Our Austen: Fan Fiction in the Classroom
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A Cautionary Tale
AnneMarie Fix and Joanna Schoonvelde
Some twenty years hence, Miss Fanny Price, with not a pound to her name, had the good fortune to stand at the altar with her cousin Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park. After the official business of the sober wedding had been fulfilled, the young couple settled comfortably at the parsonage, which was to be their home for the years to come. Their marriage was indeed a pleasant one, and being blessed by a healthy increase of their family, the couple had very little to wish for other than the silent hope that their income might increase at the same rate as the number dependant on it. Little needs to be said about the majority of their children, as they were for the most part of a quiet disposition, strong in health, and easily directed by their parents’ loving hands.
However, there was one who did stand out, although as often happens the parents failed to notice her until the events that caused her to rise above the general perception were beyond repair. She was the Bertram’s third daughter and named after her mother. Having been a sickly little thing until the age of ten, and having a mother whose frailty of health was much worsened by her frequent laying-in and a father who was quite busy running the parsonage, she was often left to the care of her widowed aunt. Losing her husband and infant to a fever around the time of young Fanny’s birth had caused Aunt Julia to dote on the girl. Though doubtless well intentioned, the merit of this singling out remains questionable. Apart from a rather restless disposition, one of the first signs of young Fanny’s overindulgence was her determined wish to have her name changed to that of Ophelia. The wish was quite happily complied with by her aunt, and even her uncle Sir Tom Bertram was secretly amused by the idea of the offspring of such docile parents being a rather wilful child.
Having overcome her initial frailty Fanny, or Ophelia as she was now called by all but her father and mother, grew up into a resilient child of fourteen springs. She had a healthy complexion, a comely figure, and soft hair that she wore falling down in long cascades of curls dyed to a dark, almost black red, a trick she had learned from her aunt. Ophelia’s accomplishments were perfectly suitable for a girl of her age and station; she had a sweet voice and a great passion for reading, though her interests were such that they could not be satiated by her parents’ library. Luckily for her, her uncle and aunt were happy to satisfy her fancies with books that were more to her taste, although her father would have them taken from her whenever they were found lying about in the bedroom she shared with her two older sisters. However, Ophelia was not easily thwarted in her desires, and soon she found other ways to do as she pleased without running the risk of having to listen to her father’s lengthy sermons on the proper behavior of young women.
One of the ways in which Ophelia would shirk the parental yoke was her proposal of a weekly visit to her grandmother who, after the loss of her husband had little social interaction. This proposal was met with enthusiasm on the part of her father, though Ophelia’s mother did feebly voice the possibility of some negative aspects of such visits. She consented on the condition that her daughter did not get behind on her charity sewing and worsted work. So it came to be that on Wednesday mornings Ophelia, accompanied by her aunt, would go to visit her grandmother at Mansfield Park. A great many of these visits occurred, for they were not unpleasant to the receiving party who dearly felt the loss of her most recent pug. On such visits Ophelia would first kiss her grandmother and then settle in the library, though she would first hand her charity work basket to one of the maids who Ophelia was sure would be very glad to get some sitting-down work. She would peruse any and all books that caught her fancy and be quite contented until the time came for their departure. Then she would collect her work basket from the maid, kiss her grandmother goodbye and return to the parsonage to the praises of her mother on how well she had improved her tension or the clever use of a double seam.
On one such visit, when Ophelia had only just settled down to try some pages of The Wanderer, she heard a noise in the hall. It appeared that her uncle had returned from London and had brought along a company of his very dearest friends for a visit to Mansfield Park. With all the hustle and bustle that such a company would necessarily produce, Ophelia was confident that she would have enough time to finish the pages and make sure that she was presentable. She was perfectly aware that she cut a remarkable figure with her now dark hair and sparkling green eyes. She had learned from her aunt’s magazines that a pale complexion was quite en vogue in London and she wished her cheeks would be a bit less rosy, though the desired effect might surely be enhanced by the charcoal colored silk of the dress her aunt had given her but two weeks ago. Presently the maid came in to inform her that she was expected in the parlor. Excited, though outwardly composed, Ophelia followed the servant.
That afternoon Ophelia went home with a glad heart. Not only had she enjoyed herself extremely in the attentions her uncle and his friends bestowed upon her, but her uncle had asked her to inform her parents that they were invited to dinner at Mansfield Park that very evening, and she had been given the assurance that, since it was after all only a family dinner, the invitation extended to include her as well. She knew that there was a good chance of finding her father well disposed towards attending the dinner, for he was always happy to have his brother return from his many trips, as he fretted that Sir Tom might fall back into his old habits. Ophelia was not supposed to know about this, but she had heard from her aunt that her uncle had been quite a character in his younger years. She snickered; it was hard to imagine Uncle Tom as a young man, though according to her aunt he had been quite a sight before his illness. Of course, he was such an amiable man that he was still a pleasure to be around and judging from the many wonderful friends gathered around him now he must be well liked in society.
“What are you smiling at!?” Ophelia’s musings were disturbed by the harsh voice of her eldest sister Mary. “Nothing,” she replied “just that I have been invited to the dinner at the park, and you haven’t.” “Papa will never let you go, not when I tell him about that absolutely horrid book under your pillow,” Mary said. “You wouldn’t! I’ll lop your hair off in your sleep if you do!” “I’ll not tell if you’ll say to papa that I should come too. You know that he’ll be much more likely to let the two of us go.” “Oh, all right I’ll ask,” said Ophelia, “but you know I cannot make any promise on his answer, not with mother’s headaches. I’ll bet father will make you nurse her again!”
Regretfully Mrs. Bertram was too indisposed to attend, but Edmund was accompanied by Ophelia and Mary, the latter now in a contemplative state of mind since she was of the proper age to consider her future and had many incentives to do so. The dinner proved to be everything it ought when there are gentlemen present and young moderately accomplished ladies to entertain them. Mary, having calculated her chances of winning one of the men by virtue of her voice, decided against such an enterprise and sat down at the pianoforte to display her talents, as well as the straightness of her figure and the slender flow of her arms. This left Ophelia with nothing to do but to take up the vocals, though this in no way prevented her from noticing that their performance was attracting the attention of one of the gentlemen in particular.
His name was Mr. Gordon, one of the younger acquaintances of Sir Tom, though younger in this context being no more than ten years his junior. He was a handsome man, as Aunt Julia was to assure the two girls the next morning, with dark hair and dark eyes “and not a strand of gray to be seen!” Indeed, Ophelia had been quite satisfied to note that she was the focus of his attentions the whole evening, since he sat next to her at the table and had asked her many questions such as whether she liked to dance or read and whether she had any favorite walks in the neighborhood. Her father, having overheard this last question, replied that indeed it was very pleasant to walk in the area around the parsonage. Since he must now regretfully return his two daughters to that very place, “for indeed it is quite late for two so young,” he would like to invite the whole party to join his family after service that Sunday and enjoy the country air. This plan was readily accepted by Sir Tom and his friends as being just the thing to do on a pleasant summer day and so the sisters were not too much aggrieved by their necessary departure which to them, of course, had come far too soon.
A church service was one of the few things capable of dampening Ophelia’s spirits. She dreaded having to sit still and look demure, and worse still, the endless repetition that would naturally occur when the giver of the weekly sermon is also the one who presides over the daily prayer at home. She was therefore quite proud of herself to have discovered a way in which she could make this dreaded time more bearable. She had loosened the pages of her book of prayers and would slip whatever novel she might be reading at the time in between the empty cover. Provided that she sat a little away from her siblings, none would be the wiser. In fact she had been praised on her good behavior being an example for all the fidgeting children. “Such excellence in character!” Today though, the little church was much fuller than usual with all the gentlemen come to attend their friend’s brother’s sermon. Engrossed in a copy of The Metamorphosis her uncle had brought her from London, Ophelia did not notice that Mr. Gordon had come to sit behind her until she heard him whisper, “And what prayer would that be, little miss?” Mortified and with scarlet cheeks Ophelia ducked down to hide her surprise. She shut her book as softly as she could and sat staring down for the rest of the sermon.
Fortunately for her, the service was soon concluded and she hoped that the proposed walk would help her compose herself somewhat. However, the exercise did nothing of the sort for not only was the weather uncommonly hot for the time of the year, but barely had she left the relative shelter of the church when Mr. Gordon came up to her and offered her his arm. She looked around to see if any of her family were close by and was satisfied to see that her father and mother were held back by some poor widow or other, though her uncle was close by enough for propriety’s sake. “Well, little Miss, that was quite a trick,” said Mr. Gordon. “Are not the daughters of the parson supposed to be perfectly docile creatures, an example to all?” “Pha,” muttered Ophelia, “’tis not fair to have lecture follow sermon.” “You speak of lecture where none is intended. I was merely commenting on what one might assume would be a given,” replied Mr. Gordon. “Still, I would not have you read such damnable novels, they sorely damage the intellect. Here, let me present you with something more . . . educational in nature” he said, and carefully passed her a small book. “Philosophy?” Ophelia skimmed the title, barely containing her dismay. “Who wrote it?” “A certain marquis who has gotten quite a name for himself,” replied Mr. Gordon. “Do not be so quick in judgment; I am sure you shall find it interesting. But now I must beg my leave, your uncle is returning to his house and I must accompany him.”
The following week was a happy one with many visits to Mansfield Park, though Ophelia was not allowed to go alone but had to be accompanied by Mary. Mary had after a few days selected her object of attention in the form of a younger gentleman, a second son but still worth three thousand a year, so she was hardly any trouble. Ophelia enjoyed the frequent and titillating conversations with Mr. Gordon, especially after she had discovered that the book he had given her had not at all been what she had expected. Indeed, her ears tingled at the thought of what philosophies she had read! Tonight though, the conversation had taken a different turn. It appeared that Mr. Gordon had to be leaving soon, for there were accounts to be settled in France, which had suffered greatly from recent events. “For sure,” he said, “the only good thing about this business in Belgium is that an Englishman can finally go and see to his affairs again!” “You’re leaving?” Ophelia asked, a little surprised and not a little saddened by this news. “When?” “I shall leave at noon tomorrow, which should get me to the port in time to catch the morning tide.”
This was indeed bad news for Ophelia, and she would surely have suffered greatly had she not found a small note in her pocket later that night. She was too afraid to read it immediately, lest her sisters should find out that there was a secret to be discovered, but as soon as they were asleep Ophelia opened the note and read it by the light of the moon. It was a short note, rather too short for her romantic notions of what such a missive ought to contain, and yet no matter how she looked at it, it held every thing necessary. Twelve-thirty, old bridge, please. That was it. That was well and truly and annoyingly it. Ophelia was a little disappointed; it contained no declarations of undying love, no promises of gilded tomorrows, no references of everlasting misery if she were to refuse him. And yet she felt that she would love the adventure. Besides, what could really go amiss? She was perfectly capable of holding her own, thank you very much.
And so it was that at dawn the following morning Ophelia silently dressed and left her bedroom, with her sisters still contentedly snoring, and made her way to her aunt’s. She arrived just as her aunt sat down to breakfast, and eagerly accepted the offer to join her. Being who she was, and being ever so fond of her little niece, the dearest lady never once bothered to ask why Ophelia would be at her breakfast table at such an early hour and unannounced. For a while they talked of insignificant things, and then Aunt Julia remembered that she had had one of her dresses remade for Ophelia, and would she please try it on? Ophelia was of course quite obliging, and her aunt even ventured to comment that the gentlemen at her uncle’s might find it a pleasing frock. Ophelia had to admit that the dress was truly stunning, a blue-black raw silk affair which reminded her of winter nights when the first snow had fallen and the skies cleared again. “I am of a mind to see you well connected to one of those fine gentlemen, mayhap your sister and you could marry the Garish brothers! Wouldn’t that be wonderful!” chattered Aunt Julia. Ophelia remained as quiet and yet as cheerful as she felt she could, reasoning away all feelings of guilt that might creep upon her in the few hours she had to wait. Fifteen minutes after the noon bells had rung, Ophelia was standing near the old bridge carrying her new gown in a parcel and some coins in her new reticule.
Although she had not waited very long, it seemed to Ophelia that she had been waiting a lifetime when she finally heard the clatter of hooves and the rattle of the wheels of Mr. Gordon’s curricle. “Ah, you came! Excellent!” he said. “Just climb in, I’m afraid we are in a bit of a hurry so we had best set off immediately.” Furtively stealing a few glances to make sure that there were none around to see her, Ophelia straightened her back and climbed in. As she settled against the soft pillows, Mr. Gordon urged the horses to a steady canter which soon lulled the over-tired girl to sleep.
Ophelia remembered little of the trip as they drove on through the afternoon and night, other than a few blurred images and sounds. Once she woke when the horses were changed and again when they arrived at the port. There the sounds and smells of the sea did wake her, and she saw the ship’s black silhouette against the gray morning sky. “Wake little girl. We are to board the ship and we cannot afford to attract undue attention by me carrying you aboard.” “There is no need for that, I am awake, and please could you refrain from calling me that!” Ophelia snapped; this was not the way in which she expected the man she was eloping with to address her! She quickly got out of the chaise, parcel in hand, and followed Mr. Gordon across the wobbly plank. Their quarters for the journey were not quite as luxurious as she had imagined them to be, though of course she should allow for the fact that he would have expected to have made this journey on his own when he booked the passage. The two of them stood in a sheltered corner on the deck when the ship set sail, and all Ophelia could think of was the hand that was resting on her shoulder as she stared at the shrinking shore. That, and the strange feeling in her stomach that became ever more oppressive. A few hours later she lay sprawled across the bunk, her lovely Mr. Gordon nowhere in sight since she turned green, wishing that she had something in her stomach so that she would have something to expel from it.
If there was one thing that Ophelia learned while aboard the ship, it was that her stomach was not as strong as she thought it was. Once, when there was a lull in the wind, she was able to go above deck and shuffle about in the fresh air, but as soon as the breeze picked up she had to be escorted down again. She felt so terrible that she didn’t even heed the jests the sailors made when she passed them on her way down. She spent the rest of the crossing in their quarters, unable to move much, and she would remember that journey always with horror.
However, although it seemed to be an endless journey of misery to Ophelia, the winds were favorable, their passage was swift, and before too long they arrived in France. Still recovering from her faint spell, Ophelia hardly noticed Mr. Gordon guiding her to a carriage. All she could think of was that France must really be an island drifting on the water like flotsam, for the ground would still not stop moving even though she had been told they had come to dry land. The carriage took her and Mr. Gordon to one of the slightly less distinguished areas of Paris where they found a hotel. Mr. Gordon arranged for a room and a meal while their accommodation was being prepared. “I thought you might like a bath after that horrid journey,” he said, “so I took the liberty of ordering one for you.” Ophelia felt immensely grateful and was also quite happy since it meant that she did not yet need to eat for she felt that her stomach would not be up to the task. She followed the maid, thinking that she had never expected the French lessons her mother had insisted on to have been worthwhile.
After her bath she carefully dried her hair so as not to spoil the silk of her new dress. She wondered when they would go to a chapel, for surely it was too late in the day now, and what would it be like? She had always though that her family would be present at her wedding, that her boring father would be the one to perform the ceremony and her sisters singing hymns in their awful voices. How lucky she was to have avoided all that! Thus musing she walked up the stairs to the rooms Mr. Gordon had arranged. The door stood slightly ajar, and she could see him sitting near the empty fireplace smoking a pipe. “Well, that will not do: I will not have a room smelling of smoke!” Ophelia thought to herself.
She entered the room, and Mr. Gordon looked up, and she was sure she could see admiration in his eyes. Then she became a bit confused: the room she had just entered was also a bedroom, and she could not see any other room connected to the one she was in. “Excuse me,” she said “could you please tell me where my room is, I am quite tired and would like to rest.” “Don’t be silly, little girl. This is your room, and mine, and there will be time for rest later,” said Mr. Gordon as he got up from his chair and walked towards her. “But, I don’t understand. I thought . . and you . . . and we . . . .” “You, me, we, honestly, girl, you did get some strange ideas in that pretty little head of yours, didn’t you? Did you learn nothing from all your beloved novels?” Mr. Gordon cut in, an amused smile on his face. “But that’s not right! I thought we would be married!” exclaimed Ophelia. “Married! If I were of the marrying kind do not you think some propertied belle would have had her hands on me by now?” he replied, stepping closer.
He had, however, not counted on Ophelia’s strong head, which, though for a while deceived, was working quite swiftly now on looking for a way for her to get out of this predicament. The door still stood slightly ajar, and snatching up her reticule she darted out into the hallway. “Oh, do come back Ophelia. You have nowhere to go. You are in Paris; how long do you think a girl like you will survive here on her own,” Mr. Gordon said softly, but with a threatening tone that Ophelia would not have believed him capable of before. “I shall take my chances,” she retorted and dashed away down the stairs and through the common room of the hotel. Once she made it to the street she stopped to look back, and she saw Mr. Gordon sitting in the window waving her goodbye with an amused shake of his head.
One can but guess how the emotions of those eventful days must have weighed on Ophelia’s young heart while she was walking endlessly through the now rapidly darkening streets of Paris. Twice she was approached by a young man, but she swiftly made her disapproval of their suggestions known. “Seriously, what do they think—a girl walking by herself must be open to their lewd plans! Disgusting! It is quite alright to read about such things, but why one would wish to put such philosophies into practice I most certainly cannot see,” she thought to herself. To make matters worse, a fine drizzle settled over the city, and the streets got emptier as she walked on. Eventually she came to a street sign: “Boulevard du Temple,” it said. “Ah, good, that must mean that there is a church or chapel somewhere close by,” she figured, but before she had gone more than a few steps her eyes fell on an advertisement affixed to a wall. It was an advertisement for the Theatre Des Vampires, she read, and she did not need to use her French lessons to understand what that might mean. “How wonderful,” she thought, “I do so love the theatre, and father and mother would never let me go to see something with such a name. It must be warmer in there, and at least dry, for I am chilled to the bone.” She walked along the Boulevard a while longer, uncertain what to do, but at long last the coldness and hunger and the strain of the events took precedence over the fears of the long sermon her father would surely deliver if he found out she had entered such an establishment. She looked about for the entrance, and seeing that the line had by now almost dissolved, quickly walked up to the cashier.
When Ophelia entered the theatre she instantaneously forgot the churning hunger in her belly, the shaking of her hands, and the soreness of her feet. The only thing that remained was the fever burning in her cheeks and the lightness swirling around in her head, but now it was transformed into a delicious swooning sensation, like drowning. The theatre itself was a dream of opulence. The oil lamps hanging on the walls cast a reassuring glow all through the auditorium. As she settled into one of the plush seats, she could not suppress a sigh of joy. This was worth every last sou she had. If she were to truly starve, this one moment of delightful indulgence was something to cling to in her last moments. Then the lights at the front of the stage were lit, and she felt her breath catching in her throat. She had heard about these new gaslights, the way in which they would fill any room with a brilliance that had never before been seen. And to see them now in this Parisian theatre made her heart jump.
Then the rich velvet curtain went up, and all else was forgotten. Against the lurid backdrop of a painted cemetery, eight pale figures stood, robed in black, limbs impossibly long and slim, faces painted white, blank, devoid of expression but with the unearthly carved beauty of a marble statue. Golden wires were tied around their wrists and ankles disappearing into the top of the stage. They stood motionless, allowing the audience to fully take in their beauty and their strangeness.
Then, as the orchestra master gave the signal and a single piercing violin note rent the air, they began to move, to dance, to glide and caper with supernatural grace and agility. The music swelled, and with it they swept their bodies far up into the air, in an intertwining of trailing limbs and fluttering costumes that sent a cry of astonishment through the audience.
Ophelia uttered the same cry and felt an instant desire to be among these forms, to allow herself to be carried up and away in this wild, unearthly dance. She had to restrain herself to stay in her seat, not to make a wild dash for the stage and join these figures, at once grotesque and gorgeous. Surely, no mere mortal could cut such arabesques through the air. No human could present this picture of beauty and elegance. These were the vampires promised on the posters plastered outside the theatre and hinted at in the playbills. There could be no mistake. Here was everything she had ever wanted, ever yearned for.
Then, at the ultimate climax, when she thought that the music could not possibly get any wilder and the graveyard finery of the wraiths on the stage could not swirl any more quickly before her eyes, a dead silence fell. The dancers stopped as if a single will possessed them all, and parted. In their midst a lone figure stood, though he had not been seen on the stage before. It moved towards the footlights. The figure was that of a boy, a young man really, probably about seventeen years old. Yet even from this distance Ophelia could see that the expression in his large, soft, dark eyes was that of someone much older. A perfect face framed by a luxurious mass of russet curls. His features were reminiscent of Blake’s angels, but those eyes contained all the knowledge of something much more diabolical. The finery that draped his slender form was black, like that of all the other actors. But unlike their graveyard trappings, the rich fabric of this black robe gave it a luxury and glamor as if made with all the finest colors of oriental silk.
Then those fine, cupid-like lips parted, and suddenly Ophelia wanted nothing more than to hear the voice of that boy, that beautiful boy who seemed the very image of all the lonely, lovely, forlorn angels she had ever read about—the very figure she had hoped would come to her on all those lonely nights when the rain pelted against the windows without drowning out the clamor of her siblings fighting and laughing and clamoring below. Surely a creature such as this would have a voice that would wrench her very heart from her chest and tell her everything she had ever wanted to hear.
“Now you have seen us,” said the boy, his hushed voice somehow carrying all through the auditorium. “Now you have seen the beauty and the sweetness that oblivion has to offer. Do you want it?” And Ophelia felt all her spirit gather inside of her and form one single thought, one powerful, unspoken, all-encompassing “Yes!” The boy on the stage seemed startled. Then his gaze fixed on her, seeming to peel back her flesh and stare into her soul, and she could feel his soft voice inside her head: “Are you sure?”
The curtain fell. The crowd around her, hushed into silent awe by the performance, started simultaneously to chatter. How ingenious, how delightful it had all been. Of course they had not been taken in for a minute. But still, how artful, how clever those performers were. Why, for a second there they’d sworn they had actually been flying through the air. Such a marvellous use of wires.
Ophelia did not speak, did not stir. She stayed in her seat long after the rest of the audience had collected their assorted scarves and hats and wraps and filed out, off to seek their pleasures elsewhere. Then, she very slowly got up, and walked towards the egress as if in a trance. She made her way to the back of the theatre, towards the dingy alley with garbage and cobwebs where the true life of a theatrical company is revealed, and found the stage door. Then she waited. But nobody came out. Long after the life on the boulevard had died down, long after the drizzle of the rain had soaked her clothes and the chill rising from the pavement and penetrating her slippers had numbed her feet, she sat there. But not a single actor left that way. Finally she got up, her body stiff with cold and the pangs of her hunger and her previous disappointment completely restored to her, and started making her way back to the boulevard.
“You didn’t answer my question,” a soft voice behind her said. Ophelia whirled around, thinking in that very instant that her heart would stop, for here was the beautiful boy she had seen on stage. The angel figure was now dressed not in fine black robes, as she had expected, but in the very richest and gayest of modern fashion. His face, even in the dim, dingy light, shone with a supernatural illumination and beauty, and his stance was unearthly.
Ophelia caught her breath, and then with the last impulse of energy she flung herself at the boy, wrapping her thin, exhausted arms around him. He did not resist her but allowed her to bury her face in his russet curls, press her cheek against his cold, smooth skin as she sobbed, repeating over and over again a desperate “yes, yes, yes! ” When she finally pulled away, she saw his cupid’s lips were curled in a slight, ironic smile. And now for the first time a tinge of fear touched her heart as she beheld the unnatural marble-like smoothness of his skin, noticed how his brown eyes seemed to glow and sparkle, and how cold and hard his limbs were. But oh! They were yielding too, and she quickly banished all these thoughts as she gazed at this vision come to life only inches from her face, observing her with a mixture of pity and amusement. “But you don’t know what you ask,” the boy said. “You don’t know what it’s like to live and yet not live, to see all you once loved crumble into dust. To see all those you once cared for wither and die in front of your very eyes, while you yourself grow only colder and more empty.”
Ophelia’s spirit rebelled. How could this creature, whose eyes seemed to penetrate the very heart of her soul, not see that such things were meaningless to her, that she longed for nothing now but the sweet embrace of death! “I love no one,” she answered in a hoarse whisper. “I have nothing to live for now, only pain. The boy laughed, a hard gorgeous laugh like shattering crystal. “Oh, but of course,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve seen ever so much pain in your little life. So much suffering . . . but perhaps . . . .” Then his eyes suddenly shot up, to where the first tinge of dawn was emerging in the east, and the next moment he was gone, leaving Ophelia alone and confused in the alley, torn between anger and despair. Yet as she made her way back across the now empty boulevard to she knew not where, shivering as she went, she felt as if a pair of eyes were burning constantly into her. But no matter how often she paused along her way, she could never make out their form, though she thought at some point she caught the sway of a rich, purple cloak just out of the corner of her eye.
The next evening Ophelia made her way to the theatre as soon as the light had left the sky. She was now half-mad with hunger and exhaustion but even more so with the memory of the touch of that boy, of his sweet yet cold smile beaming down on her. She no longer had the money for a ticket, but this was but a slight inconvenience that did not figure into her reasoning. Surely just to be there would be enough. He would come to her, soothe away all her sadness and despair, put an end to all her suffering and pain, tear her out of this mortal existence and carry her off into a darkly glamorous world of everlasting ecstasy. Though he had said no such thing, she felt it was an unspoken promise between them. Surely, he could not leave her, not after he had gazed into the very depth of her soul and seen all the misery that it contained, not after her mind had cried out to his the way hers had.
As she stood, gazing at the posters of angelic faces and lurid script plastered against the outside walls of the theatre, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning around she beheld a young woman, little older than herself. And here was the same unearthly beauty she had beheld in the face of her inhuman beloved. Here was the same flawless complexion, deathly pale but glowing with a light from within. Here was the same ageless perfection. The woman was slender, and a little shorter than she was. Her hair was put up, intertwined with pearls, but with a few flowing golden locks hanging down. Her slender form was draped in a gorgeous lavender gown, covered by a cloak of the richest purple velvet Ophelia had ever seen. Her eyes, a soft grey, immediately drew her in and she knew immediately that this lady was of the same ilk as her beloved thespian. It was impossible to distrust something this gorgeous. “My name is Katherine,” the woman said, with a voice as delicate as tinkling silver bells. “I have come to look for you, my dear.” “Did that boy send you?” Ophelia asked. “Artaud? Yes. We’re . . . old friends. We met many years ago in Verona. And as a friend, I look out for his interests every once in a while. He wishes to meet you; he sent me to collect you.”
Artaud, so that was the name of her lover. Artaud. She repeated it softly to herself. And meek as a lamb, she allowed Katherine to take her by the hand and draw her into a rich carriage that waited nearby. Never once did she waver or stop to question. Surely, no friend of her beloved angel could wish her any harm. Certainly not one who radiated such sweetness as this elegant creature did.
Entering Katherine’s apartments was like entering an oasis of luxury. What a haven after the sleepless, restless hours she’d spent wandering around the squalid city. Katherine motioned her towards a seat, done in the richest rosewood with intricate carvings and velvet coverings, and Ophelia sat down too entranced to even utter a word. Katherine seated herself across from her and regarded her with a steady gaze, a soft smile playing around her lips and her delicate hand curled at her cheek. Finally, Ophelia worked up the nerve to speak. “So when is Artaud coming,” she asked, savoring the feel of the newly-learned name. “In a minute dear,” her hostess replied softly. “But you must be exhausted. Maybe you’d like to rest your eyes for a moment?” Oh no, I couldn’t sleep now” Ophelia answered, springing up quickly. “I want to see Artaud.” “I’m sure he won’t be long my pretty, but you are too anxious to rest, I can see that plain enough. Won’t you take some wine though? You must be exhausted, and it will bring some life back to those pale cheeks of yours.”
Ophelia had already opened her mouth to declare that she liked her cheeks pale, thank you so very much, but thought better of it. Somehow, when faced with this marble beauty, it seemed like a silly thing to say. And she could feel the weakness weighing down on her limbs. Maybe some wine would help revitalize her, give back some strength to her frame so she would be better-equipped meet her beloved. So she assented in a hushed voice, though Katherine was already turning away, smiling, to a tray by her side. As the wine was poured into a delicate crystal glass Ophelia felt a rush of excitement. Mother and father would never yet allow her wine. They said it was unbecoming for young ladies to imbibe spirits of any sort, and she was not to taste a drop until her coming out, when she would be expected to handle herself with modesty and propriety in all such indulgences.
She took the glass, noticing only now how her hands shook, and doing her utmost not to spill anything on the rich carpeting. What a mortification that would be, to ruin any possession of a lady such as Katherine. When she noticed that her hostess did not pour a glass for herself she felt even more nervous, but Katherine, seeming to guess her thought, exclaimed with a little laugh that she herself never drank . . . wine, but had to confess that betimes she did indulge in headier liquids. Feeling like a child again, Ophelia tried to sip from the glass casually, as if this was a daily occurrence for her. The wine was heavy and sweet, but with a sharp undertone, almost medicinal. Something about it reminded her of a smell she had sometimes caught in her mother’s bedchamber, when she was preparing to seclude herself for the arrival of another child. Could it be that her mother . . . ? But she quickly dismissed the thought. Someone as proper as Mrs. Fanny Bertram would never drink wine, except with the highest degree of moderation at dinner parties.
Ophelia settled back into the upholstery of her chair. A delicious sort of drowsiness stole over her. Maybe it was the enchanting company of her still silent companion, or maybe it was the simple feeling of being warm again, of knowing that she was safe and that she had the company of her beloved to look forward to. She tried to muffle a yawn, strangely unconcerned with the prospect of mortifying herself now. Her limbs felt languid, and she caught her lids closing.
“It seems you can sleep after all,” Katherine chimed. “Poor little thing, how exhausted you must be. Here, let me put that glass away and show you a place where you can lie down, just for a few minutes.” Ophelia wanted to protest but found she didn’t have the strength. The sweet, smiling form of caring Katherine and her own exhaustion would not permit it. Meekly, she allowed herself to be taken by the hand to a bedroom, where a large four-poster bed awaited. Into this dream of a bed she sank, and the last thing she saw before unconsciousness overtook her was Katherine stooping to pick up the candle.
She awoke to a sound so loud and piercing she thought it would wrench the very marrow from her bones. It was a high-pitched scream but of such intensity that no human could have produced it. For a moment this noise filled all her mind, and she had no idea where she was. Then there was pain. Pain as intense as nothing she had ever felt before, and with it a searing heat. A hand shot out, gripping her by the shoulders and hurling her across the room. Ophelia bounced off a wall and landed with a thud on the carpet, where a water pitcher was unceremoniously emptied over her. There she lay, dazed, confused, and she could only whimper as her awareness of pain increased and filled her entire universe. Artaud was standing over her, still holding the pitcher, and behind him she could see the blazing bed, the bedclothes and sheets an inferno, the flames spreading to the delicate hangings turning them to blackened shreds. She smelled burning fabric and her own seared flesh as Artaud scooped her up like a ragdoll and burst through one of the large French windows. Then he flung her down on the pavement with a thud, and she was left to stare helplessly, burrowing her face into the cold stone in the hopes of finding some relief from the searing agony that now engulfed all her skin.
Artaud was staring down at her, his angelic face now distorted in a hideous grimace of fury. And as he wheeled around she could make out the form of Katherine, still smiling benevolently, behind him. Katherine stood calmly, watching them both with a quiet interest, as one might watch a skewered beetle stuck to a pincushion.
“You wretch,” Artaud spat at her, his voice harsh with fury. Oh, to hear that voice raised in anger. Even in her current anguish, this cut Ophelia even deeper than the agony searing in her burned flesh. “You vile cretin. For months you haunt me, stalk me like a starved animal, and now this! Why.” “Why?” Katherine answered in her soft, silvery voice. “You ask me why, after all these centuries. After you left me to my death in Verona. You dare ask me why when you would have taken this insipid little girl who is so enthralled with her own importance, her own suffering. Would have taken her with no more thought than one might pluck up a dainty from a tea tray. Oh, but you would have tired of her, her and her foolish obsession with suffering soon enough. A century, two perhaps, and you would have put the torch to her as surely as I did tonight. I merely spared you a few years of boredom, and her a few years of yearning after you, when we both know she could not have held your attention longer than a stray cat.”
“I never meant to leave you there in Verona. I didn’t have a choice,” Artaud said. “You could have stayed,” Katherine replied. “If only you’d tried. If only you hadn’t been too busy playing the little lord to your gaggle of followers. The last thing you needed was another idiot to add to their number, to swoon over a little while and then discard like a used rag or an old useless horse.” “But why not simply kill her then?” Artaud hissed. “Why not drain her or snap her neck with a flick of your wrist? Why burn the girl if you feel such mercy for her?” Katherine laughed, a soft musical laughter, but with a sliver of ice at its core. “Because this way she might learn something. This way she might know you as I know you. With her pretty face all scarred, and her charms ruined, she might yet learn what real pain is when you turn away from her in disgust. If you still want her, as she is now, if you feel this creature is deserving of eternity with her beauty ruined, you may yet do it.” Artaud bent over Ophelia, running his cool fingers along the agony that was her face. She pressed it up against them, savoring the soothing cold, the one thing that could cut through the agony she now felt. “No,” he whispered, “I don’t want her now. She isn’t cut out for an eternity without beauty. There isn’t enough spirit in her to warrant it.”
Ophelia was stunned. The anguish she now felt was worse than the pain in her ruined flesh. A thick, dull, all-encompassing misery. She would have screamed, felt the scream building up inside of her and ready to force its way out of her seared lungs past her scarred throat. But her flesh would not permit it. She could not part her wounded lips to give voice to her misery, her true misery. Oh yes, she knew what pain was now. The last thing she saw before losing consciousness was the slender figure of Katherine rising up into the air and landing on one of the nearby rooftops, and speeding off. Artaud cast her one last, contemptuous look, before going after her.
Somebody must have found her there, on the street below the window of the burning building. People who came to watch the blaze must have stumbled across her prone figure, and carried her off to the hospital, for that is where she awoke in a grimy room full of sick and dying people, crying out in their fevered dreams or staring blankly at the ceiling. She lay there staring likewise, wanting to cry out, say who she was. Explain that she didn’t belong there amidst these paupers, dying as poorly and squalidly as they had lived. Wanting to explain that she had a family, connections, that she was not meant to lie here, pressed body to body with the putrid sick of Paris. But her burned face would not allow it. Her damaged throat would not let her utter a sound beyond a hoarse whimper. And the sour-faced nuns would only stare down at her, and apply more stinking balm to her wounded face with their hard, calloused, uncaring hands. Put water to her lips with the same insensitivity with which they might feed a stray dog, because it was a charitable thing to do.
The hospital was where her father and uncle finally discovered her. After searching every seedy lodging in Paris, every low establishment and bawdy house, Edmund was almost relieved to find her thusly situated, tangled in the dirty sheets of a hospital bed rather than those of some vagabond lover. His face, as he stared down at her, was a mixture of shock and reproof, but not hatred. Uncle Tom merely seemed horrified. “What on earth could have happened to her,” Edmund demanded of his brother, who merely shrugged. “Who could have left her in such a state? Do you think Gordon . . . ?” “Gordon, by all accounts, was long done with her by the time she got here,” her uncle replied gruffly. “Done with her? How dare you use such language about my daughter? My Fanny is a good, decent girl!” “Oh yes, a decent girl, and that is how she ended up here is it, by being a decent girl?”
Ophelia wanted to protest, say that she had remained a decent girl. Above all things a decent girl. But she could utter nothing beyond her usual, strained whimper. Her father gently patted her hand, assured her that all would be well, that they would see to her. “See to her?” Uncle Tom cried out. “Surely we can’t take her with us, not after the way she left, the way she is now. Her mother could not bear it. And the gossip it would provoke.” “Well, we can’t give her to a nunnery . . . now that she is fallen . . . .” “We could bring her to live with the other . . . .” “With her aunt, the way she is now? The way her aunt is now, the state of her . . . .” “They could care for each other . . . ,” Edmund replied. Ophelia felt an immense relief. Yes, take her to Aunt Julia. Aunt Julia must be heartbroken over losing her, and agonizing over the part she had played in the whole affair. Surely Ophelia would still be dear to Aunt Julia. Help ease her misery as her aunt would help in easing hers.
But they took her to another part of France to a small cottage, where they arrived on a cold, dreary autumn afternoon. The frost was already covering the ground, but the mud had not yet frozen and clung to the hem of Ophelia’s dress, no longer rich black silk, but a drab brown one she had been given upon leaving the hospital. Her father steadied her as her uncle knocked at a door, painted a peeling green. But no answer came.
“I wrote to her,” her father said, “but I don’t know if she’s even understood my meaning. The state she is in now Tom. I know you haven’t seen her for years, but Fanny and I always kept an eye on her. The arsenic and mercury helped a little, but they didn’t slow the process down much. Sometimes I wonder if placing her here wasn’t a great cruelty.” “Well,” Uncle Tom replied, “they do call it the French disease for a reason . . . .” Edmund’s expression tightened, and he looked as close to losing his composure as he ever had before and he was about to reprimand his brother, but just then they heard a shuffling gait approach the door. And as it creaked open a figure was revealed, dressed in a loose gown, stooped and old, clutching a veil to its face.
“Ah, Maria,” Edmund began, after an awkward pause. “It’s us, Edmund and Tom!” “Edmund and Tom?” the figure croaked. “Yes, and we’ve brought Fanny with us, just like we wrote . . . .” “Fanny? Fanny? Fanny?” the figure cackled. “Why would I want Fanny? She took Henry from me, you know. I could have had him, had him forever, but she turned his heart so that he could never love me. She made him resent me! Why would I want Fanny here?” “No dear, your little niece, Fanny. Remember, she is to stay with you, and you two can look after each other for a while now that Aunt Norris has passed away.”
The figure fixed her eyes on Ophelia. There was something wrong with those eyes, the way they stared. The pupils seemed like solid holes in the middle of the iris, not changing as they turned away from the gloom of the corridor towards the faint light outside. And there was something else in them too, a burning madness that chilled Ophelia to the bone. The woman cackled again and lowered her veil. Had Ophelia been able to scream, she would have done so then, and she felt a shiver running through the arm of her father, who was supporting her. The face before her was a swollen mass of bulbous flesh. Great sickly growths were jutting out in it, stretching a skin covered in tiny red sores and pustules. The open mouth revealed blackened teeth and great gaps where other teeth had once been. The gloved hand that had pulled the veil back now ran over that hideous, scarred mess, softly, almost longingly.
“Oh, that Fanny,” the woman croaked, sounding almost delighted now. “Yes, she’ll fit in just fine here.”
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