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The Starling

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Maria cannot sleep.

She supposes that one ought not to be able to sleep, the night before one’s suitor asks for one’s hand. But as much as she tries to convince herself that the knots winding themselves tighter and tighter in the pit of the stomach are butterflies, she cannot. It is dread of what is to occur tomorrow morning keeping her awake, and not impatience for the dawn- indeed, she cannot help but feeling she would rather the morning never came.

It is a most irritating sensation.

She has nothing to lose and everything- absolutely everything! to gain by agreeing to become Mrs James Rushworth. He is so very rich. He is not the cleverest of men- indeed, he is perhaps the stupidest man of her acquaintance. But her father is a clever man and, Maria will allow, Edmund is also clever. And how she would hate to marry a man as solemn and dour as either of them! Rushworth, at least, is not priggish. Mrs James Rushworth will spend the season in London. Maria has exciting, if hazy, recollections of being in Town as a child- how much more exciting it must be to go as a grown woman, a married woman- a leader even, perhaps, of fashion and society? If only a man a little more exciting than Rushworth were at hand to provide such things with an offer of marriage! True: another man might not be so very rich as Rushworth is. But for the ability to appreciate the intricacies of a play or to talk of art for even five minutes, instead of only talking about guns and shooting without ever seeming to say anything new at all- for that, Maria could happily forgo two or even three thousand a year.

A very small part of her wishes that her father were here. Oh, for the most part she is happy that he is far away in Antigua. Sometimes Maria doubts that she would much care if he never returned from West Indies. It is such a horrid thing to think. But she can breathe so much more easily with him gone, without the sensation that he is scrutinising her every move, looking for the smallest hint of a fault to chide her for. She cannot bare to be scolded into his joyless notion of perfection. But if her father were here, she might have accompanied him to Town for the winter, now that she is out. She might have met any number of wealthy, entertaining suitors there. In Mansfield, there is nothing; no one: Rushworth is her lot, and if she agrees to have him-

If?

Maria inhales sharply and sighs the air out again, staring upwards through the darkness. If – she means when, surely- she does not really mean to refuse Rushworth? Things have gone too far forward to turn back- she has agreed that he may speak and to turn him down now- and Aunt Norris, Maria thinks bitterly, will have already had it put about everywhere she can that Rushworth means to speak. Interfering old hag- why must she always be so busy? If she had left well enough alone…

You wanted Rushworth as much as she wanted him for you.

Maria scowls and rolls on to her side. This does nothing to provide an escape from the quiet voice in the back of her own mind reminding her that she had been just as eager for Rushworth- for Rushworth’s twelve thousand a year- as Aunt Norris is.

But I didn’t know! she argues back. I didn’t know what he was like then! I didn’t know he was the biggest bore in all of Britain!

She sits up in bed, suddenly determined that she needs to talk to someone- to seek advice from any quarter it may come from. Not from Julia, however- she couldn’t possibly talk about her doubts to Julia. Her sister would not understand- or she would understand, and she would laugh at her or, or despise her, or something. Not Edmund, either. He would only sermonise and tell her what an awful person she is to place so much value on such material things as a good income and a comfortable home that she, unlike him and his living all ready and waiting, is only going to get if she marries in it. Tom might understand her desperate need for freedom- he seized his own the moment he was able to. It’s a pity he was too much of a fool not to stay just within the limits of what his father might allow him, without feeling that dragging him out of the country would be preferable to leaving him to his own devices at home. But as it is, her oldest brother is too far away to be of any use to her now. If a letter could reach Antigua and a reply come back to her before morning! But no, Maria thinks irritably : Tom decided to play the prodigal and now she’s suffering for it. The only  person not yet discounted to whom Maria could turn to for advice is her mother and that- Maria snorts, and falls back down on to her bed with a heavy thud. Lady Bertram could not be taxed even to come and sit at the balls where her daughters came ought, looked for her husbands, found one. She does nothing but lie about- Maria sometimes wonders how such a sloth managed to catch her father’s eye. And other times thinks that a sloth for a bride was probably what her father wanted. A feeble, weak-willed, and silly girl who would agree with whatever he said and do whatever she was told. Lady Bertram can have no advice worth hearing. She probably wouldn’t notice nor even care if Maria were swept away by a flood or a burnt to a cinder in a fire, except to ask Sir Thomas how such a thing could have happened. For a moment, the rest of Maria’s life at Mansfield Park if she were to remain there a spinster flashes before her: endless stagnation, boredom, misery- not another soul alive to pass the day pleasantly with apart from Julia, until she married, or Tom if he returned and bothered to stay more than the half hour it would take his valet to pack his trunk with fresh clothes so that he could ride off again to somewhere, anywhere, other than here. It isn’t fair, Maria thinks hotly, her eyes prickling with sudden, angry tears. If she had been the first son, instead of the first daughter... but she isn’t, she isn’t, and she cannot get away- she will grow old and ugly and forgotten here, wholly dependent her father and then on Tom when her father dies. Unless she marries Rushworth: and that will perhaps be only a different kind of prison.

As Mrs Rushworth, at least, she will be more her own gaoler.

Maria scrubs at her face and sniffles, shutting her eyes and trying to ignore the lump in her throat and the heavy weight that seems to hang from her heart. Rushworth might improve on closer acquaintance, she tells herself- probably he is just a little too shy, or a little too uncertain of what it would or would not be proper to talk about with a lady to whom one is not yet quite engaged, to strike up any more serious kind of conversation. And if that is not the case- well! She is sure that she can manage him somehow, that there is a way in which a married couple can quite respectably live very separate lives. She only had to look at her own parents to see that. And a house as large as Sotherton might be filled with all kinds of people: Julia must come to stay, very often- Tom, if he chooses, or if he finally manages to disoblige their father sufficiently enough to be disinherited in favour of Edmund, which she and Julia have often speculated over being at least somewhat likely, sooner or than later….

It is with the image of herself graciously offering shelter to a suddenly penniless older brother, poor Tom dependent on someone else’s whims and pleasure for once like the rest of them always are, that she drifts off into an uneasy sleep. Not that she would really want to see him so reduced- she is fond of him and a ‘Sir Edmund’ to contend with would be such a bore- but what harm is there in idle fancies? To be Mrs Rushworth, with all the power and wealth of Sotherton behind her, a husband she can surely learn to manage as expertly as playing the pianoforte…

Nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Her doubts would be securely locked up by the morning, and she would accept- no, she would embrace her fate with a cheerful smile, and twist it all about to suit her own ambitions. And if she was lucky then perhaps, after all, she might find something that she could learn to love about her husband- even if it was only that he afforded her the freedoms inherent in the title of wife.