The boy paused, his eyes gleaming at her above his wide, helpless grin.
"Josephine, my daughter," came Polidori's leaden voice from behind the insectlike figure.
Johanna decided not to correct him again about her name. She breathed rapidly and kept her eye on the swaying mummified boy.
"This is your betrothed," Polidori went on, "consecrated to Boadicea as you are consecrated to me. Together you will have an offspring that will fulfill her purpose, break the land."
Without looking away from the terrible lean face that was now only a few yards from her, Johanna was peripherally aware that the remote eyes were glaring in the wheels; and then she did glance up quickly, for the sky had gone darker.
And she was viewing a city from all directions at once, no part farther or nearer than any other part, and she could trace the old buried rivers and tunnels and pipes and the towers and bridges and the decorative brass plates around doorknobs.
And then the wheels were visibly turning - and the city was moored to them and began to tear apart. The buried rivers opened to take the towers, and gravity pulled in a hundred directions.
And the boy was upon her. At the first impact of his bony knees and shoulders she lashed out convulsively with her knife, and a cold exhalation like the burst of gas from a rupturing deepwater fish was in her nostrils; then one knobby fist had bounced off the socket of her left eye, and a moment later the boy was rolling away down the ivory slope.
She blinked away tears and looked past the figure flailing in the central depression now, straight at Polidori.
He seemed somehow less distinct than he had when she had been a child and he had been her lord - she could see the eyes and the mustache, but his outline seemed to churn in her vision like an afterimage of glare.
"You will be glad to bear his child," Polidori said, "after you invite me back." Suddenly he was closer. "Invite me back."
She flipped the knife and caught it by the tip, then drew it back and flung it toward the boiling center of him.
And her bed crashed to the floor in darkness, and Johanna was cursing shrilly as she scrambled out of it and wrenched open the bedroom door.
By the time she had scuffed barefoot down the stairs to the landing there was a light under her father's door, and he opened it just in time for her to leap into his arms, nearly making him drop the newly lit candle.
"He's found me," she gasped into the shoulder of his nightshirt. "And he's got - "
She couldn't describe the skeletal boy right now, and just clung to her father. He patted her back and started carefully toward the stairs, for he knew she'd want to spend the rest of the night in the cellar.
To-day, while it is called to-day,
Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray;
To-day is short, to-morrow night:
Why will you die? why will you die?
- Christina Rossetti, "The Convent Threshold"
WITH INADVERTENT IRONY, the window of his office at the Board of Inland Revenue gave William Rossetti a close-up view of the triangular pediments over the second-floor western windows of King's College. If he stood up from his desk and moved around to the left side of it, he would be able to see, off to the right, a slice of the brown Thames and a warehouse or two on the south shore; but when he was sitting at the desk and reviewing his daily lot of orders and petitions, he was confronted by the school he had attended, negligently, from the ages of eight to fifteen. And he was forty now.
This morning the sight was somehow especially maddening. Last night he had, albeit in what had apparently been a hallucination, unrolled a scroll and read verses as sublime as any his brother or sister had written, and they were in his own handwriting! And there were dozens of scrolls, and he had known that all of them contained poetry he was destined to write -
But the - the librarian had come in before he could look at any more. And William had recognized the intruder from the picture his mother always kept on the parlor wall, wherever they lived.
A confident atheist, William dismissed belief in Heaven and Hell as archaic superstitions, but at a number of seances he had seen evidence that personalities did survive physical death - though the spirits who could be contacted that way always seemed to have become imbecilic, scarcely able to comprehend questions or frame answers - like Lizzie, last night, simply trying to spell out her own name!
But Polidori had offered William a different sort of survival, a virtual immortality, one in which he might seal his own identity and intellect against erosion, albeit at the cost of ... well, at an abominable cost.
William pushed away the document he had been reading - a petition requesting a Civil Service pension for the widow of a deceased Excise officer - and closed his eyes to better remember the vision.
The attraction of his uncle's offer did not lie primarily in survival of death.
What might be written on those other scrolls? What unimaginable, radiant odes, sonnets, ballads?
Gabriel and Christina, and Swinburne too, accepted William as an equal in education and appreciation of literature and art, but he was always aware of a dimension the three of them shared, lived in, that he could not enter. Their verses would be read and admired for centuries, while his translations of Dante and his edition of Shelley's works would surely be superseded long before he even retired from the Board of Inland Revenue.
He had not moved very far from that school outside his office window.
His hand had been twitching, and looking down he saw to his alarm that he had scrawled words across the widow's petition. He must make another copy, get her solicitor to sign it -
Then he read what he had written:
not as thyself alone,
But as the meaning of all things that are;
A breathless wonder, shadowing forth afar
Some heavenly solstice, hushed and halcyon
He felt the hairs on his arms standing up, and he blinked away tears; these were lines from the scroll he had read in the vision last night, and he could almost remember the next line ... something, and then furthest fires oracular...
It was gone.
His uncle - for it was his uncle too - had asked for help, and said, Talk to me - you know how.
"Uncle John," he whispered, "are you there?" and he reached out to touch an A in the petition, and then a B -
And then all at once the air on his face and hands was hot, and he was standing and stumbling forward to keep his balance in deep dry sand, squinting against a glaring sun.
He gasped in surprise and felt the hot dry air parching his lungs.
After a moment of dazed incomprehension, he clapped his hands just to hear the sound of it and feel the faint sting; and he experienced both sensations. This was as evidently real a place as his office had been a moment before.
Before him stretched an infinity of serrated dunes under the empty blue sky, and the silence was profound; no slightest breeze flicked the ridges of sand. He slid his shoes through the mounded grains to get a full-circle view -
And he gasped again. Half a mile behind him a black stone cathedral stood up as tall as St. Paul's, taller, with nothing behind or around it except more empty miles of tan dunes.
Its pillars and arches and remote dome were rounded by centuries or millennia of erosion - and then he saw that the thing wasn't a building at all, but a vast weathered statue: towering legs, buttresses that might have been wings, and a promontory head with no features remaining.
Eyeless, it nevertheless seemed to stare with antediluvian defiance at the sun and the wasteland.
Into William's head came Shelley's lines: Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.
He was shivering, but at the same time his tie and waistcoat and woolen trousers were smothering him.
He tore loose his tie and collar, but the sense of heavy oppression only intensified, and he realized that all of this, the sun and the heat and the desert, were being projected onto him by a watchful identity in the stone colossus; and the colossus itself was a projection of that identity.
A thought appeared forcefully in his mind, and he translated it into words: Help me. There was a task to be done, and of it William got only a blurred impression of blood smeared across black stone, but on the far side of it were the poems that had been written on the scrolls he had seen last night.
He tried to concentrate on that required task, to open it to articulate elaboration; and he was able to find words to convey it: The blood of my - something like onetime hosts; strayed children, adopted ones; canceled clients? - is redundant, just ... repetition - reiteration! of myself. I am - again there was a cluster of applicable words: broken, ill-defined, illogically phrased - and - I cannot, impossible to, restore myself as I need to be restored.
William was shown two images: of a man and a tiny black statue, and also a series of images in between: seen left to right, the images showed the man shrinking and darkening, but viewed right to left they traced the expansion of the statue into the man.
Another thought: I need to be fully restored. Fully.
That had been conveyed clearly!
I need to be - and William intuitively provided the word quickened - fully, but with blood infested by, no, more like animated by the other of my kind, the one who is not me, spouse in relation to me, the west of my east.
The view of the desert and the colossus wavered, as if they were now just figures painted on a tapestry in a breeze. William thought he glimpsed the rectangle of his office window through them.
The intrusive identity was fading, but it raised a last thought that William phrased as, Soon, while her blood in her children still lives, circulates, reddens and fades and reddens again.
And then William was just sitting at his desk in the Excise Section wing of Somerset House, blinking out at the windows of King's College.
His tie and collar were loosened, and he pushed his chair back to look at his shoes; a shaking of sand grains clung to the laces, but even as he watched, they evaporated to nothing.
He snatched up the widow's petition - but the lines of verse on it had disappeared, and he couldn't now remember what they had been.
His hands were shaking as he refastened his collar and knotted his tie, and he patted his hair and beard in case they had got disarranged in the hallucinated desert. But there were tears in his eyes.
I can't have it yet, he thought. Our uncle needs to be quickened fully, freed from his long petrification; and for that he needs the blood of a ... client, a child, a host of this other creature of his kind - the creature that is something like his spouse, referred to with a clear flavor of "she." Perhaps there were only two of these creatures. And for some reason her vital renewal of her hosts' blood seemed likely to cease soon.
He would, he thought almost ferally, ask Christina what she knew about that.
UNDER THE GRAY OCTOBER sky, the river was the color of steel, and the light breeze carried a smell of distant fires. Crawford and McKee and Johanna had walked out onto the broad stone pier of the old York water gate and paused just short of the steps that led down to an empty half-walled shed and a ramp that disappeared into the water; Crawford could make out a few of the paving stones that continued sloping away under the water's surface, and he wondered how far out into the river the ramp extended. A hundred yards beyond, the tall black smokestack of a steam launch moved jauntily past, but other boats and the south shore were vague angularities in the mist.
It had been Johanna's idea to venture down here before noon, and as Crawford looked back at the pillars of the old water gate, he reflected sourly that if McKee had proposed it, he would probably have refused.
Johanna's left eye was swollen nearly shut; her second black eye in four days! And this morning they had found her knife stuck in the wall over her bed.
Crawford glanced down at her again, and touched her shoulder; she squinted up, but he just smiled and shook his head and let his hand fall away.
To the right of the pillars he could see the ranked phalanxes of chimneys along the roof of the elegant Adelphi block of flats, and the many rows of windows shone only with repetitions of the cloudy sky. Waterloo Bridge was farther off in that direction, its arches dim in the fog.
McKee followed his gaze. "That's where we first met," she said quietly, "about at the second arch."
Johanna had been watching the visible extent of George Street beyond the pillars behind them, but now she looked up.
"When he saved your life?" she asked.
"Yes," said McKee.
"And I was conceived," Johanna added. Clearly she had been told the word sometime and remembered it.
McKee gave Crawford an accusing look, and he shrugged helplessly.
"I know about such things," Johanna assured her. "I was nearly married to a coster boy last year."
"Good heavens," said Crawford.
"I didn't fancy him," said Johanna, shrugging, "so I ran away."
This was straying far too close to the events of her vision last night; clearly McKee thought so too, for she put her arm protectively around Johanna and started to say something, then just shook her head.
McKee had come to Crawford's house early this morning, with a carpenter to make an estimate for fixing the door, and at first she had assumed that her daughter's black eye was again the work of one of the Mud Larks; and when she had heard the full story of the attack by Polidori, and what Polidori had proposed, she had forbidden all further talk of it for now.
Crawford knew that even before the events of last night, McKee had hated not living with her daughter - apparently she didn't believe her common-law husband could be trusted with the girl - but she clearly couldn't bear it now.
McKee had mentioned, on the walk down to the river this morning, that Tom had not come home last night after his spectacular rage in Crawford's surgery yesterday. It was hard to tell what she felt about that.