Bird of Paradise
A short story inspired by Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

By Jane Greensmith

Copyright © 2001.
 All rights reserved.


Dr. Martin says that I have poor circulation. He says my heart isn’t strong enough to pump blood to my extremities. That’s why my hands and feet are always icy. Even in summer, I feel cold. I forego plunging necklines, not out of modesty…all right, not totally out of modesty…but because I need the warmth of high collars and long sleeves and shawls to trap and conserve the paltry heat my body generates.

Even when we were children, Edmund knew that I took cold easily. He often climbed the narrow staircase to my nursery room to light the fire and replenish the fuel because he knew no one else, not even the servants, would remember.

We were married today, Edmund and I. My uncle gave me away, probably because my parents had already given me to him years ago. But no matter, I am now the wife of my beloved cousin. I intend to be a good wife. How hard can it be with such a husband? I hear again, in my mind, Edmund's words.

With this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow.

I’ve had no worldly goods before, except this amber cross from William and the competing chains from Edmund and Mr. Crawford. I’ve had only my body, always wrapped to the chin, with poor circulation…poor circulation despite a heart that pounded wildly whenever Edmund was near.

From the chapel to family breakfast, from the table to the carriage, I couldn’t fix my mind on anything this morning. Blurry images of my aunt and uncle Bertram and my sister and brother swam around me. My own dear Edmund, guided my arm and cued me when it was my turn to whisper the words that bound me to him. Only when the door of Edmund’s carriage closed upon us and his lips closed upon mine did I focus. And then such a surge of warmth enveloped me. I felt like a hothouse flower, some exotic plant wearing a color more vivid than any I have ever worn. My arms slid round his neck and my back arched. He pulled me to him and his hands caressed and pressed my body. His spicy breath fell upon my ears and neck and eyelids, warming every inch of my flesh, every ounce of my blood.

Too soon we reached our house, the rectory known as Thornton Lacey. He drew back and smoothed my hair that he had tousled, and then leaned forward and pulled a few tendrils back down. I felt disheveled, rearranged…warm. "You’re glowing, Mrs. Bertram," he teased. I leaned forward to kiss him, but he put a hand to my shoulder, leaving me at arm’s length. "Later, Fanny dear. Later, I promise you. Now we must meet the staff."

The carriage door swung open, and the warmth spilled out. I looked in dismay to see the steps of our house filling with servants. Edmund is but a country rector, and this is but a small house. Nothing like Mansfield Park. I knew we would need some help—a ladies’ maid, a cook and scullery girl, and Edmund’s man—but not a staff. I did not want a staff. I felt my stomach knot in the old familiar way. Edmund handed me out. I swear he flinched when he took my icy hand. If he kissed it now, his lips would surely turn blue. I have never been mistress of anything, save my abandoned nursery room with the stolen fire. I have been the one who fetched and carried. I am not up to this.

I walked on Edmund’s arm to view the troops. I instinctively dropped a curtsy to the tall woman in a black dress, the head of the staff as I discovered, and then flushed with embarrassment. I thought I read a sneer behind her passive face as she formally curtsied back to me. I bit my lip and we moved on inside the house, our house. Edmund had brought me to visit before we were married, of course. All my things, the new clothes and jewels my uncle had bought for me, my precious books and little treasures, all were here, unpacked and waiting for me to take possession of my new home.

We toured the house again together. Edmund, ever the gentleman, stayed with me. We went from room to room, with the eyes of strangers watching us. Why did I never notice the servants at Mansfield? They were there in droves, but I never thought much about them. I was focused on the family, of course—my aunt and uncle, my cousins and their friends, my other aunt. Now I was the family. The one on whom people focused.

We reached our bedchamber. Edmund laughingly swung the door shut behind us and gathered me in his arms again, lifting my heels off the floor. A fire crackled warmly and the mid-day sun shone bright for early Spring. "Good man, Dawson," Edmund murmured between kisses. "He knew we would want this room ready straightaway." I closed my eyes and almost swooned with nausea as I fell onto the bed under his weight. All I could think of were those eyes on the other side of the door. Amused eyes beneath raised brows, wondering what a dapper man like Edmund Bertram was doing with a dowd like me. Later I would have to walk down and face them. I didn’t think I could face them. I couldn’t face the eyes of the woman in the black dress to whom I had curtsied.

"No Edmund," I said urgently, slipping out from under him. I tottered to my feet and gained my balance.

He sat up. His mouth open, stunned. His eyes filled with hurt as he looked searchingly from my face to his empty hands, almost quizzically as if he couldn’t believe his wife of six hours was already presenting a cold shoulder.

I started to babble. I wanted to wait until night when it would be dark and romantic. I wanted to unpack my last trunk that had come with us today. There was something special I wanted to find and make ready for later. I wanted to explore the grounds and library.

I couldn’t tell whether Edmund was disgusted or merely confused. I had always bragged to myself that I knew him so well, ‘twin souls’ I declared us. But now, I had no idea what he was thinking as he slowly got up from the bed and walked to the fire. He squatted and faced the flames and warmed his hands, first palms then backs, while I stood wringing mine. Then he stood and faced me, and then he held out his arms. I ran to them and buried my head on his shoulder and sobbed into his nice black coat.

"There, there darling," he said, patting my head. He lifted my tear-stained face and dammed the flow with his first fingers. "I understand. I do. This is all so new for you. I forget how delicate an English rose you are. Your mouth itself is like a cunning little rosebud." And he kissed me. "Your cheeks like soft petals." And he kissed me again.

I felt my blood quicken. I instinctively sniffed, looking for the spicy scent I noticed in the carriage. Wrapping my arms around him, I didn’t feel so much like a rose but more like the Bird of Paradise Sir Thomas was slave to in the Mansfield Park conservatory. Ready to bloom in vibrant colors, spiky orange and purple. But Edmund unwrapped himself and smilingly said, "No Fanny, tonight when it is dark. You were right."

And then he left. Gone to riffle through the papers that had been gathering on his desk while he was at Mansfield. After we had become engaged, which was after he had finally taken orders, he moved to the rectory and set up housekeeping. He had hired the staff, mostly keeping on those who had served the old rector and his family, now moved on to a Bath retirement. He had met the neighbors, calling on them and receiving their calls in return. All were anxious to meet the new Mrs. Bertram. That alone had caused me many anxious nights.

I stood in our bedchamber and stared at the open doorway out of which Edmund had walked. I would take it all back if I could. Go back to our arrival here and control this horrible body that goes cold whenever faced with a new challenge. I bungled my first meeting with our servants. I dampened Edmund’s ardor. And now, here I stand, grinding my teeth because he thinks of me as a rose, a paltry, weak, timid rose when I feel so differently inside.

The longest day ever has finally given way to darkness. We dined alone, Edmund and I. He had left Mrs. Danvers, the imperial housekeeper in the dark dress, in charge when he left to marry me. She ordered today’s dinner, and it was very fine. She clearly wanted to show Mr. Bertram from Mansfield that French cooking was not unknown in her kitchen. I wouldn’t have known what to order—what soup, what dishes, what wines, what sweets. She took care of everything, making our first dinner as man and wife an event.

She had helped me dress, blithely dismissing my little maid even though she was in the middle of fixing my hair. I had told Mary, my maid, of a daring new way I wanted to wear my hair tonight, gathered in bunches of curls with tendrils framing my face. I remembered how Edmund had loosened those tendrils in the carriage this morning—I liked the way he looked at me then and I wanted to see that look again. I wanted to see what was behind that look.

Mrs. Danvers asked how I wanted my hair. I suddenly felt embarrassed and shrugged, so she brushed the curls out and pinned my hair up high and close, just as it was when we came to visit the house last month, Edmund and I…and the time before that, when Mary Crawford was with us.

Mrs. Danvers mentioned that time. She asked me, as she helped me dress, whatever became of the lively young lady who was with us in August when we all came to Thornton Lacey. I started to stammer, and then I remembered that Edmund had chosen me, freely and from his heart.

"She’s gone to live with her uncle again, I believe."

"Now there’s a young woman with snap." Mrs. Danvers said, picking up the pink silk from where I had laid it on the bed, next to the white. I had planned to wear the white. It’s one of the new dresses my uncle had ordered for me. Its neck is low and collarless, requiring lace. It shows my amber cross to perfection. I blushed when I thought how fine I would look in it on my wedding night, with my hair in curls and dressed in ribbons of purple and orange. But then I panicked. I wasn’t used to low-cut dresses with puffs for sleeves. I barely wanted to admit that I even wanted to wear them. I had taken out the pink silk, also new, but more in keeping with my usual style, and laid it beside the white, ready to let Mary talk me into wearing the daring white.

Mrs. Danvers held the pink dress for me to slide into. I didn’t tell her that I wanted to wear the white. I didn’t tell her I wanted to let my hair curl and dance in the candlelight. I didn’t tell her I wanted to show off my amber cross to perfection. I looked at myself in the mirror and sighed inwardly. The lace on this pale pink dress circles my throat instead of my bosom. Its sleeves sheath my arms. It is the dress of a maid or a matron but not a bride, not on her wedding night.

"There now," Mrs. Danvers said. "Don’t you look sweet."

"Oh dearest, don’t you look sweet." Edmund was on his feet and to my side as soon as he saw me in the doorway. He kissed my cheek and then my lips. "Simply lovely," he murmured. And so began our wedding night.

Our dinner was elegant. Our conversation delightful. He made me laugh with his stories and glow with pride when he talked about the good work we would do in the neighborhood. He made me blush when he fed me grapes while he drank his port and gently traced the curve of my arm with his fingers. And all the time, the lace around my neck felt tight and scratchy and my head ached from my hair being pulled and pinned so high and tight. And I longed for the dark when lace and pins and light would all be swept away.

I played new songs for him on the pianoforte. And we laughingly learned the words together to sing in duet. An Italian love song—"Is there any other kind of Italian song?" he asked. I shook my head. We went upstairs.

And in the dark, with lace and pins and silk and waistcoat all swept away, I shivered beneath the cool sheets and made him exclaim when he felt my icy fingers and feet on his warm skin. And in the darkness of my bridal night, my blood again began to quicken and so did his, and finally I heard, I’m sure I did, a spicy whisper from his heart, "Mary." And then I cried out in anger and fear…and love. And I felt my poor heart vainly trying to pump blood to my extremities. And I felt my feet grow cold.

And then Edmund rolled towards me and gathered me in a tender embrace. He kissed my forehead and then sighed and slept. As I lay in the dark, shivering in a warm bed, I looked ahead to long years, married to a man who thought he didn’t get what he wanted but would accept what he got.

…with my Body I thee worship…

In the dark, I reasoned, faces and colors don’t matter so much. Pink or purple, they both fade to black. I’m not even sure he realized that he named his desire and that name wasn’t mine.

A week has passed since Edmund and I stood in the Mansfield Park chapel and gave each other a pledge. Forsaking all others, we promised to love and cherish each other…and I promised to obey him. Do I read him right? Has he commanded me to be his English rose so that he can spend his life regretting that empty shell of a wanton woman, that Mary Crawford, who would rather have seen Tom dead than to have Edmund take orders?

Take orders. Be ordained. Obey.

I wish Mrs. Danvers would obey me. I’m tired of arguing with the woman. She questions my every move. My going out for a walk—"It looks like rain, Mrs. Bertram." My request for tea—"If you like, Mrs. Bertram, but we’ve always served tea a half hour later at Thornton Lacey." My use of the front sitting room—"Oh ma’am, if I’d known you wanted to use this room in the morning I’d have had Albert make a fire."

And I, weak vessel that I am, give way. I let her run the household and change my menus and pick my clothes and disturb my thoughts. I know she thinks that I am a poor wife for an upper-and-comer in the church like Edmund. She clearly thinks that he will be a bishop some day and that I will be a shabby bishop’s wife. She said as much today, when she mentioned Mary Crawford again. She had been talking about how you’ll find a woman behind every great man, and then she said, "That Miss Crawford, that visited with you last summer, she’ll raise her man up in the world. Mark my words, she’ll be an admiral’s wife someday." She didn’t need to say that she thought Edmund would have to realize his ambitions all on his own, I could see it in her face.

And Edmund looks to her for everything. In just one short week, he’s stopped expecting me to take control of the household. He encourages me to read or walk, write letters to Susan and William, ride my pony or sketch the landscape. We dine alone and then sing our new Italian songs. We go upstairs and blow out the candles. My feet are always cold.

The neighbors have started to call. Women and girls in packs, sometimes with young children in tow to run in the garden while we visit and sip tea. All of them are empty. Few read and none question what they read or even talk about what they read. None have traveled further than London, nor wish to. None speak of dreams beyond a good marriage and healthy children. Most envy me. Edmund, a single, rich young man with rising prospects and a handsome face had been the hope of many a mother and daughter in the neighborhood. I can imagine their disappointment when they learned he had left Thornton Lacey last week to be married.

Edmund warned me to expect another round of visitors today. He met a local landowner on the road, who told him his wife and daughter planned to call. They’re new to the neighborhood also. He’s just purchased an estate, probably made a fortune in trade, and is eager to be a country squire. The wife and daughter most likely will be showy. Flaunting their newly acquired status in society.

How wrong I was. Mrs. Clarke and Miss Clarke are exceptional. Mrs. Clarke is French! She married Mr. Clarke twenty years ago when he was but a midshipman and befriended her father when he was on a passage to the Indies. Mrs. Clarke’s father invited the young sailor to visit his home in Paris, and the young couple promptly fell in love and married with the father’s blessing. Mr. Clarke soon left the navy and with the help of his father-in-law set up a trading company that made both families very wealthy. With the troubles in France, Mrs. Clarke’s family moved to South Carolina and the Clarkes retired to the country.

I listened, fascinated, to Mrs. Clarke’s story. Miss Clarke, sixteen and very well-read, interjected her own stories into Mrs. Clarke’s narrative. Miss Clarke is like no sixteen-year-old I have ever known. She is not pretty, not like Maria or Julia. She has freckles and a pointed chin and a sharp nose, but she laughs and tells stories and moves easily between English and French. Mrs. Clarke is a good mother. She listens to her daughter and doesn’t order her or scold her or pet her.

We walked in the garden and sat in the orchard. I couldn’t believe how fast the time went. Usually, when neighbors come to call, we quickly exhaust all possible topics of conversation and then sit in awkward silence until the prescribed amount of time for the visit has passed and they can escape, knowing they have done their civil duty. With the Clarkes, though, we talked and walked and never have I felt so at ease with my own sex.

Even Mrs. Danvers noticed. When it was time for refreshment, I told her we wanted to take our tea in the garden. "As you wish, Mrs. Bertram, but we’ve never served tea in the garden at Thornton Lacey," she sniffed. "Then let this be the first time," I replied. Mrs. Clarke looked at me and I swear I saw her nod in approval. I glowed with victory.

Later, as she and Miss Clarke were taking their leave, I asked them to come again soon.

"Mrs. Bertram, you must come to us next time. Tomorrow we take the chaise and go up to visit the abbey ruins. You come with us, no?"

"Yes, and I’ll have Mrs. Danvers pack us all a picnic lunch."

"That will be good practice for you."

At that, Mrs. Clarke’s mouth curved up slightly, and she nodded again and bid me good day.

We visited the abbey ruins up on a little hill above our village. Edmund told me that the hill is actually layer upon layer of ancient towns that have been buried by time and grass, leaving only the ruins of a fourteenth century church as a lasting testament. I rode with the Clarke ladies in their chaise, and we talked and laughed the whole way. We picnicked on a grassy slope under the ruins, by a stream whose banks were choked with bluebells. Mrs. Clarke opened a flask and poured a glass of wine for each of us. Miss Clarke wandered down by the water looking for smooth rocks and pretty pebbles for a picture she was making out of stone and sand. I lay down on the quilt and watched the clouds cover and uncover the sun.

"So how do you like married life, my dear?" Mrs. Clarke asked. "How is Mr. Bertram as a husband?"

I sat up, shocked and flustered by such a question. Mrs. Clarke threw back her head and laughed at me.

"You English women. So prim and proper. You think your men like prim and proper too?"

I stammered something about not being prim and proper, just being myself. She wouldn’t let me go on. She interrupted me. She touched my hair and shawl contemptuously.

"You think this is you?" she said letting the shawl fall from her fingers.

And then I let the whole story spill out. Mary Crawford and the damnable pink dress and my cold feet and the darkness at night.

She stroked my cheek and lifted my chin. "Did you never have a mother?" she asked sadly. "Not much of one," I replied.

"Then let me tell you what I know. Don’t save your love for the darkness. Don’t blow the candles out and hide. Don’t wear dresses you hate—and for heaven’s sake, don’t wear pink if it makes you feel small. Don’t straighten your hair if it wants to curl. Don’t pin your hair back if it makes your head hurt. Don’t hide your freckles—they only mean that you love to walk in the sun. Don’t bite your lips and pinch your cheeks—paint them if you really want them red. And dear, whatever you do, don’t let your husband live in the past."

It’s been a year now since I was married. Mrs. Danvers is still with us, and she still likes her own way. But so do I, and since I don’t really like French cooking we don’t have it unless the Clarkes are coming to dinner. Amelia Clarke led the neighborhood ball last month and had beaus lined up one side and down the other of the Assembly Rooms. She doesn’t have the largest dowry of the local girls, nor does she have alabaster skin and a simpering smile. She talks and laughs and flirts with any man who comes her way. She paints her lips and cheeks and reads novels and poetry and plays. She’s my second-best friend, next to her mother.

Rosalie Clarke is a remarkable woman. We had a bonfire two weeks after our picnic together at the abbey ruins. We gathered all the branches and twigs that had been collecting from the Spring pruning and at twilight on a cool evening in April, we stuffed my new pink silk dress with straw, gave it a fine full figure, and then burned it in effigy. Edmund was there and Mr. Clarke, laughing at their women cavorting like banshees. I wore my daring white dress with just the barest amount of lace peeking out. Amelia had shown my maid Mary how to fix my hair so that my curls were gathered in three small bunches and twined with ribbons of orange and purple. My amber cross showed to perfection.

After the bonfire, after we had bid goodnight to the Clarkes, Edmund and I wandered in the moonlight until we came to a rushing stream that forms one border of the grounds of Thornton Lacey. The same stream that tumbles by the abbey ruins where Rosalie Clarke explained to me the ways of the world. And by this stream, Edmund kissed me as if for the first time. He ran his fingers through my hair, catching them in the curls that bobbed about my neck and throat. We went inside and went upstairs, and used up three candles complete that night. My feet never got cold.

I honestly can’t say whether Edmund really uttered Mary’s name that first night we were together, on our wedding night. But this I can say, I never listened for it again.


The End

Author's Note: Sophie Charlotte, from the tiny German principality of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, married George III and became Queen of England. In 1773, Sir Joseph Banks, then director of Kew Gardens, named the exotic "Bird of Paradise" plant from the Cape of Good Hope Strelitzia Reginae, in honor of his Queen. The Bird of Paradise is an exotic beauty, with large, long dark green leaves and blooms that are rich purple with bright orange fans. It usually takes seven years and seven leaves before blooms appear.

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