"I saw two clouds of smoke," Christina said, " - distinct, not dissipating in the air, like - splashes of ink in oil! - they burst out through your window and churned away over the river! Darker than the night! Our uncle John - "
"Is awake again; I know," said Gabriel, pulling two chairs out from the table and slumping into one of them. "My visitors told me. My inky visitors. God."
"It wasn't him, himself, then," said Christina. "Thank God for that." She sat down in the other chair and took his hand. "Who were they?"
"One was a boy, like a starved corpse galvanized. The other - " He had run out of air, and had to take a deep breath to go on. "The other was - Lizzie. Or your Celtic queen, the one who died in A.D. 60, animating my Lizzie."
"Lizzie? But she was blocked with mirrors too! Did they all dissolve?"
Gabriel rocked his head back and stared at the rings of gaslight on the high ceiling. "Corrode, tarnish, I don't know." He put a hand over his eyes, but his voice was still steady when he said, "My poor Lizzie! This thing said that what's left of my wife has two true parents, meaning our uncle and this Boadicea creature."
"And ... the other one, the boy?"
"God knows who the boy is, or was. They said I need to renew my lapsed vows." He gave his sister a bleak smile. "They said Uncle John is wounded - by your mirrors apparently, while they still worked." He leaned forward to see the clock over the mantel, then glanced moodily at the waving curtains. "William is due soon for dinner. I suppose we'll eat in the breakfast room, rather than in here."
"That room has several mirrors," Christina agreed. "And I left a note for Maria, saying to join me here."
"All four suits together, Diamonds, to play this hand."
Christina shook her head and pursed her lips. "I can't imagine what William will think of all this. But we've got to try to warn him."
"He's big on science. We'll tell him that it's all to do with magnetism."
WILLIAM STOPPED AT THE Euston Street house to refill his tobacco pouch - Gabriel's guests always smoked up the tobacco he left in a box on the mantelpiece at Tudor House - and so he and Maria arrived there together in the cab William had hired.
William only spent a night or two a week in his room at Tudor House, because, unlike Gabriel, he generally had to arise at eight in the morning to be at his office at the Board of Inland Revenue in Somerset House by ten. He was forty years old and had worked there since the age of fifteen, and he was now the assistant secretary in the Excise Section.
His real allegiance was to art and poetry, but he had no particular skills in them himself - he had written a translation of Dante's Inferno, but Macmillan had rejected it twelve years ago and reconsidered eight years later only because William's mother contributed fifty pounds toward the expense of its publication - and he tried to be content with being a financial and emotional support to his sister and brother as they pursued their areas of genius. He was currently devoting a lot of his free time to editing a collection of Shelley's poetry, a project that had brought him into contact with Shelley's oldest-surviving and most controversial friend, an old pirate named Trelawny.
Neither he nor Maria noticed the broken first-floor window as they stepped from the cab through the streetlamp radiance to Gabriel's iron gate, but Christina met them on the walkway and hurried them inside, glancing nervously at the dark sky.
She led them upstairs to the studio, where they found Gabriel staring at his painting Beata Beatrix, a portrait of his dead wife, Lizzie, as Dante's Beatrice. The painting, still unfinished seven years after it was begun, portrayed Lizzie in three-quarter profile with her eyes shut, as a dove dropped a poppy into her limp hands; behind her stood the indistinct figures of a man in black and a woman in red, who Gabriel said were intended to represent Dante and Love.
William had always thought it was a morbid picture - the Dante and Love figures looked sinister in their shadowy blurriness, and he thought it was in doubtful taste to show a poppy being given to a woman who had died of an overdose of laudanum, which was a potent mix of opium and grain alcohol.
William stepped carefully around the many half-finished paintings that lay on the floor to the fireplace, but the tobacco box was once again empty. Grumbling, he fished his old briar pipe and tobacco pouch from his coat pocket.
Christina had pulled Maria down beside her onto the sofa. Behind them was a small window blocked with the dead leaves of one of the trees in the back garden.
Gabriel was tugging at his goatee and scowling as he paced the floor between the pictures, and when William had finally drawn up one of the easy chairs, and raised his eyebrows quizzically as he struck a match to his pipe, Gabriel said, "Lizzie was just here. Lizzie. Christina saw ... saw her exit, right through one of the drawing room windows. She then apparently flew away."
"Oh no," moaned Maria, clasping Christina's hand. "The mirrors...?"
"Mirrors?" asked William, keeping his voice merely level.
"It's magnetism!" blurted Christina, and then blushed.
Gabriel curtly explained to William that the three of them had surreptitiously lined the bottom of Lizzie's coffin with downward-facing mirrors stained with Christina's blood; the ghost of their suicide uncle was apparently in the coffin directly below Lizzie's, in their father's coffin - and Gabriel claimed that the "corporeal kernel" of their uncle's ghost, or possibly vampiric devil, was a tiny statue lodged in their father's throat.
William cleared his own throat and shifted in his chair. "Did - did you say," he asked, "in Papa's throat?"
"Yes," said Gabriel levelly.
For a moment no one spoke, and William just puffed on his pipe, and the tarry smell of latakia tobacco drove away the big room's usual scent of linseed oil. He considered asking how they believed they knew this, but the thought of the occult explanation that would surely follow wearied him in advance.
Then he thought of all the mirrors that were hung throughout the house - so many that a visitor saw more of himself than of his companions.
"But why mirrors?" William persisted.
Gabriel explained that if one of these creatures - one of them? thought William - could be induced to fix its attention on a mirror, its identity would be reflected back on itself, causing its identity to fragment.
"Any order in its field would arguably be lost in interference fringes," conceded William, nodding. He looked at Christina. "This is what your 'Folio Q' was about, I think?"
"Yes, but not specifically enough," she said. "Maria repeated some of Papa's studies to discover it." She squinted miserably at William. "I know you don't believe any of this - "
"That's not quite true," he said carefully, "any longer. I frankly admit I'm dubious of this story, but ever since the night when - on the night I'm sure you remember, when you did some automatic writing in my presence in the old house on Albany Street, I've been investigating spiritualism." He glanced at Gabriel.
"It's true," Gabriel said. "We've held seances in this house."
"Oh, William, Gabriel, no!" exclaimed Maria. "Consulting the dead!"
William smiled and leaned back. "It's science, Maria! Possibly magnetism, as Christina said. I've been to a good twenty seances, here and elsewhere, and now I'm at least willing to concede the possibility that there is some sort of life after death."
"You should have been here ten minutes ago," growled Gabriel. "You'd have conceded it and then some. Algy saw her too, saw Lizzie."
"And I've been writing more of 'Folio Q,'" said Christina mournfully. "Our uncle is clearly active, though the writing seemed distracted; there were no clear statements." She spread her hands. "The mirrors have somehow stopped working."
"Lizzie - " said Gabriel, "the Lizzie thing - said that he's wounded now, at least."
Christina shuddered and said, "I wonder if the statue is even still in Papa's grave? I remember the gravediggers at Lizzie's funeral pointing out what they called a 'mole hole' that went all the way down."
"Wait a moment," said William. "This statue - is it that little black one that Papa kept on a shelf in his bedroom?"
"Yes," said Gabriel.
William remembered the childhood nightmares that had always stopped when their father put the statue in a glass of salt water. "I begin," he said cautiously, "to find this marginally plausible. Why is it in Papa's throat?"
"He choked on it," said Christina.
William opened his mouth to ask how that had occurred, but Gabriel was already speaking.
"If it is still there," said Gabriel, "we need to exhume it and destroy it once and for all."
"Impossible, surely," said William, "for a dozen reasons! For one, you can't ... cut open our father's throat! And in any case, you couldn't do it on the sly - there are night watchmen."
Gabriel held up a hand and then stepped to the fireplace, where he lifted a brandy decanter and poured a couple of inches of liquor into a used coffee cup. He drank it off in two quick gulps, then said, quietly, "As to your first objection, William, I think the presence of that thing in Papa's throat defiles his final rest."
The sisters nodded, Maria grudgingly.
Gabriel gave his siblings a defiant look. "And as to the second - I've been in correspondence with Henry Bruce. Do you remember him?"
William tamped the smoldering tobacco in his pipe and frowned. "Involved in your commission to paint the altarpiece in the cathedral at Cardiff?"
"That's the man. He was member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil at the time. He's now the Home Secretary." Gabriel took a deep breath. "I have lately concluded that Millais and Burne-Jones outstrip me in the execution of art."
"Nonsense," said William, and Christina echoed him.
"That's kind of you to say, but, begging your pardon, even though my eyesight is failing, I can see that much. And so I've decided to establish my name in poetry instead - or as well, at least." His face when he looked around was tensely expressionless. "Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he was blind."
William raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
"Well," said Gabriel, "don't you see? I want to stand now on my poetry, but my best poems are - "
"Oh, Gabriel!" burst out Christina. "Not the notebook you laid in her coffin!"
"That was a sacrifice," Gabriel nearly shouted, "and for seven years I've endured the sacrifice!" More quietly he went on, "This is, must be, kept a secret, for all our sakes - if it should somehow become known that I did it, and you hear of it, you must react as you would if this conversation never took place. That is, dismiss it, deny it. I implore your thoroughness in this, for all our sakes. But the Home Secretary has officially granted me permission to exhume Lizzie."
"Granted you permission?" said Maria. "But you're not the owner of the grave - Mama is."
"That was an obstacle," said Gabriel, nodding, "but I prevailed with the argument that it was the grave of my wife."
"Was it," said Christina slowly, "only your poems that you hoped to retrieve?"
She seemed to brace herself as she asked the question, as though it might provoke Gabriel, but Gabriel just gave his sister a haggard smile. "If my purpose had been to free our uncle from the mirrors and revive my strangled Muse - our strangled Muse! - I would have abandoned the plan tonight, when we learned that he is in fact somehow free of them now. I don't want the - the consequences of his help anymore, but I would like to have the work I did in the days when I had his help."
"Muse?" said William. "Help?"
Gabriel bobbed his head and waved toward Christina.
She pursed her lips and shifted on the sofa. "These things are vampires, and - and when they've established a connection with you, one of the results is often that you write ... a better sort of poetry than you could do unaided."
William shivered. A better sort of poetry than you could do unaided.
"Gabriel and I haven't written first-rate poetry since Lizzie's funeral," Christina added.
"And they sustain the lives of their human ... partners," grumbled Gabriel. "I don't think Christina would be an invalid now if we had not strangled him at Lizzie's funeral - and I don't think I would be losing my eyesight."
William found that he was suddenly eager to believe this story, and he tried to revive his habitual skepticism. He turned to Gabriel. "What are the consequences that you don't want?"
"These vampires," said Gabriel, "love the humans whom they initiate into their family - "
"Initiate with their teeth," said Christina quietly.
" - and," Gabriel went on, "they are toweringly jealous of anyone whom each new family member has previously loved. They - kill any such, unless those have been initiated into the family themselves."
"But ... will your eyesight recover now - now that our uncle is ... somehow awake again?"
"No," said Christina and Gabriel together. Christina went on: "Our connections with him were evidently broken when we shut him down at the funeral, and so the people we love are still safe - as long as we continue to resist him." She turned an anxious look on Gabriel. "How did Lizzie get into the house tonight? I gather you didn't invite her."