Becoming Mrs. Norris: A Prequel
by Alexa Adams
Between them, the Misses Wards had 21,000 pounds, more than enough to cover the costs of their housing, feeding, and servants, and each year their uncle, the lawyer, presented the eldest with a tally sheet, detailing precisely why he was owed all of their interest earned. Miss Ward had learned not to question his figures, no matter how fantastic they might be. To do so would bring down upon her the dreaded charge of ingratitude, a sentiment Mr. Ward found particularly distasteful in his nieces, whose guardianship he only begrudgingly undertook. They made his inheritance, unlooked for and unneeded, more an encumbrance than fortune. What good to him, for whom the country held no pleasure, was his elder brother's modest estate? He often swore he would rather his brother had lived, though there was no love between them, and not so burdened him so, but the law declared the ladies his responsibility, and he was a strict upholder of the law.
In his eye, the three ladies were guilty of the unforgivable crime of being orphans. It was ludicrous to blame his brother: never intelligent and far to dead to feel his guilt. The two youngest Miss Wards were similarly vacuous, but the eldest was more capable. She alone was fully sensible of her culpability, and so for her did he reserve his most venomous complaints.
Knowing her privileged position within the household, Miss Ward did her best to protect Maria and Francis from his rage, and over the years she had learned how to minimize his fits of temper. At 21, having survived 11 years in his care, she knew how to best engage his meagre supply of sympathy.
Knocking on the open door, "Sir? May I claim a moment of your time?"
He looked up through a cloud of pipe smoke and fixed her with a glare before consulting his pocket watch. "You have two minutes."
She stepped into the terrible glare emanating from the great windows behind the desk, but she willed her eyes not to blink. Better to water mercilessly than display such a weakness before her guardian. "I request your permission to invite a gentleman to dinner tomorrow evening. He is calling upon Miss Maria now. This is the third time he has called since they were introduced at last week's assembly."
He sneered, eyes still on his watch. "I suppose I shall have to bear the expense of feeding all the foolish gentlemen who are susceptible to a pretty face and empty head. Who is he?"
"Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park." She tried to hide the satisfaction in the words.
He looked up. "Mr. Norris' guest? The baronet?"
"He should not bothering with Maria. She's at least three thousand pounds short of being worthy of his interest."
"You underestimate the appeal of becoming manners and complaisance, Uncle."
"I doubt it," he snorted, "but if Sir Thomas fancies an empty headed wife, I shall not be the one to throw a rub in his way. Invite him for Thursday, when Richards dines. That will minimize the expense."
"Yes, Uncle," she replied and retreated, before he had the opportunity to scold that her two minutes had expired.
Rejoining her sisters in the drawing room was like reentering another world from that which lay just down the passage, sulfurous and bright. Maria's gentle laughter, like the sound of the angel she was, rang forth. "My dear sister!" she cried with an unusual degree of animation. "You will not believe what Sir Thomas has been telling us! He has property in the West Indies, and he has actually journeyed all that way to see it for himself! Can you imagine?"
Miss Ward beamed at her sister indulgently before casting her eyes towards Sir Thomas, whom she saw was just as charmed by Maria's innocence as she had always been. With uncharted pleasure she replied, "A gentleman of honor and intelligence must wish to be in command of all his interests. To leave land in the stewardship of others, with no supervision whatsoever, would be negligent."
Maria shook her curls in negation. "But what of the danger? I am glad, Sir Thomas," she said candidly, "that no hardship befell you on such a journey, but I hope you will never have occasion to ever so venture again. I do not know how I might bear the worry."
Sir Thomas looked as if he needed only the slightest urging to secure such a becoming display of concern as his very own. Miss Ward saw it all with an anticipation that boarded on pain. The prospect of such a match, and the liberation she associated with it, was like a wild fantasy come true.
It had long been brought to bear upon her how much depended on each of the sisters securing husbands. It was only the second evening she spent in her uncle's house, not a week following the death of both her parents, that she was first summoned into the forbidding office from which her uncle over saw all his concerns. There was no sun to blind her then, but the multitude of tallow candles which her uncle deemed necessary to illuminate his domain had much the same effect, their smoke combining with that of his cigar to make the ten-year old cough and gag.
He watched her silently until the fit subsided, making it perfectly clear that he had no intention of offering her any comfort, and then said, "Edmund would saddle me with sickly brats. If you are all inclined towards colds and ailments, I'll have you off to school at once."
"No, sir! That is ..."
"I'll not have my household disordered, do you understand? I can only guess what kind of liberality you are used to enjoying, but I will not have waste and idleness under my roof. The three of you will remain in my charge until you marry or reach the age of twenty-five, at which point you may undertake the guardianship of your sisters. Between that time and this, I suggest you busy yourselves in attaining those accomplishments that will secure my relief from your burden as soon as possible. The interest from your dowries may be used towards this end. I'll not fund such nonsense, of that you may be sure!"
A bewildered Miss Ward was abruptly dismissed and returned to her grieving sisters, still overcome by shock at the loss of family and home, as determined to be married with the greatest possible swiftness as her uncle could hope. Their removal from Opperthon had been a heavy blow so close on the heels of their parent's carriage accident, but their uncle lived in Huntington when he was not in London, and having no affection for his familial home, he ordered the place shut up and gave the servants leave. Finding a tenant was proposed, but as no one ever emerged who was willing to meet Mr. Wards terms, the house had now stood empty for almost half her lifetime, all of which had been devoted to the goal of finding husbands for her sisters.
For herself, Miss Ward had long found security and satisfaction in the general assumption that she would, someday, marry Mr. Richards, her uncle's clerk. She liked James. They shared the ready sympathy of fellow sufferers at the hand of the same tyrant. His prospects were good enough to match her own ambitions, which were very modest, and their understanding freed her energy to focus on her sisters'. She could wish that he might be able to marry sooner, but such happiness must wait upon the advancement of his career (which Mr. Ward, considering his complaints against his nieces, was remarkably reluctant to promote) or the death of his maternal grandmother, a remarkably stout woman of 72, to whose small, free-hold property he was heir. A prize like Sir Thomas Bertram was hitherto unimaginable.
The entrance of the baronet to their society was a brilliant light shinning where all had always been dark. As soon as Miss Ward saw him at the assembly, she knew he would be an ideal husband for Maria. She busied herself for the first few sets positioning their chaperone, an elderly and somewhat feeble neighbor, so as to maximize the likelihood of capturing Sir Thomas' attention. The gratification of the introduction was quickly amplified by his request for Maria hand, a circumstance Miss Ward was certain would have taken much longer to occur if she hadn't been forward enough to suggest it. A second dance was claimed later in the evening, by which time all those attending were abuzz with Miss Maria's triumph. She smiled and received the congratulations of those so bold as to give them with her typical, languid grace. Miss Ward, on the other hand, saw the conquest as her own, and her satisfaction in this suddenly illuminated path towards liberation was palpable.