It's only Professor Potsdam's arm held firmly around my shoulders that keeps me from bolting into the hallway and back to the car. Professor Grabiner continues to stare at both of us until his mobile buzzes with the voice of whoever is on the line. He lifts the phone back to his ear and turns away, tossing papers onto the desk. "Yes, what? Sorry. All right, that's fine. First thing tomorrow morning, mind. Thank you." He clicks the phone off and stuffs it into his jacket pocket, then turns back to where we're standing.
"Petunia, may I have a word with you, please," he says, and the way he says "please" clearly means "now." I briefly wonder whether he ought to be talking to his boss like that, but Professor Potsdam just smiles and says "Of course!" He walks over, grips her arm, and steers her out of the room, into the hall, and then into one of the doors opposite, which he slams behind them. "Have you completely lost your mind?" I hear him start, before another door slams, and they're both out of earshot. I'm left alone in the sitting room, wondering what on earth I should do next.
"Lord, they don't waste much time, do they?" says the plump woman, who had been standing out in the hall while the scene took place. She walks in and gives me a big, friendly smile, which is suddenly the most welcome thing in the world. "I'm Julie," she says, giving me her hand to shake. "Eliza," I say, trying to disguise the quiver in my voice.
"Well go on, sit down, it's all right," says Julie, and I sink onto the sofa. "Have you been with Mrs. Grabiner long? I had no idea he was married 'til this afternoon, Mrs. Barton from the great house phoned up and said his wife was coming up from America, but he never even mentioned it. Bit old for him, isn't she?"
"Oh-she's not his wife, she's his, uh, colleague," I say.
"Well who's his wife then, you?" says Julie with a laugh. I can feel my face redden-I'm not fast enough to come up with a good answer. Her mouth drops open. "What, you-oh sh-I mean, sorry-I mean madam-I mean... oh my God." She backs away from where I'm sitting. "You're not serious?"
"It's really not what you think-" I start.
"I thought you were her, like, personal assistant or something! Oh bloody f-I mean-sorry! Sorry!" Julie's panting now. "Please don't tell him I said that! He'll sack me again!"
"He sacked you already?"
"Yeah-I've been housekeeper here for two years and no one's ever even come to the house. It's mostly just upkeep, and taking care of the furniture, like. When he got here last week he hadn't called or anything to say he was coming. I thought he'd broken in; practically jumped through my skin when he walked in the door," says Julie. "I hollered like anything, nearly called the police, and he sacked me on the spot. But as I was packing my things he came up and said I'd been doing a good job so far, and anyway he didn't have the time to find someone new, so I could stay."
"Oh," I say, trying my best not to smile. "Yeah. He'll do that."
"So you're really married?" asks Julie. "Lord, where'd he pick you up, a high school?"
"Uh. Something like that."
She frowns and looks me over. "Look, do you need me to call someone?"
"Oh-no! No, it really isn't like that, it's, like..." my mind races to think of something. "A family thing, you know, it was arranged? And we're not even supposed to live together or... anything... for a few years yet. I had to come up this week, and that's what Professor Potsdam's here for, you know, to chaperone." It's a pretty lame excuse, but it's the best I can come up with on the spur of the moment.
She's still frowning. "It's a little weird."
"It's very weird," I agree, happy for a moment not to be lying.
"Well, all right, but if you need me to call anyone, you let me know. And-ah-don't tell him I thought you were an assistant, okay? Because he really would sack me."
"Okay," I say, and she smiles again.
"Look, you want some tea or something? Are you hungry? I can't cook worth anything, but I can make you some sandwiches if you like."
"Well tea would be nice..." I start. I'm not sure how hungry I am, but a hot drink sounds great. "Can I help?"
"Are you mental? Didn't I just say I'd get sacked? You stay right where you are." She turns to leave, then turns back. "Oh-and incidentally, could you not mention I can't cook? I've just been getting takeaway from Marks and Spencer and dressing it up on the nice china while he's been here." Her voice drops to a whisper. "I don't think he's noticed."
I grin. "I promise."
"Thanks-won't be a mo. Uh. Madam."
I snicker as Julie leaves, and suddenly I don't feel quite so bad. I get up and wander around the room for a few minutes. The furniture really is beautiful, though I don't know much about antiques. It's all rich, dark wood, and immaculately kept-it seems like Julie has been doing a good job, even if she can't cook. The sight of the street outside the window, the cars sailing past, and the street lights standing their vigil make me smile a little. Just another night in London, which is where I am. A whole new, mysterious city, and I'm right in the middle of it. I just wish I knew what I was here for.
The door bursts open and Professor Potsdam swans in, followed by Professor Grabiner, who still looks furious, but deflated. Professor Potsdam seats herself regally on one of the armchairs and smiles. "Well that's settled then. Sit down, please."
I sit on the edge of the sofa, but Professor Grabiner just starts pacing again. I wait, but no one takes the initiative to speak, so I just stare at my hands until the door opens again-it's Julie with a large tray bearing a teapot, cups, saucers, and a heap of finger sandwiches. "All right if I serve them in here, sir?" Professor Grabiner jerks his chin in her direction, so she sets the tray on the coffee table and leaves, giving me a small smile.
"Oh!" Exclaims Potsdam, "Real English tea, isn't it exciting?"
"Yes, you're in England, there's tea, and it's not imaginary, congratulations," snaps Professor Grabiner.
"Stop sulking and sit down, Hieronymous, honestly," says Professor Potsdam, pouring out three cups. "Milk, Eliza?"
"No, thank you," I say, taking my cup and sipping. It's Earl Grey, my Dad's favorite because of Star Trek, so the drink both warms me and cheers me with thoughts of home and Dad's terrible Jean-Luc Picard impressions. The sandwiches turn out to be delicious-half of them salted cucumber and half potted meat, all with a thin layer of butter spread on both slices of bread. One bite and I'm ravenous, and soon demolish a fair number.
Professor Grabiner doesn't sit and doesn't touch his tea, but crosses to a sideboard which holds a decanter-and-glass set. He pours about a finger width of amber liquid from one of the decanters into a glass, tosses it back, then pours another.
"Well if you're going to do that, at least eat something," says Professor Potsdam. He gives her a withering look, mutters "excuse me," in my direction, and stalks out of the room with his drink.
"Oh well, it's all right," chirps Professor Potsdam. "He'll come around, you know, he always does."
"Professor, can you please tell me now, what are we doing here?"
"Yes, yes," she says, gulping down a large mouthful of bread and cucumber. "We're going to visit Hieronymous's father in the country."
"His father?" I set my teacup down into its saucer with a clink. Professor Grabiner had been estranged from his father for years, or so I'd been told. The man was some kind of nobility, but as he lived in the Otherworld-a terribly unsafe place for children-full-time, he hadn't bothered to raise Professor Grabiner as a child, instead leaving him to the care of employees. This had all led somehow to the death of a girl named Violet, Professor Grabiner's first love, who'd crossed into the Otherworld with him unprotected, and had her soul eaten by goblins as he watched, helpless. The final result was Professor Grabiner's estrangement from his father, self-imposed exile from England, and volatile personality. "No wonder he's so upset. But did something happen? They haven't spoken in years, and Professor Grabiner burns all his letters. Why now?"
"Your marriage, for one thing, I'm sure Lord Montague's quite keen to meet his daughter-in-law."
"But that doesn't make any sense, if Professor Grabiner didn't even know I was coming-"
I'm interrupted by a knock at the door. Julie enters. "Pardon me, Mrs. Grabiner, Ms. Potsdam, your rooms are ready if you'd care for me to show you to them." Julie's friendly manner has disappeared-now, she's all obsequious politeness.
"Yes, it is getting late," says Professor Potsdam, looking at a tiny gold watch that dangles from her wrist. "Come along, Eliza."
"But-" I start, to no avail. Professor Potsdam is already out the door, so I follow along. My befuddlement at the situation is slowly being replaced by frustration. Professor Potsdam is known for throwing her students into dangerous situations without letting them know what they'll be dealing with beforehand-after all, that's how all of our school exams are structured-but after racing across the Atlantic under false pretenses, I'm beginning to get tired of following her around obediently without any further information.
"Here we are, madam, says Julie to Professor Potsdam, showing her into a room with an ivory four-poster and wallpaper sporting pink entwined roses on the walls. I follow Julie into the next room, which is decorated with pale green curtains and paper. The bed isn't a four-poster, but looks very comfortable, and the room even has its own bathroom.
"Now you saw Ms. Potsdam's just next door, and I'm right across the hall. So if you need anything, no matter what time it is..." she trails off, and gives me a significant look.
So Julie's trying to chaperone me, too. "Oh, thanks I'll keep it in mind. Good night."
My suitcase is already in the room, but I decide it's probably too much trouble to unpack until I figure out how long I'll be staying. Instead, I dig out my toothbrush and go into the bathroom to wash up. It's a bit small, but has an impressively deep clawfoot tub that, upon consideration, I decide that I can't resist. I run myself a bath and dump half a bottle of posh-looking shower gel that I find on a nearby shelf (thanks to Julie, I assume) into the water. With the help of a breeze spell, the stuff makes a decent bubble bath. I stay in the water for as long as the bubbles and heat last, and consider the events of the past few days. The only conclusion I come to is that I feel a bit like one of the pinballs in the machines at the arcade near school, tossed about in one direction or another without any control over where I'm going.
After getting out of the tub and drying my hair, I step back into the bedroom, and have to stifle a shriek upon seeing someone already there.
It's Professor Potsdam, and she has my suitcase open on the bed, inspecting the clothes I packed.
"Hello dear, have a nice bath?" She frowns at the plain black suit dress that she's holding up. "Is this what you planned on wearing?"
"I didn't really plan on anything..." Professor Potsdam had said something about packing "nice clothes" for the trip when I'd spoken to her on the phone prior to leaving, but as my "nice clothes" consisted of the limited work wardrobe I'd put together for my summer job, those were the only things I'd packed. "You didn't mean that I should wear witch's robes, did you?"
"Don't be silly, dear, it's a proper English country house! And you're Lord Montague's new daughter-in-law, you'll need to dress the part. Hieronymous should have taken care of this already, he's so obtuse."
It seems futile for me to try to argue that I hadn't the slightest idea I'd be visiting a country house until about an hour ago, and that apparently Professor Grabiner hadn't either, so I just stand still, clutching my towel around me.
"Oh well, I'll see what I can do with them," Potsdam concludes, bundling my work dresses, blouses and skirts in her arms and heading to the door. "You ought to get to bed, we're starting out first thing in the morning, and it's a long drive."
"Yes, dear! I'll wake you up, don't worry. Sweetest dreams, popkin!" She shuts the door behind her, leaving me feeling suddenly sympathetic to Professor Grabiner's earlier display of rage. Fortunately she left my pajamas and underwear in the suitcase, so I'm able to get dressed for bed.
Of course, I can't sleep at all. Although the bed is comfortable, I have too many things working against me-jet lag, a cup of tea before bed, an unfamiliar room, and an agitated mental state. I toss for what seems like hours, telling myself that I'll only be more miserable if I can't get to sleep as quickly as possible, but my body won't cooperate. At about the forty-eighth flop onto my left side, I prop myself up to look at a small antique clock on the bedside table in the glow of the streetlights outside. Twenty after twelve. My first day of being seventeen is over already.
I groan and stuff my head into the pillow. I could turn on the light and read, but I'm at the dismal stretch in Jane Eyre where Jane stays with the priggish St. John Rivers before returning to Thornfield once and for all. I consider knocking on Julie's door to ask for a glass of ice water, but that seems so self-entitled. I can get my own water. Suddenly, the thought of getting up and searching for ice water seems enticing-after all, I haven't seen much of the house, and it might be fun to poke into some of the rooms on the way to the kitchen. I spend a minute going back and forth on should I or shouldn't I, then decide, and get out of bed.
The upstairs hallway is dark, and seems to soak up the little sounds I make as I pad on bare feet across the runner carpet. The stairs creak just a bit, but I'm careful, and skip the one that seems likely to make the most noise. Once in the foyer, the dark expanse and silence of the house around me seems almost blissful, and a little worm of excitement squirms in my stomach. But when I turn to walk down the hallway to the back of the house, I notice that there's a light behind one of the partially opened doors. Well.
I approach the door, rolling my feet from outside to inside as I walk, trying to make as little noise as possible. And when I look into the room-the same sitting room in which we'd had tea this evening-it's just as I'd thought. Professor Grabiner's sitting on the sofa, a stack of papers in front of him on the coffee table. But he's not even pretending to look at them, he's staring straight in front of him as though he's looking through the wall, covering his mouth with one hand. It suddenly strikes me as shabby to sneak up on him like this, so I knock on the door.
He doesn't move, but his eyes flick to the door and fix on me for a long moment. Finally, he lowers the hand covering his mouth. "Can't sleep?" he asks.
"No," I say. "Jet lag I guess. You?"
He shakes his head, though it doesn't look as though he's tried to sleep yet; he's still wearing his suit, though his jacket's unbuttoned and tie loosened. We stay still, looking at each other for a moment, until I finally break the silence. "Can I come in?"
He shrugs, which I take as a yes, so I step into the room. Deep breath.
"Hieronymous," I start, and it feels so awkward to say, a mouthful of a name that I'm not used to using, but now doesn't seem the time to call him "professor" or "sir." "I've been waiting, can you tell me what's going on?"
He doesn't say anything, just watches me try to think of what to say next, to convince him.
"Professor Potsdam's being... well, she's being herself, just parceling out bits of information when it's convenient to her."
He doesn't answer.
"I came all the way here, I thought it was supposed to be imperative that I follow Professor Potsdam's instructions," I continue.
He still doesn't answer.
"And," I continue, increasingly desperate, "you did say you'd explain when you saw me next."
"Did I?" he says.
"Mm-hm. You said 'in detail.'"
"How extraordinary of me," he deadpans.
This time, I don't answer. I've said my piece, I decide, and can wait him out all night, if that's what it takes.
He breaks eye contact first, with a sigh. "Very well," he says, standing and picking up the glass that was in front of him on the coffee table. He points to the sofa. "Sit."
"Thank you," I say, as though he'd given me a courteous invitation rather than an order. He crosses to the sideboard as I settle myself on the sofa, tucking my feet under me.
"Drink?" he asks, gesturing to the glass-and-decanter set.
"Will soda water do?"
"Yes, thanks." I watch as he extracts two ice cubes from a silver tin with a pair of tongs, then squirts a measure of soda from a siphon-something I've never seen outside of a period movie-into the glass. He pours another measure of amber liquid into his own glass from the decanter, the contents of which seem significantly depleted since I was last in the room. He doesn't seem at all unsteady as he hands me my water and sits next to me on the sofa, so I decide not to worry about it.
He doesn't look at me after sitting back down, but stares at the opposite wall again, his expression inscrutable. Finally, he takes a deep breath, and begins to speak.