Posted on 2016-10-20
I was preparing to lead my class through some sparring when Michael came running into the courtyard calling for me.
"Priceless!" he gasped, practically wheezing. "Priceless, your father wants to speak with you immediately!"
"Immediately?" I repeated, trying to hide my irritation. My students were much less successful and a ripple of noise spread through them.
Michael nodded. "Right away," he said.
I sighed and thought how to handle this. Obviously, I could not refuse my father, and obviously I could not allow the class to spar without me to moderate.
"Practice your patterns," I instructed the class. "There will be absolutely no fighting. Should I hear of it, or find any evidence that you have disobeyed me in this, then you will sit out of the rest of the term. Is that understood?" I eyed each of them. They looked glum or defiant but they all agreed before I left.
I asked Michael for some clue as to what provoked my father to summon me in the middle of my lessons, but he had no idea. "I was only told to bring you," he admitted as we walked through the halls to my father's office.
The boy knocked for me, but it was I who opened the door at my father's command and entered his room.
I had expected my father to be alone, and was surprised by my mistake. "Sir John!" I observed. "I did not realize you were in here. I do not mean to interrupt. Michael must have misunderstood." I would have to think of some excuse for the errand boy so my students did not blame him for the loss of their lesson.
"Come in, Priceless," my father beckoned. "Sir John is supposed to be here. He has something he needs to say to you, although he thought he had better say it to me first. I ask you to let him speak, and let me make the first response."
This was a riddle! Sir John Elrich had been in Portsmouth for nearly a month now, staying with my family, and speaking with my father on a variety of topics. He was here as an emissary of Martin Haddick, Warden of York, and had spent a good deal of time observing my classes. I expected it was because York had no real school of its own despite its size, and was thinking of expanding.
"Priceless," Sir John began. It was a bad start, for while my father and many others called me Priceless, I did not feel Sir John had earned the right to be so familiar with me. "I have already spoken to your father on this topic. While he withholds his consent, he informs me that the final decision rests with you, and so it is to you that I make my appeal. I am returning to Yorkshire soon, and I would not wish to return empty-handed. Your reputation precedes you but it does not exaggerate. Had I known nothing of you before arriving in Portsmouth, you would still have impressed me as the very best it has to offer."
This was beginning to sound very much like he was going to ask me to come north with him and open a school there. He kept talking of how well I managed my students and my mind felt free to wander and consider my answer. Would I be willing to leave Portsmouth to establish my own academy in the North? How would that affect my upcoming trip to Norfolk? If I accepted the offer, would I just continue my journey after leaving Everingham? When would I see my family again?
At that point, I realized that I would agree to it. I had been home for two years, ever since leaving Northamptonshire. I had recovered my strength although perhaps not all my speed and I had expanded my skills in curse-breaking. I found myself ready for a new challenge, and quitting my father's house sounded like a good fit.
"And so," Sir John intoned, "I have asked your father for your hand in marriage --"
"Marriage!" My happy daydreams of a school in Yorkshire promptly burst.
"As I already mentioned, your father refused to give his consent," Sir John continued with a slight frown. "He explained that you were old enough to marry without his blessing, and he would not unduly persuade you to accept my offer. And so I put it to you. Priceless, will you marry me? I am willing to extend my stay until the ceremony is performed. Then we can travel together to Yorkshire and I can introduce you as my bride."
I looked at my father in stupefied shock. He gathered himself for a big sigh and breathed out: "And this is my response, meant for the both of you to hear.
"Marriage is not something to be entered lightly. I will not persuade any of my children to do so before their time or against their inclination. To that end, I have determined that I will not grant my blessing to any child of mine who wishes to wed; let the blessings come after. But I shall also not forbid any alliance you wish to make, and if you choose to become Lady Elrich, I shall not stand in your way."
Now they both looked at me for the final word. Sir John looked hopeful. My father was completely inscrutable, and any irritation I imagined coming from him must surely be of my own projection.
"Sir John," I said at last, "you have taken me by surprise. I cannot accept your offer."
This was not the answer he was expecting. "What do you mean you cannot accept? What possible objection can you have?"
"I don't know you, Sir," I answer too quickly. "I will not tie my soul to a stranger. You are very well respected, and I know no ill of you, but I will not choose for a husband an indifferent acquaintance. If I am to marry -- and I very much doubt that I will -- let it be because I cannot avoid marriage. I can serve the Lord better as I am, rather than divided against two masters."
My father's mouth twitched in something like a smile but it was hidden under his beard.
"And if we were not indifferent acquaintances?" Sir John prompted.
I didn't want to promise anything and thankfully my father stepped in.
"Agree to nothing else at present, Priceless," he instructed me. "Affections may wax or wane over time. Sir John has made his offer, and you have answered it. Let the matter rest for a while. You are free to ask again in the future, Sir John," he offered, "but not in my house."
My would-be lover bowed in acquiescence but he looked deeply disappointed.
"And Priceless, I will discuss this with your mother," he warned me. "Do not let it come as a surprise to her."
I nodded to them both and murmured my leave.
I could not speak a private word with my mother before the evening meal. At first, my head was too full to speak intelligently of what had just happened, and then I had my students to attend to. So when we gathered in the parlor to prepare to walk into the dining hall, and my mother announced that she and I would go on patrol together that night, I felt my face flush. She knew, and I was not the one who had told her.
She kept her silence to me all through the meal and the conversation that followed, and met me in the entrance hall in her patrolling uniform with feigned calm but I could see the light dancing in her eyes. As soon as we were outside and the door shut behind us, she asked if I had any news to share with her.
"Sir John Elrich has offered to marry me," I announced flatly.
"And you refused him," she supplied.
"I do not like him enough to marry him," I explained.
"Frankie," she sighed and looped her arm through mine. "I will not encourage you to ignore the dictates of your heart. Heaven knows my family tried to convince me to wed against my inclination, and I will not subject you to the same abuse."
"You are not angry at me?" I asked.
"I am rightly furious that your father rather than you told me," she puffed. "But I am not angry with your answer to Sir John. I would be remiss if I did not say that I like him. He is very handsome and very capable; you would be comfortable with him. And he comes from our world," she said, pressing my arm.
"You have no idea how hard it was for me at first, marrying your father. My family had practically disowned me and his family... Well, they politely discouraged us. Your Grandmother Price explained to me how difficult it would be for me -- for both of us -- if I married him. I was an outsider with absolutely no idea of what I was getting into, and your father knew so many things but he didn't know how to explain them to me so that I would understand them. And of course it was viewed as very damaging to his future to yoke himself to someone who could not assist him in his profession.
"And it was very hard at first, I cannot lie. But I persevered. We both did. And look at us now: the Warden of Portsmouth." That was not exactly true; the title of Warden belonged exclusively to my father and, in that role, he could protect the people of Portsmouth however he saw fit. However, my father loved and valued my mother, and she acted as his helpmeet and right hand.
"Do you think Sir John will become Warden of York one day?" she asked tangentially.
I shook my head. "I hadn't really thought of it." Warden Haddick had no children, so it was plausible that he would select Sir John as his successor.
"If you married him, you could run York as I run Portsmouth," my mother conspired. "Of course, there is nothing to stop you from being a Warden yourself one day, except being married to someone who already holds the title." What an odd idea! Women were not de facto forbidden from becoming wardens but the phenomenon was so rare that it did not merit my consideration.
"I have waited more than twenty years to have a child on the cusp of marriage," she continued. "I had no idea if William would be first or if it would be you. And I have thought long and hard about what advice I would give you, and I really had no idea what I would say until this very moment. Marry for love, and if at all possible, marry someone who understands you, for you will not be happy any other way. It was very difficult for your father, marrying an outsider, and I imagine it would be even more difficult for you. Sir John would make you a good husband, but only if you truly wanted him."
It was a much easier conversation than I deserved, mostly because I kept my mouth shut. I also learned things about my parents that I had not suspected, although they colored my observations from that point on. In the end, my mother gave her advice which was to be happy and lucky, and we walked through the dark alleys of Portsmouth, finding no one but ourselves.
We were to travel to Norfolk the following fortnight, Susan and myself. This was a trip long planned and plagued with delay. Mr. Crawford had originally invited his sister and niece to live with him at Everingham shortly after we returned from Northamptonshire. It was an invitation tendered on the condition that the estate should be made safe again and, to that end, Crawford traveled extensively to lobby other wardens for the people necessary to lift Everingham from its dark shadow.
The demon hunters had much work to do. I would have dearly loved to join them but I was still too weak and my family had no wish to get rid of me so soon after my return. And the curse breakers' work continued long after the hunters had dispatched or chased off the last foe. Not just the manor but the entire village was uninhabitable.
Crawford nobly directed efforts to restore the villagers to their dwellings first. That left him homeless longer, but he was always welcome to stay with his uncle in town. They were all quite glad, however, when Mr. Crawford was able to declare Everingham open again.
I was invited to come for a long stay as soon as possible. Mrs. Grant was the one who asked me but I knew Crawford approved. I was much stronger by then but a new term was starting at the academy and my father did not wish me to leave.
So I postponed my trip from summer to fall, then from fall to Christmas but as warden my father did not want me traveling during that season, and so I had promised to come to Norfolk in the spring. Despite my word, my father sent me to Bath for two weeks which forced another delay.
Honestly, I had half expected some new setback to arise, and I fully expected to ignore it. Mrs. Grant was my friend, and her daughter was my goddaughter, and an entire year without seeing them was too long for my taste. Mary Frances's birthday was approaching and I fully intended to celebrate it with her.
Sir John's offer had apparently disrupted my plans, however. He was due to report to Warden Haddick in London at the end of the week, and for the sake of convenience, my sister and I were to travel with him. It seemed that my parents were not going to force me to marry him, but they were going to give him a fighting chance.
Of course, one does not go to London without planning to stay for a few days and to perform some necessary errands in that time. Susan and I were to meet with the Warden of London and carry messages from our father. Once there, Warden Haddick was only too jolly and insisted on accompanying us to Norfolk on the way to Yorkshire. Susan and I shared a look at that suggestion, but I smiled and politically accepted, on the condition that Everingham would not mind the addition.
That was all he needed to hear to settle his plans, for Haddick could not imagine someone refusing to accommodate him. I scratched out a letter to Mrs. Grant informing her of the change, and was able to show her reply to Haddick before we departed.
But here there was another surprise, for Sir John met us at the carriage and was to accompany us as well. I should have foreseen it, but in my eagerness to put that unpleasantness behind me, I had taken to ignoring him. There was no time to inform Mrs. Grant or Mr. Crawford of this extra guest but to apologize privately when we arrived for the miscommunication.
The day and a half we travelled to Norfolk were a mix of tedium and illumination, for Haddick had been discreetly informed of matters between Sir John and myself, and he sought to persuade me to change my mind. The morning of the second day, I had to tell Susan although by that point it was merely a confirmation of what she had already deduced.
When we finally stepped down from the carriage in front of Everingham, I was so glad to escape the two men and their hopes to woo me that I barely could appreciate the manor in front of me.
Mr. Crawford and his sister were standing on the gravel with the servants to greet us when a small blur of white broke away from the crowd and ran toward us, shrieking, "Rakey, Rakey!"
I grabbed the bundle and threw it high into the air, eliciting a shocked gasp from Mrs. Grant. Even Sir John and the Warden were surprised. But then I caught her and hugged her, and she laughed and bounced in my arms and demanded I do it again. "Hello Mary Frances," I greeted her.
"Hello poppet," said my sister.
Mary Frances bounced excitedly. "Rakey, Rakey!" she said, still unable to pronounce "Frankie."
Sir John approached me and spoke low in my ear. "Priceless, is it that you are secretly maternal?"
I walked away from him to greet our hosts. I introduced Warden Haddick and Sir John Elrich to Crawford and Mrs. Grant. Immediately, I could see the difficulties.
"Oh dear," said Mrs. Grant. "We were not expecting so many."
"I'm afraid many of the bedrooms are not yet safe," Crawford added.
"Susan and I can share a room," I said. "It is what we are used to." Susan didn't look well pleased by this; she had been hoping for a room of her own on this trip.
Mrs. Grant explained the change to the butler, who conveyed the new orders to the footmen unloading our trunks.
"Come, you must be tired and eager to refresh yourselves," said Mrs. Grant, drawing us into the entrance hall. Susan and I trailed after her as she instructed a maid to bring tea to our room at once. "And which are your trunks? I am sure you will want to get out off those dusty clothes as soon as possible."
I sighed as I mounted the stairs, recounting all the various outfits for today: traveling costume, tea frock, evening dress, patrol uniform, night clothes. It sounded as if I was constantly dressing and undressing.
The comment earned a laugh from Susan which floated through the entire hall. Mary Frances followed suit but Mrs. Grant did not join in. She could not set a bad example in front of the servants.
There was a wash basin and towels waiting in Susan's -- our -- room, but only enough for one person as judged by Everingham's housekeeper. Still it was enough for us and occupied us until the trunks arrived and the servants could disperse. Mary Frances remained with us until the maid was dismissed as unnecessary, then Mrs. Grant asked the girl to take Mary Frances to the nursery. Here I protested, begging the child to linger longer. It had been too long since I had seen her. Mrs. Grant then changed her order so that Mary Frances's tea would be brought here as well, which satisfied me immensely.
Alone, just the four of us, Mrs. Grant then asked about Sir John as Susan and I began the process of exiting our traveling costumes.
"The best expert on Sir John is Sir John," I said, not wanting to explain anything. Since he declared his interest and was rebuffed, he had campaigned to win my hand through his attention and stories, and by inviting himself to Everingham. It had been suffocating.
"He's Frankie's suitor," Susan interjected.
I glared at her but the damage was done.
"Oh, Miss Price," said Mrs. Grant in agitation. "Oh, why did not you say something? Why did not you write as much to me?"
"Because I have not accepted him. I have no plan to accept him," I put the matter to rest. "He will turn his eyes to Susan soon enough." That earned me a glare, but one I could easily ignore.
Mrs. Grant was not completely settled. "But if you have refused him, then why is he here? Did he make his petition this morning?"
"He asked back in Portsmouth," Susan answered. Bless her, I was sick of thinking about it. "And got his answer right away, but he hopes to change her mind."
Mrs. Grant was going to ask more, but I made such a happy fuss with Mary Frances that it distracted everyone. Then the tea arrived and we tucked into that.
By the time I was feeling better, Mrs. Grant had forgotten about Sir John and was focused on her own troubles.
"Miss Price, Miss Susan," she began hesitantly, "I am growing worried about Henry."
"Why?" I asked. "Has he been unwell?" Our time on the gravel with Crawford was so brief that I could notice nothing amiss.
She shook her head. "I do not know what is wrong, but he has not been sleeping well. He is always tired in the morning, and I find him dozing over the accounts. I never see him retire for the night, no matter how late I sit up with him, and once I caught him sleeping in the nursery. I asked him about it but he insisted nothing is wrong."
I divided my thoughts between Mary Frances on my lap and this picture of Crawford. Sleeplessness might not have meant anything but given Crawford's history and the current situation at Everingham, it was wise to be cautiously suspicious.
"Shall I investigate for you?" I asked and blew a puff of hot air into Mary Frances's hair. She squealed and wriggled like a monkey.
"Would you do that for me?" Mrs. Grant asked, already looking relieved.
"Of course." For her and her daughter.
The dinner was the first to be held in the formal dining room since the last of the curses were cleared from the table. I walked in on Sir John's arm, letting myself grow familiar again with the manners and customs of houses so different from my own. In the room there were still a few curses clinging to the paintings on the walls, but the curse breakers could only work so quickly when every inch of the manor was layered in evil.
I had spent some of the last two years recreating a blessing that allowed me to see curses rather than relying on touch. I uttered my current construction and saw a new dimness hanging over a landscape behind the head of the table, and darkness gathered in the corners of the ceiling and from the chandelier where no one would think to check. I pointed them out to Mrs. Hewitt who promised to involve me tomorrow when she and her brother, Mr. Makepeace returned to this room for another sweep.
The meal was lively and full of intelligent conversation, despite the restraint of breeding from Mrs. Grant and Sir John. My friend had grown close-mouthed on the subject of demons and curses over the last two years. It was her way of putting all that unpleasantness -- all those deaths, all that loss -- behind her. There were likewise gaps in Crawford's history that he never filled. I pitied them and did my best not to involve them on topics that I knew nettled them, but the rest at the table had much to say. Sir John, however, showed himself to great advantage and spoke with his hostess of the recent sights of London, which anyone might have enjoyed. While he occupied her, the Makepeace siblings were especially keen to hear how I had detected the curses. Susan and I were curious to hear how they had gone about their business and whether there were any demons left to hunt in the area. The warden wanted an accounting of his people's time. Crawford joined in the noise occasionally but when I would catch his eye he would lapse into self-consciousness and silence.
The conversation didn't stop when we rose from the table. Mrs. Hewitt was an interesting case study, having married while still pursuing her career with her brother. Sadly, Mr. Hewitt died within the first few years of marriage, but it allowed Mrs. Hewitt to rededicate herself to her calling.
I had often thought of going into curse breaking myself over the last two years but, without a partner, the path was closed to me. Any curse breaker with moderate success was only one-half of a team. The best were siblings or, occasionally, spouses. I had evaluated each of my brothers and sisters to see if they would join me in this post but I have been disappointed. William was closest to me but he was destined to replace our father as Warden of Portsmouth and so his training followed a different course. Susan was next closest but she was still too young and unharmed to find it a worthier pursuit than hunting. And so I remained in my father's house, teaching a new round of believers.
The conversational groups were constantly forming and reforming but one person I did not speak with was Mr. Crawford. His careful manoeuvring, combined with Mrs. Grant's earlier concern, planted a seed of suspicion that I was determined to weed out before the dawn.
Posted on 2016-10-24
I changed into my patrol uniform and returned to the drawing room while Susan finished her preparations. I found Crawford and Warden Haddick chatting by the fire. Upon my entrance, Haddick rose and goodnaturedly announced he was retiring for the night.
"My old bones cannot take the punishment any more," he said, standing as swiftly as ever. "I leave it to the younger generation to watch over us while we sleep. Priceless, I trust you will give me a full accounting should anything happen, in the morning."
So excusing himself, he bade us both goodnight, leaving me alone with Crawford.
I expected the man to act more like a cornered rabbit but he invited me to share the fire while I waited for my sister with only a barely discernable touch of nervousness.
I wasn't quite sure how direct to be with him. While I decided, he opened with a comment on Mary Frances and how excited the family was for her to reach two years of age.
"I am making her my heir officially," he said. "The papers are already signed but I am withholding the announcement until she is two. My birthday gift is that she shall be an heiress. When I am gone, Everingham shall be hers."
"Really? I brought her a tin of chalks," I said. As her godmother, I felt an immense desire to spoil her, but I had not the same means as her godfather.
Crawford laughed at the comparison. "I know which she shall prefer," he said to compliment me. The drawing utensils were much more appropriate for a child and, should she tire of my gift, she could always eat the chalk.
"But are you not concerned that you may have children of your own one day?" I wondered. "What will you have left to offer them?"
"I am not going to marry," he confided like a desperate man.
Was this the reason behind his behavior, I wondered. Is this what has kept him up nights and brought his sister to worry over him: a lack of a Mrs. Crawford, that there will be no little Crawfords? I supposed that for a man with property, childlessness was a serious fear.
"Come now, Mr. Crawford," I said to be encouraging, "the Lord calls each of us, and at different times. If you are meant to marry, you will." I knew from firsthand experience how hollow those words sounded to those disappointed, but I also had faith in them.
He shook his head. "I find that impossible. But it matters not. Everingham is secure, and my niece will be provided for. My fate is inconsequential."
That sounded like an opening. I cut to the chase. "Your sister is worried about your recent behavior."
"And she told you," he observed bitterly. "May not a man have any secrets?"
"You must learn to hide them better if you want to keep them." I inched a little closer to him. "Give me your hands," I coaxed. "I want to examine you for curses."
"You won't find any." He did not surrender his hands.
"Your sister will be pleased to hear it," I said, insistent, reminding him of his obligation to Mrs. Grant.
He sighed in defeat and lightly grasped my hands. There was no sensation of numbness or tingling, no sharp sting; his hands were warm to the touch and perfectly unblemished as far as I measured it. I began to murmur a benediction of my own making and let my eyelids drift closed.
I had made a classroom game in Portsmouth in which I gave a worthless Mark of Possession from a dispatched demon to my students and had them hide it on their persons. Then we would all join hands and I would try to determine who had it and in which pocket it was. The students were always impressed with my accuracy but not enough to give up sparring.
After a few minutes, I was forced to conclude that Crawford was clean. There was not a trace of the profane on him. There was, in contrast, a network of prayers stitched about him, more than one normally requested; individually they were not as strong as my own but Mr. Sealey had earned his commission.
I was not sure what I would tell Mrs. Grant. His troubles had to stem from something mundane, beyond my sphere. Perhaps knowing she was worried would be enough for Crawford to correct his behavior and, in doing so, to evince his own cure.
When I opened my eyes, I found Crawford staring back at me, expectant. He had kept quiet and still during my examination, which was not like him. He had to be brimming with questions, and now that I was done, he would begin his interrogation.
"Do you think of him often?" he asked.
The question was apropos of nothing that I could detect. If he wanted to talk of Sir John, he needed to be bolder. "Think of whom?"
"Of Edmund Bertram," he answered.
"Edmund!" I exclaimed after a moment's reflection. Our situations were now reversed; my grip on his wrists faltering, his hold resolute.
The subject took me so much by surprise that I could invent no distraction. Eventually I answered his question honestly. "It's been months. I think of him in January, on the anniversary of his death. Aunt Bertram's letters dwell on it."
"Did you love him?"
The question was far too personal. "He was my cousin. Of course I loved him."
"That's not what I meant," he quickly clarified, wriggling against my evasion.
"My meaning is unchanged." Was Edmund somehow at the root of the problem? Did Crawford believe he had lost the right to marital happiness by killing someone else who loved?
"You should talk about what happened the day he died," I pried gently.
"That is impossible. I confided in your mother on one of my first visits to Portsmouth. I will never be able to share those events with anyone."
My mother had never mentioned that before! If she blessed him to eternal silence, then it will go with him to the grave. Curses could be broken, at a cost. Blessings faded with time but they can be guarded, a specialty of my mother. I've learned from her, but it was not something I've practiced lightly.
"Very well, you may not be able to discuss it -- " I was not pleased with this fact, but it was two years too late to prevent it -- "but you must not hold yourself responsible for what happened. Do not cling to this guilt. Henry--" I faltered over his Christian name. I had meant to sound like his sister but I had never used it before and the familiarity felt forced.
He released my hands and leaned back.
"Crawford, if you have spoken with my mother, then I know she heard the entire story. And she would have lectured you on blame and forgiveness. You know it is important. You must not hold onto your sins. I do not know exactly what happened, but I can guess a good deal. It was an impossible situation and I for one have never held you responsible for being trapped in it."
"I have missed you, Miss Price. I was beginning to worry that I would ever see you again." He sounded abandoned.
"That is unkind," I chastised him. "I have been busy; we all have. But I would never drop the connection. You should know that."
"Have you ever wondered what would have happened had we never come to Mansfield?" He was referring to himself and the demon Impersonating his sister Mary. "What would have happened with you and Edmund if he was in love with you?"
I reached out and took one of his hands. "Crawford, you must know this. He and I would never have suited. I realized that long ago. He needed a different kind of wife than me -- the kind of person I pretended to be, not the person I am. And how could I ever be happy with the life he could have provided for me? It would have been a misery for both of us. No, there is no way I could have ever accepted him." I watched Crawford's face intently, hoping to see some flicker of relief, some comfort in the knowledge that he had not destroyed a young couple's future happiness, but before the light brightened the door to the hall opened.
For a moment I expected my sister to stride in but it was Sir John instead, looking black as thunder. Did he just overhear my confession about Edmund? Did he imagine I was talking of him instead?
Sir John took in the scene we made and his expression grew even darker. "What are you doing so close to her?" he practically barked at Crawford. "Get away from her."
I was indignant at his patronizing tone, the sense of ownership it implied, but Crawford inched away from me, not wishing to offend his bullying guest.
He did not retreat with sufficient speed for Sir John's sake. The baronet began to utter something under his breath, something foul to match his mood.
I shot out of my seat. This had spiraled out of control rather quickly. "Mercy," I hissed with authority. It was a brief but effective prayer and the rest of his martial blessing caught in his throat. He eyed me angrily but he could make no sound until his temper lessened.
"Good night Crawford," I said, not even glancing about me. "We shall see you tomorrow."
I left him there without explanation, bustling Sir John into the hall and shutting the door firmly behind us. Crawford was sure to ask about that scene later, but I needed to get Sir John away immediately.
We two said nothing to each other, both of us too angry for words. We marched out into the night where I suddenly recollected myself. "Where is Susan?" I said. "I was supposed to go on patrol with her."
"I sent her out on her own," answered Sir John slowly. "I wanted this chance to speak privately with you."
"You sent Susan out on her own?" I was appalled at his thoughtlessness. "We are unfamiliar with the area. What if she runs into trouble?" I was only partially exaggerating. Susan was very good and very smart, much like myself from a few years ago, but she lacked the repeated experience that I had in Northamptonshire as so few demons tested their fate in Portsmouth.
"Then let us be quick," Sir John resolved.
"What is there to say, sir?" I countered. "You sent my sister into harm's way; you nearly attacked our host, a defenseless man. What do you have to say to justify your actions?"
"Your sister can take care of herself," he said in his defense. "And as for that poor man, why was he sitting so close to you, and alone too? And why were you discussing our private matters with him, Priceless?"
"We were not discussing anything to do with you, but someone who died a few years ago," I snapped at him. "And as for your concerns, they are unwelcome. You have asked for a stake in my wellbeing and I have refused. Yield with good grace, sir. Do not overstep your bounds."
That was not the end of the argument. His ego was gravely offended and demanded satisfaction. He wanted so madly to win me, as if I were some prize to be awarded to him for his perceived merits. As if he was in competition with every other bachelor of a certain age! As if they threatened his rightful claim!
I had exhausted my fire long before him. The only thing I clung to was my insistence that I would not accept him in any form. How could I come to accept a jealous, grasping creature who attacked those that he imagined as a threat?
"I am done with arguing," I said at last, turning back towards the manor. "You will not move me, and I have no interest in protecting you from deserved ridicule and shame from the others. But you are an important man. Surely there is urgent business from somewhere that calls you thither. Leave Everingham tomorrow and I will have no reason to mention it to Haddick."
With that warning, I entered through the servants' door. As expected, he did not follow me.
I scattered random blessings during my walk to my room, following a circuitous and winding path, clearing my head of conflict. It was not enough. Susan was already lying in the bed.
She was not asleep. "Do you know how well sound carries at night in the open air?"
I sighed heavily and changed for bed.
That night I dreamt of Edmund. He did not appear at first. No, first it was only cold enough to see my breath. I was in some dark hall that I guessed belonged to Everingham. I had to find something or someone in the maze of frost-glittered passages with clouds of my breath leaving a trail behind me.
I was shocked to find him when I finally stumbled upon him and his lantern. He was gaunt and sickly, but still Edmund. He was overjoyed to see me.
"Fanny!" he cried as tears sprung to his eyes. "Fanny, I thought I would never see you again!" He clasped my fingers with his free hand, he was as cold as ice. "Look at you! Oh, how I've missed you. I've been so lonely since the fire."
"You've been here since the fire?" I asked, my breath a cloud in front of me. Edmund was too cold to generate even that.
He flinched into a smile. "No, not the whole time. I was lost for eons after it happened -- when you killed Mary and Crawford killed me. I do not blame you for my death, dear Fanny; I could never blame you for anything. But I do blame Crawford. It has taken me a long time to track him down but I know how to harm him now. He will pay for what he did to me."
This was not the Edmund I remembered. My dear cousin would never sink to revenge. "This is not like you, Edmund," I told him. "You know Crawford is not responsible for what happened to you."
"I know no such thing," he rasped angrily. "And neither do you. You have no idea what I have suffered, the torment. It is his fault and he will suffer for it."
He turned from me and ran. I chased after him, calling him to stop, trying to reason with him.
It was no use. He knew where he was going and his mind had been twisted by darkness. I could only trail behind him ineffectively.
At last the halls looked familiar. I was near the bedrooms. Each door was closed, no sound or warmth emanated forth. Then I saw a golden crack of light beneath one of the doors: it was the nursery.
I quickened my steps and threw open the door. Edmund was there, hovering over Mary Frances's sleeping form.
"Move away from her," I said, trying to be calm.
"Why should I kill him directly? Where is the suffering in that?" he crooned softly. He reached down and caressed little Frankie's cheek. She moved restlessly in her sleep, shying away from his cold touch. "This will be worse."
"You cannot hurt her." I eased into the room, drawing closer to them. "She is as precious to me as she is to him. If you love me, Edmund, if you ever loved me, you will abandon this scheme."
"Did I love you, Fanny?" he asked in disbelief, distracted from his victim. "I do not remember it like that. I was kind to you. I was a dutiful son. I struggled to curb the excesses of my family. I tried to make the world a better place. I was not ambitious or greedy. I was ordained! I was a good man. That is what I remember. Do you remember those things, Fanny?"
I nodded and stepped closer. "You are not the sort of man to hurt a child."
"Henry Crawford, on the other hand, was a horrible man," he told me while peering intently at Mary Frances. The girl squirmed in her sleep. "You saw it yourself. He stole innocence. He set sister against sister, husband against wife. He neglected his estate and the people who depended upon him. He valued fashion and flirtation above sense. He scoffed at goodness and made it a game to pervert it. Surely you remember that too."
I took another step. "He did not choose those things," I said levelly.
"Nor did I!" His hand slipped to Mary Frances's throat. "Yet here I am."
I moved too quickly.
"Stop!" grunted Edmund. Just like that my feet stopped. I could not lift them.
"Do you understand damnation, Fanny? Do you know what I've been through?" His voice rang out in agony. "And for all that I have suffered thus far, there is no end to it. It is eternal. Why should I be the only one to suffer? Let him know grief. I will not kill him, but I will try something worse."
"Edmund, she is innocent," I pleaded.
"And so was I at one point. That is no protection."
"Edmund, you must not do this." I leaned forward but my feet were fixed to the carpet.
His hand tightened around her throat. "Nonsense. It is the only comfort I have." Then he fixed me with a wicked grin. "Try to stop me, Priceless."
I awoke with fear and urgency coursing through my veins. Mary Frances was in danger and I must protect her. Beyond that I had no thoughts or plans. I threw off the bedcovers, grabbed Guillaume, and sped to the nursery.
The room was near -- all the habitable bedrooms were close to the chapel -- yet it seemed forever until I threw open the door and rushed to the crib. Mary Frances was lying there, warm and still. Her chest rose and fell in a slow, peaceful rhythm. Edmund's dream seemed in that moment a world away.
Then I heard a sound behind me, a scrabbling sound of motion. I turned on a pin, Guillaume in front to open negotiations. I didn't know who to expect -- Edmund, which was impossible, or some demon come to threaten a child -- but it was only Crawford.
I diverted Guillaume at the last moment to save everyone a nasty surprise but we were both quite shocked and it was moments before either one of us spoke.
"Miss Price, what are you doing here?" he whispered bluntly. Neither of us wished to wake or alarm our goddaughter.
"I had a nightmare," I admitted for lack of a better term.
Crawford was instantly alert. "It was Edmund, was it not? Did he hurt you? Did he threaten her?"
All of a sudden, his questions from earlier took on a more sinister connotation.
"How long has this been going on?" Mrs. Grant been vague in details.
Crawford shrugged and moved away from the crib, his gait stiff. If we were going to talk now, we had better not wake Mary Frances. "Since November."
I was astounded. "And you have told no one until now?"
"I have not been so careless," he told me. "I cannot tell Anna -- she would be too alarmed, not when I know not what to say about it -- but after the first week, I spoke to Mr. Makepeace, who sent a letter to Canterbury. A few scholars came to investigate at Everingham but they returned last month. And the warden has come."
He led me over to a pair of chairs by the fireplace. "I spoke with Warden Haddick this afternoon. I tried to tell you this evening but..."
But Sir John had interrupted us. I sat heavily.
"I must tell Mrs. Grant, you know," I sighed. "He threatened Mary Frances. She has to hear about it."
Crawford started to protest but we were both silenced by a scratching on the door. Susan peered in.
"There you are, Frankie," she said a little too loudly. Crawford and I both shushed her. She entered with light steps. "What happened to you? And where is your robe?"
Trust Susan to notice that small detail.
"Just give me yours and get back to bed. You should return to your room as well, Crawford," I shooed them both out. "I can sit with Mary Frances until the nurse maid wakes. Then we can all have a long discussion with Warden Haddick about what is going on at Everingham."
Neither wanted to leave. Susan was practically demanding an explanation and Crawford refused to budge at first, but I was firm and soon shut the door behind them. I spent the next hour blessing the room and everything in it.
Post 3 Post 3
Posted on 2016-10-27
Susan and I worked through our morning patterns in a chalked off section of the ballroom. The rest of the space had not been thoroughly cleared, and notes from Mrs. Hewitt or her brother were scribbled over every surface.
Sir John had indeed spoken with the warden and announced his decision to return to Yorkshire to the more general audience as we sat down to breakfast. He had been gone for too long, he said, and expected many pressing matters to await him.
I told Mr. Haddick in an offhand way that I wanted to speak with him. I was determined to tell Mrs. Grant about Cousin Edmund, but I wanted to see if the warden had more information first. Susan, however, was smoldering with curiosity, and asked if this interview had anything to do with my rendezvous with Crawford in the nursery, "for you promised to explain yourself later and I am still waiting."
Silence fell over the table as people stared and tried to reason it out. Sir John was livid. Mrs. Grant looked thoroughly confused. There was nothing for it but to explain everything to everyone.
"I had a dream last night of Cousin Edmund," I told everyone. "When I woke, I was frightened for Mary Frances' sake, so I went to the nursery to allay my concerns. I did not know Crawford was going to be there."
"What is this?" asked the warden sharply. "You dreamt of Bertram as well?"
"Who is Bertram?" questioned Sir John, not that it was any of his business.
"That is the family Frankie went to live with as a child," Susan answered for me. "They live at Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. Lady Bertram is our mother's sister. They have no idea that demons exist."
Having no desire for my sister to misrepresent facts, I picked up the thread of the story. "My stay ended shortly after a fire broke out in the manor and destroyed several rooms. The fire was caused by my killing the demon who had been Impersonating Mr. Crawford's sister, Mary Crawford. My cousin Edmund was also killed in the fire. His family did not know his soul had already been consumed some time earlier by a Demon's Kiss."
My friend shuddered in response. "And so you had to... you killed your cousin?" She had known Edmund quite well. He was a frequent guest in her home and looked up to her husband as a mentor even before her brother and sister arrived.
"No, it was Crawford who did that," volunteered Susan. She had not been told directly by anybody but she could deduce.
It only occurred to me in watching their joint reaction that Crawford did not want his sister to know this truth. I tried to think of some distraction suitable for them both when Sir John blundered forward.
"And how does this relate to Priceless and Crawford last night?" he asked with more than his allotted amount of interest. His tone was soaked in affront and I refused to respond to it.
Crawford ventured the next piece of the riddle. "One night last November, I dreamt of Edmund Bertram." His voice was quiet and his eyes downcast. "And the next night, and the next, and every night since then. He was very angry with me from the beginning. He was livid. He blamed me for what had happened to him. He wanted me to pay."
He paused to mull over the memory of some particularly nasty confrontation. "I did not know what to make of it at first, but after a week I confided in Mr. Makepeace who sent notice to the authorities and eventually led to Warden Haddick's visit to Everingham."
The warden nodded in agreement with this recounting.
"So you've had a recurring nightmare," said Sir John, "because you feel guilty for taking a life. That is a constant hazard in our world. But if Mr. Bertram had indeed suffered the Demon's Kiss, there was no saving him. You are not to blame for his end."
Crawford struggled under my mother's blessing to explain himself. "I would never have troubled anyone but Bertram attacked me." At that he began to roll up a sleeve. His left arm, as it was exposed, displayed bruises and cuts. "That was when I decided to involve Mr. Makepeace."
The rest of us around the table gasped and flinched in sympathy. Mrs. Grant was no more surprised than I. "But I examined you for curses last night, and there was no sign of this. How could this escape my notice?" I wondered.
Crawford blushed at my question but had a ready answer. "I pray for healing after every encounter. I didn't want to alarm you, Anna," he said softly to his sister. "Mr. Haddick told me yesterday that he wanted to see evidence of the attacks so I was waiting until we had a private interview to clear the marks."
"That is from one night?" Susan asked incredulously, voicing the common thought around the table. It did not take much to imagine the rest of his body covered in signs of abuse. "Have you not tried to fight back?"
Crawford shook his head. "He does not allow it."
Mrs. Grant let out a soft, "Oh, Henry, what shall we do?"
"That is why I am here, ma'am," soothed Mr. Haddick. "And Priceless too, though she didn't realize it when she left Portsmouth. We shall find a way to protect your family from this Lost Soul."
"Lost Soul!" Susan gasped loud enough for both of us.
"What is that?" Mrs. Grant was alarmed. She had no idea of the depth of the problem.
"It is an occasional outcome of unfortunate deaths," Haddick glossed over everything. "Lost Souls are only looking for a way to rest. This one has latched onto your brother for support. We will do everything we can to help him."
Those of us who understood the gravity of the situation were uneasy by this announcement. A subtle glance at Crawford showed me that he was in on the secret.
"When I dreamt of Edmund last night," I stated, "he was not just interested in Crawford but also Mary Frances."
"My daughter? Is that dangerous? Might he hurt her?" Mrs. Grant's voice climbed hysterically.
Warden Haddick tried to calm her. He pointed out that there was no documented history to support such a threat. And with the number of demon hunters and curse breakers in and around Everingham, the Grants were as safe here as they could hope to be elsewhere. Still she would not be easy. Mary Frances was only my goddaughter and yet I could sympathize with her panic. And the fact that Crawford had hidden this from her until now... Well, I too felt slightly hurt by his earlier lack of openness. I would have been here months ago if only I had known, and who knew what that time could have bought?
"Mrs. Grant, do not lose heart. We will do everything in our power to guard her." I didn't include Crawford in my promise. She thanked me but stood and walked out anyway. She need to be near her daughter.
"What next?" inquired Mrs. Hewitt with relief that we could now speak more freely. "The nursery is the most blessed room in the manor. If the Lost Soul was able to enter it--"
"I spent an hour after my encounter uttering every prayer I could think of in there, but I don't think it will do much good. It wasn't Everingham in my dream, but a hellish shadow of this place," I explained.
"If this is a Lost Soul, then he is not a demon," Sir John said. "You imagine him stronger than he is if you are worried about the niece. My condolences, Mr. Crawford."
Did he not have preparations for his departure to see to? As if reading my mind, and in a most perverse way, the warden told Sir John to cancel his plans. "This will be an important experience for you. Lost Souls do not rise up every day, and the involvement of Miss Grant and Priceless complicates things immensely."
From the grimace flickering across his face, Sir John was as unappreciative as I found him unwelcome, but Haddick held authority over both of us now.
The bruises and cuts inflicted by Edmund on Crawford were indeed cursed. They were different from what a demon might have done -- a random mistranslation, stilted grammar, and unusual expressions gave it away -- but the wounds were clearly cursed. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I demonstrated my method of inspection to the two curse breakers. The warden and Sir John also observed. Susan had seen me do this more than often so she went in search of Mrs. Grant after a strict warning of what not to reveal.
Mr. Makepeace had greater aptitude for my technique, but perhaps Mrs. Hewitt was merely being modest or overly respectful of Mr. Crawford's privacy. In the end, he was forced to roll up his sleeve one more time so that she could inspect him in the usual way.
When we were done, he asked if he might return to his room and heal himself. I asked him if there was anything else he needed to share with us first, but he denied it. I thought he was hiding something but I didn't want to drag it out of him in front of Sir John. I made a note to run Crawford to ground later when we could speak more privately.
I conferenced with the curse breakers about what we had learned. Mr. Makepeace had seen it before but to me it was all previously unknown. In the end, we were forced to conclude it gave us no clue how to protect Crawford from another attack.
"Or you," added Sir John.
I wanted to contradict him for the sole reason that his continued presence made me feel contrary. I settled for an almost conciliatory, "Or any of us."
The events of the morning, combined with those of the night before, gave me a headache. I begged off my plans with the curse breakers and took a nap. My sleep was blissfully uninterrupted but as I was walking to join Mrs. Grant for tea, I heard a loud cry coming from the nursery.
By the time I reached it, Mrs. Grant and the nurse maid were already fussing over Mary Frances who was crying wildly. The child had a cut on her arm that was bleeding profusely.
"What happened?" I asked in alarm.
The maid had come to wake the girl from her nap and had noticed the cut. When Mary Frances opened her eyes at last, she started screaming in pain and hadn't yet stopped.
After my close investigation of Crawford, it was easy to recognize Edmund's handiwork. By then Crawford was in the room and blessing away the injury.
We were too late. The damage to Mrs. Grant's peace of mind was total by then. She clutched her daughter close to her until Mary Frances struggled and whined to get away.
Mrs. Grant was scared and angry, and Crawford was the obvious target for her. She finally spoke the words that had been building in her since the revelations at breakfast.
Crawford offered no defense. This latest attack countered all his hopes that the presence of the warden and the rest of us would keep his niece safe. I felt for him; I felt for all three of them.
When she had begun to repeat herself, I interceded. Knowing that Mary Frances could be harmed by Edmund even though she had not been born before his death would force everyone to redouble their efforts. The warden would appreciate hearing of this incident as soon as possible.
Although Mary Frances was presently recovered from her fright, Mrs. Grant would not leave her or otherwise permit her to set foot outside her room. It was up to Crawford or me -- or both of us -- to carry the news.
Winding the short corridors to the room which Haddick had commandeered for his office, I said to Crawford, "Why did you not send word to me sooner? I would have come."
"But I did send word," Crawford told me. "The morning after the first attack, and again after I told Mr. Makepeace, I wrote to your father. He refused to let you come. He thought your talents were needed elsewhere. Besides, there is nothing you can do."
This revelation completely silenced me. What had my father been thinking? What was I possibly doing at home that was more important than this? And did Crawford really understand what was happening to him?
"You do not believe Edmund is a Lost Soul," I told him. "You cannot know what that means."
"Mr. Makepeace and others have already explained it to me, and Mr. Haddick confirmed everything yesterday." He looked grim. "But even if I didn't know what to call him, your cousin was explicit with me. I do not have much time left, not if he has found a way to hurt Mary Frances."
We had arrived at Haddick's door. Crawford knocked without waiting for me to marshal a reply.
The warden bid us enter. He was pleased to see me as it saved him the trouble of sending a summons for tea, but he did not wish to see both of us. I tried to tell him about the attack in the nursery but he wanted to know first whether this was a story that required two to tell.
Crawford took the hint and offered to inform Mrs. Grant that I would be taking my tea here instead of with her.
"What news do you bring me, Priceless?" he asked when we were alone.
I wasted no time in recounting how Mary Frances had awoken from her nap with a gash on her arm. The curse matched exactly what we found in Crawford's wounds this morning.
The warden listened to the story and was deeply troubled by it. But before he could delve too deeply, I concluded, "Given the attack on Mary Frances, surely we are not dealing with a Lost Soul."
"Not a Lost Soul?" repeated the warden. "How do you figure that? It is your cousin Edmund Bertram, who had lost his soul to a demon, and was then killed by Henry Crawford. And now your cousin has begun to haunt Mr. Crawford's dreams, threatening him with violence. He will not be stopped short of death. Is that not the very definition of a Lost Soul?"
"Lost Souls fixate on a single person while Edmund has now attacked two people," I pointed out. I would have said more, but a maid arrived with a tea tray. She was totally mundane and I didn't want to frighten her by what else I might say. Haddick busied himself with the tea things for a moment.
"My father knew about the situation at Everingham for months," I said eventually, cutting through the clatter after the maid had bobbed and left. It was a dangerous topic if it reminded him to force a promise from me, but I needed to know. "He knows I owe my life to Crawford, that I would want to help him in any way possible. Why am I only finding out about it now?"
Haddick offered a cup and saucer to me. "I am hardly the one to ask, Priceless. You need to speak to the Warden of Portsmouth." It was truthful and evasive simultaneously. "But if I had to guess his intentions, I would say he felt a paternal concern that you would put yourself at risk or otherwise fall into harm. And after the revelations of the morning, I would consider your father exceedingly wise."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked sharply.
"Just that you have been here for less than a full day and already Edmund Bertram has pulled you into his world. When he finishes with Crawford, what will prevent him from harming you?" He tried to offer the plate of biscuits.
My first thought was that Edmund would never harm me, but memories proved that false. I settled on a tangent. "What does this mean for Mary Frances?"
"We did not believe that she was at risk until recently."
"Then," I began, then stopped. "Then it was just Crawford you feared for?"
"It might still be just him," said the warden as he selected a shortbread. "But we had to involve you when Miss Grant became a focus. We figured you would be less understanding if anything happened to your godchild."
"And now do you think she is really at risk? And what does this mean for Crawford?"
"Mr. Crawford might have been able to last for months yet -- he has a natural aptitude for healing -- but he would have been driven mad eventually; Lost Souls do not give up. However, the threat to his niece rather accelerates the schedule."
My teacup had sat useless in my hands until now but I had to set it on something stable like the desk. "He cannot realize what this means. He cannot!" Crawford had already told me that he understood it, but I did not believe him. Surely his naming Mary Frances as his heir was not for this reason.
"Canterbury had already told him as much. He and I discussed it yesterday." Haddick was deathly calm about it. "And it seems Bertram has also given him an ultimatum: his life or the life of his niece. This afternoon's attack proves Bertram's sincerity."
"But... But Edmund said he wanted to hurt him, not kill him," I said, as if I could put any trust in his ravings.
"That is true. He insists that Crawford takes his own life. Nothing less will satisfy him."
He paused to let that sink in, and it kept sinking. Martyrdom was all too common in my world. Hunters and breakers faced unexpected dangers constantly. Eventually people ran out of luck or grace; they encountered a superior opponent, or were weakened. It was sad but unavoidable. Suicide was completely different, however. By taking his own life, Crawford would not be a martyr. He would be as damned as Edmund.
"But something can be done to stop this," I protested. The warden had not considered all the possibilities. He was getting lazy and complacent in his old age.
"What can be done is we shall protect the child. Bertram cannot be stopped and, after today, I am sure Mr. Crawford is committed to his course."
"I refuse to accept that," I denied flatly.
"Priceless," he offered in a conciliatory tone, "we have expected great things from you since you returned from Northamptonshire. You have the makings of a phenomenal warden or scholar. Your father has been working with you, strengthening your weaknesses, grooming you. But there are some lessons that cannot be taught in the academy. One of them is how to evaluate the lives under your care and how to lose or even intentionally sacrifice those lives."
"I am not going to let that happen! If you think I can protect Mary Frances, why do you doubt that I can protect Crawford as well?"
"The difference is that Bertram is fixated on Crawford. Miss Grant is merely bait to allow Bertram to lure Crawford to his death. You cannot deflect a Lost Soul, Priceless. If it is any consolation, this outcome was determined two years ago at Mansfield Park."
Posted on 2016-10-31
Searching for answers or even hope was like hunting a needle in a haystack when I was not even certain I had the right haystack.
Haddick offered to let me look through his papers on the topic of Lost Souls. From a sense of pity or a desire to help me learn this new lesson, he even stayed in the room with me to help. He recited stories which were vague and allegorical. Eventually I asked him to leave. His presence was too chaffing, his certainty too cold.
Alone, I prayed. I was inarticulate and fearful and unworthy.
Having lit the lamps, I was still there as I heard a gong sound, announcing dinner. Had I really wasted the entire afternoon and evening? Had I nothing to show for it?
I splashed some water on my face but did not bother to go back to my room to change. There was no time and there was no point for such frivolity.
Susan pulled me aside to ask where I had been all day. I told her tersely that I had been in the warden's office but I could not spare more words.
I ate because I was hungry after not having tea but I don't remember the meal. The conversation was also something in which I took no part. Mrs. Grant was on edge; her brother was morose; Makepeace and Hewitt, Susan, Sir John and the warden kept the conversation flowing amid mundane and angelic subjects.
After the women retired to the drawing room, Mrs. Grant immediately pled fatigue and left for her bed. I waited five minutes then announced that I too was retiring. I needed to change my clothes and take a walk. I had had too little exercise during my studies today.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Susan offered.
"No," I told her. "I promise to stay close to the manor, and I want to be alone."
Dressed for patrolling with Guillaume at my side, I snuck out through a side door to the gardens. Light from inside seeped over the landscape from several windows. I stole to where the shadows were full and began my pacing. Guillaume danced his patterns automatically as thoughts, plans, and prayers tumbled through my head.
I walked around the perimeter a few times.
The first part of any plan I conjured was to assemble martial blessings that might have some effect against my cousin. I didn't want to hurt Edmund but he was beyond my ability to help. Crawford and Mary Frances, on the other hand, needed me.
Edmund and I had always shared a special bond. I might yet be able to reach him and plead with his tender feelings to show mercy. Should diplomacy fail me, I would have to use force to get him to yield.
A patch of darker shadow detached itself from the other shapes. The last thing I wanted to deal with now was another distraction, something to weaken me before a more important trial.
The figure stopped moving when it had secured my interest. "Miss Price?" it spoke. I instantly recognized it as Crawford. My hold on Guillaume relaxed and I sheathed him at my side.
"You should not sneak up on me," I scolded.
"I was not trying to," Crawford said, feeling confident enough to approach me now. "The warden said he spoke to you about the situation."
In that moment, I was angry at him for relying on others to communicate for him: his sister, my father, Haddick. Who else knew more than me? Who knew the one piece of information I would need to save them both?
"And have you anything to add? Anything else I should know?" My tone was waspish and unkind. "If I learn you are keeping anything else from me, Crawford, I swear I will kill you myself."
He was more surprised than hurt by my words. The pressure, the fear, the thousand cares boiled up within him and spilled out in an uneasy, mad bark of laughter. He nervously reached for my hand.
"Oh, Miss Price, how I have missed you! How I have wanted you here!" He brought my hand to his lips and kissed it.
He did not release my hand but held it to his cheek. Choking sobs broke from his throat but still he did not let me go. I felt my own eyes grow wet.
It was not in my heart to withhold comfort at a time like this. With my free hand, I stroked his hair.
Words and noises tumbled out of his mouth, disjointed and nearly unintelligible. He wanted at all costs to spare his sister as much as possible. His sister and his niece were his primary concerns. All his actions were designed to ease their lives when the inevitable happened. Even his death had been planned to appear accidental.
And yet he was so frightened. He had seen what had become of Edmund Bertram and he feared for himself. He did not want bitterness and darkness to consume him, but it would be impossible to know what would happen once he took his own life. Damnation was eternal, after all.
And as he watched the remaining hours of his life slip away, there was so much that he would miss, and it filled him with loss and regret. He would never see his niece grow up, never know what kind of woman she would become. He would never see Everingham restored to its former glory. He would never see me again, or earn my disapprobation.
"Then let me tell you now that I heartily disapprove," I told him.
He smiled, regaining his composure. "I was hoping you would tell me it was all unnecessary."
I supposed that it would have been unnecessary had Crawford not killed Edmund. Edmund would have died in the fire anyway; he was too enraged to rescue himself. I would have died as well but I would have been a martyr, and Crawford would surely have been rescued by someone before the fire spread too far. Edmund could not have come back as a Lost Soul if there was no one to whom he could attach. It should have ended at Mansfield Park. But Crawford saved my life and in that act endangered his own immortal soul.
"Nothing I have read today suggests any other possibility, but I have yet to speak with Edmund again," I said. I did not want him to hope foolishly nor did I want him to slip further into despair. "Who knows what may happen?"
Crawford soaked in this news. "I thought as much. You would never have let me carry on otherwise."
"I am going in now. I can leave you? You will not do anything rash before we can speak again in the morning?" Everyone must go into the garden and face their hour of desperation alone but I did not want to leave him so unsettled. I also knew that I could not predict what would happen when I closed my eyes, but I wanted to be the first available soul to Edmund. I wanted to speak to my dear cousin. I had composed some very choice words for the occasion.
Henry Crawford, however, was feeling very reckless. He caressed my cheek and kissed me. I let him. It hardly seemed a time to quibble over trifles.
When I found myself back in Hell, I was prepared. I prayed immediately for warmth and light. The words had no effect, as if I was speaking in English. I tried variations but with equal failure. I squawked, I mewed, I bleated, but there was only cold and darkness. The angelic tongues had no power here.
In my early years, I was forced to learn some of the demonic tongues, how to read it if not how to pronounce it. It was considered an important tool to unraveling curses and defending against martial curses. And in the years since, I had acquired enough experience receiving those curses that I could recognize what I heard and probably speak a word or two myself.
I tried it now, howling the word for fire. A blinding column of white flame shot from my palm, scorching the walls. With great effort, I was able to control it, but I did but wish to maintain it. I would need to conserve my strength for Edmund, and heaven help us both when I found him.
The hallways were a tangled warren. I walked on through many twists and turnings until I caught some sign of habitation: the golden glow of Edmund's lantern peeked from under a door and the sound of his voice was within.
I listened briefly. He was crooning to Mary Frances.
I pushed open the door to find my cousin standing over the crib, a knife dangling over my sleeping goddaughter.
"Stop," he grunted without even looking at me. As before, my feet refused another step.
"Away," I growled at him, sending him into the far wall.
He was slow in picking himself up off the floor, equal parts dazed and incredulous.
"You dare?" he raised his voice at me in English. "You dare speak against me here? Do you not understand what I can do?"
"I am no stranger to those words."
My warning amused him. "Oh yes, that's right. You hunt them. You have been doing it all your life. And how old are you now? Twenty, twenty-one years old, and already past your prime," he scoffed. "And how long have I been dead? Eternity is boundless, Fanny. As much practice as you have had, it matters not against me. I have been taught in a very august institution, and my education has been excruciatingly thorough."
Until this moment, I did not know if I would be able to hurt Edmund, if some part of myself would restrain me out of respect or affection. That perhaps I might deter him with a cheap threat that gained us time to seek answers in other quarters. But now I desperately wanted to hurt him because I feared him. His form was familiar but he was a monster nonetheless and I had done the mischief in provoking him.
I snarled at him but he countered it. He hissed back. I -- more fool I! -- fell victim to my training and tried to deflect it with a worthless blessing. Every last gasp of breath was roughly squeezed out of me.
Edmund walked over to me. "It's not that you were not special to me long ago, in your fashion, but that you are dear to Crawford now which makes you valuable to me." His ears picked up a sound in the hall. Crawford was coming.
"Hear me, Edmund," I rasped. "It is not Crawford whom you seek. He will not satisfy your craving for revenge."
"Your words are powerless here, Fanny," he snarled back. "You cannot stop me."
"Cousin, it was not Crawford who caused your death," I confessed. "It was me. I killed your master. I started the fire. I drove you mad. It was always me. Crawford stumbled in at the last moment and distracted you from your real target."
I had his attention. I could see the doubt and calculation in his eyes.
Crawford walked in on us like that, a frozen tableau. He exclaimed in surprise to find me there which infuriated Edmund.
"Away," he growled and Crawford was thrown into the hall with far more force than Edmund had felt at my command. I did not crane my neck to see if he got up again.
"No," Edmund recalled, "it was Crawford who killed me."
"Crawford?" I scoffed, making the idea sound ludicrous, as if only a gullible child could believe that. It was a dangerous game; Edmund might decide to kill both of us if I could not sufficiently absolve Crawford. "How can you imagine him to have held all that power over you? He was weak and ignorant then, and he has not bettered himself with time. He could not hurt anyone except at his master's command, and she was already dead because I had killed her.
"Do you not remember how it came to pass? Do you not remember how we four gathered in one of bedrooms of Mansfield Park just before the fire broke out? Your master told you to attack me, and you did. You were weak then too, weak as Crawford. I smashed your head into the wall so hard I did not know when you would awake. In the confusion, your master escaped me. I hunted her down and killed her; that was how the fire started. No doubt that you are mistaken about Crawford's role in your death, you were too dazed to see what was happening at the time.
"You may see me as beneath you, but I was already responsible for the deaths of two others just like you before the fire." I told him about a maid who had awoken enraged and had fallen to her death on her way to kill me after I dispatched her master at the age of twelve. I told him of the woman who had arisen after I slew her master and three other demons only to have me kill her and enlist an angel in disposing of the body. Edmund had to see that he was just one more trophy, and I was not about to let Crawford get the credit.
Memories of Edmund's final moments folded and reshaped themselves as my story redirected them. Briefly, I had the satisfaction of seeing my cousin question everything. Then his resolve returned.
"No, it was Crawford," his voice rang out. "I had beaten you already. I remember you lying there helpless. I remember my hands on your throat." He paused to reenact the moment for both of us. "It was you who were weak. You could never have harmed me. No," he said with absolute certainty, "it was Crawford. But now that you are here, I find I am not above killing you out of remembrance of things past."
My gamble had failed. I had only one option left and it filled me with a quaking fear.
"Then I demand an audience," I hissed. The words were barely audible with Edmund's fingers wrapped around my neck. My pronunciation had to be indecipherable but the attempt was made and my intention was unmistakable.
Edmund choked me harder, just for an instant, to protest. Then the threat was gone.
Everything was gone, like discovering a scene was only a cleverly executed painting. The nursery went flat and if I tilted my head slightly, the illusion was exposed. The floor was no longer below me, Crawford was not behind me, and Edmund was no longer in front of me although some creature assuming his form still held me by my throat, more loosely than before but still unyielding.
"Priceless of Portsmouth," he sighed in exhilaration. "This is a coup, as well you may guess. I come ready to negotiate and I am prepared to be generous."
"You are not Edmund," I said needlessly.
"I may assume many forms in this domain," he told me and demonstrated a bit of his range. My brother William, then my sister Susan, flickered into shape before me. "I would show you your goddaughter but her hands are not big enough to hold you," he apologized. "But perhaps this is a happy substitute?" With that he was Crawford.
I made no protest.
"Tell me what you want, Priceless," he coaxed. "You know what I want. Be flattered that I want it very badly. What shall this cost me? I am all anticipation to hear your conditions."
"The souls of Edmund Bertram, Henry Crawford, and Mary Frances Grant."
"Three for one?" He was shocked, affronted. "I was prepared to be liberal but you would have me be profligate! For shame! No. It cannot be done. It is beyond my power."
"Then I will speak with another," I warned him. My feet danced briefly over a void as he measured my words.
"Do not get ahead of yourself, dear girl. I am sure we can come to some compromise. Surely two for one is more than fair."
"I am worth three. You will set Edmund Bertram free," I said with greater confidence. "He has amused you long enough. He has served his purpose."
"Commendable, but what will become of him if we cast him out? Where else could he go? Be charitable, Priceless, and let him stay. I will let him keep you company."
"Free him," I insisted. Edmund was dead and nothing I could do would bring him back to life but I could not leave him here. He might wander Purgatory for an eon but the sum of all his struggles there would be insignificant compared to what he would endure in even one more moment here.
"Very well," he smiled. "A fair exchange."
"No, we are not done until you agree to the other two. They must be safe." Rescuing Edmund without ensuring that Crawford and Mary Frances were likewise protected was too dangerous.
His grip tightened briefly and the feeling of nothingness momentarily overwhelmed me. I shut my eyes as a sense of vertigo crashed over me. I was filled with loss, emptied by it.
"Let him stay," came a voice in my ear. "You deserve not to be alone in what follows. Let him stay here with you."
What have I done? A prayer formed on my lips, blessing Crawford and Mary Frances each in turn to keep them safe.
A hand caressed my cheek, so similar to how Crawford had touched me only hours ago that I stuttered to a stop.
"Let him stay," the voice repeated. "Who says you will not be happy together?" At that prompt, images I had never envisioned came to mind. It was too costly to dwell on them but I couldn't dispel them.
"Leave him alone," I growled at last. "No force from Hell may touch him." I hoped for an end to this temptation. Then all hope left me. I felt my memories reshaping and distorting themselves along darker lines or disappearing completely.
I fell. I fell forever.
Life in the shadow of Mansfield Park may be cold at times but when I think of what my life would have been like had I stayed in Portsmouth, I quake with gratitude.
My father had, from a very early time, confirmed every fear that my mother's family had of their marriage. He was injured and put on half pay, and my mother never found a way to raise their growing family on the reduced income. They both turned to vice to numb their sense of failure -- he to drink, she to idleness -- and we all suffered the more for it.
What children who could escape left at the first opportunity. I went to Mansfield. Many of my brothers went to sea. One of my sisters, Susan, married at a young age; she chose poorly a man cut from the same cloth as our father and regretted her choice until she died in childbirth. Other siblings died at even younger ages from illness or more obvious neglect. The Navy, originally so kind in taking my brothers from their miserable home, proved itself harsh when half of them died at sea or after being tried for desertion. The remaining resent me for my successful escape and have broken all contact with me out of bitterness.
My happiness, however, has been fleeting. Being placed in Mansfield Park has given me numerous advantages and I would be wrong to ignore them. I am, after all, Mrs. Edmund Bertram, and that is the fulfillment of my childhood wish but the reality is much different from the girlish fantasy. My indifferent health, which has plagued me my entire life, has sunk under the pressures of tending to the parish, taking with it what little beauty my vanity allowed me to claim. The parishioners treat me with a mixture of need and contempt, begging me to aid them when they fall ill and deriding me when they are well again. I know I should refuse their petitions but I cannot. After I refused Henry Crawford and earned such enmity from the Bertrams for setting off the chain of disaster that followed, I find I have not the stomach to say no to anyone else ever again.
Indeed, had I known I would be in some way responsible for the ignominy and death of dear Mrs. Rushworth, the ostracism and banishment of poor Mrs. Yates, the wrecking of Tom's health, and the breaking of Edmund's heart, how could I have allowed that, no matter what it would have cost me personally?
Although he never says it, dear Edmund's opinion of me has also dropped. He had originally thought so highly of my steadfastness, but he has come to see a little malleability as more desired. Of course, now I am too yielding, too pliant. I have no will of my own except to avoid confrontation and abuse.
Edmund has grown weary of my company. Between parish business and the needs of his family, he rarely sees me. I do not protest; it would be ungrateful to make demands of him, and cruel if those demands are against his inclination.
Often he is called to Mansfield Park before noon. I give him my best wishes to convey to its inhabitants. Remembering me in this way is much less offensive to them than if I were to come too. He stays there all day into the next morning and the servants make it a holiday for themselves, which is just as well for neither they nor I believe that I am worth serving.
For all its failings, it is still a grander life than I have any cause to aspire to. I am married to a respectable man who, although he cannot love me, at least understands what it is to love another. And I do love him completely. I consider myself bound to him and to this place -- body, mind, heart, and soul -- and I could never leave. Never ever. Amen.The End