THE VIRTUE BETWEEN BOASTING & SELF-DEPRECATION
All furnished in form-fitting pantaloons, plumed like ostriches, wanton as young goats, baited as bathed chicks, the generals are everywhere, like precious stones adorning a vessel of gold! The setting is Bath. The season is full. Hush now! Hear their laughter. Bath is alive! As is Catherine Morland! Bath is surely the place for young people. Bath is not the place for me!
Truth be told, Bath is like Bogsworth and Bogsworth is like Hogshire and Hogshire is like Nethersfield and Nethersfield is like Northanger Abbey. My only company arrayed about me: wardrobe, trunk, and vanity. Here I sit, the chamber door bolted. Brother rides his open carriage. Father paces the corridors. The candles hiss, spit, and flicker in the gale.
Outside is rain and the casement window bangs and bangs. I am permitted, so long as the weather holds, a daily constitutional, wherein have I, from time to time, crossed paths with Catherine Morland.
My illness, I fear, is extraordinary, I have tried telling her. I blame Father and Brother. I have experienced changes: loss of appetite, paleness, redness about the eyes, heightened sense of smell, hearing, sight. Blood is on the air, for instance. A carriage clatters in the drive.
Brother has arrived. I must trace these symptoms back to their origin. I will discover their reason.
CONCERNING PROPER MANAGEMENT OF THE AFFECTIONS
Catherine Morland does not play, draw, ride, or sing. We pass, nevertheless, through every gradation of increasing tenderness. She gives me her arm. We take half a dozen turns about the garden. We talk of tasteful attire and balls.
She says, “Whenever shall I meet your brother?”
I say, “NEVER!”
“NEVER, A hundred-fold, NEVER, NEVER!”
“You are a silly girl, Eleanor,” says Catherine. “Silly, or odd, or sick. Are you sick?”
I clutch her arm. “Catherine, I must tell you something!”
We walk to the edge of the garden.
“How pale you are,” she says.
“My countenance is disagreeable,” I tell her. “I fear I am undead.”
The sun sets. Catherine is looking thoughtfully at some flowers. “Have you read Anne Radcliffe?” she asks.
“Yes, of course, I have,” I assure her, “but I was not always like this. Brother was born undead. I wasn’t — Catherine, can you believe we killed my mother?! We simply devoured her!”
“Dear, Eleanor, the sun is setting. Shall we conclude the evening with an affectionate and lengthened embrace?”
“Yes, we shall!” I clutch her to me. “Now, go,” I say and fling her away. I may be mistaken. It may be nothing. Perhaps, it is simply my coming of age. Nevertheless, I feel quite strange. Her pulse rings in my temples.
All goes red. And from each pore a hunger sprouts as lilies by the river’s edge, and each clamps a palp about my cells and grows up through the clouds. Have I gone mad?!
I run to our lodgings, up the steps, and into my chamber, where I fling myself upon the bed. I stand. I cross the room to the window. There is Catherine in the street below. Her figure and dress are fashionable. Her walk has a graceful spirit. Her manners show good sense and good breeding. I am neither shy nor affectedly open. I am not unwell. I am capable of being young, attractive, and at a ball, I say this to myself each evening as the bolt turns in my door.
CONCERNING BALLS AND SUNDRY ENTERTAINMENTS
I was in a very pretty spotted muslin. I always dress very handsomely. My mother had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her mother gave her twenty thousand pounds, and a very beautiful set of pearls, which I have got now, for they were put aside for me when mother died. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, I know. A woman is satisfied for her own satisfaction alone. But Brother chose my dress on purpose, and we walked arm-in-arm, for I was ordered to accompany him to the upper room that he might meet my dear friend Catherine.
“Eleanor, sweet Eleanor!” says Isabella Thorpe. “Why you look terrible! I daresay it’s true! You’re deathly sick, aren’t you?”
“Indeed, it has an odd appearance,” says Mr. Allen, “her countenance.”
There is a problem. The light is too bright or something. Perhaps, it’s all these painted women! The toilet water on their skin, simply intoxicating! I feel the red pulse in my temples again! I hide my face inside my gown. I bump into the candelabra, which clatter to the ground. The master of ceremonies turns to face me. He clips his pince-nez in his eye socket.
“Eleanor!” Brother gives my arm a jerk. He snarls, “Don’t make a scene.”
Some generals look on with mild interest. Catherine is waving. The din has drawn her attention. She is collecting her dress and approaching us NOW!
“Bath is simply charming!” she says and takes my arm. “The Upper Rooms, the theatre, the concert hall! The shops, Eleanor, such marvelous shops! In the country, we are sadly off.”
“How long have you been in Bath?” Brother asks. “Do you keep a diary? Of course you keep a diary! All women do. Will you write of me? Shall I tell you what to say? I shall tell you what to say. Say, ‘tonight I danced with the most agreeable man in all of England.’”
“Catherine!” I lead her forcefully away. “You mustn’t speak to him. You must—”
John Thorpe steps in. “Catherine, there you are!” He says. “Oh, and Eleanor. Eleanor, how strange you are. Rather sick, I’d say. Catherine, have you seen my new gig?”
He takes her by the elbow. “I must show you my new gig!” he says, and they take their place among the dancers.
The two dances are scarcely finished when I seize Catherine’s hand. I have a good figure, a pretty face, and an agreeable countenance. I am capable of taking another into my confidence.
“Catherine,” I gasp. “O, Catherine! I must tell you. I must tell you something! I must, now!”
“Dear Eleanor, how pale you are!” she cries.
“It’s past ten o’clock! How inconceivable, incredible, impossible!” says Brother.
“We must get you home! We shall walk tomorrow, Catherine,” he says, “and you shall join us, if the weather holds.”
“WE shall not!” I shout as Brother shoves me out the door.
WHEREIN BROTHER EATS MY FRIEND, OR PLEASURE AS SOMETHING TO AVOID
In Bath, there are a thousand virgins. The number dwindles, daily. Brother’s cravat and mustache are neat in the pump-room light. By night, they’re flecked with flesh. Brother rides about in his open carriage, a blood-moon bobbing beneath the sackcloth, a black sun.
He is a lover of himself, boastful, proud, with no control.
He returns gorged. The seams of his breeches are fit to burst. He throws himself down. The chaise lounge groans beneath him.
“I brought you a present,” he says. He tosses a bloodstained sack at my chest. I do not catch. It bounces off my person and a bloody slipper topples to the ground.
Could it be Catherine’s? I gasp. The slipper is worn from rain. Catherine is wont to walk about in thunderstorms. I gasp again. I turn away.
“It is time for your unveiling,” Brother says and straightens. He stands. He lifts the slipper, undoes the strap, and tosses it over his shoulder. It hits the candelabra. The candelabra clatters to the floor.
“Oh, God!” I gasp.
He nudges my shoulder with the DEAD foot. He raises it to my lips. It sickens—no, pleases me, no, sickens—me! I turn my head away.
“Unhand me!” I cry. “I’ll be sick!”
Outside, John Thorpe’s gig stops.
The foot falls. Brother collapses to the chaise lounge.
“It’s Catherine’s,” I whisper.
Brother crosses his legs and twists his mustache.
WHEREUPON I PROPOSE WE EAT JOHN THORPE
If I must eat, and eat I must, then I shall eat John Thorpe. Here he comes in his rattling shit-box, his gig and horse. The bell rings. John Thorpe tramples the staircase, calling, “Miss Morland, I’ve come!”
He knocks over a footstool and trips into the drawing room. Brother looks up, startled somewhat.
“Miss Morland?” says John Thorpe, looking about the room in great confusion, and stooping to catch his breath.
“No one by that name resides here, I’m afraid,” Brother says.
The foot, the slipper, the candelabra, all scattered about the floor! We’ll have to kill him now, of course! I turn my eyes to Brother. He’s smiling, slightly, and watching me, the way a cat might crouch and watch a mouse.
“I’m to take her to the ball,” says John, “but confound it, she can’t be found!”
“You take Catherine?” I gasp.
“Naturally.” John shrugs. “We are engaged.”
Brother’s eyes flash. “Do come in. Sit.” He says and waves a languid arm over the drawing room. “Forgive this disarray,” he says. “My sister’s had a fit this morning. She won’t eat anything.”
John Thorpe looks down. He nudges the mangled foot with the tip of his boot.
“Waste of perfectly good mutton,” he mutters. “But I suppose you can afford it,” he laughs.
“Say, would you like to see my gig?” I look at Brother, who looks unruffled.
“Why, of course,” Brother rises, “and then we shall come, and help you look for Miss—”
“Morland,” says John Thorpe, “Miss Morland. The most eligible heiress in all of Bath.”
We watch John hurry from the drawing room and vanish down the steps.
CONCERNING THE TEN IMPEDIMENTS TO SELF-MASTERY & VIRTUE
I am cursed and want to die. I’ve noticed certain changes. We are standing in the Crescent. John Thorpe’s gig is broken.
“How long have you known Catherine?” I ask him.
“Forever,” He says.
I say, “I know her better.”
The sun shines through some trees, which is fine. If I am indeed changing, it won’t kill me. Very little could kill me. Yes, the sunlight tightens like a noose, some lace, or lanyards. It milks me from myself. My countenance, in its radiance, is ever so slightly translucent. The effect, I’m told, is quite becoming. I shall make use of my advantages.
John scoffs, “She never spoke of you.”
That’s not true. It’s dumb to spend time with John, to spend time at all. I must make use of my advantages. He cranes his neck to see the street. He isn’t even trying. “She spoke of your brother, not you.”
He says this and dawn’s rosy fingers milk my physiognomy into a gloriously absent thing! I shall make use of my advantages. I join John Thorpe beside his gig.
“Confound it!” He shouts. “She’s not in any shops!”
“Come, lets away, John Thorpe, to those woods. There is a clearing near the Crescent and Catherine is wont to walk about in it.”
“No, she isn’t,” says John.
“Fine, she’s not,” I tell him. “Let’s alight anyway.” I lift the hem of my dress above my knee. “Let’s away, quickly, before Brother knows we’re missing!”
I have noticed certain changes. For instance, I wasn’t always like this. The next thing I know, I’ve palmed his skull like a grotesque apple.
“Hussy,” he calls me but his knees are buckling and my jaw springs open. That’s when a twig snaps. I hear Catherine laugh. She leans on Brother’s arm. She sees me and John, and her jaw drops open.
“Eleanor, you hussy!” she gasps, and vanishes into the forest.
I wasn’t always like this. I’ll tell Catherine when we meet again. John is running after her. Misunderstandings happen, naturally, they happen! Locked inside a fortnight, with pigeon posts and primitive carriages to bear our messages! Of course, they happen! But we are different, Catherine. I will tell her. I’ll tell her in the garden, when John and Brother are gone, and my gown is no longer tangled on this shit-box, his gig!
The progress of our friendship was quick. It’s beginning had been warm, and we passed rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness. I told her I was determined to be dressed exactly like her. I said, “have you decided what to wear on your head? Is there something else you’d like to do, and why haven’t you done it?”
Jessica Alexander teaches at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Her story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her fiction has been published in such journals as Psychopomp Magazine, LIT, and Fence.