Crawford got up, found another mug, and filled it with beer. As he sat down, he said, "I can show you to your room after we're done with this ... supper. I've got probably half a dozen mirrors around the house, and you can have them."
She nodded, chewing. "And," she said finally, "after he bites you, he'll know about the mirrors and not look at them. No, we neither of us should sleep tonight, especially with a window broken. Fetch the mirrors down here and we can make a wall of 'em. And bring your shillings! We've got knives, and - " she added as she dug a jar out of her trouser pocket, "here's garlic."
"Stay down here all night?"
"Why not? It's partly underground." She grinned. "We can tell stories till dawn. What happened to your cats? I saw another one in the hall, and it only had three legs."
He stared at her for several seconds, then shrugged. "I'm a - an animal doctor," he said. "When I find hurt cats, I bring them home and take care of them." He took a sip of beer and then began cutting up more ham and onion. "I've got a blind one too, and she knows every corner of the rooms and furniture; she can run from one end of the house to the other and not bump into anything."
Johanna nodded. "She should have married you. My mother should have."
"Not the cat," Crawford agreed. The thought of his poor cats had reminded him of something. "Uh ... have you been - by any chance - baptized? - since we saw you last?"
Johanna had taken another bite of the rolled ham, and she nodded as she chewed. "The Mud Lark man has all the Larks baptized before they can scout for him."
Crawford wondered who this Mud Lark man might be, and what sort of scouting he had his young charges do; but there was all night in which to ask.
"Good, good." He got to his feet. "I'll fetch the mirrors and silver - don't eat all this before I get back."
Ah, not as they, but as the souls that were
Slain in the old time, having found her fair;
Who, sleeping with her lips upon their eyes,
Heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair.
- Algernon Swinburne, "Laus Veneris"
IN HIS DRAWING room in Upper Brook Street, Algernon Swinburne stood staring out through the open windows at the still-dark houses in the stale night. He had come home hours ago, but he was still dressed in the flannel trousers, white shirt, and woolen sweater that he had worn on his latest visit to the Verbena Lodge in Circus Road, when the evening had been fresh and full of anticipation.
Ordinarily he would have indulged himself now in the opportunity for mild pain by sitting and leaning back in a chair, but this evening's drunken excesses at Verbena Lodge had left him slightly - only slightly, and certainly only temporarily - disgusted with the formal pretenses he engaged in there. None of the whippings and spankings that went on ever caused any actual injury, or even any real hurt.
He turned his back on the window. By the light of two gas jets on the far wall, for the fire had gone out while he'd been gone and he hadn't the energy to fetch more coal, he surveyed the room's ornate furnishings - the rosewood chairs, the imported Herter Brothers sofa, the gold-stamped book spines vertical and horizontal on the shelves - finally noting, hung on the walls above the bookshelves, the token whips and birch rods; and even, for the bravura of it, a pair of crossed rapiers over the mantelpiece.
Sad evidences, those were, of his gallingly restrained inclinations, which were unlikely to be really indulged while he still lived.
He sighed. The only satisfactory thing about it all, he thought - as he faced the window again and peered out at the dark patch that was Grosvenor Square and listened to the whir of a distant cab out in the night - is that my vigilant Miss B. cannot mistake the activities at the Verbena Lodge for anything having to do with love.
Girls in staged schoolrooms being struck with birch rods on their behinds by women pretending to be strict governesses - other girls taking money to spank patrons like Swinburne who took the roles of boys needing punishment - none of it would engage Miss B.'s inhuman attention, rouse in her that response which was comparable to homicidal jealousy in humans, and the spankings Swinburne received were far too mild for her to perceive them as attacks on him. The girls at the lodge were safe. Swinburne certainly didn't love any of them, nor did they love him.
He hadn't loved any woman since Lizzie, and she - her ghost, at any rate - had refused his offer to let her inhabit his living body. Since her refusal he had surrendered himself to the strenuous and enervating affection of Miss B., and, on the side, the largely symbolic Sadean activities at the Verbena Lodge.
He didn't dare love anybody, nor even seem to. He had loved his sister Edith, and she had died only a year after he had committed himself to Miss B., and immediately afterward he had persuaded his parents to take an extended Continental tour; since then he had avoided them, and so they were still alive. And when Gabriel Rossetti had arranged for Swinburne to take a mistress in the conventional way, the woman died less than a year later, in spite of precautions Swinburne had thought would be adequate; he hadn't loved her - she had complained that "spanking was no help" in making love - but even his unsatisfactory behavior with her had effectively mimicked it, to the woman's fatal misfortune.
Miss B. will have no rivals, Swinburne thought now as he stepped to the sideboard and poured one last inch of brandy into a snifter - though he knew that it was a mistake to attribute human motivations to her kind. She was more like a sun that ignited a reciprocally fueled solar fire in him, while simply incinerating any lesser planets that presumed to orbit him. Then felt I like some watcher of the tombs, he thought, paraphrasing Keats, when a new planet swims into my ken.
Mentally he recited a verse of his own: Though the many lights dwindle to one light, / There is help if the heavens has one.
Do I love that one light, he wondered, do I love her? I'm awed, by the ancient alien majesty of her kind, certainly; baffled by the nonhuman mathematics of her logic - but I certainly do love her gift: my gift is single, my verses...
He set down his glass, the brandy untasted, and shivered in the draft from the open window.
His first book, Atalanta in Calydon, had been published in 1865, three years after Lizzie's funeral - and the long verse play, a vivid retelling of the pagan Atalanta myth from Apollodorus and Homer, had won praise from the Edinburgh Review and the Saturday Review.
His next collection of verse, though, Poems and Ballads, which had been published the following year, was savaged by the critics; and their denunciations of the vicious sensuality of the poems was so widespread and harsh that an obscenity indictment from the attorney general seemed likely, and the publisher withdrew the book only a month after its publication. But a bolder publisher picked it up before the year's end, and by then the book had found passionate admirers among the young men at Oxford and Cambridge, and a few critics hesitantly began to concede that Swinburne's poems, for all their pagan and even anti-Christian excesses, held a power not seen in English literature since Shelley and Byron and Keats.
Naturally, thought Swinburne now. I share the same species of Muse that those poets had. The attentions of the antediluvian stony tribe kill those we love and make us suffer in sunlight, but, in a side effect that they may not even be aware of, awaken language in us, make of it a living beast that can be harnessed and ridden.
Christina had it, for a while, though in recent years she writes religious stories instead of her old clear-eyed poems about death, and ghosts in the sea, and seductive goblins.
But she might have it again now - now that her uncle has apparently been freed from the disruptive mirrors that she put into Lizzie's coffin.
Swinburne recalled the conversation he had overheard at Tudor House six or seven hours ago, which had sent him hurrying to the Verbena Lodge so that his thoughts might not dwell too much on it and draw Miss B.'s attention: Christina's uncle's living and conscious identity was concentrated in a little statue stuck in her dead father's throat! - and the identity had been somehow scrambled and made impotent seven years ago, but was awake again now - though wounded.
Something to remember.
He looked up suddenly - he had clearly heard the street door downstairs, which he knew he had locked, open and then close.
TRELAWNY HAD WALKED NORTH from Pelham Crescent to Upper Brook Street, skirting the shadowed expanse of Hyde Park where Shelley's first wife had been drowned in the Serpentine, and peering around from under the brim of his old hat at the dark houses that stood on either side like closely ranked tombstones, the dimly seen windows and balconies making hieroglyphic epitaphs. Here and there a light shone like a firefly in some room, and he wondered if lone, fevered poets labored in those rooms over unmerited verses. The costermongers would be assembling by the river now, with their carts of fish and vegetables agleam in the dockside lamplight, but none of them would have begun to venture north yet. There was no one abroad to see his quickly striding figure, and in any case the paper-wrapped parcel he carried looked like a plain shoe box.
Lights were on in an upstairs room in Swinburne's house, and the windows were open; but the young poet had been at his filthy Verbena Lodge until after midnight, and he had probably forgotten the lights and the window and was soddenly asleep by now.
Trelawny tapped nimbly up the steps to the front door, and on the lamplit stage of the threshold he flourished his lock pick as confidently as if it had been the key. A moment's one-handed twisting of it had the bolt retracted, and the old man opened the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him. The hall was dark, but he could make out the shape of the carpeted stairs, and he took them silently, two at a time.
At the top of the stairs he paused to strip the paper from the box he had prepared, and he swung back the hinged lid, taking care to make no noise - but when he stepped into the brightly lit drawing room, he saw Swinburne standing, fully dressed, by the fireplace; and he had evidently heard Trelawny's entry, for he was even holding a sword.
The young poet raised it in a fair en garde. "Get out of this house at once," he said in his shrill voice, "or I'll kill you."
Trelawny grinned. "Or whip me, eh? Unless that's just for the girls at the Verbena Lodge."
Swinburne looked disconcerted and lowered the blade an inch. His thatch of orange hair made his head look like an unhealthy overgrown flower on a frail stalk.
He peered more closely at Trelawny. "I know you."
"Of course you do. We've been to church together, you and I."
Swinburne frowned, started to say something, then just muttered, "You call the salons churches?"
"I mean the time we met in the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul's."
"Oh!" He lowered the blade a few more inches. "But - what are you doing here? You advised me then to - quit England, sever my connection with..."
"Which I perceive you haven't done."
Swinburne's left hand flew to his throat and pulled up his collar.
"No, lad, I've only observed the marks in your verse - and they're more plain there than any punctures in your scrawny neck."
Swinburne colored. "Did she ... send you here?" The young man seemed frightened.
"No. And are you jealous? Don't be - I don't write poetry; my relationship with her has never been" - he paused to touch his own throat - "consummated."
Swinburne stepped away from the fireplace and sat down in a chair by the open window. The sword, still in his hand, had dragged a furrow in the nap of the carpet. "What do you want then? Go away."
"I had hoped to take what I want while you slept; if you'd only been drunk enough, it might not even have wakened you." Trelawny shrugged. "I want just a bit of your blood. A few drops, merely."
Swinburne's scanty orange eyebrows were halfway up his high forehead. "No! Get out of here."
Trelawny rocked back and forth on his heels. "Allowing for difficulty," he said, "I obtained detailed statements from two of the girls at your lodge. Many would find the accounts shocking and disgusting, but I think most would find them - well, shocking and disgusting, yes, but laughable too. And pitiable. There are houses that would publish these things. Your own publisher, Hotten, would probably do it - he'd extend you the courtesy of changing the names, but everyone would know who the subject is."
After a few heartbeats, "You'd see to that, I suppose," said Swinburne sourly.
Swinburne shook his head as if to clear it. "Blood? What do you want my blood for?"
"To kill flies, to scare children, to keep Christians away from my door, what do you care? Just a couple of drops, no more than what you'd lose if you try to shave this morning."
Swinburne made a fist of his free hand to hide its shaking.
"Blood," he said, as if to remind himself of the subject at hand. "And you'll give me these statements you got from the girls? In exchange? And not get more?"
Swinburne sat back, brooding. "She might not like it. My blood is hers."
"You know I'm an ally of hers. She could hardly blame you."
"If she blames a person for a thing, there's no help in him being justified."
Trelawny exhaled. "Damn it, little man, if Shelley'd been as lily-livered as you are, he'd never have ... just go and shave the lint off your chin and then look the other way while I steal the towel afterward!"
Swinburne shook his head. "Go home. This is insane."
"Humor an old lunatic."
"What do you want it for?"
"Ahhh..." Trelawny tried to think of something plausible. "Well, if you must know, rejuvenation." He tried to look mildly shamefaced. "I've reason to believe that a few drops of your sort of blood, in brandy in an amethyst cup, might restore me to - "