Crawford looked past the young man on his left, peering to see where McKee might have alighted, but he couldn't make her out in the red-tinted dimness. He wondered uneasily if she had found Carpace.
"I am sorry to announce," said a woman's strong voice then from the direction of the table across the room, "that our guest speaker will not be joining us - "
Trelawny snorted, and the woman standing beyond him seemed to stir. Crawford heard exclamations of dismay in German and French from nearby circles. The man to Crawford's left was now peering at the speaker through a pair of opera glasses.
" - because of a sudden illness encountered on the river this morning. We hope to have her back with us soon."
Crawford hiked up in his chair to try to get a better view of the speaker - she appeared to be in charge, and McKee had said Carpace was hosting this affair - but he could only see that she was very wide and wore some sort of tall ornamental headdress.
"Therefore," the woman went on, "we'll proceed directly to individual recitals and political dialogues."
Crawford heard the notes of a flute start up somewhere in the middle of the long room, and farther away a man's voice began singing something dirgelike, and a young woman seated across from Crawford in this ring of chairs waved a sheaf of papers and announced, "If I may, I will read a passage from my Lunar Encomium."
A portly man beside her stood up and fetched a candle from a nearby table, and then he knelt by her and solicitously held the candle beside her elbow so that she could see the pages.
Trelawny leaned forward while she read the first several lines of her poem, about which Crawford was only able to discern that it was in iambic pentameter, but Trelawny soon leaned back and yawned audibly. None of the other people in the circle took note of it - apparently Trelawny was expected to be rude.
After perhaps a minute, the young woman stopped reciting, and since it was at the end of a line and the man with the candle had wobbled to his feet, Crawford concluded that it was over, but he didn't clap his hands until several others in the circle did.
The young man to Crawford's left sighed loudly and said, "Isn't she marvelous? So very like a gold-lit cloud at dawn." He beamed expectantly at Crawford.
"Incredibly like," said Crawford. The young man apparently expected more, so Crawford added, "It's uncanny."
Behind him, Trelawny laughed, and when Crawford turned around he saw that the old man had stood up and was walking away with his Junoesque robed companion.
Looking back down the room, Crawford saw McKee now - she was walking toward the woman who had addressed the crowd.
"May I borrow your opera glasses?" Crawford said to the young man beside him.
"My dear fellow," the man replied, lifting the ribbon over his head and handing them to him.
"You're very kind." The focus was sharp, and in a moment Crawford was viewing the woman as if up close; she was very fat, with tiny dark eyes that weren't made to seem bigger by the kohl dusted around her eyelids.
He saw the moment when she noticed McKee approaching - the woman's eyes widened and then narrowed, and she turned away, toward the table. From his viewpoint at the end of the room farthest from the doors, Crawford was able to see her poke the fingers of one hand into the neckline of her orange silk dress and lift out some small object. She bent over a row of wine glasses, then replaced the object in her bosom and straightened and turned around.
For several seconds she made a show of looking around at the various groups in the room, and then her gaze fixed on someone closer, and Crawford's view was blocked by the back of McKee's hat.
"Thank you," Crawford said, hastily handing back the opera glasses.
He hesitated for a moment, wondering how he would know if McKee's meeting with Carpace were to "go wrong" - what had that business been with the wine glasses? - and then he decided, a bit breathlessly, that even letting McKee confront the old woman alone would be wrong enough, and he began threading his way rapidly around the chattering groups toward the two women.
He had two fingers in the pocket of his waistcoat, nervously ready to pull out the vial of garlic and bite it open if some roaring monster appeared in the smoky air.
He approached the table from behind Carpace, if that was indeed who the fat woman was, and McKee had not noticed him yet. Carpace had slid two wine glasses forward across the tablecloth, but she was looking at McKee, and so Crawford reached out and reversed the glasses.
Then he stepped back and said, "Am I intruding, ladies?"
McKee blinked at him in alarm and glanced around the room, but no devils seemed to be manifesting themselves. Still, he noticed that she stepped back to slightly increase the distance between them - and for just a moment he was distracted by her parted lips and wide eyes and chestnut hair, and the irrelevant realization that she was in fact very pretty.
"Hard to say," she answered. "Mr. Crawford, this is Miss Carpace."
Crawford looked away from McKee to the old woman.
Carpace turned to him with a smile that wrinkled her heavily powdered face. She was holding a decanter of red wine, and now she filled the two glasses and carefully handed one to McKee.
"Enchante, Mr. Crawford," she said in a husky voice, "but Miss McKee is a sad hand at foreign names." She waved her glass at the decanter. "Would you care for some wine? You must be the new poet."
"No, thank you," Crawford said, resolving, though, to pour a fresh glass for himself at the first opportunity. He too took a moment to look uneasily up toward the dark moldings in the corners of the vast room.
"Mr. Crawford," said McKee, "is the father of Johanna. He knows my entire history."
"Ah," said Carpace, giving Crawford a reassessing look, "but nothing's to be gained by stirring up our histories at this point, is there?" She lowered her voice and leaned forward. "What could be more dull, really, than an old whore and an old bawd and an old cad reminiscing?" She sipped from her glass. "You have family, friends, business acquaintances, I'm sure, Mr. Crawford. My name is Carpaccio, hmm?"
"Carpaccio," said Crawford, sweating with embarrassment. "Fair enough."
"And you've brought us some verse, I trust!"
Crawford remembered the lines from Southey in his pocket. "I hope not."
McKee touched her lips to the wine in her glass. "We need to know where the baby was buried."
"Well now, I'll tell you," Carpace said. "Miss Thistle, I must hear the newest canto!" she added more loudly to a woman who had bustled up to the table. "But excuse me a moment while I recommend a good book on grammar to these neophytes."
The poetess gave Carpace an amused, pitying glance and retreated into the dimly red-lit crowd.
Carpace drained her glass and put it down, then waved the decanter toward McKee. "Drink up, my dear, I know you love the stuff."
"I've given it up. Where is she buried?"
Carpace frowned, rippling her whitened forehead. "Given it up? Oh dear. Not even just one, for old time's sake? No? I see. Well, I can't really give you adequate directions in the midst of this affair, now can I? You can see that. Let's meet tomorrow, if you choose. Then I can even draw a map."
McKee was frowning too. "Very well, that will have to do. Where shall we - "
But the glasses and decanters on the table rattled as Carpace suddenly leaned her hips back against it, and she dropped her wine glass to claw furrows in the powder on her pendulous cheek.
"You," she whispered, "no, you were - " She turned clumsily toward Crawford. "You switched the glasses!"
Crawford just stared at her helplessly as McKee looked down at the dropped glass and then up at him with surprised comprehension.
Carpace's hips slid off the table edge and she sat down heavily on the floor. The bass-drum thud was followed by alarmed cries and hurrying footsteps, but McKee, and then Crawford, knelt on the carpet beside the panting old woman. Crawford's face was cold with sweat.
"Fetch an ave!" gasped Carpace. "Save me from Hell!"
"They don't do that," said McKee impatiently. "Where is Johanna buried?"
Carpace's eyes were wide. "Fetch the woman who's with Trelawny!"
"Tell me first."
"Ach, too late, too late, the damned stuff works fast." Her words were slurring. She bared her yellow teeth and squinted at McKee. "I'll leave the world with truth on my lips. Johanna is alive." She was barely able to articulate syllables now. "She - dith - did not - die."
Carpace sneezed, inhaled deeply, and expelled her breath in a sigh that seemed to go on far too long, and then toppled sideways against Crawford's quickly extended arm. Her head lolled loosely on his elbow, and her feathered headdress fell off her artificially darkened curls.
Crawford looked up in horrified bewilderment at the people who were now crowded around, and the first pair of eyes he met were those of the tall woman who had been with Trelawny - and he instinctively recoiled back from her, letting Carpace's head fall to the floor. As a boy he had once awakened to see a leggy black wasp on his pillow, and this reflex now brought that icy moment forcefully to mind.
Now the woman had glided closer, or else had got bigger. The chattering of the crowd seemed to slow and fall in pitch until it was isolated clicks in total silence.
The woman was taller now, with a stark red light on the vast marble planes of her face like sunset on the highest of the Alps, and the intelligence in her glittering eyes was alien and old, older than organic life. The mouth opened like a rift in clouds, and suddenly he was profoundly cold. The whole world seemed to tilt toward her.
When he had moved - when he had still been able to move - there had been the faintest tug against his cheek and forehead, as if he had blundered into a cobweb, and now his nostrils stung with the acid scent of freshly broken stone...
But it was immediately subsumed in a sulfury reek of garlic; and the rapid exclamations and questions all around crashed back in his ears, and the dimensions of the room and the people in it seemed to fall back to their normal proportions. Warm air tingled on his cheeks and forehead. Able to move again, Crawford glanced at McKee and saw that she had unstoppered a vial and spilled the mushy yellow contents into her hand and on the carpet.
Crawford's hand darted to the little bottle in his waistcoat, but the robed woman, once again just a tall woman, had flinched back, and her place at the front of the crowd was taken by ordinary people with anxious faces, and he decided to save it.
But the tall, gray-bearded figure of Trelawny pushed through the press of people then and knelt beside Crawford and McKee to peer at Carpace's limp body where it lay in dimness half under the tablecloth hem.
"You two glow," he growled. His lips were distorted by old scars into a snarl. "Did you come here to do this? You must be mad to come here, even with garlic."
"I needed to find out something from her," said McKee. Her lips were firm, but tears glittered in her eyes.
"Did you learn it?"
McKee shook her head.
Trelawny glanced sharply at her purse, though in the babel of querulous questions and shrill advice any noise her linnet made would surely have been drowned out. "You know Chichuwee?" asked Trelawny. "The Hail Mary man?"
"Of him," said McKee.
"See him." Trelawny glanced over his shoulder - Crawford followed his look, but didn't see the tall, robed woman in the jabbering crowd.
"Get out of here," said Trelawny. "Separately." Looking up, he said, loudly, "Apoplectic fit. Fetch a physician."
The crowd broke up then, some people hurrying away and some rushing forward to elbow Crawford and McKee out of the way, though no one jostled Trelawny.
McKee grabbed Crawford's lapel and pulled his head to hers. "Your house," she whispered, and then she had released him and disappeared in the dim light among the dozens of agitated poets.
Crawford stood up, and a woman caught his wrist - he jumped in alarm, but it was his client, the woman who had got him the invitation.
"Mr. Crawford, can you do something? You're a medical man!"
Crawford had the impression that Trelawny looked up at that remark, but he said to the woman, "I'm afraid she's gone. I believe it was her heart."
"Oh! How horrible!" She shook her head and stepped back, then went on distractedly, "Old Mr. Figgins is well, by the way."
Crawford had no idea who she was talking about. "Good, good," he said automatically, wondering where McKee might be, "tell him we must get together for dinner sometime soon. I'm sorry, you'll have to excuse me."
Before starting away he threw one more glance down at Trelawny. The old man met his eye and held up his hands, palms out, and then spread them and raised his eyebrows impatiently.
Baffled, Crawford held up his own hands in the same way.
Trelawny nodded with evident satisfaction and jerked his head toward the door before returning his attention to Carpace's inert body.
CRAWFORD DIDN'T SEE MCKEE on the street, though admittedly she'd have had to be very close for him to see her in the yellow-stained fog, and he flagged down a hansom cab on Bloomsbury Street.
As the cab whirred south through the fog, Crawford huddled on the single seat, squinting into the damp and chilly headwind, and he tried to fit the events of the last fifteen minutes into his experience; they were as vivid and loud in his mind as if they were still happening, all overlapped and at once, and he wished his house was farther away so that he'd have time to relegate them - come to terms, see priorities and comparative magnitudes - before meeting Miss McKee again.