Mansfield Park Revisited (3 page)

BOOK: Mansfield Park Revisited
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Edmund, with all the kindness of an excellent nature, immediately stopped and asked how he could help his cousin?

From her first arrival at Mansfield, Edmund had felt an esteem for his wife's sister, observing with what energy and goodwill she had taken over the not inconsiderable task of keeping his mother occupied and entertained; this admiration had, in the course of time, ripened into a strong and warm affection. Of a quiet and sober disposition himself, and married to the equally tranquil and gentle Fanny, he could yet admire the liveliness of Susan's nature, and the way in which she found diversion and kept herself amused at Mansfield, despite the grave atmosphere and general want of animation in the household.

“I was wishing before you went away to ascertain your views regarding this business of my cousin Maria,” said Susan with her usual directness.

Both brothers stared at her in surprise.

“How in the world did you get wind of
burst out Tom, with no small vexation in his tone. “And what business, may I ask, Cousin Susan, do you consider it to be of yours?”

Looking at his red, affronted countenance, Susan realised that she had erred in not addressing herself to the elder brother, who now felt that his authority as new head of the family had been set aside. Quickly, she did her best to rectify this mistake.

“That is—I was wanting to ask the opinion of you both—but in recent months Edmund has been so much more in my aunt's company than you have, Tom, that I addressed myself to him as being likelier to judge of her present sentiments in the matter. I am anxious to know how you both feel: should my aunt be told of this new development? Or do you think that would be to distress her unnecessarily?”

The new Sir Thomas hardly seemed much conciliated by having his opinion thus canvassed. Susan had a suspicion that he would have preferred to be given the dignity of his new title and not addressed with such cousinly informality as
He repeated, in a colder tone,

“May I ask, cousin, by what means the tale came to your ears? I was not aware that it had been generally bruited abroad. And I feel most strongly that the less said about this matter, the better.”

“Who could argue with that?” replied Susan calmly. “I can assure you, cousin, that I have not the least intention of
bruiting the news abroad.
It is indeed of no personal interest to me, never having met my cousin Maria. I merely wished to consult you and Edmund as to whether you think it best that your mother be kept in the dark about it—with the consequent risk that some gossip-loving neighbour who has read a paragraph in the newspaper may come out with a remark or inquiry, under the assumption that Lady Bertram has been fully informed of the matter.”

“The decision is a difficult one,” replied Edmund, after some deliberation, and seeing that Tom remained silent. “What do you think, Tom? Is it your opinion that our mother would be greatly distressed at having the past reopened? May not these tidings of Maria recall to Mamma the fact that at the time of my sister's disgrace our father was still living, and so aggravate the wound and increase her grief at our present loss?”

Tom looked serious.

“Our mother has received the news of his death with considerable fortitude,” said he after a pause.

Susan reflected that for
might almost be substituted the word
Already accustomed, after a four-months' absence from home, to the lack of her husband's daily appearance at the head of the table, or at the tea-board in the evening, Lady Bertram seemed hardly yet to have assimilated the
comprised in the tidings of his death; she sighed at times and said, “How we need Sir Thomas,” but without any stronger conviction in her voice than if he had merely departed on a somewhat longer voyage than had been anticipated.

“Perhaps we should ask Julia's opinion,” Tom went on.

“I do not believe.” said Edmund impatiently, “that my sister Julia has a deeper insight, a minuter or juster knowledge of my mother's state of mind than anybody here present. What do you think yourself, Susan?”

“I should be in favour of telling her the whole,” replied Susan without hesitation. “In that way, the moment of revelation can be chosen with due care and discretion, at a time when my aunt is in calm spirits and not beset by anxieties, when she will have ample leisure for reflection, and can, if she needs, comfort herself by directing her thoughts to other subjects. If that is done, it need not be too much of a shock to her.”

“Upon reflection, I believe you are right,” said Edmund. “My mother's mind works slowly; it will be best that she should have a period of time in privacy, or with one of the close family circle to advise and talk over the matter; yes, I believe that she should be informed, at a judiciously chosen moment. What do you say, Tom?”

should like to know,” said Tom, without answering his brother's question, “what I should like to know is how Susan ever came by this information?”

“Why, how do you think? Fanny told me just now when I was helping her pack up her things,” cried out Susan hastily, as if she could hardly believe that he had not the wit to work out such a simple solution for himself. “How in the world else should you imagine I might have heard it, Cousin Tom? By carrier pigeon?”

On her first arrival at Mansfield, Susan had been much given to such little quicknesses and broadnesses of utterance, freedoms of speech to which she had been accustomed at home in Portsmouth, among her brothers. Awe at the splendour of her new surroundings, and a quick ear, had soon assisted her to a greater elegance and propriety of diction, modelled on the soft, clear gentle speech of her elder sister Fanny. But there were still occasions when her tongue betrayed her and moved more swiftly than her wiser sense; when impatience brought in a reversion to that earlier, sharper way of speaking; these moments were becoming less and less frequent, for Susan herself could not have been more conscious of their impropriety; at each lapse she would blush inwardly and castigate herself for her loss of control, resolving to be infinitely more careful in future, to let no unbidden word leave her lips. In nine cases out of ten, the cause of these little roughnesses of manner would be an argument with her cousin Tom. Somehow, with neither side particularly intending it, the two cousins contrived to irritate one another. Tom had always, if only half consciously, felt Susan as an intruder at Mansfield, and never troubled himself to try and overcome this sentiment, irrational though it might be; while Susan had strong, though unexpressed objections in regard to Tom's rather lordly air of patronage towards herself. The authority of her aunt and uncle she was naturally glad to acknowledge, since towards them, for their hospitality and benevolence, she felt a deep gratitude and sense of obligation; any commands of theirs she would make haste to obey; but she felt no obligation laid on her to obey such commands as might emanate from Tom, and had no hesitation in making this plain.

Quick-witted and intelligent, used to dealing with her lively brothers, Susan was easily a match in argument for her cousin Tom, who had never been more than ordinarily clever and had generally been excelled at school by his younger brother Edmund. When Susan first arrived at Mansfield, Tom, then aged twenty-six, had been slowly recovering from a dangerous fever; greatly reduced and weakened he had, for a short time, been pleased enough to have the companionship of the plain, eager, lively fourteen-year-old girl, who was friendly, ready and willing to play chess with him, read to him, or entertain him in any way he wished. But as his strength returned, so did the urge to dominate; Tom had always been used to command his younger sisters, and his delicate little shrinking cousin Fanny; he was good-natured enough and often gave them presents, but he was accustomed to lord it; he expected a more subservient and complaisant attitude from Susan than she was prepared to yield; indeed she was not prepared to yield to her cousin Tom at all, finding him in all respects except for looks, greatly inferior to his brother.—Recovered from the fever, Tom was certainly a fine young man of pleasing air and appearance, open-faced, fresh-coloured, well-set-up, cheerful and obliging so long as he had his own way, and prepared to enter heartily into other people's interests so long as they coincided with his own.—But in all deeper and more serious aspects, Susan considered Edmund infinitely superior; Edmund was a reading, judging, thinking person, an original intellect, a nature of just and strong principle. Whereas the nature of Tom was shallower, or at any rate had not yet been stirred to any very profound reflection, even during the time of his serious indisposition.

In many small ways, without particularly intending to, Susan had contrived to indicate her poor opinion of her elder cousin; and his retaliation was to make plain the fact that he considered her an intruder, from an undesirable, indigent background, of inferior status to the Mansfield family. This attitude he had managed to transmit to his sister Julia, who, though selfishly glad that no part of the care for Lady Bertram devolved on her, yet felt it a grievance that somebody with no right of birth should be enjoying the benefits of Mansfield.

When she was younger Tom had teased Susan about her plain looks, addressing her as
Miss Bones
though not in the hearing of his father. During the past six or seven months Tom had been away from home so much that the improvement in his cousin's figure and countenance had come to him as a considerable surprise on his return. In that regard he could no longer find fault, but this could almost be felt as an additional annoyance, along with what he chose to consider her unjustified self-assurance.

gave you the news about my sister Maria?” he now demanded.

“If you recall, brother,” said Edmund hastily, “Fanny was with us when Frank Wadham gave us the information. Fanny has been acquainted with the whole matter from the start.”

“True. She was there. I had forgot.”

The news in question being that their disgraced sister Maria had recently seen fit to quit her secluded country abode and remove herself to London. The cause of this, and means whereby it had been achieved, were the death of the widowed Aunt Norris, sister to Lady Bertram, with whom Maria had for some years resided. About six months previously Mrs. Norris had succumbed to an affection of the lungs and, dying, had bequeathed her entire fortune to her beloved niece. Since Mrs. Norris' disposition had been a particularly thrifty and frugal one, the fortune in question proved to be of quite ample size, some eight and a half thousand pounds. Thus endowed and freed at the same time from her watch-dog and chaperon, Maria had no hesitation in disposing of her small country house and finding herself lodgings in Upper Seymour Street, not far from a set of unsteady and pleasure-loving friends from former times, the Aylmers. In London, it was greatly to be apprehended, since the former Mrs. Rushworth could not be received in polite circles, and did not choose to remain in solitude, she could only of necessity mix in a highly questionable part of society, and must be a source of mortification and anxiety to her sundered family, who might justifiably wonder what scrape she would fall into next. The best to be hoped was that she might scramble into matrimony with some elderly man, not too nice in his judgments, and vain enough to set store by the connection with one who was still an acknowledged beauty, though of blemished character.

This news had been brought to Mansfield by the Reverend Francis Wadham, Edmund's friend who was to take over his parochial duties during his absence in the West Indies.

Mr. Wadham was not personally acquainted with the former Miss Bertram, but his widowed sister Mrs. Osborne had been a neighbour of the two ladies in their Cumberland seclusion, and a kind and attentive neighbour, furthermore, who had done all in her power to render assistance and give comfort during the last wretched weeks of Mrs. Norris's life. After that lady's death, also, Mrs. Osborne had endeavoured to continue in her friendly offices to the bereaved niece, and had advised her most fervently and earnestly against the move to town; but all such counsel fell on deaf ears; Maria had only been waiting for this opportunity. Another three or four weeks saw her and all her belongings transferred from Keswick to Upper Seymour Street.—Of this Mr. Wadham had been able to inform Edmund and Fanny Bertram when he came to Mansfield Parsonage.

Who would be the proper person to inform Lady Bertram of her daughter's action, was the next question to be discussed among the three cousins.

“Wadham's sister herself, the Mrs. Osborne in question, is coming soon to keep house for him while he is at the Parsonage.” said Edmund. “She is a most excellent person: intelligent, gentle, unaffected, and sensible. She is the widow of an admiral, Admiral Giles Osborne. I think Mrs. Osborne will make a valuable older friend for Susan while Fanny is overseas; and perhaps, as she has been poor Maria's neighbour, and has seen her lately, she
be thought the best person to impart this agitating news to my mother.”

Tom, however, was wholly opposed to this suggestion. What! a complete stranger! a woman whom none of the family had met, or even heard of before that day, to be communicating such a particularly delicate and distressing piece of news! “Good heaven, Edmund, what can you be thinking of? This Mrs. Osborne is, I daresay, well enough in her way, a decent enough sort of woman—but for an outsider to be meddling in a matter such as this, is not to be thought of!”

“Then you had best do it yourself, Tom,” said Edmund calmly.

Tom hemmed and hawed at this.—He was not on such confidential terms with his mother as to justify his being the one to make such a revelation—thought in any case the information would be best imparted by a female—a female would know best how to break the disagreeable news without imparting too much of a shock. Without any doubt—thinking the matter over—Fanny would be the most suitable person for such a task. Yes, Fanny had better do it. She was the right, the only person.

BOOK: Mansfield Park Revisited
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