I did not often leave my desk at the Parrington for long periods of time, but in March I had the rare pleasure of taking a three-month sojourn through the museums, archives, and belle lettres of Europe. Unfortunately, the inevitable conclusion of my trip was the correspondence on my desk when I returned was stacked taller than a wedding cake. It took me three days to work my way through the pile, painstakingly responding to inquiries about Giamatti first editions and a particularly insistent and thorny question about whether or not the Parrington would be interested in a four-volume collection of New England cookery – the earliest known publication on the subject, the author of the letter assured me.
As I regarded the task of answering my mail as an unavoidable drudgery necessary to the accomplishment of my true responsibility, the books, I had a small birdsong of a headache roosting in my head by the time I reached the last envelope in the pile. As the letters had been stacked chronologically, this letter must have been the first to arrive. I opened it with a hand pressed to my temples and then paused.
I recognized the handwriting, for he and I had written each other a handful of times since our mutual understanding at our Brockstone reunion. The vast majority of our correspondence pleased Dr. Starkweather greatly, for it was professional, circling around our mutual academic interests, and I dutifully inserted the requisite promise that the Parrington would always be open to receiving such a distinguished archeologist, preferably for permanent employ.
Dr. John Pelham Ratcliffe sidestepped neatly around the offer in each of our letters, choosing instead to discuss his work in Asia Minor, or some book he had seen recently in a Turkish market stall and could easily send to me if I were interested.
We had become... I was reluctant to put a name on it, though Miss Coburn teased me for finally having a friend. Her words always made the back of my neck prickle with embarrassment, as if I had some secret shame. The truth of it was much more mundane, however. Ratcliffe, having seized on some perverse amusement in continuing our acquaintance through mail, sent me the occasional letter, to which I responded.
This letter was different. I saw that straightaways as I opened it. His copperplate was as leisurely and unhurried as the man himself – a far cry from the snivelling, rat-like boy I remembered from school – and it informed me that he had accepted a professorship at a university of some renown located not far from the Parrington, and that now that he was to be my neighbour, so to speak, he had a matter in which he would like to consult me.
His announcement unsettled me. Although I did enjoy Ratcliffe’s company, it was from the safe distance of several continents. I had not seen the man himself since our incident at Brockstone, and the very strong awareness that any friendship I should cultivate – aside from Miss Coburn, who was extraordinary in her own right – would struggle to contain the inconvenient of so much proximity. I recalled the way Ratcliffe had smiled at me during our reunion, lazy and amused, and my stomach churned uncomfortably.
Even so, if he had indeed returned to Boston in a spotlight of academic glory, I could not ignore him, if only because of Dr. Starkweather’s squawking. Therefore I responded to his letter, and set it aside for the next week as I returned to my proper work, labouring in the stacks with ink and glue on my fingers.
Ratcliffe called on me on the tenth day of his return. We had not set a particular time for meeting, but he had evidently taken it upon himself to drop by the Parrington on a day of considerable rain. He snapped shut his umbrella and rested it against his legs as he tried to find a chair in my office that was not covered in papers. I did not often receive visitors, so I awkwardly rushed about, trying to clear the mess while Ratcliffe examined my surroundings – no doubt quite meagre compared to the professor’s office he had been allotted in that unnamed school at Cambridge.
“Booth,” he said, “quit your useless fluttering and listen to me.”
His voice both galvanized and irritated me. I stopped my attempts to conjure up hot tea from a box of teabags that had not been touched in five years. Ratcliffe was a much smaller man than I was – at six three most men fell into this description – but he gave the impression of being so quick and assured that it made no difference.
“You said you wished to speak of a particular matter?” I asked. I could not decide if I should sit or stand when Ratcliffe was perched so precariously. I stood.
“Yes,” Ratcliffe said. “I believe it falls into one of your little specialties, which is why I ask.”
“My little specialties?” I echoed.
“Demonic possession,” he replied. “Do you know the Mayfairs?”
I did. They were one of the Twenty, the prominent families whose roots were as tangled in Boston as the foundations of the city itself. I had heard tell that the Mayfairs were peculiar, but this meant little in the face of so many old-blood particularities. Ratcliffe continued speaking. “I have some relation to them,” he said, “and when I was visiting my cousins as part of my triumphant tour of Boston, they mentioned a little problem that I, and consequently, you may be able to solve.”
“Involving, er, demonic possession?” I asked.
“Quite.” Ratcliffe smiled slightly. “May I have your assistance?”
“I do not even know what you need my assistance with,” I said, “other than demonic possession, and that can cover a great variety of matters.” I looked down at my hands, and then at the books on my desk, scattered everywhere. A sense of foreboding pierced me through the chest, but Ratcliffe was peering at me intently now, and I found I had no other words to say.
“Well,” Ratcliffe said, “how about I show you the problem and you can judge how much you’re able to help.” He laughed. “It’s the sort of problem that is hard to describe in words anyway.”
The Mayfairs’ manor was slightly out of the city, an imposing architectural edifice meant to impress and intimidate, surrounded by darkly needled firs and pines that speckled the family grounds like sword-jewels. Ratcliffe and I made our way to the manor by vehicle, with Ratcliffe driving – I had never learned how to operate such a hulking mechanized beast, nor did I possess any desire to. We had left later than we would have liked, Ratcliffe being stopped by one of his students after an evening lecture. The moon hung like a fixed eye.
Ratcliffe parked, and we walked up to the front door together, side by side. “A word of warning,” he said as he rapped his knuckles against the door. “My cousins aren’t given to being friendly.”
That was fine. I was not sure what I would do if they were, in fact, friendly. There were some staff at the Parrington, particularly the receptionists, who were given to cheer, and it alarmed me the way a deer is alarmed at an arrow’s flight. I said nothing but simply waited alongside Ratcliffe, who adjusted his collars and raised an eyebrow.
“Mirabella,” he said when a woman answered the door. To my astonishment it was not a servant who answered but a lady -- the lady of the house, if Ratcliffe’s manners and slight bow were anything to judge by. She was a large woman with flat, hooded eyes like a serpent’s, giving her an impression of both heaviness and alertness.
“John,” she said. “Are you here for William?”
“I am,” Ratcliffe said, “and here is my compatriot, Mr. Kyle Murchison Booth. He has some expertise in William’s condition.”
Clever, and cruel of Ratcliffe, to trap me so. Mirabella – Mrs. Mayfair – examined me with a cursory glance. “Well, come in,” she said, and we went in. The atrium of the Mayfair Manor was cold, as if an unforgivably chilly hand had grasped it and was squeezing it for all it was worth. Ratcliffe moved with ease, but I followed with a great more uncertainty, an ungainly presence trotting behind him and trying not to step on his shoes. Ratcliffe and Mrs. Mayfair headed towards the second story where at the end of the hall there was an unremarkable brown door. Mrs. Mayfair produced a key from her dress and unlocked it.
“Ah,” I said.
There was a young man in the room, and he was lying on a bed, though that was an inaccurate way to describe the scene that lay before me. He was lying on the bed, chained to it, and awful gashes traveled down his arms and legs. His fingertips were smeared in blood. The man appeared to be sleeping when we entered, but upon hearing the sound of our breathing, his eyes opened. I saw, without too much effort, that there was not much human sentiment remaining in those eyes. His pupils were as thin as ice-slivers.
“My cousin William Mayfair,” Ratcliffe said by way of introduction. “And the family curse.” He introduced the curse as if it were an old familiar.
William Mayfair stared at me. He made no attempts to address either Ratcliffe or Mrs. Mayfair, but chose to look directly at me, though his gaze was not fully clear – it had the manner of someone dreaming. An evil dream, I thought, and shook myself from my own uneasiness. I looked to Ratcliffe, who mercifully took it as a cue to explain.
“The Mayfair curse,” he said. “Once every ten years, a young male of the family, anywhere between fifteen and thirty years of age, is stricken with madness. For the duration of one year.”
“Only one year?” I wondered.
“Only one year,” he confirmed. “In which they rage and froth and pose a violent threat to anyone who dares approach them. After one year the madness leaves them, but they are never the same thereafter. They become invalids, good for eating porridge but not much else.” His tone was brisk and professional. I imagined it was how he spoke when he stared down at the horrors of Troy – I could not imagine Ratcliffe suffering nightmares the way I did, for his imagination was firmly grounded in the here and now.
I looked at William Mayfair, who had begun to writhe on the sheets, pushing his hips up and down. It was obscene. I looked away.
“Can you fix it?” Mrs. Mayfair asked sharply.
“I... er, I do not know,” I said. “When did this curse take hold?”
“On William, about three months ago,” she said. “It comes quickly, always on a birthday. We managed to lock him up here before he could do too much damage. We haven’t always been so lucky in decades past.” She adjusted her skirts and frowned. “As a whole, the curse has been in our family for a hundred years. The first boy to suffer it was Charles Mayfair.”
Charles Mayfair. I made a note to remember that. “Does it... favour certain boys?” I asked. “Is there a discernible pattern?”
“Yes,” Ratcliffe said. Mrs. Mayfair looked agonized. “The boys who fall under the curse tend to be of the effete variety. Beautiful, graceful, not given to swinging an axe and working the field – not that anybody in this family has swung an axe and worked the field since before the Mayflower.”
“I do not think that relevant,” Mrs. Mayfair said. “I see no pattern among the boys. The curse picks them at will.”
On the bed, William Mayfair began to hiss. Thick slices of breath pass from his lips. Then he groaned, very loudly and deeply. He began to groan in succession. Mrs. Mayfair put her hands over her ears. “Stop it, William!” she said, but he did not, of course, stop. William thrashed violently and groaned like a man in climax or in death.
I grew red.
Ratcliffe put his hand on my elbow gently. I jerked away from him, unused to being touched, but he did not seem to be bothered, nor did he try to touch me again. “We can talk about it in another room,” he said. “It’s very stuffy in here.”
We had coffee in a parlour on the first floor. Ratcliffe, who knew this manor and its kitchens, had scrounged up two cups and a hot carafe. I drank mine silently, though I was glad for the warmth.
“I used to spend summers here,” Ratcliffe said. “It was dreadful. I could never get warm. Something to do with the foundations of the house, I was told, though I had my suspicions otherwise. Even when I was young, dull, and had a face riddled with spots – I knew this house was cursed.”
I thought of my own childhood, all shadows and grief and empty rooms, and suffered from a pang of envy.
“Booth, you’re twitching,” Ratcliffe said.
“Pardon? Er, no,” I said. I made myself sit still and drink the hot coffee, though my hand quavered. “Go on. What do you know about the curse?”
Ratcliffe sighed. “It’s like I said before. Every ten years, one young man of the Mayfair clan, one year of madness. Mirabella is wrong, however. There is a pattern. It is not that the boys are effete, as I mentioned. That is too simplistic an explanation. It is that the boys who are cursed are the ones given to inclinations of...” He trailed off.
“Hmm?” I said, though my heart began to pound.
“Greek love,” Ratcliffe said. “The congress of two men together.”
My tongue felt like clay in my mouth; I could not move. I set my cup of coffee down as to not betray myself, though I had the feeling that Ratcliffe knew. Why else would he be approaching the subject so delicately, almost sympathetically? He must know. Even at Brockstone, there were the packs of jeering boys whose perception occasionally overcame their fundamental ignorance, including Ratcliffe and his friends. I sat up straighter, horrified by the memory.
“It is a natural inclination,” Ratcliffe said, “as old as the classics. I daresay there was no shortage of classical studies when we were in school, late at night in the boys’ dormitories.”
I could only stare at him. Ratcliffe smiled, brittle. “Don’t you think, Booth?”
His words pierced too closely to the secrets that I could not give name to. I said, rather coldly, “I think we need to learn more about the curse. Where are your family papers? Starting from the first instance of Charles Mayfair.”
“I’ll go get him,” Ratcliffe said, though he was still looking at me with that strange, brittle smile. I waited for him to go and was only too relieved when he did.
We stayed the night at Mayfair Manor, though it was my deepest desire not to. I had no argument in the face of Ratcliffe’s insistence, however, or even in the dour expression on Mrs. Mayfair’s face as she told me the servants would prepare for me a room. Ratcliffe had his own room, from his boyhood. When we were led past it on the way to my chambers, I could not help but take a look inside. I do not know what I expected: some ghost of the boy Ratcliffe used to be, perhaps. It was simply an ordinary room with very little indication of its occupants’ character or preferences. Much like Ratcliffe himself, I thought. He could be whoever and whatever he wanted to be, turning charm on and off in the blink of an eyelid.
My rooms were clean and yes, cold, but I was given two sweaters, a blanket, and an oil-flame. The bed was slightly too shorts for me, but I suffered the same with most beds, and was careful to swathe my feet in warm socks as they dangled over the edge of the bed frame. There was a knock at my door some indeterminable time later. I scrambled out of the bed to answer it. A maid handed me a box of crackling old papers, bound by a weathered leather cord.
“Mrs. Mayfair told me to give these to you,” she said. She was gone even before I could open my mouth, disappearing down the hallway like a vapour.
I sat down on the bed with the box of papers. Whoever had been entrusted with them earlier had not taken very good care of them, as they were dry and yellow with fox-rot and water damage. They were passably legible, however, and I looked upon them with curiosity. The dates on the papers spanned a full century of years, with some of them old and some of them written in recent years; and they were all diary pages, the journals and chronicles of young men. Mayfair men.
I hunkered down beside the oil-flame and began to read. Not all the mad Mayfair men had kept diaries, and those who had were not often avid practitioners of the art of memoir, but there were some who had been – their diaries were as fat as milk cows. When I found one that bore the name of Charles Mayfair, I read it intently.
It was green boys’ stuff, pages of content no more interesting than watching a potted plant grow. Charles Mayfair had been fond of gambling, and his diaries were a vast ledger of his wins and losses, accompanied by comments about the women he wooed (which seemed to me, even a biased eye, as perfunctory) and the gentlemen he met at the gambling tables. His descriptions of some of these gentlemen bordered on the ecstatic, with descriptions of inky hair and soulful green eyes and forearms like planks of lumber – such happy rot.
There was one line that made me pause. It stood out from Charles’ blather like a bloodstain. It was towards the end of the diaries, shakily and hastily scrawled.
He says his name is Albert.
I looked up. It was near dawn. I had been reading all night, and now my eyes ached with red-limned fatigue. I found Ratcliffe at the breakfast table, cheerfully applying a mountain of butter on toast, and stood before him like a vulture, waiting for him to glance up. “Booth,” he said, “any progress?”
“Albert,” I said. “What do you know about Albert?”
Not much, as it turned out. Ratcliffe had no memory of that name, which had us spending the afternoon in the family library. The library, as evidenced by diaries I had been given, was in poor repair, and most of the afternoon was spent sifting through distasteful mold. It left me in a slight fit of indignation, but Ratcliffe bore my dismay with easy calm, pulling out family ledgers and trees. “Look, here,” he said. “Albert Mayfair, my great-great-great uncle. He lived to be... hum hum hum... twenty-one.”
I took the family Bible from Ratcliffe and peered at the name. Yes, he was correct. Albert Mayfair, and a death date that was far too close to his birth date to demonstrate the grace of God. I did not know what to make of this discovery, though, and neither did Ratcliffe. We searched through more family papers, and found one more mention of Albert in a letter sent by his mother to their local parish: Come and help Albert; it would be of great service to us.
“What, I wonder, did Albert need help with?” Ratcliffe mused. He had removed his coat and rolled up his sleeves. Mrs. Mayfair had found him a cigar and he was smoking it idly now; she had not bothered to ask me if I wanted one, which I did not. I was not comfortable with Ratcliffe’s smoking in the library, but at the same time the peppery scent of the cigar was comforting, a firm olfactory reminder of another human presence, for I did not want to be in this library or this house alone.
“There is nothing else here,” I said at last, after Ratcliffe had finished another cigar and we had demolished three meat pies. I pushed the books away from me in despair. “And I needs must return to my work.”
“Of course,” Ratcliffe said. “I never meant to keep you from your work.”
I looked at him. He looked back.
“You are wretched,” I said, pulling my gaze away.
“I know you too well, Booth,” he said. “Your curiosity will always be more overwhelming than your reluctance, or why else would you be involved in so many queer incidents?”
“I am myself more than a little cursed,” I mumbled, but the truth was, I knew the Parrington could spare me for another few days – they had already done without me for those three months I was in Europe, after all. I had no new exhibits planned for at least another half-year, and I imagined Mr. Lucent would be excessively overjoyed to have sole command of the Department of Rare Books for a little while longer. I folded my arms over my chest and leaned in my chair, thinking. “Has your family ever summoned an exorcist?” I asked.
“Many times,” Ratcliffe answered. “It works... for a while. The madness always returns a few days later.”
“But it does leave?”
“Yes,” Ratcliffe said. “What are you thinking?” But he already knew what I was thinking; Ratcliffe was able to divine it from me in an instant, with the eerie perception he had possessed even as a boy. “Yes!” he said, suddenly excited. “What better way to find out more about the origins of the curse than to ask one of the mad boys themselves. That is a capital idea – quite well done, Booth.”
“Yes,” I echoed. “That is... I must confess...”
“Why hasn’t my family done it before?” Ratcliffe finished. “You may find the Mayfairs are not particularly imaginative. The horrors of the curse, and the frustrations... I am not sure they have truly made an attempt to cure it in years.” His lips quirked. “You see, one grows used to even madness, and it does end an air of mystery about the family.”
“But Mrs. Mayfair is different?” I ventured.
“William is her son,” Ratcliffe said. “She will do anything for him.” His lips twitched again. “Love, you see.”
“...love,” I said, the topic not sitting well with me, like a gallstone. “Should we, er, that is, go summon a priest?”
The priest came from the farming town on the other side of the river, and if he was surprised to receive a summons in the middle of the day, he did not show it. The Mayfairs, like many families suffering under the burden of tragedy, had maintained a troubled relationship with the clergy, but the priest’s face was old and grave, and he looked upon William Mayfair without turning tail and fleeing, which was more than some priests I had met in my lifetime.
We were standing in the locked room, the five of us: the priest, Mrs. Mayfair, Ratcliffe, myself, and poor William, who lunged and frothed on his bed of chains. Ratcliffe had told me the madness could ebb and flow, that some days it was worse than others. It seemed to me quite heavy that day, and William’s eyes lost their dreamy expression to become hard and focused, hatred and madness warring in those slivers of pupils. His wrists were bloodied anew from the strength he was throwing against the chains, and I was not certain that he would not break free in the middle of the exorcism meant to save him – but the chains were strong, forged by generations of Mayfairs, and they held.
He was screaming, William. He was screaming loudly.
The priest went through the exorcism. What he said, I will not write down, save that it was long, and I was troubled. The sharp crispness of his Latin seemed to make the blood in William’s veins swell, and by the end of it he was pouring blood. Mrs. Mayfair cried out, but only when the prayers were over and William lay slumped over on the bed did she rush to him and begin dabbing the blood away.
We let him rest, then. The madness would be gone for a few days, so Ratcliffe said. We let William stay with his mother, retreating again to the library where I did nothing so much as brood while Ratcliffe produced some of his university work. We discussed some of it, Ratcliffe eager, like most academics, to share the minutiae of his esoteric studies. We understood each other in that, him and I.
“Have some scotch, Booth,” he said.
“No thank you,” I said quietly. The waiting was thorny and torturous. Ratcliffe shrugged and indulged himself while I sat and fidgeted. When Mrs. Mayfair and Father Tarpin finally found us, I shot to my feet in relief. “Can we.... can we speak to him now?”
They had put William Mayfair in a sickbed in the family wing, and he was a pale, shining presence underneath the linens – there was a luminescence to his pearly skin that made it seem like he was blessed, which was a cruel jest. His breathing was laboured, and he appeared feverish and uncertain, but his eyes when he looked at me were lucid. “Mr...?” he asked.
“Booth,” I said tentatively. I looked to Ratcliffe to provide support, said look sliding more into a glare. This was his wretched family that he had dragged me towards, my glare said Ratcliffe, to my surprise, obeyed.
“Mr. Booth,” William said hoarsely.
“William,” I said. “Er, I have some questions to ask you.”
William’s pupils were milky like one who has been under the influence of opium, but when he spoke, his voice was very clear. “Albert Mayfair,” he said. “He is all I could hear or think of; he was in my head, howling and thrashing and weeping.”
“He died many years ago,” Ratcliffe said. “You have never met him.”
“I know,” William said evenly. “He is dead. Why else would he be in my head?” He picked at his sheets and then lifted his eyes. “It is because of George, you see. His precious George. When George was killed, Albert could bear it no more. It was too heavy a weight, and Albert thought that the guilty ones should bear it.”
“The guilty ones,” Ratcliffe said.
“Yes,” William said. “Simeon and Sternhold Mayfair. Albert’s older brothers.” He then proceeded to tell us the story as he knew it from his madness, which was what he had seen in glimpses and snatches in between visions of darker things: Albert Mayfair, young and fine, who had loved a fellow society gentleman named George Rawlings. They had trysted in the forest behind Mayfair Manor and in locked rooms such as the very chamber with which they kept the mad young men in the years to come. They had fancied themselves in love, and perhaps they very well had been, but when Albert’s brothers came upon them one evening, locked in flagrante delicto, they had responded by tearing Rawlings from Albert’s arms and pulling him to the stables. Albert never saw Rawlings again. He spent the last few years of his life in fury, loss, and madness.
The madness was the gift his ghost passed on to Simeon and Sternhold’s descendants, the exquisite pain gift that he bestowed as his vengeance. As Simeon and Sternhold lost sons, Albert’s hunger only grew larger, until it became a pregnant, devouring creature in its own right. Ghosts were prone to such eclipses; their tragedies were imprinted on them like a wax seal, the shape forever unchanging even as the years went by.
I listened to what young William had to say until William’s strength gave out and Mrs. Mayfair ushered us from the sickroom. In the hallway Ratcliffe turned to me and said, “What do you make of that, Booth?”
“I... believe it is the truth,” I said. I did not see why William Mayfair would lie, and I had felt the dark malevolence of Albert Mayfair’s ghost in the moment before the priest had excised it. “Ghosts have turned violent for lesser things.”
“I believe you,” Ratcliffe said. “But by God, you look pale. What have you eaten for dinner?”
Nothing at all, nor had I slept, but such was my normal practice even outside these cold manor walls. Ratcliffe shook his head in exasperation and touched me again. I startled, as I had previously, but Ratcliffe pulled me briskly towards the direction of the kitchens where he proceeded to instruct the cook into serving me whatever remnants they had in the larder. I refused weakly, but Ratcliffe was used to ordering around educated young archeologists in the field, telling them exactly what to do – young, adventurous, fierce archeologists bronzed by sun and sand. I was no such fine creature, and my books had never prepared me for the force of Ratcliffe’s insistence. I ate, uneasily, while Ratcliffe sat across from me with a thoughtful expression.
I took the opportunity to study him then. The last I had seen him at Brockstone, I had described him as a small, spare, dry man. He was all of those things, and imperious as well, his eyes constantly alert and watchful. Those eyes that were so used to finding small scraps of history in a labyrinthine ruin could surely see my inner turmoil, though Ratcliffe was generous enough not to speak of it beyond my outward paleness.
We ate, and we drank, and then Ratcliffe guided me towards my room where I proceeded to sleep, but not well and not long.
The madness returned to William a mere two days later. The household servants chained him to the bed once more, where he screamed and garbled in foreign tongues, a butcher’s Latin that could be heard even through the thick, fortified walls.
Knowing what I did of Albert Mayfair’s history, I made a brief study of William. A previous generation of Mayfairs had installed an ocular peephole into the wall of the chamber – or one could imagine that peephole had been put there by Simeon and Sternhold, to spy on their brother’s activities. I used it nonetheless, listening to William cry out, while searching for a small scrap of knowledge that would allow us to exorcise Albert for good.
Most of William’s ramblings made no sense, but I had an ear for madness – having heard it enough, I suppose, I knew how to parse. Though William ranted of angels, devils, and bloody misdeeds, there was a distinct gargle that formed a name. George, I heard, and then William cried out once, very sharply, “Where are you, George?” He thrashed against his chains and jerked his head upwards, looking about his prison wildly, his eyes beseeching the dust in the corner and the blood on the floor.
I listened for another three hours.
Ratcliffe was reading in the library when I found him in the evening. He used his finger to hold his place in his book as he said, “Yes, Kyle?”
No one called me Kyle, not since Ivo. I froze in my steps, and then blinked, trying to shake off a great weight. “I believe... I believe Albert Mayfair is still searching for George Rawlings. He does not have proof that he is dead; he still... hopes.”
“Well then, we shall have to show him,” Ratcliffe said. He stood up. “If Albert’s brothers killed him on the grounds, they must have disposed of his body somehow.”
I thought it better to wait until morning to look, but Ratcliffe was curious and impatient. “This curse has haunted my Mayfair cousins for a hundred years; I see no point in idling any longer.” He went to the servants and fetched two shovels and a lantern, marching out onto the grounds like a bullish dog. I followed him while pinching the bridge of my nose, watching as Rawlings headed directly for the stables where he swung the lantern about his head, spooking the horses.
“It was, er, a long time ago,” I said. “There will be nothing left of the murder.”
But Ratcliffe smiled sharply. “You forget what I do for a living. All civilizations leave something of their stories behind, and murderers are no different than great city-states. They must all have their fall.”
I let him work. I was a dutiful pupil and did not disturb him, nor did I experience any desire to wrest control from Ratcliffe’s hands. He was careful and methodical, working over the stables from the entrance to the room in the back where they kept the tack, his lantern-light casting all the dark shadows into clear truth. I did not know what he was looking for, and he did not deign to explain. We were there for a very long time, until my legs ached from alternating crouching and standing. I expected Ratcliffe to grow weary; he did not have the most even of tempers and could shift with every sentiment. But he did not display any sign of frustration, and when he returned to me, he said, “There is some blood leading out back. It is old, and there is a patch of ground behind the stables that is not quite as it ought to be.”
Not quite as it ought to be. Those seven words, I suspected, stretched and shaped the heft of our lives. It was not quite as it ought to be, and I joined Ratcliffe in digging our shovels into the area of dirt that he indicated. I saw nothing, but Ratcliffe worked with the rhythm of calculated precision, his arms heaving dirt over his shoulder with practiced ease.
After some time, he halted and bid me come look. There was a body deep in the ground; or rather, what was left of a body. The bones were silken white and broken in wrong places.
Ratcliffe took the bones and wrapped them in cloth, and we brought it back to the manor for the hungry ghost that waited.
Mrs. Mayfair sent for a boy to run into the town and summon the priest again. The last of the lantern was dying. Ratcliffe and I waited for the priest’s return in a room of dappled darkness. He sat in an armchair by the fireplace while I stood by the bookshelves, pacing. I looked over the titles of the books with feigned interest, though I could not think; all I could of were those bones, sweet and white, resting in the ground where the flowers grew in spring.
“It disturbs you,” Ratcliffe said, “this story.”
“The dying of children disturbs me,” I said, for I could not help but see them as that: Albert Mayfair and George Rawlings, young and brazen, and all the cursed Mayfairs to come.
“Like Palmer,” Ratcliffe said. It was not a question, more a personal thought. He looked at me keenly. “Do you dream about them afterwards? You seem the sort who does; is that why you sleep so rarely?”
His words prodded at a sore wound. “Do you not?” I asked vehemently. “They are your cousins, and yet you remain so... so unaffected.”
Ratcliffe was astonished. “Unaffected?”
“It does not... disturb you?”
“Very little disturbs me,” Ratcliffe said. “People have done terrible, cruel things to other people throughout all of history; I cannot do my work if my dreams are disturbed and I become...” he waved his hand, “a sensitive, wandering soul about it.” He said it so precisely that I knew it was exactly what he thought I was. I flushed.
“You have too much imagination, Booth,” Ratcliffe said at last.
“Perhaps I do,” I mumbled, “but I do not think any of us should have to die for...” I broke off, looking to the wall uneasily, afraid I had said too much. The fact of the matter was, I had seen it happen many times before; too many, all in the wreckage of the thing we call love.
Ratcliffe stared at me for a long time. Then he rose from his armchair and crossed over to the bookshelves. I tensed in fear and anticipation, remembering the sharp taunts of the boys in our youth, but Ratcliffe’s hands were tender as he cupped my face in them. I could hear him breathing. There was the faintest trace of scotch on his breath; I could see the light in his eyes. His fingers were small but warm, as hawk-like as the rest of him. He brought his face forward and kissed me softly. I gasped. He kissed me again.
I remembered what Ratcliffe had said to Carleton. Despair is also a mortal sin. He kissed me a third time, and it burned through me like steam, like a madness.
I said his name, hoarse and uncertain, and that seemed to be all Ratcliffe needed; he leaned from me, looked at me quietly, and smiled.
We brought Albert Mayfair the bones. We set them before William Mayfair’s feet and had the priest go through the rites once more. The walls shook with the savagery of William’s fury, and he shrieked like a drowning ship, falling through the darkness until Ratcliffe said to him, levelly, “These are George Rawlings’ bones. He is dead. He has been dead ever since. Find him elsewhere and leave us be.”
“He is gone,” Ratcliffe insisted. “Do you hear me? Gone!”
A light went out in William’s eyes, quick and snuffed. He bowed.
“Is it done?” Mrs. Mayfair asked.
The priest peered at William’s prone body. “Yes, I think so.”
I stared at William while worry deepened in my chest, but I could do little else than to accept the priest’s proclamation. I aided Mrs. Mayfair in returning William to the sickroom, and from the warm heft of his body, it did appear that Albert’s ghost had departed. Ratcliffe wrapped up Rawlings’ bones and took them to the library. He joined me in the hallway thereafter, and found me examining a series of paintings of Mayfair patriarchs and matriarchs, rendered in oil and shadows.
I did not speak to him as he approached. I could not speak to him. The weight of his kiss lingered on me; he had not shaved tonight. I could feel him beside me, however, as we looked at the Mayfair portraits. Then I forced myself to speak.
“I cannot marry,” I said. “Murchison men... we cannot marry.”
“How curious,” Ratcliffe said. “I cannot marry either, if marriage is what we speak of, which I think is not.” He smiled at me again, slyly. I blinked.
“Kyle,” he said, “how do you feel about dinner?”
“Dinner?” I said.
“The meal that comes after lunch but before the next day’s breakfast. I trust you’re familiar with it?” Ratcliffe shrugged. “I know some good restaurants in the city, and I trust you, as a native, know even more. Why not make a project of it?”
Yes, that sounded like the Ratcliffe I knew, and the man I had come to know through his letters: he enjoyed nothing more than a challenge. I wondered if I was that challenge for him, but then Ratcliffe smiled at me for a third time, and I saw the sweetness in it, strange and tentative on a man like himself. I took a deep breath and nodded.
Neither one of us quite knew what to do afterwards. It did not seem that Ratcliffe had planned for a successful endeavor. We stared at each other in faltering bafflement, and Ratcliffe opened his mouth to speak for both of us, ending the yawning torture at last, when we heard the sound of wind through an open window and then three harsh, unearthly knocks on the door.
Ghosts are not so easily laid to rest.
We went, together, and answered.