Chapter 8: in which William returns and we find another demon
Posted on 2015-09-17
At last William arrives!
Somehow the family knows to give us a private moment. He sweeps me into a big hug and we whoop and laugh to see each other again. He is so tall! He looks so much like our father, I cannot believe it. He makes similar comments to me, how grown I am. After the initial greeting, we join the others who are as welcoming as I could wish.
That night, when we have real privacy, we discuss the things we cannot write. After comparing our numbers, not just overall but how many at once -- I win! --, I ask him about the Demon's Kiss.
"Nasty bit of work, from what I've heard," he says. "I wish they'd just kill us quick and be done with it."
"But you've never actually seen it?" I ask, dismayed.
He shakes his head. "No. I've read accounts, but that's all. And what do you know of the Lion of Northampton?" he asks with gleeful anticipation.
"You've heard of him?" That is surprising. Since when does the Navy hear about the goings on in such a boring place as this?
"Him?" he smiles. "That's you, Frankie! My sister is the Lion of Northampton!"
He tries to dance me around the room but I have to set him straight. I tell him all about my one view of the Lion and how it ties neatly into my question about the Demon's Kiss. We stay up late, just talking. I ask if he wants to go on patrol, but we both prefer to share our stories. There will be plenty of time for other activities later.
Mr. Crawford extends his visit, and I really cannot stand him. Every time he is near us, I just want him to go away. Gregarious by nature, he is constantly pulling William into conversations or taking him hunting (for pheasants) when I'd much rather have my brother all to myself. It does not help that William calls me "Fanny" as often as he can when we are with others.
During his visit, the Grants invite not just us young people, but Uncle and Aunt Bertram and the old cat to dine with them. And Sir Thomas, finished with the cocoon stage of his return, accepts the offer!
With the Crawfords and William, we make a boisterous party. Mrs. Grant is everything gracious; Dr. Grant is a liberal host; the Crawfords are their usual selves, luring Edmund and William into their mirth. I observe them from less distance than is my wont, and Miss Crawford or Mrs. Grant is always trying to draw me forward. Why can they not be satisfied with William? Must they make a conquest of me as well? Perhaps it is memories of when the parsonage was occupied by Uncle Norris and the old cat, but I never can be easy here, no matter how I am treated in the present scene.
The party splits into two tables after dinner for cards. Mr. Crawford positions himself between Aunt Bertram and me under the guise of helping us with the game. I master the rules quickly enough, and try to help William in my way, but Mr. Crawford prevents me as well as he can. It seems the only sister who can aid her brother foolishly is his own. The men around my table talk of Thornton Lacey, where Edmund will reside when he finally takes orders. Mr. Crawford asks me if I have ever been there. I deny it, because as far as the family knows I have not, but I occasionally have walked the sixteen miles round trip on patrol just to see it. They talk of improvements for the property, which can only make me think of the fiasco at Sotherton, and I wonder how Mr. Crawford can be so blatant that it makes my skin crawl and no one thinks anything wrong. Am I the only one who sees it?
Before the old cat, seated at the whist table, can send William on an errand to Brighton to pay homage to his absent cousins, Mr. Crawford offers to rent Thornton Lacey. It is effective at derailing my aunt but he uses such language, and gives me such looks as he speaks, that is more than warm for my tastes.
But by far the worst thing about it is that he is saying those things right in front of everyone and no one seems to notice or think it wrong. Aunt Bertram, of course, sees nothing usually so I suppose I must excuse her. William is too involved negotiating with Miss Crawford, so I excuse him as well. In fact, I suspect Miss Crawford of distracting William on purpose for her brother's benefit. Edmund, however, I do not pardon; he, who watched this man flirt with both his sisters scarcely two months ago, is now casting a benevolent eye on me as Crawford's latest diversion! Oh, Edmund, how can you be so blind? Perhaps my dear cousin is more like his mother than I previously credited.
The whist table breaks up, which should allow the old cat to leap in and enact a type of rescue by scolding me for attracting too much attention, but no, she is arguing the final tally with Dr. Grant.
I am forced to depend upon Sir Thomas to spare me from this company. He observes first quietly, watching Mr. Crawford direct unwelcome attention toward me, listening to his plans to rent Edmund's parsonage, before finally receiving Crawford's direct appeal and stopping him. He ignores my distress completely and explains that he expects Edmund to remain in residence at Thornton Lacey once he takes orders, and my cousin agrees. I wonder how Miss Crawford takes the news but I cannot peek to know if she at last realizes that Edmund is the property of the Church and is thus not for the likes of her.
"I repeat," continues Sir Thomas, "that Thornton Lacey is the only house in the neighbourhood in which I should not be happy to wait on Mr. Crawford as occupier."
I want to throw up my hands, or possibly just throw up. Will no one save me from this cad? If Sir Thomas will not say something in the face of such behavior, one and all must consider it encouragement. And what is so abominable about Everingham that Mr. Crawford refuses to reside there? Seriously! I never hear of it except to compare it favorably to an earthly paradise but the man will not live there.
Our games are over and people now congregate around the fire -- all but William and me. Forewarned about the cursed gate latch, he has been trying subtly to find out more about it using his own prayers. He shuffles the cards from the whist table and deals me a hand. As I pick them up to arrange them, I feel the slight sting of a curse. I look at him in surprise but he knows already. It is one thing to imagine a demon stalking outside people's homes, but to enter a parsonage is overly bold.
We must discuss this later but for now we talk in code as much as we can. William mentions that tonight is an "assembly night" but as he rarely finds a partner it is no sacrifice to miss it, which means this is his usual patrol night although he rarely has a chance to kill anything. He is antsy to be gone from here, and it will take hours until we can be stalking in the woods. I do what I can to hurry us along, yawning more than once and looking spent in the hopes that the Bertrams take pity on me.
Our patrol goes into the village tonight. I feel a poor hostess that I cannot offer my brother demons on demand to slay, but he is not so quick at it as I am and I don't think he'd do well against a crowd without me to watch his back.
I point out the curses I have already discovered as we approach them. As there are two of us, we spend the night reblessing the area. It is dull, tedious work, and I pity William to have to have come all the way to Mansfield for this, but he is cheery about it.
"Breaking curses is too dangerous on one's own. Besides," he tells me back in my room where we can speak freely, "when the demon realizes what we've done, this will infuriate him. I want to rub his nose in it."
"The demon who placed those curses may be gone already," I warn him. "I've been killing two or three at a time. Any fiend with half a brain will have fled before now."
"Don't think I don't admire you, but no. I think there is one still active in the area, and I think I know who it is," he says meditatively. "What is your impression of Henry Crawford? He lent me a cursed gun two days ago, and tonight the cards were foul. It could be coincidence, but my guess is that they're related."
"You think he's a demon?" I ask. For a good, long while, I consider it. It explains how he was able to woo both No and Shun simultaneously. It explains how he has managed to avoid censure from the Bertrams and society at large. One sister, Mrs. Grant, hasn't seen him for years and so could easily be deceived as to his true nature until he could bring her under his control. The other sister, Miss Crawford, is already known to be dependent upon him and often betrays a heretical or blasphemous tendency perhaps due to being Possessed by him.
Mr. Rushworth and I have never been taken in by him, but I have my tattoos to protect me from demonic persuasion, and Mr. Rushworth is not perhaps worth courting. Or maybe Mr. Rushworth was merely Influenced to marry my cousin after noting her indifference to him. That would be truly diabolical.
The only thing that defies sense is how I could have been ignorant for so long. I am not perfect, I own my many flaws, but I cannot believe that he has been under my very nose for so long and yet he has not given himself away.
"He cannot be!" I say at last. "I would have known."
And yet I think back to the trip to Sotherton, how I could sense a fiend on the premises, how I witnessed him convince my cousin to abandon her fiancé with him, and how my other cousin was in a lather to meet up with him.
I have always avoided his company, because I find him odious, but perhaps I find him odious because he is a demon? And perhaps my current discomfort at the parsonage is not the result of dimly remembered past experiences but rather a few well-placed curses. There are too many coincidences to discard the idea lightly.
"Knowing there is such a formidable hunter in the area, he would have taken pains to hide his identity," William points out. "He might have a curse actively deflecting suspicions during his stay."
"But if it is so dangerous for him, why even bother to come here in the first place? Why return after he leaves? Why extend his stay as he is doing now?" I wonder.
William just looks at me. "He is hunting the Lion, Frankie. Whether it is you or an angel, whatever name you go by, there are nefarious parties who want to end your career. He might not yet know that you are the person he is looking for, but his pretending to court Fanny Price gives him plenty of opportunities to investigate. You heard him talking with Sir Thomas this evening. He'll be touring every available property in the area soon enough. It's only a matter of time before you're made."
"We have always been dancing only a few steps ahead of death," I say coolly; "Crawford is nothing new. I do not fear him."
"Overconfidence is a sin," my brother reprimands me. "Crawford is one demon, but I do not believe he is acting alone. This is not idle sport. You have made too many enemies for them to continue to ignore you or to treat you lightly."
His words sting. I have grown unused to being chastised by someone I respect. Before I can form a reply, William continues. "We must tread carefully. They are stalking you. Let us give them the credit of being methodical about it and adjust our own behavior accordingly. Larger numbers didn't flush you out, and so they have turned to cunning -- that cursed ring, for instance. And they are not above using human pets to aid them. In fact, we must assume that everyone in the parsonage is already under his control."
"I'm sure it goes further than the parsonage," I add, thinking of No-Shun's adoration and Edmund's blind eye.
As I see it, the quickest thing to do is to sneak into the parsonage tonight and dispatch the fiend in his bed before anyone is the wiser. William, however, is wary, plotting a strategy just like our father. As he sees it, Crawford is just part of a larger scheme to bring me down. Perhaps I am meant to attack Crawford, to be taunted or lured into announcing my position to another fiend waiting to catch me or merely announce my identity to an army of foes. It sounds unlikely to me, but I have a simpler way of life than my brother -- when I find a demon, I kill it. William, however, refuses to be hasty when he is convinced there are large diabolical plots in motion, nor will he allow me to be drawn into a trap. In fact, I must stand down and be Fanny Price for a while.
Just what is my brother asking me to do? Before I can utter my protest, he adds, "Consider it a compliment, Frankie. No one else in the last four centuries has done what you've done. But if we are honest, we must admit that Northamptonshire is no longer an assignment for one person. It is by the grace of God that you've remained unscathed for as long as you have."
"But I'm not," I say. "I have been injured before. I'm injured all the time."
"Then you're just proving my point. If you don't get some support, you are going to get martyred out here."
As frustrating as it is, I must concede the point even though I do not see it clearly. As I admit my own strengths and weaknesses, so I must admit my brother's; and while I am the better fighter, he is a better strategist. While I have spent the last eight years as a hermit, learning very little that I did not discover on my own, William has spent that time interacting with other hunters, studying under some of the more experienced ones. If he sees enough to recognize a trap, then I must believe it is there.
Our individual weaknesses will get us both killed one day but if we combine our strengths, what horde stands a chance?
But there is one flaw to that rosy vision. "William, you cannot stay here indefinitely."
"No, but I can have Father send reinforcements from Portsmouth when I leave. I recommend at least three to start with. One of our brothers or sisters would welcome the chance to fight by your side."
I shake my head. "You forget, I am here on sufferance. I do not get to invite guests to Mansfield. Even you are only here because Sir Thomas wishes it."
I watch his eyes trace the patterns of his thoughts. "Listen, how about this: you are coming out to society--"
"No thank you," I am quick to tell him. This little dinner at the Grants' has been more than I care for. I do not wish to stomach more.
"Listen to me, Frankie," he is more annoyed than amused at my interruption. "You are coming out to society, whether you want it or not. And as you do, Lady Bertram can no longer depend upon you remaining by her side at all hours. She used you as a replacement for her daughters and now she will need a replacement for you. If we can get Susan--"
"William, we can't just--"
"Listen to me!" he snaps. "If we can convince the Bertrams to take in Susan as they have taken in you, then Lady Bertram has a companion for the day, and you have one for the night. Father can send a quiet pair to Andover or Sotherton. It will work. We just need to put the hint in the Bertrams' ears and let their own self-importance do the rest. Start working on our aunt about you going out more, and I'll drop a few comments about Susan to our uncle."
I have grave doubts about William's plan to bring Susan to Mansfield, but the next morning it seems as if his prayers have been effective. Uncle Bertram announces at breakfast that his eavesdropping on our conversation about an assembly last night has inspired him to host a ball at Mansfield for Christmas, to replace the assembly that William is missing in Portsmouth and so that William might see me dance. If there is nothing else that announces I am coming out to society, this will do it.
William looks almost smug and spends far too many words talking about how excited he is to "see my Fanny dance!" I will give him a dancing fanny!
The old cat is clearly torn although my uncle's tone brooks no argument. He even will not suffer a delay until Shun can be lured from the glittering amusements of town to open it for us. The ball will be three days before Christmas -- Thursday -- which will allow time to plan and still Edmund and William can attend. The old cat solaces herself by assuming the importance of planning everything to spare Aunt Bertram from exerting herself. Whether she will determine to arrange it grandly as befitting Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park, or lowly as befitting William and Fanny Price of Portsmouth, only time will tell.
In a private moment, I glare at my brother. "What have you done to our uncle?" I scold him. "I do not want him throwing parties on my account. How can I go out on patrol if he expects me to be out dancing at all hours?"
"It is only one ball," William counters. "And it fits with the plan to bring Susan here."
"One ball, yes, but how many young ladies and gentlemen will be invited to it?" I say, knowing in theory how these things work. "How many of them will issue a reciprocal invitation to their own dance or dinner? I simply cannot spare the time."
"Frankie!" he calls in some alarm. "I do not know if you are too humble or too arrogant. It would do you no harm to find enjoyment in the world in which you live once in a while."
"I do not see how it is possible for me to maintain my training and patrolling regimen as Frankie if I am also gadding about as Fanny," I complain. "If it really is as dangerous as you think, I should spend my time wisely. Besides,I decided long ago that it is better to defend these people than to like them. And you yourself must admit that there are so very few of them worth liking."
Now I have done it. William is appalled. "Where did you learn such a shocking lack of charity?" he asks. "That attitude is a greater threat to your soul than anything a demon might be able to do to it."
I hang my head at his rebuke. I am so accustomed to being alone, to viewing myself as alone, that I have broken a very serious commandment. Even now, the reasons are so ingrained that I cannot fully condemn myself. The Bertrams have never been an overly affectionate family toward me and in consequence I may have been parsimonious in my affections toward the residents of Northamptonshire, but surely my vigilance in protecting them must exonerate me. I want to defend myself from William's accusation but I hold my tongue. He is much more accustomed to debate and I would just lose the argument all over again.
Unfortunately William has more to say. He gives me something of a sermon on the commandment of loving God's creations being inferior only to the commandment of loving God. It is clear he thinks my education has suffered unconscionable gaps during my exile. He recites various parables on the importance of charity until the deleterious effects of my isolation are felt more strongly than before. I must change my behavior and shape my heart to follow.
Still my brother is not done although now he looks uneasy.
"And that is not all," he says reluctantly. "I said it already but it needs reiterating: I want you to avoid going out until reinforcements arrive; it is far too dangerous anymore. I also want you to deflect any suspicion that you are the person Crawford is hunting. He has been flirting with you as an excuse for him to extend his visit. He is probably been trying to Influence you as well into softening your dislike toward him. You and I are protected from such rot so you may not have noticed it but you must start to act as if it is having some effect."
"You cannot be serious." Perhaps I forget myself but this really is too much! I am willing to slowly reconcile myself to spending more time in front of other people, enduring a cycle of dinners and insipid conversation until it no longer seems like a chore, but curtailing my nightly patrols and letting people -- including Mr. Crawford -- think that I am falling for Mr. Crawford's lines is beyond the pale. I have too much self-respect for that.
"Frankie, if you continue running about the woods at night, he will stumble upon you -- him or some horde sent to find you. If you continue being immune to his charms, he will begin to suspect why," William warns me. "And if he knows what you are, he will not have to hunt you in the woods at night; he only needs to send a letter to an accomplice and you are done for, even if you settle accounts him later. I'm not saying you have to actively encourage or even accept his offers but please remove some of his suspicions."
"You are asking for a lot from me," I glare at him.
"I am only asking you to be safe. Stay inside just until someone can come up from Portsmouth. Besides, pretending to be someone else is no more or less than every day of your life here thus far. And the bit about Crawford is only temporary, until we can kill him," he comforts me, which I suppose is true.
"Then let us be quick about it," I say, the voice of reason. "The sooner he is dead, the sooner the Grants and Miss Crawford and all the rest will be restored to their faculties. If he keeps heaping unwanted notice upon me, I cannot be held responsible for my reaction."
"I'm going hunting with him and Edmund on Monday," he says. "Let me see if I can find an opportunity then."
But Monday brings no satisfaction. Mr. Crawford is still as alive at the end of it, having managed to keep Edmund close enough that William cannot engage him privately. The next day threatens rain and so we keep separate.
I stroll on Wednesday to the parsonage for what appears to be a social call. William is not pleased that I am going, but as I see it, he had his chance; this is now mine. I have a small blade in my pocket, not larger than a razor, but big enough to be fatal to a demon. I admit it lacks the flare of Guillaume, but if I'm going to kill someone at midday in a clergyman's home I must find ways to be unremarkable.
Miss Crawford greets me by the gate and I am forced to use a pretext -- that I am here seeking a woman's opinion before the ball. That is all the excuse I need and she draws me inside and up to her room to discuss what I am to wear and how I am to look. The dress I wore to my cousin's wedding will be more than serviceable again, and it is only a matter of the trimming and possibly the arranging of my hair that I have to talk about. Indeed, I let her do most of the talking as my own vocabulary of ornamentation is limited.
"But what shall you have by way of necklace?" asks Miss Crawford. "Shall not you wear your brother's cross?"
As I stammer that I do not know if I should wear William's cross or not -- seriously! why would I not wear it? -- she begins to unwrap a small packet that she has been carrying since I met her outside. The cotton contains an untidy collection of gold chains and necklaces.
"I believe you do not yet have a chain on which to wear it," says Miss Crawford, "and so I volunteer one of my own. As you can see, I have more by half than I ever use or think of. I do not offer them as new. I offer nothing but an old necklace. You must forgive the liberty, and oblige me."
I stare at the necklaces, horrified and fascinated. They are cursed, every last one of them -- cursed for Possession. The strength of the curse varies but the overall effect is unmistakable. I look up at Miss Crawford again and see a similar chain around her own neck, yoking her to the demon Impersonating her brother. I refuse, but she presses me. As poor Fanny, I cannot resist for long. I choose the least evil necklace available. Miss Crawford tries to conclude by putting the necklace around my throat, but here I must be firm. The purpose of this bit of gold is to give me the means to wear William's cross, and I will not wear the necklace without it.
"When I wear this necklace I shall always think of you," I say instead, to take the sting out, "and feel how very kind you were."
"You must think of somebody else too, when you wear that necklace," replies Miss Crawford. "You must think of Henry, for it was his choice in the first place. He gave it to me, and with the necklace I make over to you all the duty of remembering the original giver. It is to be a family remembrancer. The sister is not to be in your mind without bringing the brother too."
"Mr. Crawford gave you this necklace!" I say, trying to stifle my excitement. Really, this cannot be a surprise.
This earns me a laugh. "What are you afraid of, Miss Price? Do you think Henry will see it at the ball and claim the necklace as mine, and fancy you did not come honestly by it? Or are you imagining he would be too much flattered by seeing round your lovely throat an ornament which his money purchased three years ago, before he knew there was such a throat in the world? Or perhaps"--looking archly--"you suspect a confederacy between us, and that what I am now doing is with his knowledge and at his desire?"
I do not know how to answer such a question, for my suspicions are totally out of line with normal expectations. It cannot be called a confederacy when one so thoroughly controls the other, but she is acting completely at the desire of Mr. Crawford. I can only hope his aim with me is to seduce someone who is inexplicably resistant to his devilish charms rather than that he knows I am his mortal enemy.
As soon as I can make my escape -- and I suppose I must consider it an escape to leave a cursed parsonage -- I search for William to show him the necklace. My initial inclination is to shatter the curse and transform it from a Mark of Possession into a simple chain again. Unfortunately, I run into Edmund first.
He has let himself into my own East Room, making himself comfortable while waiting. But why should he not? And why do I feel he has no right to be here unescorted? Still, I must consider it a treat that he is paying me this visit, and is so desirous of my company as to wait for it.
He makes his apologies, waving a half-written note upon which he has been scribbling an explanation, but the long and the short of it is he has bought a chain for William's cross which has only just arrived. "I know you will be kind to my intentions," he concludes, "and consider it, as it really is, a token of the love of one of your oldest friends."
Oh, my precious cousin! Could there be anything more perfect? That he should express such regard for me while a demon Influences him to admire another must show a strong attachment. I would be insensitive -- uncharitable as William would say -- not to feel something in response.
At the moment, I find that I feel much more than I can possibly express. I try to choke out my gratitude at such goodness in his thinking of me but I cannot find the words. One day, I will forget myself, and then Edmund and I will both be surprised!
Now I open Edmund's box and view the necklace. It is slim and delightfully without excessive adornment, as if I myself had a hand in selecting it. It will fit perfectly with the cross. My emotions are all in a tumult, and I cannot decide whether the gift or the giver is more exquisite.
I thank him again with a blush, letting slip how relieved I am to be able to return Miss Crawford's necklace. But here my cousin opposes me: I must not return it or else I will insult and wound Miss Crawford. He will not have any coolness arise between us if he can prevent it. And while I stand there and wonder at his reaction, Edmund leaves me to the privacy of my East Room.
Chapter 9: in which we play strategy games against a fiend
Posted on 2015-09-21
William and I try to fathom what to do about the cursed necklace. My tattoos should protect me from Possession, although it will be too uncomfortable and chafing to wear throughout the night. A couple of hours of direct contact and I will end up with hives. Removing the curse would make it wearable but doing so would instantly inform the demon, who would then broadcast my identity and whereabouts. The simplest thing by far will be to leave it off, wearing Edmund's chain instead, however much that might slight the Crawfords.
However, as I attempt to remove Edmund's gift from the box, I realize it too is cursed. I stare dumbfounded for a full minute before I can call my brother to do his own examination. When he does, he is just as astonished as I.
"Frankie, this looks bad," he shakes his head, "but it proves nothing. Plenty of trinkets have a touch of evil about them; it is naught but demons playing with mortal vanity. It could be merely coincidence. After all, Edmund's necklace is not a Mark." William tries to assure me, but he sounds as if he is the one needing to be assured.
Indeed, upon reflection, I feel sanguine. If Crawford knows what I am, he would not dare reveal himself so clumsily. I say as much to my brother who is much relieved on that score although he still cannot be easy.
"Crawford's gift is by far the greater concern. Beside it, Edmund's is hardly worth noting. We just need to figure out a way to keep the Mark from you tomorrow night without publicly offending the Crawfords or sparking a curiosity to know why," he concludes before lapsing into silence.
We both ruminate on the problem. To clear my head, I begin to practice my patterns -- after all, I think best in the heat of the moment. My brother joins me, and we have quiet meditation.
"If only," I lament, "the clasp was broken. I could not wear the necklace then."
William's eyes widen, then he smiles mischievously at me. As one we rush to the wad of cotton wrapped around the necklace and we dump the vile thing onto a table. With one quick motion, William grabs a little wooden box and strikes the clasp. It is enough. Even if I should be forced to drape the offensive thing around my neck, it would only slide off.
"Excellent idea!" praises William as we examine the damage. "That takes care of Crawford's Mark. Now we just need to figure out how to handle Edmund's piece."
"The curse is very slight and with no apparent effect," I point out. "It should not bother me much. And with the blessing on your cross, someone would have to get very close to detect it. We might be able to remove the curse and hope that no one will find out."
"Let us take no chances by removing the curse," says William. "We have the upper hand on Crawford in knowing his true nature and I will not surrender that advantage by revealing ourselves carelessly."
"Will the demon not think it suspicious that your cross is blessed?" I muse.
"It is a cross," William says. "It would be odd otherwise. And the blessings are so general that no one could suppose that they were specifically placed there for you."
We spend the rest of the day discussing strategy and -- I shudder -- practicing our dance steps.
The next morning a note arrives at breakfast from the parsonage. Mr. Crawford has decided to drive down to London for Christmas and wants my brother as a traveling companion. To accept, William will have to leave sooner by half a day. But he will also travel far more comfortably and, as they near the end of the trip, he can slay the devil quietly. It is too tidy a package to resist.
It looks like William will get to "steal a kiss" in the London road.
Secure in the next day's occupation, my brother takes his borrowed gun and goes hunting, leaving me alone in the house to deal with my aunts. The old cat sneaks in as many snide remarks as she can. She does it right under Aunt Bertram's nose, and when that dear woman is finally provoked, the cat says that she must explain to me how a ball works, "because she has never been to one before, and has not been brought up to expect such delights. Really, sister, what could Sir Thomas have been thinking? A ball for Fanny! What will the neighborhood think? Fanny, you must not seriously believe any interest a young man may show tonight, for your uncle is giving a mistaken impression about you. And when a young 'admirer' finds out the truth, he will lose interest soon enough."
The woman couldn't be more insulting if she criticized my fighting prowess.
Finally sick of them both, I head to my room. On the stairs I chance into Edmund who thinks I am not in looks. How can I be after having my ears assaulted all morning? With such an opening, I am reluctant to contribute more to the conversation, but it is clear that my cousin has his own preferred topic.
He is just returned from the parsonage, having engaged Miss Crawford for the first two dances. Still he is melancholy. "She says it is to be the last time that she ever will dance with me," he sulks. "She is not serious. I think, I hope, I am sure she is not serious; but I would rather not hear it. She never has danced with a clergyman, she says, and she never will. For my own sake, I could wish there had been no ball just at -- I mean not this very week, this very day; tomorrow I leave home."
I try to find the words that I will always be willing to dance with a clergyman but I just mumble something about Uncle Bertram's intention that we should all enjoy the day.
He agrees but is not moved. "You see how it is," he says and takes my hand, "and could tell me, perhaps better than I could tell you, how and why I am vexed. Let me talk to you a little. You are a kind, kind listener. I have been pained by her manner this morning and cannot get the better of it. I know her disposition to be as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of her former companions makes her seem -- gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul."
He is not the only one grieved by his foolish infatuation, but I blame that mischief on Crawford as well: luring Edmund away from his proper path and bringing him pain and dissatisfaction. Still, I cannot confess my suspicions; Edmund would never believe me. For Edmund's sake I fault her education since my dear cousin cannot believe that the wickedness comes from her nature.
My comment gives him further excuse to whine until it feels like he's prompting me to defend her character or praise her potential.
"If you only want me as a listener, cousin, I will be as useful as I can," I protest, "but I am not qualified for an adviser. Do not ask advice of me. I am not competent." Rather, say I am not impartial.
That's all the check he needs to rein himself in. He reverts back to the line that he only wishes to talk with me.
I take the lead momentarily to warn him against speaking too warmly or critically about her in front of me. He doesn't realize it, but when Crawford is killed and his Influence destroyed, Edmund may wonder at how he ever felt any appreciation for the sister. "The time may come --" I say, before I can stop myself from announcing it is coming tomorrow.
He kisses my hand! Before I can fully admire the sensation, he tells me that, as much as he is under her spell, he still recognizes the futility of admiring someone he knows to be so unsuitable. "You can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded. How many a time have we talked over her little errors! You need not fear me; I have almost given up every serious idea of her; but I must be a blockhead indeed, if, whatever befell me, I could think of your kindness and sympathy without the sincerest gratitude."
If he wasn't so wistful, I wouldn't feel so sorry for him or so angry at the demons for warping Edmund's sense. I am half-tempted to encourage him to say more, to commit himself irrevocably against any hope of her, to declare a regret that he will dance with her when he could be dancing with anyone else -- me, for instance -- but we spy a maid and silence ourselves.
Here we part: he to his preparations, I to mine. As I dress and fuss with my hair, I think of Edmund and what he shall be like when he is free again to follow his own inclinations which were leading him so naturally my way before the Crawfords brought their pollution to Mansfield. I know I am wrong for him, but perhaps not so completely wrong as I had previously thought. He did kiss my hand after all, even though the demon is directing him to fall in love with Mary Crawford.
To cap my preparations, Aunt Bertram sends me her own maid, Chapman, to help me finish. Of course, the maid arrives too late except to agree that I look well enough.
When I return to the drawing room an hour later, the older generation admires me in their fashion, and William and Edmund are equally pleased with my appearance at the table. And after dinner, as I file out of the room behind my aunts, Edmund asks me to dance with him, "any two that you like, except the first." Lest anyone forgets, he has already secured Miss Crawford for those.
Finally the guests arrive; so many strangers! Had I any idea there are so many souls in the area? They are usually all abed when I am on patrol, and the old cat never sends me on errands farther than a few miles. I am called on to be introduced to them all, and forced to be spoken to, and to curtsey, and to speak again. This is a hard duty, and I am more than grateful that it is not my normal lot in life. Then I remember William and his decree that I should learn to live among and even to like these people, and the task suddenly seems insurmountable. I glance about for my brother who looks far too comfortable and at his ease.
The Grants and Crawfords arrive, and I feel a little easing in the tension of being surrounded by strangers. The respite is brief, however, because Mr. Crawford instantly importunes me for the first two dances. He does so with a glance at my neck so pointed, that I involuntarily move my hand to the cross suspended there.
"If you are looking for your sister's cast-off, I must disappoint you, sir," I say with my eyes down and my voice low. "The clasp caught on a piece of lace and broke. My apologies to your sister for being so careless with her property."
"How singular!" he exclaims. "Miss Price, if Mary gave it to you as a gift, she has no claim to consider it her property any longer. She will be disheartened to hear of this, however, and will rightly insist we make it up to you in some way. Well, now you must give me your hand for the first two dances as a gesture of goodwill."
Again I glance at William, who catches my eye and smiles brightly in return. I reflect some of that warmth back to Mr. Crawford and accept but I regret that no one else here has bothered to ask me. William was emphatic that I leave Guillaume in my room, but why did I not think to leave a pin in my dress? A carefully timed trip on my part could probably end matters here and now, although William would certainly be stern with me over the ensuing spectacle.
Having secured his purpose, Mr. Crawford doesn't linger, but dissolves into the growing crowd to await the musicians' convenience.
At last the fiddler strikes a chord, queuing the dancers. I watch William secure a petite blonde to his arm as Miss Crawford approaches me.
"Forgive me, Miss Price," she begins as we are herded to the dance floor. "My brother just told me your necklace was broken. I can't believe what a terrible giver I am! You must think I tried to rid myself of a faulty piece of jewelry at your expense. I insist that you let me replace it. Bring it by tomorrow after our brothers are gone and all decent people are long awake, and we can find a better necklace for you while we dissect tonight's ball."
She notices the cross hanging from Edmund's chain. I can see she's about to ask how I managed to find so appropriate a replacement for her own gift so I preempt her and explain who gave it to me.
"Did Edmund do that?" she asks in wonder. "That was like himself. No other man would have thought of it. I honour him beyond expression."
I do not smirk but keep silent. I cannot imagine Edmund will be as pleased to receive her commendation as she is to give it once William slays Mr. Crawford.
Suddenly my uncle is before me, asking if I have a partner for the first dance. I have the mortification of admitting I am committed to Henry Crawford and so my uncle fetches him.
"Here you are, Mr. Crawford," he announces, taking my hand. "Here is my niece to open the dancing with you."
I feel a tremor of panic. Now I know why the old cat wanted to call Shun back to Mansfield! Had it not been for practicing my steps with William, I would be completely unprepared, for none of the Bertrams have thought to warn me. Certainly the old cat has mentioned nothing to me; perhaps that is her revenge for being asked to plan a ball in my honor. If so, well played!
I try to talk my uncle into letting Edmund open with Miss Crawford, or William open with his little blonde, but no!
"It must be so, my dear," he declares.
I resign myself. In the next moment I am conducted by Mr. Crawford to the top of the room, and stand there to be joined by the rest of the dancers, couple after couple, as they form. The fiddler strikes one more chord; I curtsey, he bows, and we begin.
I do not disgrace myself during the first dance, my daily patterns and frequent fights have taught me much about timing my moves and anticipating my opponent. Mr. Crawford's ballroom manners are considerably more pleasingly formal than any others I have experienced; perhaps he fears trying to Influence so many people as are gathered here tonight. Perhaps he believes one of them might be the Lion and doesn't want to expose himself. In any case, I am grateful.
During the second dance -- mercifully my last with Mr. Crawford -- Miss Crawford speaks to me, trying to flatter. I cast a glance at my poor cousin who looks miserable and no wonder! His partner spends more time talking with everyone else than dancing with him.
"Perhaps you can tell me why my brother goes to town tomorrow?" she asks me conspiratorially after the end of the set, ignoring Edmund completely. "He says he has business there, but will not tell me what: the first time he ever denied me his confidence! But this is what we all come to. All are supplanted sooner or later. Now, I must apply to you for information. Pray, what is Henry going for?"
I have no intelligence to give her but what Mr. Crawford wrote in his note to William. She must be satisfied with that.
"Well, then," replys Miss Crawford, laughing, "I must suppose it to be purely for the pleasure of conveying your brother, and of talking of you by the way."
There is something so arch about her look and tone that I cannot tell whether she is flirting on her brother's behalf or if William and I have been made. I find myself blushing and glancing nervously at my brother. He meets my gaze calmly and then smiles pointedly, a reminder to me to do the same. I attempt to follow his lead but I cannot shake my worry. There are plenty of things a demon can do to my brother in a closed carriage during the ride to London that William's tattoos will offer no protection against.
These thoughts nag at my pleasure, such as it might be, all evening. I pass from partner to partner, trying to be polite rather than grave. I speak to William when I can but attempt no overt warning in so crowded a space. Finally, my cousin comes to claim his dances.
"I am worn out with civility," says he as we take our places on the floor. "I have been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say. But with you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence."
It's like he read my mind! Oh, dear, gentle Edmund! If -- when! -- my brother succeeds tomorrow in freeing you from Crawford's Influence, I just may have to speak with you!
We dance soberly, and I find the silence so desirable, the freedom from insipidity and tedium so necessary, that I automatically adjust my behavior to match my old ways, and make myself appear tired and spent.
My brother notices and comes to me, crying, "Poor Fanny!" -- I have yet to fully punish him for using that name -- "How soon you are knocked up! Why, the sport is but just begun. I hope we shall keep it up these two hours. How can you be tired so soon?" He lays it on a bit thick in my opinion but the Bertrams are not big on subtlety with me.
"So soon!" exclaims Sir Thomas for me, "my good friend, it is three o'clock, and your sister is not used to these sort of hours."
I can see amusement glinting in my brother's eyes at the thought that I need my rest, but he does not betray me. "Well, then, Fanny, you shall not get up tomorrow before I go. Sleep as long as you can, and never mind me."
Oh, brother, where were you when Mansfield attempted its theatrical?
"I must get up and breakfast with you," I declare, rising to my feet in spite of my apparent fatigue. "It will be the last time, you know; the last morning." If anything happens to him in the carriage... I cannot think of such things.
"You had better not," counsels Uncle Bertram. "He is to have breakfasted and be gone by half-past nine. Mr. Crawford, I think you call for him at half-past nine?"
How they can discuss breakfast! I want no part of such minutiae until it is too late and my uncle invites Mr. Crawford to join us. How despicable.
I am half tempted to stay up all night blessing the plate and silver until no demon can eat at our table, but with all the bustle of guests and servants, there is insufficient privacy to do so.
Sir Thomas then advises me to retire for the night. I do not want to leave William, but I can do nothing for him in front of so many people. And so I go to my room, waiting for the hours to pass and for my brother to join me.
Chapter 10: in which I deliver my brother like a lamb to slaughter
Posted on 2015-09-24
William stumbles into my room a few hours later, loud and drunk. I have never seen or imagined him like this before.
"Fanny!" he calls out. He is loud enough to be heard in all the nearby rooms but they are unoccupied. "Fanny! Fanny, why did you let that old curmudgeon send you away just as the party was getting started?"
Something is clearly wrong. "What did you call me?" I challenge him.
"Fanny," he repeats. I slug him in his shoulder for his honesty.
"Ouch!" he whines. "What was that for?"
"What is my name?" I hiss at him.
"Miss Fanny Price of Portsmouth," he says as he rubs his shoulder.
I grab his chin and stare into his eyes. They are slightly unfocused, dazed. I examine the rest of him quickly and find that he is cursed.
"Did Crawford do this to you?" I throw the question over my shoulder as I turn to pull out my bag of benedictions.
William struggles to answer, but the words won't come. He cannot even nod in agreement. He is well and truly cursed.
"Sit," I command. At least he is able to do that.
I begin by trying to figure out what kind of curse it is, and how it was administered. This agitates him and I must order him to be still. A few exploratory prayers induce vomiting and he spends a good fifteen minutes hunched over my pot, expelling poison.
"Drink this," I say, pressing a small glass of water into his hand. "Can you tell me what happened?"
He struggles again, but retches once more. Crawford must have slipped something into his drink in addition to swearing him to silence as I once did with Mr. Yates.
"We cannot let you travel with him tomorrow," I decide. "You are in no condition to face a demon just now."
He thinks he is well enough to disagree with me. "No, I must go tomorrow. I must report for duty. And Crawford will carry me to London."
"William, it's not safe!" I cry. "He is on to you; this proves it. Would he attack an ignorant bystander so directly?"
There is much he wants to say but ask he can muster is, "safe enough," and, "Frankie, I must go."
"That is the curse talking," I discount his words. "I will not send you to your death," I say. "Not if I can help it."
"Then help me," he says and squeezes my hand. "I must be fine by morning. I'll pass myself off as hungover if necessary, but I must travel tomorrow."
I get to work, trying to find the right combination of blessings, ointments, and other divine aids. It takes hours, which is all we have, but with one final anointing of oil William's stomach finally releases the last dregs of the curse.
As he sits on the floor, as wrinkled as a used handkerchief, I begin to tidy.
"I hope you realize that you are in no condition to go anywhere," I lecture him. "You are weak as a kitten after all that. You stand no chance against a demon right now. It would be a sin to let you go with him."
He doesn't answer and when I turn to look at him, I can see he is still fighting one last vow of silence. I rush to him and kneel before him, try to sense this last curse but it is faint and slippery. I pray, trying to break it, but it holds fast to my brother.
He shakes his head. It is no use, but he cannot tell me so. "Do not -- Crawford -- I shall be safe," he stutters wearily.
I want to argue, but it is pointless. "At least convince me you are not Compelled to go against your will."
He looks me in the eyes. "Frankie, the Navy compels me."
That is true. If he does not appear as commanded by the appointed time, my brother will be in serious trouble with his captain. Whatever excuse he might offer to explain his tardiness would be rejected out of hand.
But would he not be safer to travel on the mail coach as originally planned?
"I will be safe," he repeats with firmness. "And besides, I want to get to Portsmouth as soon as possible to tell our parents what is going on here. Even if Susan is not invited to stay at Mansfield, someone else must come here and give you assistance as soon as possible."
When he is not trying to speak against the dictates of the curse, he sounds much as he always does. The glassy look in his eyes is gone, and he can focus clearly.
I smile resignedly at him. "Overconfidence is a sin," I remind him. Just because he thinks he can travel with a demon does not make it so. I must decide whether to trust in his assuredness or to suspect that the remaining curse has clouded his judgment in addition to stoppering his speech.
"It is not my sin," he smiles back.
This is William acting under his own power. The last curse might prevent him from explaining what happened to him after I left the ballroom, but that is all. Whatever happened, for some reason he thinks he will be safe with Crawford.
I kiss his forehead and offer him one more blessing to protect him against evil. To make it harder to counter, I add a rider that makes him less noticeable. It will be hard enough for a demon to pay attention to him, much less try to destroy him. For added measure, I offer to weave a pin into his collar, in case the demon tries to grab hold of him.
Then it is time to dress for breakfast.
Sir Thomas is waiting for us at the table, and Mr. Crawford joins us punctually. We do not say much, letting the fatigues of the ball be our excuse. William eats sparingly, his stomach still uneasy, but drinks cup upon cup of tea.
As I watch him climb into Mr. Crawford's carriage, I feel an awful premonition. I have to step forward and grab his hand. "Be safe!" I whisper fiercely.
"Be good!" he whispers back with a squeeze. I know he is prepared with not one but three pins secretly poking through his jacket, a small blade in his boot, and its twin up his sleeve, but I can barely release my hold on him. If anything should happen to him... If it is in my power to prevent it...!
"Mr. Crawford," I say, "I pray you take exceedingly good care of my brother. He must report to Portsmouth on the morrow, and I will not have him delayed because of you."
Mr. Crawford gives me a confused, curious smile. Have I ever broached any topic with him without first him teasing me into speech? "By your command," he offers gallantly with a bow over my hand. "I will give you a complete report when I return, and I hope you will judge me satisfactorily."
I sigh and step back, joining my uncle as we watch them ride off. Oh, when will I ever see my brother again?
Sir Thomas kindly leaves me be, and I return to the breakfast room and sit in the gloom, until the bustle of the footman preparing for a later breakfast rouses me to go upstairs and wash my face.
Edmund likewise leaves today but at a later hour. The loss that I feel at his parting is quite different from what I feel for William but it is no less acute. He is to be gone for a week to take orders and celebrate his first service as a clergyman.
I roam about the manor feeling stupid and melancholy. It was like this the first time William left, but more so now because of the circumstances and company under which he left. I do not consider going to see Miss Crawford; I do not know what I should say to her, and I really don't care to hear anything she might say to me.
I feel exceedingly dull all day. The next day is even worse.
At dinner Sir Thomas at last remarks that he hopes that William will be able to visit us more frequently than once every four years, and in consequence, we must cope with the loss of Edmund. Though he will only be eight miles away, they will be a very inconvenient distance for him to traverse during the normal business of his new life.
This provokes my aunt to repine that all her children are now gone. Even Shun, who should have returned by now, is making a merry Christmas in London with the Rushworths.
"Sir Thomas, I have been thinking -- and I am very glad we took Fanny as we did, for now the others are away we feel the good of it. It is a comfort to think that we shall always have her."
My uncle makes some sly comment about keeping me until I get a better offer, which I suppose must mean marriage. I am tempted to let it drop but then I remember William's plan to bring Susan to Mansfield.
"Do you think I shall be expected to go out, ma'am, as consequence of the ball?" I ask demurely after we are all settled in the drawing room.
Aunt Bertram snorts out of a light doze. "What's that you say, Fanny?" she asks.
"Shall I be expected to go out much to balls and dinners now that I am out?" I rephrase. "I much prefer to stay at home with you but I know my cousins were always going to various parties after they came out."
My aunt wrinkles her whole face as she thinks about this. Until now, she had never considered the consequences of the ball on her own domestic peace. "Sir Thomas," she calls out to her husband over his newspaper, "will we have to send Fanny to dinners and dances now that she is out? I am sure people will feel obligated to invite her to all manner of things but I cannot imagine she will like it very much."
Sir Thomas has already thought of this. "She need not go to everything," he states calmly. "I am sure there will be more invitations that she chooses to accept but she will have to go out regularly. It will not do for our family to slight our neighbors."
"But what shall I do," worries Lady Bertram, "when Fanny is away? Who shall read to me and help me with my piecework?"
"Mrs. Norris might be called upon to sit with you," says my uncle with a frown, thinking of how blissful we have been these last few days without her, especially after the flurry of activity leading up to the ball. "Fanny, have you received a letter from home recently?" he says to change the subject.
I have, and I stutter through a short summary because no one has asked me yet how my family is doing. We meander through the typical conversation that this sort of recital brings: questions about my brothers and sisters that the Bertrams have asked countless times but can never commit to memory.
"Susan must be at least 13 by now," guesses my uncle.
"I believe she turned 15 last month," I correct him. "She is very proud of her needlework," I add, as if that has anything to do with anything.
"Perhaps we can invite Susan for a visit in a few months. Would you like that, Fanny?" he asks.
I act overwhelmed by his generosity. "Oh, sir!" I exclaim quietly.
He smiles at himself. "Why don't you invite your sister Susan to Mansfield for a few months," he offers. "We can admire her needlework much better from here. And when you are called out to some dinner party, she can stay home and keep your aunt company. If she likes it --" Here he stops. There is no need to go further; even Aunt Bertram can see where this is heading.
If only William were here to gloat!
Christmas day comes, and then slips by as the new year approaches. As Frankie, I obey my brother and keep my nightly patrols confined to the halls of Mansfield Park -- it is pointless, really, except for the exercise -- but as Fanny, I dodge the parsonage everyday to avoid the wet. Edmund delays his return from Petersborough due to an extended invitation from the Owen family. Even Shun keeps away from home when London beckons, although No must learn how to bear her husband's company eventually.
It is all well and good -- or it would be if I could hear something from William.
If William was successful and the demon Impersonating Henry Crawford is dead, then Edmund has accepted the invitation at Petersborough because he no doubt wishes to stay away from Miss Crawford. Likewise, the Rushworths feel like idiots for some of their past behavior and do not wish to be left alone with each other. The Grants are probably dazed and wondering what has happened to themselves recently. And Miss Crawford who, having spent the most time Possessed, might have seen or heard things that she cannot believe or credit, and is either distraught or in denial.
On the other hand, if William is alive then surely I would have heard from him by now.
I write to my parents in Portsmouth, both of Sir Thomas' idea for Susan and to hear if they have seen William yet, but it may be a week or longer before I receive their reply. I must confess, until I know my brother is safe, I could care less about the other inmates of Mansfield.
Miss Crawford is the first to cave, calling on us a few days past Christmas, Mrs. Grant puffing behind her. We spend what they would call an agreeable half hour discussing an upcoming tea and Miss Crawford's departure.
We have all been invited to tea at Andover Lodge and while I would prefer to decline, Sir Thomas has already accepted on my behalf. My argument that I have no escort means nothing for tea. My concern about the distance is negated by the opportunity to exercise the horses. My worry that I shouldn't know anyone there is refuted when Mrs. Grant owns that she will be in attendance also.
Miss Crawford, however, pines for the tea and is quite wretched that she must decline, but Dr. Grant has decided that he shall go to town immediately after services on New Year's Day, and Miss Crawford will accompany him. She is due in town for a long visit with friends, and her brother will not be able to take her until Epiphany at least.
We continue listening to her talk of the sights of the capitol until Mrs. Grant makes some comment about outfitting a nursery and lures my aunt out of the room.
Miss Crawford is quick to cross the distance between us for a more private conversation. She practically begs me for information about Edmund, putting forward all sorts of ideas about the Owen family, especially the Miss Owens that she patently hopes I will contradict. After fishing fruitlessly, she at last exclaims against my indifference, "You know nothing and you care less, as people say. Never did tone express indifference plainer."
That is not half wrong. With Edmund gone, I have contemplated my cousin's happiness and my own. He is my favorite person in all of Northamptonshire and I have been attached to him from the first days of my exile, but I now feel confident that we are meant to answer our callings in different ways. At least for now, it is best for Edmund to be away from Mary Crawford, and it is best for me to be away from Edmund.
Having given up on finding out if my cousin plans to provide not just a parson but also a parson's wife for Thornton Lacey, Miss Crawford sulks that she will be gone soon enough.
I suppose I must make some kind comment that she will be missed after she is gone but it is not effusive enough for my companion's peace.
"Oh yes! missed as every noisy evil is missed when it is taken away; that is, there is a great difference felt," she says, trying to be cheerful rather than petulant. "But I am not fishing; don't compliment me." Have no fear of that!
I desperately want to ask her about her brother, if she has heard from him or about him, or if she has noticed a change in her thoughts or feelings. Her feelings for Edmund are, if anything, more clinging than they have been, perhaps because she realizes how wrong her past behavior and opinions have been, how offensive to a man like my cousin, how little chance she has if everyone has their own reason restored. At least, that is what I tell myself to give me hope. That she volunteers no information about her own brother who held her in such thrall must give me something.
Indeed, Miss Crawford is compelled to bring up Edmund making a match with one of the Miss Owens again almost as a joke, but really she is too frustrated and irritated to be amusing. It all comes off flat.
Finally, she takes a more genuine, serious tone. "I shall be going to London soon," she says with something of a wistful sigh. "Dr. Grant is determined to buy something for my sister before the baby comes and he is hurrying me away in the process. Good, gentle Fanny! when I think of this being the last time of seeing you for I do not know how long, I feel it quite impossible to do anything but love you. I hate to leave you. I shall see no one half so amiable where I am going."
Such an odd and unexpected declaration! I wonder if this is proof that William has succeeded. "But you are only going from one set of friends to another," I remind her. "You are going to a very particular friend."
"Yes, very true," she frowns. "Mrs. Fraser has been my intimate friend for years. But I have not the least inclination to go near her. I can think only of the friends I am leaving: my excellent sister, yourself, and the Bertrams in general. I am not ready to part with you, and there is so much more I want to do here. You have all so much more heart -- more soul! -- among you than one finds in the world at large. You all give me a feeling of being able to trust and confide in you, which in common intercourse one knows nothing of. I wish I had settled with Mrs. Fraser not to go to her till after Easter, a much better time for the visit, but now I cannot put her off. And when I have done with her I must go to her sister, Lady Stornaway, because she was rather my most particular friend of the two, but I have not cared much for her these three years."
She editorializes more on the matrimonial state and the difficulty of finding happiness in it as she measures it, which irritates and makes me question if she is truly free of corruption. Whether that means William did not succeed or if she was always so clouded in her thinking is a mystery.
"I shall see your cousin in town soon," she tells me, plucking at an ugly throw. No need to state which cousin. "At least, he talked of being there tolerably soon before he went to his..." She cannot even say the word ordination. "And Sir Thomas, I dare say, will come to town in the course of the spring; and your eldest cousin, and the Rushworths, and Miss Julia Bertram, I am sure of meeting again and again, and all but you." She reaches out and takes my hand. "I have two favours to ask, Fanny: one is your correspondence. You must write to me. And the other, that you will often call on the parsonage, and make amends to my poor sister for my being gone. I detest leaving her now but I cannot stay. Not only am I promised to be in London, but as a houseguest, the Grants will be most desirous of me being gone when the baby arrives. And as selfish as I am, I do not want Anna to try to divide her time between her baby and me. She had much better give all her attention to her child, only I know I will feel neglected and ill-used because of it. So you see, I had much better go now, and leave her in your gentle hands."
I accede for two reasons. Firstly, because that is what Fanny Price does. And secondly because William has gently ordered me to start liking the people under my care, and I might as well start with Mrs. Grant who has always been pleasant to me.
I do not like Miss Crawford, not really, not even if William insists that I grow to like her, not even if I try to pity her as a victim of Possession. And I do not understand how she can truly value such a mouse as I appear to be, even if she is no longer controlled by a demon. I do not expect her to keep up the correspondence if she can drop it; the only reason for her to write with me would be to find more direct information about Edmund than she might wring from her sister. And that is only useful if William is dead.
We talk a little more -- or rather, she talks while I listen -- until the other women return, Mrs. Grant with a basket on knitted items hanging from her arm.
"And did you have a quiet talk while we were gone?" asks Mrs. Grant to her sister, who nods and makes noises of approval.
"Dr. Grant and I have done all we can to persuade Mary to stay," says Mrs. Grant to me, "but she is committed to see her dear friends. And I am sure she will find London more lively than Northamptonshire in winter. But perhaps we might lure Henry back sooner. I think he was developing a tender appreciation for our society before he left for Christmas with the Admiral."
What am I to make of this news? Does this mean that they have heard from Mr. Crawford since he left for London? Is this merely an old plan of the demon's to return once his business in town is concluded, or is this the direct result of his ride with William? I am bursting with my questions but I cannot act too agitated.
Miss Crawford, however, sees me shuffle in my seat. "And have you heard from your brother William? Did he have an easy journey to Portsmouth?" she asks innocently.
"I have not received his letter yet," I concede. "If he sent it from Portsmouth, he no doubt gave it to my family to post, and they will want to include more news in the letter before franking it."
The sisters nod sympathetically. A neglectful brother sounds so mundane but I have not the luxury of being ignorant to darker possibilities.
After Dr. Grant and Miss Crawford depart, we have Mrs. Grant to supper as if to brighten her spirits, but looking around the table -- Sir Thomas, the old cat, Aunt Bertram, and myself -- it seems our guest has the most cheer to spare. She talks and talks, with Aunt Bertram throwing in an occasional, "Yes," or, "Oh, really?"
The old cat interrupts according to her wont to criticize me for walking alone on the gravel today when I could have been tramping through half the village at her command. I choose to think she is merely cross at the Grants for the necessary changes they are making to her old parsonage in preparation for the baby, which in her twisted logic implies some fault at the condition in which she left it.
Distracting us from any discord, Mrs. Grant blurts out that she has at last heard from her brother. "Henry will be back in Northamptonshire next week but too late to drive us to tea," she announces. "Such a shame, for I know he would be quite welcome at Andover Lodge, but I cannot begrudge him the time spent with his uncle. He will keep me company until Robert can be persuaded to leave London."
My uncle starts at that and wonders aloud at Dr. Grant's commitment to his parish. Mrs. Grant defends her husband gently and prettily so as to give no offense.
I only half listen to the conversation, however; my thoughts are too full of what Mr. Crawford's return means for William's safety. This is bad indeed.
Chapter 11: in which I accidentally rescue two people
Posted on 2015-09-28
On Sunday, the service at Mansfield is performed by the same curate doing the duty at Thornton Lacey. I must give Dr. Grant points for cleverness there, for if this curate is good enough for Edmund's parish, Sir Thomas can find no cause to criticise him speaking before the congregation at Mansfield.
That afternoon, the Bertram carriage takes me to the parsonage to collect Mrs. Grant, and then to Andover Lodge.
My fellow passenger talks animatedly of Mr. Peele's sermon. Before long, I find myself discussing and even arguing theology with her. She is wrong on certain points, more wrong than her husband, but I pass a pleasant ride.
At Andover Lodge, we are greeted by Mrs. Andover. She introduces us to her son Charlie, with whom I danced at the ball, and her two daughters who are out, Catherine and Claire. Miss Claire I recognize immediately as William's petite blonde.
She drags me into conversation in no time at all. "Oh, Miss Price," she says, "how I loved your come-out. We all did, didn't we, Charlie?"
She doesn't wait for her brother to answer. "And your brother was such a good dancer," she tells me. "I never thought sailors even knew how to dance; their ships must be too small for a hall to dance in and, besides, what would they do for partners?"
I honestly have no response to this, but she doesn't need one. "But then your brother told me that he practiced the dances with you. You were very graceful at the ball, Miss Price; everyone said so, even Charlie."
Poor Charlie Andover blushes and stammers and walks away.
I murmur my thanks for the compliment, and she keeps talking about William, which only depresses me.
The rest of the tea is much the same: people talking about the dance at Mansfield, people talking about William. Always the conversation seems to wind back to William. I naturally remember his charge for me to befriend these people but I cannot exert myself to do so now. My heart is too full of William for anything else.
Mrs. Grant comments that I am much quieter on the ride home, but what is there for me to say? I am too worried to play my usual part.
Back at the manor, I am accosted about the tea. I'm not sure how to talk about it using Fanny's words and mannerisms, given that my thoughts are consumed by my brother, so I parrot what compliments I heard. Sir Thomas is gratified and Lady Bertram as well. The old cat, whose work was admired, is not pleased but instead lists all the effort that went unnoticed. She sounds severely underappreciated.
Sir Thomas then asks my opinion of the Miss Andovers. I give it blandly. He asks if Lady Bertram should invite the two girls to a more private get-together.
Before I can answer, the old cat leaps in. "Sir Thomas, what can you mean by this? It is one thing for Fanny to open a ball at Mansfield when her cousins are away, and you have already explained how Fanny must go out in public now, but do you not think it shows a lack of distinction between Fanny and her cousins if she is allowed to invite people to tea? Besides, I know for a fact that the Andovers have a son; he danced with Fanny at the ball. If he should form an attachment, if she should encourage him..."
She did not just say that. My ears must be playing tricks on me. I may have watched No-Shun throw themselves foolishly at Mr. Crawford last fall, but I would never wish to emulate such behavior.
My uncle, at least, speaks in my defense, saying that I am a model of decorum and restraint. "And now that her particular friend Miss Crawford has gone to town, and her cousins show no sign of returning soon, I would not deny Fanny all amusement."
It is soon settled to Sir Thomas' satisfaction. Aunt Bertram will invite the Miss Andovers to a small and intimate tea. She will dictate and I will write. And if the old cat is not pleased, she will know far enough in advance to stay away.
I am not looking forward to a friendship with Claire Andover, but it is the sort of thing William wanted of me. And if I attach myself to a social chatterbox, so much less I will be required to speak. And it is in honor of William that I decide to go through with it.
The weather is fair enough for me to walk in the day, which is what I want: to be out of the manor and among my thoughts of my brother. William has forbidden me from going on patrol unaccompanied, but surely there is no injunction against going out in the daylight. I still cannot believe that he is gone but Mr. Crawford's imminent return can have no other interpretation. The lengthening silence from Portsmouth is also unsettling. It all combines to make me singularly unfit to spend time with anyone.
Luckily for me, the old cat notices my distraction. The best way to cure wandering thoughts, according to her, is with wandering feet. She invents errands for me to her house, into the village, to fetch the housekeeper. I take my time, the only manifestation of defiance I allow in Fanny, and pray for my brother and plot against his assassin.
I am sitting with Aunt Bertram, arranging her scraps and threads in anticipation of being sent all over Northamptonshire as soon as the old cat arrives, when Mr. Crawford is announced.
I can barely speak or look at the fiend. I hardly hear him talk. My limbs tremble. It is in every way horrible. I strain my senses for some trace of the diabolical but he is too contained to betray himself beyond the impression of a layered curse. I want to unsheathe Guillaume and find out, here and now, which of us will live and which will die.
Lady Bertram, however, sits on her settee making insipid chatter about, "Yes... Yes... And how was your Christmas?... You don't say, I had no idea!" and Crawford joins her.
I force myself into motion, constant motion. I sit briefly at the secretary to scrawl a few words to my aunt's correspondent. I check on her pattern work. I tell the maid that Lady Bertram desires tea now. If the old cat could see me, she would gape at the resemblance to her own bustle. What she wouldn't notice however, is how my hand brushes the poker and tongs as I pass by the fire, how I pocket my aunt's scissors or weave a needle into my sleeve as I fuss with Lady Bertram's busywork, how I check the hallway to see if others are near enough to hear sounds of a struggle should one break out. She would notice that I find my pen in need of trimming but I think the strength of my grip on the penknife would escape her.
After paying sufficient obeisance to my aunt, the villain turns to me. I feel my color heighten as he mentions William in a cordial, smiling tone. "I wish I had a letter for you from your brother, Miss Price, but he said he would post it from your parents'," says he.
I catch the fiend gazing dopily at me and pick up the penknife again, resting it with apparent carelessness in my lap. "And how was my brother, sir, when you left him?" I ask cautiously, willing him to provoke me.
"In much better spirits than when we left Mansfield, I assure you," comes the ready answer. "We were both so tired the morning after your ball that I don't think we spoke five sentences together the first twenty miles. But we both came 'round eventually and we were suitably lively when I introduced him to my uncle in Hill Street. Then, of course, whenever two sailors get together, there is always a pleasant noise. You need not fear we either of us embarrassed ourselves."
"Oh, and so William met the Admiral?" asks my aunt. I can't believe she's still paying attention. "That cannot be a bad thing."
"No indeed," Mr. Crawford agrees, and tells us all about it.
I am trapped between hope and despair. If William is dead, then Crawford must know that he was a demon hunter; his tattoos and other defenses would have given him away. And if Crawford knows William's secret profession, then he must guess mine. And if he can guess that I have been the one dispatching his brethren in the country, then he is not here to make small talk.
But he does not attack. There is no lurking malevolence in his chatter, no dark gleam in his eye as he shares the story of my brother's introduction to the admiral. It is too confusing for me to make sense of it. If Mr. Crawford is being sincere and honest, then I have no reason to think William anything but a teasing correspondent for not writing before now. I know -- I know it deep in my soul! -- that Mr. Crawford is evil and false but I feel the lure to believe him, the same lure my brother must have felt when he got into that carriage with this fiend.
I clench my hand around the knife until it bites into my own flesh. The pain is a tonic but yet I cannot strike him down in front of my aunt. And then he stands, and says his farewells, and bows himself out.
The old cat arrives not ten minutes later. Had she been any sooner then surely she would have seen him. Instead, she sees me sitting at the desk, holding my penknife, and tells me to snap out of it. She has a long list of things that need done, more than she can possibly do today, and as Aunt Bertram has no need of me now, I need to change my shoes and take a basket to Mrs. Johnson right away.
I obey without a sound of dissent, walking the long, circuitous path in the wood on my way back. As I pass a dappling of shade, I feel a premonition. I say a small prayer, not for protection but detection, and I feel a curse near me and drawing closer.
I kneel down as if to check my boot, secretly unsheathing Guillaume and hiding him in the folds of my cloak. If it is an innocent bystander, I don't want to scare them; if it is Crawford, I will not suffer him to live.
I stand up and continue on my route, walking slower, my eyes up in the branches as if lost in thought; I want to be caught. I test my grip on Guillaume. The basket, thankfully, was left behind with all its contents in the course of my errands.
After a few yards I can feel the curse closer still. Then comes the sound of footfalls. Then the voice, his voice: "Miss Price."
I turn on a pin, Guillaume in front. Crawford falls back, startled. He is unarmed; at least, he has no weapon to fight me, but that has never been an impediment before when battling demons. I attack methodically, William and his death the furthest things from my mind.
Crawford keeps retreating. He was not expecting this. I have caught him off guard and he cannot find his footing. This is rather like my first fight with Lord T, in which the fiend was too surprised to mount an effective defense; Lord T's curses were pointless and Crawford is too unprepared for even that.
He cries out in alarm and attempts to hide behind a tree but I am no novice to be caught thusly. I feint to the right, then send Guillaume to the left, slashing his greatcoat but unfortunately leaving the beast unharmed. He screams and flails about. Honestly, most demons at this point are silent but for the sound of their breathing. They are not usually a chattering class when they are locked in mortal combat. Maybe the daylight has something to do with it.
I swing Guillaume at his throat, barely missing as he tumbles back and trips over a root. Even then, I am not without my little trophies: his neck cloth is in pieces, and a chain that he normally wears is torn from him. He falls backwards and lands with a thud that winds him. In the blink of an eye, I am kneeling over him, Guillaume poised for the killing blow.
Poor, simple idiot! How could he think he had a chance against me? Now I think of William and it hardens me even more against this devil. Surely my brother was not bested by this incompetent fool.
Crawford reads his last moments in my eyes. He quietly pleads, "Mercy," and falls silent at last, holding up his hands weakly in supplication. It is that gesture that lets me see a stain at his throat. It is small but red, and it slowly grows. One more trophy, but it negates the whole exercise.
Much as I want to, I do not take his life. Crawford is human after all, and he is not trying to harm me. If he is not the demon spoiling the parsonage, is that why William thought he was safe to travel with him? And what does that mean for William? I relax my position imperceptibly and ponder what this revelation means now.
Crawford has obviously been Possessed, and the chain was his Mark. My thoughts naturally recall the cursed necklace Miss Crawford gifted me before the ball. Is Miss Crawford Possessed by the same undiscovered fiend? I try to remember why William and I were so confident that Henry Crawford was our villain.
I am inexperienced with interrogation but I can see the importance of asking a few questions. It is a shame I didn't get more information from John Yates when I had my chance. Then again, the death of a demon is completely different than the abrupt removal of a Mark of Possession.
"What did you do to my brother?" I say.
"Nothing," he denies.
I rest the point of Guillaume against his chest gently but still a threat.
"I took him to London," Crawford quickly amends. "We had dinner with my uncle and then I saw him board the stage for Portsmouth."
It cannot be that simple. "What did you do on the London road?"
"I fell asleep," Crawford confesses. "When I woke up, we were halfway there. Then I couldn't remember Price sitting there or I couldn't remember what I was supposed to do to him until we were nearly there."
"Exactly what were you supposed to do?" I demand.
He squirms a little so I apply some pressure through Guillaume and his tongue loosens.
"I was to, to give him a coin and to, to ask him some questions," he stutters. "But it didn't work. He wouldn't take my money, not even as a gift."
If the coin was cursed to compel whoever holds it to tell the truth, then William would have noticed and refused it.
"Who gave you the coin?" Perhaps I lean too heavily on Guillaume.
"My sister," he winces.
"Which one?" I press him.
"Mary!" I am making him nervous.
Is Miss Crawford a -- No! Every sense revolts against the idea. "And where did Miss Crawford get the coin?" I will pick at the thread until the whole cloth unravels.
"She made it." He is in a strange position to have a laugh. "I saw her!"
"You saw her?" Oh, he is in trouble. Men lying flat on their backs and helpless in a wood while their conqueror holds a blade to their hearts had better be more serious and honest.
"I saw her! She can make things. She can make people... do things. I have seen her do it before. She made that chain you took from me, and with that, she made me do many things. She's given similar gifts to other people." He finishes gravely enough for me to doubt his insincerity. But still, Miss Crawford cannot be a demon; that is impossible, and it is very suspicious that Mr. Crawford should be able to describe profane matters like Marks so clearly when Mr. Yates, by comparison, had no idea he was even Possessed.
There is a small sound behind us. His eyes widen in warning and I move just in time. Still, I receive a glancing blow to my forehead from a heavy basket. I fall back onto the frozen dirt and leaves, dazed but still gripping Guillaume.
Crawford scrambles to his feet and intercepts my new attacker, Mrs. Grant. I cannot tell which of us he is trying to protect.
"No, sister, no!" he cries.
Instead of calming her, his words enrage her further and she now swings her basket at him.
On the whole, a basket is very ineffective against a blade but I am loathe to harm a pregnant woman, especially one I have decided to befriend, so I proceed carefully. A quick slice on her arm confirms her nature and has the advantage of forcing her to drop the wicker bludgeon. When she does not burst in flame from the wound, it is simply a matter of immobilizing her in the least damaging way.
Crawford reenters the fray and grabs his sister, pinning her arms.
If Mary Crawford or -- far more likely -- someone else is a demon and currently Possesses Mrs. Grant, then the woman will have a Mark, possibly a necklace like both Crawfords. I am too desensitized from slaying demons to feel any impropriety at unfastening the ties of her cloak or the first two buttons of her dress.
I find it immediately; the curse feels hot and sharp through the fabric of my gloves. I grab it and quickly yank, and the necklace breaks and comes away in my hand although the curse is still intact. There is an immediate effect on Mrs. Grant. Her struggles cease and she stands limply in her brother's arms. The anger in her expression drops away, replaced by a fleeting incomprehension which dissolves equally swiftly into horror. Mr. Crawford alters his hold from one of restraint to one of comfort.
"Oh Robert!" she cries. "Oh, Mary! What is going on?"
It occurs to me that I am ill-suited for this kind of scene so I bustle like the old cat. I wrap Mrs. Grant's Mark in my handkerchief, suitably blessed to shield me from any irritation but without breaking the curse which would surely notify the demon Possessing her. Then I quickly scan the area for Mr. Crawford's Mark. Now that I know what to look for it is terrifyingly easy to find with layer upon layer of curses -- multiple Possessions from different demons, Charm, Seduction, Luck, on so on. He was obviously kept as a plaything, to be petted or abused as the situation required. Is all this new or have I been blind?
The chain radiates too much pain for me to touch it directly, even with my gloves. I split my handkerchief in two, reserving half for Mrs. Grant's Mark. Even with that, the chain is uncomfortable for me to carry. I add a few more blessings until the Mark emits a faint ache, then bring it back to the other two who have by now recovered from the immediate shock.
"Let me be honest with you," I say, "though it may sound fantastical. You have both been controlled by someone who gained that power over you by giving you a special object called a Mark. As long as it was in contact with your skin, your free will was an illusion."
I hand them each their bundled chains. "Keep these with you at all times," I instruct them, "but under no condition are you ever to wear them or to touch them directly again. Their power is still intact and you would end up as you were before."
Mrs. Grant nods numbly and pockets the handkerchief; she can dissect my words later when she is thinking more clearly.
Mr. Crawford, however, looks distraught. "We should destroy those wretched things," he says grimly.
"Unfortunately, that would reveal too much," I caution, trying to think like my brother. "You would attract the attention of not just your owner, and I believe it would cost you your life and more. I am sorry, Mr. Crawford, but you must bear this burden until your owner is destroyed." The demon will surely know if the curse is broken, but even with my suggested precautions he might even be aware that these two pets had their Marks removed for a short period of time.
I level my gaze on Mrs. Grant. "And so I must ask who gave you the necklace."
"My sister Mary," she admits sadly.
That is the same answer as Crawford gave, yet it makes no more sense. Mary Crawford simply cannot be a fiend.
"And do you know who gave the necklace to her?"
Mrs. Grant shakes her head but her brother speaks. "It was Mary. Whatever controlled us is controlling her too," he says with certainty. "It started the day our aunt died."
At last a possible lead. "What happened that day?" I ask.
He blinks rapidly to clear his vision. "My aunt and I went on an early walk that day. Mary had slept in, but she was up when we returned. A maid said she was in the parlor with a visitor. We weren't expecting anyone, but we so frequently received unannounced guests that we thought nothing strange."
He paused for a fortifying breath. "When we walked into the parlor, Mary was alone. She was lying on the rug, her body was... distorted; I don't think there's any other word for it."
He falls into silence as he remembers the ghastly experience.
"We were instantly alarmed and began to rush to her side, but suddenly we couldn't move. I was completely immobilized, and I'm sure my aunt was the same. Mary stood up; it was a relief at first, to think she was unharmed, but the longer we stood stock still, the more uncomfortable and uneasy I became. Then she approached our aunt. Mary put her hand on her shoulder -- gently -- but still Aunt Crawford's whole face contorted in pain although she made no sound. By the time anyone saw to her, she was already dead.
"And then Mary turned to me, and there was something in her eyes I didn't recognize. It wasn't her. She told me that this would be our little secret, and she tied a small length of ribbon around my wrist, to bind me, she said, until she could find an appropriate collar."
He bows his head. "And I have never been able to speak of it until now." He looks beseechingly. "Miss Price, if you can free Mary..." but there are no words to express his possible gratitude or his current desperation.
I do not know what to tell either of them. Before divine inspiration can strike, I see another flash of movement, far but approaching.
Thinking quickly, I whisper to them: "Mrs. Grant, Mr. Crawford, someone is coming. Do not tell them the truth of what happened. Say instead that you were set upon by a gypsy who attacked you and tried to steal from you, but you fought back and chased him off. I have only just stumbled upon you, and am quite overset by the news."
It is drama of a quality suitable for Yates but I do not have time to think of a more believable story. Both Crawford and Mrs. Grant are disheveled and bleeding from small cuts and even I must look like I have taken a tumble. I must contain the situation as quickly as possible before William's concerns for me come true.
The pair are confused, and at first I fear they will ruin everything, but as the new player draws nigh, they recognize her as Mrs. Grant's own maid. There is a look of fear shared between them and I know that Alice is in the demon's thrall. Mr. Crawford reluctantly hides the cursed chain in his pocket and steps forward to greet the girl with the story I have just fed him.
Alice looks deeply concerned and comes closer to comfort her mistress, declaring that she feared something like this had happened, which only makes Mrs. Grant more uneasy. They have all been cursed and Possessed so it is no wonder the poor woman is upset, but if she doesn't pull herself together, she will expose us all. I breathe a short prayer for strength; anything more seems too invasive given her recent past. In lieu of more substantial aid, I press her hand and that is enough.
The maid walks all of us back to the parsonage where we endure another shake up. At the gate, I announce that I am returning to the manor; I have been away for too long, and my uncle needs to hear of what has happened. Mr. Crawford declares that he should go with me, especially to inform Sir Thomas. Mrs. Grant is nearly in tears at the thought of being left behind.
I offer to break the news to the Bertrams. "I am sure, when my uncle hears of this, that he will want to speak with you both," I say. "Until then, remain here and recover from your ordeal. Although, may I trouble you for an escort? Perhaps your maid can walk with me? I know I shall be perfectly safe if I stick to the open path, but still I worry."
Neither is best pleased with the idea, but it is better for them to be together than apart, and it has the added bonuses of taking the maid away from them and giving them time to make their stories consistent.
Alice starts to protest that surely Mrs. Grant would prefer her maid at such a time, but Mr. Crawford declares he is quite capable to gather blankets and pour tea.
Thus I go to Mansfield Park, as quickly as I may as Fanny, with the Possessed maid hot at my heels.
Chapter 12: in which I realize that I have been Distracted
Posted on 2015-10-01
I do not consider it prudent to provoke or free the Possessed maid on our walk. I have already upset that balance far too much today and I do not want to press my luck. We stick to the well-traveled paths where we are under constant observation. The maid tries to pry details of the mysterious gypsy from me, but I deny everything. "I wasn't there when it happened," I state.
After a while, she ceases her chatter and I am free to let Mr. Crawford's story tumble around in my brain. He spins a very convincing yarn and, had he named anybody but his sister, I would believe him. Had he accused his uncle the Admiral, Miss Crawford's particular friends Mrs. Fraser or Lady Stornaway, or any random London acquaintance, I should have believed him instantly. If he had named Dr. Grant or Mrs. Rushworth senior it would have made more sense than his own sister. His story, told intelligently yet in ignorance of the full meaning of what he saw, is compelling, but I do not know if I can believe him; his chain is so cursed, who knows what he really saw and what he was told to see?
Promising myself to consult my books and notes as soon as possible, I wish Alice a good-day at the kitchen gardens and scurry inside.
My uncle is exactly where I expect him to be, and he bids me enter into his office. I stumble inside and pour out a nearly inarticulate tale, intentionally sketchy so that I do not contradict Mr. Crawford's eventual explanation. It takes a few tries but at last he understands me.
"Attacked! Mrs. Grant was attacked!" He is up on his feet, horribly offended that anything like this could happen on or near his land. He sends a summons to Mrs. Grant and Mr. Crawford so that they can give him their story directly. He then pours me a small glass of sherry to calm my nerves and sends me to my room.
"But what about my aunt, sir?" I protest needlessly. "No doubt she is anxious for me to return to her."
"I think it best that you not see her or tell her about this at present," he says. "Wait until I have spoken with Mr. Crawford. I do not wish to alarm her unnecessarily." As if anything could alarm her!
I sip my sherry and go to my bedroom to pull out my books and walk them down to the East Room. There, I pour through them, looking for the explanation I feel certain is just out of view. In the end, I resort to jotting down the facts as I know them. All the little instances of Mary and Henry Crawford acting wrong; all the times they said or did things deserving reproach yet received smiles; all their teasing; the brother's unscrupulous flirtations; the sister's unkind words and thoughts about clergymen and the Church. They must both have been Possessed by the same demon, but how does that fit against the story of Crawford's aunt? It would be much simpler if the demon killed the aunt and Impersonated the sister.
Again I recoil at the idea. That cannot be! My thoughts slide to William and what Mr. Crawford's Possession means. We were wrong about Mr. Crawford being a demon; however attractive and tidy that supposition is, incontrovertible facts do not support it. My brother was in no real danger during the carriage ride to London. My confidence that he is safe aboard his ship increases although I still await a letter from Portsmouth to confirm my prayers have been answered.
My mind then turns back to Mr. Crawford and the questions he was supposed to ask my brother. I must ask him about them as soon as we have a private moment for much can be learned from them. However, I allow myself a momentary gloat to think of my prayer of protection working so well that Crawford slept through half the journey. Distraction is a very powerful and useful blessing.
I absentmindedly spy a pile of clouds on the horizon forecasting snow and think of blessings and prayers I can use to affect the weather. There are the standard petitions of a traveler requesting fair skies for his journey of a farmer needing a gentle rain for his crops. There are even prayers for cold and snow and ice; it is perhaps hard to see the good in such weather but there is blessing in all things that come from the Lord, just as there is a curse in all things that come from the devil no matter how good they might appear.
There is a soft knock on the door, then Mrs. Grant's muffled voice calling for me. I quickly hide my books and open the door to her.
"Am I right? Yes; this is the East room," says she as I open the door further for her. In all the years she has been at Mansfield, during all the visits to Lady Bertram for tea or conversation, all the suppers and dinner parties, she has never been in this room. "My dear Miss Price, I beg your pardon, but I have made my way to you on purpose. I am so afraid; I need your help."
I feel a frisson of worry. Has Alice figured things out? I pull her gently inside and shut the door.
"Tell me what is troubling you," I say, sounding like a confessor.
She quickly explains her fears, which center on her husband and his safety. "If anything should happen to him," she breathes. "If my sister should hurt him!"
The siblings are at least consistent in blaming Miss Crawford who is, doubtlessly, as much a victim as they are. "Are you sure it is your sister who is the..." I cannot bring myself to say the word. The clouds are as thick as quilts.
After an attentive pause, Mrs. Grant asks, "Miss Price, are you distracted?"
"No, I..." Again, I stop. My mouth hangs open. Distraction is a blessing, but surely it can be a curse too. If I could have Distracted Mr. Crawford from William, then surely I can be Distracted from the real villain.
And that means Miss Crawford is a -- No, she cannot be.
I gasp. That is the only explanation: I am Distracted and Miss Crawford is a...
"Your sister is..." If I cannot think it, how can I possibly say it? "I am Distracted," I say instead. "And I need you to keep reminding me of that while I look something up."
She is doubtful, but compliant. "You are distracted. You are distracted."
I tear open the first book William gave me and find the prayer for Distraction. From there, I try to imagine what a matching curse would be and then wonder how to counter it. As I search the pages for another prayer, I stop myself. This feels utterly ridiculous. Miss Crawford is no more fiend than I am.
Mrs. Grant quietly repeats her mantra, subtly reminding me to complete my action. Miss Crawford is not the real villain here but something is wrong with me, just the same.
I pray for clarity and understanding, so that I might cherish the gifts God has given me. It feels like a knot loosening.
I pray to humbly observe creation so that I might appreciate God's mastery. This becomes easier.
I pray to see and hear clearly; not to allow my enemies to cloud my judgment. It's like a bubble popping, for now the veil has been torn away and I can see beyond a doubt that the real Mary Crawford is dead and a demon has been Impersonating her since the day her aunt died.
Vileness and deceit! The demon has paraded herself right in front of everyone, enchanted all around her, led at least one of my cousins into vice, and sported with Edmund's happiness. Had she or I any idea who the other was, one of us would surely be dead by now, but we have each been too clever or too lucky to fall into that ready trap.
"Miss Price, your nose is bleeding!" Poor Mrs. Grant sounds alarmed. She has been through too much today.
"You are right," I agree. Demons are not fond of being cheated, and breaking a curse is seldom without negative consequence, but a bloody nose is such a small thing compared to other pieces of revenge I have endured that on the whole I have no cause to complain. However, I have already dispensed with my handkerchief today. Realizing my situation, Mrs. Grant passes me her own square of linen, which I quickly ruin.
While I utter a short healing prayer to stop the flow of blood, she takes control of the handkerchief and gently wipes away all traces of injury. I am unused to sisterly acts since coming to Mansfield but I am soon able to express my thanks. Mrs. Grant has always been kind to me and it is a shame I have ignored her overtures of friendship; had I not been so focused, I might have realized sooner that something was wrong.
With her assistance I am soon put to rights. So long as I do not sneeze today, no one else will be any the wiser.
"Miss Price, what is going on?"
It is an earnest and worthy question, heavy in tone, but I do not know if the truth is less horrific than what she can imagine. Still, I must say something. I begin composing my thoughts but these are things I have, in general, given up trying to explain or even to mention aloud for the last eight years.
I am saved by a knock.
"Who is it?" I call out gingerly as I rush to hide my books again.
"Sir Thomas and Mr. Crawford," comes the answer.
I do not have time to whisper a quick prayer of Distraction lest my uncle should notice anything amiss before the door opens to admit him.
I curtsey a meek greeting, and Mrs. Grant is equally and uncharacteristically subdued. My uncle chooses not to notice our discomfort and instead comments that it has been ages since he has been in this room, which is just as I intended. He summarizes Mr. Crawford's story, says that he has already spoken with his steward, and believes that now is the time to break the news to his wife. "And I believe your Aunt Norris is also with her," he adds in postscript. It is clear that my position is by Lady Bertram at a time like this.
I nod in understanding and begin to move toward the door.
"Fanny," says Sir Thomas, taking in the space, "have you been in this room the whole time? Have you sat with Mrs. Grant and yet had no fire? This room is decidedly cold. You ladies must be chilled; Fanny, your nose is red."
"I assure you, Sir Thomas, we have been quite cozy," intercedes Mrs. Grant. "Your niece has been very attentive to me."
"Surely you have a fire in here normally," he says. "It must have gone out." He comes deeper into the room and examines the grate where there has obviously been no fire for years.
I must say something.
"Uncle, I do not need a fire in the East Room. I spend so much of my day sitting with my aunt, or going on errands for her, that I rarely have leisure to sit in this room. I am sure it is nothing but an unworthy expense to you and a needless hassle to the staff. Besides, I am sure it would only encourage me to loiter here when I could be of use to my aunts. I am not ..." Have I ever spoken as much to him in the entire course of our relationship as I have just now?
Sir Thomas looks like he would dearly love to say more but our guests prohibit him. Unfortunately, we will discuss this again, but hopefully I will have opportunity to pray on the matter first. The last thing I want is a maid skulking in here every morning to start a fire. It is bad enough I have to let them in my bedroom to tidy it; I must have my sanctuary somewhere.
"We can discuss this later," my uncle declares. "Come with me, Mrs. Grant. We will get you a hot cup of tea and a warm fire. Fanny, bring Mr. Crawford to us as soon as your interview is over." With that, he turns to guide Mrs. Grant away.
"Interview!" I cannot help exclaiming.
"Yes," my uncle says complacently although Mr. Crawford looks uneasy. "Mind you do not keep her long, sir, the cold cannot be good for her."
The door closes with a soft click. I listen with perfect stillness as two sets of steps tread down the hall. When the coast is clear, I glare at Mr. Crawford.
"What did you say to my uncle to make him grant a private interview?" I growl.
He looks sheepish. "It seems my recent attentions have been too marked to escape him. He wanted to know my intentions."
Surely someone is joking! "It is a shame he was not at Mansfield this summer to witness those same marked attentions toward both my cousins."
That is grossly unfair and the poor man blushes scarlett. "I did not choose to, to, to behave that way," he stammers out. "Ever since something took control of Mary, she has sought to pair me with various women. I never wanted to do those things but I had no choice. Believe me, Miss Price, I am mortified to think of it."
I sigh. It is hard for me to see this man as a powerless victim of Possession rather than the charming seducer of my cousins. There is something about him -- perhaps some lingering curse -- that curdles any pity I should have. I pray for tolerance and understanding, and try again. "Very well. You are right, sir. It is wrong of me to hold you responsible for anything you did while you were Possessed. However -- and although you are not in the habit of exercising your free will -- I do hold you responsible for anything you said to my uncle this afternoon."
Mr. Crawford swallows and looks away. "I had been on my way to call on you when I saw you disappearing into the wood. I had just received a letter about your brother--"
"What is this about William?" My heart nearly stops. "What did you do to him? What happened on the road to London?"
"Nothing!" he is quick to say. "Nothing happened. I was supposed to ask him questions. Questions about you. You were my next... romantic conquest and... someone thought your brother was the twofold key to winning your affection. First, I was to learn from him how to draw you out. Second, I was to secure your gratitude through my services to him and to, to, to exploit that." He pulls a letter out of his coat pocket and hands it to me.
Whatever further explanation I am owed, I must find it in the folded collection of papers. I set to reading notes from Admiral Crawford, the Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty, another Lord, a Sir Charles, people I've never heard of. Word after word, letter upon letter -- they all confirm: Mr. William Price's commission as Second Lieutenant of H.M. Sloop Thrush!
"My brother is promoted?" I say numbly. Giddy relief starts to flood me. All my fear that William had been harmed dissipates and in its absence I am elated.
"I persuaded my uncle to exert his influence after meeting Price," Crawford says. "My uncle was delighted with your brother, more so than I ever expected. I may say that even I could not require William Price to excite a greater interest, or be followed by warmer wishes and higher commendation, than were most voluntarily bestowed by my uncle after the evening they had passed together."
"You did this?" I cry with more honesty than delicacy.
He shakes his head. "Although I was the actor, I cannot take credit for it. It was determined that you should fall in love with me although I do not know the final intention, whether I should merely break your heart or completely ruin you. But you are an inordinately difficult woman to please and you proved steadfastly resistant to all my attempts to win so much as a smile from you. And yet during this time, my manner was too pointed to be unnoticed so that when I told Sir Thomas about the English Navy's newest Lieutenant, he wanted to know why I had gone to so much trouble. He went so far as to ask if I had views and wishes more than could be told at the present time."
I do not know how to respond to that but it cannot be complementary to either man. Thankfully, Crawford speaks first.
"I told him that I greatly admire your brother, and that I knew my uncle would be quite taken with him. As for my feelings towards you, I can hardly know my own mind about that but I esteem you truly."
Oh, what mischief is this! What will my uncle do with this encouragement -- my uncle who contentedly claims Mr. Rushworth as his son-in-law? Rushworth is surely of greater consequence than Mr. Crawford in terms of income and property but Mr. Crawford -- at least when Possessed -- is far more amiable and sensible. He is just the sort of man to whom my uncle would only be too happy to surrender me, for the meek, impoverished Fanny Price of Portsmouth could never hope to marry so well.
"If the purpose of this interview is to declare your intentions and to make your offer, sir, then let us be quick about it," I say coldly. "I wish to lose no time in refusing you so that we may put this matter behind us, and we may rejoin my family before they begin to suspect I am considering a different answer."
He blanches; I have been too direct.
"Your uncle merely wished me to give you news of Price's promotion privately, so that no one else would witness your first effusions."
"My raptures are over. Let us not tarry." I will allow myself to revel later, when I am fully alone.
Outside the door of my dear East Room, we pause so that I can pray once more. Then I ignore Mr. Crawford's proffered arm and we walk to my aunt's sitting room.
The old cat pounces on me as soon as I enter the room. "Fanny, is that you? Where have you been, girl? You have been gone for hours! I have a list of things needing done as long as my arm, and you spend the day shirking your responsibilities! And all the while, Lady Bertram has been growing more and more concerned with your extended absence! I say, Fanny Price, this is a fine way to treat the family that raised you, and I believe you are very --"
She has more to say, far more, but my uncle interrupts her.
"Mrs. Norris, you must absolve Fanny of all blame," he declares. "There was an incident in the wood around Mansfield today which delayed poor Fanny."
That is too ambiguous by half. I watch the old cat glare at me in angry wonder and at Mr. Crawford who is too close to my side. If my uncle does not continue quickly, my aunt will leap to some nasty conclusions.
"Whatever happened?" drawls Aunt Bertram, suspecting excitement.
"Mrs. Grant was approached by a stranger. He importuned her for money and when she refused, he grabbed her arm. Mr. Crawford was first to the scene and chased the gypsy away. And Fanny arrived soon after."
My aunts are appropriately shocked. I think the old cat has even ceased wondering how I can be at fault.
"Thanks to Mr. Crawford, no harm came to Mrs. Grant," my uncle stresses, lest the old cat speculate wildly; "and we believe the man has moved on but I insist we take extra precautions until we are more certain. And I will personally write to Dr. Grant to hasten his return home."
It is precisely as my uncle sought to guard against: the old cat unleashes a torrent of unsubstantiated fears which only serve to distress Aunt Bertram and push Mrs. Grant to the verge of hysteria. "A single gypsy?" she nearly shrieks. "They are not solitary creatures; they travel in packs, and for every one you find there must be a dozen more hiding nearby. We shall all be robbed or murdered in our beds! Oh, why did I ever part with Mr. Norris' musket? How shall I defend myself?"
Mrs. Grant is trembling so violently that I wonder if she has forgotten that the gypsy does not exist. Lady Bertram is so agitated that I fear she might get up and pace the room.
The men have their work cut out for him. Mr. Crawford abandons me to attend his sister while Sir Thomas must quiet the other two. Even then, order is not restored until the tea is brought in.
Sir Thomas then uses the shielding bustle of the footman to state that the carriage will take our guests home tonight but not until after dinner, "for Mr. Crawford also came to Mansfield Park with news from London worthy of celebration."
Aunt Bertram looks faintly interested but the old cat immediately begins to ferret out an answer. She quizzes Mr. Crawford on word from the Rushworths and his sister, but his news is not about them.
"Is Julia coming home soon?" she guesses. Will she not be silent so that others may speak?
"It is not about Miss Bertram," he answers coolly. "My uncle, Admiral Crawford, has advocated on behalf of Miss Price's brother. Your nephew has been promoted to Second Lieutenant."
The good news is a welcome distraction; my uncle knows the business of managing his wife, and my aunt slips into her usual, blissful fatigue. The old cat is not totally mollified, on the other hand, her face showing how strange it is that anyone could choose to value a Price, or find anything in my mother's children worthy of bringing forward.
She settles it for herself by declaring that the advancement of the nephew is a very handsome sign of respect of Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park and that she hopes the two families -- Bertram and Crawford, that is -- will always be close. It is a very neat hint about her plans for Shun, and Crawford feels it directly, turning red then white in remembering what he had done this summer and wishing my cousins to stay away indefinitely.
Dinner is an odd, stilted affair. Mrs. Grant lacks her usual cheerfulness and there is not much in the old cat's conversation to supply that sort of gap. My uncle asks me pointedly if I was grateful to hear the news from Mr. Crawford, and I fear I must keep on my toes if the old man chooses to play matchmaker.
I mutter a weak, "Yes," for any good done for William will always be a source of happiness to me.
The old cat is not impressed with my response. She is obliged to remind Sir Thomas, and indeed everyone else around the table, that she has always found me to be a headstrong, obstinate girl and, if it were expected that I should be grateful for the benefits that come from being so closely associated with Sir Thomas Bertram and Mansfield Park... Well, she would be unsurprised if I did not feel as I ought.
From some of the glances around the table, the old cat is not a sympathetic figure for this speech, although it occurs to no one how to silence her short of changing the subject.
Chapter 13: in which I do not agree to a courtship
Posted on 2015-10-05
During the partition of the sexes after the meal, Aunt Bertram remembers that Andover Lodge has written to accept the invitation to tea. The old cat is less concerned that I will use my manifest feminine wiles to trap Charlie Andover now that Uncle Bertram has subtly signaled that Shun's rightful property should be interested in me.
It is sad, really, but the woman is, as always, beyond my ability to comfort. For if I should tell her privately that I have no intentions of marrying for the next seven years at least, she would never believe me. In all probability, she would accuse me of an ugly and willful impertinence, as well as of lying.
Then Aunt Bertram remembers that I have had a letter from Portsmouth in the afternoon post. I take it with a trembling hand. By previous agreement, William is to have scratched three small "v"s on the exterior; all the rest of the letter is irrelevant. Even if he has been coerced, no one would know to force him to write such meaningless scribbles.
Before "Fanny Price" on the envelope I see three "v"s, each more faint than the last, like echoes. To top it, the last one is smeared, so that I cannot tell if it is intentional. I quietly tear into it. My mother writes that William arrived in good health, and full of stories about his time in Northamptonshire and his dinner with Admiral Crawford. "And if Sir Thomas is serious about Susan then tell your uncle that we are quite able her to spare her at any time of his choosing."
I try to make sense of it all with tears pricking at my eyes but Aunt Bertram asks me to read it aloud to her. At the news that my family is willing to part with Susan, she lazily wonders when Sir Thomas will send for her.
"Sister, you cannot believe Sir Thomas meant to bring Susan Price to Mansfield," contradicts the old cat.
"Really? Do you think so?" Aunt Bertram asks innocently. "He said he would bring Susan here to sit with me while Fanny was out. After the events of today, I do not know what I shall do if Susan doesn't come."
"Perhaps!" It is as much of a concession as the old cat permits herself. "But if you can remember what Fanny was like when she first came to us!"
Here she turns to Mrs. Grant as if sharing a secret. "She was practically feral," she confesses in a stage whisper.
Really! I am sitting two yards from her!
"It took years before she was fit to seen," she continues before turning back to Aunt Bertram. "Sister, you must expect even worse from Susan, who has spent so many more years with our sister Price and her husband. The girl will be of no utility until it is time for her to go out into company like Fanny. Even then, she may still be so coarse as to embarrass Sir Thomas and yourself at every opportunity."
Aunt Bertram is clearly torn. She studies me, trying to remember what I was like when I first arrived eight years ago.
Mrs. Grant pipes up. "I doubt it will be as bad as you fear. There will be some awkwardness in the beginning, to be sure, as Miss Susan learns the ways of Mansfield; and a natural period of homesickness upon leaving her family; but I am sure Miss Price will take her sister in hand and will not encourage her to behave in any way that makes people uncomfortable or leads to long term unhappiness."
The men rejoin us during this little speech, effectively stopping the old cat's counter, for my uncle wants to know the subject and, upon hearing Aunt Bertram drawl that, "My sister Price writes that she is willing to part with Susan," he claps his hands together and says that arrangements will be made tomorrow.
The old cat looks like she swallowed a hairball but Mr. Crawford begs for details before anyone else can notice.
Sir Thomas explains his plan to bring Susan to Mansfield as my stand-in with Lady Bertram when I am called away on social engagements. "And should Fanny ever receive a serious offer for a permanent removal, I believe we will be able to bear it with fortitude," he adds with a knowing look to Mr. Crawford.
The younger man blushes at this blatant suggestion but recovers quickly. "It would have to be a very serious offer indeed to persuade Miss Price to leave her home."
There is something in the way he says it, or perhaps it is just the talk of Susan, but it reminds me of the first time I was persuaded to leave Portsmouth, and it makes me melancholy.
The old cat matches my mood. "Oh, how I wish Miss Julia was home!" she opines. "It has been an age since we last saw her as 'Miss Bertram'. No doubt the Rushworths are introducing her tonight to a handsome stranger who will steal her heart and make her move to someplace ridiculous like Yorkshire before we have the opportunity of showing her off in the neighborhood again."
Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are both a little shocked to think their youngest might marry so precipitously. "Do you really think so, Sister?" asks my recumbent aunt.
"It becomes more likely every day she is away," answers the old cat drearily. "You have read of all the parties that Mrs. Rushworth plans to attend, not to mention the dinners that the Rushworths will be hosting. Julia -- Miss Bertram now -- will be constantly in the company of young eligible men." She turns her attention suddenly. "Tell us, Mr. Crawford, did you call upon Mr. and Mrs. Rushworth when you were in town?"
The old cat is too quick for him, and Mr. Crawford is snared. "Yes I did; unfortunately," he adds with heightened color, "they seemed quite comfortable there and have no immediate plans to return to Sotherton." At least, that is how it sounds.
Mrs. Grant suggests a game of whist and Sir Thomas readily approves. The old cat defers slightly to her sister: "Would you like to play cards, Lady Bertram? No, I think you would much rather sit with Fanny now that she is here."
Aunt Bertram has no clear will of her own on the topic of cards and is easily led by her sister. I observe that this also benefits my uncle who cannot stand to play with his wife. And, for the cream, Mr. Crawford must make the fourth, meaning he is unable to sit with me but will instead sit next to the old cat and hear her rambling stories of how wonderful Shun is.
Mr. Crawford brings Mrs. Grant to visit again after breakfast the next day. She claims to have spent a restless night due to her encounter. With a previously arranged signal, her brother draws my aunt's attention so that she and I might have a private counsel.
I read her intention and am so rude as to interrupt Lady Bertram. "Aunt," I say, "may I fetch a book with Mrs. Grant? It is in the East Room. We will not tarry."
Aunt Bertram is much kinder than the old cat, and she lets me go without any expectation except that Mr. Crawford will supply her conversation until I return.
"Miss Price," begins Mrs. Grant as soon as we are safely ensconced away from the others, "I had the most dreadful night, such terrible dreams!"
There is nothing I can do about that. It is only natural that the mind should recoil in horror from such things.
"Henry also was troubled last night," she continues. "He will not say it directly, but I think my maid Alice made him an improper advance when we retired. Miss Price, you must free her and the manservant. I will never have a moment's peace in my home knowing they are not themselves."
I purse my lips, for here lies trouble. "I am afraid it is not so simple," I warn. "I have very little experience with this sort of thing -- all of it based on the master dying before the slave is freed -- and my books are embarrassingly incomplete on this topic but I have thought on what happened yesterday."
As I speak, I make little gestures of blessing around the room. I am not reluctant today to offer unsolicited support in helping Mrs. Grant to be fully honest with me.
"Tell me," I direct her, "what propelled you to go on the walk when you joined Mr. Crawford and me in the woods yesterday? Do you remember your errand?"
She is unsure so I urge her silently. "It seems silly," she says at last, "but I had an irrational fear for Henry's safety. It makes no sense, and there was nothing I could do if he were in danger, but that was my errand: to check on Henry. I did not see him leave the parsonage but I still knew exactly where to find him, if you can believe it."
I turn away and make a face. It is as I feared.
"It is my belief that you were directed there when I broke your brother's chain," I tell her at last. "Likewise your maid was directed to search for you when I removed your chain. If we remove the maid's Mark in a similar fashion, someone else will come to investigate, and so on. And I believe that the one behind all this " -- I don't know what else to call the demon in front of Mrs. Grant -- " is able to tell that something has happened to the two of you, however briefly. I do not wish to arouse strong suspicions until I am better prepared."
Mrs. Grant does not ask my meaning, but her eyes widen with fear. "How long?" she asks tersely.
I will not shirk from my duty but I think of William and his concerns. My best hope is in delay. The longer I wait to make my move, the closer to Susan's visit and the support I need, but it still seems impossibly distant; surely I will need to provoke the beast before then. Will it be better to rescue many people at once so as to strip her of all support, or should I do it slowly so as to evade detection? Is it better to lure her back to Northamptonshire immediately when we are neither prepared to deal with each other, or will she amass superior numbers to her side if I wait for additional resources?
"I must pray on the matter," I say, grabbing a book of Shakespeare from a shelf so that we can return to my aunt. With God directing my steps, I need not fear the consequences.
By the time Mrs. Grant and I rejoin my aunt, Lady Bertram is in a light doze and Mr. Crawford is gone to visit with Sir Thomas. Aunt Bertram wakes easily and I sit in my usual chair by the window to read aloud while the other two turn to their busy work.
We pass a pleasant half-hour in such employment, my voice beginning to weaken, when a sudden commotion in the hall briefly forewarns us of company.
The door nearly flies open. "Sister!" cries the old cat, breathless and bursting with news. "Sister, I came as soon as I could. I have a most startling intelligence!"
She is just as surprised to discover Mrs. Grant sitting with Lady Bertram as Mrs. Grant is to have her peaceful morning disrupted.
Regardless, we are on tenterhooks after such a dramatic entrance; even Aunt Bertram is curious. She fixes her eyes on the old cat. "What has happened, Mrs. Norris? Is it about the gypsy?"
The old cat considers if she has time to string out our questioning or if she needs to go straight to the heart of the matter before someone steals her thunder. "An express rider has just arrived and is with Sir Thomas!" she cries in triumph. "I saw him riding up from my parlor window, and left immediately to follow him. I caught sight of him again on the drive to the Park. Baddeley told me that the rider asked to see Sir Thomas at once although he refused to tell me his business."
Could the woman be any more ridiculous? What right does she think she has to know such information? What reaction does she hope to excite in the rest of us? Is there ever a situation where an express brings good tidings?
Aunt Bertram immediately sits up. "Do you think it is from town?" If it is, then the best we can hope for is an elopement by Shun.
For all her desires and machinations to control the flow of news, the old cat can't know more than the rest of us. Luckily for her, her sister and neighbor seem unable to remember that.
"It is just as I told you last night!" she crows. "Some young man has fallen violently in love with Julia and will not rest until he has her father's permission to marry her!"
Absurd as that is, it is the most sensible thing that is said for the next quarter-hour as the women fall into speculation. When the door opens, I am so relieved to have someone interrupt the lunacy that I do not mind it being Baddeley
We all look at him expectantly, knowing he escorted the messenger to Sir Thomas.
"Miss Price," says he, fixing his eyes on me, "Sir Thomas wishes to see you now."
We are all a little surprised by this. While the old cat starts to argue with the butler that he is mistaken, that surely Sir Thomas wants to see his sister-in-law instead of his niece, I find myself growing cold. If the express has come from Portsmouth, if something should have happened to my family--
I must look dreadful because Mrs. Grant gives my hand a comforting squeeze, drawing me back to the present. I set down the book somewhat carelessly for it slides off the cushion and to the floor as I stand. Mrs. Grant picks it up and shoos me after Baddeley while Aunt Bertram commissions me to find out if my uncle will join us later for tea. I think the old cat would have followed us out of the room and down the hall into Sir Thomas' study had not Baddeley shut the door behind him with such unbrookable finality.
I do not think that Baddeley and I have exchanged enough words to add up to a full quarter-hour of conversation in all the years I have been here so I do not expect us to fall into an easy chatter. Instead, I ask him directly if there is dire news from Portsmouth.
"No, Miss Price," he informs me. "The message came from Master Edmund in Peterborough."
"Edmund!" Why can my uncle want to speak with me? "What did he write?"
"I cannot say," comes the chilled, affronted reply as if I have accused him of spying.
I must wait for my uncle to provide the answer. When I am admitted to his sanctuary, Mr. Crawford is naturally absent. Whither he is gone, I cannot know.
"Ah, Fanny," my uncle greets me warmly as he rises and pulls me into the room, no trace of worry or desperation in his voice. "So good of you to come quickly."
As if it is in my power to dawdle! "I came at your command," I remind him. Let us get to the heart of the matter. "Has something happened to Edmund?"
My uncle is amused. "Such a gentle, caring heart," he observes aloud.
What is going on? "Excuse me, Uncle, but Aunt Norris saw a rider and Mr. Baddeley confirmed there was a message from Edmund. Is something wrong?"
"I assure you he is perfectly well." Sir Thomas is slightly giddy. "He just wrote to say that he will be going directly to London from the Owens, and to keep his curate on hand."
My cousin is neither spontaneous nor one to shirk his responsibility. Before I can ask his father how such behavior can be a source of joy, my uncle enlightens me.
"It is not Edmund's letter I wish to discuss with you, but Mr. Crawford's offer."
I cannot help myself; I look at the man in shock. He does not meet my eye at first, and by the time he does I have a suitable response ready.
"Does he wish me to keep Mrs. Grant company while he attends to some errands elsewhere?" That is the safest possibility, but not the most likely.
"It is an offer of matrimony or, rather, courtship," my uncle amends, "but I do not expect you to endure a long courtship. I am sure Mariah would have preferred to marry much sooner than she did."
"Marriage," I repeat dully.
"So humble!" he congratulates me. "And yet, that is how you were raised to be: gentle and unassuming, with expectations trimmed to match your situation. Well, that period is over now! Your mind possesses an understanding, my dear girl, which will prevent you from receiving things only in part, and judging partially by the event. You will take in the whole of the past, you will consider times, persons, and probabilities, and you will feel that they were not least your friends who were educating and preparing you for that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be your lot. Though their caution may prove eventually unnecessary, it was kindly meant; and of this you may be assured, that every advantage of affluence will be doubled by the little privations and restrictions that may have been imposed. But enough of this. Sit down, my dear. I must speak to you for a few minutes, but I will not detain you long."
I obey by long practice but my thoughts are in revolt. I cannot speak for fear of what I will say.
"You are not aware, perhaps, that I have had a visitor this morning," continues my uncle with a sly smile. "I had not been long in my own room, after breakfast, when Mr. Crawford was shown in. His errand you know."
I sit there numbly fuming while my uncle keeps talking of how the two men chatted of inconsequential things while Crawford hinted at more. It was only when the messenger interrupted them that my suitor found the courage to throw off further delay.
Mr. Crawford had declared himself in love with me, made decided proposals for me, and entreated the sanction of the uncle who stands in loco parentis; and he had done it all so well, so openly, so liberally, so properly, that Sir Thomas, feeling, moreover, his own replies, and his own remarks to have been very much to the purpose, is so full of his misplaced happiness that he cannot be aware of my reaction to this recital.
I suppose I must interrupt him before this goes on too long but I am, perhaps, already too late for that.
Oh, wretched Mr. Crawford! Why should I have freed him from Possession if this is how he repays me? I should have accidentally killed him yesterday.
Suddenly my uncle falls silent. Rising from his chair he reaches for my hand and wants me to join him in singing Mr. Crawford's praises. If I was quiet before, I am now struck dumb. I may justly resist the urge to criticize the man for actions that were not his own but discounting those months leaves nothing in our acquaintance which may be praised.
Sir Thomas waits a moment and, seeing no desire to speak from me, he declares, "Well then, Fanny, I shall trust you to say your words directly to the man who inspires them. Having performed one part of my commission, and shown you everything placed on a basis the most assured and satisfactory, I may execute the remainder by prevailing on you to move to the adjoining room where Mr. Crawford awaits. He has been sitting alone all this while, and hoping to see you there."
"The next room!" I exclaim out of character. The door to the former theatre is slightly ajar, enough that one in the other room might easily hear anything my uncle or I have said, should he wish it. And my uncle has been trying to get me to compliment Henry Crawford. The wretch might be standing not ten feet from me now. This is too cruel to be a joke and yet what if I were as infatuated with him as my cousins? What might my uncle hear and regret!
I quietly refuse to cross the threshold or even approach it. Mr. Crawford may claim to think I am everything lovely but I do not believe it will surprise him that it is quite beyond my power to return his good opinion. While I am working to improve my charity, one cannot expect me to exert myself so far beyond normal and reasonable bounds.
Sir Thomas is confused at first. He does not understand me. "How can this be?" he wonders. "I know he spoke to you privately, ostensibly to give you news of William's promotion. I understand you received the news with gratitude perfectly becoming in a young, well-bred woman. I was very much pleased with what I collected to have been your behaviour on the occasion; it shows a discretion highly to be commended. But now, when he has made his overtures so properly and honourably -- what are your scruples now?"
What mischief is this! My uncle is woefully deceived if he thinks anything happened in the East Room. "How could Mr. Crawford say such a thing?" I say, trying to keep my voice down, not that it matters; surely he can hear me. "I gave him no encouragement yesterday. On the contrary, I told him--" I have to stop myself from being too candid. "I cannot recollect my exact words."
My uncle blinks and absorbs not just my words but my entire posture. "Am I to understand that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?" His voice is a nearly inaudible rasp. "This is inconceivable! Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with everything to recommend him: not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody. And he is not an acquaintance of the moment; you have now known him some time. His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend. His exertions on William's behalf should be more than enough to earn whatever good feeling you previously had lacking -- had your brother been forced to rely on the name of Price to secure his promotion, he would be languishing for years to come."
Had my brother any worldly ambition, this dart would have struck its mark. As it is, to know my uncle invoked it wounds me.
The man is not done. "You must have been aware," he tells me, "for some time of a particularity in Mr. Crawford's manners to you. This cannot have taken you by surprise. You must have observed his attentions; they were noticeable to everyone. Without surprise, by declaring his interest time and again through his attentions, by cultivating a friendship to those dear to you and assisting a brother in his chosen field, how can you possibly refuse him?"
The question dangles in the air. A moment passes. "Have you any reason, child, to think ill of Mr. Crawford?" asks my uncle gravely.
There is a malevolent cast to his eye that, combined with his earlier uncharacteristical glee, smothers any response.
"No, sir," I admit weakly. It is more truth than I first realize as all the sins I could heap upon him were not his fault due to Possession.
"And yet you are adamant!" he observes. "It is of no use, I perceive, to talk to you. We had better put an end to this most unsatisfying conference. Mr. Crawford must not be kept longer waiting. I will, therefore, only add, as thinking it my duty to mark my opinion of your conduct, that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed. I had thought you peculiarly free from willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence."
I think he has more to say to me, more criticism and vitriol to be delivered with words and sentiments too harsh to be spoken softly, but Mr. Crawford chooses that moment to knock upon the door and push his way into the room. He looks at us both as if he has not heard every word we have spoken.
"Sir Thomas, forgive me but I grew impatient waiting for your signal," he says with only the ghost of a stammer. "Have you shared the news with Miss Price that I have asked to court her?"
My uncle is uncomfortable. "Yes, I have, but--"
"And have you told her that you approve of this courtship?" Mr. Crawford asks quickly.
"With great vigor!" he replies. Indeed.
"Then," smiles Crawford, "it is done."