Henry Crawford smiled to himself as he stepped out of his carriage at Mansfield Park into the warm midsummer afternoon. He was looking forward to a few days of good conversation and pleasant company. He was especially looking forward to seeing Fanny again. He had not seen her since his visit to Portsmouth so many months ago. But Fanny was not the only interesting personage he was preparing himself to encounter. The whole family would be within. As he walked into the house he shook his head to himself remembering his meetings with Mrs. Rushworth at Twickenham. The Aylmers were indeed delightful people. This little secret with Mrs. Rushworth made his anticipation of the evening all the more thrilling. He was not concerned about its discovery, she had as much or more reason to maintain the secrecy of the affair as he did, and no one else knew. The Aylmers probably suspected but they had proof of nothing, and he knew them to be reliable regardless. Mr. Aylmer was not exactly the model husband himself.
When he walked into the drawing room everyone seemed to pause and look at him. He loved these moments. So many beautiful faces, so many warm smiles. Fanny was the only one not smiling at him. He greeted his hosts then Mrs. Rushworth and Miss Bertram, with only a knowing smile at Mrs. Rushworth. This must be treated delicately. He had never been in company with both Maria and Fanny together since his proposal to Fanny; but he embraced the challenge. Why should he not be able to keep the woman with whom he'd had a recent affair happy while continuing to pursue the one he was in love with right before her eyes?
"Miss Price," he said, giving Fanny a perfunctory bow. He then turned to congratulate his sister and Edmund, who were to be married in the morning.
"And so," he said to Edmund, "how go the improvements at Thornton Lacey?"
"Very well, although we have been able to implement only a few of your proposed changes. I think you will find it to your liking."
Henry sighed, "And you shall deprive me at last of my long held hope to rent the house myself."
"You are welcome to stay any time as our guest, and for as long as you like," replied Edmund good naturedly.
Henry laughed, "Stay with newlyweds? Oh no sir, I thank you, I should never dream of such a thing. You will both forget I am there and you will be too busy looking always at one another to spare even a glance in my direction."
Mrs. Rushworth now said, "And can you so little bear not to be looked at?"
"I have never claimed to be much worth looking at, Mrs. Rushworth, but I do not think anyone could stand the neglect of being always in company with newlyweds. I think Miss Bertram may bear out my argument. She was with you for some months after your own wedding, I believe."
Julia replied, "I do not remember feeling neglected at all."
Henry almost chuckled to himself. "No, I am sure you did not. Your sister is too good to do anything of the kind. She would forego even her own pleasure to avoid neglecting you." Then glancing at Mr. Rushworth he added, "And I am sure your new brother was as attentive and solicitous of your comfort as you could hope."
"Yes, he was very good," replied Julia.
"But he was not the only one," said Maria. "You shall never guess who we met in London: Mr. Yates!"
"Ah, the baron himself," replied Henry. "And have his rants improved?"
"Well we did not do anything of that sort, you know, in London," said Mr. Rushworth. "No acting that is. Though I am sure if called upon I could still recite my two and forty speeches."
"Yes," said Maria, "most certainly; and he still retains his pink cape just in case the scheme is ever revived but I think it is not likely."
"Why should it not be?" said Henry. "Why should you not have a little theatre at Sotherton?"
Tom siezed on this suggestion to join the conversation, "Why indeed? It is a capital scheme." He glanced at his father who was on the other side of the room talking to Dr. Grant and his brother, who being recently widowed had returned from Bath with the Grants to stay for a few months. Tom then shifted his glance to Edmund who looked at him disapprovingly. He smiled and continued, "I know Yates would be only too happy for the invitation. Let us all meet at Sotherton after the wedding and see what can be done."
"Not much was done last time we all went to Sotherton," remarked Maria.
"I take exception to that statement, Mrs. Rushworth," said Henry, "Sotherton is much improved since last summer," he let that statement linger with meaning for a moment before adding, "and if your husband should not object, I would be very pleased to see it again."
Maria blushed in spite of herself. "I do not see any reason that he should object, although his mother might find a theatrical ensemble rather noisy and bothersome. It would perhaps be best to wait until after she returns to Bath, I think."
"Of course," said Henry, "we would not wish to inconvenience Mrs. Rushworth."
"Yes, very true," said Tom thoughtfully, "but why should she be inconvenienced. In a house that size, she need not know anything about it, unless she wishes to."
"But do you think Mr. Edmund Bertram and the future Mrs. Bertram would join us," said Rushworth, "being so newly-wed, they may not wish to join such a large party." Here he tried to give his wife a tender glance.
"They will not be so newly-wed if we must wait until after Mrs. Rushworth has returned to Bath," said Tom. "If Edmund and Mary do not come, we will have too few men and if they do too many women."
"Edmund and Mary must come," said Henry, "and they must bring Miss Price."
Fanny, who had been listening quietly to the entire conversation now raised her head.
"Ah very true," said Tom, "we will need someone to play Cottager's Wife and as Susan is here now to sit with my mother, there can be no objection."
Fanny said nothing, she had no wish to argue the point openly before so many and risk provoking any charge of ingratitude from Mrs. Norris. But Henry turned to her and said, "But perhaps she does not approve of the scheme. Have your views on acting softened these few months, Miss Price?"
"I have not had occastion to consider it at all, Mr. Crawford."
"But what do you say to Cottager's Wife? I think you were on the verge of performing it last autumn before we were interrupted."
"It was only to read it for the rehearsal," Fanny reminded him.
"Well then, even if you do not take the part you will be of infinite use as a prompter. I am sure you still know everyone's lines by heart."
She said nothing.
"Come now, Miss Price," he said, sitting next to her, "you know the party would not be complete without you. You know that I ... well I do not think I could perform at all for my thoughts would always be here at Mansfield. You would not wish me to ruin the play? I speak only in view of the enjoyment of the others. They must have a properly attentive Frederick you know."
Fanny just shook her head at this speech.
He glanced at Mrs. Rushworth who was looking at him with a hint of jealousy in her eyes. He smiled back at her and turning to Fanny said, "How is your brother? Have you heard from him lately?"
"He is well. I had a letter about a fortnight ago."
He asked a few more questions about where William was, his recent adventures, and the First Lieutenant's state of health, but he was called away to turn pages for Mrs. Rushworth who had been asked to play at the pianoforte.
Henry spent the remainder of the evening maintaining the same sort of delicate balance. When they all sat down to cards, he managed to maneuver himself to the same table as Fanny and away from Maria. By the time they all retired for the evening he felt quite certain that he had lost ground with neither of them.
Lying in his bed at the Park he thought with satisfaction of the lucky coincidence that had brought Mr. Grant to Mansfield Parsonage to occupy his own usual bedroom and inspire Sir Thomas to invite him most graciously to stay at the Park. He thought about Fanny, somewhere in this house, under the same roof, lying alone. He wondered how she would react if he entered her room. He was just drifting off to sleep to these happy meditations when the door to his room opened halfway and a figure slipped inside, closing it behind her. He smiled to himself. "Mrs. Rushworth." He slid out of bed and walked over to her as she walked further into the room. When he reached her, he took her candle from her and set it upon the mantlepiece, then he leaned in to kiss her, but she turned her face from him.
Placing his hand on her cheek, he gently turned her face towards him. "Are you angry with me?" he asked, leaning down, to kiss her neck.
She let a few of his soft, gentle kisses land on her throat, but when he raised his head again to kiss her lips she again turned away and took a step or two back.
"Why did you come in here?" he asked, a little impatiently.
She turned toward the fireplace, "I do not even know," she replied.
"Maria," he said softly. She turned to look at him. "I think I know."
He tried to kiss her a third time, but she turned away again and finally said, "How could you flirt with her right in front of me?"
"May I remind you, Mrs. Rushworth, that you are married to another man."
"And whose fault is that, pray?"
"You were engaged when I met you."
"You could have stepped in before the wedding."
"But then we would not have these little intrigues to brighten our otherwise dull lives."
"But why do you continue to try for Fanny after she has already refused you?"
"It is a sort of challenge, I suppose." He was not very well going to confess his abiding love for Fanny to Maria at this particular moment. "Besides, if we are both married, it will make all of this much easier, especially as she is your cousin."
"My brother is already marrying your sister. We hardly need another connection to justify seeing one another."
Henry tried a different tactic, "Do you think it is easy for me to imagine you with Rushworth?"
"At least you only have to imagine it," she replied, "I have to particpate."
"He does not deserve you," he said, lifting her hand to his lips. "He does not know how to treat a woman."
He closed the distance between them and this time when he bent to kiss her lips, she let him.