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Crawford, Chapter 3

June 17, 2022 08:51PM
Here we come to chapter 3, which is when things really start to heat up around here. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Chapter 3


The garden really was beautiful, at all the height of late spring, before the heat of summer had driven away its most delicate blooms, but Edmund did not see it. He could not think of anything but the girl beside him. The gravel crunched quietly under their feet as they strode down one path, and then another.

“Mr. Bertram,” Mary cleared her throat. “I have heard from Fanny what her understanding of your brother’s condition is, and from your mother what her understanding is, but I know that neither of them could have such accurate information as yourself. If you do not think it impertinent of me to ask, what, pray, is the state of Mr. Tom Bertram’s health? Do you expect a full recovery?”

Edmund’s feelings warmed, and he relaxed. This was sensible talk, feeling talk. This showed Miss Crawford feeling exactly what she should. “You could never be impertinent by such an inquiry. You must know that my family regards you and your family as quite belonging to us; if anyone has a right to know our affairs, it is you. Tom’s condition is very serious, I am afraid. I do still hope for a full recovery, and he has survived the worst of the fever, but it will be some time before we can feel assured that he is truly out of danger. There are days that he seems almost himself again—weak and irritable, to be sure, but in his right mind and gaining strength—and then there are days where I fear he is slipping away before my eyes. The greatest danger is to his lungs, and that, you know, can lead to very lingering illness.”

Mary frowned over this collection of statements. “Is your fear that he will recover, but not completely, or that he will not recover at all?”

“Both. If there is a change for the worse, the doctor feels it will be in the next few weeks, perhaps the next few days, even. If he survives those—survives the next month, say, then he is likely to recover, but may not ever enjoy the same good health he used to. He may live on for months or years, perhaps even decades, while never being very strong, and then, at the slightest cold or pneumonia, be gone very quickly.” Edmond shook his head, his face full of grief. “He is only twenty-six, Miss Crawford! Twenty-six! How can I think of his life being struck down so early? I do not say his behaviour in Newmarket was not very bad, but surely this is too harsh a penalty!”

Mary bit her lip. “I am sure it is a great comfort to your father,” she ventured, “to know that he still has you, should the worst happen.”

He frowned. “I would never say that my father could take comfort in such thoughts. He does not have so many sons he could spare one of them, and even if he did, Tom is himself. No one could replace him.”

“Of course not. I did not mean to say you could. But still, you cannot deny that you have been your family’s greatest support in this time. You have always been their greatest support,” she added in a quiet voice, “for as long as I have known you.”

Edmond just shook his head. “I hope you did not have any important engagements in town you are missing?” he asked with a little constraint. “I know your friends must be wishing for you.”

“Nothing I can say I am very sorry to miss. One gets into such a round of parties, they all feel alike soon.”

“It seemed to me, when I was there, that you did not find it disagreeable.”

“Oh, no, for who can find dancing, and music, and good food disagreeable? It does not follow that no change or variety is desired, though.”

“It was good of you to bring Fanny to us,” he said after a moment. “It feels a different house already, thanks to her, and to you. I do not know when my father would have been able to fetch her, and seeing her now, it is clear she should not have been allowed to stay there as long as she did. I know that she feels it most gratefully, as I do too.”

Mary was happy to demure. “Nothing is more tiresome than to be continually thanked for something you wished to do in the beginning. If Fanny had been a little less stubborn in her obedience, we might have picked her up months ago, and then perhaps Henry and she would be engaged by now, which would mean he was happy, which would mean I was happy—”

“Which would mean I was happy.”

She faltered a little under the meaningful look he gave her. “And then who knows how everything might have worked out differently. Perhaps even poor Mr. Bertram would have had cause to be elsewhere.”

“Yes, poor Mr. Bertram,” Edmund murmured.

She shook her head playfully. “I meant the other Mr. Bertram, as you know very well. Though perhaps I might mistake you for your brother after all, if you are teasing me. This is a surprising development indeed!”

“I can tease when I want to. Just ask Fanny; she can tell you.” Smilingly they walked a little further.

“How strange to be at Mansfield again!” exclaimed Mary suddenly. “It is a little like being transported to another world, I think. Here is all peace and sobriety, family and quiet, where a newly bloomed rose bush is the most interesting thing to be seen!”

“It is too quiet for you, I suppose.”

“No—I have not always found it so,” she said after a moment. “With good society, and a large enough family circle, I have not found it too quiet. In fact, I do not think I have ever been so happy as I was, last year, here.”

Edmund stopped and faced her. His heart pounded. “Mary, I— ”

They were interrupted by a servant, who had come searching for Master Edmund. Mr. Bertram was awake; he was trying to get up, and would not listen to his valet. Master Edmund was the only one who could calm him, the only one he would listen to. Edmund made his excuses and hurried away.

~%~


Henry followed Sir Thomas into his room. It was the same room where he had declared his love for Fanny, and later urged her to accept his suit. It was also the same room that had been converted into a prop room for the play. Henry’s heart beat rapidly, and his hands were starting to sweat. With all the dread of a guilty conscience he faced the father of Maria and the uncle of Fanny.

“Please, sit down,” nodded Sir Thomas, and Henry took the chair he indicated. Steady, he told himself. This could be about anything. Sir Thomas sat opposite him, behind his desk. He folded his hands, and hesitated.

“Is there something I can help you with?” asked Henry. “Perhaps you wish to hear my opinion on Miss Price’s family, and the conditions they live in. I can give you but an imperfect report, as I did not spend a great deal of time in the house, but—”

“No, Mr. Crawford, it is not that. Though I am grateful to you for bringing her to us, my concern does not lie with my niece today.”

“Oh, well, perhaps you have a question about my sister, what her fortune is, and the conditions of the trust. My uncle is her trustee, of course, but I am familiar with the details—”

Sir Thomas raised his hand. “Mr. Crawford, please. You must give me time to express myself. This is not easy for me, as you are such a close associate with all my family, and I had previously considered you a young man of unexceptional character.”

Henry swallowed, and his heart rate increased a little more. “Only previously, sir?”

“There is a matter of great seriousness which has recently been brought to my attention, and disagreeable as such a duty is to me, I must speak to you about it.”

“I see.”

Another pause. “I am not a man of subtleties, Mr. Crawford. Perhaps it would be best if I simply showed you the letter that I received, just two days ago, from a very close and particular friend of mine in London.”

The letter was passed over and Henry read it. In the silence that followed he tried to gather his wits. Everything now depended on composure. “I don’t know what to say, sir. I am embarrassed.”

“Embarrassed?” Sir Thomas, who had been watching him closely, looked offended.

“That I have been the cause of such… unpleasant speculation concerning Mrs. Rushworth. Such was not my intention, I promise. I had no idea of it.” He forced himself to meet the man’s eyes.

“Do you mean to say that there is no basis for the speculation?”

“I have been often in her home, it is true.” He placed the letter back on the desk, and hoped Sir Thomas didn’t notice how his hand shook. “Mr. Rushworth, Mrs. Rushworth and I all became friends last year, as I am sure you know. I was glad to see them again when I was in town, and as I hope to shortly become Mrs. Rushworth’s cousin, I saw no harm in forwarding the acquaintance still more. It did not occur to me that some malicious tongues would wish to make more of it than it was.”

Sir Thomas’s eyes measured him. For all that he was a talented actor, Henry felt he had never put on a more important performance. “And at Twickenham?”

He shrugged expressively. “I have visited the same friends in Richmond every Easter for years. They are the ones with the close friendship with the Aylmers. As their guest, I merely fell in with their plans.”

“You returned on the same day.”

“The parties broke up on the same day. It was quite natural to travel at the same time.”

He was doubting. Henry could see he was doubting, hope warring with suspicion. He wanted to believe him. “I missed Fanny—Miss Price—very much when I was in town. I could not see her, so I suppose I sought the company of one who was connected to her, and to Mansfield. Forgive me, it was foolish of me. I should have been more cautious. I should have realised that those who did not know of the real source of our connection—of my attachment to Fanny—would invent a different one instead.”

Sir Thomas leaned forward. “You assert that you have not been flirting with my daughter? That the… intimacy Mr. Harding writes of had no element of flirtation, or attraction to it?”

He swallowed, and allowed himself to look a little chagrined. “I am a man of the world, Sir Thomas, I do not pretend otherwise. It is common, in society, to banter, to pay little compliments to women, by way of being gallant. No one takes it seriously. I cannot swear that I have never said anything to Mrs. Rushworth that might have seemed flirtatious to others, but it was not intended as such. She certainly understood me. She knew of my love for Fanny. My intentions could not be misunderstood by her.”

For several moments, Sir Thomas considered this. He still looked stern, but Henry thought his countenance had lightened a little. “If what you say is true,” he said at last, “why should Mr. Rushworth have become jealous?”

“Forgive me, but I think that has more to do with their marriage than it does with me.”

He pressed his lips together, but did not contradict him. “You have put me in a most difficult position, Mr. Crawford. Even assuming everything you say is true—which I have not yet accepted—the fact is that such rumours and speculation do exist, and they pose a material harm to the respectability of my daughter. The ties that connect our two families together are not such that can be easily severed. It is not only that you are my niece’s suitor, but that my son is your sister’s. Your brother-in-law is my rector, and lives within walking distance of my house.”

“If it helps,” said Henry quickly, “I do not intend to return to London anytime soon. I had hoped to remain here, actually, and resume my courtship of Miss Price, now that she has returned. As long as Mrs. Rushworth remains in London, and I do not, there can be no further talk. And do you not think that if it becomes known that I am living here now, that I am accepted as a guest in your house, everyone in London must realise how impossible it is that I could have any sort of improper relationship with your daughter? You are known as a model of propriety, Sir Thomas. No one who has ever heard of your reputation could think that you would accept your own daughter’s seducer into your house.” He continued before Sir Thomas could reply. “You know how attached I am to Miss Price. I am as much in love with her as I was when I first spoke to you about her. Surely you cannot think that I would ever do anything to harm my chances with her.” He forced a half-smile. “If I were to do as this letter suggests—if I were to love a girl like Fanny Price, and offer her marriage, and then go and indulge in an adulterous liaison with her own cousin—well, I would have to be a monster of depravity to do that, wouldn’t I?”

He was hoping for total capitulation, but did not quite get it. “I will think on what you have said, Mr. Crawford,” said Sir Thomas heavily. “I wish to believe you, but I cannot easily dismiss the judgement of my oldest friend. In the meantime, I will not forbid you from calling, though I cannot encourage you to treat the house as your own either. I hope that further investigation may find that you are, indeed, innocent of anything but folly and recklessness. I hope this even more for my daughter’s sake than my niece’s.”

“Of course.”

“Your sister remains as welcome as she has always been. She has proven herself a true friend.”

Henry stood. “And Miss Price?”

“You may speak to her, as always, but I ask that you not be alone with her at this time.”

Having no intention to follow this rule, Henry agreed, thanked Sir Thomas, apologised again, and escaped the room. His heart was still pounding out of his chest, and his hands were wet. He pulled his handkerchief out and dried them, breathing deeply, trying to calm himself.

A sweet-sounding laugh came from a room ahead of him. Henry turned toward it like a dog on the scent. He knew who made that laugh. He found the room and looked into it. Fanny sat in a chair next to her Aunt Bertram, her head bent over her work, that curl falling over her forehead. He wanted very much to go in and sit down, and watch her, and say something that would make her laugh again. But he was not composed enough. The battle with Sir Thomas had taken all the composure he had, and until he could calm himself, until he had talked himself back into the right frame of mind, it was too dangerous to go near her. He turned and walked out of the house.

~%~


Mary found him gone, when she came looking. One of the footmen had seen him leave. It surprised her that he would go off without her, but with Edmund attending to Tom and Fanny attending to her aunt, she had no wish to stay just now. Fond as she was of Fanny, she did not find her company enough enticement to bear the company of her aunts as well. She made her own way back to the parsonage.

A quick look through the few opened rooms of the parsonage did not show Henry. She checked his bedchamber, and he wasn’t there. Finally she tracked him down in the shrubbery, sitting on the same bench where she and Fanny used to sit, his head heavy in his hands.

“Henry?” She sat next to him in concern. “Henry, what is the matter?” He gave a strangled sigh and shook his head. “Now this is outside of enough! This is at least the third time in two days that I have found you looking as ill and melancholy as you please, without a good reason. I refuse to believe that Tom Bertram’s sickness is catching. There is something else going on here, that you haven’t told me. Something other than Maria Rushworth.”

At first she didn’t think he would answer her, but at last he gave a deep groan, and lifted his head. “In Richmond, Twickenham… it went beyond a flirtation, Mary.”

She stared at him as understanding dawned. “Oh,” she cried in vexation, “how stupid you are!”

“Yes.” He dropped his head back into his hands again.

“I cannot believe it! To let yourself be led into an affaire with one such as that, whom you have never cared for, and Fanny’s own cousin! How could you be so stupid?”

“She was threatening exposure, Mary. Not quite directly, perhaps, but it was clear… I tried to end it, but she would not let me.”

“Would not let you?” she echoed incredulously. “How could she stop you?”

“I told you, she was angry, and she would not be discreet, and I had to keep her quiet, I had to keep Fanny from finding out.”

“So you just made it all worse?” She shook her head. “I do not understand you, Henry. If you were that desperate to find release for your … luxure, why could you not have found someone who was not the cousin of the woman you love? Someone who knows how the game’s played, and would not make a fuss when you left? Goodness knows there are any number of women in town who would be willing.”

“It wasn’t like that!” He clutched his hair. “I told you, I didn’t plan on it going so far—it was Maria who made me do it!”

“Well, you’re in a scrape now. What are you going to do?” She stood up and began to pace. “Will she release you now, do you think?”

“I don’t know. I hope.” He sighed. “I left her a note telling her I was going out of town for a few days. I hope by the time she realises I’m not coming back she will have recollected the wisdom of discretion.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that either wisdom or discretion has had any part in this affair!” She continued pacing. “If you marry Fanny you will have to see her eventually, Henry. There is really no avoiding it. Do you really think she will be willing to say nothing? Unless you were planning on resuming whenever…”

“Good lord, no!” He looked up indignantly. “I would never treat Fanny so infamous…”

Neither one said anything for some time.

“You ought to go to Everingham,” said Mary suddenly.

“Everingham?”

“Yes, you ought to go to Everingham and stay there until all the talk has died down and Maria has had time to find another lover. It will not take long for that one, but you must give her a chance to get over you.”

“I intend to. That’s why I’m not going back to London.”

“But you can’t stay here. Maria is too jealous, Henry. You must have seen how she looks every time Fanny’s name is mentioned. If she finds out that you left her to come here, she is likely to lash out in any way she can.”

He shook his head stubbornly. “I can’t leave Fanny, not again.”

“You will have to, if you want to keep her. It’s the only way.” She came to sit back next to him. “You know I believe in your powers, that if any man is capable of winning a heart of stone it is you, but if Fanny Price learns that you made Maria Rushworth your mistress, she will never, ever marry you. I cannot think it possible.”

He groaned.

“Come now; what is a few more months? Go to Everingham; tell her it is for some good purpose she will approve of. Write her charming love letters which I will sneak to her under cover of my own. Then, when all is safe, you may return, like a hero of old, and sweep her away. I am sure her heart must be softened by your absence. She will only be missing you more and more, and be grateful that you did not forget her.”

He thought about this for some moments. “There is something in what you say. However, Maria herself is not the only one I have to fear right now.” He told her of Sir Thomas’s letter.

“Oh, bother! What an old busy-body, writing letters about things that do not at all concern him! Well, I cannot help you with that. Your only hope is to make yourself more convincing than all of them. You have the advantage of proximity. It is harder to disbelieve someone in person than from a distance.”

“Which is why I should stay here.” He took his own turn pacing now. “Perhaps this is for the best. Sir Thomas will never let Maria come here, not while I am here too, and if she does come for some reason, I can take myself off with perfect propriety. He will honour me for it. And if some other murmur or rumour should reach his ears, I have already given him an explanation for it. He is disappointed in me, but he will forgive—he must forgive, if he wishes Fanny to marry me, which he does. To eject me is to give up the prospect of a good marriage for his niece, a good marriage for his son—” he gave Mary a look— “and would make things very awkward with the Grants besides. No, it is decided. If it comes down to it, I will follow your plan, but for now I will stay here, where I can answer questions and defend against accusations in person. And court Fanny. Once we are safely married, then I will take her away to Everingham and we need never see Maria Rushworth again, if I can help it.”

Mary shook her head. “I hope you may not live to regret it, brother. You are putting a good deal of dependence on Maria Rushworth’s good sense, which I cannot agree with, not when it comes to you, and on your Fanny’s willingness to yield quickly. I hate to say it, but she really is proving remarkably resistant to your charms.”

He waved that away. “I have barely seen her these four months. If I can but have an uninterrupted stretch of time in which to work on her, all that will change. She is too soft, too yielding and sweet, to hold out against my love for long.”

“Indeed I hope so.”

He threw himself down next to her. “But enough about my troubles. How is the invalid?”

“Likely to remain an invalid, even if he survives.”

“Ah.” He cocked an eyebrow. “So is it to be the decision in Edmund’s favour, with the hope that a good cold will carry Tom off some year or another?”

A smile tugged at her lips. “Sir Edmund does have such a very pleasing sound to it, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, certainly. And I swear you’d do the title Lady Bertram more justice than the current holder of it does.” He shook his head. “Stupid woman.” They stood up and strolled back to the house. Just as they were to go inside, though, he put his hand on Mary’s arm. “If you want Bertram,” he said seriously, “then I would suggest you secure him now, as soon as possible. If the worst happens—if I am completely exposed—then he will feel duty-bound to give you up unless there’s a firm commitment. I don’t want my folly to ruin your happiness too.”

She nodded and embraced him impulsively. “Idiot.”

“That’s me.” They went inside at charity with each other again.
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Crawford, Chapter 3

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