Slowly, as though about to handle a small animal with sharp teeth, I reach into my pocket and extract the photograph, holding it by the edges. All the figures I saw earlier are still there, which seems odd to me; it almost feels as though they should have moved - ducked out of the frame to avoid me, or simply ambled on into another street. I read them again, from right to left. The orange hat, yes. The red hair, yes. The girl with the curls, palm up and facing the photographer, yes.
And the pair of them, on the left.
He's on the far side, partly cut off by the frame, looking as though he'd just passed from the awkward gangly stage of adolescence into something that approaches elegance, accentuated by his height, slim build and posture. His hair is shorter in the photograph than it is now, and almost manages to look as though he hasn't spent an hour making sure it's exactly the right sort of disheveled - but not quite. The thought of Professor Grabiner being painstaking about his hair is so funny that I almost smile. But I don't.
He has his arm draped across the shoulders of a girl who's nearly as tall as he is, but in all other respects is entirely unlike him. For one thing, while he's in head to toe black, she's a burst of color in a bright red coat and a yellow hat which barely contains a mane of chestnut hair that tumbles around her shoulders. For another, though her clothes are much more cheerful, they're also shabbier and not fitted half as well as his. He doesn't seem to mind-on the contrary, he's turned toward her, his face an inch away from hers. He seems to be saying something to her, and whatever it is, it must be funny. She's frozen in the act of turning toward him, a huge smile on her face, as though she's just about to laugh. The smile, like everything about her, is stunningly beautiful. She has even features, clear skin, and a wide mouth painted a striking shade of red that suits her perfectly.
I expected it. I knew she'd be beautiful. I knew how in love with her he'd been-Professor Potsdam told me. What I didn't expect is how much I loathe her.
It's not her flashy, cheap red coat, or her smile, or her lovely face. It's not his arm around her or - I notice, looking closer at the photo - the fact that he's looped his black knitted scarf around both of their necks. It's the look on his face as he's leaning into her. He's smiling - not smirking, but really smiling, the kind of smile that reaches his eyes and lights up his entire face. He looks genuinely happy. Actually, "happy" is too bland, too much of an understatement. He looks blissful. And I hate it.
I want to tear the photo apart to get them away from each other, to tear it across again and wipe that smile off her face. I want to eradicate her from existence, to erase her from everyone's memory, to make it so she never lived in the first place.
And then with a sick sensation in my stomach I think did I say I was a ghoul before? No - I'm a monster.
How could I think that way about a girl who died so horribly, so painfully? How could I think that about my own husband who, as far as I know, never smiled the way he smiled in that photo since she died? If I really did love him, I should wish she were still alive. But I don't. It's perfectly clear that Professor Grabiner had loved her - had loved Violet - then, and that whatever he feels about me doesn't even come close.
Sure, he may have wanted me physically the other night, but even I'm not naive enough to think that was anything but a combination of alcohol, unhappiness, and proximity. That's nothing like the kind of love that lights his face in the photo, or that made him loop a scarf around Violet's neck to keep her close, even though he was already touching her. Even though, from the look on her face, she wasn't going anywhere.
He'll never look at me that way, never smile at me like that. So I can't help but hate the girl who'd gotten all of that, and, I have to assume, more.
A knock at the door makes me jump about three feet in the air, and I whip the photo behind my back before squeaking "come in!" as loudly as I'm able.
It's Mr. Lewis, who opens the door, then cringes at the look of surprise on my face. "Please pardon the intrusion, Mrs. Grabiner, I apologize," he says.
I have to wonder how Lord Montague treats his poor assistant, as he looks like he'd leap through his skin if I ever said a cross word to him. "It's okay, don't worry about it. Did you need something?" I ought to stand, but he'd see the photograph, so I stay seated on the settee.
He smiles slightly. "Lord Montague asked me to invite you to tea this afternoon."
"Oh-that's nice... um. I told Mrs. Craft that I would have tea with her today."
"That's all right, I'll explain to her," he says eagerly.
It's more of a summons than an invitation, then. "Ah. Yes, I'll be happy to, thanks. Four o'clock?"
"Yes - great - I'll come fetch you," he says, a little breathless at his victory. Before closing the door he mouths "thanks," at me.
I wonder briefly if I ought to change clothes before remembering that I have only my jeans to change into - the dress will have to do. It's a little over an hour before I have to meet Lord Montague, so I go back into the dressing room to tuck the photograph into a pocket of my suitcase, and retrieve my book.
I manage to finish Jane Eyre before Mr. Lewis comes to fetch me for tea. I find the last chapter particularly unsatisfying this time around. "Reader, I married him." How can marriage be the end of the story? Jane has years of having to figure out how to actually be married to Mr. Rochester from day to day, and his assurance that "our honeymoon will shine our life long" sounds hollow. Isn't that how everyone feels about their marriage at first? And how many times does that actually prove to be right? The exception, I guess, is my parents - they seem to be very much in love now, though they have their share of fights. But they've had twenty-four years to figure themselves out. I only have another six months to convince Professor Grabiner not to divorce me - if, that is, I decide I want to stay married in the first place.
When Mr. Lewis knocks on the door again, I'm pacing in front of the settee and tea table, unable to settle my body or my mind on anything. I open the door myself, put on what I hope is a charming smile to calm Mr. Lewis, then follow him down the hallway to the stairs. I briefly wonder whether Lord Montague is behind the scary red-tinged door, but we go the opposite way - down the stairs to the first floor, and into a room that looks like a solarium.
It's the very back of the main section of the house, overlooking a symmetrical garden that rests between the two wings. The sun isn't as bright as it is in my Impossible Room, but there are a few beams of afternoon light that tinge the room gold. Lord Montague is there, in a comfortable chair with a blanket over his legs, sitting by a low table. He smiles weakly as I approach.
"Ah, Eliza, thank you so much for joining me. I'm sorry I can't get up this afternoon."
I suddenly feel terrible for the man. He looks really ill, much worse than he did last night. His skin is papery, and there are deep circles under his eyes. I cross the room toward him and take the hand he extends to me. "I appreciate you inviting me," I say.
"Yes, well, it's not often that I have the opportunity to take tea with a charming young lady," he says. "Please, sit down." He motions to the chair beside him, and I sit, suddenly uncertain.
"Isn't Hieronymous going to join us?" I ask.
"Ah, I've left him on the telephone with my solicitor. You know, it's such a comfort having him around to help me with these matters, they exhaust me terribly." He reaches to clasp my left hand again. "I assume I have you to thank for that."
"No, not at all," I start, but he lets go of my hand and waves my concerns away.
"I never thought about getting taken care of by my own child," he says. "Hieronymous was my responsibility for such a long time, and you never really believe that when they're older, they'll be the ones who have responsibility for you."
I have no idea what to say to this, so I just sputter "I - I'm really glad that everything could work out for you both." As soon as I say it, I want to bite my words back. Of course everything hasn't "worked out" for Lord Montague - he's dying, for heaven's sake.
If he notices the gaffe, or my subsequent discomfort, Lord Montague doesn't show it. He beams at me as a woman in a uniform enters to set down a tray on the table before us with a teapot, cups, cream and sugar, and a tray of little round cakes. After she leaves I leap up to take care of the pouring-out of tea so that Lord Montague doesn't need to exert himself, and so that I can pretend that by the time we're both seated with cups in hand, he'll have forgotten my thoughtless statement.
As I settle into my seat, Lord Montague reaches out to touch my left hand for a third time. "I haven't seen this in years," he says, brushing my ring with the tip of his finger. "Did Hieronymous fetch this from the Otherworld for you?"
"Oh," I say, "no, he found it at the solicitor's in London."
"Hmm," says Lord Montague. "I could have sworn it was with the rest of the collection-but never mind, I'm just happy to see you enjoy it. It suits you." He gives me a benign smile, and settles back into his chair. "Actually, I had hoped to apologize to you, Eliza."
"Apologize?" I ask, startled. "What for?"
He chuckles. "For putting on that little show last night, of course. I ought to have warned you, but I did so want to see how Hieronymous would take it."
"Both you and Professor Potsdam seem to like springing things on him just to see the look on his face," I say, half into my tea.
"It's his own fault, going around looking so grim and serious all the time," says Lord Montague with another smile.
"Well okay, I accept the apology. But I wish you'd tell me what it's all about."
"Can't an old man have his secrets?" he asks, and then laughs outright at the consternated look I give him. "I like Petunia very much, but she's so black and white in what she teaches her students. There's no nuance. Either be the model ordinary citizen around hoi polloi and pretend you've never heard of magic, or get cast out on your ear, is that what she tells you? Even in America, things aren't quite so simple."
"So as long as they think you're just a good illusionist, it's all right?" I ask.
"Something like that. And they're all sworn to secrecy if they want to stay in our little group."
"A secret between thirteen people doesn't sound like much of a secret."
"You'd be surprised," he says with an unfathomable smile. I don't like it much, so I look away, sipping my tea to have something to do. Poor Mrs. Craft-she'll never get to learn his real secret.
"Mrs. Craft took me on a tour of the house today," I say, wanting to change the subject to the most convenient thought at hand.
"Did she? And did you enjoy it?"
"Yes... She's pretty interested in the history of your family, actually."
"Well she always was rather nosy," he says dryly.
"She called herself 'nosy old bat,'" I admit.
"Her honesty does her credit. She's always badgering me about genealogy and historical importance and all that. But don't worry, I do try to toe the line about not revealing magic in most respects."
Somehow, I feel that Lord Montague's "in most respects" might translate more accurately into "when it's convenient for me," but I don't say anything.
"And what are you curious about?" Lord Montague asks.
"I..." I start, but trail off. The question catches me off guard. "The family history does seem very interesting, but I was a bit more curious about the way things are now."
"Well, Hieronymous had told me that you're the only representative from the magical community in the House of Lords, but how is that possible, unless the government knows we exist?"
"Aha," he says with a curiously gratified smile. "The answer to that lies in our family's history after all. We're rather specialists in a particular sort of white magic. I'd say we invented it, or if not that, at least refined it to the manner in which it's used today. It's a very complicated, delicate operation, the result of which is that when presented with certain information such as the existence of a magical member of Parliament, the mind of the person taking in that information essentially ignores it as entirely uninteresting."
"I don't follow," I say, as the existence of magical politicians sounds terribly interesting and unforgettable.
"Let me put it this way - have you ever read a book that was so boring, your mind tuned out, until before you knew it you were five pages from where you started but can't remember a single word you'd just read?"
"Yes," I say tentatively.
"Well this spell does that to certain facts. So for example, if I were to tell a fellow peer that I represented the magical community in Parliament, his eyes would glaze over, he'd give a half-hearted nod, and immediately forget about it. There's a psychological element to it, as well... it combines not only the element of dullness, but a sense of relief that the fact isn't the observer's problem. Sort of the way I felt when Hieronymous told me that there's a nastily complicated set of inheritance laws to work through with the estate's trust, but that he'd be the one to take care of it with the solicitor over the time that he's in England. Not only will I forget about the existence of the problem, but I'll actively and happily refrain from thinking about it." He takes a satisfied slurp of tea.
This makes a strange sort of sense after all. "And so that's how the magical community gets kept secret?"
"Only in part," he replies. "It does allow us to function in government without revealing our presence. However, although the spell works quite well on dull things like the minutiae of day-to-day politics, it doesn't work on things like social scandals or crimes. In a way, that's a good thing - you don't want anyone just forgetting about a magician who took it into her head to blast a street full of people into smithereens, for example, but in others, it's terribly limiting. To make someone forget about a scandal, you'd have to cast a memory spell on that individual directly, rather than on the fact that you're trying to keep a secret. And that's a very tiresome bit of business in this age of widespread information - how would you track down everyone who read about it in the newspaper, or on their computer?"
It does all seem complicated, and although Lord Montague seems to be dismissive of it, I can certainly see the point in Professor Potsdam's absolute rule of never hinting to a non-magical person that the magical community exists.
"At any rate," Lord Montague continues, "the Grabiners have always been quite talented at that spell in particular, and white magic in general, and that's led to our being leaders in the UK's community. Hieronymous has the talent, but not the inclination to continue in those footsteps, I'm afraid... his interests were always disappointingly physical-blue magic, black magic, red. I remember how disappointed Petunia was when he refused to teach the white magic courses at school. Though now that he's settled down a bit, I am entertaining the hope that he'll come around after all, which is why I'm so pleased to have you here, my dear." He ends this pronouncement by patting my hand.
"I don't see why I should make any difference," I say.
"Don't you? But it's simple! Family, dear girl, family. I've been waiting for him to recognize the importance of continuing our family. Now that he's married, and I hope not too far from having children of his own, I'd entertained the hope that he'd gain an appreciation of what our family has built, and want to ensure its continuance. I was very much like him at his age, you know, very stubborn, very much my own island. But I did eventually realize what family means. And so I settled down, entered into the family position in Parliament, and had Hieronymous - rather late in life, but better late than never."
I'm not sure Professor Grabiner will ever have a change of heart about going into politics, and I don't like the implication that I'll be having children any time soon, so I busy myself with pouring both Lord Montague and myself a fresh cup of tea so I don't have to answer him right away.
"That's very interesting," I say evenly, as I settle back with my cup. "But I'm not sure Hieronymous is ready to give up his job at this point."
"Well," says Lord Montague, giving me a smile over his teacup, "ready or not."
"I can't really picture him as a politician," I say. But then again, I consider, if I'd just met him I wouldn't have pictured him as a teacher, either. "Did he always want to be a teacher?" I ask.
"Ah - no, that was a rather recent development," says Lord Montague. "But hasn't he ever told you himself?"
"No," I say, not able to look at him. "He's not very... communicative."
"I see," says Lord Montague. "That's a bit disappointing, though there's something to be said about a fresh start. I always cautioned him against dwelling in the past - that is, when he'd listen to me, which was - is - seldom enough."
Neither of us say anything for a few minutes. I sip at my tea until I can't bear the taste of it any more, and put the cup down, half-finished.
Lord Montague finally breaks the silence. "I think you had better just ask me what you want to know," he says, and my stomach twists. He's got me - I've been dancing around the real question I wanted to ask, and it's no good pretending. I might as well just have out with it.
"Aloysius," I start, "would you please tell me about Violet?"
He's quiet for another long moment. "Before I answer you, I'll pose you a question," he says. "Do you really think you ought to be hearing this from me?"
Unexpected tears spring to my eyes and I have to blink them back. All of the jealousy and spite I'd felt while looking at her picture threatens to rise into my mouth, a black bitter ooze, so for a moment I sit quietly until I can swallow it down, calm my breathing and clear my throat.
"No, I don't," I say. "But please tell me anyway." And although it's a wrench, I turn to look Lord Montague full in the face. He looks sadder and more tired than he did when I came in. There's no trace of the rakish leering from last night, the mischievous pushing and pulling that had reminded me of playing with food. Now, he's just one weary old man embarking on a topic long and painfully buried. To his credit, though, he doesn't look away when he begins.