A Clever Plan

"They're sending her to Portsmouth!" Henry cried in outrage.

Mary Crawford looked up to see her brother barging into the sitting room. "Who?"

"Fanny!" He waved papers in her face. "Bertram writes that his father is sending her to Portsmouth, to stay with her old family there-for two months!"

His sister suppressed a smile. "Well, and?"

"I can't go without seeing Fanny for two months!" She started to laugh. "It's only been two weeks, and I already miss her desperately," he complained. "And once they send her away, they will probably forget all about her, the lot of them. She will be left to languish, in a-miserable port town! And who knows how her family there lives?" He struck the back of a chair with his hand. "If I didn't know better I would say Sir Thomas was putting her out of my reach!"

"Indeed, it is very inconvenient for you," said Mary. "And my heart goes out to poor Fanny, for who could be happy in Portsmouth? But what can you do about it?"

Henry paused. "That is the question, isn't it? What can I do about it?" He began to pace thoughtfully.

Mary watched him. "Perhaps if you wrote to Sir Thomas, and suggested that it would be easier to court his niece at Mansfield?"

He shook his head. "He will never change his plans at this date."

"Well, there is no reason you cannot go to Portsmouth and visit her there, is there?"

"Perhaps… but what I need, Mary, is an opportunity. Not just an opportunity to see her, but to grow closer to her, to get past her barriers and gain her trust. Fanny Price, my dear, is not to be won by mere charm. She needs something more…" He narrowed his eyes.

"Henry," said Mary. "You have that look in your eyes."

"What look?"

"That… scheming look. That planning look. You've had an idea, haven't you?"

Slowly, a grin crawled across his face. "Mary," he said, "if I do something very outrageous, you will help me, won't you?"

Mary pursed up her lips, but her eyes sparkled. "How outrageous, exactly?"

"Very outrageous and very fun. It will be exactly like acting in a play; you will adore it."

"My part is to be a creditable one, I hope?"

"Very creditable, and even respectable too. You will have Edmund Bertram even more in love with you than ever, when he hears of it."

"Oh, well then." She stood up. "An Edmund more in love I should like to see. Add me to your lists."

He put his arm around her. "It will be a very small production, for an audience of one, but I am not unhopeful of its success. And when it is done-well, then I much mistake the matter if my Fanny's heart will not be mine in all but name."

One week later…

The post-chaise bearing William and Fanny Price bowled merrily down the road. They had left Mansfield some two hours ago, headed south by the main road towards Portsmouth, and were now passing through a peaceful stretch of alternating fields and forest. Inside the chaise, the two siblings sat contentedly together, talking over their plans for the coming days.

"You will enjoy walking on the ramparts, Fanny," said William. "There is the best view of the whole harbor, and the sea always looks very fine as well. Mama likes to take her walk there every Sunday after service, with the younger ones, but we can go up the very next day after we arrive, if you like."

Fanny clasped his arm. "Oh yes, I would like it very much! We must walk there, and you will point out all the ships you know and tell me about them. Will I be able to see the Thrush, do you think?"

"If it has not left the harbor, which I do not expect for three or four days. We can go down to the docks too, and you can look at it more closely there, if you do not object to the smell and the bustle of it."

"Oh, I am sure I will not," she said stoutly. Just then, there was a sudden ruckus outside; men's voices shouted, the carriage jolted, and a shot-an actual shot!-rang through the air.

Fanny gasped with horror, and they were flung forward as two mounted figures surged into view, brandishing pistols. One made for the horses, cutting them off; for a moment it seemed like the entire carriage might overturn as it skidded. William's strong arm braced her, and then they came to a halt. The post-boy slid off the back of his horse and threw up his hands. The other man headed for the door of the carriage.

Fanny pressed her hands to her mouth in horror, too terrified to even scream. The scene had the qualities of a nightmare, lurid and shocking, overwhelming her senses. She felt like she might faint.

William, though, was different. Gently he thrust her back against the seat, and moved his body to shield her. The cheerful boy of just a minute ago was gone; in his place, there was a steely-eyed man. "Stay here, Fanny. It will all be right, I promise." He leaned forward, crouching.

The moment the man opened the door, William leapt on him, tackling him to the ground and knocking the gun out of his hand. They rolled around, wrestling. Fanny cried aloud and crept forward, her fear for her brother overcoming every other feeling, when a hand seized her wrist and dragged her backwards, out the other side of the coach.

Fanny's entire body seized from fear; her hands grew numb and her vision began to blur. Though she did not fall she stumbled, and was pulled upright.

"Now look 'here, miss," the man began in a low, coarse voice, when a gunshot sounded again. The man started and turned, releasing her, and Fanny just had time to catch a glimpse of another figure on horseback, galloping towards them from the trees, coat flying behind him, when something flashed in her vision, and the man who had dragged her from the carriage slumped to the ground, unconscious.

It was William. In the time it took Fanny to be dragged out, he had knocked out his first opponent, and seeing in a glance through the windows what was happening, ran round the back of the chaise, and at the moment of the man's distraction, hit him on the back of the head with the butt of the pistol he had already collected.

"William!" Fanny, regaining enough of her senses to recognize refuge when she saw it, threw herself into his arms and burst into sobs. He held her firmly, though he patted her back a bit awkwardly. "It's all right, Fan. You're safe now. No big deal, really. I've had worse scraps in the streets of Portsmouth, much less at sea. Oh, Mr. Crawford! Where did you come from?"

Though Fanny did not see it, the man who had just pulled up beside them stared at them, shut his mouth, swallowed and said, "I-I just came from-" he glanced over his shoulders at the trees. "That is, my sister and I were travelling to Mansfield and I heard the shots. I thought you might… need help."

William grinned. "Oh no, I had it, sir." He eyed the unconscious men with contempt. "Amateurs. I don't know about the post-boy, though. Where is the fellow? I think he may have run off."

"Very likely." Mr. Crawford dismounted. "Miss Price, may I render you any assistance?"

But Fanny was still crying into Wiliam's shoulder and not able to answer. "You'd better get this one's pistol before he wakes up," said her brother, who still had an arm around her. He patted her shoulder. "They ought to be tied up, I think, but I haven't any rope."

"I may have some in my saddlebags," said Henry. He was eyeing Fanny with a look of concerned chagrin. "Miss Price, if you can hear me, my carriage is just behind me-see here it is now. Mary is there, will you not let me take you to her?"

The men were really stirring now, groaning and sitting up. They did not try to run, but stared at William balefully. Crawford hurried to train his weapon on them. "Be silent, blackguards! I will see you in the stocks for this day's work! You there!" He jerked his chin at the man on the other side of the carriage, the one William had originally tackled. "Come sit with your fellow here, where I can watch you."

Fanny, though beginning to be calmer now, shuddered and drew back. William found the wrist that had been seized, and raised it for inspection. "Did he hurt your wrist, Fanny?"

Crawford turned wrathful eyes on the man at his feet. "You [i]touched[/i] her?" The man put his head down and mumbled something. "I really will-" He bit back his words, and struggled for a moment. "Look, here are my men," he said finally. Sure enough, two of the men who had been travelling with the carriage jogged across the road to them. "They can take care of these two for us, Mr. Price. In fact, I will take care of everything; you don't need to worry about any of it." He turned back to Fanny. She shrank from the pistol in his hand, and he put it away hastily. "My dearest Miss Price." He bowed deeply. "Please allow me to escort you to my sister. There is nothing to alarm you now," he continued in a softer voice, drawing closer, his eyes on her face. "You are perfectly safe. Look, there is Mary, waiting to receive you." Indeed, Miss Crawford had now climbed out of the other carriage, and stood beside it watching them.

Fanny looked across to the other carriage. She did want to get away from here, and these dreadful, rough men, but still she clung to her brother. He shook his head at her timidity, but said cheerfully, "I'll take her, Mr. Crawford. Then I can come back and help you with those ropes." The pair walked straight past Henry, William's head bent low over Fanny's as he murmured reassuring things to her.

At the carriage, Miss Crawford came forward to receive them. "My dear Fanny!" she exclaimed. "What a terrifying thing to have happen, and how lucky it is that we happened upon you at just the right time!" Looking over the girl's pale, tear-stained face and trembling form, she compressed her lips for a moment. "I can see that this was terrifying indeed for you. Come, you must sit in the carriage. We have warm rugs, and food, and wine, and everything to make you comfortable. Henry always takes such good care of me when we travel," she added.

"Thank you, Miss Crawford," said Wiliam. He pulled his arm gently from his sister's grasp and patted her shoulder. "There, you'll be all right now, won't you? You won't faint, or have hysterics, or anything like that?"

Fanny shook her head, and summoned a wavering smile for him. "No indeed, William. Oh-William, thank you!" She threw her arms around him again in a passionate hug, and he returned it with an affectionate smile.

"I told you I could handle myself in a fight, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did, and you were so, so correct. Although I still can't believe that anyone-that those men tried to-" She looked like she was about to break down again, and he extracted himself hastily.

"Now, don't do that! In the carriage like a good girl, and let Miss Crawford take care of you." Submissively, she let him help her in, and with a last, "Thank you so much, ma'am," to Mary, he turned and ran back across the road. Mr. Crawford was standing in the middle of the road, watching them rather than his men, a dissatisfied look on his face.

"Good, you've got the rope," said William, looking to where the bandits were being bound. "No, don't do it like that!" he exclaimed a moment later. "That's the kind of knot they'll get out of in no time!" He went over to supervise the tying up, and in a moment took it over entirely and trussed both men up himself with all the consummate skill of an experienced sailor. "Serves you right," he said severely, when one of the men groaned about how tight the binds were. "Holding up post-chaises! What's the point in that, anyway? If we were rich we'd be riding our own carriage, wouldn't we? And how dare you go dragging my sister out onto the road like that? You're lucky that tying you up is all I'm doing!"

Mr. Crawford, who had been watching this exchange, suddenly laughed, and shook his head. "What would you have done next, I wonder, if we hadn't come along-what with no rope and no post-boy?"

"Oh, I'd put Fanny back in the chaise and ride postillion myself!" William grinned up at him. "Wouldn't mind trying it anyway, if we can't find the fellow." Even as he spoke, a small, middle-aged man in a yellow waistcoat was seen creeping from the shelter of the trees. "Hey there!" he called. "Come back and mind your horses!"

Meanwhile, in the other carriage, Fanny was slowly reviving under the influence of a glass of wine and Miss Crawford's gentle chatter. She alternated expressions of gratitude with exclamations on William's bravery, William's competence, William's nobility.

"Poor Henry," said Mary at last, her voice light. "To miss the chance to play hero. He would have liked that, to be the one to rescue you."

Fanny shook her head at her.

"Surely you saw him riding toward you, at least? He looked quite the heroic figure, I promise, galloping into danger. He had not the least idea it was you in that carriage, of course-we could neither of us have any idea it was you! But as soon as we heard the gunshots, and realized what was happening, he took off immediately, to rescue whomever needed it. Only imagine his feelings, once he realized it was you, the woman he loves!"

Fanny murmured something about being grateful to Mr. Crawford.

"I think he was quite disappointed to realize you did not need him more. He would do anything for you, you know, even face down armed bandits."

Fanny blushed and said nothing. A moment later there was a knock on the carriage door, and it opened to reveal a smiling Mr. Crawford. "Are you feeling better, Miss Price? I hope you are recovering a little from your fright."

"She was very frightened," said Mary in an undertone to him.

His smile disappeared. "I know. I know, and I'm-and those men are beasts to have subjected you to that. But that," he added with more cheerfulness, "is why I was just telling your brother that we would be most happy to escort you back to Mansfield this very moment."

"Back to Mansfield!" exclaimed Fanny, forgetting to be shy for a moment.

"I understand your brother cannot delay his journey, but you, I am persuaded, are in no condition to continue yours. Surely it would be much more comforting to you to return home, and rest there? If you decide in a few days that you still wish to go to Portsmouth, well then, Mary and I will of course be happy to take you ourselves."

"Indeed we would," said Mary.

"William?" Fanny looked for her brother.

"I'm here, Fanny." He appeared behind Mr. Crawford shoulder.

"Do you think I ought to go back with them?"

"Not at all! I think you ought to come on with me, just as we planned." He smiled encouragingly at her. "We don't need to let a little thing like this disturb us, do we? You'll still come on to Portsmouth with me now, and we'll do all the things we said we would. Do, Fanny!"

The memory of how few days were left before her brother shipped out again were enough to overcome any indecision on her part. "Oh yes, William, please!" She held out her hand, and Mr. Crawford had no choice but to help her out. He tried to retain possession of it for a moment, but she slipped away and embraced her brother again.

"There's a good girl! You won't be frightened, not as long as you have me with you, will you, now that you know that I can protect you?"

"Oh no, William, I won't!" She smiled trustfully at him.

"You'll send someone back to get them, at the next town, sir?" he asked Crawford, nodding his head to the two men who had now been moved off the road, and were lying face-down in the grass, wrists and ankles bound. Their two horses had drifted away and were grazing in the field behind them.

"Yes, I'll take care of it." He hesitated. "Are you sure I cannot do anything for you, Miss Price? I would like very much to be of more material assistance to you. Your brother," he flashed a brief smile, "has left very little for the rest of us to do."

Fanny sent another glowing look up at her brother, then assured Henry, with a little confusion, that she was quite well, and very grateful for the services he had rendered them. "And Miss Crawford," she turned toward that lady, "I am very sensible of your kindness in showing me-" She paused. "I am sorry, but I am afraid I have been very rude in not inquiring as to why you have come here. I thought you were to be in town through spring."

"Why yes, but I just felt a sudden, pressing desire to see my sister again, just for a few days. Henry was so obliging as to accompany me." She glanced toward her brother.

"I am sure that… everyone at Mansfield will be pleased to see you."

"As to that, I don't know that I can stay long enough to see anyone. It was to be a very quick visit."

This seemed strange to Fanny, but she did not inquire further. Instead she repeated her thanks and good-byes, not in very good order, William added his more hearty expressions, and then she let him lead her back to the chaise whose shabby confines they had so recently left, and the postillion climbed back on his horse, and they set out again, for all the world as if nothing more significant had happened than if one of the horses got a stone in its shoe and had to have it removed.

Mary and Henry watched the chaise roll down the road in silence. As it neared, and then passed into the shade of the woods before them, Mary bit her lip and said, "Well."

"Go ahead and laugh, Mary."

Laugh she did, very heartily, while he went across the road to cut free the men who were still lying bound there. They rolled to their feet and began to complain in loud tones. He answered in kind, and a short, profane argument ensued, ending with Henry giving each one a few guineas before the men took their horses and rode away.

"Poor little Fanny," said Mary, when he returned. "It really was badly done of us."

"Very badly indeed," he agreed. He huffed, took off his hat, and ran a hand through his hair. "Did it seem to you that she looked kindly at me, just then at the end? She did look kindly, didn't she? Surely she was grateful-she will be very grateful, when she has time to consider the whole matter. She will know I would have rescued her."

"I am sure she will. What woman would not? Why, I would not be surprised if this very night she dreams of it, only this time with you there, instead of her brother. No woman can prefer being rescued by her brother to being rescued by a lover! No, I will not believe her so unnatural."

Her brother seemed heartened by this assurance, and together, they returned to their carriage and their horse, both of which made a u-turn before heading back up the road in the same direction the others went. They turned off shortly, though, east towards London.

A little further south, William Price frowned in thought. "Fanny," he said, "it seems to me that there's something queer about this whole business."

"Oh, yes! Why would anyone want to rob us?"

"That's one part of it. There's more to it than that, though." He saw her looking anxiously at him, and smoothed away his frown. "It's over now, at any rate. Think what a fine story we shall have to tell everyone!" Privately, though, he thought to himself, I'll have to think it over later. Whatever it is, I'll bet I can figure it out….