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Murder at Mansfield Park



Awards: Romantic Times Book Award


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About The Author

Lynn ShepherdLynn Shepherd

LYNN SHEPHERD, who received a doctorate in English literature from Oxford University, lives in London. She first had the idea of writing "an authentic Austen murder" nearly ten years ago.

Awards

Romantic Times Book Award

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EXCERPT

Chapter I
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon,
with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck
to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in
the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised
to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and
consequences of an handsome house and large income. All
Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and
her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three
thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had
two sisters to be benefited by her elevation, and her father
hoped that the eldest daughter’s match would set matters
in a fair train for the younger. But, though she possessed
no less a fortune, Miss Julia’s features were rather plain
than handsome, and in consequence the neighbourhood
was united in its conviction that there would not be such
another great match to distinguish the Ward family.
Unhappily for the neighbourhood, Miss Julia was fated
to confound their dearest expectations, and to emulate
her sister’s good luck, by captivating a gentleman of both
wealth and consequence, albeit a widower. Within a
twelvemonth after Miss Ward’s nuptials her younger sister
began upon a career of conjugal felicity with a Mr Norris,
his considerable fortune, and young son, in the village
immediately neighbouring Mansfield Park. Miss Frances
fared yet better. A chance encounter at a Northampton ball
threw her in the path of a Mr Price, the only son of a great
Cumberland family, with a large estate at Lessingby Hall.
Miss Frances was lively and beautiful, and the young man
being both romantic and imprudent, a marriage took place
to the infinite mortification of his father and mother, who
possessed a sense of their family’s pride and consequence,
which equalled, if not exceeded, even their prodigious
fortune. It was as unsuitable a connection as such hasty
marriages usually are, and did not produce much happiness.
Having married beneath him, Mr Price felt justly entitled
to excessive gratitude and unequalled devotion in his wife,
but he soon discovered that the young woman he had
loved for her spirit, as much as her beauty, had neither the
gentle temper nor submissive disposition he and his family
considered his due.
Older sages might easily have foreseen the natural
sequel of such an inauspicious beginning, and despite the
fine house, jewels and carriages that her husband’s position
afforded, it was not long before Miss Frances, for her part,
perceived that the Prices could not but hold her cheap, on
account of her lowly birth. The consequence of this, upon
a mind so young and inexperienced, was but too inevitable.
Her spirits were depressed, and though her family were not
consumptive, her health was delicate, and the rigours of
the Cumberland climate, severely aggravated by a difficult
lying-in, left young Mr Price a widower within a year of
his marriage. He had not been happy with his wife, but
that did not prevent him being quite overcome with
misery and regret when she was with him no more, and
the late vexations of their life together were softened by her
suffering and death. His little daughter could not console
him; she was a pretty child, with her mother’s light hair and
blue eyes, but the resemblance served only to heighten his
sense of anguish and remorse. It was a wretched time, but
even as they consoled their son in his affliction, Mr and Mrs
Price could only congratulate themselves privately that a
marriage contracted under such unfortunate circumstances
had not resulted in a more enduring unhappiness. Having
consulted a number of eminent physicians, the anxious
parents soon determined that the young man would be
materially better for a change of air and situation, and the
family having an extensive property at the West Indies, it
was soon decided between them that his wounded heart
might best find consolation in the novelty, exertion, and
excitement of a sea voyage. Some heart-ache the widowerfather
may be supposed to have felt on leaving his daughter,
but he took comfort in the fact that his little Fanny would
have every comfort and attention in his father’s house.
He left England with the probability of being at least a
twelvemonth absent.
And what of Mansfield at this time? Lady Bertram had
delighted her husband with an heir, soon after Miss Frances’
marriage, and this joyful event was duly followed by the
birth of a daughter, some few months younger than her
little cousin in Cumberland. One might have imagined Mrs
Price to have enjoyed a regular and intimate intercourse
with her sisters at Mansfield during this interesting period,
but her husband’s family had done all in their power to
discourage any thing more than common civility, and
despite Mrs Norris’s sanguine expectations of being ‘every
year at Lessingby’, and being introduced to a host of great
personages, no such invitation was ever forthcoming. Mrs
Price’s sudden death led to an even greater distance between
the families, and when news finally reached Mansfield that
young Mr Price had fallen victim to a nervous seizure on
his journey back to England—intelligence his parents had
not seen fit to impart themselves—Mrs Norris could not
be satisfied without writing to the Prices, and giving vent
to all the anger and resentment that she had pent up in
her own mind since her sister’s marriage. Had Sir Thomas
known of her intentions, an absolute rupture might have
been prevented, but as it was the Prices felt fully justified in
putting an end to all communication between the families
for a considerable interval.
One can only imagine the mortifying sensations that Sir
Thomas must have endured at such a time, but all private
feelings were soon swallowed up by a more public grief.
Mr Norris, long troubled by an indifferent state of health,
brought on apoplexy and death by drinking a whole bottle
of claret in the course of a single evening. There were some
who said that a long-standing habit of self-indulgence had
lately grown much worse from his having to endure daily
harangues from his wife at her ill-treatment by the Prices,
but whatever the truth of this, it is certain that no such
rumour ever came to Mrs Norris’s ear. She, for her part,
was left only with a large income and a spacious house, and
consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering
that she could do very well without him, and for the loss of
an invalid to nurse by the acquisition of a son to bring up.
At Mansfield Park a son and a daughter successively
entered the world, and as the years passed, Sir Thomas
contrived to maintain a regular if unfrequent correspondence
with his brother-in-law, Mr Price, in which he learned of
little Fanny’s progress with much complacency. But when
the girl was a few months short of her twelfth birthday,
Sir Thomas, in place of his usual communication from
Cumberland, received instead a letter in a lawyer’s hand,
conveying the sorrowful information that Mr and Mrs
Price had both succumbed to a putrid fever, and in the next
sentence, beseeching Sir Thomas, as the child’s uncle, and
only relation, to take the whole charge of her. Sir Thomas
was a man of honour and principle, and not insensible
to the claims of duty and the ties of blood, but such an
undertaking was not to be lightly engaged in; not, at least,
without consulting his wife. Lady Bertram was a woman
of very tranquil feelings, guided in every thing important
by Sir Thomas, and in smaller day-to-day concerns by her
sister. Knowing as he did Mrs Norris’s generous concern
for the wants of others, Sir Thomas elected to bring the
subject forward as they were sitting together at the tea-table,
where Mrs Norris was presiding. He gave the ladies the
particulars of the letter in his usual measured and dignified
manner, concluding with the observation that ‘after due
consideration, and examining this distressing circumstance
in all its particulars, I firmly believe that I have no other
alternative but to accede to this lawyer’s request and bring
Fanny to live with us here, at Mansfield Park. I hope, my
dear, that you will also see it in the same judicious light.’
Lady Bertram agreed with him instantly. ‘I think we
cannot do better,’ said she. ‘Let us send for her at once. Is
she not my niece, and poor Frances’ orphan child?’
As for Mrs Norris, she had not a word to say. She
saw decision in Sir Thomas’s looks, and her surprise and
vexation required some moments’ silence to be settled into
composure. Instead of seeing her first, and beseeching her
to try what her influence might do, Sir Thomas had shewn
a very reasonable dependence on the nerves of his wife,
and introduced the subject with no more ceremony than
he might have announced such common and indifferent
news as their country neighbourhood usually furnished.
Mrs Norris felt herself defrauded of an office, but there
was comfort, however, soon at hand. A second and most
interesting reflection suddenly occurring to her, she resumed
the conversation with renewed animation as soon as
the tea-things had been removed.
‘My dear Sir Thomas,’ she began, with a voice as well
regulated as she could manage, ‘considering what excellent
prospects the young lady has, and supposing her to possess
even one hundredth part of the sweet temper of your own
dear girls, would it not be a fine thing for us all if she were
to develop a fondness for my Edmund? After all, he will in
time inherit poor Mr Norris’s property, and she will have
her grandfather’s estate, an estate which can only improve
further under your prudent management. It is the very
thing of all others to be wished.’
‘There is some truth in what you say,’ replied Sir Thomas,
after some deliberation, ‘and should such a situation arise,
no-one, I am sure, would be more contented than myself.
But whatever its merits, I would not wish to impose such a
union upon any young person in my care. Every thing shall
take its course. All the young people will be much thrown
together. There is no saying what it may lead to.’
Mrs Norris was content, and every thing was considered
as settled. Sir Thomas made arrangements for Mr Price’s
lawyer to accompany the girl on the long journey to
Northampton-shire, and three weeks later she was delivered
safely into her uncle’s charge.
Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram received her very kindly,
and Mrs Norris was all delight and volubility and made
her sit on the sopha with herself. Their visitor took care
to shew an appropriate gratitude, as well as an engaging
submissiveness and humility. Sir Thomas, believing her quite
overcome, decided that she needed encouragement, and
tried to be all that was conciliating, little thinking that, in
consequence of having been, for some years past, Mrs Price’s
constant companion and protégée, she was too much used to
the company and praise of a wide circle of fine ladies and
gentlemen to have any thing like a natural shyness. Finding
nothing in Fanny’s person to counteract her advantages of
fortune and connections, Mrs Norris’s efforts to become
acquainted with her exhibited all the warmth of an
interested party. She thought with even greater satisfaction
of Sir Thomas’s benevolent plan; and pretty soon decided
that her niece, so long lost sight of, was blessed with talents
and acquirements in no common degree. And Mrs Norris
was not the only inmate of Mansfield to partake of this
generous opinion. Fanny herself was perfectly conscious of
her own pre-eminence, and found her cousins so ignorant
of many things with which she had been long familiar, that
she thought them prodigiously stupid, and although she
was careful to utter nothing but praise before her uncle and
aunt Bertram, she always found a most encouraging listener
in Mrs Norris.
‘My dear Fanny,’ her aunt would reply, ‘you must not
expect every body to be as forward and quick at learning
as yourself. You must make allowance for your cousins, and
pity their deficiency. Nor is it at all necessary that they
should be as accomplished as you are; on the contrary, it is
much more desirable that there should be a difference. You,
after all, are an heiress. And remember that, if you are ever so
forward and clever yourself, you should always be modest.
That is by far the most becoming demeanour for a superior
young lady.’
As Fanny grew tall and womanly, and Sir Thomas made
his yearly visit to Cumberland to receive the accounts, and
superintend the management of the estate, Mrs Norris did
not forget to think of the match she had projected when
her niece’s coming to Mansfield was first proposed, and
became most zealous in promoting it, by every suggestion
and contrivance likely to enhance its desirableness to
either party. Once Edmund was of age Mrs Norris saw
no necessity to make any other attempt at secrecy, than
talking of it every where as a matter not to be talked of at
present. If Sir Thomas saw any thing of this, he did nothing
to contradict it. Without enquiring into their feelings, the
complaisance of the young people seemed to justify Mrs
Norris’s opinion, and Sir Thomas was satisfied; too glad to
be satisfied, perhaps, to urge the matter quite so far as his
judgment might have dictated to others. He could only
be happy in the prospect of an alliance so unquestionably
advantageous, a connection exactly of the right sort, and
one which would retain Fanny’s fortune within the family,
when it might have been bestowed elsewhere. Sir Thomas
knew that his own daughters would not have a quarter as
much as Fanny, but trusted that the brilliance of countenance
that they had inherited from one parent, would more than
compensate for any slight deficiency in what they were to
receive from the other.
The first event of any importance in the family happened
in the year that Miss Price was to come of age. Her elder
cousin Maria had just entered her twentieth year, and Julia
was some six years younger. Tom Bertram, at twenty-one,
was just entering into life, full of spirits, and with all the
liberal dispositions of an eldest son, but a material change
was to occur at Mansfield, with the departure of his younger
brother, William, to take up his duties as a midshipman on
board His Majesty’s Ship the Perseverance. With his open,
amiable disposition, and easy, unaffected manners William
could not but be missed, and the family was prepared to find
a great chasm in their society, and to miss him decidedly. A
prospect that had once seemed a long way off was soon
upon them, and the last few days were taken up with the
necessary preparations for his removal; business followed
business, and the days were hardly long enough for all the
agitating cares and busy little particulars attending this
momentous event.
The last breakfast was soon over; the last kiss was given,
and William was gone. After seeing her brother to the final
moment, Maria walked back to the breakfast-room with a
saddened heart to comfort her mother and Julia, who were
sitting crying over William’s deserted chair and empty plate.
Lady Bertram was feeling as an anxious mother must feel,
but Julia was giving herself up to all the excessive affliction
of a young and ardent heart that had never yet been
acquainted with the grief of parting. Even though some
two years older than herself, William had been her constant
companion in every childhood pleasure, her friend in every
youthful distress. However her sister might reason with her,
Julia could not be brought to consider the separation as any
thing other than permanent.
‘Dear, dear William!’ she sobbed. ‘Who knows if I will
ever behold you again! Those delightful hours we have
spent together, opening our hearts to one another and
sharing all our hopes and plans! Those sweet summers when
every succeeding morrow renewed our delightful converse!
How endless they once seemed but how quickly they have
passed! And now I fear they will never come again! Even if
you do return, it will not be the same—you will have new
cares, and new pleasures, and little thought for the sister you
left behind!’
Maria hastened to assure her that such precious memories
of their earliest attachment would surely never be entirely
forgotten, and that William had such a warm heart that time
and absence must only increase their mutual affection, but
Julia was not to be consoled, and all her sister’s soothings
proved ineffectual.
‘We shall miss William at Mansfield,’ was Sir Thomas’s
observation when he joined them with Mrs Norris in the
breakfast-room, but noticing his younger daughter’s distress,
and knowing that in general her sorrows, like her joys, were
as immoderate as they were momentary, decided it was best
to say no more and presently turned the subject. ‘Where are
Tom and Fanny?’
‘Fanny is playing the piano-forte, and Tom has just set
off for Sotherton to call on Mr Rushworth,’ replied Maria.
‘He will find our new neighbour a most pleasant,
gentleman-like man,’ said Sir Thomas. ‘I sat but ten minutes
with him in his library, yet he appeared to me to have
good sense and a pleasing address. I should certainly have
stayed longer but the house is all in an uproar. I have always
thought Sotherton a fine old place—but Mr Rushworth
says it wants improvement, and in consequence the house
is in a cloud of dust, noise, and confusion, without a carpet
to the floor, or a sopha to sit on. Rushworth was called out
of the room twice while I was there, to satisfy some doubts
of the plasterer. And once he has done with the house, he
intends to begin upon the grounds. Given my own interest
in the subject, we found we had much in common.’
‘What can you mean, Sir Thomas?’ enquired Lady
Bertram, roused from her melancholy reverie. ‘I am sure I
never heard you mention such a thing before.’
Sir Thomas looked round the table. ‘I have been
considering the matter for some time, and, if the prospect
is not unpleasant to you, madam, I intend to improve
Mansfield. I have no eye for such matters, but our woods
are very fine, the house is well-placed on rising ground, and
there is the stream, which, I dare say, one might make some
thing of. When I last dined at the parsonage, I mentioned
my plans to Dr Grant, and he told me that his wife’s brother
had the laying out of the grounds at Compton. I have since
enquired into this Mr Crawford’s character and reputation,
and my subsequent letter to him received a most prompt
and courteous reply. He is to bring his sister with him, and
they are to spend three months in Mansfield. Indeed, they
arrived last night; and I have invited them and the Grants to
drink tea with us this evening.’
The family could not conceal their astonishment, and
looked all the amazement which such an unexpected
announcement could not fail of exciting. Even Julia checked
her tears, and tried to compose herself. Mrs Norris was ready
at once with her suggestions, but was vexed to find that
Sir Thomas had been amusing himself with shaping a very
complete outline of the business. He had, in fact, long been
apprehensive of the effect of his son’s departure, and the
contraction of the Mansfield circle consequent thereon. He
had reasoned to himself that if he could find the means of
distracting his family’s attention, and keeping up their spirits
for the first few weeks, he should think the time and money
very well spent. Such careful solicitude was quite of a piece
with the whole of his careful, upright conduct as a husband
and father, and the eager curiosity of his family was just
what he wished. Questions and exclamations followed each
other rapidly, and he was ready to give such information as
he possessed, and answer every query almost before it was
put, looking with heartfelt satisfaction on the animated faces
around him. One question, however, he could not answer;
he had never yet seen Mr Crawford, and could not answer
for any thing more than his skill with a pen. Had he known
all that was to come of the acquaintance, Sir Thomas would
surely have forbad him the house.
The Crawfords were not young people of fortune. The
brother had a small property near London, the sister less
than two thousand pounds. They were the children of Mrs
Grant’s mother by a second marriage, and when they were
young she had been very fond of them; but, as her own
marriage had been soon followed by the death of their
common parent, which left them to the care of a brother
of their father, a man of whom Mrs Grant knew nothing,
she had scarcely seen them since. In their uncle’s house
near Bedford-square they had found a kind home. He was
a single man, and the cheerful company of the brother and
sister ensured that his final years had every comfort that he
could wish; he doated on the boy, and found both nurse and
housekeeper in the girl. Unfortunately, his own property
was entailed on a distant relation; and this cousin installing
himself in the house within a month of the old gentleman’s
sudden death, Mr and Miss Crawford were obliged to
look for another home without delay, Mr Crawford’s own
house being too small for their joint comfort, and one to
which his sister had taken a fixed dislike, for reasons of her
own. Having been forced by want of fortune to go into a
profession, Mr Crawford had begun with the law, but soon
after had discovered a genius for improvement that gave him
the excuse he had been wanting to give up his first choice
and enter upon another. For the last three years he had
spent nine months in every twelve travelling the country
from Devon-shire to Derby-shire, visiting gentlemen’s
seats, and laying out their grounds, gathering at the same
time a list of noble patrons and a competent knowledge
of Views, Situations, Prospects and the principles of the
Picturesque. What would have been hardship to a more
indolent, stay-at-home man was bustle and excitement to
him. For Henry Crawford had, luckily, a great dislike to any
thing like a permanence of abode, or limitation of society;
and he boasted of spending half his life in a post-chaise,
and forming more new acquaintances in a fortnight than
most men did in a twelvemonth. But, all the same, he was
properly aware that it was his duty to provide a comfortable
home for Mary, and when the letter from the Park was
soon followed by another from the parsonage offering his
sister far more suitable accommodations than their present
lodgings could afford, he saw it as the happy intervention of
a Providence that had ever been his friend.
The measure was quite as welcome on one side as it
could be expedient on the other; for Mrs Grant, having
by this time run through all the usual resources of ladies
residing in a country parsonage without a family of children
to superintend, was very much in want of some domestic
diversion. The arrival, therefore, of her brother and sister was
highly agreeable; and Mrs Grant was delighted to receive a
young man and woman of very pleasant appearance. Henry
Crawford was decidedly handsome, with a person, height,
and air that many a nobleman might have envied, while
Mary had an elegant and graceful beauty, and a strength
of understanding that might even exceed her brother’s.
This, however, she had the good sense to conceal, at least
when first introduced into polite company. Mrs Grant had
not waited her sister’s arrival to look out for a desirable
match for her, and she had fixed, for want of much variety
of suitable young men in the immediate vicinity, on Tom
Bertram. He was, she was constrained to admit, but twentyone,
and perhaps an eldest son would in general be thought
too good for a girl of less than two thousand pounds, but
stranger things have happened, especially where the young
woman in question had all the accomplishments which Mrs
Grant saw in her sister. Did not Lady Bertram herself have
little more than that sum when she captivated Sir Thomas?
Mary had not been three hours in the house before Mrs
Grant told her what she had planned, concluding with,
‘And as we are invited to the Park this evening, you will see
him for yourself.’
‘And what of your poor brother?’ asked Henry with a
smile. ‘Are there no Miss Bertrams to whom I can make
myself agreeable? No rich ward of Sir Thomas’s I can
entertain? I ask only that they have at least twenty thousand
pounds. I cannot exert myself for any thing less.’
‘If that is your standard,’ replied Mrs Grant, ‘then
Mansfield has only one young woman worthy of the name.
Fanny Price is Sir Thomas’s niece, and has at least twice
that sum, and will inherit her grandfather’s Cumberland
property, and some vast estates in the West Indies, I believe.
And she is generally thought to be by far the handsomest of
the young ladies—quite the belle of the neighbourhood. But
I am sorry for your sake, my dear brother, that she is already
engaged. Or at least, so I believe, for no announcement has
actually been made, but Mrs Norris told me in confidence,
that Fanny is to marry her son Edmund. He has a very
large property from his father, though you would scarcely
believe it from the way his mother carries on. Such
assiduous economy and frugality I have never known, and
certainly not from a person so admirably provided for as
Mrs Norris must be. I believe she must positively enjoy all
her ingenious contrivances, and take pleasure in saving half
a crown here and there, since there cannot possibly be any
other explanation.’
Mary heaved a small sigh at this, and thought of the
considerable retrenchment she had been forced to make in
her own expenditure of late. Mrs Grant, meanwhile, had
returned to the young ladies of the Park.
‘You will be obliged to content yourself with Miss
Bertram, Henry. She is a pretty young lady, if not so
handsome as Miss Price, and has a nice height and size, and
sweet dark eyes. But I warn you that you may encounter
some competition in that quarter. A Mr Rushworth has but
lately arrived in the neighbourhood, and I believe we may
even see him at the Park this evening. He is the younger son
of a baronet, with an estate of four or five thousand a year,
they say, and very likely more.’
Henry could not help half a smile, but he said nothing.
The dinner hour approaching, the ladies separated for
their toilette. Although Mary had laughed heartily at her
sister’s picture of herself as the future mistress of Mansfield
Park, she found herself meditating upon it in the calmness
of her own room, and she dressed with more than usual
care. The loss of her home, with all its attendant indignity,
had been a painful proof that matrimony was the only
honourable provision for a well-educated young woman of
such little fortune as hers. Marriage, therefore, must be her
object, and she must resign herself to marrying as well as
she could, even if that meant submitting to an alliance with
a man of talents far inferior to her own.
As the weather was fine and the paths dry, they elected to
walk to their engagement across the park. If she could not
share her brother’s professional interest in the disposition
of the grounds, Mary yet saw much to be pleased with:
lawns and plantations of the freshest green, and nearer the
house, trees and shrubberies, and a long lime walk. From
the entrance hall, they were shewn into the drawing-room,
where everyone was assembled. They soon discovered,
however, that the family had been frustrated in their hopes
of Mr Rushworth; he had sent Sir Thomas a very proper
letter of excuse, but regretted that he was required directly
in town. The immediate disappointment of the party was
rendered even more acute by the fair reports Mr Bertram
brought with him from Sotherton. In the course of the
afternoon Mr Bertram had perfected his acquaintance with
their new neighbour, and was returned with his head full of
his recently acquired friend. The topic had evidently been
already handled in the dining-parlour; it was revived in the
drawing-room, and as coffee was being poured Mary was
standing near enough to Mr Bertram for her to overhear
a discussion with her brother on the same engrossing
subject.
‘I tell you, Crawford, you never saw so complete a
man! He has taste, spirit, genius, every thing. He intends
to re-establish Sotherton as one of the foremost houses in
Northampton-shire. It has lain empty for so long, and the
house itself is sadly neglected, but Rushworth has great
hopes for it. I will take the first opportunity to introduce
you—he has above seven hundred acres, and all of it needing
as much attention as the house.’
Mr Crawford bowed his thanks. ‘I am always happy
to make the acquaintance of gentlemen of extensive and
unimproved property,’ he said with a smile.
The card tables were soon placed, and Sir Thomas and
his lady, and Dr and Mrs Grant sat down to Casino. Mrs
Norris called for music, and Mary was prevailed upon by
Mr Bertram to sit down at the piano-forte. After listening
for a few minutes, Mrs Norris said loudly, ‘If Miss Crawford
had had the advantage of a proper master she might almost
have played as well as Fanny, do you not agree, Edmund?’
‘You are too kind, ma’am,’ said Miss Price, colouring
most becomingly. Mr Norris said nothing, and Mary looked
up to see how warmly he assented to his lady’s praise; but
neither at that moment nor at any other time during the
evening could she perceive any visible symptom of love; and
from the whole of his behaviour to Miss Price she derived
only the conviction that he was an arrogant, weak young
man, driven by motives of selfishness and worldly ambition
into a marriage without affection. Miss Price herself was
more of a puzzle. The good-natured Mrs Grant had extolled
her beauty so highly, that Mary had the pleasure of being
disappointed. But it was not merely Miss Price’s looks that
attracted Mary’s notice. With an uncommon quickness in
understanding the tempers of those she had to deal with,
and no natural timidity to hinder her, Mary rarely had any
great difficulty in making out the characters of the people
she encountered, but Miss Price, at first, was in every
view unaccountable. That a young woman possessed of so
large a fortune should have consented to an engagement
without further proof of attachment than Mary was able
to discern in Mr Norris, was beyond her comprehension.
Mary loved to laugh, and she fancied she might find much
in the situation to amuse her in the weeks to come, but
to her reason, her judgment, it was inexplicable. Further
observation of Miss Price in the evening circle shewed
her to be vain, insincere, and possessed of a quite excessive
degree of self-consequence, despite her studied appearance
of modest self-denial. Mary could only conclude that so
far, at least, the foremost position in the family which
the supposed engagement afforded her, had been reason
enough to assent to it. But despite the long-standing nature
of the connection, and the apparently unanimous wishes of
the two families, Mary did not give much for Mr Norris’s
chances if a more prepossessing rival were to step in before
the articles were signed.
The other young women of the family were more
easily accounted for. Julia Bertram spent the evening with
her mother on the sopha, engaged in her needlework,
but from one or two remarks Mary heard her make, and
from the little shelf of books at her side, she judged the
youngest Miss Bertram to have both a tender disposition,
and a fondness for reading. Her sister Maria seemed to be a
pleasant, accomplished girl, but one whose natural sweetness
of temper was not equal to the severe trial of holding but a
second place in every thing to Miss Price. Despite her beauty
and acquirements, Miss Bertram’s fortune was so markedly
inferior, and her footing in the family so subordinate, as
to have pressed very hard upon the patience of a saint,
much less the feelings of a pretty young woman of twenty.
Mary wondered at Sir Thomas, whose conduct seemed
in so many other respects to be most just and reasonable.
Could he be blind to a state of affairs that was plain to Mary
after little more than an evening’s acquaintance with the
family? Could he not see what the consequences of such a
misplaced distinction might prove to be? Could he, in fact,
have so little insight into the disposition of his niece—a
young woman who had been brought up under his eye
since she was twelve years old?

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