Note: "Fanny, A Mansfield Park Story" begins after Chapter 44 of "Mansfield Park" and replaces Chapters 45 through 48. I have retained a lot of Austen's original language in the first chapter as a transition from her story to mine.
At about the week’s end from his return to Mansfield, Tom’s danger was such that the family had begun to fear the worst. Lady Bertram’s next letter to Fanny was sent express to advise her of the news and acquaint her with the apprehensions which Sir Thomas and the physician had with respect to Tom’s lungs. The letter also contained the news that arrangements had been made for Fanny’s return to Mansfield. The situation was so grim and Lady Bertram so anxious, that she could no longer be done without. She was to be fetched home by Edmund as soon as may be. He would be in Portsmouth the very next morning. She wondered that the family was willing to do without him during such a crisis, and could not help but view it as a testament to her importance to their family circle that he should have been sent to fetch her. She was to leave Portsmouth tomorrow. She felt she was in some danger of feeling happy while so many were miserable. The evil which brought such good to her! To be going so soon, to be thought of and sent for as a comfort at such a desperate time, was a blessing to be felt even under the pain and distress which had occasioned the urgency to bring her home.
Fanny’s only regret in departing Portsmouth, aside from the sorrowful tableau that awaited her at Mansfield, was that she was obliged to leave behind her sister, Susan. Yet, her observations gave her to believe that she had already been so much an influence in the past two months to have effected an improvement in Susan in that short time. The intimacy which had formed between the sisters was open and honest, but precariously new. If Susan could but maintain her end of a correspondence, Fanny had every reason to hope for a continuation of her improvement and of their mutual affection.
In the midst of preparing to be gone, Fanny chose to hope for her cousin Tom’s recovery even though the news she had received had given her reason to fear that it was unlikely. And in such meditations, her mind could not help but wander back to Miss Crawford. That young lady had always given Fanny the idea of being the child of good luck, and to her selfishness and vanity it would be good luck to have Edmund the only son. Fanny stopped herself. Such meditations would not do. Tom had shown her kindness, in his way, and his death would be truly grievous. She knew that should such an unfortunately early demise befall him, those she held dearest would be inconsolable. Even Miss Crawford, she believed, must feel some despondence on such an occasion. And if she could not for her own sake – or for any feeling of friendship towards Tom – be sensible of his loss, then certainly for Edmund’s sake, she must feel genuine sorrow. But Fanny could not long dwell on such melancholy expectations; and instead made a valiant effort to assure herself of his eventual recovery.
She was wild to be at home, to be of service to every creature in the house, to be of use to all, to save all of them some trouble of head or hand; and were it only in supporting the spirits of her aunt Bertram, keeping her from the evil of solitude, or the still greater evil of a restless, officious companion in her aunt Norris, who was too apt to be heightening danger in order to enhance her own importance, her being there would be a general good. She spent the evening fancying how she would read to her aunt, how she would talk to her, and how she would try at once to make her feel the hope of what might be and to prepare her mind for what was more likely to occur.
She was certain too that Tom’s sisters must be then preparing for a similar journey. She could even suppose Miss Crawford to be soon contemplating her return to Mansfield as well. She had always said she planned on taking up her residence again at the Parsonage when the Grants should return from Bath. What Fanny imagined as the likely result of such an event could only give her pain. Yet she reflected that Miss Crawford’s attachment to Edmund had been respectable, the most respectable part of her character; and her friendship for herself, had at least been blameless. But where was either sentiment now? It was so long since Fanny had had any letter from her that she had some reason to think lightly of the friendship which had been so dwelt on. It was weeks since she had heard anything of Miss Crawford or of her other connections in town, except through Mansfield, and she had begun to suppose that she might never know whether Mr. Crawford had gone into Norfolk again and might never hear from his sister any more this spring. But the relief she felt on behalf of herself and those at home to whom she could be of service outweighed all other feelings and she easily reconciled herself to the added delay of having any correspondence from that quarter forwarded to her from Portsmouth.
The affliction of the Bertrams was little felt in the Price family. Mrs. Price talked of her poor sister for a few minutes but her own domestic concerns soon prevailed. Rather than adding to her sympathy for her sister, having herself recovered from the death of a young child only hardened her against the prospect of such a loss. Fanny, who recalled with what little sensibility her aunts Bertram and Norris had borne the news of their sister’s loss all those years ago, could overlook her mother’s lack of any violent concern for the well-being of a nephew she had never known. Instead, Fanny turned her attention to imparting as much advice to Susan as there was time for and preparation for her journey. And as nothing was really left for the decision of Mrs. Price, everything was rationally and duly accomplished, and Fanny was soon ready for the morrow. The advantage of much sleep to prepare her for the journey was impossible. The cousin who was suffering at Mansfield as well as the one who was travelling towards her could hardly have less than visited her agitated spirits, afflicted with all varying and indescribable perturbation. She was restless, her mind preoccupied with concern both for Tom’s health and for the resultant suffering of all who loved him.
By eight in the morning, Edmund was in the house. Fanny heard his entrance from above and went down. The idea of immediately seeing him, with the knowledge of what he must be suffering, brought back all her own first feelings. He so near her, and in misery. She was ready to sink as she entered the parlour. He was alone and met her instantly; and she found herself pressed to his heart with only these words, just articulate, “My Fanny―my sister―my comfort.” She could say nothing; nor for some minutes could he say more.
He turned away to recover himself, and when he spoke again, though his voice still faltered, his manner showed the wish of self-command. “Have you breakfasted? ― When shall you be ready?” ― were questions following each other rapidly. His great object was to be off as soon as possible. When Mansfield was considered, time was precious; and the state of his own mind made him find relief only in motion. It was settled that he should order the carriage to the door in half an hour; Fanny answered for having breakfasted, and being quite ready in half an hour. He had already eaten, and declined any sustenance. He would walk round the ramparts, and return with the carriage. He was gone again, glad to get away even from Fanny.
He looked very ill; evidently suffering from grief and lack of sleep and – she had no doubt – varying painful emotions. The agitation of fear and suspense, together with weariness, were in his every feature; and some sense of consciousness of the benefit to himself that would result from the worst possible outcome, must be plaguing him as well. She knew it must be so, and it was terrible to her.
She was soon ready to go. The carriage came and he entered the house again at the same moment, just in time to spend a few minutes with the family, and be a witness ― but that he saw nothing ― of the tranquil manner in which the eldest daughter was parted with. Fanny’s departure from her father’s house was in character with her arrival, she was dismissed from it as hospitably as she had been welcomed.
How her heart swelled with relief and gratitude as she passed the barriers of Portsmouth, may be easily conceived. They shared little in the way of conversation during the journey. Edmund conveyed again all that he had witnessed of his brother’s wretched condition, the physician’s anxieties, and his own concerns for the well-being of his parents. She listened to him with never-failing solicitude and sometimes received in return an affectionate smile, which comforted her. And he expressed what a great comfort it was to him, to be with her again. It warmed her heart to know of what importance she was to him, even if he had used the word “sister.” To her relief, he did not even mention Miss Crawford.
The first division of their journey occupied a long day and brought them, almost knocked up, to Oxford; but the second was over at a much earlier hour. They were in the environs of Mansfield long before the usual dinner-time on the second day; and as they approached the beloved place, the hearts of both sank a little. What news could there be? What had happened since Edmund’s departure? As a distraction, Fanny had been everywhere awake to the difference of the country since February; but, when they entered the Park, her perceptions were of the keenest sort. It was more than two months since her quitting it; and the change was from winter to spring. Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees were in that delightful state, when farther beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while some is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination. She could observe, she could admire, but she could not enjoy the views. The grimness of Tom’s situation seemed to imbue the entire park with a sadness that no amount of fresh greenery could conceal.
She looked at Edmund, he was leaning back, sunk in a deeper gloom than ever, and with eyes closed as if the view of cheerfulness oppressed him, and the lovely scenes of home must be shut out. It made her more melancholy; and the knowledge of what must be enduring there, invested even the house, modern, airy, and well situated as it was, with a melancholy aspect. By one of the suffering party within, they were expected with such impatience as she had never known before. Fanny had scarcely passed the solemn-looking servants, when Lady Bertram came from the drawing room to meet her; came with no indolent step; and falling on her neck, said, “Dear Fanny! My only comfort! What shall I do?”
Fanny did not readily know how to answer such a query, but there was no need as the more pressing business of exchanging salutations and the latest news of the invalid was immediately engaged in. Edmund hurriedly retired to his brother’s room without taking any refreshment after the journey. Fanny devoted herself to her aunt Bertram, returning to every former office with more than former zeal, and thinking she could never do enough for one who seemed so much to want her. She sat in her usual place next to her aunt to listen again to all the dreadful details of Tom’s illness that had already been canvassed in her letters. The entire family was exhausted by the constant suspense that had hung over the house for the past week or so. And still, as Fanny soon learned, there was no material change in poor Tom’s condition.
Over the next few days Fanny was continually expecting to receive her female cousins, but she heard nothing of their coming or of their having any intention of doing so. She could not readily comprehend their continued absence, imagining as she did that if the family had sent Edmund to fetch herself home they must likewise have written to Maria and Julia with the same urgent request. If her presence at home had been so necessary as to send Edmund away, surely theirs was of even greater importance. It astonished her that they had not returned to Mansfield, that they could be satisfied with remaining away from home at such a time, through an illness which had now, under different degrees of danger, lasted several weeks. They might return whenever they chose, travelling could be no difficulty to them. Yet, it seemed evident they would rather stay where they were.
The first fortnight after Fanny’s return to Mansfield passed quietly with nothing occurring related to Tom’s illness to give the family any definite idea of whether he would live or die. The physician came every day with fewer words and more shakes of the head than Sir Thomas liked. Fanny continued next to Lady Bertram earnestly attempting to forestall Mrs. Norris’ prophecies of doom. The mood at Mansfield was sober and smiles were few. The dreadful suspense afflicted everyone, making each more agitated and less patient than usual. Fanny tried to lift spirits where she could without appearing indelicate or insensitive to Poor Tom – the appellation now commonly applied to him by well-meaning neighbours who called on Lady Bertram, hoping to be of comfort where none was possible.
In the third week since her return home, Fanny finally received a letter from Miss Crawford. It had been first directed to Portsmouth and forwarded to her at Mansfield. But after reading it Fanny would rather have never heard from Miss Crawford again. The letter was as follows:
Forgive me, my dear Fanny, as soon as you can, for my long silence, and behave as if you could forgive me directly. This is my modest request and expectation, for you are so good, that I depend upon being treated better than I deserve ― and I write now to beg an immediate answer. I want to know the state of things at Mansfield Park, and you, no doubt, are perfectly able to give it. One should be a brute not to feel for the distress they are in ― and from what I hear poor Mr. Bertram has a bad chance of ultimate recovery. I thought little of his illness at first. I looked upon him as the sort of person to be made a fuss with, and to make a fuss himself in any trifling disorder, and was chiefly concerned for those who had to nurse him; but now it is confidently asserted that he is really in a decline, that the symptoms are most alarming, and that the family are aware of it. If it be so, I am sure you must be familiar with all the particulars, and so I entreat you to let me know how far I have been rightly informed. I need not say how rejoiced I shall be to hear there has been any mistake, but the report is so prevalent, that I confess I cannot help trembling. To have such a fine young man cut off in the flower of his days, is most melancholy. Poor Sir Thomas will feel it dreadfully. I really am quite agitated on the subject. Fanny, Fanny, I see you smile, and look cunning, but upon my honour, I never bribed a physician in my life. Poor young man! ― If he is to die, there will be two poor young men less in the world; and with a fearless face and bold voice would I say to any one, that wealth and consequence could fall into no hands more deserving of them. It was a foolish precipitation last Christmas, but the evil of a few days may be blotted out in part. Varnish and gilding hide many stains. It will be but the loss of the Esquire after his name. With real affection, Fanny, like mine, more might be overlooked. Write to me by return of post, judge of my anxiety, and do not trifle with it. Tell me the real truth, as you have it from the fountain head. And now, do not trouble yourself to be ashamed of either my feelings or your own. Believe me, they are not only natural, they are philanthropic and virtuous. I put it to your conscience, whether ‘Sir Edmund’ would not do more good with all the Bertram property, than any other possible ‘Sir.’ Had the Grants been at home, I would not have troubled you, but you are now the only one I can apply to for the truth, his sisters not being within my reach. Mrs. R. has been spending the Easter with the Aylmers at Twickenham (as to be sure you know), and is not yet returned; and Julia is with the cousins who live near Bedford Square; but I forget their name and street. Could I immediately apply to either, however, I should still prefer you, because it strikes me, that they have all along been so unwilling to have their own amusements cut up, as to shut their eyes to the truth. I suppose, Mrs. R.’s Easter holidays will not last much longer; no doubt they are thorough holidays to her. The Aylmers are pleasant people; and her husband away, she can have nothing but enjoyment. I give her credit for promoting his going dutifully down to Bath, to fetch his mother; but how will she and the dowager agree in one house? Henry is not at hand, he returned to Norfolk after the Frasers’ party. He did not even wish to stay that long, but I begged him most fervently (and you know he can refuse me nothing). So to Everingham he has gone and there he stays. He would not even stir himself to go down to Richmond for Easter as he does every year, which was a great deprivation to me, as he certainly would have stopped in London on the way. My only solace, therefore, is in knowing how furious the admiral must have been in being so neglected. I would have had Henry remain in London, but he would go to Everingham to resolve some dispute there, though I suppose the business could have been deferred; at the very least it must be resolved by now, yet there he remains. And I begin to think his real reason for staying so long at Everingham must be to console himself by envisioning its future mistress walking its halls and pleasure gardens. Oh how he suffers on your account! He did wish for me to renew in my next letter and more eagerly, what he said at Portsmouth, about our conveying you home, and I join him in it with all my soul. Dear Fanny, write directly and tell us to come. It will do us all good. He and I can go to the Parsonage, you know, and be no trouble to our friends at Mansfield Park. It would really be gratifying to see them all again, and a little addition of society might be of infinite use to them; and, as to yourself, you must feel yourself to be so wanted there, that you cannot in conscience (conscientious as you are) keep away, when you have the means of returning. I have not time or patience to give you half the messages with which Henry charged me before he left; be satisfied, that the spirit of each and every one is unalterable affection. Do not you think Edmund would have been in town again long ago, but for this illness? – Yours ever, Mary.
Fanny’s disgust at the greater part of this letter together with her extreme reluctance to bring the writer of it and her cousin Edmund together, would have made her (as she felt), incapable of any consideration of acceptance of the concluding offer had she not already been conveyed home. She saw so much to condemn in Miss Crawford’s thinly veiled and cold-hearted ambition. As for what was related about the brother, Fanny felt Miss Crawford was indecorously liberal in conveying her thoughts and observations, but it was a source of information about which Fanny must admit some curiosity. She was disappointed to learn that he had not immediately gone to Norfolk after leaving her, but the rest of the account was admittedly to his credit; that Miss Crawford seemed to disapprove his conduct was little to hers. Fanny wondered, however, at his not going to Richmond as was his yearly habit; she could not help but suspect that his object had been to avoid a meeting with Mrs. Rushworth. And while this forbearance must do credit to his good judgement, it only confirmed the strength of that temptation, that continued interest, which must exist for such avoidance to be necessary. He must have reckoned his danger in going to be very great indeed, that he should be willing to offend his uncle to such a degree in order to avoid it. But the most alarming and disappointing news in the letter was what it related about Mrs. Rushworth and Miss Bertram. Neither of them, it appeared, had any intention of returning home on account of their brother’s condition.
Fanny’s reply to the letter was short. She thanked Miss Crawford, but assured her that she had already been conveyed home. As for her cousin’s illness, she wrote that the situation was grave but that she and all the family continued in the expectation of a full recovery. This, she supposed would convey to the sanguine mind of her correspondent the hope of everything she was wishing for. Edmund would be forgiven for being a clergyman, it seemed, under certain conditions of wealth; and this, she suspected, was all the conquest of prejudice, which he was so ready to congratulate himself upon. She had only learnt to think nothing of consequence but money.
The letter in reply to Miss Crawford’s was not long gone when Lady Bertram received word from the Grants of the date fixed for their return from Bath. Fanny hardly imagined that with the fulfilment of all her possible desires so palpably close, Miss Crawford would be able to stay away long after the return of her relations to Mansfield Parsonage. Little did Miss Crawford know, as she perused a letter from her sister communicating the same news, how very close at hand such desires were. For on the very same morning the Grants were expected back in the country, Edmund came down to breakfast from spending the night at his brother’s bedside, his appearance haggard, and whispered something into his father’s ear. The physician was sent for, but only to confirm what was already known. It was over. Tom Bertram was dead.
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