Authors: Joan Aiken
“That is always the difficulty,” she said, “with a large party; people in a group tend to be so unmanageable. If only the land around the cross-roads were of a more interesting nature, some of the party might wish to spend a little time hereâ”
It could not be denied, however, that the four fields surrounding the cross-roads were of a most prosaic and uninteresting character, being all ploughed over and grown with crops of young barley and oats respectively. The crops came close up to the hedgerows, the banks of the lanes were too steep to be sat on, and most of the party, by then, felt a decided inclination to quit the spot and go in search of rest and refreshment.
As they reached their conveyances, moreover, Mr. Noakes, the tenant who farmed the land, came riding up on his cob, curious to discover what a lot of grand folks' carriages were doing stopped by Stanby Stone Cross.
When informed by Tom that they were considering an excavation for Roman antiquities among his oats and barley, he became so very surly and contumacious that Tom flew into a passion, and told him that he was lucky not to be given notice on the spot.
Susan could not help sympathising with the farmer, who saw the fruit of his labours in danger from what must seem to him idle curiosity; it was on the tip of her tongue to dispute with Tom, but remembering the severe disappointment he had just undergone, she forebore; meeting Mr. Wadham's eye, instead, she gave him an imploring glance, and he, by a judicious mixture of irrelevant argument, and concurrence with both parties, succeeded in calming them down, pointing out that after the harvest, when there was nothing on the fields but stubble, would be an equally good time to investigate.
The little boys had begun to climb the steep banks and roll down, cuffing and kicking each other in the process, when several heavy drops of rain, succeeded by a loud clap of thunder, alerted the party to the fact that, while their minds were preoccupied with other cares, the fine weather had deserted them: clouds were piling up, the sky had turned very black, and a small sharp wind stirred the dust in the lane.
With cries of dismay the ladies hastily climbed into their respective conveyances, Tom neglecting to say goodbye to his sister and her friend, while Mrs. Maddox took a very friendly farewell of Susan, promising herself the pleasure of calling at Mansfield within a day or two so as to extend their knowledge of one another.
“Since you are to be Louisa's sister, dear Miss Price, in so short a time!”
“They are to be married so soon, then?” asked Susan, who had hardly, as yet, assimilated the astonishing fact of William's successful courtship of the heiress.
“Yes indeed. As soon as Captain Price is assured of his ship. He thinks it is to be the
âbut you will know all about that, I am sure. Louisa wishes to accompany him when he sails; she says that, of all things, the life of a sailor's wife is what she has always aspired to. We are all so rejoiced for her, Miss Price; your brother is the sweetest creature, and we think she cannot be in better hands.”
“I am very happy that you have such a good opinion of him,” Susan said warmly, and parted from the Maddoxes with very friendly feelings. Louisa gave her an impulsive kiss and called out of the carriage window, “You must come to Gresham Hill, Miss Price, and see my kittens!” as it rolled away, William and the Maddox brothers accompanying it on horseback.
By now the rain was commencing to fall in good earnest, and there were no more suggestions of a rendezvous to partake of the collation in Stanby Woodâsupposing the collation to be there. None of the parties wished to do anything but hurry home.
Tom had already departed at a gallop on Pharaoh, and Susan, looking after him in considerable anxiety, settled herself as best she might to listen and reply to the good-natured congratulations of the Stanley sisters all the way home.
Back at mansfield, Susan could not help being struck by the contrast between the placid, harmonious decorum she found there, as Mrs. Osborne untangled Lady Bertram's tatting while she gave a description of the giant turtles in the GalÃ¡pagos Islands, and the passionate and disagreeable emotions recently experienced during the unfortunate picnic.
Rain still continued to fall heavily, and thunder pealed outside, but in the calm, lofty and spacious rooms of Mansfield it was scarcely regarded.
“Ah, there you are, Susan,” murmured her aunt. “We had wondered if the weather would cause you to return; it has become quite inclement, has it not? I did advise against your going, I believe. It is a good thing you came home.”
Susan provided a brief account of the excursion, including the announcement of William's engagement to Miss Harley. She thought it might ease the pain for Tom if the first exclamations were over before he came in. Mrs. Osborne received the news with lively interest, Lady Bertram with more tranquillity.
“Louisa Harley is a good girl, and she will have thirty thousand. William has been fortunate; quite fortunate. I am not sorry that he will be connected with this neighbourhood. At one time I quite thought that Tom might offer for Miss Harley. But it is just as well he does not marry yet awhile.âWill you ring for candles, Susan? It grows too dark to see the colour of my silk. Where is Tom, by the bye?”
“Tom has not yet returned?” inquired Susan, not a little concerned. For he had started at the same time as Mr. Wadham's carriage, and might have been expected to return home considerably sooner.
But apparently he had not been seen; the servant who brought the candles had no news of him.
Shortly afterwards, however, as Mrs. Osborne was taking her leave and about to step into her brother's carriage, sheltered through the rain by Baddeley with an umbrella, a messenger came riding from the village to announce that Master Tom had been thrown from his horse and was just now lying senseless at the White House.
The ladies exclaimed in consternation. What could have caused the accident? What had been done for the victim? Who was caring for Tom?
“Twas that ill-conditioned young colt of his, Miss Susan; he were riding along the village street at a fair old gallop when there come a great clap o' thunder, as caused the nag to shy, and he threw Master Tom on the cobbles. Right outside the White House, he was throwed, and the lady said for to carry him in there, for she was a-looking from the window and saw it all, and Muster Crawford he rid off directly to fetch Dr. Feltham; and the lady sent me up here to tell you.”
Upon hearing these very alarming tidings, Mrs. Osborne kindly abandoned her intention of returning to the Parsonage; instead she and Mr. Wadham remained with Lady Bertram and made some endeavour to soothe her agitated imaginings and restrain her fears until more definite information should be forthcoming.âIn the meantime, all was wretched anxiety.
Susan sat blaming herself bitterly, though she could hardly have said for what: for not making more endeavour to dissuade Tom from riding Pharaoh to the picnic (not that her advice carried any weight with him); for not foreseeing the probable result of William's impulsive announcement and suggesting that he postpone it (but how could she have done so?); for not being able to prevent Julia from meddling and upsetting the arrangements (as if anyone could ever prevent Julia from doing exactly what she chose). Despite her knowledge of William's happiness, Susan could not help feeling extremely miserable, and wished deeply, not for the first time nor the last, that her sister Fanny were not so far away: dear, gentle Fanny who could always relieve agitation, heal hurts, and set everybody to rights.
And poor Mary Crawford, what a thing to happen outside her door, when she herself was in no fit state for such a disturbance! How shockingly must it have affected her! Particularly since it was Tom Bertram, who had refused to meet her and was in some sense her acknowledged enemy, to whom the mishap had occurred, who was now forced into her household.
In deep suspense and anxiety the three ladies sat together while Mr. Wadham talked calmly and sensibly of riding accidents in his experience that had caused very minor, trifling injuries, of medical skill, of Tom's sturdy appearance, and other such comforting topics. But it was a miserable time. Nothing outside could raise their spirits; beyond the windows, the prospect was of wildly tossing trees and shrubs, of blossoms scattered on the grass, broken boughs, and paths awash with rain-water.
At last, by slow degrees, the wind abated, the sky cleared; by sunset the heavy clouds had dispersed, the air became clear and fresh once more. At this propitious time arrived another messenger from the White House: Mr. Crawford himself, come to bring them tidings of Tom.
“I make no apology, ma'am, for thus intruding on you; I know you must be stretched on a rack of anxiety.”
Lady Bertram did not, perhaps, appear quite as anxious as
but still she raised her eyes and kept them fixed on Mr. Crawford's face while he continued,
“Feltham has been with Sir Thomas continuously, and he now pronounces that there is no occasion for acute alarm. He does find a slight concussion, which renders it inadvisable for the patient to be moved at present; and the left arm is broken, but a simple fracture, fortunately, and that has already been set. Feltham is a most capable surgeon; I assisted him, and I assure you, ma'am, that His Majesty's surgeons themselves could have done no better. Your son is in excellent hands.”
“But he is not at home!” lamented Lady Bertram. “He is at the White House, and that is so inconvenient, you know. How shall we be able to ascertain how he goes on?”
“Not to speak of the greatâthe very greatâinconvenience to your sisterâ” here put in Susan. Mr. Crawford turned to her quickly.
“Pray do not regard that! She sent a message, begging you not to distress yourself, Miss Price, as she knew you would. But she asked me to assure you that the household is well able to manage; that there is not the least inconvenience in consideration; to be nursing your cousin, she says, will be, if anything, a useful distraction from her own state of health. And I am certain that she speaks the truth; my sister was ever one to rise to an emergency; she enjoys action and excitement far more than a quiet existence.”
Susan could hardly believe this.
it might, perhaps, have been so; but now she could not feel that Mary Crawford really preferred the agitation of having a hurt young man in her house to the peaceful measure of her daily life. Nonetheless, Susan honoured the kind thought that sent the message, saw there was nothing to be achieved by protestations, and merely inquired, therefore, what needed sending down from the great house besides Tom's night-wear and toilet articles. Could they supply extra bedding, medicines, linen, additional servants?
“But sure, if we sent the large carriageâTom would be best in his own home,” repeated Lady Bertram again and again.
Mr. Crawford employed all his real kindness and intelligence in persuading her that this must not be; at least for twenty-four hours the injured man must remain where he was. Susan could not help admiring Crawford for the mild, friendly firmness with which he was reiterating the same facts over and over, showing not the least loss of patience or temper. He did it with such sympathy and natural ease that she must, in the silence of her heart, applaud him. Even Mr. Wadham could not have displayed more neighbourly perception and sensitivity.âShe began to like him very well.
While Susan went to give instructions to the housekeeper as to needments for Tom, Mr. Crawford remained with the others in the drawing-room, talking, commiserating, advising, and, it was plain, endeavouring to give Lady Bertram's thoughts a more cheerful direction. When she returned, Susan heard him explaining that he had just taken a lease of Stanwix Lodge, a substantial house standing in its own grounds at a short distance outside the village of Mansfield.
“I felt I could not leave this neighbourhood until I had seen my sister's health take a decided turn for the better; but one is so uncomfortable staying for ever at an inn; and the White House is not large enough to accommodate me and my servants.”
“Stanwix Lodge; yes, a very tolerable house.” Lady Bertram's thoughts were satisfactorily diverted. “Admiral Leigh used to live there, and my husband, Sir Thomas the elder you know, used to visit him, and
said it was a very tolerable house, only the chimneys smoked abominably when the wind sets in the east.”
“Well, since it is not the season for fires, that need not concern
” said Mr. Crawford, rising to take his leave.
After ascertaining that Lady Bertram was now in a reasonable state to be left, Mr. Wadham and his sister also announced that they would take their departure.
Susan thanked them warmly, all three, for their kindness and solicitude.
“I so much regret this melancholy ending to your Roman project,” she told Mr. Wadham. “It has been a day of unexampled misfortunesâpositively star-crossed. But I must hope for your sake that the scheme may not be laid aside for too long. We often have fine, dry weather in September, after the harvestâperhaps thenâ”
Miss Price, we must hope that your brother and sister will be safely restored to us,” Mr.Wadharn said, smiling at her very kindly.
“Oh, to be sureâ” Susan was quite surprised at herself that she could, even for a moment, have overlooked this fact. But the day had been over-full of happenings. “Could you not remain here for a few weeks after Edmund and Fanny have returnedâyou need not be going overseas again quite so soon, surelyâ?”
“My brother is fatally addicted to his duty, Miss Price,” wryly remarked Mrs. Osborne. “If he feels that he is able to go, it will be next to impossible to restrain him.”
Mr. Crawford lingered another moment, after the other two had left, in order to say,
“Mary sends you all kinds of messages, Miss Price, to the effect that, though in the present crisis she is aware that you can hardly be spared from Lady Bertram's side, she longs for a sight of you, however brief, should there be any moment when you can dare to slip away. I must warmly second her wish. I knowâI have already discoveredâthe inexpressible pleasure and benefit that your visits afford her.”
“Ohâ” exclaimed Susan, blushing. “It is nothingâthat isâwe have so quickly become such friends.”
Then, because she feared that he was about to ask her another probing question as to his sister's true state of health, and, just at that moment, she felt she had not the fortitude to answer him with the necessary composure, she continued, “I can imagine exactly what she wishes to hear. She is anxious for an account of today's excursion. And you may whet her appetite for horrors by telling her that every conceivable disaster befell usâa lady sank in the quagmire and was chased by wild bulls, my cousin nearly came to fisticuffs with a farmer who did not want his barley dug up, and the luncheon went astray and, so far as I know, has not yet been recovered. My cousin Tom's accident was but the fitting climax to such a day.”
Mr. Crawford burst out laughing, but quickly hushed himself, recalling that he was in a house of mourning and anxiety.
“I will tell Mary,” he said. “It will render her more than ever anxious to see you without delay,” and he saluted Susan and went away.
On the following day Tom was found to be feverish, and although the broken bone was mending and the concussion had subsided, Dr. Feltham thought it inadvisable that he be moved for another two days, despite all Lady Bertram's exclamations and entreaties.
During the ensuing forty-eight hours, therefore, messengers plied back and forth very frequently between Mansfield Park and the White House. Mr. Crawford rode up almost every hour with news of the patient, and Mr. Wadham was hardly less assiduous.
On the second day, Mrs. Osborne kindly came to sit with Lady Bertram, and Susan herself was able to walk across the park and see how the patient did. She must feel that, although there was no question but that he would be receiving the kindest possible treatment, yet he could not help but be miserable and wanting a confidante; having sustained such an inconvenient and ignominious accident immediately after the news of Miss Harley's defection to another suitor, how could he be other than in the lowest and most wretched spirits?
She was received with the usual friendship and eagerness by Mary Crawford, who was up, and sitting in the front parlour, although so pale and haggard that Susan felt she had better be in bed.
“I know that you must be wearying to see how your cousin goes on, so I will not delay you for an instant,” that lady said. “In spite of the fact that I am eaten to death with curiosity to hear the story of the ill-starred picnic from your side of the matter! Perhaps you will be able to spare me a few minutes after you have satisfied yourself as to the patient's well-being?âWe have been obliged to put him in the back parlour, firstly because we are rather deficient in number of bedrooms, and secondly due to the fact that Feltham forbade us to carry him upstairs.”
Susan, knowing how much Mary preferred sitting in her back parlour, which was the quieter, and took the sun, and had a door opening on to the garden, was impressed by the self-sacrifice which this represented.âShe stept into the room and saw Tom lying upon a bed which had been arranged for him there, interestingly pale, propped against a pile of pillows, with his arm in a sling. Unshaved and with tousled hair, he looked a great deal younger than when he was up and dressed.
“Hollo! Are you there, Susan? Is not this a plaguy business?” said he, endeavouring to speak with his usual lightness, but not altogether succeeding. “How do they all go on up at the house? Is Mama in a fine fret about me?”