"Mary, must you?" he asked, wishing that the novel spread open before his eyes had the power to hold his attention for more than a few minutes at a time. The scales his sister had been practicing had given way to distinctly unmelodious exercises, and while she could execute them perfectly at a rather sedate pace, when the tempo shifted from andante to allegro, she consistently plucked the wrong strings as if her fingers were not delicate and deft, but large and clumsy.
"Leave off that wretched noise," he begged, feeling distinctly out of temper.
"Leave off that wretched novel," she riposted as her fingers flew, again producing the false note. He saw from her quick frown that she was not as pleased with her performance as an hour or two with her instrument usually rendered her.
Her advice was sound, even if the musical accompaniment she offered was not. He laid the volume aside, glad he had cut only the first dozen pages. Mary's dark eyes flashed an approving glance his way even as she bent forward to resume her task. "Surely you have been diligent enough to become a great proficient," he observed casually, turning his attention fully to his sister.
"Many are the hours that must be devoted to one's art," she countered playfully, though her brow bore an unmistakeable wrinkle of self-deprecation. "First to learn, then to master."
"You are past mistress of many arts, my dear," he rejoined, settling back against the settee to appreciate the striking picture she made, looking too slight to bear the instrument's burdensome weight against her fragile bones.
Mary made as lovely a picture of domesticity as any man was likely to wish for; her light, trim figure was pleasingly defined by her modest gown, the pink and white fabrics showing to great advantage against the green-striped wallpaper of Mrs. Grant's charming small sitting-room. Her exertions with her harp had brought a flush of rose to her clear brown cheek, heightening her air of contented good health. The broad satin ribbon that tied up her dark, glossy curls was draped fetchingly so that the forked ends dangled just above the elegant lines of her neck.
Henry looked and admired, and felt some pride that his sister had a very just claim to be the belle of whatever society she chose to enter. Yet he knew, too, the pains that had been taken to achieve the delightful picture she made, fresh and artless as it seemed. An upbringing spent in uncommon intimacy with this most beloved sister, along with his position as the acknowledged but unspoken protégé of the Admiral, who had wanted only the loss of his wife to reveal his true nature as a libertine, had given Henry Crawford a prodigious insight into the natures and artifices of female beauty. He had seen bonnets trimmed and retrimmed with varying shades of grosgrain ribbons, the detritus of fallen curling-papers that had once nestled inside hoops of raven hair, and the studiedly casual draping of a particularly becoming wrap. More than once had he witnessed her inducing false colour into her complexion by means of pinching her cheeks until they blushed bright.
Of all this, he approved. Mary had been blessed by nature, but she was pragmatic enough to bring all of her skills to bear as well. As she had pertly observed, a true artist devoted a lifetime to her art; while most young ladies could not boast of her musical facility or any comparable diversion, all should consider themselves blank canvases of a sort. The art of a pretty woman was one which no man could fail to appreciate: a pleasing eye meant more than a brain that worked with skill and rapidity, and no dexterity with the embroidery needle could be of greater import than a handsome figure.
Why, then, did his heart insist that its proper idol was not either of the Misses Bertram, who might lack Mary's piquancy while sharing her determination, but rather that undeveloped, quiet schoolgirl, Fanny Price?
Both Miss Bertram and Miss Julia, fair and tall as if they descended not from the absent Sir Thomas and his querulous lady but from the gods worshipped by the heartiest Vikings, answered to his idea of what a lady should be. But it was Fanny Price, the poor relation whose figure was as stunted as her fortune, whose approbation Henry longed for.
It was quite a mystery to him how she had come to reign on a throne no decided beauty had ever held for long. Compared with either of her cousins, Fanny was poor, plain, and insignificant. And set against Mary, to whose perfections he had been nearly a daily witness, Fanny was a provincial child.
It could not be her voice that had captured his heart; rarely did she speak above a mumble, and the words her mouth – fine, unadorned, and rather a lovely pink – did shape bore no stamp of an incisive mind. Her every thought seemed to be a mirror for the workings of her cousin Edmund's mind, as if she were Echo, faithful nymph. Nay, but Echo had pined away for Narcissus, and to do the man justice, Edmund's reflections on himself surely had more to do with his moral propriety than the figure he cut in his glass. That myth would not suit. Fanny was no beauty cast aside by a youth in full bloom.
She was rough, unpolished. Her allure could be summed up in a single word: Galatea. She was the figure just emerging from the block of stone and the artist's fevered dreams, the still tableau yet to take that first deep breath of life. Henry smiled at the image in his mind's eye. Her marble limbs would warm and grow plastic under his hand as she quickened with the life – of the heart, of the mind – that he would bestow. Fanny was a vessel, endlessly desirable as she waited for her creator's touch.
It was a delicious prospect, and Henry enjoyed it until he heard the melody Mary was coaxing from her harp, a simple song Edmund had mentioned one day as a favourite of his, which Fanny had allowed to pass her lips in small snatches as she sat with her aunts and applied herself to her needlework. Fanny was not an empty vessel after all; the Pygmalion who had created her very nearly in his own image was her cousin Edmund.
And Edmund, he saw, loved Mary. All to the good, surely. What was the worth of a myth, after all, when a woman like Mary set her cap at a country parson? Edmund professed himself a great lover of the harp, and Fanny should have the time to discover her own propensities for loving.
My dearest brother, she began, then halted, reminded anew that any attempt to share her delight in William's good fortune must open her to the charge of accepting the favour of a man she had seen making love to both of her cousins. Her hand drew back from its task, and shining drops of ink darkened the page. Such waste! Aunt Norris would find the stained pages and make insinuations about wasteful relations whose prodigality meant that the true daughters of the house had to economise.
She blushed at the mess she had made of the letter, folded it carefully in her hand, and fled upstairs to her little white attic where she spent herself in her devotions.
On rising from her knees, she reflected that never had her prayers been of so little comfort to her. With what tender feelings she could have entered into William's rightful promotion, the certain knowledge that he had earned it twenty times over and that his feet had now been set on the path of preferment! But any missive she penned to him now would be returned with his protestations of friendship for Mr. Crawford, the man above all whom she could not trust as a fit guardian of William's pure heart and plain ideals.
The little white attic had no desk like the East room, just a bed that might well have suited a chilled convent, so white and narrow was it, but Fanny lay in it and composed a letter full of tender misgivings and true sisterly affection, such as William could not fail to be swayed by. As she composed each line, she purged it from her mind, so that she could wake on the morrow with a heart unburdened insofar as was possible. It was right, after all, that William's cross on Edmund's chain was too fine an adornment for everyday use; had the pair of them been kissing her throat with every quick breath, she might have begun fancying that such ornament was the natural way of things, and a symbol of what her future held.
"Henry," Mary said, testing in the glass the effect of a certain plum-coloured ribbon against the dark gloss of her hair and the ruby of her cheek, "have you taken leave of your senses? Your Fanny is not wanting to be wooed."
"So much can I see for myself, dear sister," he responded, and she left off with the ribbons and moved toward him when she heard his tone, half-snappish and half-careworn. "And yet just the sight of her – so fresh, so pure! – excites that in me which demands to be given voice –"
"And so you tease her?" Mary demanded, standing behind his settee and running her hand along his shoulders. "She wants to be won, not wooed, and only time and patience will win the day. She is a simple, shy creature, Henry, and your very presence has disrupted her life to no small degree. Have you never noticed how much the orderly running of Mansfield Park is due to her small offices for dear Lady Bertram and that odious Mrs. Norris? Even Edmund –"
"Ah, Edmund!" he interrupted in turn, and she knew he would tilt his chin up to catch her eye. "That is what you call him, then, in the secret well of your heart?"
"Do not be sentimental, Henry; you sound like a playwright," she said with affected carelessness, but the crescendo of her heartbeat, which began with Edmund's name, could not be denied. "If only I could write a play for a private theatrical! I am sure I should afford him some better material than that silly clergyman Anhalt, with finer speeches of love than he has had occasion to speak."
"And 'Edmund' will be the name of this paragon, will it?"
"'Sir Edmund,' or, better still, 'Lord Edmund' do sound delightfully," she answered with all proper pertness in her tone.
"And he will be making love to a brown-skinned Mary and noting her fine dark eyes and the raven silk of her hair?"
"'Mary' is just the name to capture him, do you not think, as it carries the echoes of church-bells wherever it travels."
"Surely, my dear sister, there must be other parts to this prodigious play of yours. Just two young people in love would afford material more suited to the boudoir or the text of a poem than the stage. What else will you have?"
"Nothing for your shy Fanny, Henry; the poor darling mouse could not approve of such a spectacle even in front of her cousins and her affianced."
"I thank you for honouring her niceness," Henry said, executing a sort of half-bow even as he remained indolently seated.
She knew him well enough to know that he was eagerly drinking down every drop of encouragement she could give him, and was pleased to provide it. Fanny was a very good sort of girl, just the sort to make a fine husband of Henry and a proper home of Everingham.
"In return for that fine appraisal of my powers of persuasion, I commend you to your writing-desk, my dear Mrs. Burney, and trust you will rise from it with every speech Edmund ever shall make to you written out in fair."
She laughed and rang the bell for tea.
Edmund had thought long and carefully about the first sermon he would preach at his new living at Mansfield Parsonage, knowing that it would inevitably excite comment from the parishioners who knew his family's history so well. At length he settled on Proverbs 31:10 as the text, under which authority he could speak from the heart and say all he believed about womankind, whom he had always reverenced, and whose feet of clay had been the cause of nearly every disagreeable incident in his life for the past few years.
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. Certainly Fanny outshone even the crimson splendour of gemstones, her quiet firmness making his home a place of rest from whence he could throw himself wholly into his work. The unswerving rightness of her principles, the readiness of her mind to be guided and taught what was best, assured him that, come as many Henry Crawfords as they liked, he would never endure a situation like that of Mr. Rushworth of Sotherton Court.
It was not nearly as difficult as it had once been to speak or even think the name "Crawford"; he was content to know it belonged to brother and sister alike, and thought no more about the latter than he did the former. She would not have suited after all, her unsteady splendour an uneasy fit for the solid work of the parsonage, her rapid mind a constant jarring presence in his heart, which only wanted to be unchanging.
Fanny was not mercurial. Fanny was not a bright star. Fanny was a good woman, and he could not do without her.