Mrs. Craft and I start wandering through the rooms on the ground floor, examining the tapestries in the hall, and admiring the floor-to-ceiling shelves of leather-bound books in the library. The latter looks like it would be Professor Grabiner's idea of paradise, especially compared to the scanty school library at Iris Academy where he's forced to rely on inter-library loans for reading material. I wonder for a moment that he could bear to leave this beautiful library in the first place. I climb one of the ladders to examine the shelves of books more closely, but to my disappointment, they're all very ordinary looking with familiar titles-nothing to indicate that the library belongs to an established family of magicians.
As we go through each room, Mrs. Craft pauses now and again to read a tidbit of information she's found while researching the family and the house. It's precious little, and she seems frustrated by the lack of historical record on the Grabiner family. To make up for her scant research, she starts telling me stories from English history, which she manages to turn into narratives as exciting as the most melodramatic soap operas. My favorites are the rise to power of Isabella the She-Wolf (wife of Edward II), and the marriage of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII. Mrs. Craft lingers lovingly on the details of the executions that conclude each story. She howls with laughter when her description of Edward the Second's assassination by red-hot poker makes my jaw drop.
"Well Isabella couldn't risk leaving a mark on him, could she? Don't look so scandalized, it might not actually be true," she says, once she catches her breath. "Some scholars say he left the country and ended an exile, though the first story is much more fun."
Anne Boleyn's execution is not quite as gruesome, but just as interesting. "Death by beheading was the order of the day, and of course it was customary to tip one's headsman when one got to the block."
"Tip them? For cutting off your head?" I can't quite bring myself to believe it.
"Well yes, and why wouldn't you? The more you tip, the more careful the headsman would be; you don't want him to miss and hit your shoulder or your skull and have to try again. Robert Devereux, for example, took three strokes before he died."
"I see your point," I say, feeling a little queasy.
"Well, Henry didn't want his Anne to have to go through that; I think he still loved her a bit, in spite of it all. So he hired a headsman from France to make the final stroke with a broadsword. She died kneeling upright, instead of with her head on the block, and he dealt the blow horizontally, like this-" she makes a cutting motion in the air with her hands, as though holding the sword herself. "They say," she concludes, "that the sword was so sharp, her head didn't fall off until the rest of her body began to fall."
"Incredible," I say, impressed.
"Yes, well," she says, looking pleased at my reaction to her stories. "It might be apocryphal as well-just about the head, mind, the bit about the French headsman is true."
We continue through a rather boring sitting room full of spindly furniture. "Were-I mean, are you an actress?" I ask. She titters.
"Oh, no, how sweet of you. No, no, I taught the history of England for ages. I wanted to be an actress once, but by the time I actually had half a chance at it... Well, that train had sailed." She gives me a wink and a grin, softening the message a bit.
I swallow, gathering my courage. "So then are you a witch?"
She's silent for a minute, peering at a fussy little painting of a flowering garden that hangs on one wall. "I was wondering when you'd ask me that," she says, dryly. "Marvelous trick that was last night. I thought you and that husband of yours would have a stroke."
"We nearly did," I admit. "So-"
"No, I'm not a witch," she interrupts. "Nothing so blunt. I'm a diviner."
"A..." I start, not knowing what to say.
"I can sense things-read cards, decipher dreams, that sort of thing." She gives me a hard look. "I suppose you think I'm quite barmy."
"No, not at all," I say, quickly. After all, what can I say-that I'm the only witch here? "I just don't know very much about it. Or Lord Montague's society. Is everyone a diviner?"
"No, though some of us are. It's more of a society made up of interested persons." She purses her lips. "Even our interests differ in some ways, but we do have one thing in common. We believe-or, I suppose we hope-that some kinds of magic might be real."
"And what does Lord Montague say?" I ask, a cold stab of terror in my chest. Has he really exposed the magical world to his guests?
"He's rather ambiguous on the subject," she says. "But he does perform the most wonderful illusions, as you saw last night. I think at least half of us come every year just hoping he'll let us in on his tricks."
So they do think he's an illusionist. Well, that's a relief-sort of.
After exhausting the available rooms on the first floor (avoiding Lord Montague's study and the rooms in which the staff are working), we climb the main staircase to the second. Instead of turning to the hallway with the bedrooms, we go in the other direction, into the interior of the house. We come upon what looks like a music room, which contains a grand piano and a bookshelf of sheet music. Although it's well kept and free from dust, it has a feeling of disuse. Mrs. Craft exclaims over the beauty of the piano, but when she opens it and strikes a chord, it sounds sour and out of tune.
"Oh well," she says. "Stendhal said that if music were always perfect, we would never need to fall in love." She herds me out of the room before I get the chance to see whether any of the sheet music is for a flute.
The rest of the rooms on the floor aren't nearly so interesting-mostly unused bedrooms that have sheets draped over the furnishings to protect them from dust. Near the middle of one hallway, though, we come across one very interesting door. It's made of a different type of wood than the rest of the doors in the hallway; it has a strange reddish tinge. Even more unusual, the door panels are carved with row upon row of little figures. On closer inspection, they don't look human, but have disproportionate limbs and odd, leering facial features. I don't like them much, and back away, but the indomitable Mrs. Craft reaches right for the knob and twists. Nothing, happens, and she rattles it.
"Drat," she says, "locked. And it looked so promising, too." She walks off, disappointed, but I feel a little relieved. Funny thing, though-I steal a glance back at the door as Mrs. Craft walks away-there isn't a lock, or even a keyhole. Then I mentally smack myself. Of course it isn't funny at all, honestly, I think, are you a witch or not?
"It's about lunchtime," says Mrs. Craft as we wander into yet another disused bedroom.
"Are you even hungry?" I ask, without much enthusiasm. Both of us look at one another, smirk, and go on with our exploration.
After a disappointing series of rooms on the second and third floor, Mrs. Craft opens a door at the end of one hall, and makes a gratified "aah!" sound. I look to see what she's so pleased about, and notice that she's uncovered a narrow little staircase leading upwards.
"Attics, I bet!" she says with a wicked grin. "Shall we see what's up there?"
"Oh-no-I'm sure the attics are off limits," I start, panicking.
"Why should they be?" asks Mrs. Craft with a frown.
I barely hear her. What I do hear is Professor Grabiner's words from yesterday, "I had a set of rooms in the attics... I've made my own arrangements." Wouldn't it make sense that he'd stay in his old room? If there's one thing I don't want to do, it's go poking around Professor Grabiner's rooms, especially not with the self proclaimed "nosy old bat," Mrs. Craft. He'd be furious of course, and would she spread rumors among the guests about how we're staying apart? I don't want to find out.
But she's already charging up the stairs, deaf to my continued protestations, and I'm forced to follow. The stairs end in a low door that we open onto a large room with a lower ceiling than the rest of the floors in the house. A few windows at one end let in some natural light, but not enough to light the room from end to end. There are a few pieces of furniture, but they're all draped with sheets. Mrs. Craft opens a few doors that line one of the walls, finding only empty little rooms behind them.
"Day nursery from the look of it," she says, surveying the space.
"Where the kids slept?" I ask.
"No, they would have slept in the adjoining rooms with a nanny in another. The day nursery was a space for the children to play, have lessons, that sort of thing,"
"Weren't they ever let out of the attic?"
"Well it's not a prison, but the prevailing school of thought until recently was that children should be kept out of the way until they were old enough to be interesting."
I consider this for a bit. I'm not much one for small children, and unlike some of my friends from before I went to Iris Academy, I had never squealed over babies or sought baby-sitting jobs. But it seems a bit cruel and unnatural to keep children out of sight just for being children. In Professor Grabiner's case, it seems, his father wasn't even in the house most of the time, so there was no one to keep him out of sight from.
I only feel worse when I think of how dejected I became last year when my parents felt so distant-when their letters were few and far between, and our interactions on school breaks were so stilted. They at least had the excuse of having been bewitched into forgetting that I was at school for magic, which in part involved their getting a bit hazy on my existence altogether. It makes sense on the one hand-if a wildseed child has an accident at school, it's easier to let their parents forget about them altogether than to try to explain a magical incident to non-magical parents and risk the exposure of the community. But on the other hand, it feels disorienting that my whole cozy life as my parents' only child could be stripped away from them-and from me-with a simple spell.
But how must it have felt to not even have that much, to know that your parents socked you away in the most remote part of your house because they couldn't be bothered with you? The thought makes me pause. Parents? Come to think of it, I don't know anything about Professor Grabiner's mother. In the letter he sent to me, the one that accompanied the little wooden box, Lord Montague had written a one-off line saying that he'd ask his ex-wife about how difficult it was to live with him, if he could find her. It sounded as though he'd simply misplaced her, that she was waiting quietly under a bed or in a disused drawer, waiting to be found again. But really, it seems as though it's Professor Grabiner who'd gotten misplaced here in this set of rooms, quietly-or not-so-quietly-waiting out the time until he became "old enough to be interesting."
I shake myself a little. This is exactly the "dewy eyed sympathy" that Professor Grabiner doesn't have patience with, and I can see his point. It's not very interesting to be with someone who just goes around feeling sorry for you all the time. Well at least one thing's going right for me today-it doesn't look like Professor Grabiner is staying up here, so at least I don't have to worry about him catching us in his room.
Mrs. Craft is peering at some of the furniture under the sheets. I walk to the row of windows and look out on a stretch of moorland that's similar to what I can see out of my own window, but whether it's the same or another view altogether, I can't tell.
Turning back into the room, I notice that the sheet on the piece of furniture nearest to me has slipped, exposing part of a writing desk with a high back. I move to set the sheet to rights before seeing that one of the drawers is partly open, exposing the corner of a sheet of paper. Homework from Professor Grabiner's time shut in the attic, maybe? It would be cute to see an essay he wrote back when he was a kid, so I can't help sliding the paper toward me and taking it out of the drawer.
The moment my fingers touch the paper, I know it can't be homework. The paper is stiff and slick-it's obviously a photograph, blank side up. And when I flip it over, I suck in my breath in surprise.
It's a standard sized rectangular photo of a group of kids around my age walking down a city street-London I think, though there aren't any landmarks to prove it. It must be winter, as they're all wearing coats, scarves and gloves, and there's a grey tinge to the sky. There's a short girl with black curls in the front of the frame who looks like she's shouting and waving her hand at the photographer, but smiling at the same time, and two boys behind her, running forward and laughing, one wearing a neon orange hat, and the other bareheaded, but with red hair that almost rivals the brightness of the hat.
But the left side of the frame is dominated by two figures slightly behind the curly haired girl and orange-hatted boy. They're not joining in the chase or the laughter, and not looking at the camera. The one on the left, slightly cut out of the frame is clearly Professor Grabiner. And he has his arm around-
"Found something good?" asks Mrs. Craft, and I hastily shove the photo into the pocket of my dress.
"Just a desk," I say. "Sheet's coming off." I make a show of covering the desk back up, hoping she won't notice my hands shaking.
"Oh, well, nothing interesting in a children's nursery," says Mrs. Craft, making her way to the attic staircase to descend. "Bit of an odd thing about the Grabiner children, incidentally. Based on what I've been able to find about their genealogy, around the turn of the century the family's consistently had only one child per generation. That's the past three-your husband, his father and his grandfather."
"Is that unusual?" I ask. "I'm an only child myself."
"It is with most families that have a substantial inheritance; the modus operandi tends to be at least two per generation-an heir and a spare, you know. Ensures the money and the property stay in the family, even if one of the children doesn't survive. Maybe it's changed a bit due to the decreased childhood mortality rates in this brave new world, but you'd think they'd want to be sure."
"Why would that be so important? To someone who's dead anyway, I mean."
"You're a young person from a young country," Mrs. Craft replies. "You really can't conceive the age and scope of the really old English families. Many have been passing down assets for over five hundred years, sometimes longer."
I remember Lord Montague's comment about being able to trace his ancestry back to the Battle of Hastings-that was in 1066, meaning there's been nearly a thousand years of Grabiners in England. Mrs. Craft is right-I really can't conceive of that kind of scope.
"It's all a lot of guff and nonsense over ensuring the continuation of the family name, which is why even after the fee tail was abolished in 1925, families still tended to pass everything but a pittance to the eldest son-even when there was an older daughter who could technically inherit." Her voice goes rather acerbic at this, in a way that almost reminds me of Professor Grabiner himself.
"So what happens to the daughter, then?"
"Tossed a pittance and married off, usually to another family who needs the connection to keep their own respectability. All very exhausting, really." We round a corner and make our way to the staircase to the second floor. "Well, that's the tour, I suppose," she says, and turns to me."I thought I'd write a few letters, but if you'd like to meet downstairs for tea at four?"
"Oh-yes, that would be great," I say. "Thanks for the tour, Mrs. Craft."
"Yes, well I wish I'd been able to find a bit more information. Nothing so frustrating to an historian as an empty record."
"I can see if Lord Montague might be able to tell me a bit more about the family history tonight; he seemed to like telling me about it yesterday."
"Hmph," she grunts. "Well I suppose you might have a bit better luck than I have; I've been trying to get that close-mouthed old git to talk history with me for years, but he has a way of weaseling out from under one, if you haven't noticed."
I have noticed, but I figure it's worth a shot. And I really had enjoyed exploring the house with Mrs. Craft, maybe more than anything else I'd done on this trip so far. At least Mrs. Craft was straight about what she wanted to do with her day, and it didn't involve any etiquette lessons-thank goodness.
I walk Mrs. Craft back to her room, then ascend to mine. It's even later than I thought-way past lunch, though I don't feel very hungry. The afternoon sun is streaming brightly through the windows, and all my things seem to have been tidied up. Even my case has been unpacked, I discover when I take a look in the dressing room, and the underwear, jeans, t-shirt and hoodie I'd worn on the plane and during the past day have been cleaned and folded neatly into one of the dresser drawers.
I could get used to this kind of service, I muse, going back into the room and folding myself onto the settee. I wonder if Lord Montague does die-tragic of course, but he is terribly old and ill-would I get to stay here with Professor Grabiner while he figured out what to do with the property? It might be nice, being able to stay in this beautiful house without all the bother of putting estates in order and dealing with strange guests-though of course I want Mrs. Craft to stay. I could try to find some Grabiner history for her that would satisfy her curiosity without revealing their status as magicians. And it would be pretty interesting to stay in a house-even such a big one-with Professor Grabiner without any distractions...
I have a minute of daydreaming before I remember why that might not be such a good idea, and the whole scenario comes crashing down along with it. What kind of ghoul am I, to be planning what I'm going to do with someone else's house when he dies? That's not like me-at least, I don't want it to be.
And anyway, I have to go back to school in a month, which doesn't leave much time for dallying around ancient country houses. But that thought suddenly strikes me with the full force of its implications. School-I'm not the only one who needs to go back to school. What is Professor Grabiner going to decide to do when his father dies? Or even before then? If he's really reconciled with his father, I guess he won't need to work any more-and if he decides to take his father's Parliamentary position, he won't be able to teach at all, let alone in America. Thinking about it, I've never been really sure whether he actually likes teaching. He certainly doesn't like his students very much, and that seems as though it should be a prerequisite for a teacher. But then, he seems to have taken up teaching as a preoccupation with preventing young magicians from making the same mistakes that he had in the past.
And that's when my thoughts come full circle, to the photograph still in the pocket of my dress.