Posted on 2011-10-31
Mrs Norris glared at Fanny. "Why have you got that, girl?"
"It - It fell out of the trunk I was unpacking."
"Did anyone ask you to unpack a trunk - I never asked you to unpack a trunk." Mrs Norris dumped the bundle of baize curtains she had in her hand onto the floor - most out of character - and snatched at the item in Fanny's hands.
"Maria asked me to find a trunk for her to take to London when she is Mrs Rushworth."
"Oh," Mrs Norris sounded most put out that Fanny hadn't been snooping and prying.
However, Fanny graciously allowed Mrs Norris to continue to be annoyed when she shyly offered the statement: "It's not a very pretty ring, is it?"
"What business is it of yours, child? You should be helping Maria."
Fanny sent upon her way, Mrs Norris looked at the ring. Indeed it was not very pretty. It was a simple gold band. The lettering was intricate but nonsense. Mrs Norris did not think very much of the man who had commissioned it for his bride. Some Bertram who'd no doubt met a bad end. His wife certainly hadn't managed not to lose her ring. The trunk Fanny had emptied had on top of the wardrobe for as long as Mrs Norris could remember, and old Hill said he'd seen it up there as a boy.
Mrs Norris kept the ring on her dresser, meaning to bring it to Sir Thomas' attention upon his return from the West Indies. He would agree that it was an ugly ring; except it seemed, on closer inspection, to be impeccable work.
The lines were the work of a master craftsman, and surely the design was the work of an artist. No, the more Mrs Norris looked at it - every night before bed - the more she was convinced it was a treasure. Did the Bertrams need more treasure? The answer to that question was certainly: no. Even if it was yes, wasn't Mrs Norris a Bertram by virtue of her hard work for the family? Maria would be nowhere near certain to marry Mr Rushworth without her busywork.
Mrs Norris strung the ring on a gold chain - she'd filched that off Fanny (what did that child need with fripperies?)- and hung it about her neck.
It was if the world spun into focus.
Maria rather thought her Aunt Norris had gone mad. She was no longer interested in hearing about Maria's plans for Rushworth, nor was she disapproving when Maria flirted a little too long with Mr Crawford.
Instead she appeared to be spending all of her time hunched over her darning. She had not even once asked Cousin Fanny to do it. Making Cousin Fanny do one's darning was almost a game at Mansfield Park. A game Aunt Norris always won.
What's more she was hunched over her darning muttering, "My precious." Maria could not see what was so precious about darning undergarments.
She also wasn't eating. The cook had asked Maria if something was wrong because the cakes were coming back virtually uneaten. Maria was happy to divert the cakes to her - Maria would never stop eating cake.
It all came to a head when Mrs Norris fainted in the middle of the drawing room one morning. Lady Bertram had also taken to her bed in hysterics. So it was left to Maria to help her Aunt to bed. Fanny couldn't lift Aunt Norris, and Julia had run away.
That is when Maria saw the ring. Fanny explained it had been in the old trunk that Maria would end up taking to London to her when she was married. Well that practically made the ring Maria's, did it not? What did Aunt Norris want with a ring after all?
So Maria took the ring off its paltry chain and placed it in her pocket.
It lay forgotten in her pocket until she arrived triumphantly in London ahead of all of her good clothes and was forced to wear a drab dress from where she'd been a mere Miss Bertram.
"Oh Rushworth, do you not think this ring quite unusual? Perhaps I shall bring it into style."
Rushworth grunted from his chair and Maria was once again forced to chant to herself, "Money. Giant Estate. Money. Giant Estate."
Maria turned over the ring in her hand. She could not, of course, wear it on her hand - her wedding ring took pride of place there and this looked too like a wedding ring. Instead she'd find a gold chain threaded with silver and wear it nestled in her décolleté. Perfect.
Mr Rushworth knew he was not a learned man. He was not as blessed as others when it came to brains and sense. So he knew that he should not discount that he was missing something.
Perhaps he had not noticed a new trend in fashion, or read the latest tract.
He was sure he had to be missing something because he just did not understand his new wife.
She was beautiful and her dowry had not been lacking. Her family was prominent. Indeed she was everything he - as a man unblessed with ambition and social graces- should want in a wife.
Except something was wrong and he could not put his finger on it.
Maria would come downstairs to breakfast, and as was the custom he would move to serve her some tea from the sideboard.
"Would you like some tea, my love?"
"Yes. No. Yes, we wants some tea. No, tea is too sugary and we should not like our teeth to fall out. But we musts have some refreshment. "
"Was that a 'Yes', my love?"
Sometimes the argument would go on so long that the tea would go cold.
Then he would find her standing in front of the mirror talking in much the same manner. One time he swore he saw her reflection move - and she was standing still! He'd had to have a stiff drink and a lie down after that - he'd been working too hard.
But he could not do that because his mother cornered him and demanded to know why he was allowing his wife to consort as a harlot. Rushworth had not known that harlots were known to talk to themselves.
Rushworth tried to tell her that his wife did not leave her room most days, only coming out to talk to herself and mirrors. However Mrs Rushworth Senior would not be appeased and insisted that the trollop would have evidence in her room.
Rushworth was a gentleman, so he refused to allow her to search. If anyone was going to violate his wife's privacy it would be him; after all he and his wife were legally one - his mother explained that to him very simply - so it was his own privacy he was violating.
Maria did not appear to have anything in her room. She'd even dispensed with items Rushworth deemed necessary for hygiene purposes and he'd always understood that women were more discerning in those matters.
If she was behaving like a wanton woman there was no evidence here in her bedroom. Except…there was a ring. He'd smoothed the bedcovers and there it was. It looked like a masculine ring to him, except it was not as adorned as a signet ring should be. It must have been taken off before the act of love, because such a ring could not have merely fallen off.
Henry Crawford had come to London to seduce Maria Bertram - or should he say Rushworth now? Well, perhaps that was incorrect. He'd failed in his mission to have Fanny Price and Henry thought that someone should pay for that; Sir Thomas to be precise, because shy Fanny could have easily been made to accept him. Sir Thomas for whatever reason had not pressed hard enough - perhaps the insanity of his wife's sister distracted him.
Also Maria Bertram needed no seducing. Or so he'd thought. She had started off all pliant and warm. Then she stopped coming to parties and Henry had been forced to find excuses to visit her at her house. There she was strange and seemed to be talking to everyone but him … except it slowly dawned on him that she was not talking to anyone that was present.
It seemed an odd conceit to appear more attractive to him, as was the hissing and snatching. In all honesty, it rather made Henry feel that he should give Maria Bertram off as a lost cause. She had clearly been more upset about his behaviour at Mansfield Park than he thought. He might have understood that but he didn't understand why she didn't play hard and fast with his feelings in return. Dangling them by a string seemed exactly Maria's modis operandi. He could have respected that; this odd behaviour he could not.
So he retreated to flirt with other women and occasionally, when bored by that, into the sanctum of his club, where one night he met Rushworth who looked stormy. Rushworth loomed over Henry's armchair but did not say anything.
"Is there something I can do for you, Rushworth?"
"Yes, you can kindly not give my wife jewellery. I know that I am a foolish fellow and a poor shot. In addition my mother arranged my marriage and I can be such a poor sort that I do not argue with my mother. So I shall not call you out. Nor will I comment on the masculine nature of this ring and instead continue under the guise that this was merely given to my wife along with nothing else. " Rushworth tugged on his cravat. "But I insist you no longer visit my wife, speak to my wife and give my wife fine jewellery."
Henry blinked at the gold ring thrust into his hand. He'd never seen it before in his life. Should he tell Rushworth that? Henry decided against it, it would be glorious for Rushworth to let his guard down only to find some other man snatch her away under his nose. So Henry merely nodded at Rushworth before returning to examine in the ring. It felt unusually heavy in his hand.
Fanny berated herself for her selfishness. She should be glad for what Henry Crawford had done for her family. William was so happy and that should be all that mattered.
Indeed, Mr Crawford appeared to be a changed man. He'd never been a handsome man, instead he had been striking. Although Fanny never reminded her cousins of their first impressions of Mr Crawford, she knew that they had agreed with her. Later of course they had been dazzled by his charm and they could see no other man in a ten mile radius that held a candle to him.
She wondered what her cousins would say if they saw him now. Maria had no doubt seen him in London and maybe she was the reason that Mr Crawford decided to leave London for the less than salubrious locale of Portsmouth.
His hair was falling out. He'd attempted to cover the state but the hairstyle was somewhat unusual and did more to draw attention to the fact he was going bald. He also looked emaciated. The one thing that had not shrunk however was his eyes, which looked as large as saucers.
Her family of course knew nothing was strange about their philanthropic guest. Susan had pulled her aside and told Fanny that it was understandable that she had not wanted to marry Mr Crawford after all.
Fanny was worried that he would renew his efforts, and she did not know whether she'd be strong enough to refuse him again. She found herself praying that she would - there was something pathetic about Mr Crawford now that roused Fanny's sympathies in a way the old Mr Crawford never did. She kept telling herself that Mr Crawford had not changed in essentials. Appearances were deceiving. He did not, however, appear in the mood to make love.
Then Fanny got the terrible news that Cousin Tom had been taken ill and Fanny's first priority was to return to Mansfield. Return to Edmund and her home. She was finally of use.
The only thing spoiling her good fortune was Mr Crawford coming to clutch her hand and talk poetically at her. Fanny could hardly understand a word he was saying partly because of his speech and partly because her mind was elsewhere. But he thrust a ring at her.
"No Mr Crawford, I will not marry you! To think of such a thing when my poor cousin waits for my care…"
"Noooo, Misssssss Prise. I mean it for a gift. A gift! Resssstritution."
He seemed determined for to have it, so Fanny took it and did not think about it any further.
Tom was bored. He was not well enough to leave his bed, but not sick enough to lose time. Nor was he well enough to read, not that anyone would let him near the racing results.
The only bright spot in his day was his cousin's tender nursing. He was being rather sarcastic about the tender nature of her nursing. It was true no one else was so dedicated to sitting by his bedside every day, but Tom wondered if that was because Fanny scared them away.
She had always been a determined little mouse. A field mouse easily scared back into her little hole.
That is what Maria had said, before she had been committed to the sanatorium, of course. Julia had vehemently agreed.
Tom had always wondered if a cat was a more apt description. Sitting there silently judging behind calculating eyes while looking as if butter wouldn't melt.
He was certain that cat was a better description now. Fanny, after all, had taken to eating raw fish.
She would bring him his dinner - cooked, after Tom and the Doctor had complained - and would eat her own dinner with him. At first her tearing into the flesh of the fish with her pointy little teeth had put Tom off his own meal, but one became accustomed after a while.
It was during one of these dinners - fish and no potatoes (she was very against potatoes) - which he first noticed the ring dangling from her neck.
Tom had a sense of foreboding which did not lift when he asked her about the ring.
"It's mine. It's precious. My precious." She snapped, clutching at her neck.
Susan who had come for a visit to Mansfield told him - she would read to him and seemed unbothered by Fanny's strange appetite appearance and speech - that Mr Crawford had given her the ring.
Was it a secret engagement? If so, it was a very poor one because Mr Crawford, Tom had learnt from Mr Yates' letters had rusticated himself to Everingham where he pottered about quite sickly and bald.
Once Tom was well enough to leave his bed, Mr Rushworth came to commiserate over the loss of Maria's mind, and told Tom that he was glad Mr Crawford had got his comeuppance after defiling his wife, leaving behind his ring.
Tom thought Rushworth a simpleton. It would have been easier to divorce a faithless wife than a mad one. Rushworth would have to try and burn her down in an attic or something to get rid of Maria now.
So was it Maria's ring in the first place? Tom was not sure until he saw Mrs Norris's reaction to seeing the ring about Fanny's neck.
Sir Thomas and himself - he was now almost back to full health - had to pry the two of them apart. Sir Thomas had ended up quite bitten by his sister-in-law.
The decision was taken then and there that perhaps Mrs Norris and her niece needed to join Maria in the sanatorium. For the sake of the family name.
As Fanny was being loaded into the heavily fortified carriage - Mrs Norris had her own for safety's sake - Tom ripped the necklace from her neck.
Edmund, weeping at the loss of his beloved cousin, clutched at Mary Crawford's bosom for moral support but managed to berate Tom for his unfeeling action.
"I believe this ring to be quite evil," said Tom.
"I am a clergyman and I believe this ring is much like its owner - a benevolent and charming soul. A balm to those in crisis…."
Tom mistrusted the look in Edmund's eyes as he crept closer and he took off at a run.
Tom flung the ring into the stream and watched as the current whipped it away and it must surely fall to the bottom somewhere down stream and hopefully be buried in the silt.
Edmund flung himself into the stream after the ring but did not seem to find it. All he managed to catch was a fish - pity Fanny was not here to enjoy it - and a cold.
Tom congratulated himself on a job well done. After all no harm could come from the ring in a stream, could it?The End