Authors: Joan Aiken
Julia, when away from her sister-in-law, could be meddlesome, interfering, and captious enough, but was not wholly inaccessible to reason. When in the company of Miss Yates, however, Julia was accustomed to follow her style and turns of talk and to imitate her fashion of ignoring Susan, orâif Susan were to be noticedâtreating her in a haughty and slighting manner, as though her very existence were a matter of question.
Lady Bertram, of course, observed nothing of this, and liked Miss Yates very well, only complaining that she talked too quick and that her voice was so soft that none of her remarks could be heard.
Susan bore with the bad manners of her cousin, and her cousin's sister-in-law as good-naturedly and philosophically as she could, going about her usual occupations in their presence, answering when addressed, which was seldom, and, in general, speaking as little as possible and keeping herself in the background.
On the present occasion, however, this policy proved impracticable.
Tom, having handed over his horse to a groom, came striding round the corner of the house with no very amiable expression on his countenance, addressed a few perfunctory greetings to his sister and Miss Yates, saluted his mother, and then directly approached Susan.
“Susan! How in the world does it come about that those disreputable people, the Crawfords, the ones who brought all the trouble, are established in the White House, and that you are in communication with them? What can you be thinking of? Are you gone quite mad?”
His remark brought a chorus of exclamation from the females on the terrace.
Why, Tom, you cannot mean those odious peopleâ?” from Julia.
“Dear me! The Crawfords! How singular!” from Miss Yates; and even Lady Bertram, who had been dozing, opened her eyes and murmured plaintively, “Pray, what is the matter, Tom? What is it that has happened?”
Susan remained silent for a moment, from a wish to collect her thoughts, while all eyes were turned upon her. Then she said,
“As to how the arrangement came to be made in the first place, Tom, your own agent must know that better than I. It was Claypole, your attorney, who managed the business and chose the tenantsâ”
“Yes; and I shall soon say something pretty sharp to
gentleman, if he can take care of my business no better than to be installing such peopleâthe very last one would wish to have about the place. But how comes it, Susan, that you have positively been engaging in correspondence with themâgoing behind all our backs in this secret, independent, self-regarding manner? Your position here is hardly such as to justify such liberties!” With even greater indignation he went on, “I was riding through the village just now when up comes Mrs. Osborne to me, she having just stept out of the White House. âAh, Sir Thomas,' says she to meâas if I were Jackson the carpenter, or
ââAh, Sir Thomas, as I see you are on the way home, perhaps you would be good enough to convey a message to your cousin, Miss Price?' What could I do but comply, though with no very good graceâbeing employed as a common messenger, in
a way, by such a person, is not just in my styleâon such a hot day, too, and when I was in haste to get home. âPray command me, ma'am,' I said however, âwhat is it that you wished to ask Miss Price?' âOh it is not for myself,' she said then, as calmly as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, âbut I have just been visiting Lady Ormiston, Miss Crawford as she used to be, in the White House, and she asks me to send her compliments to Miss Price and say that she finds herself still very much pulled down by the effects of her journey, unable as yet to leave her bed; but nonetheless she will be very happy if Miss Price will do her the favour of calling in a few days, perhaps on Saturday!'”
And Miss Yates remarked coolly, looking down her aquiline nose, “How very curious, to be sure! Decidedly encroaching!”
“The White House?'' from Lady Bertram with a sigh. “Ah, how many years it seems since poor dear Mrs. Norris lived there.âWho are these people, Tom, that you do not seem quite pleased with?”
“Why, ma'am, the Crawfords, you must remember the Crawfords. Do not you recall that summer when they stayed at the Parsonageâwhen we were all acting a play, âLovers' Vows'âand my father was so displeased with us. And very rightly so, as it turned out, for resulting from the affair my brother Edmund was in a fair way to have his head turned by that Miss Crawfordâif at the last moment his hopes had not been overset byâby the consequences of the brother Henry Crawford's behaviour towards my sister Mariaâ”
He stopt, frowning, as if what he had to say further were too bad to be communicated out in the open like this, even in the presence of none but family connections.âIt may also have occurred to him that his sister Julia's marriage to Mr. Yates had been another consequence of the amateur theatricals, and the less said on
subject the better.
Susan felt an almost overmastering impatience to divulge what she had been told by Mrs. Osborne in Crawford's vindication and to Maria's detriment, but, with an effort, restrained herself. Firstly she could not feel that she had a right to make public what had been told her in semi-confidenceâor not at least without first applying to the teller; and in the second place she felt tolerably certain that no one would believe her. Blood is thicker than water, and Maria was still the sister of Tom and Julia, though a disgraced and disowned one; why should they chuse to believe her more vindictive, revengeful, proud, stubborn, than they knew her to be already? Moreover the news that she had been spurned by the man whom everybody assumed to be her lover would be reducing her status as grand heroine of a melodrama to something infinitely less heroic; instead of being condemned, she must be despised, or pitied; and if a family is to have a black sheep, the scandal must naturally be preferred on a grand scale.
âSuch thoughts as these passed through Susan's mind. Meanwhile Tom was saying to her in a very cutting manner,
here, who never met any of these persons before, since at that time she was dwelling in
â” he made Portsmouth sound like a sink of vulgar depravityâ“Miss Susan Price must needs get into communication with this precious pair; next, for all we know to the contrary, she will be issuing invitations for them to dine at the great house.”
“Odious!” cried Julia again. “What
you have been thinking of, cousin?”
“Ahâdecidedly odd,” yawned Miss Yates. “Truly Gothick, indeed.”
And even Lady Bertram said, “I am sure it was very bad. How came it, Susan, that you writ notes to these people that you had never met?”
Susan felt almost strangled with mortification and injustice; her throat was tight with tears, she flushed deeply and had much ado to command her countenance. She endeavoured to calm herself, however, took a deep breath, and when she was in tolerable control of her voice replied,
“You have a wrong notion of the circumstances, Aunt Bertram, Cousin Tom.”
Towards Julia and her sister-in-law she did not look. “The first communication, in this case, came from Miss Crawford and was addressed to my sister Fanny. Mrs. Osborne delivered it to me, as it had been taken to the Parsonage. Miss Crawford wrote most affectingly, and properly too as it seemed to me, claiming the bonds of old acquaintance, adducing her very severe indisposition as a cause, andâand asking to be received at Mansfield. How could I, in conscience, have refused her?âBut in any case, refusal was out of my power, for the letter had been delayed on the way, and by the time it came into my hands, Miss Crawford was already installed at the White House. All I could do was to reply and inform her that my sister was not here at the present time.”
“Humph!” said Tom. “Where is this letter?”
Susan raised her brows. “I have despatched it, naturally, to Fanny.”
Tom said, after a moment's hesitation, “And why did you not obtain the advice of some older personâsome person more closely connected with the familyâbefore thus hurrying into action, extending what must be construed as a welcome to this woman?”
And to whom would you have me apply? Susan felt like answering hotly. To your motherâwho has not an idea in her head unless it was put there by somebody else? To Juliaâwho cannot even manage her own children? (At this present, little Johnny and little Tommy were busily wreaking havoc in their grandmother's work-box, snipping her silks and thrusting her scissors into the earth.) To Miss Yates? She swallowed, checked a hot rejoinder, and was beginning, “You yourself were away at Thornton Lacey, cousin, and the poor lady's state of illness and anxious hope must command my first considerationâ”
At this moment they all became aware that another person had joined the group. Mr. Wadham, the rector, had been standing hesitantly at the foot of the stepsâfor how long, nobody there quite knewâevidently feeling considerable scruple at intruding on what was plainly a family discussion.
He now coughed politely and made his presence known.
“Ahem! Good morning, Lady Bertram; good morning, Sir Thomas. Miss Price. Your butler informed me that you were all out here taking the air; he proposed to announce me, but from where we stood I could see you, indeed, making such a pleasant party in the sunshine, so I ventured to set aside formality and take the liberty of joining you. What charming weather! I feel myself exceedingly fortunate that the spring is proving such a benign one. I daresay I may have counted a hundred clumps of primroses in Mansfield Lane.”
He kept his gaze upon Lady Bertram during the greater part of this speech which seemed designed by its length to give the disputants time to recollect themselves and cool down; but one quick sympathetic glance directed at poor Susan's flushed countenance assured her that he must have heard a great deal of the foregoing discussion, that he understood and felt for her in her position; nay, even admired her for what she had done. Immediately her sense of injustice and misusage was lightened; she began to feel more comfortable; if but
other person felt she had acted rightly, the burden of family disapproval was nothing to bear. And such a one! Mr. Wadham was a kind, an intelligent, a discerning man; and a most agreeable one too. Not unamused, Susan observed with what a sharpening of interest Julia and Miss Yates were inspecting the newcomer, approving his gentlemanlike air, his easy, friendly manner, and his prepossessing countenance, as Tom introduced him. Lady Bertram, who had taken a calm liking to Mr. Wadham on his previous visit, quite brightened up, and issued an invitation to him and his sister to come and eat luncheon at the great house whenever they chose.
After a little general conversation Mr. Wadham produced the object of his visit, a paragraph cut from a newspaper which he thought must be of interest to Sir Thomas, for it related the discovery of a Roman pavement in a not-too-far-distant village.
Tom read it eagerly and exclaimed, “I have quite come round to your opinion, sir! I was talking to my tenant at Thornton Lacey and he agrees. I believe we should stand a very fair chance of discovering Roman remains either at Stanby cross-roads or by Easton copse. Why do we not make up a party, an excursion to go and inspect those places, to see which, on closer examination, appears the better subject for excavation?”
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Julia, clapping her hands. “An excursion! We can all go in carriages and take a picnic. It will be delightful, a fÃªte
; we shall wear bonnetsâshall we not, Charlotte?âand Johnny and Tommy can bring trowels and dig to their hearts' content, and Mr. Wadham shall tell us all about the Romans. What could be more charming?”
“I am at your service,” said Mr. Wadham, “whenever you care to chuse a day.”
“But will not such an exertion be rather too much for you, sir?” said Susan.
He gave her a very kind look, as he answered, “I find myself so greatly improved in health, Miss Price, from two weeks spent in the invigorating air of Mansfield, that I can hardly believe
exertion, in these surroundings, would be too much.âAhâexcuse me.” At this point Mr. Wadham stept aside, removed Lady Bertram's knife and scissors from the grasp of little Tommy and little Johnny respectively, they being on the point of slashing and gashing one another; gave the combatants each a light tap, gentle-looking but brisk enough to subdue for the moment their rampageous spirits and send them away in search of other diversion at the far end of the terrace; then he restored the misused implements (first cleaning them on his handkerchief) to their owner, who sighed and said, “Thank you, Mr. Wadham. I do not know how it is that little Johnny and little Tommy are always so bad-behaved when their cousin, little Mary, is always so good.”
Julia was silent from annoyance; and Susan, seizing the opportunity, said to Mr. Wadham, “I learn, sir, that your sister has been visiting Miss Crawford; she sent me a message to that effect by my cousin hereâ” glancing in the direction of Tom, who looked surly and displeased but could hardly break in. Susan went on, “Can you tell me how Mrs. Osborne found that lady? Is her illness of a very serious nature?”
“I am afraid it is,” he replied, shaking his head. “My sister, who has a long experience of nursing the sick, from her many years at sea, is, I understand, not sanguine about the poor lady's chances of recovery. It is exceedingly sad, for she is still young, not above five-and-twenty, and, my sister tells me, of very prepossessing appearance and manner. Mrs. Osborne has taken a great liking to her, indeed, and is glad to be able to perform a good many services for the poor lady, who has only servants to care for her.”
“What of her brother then?” said Tom rather gruffly. “Is he not there?”