I can't think of anything else to say, but sit in silence, trying to process the story I've just heard and not succeeding; watching a beam of sunlight arch from one of the windows and onto the carpet.
"And now, my dear, I think I'm a little tired," says Lord Montague, and I leap up, almost upsetting the tea table.
"Of course - I'm sorry I kept you so long."
"Not at all, it's a pleasure to spend time with you," he says, smiling beatifically. He looks even worse than he did when I came in, though, and I worry that the effort of telling the story has worn him out. "Dinner will be later tonight, as everyone will have to come back and then dress. Cocktails at seven-thirty, at this rate. I might need to assign hosting duties to you and Hieronymous, if you don't mind, I rarely eat late."
Or at all, I consider, noticing the untouched tray of cakes on the table.
"Yes, that would be fine, I know you need your rest-" I'm babbling, and force myself to cut off. "Well, thanks again for tea, and - ah - feel better?" I end the last phrase on a question, wincing to myself at how stupid I sound. Then, halfway to the door I remember that I'm just leaving him there without anyone to help him up. "Do you need anything?"
He chuckles at my obvious distress. "Just ask Mr. Lewis to come in when you go; he'll be outside the door." I don't know what to say to that, so I just duck out the door, happy to be away at last. Mr. Lewis is outside the door, but I don't have to say anything to him - he just gives me his thin, nervous smile and slips into the room as quickly as I slipped out. I wonder if he'd been there the whole time, just waiting for Lord Montague to call him in.
I manage to make it a few steps down the hall before I'm weighed down with a crippling sense of guilt. How could I interrogate poor, ill Lord Montague for so long about a subject he obviously wanted to forget? I hope I'm not the reason he decided not to attend tonight's dinner. I wonder how I'm going to break the news about having to play host to Professor Grabiner - he won't be happy at all, especially after dealing with the solicitor all day.
It's still too early to dress for dinner - the house is so quiet, I figure nobody is back from their excursion to the castles on the coast. I briefly wonder if I should try to find Mrs. Craft again, then wonder whether she'll be cross with me for breaking our appointment for tea. No, I can't face anyone right now. But then I have a thought - the library, maybe I can borrow a new book now that I've finished Jane Eyre. I feel such a strong sense of relief at the thought of having something to do that I decide to head to the library at once.
When I push the door open, I feel a sense of peace rippling up my entire torso. It's wonderful to finally be in a room by myself, and where no one expects me to be, so they can't barge in on me. The rows of books look inviting, with their leather spines gleaming in the late afternoon sun, so I wander to a random shelf and start reading the titles again. Part of me hopes I'd overlooked some magical titles on our tour of the house this morning, but again all of the books that catch my eye are obviously non-magical. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Early History of Rome, The Twelve Caesars, The Fall of the Roman Republic... I like Roman history fine, but I think I'm in the mood for fiction. I cross to another bookshelf, and then another. This one seems more promising-I see The Canterbury Tales, a book I've been meaning to read, but never had the occasion to pick up. My optimism ends, though, when I flip the book open and discover that it's written entirely in Middle English, with no modern translation. I peer at the half-familiar, half-alien words for a minute before deciding I don't have the patience for it after all. I slam the book shut and shove it back on the shelf.
"You might want to be careful with that; it's about ten times as old as you," says a voice behind me, and I jump, whirling around. Professor Grabiner is sitting in a chair in the corner with a book open in one hand. I huff in shock, pressing myself into the bookshelf.
"You shouldn't sneak up on me like that," I say, trying to catch my breath.
He smirks at me. "I think I was here first." His tone is light, a bit playful, and part of me warms to it, wants to perch on the arm of his chair, rest my chin on the top of his head and ask him what he's reading. But the rest of me - most of me - feels sick just looking at him. So I look at the floor.
"Yeah - sorry - I was just looking for a book?" My voice sounds thin and wavery, and I clear my throat, glancing back up at Professor Grabiner.
He's frowning. "Are you all right?" he says.
"Oh, yeah, fine," I answer, aware of how high pitched and fake I sound.
"Did he say something to you? Another nasty comment?"
And I feel another stab of guilt. I should have been trying to help Professor Grabiner by figuring out information about his father, but I've been digging for personal information about him instead - information he probably wouldn't volunteer himself. And it's only worse to see him get concerned over whether I've been upset by his father.
"No, he was fine," I start, then realize I'm saying that too many things are "fine" for them to actually be fine. "He was a perfect gentleman. He just... looked really ill. I mean terrible."
"Mmm. I thought he was malingering, myself."
"Faking? Oh - I don't know." Lord Montague certainly hadn't looked like he'd been faking how ill he felt. "Though he did seem pretty eager for you to do the legal work for him today," I admit. "Things go okay?"
Professor Grabiner rolls his eyes. "With the solicitor? The man's a dolt. I think I know more about inheritance law than he does."
"I'm not surprised, all that time you spent in law school," I say, not able to resist needling him a bit. He gives me a look that would have been waspish if he hadn't been trying not to smile.
"Yes, well, my legal expertise aside, my father's choice of solicitors is particularly unfortunate."
"So did you give up or what?"
He snorts in derision. "He's got a trainee with a head on her shoulders at least. He had another meeting so I kept her on the line, and between the two of us we were able to work out a reasonable plan for restructuring the estate. She's writing it up, so I thought I'd take a break. I just hope it doesn't give her boss the chance to come in and muck things up." He gives me a faint smile, propping his chin on one hand.
He's in a strikingly good mood, so I consider whether I should just give up and admit to the entire thing - finding the photo, asking Lord Montague to tell the story - all of it. But then I think about how mercurial he can be, how he can flip from calm to furious in a flash. And I remember how it felt to be pinned against a wall by invisible hands, terrified that I'd spend the rest of my days locked in a dungeon, forgotten by everyone, even my own parents.
So I don't say anything but "ah - good luck, then."
His smile drops again. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah, yeah, it's just - uh-" I struggle to think of something that might explain my reticence, then hit on it. "Your father said he might be too ill to host dinner, so we might need to take over instead."
Professor Grabiner gives a disgusted sigh and rubs his eyes with one hand. "You can't be serious."
"Well, I mean, he didn't say anything definite, but..."
"If he thinks I'm going to simper around that lot the way he does-"
"He's not asking you to simper, he's asking you for help," I snap, surprising myself at my vehemence.
"What?" Professor Grabiner says back, his voice soft but sharp.
"You heard me," I reply, anger briefly submerging the fear I'd felt earlier.
"My father is perfectly capable of seeing to his own guests," he says, peevish now.
"Except he just told me that he isn't!"
"Well he might have thought of that before he invited them."
"And you might have thought about that before you agreed to help him," I retort.
He doesn't say anything and for a moment I realize I might have just won this argument.
"In that case, I suppose I have rather a lot to be getting on with," says Professor Grabiner after a pause.
"I'll let you get to it, then," I say, and turn to leave.
"Didn't you say you wanted a book?" he says, and I stiffen. I want to walk out, but somehow that seems as though it would be admitting defeat after all.
"Anything modern?" I ask, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Try that shelf." He points to a section on the far wall, and I cross to it. Most of it is still pretty old, so I snag the first book that catches my eye - Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. That and Moby Dick are my Dad's two favorite books, and he's been getting on me to read them for the past few years. I hadn't read either yet, but considering how well the title reflects my current emotional state, I decide I might as well give this one a try.
Turning back, I see that Professor Grabiner is still sitting with his chin cupped in one hand, still frowning, watching me.
"Well, see you at dinner," I say. "If you decide to show up." His expression darkens, and I think he's hurt. I can hurt him. I almost stop and try to take it back, but at the last moment turn my face away and rush to the door, clutching my book.
I go straight to my room and fling myself onto the bed with a groan. Now that was a fiasco, I think, burying my head into the coverlet. Not just the strange half-argument with Professor Grabiner, but the entire day. What on earth am I doing here, really, I wonder. And suddenly I feel a third pang of guilt - I'm supposed to be here helping Professor Grabiner figure out what's going on with his father, and here I am siding with Lord Montague in an argument. I ought to be feeling more compassion toward my own husband rather than to an old man I barely know, but the way Professor Grabiner acts sometimes-well, it's infuriating, especially the way he talks about Lord Montague's guests, as though they were objects or insects, rather than people.
I try to distract myself by opening my new book, but it's no use. Before I know it, I'm several pages into the introduction, without remembering a word of what I'd read. Just like Lord Montague said, I think sardonically. He might as well have cast that spell of his on this book.
I turn onto my back, hanging my head down the side of the bed that faces the windows. I wonder if Lord Montague really is going to beg off hosting duties tonight, and if he does, will it have been my fault for wearing him out? I guess it's a good thing I didn't tell Professor Grabiner about the photo and the story, then - the compounded indignity of having his personal life revealed as well as hosting dinner would have landed me in a dungeon for sure. Or, at least, snatched out of the house the way he'd snatched that strange little box out of my hands last March.
But it's funny, now that I think about Lord Montague's story. The box is - I think - a key to Revane Cottage, where Violet had ostensibly met her end - or at least where she'd been overcome by goblins and carried off. But if that's the case, why on earth would Lord Montague think it was a good idea to have given the key to that cottage as a wedding present? Have a lovely honeymoon in the house where your first girlfriend was kidnapped and killed - what kind of message is that? And it's not like he could have forgotten - he told me he'd been there and seen her die. With a shiver, I remember Lord Montague's kindly demeanor as he told the story, so different from the creepily flirtatious way he'd treated me at last night's dinner. Was the kindness all an act? Or was the flirtatiousness? Or both? And what am I going to do now that I've ensured that I can't tell the one person who might be able to make sense of all this?
Then it hits me - there's one other person I can tell - Professor Potsdam. If she stops talking and buzzing around for long enough for me to ask her, that is. I'll be able to corner her when she comes up before dinner with whatever new dress she's concocted for me. The thought calms me down, and I resolve to wait until she gets back to the house.
I give the book another chance, starting again at the beginning, and this time it takes. I'm immediately swept up in the hypnotic description of the bright lights of London as seen from the narrator's boat on the Thames, the light occupying what he claims was once one of the dark places of the world.
I'm a quarter of the way through the rather short book before Professor Potsdam bursts into the room without knocking. By this time the sun is low on the horizon, casting orange beams of light that are just beginning to turn to red. I blink at her, my mind still half on the coast of Africa.
"Hello dear," she says, hooking a garment bag on the wardrobe. "Have a nice day?"
"It was...interesting," I say, wondering where to begin. "How were the castles?"
"Just outstanding, lamb, I wish you could have come!" she chirps, ignoring the fact that I hadn't even been told about the excursion until everyone had already left. She launches into a gushing description of the very grand Bamburgh castle with its beautifully preserved furnishings and gardens, then moves to the majestic ruins of Durstanburgh. She barely draws a breath during this extended monologue, and I barely get a word in that isn't "oh," or "ah," or "wow."
During all of this, she's shepherding me around the room, putting me through the motions of washing up, fixing my hair and donning my minimal makeup. When she shoves me into the dressing room with the garment bag, she's in the middle of a story about Dame Sutworth daringly scaling a crop of stones at Durstanburgh and nearly cracking her head for her pains. Professor Potsdam doesn't pause the story when she shuts the door behind me, but stands just outside and raises her voice.
Even the change in volume when the door closes behind me is a relief, and my mood lifts further when I see the dress she's brought. It's much simpler than last night's silk sheath - a plain cream-colored linen dress, with a full skirt to the knee. I'm not wild about Professor Potsdam's apparent obsession with dressing me in various shades of white, but at least I've already proved that I can get through a dinner without spilling anything on myself.
After dressing, I dutifully re-enter my bedroom and let Professor Potsdam fuss over adjusting the fit of the dress, still gabbing about Dame Sutworth's unexpected wild streak. I wait until she pauses briefly before interrupting her.
"Hmm?" she says, tugging at the hem of my skirt until it falls just so.
"How long have you known Lord Montague?" It's a lame start, but I figure it's at least a way to determine how much of the story Lord Montague told me was true.
"Oh, nearly ten years now, I think, he's quite something isn't he?"
"I guess so," I say. "Are you - like - friends?"
"That's a deplorable habit, I'm certainly not 'like' anything."
"Sorry," I say, abashed. "But are you friends? Do you like him?"
"Lord Montague is one of the most important figures in the United Kingdom's magical community, and he's a great benefactor of Iris Academy," she replies. "As to whether I like him... well, that's a little beside the point, isn't it?"
"But, I mean, what do you think of him doing magic like that, in front of his guests last night? It's forbidden, so aren't you going to-"
"I'm not going to do anything," says Professor Potsdam.
"But-" I start.
"Eliza, try to understand - you are my student, and as my student, I am directly responsible for your behavior. If you chose to display magic before these guests, it would be incumbent on me to take the necessary actions to ensure you did not do it again. Lord Montague, however, is not my student, and is not under my authority. As a consequence, it is not up to me to dictate what he does in his own house, before his own guests."
Her tone is much sharper than I'm used to. I've come to expect a certain amount of vitriol from Professor Grabiner as a matter of course, but coming from the normally saccharine Professor Potsdam is a bit of a shock. Her attitude towards Lord Montague's magic use also strikes me as strange - isn't it a little like watching someone commit a crime, but just standing by without calling the police or anything? But then, I don't know as much about the mores of the magical community as Professor Potsdam does - maybe most magicians share her attitude.
"Just curious," I mutter, giving up on my questions and feeling like a failure.
Professor Potsdam looks at her tiny gold watch. "All ready? We'd better go down."
"Isn't Professor Grabiner going to come up?" I ask.
"Oh goodness no, his father's ill so he's had to take over hosting duties."
So Lord Montague was too ill to host dinner after all. Poor Hieronymous.
Professor Potsdam smiles at me and pats my cheek, her former sharpness melted away. "Oh, dear, how sweet - don't worry, we'll see him in just a few minutes. Come along!"
I decide not to protest, but follow her downstairs to dinner.
When we get to the large room with the portraits where we'd gathered last night, everyone is there already - except for Lord Montague, of course. The room is buzzing with conversation and laughter; everyone seems to be having a very nice time. There's a large crowd around Dame Sutworth - the guests are toasting to her derring-do. I catch the eye of Mrs. Craft, who is slightly apart from the crowd and in conversation with Beardy McHaggis, who has donned trousers for this less formal dinner. When she sees me, she grins and waves a piece of paper in my direction. As I approach, I see that it's a ten-pound note-Mr. Duncan must have paid up after all.
When Beardy - a.k.a. Mr. Duncan - notices Professor Potsdam and me approaching, he speeds straight to Potsdam's side. Small wonder, I think, as her dress is just as low-cut as last night's. "Pig," mutters Mrs. Craft, giving his back a glare. "I should have bet him twenty pounds, that'd wipe the smile off his face quickly enough."
"Not for very long," I say, watching Mr. Duncan talk animatedly to Professor Potsdam's chest.
"Hmph," grunts Mrs. Craft. She starts walking around the room for a better view of the rest of the crowd, and I follow, not wanting to have to speak to anyone else just yet. "Well, I suppose I've missed an exciting outing, have you heard the story already?"
"About Dame Sutworth? Oh, yeah," I say, glancing around at the guests who are still crowded around the tiny woman.
"And for what?" Mrs. Craft complains. "A fruitless exploration and tea by myself."
"Ah - yeah - sorry about that," I say.
"Oh, I'm not angry, the duties of family always do take precedent," she says, handing me a glass of champagne from a table as we pass it, and taking one for herself. "I heard he's too ill to join us at dinner, though."
"Mmhm. He looked really terrible at tea."
"Unfortunate, but estate law will do that to a man. Though your husband seems to be taking it in good stride."
"Huh?" I say. I hadn't seen Professor Grabiner yet, so I whip my head around to see if he's sulking in one of the corners of the room.
"No, no, just there," Mrs. Craft says with a grin, and points into the thick of the crowd around Dame Sutworth. It takes me a minute to find him, because he's not skirting the edges of the group and avoiding everyone, but actually chatting with the other guests. In fact, he doesn't look at all reserved or aloof, as he had last night, but engaged in the conversation. As I watch, he makes a point of either speaking or listening to everyone in the group, making an effort to at least appear that he's enjoying himself. At this moment, he resembles nothing so much as his own father in his interactions with the guests yesterday. The effect is, to me, flabbergasting.
"What's gotten into him, I wonder?" muses Mrs. Craft as I gawk.
"I have no idea," I say, and drink half of my glass of champagne at one gulp.