The Last Best Gift
After Henry Crawford’s visit to
Susan looked up to her and was proving to be a loyal and fond companion, but she was young and still rough in her ways from her coarse upbringing. But no one else in the house that should have been home to Fanny, had not
So thoroughly oppressed she was by her surroundings that she forgot Sir Thomas’ stern lectures, Lady Bertram’s obliviousness, Mrs Norris’ officiousness, Tom’s neglect, and Julia and Maria’s affected superiority. In truth, even Edmund had not behaved well by Fanny – he showed a sad want of sensitivity in sharing his burdensome raptures regarding Mary Crawford. But as she sat in her cold and shabby room in
With such reflections it is no wonder that tears soon followed and Fanny’s pillow was completely sodden in short order. It was nothing to do with Mr Crawford, she told herself, and everything to do with what was lacking in her life in
She prayed that something should happen to bring her home to
But when something of a very serious nature did indeed happen, the expected summons was not issued. No carriage was sent rumbling her way. Tom was deathly ill and all were so preoccupied with worrying deep into the night and tending his care by candlelight, that Fanny was almost completely forgotten. Notes were sent to tell her of Tom’s state of health, but none to call her home. And the month she was to have waited slowly turned into two.
During that time she received a letter from Mary Crawford, written in her usual style, but more welcome than any correspondence she had received from that lady heretofore. She recalled how Mary’s brother was wont to include messages for her, lines written in his own hand, and for the first time her heartbeat quickened, not with revulsion, but with anticipation at the thought that he may have done so again. So lonely and dejected she was that the very idea of being loved by someone, even someone so repellent to her, was a balm to her low spirits.
But there was much not to like in Miss Crawford’s letter. Worse than her usual teasing about her brother’s tender feelings towards Fanny and the hope that they would one day become sisters, or the airing of her fondest wishes regarding Edmund giving up the church for her, were her reflections regarding the chance of Tom Bertram succumbing to his fever. Fanny could not credit it that Mary Crawford had put such thoughts to paper, but it appeared she was eagerly anticipating the day when Edmund Bertram would become Mr Bertram and poor Tom would be no more.
That such sentiments could be expressed so openly, and to one of his nearest relations! But that was the Mary Crawford that Fanny had learned to know, despite all that Edmund attempted to convince her to the contrary. She was shallow and vain and utterly heartless. If only Fanny’s beloved Edmund could see that. But short of showing the letter to her cousin so that he could read Mary Crawford’s very words, there would be no convincing a man so blindly in love, and Fanny could never bring herself to such a thing.
Mary’s shocking reflections were followed by renewed entreaties, on her brother’s behalf, to be of service in carrying Fanny home to
There were, in the end, no words penned by Mr Crawford to Fanny in that particular letter, however, his sister did give Fanny news of him. He had not gone to
Fanny no longer knew what to think. Whilst in
Now she was discovering that there were great gaps in her learning. She understood right and wrong, morality and humility, but she didn’t understand people at all, least of all her cousin Edmund whom she had loved and respected since she was ten years old. He was now becoming as a stranger to her, going against all the principles he had ever taught her in his adoration of Mary Crawford who was everything he ought to have despised. Were beauty, charm and wit to be rated higher than steadfast loyalty, honesty, and purity of heart? From all that he professed to believe, it seemed impossible that he should value a Mary Crawford over a Fanny Price, no matter how undeserving and insignificant Fanny was. And yet, a gentleman like Henry Crawford, who had lived in the world and broken hearts wherever he went, was apparently capable of seeing the value of modesty, goodness, and virtue. His avowed love of her, though impossible for her to return, was beginning to impress her deeply.
And upon knowing him better, she had begun to discover that he was more than the philanderer she had taken him for and more than the shallow charmer his sister represented him to be. He was capable of being a man of taste and distinction. He understood the beauties of nature, the reading of poetry, and the business of keeping an orderly estate. He was proficient at conversing politely and intelligently on all manner of subjects and not above his company. She was almost to the point of believing his professions of love. That did not mean he had won her over, but she found herself on the verge of doubting her convictions. How could she love Edmund as deeply as she knew she did and still, in some small part of her, find a spark of gratitude growing because Henry Crawford had offered her the distinction that her cousin never had?
And if she had begun to doubt the true depth of her love for Edmund, how could she stay convinced to trust all her other feelings, and keep her heart hardened towards Henry Crawford? Or should she go against all her inclinations and accept the outrageous idea that people were capable of change, even someone like Henry Crawford who had lived to make sport of young ladies’ hearts?
Fanny did not know how many more disappointments she could bear at this point in her life. She had been forgotten by
Henry Crawford had much to think on as his carriage rumbled along the high road in the dusk. He hoped for the coachman’s sake that clouds would not obscure the full moon – travelling at night was expedient, but also dangerous. He had left everything too long and too late and he cursed his own vanity, his love of frivolity, which had brought him to the pass that had necessitated this journey. His companion slept, but he could do nothing but stare out the window at the blurred shadows that swept past and think of Fanny and his impossible love.
He had left her in
None of that did he hold against her, rather he loved her all the more for having grown into everything a woman ought to be, despite having been so disadvantaged. Even though she had been put upon in
When he returned to
“You must know how torn my heart is,” she said. “I truly love Edmund Bertram – it is impossible for me to keep that a secret from you, but I cannot, like you in your courtship of sweet Fanny, throw off practical cares.”
“But Mary, with your twenty-thousand pounds and his living at Thornton Lacey, and promise of the
“I would be stuck in the country year round, married to a . . . clergyman! He knew that I wanted him to give up the notion to enter the church, but he could not even do such a small thing for me. He does not love me at all as much as I love him!”
“He will preach wonderful sermons of a Sunday, Mary, and then devote the rest of his time to you. You are so dear to him; I know he would see to it that you would be in
“A house in
“You know I am not saying that. It is simply that love is more important than all those other considerations.”
Mary looked up at him and laughed a hard laugh. “Why did I ever fall in love with a second son? Oh Henry, what little we knew that first day we came into
“I have no complaints at what has become my fate. Loving Fanny is the best thing in my life. I only wish that she could be brought to see that I am worthy of her love in return, before too long. It chafes me to watch her be put upon by all her relations when I could give her such happiness.”
Mary reached out and caressed his cheek. “She is a fool – such a good soul, but so foolish – how could she resist you?”
“Her love is all the more valuable that it is harder won,” he said, but there was a tinge of something akin to anger in his voice. “And I must admit to it being my own doing. If I had been more circumspect with Maria and Julia last summer, Fanny would not have such doubts of my sincerity and constancy.”
“If she has your love, your hand, and the promise of a life as the mistress of such a fine estate as Everingham, why should she care that you made up to her cousins back then? You did not love either of them and you are in love with her. She ought rather to celebrate the victory!”
“Indeed!” laughed Henry. “But she would never see it that way, and I confess, I would never want her to. I love her as much for her integrity and her humility as I do for her goodness and her beauty.”
And so Henry stayed some few days with his sister and was glad to see her spirits lift. She was less jealous of her friend’s good fortune in marriage and more cognisant of the price that Mrs Fraser had to pay for the luxuries she possessed. Her marriage was not a happy one. When he again broached the subject of leaving, Mary begged him to stay for Mrs Rushworth’s ball. He had no desire to see Mrs Rushworth or her sister, but as he was soon to be a close relation of theirs, upon his successful suit and marriage to Fanny, he agreed with Mary that quitting Town on the morning of the ball would be singularly impolite. And besides, though he knew his Fanny not to be so crass as to ever gloat over her comeuppance of her cousins, he was still vain enough to want to witness their reaction to their poor little cousin having succeeded where they were unable.
Henry walked up to the receiving line with his sister on his arm. This was the first time he had laid eyes upon Maria Rushworth since before her marriage. He had remembered her to be a beauty, and she was just as fair and flaxen as before, only her style of attractions no longer appealed. There was a self importance about her expression that cried out, ‘Look at me!’ He had become used to a girl whose inner goodness glowed like a beacon from her delicately featured face. There was no comparison.
As he bowed over her hand, Maria curled her lip and turned away from him, two angry spots of colour high on her cheeks. Julia, who was next in line, let their hands touch for the briefest moment and coldly said, “We did not expect you would come.”
“We are almost family, after all,” said Henry with a little smile.
Julia turned to Mary and greeted her in a friendlier manner, and then Henry and Mary walked deeper into the room.
“Severely chastised!” exclaimed Mary with a laugh, once they were out of earshot. “I do not think they will ever forgive you for preferring Fanny over them.”
“How they feel towards me hardly matters; it is Fanny I care about, and how they treat her as a result of this.”
“Oh Henry! I do admire how love has turned you at once into such a model husband. When she finally accepts you, Fanny is to be much envied. If only I could find for myself a swain as staunch and loyal as you.”
As the evening progressed, Henry did his duty and danced with a few of the young ladies present. He was about to approach a shy debutante when Maria walked up to him and hissed in his ear, “A word, Mr Crawford, if you please.” She then swept directly away and through a set of doors. Henry waited a moment or two and then followed. She was lingering at the end of a short passage. Upon seeing him, Maria beckoned and slipped through another doorway.
Henry closed the door behind him, and leaned against it. “What intrigues are these, Mrs Rushworth?”
She was sitting prettily arranged upon a settee. She patted the cushion beside her in invitation. “Can you not call me Maria as you did in the past?”
“In the future I might be able to call you cousin,” he said, staying put.
“Are you so angry with me for marrying? Do not suppose me to believe this charade. Marry Fanny! The idea is absurd. Did you expect me to give Rushworth up after you left the neighbourhood without word?”
“You give our short friendship too much credit. I can see the folly of my past behaviour towards you now, however what I feel for Fanny is quite different – I love her most sincerely.”
Maria laughed, a sharp, artificial sound that echoed hollowly in the room. “When I was still at
Henry crossed his arms over his chest. “How blind I was then.”
“I do have a small suggestion,” said Maria, arching her back and pouting her lips alluringly. “You may keep your Fanny and I my dead bore of a husband, and we can still enjoy a friendship like we had in the past, only more so.”
“That is exactly what I expected you to have in mind.”
“I am invited to Twickenham for the Easter holidays. Rushworth will go to his mother in
Henry had not been quick enough to move his head aside. The touch still tingled upon his cheek like a rude invasion, and left behind memories of similar touches from the past – touches shared during the rehearsals for the play. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief, brought it up to rub against his face as he cursed weaknesses of the flesh.
Henry began to set plans to leave
But again, his plans were forestalled. Henry had a close friend in
The only real evil of the plan was the close proximity of
The first occasion that they dined together, Maria gave him a knowing smile. She was in high spirits all evening, her laugh ringing out and her conversation flowing, admirers always at her elbow. It wasn’t until quite late that she finally managed to single Henry out.
“I knew you would come,” she said, smiling a self-satisfied smile. She looked very lovely.
“My being here has nothing to do with you,” he replied shortly.
“I know better,” she said. “You cannot keep yourself away.”
“There is nothing easier,” he said and would have left her then, but she grasped his arm.
“You cannot expect such fruits from timid Fanny as I can offer you.”
He shook her off and walked away to resume conversation with some of the gentlemen of the party. Maria pouted and cast him fiery glances for the rest of the night.
Upon the next instance of their meeting, Maria affected to ignore him and flirted rather outrageously with her<i> cicibe</i>i. She could, however, not leave temptation alone. When he chanced to go out of doors for a breath of air, she followed him out upon the terrace.
“Mr Crawford you are indeed too cruel,” she said as she came up from behind, placing her hand upon his arm. “I wear what I remember to be your favourite colour and yet I get no word from you on how well it suits me.”
“You are in excellent looks, Mrs Rushworth,” he said. “That I will not deny, but you know it too well. Has not your entourage of young men yet fulfilled tonight’s quota of compliments?”
“Do not be jealous, Henry dearest. You know that not one of them means to me what you do.”
“I can mean nothing to you now.”
She ran her hand from his arm up his waistcoat and rested it upon his heart. “My love is bound to you.”
He took a step backward and found himself hard against the railing. “I am sorry I ever played with your affections. Can you not let the past rest?”
Maria reached up to grasp around his shoulders, pressing her body against his, and cried in desperation, “I am offering myself most openly and freely, baring my heart and my soul to you, and this is what I am to expect? Thus am I to be rejected, again and again? What kind of spell has that little shrew put upon you? It is unthinkable that you can bring yourself to love her over me!”
“What truly is unthinkable is that I was ever attracted to you. Fanny is a thousand times better than you could ever hope to be,” said Henry, attempting to disentangle her arms from about his neck.
“A kiss!” Maria insisted, dragging down his head. “Just one kiss and you will see how mistaken you are. I know Fanny has not let you kiss her. She would never let you touch her as I have done, the pious little fool.”
Henry was amazed at the strength with which she pulled his head down and latched her lips onto his. Her tongue pushed insistently against his lips until he could withstand it no more.
A rustle and an exclamation of shock brought them apart. Henry turned to see the silhouetted figure of a lady retreat through the full-length window.
“We have been seen,” said Maria, half anxiously, half in satisfaction. “What rumours will fly! My husband will not be too pleased, nor your precious Fanny.”
“I am guilty of nothing,” said Henry, “except thinking myself safe to take the air whilst I was within your radius.”
When Henry returned to
“Do not worry dear brother,” said Mary. “I shall write to Fanny not to heed them – assure her that your heart has never fallen by the wayside but remained forever true to her. But really, you ought to have been more careful in your flirtation – it serves you right for being so out of practice, I guess.”
“I was not carrying on a flirtation with Mrs Rushworth – you must believe me, Mary.”
“Then all I can say is you really have been careless,” answered his sister with a laugh.
At that moment a footman entered the room and, with an apologetic cough, handed Henry a note. He read it quickly, stuffed it hurriedly into his pocket, and turned to his sister. “I must leave you immediately. Business of an urgent nature calls me away.”
“Business?” she asked with a suggestive giggle and a wink.
“Business,” he said firmly as he kissed her upon the forehead and made to leave.
“Give my best regards to Mrs Rushworth,” Mary called wickedly after him as he walked through the door, then she sat back down in an armchair before the fire. “Oh Henry! We Crawfords cannot change, no matter how strongly we wish it, can we?” She sighed and put her head into her hands.
Fanny was glad to receive a letter after having had no communication from any of her friends for over a week. Tom Bertram was on the mend, so Lady Bertram had no reason to write of his condition almost daily as she had the previous two weeks. The early April weather was wet and windy in
The letter did not bring the solace that Fanny had so desired, rather, when she finally thought she was ready to open her mind and heart in new directions, all the promises that Henry Crawford had ever made her had turned to dross. She ought never to have expected otherwise, given what she had previously known of the man, but his professions of love and heartfelt looks had worked their way through all her fortifications, had begun even to erode the hold her cousin Edmund had over her heart, and all because of how sad and alone she had become. And now – if she could trust her own interpretation of all of Mary Crawford’s protestations – he had proved that there was no reason to have faith in his word or his deed. If love of her could not keep him from indiscretion, then what value did such a love have? She read over the letter again.
If you should hear rumours about my brother and your cousin, do not believe them. Henry loves you and only you. He has never cared a fig for Maria and never will, no matter what people may say. Mr Rushworth had no business going to Bath and leaving his wife on her own – only mischief can arise from such an arrangement, especially when an old beau is nearby. And your cousin has never got over her love for Henry. But Henry is completely blameless. When one is married, one always has to overlook such little lapses – for his sake do so now or you shall break his heart, and mine too, because I have completely decided I must have you for my sister.
It was all she had ever expected of him, really, so why was it that she felt so sick to her stomach? Was it pity for Maria that she had married a man she could not love? That she was so enraptured with Henry Crawford that she would throw all the decency and good principles she had been raised with away for a chance to capture the love she felt she deserved? Was it disgust at Mary Crawford’s suggestions she close her eyes to Henry’s actions because that is an essential part of marriage? Or was it disappointment that Henry Crawford had turned out to be just the man he had always been, unchanged by love, if it had indeed been love, not content until he had broken every heart he came across, even the heart of an insignificant little nobody like herself? It couldn’t be that she had actually lost her heart and that it lay shattered now at his feet, because she loved Edmund, as flawed as he was, and not Henry, whose flaws were insurmountable.
Whatever the cause, Fanny tossed the letter aside and curled up into a ball upon her chair. The only saving grace was that she was alone in her room and so able to cry as she had never done before without anyone to witness her tears. She was lost to everything when Susan popped her head in the door a few hours later and announced that it was suppertime.
“What are you doing here in the dark with no candle?” asked her sister, coming closer and peering into her face. “Did you receive some bad news in your letter?”
“No,” was all Fanny could manage.
“Are you unwell?”
“Only a little tired and homesick,” said Fanny, for she had to explain her unhappy appearance in some way. She sat up and smoothed her hair while attempting to bring her emotions under control. “I will come down to dining room directly.”
After supper, when the family had all retired to the small salon they used as a drawing room, her father looked up from his paper and asked her, “What is the name of that rich cousin of yours who was so recently well married?”
“It goes to show that she is no better than she should be, for all the airs that side of the family give themselves. According to this she has taken up with a Mr C. and they have run off together.”
Fanny was surprised at the pain that flowed through her, though she had already surmised from Mary’s letter that an indiscretion of some magnitude had been committed. And yet, this public affirmation seemed to make it all so much more real than it had been before. Mr Crawford and Maria. Oh, foolish, foolish, foolish – more than foolish – the selfishness of the two was profound, their vanity intolerable, their immorality reprehensible. After a few animadversions on the wantonness of the idle rich, her father continued on with his newspaper without expecting a response from Fanny. She would not have been able to speak if she had tried, so it was a good thing her opinion was of so little value to him.
Fanny was in a quake, worrying about how this news must be affecting her relations at
The next day, in answer to her deepest wishes, she received a letter from her cousin Edmund.
I hate to relate a tale so filled with disappointment and depravity. If you have already heard of the reckless act of my sister and Mr Crawford, their disloyalty and their shame, then at least I am not the one to destroy your hopes. What they will do now, I have no idea. My father is in
My mother needs you now, dearest Fanny, and I have been requested to bring you back, and your sister Susan, who I hope your family can spare, Expect me tomorrow.
Your cousin Edmund.
It was all that she wanted – to return to
When Susan heard the news, she was excited at the prospect of leaving a home she found cumbersome. Neither of her parents objected to her going, in fact her father stated that it was about time the rich side of the family had taken another useless female off his hands. When Edmund arrived there was time for no more than a quick cup of tea as Fanny and Susan’s bags were stowed at the back of his carriage. Mrs Price kissed both of her girls and told them to be good, Mr Price shook Edmund’s hand and sent his best regards to his father, asking him to remind Sir Thomas that there were more young boys to be given preferment, and then waved them on their way. Fanny was never happier to leave a place in her life.
They arrived at
The day after they returned Edmund took Fanny for a walk in the garden.
“I needed to speak to you alone,” he said, “because we share a similar sorrow. You have been hurt, I know, by Mr Crawford’s faithlessness, but think of me Fanny! Think of what I have to suffer! You were only learning to love Henry Crawford, but the woman I had grown over a season to care for more than any other upon this earth is lost to me for ever, and through the actions of her brother – my friend – and my very own sister. I cannot ask her to marry me now – how would my father sanction it? Even though I took on a profession she despises, I know I have Mary Crawford’s love. I know, had circumstances been different, she would have accepted me. But now – she as much as released me from my unspoken promise to her when we last met. She has such tendencies to vice and folly – the fault of her upbringing with her aunt and uncle, but I know, with my influence, she would have blossomed to the woman she is capable of being – my Mary.” He broke down to tears and sat upon the lawn not caring about the damp, nor if the grass should stain his buff trousers. “How could they do this to me Fanny? Now the only thing I have left to love is you.”
Fanny was suddenly struck by her cousin’s selfishness. Though he professed to love her, she was only something second best, and her sorrows were insignificant in relation to his. She stared at him as he sat and wept, his arm held up to her in supplication, and suddenly saw that all through the years she acted as his buttress. He saw her as his own creation for his own consolation, and not for herself – who she truly was inside. He didn’t understand her at all. But still, she took his hand and sat beside him, stroked his head and held it to her breast.
“My poor Edmund,” she said. There was nothing more to say. She could not tell him that the lady he regretted so terribly was just a figment of his imagination and did not exist in reality at all. The real Mary Crawford was the one who had said goodbye to him – the one who had written her those reprehensible letters. The one who wanted only a rich husband. Who held the honourable state of marriage cheap. Who knew not how to give or return love.
“Will you marry me and share my home in Thornton Lacey, Fanny?” he asked. “I cannot face the thought of living there alone without my Mary – but you will comfort me. With you I know I can be truly happy again.”
Once Fanny would have leapt at the chance to marry Edmund, even under such conditions. Once she would not have thought she deserved something better than simply to be his solace. Once she loved him enough to do anything he ever asked. And once she would have been happy for the very chance to spend her life with him forever. But no more. Rather mind Pug and fix Lady Bertram’s stitches for eternity than take Edmund as her cross to bear. Worse than a simple loveless marriage is a marriage where one’s spouse loves another to distraction. Her love for Edmund could never withstand that – it wasn’t powerful enough, and it was of a different sort. It was the love of a cousin for a cousin. Finally she was truly able to see that. Upon that discovery, there was much more she understood about her own heart as well.
“No, Edmund,” she said at last. “I believe marriage to each other would make both of us miserable. You must find another way to drive the image of Miss Crawford out of your mind. ” Then she left him and wandered through the garden and into a small wilderness until she tired herself out completely. She chanced upon a bench and lay down, fatigued beyond endurance, and was soon asleep.
She awoke some time later to see a gentleman coming towards her through the lengthening shadows, and he looked just like Henry Crawford. She rubbed her eyes but knew that she must still be dreaming for there was no way he would be allowed here, at her uncle’s home, after what he and Maria had done. She could never have faced him again in real life, but as it was only a dream, and he was a manifestation of her own mind, she did not feel the need to fear him. She sat up and waited as he approached.
“I have been searching for you this past half-hour at least. Your cousin Edmund said you left him in the garden some time ago. I am so relieved to have found you.” His expression showed very real relief, and his voice was soft with feeling, but behind his eyes there was a tinge of trepidation.
She wondered at a dream that was so clear, so genuine, but she did not say anything, afraid that she would awake and he would be gone, and not knowing why she feared that, except that it was a dream and the senses were often confused while dreaming.
When he reached her, he crouched down and took her hand, and his eyes searched her face for a long moment. It was most unusual – she could feel the warmth of his clasp and his breath upon her cheek as if she were awake, and yet . . .
“What have they done to you, my love?” he whispered, and then, even quieter, “What have I done to you?”
She quickly withdrew her hand, backed away, and found her voice. “I am not dreaming, am I? It is really you?”
“It is,” he admitted, a sad smile taking over his face, changing the glow of optimism to uncertainty.
“What are you doing here? How can you dare?” she said in outrage, and then forgetting her own concerns for a moment she asked with genuine interest, “Have you brought Maria back?”
“As soon as I discovered what is now being said about me, and learned that you were no longer in
“There is nothing you can tell me.” She crossed her arms in front of her and moved as far away from him as she could, given the length and width of the bench. “So, you have not brought Maria?”
“That was not within my power,” he said. “Will you not let me explain myself? I count on your fair-mindedness and good nature to grant me that opportunity, though little you think I deserve it.”
“I cannot speak to you. It hurts to look upon someone so depraved . . . especially as you almost had brought me to believe in you. But it will only feed your vanity to know your tricks very nearly worked . . . I do not know what I am saying, only that you should leave now, please, if you ever really did have any tender feelings for me . . . show them now by granting me this one request. I cannot look upon you.” She closed her eyes and turned her head away and hoped that her tears would not start until he had gone.
Her plea did not have the desired effect. Instead of hearing his footsteps receding through the grass, she felt his arms come around her and draw her to his chest. She screamed. He let go of her at once, but did not move away.
His voice sounded truly contrite, but she well knew what a talented actor Henry Crawford was. She could not control her crying now, and her small frame shook as the tears streamed down her cheeks. “You are more than despicable. If you do not leave at once I will not answer for the things I must say.”
“Then if you will not listen to me, you must say them, for I have no intention of leaving you alone here in this wilderness, my dearest Fanny. The light is fading and as soon as I can get you to see reason, I must bring you in. I promised your uncle you would come to no harm under my care.”
“My uncle? You spoke to him? He spoke to you?”
“He gave me an audience, reluctantly at first, but when he fully understood what I had to say, he was very willing to listen. Afterwards we discovered from Edmund where you might be found and I came out to look for you with his complete approval.”
Her uncle! Did Sir Thomas want to be rid of the responsibility of her to such a great extent that he was willing to accept the man who had destroyed the reputation of his eldest daughter as the husband of his niece? Was this some desperate attempt to quiet the rumours and hide the truth from the rest of the world? Make it seem that Maria could not have run off with the gentleman who was to marry her cousin and the whole affair had been a great misunderstanding from beginning to end? She did not think such a thing truly possible, for her uncle was a gentleman of staunch morals and integrity. But why would he allow Henry Crawford to find her and spend time alone with her, after what he had done? The only other alternative was that Henry was lying to her, and of the two, it was much more believable.
“You are the most faithless, wickedest person I have ever encountered,” she said. “You have no respect for decency of any sort. My uncle would never have let you come near me – you must be here without anyone’s knowledge. I am certain I have been missed and they are looking for me even now. If you value your life, you will leave, and leave me in peace. You will gain nothing from harming me.”
“And this is what you think of me, Fanny? That I should want to hurt you? That I am so despicable? It is no wonder you screamed when I took you in my arms. But perhaps you would not feel this way if you knew that I did not run off with your cousin Maria, or even carry on a flirtation with her.”
“Your own sister is more honest in this case than you! At least she admitted your little tendencies to indiscretions and asked me to overlook them!”
“Hear me out, Fanny. My sister . . . my sister is as influenced by my past behaviour as you are. She believed all the stories too, so it is little wonder that she advised you as she did. My aunt and uncle’s marriage has given her a distorted sense of value regarding love and marriage. I have lately managed to overcome those same beliefs she cherishes. It is to be hoped that she too might discover that love – pure abiding love – is the making of a union where honour and fidelity are of the highest importance, and upheld because of that very love and not out of convention.”
“Fine words from a man who has cuckolded my cousin’s husband!” Fanny burst into tears again and pushed against Henry with her hands balled tightly into fists. “Let me up – let me go in, I beg of you.”
Henry stood up and to one side, and then followed Fanny as she walked quickly towards the distant gate.
“I have already told you that I did not abscond with Mrs Rushworth.”
“You did not go to
Henry easily kept pace with her. “It is true – I did not go to
Fanny stopped and turned to face him. Tears were running down her cheeks. “You say your lines so well, but I have not forgotten what a talented actor you are. Remember that I was witness to the enactment of scene one between you and Maria on numerous occasions.”
“That too is true,” he said softly, stopping before her and reaching out one hand only to let it fall back again. “I am sorry for that. Had I realised the repercussions of that silly game I played, I would never have begun it. I have learned much since then. There is no excuse for my past behaviour – I can only promise that in my future actions I will endeavour to please you to the best of my abilities. I know I am a flawed creature and do not have your goodness or your sensitivity. I have an inclination to frivolity, and an excess of vanity – but with you by my side to guide me I think something acceptable can be made of me.”
“But,” said Fanny in confusion, for the words that he spoke could not help but affect her strongly, “It is common knowledge that you and Maria left Town together.”
“It is common conjecture,” Henry corrected her. “We both left
Fanny found her breathing difficult to regulate, even though she was no longer walking rapidly as she had been doing, and had stopped crying as well. Her heart was beating at a heightened rate. “Maria made advances towards you?”
Henry stepped forward and took her hand. “There will never be secrets between us. Your cousin kissed me, but I did not find myself tempted at all.”
Fanny blushed and attempted to regain her hand. This time Henry was not quite so obliging: his hold only became firmer.
“I ought not have asked that,” she said.
“You had every right,” Henry replied. “I think it is high time we had everything out in the open. I have another confession to make that might make you hate me, but after all we have been through these past few days, I am willing to take my chances.”
“I do not know that I could hate you,” said Fanny in all seriousness as she put the matter to some consideration. “For even whilst I believed you completely depraved I did not hate you, though I did feel deep compassion for your soul, and I did not like you very well at all.”
Henry laughed. “Thank you for pointing out the distinction between hate and avid dislike. I will be sure to keep it in mind and feel very blessed that I have only incurred your dislike when I reveal what I am about to, and have managed to avoid your hate completely.” By his tone it was very apparent that Henry’s confidence had returned to him and he had no expectation of creating even the feelings of mild dislike in Fanny’s breast. “When I first set out to woo you, it was only a game to see if I could make you in love with me just a little. Something to pass my time in the country and give you some fond memories when I had gone. Such vanity! It was not long, though, before I completely lost sight of that objective and fell wholly and unhesitatingly in love with you.”
Fanny blushed again and smiled a little. “I knew from the start that your attentions to me were just a game with you, so that does not surprise me at all. What I do not understand is how you came to love me.”
“Indeed – what a trick I was served! Instead of a few weeks’ fancy, I found that <i>Heaven’s last best gift </i>was something I ardently aspired to gain, and all because you, sweet Fanny, are the dearest, loveliest girl in existence.” Henry brought Fanny’s hand, which he had been holding the whole time and she had forgotten to worry about, up to his lips and kissed it very tenderly. “Have we come to an understanding now, my love?”
Fanny averted her eyes and nodded shyly. “I think I must believe that you were in
Although it was very much the answer he had expected, a look of relief spread across Henry’s countenance. “Then there is something I must ask you. Earlier, when you first spoke to me by the bench, you said that I almost had brought you to believe in me, but it would only feed my vanity to know my tricks very nearly worked – what precisely did you mean by that? I fear I very much want my vanity fed at this moment, even if it is not entirely good for me.”
Fanny could not meet his eyes. “I . . . I was talking nonsense. I had only just awoken and at first I thought I was still asleep.”
“I do not think it nonsense. I think you love me just a little. Tell me, sweet Fanny – you are too good to trifle with me – you have finally begun to care for me, have you not?”
When she at last looked up at Henry, her cheeks were tinged with rose, but she smiled bravely. “I think . . . I think I must have, for I do not find the thought of marriage to you so very abhorrent anymore. I do not mind that you hold my hand, and when you kissed it, the sensation was most pleasing. I . . . like to look upon your face and now understand why you are said to be handsome, though I never found you so before.”
“Whatever boost my vanity received earlier, you have certainly put it in its place – it is positively lowering to discover that I am not handsome, and that you are only beginning to consider me so, now that the glimmerings of love are shining in your eyes.”
“Do not tease me, sir,” said Fanny, finding a conversation of such intimacy difficult to maintain, but forging on nonetheless because all the pain and embarrassment such talk caused was more than equalled by the contentment the subject also brought. “I am trying my best to be honest with you. It is very strange for me now to find I do like you, after I was so determined against you for such a long time.”
Henry gave her hand a fond squeeze and kissed her fingers once more. “You have made me happier than I can say, my love. We had better return to the house, before your uncle sets the dogs on us. I would like to spend the rest of the evening out here with you, but my reputation does not allow it – I must think only of you now and all the respect that is your due, besides I cannot wait to share my joy with your family.”
The Bertrams all took much pleasure from the announcement. Lady Bertram promised Fanny one of Pug’s pups as a wedding gift – she would not miss Fanny now that she had Susan to take her place. Sir Thomas was happy to see his niece well provided for. Mrs Norris was assured that the wedding could help clear the reputation of her favourite and accepted it as the best of all evils, though little did she see that Fanny deserved to marry into an estate of four thousand pounds a year. Edmund quickly realised that the turn of events had put Mary Crawford once more within his grasp, and he blessed Fanny for not having accepted his earlier offer.
Shortly afterwards news came from Sotherton that Maria had been there ever since departing
On a fine day in May, the apple blossoms resplendent in
And so the love affair that began as a bit of Tom-foolery on one side, and as a source of irritation on the other, ended in a lasting passion, on both sides. Fanny and Henry soon found they had many things in common besides their mutual affection. They spent hours talking of their love of books and music and the natural world. Fanny became much stronger, walking daily with her husband along the avenue at Everingham, as they planned various improvements that only served to highlight that estate’s natural beauties. Henry learned to be a little less vain and frivolous, and Fanny learned to throw off her seriousness and laugh more. They spent a few seasons in
I would like to be able to say that Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram found equal happiness but that, dear friends, is another story.