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A Second, Better

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“[I]f one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere … .”

-- Mansfield Park, Vol. I, Ch. V

 

In those first awful months after Maria’s and Henry Crawford’s scandal became known and all the guiltiest parties had gone away, a small part of Fanny thought it only natural that, stripped of his illusions regarding Mary Crawford, Edmund must see that the vision he had created of that woman, minus the dark, laughing eyes, did in fact exist, and existed much nearer at hand than Mansfield Parsonage. Edmund himself seemed to understand something the same. When he spoke of having deceived himself, Fanny sometimes thought his countenance could not show plainer his realization that the qualities for which he had given Miss Crawford so much credit were in fact Fanny’s own, and that he had merely been wishing them to wear another woman’s face. Certainly, she would have blushed to discuss it, even with herself, but yes, some part of her would acknowledge, would urge, and keep urging that stranger things had happened, that attachments had been formed and sustained by circumstances less propitious than the deepening of a confidential relationship and the spending of more than half their time together. But for the most part she knew it to be full as natural, if not more so, that the healing of Edmund’s heartbreak would result not in the blooming of any new love, but instead in the strengthening of their own same peculiar tie. In due time, Fanny was ready to accept that the man who first distinguishes the gleaming Mary Crawford may next be fairly caught by a twinkling Fanny Price, but it must be through circumstances so remarkable that one would never think to remark on them if they did not come to pass.

Of course, this was no easy acceptance on her part; the agility of language often diminishes the pain of its import, but at first, indeed, there was no comfort to be gained from such reasoning. This fresh evidence of Edmund’s indifference, this double stamp of rejection was a blow that cost poor Fanny many bitter tears. She could almost have written him off as a clod, insensible to his own needs and his own heart; a poor friend to Fanny, to say the least, if he could not see her suffering, and would do nothing to resolve it. But these first hard feelings had barely a chance to announce themselves before arguments and vindications sprang up to silence them. She must do him justice. She could not be angry, or even disappointed in Edmund for failing to love her – she who had herself refused to fall in love simply because someone asked could never reproach him for treating his own heart with the same respect. Edmund had done no wrong in this instance; he was once more solicitous of her wants and needs, he attended to her words and sense with renewed fervor, he made her plans his own; his kindness remained unparalleled; he was once more his same excellent self, only, he had not loved her. She could not class it as a flaw.

And thus eventually, she became susceptible to the cool ministrations of reason. The painful pleasure of loving on unrequited cannot retain its charm forever, after all, unless one is too young or too stubborn for one’s own good. Wise, gentle Fanny, by contrast, had long known it to be prudent for her to free herself of all that was too warm in her attachment to Edmund, and although she had never yet been able to accomplish this feat in previous struggles, she had also never before been faced with such strong proof of its necessity. While he was dupe of Miss Crawford, of course there had been always room to hope for a different outcome, but now, when free, when awake to love, and still without preferring her, there could be no doubt that she must forget all thoughts of Edmund as suitor. At last truly brought home to this necessity, she was more determined than ever to make it so.

From this sober frame of mind, Fanny was able finally to attack the stronghold of her heart, and its twin fortresses of sentimentality and constancy. Girded by that unequivocal conviction of his behavior, she could now look out over all that was past in their relations, and could try to cast him in a more judicious light. She saw herself: a small, shy, solitary child in a strange place among forbidding people, suddenly the recipient of sensible smiles and gentle words, of help and of quiet attention for the first time, and then so many times thereafter. She saw Edmund, the provider of that help, those sweet smiles, that subtle attention that made her feel so much like a star without ever putting her on stage. She saw her heart, that tiny, neglected thing, begin to swell with appreciation, and then gradually begin to float away on clouds of fancy, to pluck tendernesses and affection out of the thin air, puffing them up for her hungry soul to dwell upon. She had been used to think of her love as something she could not help, to think of Edmund’s particular fondness as something she could never forget or disregard, that no experience could teach her to think less of. But in this harsher light of reflection, she now saw herself as an agent of her own devotion, steadily mixing up his merit with all the warmth of her own grateful little heart, spreading it as far as it could go. It was a sadly botched business. Yet gratitude, that tried and true foundation for beginner’s love, must of course have its opposite operation.

It could all be as simple as mathematics; she must simply separate out all the fondness that was evident in his actions from all that was embellished in her mind, and she would be left with only the fraternal attachment that he was meaning to convey. Where he expressed regard, she must have an answering affection to meet it, but to continue to encourage anything deeper would be madness. What chance had she of peace until she had calmed her own fancy, and taught herself to govern her own heart’s offerings in response to his? It would be akin to self-destruction, that greatest of all personal sins. And it took no more than this, the once more making of an old resolution, but strengthened not only by her natural senses of duty and reason, but by a conviction of self-preservation to effect the change she knew was needed. And to her credit, in just a few more months’ time Fanny had come so far in these elucidations, that she was quite able to meet Edmund of a morning in the breakfast room, and allow him to fill her plate without the slightest twinge of desire, and without any hint of a thought that this indulgence had at its root any romantic significance.

--

As Fanny engaged in these heroics in whatever scraps of privacy she could procure, she was glad to note that the environs of Mansfield outside of the East Room had never worn a fairer face. Their society had an immediate improvement as the Grants’ lengthened vacation turned into a permanent residence in London, and Fanny had no more to fear from the nearness of the Parsonage. Mr. Neave, the curate that Dr. Grant installed in his stead, was pleasant and prepossessing; he was a tad too apt to spend his mornings closed up in his home instead of out in his parish, but Fanny could not judge him too harshly for that.

In every respect, the family circle at Mansfield was growing more agreeable to her own quiet taste. Although Edmund now resided at Thornton Lacey, he rode up to the Park so regularly that Fanny scarcely felt any loss of time walking through rushes and sitting under trees with him. Tom, who for some time immediately following his recovery had worn a rather solemn and philosophical mien, was now returned to something of his former disposition. He was less trifling and less expensive, to be sure, and he had even made inroads to learning more of the workings of the estate that was to be his, but once assured of his health he seemed to regain a large measure of the teasing and merrymaking that had always been so much a part of himself. Tom’s progress was so selectively positive, in fact, that Fanny could not help occasionally observing, while watching for instance, his sharing a joke with the undergardener in the middle of what had been a deep-looking consultation, that his illness had been a more successful course of improvement than any reformatory could provide, and that if so much of the outcome had not depended on the blessings of providence in securing his survival, he might supplement his baronetcy by writing a program of his own.

There were regular letters from William, detailing his ever-increasing fame and good fortune shipside. In the final days of the war, he had met with a small amount of action on the Peninsula, and had come out unscathed. The Thrush had been most lately occupied with fortifying the garrison at Gibraltar, but now that dealings with the Monster were largely over, William had hopes of earning a billet off to somewhere farther flung than Europe. His circle of naval acquaintance had grown with his commission, and he was full of second-hand raves about North America and the adventures to be had on a cruise there. His influence among the higher ranks was growing steadily as well; through various acts of bravery and cleverness, he had distinguished himself enough to be introduced to several captains and admirals. Some of them had interest, and a smaller, but sincere number of them seemed actually interested in William’s prospects. He was beginning to think it not so farfetched a proposition that he might be a made commander in a few years’ time.

Susan, too, was thriving in her new situation. Unlike Fanny had been when first on the scene at Mansfield, Susan was up to everything, and had no obstacles of natural alarm or social distinction to struggle against. With Fanny the only other young woman at home to be compared with, and Lady Betram often the only authority figure in the drawing room, she had little to distress her or to check her essays into society. Susan joined energy with her desire to please, and her more sanguine, fearless disposition made her likewise ready to be pleased with all around her. All the little encounters and discoveries she made about the place were continually charming to Fanny, who greatly relished the joy of seeing her home through new eyes, and who was glad to encourage every new pleasure her sister stumbled upon. She had made a friend of Clair, the youngest Miss Maddox, and had made a creditable appearance at a number of informal dinners and calls, and was well on her way to being established as a promising addition to the neighborhood.

The two of them continued to read and work together, and as she introduced Susan to more and more of the places, personages, and practices she would now be called on to take part in, Fanny was often indulged in feeling herself a useful guide to her sister in navigating this unfamiliar terrain. There were, of course, some rituals of girlhood in which Fanny could be of no assistance, having scarcely been allowed to have a youth under the wise management of Aunt Norris. When she glimpsed Susan and Clair Maddox engaging in one of their secret little cozes, or saw her sister suddenly appear with a new hairstyle after hours at her table, Fanny was occasionally sorry for her lack of experience with bonnets and beaux and balls. Perhaps she did not grudge the bonnet-trimming and balls to any great degree, but she did feel that something elemental had been denied her, that her aunt had robbed her of something vital, by so deranging her situation as to make it impossible for Fanny to see herself, or to be seen by others without a designation attached that trumpeted how she was to be regarded. Fanny Price: Poor Relation. Dependent. Project. During these reflections, she could see all the sense in her having latched onto Edmund before she knew half of what she was about. But Aunt Norris was gone now, and that old vision of Edmund as the only one who could ever really understand her was gone as well. Watching Susan work her way into this world, dining and dancing, shyly smiling at various sons of the county’s finest families, Fanny sometimes wondered how she might have acquitted herself in the same circumstances. Probably she would have made a very different coquette from her sister.

--

The first event of any importance that occurred to disrupt the new peace at Mansfield was over a year in coming, and took the form of the announcement of Tom’s engagement. They knew a little of his chosen bride at the Park; Tom had met her while taking the waters at Cromer, and had renewed the acquaintance during the winter in town. The lady had made some small part of his correspondence of late, but still, the news of such a forward understanding was generally something of a surprise. Lady Bertram was particularly bewildered.

“Tom is to be married! But are you certain?” she asked Sir Thomas as he smiled over his letter. His chair was next to his lady’s, and he reached over to grasp her hand as he answered.

“I could not be mistaken on such a point, my dear. He writes that he has both asked and been accepted by Miss Margery Stratton, and seems quite pleased to refer to her as the future Lady Bertram.”

“Well! Well, I am sure there is nothing so wondrous in it, but really, I cannot quite make my mind up to it. My poor little Tom! He is so lately recovered.” At this, Fanny smiled fondly. Lady Bertram’s sense of maternal anxiety could never be called lively, but once excited it was difficult to displace; she would probably always retain the impression of Tom’s first appearance in the throes of his illness, but nothing could be further from an accurate depiction of her cousin now.

“Come now, my dear. Tom has been restored to his full strength these many months now; you know he spends half his mornings roaming about the estate on Maelstrom. He could never have survived the season if he were not perfectly well. And besides, marriage is no significant tax to the constitution,” Sir Thomas replied, again regarding the letter, his mind wandering over it and joyfully landing on points at random. “On the contrary, a wife is a fine thing for a man’s health. I must see about their license directly. I have made some inquiries into the family; Tom has chosen unexceptionably.”

Fanny heard these last words and sighed inwardly. She had not yet forgotten her uncle’s old idea of unexceptionable matches, and for a moment she was frightened of what might be expected from Miss Stratton. But this was ungenerous, and unreasonable too. Sir Thomas had no doubt learned from those past errors in judgment; he had been punished for sanctioning the Rushworths’ marriage by its unhappy end, and had he not made her every amends in word and deed for his blind insistence on Henry Crawford? She could not be so small as to forgive without forgetting his past valuing of consequence and connections above all more worthy marital concerns, especially not now, when his genuine pride and true pleasure in Tom’s good conduct had rendered him so endearing. In his joy he could even be mirthful, or at least quite near it, Fanny thought. She could not quite square the use of such an adjective with the meticulously drawn portrait of gravity and propriety that had long made up her opinion of Sir Thomas Bertram, although the delight shining in his eyes did seem to call for it.

From her perch near the tea-table, Susan asked, “And when will they come here, Sir? Tom has spoken so well of Miss Stratton, I am eager to meet her.”

“I believe it will be several weeks before they appear at Mansfield. She will of course want to be married from her home in Essex, and it would be too out of the way for either of them to travel here before the ceremony takes place.”

“And shall you travel to Saffron Walden for the wedding, my dear?” Lady Bertram asked, a little more at peace with the fact of the marriage now that Sir Thomas had made it sound so promising. There was no question of her going so far herself.

“Certainly! And I hope I shall have Edmund to ride with me; he should be able to spare the time between his own services. Of course there is so much to be done here in order to receive Miss Stratton, my dear, you will not want to attempt the journey yourself?”

“No, I must not think of going so far with such a short time to prepare.”

If Sir Thomas and Fanny exchanged a knowing smile here, at least their subject remained unaware.

--

Sir Thomas’s first effusions of delight proved not only charming but entirely accurate. The couple gained their license; the bride returned to her home. Sir Thomas and Edmund rode to London to rendezvous with Tom; they three arrived in Essex soon enough to partake in some final gaieties and the marriage service itself, and before two months had elapsed, Tom appeared back at the Park with his lady in tow. They had taken a very brief wedding trip to the Lakes, but had made their way to Mansfield as soon as their merriment had achieved a respectable length, so eager was Tom for the future Lady Bertram to meet her incumbent. She had made her immediate impressions on that lady and all the rest at the Park, and had been safely ensconced at Mansfield for nearly a week before Edmund had opportunity to ride up from Thornton Lacey.

“So, my dear Fanny, how do you get on with your new cousin?”

They were wandering along a favorite lane, quite sure of having the subject all to themselves, but still Fanny hesitated, just a fraction of a second, before she gave her answer. They had not always agreed on beautiful newcomers, she could not help but remember. “Very much. I like her a great deal already. She has been brought up wholly in towns, I think, but there is nothing supercilious about her manner.” Here she drew her gaze away from her companion, and studied the tops of the apple trees on her left. “I am happy to see her get on so well with Aunt Bertram. My aunt’s mildness would likely be sport for many clever women – Susan certainly cannot always avoid it. Margery, though, seems to show always a very proper decorum regarding her position. Some of this is probably her desire to fit into the household smoothly; but surely that desire is admirable in itself? I think Tom has chosen extremely well, far better, perhaps, than some of his older friends would have supposed him to do.” Here Edmund only nodded, but made no effort to continue the conversation, so Fanny went on, “And she is remarkably pretty; I think I have never seen prettier blue eyes, and I had been used to consider Julia’s eyes as extraordinarily blue.”

“Yes, I was struck with her beauty when I met her in Essex. She has remarkable expression. I agree with you Fanny, that her finer qualities are the more remarkable over her physical ones. I hope I shall be half so fortunate in my choice one day.”

Out of habit, Fanny braced herself to feel something here at his mention of a match other than herself, but she was pleased to find that no terror or torture accompanied this reflection. They continued companionably, speaking of whatever pleasant topics struck their fancy. She was not surprised when Edmund again spoke of his new sister.

“I confess I am most pleased with Margery because she has so thoroughly netted Tom. It is something to see them together. Standing up for him on the day, I had a better view than anyone of the look in his face as the vows were recited.” He grew quiet and reflected for a moment before continuing, “He told me before he went to town last winter that he hoped to meet her again in the course of the season. She made a very strong impression on him when they met at Cromer. There must be something to say for these bathing places, indeed. My friend Owen met his own bride at Brighton last year. Perhaps you and I should away to one, Fanny, to make our own matches.”

“Yes, Edmund, perhaps we should; there seems to be no hope for us here.” It was said lightly, with a smile; he received it with one of his own, and Fanny was glad to feel how sincerely each expression was meant.

--

Walking so far at no purpose, it will perhaps come as no surprise that Edmund and Fanny would meet up with exactly those they had been speaking of for most of the morning.

“Edmund! My dear Fanny!” Tom hailed them warmly as their parties met. “I knew we would come upon you in our course. I have been showing Margey the park, bit by bit.”

“And how do you find the place so far, sister?”

“I am delighted with it, truly. Tom has told me of your own love of the land. He says the pair of you haunt the grounds like hermits. Seeing these bold hills for myself, however, I now understand something of your devotion.”

“No, my love,” Tom replied with a chuckle, softly patting his wife’s hand. “You are likely taken in by the effects of balmy April air and budding primroses. Until I have seen you with my own eyes loitering contentedly under one of these trees in the bleak November glare, I cannot declare you a true acolyte of Fanny and Edmund’s order.”

Fanny smiled, and felt her cheeks warm at such a close description of herself; Edmund grinned good-humoredly, but likewise made no reply.

“Ah, then I fear you will all be sadly disappointed in me in the end,” Margery shook her head. “I cannot bear cold. I am a pitiful creature in the winter months; I used to attempt to bargain with my mother to allow me to spend mornings in my own chamber where I could wrap up in my coverlet instead of braving our morning-room.”

“Well, then it is certainly wise to see all that you can while the weather is fine,” Edmund rejoined. “Although I am surprised that Tom has chosen to conduct you on foot. Those bold hills you so admire appear to much better advantage on horseback, as he well knows.”

“Aye, but her own mounts have not yet been brought from Comfort House. No matter; if I have the right of the calendar, this fine weather will keep through the summer. Julia and Yates are to be with us in a month or six weeks; we can make it a regular exploring party then, by way of showing Margey the country.”

Fanny, apart from greetings, had to this point had no share of the conversation. She noticed now Edmund drawing Tom’s attention away on a matter quite between themselves, and they began to walk abreast as pairs – he with Tom, and she with Margery. Edmund passed her a significant look which stated the matter plainly: she must make the next overture. Fanny’s old horror of being listened to by poor listeners had never completely passed away, but she was gradually becoming more comfortable with the necessities of chat. She was not always rightly understood, but her voice was heard, and that was something she had learned to value. So in another moment, she caught Margery’s eye, and said, “I am so glad you are pleased with Mansfield. Indeed, there are few who have seen it who are not pleased, but it is the more important for you to love it, for it is to be your home.”

“Why, Miss Price—”

“Call me Fanny, please,” she interrupted softly, but earnestly. “We are family.”

“And of course you must call me Margery. I have no doubt you have been referring to me thus in your head all this week, as I have been calling you Fanny, but these little niceties must be gone through, mustn’t they?” She flashed a small smile of understanding Fanny’s way, and in another moment turned back to their subject. “I do hope this early pleasure is a sign of how happy I am to be here. It is a bracing thing to leave one’s own country and make a new name in a world full of strangers. I hardly know what to say for myself here. At home, everyone knows what I am – ah, it is just as you say, Mansfield is to be my home. And I have no doubt it soon shall be, in all respects, but just at first, I must own that it is a rather intimidating prospect to make one’s self known among so many.”

Fanny could certainly not contradict her on that point; Margery had struck deeper than she could know, so she made only a small hum in reply.

“I hope I shall have some help, in Tom,” Margery eventually continued. She gave her husband a fond glance; it seemed almost a reflex, and Fanny wondered for a moment what that felt like, to have such a security of affection. “He is so much better than I with the social graces. I am but too apt to blunder and try to pass it off with a joke, usually another blunder in itself, but he will smooth my way. I have conversed with your sister a little on this topic as well, but she has told me such charming things of your – of our neighbors; I am sure I shall be pleased with them, at any rate.”

“You will have ample opportunity to make up your mind to them on Saturday, for you will meet many of them at dinner. Sir Thomas is eager to show you off. I believe we are to be eighteen at table, including ourselves.”

Margery gave a soft laugh, but a small shadow of fear danced in her eyes as she said, “Well! I had better prepare my best manners for such an audience. Eighteen. Yes, it certainly does push the limit of a comfortable number. Two more and I really would not have known how to behave. I might be tempted to don greasepaint and enact the balcony scene.”

Fanny laughed, but she could well understand the trepidation; somewhere still inside her was a small girl inclined to sympathize with anyone attempting to make a favorable impression at Mansfield, and in her heart she pledged to do all she could to assist her introduction. It would be the assistance of natural timidity and reticence, but she felt compelled to offer it all the same. Fanny chose not to speak these thoughts; she merely reached out and took Margery’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I am sure they will all be enchanted with you,” she said instead, and she was gratified by her companion looking over to meet her eyes, and responding with a smile.

--

The formidable dinner came and went, and the new Mrs. Bertam acquitted herself very creditably at it, in Fanny’s prejudiced opinion, and that good opinion once established only grew thereafter. Although Fanny could not help but discover that her new cousin was not very well read, and in conversation had sometimes recourse only to wit or speculation when asked for a considered view, still she was a generous listener and a clever talker, and she seemed extraordinarily good company for a woman who had been in the school of female friendship that Fanny had known. In the course of her first summer and autumn, Mrs. Bertram charmed many who were willing to make allowances for a bit of triviality, and she continued building on their favor with the help of her ready good humor and solicitousness. Within a year of her marriage, she was established as a kind and worthy woman throughout the environs of Mansfield Park. In some ways Fanny envied Margery this period of transition; though it had looked an awkward business, constantly telling her history, and expounding on her tastes and opinions again and again for each new acquaintance, there was a power in it – she was known and valued, and had soon the satisfaction of forming for herself a slate of familiars. She had always some friend to call on, even when nothing of consequence had happened or was planned to. Fanny, still very infrequently called on to speak her mind outside of her own family circle, had known nothing like it. The quiet way her own nature had been haltingly revealed to the family had taken years, and in fact had taken a large share of Edmund’s assistance to accomplish. She wondered how it might have happened differently, if she had the chance to try again.

--


Portsmouth
April 4, 1818

Dearest, dearest Fanny,

I write with news that I am sure will give you as much joy as I can have in sharing it, and so I do not scruple to say it straight out without asking whether you and Susan are well, and how all the rest get on at Mansfield. You must now address me as Captain William Price, of the HMS Whirlwind. I can scarcely believe I have been made after so brief a time as Commander, but Admiral Wallis told me himself that as soon as this opening was known, several friends spoke to forward my application. I feel blessed beyond measure to have come across now when I know so many others are awaiting the same stroke of luck. You and Susan must get your hands on the Gazette to see where my name is posted.

As far as I can tell, the Whirlwind is for Canada -- only think, Fanny, my first posting is to be to America!-- but I have been given a two weeks' leave to get my affairs in order, and I hope to spend at least half that time in Mansfield. I shall write separately to inform Sir Thomas directly I finish this letter to you, and do not worry about the rates I must pay to do so. I consider it a bargain against the post -- compared with the weight of the happiness they carry on my behalf, the charge to me is slight.

I have of course also written to our mother with the news, so you may make free with all your joy to her if you wish, and I have no doubt that I will hear plenty of it from you myself, when next you write to

Your most affectionate brother,

Captain William Price

--

“Fanny! What can you mean by sitting and brooding all alone among the hedgerows?”

Fanny immediately started and prepared to rise; Susan’s call had plucked an erstwhile string, but in the next moment she had worked out the teasing lilt and relaxed, turning to meet her sister’s eyes with a smile. “I am not brooding. I had only fallen into a brown study.” She had more precisely been looking off in the distance at John Groom settling little Thomas III atop a pony while Margery looked on, and allowing herself to thoroughly feel that five years had passed since Tom’s marriage. Young Tom had gone through his breeching in the course of the spring, and soon enough, there would be a sister or brother to join him. The maturing of his son from infant to young lad seemed to complete Tom’s own revolution from rakish to respectable, and he was now on course to provide a suitable model for the boy of successful lordship. He had every reason now to be as solicitous of a prosperous family and a complete inheritance as Sir Thomas could’ve wished him to be in the worst of the old days. William thrived as well; he had made a fine start of his career in command, and was in fact expected at Mansfield the next day, flush with prize-money and all ablaze with some scheme he wanted Fanny's and Susan's approval of. And Susan, in a few short years she had succeeded so naturally to most of her old tasks that Fanny sometimes wondered if she were needed anymore at all in the old way.

“It cannot have been a very promising reverie, upon my word, to result in such a long face. Well, and shall you burden me with these reflections? Or is it a subject more suited for Edmund, who can chop it to pieces with German words and mathematical theorems? You will have to wait awhile to have it out with him. He is shut up with Tom and my uncle; they have been deep in some subject or another all morning. Or perhaps it will hold until William arrives.” Susan took a seat next to Fanny on her branch, her eyes bright with cheer, but now a little line of anxiety wrinkling her brow.

Fanny smiled fondly as she took her sister’s measure. Susan would soon be one and twenty, and to Fanny, the years stood out all over her, so different was this bright, easy young woman to the fretful, frustrated girl she had encountered at Portsmouth. She wondered if Susan saw herself the same way. She wondered if anyone had ever seen her that way. “Susy, do you recall your first evening at Mansfield?”

“None too clearly. But I remember I was very nervous of everyone, and it did not matter at all because they were so worried about Tom and Mrs. Rushworth that they barely noticed me. And that you came and sat with me that evening, and told me where I was to sleep, and that I was very welcome and must not mind that my aunt and uncle were distracted, because they were very glad to have me here. And then you went away with Edmund. I believe you both spent the night in Tom’s room.”

Fanny could not help but laugh. “That seems a very clear recollection to me. I hope you were not unhappy in those first weeks. I did my best to attend to you, but I am sure I was often neglectful. Aunt Bertram was in no state to receive you properly, and I know well that Aunt Norris made no effort to be civil to you before she went away.”

“Yes, well, she certainly did not put herself out to make me comfortable, but I did not need to be made comfortable. I was already comfortable by being invited to Mansfield in the first place. I only wanted to keep out of everyone’s way enough that I would not be sent home again.”

“And now you can have no such fears.”

“Yes, I feel quite secure now, for I am always in the way, and yet I am still here.” Her laugh was lighthearted, but Fanny couldn’t participate in it fully. The fear that Susan had acknowledged struck a chord with her. Had she erred at the time, in telling her so much about the decorum expected at Mansfield? Had she taught Susan to think herself not worthy of the grandeur of Mansfield Park, as she had been suffered to feel for so long? But no, Susan had not spoken of herself as being borne with by superiors in those early days. She had spoken of herself as having to bear with their freaks and tempers. Fanny felt she had underestimated her sister, and she was proud to acknowledge the error, to feel the depth of that assurance that seemed always thrumming through her now, springing up from somewhere within. She was at the same time a little dismayed. It had taken Susan not nearly so long to come by this store of confidence in the narrow halls of Portsmouth as it had to build her own share of strength in the elegant drawing room of Mansfield Park. She thought she knew where the difference lay.

"My, but you are introspective today," said Susan eventually. "Perhaps we do need Edmund after all." She smiled, but Fanny again denied any brooding thoughts, or any need for another kind counselor to sound them out. The sisters loitered for some time on their seat in the shade before linking arms to return to the house.

--

“It is called Fairhaven,” William announced a few days later as he sat with his sisters, Margery, and Edmund in the breakfast room at Mansfield. The Whirlwind had had an auspicious run under Captain Price's command, had gone in for rebuilding after its second cruise to Canada, and he was on the beach, on half-pay until he gained another posting. He had heard from a rather dependable source that opportunities were slowly opening up in the West Africa Squadron, but very probably no ship would be available for several months yet. William was happy as always to make over the bulk of that time to Mansfield, where he was now eagerly recommending to Fanny and Susan a long-cherished plan that he meant to set in motion in the meantime. He had put in to purchase a small cottage, and wanted his sisters to join him setting up house there. William was sure a great deal of persuasion would be necessary to recommend such a change to Fanny, and was therefore busy detailing every positive attribute he could think of relative to its virtues of size, location, and seclusion. “I have seen the place, and I say it answers for all we could want. It makes up four beds easily, and the kitchen has been newly done up complete with makeshift offices below. It is only a cottage, so the grounds are not large, but it is not more than three miles journey to the coast. And for you, Fanny, there is the sweetest little duck pond in the garden, at the end of a fine stand of oak.”

At the mention of this providential ornament, Fanny spared a glance at Edmund; he was likewise seeking out her eye; yes, he had caught it. They shared a conspiratorial smile, but all Edmund said was, "Where did you say the place is?"

"It is very near Heacham, in Norfolk."

"Ah, Norfolk," said Margery wistfully. "That is a place to warm my heart. I am partial to the east, of course," she said with a significant smile, mostly to herself, "but the entirety of the coast is lovely. If this comes off, William, I am sure you may count Tom and me as your earliest visitors."

Fanny derived no significant feelings of either pleasure or pain from William's naming Norfolk as the cottage's location. Of course she was immediately reminded of a time when all her family and friends had been wishing her into Norfolk, but once called up, the memory immediately passed, like a specter thrown into full light. She thought a place as big as Norfolk could safely hold her and both of the Crawfords; as long as she did not have to meet them, there was nothing awful in the prospect -- but as she noticed Edmund peering into her face, she wondered if he had been more affected by the allusion. Or perhaps he was still searching her for signs of latent regard for Henry. She was a little disappointed to think that the intervening years might have taught him so little about her, but she did not dwell on it. William had begun speaking of the house again.

“The neighborhood is good; I believe there are fourteen families in regular residence in the area, and always quite a few officers’ wives and holiday parties scattered among the rest, so you will have plenty of ready company. Kirk says we may have the run of his park as well, for his estate is situated very near. I know you are leery, Fanny, of new places and new people, but they really do seem a first-rate set, and the house is very good in itself. I think you would both love it there.”

Fanny needed to hear no more, but she took care to answer only for herself. “If it is half as lovely as you describe it, William, I am certain I shall.”

This swift affirmative seemed to shock all in the room who knew anything of Fanny Price; Edmund, she noticed sadly, looked particularly struck. She suspected the worst, but Fanny chose not to inquire into his concerns.

--

Susan, as it happened, chose not to leave Mansfield just at present. The surprise of Fanny's determination had for a moment rendered her response unnecessary, but later when there was time to lay the scheme before the whole family, her thoughts were eagerly canvassed. Sir Thomas had strongly encouraged her to consult her own preference above theirs, and Lady Bertram had put on a very brave face while the subject was in agitation, but in the end, Susan's attachment to the peace and familiar routine of Mansfield Park carried the day. She might change her mind in time, but for the present, she had a strong urge to stay put. Fanny certainly could not argue that point; she had felt the same for so long, but she did smile over the total change in attitude that seemed to strike the pair of them at the same time: here was active and adventurous Susan preferring to remain behind at staid Mansfield Park, while constant, loyal Fanny set off for parts unknown. If she were a humorist, she might say the situation had the makings of a fine farce. Instead she wondered what it was that her sister needed from the familiar quiet of Mansfield, and hoped with all her heart that she would find it, just as Fanny planned to do for herself in her new surroundings.

As Fanny's and William's belongings were being loaded into the carriage, and the family and servants were all huddled in little groups saying their goodbyes, Edmund drew Fanny aside, a very serious look on his face.

"My dear Fanny," he began, "I am completely unprepared. This is a parting I confess I have never imagined. Even when I was blindly wishing for you to marry Crawford, I never truly pictured you leaving us. And now here you are, actually headed into Norfolk to stay. But the situation is one hundred percent improved. You go in the company of a man whose goodness and integrity can never be mistaken, and for whom I can never fool myself into overestimating the degree of your affection." His meaning struck her; she blanched, and he became all over apologetic. "Forgive me, Fanny! I did not think such talk would distress you. It is so many years since--

"No, Edmund. You have not offended me, only, I didn't know you saw things just that way."

"Come, Fanny; we spent countless mornings and afternoons going over all my many errors in judgment where anyone named Crawford was concerned. Surely you know by now that I feel nothing but regret for so misunderstanding you then." She could not speak to be heard just at that moment, but she was able to nod. He let several moments pass while she marshalled her emotions, and then, "Fanny," he continued haltingly, "I shall miss you dreadfully. I have no doubt that you and William will make a happy home in Norfolk, but you must not forget us here."

"Edmund," she chided, stifling back the final few tears, "as though I of all people could be expected to do such a thing. I could never forget you, and I am sure I will be back among you soon. And you must promise that you will do the same. Margery and Tom are to escort Susan on a visit in the summer months. You can join their party easily."

"I will do my best, my dear Fanny."

Now mostly recovered, she was able to reply, "Perhaps it will smooth your way to know that Heacham is fast becoming a bathing-place of some repute," she said with a smile as sly as a smile of Fanny's could be.

Her expression puzzled him, and he tried to figure out the import of her words. She waited while he thought back to their conversation years ago; at last he remembered, and released a hearty laugh. "Then I must come, and heaven only knows who I shall meet there."

Fanny's final thoughts on his handing her into the carriage were something in the same vein.