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The Absent Harp

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 Mary Crawford was not prepared for the pain that darted into her heart when she walked into the parsonage drawing room at Mansfield.

 She was not aware until that moment that she had somehow expected to find the room exactly as she had left it ten years previous. It was absurd. Of course Mrs. Grant had taken all of her furniture to Westminster – Mary had even lived with some of it, when she had rejoined her sister, after the doctor’s death.

 But though the rational mind makes its claims on consciousness, the heart follows its own logic. She must acknowledge the absurdity of her expectation that Edmund Bertram would preserve the drawing room exactly as she had left it ten years before—that she would find her harp standing in the corner, silent testament to what might have been.

 She had expected to find no sign of Fanny Price as mistress of the house.

 The reality was a very different room between those four familiar walls, beginning with the hangings, which had been new perhaps five years previous and were now smudged by small hands, to the embroidered Bible verse in its homely frame on the wall where once had hung an elegant French watercolor that Mary had bought for her sister. The other framed object (Mary was reluctant to term it art) was a badly drawn, boyish sketch of a sea-going vessel labeled ANTWERP.

 In the place of Mary’s harp sat a little table with a scattering of children’s books lying upon it, and opposite that table, a pretty little escritoire which gave evidence that Mrs. Bertram sat here when the weather was fine, attending to her letters when she was not hearing her children’s lessons.

 Mary’s gaze wandered from object to object, each a fresh hurt where she had thought herself strongest. I should not have come.

 The door opened, and there entered a woman wearing a morning gown in what might best be thought of as country fashion.

 “Miss Crawford?” It was Fanny’s voice.

 Mary stared, all in a maze. Fanny Price had once been generally accepted as a pretty girl, in a quiet way, albeit much too thin. Now, where another woman might be written down as stout, she was charmingly filled out, especially her face, a perfect oval, a pair of clear, steady eyes meeting Mary’s gaze with that sweet, sober expression Mary knew instantly. Except this Fanny did not shy off, looking otherwhere; she gazed back with a calm assurance that testified to ten years well spent.

 Ten years well spent.

 Fanny observed the blank look in her unexpected guest’s eyes, and was trying to recover, to think what must be done, when the glass door to the garden banged open, and here was Susan.

 “No, Tom. You may not go riding in those wet clothes; your new horse will wait, and so will Uncle Thomas. Come in and shift into dry things.” Speaking over her shoulder to Young Tom, Susan dashed into the morning room. When she beheld the stranger seated with her sister, she stopped dead. “Forgive me, Fanny, I did not know you had company.”

 If she could have prevented this meeting, Fanny would have spared no pains. She performed the introduction, and no sooner did the words “Miss Crawford” pass her lips than Susan gave as great as start as had Mr. Yates, that long-ago day in the theater at Mansfield.

 As then, the urge to laughter had to be controlled, especially when Susan exclaimed in accents of horror, “Not the Miss Crawford . . .”

 This flagrant evidence of notoriety caused Miss Crawford to put up her chin, rain-damp as she was. “My brother and myself seem fated to appear in country rumor as marriage wreckers, but as this fate is no choice of mine, I will make my departure.”

 Susan silently held open the door.

 A decade ago, the eighteen-year-old Fanny might have stood by, watching helplessly as the awkward moment turned farcical or tragic. But ten years as a clergyman’s wife and the mother of a lively brood had taught her how to act.

 “Miss Crawford,” she said quickly. In calling the lady’s attention thither, she shielded Mary from seeing Susan’s unkind gesture.

 Fanny understood Susan’s partisanship as well as she trusted her better feelings; she also remembered how very quick Mary Crawford had been to observe. “Miss Crawford,” she said again, “please sit down. As you see, it is coming on to rain again. Neither you, the coachman, or the horses will experience any good by going out again in this weather.”

 “I shall see that Young Tom goes straight to the nursery,” Susan said. Very much on her dignity, she dropped the smallest of curtseys in Miss Crawford’s general direction, and closed the door behind her.

 Though the day was not cold, Mary found herself shivering. “I trust you are all well?” she said, in an effort to retrieve her amour-propre. “Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram? Thomas? I wonder if he is married at last, to do his duty by the estate? My guess is one of the Miss Maddoxes. They tried so very hard to get him.” She heard her tone of false gaiety, and closed her lips.

 “We are all very well, thank you,” Fanny said, not answering the last. The glance she sent Mary’s way was the same acute observation that Mary remembered, and had so comfortably dismissed ten years ago, assuming no taxing degree of penetration behind it.

 Fanny said calmly, “I have been thinking what is best to do. Unfortunately, the three spare bedrooms upstairs are all in use, between my children and the two belonging to my sister-in-law, Emily. You might remember my brother William. He is a first lieutenant now, away at sea somewhere in the Indian Ocean. His wife is living with us until such time as he is able to get a home of his own.”

“This was an abominable idea,” Miss Crawford said, almost under her breath.

 Fanny saw her wretched expression, and said with gentle insistence, “Come to my room. Edmund always insists on my having a fire when it is wet, though I scarcely want it. By its warmth my maid will soon put you to rights. Before the rain begins I will walk up to Mansfield with Susan, and beg an extra bed of Lady Bertram. You will remember her, I am certain, and so you will know that there will be very little trouble at all.”

 Mary’s protests were talked over with quiet assurance as they walked upstairs. Fanny handed Mary over to her maid and excused herself before the latter could find anything to say to the matter.

 Fanny ran downstairs and into the kitchen, where she discovered the butler Elkin in conversation with Miss Crawford’s coachman, who was in the midst of addressing a sizable meal, a tankard at hand.

 At her appearance, all conversation ceased, and the coachman rose to his feet, hand going to his forehead in salute.

 “Please sit down,” Fanny said. “Resume your meal. I only wished to learn what happened. Is there something amiss with the carriage?”

 The butler and the coachman exchanged glances, giving Fanny a notion she might be hearing a mended version of the truth as the coachman said, “It was nothing at all, ma’am. Leastways, nothing until Miss took it into her head she knew a shortcut, which mired us good and proper. Though I will say this for Miss Crawford, she nipped right out and tried to pull the leader free with her own two hands. We had to leave the coach there, and walk.”

 Fanny turned to the butler. “I trust someone’s been sent to rescue those poor horses?”

 “Sent Ned and James,  ma’am,” was the reassuring reply. “They ought to be along soonest.”

 “Then I will leave things in your capable hands, Elkin,” Fanny said.

 She paused long enough to take her bonnet and cloak from the hook by the door, and, swinging the latter about her shoulders, she set out at a brisk pace through the garden. As she tied on the bonnet, she peered anxiously at the sky overhead. While she was not afraid of a summer rain, she knew it would disturb Lady Bertram if she appeared drenched, and she would avoid that if she could.

 The rain obligingly held off until she reached Mansfield shrubbery, big drops splattering her bonnet as she passed the roses. She was safely inside the French doors before the first crack of thunder.

 She crossed the room, expecting to find Lady Bertram slumbering upon her couch, and was surprised to discover that lady was not alone, and that she had become as agitated as it was possible for her to be. “Bless me, here is Fanny. She will put us to rights, sir,” Lady Bertram said. And to Fanny, “Tom is in the barns, looking out something with that yearling he bought for Young Tom, and Sir Thomas is closeted with the solicitor, yet here is this Colonel, I didn’t quite catch his name—something about the Crawfords, but I have been telling him that the doctor is gone these five years and more. Can you make it clearer, Fanny?”

 Fanny must set aside her own business and disentangle Lady Bertram’s first, as once she had disentangled her yarns. As Fanny advanced on the gentleman, holding out her hand, Lady Bertram got to her feet and wandered to the door. “I shall see where Pug has got himself off to. I hope he is not outside eating the cabbages again. They do so disorder his internal arrangements.” She shut the door behind her, leaving Fanny alone with the strange gentleman in the red coat with the epaulettes of a colonel.

 “My name is Fitzwilliam,” he said, shaking her hand. “I am come in search of Miss Crawford, Miss Mary Crawford. I was told she was come into this neighborhood. Is she here?”

 * * *

 ‘Edmund.’ The name had tripped so easily off Fanny’s tongue, with the ease of long habit, whereas Mary had been given no leave to such intimacy. He must be ‘Mr. Bertram’ to her—he had not even attained the relative dignity of ‘doctor,’ as he easily might have.

 Mary examined the gowns the maid laid out for her, discovering much about Fanny’s life thereby, if little of her tastes. The best of these gowns was last year’s fashion, but well made and modest, as suited a clergyman’s wife.

 Mary turned away. Even in a country vicarage, she told herself, she must not make a burlesque of herself dressing like a married woman. But she knew there was something else, that the wearing of Fanny’s gown cut too near.

 She sent the maid away, grabbed up her sodden cloak, and with her dress still clinging damply to her, shoes squeaking at every step, she ran downstairs again, no thought in her head beyond getting away.

 Old habit drew her into the drawing room, her intent to escape again through the glass doors. Surely she would find the coachman in the barn,  and could order him to put the horses to.

But she came to a halt halfway in the room when she discovered it already occupied.

 Edmund stood between her and escape, as rain sheeted down in a roar; Edmund bent over the desk, sorting through some papers there.

 He was of course the same man. He had not even the grace to evidence the thinning of hair at the temples that so plagued Henry. Mary stared, trying to find in those often dreamed-of features the weightiness of Sir Thomas, but she was not granted the satisfaction of a paunch, or a jowl, that might testify to her dire predictions about clergymen. Edmund gazed back, tranquil as ever, though perhaps increased in gravitas; she felt his gaze take in her wet head, and the damp gown that she knew outlined her form.

 She straightened her spine.

 “Miss Crawford,” Edmund said, as if it had been ten days, and not ten years, since they had parted in that wretched London drawing room. “This is a surprise. Has Fanny seen you? I am certain she can find something dry for you to shift your clothes.”

 Mary found her voice. “She did that, but I—” She stopped, and drew a breath. She watched his eyes, knowing her power to draw that gaze, to cause the tranquility to alter to something else. Then she colored, though she had thought that the ability to blush had vanished with her girlhood, and she hurried into speech. “Fanny—Mrs. Bertram—stepped  up to Mansfield, having insisted I stay. I—my coach was mired near here. I walked, remembering the way.” Every word opened her up to questions she did not want to answer, even to herself.

 But because she was here, because she knew she had waited ten years for this moment—to be alone with Edmund once again—she took a step toward him. “Edmund Bertram,” she said. “Do you regret that last conversation? Deny it if you dare. I admit that I have come to regret it—that in fact, every day of my life, I have regretted it the more.”

 “But I do not deny it,” he said.

 * * *

Here was a situation Fanny had never encountered. Good manners required her to be helpful, but delicacy demanded she make no present of a lady’s name or whereabouts to a man hitherto unknown.

 This colonel appeared to discern Fanny’s dilemma, or perhaps he had thought out what he might say, for he followed his remark with, “I came to find out the answer to my proposal of marriage.”

 Here was a dilemma indeed!  The situation now felt unreal, almost as if she had walked in upon another stage. Once again Fanny was an unwilling player upon this stage as she begged the gentleman to be reseated. A secret flutter of laughter accompanied the wish that she might not be the unwilling auditor to a ranting lover as she said, “I beg your pardon, but would it not seem that her absence is in some wise your answer?”

 Colonel Fitzwilliam did not stamp or rant. He answered like a well-bred gentleman struggling under strong feelings. “One might be forgiven for thinking that.” He made an effort at smiling, his tone as rueful as it was rational. “Until the day I spoke, I had thought us affianced in all but name. The lady in question encouraged me in every way—we shared so many tastes, and I was every day invited to dinners and glees and soirees.”

Fanny said something polite but noncommittal.

 The colonel stroked his gloves absently with his thumb, his countenance unhappy as he went on, low-voiced, “You might be familiar with her sportive ways. So witty! Especially on the subject of marriage, but one hears that sort of thing everywhere. I thought nothing of it.”

 This was indeed beginning to sound familiar.

 “We had such a good understanding that I felt certain my words would be welcome. I am not such a coxcomb as to make a proposal lest I thought it fairly safe she felt the same way.”

 “Excuse me if I trespass, but she clearly made no answer?”

 “She said she would think it over, she pressed my hand when I departed, and when I returned the next day, her sister told me she believed Miss Crawford had fled into Northampton. Those were her exact words. ‘Fled.’ As if  I were the sort of rascal one finds in the bad novels one sees everywhere these days.” His smile was pained; he was not handsome, but an upright figure and a pair of intelligent, speaking eyes encouraged Fanny’s good regard.

 Fanny felt herself on surer ground. “Might the cause not be you at all, but the question of marriage?”

 “That is what I came to find out,” he replied. “A single word will see me gone. I was convinced that I owed it to the both of us—to our future happiness—to require her to speak that word. If there is misunderstanding, I must endeavor to resolve it. If she does not want me, then there’s an end to it.”

 * * *

 “At one time, as we both know,” Edmund said, “I wanted something very different. But it did not take long to comprehend that it would never have done.”

 Mary scarcely heard the words. It was the steadiness of his tone, the tranquility in his gaze, that sounded the death knell to her ten-year-old dreams.

 He went on, still in that steady voice, “Why are you here?” With a faint irony that she had once believed him to be incapable of descrying, much less using, he added, “I trust it was not with the intent of breaking my marriage.”

 “Why not?” she declared, her chin elevated. “I might be perceived as your savior, or your devil, anything you like. For marriage is so very brittle, I find it is relatively easy to break.”

 He said, “Would you like to sit down?”

 She blinked back tears she was far too proud, and too angry, to shed, and chose a chair, saying sarcastically, “ You might as well perform the office of clergyman, and preach to me.”

 “I would not intentionally trespass against unwilling ears,” he retorted mildly, as overhead sounded the quick thump of childish footsteps. “Instead, permit me to put to you a question: had we both overcome our separate scruples in order to marry, how long, do you think, before our vows would have become brittle?”

 She tossed her head, rejoining a spirited answer, “At risk of sounding conceited, I do not rate my powers so low.”

 “Meaning you had convinced yourself that  you would have persuaded me against my inclinations, against my better nature, in giving up the church,” he said, still mildly. “Do you not think that this is at heart why marriages fail?”

 “Marriages fail because they are founded upon idle wishes or pecuniary want, upon hypocrisy and conniving,” she said.

“So you would have stood up with me in church, believing me capable of all these things?”

“Perhaps I should amend that to ‘most,’” she answered. “You were not guilty of idle wishes, except where I was concerned; you never connived, and your hypocrisies were all charming, as they served my wishes.”

“My offer to take a role in Lovers’ Vows,” he said.

“A gesture perhaps better expressed as gallantry.” Mary could not refrain from gripping her elbows. “It gave me to believe you were capable of better things.”

“And here is where our foundations severed,” he said. “You are cold. I will see to the fire.”

 She made an impatient gesture. “Never mind the fire. I am not such a poor creature as to fall into a decline over a wetting. I beg you to explain how our foundations could sever.”

 “Your definition of ‘better things’ does not match mine,” he returned, and set about lighting the fire already laid on the grating. “Come, Miss Crawford. Step to the hearth, if you will. We’ll soon have warmth.”

 “How do you come to the conclusion that our definitions are so different? Once we found ourselves in agreement on many important subjects.”

 “But not the most important,” he said, crossing to his wife’s desk.

 His movement left the other half of the room vacant. She understood his superficial intent, to draw her toward the fireplace, but she perceived a deeper motivation, to put distance between them. Was that because he wished her away, or because he did not trust himself?

 She crossed to the fireplace, aware of the flattering effect of firelight on hands, on the lines of her gown, even on the golden highlights it struck in her dark hair, because she had heard many compliments in corroboration. Holding out her hands to the flames, she glanced over her shoulder. “Aside from my desire to see you in a place where your shining parts would most benefit the world, where did we disagree in essentials?”

 “We might begin,” he said, “with your entertaining ideas of my future predicated upon my brother’s death.”

 “And here we are at hypocrisy again.” She turned her back to the fire and faced him. “I will not believe you did not think once what you might do if you were to find yourself the future Sir Edmund. It is entirely human—we do not wish anyone’s death—but those who have not can be forgiven for imagining what it is to have. And never,” she finished, “have I heard that air-dreaming actually hastens the ill into decline.”

 He took a turn about, glancing upward at the muffled sound of childish voices. The sudden smile that illuminated his features struck sent a cold pang to the center of Mary’s heart. Just so had he once smiled at her. Or had it never been quite that tender?

He glanced her way. “I foresee an argument about semantics at the very least, and I would forestall that if I may. Such arguments seldom lead to éclaircissement, as you yourself once told me. Yes, I remember most every word you ever spoke to me. And mine in return. I also recollect that, between our first meeting and our last parting, we never advanced a step closer to understanding. We each thought the other might be improved. You could not see how unhappy I was in London, that I only came up to the city for you.”

“And what of your thoughts about me? I am to believe they underwent a vast change for the worse?”

“Come, let us not stray into acrimony,” he pleaded. “Let me say only that I was a long while in recovering, but recover I must. I had too many responsibilities to indulge myself in melancholy, and once I had regained clarity of thought, I knew I must begin by self-judgment. I was guilty of endeavoring to give you an entirely different character, because I loved your grace, your easy manners, your wit. I ended with fervent hopes that you might find someone who could appreciate all your gifts, whose character might complement your own. We never succeed in changing people; that, I believe, is where many marriages founder.”

“So you claim success in matrimony, then, against all history?” Mary asked, adding with a fair attempt at playfulness, “But of course if you do, there is no credit to you. Fanny—Mrs. Bertram—must be a perfect wife. I would say ‘an angel’ but that has become so trite as to be meaningless, and ‘a saint’ has sad connotations, for who would be comfortable in the company of a zealot?”

“Here is another of those places where our definitions must disagree,” he said with a hint of humor. “Why should sainthood equate with zealotry? But perhaps we can lay aside such topics.”

“Yes, yes.” She made a warding gesture. “Please. I think it is safe to say that I am as ill-qualified to make pronouncements on saintliness as you are about life among the beau monde. Each of us makes judgments founded upon a sad lack of knowledge. I have only to admit my error, and make my departure so that you might return the sooner to your domestic bliss.”

“You can,” Edmund said imperturbably. “Or you might wait out the rain, and inform me why you are really here?”

So intent were both on the other, that neither was aware that the rain had entirely stopped.

* * *

Though Fanny did not ask, her companion, perhaps glad to find a sympathetic ear, poured out his tale. He came from Derbyshire, his family having been long-established there. Brief references to being a second son, and vague references to expectations, caused Fanny to guess that the gentleman’s elder brother was heir to a considerable estate.

 The war being ended, Colonel Fitzwilliam found himself thrown on the town again, with time on his hands; he had wasted no time re-acquainting himself with friends there. And, prompted by the happiness his cousin had found in the married state, he had looked about him for a suitable lady.

 He had every reason to believe he had found what he had sought in Mary Crawford; he believed he had been given every encouragement. On finding her summarily departed, “I retreated to my friends in Derbyshire, in flat despair, I must admit. My friend’s wife—a sterling woman—convinced me not to roam around imputing meanings to Miss Crawford’s actions, but to apply to the lady herself. Only she can speak her mind. And so I came away, and, well, here I am.”

 Fanny had been thinking hard during this speech. At its conclusion, remembering the strange countenance that Mary Crawford had exhibited on her precipitous arrival, Fanny made a decision.

 “As you see,” she said as she pointed to the French doors, “the rain has lifted. Will you take a walk with me?”

 * * *

 What could Mary say?

She could resort to sarcasm, so frequently the first line of defense: she might reiterate her belief, many times repeated in words she had thought so clever, that of all transactions, marriage is the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves. But Fanny Price had always been honest. If her opinion was sought. She had steadfastly refused to marry Henry, though he was a far better catch than Edmund Bertram.

 Mary reflected quickly on the irony of the present circumstances, that Edmund had as much as admitted that he had fallen in love with a pretty face, while objecting to the mind behind it, whereas Mary had once plumed herself on her generosity in acknowledging Fanny Price’s beauty, without ever troubling herself to ask what Fanny really thought.

 She had told Fanny what she ought to think, especially with regard to Henry—who was still, these ten years later, lamentably inclined to extol Fanny’s virtues. He was not yet wise enough to find himself another candidate for wife. Before he had departed in his yacht, he had smiled and said, “Perhaps if I am returned to find you happy in the married state, I might try my luck again.”

 Mary looked up at Edmund, who was patiently waiting, and dropping her habit of tonnish dissembling, she said, “I am afraid.”

 “You have found someone,” he ventured a new idea.

 She listened for jealousy, for another interest, but if he felt it, he did not display it. And yet she sensed he was not unmoved. Nor was she; though she was by now quite warm, and even dry on the side closest the fire, she still trembled.

 She turned her mind to Fitzwilliam.  He was not by any means handsome, but she had long before ceased thinking him ugly.

 “Yes. No,” she said. “I don’t know. Have you no Scriptural wisdom to insert here, no threadbare morals?”

 “What I have for you is the ten years’ observations of married persons which my pastoral duties have furnished. I think I can say where there is liking, respect, and truth, there is a fair chance of love enduring, but you must first examine what you mean by ‘love’. If it is chiefly the admiration of a handsome pair of eyes, that can be an unsteady foundation on which to build a life together.”

“You are not going to claim that appearances ought not to have anything to do with marriage.”

 “On the contrary,” he said. “I only stipulate it ought not be the single criterion.”

 His tone, the tilt of his head, made it plain as if he spoke that he whatever he was feeling at her sudden reappearance, he believed himself well out of a scrape.

Moreover, she discovered she could not disagree.

“One last question, O reverend Bertram,” she asked, her mocking tone at odds with the sheen of tears along her eyelids. “How can one avoid the terrible fate of sitting down to the breakfast table one fatal day with someone you discover a total indifference to?’

 “I will answer your question with another question. What joys do you share with the unnamed gentleman? If there are none besides his appearance, then you may consider what that means. If there are other joys . . . the little motions of daily life, even the disappointments over which you can laugh together, or even share your grief, then you have another answer.”

And Mary thought, He believes that that fatal day would have come between us, whether I had prevailed and our breakfast was in London, or he had prevailed, and the breakfast took place in this house. He believes we would have looked at one another in indifference, or perhaps even in hatred.

Outside, Fanny and Colonel Fitzwilliam walked through the shrubbery. Fanny, glancing through the trees at the ruddy firelight glowing through the glass doors, saw the two figures silhouetted against the fire, each completely absorbed in the other.

Her feelings were a-tumble, for there were so many questions here, in a day already full of questions: Sir Thomas and his solicitor, Young Tom arriving back so noisily, Emily’s affairs, William so far away. She could hope for happy outcomes—she longed to talk them all over with Edmund—but first, she must do something in aid of this situation, in hopes of avoiding either tragedy or farce.

 “Come this way,” she said, drawing the gentleman’s attention safely toward her until they were well past that revealing scene. She led the colonel around to the front door, and took him directly to Edmund’s book room. Establishing Colonel Fitzwilliam there with the latest magazines and a room full of books, she promised to seek news of Miss Crawford, and to return with refreshments.

 She first stopped by the kitchen. The sudden silence among the servants testified to the probable subject. That was to be expected. Fanny ordered tea and cakes, and then, her heart beating fast, she walked to the drawing room, paused, and made a little noise at the latch before she entered the room.

 She could not have said why she did it, for she knew Edmund believed in the sanctity of marriage as much as she was secure in his love. And yet, she well remembered the power of attraction; there had been a time when the chief subject of their converse was Mary Crawford.

 But when she walked in, she saw the unmistakable relief in Edmund’s eyes, and the painful contraction of Mary’s brow made it clear that whatever had taken place between them was not throwing them back ten years in any significant way.

 “I have ordered tea,” Fanny said into the complete silence. “I have also left a gentleman in the book room. He knows only that I seek news of Miss Crawford.”

 “Fitzwilliam followed me all the way here?” Mary asked, not displeased.

 Fanny took another chance. “I hope you will forgive my observing that he is a man laboring under strong . . . sensibilities.”

 Mary laughed. “Always so delicate, Fanny, I remember that about you. I sometimes think that you were the only one among us who understood true delicacy, instead of social pretense.”

 With that, she dropped a slight curtsey, and walked out.

A very short time later, the front door was heard to shut, and the Bertrams briefly glimpsed a pair vanishing among the trees.

 “I think your tea will have to be served to the children,” Edmund said, as he slid his arm around Fanny.

 She pressed a kiss into his arm. “I will summon them.”

 The young ones descended on the table like a cloud of locusts, ate everything in sight, and flitted again leaving only crumbs. Their voices died away upstairs, laughing and chattering about Tom’s new horse, and the prospect of a fair coming to the neighborhood.

 Once again, Fanny and Edmund found themselves talking about Mary Crawford. Edmund began with, “I am more convinced than ever that, though she retains all her old power of attraction, I never knew her—remember that for every aspect of her I admired there were two I could criticize, pompous fool that I was? I could not be got to see that I wished her face and form on a very different woman, which is about the most dishonest act I have ever performed.” He sighed. “What sort of man is this Colonel Fitzwilliam?”

 “I liked him very much. I hope they can find their way toward happiness,” Fanny stated. “I venture to think that if anyone can give it to her, he can.”

 “Happiness,” he repeated, smiling at her over the table full of milky glasses and jam-smeared plates.   

* * *

 They sat there, he with his elbows on the table, she with her workbag at hand, mending a shirt, as they talked over the events of the day.

 “Now that the papers are signed making Young Tom heir to my brother, my father wants me to put Young Tom to a tutor, that he might be brought up to the affairs of the estate as well as his learning. I’ve written to my friend Owen, who says his younger brother Septimus just took a first at Oxford—and perhaps of more interest to Tom, he’s a first-rate cricketer . . .”

 “I do so wish Tom and Susan had made a match of it.”

A shake of the head. “Tom never had the least interest in matrimony.”

 “Nor does Susan. Oh, speaking of matrimony, I trust Emily found a letter waiting for her when she walked to the post . . .”

Though life seldom sustains itself at the high pitch of poesy, they shared a deeper awareness of contentment.

 Inevitably, as the day at last drew to its end, Fanny was drawn back to the subject of Mary Crawford. As she braided her hair, she glanced at Edmund in the mirror. “’Delicacy?’ I wonder if Mary meant that I am insipid?”

 “Insipid?” he repeated. “I’ll prove the untruth of that.”

 The door shut on her chuckle.