Part III

It was a very fine spring day, filled with a gentle breeze and the splendid colours of wildflowers, the kind of day in which Fanny would normally rejoice as she recalled how much she had longed for the country during her stay in Portsmouth.

But not today. Her anxiety was such that she not only failed to notice nature's handiwork around her; she did not immediately recognize that Edmund had drawn her arm within his as they walked. Only when he placed his opposite hand upon hers as it rested at his elbow did she awaken to the sensations of his nearness and touch. The gesture served only to heighten her fear.

They walked through the shrubbery, and Fanny recalled a similar walk with Edmund many months ago. She had been anxious that day as well, feeling pressured by her uncle's insistence that she marry Mr. Crawford, and fearful that Edmund was against her for refusing him. Edmund reassured her that day that he was not, which was a great comfort to her.

"This comfort you might have had sooner, Fanny, had you sought it," he had told her that day. Remembering his words, Fanny tried to calm her nerves. Edmund would always be her friend, regardless of his response to her letter.

When they were some distance from the house, he finally spoke. "I must beg your forgiveness, Fanny," he began, "for neglecting you since your return to Mansfield."

"Oh, no, Edmund!" she protested. "I know the burdens that are upon you now. You have many pressing concerns. Please do not trouble yourself on my account."

"But I must," he said, "for you asked me not to delay my response, and yet I have."

Fanny looked to the ground, for she could not bear to see his face. "You have read my letter," she whispered.

"Yes, and I owe you a thoughtful response."

"I should not have written such a letter!" she cried. "It was the height of presumption and folly! I had no right to say such things, and I have regretted it ever since!"

Edmund stopped walking and turned to face her. She felt the shift in his body, saw his feet turn; but she continued to look down, away from his eyes.

"No, Fanny," he said softly, "you wrote some very important things I needed to hear."

When she did not respond, he lifted her chin with his hand so that she could no longer fail to look at him. His hazel eyes were gentle as they gazed upon hers.

"You were right, you know. You were right about Crawford, and about his sister. You, Fanny, are so young and inexperienced about the world, and yet you saw them for what they are more clearly than any of us."

He must mean that he was no longer under Mary's spell, and yet Fanny did not feel victorious. "Have you spoken with her?" she asked nervously.

"I have. That is why I was not here yesterday. I traveled to London in response to a note from Lady Stornaway, begging me to call. I felt that I had created some expectations in Miss Crawford, and I therefore owed her a last interview of friendship."

He went on to relate his shocking conversation with Mary. "From the moment I read your letter, dear Fanny, I knew you spoke the truth about her, and yet part of me didn't want to believe it. I wondered how I could have been so blind! Perhaps it was my pride, but I wanted to know that the goodness I had believed in her was real, that the woman I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past had not simply been a creature of my imagination."

Fanny bit her lip, crushed in spirit. Edmund's eyes had been opened, but his heart was still captured.

"And what did you discover?" she finally forced herself to ask.

"How right you were, Fanny, about everything." He told her of Mary's schemes to lessen the scandal of Henry and Maria's affair, of her concern about the folly of their indiscretion rather than the sin of their betrayal. "Guess what I must have felt. To hear the woman whom— no harsher name than folly given! So voluntarily, so freely, so coolly to canvass it! No reluctance, no horror, no feminine, shall I say, no modest loathings? This is what the world does. For where, Fanny, shall we find a woman whom nature had so richly endowed? Spoilt, spoilt!"

He continued until his story was told, his voice warm with emotion. It was clear that no alliance would ever take place between Edmund and Mary; but whether he would recover from the heartbreak was uncertain. When he had finished, Fanny said quickly in her agitation, "I am so sorry, Edmund, for your pain, but as you now know Miss Crawford's true character, I hope that it will be of short duration. Now I must return to the house, for my Aunt Bertram may be in need of me."

She turned, but he grabbed her hand to stop her. "Wait, Fanny! I have not given you my response to the second part of your letter!"

Her voice thick, she could not stop the tears that filled her eyes. "I do not believe I wish to hear your answer."

"Oh, Fanny," he said softly, and reached with his thumb to wipe a tear off her cheek. At his touch, Fanny stopped breathing.

"I received your letter the same day I got word of Tom's condition, and I regret to say I did not have time to read it immediately. When I was finally able to read it some days later, I was stunned, to say the least. I had had no idea you felt this way, Fanny."

"And you were disgusted," she said sadly.

Edmund placed his hands on her shoulders. "Disgusted? Oh no, Fanny, never! I was embarrassed, yes, that I could have known you so well and not have realized… and ashamed that I had pushed you so hard toward Crawford, insensitive to your feelings. And above all I was confused, for I meant to marry Miss Crawford, didn't I?"

Fanny closed her eyes. He had not read her words with disgust, but…

Edmund continued. "Before I read your letter, Fanny, I had attended Tom in Newmarket for several days, never certain that he would recover. How I longed at that time for someone at my side to give me strength and comfort!"

He took her hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it. "Fanny, in such moments, a man needs a wife, a life's partner; and yet never once did I think of having Mary beside me. I wanted, and needed, only you."

Fanny gasped and opened her eyes, fresh tears falling on her face. "Oh, Edmund…"

He smiled, caressing her fingers with his own. "My dearest Fanny, when I was finally able to read your letter and my initial shock and confusion cleared, I knew that you had been right again. I had been blind while you could see. How did I not know that my heart had always belonged to you?"

She was sobbing now, and Edmund took her into his arms. She forced herself to be calm, pulling away only to search her apron pockets for a handkerchief. Her beloved soon supplied one of his own. As she wiped her face, her tears turned to laughter. Surely she must look wretched in this, her happiest moment! "Oh, Edmund, forgive me…"

"There is nothing to forgive, my dearest. Please forgive me for not speaking to you sooner. I knew that I needed to end any connection to Mary Crawford first."

Fanny nodded. The man she loved had done the honorable thing.

"And now, my dearest, most beloved Fanny, will you make me the happiest man on earth by agreeing to be my wife?"

"Oh, yes, Edmund, yes!" she cried. In an instant, she was in his arms again, feeling the warmth and joy of his embrace.

Fanny had a sudden thought and attempted to pull away. "Your father!" she cried. "He will not approve."

Edmund smiled affectionately, drawing her back into his arms. "He has already given his consent! He and I have talked about you a great deal lately. My father is sick of ambitious and mercenary connexions, and prizes more and more the sterling good of principle and temper. He sees the goodness and value you have brought to me, and to all of us, Fanny. Indeed, I think he sees in you the daughter that he always wanted."

Unaccustomed to her dreams coming true, Fanny could scarcely believe her ears. Edmund drew her closer and she felt his lips against her hair, her cheek, and then to her delight, her mouth. This was wonder; this was elation. To think that this comfort, this joy might have been hers sooner! With her beloved Edmund at her side, she would never again fear to share what was in her heart.

THE END

But not complete… an outtake from Edmund's perspective is on the way!