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!