At the age of five and twenty, Mrs. Frances Bertram was left a widow. Her husband Edmund had practically work himself to death by his goodness--constantly slaving and dedicating all his remaining time to the parish of Mansfield.
Fortunately, Frances, nee' Fanny Price, had the goodness to be happy enough with her husband's dedication in order to support him completely. This, of course, meant much sacrifice on her part. Edmund did most of his work without pay, and donated the little he did have to various poor families in the area, so he and his wife were obligated to remove themselves from the former parsonage of Dr. Grant's to a smaller cottage on the premises.
But apart from the monetary difficulties, Frances had to suffer the much worse fate of a lack of attention from her husband. Edmund was not cruel, nor would he even think of striking his wife, but he did neglect her under good, pardonable sort of circumstances. Frances was fortunate if she ever received a smile from Edmund on one of the brief occasions he was at home between visits. She longed for the old times when she was a dependent at Mansfield--the poor cousin who instantly gained Edmund's esteem and affection. She wished she could once again be his confidant, his "dear cousin Fanny." But sadly she was all too aware of the fact that as the poor Fanny Price, she was pitied and held first and foremost in Edmund's mind; but as the married Mrs. Frances Bertram, she was happily settled, and therefore all unneeded attentions were simply wasted on her.
But now a widow, it would be necessary to hold a meeting with all the Bertrams of Mansfield Park. So in agitation, Frances donned her black garb and made her way to the estate.
Mansfield was a different place these days. The abundant roses that used to surround the building were now untended and wild. Not since Lady Bertram's death three years ago had any particular care been given to the estate. Frances thought it a shame, for she had always loved a garden, even if the sun did tire her. And now she was toughened from being a busy parson's wife--browned, she feared--and not half so delicate as she once was.
"Now she comes," Frances heard her Aunt Norris announce. "For shame, Mrs. Bertram, you kept us waiting."
"I'm sorry, Aunt. I should have walked faster."
"You should have done nothing of the sort," broke in Sir Thomas, taking Frances' shawl. "You are in a sad state still, Frances. You should have sent for the carriage."
Frances stole a glance at her aunt, who sat with her arms crossed and a grimace on her face. Poor Mrs. Norris had no one to "help" ever since Maria remarried. Of course there were Susan and her friend, but Mrs. Norris considered them beneath her patronage.
"Thank-you, Uncle," said Frances, "but I do not want to take too much advantage of your kindness. I fear I have too much already."
"Taken advantage? Don't say such a thing, Frances! You're my daughter now, aren't you?"
"I believe Mrs. Bertram speaks truth," interrupted Mrs. Norris. "Don't you think it's time for her to move away from Mansfield?"
"Away from us?" Cried Sir Thomas, astonished. "No, Madame, I do not. Frances is family now, and she will continue to live at Mansfield for as long as she wishes to."
Mrs. Norris grumbled and immediately left the room, causing Frances to restlessly walk around the room.
"How is my sister?" She began, anxious to change the conversation.
"Susan?" said Sir Thomas. "She is doing well. Yes, I'm sure you'll find her much better. It did her a world of good to visit Portsmouth again."
"And Eliza?" Asked Frances, naming her sister's friend from Portsmouth who was currently residing at Mansfield.
"Miss West? Oh, she's fine, too, I suppose. Excuse me. I'll fetch them."
"Oh, that's not necessary, Uncle..." began Frances, but Sir Thomas was already out of the room. A moment later, Susan and Eliza joined Frances, but they were unattended by Sir Thomas.
Susan looked very much like her older sister, with pale, sweet features and light hair. A recent illness had taken much of the colour out of her face, but her eyes still shown bright and pretty.
Her friend Eliza West, who hailed from an unknown family in the poor part of Portsmouth, had a beauty of an all together different sort. She was dark-skinned, with sable eyes and hair. Eliza was extremely attractive, but hers was a sort of vulgar, almost unladylike beauty. The strange thing, though, was that she had a great measure of kindness which did not correspond with her bold looks, and even Frances could not dispute the choice of friend her sister had made.
After giving all the proper greetings to Miss West, and affectionate hugs to Susan, Frances left Mansfield, with no more plans for her future than she did when she arrived that day.
"Fanny, Fanny!" cried Susan, running into her sister's parlour along with Eliza. "I have news! Mansfield finally has a new parson--a Mr. Dearston, I think. Yes, yes...What do you think of that?"
"I don't know," replied Frances, putting away her work. "It's rather early, isn't it?"
"Oh, no! It's been a full month."
"Well I hope he proves to be as good a man as--as dear Edmund."
Frances started to cry, and the two young friends looked at each other in surprise.
"But Mrs. Bertram," said Eliza, rather boldly. "Mr. Dearston isn't married! That's what we wanted to tell you. He's not so old either, and your Aunt Norris was just saying that he would be a good catch for you."
Upon hearing this, Frances' sobs only grew louder. Susan glared at her friend and fell to comforting Frances.
"Dear Fanny, don't cry! There, there now. You don't have to marry if you don't want to. That's what I told Aunt--I said that Fanny was so much in love with cousin Edmund that she could never think of marrying again. Besides, Mr. Dearston's in his forties: that's much too old for you, Fanny."
"Oh, that's not so old!" cried Eliza. "My sister's husband is at least that age, and Mary's younger than Mrs. Bertram!"
"But Fanny would hate to be married to someone so old--who wouldn't, unless it's for mercenary reasons?"
"There's not any trouble in that. It's never good to marry a young man; with the exception of your husband, Mrs. Bertram." answered Eliza.
"Miss West is right," said Frances in between sniffles. "Most of the truly good, kind men I know are well over forty. But it's still too soon for my thinking about remarriage."
"Oh well," shrugged Susan. "I suppose Mr. Dearston will have to be given up. He can't help it if he was born ten years too early."
"And we can't help it that we were born ten years too late," replied Eliza with a devilish grin.
But the idea of securing a marriage for Mr. Dearston was not given up; or at least he could not dash the subject aside. On the day after he arrived at Mansfield, he paid a visit to the wife of the former occupant of his job.
Frances was very disappointed in him. Mr. Dearston was a foolish, foppish sort of man, but even worse, he was selfish, unmannerly, and uncaring for the people in his parish.
Frances couldn't abide his company, but she was always unfortunately burdened with it. There was not a day that did not bring Mr. Dearston to Frances' door. She wondered that he had so much time, and could be done with all parish calls by dinner, but she was too good to say anything.
"And did Mr. Dearston call on you today?" Asked Mrs. Norris when Frances would visit.
"Yes he did, Aunt."
"I hope you are kind to him, child. Let him know that he is welcome. You will be very lucky to catch him; and so soon after Edmund's death. Edmund you were very fortunate to get: no one would have guessed that he'd marry a poor dependent like you. Heavens, it was enough that the Bertrams took you in. Yes, you would be very ungrateful indeed if you were unkind to good Mr. Dearston."
Frances could do nothing but nod. Even the caring Sir Thomas did his best to convince his niece to marry the parson, and commented on Mr. Dearston's "gracious charity" every time the subject of the church was brought up. The only person who did not bother Frances about the prospects of the marriage was Susan, who was perfectly convinced that Frances would never take the vow again.
But Frances herself knew that someday she'd be asked to marry, and marry she must; though who the groom would be was another question.
A few days later brought a letter from her brother William, which Frances had long been awaiting:
"My Dearest Fanny,
I am so sorry that this letter is late in reaching you.
I have been so very busy lately; although I know that that is no excuse for not writing to my dear sister. However, I do think you will pardon me on this occasion.
I have been married! You now have a new sister. Her name is, or was, Miss Jane Dunn, and she is as dear a girl as any other I've met--of course excepting you, dear Fanny. I am sure you will love her.
We are currently in London; staying in a house that is certainly not grand, but comfortable enough, I suppose. We are here for a month until we sail. Fortunately, Jane is well accustomed to the sea already, for her father was a captain--and the captain of my ship, no less.
But what I must tell you, my dear Fanny, is that we would like to meet up with you before we depart for India. You have not been to London before, and I think that now would be as good a time as ever. Jane is very anxious to meet you, and I would love to see my dear sister again. Please consider, my dearest Fanny: I am sure you will be greatly pleased with a new situation, though temporary as it is.
Your Loving brother,
After having read the letter over twice, Frances took up her shawl for a stroll on the Mansfield grounds to ponder the contents of the missive. She could never quite think so well indoors, and she always felt that her decisions were ever so much wiser when made under the sun.
The news that William had found a wife gave her no great surprise. She knew he would marry in due time; and as to his choice, Frances was confidant that William's good sense had decided the match.
But London--London, as William knew, was a city Frances had never seen. All she knew of it she had gathered from books and by word from those who had visited. She wished much to see it, but still there was something in the plan that blocked out the more enjoyable anticipation.
London the city--the buildings, its size--did not frighten her. She was sure William's home would be in a good, safe neighborhood, and that he would escort her wherever she might happen to go. Nay, it was the possibility of meeting up with old acquaintances who she had not seen since she was Fanny Price. Frances knew that her cousins Maria and Julia commonly frequented London, as did the Crawfords. The Crawfords: Frances hadn't heard their names mentioned since the dreadful affair with Henry and Maria. Mr. Crawford had long since abandoned Maria, and try as she might, Frances could not dismiss the memories of the strong affection Henry once had for herself. She feared to meet him, yet a small part of her wished to get another glimpse of him.
"Why Mrs. Bertram! However do you do?" Frances was awakened from her thoughts by the loud, bold voice of Mr. Dearston.
To have her reveries of Mr. Crawford's ardent gaze abruptly transformed into the conceited and time-ravaged face of the new parson annoyed her to no little extent. Still, she kindly answered, "Very well, I thank you," in a tone that gave no hint to the wishful man.
"Splendid." Mr. Dearston answered, not much heeding what Frances said. "Oh, Mrs. Bertram, I was wondering if you would care to come to a supper I'm having for my sister next week? She is only here for a short time, and would so love to meet you.
"Next week?" Frances replied absent-mindedly. "No, I'm sorry, Sir, but I will be in London."
The statement came out before Frances knew what she said; but once Mr. Dearston gave his interested, if rather surprised reply, she knew she could not go back on it. Secretly, Frances thought that even the frights of London could not be as bad as a dinner party with two members of the Dearston clan.
But there, of course, remained the unhappy obstacle of informing her husband's family of her intentions. Sir Thomas, Frances believed, would be happy with her plans, but Mrs. Norris would think that her ungrateful niece was taking too much of a luxury. Though Frances had long since attained respect among the Bertrams, and had married even better than her Aunt Norris, Frances Bertram would always remain "the poor child of sister Price--and of Portsmouth, too!" Why should Frances be able to travel all over England when Maria and Julia--the daughters of Sir Thomas Bertram--could only visit if it was in their husbands' interest? That Frances was in possession of the money left by the late Edmund Bertram--as small as the portion was--was a crime, and reason enough for Mrs. Norris to refuse to forgive her niece.
Frances thought of this, and the anxiety filled her head. She hoped that her aunt would be out of the house, but that would be most improbable. Though Mrs. Norris had a home of her own provided by Sir Thomas, a home which was more than large enough for once solitary person, Mrs. Norris would much rather spend all her time among the comforts of a manor house; with always an audience to hear out her opinions.
Frances' spirits sank as she caught glimpse of her aunt in the garden. Quietly, she tried to walk around to the front of the house, but she did not move quickly enough for the still-sharp eyes of Mrs. Norris.
"Mrs. Bertram!" Yelled the aging woman as she drew up her skirt edges and hastened over to Frances. "What are you doing, child? I hope you were not trying to avoid me. It would be a most ungrateful thing to do--to shun the aunt that gave you all you have!"
"No, Aunt." Replied Frances nervously. She glanced at the door, anxious to get out of Mrs. Norris' reach, but unfortunately that lady was not so allowing.
"And what have you to say? You came to tell me something? But of course it seems that the only reasons you ever come here now are either to visit your sister or to express a want: never to visit your poor aunt."
"And she wonders why?" Thought Frances angrily, but shunning herself, she answered her aunt in such a way that could not allow Mrs. Norris to accuse her of a want of gratitude.
Finally, Frances was allowed to go inside, where she waited for Sir Thomas. The minutes went by, increasing Frances' nervousness, but the sight of Susan soon calmed her.
"Fanny!" cried her sister, "How are you?"
"Very well, Susan. And where is Miss West today?"
A strange look came over Susan's face. She sat down next to her sister and replied: "Eliza's in the hall, playing a card game--with Uncle."
"With Sir Thomas? How very odd!"
"I know," agreed Susan. "They have been at escarte all day now."
Frances thought it very strange, and ill-judged on her uncle's behalf, but no more was said between the sisters.
In a few more minutes, Sir Thomas and Eliza entered the room, laughing.
"By George, Miss West has beaten me again!" Cried Sir Thomas, taking on a new aspect Frances had never before seen. "And normally I'm a pretty decent player; but I believe that Miss West cheats!"
"Indeed, Sir!" replied Eliza, laughingly taking her place at the sofa. "Why Sir Thomas, I'm astonished! Did I not catch you hiding cards beneath the table?"
"That is a lie, Eliza!"
At that moment, Mrs. Norris happened to walk in from outdoors. She stared at Sir Thomas in disbelief, but it did not take long for her to regain control of her mouth.
"Sir Thomas! What are you about? Whatever you do in your own time, please to not speak so abominably in front of your nieces. I am shocked, indeed!"
"Madame, I apologize if I offended you or anyone," said Sir Thomas, getting back some of his usual composure. Frances observed that he shot a glance at Eliza, who was desperately trying not to laugh. "But it's been years since I've been able to play at cards," he continued, "and Miss West happens to be quite good."
"Yes," sniffed Mrs. Norris,"as are most low-bred Portsmouth girls. But I believe that it is much too soon for you to be playing cards and to be involved in other such gayeties. There is no excuse: a widower must never act like a schoolboy." With one more glare at Sir Thomas, Mrs. Norris glided out of the room.
Apart from the comment on the girls of Portsmouth, Frances for once could not disagree with her aunt. Sir Thomas' behaviour greatly shocked her--even if all was innocent. For Sir Thomas to be acting that way, not withstanding his wife's recent death, was foolish and thoughtless.
Mrs. Norris' outburst caused Eliza's giggles to turn into ashamed tears. Sir Thomas looked pityingly at her, and asked Susan if she would care to take Eliza to her room?
So Frances had her earlier wish granted--the wish to be able to inform Sir Thomas of her plans without the interference of her aunt. However, considering the sad state Sir Thomas was now in, Frances hated to bring up the subject, and would have to summon up all her courage to do so.
"I believe that you have something to ask me?" Began Sir Thomas after a brief lapse of time.
"Yes, Uncle." replied Frances. "My brother William is married now, and wishes me to visit him in London. Do you think it wise that I should go?"
Sir Thomas sighed. "Dear Frances, you need not consult me on the matters of judgment."
"What, Uncle?" exclaimed Frances, giving a little start.
"It's that I fear I may not be so wise as you once thought me."
"That is not true, Uncle." Frances started to grow a little impatient. Her uncle's dejection only annoyed her, and she wished no more to think of the scene that had just passed. After some more time went by, she decided to bring up the subject once more.
"Uncle, I wish to go to London--to visit my brother William and his wife."
"What!" Sir Thomas finally awoke from his pressing thoughts. "William is married?"
"Yes--I've only just found out myself; that was what I was telling you. He wishes me to visit them in London. May I?"
"Oh, of course, Frances! You don't need my approval anymore," answered Sir Thomas, apparently back to his old self. Frances smiled her thanks and rose to leave, but Sir Thomas motioned to let her know that he was not finished speaking. "Frances," said he in a tone that warned his niece of what was to come, "Frances, before you go anywhere, I would like to be made aware of your intentions."
"Yes. Well, I wanted you to know that if you are going away for a long period of time, you might lose your chances with Mr. Dearston."
Frances flinched at this blunt statement. "Uncle! Lose my chances?"
"Yes--of securing him. Surely you must realize that a marriage with an older, stable man like Mr. Dearston would be just the thing for you." Sir Thomas, aware that he had been very forward, looked at Frances hopefully, but her face soon betrayed her anger.
"Uncle! I have no intentions of "securing" Mr. Dearston. Indeed I am astonished. After I have been married to your son--good, caring Edmund--, how can you expect me to change my name for that odious man?"
"Frances!" Exclaimed Sir Thomas, much taken aback at his normally placid niece's outburst. "How ungrateful of you! I cannot believe that you would ever do his twice."
Frances immediately understood her uncle's rebuff and lowered her head as blushes spread across her face. "Uncle," she began nervously, gaining courage as she went along, "I know that you had some right to press me into accepting Mr.--Mr. Crawford, but now that I am wholly independent, I will beg that you spare me you marriage plans, which are so imprudent and disagreeable to me."
"If that is how your thoughts stand," answered Sir Thomas angrily, "then I will not bring up the subject again. But I must ask that you allow that "odious man" to join us for supper tomorrow night. I would never dream of inconveniencing you, but we have had this planned for a week now."
Frances' anger quailed during this speech, and she began to regret the strong feelings she had so thoughtlessly displayed. She could not but agree to Sir Thomas' arrangement, assuring herself that to dine with Mr. Dearston would be infinitely better than marrying him.
"Why Mrs. Bertram!" was Mrs. Norris' not-so-cordial greeting when Frances arrived for dinner. "La! What can you be thinking?"
Frances, much confused, begged her aunt to explain.
"As if you didn't know, child, when I'm sure you did it on purpose. Why, that dress you're wearing is most shocking. How can you wear your plainest dress when you know Mr. Dearston will be here?"
"Aunt Norris!" exclaimed Frances. "My dress is very well--fine enough for Mr. Dearston, I should hope."
Mrs. Norris murmured something unintelligible to Frances' ear, and brought the niece into the dining room, where everyone was waiting. All, with the exception of Sir Thomas, greeted her with smiles; but none so much as Mr. Dearston. That man expressed his great happiness to see Mrs. Bertram, and his worry for her health to such a degree, that one would never guess that he had just seen her the other day.
Susan was very glad to see her sister, and from her looks, Frances guessed that nothing more had happened at the house. Eliza West was well past her tears, and was looking every bit as dashing as usual.
But Sir Thomas, on the other hand, welcomed Frances with exaggerated coldness, talking no more to her than what decorum called for. He continued that way throughout dinner, as did Mr. Dearston hold onto his facade of kindness. He did all he could do to recommend himself to Mrs. Bertram, annoying her more than anything else. But Frances' ultimate horror was realized when Mr. Dearston actually offered to drive her to London. "There really is no reason for my going there," he made sure to point out, "but I would be honored to be able to provide service for dear Mrs. Bertram."
Frances informed him that his services would not be needed, as she already was to be driven by Mansfield's coachman, but Mrs. Norris saw an opportunity and broke in:
"But surely it would be more convenient for Mrs. Bertram to be driven by you, Mr. Dearston. It would be best that we have our chaise here, to be sure, for you never know what might come up. Yes, it would be most gracious of you, sir."
Mr. Dearston smiled complacently upon hearing this, obviously very proud of his chivalric offer. Frances only sighed, knowing that it would be impossible for her to contradict. She glanced at Sir Thomas, half-expecting to see a smile of goal accomplished on his face, but to her surprise, he took up her case and protested for her:
"Indeed, Ma'am (addressing Mrs. Norris), I think you are asking rather too much of Mr. Dearston. We will get along nicely here--for do not forget that we will still have the phaeton--and since London is so out of the way for Mr. Dearston, I believe that the trip would be more trouble for him than anything."
If Frances was relieved by this, she was just as soon brought down again by the gallant parson, who answered: "No, sir, no trouble at all. In fact, I would love to be able to drive Mrs. Bertram--very much. I beg, nay, implore that you give the pleasure to me."
This plea could not be refused, so in two day's time, Frances was in Mr. Dearston's chaise, sitting right next to him. He had decided to bring his driver along for the trip--he could manage it himself, he was aware, but he would so much rather have the pleasure of keeping Mrs. Bertram company.
The journey from Mansfield to London was a long one, but it seemed to go on for hours more due to Mr. Dearston's tedious chat. He constantly expressed his happiness in being able to accompany Mrs. Bertram on the trip, until Frances thought it was rather overstated. Most of the time his conversation was dull and thoughtless, and given to strange comments. Frances, not a talkative person herself, was at least thankful that Mr. Dearston didn't ever bother asking her for her input and opinions. His talk was rapid and continuous--most of the time telling of what had just occured in his mind, of whose faculties Frances had some doubts to. But he did surprise her once by talking of books.
"Mrs. Bertram, do you know who wrote "Evelina?" All this time I thought it had to be a man--Dr. Johnson, as a matter of fact, but I have just heard that the author is a woman named Frances Burney! 'How odd!' thought I at the time, 'the name sounds like that of my dear friend, Mrs. Bertram's!' And I wouldn't be surprised if you were to turn out to be some sort of novelist, Mrs. Bertram. I've always thought writing a rather improper occupation for women, but with the successes of Miss Burney and Mrs. Radcliffe, I've changed my mind! Of course I'm not much of a reader; I was almost forced to read Miss Burney's book by my sister, who is a great reader: she's read all of the gothics, I dare say. But I thought "Evelina" pretty clever. Captain Mirvan was just a wit, but you know, Mrs. Bertram, the only thing I disliked about that book (apart from its too-many pages) was the dashed treatment Sir Clement got. Oh! Well here is the inn! Good thing, for I'm extraordinarily hungry!"
Frances was also relieved to see the inn in sight--a large respectable-looking place, she was much heartened to notice. After some luncheon, and hopefully a short walk on the grounds for a quick escape from Mr. Dearston, the pair would then continue to London, where Frances would finally be able to part with the boorish parson for at least a couple of weeks...
The White Horse Inn was a large and well-attended building, being one of the few truly respectable public houses on the London route. Frances had feared that the people inside would consist of country farmers and unmannerly servants, so she was glad to see the house full of genteel people, who talked softly and only to the company they were with.
Mr. Dearston led Frances to a table by the windows and summoned the waiter at once. As usual, the parson kept up conversation until the food came. Frances was very much surprised by the many courses that were brought to Mr. Dearston's place. She doubted that anyone--not even a man as large as Mr. Dearston--could eat so much, but at the rate he was going, Frances began to think it possible--later, probable. At least the meal stopped the man from talking incessantly, which Frances was more than happy of.
While she delicately pecked at her food, her eyes wandered around the room. It seemed that all were going to London, for all were in excitement. Frances heard numerous sites of London described, debated, and demerited, but the conversation between two young women and the young man accompanying them engaged her ears more than any other.
"I don't know what you two are planning to do in London," began one of the girls, a small, pretty thing of about one-and-twenty, "but I am going to the Royale Theatre."
"The Royale Theatre!" laughed the young man. "But Mamma would never allow it! Why, they're putting on Shakespeare! You know she won't let you even read his plays, let alone see them on stage!"
"Oh, fie!" cried the girl, tossing her chestnut curls. "She wouldn't really mind, I am sure. Besides, the play is not the thing I really want to see!"
The young man expressed his confusion until the youngest girl exclaimed: "She wants to see the actor playing Hamlet! Indeed I do also, for I am sure that he plays the character so excellently, and with so much romance."
"What!" laughed the man again. "You mean Mr. Crawford, the stage-actor? Why, he isn't even handsome! I can never tell what young ladies will like."
Frances couldn't help but wonder if the three were talking of the same Mr. Crawford she had once known, who had actually asked for her hand in marriage. She saw no reason why it wouldn't be, for even at the old days at Mansfield, Henry Crawford had been a wonderful actor, and had quite impressed the opposed Fanny with his impassioned reading of Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dearston was still much engaged with his food, and continued to be so until all was cleared from his plates. He didn't notice that Frances' thoughts were miles away, and only interrupted them once to ask her if she was to eat that last bit of bread.
Soon they were off again, but during the rest of the trip, Frances heard no more of Mr. Dearston's chatter. He told Mrs. Bertram in a whining voice of the pains that were attacking his stomach. Frances thought it served him right for his being so unashamedly gluttonous, but she did her best to calm him. Eventually, the parson fell asleep, resting his head against the chaise door, with his hands across his stomach.
But Frances could not fall asleep herself. Aside from the loud snores of Mr. Dearston's, the quiet of the vehicle was just suitable for her to fall into thought.
The skies now were complete darkness, but in time they began to light up again from lamplights and candles in the many houses that now began to gather.
Frances was excited to be travelling, happy to be able to catch up with her brother again. Nevertheless, a tinge of nerves struck her as the chaise stopped, and opening her door, the coachman announced: "We're in London, Ma'am."
Once in London, Frances politely gave her thanks to Mr. Dearston, though she held more gratitude to be out of his chaise than for his noble services. She protested that she would not need him to wait with her, happily saw his chaise disappear around the city street, and fell to waiting for her brother. William, not sure of how long he would be staying in his present home, bade Frances to sit at a decent public house until he could fetch her. He, of course, had no idea that his sister would think of sitting alone, and was rather shocked to find her thus, but upon learning the particulars of he who would have waited with her, William could not blame his sister one bit.
In a short time, William and Frances arrived at the home the former was inhabiting at the moment, a small, but neat townhouse, with rather narrow streets; giving the place a confined atmosphere. But it nonetheless was delightful to Frances, who had never been in a city larger than Portsmouth, and was happy to find London a good deal finer than that shipping village above the English Channel.
Since the time was so late, Frances had given up the hope of seeing her new sister-in-law that night, so she was agreeably surprised to see her waiting inside the hallway.
"Frances," said William, with no little pride, "this is my wife, Jane."
"How are you, dear?" asked Mrs. Price, holding out a long, browned arm to Frances. Jane Price was a very amiable-looking woman, and appeared as though her many years at sea had given her a kind disposition and friendly manners. They also, apparently, had tanned and roughened her skin, making her look years older than her sister-in-law, though Frances knew that Mrs. Price could be no older than three-and-twenty.
William sat with a smile as he watched his wife kindly inform Frances of the sites of London that Autumn. Mrs. Price may have spent her life at sea, but that did not prevent her from knowing all the respectable society the city had to offer. The name "Bellafield" kept on turning up in the good woman's descriptions until Frances, much confused, begged to know who the family was.
"The Bellafields!" exclaimed Mrs. Price in mirth. "Why, the Count and Countess--a most charming pair, and very young. They've just recently married, and have commissioned to have a large estate house--Greyston Manor--built not so very far from us. Did not you pass it on the way?"
Frances answered that she hadn't, unless she was much too excited to notice.
"Oh!" cried Mrs. Price, happily glancing at her husband. "Then we can take her there! To be sure, Greyston Manor isn't finished yet, but at least we won't run in with the owners. How about tomorrow?"
Though Frances would have been much happier resting on the morrow, she agreed to go so as not to hurt her sister-in-law's feelings. The next day they were up at a very early hour, and assembled in the carriage. Daylight showed a different London, a livelier, busier city. Mrs. Price seemed more excited than Frances, pointing out every site that might remotely interest the latter. Finally they arrived at Greyston Manor, a large, fine house that was just undergoing the finishing touches.
"Here it is!" cried Mrs. Price. "Greyston Manor. It's such a beautiful house, but I wish you could see the windows at the back..."
"Oh, but this observation is pretty enough for me," answered Frances, admiring the manor's grounds and newly-planted gardens rather than the house's architectural beauties.
But Mrs. Price Would have Frances view the back--"indeed the surroundings were so much more charming there." Jane Price led the way, informing her husband and Frances of any obstacles ahead--"do be careful, the grass is wet," or "pray watch your step here." But upon turning the corner her warnings stopped. Indeed they were all surprised to see a lady standing in the garden--an elegant lady, dressed in green velvet, with gold adorning her arms and sable hair.
"It is the Countess," whispered Jane. Frances didn't doubt this, but she had an obscure idea of who the mysterious countess was.
Noticing the small party, the lady gracefully turned towards them and smiled. Frances now saw that her guess had been correct: it was Mary Crawford.
"Fanny!" exclaimed Mary, who had recognized Frances instantly. "Is that you, Fanny? Oh! how are you?"
Jane looked at Mary and Frances in surprise, as did William, who had seen Mary years back, but had forgotten her appearance.
"Jane, William," said Frances, "this is Mary Crawford--I knew her at Mansfield."
"Oh, not Mary Crawford anymore," laughed the lady as she held out her gloved hand to the Prices. "Now it's Countess Bellafield--and my name has been changed to Marietta, no less. I suppose plain "Mary" was not fine enough."
"Oh!," exclaimed Frances, dismayed. "I beg your pardon, your grace."
"It's alright, dear Fanny," laughed the Countess again. "Call me Mary, please. I've always loved the idea of being addressed very formally, but now I couldn't think of a better sound than simple "Mary.""
Once inside, Frances learned what Mary had been doing since the time they had last met. After the setbacks of Edmund's scorn and her brother's scandal, Mary took to London with her sister Mrs. Grant. Though saddened by the recent events, Mary was a Londoner at heart, and soon entered into all the city's gaieties. At one of the better balls, she won the admiration of the young and dashing Count Bellafield. "Indeed Mrs. Grant and I never thought for a moment that he would pay his respects to me, so I took no effort to flirt with him. But it turned out that Frederick grew upset at my treating him with such distance, and set out to win me. And who could refuse? Being Countess of Greyston Manor is wonderful in itself, but for all that, Frederick is a very charming husband."
Frances listened to this in astonishment, though she had always known that the beautiful Mary Crawford would marry well. She could not help but think it lucky for Mary that Edmund had turned away from her that day so long ago. Of course Frances herself could never marry for mercenary reasons, but Mary Crawford made a much better countess than a parson's wife.
Mary guessed what Frances was thinking from her silence, "Oh Fanny, I know you must think me a bad woman, but I really do like the Count. It may seem that I married him for his estates (and I don't know--perhaps I did), but I can assure you that were he detestable, I would never have given a thought to marrying him. I'm not as unfeeling as you think, Fanny."
Frances wished to ask Mary about Henry, but feared that it might be improper considering the love he once had for herself. To her surprise, Jane Price, who had meanwhile been sitting quietly along with William, brought it up:
"Your last name was Crawford? I don't mean to be too forward, but are you related to Mr. Crawford, the actor?"
"Yes, he's my brother," answered Mary, peeking at Frances, who appeared very interested, instead of turning her face as Mary half-expected she would. Finding that the subject was safe, she went on: "Yes, Henry's quite the actor. He plays Hamlet beautifully, but for my part, I cannot see why all the young ladies of London are so wild about him."
"Oh, your grace," protested Jane, "you needn't be so modest for your brother. I haven't seen him myself, but I do hear that he is quite the thing. In fact, I've been thinking up a plan, and I do believe that we will go see him sometime. Would not it be nice, Frances, to be able to say that you have seen the great celebrity of London?"
Frances did blush at this, which Mary's good eyes managed to catch. "Perhaps you shouldn't, Ma'am," she told Mrs. Price. "I believe Fanny has seen my brother before, and I do not think that she is one for a play."
"Oh no!" burst in Frances. "I don't think I'd mind this--to be put on professionally, and with taste, I am sure. And I've never seen Mr. Crawford act on stage, and I think I should like it very, very much."
Mary put her hand to her cheek in disbelief. Indeed it seemed that not only was Frances trying to be agreeable to her sister-in-law, but she really wished to go. No one else expressed shock, William not knowing all the particulars of Henry Crawford's relationship with his sister.
Frances was more surprised than anyone, for it seemed not quite right for her wishing to see the man who had so upset the Bertram family--especially Edmund. But she had already agreed to go, and thought that it could not be so very bad for her to see Mr. Crawford just one more time...
Before any event of major importance, certain provisions must be made, so a few days prior to the performance of 'Hamlet,' Frances and Jane took to the shops in town. Jane was quite shocked when she discovered the plainness of Frances' wardrobe, and told Mrs. Bertram that she was sure she could procure many fine things in town, "for mourning clothes really mustn't be so drab."
Frances smiled at her sister-in-law's lack of propriety, but she did allow herself to get dragged to Singleton's and the millinery; along with any other store that happened to come across the excitable Jane Price's path.
"Frances, I don't mean to sound impertinent," said Jane as they were handling the bright shawls from India, although Frances was aware that were she to wear one, she would be accused of indelicacy. "Sister (may I call you that now?), is it true that you had once known Mr. Crawford?"
Frances immediately blushed at this, and hastily asked Jane what William had told her about the matter.
"Oh, nothing!" replied Jane, surprised. "No, Mr. Price hasn't uttered a word about it; I really hadn't known until the Countess mentioned it. I just wondered where you met him."
"Oh," replied Frances, not a little embarrassed. "Well Mr. Crawford, and Miss Crawford lived near us--at the old parish of Mansfield. They, along with Mr. Yates--my cousin Julia's husband--, often were at the house."
"Is that so? Then were you well-acquainted with Mr. Crawford?"
"Yes, quite well."
"Now tell me, if you will," continued Jane, not satisfied with the brief reply, "what he was like. How would you describe Mr. Crawford?" The question caught Frances off-guard, and pretending to be very interested in a green sash in order to hide her face, she replied:
"What was he like? Mr. Crawford? Well, I suppose that he was a very fine man--a good reader."
"Was he handsome?" Jane asked with a smile.
"Oh, no. To be sure, he was rather plain. But his manners were good, and he did carry himself well."
"Oh," replied Jane, disappointed. A little while later she ventured to ask whether Frances knew him well, and if they were in each other's company often.
"Yes, fairly often," answered Frances distantly. "Though I was but the poor cousin, he was good, and like a gentleman to me always."
Jane only smiled to herself here and continued looking through the ribbons. It was finally decided upon that Frances should wear her black muslin with a new scarf--also sable--with the mourning beads, a tiny reticule, and the unavoidable widow's cap.
"It is a shame you must wear that," said Jane, "for it covers up so much of your nice brown hair. 'Tis a pity that Mr. Crawford must see you in complete black."
"Jane!" exclaimed Frances. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing really," laughed Jane. "I just don't think that black is the thing for a man to see his former love in."
"Love? Who put that idea into your head? Surely not William."
"Ah! so it's true!" cried Jane. "No one told me, naturally. I just guessed. Your unwillingness to talk about Mr. Crawford at first did not give it up, for I know that your tongue does not readily spill out compliments. Actually, it was the dreamy look you acquired in your eyes when talking about him. One does not become so moved by only a formal acquaintance."
"Well that does not mean that I was in love with him," protested Frances. Her face felt hot; she was angry at her sister-in-law's cool boldness. "Even to think about such a thing is wrong," she continued. "How could I have married Edmund while in love with another? And surely you must know about all the talk Mr....Mr. Crawford has brought to our family. Oh, no. I couldn't be in love with him. And the mourning--it is so indelicate to say those things. To go against all customs, simply to attract a man, would be most improper, and something that a woman once married to such a good man as Edmund could ever think of attempting."
Frances, satisfied that her outburst had set everything straight, breathed a little sigh of relief, and begged to walk home. Jane, however, was perfectly convinced that Frances was very much in love, and thought that Frances' speech was made more for the purpose of assuring herself, than for her questioning sister-in-law.
Disregarding who was in love with whom, and who wasn't, William, his wife, and his sister were all at the Royale Theatre an hour before the show would begin. It seemed like all the rest of London were there also, for the people making up the lines and the crowd outside the main entrance were innumerable.
"Oh, no!" cried Jane as they took their places in line. "I knew that Wednesday would be a bad night. Why, how are we ever going to get in? What shall we do?"
"We will wait, dear," smiled William. Frances smiled back at him. Patient William. If he could endure his wife, then what was a line to him?
But Jane was not so calm. She did her best; tried to converse about the weather, and be interested in the colour of her glove, but nothing could prevent her from glancing at the theater doors, and then at the many people blocking her from it.
"To be sure, we won't get in at all!" she angrily cried. "There must be another entrance somewhere. Oh, this crowd makes it so insufferably hot."
One look at Frances showed Jane that it not only had been herself who suffered from the heat. Frances protested that she was fine, just excited about the play, but Jane Would be listened to. A nod from William gave her leave to take Frances to the shaded east end of the building.
"It is very hot, my dear," said Jane, patting Frances' shoulder, "and I'm sure you are in dire want of a bench. I am too, to be sure, but I also think we may find another door here."
Jane turned out to be right; for another entrance stood atop the tree-lined steps. She excitedly pulled Frances towards it, busily chatting all the way, and expressing the luck she felt upon finding it. However, she had spoken too soon, for in finding one thing, she sadly discovered that she had lost her necklace.
"I can't see what happened!" she cried. "I had it in the carriage, and I thought it was still on in front of the Royale. Oh dear. I must have dropped it on the way."
"I will help you look for it, then."
"Oh no, Frances!" Jane answered. "I will search for it myself. You go check this door, for I do not want so lucky a chance to pass us by."
Wishing her sister-in-law the best of fortunes, Frances entered the door, which to her happiness was unlocked. This occurrence persuaded Frances that perhaps Jane had been right about admitting people into this hidden entry-way, but upon walking in, she saw that the hall was empty of people. Frances would have turned back at this point, but the beauty of the way intrigued her to go further. To her right were numerous doorways that she had no hope of being allowed into, but the walls on her left were covered with such fascinating tapestries and paintings that immediately caught her interest. After peering at an etching of Medieval origin for a few moments, she turned to go back. But when she was almost to the end of the hall, a man, hurrying from one of the side doors, and not noticing her presence, came so near her as to almost knock her down.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, Madame," said he, straightening out his ruffled collar.
Scrutinizing the man's strange style of dress, and his black curls, Frances couldn't guess who the man was, but one sound of his voice--eloquent, even when taken off-guard--told her that it was Henry Crawford.
"Mr. Crawford!" she cried, unconsciously. Henry, who had been still fixing his Shakespearean garb, looked down at her in wonder.
"Fanny?" he said as he took her hand; his voice now quiet. "How do you do?"
Frances couldn't possibly utter a word now, so she just gave him a smile. Indeed both were so surprised that they just stared in mute amazement.
"Frances! Frances!" was the next thing they heard. Soon, Jane saw them and ran towards Frances. "Oh! I have found my necklace!" she cried, rather out of breath. "Come, we must go. The crowds are quite cleared now, and the show will begin in just five minutes."
Henry, letting go of Frances' hand, told them that he must be off, and so the two ladies went into the theatre and sat by the rather-worried William. Frances feared that Jane would question her about the man she had been with, but the woman didn't even mention it. It turned out that Jane, happy to find her necklace, did not give much thought to the man; and if asked, would have supposed that Frances had been inquiring him about the entrances.
So Frances sat in peace, replaying in her mind the scene that had just passed. She knew the event had been of importance; perhaps she had acted improper, but she wouldn't think of that until tomorrow. But as for the present, the curtain was about to rise, and Frances could think of nothing else but seeing 'Hamlet.'
Plays have a tendency to begin late. When the audience member is of a calm disposition, the extended time only manages to increase their excitement; but for those who are impatient, a delayed opening is very vexing to say the least. Of course there was one of each example in the Price couple, but Frances fit in somewhere in between. She could not wait for the play to begin, yet she had happy thoughts to fill the duller moments, and to play over her sister-in-law's complaints.
Finally the curtain rose, revealing a set that was meticulously detailed, and much finer than Frances had expected. From the start, the acting was first-rate, the drama tense; but Frances could not help but wish the ghost scene over, as exciting as it was. She longed to see Mr. Crawford, almost as if to confirm their meeting to her still flustered and unbelieving mind.
After what seemed to Frances an eternity, the second scene arrived, bringing with it the two high Royals, and, more importantly, the prince of Denmark. Frances was not the only one to be glad to see him, for a hush fell upon the audience whenever he spoke. Frances had recalled his acting to be quite exceptional at the theatricals of Mansfield, but she was now even more impressed.
Though nothing to Mr. Crawford, the other actors were very good also--particularly the woman playing Ophelia. Tall and golden-haired, she played the part with a dramatic flair, causing Frances to notice how well she acted alongside Mr. Crawford, then chastising herself for being half-jealous. But of course it had to be his acting that made her feel so, that made her upset when intermission came.
To say something for Jane, she did manage to sit through the first two acts without getting up or complaining of restlessness. But as soon as the acting stopped, she grabbed Frances' hand and told her husband that they would be walking about until the third act would begin.
"Well!" exclaimed Jane as they walked into the front hall, where most of the other people were gathered. "Your Mr. Crawford is certainly quite the actor! He took all my attention, and I'm not usually one for a play."
"He's not my Mr. Crawford," said Frances with a tone of annoyance in her voice.
"Oh, I know. But you must admit that he is very taking. Why, if I was young and unmarried, I should think I'd be quite mad for him!"
Frances was spared the duty of answering her, for at that moment, one of the theater workers came and tapped her on the shoulder. Asking if she was a Mrs. Fanny Bertram, the man handed her a note and walked away. Frances held onto it for a while, not sure if she should open it in front of Jane, but that woman's impatience finally persuaded Frances to break the seal.
After she had read it, Frances instantly colored, and handed the missive to Jane.
'"Mrs. Fanny Bertram,"' read Jane aloud, in a fairly quiet voice, though Frances did not think it quiet enough, '"Mr. Henry Crawford requests your presence in the theatre sitting room after the play.' Well!" Jane exclaimed, looking at Frances, "you are going, aren't you?"
"To be sure, not!" cried Frances. "I cannot imagine that he would even ask such a thing."
"Come, Frances," admonished Jane. "What are you thinking? I'm sure that he just wants to be polite--to inquire after your family and your health. You said yourself that you were not so familiar with him. It seems perfectly harmless to me; though I do wonder how he knew you were here."
Frances' face grew warm again at this. "No," she firmly said. "I cannot go--I must not."
Jane just looked at her disappointedly and said nothing more until it was time to go back to their seats.
Act three opened strong. Angered by the impertinence of Mr. Crawford's note, Frances soon forgot about it, and was swept away by the acting. Indeed it seemed that Mr. Crawford's dramatic powers never failed. Frances had read and heard the famous lines before, but she never heard them sound more sincere than when pronounced in Mr. Crawford's remarkably fine voice. But contrary to what the young ladies and the anxious mothers in the audience had expected, the play was not cut; no phrases were softened, and all that was bawdy was left so. Frances, of course, noticed this, and thought it in poor taste on Mr. Crawford's part to read such improper lines. As the play continued, however, she was quite caught under the dashing man's spell again, and her heart could not but feel a thrill when he read:
"I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum."
--her mind naturally substituting a familiar name for that of Polonius' daughter's.
The play ended much too soon, Frances thought--or at least it didn't give her enough time to dry her tears before the candles again were lit.
"My, that was an excellent play," said Jane as they were leaving their box. "He sure is a wonderful actor. 'Tis a pity you are too impolite to call on him, Frances."
"Indeed I am not!" she cried. "It's because I think that it would be indelicate!"
"Your standards of delicacy confine you, my dear. You would think Mr. Crawford would have realized that by now. But I suppose he must be slighted."
"Slighted!" cried Frances, dismayed. "Oh! but I mustn't do that, either."
"Then shall we wait for you?"
"Yes, please." As she walked away from them, Frances thought over the upcoming visit. To go alone might be improper, but then again, she was a widow now--not a young lady anymore. Still, what the world thought was not nearly as important as what her mind believed, and this meeting seemed very wrong to her, indeed. But she could not slight him--no, surely that would only make matters worse.
Frances was now at the door; nerves struck her, and she walked back in the hall to the glass, where she straightened out her hair, disheveled even under the grip of the widow's cap. But the sight of the hat gave her a new burst of courage, for she was Mrs. Bertram now, and surely Mr. Crawford would treat her thus. So giving one more glance at her reflection, Frances walked back, and knocked at the sitting room door.
After waiting for awhile, the door was opened by a man of rather strange appearance, with clothes of eccentric style and colour.
"Crawford!" he yelled, not even speaking a word to Frances. "Looks like your new lady friend is here--some pretty, little widow."
The man's rudeness made Frances flinch, and she began to repent ever answering the note. But Mr. Crawford soon came out of the adjoining room, now dressed in ordinary clothes, and in the process of washing the last bit of his face with a towel.
"Fanny!" he exclaimed, "I'm so glad you came. Will you take a seat? I'll be ready soon."
Frances sat down at the sofa, where she was unpleasantly stared at by the strange man. Mr. Crawford noticed this when he walked back in, and gave an angered glance to him.
"Lord Dellington, this is my old friend, Fa--...Mrs. Bertram. Mrs. Bertram, Lord Dellington."
"How do you do?" mumbled the man.
"Very well, sir," quickly answered Frances. Then looking at his clothes, she asked, "Were you in the play, too, sir?"
Mr. Crawford burst out laughing here. Lord Dellington only glared again at Frances and stormed out of the room.
"No, Mrs. Bertram," smiled Mr. Crawford, taking his place near Frances--rather too near, she feared, "that is, I'm afraid his normal dress. Lord Dellington is a bit eccentric, and is angered when anyone accuses him of being so."
"Oh! I'm so sorry--please tell him for me!"
"Don't worry!" he laughed again. "Someone needed to remind him anyway. And besides, it did give us the chance to talk alone, didn't it?"
Frances averted her eyes from Mr. Crawford's dashing smile and murmured a brief reply.
"Oh, Fanny!" he said, noticing her stiffness, "I apologize for my calling you so, but I cannot think of you as Mrs. Bertram. I know your carefulness, and I'm sure you're wondering why I called for you, but I can assure you that all is right. I wanted to see you again, that's all."
"Fine, sir," replied Frances, still not trusting herself to look up at him, "but it must be short--my brother is waiting."
"Then I will try. But I could not go without talking to you when we met earlier. I, of course, haven't forgotten you; but I daresay you are still angry at me?"
Frances now looked at him and made no reply.
"You are," he sighed. "And I can understand why, too. But I'm not so bad as you think, Fanny! If you only were aware of the truth--I mean between Maria and I."
Hearing the name of her cousin, Frances refused to listen to more, and told him she had to go.
"Very well," said he, "but you must visit me again."
"I can't, sir!" Frances protested. "It is not proper. Whatever would Sir Thomas say if he heard of it?"
"If you are thinking of Maria," said he, a little annoyed, "I promise you that it's cleared up now. I'll tell you all about it if you'd only let me."
"I mustn't. I am sure it would be wrong. Now I really must be going!"
"Then go," said Henry, taking a rose out of the bunch he had received that night, "but you must take this--to remember me."
"I cannot take it."
"Oh! do, Fanny. Please have it--for me."
But this only made Frances protest further. In the end, however, she was obliged to take the rose, for Mr. Crawford showed no sign of relenting. Besides, the sooner she took it, the sooner she could be out of his dangerous presence, and the less she would be blamed. As soon as she was out of the sitting room, Frances dropped the rose, fearing it would only give Jane more evidence of the mutual penchant.
But Frances had not seen the last of the rose, for it came by post the next day--pressed between the pages of a volume of Lord Byron's poems. No letter came from Mr. Crawford with it; but upon opening the book, Frances found that the flower was purposely put in place to mark the poem "When We Two Parted," and this, she thought, spoke enough in itself.
Jane Price, meanwhile, had been trying to remain patient under the circumstances. She hadn't yet asked Frances anything of the meeting, and had even managed to hold her tongue over the mysterious volume of poetry. Of course, William, with his brotherly concern, dropped a little hint to his wife over the improprieties of intervening in non-existent love affairs.
"Oh! but Mr. Price!" protested Jane. "Surely you must know of your sister's--how do I put this?--her blinding prudery."
"Dearest Jane, you must not censure Frances for her virtue."
"Of course I'm not!" cried Jane. "But I do think that there can be too much of a good thing, and deep beneath Frances' modesty, I believe that there is a hidden love for an actor we know of."
William, however, could not be convinced of such a thing. Little Fanny in love with Henry Crawford? Impossible! So poor Jane was forced to keep her insights to herself.
But Jane was not the only one struggling to keep her pressing thoughts within. Frances had been so much dismayed by the recent meeting-- and yet at the same time delighted, that her head was quite out of sorts. Whenever Mr. Crawford would come to her mind (which was often), she would immediately stop the visions by reminding herself of his associations with Maria. Anyone reading these thoughts would think her quite against Mr. Crawford; but those that viewed her nightly ritual of holding the now-withered rose in the palm of her hand, before blowing out the candle, would have held an opinion of a very different sort.
Fortunately, a letter soon arrived from Susan, which Frances eagerly read in the hopes of dismissing a certain person from her mind.
How I wish you were here. I don't want to make you fret, but Mansfield is not the same without you.
It is odd how circumstances will repeat themselves. How I remember your telling me about cousin Tom's illness, when he was brought back to Mansfield Park in sickness and degradation. Unfortunately it has occured again; but this time, his health is supposed to be much worse. Uncle sends word that your returning is not necessary. Poor Sir Thomas. I do feel for him on this occasion, but of his other behaviour, I will keep quiet.
Apart from the great turmoil in the house, I am fine. Miss West is also in good spirits--too good, I'm afraid, considering that there is one so very ill in the house. Oh yes, Mr. Dearston tells me to send his esteem for you, and says that he is in anxious anticipation of your return. Indeed I am also, but do not let that spoil your stay.
postscript--Oh! How did I forget? We have been hearing a lot of Mr. Crawford in the papers lately. So he is an actor now? It is a misfortune that you happen to be in London at this time, considering your dislike for him. (Indeed we all are very much against the wicked man). So I hope that you will not see him, for that would most certainly ruin your visit.--S.P."
The letter communicated such a wide variety of information that Frances didn't know what to think of it. The news of Tom was bad, but Frances could not feel sorry for him. As Susan had pointed it out, this had happened before, and Tom most certainly should have learned the first time around. Frances' judgement also fell upon Sir Thomas, whose actions, it seemed, could not even be curbed by his son's dangerous illness.
Frances had almost forgotten about Mr. Dearston. But it must be pointed out that he wasn't spending his time at the parsonage pining for her. He certainly looked forward to his intended's return, but in the interim, his food was sufficing very nicely.
The only thing in the letter that truly upset Frances was finding that her sister worried over a possible meeting between Frances and Mr. Crawford. Frances hoped that Susan would not lose too many hours of sleep over it; for indeed she had met Mr. Crawford, and he most certainly was not ruining her visit.
The next days were set aside for resting, which was very good for Frances, who was still tired from the events of the first week. But the peace was broken when a letter came from the Countess, begging "dear Fanny to visit me--Greyston can be so very dull."
When Frances arrived at the manor, she found Mary in the sitting room, admiring a large, handsome portrait. "Come in! Dear Fanny, I'm so glad to see you. I have something to ask of you, and I hope you don't mind."
"You want my help? Well, I will try..."
"Splendid," smiled Mary. "I did not know if you would; for though the task is but simple, the subject, I fear, is not. I have just been sent the painting of Henry that I ordered, and I--in biased favour of my darling brother--am not the best person to judge it. Tell me, has the painter flattered him too much?"
"No, not at all," answered Frances truthfully, admiring the fine portrait that could easily have been supposed to be one of some dashing romantic poet.
"Well that makes me feel so much better. I thank you, Fanny. I wanted the picture to be as like as possible, but I did fear that the painter may have tried to win the good opinion of Henry by making him an inch taller or so. But now that I have another opinion--and far greater, a disinterested one--I will not have to send it back. But please know, dear Fanny, that had I suspected an admiration on your part for my brother, or anything more than a friendly liking, I would have thought it impertinent to ask of you."
"Oh course," answered Frances, affecting to look very disinterested.
"Yes, but I must admit, dearest Fanny, that I was quite angry at you that time, when you refused Henry. I could not see it possible that anyone would! But now, I think it may be for the best, for I could never see Henry taking the vow with anyone other than Isabella."
"What!" cried Frances, shocked, her face looking very interested. "Then is he...married?"
"Oh, no," answered Mary, now looking suspicious. "Or at least now yet. I don't believe he has made an offer, but I should think that he will be soon."
"And Isabella? Who is she?"
"Isabella Dellrington. She is an actress; in fact that is how they met--she was in Hamlet with Henry. Her brother I don't care much for, but Isabella is a very good sort of girl--very beautiful."
The visit continued a little longer, but now there was a sort of estrangement between Frances and Mary--a distrust, and a sort of jealousy concerning Henry. Already Frances found herself liking Mr. Crawford a good deal more, and judging Miss Dellrington very heartily without even knowing her. An actress? So that was Ophelia! Frances' mind warred with itself viciously during the walk back, but by the time she reached her brother's home, she had concluded that Mr. Crawford must have learned his lesson from his liaisons with Maria, and would not--could not fall for a blonde coquette again.
"Henry!" cried Mary later that day, as her brother walked into the sitting room of Greyston Manor. "You have just missed our dear friend, Mrs. Bertram--I suppose you did not know that she's in town?"
"Oh, no, on the contrary," replied Henry Crawford, looking slightly disconcerted.
"What? And where did you see her?"
"She came to see Hamlet,--we spoke afterwards."
"Indeed!" Mary raised her brows in surprise. "I should never have thought that Fanny would ever speak to you again!"
"Oh?" said Henry with a sly smile. "And why not, may I ask? Are you doubting my charms?"
"Henry! You are too conceitful!" laughed Mary, playfully throwing a small embroidered pillow at him. "I do not know how I can take it! But you are right--yes, I will allow that you are very attractive to many women. But even if you were not, I believe that you'd find something to boast about." Mary shot a glance at her smiling brother and took the portrait from the mantle. "You are very lucky, Henry, that you are not heavy, or ugly. But indeed you are not," she said, pointing to the picture. "Why, look here--your figure is most admirable, and you are every bit of six-foot three!"
"So maybe not that tall," laughed Henry, "but I applaud the painter all the same. I hope you paid him well?"
Mary smiled. For all his carelessness and conceit, she was dotingly fond of Henry. Lately they had both been very lucky--Mary with her count; Henry, his career. Next to her own, Henry's happiness was her great pursuit, so it was with alarm that she foresaw that another of his love affairs could end it soon. Mary had supposed that he'd forgotten Fanny already; for he was usually involved in simple relationships, with a prettier girl each week. Paired with Isabella Dellrington--a girl he liked, but most certainly was not in love with--his manner was carefree, his conversation always in the highest of spirits. But Mary saw that for Henry to break his heart over Fanny again; and to become painfully involved with the Bertrams once more, would only bring the worst consequences possible.
"Henry," said she after a few moments of thought, "what was your purpose for talking with Fanny?"
Mr. Crawford, who had also been dwelling in revelries of his own, was taken off his guard by the question. "I don't know," he answered. "I saw her, and had to talk with her once more."
"Oh, but dear Henry," said Mary with a concerned smile, "will it really be just one more time?"
"No," answered Henry honestly. "I should like to see her again, but she is so against it, I can't see how."
"Henry! I believe you are in love with Fanny again!"
Henry did not say anything at first, and just glanced over at his sister. By now, his smile was faded, and to Mary's horror, it was replaced with an angered look. "Again!" cried he, after a brief spell. "Oh, how can you treat it so?--As if this was just another of my flirtations? You may be right, about my loving Fanny--but if so, I'm sure that my affection would not be some sort of shallow trap that I happened to fall into again:no, if I loved Fanny, it would be something natural; something lasting; something that I've always felt."
"Very nice, Henry," observed the practical Mary, "but I do not believe that you have always loved Fanny."
"I don't know," answered Henry, in thought. "I must have admired Fanny from the beginning, but I think her quiet nature rendered it unacknowledged for a long time."
"Well, Henry," laughed Mary, "you have as good as told me that you are desperately in love with her. But what will you do? I've talked to Fanny, and it seemed that her morals are every bit as good as they used to be. And what about Isabella?"
"But that is easy," replied Henry, his smile returning. "I'm sure I could win Fanny's love this time. Indeed I believe that I did not work hard enough when I first asked for her hand. And there is no trouble at all concerning Miss Dellrington. She is selfish, she is silly--she will be over me in just a matter of time!"
Mary, now seeing that her brother was in earnest, abandoned her hopes of his marrying Isabella Dellrington. Of course she could not see why he desired to marry Frances--a poor, slightly-faded widow without accomplishments--but if Henry would truly be happy with Mrs. Bertram, then she would do all within her power to help him. Henry, however, begged his sister to let him try at it unaided, but in the end, he agreed to one of Mary's schemes. A ball had been planned to celebrate the completion of Greyston, and would provide the perfect setting for another meeting.
"But of course Fanny isn't able to dance yet," Mary pointed out, "but I believe that it will be better if you sit by her and talk with her. But you must dance, also, for she will certainly admire you all the more among all the ladies that will be begging at your feet!"
"Yes, yes," said Henry, ignoring most of what his sister had said, "but how will we persuade her to come? Once she finds out who will be there, she'll never step foot inside!"
"True," agreed Mary, pondering for a moment. "But she will have to come if we change the ball to be in her honour!"
So the plan was carried out, and Mary wrote out an invitation in her own hand to Frances.
"Oh! They're throwing a ball for me!" Frances nervously exclaimed to Jane, who was peering over her shoulder.
"Yes! I see...Oh! This is wonderful! And William and I are invited too." Jane took the invitation into her own hands and read over it. "To think! The Countess Marietta Bellafield hosting a ball for my sister-in-law! How very finely she writes--and with such pretty stationery. Oh! Gold-leaf! Surely we must go! And I'm sure all the socialites will be there."
"I don't know," answered Frances, gradually becoming more afraid, "maybe I shouldn't."
"Oh, but you must go! There is no other choice!" Jane, dangerously close to missing an event attended by the ton, grew upset and went on further, "You are so ill-acquainted with London's customs. What would people say if you declined so generous an offer?"
But Frances' spirits were in no way dampened by this; in fact, they grew warmer, so William was called in to decide.
"William must know what is right!" cried Frances passionately.
But William did not support her opinion. The privilege, he pointed out, was too great to be tossed aside, "and really, my dear Frances," he told her, "I cannot see a reason why you wouldn't go. It would be wrong if you didn't."
Frances was on the verge of tears. "But William! Surely you must know of the Countess's brother--I do not think I should see him again!"
"Yes, I have heard all, but the ball is not being hosted by Mr. Crawford. The Countess, I believe, is a very honorable lady, and you would be very disgraceful to refuse this. It is for the best, Frances!"
Pressed by so practical a speech, and mortified at her own ungratefulness concerning the event, Frances was obliged to accept. Apart from her qualms of facing the genteel society, Frances had other fears about the ball; the greatest danger existing in the form of Mr. Henry Crawford. She was now living in the sad state of having to admit to herself her affection for him; but just as equally, the misfortunes and impracticalities of her situation. Frances was quite shocked at herself for falling in love with him after just two meetings here, and feared that a third might bring cause for future heartache.
It did not take Jane long to rid herself of her anger. There was too much to do in preparation: dresses to buy; notes to write, and all this simply left no time for hard feelings.
Singleton's was again patronized by Jane and Frances, but this time, the former announced that Frances must have a finer dress. Frances resolutely agreed, and only had one protestation concerning the colour of the dress elected.
"Maybe it is the lighting," Frances said quietly, "but it does not look quite black to me. I think that it's dark blue. Yes, I'm certain it is, and I really mustn't be wearing colours yet."
"Oh, fie!" cried Jane, as she held the dress up to the window. "I'm sure that it's black; or at least was meant to be so. And besides, what does it signify? The ball will take place at night, and since you are not dancing, no one will notice it anyway."
In vain, Frances tried to convince her sister-in-law that it was the idea of breaking customary codes that bothered her more than what people would think, and she was only obliged to purchase the dress in the end. But it was a very pretty one: a creation of flowing silk, with a lace shawl, and an elegant pelisse. Of course the dreaded cap remained, but Jane did manage to persuade Frances to buy a smaller, more fashionable one.
The day of the ball finally arrived, and Frances spent the majority of it getting ready. Her hair was done by herself; the shining brown curls pinned simply and gracefully under her widow's cap. Once she was finished, Frances gazed at her reflection, satisfied. Even if her dress was too blue, and the cap too little, no one would be able to deny that Frances Bertram looked every bit as sweet and pretty as a youthful widow should appear. Startled at hearing Jane's voice calling for her, Frances quickly grabbed a necklace and reticule and dashed out to the carriage.
It was providential that Frances had happened to buy a thick pelisse, for the night was cool. Autumn was now wasting away into Winter. Even Greyston Manor--with all its new gardens and lawns minutely cared for--was looking drab and colorless. But the surroundings were greatly contrasted inside the house, where brightly-clad ladies chatted and fires glowed. Jane Price, more excited than words can convey, pointed out every member of the fashionable society, rarely taking a breath. But all of this went by unnoticed for Frances, whose eyes--though trying to avert--could only rest upon one person.
Henry Crawford did not see her right away, but Mary noticed the party at once, and went over to greet them. The Countess was the picture of elegance in her gold satin dress that set off her dark features so well, and with the plumes and pearls that adorned her black curls. As usual, she was in the most amiable of tempers, and did her best to comfort the obviously-nervous Frances.
"I am so glad to see you," said Mary as she led William, Jane, and Frances to their seats at the head of the impressive ballroom. "I wanted so much to introduce you to our friends, Fanny, and I had already sent out all the invitations out before I remembered that you couldn't dance!"
"Oh, that is fine, Ma'am," answered Frances. "It is just as well that way."
"It was so very good of you, your grace," interrupted Jane happily. "Of course it is a shame poor Frances must not dance, for it is, I believe, one of the greatest sports in the world. I have not danced for ages--the sailors on the boat refused to take part in any of "those chit games," -- even William! But I have obtained his promise for this occasion," ended she, gently nudging her patient husband.
Mary kindly expressed her happiness to be of use to them, though for most of Jane's chatter her eyes had been keenly following the direction of Frances' stare. Mary saw that she had guessed correctly, and sat down to talk with Frances as soon as Jane pulled William onto the floor to wait for the minuet to begin.
"I must warn you, Mrs. Bertram, that my brother is here. I believe you have seen him already?"
With a profusion of blushes, Frances acknowledged that she had.
"Ah," said Mary, pointing to Henry at the middle of the room, "then you see all the ladies gathered round him? So many! There is the Miss Dellrington I've spoken about; I think that must be Miss Amelia Senton; and the rest, I haven't an idea!" Mary kept her eyes on Frances' face, causing even more difficulty for the latter as she tried to keep an amiable countenance, and quietly uttered her "Oh!'s" and "How Lovely!'s".
"Miss Dellrington is certainly looking stunning tonight," continued Mary. "She is to open the ball with Henry. We would have had you stand up with him, but unfortunately delicacy calls against it. Also," she said, turning her eyes from the pair to Frances, "it might bring back memories of a very similar occasion, if you recall..."
Yes, Frances remembered her first ball, opening the dance with Mr. Crawford. How frightened she had been! How much things had changed! Fortunately, Frances was not required to answer, for seeing that the minuet was to begin, Mary rushed out to take her place with her "darling Count."
So now Frances' eyes were free to rest on the handsome pair leading the other couples. Indeed it looked as though they had just stepped out of their roles in Hamlet. Mr. Crawford, though wearing the thoroughly modern black breeches, coat, and white button-down shirt, had a look about him that made him seem misplaced in the unromantic days of the present. His coal-black curls, and gallant manners could not but make Frances imagine what a dashing knight or highwayman he would have made had he been born in some bygone era. Sadly, she noticed that his chivalries were well-directed as he took Miss Dellrington's hand with a smile. The Countess had not over-exaggerated when she said that Isabella was beautiful. With a dress of pale green, and a wreath of rosebuds and ivy entwined in her coronet of smooth, golden hair, Miss Dellrington's angelic looks were set off even better than when playing the distressed 'Ophelia.' Frances watched them dance; heard their laughter; and with no little pain, decided that such a pretty, girlish lady must please Mr. Crawford much more than any sedate, quiet widow could ever even wish to.
These thoughts saddened her. Her secret happiness to see Mr. Crawford was quickly extinguished. Frances was glad when the music ended the minuet, and expected to see the Prices coming back, in hopes that they could divert her thoughts. But they did not come to sit down--the orchestra was starting up again, and Jane had no thoughts of tiring soon--so Frances stayed in her seat, desperate to relieve her overflowing mind. While searching for the Countess, Frances unintentionally peered at Mr. Crawford; indeed he was looking at her too: their eyes met. A flutter began to form in her heart, and traveled up to her throat as she saw the actor politely separate from Miss Dellrington, and start to walk towards her chair.
"Oh, dear!" was the distressed whisper that unconsciously burst from her lips when Mr. Crawford took a seat next to her.
"Fanny, are you unwell?" he anxiously inquired as he took her hands in greeting, his eyes gazing into her distraught ones.
"Yes," she murmured, though she was all too aware of the true reason for her sudden illness.
"My dearest Fanny, who could have left you alone in this state? Tell me how I can help."
Still left without the faculty of speech, Frances only shook her head in desperation, and released her hands from his grasp to clear the curls from her burning cheeks. Upon seeing Frances so distressed, a wave of guilt hit Mr. Crawford. "Come, Fanny," he said softly, helping her up. "I must take you out of this room; it stifles. There is a couch in the drawing room that you can rest upon..."
"Oh! no, sir," exclaimed Frances, her voice spurred back by fear. "My brother and Jane will be back soon. They can assist me."
"No," said Mr. Crawford, pressing her hand, "if anyone should help you, it ought to be me--it must be."
Unable to protest any further, Frances found herself being escorted out of the ballroom by Mr. Crawford--much to the envy of numerous ladies. Of course Jane was too immersed in relearning the steps of the quadrille to notice anything; but Mary, upon seeing her brother with Mrs. Bertram, smiled complacently, much to the Count's confusion.
The small drawing room that turned off from the ballroom was a small and neat one--now made spotless on occasion of the great event, lest any of the guests should care to explore it. But it seemed that all the fine ladies and gentlemen were kept busy enough with all of the dancing, for the room was empty when Henry led the alarmed Frances into it, and helped her to the white sofa. Frances complied, both grateful and amazed at the great kindness her host was showing to her.
"Now is this better, Fanny?" Mr. Crawford asked as he poured a glass of cold water for her.
"Yes, very much, Sir. I thank you."
Mr. Crawford handed the drink back to her and sat back in a nearby chair. "You don't know how happy I am to hear that," said he with an earnest smile. "I apologize if my method of caretaking is not of the most experienced kind, but then you see, I have been waited upon my entire life. Though," he added, glancing at Frances, "that does not mean that I cannot change."
Frances only gave an embarrassed smile, accidentally spilling some of the contents of the cup as she brought it to her lips. This did not go unnoticed by either the eyes or heart of Henry Crawford's, and with reluctance, he decided that it would be most fit to leave his nervous friend to her own thoughts.
"Will you be alright, Fanny?" He asked, taking her hand in parting.
"Yes,--thank you, sir. I think I shall be better now."
"Oh, I hope so," spoke Mr. Crawford in low tones as he loosened his hand and went to the door, "But I must be going: I have been in here too long as it is, and people will talk. Such pain," he continued with a sigh, "can malicious gossips bring to one--rumors, loss of trust. Of course you don't know of that, Fanny: no person--even the cruelest--could ever blacken your name." Frances could detect no small degree of pain in his voice, but he soon tried to brighten up. "But we do both have sisters, and I'm sure you know how much interest they take in their unmarried siblings' affairs. And so, Madame, I will leave now-- to prevent any late night questionings. Good-bye, dearest Fanny."
Frances watched him go with both relief and sorrow. She had been very nervous to find herself in such a situation, but she found that her shaking and tremblings had been unnecessary. How good and unexpectedly thoughtful he had been! Mr. Crawford had acted so selflessly, so kindly. Frances fell to happily remembering all this; including the dashing man's gaze; his tones; his pressure of the hand.
Frances did worry a little over what Jane might think, but once again, it proved to be unneeded. Jane Price could think of nothing but the fun she had had dancing, and thought it odd of Frances to choose to sit by herself instead of watching the gaieties. By now, Frances' cheeks were the normal colour, and she appeared quite well, but her mind was quite another thing; left bewildered and amazed at the current state of her regard.
"I must apologize to you, Frances," began Jane as they were riding home from the ball.
"Yes, about what I said concerning you and Mr. Crawford--of love. I have watched him tonight with Miss Dellrington--you know, that actress--and it seems to me that if he was taken by anyone, it was her."
"Oh?" Frances took this with considerable pain. Her voice wasn't affected as of yet, but she was glad that the carriage was so dark, as her features were saddened, and an unwanted tear was brought to her eye.
"Yes," continued Jane, supported by her husband's encouraging looks, "and I'm sure you are glad of it. I just wanted to let you know that I'm sorry for teasing you so with far-fetched tales that all the time had only been creations of my head."
Jane, of course, meant this to help Frances. Indeed her husband--who, admittedly had been the one to gently hint this plan to his wife--believed Frances would be much relieved to be rid of all such speculations. As Jane said, William thought they were "far-fetched," and ill-grounded, and for the first time, Frances began to believe this also. Yes, Mr. Crawford may have loved her once, but that was when she was still young and pretty; and before he had acquired fame, and a place in the hearts of most of the girls in London. While remembering all this, Frances thought of how good he had been to her, how attentive. But then affection for an old friend--and friend was boldly imprinted in her mind--could have been reason for his civilities; for civility was all it had been--never a word of love. Words, of course, did not account for all--his looks, his voice--but again Frances came up with a reason. Being an actor, Mr. Crawford must be passionate in all, and to all. And what Frances attributed to his great kindness towards her "illness" could have been simply the duties of a host, cut short to be with his beautiful and golden-haired actress. So while Frances' heart was easily reached, her mind was stone towards any sign of falsities.
The next day gave her another chance to try to discover the state of Mr. Crawford's affections. He had come to the house to check on Frances' health. Jane was very confused over this, and begged Mr. Crawford to explain. After hearing the story, she shot a surprised look at Frances, and announced that she had work to do.
"I've come for something else," he told Frances after Jane left, "To return this necklace--I believe you dropped it on the couch last night."
As France took the familiar ornament, her face flushed. Mr. Crawford, with a smile, pretended not to notice, and soon brought up another topic. "So this is where you live, Fanny?"
"Yes, Sir. For the time being--not long."
"What? Then you are leaving London? When?"
"I'm not sure," said Frances, looking down. "My brother sails in a fortnight--I only have four weeks here."
"Yes," she replied, her cheeks burning.
"Well," began Henry after a few moments of thought, "I did not realize it would be so soon. We must meet again before then--so you can talk with my sister once more. I know: Mary and I, and a friend are meeting at Vauxhall in two days. Will you not join us?"
"You mean with Jane and William, too?"
"I was thinking only of you," said Mr. Crawford. "We can come get you in my barouche. Please come."
"I don't know," replied Frances, flustered. "I suppose I could."
"I'm glad," smiled Mr. Crawford, taking up his coat. "You will have a wonderful time. Until then."
Frances had not much time to think over what had just passed, for only a moment after Mr. Crawford left brought another visitor. Frances heard Jane answer the door, and to her dismay, the loud, demanding voice that could only belong to Mrs. Norris.
"Well, child," said Mrs. Norris once she found the nervous Frances where Mr. Crawford had left her, "I'm sure you are wondering why I am here?"
"Oh, Aunt. I am glad to see you."
"Humph!" muttered Mrs. Norris. "I'm sure you are, and I imagine that you will be even happier once you hear the information I have come to convey."
"Yes," replied Mrs. Norris, "and it's a pity for us, too. Your cousin Tom is dead--he died a few days ago, and I was sent to tell you."
"Oh, poor Sir Thomas!" cried Frances, sadly.
"Yes, he's upset, and so am I, to be sure! Why, my only two nephews are gone, and my darling Maria and Julia never even care to visit their poor old aunt." After a moment or two of affected sorrow, Mrs. Norris glanced angrily at Frances and resumed. "Well, aren't you anxious to hear the settlements--I mean of money?"
"Of course not, Aunt!" cried Frances.
"To be sure you're not, when I'm positive you have been waiting until the moment when you'd become Lady Bertram. Yes, you inherit Sir Thomas' fortune after he dies, just for being Edmund's wife. It is a shame, I tell you, when poor Maria and Julia do not even get a half of what you get. And I should get at least something--my house is in much need of repair, for even the most thrifty cannot live on just a little over nothing."
"I'm so sorry, Aunt," said Frances, her mind racing, "but surely it is not all mine. Sir Thomas can still marry, can he not?"
"Oh yes, but at his age? Of course I do know what you mean--about that girl, Miss West. But I don't think Sir Thomas plans to marry again--especially one so young. I will tell you, Mrs. Bertram, that I'd rather even you get the estate over some Portsmouth chit."
Frances longed to hear more about the family, about Susan, but Mrs. Norris was too angry to talk over any matters other than money. Finally, she decided that she should leave.
"Oh!" uttered Frances, "you do not mean to leave London already? Wouldn't you care to stay here for a night?"
"No," responded Mrs. Norris coldly to her niece's politeness. "To think that I, in my old age and poor condition, would take the whole trip in one day! No, I'm staying with Maria."
"Maria!" Frances exclaimed. "She's in town?"
"Yes, she has been here all summer. And for all that I've done for her, I hope she will not mind too greatly to house her poor aunt for a night."
"Oh," replied Frances, still very shocked. "Do you think I should return with you, to help the family?"
"Why would they need your help?" burst out the annoyed Mrs. Norris. "No! You would only seem like some cruel, ungrateful animal, waiting for the last to die off you can get your prize!"
Frances tried to protest that this was not at all the case, but Mrs. Norris would not be contradicted, and left in a huff, leaving Frances to take in all that her aunt had so abruptly told her.
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