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Virtue & Virtuosity

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No one who had ever seen Mary Crawford in her youth, could have failed to have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her nearest relations, her own temper and understanding, the disposition of her dearest friends; all were equally propitious. She had the fortune to be orphaned at an interesting age, and to have lost the care of a mother just when she was most in want of a mother’s guidance. Nor were these her only advantages. Her person lacked nothing an observer could desire; and her mind was quite as well developed as her figure. She had imbibed all the information that a select London seminary could offer—which is to say, she could cap a quotation; offer bon mots on any proper topic; discourse sweet nothings in French and Italian; berate the squalid in a landscape; beguile the ears with her performances upon the pianoforte and the harp; sketch portraits whose subjects could be made out after only a very few guesses; diagnose the exact season of an old gown, no matter how cleverly it had been refurbished; and if she had ever chanced to gain any knowledge upon a serious subject, she had the wisdom to conceal it. In short, no accomplishment was lacking that befitted a young lady with a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. To be sure, she was most unhappily named. You may meet a plain Mary anywhere! Her surname could not perhaps be helped, though her forebears had neglected their duty to preface their name with the properly heroic ‘de’ or ‘di’ or ‘von’; but her parents were sadly mistaken in their choice of praenomen for their only daughter. She should have been a Mariana, a Marissa, or even a Marelda! But every heroine has her particular thorny crown to wear, and Miss Crawford wore hers as proudly as if it were fashioned of the purest gold.

To these, and other heroic qualities it would be wearisome to list, in being cast out from the home of her youth by her wicked uncle the Admiral, and obliged by the cruelty of her only brother to take refuge in the wilds of Northamptonshire, she added the distinction of that remorseless persecution which is the lifeblood of any heroine worthy of a reader’s notice. This fortuitous event occurred in her twenty-second year. In token that the opening leaves of her heroic adventures had, at last, begun to be inscribed, Miss Crawford discovered, within three hours of her arrival in the county, that a baronet resided not half a mile distant! It is unfortunate that there were no lords to be had; but a baronet at a distance of half a mile must be accounted the equal of half a dozen lords at ten or twenty times that distance, at least to those with no carriage to call their own, and the lady spared no exertion in becoming acquainted with her noble neighbours. The baronet himself was out of the country. Being married, he could be but little loss; and his two sons—both handsome, young and single—were eager to supply any deficiency.

Miss Crawford soon proved herself cast in the heroic mould, by learning to ride before she was taught—or as nearly so as any heroine ever written. Everybody remarked on it! ‘Such a fine seat for a lady!’ was the opinion of Dr. Grant, that acknowledged expert on all matters equine; and even Mr. Edmund Bertram, in whose breast honesty too oft overcame good manners, allowed her to be a natural at the discipline. Now might she leap on any convenient steed to escape the villain’s schemes—provided that it should happen to be equipped with a lady’s saddle. It remained only to get the knack of swooning—I am ashamed to own her sadly lacking in sensibility—and to learn the trick of paddling an Indian canoe down the rapids, and her education as an heroine might fairly be said to be complete. Alas, that Mansfield Park should have no rapids! The geography of England is very much at fault, that so many of her heroines should be situated so far from their natural domain of jagged peaks, rushing torrents, and sunless forests.

The occasion of the riding lessons was to intrude another young lady, one Fanny Price, upon our heroine’s notice; and Miss Price soon robbed Miss Crawford of fully half her enjoyment in the exercise, by proving how it should rightfully be hers. How vexatious! Not that Fanny—for so Mary soon called her in her heart—was the villain; indeed, Mary thought she might be the key to the mystery, though what that mystery was, had yet to be unfolded. Her character was itself an enigma. It was so hard to wring a word from her, beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’! She was the mute earth to Mary’s leaping fire, the gnarled oak to her fluttering songbird, the mirror-bright millpond to her restless waves. If one could somehow, with propriety, squeeze both ladies into a single body, the resultant heroine would be beyond anything shewn by Mrs. Radcliffe! She might paddle down the Amazon, contest a knotty theological point with the Pope, battle venomous water snakes with a hat pin and a bottle of hartshorn, and sink into a dead faint at the villain’s merest glance, as if he were some species of basilisk!

Another pen has described the events that followed—theatricals blighted; a traveller’s return from untold dangers; Hymen’s chalice drained to the lees; a tearful sister reunited with her long-lost brother; a ball opened by another; her own lover gone, gone without a word—and for such a purpose!—a most astonishing proposal made, urged and, most astonishing of all, rejected! As scene succeeded scene, and time stripped summer’s clothing from the trees to reveal the bare boughs of winter, a sense of unease, even of dread, stole over Mary. She did not begrudge her dearest brother’s heart—she could hardly marry him herself! Nor did she repine at his being brought low, for so had he treated several ladies she numbered among her nearest friends. She did think, some once or twice, that it might have been pleasant to have been offered her own sip from Hymen’s cup, before it was dashed from her lips—before her lover should have been sundered from her forever! She would be content to live on half her brother’s income, or a very little more. Her needs were so moderate; her wishes so temperate! A modest estate, not half so great as Sotherton, or Mansfield, or even Everingham; a house in London, not one tenth as grand as the palace in Wimpole Street that was Maria Rushworth’s prize. She asked so little! Why had he not spoken?

But no, even that was not what disturbed her repose, not six nights in seven. Her greatest affliction was a notion, a most undignified, humiliating notion, that crept up on her—the notion that she might be merely trespassing in the pages of another, very different, heroine’s novel. It was not to be borne!

‘Did Edmund not come to the point before he left?’ was all the consolatory balm dropped onto her breast by her beast of a brother. ‘When was it he was to take orders?’

‘I don’t recall,’ said she, bravely, if falsely. The deed was done—three days done! ‘It is a matter of indifference, I assure you.’

‘Very indifferent! We shall all be star-crossed lovers together, as soon as he returns.’ And at that Henry commenced expatiating on his sweet Fanny’s qualities, over his breakfast eggs. It had become his favourite topic, and swiftly did he forget that his prize had yet to be won. Mary thought she might suffocate beneath her rival’s limitless virtue, heaped on top of her in shovelfuls, like earth onto a coffin. He would teach her to swoon! The room was so stifling!

She sprang up from the table, and strode over to the window to refresh herself, wishing that her lover might be there to admire the lightness of her figure, or the sprightliness of her gait. She had forgotten—a clergyman must pluck out his eyes rather than enjoy either. The Gothic window’s stone mullions were like bars. The casement would not open! She would wither away in this mouldering old parsonage, like Ophelia in her nunnery!

‘Here, let me try,’ said her brother. He managed the sticking catch with all the deftness of a hero. (But, of course—if Miss Price were the heroine, he must be the hero. It was a lowering thought.) ‘It’s a dirty morning for a walk,’ said he, peering doubtfully up at a sky the colour and consistency of porridge. ‘I should not be surprized if it were coming on to snow. But I shall brave it for your sake, Mary, if you like.’

‘Oh, my dearest Henry!’ she cried. ‘If I tell you what I should truly like, would you do it for me? Would you take me to Bath?’

Seeing her real distress, and discerning its cause in Edmund’s silence, Henry was all brotherly concern. His carriage and his person were at her command. He was always ready to perform any service for his sister that involved him in no trouble, and hardly any expense. Such affection must speak for itself! They staid but to pay their farewell visit to Mansfield Park. With equal sincerity did Mary regret the necessity of leaving before Edmund’s return, and Fanny that of her two friends leaving at all. Henry’s regrets would have been rather more heartfelt, but that his spirits were buoyed by Fanny’s depressed countenance—which could only be attributed to the unwelcome tidings of his departure—and his firm resolve to mend her spirits by returning to Mansfield within a day or two. He really meant to do so.

Alas, the perfidy of fate! When two such lovers as Fanny and Henry are parted, some mischance must always ensue to prevent their swift reunion. If the lady does not succumb to consumption, the gentleman is sure to be fatally wounded in a duel; at the very least, the traveller will be abducted by banditti. In the event, the augured snow fell thick and fast, a carriage horse cast a shoe, and Henry caught a cold. It was five days before the indefatigable lover could bestir himself from the rooms they had bespoken at the White Hart. Five days! His poor sister was bereft. She was come to Bath to be miserable, and she felt miserable already. To be immured five days in a common posting inn! The noise! The hubbub! She would run mad! Bath in January was a wasteland! There was no one to see, no one to talk over whom she had not seen. What were balls, with no devoted partner to dance with? What were concerts, with no admirer to defer to her infallible taste? Or plays, with no sympathetic soul to discuss how well the actors acquitted themselves? She could not conceive of why she had wanted to come to Bath. Why had she not bargained for London? She could have been staying with her dear, dear friend Mrs. Fraser, with all the joys of talking over Edmund’s treachery in her elegant dressing-room. The topic could not have been avoided. She had mentioned his name more than once in her correspondence with both Janet and her sister Lady Stornaway, and the anxious curiosities of her two dearest friends could not have been satisfied with less than a complete account of the affair.

Happily for our unjustly afflicted heroine, the very morning after such ghastly reflections had stolen all her repose, an event occurred to solace her loneliness, and to put her absent friends from her mind. Scarcely had she sunk into a seat by the Pump-room’s great clock, to while away the arid hours in watching the ceaseless parade of dowds, when a fashionable lady of similar years to her own, who had been likewise employed, abruptly addressed her. ‘Can it be? Are my eyes deceiving me? No, it is Miss Crawford, I swear it! We met at Mrs. Hurst’s little soirée in Grosvenor Street.’ And she pronounced herself to be one Isabella Thorpe. In any London drawing-room, Mary would, very likely, have disdained the acquaintance—it was really very slight. But Bath was no London, and in Bath, a friend—a pretty, stylish friend—was an asset not so lightly to be cast aside; and so she smiled and greeted Miss Thorpe—‘dear Isabella!’—with every appearance of delight. Oft is the mere performance of virtue rewarded! The pair took a turn about the room; and the discourse of a few minutes was enough to confirm Isabella in being all that was amiable, and the two young ladies as in agreement on every material point—preferring London society to Bath’s, speculation to vingt-un, Mrs. Radcliffe to Madame d’Arblay, and redcoats to cassocks. In short, they had not passed the great clock three times, before feigned friendship blossomed into true intimacy. Mary’s pleasure in her companion could only be increased by the certainty, that her new friend’s entire ensemble was less costly than her own hat.

Five days it was, before her beast of a brother owned himself well enough to perform that most essential of fraternal duties, in offering his arm to his sister on her daily promenade at the Pump-room; and when this long-awaited event at last took place, Mary was all eagerness to introduce him to her bosom friend. Besides all the natural inducement of adding a very pleasant face to his circle of acquaintance, she had, within half an hour of meeting Miss Thorpe, conceived a scheme for her amusement—Bath was so dull, one must get amusement somehow! Isabella Thorpe was a tall, fair girl, much in the mould of Maria Rushworth—they might have been long-lost sisters! For what else could account for a resemblance so striking that (were it not for the difference in estate) a man might be beguiled by one as easily as by the other? A family that might pick up one daughter in Portsmouth, might surely lose another in London. Stranger things have been recorded in the annals of fiction. Mary had once believed her brother partial to Maria; in setting her image before him, she thought to try his devotion to his sweet Fanny. It was a kindly service to the two lovers. No passion can be considered true, unless first tested in the refining fires of competition. Mary was giving her brother the opportunity to shew all his virtue of constancy; and if Henry’s passion could not withstand a portionless chit from Putney, well!

The introduction was soon made, and Mary had the keen pleasure of seeing how the two people dearest to her should get on. They had run through all their ‘delighted’s and ‘enchanted’s, exhausted the question of how often Miss Thorpe visited Bath—the family staid each winter, ‘London in January is so horrid!’—and were actually in danger of falling silent, when Mary averted the catastrophe by recalling that morning’s Gazette, in which the nuptials of Mr. Henry Tilney—the younger son of General Tilney, of Northanger Abbey—to one Miss Catherine Morland were announced. Did Isabella happen to be acquainted with either of the parties? Mary’s own acquaintance with the gentleman was slight. The General was a friend of the Admiral; but a second son—and one who had been so inconsiderate as to have taken orders, before they were introduced—could never be an object. She was resolute. It could not be!

‘A little,’ replied Isabella. ‘I am glad to see Miss Morland so well settled. She is the sweetest of girls, and deserves to be the happiest of wives.’ She turned her angelic face towards Henry, and fixed her sparkling eyes on his dark ones. ‘Beauty of character is so much more important than beauty of person, do you not agree, Mr. Crawford?’

Henry was quick to make a civil comment, about the two beauties being united in the persons of his two fair interlocutors. ‘I make it a rule never to admit any gentleman named Henry to my acquaintance,’ he went on to say. ‘But does he not have an elder brother named Frederick? Captain Frederick Tilney?’

The unguarded look that crossed Isabella’s face at that name, made Mary wonder if her friend had once staked all on becoming an abbess; she was almost certain of it! Brave Isabella soon recovered her composure. She believed she might have met him once; she could not be certain. ‘One redcoat is so like another!’

‘I fear Frederick Tilney is a redcoat no more,’ said Henry, gravely. ‘He was discharged last spring. He had the bad luck to get a piece of wadding in the eye at firing practice. The poor fellow’s musket must have been faulty. Lost the sight of the eye.’

Isabella let out a shriek of horror, and said everything that was proper; but her effusions of sorrow over a gentleman whom she could not swear ever to have met, were all to be wasted, for Henry’s greater height just then delivered him an intelligence the ladies lacked.

‘Fanny is here!’ he cried, with more warmth than politeness, and more surprize than either—and without another word, he took his leave of them.

His sister had the office of making his excuses, to comfort her in the entrance of her rival heroine, and the overthrow of all her schemes. ‘Now, my dear Isabella,’ she said, ‘I shall not have you thinking my brother a savage! Henry is, in general, a model of courtesy, I assure you. I have lived in a house with him these six months past, and can attest he is as docile a gentleman as ever you could wish.’ It was true; Henry had as sweet a temper as any man in England—if one were to ask him to perform some task for which he had no inclination, he would never snap or snarl, as some men would, but civilly decline, or pretend he had not heard. Besides, it mattered not. Mary would wager her sweet Belle would be glad to enact Beauty to her brother’s Beast, even if he should growl, and spit, and slaver, and threaten to bite her pretty fingers off!