Henry and Maria
“Come along, Maria. It's rather brisk out here, you know, and I should not wish to catch cold.”
Maria Rushworth barely heard her husband, lost in contemplation of the townhouse before which her luxurious carriage stood. She had never been one to swoon, having always enjoyed excellent health, but the prospect of entering the edifice made her knees weaken and quake. Tonight she would see him, the man she had loved, for the first time since her unfortunate marriage to the oafish fellow waiting to hand her down, tottering from one foot to another in an attempt to emphasize his need for warmth – an action, like all of his, which filled her dejected heart with the utmost disdain. Chiding herself for lack of courage, she reluctantly grasped the plump hand extended to her and set forth to confront her fate.
The Rushworths, upon entering the house of Mr. and Mrs. Fraser, garnered no small amount of attention. Though Mary Crawford had only confided to her dear friends, Mrs. Fraser and Lady Stornaway, the events that had occurred the previous fall at Mansfield Park, it is understandable how the tale spread from these ladies to their many acquaintances. Miss Crawford had only imparted the story of Maria Bertram's flirtation with Mr. Crawford as a means of soothing the ruffled sensibilities of her old friends, understandably disturbed upon learning that Henry's long-sought heart had been taken, and by a lady with few worldly prospects. It was natural that Mrs. Fraser should tell the tale to Miss Fraser, as it was with this young woman that her expectations for Mr. Crawford had rested, and that a young girl of dashed hopes would keep such a juicy bit of gossip to herself is almost inconceivable. The new Mrs. Rushworth was quite the sensation of the season, and if that elegant lady, with her striking good looks and respectable fortune, had failed to entrance Mr. Crawford, what chance had a Margaret Fraser? And to be the cousin of the mythical Fanny Price, the lady who had succeeded where so many others had tried and failed – how much more deeply must the blow have been felt by Mrs. Rushworth, knowing that her father had harbored such a viper under her own roof, and at her own family's expense? Miss Fraser, thanks to Miss Crawford, knew that tonight would be the first time the two had met since the lady's marriage, and she and her companions were agog with curiosity to see how events would transpire.
Miss Fraser was certainly correct in assessing Maria's sentiments towards her cousin. That Fanny, of all people, should have proved a rival to Miss Bertram was excruciating. Never mind that when Mr. Crawford had fallen in love with Miss Price, Miss Bertram had already become Mrs. Rushworth – such reflections could not ease the pain of knowing that her frumpy, wallflower of a relation had succeeded where she had failed. And then to have rejected Mr. Crawford's proposals! This notion was even more shattering to Maria's pride. While she was relieved that she would not be meeting a Mrs. Crawford, her outrage in knowing that Fanny had thought slightingly of what she most coveted tore at her vanity, never previously tried until Henry had entered her life.
Maria felt the eyes of the room upon her as she entered, finding strength in the knowledge that her husband's wealth, if not providing happiness, had at least purchased the exquisite gown so carefully chosen for the occasion, determined as she was that both Mr. Crawford and the world would see her to the utmost advantage. Yet gratitude for becoming armor was insufficient in overcoming her disgust for Mr. Rushworth's. No amount of money thrown away at the best tailors London had to offer could disguise the inelegance of his figure, and no amount of worldly worth could overcome the disdain that, she was certain, all thinking people would instinctively feel for him as soon as the sorry man opened his mouth to utter a word. For Maria, forced to further suffer the clumsiness of his conjugal attentions, he was abhorrent. In her innocence she had believe that familiarity and a handsome income would overcome her revulsion, but never had she been more wrong. Each day only increased her misery.
Surreptitiously, she glanced around the room, searching for the man with whom all her hopes had once lain, but she did not see him. For a moment she felt a burst of hope that he would not, after all, be present, but the sensation was fleeting, replaced by an unaccountable wave of disappointment. She would rather meet him when secure in the glory of her best looks than accidentally be taken by surprise one day. Besides, she had rehearsed her greeting, carefully calculated in its indifference, and it would be, she rationalized, a shame to waste the preparation.
“There is your brother Edmund, my dear, over by Miss Crawford. Shall we pay our respects?” He offered her his arm, which she took with the lightest touch she could contrive, all contact with him filling her with repugnance. They moved across the room, smiling at acquaintances, with all the appearance of a happy couple, or at least Maria hoped. If the more discerning members of the gathering, such as the two whom they now approached, could see through her facade, she trusted her husband remained in complete ignorance.
“Maria! Rushworth! How do you do this evening?” greeted Edmund. Maria smiled at him, assuring him of her well-being, and he responded in kind. Though the siblings were not close, they could not have lived all their lives in the same house without detecting the uneasiness that lay behind both their happy pretensions. Edmund felt some innate sympathy for his sister's plight in such a husband, but she had made her choice and must abide by it. Maria, in turn, felt all the damage the Crawfords had inflicted, and took some malicious comfort in the knowledge that her brother, too, suffered at their hands.
Mr. Rushworth took himself off to the card room, where he would surely lose to the many professed friends who found him lucrative bait, but Maria remained in her brother's company. Pleased to be relieved, for the moment, of her husband's unwanted companionship, she tried to forget her anxiety for the approaching encounter and had almost succeeded, diverted by Miss Crawford's always amusing banter, when suddenly he was there, just inside the room, greeting the Frasers warmly. It took all of Maria's self control to not walk towards him, as her body and her heart instinctively told her to. He looked just as always: that striking, dark countenance which had once seemed so undeniably plain in her eyes was now undoubtedly the most handsome she could imagine. He was smiling, that irresistible smile, all ease, the epitome of what Mr. Rushworth lacked. He must have known that she would be there, but he made no effort to seek her in the crowd. His indifference steeled her nerves. Mustering herself, she managed to turn away and focus her attention back on the conversation at hand. She stood by his sister; he would come to her.
Mr. Crawford was not as indifferent to the new Mrs. Rushworth's presence as he feigned, having immediately noticed her upon entry into the Fraser's house. It was hard not to, so resplendent was she in her dashing gown and jewels. He thought of Fanny, just briefly, and how uncomfortable she would be in such finery, and a sense of self-congratulation filled his being. He was not one to be blinded to the diamond in the rough when presented with a jewel that sparkled more, though it was of lesser value. Knowledge of his own perception could only bring pleasure. The fact that Fanny had not yet consented to be his wife did not trouble him. Her reluctance only increased her worth, especially when compared with Maria, who had proved such an easy conquest. He completed his civilities to his hosts – was that a hint of resentment he detected in Miss Fraser's eyes? no matter – and made his way towards his sister.
“My dear Mary! How do I find you this evening?”
“Perfectly well as always, brother, so long as I confine myself to the very best company the room affords. How incongruous that it should include a clergyman!”
”Hello Bertram. It is always a pleasure. I trust all at Mansfield are well?”
“Very much so, Crawford. Thank you. I believe you have the most recent information regarding my cousin in Portsmouth, whom I trust you found in health.”
Henry frowned. “Not as well as I would have liked. I'm afraid that close quarters have robbed her of her bloom. I do not think Sir Thomas would have sent her there had he been fully aware of the conditions in which the Price family live.”
“Indeed? I would not doubt my father's knowledge of their situation, as it was precisely that which motivated him to suggest the visit. But here you see my sister, Mrs. Rushworth, to whom city life has caused no ill-effects.”
He finally turned to look at her and was shocked by what he saw, though Edmund was correct: it in no way smacked of ill-health, only imperiousness. Henry knew he had made some impact on Maria Bertram's heart, but he was unprepared to be greeted by such a profound degree of resentment. Edmund, too, was surprised by her haughtiness, quite unlike the usual manners of his thoroughly well-bred sister, and the recollection of Fanny's words regarding Mr. Crawford's former attentions to Maria rose unbidden in his mind.
Collecting himself, Henry bowed and said, “My dear Mrs. Rushworth. Marriage suits you indeed.”
Maria dropped the slightest of curtseys, saying only, “Mr. Crawford,” in acknowledgment.
But Henry was not one to be so easily put off. “ And where is Miss Bertram this evening? I thought to see her here.”
“She is dining with cousins of ours.”
“I see. Please convey my best wishes to her, and my hopes to meet her while she remains in town.”
Maria nodded in response.
Stepping into this most awkward conversation, Edmund thought to return to the subject he perceived to be not only the safest, but also the most pleasing to himself, by inquiring again after Fanny's well-being.
“I really am quite concerned, Bertram,” replied Henry, with an affecting degree of worry etched upon his face. He was not sorry to see Maria's chin jut even farther into the hemisphere. Clearly her pique had more to do with his choice of bride than her own disappointment. This he could not only bear, but thought quite proper, as it fulfilled his intention of proving to the lady what sort of woman it was that could attach a man of sense. “I offered to convey her home at any time. All she need do is send a line to my sister, but I fear she will not be budged.”
“No. Fanny would never dream of leaving Portsmouth until my father called for her. I do hope your worry is unfounded. My cousin has never been of robust constitution, and the lack of exercise to be had in her family home must account for her current disorder. But do not fear. Once she is returned to Mansfield, she will be as she was, and, if my father is correct, far better for having gained an appreciation for the luxuries she has come to take for granted.”
“I cannot think that Miss Price has ever taken anything for granted in her life,” Miss Crawford said, having been watching Mrs. Rushworth with a great deal of scrutiny, and finding herself unable to resist the urge to praise the often overlooked Fanny. “You do her a disservice, Mr. Bertram. Never have I known a more appreciative creature.”
“My dear Miss Crawford, if anyone understands Fanny's finer qualities, I think it must be I, having always been her best friend. No, indeed, I think my father is quite correct in his approach. Fanny has been sheltered at Mansfield, and a taste of life's realities can only do her good.”
“I hope you are right, Bertram. While I appreciate Sir Thomas' efforts, recognizing them to have been made on my behalf, I do hope the treatment may soon be considered complete.”
“Excuse me,”said Maria, unable to endure any more, “but I believe my husband beckons me. Edmund, Miss Crawford, Mr. Crawford.” She pronounced the last name with significant disdain.
Later that evening, when Henry and Mary were able to converse more privately, she teased him on Mrs. Rushworth's account. “Never have I seen the lady so put out, Henry. Clearly, your proposal to Fanny has been perceived as a personal slight.”
“If Mrs. Rushworth learns from this experience what qualities are truly pleasing to a man of discernment, she will be better for it in the long run. I trust I have done her a service.”
“I do not think she regards it in that light.”
“No. She clearly does not. I suppose I should have expected it, but I must say that it chagrins me to see her so cold when I am used to her inviting smiles. I wonder if I cannot sooth her resentment? It will not do for us to always meet so when we are cousins.”
“No indeed. Only be careful, Henry. You do not wish to trifle with her, not when Fanny is your goal. I think she cannot have as much satisfaction in her marriage as she would wish the world to suppose, and in such a situation, a proud lady can prove volatile.”
“Do not worry for me, Mary. I know where my heart lies, as does Mrs. Rushworth. Did you note her face when I said I'd like to collect Fanny from Portsmouth?”
“Jealously does not become her.”
“Certainly not. I must see if something cannot be done about it.”
Several weeks passed in which Henry was able to enact his plans. He had thought of leaving town for Everingham, as he told Fanny he would, and while a small pang was experienced in knowing she would disapprove of his procrastination, the lure of melting Mrs. Rushworth's hostility overrode any attending discomfort. His progress, over just the few formal meetings that had occurred between the two since the Fraser's party, had been considerable. Mrs. Rushworth was easier in her acknowledgment of him, and his very judicial attempts to not mention Fanny in her presence, an act made easier by Edmund's return to Mansfield, had their effect. Furthermore, when news of Tom Bertram's illness spread quickly through the town, as any misfortune befalling the heir of a very pretty property will, Henry was quick to perceive how such ill-tidings could be turned to his purpose. As knowledgeable as he was in the workings of the female heart, he knew just how to approach Maria in the very manner that must engage her sentiments, and if the thought crossed his mind that she seemed relatively unaffected by her brother's waning health, despite her protestations otherwise, he did not for long dwell upon the suspicion. After all, she was not the lady he wished to marry, so if he found that she lacked a tender heart it was of no concern to him. On the contrary, it rather made his current activities all the more innocuous. For Henry Crawford was a man who liked occupation, and while Fanny remained in Portsmouth, he thought the diminishment of Maria Rushworth's animosity towards him a very worthwhile manner in which to ward off idleness. If such a course aroused any lingering affection she might still harbor for him, he trusted that it would cause her no enduring degree of suffering.
As for Mrs. Rushworth, seeing Henry again only served to increase her already notable intolerance for her husband, a trend intensified by Julia's relocation to their cousin's home in Bedford Square. Maria suspected the move had something to do with increasing her younger sister's access to Mr. Yates, who, having recently arrived in town, had been paying her notable attention, but she cared little for that, only feeling put out that she now faced increased solitude with her husband. His inescapable presence was agonizing, and she had taken to feigning evening headaches in order to escape his affections. This malady, however, did not prevent her from enjoying the social delights of London, where she often found herself in Mr. Crawford's company. Seeing him in proximity to her husband was insupportable: one possessing all the grace, while the other so notably lacked that essential refinement. Inevitably, her heart having long ago succumbed to the former's charms, she felt her dismissive stance towards him fade. Although she tried to maintain her rancor, she was unable to, especially when he began to pay her such specific notice. No mention of Fanny was made between them, and Maria flattered herself that her superior charms were having their inevitable effect, erasing the sad image of her dowdy cousin from his mind. Yet her triumph was uncertain as long as she could so vividly recall that it was Fanny who had secured an offer of marriage from Henry, not her eminently more eligible self. The notion that she should test the extent of his attachment occurred to her uneasy mind and, regardless of her better judgment, would not be erased.
It was when she was in this precarious mood that Mr. Rushworth received news of his mother's intentions to join her son and daughter-in-law in Wimpole Street for the remainder of the season. The newlyweds had been invited to spend time in Twikenham by Maria's new friends the Aylmers, a couple in whose society she often found the Crawfords, with whom they seemed to be on very good terms. She had thought to decline the invitation, having no wish to confine herself to a small party in which her husband's company would be inescapable, but now she saw an opportunity to rid herself of his burdensome presence. Suggesting that he should accompany his mother on her journey from Bath, as, indeed, he was accustomed to doing prior to his marriage, she easily convinced him to repair to the spa town rather than attending her to the Alymers. Her hint that time out of the city, and in relative solitude, would be just the thing to repair her health played no small part in his ready compliance.
To do Maria justice, she had no notion that Henry would find himself likewise in the neighborhood of Richmond, though the thought did flit through her tortured mind that when he learned of her intended visit, as he inevitably would, a decision to retreat from the city would be a testament to his renewed devotion. So when he called at the Alymers, not long after her arrival, her spirits soared at the sight of him. This was how it should be, Maria and Henry together, with no odious Mr. Rushworth to hinder their interaction. Her friend, Mrs. Alymer, showed no disapprobation for what quickly revealed itself to be a determined flirtation. Indeed, that kind lady dropped several hints in Maria's ear regarding the best means of maintaining discretion and avoiding censure when engaged in such activities. And so they met everyday, and for the first time since her marriage, Maria found herself not only happy, but blissful. All the high spirits that belonged to Miss Bertram resurged in Mrs. Rushworth. Only two things hindered her elation: the constant reminder her name provided that she was, no longer, a Miss Bertram after all, and the ever present, unnamed shadow of Fanny. The latter, at least, she could address.
Her time at Twickenham was rapidly drawing to a close. She had received word from her husband regarding his return to London, and Maria knew that she must be there to welcome both him and the Dowager. To shirk such responsibility was precisely the kind of faux pas that Mrs. Alymer had warned her against. Her time was running out, and though she feared the response, her heart dictated that she must know what was Henry's present stance towards her cousin. Had Fanny indeed been plunged from his memory? Or was he once again only trifling with her affections, building her up for yet another shattering disappointment like the one she had suffered when he retreated from Mansfield, upon Sir Thomas' return from Antigua? She was determined to learn the truth.
It was on her final evening with the Alymers that she broached the subject. Henry had been invited to dine and, being a small party, and one hosted by those who wished to throw no rubs in the way of their guests' amusements, it was an easy matter to garner privacy once the gentlemen rejoined the ladies after the meal. In a quiet corner of the drawing room, Henry and Maria made themselves comfortable, engaged in the kind of nonsensical, slightly risque conversation that had come to define their interactions. When he momentarily took her hand – an impulse arising from the moment and atmosphere – the lady felt emboldened to speak.
“Do you return to London, or is it still your intention to retreat to Everingham, thereby depriving us of your company?”
“I do have business to attend to, and it has been put off rather longer than it should be, but I feel no remorse, though I know I should, for having succumbed to the pleasures of the moment, rather than applying myself to the rigors of duty.”
“Does your duty still include rescuing my cousin from the hardships of Portsmouth?”
Henry start was noticeable, having been totally taken aback by Maria's reference to Fanny. They had seemed to have an unspoken arrangement not to mention his hopes in that area, and it was this assumption that had allowed him to proceed in the current, diverting flirtation. Fanny need never know of it, as she would undoubtedly disapprove, and he had thought that Maria silence on the subject indicated her tacit agreement to not confuse simple diversion with either party's lasting romantic interests. Quickly recovering from his surprise, he replied in a manner befitting their casual dalliance:
“My offer does indeed still stand to return her to Mansfield, though I am glad that I have had the opportunity to enjoy the amusements of Richmond instead.”
This did not quite satisfy Maria. “But you will hasten to my cousin's call, should she request you to? Even if it meant forsaking your present pursuits?”
“As a gentleman, I am honor bound to. I have given her my word.”
“I had not thought your honor so dear, nor your word so unbreakable.”
Now Henry was truly alarmed. While he had often engaged a lady's affections and then abandoned her, he had never allowed himself to be placed in a situation where he would be called upon to defend his actions. It was not in his nature to verbally dash a lady's hope, and his withdrawal had always proven a sufficient end to all affairs grown tiresome. Not knowing what to say in response to such a direct attack, he fell back upon custom and evaded the question. Smiling, as if amused, he raised his voice to address the room: “Say Alymer, we cannot possibly allow Mrs. Rushworth to spend her last evening in such a mundane manner. What say you to a game of cards? That should keep us all highly entertained.”
The suggestion was eagerly agreed to, Mr. Alymer being a great gamester, and decorum necessitated that Maria relinquish her stance and comply with the will of the company. She recognized that her thrust had been thwarted, and, having never been accustomed to failure, Henry's parry only strengthened her resolve to press the point upon their next meeting. That it would surely take place in London, under her husband and mother-in-law's eyes, was of no account. Her pride would not allow her to retreat when her heart had already strayed so far.
Henry, on the other hand, gratefully withdrew to town, and upon arrival immediately sought out his sister's sage counsel. To his dismay, Mary had heard rumors about his activities in Richmond.
“I am afraid the town is rather abuzz with it. Society already had its eye on you both, you know, her cold reception of you at the Fraser's party having been very well observed. Such a reversal in her sentiments was bound to attract notice.”
“But I care naught for the woman, and why should mere dalliance put everything I hold most dear at risk? Nearly Fanny's very last words to me were, 'We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.' If I had heeded her advice, I certainly would not now be in this predicament.”
“She will be the making of you, Henry, if your foolishness has not destroyed your chances with her. At least you could have amused yourself with someone other than her own cousin, then perhaps the likelihood of her learning of the affair, retired as she lives, would have been very slim.”
“Well what had I best do now that the damage, by your estimation, has already been done?”
“I will write to her at once, asking her again to allow us to convey her to Mansfield in the strongest terms. If I mention your having seen Mrs. Rushworth at Twickenham, casually of course, it should assure her of the innocence of your dealings.”
“Precisely right. Thank you, Mary. And if she should still refuse, I will depart for Everingham instantly, thereby sparing myself of further encounters with Mrs. Rushworth.”
“You had best leave now. Why linger, when it will only give her further opportunity to embroil you in unwanted gossip?”
“When she is under the gaze of that vulture of a mother-in-law? I think I have little to fear in the immediate future. Besides, if I am at Everingham, how am I to be on hand to hear Miss Price's response when it arrives?”
But Henry had put too much stock into Maria's discretion, as we are all unfortunate enough to already know, and rejoice or deplore the miscalculation as each sees fit. Her reunion with Mr. Rushworth – whose presence was more inescapable than ever now that his mother was on hand to ensure the newlyweds behaved as such – was precisely the catalyst she required to throw all caution to the wind. Within the week, when the Rushworths spotted Mr. Crawford at the theater, Maria beckoned to him to join their box in such a particular manner that he had little choice, not being willing to publicly snub her, other than to comply. Under the very perceptive nose of her mother-in-law, Maria proceeded to engage Henry in the exact same kind of banter that had become their habit while in Richmond, and there was little he found himself capable of doing to stop her. Mr. Rushworth, formerly so oblivious to anything that might be considered clandestine, was put on his guard by his mother, and expressed his wrath not only openly, but vulgarly, catching the attention of all in attendance. Henry retreated as gracefully as he could, but his mortification was necessarily severe. He decided to instantly repair to Everingham, a far more safe location to await word from Fanny, but it was already too late. One Mr. Harding, a dear friend of Sir Thomas', having witnessed the fracas at the theater, sent both word of warning to Mansfield, and also called in Wimpole Street the very next day, in hopes of thwarting any larger scandal than that already incurred. There he met with a Mr. Rushworth very happy to receive his guidance, but the two Mrs. Rushworths proved less manageable. The elder maintained her stance that Maria was not to be trusted, while the younger, at the mere mention of Mr. Harding's arrival, panicked at the notion of her father's censure and fled Wimpole Street for the only safe haven that occurred to her – the house of Admiral Crawford, where Henry resided. Despite the disapproving eye of the butler, who wished to bar the distraught Mrs. Rushworth from entrance into the residence (her lone bandbox an alarming accoutrement to his knowledgeable eye), Henry had her shown in, not wishing to invoke further unwanted notice. This decision was fatal, for the Dowager, having been almost instantly informed of her daughter-in-law's suspicious departure by a trusty maidservant, an account reinforced by the butler's reliable recollection of the missing lady's destination, was quick to denounce Maria's actions to the world, unwilling to allow her son to be the dupe of a wife whom she had come to deem most unworthy.
It was thus that Henry found himself trapped. A few lines in the paper confirming the scandalous event sealed his fate. Recognizing the futility of his pretensions to Fanny's hand and swayed by the dubious advice of the Admiral, he escaped with his unwanted mistress into the countryside, there to spend many increasingly unsatisfying months in her company. It was not long before both detested the other so completely that a rupture was inevitable. He blamed her for the lose of Fanny, while she mocked him for his infatuation with the cousin she had never valued. If either party knew how little the subject of their dispute cared for either's actions – indeed, how she could almost be thankful for their foolishness, as it so cleanly cleared the path to her own happiness – their chagrin would have been perfectly complete.