Mr. Richards, as was his custom, dropped in upon the ladies the following evening. Miss Ward excitedly spoke to him of Sir Thomas’ attendance on Maria and her uncle’s seeming approval of the match. “Maria dotes on him with good reason. He is a most sensible and attentive gentleman. It is sure to be a match, and I could not be more pleased,” she gloated.
James smiled on her fondly. “You sound as if it was you who had nabbed a baronet, instead of a lowly clerk of limited prospects.”
“Do not be ridiculous, James. You are without doubt unexceptionable, and all of us will enjoy an increase in dignity upon Maria’s marriage. You could not look forward to speaking of your sister, Lady Bertram, had I not contrived for her to attract Sir Thomas’ notice in the first place.”
“Sir Thomas?” Maria called from across the room. “Are you speaking of Sir Thomas, Sister?”
Miss Ward smiled fondly at her beau and replied, “I was extolling his virtues to Mr. Richards, Maria.”
“I am looking forward to being introduced to the gentleman when I join you for dinner on Wednesday, Miss Maria. I shall be sure to congratulate Sir Thomas on the implicit approval it implies from Mr. Ward.”
She beamed. “Sir Thomas knows my uncle entertains but rarely and has expressed appropriate pleasure in the invitation.”
“Let us just hope he uses his time with Mr. Ward wisely. The invitation, no matter how desirable a suitor he may be, might never be repeated if my uncle takes him in aversion.”
“I do not think anyone could take Sir Thomas in aversion,” Maria cried in dismay.
“My uncle could dislike a saint,” Frances shot in saucily.
“Frances!” Miss Ward scolded. “If you must be subject to such thoughts, by all means do not voice them! One would hate to be thought ungrateful.”
“Ungrateful?” she sneered. “What has he ever done to deserve my gratitude?”
“Come now, Miss Frances.” James intervened before her sister could utter the instinctive rebuke. “We should not allow ourselves to be subject to those sentiments which are beneath us, though we confront them, nonetheless.”
“You understand,” she replied gratefully. “It must be terrible to have to work beneath the old cudgel day after day.”
“Frances!” Miss Ward again exclaimed, dismissing the girl to her room as James strove to hide his laughter beneath a cough. He shared a sympathizing glance with his young friend before she closed the door behind her.
“You must forgive Frances. There is a streak of stubbornness in her that I hope will dissipate with age.”
“You need not apologize. I am too well acquainted with Miss Frances to take such a speech amiss. We are all subject to high spirits at her age.”
“Yes, but self-preservation should be preventative in this case. I shudder to think what my uncle would say had he overheard her.”
“I thought we were discussing Sir Thomas?” Maria reminded her companions with a graceful pout.
“Of course, we were,” James acknowledged. “Do tell me more of this paragon.”
Maria’s eyes sparkled as she expounded upon his sterling qualities, her audience happily employed in observing and sharing her delight at the upcoming dinner party.
Sir Thomas was similarly excited to dine with Mr. Ward, though his eyes did not sparkle, and he refrained from giggling at the prospect. Such an invitation was just what he most desired.
He had not yet met Mr. Ward. When his nieces appeared in public, they were invariably chaperoned by a kindly lady from the neighborhood, and not belonging to it, Sir Thomas had never any occasion on which to make the gentleman’s acquaintance. Report had it that he never socialized except regarding business matters, and Sir Thomas was grateful to Miss Ward for procuring him this rare invitation. He had no doubt it was she who cleared the way.
Sir Thomas had no illusions regarding his fair lady's accomplishments. It was with bemused indulgence he surveyed her very poor carpet work, no lover's haze causing him to mistake diligence for aptitude, and it only increased his ardor. At twenty-five, he knew his own taste for quiet domesticity too well to seek an active mate. A lady like Miss Ward would be intolerable as a wife, however useful. Miss Maria, with her quiet elegance and pretty manners, might have been plucked from the Vermeer paintings he so admired during his tour of the continent.
His tastes for domesticity were learned from his parents. The elder Sir Thomas was well into his fifties when his heir was born. He had sired another namesake with his first Lady Bertram, but both died in a fire before the boy reached adulthood. When he finally remarried after decades of mourning, he chose a wealthy widow, young enough to give him a child but old enough to appreciate the domestic lifestyle the Bertrams had always preferred. He lived to know his boy as a young man, confidant in having imparted to him his values, tastes, and morality, and with his widow reinforcing those lessons as he reached his maturity, the young baronet grew into a steady man, comfortable in his place in the world and dedicated to his duties and family.
Sir Thomas was not on the lookout for a wife when he met Miss Maria, but he had often considered what qualities the next Lady Bertram would require. Aptitude was not amongst them. There was nothing amiss with an intelligent wife – his own mother was just such a one – as long as she was not of the managing sort, always busy doing something, just to be in motion. He preferred a woman who could sit still. He had thought he would like to marry a lady who was conversable and knew something of the world, but he discovered that unquestioning adoration and devotion, which Maria provided in abundance, were just as satisfactory as any broad political or literary discussion, such as one might have with a woman. More important than wit, accomplishments, or even a handsome dowry to Sir Thomas was the placidity of her lovely countenance. It spoke to him of years of blissful family life, tucked in the country with a brood of children to provide the only chaos to their days. She was his Lady Bertram, and having found her, he was determined to have her.
Sir Thomas hoped to find her uncle very accepting of his wishes, knowing full well his own value as a husband, but rumor of the man’s gruff and eccentric manners kept the young baronet from feeling confident, an uncertainty that did nothing to diminish the deep yearning sensation within his breast. The words of his friend, Mr. Norris, did little to alleviate his apprehensions.
“Ward is an abominable fellow. Tried to reason with him when I first came to the parish. He won’t be parted with a shilling for either the orphans or the paupers alike. No cause will move him an inch, and a man of his position owes something to the community. I pity his nieces.”
“They show no signs of abuse or neglect,” Sir Thomas countered.
“Ward will always maintain appearances,” Mr. Norris retorted. “I do not mean he beats them, but there are plenty of other ways to make an existence wretched. I have seen Miss Ward running errands for him in the dead of winter. What does the man have servants for? Not sparing Miss Ward worry, that much is certain.”
Sir Thomas pondered his friend’s words. “Perhaps I owe her even more gratitude than I realized for securing my invitation.”
“Save your thanks for after you meet the man.”
“I think I can manage an evening or two in his company if the ladies have survived all these years.” He thought of how gentle Miss Maria was, reassuring himself that such grace would have either succumbed or twisted into hatred over years of persistent harshness.
Norris scoffed. “I know what you are thinking, and it will not do, Tom! Miss Ward takes the brunt for her sisters, that much is well known. Your sweetheart’s pretty manners are entirely the result of Miss Ward’s care and protection. It is her back that breaks any blows dealt.”
The baronet frowned. “Do you think he actually makes her miserable?”
“No doubt in my mind. I know the lady reasonably well, just as I know everyone hereabouts. She would have married young Richards ages ago if it were not for the sisters. She won’t budge until he has the funds to take the whole crew under his wing, unless Miss Maria and Miss Frances marry first, of course. Miss Ward has spent most of her life protecting those girls from his penny pinching and misogyny.”
“I did not properly understand the situation before,” Sir Thomas reflected, rising to pace the room. “If what you say is correct, then any proposal I make to Miss Maria must encompass her sisters. I could not allow my relations to remain in such an untenable situation. At least it would only be Miss Frances, as Miss Ward and Mr. Richards would surely marry if her future was secure. Indeed, she could split her time between her sisters’ homes: a fine thing for a lady at her time of life, as she can attend twice the assemblies.” On this happy reflection, he felt composed enough to sit down.
“For a moment there, I thought you might be reconsidering your proposal.”
“I would be guilty of falsehood if I denied the charge,” was the forthright response. “Taking on responsibility for not just a wife but two more ladies as well is not to be done without a full consideration of all the complications arising. Indeed, if it were not for Miss Ward and Mr. Richards’ understanding, I am uncertain I could propose in good conscience.”
“Come now, Tom! Mansfield Park can surely afford the support of two slight ladies, not without independent means, and Miss Ward would be sure to prove a great deal more useful than Miss Frances. Miss Maria won’t know where to begin running such a household.”
“She does not have to.” Sir Thomas smiled fondly at the thought of her. “My housekeeper is more than able to handle the accounts and inventories. Miss Maria’s main responsibility will be doting on me and later on our children. We will not need a managing female bustling about and disturbing my servants.”
Mr. Norris laughed. “That she would do, I have no doubt! I think all the better of her for it, too.”
Sir Thomas smiled. “There is no explaining the tastes of one half of the world to the other. She is a very admirable lady, no question, but she is of the kind a man wants in his neighborhood, organizing poor relief and sponsoring assemblies, not his house. I want to leave all such business behind me when at home, beside my own hearth, and in the company of just my family.”
Wednesday dawned without shaking Sir Thomas’ resolution to pursue the middle Miss Ward. The invitation to dine solicited the opinions of many of the baronet’s local acquaintance, and nothing he heard served to quell his nerves in meeting a man known for gruff manners and ruthless transactions. Determined to make a good impression, he arrived at Mr. Ward’s house at precisely four o’clock, having strolled around the block four or five times before the hour struck.
“I see you survived the inquisition,” Norris greeted him upon his return. “Still as enamored as ever?”
“Even more so.” He sighed as he sank into a comfortable armchair. “I anticipate a very comfortable future, Norris.”
“Anticipate? So you have not proposed yet? I thought you were just waiting to obtain Ward’s permission.”
“So I am. It seemed premature to approach him on the first evening in his company. I have been invited to join them again next Wednesday. I shall screw up my courage and ask him then.”
“Ward is a beast, is he not?”
“He is an ogre, no doubt, but not quite as bad as I was led to expect. He was quite civil to me, though his manners are vile. He barely spoke at all to his nieces.”
Norris nodded wisely. “Keeping his tongue in check before you. I bet he looked into your six thousand per annum and found it much to his taste. If the man loves anything, it is money.”
Sir Thomas grimaced in distaste. “At least as there is no affection between him and his nieces, so we needn’t see him regularly after I marry Miss Maria. If I marry her,” he amended.
Norris laughed. “If you ask, you shall have her, I have not the slightest doubt. Let us just hope the wastrel does not do anything foolish to try and reel you in.”
Come back tomorrow to read Part Three!
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