by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian
(Excerpt - First Three Chapters)
bout three thousand years ago, an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, with infinite riches of his kingdom surrounding him, had the bad luck to die, be embalmed, mummified and then sealed up in his great tomb among the sands of Lower Egypt, and to be thereby raised to the rank of eternity and, quite possibly, deity.
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds and nary a kingdom or sand granule in sight, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.
With the former, all Egypt mourned. With the latter, all Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. The deceased Pharaoh had two royal siblings who immediately benefited from his elevation to the Afterlife. Miss Maria Ward had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation—not to the Afterlife, to be sure, but to the even grander state of AfterEngagement—and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But whether three thousand or merely thirty years ago, there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty (and decidedly unmummified) women to deserve them.
While the venerable Pharaoh mummy continued to desiccate in secret splendor for thousands of years, far into the future, our Maria’s one sister, Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and the other, Miss Frances, fared yet worse. Miss Ward’s match was indeed not contemptible: Sir Thomas happily gave his friend an income in the living of Mansfield. And Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. Short of marrying the mummy of a deceased ancient Egyptian pharaoh, she could hardly have made a more untoward choice. But, speaking of mummies, dear Reader, we are getting somewhat ahead of ourselves—
Sir Thomas Bertram had every intention to gladly assist Lady Bertram’s sister in her relative destitution. But her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach. And before Sir Thomas could devise another method of aid, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was a breach of tremendous proportions, a crevasse, a grand canyon, or possibly, a pyramid of sorts—a truly monstrous and rather angular coldness, or maybe a heat, but most likely a thing lukewarm and therefore utterly indifferent, as though brought forth out of the grave, spurred on by royal dead ancients. It was the natural result of the conduct of each party—such as a very imprudent marriage almost always produces.
To save herself from useless remonstrance, Mrs. Price never wrote to her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent—one might say, placid to the point of being simultaneously deceased and yet walking upright—would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter. But Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, not to mention a vaguely wolfish streak, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten her with all its possible ill consequences—palsy, the poor house, rabid creature bites, the cut complete. Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry; and her bitter answer to her sisters put an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period.
Their homes were so distant, and the circles in which they moved so distinct—Lady Bertram, for instance was always surrounded by Egyptologists, famous exotic doctorate-endowed visiting scholars du jour, and attended instructional lectures that would have bored the other to tears—as almost to preclude the means of ever hearing of each other’s existence during the eleven following years. Or, at least, it seemed unlikely to Sir Thomas that Mrs. Norris should ever have it in her power to tell them, as often as she did (in her angry wolfish voice), that Fanny had got another child and it was neither bitten by anything wild nor stunted in limb or brain development.
By the end of eleven years, however—a mere blink of an instant to a drying mummy, but quite a different matter to a robust living female; but oh, mustn’t get ahead of ourselves—Mrs. Price could no longer afford to cherish pride or resentment, or to lose one connexion that might possibly assist her. A large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service (except for his mouth, decidedly still deployed on multiple vessels in the East Indies), but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income—all made her eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly sacrificed.
Thus, she addressed Lady Bertram in a letter of contrition and despondence, a superfluity of children, a fair mention of Egyptology, and a want of almost everything else. This could not but dispose them all to a reconciliation. Mrs. Price was preparing for her ninth lying-in; and after bewailing the circumstance, and imploring their countenance as sponsors to the expected child, she could not conceal how important they might be to the future maintenance of the eight already in being.
Her eldest was a boy of ten years old, a fine spirited fellow, who longed to be out in the world, sailing the seas or perchance digging up Egypt (the latter being a strong hint to Lady Bertram to put her in favor of the boy) or seeking treasure in the New World; but what could she do? Was there any chance of his being hereafter useful to Sir Thomas in the concerns of his West Indian property? No situation would be beneath him; or what did Sir Thomas think of Woolwich?
The letter was not unproductive. It re-established peace and kindness. Sir Thomas sent friendly advice and professions, sanguine Lady Bertram dispatched money and baby-linen and Egyptian grave-robbed trifles, and Mrs. Norris wrote the letters.
And within a twelvemonth a more important advantage to Mrs. Price resulted from it. Mrs. Norris often observed to others that she could not get her poor sister and her family out of her head—especially on bright moonlit nights when her head felt rather giddy and almost not her own but, shockingly, one with the field vermin in the countryside—and that, much as they had all done for her, she seemed to be wanting to do more. Finally she admitted her wish that poor Mrs. Price should be relieved from the charge and expense of one of her children.
“What if they were among them to undertake the care of her eldest daughter—a girl now nine years old, of an age to require more attention than her poor mother could possibly give? The trouble and expense of it to them would be nothing, compared with the benevolence of the action.”
Lady Bertram agreed with her instantly. “I think we cannot do better,” said she; “let us send for the child. Is she hale and ruddy-cheeked, do you think? Are her teeth all in? Will she be able to handle papyrus?”
Sir Thomas could not give so instantaneous and unqualified a consent. He debated and hesitated—it was a serious charge. A girl so brought up must be adequately provided for, or there would be cruelty instead of kindness in taking her from her family. He thought of his own four children, of his two sons, of cousins in love, etc.;—but no sooner did he try to object, than Mrs. Norris interrupted him with a near-howl—a matronly cough, surely, the weather was dreadful and the moon close to full—and a reply to all objections, stated or not.
“My dear Sir Thomas, I perfectly comprehend you, and do justice to the generosity and delicacy of your notions. I entirely agree with you as to the propriety of fully providing for a child one had taken into one’s own hands. Having no children of my own, I look to the children of my sisters! Do not let us be frightened from a good deed by a trifle. Give a girl an education, by all means, then send her off to harvest Egypt if it pleases—” (with a look at her sister) “You are thinking of your sons forming a possible tendre for a female cousin—but that is the least likely to happen. They would be brought up like brothers and sisters. It is, in fact, the only sure way of preventing the connexion. Suppose her a pretty girl, and seen by Tom or Edmund for the first time seven years hence—I dare say there would be mischief. The very idea of her having been suffered to grow up at a distance from us all in poverty and neglect, would be enough to make either of the dear, sweet-tempered boys in love with her. But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, she will never be more to either than a sister.”
“There is a great deal of truth in what you say,” replied Sir Thomas, “I only meant to observe that it ought not to be lightly engaged in. To make it really serviceable to Mrs. Price, and creditable to ourselves, we must secure to the child the provision of a gentlewoman.”
“I thoroughly understand you,” cried Mrs. Norris, “you are everything that is generous and considerate. So, if you are not against it, I will write to my poor sister tomorrow, and make the proposal. And, as soon as matters are settled, I will engage to get the child to Mansfield, with no trouble to you. I will send Nanny to London on purpose, and the child be appointed to meet her there. They may easily get her from Portsmouth to town by the coach, under the care of any creditable person.”
Sir Thomas no longer made any objection, and a more respectable, though less economical rendezvous being substituted, everything was considered as settled. But while Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the patron of the selected child, Mrs. Norris herself had no intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance. As far as talk, she was thoroughly benevolent; verily, nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others. But her love of money was equal to her love of directing—she saved her own and spent that of her friends.
Having married on a narrower income, Mrs. Norris had fancied a very strict line of economy necessary. And with no children to provide for, she had nothing to impede her frugality. Under this principle, with no real affection for her sister, she could only take credit for arranging so expensive a charity. Though, perhaps, after this conversation, she might walk home to the Parsonage (in the delightful moonlight that simply begged for a full-throated howl) in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.
When the subject was brought forward again, her views were more fully explained. In reply to Lady Bertram’s calm inquiry of “Where shall the child come to first, sister, to you or to us?” Sir Thomas heard with some surprise that it would be totally out of Mrs. Norris’s power to take any share in the personal charge of her. He had been considering her as a particularly welcome addition at the Parsonage, as a desirable companion to an aunt who had no children of her own; but he found himself wholly mistaken. Mrs. Norris was sorry to say that the little girl’s staying with them was quite out of the question. Poor Mr. Norris’s indifferent state of health made it an impossibility: he (and his gout) could no more bear the noise of a child than he could fly; poor Mr. Norris took up every moment of her time.
“Then she had better come to us,” said Lady Bertram, with the utmost composure, scraping away with patience and futility—and a poultice of apricot jam—some caked-on sand from a clay tablet once belonging to a servant of Ramses III.
After a short pause Sir Thomas added with dignity, “Yes, let her home be in this house. We will do our duty by her. She will have companions of her own age, her own artifacts, and a regular instructress.”
“Very true,” cried Mrs. Norris, “which are all very important considerations. It will be just the same to Miss Lee whether she has three girls to teach, or only two. I only wish I could be more useful; but you see I do all in my power. I am not one of those that spare their own trouble; and Nanny shall fetch her, however it may put me to inconvenience to have my chief counsellor away for three days. I suppose, sister, you will put the child in the little white attic, near the old nurseries. It will be the best place for her, so near Miss Lee, not far from the girls, and close by the housemaids, who could help to dress her, and take care of her clothes. For I suppose you would not think it fair to expect Ellis to wait on her as well as the others. Indeed, I do not see that you could possibly place her anywhere else.”
Lady Bertram made no opposition. It was indeed a fine excuse to visit the attic more often. The little white attic—oh, if only they knew what treasure reposed just next door—
“I hope she will prove a well-disposed girl,” continued Mrs. Norris, “and be sensible of her uncommon good fortune.”
“Should her disposition be really bad,” said Sir Thomas, “we must not, for our own children’s sake, continue her in the family. But there is no reason to expect so great an evil. We shall probably see much to wish altered in her. We must prepare ourselves for gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner. But these are not incurable faults. Nor, I trust, can they be dangerous for her associates. Had my daughters been younger than herself, I should have considered the introduction of such a companion as a matter of very serious moment. But, as it is, I hope there can be nothing to fear for them, and everything to hope for her, from the association.”
“That is exactly what I think,” cried Mrs. Norris, “and what I was saying to my husband this morning. It will be an education for the child. Merely being with her cousins; if Miss Lee taught her nothing, she would learn to be good and clever from them.”
“I hope she will not tease my poor pug,” said Lady Bertram; “I have but just got Julia to leave it alone. She must also be very careful of the Egyptian items of my fine collection, taking great care not to touch or smear with unclean fingers, or, Heaven forbid, drop and break anything so precious and costly.”
“There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,” observed Sir Thomas, thinking in the meantime that an Egyptian thing or two dropped and broken would not be such a bad thing, “as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up. How to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin. And how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would not authorise in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation. But still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, ability to catalogue entrails extraction tools from Luxor, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in chusing exactly the right line of conduct.”
Mrs. Norris agreed with him as to its difficulty but encouraged hope that it would be managed.
It will be readily believed that Mrs. Norris did not write to her sister in vain. Mrs. Price seemed rather surprised that a girl should be fixed on, when she had so many fine boys. But she accepted the offer most thankfully, assuring them of her daughter’s being a very gentle, good-humoured girl, and trusting they would never have cause to throw her off. She spoke of her as somewhat delicate and puny, but was hopeful of her being materially better for change of air. Poor woman! she undoubtedly thought change of air might agree with many of her children—unlike what it might do to the vestments of a newly exhumed and exposed to the elements ancient mummy.
he little girl performed her long journey in safety; and at Northampton was met by Mrs. Norris, who immediately sniffed her behind the ears, in an unexpected bit of behavioral oddity, but gladly took credit of being first to welcome her and recommend her to the rest of the family.
Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small for her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty. She was exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice. But her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty.
Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram received her very kindly; and Sir Thomas, seeing how much she needed encouragement, tried to be all that was conciliating: but he had to work against a most untoward gravity of deportment. Lady Bertram, without half so much trouble, by the mere aid of a good-humoured smile, became immediately the less awful character of the two.
The young people were all at home, and handled the introduction very well, with much good humour, and no embarrassment, at least on the part of the sons, who, at seventeen and sixteen, and tall of their age, had all the grandeur of men in the eyes of their little cousin. The two girls were more at a loss from being younger and in greater awe of their father, who addressed them on the occasion with rather an injudicious particularity. But they were too much used to company and praise to have anything like natural shyness. Their confidence increased from their cousin’s total lack of it, and they examined her face and frock in easy indifference.
They were a remarkably fine family, the sons very well-looking, the daughters decidedly handsome, as though heirs to an ancient dynasty, and all of them well-grown and forward of their age, which produced as striking a difference between the cousins in person, as education had given to their address. There were but two years between the youngest and Fanny. Julia Bertram was only twelve, and Maria but a year older.
The little visitor meanwhile was as unhappy as possible. Afraid of everybody, ashamed of herself, and longing for the home she had left, she knew not how to look up, and could scarcely speak to be heard, or without crying. Mrs. Norris had been talking to her the whole way from Northampton of her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce, and Fanny’s misery was only increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy.
The fatigue, too, of so long a journey, became soon no trifling evil. And the constant sidelong glances at Mrs. Norris in the bright moonlight accorded her peculiar, even grotesque, momentary hallucinations of lupine scowling jaws which were of course not there. In vain were the well-meant condescensions of Sir Thomas, and all the officious prognostications of Mrs. Norris that she would be a good girl. In vain did Lady Bertram smile and make her sit on the sofa with herself and pug and a medium-sized First Dynasty oil jug that took up much of the seating space. And vain was even the sight of a gooseberry tart towards giving her comfort.
Fanny took one look to the right and saw a crocodile, to the left, a replica of the Sphinx, and, right before her, what appeared to be a very deceased and frightful face of an upright golden god with eyes shut—a minor blessing—and a serpent coming out of its chin. No wonder she could scarcely swallow two mouthfuls before tears interrupted her!
Sleep seeming to be her likeliest friend, she was taken to finish her sorrows in bed. There she dreamed of strange never before imagined ghouls—some bloodless, others shriveled, all walking upright, shreds of desiccated linen wrappings, the howling of wolves, and everywhere, bright sun-lit sand. In short, rather ghastly and unwarranted stuff.
“This is not a very promising beginning,” said Mrs. Norris, sitting down next to the oil-jug on the other side of Lady Bertram, when Fanny had left the room. “After all that I said to her as we came along, I thought she would have behaved better; I told her how much might depend upon her acquitting herself well at first. I wish there may not be a little sulkiness of temper—her poor mother had a good deal; but we must make allowances for such a child—and I do not know that her being sorry to leave her home is really against her. For, with all its faults, it was her home, and she cannot as yet understand how much she has changed for the better. But then there is moderation in all things.” And Mrs. Norris pushed herself somewhat against the jug to make room on the sofa for her own person.
It required a longer time, however, than Mrs. Norris was inclined to allow, to reconcile Fanny to the novelty of Mansfield Park, a maze of rooms and people and crocodile-headed statuary and Osiris artifacts, and the separation from everybody she had been used to. Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort. It was confusing for the child to watch Lady Bertram move about silently when she did not lie on the sofa or sort amulets in small caskets, and to disappear frequently upstairs near her own room, while strange frightful noises were often heard in the night. And oh, that pug! That strange little dog ran about like a miniature wolf cub, or possibly a very large cat, and made sounds the like of which Fanny had never heard in her life.
The holiday allowed to the Miss Bertrams the next day, on purpose to afford leisure for getting acquainted with, and entertaining their young cousin, produced little union. They could not but hold her cheap on finding that she had but two sashes, and had never learned French. And when they perceived her to be little struck with the duet they were so good as to play, they could do no more than make her a generous present of some of their least valued toys (primarily of Egyptian origin), and leave her to herself, while they adjourned to whatever might be the favourite holiday sport of the moment, making artificial flowers or wasting gold paper or pulling ostrich feathers out of oversized fans from Cairo.
Fanny, whether near or far from her cousins, whether in the schoolroom, the drawing-room, or the replica-of-the-Nile shrubbery, was equally forlorn, finding something to fear in every person and place, even the shadows, for it seemed that Mansfield Park was—oddly enough, an entity unto itself—alive. Or, better yet, undead.
She was disheartened by Lady Bertram’s sepulcral silence interspersed with abrupt references to archeological digs and the latest acquisitions of Egyptian Goddess Bast and crocodile-headed Sobek figurines on her bed chamber mantel, awed by Sir Thomas’s grave looks and severe distress upon each utterance of “Egypt,” or “cat,” or “crocodile-headed,” or “papyrus,” and quite overcome by Mrs. Norris’s wolfish admonitions and her tendency to shuffle about like a lumbering thing when she thought no one else was looking in her direction.
Fanny’s elder cousins mortified her by reflections on her size, and abashed her by noticing her shyness: Miss Lee wondered at her ignorance, and the maid-servants sneered at her clothes. And when to these sorrows was added the idea of the brothers and sisters among whom she had always been important as playfellow, instructress, and nurse, the despondence that sunk her little heart was severe.
The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her. The rooms were too large and cluttered for her to move in with ease: whatever she touched she expected to injure. She crept about in constant terror of something or other related to ancient burial; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry. And the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left it at night as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep.
Lady Bertram’s visits to a nearby locked room did not help, since they seemed to occur in the middle of the night. Fanny passed the room on the way downstairs, and she wondered with a strange dread born of instinct, what was within—some gothic mystery of Udolpho, and yet no doubt, something likely quite harmless and imported from Luxor. A week had passed in this way, and no suspicion of it conveyed by her quiet passive manner, when she was found one morning by her cousin Edmund, the youngest of the sons, sitting crying on the attic stairs, next to a Cairo crate.
“My dear little cousin,” said he, with all the gentleness of an excellent nature, “what can be the matter?” And sitting down by her, he was at great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprised, and persuade her to speak openly. Was she ill? or was anybody angry with her? or had she quarrelled with Maria and Julia? or was she puzzled about anything in her antiquities lesson that he could explain? Did she, in short, want anything he could possibly get her, or do for her? For a long while no answer could be obtained beyond a “no, no—not at all—no, thank you”; but he still persevered; and no sooner had he begun to refer to her own home, than her increased sobs explained to him where the grievance lay. He tried to console her.
“You are sorry to leave Mama, my dear little Fanny,” said he, “which shows you to be a very good girl. But you must remember that you are with relations and friends, who all love you, and wish to make you happy. Let us walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters. And I will be sure to tell you all about mine. After I am all done, you will be quite shocked, I dare say, possibly terrified, and even astounded out of your misery. You see, dear Fanny, Mansfield Park is under a Dreadful Ancient Curse. But it’s quite all right, because, you see, I have it all quite under control.”
“I beg pardon, cousin,” Fanny inquired, “did I hear you speak correctly, a—Curse?”
“Yes, dearest Fanny, and it is tremendously exciting!”
“What do you mean?”
At which point Edmund proceeded to relate a tale that took Fanny’s mind quite off her homesickness and her beloved siblings and family back home and fixed her attention firmly to the present spot, sitting as they were on the attic stairs.
“Mansfield Park,” spoke Edmund, “ is quite infested with all manner of Wonder. Some might not call it such, and some would call it Abomination, but I believe—firmly, with all my faith in the Lord’s will—that it is all here for a reason. To test me maybe, the depths of my moral character and veracity, my integrity and inner peace—”
“Pray, cousin, enough, speak!” cried Fanny, beginning to tremble somewhat, but trying to conceal any semblance of such unfortunate weakness or palsy, “tell me of this!”
“Indeed, tell it I must, else you will never understand the hoary depth of us, this house, or this family, Fanny. Now then—It started about five years ago, when I was rather younger than I am now—”
“Were you a suckling infant, cousin?” said Fanny, considering his present considerable youthfulness.
Edmund laughed. “No, not quite so young. It was then that my dear mother attended a series of exhibitions and lectures at the grand museum in London, presented by a visiting gentleman, a doctor of Egyptology or other some such, one Georg Ebers, and a team of his associates. They were deep in the process of Digging up all of Egypt, you know, and were responsible probably for more discoveries and more holes in the sandy landscape of that fair and sun-drenched distant land than anyone else in Europe or Asia or the Americas put together—or so it seemed. Mother was bewitched by Ancient Egypt, by the gold and the mystery and the ritual glamour, struck up a correspondence with the whole lot of them, and started acquiring mementoes of their Egyptian adventures: at first, discreetly, then with complete abandon and disregard for cost or normalcy—as you can see by the state of the large drawing room which now resembles the great temple at Karnak more than it does a British parlor.”
“I see,” said Fanny. “But—a Curse? Pray, continue.”
And Edmund did.
“At some point, Fanny, when various large boxes began to arrive by post on a daily basis, it seemed, and mother spent more time upstairs in the attics than she did grooming her pug, I took it upon myself to observe things closer, and this is what I learned—”
“How brave of you, cousin!”
“Not courage was involved, but desperation. I heard—indeed, all of us heard, peculiar noises in the night, shufflings, flickering of candlelight or even torches and the faint whiff of exotic incense—in short, something was happening all the time, and the house had been changed. Aunt Norris, ascended the stairs one evening and was gone for quite a long time. The moon was full that night, and I had hidden myself near a flight leading to the upper corridor, and suddenly, a strange shadow came, a wolf-like thing sped by, howling—howling right as it passed, so that my heart nearly burst with unholy terror, and I prayed silently—and in the praying I knew that thing for what it was, none other than my dear Aunt Norris, transformed into a—monster! Another shriek and howl, and she leapt through an open window on the flight of stairs, and raced off into the night, to hunt. Yes, Fanny, she was a creature no longer human, an unholy wolf.”
Fanny listened to her cousin, unblinking, her gentle mien with its unwavering expression frozen in a mixture of wonder and disbelief. “I believe, cousin Edmund,” she said at last in a barely audible voice, “you are trying to frighten me, and being cruel, playing some manner of mean jest—”
“Oh Heaven knows, not I, Fanny!” exclaimed Edmund, his eyes more serious and earnest than anyone she knew. And he took her by the hand, pulling her, so that Fanny could not help but follow him, and they indeed walked outside, as Edmund originally intended.
“Now then, I am not done,” he spoke. “You must allow me to finish and do not interrupt until I am done, and then you may ask me any questions you wish—for I know you will have many questions, my gentle cousin—”
She nodded. Her hand was still clutched in his, and she did not for a moment recall it, nor that they were outside and it was a sunlit time of day and a time for lighthearted banter, not dark recollections.
“The next thing I observed, Fanny, was that since that one fateful night Aunt Norris became a bit peculiar, more crude and lumbering in posture, and every full moon she would be gone at nights; they said livestock disappeared and was later found torn to shreds. That was bad enough, but then I kept my watch on them all, and there was now a difference in my mother, too. Not a werewolf, no . . . But she ate almost nothing and grew very pale, and her silences and distraction grew deeper. The only thing that seemed to matter was the latest arriving Egyptian trinkets and boxes. I observed her wear a very special necklet on her person, practically always—an antique gold thing shaped like an eye of a beast god with lapis and inlaid stones and twisted wings of a bird flared wide. She would fondle it with her fingers and mutter, words that seemed to be of another tongue. My poor father tried to avert his eyes whenever her mutterings grew too overt, but even he could no longer shut himself to the obvious: mother was either mad as a hatter, seriously ill, or possessed by devil’s minions. Or in the least, cats, birds, and crocodiles.”
“Oh!” said Fanny. “Poor Lady Bertram! Which was it?”
“I would say all three. That is, wait—are we talking about creatures or ailments? In which case, all six. Maybe even more—it is likely I am forgetting to catalogue a number of other items of mother’s interest. In any case, at least, one thing seemed to become the other, and as time went on, and a London doctor was brought in to call upon her regularly, it seemed not to make a difference. They tried different diets upon her, leeches and sunshine, and plein air walks, and medicinal herb elixirs. Mother did not respond. The parson was called upon to spend time and deliver sermon upon sermon, and there was some minor responses akin to cringing and even one shriek, I am told, but all came to naught. Father then tried to forbid the artifact purchases and a few of the boxes were returned to sender, but mother had a fit of hysterics that lasted a fortnight, and Aunt Norris had the ghastliest of vapors—seriously, one dared not take a breath of air in the same room, it was so dire—Maria and Julia hid away in closets, Tom left the house, Lord only knows where, and, in short, Mansfield Park became Bedlam.”
“And so you think for certain, cousin, it’s a Curse?”
“I don’t think,” Edmund said. “I know. Because once when no one else was in the living room, I stole up to mother, pretending to act in jest as she was reposing on the divan, and ripped the necklet from her—it had come loose and started to slip around her collar—and in that moment, a stifling hot dark wind tore through the room when all the windows were shut and it was a cool day. And my mother turned to me, and her eyes had grown dark without pupils and red as coals in the center, and her dear, normally smiling mouth parted, and there were long feline teeth! I felt a presence gather in the room, a swirling maelstrom and the sting of sand, and I could not help but cry out. As the worst of cowards I dropped the necklet, and it landed in her lap. Upon which, immediately, the room became light again, the presence of the burning dark receded, and my mother’s face became normal as though nothing had happened. While my lips still moved in prayer, mother took the necklet and calmly tied it around her neck once more. And she said to me, ‘Whatever is the matter, dear boy? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost!’ In that moment I realized she honestly did not recall the strange several moments of hell that had just come to pass between us.”
“What—what was that necklet, then?” Fanny said, faintly. “Was it the Curse, or a thing that contained it?”
“Edmund looked at her with an expression that spoke many things. “How remarkably wise you are, little cousin! how insightful! Your question is brilliant—for to this day I do not know for certain if that necklet, infernal as it might be, is my mother’s bane or salvation. In truth, I—do not dare find out.”
After walking some time in silence, they returned inside.
“There’s more to this story,” whispered Edmund, “But I leave it for another day. I’ve frightened you enough—for which I am truly sorry, but it had to be said—and now it is time to think of happier things: your sweet sisters, dear brothers!”
Fanny was more than glad to change the subject. Not only had she been terrified out of her gloom by Edmund, but he now brought her to the most joyful topic possible, thereby succeeding in a perfect engagement of mental faculties that took her mind off any inner personal sorrow.
On pursuing the happy subject, Edmund found that, dear as all these brothers and sisters generally were, there was one among them who ran more in her thoughts than the rest. It was William whom she talked of most, and wanted most to see—especially now, after the frightful talk of Curses. William, the eldest, a year older than herself, her constant companion and friend; her advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress. “William did not like she should come away; he had told her he should miss her very much indeed.” “But William will write to you, I dare say.” “Yes, he had promised he would, but he had told her to write first.” “And when shall you do it?” She hung her head and answered hesitatingly, “she did not know; she had not any paper. Only papyrus.”
“If that be all your difficulty, I will furnish you with paper and every other non-Egyptian material, and you may write your letter whenever you choose. Would it make you happy to write to William?”
“Then let it be done now. Come with me into the breakfast-room, we shall find everything there, and be sure of having the room to ourselves.”
“But, cousin, will it go to the post? What, with all the boxes being delivered, will it be in the way—”
“Yes, depend upon me it shall: it shall go with the other letters; and, as your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.”
“My uncle!” repeated Fanny, with a frightened look.
“Yes, when you have written the letter, I will take it to my father to frank. He will be rather pleased to have some outgoing mail for a change. Indeed, he might be happy to provide a box for you to mail out. Does William like cats? Figurines, that is? Or mayhap, crocodiles?”
Edmund’s mouth was firm and yet mayhap there was some trembling, some shadow of suppressed jocundity at the corners—
Fanny thought it a bold measure, but offered no further resistance; and they went together into the breakfast-room, where Edmund prepared her paper, and ruled her lines with all the goodwill that her brother could himself have felt, and probably with somewhat more exactness. He continued with her the whole time of her writing, to assist her with his penknife or his orthography, as either were wanted; and added to these attentions a kindness to her brother which delighted her beyond all the rest. He wrote with his own hand his love to his cousin William, and sent him half a guinea under the seal. And despite his previous threat, no ancient feline statuette was blessedly included.
Fanny’s feelings on the occasion were such as she believed herself incapable of expressing. But her countenance and a few artless words fully conveyed all their gratitude and delight, and her cousin began to find her an interesting object. He talked to her more, and, from all that she said, was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right. And he could perceive her to be further entitled to attention by great sensibility of her situation, and great timidity.
In the abrupt revelation of the Curse, he had never knowingly given her pain, but he now felt that she required more positive kindness not to mention a better explanation. And with that view Edmund endeavoured to lessen her fears, despite all things. He gave her a great deal of good advice as to avoiding Aunt Norris, treading with care around Lady Bertram’s archeological items, playing with Maria and Julia, and being as merry as possible despite strange noises in the night.
From this day Fanny grew more comfortable. She felt that she had a friend, and the kindness of her cousin Edmund gave her better spirits with everybody else. The place, despite its unraveling secrets and strangeness became less strange, and the people less formidable—even the tediously nagging fanged ones, even during a full moon. And if there were some amongst them whom she could not cease to fear, she began at least to know their ways, and to catch the best manner of conforming to them. He own little rusticities and awkwardnesses necessarily wore away, and she was no longer materially afraid to appear before her uncle, nor did her aunt Norris’s howlish voice make her start too much.
To her cousins she became occasionally an acceptable companion. Though unworthy, from inferiority of age and strength, to be their constant associate, their pleasures and schemes were sometimes of a nature to make a third very useful, especially when that third was of an obliging, yielding temper. They had to admit—when their aunt inquired into her faults, or their brother Edmund urged her claims to their kindness—that “Fanny was good-natured enough.”
Edmund was uniformly kind himself; and Fanny had nothing worse to endure on the part of Tom than that sort of merriment which a young man of seventeen will always think fair with a child of ten. He was just entering into life, full of spirits, and with all the liberal dispositions of an eldest son, who feels born only for expense and enjoyment. His kindness to his little cousin was consistent with his situation and rights: he made her some very pretty presents, and laughed at her.
As her appearance and spirits improved, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris thought with greater satisfaction of their benevolent plan. It was pretty soon decided that, though far from clever, she showed a tractable disposition, and seemed likely to give them little trouble.
A mean opinion of her abilities was not confined to them. Fanny could read, work, and write, but she had been taught nothing more. As her cousins found her ignorant of many things with which they had been long familiar, they thought her prodigiously stupid, and for the first two or three weeks were continually bringing some fresh report of it into the drawing-room. “Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor or the Great Pyramid of Giza—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons and burial chamber paint!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”
“My dear,” their considerate aunt would reply, “it is very bad, but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself.”
“But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant!—Do you know, we asked her last night which way she would go to get to Ireland; and she said, she should cross to the Isle of Wight. She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it the Island, as if there were no other island in the world. I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the pharaohs of Egypt, with the dates of their accession, order of their Dynasties, and most of the principal events of their reigns!”
“Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers. And, yes—Egypt! All of it, from head to toe, Lower and Upper, ancient to the beginning of time, filled with the overflowing fertility of the Nile, with kings and pharaohs and princes and princesses and priests and hieroglyphics and strange gravesites and mummification—”
“Very true indeed, my dears, but you are blessed with wonderful memories, exposed to Egypt on a daily basis, thanks to my dearest sister and her—tendre, and your poor cousin has probably none at all. There is a vast deal of difference in memories, as well as in everything else, and therefore you must make allowance for your cousin, and pity her deficiency. And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen. But I must tell you another thing of Fanny, so odd and so stupid and tedious. Do you know, she says she does not want to learn either music or drawing? She says she’d rather decipher hieroglyphics!”
“To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shows a great want of genius and emulation. But, all things considered, I do not know whether it is not as well that it should be so, for, though you know (owing to me) your papa and mama are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference.”
Such were the counsels by which Mrs. Norris assisted to form her nieces’ minds. It is not very surprising that, with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity and humility. In everything but disposition they were admirably taught. Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting; he was not outwardly affectionate—the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him.
To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, going through newly arrived boxes and cataloguing her new treasures, doing some long piece of needlework with Egyptian patterns and motifs, thinking more of her pug and her overflowing attic than her children, but very indulgent to the latter when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by distinguished Egyptologists, Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister.
Had she possessed greater leisure for the service of her girls, she would still have supposed it unnecessary, for they were under the care of a governess, with proper masters, and could want nothing more. As for Fanny’s being stupid at learning, she could only say “it was very unlucky, but some people were stupid, and Fanny must take more pains: she did not know what else was to be done; and, except her being so dull, she saw no harm in the poor little thing, and always found her very handy and quick in carrying messages, and fetching whatever burial implement she required.”
Fanny, with all her faults of ignorance and timidity, was fixed at Mansfield Park, and, learning to transfer in its favour much of her attachment to her former home, grew up there not unhappily among her cousins. There was no positive ill-nature in Maria or Julia; and though Fanny was often mortified by their treatment of her, she thought too lowly of her own claims to feel injured by it.
From about the time of her entering the family, Lady Bertram, in consequence of her peculiar ill-health, a whiff of supernatural possession, and a great deal of indolence, gave up the house in town (which she used to occupy every spring), and remained wholly in the country, leaving Sir Thomas to attend his duty in Parliament, with whatever increase or diminution of comfort might arise from her absence. In the country, therefore, the Miss Bertrams continued to exercise their memories with hieroglyphics, practise their duets, ignore the drawing room museum clutter, and grow tall and womanly.
Their father saw them becoming in person, manner, and accomplishments, everything that could satisfy his anxiety. His eldest son was careless and extravagant, and had already given him much uneasiness with decidedly idiotic schemes; but his other children promised him nothing but good. His daughters, he felt, while they retained the name of Bertram, must be giving it new grace, and in quitting it, he trusted, would extend its respectable alliances. And the character of Edmund, his strong good sense and uprightness of mind, bid most fairly for utility, honour, and happiness to himself and all his connexions. He was to be a clergyman.
“My dear cousin Fanny,” Edmund took her aside at one point, to better explain his future position, “as you recall, our discussion of the—ahem—early days, when I mentioned a certain Curse. I had, in that day, used the word Wonder alongside the word Abomination. And that is because my firmness of faith and my purpose in life have been clarified and ultimately decided for me, and I knew even then what I must do—I must serve God with all my heart, and in that service I will find a way to rid my mother, my family, all of Mansfield Park, of this evil that is secretly upon us, leeching away my mother’s strength and will to live, my brother’s wits and common sense, and making my sisters shallow and insensitive to the plight of yourself and so many others. As a member of God’s Holy Clergy, in His Great Name, I shall overcome, and I shall Exorcise the devil from this house. Pray, tell no one of this, of my true reasons, Fanny, I beg you. Nay, I know I need not beg, no need to ask, for your heart is true and you feel with all of your being, and you know what must be done indeed.”
“I understand, Edmund,” she replied. And then she took a deep breath, and with all her resolve and inner strength, and because she had looked into his dear eyes, she offered: “If you must have assistance in this, you can count on me, every day, you know.”
“I know.” Edmund leaned forward and placed his large warm hands around her own trembling fingers—for a moment, only. And then he stepped away.
And that instant Fanny would not forget.
In the meantime, amid the cares and complacency of his own children, Sir Thomas did not forget to do what he could for the children of Mrs. Price. He assisted her liberally in the education and disposal of her sons as they became old enough for a determinate pursuit. And Fanny, though separated from her family, had the truest satisfaction in hearing of any kindness towards them, or of any improvement in their situation or conduct.
Once only, in the course of many years, had she the happiness of being with William. Of the rest she saw nothing—nobody seemed to think of her ever going amongst them again, even for a visit, nobody at home seemed to want her. But William, determining, soon after her removal, to be a sailor, was invited to spend a week with his sister in Northamptonshire before he went to sea. Their eager affection in meeting, their exquisite delight in being together, their hours of happy mirth, and moments of serious conference, may be imagined; as well as the sanguine views and spirits of the boy even to the last, and the misery of the girl when he left her, loaded with well wishes and gifts of small concealed Egyptian trinkets—as Sir Thomas would have it, “for good luck.” Luckily the visit happened in the Christmas holidays, when the household was a bit agitated in particular, and she could directly look for comfort to her cousin Edmund. He told her such charming things of what William was to do, and be hereafter, in consequence of his profession, as made her admit that the separation might have some use.
Edmund’s friendship never failed her: his leaving Eton for Oxford did not change in his kind dispositions, and only afforded more frequent opportunities of proving them. Without any display of doing more than the rest, or any fear of doing too much, he was always true to Fanny’s interests, and considerate of her feelings, making her good qualities understood and more apparent; giving her advice, consolation, and encouragement, as well as discussing—in somewhat delightful clandestine moments that Fanny came to treasure—various aspects of the family Curse.
Kept back as she was by everybody else, his single support could not bring her forward. But his attentions were of the highest importance in improving her mind. He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself. Miss Lee taught her French and introductory hieroglyphics, and heard her read the daily portion of history. But Edmund recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours and incidentally referenced Exorcisms. He encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment. He made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.
In return for such services she loved him better than anybody in the world except William—her heart was divided between the two.
he first event of any importance in the family was the death of Mr. Norris—some suggested it was due to a dire and unfortunate infection resulting from a wild animal bite—which happened when Fanny was about fifteen, and necessarily introduced changes. Mrs. Norris, on quitting the Parsonage, removed first to the Park, and afterwards to a small house of Sir Thomas’s in the village. She consoled herself for the loss of her husband by deciding she could do very well without him; and for her reduction of income by the evident necessity of stricter economy.
The living was hereafter for Edmund. Had his uncle died a few years sooner, it would have been duly given to some friend to hold till he were old enough for orders. But Tom’s extravagance and folly had been so great as to render a different disposal of the next presentation necessary, and the younger brother must help to pay for the pleasures of the elder.
There was another family living actually held for Edmund. But though it eased Sir Thomas’s conscience, he could not but feel it to be an act of injustice, and he earnestly tried to impress his eldest son with the same conviction, in the hope of its producing a better effect.
“I blush for you, Tom,” said he, in his most dignified manner; “I trust you pity you brother. You have robbed Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his, by wagering to raise miniature ponies. After they grew to be full size horses, you sold them back for half their initial price and purchased a large mechanical object for which I have no name, that is at present sitting behind the stables and being used by hens as a roost. Next, there were the ostrich-versus-man jumping wagers, the rare duck supposedly from Peking but really from Brighton—ah, how you loved that duck, until it flew in your mother’s face with murderous intent. . . . The expedition to the Welsh moors in search of spotted banshees! You kept a mermaid secreted away in a tub and she turned out to be a large rotted log dressed in petticoats. Need I go on? It may hereafter be in my power, or in yours, to procure Edmund better preferment. But it must not be forgotten that nothing can be adequate recompense for the advantage which he is now obliged to forego through the urgency of your moronic debts.”
Tom listened with some shame and some sorrow. But escaping as quickly as possible, he soon, with cheerful selfishness reflected, firstly, that he had not been half so much in debt as some of his friends (one of whom, a Mr. Yates, had bought a small rowboat that he was told was Noah’s Ark—but even Tom knew that was daft; Noah’s Ark had to be at least as large as a sloop); secondly, look what Her Ladyship his own mother and her extravagant archeological eccentricities was doing to the family estate; thirdly, that his father had made a most tiresome piece of work of it; and, finally, that the future incumbent, whoever he might be, would, in all probability, die very soon.
On Mr. Norris’s death the presentation became the right of a Dr. Grant, who came consequently to reside at Mansfield; and on proving to be a hearty man of forty-five, seemed likely to disappoint Mr. Bertram’s calculations. But “no, he was a short-necked, apoplectic sort of fellow, and, plied well with good things, would soon pop off.”
Dr. Grant had a wife about fifteen years his junior, but no children; and they entered the neighbourhood as very respectable, agreeable people.
The time was now come when Sir Thomas expected his sister-in-law to claim her share in their niece. The change in Mrs. Norris’s situation, and the improvement in Fanny’s age, seemed to do away any former objection to their living together. And as his own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, and of course, the dear wife’s chronic pursuit of Egyptology, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved from the expense of her support, and the obligation of her future provision. He mentioned this to his wife; with Fanny present, and Lady Bertram calmly observed to her, “So, Fanny, you are going to leave us, and live with my sister. How shall you like it?”
Fanny was too much surprised to do more than repeat her aunt’s words, “Going to leave you?”
“Yes, my dear; why should you be astonished? You have been five years with us, and my sister always meant to take you when Mr. Norris died. But you must come up and help me with the artifact cataloguing and tack on my patterns all the same.”
The news was as disagreeable to Fanny as it had been unexpected. She had never received kindness from her aunt Norris, and could not love her.
“I shall be very sorry to go away,” said she, with a faltering voice.
“Yes, I dare say you will; that’s natural enough. I suppose you have had as little to vex you since you came into this house as any creature in the world.”
“I hope I am not ungrateful, aunt,” said Fanny modestly.
“No, my dear; I hope not. I have always found you a very good girl. Very good at polishing gold surfaces, too. And you always bring me the proper adze and knife when I am practicing ritual on poultry.”
“And am I never to live here again?”
“Never, my dear; but you are sure of a comfortable home. It can make very little difference to you, whether you are in one house or the other.”
Fanny left the room with a very sorrowful heart; she could feel the difference to be rather approaching the size of the Nile Delta during the fertile flood season. And the possibility of living with her aunt inspired dread rather than satisfaction. As soon as she met with Edmund she told him her distress.
“Cousin,” said she, “something is going to happen which I do not like at all; and though you have often persuaded me into being reconciled to things that I disliked at first, you will not be able to do it now. I am going to live entirely with my aunt Norris.”
“Yes; my aunt Bertram has just told me so. It is quite settled. I am to leave Mansfield Park, and go to the White House, I suppose, as soon as she is removed there.”
“Well, Fanny, and if the plan were not unpleasant to you, I should call it an excellent one.”
“It has everything else in its favour. My aunt is acting like a sensible woman in wishing for you. She is choosing a friend and companion exactly where she ought, and I am glad her love of money does not interfere. You will be what you ought to be to her. I hope it does not distress you very much, Fanny?”
“Indeed it does: I cannot like it. I love this house and everything in it—no matter how peculiar or Cursed—even the Egypt: I shall love nothing there. You know how uncomfortable I feel with her.”
“I can say nothing for her manner to you as a child; but it was the same with us all, or nearly so. She never knew how to be pleasant to children, even before the inception of the Unholy affliction. But you are now of an age to be treated better. I think she is behaving better already. And when you are her only companion, you must be important to her. Just be sure to mark the calendar for the full moons and lock yourself in tightly at night. I dare say no harm shall occur.”
“I can never be important to any one. And oh, how is one to endure the wolfish thing?”
“What is to prevent you?”
“Everything. My situation, my foolishness and awkwardness. My own lack of sharpened incisors.”
“As to your foolishness and awkwardness, my dear Fanny, believe me, you never have a shadow of either, but in using the words so improperly. There is no reason in the world why you should not be important where you are known. You have good sense, a sweet temper, and a grateful heart. I do not know any better qualifications for a friend and companion, especially one as gentle-toothed as you.”
“You are too kind,” said Fanny, colouring at such praise; “how shall I ever thank you as I ought, for thinking so well of me? Oh! cousin, if I am to go away, I shall remember your goodness to the last moment of my life. Even as my aunt is tearing me into shreds, I will continue to think well and gloriously of you.”
“Why, indeed, Fanny, I should hope to be remembered at such a distance as the White House, but I beg you, without the sanguinity. You speak as if you were going two hundred miles off instead of only across the park. But you will belong to us almost as much as ever. The two families will be meeting every day in the year. The only difference will be that, living with your aunt, you will necessarily be brought forward as you ought to be. Here there are too many whom you can hide behind; but with her you will be forced to speak for yourself.”
“Rather you mean I will be forced to forage the countryside. Oh! Do not say so.”
“I must say it, and say it with pleasure. No! That is—not the countryside! Mrs. Norris is much better fitted than my mother for having the charge of you now. Except for those few nights a month, she is of a temper to do a great deal for anybody she really interests herself about, and she will force you to do justice to your natural powers.”
“She will corner me one of those few nights and take my head right off! Surely there’s some truth to the rumors as to what really happened to poor Mr. Norris!”
“Oh, fie, cousin! she’ll do no such thing. She takes only field and garden vermin of the lesser variety, no more. Besides, you wear the silver Lord’s cross that I’ve given you, to ensure safety.”
Fanny sighed, thinking how little good it did to the departed Mr. Norris, who was undoubtedly vermined, to put it delicately, despite being surrounded as he was with all things Godly, and said, “I cannot see things as you do; but I ought to believe you to be right rather than myself, and I am very much obliged to you for trying to reconcile me to what must be. If I could suppose my aunt really to care for me, it would be delightful to feel myself of consequence to anybody. Here, I know, I am of none, and yet I love the place so well.”
“The place, Fanny, is what you will not quit, though you quit the house. Indeed, as you are one of the family, the Curse transforms to a Blessing of sorts, and reaches us all and will keep you bound and localized as surely as anything. You will have as free a command of the park and gardens as ever. You will still witness the daily exotic crates delivery by post at the gates. Even your constant little heart need not take fright at such a nominal change. You will have the same walks to frequent, the same library to choose from, the same crocodile and cat statuary and clay tablets to avoid smashing at every turn, the same people to look at, the same horse to ride.”
“Very true. Yes, dear old grey pony! So much like a tiny camel, says my aunt, your mother, but I never quite saw that—Ah! cousin, when I remember how much I used to dread riding, what terrors it gave me to hear it talked of as likely to do me good, and then think of the kind pains you took to persuade me out of my fears, and convince me that I should like it after a little while, and feel how right you proved to be, I am inclined to hope you may always prophesy as well.”
“Indeed! Did anyone ever mention, you now ride like an Amazon, cousin? Splendid seat! And I am quite convinced that your being with Mrs. Norris will be as good for your mind as riding has been for your health, and as much for your ultimate happiness too.”
So ended their discourse, which might as well have been spared. For Mrs. Norris had not the smallest intention of taking Fanny. It had never occurred to her but as a thing to be carefully avoided. To prevent its being expected, she had fixed on the smallest habitation which could rank as genteel among the buildings of Mansfield parish, the White House being only just large enough to receive herself and her servants, and allow a spare room for a friend (not to forget, a place to lock herself up during the full moon, for the thing which shall not be spoken of). The spare rooms at the Parsonage had never been wanted, but the absolute necessity of a spare room for a “friend” was now never forgotten. Not all her precautions, however, could save her from being suspected of something better. Perhaps, her very display of the importance of a spare room might have misled Sir Thomas to suppose it really intended for Fanny. Lady Bertram soon brought the matter to a certainty by carelessly observing to Mrs. Norris—
“I think, sister, we need not keep Miss Lee any longer, when Fanny goes to live with you.”
Mrs. Norris almost started. “Live with me, dear Lady Bertram! what do you mean?”
“Is she not to live with you? I thought you had settled it with Sir Thomas.”
“Me! never. I never spoke a syllable about it to Sir Thomas, nor he to me. Fanny live with me! Good heaven! what could I do with Fanny? Me! a poor, helpless, forlorn widow, unfit for anything, my spirits quite broke down; what could I do with a girl of fifteen? the very age to need most attention and care, and put the cheerfullest spirits to the test! Sir Thomas could not seriously expect such a thing! How came Sir Thomas to speak to you about it?”
“Indeed, I do not know. I suppose he thought it best.”
“But what did he say? He could not say he wished me to take Fanny. I am sure in his heart he could not.”
“No; he only said he thought it very likely; and I thought so too. We both thought it would be a comfort to you. But if you do not like it, there is no more to be said. She is no encumbrance here.”
“Dear sister, if you consider my unhappy state, how can she be any comfort to me? Here am I, a poor desolate widow—” Mrs. Norris went on at length, finishing with: “If I could wish it for my own sake, I would not do so unjust a thing by the poor girl. She is in good hands. I must struggle through my sorrows and difficulties as I can.”
“Then you will not mind living by yourself quite alone? Particularly considering your—ahem—delicate and chronic monthly condition?”
“Lady Bertram, I do not complain. I know I cannot live as I have done, but I must retrench where I can—” (after much more of this, Lady Bertram started to nod off) “—to be able to lay by a little at the end of the year.”
“I dare say you will,” said Lady Bertram, jolting awake.
. “My object, Lady Bertram, is to be of use to those that come after me. It is for your children’s good that I wish to be richer. I have nobody else to care for, but I should be very glad to think I could leave a little trifle among them.”
“You are very good, but do not trouble yourself about them. They are sure of being well provided for. Sir Thomas will take care of that.”
“Why, you know, Sir Thomas’s means will be rather reduced if the Antigua estate is to make such poor returns.”
“Oh! that will soon be settled. Sir Thomas has been writing about it, I know. And there is the—ahem—” Lady Bertram went silent, thinking of what was up in the attic—
“Well,” said Mrs. Norris, moving to go, “I can only say that my sole desire is to be of use to your family. If Sir Thomas should ever speak again about my taking Fanny, you might say that my health and spirits put it quite out of the question. Besides, I really have no bed to give her, for I must keep a spare room for a friend.”
Lady Bertram repeated enough of this conversation to convince her husband how much he had mistaken his sister-in-law’s views. From that moment Mrs. Norris was perfectly safe from all expectation. He could not but wonder at her refusing to do anything for a niece whom she had been so forward to adopt. But he grew reconciled to being better able to provide for Fanny himself.
Fanny soon learnt how unnecessary her fears had been. Her resulting happiness conveyed much consolation to Edmund on her behalf. Mrs. Norris took possession of the White House, its vermin soon fled, the Grants arrived at the Parsonage, and these events over, everything at Mansfield went on for some time as usual.
We are come, dear Reader, very close to the beginning of the introduction of a certain much anticipated subject—namely, mummies—close but not quite there, so patience, all in due course—
The Grants, disposed to be friendly and sociable, gave great satisfaction among their new acquaintance. They had their faults, and Mrs. Norris soon found them out. The Doctor was very fond of eating, and would have a good dinner every day. And Mrs. Grant, instead of contriving to gratify him at little expense, gave her cook as high wages as they did at Mansfield Park, and was scarcely ever seen in her offices. Mrs. Norris could not speak with any temper of such grievances, nor of the quantity of butter and eggs that were regularly consumed in the house. “Nobody loved plenty and hospitality more than herself; the Parsonage had never been wanting in comforts of any sort, had never borne a bad character in her time, but this was truly incomprehensible. A fine lady in a country parsonage was quite out of place. Her store-room might have been good enough for Mrs. Grant. Inquiries produced that Mrs. Grant never had more than five thousand pounds.”
Lady Bertram listened without much interest to this sort of invective. Fully submerged in Ancient mysteries and indeed drowning in Egyptology, she only felt all the injuries of beauty in Mrs. Grant’s being so well settled in life without being handsome, and expressed her astonishment on that point almost as often as Mrs. Norris discussed the other.
These opinions had been hardly in place a year before another event arose of great importance in the family. Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs, and he took his eldest son with him, in the hope of detaching him from some bad connexions at home, and from all further thoughts of the Brighton Duck (of which Tom still mused fondly). They left England with the probability of being nearly a twelvemonth absent.
This event was the momentous Ancient Sign that Lady Bertram—and indeed a certain ancient desiccated pharaoh—was waiting for.
But first—the necessity of this remote travel and its effect upon his son, reconciled Sir Thomas to quitting the rest of his family, and of leaving his daughters to the direction of others at their present most interesting time of life. He could not think Lady Bertram quite equal to supply his place with them, or rather, to perform what should have been her own; but, in Mrs. Norris’s watchful attention, and in Edmund’s judgment, he had sufficient confidence to make him go without fears for their conduct.
Little did Sir Thomas know that Egypt will take his absence to manifest full force in Mansfield Park. . . .
Lady Bertram did not at all like to have her husband leave her, on some fundamental affectionate level of her psyche. But, being the Conduit—at long last—for Ancient Egyptian Deity, she was beyond thrilled; she was enraptured.
She was not disturbed by any alarm for his safety, or solicitude for his comfort, being one of those persons who think nothing can be dangerous, or difficult, or fatiguing to anybody but themselves. And she reveled in the new freedom to finally Act.
And here it can be said, at last:—those crates, those endless shipments from the East, those exotic boxes that arrived on a daily basis for so many years, that were greeted with such obsessive delight by Lady Bertram—these were not merely artifacts, cat and crocodile-headed statues, tablets, jars, trinkets, and rolls of papyrus.
They were mummies.
Boxes and boxes upon crates of whole embalmed, mummified long-dead Egyptians, of all ranks and excavations; whole bodies and pieces and organ parts in some cases bound in linen, dried with salt and natron, soaked in perfumed oils, and always, a shadow of the hot wind blowing sand and a brilliant sun-lit sky of the land of Amen-Ra. . . .
The mummies, packed firmly in their crates, were stored everywhere on the property, filling the attics to overflowing, in spare rooms, in corridors, stairwells, in the cellars, in the sheds, kitchens, everywhere.
And there were enough of them to form a regiment, a series of squadrons; nay, a whole army.
An army of mummies.
You might ask, gentle Reader, how this firecracker-barrel of a disaster-waiting-to-happen came about? how a proper high-ranking British aristocrat family and respectable grand estate got embroiled in such a peculiar Cursed, dreadful, and dangerous situation?
Well indeed, you might ask. And the answer to this mystery is:—
There was among them one mummy, or rather, a Mummy, the grandest of them all, in a splendid golden sarcophagus, stored in the little room right next to Fanny’s tiny bedroom. It had been the very first of the many acquisitions, and has been in fact the only item that Lady Bertram did not order and pursue herself. A distinguished Egyptologist, with a slew of references, including a glowing letter from her absolute authority of authorities, Georg Ebers, had asked if he could take up her one-time casual and kind offer of storage in order to temporarily house a splendid find destined for the collection of the British Museum, that was to be sorted and catalogued in due time, but for the moment it needed a discreet and clandestine place to stay, and what lovelier than the loveliest Mansfield Park? He was in the neighborhood, one could see, and it was terribly obliging of Her Ladyship to offer generous hospitality to the venerable bit of the Ancient Past in her very own safe and dry and secure attic.
Charmed and flattered into immediate acquiescence, Lady Bertram agreed. The shipment of a great crate followed. It was dutifully taken upstairs. The Egyptologist was wined and dined, and then made his excuses and soon disappeared, with an abundance of promises of contacting her as soon as progress was made with the museum bureaucracy, at which point the precious find would be relocated to its final destination. But—that was the last they heard of the Egyptologist.
And thus the Mummy came to inhabit Mansfield Park.
And with it came the Curse.
Lady Bertram discovered, in a stash of items belonging with the sarcophagus, a particular lovely amulet. She innocently placed it around her neck and became mesmerized, enthralled by the emanations coming from the royal undead creature bound in precious rotting linen underneath the ancient layers of gold—sleeping and dreaming and calling out to her in its own dreams, calling for Egypt. All things Egypt. From grand pyramids to the smallest shrunken cat mummy. The pharaoh’s otherworldly longing manifested full force in the sensitive lady and translated into her conscious daily obsession. Lady Bertram started to make more and more purchases of imported Egyptian items; at first a quite charming and innocent hobby, then more and more peculiar, until even Sir Thomas could see something was amiss—with his wife, he thought.
Little did Sir Thomas know. . . .
The subtle influence of the Mummy grew and grew. With time, as it dreamed of its ancient beloved land, and the house came to be filled with the very items that surrounded him three thousand years ago, it began to call upon others of its kind, and hence, more crates, more deliveries, more other mummies. A certain other minor amulet liberated from its supernaturally protected case unleashed a rather unrelated local beast spirit—local to Britain and of the lupine variety—which immediately took possession of the first unoccupied human being who happened to be Mrs. Norris, creeping up the stairs to the attic where Lady Bertram (occupied by the Mummy’s powerful influence and therefore not an option herself) stood mesmerized, opening and activating items at random, including that fateful amulet.
At the time of our narrative, when Fanny was witness to the departure of Sir Thomas to take care of business in Antigua, the situation with the mummies and the grand Mummy was ripe, shall we say—ripe for an explosion of sorts.
The household was being left to their own devices. The Miss Bertrams were much to be pitied on the occasion: not for their sorrow, but for their want of it. Their father was no object of love to them; he had never seemed the friend of their pleasures, and his absence was unhappily most welcome. They were relieved by it from all restraint; and without aiming at one gratification that would probably have been forbidden by Sir Thomas, they felt themselves immediately at their own disposal, and to have every indulgence within their reach.
Fanny’s unconscious relief was quite equal to her cousins’. But a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve. “Sir Thomas, who had done so much for her and her brothers, and who was gone perhaps never to return! that she should see him go without a tear! a shameful insensibility.”
He had said to her, moreover, on the very last morning, that he hoped she might see William again in the course of the ensuing winter, and had charged her to write and invite him to Mansfield as soon as the squadron to which he belonged was in England. “This was so thoughtful and kind!”
Had he but smiled upon her, and called her “my dear Fanny,” every former frown or cold address might have been forgotten. But he had ended his speech in a way to sink her in sad mortification, by adding, “If William does come to Mansfield, I hope you convince him that your years here have not been spent entirely without improvement. Though, I fear, he must find his sister at sixteen in some respects too much like his sister at ten.”
She cried bitterly over this reflection when her uncle was gone; and her cousins, on seeing her with red eyes, set her down as a hypocrite.
 An ancient metal thing. Seriously, thou needst google it.
 In fact, detained on an extensive Dig in the Valley of the Kings, the poor Egyptologist by the name of J—— had fallen through a secret underground chamber into a pit of snakes and scorpions, miraculously escaped unscathed but badly frightened, took a brief sabbatical to recover his composure, and was not heard of again for at least a decade.
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