Learning To Love Again
"Surely, it is impossible that I shall ever meet with such another woman."
Edmund was talking to Fanny about Mary Crawford. It was no uncommon state, he mused, as they walked arm-in-arm through the shrubbery on one of his visits to Mansfield. However, he was beginning to doubt the truth of his own words. Months after their parting, did he really still feel so much affection for Miss Crawford as he imagined?
A sigh from his companion obliged him to think of her. Fanny had always been right, had always shown a superiority of mind even over Mary Crawford. It pained Edmund to think that she might be suffering from Henry Crawford's unfaithfulness. Why should he be the only one to express his pain? In some agitation, he turned to her.
"Fanny, dear Fanny, we have been talking about my feelings so much that I have neglected yours." Fanny looked up at him in surprise. "I have not forgotten that while the sister has been proved wrong, the brother's transgression was infinitely worse. How you must have suffered!"
"Oh, cousin!" She could say little more, but forced herself to explain. "You are very kind, but I think you are mistaken on one point. While I was shocked, excessively shocked, by Mr Crawford's conduct--" here she felt a sympathetic squeeze on her arm and drew courage from it -- "I did not suffer from any particular feelings towards him, as you seem to imagine. Indeed, his attentions were still almost as unwelcome to me towards the close as they had been at the start."
The relief Edmund felt at these words was considerable.
"Then you did not love Crawford, Fanny?"
"No," she said quietly, looking away.
About a week after this conversation, Edmund found himself obliged to go in search of Fanny. Susan, though busy attending to Lady Bertram, was bored and wanted to know if she was available to talk to. Edmund, at her request, was climbing the stairs to the East Room. To his surprise, he found the door slightly ajar. He knocked softly and heard no answer, but even such a gentle touch pushed the door open further so that he could see into the room, and he stepped inside almost as if for the first time.
The first thing he noticed, as any observer would, was its light airiness and pleasing aspect. The room was simple, but full of Fanny, enriched with her taste in books, drawings and beautiful plants. Even tucked away in a corner of the house, the room had its own quiet comforts. This was Fanny, Edmund mused. He had been here a few times before, but not since moving to Thornton Lacey, and for a long time only when he was preoccupied with other things.
Only then did he remember the time he had come hoping to enlist Fanny's help with the play, but finding Mary Crawford. How surprised, how delighted he had felt! He had urged Mary to rehearse with him, wanting to act the scene with her as well as shying from it. Indeed, he had wanted it more than anything, but had not known her to be in the house. Such an infatuation it had been! For it was an infatuation, not love at all. Looking back on that day, he felt nothing but the remembrance that such things had been, and the shame surrounding his role in the acting scheme.
Behind him, Fanny was coming up the stairs herself on her way back from her walk. Entering the room herself, she saw to her amazement Edmund standing there, gazing around with a small, thoughtful smile on his face. Seeing her suddenly, he started and exclaimed, "Ah, Fanny. I'd almost forgotten -- Susan has asked for you. She is sitting with my mother, and would like some company better than mine. In any case, I ought to go back to Thornton Lacey." Having recovered his footing to some degree, he accompanied her out of the room and down the stairs. "Please excuse me for entering in your absence. The door was slightly ajar, and I could not help looking inside to admire the view."
"Oh no -- it makes no difference. Of course, you are always welcome." She smiled, and they went their separate ways. For Edmund, there was a great feeling of relief after this day. He was free. He had parted from his feelings for Mary Crawford, a wiser and happier man.
Sir Thomas regarded his family as they sat together after dinner. A year ago, he would hardly have imagined being so pleased with such a reduced circle, but these days it was exactly calculated to satisfy him. Lady Bertram, perhaps the only one not changed in any way, sat on her sopha drifting off to sleep with her needlework in her lap. Susan, having helped her aunt with her work, was contentedly reading a work of history at the recommendation of her older sister; a welcome addition to the family in her good-natured compliance. Tom was sitting at a table at the side, going through the Mansfield accounts. Since his illness, he had settled down very much into a steady young man more willing to act responsibly, and Sir Thomas was glad to let him attempt some of the affairs of the estate which would one day be his own.
His gaze moved over to Edmund and Fanny, talking quietly together (as he presumed) over some work of literature they had read. Sir Thomas had feared some lasting effect on his younger son from the acquaintance of Miss Crawford, but looking at Edmund now, he seemed as content as before. Fanny, too, was a source of comfort for him; she had grown into a lovely woman whom he should have been prouder to call his daughter than either of his own. As Edmund had once said he would, he had come to see the beauty of her mind, which had proven its integrity and discernment so well in the time since he had returned from Antigua. What a gratification it would be if she and Edmund married! Close friends as they were, it would be a great thing for each to find consolation in the other, and he pondered on this point with genuine satisfaction.
Little did Sir Thomas suspect that Edmund and Fanny's thoughts were not so far from his own. Edmund, apt as he had always been to talk to Fanny, was telling her of the recent shift in his feelings, and Fanny was listening with a heart elated by every word he said.
"How I could ever have imagined her worth equal to yours has become -- something I hardly dare to contemplate. Though indeed, I do not think I ever saw her as the superior in taste or sense. She was lively, and like any other foolish man in similar circumstances my imagination made up for the rest. I never truly loved her, because it is impossible to love a person whom one has to constantly make excuses for. It was merely an infatuation. You may believe me, dear Fanny, that I am glad to be free of it."
"Indeed," said she, "I do believe you, and I am happy to see you so."
His face brightened at her words, pleased as he ever was to have her good opinion. "Thank you, Fanny. And now I must apologise for neglecting you so much during that time -- not letting you ride the mare for so many days, abandoning you on the bench at Sotherton, trying to push you into wearing the necklace she had so wrongfully forced on you -- it seems I have done you so much wrong for her sake! Forgive me. I did not think of you as much as you deserve." Fanny pressed his hand in gratitude, too overwhelmed by his earnestness to speak a word. He smiled at her kindly, and easily changed the subject. Sir Thomas, watching this exchange from the other side of the room, smiled too.
The next day, Fanny received a note from Edmund, asking if she would come to Thornton Lacey during the course of the morning. As she had not yet ridden out, she obtained Lady Bertram's permission to go and had the mare saddled as soon as possible. On arriving, she found her cousin in his study, poring over some papers. He looked up as she entered.
"I was not expecting you so soon. You needn't have rushed yourself; I only require your help with the sermon I am writing. One of the parishioners is afraid of her husband being unfaithful to her and requested I make a reference to it this Sunday. I cannot refuse, but to ask such a service of me -- knowing full well the recent situation with my own sister! It is a difficult task. I know you dislike giving advice, but Fanny," taking her hand with affection and something more in his eyes she could not quite place, "it would be very much valued."
"I can try and help, to please you," she replied, "but you know I am ill-qualified to give advice."
"You are far too modest. Your guidance of Susan has produced a great improvement, and you are superior to any woman I ever met in good sense and judgement. Come; sit by me." She obeyed, colouring at his compliments. As they looked over the passages pertaining to the subject in question, Edmund found his thoughts straying to the presence of Fanny at his side: her gentle movements and soft eyes looking intently at the words before her. What he had said was true, he mused. She was truly the best woman he had ever known, and he respected and loved her better than any other person in the world.
When she left, her soft light eyes lingered in his mind.
Those eyes continued to haunt Edmund over the next few days. They forced him to think about the nature of his feelings for Fanny. When had his esteem for her risen so high? Never, of course -- he had always valued her worth and loved her better than either of his own sisters. He found that his affection for her went further than cousinly love; he was truly in love with her, the sort of love that creeps up when one's back is turned and then startles us with its intensity. It was not a blind passion like that he had entertained with Mary Crawford. He knew Fanny to have the highest principles and taste, and she was deservedly loved by his own parents more than they had dared to hope when she first came to Mansfield at the age of 10. He had cared for her then by instinct, and could now never imagine placing the care of any other woman above hers.
In this state of mind, he visited Mansfield. Fanny and Susan were reading through a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets, and he joined them as they were discussing Sonnet 104.
"The sonnet seems to focus solely on the beauty of the person and nothing else," Susan was saying. "Surely Shakespeare valued personality too?"
"Yes, you can contrast it very well with Sonnet 130. The one compares his love's beauty to the beauty of nature, while the other emphasises the fact that this woman is not beautiful. And yet they both convey a similar sentiment.
'To me, fair friend, you can never be old'
has a message not so very different from:
'I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound' and other such lines."
"Fanny is right," said Edmund, drawing up a chair. "In both sonnets, Shakespeare proves that love is regardless of beauty or age." His sudden appearance caused Fanny to start and blush, but he carried on. "Another one which puts across the same point well is Sonnet 54." He recited the poem in a deep slow voice, keeping his eyes locked with Fanny's.
'O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths, are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, by verse distills your truth.'
"The woman with virtue is the rose, and a woman without it cannot inspire such true love, however beautiful she may be." He tore his eyes away from Fanny to glance at Susan, who looked amused. Fanny looked down at the ground in embarrassment, but Edmund thought he could discern a small smile creeping across her face. Taking courage from this, he went on, "This, at least, I know to be true."
Fanny looked up for a split second at him with her eyes shining and then looked away again. Blushing all over, she mumbled something about her aunt Bertram and hurried away. Edmund felt hope rise. He had seen enough of her behaviour with Crawford to discern a considerable difference in the way she acted towards his own words. Forgetting Susan's presence, he smiled at the thought of Fanny's sweet embarrassment.
Susan raised an eyebrow, and wandered off to leave her cousin to his reflections.
Fanny was pacing the East Room in turmoil. She could not understand Edmund's pointed behaviour in any light but one, and that one so joyful it was painful to think of. She surely could not have imagined such a thing. Edmund was always so kind to her -- of late, he had increased in kindness more than she could even have dreamt -- but this was something new. Could he have fallen in love with her? Her modesty denied it, as such modesty always does in a woman taught to be constantly aware of her own insignificance. Rebelliously, her heart dared to hope.
Edmund returned a few evenings later to dine at Mansfield Park, though snow had settled thickly on the ground. Once the family were settled in the drawing room for the evening and Susan was attending to Lady Bertram, he approached Fanny who was gazing out of the window.
"It is a beautiful night," he commented. "The clear sky makes the snow look all the more lovely, would you not agree? Tonight would be an excellent night for stargazing. Should you like it?"
"Yes, indeed. But will we not be missed?"
"My father and Tom are busy, and Susan is keeping my mother company. Nobody will notice we are gone; we can slip back at any moment if wanted." They slipped out of the room and walked through the halls to the window with the clearest view of the night sky.
Edmund brought Fanny's shawl and put it around her shoulders, quietly and gently. Wordlessly, he wrapped his arms around her from behind and looked out over her shoulder, his head very close to hers. Fanny could not resist. In fact, she could not think of anything that felt so completely right. Despite her fading doubts, she leaned her head back so that it rested against his.
They stayed in that position so peacefully, neither could have told how long they had been there. Eventually, Edmund stirred.
"Fanny." She shivered; he had spoken into her ear. "Can you love me? Would you ever be able to love me as more than a cousin, or a brother?" Fanny could not speak for amazement, but from the side he saw the smile dawning on her face and the light coming into her eyes. Slowly, he turned her to face him, and the loving expression on his face dispelled any misgivings she might have remaining. He spoke directly and simply to her, looking straight at those soft eyes he loved.
"I know I am not worthy of you, but I love you and, I believe, have always loved you. Will you marry me?" He noticed a tear running down Fanny's face and almost drew back, but almost to his surprise, she was nodding and still smiling through her tears.
"I never thought I could be so happy" she whispered as he drew her close.
"Nobody deserves to be more so."
The feelings of Sir Thomas as both a father and an uncle were highly gratified by the ensuing conversation with his youngest son. It was, in fact, very short, Edmund having nothing to do but state his love for Fanny and relate her feelings for him, and Sir Thomas only to give his consent as heartily as he could given his usual gravity of manner. He then sent for Fanny, who had been sitting anxiously with her aunt, acutely conscious of the conference taking place. When she entered the room, Edmund had gone and her uncle was standing by the hearth.
"My dear Fanny," he began. "My son Edmund has informed me, as your uncle and guardian, that he wishes to marry you. He states also that your feelings are in favour of this. Is this correct? I had rather hoped for such a thing to happen, but I have learnt to be less hasty in promoting marriages. You must tell me if you really believe you will be happy with him."
"Yes, sir." Seeing that Sir Thomas still did not look convinced, she added, "I have -- loved Edmund for longer than you can be aware of. He is my closest friend and the kindest person I know. You cannot be unaware of his good qualities, sir." Unsure how to go on, she paused.
Sir Thomas looked more closely at her. "Would that be why you refused Mr Crawford? You were justified in that, given the events. But I did not think, at the time, that you had feelings for someone else."
Fanny coloured again, driven to honesty. "Yes, sir. But it was not only that; I had reason to think ill of Mr Crawford's principles before you even came home from Antigua. In every respect he compares unfavourably to Edmund." In spite of her modesty, she could not help the look that came into her eyes when thinking of Edmund.
Satisfied, Sir Thomas smiled with approval. "I say again, Fanny, that this is the very thing I have hoped for, despite my rather different thoughts when you first came to Mansfield. You both have my blessing. I am convinced that each of you will make the other as happy as you deserve to be."
Fanny sighed with relief.
Soon afterwards, the family received the benefit of Edmund and Fanny's announcement. The happiness was universal, except in one quarter: Lady Bertram could not like the idea of Fanny's being made to live somewhere else, even if that were at such a short distance as Thornton Lacey. Of course, Susan remained at the Park to be useful to her, and Fanny came to visit as often as her duties to her husband, house and parish would allow her.
One day after they had been married a few months, Edmund approached Fanny with a letter in his hand. "Dearest, I have just had a message from my father. He says that the living of Mansfield Parsonage is now vacant, and that if it is our wish we may move there at our earliest convenience. How would you like it?"
"Being closer to Mansfield would certainly be an advantage, especially," she looked shyly up at him, "now that our family will soon be increasing." Edmund gazed at her in surprise and wonderment.
"Fanny, can it really be true -- I mean -- can you really be with child--" She laughed as the delight grew on his face. He embraced her tenderly, and she moved to allow him to sit next to her. "You are indeed a perfect woman. I can hardly believe that I once thought I loved another more -- although in truth I must have been unconsciously in love with you all along."
"Then I have the advantage of you, for I have known exactly how long I have loved you."
"This is a day of surprises. I hope you will not mind my asking how long?"
"Indeed, I do not mind -- though it is something I have never told anyone. Do you remember the day I was crying on the stairs, and you came and comforted me? It was the first time since my arrival at Mansfield that anyone had shown me such kindness. You have always been my support, my teacher, my best friend. Even at the age of ten, I knew that well enough to love you."
"Oh, Fanny. You have loved me all those years and I never knew?" Fanny assented by a nod of the head, and for the first time, Edmund was speechless.
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