Mansfield Park Revisited (9 page)

BOOK: Mansfield Park Revisited
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Susan could see that Tom was looking decidedly uncomfortable. She guessed that he felt in grave danger of being put in the wrong, a state which nobody relishes, and Tom Bertram least of all, he being, at all times, quite certain of his own rightness.

“Mr. Crawford? No, having installed his sister he departed again. I collect, from what Mrs. Osborne told me, that he felt his presence in Mansfield might—might not be welcome. Ahem! On that head, Sir Thomas—might I crave the indulgence of a private word in your ear?”

So saying, Mr. Wadham took Tom's arm, in the most natural, friendly manner, and walked away with him down the terrace. Tom looked a little reluctant, and almost suspicious, as if he were afraid of being won over against his will, but he could not help liking Mr. Wadham very well, and feeling an instinctive respect for the older man's judgment.

They strolled together back and forth across a distant lawn, while Susan fetched some gingerbread for the little boys, who were now demanding attention, and Julia enthusiastically discussed with Miss Yates the plan for a picnic party to inspect the Roman sites.

“We may as well invite the Maddoxes—and the Olivers—and the Montforts—the larger such a party is, the better.”

“No,” here put in Miss Yates languidly. “Let us not invite the Maddoxes. They are sure to bring their cousin Miss Harley and I find her the most boring, insipid, affected girl that ever was. So vulgar, too; there is no bearing her company.”

“True; you are right. It is a pity, though, because the Maddox brothers, on their own, are pleasant enough. It is too bad they always feel the necessity of including Miss Harley.”

“Can you drop a hint to them not to do so?”

Even Julia looked doubtful at this.

“What are you girls about? What are you discussing?” here drowsily inquired Lady Bertram.

“A picnic, ma'am, to examine some Roman ruins that Mr. Wadham is wishful to excavate.”

“Shall I be invited to take part? Shall I enjoy it?”

“Oh, no, ma'am!” her daughter hastily told her. “You would find it far too tiring and be fagged to death before you were halfway there. No, you shall stay at home, with Susan to look after you, and we shall tell you all about it when we come back.”

“I daresay you are right, my love.—Susan, give me your arm to help me indoors. The sun grows too hot here. Julia, you will say all that is proper to Mr. Wadham for me. He is a very agreeable man—perfectly gentlemanlike and pleasant. I like him very well, and his sister also. Susan, where is my work-box? Ah, you have it, that is right.”

Susan, though sorry not to see the last of Mr. Wadham, was delighted to escape from the company of Mrs. Yates and Charlotte. —And Mr. Wadham's long conversation with Tom bore most satisfactory fruit; whether he had put the case of Mr. Crawford in a juster light, or enlisted Tom's sympathy for the suffering sister, or both, the result was that Tom ceased to scold Susan for her dealings with the White House; indeed, she began to think Mr. Wadham must have said something quite decided in her praise, for she occasionally, thereafter, caught Tom's eye upon her in a look of wondering perplexity, and reconsideration.

Chapter 5

Since Tom, at the exhortations of Mr. Wadham, appeared to have withdrawn his objections to Susan's commencing an intimacy with Miss Crawford—or, at least, had ceased to give utterance to these objections—Susan waited her opportunity, and on a morning several days later, when Mrs. Osborne had come to sit with Lady Bertram, availed herself of the chance to walk across the park to the White House.

It was not without considerable trepidation that she rang the bell. So much had been said, so much hinted, so much suggested about the Crawford pair since Mary's letter for Fanny had first arrived, that Susan felt quite as if she were about to encounter the heroine of some wild melodrama. Tom seemed almost to regard Miss Crawford in the light of a
fata morgana,
a baneful influence, who had in the past nearly ensnared his brother Edmund, that most judicious and levelheaded of men, then, subsequently, bamboozled Ormiston into marrying her—and look what had been her effect on
Locked up, witless and raving! It was true that Wadham, or at least Wadham's sister, seemed to have been charmed by the lady, but for Tom's part, he did not intend to go within a gunshot of the White House; Miss Crawford need not think that she was going to wind
round her little finger.

Julia's opinion, loudly voiced on every visit to Mansfield, was even more adverse.—A shrewd, cold, heartless, scheming villainess. Mary Crawford had laid out her wiles to tempt Edmund into offering for her only when there was considerable reason to believe that Tom was dying of a consumption, so that Edmund would succeed to the title; such hopes having been proved baseless, the schemer had pretty soon sheered off. Later out of pure malice she had persuaded her brother Henry to attend a party at Miss Crawford's house where he would be bound to re-encounter the newly married Maria Bertram, and so had contributed to Maria's subsequent ruin.—There was nothing good to be said for Mary Crawford. Well, to be sure, she was quite entertaining, lively company, could talk well, and sing well, and play the harp.

know that lively talk and facile accomplishments are not the principal object and ambition of a woman who claims to have taste and intelligence—do we not, my dear Charlotte?”

“Ah—certainly,” drawled Charlotte—who might well be grateful for such a conclusion, since she was signally deficient both in liveliness of conversation and diversity of accomplishments.

To the maid who answered the bell, Susan gave her name and the message that she should be happy to converse with Miss Crawford, but only if that lady felt perfectly equal to the visit.—After a short interval she was invited to step upstairs and enter the sick chamber.

Susan's first impression was: How wonderfully elegant! For Miss Crawford lay against a pile of pillows, diaphanously enwrapped in a book-muslin bed gown, a chambray gauze shift, and a French net nightcap. The room was light, for the window had a southerly aspect, overlooking Mansfield Park, and the curtains had been drawn back, admitting all the air possible. The invalid's bed was placed so that she might command a view out of the window, and a chair had been drawn up beside it.

Hesitant in the doorway, Susan recollected with alarm that here was a lady of fashion, such as she had never encountered in her life before: somebody accustomed to move with ease and enjoyment among the chief of London society. What topic of conversation can I possibly find that will interest her? was an immediate, and panic-stricken reaction.

“My dear Miss Price—or no, I intend to call you Susan. You do not object? I feel already on such terms of intimacy with you that I hope we may dispense with the preliminary formalities. Please be seated. But chuse another chair if that one is not to your liking. Chairs in rented houses are always shockingly uncomfortable—oh, pray excuse me! I had forgot for the moment that the house belongs to your cousin. His chairs must, of course, be above reproach, and you are not to be blamed for them.”

Susan, laughing in spite of herself, disclaimed any objections as to the chair and sat down on it. Her second impression, the elegance of invalid attire once put by, was of harrowing thinness and plainness. Wretched woman! How could anybody ever have said that she was beautiful? Why, she looked like a starving pauper—like a sheeted ghost!

Miss Crawford's face, which must once have been charming in shape and outline, was now nothing but skin and bone; two sparkling dark eyes looked out of shadowy sockets, and her bewitchingly shaped mouth was indented between two deep creases of pain.—But as soon as she spoke the painful impression was lightened by the warmth of her manner, by the way she seemed able to laugh at herself and at her own predicament.

“Was there ever anything so ridiculous as that I should cumber my poor brother with the burden of fetching me all the way to Mansfield on a wild-goose chase, to find the two people I looked to see were not here, nor like to be? All my life I have been continually committing such helter-skelter follies; indeed, as I look back on it, my whole life itself appears to have been nothing but a wild-goose chase. Only, what
the wild goose, I wonder? Does everybody have a wild goose? Do you have one, Miss Price—Susan, rather? I plan to call you Susan because already I feel like a sister towards you. In the old days it was my fond hope to address our dear Fanny as Sister; that hope, alas, was never to be fulfilled; yet somehow I have never managed to get myself out of the habit. I still think of her as a sister. And therefore, my dear Susan,
must accept me as one too. Do you have any other sisters? I seem to recall Fanny speaking of another, a younger one—Belinda, Betty?”

“It is Betsey, ma'am—I am amazed that you should remember!”

“Mary—you must call me Mary! How old is Betsey?”

“She is only nine.”

“And brothers? I remember charming William, who became a lieutenant through my uncle the admiral's good offices. How has he fared?”

Susan explained that William, last heard of in the Mediterranean, was hoping soon to be promoted captain; then she was led on to tell the fortunes of Sam, now a midshipman, Tom and Charles, still in naval school at Portsmouth, John, a clerk in a public office in London, of whom nothing had been heard for several years; and Richard, a lieutenant aboard an East Indiaman.

“Such a fine family!” sighed Miss Crawford. “And yet I daresay they gave your mother trouble and anxiety enough in their time. But now they can be a source of unmixed gratification—lucky, lucky woman! Whereas I, childless and fated to remain so, can do no more than take an interest in the young families of my friends. But now tell me about Fanny—she has two children, I understand. What are their ages?”

“The baby, William, is but a few months; Fanny has taken him with her.”

“Well-a-day, was that prudent? And yet I can sympathise; she would not wish to be parted from her lastborn. And the other?”

‘The little girl is three; she remains at Mansfield; if you are well enough, another day, and would care for it, I could bring her to visit you. Her name is Mary. She is an excellent little thing, with a great look of both her parents—”

Susan paused, her heart wrung with pity, for at this point she observed Miss Crawford slip a cambric handkerchief out of her reticule and unaffectedly, though inconspicuously, touch away a couple of tears from her eyes.—They were indubitably tears; Susan had seen them sparkle on her dark lashes. And when, after a moment, she spoke, her voice was somewhat hoarsened.

Fanny and Edmund called their daughter

Susan hesitated. It had not occurred to her hitherto that there might be any connection between Mary Crawford and the naming of Fanny's little girl. Moreover, even now, she could not have positively vouched for there being such a connection; in fact—if the truth were told—it seemed to her in the highest degree improbable. Much likelier was it that the child had been named after yet another sister in the Price family, coming between Susan and Betsey in age, who had died at the age of seven. She too had been named Mary, an endearing little creature of whom Fanny, before she left Portsmouth for Mansfield, had been particularly fond.—Yet perhaps there had been an ambiguity—perhaps Edmund had some say in the naming? In any case there would be no object in rudely disabusing, dashing down the invalid's grateful, touched, spontaneous impulse of affection; surely such sentiments must be raising and doing her good? A faint colour had come into her face, she was not quite so waxen pale as when Susan first entered the room.

“The little girl was christened Mary Frances
is after my mother.” Susan contented herself with saying.

“I shall be enchanted to meet her; you must bring her very soon. Already I feel as if I were her godmother. Now inform me as to the rest of the family: Lady Bertram, I collect, is still the same—dreamy, good-natured, never troubling to exert herself for anybody by so much as the shift of a finger, am I right?”

Susan smiled. “Yes; my aunt does not change.”

“And you, I am persuaded, care for her with the same ineffable sweetness and patience that, seen in Fanny, when that duty was hers, caused my brother to fall head over heels in love with her.”

“Oh no,” said Susan seriously, “I am by no means so patient as Fanny; indeed there are many occasions, with my aunt or with my cousin Julia, when I am very close to losing my self-restraint.”

“And yet you seldom do. Ha! Now I can see Fanny in you; at first I did not detect the likeness; you are taller, more striking in looks and colour; but now I do. You are Fanny, but a more forceful Fanny. And, to tell truth, from what I recall of Lady Bertram, if you
occasionally to stamp and scream and throw her embroidery frame out of the window, you would retain my entire sympathy and give her no more than her desert.”

“Oh no! Poor lady! I am often very sorry for her. Her life is so inexpressibly tedious.”

“She made it so herself,” retorted Mary Crawford. “As we all do. She has made her bed and must lie upon it—and hers is a more comfortable bed than many.—But you spoke of Julia—how is she? She married that ranting man, I recall—Yates; does she rub along with him tolerably well?”

“So I believe. They seem to spend as little time as possible in one another's company; he is much occupied with sport or fishing, and Julia comes over to Mansfield as often as she is able. They have her sister-in-law, Lord Arncliffe's youngest daughter, living with them.”

“Charlotte Yates; a detestable girl; I remember encountering her in London,” said Mary Crawford instantly. “And I can tell from your expression that you have an equal detestation of Julia, but are too good-hearted, or too circumspect, to reveal it. You need not be afraid, though! I am no betrayer of secrets; you may look on me, if you will, as your mother-confessor.”

She smiled at Susan, who thought in astonishment, Why, how could I have considered her to be plain? She is quite beautiful!

“And Tom? What of him? He is
Sir Thomas,
now. How does he support the honour? With some trouble, I would surmise; he will never be the man his father was. He will never have Sir Thomas's principles or abilities. Poor dull Tom, his mind distracted between his horses and his gambling debts.”

To Susan's own surprise she heard herself replying, “Tom is finding it hard at first, ma'am; suddenly to become head of the family, with all the cares and responsibilities that state incurs, cannot in course be easy or comfortable, and so he is learning. Tom has been used to lead such a carefree life that the many burdens chafe him sorely and he takes them, perhaps, with undue seriousness; also he sincerely misses and mourns my uncle. Yet I believe that in time he may become as upright and conscientious a landowner as Sir Thomas. The will is there, if not the experience.”

Mary Crawford eyed her narrowly. “He has a sincere and unprejudiced advocate in his cousin Susan, I can see; or perhaps you
prejudiced? Perhaps you entertain for him a warmer sentiment than mere cousinly regard?”

“No indeed!” cried Susan hastily. “You greatly mistake there, I assure you! To tell the truth, Tom and I are usually at loggerheads; I was the
little cousin Sue
for too long to be acceptable to him now as a companion whose opinion on anything can be worth heeding.”

“Aha! And so he tramples on you and sets you at naught. I can remember, all too well, how often Fanny was used to receive such treatment, and how indignant it made me on her behalf.—So Cousin Tom is a blockhead, and no doubt he will marry Charlotte Yates?”

“Oh, I hope not! I cannot bear to think of my poor aunt Bertram reduced to such companionship. Charlotte would use her so disagreeably, I am certain.”

“How altruistic you are,” Mary said, laughing. “You think only of your aunt. But what of yourself, in such circumstances?”

“Oh, I could not remain; I am quite sure she would never wish
to continue a member of her household. In such an event, I must remove to the Parsonage, where I could always be sure of a welcome from Fanny; only then, without me, I am afraid my poor aunt would fare hardly. But, in truth—although I know that Julia wishes the match—I fancy that Tom has other plans in view. He has shown interest in a Miss Harley—”

“Louisa? I believe I recall her,” said Miss Crawford, who appeared to have an encyclopaedic memory. “An orphan of fair-sized fortune, parents defunct, who lives at Gresham Hill with some cousins named Maddox?”

“Yes, that is she.”

“She was but sixteen when I came to Mansfield before—never stopped talking or laughing—a pleasant girl enough, not stupid, but a rattle. Charming looks, I concede: hair and skin fair and soft as an infant's, besides a pair of ingenuous blue eyes.—Yes, she would suit Tom Bertram well enough, and, I daresay, use his mother more kindly than Julia's candidate.—So much for Tom, then, we have settled
fortune. And what of yourself, my dear?”

BOOK: Mansfield Park Revisited
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