The last person in the world that Sir Thomas Bertram would ever want to see again was Henry Crawford and especially in the neighborhood of Mansfield Park. As a man of sense, Crawford had to sympathize with the stern family patriarch in this wish. He knew how grievously he affronted the entire family and would have gladly spared any of them the ordeal of a chance encounter that would no doubt lead to their having to cut him. With his sister and her husband having quit the parsonage for London, any excuse he had to be in village—or anywhere in all the surrounding country—was gone.
But, here he was, skulking about with his head down and hoping no one would recognize him if he moved quickly. He had been in the village several days, each minute afraid that some idle word would reach the Bertrams, particularly, Sir Thomas. With a substantial bribe to a former servant of the Grants who now fortunately worked for the Bertrams, and a solemn promise that he intended no harm, he learned when he might find Fanny Price alone. His informant, whose avarice was balanced by concern for the danger in which he might be placing the young woman, insisted that he would follow and look on from a distance.
“I won’t be letting you impose on Miss Price—never a kinder lady ever lived,” the servant said sanctimoniously, even as he pocketed the guineas. “If all you want to do is talk to her, I’ll be quiet. But I will be there if you raise a hand to her, sir.”
Mr. Crawford was not at all offended by the man’s presumption. Nor was he surprised that Fanny would incite feelings of loyalty and protection, even in one such as this so eager to earn the blunt waved in front of him. “I honor your discretion. Your wish to guard her honor and protect her safety speaks well for you, my good man. I have no objection to your being there—out of sight, mind.” The servant nodded agreement and the two men set off in tandem to follow Fanny, a basket under her arm, as she walked alone to the small house where her Aunt Norris once lived. It was empty now, the harridan having left the country with her scandal-stained niece.
Maria. The name rose unbidden in Henry Crawford’s head and sent those twinges of guilt that he still felt every time he thought of her. He was usually successful in not thinking of her, and now he forced the feeling down, refusing to allow anything to drain his attention from the words he would say to Fanny. This would be the single most important moment in his life. He felt that he would be able to fix everything and he must let nothing make him falter now.
He found her searching through a chest in what had been the house’s spare bedroom. He could not imagine what she was looking for and it did not matter. It was probably some errand for one the Bertrams. One or the other of them was always sending her on errands. The impropriety of his being alone with her both alarmed and thrilled him. He knew she would probably be upset, in her mild Fanny way, when she first saw him. They were in a potentially compromising position. If exposed, he might be forced to marry her. Since that was exactly what he wanted, it would be no hardship for him. But, he did wish to put her in such a position. He wanted her to want him and felt completely confident in his ability to make that so. All he needed was to talk to her and explain.
Looking backwards over his shoulder toward a window, he caught a glimpse of the servant moving by it, no doubt shifting his position to another window that would allow him to peek into the bedroom. Henry’s slight movement alerted her, and when he turned back, she was looking at him standing in the bedroom’s doorway. Her face paled in consternation, and he hastened to say awkwardly, “I am sorry—I would not for the world, that is—oh, Fanny, it is so good to see you.” He could easily be glib with most women but Fanny had a way of undoing him.
Despite her obvious agitation, she admonished, “Mr. Crawford, I must ask you not to presume to use my Christian name.” It was said as sternly as possible from a woman who could not help the softness and the gentleness that could make a curse sound like a blessing. But Henry thought there might also be something different from the last time he had seen her. A certain new strength and spiritedness? He knew she was capable of great warmth because he had seen her that way with her dearly loved brother William. Henry also thought her capable of being fierce if pushed, passionate if touched. She was looking at him in more direct way than he was accustomed to see from her.
“Of course, I am sorry,” he mumbled.
“We had not expected to see you—particularly not in a house my Uncle Bertram owns. You should not be here. Pardon me, but I think he would be displeased.” It was a long speech for her, and she looked downward at the end. When she looked up again, she seemed surprised that he was still there. “You must leave. Please.”
“Fanny, that is, Miss Price—please, my dear Miss Price, give me a moment. That is all I plead, for the sake of your happiness. Our happiness together! You must listen to me.”
Had he been attending closely enough, he might have seen that she seemed disturbed and offended at his familiarity. Instead, he took her silence for encouragement and rushed on. “I heard that you were going to marry your cousin Edmund. I would not have believed it had I not read the notice in the newspaper with my own eyes. Still, I hoped it was some horrible mistake, a misprint of some kind? Why, Fanny?”
She was silent still. “I know I have been very wrong in my dealings with Maria Rushworth, but you must let me explain. I know how it must look, but things are not always as they seem. We had been together it is true. I told her we must stop before we hurt anyone.” Here Fanny interrupted him. “Really, Mr. Crawford, there is no need and I would rather not…”
But her soft voice was no match for his eagerness. “Please hear me out! I must explain it to you, how she wept, she wept so long and hard. She said life with Rushworth was not worth living, and I told her she must not say that. As I was going to leave, she threw herself into my arms. She was holding on, almost strangling me. I could not push her away without doing violence to her, and that I did not wish to do. At that very moment, someone threw open the bedroom door. I learned later that it was the ladymaid of the older Mrs. Rushworth.
“I was outraged at the brazen nature in which this servant dared interrupt us, but she made no apology. She said she had come in because she heard the screams of Mrs. Rushworth but now—and here her face became indecently insinuating—she better understood the nature of the screams. I rebuked her impudence and denied that we had done anything improper in Mr. Rushworth’s home. I said I was only trying to comfort Mrs. Rushworth’s distress and I would have left then. But Maria begged me to take her with me. I tried to make her be silent in front of that loose-tongued biddy.”
Henry halted, finally given pause by Fanny’s cool stare. Those soft, pale eyes were almost translucent as ice. Wishing desperately for a sliver of sympathy, he swallowed and tried to speak more calmly. “You must understand, you must see that Maria made it impossible. The ladymaid brought back her employer. Mrs. Rushworth was very angry, and her tongue spared nothing in abusing her daughter-in-law. I believe I was a little afraid to leave her there; I was not sure of what the old woman might do. Probably nothing, but I decided to not risk Maria’s safety. I would take her with me and return her when her husband was again in residence, and the situation could be discussed more calmly. No one wanted to expose themselves to scandal—at least, that is what I thought. Never have I judged so wrongly! It was a mistake but not one I made viciously or maliciously—you must believe that.”
“I do believe it.”
A groan of relief burst from Henry’s throat. “Thank you, thank you. I knew that you, with your superior goodness and intelligence would understand. You would see through this tangle and be the one person who would know I intended no harm. I was only trying to save Maria, and I expected her husband would even thank me for separating the two women in their moment of greatest tension with each other, so that it could all be sorted out calmly later.”
Henry’s joy at thinking himself understood was marred by a dawning awareness of Fanny’s still cool expression. “Can you not smile and tell me that you forgive me, although it really was not my fault? I would so love your forgiveness!”
“It is not my place to forgive you, Mr. Crawford. You have not injured me. I do not understand why you are here, but whatever your reason, I must ask you again to leave, please.” She paused and added firmly, “We can have nothing to say to each other.”
“You cannot mean that. Just as I once went to Portsmouth because I could not bear to be separated from you, I had to find a way to come to you now.” His heart sank to see that she continued to look at him without the comprehension he desired. It occurred to him that even such a kind creature as she must have her moments of cruelty, and this was one of them. She must be toying with him in withholding the words he obviously wished to hear. But rallying his spirits, he told himself this was something he must keep for any future digressions. She would punish him by pretending not to know what he meant. But he forgave her now as he knew he always would. He could imagine the uncomfortable moments she lived through reading of his scandalous affair, culminating in absconding with a married woman. Henry thought perhaps no sin could be worse to one of Fanny’s deeply religious principles, but she had to take into account the circumstances. They needed to get past this.
“Mr. Crawford,” she said slowly, with conscious formality, “I am betrothed to Edmund—Mr. Edmund Bertram, as you say you have read. You must understand how improper it is for you to come to me in this way. As distressing as it is for me to see you, it would be worse for the rest of the family.”
“I know, Fanny—” She frowned but he ignored her displeasure at using her name. “That is why you must leave with me as quickly as possible. We can sort out the particulars of my past behaviour later, and you can be as cross as you wish with me. I promise I will bear it quite cheerfully. But we must spare no time in leaving now. I will buy you everything you need, so if you wish to gather a few sentimental things, please hurry. Don’t worry about any of your clothes—I will buy you much finer things.”
Henry dared not take a step toward her although he greatly wished to kiss her. That would finally take the chill from her face, and she would have to stop pretending she did not want this. But he could see the servant’s profile at the window and knew that should he touch Fanny, the man would likely take it the wrong way and burst in. Therefore, Henry would wait for Fanny to make the first move so that the servant would know she agreed to his attentions.
Fanny was shaking her head. “Sir, you are acting rather strangely. I will not go anywhere with you. I believe that you have always had kind intentions toward me, and I do not believe even now that you would try to force me. But, please…”
“Kind intentions—of course, I have kind intentions!” When she winced and trembled, he tried to quiet his tone, but her stubbornness was frustrating. “Fanny, what nonsense are you talking? I love you! You know that. And, you love me. I know you do. Give up this ridiculous notion of marrying Edmund, for God’s sake. How could he or any Bertram ever care for you as I do? I want to take you away from their cruelty and indifference. I can give you the life you deserve, and I promise I will love you forever.”
She backed away, putting more distance between them. She was unaware that in the window behind her, the servant reared his head fully, looking on and seeming ready to intervene. Henry gave the man an angry shake of his head which Fanny could only think was aimed at her.
She responded crisply as if to let him know she would not be intimidated by his gesture. “Love you? I do not. I do not even like you, sir. I thought I might once but not now."
“You do not mean that! You are angry about Maria, but please—you must forgive me that. Please, remember how I came to you in Portsmouth, and we walked those weathered docks? It was often filled with foul breezes drifting in from the various cargoes, but for me it was always paradise as long as I walked with you. Wherever I am with you would always be paradise. Do you remember how I poured out my heart, my dreams, my future before your feet? You looked upon me and listened to me with such attention and care. You cannot tell me it meant nothing or that you do not love me.” But she only shook her head and backed even farther away.
He tried to understand her behaviour by telling himself that she was too accustomed to being enslaved— what other term could better describe her position as a poor relation in among her uncle’s family forever beholden to their whims. But now she could be free. He thought to gently remind her of her position. “I know you love the Bertrams and you honor Sir Thomas. He is many respects a very good man and I will even say this; someday with my own family, I will find much in his example to follow. But I see the jewel that is Fanny Price while the Bertrams—none of them—can ever appreciate your worth. It is to your credit that you can love them sincerely, never bristling at their disrespect, always patient with their demands and slights. You are so used to their ill treatment, and perhaps you fear they might again send you back to Portsmouth and that hole where you were born. Oh, dear Fanny, how well I understand you! But you need not be afraid of anything they can do to you. Please, let me take care of you. You do not need to submit to this travesty of a marriage to Edmund. My sister told me how he left things with her. He is so afraid of his father that he will never disobey any edict of his but you must know Edmund will also never stop loving Mary. How can you think of marrying him, when his heart will never be yours—not as mine is?”
Fanny shook her head and mildly objected, "Edmund does not love Mary."
“You do not expect he would stop because of my admittedly foolish affair with his sister? That has nothing to do with him and Mary! Of course, he still loves her. I do not believe he would have given up Mary without Sir Thomas forcing him to.” Fanny frowned and shook her head but did not object again.
Henry pressed, “And Edmund must also know that I would not have given you up for the world. We talked frankly more than once about my feelings for you. Edmund must know as well as anyone how Maria can be when she wants something. I am sorry for it and I wish—I tried to show sense for both of us and I wish I had succeeded. But she was having none of it. She dragged us into this horrid mess, but we—you and I, Fanny—can redeem it for us if you will let me take you now to Everingham, where I promise to worship for the rest of your life.”
He added, “We will write to the Bertrams from my estate once we are married. Although you are not yet twenty-one, I think your father will not hesitate to give permission for you to marry the good friend of his eldest son. Think of how happy William will be!”
Usually Fanny’s manner was so gentle, touched with diffidence and softness that even her negatives seemed to offer the sweetest acquiescence. But the hint of new high-spiritedness and resolve that Henry had picked up early in this conversation now became even more marked in her delicate features. “Mr. Crawford, do you not understand that I know how you are? I watched you while you played most cruelly with two sisters and set them against each other. Can you deny that you did it?”
“I—no, I will not deny it. But they made their choices, too. They did not attract me, Fanny. You do and I will always want you, only you. While my behaviour at Mansfield was bad, I know, I only meant to have a little fun. I intended no harm. You saw how I was in Portsmouth. That was me, not the thoughtless cad I was at with the Bertram sisters. Was I not serious, honorable and respectful in Portsmouth?”
“You were,” she conceded.
He seized the victory to build on it. “That is what is important and what you should judge from. I think you have been so used to complying with the Bertrams, that you distrust me when I tell you, you are free. I am freeing you to be loved, to be your own woman.” Impulsively, Henry fell to his knees. “You do love me, and you will recognize that as soon as you will stop believing you must obey the Bertrams, Sir Thomas in particular. They can have no hold on you if you just let them go. What will you lose—boring evenings with Lady Bertram dozing and Sir Thomas droning on in that maddening slow way of his? And Edmund, what can he offer you except comforting familiarity? I hardly know why my sister was so taken with his dry speeches and rigid ways. Much as I honor him as a friend, I know he cannot love you as I do—or offer you as much. We will travel if you wish. Anything you want. Let me show you how to enjoy life. Let me show you things Edmund never could.”
Too late, Henry reckoned that his remarks about Edmund might have gone too far. He was her dearest and oldest friend, after all, and from the expression upon her face, he thought she had not taken kindly to the criticism of the second Bertram son. She flushed prettily but her voice was cold. “You should realize, Mr. Crawford, that Edmund no longer considers you a friend. I will speak only once to you of such a personal matter, but let me tell you this. I do love Edmund and it not out of any comforting familiarity, as you say. I have known his brother Tom for as many years and do not love him as anything more than a cousin. I love Edmund because I can trust him to be good and fair to all, man and woman—that is what I believe you call his rigid ways. I love him as a man I can honor and admire. I would love him even if I had not known him for years. And, even if there were no Edmund, I could never love a man who would ruin any woman’s life and call it her choice or who could play lightly with the futures of those many who depend upon him. You are a charming man with an engaging temperament, and I have often enjoyed our conversations. But we are not suited, and I do not believe you know me although you think you love me. I beg your pardon, sir, but I must now end what has to be a mortifying conversation for us both. Please excuse me, sir.”
With that, she walked past his still kneeling figure and left the cottage. Henry’s face was frozen in a look of dismay and surprise. He stayed in that position for a long time, and when he rose, he hardly noticed how painfully stiff his knees were. Fanny and the spying servant who took it upon himself to guard her were long gone, both having made their way back to the Park, the servant careful that she did not notice him behind her.
While Fanny may have been correct that he did not know her well enough and that she would not have loved him even in an Edmund-free world, Henry Crawford did passionately and rationally love Fanny Price. While he might not have been able to convince her, he knew with the certainty of life and death that had she agreed to marry him, he intended to do everything he could to make her happy. When he accepted that would never happen, he went off to London and various watering holes to seek distraction. Fanny's words and look of gentle disapproval seemed to follow him. He was still sought in society, a man to whom the world offered much and upon whom fortune smiled. But nothing pleased him, even as he sought pleasure in greater and greater excesses. Sometimes he wondered what he was becoming but thought there was no point in examining such dreary thoughts too closely.
One evening he could evade it no more. He found himself with a party of young bucks, all junior to him, who meant to include a girl of perhaps fifteen as part of the night's merriment. She thought herself in love with one of the men and, at his request, was going to debase herself for the amusement of him and his friends. Henry was shocked. This was so beyond the pale of what he would consider good sport that he had to wonder what had happened to him. How had he come to associate with these people? He threw his coat around the foolish young girl, fully developed in body but in mind not more than a child, and took her out of there. The others were all deep into their cups and did not protest much. Some thought it was a good joke that he was playing the hero and perhaps meant to take her off someplace to enjoy her alone. Henry learned from the girl who her family was and returned her to them. They were grateful. He was glad he had been in time to save her from worse things that could have happened.
The girl made him think of Maria and for the first time in years, he did not immediately push the thought away. Maria was no fifteen-year old but she had also been so eager to win a man’s love that she risked herself. He reminded himself that Maria had been old enough to know better, and indeed, she had ruined his life rather than the other way around. But he could not silence a sudden desire to see her, and fortunately—or, unfortunately, depending upon one’s point of view—his sister Mary had an address for her. He thought uncomfortably that perhaps Maria had been waiting all these years for him to ask Mary for it.
He could have written first, or had Mary write. Maria might not live there any longer. But he travelled without announcement, ready to take his luck on what he might find. Some part of him hoped she would be very fat, with a dozen children, married to a farmer who would not know that she was once a baronet’s daughter. He wished to see all signs of the former Maria Bertram crossed out and a woman he did not know in her place.
But when he arrived at the small picturesque cottage that set near the seaside, he was barely off his horse before a woman unmistakably Maria came out onto the porch. She looked at him as if he was a ghost. Then, even worse, she broke into a run and cast herself into his arms. She smelled musty as if she had just come from cleaning an attic. He wanted to push her away immediately but did not have the heart to do it. For many minutes more than he wished, he let her rest her head upon his chest, her arms encircling his neck. She seemed be breathing in his scent as if she had been drowning and he was air. Finally, he gently and carefully disentangled himself.
She looked thin, drawn and older than he knew her to be. Her once fresh beauty was wasted, slipped away into the wrinkles and crevices of her face. It would seem from her rather leathery skin that she spent too much time walking along the seashore. She saw him looking and drew back, as if she knew how she must appear.
“You look very well, Henry,” she said. “You have barely aged.”
“My hair seems to be running away from my face,” he replied, pointing to his receding hairline.
“I don’t know why it would want to run from such a face,” she said, reaching out to touch him. She pulled back her hand quickly as if she thought he might object, but he captured it and kissed it. Henry was not vain enough to believe his plain face had become anymore handsome with the years. But he knew his effect upon women. Both Maria and her sister, like dozens of others through the years, had been dazzled by his conversation. Charming women had been his talent.
“You are still beautiful, Maria, as you always were.” She smiled in response but quickly looked away as if to hide the question in her eyes that she would not give voice to: Why did you let me marry Rushworth, only to return once I was married to tempt me into an affair? It was an easy sport to win her smiles again with his flirting, and he enjoyed the victory. Near the end of their affair, when the scandal had been exposed and all London was buzzing like a hive of mad bees about her bold behaviour in leaving her husband for her lover, she asked why he had not married her in the first place. She said, “You must have known I wanted to marry you. I would have ended my engagement to Rushworth. He had more money, but you must have known that did not matter to me." He told her she was “temperamental, selfish, difficult and demanding. I did not want you as a wife.” Bitterly enraged, she retorted, “You are worst than a fool to want Fanny instead of me! That insipid little mouse who never opens her mouth, who creeps around afraid of everything! How can you possibly prefer her to me! You would be bored out of your mind with her.”
He had answered in a deadly calm voice, “I want her because she is quiet. And honest and true. I can trust her.” Despite it all, Maria meant to stay with him forever, whether he married her or not, and he saw that the only way he could finally drive her from him was to taunt her with Fanny’s name. He pushed her into a fit of rage one day that resulted in her ordering him out, telling him not to come back unless he was willing to marry her. He made sure to keep paying for the room where they had stayed and she remained for weeks alone. Finally, she had given up and tried to go home to her parents. She quickly realized that bridge had been burned.
Standing before him now so many years later that the past almost seemed to have happened to other people, Maria said softly, “I am glad you came. It is good to see you one more time.” She had grown quieter and more thoughtful. In this place, she had a great deal of time for reading and contemplating, and it seemed to have done her good. With her only companion Mrs. Norris, Maria was all gratitude for any crumb of time he was now willing to give her. He could barely look at her for all the pity and remorse he felt. And, yet, it felt good, too. Perhaps this was this was the kind of painful feeling that a man who could have attracted the love of Fanny Price would have, a man willing to be responsible for his behavior and to care deeply for others.
How surprised his friends and acquaintances were when he married the woman who had been his partner in scandal all those many years ago. They would have been the talk of London again and perhaps even popular at certain parties, in certain circles, but they avoided London. They created a life at Everingham that neither would ever have thought in earlier years possible or desirable. It was often as quiet and dull as anything Maria had ever experienced under the firm thumb of her father. At first the chattering voice of Mrs. Norris was often the only sound to be heard in the small family circle, until either Henry or Maria would politely request that she be quiet. She would comply but perhaps a half hour later, she would forget and again chatter away. Henry took to reading aloud more often since both he and Maria enjoyed his voice more than her aunt’s. Then Maria started to take turns reading also. But even when they went on to regularly read plays together, the name of one, Lover’s Vows, was never spoken.
Henry did not love Maria but he never told her that again. He was as attentive and conscientious a husband as ever Sir Thomas had been to Lady Bertram. The closeness between Henry and Maria grew over the years and while it was not the passionate love affair it had once briefly been, both found themselves appreciative of the steadiness and constancy of their commitment. Theirs was a childless union, but with Maria’s agreement, Henry had the great pleasure of making the eldest son of Fanny and Edmund heir to Everingham.