Posted on: 2009-05-28
He rode a black horse on a sunny day through the fields of Everingham, the Norfolk skies tossing clouds about with careless abandon. The object of Henry Crawford's search was just before him, an elegant man of broad-shoulders and little breeding, who yet sat a horse quite handsomely.
The Steward, seeing his master, tipped his hat and cantered closer to offer his greetings, noting that he was so soon returned. Soon, of course, was a relative term. It had been weeks a visit to his charming sister and the even more enticing Miss Price having occupied him but given his perennial neglect to his estate, "soon" fit well enough.
"My plan is to stay a fortnight, but plans being changeable, I wanted to see you first." Crawford smiled, affably. "It seems to me that I've neglected your steady service."
The Steward bit back a grin but gave an unconvincing shrug, not so poorly bred as to not, at least, feign humility in the face of something freely offered and undeserved. "My work here at Everingham's more than I could want for in a life."
"Yes, yes, but you've been in my employ for how long now? Five years? Ten?" While he spoke, Mr. Crawford reached into his coat. A clattering of coins followed. "And never once complaining in the discharge of your duties. Now, let's see " The purse thick, Mr. Crawford spilled a few coins onto his palm. "Now, these ten, these were supposed to go toward the feed for the Morrison's swine."
The Steward watched, the sweat gathering at the back of his collar chilled by the spring air, as the dull coins landed against Crawford's gloved hand.
"And these Now, these, were supposed to be put toward the payments for the apothecary." Clank. More coins followed the others. "And these for tools, for which you paid a friend of a friend double their worth."
With dark eyes hard, Henry Crawford put the purse back into his coat, coins ringing hollow back inside it. He regarded his employee. "And the rest was meant to supply the tenants for the last winter."
"The rest?" came the Steward's clipped reply, a card player's composure already starting to crumble, giving expression to suspicion with fury close on its heels.
"Of your wages."
Eyes flaring, the Steward sat higher in his saddle, coat flapping in a gust of wind and horse unsettled beneath him. "If you're wanting to imply something "
Smile hard as well, Henry lifted a finger and tsked reprovingly. "No, no. I was saying flat out that you're a crook and a liar," he said, before another thought struck him. "I suppose that means I am implying that your services are no longer needed here and I am implying that I am very angry right now, which implies that it wouldn't be appropriate for a good landlord to punch you across the jaw."
With an impatient jerk of the reins, Crawford led his horse about, making a show of dismissal down to the splattering of mud beneath him, though he didn't miss the way his Steward's dark complexion turned a mottled shade of red.
"Good landlord? Hah!" The furious Steward called after him, too used to getting his own way to consider begging and contrition. "You won't last a week! You'll be begging for my help!"
Henry Crawford rode through his fields on the sunny Norfolk day, never looking back, and smirked where he would rather have sworn, a thousand variants of sufficiently acerbic punishments for the Steward who had betrayed his trust running through his mind, while a smaller voice cut through the haze to note that it was a bit too lenient to call something in which you were complicit if through intentioned neglect a betrayal of trust.
Well, that was then, and Henry had very little time for people who thought they were cleverer than him. In society, he would conquer them. But in his home, his Everingham, he would not stand them.
Easter at Mansfield Park was a cold one. A blustering April that hardly resembled a lamb, but it was out of doors that Fanny Price went, an escape from the confines of the house. Though the gardens were her aim, she could not appreciate their youthful blooms and spring greens. She was ashamed, and she needed the solitude to compose herself.
A feeling creature by nature, Fanny had thrown herself into the care for her dear cousin Tom (dear, though he'd not paid her any mind these last twenty-some years) upon her return from Portsmouth with Edmund. Tom's tragedy was trial enough, toward which she put every effort and could find gratitude in her younger sister Susan's presence to comfort Lady Bertram. Compounding Tom's tragedy with Edmund's disappointment produced a strain enough to diminish a stronger, more stalwart woman than Fanny Price.
She found a bench in the gardens to sit, her breathing ragged and hands wrapped about her waist. The thought of Edmund only deepened her misery. His parting with Mary Crawford had been a disastrous one; the lady was aloof and sardonic, while her cousin stubborn and hurt. He left it rejected, heart still in the hand he offered to her. It was in a sorry, solitary state he arrived for the journey from Portsmouth to home.
And now, now Fanny Price closed her eyes against tears, the miserable headache unrelenting these last several days. Feeling by nature, she could not witness the suffering of a cousin, nor of Edmund and Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, without aching with them and taking that ache as her own. The constant time spent trying to see to Tom's comfort or that of the others left her exhausted. To add to that Edmund's soft misery, his need for consolation, was to do her in.
Choking back sobs, Fanny did not notice the last of her reveries crossing upon her, did not hear the gravel path shifting underfoot. Edmund, hat in hand, sat at her side, grieving sympathy etched into his too-tired features. Fanny jumped a half a foot at the surprise of it.
She gave a dismayed cry, but wiping at her eyes, Fanny found all other explanation or dissemblance impossible. Edmund saved her, not giving her time to speak, even had she had words to do so. "Hush, Fanny. Be at ease." Her mouth tight against further sobs, Fanny nodded and clenched her fists against her lap. Edmund, too, fell silent, while watching the tired grieving of his dearest friend.
"You take too much upon yourself," he said, finally, adding with deeper regret, "from all of us." Again, he had to quiet Fanny's protest, knowing as well as she did her desire to be of help, especially at such a time. His hand found the practical fabric of her coat and guided her head closer to his shoulder.
Her body stiffening, resisting, Fanny finally let loose her tears, the pity stored for one man who'd done so little to deserve it and another who had done too much for her to express it. Edmund rambled on, in a soft voice, his hand and shoulder the best comfort he could offer. "I'll sit with you more. I haven't been doing enough and to see you bearing this so much alone... Your sister needn't always be at my mother's side." The reproach, self-directed, in his voice softened it further. "It has been irresponsible of me, to be so distracted and heedless of your needs. Had I known, had I better prepared for this separation "
Fanny knew, even through her tears, that this could be the start of something long, indeed, a retracing of the last conversation between Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford that had left them irreconcilable. While it gave her little pleasure to hear him speak of her, his voice soothed, as it always had whatever the topic, and she clung to that comfort. His coat smelled of the stables and it was warm to combat the chill. She was comfortable, and he was free.
As destined with Fanny Price, any instance of comfort must be cruelly and immediately interrupted. A third pair of boots strolled down the gravel walk, slowing when they came upon the two cousins, so intimately close.
Henry Crawford paused, hesitated with a lifted-brow look of surprise, but barely had time to rethink his intrusion let alone rethink his rethinking of intruding on a man so close to his Miss Price, be it harmless Edmund Bertram than to have the man's eyes on him, the expression there travelling from contemplative to cordial to guarded. Henry paid it no mind. Edmund was a spurned man and that guarded look was for Henry's sister, absent but not forgotten.
Henry reached for his hat and strolled closer, affecting ease with his usual skill. "A handsome pair you make, and I apologize for disturbing it. Miss Susan had said you were in the gardens." He left it to them to decide which 'you' he was looking for.
Fanny, last to notice, used this exchange to straighten, her skin splotchy and posture discomforted, caught in a vulnerable moment by a man she'd learned to acknowledge as one who exploits vulnerabilities. She wiped at her eyes, but if Henry Crawford noticed it, he said nothing. Edmund, too, seemed to ignore Fanny's existence, sharing in his silent desire that Fanny be allowed to compose herself in peace. "Crawford," he greeted, all gravity. "What brings you back to Mansfield? I'd thought I'd heard you to be back in Norfolk."
Boots crushing gravel, Henry strolled closer, dark eyes on Fanny with solicitous concern, though his smile savored the pride in his next words a pride he'd feel even more deeply if she'd only cheer a bit or, at least, for heaven's sake look up. "Norfolk, London, and Portsmouth twice over since last we spoke. And now Mansfield."
"And now Mansfield," Edmund echoed, good breeding warring with caution. Fanny felt his subtle pressure on her arm, seemed to both take strength from it and offer comfort, as he stood to greet his guest.
"And how are you, Miss Price?" Crawford availed himself of Edmund's ambivalent hesitation, smoothing over discomfort with the grace and heedlessness of a thoroughbred charger. "You must, I think, be glad to be here. As I am." A pause, a brief but thorough study of her features. "Though, please allow me to share my to both of you, please allow me to share my family's sincere hope for your brother and cousin's well-being. He was not made to see such serious days as this." He'd almost said sober days before catching himself.
"Oh, thank you, sir. Mr. Crawford." It was cold here, which Fanny only acknowledged by pursing her lips against a gust of wind. With the air of having forgotten a critical errand, she skittered off around the bench, escaping Edmund's hand.
She also didn't make it two steps, an easy sidestep from Crawford permitting him to present her his arm. "Please, allow me to see you indoors, madam. I should like to tell you of my last trip home." If you'll hear me, he thought in silence, noting with darkening concern how little improved she was since her return, something which he'd not expected. The look he slanted Edmund was questioning. The look Edmund returned was serious, all reserve lost in his solicitation for Fanny.
"Yes, Fanny. I shouldn't have kept you out of doors so long."
Oblivious to the glances being exchanged above her head, Fanny took the dark-coated arm with something akin to habitual familiarity. "Of course, Mr. Crawford. I, that is, I mean to say, no, cousin. You did not keep me. I was very happy to be outside." With him, she didn't say.
Without me, Crawford thought with pensive silence. Frequent rejection, perhaps, had dulled him to the sensation the words should have produced. A moment's brilliance dawned upon him. "Would you wish to stay with your cousin, Fanny - Miss Price? It was rude of me to interrupt."
Her declamation could not have been quicker, and if it was borne of good breeding rather than affection, who was Henry Crawford to complain when it allowed him her willing company at his side? "No, please, do not be troubled. I should be seeing to my cousin."
Fanny may have missed the impatient breath from her dearest cousin, but Henry didn't. Henry could not feel any surprise that Fanny would take it upon herself to be Tom's comforter in trying times. And, likely another speculative glance to Edmund to more of the family than just him. His tone stayed grave, a hand covering her own on his arm while he escorted his slender charge toward the house. "You are very good."
He correctly predicted the tightening of her mouth, the way her head turned away from his words as though they were poisoned barbs. "No. No, I beg your pardon," he continued, relenting for her shyer character at the expense of what he had much rather do flatter her with every breath. "You are not very good. You are simply good. Miss Price would not be very anything, and I've no desire to add to her woes. Be good, Miss Price, and make us better for it."
His goal was fond levity, but aimed at a woman who could not appreciate his attempts to ease her mind, the words fell as sarcastic. "I'll, that is, I mean to say, I'd hope to be a good friend to my cousin, Mr. Crawford. We all hope for his recovery." Obstinacy is in the eye of the beholder for Fanny Price, she simply interpreted the words in such a way as to make it impossible but for herself and Mr. Crawford to hold to the highest standards of decorum. And to avoid any uncomfortable emotions that might stem from a more serious reading into them. To Mr. Crawford, she was obstinate charmingly, quaintly so, to be sure. But obstinate.
And he never did much enjoy turning down a challenge, particularly when delivered from the delicate mouth of Miss Fanny Price. "No one more than me, Miss Price," he replied with a charming devil to his eyes, a curve of a smile she could not help but see as he paused inside the door with her. "It is your cousin who earns such serious looks from you, such soft words, and gentle hands." He lifted his arm, pressed his lips to the hand resting on it. When Fanny pulled away politely but hastily he made sure to let his thumb trace the contours of her hand as it slipped free.
"Mr. Crawford!" she protested, stammering so sweetly on his name that he grinned, feeling all the foolishness of love.
"Yes, Miss Price?" All innocence. All sly solicitation. All uncompromising intent to get her to talk to him and to face what he offered her. She'd clasped her hands behind her back, and he found himself wondering how long it would take him to be able to enjoy such liberty again.
Fanny swallowed, eyes looking every which way about his face while she squirmed closer to the stairs, her attempt to escape subtle, but present. "No, no, nothing. It was very good to see you, again, Mr. Crawford."
"Very good, was it?" His voice deepened, mercilessly, interrupting.
Her mouth slipped open, the confusion that colored her softer eyes replaced by an even more endearing flustered consternation. She had to frown to concentrate on her original line of thought. "I that is, I mean to say, it was very it was good to see you in Portsmouth as well. I'll always remember your visit fondly." He might have said more, but turned aside to see Edmund having joined him, enough distraction for Fanny to make her bow and scurry to the stairs with a barely murmured, "If you'll excuse me."
Mr. Crawford returned the bow in silence, watching her leave until finally turning to Edmund. In a rare instance, the parson Edmund Bertram held a quicker tongue than his society-bred friend. "We should talk."
Henry let out a breath, the flirtation that had warmed his features smoothing away. "So we should."
Posted on: 2009-06-02
Fanny's hand trembled against the door when she opened it. How could she have botched that so badly! Her intent upon leaving had been to compose herself. Now returning, she felt neither composed nor steady and could only regret having left her cousin for so long in such a worthless pursuit.
Mr. Crawford had returned to Mansfield Park. With the rift that had opened between his sister and Edmund, she had not considered that he might do so. Fanny understood even expected - loyalty between siblings. Beyond even that, however, if Mary could not love an Edmund Bertram, with everything he offered, she could hardly be blamed for believing there no chance that Henry would continue to be enamored of a Fanny Price.
And enamored, she thought on a sigh while settling into her chair at Tom's side, was assuredly what he continued to be. For other women, it would be a sorry life without the pleasure of having enticed a man or twelve. She'd, however, always sought a more sensible affection. A placid, familiar, warm, comfortable affection with a man she esteemed beyond her merits.
Henry Crawford was anything but comfortable.
In no poetic language of any era could be described as a placid pool. He was more akin to the seas at Portsmouth, and while she felt her assessment of his character to be sound with some alteration, in that he had proven that he could be gentlemanly, which she had once deemed impossible - she could not predict his actions. Impulsive, clever, brashly confident. He might tease her one moment and then frown so seriously at her in the next. That he would last so long in his attentions to her, she had not expected; Fanny added 'tenacious' to his list of traits. Such a man might have gone far in society, had his character not been wasted on selfish pursuits.
To be sure, however, she could not account a man as steady who continued to make love so to her. It was as unnatural as it was unaccountable. To be persisting so intently in the face of her distrust, he must be insincere.
That this left Mr. Crawford in an untenable position too much attention made him suspicious and too little made him inconstant she acknowledged. Her just mind would not let her hide from it. Therefore, Fanny concluded firmly, desperately, that he should leave her be and put behind them all these conflicting feelings and frustrations. On her side, she wanted things the way they had always been. On his, she could not believe that he would allow himself to be hurt by her though the fear of it, that there might be some emotion there, troubled her for those kindnesses he had shown, for the promise of the man he might have been.
Her chair scraped across wood while she drew it nearer to the bed. No, Fanny rationalized, even if she had never known the merits of a man like Edmund Bertram, she could not have accepted Henry Crawford. She could not leave Mansfield and those she loved there - to travel to a strange home for a second time in her life, with her one crutch this worldly man whom she had known for so few months and through those witnessed the consequences of his impulsive confidence terrible in one moment, generous in the next, and always unpredictable.
Stirring from her thoughts, Fanny leaned forward to wet Tom's face and drew a cloth across it with a quiet hand. His eyes a shade darker than Edmund's softer ones opened, smiling a greeting that was not mirrored by his pallid features.
She smiled back, ducking her gaze to focus on attending to him. The smile was taut, forced at the corners. This is what happened when the Crawfords came to call they took all sense away and left only these selfish thoughts. She reproached herself sternly while trying to refocus on her older charge. And if she continued to wonder at the reason behind Mr. Crawford's return, at what he might say on her short life at Portsmouth, at what news he brought of Mary to Edmund, it was only natural and right that she push those wonderings as far to the back of her mind as possible.
She left Tom sleeping healing, she was optimistic - hours later to change for dinner. It was on the way to her own quarters that Fanny came across Edmund, whose drawn, distracted features had become a familiar sight. His demeanor softening upon noticing her, Edmund's stride slowed on the top step. "Fanny."
"I'll be down so very quickly," Fanny answered with a tone of deep concern, one hand plucking at the skirt of her day dress. She felt the stab of urgency that required her to explain her negligent absence from Tom's room.
That anxiousness drew an unwilling twist of a smile from the corner of Edmund's mouth. "Fanny, truly, you should be allowed some time to yourself. There is no one here who will say that you have not done everything you can."
And if everything she could was not enough? "Will you be staying for dinner, cousin?"
She wasn't ready to leave him yet, not when his own parish duties had him spending the majority of his week in Thornton Lacey. That Edmund would no longer be a part of her day-to-day life at Mansfield was something she had not fully considered when dreaming of her homecoming on those long days in Portsmouth.
Edmund cast Fanny a peculiar look, leaning a hip into the railing when he paused at her side. "I will, yes." His uncertainty lingered. "Will you not ask the purpose of his visit here?"
"No," Fanny said too quickly, gaze enthralled by the way her hand gripped the railing. "I'm sure Mr. Crawford is always welcome here, without needing cause."
Edmund's smile was rueful, a finger touching to her chin. "Only you, Fanny, could not be anxious at the thought that he might not have come here for you - though I think he did. More than he would confess to me." A troubled frown. "He brought news of Mary. Of Miss Crawford."
Brow creasing, Fanny looked up at that, studying the dear features of the man in front of her and willing a look of serious consideration for his sake. "You did not think to hear of her?"
"No," came his reluctant admission. He was ordained, and she was angry. In the face of such circumstances, how could he why would he - indulge himself to hope?
"You mustn't let it pain you," Fanny began, only to be interrupted by Edmund's soft sigh, a tragic laugh.
"No, Fanny, though it is very like you to wonder more at another's well-being than to ask what the news is that might jeopardize it." And it was very like Edmund to interpret Fanny's reticence to good nature rather than heartbroken regret. "She wishes a reconciliation, delivered by her brother's lips and her hand."
"You do not think this is good news?" Fanny asked, cautiously, trying to bring rationality to her tone when she felt anything but. Still, better to be useful and hopeful than to permit hurt at his eager attentiveness to one woman's words over those of the one in front of him, his comforter in times of anguish.
"What is reconciliation without change, Fanny?" He kept his small smile without masking the pain behind it. "I could hardly be a good clergyman without understanding that." He looked to want to say more, but instead righted a candle on the wall, the very weight of his hand seeming to irritate him.
"What will you do?" Fanny had no helpful words, no matter how hard she searched for them. There was nothing she could say that he had not already considered, and she could find no voice for her fears that Mary Crawford - lovely, sparkling Mary Crawford - would never be happy as a parson's wife. Fanny's judgment there was not unbiased, shaming as it was for her to concede.
"I must write her back, of course. I don't know what I shall say, but I must." He glanced down, down to Fanny's soft eyes and doubted, uncertainty flitting over his wearied expression. "You disapprove."
"No," she protested, too quickly, yet again. "I simply do not like to see you unhappy."
There was a subtle lightening to his features, a fondness and humanity to them she had not seen since before she'd left Mansfield that first and last time. "No, and nor do I enjoy seeing you so, Fanny. Your attentions to Tom, to my father, to my mother, and most of all to myself have been those of an angel."
She blushed and protested, looking away with a discomforted bearing and charmed smile.
"No, no, Fanny, if you will not let me speak openly with you, we'll never get along at all."
"But, cousin, I do not need flattery. I'm happy as I am. As I have always been."
"Are you?" he said, kindly but doubtingly, still watching over her features. "There's little in this world that I would not give to see you so. Truly so." He lifted a thumb to trace one of the dark circles beneath her eyes. Fanny stared up at him, breath catching. She might have imagined a greater awareness of her in his eyes, but when his fingers brushed against an errant curl of hair, the warmth that flooded her cheeks, her mind, left her content to savor.
Edmund drew back his hand, pressing his lips to the top of Fanny's head to mask his momentary distraction. "Thank you, Fanny. For listening. For always listening."
Mind on the letter in his pocket, he strolled off, and Fanny, already missing the contact, murmured something politely incomprehensible after him before turning to slip to the safety of her own room.
A dizzying hum replaced the warmth that had filled her. For an instant, it had been too easy to believe that Edmund had seen her truly seen her.
The next time she saw Henry Crawford, Tom was well enough to join the family downstairs. The families of the parsonage and Mansfield dined together, again, even though the occasion was a shadow of what it had been. No, Fanny decided, that was unkind. The conversation was more serious, perhaps, and there was less music and dancing with the absence of three young women. This was different, but it was not bad. Tom was well; she could not account this bad.
He was pale and had little appetite, but to be able to sit with the family for an hour or two, crack a sly joke, and then walk himself to his room was triumph enough to be worth a small dinner. Fanny wore white and let herself be entertained by Mrs. Grant's stories of the local townsfolk, Edmund's wry discourse on his first Easter baptisms, Susan's relating of the most recent naval news. The smiles she offered Mr. Crawford might have been brighter for her pleasure in seeing Tom well, though she could never deny the clever way he worked laughter into a room.
No, she couldn't account the dinner bad. Henry, for his part, thought it quite marvelous. He'd smoothed over Bertram's ruffled feathers the other day, though he wasn't quite fool enough to pretend that having him at Mansfield sans his prettier half wasn't dragging knives through Edmund's innards. No, the marvel must be Miss Price, and he'd have it no other way.
He'd been wrong previously. Mansfield had improved her since those windy days at Portsmouth. And when impulse struck to see if she looked as lovely under moonlight as candlelight, Henry felt himself obliged to listen.
"Sister," he spoke grandly to Mrs. Grant, lips pressed to her hand, "Come for a walk. It's a warm night and the skies are fairer than all the diamonds of London." Henry's love for a poetic turn of phrase mirrored the deeper feelings of Miss Price. She perked up from her content seat at Edmund's side and even brooding Edmund much as he might try to hide it, his dearest friend and the perceptive Crawford did not miss the subtle distraction - could not help but notice the attention.
"Stargazing, Henry? You?" Mrs. Grant replied in jest, a half-smile playing at her mouth even as she shook her head in decline. "Perhaps Edmund and Fanny will join you."
Henry could have made a show of offering, but his point was already won. Edmund was just then helping Fanny from her seat. "Of course we will. It's been too long, hasn't it, Fanny?" Giving a warm murmur in agreement, Fanny looked self-consciously away from the amused approval in Crawford's eyes.
Out of doors and in the more intimate surroundings, some of Fanny's ease faded and she held all the more tightly to Edmund's arm. It was beautiful, as Mr. Crawford had said, but the fireplaces brought comfort and security where, here, there was only herself and Edmund and the glittering sky and a man who wanted to love her.
Edmund spared her the necessity of making conversation. "Fanny and I used to sit like this all the time." It was no secret, but that didn't quell the consternation in her breast at having Edmund force intimacy with her suitor.
"London does not afford stargazing," Henry replied, though he watched Fanny as he said so. His arm felt chilled and he clasped his hands behind his back to ignore it. "Was it your favorite study, Miss Price?"
Her smile was charmingly nervous and perplexed. "My ? I, that is, I enjoyed it, yes. Do you not at your own estate, sir?"
She was so very good at that, wasn't she? His smile turned rueful, and he hid it by looking to the sky. Subtly reminding him of his duty and how he'd failed in it. "I would," he conceded, fixing his too-thoughtful eyes on the sky and away from the small woman at his side, "if not for my want of a patient teacher." He saw from the corner of his eye the way she bit down on the edge of her lip. Even if she'd never acknowledge the meaning of anything he said, he savored the ability to communicate to her, to reach that fascinating mind.
Taking pity on them both, Edmund nudged Fanny along a bit, coaxing her from the shell she'd slipped into. "What do you see tonight, Fanny?"
Her nerves began to only hammer faster. Edmund who had been caught in his grief had been a better shield against love for having suffered under it. Whatever Henry had said to him on Mary's behalf had evidently turned him back in favor of its charms. "Orion is very bright," she finally replied on a gulp, reticence in the tense curve of her mouth.
Henry tried to draw pictures in the stars and saw only stars or, at least, no constellations that a true astronomer would recognize. Edmund, though, smiled, squinting a bit, "You picked a simple one. Ah, Cassiopeia, elegant as ever."
"The morning star is looking very bright tonight."
"Wait until the new moon. She'll be even prettier in a few days."
"William has seen the southern cross, you know. I think that is, I feel that I should like to see the same, familiar stars, though."
Edmund covered Fanny's hand with his own. "I don't think William or I would reproach you for that."
While Edmund cracked a pointed smile down at Fanny, Henry realized that he wasn't quite sure when he'd stopped watching the sky to become a silent, dark shadow to the pair conversing at his side. His first thought had been that he couldn't imagine Mary standing here, murmuring with such soft earnestness. His second, well
All thoughts of speculation, the wheels of a sharp mind turning, ground to a halt when Mrs. and Mr. Grant stepped outside. "Mr. Grant is feeling unwell, Henry, and Sir Thomas has offered us his carriage. You'll join us?"
The companionable mood was easily broken, Fanny and Edmund made all the appropriate noises of concern, and Henry behaved as all that was courteous to a sister he loved on behalf of a man she needed.
That didn't stop him, however, from brushing a few fingers to Fanny's arm in the bustle prior to departure, delaying her escape indoors. "It was a pleasant evening, Miss Price."
Edmund, helping Mrs. Grant into the carriage, was not there for her to lean on, now. "Thank you, Mr. Crawford," she replied, all earnestness, still. "I hope Mr. Grant feels well, again."
"So you've said," Mr. Crawford replied, those turning wheels making his voice gentle in his distraction. "A shame I am not so good so very good as you, Miss Price. There will be no soft words or soothing hands from me to ease his suffering."
"We're very glad to It is good to see Tom well," Fanny answered, tripping over her words whilst seeking safer ground.
"Shh Your cousin is luckier than us all. A good evening, Miss Price." He bowed, features darkly solemn, before slipping away to shake Edmund's hand and join his family.
A nagging thought, though, had Henry half-hanging from the carriage, hat in hand. He twisted to look back to Edmund. "I'd planned to exercise my horse tomorrow while the weather's fine. Would you like to join me?" The question was enough to have Fanny, hands wringing, glancing back to him from the entryway. Edmund, with a lifetime's agreeableness behind him, didn't think to voice Fanny's hesitation. In fact, didn't think of the hesitation at all. "Of course. I've promised Fanny a ride before I leave. You can join us if you like. Come around in the morning."
"Just so," Crawford answered, with an exaggerated tip of his hat to the gentleman and the woman standing far behind him before he slipped back inside the carriage, smile roguish. It was dark, but the accommodations were comfortable and he had a pretty view of Miss Price's silhouette as Edmund escorted her inside.
"Going riding, tomorrow?" Mrs. Grant asked, with more perplexed curiosity to her smile than the question truly merited. But she was half-sister to Henry Crawford first of all, and understood that conversation did not rest solely in words but in the subtleties underpinning them.
"Hm? Yes, in the morning. Might I do anything for you while I'm out?" He answered with all casualness, thoughts a thousand leagues distant.
Mrs. Grant's reply came at a distance, too, dark eyes narrowing fondly. "You're up to something, brother."
To that, Henry could only lean in to touch his lips to her temple affectionately. "So I am. So I am."
It was familial and easy enough of a gesture to spare him any deeper insights from his suddenly too-perceptive half-sister.
Fanny didn't sleep well at all. There was something odd in Mr. Crawford's manner at his departure. Her inner hopes pointed toward disillusionment with the long object of his desires. Coupled with Edmund's warmer attentions, she woke from a fitful rest with more headache than glowing confidence at having the affections, in admittedly varying degrees, of two worthy gentlemen.
Henry didn't sleep much either. An active mind must have something to keep it busy and, though Miss Price was enough to sate that, he'd had a sneaking, astounding suspicion that he'd missed a rather monumental piece of the puzzle to her heart.
A rather monumental, oblivious, thick-headed piece, he chuckled grimly. Not that he'd previously born Edmund any ill-will Mary liked him well enough and he was certainly a well-bred, gentlemanly sort of man but if these wonderings were true, then if Henry was blind, Edmund was the proverbial Lazarus before being raised from the dead.
So it was that he joined Edmund and his cousin for their ride looking every bit as refreshed as the spring morning that surrounded them.
"I thought we'd take a turn about the grounds," Edmund greeted him, while helping Fanny onto her mare.
Even there, she protested, softly, uncertainly, between the two gentlemen with her. "I'll keep you back, if I go. I never ride far. Please, do not keep yourselves back for my sake. I can easily ride alone," she evaded for naught. Both men flashed her mirroring looks of fond disapprobation.
Henry, his smile as comforting as a summer rain, murmured, "If you do not wish for company, Miss Price, I might surely leave you to your ride. It was unkind of me to ask Edmund and not yourself, as well, for plans that I would be intruding on."
He'd won her consent before he was half done speaking. There was a mixture of relief and consternation that he had learned how to appeal to that gentle mind, albeit through manipulation, but if she would have him no other way, then he would do his best to appeal to her wants and desires and count on her good nature to provide him with his own.
"I'm sure that won't be necessary, will it, Fanny?" Edmund replied, half in jest.
"No, no, not at all," came her softer reply, the nervous answer harder to force out than Edmund's easy dismissal. "I did not wish to slow you, Mr. Crawford. I'm not much of a horsewoman." And your sister is a very fine one. She didn't say the words, stopped herself from saying them. But she knew by the look in Edmund's face as he mounted that he was thinking them as well.
"If I tire of the pace, Miss Price, I'll promise you to ride ahead. For now, though, I can't think of better exercise than the company of two such minds." With that, the trio moved on on through the grounds, Fanny tucked protectively between both men.
Henry glanced at the pair. "Do you often ride in the mornings?"
Edmund answered, as the more at ease in this company. Henry had long ago resigned himself to this "Not often, not certainly since having settled in Thornton Lacey."
Thornton Lacey. Yes, best his sister wasn't here to hear this discussion, though what she was about, even her brother was a bit too bemused to understand.
"And how are your estates?" Edmund continued, oblivious to Henry's study of him.
"Everingham?" Henry asked with a sidelong smile. "Never better. You'll be pleased to know, Miss Price, that I did remove that steward from my employment." Fanny looked up, tentatively and terrifiedly curious, and so Henry explained to Edmund, easing the pressure from her, "I'd thought the man to be cheating me."
"Bah." Edmund was not so much the second son as to not understand misdealing with employees. "Saw him out, then?"
"Yes, in grand style. Him cursing my name each step of the way, too, I'll wager." And heard for fact, but best to not offend Miss Price's sensibilities. "Truth be told, it was long overdue."
Fanny's voice was soft enough to make him tilt closter to hear it. "You found another?"
"I did, I did," came Henry's reply, straining himself to be calm in the face of having proper conversation from her again an impediment in Mansfield that he had not found in Portsmouth and ignore the irritation that a few words could give him such pleasure. "I'd spent the time since last seeing you until my return here, almost exclusively in Norfolk preparing the new one. You might think of this time away as a bit of a test."
"You're leaving again?" The question echoed the surprise she felt, she could account it to not enjoying changes in her family setting, even when the change was so controversial and tumultuous figure as Henry Crawford.
Henry cast Edmund an impassive look before slanting his smile Fanny's way. "Yes, tomorrow. I've business in town on my way back to the estate."
Fanny twisted the rein within one hand and looked resolutely ahead, not asking the nature of the business that she understood far too clearly.
"Well," Edmund answered, clearing the air and his throat in one breath while setting a brooding gaze on the sky that tried so hard not to be, "if this new man doesn't work out, you should ask my father. He might be able to recommend someone from the local neighborhood who would be willing to relocate."
Henry gave a laugh, a carefree toss of his head. "From Mansfield to Norfolk. I wonder if there is such a man."
"You're looking forward to returning there," Fanny observed, artlessly and with an unconscious desire to not hear anything put down even Norfolk - on such a pretty morning.
The words had Henry's brow perking. He hadn't expected her, of all people, to disagree with him. "And, yet, can never seem to stay long from here." He spoke softly for her benefit. "It is a bit like having two homes, but here the society is better."
"And you cannot be happy without society," Fanny began, doubtfully.
"Could you, Miss Price?" Henry inquired, watching Edmund's cautious expression. "Not a large, crowded room so stifling that society may as well be a mob. But a few friends, gathered around a dinner table. No, I don't think you could be happy without society, either."
"And thankfully," Edmund interjected, protective and soothing, "she'll not have to. My parents are at a loss without her."
Fanny smiled a mild, self-conscious reply. Truth be told, she had found herself, since Tom's recovery, in a rather uncomfortable position. She wasn't needed. Tom was well, Edmund was gone more days than not with his own parish, and her sister had fit so easily into the chair at Lady Bertram's side that Fanny wondered if she'd ever had a place there.
No, Fanny was very uneasy. But what was there to do? Edmund could not be here more and Mrs. Norris would never be truly agreeable. It was an odd sort of loneliness, not being wanted by those who always had.
Henry's agile mind grasped the truth, even before the words had fully left Edmund's lips. Mansfield society was not so large as for him to not notice that there was no niche for Fanny to slip into. Odd that Edmund would not realize it for Henry couldn't see him bringing it up if he knew it to be the source of the sadness wearying her eyes.
"We've ridden a good ways. Should we not turn back? There's few things as disagreeable as riding past one's endurance." Without seeking assent, Henry circled, while Edmund and Fanny made no argument.
With this new truth on his mind, Henry felt the dissatisfaction in his chest only tighten further. He'd had a realization as to Fanny's character but could espouse no particular signs of affection from Edmund toward her or for her toward Edmund. Perhaps it had only been the starlight, he mused. Passions had been stirred by less beautiful things, surely.
"You'll be travelling back to Thornton Lacey, too, tomorrow, I think?" he asked Edmund, dismissively negating all of the previous conversation.
"I shall. With luck, our harvest in the fall will be as plentiful as our births have been this spring," was Edmund's wry answer. Henry thought he caught a look of distress in Fanny's features, but given her usual demeanor around him, she was frustratingly difficult to read.
"And poor Miss Price will get her wish a smaller society. Will you not miss us?" his smile was teasing, his intent behind the question much more probing than anything Miss Price could imagine of what was to her mind superficial flattery.
"Mr. Crawford," was Fanny's reproachful absence of an answer, a nervous chuckle falling from her lips.
"She knows I'll be back soon enough before there is time to miss," Edmund teased soothingly, an affectionate hand resting on her arm.
"Ah, and with Edmund Bertram here, there can be no cause to miss me." He said it with such lightness, such careless even complimentary ease, but it took only for Fanny to snap her gaze to his eyes, caught so exquisitely off her guard, for him to understand the truth of what had kept him up so late into the night. And for him to communicate what the words deliberately did not that he knew exactly what she was about. Henry looked at Fanny long after she had turned away in dismay.
It took all of a moment. Henry's agile mind continued as though that weighty understanding had not flashed between himself and the woman at his side. Too fast for the feelings that the understanding raised to be properly felt. "I'll have to go to an empty, solitary house and wish for Mansfield and look so eagerly to be part of this happy family, again. Ah, and we're nearly returned. Won't you pardon me? I think I'll cut through the fields here."
It was all so smoothly done - that disconcerting fear, a rambling conversation to mask her discomfort. He would kiss her hand in parting, but she could not look at him to protest it, to think of protesting it. And then he was gone.
"He's a good friend to you, Fanny," was Edmund's gentle reproach, gentle observation, oblivious to the deeper meaning exchanged by those last sentences.
Fanny could only nod, too afraid that her features would give everything away to look to Edmund, even as he helped her down from her mare. Edmund, sweet man that he was, took her discomfort for illness.
"We did ride too long, didn't we? I shouldn't have kept you so. Rest, Fanny. There is nothing that might need to be done that I could not do in your place." He had a letter unwritten on his desk, though, and less time to deliver it. But Fanny's comfort must come first, at long last, as terrible as he'd been to her these last weeks since her homecoming.
"Yes but you won't leave tonight, will you? You'll stay until the morning. We see you so much less."
He silenced her with a quiet smile. "Until the morning."
Fanny tried to muster a smile to answer him and didn't fail so terribly as for him to take it as what it was the shame of having something so personal, so deep, so long held secret and secure, torn out of her by a man who, while he exploited the vulnerable, must in this uncomfortable turn also be made miserable by her weakness. Despite that she had never accounted the man as being able to love her, she had to pity because he now knew she did not love him.
And she had to fear him for from it could only come one of two unpleasant outcomes. He might tell Edmund, which she did not think he would from what good she knew of his character, or he might abandon his suit.
Despite all of her considerations, her pleas for his departure, for better or worse she had grown accustomed to Henry Crawford.
Henry pushed his horse as hard as it could go for the too short ride back to the parsonage. It was little wonder that she'd never accepted him, when her affections were so comfortably ensconced elsewhere, in the inept hands of a man who had known her for years a lifetime! and had the intimacy of family to work careful holds into her heart.
Had he been a lesser man, he might have despaired at how he could possibly untangle Edmund's hold on Fanny, a man so endearing as to even snare his sister in her impossible trap. Despair, he did not. Stalk through the parsonage with the fury of an angel, he most unapologetically did.
Hands clenching in frustration, Henry acknowledged that in another time this development would have made the game more interesting. In that other time and place, Henry Crawford had not known crushing jealousy. It was only in his room that he could fling his hat onto the bed and stare at surroundings that had not changed since he left them this morning.
Letting out a breath, Henry broke the fury with laughter. The bitter sound fell softly in the room as he considered, fully considered, the preposterous web of unhappiness that entangled Fanny, Edmund, Mary, and himself. When it was done - and it didn't last long - Henry sank into his chair, studying the wall in silence. When the images of soft gray eyes, slow smiles, a slender waist gripped between Edmund Bertram's hands played across the paint, Henry snarled, raking a hand through his hair.
For now and for however long Fanny Price belonged to another man.
A few hours later, Henry Crawford had lied convincingly. His gray morality bore a compassionate intent beyond the desperate need to see her again before he left, and now Fanny was his escort even if only so far as the Mansfield stables - while Edmund's letter to Mary rested warm in his hand.
Outside, the stables were cool, chilled by a late afternoon storm, and Fanny stood with arms wrapped about her waist, posture stiff and trembling. Still within the stable's confines, he undid each button of his coat before standing near to Fanny to wrap it about her shoulders. He was not so much taller than her the fabric barely scraped across the ground. Fanny made a sound of protest, not looking up at him.
"You didn't bring a coat." His efficient voice was soft with reproach.
"I didn't think to need one," she began, fragile body swamped by the fabric.
"And you would have thought right," he answered, voice still quiet, "if this were to be a short conversation. As it will not be, take it." His hands traced down the lapels, a knuckle grazing the side of her neck. "Please."
"You haven't lost a package." She tried to make it an accusation. It barely came out as a squeak.
"No, I haven't," Henry said, dark eyes daring her to damn him for it. "And I think you know why I've claimed to, or else you would not still be standing here." She bore the cowed shoulders look of a sinner awaiting judgment. Hurt burned, raw and hard, in his throat. "Fanny, for God's sake look up at me."
He held his hands to the side of her face, tilted her unwilling face up. Her skin had gone a blotchy red, eyes clenching closed. Upset. Afraid. He continued, "I'm not angry with you."
But he was angry. She would have to forgive him for this half-truth as well.
"We should not be out here," she protested, stammering, head twisting from side to side in his hands.
"No. But I could not," his voice caught, and he worked his jaw to steady it, "I could not leave without offering you some peace of mind." He studied her features, words flowing impulsively into the next. "I would offer you so much more. My hand and heart, everything I am, it will still be yours if you'll have it."
He saw the refusal before it was spoken, and when she took a step back, he let her. "I I cannot."
"What can't you, Miss Price?" His tone was everything cordial with a low hum of restraint in it.
"Please, it it always distresses me to hear you talk so ."
"Pity for Miss Price," Henry murmured. When the urge to step closer to her rose, he crushed it, posture staying fixedly where it was. "Would you wish I lie to you?"
"No, I no, Mr. Crawford, we should "
" Or ignore you? Neglect you? Is that the means into Miss Price's heart? To make you beg for every glance and smile until you think that is all of the merit of your name?"
Impatience, frustration lit her pallid features. He savored the flush of anger, the heat of just emotion, and refused to repent being the cause of it. A late student to the subject, Henry Crawford had learned to tire of accepting the premise that her definition of love was the most right.
He saw how much more she was capable of and craved it.
"It is wrong of you to speak so," she protested. No gentleman would.
A gentleman would lose. "Yes, it is," he agreed readily, "and it is wrong of me to decry something that I have also been guilty of. But then, I haven't made the one mistake that every other well-meaning soul at Mansfield has." He watched her, that frustration and vulnerability which he had to take advantage of to press his point. "When I understood your worth, I did not fail to love you."
Skin red, eyes glistening, Fanny blinked back tears. She was so angry, hurt, ashamed. "You do not know what you say."
"No," he smiled in bitter agreement, "I do not, for you have said I do not know and if it were in my power, I would only give you what you want." Even if that, he scowled, was not what she needed.
Her voice was broken, all grief and no heat. "Please, then leave me be."
The pain of it washed over him, staggering. The words that came next were deliberate and rich. "If you wish it, I will. If you will say to me why I must."
"But, we've I know I've said "
" Inconstant?" he offered helpfully, sardonically. Her shadowed eyes diverted. "By that you mean that I've charmed women, even attached women, without any designs beyond charming for charming's sake and flattering my own vanity that I'd developed skill enough to do so. And more, you feel protective of two women who have your love though they don't deserve it." If only he could be so fortunate!
"Fanny," he continued sternly, persuasively, a hand gripping of its own volition at her arm beneath his coat. "It it were just that just fidelity I would not have cause for anything but perseverance. But it's not." He huffed out a breath, the air warm against her skin. "And do not say that you must stay for Mansfield, that you'll miss it for I know you already do miss it for the changes it has experienced."
She couldn't hear above her breathing, steps retreating further back. "You cannot love me. You cannot and speak so when you know I dislike it "
"Fanny," he appealed, softening in the intimacy of the moment but giving no ground, "Why won't you say that the reason you won't accept me is not for fear of my inconstancy or vanity, is not for fear that I'll love you more than you think I should, or not even for the regret of leaving the only home you've ever known?"
When the tears rolled down her cheeks, Henry felt disgust all self-directed - wash down his throat, a bitter reminder of what he had just done.
Her mouth opened to speak, but no words came. "Shh " he murmured, a few tears drying against his glove. He couldn't look her in the eyes. "I won't make you say. I should never have insisted." He heard the choked sob escape her, but made no closer gesture, fought every urge in his body to indulge the last intimacy of comforting her. He could hear his heart hammering above the stillness of the stables.
"I won't," he continued shakily, fingers brushing at the button he'd clasped on the coat, undoing it, "regret speaking the truth, Fanny. But I'll regret that my need for you to hear it has hurt you. Believe me when I say that I did so because I felt I could make you happier." More than he ever could, Henry added for his own meager benefit.
Another sob. Fanny averted her face, hand rubbing at her eyes. She seemed rooted to this one, terrible spot.
Henry's hand fell back, slipping down into the pocket hanging at her side. His dark, hard eyes looked to hers, though his voice carried only strained calm. "I have in my hand a letter, one which most likely signals a reconciliation between my sister and your cousin. It," Henry continued, watching every flicker of emotion across Fanny's face, "is in my power to see that this letter never reaches its intended recipient."
He hadn't thought that she could grow any more pale beneath that angry crimson. "You you wouldn't "
"I would, for the one person more dear to me than Mary." His brows lifted, mildly.
He couldn't read any sign of temptation in her, but for the pause that preceded her next words. "No, you you couldn't. It's too cruel."
"I know." Letting out a breath, eyes closing, Henry slipped forward to take a stolen kiss. She was cold to the touch, lips trembling beneath his own, and those tears were his doing, not hers. The coat around Fanny's shoulders slid away, falling into his hands. Pulling back, the look he cast her flat, ironic, and tired - was enough to silence her indignation. "I withdraw my offer because you've rightly understood that Edmund is too good of a man to pursue a claim on a woman already spoken for."
He shrugged into his coat, looking every bit the polished London gentleman. Fanny was tired, haggard, and red. "I won't withdraw my love, but for now you will not have to hear me declare it. I won't forget." His dark eyes flared before hardening, once again. "And I ask that you do not either.
"I'll speak with your uncle," Henry continued, chin level while ignoring the way his stomach had clawed its way into his throat while he walked back toward the house, "to smooth this over for you."
A small hand grasping hold of his had Henry spinning around, his composure faltering for a moment, torn between surprise and hope. Fanny looked to him, desperately. "I'm so sorry "
He fought back the wave of tension, head tilting toward her. He was too tired to combat further the influence that this family, this house, had upon such a heart. " I'm a good man, Fanny, when I take the time to be. I'm not that noble, however," he smirked a bit in warning, glancing to her hand and his. She withdrew like it burned her, and he felt his head clear without the distraction of her touch.
There were so many things he should say to her. Apologies, encouragement, guidance. Staring down at her, at those grieving gray eyes, he couldn't force out any words but three. "Goodbye, Miss Price."
Henry turned away from her, strolling inside, while his hands clenched out of sight at his weakness.
Posted on 2015-01-31
That Henry's meeting with Fanny Price did not go to plan was a generous description. The carriage was cold and his muscles ached, something he attributed to tension rather than the weather. He should have taken his horse straight to London. Sitting passively inside a rolling carriage with naught else to do but meditate on his feelings made for an interminable, inglorious trip.
Yes, he was still angry. It was a dull hurt now, centered on his overwhelming disappointment in failing her, in not supporting her in the moment and, likely, forever after. In the immediate aftermath the anger had been, shall we say, hotter. For the many terrible things one could say about his character, however, Henry Crawford was not a man prone to violence or outbursts. Happily, his anger rarely ended in worse than a terrible, impulsive decision. Unhappily, being angry over Fanny Price made that terrible, impulsive decision a little moreso than usual.
I'm an idiot. And so the carriage rolled on and on and on to London.
It was hard to think back on the conversation, if one could call a meeting that involved a person talking and another trying to not talk a conversation. It had gone so horribly awry from the script he'd written across his mind during the rainy afternoon that at first kept him from Mansfield Park. He had come there to reassure her. Now, she could only be assured that he was a thoughtless, overbearing brute. In the moment he had felt like the Scottish king at the center of the stage, all eyes on him as he tumbled toward his dread fate.
His concern for Fanny Price, ever-present if atrociously communicated, reasserted at the end. She needed his help, and not in a way that he would have hoped. Furthest from, in fact, Henry sighed to the empty carriage. He had promised her that he would settle things with Sir Thomas because it was the right and necessary thing to do. Murkier were the details about how to do so. He had to immediately end his courtship without giving Sir Thomas reason to censure Fanny as the cause of it, all the while protecting her secret admiration and nursing a jealous heart. He'd hated his plan but, short on time and alternatives, dove into it with the customary energy of having made up his mind.
In the cold of the carriage he hated it still. He was only more certain that he had had no better choice. His character must fall if she was to have peace. If that didn't cut the figure of a Shakespearean tragic hero, he didn't know what did.
Henry Crawford receives a withering look in answer to his question. Sir Thomas's stare pins him at the shoulders. "I hope to find you overzealous in describing your failings." But Sir Thomas knows that he is not. He knows with an intuition that has failed him so often in recent years.
After her confrontation with Henry Crawford, Fanny retreated to comforting surroundings. To meet him with equanimity on a normal evening was hard enough; to do so on the subject of a secret that she had confessed to no one was impossible.
He was rude.
He was demanding.
He was candid.
He kissed her.
His behavior was reprehensible. But if she let herself consider what he said rather than how he said it, she could value - how could she not? -his insight into her plight and the apology he left her with. It troubled Fanny enough that it was easier to reflect on his thoughtlessness than on his truth.
She did not have long to indulge her offended sense of decorum before Sir Thomas sent for her. It was as Henry promised and yet so much more than that. Rather than rejoice in her newfound freedom, Fanny mourned in solitude when she could escape, saddened by the pain he must have been subjected to. It was too much; she would not have asked for this. Fanny could see, at last, the hurt beneath Henry's parting concern for her in his calm voice and guarded eyes. She could not have managed his composure - did not manage it, for her part. It was an act of love, terrifying as only Henry Crawford could perform.
Despite everything, Fanny suspected that it was not the last time she would see Henry Crawford, not with the Grants so close. She felt that the character that he had first sullied, then salvaged, and finally deliberately sunk to spare her pain deserved better than this. How much Fanny wished that she could have understood its worth without Henry having to ruin it to prove it to her.
Frustration flares his nostrils. "I will assume your non-answer is, in fact, a conviction of guilt. You told me once that you believed Mr. Crawford insincere. I will also assume that this is the reason for it."
"I must beg to add that since then, he has behaved with the utmost - with decorum and kindness."
"Behavior you think to be short lived."
"I don't know." Finally, a truth that does not pain Fanny to acknowledge.
"Clearly, he does not share your uncertainty. Fanny," Sir Thomas pauses, exhaustion slipping into his voice, "I'll confess to my disappointment in your candor. Unbelievably, it seems the reprehensible Mr. Crawford alone had the fortitude, however late, to do what this family would not."
When in a state as Henry Crawford's, one can best focus on mundane priorities. In this case, his role as courier for his sister's correspondence. Mary greeted him at her home with her usual, extraordinary enthusiasm, and if it was greater because she wondered of Edmund Bertram, he could not tell the difference.
It was late morning and though London was crisp, Mary and her home embodied summer elegance. "Tell me you bring word."
"I do." Henry waved the letter, holding it away from Mary's grasping hand.
"Henry, give it here. You are such a scamp!"
His smile appeared unbidden, helpless in the face of his sister's antics. "I have something to tell you first. Something I'd rather relate now so that you can find consolation after in the delight of reading your letter."
"Not about Edmund?" Mary's dark eyes narrowed from levity to caution.
"No. Not about Edmund."
"Fanny, then. Oh, Henry, what did you do?"
His laugh was short but genuine. Mary's only complaint with Fanny Price had ever been that she would not marry him. Any difficulty, any trouble, must be his doing, not hers.
"You're going to be unhappy with me."
"Henry, if you don't tell me soon, I can promise you that I will be very much so."
"I told Sir Thomas the truth."
He received a blank look in answer, to which Mary added droll levity because it would not do to have no reaction at all. "You are utterly cryptic today. Very well, I am not too proud to beg. Pray, tell me what truth you confessed to."
He affected lightness. "Maria and Julia."
"Maria and Julia. You're joking."
"The punchline does need work, doesn't it?"
She hit him on the arm. "Explain yourself now."
And so he did in succinct detail. Her chaise was more comfortable than it looked and tiredness overwhelmed him. For her part, an incredulous Mary sank into the chaise at Henry's side long before he finished. The brevity worked in his favor, the better to avoid revealing Fanny's secret to his sister. He rarely kept secrets from Mary, but it was not his to tell. Even if it were, he'd hardly want to discuss her friend's love for her paramour.
"Your reputation is safe, Mary. I took pains to ensure he saw this as my folly, not that of our family."
"It was all nothing! All this over nothing. Of course, he would not see it as nothing. He is Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park. But you know better than that. Surely you could have found some other way."
"Could you have? I had long to think on it - after, at least." He hadn't paid attention to precisely when in the story he'd begun to indulge in a glass of wine. Regardless, it hadn't chased away the chill of the carriage. "It was not nothing, Mary. It was the secret kept by Fanny Price, when she could have delivered it to Sir Thomas at any time, instead choosing to protect Julia and Maria and through them me. It was the barrier to the marriage I never knew I wanted."
"But you've divided yourself from her."
"Ah. I was always divided from her."
"I wish I'd never let you near Maria Rushworth."
"You were hardly in a position to stop me. And it's for the best, no? I might have married Fanny Price without such self-awareness and ruined everything."
"You think too little of yourself, brother." Mary shook her head in dismay. "And what of her! Doomed to die a spinster or marry some indifferent man. You could have made her."
It stung more than he liked to admit. Even with his departure, Fanny's marriage to Edmund was not assured. In fact, he was dangerously self-interested in seeing his sister's happiness attained. "I'm damaged, Mary, not defeated. Perhaps it is as they say. 'The truth will set you free'."
"You sly thing. You have a plan."
"A... hope. No plan yet, but to lick my wounds and enjoy your company." He toasts her with his nearly empty glass. "I did get one measure of satisfaction."
"Liberal use of certain names in the sordid tale who will hardly come out looking better than me."
"Still more than they deserve." Mary squeezes his free hand. "I'll help you set this to right. I can have no family at Mansfield without you."
"Family then, is it?"
She scowled, the derision in it clearly self-directed. "We both have our hopes. Now that you've ruined my morning, I want my letter before you ruin my afternoon." Caution returned to Mary's eyes. "You aren't going to ruin my afternoon, are you?"
He hesitated theatrically, before delivering the letter with an eloquent gesture. "You'll have to tell me."To Be Continued . . .