Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mansfield Park Read Along Part Two: Becoming Mrs. Norris

Becoming Mrs. Norris: A Prequel begins in my response to Part One of the Austen in August Mansfield Park Read Along. It will soon continue in my response to Part Three, but after that I will have to put it on hiatus. I've always wanted to write this story, and now that I've actually begun I really want to finish, but prior obligations must have priority. Thanks for your patience.

Sir Thomas was happy to dine with Mr. Ward, such an invitation being just what he most desired, and he arrived promptly at 4:00, determined to make a good impression on Miss Maria's guardian.

He had never yet seen Mr. Ward. When his nieces appeared in public, they were invariable chaperoned by a kindly lady from the neighborhood, and not belonging to it, Sir Thomas had never any business occasion on which to make his acquaintance. Report had it the gentleman 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. The prospect of having such a capable sister only bolstered his increasing determination to marry Miss Maria.

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 caused 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), and 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. Sir Thomas hoped to find her uncle very accepting of his wishes, knowing full his value as a husband, but rumor of his gruff and eccentric manners kept the young baronet from feeling confident, an uncertainty that did nothing to diminish his heart's yearning.

Miss Ward was at the door to greet him, ready to usher him into the usual parlor. There he found only the sisters. Upon inquiry, he learned Mr. Ward was expected at any moment. Soon the clatter of homecoming became distinct, sounds that were listened to with a degree of nervous attention that Sir Thomas might have perceived had he not been so agitated himself. Two gentlemen presented themselves: one older than the other, with deep lines around his mouth, and the other young and ruddy. Introductions were made according to form, and Sir Thomas began to relax.

Not so Miss Ward. Maria and Frances might have heard their uncle's unusually amiable greeting with relief. but she could not, schooled as she was to know better. She cast a questioning glance towards Mr. Richards, but he refused to meet her eye. In public, her uncle's behavior was impeccable, but a constant hint of surliness kept others from mistaking his manners for warmth. Suddenly tonight he was inviting and warm, and while Miss Ward understood that his interest in Sir Thomas was just as intense as her own, she mistrusted such an unnatural degree of amiability, especially when mere 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 usually chair upon which he sat, was little less than miraculous, and Miss Ward experienced all the skeptic's suspicion of the incredible.

Throughout the 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 on 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 a smiling 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 some lingering unease she could not expel. Never had she longed for her dreaded guardian's presence more.

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 bans were read.

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