Thursday, October 30, 2014

Becoming Mrs. Norris: Part Six

Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four / Part Five

The wedding of Maria Ward to Sir Thomas Bertram was a triumph for all of Huntington, providing the entire town with a constant flow of gratifying gossip for many months. Lady Bertram arrived in state a few days before the ceremony to meet and approve her new daughter-in-law. Sir Thomas’ mother had not left the neighborhood of Mansfield in more than a decade. An entire floor of the best inn was required to house her and all her entourage: a companion, a lady’s maid, and her steward, who was brought along to make the travel arrangements, not to mention the coachman and two footmen. Not a person in the town was ignorant of how much Lady Bertram paid the innkeeper, what the party dined on, and that her ladyship came equipped with her own bedding.

The time leading up to Maria’s marriage was a dream-like haze to Miss Ward. Busy with patterns, menus, and flowers, she had little time to dwell upon the loss of Mr. Richards. In the general distraction, Maria and Frances were even less careful of their sister, so used to being cared for by her, than was their custom, and Miss Ward’s concerns were soon entirely lost in the bustle. She kept up with all her usual activities and more, only betraying her state of mind through the crease between her brows and the tightness of her smile, so her companions might be forgiven the lack of sensibility on this occasion. Lonesome suffering is the price those souls who seek to conceal their concerns from others must pay for their selflessness.  Instead of being commiserated with, it was she who soothed Maria’s frayed nerves when she met her new mother. The two ladies were much alike in disposition, but as Lady Bertram was a good deal more sophisticated, their similarities did nothing to hinder the formation of a ready attachment. This most daunting hurdle aside, Maria had nothing but her toilette over which to fret.

The big day dawned fair and rather warm for the season. Both her sisters attended the bride, and her uncle gave her away. The ceremony was performed by the usually absentee rector, who was not one to miss out on the union of anyone of influence, freeing Mr. Norris to attend his friend. Sir Thomas, cool and confident, was not a burdensome charge to his best man, and the two were able to have a perfectly rational and focused conversation as they passed the time at the church before the arrival of the Wards.

“The Misses Ward go with you to Mansfield?”

“Just Miss Frances. I think Ward believes I will bring Richards to Mansfield behind his back. I admit to entertaining the notion, so irritated was I with the man, but I cannot disobey her guardian.”

“He is wrong to separate two people who clearly care for one another and are not without means of support,” Norris said indignantly.

“Yes. Very wrong. I have spoken my mind to him on the subject, and that is all I can do but try and find Miss Ward a new beau. It would be a great deal easier if I could take her with us now. She will, however, join us for the season, at which time Miss Frances returns to her uncle.”

“I shall call on Miss Ward and keep her company an evening. She will feel the absence of her sisters more without her young man to distract her.”

“That is kind of you, Norris.”

The ceremony was undistinguished by any deviation from the text. Both bride and groom were happy, beaming, and fashionably dressed, just as they should be. They were remarked to make a very handsome pair, and great expectations were placed on the appearance of their future brood. A wedding breakfast was held by the elder Lady Bertram at the inn, as Mr. Ward had made no motion to host one himself. The wedding cake was consumed in its entirety, and all agreed on the success of the day.

Sir Thomas and Maria departed after the breakfast for Mansfield to be followed the next day by Lady Bertram’s party, now expanded to include Frances. She was to join the others at the inn first thing in the morning. Miss Ward slept in her youngest sister’s room that night, and they stayed awake talking well beyond the time they blew out their candles.

“I will miss this room,” Frances said. “I do not love it, and at times I have even hated it as much as the rest of this awful house, but it has been mine long enough to make me sentimental. I wonder if I will see it again?”

“Of course, you will, silly Fanny! You will be back in a few months, and it will be my turn to be gay.”

“You will try your chances in London’s marriage market?”

Miss Ward’s blush went unseen in the dark. “I must do what my uncle requests and try to find a more lofty husband.”

“But you love James!”

“I will overcome it in time,” she replied, not believing a word.

“It will be dreadful being here alone,” Frances lamented. “How shall we stand it? I wish I might come out and marry and never return.”

“It will not be so bad,” her sister said soothingly, but her words were again lies. Alone in the house, Frances would have to report to their uncle, as Miss Ward usually did, and there would be no one to shelter her from his temper and maliciousness. Her sister was determined to find a husband and break the guardianship. As Mr. Ward seemed disinclined to ever allow both ladies to visit Maria at the same time, for certain perverse reasons he would not share, it was the only way to escape.

“Maybe I might find a husband even without being out. Other sixteen-year-olds have done so. Maria said I could dine with them when they have company, and there are sure to be some eligible young men in the neighborhood.”

“If they are truly eligible and their intentions are good, I am sure Lady Bertram will instruct you accordingly.”

“You mean I could get married if I am asked?”

“Love is a precious and fickle thing. If it comes your way, grab it.”

“I will. Thank you, my dearest sister! What would we all have done without you?” She threw her arms around Miss Ward’s neck affectionately.

And what will I do without you? she thought. I shall find out soon enough.

Frances departed on time in the morning. Despite her late night, she awoke well before she needed to. So excited was she to be leaving Huntingdon, she had little emotion left for a tearful goodbye to her sister, who walked over to the inn to see her off. Their uncle did not join them.

Miss Ward put up a brave front, but a few tears were shed as she embraced Frances a final time. She was suddenly struck by the fear that she would never see her littlest sister again. It took a great deal of resolve to let her go, but she forced her arms to release and stood sentinel until the carriage was out of sight.

Miss Ward spent the first of many horrid dinners alone in her uncle’s company that night. Conversation was sparse, but what was spoken was designed to disconcert her.

“You must feel rather abandoned, I should think. No sisters, no doting lover: how shall your fill your days?”

“I am not one to lack occupation,” she briskly retorted.

“No. You are not. Always managing or coordinating something, you are, and when you bore of it, as you surely will without your sisters to distract you, I imagine there is a servant in need of a scold.” He smiled one of his rare, horrible smiles. “I can see you thirty years hence, the bane of all the servants and tenants in your neighborhood. You will be intrusive and overbearing. Just made for lady of the manor. I was right to send off Richards.” As she had nothing to say in response, he allowed the matter to drop, though references to future meddling in the affairs of nonexistent dependents became a new favorite taunt. It allowed him to remind her of James without actually having to say the poor man’s name. 

He was forever in her thoughts.  She wondered what he was doing and lamented the cruelty of fate should he really be expecting her to wait for him.  She made idle trips to the bakery in the vain hope that Mrs. Morgan might, once more, be made use of as an intermediary, but she was never beckoned into the back room again.

Maria proved a surprisingly strong correspondent, and the regular missives arriving from Mansfield Park became the highlight of Miss Ward’s days. She wondered if Frances had not taken their parting conversation too seriously, for Maria wrote of her flirting with two entirely different gentlemen at the same dinner party. Miss Ward replied that she hoped Frances would not make a cake of herself, and urged Maria to keep her on a tighter string. One of the gentlemen in particular, a Mr. Price, did not conform to the social aspirations of their uncle’s to which James had already been sacrificed, being a young lieutenant in the marines of no family, few expectation, and shaky gentility. He was a guest of a neighbor, which is how he came to be at Mansfield, and Miss Ward sincerely hoped he would be departing soon. Maria wrote of him no more, so she supposed he had.

Time passed slowly, but the New Year finally came and went, and the time began to approach for Frances to return to Huntingdon and Miss Ward to accompany Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram to London. Frances treated her return to her uncle’s home like one being incarcerated in a dungeon, never again to see the light of day. She sulked the entire carriage ride, Maria reported, and confined herself to her room upon arrival, there to remain for nearly two days, until the last minutes before the London party’s departure.

Knocking on her sister’s door, Frances entered when beckoned and readily accepted the lovingly proffered embrace.

“I had wished to visit with you before I left,” Miss Ward chided. “Why would you not come out of your room?”

“It is too dreadful being back here, alone without you for months! How have you born my absence?”

She put on a brave face. “The days were quiet, but I found a great deal to occupy myself, and I shall be able to look back on these past months fondly.”

“And dinner with Uncle in the evening?”  

“A largely quiet affair.”

“I hope he holds his tongue with me, too,” Frances said.  “If we needn’t talk, I think I can bear it.”

“You will do marvelously, just wait and see. You have all your friends in town to marvel with first-hand reports of the splendors of Mansfield. You will have visitors every day and dine out three times a week.”

“I am sorry to hide in my room so long. I will miss you, Emily. I wish I might go to London, too.”

Miss Ward patted her head soothingly. “Perhaps next year. I shall miss you, as well.”

“Do you really think so?”

“If I can manage to get a proposal out of an eligible suitor, you certainly shall.”


“How will you bear to do it, when you must still love James?’

“We bear what we must, Fanny dear.”

**********

Come back tomorrow to read Part Seven: The Conclusion

**********

A TWISTED AUSTEN GIVEAWAY

Today's giveaway includes a complete set of Tales

of Less Pride & Prejudice (First Impressions, Second Glances, and Holidays at Pemberley), an extremely limited handmade edition of Jane & Bingley: Something Slightly Unsettling, and a set of Northanger Abbey themed handmade Halloween cards! Tales of Less P&P are available in ebook form only to international entrants, while North American residents can choose between the paperback and ebook. 

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Becoming Mrs. Norris: Part Five

Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four

That night was the worst Miss Ward had known since she lost her parents. Sleep was impossible as all the ramifications of Mr. Richards’ departure from her life flooded upon her. Not to see him, not to talk to him, never to have the children of whom they had so often dreamed … these were the notions that consumed her mind until the break of dawn, when she finally drifted into sleep from sheer emotional exhaustion. She did not sleep long. Her household duties commenced early, and soon enough, a maid was drawing back her curtains. Mindlessly and by force of habit, she dressed herself and began to go through the motions of the day.

Her first duty was a trip to the bakery. Her uncle would not employ enough hands in the kitchen, and so they purchased their bread in town. It was usually one of her favorite daily tasks, but on this morning, Miss Ward was seen to shuffle down the road, her shoulders hunched like that of a far older woman. The brisk air did nothing to stir her senses as it usually did. It was a wonder she even arrived at the correct destination, for she thought not of where her feet carried her.

“Good morning, Miss Ward!” Mrs. Morgan said upon her entry. “Step right over here to collect your order.”

The world was already a surreal enough place that Miss Ward moved towards a side room unquestioningly, even though she had always collected her order at the counter in the past. Once sheltered from the main shop, the baker’s wife turned to her excitedly.

“Mr. Richards was here first thing this morning, Miss. Said to give you this when you came in.” She held up an enveloped sealed in red wax with an R. Miss Ward snatched at it eagerly. “Lovers’ trysts! It is all very romantic, Miss Ward, and I don’t mind being your go between this one time, but do ask your young man not to make a habit of it. I expect we will be hearing the banns read on your behalf soon enough.” She winked. “Now that Miss Maria is so well spoken for, there is nothing keeping you back!”

Miss Ward was appalled to be spoken to so familiarly, but she thrilled to know James did not leave town without saying goodbye, and at least gossip had not yet carried about word of his dismissal. With a quelling glance, she collected her goods and departed.

Such a missive must not wait to be read. As soon as she was off the town’s main road, she retrieved it from her reticule and broke the seal.

My dearest Emily,

I write this in the utmost haste, without nearly enough time to express all that I feel. Your uncle is sending me to Scotland immediately. He arranged for a business associate to take me on at a far better salary than I presently enjoy.  It is an opportunity too good to refuse, but in that it separates me from you and puts a temporary pause on our plans.

How I hate to postpose our happiness even a day, but Mr. Ward is correct: I cannot say no. I do think that separating us was his main motivation in recommending me for the position, as he refused to countenance my speaking with you before my departure, but we will have the final say in the matter. I will spend two or three years in Edinburgh – no more than five – making my fortune, and then I shall return to marry you.  I wish I might send for you, but the company will provide my housing only if I am unhindered by a family. The time will pass quickly, and you will spend it luxuriating at Mansfield Park, seeing Frances properly into the world. You shall be a far better chaperone for her than Maria, you must know. I shall return for you wealthy enough to support you near the style you will by then have grown accustomed to. It will all be for the best.

It is devastating to not say goodbye in person, but the travel arrangements Mr. Ward made allowed me no time to see you. I do not think I can contrive to write as your uncle wished me not to, but know that I love you, and please stay true to me no matter what is said to the contrary.

Your eternally devoted,

James

Miss Ward had long ceased walking. The first notion that clearly penetrated beyond his love was that James did not see the situation in the same light as her uncle had presented it to her the evening before. This begged more questions than it answered. She could think of no reason why her uncle would have so decidedly put an end to all her expectations if there was still hope for James and her to marry. He would much prefer to watch her flail in uncertainty before providing the final blow than let her absorb it all at once, or at least so she thought. And why would James not be allowed to correspond if they were still engaged, as his tone and all the expressed sentiments implied? No. The more she studied the letter, the more it became clear it was written in no small degree of desperation, as did the method employed in its delivery. He was trying to pretend her uncle could not keep them apart, that love and loyalty would defeat evil schemes, but she knew better. He had guardianship of her until she was twenty-five: nearly a full four years more. If Mr. Ward was determined to see his niece married into a loftier sphere than that occupied by the clerk, she had not the slightest doubt he would prevail. While he could not coerce her into marriage, her could certainly make life unpleasant if she resisted. Surely she would resist for a while, but she knew eventually she would break down, especially if Frances was made a pawn in his terrible game.

The only hope now lies at Mansfield, she thought as her feet began to move on their own accord, propelling her back to the hated edifice she had for too long called home. Even if I have lost James forever, at least we need not remain here much longer. Perhaps, if Sir Thomas sees the injustice of Uncle’s actions, he might even be able to help us.   

With such thoughts as these in her mind did she approach the baronet on his next call. As expected, he was struck by the cruelty of Mr. Richards’ dismissal. Indeed, he felt it far more deeply than she expected.

“A terrible way to treat a man! His employee, no less! My dear Miss Ward, you have my deepest sympathies.” He frowned. “Something ought to be done.”

“My dear Sir Thomas, please know the relief and gratitude with which I greet your words. I knew you would come to our aid. Indeed, when we are all settled together at Mansfield Park, I think you could invite Mr. Richards to visit, and there is very little Uncle could do about it.”

He looked somewhat alarmed at this notion, and she wondered if he was too scared to defy her uncle. Truthfully, he was just daunted at the prospect of having both his new sisters disrupting his visions of future domesticity, but not being able to say so, he returned, “Perhaps the thing to do is speak to Mr. Ward about it myself.”

Miss Ward knew not what to make of this. No one had ever interceded on her behalf with her uncle, and she had no notion how he would respond to such a tactic. “I do not know that my uncle would not be rather offended in my discussing the matter with you, Sir Thomas,” she cautiously replied.

“I do no see why he would be when we are all soon to be family.”

“Uncle is sensitive to what he perceives as intrusion.”

“Nonsense, Miss Ward! The man is no charmer, but he is a gentleman and lives by the same codes of conduct that guide us all.  As encumbered as he is known to feel by your guardianship, he will welcome my interest. Is he in his office now?”

“I believe so,” Miss Ward meekly replied.

“Good. I shall pop in while Maria finishes her toilette. I see I shall spend many an hour waiting for her to finish dressing,” he said, in no way unhappy at the prospect, and left the room.

Miss Ward sat in nervous anticipation for Sir Thomas to return, and when ten minutes passed she called Frances to her to help defray her anxiety.

“What is it Sir Thomas wished to speak to Uncle about? I would think he would avoid him as much as possible, now the proposal is settled.”

“I believe he intends to intercede on James’ behalf,” Miss Ward said in far from certain tones.

“Much good it might do you. I hope he does not take it amiss.”

“As do I.”

But Mr. Ward did take it amiss. What good was the baronet to him after taking Maria off his hands if it were not to introduce her sisters to equally eligible bachelors? He listened as Sir Thomas, who sat entirely undisturbed by the hazy atmosphere, expounding on his good intentions towards his intended’s sisters, perfectly assured his benevolence would be welcomed.

“So you see, sir, while I agree Miss Ward might look higher, and a visit to Mansfield will give her the opportunity to meet a broader variety of gentlemen, if Richards proves consistent and the lady likes him, I do not see why they might not be wed. It would be cruel to keep them apart. They might marry from Mansfield, if it is the expense that concerns you.”

“The girls all have dowries enough to cover any wedding extravagancies. I am not opposed to them visiting their sister, but you seem to be under the misconception that they shall be leaving my guardianship upon your marriage, while I assure you I have every intention of fulfilling my duties to them. Until Miss Ward comes of age at twenty-five or finds an acceptable husband, the ladies will remain members of my household.”

Sir Thomas was confused. “I understood you found their guardianship burdensome?” 

“Indeed I do, but that does not make me any less inclined to honor the trust my departed brother placed in me when he left them in my care.”

“Very well. The ladies will still want to make prolonged visits to Maria, I am sure, and I hope you do not object if Richards makes up part of the party on occasion when they do.”

“But I do object, Sir Thomas. My former clerk is immersed in a rather dangerous exploratory venture in the north. He will be kept busy with his occupation for the next several years, if he survives that long.”

“What does he do that incurs such danger?”

“He is working with a mine survey group.”

“Is that so very dangerous?”

“In this particular terrain, yes.”

“But why would the man agree to such a risk?”

“He is in need of money. The job pays lucratively.”

“And is that to be the end of the matter?” Sir Thomas asked with some indignation.

“Yes, but to say my nieces’ visits will not be so often or so extended if I believe they are meeting with company of which I do not approve. Nor shall Miss Ward be allowed to receive or send any communications to Richards. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly well, sir! You certainly have the right to dictate the terms of your nieces’ visits, but I must say I think it shabby for a man with no affection for them to take such a perverse interest in their affairs. “

“Yes, I do have the right. Think what you like, Sir Thomas. It concerns me little. You won’t shab off now the notice has already been sent to the papers.“

“I have no intention of doing anything of the sort! I love Miss Maria.”

“Then take her with my blessings, for all the good they will do you. The sooner the banns are read, the better.”


“I already spoke to Norris on that account this morning. The wedding will take place in three weeks’ time. Good evening, sir.” The baronet bristled, leaving the room abruptly and shutting the door with distinct enough temper to elicit a chuckle from Mr. Ward.

**********

Come back tomorrow to read Part Six!

**********

A TWISTED AUSTEN GIVEAWAY


Todays winner will receive all three Twisted Austen


Tales - Emma & Elton, Jane & Bingley, and Becoming Mrs. Norris  - plus an extremely limited handmade print copy of Emma & Elton AND a set of greeting cards featuring harrowing moments from Austen's novels!


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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I've been Interviewed at My Kids Led Me Back to Pride and Prejudice!

Interrupting this Twisted Austen once more to point your attention towards another blog, My Kids Led Me Back To Austen, where Tamara H has posted an interview she did with me. It had been a while since I had done an interview, and she asked really great questions. Lots of fun. Please check it out and enter to win copies of The Madness of Mr. Darcy!

http://tamaraausten77.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-madness-of-mrdarcy-alexa-adams.html

Becoming Mrs. Norris: Part Four

Part One / Part Two / Part Three

Miss Maria was ready to greet Sir Thomas when he arrived for dinner Wednesday evening, decked out in a new gown her sister felt justified in purchasing for the occasion. Maria must look her best, just in case Sir Thomas had any unresolved doubts about the proposal, despite his professed conviction. Miss Ward ushered him into the usual parlor to gaze upon such a vision of loveliness as to momentarily steal his breath away. He was perfectly resolved.

Sir Thomas was informed that Mr. Ward and Mr. Richards were expected at any moment, and he had not yet completed his compliments to the ladies when the clatter of homecoming became distinct. The two gentlemen presented themselves, one all smiles and complaisance and the other lined in displeasure. What was odd in all this, at least to both Sir Thomas and Miss Ward, was that the grins and frowns bedecked the wrong miens.

Maria and Frances might listen to their uncle's unusually amiable greeting with nothing more than mild surprise, but Miss Ward could not, schooled as she was to know better. She cast a questioning glance towards James, but he refused to catch her eye as he usually did. In public, her uncle's behavior was often more gentlemanly, but a constant hint of surliness kept others from mistaking his manners for warmth. Suddenly, tonight, he was inviting and cordial, far more so than she had ever seen him before, and Miss Ward mistrusted such an unnatural degree of amiability, especially when politeness would suffice. That he was even occupying the parlor, which she could only recall him appearing in twice before, for all the world as if it were his usual chair upon which he sat, seemed little less than miraculous. He was cheerful; it was not an act, and as this truth sank in upon her, Miss Ward was overcome with a nervous dread the like of which she had never before known. The only time she had ever seen him so pleased was when he had prepared something awful for her to endure, and the look on Richards’ face taught her to fear the worse.

Throughout the evening’s meal, Miss Ward's fevered brain meditated on each word her uncle uttered, dissecting it for hidden meaning. Having lived through much sorrow, she had come to depend upon it and felt a foreboding certainty that something would occur while the gentlemen remained cloistered with their wine to spoil the first glimmer of good fortune to smile upon the Ward sisters in more than a decade. She felt some relief when an elated Sir Thomas rejoined them, making excuses for the other two, who had some matter of business to attend and would follow shortly. His high spirits bore all the aspect of a man assured of his happiness, but her unease could not long remain abated. She stared at the door, willing James to open it, but he never came.

Sir Thomas had every reason to celebrate, and it was his delight to entertain the two younger ladies with anecdotes from his travels. The eldest, he mentally noted, seemed not as engrossed as he was used to find her, but dismissing her inattention as anomalous and outside his concerns, he ignored it most successfully. The glowering uncle had smiled upon his suit, and though Sir Thomas was somewhat taken aback by the abrupt manner with which Mr. Ward demanded to know his intentions, he was happy to have his blessing, however it was attained. If the uncle's company was not what he preferred, he derived great comfort in the location of Mansfield Park, just far enough from Huntington to make casual visits forbidding. He looked forward to removing Maria to that happy sanctuary as soon as he secured her agreement, of which he had little doubt, and the banns were read.

Sir Thomas, Maria, and Frances (who partook too much wine and was ill the next day) celebrated well into the evening. Once or twice, Sir Thomas questioned the absence of Mr. Richards, but his own delight was such that he paid the attention little matter. When a servant came to call Miss Ward to her uncle’s office it settled it in his mind. Soon there would be two engagements to celebrate.

"You wished to speak to me, Uncle?" she nervously questioned from the entrance, trying to control the swarming in her brain. James was not in the room.

"Yes. Come in, and close the door," commanded the blinding cloud of smoke.

Usually her conferences with Mr. Ward were brief and impersonal, requiring no semblance of privacy, much to her preference. As soon as the knob clicked shut, the smoke began to concentrate. She struggled to suppress the urge to cough and looked in the direction where she knew her uncle sat, camouflaged by smoggy light, there to await her fate.

“Sit down,” he commanded, and she took her seat with even more reluctance than on her previous visit to the dreaded room. "Sir Thomas Bertram will propose to Maria," his voice boomed ponderously. "She will say yes!" 

It was more an order than a question, but still she replied, "She has as good as already done so. She has not a thought otherwise." It was far more information than she needed to supply, and instantly she regretted having said anything at all.

"I had not thought you girls would turn off so well. Your father was a numbskull, from birth to death, and your mother precisely the kind of lady to which one always expected Edmund to saddle himself: cherubic on the surface, with the instincts of a trollop in her heart." He smiled at his niece's grimace. "I dare say Maria takes after her, though being as empty-headed as my brother, it is impossible to impute the slightest intelligence to her maneuvers. She must act entirely by instinct, like any animal. I applaud her breeding!"

Her uncle laughed, and Miss Ward willed herself not to faint. He saw her struggle, like a worm on a hook, and savored the moment. "It struck me with force as I considered the matter last night that I have sadly undervalued my brother's children. If Maria, with not a brain in her head, can catch a baronet, than you, my dear, might marry a deal higher than poor Richards."

She coughed, and he knew triumph. "Sir?" she managed to sputter, reaching out for knowledge of what awaited her at the bottom of the hole through which she had fallen.

"I know you have an agreement with him, but as it was never formalized, it matters little. Much more challenging is finding someone to replace him."

It was like being buried. "Sir?" she gasped again, incautiously displaying her alarm.

"After all this time, I cannot very well keep him around and expect the two of you to behave properly, can I?" He waited for a moment before barking, "Well?"

She jumped and a startled "No!" broke from her throat.

"Indeed, not! I let him go this morning. This was his farewell dinner. You will not see him again."

"But I did not say farewell!" she protested.

“No,” the smoke seemed to sneer, “I said it for you. There is nothing more to be said. You may go," and with the wave of his hand, he sent her from the room.

Miss Ward knew not how her legs conveyed her without fail through the door and down the hall to the parlor where her sisters sat, but somehow she made it there before succumbing to the overwhelming sensation to swoon.

"Sister! Sister!" she heard them cry, as four arms lifted her into a chair and smelling salts assaulted her senses.

"I am fine," she said weakly, instinctively attending their needs, even when hers were the most pressing. Looking about the room with blurry eyes, she determined Sir Thomas had departed.

"Do not try to stand. I shall summon Abby," said Frances with surprising resolution.

"No!" she insisted, sitting up straighter. "I want to talk to you both freely. My uncle has shared information with me of the greatest importance."

Maria's face turned pale. Making use of the smelling salts for herself, she asked nervously, "Sir Thomas has his permission to purpose?" 

Miss Ward, still weak, could not help but smile fondly at her. "Yes, my dear. That is not it at all. You are assured your baronet."

"Thank goodness," she sighed. Miss Ward observed the slight agitation of her features fade into the accustomed serenity. It must be marvelous to be Maria, she thought.

"If all goes well with Sir Thomas," Frances pursued, "then what is it that so upset you, Sister?"

She looked at her hands and fiddled the handkerchief they clutched with unwarranted attention. "My uncle has dismissed Mr. Richards."

"What?" both sisters replied in simultaneous astonishment.

"It is true," she muttered, as the tears began to fall. "Since Maria is to marry so high, it is Mr. Ward's opinion that I could do much better myself."

"But you have loved him for years!" Frances cried in shock, while Maria silently struggled to imagine how her sister must feel. Though only just reassured her of her own heart's security, it was hard to imagine such blackness of doubt and disappointment.  

"Ever since he first came to dinner and was so kind to me!" Words being impossible and unnecessary, the elder sister wept while the younger provided comfort, a most perverse inversion, Miss Ward thought bitterly, of the tableau frozen in her memory of their second night in Mr. Ward's guardianship, when she returned from her uncle’s offices for the very first time, disconsolate but determined to persevere.


***********

Come back tomorrow to read Part Five!

**********

A TWISTED AUSTEN GIVEAWAY 

On offer today: The Madness of Mr. Darcy (North American residents can choose between paperback and ebook while international entrants are restricted to ebook) and Becoming Mrs. Norris!

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