"Susan...I need your help, pug has gotten himself dirty and has smudged my gown"
"Susan...when do you think you would like to set out to visit Fanny and Edmund"
"Ms. Price, the man with the draperies is here, Sir Bertram said we should speak with you Maam"
At this final remark, Susan Price threw her hands up in the air in consternation, much to the amazement of Tom, the housekeeper, and her Aunt. Addressing them all she spoke slowly, but kindly "One at a time please, my head is virtually spinning." The pleasant smile that slowly spread across her face softened her listeners. One by one she smoothed over the various problems and retired to a small chair by the window with her needlework.
"So Susan how do you like managing the household without Fanny." Asked her cousin Tom who had casually draped himself across a sofa (in a pose not unlike his dear Mamma's)
"I miss Fanny dreadfully, and after her illness I was so worried that she shan't recover but now she seems so much better and so much like the old Fanny I sometimes cease to wonder that she was ill at all." replied Susan with such great enthusiasm that any listner could hardly doubt her sincerity.
"Illness can change one for the better or the worse, your sister was lucky; she wasn't changed much at, probably because she is already perfection in itself." Tom was gallant and pleasant, but the look of gloom that passed over his face as he spoke of illness caused Susan to involuntarily place her hand on top of his and give him a reassuring look.
They talked casually until Tom rose and leant her his arm, "So Susan shall we set off to meet our Siblings at the parsonage."
"I would love to Mr. Bertram, let me fetch my pelisse and we shall be off."
Spring was in full bloom and both were soon lost in silent meditation of the beauty of their surroundings. Susan broke their reverie by remarking, almost rhetorically, "Do you not think that nature can speak to us as clearly as we speak to each other? The green of the new sprouts, the fresh smell of the air, the delicate nature of these buds, it is poetry!" Tom watched her eyes sparkle as she stated these lines and silently contemplated an altogether different type of beauty...
As Edmund Bertram was ushered into his wife's bedchamber by her physician, a look of pure terror passed over his handsome features.
"Fanny, my darling ╬tis not a relapse is it" his voice cracking and his hand moving to stroke his beloved's face. Edmund was wildly in love with his wife and the thought of watching her suffer through another illness was far more than he could bear.
"Oh Edmund, you are always so melancholy...I hope our child doesn't inherit that trait." Fanny replied smiling shyly.
"Why Fanny I am merely concerned over y..."replied Edmund a little hurt. Until a look of surprise enlivened his face.
"Did you say our child, my darling?" Edmund asked kneeling before her. Fanny nodded and clasped her hands together as happy tears began to flow. Edmund impulsively picked up his wife and spun her around the room finally planting her on a small sofa.
"Fanny, I thought that...well the doctors said that after the illness we wouldn't be able to have children." Edmund asked as fingered her fine flaxen curls.
"'Tis a blessing, I am so happy Edmund." Fanny replied her eyes shining.
"You have made the happiest man alive" replied her husband as he proceeded to plant kisses all over her face.
"Edmund that is the 3rd time you've said that to me, first when I accepted your proposal, then when I recovered, and now, you must believe sir that you have the title wrapped up. Is there not some man happier in China or the Bahammas."
"Not unless they have a treasure like you by their side." With Edmund took Fanny in his arms and they sat contently until Mrs. Addelbee, the housekeeper, informed them of their guests. As they stood, Fanny leaned her head against her husband's chest and said,
"Edmund, I know that you must be wild to tell Tom and I am bursting to tell Susan our happy news, but I feel that we should tell Mamma and Pappa first." Said Fanny as she thought of the elation that Sir Bertram would feel in the event of his first grandchild and the happiness that Lady Bertram would express (it might even briefly elevate her from her sofa!).
"We shall accompany them back to the Park latter on tonight and present our good news then." He smiled as he stroked the head of his most thoughtful and attentive wife as he once again marveled at his good fortune in life.
"Now I do believe that our siblings are more than a little impatient to see us my darling" said Fanny as she led her husband out the door and down the steps of the Parsonage down to the sitting room."
Susan leapt up at the news and accosted her brother and sister with alternate hugs and questions until finally settling to her workbench to begin sewing clothes for the baby. Lady Bertram was affected enough by the news to actually DISPLACE her pug from her lap and beckon Fanny to her side. Sir Bertram congratulated Edmund with a heart slap to the back and a fatherly kiss for Fanny. Indeed, he was actually seen dancing a jig to his study to bring back cigars.
After congratulating the happy couple Tom settled back to enjoy the scene. Despite his elation at becoming an Uncle, Tom could not help being a tad discontented. Watching his brother be so blessed with domestic felicity stirred a tinge of envy and an ocean of regret. He had wasted his youth in frivolous indiscretions and had nothing to show for his early years. Had he been more steady he might have already been a happy husband and proud father. Yet, he was sure that he had never experienced the ardent love that was shared between his brother and sister-in-law. The glances they exchanged, even when across the room, spoke of their deep mutual affection. This reverie was broken by his sister, "Tom, are you well, you have been quite taciturn this evening." As she spoke she placed a kindly hand on his shoulder.
"I'm fine, my dear Fanny, but that question would better be posed to you, how are you feeling?"
"I'm tired, but so happy" replied a blissfully content Fanny as she leaned back against the sofa. "Tom, I have something that I would like to ask of you, would you do us the honor of becoming the baby's godfather. We want to leave the name Thomas for your son, so if it is a boy we shall name him Edmund Thomas Bertram."
Thomas felt a surge of emotion at the faith his brother and sister had placed in him. "I am not worthy of the honor my dear sister, but I shall endeavor to be" he said as he took her hands in his.
"However, I do not know if leaving the Thomas name is a worthwhile endeavor, who knows if I shall ever marry, let alone have a son."
"Come now, you shall not speak in such a melancholy manner, there are young ladies by the dozen clamoring to become the next Lady Bertram, surely you must know that." Fanny admonished him with an ease of manner that spoke of the closeness they had developed after her marriage. Living under the same roof for years had not produced the friendship that living apart for a mere 6 months had created.
"Yes Fanny, but out of all my London acquaintances, I have yet to meet a woman capable of engaging my heart." As he stated this his eyes slid past Fanny to Susan who sat in silent contemplation by the hearth.
Fanny had never been given her due, especially in matters concerning her innate intelligence. She was perceptive, consequently the longing looks that Thomas threw in the way of Susan had not gone unnoticed by her.
She began to speak but was interupted by the reentry of her uncle, "We must celebrate, let us throw a ball, Tom is quite well, and I would like to introduce my beautiful niece to the neighborhood." Proclaimed Sir Bertram. The entire room erupted in joyful agreement.
"May I reserve the first two dances Ms. Price." It had been a full two minutes before Thomas Bertram had been able to speak. Dressed in a deep emerald hued gown, Susan was a vision. The compliments he had memorized along with the witty remarks he had practiced died on his lips. He could only stare in amazement at this paragon of beauty who stood before him. After he had finally been able to shake some sense into himself and request the first two dances he led Susan into the ballroom. The touch of her fingers on his arm was electrifying, he turned to her searching her face for some response. Surely, she must have felt it too.
"Cousin, are you quite alright...you must be nervous. I know I most certainly am." With that she returned to her thoughts and Tom to an acute state of misery. Her unaffected tone confirmed her indifference. With her guileless manner Susan had quickly crushed the precarious dreams Tom had begun to spin for himself. "I am a fool" he silently berated himself, "to think an artless and guileless slip of a girl like her could care for a rake like myself... She considers me as merely an older relative, a confidant, a friend." With such ideas racing through his mind it is not surprising that the guests found Mr. Bertram to be in a rather foul mood that evening.
___________ . ____________
"Ms. Susan Price, may I introduce Mr. Alexander Elliot." Mr. Elliot was a handsome man of 6 and 20 who had recently inherited Herring Hall, a reasonably large estate in Shropshire. Susan was, however, less than impressed he seemed just like the Mr.Martins, Mr. Thomsons, Mr. Brandons she had been introduced to. Susan was not vain, she was simply disinterested. In one respect Mr. Elliot had a distinct advantage, charm. Soon he and Susan were easily conversing and he had her laughing by the time he led her to the dance floor.
There was one set of eyes that had not left Susan the entire evening. Tom's two dances had been satisfying but he had had difficulty engaging Susan in conversation, she was simply to much in awe to say anything. At the end of the second dance he requested one more in the course of the evening, she acquiesced sweetly and was promptly led away by Lady Morrow, one of the county's most notorious matchmakers. Despite Tom's realization that Susan was wholly indifferent to him, he could not run the thoughts of her from his head. He loved her. He loved her animated style of conversing on subject she felt passionately about. He loved her goodness in dealing with all of their acquaintance (anyone capable of dealing with Mama in one of her pug-hating fits must be an angel). He loved her smile, her laughter, all of these months as Tom had recovered he had been her friend and confidant. He alone had had access to those marvelous smiles, now Mr. Elliot had succeded in drawning Susan from her shell. He knew Mr. Alexander Elliot, a young man above reproach with whom he had been acquainted with in London. Women fell over themselves to speak with Mr. Elliot and Mr. Elliot was charmed by his Susan. As Mr. Elliot led her out for the second dance, Tom's eyes stung with the realization that he had lost her. What crushed Tom however, was the realization that she had never been his to begin with.
Mr Elliot had been away for a week now. Susan missed his presence by the fire, his charming anecdotes, and admittedly his rather flattering attentions. He had left on an errand to London concerning his holdings, promising to be back as soon as events would allow. However, his taking leave was not what occupied her mind at present, indeed it was an another goodbye altogether upon which she was reflecting.
Tom had decided to leave for London on business for his father a week after the ball. He had persuaded himself that going was his duty as well as his pleasure. He would have the opportunity to visit Mr. Stewart Camberson, one of the few friends that had stood by Tom through his illness as well as his reformation from a rake to a respectable gentleman. However, Tom knew that he was running. His leaving was based on a dread of seeing Susan love someone else. To see her lavish her smiles and adoration on an other man would destroy him. To stay was masochistic, he would be forced to congratulate her on a brilliant match, promise her happiness and wave her off to her new life; all the while dying inside. He knew he must leave, yet he could not do it without seeing Susan. This would perhaps be their last opportunity to meet privately before her becoming a married woman.
Susan was alone in the living room the day Tom took his leave. Having said goodbye to his father and escorting his mother to the parsonage Tom had returned to the Park in hopes of finding Susan. His surprise at his mother's acquiescence to visiting the parsonage had stupified Tom, indeed the shock of impending grandmotherhood had prompted Lady Bertram to rather drastic measures- the leaving of the sofa. His shock had only equaled his happiness at the situation; finally a moment alone with Susan.
Tom had appeared at the doorway pale and drawn, looking both grief stricken and resolute. Susan had observed a marked change in him since the ball, however she hadn't had any time to ascertain the source of his problems. "Tom are you quite well."
"I am fine Susan, I've come to take my leave. Who knows when we shall see one and other again."
"Tom! Why would you say such a thing, I shall be waiting for you upon your return to Mansfield." The sweetness with which this statement was uttered washed all of Tom's reserve away. Moving closer and taking a very surprised Susan's hands in his he said
"Susan we know not what destiny holds in store for us, you may have found your match by my return and become a Mrs. Something or the other." Softly brushing her cheek with his forefinger he softly uttered "I shall lose my Susan to a far better man than myself." With that he turned and walks towards the door. His heart screamed at him to turn around once last time: the confused expression on Susan's face determined his course of action. He strode to her determinedly and took her in his arms, kissing her for what he earnestly believed to be the first and last time. The realization of his actions spread a very stricken look across his handsome features and caused him to flee the room as if the devil himself was hot on his heels.
He left Susan to stand silently with her hand still where it had rested upon his face. Her confusion finally overcame her and she sunk to the floor where she reflected upon the events of the last quarter hour. This state of reflection was what was currently occupying Susan when her brother and sister were announced.
"Oh, I am so happy to see you. The house is so desolate now that everyone is gone." Cried Susan as she leapt from her chair to embrace her sister. Fanny and Edmund exchanged knowing glances that said "Mr. Elliot." Fanny shook her head as she thought of Tom's last visit and the pain etched in his face. She was quite sure that her sister was not, indeed was incapable of, giving pain intentionally. Yet, Susan was destroying Tom; his letters from London had given fresh evidence to it. They spoke of a forced gaiety, the serious yet content Tom of the past few months had given away to a man steeped in grief yet eager to appear jolly.
"How is Tom, have you heard any news from him. How does he find his company?" Inquired Susan.
"Tom is ...well. He speaks glowingly of Mr. Camberson and his sisters." Replied Edmund.
"Oh." Came the simple yet crestfallen reply from Susan. Susan had often heard the many virtues of the Cambersons; the young Ms. Cambersons were universally acknowledged to be as talented as the are beautiful. She mustered a smile and turned to her sister, "So how are you feeling my dearest Fanny?"
"I'm afraid that I must give you some rather bad news, this shall be last time I am to venture out of the Parsonage until the birth of the baby. The doctor insists upon total bed rest." Fanny's voice was shaky, the doctor's orders had frightened her. She wanted this child more than anything, and the chance of losing it had sparked fear deep within her heart. Edmund took Fanny's hand in his and said, "It is for the best my dear, you are not completely well. I don't know how I shall manage without my darling Fanny though." As he said this Fanny's hand had loving caressed her husband's cheek. Susan felt a little uncomfortable intruding on this private moment, yet this slight discomfort was overcome by her admiration of their love.
Fanny turned to her sister and said, "I am so concerned over the state of the parish, the crop has been poor this year and they shall need my help."
"Perhaps...perhaps, I may be of some use? I have nothing to do all day, and I would desperately like to lend a hand."
"Susan, that would be wonderful, thank you so very much." Replied her delighted sister.
"That is very kind of you Susan, I'm sure the people will love you as they do Fanny." Said her brother with a gentle smile.
Two Weeks Later...
Her brother was announced and he entered with a exceedingly worried look on his face.
"Susan, have you seen my father?"
"No Edmund, I have not, is something the matter." A look of horror passed over her face, "Is Fanny alright?"
"Fanny is fine but the rains have caused the dam to burst and part of the crop to be ruined. To make matters worse, the stagnant waters have started some sort of fever to spread around the village. I'm heading over there immediately with Father."
"Edmund, I am coming with you." Said Susan resolutely.
"I think not, it is too dangerous, we don't know the nature of the fever but we know that it is quite deadly. Two children have succumbed already."
"I insist upon it Edmund, if Fanny was able to she would go directly and that is exactly what I shall do." Her determination was admirable and Edmund saw his young cousin in a new light at that moment. Behind the shy and girlish demeanor, Susan was indeed a force to be reckoned with
"Very well, but you shall not enter the sick rooms, that I forbid explicitly."
"Alright, let me go consult Cook on those herbal remedies that she is always touting and gather some supplies from storage." After she returned Sir Thomas penned a brief express to Tom informing him of the situation and then together they set off to the village.
For three days Susan had toiled in the homes of the villagers. In accordance with her brother's wishes she had avoided the sick rooms themselves but had aided in the preparation of medicine, bringing food for the hungry and seeking shelter for the homeless. At night the party would retire to the Park for dinner; both tired as well as emotionally and physically spent. Susan was working as never before, indeed she was hardly fit to be seen at times. Her clothing and actions hardly that of a lady of consequence. Yet along with her brother and her family, she truly believed that the role of a regent was not only that of a landowner but overseer of the holdings. Their position provided them wealth in times of prosperity and responsibility in times of catastrophe.
On the morning of the fourth day a child in one of the families that Susan had been aiding perished. The anguish of seeing such a short life so quickly extinguished coupled with her own physical exhaustion was more than she could bear. Not wishing to add to the sorrow of the young family she excused herself from the cottage and began to slowly cry. Finding a seat on a mossy log her tears turned to heaving sobs, suddenly she heard a movement at her back. A soft, familiar voice slowly whispered "there, there" and a pair of broad, strong arms had enfolded her. A hand whose touch had been more familiar to Susan than any other softly stroked her hair until she had quieted. "You have returned from London."
"I knew that I was needed... that you might have some need for me?" at this she looked into her savior's eyes.
"The parish and I need all the help we can get" she replied bravely, mistaking the love she saw for pity. Susan's great failing was an abhorrence of pity in all its forms. Growing up in a household such as hers she had learned early on to be self-reliant, harboring a great desire to make it without the pity or sympathy of any. As she spoke her body stiffened and she moved away. At this his eyes burned with sorrow, she had no affection for him, she did not need him. Her tears had made him move beyond propriety, he could not help enfolding her in his arms and chasing her pain away.
Susan turned to him and said, "we need help but I cannot allow you to go there. Your health has only recently improved, your weakened resistance to disease will be overcome by this fever. I think that you should return home." With this she rose and began walking to the village, eager to resume her work and run from the feelings that had welled up inside her.
His steps quickly matched her own and he turned her around, "How can you think that I can watch my own people suffer while I have two hands to aid them. I am not fearful, should I die I shall not die in vain. I have no one to mourn me; Mansfield shall have an heir with Edmund. God has given me a second chance at life and I shall not squander it living in fear." With this he removed his jacket and cravat and joined the men of the village as they attempted to reconstruct part of the damaged buildings.
Susan was torn between fear for his life and an intense pride in seeing him toil for a just cause. She wanted to scream out her fears, her pride, her true feelings but a single word died on her lips, "Tom."
Part VIIIDuring the course of the following days the situation had become more and more drastic. Indeed, most of the women nursing the ill had fallen sick themselves; the rest were so afraid of falling ill that they avoided helping at all. Consequently, more and more responsibility had come to fall on Susan's shoulders; she was single handedly caring for three households of sick villagers.
As Susan tended to some broth simmering over the hearth, the mistress of the house, a mere slip of a girl near Susan's own age spoke, "Ms. Price, mem, I've bin wantin' to give ye' my thanks fer bein so kind to my family."
"Now Catherine, after how all this how can you still call me Ms. Price, call me Susan."
"Ms. Susan, ye are too kind," said the woman wiping a stray tear, "all we kin offer ye' is our admiration and thanks, although ╬tis not nearly nough"
Susan took both the woman's hands in hers and said, "you can give me your friendship, which is more than enough compensation for the little that I have done."
With that she returned to the work before her. Susan's many chores had driven her to distraction yet this young women's testimonalial once again grounded our young heroine. The work she was doing was making a difference and nothing was going to stop Susan from doing as much as she possibly could. She continued in this manner while Tom and Edmund worked with the rebuilding of the village while Sir Bertram and his Steward took inventory of the damage and crops and planned how to redistribute the funds so that no family would be without.
As time passed the constant strain of responsibility and the emotional drainage that accompanied Susan's duties began to break her. Each day she grew slightly weaker, the family was so wrapped up in the concerns of the village that they had all overlooked her pallor and drawn face; all except Tom. They had not spoken privately since the day he had returned to Mansfield. He had resolved to forget, to remove himself from the torment of being near her. Yet for someone so resolved to ignore Susan his eyes never left her; a sharp pain pierced his heart every time she coughed or faltered which was unfortuantely more and more often...
By mid-morning Susan had realized that she was falling ill, often the symptoms so easily noticed in another are quite impossible to identify in one's self. The racking cough and dizziness she was battling were the hallmarks of this particular illness. She was seeing double and the room had begun to spin. Even in her muddled, irrational state she realized that she had to return home to bed or else someone would have to carry her home; indeed, it was highly unlikely that she could make it until dinner without fainting. She set off rather uncertainly, her motion was like walking through water and she often mistepped and faltered. Her sole motivation at leaving was an avoidance of Tom. If he knew she was ill he would move to assist her, thereby coming into contact with her and infecting himself.
At her back she heard increasingly louder cries of ╬Susan,' she attempted to ignore them and struggled in vain to make it the house. "Susan, you are ill, take my arm we must get you home quickly."
"Get away from me, don't come near me," Susan fairly screamed, as anxiety welled up inside her. In her muddled thought she viewed her touch as poison for Tom. The very thought of hurting him shook her to her core.
Tom stopped at her words as if someone had assaulted him, indeed Susan was coming dangerously close to ripping out his heart. "Do you hate me? Is it something I have done that makes you despise me?" his voice came as a mere whisper and the look of pain in his eyes somehow reached Susan even as the fog that crowded her mind threatened to overcome her.
"Tom I could never..." she began then realized an opportunity to save him "Yes, I hate you. Go back to the village, I can go to the Park myself."
"Susan, I don't care if you loathe me, I am bringing you back home." He said with the steely resolve he sometimes possessed. He grabbed her arm and turned her round and what he saw stopped his breath. The creature he adored, the woman he had worshipped silently, his Susan, was deathly pale, her breathing came in short labored gasps, but what gripped his heart like the hand of death was her eyes. Once sparkling with wonder and exhubrance and life Ď yes oh glorious life Ď were know dull and glassed over. She started at his touch as if it were fire.
"Tom, please do not come near me I am Ill. I will be the death of you. I cannot hurt you, please, please Tom go back to the village." At this she moved to turn and run but merely sunk to her knees unable to move or speak.
Her falling was elongated in Tom's mind, that moment was an eternity. He scooped her into his arms, amazed at her lightness; his panic was overwhelming his senses. This was a moment he would otherwise relished yet all it currently afforded was an excrutiating pain. He had one goal: to transport Susan to the house, everything else was peripheral. Yet, each step was a punctuated agony as he felt the lifeless weight in his arms. He didn't trust himself to look at her, knowing that he would break down and cry and that would slow him down. He was contented to fervently press his lips to her feverish skin.
The approach to Mansfield was as if traveling through a vacuum that consisted solely of him and his beloved. Yet his entrance caused a surreal commotion; the household was in an uproar to see it's beloved Susan in such a state. He would not allow her to be taken from his arms, he raced up the stairs to her bed chamber and delicately placed her onto her bed. Somehow he had calmed his hysterical mother and had summoned for a doctor; amidst the commotion he had sunk to her side. His eyes had never left her face, he began to kiss her hands, her face, taking in every particle of her being: the smell of her hair, the coolness of her skin, the sound of her breath. Tom was not a praying man, he usually left that up to his brother. Yet the number of prayers he offered to the heavens in the span of those 4 minutes eclipsed what another man may ask in 40 years.
Finally, he spoke to Susan herself "If you can hear me, know that I have loved none but you. You are a beacon of light in this world, one of the last flames of purity: do not extinguish your light from a world that needs it to see. You have so much still to do, so much life yet to live. I adore you, but I am not asking that you love me in return. Despise me, destroy me, ignore me: just return to me. Give me a reason to open my eyes in the morning. You are My Everything, without you I was merely a shell of a man. Please I cannot lose you. I love you. I love you..." he said as he tearfully punctuated each statement with a kiss.
The servants looked on upon this despair laden tableau. They knew his feelings for his young cousin; in turn they all adored her - she had returned sunshine to Mansfield. In their eyes she was a fallen martyr, for her illness had been produced by caring for their brothers and sisters. They revered and loved her she had been a kind mistress and something no had ever ventured to be before to them, a friend. There was not a dry eye in the crowd of servants who had gathered to pay homage to their beloved Ms. Susan.
The coming of the Dr. Jennings had interrupted Tom and he was forced to leave the room as he examined her. The good doctor had gotten quite fond of his tenacious assistant; to see her in such a state was a severe test of his emotional reserve.
As Tom sat in the hall awaiting the doctor, he lowered his head into his heads and sobs racked his frame. So intense was his sorrow that he scarcely noticed his own coughing...
Throughout the night and for three long days Dr. Jennings had given little hope of recovery. She had allowed the illness to progress too far before seeking treatment. Her small frame was not only racked by coughs but tossed and turned as if Susan was fighting her demons within as well. There was not a member of the family who did not blame themselves for her illness. Thoughts such as, "I should have noticed her coughing," "I should have watched her more closely," "I should have prevented her from going" echoed silently through the house.
For Tom the quiet was unbearable, he fled the house for hours at end sitting silently in the garden he and Susan had walked about. He attended the families for whom Susan had risked her own life. He was haunted by her tinkling laughter, her kind smiles flashed upon him in his sleep; yet he welcomed it, all he wanted was to feel her presence, to gleam it from her surroundings. He was not allowed within the walls of the sickroom by strict orders of Dr. Jennings for fear of a relapse; consequently, his only solace was at night. After the family had gone to bed, the nurse who watched Susan throughout the night Ď an old nurse of Tom's Ď allowed him a few moments with her.
As he entered the sickroom, pale and drawn (a symptom merely attributed to his grief by the family) he paused to cough (no one had noticed it for he was never within the walls of the Park and nearly never in contact with the family). He went straight for the small chair by her bed. The nurse had discretely left the room for a few minutes. Grasping her hand and stroking her hair, still damp from the beads of perspiration, he whispered softly to her "My darling, please try...try to beat this. I know your strength it lies deep within the very recesses of your soul, summon it for me. Fight as long as you can, but if it is too hard if the pain is too much I cannot ask you to stay." At this Tom choked up and fought back the sobs that welled inside him "I am a selfish man, I long to see you happy and well, to see you clap your hands in delight, to see you wander through the garden. But if you cannot bear the pain do not hesitate to leave." Tears washed his face and spilled onto her hands "I need you, but more than that, more than anything I want you to be happy and at peace. Know that I love you always. Know that I will never love another. Know that I shall wait for you. Know that your time here has not been wasted, you have touched so many, most of all me; every moment I have spent in your presence has been a gift from God."
At this moment Susan felt herself at peace for the first time in what seemed a very long time, the piercing pain that shot through her chest had subsided. She was awash in love, it surrounded her, the words that she heard echoed in her brain; if only she could open her eyes. Once again she felt caught between the bright light that offered peace and the body that offered nothing but pain. The words that she heard had released her spirit to go to the light, but they had bound her heart to the present. Susan turned away from the light and struggled to surface, to open her eyes to find the source of these words.
The nurse had returned and with that Tom had struggled to his feet and left the room casting loving glances at his beloved. Fifteen minutes after he left Susan broke the barrier and opened her eyes. The nurse was so overjoyed she leapt from her seat and ran to the hall to inform the house. The words "Mr. Tom she has woken" were silenced as she saw the young master sprawled across the floor outside the door.
Susan was on the mend as Tom was declining sharply. There was no hope for the young man, his lungs so ruined by his previous illness. Nothing short of a miracle would save him from the infection that had ravaged his body.
On her second day of consciousness Susan was markedly improved, even venturing from bed as her demands to see Tom became more and more impatient. Finally, a young maid sent to deliver broth had broken down and told her of the young master. All the color that had once again bloomed in her cheeks drained as she heard the news. She demanded to be dressed, her thoughts fixed on Tom. She ventured to his room, the shakiness of her body overcome by the strength of her resolve. She arrived at his door to see Edmund and his father waiting outside.
Edmund gaped at her, "Susan, what are you doing out of bed?"
"My child you must return at once."
Susan held up her hand to ward off further reply, "I am not completely well, but well on my way to being so. I have been infected once, and cannot therefore contract the fever again. Therefore, I am by far the most proper person to care for him. I shall brook no debate on this. I love you both very much but this is what I must and will do." No amount of pleading, demanding, even consulting from Dr. Jennings could dissuade her. Although the good Doctor agreed that she was the best suited for nursing he was still concerned over her health. Amidst this Susan stood as impassive as a rock until finally they gave in as long, as Susan allowed a nurse to take care of HER in the sick room.
With that began the most trying period of our young heroine's life. She was fighting a battle that everyone already believed lost. It took her a few moments to stop her sobs as she saw him lying there on the bed, weak and broken, so different from the strong, protective Tom she had known. She ran her fingers through his dark curls and traced the line of his jaw, noting its infinite perfection. Susan knew she loved him, she didn't know when it had started; perhaps when she had heard of his ╬delight' with his friend's beautiful sisters or when he had kissed her or when she had first seen him so long ago. She had realized how she felt as he had held her in his arms that day, yet she did not believe he returned her love. He had kissed her, but she knew of his temperament and his reputation. He pitied her and protected her, was even perhaps a little fond of her, but how could he love her plain self when confronted with the beauties of London? These thoughts were pushed away by Susan as she sought a course of action desperately. Books she had seen in the library were summoned for as was Cook with her remedies, an express was dispatched to a specialist in London. Susan spent every waking moment dabbing his forehead with cool water, speaking to him as if he was awake. She told him of her childhood, discussed everything from poetry to politics and above all prayed.
A few days after assuming her charge and after everyone had gone to bed she had a feeling of doom. The room had chilled and even as she held him she felt the life draining from his body. She had long ago disregarded propriety and now had her arms draped across his chest, her hand stoking his face. With severe desperation in tone she said, "Tom, I know you do not return my sentiment but I could not keep it to myself, I love you. I love you with every particle of my being. You are echoed in the beats of my heart, a feel your presence in my every breath." His coughs still did not subside she grasped him tighter trying to keep the life within his body. She closed her eyes and turned her head to the heavens. "God, I heard through my illness a voice begging me to use my strength. I possess that strength still, my Lord. Yet, it does me no good if I cannot save him. If you see fit to take Tom and spare me, then let me share my life with him. I am nothing without him, you shall have wasted the gift of life with me. I implore you to allow us to share my strength, because I cannot use that strength without him by my side. The very essence of my soul is already entwined though his, let my life be as well." As she spoke these words she was unconscious of the tears that freely flowed onto his face. She continued to beg for his life, promising to grant any boon, to sacrifice any gift.
Tom found himself in much the same position that Susan was in previously. He too was torn between worlds. Yet unlike Susan, the light was welcomed by Tom. He was unaware of Susan's recovery and longed to join her in the afterworld. Yet, he was held back and a voice, one quite unlike the soothing melodious tones he had been hearing for a while, spoke to him, "You have been granted another opportunity at life as part of a generous offer."
"But I have no desire for this life."
"It is no longer your choice."
Susan had been pressing her lips to his forehead when she felt the fever break. She wept with joy, her emotions welled up inside her. Surely this must be a dream. If it was she prayed never to be woken, to live with the bliss that her Tom shall be well was too much happiness for her to bear. She ran and alerted the household, all too overjoyed for words or actions except silent thanks for this miracle.
When he finally regained consciousness Susan abstained from being present. She had realized the import of her actions. Her cousin knew of her love for him and he did not return it. The very idea shook her to the core, she knew there was only one recourse. She must leave for Portsmouth immediately but not without seeing him one last time...
Tom's recovery was much slower than Susan's. He had barely lifted his head the first day and could not speak; yet he managed to croak out "Susan."
"She is well my son, she is resting now." Said Sir Thomas. His usual reserve had melted away at the sight of his boy regaining strength.
The look of joy that crossed Tom's face needed no words as he offered up a silent thanks for his beloved's life. He continued to progress every day and every day he inquired after Susan. She had forbidden her family and the staff to mention to Tom that it had been she who had nursed him back to health. He consequently attributed her absence from his room as another sign of her indifference.
Little did he know that she crept silently into his room as he slept and applied the balm Cook had made to ease his coughing. For Susan it was an opportunity to simply be with him. She relished it because after she took her leave for Bath (her uncle had refused point blank her wish to return to Portsmouth, hailing it as far too unhealthy an environment) she doubted she would be in much contact with him again before he decided to wed.
Two days before her departure to Bath she had once again slipped into his room at night. She decided to stay a little longer than usual by his side, to take in his essence to comfort her in Bath. He coughed in his sleep and Susan unconsciously brought him a glass of water, as he took the glass he looked up, "Susan!"
"Yes Tom, I was going ... to the library to get something to read because I couldn't sleep and I heard you coughing so I brought you a glass of water." She said quickly a slight blush spreading over her face.
"Oh, well how do you like my humble abode" he said motioning about the room, he was bent on keeping his emotional reserve, he knew Susan was leaving and that he had no hope, and quite frankly was tired of making a fool of himself as he professed his love.
"It is very nice," she said realizing that he did not know of her presence in his room. Susan immediately relaxed, she was in the clear! He didn't know that she loved him and she resolved that he never would.
"I have heard that you are headed for Bath, I hope you have an excellent time." Although his face was bright, his tone nonchalant, his heart was breaking, he knew that Mr. Elliot took his mother to bath at this time every year. It only be a matter of time before the two would reconcile and live happily ever after.
The happiness with which he mentioned her leaving made Susan wince, she could not bear much more. "How have you been occupying your time after you recovered," he asked with the smile still plastered on his face.
"Nothing much really, I visited the families in the village, read, walked in the garden" failing in an attempt to keep her tone monotonous and without emotion.
"That's nice, I see you've been quite busy." Too busy to visit me he thought bitterly.
"Yes, I've also been packing ... to which I must return." She said rising hastily and fighting back tears.
"I thought you were going to get a book because you couldn't sleep?" he asked.
"I had taken a break from packing." She said her voice faltering. She immediately resolved to leave tomorrow morning, the man she loved, her Tom, was truly indifferent to her. The kiss had meant nothing, she was but a passing object of his fancy. Never had she been so heartbroken about being right. She had secretly hoped that seeing him would alleviate her doubt and that he would prove that he loved her. All he was proving was his indifference, nay his disdain for her. She was a fool to expect anything more. "Yes, I've decided to leave tomorrow morning so I must finish packing."
"Oh, well I guess this is goodbye my dear, have fun in Bath." His heart breaking, he longed to take her in his arms, to make her stay.
"Yes, goodbye Tom." The last words were choked out as she nearly ran from the room.
Tom lowered his head to his pillow as silent tears slipped down his cheeks.
Part XIII- Conclusion
The door creaked open and a whispered voice said, "Ms. Susan I've brought you the balm ye were askin fer."
"Who's there? Show your self!" said Tom.
"Pardon sir, I didn't know that you were awake."
"Well, Susan left a few minutes ago, why did she want balm?"
"Well... Sir, ...I, ...I kanna tell you that." Said Cook, hemming and hawing.
"I demand an answer, let me remind you that you are in my employ and that I require the full truth." He said trying to hide the pleading tone in his voice by sounding stern. Cook was torn between an allegiance to Susan's confidence and a strong desire to see her young mistress happy.
"Sir, she's bin the one who's bin applyin' the balm to ye every night. She nursed ye back to health whilst she were sick herself. She dinna leave yer side fer 6 days till ye opened yer eyes." She paused as understanding dawned on him "If I may be so bold, I think that she loves ye very much sir."
"Come here and help me up" he said impatiently. Cook obliged and helped her young master struggle to his feet with the aid of his cane. Still in his nightclothes he put on his robe and hobbled determinedly to Susan's room. He thought briefly on the impropriety of this entire affair, ╬hang impropriety' he thought with a smile. When he reached the door he gave the elderly Cook a kiss on the cheek and a smile that said "thank you." He knocked on the door. Susan who had been deeply involved in the process of crying herself to sleep, struggled to her feet, confused at the identity of her late-night visitor. Tom had rehearsed all the things he wanted to say to her endlessly but when he saw her swollen eyes and trembling lip all thought flew from his head. He took her head in his hands and kissed her with all the emotion that had surged through him the past few weeks. Susan's surprise was soon overwhelmed by her joy at being kissed by the man she loved. She drew one hand to his neck and supported them both by placing the second on the wall. He began kissing her face "I love you my darling...my only...my dearest Susan...do you think.... that you could return my affection" at this he pulled away from her and looked her straight in the eye.
"I love you Tom, with all my heart, indeed with all of me...I always have." She said as she flew into his waiting embrace.
Tom sunk to his knee and said "I am not worthy of you my angel, but could you do me the honor of making me a better man and marrying me?"
The tears in Susan's eyes began to flow again as she whispered a simple, heartfelt "yes!"
The couple so cruelly separated is only more joyously reunited. Both marveled at the reversal of their situations from dismal to dizzyingly wonderful.
"I can't believe that this is not a dream, if it is my darling please do not wake me." Said Tom as he held her close.
"I can't believe that you love me, I thought that I was a... a well..."
"A passing fancy..."
"Well, yes you have met so many beautiful and sophisticated women I don't know why you would care for plain old me."
"Look at me," he said lifting her chin so that she looked him straight in the eye, "you are the most amazing, caring, beautiful woman I have ever encountered. No other woman has ever made me feel this way, you've some how managed to touch my very soul. Just being near you makes me dizzy."
"Are you sure that isn't the cough medicine darling" she said teasingly.
"Well, let me see..." as he proceeded to ... well, let's just say prove his affection.
"You know my darling" said Susan her head resting comfortably on Tom's chest as they sat on the sofa, "I do believe you are the first man to propose in his nightclothes."
"Would you rather I waited till the morning."
"I'm glad you didn't even spare a second"
"You know, I do believe that this is the most effective balm that I've tried yet" as he referred to Susan's auburn curls spread across his chest.
"Are you saying that all my other efforts have been in vain Sir." She said as she playfully turned and kissed his nose.
"No, not really I'm just saying that you should have tried this remedy weeks ago." He kissed her mouth deeply and said, "You could really ensure my safe recovery by applying it every night for the rest of our lives."
Wrapping her arms about his neck she simply whispered, "With pleasure."
So continued one of the most exquisite love affairs of their time. I shall not say began because their love existed even before the two of them acknowledged it. I shall not say ended because as we all know love never dies. I shall only say continued because this is simply a chapter in the beautiful story of their life long together...
An Epilogue of Sorts
An announcement was scarcely needed at the Park; the engagement that everyone had been anticipating, from Sir Thomas down to the scullery maids, produced an unequaled amount of joy. Indeed, even Lady Bertram, a woman not universally known for keen sense of perception, had noticed some attraction between her young niece and her son. Her elation at the news of an engagement may have even dared to rival her husband's although it had a far more selfish basis. She had for some time noticed that her darling companion had become quite pretty, someday a young man might come and snatch her darling away. Now that she and Tom were to be married she would remain settled here at Mansfield and Lady Bertram would remain exceedingly comfortable. Sir Bertram now felt his felicity to be quite complete, his sons had proven that they indeed had excellent faculties of discernment for they had captured the hearts of two of England's finest jewels. Although he still shouldered the disappointed hopes of his daughters, his sons' success in life had proven that he wasn't an altogether bad parent, hey 2/4 isn't too bad.
Edmund's joy at the news produced almost the same reaction produced when he heard he was to be a father. Since he couldn't twirl around his very pregnant wife he settled for his sister. He joyfully hugged his brother and proceeded home to tell his dearest Fanny. Susan and Tom were amazed to see their usually sedate brother let out a joyful ╬hurrah' as he raced home. Fanny, had not been aware of the events transpiring in the great house for Edmund feared the news of her brother and sister's ill health would upset her too much in her fragile state. Needless to say she was quite elated and a tad upset at her husband for not informing her of the very formidable events taking place. It is a joy to this author at least to see Fanny so secure in her husband's love to actually be quite angry with him. When Susan and Tom went to the parsonage to visit, she fairly flew out of bed, well as much as a VERY pregnant woman can fly out of bed, to embrace them both.
For those of my dear readers who condescended to appreciate our very perfect Mr. Elliot, rest assured that he didn't languish under the plight of unreturned love very long. His excellent nature ensured his quick recovery, indeed, it was not very long that he found all the solace his broken heart required in the smiles of a very recently out Ms. Margaret Dashwood.
Fanny and Edmund had a fine son, whom they named Edmund Thomas Bertram who was followed soon after by a sister, Susan Frances Bertram. Lady Susan Bertram next gave birth to a son, Thomas Edmund Bertram, 7 days before Fanny gave birth to Mary Elizabeth Bertram. Tom and Susan had three more children, two twins, Price Bertram and William Bertram, and a young daughter Maria Bertram. Edmund and Fanny also had one more child, Alexander John Bertram.
Now that I have thoroughly confused all my readers rest assured that these children of Mansfield all grew up to become as wonderful as their parents. Unfortunately, they had another similarity with the preceeding generation, their love lives were just as complex. FINIS
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