Christina nodded miserably. "I carry it around with me, very close. Not that it does me any good."



"I cannot believe you had it in the house with Lucy and Bessie!" Maria peered at the open gate of the cypress-shadowed churchyard, only a dozen yards ahead now along the rutted dirt path. "We could bury it in consecrated ground."


"I don't think it would lie ... inertly, in peace. And Papa entrusted it to me - I know he'll want it back, sooner or later. Oh, Maria, I don't want to hate him for this!"


"Hate which?"


Christina blinked at her sister, then answered softly, "Well - either of them."


"You say he led Papa to our mother." Maria's voice was flat. "And he resembled Gabriel and William and me. And Mama and you too, I imagine. I think I know who your ghost must be." She shook her head. "Have been. And you - you're fond of him."


"I - try not to be. I do want to send him away."


"Exorcise him? To Hell? That's where he belongs - he committed suicide, remember, in 1821."


"No - I know, but Mama - "


"He's what's made you sick. Does he keep you from eating, sleeping, to make you so pale and thin?"


"No," said Christina. She laughed briefly, a sound like dry sticks knocked together. "He's more like a - a bedbug."


"He, what, he bites you?"


"It doesn't hurt. It did at first, but now it - doesn't hurt."


The horses had rocked and plodded up to the arched wrought-iron gate of the churchyard, and Maria unhooked her right leg from the fixed saddle pommel and slid down to thump her boots on the dusty ground.


"We might be able do something here," she said.


Christina, up on her own conventional saddle, hadn't shifted. "Maria, you've read, oh, Homer and Euripides and Ovid! I don't want to exorcise him to Hell. Isn't there some pagan ritual we could do?"


"We're Christians, and this is a Christian church; I don't - "


"Mama loves him still! He's her brother! What if it were a brother of yours - Gabriel or William?"


"Any such 'ritual' would ... compromise our souls, Christina, yours and mine." She squinted up at her sister. "Our Savior mercifully put an end - and an interdict! - to the old pagan tricks."


"Can we at least give him some sort of pagan burial, so he might dissipate into the dirt and the grass? Then tomorrow I could dig him - it - up again, once the spirit was gone, and take the emptied statue back to Papa."


"Christina, this is a job for a priest, not two girls! A Catholic priest, really - they're more familiar with devils."


"I won't send him to Hell. I'll let him drain me to a husk, sooner." She shuddered and hugged herself with her thin arms. "I'm glad he didn't do this to Papa. But, Maria, why didn't he do this to Papa, who found him and woke him?"


"Papa married into the Polidori family; he's not a blood relation. You are. Do you need help getting down?"


After a moment of puzzlement, Christina shook her head and pulled her right foot free of the stirrup, and when she swung her leg over the horse's back, Maria caught her by the waist and steadied her to the ground.


"You don't weigh anything," said Maria, brushing her sister's skirt out straight.


Christina took a hasty step to catch her balance and said, breathlessly, "Help me down - from this precipice! - Maria."


For several seconds neither girl spoke, and Christina's panting gradually subsided.


"Can he hear us?" asked Maria finally. "Now?"


"No - he's aware of me - I can feel his attention like spiderwebs - but - " Christina looked up at the fading blue sky and then looked around nervously at the chapel and the grassy hills. "We'd see him, if he could hear us. Why?"


"I can think of a couple of things we might try," said Maria gruffly. "One, out of Papa's old Hebrew books, would surely damn our souls."


Out of consideration for her sister, Christina asked, "What's the other?"


"Well - Mama was a Polidori. She said the family, Grandpa and all of them, liked to think they were descended from Polydorus, in the Iliad and the Aeneid."


"That's right." Christina crouched beside her horse's front legs, for she still felt dizzy. "You wanted to call Grandpa's house in Park Village 'Myrtle Cottage' because of something to do with Polydorus."


Maria nodded and cast a long look at the churchyard gate, and at the dozen headstones standing up in the shadowed grass beyond it, then sighed and led her horse away, across the road to a ditch and a low fieldstone wall. Beyond the wall a wide field sloped up to a hedge, still brushed with gold sunlight, on the crest of the hill.


Christina straightened up and followed, scuffing her shoes in the dust as she pulled her own horse clopping along after her.


"What did Polydorus do, again?"


"Die, mainly," said Maria over her shoulder. "In the Aeneid they find his body, his unrestful murdered body, tangled up in the roots of a myrtle bush on the island of Thrace, and they give it proper honors and - and it's implied that the ghost lies quiet after that."


"Can we give - him - those 'proper honors'?"


Maria muttered some Latin hexameters under her breath, then said, "Milk and blood, and dirt piled on him. And black fillets, like hair ribbons - and the Trojan women let down their hair in grief."


Christina was leaning forward to rest her elbows on the waist-high stone wall and looking away, up the hill. The stone was still warm, though the breeze was now uncomfortably chilly.


"The question is," Maria went on, "will he recognize it as a fitting au revoir for a Polidori? Not just fitting, in fact, but compelling?"


Christina said, "I don't know," in a weary exhalation. "Can you ride back and get milk? And black ribbons?"


"Surely. Er ... what will we do for blood?"


"He's had enough of mine." Christina waved back toward the chapel without looking at it. "Would there be sacramental wine?"


She heard Maria gasp. "That would be sacrilege!"


"It's only wine, Maria - we're not Catholics! But he was raised Catholic, he might believe it's blood." Their grandparents had raised their mother and aunts Anglican and their uncles Catholic, and Christina supposed that the beliefs would have been deeply implanted into her uncle John, even if he later rejected them.


She looked up at the darkening sky. "I think he's ... not far off." Her voice was unsteady.


"I'll hurry," said Maria, stepping up into the saddle and settling her right leg over the fixed pommel. She deftly reined the horse around and set off at a trot back toward the Read house.


THE SKY WAS MUCH darker by the time Maria came riding back less than ten minutes later, and the hill beyond the low wall was a patchwork of grays shifting in the chilling wind. Christina was standing in the road by the wall, facing the hill.


"This is a bad idea," Maria said, lowering herself carefully from the saddle while clutching a screw-top glass jar in one hand. "'If 'twere done, 'twere best done quickly.'"


Christina nodded and touched the gold chalice that now stood on the rough top edge of the wall, but she didn't take her eyes from the hillside.


"I fetched this from across the road," she said quietly. "And we're all here."


She was staring at a hunched silhouette that stood halfway up the shadowed slope, and a moment later she heard Maria gasp and scuffle backward.


"Is that ... him?" Maria whispered.


Christina's breath caught in her throat when she tried to answer, but she managed to nod.


The ashy figure up on the slope seemed to sway and flutter in the breeze, but it didn't shift its position.


After a long, strained moment, "Back to the house!" said Maria breathlessly, grabbing Christina's shoulder; "or no - into the chapel!"


"He's blind," said Christina, "no eyes. And he can't hurt you without you inviting him." She looked away from the distant figure to face her sister. "As I invited him, Maria! And he's ... our uncle."


"He's - he doesn't look anything like - any of us!" Maria was still gripping her sister's shoulder. "He looks like - some kind of shark!"


"He hasn't been well. And he's more Mouth Boy now than our uncle John."


Maria let go of her sister's shoulder. "Mouth Boy?" she said in a wailing whisper. "What, from your old nightmares?"


Christina nodded. "I suppose I've always been waiting for him, and that's the - the sketch I did in advance. He's partly assumed it now, out of economy."


Maria took a deep breath and let it out shakily. "I said I'd do this, and I will. But God help us."


Christina reached a trembling hand into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out the little black stone figure. "Tell me what to do."


"I don't want to get on the same side of the wall as him," Maria said. "Stop looking at him! Yes, you invited him, and we've got to uninvite him, surely. Ach, but I think it should be in the grass, on that side. The road dirt's packed too hard to dig anyway. And the milk and - and blood wouldn't sink in. I should have fetched a trowel. Maybe the - "


Christina was looking at her sister, and now reached out to touch her lips to stop her talking. "In the grass it is," she said, and she turned away from the hill to hike herself up onto the wall, then swung her legs around and hopped down into the calf-high grass. "Thank you for doing this," she said over her shoulder, trying to sound more resolute than she felt. "For saving me."


"If I'm not damning us both."


Maria clambered over the wall herself and immediately crouched to begin pulling up clumps of long grass and then scooping out the warm black loam underneath. "You watch him!" she said in a shrill whisper. "If he comes this way, run for the chapel!" She glanced up at her sister, and then hissed, "Jesus save us, are you smiling at him?"


"I'm the last sight he'll see, God willing."


"That's right, that's right. Kneel down here - and let down your hair. We're supposed to be mourning."


"I think," said Christina, reaching behind her head as she knelt in the grass, "I am."


Maria pulled clips from her own black hair and shook it out. Both girls were shivering. "I can mourn for our uncle," Maria said, "dead these twenty-four years."


Christina kissed the stone before laying it into the shallow hole Maria had dug. Maria frowned but didn't say anything and began piling the damp earth onto it.


"More," she said. "We want a mound."


Christina pulled up some more sheaves of grass and gouged up handfuls of dirt from underneath and added them to the pile.


From her pocket Maria pulled three black ribbons, and after a moment's hesitation she laid them crossed in a star pattern over the little mound.


Then she shook the jar she'd brought from the house - "It's supposed to be foaming," she said - and poured milk over the mound. In the gathering darkness the milk hardly showed on the black mound, and in a moment it had disappeared.


"Now the blood," she said.


Christina reached behind her and lifted the chalice from the wall top and handed it to Maria.


"Rest in peace, Uncle John," said Maria softly as she poured the wine over the dirt. "Please."


Christina nodded and managed to say, "Go."


She glanced up quickly, and Maria flinched back with a gasp, for a deeper shadow had seemed to fall across them from only a yard away - and then it was gone, and the grass was rippling in waves away from the raw mound.


Christina was reminded of having once at twilight walked through a field of tall grass and disturbed sleeping birds, who darted short distances away without appearing above the grass tops, so that her passage had seemed to cause ripples, as if she were wading through a pond instead of grass.


She thought she caught a whiff of the sea, or gunpowder, and the metallic smell of blood.


She rubbed her hand over her face, and there was no more sensation of clinging spiderwebs. "He's gone," she whispered, feeling empty.


"Thank God." Maria got laboriously to her feet, brushing off the front of her riding habit. "We must return the chalice."


"Tomorrow I'll dig the statue up again," said Christina. "Papa will be relieved to have it back, even inert."


Maria started to speak, then just shook her head.


The two girls led the horses back across the road, and within minutes they were mounted and trotting away through the deepening gloom toward the lights of the Read house.


THE WIND FROM THE north swept the grass in even waves across the slope in the darkness, but in the patch of grass by the wall, the waves converged in on the mounded pile of fresh-turned dirt and combed the grass into a spiral, and then the grass blades and the mound flattened, as if under a weight.


By morning the grass had straightened up again, as if the weight had joined the milk and wine in soaking into the ground, or as if it had risen and moved away.

CHAPTER ONE

Hope to Die


February 1862


CHAPTER ONE


I shall go my ways, tread out my measure,


Fill the days of my daily breath


With fugitive things not good to treasure...


- Algernon Swinburne, "The Triumph of Time"


WYCH STREET WAS two rows of tall old houses facing each other across a narrow pavement now dusted with snow, just north of the broad lanes of the Strand and only a few streets from the line of arches along the land-facing side of Somerset House. The cold morning sun silhouetted the steeple of St. Clement Danes to the east and lanced down the street - here glaring from the panes of a bay window on an upper floor, there glittering in the frost crystals on a drainpipe slanting across a still-shadowed wall - and a woman in a blue coat was walking slowly down the middle of the pavement with the sun at her back.

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