As Julia had hoped and expected, the news upset her father very much. He was heart-broken--his Eliza was his no longer. He spent the day in his room--his nieces thought it would be longer--but he managed to come down to the drawing room. True, he was a deserted lover, but there was work to be done at Mansfield, an estate to be run; and Sir Thomas did not trust to leave it to Mrs. Norris.
This made the woman angry, for she had looked forward to being mistress of the house with something like glee. So her remarks were more bitter than usual when Sir Thomas came down and announced that he was almost better.
"Well, I should hope so," she muttered scornfully. "To think of wasting away over that chit! Why, if I were you, I would be glad."
"Glad?" cried Sir Thomas in his shaken voice. "Why?"
"Because you got out of it--the marriage. Not all fools are so lucky as you: some get stuck with their ruinous plans. She could be inheriting your estates! Now she is Lady Dellrington, and will probably blacken her husband's house with her frivolous ways."
Sir Thomas pretended to ignore this, and motioned for his nieces to join them.
"This is hard," he said, "but I will try to get by." Frances and Susan sadly saw that tears were in his eyes. He continued, "Julia said that it is little known still, so please don't tell anyone. My daught..." he stopped, and cleared his throat, "I mean, Mrs. Rushworth, was not so lucky. But then you must know that Eliza is probably blameless. But at any rate, please, please don't tell a soul."
It must be admitted that Frances thought her uncle's plea a vain wish. She knew London, and she knew the excitement an elopement of the odious Lord Dellrington's would cause. Frances imagined that it would be all over the city by now.
So she would have been very surprised to hear that the clandestine marriage was still secret. Julia seemed to be the only person to know of it, and had no desire of spreading the information on after her purpose had been achieved. Even the curious socialites of London had not heard, so the Countess Marietta Bellafield was obliged to visit her brother without a reason, without the excuse of news-bringing that she usually made to cover up her constant need to see him.
She made a face as she tried to step around the puddles leading to the steps outside. Why had Henry chosen a townhouse? He had money enough for a home almost as grand as Greyston. Mary sighed as she dwelled upon all the opportunities for balls, dinners, and other exciting events her brother was missing out on. But he was so sullen now; Mary grew bored of his serious talk, yet came anyway for the occasional smile she could bring to his face.
The inside of the house was no better. True, it was a very attractive building, but all the papers and work costumes scattered on the floor did nothing to bring its beauty out. Henry came around from his room to meet his sister. He smiled, and closed the book he had been so occupied with.
"Dear Henry," greeted Mary as she came up to him and took his hand. "Silly brother, why do I never see you now? Oh, don't bother explaining. So, what are you reading?" She glanced at the volume. "Shakespeare? Is this for another play?"
"No," he answered, "I'm just reading it. You would probably think it a waste of time, I dare say?"
"Oh, no! I dearly love Shakespeare--especially the comedies. Are you reading Twelfth Night?"
"No," he replied with a laugh. "A play about cross-dressing? I hope not!" His sister smiled, but he sighed, "No, I reading Henry VIII."
"Ah, that one. That odious king. But I bet you liked him, and were glad he divorced Catherine for the Lady Anne Boleyn?"
"How could I agree with one so inconstant, and who put those dear women through misery? Catherine of Aragon was a sweet woman."
Mary laughed. "You think so? I'll never know with you! I know you always liked Anne Boleyn before, but if these are your current standards..."
"Current standards?" smiled Henry. "Why, you treat me as if I was Henry VIII himself! If my standards change, it is because I have--and for the better!"
"Oh," sighed Mary. "Anne Boleyn always was our favorite (or mine at least. Poor girl!), but now you prefer Catherine?"
"Yes," replied Henry. "I can't see how any man wouldn't!" His dark eyes shown with a sincerity that hurt his sister. She tried to hide her own eyes by looking down upon her ring-covered fingers. Henry did not notice, and continued, "Aside from her beauty, Anne Boleyn had no charms that I would value. You say I've changed--perhaps I have. Everything I used to admire in a woman--wit, conversation--suddenly seems petty and disagreeable to me. And I could never love someone with a temper like Anne Boleyn's."
"But surely you don't believe her guilty of the crimes?"
"No," admitted Henry, "the execution was wrong, but that only shows how bad a man the king was. I do pity Anne, but I pity Catherine more. Poor, virtuous woman!--to be divorced after years of being such a good, kind wife!"
"Sounds rather like Fanny," Mary ventured to say.
"Yes," smiled Henry, "but I think she has traits of the best of both. She is sweet like Catherine, but she has all the intelligence and passion of an Anne Boleyn. She is not so submissive as she seems--I should know!"
Mary listened to her brother in earnest, yet laughed uneasily in the silence that followed. Henry was so changed! Whatever happened to the reckless lad whose chief goal was pleasure for himself--regardless of how many ladies' feelings he hurt? Yes, he never cared before! Had he not toyed with the hearts of Fanny's cousins fearlessly a few years earlier? And even before that! A smile came to Mary's face as she remembered the reputation as a flirt her brother had gained at a very young age. Why, at seventeen he had made middle-aged women half-mad for him, much to the amusement of his sister and himself. Whatever happened to those carefree days? Now Henry was talking of the soul and mind of one woman with the utmost love and selflessness. Really, it disgusted Mary. But then Henry was still Henry--and still too charming at that! The truth was that Mary could not go on without her brother, and would stand through anything--even witness his deep feelings and new self-abandon for another--to be able to talk with him, to suppose herself the helper of her beloved brother.
"So you have not forgotten her yet?" She asked after a few minutes had passed by.
"Forget Fanny? If only I could!"
Mary sighed. "Then why not go back to her? Tell her what you are going through. She can not be so cold-hearted as to resist you."
"But she has before," murmured Henry. "I would have to be a fool to follow her again like I did at Portsmouth. It only made her hate me more. I don't want to make her uncomfortable."
"You?" Mary laughed, then remembered. "But if you love her..."
"If I love her," broke in Henry, finishing the sentence, "I will care less for my own wishes. Yes, I want to see her again, but she may not want to see me."
"If only this had not happened with Maria," Mary murmured. "Can't you explain?"
"Yes," sighed Henry, "but will she listen? The only thing I can do is leave the country, and try to forget..."
If only Frances had known all this! Of course she would have chastised herself for shedding so many tears over the matter, but it would have made her happy nonetheless. As it was, Frances read Henry Crawford's silence as his ceasing to care for her; or at least his having so many other lady-friends in the time past as to make him quit remembering her, as insignificant as she felt herself to be.
It was around this time that Frances began having foreboding dreams of the Englishman in Paris, being debased by the city's charms; and worse, the various Parisian women there. Frances could see his strong head fleeing because of them, his glories brought to a halt because of one pair of painted eyes, one set of false curls.
It is to be wondered where Frances found all the time to spend so many hours worrying so. Was not her uncle lost in desperation, ruing the choice of the lady he was to marry? Why, he should have been sick by now--displaying stoic resignation by day, but uttering cries of anguish at night. But no, Sir Thomas' temper was too sound for that; and despite the state of his rather attached heart only a few weeks ago, he was not a romantic. As said before, there was Mansfield Park to be looked over, which he did with his natural gravity. The only moments his nieces conjectured that their uncle was thinking of Miss West--now Lady Dellrington--was after dinner, when he would pace the floor uneasily in the silence of the drawing room, occasionally throwing a wistful glance over to the closed pianoforte.
But on one of these evenings, a visitor broke the peace and serenity of the old house. A carriage was heard, drawing all eyes to the door--how hard was this anticipation! Frances started. Was it Lady Dellrington, or Mr. Dearston, or....No, she knew it was not.
Next the murmuring of two ladies were heard, along with the closing of a door. A stout woman then came into the room, and bringing in the bags, asked if she could set her lady's things in the hall. Sir Thomas nodded his head, but looked at this unknown personage in confusion. Who was there?
The woman went out of the room for a few moments, and was soon back again, wheeling in a bathchair containing a huddled figure.
"Heaven help me!" whispered Sir Thomas as he saw the sight of the lady dressed in white, her face concealed by a gauzy shawl. "Who is it?"
It seemed as though the woman was too frail to move, but she managed to take an emaciated arm to her veil, and first uncovered a head of cut yellow hair, then a white, anxious face.
"Father," she cried, though in a quiet, shaking voice, "Father, forgive me!"
Yes, it was Maria Rushworth! Frances had imagined what it would be like to see her cousin again--the scorn she would have met her with, possibly jealousy--but this circumstance took her by surprise. She could not but look upon the faded flower with pity.
Sir Thomas still seemed unsure of what to do. He stared at the woman silently, and bent down to her side.
"Why are you here?" he finally managed to utter.
Maria tried to smile. "Papa, I am sick...I mean, dying. I wanted to come back...so I can be at peace."
Sir Thomas suddenly broke into tears. This made Maria cry also, and seeing her writhe and shiver so, Sir Thomas carried her from her chair to the couch.
"It is my fault!" he cried out as he brought her some blankets. "I should have known of this."
"But it's not, Papa!" Maria exclaimed in her wavering voice. "How were you to know?" She was interrupted by a fit of coughs, and continued, "I was worried to tell you--I've always thought this illness was a punishment for my...for my sin, and I was sure you would upbraid me about it all."
"No," sighed Sir Thomas. "Not now. I've made mistakes myself, you know. What a hypocrite I've always been!"
Frances and Susan got up, lest their presence might be an interference. As the former found her way to the door, however, Sir Thomas stopped her.
"Frances!" he exclaimed. "Frances, don't you want to see your cousin?" If truth be told, Frances was rather scared to see Maria, but went over anyway.
She winced upon seeing Maria's pallor so close. How could one who had looked so beautiful look so altered now? Maria's once thick and smooth golden hair was now shoulder-length, giving the affect of a halo around her sad face. There were no traces of the coquette now; Frances could not regard this frail creature with anger, though there was a little envy on her part. After all, as pale and faded as she was, Maria Rushworth had been both Henry Crawford's first and last choice.
"I am glad to see you, cousin," said Frances in her usual quiet manner. Maria looked at her cousin and sighed. She coldly offered her thin hand, but refused to say anything.
Frances took the bony fingers with sadness. Then was there to be this coldness between them to the end? The thought of being at war with someone who was dying struck Frances as very disagreeable and wrong.
"Cousin, I hope you will get better now that you're here," Frances forced herself to say"--I mean your illness."
Maria Rushworth nodded, and turned her face away.
But the peace and quiet of Mansfield Park did not make Maria any better. As much as Sir Thomas stayed by her side, as often as the doctor visited, the lady grew worse steadily.
Frances witnessed this with sadness; her heart was good, and she longed to be of some use to her cousin, as well as her uncle. But Maria refused to see her. Susan, she would allow to wait on her, "but not Fanny, please don't let her come," she would tell her father bitterly. Sir Thomas found this odd, but never commented on it. A quarrel with his dying daughter was the very last thing he wanted to commence.
Now the strange thing was that Mrs. Norris had disappeared after the arrival of her beloved niece. Not being present in the group to witness Maria's homecoming that night, she had come to breakfast the next morning in her usual glum spirits and was unduly shocked at the sight of the frail lady being fed by the maid. Maria managed to smile, but it was too much for her aunt. Mrs. Norris started choking with sobs, and rushed out of the room. With all the peril of Maria's condition, Mrs. Norris' absence went quite unnoticed by all but Frances, who deemed it best to stay quiet. Sir Thomas finally saw that his sister-in-law was missing from the dinner table one night, and questioned his nieces, but they were as unaware of their aunt's whereabouts as he was. Unwillingly, a statement came to Frances' mind--something of Miss Crawford's about knowing little and caring less.
And so the lady's absence came to be forgotten. Sir Thomas was always busy; when he was not standing watch over his sick daughter, he was deep in prayer, or in lament for his wayward behavior. Miss West now was never spoken of except in mortification, for Sir Thomas saw what his niece had seen from the very beginning--that his actions had been wrong, foolish, and boyish. Perhaps this realization was brought on by memories of his wife, whose features Sir Thomas sadly traced out in his daughter's thin face. Suddenly the first wife whom he had once loved so much came back to him. He shunned himself for ever forgetting, and now visited Lady Bertram's grave whenever the family went to the church to listen to the Reverend Dearston's sermons, so that he might not forget again.
It was a sad situation, but Frances still managed to think of Mr. Crawford. Ah, she could not forget a lover so soon; she saw that her former decision to do so had proved hopeless.
"How could I forget him when we have word from London every week?" she thought to herself, but Frances knew that the real reason she could not forget was that his words, his endearing smile were still fresh in her head, and would always remain so.
But what struck her as odd was that Maria, who was supposed to be still carrying on the affair, was ill, and had been for awhile, it seemed. What had been going on all along, and what was Julia's secret?
Meanwhile Maria grew worse with each day; the doctor had already given up hope, and a plot for a grave was selected near her brothers. Uneasily, Frances could discern the spot already chosen for herself, nestled in between her husband's and the cousin's who would be there so soon. It was a grim sight for her; perhaps made grimmer by the knowledge that she would be trapped in the confines of the Bertrams for her afterlife--even death could not escape them. But this was foolish. After all, Frances believed in a Heaven, and a soul that would rise above the park. Still, she turned her head and walked as quickly home as she could.
Unfortunately, solace for her low spirits was not to be found there. Frances made her way into the drawing room, discovering that the front rooms of the house were completely dark. She lit a candle and walked upstairs. This, she feared, might be where the family was, for Maria had had to keep to her old room for several days now.
Yes, she had been right; candle light shone from the small room, and Frances could hear the quiet murmurs of voices. She was prepared for the worst, yet was shocked to see the sight of a pale, silent Maria laid out on the white bed of her childhood. Sir Thomas and Susan each sat at a side of the bed, weeping. They did not notice Frances as she walked in. They merely hung their heads in grief.
"Uncle," murmured Frances, "Oh, don't tell me..."
Sir Thomas looked up at her with something like relief. "Oh, thank goodness you are here. No," he said, sadly looking at his daughter, "she isn't g-gone yet, but she's so close to it... She wants to talk to you. I don't know why, but she told me she cannot rest until she sees you."
"Oh?" Frances looked at the worn-out creature on the bed and wondered how she would ever manage to converse with her. What could this be? "Is she well enough, Sir?" she asked.
"I wouldn't think so," admitted Sir Thomas, "but she is so determined in this..."
A voice was then heard from the bed--a quiet, wavering voice that obviously was making great efforts to be heard.
"Yes, Papa, I can!" Maria turned her eyes towards Frances. "Fanny, I must talk to you, or I shall never be at peace!"
Frances shot a look of fright to her uncle, who only got up and motioned for her to take his chair. Soon he and Susan were gone, leaving Frances alone with the dying lady, having no idea of what to do or say.
Frances sat nervously at her cousin's side. It was a very horrible situation to be in for her. Her eyes restlessly moved to the window, the paintings on the wall, the items on the table; but never Maria. Even for a person who normally craved silence, this silence unnerved her.
"It is a fine day," she observed, but without making eye-contact with her cousin. The sick lady still did not speak. Frances now turned to her, lest anything had happened due to her silly fears. But Maria's eyes were still opened--opened and keenly focusing on her cousin. She did not overt her glance when Frances looked at her, but was finally pressed to speak:
"Fanny, I must apologize."
"Apologize?" exclaimed Frances, trying to hide her surprise by preparing her cousin's medicines.
"Yes. I apologize for hating you, but you can understand why I did!"
"You h-hated me?" Frances' surprise now showed clearly upon her face. The idea of anyone hating her baffled her--not due to vanity, but because of the insignificance she felt she'd always had.
"I hated you," repeated Maria. "Not any longer though, but how I used to! You were a favorite of my mother and father ever since you arrived. Papa always told people proudly of his "good Fanny" and Mama could not get along without you."
"But you could have helped her too," Frances could not help saying. "I am sure she would have valued your company much more than mine."
"So I thought," murmured Maria, "but the idea struck me as foolish. Why help to prove my point when I could hurt at an easier cost? You know I turned bad because of you, Fanny? It was wrong, of course, but I hated you so! I thought you were perfect, and worse--that you were perfectly aware of it."
Frances was now in tears. "You thought that? If only you knew about all the fears I had! I am too far from it!"
"Nevertheless I thought it," replied Maria. "But I didn't really hate you until you won Mr. Crawford, and he--he proposed to you. I now see it was my vanity that was affected, for I was so angry that a poor, simple girl was triumphing over me. You hurt my pride, so I was not going to forgive you. Don't cry, Fanny; I see now that you are good."
Frances took her cousin's wasted hand, but could not stop her tears. She was crying for her cousin, and because of how cold she felt she must have been to Maria all her life.
After a few deep breaths, Maria continued. "I saw that Mr. Crawford truly loved you, and that there was reason for it."
"You saw?" asked Frances in confusion. "But were you not in London by then?"
"Yes, I should have said I heard, for I was quite convinced of the love as told by the lover himself--Mr. Crawford."
Frances, her face flushed, lowered her eyes. Then here it was, that dreadful blight...
"You do not need to tell me everything," she murmured.
"Fanny, if it is me you're thinking of, do not worry. I am too much at fault to allow my feelings any liberties. But if it is the scandal, I can clear it up."
"Don't try!" exclaimed Frances, forgetting the state of her ailing cousin. "I've overlooked it once, and won't again!"
"No, please listen! This is the truth, and I must tell it. I can't die leaving behind so many lies! Hear me out, please." She paused for a moment and looked at Frances. Seeing no opposition, she resumed: "When you first refused Mr. Crawford, he was heart-broken. I did not think you realized how much he loved you, for I didn't believe you could have been so cruel. He came to London in a terrible state. He was so miserable for the loss of you. His sadness hurt his sister, for she was not used to seeing him so. To brighten his spirits, she brought him to the evening party. You say you have heard of that, but probably not all."
"I was angry with him," she continued. "Since he slighted me, I was not going to treat him with kindness--no matter how saddened he was. I went on with my duties as hostess, speaking not a word to him, but keeping an eye on him throughout the evening. I saw that he was drinking quite a bit, as young men will during times of sadness. He really did love another, I saw. All my jealousy returned, and I envied the woman who could win the love of that charming man--no matter how kind she was, how good."
"So I made up my mind to win him back. It was not hard; his spirits were so low as to make him do almost anything (at the time I thought it was the wine, but now I'm not so sure). You see, I, too, was depressed--because of my husband, hateful man! I thought I deserved a break from him, and planned to run off with some man to the continent for a few weeks. So Henry's situation seemed very convenient for me. I explained my plan to him, and he agreed. I ran up to my room, arranged my hair, gathered a few things together, and met Mr. Crawford at the door."
"Maria," broke in Frances in a trembling voice. "Cousin, please! Pray don't tell me this part."
"But I will," answered the sick woman quite determinedly. "There is nothing I could tell that would hurt you. That is why. I just wanted to tell you that we only got a little ways in the carriage before Henry refused to go any further--or anywhere--with me."
Maria was stopped by a sob that broke out from her cousin. Indeed, Frances' face was flushed, and a smile almost marked itself upon her lips. The speaker looked at her with a little scorn, but then remembered the purpose of her narrative. What good would jealousy do her now?
"He refused to go with me," she continued, "because he was still too much in love with you. I confess I made a scene there on the London street, but he was calm, and gave me his address in case I ever needed to see him. That was the last time I saw Mr. Crawford until just three months ago."
"As good as he was, as considerate his behavior was towards me, I hated Mr. Crawford as I watched him drive away. He was my last chance towards happiness (selfish happiness, I realize now). I spent that night, and many succeeding it in a hotel, planning revenge on him. The best plan, I believed, would be to ruin his name. As an adulterer, he would lose all admirers, I thought. At the time my head was so lost that I thought nothing of connecting my own name with his; I had left my husband by then, and I confess I saw a charm in announcing his relationship with myself. I was foolish! How silly, how naive I was not to realize that in these circumstances, it is always the woman who ends up with the most pain! But I deserved it. A week after I sent the anonymous false information to the paters, I regretted it."
"At first Mr. Crawford had his lawyers attend to it, but after hearing how upset I was, he had it dropped. And you see, the scandal really hasn't hurt him at all!"
Frances noticed anger in her cousin's voice, but didn't say anything. Then that was the "most scandalous, ill-natured rumor!" Frances always had wondered about the affair, had always questioned its truth; now she was sure. It gave her pleasure to be right, but there was still a matter that upset her.
"You said you saw him a few months ago?" Not wishing to appear upset, Frances smiled and started again. "I heard you were at Vauxhall when I was there, and that Mr. Crawford visited you?"
"Yes," answered Maria with a little smile on her own face. "I was at Vauxhall, though nothing to worry about, miserable sight that I was! I was in my bathchair, sick as I have been for a long while. My illness I at first attributed to Mr. Crawford; I thought it was because I still hated him, though the doctors all told me it was consumption. Somehow I convinced Mr. Crawford to visit me, though I'm sure I was the very last woman he wanted to see. Still, he was good to me, and visited me whenever I asked. I believe he really cared, but he did not love me." She sighed. "No, but he was always too good for me. I see now that you are the only woman who has the virtue and kindness for that dear man, and now I am convinced that you love and deserve him."
Maria managed to linger on a little longer. All the members of the family noticed that she was kinder now, more free in temper, but only one knew why. Frances now spent most of her time with her dying cousin. How much better she felt to help someone than to spend all her time alone in thought; to have a clear idea rather than a painful memory. There was a bond between the two now. Whenever Maria was able to, she spoke to her cousin. Frances came to learn the secret Julia had withheld: Maria painfully detailed the events of the illness, how the loss of beauty had affected her more than any cough or sharp pain in her heart had.
"I wouldn't let anyone see me, save for my maid," she cried to Frances, who did her best to lovingly soothe her. "My Aunt Norris came to visit, but left as soon as she saw my condition. I did not mind, for she is so weak anyway, but I was upset when Julia came unannounced into my house one day. But she has kept the secret, has she not?"
"Yes," murmured Frances, in a barely audible tone. She was struck by how even in her last days, Maria was still concerned about her appearance. It was hopeless, Frances realized, but she always went along with her cousin's questions so that she might help her.
This life of self-sacrifice, of thinking for another and not brooding over her own situation constantly, was new to Frances. Even in her cousin's sleep, Frances stared at the withered face and cried for the mind inside. It hurt her that she had never been close to Maria, and that she had close-mindedly put her off as vain and arrogant. Some of it may have been true, of course, but now she saw that Maria Rushworth needed to be loved just as much as any other person ever had. The idea then came to her head that perhaps some of the others did too, like Julia and Miss Crawford. That day Frances planned to do something for her cousin, how ever impossible the result might seem. But the other--the Countess...She brought Henry Crawford to Frances' mind. Frances certainly had not forgotten him in these days of caring--she loved him as much as she ever did--more, in fact, now that she knew the truth. The vision of Mr. Crawford seemed dream-like, as though he was waiting for her with out-stretched arms at the very end--a reward. But why didn't he come?
These thoughts worried her often as she watched her cousin sleep. "He must not love me then," she sadly thought to herself. "I know he would come if he did!"
"Why do you not write to him?" suggested a voice. Frances looked around, for this sound did not come from her mind. She looked to the bed and saw Maria watching her, wide awake.
"Oh! you startled me!" Frances exclaimed, trying to stop her blushes.
"I mean it," replied Maria. "I could tell what you were thinking about. There must be a reason why Mr. Crawford doesn't write, but I am sure that it's not because he doesn't love you anymore..."
Frances looked at her cousin with surprise; she knew that her feelings often marked themselves upon her face, but Maria seemed to know all her thoughts. "But perhaps he is in Paris already," she protested feebly.
"But maybe he's not. Don't give up your hopes and live alone in sadness like I did. I thought you would have learned!"
Frances knew that it was very true what her cousin had said. She should at least try. That night she wrote a short note to Mr. Crawford. This time it was real and true, though perhaps it was so because she was still debating with herself whether to send it or not. Still, the writing of the letter had the benefit of releasing a good deal of the feelings that she had closed and locked away for so long. The note read:
"Mr. Crawford, I have seen my cousin Mrs. Rushworth. I know now of her illness, but also of another thing I had been too blind to see. Oh, why did I not listen to you? But I know the truth now, and want to send my apologies. I suppose that you may not want to now, Sir, but please know that you are welcome to Mansfield Park now, by the friend whom you have always treated with respect and kindness, Mrs. Bertram"
Frances had wanted to sign it 'Fanny,' but changed it to a formal name, considering that she was already neglecting her propriety by sending him a letter. But she did not let propriety stop her from attaching a verse at the bottom of the page. Byron's poetry ran through her head, and impulsively she copied out a few lines:
"I loved--but those I loved are gone. Had friends--my early friends are fled; How cheerless feels the heart alone When all its former hopes are dead!"
This action inspired her to go ahead and send the letter instead of throwing it into the grate as she had planned to. She then addressed it and brought it down to be sent. It was very rash behavior, she knew, but perhaps there was hope after all...
Having gotten the letter sent off to London, Frances' mind was greatly relieved, and her quiet anticipation allowed her time for other matters. Seeing Maria every day made her sadly realize how much good there was to be done in the world, and how little she herself had done. True, it could not be disputed that Frances was good, but she found that hitherto she had not done much good for other people. So Frances was determined to make herself useful.
It came to her one day that she should give up her fortune. How could it help her, but to make her ease away into laziness like her aunt had? The Yates were the first to come to her mind. This choice may seem odd, but the couple had been in her thoughts a lot lately. Julia, she didn't care for, but beyond Mr. Yates' foppishness, there hid a good, sincere kindness. Frances pitied him and hoped to change his situation with the inheritance. Perhaps their vagabond lifestyle would end with it and they would become good, respectable owners of Mansfield Park. Better than herself at least, Frances thought.
Sir Thomas was surprised when he heard of his niece's intention, but was better about it than Frances feared he might be.
"I confess I'd rather have you as mistress of this house," he said, "but if it pleases you to leave it to your cousin..."
"Yes," answered Frances, "I would rather give up the fortune to someone else--someone who deserves it more. Surely Julia has more right to it than I do."
Sir Thomas sat in thought. "I am not so sure she does, but it is your choice. What will you do, then? Do you ever plan to marry again?"
Frances blushed. "I don't know," she replied, though in her head she added that it depended on another. Frances wondered if the letter had reached him--'No,' she thought, 'it can't be in London yet; I wish it would hurry!' She imagined what bliss she would feel to have it returned by another ardent letter, or even better, an ardent face.
"If not, then perhaps you can live with your Aunt Norris if she ever comes back." Frances awoke from her thoughts with a start. She murmured a "Yes"; her face flushed as though her uncle had read her mind. But she soon saw he hadn't, for he sadly sighed and took up a pile of blankets.
"I must bring these to Maria once the doctor is done." He paused. "I'm afraid things look bad."
"Poor, dear Maria," murmured Frances.
"Yes, I can't help feeling terrible. I haven't treated her as kindly as I should have."
"Nor have I."
The doctor gave Sir Thomas the information he had feared to hear--that his daughter would be very fortunate to even make it through the night. Sir Thomas' first impulse was to weep, be he managed to stop himself. After informing his nieces, he went up to the sick room.
He stoically sat holding his daughter's hand, though she had almost lost all conciousness by now. She lay in a sleep that even the doctor had commented on; there was a peace marking itself upon her brow that could not help but pass itself onto those who sat by her bed.
Susan would cry and have to leave the room often, but Frances was able to stay there the whole night. She was saddened to lose her cousin, but she was happy to have resolved with Maria.
So when Maria Rushworth died that night, there were no bitter feelings between her and whom she used to consider her rival. The only thing Frances regretted was that she had not known her cousin better.
The funeral day was not to be for a week so that the mourners might print the death in the papers first.
"People may want to come," Sir Thomas told Frances when asked why he had decided upon it,"--perhaps Mr. Rushworth."
Frances thought this very doubtful, but dared not argue with her uncle. She saw his sincere gravity and let him make all the decisions without any reservations.
"I suppose we shall have the Reverand Dearston lead the service?" he asked his nieces. Susan responded with a blush. "He is an excellent parson," Sir Thomas continued, "and his sermons are very nice. I would seek out his service for any occasion, but there is one happy event coming very soon when I will have to find someone else!"
Susan tried to hide her embarassment beneath a laugh. "It will be a while yet," she said. "We have decided to wait at least a few years to get married."
Frances looked up from her work in surprise. She could not understand why her sister wanted to wait so long to get settled. Later that night after their uncle had gone to bed, Frances asked her why.
"Well," smiled Susan, "I must admit that I am not overly-anxious to get married." Frances also smiled at this. "Oh! not that!" laughed Susan. "I just think I should stay to help Uncle now, and I really don't mind!"
"But I will be here, I am sure," said Frances.
"Will you? I know you'll marry again!"
"I don't know," Frances replied, bringing her needlework up to her face to hide her eyes. "What will Uncle do once you are married?"
"Mr. Dearston and I will live in the parrish--just as you and Edmund used to. Don't let that stop you if you are ever asked."
But Frances did not say anything: she was thinking of the note that still remained unanswered.
The day of the funeral finally arrived. The sunniness of the afternoon, and the bright blue of the sky did not match the moods of the mourners, but it did help them know that their deceased relation was experiencing a peace beyond that. It also consoled them to find that there were many Londoners attending the funeral after all; not Mr. Rushworth, but some of the people who had been friends with Maria (or were, perhaps, only curious to witness the service, but the thought did not occur to Frances or her family). In fact, when Frances was walking to the church she was stopped by a familiar voice.
"Mrs. Bertram! I want to thank you for your kindness." Frances turned around and saw Mr. Yates.
"How are you, Sir?" she smiled happily. "You have recieved my uncle's letter, then?"
"Yes, and my wife and I are very grateful to you. Julia was made so upset by this tragic event that she could not come, but I thought it was my duty. Poor woman!"
"Yes," sighed Frances, "but I think dear Maria would have been happy to see so many friends of hers here."
"I was surprised," admitted Mr. Yates. "It seems like all her aquaintances are here. So many from London! Oh, but I was supposed to tell you that the Countess Bellafield was not able to come."
"Oh, thank you."
"And Mr. Crawford is in Paris, you know."
"Oh!" Mr. Yates could see that Frances was disturbed, so he awkwardly thanked her once more and proceeded to the church.
Fortunately Frances was able to recover for the service and turn her mind back to Maria. Even Mr. Dearston's pompousness could not prevent the funeral from being sad and wetting Frances' face entirely with tears. This was followed by the burial in the churchyard. Watching his daughter's body being lowered into the ground, next to the graves of his wife and sons, Sir Thomas broke down. Frances did her best to comfort him in the midst of her own sadness and disappointment. But as they were walking back, they were suddenly halted by a young couple. One of the people recognizable to Frances was a rather tall man with dark hair, but the lady with him stood out for poor Sir Thomas. It was Eliza West--or Dellrington now--, dressed in the finery of London, the bright colors of her gown only darkened by the black sash that was customary for proper funeral attire. She noticed them too, for she stopped for a brief second and gave one look to Sir Thomas--a sad, apologetic smile--and turned back to her husband and walked on. Frances glanced up at her uncle, but his face did not show any signs of anger or remorse.
"That did not hurt me at all," he finally said when his old lover was out of their sight. "I am amazed, but I was not at all jealous of her husband!"
Frances smiled. She was glad to see her uncle's old sense of honour and respectability regained, but suggested that he walk on alone to have a calm moment to himself. Frances lingered behind and looked around the parrish--at the busy church, the fresh grass. She glanced over at the parsonage that held so many memories for her. She and Edmund had lived there, though not happily. 'I hope things will be better for Susan!' she thought.
The house would have seemed completely glum for her had it not been for some visitors who had so enlivened it years ago. She remembered them all; especially the Grants' young kinsman. He had given her so much trouble then, and had been the cause of many a sleepless night. 'And it is the same now,' she thought, 'except for much, much different reasons. How I miss him!'
The vision of his face occupied her head for so much of the way home that at first she was not at all surprised to see him in the drawing room seated with her sister and uncle.
"Mr. Crawford!" she exclaimed with a smile, but then it hit her. Her face grew pink with a deep blush and she lowered her eyes in embarrassment. She had so often dreamed of this moment, but now she was at a loss for words.
But Sir Thomas had already noticed his niece's mortification.
"Frances, Mr. Crawford is here, and I asked him to join us. I've apologized already for the anger we've had towards him before we heard dear Maria's story."
Frances only nodded; words wouldn't come in an easy way, and she was required to sit down.
"Are you feeling alright?" Sir Thomas asked. "Perhaps you should go outside where it is cooler."
"I'll help her," said Mr. Crawford, quickly rising from his chair. Frances nervously looked up at him--she was afraid she had shown too much feeling--but Mr. Crawford returned her glance with a smile that warmed her heart. He took her hands and helped her out to where the rose garden used to lie. It felt wonderful to have Mr. Crawford's hands in hers again, but he released his grasp as soon as Frances was seated on the bench. He began to pace the rows of dead foliage.
"I know you did not expect to see me here," he began. "I would never force myself upon you again, but I felt that I should keep my promise to your cousin--to attend her funeral."
Frances was so surprised that the smile that had been lingering upon her lips did not fade.
"What, Sir?" she asked.
"I sorry that you had to see me; I meant to leave as soon as possible to avoid it, but your uncle stopped me."
Now Frances' smile left her face. "You did not want to see me, then? Oh, I should have guessed!"
This was too much for Henry. His own dread of being slighted by a woman left him as he went to her side.
"Dearest Fanny! You thought I didn't want to see you? Of course I did, but I thought it was the opposite, that you didn't want to see me."
"No, not at all, Sir!" Frances was in tears now, though tears of joy. Somehow all the lonely months seemed worth it to her now, to be comforted by Mr. Crawford's voice and to have his arms around her. "I'm very, very glad you are here. Did you get my note?"
"Note?" A surprised smile came to his lips. "No, I was on my way to Paris; I must still go, you know."
"No, I didn't," answered Frances. She was suddenly let down again. A silence followed. The minds of the two lovers were in much turmoil, and even Mr. Crawford did not know how to begin.
"You said you sent me a letter?" he finally said.
"Yes," answered Frances with a blush. Seeing that he was anxious to hear more, she steadied her voice and said, "I wrote to you to tell you that now I know you are blameless. That is why I thought you were here, because I wrote that you were welcome to Mansfield Park."
"Then you wished me here?" asked Henry with a playful smile.
Frances smiled too, but in embarassment. "Yes, sir, I wanted to hear about London, and how your sister is doing."
"She's very well," laughed Henry, "but was that all?"
"No," she said, unable to stop a deep blush from spreading across her cheeks.
"Well I've missed you too," Henry said, excitedly taking up her hands. He lifted them to his lips, keeping them close to his face. Frances' thin, white fingers were still in his own, being observed and studied by Henry as he traced out the smooth lines in the delicate hands before bringing them to his lips once again. "So that I remember--In case we must part again," said he, returning her smile.
"I hope not, Sir!"
"So do I! Fanny, do you know what I love about you?" he asked, still with the look of boyish happiness marked upon his face.
"You are the most divine when I'm near you, in person. All my memories of you--every time your picture came to my mind--as sweet as they were, they could never be as perfect as this darling I behold right now." Frances smiled, but strangely was not embarrassed. She was too pleased to be so.
"Dare a man ever to be unfaithful to you," Henry continued. "It's impossible! I don't think I could ever so much as look at another woman knowing I had dear Fanny waiting for me."
"Sir, I don't think you could ever be unfaithful to any woman," smiled Frances.
"But I used to," admitted Henry. "I've never been married, of course, but I was something of a rake! They say most young men go through that and outgrow it with age, but I'm not sure. I think that that nature disappears once you meet an angel!"
Frances' smile remained. She did not try to hush his romantic talk or make an excuse to go. She felt she was living out one of the sweetest of her dreams, and saw no need to let anything--even propriety--end it.
Fortunately their conversation did not have to end soon. With all the grief of the day, Sir Thomas had quite forgotten about the visitor and his niece. If anyone would have asked, he would have gravely praised Frances for apologizing to Mr. Crawford, and for taking most of the responsibility. His mind was too much occupied with sadness to be thinking of romantic attachments--both for himself and for others.
Susan, however, thought it very odd. Frances had been with Mr. Crawford for hours; what could they be talking about?
Many things, she would have found out had she taken to spying like her sister-in-law Jane Price (Which she would never think about, naturally, being the future wife of a parson). Frances and Henry discussed everything from the latter's stage career to Frances' time consoling her uncle after the eloping of his Miss West.
"I should have warned you about that," Mr. Crawford said. "Dellrington is just the man to do something like that."
"But how could you have known?" She paused. "Did you know that my cousin Julia was surprised that Eliza did not elope with you?" Frances ventured to say, though very quietly.
"Me?" laughed Henry. "I would rather hang myself than marry someone like her! The artful thing! I saw her once at the theatre, and you would not believe how many silly flatteries she had for me. I understand she's making Dellrington rue his decision!"
Frances laughed also. "Perhaps it is for the best. But poor Uncle!"
"Poor Sir Thomas? I confess I cannot feel too sorry for him: consider the niece he had to wait on him, to feast his eyes with her smiles." Frances bestowed Mr. Crawford with one of these smiles now, which he happily recieved and continued, "There is only one position I would like better."
"What is that?" Frances asked with the same naivete she had had at eighteen.
"To be the husband of this divinity."
"Oh." She turned her head to hide the smile that so boldly came to her lips. Where was her self-control? Had she been in any other situation, she would have been ashamed of herself.
Henry's eyes were glowing, but he managed to keep an air of gravity upon his face. "But I dare say it is too late for me to with it."
"Oh, no, Sir!" cried Frances in alarm, "It is not! That is why I wrote to you!" And just as soon as she had uttered the words, she realized what she had said, and blushed and lowered her head.
Henry, however, smiled at this exclamation. His hands fairly trembled with happiness and delight, but he managed to gently lift Frances' face to be able to look into her eyes. She timidly glanced at him and smiled. Little did she know--never would she have guessed--that her embarassment endeared her all the more to the actor's heart. These "smiles that win" that he had so noticed before now completely won him over. Inclining his face near hers, and lifting up his lover's chin, he kissed her quivering lips; shortly at first to ascertain her reaction, and seeing how well it was accepted, he brought his lips to hers once more and kissed her again--longer, more passionately.
Frances' first reaction was to find a seat; or rather she needed to. She was positively dizzy with feeling. She had never been kissed so before, and wasn't quite sure what to make of it at first, but soon concluded that new experiences weren't bad at all!
Henry stood standing, watching Frances out of the corner of his eye with a smile.
"Then did you say you would marry me?" he asked nonchalantly.
Frances revelled in the moment and sat with Mr. Crawford for as long as she could, but the pinks of the sunset soon faded, and the sky grew dark. The cool wind that blew past did not make her cold, for she was secure in Mr. Crawford's arms, and her whole face still burnt with the remembrance of the kiss. But the impending night did eventually manage to catch her attention.
"I think I should go in, Sir."
"Must you?" asked Henry, allowing her to get up from the bench and taking her hands.
"Yes, I must," Frances glanced down at her hands and smiled at Mr. Crawford. He returned it, loosed them, but drew her closer.
"Then I will let you. Dear, dear Fanny, did you really promise to be my wife?" he asked excitedly.
"Yes, Sir," replied Frances in almost a whisper, so happy was she.
"Then I should be glad to let you go, but I'm not. Do you know how odious the man you are going to marry is?"
"No, I'm marrying you," said Frances, smiling at the abrupt question. "Why should you say that?"
"Because now that I've found you, I feel I can never leave you. It's silly of me; how Mary would laugh at such a thing!"
Frances smiled and lowered her eyes. 'But Mary doesn't know,' she thought to herself. 'Mary's feelings are not like Mr. Crawford's!'
"Do you think I would not like that, Sir?" she asked aloud, thinking of the happy life she had in front of her now. How could Mr. Crawford think that she would not like to be loved so? Why, it was what she had been wishing for her entire life-- longing to be loved while remaining overlooked, marrying her cousin with the hopes of finally occupying a foremost place in someone's heart only to be forgotten once more. No, to be loved so by Mr. Crawford was certainly not disagreeable to her--no where near disagreeable. She had to pinch herself to make her mind believe it. While musing in her thoughts, she looked over at Mr. Crawford's face, at his dark, shining eyes; it was all so real to her now that she could not keep her excitement under control.
"How I've missed you, Sir! If only you knew!" She glanced at him and he took her hand and kissed it. "I wished to see you so until I finally sent the letter."
"Imagine how it all would have been had we gotten married sooner--without misunderstanding," mused Henry. Seeing Frances' frown, however, he willed a smile to his face--the charming smile ladies loved so well showing his perfect, white teeth. "But we will marry now, and how glad I am of it!" he said.
"Yes, and so am I," Frances said in happy thought. Henry watched her with a smile.
"You said you had to go in?" he asked mischeviously.
"Go in? Oh! yes," Frances replied with a blush.
"Then I must wait to see you tomorrow. I will, won't I?" He said smiling and taking her in his arms.
"Yes, and soon it will be everyday," Frances said.
"How happy I will be then!"
Frances woke up early the next day. With such happiness did she fix her hair and gaze at her reflection. Dressing was now a pleasure for her. Though she had never really noticed, Frances had begun to put more time into it all ever since her visit to London. Perhaps it was because she felt that there was more of a reason to, that her pains wouldn't be in vain as they always had before.
There was a particular joy for her on this occasion. She wanted to look her best, but told the lady's maid that she would not be needing her assistance. To have interupption this morning, she felt, would be like sacrilege. She needed to be alone to let her thoughts settle. How agreeable it was to look at her face, to stare at the lips that had touched Mr. Crawford's very own only the night before. She put her fingers to them in disbelief. But soon the door slowly opened and Frances turned quickly around on her chair. It was Susan.
"Dear sister!" smiled Frances, turning around and resuming her job, though trying to keep back her feelings. From the mirror she could see that Susan had a smile of her own upon her face.
"Frances! You seem happy today!"
"Yes," replied her older sister with a blush.
"I hear Mr. Crawford is coming again today," Susan pressed further. "How very strange! I wonder what it could be for."
"Because we are engaged," said Frances, unable to hold back the news.
"Oh! Congratulations! I am surprised," Susan said after a while. "I thought you did not like Mr. Crawford."
"I thought the same," mused Frances, "but I must have always. He is a dear, kind man, and now we know that he is innocent."
"He is very exciting, too," pointed out Susan.
"Yes." Another blush came to Frances' face.
"Well I am very happy for you," Susan said after a few minutes had passed by. "How nice that we both are marrying now! Maybe you and Mr. Crawford can share a wedding with Mr. Dearston and I--It would be very convenient, you know."
"Perhaps," answered Frances. She thought a while and smiled. "I don't know; your marriage is still so far off, and I don't know if we'll be able to wait so long!"
When the maid came up and announced that Mr. Crawford was there, Frances was nearly ready. She took one last glance at her curls--now free of the widow's cap--and went out to the drawing room, where Henry was seated with her uncle. They both noticed her as she came in--the latter with a look of surprise. The former, however, smiled at her and was about to get up from his chair to greet her until he remembered his place. Frances also smiled, and sat across from her fiance and near her uncle.
"So you are getting married, Frances?" Sir Thomas asked solemnly.
"Yes, Uncle. If it is fine with you."
"With me?" he exclaimed. "You do not need my approval any more, you know."
"I know, Sir." Frances lowered her head. She could feel Mr. Crawford's eyes upon her own and did not raise her head since she might shock her uncle with a smile.
"You both have my blessing," continued Sir Thomas, "and Frances, do not feel bad about leaving me and Susan."
"Oh, but will you be all right?" asked Frances, now feeling guilty because she had not been listening to her uncle quite completely; how could she when she and Henry were engaged in the most delightful conversation of their own, one of smiles and the glowing of eyes?
"Yes, yes," answered Sir Thomas. "Susan and her husband will live nearby, and she is waiting a while to get married. I dare say you are not?"
"I do not know," replied Frances quietly, looking at her fiance.
"I still must go to Paris," Henry said. "I wish I didn't, but I'm afraid I'm obliged to now."
"And how long will that be?" asked Sir Thomas.
"For their theatre season--six months, at least."
Sir Thomas nodded his head and told them that if they cared to wait some months after Mr. Crawford returned, they could be married in the Spring. After he left the room, the lovers were alone, and Mr. Crawford went over and sat near Frances.
"A year," he said after a while. "That is too far off."
"Yes," agreed Frances. "Must you go to France?"
"I'm afraid so. The contract was strict--I should never have signed it!"
"Then why did you, Sir?"
Henry smiled. "Because of you, my darling. I'm like that man in Byron's poem about leaving England: "I still can only love but one."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Sir!"
"Don't be! After all, I have you next to me now. When I made my decision to leave, I thought I'd never see my dear Fanny again. But when I do go, at least I'll know that she will be waiting for me."
"Yes," said Frances in thought. Of course she would wait--of that there was no question; with the strong love of a constant heart, she could stand watch for years, no matter how hopeless, how sad the ending might seem. But her love also made her impatient.
"Is there no way to make it closer?" she asked.
"The wedding day? No, not unless we eloped," Henry said with a grin, as though it was only a joke.
Frances, however, did not take it so. Her eyes brightened at the comment.
"Can we, Sir?" she cried.
"You really want to elope?" asked Henry incredulously. He was surprised, and laughed as he was wont to do in situations that took him off his guard.
"Well," said Frances quietly, "we are both above age, and it would not be so very bad, you know."
"Yes, but what will people say?" asked Henry, his eyes dancing with mirth. "Can you imagine what talk it would create in London, what people will say about our elopement? It wouldn't be bad, true, but I don't know if it would be quite, well...proper."
"Oh, then you do not want to?" Now the blush of embarassment came to Frances' face. "It is just that you suggested it, and..."
"And meant it," finished Henry, nearing closer to her. "Would you really consent to that--to eloping?"
"Yes," Frances answered, "I think it would make me very happy!"
"And me, too," Henry Crawford said, smiling into her eyes. "Then we will marry before sailing to Paris. You will love it--Paris, I mean! And of course France will love my dear, sweet wife, though not quite so much as I will."
Frances smiled at the visions and smiled with surprise at her own spark of boldness. Perhaps it was not right--was not what most ladies would do--but she acquited herself on the observation that most ladies never get the chance to unite with a charming man that is very much in love with them.
Though Henry Crawford would have been happy to take Frances away that very day, the latter, with timid smiles and her very nervousness on the subject, convinced him that it would be better to wait at least a week and inform her family of their plans first. Frances was relieved after their intentions had been communicated, for she had worried about how her uncle and sister would take it. She was so much in love that she was blinded to all but feelings, and how she appeared before the eyes of the world was no longer even taken into consideration with her.
This change rather surprised Henry, though not disagreeably. Being of a passionate nature, he saw the release of worldliness as a release of a constraint, an unshackling of thought. He was glad to be able to be talked to as more than a formidable actor, to have conversations so very different than the tedious London chatter he was overly-familiar with. But one day, while discussing Shakespeare, Frances at once remembered something and abruptly interuppted the conversation.
"The money! Sir, you must not know it yet, do you?"
"Know what?" smiled Henry, closing the book of plays he had been reading to her from. Frances took the volume from the table and nervously flipped through it, purposely trying to avoid looking into Mr. Crawford's eyes.
"The inheritance," she said in a low murmur. "Do you know how it stands?"
Henry only laughed. "I don't know--it always changes, does it not? It is as inconstant as the moon," he said, alluding to Juliet's speech from the play they had been reading. Frances' nerves, however, forbade her from smiling at this.
"Then what have you heard, Sir?"
"The last I've heard was that you gave your fortune away to the Yates. That was very noble of you; I am sure Yates will like you now even though he will always hate me!"
"You know?" she said with a happy sigh. "Then William was wrong!"
"And what did William say?"
"He told me that you were marrying me for my fortune," Frances said quickly. She glanced up at Henry, expecting to be reproached. His dark features frowned somewhat, but he was not angry. He brought his hands through his thick hair and sat down.
"Did you think that?" he asked in a low voice.
"Oh, no, Sir!--I think, well....maybe I did," she finally admitted. "Yes, I thought you loved me at first, though I could not see why!" Henry took her hand and contradicted her. "I really thought that," Frances continued. She frowned at the onset of memories that came flooding into her mind. "When my cousin told me that you were visiting Maria, it became clear to me. Why should you want to marry me for love when there was Maria, and Miss Dellrington?"
"Miss Dellrington?" Mr. Crawford exclaimed. "Ha. Even if I was a fortune hunter and she was rich, I would not marry her. I would rather be poor than have a stupid wife."
Frances laughed. "And I cannot see how I ever thought you would be that--a fortune hunter. William persuaded me, I think."
"I could almost be angry with him!" laughed Henry.
"Don't, Sir," smiled Frances. "He only cares for me, that is all. You know how brothers can be."
"No, but on sisters, I am an expert!"
"Are you, Sir?" laughed Frances.
"Yes, and what trouble they can be! (though not you, my dear. I am sure that you are the sweetest little sister William could have; no wonder he protects you so from scoundrels like me!) Mary is also one of those loving siblings. Since our mother died, she has always attempted to take her place. Of course it does not matter to her that I'm older and that her plans never work! She is nice, though. I think you will like her better once you get to know her more. You don't mind that she is accompanying us to London, do you? Your uncle prefers that she does--so we are not alone, because I might do something rakish, you know."
"He doesn't think that!" Frances laughed. How good it was to smile, to laugh freely. Reflecting on this, she added, "Uncle wants it to be proper, that is all. And I do like your sister; I don't mind her going--she is nice."
"Yes, but not as nice as no one," Henry replied with a sulkish smile.
Frances happily looked at Henry and had an impulse to kiss him. This, she stopped, and mused, "It will not be long, Sir," she said, "--Paris." As he looked at her, however, Frances was again victim to his dark eyes, and quickly kissed him on his cheek. Henry, surprised, glanced up at her and started to put his arms around her when she stopped them with a smile.
"Paris," she repeated, and quickly scampered into the house.
Frances had been right about her uncle's wanting to have the wedding to be as proper as possible. He was shocked when his niece's fiance told him of their plans. Mr. Crawford finally managed to convince him that this would not be a true elopement, and to the old man's hasty, affrighted question, Henry replied that they certainly would not be going to Gretna Green.
"Fanny is too good for that," he told Sir Thomas, "but then few places would be fine enough for such a lady as she."
Sir Thomas nodded and answered that they had his blessing. He always felt a little uncomfortable around Mr. Crawford, though he could never tell why. Eloquent people rather flew him off his guard. Also, he could not understand Henry's talk, which when only Susan was around, he called "high-flown." What could Mr. Crawford see in Frances? Sir Thomas was puzzled that such a reknown gentleman in a respected position should want to marry a rather dull and quiet woman. Frances was pretty, true, but hers was a light prettiness--overlooked by the old man in favor of bold looks. He had long gotten over Eliza West, but he still considered her dark features to be the utmost in feminine beauty. Even golden-haired women he admired, but any degree of soft looks he disliked, because he knew he was prone to overlook them.
As soon as Mary Bellafield heard the news, she was at Mansfield Park as soon as was possible. The inhabitants of the parrish did not expect her so soon, and were enjoying the lovely day--Sir Thomas, Susan, and Frances happily listening to Mr. Crawford reading from one of the new novels. Frances' light laughter could be heard frequently in the air as she paid rapt attention to her fiance's reading of the book; how he good-humouredly took on the characters' voices. She smiled, watching the features she loved so well taking on a new aspect, yet they were still Henry's--yes, still Henry's when he would occaisionally stop and smile at her or take her hand.
But they all looked up when the wheels of the Bellafields' carriage came close. Frances smiled and excitedly squeezed Mr. Crawford's hand. Susan, however, put down her work, shaded her forehead to get a better view, and sighed.
"Dear me," she said, "--she has someone with her. Wherever will we put them now?"
"It is Frederick," Henry said as he lifted Frances to her feet. "I'm surprised that her husband came."
"But where will they stay?" asked Susan, flustered. "I was going to have them stay in the parsonage since Mr. Dearston is away, but the spare rooms there are not large enough for two people."
Henry offered to let them stay in the cottage where he was currently residing. It was larger, and would suit the Bellafields much better. "And besides," he pointed out, looking at Frances, "the parsonage is much closer to the house."
Frances smiled, though she was trembling at the thought of meeting the Count and Countess again. Mary, resisting the aid of her coachman and laughing at her own heedlessness, ran to her brother.
"Dear Henry!" she cried. "How I've missed you, and it has only been a few weeks!"
"Then what will you do when I am in Paris?" asked Henry, laughing.
"Well," said the Count, "you can be sure that she will always be in your home in London once you marry Mrs...."
"Bertram," Henry finished, turning to Frances and offering her his arm. "But the Parisians will know her as Madame Crawford. We haven't decided upon where we will live once we come back, have we, Fanny?"
"No," Frances said, smiling at Henry. The Count, who had always overlooked her when she was in London, now held out his hand to her.
"Glad to see you once again, Ma'am," said he, his red whiskers jauntily shaking as he spoke. "A very pretty little wife you will have, Crawford," he said approvingly to Henry.
"I do pick the best, don't I?" Henry smiled as Frances blushed.
"Well, Fanny, we will leave tomorrow," said Mary as they all walked towards the house. "Things have turned out well after all! How very sudden! So when did you plan this?"
"I'm sorry?" said Frances, who had not been listening since she was watching Mr. Crawford discussing politics with his brother-in-law ahead of them.
Mary repeated the question.
"Oh! A week ago, I think," replied Frances.
"Well, you must tell me all this evening," smiled Mary.
Sir Thomas and his youngest niece, ever the good hosts, had walked back early to prepare, for there was another visitor now, and in addition to the room, there would have to be another plate and another course; and really, it all wracked poor Susan's mind. Though she had heard a lot about the young Mary Crawford from her sister, hosting the Count and Countess Bellafield--be if only for one night--struck her as a very pretentious duty.
Everything was just about ready when the sounds of laughter could be heard from the front part of the house. The party walked into the dining room in the best of spirits. It seemed that Mary and Henry had been laughingly recalling various escapades of their childhoods, occasionally being interuppted by the Count's surprised remarks of "Mary never did that!" and "Ha, quite impossible!" Frances stood by her fiance with a timid smile. He turned to her, laughing.
"Well, Fanny, will you marry me now? But I'm better now, I promise!"
Frances took his arm as they went to their seats. The places were all set now--including the extra guest's--, much to Susan's relief. She stood waiting for them with the proper hostess' smile. "Will you sit here, sir? Oh! I forgot a fork at this chair; I shall get it right away."
After they ate, everyone retired to the drawing room.
"I had forgotten how peaceful Mansfield Park is," said Mary, glancing around the room, at the fire and comfortable furniture. "It has been years since I have been here last, yet I remember everything." (turning to her husband) "If only you could know half the fun we used to have at this house! May I get up and look around?" she asked Sir Thomas.
"Yes, of course, Madame."
The room's other occupants amusedly watched Mary walk around, laughing when she did, and sharing her memories.
"This is where my harp was; do you remember that, Fanny? And everything else we did! Ah, here is where we held our little theatricals. Oh, it is changed again! What a fine music room--have you taken up the pianoforte, Fanny?"
Frances shook her head and looked at her uncle.
"No," he answered, "it was only a temporary arrangement. I mean to convert it again very soon."
"Oh, pity," replied Mary. "I am surprised that you do not play, Fanny; you would be very excellent, I presume--with grace and precision--but it seems that music is more of a luxury as we get older and settled. Can you imagine, I have a harp from the continent--one of the finest instruments available--and I rarely play. I am fortunate to play once every other fortnight, for you see, I am always so very busy." A laugh was heard from her husband, but Mary resumed, "And there is a very nice harp in here, indeed. Come, Henry, come here. Do you remember when you played the part of Frederick right there on our little stage?"
"Yes," replied her brother, remaining where he sat, "yes, and I am sure that Fanny does also. She was the only one innocent in the whole matter. She was not foolish in youth." Frances lowered her eyes and spoke not a word. Mary's tongue, however, was much too active to let the reply go unanswered.
"Phoo, dear Henry. We had great fun! How was it wrong? Surely you cannot speak against acting since you are now a professional one."
"Acting is a wonderful thing, but not when it is done by young people who are too vulnerable. I know that now. I was blind then," he said with a smile. "I should have had Yates' ranting role, or better yet, Rushworth's two-and-forty speeches!"
They talked on until the hour grew late, discussing not only the past, but the future. Mary, with her influence among society, had a church secured already, and had found out when the next boat was to leave for Calais. Because of Sir Thomas' wishes, she and the Count were to travel to London with Henry and Frances, though not in the same coach. With a smirk, Mary told her brother that though she would watch the wedding, she would not be following them to Paris. Frances could not help but be glad of it.
It was all settled, and they had but to get their rest before taking the carriage to London. Soon, after Sir Thomas, Susan, and the servants had long since gone to their rooms for the night, Mary suggested to her brother that he retire also.
"You are making me go to bed now?" Henry laughingly asked his sister.
"Yes, certainly you must. I have to talk with Fanny, and besides, someone must take the Count back to the cottage." With a smile she pointed to her husband, who was asleep on the couch due to taking advantage of Sir Thomas' well-stocked wine supply. Frances was rather shocked by the amount he drank and by the strange tones his voice took on because of it. She was glad to look at her fiance for a fine contrast.
"And I do not even know where this cottage is," continued Mary, "so you must leave."
"Very well," answered Henry good-naturedly, "though I'd rather stay!"
"Of course you would," cried Mary, "but just enjoy your last hours as a bachelor."
"I shall enjoy it only for the sweet dreams I will have," said Henry as he walked over to Fanny, to whose goodbyes he had been saving for last, "and for the better hours I know that will follow." He smiled and took Fanny's hand.
"Goodnight," she said as she looked up at him. Staring into his deep eyes, she did not notice Mary taking Henry's hand and trying to lead him to the door.
"All right, all right," he laughed. "I shall let my fair ladies talk. Farewell," he said, more to Fanny, as he shot her a sympathetic glance before helping the Count to the door and leaving.
"There goes one of England's best men," said Mary after the door closed.
Frances thought it a little odd of the Countess to praise her husband so after his shocking behavior, but replied kindly nevertheless.
"Yes," she said, "I am sure that Count Bellafield has great influence in London."
"Oh, not him," laughed Mary. "I was talking of my brother, though I do think my husband can be remarkably charming when he wants to be (I repeat wants, for he is often ill at ease in society due to his lack of self-control as far as the drink is concerned). But Henry, dear boy (he will always be so to me), his manner is natural, and he cannot help but please. He is very much like my mother. Have you heard of her?" Frances shook her head. "I was so very young when she died," continued Mary, "but I can remember her, though not so much as Henry can. He says that her voice was sweet and that it still had a trace of the French accent."
"Your mother was French?" asked Frances, interested.
"Yes, she moved to England when she was 19. Her name was Aurore--is not that lovely? But her parents were determined that she make a good match, and expected her to marry the relation of the family she was staying with in England. He was considerably older and was a cold man, but she did not wish to upset her parents. Mr. Locke died very shortly after they were married, and not long after my sister Mrs. Grant was born."
"And when did she meet Mr. Crawford?" asked Frances.
"When Mamma was not more than one-and-twenty. She had to go to London to settle the will, which hardly came to anything since Mr. Locke had been something of a gambler. Well at the same time she was there, Mr. Crawford was living there also, and was quite the rogue of London!" Mary laughed. "The young girls in London were quite smitten with him, I understand, but their mammas were against him since he was unstable and because his connections were poor. Well he fell in love with my mother, though she was a widow, and was even fond of her little girl. Mamma was reluctant to remarry, but she loved Mr. Crawford very much also. So she told her parents about him, for she never lost her respect for them even though she knew that they were mostly concerned with how advantageous her matches were. They had heard of this Mr. Crawford, and told Aurore that they would never speak to her again if she married him. Mr. Crawford was very upset when he heard this. He tried to persuade mother to elope, but she refused to--said that it would be hurting her parents too much. She told him that as much as she loved him, she could never marry without her parents' consent, so he would have to try to win it. Nobody believed that he would, because of his reputation, but he loved mother so that he took up an office job in London and worked at it for three years until finally he was able to build an estate. Everingham. You have heard of that, surely?"
"Yes," replied Frances, "but I never knew much about it."
"It is romantic, is it not? Her parents finally allowed Mr. Crawford her hand (they could do nothing else) so they moved to Norfolk. They were very happy there. It is a very fine house, though no one has lived there since then. It still has Mamma's little touches. Both Henry and I were born there, you know. All I can remember about it was that the house was very sunny and that Mamma often sang French songs to me. But soon they began to fall into debt and had to move back to London. My father was ashamed. He felt that he had let Mamma down, but she always told him that she loved him more than the money he could earn. Well when they were in London, my father told Mamma that he could sell Everingham so she could be left with more money in case anything ever happened to him, but she would not let him because she felt that they would be losing a symbol of their love. She offered to work instead. She still took care of us during the day, but when father would get home from his job, she would go to the theatres. She was a very fine actress--very passionate in it, and her sweet voice and looks soon made her famous. Did you know that she played Queen Katharine in a large production of Henry VIII?"
"No," answered Frances, who was grateful to Mary for imparting this history. Learning about Aurore Crawford made her learn more about the son. "Is that where Mr. Crawford got his talent for reading Shakespeare?"
"You mean Henry?" smiled Mary. "Yes, Mother was very talented. But soon she grew ill. Father did all he could for her, but she was so sick that she could not even get up from her bed. She soon died of consumption. My sister married shortly after, so only Henry and I were left with Father. I do not know how he managed to take care of us, but after a month, we were sent to his brother. Father was heart-broken about my mother and died not long afterwards."
"I presume you have heard of my uncle, the Admiral?" continued Mary. "Yes, I see that you have. I do not think that there is much to say about him. But he did pay for Henry's education, for he went to Westminster and Cambridge, you know. But my poor brother has always felt the loss of my mother very keenly."
Soon Mary laughed and gayly apologized for telling her so much; she was sure she had bored her completely. Frances replied that on the contrary, she found it most fascinating. She would be very glad to hear more.
Happily, Mary pulled out a miniature from her reticule.
"It is my mother," she told Frances as she handed it to her. The little painting was done on ivory, and showed a very pretty young woman. Her head was completely covered with auburn curls--natural, Frances was surprised to see, considering the era. Indeed, everything about the face seemed to be natural, from the thin brows to the delicate nose that Frances recognized to be Mary's. But the black eyes--though a common feature among all of Aurore Crawford's chilren--had a deep, penetrating cast in them that most certainly had been passed on to Henry.
"She is very beautiful," Frances said quietly.
"Yes," agreed Mary, "and looking at the vignette a few days ago, I realized that I had something I would like to give to you. How shall you like to wear my mother's wedding dress--the gown she married my father in?"
"Oh! I cannot take that; it is too dear for you, I am sure."
"Nonsense," laughed Mary. "I would rather give it to you. I am too short for it anyway, and I can imagine that it would look much finer on you: you have almost the same colour of hair Mamma had. And I think Henry would appreciate it more than I would. It shall stay in your family, and you can pass it down."
Mary finally managed to persuade Frances to accept the dress, and promised to be there early to bring it and to help the bride prepare.
True to her word, Mary was there early the next morning. Frances had been up with sun, pressed by both nerves and excitement. She was fixing her curls in the mirror when Mary came in.
With a lively smile, the lady soon unwrapped the parcel she had under her arm and laid the contents upon the small bed. Frances gasped as she caught sight of the dress; it was even finer than she had expected--not because of its richness, for it was crafted quite simply, but at its exact perfection for her own tastes. The gown, according to the styles of the previous century, was made fuller in the skirt, consisting of the same white silk that made up the whole dress, ending at its square, ribbon-trimmed neckline and sleeves. But what made it most striking was the sheer muslin fabric that covered most of the gown, tying at the bodice with pale green ribbon, gathering at the waist, and spanning the skirt--ending right at the trimmed hem. Frances took the thin fabric in her hand, and being long-accustomed to the arts of needlework, admired the threads of whites and creams that had been so skillfully embroidered in the shapes of flowers and flourishes across the entire skirt.
"My mother did all that," Mary said, pointing to the embroidery with evident pride. "Is not it beautiful? Henry told me that Mamma told him that it had taken her 3 years to stitch it all--as long as it took Father to work for her hand."
"How lovely," sighed Frances. She did not know which was more beautiful, the story or the dress. She was almost afraid to ruffle the fabrics of the gown by putting it on, but Mary again persuaded her and helped her into it.
"Perfect," she exclaimed after the white folds reached Frances' ankles. "It does fit you very well. You must have been the same height as my mother was; you are exactly the right size for it."
Frances found her way to a mirror and gladly saw that the Countess was right. After so many months of wearing the dark colours of mourning, the white was a striking contrast. It heightened her complexion, and the simplicity of the French dress brought out her light eyes remarkably well.
Without having the extra task of fitting the gown, Mary set to work on Frances' curls.
"So have you settled on where you will live after you come back from Paris?" Mary asked.
"No, we have not really talked about it."
"Is there not a place where you would like to live? Surely Henry has mentioned something?"
Frances paused. "I do not know. Perhaps Everingham. But I shall be happy anywhere."
"Yes, of course. I dare saw you shall be most happy away from everyone but your husband."
"Oh! no, we are certainly moving back to England after Mr. Crawford does not need to work in Paris any longer. I will miss everyone."
Mary placed down the curl she had been putting up and stopped.
"Then you will visit your relatives?" she asked. "And Henry too?"
"Of course," answered Frances, surprised. "He told me that he will miss you the most."
"Miss me? Really?" Mary sat down. "I am sorry; it is just that Henry and I have always been very close, and somehow I believe that he will forget about his poor sister once he has a wife. It is strange, for I've always been the first person to try to persuade him to marry. I dare say you find me selfish?"
"Oh! no, I am very close to my brother William, and I thought the same when he took a wife. But I was still invited to visit, and he still writes, as does Jane. You see, it is very nice, because now I have another friend."
"Oh, forgive me," said Mary. Frances was very surprised to see tears in the Countess' eyes and did her best to console her. "Perhaps I have not always been the very best friend to you," continued Mary, "but you do understand--how happy I am to see that."
Soon Mary's good humour was back, but that did not stop Frances from wondering about her sudden air of despondency. In truth, she had not even given a thought to whether or not Mary would miss her brother or anyone. She did think Mary selfish--or used to--but now she saw a love as sincere as her own sisterly affection for William. Thus seeing they had something in common, the gulf was somewhat narrowed.
"There," said Mary. "I have finished with your hair. Do you like it?"
Frances looked up in the mirror. She had been so deep in thought that she hadn't realized how much time had passed, and now saw the intricately worked hair, brown braids wrapped around curls and bound together by a string of pearls. She happily thanked Mary before that lady had to go back to get the Count.
Now alone, Frances looked around the room with a sigh. She had lived here for so very long--all her life, save for the first years and the brief few years she had spent as a married woman nearby at the parsonage. She glanced at it again. How she had looked with the utmost anticipation at those stone walls when she had been but eighteen! Looking at the tall green door, she half expected to see Edmund there--leaving, as he had done most of the time. But seeing it now, it was Henry that appeared. Without clearly thinking it, Frances realized that it was a happy change.
She gathered her things together and left the white walls of the room once more. Though early, Susan and Sir Thomas were up and sitting in the drawing room.
"You look lovely, Frances, " said Sir Thomas. Susan also exclaimed her praise,
"Such a fine dress! I would be fortunate if I got one half as nice! But as the wife of a parson, I suppose I shall have to get used to plainess. The needlework! Yes, very lovely. We shall miss you, dear sister!"
"Yes," agreed Sir Thomas, "but we will get along very well. Do not worry about us--enjoy yourself for us."
"Thank you," replied Frances with a blush. "I am sure I shall." She bit her lip to stop the tears from coming. Surely her cheeks would have been stained with tears had they been summoned by any crying of the others, but one look at her sister and uncle proved to her that their eyes were dry. But this shortness of feeling at least gave Frances conviction that her relations would get along without her.
She stood with her bags until Mr. Crawford was shown in. A smile came to her face as she caught his eyes, and the coldness left her heart. Here was true happiness: here was someone who needed her.
"Shall we go?" he asked as he took her arm in his.
"You look beautiful, my dear," Mr. Crawford said as he helped Frances into the box of his barouche. "You will make the French ladies jealous of you! They will have to start worrying about these English goddesses."
'They will be jealous of me because of the man I will be married to,' thought Frances, silently admiring her fiance's person. Though always well-dressed, on this day he was wearing a suit that was tailored remarkably well, and the usual charm of his dark eyes and hair was enough to keep Frances' own eyes hardly away from them, occasionally blushing and smiling when he caught them.
"The Countess told me that your mother was French, and that this was her dress," Frances said.
"So it is," said Henry, looking at it. "She was a lovely woman too. Now that I think of it, you are very much like her. I suppose that I inherited my father's good tastes!"
As they rode through the parish following the Bellafields' fine coach, Frances watched the buildings pass by. She turned her head as the parsonage came into view.
"Did you have a good sleep?" She asked quickly, meeting Henry's smile for her so abruptly looking at him. "I hope that there were spare rooms enough?"
"Yes, though I don't know how well I slept; marriage is a great event in a bachelor's life, though a happy one, I assure you. I stayed in the green room--where I had years ago when I was visiting my sister and her husband."
"The green room? On the second floor?"
"The very one."
"Oh." Frances blushed. Pressed by Henry, she explained, "That is where I slept--when Edmund was sick, I mean. I did not know that it had been your room!"
"And you would not have stayed there if you knew it had?" laughed Henry.
"Oh! no. It would have been wrong, I think."
"But what does it matter? Soon it will not at all." He took her hand. "Are you excited?"
"Very," she answered, "and I will be happy wherever we live."
"But where would you like to?"
Frances gave him the same answer, that with him she would live anywhere. But Henry was so desirous of fulfilling her wishes that he finally managed to get an answer out of her. She had heard of Everingham and of the story connected with it, and thought that it sounded like a nice place to live. Henry agreed; he said that he would give up London completely, but Frances stopped him at once.
"No, you cannot give up your job because of my wishes."
"But why not," replied Henry, "if your wishes are the most important to me? I would gladly give up the city filled with people for the country with only you."
Frances could not argue with such reasoning. Indeed, seated by Henry Crawford she lost track of the time and was amazed when in the late afternoon, they reached London.
They did not travel through town, but around it, where the scenery was still green and unspoilt by the whims of society. As they traveled over a hill, a steeple of a church came into view, followed by the brick front of the pretty building.
"Here it is," whispered Henry after he had pulled the carriage up next to the Bellafields'. He helped her down and took her hand.
"Dearest Fanny!" he exclaimed in a low voice. "We shall go in and never be parted again--finally!"
Frances, too breathless to speak, smiled and happily pressed Henry's hand.
~Shakespeare Twelfth Night
That day finally saw what was meant to happen from the very beginning--the union of Henry Crawford and she who had once been Fanny Price. It was the happiest of days for both of them, and they were most glad when they said their goodbyes to the Bellafields and sailed for France.
There they took up residence in the most charming French cottage they could find, which Frances kept neat with such dedication that, combined with its caretaker, Henry found it difficult to leave the house in the morning for the busy streets of Paris. But his acting came to its peak once more, which Henry fully attributed to his dear Fanny--or as Mr. Yates would say, his "muse."
The announcement of the wedding brought back many notes of congratulations, including one from the Prices, to whom the letter had been delayed because of their being overseas. Jane, who as it appeared had never gained word of the break of the first engagement, wrote with the pleasure that she had been so much help in the match:
"Are not you happy you listened to me? I declare I am quite proud of this--I do know a romantic man when I see one! To think, once I get back to England I can tell all my friends that my dear sister-in-law is married to London's great celebrity! (I would tell the sailors, but if you want to know the truth, they do not listen to me much anymore)."
Frances smiled when she read this and showed it to her husband for a laugh. William's note, however, was not written with so much gaeity,
"Well I must offer you my congratulations, sister, and hope for the best. I am not so sure about this, but I pray that your decision will have worked out to be a wise one."
"And has it?" asked Henry after reading it.
"Dear Henry," answered Frances (how good it felt to pronounce his name!) "of course. My happiness proves it."
In time William would know more of Henry and be as happy with his brother-in-law as possible. Even Mr. Yates grew to be not so very jealous of Mr. Crawford, though partly due to the gift from Henry's wife. Long afterwards, when Sir Thomas had gone down to rest with his wife, the Yates were able to be the good, respectable owners of the house Frances had hoped them to be. Julia, with a good head for monitary matters, always made sure that there were funds enough, and Mr. Yates was friendly with the various people that inhabited the nearby cottages. So Mansfield Park restored to its grand stability, and the only thing changed about it was one room, which Mr. Yates had converted into a sort of theatre--complete with stage--where he could rant with complete freedom whenever his wife was out on calls.
Mrs. Norris' whereabouts where never located. But somehow, the people of Mansfield were able to get on with their lives, and managed to cut their fabrics and cook their meals with such economy that might have satisfied the missing lady herself.
About a year or so after her sister married, Miss Susan Price became Mrs. Dearston. At first she found the change disagreeable, but things improved a while after the Reverand got to know her a little better and stopped trying to impress his new wife by talking about the few books he had read. Then the arrangement grew better, and Susan, perfectly resigned to her fate, accepted the home and her husband's secure position with every bit of happiness a domestic should have. She could never understand why her sister would want to marry an actor and move to France and back. She considered it romantic nonsense.
Frances, ever the opposite of her sister, viewed her situation with a happiness that went beyond logic and reason. Sometimes she would smile that she had not exactly "sat like patience on a monument," but then came the visions of how she would be living today had she kept entirely to her old standards of prudence and propriety, and these visions were most disagreeable indeed.
Here she was, mistress of Everingham with Henry, loving and being loved with the same great intensity. This sunny home in the country, surrounded by woods and streams, soon acquired even more memories than it had from the first couple that had lived there.
Thus free from the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, Frances Crawford began to truly know what real earthly happiness is; and while sometimes regretting the cold choices of her youth, was completely convinced that this decision had been the right one, as proved to her by her husband's smiles and her own great gladness of heart.
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