"Are you a singer?" came a harsh voice from only a couple of yards away, making Swinburne almost dance in surprise.



A stocky gray-bearded man in a voluminous oilskin coverall was sitting against the far gunwale among untidy heaps of rope, puffing on a short clay pipe.


"No," said Swinburne. He gestured inexpressively. "Uh, no."


The old man waved his pipe. "On your way then. I was informed that I'm waiting for a singer."


Swinburne bit his lip and looked up and down the miles of dark shore under the starry vault of the sky, and then at the three other boats moored here. They looked long abandoned. The wind in the ropes and the textured crash and hiss of the waves emphasized the overall silence.


"Could it," he ventured, "have been 'a poet'?"


For several seconds the old man squinted at him in the lantern's light; then he nodded. "Aye, the relay bird might have meant poet just as well. Are you a poet then?"


"Yes."


The old man's face crinkled with something like disgust, but he got his boots under him and struggled to his feet.


"You're going to find it a cold night," he said. "Your hat and gloves look good enough, and I've got a spare pair of boots and a neck wrap, but in between will suffer."


"Suffering will be helpful, I think," said Swinburne, stepping aboard. "Especially in between."


"I'm Chess," the old man said, and as if to emphasize it, he stamped twice on the rocking deck.


"Algernon," said Swinburne. Apparently they were not to shake hands.


The stamping had evidently been a summons, for in a few seconds two other men appeared, climbing laboriously up out of a previously unnoticed square hole in the deck near the tin chimney. Their beards were if anything whiter than Chess's, and Chess introduced them, perhaps seriously, as his father and grandfather.


"The bait's aboard for our catch tonight," Chess told them, waving at the skinny, top-heavy figure of Swinburne.


The two older men had closed a hatch cover over the opening they had emerged from, and they set about casting off lines and freeing the boom and unfurling the sail. Swinburne stepped cautiously around the open pit full of wet gravel to lean against the front side of the mast and look out over the bow at the black sea.


By his shadow on the raised bow ahead of him he could see that the silent mariners had carried the lantern aboard and fixed it somewhere amidships, and then he felt the deck move as they poled the vessel away from the pier.


When the offshore wind had filled the sail and the boat had begun to tack against it, surging out across the water to the south, Chess stepped up beside Swinburne.


"You've brought payment," the old man said.


Swinburne nodded and with one gloved hand dug a stoppered bottle out of his pocket.


When he had laid it in Chess's palm, the old man held it up, squinted at it, and shook it. "Catholic?" he asked.


"As specified. From St. Ethelreda's in Holborn."


"Cheat me and this enterprise won't work."


"I know," said Swinburne irritably, "the bird man told me that." He waved at the bottle. "It's genuine."


He wondered why, if Catholic holy water was so valuable to Chess, the old man didn't simply go ashore and fetch some on his own. Perhaps these three never did go ashore, Swinburne thought fancifully - perhaps they were a trinity that was somehow not able to.


The wind was already achingly cold on his face as he squinted past Chess at the few lighted windows on the receding Kentish hills. "How far out do you have to go?"


"You'll tell me," said Chess. "Quicksilver, I reckon your quarry was."


There had been no fortuitous ave out of which Chichuwee might forcibly milk and boil Lizzie's ghost, but Swinburne had brought him one of her handkerchiefs, and so the old bird man had used it as a "plumb line" to facilitate a session of automatic writing by means of a pencil on a felt-footed disk. Her ghost had seemed to volunteer a response, with weak squiggles that only occasionally formed words, but Chichuwee had said that if the responder was indeed Lizzie's ghost, it was already remote - out of the river and into the sink of the sea. The only chance of meaningful contact was for Swinburne to try calling her from a boat out of sight of land.


"Yes," Swinburne said now, shivering, "she didn't linger."


He didn't tell Chess that the reason Lizzie's ghost had not sat dormant in the river might be because her identity had powerfully repelled it by being negatively charged - even diabolically charged.


Her ghost, it seemed to Swinburne, might be her fugitive innocence.


"Out of sight of land," he added.


Chess nodded. "They're always that," he said. "Why don't you go below? You're no use up here, and we can fetch you when we're in the Ghost Roads."


Swinburne eyed the little square hatch cover in the deck with distaste, but a gust of even colder wind blew tears out of his eyes and he nodded and began groping his way aft.


THE BELOWDECKS SPACE WAS only dimly illuminated by a fire visible through vents in a small cooking stove, but Swinburne could see that the height of the place was no more than four feet, from the plank floor to the plank ceiling, and about eight feet long and perhaps seven feet across at its widest point, though it narrowed to nothing up at the bow end. In this confined space, Chess and his companions had crammed a surprising amount of stuff - a railed crockery shelf, a square teakettle fitted in a square niche, bunks, and bundles of canvas and rope. Soon the inside of Swinburne's nose had warmed enough for him to grimace at the smells of fish and sweat and tar, and he pulled out Baudelaire to have at least the mental perfume of the decadent Frenchman's verse.


But after a few minutes of trying to recline with the book held up to a beam of orange light from the stove, Swinburne found himself sliding forward and then rolling up against one of the bunks, where he clung as the boat rolled the other way, and he guessed that they had sailed out past the barrier of the seawall. Hastily he pulled a flask from the breast pocket of his overcoat and gulped some brandy to stave off seasickness, and he anxiously watched the stove and the piles of tarred rope, ready to bolt up onto the deck if the vessel's pitching should spill burning coals onto the rope. Regretfully he stopped trying to read Metamorphoses du vampire, shut the volume of Baudelaire, and tucked it back into his pocket.


He thought of Lizzie, and the night she had bitten him on the wrist as they had been drunkenly playing cat-and-mouse on the drawing room carpet while Gabriel had been working down the hall in his studio. Swinburne had a moment earlier presumed to call her by the pet name Gabriel used for her, Guggums, and after the answering bite she had said, in an oddly harsh voice, Call me Gogmagog. Swinburne had laughed delightedly and tried to bite her in return, but she had got up and hurried out of the room; and when he had gone looking for her, he had found her with Gabriel in the studio, and she had claimed to have been there for the last half hour.


Probably she had been! Probably the Lizzie who had bitten him was a mimicking apparition, an inhuman impostor, like the couple in Gabriel's drawing who confronted the originals of themselves in a forest.


After perhaps half an hour, the rolling abated a bit and one of the old men lifted back the hatch cover and called down the hole, "It's time."


Swinburne was glad to crawl across to the hatch and stand up with his head out in the fresh air - and then he quailed and sagged, for the wind was icy and shot with spray. He ducked back into the low space and found the boots and scarf that Chess had mentioned, and when he had got them on, he took a deep breath and then crawled back to the hatch and climbed out onto the rocking wet deck.


A couple of flaring kerosene torches mounted at the bow and stern threw a white glare over the dark water, and the nearer waves glittered as they rolled past, like living, diamond-dusted obsidian.


Chess was braced up by the bow, and Swinburne staggered forward against the force of the wind to join him, both to see better ahead and to be nearer to the flame.


Chess was holding the unstoppered bottle of holy water, and Swinburne could see that half of its contents were gone.


Swinburne's face was already numb with cold, but the chill shivered through his belly too when he looked ahead and saw ... white figures standing out there over the waves in the night.


They moved bonelessly like splashes of milk in oil, and the holes that were their eyes and mouths appeared and disappeared as randomly as spots of moonlight on pavement below windblown trees; their arms waved above their shapeless heads.


And over the wind in the rigging he could hear their voices, a shaking cacophony like wind chimes. Men and women, and children, their frail cries rang away across the infinite dark face of the sea in weird atonal harmony.


Swinburne clung dizzily to the bow gunwale. Flying sea spray stung his eyes.


Then one voice out there was clear: "Hadji!" it called. "Save me with your blood!" Swinburne saw the figure now, only a dozen yards away and clearer than the rest. And even out here, even without an organic throat to propel it, the voice was one Swinburne recognized.


Chess leaned toward Swinburne. "You need to throw some of your blood into the sea," the old man said, speaking loudly to be heard over the ghost chorus and the wind. "The bird man told you that, right?"


"No," said Swinburne, his gloved hands gripping the slick gunwale. He shook his head.


"Well, it needn't be gallons - just a few drops will do." With a sharp click Chess opened a clasp knife and pressed the grip into Swinburne's palm. "Finger's fine. That's your fugitive, is it?"


Tears were blowing back along Swinburne's cheeks, mingling with the sea spray.


"No," he said.


Hadji had been Swinburne's childhood nickname. This was the ghost of his grandfather, who had died two years ago; Swinburne had written about him, "the two maddest things in the north country were his horse and himself" - old Sir John Swinburne had been a free-thinking follower of Voltaire who was once sent to prison for insulting the Prince Regent, and young Algernon had loved and admired him.


"Hadji!" came the cry again across the water, distinct over the wailing of the other ghosts. "Some of your living blood!"


"You have to answer," said Chess, leaning in close to be heard, "or he'll hang about and drown out any others." He grinned. "Huh. Drown out."


"It's my grandfather," said Swinburne, near sobbing. "I can't bear it that he's dead - out here."


Chess laughed harshly. "My grandfather is dead too, and out here. At least yours doesn't have to work a Purgatorial fishing boat."


That made Swinburne look directly at the old man beside him, and then he hunched around to look aft at the two figures standing halfway back along the deck, black silhouettes backlit by the stern torch.


Swinburne suddenly felt cold all through, colder than the wind-borne spray. Very aware of the multitude of ghosts and the vast night sea around them, he turned back to face Chess. "Am I," he quavered, "dead myself?"


"I think you hope to die," said Chess, shouting into Swinburne's ear, "but haven't the industry to kill yourself in a straightforward fashion." He laughed. "No, lad, you're not dead - nor am I. But it seems we both have grandfathers wanting such care as dead men can receive."


With his gloved right hand he pulled back the bunched left sleeves of his coverall, coat, and sweater, and then quickly tucked it all back into the glove gauntlet, but not before Swinburne had glimpsed a raw cut on the man's wrist.


Swinburne squinted ahead at the curling wisp that was his own grandfather's ghost. "But this isn't them." He pounded one fist on the gunwale. "I mean - is it?"


Chess said loudly, "They break up, when they die. The core goes away, but the shell sometimes stays. And even the shell is part of what they were." He nodded out over the bow. "And there's your grandfather's."


"No," said Swinburne. And then he shouted, "No!" at the white figure curling in the darkness.


"What for me?" piped his grandfather's ghost.


"Nothing from me," said Swinburne into his clenched hands on the gunwale; he had spoken almost too quietly for even Chess to hear him over the thrashing wind, but the ghost sprang to fading mist.


Swinburne raised his head, glaring into the infinite night.


"Lizzie!" he called now. "Lizzie Siddal!"


The ghosts all just stood out there, like a million bleached banners of a long-ago defeated army.


"Lizzie!" he called again.


And another ghost came into sharper focus where his grandfather's had been, and this one managed to look vaguely feminine in its shifting outlines.


"Algy, who are your friends?" it said, and its voice was like notes violined out of glass and sharp edges of bone.


Swinburne's spray-stung eyes strained with the effort of getting her into focus. "Sailors," he shouted. "Lizzie, I - "


"The dead leading the blind," said her ghost. "Algy, it's always cold here."


"I've come to take you back," Swinburne called, cupping his hands around his mouth.


"Back! How?"


Swinburne's teeth stung as he took a deep breath. "Marry me! I love you! With Gabriel it was just 'till death did you part,' and that's - done. Marry me and live in me, in this body, this warm body. 'One flesh.'" He was still holding Chess's opened knife, and now he stabbed his finger right through the leather glove and shook drops of blood out into the wind. "With this blood I thee wed!"


But the white figure was now smaller and less distinct. "I'm naked," came its fainter voice. "You mustn't look at me."

Source: www.StudyNovels.com