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By Degrees

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I.

In truth there was no great resemblance between the features of Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price; that Miss Crawford should fancy one led to circumstances no one then in Mansfield could have foreseen.

Fanny could only think that Miss Crawford had professed the warmth of the room as courtesy—courtesy and perhaps a desire to have their informal rehearsal kept brief—because she had, prior to Miss Crawford’s entrance, felt the chill even through her shawl.  But by and by she believed she had been mistaken, or else that the weather had turned.  The part of Anhalt, uncomfortable though it was, warmed her exceedingly.  She noticed too a flush in Miss Crawford’s face, lending still more radiance to her dark eyes.

The lines, spoken neither between professionals nor true intimates, could not but be scandalous, but insofar as Miss Crawford showed poor judgment in wishing to act the play at all, she showed great discrimination, Fanny had to allow, in wanting at least to have out this clumsy practice amongst company of her own sex, where the deliverer of the words could not be mistaken under any circumstances for the possessor of the sentiments.  Yet even then, the strangeness of saying such things aloud!  Each of Anhalt’s lines was respectable in itself, but heard in conjunction with those of Mary’s Amelia—

Nonetheless, Fanny sought to be amiable where she could not be permissive: her view of the thing was that the theatricals were wrong because Sir Thomas would disapprove of them and because they gave cover for Maria and Mr. Crawford, especially, to behave as they ought not to do.  Neither objection could apply to the matter of two young ladies reading together in a room—a room that even had once been a schoolroom, its walls accustomed to hearing feminine voices recite what they might not say.  If she were, in either refusing or obliging, to be good, then all that remained was to be agreeable.

Then, too, if she had refused to take up the book, Miss Crawford may well have sought out Edmund for this practice.  That would not do.  In so many ways, it would not.

With a slight quaver in her voice, Fanny kept to the text.  “‘There are some things I had rather never know.’”

Miss Crawford’s Amelia was prettily played, as saucy yet genuine as the role might be in the best hands.  “‘So you may remember I said when you began to teach me mathematics.  I said I had rather not know it.  But now I have learnt it gives me a great deal of pleasure and—’”

As the play had here marked a hesitation, Fanny did not at first take Miss Crawford’s pause for the lapse it was, and only after she repeated the last bit of the phrase with increasing vexation did Fanny realize a prompt was required:

“‘Perhaps, who can tell, but that I might teach something as pleasant to you, as resolving a problem is to me.’  Oh!  I beg your pardon, I did not mean to read the whole line.”

“To be swept away by literature is a compliment to it,” Miss Crawford said, “and in this instance I dare hope a compliment to myself, that I have put you in a mood to enjoy yourself.”

“No,” Fanny said, blushing.  “I do not enjoy such things.  To listen and to watch, yes, but—”

“But you read so well,” Miss Crawford said.  “In fact it is rare, excepting Henry, for me to find someone whose manner and expression I like, for most people who think they are great readers are no such thing, and drone on to the point of being mistaken for bees.  You do not have perhaps the fluidity—the ability to really pretend to be another—but your voice can cover for that lack very satisfactorily.”

Could she not give some compliment without it being a barb to another?  Fanny felt sure the bees were a reference to Mr. Rushworth, who had the night before endeavored to distract himself from his two and forty speeches by reading their party a naturalist’s description of a wasp.  It had indeed been so dull and so poorly done that even Fanny had worried about the propriety of meeting Edmund’s eyes during it, lest what she saw there provoke her to laughter.  But it was also now concluded, and that being the case, and Mr. Rushworth being more closely connected to the family than Miss Crawford herself, Fanny thought she might have relinquished the topic.  Perhaps to the witty, any folly had too dear a sparkle to be given up.

“Yet,” Miss Crawford said, “though I think I do passably as an actress—do well enough for our little stage, at least—I should not have the ambition to take on you, Miss Price.”

“No indeed!  I am sure I would make a poor subject.”

“Of comedy, yes, for you could not be made a fool of without the mischief-maker seeming monstrous for it, but then again not of drama either, for so far as I can tell you have no flaw.”

Fanny had thought it impossible for her face to grow hotter, but each moment disproved her.  “You flatter me in terms I cannot like.”

“Why should you not?  It’s how your cousin Edmund speaks of you.”

“My cousin is very kind, but I am sure he says no such thing.  He is as aware as any of us of the sinfulness of all God’s creatures.  Though I hope I do my best to master my faults, they are there nonetheless.”

Miss Crawford smiled teasingly.  “And what are they, pray tell?  So I may someday write great tragedies with you as my heroine.”

Fanny could not think what most provoked her here: that she should be caught in this net and forced to speak of these things at all or that, having to say them, she could only predict that they would make Miss Crawford laugh.  If she had one-tenth Mary Crawford’s superficial wit, she might have been able to disengage, and she knew it, but no such graces had been given to her either by nature or by nurture.

“I do not do things as willingly as I ought,” Fanny said.  “I allow resentment.  And I cannot speak as I would.”

“I’ve told you, you do so very nicely.”

“Not to read.  To say as I feel, or to warn as I might.”

“You withdraw nonetheless from what you do not approve of,” Miss Crawford said.  “Having claimed you would not participate in our acting, you do not—this hardly counts—and I admire that.  You make such staunch refusals as must frustrate and awe your friends.”

But she could not explain why she made them; all she could ever control was herself.  It was in her, at least in mixed company, only to resist evil, not to promote good.  But if she could have said such things to Miss Crawford, they would not have been true, so she merely looked down at the book before her and said nothing.  Let Miss Crawford think her praise had been accepted.  She could be pleased with herself on that account.

Miss Crawford, though, did not comment happily to herself on Fanny’s blush or her downcast eyes.  She said only, “Miss Price?”

“Yes?”

“You may go to the next line of Anhalt’s, as you like.”

“Oh, yes.  ‘Woman herself is a problem.’”

“‘And I’ll teach you to make her out,’” Miss Crawford said, and though their acting and reading had, till that point, been stationary, a mere practice of inflection and memory, Miss Crawford here stepped toward Fanny as if to close the distance between them.  Her scent was of rose.  Fanny had never in her life worn scent, not even in application by Maria or Julia, and had neither condemned nor envied it, but in that moment she wanted a share very much.  For the roses alone had a headiness to them.  Some complement from herself—honeysuckle, or even a violet nosegay on her gown—might have made a bouquet, too diluted to overwhelm.

Too late, she stepped back, and though her retreat was of a more significant distance than Miss Crawford’s advance, she could not but feel that the truth of her response had been her stillness, her instinctual acceptance of the closeness of Miss Crawford.

Fanny put her book aside and looked anywhere she might, so long as the object of her view would not return her gaze.  “I think you know your part well enough for a family gathering.”

“We may at least finish the scene—here, until the butler comes in—I have no fear of acting with Mr. Thomas—”

“No, I really think not, I am… I am not well.  I do not feel like myself.”

It was unjust to blame Miss Crawford for her own insensibility to the situation, still more unjust to blame her for the strange and formless feeling that what had passed between them in any way required either blame or sensibility; if Fanny could not be just, she could at least retreat.  Miss Crawford allowed her to do so with no further objections.

Driven from both comfort of place and tranquility of mind, Fanny was shaken enough to request a tray for dinner, a prospect which ordinarily would have terrified her as a thing likely to excite Mrs. Norris’s ill-temper.  Edmund, though, saw to it that she had what she wished, and with such a kind note that Fanny felt quite embarrassed to be making a spectacle of herself.  She made sure to make her reappearance in the evening so as not to cause alarm.

Mrs. Norris, of course, took something else from Fanny’s arrival downstairs: “So she is too ill to keep her obligations of conversation—such small duties, as poorly as she performs them!—at dinner, and must be catered to, but let there be entertainment and she descends, in the very bloom of health.”

“Madam,” Edmund said, “you are being far too severe.  To sit and watch requires nothing of her, and we shall be all the better for having an audience, if the thing must be done.”

“In any case no one is more honest than Fanny,” Maria said, with the offhandedness with which both she and her sister sometimes took up arms for their cousin.

Mrs. Norris, unable to defy her favorite, settled for changing the subject from Fanny’s imperfections to Maria’s virtues—her kindness—her generosity of spirit—as Tom studied the clock with great impatience for the Crawfords and Mrs. Grant to arrive so they might begin.

He was disappointed when Mr. Crawford arrived only in the company of his younger sister, Mrs. Grant having stayed behind to nurse her husband through a fit of indigestion.  Fanny concentrated as she might on Miss Crawford’s archness on the topic, as if there were something precious to be got from disapproving of her.  But she was provided with scant comfort there, because without her even noticing it, the conversation turned to why Fanny must take Mrs. Grant’s part.

As though anything at all hung on them commencing it tonight!  Why could they not defer their pleasure until it would be pleasurable for them all, rather than a loss of enjoyment for Mrs. Grant and a cause of distress for Fanny?

But a book was being put in her hands and Edmund was urging her, with great warmth, to not even try to do anything more than read the lines as clearly as she could, to not strain herself, when of all things, Miss Crawford said with a laugh, “Would you all deprive me of my vanity?  Is Miss Price to be inconvenienced so that I am not even asked to play two roles, two characters who do not even speak to each other?  It is too much!  Do I do so badly?  If so, grant me at least this first full rehearsal to improve myself before we say that I should be thrown out entirely and Miss Price forced into total notoriety.”

Fanny was so grateful as to be speechless.  Despite Miss Crawford’s playfulness, she could not mistake the sincerity of her intent: it was impossible to suppose that any young woman of her high opinion of herself, having chosen and practiced a glamorous part, would choose to set it aside a plain and ridiculous one to further her glory.  Her reason was too great for that.  No, what she did, she did for Fanny, as was apparent to all those inclined to think anything about it—which at Mansfield at that time did not comprise a great number.

Lovers’ Vows was taken from Fanny’s very open hands and given to Miss Crawford for the execution of her second part and Fanny was bustled out to the sofa to observe, when all was changed by Julia’s breathless arrival and her horrorstruck news: “My father is come!  He is in the hall at this moment.”

 

II.

In the weeks that followed Sir Thomas’s return, Edmund tried often to cheer Fanny, saying again and again that at least she was blameless in all the disorder of the house, but Fanny could not be comforted; she was too disordered herself to be put aright.

Maria or Julia, unexpectedly finding themselves flustered by another young lady’s proximity, or both gratified and discomfited by her thinking of them, would have quickly been able to overthrow their curiosity on the matter, if it even struck them to be curious at all.  They were used to both admiring and being admired.  Fanny’s only acquaintance with such matters had been her slow, steady love for Edmund, which had come on so gradually that she could not recall its beginning.  And Edmund, though well capable of giving her that same mingled delight and distress, never did so with the same suddenness.  Her admiration for him was very natural, as he was her cousin and the best friend of her childhood, for many years her only consistent source of goodwill and kindness; her affection for him was by no means exceptional, considering his character, manner, and looks.

But Mary Crawford—

Such attractions did not occur.  A girl may think another girl quite pretty, as Fanny had indeed thought Miss Crawford from the first moment of their acquaintance, and charming, but that she should feel something about that charm or prettiness was impossible.

Or, if possible, unallowable, perhaps even detestable.

But though Fanny had been truthful in reporting to Miss Crawford that she did indeed have faults, self-deception was not among them.  She could look away from some part of herself, but, having noticed it, she could not convince herself that it was not there.

Still less could she convince herself that prolonged acquaintance with Miss Crawford was starving her preference rather than feeding it.

Yet prolong the acquaintance she did, for there was no exit from it that would have been polite, especially with Maria now married and Julia gone with her, for it became Mansfield’s open acknowledgment that it would be rude to let such a friend as Miss Crawford go without companionship.  With no alternatives available, Fanny would do.

Mrs. Norris, as awful as it was, and as decidedly ignorant of it as she must have been, was Fanny’s only ally, suggesting as she did that Miss Crawford would be better satisfied with correspondence from “dear Maria and Julia” than with Fanny’s actual company.  And it was so impossible to openly agree with her, knowing it would only lead Edmund to clear displeasure with his aunt.  Fanny had too much discord in herself to abide it elsewhere.

One day, going to the Parsonage, she met Miss Crawford halfway along the walk.

Miss Crawford laughed.  “I hoped to spare you the trouble, but it seems all my efforts were in vain.”

“Do not apologize, please, I’m sure the air and the walk both do me good.”

They fell in beside each other and, by some silent mutual assent, continued Fanny’s portion of the walk rather than Miss Crawford’s.  Fanny was relieved and did not know why.

“Will you return to riding when it is warmer?”

“Yes, if you do not want the horse.”

“I should never have accepted the offer of what was yours, when it did not come from you,” Miss Crawford said, with surprising heat.  “Henry may well afford a horse for me, without so much as raising his eyebrows at the price; I liked only the lending of yours because it is such a frivolous joy to be granted a favor, especially by someone as charming as your cousin.  But I am surprised now that he allowed it at all.”

“He had my immediate agreement,” Fanny said.

“Forgive me, my dear Miss Price, but I fear you are too accommodating for your immediate agreement to qualify as true assent.  Your refusal—except of a compliment—must be genuine, but your ‘yes’ is not as revealing.”

It was somewhat encouraging to be seen and somewhat less encouraging to be seen at an angle that could not be flattering.  Thus vexed, her feelings at war with each other, she was silent until they passed some feature of the landscape that could plausibly excite a neutral comment.  Without so much as a smile in her voice, Miss Crawford agreed as to the glories of nature.  That suggested there might be some safe ground for conversation.

“Do you enjoy the country, Miss Crawford?”  She added hastily, “I speak now of its views rather than its society.”

“But its society comprises no small part of the view.  In all cases, I find the sights very fine.”

“I think that to appreciate the natural world is one of the highest of virtues.”

“As you should, since you yourself like it so well; I should hate to think the highest good being one inimical to my nature.”

Fanny flushed.  She had been in error: there was no safe ground anywhere.  Miss Crawford would have her sport with no concern for Fanny’s ease.  She did not understand how Miss Crawford could express such interest in her and yet needle her so.  Fanny observed so sharply only what she loved or feared, and surely she did not excite such feelings in Miss Crawford.

“But I should like to see you ride,” Miss Crawford said, as though they had never left off speaking of the horse.

“I do not do it as handsomely as you.  My cousin admired your daring very much when he saw you in the saddle.”

“Did he?” said Miss Crawford.  She looked pleased, which caused something inside Fanny’s chest to pinch tightly.  “But if he has not admired yours, it must be because you have before now been riding only for health, and whatever we undertake for health is always done ill, if indeed we trouble ourselves to do it at all.  I may take it upon myself to teach you joy, Miss Price.”

Fanny’s times of contentment—often minutes, occasionally hours, never yet days—were closely, jealously guarded; she did not think she had ever felt joy.  It was not happiness, which she sometimes irregularly knew and knew Maria and Julia to be well-acquainted with, nor was it her calm and rational tranquility.  Joy was to her a notion that was both luminous and frightening—an unequivocal good and yet one that would not come, could not come, in the ordinary way.  It was the pleasure of rupture.  What could possibly come in its wake?

“I don’t believe it can be taught,” Fanny said.

“Joy?  Or daring?”

“Neither.”

“That is another convenience, though, you must see.  How easy it is to declare impossible to teach what we do not wish to learn.”

 

III.

“I admire her exceedingly,” Edmund said.  “I ought not to frame it in such strong terms, but it is so rare, almost vanishingly rare, to meet a woman of such charm and delicacy—that alone would make her unusual, but it is the combination of those two things with her good heart that commends her to my attention.”

Fanny had not noticed Mary Crawford’s possession of an especially good heart: she had instead noticed that Miss Crawford behaved as it suited her to behave, that often her inclinations were kind, but that they were not seldom cruel.  Good or bad, she did only what amused herself.  She had no penetration—she neither thought nor spoke deeply—she never took up a subject unless it would be good for play.  That Edmund, who had himself taught Fanny to value reflection and reticence, should be taken in by the quicksilver play of Mary Crawford’s triviality came close to disgusting her; her disgust came close to horrifying her.  What right did she have to an opinion?  She had no claim to him, nor any to Mary—if such a thing were possible—and so this fixation was not healthful.

Nevertheless some part of Fanny would be glad to have Edmund court Miss Crawford openly.  She would welcome that misery as a glossary to an otherwise unreadable text.  If Edmund pursued Mary Crawford, Fanny would have plain excuse to fear her, and, fearing her, plain excuse to seek to know her, or, even not seeking, to be so unable to wrest her attention away that she learned without effort.

“I believe she means well,” Fanny said honestly enough.  “Her intention is never really to wound, even in play—she is like a kitten who does not understand her own claws.”

Edmund looked a little amused.  “And has she ever scratched you, Fanny?  For it was her kindness to you, in the matter of the play, that led me to compliment her.  Without sharing your scruples, she defended your right to them.  It was so purely disinterested.”

“But it was not,” Fanny said, unable to bear this.

“You cannot believe she was somehow so desperate for glory that she would rescue you only to assume a second paltry role in addition to her own.”

“No, of course I do not, but—she did it for my sake.”

“As I said.”

“For my sake,” Fanny said, and in her fervor, she laid a hand on her breast, at her heart, and then recoiled quickly from the warmth of her own body.  “She did not care about scruples, I daresay she thought me silly for having them, it only pleased her to assist me.”

“I can see no difference between our arguments,” Edmund said, “which is the best kind of disagreement between friends, and as you are flushed, Fanny, I think it best to retire even the appearance of discord.  I will concede to your belief, as I think it mine, and instead offer you my company in the library, if you should like it.”

“I should, very much.”

She was not conscious of lying to him, but she was gradually conscious of experiencing less pleasure in their quiet, mutual perusal than was her wont; he read excerpts of sermons to her and though she strove to give them her full attention, her mind wandered.  Her flightiness in the face of such serious matters disturbed her to the point that she was almost relieved to find that it was not that she could not think about God but more that she could not think of anything but Mary Crawford.  Astronomy, natural history, the lives of the poets—all thoughts of them she tried to kindle sputtered out at once.

She was frightened of herself and sure that Edmund would observe it, but he did not, no more than he had observed his possession of her heart or her distaste at the Crawfords’ vanity and carelessness.  He did not know her as she knew him.

“Do you believe we can be taught joy?”

He was good enough not to be impatient with her for interrupting him.  “I do, I think, but it would take a very unusual teacher, if God does not teach it to us first.”

“It is not idolatry, then, to learn from a person what you should learn from God?”

“Worship is an elusive concept,” Edmund said.  “I can never pin it down, which is troublesome, given my aspirations.  But I see no reason why it should be idolatry to say that people may do some of what God does.”

Then, Fanny thought, it must be some other sin.

 

IV.

Were it not for William’s commission, Fanny might have been able to persuade herself that all would be well, but that was not to be: Mary Crawford petitioned her brother, who petitioned their uncle, who—roused from the stupor of women and wine—exerted his influence as clumsily and effectively as a lion would swat outwards with one paw.  It was done, and Fanny was indebted.

“William and I owe you a thousand thanks,” Fanny said.  “It was most kind of you.”

“I hope I should never pass up the opportunity to do such good with so little exertion.  In the hunting down of your brother’s commission, I only supplied the powder that Henry might hand the rifle to the Admiral, who might fire; it is a woman’s best pleasure to be economical, as your Aunt Norris so frequently instructs us, and to secure incomes without lifting a finger.  Now I have so many resources to spare, unused in that particular task, that I feel as though I might do anything.”

“I know you dislike asking your uncle for favors.”

“Which is very much why I sent Henry, whom I don’t mind to ask at all.  You are too eager to give me credit.”

Because I hope you will say in the end that you did it for William, or for love of country, when I know you did not—but I could believe a lie, from your lips.  She clutched her arms around herself and felt the tight lace of her sleeves pull against her skin.  She remembered gesturing toward herself when trying to explain Miss Crawford to Edmund, being reminded of her own body in just this same way.  Her arms itched; her skin pinking with irritation from the lace.

Say even, she thought, that you did it for Edmund, to prove your heart to him, to show him you are good; say you did it because you know he will see it as an unselfish valuing of his cousins.  If I am your friend, confide to me of your lover.

But it had been some weeks since Miss Crawford had spoken regularly of Edmund when they were not in the same room together.  On his visit to the Owens, she had not mentioned him at all, had talked more of the half-imaginary Owens girls than of their own visitor there.  Had Fanny met them?  Did she think them pretty?  And similar such nonsense.

“If it would amuse you,” Mary Crawford said, “or please you, since I worry that you will never be amused, I would give you an occupation as well.”

Fanny imagined needlework.  “I should be happy to assist you in whatever way I can.”

“I fear you’re making me a hasty promise, Miss Price.”

She inclined her head, to hide her expression as much as to nod.  She would wait for further explanation.

“I wanted to ask—”  Miss Crawford stopped there, her brow furrowed, and for the first time in all their acquaintance, she looked uncertain.  Still, she rallied: how magnificent she was, Fanny thought unwillingly, and how little wonder William had taken to her as he had.  She was like a figure carved into a ship’s prow.  “I wanted to ask if you would come back to London with me when I go.”

Fanny could not think.  “When you go?”

“You’re starting from the wrong end of the question.  Yes, when I go, most likely a fortnight from now.”

“I’m sorry—I doubt my uncle would allow me such a holiday.  He has acquaintances in London but none likely to accept an unattached young woman, not with so little notice—”

“I do not ask you to come to town so I can bring you out,” Miss Crawford said snappishly.  “You would have a room in Henry’s house, as I do, and be my companion.”

It was not just the lace on her sleeves.  Her whole gown felt too tight, the bodice so close around her that her breath was coming short.  It was so unexpected.  She had told herself for so long that this madness of hers was permissible because the opportunity to satisfy it would never come, but now it had, and in such respectable dress as to make it difficult to refuse.  She could not avoid scandal and sin without admitting to it.  She who has lusted in her heart—

No, she couldn’t think of it that way.  Lust was the stuff of dirty poems Tom Bertram whispered to his friends (to Edmund’s sharp disapproval), it was the bawdy drinking songs she still half-remembered hearing in Portsmouth, it was Mary Crawford’s arch look as she spoke of the pun of Rears and Vices.  That was not part of her.

Edmund, she loved Edmund, she was sure of it.  She loved him chastely and well.  What did it matter if it did not feel like Shakespeare, if her blood did not run any hotter when he touched her?  She had lived for years on contentment and gentle satisfaction and thought them sweeter than honey and ambrosia.  Who was she, the least and last, to go haring after joy, after such knife-sharp pain?

I have to say something.  That came to her with the wrenching intensity of a sob.  If I say nothing, I admit it, she will know.

To accept would be to throw herself into a storm.  She would be drawing a veil of convention across something inside herself that would defy it, and she risked erring.

To deny, though, would only give her another veil.  If she understood herself now, she could not shroud herself in Mansfield and pretend.  She felt like the text of Lovers’ Vows was written all over her skin, the lines she and Mary had read together brilliantly black in ink against the pallor of her hands so she smudged all she touched.  It had been wrong to do the play under her uncle’s roof when he could not like it.  Could she continue under his roof if he could not like her if he knew her?  All that was only another lie and another offense.

If she could not avoid sin, she wanted at least to avoid self-disgust, and she was more appalled at hypocrisy than at anything else.  She had no heart for the theater now, having seen how flimsy the barrier was between the words and the person saying them: she would not make a character out of herself that she would spend the rest of her days playing Fanny Price.  She would not lie to Edmund by pretending to be the cousin he had always known.

And—she seized upon this gratefully—Edmund was falling in love with Miss Crawford.  To accept her offer, and ensure her departure for London, would be some boon to him, for he would not be happy with her.

To stop an injudicious affection had some merit, some positive good, that merely fulfilling her own desire could not.

She had been silent far too long.  She knew that she was right to think her pause had become its own kind of confession but she realized now that Mary Crawford too had said nothing, had offered her no rejoinder, no wit, no temper.

They understood each other.  Fanny had not thought that possible.

She said, “I will go with you, if my uncle approves it.  It is a sensible position for a young woman of my expectations.”  How stilted she sounded, as though she were reading a page from the dictionary.

“You are entitled to expectations,” Miss Crawford said.  Her voice was quiet but steady.  “If you wished to take more time to consider your answer, or your other chances, I would write to you until you knew your own mind, for good or for ill.”

“I know my own mind now.  And there is no other situation.  I have no fortune.”

“You have other merits.”

“I wish to come,” Fanny said.  She raised her face and looked Miss Crawford in the eyes.  With Fanny’s smaller stature, it meant looking up, which made her acceptance feel somehow like supplication, like she had gone from agreement to plea.  Of course, it had been Miss Crawford’s habit to recede with Edmund, too.  “I am better-fitted for your company than for Mansfield and I would like to have—activity.”

She realized too late that, like Miss Crawford’s Rears and Vices, this might be taken in some other way, and she blushed and then blushed for blushing, for how the pink in her cheeks admitted that she knew enough of life to know the implications of what she had said.

Miss Crawford for once chose tact over good conversation.  “It is right for you to want something more from life than the fetching and carrying for your aunts.”

Even her kindness had a sting to it, even if it were aimed at those who were not in the room.

But Edmund did that as well, did he not?  He criticized Miss Crawford to Fanny and criticized Mr. Rushworth to the rest of the family.  Why did Fanny only find Miss Crawford’s faults so endlessly notable, so beneficially apparent?

If whatever strangeness lay between them had made Mary Crawford kinder, why had it made Fanny harder?

Maybe that at last was the truest reason to yield, because to resist was to change in ways that were not right and in ways that were against what she hoped was her character.  She did not wish to be her Aunt Norris, confident in her righteousness and in the rigorous economy of giving her sympathy only to those she liked and approved of.

Fanny believed, as Edmund had taught her to believe, that religion was more than that.  The good of the rule was the fruit that came from it, and if she could not find the fruit—

She felt a tentative, uncertain kind of peace.

“Yes,” she said.  “Yes, it’s true, I do want that.”

Miss Crawford reached out and took Fanny’s hands in hers and squeezed them.  It was the most intimate touch between them yet, and Fanny was not so serene in her theology as to not be startled by it.  Soft bare skin on soft bare skin, firm impulsive pressure.  It was the second time in this room that they had stood so close, only this time, Fanny did not step back, did not insist on distance.  They stayed there with Miss Crawford looking down and Fanny looking up.

But the throb of the moment wore away, as such things do when the right note of birdsong breaks through, or when a maid is heard down the hall emptying a coal scuttle.  Very little tension can outlive the sounds of ordinary domestic life.  What was left in its wake was something newer and stranger.  It was like when she had first left Portsmouth, when the city had disappeared behind her and she had understood that she was truly gone, that she was on her way to a place she had never known.

“We will talk to your uncle,” Miss Crawford said decisively.  “Aside from his perverse desire to come to his own house as he likes without a care for the convenience of his guests, I believe him highly reasonable.”

Without meaning to, Fanny smiled, then covered her mouth with her hand.

“No!”  Miss Crawford took her hand again, this time to pull it down.  Her eyes were sparkling.  “If I have at last made you laugh, I should like to know it.  I have never, until you, so doubted the pleasure of my company.”

“I only smiled.”

“At my framing of your uncle’s return home?”

“No—at your believing you will persuade him easily.”

“Because you think I shall not?”

“We are at cross-purposes,” Fanny said quietly.  “I did not smile because I was amused to believe you wrong, I did so because I was happy to believe you right.”

“You cannot expect me to have arrived at that conclusion.  You have never previously acted at all as though your uncle were reasonable, so much so that I had to think him so despite your behavior.  It seemed that either he was an ogre or you were a mouse.”

That cut her a little, though she had not expected Miss Crawford to have a truly high opinion of her.  That she wanted Fanny’s companionship Fanny could believe.  Miss Crawford played the harp and the air between the two of them had the kind of stretched, vibrating intensity a dedicated musician might easily have imagined herself bringing into tune.  Enthrallment was its own compulsion even as it was its own threat.  She had not thought of Miss Crawford liking her for she was quite sure she did not like Miss Crawford.

Yet she did not like being called a mouse.  She held that dislike in her heart as closely as a martyr would hold her faith.

 

V.

London was chaos.  Every quarter of every waking hour for her first week in residence, Fanny had to steel herself against approaching Mary and begging to be taken home.  What stopped her was not bravery but a memory of Tom Bertram, brashly loud in the ivory-papered stillness of the morning room, talking about a man he’d known who had brought a good foxhound to town with him only to lose it there.  With its delicate nose and ears, the poor dog had been driven mad by the sounds and smells of a city, until at last he had bounded into the street and ran off yelping into the distance, never to be seen again.

When Edmund had politely inquired into the moral, Tom had said that the moral was not to be so stupid as to forget all the lessons in life down to Aesop in the nursery: that you couldn’t make a country mouse into a city mouse.

Fanny did not want to be part of such a story.  Her resentment had made the trip with her and she was determined to bear all the consequences of the choice she’d made and to bear them without incurring Mary’s contempt—or at least without incurring it justly.

They called each other Mary and Fanny now.  The intimacy felt like a lie—in one way, they were further apart than ever, for now Mary discreetly paid her keep and bought her little things from time to time, obscuring the existence of her lady’s companion salary by distributing it haphazardly.  They had not suddenly been made into particular friends by the establishment between them of a profession.  But at the same time, it would have been cold to the point of frostiness to live together in the closeness of the Crawfords’ London home, taking all their meals and walks together, and go on saying “Miss Crawford” and “Miss Price.”  And even if it had not been rude, it too was a lie, for around Mary she could not avoid lying.  To call her Miss Crawford still would have been an insult to the moment when she had held Mary’s hands in hers in the East Room.

Yet I still do not like her, Fanny thought, though over that first month in London, she was gradually brought to concede that she had confused enjoyment with respect.  She liked Mary Crawford very much.  It was a strange sensation, to like what she could not respect; she was far more used to the reverse.

She was mulling over that one afternoon as she sat alone in the parlor tatting lace.  Mary had taken herself to bed with a headache Fanny could not pity—in their small society of three, occasionally Mary drank wine with dinner and did badly with it—and so Fanny’s afternoon was empty and featureless.  She had not realized until just that moment how active Mary had made her days, how she had given pattern to what was otherwise uninterrupted and plain.  Fanny was herself so much tatted lace.  She smiled.

It was a moment of rare tranquility—a moment when she felt the good of the Crawfords and did not feel her own good threatened by it—but London was chaos, so it did not last even the rest of the hour.

Polly came hastily into the room, her apron uncharacteristically askew, and said, “Begging your pardon, Miss Price, but the Admiral is here and must be received, and with Mr. Crawford out and Miss Crawford indisposed—”

Fear nearly closed up her throat.  “But we have never even been introduced!  Could he not be persuaded to leave a card?  I am sure Mr. Crawford would attend to him very promptly upon his return.”

“He won’t be easily persuaded, miss,” Polly said, and her tone was delicate enough for Fanny to realize what she meant: that the Admiral was drunk.  Polly let that settle for a moment and then added, “And he has a lady with him, too—Miss Anne Smith.”

Polly was a young woman of versatile tone, Fanny reflected, almost hearing the thought in Mary’s voice, and that was commendable in a servant: it would have been indecorous to state the Admiral’s drunkenness directly and even more so to suggest that the young woman with him may have been using a name other than the ones her parents had given her, but Polly could convey that report without touching on the details at all.  Forewarned was forearmed, perhaps, but she could not still the terror that made her hands seize tightly around her needles.  No mere month in close company with Mary Crawford could have given her the composure to face all this without an ally beside her—nor even with one—but with no choice except between endurance and inexcusable rudeness, Fanny could not do otherwise but endure without perfect composure.

What was her duty, as Miss Crawford’s companion?  To receive her uncle, of course, since as the Crawfords had not barred him from their home, it was scarcely within Fanny’s rights to deny him their hospitality.  To summon Mary down to him?  No, for Mary did not like him and would not be glad of his company.  She would not consider an obligation worth her being roused when she had the headache.  That did away with Fanny’s duty to her and to the Admiral himself in a single action—to be his sole hostess.

“Then they must be entertained,” Fanny said with a sinking heart.  “Do not wake Miss Crawford.  Only bring us tea and some cake—Polly?  Have Ogilvie bring them in, if you would.”  It was hardly the job of Henry’s valet to fetch and carry tea, but Fanny had no wish to subject the female servants of the house to a man so uncouth as to travel with a mistress.  Such a man might do anything.

“Thank you, Miss Price,” Polly said with evident gratitude.

Another moment produced Admiral Crawford and his Miss Smith, a tolerably handsome woman of thirty-five or forty.

“So you’re the girl!” the Admiral said.

Fanny, being thus relieved of the task of beginning the conversation with pleasantries, and deducing whether the hour was still appropriate for a greeting of “good morning,” nodded in startled silence before rallying.  “Yes, sir, I am Miss Crawford’s companion.”

“Fanny Price!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hello,” Miss Smith said.  She had a nervous, close-mouthed smile.  She introduced herself and stressed the pleasure of making Fanny’s acquaintance and the kindness of Fanny to receive them so unexpectedly.  “For we had not planned to call but only passed by the house, and it occurred to Admiral Crawford that he had not yet met you.”

“I am glad to have the opportunity of meeting Miss Crawford’s relations,” Fanny said, not precisely insincerely—she was glad the opportunity existed and only wished she might have been able to know of it in advance to decline it.  It was not, of course, Miss Smith’s fault—she seemed conscious of the awkwardness of their meeting—but Fanny found it hard to acquit her.  A woman truly conscious of propriety would never have been on Admiral Crawford’s arm to begin with; she was not respectable and they ought not to have met.  If her aunt and uncle could see the company she was in!

The tea and cake came and they were all able to sit, and it was in the ordinary business of ensuring everyone had what was to their liking that Fanny remembered to thank the Admiral for taking an interest in William.

“Certainly, certainly.  Always happy to help an amiable young man rise through the ranks, and it’s a damned shame how hard it is for one to get made without the right grease to rub along with, as I’ve said and said to Anne.  And I was glad to do a favor for Mary.  What’s she got?  Headache, I think your girl said.”

“Yes, sir.  She is indisposed at the moment, resting, but I am sure she will be sorry to have missed you.”

He raised his eyebrows.  “If she is, it’d be the first time in a good long while.”

It was unbearable.  There was no answer to such a thing.  “I am sorry if—if things have been strained.”

Admiral Crawford shrugged.  “No way out of it.  But she was a good little girl, and one good girl deserves another, at least until a good fellow comes along and snaps her up.  You seem like you’ll steady her some, and that’s to be commended.  A good head on your shoulders just like your brother, at last that’s what Henry says.”

“I am indebted to all of you very much.”  She could not but think the way out of the strained relationship between uncle and niece would be for the uncle to put aside his mistress.  Though there was Miss Smith right before her, strained herself, and what would become of her?  Where did such women go, if their families would not receive them?  And certainly families often did not—certainly her own mother had lost the love of her parents for some time, and for much less.

Fanny supposed she knew what they were.  He was the kind of man who would pick up bits of prettiness like shells off a beach and carry them so long as they pleased him, sentimental in the indiscriminate and bathetic way that meant he felt only what he felt and felt it only as he felt it, with no temperance, memory, or restraint; that he wanted what he wanted and would take what he could.  She was the kind of woman who would let herself be thus collected, without a promise and even without love, because she wanted his circle and could not have it otherwise; she had morals enough to feel her degradation but not morals enough to prevent or overthrow it.  She could see the long tragedy of them and the cautions it provided.

Only then Miss Smith laid her hand upon the Admiral’s and squeezed it, and there was something tender in how he looked at her and how she looked back at him.  Miss Smith squared her chin and said to Fanny, “We have always hoped for a good situation for Mary, haven’t we, sir?”

Always?  Of course, Fanny thought, she had been his mistress before his wife had died; it seemed awful to mention it and worse to mention it as though she had had a right, even then, to think of Mary Crawford’s future.

But at the same time, she clearly had thought of it, and not without interest.  Had she wanted Mary settled so that her own position as the first woman in the Admiral’s house would not be usurped?  No, surely not, for when she had held those earliest hopes, it must have been before such a possibility were even imaginable.

“I do not believe Miss Crawford would allow anything less,” Fanny said, endeavoring to some of Mary’s lightness.  “I have heard her speak many times of the man she would marry as if she were measuring all his proportions in advance.  I do not—I do not mistake myself for her plan, only for her convenience.”

“A good plan is often secured by a good convenience,” Miss Smith said.

“There’s a nautical expression for that,” the Admiral said.

“Yes, dear, as there is for everything, but I cannot fancy Miss Price will want to hear it.  Navy expressions are often… colorful.”

Fanny smiled.  “My brother has told me something of all he cannot tell me.  I suppose any place with so many men runs the risk of them forgetting they are gentlemen, and of course some of them are not, but might have manners nonetheless.”

“Manners more than the gentlemen, sometimes,” the Admiral said.  “Depend on that, Miss Price, you can’t tell the quality of a man by his blood until he’s shed some with you.”

“I hope I should not have occasion for that.”

“I believe among women,” Miss Smith said, “you cannot tell quality until you’ve shed tears.”

“To bear with a shared grief?”

“Or a shared silliness.”  She smiled that close-mouthed smile again, only this time it seemed less hesitant.  “It is better that way, to have something that you cry over which becomes a joke between the two of you, then to have a joke become a cause for tears.  If one could predict which would become which, and where each road would go, all might be better.  But we all must make choices in the dark.”

She had a quiet, even voice that had been lulling Fanny into listening to her largely without criticism, but here she brought herself to say, “Do you not think we are given some light?”

“A great deal.  But it does not always shine opportunely.  Or,” and she smiled ruefully, “what is shows we may not like.  Or we may find that there is no good way to turn.  Or are you disposed to believe that there always is?”

“No,” Fanny admitted.  “A right way, perhaps, but not always a good one.”  She could feel what they were circling around—why was Miss Smith where she was, why had she done what she had done?  Fanny had only ever heard it accepted that men might give into evil without rhyme or reason; with women there was always supposed to be some explanation somewhere.  And perhaps with Miss Smith there was.  Did it matter?

But it was not her business where Miss Smith’s light had shone or not shone, it occurred to her, not when all she needed to do was give tea and cakes and conversation, to receive people who had done her a kindness.  There was nothing to be prevented here—they were already so far along the course—and so her vigilance was only habit.

Fanny felt shamed by that: that she should consider morals not to save anyone and not to understand them, but to reassure herself that her condemnation of them was right, even as she told herself that there was nothing that could make it wrong.  Was that the kindness she aspired to?

I am no innocent.  My imagination works endlessly on stains, and not on how they might be remedied, but only how they are there; as though, if not prevented, they must be there forever.

“Please,” Fanny said, leaning forward, “could one of you explain to me the names of sails?  William has written them out for me a dozen times, but I am always getting one mast confused with another.”

The Admiral laughed heartily and conceded that the ignorance women had of sailing terms was infamous among those at sea.

“Perhaps,” Miss Smith said, “that better speaks to the poorness of explanations men offer than the minds of the women seeking to learn.”

“She cuts me,” the Admiral said to Fanny.  “Always, she cuts me.  Blood and tears, blood and tears.  Now where you want to start is…”  He went on to deliver precisely the same jumble of mizzen and spanker and staysail that had always been the ruination of all William’s clarity of expression.  As Fanny strove to listen and thus demonstrate the teachability of her sex, she was conscious of Miss Smith’s gaze on her all the while, her eyes cool and calm and blue, like a sea where one might not mind being becalmed.

There was no deceit to her, Fanny thought with unwilling admiration, or at least no meaningful deceit.  She wore her unmarried state as lightly and plainly as a bracelet, when she might have lied and said she was his wife, even if she knew Fanny would know otherwise.  People often papered over what they did not like to look at, making rotten walls look clean enough that they might be used to hang pictures.  But to Miss Smith there was no lie and no apology and therefore, though not sinless, she felt clean somehow.

“I think I can assure you,” Miss Smith said, “that your brother will be all delight and astonishment should you merely pepper your letters to him with the occasional Navy expression.  He will not quiz you on diagrams if he is a brother worth having.”

“He is entirely worth having.”

“There you go, then, Annie,” the Admiral said.  “I couldn’t have put a push behind a worthier lad.”  He attacked another piece of cake with renewed vigor, his appetite aroused by all the talk of the sea air.

Fanny at first could not think of anything she had ever been so hungry for her in all her life.  Then she could.

“I cannot imagine you talking to the Admiral,” Mary said later.  She was wearing nothing but her nightdress and a wrapper; her hair was mostly undone in a cascade of curls that looked too messy to be anything Mary would permit in herself unless it was entirely deliberate.  “What on earth did you have for conversation?  You should have woken me, Fanny, I would not have had you so—grubbed-about and harassed.”

“You were indisposed, and I was not harassed.”  This was somewhat true.  “Miss Smith had a gift for smoothing things out.”

“Miss Smith,” Mary said, with some of Polly’s skepticism.

Fanny declined to rise to the bait of criticism.  “They expressed a very kind interest in William’s welfare.”

Mary smiled: the effect was of seeing a cat abandon a wounded bird.  Miss Smith would be allowed to bleed to death naturally, the ordinary method of society taking its course in time.  Edmund had never taught Fanny how to be good in a world where respectability had such sharp teeth and such desire to use them.

“William, naturally,” Mary teased.  “All will be forgiven those who praise William.  I should criticize my uncle for taking advantage of your sisterly affections, but I should be struck down for my hypocrisy, having done the same myself and brought my family’s influence to you as a dog will bring a pheasant.”

Fanny looked down at her knees.  “Pray don’t be so droll with me.”

“I will not abandon my native tongue even for you, dearest Fanny.”  She leaned across the width of the sofa and kissed Fanny’s cheek.  Her mouth was warm and lingering.

Maria and Julia had kissed Fanny in that same careless manner, but the manner of a thing was not the character of it.

Fanny’s skin burned.  There was no amount of teacake that would ever satisfy her.  Her conscience had been disturbed, and she could no longer dislike Mary Crawford enough to be safe from her, if such a thing had ever been possible at all.

 

VI.

It was like living in the still, charged hours before a summer storm; the sky the same grassy green as the world below it, the air smelling of lightning and damp, the clouds so low and heavy they were like a stone ceiling.  Fanny, having wrestled with herself, had thought that her new and still-tenuous belief that she was not damned for this would take away the threat of those days, but it did not.  Now she simply had no reason to take either suspense or rejection as a blessing.  The waiting itself was still an agony.

And she did not believe she was entirely safe from condemnation.  One might love well but not wisely.  Men and women sinned against each other perpetually; there was no reason to think that whatever was between her and Mary would be cleaner, less susceptible to wickedness.  Always, there were mistakes to be made, and looking more kindly at the failings of others had not taught Fanny to have much compassion for her own.

“You are so severe with yourself,” Mary said one day as they were walking in the park.  “I thought in London you would come down with permissiveness like the pox, but all in vain.”

“You should not hope that I will compromise myself.”

“Not yourself, only that you will form compromises.  I have some sketch of you in mind as a broker, diligently bringing together opposing interests.”

Words, words, words, and none of them meant anything: one had to listen not to what Mary said but to the lilt of playfulness as she said it.  Drollery, as she had said, was her native tongue, the last thing she would ever cut out, and so sincerity must come from other places.

“I am not severe,” Fanny said.  “It is not severe to know right from wrong, nor is there any joy to be found in permitting myself to fall into an error that cannot hope but separate me from God and my good opinion of myself.”

“Ah, but as your dearest cousin will tell you, St. Paul positively enthused that there was nothing to separate any of us from God, least of all clean-living young women with such sweetness of expression.”

It was no use quarreling with her on religion; she had the words and even the beliefs but not the feelings.  “My own opinion of myself, then, must still hold weight with you, to serve as explanation for why I am not your desired company.”

“I do not ever know how to interpret you,” Mary said, with unusual vexation in her voice.  “I have decoded Greek with greater ease.  But months in your company have not allowed me to see whether you are porcelain all the way through to the bone or whether—whether you—”  She stopped, allowing the flow of traffic to pass around them.  It was no longer winter and the rest of the world had come into a new, vigorous, pastel life; they were all like the shoots of daffodils coming up through the ice Fanny still felt around herself.

“I am no mystery,” Fanny said, blushing and looking away from her, following the fence line as it moved into the distance.

Mary laughed a harsh, brittle laugh.  “Not a fool, not a mouse, not a mystery—what expectation of mine will you fail to conform to next?”

She is trying to hurt me, Fanny thought, but why?  Because porcelain, when scratched, does not bleed?  Is that all she looks to tell—my nature?

Despite the people milling about them, despite her consciousness of the picture they made, still in the midst of the melt-runoff of the first true day of spring, Fanny said, with as much straightforwardness as she possessed and, she felt, fully twice as much courage, “Am I not what you thought I would be when you asked me to come with you and I came?  For I think I am that still, Mary.”

All her fears ripened into terrible fruit as Mary grew flustered and began to walk with a new rapidity, her face pinked from the exercise but somehow waxy all the same.  Fanny had said too much for her taste, had been too plain.  How unbearable for a mysterious text to translate herself before Mary Crawford could decide, clarifying word by clarifying word, whether or not to go on with the task of reading it.  There were all sorts of reasons Fanny could conjecture for Mary’s sudden false brightness, her gesturing to an acquaintance here or a seller of hot cross buns there.  Perhaps she had all at once reverted from “my dearest Fanny” to the impoverished “Miss Price,” from carriage to pumpkin.  Perhaps Fanny had mistaken her meaning all along and so now horrified her.

But she thought not.  No, it had been the absence of game-playing that had frightened Mary away from her.  To cease to be ironic was to her the gravest peril.

Fanny must do what she was not ready to do, and the passage of time from that afternoon to that evening did little to soothe her nerves.  Yet her courage did not wane.

When dinner was over and Henry had left them for the company of his friends, when Mary’s own circle of ladies had broken apart, when it was just Fanny and Mary at half past midnight in the small parlor, Fanny put her hands together like a child ready to recite.  Her breath felt cold inside her chest.

Mary was half-reclined on the sofa, her face shadowy with sleepiness, her eyes on the creamy blankness of the page of her sketchbook where she was comprehensively failing to draw a vase of flowers.  She was as pretty as she had ever been—she had the light, frozen beauty of a painting—but Fanny could no longer look at her without pain.  What was lust but covetousness?  I look at you and wish you were mine.

She could not go on like this, wanting and laughing at herself for wanting.  She must not.  She must not let Mary teach her to make this silly.

“Mary,” she said.  “I am not—playful.”

That I know well, darling,” Mary said.  Without warning, she drew one arc of a petal, which seemed lonely without a flower even to fall from.  She yawned.  “We should retire, don’t you think?  I think inside my head I can still hear the clocks of Mansfield ticking and chiming, and I am driven to country hours and country propriety, so much so that I am in danger of exclaiming over the hour.  It’s most unfashionable.”

Fanny would not enter into the labyrinth of that.  “Please,” she said, “if—if you are courting me, I beg you not to do it like it is a joke.  I do not flirt.  I have no girlish trifles to give, I cannot trifle at all, I think, and still less with you, when you… unsettle me so.”

“Courtship!  Fanny, dearest, you cannot be in earnest.  What passes between friends—”

Fanny’s heart was breaking.  Was it possible that this was Mary’s friendship, that she played the same games as her brother, giving endless charm and preferment without cause or feeling?  If that were so, it was all done.  Fanny must go, even if Mary, self-assured in her worldliness, would not make her.  She felt her eyes sting and understood too late that there was no escape possible for her.  Even if the transformation had happened in this minute, between Mary’s speech and her own, it was done: she could no longer leave London safe in the knowledge that she had not let her heart exceed its bounds.  No amount of distance now could lessen the pain of their separation, no amount of closeness allay the agony of not having her.  She would suffer.

She closed her eyes.  “If I have mistaken you, I am so sorry.”

“No, no!”  Mary was before her suddenly, wiping her tears off her face.  Her smile was glassy, impossible, fragile.  “Poor Fanny!  You just don’t know the words for things.  I will call you my friend, and so you shall be—my friend, my dearest friend.  No one minds it, even the husbands.”

“Even the husbands,” Fanny said dully.

Mary laughed.

She knows it is wrong, Fanny thought.  She sounds like she wishes to cry.

Mary touched her own eyes, which were as bright and sparkling as ever, and without permission or warning, she lifted Fanny’s tear-dampened hand to her mouth and kissed it.  “Saltwater, all saltwater.  Is nothing in our lives to remain untouched by the sea?  Of course husbands.  What else?  Should I refuse to wed just because I have a friend?”

“But you have money.  You needn’t marry if you don’t wish it.”

“Live on only twenty thousand pounds?”

She could not think her way through that number preceded by that word.  “It is so much.”

“That idiot Rushworth has twelve thousand a year.  Should I not have Maria’s happiness for even two years out of my whole life, before I burn up my security?  Should I live off Henry, some pretty parasite with her pretty friend?  What fun that would be for him, to always have a spinster sister, older and plainer, stale on the shelf.  You are asking the world.”  She kissed Fanny’s hand again and this time her own tears wet Fanny’s skin.  Her smile was not a smile but a gash in her face, incapable of healing.  “It’s all so unnecessary.  Yes, if you will have me say it, I court you, Fanny Price, I would go on my knees for you to offer you my hand if I were Henry, I love you, I think of you.  Leave it there.  Be my friend.  Everything will be so easy.”

Fanny felt a longing to fall towards her, towards that confession—I love you, I think of you—with the dread pull of stepping off a cliff.  She shook her head.  “I would be destroying myself.”

Mary dropped Fanny’s hand as if it had scalded her.  “Oh!  And this from the girl who grew so compassionate towards a mistress!  You are a fine hypocrite, that what is good for Miss Smith should stink in your nose when it is yours.”

“But I am not Miss Smith,” Fanny said desperately.

“You believe you are better than her.  Better than me.”

“I only believe I am myself.”  Her voice was so soft that she felt as though the room, with its velvet sofas and drapes, would swallow her words up entirely.  It was so late.  Why had she moved to do this when the hour was so late, when she could not be sure she was thinking clearly?  “I know what is right for me to do.  I will not do wrong.”

“If you love me, you are doing wrong already.”

“No.  Or yes, but not—not how you mean.  I am modest still, and I would be faithful.  The sin would be to give you my heart and… and my body—to do it without mutual affection, without security, without promise.”

“I would promise you.”

“And you would promise another.”

She had never seen Mary look as she did then, as though she were the one who were porcelain, and so covered in fine, thin cracks, so ready to shatter.  Might she not?  Could she not satisfy herself with living simply in the countryside she had professed to love?  Might they not have a cottage somewhere?  Or, if not, might she not be able to teach herself to bear the looks of those who would talk behind their hands of her growing old without a husband, of growing old in her brother’s house?  If she broke completely, it was done.  Joy requires rupture, Fanny thought dizzily, remembering all of that from so long ago.  Mary had been the one to teach her that and it had been no sin for her to do so.

Would Mary be the one, in the end, who could not walk away from the steadiness of contentment, the unchanging face of her orderly world?

Break, Fanny wanted to beg her.  Love me.  Allow me to be selfish.

But Mary Crawford was not made to break.  She was not porcelain but tin, glimmering and endlessly indestructible.  She turned away from Fanny and picked up her sketchbook, and while her back was turned she must have wiped her eyes, because when she looked back over her shoulder, slowly straightening up, her face was dry and pallid.

“We have both had such excitement,” Mary said, and Fanny felt all her hopes wither.  “I at least have the excuse of having had a glass of wine, but you, I think, are giddy only with society and exhaustion.  How high our feelings have been running!  It is well past time for us to go to bed.”

 

VII.

With no other choices before her, Fanny returned to Portsmouth.

It was Henry Crawford who drove her there, and he did it himself rather than trusting her to the coachman, from motives that he quickly made apparent.  Without quite looking at Fanny, he said, “Did you refuse her?”

Naturally he would know and not mind, Fanny thought bitterly, for he was a man who minded nothing.  She burrowed her hands further into her muff even though the morning’s chill did not merit it.  “On the contrary, Mr. Crawford, she refused me.”

Crawford turned to her.  His astonishment seemed genuine.  “I’m sorry, Miss Price, but you must have mistaken my sister’s meaning.”

“No, sir.  That night was the only time I did not.”  She looked away from him to ensure the wind would get in her eyes and excuse any tears.  “She intends to have a husband.”

He understood that objection no better than Mary had and she could tell it by the quality of his silence—goodness, what people she had fallen in with, that she could not even be satisfactorily angry with him for how vacuous his morality was, for he seemed almost like a child trying to puzzle something out.  She supposed it spoke to the poor quality of human nature that evil could be as innocently conceived of as good.

“Whatever we had would not be a marriage,” Fanny said, overruling her desire to speak slowly.  She must not condescend.  The misfortune of eroding her shyness was discovering how often it had saved her from wrongdoing simply by saving her from speaking.  “But I could not stand to be called her friend in the presence of her husband.  I could not help her commit adultery, nor cause her to commit it against me by loving her when I knew she planned to love another.”

“It’s you she loves,” Crawford said.  “You must see that.  Whatever disputes the two of you have, quarrels over terms, they can be resolved.  Mary’s affections are constant.”

“They are not enough.”

“You did refuse her.”  He flipped the reins slightly.  “You are only imagining that you did not.  She offered you as much as she could and you despised her for it, when I had never seen her care for anyone else as she cares for you, when you might have done her so much good.”

“I do not love her in order to do her good,” Fanny said.  “I only love her, and ask that I not be brought to do myself wrong.”

His expression took on the same cast as his silence and for the rest of the ride he spoke to her only in, and of, empty pleasantries, until they drew close enough to Portsmouth for him to ask her once more if she was certain she did not wish him to deliver her again to Mansfield.  He spoke quietly, as though Portsmouth itself would overhear him, and Fanny quite unwillingly loved him, partly because he reminded her of Mary and partly because it was kind of him to strive to consider her even when she had—by his thinking—injured one of the very few he loved.

“No, thank you, Mr. Crawford.”  All the reasons she had left Mansfield were still true, and even aside from that, she could not return to a place so haunted by memories of Mary.  She spoke as politely and as warmly as she could.  “I wrote to my mother and she was very good to invite me to stay with them for now.”

 

VIII.

Time passed.

Fanny wrote to Mrs. Bertram, William, and Edmund, and to all represented her return to her parents’ house as nothing more than a visit.  Edmund heartily approved of her daughterly fidelity and praised her character when he could be occasionally detoured from praising Mary Crawford, who had returned from London for a long stay with Mrs. Grant—“for her to see her family as you take the time to see yours, I can think of nothing neater, nor can I think of any better way to compliment her than by saying her tenor of mind resembles that of my dearest cousin.”  Fanny read this correspondence and found what privacy she could in the cramped little house to weep over it.

Susan gradually became the one likeliest to catch her at it, for Susan was a little in awe of her quiet, composed, genteel sister and followed her about when she could, and it was in those moments that Fanny first took notice of Susan’s natural compassion as well as her natural orderliness, for Susan would, without speech, tuck up beside her and stroke her hair or put her arm around Fanny’s shoulders.

She supposed Fanny to be in love with Edmund, which was so recently true that Fanny did not feel entirely dishonest for letting her believe it.  She had let the Crawfords teach her a certain convenient artfulness and while she did not know whether she thought it good, she frequently found it useful, and there was some aching sentimental comfort in practicing what she had learned from Mary’s teaching.  If not joy, she would think, when using her falsest smile or her most suggestive demurring silence, then at least this.  At least there was this.

Gradually, she wept less, though circumstances did not permit her to smile more.  A broken heart has more dignity than a pained head and troubled stomach, and as Fanny’s melancholy lifted, she saw that she could not like Portsmouth.

She tried very hard to hide this dislike from her family and especially from her mother, but her prosaic misery occupied much of her attention, especially as there was no ready cure for it.

She could not reverse her decision and return to either London or Mansfield; no matter how thin she grew or how her temples ached with the noise in the house and the smell of the streets, she could not allow herself to choose comfort over principle.  In particular, to now change her mind on Mary’s proposal would be an insult to Mary, even aside from being wrong: it would imply she was acceptable only as the better of bad choices, more escape than lover.  Fanny could not hate her so much as to hurt her in that way.

But she did need an escape, and her mind worked on it incessantly, even as she strove to be polite and calm to her family and even as she sent away her one source of relief in arranging Susan’s departure to Mansfield to aid her aunt in the tumult of Tom’s illness.  Fanny keenly felt the rudeness of her not going herself but was too afraid to do it, for she knew that, once there, she might not be able to make herself leave again.

Without Susan, the city felt like it was made of needles and crashing pots and pans.

Fanny, at the limits of her endurance, wrote to the one person she could think of who might understand and who was not somehow barred from her by one circumstance or another:

Dear Miss Smith,

You may not remember me, as so much time has passed and our meeting was so short, and, even remembering me, you may rightly be surprised that I have taken this liberty.  I beg your pardon.  I will try at least to make this letter short.

I am the friend of Admiral Crawford’s niece; I was in a position as her companion, but that arrangement is no longer possible.  For some time now I have been with my family, but they can ill-afford my keep and I would like to be able to live independently.  But I know no one who could assist me in this manner, even with advice.  That is what I ask of you.

I am not desirable as a governess, for I do not have the education, but I mind children well.  I believe I am, in the main, a fit companion for a lady who may be seeking one, and I have much experience with taking care of my aunt; I would live happily in the home of an elderly woman looking only for conversation and assistance, if I knew how to find one.  I can sew well.  My health is not always strong, but I would put all my activity toward learning any occupation for which I would be fit.

Please forgive me for the rudeness of the approach of this letter, and for my thought, if it offends, that you may know something of any of this.

(That had been as close as Fanny had been able to come to saying that she thought Miss Smith was of the same shadow class of women Fanny herself was preparing to become, albeit in a way Fanny herself could not imitate: ladies who must forfeit their status to earn their bread but who did not, in doing so, acquire the skills to be a decent housekeeper or cook.)

With gratitude and apology,

I remain, etc., etc.

Fanny’s hands shook as she sent the letter, and she repented of composing it every day between its departure and the arrival, in Portsmouth, of Mary Crawford.

 

IX.

“Mother,” Fanny said, “this is my friend Miss Crawford, with whom I stayed while I was in London.”  Even to say that much was an effort, and she was painfully thankful that her father was out and that her brothers and sisters had scattered to wherever fine weather tended to take them.

Fanny’s mother was duly impressed with Mary’s gown and self-possession; she was enough alarmed by it to remember her daughter’s claim to respectability, and therefore her manners when she greeted Mary were all that was good and quiet.  A few minutes of conversation ensured Mary’s thrall over her was complete, as Mary too was at her best, both witty and warm.

Her mastery of the interaction was so total that Fanny did not need to speak at all, which was a great relief to her as it afforded more of an opportunity to look at Mary and the changes that those months had made in her.

It was impossible that she should be taller, though she seemed so; her figure was as good as ever, perhaps even improved, though her color was bad.  She was overdressed for the Price home but underdressed by her own standards, dressed with a care for simplicity that made Fanny hurt.  To think that Mary had made such calculations when dressing, had taken such pains to impress but not overwhelm.  She was so distracted by it that she barely heard the excuses and promises Mary made to her mother to gain Fanny’s company for the afternoon, for a long walk where Fanny would show her the city.

The air was cool and brisk and gave Fanny a fine excuse to tremble; she was surprised she did not.  A kind of unearthly calm had come over her.

“You’ve grown thin,” Mary said at last.

Fanny could say nothing to that and only inclined her head.

“After you left me, I went to visit my sister, as is a long tradition when one is in disgrace with fortune.”

“I had heard you went.  I hope it was a pleasant visit.”

“It was not, but it was not intended to be—I went there very viciously, with a mind to make Mr. Edmund Bertram in love with me to spite you, which I think you will have the goodness to not be flattered by, I am sure you will be more aghast.  But do not make faces at me, Fanny, because I did not do it.”

Fanny still had that calm, curiously cold feeling around her.  “He wrote to me often, speaking only of you.”

“Once, perhaps, but not lately, I think.”

“No,” Fanny admitted.  “Less, of late.”

“I felt if I stayed longer, he might ask a question I could not trust myself to answer correctly.  If I left, then, his inclination might fade.  Such things do, and I think his has, since I have been no more than polite to him in all our intercourse thereafter.  I hope I was not cold, but ceasing to be warm may always feel cold.”

“He did not call you cold.”

“No, he never would, would he?”

But he might have, Fanny thought; Mary’s assumption of Edmund’s goodness, as well as of Fanny’s, was so spotless and pure.  For her to want to say that now, to smudge Edmund in Mary’s eyes, testified to that.

Fanny instead said, “I am—I am glad you did not let him ask.”

Mary’s eyes were on the ground, allowing her to avoid getting her neat kidskin boots in any puddles.  “I dislike happy mediums.  If I am not to be rich, I should just as soon be poor as comfortable.  If I am not to be happy, I should just as soon be miserable.  I realized—that you did not ask me to leave London.  You would not wall yourself up alive like an anchoress.”

Fanny could not make sense of this until she realized that Edmund taking vows and moving to his small parish was to Mary somehow the equal of becoming Julian of Norwich; something seemed to be fracturing inside of her with the sound and feel of an iced-over pond cracking as it thawed.  She did not like London, admittedly, though the sights and smells of Mary’s London were superior to those of Portsmouth.  She would by far rather be in the country, in the smallest and most isolated cottage, than in the Crawfords’ home, but she had not asked for that.  She was not Mary.  She had lived in misery and would not take it over satisfaction.

But to be happy—

Joy was worth misery.

“I have missed you,” Fanny said quietly.

“Yes, and I thought that you would not, that you would go away very proud and prim and never think of me again at all, but Miss Smith said that you did.”

Despite herself, Fanny was offended: she had not given Miss Smith leave to tell Mary of her letter, nor had she said anything in it at all about missing Mary, and it had been wrong, very wrong, of Miss Smith to not only assume that she did but to share that assumption.  It was founded on entirely wrong ideas.  That she would write to ask for work and be redirected to love—it was a thought only a mistress could have had.

But why did you write to her?  Why her, of all women, when you might have swallowed your pride and asked your Aunt Norris, when you might have found some friend of your mother’s?  Why would you ask Miss Smith, if not because you hoped—

Nevertheless, she thought it quite wrong, and even more wrong that she could not mind it, that she must even be grateful for it.

“What would I call you,” Mary said, “if not my friend?”

“I don’t know,” Fanny said.  She held her hand to her mouth, her shivering fingers against her lips.  Cold and warmth; the shock of change; the rupture of joy.  “I have no experience, no knowledge.  What does a woman without a husband have?”

“Besides the pity of her friends?” Mary said dryly.  “A companion, I suppose.  I have never known a wife to have one.  But a companion does not have a companion, she has an employer, though everyone is too delicate to call her that.  We would be fixed as we were before, unequal.  There is nothing perfect in this world.”

Fanny could not speak in those terms, but she could understand them.  She bent her head down again, allowing Mary to see her smile.

“I must adore you,” Mary said, “to allow myself to be poor—but I suppose we will not be poor.”

She was thinking that because she had seen the Price house, of course.  What another strange, painful blessing.

“I must get you home and fatten you up a little,” Mary said.  “Poor Fanny!  You are wasting away here and another strong wind will blow you into the sea and I shall have to depend on William to fish you out for me.  Will you say something to me, please?”

“I am very happy you came,” Fanny said.

“I suppose I must be content with that,” Mary said.

She would be content and Fanny joyous, though Fanny realized then that she had all along wanted both, because even loving Mary Crawford and even having accepted her, she still did not know that she trusted her; she did not know that Mary had done anything other than give into her, and concessions were likelier to suffer damage over time than true changes of heart.  She did not trust herself, either, when she was so sorely tried and so well-tempted.  To still the fear that even then commingled with her happiness, she put her arm through Mary’s for the duration of their walk and held onto her quite tightly.

She loved Mary and would accept the risks of doing so.

 

X.

They had been in London several weeks before Mary came to Fanny’s bed.

Until then, they had traded only kisses, first cautiously and then less so.  Fanny could never put herself at ease in the moments beforehand, when she knew she would be kissed; she always felt the absence of any proper vows between them.  Without the sanctifying gauze of marriage, their love seemed so plainly physical, so much a matter of the thick heat between her legs and the slickness of her mouth when Mary kissed her, and that was only her own body, with which she was at least somewhat familiar.  Her indecent hunger for Mary’s was so great she dreamed of it, dreamed of glutting herself.  By night, her mind conjured thoughts she was ashamed to have in the light of day, and though she knew this was what she wanted—oh, how she wanted it!  More than she could be comfortable with—she could not like it.  It was not safe.

But she had not asked for safety, only for security and affection, and Mary had given her both, at least as much as she could, and they were companions; all of that was true.

So when Mary slipped into her room, Fanny did not refuse her.  She could not even feign the desire to.  Her desire was so entirely the opposite.

“I am not sure what to do,” Mary said, her voice low.  “But—”

Fanny was only glad she had not asked Henry; even the idea of it made her cheeks burn.  “We will try.”

She was sure they could not need this frequently—their bodies must only have thought, mistakenly, that they could get children from each other—and so as they progressed, she tried to memorize each step, in case called to repeat it a year from that night.  But soon her ability to be clinical at all faded away.  She could not observe what she was such a participant in.

They shed their nightgowns.  Mary’s body was longer than hers—long, rather than tall, was what it felt like in repose—her legs firmer and more prone to shaking when Fanny stroked her knees and then the insides of her thighs.  Her breath came beautifully short.

“Lean forward,” Mary said, almost with desperation, and when Fanny did, confused, Mary kissed her breasts, closed her lips around one nipple and sucked on it, creating a pain so sharp Fanny cried out from it and then bit her hand, horrified.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Fanny said, because she could tell then that it had not been pain, she had just had no other word for it.  “Please.  Again—only I cannot be quiet—I will wake someone—”

“There are empty rooms between us and everyone else,” Mary said.

Fanny let that erase her worry.  She was so eager in her desire to press all of herself against and into Mary’s mouth that she came forward so far that Mary gasped, her face contorting like she might scream, and then suddenly her legs were around Fanny’s waist and pressing against her, pulling her closer.  Fanny at last took note of where she was rather than where Mary’s mouth was and understood, in a strange way, that this was the event they had intended, this contact here, where Mary was so hot and wet.  She rocked forward again and then again.  It felt so clumsy, like using a mortar and pestle, except pleasure was being ground out of her too—primitive though it might have been, it was working, something was tensing all down her body.

Would she die?  She could imagine dying from this.

She could not imagine waiting a year to do it again.

“Fanny—oh, Fanny—”  Mary held her shoulders with an incredible strength.  Fanny did not feel fragile at all, did not feel in need of rest or shelter or gentleness.  She felt as though she had been deceived all her life about her own capabilities, her own capacity for ruthlessness and pleasure.

 

XI.

Edmund might never understand it, Fanny thought, but sometimes one’s society could not be respectable because it needed, instead, to be tender.  Neither Mary nor Henry would have framed their attentions to Admiral Crawford and Miss Smith in those terms, she was sure, but she was coming to an appreciation of all the different hearts one could bring to the same action.  Rightly or wrongly—she prayed rightly—it let her entertain the Crawfords’ sometimes disreputable circles in good conscience.

In any case, this night was the first chance she had had since her return to London to speak with Miss Smith.

“I do not understand how you can bear a grudge against someone you also wish to thank,” Mary said.  “I understand how I might, as I can oppose myself in a thousand matters without any effort, but you—”

“I am first and foremost grateful,” Fanny said.  She meant it: her warmth at seeing Mary’s smile at those words only affirmed that.  “I know I should not be so petty as to think she did not have the right to help me as she did.”

“I have never seen you petty.  I’m sure whatever so assails you must come from somewhere grand and moral.”

“As always, you give me too much credit for goodness!”

“And as always, you deny all praise—I must think you better than an angel that we might together approximate the truth.”

Mary had a gift for timing her retorts so that she would always deliver them in the seconds just before she and Fanny were called from a private to a public room; Fanny was always having to swallow some remark of her own and did not think it right.  Evenness, however, was not to be hoped for.  As Mary herself had said, there was nothing perfect in this world.  Even the finest silk must admit to wrinkles.

It was with that in mind that she at last saw Miss Smith again, and though their conversation during dinner was the height of ordinariness—Henry carried most of the talk, as he was the only one who could needle the Admiral properly enough to amuse without wounding—Fanny was able to take a turn about the library with her toward the close of the night.  It was not ideal: she was heavy with food and sleepiness and felt quite stupid.  Nevertheless, she tried.

“I received a different reply from you than I had expected,” Fanny said, “when I wrote to you from Portsmouth.”

“You did not know that I would have any intercourse with Miss Crawford, I know,” Miss Smith allowed, “but the circumstances surprisingly permitted it—by which I mean, of course, that the Admiral insisted on us calling at a time when she could not avoid us—and I chose to tell her something of our correspondence.”

“Not, I think, the material of it.”

“No.  Young women of Miss Crawford’s ilk are rarely interested in the mechanics by which a woman might find work; that is something that happens exclusively to other people.”

“Miss Crawford has abundant compassion,” Fanny said, passionately though not, even she was aware, quite honestly.  Mary had a store of compassion; she had abundant sympathetic imagination, which was something else entirely, and which required interest to engage it.  But she was not nearly about to criticize her lover to anyone.  “I am—having returned to London, I am of course, you will understand, very thankful that you interceded as you did, but I only wonder why you would represent me in that manner—why you would even think to do so.”

Miss Smith smiled, not precisely happily.  “Miss Price, you are not a woman of the world, I know, though perhaps your friends have made you slightly more so; I do not think you know, in truth, how few choices you had before you.  I had no intention of forcing your hand but when, as I was puzzling over how to answer your letter, I saw the opportunity of promoting you in the best direction I could, I seized upon it.  My dear, believe me, there are worse things in life than the Crawfords.  I do not think my knowing so requires apology.”

“I know,” Fanny said.  Her voice was low, as if even in this house where she had whispered so many secrets and made so many furtive sounds, this alone must not be heard.  “I know you need not apologize and, more than that, I know, and did know, what lay before me, or might have.  I was willing to choose it.”

“To half-starve or break your back in labor or spoil your mind and good temper with ill-mannered children?”

“To do any of those things,” Fanny said steadily.

“But not, I think, compromise yourself.  Or so you believe.”

She was reminded of her long-ago talk with Mary. Fanny would not insist that her belief was true: she had been disproved on too much about herself to do so, no matter what she thought.  She wished she could say that Miss Smith did not seem compromised, but she did, or, if not compromised, then eminently a woman who understood the making of compromises—a whole woman used to living her life only in halves.  She had helped Fanny immensely, and Fanny could not think of a thing to do for her.  Compassion, at least, she could give, and so she did not even nod; she refused to set herself above Miss Smith by even so much as a gesture.

She said, rather, “I could not be happy without Miss Crawford; she is my best choice rather than the least of my evils.”

“Then you are fortunate.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Fanny said.  She bowed slightly at her shoulders.  She had grown up with such ladies—and lived with one even now—where agreement was often the best gift, and to Miss Smith she gave it very willingly.

Before bed, she related some of the conversation to Mary, who said, “Well, I must say that she came out of it admirably—she betrays your confidence and lies about it besides and earns a bow and what sounds very much like your eternal respect.  Many have done better and suffered worse outcomes.”

“You are being flippant,” Fanny said.  She stroked one ivory corner of bed-sheet, thinking.  “She did not lie about my feelings, only about my expression of them.”

“I am glad to hear it.  It would strain things somewhat, now, to learn that you had scarcely noticed we were apart.  You are mulling on something I cannot seem to parse, and it makes me feel very dull, which, my darling Fanny, I cannot enjoy.”

Fanny laughed.  “And I am afraid I cannot explain—I wish that I could.  I suppose, in your terms, I am appreciative that she took steps to keep a distance between our outcomes—though I did no better and she perhaps did no worse.”

Mary shook her head.  “You are too softhearted, though I must be glad of it.”  She kissed her.  “Softhearted and stubborn-minded.  Would you ever have said you missed me if she had not said it first?”

No, she would not have, and she knew that Mary knew it, even as they both knew that Mary never would have bent to their terrible twenty thousand pounds impoverishment if Fanny had not required it—they complemented each other there, one a little too unyielding in mind and one a little too unyielding in heart.  The unlikeliness that they would be as they were now was astonishing and not the kind of thing that either of them liked to think of, especially so close to sleep, when it might bring uneasy dreams.

Fanny laid her head against Mary’s shoulder and let that be her answer.  Mary settled her graceful fingers against the nape of Fanny’s neck and then, in a voice not reflective at all, said, “I had almost forgotten it,” and separated herself before going to a cabinet.  “I have something for you which you are not allowed to refuse.”

She put into Fanny’s hands a long, elegantly-crafted golden chain.

“It is regrettably subtle,” Mary said, “but I know you have no liking for gaud and in any case, I wanted to buy it out of my income and not Henry’s, and—”

“And I have quite reduced you to a diet of bread with no butter, I know.”  She traced it.  “It’s lovely.”

“It is for the cross you had from William.  I thought if you wore it to dinner the next time we had both him and the Admiral over at the same time, he would be delighted and my uncle appropriately shamed by some reminder of God.”

“Such spite to creep into such a beautiful thing.”

“The spite,” Mary said, taking the chain up in her hand and gesturing for Fanny to turn, “is, I must confess, only the very smallest part of the joy of pleasing you,” and she lifted Fanny’s hair to draw the clasp together.  Despite the provenance of one gift and the provenance of another, Fanny thought the cross and the chain would look well together; no one, seeing them, would be able to tell what had gone into their cohabitation.