"And you still have to ... take precautions?" He waved at the bird, which was huffing and squeaking.
"They're still aware of me. That's why I need the help of someone" - she made a tossing motion toward him - "who has a stake in this."
"Agh." Crawford thought of the half glass of whisky he had left on the mantel in his parlor. It didn't seem so repulsive now; he had been mad not to finish it. "Help to do what?"
"Everybody said Carpace died of consumption two years ago, while I was in Magdalen, but just yesterday I learned that she's alive, monstrously fat now and under a different name, and she's coming out socially tonight, hosting a salon for artists and writers in Bedford Square. I need, you and I need, to get in there. One of the women who's going to be there is a musician, and - she has a dog that you've treated! For an infected eye!"
McKee thrust a folded piece of paper at him. "I have the musician's name here - if you tell her you write poems, she can surely get you an invitation. We need to confront Carpace, find out from her where our daughter is buried."
Crawford groaned and reached past her to pull the bell rope. "Listen," he said. "Miss McKee. We don't. Wha - write poems? That was tragic, criminal, what happened to the child, and it may be that you can interest the law courts, but what good is there in finding a grave? Poems? You can't possibly - " The carriage was slowing again, and he half knelt on the crackling seat to fish some coins from his pocket. "I'll walk back."
McKee grabbed his arm. "What if there is no grave? Or only an empty one? Listen to me! They say now that old Carpace didn't just tell us how to protect ourselves from the - the things, but every year offered tribute to them - put out a child for them to take, as they took your son. I'm sure Carpace had a lot of children to choose the tribute from, in any year, but - I need to know that Johanna is safely dead. You need to know it."
Crawford had hold of the door handle. "You said she was." He was sweating in spite of the chilly air.
"She probably is. Is that enough?"
Humans aren't my concern, thought Crawford desperately. They're God's lookout.
But this child had not been baptized - God wouldn't have claimed her. Cold and starvation.
"She's our daughter," said McKee. "It's what we can do for her."
"What is what we can do?"
"If she's truly and ordinarily dead, nothing. But if she's not, if she's come back from the dead, like Girard ... we can put her to rest."
Crawford was thinking of his son. "By what means?"
Tears were running down McKee's cheeks, but her eyes were steady. "What do you think? What did your parents tell you? Silver bullets, a wooden stake through her heart - we can free her, let her ghost sink down into the Thames to oblivion with all the rest of London's peaceful dead."
The cab had squeaked and shuddered to a halt, not to let its passengers out but because the traffic through Ludgate Circus was for the moment a solid forest of stamping horses and vehicles with halted, dripping wheel rims.
Crawford pushed the door open and stepped out onto the iron footrest above the mud. The cold morning air was cacophonous with the yells of frustrated cab men and the monotonous cries of street vendors, and the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral stood in black silhouette directly east of him, blocking the sun, framed by the receding rooftops and spires of lesser buildings.
Crawford took a deep breath of the cold sausage-and-horse-dung breeze. It was real with Girard, Crawford thought - why shouldn't it be real with this child? Can you walk away from this?
He imagined hopping down from the carriage, threading his way through the stopped vehicles to the curb and walking back to Wych Street, leaving this woman to pursue her phantom alone.
This woman, he thought - the mother of my child; her phantom - our daughter.
He would need the half glass of whisky when he got home. Another glass too, probably. Another and another cup to drown / The memory of this impertinence, as Omar Khayyam had written.
Hardly impertinence, though.
He was still holding the slip of paper McKee had handed to him, and he glanced at it. It was an address in Wardour Street, back the way they had come; and he recognized the woman's name and remembered her dog.
The driver was squinting down at him, and Crawford sighed and handed the paper and another half crown up to the man.
"This address," he called, speaking loudly to be heard over all the impatient shouting in the street. Concerned about the right-side mare, he pointed at her and added, "Broken-winded! Give her soft food and raw pork fat!" He waited until the driver nodded, then he folded himself back into the cab and pulled the door closed.
"What time tonight?" he asked McKee.
"Eight." She was peering out the window at the irregularly shifting tide of horses and vehicles. "Good thing we got an early start."
"I'm not going to write any poetry."
Still looking out at the crowded street, she shook her head impatiently. "Once we're in there it won't matter. And in any case you could copy out some lines from the middle of a Southey epic, nobody alive has read those."
Six days I rest, and do all that I have to do on the seventh, because it is forbidden.
- Edward John Trelawny, in a letter to Mary Shelley, 1835
SIX MILES NORTHWEST of the Fleet Street traffic and the long blue shadow of the St. Paul's dome, up among the woods and country roads north of Hampstead Heath, the cold eastern wind swept through the bare yew branches and over the snow-drifted lawns of Highgate Cemetery and down the white lanes on the west slope of Highgate Hill. It blew pennants of snow from the roof of the three-story Magdalen Penitentiary for Fallen Women at the south end of Grove Lane and whistled in through the one-inch opening of a window on the ground floor.
The breeze lifted a sheet of paper from the desk by the window and spun it away, and when it hit the wooden floor with a sharp tap, the woman at the desk looked up.
Momentarily disoriented, she blinked around at the narrow room - the bed, the bookcase, the cold gas jet, the print of Jesus hung on the plaster wall. She dropped the pen she'd been holding and moved some papers aside in order to touch the Bible on the desk, and then her hand fell to the crucifix hanging from the narrow rope at her waist.
She knew she was supposed to be correcting proofs here, but her mind must have wandered. Had she been writing? The brass pen nib gleamed with fresh ink.
She sighed shakily and pushed the chair back and stood up, more comfortable in this black dress and white muslin cap than in the necessarily-more-frivolous dresses she wore when she wasn't on residence duty, and before picking up the sheet of paper on the floor she stepped to the door and looked through the little window into the empty dormitory. Sunlight slanted in through the tall eastern windows and lit the neatly made beds between the low partitions. The girls had all attended the Sunday service in the chapel at dawn and were now having breakfast in the refectory, soon to start their daily tasks in the laundry and kitchen. Thirty-seven girls were in residence at the moment, the youngest sixteen and the oldest twenty-four.
Three of them would soon have completed their two-year stay, during which time they would have learned household skills that would qualify them for domestic positions in the colonies or in distant parts of England.
On the desk behind Sister Christina lay the neglected galley proofs of a collection of her poetry, soon to be published by Macmillan - but it was her reluctant duty to confiscate from the new girls the books of poetry that they frequently arrived with. The books were often gifts from former clients, and therefore considered dangerous reminders, and in any case the romantic fancies of modern verse seemed likely to be lures back into sin. But the girls nevertheless often quoted poets like Byron and Coleridge and Browning, and, when they were invited to choose new names for themselves, regularly chose names like Haidee or Juliet or Christabel. A few, like Adelaide McKee two years ago, resolutely kept their old names and stayed in London, and Sister Christina worried and prayed for them - especially Adelaide.
The literacy of many of these ex-prostitutes had surprised Christina when she began volunteering here four years ago. She had assumed that London's population of streetwalkers was exclusively drawn from the lowest levels of poverty and ignorance, but she had discovered that this was by no means always the case; the girls weren't encouraged to talk about their pasts, but their accents and table manners often hinted at respectable middle-class origins, as did the clue - gathered from their admittance forms - that many of them had more than one baptismal name.
Christina turned and looked warily at the sheet of paper lying on the worn floor. She could see from here that it was covered with lines in her own handwriting, but she had no memory of writing it. She shivered.
She was still unmarried at the age of thirty-one, living with her mother and two of her three siblings in a house in Albany Street just two streets from Regent's Park, and some of her friends thought this work was perilous to her own innocence and virtue; her brother Gabriel had written a poem in which a prostitute was described as: a rose shut in a book / In which pure women may not look / For its base pages claim control / To crush the flower within the soul...
If she was feeling facetious, she would sometimes reply to their misgivings with a quote from Emma Shepherd's An Outstretched Hand to the Fallen - "the purer, the more ignorant of vice the lady is who seeks them, the greater the influence she has" - but to herself she could admit that there probably wasn't an inmate in the house as much in need of redemption as herself.
She had found a refuge in her volunteer residency work here, at least for one fortnight every two or three months, and Reverend Oliver, the warden, had shown her some tricks for "keeping the devils out," as he put it - the iron-barred decorative openings in the garden wall, the mirrors in the entry hall, the garlic in all the window boxes.
Her sister, Maria, was doing work for the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, and possibly finding similar protections there. Christina hoped so - Maria would never discuss such things, and in fact had never referred to that evening seventeen years ago in a twilit field, when the two of them had given Greek funeral honors to their father's temporarily buried little black statue.
Christina had lately written a long poem about a girl who surrenders to supernatural temptation, to her ruin, and her sister who rescues her by exposing herself to the same perils. The poem was called "Goblin Market," and the book whose proof pages were on the desk was titled Goblin Market and Other Poems.
Christina had restored the little statue - rendered inert, she had believed then - to its usual perch on her father's shelf when she had returned from her visit to Maria in the country, and her father had never mentioned the thing again. He had died nine years later, and his last words before he hiccuped into his handkerchief and choked and expired had been Ah Dio, ajuatami Tu! Which meant, roughly, God help me! Their mother, though grieving, had gathered up all the copies in the house of his book, Amor Platonica, and burned them, along with the unpublished notes he'd made on the Kabalistic idea of the transmigration of souls. Nobody, not even Christina's skeptical brother William, had asked why.
Christina had dreamed of her father since his death: always in the dream he was sitting across a table from her in a small room lit by candles, talking earnestly; but she couldn't make out the words in his droning monologue. After a few minutes, she would lean forward and watch his lips intently and concentrate, and he would become visibly alarmed - apparently at the prospect of her comprehending his speech, which she realized he was unable to halt - and he would lean across the table and stick his fingers into her ears, so that she could no longer hear his voice, though she could see his lips still moving helplessly.
Always she lived with a conviction that at the age of fourteen she had brought a curse on her family by quickening that little statue with her blood.
Neither Christina nor Maria had married; their brother Gabriel was more stubborn and had married two years ago, at the age of thirty-two - his wife had borne him a dead daughter shortly afterward and was now, God help her, very ill herself. William had been engaged, in spite of Christina's oblique warnings - and Gabriel's too, she suspected - but he had canceled the engagement in bewilderment when the young lady insisted that it should be an entirely celibate marriage.
Amor Platonica indeed, thought Christina now as at last she crouched to pick up the sheet of paper. The young lady had not perhaps been as unreasonable as William had thought.
The paper was a page from a story she recognized. She had written it out last year and had submitted it to Thackeray's Cornhill magazine, but after it was rejected, and she reread it, she had found herself sickened by William's comment that it was the best story she'd ever written - because, though it had been her hand that had held the pen, she was now convinced that she was not the one who had conceived and composed it.
She had burned it - but since late December she had found her hand writing it out again, in moments when her mind strayed from whatever she'd meant to write.
Its title was "Folio Q," and she suspected the Q was meant to indicate the German word quelle, source. It was about a man who didn't dare look into mirrors, and instead imposed his own face onto the people he loved.
She suspected that the actual author was her uncle, John Polidori, who had killed himself in 1821, forty-one years ago. It was clear that he had not, after all, been laid to rest when she and Maria had temporarily buried the little statue.
She glanced at the handwritten page - then stepped to the window for better light, her heart beating more rapidly, for this newest page was a scene that had not been in the story as she had originally written it.