Breakfast a week or so later, however, brought a change of plan. Maria had received a note from Helen Aylmer, a new friend, inviting her to stay with her before Easter. She had a house in Twickenham and intended to have a great deal of the very best company round, boat trips on the Thames, excursions to Richmond and everything that was pleasant... Maria very much wanted to go.

"But what about my mother?" protested Mr. Rushworth. "We are going to Bath to fetch her to London. I know how much she is looking forward to it."

"Oh my, I quite forgot about her!" replied Maria with total unconcern. "But you were saying yourself only the other day that you felt she missed being able to talk to you confidentially now that we are married."

"Was I, my dear? I'm not-"

"Yes, you were, and I'm sure it's very natural of her to feel that way. And if you were to fetch her from Bath on your own, that would give you ample opportunity to be together before we meet again."

It took Mrs. Rushworth several more hours to persuade her husband round to her way of thinking and obtain his consent for her to visit Mrs. Aylmer, but permission was at last accorded as it always was. Julia did admire the way her sister managed him.

Within a fortnight the Wimpole Street party had broken up. Maria went to Twickenham, her husband to Bath, and Julia to the Lawrences' house in Montague Place. Instantly, she felt more at home. Her cousins were lively and unpretentious people with many friends of the same nature. Mrs. Lawrence was a liberal but kind hostess and Julia felt very welcome among them, perhaps especially because Maria was not present. It seemed terribly disloyal, but Julia really did feel more able to be herself when her sister was not with her.

In this convivial household, Mr. Yates was almost a daily visitor and was less of a nuisance when diluted by people who actually liked him. Moreover, his persistence was beginning to pay off in a small way. Julia could not help noticing that the majority of her admirers had followed her sister to Twickenham or at least appeared to have abandoned her, and she was forced to draw the conclusion that they had been more interested in her as a conduit to Mrs. Rushworth than for her own merits. It was a provoking and distressing thought. At least Mr. Yates was single-minded in his attentions.

This pleasant interlude was destined not to last, however. Not long after the sisters had separated, Mrs. Rushworth paid a surprise visit in Montague Place, bringing with her a letter from her mother, the contents of which had required instant communication with Julia. It said that whilst staying in Newmarket for the races, Tom had contracted a bad fever and had lain gravely ill for several days before anyone had seen fit to contact Sir Thomas about it. He was now back at Mansfield but in a very bad way and they feared for his life.

All were stricken.

"Damn, but I was at Newmarket!" exclaimed Jack Lawrence with a shake of his head. "Couldn't tell there was anything wrong with him – Bertram's always been strong as an ox! Of course, if I'd thought he was in any danger I should never have left him!" He looked appealingly from his mother to his sister, his cousins and Yates.

"What should we do?" Julia asked Maria immediately, turning to her as a matter of course. "We should go home. I'm sure Papa would prefer to have us with him."

"I have no intention of going to Mansfield. My place is with my new family now. Tom must survive or not without me. Besides, Mrs. Aylmer cannot do without me. You may do as you please, of course."

This was not very encouraging of any course of action and seemed callous even by Maria's standards. "I think I ought to go home," she said after a moment's thought.

Maria shrugged. "As you wish. But you will only be in the way there. Fanny is to come home as soon as she can be fetched, I believe, and she will manage Mama best of us."

Julia flushed. The contrast between Mrs. Rushworth indispensable at a house party at Twickenham and Miss Bertram trumped by Fanny Price as a sister and daughter (not to mention as a lover) was striking.

"Mrs. Rushworth is quite right!" insisted Yates then. "You are too necessary to us here in London to think of our sparing you even for a week. You must remain here – Miss Price is a jolly sort of girl and will take good care of poor Bertram."

This was a sort of flattery and itwas most welcome at that moment. Nevertheless, Julia felt guilty at giving in to her own amusement in this way if Tom was truly ill. "All the same, I think I had better go – if only for a few weeks. My duty must be to my brother at this time." Then, suddenly anxious that she sounded too much like Edmund, she went quickly to the writing desk to get her duty over with as quickly as possible. "At least, I shall write to say I can come if needed. There, then I am not disappointing anyone!"

As it happened, she was not needed, and Julia resumed her life in Montague Place with only slightly diminished gaiety. Her mother, perhaps pleased at her volunteering to return, sent her almost daily updates on Tom's progress, and in this way she felt justified in enjoying herself for the twenty-three hours and fifty minutes of each day that she did not spend contemplating her brother's plight.

Only one thing marred her pleasure at this period and that was an unwelcome visit from an old friend of her father's, a Mr. Harding. His relationship with her father was sufficient to force Julia to grant him the private interview that he requested with her, though she did not expect to enjoy it, and could not imagine what a gentleman she had never met could possibly want with her.

He was in a state of great agitation and came to the point very quickly. "Have you heard from Mrs. Rushworth recently?"

She could only shake her head, not sure whether to be offended or suspicious, and he continued, "You must forgive me the presumption of calling on you like this, Miss Bertram, but I could not rest without knowing if you were aware of the manner in which she is living in Twickenham with these Alymers!"

"I beg your pardon!"

His pacing was making her restless.

"I came from Richmond only yesterday, Miss Bertram, where I heard a most malicious rumour circulating concerning your sister and a certain Mr. Crawford and I could not rest until I had seen them and discovered the truth."

"What of it?" burst out Julia, who was trying not to fiddle with the table cloth and keep her hands folded in her lap.

"Mrs. Rushworth lacks the protection of her husband at the moment. And people are talking, Miss Bertram, people are talking a great deal of their apparent intimacy. There may be some dreadful indiscretion at foot!"

Now Julia was angry. She stood up. "Mr. Harding, I don't know by what authority you think you can interfere in my sister's affairs, but your concerns are needless. Mr. Crawford and Maria were well acquainted at Mansfield last winter it is true, but I can assure you there is no relationship of the kind you infer. My sister is happily married and as for Mr. Crawford, I believe his affections are engaged elsewhere."

She blushed guiltily at the lies she was telling and he, misunderstanding the cause, looked at her keenly and a little pityingly. "Your loyalty does your credit, but facts are facts. I came to tell you that I have written to Sir Thomas saying that it would be best if he came to London to remonstrate with Mrs. Rushworth to moderate her behaviour."

Worse and worse! Julia could imagine exactly how her father would take such a letter. He would come to London directly, have a dreadful scene with Maria which would only serve to drive her closer to Mr. Crawford – if there was anything at all in Mr. Harding's base speculation and rumour mongering – then, on the basis that all London society was corrupt and inappropriate (he would have probably spoken with Edmund by then) would haul her off home without so much as "by your leave". And then an end to all diversion!

"I don't know what you thought to achieve in coming to me, sir. I am perfectly assured of Mrs. Rushworth's innocence, and can see no reason to worry my father needlessly. My brother is very ill-"

She broke off, fearing she was allowing her anger to carry her away. Insulting her father's oldest friend to his face would not help her case if her predictions came to pass. "Mr. Rushworth returns to Wimpole Street with his mother in the next couple of days and my sister will join them then."

She drew herself up as proudly as she could manage. "Your concern for my family is much appreciated but, with all due respect, sir, I think you are mistaken."

He nodded and withdrew. "I very much hope so, Miss Bertram. I hope your dismissal of these reports is based on a truer knowledge of your sister's character than what I have been able to perceive on so short an acquaintance. Good day to you."

He left, and when Miss Lawrence rushed into the room five minutes later, Julia was still sitting at the table with her eyes fixed blindly on a small figurine of the goddess Diana.

"What did he want? He had such a look of thunder as I passed him on the stairs!" cried Sophie, seizing her friend's hand in hers.

With an effort, Julia roused herself. "He only come to spread malicious gossip." And she was sufficiently uneasy that for once she did not repeat it.

If Julia had been inclined to give any credence to Mr. Harding's report, her mind was set thoroughly at ease by a note from Maria the following Saturday announcing her return to Wimpole Street, with a postscript to the effect that she had already quarrelled with her mother-in-law over the dinner menu and the location of the box at the theatre that she had taken. This was very sisterly, very amusing, and Julia and Sophie smiled over the note and talked with pleasure of seeing Mrs. Rushworth in church the following day.

But though the friends spent the duration of the morning service at St. George's looking for the Rushworth party as discretely as they could, and consequently heard not one word of the sermon on temperance and chastity, they were nowhere to be seen.

"Perhaps Mrs. Rushworth was too fatigued after her journey to come to church and the young people stayed behind to keep her company," suggested Mrs. Lawrence afterwards.

Julia did not think this very likely and privately thought Jack's suggestion that "they could not be bothered with such stupid nonsense," far more probable. Perhaps they had all quarrelled again.

"At any rate, we shall call tomorrow and see for ourselves how they do," said Mrs. Lawrence, and that was the end of it.

The planned visit to Wimpole Street, however, was destined never to take place. The following morning, just as the ladies of the family was preparing to leave, they were interrupted by the sound of Yates in the hallway below, ranting to a footman much as if he were on stage. Julia and Sophie peered over the bannister at him, wondering what the matter was; when he saw them, he immediately released the footman from his rhetoric and turned its power on them.

"Miss Bertram, Miss Lawrence! You must come down this instant! There is something you must read! There is no time to be lost!"

Mrs. Lawrence sighed. "Get rid of him as quickly as you can, girls. And mind it is quick; we are just going out. It is far too early for him to call." Then she retreated to her room.

Once downstairs, Mr. Yates' agitation was even more noticeable. He was clutching a copy of The Times and striding up and down in his riding boots in a state of alarm that could hardly be distinguished from acted perturbation.

"What is it?" asked Sophie. Julia stood a little back. A strange feeling of evil presentiment had come over her. An incomplete anxiety that she had been ignoring ever since the Rushworths had failed to appear at church returned to the front of her mind, and she was afraid to inquire.

"You'd better come in here," said Yates, glancing at the footman he had been abusing a minute earlier. He pushed open the dining room door and closed it behind him.

"What do you mean by all this secrecy?" cried Julia, now thoroughly alarmed.

His expression was uncharacteristically grim, and he handed her the newspaper, pointing to a column in the centre of one of the society pages. "Read this."

"It is with infinite concern that this newspaper has to announce to the world, a matrimonial fracas in the family of Mr. R. of Wimpole Street; the beautiful Mrs. R. whose name has not long been enrolled in the lists of hymen, and who has promised to become so brilliant a leader in the fashionable world, has quitted her husband's roof in company with the well known and captivating Mr. C. the intimate friend and associate of Mr. R. and it is not known, even to the editor of the newspaper, whither they are gone."

"What does it mean?" said Sophie stupidly as soon as she had read it over Julia's shoulder.

Julia felt the paper slip through her fingers, and would have collapsed if Yates had not grabbed her arm and supported her with more effectiveness than delicacy. She at least had sufficient quickness to comprehend the import of the report on a first reading.

"You should not be too alarmed, dear Miss Bertram," said he, contradicting his earlier caution. "This sort of thing of thing happens all the time! Marriage vows, you know... far more fluid than you'd think... that is, assuming there's any truth in it. For my part, I'm inclined to think..." He trailed off, aware that he had perhaps finally gone too far.

He was far too close to her. Julia pushed him away and groped her way to a chair. It was true, all of it, quite true; she was convinced of it. She had never really believed in Mr. Crawford's supposed attachment to Fanny. Some fancy there had perhaps been which Miss Crawford had no doubt exaggerated into a proposal for mischievous reasons of her own. Oh, they were wicked, these Crawfords! Moreover, if any further confirmation were needed, she had only to think of Mr. Harding's humiliating visit. As for Maria, it was only Julia's desire not to see what she did not want to see, that had concealed Maria's continuing affection for him from her. She had preferred to think of her own triumph over her sister and not what Maria's disappointment might lead to. Yet even in this great act of unsurpassable scandal, Maria had proved herself the more daring of the two. Amidst the shock and dread of the moment, Julia was horrified to realise that she still admired and envied her sister's courage in taking this final step.

She hardly noticed Sophie picking up the newspaper and reading the announcement again, murmuring that she ought to tell her mother, and leaving the room. For several minutes she remained in a state of silent stupefaction, and it was only Mr. Yates pressing a glass of wine into her hands that brought her back to the reality of the situation.

He drew up a chair besides her and watched over her with the closest he came to solicitude as she sipped mechanically at the wine. He made several false starts at speaking but eventually said with an attempt at levity, "It may be all a terrible mistake. It may be-"

He stopped at her expression of scorn.

"Are you stupid? Of course it's true!" she snapped with fierce if quiet intensity. This was undeservedly harsh, but she felt the necessity of lashing out and he had made himself available for it. And there was something satisfying in finally letting rip at him after all these months of restrained politeness, and in saying what she truly thought. What did she have to lose now, after all?

"Miss Bertram, I-"

Once again, he was unable to finish his sentence, this time because there was a commotion in the hallway. Julia, the colour rushing back to her cheeks, jumped up from her chair, as the door was flung open by the footman who announced with the glee that comes from the knowledge of being part of a truly extraordinary sequence of events, "Mrs. Rushworth!"

For a split second Julia had a wild hope that it might be Maria to tell her of the most absurd joke: had she seen The Times, wasn't it wildly funny? Then Mrs. Rushworth, the dowager, stalked into the room with enough rage to fill the sails of an entire fleet of battleships.

"I demand to see Miss Bertram this instant!" she exclaimed as she entered the room, also holding a copy of the offensive paper, and abruptly stopped when she saw Julia standing in front of her.

"I assume you have long known of this infamous scandal brewing while Rushworth and I were in Bath! You were privy to it all I dare say!"

Julia found her tongue sufficiently to address the injustice of this attack. "Not at all, madam! I knew nothing about it! And I don't know why are you are being so hard on me; it wasn't my house they left together!"

For a moment she thought Mrs. Rushworth might strike her, but the newspaper was presently lowered.

"Insolent girl! You dare to insinuate any of this is my fault when I have done everything I could to cover it up! Do you think I want scandal and ruination?"

Julia almost replied that she clearly had not been doing a very good job at concealment and did she know that the servants were listening to them right now, but stopped herself just in time.

"I suppose you are too ignorant to realise what this means for you!" Mrs. Rushworth continued. "You have probably been brought up to think adultery is an acceptable form of behaviour - I saw how it was when I saw that collection of dissolutes you had assembled at Mansfield Park for that miserable excuse for play acting!"

Julia flushed angrily. This was not only unfair but untrue. Mrs. Rushworth had been quite happy to meet the Crawfords, and had had no objection to the play either at that time.

The mention of Lovers' Vows, however, was enough to bring Mr. Yates leaping out from behind the door where he had jumped when it had first been opened on Mrs. Rushworth's arrival.

"This is too much, madam! I really won't hear you address Miss Bertram in this disrespectful way!" he boomed very impressively. "If the lady says she knows nothing of it, then be so good as to believe her!"

If the situation had not been so desperate, Mrs. Rushworth's expression on encountering Baron Wildenhaim in all his glory would have made Julia laugh. As it was, her vocal reaction was limited to a trembling, "What is that?"

"This is Mr. Yates, madam. You met him at Mansfield Park. I think you will find he is one of the collection of dissolutes you so unfairly disparage."

Mrs. Rushworth's gaze swept scornfully down him and she sniffed. "You'd better leave, sir. My business is with Miss Bertram."

For a moment he had quailed, but at this he came to stand next to Julia. "Never! As long as you continue to abuse her in this way, I shall not leave her side!"

Julia was impressed. She could not imagine even Tom would have come to her defence so thoroughly, and he was her brother.

"Well, stay or go as you please, it is the same to me, but I dare say you will be the only one. Who will consort with the sister of an adulteress? Who will marry her? Who will want anything to do with her family ever again?"

Yates' presence at her side gave her courage to reply with more controlled anger, "I hope I have friends enough who value me for my own sake and not just for my sister's position."

Mrs. Rushworth's lip curled. "I almost pity you, Miss Bertram. So very naïve about the ways of society! Do you really think you are so very attractive that any gentleman would bring himself to form an alliance with such a disgraced family? The label of 'adulteress' will forever taint you!"

This hurt, if only because it touched a very raw nerve. But then her companion surprised her again.

"Any gentleman who could meet Miss Bertram and think only of her sister would be unworthy of Miss Bertram's good opinion!" he exclaimed warmly. "I think you had better leave now, Mrs. Rushworth. Miss Bertram has suffered a terrible personal calamity this morning and you are only distressing her further."

Mr. Yates was too physically imposing a figure for Mrs. Rushworth to resist and she was forced to back out of the room. "I wash my hands of you all!" she cried as a parting shot.

Julia found that she was trembling and crying, and sat down heavily. The world 'adulteress' echoed round her head. Maria was an adulteress. Maria had abandoned her husband and marriage for the worthless Henry Crawford, and she, Julia, would pay the price for it! She could not tell whether she felt more sorry for Maria or for herself.

Having seen Mrs. Rushworth off the property, Mr. Yates returned to the dining room and sat back down next to Julia. Her ranting champion was gone and he was only a rather ordinary young man who blustered because he did not know what to say to her.

"I wouldn't have thought the old lady had it in her! Pretty powerful pair of lungs. I'd like to see her do a Mrs. Hardcastle, or even the great Malaprop herself!"

Julia could not even muster a smile, but she managed a sniff and suppressed hiccup. She could not help thinking that confrontations of the kind she had just experienced usually had a much more satisfactory outcome in novels than this was likely to bring forth.

"I'm sorry about it, Miss Bertram, really I am. Devilish nuisance for everyone. I hope you don't think I overstepped the mark though with the battle-axe. But I could not hear her insult you in that way and not say anything."

"No," she said, hastily brushing the tears from her cheek, "you were splendid. Truly."

The look of pleasure that suffused his entire countenance at this first sign of appreciation almost blinded her. Nobody had ever looked at her like that before, or perhaps he had but she had never taken the trouble to perceive it.

She swallowed, suddenly nervous, and then said timidly, "Do you think – do you think what she said is true? Will nobody have anything to do with me? Because of – of what Maria has done."

He took her hand that lay on the top of the table in both his large ones. "Dearest Miss Bertram, I cannot say what society may or may not do." He frowned. "Well, dash it, they probably won't be best pleased."

Julia felt more tears threatening and willed them away. She felt angry at her weakness but did not know how to control it. "Mrs. Fraser-" she started, trying to find some positive way of examining the situation. "Mrs. Fraser and her friends, Miss Crawford herself, they are always talking of scandal as if it were an every day occurrence. They will surely not condemn it. They will see it as nothing more than a passing folly that will blow over by and by."

Even as she spoke, however, she knew it was futile wish. An elopement might easily be forgotten in a couple of months if the pair were well married, but a case of adultery and one in such public circles could have no such happy ending. Why had Maria done it? Could not she have endured the lot she had chosen with open eyes like the rest of them did, and if she could not, what was so very bad about a discreet affair? Did they still think they were on stage?

Mr. Yates' silence confirmed her fears. Was Edmund then to be right about society as a two-faced, unsympathetic monster? Would the people whom she had considered her friends desert her now, and the men she had laughed over accepting with Miss Crawford or Sophie in a hypothetical future abandon her? Though still innocent of any wrongdoing, she would return in disgrace to Mansfield Park. She felt a new surge of resentment towards her sister. She had committed no folly yet would doubtless be the one to endure whatever restrictions her father saw fit to impose and be forced to listen to more lectures meant rather for the absent Maria's ears.

"Oh, it is so unfair!" she cried out loud, almost forgetful of where she was.

Mr. Yates tightened his grip on her hands. "It is unfair, but please, Miss Bertram, Julia, don't give in to despair. There is one person who will never abandon you."

Her eyes darted to his in surprise. "You cannot be serious! Of all times!"

He coloured but cleared his throat and ploughed on all the same, now that he had finally begun. "It makes no difference to me what your sister does – meaning no disrespect, Miss Bertram, but I couldn't care less about Mrs. Rushworth – but I do love you, and I always have and always will, and dash it, Julia, what society thinks has nothing to do with it! And I know you don't love me but perhaps in time you might-"

"Yes!" cried Julia forcefully, surprising both of them.

"Yes what?"

"Yes, I'll marry you!"

She stopped abruptly, as if she had been about to say something more. They stared at each other in wide eyed amazement, their hands joined on the table between them. Julia could not think what had come over her.

"Are you sure?" he protested, sounding more dubious than an accepted lover had any right to be.

"Yes!" she replied quickly before she could change her mind.

Was it fear? Or desperation? Or desire for attention? Or was she still bound to Maria's will and a need to emulate her in all things? Or could there be another more creditable reason for her sudden capitulation? Julia was not accustomed to deep analysis of her own behaviour, or indeed any analysis, and her decision was a complete mystery to her at that point.

"But let's do it now," she continued, speaking very rapidly, while she still had any courage. "Let's go now, before it is too late. If we do not go now, we shall have to wait for ever so long, thanks to Maria! And – and very probably your family won't like it." And neither will mine, she added silently, and looked at him anxiously.

"You mean Scotland? Dash it, Julia, what about our friends?"

"The Lawrences? They won't even notice we've gone until we've returned! Not when everybody is out looking for Maria and Mr. Crawford! And I shall leave a note for Sophie explaining everything so that they do not worry. It will be quite all right."

He pulled himself together. "If that is what you truly wish-"

"It is," she said, feeling not in the least bit sure.

And so it was settled between them. Julia passed the rest of the day in a daze. She replied automatically to Mrs. Lawrence's kindly meant queries, she endured Jack inappropriate humour and Sophie's sympathy with equal blank disregard. She did not know how she could have got through her first day as the tainted sister of an adulteress if she had not also considered it the last. She went upstairs early, wrote her letter to Sophie, and another to her father, packed a small suitcase and then went to bed. The following morning would see the next chapter of her life start: a life without Maria, without her father, without any kind of restraint (save those constraints placed upon her by her marriage vows, of course), and surely it was worth being the wife of John Yates to gain such freedom? She tossed and turned for many hours but could come to no satisfactory conclusion on this point. It seemed Maria had not been able to either, but Julia felt with stubborn pride that she was better than her sister. Moreover, Mr. Yates had that day shown a strength of character she had not thought he possessed. That made her choice instantly a superior one to Maria's, for Mr. Rushworth had never displayed much character at all, let alone strength thereof.

But these were too complicated thoughts for late at night. Julia fell asleep on would probably be her final night as Miss Bertram with the agreeable reflection that from all she had heard, Scotland was very pleasant in the springtime.