectation of society in her new abode. Here she was, preparing to spend an evening with people she hardly knew. What risk was she running? But, she thought, were she to be recognized at once as the scandalous Mrs. Rushworth, and thrust out for ever from the local society, she could hardly be worse off.
Morton Hall turned out to be a big, solid building, of no great age, well sheltered by a plantation of trees. Everything about it bespoke simple, solid comfort, and the welcome on the faces of their host and hostess was genuine. The Rector of the parish and his wife, whom they had met at church the previous day, were there, and one other couple. The manner of their introduction to Sir William and Lady Penkridge suggested that a great favour was being conferred; but nothing about them was impressive. Lady Penkridge was a small, spare woman, with no air of fashion, and her husband had no air of anything at all. Maria, who had had a London season, and Mrs. Norris, used to Mansfield Park, sustained the introduction with equanimity. It transpired that they were visiting at the Rectory, and that Lady Penkridge was a cousin of Mr. Snelling, the Rector.
The rest of the party consisted of a young Strickland son and daughter, Mrs. Hughes, and, Maria was pleased to see, Mr. Jevons.
Dinner passed cheerfully. It soon appeared that Mr. Snelling was an ardent antiquarian, and spent much time detailing the history of their new home, the ancient rights of its owners, and their former prosperity "and are you related to them, Mrs. Ward? are you a connection of the original family?"
"No, sir. " She could say no more: on the subject of family connections, she was determined to be silent. Mr. Snelling did not quit the subject, however, without asking in what part of the country her family originated.
She had been prepared for this, but her heart beat a little faster as she replied "Huntingdon, sir. " It was true, that was her mother's home, but she knew nothing of it. Mr. Snelling, a true northerner, said "Oh, in the south," as one might say Ethiopia, or the Antipodes, and to her relief, the conversation took another turn.
After dinner, in the drawing room, she found herself sitting beside Lady Penkridge. The lady had not so far addressed her, except for an insipid greeting when they were introduced; but now, absolutely next to her upon a sofa, she seemed to feel that some sort of conversation was not to be avoided. "I hear, Mrs. Ward, that you have a horse to sell," she said.
"Yes," said Maria, surprised; perhaps here was a way ready made out of her difficulty!
"Oh, then... we would have been pleased to look at it, we would have been happy to recommend it to some of our acquaintance, if we had been intending to stay in the country, but we move about so much, we move about so very much, Sir William and I. Mr. Strickland has been telling us about your fine horse, but we could not undertake to do anything, we move about so very much."
"I do not expect anyone to do anything," said Maria. "If you were interested, I would have been happy to show you the horse, but since you are not, it is of no consequence."
She felt furious. Mr. Strickland had clearly had good intentions; but how mortifying! To be addressed in such a patronizing manner by this countrified nobody! she, the brilliant Mrs. Rushworth of Harley Street! It was past enduring! But there was nothing to be done; to give Lady Penkridge the set-down she deserved was impossible, for they were fellow-guests of Mrs. Strickland; Maria had to content herself with thinking of all the cutting things she would have said, had she been as ill-mannered as Lady Penkridge.
Looking round the room, she was forcibly reminded of her circumstances, by the sight of a splendid new pianoforte. The only instrument at Birkthwaite was an aged spinet, rotting in one of the attics. Mrs. Strickland, observing her glance, asked her if she would care to play. This was at once a pain and a pleasure, and Maria found herself uttering the usual protestations, of having no music, being out of practice, etc, but they were not polite nothings; she had not played since she left Crawford's house. There, she had indeed acquired a fair degree of skill, for apart from riding, there had been little else to do.
"Do but see, Mrs. Ward," said kind Mrs. Hughes, "if there is not something you would like to play. We have songs, and Scottish airs, and country dances, and if this be not enough, Lizzie here has more, have you not, Lizzie?" and she smiled at her granddaughter. Miss Strickland, who Maria had noticed was very shy, blushed and looked away. Maria sat down to the pianoforte. There were several simple pieces she knew, and she played a couple. During her performance, the gentlemen entered the room; and at the end of it, the usual thanks and compliments followed, that always follow, whether the performance be good or bad. Among the pile of music was a sonata she had been learning; she looked at it, and longed for a spell of sustained practice.
Meanwhile, Lady Penkridge had turned her attention to Miss Strickland. "Well, Miss Strickland," she cried, "you have become a great girl since we saw you last. I would like to have you to stay with us in town, but I do not know when that can be, for Lady Ditchling and her daughters are to come to us. But if it had not been the case, we would have had you, for I am sure I could get you a husband. I know two girls with hair just as red as yours, who were very well married, last year; at least, Miss Sotheby had ten thousand pounds, but the other girl did not. " Miss Strickland blushed, and looked very hard at the floor.
"Now, Lizzie," cried her father, "it is your turn to play."
Miss Strickland, still looking down, shook her head.
"Come, my dear," said her grandmother, coaxingly. "You play very prettily, you know you do."
"I hope that you will not refuse to play for us," said Lady Penkridge, patronizingly, "you are among friends, you know, we shall not expect any thing superior."
From where she sat, Maria could see that Lizzie's face was scarlet, and there were tears in her eyes. When she did not reply, Lady Penkridge turned to her husband, and whispered, just loud enough to be heard "These poor little country girls! So gauche!"
Maria, beckoning to her, and indicating the sonata, said "Pray, Miss Strickland, come here for a moment and advise me. " Lizzie quickly went over to the piano. "What do you like to play? Is this a favourite? If it is, you are accomplished indeed."
"Yes, oh yes, I do like it, but I am not, indeed I am not."
"You find it difficult to perform for others?" The answer was a frightened nod. "So do I, sometimes, especially," in a lower voice, as they bent over the music together "when they are disagreeable. " Lizzie looked up at her, startled. Maria pulled out a ballad setting.
"If I sing this, will you play for me? Come, sit down; see, I will stand just there. They will look at me, you will have your back to them. Can you play this? I am sure that you can; I know you can."
She moved to stand facing the piano, and the company, and smiled encouragingly. Lizzie began to play the opening bars, at first timidly, then more firmly. Maria soon found that the song was more difficult than she had thought. As she continued, she realized, to her surprise, that Lizzie was playing with considerable vivacity and loudness; she was adroitly covering up Maria's weakness. At the end of the song, though she would not turn round for the applause, she smiled at Maria.
"Well done! Very well done!" cried Mr. Strickland.
"Excellent," said Mr. Jevons, quietly. Maria knew that she had not, in fact, sung well at all, and certainly deserved no credit, for she had acted with no worthier motive than her dislike of Lady Penkridge.
She presently found herself sitting next to Mr. Snelling, Mrs. Norris, who had been beside him, having manoeuvred herself away, to talk poultry with Mrs. Hughes. She now found that geology was another of the Rector's enthusiasms: and she was assaulted with the history of lead, silver and graphite mines in the countryside. She heard of the strange potholes that carried streams into underground channels; she was warned never to ride incautiously among the hills, for the ground might give way under the horse's very feet, throwing horse and rider into the abyss; and she learned of the poor young shepherd who had gone missing, and how, after a heavy rain, one of these deep holes had filled up, and his body had been found, floating on the surface.
It appeared that Mr. Snelling's nephew was shortly to come for a visit, bringing a friend, and Maria could only hope that they would enjoy the prospect of long, rambling walks over the hilly terrain, and scrambling up rocks, carrying Mr. Snelling's specimen bag. "I hope, Mrs. Ward, that we may solicit your permission to trespass on your property," said Mr. Snelling. "You have some very interesting fossil fields, and I believe there is an area that may carry a seam of lead. You should look into it, ma'am, you should indeed."
"Oh, there is nothing there," Mr. Strickland interrupted. "Poor Leveredge talked about that, some people told him money could be made out of it, but he said it was not worth the trouble. It is a little removed from the rest of your property, Mrs. Ward, about three miles away. Nothing to be done with it, Leveredge could not get so much as a crop of hay off it. He tried to sell it, but could not find a buyer."
"Nonsense," said Mr. Snelling. "Leveredge never investigated, he said it was beneath the dignity of a gentleman to grub in the earth for money. He took off all the trees on the property, instead, and got money quicker."
"If the place yields something of interest to Mr. Snelling and his friends, it will be of some use," Maria replied.
"Mrs. Ward has a very interesting house," Mrs. Hughes remarked. "We have often walked that way, ma'am, while the place was empty. Such a romantic spot; the ivy on the walls! The wildness and solitude of the scene!"
"It made me think of Udolpho," Miss Strickland said. The sighing of the wind! Grandmama laughed at me, but I did wonder whether I should hear Emily sighing from a window, or even see poor Laurentini's ghost."
"If you heard any noises," Maria said, "I think they would have been made by rats."
"I believe it is so with many of these ancient buildings," Mrs. Strickland said.
"We are not much troubled in the house," said Mrs. Norris, "we have seen nothing, and the noises might often be the sounds an old house makes, creaking, you know, and I do not believe all that the maids say; but the barns are full of them."
"Rats!" cried Sir William. "We cannot have that. Name a day, ladies, and we will bring the dogs and have a good rat-hunt. Come, Strickland, what say you?"
"You are very good, sir, but I believe we must not trouble you."
"No trouble at all, Mrs. Norris, no trouble at all," said Mr. Strickland. We should enjoy it. Nothing better than a good rat-hunt. Hey, Frank? " to his son.
"I know the Neville boys would come, sir, and Harry Courtenay," said Mr. Frank Strickland.
"How about that nephew of yours, Sir William?" said Mr. Strickland, "He had the finest little terrier bitch, Trixie was her name. Has he still got her?"
"Thursday, how about Thursday?" said Sir William, eagerly.
Maria and her aunt looked at each other, in dismay.
"Would you ladies care to spend Thursday morning here?" asked Mrs. Strickland, "You might like to be a little out of the way while they are in your barns, and you and Lizzie could play together again, Mrs. Ward. Lizzie, I know, would like it very much; it would be a real kindness."
The invitation brought home all the difficulty of their situation. Neither she nor her aunt could allow themselves to be assisted in this manner, without offering the helpers some refreshment; but what could they provide? And it was an awkward business to be entertaining half a dozen gentlemen, scarcely known to them, barely a week after coming into the country. "Oh, it is no uncommon thing!" Mr. Strickland cried, "we shall expect nothing, any more than if the hounds were meeting in your coverts; we shall have a famous good time, I assure you."
However, at this point, Lady Penkridge took matters into her own hands. "What are you thinking of, Sir William? We are to go to Lennox Castle; we are to go the day after tomorrow, for the gardens are to be planned, and Lady Bennet can do nothing without me, she depends on me. You will have heard of Lennox Castle," she continued, addressing Mrs. Strickland. "It has just been rebuilt, in the romantic style, all slate and granite, and the gatehouse the finest thing that ever was seen. " Meanwhile, Mrs. Strickland, who was obviously used to her husband's enthusiasms, shook her head at him, and said something quietly; and in the end, the rat-hunt was postponed, but the Thursday morning visit was not; Maria especially was pressed to come and play, Lizzie would enjoy it so much!
Maria felt, as they drove away, that the evening had passed off well, especially as she had found herself promising as a favour what she looked forward to as an indulgence. Mrs. Norris was happy, for Mrs. Hughes had promised her a clutch of eggs, and a sitting hen. The following day was hardly long enough for reviewing the evening, recollecting everyone's dress, arranging to get the new hen-house built, and abusing the ill-breeding of Lady Penkridge.Chapter 05
Maria and her aunt were not the only ones to go over the evening with interest: a conversation took place the next morning at the Rectory.
"I hope, Louisa," said Lady Penkridge, "that you are not getting into a scrape, about these women we met last night."
"Why, cousin, what can you mean?"
"Well, to begin with, who are they? What do you know about them?"
"Why, very little, save that they are but just come into the country, and that they have bought Birkthwaite, or a relative has given it to them, I am not precisely sure; and that the Stricklands asked us to meet them."
"Just as I thought: nothing. Where do they come from? What are they? The niece, this Mrs. Ward, is certainly a fine-looking young woman; but who is she? Is she married? What is such a girl doing, living here alone, or almost alone?"
"I believe.. I think Mr. Strickland said she is a widow. Certainly she wears a wedding ring. But she was quietly dressed; she was not in mourning, but she was very quietly dressed, no jewels, and her hair, not so much as a curl."
"A widow! she cannot be more than two and twenty. If she is a widow, she must hardly have had time to put off her blacks."
"My dear Justinia," Mr. Jevons interposed. "They are obviously gentlewomen, and as for respectability! The aunt is respectable enough for two, for half a dozen if necessary."
"Anyone can have the air of a gentlewoman, Philip, and be nothing of the kind. What does it mean, except to be well dressed, and have a certain way of speaking, which anyone may learn, I dare say?"
"I disagree with you, cousin; the manner of a gentlewoman is not something that can be learned or acquired by artifice. True refinement is not a matter of clothes or manners. It is more a manner of behaving, that reflects a way of thinking, a certain sureness of touch; and Mrs. Norris and her niece have it."
"Well, it does not matter; you do not know them. They are come here and nobody knows any thing about them, and they say nothing about themselves. They could be any body, or have done any thing."
"The younger one," said Mrs. Snelling, "so pretty and quiet -- might she not be married, but living alone because she had been ill-used? One hears of these sad cases."
"Precisely, and if that is her situation, she ought to be ashamed of herself. It is my belief that it is always a woman's fault, when her husband ill-uses her."
"That is not always so," said Mr. Snelling, quietly. "There are drunken men who beat their wives."
"Poor things!" said his wife.
"Well, if that is the case, she should be living with him, and endure it," said Lady Penkridge, "it is her duty to stay. In any case, you do not know what their history is, and therefore, you should have nothing to do with them."
"The Stricklands do not think so."
"John Strickland is so fond of society, he likes everybody; and Mary is as easy-going as he. Well, Louisa, I may be old-fashioned, but I would draw the line at asking half the men in the county to come to my home on the excuse of rat-hunting. I never heard anything so brazen."
"She did not ask, Justinia; that is not fair; they offered. " And upon her cousin's leaving the room shortly after, Mrs. Snelling asked her brother "Philip, what is your opinion?"
"Well, Louisa," said he, "Justinia has accused the older lady of not talking about herself, and the younger lady of several things: of not talking about herself, of not having a husband, and of being a little too handsome. You know your cousin better than I, but I venture to think that the latter offence might be the most serious."
"But it is true, brother, it is odd; there does seem to be some mystery about them."
"I never heard that there was any law, obliging a person to reveal any thing about themselves, unless they wished to do so. Have these ladies done any thing, to incur censure? How have they behaved?"
"We have seen very little of them," said Mrs. Snelling, "only last night, and on Sunday. They came to church; they walked, I know they walked, for I saw them, it was a damp, dirty morning and their shoes, and the ends of their dresses, were wet. Of course, we did not know who they were, and they went off very quick, and then old Dick Grisedale told us they were the ladies from Birkthwaite, and I was surprised that they had not a carriage. Come, Richard my dear, take your head out of that great book, for I know you have heard every word, and tell us what you found out?"
"I? Very little. She said nothing about her family, it is true, but we were discussing ancient pedigrees, and people often know very little about their ancestors. Then afterwards I was telling her about the countryside, and she seemed attentive, and sensible. I did not think her forward, or ill-bred."
"I thought Justinia was very rude to her, asking her about her horse, that John Strickland says she needs to sell, and then telling her that she would not buy it. I was quite ashamed."
"Indeed! And how did she respond?"
"Oh, she said something, I forget what, quite calmly, but I thought she turned it off very well, not seeming as though she minded, you know, yet somehow it made Justinia's rudeness all the worse."
"In other words, she showed considerable address?"
"Yes, Philip, I think she did. And she was kind to Lizzie, did you see? helping her to play."
"Many ladies would not be quite so willing to let another young woman shine in public, especially as she played very well herself."
"But," said Mr. Snelling, "I am quite angry with Dick Grisedale, for he knew who they were: Bessie Love told him, you know, his granddaughter, for she works in the kitchen for Mrs. Mattersley, and if only Dick had mentioned it to me, they should have had the Birkthwaite pew."
"Indeed! And why should you have to see to that? It is the beadle's work; why did he not put them into it himself?"
"I asked him, and he said it had not been paid for; they should have it when the pew-rent was paid."
"Nonsense! There is no need to wait until they pay. You must speak to him about it, my dear; and while you are about it, pray speak to him about the men, throwing their hats and sticks onto the Communion table when they come in; it does not look well; I am sure I do not know, what the ladies must have thought."
"I have spoken to him a dozen times, my dear; he will only say that they all do it, even Mr. Strickland; they have always done it, and the old Rector always let them."
"He need not say anything; he has only to pick the things up and take them out; he could take them into the side chapel, and put them on top of the old tomb in there.. " and the conversation passed to other things. But poor Mrs. Snelling felt the truth of what had been said, and felt very doubtful about her new neighbours. Lady Penkridge was certainly right; it was not usual for people to divulge so very little about themselves; there must be a reason, and try as she would, Mrs. Snelling could not think of a creditable one.
She might have been still more receptive to this idea, had Lady Penkridge been a more amiable character. After all, she reflected, if her cousin had to live in such a very out-of-the-way neighbourhood, she might not be in such a hurry, to reject one of the only two families within walking distance. As it was, however, she resolved to meet her new neighbours with every appearance of complaisance, but to be cautious of inviting them, until more should be known about them; and quietly to recommend caution to Mrs. Strickland.Chapter 06
The caution proved wasted. Lizzie Strickland admired Mrs. Ward, not so much for her good looks, or her proficiency at the instrument, as for her small victory over Lady Penkridge; for nothing makes us like someone, so much as a common dislike. Her mother was far too indulgent a parent, to stand up to Lizzie's insistence; a weekly meeting was rapidly arranged, and Maria had the use of a piano.
She still took her solitary rides. Mrs. Norris did not miss her. With a whole house to be put in order, with scolding the servants, arguing with the housekeeper, looking out old, creased and split linen for repair, finding an old woman to wash the curtains with soapwort, getting the chimneys swept, hiring a carpenter to repair the broken furniture, and trying to persuade Mr. Strickland to pull down their ruined wing and take the stone as payment, Mrs. Norris was completely occupied, and as happy as she had ever been in her life.
It was otherwise with Maria. Her grief was too recent, and too devastating, to allow of a rapid cure; nor was there a soul in the world to whom she could speak of her misery. On every ride, as soon as she found herself alone, her thoughts reverted to the man she had loved. It was at once a relief, for she was free to give rein to feelings that must otherwise be cloaked, and a pain, for she must remember, and suffer and regret, all over again, wearisomely, until it seemed that she must carry her wretchedness until she died. Scenes recurred, that it seemed would never be forgotten, or lose their power to hurt, and Maria remembered them, and indulged in that effort to re-write the past, that must always be the lover's most hopeless, yet most irresistible occupation. She rode along, not seeing or hearing, by streams, along sunlit valleys, and past farm gates where dogs barked at her.
Then the weather changed. A fierce wind came screaming down from the hills. It was hardly believable, how much the smiling landscape could change! To ride out, was to be soaked within ten minutes, with icy water that pushed its way through the stoutest habit. She was forced to return, and stable the horse. Day after day the weather persisted. Walking was impossible; every stony lane was a stream-bed, every field path a morass of mud. Within doors, Mrs. Norris was in the kitchen, raging at Mrs. Mattersley; Maria paced and paced through the cold, empty rooms.
The worst times were the evenings, with only each other for company. Maria must hear the slow recital of the day's doings, and the housekeeper's mis-doings. She had never been a reader, and there were no letters to read or write. She tried to work, but the sewing would slip from her fingers, and she would sit in a weary reverie, only saying "Yes, ma'am," at intervals.
One evening, she was sitting over the sulky fire, after the usual dinner of under-cooked mutton, and over-cooked cabbage, trying to mend a pair of stockings -- never in her life had she mended stockings! and was only half-listening to what Mrs. Norris was saying:
"for we could not dismiss her, you know; it seems they have no children, and must have come upon the parish unless she could get work; and, you know, when we are new come here, the people would not like it; and I was at my wits' end. So it has been the greatest chance ever, that Mrs. Snelling should have mentioned, just after church yesterday, that the school is come vacant."
"Oh... yes.. I dare say... what school, ma'am?"
"Why, the school here, for the farm children, the young woman that taught the children is going to be married, and they did not know what to do, for nobody wants to go there. So when I heard, I went to Mrs. Snelling at once, and told here that I could give her something that is needed, and that is, a new school teacher; and Mrs. Mattersley is to go there. Twenty children, that is, if the Sowerby twins still go, for they are twelve years old now, though neither of them can say his catechism. Twenty children, or, of course, it may be, just eighteen. There is a little house, you know, just two rooms, attached to the school. I dare say the wages are not much, but what can she want, just she had her husband? He can continue to help here, with the fires and things, for I have no quarrel with Mattersley, he is a very good sort of person and always does just as he is told."
"But does Mrs. Mattersley wish to go there? And can she teach?"
"Of course she can, my dear. I am sure there it nothing to it; I could do it very well myself, if I were obliged to; I always thought Miss Lee had a very easy time of it, at Mansfield Park. Many a time, I would go to the schoolroom, on some errand, and there she would be with your sister and yourself, and Fanny Price, just three little girls; and there was I, running about on messages to this one and that one, to save your mother from fatigue.. oh, anyone can be a teacher, I am sure."
"I do not think that it was easy, aunt; we teased her nearly to death, sometimes."
"Well, I dare say, and no doubt the children will not be as clever as you and dear Julia; but Mrs. Mattersley must work at something, you know; what can it matter to her, whether she is a housekeeper, or a teacher? But it makes a great deal of difference to us. The school house is not in a very good state, to be sure, for the young woman lived at home with her parents, but Mr. Strickland can do it up. It can be painted up, and a few slates put into the roof, and be made quite snug, very cheaply. And it is the most fortunate thing for me, for we can get rid of her out of here. I wrote this very day to Nanny to tell her that she can come, and I think she will. You remember Nanny?"
"Yes, indeed, your housekeeper at your home at Mansfield; will she come, do you think?"
"Yes, for when I left, my sister Bertram said she might work at Mansfield in the stillroom, so that she would have something to live on; but I think she would not like being under the housekeeper, for she and Mrs. Plumstead could never agree. It will be a great comfort to me, in my lonely state, to have my trusted counselor here with me."
Without having been in the habit of thinking much about the feelings of her dependants, Maria knew that, at Mansfield Park, no servant of long standing would have been treated in such a fashion. She felt sorry for Mrs. Mattersley, who seemed a gentle, timid creature -- but she was very stupid, and Mrs. Norris had taken her in such dislike that if she were to stay, she must have a miserable life -- and Mrs. Norris's irritation would be unceasing. There did not seem to be any thing Maria could do. She could not even give Mrs. Strickland a few pounds to implement the poor woman's salary -- she could not spare even a few shillings...
As she struggled with the stockings, Maria was thinking hard. Her desperate need was for money, more money. She knew her aunt's remedy -- marriage. But even if anybody wished to marry her, which she thought unlikely, Maria found the thought unbearable. She had lived with a stupid man -- and the thought of life with Mr. Rushworth made her shudder; and then with a clever, restless one -- and the memory of life with Henry Crawford made her wince. She felt that, dull and strange as her life now was, it yet held more interest, more possibilities than ever before -- for her circumstances were hers to control. She owed no-one any thing. She could even, she thought, leave her aunt, without a qualm of conscience: Mrs. Norris could do very well without her.
But money, more money.. what could she do? Could she, for instance, go on the stage? Or could she make money by playing the piano, or singing, or teaching? During her months at the hunting lodge, she had practiced a great deal and obtained a very good mastery of the piano; she had ridden daily, and learned a good deal about horses. In London, she had acted and sung; if she could make money that way, she cared nothing what anyone might think, and for a few minutes, she indulged herself with the fantasy of taking the town by storm, under an assumed name...
But she was no longer the young girl who had acted in "Lovers' Vows" in her home. She had seen real, professional actors, and her brother Edmund was right: there was a difference. Even if her abilities were great enough to succeed, she was acquainted with no-one in the profession. She remembered a friend, laughing because a young gentleman of their acquaintance had fallen in love with a pretty actress: "Depend upon it," Mrs. Leroy said, "he will get nowhere; that young girl, who plays the village maiden, has a couple of bouncing children; the venerable fellow who plays the King, is her husband; and the old lady who plays the maid, is her mother, and takes the tickets at the door and sweeps the floor, afterwards. Theatre people are a circle, you cannot break in."
She certainly did not know enough to teach children, for she had never learned anything; even if she had had a taste for a life so uncomfortable and ill-paid. But could she perhaps make money by writing? Mrs. Snelling and Mrs. Hughes had kindly lent her novels; their stories seemed feeble and improbable; surely she could do better? And she thought of Miss Burney, and Madame d'Arblay. But the only story she could think of telling, was her own. Once, alone in her cold bedchamber, she tried to make a beginning, to write down a little of what her history had been. But the attempt brought on such a burst of tears, that she was forced to give it up.
A few days later, old Mrs. Leveredge's gig was returned, completely refurbished, with hood and apron complete, for a very modest sum. Her spirits rose; and she determined to see if she could not buy a steady, useful horse, that might serve to draw it, without having to sell her mare. At the first opportunity, she hired a horse from the nearest farm, and made her way to the Dalton horse fair.
The day was fine, and Maria felt her spirits rising as they entered the more open country, below the narrow dales. Dalton proved to be a large, thriving town, with cloth manufactories and good shops. Her aunt had willingly agreed to go with her; and when she saw how full the town was, Maria was glad of her company. Suddenly she realized that her sex, her youth, her looks, which had always been her advantages, were here the very opposite. Very welcome was the protection of her aunt's presence! With Mrs. Norris at her side, it would be an intrepid man who would venture on any impertinence.
Going round, before the bidding began, she began to assess what was available, but she could get no idea of what she might have to pay. Mrs. Norris began to be uncomfortable; the street was muddy, she did not like the crowd, and she was afraid it would rain. "Wait just a little, ma'am," Maria begged. "Pray wait a little, it will not be long."
The auctioneer began his work, and soon one of the horses was brought in, that she had liked the looks of. Bidding began -- but try as she would, she could not catch the auctioneer's eye. Bids were made, bids came thick and fast; Maria, who had visited horse sales with her brother, was familiar with the way things were done. But she was no longer Miss Bertram of Mansfield Park; she could not get a bid taken, she could not get started; the horse went for a price she thought was right -- but to somebody else.
Again it happened and she began to feel very miserable. "Let us go, my dear," said her aunt. "You see, it is no place for ladies, do come away. I am sure Mr. Strickland will find a horse for us, or we can go on hiring from Mr. Musgrove."
"What!" Maria cried, furiously, "and be refused, every time there is fodder to cart, or hay to be got in! I will not!"
A good-looking animal was brought in. "Another of Hamblyn's," said a voice behind her. The auctioneer was speaking with a gentlemanly-looking man, in a brown coat. Then the bidding began. This time, he was looking at her. He was inviting her to bid. She raised a hand; he nodded. She was in! She was bidding!
Surely that man speaking to the auctioneer had caused it to happen! He not bidding, but was standing across from her; she glanced at him, and received the impression of a smile; a friendly look; more, a look of admiration. She bid again, and again; each time, her bid was taken. She was alone in the contest, except for a middle-aged, thickset man -- perhaps a groom, she thought, buying for his master. He raised, another five pounds. She had forgotten everything, except the excitement; and the auctioneer was looking at her. She glanced across at her new friend; and recognized the look on his face.
She had seen that look before, when she was playing cards with a friend of Lady Bradford's. Distracted by some very elegant flattery, pleasantly fluttered by his handsome looks, and excited by a good hand, she had over-called; he had straightway doubled, and she had lost seventy pounds. She recalled overhearing Lady Stornoway's voice, after: "So poor Mrs. Rushworth played with Crosby. Such a charming man, and he makes so much money off silly women. Well, she is new, she will learn."
Then, she had been playing with her husband's money; now, she was risking her own. She looked back at the auctioneer, smiled, and shook her head.
Continued in Part 2© 2008 Copyright held by author