"You wished to speak to me, Uncle?" Miss Ward nervously questioned from the entrance, trying to control her unease.
"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.
"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, "Yes. 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, but the prospect of his own added consequence upon the acquisition of a baronet for son-in-law had rendered her uncle unusually high-spirited.
"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's 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 was falling.
"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, incautiously displaying her alarm.
"After all this time, I can't 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. You will not see him again."
"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 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 her's were the most pressing.
"You are not!" Frances asserted with unaccustomed firmness. "Do not try to stand. I'll summon Abby."
"No!" she insisted, sitting up straighter. "I want to talk to you both freely. Mr. Ward 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 isn't going to propose?"
Miss Ward, still weak, could not help but smile fondly at her. "No, my dear. That's not it at all. You are assured your baronet. Had he not been engaged with Mr. Norris today, I'm sure he would have been here to secure your hand. We will surely see him tomorrow."
"Thank goodness," she sighed. Miss Ward observed the slight agitation of her features fade into the accustomed serenity. It must me 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's true," she muttered, as her 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 assured her of her own heart's security, it was hard to imagine the 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 inverse, Miss Ward thought bitterly, of the tableau frozen in her memory of their second night in Mr. Ward's guardianship, when she returned for the very first time, disconsolate but determined to persevere, from her uncle's office.