The next morning, Maria allowed Betsey to miss her reading lesson, and walked out early to the stables. Leaving Betsey with the groom, she took a walk round the garden, in spite of a slight drizzling rain, for she wanted time for quiet consideration.
She had refused an offer of marriage, from an agreeable, wealthy man! Why, oh why had she done so?
Did she wish to marry? Maria thought of the married women she knew: Aunt Norris had married a man she did not like, rather than stay single; and Maria thought that her experience had not been such, as to give a recommendation to the married state. Julia was happy, or seemed so, most of the time; but she left every decision about money or property, everything that did not concern her house, or her baby, to her husband; and Maria knew very well, that Mr. Yates could not manage money, and it was being wasted, and misused. Her mother, who likewise left everything to Sir Thomas, was prosperous and contented -- but Maria could not tolerate such a dawdling existence for a week, let alone a lifetime. Then Maria thought of Mrs. Curtis, and of her poor aunt Price! Compared to their experiences, was not a single existence preferable? Was not marriage only to be entered into out of dire necessity, as a means of being preserved from actual want? As for herself, she had lived first with a stupid man, and then with a restless, clever one, and in neither case had she been happy.
But she had not been asked to marry Mr. Price, or Mr. Norris, Mr. Curtis, or Mr. Yates! How infinitely superior Mr. Jevons was! And entering into more painful reflections -- how much more intelligent he was than Mr. Rushworth, how quietly elegant; how much more responsible -- more chivalrous -- how much more gentlemanly, in the truest sense of the word, than Henry Crawford! He was a man whom any woman might be proud to marry; he was exactly the man she herself ought to have married! if she had not married Mr. Rushworth, if she had not met Henry Crawford! Mr. Jevons, she felt pretty sure, would be very happy, even now, were she to reverse that "no" into a "yes. " There might be a little awkwardness, a little difficulty! but it could certainly be done; and she knew that he would be very pleased.
So why could she not do so?
He had spoken so kindly, about restoring her to the society, to which she belonged by birth. In her surprise and bewilderment, she had hardly heard, but he had said something too, about taking her away from tasks and activities, that no woman should be expected to perform. She could see herself, her hair properly pinned and curled (for poor Dufton could never learn how to do it) sitting, nicely dressed, in the drawing-room at his house, Greenheys. But, she thought, in the time it would take the maid to do my hair, I could have gone to see to the stables! He would not want her to do that; he would not like her doing it! She would be expected to occupy herself with the kitchen, the laundry and the stillroom; but all she knew was the garden, the stable-yard, the farm. As for society, Maria thought she did not care much, any more, to bask in the smiles of people of rank, for she knew what those smiles were worth; she far preferred the abrupt "Noo then, Missus Ward!" of the local farmers, which meant that they knew her, and respected her.
Greenheys had not such stabling as Birkthwaite, few places had: she would have to give up her horses! A few weeks previously, Mr. Jevons had visited, with the Snellings; they had all gone, of course, to look at Sultan. The horse had been in a foul mood, for he hated strangers. He snorted, rolled his eyes and tried to kick the groom. She had seen Mr. Jevons wince. He was afraid of Sultan! he would want to get rid of him; the horse would be sold, and maybe go to people who would ill-use him again! No, no! she could give Mr. Jevons up, but she could not let poor Sultan go! Surely, no lady ought to think of marrying a gentleman, if she felt more concerned about her horse than she was about him?
But there was a more serious consideration. Her refusal had not been made, whatever she had told him, from any sense of shame at what she had done, from any sense of unworthiness, of being a lost and fallen woman. Maria knew that she was a better person now, than before her wretched marriage and elopement; for she had suffered, and she had learned. Nor did she feel any such longing, now, for Henry Crawford, as might prevent her from being attached to any other man. However, she had loved him passionately. Her love had been mistaken in its object, and that mistake had ruined her life -- but she knew what passion was, she had loved Henry Crawford with all the ardour that was in her nature, and she did not love Philip Jevons.
But suppose he were to ask her again, or worse, try to enlist the support of her aunt, in his suit? and Mrs. Norris found out that her niece had refused the respectability that marriage would offer her? Would a few scoldings from her aunt be so very dreadful, that she must marry in order to avoid them? Still, Maria shuddered, when she thought of the prosings, and worryings, and complaints that would be her lot. Worse: supposing she had lost his friendship; she, who had so few friends?
This was a daunting thought; but the drizzle now becoming a determined rain, she made haste to quit these confused reflections, along with the cabbage beds and blackcurrant bushes, and return to the parlour, where she tried to attend properly to the latest news. Mrs. Mattersley had not been found, and plans had been made, the previous evening, to search a couple of old silver workings, long disused, up near Ingmell. Mr. Yates had been anxious to assist; but Mr. Ansell had informed him, bluntly, that no-one who had not experience of such mines would be required. Workers from the lead mine were to be brought in, and if he were to try to do anything, he would be of more trouble than use, and probably would get lost himself.
This was a serious matter, for here were three females, and a solitary gentleman, faced with the prospect of a rainy day. It was too wet to ride, and the house had no billiard room.
Mrs. Norris took up her work, and Mr. Yates got the newspaper, and said that he would read to the ladies, but the previous day had been strenuous, and he was soon half-asleep. Julia had said that she would write to her mother, but soon gave up the pretence of doing so, and began to tell Maria the story of Emily's christening, and the firmness she had been obliged to exercise, since there had been a suggestion of naming the child after its grandmother; a serious threat, since old Lady Yates had been christened "Tabitha. " This was clearly aimed at Mr. Yates, who was soon "humph"ing, and fidgeting, and rattling his newspaper.
Taking Betsey to the piano, Maria tried to get her interested in playing a little song, that she had previously enjoyed. But Betsey had counted on getting off scot-free for that day; her usual bribe, the riding lesson, was had already; she was stupid, and her little fat fingers would not find the notes. Maria, tired herself, could feel that Betsey was spoiling for a tantrum, and was ready to give up, when the sound of a carriage was heard. It was Mr. Jevons! He had come, and what was she to say to him?
The servant came in, and "a gentleman, asking for Mrs. Norris" was announced. "Who can it be?" Mrs. Norris wondered. "Bring the gentleman in here, Dodgson. " But it seemed the gentleman would not come in; he wished to speak to Mrs. Norris, in private; he had been shown into the business room, a small apartment recently made over for the doing of accounts and storing of papers.
Mrs. Norris went, and Maria was left with her disordered thoughts. This was dreadful! She had given him her answer, the night before, and now he was gone to her aunt! And Betsey crashing her whole hand for the third time on the keyboard, she nearly cried out with annoyance. "If that is all you can do, Betsey, you had best go outside, and be foolish by yourself. " Betsey ran off, caring nothing, as long as she were free, and Maria felt herself close to weeping.
Mrs. Norris, meanwhile, received a considerable shock when she entered the business room, and found herself face to face with her nephew, Edmund Bertram.
"Good gracious, Edmund, what a surprise! And what a fright you gave us! Why did you not say who you were? But come in, come into the parlour. Your sister Julia is here, and your brother Yates; how pleased they will be, we are quite a family party."
"I thank you, aunt; I shall be happy to see my sister Yates, and my brother, and perhaps, if they should wish to attend me at the posting house where I am lodged.. but I have no wish to meet Mrs. Rushworth; my business here is to fetch Betsey, and to bring her back to Mansfield Park. Her sisters are in great anxiety about her."
"Oh, she is perfectly well. We have been meaning to send her to you at Mansfield, but had not the means, and Maria wished..."
"I dare say, but this is not the place for her. We only found out three days ago, that she was here, and we do not consider.. well, to be blunt, ma'am, Fanny does not consider Mrs. Rushworth a fit person to have the charge of her. I am surprised at your allowing it."
"Well, really, Edmund! I am very glad that you are come to fetch her, for she belongs with her sisters, but she has been well cared for, and is a thousand times better off, than she was, with the people her father sent her off with. In any case, your sister has not had the charge of her; her father sent her to me."
Mrs. Norris had not done one thing, or been at one penny's expense, for Betsey, in all the time that she had been there; but it was more than a little vexing, to be criticized by a nephew, whom she had never much liked; and she was perfectly willing to accept the credit for a charitable action, that she had not performed. Edmund apologized, but evinced such discomfort at the prospect of entering the parlour, or indeed remaining in the house, that in the end Mrs. Norris agreed to take a message to the others, that he had arrived: Edmund would go back to the inn, and at an early hour on the morrow would return, with a chaise, for Betsey.
Maria was not surprised, nor were Mr. and Mrs. Yates; Edmund's views, and those of Fanny, were known to be such as to prevent his wanting to see, or be received by Maria.
Julia and Mr. Yates went straight to the inn, and waited on their brother. There they learned how it came about that no letter from Mansfield Park had been received by the widowed Mr. Price. When the news of Mrs. Price's death came to Mansfield Park, Susan, on behalf of Sir Thomas, wrote at once to her father, with every possible condolence, every possible offer of assistance, and enclosing a generous present of money. Fanny, from the parsonage, wrote to her brother. Both letters came to Sir Thomas' man of business for dispatch; and both were addressed to "Lieutenant William Price. " He had no idea that the letters were not destined for the same person; and did not hesitate for an instant: Mrs. Edmund Bertram, he knew, could be depended upon to know her brother's whereabouts. The two letters were hastily bound up with a package that was due to be sent, by a sure hand, to Sir Thomas' Antigua estate; for he knew that they would catch up with William there, at the Dockyard. Since then, nothing had been heard; but clearly, William must have received the letter that was intended for his father. Sir Thomas was unwell, with a recurrence of his tropical fever; and when the news came, of Betsey's whereabouts, Edmund had been hastily chosen to fetch her, or rather, had chosen himself: he and Fanny wanted Betsey brought at once to Mansfield Park.
The next morning came. Maria hid herself in the business room, since her brother did not wish to meet her, nor did she know how to say goodbye to Betsey. The chaise came; she saw Betsey's trunk carried out, and strapped on; she went and sat at the desk, for she could not look. She could hear Betsey crying; she could hear the voices of her relatives, urging, cajoling, promising; Edmund's voice, trying for firmness. She heard louder cries, then a sharp exclamation from Edmund; then silence, a shocked, frightened silence. What was happening? Why had they not gone?
Her maid stood in the doorway. "What is it, Dufton?"
"If you please, ma'am, Miss Betsey's bit the gentleman; and she's in a fit; she's not breathing, ma'am. " Maria ran out of the room.
Betsey was lying on the ground, purple in the face. Mr. Yates, Mrs. Yates, Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Yates' nursemaid, Mrs. Norris' housekeeper, and Dodgson, the manservant, were busily occupied, doing the things people usually do, when someone is unexpectedly taken ill: exclaiming, and making suggestions, that no-one carried out. Edmund was swearing, and trying to stanch the blood that was flowing from his hand.
"Dufton, take Miss Betsey up, carry her to her bedroom, and lay her on the bed," Maria ordered.
Once the bedroom door was closed, Maria sat quietly beside her little cousin, holding her hand. Her rigid limbs relaxed; she began to breathe again; the purple colour faded. She opened her eyes, and began to cry.
It was Mr. Yates, she learned later, who resolved the situation downstairs. He got Edmund's hand bound up, and took him off for a quiet walk. Mr. Yates had not been the friend of horse dealers for years, without learning the art of persuasion; and he had staid at Mansfield Park. He got Edmund to understand, that Lady Bertram might sit on her sofa, and say "Poor little thing! I am sure she will be no trouble," but neither she, nor Susan would be of any real use; she herself constantly required Susan's services, just as she had previously required those of Fanny; whatever was to be done, would fall to Edmund and Fanny. Edmund could only recognise this as the truth. He knew, too, though he might not acknowledge it, that Fanny did not like Betsey, and did not really want her.
As for teaching Betsey not to bite: "If a horse kicks, you can't cure him of kicking," said Mr. Yates. "You get some other fellow to buy him."
Mr. Yates told his wife, later "I am quite ashamed, my love, when I see how hard your sister has worked, and how well she has done with the property; how much she has planted. Do you know, she does not buy so much as a rick of oats, without going to inspect it herself? As for the old lady; she has got money lent out all over. Here are these two women, getting richer every day, and nothing to spend it on, and they want the child; well, your sister does, and your aunt will take her, only to spite Edmund."
"Might run away with some other fellow, you mean? She won't; take my word for it. Once bitten, twice shy," said the worldly-wise Mr. Yates.
It ended with a good deal of face-saving, with Mrs. Norris continuing as Betsey's nominal guardian, and Maria undertaking to pay all her expenses. There was a promise of school, later on; a promise of Aunt and Uncle Yates keeping an eye on her; and a promise from Betsey, of being a good girl and not biting anybody ever again.
"And I tell you what, old fellow," said Mr. Yates. "I'll come back to Mansfield Park with you, and help to make it all right with the women."
Mr. Bertram was not the most perceptive of men, but even he was not sure of the efficacy of this method. However, Julia and little Emily came too, the general atmosphere was one of reunion and reconciliation, and nobody made any real difficulties.
Lady Bertram settled the matter from her sofa, saying "My sister Norris can look after the child. It was she who suggested, you know, that Fanny should be brought here to live with us. But she never did take her turn with Fanny, for first of all, poor Mr. Norris was still unwell, and could not bear the noise of a child, and then, when he died, my sister went to live at the White house, and she could not take Fanny, because it was so small. Now she can have very little to do, up there, and Julia tells me that it is quite a large house; she may very well take Betsey."Chapter 22
The Dalton races were not famous, being merely a meeting of local gentry: those who knew something about horses, and the far greater number of those, who thought they did. The meeting took place every summer, in an atmosphere of pleasant local cordiality, and it was no matter for remark that, shortly after the first race, the great yellow coach of Lord L... should lumber onto the course, followed by several smart curricles and phaetons. An election was in view, and his Lordship, by bringing an elegantly dressed party to meet his neighbours, was doing no more than any conscientious landowner should, to further his candidate's interest.
Maria had given no thought to such a contingency, when she decided to attend the races. Two of her horses were running, but she could hardly have attended, had not the Stricklands offered her a place in their carriage. Mrs. Norris disliked crowds, and in any case had been unwell for several weeks; and since the episode at the Hanged Man, the previous autumn, Maria had been very careful not to go anywhere, unless she were properly accompanied; Mr. Ansell's strictures, though harshly expressed, had, she knew, been justified.
Maria and her aunt had expected to live at Birkthwaite in a manner so retired, as to liken the place to a prison. Their engagements could not begin to compare with Mansfield Park, and even less with Harley Street, and there were few balls or parties; but even at hunting meets, harvest homes and shareholders' meeting, new acquaintances were made. There were dinners with the Snellings and Stricklands, whist and tea-drinkings for Mrs. Norris. Mr. Jevons had never repeated his offer of marriage, but continued to treat both ladies with his usual grave kindness, and to invite them, whenever he gave an evening party. Their acquaintance with Lucy Ansell had never progressed beyond a tepid cordiality, for as we all know, gratitude, however genuine, is seldom the foundation for friendship. In the case of her father, however, friendship was based on a genuine admiration for the business acumen of both the ladies. To every Ansell party, they were punctiliously invited, Mrs. Peters and Miss Ansell having privately obtained an undertaking from Mr. Ansell, of his not marrying either the aunt or the niece.
The day of the races was fine, the picnic collation was excellent; and only Lucy was absent: she was staying with her great friend, Miss Downing, and her aunt Peters confided that Miss Downing had a brother, and that Lucy was in a fair way to being engaged. Lizzie Strickland, now Mrs. Robinson, was present, and her mother made Maria the recipient, in rather too loud a whisper, of a very interesting piece of information. Lizzie looked blooming; and the prospect of her becoming a mother was one that promised the fairest hopes. To her own shattered marriage, Maria gave not one thought: she had become used to it, and by virtue of never being able to speak of it to anyone, it had gradually assumed a very small importance in her mind: a sore point, but one not often irritated. In any case, she had never cared much for children, except for Betsey.
Betsey had now been a year at Birkthwaite, and happily, she had been able to share a governess with the two Snelling girls, riding over each morning. In the atmosphere of the Parsonage, where learning was taken for granted as a gift and a necessity, she had begun to understand that the alphabet was not her greatest enemy, though she would never be a scholar. She had made a great cry at not being allowed to come to the races, but it was no place for a child. However, it would do no harm to take home a fairing for her, and having watched the third race, Maria began to move toward the area where gingerbread and toys were being sold, and the whole party, having nothing to do until the next race should be run, began to move in that direction with her.
Her attention was drawn to a noisy group of men, just ahead of them. It was clear that they had been drinking, and she perceived that it was some of Lord L's party. As they approached, the group divided, hilariously, to let them pass; a man just ahead of them turned round; and Maria, to her astonishment, found herself face to face with Lord Stornoway.
Yes! It was he: rather redder in the face, and thicker in the body, than when she had met him in London; but the same. He knew her at once.
"Mrs. Rushworth, upon my soul! Well, I'm damned! So this is where ye hid yourself. Well, well, Mrs. Rushworth! And where's that fine young sprig of fashion ye made off with? Gone off, eh? Left ye? Well, these little things don't last; that's the way it is. Ran off, eh? Well, ye'll excuse me, if I don't shake ye by the hand," and breathing heavily, he had turned away. He left behind a strong odour of spirits, and she heard his loud guffaw, as he nudged another member of his party, and grabbed him by the arm.
She was moving on, her limbs seemed to carry her of themselves, and as she walked, she could hear him, as he told all those in hearing her miserable story, punctuating it with that loud, drunken laugh.
She could not speak; she dared not think what might be the state of her face and complexion, or what the rest of her party might be thinking; no-one said a word. Thank Heaven! her aunt had not been present "but what must she feel," she thought "when she hears of this?" As for herself: "Nothing," she thought, "I feel nothing. " It seemed, indeed, as though every emotion were suspended; she only knew that, once the terrible deadness passed, she would lose all control, and must collapse.
Then she heard Lizzie Robinson's quiet voice: "Mrs. Ward, I am feeling a little unwell. Would you be so good as to give me your arm? I think I must go back to the carriage."
Maria could never remember, afterward, how she got home; she could only recall taking Lizzie's arm, and being slowly guided out of the circle of curious, shocked faces. She did not know who had told Mrs. Norris of what had occurred. All she could do, for days, was wander, indoors and out of doors, unable to forget, unable to turn her thoughts away, trying to think what she should do, but falling all the time into useless conjecture, and into the recollection of that dreadful moment!
The worst was the thought of how she had deceived all those who had shown her kindness; how she had allowed people, who knew nothing about her, to become her friends -- and what must they now be thinking? To her recently awakened sensibilities, the deception she had practiced seemed worse than the original wrong-doing. When she had begun it, she had intended nothing, beyond avoiding a social inconvenience. She had acted on impulse, with no thought of eventual consequences, for those she was deceiving were not known to her. Their friendship would certainly never have been granted, had they known her real situation; now they were people she knew, and she realized, cared for very much.
What was certain was, that no-one would ever speak to her again. Even worse, was the possible repercussion to poor Betsey. In this country, humming with the story, it might well be concluded, it would certainly be conjectured, that she was not a cousin at all, but the child of Maria's disgraceful connection! She must go away, perhaps to a boarding school, but even so, what would her chances of marriage be, if she were thought to be the natural daughter of somebody? Maria might spend any amount of money, to give Betsey every advantage at school, but what could dancing lessons, French lessons, the harp, every "extra" known to the educational world, what could even a handsome dowry do, to bleach the imagined stain of illegitimacy?
She thought that the best thing she and her aunt might do, would be to remove to some other place, a house, perhaps, in a large city, where they might pass unremarked; at least, they had the income to do so! and her horses, her fields, her home must pass into other hands. Yes, her home, for faced with the prospect of losing it, she knew how dear to her it had become: the pastures she had improved, the kitchen garden she had made, the hazel thicket she had planted.
Within twenty-four hours, it was known to the whole countryside that Mrs. Ward, of Birkthwaite, had run off with a lord. Her husband had fought a duel over it; no! it was her father that was a lord, or as good as. He had thrown her out; her brother was to have married the lord's sister, but she had refused to have him, or he had refused to have her; no-one knew which; but then her brother had married a girl from an orphanage, without a shilling, for he said it was the only way to find an honest wife. She had had a rich husband, that owned the finest house in London; there were closets at Birkthwaite, full of jeweled gowns. No! it was not a lord she ran off with; but then, no-one knew, who it was; some said there was more to the story, far more, but it was being hushed up; royalty was hinted at. She had fainted dead away, right on the racecourse, on being confronted with the evidence of her guilt! Every circumstance was distorted, exaggerated and confused; and Lady Penkridge triumphed; for she had always known, she said, that there was something louche about those women.
Shut up in her business room, or walking endlessly round her grounds, Maria was not even aware that Mr. Ansell had called, asking for Mrs. Norris, and had been shut up with her for a couple of hours. Afterwards she learned that arrangements had been made for Betsey to go and stay for a while with her aunt and uncle Yates; she could only be thankful. She was barely interested.
Then it suddenly transpired, that aunt Norris was really unwell, quite ill; that she must go, instantly, to the watering-place of B.. and that she could not go alone, but must be accompanied by her niece. Maria was not even aware of how the business was done: the house shut up, servants on board wages, and rooms engaged at the best hotel in B.. Suddenly, very suddenly it seemed, Maria and aunt Norris were shut up in a carriage again, but this time, it was a fast and elegant post-chaise; and this journey did not lead them into seclusion, but ended in all the bustle of a fashionable watering-place, at the height of the summer season.
Nothing, Maria had thought, could ever raise her spirits again; but she was wrong. Her spirits did rise, as she looked out of the hotel window, into the busy street, seeing carriages, saunterers, errand-boys, fashionably dressed women, and more shops, in the stretch of street within her view, as were boasted of by the whole of Lingfell.
"What shall we do, my dear?" Mrs. Norris was saying. "There is a play this evening, and a concert; but the concert is only for tonight, and the play will be given again. What would you like? Shall we go to the concert tonight, and take tickets for the play tomorrow?" A concert, and a play! and they could go to both! Birkthwaite, and Dalton, were miles away, with the open moors between, and for a while, at least, she need not go back, or think of them.
The evening was pleasant, and almost the greater part of their pleasure lay, in their knowing no-one. No need to wonder, how to behave, if a well-known face came into view, or whether an acquaintance, encountered accidentally, would pass them by, ignoring an outstretched hand.
They were soon comfortably settled in furnished lodgings, and were pleased to learn that the doctor to whom they had been recommended was very highly thought of, and considered a very clever practitioner, though his principal recommendation seemed to be, that he charged higher fees than any other. He recommended himself to Mrs. Norris in the course of his very first consultation, when some mention was made of the situation of the poor people of the town; "Perfect nonsense, my dear madam!" Dr Hatfield exclaimed. "People are forever talking of the plight of the poor; our parish rates rise every year; and where does the money go? To the alehouse, as often as not."
"I am sure our poor would have nothing to complain of, if only they would work," said Mrs. Norris. "But we can get no-one to come and work for as, unless we pay them ten shillings a week. I am sure that seven would be plenty, if only the women would contrive better."
"Work! My dear madam, they would have nothing to complain of, if only they had not families. I blame the parishes, for if the men know that they can get the relief, as married men, then what happens? They marry. They should be banned from marriage, until such time as they can support a family. " How could Dr Hatfield escape being considered the wisest and most learned doctor that Mrs. Norris had ever encountered? With such opinions, his medical skill could not be called into question.
His regime was as rigid as his opinions; his patients must obey his instructions to the letter, or they ceased to be his patients; he would tolerate no deviation. With Mrs. Norris he was firm: she must go into the warm bath, every day, and afterwards she must rest for at least an hour. "No talking to her," he said to Maria, "and no letting her read or sew, her eyes are very bad; she should try to sleep. As for yourself, ma'am, if I may prescribe for you, I suggest you use the time to get a walk; you look as though some fresh air would do you good. " After that, he would permit a gentle carriage drive, if it were not too long.
It was no hardship for Maria to walk alone. Most of the visitors to the spa were elderly, and quiet, so that the town was perfectly safe and comfortable for solitary female walking, those in authority having made it their business to ensure that no undesirable characters were about. She found to her pleasure that the streets around the pump room boasted not only some fashionable shops, but a good lending library. However, not being over-fond of walking or reading, she grew bold, and hired a horse and gig, in which she was able to take her aunt for some very pretty drives, into the hills round about.
One day, while her aunt was resting, she entered a milliner's shop. A new walking dress, of fine cambric, a sarsenet pelisse, and some new Morocco shoes, had done more for her spirits, than she could have believed possible. It seemed to her that the purchase of a new hat would complete the process, and was, in fact, urgently necessary.
The civil assistant showed her the new "Oatlands" with its drooping brim and pretty bunch of roses, and placed it on her head. Maria looked in the mirror. It did indeed look very stylish; she had worn more dashing hats than this, in her time, but she had been younger then! Had her complexion not become somewhat too brown, her face a good deal too thin? Forgetting that her aunt was not with her, she turned around for her opinion; she turned round, and found herself face to face with Mary Crawford.Chapter 23
Their mutual astonishment was so great, that Maria had no time for any awkward feelings, before she found her hand clasped, and warmly shaken. For a short time, neither of them could do any thing, but stammer exclamations of surprise, of pleasure, and be equally conscious of feelings stronger than either could express.
To get to some place where they might talk freely, was the immediate objective of both, but "Buy the hat! Pray, do buy that charming hat!" exclaimed Miss Crawford. The hat safely purchased, they made their way down the street, and by mutual consent, almost without a word spoken, turned into one of the pretty little parks, with which the town was provided, found a quiet side path, and sat down on a rustic seat. Here it was private enough for confidences to be exchanged.
"You cannot know," began Miss Crawford "how often I have thought about you. Dear Mrs. Rushworth, I have wished so often to write to you; that sort of wishing, you know, that one indulges, that makes one feel one has tried to do something, but that never leads to anything. But truly, I had not your direction, and did not know to whom I might apply for it."
With some apprehension, some embarrassment, Maria enlightened Mary as to the fact that she was living under an assumed name.
"But that was well done, indeed!" Miss Crawford cried. "What a good thought, I am sure, though, that I would not have been clever enough to think of that, to come out with it, all in a moment. But now, tell me how you live, tell me how you do. Tell me everything; talk to me for ever."
"But no, it was not a good idea, it was very wrong; I must tell you how it all ended, oh, it was terrible," and poor Maria told her the tale of the race meeting "and now I do not know what I shall do, or where we must go to live, for we cannot go back."
"Nonsense," cried Mary. "Oh, that detestable Lord Stornaway; it would be he; only such a dreadful man would do such a thing. He has ill-treated his wife, poor Flora, you know, to such a degree that she cannot live with him; she is staying with her mama, and they pretend that it is due to her health, and is for a little while, only; but everybody knows that she dare not go back, for she is afraid for her life. Oh, what a wicked man he is! My dear, if I were you, I would not care a particle; no-one will believe anything he says. It will be a nine-days' wonder, and then be forgotten."
Maria was not sure that she quite believed this, but there was so much else to think of, so many questions to ask, and to answer. Mary was fascinated by her story.
"I cannot believe it! You actually opened a mine! Raising horses, and a mine! This is wonderful!"
"But you, Miss Crawford - you are not married?"
No, Mary was not married; she was still living with her sister "for nothing could quite put your.. your brother out of my head. There! I have said it, and I am not ashamed of it; I could not put Edmund out of my head. Oh, my dear, if you knew the number of kind friends that I have gone to stay with, and within a week, or two at the most, along comes a brother, or a cousin, just arrived to stay, what a surprise! very charming, and very badly off. " Her sister, Mrs. Grant, had brought her to stay with yet more of such friends, and she had been advised to take a course of the hot baths, "but there is nothing wrong with me, my dear, except ill-temper" and she was perfectly happy to spend any amount of time talking to Maria; they must meet every day!
The first thing that Maria wanted to learn, the first thing she could think to ask, was about Henry Crawford, and somewhat cautiously, she did so: "and what is.. is your brother doing? How does he go on?"
"Oh," said Mary "that is a long story, indeed; are you sure you wish to hear it?"
"Yes, I do, indeed; I have no.. no feelings" said Maria "that might prevent me. Everything happened a long time ago; let us not shrink from anything, let us have the truth. Is he married? Surely, he must be married by now?"
No, Henry was not married, and matters had not gone altogether successfully for him. As Mary related the story, while her brother had been passing his time at Mansfield Park, rehearsing "Lovers' Vows," Marsham, his agent at Everingham, had got into money troubles. He had turned to gambling, to try to pay off his creditors, and had got ever more deeply into debt. He had begun by abstracting small amounts of money from the estate, amounts that Crawford, on his infrequent visits, was unlikely to notice. Then he had found opportunities in plenty, to get still more money. Money had gone out, to pay for manure, and seed, but none had been bought; creditors had been staved off, by allowing them to have the use of cottages without paying. Repairs had been cheaply done, using his own relatives or friends as workers, and the estate billed for the full cost of the work. Tenants had been allowed to take game freely, to stifle their complaints.
While Crawford and Maria were in London, things got worse; once they were run off together, the mischief was complete. From selling crops, and mis-representing the prices, it was but a small step, to taking rents, and failing to hand them over. When he learned that his master was coming, the wretched man decamped; and when Crawford arrived at Everingham, he found his neighbours, and the local clergy, angrily asking for tithes, and taxes, that he had thought long since paid.
"And so," said Mary "he is tied down there, more or less, until he can get things in order. He detests it; you know how Henry cannot bear to be for any length of time in one place. I went to stay with him for a little while, but his temper is so bad that nobody could endure it."
"But surely, it has been several years, three or four at the very least; things must be right, by now?"
"No, indeed, for things could not be got straight, all in a hurry. He could not be there all the time, you know, he must have some time in London; and of course he did not wish to give up his hunting. And now, there is something about the farmers; it seems that they do not have to pay rent any more, or they cannot pay; I do not understand anything about it."
"But of course, dear Miss Crawford, it is quite true; the farmers in many places are very badly off. Have you not read, about the tariff, and the letting in of foreign corn? It was in all the newspapers."
But Miss Crawford never read anything in the newspapers, except the court news, and the naval appointments, to see if any appointments or promotions had been got by the friends of her uncle, the Admiral: the rears, and vices.
"Well! I cannot understand that, I am sure; if I were not to pay for something, and said that I was badly off, they would not let me off, would they? But, be that as it may, Henry was very anxious to remedy matters quickly, and the best thing, of course, would have been a good marriage - you will not mind my telling you this, I am sure? No, I thought not. Well, while I was staying there, I had nearly got Miss Fordyce to have him. But then her father got wind of, ahem, your little episode, my dear, somebody told him of it; and being a Quaker, or a Methody, I am not sure which, he said that his daughter was not going to be tied for life to a libertine; and that was the end of it. It was too bad, for Henry liked her. A quiet little girl, very like your cousin Fanny Price. And the money; trade, of course, but we would not have minded that."
So Henry Crawford was still unmarried! After they had parted, with many promises of meeting again the next day, as she thought over their meeting, that must be the circumstance that came uppermost in Maria's mind. What were her feelings, knowing him to be still at liberty? She herself had money now, enough, probably, to interest a man who was lacking it; their situations were ironically reversed; a marriage might seem to be to their mutual advantage. But all she could think was how foolish, how shortsighted this man must be, to neglect his farms, his tenants, his land, his crops, and allow all to remain in disorder, because he could not give up a few weeks' hunting! Marry such a man? Never!
They met again; Mrs. Grant, too, met her with complaisance; and it was an inexpressible relief, to be able to talk with Miss Crawford, to remember past experiences with someone who was not shocked, did not think her wicked, and laughed, actually laughed, with her and about her! A few days later, they each hired a horse, and went riding together. Mrs. Grant was glad to support the scheme, for she was concerned for her sister's health; and since she did not ride herself, was happy to spend the time with Mrs. Norris, talking over old times at Mansfield Park. The weather was fine, and they found themselves riding along green, shady lanes, and through deep valleys with little rushing rivers. Mary soon fell into reminiscence:
"Do you remember, it was your brother, it was Edmund who first taught me to ride?"
"Yes, indeed; you learned on Fanny's horse, did you not?"
"Oh! yes, and you, and he and your sister, took Henry and me; and showed us all the country round, until the horse must be given up, for poor Fanny had not had the use of it for nearly a week."
Yes, Maria remembered that week of rides: Mr. Rushworth had been absent, and her place was almost always, seemingly by accident, beside Henry Crawford. Then there had been some difficulty; Fanny had been ill, or some such thing, and Mary's horse must be given back to her. The riding thus being given up, it had been Henry's ingenuity that had got them, apparently by accident, involved in the play "Lover's Vows," and that had meant that they could continue their new-found intimacy, with everything justified, and concealed, by the action of the play: Julia left out, Mr. Rushworth ignored, Mary and Edmund thinking only of each other. Thinking of it, Maria felt herself emboldened to bring up another topic: it had to some extent surprised her, that Mary took such pleasure in her company: after all, Maria's elopement had caused the final breach between Edmund and Mary.
"Let us have no recriminations," Mary said. "We might have been sisters; and I did quite as badly by you, as you did by me. It was my sister and I, who got Henry to leave Mansfield Park, the day after your father came home from Antigua. We told him that he must go, for we both thought, that if he staid, that would be the end of your engagement, and that he would be held responsible. Mr. Rushworth was getting very fidgetty, and Sir Thomas would certainly have had something to say about it all. In my defence, I will say, that I knew my brother had been only indulging himself with a flirtation: I knew his heart was not involved. I thought that it was the same for you. I thought that you were quite determined to marry poor Mr. Rushworth; that you would have a wealthy, complaisant husband, and then you and my brother would meet in town, and carry on a regular standing flirtation, with yearly meetings at Sotherton and Everingham. I know half a dozen couples, who have such an arrangement. If I had known, how much harm had been done to your feelings.. but I did not know. And Henry, had he been forced into a marriage, would have made you the worst husband in the world."
"You were right. His heart was never involved, Mary; not then, not later, even, when we lived together. Mine was, but not his."
The horses paced along in silence for a few moments; then Mary spoke again.
"I think I never quite knew my mind over your brother. Why do you suppose it was, that every time things became serious, every time we came close to an understanding, I became flighty and foolish? Now, when it is too late.. but even now, can you imagine my being the kind of wife he would wish for? Taking soup to the poor, and sewing petticoats for the heathen? I am sure your cousin Fanny does it all admirably; I am sure she writes his sermons for him. But I do still.. like him; and it is such a pleasure to talk of him! My sister occasionally mentions Mansfield, but she and her cousins have their own concerns, and she is too happy, to want to think much about those times. Poor Dr Grant! He is not much missed. Is it not extraordinary, that we should both have loved men, who wanted to marry Fanny Price?"
Maria had already told Mary what news she had, of Edmund, but now she gave her a description of his visit to Birkthwaite.
Mary was entranced: "Oh, but your little cousin Betsey sounds wonderful! To get the better of Edmund and Fanny, and Sir Thomas and all of Mansfield Park arrayed against her!"
"Poor Betsey! I miss her very much. But she is happy with Julia and my brother, and he has found a pony for her to ride. In any case, she will have to go to school, quite soon, for she will need friends, you know, and that my aunt and I cannot provide for her."
She was soon laughing with Mary about her early horse-buying experiences, and the money in the little writing-desk. Mary exclaimed, and gasped "It was so brave of you, to set to and make money, in that desolate place! I would have died of misery!"
"You know," Maria said "what really sells my horses, is my going to the hunting meets, to see the hounds go off; you know how if one looks well on a horse, people always ask if it is for sale. I wear a most elegant riding habit, that was made for me in London. And poor Mr. Rushworth paid for it!"
To no-one else but Mary could she have spoken of that! And now Maria learned something else: Miss Crawford was an authoress. Her love for Edmund had changed her whole character, had made her more thoughtful, more serious. She had learned, too late, how shallow were the world's ideas of marriage, and what was the value of real affection. "I began to write songs," Mary said, "and found I could put words and music together. " She was the authoress of several songs for the harp, and of two small volumes of poems. "Since coming here, I have begun several things; this countryside enchants me."
"Oh, but you should see where we live. The hills around are not so steep and picturesque, but they are wilder. You must see Birkthwaite, you must, indeed!"
But how was that to be managed, when Maria was not sure that she could ever go back?Chapter 24
Miss Crawford was right: Lord Stornawayís disclosure was, as she had prophesied, a nine-daysí wonder. Everyone who lived in Lingfell and Dalton was deeply shocked, those who had heard it, who were many, and those who were told about it, who were everyone. No-one was ever going to speak to Mrs -- what was her name? again. She would be invited nowhere, she would be ignored in the street, and no goods would be delivered to her. If she were to enter a shop, everyone would immediately leave: they would not stay, no! they would not. A deputation even waited on Mr Snelling, to enquire as to what measures should be taken, should she attempt to go to church.
But gradually, these terrific ideas died down. Tradespeople began to reflect, that they would lose a good deal of money, if they did not deal with Birkthwaite. The mine shareholders also began to think again. They might retire from all association with Mrs Ward and Mrs Norris, but then they must sell their shares; and the mine was prospering: they began to perceive the disadvantages of a sacrifice of cash to conscience. Several less provident persons recollected, that they had borrowed money of Mrs Norris: it would be very inconvenient, should she demand its immediate repayment in full, as she certainly would, of anyone who insulted her niece. Then, too, Mrs Ward paid her hunt subscription; and she and her aunt had always allowed their neighbours both to fish their stream, and to shoot over their land. If no-one was on speaking terms with them, one could hardly continue to do so; and how was anyone to buy a horse from her?
Mr Snelling had a good deal to say to the deputation, in his usual measured and quiet tone. In the first place, he pointed out, the Birkthwaite ladies had paid their pew-rent, and every person was entitled by law to the use of that which he had paid for. In the second place, Mrs Ward, in the several years that she had lived among them, had behaved with perfect propriety, had gained a reputation (would they not agree?) for hard work and fair dealing, and on Scarsdale Edge, had by prompt action actually saved the life of a young lady who had got into difficulties. This they knew. Did they intend, asked Mr Snelling, to pass judgement on a fellow-Christian? If so, should they not do so on the basis of what they knew, rather than what they had been told? And in the latter case, should not the source of that information (if information it could be called) be considered? For, in the third place, said Mr Snelling, everyone who had been there assured him that Lord Stornaway, an open and notorious evil liver, had been in his usual condition at the Dalton races, namely, in liquor; and he personally would not hang a dog on the word of Lord Stornaway. In view of these circumstances, he said, to refuse one of his parishioners the right to attend church would be as improper as it would be un-Christian, and he hoped very much (looking very hard at each one of them) that no member of his congregation would request him to take such an action.
Mr Snelling paused, took out his spectacles from his pocket, polished them on his handkerchief, and replaced them in his pocket.
"Since you have come here about this matter," he said, "there is something else I wish to mention, namely, the situation of the young child, Betsey Price. As you know, little Miss Price was being schooled with my daughters, until she was removed to visit her uncle and aunt, on account of this scandalous business. While she was in our care, she chattered a good deal, as young children do; I am sure your own little daughters do so, do they not? She frequently mentioned her poor mother, who, she told us, died just before she came to live among us; and also spoke of several brothers and sisters, including a brother in the Navy, and a married sister. I have heard of the speculations that are rife in the parish, regarding this childís parentage, and can assure you, as I hope you will assure others, that they are unfounded."
If Maria had appeared in public, there might have been unpleasant episodes; but she did not; and after a few weeks, the rumours, which had reached a pitch of startling absurdity, began, by reason of that very absurdity, to die away. It soon began to be acknowledged that nothing was known for certain; but a great deal, on the other hand, was known about Lord Stornaway, whose drunkenness, and evident malice, on the occasion, were by now more clearly remembered than any thing he had said. His Lordship assisted the process considerably, by quitting the country, and leaving a good many unpaid debts behind him. Maria and Aunt Norris could probably have gone home earlier than they did.
Two circumstances contributed to their decision: the first being the gradually increasing desolation of a watering-place, as the colder weather came on. It would be pleasanter to be at Birkthwaite, with good fires and their well-stocked stillroom, than in the misery of cold lodgings, with strange servants. The other was the fact of Mrs Norrisís continuing illness. Dr Hatfield might be the wisest doctor in the business, and have the soundest opinions in the country; but he had not cured her. In one respect he had been right: Mrs Norrisís eyesight was now so bad, that she could neither work nor read with any comfort.
To Mariaís surprise, Mary Crawford offered to accompany them. It was the very thing that she would have most wished for, but had not liked to suggest. Mrs Grant, while Mary and Maria were out riding, had spent a good deal of time with Mrs Norris. She knew that her sister was not happy; and she knew that, since meeting Maria, Maryís spirits had improved. The gossip of the watering-place had told her something else: what she had heard, of the Birkthwaite ladiesí income, had made her stare; and she did not stay to think, that watering-place gossip might have somewhat multiplied its actual value.
Mrs Grant had been as shocked as anyone else, on hearing of Henryís elopement; but lacking the moral sensitivity of Edmund and Fanny, and being always inclined to think that things would always turn out for the best, she had hoped that the affair would end quietly in a marriage. The thought of poor Maria, disgraced and cast off, had troubled her mind whenever she thought about it, which was not often. She could not help thinking that even now, a marriage might save everyoneís conscience, as well as bringing poor Henry a large amount of much-needed income. For these reasons, she was quite happy to encourage her sister to go and spend some time at Birkthwaite, for, she thought to herself, one never knew what might come of it.
She would have been startled, had she known of Mariaís feelings toward Henry Crawford. The story of his agentís perfidy had simply inspired her with a lively desire to return at once to Birkthwaite and see that no such depredations were taking place there. Only the regular letters from Peter Withernshaw and Mr Ansell, the knowledge that her affairs were in good hand and her absence to be short, together with her auntís real need of her, had kept her away. But Mrs Grant did not know this, and no opposition was put in the way of Maryís spending a few weeks with her friend.
They arrived home late on a chilly October day, and Maria found that even under weather that was grey, and rainy, with a little sleet on the high ground, she was warmed by pleasure and pride as the familiar sights came into view:
"Look, Mary, that is where we got to, on the great hunt we had, last winter. You see that slope up there? Something a little like a dark scar? That is the entrance to the old lead mine; and there -- you cannot see them, but there are some of the great holes."
"The lead mine -- is that where they sought for that poor woman?"
"Yes, poor Mrs Mattersley; but they never found her. They gave up in the end, there was nothing they could do; the holes are too many, and too deep. You can see the entrance to our valley now. This road is not too bad; it is well, that we are not traveling over it, the way it used to be. Those fields, down there in the river bottom, are where we get our best hay crop. Our hazel copse is doing well. We fenced that pasture last year. Now you can see the top of our roof, look, among the trees. Here is the new orchard; and there are the stables."
Mary listened, and admired; she remembered Miss Bertram, a few years previously, boasting of the oak avenue, as they drew near to Sotherton, whose owner she was to marry. There, had been wealth indeed, twenty times that of this small manor; but wealth acquired through Mariaís good looks, her fatherís position, and the stupidity of her future husband; there had been the consciousness of clandestine affection, and the prospect of a loveless marriage. Now, there was all the satisfaction of real achievement, through Mariaís own skill, knowledge and the good fortune that comes to those who bring good sense, hard work and determination to their lot in life. But Maryís admiration must be expressed in whispers, nods and smiles, for Mrs Norris, after taking some laudanum for a severe headache, had gone to sleep.
Very different was this home-coming, from their first arrival at Birkthwaite! Now, they were met by well-trained servants, who were glad to see them; the house was clean, warm and comfortable; and the reports from stables, farm and mine were satisfactory. Mary, escorted round the ancient building, felt all the delight of a romantically-inclined lady, staying in an ancient manor, but unlikely to suffer any of the inconveniences associated with such a building: no draughts, no damp, no rat-infested walls. For the other inconvenience, its rural solitude, she had come prepared, being equipped with sketchbook, notebook, thick pelisse and stout boots; her harp was promised to be delivered in a few days, and the harvest being well in, there were not likely to be any such disagreeable delays as had occurred, when it was brought to Mansfield Park.
The solitude, however, proved not at all severe. Mariaís neighbours had been impatiently awaiting her return, and in the course of the next few days there was a stream of callers. Mr and Mrs Strickland were the first to arrive, bringing the news that Lizzie had become the mother of a fine, healthy little boy, as like his grandfather as he could stare! The news of Mrs Wardís beautiful young visitor soon spread. On one excuse or another, all the neighbourhood arrived. For one, it was a promise about a stack of hay; for another, the urgent need of a good riding horse; and several people found it necessary to ride over with a message or an enquiry about the Birkthwaite meet, though it was not to take place until January. "We are so pleased to have you back, Mrs Ward," said Mrs Snelling, a week after their arrival. "We have missed you so very much. Indeed, I felt sad not to find little Miss Price back here with you."
"As do I," said Maria, ruefully. "But my sister writes that she is so very happy at her school, that they do not like to take her away. Perhaps we shall see her at Christmas."
"We all hope so," said Mr Jevons, who had just happened to ride over that morning, to visit his sister, and now was very busy, helping to set up Miss Crawfordís harp. "My little nieces miss her."
"But I am so sorry not to see your aunt," continued Mrs Snelling."
"If you would be prepared to go up to her chamber, I am sure she would like to see you," Maria replied. "I will enquire," and Nanny was rung for, and it was agreed that Mrs Snelling would be very quiet, would just tiptoe in, etc.
She was very much shocked, however, when she came downstairs again, at Mrs Norrisís wretched appearance. "I never saw such a change in anyone," she said. "Poor woman! She looks very bad; and I hardly knew what to say, for I did not like to tell her that I thought she looked very poorly, indeed. But she did just say, that she would like my husband to come, and I will ask him to ride over, tomorrow or the next day, for I know that he will wish to do so. But, dear Mrs Ward, would she not have been better staying at B.., where they have so many clever doctors?"
"She was so very anxious to get home," Maria said, "but the journey tired her. The sores on her legs are so very uncomfortable, and of course they were chafed, in the carriage. We hope that she will soon be better. She needs to walk, to relieve the congestion in her feet, but she does not feel well enough, and she is so soon tired. We hope that when she is a little rested, she will enjoy sitting with us, and talking, or hearing us play. A sofa has been ordered, a very comfortable one, and it should be here tomorrow. I am sure she will soon be better, now that she is home."
"Well, Richard shall come over," said Mrs Snelling, as she prepared to take her leave, "and I wonder -- do you think that Mrs Norris might care to see Dr Sowerby? We can invite him to our home, you know, and bring him over, just for a morning visit, and you need not be at the trouble of doing any thing."
But Mrs Snelling was not to be allowed to take her leave just yet. The plucking and twanging, and murmured conversation from the other end of the room had ceased. The harp was ready to be tried, and soon they were all listening with delight to the first thrilling chords.
Mary played a simple ballad, a song of unrequited love. Maria felt the tears sting her eyes as she listened. She remembered the Parsonage at Mansfield, herself at the piano, Henry Crawford standing at her side. The music ended. "There!" said Mary. "You see now, what a self-centred creature I am, to play my own poor composition first!"
There were exclamations, and compliments, more heartfelt than is often the case. Mr Jevons, it was evident, knew a great deal about music. It transpired that he was himself a flute player, though, he admitted, very much out of practice. Mary had, among the music she had brought, several pieces for flute and harp, and one was found, for him to take away and study; eventually, quite soon in fact, they would all have a pleasant musical evening, which, it was hoped, would amuse poor Mrs Norris.
As their farewells were being said, Mr Jevons turned to Maria and said, with the utmost seriousness, "If there is any thing, at any time, that I can do, Mrs Ward, for you or for your aunt, you have only to send one of your people to Greenheys; a message, a word will bring me. Believe me, I shall be very unhappy, if I learn that there was something wanted, and that you did not send for me."
"Well! you found out something about him, that I never knew," said Maria, as the brother and sister drove off.
"Never knew!" said Mary, "and so, that is the gentleman whom you refused to marry. Well, and are you perfectly sure that you do not want him? for he is so very charming that, if I were quite sure that he is not too good for me, I would marry him myself," from which it may be seen, that there were not many secrets between Mrs Ward and her guest.Chapter 25
The chilly weather did not last, and Maria was able to show her friend something of the surrounding country. They sketched in Skelghyll, in all the beauty of the mellow October weather, and even rode to Scarsdale Edge.
Mary was delighted with it all; in fact, her enthusiasm far exceeded Maria's. "I see a magnificent valley," Mary said," and you talk of its fitness for pasturing sheep!" The harsh splendour of the scenery had had a considerable effect on her; she was writing songs and poetry, and had even begun to write a novel. It was to be a story of olden times, of life in the remote valleys, with a good deal of the history of the Plantagenets. Mary was disappointed to learn that neither King Richard the Lionheart, nor Mary, Queen of Scots, had ever spent any time in the neighbourhood, and began canvassing every old farmer's wife for information as to ancient customs, and old ways. It all stopped, however, when Mr Strickland, who was much smitten with Mary's good looks and charm, brought in one of his shepherds, to tell the two ladies the story, passed on from his father, of the "Hand of Glory" having been seen, many years ago, at Brough, in Westmorland.
This fearful object, it appeared, had the characteristic of being able to get through any door, or window, on which it rapped. No bar, no shutter would keep it out, for as everyone knew, it was the hand of a hanged murderer, stolen beneath the gallows-tree; and the murderer's evil spirit inhabited, and drove it on. Maria and her guest were shaking with fright by the time the story was half told; and the lad's assurance that Brough was a goodish step away, did not help, for clearly the "Hand" would make nothing of thirty miles, or even forty. That night the parlour fire was kept up all night, neither of the ladies went to bed; and Mr Ansell, arriving the next morning, found them white and heavy-eyed.
"Pooh! Nonsense," he exclaimed. "There is no such thing; parts of bodies stolen from the gallows, indeed; that is a tale to frighten children; and if you like, I will get old Brigham here, who used to be the warden of the Lancaster jail. He will tell you: there is nothing of the kind can happen, for they keep a pretty sharp eye out, at the executions, and get them into the quicklime, as fast as it may decently be done; nothing gets out of there, you may be easy," but for some reason, the shudderings of the ladies did not immediately cease, and nothing more was heard of Mary's historical tale.
One morning, they made a carriage expedition to Mr Jevons's home. It was a pleasant spot, still, with the autumn leaves not yet faded on the trees; a modest house, built of the grey stone of the country, with its gardens expanding down into a steep valley, almost a ravine, sheltered from the north wind, and planted with many trees and shrubs, that would not flourish elsewhere.
"It is delightful!" Mary exclaimed.
"Yes indeed," Maria said. "He is the only person that I know, whose gardener understands what he wants, and does exactly as he is told. I can argue with Robert, for an hour together, and at the end of it, he plants red carrots instead of white, and forgets to dig over the strawberry beds. I sometimes wish that ladies were allowed to take a spade, and do their own digging."
"Marry him, then," Mary said, "and the digging will be done exactly as you wish, and so will everything else. Look at you; you were half an hour this morning, in the early cold, trying to persuade Peter Withernshaw to exercise the horses they way you want it done, and you said to me, that as soon as your back is turned, he will do just as he thinks best."
"I know..but...Mary, do you remember the vinery, at Mansfield Park?"
"The vinery? Yes indeed, against the south facing wall, near the great apricot tree, it was so warm, even in the early spring, and the great bunches of purple grapes."
"It was built when I was ten years old. My mother and father, then, went visiting a good deal; they came back, I think it was from Lady Appleby's, and my mother said that she would like it, if she could have such a succession-house, so my father said he would build one for her. He drew up plans, he talked to the gardeners, and it was begun. My mother had seen a drawing of a pretty octagonal building, but the one that was built was put against the wall, to give more shelter. She said, she liked best the flavour of a kind of grape called, I think, muscatels, but my father was advised by several of his friends to grow the Black Hamburg, for they crop very heavy, so that was what was chosen. In the end, my mother had nothing to do, but walk into the building, and gather the fruit. Do you see? I should not like that. I would have enjoyed the planning, the deciding, the problems that arose, and had to be solved; and above all, getting my own way."
"Well, that is what you like, but as far as I am concerned, fruit is for eating, and I would be quite happy for anyone to build the glasshouse and grow the grapes for me; yes, and bring them into the house, for me to eat."
Mrs Norris might have had some tales to tell, of the Mansfield vines, whose grapes she used often to take home, saying that they were over-ripe, and would go to waste if not used; but she had been too unwell to accompany them. Her illness got worse. The visit to B.. had been used by them both as an escape from gossip; Maria had almost forgotten that its primary purpose had been to get medical advice for Mrs Norris. She realised that she had paid insufficient attention to her aunt's health, had barely been aware of it, except as the background to her own concerns, and aunt Norris was always going to be well, in a few days, or weeks. Now, faced with her aunt's increasing discomfort and pain, she was terrified.
"I have no experience in a sickroom, no knowledge of nursing," she cried to Mary. "I made my aunt so cross, just now! only by trying to put her bedclothes straight. Some women have confidence in their ability to raise the spirits of an invalid, or alleviate the tedium of a sickroom. I have none."
"Well, why should you, or I?" said Mary. "We were not bred to it, and we are not that kind of person. I think that that is the true reason why you did not wish to marry again. Most women find all their happiness in the running of a house; but how many women are there, who would care to oversee your stables, and do all the business that you do, in connection with the mine?"
"It is true; look at that day, last week, when we went out riding with the people who are thinking of building the new canal, which might go through our land. I was so happy, talking to them; I think it was one of the most interesting days of my life. If I had been married, I should have been obliged to stay at home, while my husband did it all."
"Well, I do not know what I should have done, if Mr Ansell and Mr Strickland had not been there. Every time I tried to talk to you, about the scenery, you were busy finding out how locks work, which is a thing that I shall never understand; or discussing how many molecatchers would be needed, for each mile of canal. I cannot see that there is any entertainment in that."
"Oh, but molecatchers are most important, for, you see, the moles dig through the banks, and then all the water is gone."
But Mary begged to be spared further details. "Now, let us be sensible, let us contrive a little. Is Nanny not a good nurse?"
"Yes, she is quite good, and she is very fond of my aunt; but she cannot be expected to care for her, all the time, and she begins to need attention at night as well as during the day. And you see, although Nanny was always called the housekeeper, my aunt was used to do everything: Nanny had only the charge of the stillroom, and the dairy. But then, while we were away, Nanny has become accustomed to running the household, and she likes it."
"Well, I have had a thought. Why do we not send to B.. and request the services of that excellent woman, who was your aunt's attendant into the baths?"
"Oh, yes, what a good idea!"
"And we will sit with your aunt, and read to her; I will take turns with you. I am no better at nursing than you are, without the excuse of being good at business; but that I can do."Chapter 26
Mrs Lidstone was delighted to come, and proved a most capable nurse. Relieved of the necessity of trying to do what she could not do well, Maria found herself calmer, and more able to spend time with her aunt, reading to her, and chatting of days gone by.
She had thought that Mary, faced with the cares of a sickroom, would soon grow bored, and wish to return to London. But Mary seemed happy to stay. Mr Strickland took her out hunting, and Mr Jevons, who shared her passion for antiquities, arranged several expeditions. It was quite astonishing, how many ruined abbeys, stone circles and old priories Mr Jevons could find, and how happy his sister and brother seemed, to go along! Mary would come home in the evening, bright faced and laughing; as often as not, the Snellings and their brother would stay to dinner, and afterward, Mrs Norris would be brought down onto her sofa, for a pleasant hour with the harp and piano and flute.
Other visitors were not lacking, but the one who seemed able to do the most for Mrs Norris was Mr Ansell. He would sit beside her, discussing new prospects for investments, for mines and mills. There was nothing Mrs Norris enjoyed so much as talking about money. He would come bustling in, in his old brown riding coat, with a handful of papers, that turned out to be some new prospectus; he would open it, and read, saying "Now, what do you think, ma'am? Let us decide together. Shall it be a little flutter on this? Would it be a good speck, to try it?"
"Oh! ruin yourself if you must; I shall not venture any of my little income, on such foolishness," Mrs Norris would reply; but she would eat her dinner more cheerfully, and sleep better, after such a discussion.
As Mrs Norris's illness became a settled thing, with little prospect of recovery in sight, Maria and Mary began to learn something of the work of a sickroom. Mrs Lidstone, among her other excellencies, was a very good teacher. It was eventually decided that Maria and Mary should take turns, assisting Nanny during the day, and Mrs Lidstone would care for Mrs Norris at night.
The winter had set in, the Christmas holidays brought Betsey home, and somehow it was decided that she should not go back to school. Mrs Norris got no better, in fact very much worse. Maria began to wonder how she would do, if her aunt were no longer there, to be her companion? Mrs Norris had quit her own home, in order to devote herself to her niece, at a time when she had been disgraced, unwanted, without a soul in the world who cared for her. At that time, Mrs Norris had been forced on her; Maria had had little love for her aunt, or, indeed, for anyone. Yet the very bareness of Mrs Norris's character, its bleak sanity, had preserved Maria from the worst excesses of romantic regret. Her respectability had got them both accepted; her business acumen had helped to make them rich. You might not like Mrs Norris, but you could trust her. Over the years, they had become allies, they had become friends.
One January night, Maria had gone to bed, and was sleeping, when she was roused by a tap on her door. It was Mrs Lidstone, and the news she conveyed was of a kind to make Maria tremble. Mrs Norris had taken a turn for the worse. Throwing on a dressing gown, Maria hurried to her aunt's room. "I tried to rouse her for her draught, ma'am, but she won't waken," the nurse whispered. Mrs Norris was lying quite still, breathing rather shallowly, seeming but to be peacefully asleep; but since she could not be awakened, Mrs Lidstone believed that it was not sleep, but coma. She had roused one of the stable boys, a couple of hours previously, and sent him off to Dalton for the doctor; it was a long ride, but fortunately it was moonlight. "I don't think, ma'am, that there's much the doctor can do."
Maria sat by the bed and took hold of her aunt's hand; it was very cold. "Aunt!" she whispered, "Aunt Norris, ma'am, wake up!" Nothing; no response.
"Mrs Lidstone, the doctor may not get here in time, or he may not be able to do anything for her. I think that Mr Snelling should be sent for. It is very late, but I believe he will come. Will you rouse Ben, and tell him that I say that he is to go at once?"
"I will stay with her, until Mr Snelling comes."
Maria was alone with her aunt. What should she do? What could she say to this poor woman, whose life had been cold and unloved, and now was ending? Her mother ñ if only her mother were here! And Maria thought for the first time for many years of Lady Bertram; her calm good nature, her unquestioning affection.
Perhaps she should pray; but Maria could think of no form of prayer; Mr Snelling, when he came, must do all that. She began to whisper:
"Aunt, aunt Norris, thank you; thank you for all you did for me. Thank you."
For the next hour Maria talked quietly to her aunt, recalling small episodes, talking of her childhood, of the Northampton dances; of ball gowns and silk sashes; of Tom and Julia and Edmund; and of Betsey. "I have been thinking, in the summer, we will give her a pony of her own. She is such a good little rider. How proud we shall be of her, shall we not?"
There was a tap on the door. Mr Snelling had arrived. Almost on his heels the doctor dashed into the room. Thankfully, Maria released her aunt's hand; she could do no more, she had done nothing. She went down to the parlour, expecting to find it empty and dark. There were candles lit: Nanny was there, lighting the fire, and crying.
"Thank you, Nanny, that was well thought of. Stay, what time is it?"
"It wants a quarter to three, ma'am."
"Very well. Now, go upstairs. I think you would like to be with your mistress, would you not?"
"Yes, ma'am; I should indeed."
She sat over the fire, shivering, too tired to cry, too wrought up to go back to bed. Presently, Mary came into the room. "Oh, my poor dear! Come, Maria, you must be sensible, you must not stay here to get cold," and Mary took her to her room and made her dress warmly. That done, they went down stairs, and sat over the fire until Mr Snelling entered the room, and told them that all was over. He urged them to go back to bed, there was nothing they could do. The doctor had left, and everything must wait until the morning.
They still sat there, talking quietly, crying a little from time to time. What needed to be done? The Stricklands must be told: "Oh, Mr Snelling will do that," said Mary, "and they will tell your friend Mrs Robinson."
"Oh yes, they will tell dear Lizzie. I will send someone to Mr Ansell as soon as it is light. And we must send to Mr Jevons, too: I know that he will help us with anything that needs to be done. But, oh, I had forgot; he is away; Ben said so this morning. Do you know when he is expected to return?"
"No," said Mary, looking confused. "That is; no, not exactly."
It was a full moon, and the night was cold, the ground was hard with frost. They could hear the sound of horses' hooves; a carriage was approaching. It must be the doctor ñ no! he had arrived.. her tired brain struggled to recall ñ yes, the doctor had been there, and gone. But it was a carriage; it was stopping; and regardless of the cold, Maria went to the door.
Two men got out and came hurrying toward the house. Both were wearing thick, heavy cloaks; one was Mr Jevons; the other... Who could it be? In the moonlight, for a moment, she thought it was her father. Then the man came into the light from the open door. It was her brother, Tom.Chapter 27
They buried Mrs Norris in the Lingfell churchyard, marking her grave with a simple gray stone. A regular memorial plaque was planned to be set up in the wall of the church at Mansfield, where there would be every tribute, of "pious memory" and "domestic virtues" carved into marble, from those who had never known her, and those who had been glad to be rid of her. The funeral was handsomely attended; for in Lingfell, and as far away as Dalton she was remembered with respect: shrewd, hard-working, honest, thrifty, devoted to her niece and to Birkthwaite. Stories were told of her "closeness," for the northern farmers have always held carefulness with money to be the foremost of the virtues.
Three weeks later, Maria was driving through Mansfield village, and into the grounds of Mansfield Park. There was much to see, and much to point out to Betsey, who would look at nothing. The child was in a state of combined weariness, for the journey had been long, and excitement, for she was to see her sisters again, and even better, to see her cousin Tom again, for he had gone on a day ahead of them, to prepare for their coming.
Her family wanted to do their duty by Maria, while not being completely sure, what that duty was. Tom, uneasy in his mind at the treatment she had received, and generous by nature, was convinced that she should be brought home, and treated as one of them, pointing out that she could not be left alone, in an isolated farmhouse, to fend for herself. Sir Thomas, not quite so certain, had been willing to be advised by his elder son, on whom he had begun to rely more and more; Lady Bertram was always willing to be guided by Sir Thomas, and Isabella by her husband. Susan, guided by Fanny and Edmund, was not so sure, but though she was loved by Lady Bertram as much as, perhaps even more than Fanny had been, her opinion counted as little as Fanny's had ever done, and was in any case not asked for.
Tom and Betsey had become firm friends. Tom's child was an infant, not yet of an age to ride, and Edmund's little boy and girl, like their mother, Fanny, were afraid of horses; he had never previously experienced the pleasure, the delight of teaching a child to ride. "She has absolutely no fear," he had told Maria, who knew it already, "and she seems to become one with the animal as soon as she is put upon its back. I am determined not to allow her to go to the Parsonage, for they will teach her to be afraid."
"I do not think they will," Maria said. "She is intrepid by nature."
"She must live at the Park," he continued, without really hearing what his sister had said, "with her sister Susan. Edmund and Fanny will surely not mind, they have children enough of their own already. But she shall not be put into the little white attic, as Fanny was; she shall have Julia's old room."
"I remember," he had said, musingly "I gave poor little Fanny a music box once, when she was a child, and a sewing box; but I shall give Betsey a pony of her own. As soon as may be, I shall speak to Farley, and she shall have the most spirited beast that he can come by, for it is a crime, every moment that she is not on a horse. He shall put up some jumps, and I shall school her myself. As for instruction, she can share Fanny's children's governess; aye, for she can go there for an hour or so, every day, and then Fanny will not mind that she does not live at the Parsonage. She need not spend long there. After all, what does a woman need, but to read and write, and cast up her household accounts?" Maria thought of her own education, of the metals, semi-metals, Roman Emperors and distinguished philosophers, whose names she had been made to commit to memory, of how little she had known of anything useful; and how hard it had been, when she began to earn money, and must understand investments, and keep her accounts in good earnest!
"But are you certain that Edmund and Fanny will allow you to keep her? Is there not .. a certain coolness? You began telling me something about Antigua, a few days ago?"
"O yes: Well, as you know, Edmund was sent, to put things right on my father's plantation, for I could not leave, and the women seemed to think that he should go away for a while, because of Fanny's health; though what good they thought the silly fellow could do out there, when he has no more idea of business than my mother's pug dog.. Can you imagine, sister, he stayed there no more than two weeks, then he took the first boat back, and declared himself an abolitionist! There is no money to be made there, he says, for the slaves all know that the emancipation is coming, some time, and they will not work, unless measures are taken which, he said, "no Christian person could consent to use. " So he gave it up, and came home. I am angry with him, it is true, for I know that he is wrong, and there is still money to be made, that we need badly."
"But about the slaves? You were out there; how did you find that sort of thing? Is it so very inhuman?"
"Oh, pooh, nonsense; it is not so bad; I never saw anything, that was so very terrible; only, they will not work, unless they are threatened with the lash; and then, of course, if they are disobedient, you must show them that you mean it. They are not like us, you know, they do not mind it as we should. But I must make it up with Edmund, he is not a bad sort of fellow, only, being a clergyman makes him over-scrupulous," and Tom, never given much to thoughtfulness, had turned to other topics.
The park, the gardens, viewed from the carriage as she approached, looked the same, yet not the same. Trees had grown up; others had been cut down, lawns and beds had been new made, prospects opened up; but the house itself was the same, only, she thought it had been a good deal larger. The carriage stopt, they were at the door, someone was coming out: the butler -- yes! Baddeley! And behind him -- it must be! it was - her father! Yet surely he was not used to be so stooped, so slow-moving and tired looking? There was Tom, and a lady with him; but it was not her mother, this lady was young, pretty, and dark-haired; and as she stepped forward, Tom took her by the arm, and said "Now Isabella my dear, this is my sister, who is your sister, too; and I hope that you will love her as much as I do. And there is my darling little Betsey!" he swung the child up in his arms, as she laughed and hugged him.
They went into the drawing-room, where there was another pretty girl; and Betsey, running forward, cried out "Susan! Oh, it is my sister Susan!" There was the familiar sofa, and there on the sofa, just as always, was her mother. Maria felt the tears sting her eyes. Her mother, still remarkably handsome, calmly setting aside her work, handing her pug dog to Susan, and making a welcoming space on the sofa: how little she had changed! How many years it had been since Maria had been in this room! and how much she had changed!
The excitement of being home, the pleasure of having once again a family, the curious sense of being once again a daughter in her father's house, carried her through the first few weeks.
The frost went out, the spring buds appeared. The hilltops would still have snow on them, at Birkthwaite. No longer did she have to rise on a frosty morning, to see to her stables, and give the gardener his orders; no more riding out in biting wind and cold rain, to farms or horse sales! Instead there was a ride along sheltered lanes, each morning, with Tom and Betsey. Fanny and Edmund had insisted on having her at the Parsonage, but Maria saw her every day.
She hired a maid, for although her mother said "Chapman can look after you, whenever I do not need her," Chapman was never available, when Maria needed her: namely, when she was dressing for dinner. This lady sneered at her thick northern clothes, got several stylish gowns made up for her, and insisted on curling her hair. She became less thin, and her complexion improved; she looked again like Miss Bertram of Mansfield Park. Yet the thought of the hilltops brought on a pang of homesickness: surely she could go home soon? The place was under good management, but would be better for her presence: no-one else wished to live there, she was sure.
The house was much gayer than it had been during her girlhood. Tom's wife was the youngest of a large family of brothers and sisters, and Tom himself had a very large acquaintance. There were constant visits, riding parties, dinners and evening parties. They were all younger than she, and did not seem to be aware of her strange position as a divorced woman; or in the cheerful atmosphere of a young party, among the general air of pleasure and enjoyment, no-one seemed to care about it; and she was equally at ease, in the company of her parents, or of her brother's friends.
This happy situation continued until the date of the monthly Northampton Assembly was approaching. A few days before, Isabella, with some embarrassment, advised her of a difficulty: Mr Rushworth had married again. His wife was very fond of society "and I am not sure that the poor man likes to be dragged to every assembly, but they are always there. They speak to us, a little, enough for civility; but we do not know how it would be..?"
"if I were present? It would be very awkward," said Maria, "and I should dislike it very much indeed; you were right to mention it. You must go without me, of course. It will not hurt me, to spend a quiet evening at home, and I can take a look at my business accounts, which have been much neglected."
"Well, I was sure you would say that, and I told Tom so. Depend upon it, I said, your sister will not want to go; for think of what it would be like, to have two Mrs Rushworths in the same room," and Isabella, who laughed at the end of almost every sentence, laughed rather too loudly. "And it will be very convenient, for then Susan can go with us. In the usual way, either she goes, or I do, for we do not like to leave her behind every time, you know, as Tom tells me Fanny was left; but someone must sit with Lady Bertram."
"Does not my father?.."
"O yes, he will be home, he does not go to the parliament any more; but your mother likes to have someone with her, to read to her, you know, or play, and fetch any little thing she might need, and help her, if she has a difficulty with her work," and Isabella laughed again.
The evening came, the party left for the Assembly; it would have been very hard on Susan, Maria thought, to be left behind, pretty as she was, at nineteen years old, while others danced! And she remembered Fanny; poor Fanny had always appeared, indeed, perfectly calm; and she and Julia, dressed in pink satin, or green, with new sashes and flowers in their hair, had never given a thought to how she might feel... but just then her mother called, and asked her to play for them.
Sir Thomas was half asleep in his great chair; Maria played for half an hour, then she and her mother played cribbage; then her mother, beaten three times, said "Why do you not read to us a little, my dear?"
"I must do some of my accounts; perhaps my father would like to read to you?"
"He is asleep, my dear. Do you read a little of that book, I forget its name, the one that Susan was reading? I should like to hear a little more if it."
"Well, I will, in a little while, but I am rather tired; why do you not do a little stitching? That embroidery that you are engaged upon is beautiful."
"I cannot, for I have done some stitches amiss: see, here, can you put them right?"
"I know nothing of such things, ma'am."
"Oh, very well, Susan must do it, and you may read."
"I must just go over these expenses, for my share in the farm."
"Oh, you have no need to do that; the farm is not yours any more; Sir Thomas says so."
"Why, how is that, madam? The farm is certainly mine, or at least, half of it is; for it was deeded to myself and my aunt; her half belongs to Tom now, it is true."
"No, it is not so; there is something in the deed; your father will know. Sir Thomas, Sir Thomas! Ah, you see, he is awake after all. Do but explain to Maria, my dear, what you were telling me, about the farm in the north -- what is its name?"
Her father, now thoroughly awakened, enlightened her. Maria, receiving some years previously the deed that seemed to make her and Aunt Norris the owners of Birkthwaite, had not read it carefully. The arrangement, her father explained, was not a joint ownership, but a joint life-interest, designed to allow the aunt and niece to have a home, where they might live together; and it was written in such a way that it expired on the death of either one of the parties.
Birkthwaite was no longer hers.Chapter 28
Birkthwaite was no longer hers!
Maria never knew how the rest of the evening was spent. That night was sleepless; and the morning that followed it saw her unable to think clearly, unable to eat her breakfast, barely able to speak. There could be no disputing what her father had said; Sir Thomas was not the man to be mistaken over such a matter. Her house, her meadows, the garden she had fostered, the orchard she had planted, her stables; and above all, her horses! She must speak to Tom! He had gone out early, to visit his stables, and impatiently she waited for his return; but just as he was walking into the house, she heard herself addressed; it was her father, who asked them both to join him in his business room: "The lawyer, Mr Southerly, you recall, is here from Northampton, and I have asked Edmund to be present. What he has to say concerns you all, and Julia as well, though she can not be here, but I will write to her. Maria, this has to do with our conversation of last night."
She was accustomed by this time to meet Edmund, who was perfectly civil, though never more than civil. When they were all seated, the lawyer began by asking Tom and Maria whether, in settling matters at Birkthwaite, they had some across any legal papers belonging to Mrs Norris, more specifically, a will? "No, sir," Tom replied, "My sister and I searched her desk and her room, and any other place we could think of, for that very purpose, but found nothing."
"We also," said Maria, "asked the lawyer, Mr Brinkstone. If she had made a will, I think she would certainly have had him draw it up, and lodged a copy with him, but he knew of nothing."
"In that case," Mr Southerly said, "and if you are certain, I have no choice but to apply for probate on the only will that appears to exist. " This, it appeared, had been drawn up many years before, on the occasion of her marriage. It was very simple, leaving all her property "of which I die possessed" equally to any children that she might have; and stated, what must have been an afterthought at the time, that in the event of her dying without issue, it was to be equally divided among the children of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. It seemed extraordinary that in all those years, she had never changed her original disposition, but so it was. "It is not uncommon," the lawyer said. "Many people do not like to think that they will die one day, or do not believe it. " It was true: even in the midst of pain, with the sores and swelling of her legs, the constant thirst, the loss of her eyesight, Mrs Norris had never ceased to talk of how she would do this or that "as soon as she should be better."
All she had brought to her marriage was the modest sum of seven thousand pounds; but she had always been saving, and her income, invested and re-invested, along with her profits from the mine, and some very shrewd speculations, had made her a rich woman. There would be rather more than thirty thousand pounds, to be divided equally between Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia.
"So you see," said her father to her, "you are no longer in need of Birkthwaite as a place to live. It will return to your brother, as it should, and your aunt's inheritance will provide you with an income, quite sufficient for your wants, as long as you live here with us. I believe you have a certain amount of money already, derived from the mine?"
"Yes, sir, but.."
"I know, the mine is ceasing to be productive."
It was true, the mine was to be wound down and closed. The vein had run out, the miners were leaving, Mrs Norris's cottages would soon be standing empty, or must be let to farm workers who could not pay as much as the miners had done.
"Is none of the farm mine, sir? I put a great deal of money into it -- can I recover nothing?" Mrs Norris had paid for their food and furniture, but Maria had mended roofs, repaired walls, replaced windows, put neglected fields into a cultivable state, and created a fine kitchen garden from almost nothing.
"I think not, my dear. You know, you were very fortunate in discovering the lead mine, after you had ownership of the place -- extremely fortunate; should anyone come to think that you knew, beforehand, or even suspected that lead was there, you might be accused of, shall we say, deceit? I do not like to use the word fraud. As it is, had the agreement been worded differently, Mr Southerly tells me, you might have been accused of wasting your brother's estate."
Maria was silent; guiltily, she thought that she had indeed known about the lead. "But, my horses! They are mine, and Sultan.."
"You must speak to your brother, my dear," and she resolved to do so, but she wanted more than her horses; she wanted to go home; perhaps Tom would rent the place to her, and she could manage it? But she could hardly go there in the very near future, after her family had welcomed her; a returned prodigal could hardly leave again in a hurry; she must stay awhile; she must be patient.
Meanwhile, on learning of their legacy, Fanny and Edmund quickly came to a resolution, that showed them capable of more generosity than many might have shown. Their income was secure, and they lived comfortably within it; they determined that the money should be entirely used to assist Fanny's brothers and sisters, the young Prices. Fanny had suffered considerable ill-usage from Aunt Norris during her childhood, and was not at all troubled by the fact that her aunt would have highly disliked her money being put to such a use. There would be a few thousand pounds for Susan, and the same, later, for Betsey. A little brother, it seemed, had been put into the Navy, and could not be got out; but a still younger brother (Maria could not remember their names) was to be rescued from his indentures, sent to school and put to a profession.
Soon after, there was another Assembly night, from which Susan came back looking prettier than ever, and Isabella and Tom smiling with satisfaction. The next day, Mr Hurst, the curate of Thornton Lacy, went to visit Edmund and Fanny, who, as her eldest sister, and brother, might be regarded as Susan's closest family connection, since her father had had nothing to do with any of his children, since his wife's death. It seemed that Susan and Mr Hurst had been in love for some time, but had been without the means of marrying, for all he had, was the promise of a living, when its elderly incumbent should die, and they had been prepared to wait, possibly for years. Now, with Mrs Norris's inheritance, their happiness need be no longer delayed.
Fanny and Edmund, knowing the young man's excellent character, were delighted; Sir Thomas was pleased; everyone rejoiced; there was only one dissentient voice. With all the affection she had for Susan, whom she really loved; for all her belief that every young woman should accept a good offer of marriage: "But I cannot do without her!" said Lady Bertram.
"Oh, nonsense, ma'am!" said Tom, bracingly. "You need never be alone; when there are Assembly nights, or when we dine out, my sister Rushworth will always be here to keep you company."
"Oh yes, of course," said Lady Bertram. "I had forgot. Maria can read to me, and she plays very well; but she must learn to help me with my embroidery, and draw out my patterns; Susan shall teach her, before she leaves us."
Maria was horrified. She was to spend her life like this! as much a slave as Fanny had ever been! No, no, no! She would go back to Birkthwaite, and live there! She had money enough: she would rent the house from her brother, and hire a paid companion.
"I can manage the place!" she assured him. "I can do everything. I assure you, it will make money, far more than you could have got by selling it, for you will have a steady income!" Tom said nothing.
She was still thinking of this, some days later, when the post was brought in, and there was a letter for her. It was from Mary -- but Mary was "Miss Crawford" no more.
"I should have given you an account of our wedding," Mrs Jevons wrote, "but I was lazy, and I assure you, it was a very quiet affair; and now you must hear all the news from here. The wedding took place in Buxton, and we have been back at Greenheys for some time, though we are leaving almost at once for an extended journey, in the course of which we shall be visiting my brother. My sister, who is to travel with us, sends her compliments to you, and to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. We are happy and excited, for on our return we are planning to build a woollen mill, to give employment to the people here; it is to be organized on democratic and co-operative lines," and, Maria thought, it will certainly never make a shilling.
"The other news" the letter continued, "is that Mrs Peters, Mr Ansell's sister -- you remember her - went to Buxton, taking a fishing rod, and she has caught herself a half-pay captain, with a fine pair of moustaches. It is said that when he heard the news, Mr Ansell said "Thank God!" and that he has given her five hundred pounds to buy her bride-clothes. We are sorry to hear of Birkthwaite being sold; and we are longing to know who the buyer is, for it is a great secret; do, pray, write and tell us... " and at this point Maria broke down, and wept.Chapter 29
Tom Bertram was no longer the young rattle who had almost wasted his inheritance. He did not drink too much, nor did he gamble. He was well liked by the tenants, friendly and understanding. Tom thought of nothing but farming -- he might seem to read the newspaper for half an hour together, but at the end would only say that he wished those fellows in the government would do something for the farming interest. He thought as his father did, on almost all matters. With the Antigua estate making no returns, money was needed; and neither of them wanted to have Maria living up at Birkthwaite, alone; even under Aunt Norris's supervision, she seemed to have achieved far too much independence. "Yes, I daresay she could make money there, but we can do nearly as well, and safely, in the three per cents," Tom had said to his father; and the property had been quietly put up for sale. The simplest way to avoid arguments with women, Tom knew, was to tell them nothing.
"You cannot have reflected, sister," he said now. "It was one thing for you to be there with your aunt, an older woman, a widow, but to be living there alone, at your age, and -- I must say it -- with your unfortunate history known - it would not be respectable, it would hardly be safe. I do not know who is the buyer, they have conditioned for secrecy, until the sale is complete."
"But my horses; and what about Sultan?"
"Oh, that will all be in the agreement; the horse can be brought down here, never fear; and the others too, if you wish, though you would do better to sell them; I can always mount you. " Like most amiable, but not very clever men, Tom hated arguments, and would never listen, once his mind was made up.
But Maria was afraid; she knew Sultan's temperament too well. How would he fare, in new surroundings? Could he even be got to Mansfield safely, or would he throw and kick himself about, injuring himself and maybe hurting someone, so that he must be destroyed? She knew that he could never be moved, unless Peter or Ben came with him; and she thought that, like most northerners, they would be unwilling to move south. Maybe they would make the journey with him, and then go back, once he was safe?
Her greatest distress came from the fact that she was now virtually a prisoner at Mansfield Park, an unwanted, unmarried woman, compelled to make herself useful, by waiting on her mother, whenever it was inconvenient for the rest of the family to be at home! No! she would not bear it! She had money -- not a great deal, but enough, she thought, with care, for independent living. They could not actually prevent her going! But where could she live? Perhaps she could go to stay with Mary, and Mr Jevons, and try to find some small house? She was known, and respected, around Lingfell: surely it would be easier to go back there, than to try to establish herself among strangers? She would write...but no! Mr and Mrs Jevons were absent, for an extended period: she must resign herself to waiting, until they should return; and how long that might be, she did not know.
One morning, Sir Thomas, coming back through the village, after one of his daily rides, passed the house where his wife's sister, Mrs Norris had lived. It had been a very small property, only just big enough for gentility; but during the time that Tom and Isabella had occupied it, it had been enlarged and acquired several new features. Now it was standing empty.
Sir Thomas was finding it a more awkward business than he had expected, having his elder daughter always in the house. There were many old friends whom he could not invite, for they did not wish to meet a divorced woman; Edmund did not like to come to the house, and Fanny would not; and Isabella's family had privately expressed some reservations to him. In addition, since his son had married, as he had, a woman of placid temper and compliant disposition, he was unused to the atmosphere of resentment and irritation that Maria's presence was creating, and was finding it most disagreeable. There had been some very sharp exchanges between her and Tom...Now a new possibility suddenly occurred to him: to have his daughter living close by, to some extent under their control, but not actually within the house!
"Go and see it, my dear," he said to her, later that morning. "Look at it, and see what you think; it can very easily be refurbished. Christopher Jackson has the key; for he did some work on the roof, in the winter."
Maria went there, alone. At the first sight, it seemed impossible; empty unfurnished rooms, dust and cobwebs everywhere! but then, as she wandered in solitude from room to room, she found herself feeling gradually peaceful, and comfortable. Tom was not about to enter, in his noisy, carefree way, and disturb her, nor Isabella with her empty laugh. However desolate the rooms, it felt better than the constant feeling of being imprisoned! It would be her house; she would have the ordering of her own meals, she would be able to hire servants of her own choosing; and there was a large, though neglected garden. Maybe some of the furniture from Birkthwaite could be brought here? Unless the new owner had conditioned for its being left in place? She locked the door, and began to make her way back, through the little gate that had been made to give access to the park.
To her surprise, the carpenter came toward her. "Yes, Jackson, here is the key, do you need it?"
"No, ma'am, not in any hurry; but would it be you, ma'am, that the gentleman from the north would have been wanting?"
"A gentleman? What is his name?"
"I did not catch it, ma'am, but he asked for "Mrs Ward", and Mr Baddeley was a-saying that there was no-one of that name, but Mr Bertram came into the hall, and was very pleased to see him, and they are gone to see the stables, but Mr Baddeley was asking if I knew where you was, ma'am, for we thought, it might be you that he meant."
Who could it be? Was it Mr Yates? No, it must be someone from Lingfell, since he only knew her by her assumed name. It was exactly like Tom, to take every newcomer, and carry him off to see the stables! She must go there immediately; goodness, she must go at once! for whoever it was, might know who had bought Birkthwaite, and supposing, whoever it was, he were to leave without her being able to speak to himÖ!
The most direct way to the stables, from this part of the garden, was through the shrubbery. It had grown up, since she had left, too much, she thought, the bushes wanted cutting back; Tom was caring well for his land, but little had been spent on the gardens; the house needed new furnishing, too...at this moment, she saw that someone was approaching, but she could not see who it was, for the thickness of the bushes. It was a man, in a brown coat; perhaps Edmund, for the family from the Parsonage sometimes used that route; certainly, it must be Edmund. She rounded a turn in the path, and saw Mr Ansell coming toward her.Chapter 30
For the next few minutes, Maria was very glad of the thickness of the bushes. It was a considerable time before the two of them emerged, and by then, not only was she once again in a state of countenance that could bear inspection; she was engaged to be married.
Mr Ansell was the buyer of Birkthwaite. He had insisted on his identity being kept private, until he could come to find her, and ask her to be his wife, and live with him there. He knew all about her situation; he had known for years; and he did not give a fig, he said, but she must come and marry him, for Dalton was a ditch without her.
This point being satisfactorily settled "Why, during all the years that we have been acquainted," she asked him, "did I never think of you as a husband, or dream of the possibility of our marrying? Why did I not know that I loved you?" "You always thought of me," he said, "as a friend; and I thought of you the same way. It never occurred to me, until you were not there, that friendship had grown into love."
It had never occurred to Maria, either. She had chosen her husband, poor stupid Mr Rushworth, solely for the sake of his wealth and influence; when she fell in love with Henry Crawford, she had perceived nothing beyond his handsome person and seductive manner. Only now, after the years of hardship and loneliness, had she learned to appreciate the value of trust, respect and friendship.
"All the time I was wretched here, I told myself that I longed to get back to my home," she said, "but I did not know that it was you whom I most missed and longed for. You are my home. You can take me anywhere, and I would be home; but I am glad beyond telling, that we are going back to Birkthwaite. Do you think we can get there, before the fruit sets on the apple trees?"
To Sir Thomas, and to her brother Tom, the engagement was a relief; they were unlikely to create any opposition to the man who would take their disgraced daughter and sister off their hands. To Lady Bertram it was a great surprise, and she could not understand it; but after Sir Thomas had spoken with her, and she knew what to think, it quickly became a source of satisfaction: "I am very glad," she said, "for now Maria is a married woman again, and all is right. I did not like the idea of her living all by herself, I am sure she would have found it very disagreeable; and although she and my sister Norris dealt very well together, every woman really needs to have a gentleman to live with her."
What Fanny and Edmund thought, Maria and her bridegroom neither knew, nor cared: the marriage, arranged by the influence of a friend of Sir Thomas, took place quickly and privately, with no members of her family present. They left immediately for home, the home she knew and loved (after her husband) best in all the world; and as the chaise drew away, Maria suddenly smiled to herself, remembering her idea that a divorced woman must be married at midnight, in some tumbledown chapel or ruined chantry, and in another country.
The little White house was not re-furbished at that time, though Christopher Jackson kept the roof intact. Some years later, Betsey married the son of a friend of Tom (a great rider to hounds) and since she claimed that she wanted to live near her sister, and really did want to be near her cousin Tom, the house became their property. Although it was never much talked of at Mansfield Park, they frequently visited "friends in the north" whose identity was never made quite clear.
Who kept Lady Bertram company, and put her needlework right on Assembly nights, the present author does not know.
FINIS© 2008 Copyright held by author