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Chapter 1: in which I am sent to Northamptonshire and kill a demon
Posted on 2015-08-24
I am a Price by birth but my father always calls me "Priceless." Perhaps that is why I am so surprised when my parents announce they are getting rid of me.
"But why must I go away?" I wail. "Give me one good reason." Even as a child, I argue and disagree with my parents when I suspect they are wrong.
"There are many reasons," says my mother. "Not the least of which is: because we said so."
"Priceless," adds my father, "it is getting dangerous in Portsmouth."
"All the more reason for me to stay! I can fight, better than anyone else in the family. It'd be smarter to send Mary or Susan." That piece of insolence earns me a smack, deservedly so.
"My family asked for you, Frankie," says my mother. "It is you we are sending. You are ready to leave home; the younger girls are not. And you are encouraging them to take stupidly daring risks."
That is a lie. "I do not!"
"Susan nearly died chasing after you!"
"That's not my fault!" I counter. "I told her to stay at home! It's not my fault she followed me."
"And we told you to stay home!" my father roars. "Whose fault is it that you were wandering the streets, hunting trouble? You know how much the younger ones look up to you. If we keep you in Portsmouth, you will lure them to their doom. Your mother and I fear for all our children, and it will be safest and simplest to send you to Northamptonshire."
"But there are no demons in Northamptonshire," I protest. Sending me to an untouched backwater is a waste of my talents.
"And how do you know that, Frankie?" asks Mamma. "We've never met a demon-hunter who's been there. The countryside might be teeming with them, for all you know."
That is a tempting picture: all those beasts, and only me to hunt them down. Before I can punch a hole in her logic, she continues. "You and William are the only two who have completed the rudiments of your training. All that remains is a lifetime of practice and execution which you can accomplish anywhere. Your little brothers and sisters must remain with us a little longer while we protect and prepare them for the lot of a Price. You are going, Frankie, and that is the end of it."
I pout and sulk. It does me no good.
"And another thing, Priceless," my father adds. "They cannot know what we really are. They cannot know the true state of things. If the general public found out that there really were demons running amuck, they would panic. And who knows what the demons would do in the chaos?"
That is a restraining thought.
"How am I supposed to act if not like me?" I wonder.
"Be quiet," my mother tells me. "Don't attract attention. Be forgettable. So long as my family doesn't suspect what you really are, you can still devote time to our normal activities."
I have no choice but to accept my parents' decision. I am leaving Portsmouth. I spend the remaining time in preparation for the various aspects of my exile. I practice sitting quietly and keeping my head down. I practice my routines. I prepare to take leave of my family.
One evening, about a week from my departure, my father makes a show of presenting me with a going away gift. I open the case and my breath catches in my throat.
I pull a blade out and let the light catch along its length. The rest of the family ohs and ahs accordingly. It is long for me, but not by much, and I will grow into it. The blade falls straight from the handle for half of its length before curving, like a lazy question mark. The shape and edges are ideal for decapitating demons.
"Go ahead," my father coaxes me. "Try it out."
My brothers and sisters follow me out of the room to the back courtyard where we go through our daily routines. I run through some of the simpler forms. It is heavy, but it is supposed to be. I'll grow accustomed to the weight.
"What are you going to name it?" asks my mother after Susan's applause dies down.
"Name it!" The thought hadn't occurred to me. I watch the light crawl along the blade as I turn it in my hand again.
In my moment of indecision, others offer up suggestions: Bede the Beheader, Declan the Decapitator, Siobhan the Scythe. The last one is the best of the lot but it comes from William who immediately claps a hand over his mouth. He regrets sharing with me, expecting that Father will give him his own blade soon enough.
I decide to take it easy on him. "He's Guillaume," I say. Guillaume the Guillotine, because I plan to behead more than my share.
Guillaume is to go into the bottom of my trunk, beneath the false bottom, with some throwing knives and my small hand-written book of demon knowledge. Mamma superintends my packing, choosing only clothes and shoes to fit the demure, impoverished persona decided for me. My tattoos, Mamma is quite sure, will be scandalous enough, and we don't want to shock the Bertrams past their ability to bear by having them come across an outfit suitable for nightly patrols. I will wear a long black cloak but everything else I will need to scavenge from forgotten trunks in dusty garretts or to steal from the local poor box.
Mamma's conviction that they will see my tattoos nearly causes an argument. Or perhaps "a larger argument" is more truthful. My markings are a few years old now, discretely placed on my thighs, chest and back, where no one but God and maybe my future husband will ever see them. They are prayers and incantations against evil, in a language I cannot speak and can barely write, and they protect me from my foes. The scandal would not be that I have tattoos, any more than if I had a curiously shaped birthmark. The scandal would be that the Bertrams learn of them, because what kind of perverted spying is needed to catch a glimpse of them? But Mamma points out I may need to share a room, or a maid may be needed to help me dress one day. I do not wish to imagine a life where my garments are so restrictive that I cannot dress myself. What kind of prison am I going to?
I practice being quiet and submissive. It starts as just a quarter-hour at a time, but by my final days at home, I can be completely passive for hours together. I approach it the same way I do the rest of my training and it pays off. The younger boys who like to giggle and poke fun at me find that they had no reason to laugh anymore. The youngest instead curls up in my lap and pats my cheek, begging me to come back from behind the wall I have erected between my mind and the world.
I smile down at him, the light back in my eyes. The transformation back to my own self startles him again. "Frankie!" he scolds me. "Don't do that. I thought you were Possessed. I thought we would have to kill you."
I laugh at the thought of him trying. Perhaps it is for the best that I am going away, but I will miss my family terribly.
The last night with my family is festive. Neighbors are in and out of the house, wishing me well. William pulls me aside for a private talk. He isn't leaving for another month and now has great hopes that he too will get a sword like Guillaume for the bottom of his chest.
"I'm going to miss you, Frankie," he tells me, and I tell him the same.
"Do you think we'll ever see each other again?" he asks.
I had not really thought of it before. Why wouldn't we see each other again? But then possibilities and probabilities enter my head. Northamptonshire is no doubt worlds away from wherever William will be. The Navy is not a profession that guarantees a long life to go with a sailor's pension, and we know of plenty of demon hunters who have gone on before us, so to speak.
"You'll write to me," I say uncertainly. "It will be very dull for you aboard ship when you leave the shore with nothing much to do. You'll have loads of time for letters."
"What about you?" asks William. "There's even less to do where you're going."
I roll my eyes. "Yes, but I'm supposed to do absolutely nothing while anyone is watching, and I plan on spending my free time hunting. I won't have time to write."
Now it is William's turn to make a face. "Well, I'll write the first letter, but I won't write again until you write me back."
We strike the deal and then discuss how we are going to communicate all the things we are forbidden from putting on paper. Eventually Mother splits us up and sends me to my cot. Morning is coming whether I am rested or not.
The post hack leaves before first light from a large inn near the harbour. My father sees me off, carrying my chest and throwing sideways glances at me during our walk from home as I try to stride naturally.
In a last moment's idiocy I have strapped Guillaume to my right leg, as if I'm going to need him before I am out of Portsmouth. It is silly, really, and I know it, but I have kept him by my side during my waking hours ever since Father gave him to me. My gait is stiff but I try to make it even so no one can guess which leg has Guillaume and which does not.
At the inn, the guard informs the passengers that any weapons must be packed away for the safety of himself and the driver. My father questions this immediately although he isn't traveling with me. The guard spins a story of how another driver traveling a similar route was attacked by a passenger just a fortnight ago. I want to ask him if it was a demon but a glare from my father keeps me silent.
Even if one knows demons exist, even if one knows what to look for, they are incredibly hard to spot. When a demon Impersonates a human, they are virtually indistinguishable from a real person; they look, sound, and smell perfectly human. My father who has been hunting his entire life has developed something of a sixth sense when it comes to identifying them. He says he can feel it in his tattoos but even he can be misled and so he must be careful, and cautions his children to be the same. Ideally, we must wait for a demon to reveal himself directly by attacking a soul or attempting a curse; speaking in the Demonic tongue or having a cursed item is insufficient proof. But if we are pressed for time or fairly confident there is a simple test for it, and blood will out as my father always says.
It is clear from the look on my father's face that I am not to speak about demons. And if I am not to speak about demons, then I am not going to volunteer Guillaume because showing my blade is bound to provoke all sorts of talk which would only lead to demons.
The exchange, however, leaves me excited and hopeful. As I watch my father grow slowly smaller through the window, I imagine myself coming to the aid of my fellow riders, beating off a highwayman or lopping the head off some spawn of Satan. Perhaps even one of them in the carriage will be dead by my hand.
The thrill fades by the time we change horses. An hour into the next stage of my journey and I am jostled awake from an impromptu nap by the horses whinnying with fear as the driver yanks us to a halt. My fellow passengers are mostly as surprised as I, excepting one old woman who is convinced there is no reason for this, and that the driver is really out to rob us. I haven't enough to warrant thievery but one of the others might. Still, she is shrill and paranoid -- and dismissed. We feel the carriage bounce on its springs as the driver jumps down and walks to our door. He wrenches it open and points a pistol into the cab.
"Out! All of you!" he orders us.
This is not good. I move stiffly, masking Guillaume, trying to figure out if my enemy is the man with the gun or someone else traveling with me. Demons do not need guns, and it would be a bad omen to start my private career killing the wrong person.
Some time during my nap the guard disappeared. Before I can wonder at his fate, the situation in the carriage heats up. The old woman refuses to budge. If she's going to die today, it might as well be sitting in a carriage as standing beside the road.
"Just as you say, ma'am," the driver tells her and climbs into the carriage.
I cannot see around his cloak, but I hear her screams as I have heard screams before. The pain of an attack on one's soul cannot be borne quietly, even by a stoic. I know who is the demon now.
The men standing outside the carriage with me -- one young and one old -- sprint away like cowards, smack into an invisible wall erected by our murderer to pen us in while he slaughters us individually. They fall backward to the ground, out cold.
I spend the time lifting my skirt and freeing Guillaume from his sheath. Now comes the moment of decision: when do I killed the demon? It is fairly simple for me to nick him right where he is. For all the pomp and glory of a beheading, a simple cut is just as fatal if you can draw blood.
Demons, for all their unnatural powers and thick skin, are not made to exist in the mortal world. Their blood catches fire when exposed to air. The fire spreads quickly through their veins and they tend to ignite in a ball of blue flame in short order.
The tricky part is of course the flame. Sometimes everything around them catches fire while at other times nothing does, not even their clothes. My family has a few ideas to explain it, but nothing we can prove although, for all our interactions, there's never been a Price burned by demonfire.
If I nick him now, the carriage might catch fire, and the poor woman inside who, based on her screams, is still clinging to life. And if the carriage catches fire, what will the horses do? As grim as it looks, there is room for worse.
But one more cry from the victim spurs me to act. If I don't kill her attacker now, she's dead already. I swing Guillaume up and through the doorway, cutting him deeply on his leg. He rages but I can already see the fire starting to spread. He exits clumsily to fight me, nearly falling on me, but I dodge him, swinging Guillaume at his neck as he lands beside a rut.
He burns, and his clothes burn, but the carriage and the old woman do not. The horses, with their blinders and harnesses see nothing yet the stench of sulphur makes them jittery. They stamp nervously but the brake holds. The old woman, I see, is now motionless; a quick check determines she is merely unconscious.
I take in the scene to figure out what to do next, but no additional foes fly at me. The guard is truly gone. The time for fighting is past. It is just me, the hoses and carriage, and three fellow passengers all out cold.
Curses do not survive the demon who casts them, so the invisible wall surrounding me is gone and I am free to search for help. If I walk along the road until I meet with a sympathetic Samaritan, I could end up going in the wrong direction from which help actually comes. If I stand around waving Guillaume, that will only bring up questions to get me thrown into an asylum.
In the end, I restore Guillaume and lie down on the grass to act like I am as unconscious as the others. I think I fall asleep eventually. When we are found and questioned, I play dumb. Together with the two cowards, we paint a consistent picture of people too scared to understand what happened. The old woman's story is much longer, much more cogent, yet it is dismissed as hysterical rambling. She is upset and weak but not so much of either that she fails to notice the condescension of our savior. She resents it and grows more voluble in her attempts to impress on her listeners the truth. Another five minutes and the younger coward is barely checking his laughter while the older fellow, apparently her brother, discretely promises to get her to a doctor as soon as may be. She is in very real pain and has received very real injuries from the demon but the implication is that the old biddie has gone slightly mad.
Our savior is convinced we have been robbed. He keeps asking the woman over and over if she saw our attacker take anything. She keeps to her story that she saw nothing of the kind, but after a while her brother joins in the chorus. I get the impression that the woman is widowed and childless, and her brother is already forming plans on how to spend her money, provided he can get his hands on it before some highwayman does. The brother obviously is not behind the demon, but he is determined to profit from it and hassles his sister past the point of tolerance.
Eventually I pity her and quietly tell her that I believe her story.
"Don't patronize me, girl!" she spits and shoves me away from her.
I cannot but think that this reaction is why I must pretend to be something other than a demon hunter. We who believe are so often met with jests, incredulity, and attempts to belittle and silence us, that we react with doubtful scorn to any show of sympathy.
I think about that as my journey to Northamptonshire continues.
Chapter 2: in which I settle into life at Mansfield Park and kill a few more demons
Posted on 2015-08-27
Mansfield Park is impressively grand for the home of a single family and the land around it even more so when I consider that it all belongs to one man.
The Bertrams, however, are another story.
Let me start with the patriarch. His name is Sir Thomas Bertram and he has very little time for me. It is even less than the time and attention he spares for his own children, which is saying something. If a lesser man were similarly negligent, his inferiority would earn him ridicule but here everyone seems to think well of the man.
His companion for life, my aunt, Lady Bertram, is something of a figurehead. I will not call her the matriarch because I think that title does not belong to her. She has lucked into an easy life with her beauty and does nothing to disturb the smooth functioning of the microcosm around her. I don't know what I was expecting but she is something of a disappointment. Because she was the one who first approached my mother to mend the breach between them I hope to find her more actively amiable and welcoming. As it is, she has only enough energy to rework rags into something even uglier than the original, to write interesting letters about her uninteresting life, and to play with her dog in the most desultory manner. She looks happy to see me, but I wonder if she knows exactly who I am. She calls me, "Fanny," like my mother. I try to correct her, explain that I am called Frankie but my other aunt tells me not to interrupt.
If the parents are bad, then the children are worse. While the older generation is neglectful, the younger is bullying.
Cousin Tom, the heir, is to outward appearance an adult but his behavior is nothing more than that of an oversized child. He is spoiled, lacking restraint from pursuing his latest whims, lacking discipline for his needed studies. Strong, handsome, and intelligent as measured by his family, having no need to apply himself previously he is unable to divine how to make the transition from boy to man. He sees me as a small, quiet girl, and assumes me weak, not realizing I can best him in any form of combat he can name. He teases me and I brood, waiting for my moment to strike.
The daughters, Maria and Julia, are so singularly uninteresting that they barely warrant a mention. It is hard for me to tell them apart; while the elder is usually the first to mention any scheme, the younger is so quick to second it that I am convinced they have only one brain with only one thought between them. They have a veneer of education and assume that makes them cultured. While we are close in age, they hold me in thinly veiled contempt. I must admit the feeling is mutual.
The sisters -- whom I have taken to calling "No" and "Shun" because between the two, they make up a single notion -- are cruel in their limited capacity.
Far and away, however, my greatest loathing is reserved for my mother's other sister, Julia. I am to call her Aunt Norris but I think of her as an ornery old cat. If there is any credit to be had, she claims it. If there is any blame to be given, she doles it out. Where her husband is brimming with gentle sermons, she is ever ready to deliver a stern lecture. One would never guess from watching her bark at the servants that she was not mistress of the hall. In short order, I suspect her of lacing her sister's tea with laudanum so that the old cat can have more control over everything.
She despises me before I arrive, and greets me with a sneer. The introductions run by her are designed to demonstrate the superiority of my new home and everyone in it. The corollary, of course, is that I and everything I possess, everything I know, are naturally inferior. Had it not been for my practice being still, I would blacken her eye before tea.
A maid finally shows me to my room: a cramped place carved out of the eaves, the perfect place for an undesired guest. My trunk has arrived here ahead of me and I cannot wait for privacy when I can drop my mask and pluck Guillaume out of his hidden compartment. Since the demon leaving Portsmouth, I have kept him by my side constantly. Only my mother's fear that they should search me upon my arrival prompted me to pack him away this morning. Already, I walk with a bit of a limp at the unaccustomed lack of his weight against my leg.
The old cat has a special speech prepared for every time she sees me: a reprimand, a criticism, a command.
The one fleck of light in the dismal tableau that is Mansfield is my cousin Edmund. He does not approach me as if poverty were a communicable disease. He does not recoil in disgust when I forget myself and sigh aloud in front of the family. He is, in short, decent.
He even manages to deduce I am homesick, something I should be able to hide from these people, although perhaps it makes things more believable if I don't. He gives me paper and money to write to William, being so tender about it that I wonder why he isn't tired of doing it for his own sisters. Then I realize his sisters aren't the sort to feel bad about missing people like their own family and it makes better sense.
His treatment of me is what makes my exile at all bearable. I will honor my father and mother, and they did send me to Mansfield Park, but without Edmund to be kind to me, I might be tempted to interpret my parents' command differently.
My Uncle Norris, being a man of the cloth, is my determined favorite. If any of them should have heard of demons or believe in such abominations, it is he. I try to be sly about it, skirting around what I believe and know, but he is impervious to hints. Then I drop casual keywords into our conversation, things any demon hunter would recognize. Either he really is ignorant or he cannot imagine I am on his side. Eventually, I baldly ask if he believes in demons. He blinks at such a ridiculous question, shakes his head, and wonders aloud where I have heard such nonsense. I try not to act disappointed, but I think he suspects it. After that, I can find no common ground for discussion, and he takes to asking how I like spending time with my odious cousins.
Based on Uncle Norris' reaction, I conclude that Edmund and the others are similarly ignorant of the truth all around us: that demons exist and come to Earth for sport and souls. As they do not know, I cannot tell them; there are rules I must follow. These rules do not prevent me from hinting at the real world to Edmund, but he uniformly misinterprets it, which is probably as it should be. The more time I spend in sleepy Northamptonshire, the more I realize it is unprepared for the fight.
The governess, Miss Lee, is not allowed to be especially fond of me. I think we would get on better were it not for No-Shun. The sisters are skilled in some areas and like to rub my nose in it, so Miss Lee has to come to my aid which earns her teasing from her pupils. Anything I have a natural aptitude for is immediately deemed beneath them; if the subject is not already beyond their grasp, even then they give it up for lost.
It is a no-win situation for Miss Lee. After watching her struggle for months to find a balance in our lessons, I tell her not to bother trying so hard. I can read, I point out. If she just tells me what to read, I can take it from there.
She doesn't exactly give in, and she doesn't exactly oppose me. Instead, she gives me reading assignments. While No-Shun are with their music tutor -- I do not warrant such instruction -- Miss Lee quizzes me mercilessly. I think she suspects I am intelligent. Honestly, it is just the education my parents gave me. That, and the fact I'm not my cousins.
Overall I would not call us friends; our relationship is not like that. None of the staff -- and Miss Lee considers herself staff -- gets too friendly with me. I am, after all, Sir Thomas's niece, which makes me a member of the family, which means we cannot be friends. However, I am only an impoverished relation, so the rest of the family views me as a class below. I belong nowhere.
I suppose that is for the best. If I had any real friends, I'd have to spend time with them. And that would mean less time to practice, which could kill me one day. It is better to watch over them and not like them, than to like them and not protect them.
I setup my routine as soon as I can. I practice the big, loud moves with Guillaume in the morning before the servants trudge into my hall. I practice the smaller, quieter moves in the afternoons. I cultivate a sickly disposition which allows me to spend time alone in my room.
I creep undetected through the manor and over the grounds. I search for signs. I eavesdrop constantly for fantastical stories masking demon activities. I quickly gather the remainder of my patrol outfit from the dusty and neglected trunks hidden and forgotten in garret rooms and begin my nightly rounds.
I start patrolling in the forest around the Park, just a few hours every night. I tend to have a "headache" in the afternoons to recover; or I let the old cat send me on an errand and take a nap halfway through. She chastises me for slacking but what else can she do about it? Run the errand herself?
I spot poachers and adulterers but never any demons. I start to understand why Dr. Norris doesn't know about them. I write to home and William about how lonely it is at Mansfield, the implication is that there is nothing for me to hunt. My mother sends her counsel back in code, but William gloats that he has already "stolen a kiss" with Siobhan but it doesn't sound like he has killed more than one, the same number as me if I count the demon who drove me from Portsmouth.
The Bertrams stay at Mansfield. It would be quite different if they took me to London every so often; demons tend to dwell in crowded areas. My replacement family has infrequent guests, old friends of Sir Thomas. On those occasions, the girls trot out to perform and Aunt Bertram exerts herself to be a gracious hostess.
One such visitor is Lord T. He and Sir Thomas met as boys, but they haven't seen each other for years and years. Lord T has a malevolent eye but no one else notices; he is a lord after all. At twelve years, I am too young to spend much time in his presence, but No-Shun thinks it's a great prize to sit stupidly in the parlor while the adults take tea.
On the next-to-last day of his visit, however, Lord T suddenly takes notice of me. He sits there discussing me with Sir Thomas as if I'm deaf and mute, as if I'm not even there. That is not nearly so insulting as Sir Thomas's side of the conversation. It's clear he has no idea what I do in his house. Half his answers assume I am just like his daughters and the other half assume I am beneath them. If he possessed awareness, he'd be ashamed of his ignorance; instead he is smug.
Lord T notices it too. He then directs a question straight at me. Under the rules, I'm allowed to answer to him, but No-Shun and the old cat glare at me for distracting such a venerable guest. I speak timidly, according to expectations.
Then he asks me a second question: do I miss Portsmouth? I feel my skin crawl under his gaze, like the ink in my tattoos is rejecting his suggestion. Then comes insight: this "man" is a demon trying to Influence me! I glance around and realize it is not just me he wishes to Influence, but all the rest gathered in the room.
I see it clearly: in two days time, when the maid does not find me in my bed, they will search the house. When I fail to turn up, people will start to remember this conversation and think I have run away to Portsmouth. Sir Thomas will mount a small search, but the old cat will keep him from putting much effort into it; after all, I am not worth the fuss.
It is actually clever, something I do not normally encounter in this backwater. For a blink, I wonder what will happen if I unveil Guillaume and lop his head off right here in the drawing room. Aunt Bertram would probably have to stifle a yawn.
No, that is not true. He has Influenced them. They would leap to his defence, and someone else would be hurt before they came to their senses. And then there would be the matter of Lord T's smouldering remains on the patterned rug to explain, and why I felt the need to wander Mansfield with a deadly weapon strapped to my leg at all times. No, obviously I cannot kill him here.
Besides, I know he is going to come for me. He needs me to disappear without a trace. I just need to wait for him to make his move.
In the mean time, however, I cannot let him know that I am onto him. I bob my head in answer to his question. "Yes, sir," I whisper meekly. "But I know I'll be back there one day." That should set him up nicely.
I do not go on patrol that night. Instead, I stay inside and boobytrap my room. Nothing immediate -- I do not want to behead the maid who tidies my bed each morning. And nothing obvious -- I do not want the demon to get wise. But deadly all the same.
It is a good thing I plan ahead, for that very night he creeps into my room. I am instantly awake, my eyes shut, my body tense. I hear him step on a creaking board and I let out a convincing whimper as my hand inches closer to Guillaume. My skin crawls again as he tries to Silence me.
He steps into the room. I feel him pouring out his energy to Still me, my skin tingling all over. I may be protected from many of a demon's curses, but I can still feel them.
As he approaches my bed, the traps I have laid begin to spring. It is nothing that would harm a maid, or me, but the smell begins to burn in his nose. He stops moving. There is a pause as he looks around for the source. If I do not make a move now, the element of surprise will be wasted.
I bound from my bed, Guillaume in my hand. The demon is already leaping away, hissing in anger. He is unarmed and unprepared for a fight. He jumps back repeatedly in defense. I can feel him trying to Move various knickknacks in my room but everything, even the slippers under my bed, is thoroughly blessed and beyond his power.
I swing, not wildly. My nerves, initially agitated, calm and I go through the motions. He does not stand a chance.
The first nick catches him off guard. It distracts him so I can cut him again. Then he gets desperate. He is dying, and he knows I have killed him. He charges at me. I step aside and hack at him again as he rushes past. He collapses in a burning heap on my bed. A knitted afghan from Aunt Bertram perishes in the blaze, thank goodness.
I am stuck dealing with the ashes and the stench. I clean up and discover an unwelcome present: Lord T's rings. I pick them up and carry them out. I have to get them out of my room. Back to his room would be too much to hope for, but at least to Sir Thomas's study.
I walk quiet as a thought through the house to the more public rooms. Before I reach my destination, I find a loud commotion in the servants' staircase. I am noticed by a maid running pell-mell and so I act like it has always been my intention to join her.
A girl is writhing in agony on the landing, gasping for air though it provides no relief. I do not recognize her -- she must be part of Lord T's staff.
Another maid -- Annie -- is sobbing to the housekeeper, telling her and everyone else what has happened.
"I told you," she repeats shrilly, "I don't know! Meg woke me up with her screaming. You heard her, Jill," she says, turning to another maid. "She was having a nightmare, so I tried to wake her up. I swear I was gentle. I didn't even touch her, but she sat bolt upright and swung her fist at me."
Here Annie points to her cut lip where the fallen girl struck her. "I cried out in pain, it hurt so much," she continues. "Then she fell on me and started beating me awful. I tried to get her off me, but I couldn't. Then Jill came in and pulled her off of me." Annie does indeed look like the aftermath of a fight.
She sobs a little more and speaks again. "Then she broke free and ran from the room screaming. The next thing we heard, she was falling down the steps."
Like the rest off the crowd, I look down at Lord T's maid. Her face is purple, distorted. Her hands are curled into tight fists near her neck, as if trying to claw air into her lungs, but the struggle is over. She is as good as dead.
A few of us brave souls lean in for a closer look. As soon as a shadow falls over her glassy eyes, the body convulses one last time. In the general commotion, no one can say who shrieks and who merely gasps.
The housekeeper gathers her nerve first. "Come now, everyone," she says commandingly. "Sir Thomas must be informed at once, and his lordship as well. Sir Thomas is his own magistrate, but someone must fetch the doctor to examine the body. And we must put the kettle on for tea."
Even I, a twelve-year-old, know the scene before us calls for something stronger than tea.
She doles out tasks and people dart down the halls to perform them. "If you have no errand to do," she tells the rest of us, "I suggest you go back to bed. Tomorrow will not be easy, and it will start earlier than you expect."
The maids and manservants disperse, leaving just me.
"Miss Price, what are you doing up?" she asks.
"Nothing, Mrs. Mullen," I try to put a tremor in my voice. "I couldn't sleep and heard the noise."
The housekeeper stares down at the body. It is gruesome, in its way. Then she looks around and realizes something. "Miss Price, I need you to stay here for a bit."
Oh, golden opportunity! "With the body?" I squeak, trying not to oversell it.
"Just until the doctor arrives," she clarifies. "Do not worry, Miss Price."
She leaves me before I can utter a protest, as if I would! I glance about, waiting for the hall and stairs to clear. Then I drop to the body and examine it closely. Fully dead.
I secret the rings in the pocket of her night dress: one more mission accomplished. Then I peek underneath the cotton for a mark of possession, muttering a prayer.
A demon may Mark its pets with a small token, like a bracelet or necklace. So long as the pet wears the token, the demon can track and command them, even at a distance too great for Influence. I suspect that this dead maid was Lord T's pet, and in his death throes, he sent for her to save him.
I find no Mark on her, just various discolorations from her injuries as she fell down the stairs. My exam is cut short by the arrival of a manservant looking for Mrs. Mullen for guidance now that he has completed his task.
I am about to send him on a goose chase when I hear others returning, so I set him as the guard to the body and sneak away. I probably don't want to be there when Sir Thomas arrives.
Mansfield -- not just the Park but the entire community -- is in an uproar by morning. A Lord vanished, a maid dead -- compare that to the last thing that passed for gossip in the neighborhood!
No one speaks a word of it to me, of course. This is not because they know that I know already. This is because I am a child, and a girl to boot, and they do not wish to traumatize me. And they also have many more important things to do.
Still, after tea, Edmund interrupts Miss Lee to bring us news. It is tame and bloodless, but at least it is something. No-shun reacts first with disinterest. Why should they care about someone else's dead maid? Lord T's disappearance, however, shocks them into thinking. They ask all sort of inane questions: I'm embarrassed for them.
A manhunt ensues, but Lord T is never found. The rings discovered in the maid's pocket cause wild speculation as to the nature of her relationship with his lordship but, while much is implied in my hearing, nothing is proven.
Lord T's heir eventually visits Mansfield for closure. He quietly explains to my uncle that he and his father had been estranged for years, shortly after the death of Lady T. It sounds like the heir is not a demon or even Possessed, but I keep an eye on him throughout his stay and am relieved to see the back of him.
In truth, killing that demon is the sort of thing that attracts notice. Any friend of Lord T's impersonator knows where he disappeared, and they may choose to conduct their own investigation.
It occurs to me that I am less prepared than I ought to be. I rededicate myself to my training. Whereas I had been content to bless everything in my room, I now pray over everything in the whole manor, especially the cutlery and the ceremonial swords hanging in the game room. Traps in my room are well and good, but I lay a few more in the woods along deer trails.
For the first six months, there is nothing suspiciously diabolical. The old cat is her usual unpleasant self. No-Shun is smugly condescending. Cousin Tom mocks and teases. Edmund is kind. Aunt Bertram lazes on her sofa. Uncle Bertram has no time for us despite seeing us in the sitting room each afternoon for ten minutes.
Then, one night while on patrol, I encounter a demon. This one Impersonates a woman. She practically licks her lips to see me standing alone in the woods with no obvious protection. It's almost too easy luring her close enough to lop her head off. The blue fire, however, catches on the dry leaves, and I spend the next fifteen minutes stomping out the fire.
Chapter 3: in which I see William, lose a sister and two uncles, and meet a lion
Posted on 2015-08-31
A few years pass.
I kill any demon I find. Some are painfully easy. One is especially challenging, and I spend the next day abed feigning a migraine.
Over all, I suffer through multiple cracked ribs, a sprained wrist, a turned ankle (my own fault), and too many scratches, cuts, and stab wounds to count. I also experience every possible reaction to curses I care to catalogue and, on more than one occasion, I do not need to feign a migraine.
One day, Uncle Bertram calls me into his office. I cannot imagine he has any reason to speak with me, so I keep my head down. Out of the blue he announces that William is coming to Mansfield.
Without thinking, I run around his desk and hug him, squealing with joy. He is utterly shocked but after a moment he recovers enough to pat my hair, calling me a "dear girl," and "sweet Fanny." More than anything, it is the name that snaps me back into character. After four years of pretending to be a different person, answering to a different name, we are both a little surprised by my uncharacteristic outburst.
After I retreat behind my demure screen, he provides more details of William's planned arrival. It is just such good news that my spirits are buoyed beyond my ability to suppress them and my jollity bubbles up all over the place. No-Shun notices but refuses to ask me about it. Cousin Tom and Aunt Bertram are equally oblivious. The old cat glares at me, affronted by my apparent happiness. Cousin Edmund actually asks what has me in such a good mood. Is there any doubt as to why he is my favorite?
Uncle Bertram finally announces the news about William to the family in the drawing room after dinner. The old cat snarls some comment about how she hopes he doesn't overstay his welcome, something she knows a thing or two about, but everyone else at least makes a token effort to be pleased for my sake.
When William finally arrives, I am completely giddy. Miss Lee has given up on cramming any more sense into me. He is so much more grown than I imagined him to be, but he pulls me into a hug and swings me around on the gravel in front of the main entrance just like I was hoping. I run through the introductions, ebullient, until Sir Thomas tells my brother, "how much Fanny has been looking forward to your visit."
William stands stock still for a moment, his mouth hanging open. "Fanny?" he repeats with growing comprehension. "My sister Fanny? Don't tell me... my little Fanny has missed me!" He is clearly having fun at my expense now, but he'll pay for it later.
"Indeed!" joins in Edmund. "Fanny has been uncharacteristically animated since she heard you were coming."
"Fanny," William says, "is that true? Are you really excited to see me? Fanny?" he adds for good measure.
"William, I daresay your sister Fanny has never been as excited before at Mansfield," volunteers Aunt Bertram.
This goes on long past reasonable. My brother has to slip in the word "Fanny" twice every time he opens his mouth, and the Bertrams for some reason say it too with irritating frequency.
Finally my uncle sends us away to get settled. I take my brother to my room and help him wash the dust of his face.
"Fanny!" he exclaims one last time with a guffaw. "Frankie, how do you stand it?"
He can try to make light of it now but, "I'm still going to knock your teeth in," I warn him.
"Oh really?" he asks, sizing me up. "I bet you've gone all soft up here in the middle of nowhere."
"And I bet you never have privacy to practice," I counter.
"Let's just say I haven't had a full night's sleep in a few years," he intimates.
"Tell me about it!" I commiserate. "I pretend to have headaches just so I can nap in the afternoon."
It is so wonderful having William at Mansfield. We share all the stories we cannot put in letters.
And he brings me presents! There are so many tools and treats to fighting demons that I cannot get in Northamptonshire. Nor can I send for them, for what should I give as my excuse to the family when a package arrives? William gives me a book of lore and a small kit, like what the apothecary uses, full of herbs and tinctures to expose, weaken and destroy demons. It is the best possible gift and I throw my arms around his neck and hug him.
For two glorious weeks we are inseparable. We eat together. We sleep in the same room. We go on patrols and steal naps. It is a perfect time.
That is to say, it is not without realism. William, for instance, is expected to talk with Uncle Bertram each evening. As a girl, it offends me that Sir Thomas finds me comparatively uninteresting even though it is my role to appear uninteresting, but he feels the same way about his own sons and daughters, so if I am to take offense I will need to get in line. Miss Lee has given me an unofficial holiday, but Aunt Norris always has her eye out looking for mischief, and every time we see her she has a list of things for me to do. And No-Shun are especially rude to William; if they think I am beneath them, they deem my brother even below that. But the upside is that we do not spend time with them, to everyone's satisfaction.
Too soon, his leave is over and he must return to his ship. Life is less colorful as a result. I had forgotten how lonely I am, but William's going brings it all back. I think I am depressed. The rest notice but say nothing, it is all very upper class.
I return to solitary patrol with a dearth of enthusiasm. I start to skip nights so I can stay in and examine William's book of demon lore which I hope to find useful.
About six weeks after William leaves, I get a letter from Portsmouth: my sister Mary is dead. She died "in the night." No other details are given, but I can imagine them well enough. Everyone in Mansfield says it's a terrible thing, but it does not affect them in any way. Why should it? I am devastated. After the first few days, I realize I am grieving alone; no one else at Mansfield knew Mary, so no one else misses her now. They have their own concerns, their own lives. If they barely spare a thought for me, how much less they must think of the rest of my family.
The next change the Bertrams look forward to is No's coming-out party. It also spells the end of my formal education. Miss Lee is not needed anymore. With No officially out of the school room, only an idiot expects Shun to keep learning. And without any Miss Bertrams to teach, no one expects Miss Lee to stay for me. She gets a letter from a family in Suffolk, and that is that.
I take over the retired school room as my own private practice room. It has much more space than my bedroom and No-Shun avoids it on principle.
One morning, without warning, the old cat shows up fit for Bedlam and declares Uncle Norris is dead. Even Aunt Bertram is moved to express shock.
As details of the story come out -- he died at night, walking back from the church to the parsonage, without a mark on him although his face expressing agony -- it feels like a demonic attack. I do my own investigation and the results sicken me: he was murdered, his soul harvested, because I am not doing my job.
I spend the next month hunting down the demon responsible. They should be getting easier to kill as I get older and stronger; this one isn't easy, but far more satisfying. As I stomp out the leaves that have caught fire from the demon's blood, I rededicate myself to my calling. I had allowed myself to get lazy and sloppy in the aftermath of William's departure and Mary's death, but no more! I practice; I patrol; I bless everything in a five-mile radius, even the interiors of people's homes, even their linens hanging out to dry. And the next demon who crosses my path won't live long enough to regret it.
Then the bottom falls out: the old cat, who is now living in the manor with the rest of us, is moving out and Uncle Bertram expects me to move out with her. The only piece of sense in this whole ordeal is that the old cat is just as against it as me. We have never liked each other, and her widowhood does not now alter that. Living with her would be the worst thing that ever happens to me; she will forever be ordering me about, watching my moves. There will be no opportunity to practice, no chance of sneaking out for patrols undetected. In a fit of melancholy over William's departure, I have let myself slack from my routine, and it cost my uncle his life. If I go to Aunt Norris' house, another demon will be by in a few more months and the best we will be able to hope for is another death. The worst case is something I do not want to contemplate.
I bring up the horrid topic with dear Edmund. According to him, my living with the old cat would be the best thing since toast. I cannot agree with him but I cannot expose my logic. In the end, I am saved by the old cat herself, who wishes nothing to do with me and, as directly as she is able, defies Sir Thomas's wish. Thank heaven for daily miracles.
Life continues. Demonic activity in the area increases but no one else under my protection dies. I cannot say the same for communities ten miles off. Even nearby Sotherton is effected. Still, I am only one person; I cannot be everywhere.
Sir Thomas is eventually forced to leave Northamptonshire for the vile West Indies. Cousin Tom with his profligate ways does not account for all the tightening of the family's circumstances and Uncle Bertram must see to things in person.
He takes Cousin Tom with him, which strikes me as wiser than merely lecturing at him to quit spending time and money with the wrong people. We each of us remaining try at least to act that we are sorry to see them go. Sir Thomas even tells me to invite William back as soon as he is able, even if Sir Thomas is still away. I almost feel sad that I may never see them alive again, although if I am honest, I will admit that the best thing for Cousin Tom would be a grueling brush with death, something to knock the sense into him hard.
Dear Edmund is left in charge... well, Edmund and the old cat. It makes little difference to Aunt Bertram but I find myself running nonstop errands while No-Shun has more pleasures. When Uncle Norris was still alive, the old cat did the work of God and the manor in visiting the poor; no one expected Lady Bertram to exert herself in that fashion. Now that the old cat is a widow, it is the duty of the new inhabitants of the parsonage -- the Grants -- to minister in the homes of the less fortunate, but the old cat still sends me all over the neighborhood for Aunt Bertram. No-Shun, of course, does none of this. Their mother does not so why should they? Besides, they have more enjoyable claims on their time.
Shun has her come-out, and thank goodness for the old cat! Where would the girls go, what parties could they attend, if they had to wait for their mother or brother to stir themselves?
Cousin Tom returns as scheduled but without his father. I try to interrogate him, to see if there is much demon activity in the New World, but between the gentleness of my persona and Tom's own denseness, I learn nothing conclusive. For all that Tom is back in England, it does not mean he is to stay at Mansfield, and he frequently leaves for frivolous jaunts. I pray for my uncle's safety but that is all I can do.
Eventually, young Mr. Rushworth fancies himself in love with No. She fancies herself suitably admired by a man who can afford to keep her happy. Of his disposition, I say nothing because I consider it immaterial to my cousin's happiness. She is determined to marry well and to remain of the first consequence in whatever neighborhood she resides, which Rushworth of Sotherton can provide her. Shun will have to roam far from Mansfield to find a better match, which is part of the attraction for the elder sister.
While No-Shun is sampling the delights of the neighborhood, and Tom samples the delights further afield, Edmund must perforce attend his sisters on occasion although I know he would rather stay home. Aunt Norris goes too, as the chaperone, because No-Shun's own mother cannot be bothered, but also because she receives free food, free drink, and free gossip, an absolute trifecta. The only thing lacking is sweet-talking the cook into handing over a cut of meat or some eggs or a cake. Really! As Uncle Norris' widow, she forgets she is no longer the natural recipient of all the tithe and tribute in the area.
I, of course, remain at the manor with Aunt Bertram. I keep her company in the dullest ways imaginable, then go on patrol as soon as she retires. It is a highly beneficial arrangement as the number of demons traveling through the area increases during Sir Thomas' absence. It seems my sleepy little corner of England, where I spent my first two years without meeting a single fiend, is growing more popular. And it is not just the ignorant devilspawn who stroll through my wood but some highly trained hunters. I hear one scoff that "the Lion of Northampton is really a mouse," before I dispatch him, but I realize that I have attracted attention finally. The demons I fight are not random travelers, but they are self-selecting, determined to kill me and to make part of England safe again for their kind to prey upon otherwise defenseless humans. There is simply no way I can keep this up if I am forced to attend every supper and ball in the neighborhood. Contrary to all my expectations, I say a prayer of thanks that the old cat hates me so much.
And it is not just that the demons who face me are better skilled than the first few, but they start to arrive in pairs or sets of three. The first time I fight two demons in tandem, I can barely limp back to the manor and crawl into bed. Thank heavens No-Shun has the rest of the family out all night or I don't know how I can hide my condition from them.
Part of my problem is profane curses. Of course demons can Influence people who are unprotected. They can also Move objects that are not specially blessed. By now, I've prayed over so much of the area that any demon would recognize the land is blanketed with blessings, saturated to the point that fiends cannot pinpoint my location or identity. Still, I have not blessed every leaf and pebble so I find myself dodging rocks and branches in addition to whatever weapons the demons bring with them. It gets dicey every so often. Thank goodness Fanny is so modest and quiet; I don't know how I'd explain all the marks I get otherwise.
One night on patrol, I begin to feel an unholy stillness, a sure sign of a demon. Then I feel my skin crawl as they try to Influence me, but I cannot yet tell from which direction the trap will spring. For effect, I shuffle nervously and whimper. As if on cue, I see a figure approach that Impersonates a woman. She asks a stupid question like, "Where are you going to at this time of night?" I give her an equally stupid lie, such as, "To my grandmother's."
She grips my wrist painfully hard to prevent me from running away. But escape is not my intent. I pull Guillaume from his hiding place in my basket and lop her hand off. In a moment she is a shrieking blaze of blue fire.
Above her final wails I hear a new sound. It is a second demon approaching at high speed. His arms are waving wildly and in the moonlight I see glints that signal the knives he is holding.
When we engage it is clear that he is stronger than me but he is also untrained or at least his training is forgotten in the heat of the moment. I, on the other hand, have been training my entire life and have even been fighting one against two for nearly a year. I stick to my patterns and soon have the satisfaction of seeing him bleed.
The enjoyment is short-lived. No sooner does he collapse than I feel a sharp pain in my side. I cry out and put my free hand to the wound, and withdraw a cursed throwing knife. In the book that William gave me on his first and only trip to Mansfield are lots of theories on demons and also blessings and prayers to help us hunt and kill them. One such is a location prayer, useful for tracing a Mark of Possession or similarly cursed object back to the demon that owns it. All I need to do is hold the object, pray over it, and release it. It will fly back to the demon that sent it. It is an incredibly useful incantation, and this is the second time I recite it in battle. I whisper through clenched teeth and then throw it back. The prayer takes over and I have the grim gratification of seeing a small blue spark in the distance as the knife returns from whence it came.
Before I can groan about three in one night becoming all too often patrol, I am beset on the left and the right by two more fiends.
A few strokes in and I can tell the one on my right is skilled and the one on my left is not. I fall back until they are both in front of me, slowly luring them to one of the traps I have built along the deer trails. At the last moment, the player realizes what I am about, and throws the pawn into the trap to save himself. The pawn shrieks under the blessed netting but cannot free herself. I will dispatch her later, but first I must kill her companion.
We fight, and the wound in my side is a constant check against my moves. He lands a number of strong blows, finally pinning me breathless against a tree which is exactly where I want to be.
The small knife I keep in my belt is typically of very little use. It is too imbalanced to throw, and too short to wield in normal hand-to-hand combat. But this close it cannot miss. While he grips my throat, I pull out the knife and plunge it into him.
I see the surprise in his eyes and then the fire lick up his chest. It is victory, but still the early stages. His grip on me does not slacken as quickly as I would like. When it does, I spend a few precious seconds breathing, watching him crumple to the ground before me. A keening caterwaul assails my ears and I see the last demon rise up and come stampeding toward me, dragging the net behind her. She is absolutely wild. I swing Guillaume at her as I dodge her charge. I cut her on her neck and she rams the tree.
Then the most amazing thing happens. Demons do not die instantaneously, and some of them, like the one I've just killed, fight on after they have been fatally wounded. But always -- always! -- they burn. This fiend does not.
As she pushes away from the tree, still enraged, red blood pours from the opening at her neck. She steps back and the hem of her dress catches fire on the smouldering remains of her companion, but her neck doesn't burn. She hurls curses at me; not diabolical prayers but English oaths. And so I realize she is human.
She is a human, hunting other humans, in the company of demons.
Before I can think too long on the fallen state of her soul, she rushes me once more. We fight. She is still untrained, but she has far more energy than me. I cut her in a few random places on her arms, more warning than threat, but she doesn't back down although she has to be getting dizzy if the red stain down her front means anything.
She continues to curse at me harmlessly. I grab her arms and throw her to the ground. She gets up immediately and lunges at me.
If she is Possessed by one of the slain, it is unlike any Possession I have known. The Mark of Possession like any other curse is rendered powerless when the demon dies. Unless there is another villain in the woods tonight controlling her, she is fighting me of her own volition. It is a hard decision but if I have to choose between her life and mine, I must be selfish. I change my strikes from mere warnings to fatal attacks. She soon falls, and does not rise again.
I sag, relieved, against a tree, gathering my breath, waiting and listening for any new trouble. I am alone.
I stare down at the woman and wonder what to do. With a real demon, I am assured the corpse will combust before it is discovered. I might still have small objects to dispose of, or I might have to worry about mundane things catching fire. Perhaps I have a new bruise or scratch to hide, but I never need worry about the body. Until tonight. With no other option, I pray for help.
This is, in many ways, a breakthrough for me. I believe in God and His angels; I kill too many demons to believe otherwise. In consequence, I pray all the time: for strength, for healing, for blessing, for the safety of my family, for thanks in victory. I never pray for selfish reasons. I never ask that someone else do things for me, not even bake my favorite biscuits for tea much less dispose of a body. But I am injured, and my prayers for healing will take too long for me to do all that needs to be done. I cannot do this alone, at least not tonight.
An owl hoots, then there is a different noise, low and rumbling. It is still animal, but none I've ever heard in these woods. The last thing I need right now is another problem. I wait.
The shadows slowly resolve into a massive creature. There is no other word: it is huge. The head might be half as big as its body. His tail trails behind in a sinuous wave. The mouth hinges open when he rumbles, revealing daggers for teeth, and I can imagine it swallowing my head in one bite. It is bigger than any dog or wolf I've ever heard of and while it isn't as large as a horse, I don't know how it stacks up against my old pony. My heart grows faint as he steps closer.
I slowly back away, not daring to show fear or my back to this beast. If it attacks me, I will have no option but to defend myself, but I am unwilling to stuff myself in its mouth without cause or provocation.
Mercifully, he is uninterested in me. He sniffs the body, stalking along its length but never getting too close to me. I keep my eyes on him and my hand on Guillaume, wary, ready for any subtle change to signal my doom. He glares back at me, unfathomable.
Without warning he bellows. It is a powerful noise and I am sure it can be heard all the way to Dover. My bones rattle with the sound and I can feel all my impurities lifting and floating away like embers. The body bursts into flames -- neither a demon's blue blaze nor is it mundane. It burns bright and quick without heat or smoke.
Soon it is spent and I am alone, without beast or ash or even scorch mark.
I whisper a prayer of thanks for the beast, the true Lion of Northampton, and limp back to my bed.
Chapter 4: in which new people arrive and I am cursed
Posted on 2015-09-03
The engagement between Rushworth and one of my cousins, for all it is decided and known, is not official. Everything written to Uncle Bertram gives a glowing recommendation of the proposed union, and he only cautions that the rest of the family waits for him before anything formal is arranged.
The plantation is worse off than originally suspected, and my uncle's twelvemonth abroad turns into two years. In his absence I turn eighteen.
When my cousins reached that same milestone, there was a huge party to celebrate the fact that involved weeks of planning and included the entire community. In contrast, dear Edmund notices a letter from Portsmouth in honor of my birth and wishes me a happy birthday at breakfast one day. Aunt Bertram is not yet down but I imagine her purring, "Is it? How lovely." The old cat lectures me that I should not expect a big to-do; I am a Price after all, not a Bertram, as if I could forget. Cousin Tom makes what passes for a joke about my age. No-Shun don't even look up from their plates.
Edmund offers to speak with Cook about a dessert in my honor. He is becoming quite attentive to me of late, and I cannot say I mind it.
Once in a while, I catch him staring at me with a faint smile on his face and I imagine that there are worse fates than bland domesticity; that, my parents aside, demon hunting is not a profession for the aged; that if I live to 25, I might as well retire and become a parson's wife, even if he is my cousin. Then the reality of my chosen path intrudes.
My views on marriage are based on the writings of the apostle: that it is better to marry than to burn, but that to be married is less esteemed than to remain singly devoted to the Lord. These views I know sit in direct contradiction with those of the Bertrams who have brought up their daughters to consider wife as their profession, but I have a different calling. Given the disparity in our circumstances, I do not think they expect marriage for me either. Much as Edmund is beginning to interest me, and as much as I beginning to interest him, it will very probably come to naught. I doubt I can grow to feel the burning passion that is necessary for me to descend into the married state.
The old cat tries to talk Edmund out of any special favors for my sake. "Only imagine what Sir Thomas would say if he knew you were being so extravagant!" she cautions. "Your dear father is enduring untold hardships in Antigua while you are planning frivolous, spendthrift amusements."
"Nonsense," counters Tom, an unlikely defender until I hear his next words. "We are not having a ball, but I think Cook can prepare her delightful almond cake for the occasion."
I hate Cook's almond cake. It is far too sweet for my taste, but Tom loves it. It is obvious to me that he is seeking his own pleasure, and to his sisters too. Shun immediately suggests that it has been ages since we had apple tart. They bicker like children then No pulls out her trump.
In a move that surprises no one, she announces that, "Mr. Rushworth is especially fond of strawberry fool." I keep my head down at that. I am sure that if I meet Edmund's eye I won't be able to check my laughter.
"That settles it," declares the old cat, having found a way to pamper her favorite and thwart me at the same time. "We will have a strawberry fool when Mr. Rushworth comes to dine with us in three days' time. Fanny, since this is your birthday treat, the least you can do is gather the strawberries for the kitchen. You must show sufficient gratitude for the gifts you are given."
Of course I should. Strawberries give me a rash.
Having been told that this dessert, to which I am now responsible for procuring the ingredients and from which I can take no enjoyment, is in my honor, I am completely prepared to hear that there will be two more at the table. Dr. and Mrs. Grant are to join us.
At the celebratory meal, I am all but ignored. Mr. Rushworth, a newcomer to Mansfield, doesn't quite know my exact place, but he is learning from his fiancée how much deference to give me. Dr. Grant does not talk to me if he can avoid it ever since I argued against him when he was dead wrong on a theological matter. His wife, however, tries to be kind to me. I think it is just as much of setting a good example for the community as it is offering a contrast between herself and the old cat.
But she is distracted with her own good news today. Her two half-siblings are to come to Mansfield for a visit of some duration. The children -- no, not children any more -- are the fruit of her mother's second marriage to a man named Crawford, from Norfolk. The brother has inherited the estate and the sister has a handsome dowry. The one grown tired of living with their father's relations and the other disinclined to run his estate, they mean to trespass on the Grants' hospitality until they receive a more worthy invitation. Mrs. Grant is too enthusiastic in her praise as she talks about bringing new and interesting people into the neighborhood.
Mr. Rushworth considers himself the newest addition as the unspoken future son-in-law of Sir Thomas. I give him credit for being cognizant of some slight, that his presence is not enough to count as lively.
Mrs. Grant catches herself but too late, explaining that her siblings, the Crawfords, come direct from London and thus are a novelty to those who never leave the country.
My cousin, the nearly engaged one, turns to Rushworth and smiles. "I am sure we will all find them quite entertaining," she says, half cajoling the man back into good humor. If she could hold that pose for a moment longer, I will not doubt those two might find mutual happiness amid their reasonable expectations. But as soon as Rushworth gives in and smiles back at her, my cousin turns so quickly back to Mrs. Grant that her swain is bereft.
The old cat attempts to paper over her favorite's snub and asks Rushworth what he thinks of the dessert.
He takes the bait and treats us all. "My cook is especially gifted," he tells us. "There is no finer fool in the whole country than at Sotherton, if you will pardon my prejudice."
"Oh, I think we have a very fine fool at this table right now!" Cousin Tom remarks with a twinkle in his eye. "Perhaps not the best in the whole country, but still ribbon-worthy. What do you think, Maria?" He thinks he is being subtle but Dr. Grant turns frightfully purple.
No is unmoved. "Yes, indeed," she says calmly. "Mr. Rushworth, you should have sampled the fool at our table last September when Tom came home. It was extraordinary, truly extraordinary." I cannot approve her choice, but I cannot fault her style.
Edmund hunts desperately for something to change the topic. He notices I am sitting still, with a spoon resting in my hand. "And what do you think of dessert, Fanny?" he asks loudly for the whole table to hear. Surely I will say something dull and safe.
Before I can compose an innocuous reply, the old cat steps in.
"Why, Fanny, you haven't eaten a bite!" she accuses me.
"I am sorry, Aunt Norris, but I cannot eat strawberries," I say meekly. "Not since I was little. They give me hives. But do not worry. I am not hungry."
"Why, Fanny, you are right!" exclaims Aunt Bertram in a rare fit of activity. "I remember the last time we tried to feed you strawberries, do you not, sister? Fanny refused, absolutely refused! We had never seen her show temper before. You wanted to lock her in her room until she relented, but then Sir Thomas noticed she was missing and we had to let her out."
The old cat admits to no wrong-doing in front of company. She is too incensed with me to remember the incident although my cousins feel a ripple of shame to hear it retold, Edmund especially. Instead, the old cat presses an attack against me as if I am to blame. She has never heard of anything so ridiculous, as if I'm doing this to spite her. Never has she seen a more ungrateful or undeserving creature in all Christendom.
She shows no sign of stopping or otherwise holding back in front of our guests, but Dr. Grant suddenly remembers a pamphlet he lent to Edmund last week, and rudely interrupts her to ask about it. And so I am grateful for the Grants.
The next time Mrs. Grant comes to the manor, she brings her visitors. The miss is indeed pretty, but dark where the Bertrams are fair. Thus she is hardly competition with No-Shun and they like her exceedingly. I notice that even Tom and Edmund appreciate her looks and liveliness and, while she is generally receptive to both, she favors the heir. Clever girl!
The mister is short and dark like both his sisters, but plain like Mrs. Grant. It seems that Miss Crawford got all the beauty in the family. Judging by looks alone, there is not much to recommend him other than the lack of some glaring disfigurement but plenty of people have neither a stooped back nor a lazy eye nor a club foot in the country. However, he grows on one, or at least he grows on my cousins. I do not spend long enough in his company to form a better opinion of him.
Tom announces a scheme to go to the B Races. All the other young people are eager to join, Miss Crawford especially. There is much talk about it -- how they would travel, where they could lodge, how long they would stay. The old cat even encourages them to cheer her favorite during Rushworth's absence.
In the end, though, the plan collapses.
The first to withdraw is No, who bows to irksome pressure to be at Mansfield when Rushworth finally returns.
The next to go is Mrs. Grant, who simply cannot leave her husband for so long. Miss Crawford delivers this news the next day in our morning room. She announces her intention to stay home with her sister. She looks at Tom as if this is a test of his affections but he is already turning to her brother.
"What about you, Crawford?" he asks. "Still on?"
"Would you mind, Mary?" Mr. Crawford asks, which seems rather gallant for the situation.
"Henry, I know better than to insist that you curtail your pleasures," she laughs. "That is the surest way for you to go."
He smiles but does not blush at this sketch of his character. He glances at No-Shun. "Does anyone else care to persuade me?"
Am I the only one who finds it a vulgar play for attention? It makes my skin crawl. I bury myself deeper into the chair as I sort through Aunt Bertram's rag-work.
"I believe you did promise to be at your sister's beck and call, Mr. Crawford," No reminds him. "What will she do if she needs to return to London straightaway and you are not here to take her?"
"With such a lovely neighbor as you, how can she want to leave?" he smiles.
I unobtrusively scratch my leg as Shun speaks these words: "Come, Mr. Crawford. A promise is a promise. When Tom leaves, he won't be back for weeks -- a month at least -- and he will keep you with him. Stay with your sister and show Tom how a brother ought to behave. If it is any consolation, with both Maria and Mary bowing out, I must too. I'm sure it is all very exciting, in its way, but one race is much like another."
Tom scoffs but it seems no women will be part of the party. Edmund, who was never very interested in the scheme, declares he too will stay home and Mr. Crawford cannot be inattentive to his sister.
Tom, however, is committed, and when he leaves I am quite certain it will be a while before we see him again.
Too accustomed to his absences, we do not mope although Miss Crawford as a newcomer makes an honorable attempt.
A few short weeks later, Mr. Rushworth returns. Not typically possessing enough ideas to be verbose, he is grandiloquent in describing the newly improved estate of his friend Smith. The poor man feels his own Sotherton Court, with its 700 acres, is shabby in comparison.
Oh, the trials of the rich!
Along with everyone else I listen to Rushworth pine for improvements of his own. Having never been so far from Mansfield as Sotherton, I feel a mundane curiosity to see it and compare it with the manor. This is coupled with my professional curiosity to see the place where demons occasionally sport if the stories are to be believed. Not that anyone says, "I saw a demon today!" but rather the descriptions of deaths occasionally sound like demon attacks.
However, I do not imagine I will ever travel to Sotherton Court. Should I ever get the chance to travel from Mansfield, Sotherton won't be at the top of my list of places to visit.
It takes a long time for me to fully recover after the night of four demons and one traitor. The healing prayers, by their very nature, work miracles, but they are by no means instantaneous and cursed wounds take longer to heal than mundane injuries. Thankfully, the family notices nothing out of the ordinary. They have been taught from the beginning that I am weak and easily fatigued and they see no proof to contradict that. This does not stop the old cat from criticizing me -- to my face and in front of witnesses -- of affecting a delicacy that I do not warrant. And if I would merely follow her good example and exert myself, I should find my health much improved.
I wonder what the old cat would be like if she was a demon hunter like my mother. Probably insufferable, as always.
I spend time reading through William's book, looking for some explanation of the traitor who attacked me. The book is full of useful information but, lacking an index, it is tedious to search. Eventually, I stumble across a promising passage, which I translate into:
More insidious than a MARK OF POSSESSION is the DEMON'S KISS in which a demon consumes the victim's SOUL while leaving the body alive and intact. It must be administered slowly over multiple sessions to prevent killing the victim. If successful, the victim is ENSLAVED without an outward manifestation or token. Upon the death of the demon, the victim will fall into a RAGE and fight on behalf of their master, harming all in their way as they attempt to avenge the demon's death. Due to their suddenly VIOLENT nature, victims are typically killed shortly after the death of their demon, and there is no known cure.
It explains in part the woman I faced, and Lord T's maid so many years ago.
I uncover nothing specific about angels in the shape of lions although there is no other sensible explanation. Man was created in God's own image, but other creatures were patterned from the images of the various angels and demons. It is not so uncommon that an angel resembles a lion as it is that an angel appears before someone so unworthy.
I slowly ease back into my patrols. Thankfully, I encounter no one for months. It is almost like when I was 13 and could go half a year between demons. It is a most welcome respite.
My empty streak breaks at last, and I meet an easy kill one night. He puts up a show of spirit, but in the end he burns like all the rest.
I toe through the remains looking for anything that might look suspicious to the locals. I find a ring and stoop to pick it up. When I touch it, a jolt of pain runs through my glove and up my arm. Involuntarily I yelp. My palm tingles and my fingers are numb.
Is this a trap set for me? A weakling sent for me to kill so that I might discover this cursed ring? Have they found a way to beat me where superior numbers have failed?
Numbness is spreading up my arm. I sheath Guillaume, kick the ring safely to the side of the trail, and run to the manor. By the time I reach my room, my legs are jiggling like pudding, partly from sprinting two miles and partly from the tingling sensation that now affects my entire body.
I yank the case from William out of my trunk. I fumble through the vials and flasks, guided by memory to one that might help my worsening condition. My breathing is labored as I pull out a cruet of inky liquid. The stopper is sealed in wax but I bite it off and pour a dram down my throat. My mouth is too numb to taste or feel anything, a hidden blessing because I know this stuff is vile.
Then I just sit on my bed, praying it works.
I wake the next morning weaker than I've ever felt, but I wake. There is a horrible taste in my mouth, the healing liquor is nearly consumed, I am still wearing my hunting outfit, and William's case is dumped across my bed.
I tidy myself and the room as quickly as I can which is still amazingly slow. The numbness is gone, but my head aches and every muscle is sore.
I make my way through too many halls and down too many stairs to the breakfast table. I desperately need a new taste in my mouth but my stomach revolts. I settle for tea and toast. Even then, I barely manage to keep it down.
Edmund is a dear and reminds me that Miss Crawford is to borrow "my" horse this morning. She is welcome to it! How I can ride today I do not know. If Miss Crawford gives me an excuse to avoid it, so much the better. I try riding after Miss Crawford takes her turn, because it will look odd if I do not, but it is agony. When Edmund gives me an option to leave off riding for a few days so Miss Crawford can spend more time in the saddle, I take it and bless her selfishness.
The curse is a powerful one. I finish the cruet that night, draining its last drops, but do not feel any improvements the second day. I stir myself as little as possible but by midweek, I realize this cannot go on. I must find the ring, investigate the curse, and reverse it. Unfortunately, I do not trust myself to go at night. Not only might I be unable to find the ring, I might run into another fiend when I am too weak to handle it.
My cousins spend the time galavanting with the Crawfords so they do not notice my indisposition, but my aunts are always near. I stick close to Aunt Bertram because she demands less of me, but the old cat persuades her to send me out picking roses. As soon as the roses are cut, I must carry a bouquet to Aunt Norris' house.
As I walk up the steps to the manor, it occurs to me that now is my chance to find the ring. I make a lame excuse that I left a door unlocked and the old cat sends me scurrying back to secure it before the maid cheats her.
When once again out of sight of the manor, I duck into the woods and retrace my path. Twenty minutes later, I think I have reached the spot. I discover a dead deer so I know I am close. By the body of a squirrel, I find it. I pick it up with a stick and wrap it in a blessed handkerchief. Even then, it burns in my pocket and makes me nauseous until I can sneak back to my room.
Upon examination, the ring is layered with curses protecting the one that did such damage to me. I break the first two with simple prayers. The third crumbles with judicious application of a tincture from William's case. The fourth unravels under a particularly esoteric benediction for a good harvest.
There is only one curse left before the final curse, and I am developing a brutal, blinding migraine. As I dissolve each layer, a feeling of sickness grows on me. I have no doubt that when I break the next curse, the ring will be its most dangerous.
Inspired, I light some incense I've been saving since Easter which helps a great deal. I also fill my pot with holy water and use a spare quill to pick up the ring and drop it in. The effect is not immediate so I pray. Slowly I see a sediment collect in the pot, harmless but a sure sign of the evil that is now neutralized. I allow myself a celebratory smile.
Then the last curse fails, shattering the pot and spilling its contents all over the table and floor. I open the window to give the room an airing and sop up the mess. The maid will surely wonder about it, but that is all she will do.
The ring is now harmless and I must find a way to get rid of it, but not today. I have been gone long enough so I slip downstairs and join Aunt Bertram on the sofa before waking her.
She stirs groggily and asks after my migraine, which is sweet of her. My headache is still present, and the nausea, but they are lessening and I feel better than I have all week. Still, I cannot act healthy, so I imply otherwise and look forward to a delightfully bland evening.
The evening is bland but not delightful. Edmund and Shun dine at the parsonage. The rest of us suffer through No's sulks and snipes because... Who even keeps track any more of the brat's fits and tantrums? I know I cannot be bothered these days.
Chapter 5: in which I travel to Sotherton
Posted on 2015-09-07
I am quite used to being belittled, neglected, or forgotten by most of the family but it stings coming from Edmund. He is drawn in with his sisters into providing amusements for the Crawfords while I suffer under the curse but he remembers me at last and makes up for lost time by securing an invitation for me to accompany the others on a visit to Sotherton despite the old cat's intention that I know no pleasure.
The getting into the carriage is almost more amusement than I can bear with a straight face. My joining the party has forced one too many people into Mr. Crawford's barouche. One of us will need to ride up front with the driver. No-Shun are at odds as to how to maneuver into the seat of honor. It is rather like someone has forgotten that Mr. Rushworth is waiting for her at the end of the road. I dare not look at Edmund; if he has any sense at all, he does not appreciate this humor.
Once we are in motion, I see much to interest and admire although the motion of the carriage leaves me feeling queasy. Typically, I only roam far from the manor at night, and the same scenery is quite lovely to behold in the daylight. Eventually Mr. Crawford drives us further than I have ever gone. It is new and old all at the same time, the novelty of that particular tree dulled by the similarity it bears with others I have seen before.
Miss Crawford sits beside me, luckily, because my other options are No and the old cat. However, I notice a curious thing. Edmund rides his horse to Sotherton at a steadier pace than the barouche as we go up and down rolling hills. Every time I catch sight of him, I can't help observing, "There he is," and neither can Miss Crawford! Part of her interest is no doubt that Edmund is not a tree or bush but I realize that some of it must be that Edmund is the only eligible male for her in the area. The rest are either married or related to her, or too poor, too stupid, or too rustic to attract her. With sudden insight, I see matters from her eyes -- constantly thrown into Edmund's company, finding him better mannered and connected and even better looking than anyone else around, is a scenario rife with mischief. I can feel my hackles rising to imagine her as a rival. It puts my feelings towards Edmund into fresh perspective and I wriggle uncomfortably, wanting Tom to be home more than ever before.
When we arrive at Sotherton, No throws off her sulks to be recognized as the most honored guest and, unofficially, as a future resident. The original spark for this outing -- bringing Mr. Crawford to Sotherton so that he could suggest improvements more economically than a professional -- is delayed first to offer us refreshments, and then to give us a tour of the house.
Mrs. Rushworth the dowager has little speeches and anecdotes memorized for each room. Clearly she takes pride in her late husband's ancestral home. Clearly I am the only person who finds her patter at all interesting.
Finally we reach the chapel! This should be exciting, I think. Mansfield Park lacks a private chapel, which I consider to its detriment. In my imagination, private chapels are from the time when people were more generally religious. Perhaps they were overly superstitious but they did not doubt that demons walked this earth.
The room, however, doesn't live up to the grandeur of my imagination. There are no gory icons, no dim stained glass, no prayers of protection carved into the door frame. I try to make light of my disappointment to Edmund, in not finding the chapel old enough to suit my taste, but he reminds me to look in the parish church for my gothic satisfaction. Mrs. Rushworth explains that her husband had dropped the practice of morning and evening prayer; perhaps if he had been more devout he wouldn't have died the same way.
Miss Crawford makes a heretical remark about how much better off Sotherton is without the sanctimony. This comment bothers me exceedingly. For all that Dr. Grant is wrong on matters theological, there is a good bit he gets right, most importantly that he believes. I'm not so sure about Miss Crawford and that doubt is dangerous not just for herself but for everyone else who interacts with her. We argue slightly. I want to speak more forcefully but Fanny Price is too meek for much. Before I can figure out a way to tell her just how wrong she is, Shun skips over and tries to joke about Edmund leading No and Mr. Rushworth through their marriage vows here and now.
At this jest Miss Crawford can only reflect on her recent disparagement of religious life and be aghast but not exactly because she believes she is wrong. She questions Edmund but he only confirms that he is waiting for his father's return before taking orders. She then admits that she should speak of the clergy with more respect but that does not mean she will make herself think more respectfully.
Having finished the first floor, the principles agree to turn our attention from the house to the grounds. Lacking spontaneously organized transportation, we set out on foot. Mr. Rushworth and Mr. Crawford set off together and naturally No attends them, although whether she is happier with one or the other I will not say. I stick with Edmund and, annoyingly, Miss Crawford does too. Shun is left behind with the old cat and Mrs. Rushworth. I almost pity her; it is too much like my usual fate but I don't think it will awaken in her any sympathy for me or, indeed, any thought outside of her own apparent ill-usage.
At Miss Crawford's suggestion we three take to the shade of the wood. We walk in the coolness, admiring what we can. At length Miss Crawford again begins to speak of the church as a profession. Edmund counters and the argument slides into a contrast between London and the rest of the country. I silently cheer him on, until he makes such a worthy point that I forget myself. The other two think my outburst is amusing and regrettably it dissolves the tension building between them.
As we walk, I feel something odd, an irritation in my tattoos that signals a demon's magic nearby. Would one really attack us in the day, even though we are in a wood? Can one really be nearby? Or is this, more likely, just a remnant of some old curse that we are awakening with our circuit?
I make up some excuse to linger here. I tell them I am tired. Edmund takes my arm to assist me and we walk on until we find a bench. We sit and I run through some prayers in my head, trying to figure out whether the demon is still near.
It is meant to be boring to any observer and after a short while Miss Crawford fidgets and announces she intends to walk on. Edmund is up immediately and trailing after her. I want to go with him, but I am caught between interest and duty. In the end, I let them both go. I can investigate better on my own.
For safety's sake, I loosen the ties on Guillaume, in case I find myself in need of him. I pray and pace. The incantations should give me a hint of what I'm facing. It is a demon, not a curse; it is recent. Before I can learn how recent, I hear the noise of people approaching. I bend down and retighten Guillaume's straps just in time.
My cousin comes with her Rushworth and her Crawford. They are talking about the park. Mr. Crawford starts by saying something is not good or it would be better if such-and-such. Then No seconds his statement. Mr. Rushworth is left to agree with the majority, with a needling, "if you think so."
They speak to me only because it would be rude if they did not, and the two gentlemen have not yet learned that they ought to be rude to me but their conversation is meant for themselves alone. After a bit of reflection, my cousin announces her desire to go to the other side of a gate which happens to be locked. The look she gives Mr. Rushworth clearly indicates that this is a test of his affection.
He passes, with flying colors, and runs back to the house for the key. I suppose with me there it isn't as if No is alone with Mr. Crawford. It should all be perfectly reasonable, perfectly honorable, but the two have the most curious, flirtatious discussion as if I'm not even there when I'm sitting on the same bench as they! Mr. Crawford cannot mean half the things he implies, yet my cousin looks ready to believe him.
Then again, maybe she gave Rushworth the same look when he was falling in love with her. I really don't know, after all, because I wasn't there.
But, no, seriously. She cannot fall for his lines. Not since she glared daggers at his back for over an hour as he flirted with her sister the entire way here. Can she? Is she not more out of temper with her swain for not foreseeing her every whim? I would much rather imagine her using Mr. Crawford to hurt and punish Mr. Rushworth than to think she genuinely prefers the smooth Mr. Crawford who himself seems to prefer her sister. But no, he appears to do away with that argument, at least as far as No is concerned.
They leave the bench and approach the offending gate. It is truly locked, but Mr. Crawford identifies a loophole: "if Miss Bertram would walk around the gate, with my assistance," they have no need of a key. He couches his words carefully, not quite a dare, but obviously if my cousin is too good of a girl, she had much better wait here for Mr. Rushworth's protection and permission. A demon could not apply Influence more smoothly.
Manipulative cad! I try to dissuade No, but she is determined now to go with Mr. Crawford. With little effort they are around the gate. With parting words -- they remember me now -- they leave their direction for Mr. Rushworth when he returns.
Why is she listening to him? How does he have any authority over her? Surely she does not take him seriously, yet there she goes with him, headed in a direction contrary to what I am asked to give to Rushworth.
Honestly, if my cousin is stupid enough to throw off Mr. Rushworth while on his own property for someone who flirts like mad with her own sister, she deserves whatever she's got coming to her.
I am too flabbergasted to pray. Every time I start, I think of something else ridiculous about Mr. Crawford or my cousins' fascination with him, and it defies reason. If this is what happens when women look for husbands, then may God keep me a spinster!
Speaking of... Shun comes puffing up, desperate to track down Mr. Crawford. She is voluably irked from having drawn the short straw, as it were, with companions and has been stuck with Mrs. Rushworth and the old cat since we came out onto the lawn. That is very nearly the story of my life since coming to Mansfield Park and when she learns how to bear it better, I'll sympathize with her.
Learning whither her sister and Mr. Crawford were headed, she is all eagerness and no strategy to pursue them. I advise her to wait until Rushworth gets back, but she will suffer no delay or reason. She scrambles across the fence in the most undignified manner. I make a note to laugh at her later, when I am more at leisure.
Once again I am alone. I try to recall the litany of prayers I have already uttered or the direction of the cold trail. I am grateful that I usually do not have to deal with this idiocy during the usual course of my demon hunting but it leaves me poorly prepared for it in my present circumstances.
Just as I am getting my bearings again, Mr. Rushworth trots up, wheezing and sweaty. He sits down heavily on the bench as if he doesn't plan to rise again. I encourage him in a gentle, toothless way to continue his pursuit but his pride is wounded, not shattered. If my cousin will not deign to wait for him, why should it be his duty to chase after her?
I agree with him completely; he never should have bothered with the condescending, over-entitled piece of baggage from the start. But he did, more's the pity, and I cannot do my job properly with him huffing and gasping at my side.
Before I can needle him again to go after her, he asks my opinion of Mr. Crawford. Oh dear; he is not as stupid as he looks. Even if my cousins were not both susceptible to Crawford's charms, it cannot be good that his flirtations have been blatant enough to attract the attention of Mr. Rushworth.
I make some quiet comment and he takes the conversation from there, enumerating the physical faults of a man whose greater flaws lie in his character. Then he turns the topic to my cousin and I make some lame excuse on her behalf and am able -- at last! -- to send him on his way.
Oh, these ridiculous distractions! This constant parade of caricatures! There is something diabolical here in this wood, waiting for me to track and kill it, but how can I when I keep getting interrupted? The odds that the old cat will let me travel so far from the shades of Mansfield again are slim to none. If I do not hunt this demon now, it will slip from my clutches until it stalks through Mansfield, and how many souls will have perished in the meantime?
All I need now is for Edmund and Miss Crawford to come traipsing back and demand I follow them halfway across the park to admire some old tree. But no! They do not return, and that is the worst distraction of all.
What is taking Edmund so long? What can he and Miss Crawford have found that is so interesting or admirable? Has he forgotten about me again, in the course of half an hour? She is pretty, I will give her that, but she is too lively for him. Her morals are too malleable and corrupt. Her opinions on clergy and religion are entirely unsuitable for someone whose sister is a clergyman's wife and beyond the pale that Edmund is at all fascinated with her. He needs someone dull and steady, someone like who I pretend to be, rather than a lively, energetic city girl who will expect him to throw parties and travel and play jokes. In short, she is just the sort to make my cousin miserable.
I start to wonder anew at Edmund's appreciation of her charms. I think back on our earlier conversations about Miss Crawford, when Edmund himself brought up her flaws. I wonder if he still sees them. It is almost as if the entire Bertram family is enchanted with the Crawfords.
Then again, I remind myself, there are other explanations for Edmund's continued and lengthening absence. There is a demon in these woods somewhere. If Edmund and Miss Crawford stumbled across it they might even now be lying dead and soulless at the bottom of some ha-ha. Oh, why did I ever let him out of my sight? Belatedly I pray for his safety.
I set off in a dozen different directions before returning to my bench and pacing in frustration. Absolutely I should find him and ensure his safety -- Miss Crawford's, too -- but how would I explain myself if they saw me running for half a mile or more? And what if, in chasing after Edmund, I ruin my chance to hunt down the demon? These are not the problems of a solitary, nocturnal hunter.
There! That decides it: it is not night so I need not be alone. I strike out along a path that should take me in their general direction when I hear Miss Crawford's loud laughter.
And so they return, none the worse for their apparent dangers. She apologizes for having kept away so long, but he describes a delightful copse of trees from which one could observe the manor and talk on all sorts of subjects.
"You would have loved it, Fanny," Edmund tells me, which must be my consolation. He is perfectly safe and unharmed, that is good news too, but the attention he spares for Miss Crawford for the rest of the visit makes me uneasy, and that sensation lasts longer than anything.
Chapter 6: in which Mansfield is bitten by the Acting Bug
Posted on 2015-09-10
Finally we have good news from Uncle Bertram. At least it is good news as my aunt must measure it: my uncle is coming home. The plantation's troubles are now under sufficient control and he was confident -- when he wrote the letter -- that he will travel on the September packet, which will return him to our dear island by early November.
Aunt Bertram is more excitable and energetic than she has been for a good year or longer, but the poor thing is not pacing herself, and she will be completely fatigued by the time three more months roll by.
Edmund is quietly happy at the thought of seeing his father again. The old cat harps that we must prepare for the event; thank goodness she is here to remind us! No-Shun are ambivalent: on the one hand, Sir Thomas will have been gone two years before they see him and they do miss him; on the other hand, he will no doubt curtail the pleasure and autonomy they have grown to enjoy in his absence.
Mr. Rushworth is slightly giddy at the news. This homecoming spells the commencement of his formal engagement to my cousin who, despite her growing distance from him, he still wishes to wed.
Cousin Tom is informed and he responds to the summons by corresponding with the gamekeeper to prepare for his return to Mansfield. Mr. Crawford suddenly realizes he has an obligation in Norfolk. His sister remains, perhaps to see Cousin Tom again. Although, considering that her brother is back within the fortnight, perhaps she is just averse to pointless travel.
The prodigal heir brings with him the Honorable John Yates, another young man of leisure who plans to inherit rather than earn his worth. They are part of a pack of over-bred curs that travel from one pleasure spot to the next. They only bother showing up here for the twofold reasons of Sir Thomas' impending return and an unfortunately timed death that has disbanded the last house party.
When they arrive, Mr. Yates seems to have one topic of conversation: amateur theatricals. The man will not shut up about them! He keeps bringing it up; anything and everything reminds him of the makeshift stage at Ecclesford or the practices and speeches. The pattern on the sofa recalls a costume. The way Shun walks into the parlor is just like Agatha entering a scene. He keeps this up until everyone else is rabid for their own amateur theatrical at Mansfield.
The next bit is to decide what play they will perform. Obviously, I do not include myself in their number. Nor do I include Edmund, who knows -- as well as the rest of his siblings -- how much his father would disapprove of this sort of thing if it gets out of hand, and with Tom and No-Shun leading the way, there is nothing for it but to get out of hand. They review how many players and how many parts they must satisfy. They begin to cast up ideas, but nothing suits. I listen to them suggest comedies, tragedies, classics, new pieces. At one point, they even toy with composing their own, which is a recipe for absolute disaster.
Then Mr. Yates blurts out, "What about the Lion of Northampton?"
I nearly lance my finger with the needle I'm holding. So far as I know, only demons know that phrase. There's nothing I can do about it now but I'm going to have to kill him later.
"Lion?" repeats Miss Crawford with some alarm. "What is that?"
Yates' smile turns stupid. "I don't know, exactly, but I've heard of it. Someone mentioned it once at Cregshorn -- maybe it was Lord B? -- and it sounded very impressive. I thought everyone in the area would know it. You know, a local thing."
My cousins have no idea what is he talking about, and rightly so, but everyone begins to posit suggestions: a racehorse; an ancient Saxon king; a pathetic specimen housed in a menagerie; a baritone. They make a game of guessing and the ideas become more ridiculous, but as far-fetched as they get, no one mentions anything about demons or angels.
I don't interrupt or correct them. As far as I can tell, they don't even realise that Aunt Bertram and I are in the room, because they get up and move once more to the library to review the plays available without so much as glancing in our direction.
I consider what is known of Mr. Yates. That he is a demon Impersonating an Honorable is clear. The real John Yates is dead and this devil is masquerading as him. Cousin Tom's acquaintance with him is not so long as to allow that the death must have happened before they fell in together. I don't believe my cousin is bright enough to realize what danger he has invited into his home. Yates' current mode of living -- staying as a guest in various places before moving on to the next entertainment -- is perfect for a demon gobbling up souls. Before the family of his latest victim can seek justice, before any evidence might incriminate him, he has left.
I must give him points for his survival skills. Since his arrival to Mansfield I have not had any reason to suspect his true identity until now. He has not betrayed himself by depending on curses to achieve his aims while in my presence or by leaving cursed objects lying about where they might be discovered. Of course, he can have no idea that he is hiding from me; my own identity is so completely disguised, and Fanny Price is too innocent, too meek and self-effacing to arouse any speculation to that end.
Obviously I must kill him. The real questions are Where and When? Should I kill him in the house tonight? Stalk him to his room and cut him while he sleeps? If I am lucky, he will incinerate himself and leave no trace behind just as Lord T did. That would be divine! Perhaps I should wait until closer to Yates' departure so that it looks less suspicious than if he just disappeared at night for no good reason. Then again, the longer he is here, the greater chance that he will hunt for a soul; I cannot let him harm anyone under my protection. Will he make the attempt on someone working in the house, or will he try to kill someone living nearby? Mercy, what is he takes aim at one of the Bertrams?
I start my campaign against him by sneaking to the hall outside his room while he is dressing for dinner and chalking a prayer on his door frame which effectively traps the fiend inside his room.
At the table, I wait patiently for some excuse to reach us that Mr. Yates is feeling indisposed and will not come down to the meal, but he is merely late, running through some excuse about how his man tried to put him in the wrong waistcoat. As I sit and try to puzzle out this mystery -- Does his room have another door? Did he get a servant to erase my chalk? -- I almost miss the important news that they have decided on a play after all.
They have decided to perform Lover's Vows. I glance over at Edmund who is not taking the news well. Shun is sullenly mute but No keeps harping on the fact that the two Crawfords will participate, and if Miss Crawford is doing it, then surely Edmund cannot any longer find grave fault.
I am angry on his behalf. A wrong is still wrong no matter who does it. It is the nature of sin to lower the guilty one, however fair they be, rather than for a fair one to ameliorate the sin. After all, pretty is as pretty does, and this play can only sink Edmund's appreciation of someone who is already so thoroughly unacceptable for him. Couple that with Miss Crawford's brother -- who seems determined to involve No-Shun in some imbroglio, flirting with one sister in public and the other one in private -- and I cannot imagine Edmund so taken leave of his senses as to give any approbation to the scheme.
The Crawfords come after dinner to see how we get on. Mr. Crawford is claimed by the planners but Miss Crawford is free to flit about and begin her quixotic bid to draw Edmund into the play. When she realizes he will not bend, she turns her attention to the old cat.
At this point Cousin Tom calls to me. I rise, expecting to be sent on some errand but he explains he has no need of me to run about now but to act with him later. I excuse myself but I will not act.
He misunderstands me, and says I need not be able to act well -- this is a part suitable for a governess or some other undervalued drudge -- and Mr. Rushworth opens his mouth to mention that he has an astounding 42 speeches, so learning a handful of lines should be simple enough for me.
As if that is any impediment! I have memorized countless facts and lore. I can recite hundreds of blessings and incantations. I am fluent in languages these people don't even know exist. I can probably learn Rushworth's lines before breakfast if I put my mind to it. As far as pretending to be someone else, I have been doing that for the last eight years; it is not a treat but a chore. It is not memorizing the lines that frightens me, it is the whole enterprise I find distasteful.
I decline again. Tom doesn't take no for an answer, and pretty soon the rest of them are parroting the wish. I turn my eyes to Edmund hoping he will put an end to this bullying but he is silent.
The old cat is not, however, and lets me and all the rest of them understand just what she thinks of my obstinacy. Finally Edmund must speak, but it is a little too late by my measure, and a little too gentle for the old cat takes her final shot that leaves Miss Crawford surprised, although my cousins do not bat a lash.
That young woman then sits by me and shields me by her conversation. She throws a few glances at her brother who soon redirects Tom's energies elsewhere. She pours forth such a steady stream of nothings that I have not the opportunity to think of how Edmund is too dainty. She does a good job of it though I am still ill at ease, my nerve-endings feeling uncharacteristically exposed, but in the middle of it Tom calls her over. While he doesn't shout, I can make out that they are discussing who will play the male role opposite Miss Crawford. She has a number of speeches together with that mystery man on a few warm topics. Chivalrously my cousin is trying to identify someone she might not mind professing love to on the stage.
She soon rejoins me, whispering quietly that she will need to rewrite much of their scenes together before she can even think of practicing. Her furtive glances at Edmund are pointless; he is no hero. Would it not be better to abandon the play now?
I spend the night going through the house, laying additional booby traps for the demon Yates. When morning comes, I perform my quotidian routine in the East Room. As I maneuver through the patterns, I think on my cousins and my situation here. Have I let it go too far that they attempt to bully Fanny Price and none of them but an outsider sees it? How shall I wrest back some respect from these people who view me as less than a servant?
Halfway through, there is a knock on the door. I stop immediately and sheath Guillaume. It is Edmund, seeking my opinion. He hems around the subject at first but finally spits it out: to spare Miss Crawford the ignominy of performing with a relative stranger, and to limit the size of the audience, and despite all his previous criticisms and objections, he will act in the dreadful play.
And he wants my approbation!
What is wrong with him? Where is his sense? Where is his shame? All the rest of the family cannot feel self-reproach, is he spoiling just the same? Is this Miss Crawford's influence driving him to what he knows is wrong?
No, I must not blame Miss Crawford. This is Yates' fault; him and that stupid play! With cold resolve, I look forward to introducing him to Guillaume tonight.
But no! I am mistaken. Despite my traps, Yates sits at the breakfast table with a cut on his face. Apparently he sneezed while his valet was trying to shave him. I cannot believe it, but the blood proves he is human after all. That explains how he was able to cross my prayer, but not how he has heard of the Lion to begin with.
Before I can think too long on the puzzle of John Yates, Edmund quietly announces that he has decided to take a part in the play. The rest of the family is so condescendingly smug about it, even though they think they hide it. It is all so foul and arrogant that I want to hit something.
That night, I go on patrol in the hopes of clearing my head. Yates might still be a threat, but a weak one. Weaker still without a demon to Possess him.
The patrol is fruitful. I encounter a trio in the woods.
As the leader approaches me, my skin crawls as he tries to Influence me but I am too distracted by his appearance to notice. He is Impersonating a human, but barely. His legs do not bend the way mine do, and his shirt is the same color as his neck, as if they are one and the same.
"Take us to the Lion," he orders, but not in English. My attire, my presence in the area at that time of night, my cool reaction to the spectacle, my lack of reaction to their curses -- in short everything about me has finally given me away, and there is no surprise of what follows.
"You are not worthy of him," I answer in defiance as I brandish Guillaume.
The fight starts immediately: two against me. The diabolical one is very agile, considering his appearance. The other attacker is not so nimble and quickly falls back to let his partner do the hard work. The third demon doesn't engage me at all, but stands away, cursing me quietly to probe for weakness.
The area itself is well blessed, but not divinely so, and I must dodge rocks and other natural projectiles along with a devilish blade. I am not without my defenses, however, and have the pleasure of a well-timed prayer to trip my more active foe. I do not bother with frills or fancy patterns any more but chop off his foot closest to me and let his own blood destroy him.
I sidestep around his fallen form, too clever to get close to his blade should he swing at me in desperation, and beat back his second who retreats neatly toward the last member of the trio.
Then we all hear it: a shout and an unnatural crack of a gun that echoes in all directions. The unskilled fighter is the most confused by the noise and I take full advantage. A slash across his chest leaves him bleeding to death.
The remaining demon drops to his knees as if to beg for mercy. The gesture is human enough to give me pause. I need not strike to kill him, just to nick him; if he really is a demon, that will be enough. And if he is human with some Mark of Possession on his person, he will only receive a scratch.
However, before I can bring down Guillaume on his arm, another villain runs up behind me.
"Stop!" he yells far too loudly. "Stop or I'll shoot! Reveal yourself!" Even with the tremor in his voice I recognize him. How utterly perfect.
"Yates!" calls out my supplicant. "I'm so glad you're here. I thought this harpy was about to kill me."
"Sir Henry?" Yates is incredulous. "But what are you doing here? You are supposed to be at Ecclesford. And what was that blue light? I thought there was someone else here too."
That "someone else" isn't even charred remains anymore but something doesn't feel right about the situation. Yates acts all too stupid and human while this Sir Henry does not.
Then the demon speaks again. "Yates, kill the harpy." This close, I can feel the command: Yates is Possessed whether he knows it or not.
I leap back just in time and the gun fires again. Guillaume gives notice to Mr. Yates' arm and the fop drops his weapon, then Guillaume swings back to nick the kneeling Sir Henry.
I retreat a few steps and wait. Both grip their wounds, but as Yates checks his, there is only red blood. The other one has an iron hold on his arm.
"Demon," I taunt him in his own tongue, "your blood will out."
"Worthless human!" he growls in reply. "Do you think He will protect you always, guard you in the palm of His hand? Wait and see, little fool. He will abandon you in the end. The blessings in this area cannot hide you forever. We will hunt you down."
Blood seeps between his fingers, catching fire and burning his hand. There is more than a little desperation in his snarling speech but my faith is unshakable. "Your words cannot harm me," I say, trying not to gloat.
As a lesson against my own pride and arrogance, he utters one final line: "Yates, I told you to kill her."
While Yates tries to figure out how to murder me without a weapon when he couldn't manage it with a shotgun, I slice the demon to ribbons.
As the fiend ignites, I position the pyre between myself and Yates, watching him narrowly. If he attacks me still, I must assume he is under the control of the Demon's Kiss, and I will have no choice but to kill him. If he stands down then, with precautions, I may let him live but obviously once I show my face to Yates, I will have to silence him in some way.
He gapes at the fire, his mission forgotten. I do not relax immediately, but I let my attention expand to sense other threats.
Then I hear it: the baying of dogs. The gunshots must have roused the gamekeeper, who has sent his dogs on the trail of poachers. We cannot stay here or we will be discovered.
"What is going on?" Mr. Yates asks, which sounds like he is back under his own control.
"Grab your gun," I answer. "We must get back to the manor."
He doesn't obey immediately. "Are those dogs?" he asks, the genius. "Miss Price? Is that you?"
"Run," I instruct him, and demonstrate the first few yards. He does not follow, but looks instead at the space where his possessor recently died.
Victims of Possession report that it is as if they have lost their free will; that they can see and hear as always, but that their choices are not their own; that while they have some latitude and are often instructed to, "act normal," they are bound by the commands of their Possessor. Indeed, they are often ordered to forget what has been done to them, and their rescue is a painful experience for them as memories and autonomy are restored.
"You slew Sir Henry," he observes, dazed.
"That was merely a demon Impersonating the real Sir Henry," I say, not bothering to point out that the real Sir Henry is most assuredly dead already. "Mr. Yates, we must be off. We can talk about this later."
I come back and take Yates' hand, pulling him into motion. He follows where I lead, but the pace is hard for him and we reach a service entrance with him panting and needing rest.
" Sir Henry... Was a demon?" he asks when he gets his breath back. "As in, a devil?"
It always amazes me that people who believe in God and His angels doubt the existence of demons. Do they believe the story of the Fallen Angels is a myth?
"Yes," I state emphatically. "This demon had Possessed you and was able to control you through a cursed item he had given you. Do you know what it is?"
There is a moment's confusion. "It's this ring," he says, trying to remove it.
I stop him and study the trinket. The curse is still in place although it is no longer potent without a demon behind it. "Leave it," I tell him. "The curse is still on it and any fiend who sees it will think you are already controlled, and are therefore off limits."
"There are more of them?"
"There are entire hosts of them." Just the thought makes me tired. "Why did he send you to Mansfield?" I ask, worried it has something to do with me.
Mr. Yates tries to remember. "Something to do about a lion," he says at last. "Like that play I mentioned, The Lion of Northampton."
"That is no play," I say. "That is an angel. I have seen him myself."
Now Yates is more interested than appalled. "Really? What does he look like?"
"He's a lion," I say simply. "He looks like a lion, and he roars like the Trumpet of the Last Judgment."
For some reason, this is even more difficult to fathom than the rest, and Yates sits in silence for a few minutes. In that span, I hope that Yates will keep silent of his own accord but in case he doesn't, I have a prayer at the ready. I take hold of his shoulders and close my eyes, reciting the words in my head. At the end, I breathe on him to seal it.
"There," I say as the prayer begins to take effect. "I have blessed you: a small protection against future encounters, and in exchange you will not be able to speak of what you have learned tonight to anyone. This is as much for your protection as it is for mine but I have left the memories so you will not be in ignorance."
He receives it solemnly, which is a good sign that he is beginning to understand. "Miss Price, I am sorry I tried to shoot you."
I brush aside his apology. "You were not under your own control. I have already settled accounts with the responsible party."
"You are bleeding," he points to a gash on my arm.
"So I am." It is barely more than a scratch, and only lightly cursed. I will be right as rain after a quick benediction and a prayer for healing. "Mr. Yates, I have faced more demons than I care to count. Forgive my arrogance but this is inconsequential."
"Are you... lying?" he asks with difficulty. I feel a flash of anger that he doubts me and that he is wasting his last few words on this topic to question my honesty. "Lion!" he says with force.
So, he does not accuse me of lying but of being the Lion. What an odd suggestion!
"No, Mr. Yates, I am not the Lion," I assure him. "But perhaps I am the mouse. Now you must go to your room and try to sleep. You will be tired tomorrow and will have no excuse."
He tries to say goodnight but I read it well enough in his eyes.
Chapter 7, in which I witness a wedding rather than a play
Posted on 2015-09-14
Mr. Yates is more solicitous the next day than ever before but it is undetected by the others. I stay away from their practices and they do not seek me out. Now that Mrs. Grant has joined the players in the role Tom tried to foist on me, they have no reason to speak with me.
Even Shun, who has already excluded herself from the play, wants nothing to do with me. The presence or absence of a play cannot change that.
Eventually, I look in on the theatre with some errand from my aunt. Tom immediately presses a copy of the play into my hands and asks me to observe the first act. Then, before I know it, I have spent hours there, prompting and giving such directions as Tom has scribbled in the margins.
The actors are, on the whole, dreadful. Edmund is... Well, to call him "wooden" would be generous. Tom races through his lines to make them incomprehensible. Yates rants like a fish. Mrs. Grant laughs through every scene, and her sister is not much better with her blushes and her, "Oh dears!" No seems all too focused on one scene with Crawford, and Rushworth is too dense to soak up his speeches. Crawford is the best of the miserable lot but that is faint praise.
At one point, Mr. Rushworth actually speaks to me about Crawford. Surely I do not see anything great in such "an undersized, little, mean-looking man?"
What a question! And how am I to answer it, when the one Mr. Rushworth ought to ask is at this very moment pressing that undersized man to her bosom with far more enthusiasm than the notes direct her?
But my cousin cares not for her intended, not when Crawford is wooing her. Shun has the right of it to avoid this unwholesome turpitude completely. I resolve to follow her lead and to stay away. Have we anything else in common besides this active disinterest in the play, we might bond over it, whispering about how ridiculous the rest of them are and snickering at their feeble attempts at acting. But she has never liked me, and I cannot say I don't return the favor. It is not that I think Shun is a horrible, unredeemable wretch, but really after eight years of living in the same house, I just do not want to bother finding out.
Despite my resolution, the old cat draws me in sideways by giving me employment and errands for the players: sewing costumes and carrying messages to the theatre for her.
Then comes the evening that the players are to rehearse the first three acts. It covers everything from my cousin pressing Mr. Crawford repeatedly to her breasts, to Miss Crawford decidedly accepting Edmund's accidental proposal. In short, it is nothing I want to witness.
Edmund, however, overthrows my hopes by coming to my East Room to bid me help him with his lines. He is too fastidious to have practiced the most offensive scene yet with Miss Crawford, and requests my aid. At first, I imagine it a subtle compliment for him to find it easier to say such things to me than any other person, a return of the appreciation for me that he was beginning to express a few months ago. But as he keeps talking, it dawns on me that I am only preferred because he views me in a completely sexless and unromantic light. Miss Crawford, on the other hand... He cannot say her name without blushing.
From whence springs this change in his affections? Or have I deceived myself all these months about my cousin's growing regard? Mary Crawford, I know, has been rising in Edmund's eyes, but have I truly sunk so low? It is too mortifying for me to contemplate so I agree to help, just to avoid thinking about it. As his weak and dependent cousin, of course I agree to whatever he asks. But I insist we go somewhere else. There is no way I am going to let Edmund sully my sanctuary with that German filth. Perhaps, if I play my cards right, we can read the lines in front of Aunt Bertram who has been slowly growing in curiosity about the plot of this theatrical. If Edmund cannot read those words aloud in front of his mother, that will show him how wrong this whole enterprise truly is.
We are thwarted on the stairs when we run into Miss Crawford. She has been looking for me, for just the same reason as my cousin. They congratulate each other on having a similar turn off mind. I want to gag but I settle for begging off; if they have each other then surely they don't need me.
But no! That will not do. "I am afraid, Miss Price," says Miss Crawford to my cousin, "that I have not been able to study the scene as I ought. I am sure I shall need you to prompt me when I lose my place."
So now I am to direct her in the art of making love to Edmund! "Then let us go to the Morning Room," I say.
"Oh, that is impossible!" Miss Crawford says. "I just left Lady Bertram in there to look for you. I am not ready yet for an audience. Yates is storming away in the dining-room. I heard him as I came upstairs, and the theatre is engaged of course by those indefatigable rehearsers, Agatha and Frederick. If they are not perfect, I shall be surprised. By the bye, I looked in upon them five minutes ago, and it happened to be exactly at one of the times when they were trying not to embrace."
We end up in the Music Room. There the two practice under my gentle corrections until Cousin Tom finds us and all but drags me back to the theatre to help Mr. Rushworth with his lines, as if improvement is possible at this late date, or ever.
The Crawfords return after dinner for a complete rehearsal of the first three acts. However, they only bring news of their sister rather than Mrs. Grant herself. It seems Dr. Grant is feeling poorly and the only cure is to curtail his wife's enjoyments, so she cannot join us.
Cousin Tom is crushed and Mr. Yates is no better. Without Mrs. Grant and her ill-timed giggles, how will they stumble through the scenes with the cottager and his wife?
Then Tom seizes me for the second time today. If he does it again, I'm going to break his wrist.
"Fanny, you must be the cottager's wife," he tells me.
I refuse; the others join in the plea against me. The old cat, mercifully, is not present or else I might receive such a haranguing from which Miss Crawford might not recover. Even Edmund asks me to read the part "if it is not very disagreeable to you."
But it is very, very disagreeable to me and I remain steadfast. They harass me from all sides. I find myself looking for Miss Crawford to see if she will step in again, but with everyone else arrayed against me, she only stands there with a curiously blank expression. Just when I am feeling tempted to reach for Guillaume, Shun bursts into to room to announce the arrival of her father.
Oh, blessed return! I offer a small prayer of thanksgiving. More assuredly than Dr. Grant's indisposition or Mr. Rushworth's amnesia, or even Aunt Bertram's shock at watching the first three acts for the first time, this event spells the end of this amateur fiasco.
I am immensely grateful.
First Shun then my other cousins quit the theatre to greet their father. Rushworth frets and minces, then trots off to join them. The Crawfords and Mr. Yates remain behind to abuse my uncle's timing before the Crawfords announce that they will return to the parsonage. They invite Mr. Yates to join them but he lacks the sense to accept.
And so then it is just he and I.
"Hurry along, Miss Price," he encourages me. "If Sir Thomas is sufficiently welcomed before tea, we can pick up where we left off."
"Much as I despise this play you have dumped upon us," I say, feeling more my true self with just the two of us, "I do not imagine my uncle to be less emphatic in his disapproval. And while I can only frown and look unhappy to my cousins, Sir Thomas has much more power over their actions and will be inclined to use it." As if that is not enough warning, I add, "Mark my words: right now is the closest you will ever come to performing Lover's Vows at Mansfield."
He is stunned. "You do not like the play? Why not? I thought you were merely pretending."
"Why not! Besides the way it portrays very serious sins with light and humor? That there is nothing so wrong that it cannot be neatly painted over in half a day and five acts?"
"Miss Price, you are too harsh!" He attempts to take my hand but I snatch it away.
"And you, Mr. Yates, are too familiar," I scold him. "If you feel obliged or indebted to me in any way, I beg you to redirect any payment or attention to my cousins. Now, please excuse me. I must see my uncle."
My uncle is not how I remember him. Instead of the plump, tyrannical disciplinarian who left for Antigua, I find a gaunt, gregarious man who cannot contain his joy at seeing all of us again, even me. I feel a moment's unease that I have been too confident in Sir Thomas' opinion on the theatre.
Only Sir Thomas speaks for a long time. Well, the old cat interrupts him constantly with calls for food or soup or tea, or anything that can give her an excuse to badger the servants and me. Tom and Edmund also ask questions and the rest of us listen in rapt attention to his tale.
Then Aunt Bertram, who is as excited as she has been in a long time, lets slip a few words about the play. Sir Thomas is slightly curious, but Cousin Tom is quick to distract everyone with hunting stories.
It delays the inevitable but when tea is brought in my uncle announces he must check in on his own little room. Tom follows him in short order and ten minutes later they return with Mr. Yates who even now does not realize that the theatre is closed.
Yates begs my uncle's indulgence but my uncle is determined to be indulgent without drama, and Mr. Rushworth, tired of watching his almost fiancée misbehave in character, is just as eager to bring the curtain down for good.
Patrol that night is uneventful and the next day brings all that I expect. Sir Thomas begins reinstating himself into the life of Mansfield and dismantling the theatre that has sprung up adjacent to his personal office.
None oppose his will directly although only Edmund bothers to apologize for his actions. Uncle Bertram naïvely trusts his remaining children to feel sufficient shame without chastisement, but then again, he hasn't been around them for the last two years.
The second day brings even better news: Mr. Crawford is leaving at his uncle's command for Bath. Shun is even more pleased than I, but No looks absolutely blighted.
Mr. Yates transfers all his spare interest to Shun who is willing to receive it, but two more days of Uncle Bertram's stark regime are all that he can tolerate. It is difficult to know who is more satisfied with his going: Mr. Yates or Sir Thomas.
Now that Yates is gone, and my uncle's initial ebullience subsides, we enter a period of stagnation. My cousins can barely stand it but I've been doing this sort of thing for eight years.
One thing that bothers me with my uncle's return is the increased attention he gives to me. Previously, I was something between a maid and a footstool in his eyes. In two years' time, the rest of my family has not evolved their opinions, so why has Sir Thomas?
He compliments me. He admires my figure and my posture. He tells me strange, unexpected things like how he likes the glow in my complexion. After being ignored or neglected for so long, such attention unnerves me, and in the Drawing Room too!
I mention my unease to Edmund but he gives me no support. It seems to him perfectly natural that I should be admired but it soon devolves into, "Miss Crawford this," and, "Miss Crawford that."
As much as Uncle Bertram seems disposed to appreciate me and Mr. Rushworth, it cannot last. His admiration for his future son-in-law fades with each half-hour together. It would be better, I suppose, if No acts with any warmth toward the poor man, but she cannot be bothered. Frankly, I understand her.
Despite Mr. Rushworth's incompetence and my cousin's indifference, Sir Thomas does nothing to prevent the banns being read.
The wedding service is performed by Dr. Grant, and the newlyweds make a pretty picture riding to Sotherton that first afternoon. A week later the couple retires to Brighton, with Shun in tow.
Cousin Tom does not long linger behind them and disappears to some house party or other a few days later. With so many of us gone, I must endure a most unlucky promotion to the eldest young female in the manor. Had I any idea my cousin's marriage would bring me so much unwanted attention, I would have sabotaged it.
The old cat, at least, treats me no differently. She sends me on whatever errand occurs to her, rain or shine. Sometimes it's just to check that people aren't experiencing too much joy so she can lecture them about it later.
One such trip sends me to Mr. Nelson's home. Aunt Bertram complained of a headache this morning and Mr. Nelson is the closest physician. His itinerant profession keeps him often from home and partly explains why he is still a bachelor and so I do not have high hopes of meeting with him. As I approach, however, I see his housekeeper in the front window, tidying. She waves me in, her hands full. I quicken my step to the door and reach for the knob.
As soon as my fingertips brush the brass, I pull back. It is cursed!
What a horrid surprise! I stare at it briefly. The curse feels layered, like the ring that nearly killed me, although the curse at the center is not so fatal but it will guarantee the feeling of illness that would necessitate Mr. Nelson's services. I study it for too long, for the housekeeper opens the door for me.
"Miss Price!" Mrs. Easton greets cheerily. "I didn't hear you knock. I confess, I thought you would just come in. If you are here to see Mr. Nelson, you needn't stand on ceremony."
"I'm sorry," I sputter, "but the door..."
"Was it sticking on you?" she asks almost proudly. "This door is the best barometer in Mansfield. It sticks before every storm, for as long as I've been here, and that is saying something as I have been here longer than Mr. Nelson."
Oh, surely the knob hasn't been cursed for that long! I look at the blasted thing, then remind myself to come back during patrol for a better investigation. I stutter through my errand and hand over the note from the old cat.The housekeeper frowns as she reads it, but she tells me to wait while she pulls a vial from Mr. Nelson's office. She invites me to wait out the approaching rain there but I politely decline.
Despite the darkening sky, I amble back to the manor, my head heavy with thought and my senses alert for other signs of foul mischief. Naturally I get caught in the rain in the village. I've gone on patrol in much worse, but I can't have people think I'm hardy, so I whimper forlornly under a tree and study everything until Dr. Grant comes by with an umbrella and asks me to walk with him to the parsonage.
Once in his home, I have cause to second guess the wisdom of coming in from the rain. Mrs. Grant and Miss Crawford are there, bored from being cooped up in the wet. They do everything in their power to entertain me, which is rare enough to make me extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious. I leave as soon as I can, despite Miss Crawford's entreaties.
That is meant to be the end of that, but the old cat keeps walking from the village to the manor with seemingly the only purpose of sending me from the manor to the village to do something that she could do, if she had just stayed put. And naturally when I am in the village, I continue my investigation until Dr. Grant spots me or Miss Crawford runs out to say good-day, and then insists I visit the parsonage.
I begin to alter my routine. When the old cat sends me on some errand, I find an excuse to meander through the village and look for more signs and curses. I find them as often as not, then come back in the night to study the curses for age and danger, anything to help me hunt down the demons who set them. Some are obviously fresh -- no more than a few months old -- but some are old-fashioned and harder to date. And they are focused around the village; further afield there is no evidence of them.
I am undecided what to do. It is as if this demon is laying claim to the village and I am aching to challenge him. On the one hand, I am not one to shirk from a fight and breaking the curses would reveal that I too am here now and would certainly draw him out. On the other hand, a number of curses are layered like the ring and I am reticent to repeat the experience. Am I getting old?
It goes on like this for weeks and even Edmund expects to find me in the village or sitting in the parsonage a few times a week. It goes on for so long, that I actually walk to the parsonage out of habit without being escorted. As I rest my hand on the gate, I feel a dull pain that surprises me. I look down at the latch and realize that the blessings I have layered on the mechanism have all been unraveled. Indeed, the gate is now slightly cursed. This is just one curse out of many, but it is just outside the home of a clergyman. I try to be calm about it but, oh, this is terrible.
Mrs Grant comes out to greet me and asks if the gate is giving me trouble, "for it always sticks."
I want to question her closely -- when did it start sticking? -- but I know it sounds as if I am taking the old cat's side in some property dispute.
Mrs. Grant thinks I am there to see her sister and so I am brought into the parlor where I only feel painfully out of place, but after a brief consultation I mutter that I would much rather visit outside where I can search for more signs of demonic activity. The weather being more than fair for the time of year, Miss Crawford walks away from her harp and grabs her shawl.
We stroll outside in the shrubbery and I let my senses take in the scene as Miss Crawford talks of who knows what. I find a few more curses sprinkled about. It is all very gentle and unassuming -- a gate latch here, a door handle there, a few shutters -- yet frightening to think that these are ways into the home of a religious man. I should have noticed this long before now. How shortsighted I have been!
Eventually Miss Crawford rouses me from my investigation by making some supposedly innocuous comment about becoming so accustomed to living in the country as not to envy Mrs. Rushworth.
"Envy Mrs. Rushworth!" I exclaim before I can stop myself. In all my years, it has never occurred to me that I might envy such bland, uninteresting creatures as my cousins.
My companion of course misunderstands me, and we are saved from mutual enlightenment by the approach of Mrs. Grant and Edmund, but it is not a salvation I value. The subject changes from incomprehensible to excruciating under Miss Crawford's guidance.
'I am so glad your eldest cousin is gone, that he" -- meaning Edmund -- "may be Mr. Bertram again," she begins while they are still at a safe distance. "There is something in the sound of Mr. Edmund Bertram so formal, so pitiful, so younger-brother-like, that I detest it."
I find no fault with the desire to send Tom away as I have never liked him much myself, but I have always been fond of the name Edmund.
"I grant you the name is good in itself, and Lord Edmund or Sir Edmund sound delightfully; but sink it under the chill, the annihilation of a Mr., and Mr. Edmund is no more than Mr. John or Mr. Thomas."
There is a hint in this complaint that Miss Crawford prefers to become a Lady Bertram rather than a plain Mrs. Bertram but without the matching desire to pursue the heir. It is unclear to me which she will give up: the title that shall be Tom's to bestow, or the companionship that is Edmund's. After listening to her rhapsodize earlier on the unexpected comfort of country life, I believe Edmund is winning.
Dear Lord, I pray, I know in my heart that I am wrong for Edmund, but if I am, so much worse is Miss Crawford. Protect him from a foolish attachment that can only end in pain.
Thoughts like these parade through my head as the other two join us and walk back to the parsonage. I listen to Edmund dote in his soft way upon Miss Crawford, and it hurts me to think him infatuated with someone so incompatible with his chosen path as he practices sermons on moderation and economy while she spouts witticisms about riches and ambition.
The great clock reminds me of the hour. Aunt Bertram has certainly worked through all the scraps I prepared for her by now. I am in a fluster to leave, as much an excuse to avoid witnessing my cousin and Miss Crawford as anything else.
As I collect myself to leave, paying proper respect to Dr. Grant, I overhear an invitation for Edmund to join them for dinner. That, in and of itself, is not so strange, for Edmund often dines at the parsonage. But Mrs. Grant catches my eye and extends the invitation to me, and that has never happened before.
I try to decline, claiming Aunt Bertram as my excuse, but Edmund bats away my voiced concerns, accepting it conditionally on my behalf until my aunt can be consulted.
Aunt Bertram, for her part, is just as unsettled as I am at the thought of my dining out. Bless her, but she calls to Uncle Bertram for guidance and he sees nothing untoward in it and so it is decided. I am to go.
The old cat hears of it later, weighing in heavily on the subject. There can be no doubt of her opinion. My invitation is both an accident and a courtesy, and I must not think it is meant for my own sake but out of deference to Sir Thomas. And if No-Shun were here, there would be no point in inviting me, so I mustn't expect such kind attention to continue. Nor, indeed, must I expect much from it now.
I do not like the old cat, and I do not think that will ever change, but she has some valid points. This increased attention is the direct result of my cousins being gone. Were Mrs. Grant able to procure some other female company for her sister, I would be worthless to her.
The dinner is worse than I fear. Mr. Crawford is back and joins us in the Drawing Room. On the one hand, another person at the table means less will be expected and needed of me. On the other hand, Mr. Crawford must have some female to flirt with and his sisters are off-limits. Of course the man cannot keep himself from bringing up the worst possible subjects: the Rushworths and Lover's Vows. I have no appetite in the present company; Crawford's chatter turns my stomach but at least no one thinks anything other than Miss Price normally eats sparingly. It is a relief that Mrs. Grant lays out the card table and the three men join her for whist so that I may listen to Miss Crawford's grating harp with no more conversation that evening.
Mr. Crawford stays at the parsonage for a few weeks. His interest in me is unsettling. Why must my cousins be away? If they were here to receive his smiles and flattery, he wouldn't look twice at me.
Before I have time to get really angry with him, however, I receive the best news of all: William is coming home! Even better than knowing he will be back in England is the expectation that he will come to visit me in Northamptonshire. Oh, I can scarcely believe it! We correspond regularly but I haven't seen him for four years.
With the news that William is coming, I am at peace with the world. Not even Mr. Crawford's attention can dent my joy. It seems to amuse people, my giddiness, but what do I care what they think?Continued In Next Section