By a Lady
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Although it is certainly possible to talk when a knife is pressed up against your throat, it is less than ideal. Nevertheless, I try. “I do not believe you completely comprehend what you are doing.”
“Oh no, my dear,” says Elizabeth. “I comprehend much more than you might dream of.”
People are always asking me if I am acquainted with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
We are in the north-west tower of St Margaret’s of Westminister, crammed up against the window. The tower was rebuilt between the year of our Lord seventeen-hundred-and-thirty-four and the year seventeen-hundred-and-thirty-eight by Mr John James. At the same time the church was covered in Portland stone. The east windows of the church are Flemish stained glass. They were installed in the year of our Lord fifteen-hundred-and-nine to commemorate the betrothal of Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII. Twenty years later he would break with the church of Rome in order to divorce her. The windows far outlasted his fidelity.
Across the street lies the Palace of Westminster, which among other things houses Parliament. It is empty tonight, except for Elizabeth’s maiden army and soon they too will be gone, having made sure that all other inhabitants have vacated. There are four and twenty kegs of black powder placed in the cellars. There is also one housemaid, a consumptive, who upon learning her time on this earth was limited volunteered her service as detonator to the Pandemonium Undertaking. It is my hope for this nameless girl--nameless as are all in the Pandemonium Undertaking--that Heaven will view this as martyrdom and not suicide. It is my fear they will not.
In the year of our Lord sixteen-hundred-and-five, the Palace of Westminster was preserved from the Gunpowder Plot by the grace of God. Now the Yeoman of the Guard inspect the cellars before the opening of every Parliament. But it is very late at night and they are not there.
Before a quarter of an hour passes, the Palace of Westminster will not be there either.
I know these things because Elizabeth knows these things.
I realize that this is all happening because of Mr Henry Crawford.
I am in the parlor of Mansfield Parish. Mrs Tilney is holding my hand very tightly and dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. Mrs Tilney is a young widow of nine-and-twenty years of age. She is a friend of Mrs Grant, her husband having had some acquaintance with Dr Grant. She is spending these few days visiting. I do not know why I am here at Mansfield Parish. I do not know why I continue to visit Miss Crawford, her sister, and her sister's husband, when I have no love for Miss Crawford, nor any of her siblings.
Miss Mary Crawford is very handsome and very lively and she plays the harp beautifully. When she plays her harp I come closest to loving her. I do not care for her city morals and city values and the lack of regard she has for the profession of the clergy and I do not care for the way she has made my cousin, Edmund Bertram, love her.
He looks at her in a way he shall never look at me.
If I do not care for Miss Crawford, I care for Mr Crawford even less. He is a rake and a scoundrel who played with the affections of my cousins Maria and Julia. He made love to my cousin Maria despite her being engaged to Mr Rushworth and now that Maria is gone to Bristol with her new husband and Julia, he is attempting to pay his attentions to me, as I am the only one left for him to charm--and he is the sort of young man who is at a loss if he is not charming someone. But I am not charmed.
If I had an unsightly growth, I would name it Henry Crawford.
Her husband had been a clergyman, whose Gloucestershire living had been given to him by his father, Mrs Tilney tells me, and he--her husband--had been the best of men, the kindest and liveliest. It had been a fever, she tells me, a terrible one, three months ago. I pat her hand, murmur as soothingly as I have the ability to. I am not at my best in strange company.
Mr Crawford is looking at me thoughtfully.
I am in Portsmouth. Mr Crawford asked my uncle for my hand in marriage, but I refused him. My uncle has sent me back home to Portsmouth, where my mother lives and my father and my younger sisters and brothers. To this squalid untidy house where there is no harmony, to this wretched city that strains my delicate health.
Is this really the home I longed for so much? Are these really the people? When I first came to Mansfield as a little girl all I wished was to come back home to Portsmouth. Now I all I wish is to go back home to Mansfield.
I begin taking afternoon walks if only to get away from this house.
This is how I meet Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet is in Portsmouth on holiday. She is no beauty, but her dark eyes are charming. They sparkle. She is very witty and she has no trouble in strange company. She has no trouble in any company, high or low. Her family, she says, is dead. She gets by on a pittance of inheritance, by selling the occasional piece of jewelry, and by selling soap which she makes herself. The soap is very good, she says. It sells in the finest shops for a pound per bar.
It is very soon that I meet her whenever I am walking alone.
Mr Henry Crawford comes to visit me in Portsmouth. He is kind to my parents, to my sisters and brothers. He tells me he loves me. He wants to prove it.
I tell him he should return to Everingham take care of his estate.
It is very easy for a house like my father’s to catch fire. The neglectful maid knocks over an oil lantern too close to the fireplace, where there are still embers burning. Everyone has left for the Sunday services. No one is there to stop it.
I realize when I am halfway to church that I have forgotten my prayerbook. I tell the others to go on ahead. I will catch up to them.
All is flames when I return to my father’s house.
Mansfield Park does not want me. My father's house is burning.
“Come home with me,” says Elizabeth Bennet. “You would not be in the way. In fact, you would be of very great use.”
Elizabeth Bennet lives in a rambling wreck of a house, half a mile outside London. It is in greater disrepair than my father’s house was, yet somehow I find myself loving it. I do not know if she owns it or if she is merely living in it while the true owner is away. I do not think it matters to her. There are no servants. We must shift to make do for ourselves.
The garden is wild and overgrown and it is beautiful.
We are walking in it one morning when Elizabeth says, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
This is how Fight Club is started.
At first it is just Elizabeth and I. Slowly it grows. Two sisters stumble upon us when we are fighting in a Park. Miss Dashwood and her sister Miss Marianne. Miss Marianne’s beau has deserted her to marry a wealthy lady. She was wasting away with grief. Fight Club puts the color back in her cheeks as it covers them with bruises.
Soon there are half-a-dozen young ladies coming to our garden to fight. Then a dozen. Then four-and-twenty. Then I lose count.
The first rule of Fight Club, says Elizabeth, is that one does not discuss Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is one does not discuss Fight Club. No corsets, no hairpins, no crying. If it is your first night, you have to fight.
Many of the first members of Fight Club were gentleman’s daughters. Now the ladies in our garden come from all walks of life, high and low. On Friday nights. On Tuesdays. Mrs Tilney comes on Tuesdays. She tells me it makes her feel like a girl again.
“If you could fight anyone in all the world,” Elizabeth asks me, “who would you fight?”
“My aunt,” I tell her. “Mrs Norris.”
“I would fight my mother,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth and I share the same bed. We go to sleep together, arms wrapped around each other. Until one night when she does not come up to bed and I dream of sitting with Henry Crawford in our decayed parlor. Letting him kiss my hand, my arm.
I come downstairs the next morning. He is sitting at our table.
I know because Elizabeth knows that last night Henry Crawford tried to throw himself in the Thames because he had been conducting an affair with my cousin Maria under her Mr Rushworth’s nose when my father’s house burned down and he thought somehow that doing so had killed me. Elizabeth had found him, fished him out, and brought him home.
“So,” he says. “Here you are.”
“Here I am,” I say.
“Mary cried for hours when she heard what happened in Portsmouth,” he says.
“I am sure Edmund comforted her,” I say.
“I believe they comforted each other,” he says.
“Your family is staying at Everingham,” he says after a long silence. “I thought it was the least I could do.”
“Thank you,” I say.
Another long silence. I wish he would just go.
“Are you happy here?” he asks finally.
“Yes,” I say. “I think I am.”
He finishes his coffee and leaves. I hope that he will not return.
But he does return, to spend long hours closeted with Elizabeth in the parlor. I flee to the garden, hoping to escape them.
I am not jealous of the attentions he pays her.
I do not even like him.
It is some time after this when Elizabeth begins the Pandemonium Undertaking. To become a part of the Pandemonium Undertaking, to become part of Elizabeth’s army of maidens, involves standing outside our door for three days, ignoring all abuse. One may only bring a single brown gown, a buff-colored apron, a plain petticoat, a plain straw bonnet, plain gloves and a clean set of underthings. After three days, one is admitted into the Pandemonium Undertaking.
Not all last the three days.
One of the ones that lasts was once an heiress named Miss Woodhouse. Now she is nameless and her wealth has gone to the Undertaking. One of dozens all dressed the same, dozens who have given up their names and families to sleep in our decrepit ballroom.
There are no names within the Pandemonium Undertaking. No name but that of Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth gives all her maiden soldiers her kiss.
She kisses me before them, long before the Pandemonium Undertaking. She kisses my hand and she pours lye on it and she listens while I scream and she does not blink.
The pain is important, she tells me. Only in pain do we learn what stuff we are made of.
You have to truly understand, Elizabeth tells me, that someday you will die.
She listens to me scream and she finally pours vinegar on my hand to stop the burning and there it is, her kiss, on my hand, where it shall be until I am dead and buried, until the final trump sounds.
One day I wake up and Elizabeth is not there. She does not come back that afternoon. She does not come back the next day or the next.
The maiden army of the Pandemonium Undertaking goes on with the army’s work, as regular as clockwork, like little machines in a cotton mill.
These dark Satanic mills.
I know Elizabeth is not here. But I can hear her voice in my ears, mouthing Blake:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
That is what Elizabeth means to do with the Pandemonium Undertaking. We are building Jerusalem, but to do that we have to destroy that which cannot live there. Bring us our bow of burning gold.
Bring us our chariot of fire.
Henry Crawford comes to our house. I tell him that Elizabeth is not here. He asks me who I am referring to. I tell him that he knows perfectly well who I am referring to. He leaves.
I return to the parlor, to oversee the cutting of soap. One of Elizabeth’s army comes to fetch me, not very long afterward. A gentleman is here to see me. I prepare to tell Henry Crawford exactly what I think of him.
It is not Henry Crawford who is here to see me.
It is Edmund, my cousin Edmund, who I have loved since I was very small, who owns a full third of my heart, all that my brother William and Elizabeth do not own and he is looking at me with a furious expression.
“What do you think you have been doing?”
What have I been doing? I have been living for myself. I have been of use to someone who appreciates me. Someone who listens to me. I have been building with her something greater than myself.
Edmund tells me he followed Henry Crawford here. That Mary--his bethrothed, he tells me, and the thought does not hurt as much as I thought it would--had asked him to find out where her brother was disappearing to.
He is angry, angry and betrayed. Angry because he thought I died and now it seems I am alive.
“Edmund,” I say with all the dignity I can summon, “until now I was never truly alive.”
He leaves. I take my tea cup and hurl it against the wall.
I hear a great cry from the back of the house. I run to the kitchen. The woman whose name was once Mrs Tilney is laid out on the table. Her head is covered.
“What happened?” I ask.
“A redcoat,” someone says. “He thought she was a French saboteur. We were destroying statuary in Hyde Park.”
“We can bury her in the garden,” someone says. One of the former Dashwood sisters.
“No,” I say angrily. “She deserves a Christian burial, next to her husband. Her name is Catherine Tilney.”
“I thought that in the Pandemonium Undertaking we have no names?”
“Her name,” I say, “is Catherine Tilney. The Pandemonium Undertaking is over.”
I throw myself on the bed I once shared with Elizabeth and know nothing until morning.
In the morning everyone is gone. I find a crudely drawn map of England and a list of towns and cities written in Elizabeth’s handwriting. I know, somehow, that this is where she has gone. I know that if I follow this trail I might find her.
When I first come to live here with her, Elizabeth brings home a horse for me. I do not know where she got it or perhaps I just choose not to know. The horse is for my use, for my exercise. He is no one else’s.
I ride him as I follow Elizabeth’s trail.
I go to each town, each city on her list. Somehow I know exactly where the Fight Clubs there are being hosted. I ask after Elizabeth. They deny ever meeting her, but this is a falsehood. I know it is a falsehood. They know I know it is a falsehood.
Finally, a young woman named Louisa Musgrove asks me if this is a test.
No, I tell her. It is not a test.
Am I certain it is not a test?
I am certain it is not a test.
“But you are Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” says Louisa Musgrove. “You were here but a fortnight ago, to observe the Fight Club.”
I cannot be Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth is in my room at the inn when I return. There are feathers in her hair. “So,” she says. “You comprehend.”
“I do not think I comprehend anything,” I say.
“Many people wish to become someone else,” says Elizabeth. “You did.”
“But why you?” I ask in frustration.
“Because Edmund Bertram cannot see you as anything but a sister,” she says. “Because your family takes you for granted. Because you cannot talk comfortably to people you do not know--or you could not. But I can. I appear the way you wish to appear. I am easy in company the way you wish you were. I am not afraid of Sir Thomas or Mrs Norris. I can allow Henry Crawford into my heart without feeling that I am betraying Edmund. I am not afraid of anyone or anything.”
“I am no longer afraid,” I say. “I am not who I was.”
“You are not yet me,” Elizabeth says. “And perhaps soon you may be gone and I will have the remains of your life. The Pandemonium Undertaking still goes on.”
“Not if I cannot stop you.”
And so I ride back to London, ride without stopping to sleep, or so I think, but one moment I am on the road and the next I am in our house and I know, somehow, that Elizabeth has been putting her plans into action.
I know these plans. I watched dispassionately as she plotted them, the Pandemonium Undertaking hanging off her every word.
I know where I must go.
I am underneath the Palace of Westminster and only now do I comprehend how thorough Elizabeth was in planning. One woman cannot undo all this.
“No,” says Elizabeth. “One woman can’t.”
I spin around. She is there behind me, wearing a ridiculous leopardskin cloak, feathered hairband undaunted. She looks amused and indolent.
I punch her in the jaw.
She punches back, rakes me with her nails, kicks and screams and throws me against the cellar wall and although I fight back, it is not enough, she is too strong, I hesitate at the wrong time and I am unconscious.
I wake in the tower of St Margaret’s of Westminster, a knife pressed against my throat.
“You still do not comprehend all you think you do,” I say to Elizabeth.
“That knife isn’t in your hands,” I say. “For you are not actually there. It is in mine.”
And so it is.
“Be that as it may,” says Elizabeth. “You cannot kill me. You would be killing yourself.”
Below I can hear Henry Crawford struggle as the maiden army of the Pandemonium Undertaking brings him into the church. He is swearing loudly, saying words that many of these ladies had never heard in their prior lives.
I smile sweetly at Elizabeth. “I know.”
I plunge the knife into my chest, watch dispassionately as her heart’s blood wells up and she falls to the ground, as she crumples away into nothingness.
“You truly are no longer afraid,” she says as she falls, the whisper of a ghost.
She is gone now and I am here still, bleeding profusely from the wound at my side. Neither of us had an exemplary knowledge of anatomy. I am glad for that.
The Pandemonium Undertaking has ascended the stairs, with Henry Crawford. The maiden in front, who was once Miss Woodhouse, makes a noise of surprise as she sees my wound.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “It’s worse than it looks. If you but bandage me and perhaps find a surgeon to stitch it, I shall be fine presently.”
I do not think she believes me. No matter.
“Do let go of Mr Crawford,” I say. “He is my guest.”
Henry Crawford walks up to me as my wound is being bandaged. “I do not know what I ought to call you anymore,” he says.
“Mrs Crawford, perhaps,” I say. “I hear Scotland is lovely this time of year.”
The Palace of Westminster explodes like a century of Guy Fawkes Nights at once.
“You met me,” I say, “during a very queer period of my life.”