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Symmetry

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"My dear, consider," said Miss Crawford, coming into her brother's study and opening the curtains. "Is it not time that you ceased to deprive your acquaintance of the pleasure of your company?"

The morning light revealed a well-appointed room. The desk, the chairs, the fireplace and the mirror above its mantelpiece were all alike neat and pleasing, and spoke of a taste both playful and exact. The only points of discord were the painting of a naval scene, all overwrought waves and rolling-eyed French seamen, which was no doubt a gift from some friend or relation whom the master of the house did not wish to offend; and the master of the house himself, slumped in a wing chair with his dark curls in disorder and a glass of brandy in his hand.

"I have no friends," he said, rousing himself only long enough to drink another long draught of the brandy, and pour himself more from the decanter at his elbow.

Miss Crawford removed the decanter. Dusting it with the sleeve of her dress in what she supposed to be a little neat housewifely motion, she replaced it in its habitual position on the sideboard. "I did not speak of friends, but only of acquaintance. And, you know, one must put on more of a show with acquaintances than with friends. Where there is true affection, one sees a man whose soul is in torment, and makes allowances for his sighings; without it, one only sees a bore."

Mr Crawford looked up. His dark complexion had become somewhat sallower over the past month, and his curly locks were in need of a barber. "Mary," he said, putting down the brandy-glass with over-great attention, "are you calling me a bore?"

"I am saying that you are in a fair way to become one," The lady sat down in a chair opposite his, folded her hands in her lap and regarded him with the meekness that she had been accustomed to display during her brother-in-law's sermons. "Is it some last-ditch attempt to win Fanny Price's heart? It will not do. She will wed her parson."

"I did many things for Fanny Price," said her brother, the look of old kindling in his eye. "I tried to become a better man for her sake, and I am not sorry for it. But not even for her would I willingly become a bore."

Miss Crawford looked more innocent than ever. "Then why, pray, are you become a bore, my love? Is your digestion plaguing you, or have you become an Evangelical?"

Her brother gave her a fulminating look and set down the brandy-glass. Miss Crawford's gaze became downright soulful, and she stared at the window-frame as if it might hold some caged bird for her to rhapsodise over, or perhaps a tableau of improving orphans upon the terrace.

"I hope it is your digestion," she said kindly. "I have been a careful scholar in the ways of our sister Mrs Grant, and learned from her, I hope, how to manage a man with a digestion. But if you are become an Evangelical, your house shall no longer be home to me, and I will have to pack my bags again and go to live with Aunt Louisa." The soulfulness experienced some strain. "Tell me, does Aunt Louisa still have the parrot?"

"Damn the parrot," said Mr Crawford. His sister did not appear surprised by the violence of his language. "And damn you too, Mary, if you think you can cozen me into believing that your heart is not wrecked upon the same shore as mine. You intended to marry the parson."

His sister leaned over and took his hand. "I would have had the parson," she admitted. "My heart was sincerely given. I was foolish enough to think him the better man of the two brothers, even though he was a younger son, and that, you know, is a sign of a decided preference."

Her brother turned her small brown hand up in his. He looked at it, and then at her, and she did not look away. "Was all of your heart sincerely given, Mary?"

"Why, there you have found your mark," she admitted. "You know me too well. I do not believe that I can do any thing entirely sincerely. It is a defect in me, but one that I have owned my own since birth."

"Nothing in you is a defect," he said harshly. "If Edmund Bertram made you feel so, it was because he was trying to make you over in the image of Fanny Price, and a man who would do that would take a ship of the line and try to make it over into a fishing boat."

A small smile reached the corners of her mouth. "Would not you make me over in the image of Fanny Price, had you the chance, dear Henry?"

"I? No, by God."

"But only consider how obliging she was! I took away her chance of exercise and health – which was not well done of me, but how was I to know that she depended on the pony? – I teazed her to take you, when she did not want you, and sometimes I teazed her merely for the sake of seeing her ruffle up, like a little brown wren, and all she would do was exert herself to be a friend to me, even if she never could un-prim herself to the extent of calling me Mary instead of Miss Crawford, though I often entreated her so." Miss Crawford looked pensive. "She was beautiful – "

"Her looks are nothing to yours."

"She would have been a far better mistress to this house than I – she, who knows the price of everything, and do not suspect me of a pun, I beg you, when all I know about a dinner is that the men will like it if there is a great deal of the best kind of brandy! She would be a more fitting mistress for this house," she coaxed, "you must admit to that. A wife is the very thing to be the making of a fine estate in Norfolk. A sister, you know, can only be a very temporary person. No one ever talked of a sister as the lady of the manor. A wife is a far more substantial body, you must agree."

"Let us not talk of substantial bodies." He rose from his chair, and, still holding her hand, drew her up with him. "Is that indeed how you see yourself, Mary – as a temporary person?"

"Oh, what is the use of talking of it? Our uncle's home is no longer open to me, and as for Mrs Grant, or shall we say her neighbours – well! I shall make my home wherever I may, even if I have nothing of my own but my harp and a jewel-box."

"Your home is with me." Mr Crawford drew her closer. "And I will never believe your heart truly given to the parson."

Her black eyes gained a little of their former lustre as she looked up into his face. "It is a story of cousins in love, you know. We cannot expect to spoil the symmetry of it."

"Damn the symmetry," said Mr Crawford, and kissed her on the lips – which, as we must regretfully inform our readers – she had been intending since she came into the room, and indeed, any time those twenty years. To those who complain that this is not a moral tale, we must regretfully agree, and direct them to more improving pastimes: but alas, those brought up in an unsteady household often turn out more unsteady than not themselves, and at least as far as the Crawfords are concerned, one cannot truthfully maintain that they were any the less happy for it.