Chapter 14: in which I merit a treat from my aunt
Posted on 2015-10-08
In Mr. Crawford's first act of our courtship, he asks to take a turn with me on the gravel. My uncle agrees with alacrity on my behalf with one small adjustment. He substitutes a promenade in the portrait gallery for a stroll outside. The gallery has the same balance of being suitably public that we will not need a chaperone yet sufficiently remote that we may speak privately. It also does not require me to change my shoes or fetch my cloak, so we may proceed there directly.
As my uncle watches us depart, I can tell that he is pleased to see me practically carried off against my will since my will is such a dreadful and perverse thing.
I keep silent, knowing better than to trust my temper, so it is Mr. Crawford who speaks first.
"Surely you have noticed that something is the matter with Sir Thomas," he opens quietly.
Surely what is the matter is not limited to my uncle. I warn him that I did not free him from Possession so that he might continue his scandalous ways of flirting with every female that draws breath in the country.
"I am not plotting, Miss Price. I did not intend to ask to court you," he impresses on me. "I merely spoke to Sir Thomas of how Mrs. Grant was recovering from yesterday's shock and how quickly we might expect Dr. Grant to return when he received the letter from the express. There was a coin hidden under the seal, and as soon as Sir Thomas touched it, his demeanor changed." His brow clouds and his voice drops to a raspy whisper. "I have seen coins like this before, Miss Price; I know what they do to a person."
I recall what he had told me earlier involving William. "Are you saying that Edmund sent his father a Mark?" I ask, astounded.
"The letter was not from your cousin, or else he is already in London," he says. "I recognized the rider; he is employed by Mr. and Mrs. Frazer, with whom my sister is currently staying."
This is vile! This is treachery! I had thought that, despite the number of innocents she might Possess in Northamptonshire, that her influence would wane while she was gone.
"Once he held the coin, Sir Thomas read the letter then tossed it into the fire and sent the messenger away without a response," continues Mr. Crawford. "When we were alone again, he wasted no time in asking my intentions toward you and whether I was prepared to propose marriage immediately."
He lets that sink in briefly. "I would not agree to anything so precipitous but it became clear to me that I must agree to something; a courtship was the least offensive option. Once he had arranged that to his satisfaction, he sent for you and instructed me to hide in the next room before you arrived. It was as uncomfortable to me as it must have been to you but I apologize for my part in it."
I accept his apology with as much attention as I can spare, for he has given me much more to think about.
What is this demon planning? Has it identified me as the hunter who has been killing demons in Northamptonshire for the last six years in greater and greater numbers, or does it merely wish a bit of sport with innocent Fanny Price?
"Does your sister know who I am?" I blurt out, then correct, "William and I? Does she know we are her enemies? Is that why she has set you upon me?"
This has never occurred to him before. "I do not think so," he says. "I doubt it. Mary was always fond of matchmaking but since, since Aunt Crawford's death she has developed a taste for crueller amusement. She sees you as... Well, she sees you as weak. She said she wanted you to succumb to a temptation, but it is no more than she has done to others. You are just another diversion while she hunts a larger game."
He stumbles across those last words and falls silent, looking at me warily.
"What will you do about Sir Thomas?" he changes the subject.
I confess the easiest thing will be to take the coin from him while he sleeps or, if that proves a challenge, perhaps I can break the curse on it, rendering it worthless. Doing so would tip my hand, but it might not have a significant effect; it cannot be long now before I am discovered. And to imagine a dark influence on my uncle is unsettling. As the master of Mansfield Park, he has a great deal of authority and a demon who Possesses him could wreak significant damage on the area.
But my answer only prompts him to wonder if I might perform the same service at the parsonage. Having freed Mrs. Grant and Mr. Crawford has not ended their troubles. "We are being watched," he says with a touch of desperation. "The others know something is wrong with us, something is different, and they are trying to find out what. I am expected to win your affections; everyone knows of it; it was freely canvassed in the parsonage ever since the Rushworths' wedding. I was only to await your brother's promotion before beginning my campaign in earnest."
He keeps talking about how he cannot eat or sleep, how he has not had a moment's comfort since his aunt died, but that might be preferable to the terror he feels every time the maid walks by. "Sir Thomas' recent behavior merely underscores the precariousness of the situation. You may have freed the two of us, Miss Price, but until the others are also freed, you have merely exchanged a bondage of will with a bondage of fear."
It is not a bad speech -- some of his Possessed charm must come naturally -- but I do not see why I am to blame. I am not, by training or profession, a liberator; and Mr. Crawford should be grateful, all things considered, that I did not kill him prematurely.
I count to five before speaking, a habit acquired from spending time with the Bertrams. Still, I do not sound acquiescent. "Mr. Crawford, as I was trying to tell Mrs. Grant earlier today, violently removing your Mark triggered a reaction. Likewise with hers. The more we repeat, the bigger of a reaction we can expect. While these people are controlled -- even though their master has left the area -- they may be commanded to try to protect their Marks or even to cause harm to those who attempt to free them. I do not wish to injure these people needlessly by provoking them when they are not my true quarry, although" -- I admit -- "Sir Thomas can do too much harm in this state to let him persist. The best way for all involved would be to kill the master; I have witnessed that first hand only a few months ago and I must say, compared to your experience, it is much preferable."
"Then who is the master now?" Mr. Crawford asks in affronted innocence. "You cannot mean my sister Mary."
Crawford has seen too much to remain in ignorance. "I am afraid, sir, that we are not talking about Mary Crawford anymore," I try to sound gentle. "We are dealing with an imposter."
"That is not possible," he says with a shake of his head. "How could any one person look like her, sound like her, smile like her, even play the harp exactly like her, and not be her? No, she is under someone's control, just as I was. You must help me free her when she returns to Mansfield."
"This is not my area of expertise," I confess, "but I believe you only thought she was like your sister because she commanded you to think so."
"This is ridiculous," he cries in exasperation then remembers to check his volume. "If she is not my sister, then who is she?"
"After all you have been through, can you honestly have no idea?" I wonder aloud.
"No, I do not, and I would dearly like someone to explain it to me."
That is as close to a proper opening as I may ever receive. "Mr. Crawford, do you believe in God?" I start with the easy question.
"Of course!" He has the nerve to act offended.
"And the angels and saints?"
"Yes," he answers with asperity.
"And what about the devil?" I venture. "And demons?"
Mr. Crawford audibly scoffs. I do not prompt his answer but resolve to wait for it and gaze up at the likenesses of ancestors who are not mine.
"It is not a subject on which one likes to think," he eventually demures. "I suppose they exist but, much like angels, I will never encounter one of them. You do not mean to imply that..." He cannot even say it; I know the feeling too well.
"I am sorry to say that I do believe the one you think to be your sister Mary is a demon in disguise," I tell him. "After all you have been through, after all she made you do against your will, how can you so readily discard the idea? She had Distracted me before and no doubt others such as yourself -- she was prepared to hide herself in plain view -- but her true nature has been exposed to me now and I will not be deceived again. Make no mistake, when next we meet, I will try to kill her."
"She is my sister," Mr. Crawford claims weakly. "She is just as much a victim here as the rest of us."
"Your sister is dead," I tell him flatly. "She died the same day as your aunt. Since then, a demon has been Impersonating her. You yourself saw the transformation."
"Now it is you who are mad, Miss Price, if you think such things," he chides me with a measure of desperation and grief. The man has, after all, lost a sister a year ago and is only just realizing it. "Demons, what nonsense!"
"There is a very simple test," I say. "Blood will out. That is all I need to prove her humanity. Of course, she will first need to return to the countryside for that, and much may need to happen before then to prepare and lure her here."
I manage to convince Mr. Crawford that he and Mrs. Grant must take no drastic action today by rather ingeniously forbidding it. I tell him that I will pray on the matter tonight and speak with him or his sister again in the morning. In the meantime, I need to know who is Possessed.
He begins listing people in the village. "Alice, you know; and James, the Grants' man of all work; and the cook. And Dr, Grant, obviously. Mr. Nelson, and Mr. Nelson's housekeeper. Mrs. Lytton, the smith's wife. And the girl who runs deliveries for Mr. Nash; Mr. Nash himself. Mrs. Gregson at the post office; everyone else in the post office. All the farmers' wives, really. Most of the girls who are out. Anyone who would accept a trinket from Mary," he concludes. "She gave out ribbons to the girl if she was too poor to accept a chain like the one she offered you. She took a ring from Dr. Grant and when she gave it back to him, he became just like everyone else. And she made Dr. Grant offer a coin to Mr. Peele, but I don't think he took it."
"And my cousins?" I probe, not that I doubt.
"I gave a necklace to Mrs. Rushworth," Crawford admits with a grimace. "I tried giving one to Miss Julia Bertram, but she refused. I think she had spied me flirting with her sister, or perhaps Maria had told her about the necklace I had already given her. Either way, Miss Julia was quite done with me. There was nothing I could offer her that she would accept."
At least there is that!
"And Edmund?" It isn't so much of a question as it is a fear.
"I don't know what she gave him," he admits, "but he is as much under her control as the rest." It hurts to hear, and I want to cling to the hope that Mr. Crawford is wrong, but Possession explains so much of Edmund's odd behaviors. And releasing him from Possession is such an effective way to restore him to his old ways.
Here he is thoughtful. "I do not think so," says Mr. Crawford at last. "I never saw her give him anything, and he has been with her so rarely."
That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of Cousin Tom's lifestyle, but it may not matter much. Even if Tom is Possessed, he may be too far away to factor into what is going to happen here.
The list is longer than I expected, much longer. Given the number of people involved, it may be impossible for me to wait for Susan. This demon has been quite profligate and fruitful. No wonder the two are so frightened.
Having thoroughly canvassed the area inhabitants, we fall silent by mutual accord until we realize how long we have been gone.
As we hurry through the halls to rejoin my Aunt Bertram, he suddenly stops our progress with a gentle pressure on my arm. "Should we leave the area?" he asks in complete earnestness. "Surely I should take Anna someplace safe until after the baby is born."
I consider it a compliment that he doesn't insist I join them in their flight but perhaps he is being selfish or isn't even thinking of me.
"Why not take her to Everingham," I suggest. "That should be a treat."
He shudders at the idea. "Everingham is not a safe place," he says darkly. "Even if it were not the first place Mary will look, it is full of spies and enemies."
It is a sign of my growing maturity that I do not resolve to do anything it takes, including to marry Mr. Crawford, so that I might go to his home and slay his demons. Surely the person I was three years ago would have eagerly leapt at the chance and have ignored the consequences. The person I am today, however, is more thoughtful and has fought a growing number of demons, and I no longer feel the need to hunt for trouble; I have merely to wait for it and it will find me.
"There are very few safe places," I tell him when it becomes obvious that he is waiting on me to say something. "And I have not been in communication with the people who could recommend one to you."
The poor man is bereft so I offer, against my nature, to inquire of my parents for suggestions. This is a charity to make William proud.
"Will you do that, truly?"
Did I not just say it? I rephrase my offer as a promise. He is so moved that he grabs my hand and presses it in gratitude.
I pull my fingers away. "You may choose to play-act the lover in front of witnesses but when it is just the two of us," I tell him, "let there be no games. I should not wish to believe that you have grown careless and allowed yourself to fall back under the control of a demon."
Perhaps it is more than wise to send him and Mrs. Grant from here. The entire dynamic of our relationship has changed since yesterday, and it is only a matter of time until someone else decides to find out why. I have no desire to out myself as a demon hunter, and the one Impersonating May Crawford seems especially resourceful. If she should learn how it is that I answer my calling to serve the Lord, how easy would it be for her to murder me in my sleep, or order someone from the village to do it for her?
Henry Crawford does not intend to stay long, just to announce to my aunt that he has sought Sir Thomas' permission to court me, and that it has been freely given. My feelings on this topic are not discussed or speculated.
Aunt Bertram and Mrs. Grant are both warm in their congratulations. I detect surprise in Mrs. Grant's response, but my aunt, never fully attentive, can never be really astonished. She does exert herself to invite them to return for supper. "After all," she declares, "we are practically family now."
When our guests depart and it is just the two of us, Lady Bertram wastes no time in calling me to join her on the sofa.
"Well, Fanny," says she, as I settle beside her, her countenance full of extraordinary animation. "Well, Fanny, this is an agreeable surprise! I must speak of it at once; I cannot contain myself any longer. I give you joy, my dear niece. It is not a proposal, not quite; but his admiration is just as public and he is too committed now to retract his interest. I know my sister Norris wished he would choose Julia, and he is not as rich as Mr. Rushworth, but he is still a pleasant, agreeable young man. A pleasant courtship you shall have, and a fine marriage at the end of it." And so saying, she pats my hand, and I fear she will be so carried away by herself that she will throw her arms about my neck and embrace me. "We certainly are a handsome family!" she concludes.
From whence does this emotion spring? Is she confused? "You cannot wish me to marry," I tell her gently, slowly. "You would miss me, should not you, if I would marry and leave Mansfield? I am sure you would miss me too much to wish for that."
"Dear Fanny, I shall have to learn to do without you. So my own mother had to do when Sir Thomas made his offer. It is the duty of every beautiful woman to prosper however she may," she grants me insight into her personal philosophy, "not merely for her own sake but for all her family. You must accept Mr. Crawford when he comes to the point; you simply must. There can be no exception, no reason to refuse his handsome offer, a man with such a good estate. And there can be no regret in marriage to a man of fortune, let me say that from experience."
Her words make her behavior clearer to me but no more welcome. Can it be that the only real interest I excite in her is to remind her of her own remarkable success in securing the title of Lady Bertram? If that is how she sees me -- as her protégée -- then she is not on my side in this. My only comfort is that Mr. Crawford likewise does not wish for this.
Aunt Bertram thus arrayed against me, I have finally found a subject that merits her conversation. How she now exerts herself! Aunt Bertram does not merely talk, she effuses. Mr. Crawford must have fallen in love with me at the ball, she concludes. "You did look remarkably well that evening.Everybody said so; Sir Thomas said so. And you know you had Chapman to help you to do your hair. Yes, I am sure he fell in love with you that evening."
She rattles on in the same vein for several more minutes. It reaches the point where I wonder if she is as Possessed as my uncle. A subtle examination shows she is as always, only really pleased for me.
"I am very glad I sent Chapman to you," she repeats herself. "And I will tell you what, Fanny, which is more than I did for Maria: the next time Pug has a litter you shall have a puppy!"
What am I to do with a dog? Had I an interest in any of it, how charming she would be. How I would gloat over my cousins the praise and attention heaped upon me! I never saw such fawning when No secured Mr. Rushworth. Alas, it is wasted.
Tired of the topic, I try to turn the conversation and, remembering my promise to Mr. Crawford, I ask if I should write to my family.
"Oh, indeed!" agrees Aunt Bertram. "Tell my sister Price that we will need Susan right away. Sir Thomas must make the arrangements without delay. Courtship is a very romantic notion but we cannot plan on Mr. Crawford waiting forever. I should not be surprised if he comes to the point within the week, in which case you might be married by the middle of February, and be comfortably settled in Norfolk before Easter."
It is all too ridiculous, but I manage to scrawl out a letter that a young man visiting family in the area has asked to court me and that Sir Thomas has agreed. I then carefully phrase that my suitor's sister, Mrs. Grant, is expecting a child and is seeking a healthful place for her confinement. This being her first child, she is nervous and, while she knows to stay away from the noxious airs of London, she feels likewise concerned about giving birth in the country where there are so few to help her should she need aid. At least, that is how it should read to anyone who intercepts the message, an epistle in my aunt's exaggerated style. To my parents I hope the true meaning is easily deciphered. And then I get to Aunt Bertram's aim of stating that the family expects me to marry soon and that Susan will be needed at Mansfield Park to fill my place as Lady Bertram's companion.
Lady Bertram asks me to read it aloud and I do, omitting the section about Mrs. Grant; I do not wish her to know.
"Be sure to leave room at the bottom for Sir Thomas to write to Brother Price the arrangements for Susan."
I feel a part of me sink at the realization. "Will he have time for it today?" I ask, secretly hoping against it. My uncle is not his true self today, and I do not want to arouse suspicions.
She is certain. In fact, she tells me to take the letter to him immediately so that he can get it in the post without delay.
"I shall," I say. "Just let me copy it more neatly."
I completely remove the lines about Mrs. Grant on a fresh sheet of paper, then bring the letter to my uncle in his office. He reads through and asks me why I am not more flowing in my praise for Mr. Crawford. Honestly, I cannot imagine what in the letter counts as laudatory.
No mind. My uncle pens a coda full of commendations, then writes that he would have Susan to arrive within the next fortnight. He includes some money to pay for the expense and seals the letter.
And thus ends my hope of sending a coded message to my family in fulfillment of my promise to Mr. Crawford. There must be some way to contact them privately, but how? I must wait until my uncle is freed before I make another attempt.
The old cat takes the news exactly as I expect: poorly. She looks daggers at me while Aunt Bertram repeats her morning soliloquy. This second time through, however, I notice it is less to do with Mr. Crawford and myself as it is about my aunt and Sir Thomas some decades ago.
Regardless of the subject, by the time that is done, the old cat has more than enough cause to criticize me. I have been too forward with Mr. Crawford. The only reason I pursued him is to thwart Shun. I am a tease to win his affections if I have not gratefully accepted him; it would be absolutely fitting if he made me miserable within a twelve-month. It is completely shameful to witness me play with the affections of both Henry Crawford and Charlie Andover like this. No one buys my coy act. And to cap it, the family shall be forced to endure another Price at Mansfield Park.
I say nothing in response to her thinly veiled insinuations and, what is worse, neither does Aunt Bertram.
Tea passes miserably. I cannot imagine what tomorrow will be like, when the Andovers join us.
Then, inspiration strikes and I realize how I can send a letter to my family without Uncle Bertram finding out. I step over to the writing desk with the stated mission of writing a letter to Mary Crawford at her brother's suggestion. Aunt Bertram agrees wholeheartedly, imagining this act implies I welcome the courtship.
Instead of addressing myself to a demon, however, I write my parents. I am far more open in this letter than is usual, both to convince them of my earnestness and simply because I can. I even sign it as "Priceless." I plan to give the scrap to Mrs. Grant when she comes tonight so that it can be sent from the parsonage.
Perhaps I am showing needless precaution but even though my uncle will be returned to his normal self tomorrow, it will seem strange for me to send a second letter to my family so soon after the first. No, the caution is necessary.
I slip the paper into my pocket and try to be unobtrusive. Still, I must endure more caustic reminders from the old cat, sprinkled among her usual criticisms of her neighbors, until it is time to dress.
I am especially quick today, and sneak into the hall leading to my uncle's study. Besides our horrid conversation earlier, he has kept out of sight and I am growing worried of what he may be up to. Unfortunately, I can discover nothing before Baddeley sees me and shoos me away.
Mrs. Grant and her brother arrive punctually. We have a scant few minutes of hurried, whispered conversation in which I hand over the letter with its Portsmouth direction. Mrs. Grant is needlessly worried that I am smuggling dangerous correspondence through her, but I must trust to Mr. Crawford to explain the things I cannot, for the old cat strolls in like she owns the place, putting an end to privacy and, indeed, the possibility of pleasure.
Chapter 15: in which I change my plans repeatedly
Posted on 2015-10-12
After the house is soundly sleeping, I sneak through the halls to my uncle's chamber. It is a strange sensation: stalking the corridors as if I am on patrol. I am not dressed for my usual nocturnal rambles; there would be too much to explain if some maid accidentally discovered me so I am dressed in my nightgown and robe, with Guillaume hidden in his traditional spot.
My first goal is to remove the cursed coin from Sir Thomas. I hope that his grip will loosen sufficiently in sleep to allow me to take it from him without him or the demon noticing that it is gone. However, if the curse and his grip are too strong, I will have to break it. To that end, I have done some reading this evening on Possession but it remains the much less preferred option.
Curse-breaking is not solitary work. One telling difference between good and evil is that demons always exact a revenge for undoing their handiwork: migraine; fever; tinnitus; sensitivity to light; numbness; slurred speech; loss of taste; loss of appetite; insomnia; lethargy; nausea; dizziness; shortness of breath; bloody noses; the list goes on. The effects are always temporary, but some can last for over a day. Two people working together is a much safer number for while the first is breaking the curse, the second can pray for protection.
So it was when William visited me, but that is far for my usual situation. I am accustomed to bearing the brunt of the backlash from whatever evil I unravel but sometimes, like with that cursed ring that nearly killed me, it is more than I am prepared to face.
Breaking the Possession will also no doubt signal to the demon that the coin is discovered, and chances are that Sir Thomas will not sleep peacefully through it.
Once I am inside his room, I move painfully slowly, listening to the sounds of his breath, trying to sense whether he is truly asleep, straining to detect the Mark.
The coin is still in his grasp, I realize, and no gentle coaxing on my part with free it. After a quarter-hour of failure, I must resort to another method. I start to unravel the curse, only to find out that it is layered like so many of this demon's curses. After the third, my breath is coming in pants and my uncle is moaning and tossing in his sleep.
I must stop, for both our sakes. This is why curse-breaking should be done in pairs: I cannot continue yet I cannot leave him like this. With William at my side, I could unknot the execrations while my brother deflected any revenge with his own benedictions. Instead, I must now apply layers of blessing over the coin to shield my uncle from its control and ill-effects. It will take until morning to see if my handiwork is enough to undo the damage of the day before although, if my uncle was able to consign his own daughter in marriage to Mr. Rushworth, what possible objection could he rationally raise to Mr. Crawford courting his niece? Perhaps Mr. Crawford's caution will do us in, for if he had been intemperate and insisted on speed, Sir Thomas might refuse or at least insist on caution which would have given Crawford an out; as it stands, the two gentlemen are too agreeable with each other to intend or receive insult.
I trudge back to my room, fighting a growing nausea. When I finally curl up in my bed, it is with an almost academic sense of relief: I know I should feel better in my own bed, but the curses have rebounded so painfully on me that I do not believe I will make it down for breakfast.
Claire Andover is ecstatic over the news of William's promotion, certainly happy enough to forgive me for entering into a courtship with someone else while her brother Charlie is desperately in love with me. That Crawford is the champion behind William's new promotion goes a long way to softening the blow, she tells me, and promises to share the news with her brother in the gentlest way possible. She wishes I could have been more open about my situation when I was at Andover Lodge but supposes arriving with Mr. Crawford's sister should have been sufficient hint for the truly observant. In the end, she forgives my earlier secrecy and declares that I must learn to divulge my secrets to her sooner the next time.
On the one hand, I am grateful that she is so talkative for it saves me the effort of saying more than a few sentences. On the other hand, she is loud, and each bubbling shriek is like a dagger between my eyes. I find myself praying for quiet, but it is a selfish petition and goes unanswered.
She begs for details and, when I am not immediately forthcoming, she turns to Lady Bertram who supplies such a rambling collection of half-truths, supposition, and absolute fiction that I cannot believe she knows me at all.
It is overall torture, but made worse by the fact that my uncle is still in the demon's thrall. I had hoped that the blessings I had applied last night would allow him to relinquish the coin on his own, but no. He holds it tightly in his fist and seems absolutely determined to yoke me to my ersatz suitor. The residents of the parsonage are not taking this well. Having hoped that I could release my uncle from Possession, and that I would then turn my efforts to the villagers similarly affected, they are more disappointed than I in my failure.
My worries that they will do something rash in their desperation are completely justified when Mr. Crawford casually mentions that his sister received an important missive in the post while I was entertaining the Andover girls.
He tells us this to explain her absence so Aunt Bertram asks for details.
It seems a letter arrived in the post this morning. A dear friend had written to beg Mrs. Grant to come immediately. The nature of the friendship is such that Mrs. Grant felt compelled to answer the summons even in her condition and left without any unreasonable delay. She sent her regrets to us but there was too much bustle to remember anything else and the parsonage is out of sorts without its mistress.
What astounds me is that Mr. Crawford should verily abandon his sister to the perils of the road but my uncle sees no reason why Crawford should have attended his sister; after all, any absence would subtract from the time he can spend courting me. My aunts are a little more troubled by it, but only slightly. Upon hearing that Mrs. Grant is travelling in Crawford's own carriage and with a servant they seem resigned to it although the old cat mutters under her breath at such folly.
I ask demurely where has Mrs. Grant gone but all I get in response is that she is, "to the South. I confess, I don't really know. She was in such a flurry to be gone that the details were as ill-provided as they were ill-attended. But I know she will be glad to be elsewhere until that gypsy is captured, and I will remain until Dr. Grant returns."
Here the curse is in full effect, for my uncle posits that staying at the parsonage is nonsense. "Come now, Mr. Crawford," he says, "would not you rather stay at the Park while the Grants are away on their separate errands?"
Crawford looks caught like a rabbit in a snare but before he can stammer that the parsonage is comfortable enough, Sir Thomas says they can discuss it again privately over port, so I shall suppose his things will be brought over tomorrow.
I speak with him only briefly tonight. He makes clear to me that Mrs. Grant is not headed to a friend but is carrying my letter to Portsmouth. I can only imagine what my parents will think when she arrives.
On second thought, perhaps it is not a complete disgrace that Mrs. Grant will meet my family. No doubt she is ignorant of many things diabolical, but she is intelligent enough to describe what has happened to her and all that she has witnessed in Northamptonshire in such terms as my family can decipher it. Combined with my own scribble, they should recognize the seriousness of the situation and prepare to come to Northamptonshire at the first opportunity.
After delivering that piece of news, however, Mr. Crawford is not done with his private audience. He passes me an envelope. "This is the letter that arrived today," he explains. "It is postmarked from London. We were too terrified to open it, considering what happened yesterday to Sir Thomas."
I take the paper and frown. Already I can feel the curse embedded in it tingling my fingertips.
"Is something wrong?" asks Mr. Crawford, catching the change in my expression.
If I tell him the truth and speak to him intelligently, will he be mature enough to keep from panicking? Can I trust him not to do something foolish a second time today?
"I will read it privately," I shrug him off and put the offensive thing in my pocket. It is probably nothing more than a Compulsion to keep Crawford's seduction of me moving at a healthy pace. My tattoos protect me from Compulsion, Influence, Possession, and many of the more common fatal attacks. Still, I have learned that there are more curses in the world than I am protected against and I should not like Mr. Crawford to witness a nasty surprise.
He wants to know why I do not open it now, as if he does not wish to leave the letter in my care.
How tiresome! I try to be patient and explain that the letter is cursed and that I must take precautions -- precautions I cannot take right now -- before I try to read it. Unfortunately, that opens a spigot of more questions. How do I know it is cursed? Did his sister the demon send it? What kind of curse is it? What kind of precautions must I take? Will I open it tonight or must I wait until Sunday? Should he take the thing to the curate for a blessing?
Clearly he has given the subject some thought since our conversation yesterday about whether or not demons existed but I had meant my answer to end the discussion rather than revive it. I put him off as gently as my patience will allow. He counters my deflections with an offer to assist me.
Mrs. Grant's flight is a blow to my confidence but I understand her worry. However, when Mr. Crawford asks if he may be of service, I am offended. What skills does he possibly possess that are of value against demons and their weapons of choice? Having been Possessed may give him an understanding denied to me, but can he articulate it? Can he pray? Can he read their languages? Can he recognize and counter a malediction by touch? Does he have any defenses against falling under their control a second time? A day ago, he couldn't even admit that demons exist.
If only William were here, I allow myself to think.
If my brother were here, Sir Thomas would already be free. By whatever means we would have rescued him last night and broken the curse on that wretched coin. And what is more, I would not feel so ill today if William had been with me to defend me against any backlash from the Mark. With William back at Mansfield, we two would patrol in the village, stealing from house to house like shadows. While one of us physically removed every Mark, the other would hover nearby, praying for whatever the situation needed. Between us, we would make short work of it. And at the end of it, we would gather the Marks in one place and bless them all until the curse shattered. That would surely attract the attention of the demon Impersonating Mary Crawford, and when she came back to Northamptonshire in an attempt to restore order, we would restore her to her rightful place.
Henry Crawford, however, is no William Price. He is neither a scholar nor a fighter. I cannot imagine him chanting prayers, offering up blessings, or knowing benedictions and there is simply not enough time to prepare him. A year would be insufficient to overcome his deficiencies.
Besides, accepting his help with necessitate even more time with him. Mrs. Grant's departure has deprived me of an opportunity to practice my charity, and certainly I must find someone else to befriend, but how can I with Crawford always at my heels? I have seen him every day since his return from London, usually more than once. As soon as this pretend courtship ends I should like him to return to ignoring me. I refuse his offer in language that I hope is firm enough not to encourage further application.
After Mr. Crawford departs, I claim a well-deserved headache and retreat to my East Room to investigate the letter from London. Like the letter to my uncle, it is no doubt made to be destroyed after the message is received; but what is the message? I pull it out of my pocket and begin to feel the painful, tingling sensation in my hand again. I press it against my chest to see if the prayers embedded in my skin react to it. The protection against Compulsion writhes across my back. I set the letter down and gather some tools: a lit candle and metal plate; a few vials from William's chest; my notebook, pen and ink; and other letter writing tools. I cross myself and bless everything one more time before I begin.
I place the letter on the plate and run my blade under the wax. The candle's flame gutters slightly when I break the seal and the air fills with a musky scent. I light some incense to counteract the smell. I unfold the sheets using my knife and pen, careful not to touch it directly until I can study it.
The words scratched across the pages are plain and simple: "Henry Crawford and Fanny Price." The phrase repeats over and over, down each line. Sometimes there is more -- "Henry Crawford and Fanny Price walk in the garden. Henry Crawford and Fanny Price ride to town." -- but it is mostly those five words covering and crossing the pages.
No longer Possessed, Crawford would still be unable to resist the Compulsion in these words. He would seek me out and then profess his love in increasingly violent and brutal terms. Nothing I could say or do as the vulnerable, submissive Fanny would be able to dissuade him until the effects of the letter faded. Of course, it would be too late to undo the damage by then. The man would be just as much a victim in such a case as the woman.
I feel a new surge of anger against the demon responsible and pray silently that God might let me be His vessel of righteous vengeance.
I pick up the missive and let it catch fire from my candle before dropping it back on the plate; my fingers sting from the brief contact. The air around me fills with a noxious smoke but the paper burns with agonizing slowness. I doubt my uncle's express was equally ill-disposed to flame. I look at the letter as my eyes water, wondering what I should do.
For a moment, in the blink of an eye, I see the words peel away and a different message reveals itself, primal and profane, of two figures locked together against their wills and powerless to prevent their own torment. The paper then blazes up with unexpected brightness and heat, and I am forced to shut my eyes but not before the image sears itself into my vision. By the time I open my eyes again, there is nothing but ash and the stench of brimstone.
I stay in the East Room a long time, contemplating what I have seen while normal sensation gradually returns to my hand.
When the heart of night arrives, I again steal into my uncle's chamber with utmost care. I must break the curse of Possession! This time, however, I discover his bed is empty.
It takes me another quarter-hour to find him in my aunt's chamber, sleeping with her. I stand, still and silent as a statue, while I consider my options.
In the end, I have to retreat. There is no way I can remove the Mark without waking both sleepers, for if I rouse my uncle -- and I assuredly will -- my aunt will likewise be roused from her slumber; while I have seen my aunt nap frequently, she is a remarkably light sleeper. Even if I should break the curse, the backlash should be more than sufficient to disturb him. No, there is no path to success tonight. I must endure this for another day.
I sulk back to my room and pray, for guidance, for fortitude, for aid. If only William were here, or Susan! Together we could break the curse while shielding our relatives from harm. If the lion should reveal himself to me again, who knows what I might achieve! But I have no one. I am completely without support at Mansfield. The only person who knows what I am doing -- what I am trying to do -- is Crawford.
I sigh, feeling a lesson in humility being brought to my attention. I am not completely without support, I remind myself. I am not completely alone. Very little is still better than none at all and, despite having firm opinions on the subject, I am in no position to choose whose help I am to receive.
I will speak to Crawford in the morning and tell him I have decided to accept the help that is offered.
Mr. Crawford comes to breakfast at the manor the next morning by my uncle's invitation. If he is confused by his host's overly enthusiastic welcome, he figures it out soon enough when he spies my uncle's left hand still clutched in a fist around the Mark.
Crawford shoots me a glance full of disappointment and recrimination but I am too busy ignoring him to notice.
My uncle waits until Mr. Crawford has food on his plate before asking if his things have already traveled from the parsonage.
Crawford deferentially explains that no, they have not. "I cannot remember precisely how we left matters last night, Sir Thomas, and I did not wish to impose upon your hospitality," he says. "It is no imposition to remain where I am; the Grants quite expect me there."
"But we insist!" cries my uncle. "Do not we, Fanny?"
I stay silent but I can imagine the convenience of having Mr. Crawford here rather than in the village if he is to be of assistance.
"Are you certain your niece should not mind me living here," he asks, "during our courtship?"
That is precisely the sort of consideration my uncle does not want. He laughs it away with great mirth and instructs Crawford to return to the parsonage immediately after breakfast so that he can order his things brought to the Park. That is all well and good but then the man insists that Crawford take me with him, "for the air is not so bad this morning, and the ground is nearly dry, and I think it has been a few days since Fanny has been outside. The walk will do her good and give you a chance to advance your suit." Even I can see that romance loses something without subtlety or subterfuge.
Crawford is hesitant. He looks to me and I do not intentionally look discouraging, so he tentatively accepts my company.
When it is just the two of us on the well-traveled path to the village, he offers up his personal apologies for taking me on this walk but quickly transitions to inquiring into how my uncle continues to be Possessed.
"He was not alone last night," I say. "I could not break the curse without waking both him and my aunt."
"You were in Lady Bertram's bedroom?" He makes it sound scandalous. I suppose, in his experience, there is no honest reason to be in someone else's private rooms.
"And have you never been in a woman's bedroom before?" I ask to make my point.
"Not by choice!" answers Crawford, as if I need reminding.
He is sorely offended and sulks until I condescend to break the silence by retracting my earlier refusal. Even then, he is unbelieving.
"Yesterday you have me an offer and I refused," I remind him. "Today I reverse my decision; will you similarly retract your offer?" It is not my true nature to be conciliatory and I am still nettled by the letter of Compulsion and my failure from last night. If he's going to be completely useless, I ought to send him away.
Again he is silent. Irritation worms across my back.
"But you were very clear -- emphatic -- that I was not wanted."
"That is because you know so little about demons. You cannot read their language, much less speak it. You know nothing about curses: you cannot detect them or protect yourself from their effects; you do not know how to break them. On the other hand, I am well-versed in divine and profane tongues. I am guarded against the common and deadlier curses. I am familiar with martial blessings and have killed my fair share of fiends." I pause to let it all sink in. "Perhaps you begin to understand my reluctance? Were I in a position to choose my companion or assistant --"
"That is enough, I beg you, Miss Price!" he cries. "And now, having thoroughly convinced us both of the futility of my offer, why do you accept it?"
"Because I need aid. I have prayed for it. And God saw fit to provide you. Who am I to question that?"
"What can I possibly do to help?" That is the question to ask!
"I will teach you a few simple prayers," I tell him, "but mostly I need you as another pair of hands in separating my uncle from his Mark. The sort of prayer I need takes concentration, you see, and I cannot wrest the the coin from him at the same time I am praying that he will not notice me doing so. And the curse of the Mark is layered in such a way that I cannot break it without severe harm to myself and waking him in the process."
"You want me to sneak into your uncle's bedroom to steal his cursed coin?" he asks.
I nod. "So long as the Mark does not touch your own skin you will be perfectly safe; a pair of gloves should be all the equipment you need. I will be with you the whole time." I add, "This is why, for the time being, I prefer you to stay at the manor. It will be much easier and safer for us if you do not have to walk up from the parsonage after people has fallen asleep. We can meet tonight in the East Room at eleven o'clock after everyone has retired. It will be our base of operations during your stay at Mansfield Park."
"Base of operations?" he repeats. "You make it sound like a military campaign."
"Yes," I agree. Of course it is. "It is the eternal conflict. It has been waged since The Fall."
This renders him thoughtful and we leave of conversation for the rest of the way to the village. At the parsonage, I wait outside while he goes in to speak with his man. I surreptitiously study the neighborhood and, to my frustration, I find more signs of a demon. Curses are as prevalent now as they were when William arrived, which means they must be fresh. it angers me to think of a demon undoing all our hard work but I need to channel it into something productive.
The demon Impersonating Mary Crawford has recently sent two letters to Northamptonshire to keep her plans in motion. Perhaps she has also decided to return and see for herself that things are running smoothly. If that is the case, perhaps my time would be better spent tonight in patrolling the woods in the hopes that I will find her. Killing the demon is the most direct and painless route to freeing my uncle and the villagers from their Possession. And fighting a demon is something I can do without any assistance from anybody.
But I tell myself it is wishful thinking to imagine the demon has returned. These diffuse maledictions were no doubt in place before she quit Northampton for London. And besides, William wants me to stay indoors until I have support.
And then I realize that if I accept Mr. Crawford's help, I am no longer without support. It is not exactly what William intended, but technically I should be able to continue my nightly patrols.
Crawford exits the parsonage soon and offers his arm as we walk back to the manor.
When we pass out of earshot of the buildings that define this village, he brings up his letter. "Forgive me," he says, "but what happened with our letter from London? I had momentarily forgotten about it. Was it cursed like Sir Thomas'?"
"It was Compulsion rather than Possession," I say as if he understands the difference. "And rather nasty, too." I can still see that second image if I close my eyes.
He does not ask what the letter was about or what the Compulsion commanded him to do. I must suppose he is familiar enough with the demon's preferences to guess what is unsaid.
We walk on in the half-light of winter. The sun is too weak to shine; the trees are too bare to shade. With each step, I feel my hackles rise. Then it happens: I trip.
My toe catches on a root unearthed from the gravel and I pitch forward unexpectedly. Crawford is already at my elbow and grabs me without thinking. And just like that, he is holding me like it is the most natural thing in the world. He is looking at me, concerned and dazed at the same time.
My flesh crawls and suddenly I realize why. We are being Influenced! There must be a demon close to us! The urge to hunt it immediately is barely suppressed. Only the vow to stalk it tonight keeps me in my place.
I feel this is a gift of Divine Providence. Rather like when Abraham was tested to sacrifice his son, so I was tested to collaborate with Mr. Crawford. And now that I have shown myself ready to submit to God's will, I am rewarded by not having to submit to it after all. I offer an impromptu prayer of thanksgiving.
I turn my head and give Crawford a short, hard shove which is all he needs to come to his senses. He blushes and stutters and apologizes profusely if he took any liberties. "I, I, I don't know what came over me," he finishes lamely.
"It was not your doing," I say simply to get us moving again.
I realize that, with a demon so near, it is not exactly safe to talk here openly but the man is oblivious to the danger. He starts to speak again so I cut him off.
"Let that be enough for you, sir," I say with my eyes down and my voice breathy. "Do not press me."
This confuses him thoroughly and now he does become clingy. Unpleasant as it is, he is in perfect character should anyone observe us intently.
There is no more worthwhile conversation on the way back. The wind picks up and there is nothing I want to discuss with Mr. Crawford. The demon must be dealt with as soon as possible. It takes precedence over my uncle's Possession and Crawford's education, certainly!
I decide to tell Crawford about my change of plan tonight, when there is no opportunity to alter it once more. There are too many ways the man can make this much harder for me, and not a single possibility that his knowing will help in any way.
When at last we reach the manor, I demurely move to part from him. He wants to draw more out of me, holding my hand and trying to press it to his heart in earnest entreaty. He wants to know what just happened, because he can tell that something did. My behavior must be confusing to him because it is a pantomime meant to be observed by someone else.
His reaction, however, is better than anything scripted. I cannot tell if anyone is watching from the windows or the woods, but he probably looks very much like a man attempting to court me.
"Importune me no longer," I cry weakly, and flutter off, making a good show for any spies.
Is it any wonder I hate theatricals?
Chapter 16: in which I receive a valuable gift from an old friend
Posted on 2015-10-15
When I return to the Bertram family circle, Mr. Crawford is reading aloud to my aunt from the same book I selected from my East Room when there with Mrs. Grant. He has a remarkably good voice for this sort of intimate reading.
I am determined to take no unnecessary notice of him, especially in front of the family, but he is sitting in my favorite chair. I resign myself to bustling about and go first to the sofa where I rearrange my aunt's scraps into a more orderly heap. Then I go to the small chair favored by the old cat and dig through the workbasket for some suitable distraction. I do not turn my head in his direction but there is no need; he can be heard quite clearly in our little room.
It reminds me of things I had forgotten, listening to my parents tell stories so convincingly, so mesmerizingly that even now I do not know if the events really happened.
His reading is excellent, if I may allow myself to compliment him. I am ashamed to say it, but his voice is much better than I am used to at Mansfield. I do not disparage the Bertrams; they read very well, but they must read in the general way. In Mr. Crawford's reading, however, there is variety of tone, pitch, cadence unique to each character. Each is given their own personality and affectations. Each expresses, through the modulation of his voice, their dignity or pride, tenderness or remorse, and all with equal beauty. His face reflects the same: his brow smoothes with one line, then darkens to match another voice; his cheeks puff or his mouth puckers; his head tilts right or left, or his whole head shakes with feeling.
I suppose that if this is what true drama is like I should not mind it very much to witness it. Indeed, it is far better than watching my cousins shred their reputations and throw off all good sense.
Eventually, Crawford realizes that I am watching him. He looks at me as if he is unable to turn away and, falling silent, softly closes the book. I glance at my aunt who is lightly dozing... No, she is waking. While Crawford had been speaking, one might have imagined four or five different people in the room plotting, soliloquizing, or ranting, and Aunt Bertram fell asleep to the gentle commotion. But now that they have fallen silent, the charm is broken and her eyes spring open, and she is complimenting Mr. Crawford and asking me what she missed all in the same breath.
"It was really like being at a play," says she. "Do not you agree, Fanny? I wish Sir Thomas had been here to offer his own compliments. You have a great turn for acting, I am sure, Mr. Crawford; and I will tell you what, I think you will have a theatre, some time or other, at your house in Norfolk. I mean when you are settled there. I do indeed. I think you will fit up a theatre at your house in Norfolk."
"Do you, ma'am?" cries he with a hint of alarm in his voice. "No, no, that will never be. Your ladyship is quite mistaken. No theatre at Everingham! Oh no!" He sinks briefly into a reflective silence, recalling -- or so I suppose -- the debacle that was Lover's Vows. For all that I witnessed, there must have been other scenes still more intimate between Mr. Crawford and my cousin that took place under the label of rehearsal, and even before he came to Northamptonshire he must have been forced to play the lover and other roles many times at his master's command.
The topic is revived over dinner by my aunt who comments first to her husband and then to her sister that Mr. Crawford is a superlative reader. She calls on me to voice my approval but the soup is too sublime for me to speak.
My uncle is then forced to carry his favorite's standard for a bit. He does a good job of it, considering he didn't witness the performance, and entreats his guest to give us another taste of his excellence later.
Mr. Crawford is trapped into acquiescing, poor thing. I have no idea how it goes, however, because I plead my usual afternoon headache and slip into my East Room to practice my patterns and otherwise prepare myself for tonight's patrol. I finish with a nap to ease my fatigue from the last two nights and wake in time to dress for the evening meal.
Crawford asks me how I am. He tries to be discreet but of course my uncle overhears. Before I am finished saying that it is just a headache, Sir Thomas speaks on my behalf. Really, I am not called upon to say much at all until it is time to retire. My one regret is that I have not had the opportunity to cancel my rendezvous with Crawford. I must wait for him to send him back to his bed lest, not finding me in the East Room, he decides to search for me in my uncle's chamber.
I prepare myself carefully for patrol and then pace the East Room, muttering prayers under my breath until Crawford timidly knocks and admits himself.
He gapes at me as his eyes adjust. The shutters are closed and I only have one lantern in the room. "Miss Price," he says at last. "What are you wearing? Your clothes..." He trails off, stunned.
I glance down at my ensemble; I suppose in the dark I do look like a highwayman's apprentice. "My apologies," I offer. Now that he is here, there is no cause for additional delay. "I do not mean to alarm you but there has been a change of plan. The demon has returned and I need to hunt it tonight."
Following an all too tiresome pattern, one answer from me prompts more questions from him. His curiosity is natural -- perhaps even therapeutic in his circumstances -- but ill-timed for my taste. How do I know the demon is returned? Is it really his sister? When did I notice her?
Firstly, it is not his sister; it has never been his sister.
"Do you remember when I tripped as we were walking from the village?" I ask. "You caught me to prevent me from falling. And then you felt something strange?" I prompt.
He says nothing. In the dimness it is hard to be sure but I think he is blushing.
"That strange sensation was Influence," I tell him. "And the vine that tripped me was likewise acted upon by a malevolent force."
"Why are you only telling me now?"
"Because we were being observed earlier," I answer. "If the demon was close enough to Influence you, then it might have been close enough to hear our conversation."
He takes the measure of my words, then asks, "Were you not Influenced?"
That is an astute observation, but I do not want to go into it now. "I am immune to it. I can feel it but I cannot tell what a demon wants me to do," I say. "And now I must go."
I move to the door but he's not done talking.
"But what of Sir Thomas?" he whines.
"The best way to free someone from Possession is to kill the master. That will free my uncle as well as everyone in the village," I point out. "You see now why my plans have changed?"
"Then let me come with you," he offers. "It will only take me a moment to prepare."
"Absolutely not!" I can hardly imagine Crawford gnatting about is the support William wanted me to have.
"But surely it is dangerous for you alone! What if you are injured?"
"I have fought and killed five at once before, I'll have you know," I say matter-of-factly. "One demon alone will be a refreshing change." I do not point out that if I can kill this demon without it landing a single blow on me, then I will be very much surprised. But, then again, that is one of the reasons I pray: to heal the wounds earned in service to the Lord.
He does not look like he trusts me completely, so I am forced to be strict. "I insist you remain at the manor. You would be martyred to go out tonight," I predict. "And it would be a dangerous distraction to me to have you there."
He is not yet mollified and states that he will wait in the East Room until I return. "How can I rest until I know you are safe?" Crawford wonders.
I reluctantly agree to appear before him one last time although I am sorely tempted to keep him waiting until just before dawn.
The walk from the manor to the village takes far longer than I expect. In the short span of days that my attention was diverted and I have kept myself confined inside, the demon has fouled the path, and it takes a while to clear the filth and restore my protections. The exercise gives me a headache, and I do not know if I shall be able to eat breakfast tomorrow, but I am pleased with my work.
The good news is that I do not have to waste time looking for it when at last I reach the homes and other buildings that mark the settlement. The bad news is that it is obviously not the demon Impersonating Mary Crawford. I have never, in all my education and experience, heard of a demon changing shape a second time; Impersonation is apparently irreversible. Having fought demons and having looked into their eyes, I can attest that they are powerless to revert back to their true form in spite of all their wishes. I must consider this a blessing, for a demon's true form is mighty, and that is exactly what I find.
As man is made in the image of God, so are many creatures in the world made in the image of angels and demons: bears, wolves, snakes. They have fur and claws, teeth and scales. They move with a grace we recognize as inhuman. They speak in a language better suited to their shapes with growls, hisses, and snarls. But God is fearsome, and so are angels like the Lion, and so are demons like the lupine terror before me.
Based in its size, in fact, I wonder if this creature is above the common breed of demon I have so much practice in dispatching. I observe it briefly to see if it is acting alone or if it shall bring others -- profane or mundane -- to aid it. It stalks from the churchyard to the square and back again, misshapen and cruel in the moonlight, but solitary.
I sneak towards the church and position myself so that it will see me when it turns. Something must give me away for it stops to sniff the air and pivots on its paw to face me.
It doesn't growl, not exactly, but it bares its teeth with menace. That is all the warning I receive, and the next moment it is as if my skin is on fire. The ink in my tattoos feels like it is boiling away.
That is a powerful curse. If it is leading with its strength, then I might survive this; if it is just warming up, then I am done for.
I attack it now and quickly, while I still have a chance. The fiend is too strong for me to keep my distance and hurl blessings at it; I must get closer, close enough to strike it, close enough to be physically struck by it.
As I approach, it tries to curse me again but I am on guard. It then abandons the ranged attack and bounds straight at me. I dodge, swinging Guillaume as I roll out of its path, and we both miss. It crashes into the churchyard gate and gives a small bellow. I am on my feet, rising immediately, ready to nick the demon while its back is still turned.
It is too quick for me. Guillaume meets with its claws rather than his hide. Now we fight each other with our weapons of choice, claw and blade, aiming to kill, knowing any mistake will be fatal. The demon is stronger than me and much larger in all dimensions, so naturally it beats me back. I give ground wisely with an exit strategy in mind; I do not allow myself to be driven into a death trap. The truth is that I am not so much retreating as luring the fiend into my blessed wood where its size with be less of an advantage for, between the force of its blows and the enervation of its curses, I certainly cannot keep this up indefinitely.
We reach the tree line and I feel more confident in the odds of my survival. The area is now scrubbed of curses and traps and I catch, once or twice, its surprise at failing to ensnare me.
My triumph, however, comes when the demon momentarily stumbles into one of my new protections. I use the diversion to full advantage and make my first cut on its hide. The cut, however, enrages the beast who lashes out and strikes me with the back of its paw. A lacework of pain opens on my ribs as I am thrown back. I am stunned by the blow but I haven't the luxury of wallowing in it. I must move despite the pain in my chest. I must stand despite my inability to breathe. I must live to see this demon dead although I may not long survive it.
The wound I have inflicted on the demon bleeds. As it bleeds, it burns, but not like other demons I have faced, confirming without doubt that I am facing a different kind of monster than the usual. The flame is weak and wavering, and the demon will certainly be able to heal itself after I am dead if I do not kill it first.
It bares its teeth as it growls at me. I feel the curse across all my tattoos. In my legs and back, it strikes as fatigue but in my chest it burns like fire. I grip Guillaume with white knuckles but neither of us believes it will take more than a child to disarm me.
Then I hear a low rumble behind me. My first thought is, "Another?" No mortal is there to witness whether or not I whimper. I manoeuvre myself so that I might see them both, as if that will in any way alter the outcome.
But seeing makes a tremendous difference to my flagging hopes because it is not a second demon! No, it is my old friend, the Lion of Northampton!
I inch away as the two beasts growl and taunt each other in their own tongues. I must be dazed because it takes me a moment to realize that they are hurling martial blessings and curses at each other. Then suddenly the wound I have inflicted on the fiend burns brighter and quicker than before. The Lion must have hit home.
The demon wastes no time after that. He charges the Lion. It is claw and tooth and roar then. I watch in absolute fascination until I remember to offer a few vicious benedictions of my own to the cause although it is probably just as effective as pouring tea on a mountain.
The demon continues to burn and the fire spreads over its hide but it still inflicts harm on his opponent. Then the Lion manages to clamp his mighty jaws on the fiend's throat. There is a noise -- a crunch? a squeal? a gurgle? -- and the demon drops lifeless and flaming to the ground.
The Lion remains there to confirm the kill, then strolls over to where I am standing. I am afraid; I know I am looking at an angel but there is a part of me that sees nothing but a ferocious animal. Then he purrs, which can't be right, but I immediately feel better. My ribs are still cracked, but my muscles are not nearly so tired.
I utter a low word of thanks but he does not acknowledge it. Instead, he shifts his position and again I hear that roar like the Trumpet of the Last Judgment.
As before, I feel like my own impurities are sloughing off me. As before, I feel reverberations of the sound in my bones, and my breath stops in my chest as my fractured ribs cry out in pain. I almost don't realize when the sound stops, my ears are still ringing with it.
I raise my eyes in wonder but the Lion is stalking away slowly. I trail after him cautiously, slightly terrified. If he should want to get rid of me, surely he would have no difficulty. Therefore, I conclude, I must be allowed to follow. As I walk, my eyes play tricks on me. A sickle of moon casts a weak glow on the scene but the Lion itself is brightly lit from within. He pauses occasionally to growl quietly at something dark and it too starts to glow.
He reaches a small clearing that is especially gloomy and waits for me. As I approach I realize the dimness is not completely mundane; there is a curse upon this spot. By now, my eyes are well-adjusted and I can see the curse, how it warps and weaves about the space, how it springs from a single knot. Before I can stop myself, my hand reaches out and presses against the mire.
The curse collapses at the touch but the greater miracle is that I feel no backlash from it. I marvel for a moment before noticing the angel is gone, leaving me alone with my new gift.
I turn back and meander along the paths such as they are, and head to the village. When I find a curse, I destroy it; there are plenty of work amid the buildings. The demon may not have been in the area long, but he did not waste time. The blessings bestowed by the angel are a heady mix and I am fit company for no mortal: driven and giddy. It has never been this easy and painless to break curses and I revel in my invulnerability. Eventually, I run out of obvious work and the cold drives me back to the manor.
By the time I am climbing hidden staircases, I must coax myself to visit the East Room and relieve Mr. Crawford of his worry. The euphoric effects from my encounter with the Lion are fading, fatigue is setting in, and at the moment it is all I can do to put one foot in front of the other.
Crawford leaps to his feet as I push open the door to the room.
"There you are!" he nearly exclaims. When he turns the lantern on me he gasps and rushes to my side to escort me to the chair. "Miss Price, you look..."
I look like I have been dragged into the woods and beaten, then abandoned to wander in the cold for an hour or more, but Mr. Crawford cannot say that in a way that does not offend.
But it is not how I look that is worth discussing; it is how Mr. Crawford looks that warrants my attention. Across his face, hanging like a shroud, lies a darkness. I have never noticed it before but I have not been blessed by an angel before either. This shadow has probably been hanging over him for as long as Mary Crawford has been dead and while its true purpose is a mystery, I can clearly see how it drapes and folds, and also how it is wound. He is now close enough that it is no effort for me to to reach up and press my thumb into the center of the knot in his forehead where the whole mess unravels.
Curse-breaking is not solitary work, and demons always exact a revenge. Two people working together is a much safer number for while the first is breaking the curse, the second can pray for protection. So it was when William visited me, but that is far for usual. I am accustomed to bearing the brunt of the backlash but tonight I am completely shielded from it.
It does not occur to me that Mr. Crawford is not. As soon as I destroy the curse's grasp on him, it writhes over his skin looking for some new hold before it expires. It fails to find permanent purchase but his entire form stiffens. His eyes roll back in his head. His neck stretches and his head is thrown back. His fingers splay at the end of his hands. He rolls onto the balls of his feet and would fall over were I not in position to steady him until the seizure passes.
He sags against me until I am supporting us both. I lead us over to a chair and practically dump him onto it.
I apologize for putting him through that ordeal although he is still panting so hard that I doubt he hears me. But I also begin to notice the other curses layered about his person, crafting his body to suit the whims of his master. I also realize how to remove them and, despite the immediate cost to Mr. Crawford, this is probably the best opportunity to enact his freedom. This gift from the Lion -- the ability to see curses and remove them at a touch without damage to myself -- is a very powerful gift but it cannot be meant to last. Surely it will fade over time; perhaps it will be gone by morning, and then it will be much more tedious and embarrassing for both of us if I have to find them all by my usual methods of touch and study. Add to that the probability that the revenge will strike me as well and naturally I want to release him as soon as possible. However, witnessing his reaction to the first curse, I am loathe to continue without warning him and getting his consent.
I let him catch his breath which takes longer than I anticipate but finally he is able to converse.
"What happened?" The words come out between quiet gasps.
I choose to interpret that question as a request for details about my patrol. I give him a brief sketch: I met with a demon wholly unknown to me; we fought; an angel arrived and killed the fiend. My story is intentionally void of any excitement to discourage his interest and questions.
Perhaps I am too successful in deflecting his curiosity. "What did you do to me?" asks Crawford.
It is not what I have done so much as it is what I have undone. "In addition to the Mark of Possession, your demonic master left a number of curses on your person that I had not noticed before now," I explain. "I removed one of the curses. I apologize for not warning you. I was precipitous; had I known you would have reacted that way, I would have taken greater precaution."
"The demon you killed --" I must correct that misconception "-- the demon who died -- was not the same one that killed my aunt?"
No, it was not.
"Then what of Sir Thomas?" he asks after considering the implications.
I know it is poor manners, but as I have already owned the mistake to myself, it becomes tedious to keep admitting to it. "I believe he is still Possessed," I say, "as well as the people in the village." I doubt the demon killed tonight was responsible for the ribbons and trinkets that act as the Marks of Possession. "I have spent a good hour or more breaking the curses that are scattered about Mansfield but I have not attempted to touch any curse that clings to a person, except the one that was bound to you."
He flinches slightly as the recent memory but surely his demon has forced him to endure worse than that. My eyes cannot help being drawn to the other patches of darkness clinging to him; it would be a kindness to remove them, and it would be wise to remove them quickly while I am still blessed and best able to guide Mr. Crawford through the backlash.
"Allow me to remove the remaining curses on you," I offer. "I promise to be careful. Knowing now what to expect, I should be able to mitigate the effects."
He is understandably reticent and needs additional persuading. Why can we not try to free my uncle now? That would convince him.
Is he serious? Yes, he is.
Much as I want to disagree with him on principle, it is not an altogether bad idea and I would only lose time by arguing. So to my uncle's chamber we go.
Crawford and I find Sir Thomas asleep and alone in his bed, which I take as an auspicious start. The Mark is located instantly: it lies clutched in his fist, at the center of a darkness.
I pause to study it, never having been able to see it before. Possession is thorny rather than knotted, attaching to and burrowing into the skin. I begin by teasing out the few burrs that are winding up my uncle's arm. They disintegrate between my fingers and I slowly work my way to the mass emanating from his fist. Eventually, I can proceed no further. My uncle's grip is too tight for me to get to the Mark and dissolve the curse. We must do this in a more mundane fashion.
When I am ready, I turn to Crawford and draw him to me with a nod. "I shall hold my uncle's attention and keep him asleep now while you pry open his fingers," I whisper. "Do not let the Mark touch you. Let it fall to safety then rouse me from my prayers."
He does not look confident so I ask him if he understands his instructions. He nods, his focus on Sir Thomas. In that respect I mimic him.
I pray. My uncle sleeps undisturbed. The Distraction I placed on William before his ride to London was a passive benediction to discourage anyone thinking too much of my brother. This is different, more active. I am now consuming my uncle's attention, making it impossible for him to notice other things such as the other person in his bedroom prying open his fingers. Sir Thomas would not notice if the morning came, or the sun rose to wake him, or the room was on fire; and neither would I. Such is the nature of this odd blessing which is much more effective as a curse. Still I pray, and whether I repeat myself one time or one hundred times, I cannot know.
Chapter 17: in which I might kill Mr. Crawford
Posted on 2015-10-19
Eventually, I am no longer in my uncle's bedroom. Crawford is pulling me through the halls, guiding me back to the East Room.
"Wait!" I say, digging in my heels as my memory returns. "I must go back for the Mark." After all this trouble, to have my uncle or his valet pick it up again would be sinfully careless.
"I have it," says Crawford and he resumes his pace, pulling me after him.
He has it? Where? "Let go of it," I command him. "Drop it. Now."
"I am afraid I cannot do that," he mutters darkly. I look at him. After a bit, I can see the curse of Possession snaking up his arm from the Mark now held tightly in his fist. It joins the other curses I saw earlier and weaves about his body, binding him to his master. But the vision is fading, the Lion's gift is expiring, and I am very quickly running out of time.
"What possessed you to touch it?" I ask, pointlessly.
"I didn't intend to. When I opened Sir Thomas' hand, it fell and rolled on the floor. I was afraid we would lose it. I reached for it without thinking."
I need to emulate William and consider the situation. Crawford is very clearly trying to resist the effects of Possession. His prior experiences no doubt give him guidance. But it is also clear that this is a losing battle and he is slowly succumbing.
"Let me go," I order him.
"I wish I could," he says sadly.
"And what do you imagine you will do to me?" I ask.
He does not answer, which is just as well. He does not want to do anything and I will not permit him to do much.
Thankfully, he cannot do more than hold onto me in the corridors. One hand is gripping my arm and the other is occupied fully with the Mark. He can drag me down the hall -- he has already brought me a fair distance from my uncle's and aunt's private rooms -- but I still have one free hand, and Guillaume if it comes to it.
I make the decision to avoid using a blade, Guillaume or otherwise, until it is absolutely necessary. I have killed another human being before when she was under a demon's control, but Mr. Crawford is too aware of his own Possession, actively fighting against it, and I still believe he can be saved from it. He does not want to hurt me and so I stall not try to hurt him irrevocably either.
Still, I must have some latitude. I scratch his arm which shatters a curse near his wrist; the effect is enough for him to release me. This frustrates him and he tries to grab me again but his fingers must be a little numb and he cannot tighten his grasp.
Then he changes tactics; he attempts to apply his bulk against me. I may be tired and my ribs may be slightly sore, but I can still dance circles around him. When I let him get close enough, I reach out and rip away a curse before darting out of his way. Over time, we go down an entire hall this way and he fares worse and worse. The protections given me by the Lion begin to fade as well, and I notice an occasional stinging sensation although I am well accustomed to it and Crawford bears the brunt. My plan is to exhaust him in this way until he is easier to manage, possibly lure him into a room where the commotion will not be noticed, and then knock him down and pry the coin from him with as much force as necessary.
Then I make an unfortunate mistake for both of us. I dodge to the left, but the curse I have just broken staggers him and he accidentally runs into me. He is able to get an arm around me and presses me close to him. I fight back by tearing at the curse wrapped around his chest, the only one left within easy reach.
This curse does not shatter or unravel. Instead I yank it out of him in a thin barbed line. It resembles in many ways the Possession emanating from the Mark and I realize in a flash of insight that it is the remnant of his earlier Possession. Tonight has proven to be extremely illuminating, and I look forward to sharing what I have learned with my family and other demon hunters provided we each live long enough for a reunion.
Crawford clutches his heart as the curse exits him but he cannot prevent the chain from coming out. He pales and gasps for air. If this does not leave him weak enough to topple, I shall be very much surprised.
However, my surprise is greater still when the last barb emerges. Crawford's eyes immediately shutter and he drops to the rug as limp and lifeless as a rag doll. The impact is enough to jar loose the Mark which bounces harmlessly nearby once then twice.
The demon's Possession is not quite done, however, and after a few hours of handling curses with something bordering impunity, I do not expect the flash of light that blinds me. I rub my eyes and pray to see the path of righteousness through the obstacles and wickedness that surround me. My sight returns slowly, first as varying thicknesses of black, then as shades of gray, then finally recognizable shapes in the colors of night. In all this time I hear not a sound from Crawford or anything else beyond a howl of winter wind beating against the outside. When at last I can see him again, he has not moved.
My vision is still recovering from the backlash, or perhaps the Lion's gift has expired, but I cannot see any trace of a curse on Crawford. There are no pockets of darkness, no fiendish knots. Even in the darkness, his skin is as pale and still as marble, and his face has a deathly pallor against his mouth.
I kneel to examine him. I rest my fingers gently over his nose and mouth but there is no breath. His chest does not rise or fall. His eyelids do not twitch. I place my ear against him but do not hear the thud of a beating heart.
"Mr. Crawford!" I whisper.
He does not hear me.
I press his shoulder as if to jostle him to consciousness but it does not work.
If he is dead... If he is dead, it is by my hand however unintentional. I have killed many in my life, but only once have I killed another human being and that was by choice to save my own life. I do not choose for Mr. Crawford to die. His death is not necessary to my survival. And while I know that the demon is at the core responsible for his murder, I also know he would not be lying at my feet had I not removed the curse. To be a diabolical instrument is anathema and I must try to save him.
I start with a simple prayer of healing and quickly expand through anything applicable in my prayer book. Nothing has a noticeable effect. There is no flutter of movement or breath or sound from his body; at best, I can say he does not look more dead, which is hardly encouraging.
And so I am forced to devise my own petition in a mixture of English and Angelic phrases to match my thoughts. I am reminded of the Christ's own prayer: "If this cup can pass from Me, let it be according to Your will." I realize this is hardly the same situation, but I am reminded nonetheless. To finish, I place my hands on his chest, over his sleeping heart, and breath on him as I had once done to Mr. Yates.
I lean back, searching for some sign of life but there is nothing, no spark of hope. Undeterred, I begin again. It is foolish, I know, but I cannot abandon him here, not yet.
The prayer is slightly different the second time, but I end it with the same motions. As I sit back to see if there is any change I can detect the sound of movement behind me as a maid on her early morning rounds has discovered us. Mr. Crawford does not stir.
A scream quickly follows, along with the sound of something dropping to the rug. I must flee. As far as I can tell, I have not been identified but what will that matter if I am found running the halls in these clothes or, worse yet, not found in my bed when the whole house is roused in the commotion? I do not check that I am being pursued; I doubt I am but it will not do to find out. Through forgotten staircases and oddly useful connecting doors, I travel the distance to my garret room and lock the door behind me.
I remove my patrol uniform and hide it in the trunk. My room is frigid and the water I use to wash my face is literally icy. Mud and blood end up in the bowl before I am scrubbed clean. I perform a quick inspection for signs of my nocturnal adventures but, besides the blood I have already washed away, the Lion has removed all suspicious evidence. I slip on my freezing nightdress and climb into bed. The sheets are as cold as the rest of the room and I lay there shivering until I remember to pitch the contents of my wash basin and to unlock the door.
Back in the bed, I squirm and fret until I am almost warm, then turn my thoughts and prayers to Crawford. I am crawling with guilt for what happened to him. How could I have led him into this? If Northamptonshire is too dangerous for one experienced demon hunter, who was I to involve Crawford? How William would lecture me on tonight. How rightly I deserve it!
With effort, I shift my thoughts and prayers back to Crawford.
It is an interminable wait for the maid to come with my warm brick and fresh water this morning. When the door finally opens, it is not Annie who I expect but Jill, a young woman a few years older than me.
She starts with a quick pardon as she goes about her business but she is sidetracked as soon as I ask about Annie.
"Oh, Miss Price, the whole house is in an uproar," she tells me readily, her chore forgotten.
I force myself to act surprised. "Really? Has anything happened?"
Jill looks about cautiously as if anyone ever comes here then whispers something about a ghost.
"What did you say?" Clearly, I am expecting news of Mr. Crawford.
Jill leaves the ewer and approaches my bed. "Annie saw a ghost," she shares with me.
It takes me a moment to understand what she is saying and what it means. "Where? What did it look like?" I ask with no artificial tremor in my voice.
Jill sits on the edge of the bed, perhaps an overly familiar gesture but I shall not check her. "It was earlier this morning," she says in response to a question I did not pose. "She was on her way to the family's rooms to take care of them, like she always does. That's when she saw it." There is a dramatic pause. "It was black as... 'as black as Hell,' she said, Miss Price, with burning coals for eyes and claws for hands. And it was hovering over a figure in white in one of the halls."
She must mean Crawford and me. Great: now I've killed an innocent man and terrified a poor maid half to death.
I want to get to the point and ask about Crawford, but I cannot mention him until the maid says his name first.
"And who was it?" I prompt.
"That's the thing," says Jill. "Annie has never seen the ghost before, no one has. Mrs. Mullen doesn't like us to talk about it, but there are ghosts at Mansfield Park. There's one in the cellar that likes the damp, and I think every maid has seen the ghost in the servants' hall. But the ghost Annie saw this morning was completely new, and dangerous-looking from the sound of it."
"What do you mean?" I cannot believe this.
"Well, Annie was so hysterical right after it happened that we couldn't get a word of sense out of her. I thought someone was going to have to slap her. But eventually she calmed down enough to tell us about it. She said she was on her rounds when she saw the evil spirit. It had captured some gentle spirit and was squeezing its heart."
Here she pauses to hold up her fists to show me what such a thing might look like.
"And what of this gentle spirit?" I inquire nervously.
"It turns out that it was no gentle spirit after all! And why should it be? Why would a ghost come to Mansfield to plague another ghost? What can one do to the other? They are all equally dead; you'd think it is the living they are after."
Perhaps, but I might die of old age before I learn what I want to know.
"Mr. Baddeley went to investigate as soon as he knew where to look," the girl continues. "And would you believe it, but the figure in white was none other than Mr. Henry Crawford! Nobody knows what he was doing up so early, or in that part of the house, or why he was dressed for dinner, but that's how Mr. Baddeley found him. The ghost was to kill a real person after all!"
Now the maid falters in her story. She looks worried that I will react poorly.
"And did the ghost kill Mr. Crawford?" I ask in my steadiest voice.
"I'm afraid I don't know," she apologizes. "They sent for the surgeon straight away and then Mrs. Mullen remembered that no one had been to see you yet, and that you'd certainly be in need of warmth this morning, so she sent me upstairs without waiting to see what happened. But I'm sure Mr. Nelson is here already and I'm sure he's speaking with Sir Thomas right now."
She hesitantly reaches out to pat my hand. "I know he was sweet on you, Miss Price. I'm very sorry."
There are so many conflicting thoughts in my head that I don't know what to say. I consider denying any preference on either of our parts but it seems too complicated to explain. Crawford only flirted with me because he was Possessed. He only entered into a courtship with me because my uncle was Possessed. I only involved him in last night's fiasco because I have no one else and I didn't realize it would end like this.
The girl shudders. "It just reminds me so much of when Lord T's maid died," she confides. "Do you remember that, Miss Price?"
Of course I remember it. Who could forget that? Jill probably does not realize that I even saw the body in all its grotesque glory. And she cannot know what prompted the maid to go mad, but I do. Those thoughts naturally turn to Crawford and I wonder if he was fatally cursed, if there was nothing I could have done to save him. William had called the Demon's Kiss a nasty piece of work, and I have to believe there are other curses just as foul.
"Shall I bring you up some tea and toast, Miss Price?" asks Jill.
It is a kind offer, and I give her something like a smile, but I had better go down. I will learn nothing new by hiding in my room all morning.
Of course, there is very little to learn at the breakfast table. I am the only one there at first. Aunt Bertram is in her room, as usual, and Sir Thomas is elsewhere, presumably with Mr. Nelson and Baddeley. The footman says nothing.
I am halfway through a large breakfast when the old cat strides in.
"I came as soon as I heard," she announces, then looks affronted to realize she is wasting her words on only me. "Where is Sir Thomas?" she asks of the footman.
Before he can answer, I pipe up. "What have you heard, Aunt?"
She glares at me. "As if you didn't know! It is about Mr. Crawford. The whole village is talking about it." She turns away to dismiss me.
"What are they saying?" I persist.
She nearly radiates disgust at my impertinence. "That someone discovered his body lying in one of the corridors this morning under very suspicious circumstances. I suppose that is just what you wanted to happen, Fanny."
I am too surprised to respond to that. Thankfully, I am saved from reacting by the sudden arrival of my uncle, followed closely by the surgeon.
"Ah, Fanny," he greets me, "just who I was hoping to find."
The old cat repeats her original announcement and segues immediately into a request for information.
The two men share a look as if they are trying to decide how much to reveal.
"Mr. Crawford is upstairs," Mr. Nelson finally admits.
"Is he dead?" the old cat wants to know. "What happened to him? Was he found near Fanny's room?"
Just what is she implying?
"Mrs. Norris, please," interjects my uncle. "He was found between my room and his. We must be very careful with what we say and how we say it. Mr. Crawford came here as a guest."
Then he turns to me. "Fanny, may I speak with you privately?" He makes it sound as if I could refuse him although it appears to be the best chance for my curiosity to be satisfied.
I stand and walk out with him, abandoning Mr. Nelson to the old cat's interrogation.
It takes too long to walk through the manor to my uncle's study but he remains tightlipped and pensive throughout. When at last we are comfortably seated, I blurt out, "What of Mr. Crawford?"
He sighs heavily which I can only interpret badly. "I must apologize, Fanny," he begins, "for my recent behavior. I have forwarded a match between yourself and Mr. Crawford despite your obvious reticence. I believe I had your best interests at heart but I am aware that I may have appeared too forceful."
Shall I say that I forgive him? And is he pointing out that I do not care for Crawford so that I will avoid hysterics when I hear he is dead, or is he miraculously still alive and insisting we become engaged?
"Does it really matter, Uncle?" I ask. "If Mr. Crawford is dead--"
"He is not dead," says my uncle with certainty.
" Oh." I am not sure what else to say.
"He is not dead, but he is not well," Sir Thomas clarifies. "Mr. Nelson believes he is much too ill to be moved. But my first priority must be to my family, and you as my niece supersede Henry Crawford. If you wish to end this courtship, I will speak to Crawford myself at the first opportunity. And if you do not wish him to stay at Mansfield Park while you are in residence, I will have Mr. Nelson transfer him to the parsonage. Just say the word, Fanny, and I shall act upon it."
I am -- I must be -- relieved that I have not killed Mr. Crawford. Let me be thankful for that! But his continued existence at Mansfield Park in the face of my uncle's regret... And yet I had pictured him leaving the manor under his own power. There is comfort in the implication that, however serious Mr. Crawford's current injuries, he is expected to recover sufficiently to perhaps marry one day.
I confess, I little expected my feelings to be consulted at this point. "It would be a poor example of Christian charity," I say at last, "to make Mr. Crawford leave now if he is indeed as injured as you say. And when he recovers, he may choose to withdraw on his own. You need not do anything."
It is a bit too naïve and my uncle shakes his head gravely. "I am afraid that expectations will be raised if he remains here. If he later withdraws, people will accuse him of caprice. Other gentlemen may choose not to consider you for marriage because of this."
I want to point out that this was all true before and I have no inclination to marry anyway, but it does not change the fact that my uncle was Possessed at the time the decision was made and here we are.
"May I see him?" I ask. "If his condition truly is as bad as it appears, I cannot ask that he leave. And if otherwise, then I should ask him to leave myself."
"Fanny--" he begins, and I know he is going to refuse me. I am, after all, merely his meek, little niece. The thought of this mousy creature forcing anyone from necessary shelter is ludicrous.
"Please, Uncle," I stop him. "You have spoken enough on my behalf." That is uncharacteristically forceful but it silences him.
Sir Thomas struggles with the decision briefly then nods. "Very well. You may speak with him when Mr. Nelson approves but I do not want you alone with him."
It takes a while to arrange for the interview. Mr. Nelson must finish his breakfast first, somehow, with the old cat constantly pestering him for details. I resign myself to a long wait and go to Aunt Bertram's sitting room until someone should send for me or find a way to make me useful.
My aunt eventually arrives and begins with an almost energetic, "Well, Fanny, what of the excitement this morning?" I suppose if Crawford had died she would not be so cheerful.
"I confess," I say, striving to be truthful, "Uncle has not told me much."
"Nor me," sighs my aunt as she positions her pug on the sofa. "Although he did state the desire for Mr. Crawford to be healthy enough to be removed to the parsonage."
I nod. This is not news to me. We sit in silence for a while.
"Fanny, you cannot want Mr. Crawford to leave Mansfield Park." She seems agitated.
"What do you mean?" I manage to ask.
"If he leaves, it will mean the end of your courtship. He will not offer again."
"Uncle is concerned about our reputations," I say. "The longer Mr. Crawford stays, the more fixed our futures will be."
Aunt Bertram is not concerned about that; she is concerned with the exact opposite. "Sir Thomas has not fully considered the long-term implications of your situation. A girl has a duty to appear disinterested to any and all suitors until one declares himself. The girl's favorite may never be in a position to offer for her, and it would be the height of folly for her to spurn a perfectly good second or third choice for a hope that may never materialize, or to otherwise convince those men that they would waste their breath in paying court to her by making her preference too widely known. But when she receives an offer such as you have, she is then free to express as much preference as modesty and her own inclination allows."
Has she ever seen me express a preference toward Mr. Crawford?
"No, but you are exceptionally modest," my aunt observes with impenetrable logic. "And when Julia returns for the wedding, she will appear to Charlie Andover as the perfect and only choice for him, despite his sister's too public opinion on the subject. The Andovers are not as rich as the Rushworths, but Julia was never as pretty as you or Maria. Andover Lodge is even closer than Sotherton Court, so I do not consider it any less advantageous a match than Maria's."
I am not used to Lady Bertram talking faster than I can comprehend. Embarrassed I go back to the beginning to unravel the riddle. "What wedding?" I say.
"Why, yours and Mr. Crawford's, of course," she says like it is the most natural, most expected thing in the world. "After all, you do not mean to refuse him."
I had not considered accepting him but I do not say that. Now that I have had more time to think on it, if Mr. Crawford is not seriously injured, I cannot suppose he will wish to stay here, and my reason for keeping him here vanished when we plucked the Mark from Sir Thomas' hand.
At that thought, I involuntarily gasp. Where is the Mark? Crawford dropped it when I nearly killed him, but I was too blinded to see where it landed, then I was too concerned with Crawford to grab the coin, and then I was too busy running back to my room to think of it. For hours now it has been lying in a hall trafficked in maids and footmen, my uncle and aunt, and the surgeon too.
Any one of them could have picked it up, even Aunt Bertram. And now that the Lion's gift is faded, I cannot easily discern who.
I study my aunt for signs of Possession, I look to her hands, but she is as always: petting and teasing her pug by turns and almost but not quite working on her ragwork. Her hands are too occupied with motion to hold the Mark and the opinions she expressed must be her own.
But if the Mark is not here I must find and secure it at once. I mutter some hurried excuse and prepare to quit the room but my uncle's arrival stops me.
"There you are, Fanny," he says. "Mr. Nelson is ready for you now."
"Very well." Starting in that area of the manor will make hunting for the Mark easier.
"Sir Thomas," pipes up my aunt, "Fanny has decided to accept Mr. Crawford when he offers for her."
We both gape at her in amazement and when my uncle turns his eyes on me, I give him such a blank look in reply that he tuts at his wife and only comments that it is, "neither here nor there at the present."
He leaves with me and we say nothing substantive for most of the walk. I observe him minutely, searching for a sign that he has regained the Mark. Then I cautiously ask where Mr. Crawford was discovered. My uncle vaguely gestures down a hallway and I only have time to peep before we move along. It is not the place I remember having fought Crawford, but perhaps my memory is not to be fully trusted.
At Crawford's door, my uncle knocks and awaits Mr. Nelson who promptly comes out to greet us. He informs us that Crawford is improving but still weak, and that we should not tarry in our visit. These are most reasonable terms and we agree to them before being ushered into the sick room.
Chapter 18: in which I experience my personal Gethsemane
Posted on 2015-10-22
Crawford is lying in bed, which I had not imagined. Surely he should be standing, or at least sitting in a chair to receive visitors? His color is almost grey. He looks worn and pale, too ill for company and no wonder given the number of curses I took from him last night. The wonder indeed must come from my uncle offering to have him moved elsewhere for my convenience.
This is not exactly my fault but I see the role I have played. In stripping Crawford of his diabolical enhancements -- his Charm and Luck and whatever else the demon placed on him -- and in stealing my uncle's Mark, I have made Crawford into an unwanted guest and now my uncle cannot wait to see the back of him.
"Sir Thomas, Miss Price, you are too good to me." Crawford's voice sounds hoarse but he tries to smile.
My uncle leads me deeper into the room, closer to the man, but he leaves the dialogue to me.
"Mr. Crawford," I say after glancing about. Mr. Nelson is there, along with Mr. Crawford's valet. It is hardly the time and place for a private inquiry. "I was worried ... I was told that you might have died." As I say the words I realize what a relief they are, for what could I say to Mrs. Grant if I had inadvertently killed her brother?
"Mr. Nelson assures me that is not the case," he wheezes a laugh, "although I am not convinced I would feel any worse than I do now if he were wrong."
Is he trying to be funny? I find his humor inappropriate at a time like this, and am not sure how to proceed given his mood. I eventually settle on asking him if he remembers anything that happened.
"Nothing," he says. From the look in his eyes, he remembers far more than that. "I came back to my room and dismissed Stanley for the night; I wanted to read before bed. The next thing I know, I had given everyone a terrible fright." He smiles again, more weakly this time than before. He closes his eyes and they stay shut for a long time. When they open again, I determine to make my exit.
"Good day, Mr. Crawford," I tell him. "You need your rest. I will keep you in my prayers."
"Good day, Miss Price. I will see you in my dreams." The last words are barely a whisper but they are distinctly audible.
The forced intimacy of the comment shocks me. Concerned and then relieved for his life, I had been prepared to let bygones be bygones and to forgive his every little lapse in good sense. But, after removing nearly every trace of foreign evil from him, to find that in his natural state, even when he is too weak to keep his eyes open, he is still an incorrigible flirt with a young woman who has repeatedly made clear to him that she does not want such attentions, it incinerates any pity I have gathered for him. Why bother saving a man not worthy of being saved?
Without a word, I turn on my heels. I am out of the room before my blush fully blooms. The nerve of that man! Obviously, I did not nearly kill him thoroughly enough. It does not occur to me until I have half-way down the hall to wonder if he held the Mark of Possession during our interview.
My uncle is not far behind me. He does not speak to me of what we just witnessed, not exactly. Mr. Nelson believes Crawford is too weak to move and has dosed him with laudanum accordingly which must excuse some behavior but I should not be expected to visit the sick room or attend to the patient in any way during his final stay at the manor.
I do not voice a disagreement.
I spend the rest of the day surreptitiously seeking the Mark and being disappointed. By the time I actually retire, I am beyond frustrated and more than convinced that Crawford is still Possessed.
I know I should not go out alone, that I have practically promised to postpone my patrols, that the last time I went out was nearly the death of me, but I crave a long walk in the brisk cold to clear my head. But first I need to see a man about a coin.
Once everyone is in bed for the night, I steal through the hallways to the set of bedrooms reserved for guests. I slip into the sickroom and allow my eyes to adjust to the light of the fire still burning and heating the room comfortably. There is no one beyond the sleeping figure in the bed although the door to the adjoining room is open so that someone can monitor the patient through the night.
I briefly inspect the adjoining room and find a cot occupied by Mr. Crawford's valet. It would be very inconvenient for Mr. Stanley to wake to the sounds of a struggle. I briefly bless him with a smooth and untroubled slumber but he turns restlessly in response. As he thrashes slightly, I notice that one hand is clenched into a fist.
I catch my breath and forget about Crawford. I slip deeper into the room. Once close enough, I try to sense the Mark. It is stunningly easy to identify, but inordinately difficult to remove.
Provided he isn't stupid enough to make the same mistake twice, I am going to need Crawford. William is right that Northamptonshire is not an assignment for one person anymore, but this cannot be what he had in mind.
There is no point in delay. I return to Crawford's room and approach his bed. He looks so peaceful in sleep, so needful of rest, that I hate to wake him, but needs must.
He is slow to wake at first. "Miss Price?" he mutters groggily as he wiggles into a sitting position. "You came. I do see you in my dreams after all."
That is what he meant? He was trying to arrange a private meeting under the noses of our chaperones? I can criticize his wit later, but there is work to do now. I inform him of the location of the Mark which he already knows, having observed it himself this morning. He is united with me in determination to remove it but without knowing how. I could keep the servant's attention while Crawford expropriates the coin but he is naturally frightened of being drawn into Possession a third time.
Has it occurred to him to wear gloves?
I have no idea how long it takes to pry the Mark from Crawford's valet. All I know is that he shakes my shoulder when it is over and points to the offensive thing where it rests on the floor. I scoop it up in a handkerchief and pocket it quickly. I'll destroy it later, when real help arrives.
As soon as we cross the threshold into Crawford's room, he stops me. "What really happened to me last night?"
Does he not remember?
"I remember it but I do not understand it. When I held the coin, I wanted desperately to, to hurt you. It was all I could do to run away. I tried not to but... But when I did try to harm you, every time you touched me, I felt some kind of pain. I was still in agony when I woke up this morning although I am feeling better now. However, the last thing you did to me for which I was present, it felt like you were ripping something out of me. And then I wasn't really there anymore. I could hear you and see you, but I could also see myself lying in the hall, if that makes any sense. What happened?"
I sigh. I have lived too long in this exile to talk of this sort of thing with a living being. "Every time a curse is broken, some revenge is exacted. It can be terribly painful but it is usually temporary which is why you have mostly recovered by now."
"And the last bit?"
"Some mysteries are not meant to be explained or understood," I say. As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know they are insufficient. Oh, the curiosity of this man! How could I let myself forget it? "You know nothing, Mr. Crawford, but it does not necessarily follow that I know all. You forget that I have been in the untutored wilds of Northamptonshire for nearly half my life, cut off from those who might make sense of what you experienced. But if I stopped and waited for someone to explain to me all the strange things I have seen, I would have been killed long ago. You must learn to accept that some questions go unanswered."
He looks like he wants to disagree, but his argument with me turns inward and he instead apologizes. "I'm sorry, Miss Price. It must have been horribly lonely for you here."
That is hardly my point.
"I am going on patrol," I change the subject. For William's sake, I add, "Get dressed. You are coming with me."
I am sure hindsight will prove it not one of my wisest moves, but I bring Crawford with me to the village. If we do encounter a demon tonight, the best I can hope for Crawford is that he runs quickly. However, we are lucky and do not stumble upon any fiends on our route. We make our way directly to the parsonage and to ask the sleepers therein.
Grudgingly, I give Crawford credit. He may never be proficient at demon-hunting, but he is certainly becoming efficient at lifting Marks. With Crawford joining me on patrol, we are able to make the parsonage safe for his imminent return, and even have time to cleanse a few more homes such as Mr. Nelson's. This all has the greater benefit of rendering him completely silent, for what question could possibly be so burning that he must risk detection by posing it in Mrs. Easton's bedroom?
This benefit is all the more keenly felt because I can tell he sees things to amaze and wonder. The quiet does not last forever, unfortunately, and by the time we are in the shade of the Park, he begins rattling off a list.
I try to put him off. I am tired and the hour is late.
"If I am to be your apprentice," he begins--
I put that idea to rest immediately. I do not want an apprentice. Even if I did, Mr. Crawford would hardly be my choice. This cannot be what my brother had in mind. "I am not so old and experienced to have an apprentice, and you are far too old to be one." I have been training for longer than I can remember. Even before I could fight, I learned the words of various prayers and heard the histories while Crawford has managed to reach his twenties without knowing the first thing about demons.
"Very well," he sighs, "if I am to be your assistant--"
I scoff. As if that change in semantics makes it any better! "I do not need an assistant, sir."
Now it is his turn for incredulous indignation. "Is that so?"
The events of tonight prove me wrong. Indeed, the events of the past two nights show that I am not only wrong, I am vulnerable. I may not need a permanent assistant but I need someone for now. This is a serious blow to my autonomy and indeed to my mortality, for if I must depend upon Crawford, surely I will be dead soon. It is a subject, I find, that deserves some honesty and privacy.
With a very coarse, "No more for tonight," I leave him there to find his own way back to bed.
Surrounded by the tumult of my thoughts, I go to my little room in the garret and change out of my patrol uniform. I shiver into my nightclothes and brush my hair. When my thoughts cannot hold themselves back any longer, I drop to my knees.
The fears come out of me in a tremble. I have been one step ahead of the king of the wicked since I left Portsmouth. I have always felt blessed and protected by the Lord, but I can feel something changing and shifting. I suppose it has been shifting all this time, a slow erosion of the scales, but I am awake to it only now that they are no longer tipping in my favor. I have been facing more -- and more skilled and more clever -- foes for a while but last night's monster should have killed me, and I doubt my tattoos could really protect me from further defilement from a demon of that power. It is only by divine intervention that I was spared. It is a glimpse of my future and the glimpse is brutally short.
Since coming to Mansfield, I have lived as a spiritual hermit. The close communion with my family from my earliest years completely disappeared. Now a confirmed recluse, I live on the memory of the two visits William has given me. Those few weeks were my happiest, when I could set aside my public role and be my true self with someone who recognized and valued it, when I could discuss things that matter. Perhaps I could not openly mention demons in Aunt Bertram's sitting room, but at least William and I could sneak off to the East Room for an earnest conversation on all the taboo subjects we did not trust to the mail. In preparation for these visits, and any that may follow them, I have made notes and expanded upon my little book of demon knowledge, but otherwise I have not mentioned it to a living soul, save those few I have rescued from Possession.
I exposed myself once to Yates, unavoidably but under control. With Crawford, however, it has gotten out of hand. He is smart or frightened enough not to raise the subject in front of the Bertrams but that does not stop him from finding other opportunities to ask about things I have not spoken aloud in eight or nine years.
Perhaps it is Crawford who unintentionally is responsible for my crisis. He has found himself in a world that he does not understand, far more dangerous than he ever thought. His confusion and fear are real, and a suggestion of what mine should be. I have been aware of these dangers since I lay in my cradle; they are too familiar to be terrifying; but in my earliest years I was protected by my parents, and in Northamptonshire I was initially shielded by isolation. But the secret is out now; I am a target, and I will continue to be a target until something finally succeeds in killing me. They are coming for me; with enough numbers or cunning or time, they shall have me.
I think on the word martyr, someone whose steadfast belief leads to their violent end or sacrifice for the Lord. The Angelic counterpart to it translates directly as beloved forsaken, for one cannot be truly forsaken unless one has already been beloved. The public knows plenty of such figures: St. Stephen; Paul the Apostle; Joan of Arc. Among my peers, martyrdom is a common way to die and all my gauzy plans for the future are based on the stipulation that I should live so long.
I think back on a sermon once given by my Uncle Norris on the topic of martyrs, of how their lives and their faith stand as inspiration to the rest of us: "God sent His only Son to die for our sins. If He took such excessive care of His undeserving flock as to sacrifice His Son, why should He not be willing to sacrifice others? Think of this: there is no greater gift than to lay down one's life for one's friends. What a beautiful message!"
It is indeed gorgeous in the abstract, but to think of people that I knew as a child, to think of my sister, dying for others who are blissfully ignorant of that sacrifice... To think that I myself am approaching the same end, it makes me wretched.
Yet earlier today I had asked myself why bother saving a man not worthy of being saved only to discover later that he was not so worthless as I had originally thought. There is another lesson in this, I feel it, a lesson in judgment and charity, and how I am too full of one to have much of the other.
This is what William tried to warn me against and, because I did not heed him in time, God has sent additional lessons to teach me. William fears that I will be martyred here but there is no avoiding it now; I have spent the last two nights securing my fate, from the death of the natural demon to the destruction of all those curses and the confiscation of many Marks. The demon knows I am actively opposing her and she has no choice but to return and confront me.
She will go first to Crawford. If she does not kill him immediately, she will surely draw my identity from him. Who knows what she will do to him once he has served his purpose? Who knows what she will do to any of them?
But if I reveal myself and face her at once, she may never get the chance to vent her wrath on anyone again. But even if I best this clever foe, I am confident that I will be dead before long. My days are numbered, I feel it with the certainty of all my faith.
Again the stories of martyrs come to me. They fought against the devil and all his works but when the end came, they did not abandon the righteous path or embrace an easier end. They suffered and died; no doubt that is what I shall do. But it is not only their deaths that deserve to be honored but their lives too, and that is where I suffer most in comparison.
I have been unkind, ungenerous, uncharitable, unloving. The people around me may never have noticed my contempt for them, but that does not make it excusable, especially when I have had such an excellent example of behavior in the form of my cousin Edmund. He has never given himself over to disappointment. His gentle criticisms are always delivered in the hopes of encouraging improvement rather than venting his spleen.
Mrs. Grant has likewise been a role model if only I had looked to her. Lady Bertram has never been intentionally unkind to me. No and Shun were so young when I first arrived that I must think of them as children, and forgive them as children are forgiven. It is more difficult to reconcile their later neglect, but how else can I forgive mine, for I avoided them as steadfastly as was in my power.
I have perfected my body as an instrument of God but at the expense of an atrophied heart. God may forgive me for these steps taken in ignorance, but I should not be allowed to continue this way. And having realized at last that this is a battle that cannot be won by me, if I am to die for these people, let it be because I love them rather than I am not strong enough.
Again I think of the words of my Savior: "If this cup can pass from Me, let it be according to Your will." It curdles my stomach. To beg that another might be spared is noble; to beg for one's own life is cowardly. I had committed myself to this path before I fully understood it but the promise is etched into my skin and there is no way to revoke it. I give myself over to the Lord. My body is His Instrument. My life is according to His will and my death is at His choosing.
In the end, it is that prayer which calms me even as it leaves me infinitely sad.
By morning, my limbs are numb from cold. I limp into bed two steps ahead of the maid -- Annie once more -- and throw the covers over me so no one suspects I spent the night kneeling on the floor.
While she chatters a firsthand account of Mr. Crawford's attack I have something of an epiphany: that good can imitate evil so long as it is for divine purposes. They are never exactly the same, the sacred and the profane. Distraction, for instance, is very different in the two ways it is achieved. But it strikes me that if a demon can offer Marks to every soul in Northamptonshire, perhaps a thoroughly blessed trinket might have a similar yet opposite effect. And I now have an ample supply of Marks as well as an assistant to test my work.
As soon as the maid is gone, I trip out of bed and rummage for a spare length of ribbon. I pull out my notebook and begin to pray over the ribbon. I have prayed over so many things in and around Mansfield Park in my years here but with different intentions. Now, I recite the same prayers that are etched in my flesh.
I am significantly late to breakfast. Mr. Nelson is later still and he carries the news that Mr. Crawford is still unwell. The surgeon has hopes that his patient is improving and will be able to remove to the parsonage on the morrow.
I decide against asking if I may visit Crawford today. I do not want to hear otherwise and, without Possession, Mr. Nelson is probably against such a meeting.
I leave the good man to his tea while I seek out a private interview with Mr. Crawford. He is sitting up this morning and looks like he has merely gotten a poor night's rest, which is completely accurate. He is surprised to see me and frets about in his bed. Mr. Stanley, I realize, is not there. We are quite alone.
"Mr. Crawford, may I speak with you?" I ask as a matter of courtesy.
He nods and gestures to a chair positioned close to the bed so I may sit.
"I have something for you," I say and hold out the ribbon.
He has seen enough ribbon used for nefarious purposes recently that he is reluctant. "What is it?" he wants to know, beyond the obvious.
"It will not harm you," I say. "I do not know what to call it. Were it cursed, I would call it a Mark. But it is blessed instead. I suppose you may think of it as a collection of prayers. If it works, it should give you some protection."
That motivates him to accept the gift and he holds out his wrist so I may tie it securely. I have overestimated the length need for his wrist, but I dare not cut it for fear of damaging or diminishing the prayers. Instead, I knot a braid in the center to shorten it until it fits perfectly.
"It is not complete, you understand. This is only meant to be temporary; I don't even know for certain that it works." I am too honest with him. "If you are ever in Portsmouth, seek a man named Mr. Sealey. Tell him the Price family sends their regards and a customer. He will see to it that you are properly guarded."
"You do not even know that it works!" The reaction is much as I predicted but he ought to keep his voice down.
"You were the one who suggested I need an assistant," I remind him and pull from my pocket a set of cursed ribbons wrapped in a handkerchief.
Now he is very nervous. He edges away from me but he is confined to the bed. "You cannot be serious."
I glare at him. I am trying to be kind but I have no practice at it. "Either I am right, in which case I will begin blessing more ribbons to distribute, or I miscalculated, in which case we are quite alone and I have no compunction against overpowering you to take the Mark away from you."
He is none too pleased with the probable outcomes but he acquiesces. I direct him to the weakest Mark. He reaches for it gingerly with only the tip of one finger before his whole hand recoils.
"Did you feel anything?" I probe.
"I cannot say. I was too afraid to touch it."
Instead of sighing I indicate another ribbon for him to try. When he touches it, I see him wince. "That hurt," he announces.
As soon as he makes contact with the third ribbon he howls in pain and pulls his hand away. He examines his skin as if he expects it to be burned.
"It works," I say with a bit of pride, ignoring his look of reproach. "You now have some measure of protection with very clear guidance: avoid what causes pain. I will start on more ribbon this afternoon. And do not forget about Mr. Sealey if you are ever in Portsmouth." I should make plans to go on patrol tonight, to drag Crawford over the frosty landscape and skulk into people's bedrooms and steal their Marks. But I am reluctant to plan past the evening; I can feel trouble coming.
"What will Mr. Sealey do to me?" he inquires. "Will it hurt as much as your ribbon? You said it would not harm me." He is more than a little accusatory.
"It is not the blessings in my ribbon but the curses in the Marks that gave you any pain," I clarify. "And yes, what Mr. Sealey will do is much more painful, but also more permanent."
"What does he do?" Why do I tell this man anything? An answer always invites more questions.
I contemplate not answering before admitting the truth. "He scribes prayers into flesh with ink."
This confuses him momentarily. Then realization dawns. "He would tattoo my skin, like a sailor?" With an admiral for an uncle of course he sees it from a Navy slant. From an ignorant point of view, I suppose Mr. Sealey wields a needle and ink like most tattoo artists but the details -- the shape of needle, the blend of ink, the formation of lines and curves -- are not to be compared. I cannot explain it to Mr. Crawford. Let him find out for himself if he chooses.
"Do you have tattoos?" he asks suddenly.
I glare at him until he looks away.
If my worries are well founded, this may be the last time I shall speak with Crawford. If not, it cannot hurt me to practice being pleasant and kind. Let me clear the air before I go.
"My sister Susan is coming to Mansfield soon," I inform him. "She has received the same education and training as I so you may trust her implicitly. In her letters she is always proud of her needlework, so I can imagine she is quite fearsome with a blade." It has been eight years since I have seen my sister, more than half her life.
Before Crawford can even nod his acquiescence, I continue: "And when you write next to your sister, be sure to remember me to her. I have not always thought of her as a friend, but I should have."
Those last few words cost me more than I care to show. "I should leave," I say, standing and clearing my throat, "before Mr. Nelson returns."
As I turn to make my exit Crawford finds his voice and asks me if we are going out again tonight. He certainly is taking his role very seriously.
"I have not made other plans," I answer deceptively. I suppose it cannot hurt to make such a plan. If I am still alive by then, it will probably be needed. "You will need to be rested. Stay in this room today and do not receive visitors. Nothing good can come of it."
That is as close as I come to keeping him out of harm's way. I do not wish to drive him into a panic but should the demon Impersonating his sister return today, surely she will seek him out and kill him, but if she sends someone else he might survive if he avoids their notice.
I wish him good day then pass from the room.
I avoid speech as much as possible today. Aunt Bertram does not require it when it is just the two of us. The old cat joins us before noon and then she talks enough for anyone. With her there, I am no longer needed and she invents some errands for me to perform. Aunt Bertram tries to stop her, saying that I need to be on hand if Mr. Crawford feels well enough to come down but the old cat tuts that idea.
"Sister, you cannot believe him to be serious about Fanny," she says. "Sir Thomas is unwilling to forward the match any longer. Mr. Crawford will withdraw as soon as he is able -- by tonight at the very latest -- and I'm sure that will be the end if it."
Aunt Bertram looks like she wants to argue but she disagrees in silence. She gives me a sympathetic smile, as if we share a thwarted aim. The old cat sends me on her errand and I use it as an excuse to hide until tea. I spend an hour -- after running to the village and back -- in my East Room, blessing ribbon.
I am berated over tea; clearly I have not learned how to walk quickly enough to please the old cat, for she could have covered the distance to the village and back multiple times during my prolonged absence. I am ungrateful, willful, and must surely make my entire extended family feel wretched. My only hope for redemption lies in a new errand, which everyone will agree is something that any able-bodied dependent should be able to perform with competence and speed. She then directs me to deliver a basket to Mr. Nelson's cottage. The old cat has already instructed Mrs. Mullen what is to go in it; it will be waiting on me, not the other way around. I must take it to Mr. Nelson's house down to the village and give it to his housekeeper...
At the rate she is giving me instructions and admonishments, I shall already be late before I can begin. Lady Bertram has dozed off to the incessant noise, so there is no witness if the old cat seems especially berating today.
I am saved from an even longer recital by the arrival of Baddeley who comes with a summons for me from my uncle. That seems to infuriate the old cat, if the flare of her nostrils is any indication. To find herself interrupted! To think that Sir Thomas values me so much that he is willing not only to speak to me when I am already in the same room, but to seek me out for conversation!
"Do not abuse Sir Thomas' time, Fanny," she orders me as I stand to follow the butler. "He has many more important demands on his time than you, and you have plenty of work to get done today as well."
But Sir Thomas only wants to tell me that Crawford has improved healthwise. My uncle would like to know if I want my would-be suitor to leave today or if he might spend another night at Mansfield Park. It is fascinating to think my uncle, who claims Mr. Rushworth as a son, can express any qualms about seeing me irrevocably tied to Crawford, but freedom from Possession is a powerful experience. Idly, I wonder what Crawford would be like had he never been encountered a demon, what Miss Crawford was like before she was killed and Impersonated. I wonder if Rushworth and my cousin would have been foolish enough to marry had a demon not seen to it that they did. I wonder if Edmund would have fully expressed his interest in me and whether I would have refused him or continued the charade.
I act unaffected. Where Crawford sleeps is of no import to me. That must satisfy my uncle, for he will not draw more from me. Lacking any clear signal from me, he announces that he will leave the decision with Mr. Crawford to stay or go as he sees fit.
Chapter 19: in which I run out of time
Posted on 2015-10-26
Concluding my interview with Sir Thomas, I sneak to my East Room to get back to my ribbons. I should prefer to protect my uncle next but I cannot imagine how to coax him into wearing it. Aunt Bertram, however, might be persuaded when I finish it.
The midday meal interrupts my labors and puts me again in front of the old cat. I am due for an epic scolding after hiding from her so much this morning but Mr. Crawford elects to join us at table and thus divides her attention. Had I not instructed him to stay in his room, I might pity him the unwanted inquisition, but as it stands my patience is sorely tried.
The old cat barrages the poor man with questions, as if she has only to ask him often enough and he will reveal what happened during his encounter with the mysterious ghost or why he was out of his room that night. Her eyes alight on the ribbon bracelet at one point and she asks about it sharply.
"This?" Crawford asks in surprise and lifts his wrist, improvising. "It is supposed to, to protect me from evil spirits. After meeting a gypsy and then a ghost, I am feeling much knocked about. I need a little good luck, even if it is pointless superstition."
The old cat wants to know who made it for him. Crawford deflects by lying that his man Stanley brought it to him but that otherwise he didn't question the gift.
That is a dangerous lie to tell the old cat. As the widow of a man of the cloth, she considers master and servant both in her social circle. If her curiosity is not sated or -- worse! -- if her rapacity is awoken, she will have no compunction against approaching the valet and asking him to procure another length of charmed ribbon for herself. The whole fabrication could then unravel.
She saves the thought for later and then moves onto a more general topic: when Mr. Crawford is leaving Mansfield Park.
Here Mr. Crawford is slightly more confident in his undecidedness. He does not know when exactly he shall leave, but he means to use this meal as a test of his recovery. "If I do not feel any undue fatigue this afternoon, I shall declare myself ready to return to the parsonage. On the other hand," he continues before Lady Bertram can express her disappointment, "Sir Thomas assures me that I am welcome to remain should I receive any sign that it would be more beneficial to do so." He looks forlornly down the length of the table as if someone might suddenly stand up and implore him to stay but no one does.
Eventually the old cat's habits reassert themselves and she is left to berating me for such things as not joining in the conversation and eating so little as to offend the cook. At the conclusion of the meal, I do not escape her full censure and she rattles off another list of errands that should employ me for a few hours.
A few hours turns into most of the rest of the day. I change back into appropriate attire for the evening meal and am slowly making my way to Aunt Bertram's sitting room to await the call to table when I see an unexpected face lurking the halls of Mansfield Park.
"Edmund!" I exclaim.
He smiles and comes over to me. I am too surprised to react. When did he arrive? Who has seen him? Why did no one tell me? Then I remember that I have been hiding from the old cat and, by extension, everyone else for the last three hours.
"It is good to see you again, Fanny," he reaches out and takes my hands which are trembling slightly. There are too many questions -- too many accusations -- rioting in my head. Whatever he may say, he is here at the demon's command to do her bidding. He has come, no doubt to investigate the death of the larger demon and the loss of so many Possessed pets, and he is dangerous.
It behooves me to keep him ignorant of my role, for I do not wish to provoke him to harm. At the same time, if I can find his Mark and remove it, what a coup the would be!
"Fanny, how cold you are!" he observes. "I hope you have not let your health suffer recently. You know you need to keep a close eye on it."
He chaffs my fingers lightly. With each brush of his hands, I feel a sharp sting as the ring on his pinkie rubs against my skin. The ring has been his for ages -- I remember Uncle Bertram gave it to him for his nineteenth birthday -- but the curse on it is relatively new. I transform my winces into smiles and grimly wonder how I shall pry the ring from his finger.
"When did you arrive?" I find my voice at last. "I thought you had gone to London."
My cousin clears his throat. "Come walk with me, Fanny," he instructs. "I promise that we shall not miss supper."
Edmund doesn't take me outside, but we walk the halls. "Shall I?" he asks, drawing my arm within his. "It is a long while since we have had a comfortable walk together."
I say nothing but try to look my assent. With each step, his hand rubs against mine and I feel a sharp sting of Possession. The wretched ring! Why does it have to be a ring? A necklace, a watch chain, a ribbon, a coin -- all those things I could easily wrestle from him, but not a ring. However shall I free him from his curse? I will need to involve Crawford again.
In the interim, I have no idea what to say to my cousin. His words, however much they may sound like the Edmund I know, are a feint to hide his nefarious purpose. And my words can bear no resemblance to the tumult of my feelings or my understanding of his predicament. We pace arm in arm, in silence, waiting for the other to lead. Indeed, I am too quiet, and my cousin begins to suspect something.
"You cannot have missed me very much if you can walk beside me without speaking a word for so long," he chides me eventually.
I apologize meekly. "I confess so much has happened since you left, that it seems strange to have you here." I had grown to accept that Edmund's greatest chance for happiness lay in staying away from Mansfield Park and Miss Crawford even before I learned her secret.
"Where else should I be?" he wonders.
Let me play dumb and stick with the obvious. "I had thought you were content at Peterborough. You hinted in your last letter to Lady Bertram that you intended to stay with Mr. Owen for another few weeks. But then Sir Thomas received your express and we believed you to have gone to town."
"My friend Owen is a good man," Edmund admits, "and his family is always very gracious to me. And after being ordained together, I will always think of him like a brother. But after two weeks of his family's hospitality, I found myself unabashedly lonely and sick at heart. My reasons for going away were far more sound than my reasons for staying away, and once I had been ordained, there was no cause for me remain other than to act like a good guest. I had to see Miss Crawford, so I went to London. And when that interview concluded, I ask you Fanny, what could be more natural than for me to be here? Where else do I belong?"
I know too well what drew him here but I shrug just the same, innocent to the last. "Thornton Lacey," I suggest.
He shakes his head. "I do not think I will go there until Easter, at least," he says.
Is he joking? It is only eight miles away.
"But my uncle --" has strongly and repeatedly professed the opinion that a clergyman should live in his parish.
"I have already discussed the situation with my father," he tells me, a hint of defensiveness in his tone. "I am not fully ready to settle at Thornton Lacey just now, and I worry that I will lose Mr. Peele to a more permanent position if I exert myself there. I may go to London in a few weeks to see how Maria and Rushworth are getting on and I need to be free to do so. I am not sure how long I will be gone. Perhaps I can drive down to Portsmouth and pick up Susan on my way back."
He smiles kindly at me, and I have faith in my sister, but I'd rather he wasn't around her without me to warn her first.
"But then Susan will not be here until March at least," I calculate. "I thought Aunt Bertram would rather have her here sooner than that. I am already receiving so many invitations." It seems a ridiculous amount for me, anyway.
Edmund just shrugs. "We must do what we can," he philosophises. "We have gotten on without Susan for so long that another month will be no significant burden. I do not think my mother needs much for company if pressed and Aunt Norris is always ready to make herself useful if it spares her own purse." That sounds nearly uncharitable. Coming from my dear cousin, it is a caustic, uncharacteristic condemnation.
I sigh, trying to sound wistful. If Edmund is Possessed -- which he is -- and if he has convinced his father to delay the arrival of Susan -- which he has -- then I am without hope of support. I am alone here in Northamptonshire with only Mr. Crawford in my confidence -- which is worth less than nothing when it comes to battling demons despite his offers of assistance. It is one thing to remove a Mark from someone sleeping, it is another thing entirely to engage a demon directly.
"And dare I ask... Will you not ask about your friend?" he asks after a pause. "I should have thought you melancholy to lose Miss Crawford at this time of year, so soon after William and my going away."
He wants to hear me speak of her? What can I say that my voice will not betray me?
"We were, indeed, all very dull. Mrs. Grant, I think, felt it most keenly," I say after a cough, anxious to change the subject. "But you have had the opportunity to see Miss Crawford in London, although you parted on such unsteady terms," I point out, not that it matters with her hooks in him now.
He smiles grimly. "I was so convinced before I took orders, that taking orders would change me profoundly and irrevocably; we both were. But I have since come to realize that I am the same person I was a month ago or even half a year ago. The feelings that I thought I could put aside will not be discarded. And so it is that I cannot give her up, Fanny. I have tried and it will not do. She is the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife."
I think I gasp. Such a declaration! And after he has already been to see her, it can only mean one thing. I know it is the fault of the curse but was he always so weak? Even if she was not a demon, if she was only a grasping, materialistic girl like his sisters, would he still find her worthy of him? Would he not bind himself to his duty to the church and shield himself from such foolishness, such assured unhappiness?
Pointless questions, for I shall never know.
"I told my father as much," he declares. "I was able to sway him against my immediate removal to Thornton Lacey. And who knows? Perhaps I shall never settle there. Dr. Grant may be offered a better situation than what he finds here and then I am sure my father would prefer me at the parsonage. That was always his original plan, except Tom ruined it. And Tom will need someone like me to keep an eye on things eventually. He has no talent for responsibility."
There is a hardness in Edmund's mouth as he speaks of his brother. I cannot help wondering if the demon plans to Possess Tom or merely to kill him and clear the way for Edmund to run things as her pet baronet.
"Thornton Lacey is a very fine house," he continues absentmindedly; "it has much more potential to become a grand house than the Mansfield parsonage, that is true. And lacking a manor house close by, it will always have greater consequence among its neighbors than the parsonage does. But Mansfield is my home; I should be here. And there are enough benefits to being a Bertram at Mansfield, that on the whole Miss Crawford was persuaded to accept me without too many delays or concessions."
Edmund then leans in conspiratorially. "But perhaps your thoughts are too full of the brother to have room for the sister. My father has apprised me of your situation with Crawford."
He pauses and waits for me to color. Satisfied with my reaction, he confides, "Indeed, my father is not sure what to think. On the one hand, your suitor moves too slowly in asking for a courtship as he has been known to you for half a year already. There is everything to recommend him: he is acknowledged by all to be a pleasant fellow, well respected, and with a good situation in life; his sister is your intimate friend; and of course, one mustn't discount the service he did for William -- Second Lieutenant! I am sure my father thinks Crawford an imbecile not to go straight to the heart of the matter. Or perhaps he is not as interested in you as he claims to be and Father worries you will lose as good a chance of being comfortably settled as you are likely to receive."
I make no reaction. Or maybe I frown. That is only one side of the argument.
"But he and I have spoken on it and agree," appends my cousin, "that your delicate nature would not allow so forward an assault as a direct proposal. Crawford may have been singling you out since November but you were never one to know what to do with such attentions. You have always been too humble to have expectations on that score, too accustomed to fade into the background. No, if you are to be won, it will be through gentle coaxing and a patient spirit. Crawford is quite smart to see that, and deserving of you for that reason alone. And therefore I have full confidence that he will succeed in the end. I give you my blessing when you can return his affection."
His blessing? Oh, beneficence! Such a strange word to come from the mouth of a man Possessed.
"Have you nothing to add?" he asks. "I am curious to hear your views."
Mr. Crawford has asked, Sir Thomas has accepted, and Edmund has approved. What more is there for me to add? What would be the point? This conversation is just a pretense for something else. "I am afraid we think too differently for me to find any relief in talking of what I feel."
"Do you really believe we think differently on this topic?" he asks. "I said when you can return his affection. It is obvious to me that now you do not. But the matter does not end here. Crawford's is no common attachment; he observes, he adapts, he perseveres, with the hope of creating that regard which had not been created before. This, we know, must be a work of time. But," -- he casts me an affectionate smile -- "let him succeed at last, Fanny, let him succeed at last. You have proved yourself upright and disinterested in your first doubts, prove yourself grateful and tender-hearted in your final acceptance."
To hear the gentle tone and kind reasoning of Edmund twisted into a demon's bidding is too much for me. I have to stop him. "Never."
"Never!" Edmund repeats in mild surprise. "Fanny!--so very determined and positive! This is not like yourself, your rational self."
The hypocrisy of that remark chokes my reply.
"I must hope for better things," he tells me. "I am aware, more aware than Crawford can be, that the man who means to make you love him must have very uphill work, for there are all your early attachments and habits in battle array; you are not a creature easily moved from your chosen course. I know that the apprehension of being forced to quit Mansfield, to submit to any change so drastic, will for a time be arming you against him. I must hope, however, that time, proving him to deserve you by his steady affection, will give him his reward. I cannot suppose that you have not the wish to love him--the natural wish of gratitude. You must have some feeling of that sort. You must be sorry for your own indifference."
Ah, yes. This is my fault; any man who thinks he deserves me must have his reward.
"Besides," says Edmund with a pat on my wrist, "refusing Crawford does not guarantee you will remain at Mansfield."
Are we nearing the heart of the matter at last? Will he now betray a larger vision for the area?
"How do you mean, cousin?" I ask quietly.
"Simply this: that I do not believe my father intended for you never to leave us," he says as the ring stings my skin. "It was his expectation that you would be raised here and then you would find a permanent home elsewhere. Catching the eye of a man like Crawford was higher than we had expected for you, but you must not shrink from such opportunity now; for if not Henry Crawford, then who? Who will take you in when your tenure at Mansfield Park comes to an end? What capacity will you fill for them? If you truly have no stomach for matrimony, my father may choose to return you to Portsmouth. He could send you away when I go to visit the Rushworths in a few weeks."
Is that it? Banishment? If I am to leave regardless, then let it be on my terms. "But what of Lady Bertram?" I hazard. "She will miss me terribly, I'm sure." Or she would, as much as she was able, until she falls under the demon's control.
Edmund frowns. "I am sure my father can persuade her that it is for the best. Aunt Norris is more than willing to sit with her until I can fetch Julia from London. I'm sure you will agree that Julia's natural place is with her family."
And, in corollary, my natural place is not with the Bertrams. Why is it so distasteful to hear my own thoughts recited to me by a Possessed man? True, I have looked down on this family and held them in contempt from time to time but am I on par with a fiend? It is a humbling possibility, especially on the heels of last night's revelations.
Edmund misinterprets my gloom and switches tactics. "Crawford's feelings, I am ready to acknowledge, have hitherto been too much his guides, and may have given the appearance of that which he would never support. Happily, those feelings have generally been good and any mischief has been contained. You will supply the rest; and a most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature--to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity. He will make you happy, Fanny; I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything."
"That is a very grave responsibility," I own at last. "I am hardly up to it."
"Do not judge yourself too harshly," he advises me. "Spend time with him. Let him woo you as you deserve. In the end, you shall not be disappointed."
To call me dubious is an understatement but there is no point in calling me anything if it does not match the script my cousin is following.
He makes as if to leave me to ruminate on the ultimatum but he has given me so much food for thought that I will surely choke before I am done. I have just enough awareness to look around us; we are now in a section of hallway near Mr. Crawford's room. This must be intentional but Edmund would not admit to bringing me here on purpose, nor would I admit to knowing exactly where I am.
"And now you must excuse me, Fanny," he says. "I expect Mary will be here momentarily. We plan to tell my mother the news of our engagement."
"Mary?" I say a little too sharply. "Miss Crawford is with you?" He had not mentioned that before!
Edmund smiles slyly. "Having secured her hand, I made straight for my father, and invited Mary to join me in a carriage so that she might share the news with Mrs. Grant and her brother. I delivered her to the parsonage before coming to Mansfield Park. She has been there two hours at least, and I cannot wait to see her again."
Before I can wonder too long about the implications of the demon being back at Mansfield, her frustration in discovering that so many of her pets have been freed from Possession, and the havoc she could have wrought since that discovery, I hear a cry from behind a door.
Edmund and I share a look. "Did you hear something?" I ask when the moment exceeds its expectancy.
"Hear what?" he replies crisply.
We hear it again, louder and more urgent. I do not bother to look at Edmund but move down the hall to investigate the sound directly. He tries to stop me but he is unaccustomed to my natural speed. I outstrip him easily and grasp the door handle even as I realize it is Crawford's room I am entering.
Mr. Crawford and his 'sister' are both within. The man is too pale and tight lipped to say anything, but the demon is loquacious, greeting us both -- Edmund stumbles into the room at my heels -- with a laugh and a smile as if there is nothing untoward or unusual in our meeting.
"There you are! We were just talking about you. I was sharing our good news with Henry," she gives him a happy nod which he cannot return, "and he was in agonies over the slow pace of his pursuit of you, Miss Price."
My skin crawls with her efforts to manipulate me as she gives the room an arch smile. Now that I am no longer Distracted, she is disgusting to me.
"Miss Price--" says Crawford, trying to warn me. It is the demon who should be warned!
"Is it yet 'Miss Price?'" she asks with deep amusement, then shakes her head, sighing deeply. "You are remarkably slow this time."
She turns to confide in me. "You have every reason to be disappointed. I do not defend him. I leave him entirely to your mercy; and when he has got you at Everingham, I do not care how badly you treat him. Let him pursue you for as long as you wish so long as he may catch you in the end."
She pauses to glance around mischievously. "Unless he has caught you already," she adds. Is this a reference to the letter she sent to Crawford to speed matters along?
I struggle to school my features.
"Well, then you may frown on Henry to fool your uncle, but I know better than to believe your frigid airs. Who says we shall not be sisters? Never mind missish Henry and his 'Miss Price,' I shall call you Fanny."
"And I shall call you 'fallen one,'" I say, using the Angelic tongue so there is no mistaking me.
She stares at me. The line of her lips grows grim. My skin crawls and Crawford winces and cups the ribbon at his wrist. Even Edmund shifts uncomfortably behind me.
"You have no idea what I suffered in town for not bringing your head," she growls at me in her own language. "Months I was here looking for you and you were under my nose the entire time. My lord even sent one of his favorites after I failed to find you. Imagine my reward when I finally succeed."
She switched back to English so that the others might understand her. "Edmund, darling, kill her."
He grabs me from behind, as useless as Yates once was when he was ordered to do the same. I offer a small prayer of thanks that demons do not bother to train their pets fully. I do not wish to hurt Edmund irreparably, which limits and slows my options. He fumbles for a small blade in his pocket but otherwise has no weapon beyond himself, but he uses his teeth and hands until I can throw him off.
I do not reach for Guillaume but I grab Edmund's hand and slam it into the door frame. It is enough for him to drop the knife. Emboldened by that success, I shove the rest of him hard against the wall. Dazed, he pauses in his attack, and I send his head on another visit to the wood casing, after which he falls limp and unconscious to the floor. Poor Edmund! He will wake with a pounding head and various bruises but at least, when he wakes, he will be free of Possession.
Now is the time for Guillaume and he is in my hand in a trice. As I face the demon, she hides behind Crawford.
"No further!" she snarls. "Or he dies too."
The fingers of one hand are wrapped around Crawford neck. The blessed ribbon I gave to him this morning protects him imperfectly from only a limited array of curses.
"Drop your sword and move away from the door," she orders.
I waver. Should she escape me now, how many people will she harm until I can catch her? How many possibilities and probabilities against the one certainty of Crawford?
To expedite my calculus, Crawford suddenly screams in pain. "Obey me now!" growls the demon.
I set Guillaume down gingerly and stalk slowly to the windows, my eyes never leaving her. She keeps her own eyes similarly fastened on me as she and her hostage inch toward freedom.
At last she is poised to escape. She lowers herself and Crawford to take Guillaume. "Do not follow me, Fanny," she says savagely as she rises. "I forbid it."
I scoff at the command. As if her words and curses have any effect on me!
She knows that she must do more to keep me here than simply to wish it. To that end, she holds Guillaume up to Crawford's throat. Then she presses the blade against and through his skin, then flees the room.
Chapter 20: in which the Angel of Death comes to Mansfield
Posted on 2015-10-29
Crawford goes white as the blood flows out of him. He reaches for the wound at his throat and sinks to the ground by Edmund. If I try to save him, the demon will either escape or arrange for some other assault on me. If I pursue her... but I cannot. Edmund will awake, and whether he is in greater agonies over his recent behavior or the lumps on his head is something only he can decide. Crawford, however, will sleep never to wake if I do not stay to help him.
I first try to calm Crawford before he panics and loses consciousness. As serious as it is, the wound is not so deep as to kill him immediately but a cool head is necessary. There is a fear in his eyes that he is trying to control which I use as my gauge.
I say something soothing then tell him to listen to me. I repeat a prayer that has saved my life many times. For his benefit, I speak slowly and enunciate clearly. The words are not English and the sounds are not human, but it is simple and effective, something one can utter after having been wounded while fighting a few demons and now lacks the stamina to slink home: I cry out of the Lord in my pain. He hears my suffering. He heals and strengthens me, so that I might serve Him.
I have to repeat it a few times until the bleeding slows to a trickle. The fear in Crawford's eyes diminishes and is replaced with a confusion that is still akin to panic.
"Repeat after me," I command, then slowly lead him through the prayer first in English so that he may understand it and then in Angelic. The divine sounds are especially difficult to him, being so foreign, but the prayer is worthless in English.
It takes time. Minutes tick by as the prayer falls clumsily off his tongue. At last, after he stutters through it successfully twice on his own, I run over to the bell pull and ring hard for a servant. I recite the prayer over him one more time, bless him, and order him not to stop praying until help arrives. I snatch up Edmund's little knife; miraculously it is not cursed, and it might prove more effective in my hands than in his though it is no match for my Guillaume.
And I am off to kill the demon.
It is impossible to track her in the hall. In the woods, I might look for footprints on the ground but the carpets do not give her away.
I am in need of divine guidance. Inspired, I fish out the Marks I put in my pocket earlier when I tested Crawford. As I unfold the handkerchief, I cannot help but notice that my hands are sticky with blood but I must set that thought aside. Consoled by the belief that he will not bleed to death, I rattle my way through the location prayer from William's book. When I receive a tug to the right, I break into a sprint. I pause at intersections to check my progress until I hear a scream which is so much easier to follow.
She has not so deft a hand with the next body I find, or rather Guillaume has done his work too well. There is nothing I can do but offer a final benediction for the soul of the newly dead footman and follow the trail of blood smeared into the carpets at regular intervals as the demon has managed to step into a puddle of her work.
The manor is thoroughly blessed unless I am mistaken. She would be very daring to remain in it, but she is clever for a demon, and who knows what she has planned? Every second that she is out of my sight increases the danger for every soul in and around the Park. If she has some Marks ready, she could easily enslave a small corps of servants to fight me or otherwise wreak havoc. She could lay another prepared curse like the ring as a booby trap to kill anyone who tries to pick it up. She could take the Bertrams hostage. She could set the building on fire. She could simply escape with enough knowledge to send all the forces of Hell after me.
I burst through the doors of the Summer Salon, normally abandoned in the winter, to find her using Guillaume to hack at the latch on the shuttered French doors leading out to a garden blanketed in frost.
I charge at her with Edmund's toy knife. She darts away in time even though she has the superior weapon. This implies she is inexperienced in actually fighting. Given that she ends up farther from a ready avenue of escape than before tells me she is not experienced with running away either. Her only advantage lies in Guillaume which is longer than the knife on my hand. Without the skill to use it, it is just as much a danger to herself as it is to me.
She hurls a curse at me but it is too weak and I am too protected for it to cause harm. I begin to circle her, plotting my next strike, whether I shall try to pin her, disarm her, and stab her; or whether I should try to slash her arm as I drive her away from the door.
She hisses another curse at me; slightly more effective than the last, it makes me doubt. Then she fumbles for something in her pocket, a dagger very similar to the one I took from Edmund. Surely it is cursed but is it a better choice than Guillaume? Has she any skills with a blade at all?
The next moment provides the answer, for she growls a command and a knife sings through the air, straight to me. I try to dodge the blade but am not quick enough. It buries itself in my leg which immediately goes numb. I stagger upon the loss of sensation and, unable to regain my balance, I fall.
I know how it feels to be cut or stabbed; during my professional rambles around the Park, I have been injured many, many times; this, however, is not normal. The blade is cursed, of course, but more so than usual. In fact, based on the tingling that extends from my toes to my left hip, I guess this is the same curse that nearly killed me with that blasted ring. The look of triumph on the demon's face only confirms my suspicion.
"I killed you!" she crows. "I killed the Lion of Northampton!"
I am neither dead nor the Lion but I am definitely closer to being one than the other. The other time I was similarly cursed, I survived only by grace, barely touching the ring, then running across the grounds and up flights of stairs to my room and imbibing a large quantity of benediction. Now that vial is empty, not that I can even reach the sanctuary of my bedroom to attempt some other cure with one leg completely useless and a demon gloating over my imminent demise.
The only consolation left to me in this life is that I may not depart this mortal coil alone, although I do not suppose we are bound to the same destination.
Edmund's knife is worthless to me now, but the demon's foul blade may be the undoing of both of us.
I chant the location prayer. At the last word I pull out the dagger and send it sailing towards her.
The steel finds a home in her chest. In the span of time it takes the knife to fly from me to the demon, my entire arm is numb and useless. There is a moment of quiet before she starts shrieking that I have, rightly, killed her. Blue fire begins to bleed from her wound but I am not quite done.
I growl out a prayer as I heard it from the Lion himself. It falls unimpressively off my tongue but it has its effect. The demon's wound expands and the blood pours more freely, dropping profane fire upon the rugs and dust covers.
Content with my handiwork, I ease myself clumsily into a prone position on the floor. The numbness continues to spread and there is no telling how long I could keep myself upright. Already both my legs are without any sensation at all except a painful tingling in my right toes. My right arm is dead and the numbness is stealing across my chest. My heart is slowing and breathing is becoming difficult.
The demon runs around the room in a panic but she cannot work the latches or knobs to flee. And where would she go? What can save her now? She has slain me; let that be her consolation, as her demise is mine. She should spend her last moments striving for a little more dignity.
She runs in and out of my vision as I lie still, growing weaker. Wicked shadows are thrown against the wall as items in the room catch fire, and the conflagration spreads. I cannot smell the smoke -- I am too low for that -- but I can hear the crackle of the flames and eventually, after the demon stops screaming, I can imagine the warmth of it on my limbs.
This is how I am to die: serving the Lord as I have been called to do. The fire will completely destroy this room so that no one sifting through the ashes will even know that Miss Crawford's impersonator died by my hand. What explanation will they manufacture to explain the bloody trail that leads to this room? What nonsense will Edmund and Crawford tell people? Heaven help them if they try to tell the truth!
I give a small prayer of gratitude that at the death of this demon will free an entire village from Possession. Edmund will be safe from her, and Crawford too. They will not be permanently safe, but Susan will be here soon, and she can look after them both. Crawford will surely badger her with questions, but I do not know if Edmund even understands what has happened to him.
As if in response to my thoughts, the door crashes open and I see dear Edmund stagger in. He is saying something inarticulate as he takes in the scene.
Beautiful, darling Edmund, who has always been kind to me, who has always been my friend. How flattering that his first thought upon the demon's death should be of me, and how unworthy of it that I had treated him so shabbily in Mr. Crawford's room. Why did I never pluck the courage to speak of feelings and preferences with him? I pray that it is not too late and vow that if God spares me I will not lose time before expressing my true self to my beloved cousin.
Edmund falls upon me. For a fleeting moment, I believe he might try to lift me and carry me to safety. Then he puts his hands on my throat and begins squeezing out what little life remains in me.
I am quite helpless. My limbs cannot be moved. I cannot fight him off. Large as he is compared to me, he would stand no chance trying to choke me under anything approaching normal circumstances. But I was already dying before he arrived: that is unchanged.
I forgive him although I do not understand why he is still attacking me. The death of the demon should have freed him from Possession. He is under no longer compelled to attack and kill me. At least, he should not be!
Scenes from my life come unbidden to me. I remember the first demon I killed at Mansfield, Lord T, and how his maid went mad at the moment of his death. She was coming for me, I know; she was coming to kill me when she accidentally broke her own neck.
Is the same thing happening with Edmund? Is he similarly cursed? Has he received the Demon's Kiss? If so, his body is now only an empty vessel, the soul consumed by a smear of ashes. What a waste! Dear Edmund, who always made me feel like more than an impoverished relation, who was so naturally gifted and called to serve the Lord!
His face glares down on me in a rictus of anger as he leans harder on my throat as if I am still breathing. His lips curl back to bare his teeth, and there is no love or recognition in his expression. I can bear it no longer and shut my eyes.
This shall be my last moment, feeling my cousin's hatred as the inferno blazes around us. There is a rush of sound building into a roar, then all slips away.
I float to a place with no sound, no light, no thoughts nor dreams.
It takes me forever to piece together what actually happens next. The fire in the Summer Salon spreads to the adjacent rooms and, combined with all the smoke and soot and, later, the exposure to the January air, makes the family wing uninhabitable until well past spring.
The assembled fire brigade is able to save many paintings and other pieces of art in the nearby rooms and hallways, including a drab oil that dates from the Magna Carta, but the furniture and carpets are ruined beyond redemption.
Express riders are sent as soon as the damage is fully known to the Rushworths in town and Cousin Tom at his last known address, to inform the children of the tragedy and to call them home to mourn. As it has always been my duty and pleasure to write to my family, no one thinks of sending notice to Portsmouth for a few days, but the Bertrams are under extreme stress in the immediate aftermath and I do not begrudge them.
The Rushworths are first to arrive, maneuvering themselves to keep Shun between them at all times. Now that their Possession has ended, they can only look upon their actions with quiet horror. Between Mrs. Rushworth's scandalous flirtations with every available cad and her husband's spineless acquiescence to her behavior, they have burned through any meaningful friendships among their set in town, and they are anxious to return to the country and hide from their bad behaviors.
Tom returns earlier than expected, shocked with grief. It is unfortunately as I predicted when Tom accompanied his father to the West Indies -- a brush with death has matured him faster than any paternal lecture or frown, although when I expected Tom to come close to death, I had meant Tom nearly dying rather than the death of someone close to him.
It becomes clear to my cousin the heir soon after his arrival that the arc of his existence had been permanently deflected; he will mourn for the proper duration then set about his life's work of persuading a rich heiress that neither he nor Mansfield Park are beyond her abilities to improve. Shun's own arc is still only vaguely defined but Lady Bertram continues to harbor hopes that it will one day leave her settled at Andover Lodge. Those hopes are to be reserved for happier days in the distant future.
Every servant at the parsonage is dead of an unknown cause, the general population having no comprehension for demonic tantrums even after their experiences.
The footman who met with Guillaume is likewise no more. Mr. Nelson who examines the body does not know what to make of it, so he and Sir Thomas decide to make no mention of it.
Two maids and another footman also perish in the fire that started with the demon. The maids went into the nearby rooms as a pair to rescue the more portable valuables but grew disoriented by the smoke and were later trapped by the flames. The footman had apparently gone looking for them when he met the same fate.
Edmund is dead. His remains are found in the Summer Salon, unrecognizable except for the ring on his finger. The true explanation of what drew him thither is never known and it pleases me to think that he lived his life in such a way, before meeting the Crawfords, that only the best reasons are attributed to his being in that room.
Mary Crawford is dead, now officially. Her body is not found among the ashes but it was known that she was in the manor visiting her brother before the fire broke out and she was not found after. Sir Thomas also makes it known that Miss Crawford had recently accepted Edmund's offer of marriage, so it makes sense that she and Edmund would gravitate toward each other when tragedy erupted, and it makes everything all the more tragic that they neither one survived it.
Henry Crawford... Must I say it? After I have almost killed him at least twice, and after watching him nearly bleed to colorless from a demon, Henry Crawford saves my life.
After the Demon's Kiss rouses Edmund to avenge an unholy death, Crawford is unable to contain his infernal curiosity. Weakened deeply by the loss of blood, he is still whole enough to creep through the halls in my cousin's wake. But Edmund is moved by a powerful curse and he speeds through the halls, propelled by darkest forces. Crawford, following at an invalid's pace, is soon lost. Only the eventual smell of smoke alerts him to the death scene playing out in the Summer Salon.
In there Crawford finds me, lying under Edmund, my neck wrung tight in his hands. I am completely unconscious by then, near enough to death that a moment of indecision makes all the difference. Crawford removes Edmund from me; how, he never says, not in the first private interview following the tragedy, not years hence. I console him with the knowledge that Edmund could not be saved even if he had not died in the fire, but Crawford is determined to take his secret to the grave.
Crawford brings me from the burning salon to the relative safety of the hall but the fire is already spreading to other rooms and the smoke is thick in the air. He cannot drag me far, but manages to leave us both collapsed in front of a painting where he checks for signs of life. My heart is beating by the barest of margins so he repeats his little prayer of healing until we are found by some footmen and then officially rescued.
I am unconscious for hours. When I awake, I am not able to remain conscious for long. Weakness pervades my body and I am barely able to talk. The curse on the dagger has been mostly destroyed by the death of the demon that placed it but it has stolen all my strength. My voice, likewise, is permanently damaged by Edmund. It is as if I am cruelly transformed into the frail creature I have so long portrayed.
And that is not the end of my indignities. The tattoos that I had hidden successfully for years are now discovered and discussed. Small scars on my person, remnants of serious battles that had not fully vanished, are found and canvassed. Guillaume, who had been taken from me by the demon, is not returned; he is not presumed to have anything to do with me and I can think of no excuse to get him back. Instead, he is placed with the two other blades discovered among the ashes as evidence for an inquest that eventually proves nothing. Guillaume's sheath is discovered strapped to my leg. Its true purpose is beyond their ability to fathom and they mistake it for an ankle brace and confiscate it to discourage me from getting out of bed and walking about.
I am questioned by Mr. Nelson and my uncle on various topics -- Mary Crawford, cousin Edmund, my scars and tattoos -- but my innocence is assumed and they do not press hard for answers, which is just as well because I cannot give any sensible reply whether or not I have a voice. Either I shake my head saying nothing or I dissolve into tears, at which point the gentlemen change the subject or leave me in peace.
And I am not placed in my familiar garret room but somewhere else entirely because it is more convenient for Mr. Nelson and Lady Bertram to visit me there. Had I been placed here when I first arrived years ago, I could find no fault on it. I would have been surrounded by familiar trinkets, with various blessings and traps hidden about the room and ensuring my comfort. But there is no modified table knife under the slats of this bed, no protection against evil embedded in the door frame, no bag of bottles and vials from William hidden in this wardrobe, no trunk of my clothes with its false bottom at the foot of this bed. It is not their intention, but it is as if everything is designed to hamper my recovery.
My father arrives a week later, a day after Tom returns. He takes one look at me and weeps, so I weep too. Then he has to correct my misconception; his are tears of joy, it is a blessing that I have survived. I cry even harder then, because I remain too blighted, too bitter to see the Hand of God in my current predicament. Of course, the weeping hurts my throat, and I am then reduced to writing out my words so that I might be understood.
He comes bearing healing gifts and, when he is finally alone with me, he passes me a vial. The liquor is potent, and I can feel it travel through my body, reinvigorating every fiber but, unlike before, the elixir and the breaking of the curse do not have enough combined power to reverse the full effects. The curse has been planted too deeply in my flesh this time and a week had passed rather than a half-hour until I received the dose. It is similarly ineffective in restoring my voice but, as that is caused by strangulation rather than a curse, that is to be expected.
Papa wants me to return with him to Portsmouth as soon as possible. My uncle cries that, "soon as possible is not very probable. Fanny has been seriously injured. We must not think of moving her now. She must stay here and recuperate, I insist. When she is better, we will write you and you can fetch her."
Papa listens politely to his brother-in-law but is firm. He is concerned that additional demons will make their way to Northamptonshire to finish what was started, although he cannot say that. Instead, he invokes his prerogative as my father to send me wheresoever he chooses. And he chooses to send me home. Northamptonshire is experiencing a quiet influx of demon hunters that will protect the Bertrams and other residents, but in Portsmouth I shall receive the best care. Mr. Nelson is well-meaning but he no idea how to treat or even diagnose what ails me.
We stay another fortnight, long enough for me to suppose I can spend a few hours at a time sitting in a carriage and to prepare and distribute blessed ribbons as parting gifts. Two days before the final farewell, I take a small tour of the village in Mr. Crawford's carriage to test my strength and endurance. It knocks me up greatly but I am not brought so low as to prevent our departure.
Aunt Bertram is the only one who weeps and hangs on my neck when we assemble for leave-taking but my uncle and cousins all look affected. Then again, perhaps they are merely thinking of Edmund. The old cat sniffs and lectures me and my father about traveling and gratitude and ridiculous things.
"Well, Fanny, your adventure at Mansfield Park has finally come to an end," she tells me. "I know it ended poorly but I hope you will soon realize how precious was the time you spent here with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their family. I doubt you will ever live so well, at so little inconvenience to your family again." She simply can never leave well enough alone.
My father glares darkly at her and her mouth shuts with an audible snap before marshalling another sally. "Really, Brother Price, you do not expect --"
"I would never expect anything from you, Sister Norris," he dismisses her. "Come along, Priceless, the carriage is waiting."
That is the last I ever see of them and Mansfield Park although I remain a correspondent of Aunt Bertram's. The letters I write to her bear no impression of the life I actually live but they meet her expectations.
My return to my family is stilted and awkward at first. My head is throbbing by the time the carriage clatters to a stop in front of my family home, days and days after leaving Northamptonshire. Not so grand as Mansfield Park, it still impresses me with various strong feelings. My mother is first to greet us when I step ungainly down and Mrs. Grant is next to embrace me. My brothers and sisters at home are arrayed but they hold themselves back. They have been forewarned of my injuries and therefore do not know how to treat me.
I am led to my old bedroom which I now share with Susan and Mrs. Grant, and I rest. When I come down again, in the evening, the whole building is bustling. There is a hush when people catch sight of me and then look away, trying not to call attention to me. Then Susan spies me and draws me forward with much commotion so that everyone begins to feel at ease around me.
I am called upon to answer a cacophony of questions but my voice is not up to it. How many did I kill? Where is Guillaume? Did anyone ever find me out? What happened to me? Was I really dead? How often did I go on patrol? Did I really save an entire village from Possession? Was cousin Edmund Impersonated or merely Possessed?
There is no way for me to answer them all, but I talk in a breathy whisper until I grow hoarse. Then my mother gives me a hot toddy and a prayer, and sends me to bed for the night.
The next morning, I am slow to rise, the strangeness of the place disrupting my rest.
My father is waiting for me. He asks how I slept and I shrug in response. Having decided to speak with me privately, he then offers me his arm and we walk down to the water.
"Priceless," he says over the shouts of the waves, "we need to talk of your health and your future."
He captures my attention completely. I stand mute and scared, waiting for him to continue.
"It has been nearly a month already, and you are just as weak as when you first woke," he begins ominously. "It is still early, but you -- all of us -- must admit to the increasing probability that you may never fully recover. That curse was a poison and it may have spread too far to be reversed."
"I have beaten it once before," I whisper but there are tears in my eyes. My father cannot hear me, thanks to Edmund and the sea.
"And even if you do improve, I do not believe you will be well enough to go hunting again, not as you did in Northamptonshire, not if your stories are to be believed."
The words fall like a blow. I want to contradict him, but even as my mouth opens and my lips move, it feels futile. He keeps talking, trying to reassure me, but I do not want to hear it.
"I was not always old, or your father, or even married," says he. "I was once young and eager, exceedingly confident and singularly devoted. I was exactly where I was meant to be and I knew God's plan for me. Since then I have come to realize that God's plan is not so obvious as to be understood by mortal fools."
Whatever comparison to his own life, his own choices, can only make me more miserable. I start to walk away from him but he tightens his grip on my arm. I will be forced to hear whatever else he wishes to say.
"Priceless, It looks dark for you now but do not despair. The Lord's gifts so often look undesirable in our eyes, but they are still gifts. You have been called to serve Him, and you can never back away from that calling, but it does not follow that you must always serve Him the same way. He has put you on a path, but it is not always easy and it is not always straight. You may see a destination but it is not where you are meant to go. Allowances must be made."
But I do not want to be anything but what I am: a fighter. With Guillaume in my hand and a prayer on my lips, I cannot imagine myself as anything else.
Mr. Crawford's fate is as uncertain as my own. He accompanies us to Portsmouth primarily to see his sister. Even weeks after the demon's death, Dr. Grant has still not returned to the parsonage from London or otherwise sent news of his health or whereabouts. It implies two probabilities to my mind: either one, that he is dead, and how and when and why he died do not matter much; or two, that he is so overcome with shame from performing acts he could not prevent while under Possession, that he cannot show his face and has hidden himself away, never to be seen again. There are other, more exotic possibilities but it does not help to dwell on them, and the end result is the same. Besides, notice must go out, Mrs. Grant must appear to look for her husband. Then, after she has exhausted reasonable means to discover him, he can be declared dead.
While Mr. Crawford and Mrs. Grant consider their future, Crawford speaks to my father about the problems at his estate in Norfolk. Papa is indeed concerned about Everingham but, having sent his available forces to Northamptonshire, is unable to muster a hunting party to oust the demons on Crawford's lands. Instead, he sends Crawford first to Mr. Sealey and then to London and Canterbury to formally make his petition to those who might be able to do something about it.
I pity Crawford his visits to Mr. Sealey at his age. It seems so much easier for a child; although it may hurt more, a child may be petted and coddled by everyone, but only Mrs. Grant can take excessive care of her brother now. And he does not stay with us but at a noisy hotel while in Portsmouth. My parents have not offered him a bed in our home which strikes me as ungenerous, but as we are already lodging Mrs. Grant, and I am home from Northamptonshire, and a few of my older brothers are ashore, perhaps they feel it would be too tight.
As a result, I do not see much of him those first few weeks. Having spoken with his sister and my father, having visited the tattoo artist, he frequently returns to London to stay with his uncle while he waits for Mr. Sealey to finish his latest commission of prayer and ink.
Crawford talks with me during his visits but it is even more awkward than some of our worst moments in Northamptonshire. We have known each other for half a year already, but we have been constantly changing and so frequently not ourselves that we do not know with whom we are speaking now. Indeed, I do not recognize my own self anymore.
Each morning when I wake, I test my strength and find it still gone. I then drift down to the yard where some of my younger siblings practice their forms and patterns. I watch and notice slight flaws in their motions or opportunities to enhance their techniques but I keep my mouth shut. They cannot hear me anyway.
One day, I am too bored by watching and skulk off to my room to begin the forms myself. I am embarrassingly out of practice, my skin sweating and my muscles shaking by the time I stop, not even half-way through my normal routine. The next day, I am so stiff and sore that I can barely crawl out of bed but I maneuver through the patterns again. After a week, it does not hurt as much. After a fortnight, I can show my face in the yard as I practice.
It occurs to me that the curse has left me weak as an infant but I can regain some of what I lost with dedication and commitment. I may never regain my former prowess, but I need not totally abandon my chosen path.
I allow myself to offer slight corrections to others. I help the youngest adjust their patterns, which soon draws the older ones to comment or to ask advice, which leads to raspy, whispered stories from my exile.
In the afternoons I write of my experiences. I did not allow myself to keep a journal per se, but I have a notebook full of modified prayers and records of my patrols. I will never be able to speak to a crowd of my time in Northamptonshire but in most instances, my words are just as useful written as they are spoken.
Mrs. Grant asks me one day to be her child's godmother. I respectfully decline. We Prices know too much about God and the devil to treat such a commission lightly. The time will come when Mrs. Grant may wish that her child's godparent had better connections or was an otherwise more fashionable choice.
Mrs. Grant is slightly offended by my refusal. She has spent the last two months living with my family. She has lodged a demon in her own home and experienced her own Possession. Her eyes have been permanently opened and she cannot return to ignorance. "You are not far off in supposing that I would want a rich godparent for my child, someone who could make them gifts and presents as needed; that was indeed what I used to think. But not anymore."
She tells me more besides and I acquiesce with a nod. She embraces me briefly then goes to inform my mother, as if I may retract my commitment if no one else can hold me to it.
The birth happens in due course. If the baby had been a boy, he was to be named Robert Henry, after his father and his uncle. However, the child is a girl, so her mother calls her Mary Francis, after her dead aunt and me. It is a very serious honor and I am not unswayed by it.
Being away for the birth of his niece, Crawford visits us a fortnight later with presents for his sister, Mary Francis, and me. He comes with somber news of Dr. Grant, nothing conclusive but more heavily implying his death than any news before. It is a clumsy, undesirable sort of gift and Crawford offsets it by toys and clothes for his niece, both what he had gathered from the Mansfield parsonage and what he has bought new in town. For me, however, he reserves something truly special: it is Guillaume!
"How did you manage this?" I gasp hoarsely.
His answer meanders but the kernel is that he asked for it as a souvenir of Miss Crawford. "Sir Thomas thinks me morbidly sentimental but he gave it to me anyway."
He says he wishes he could have spoken with the Rushworths during his latest stay at Mansfield Park; he is still troubled by his experience and feels he would benefit from talking with fellow victims. Before I can explain that my cousins do not realize they have been Possessed, he tells me that they refused to see him, remaining unapproachable at Sotherton Court until he left Northamptonshire. He then says that he forgot himself one evening and said the word "demon" in front of my cousin Tom.
I raise an enquiring eyebrow. How did my cousin react?
Crawford sighs wearily. "He laughed and clapped me on the back and asked if I was making any progress with you at all."
I do not know on whose behalf I am more offended.
He continues: "By luck, I recognized someone in the village as a demon hunter and we struck up a conversation. He had discovered some new curses and was trying to decide whether to break them or to try to use them to find the demon who placed them. I told him about how you had used a locator prayer to kill my sister's demon and he thought that was genius." Crawford pauses to let that compliment sink in. "That was the most reasonable, rational conversation I had at Mansfield since you came away from there. I am simply not fit for regular company any longer."
His frustration sounds very similar to that of his sister and I pity them both. They have lived many years an easy life in a relatively safe world but it has been exposed as a hoax. It is so much easier to be raised from infancy into this dreadful understanding.
Luckily, Mary Francis Grant has me for her godmother. So long as it is in my power, I shall not shirk my duty to her. She will learn an advanced catechism, prayers and blessings of import, the living history of the great conflict.
I will not be able to give her an education as complete as mine; I do not imagine Mrs. Grant wants to see her only child become a warrior of God, and as much as Mary Francis is coddled I do not envision her ever being sent to Mr. Sealey. But there is still much she can learn that will protect her, although perhaps I will not have time to teach all of it.
Crawford has already offered the Grants a home with him at Everingham should it ever be safe again, and Mrs. Grant has accepted, conditionally. She says she does not feel that she can stay with my family forever and yet there is no other place for her just now. But it is only natural that she find a home with her family -- it is only right that Crawford has offered it.
He has extended something of an invitation to me as well. Should my father permit it, I am free to go to Norfolk and join the hunt. I can't imagine that Papa would agree. I am improving steadily but even so, I must admit that I am not ready for the danger and I may never again be capable of killing five in one night. Still, Crawford is very sweet to offer.
He also says that when Everingham is safe again and the Grants are living there with him, I am welcome to visit my goddaughter. I cannot express exactly how that makes me feel but I look forward to traveling to Norfolk someday.
In the meantime, I have the younger children to train, and Mary Francis to educate. I come foolishly close to spoiling her, I know.
When no one else is around, I even call her Frankie.The End