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Billiards and Bullfinch

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John Segundus did not play billiards and he had never been to a coffee house like the one he was in now. He did, however, have new clothes, which he was glad of on this evening. Mrs Lennox had told him that they wouldn't be the extravagance he thought, that if he was to be spending part of the winter in London he would need nice garments, and she was right. Segundus wondered if she had somehow anticipated that he would wind up in the company of an army officer and a Minster, playing badly at the game he had been invited to but at least not looking shabby next to them. His hosts for the evening had been teaching him the basics of the game for half an hour now.

"One more try, Mr Segundus," said Sir Walter, offering a cue.

Segundus took the cue, reluctant as he was, and positioned it in front of the cue ball. His strike resulted only in the ball flying off the table in the direction of Major Grant, who jumped out of it its way.

"Well," said Major Grant to Sir Walter. He picked up the ball and set it back on the table. “At least you can't accuse this magician of cheating."

Mr Segundus begged them to have the game without him, which they agreed to rather quickly and he sat back down, much relieved.

The outing has been suggested by Arabella Strange, with whom Major Grant and Segundus were each currently visiting. Segundus was undertaking many projects while on his stay in London and one of them was research for his book on Jonathan Strange. He was at the Bedford primarily to see where Strange had first accessed the King's Roads and do what research he could, but as there was a billiards table in that same room, he was still here with Sir Walter and Major Grant, who had decided to teach him how to play.

"You can't do it too, can you?" asked Grant. He positioned himself for his next shot, holding his cue in front a ball leaned over the table. "Can you walk through the mirror as well?"

He shrugged at the mirror, which was behind him, and took his shot.

"No," said Segundus. He watched as the ball Grant had been aiming for went neatly into its pocket.

"Is there a kind of magic you excel at? Now that there are more magicians, do you make specialties among yourselves?"

Segundus and Sir Walter looked between one another.

"Mr Segundus is the one who freed my wife from her enchantment," said Sir Walter.

"Really?" asked Grant.

Segundus was forced to nod as it was a thing that had actually happened.

"How did you do that?" Grant picked up his drink sitting on one of the corners of the table and took a sip from it.

"I don't know. I had never done magic before then at all." He felt he should try to explain a bit of the spell for scholarship's sake, but what he said was; "John Childermass said to do the magic, and I did."

"John Childermass?" asked Grant. "I have heard that name, I think."

Sir Walter coughed.

"He was Gilbert Norrell's man of business," said Segundus with a much tact as he was capable of. "You might have heard of an encounter involving him and a French spy where he was shot."

"Ah," said Grant, following with a cough of his own. "I remember now."

Sir Walter and Major Grant navigated around the table for the duration of a few more turns and Segundus stared at the mirror on the wall, the one Strange had used years ago. He felt magic frequently these days but whatever traces of the magic Strange had done there years were long gone and he felt no pull toward whatever road might be hiding behind the mirror. He mentally composed the start of a paragraph about the room and its contents and was happy in this exercise.

"How goes your writing, Mr Segundus?" asked Sir Walter, when he noticed how long Segundus had been sitting quietly. At that moment, Major Grant's strike did something with a ball that Segundus didn't understand to another one that must have belonged to Sir Walter and Sir Walter frowned.

"The writing goes very well," said Segundus.

"And what do you find while doing your research? Anything useful?"

"Oh yes," said Segundus. "I observed a cat today."

Both men stopped to look at him.

"A cat?" asked Major Grant. He was paused in the middle of chalking his cue.

Segundus felt he might be a bit disappointing as the second magician of Major Grant's acquaintance.

"Not just any cat." Segundus wished desperately that he had a drink to look down into or hold, or anything to occupy his hands. "He's called Bullfinch. He belongs to Jeremy Johns. He's the only one who can see the house. Or where it used to be, anyway."

The other men did not need to be explained the disappearance of Strange's and Norrell's homes. Segundus didn't elaborate on how interesting it was to watch the cat approach the hole in the neighborhood and slip so effortlessly in and out of it, trailing magic behind him. He thought they might be interested in the magic that so clearly hung over the place like a thick curtain being pulled in the wind, but Sir Walter and Major Grant had resumed the game. Segundus decided not to interrupt and watched them play.

When the game finished, Sir Walter excused himself to collect his wife from Mrs Strange's house, where she had spent the evening.

"Lady Pole would like to invite you to dinner tomorrow, Mr Segundus," said Sir Walter. "She says she hasn't seen you enough since you've been in town."

"I would be happy to."

"And if-" Sir Walter paused. "She is still unwell, at nights, sometimes. If there is anything you can do...You were the only one to help, before."

"If there's anything that can be done, I will try."

Sir Walter's coat was brought and he left. Segundus and Major Grant were alone.

When Major Grant had arrived, Segundus' stay in London as a guest of Mrs Strange had just been extended by two weeks. The cause of this was Mrs Strange's brother, who had arrived with a stack of letters for Segundus to look at, pleading for his help as someone who was known to be a magician and a friend of Strange. These were the true versions of the supposed Black Letters and Segundus immediately took up the cause for Mr Woodhope, and for Mrs Strange. Segundus had not thought, when he learned that there would soon be another guest in the house, that he would have much in common with a military man, and he did not. His uniform in particular had been intimating at first, especially if Segundus walked into a room where he was not expecting Grant and found him there looking like he had just stepped away from a battlefield. But Major Grant was such a welcome presence and so helpful and kind toward Mrs Strange that Segundus had soon decided he liked him.

Now, it was only the two of them and the billiards table.

"If you don't want to play, we'll have to quit the room," Grant said.

"I can't guarantee one of us wouldn't come to harm if I tried to finish a game."

"What?"

"Remember? I accidentally hurled that white ball there at you earlier?"

Segundus pointed at where it sat on the table.

"Oh. Yes, yes. Well, you're right. It's not your game. We could go somewhere else if you'd like. It's early yet."

"I'm afraid that your choices of establishment might be limited with me as a companion," said Segundus.

It took Grant a moment to decide how to proceed gracefully.

"Well, that's fine too. A walk, then, perhaps?"

Though it was very cold on that January night, Segundus did not want to be a disappointment to Major Grant, and agreed.

 

The thing about walking with an army officer was that it was impossible to be inconspicuous. Segundus felt eyes follow them as they started out into the cold.

"So," asked Major Grant. "You say you have no magical specialty?"

"If I do, it's not apparent. Though I did recently learn a spell to keep all the water in the house from freezing overnight."

Segundus had not expected this to impress a man who had done the things Major Grant had done, but he found the response to be surprisingly enthusiastic.

"Now, that's a useful thing! I wonder why Strange never did something like that."

"Well." Segundus stepped out of the way of a looming snow drift and nearly bumped into person, a tall man in gray coat past his knees, walking in the other direction. "Well, it's a thing I thought of on my own. It took a good deal of practice."

This earned a nod of approval from Grant. He did not mention the time that the spell had gone so far in the opposite direction that it had made the water boil instead and the whole house had been enveloped in steam in the morning.

"Will you teach that to your students?" Grant asked. "In your school?"

"If it continues to work consistently, perhaps."

They walked for several minutes more in quiet and Segundus pulled his scarf around himself tighter.

"You seem to have a plan, Major Grant. Where are we going?"

"I would like to see this cat you mentioned, Mr Segundus. The cat that goes in and out places that don't exist anymore."

Segundus told the Major that he could not guarantee that Bullfinch would be at the place or that if he were, he would feel like going into the house only he could see.

"Please remember, Major Grant. We're relying on the whims of a cat."

"I am happy to try my luck," said Major Grant.

 

The walk was long to Soho Square but Segundus was surprised at how little he felt the cold in the steady pace of the walk and at how easy it was to keep up with the Major. They talked a little along the way, most about their easiest common subject to discuss; Mrs Strange.

"She doesn't sleep well, either, sometimes" said Major Grant. "Like Lady Pole."

"I have heard her on a few evenings walking around. It's very upsetting for me. I want to help more."

"You told Sir Walter you would look in to a magical remedy."

"I am," said Segundus. "But it's a very difficult task, when all the books are gone.”

Grant agreed that every piece of instructional material on a subject disappearing would make the practice of it difficult.

"I can feel it," said Segundus. "There's still a bit of fairy magic around Mrs Strange, especially at night. It wakes me, sometimes."

Major Grant had never, even after years of being friends with Jonathan Strange, had someone tell him that fairy magic woke them in the night and he took a while to respond.

"That sounds," he said, "very inconvenient."

"It's not so bad, honestly. It was much worse when I cared for Lady Pole. “

Major Grant was always a little caught off guard by reminders of Segundus' time as a madhouse keeper. It seemed naturally like a topic that shouldn't be discussed at length, a thing to skirt around with the most delicacy, especially when the charge had been the wife of a friend of and a Lady.

They finished their walk in quiet and arrived, after a time, to the place between numbers 30 and 32, where there was, on this evening, no cat.
It was the first time the Major had visited the place and he hadn't prepared for just how odd it was to see the gap, the gap where there had once, most definitely, been a house. It was a house he had been in, one he could remember in the face of its emptiness. Major Grant would have found it even more disconcerting if, like John Segundus, he could see the magic pulling at the place, like a child sucking on a spot where he had a lost a tooth.

"Well," was all Major Grant had to say for some time. He shifted his feet in the snow and crossed his arms. Then, he asked Segundus if it was safe to approach.

"Oh, yes. Though if you do, you'll find that as you get closer, you forget what your destination is until you eventually turn around. Bullfinch is the only one who really can access the place at all."

Major Grant tried it, walking up to the place, leaving the only prints in the new snow as he walked up. He took a few more steps, and then, much like the hole in the neighborhood, there was a hole in his thinking and he felt a hand on his elbow and he was standing back next to Segundus.

"Are you alright, Major?"

"Yes, he said. "I didn't like that feeling at all, though."

"It's disconcerting."

Major Grant made no moves to leave the place however.

"Were you ever there, Segundus? In his house here?"

"No," said Segundus. “I was never able to visit the Stranges in London.”

"I don't think, until I saw it, that I really believed it had just disappeared," said Grant.

"It's not a thing England is accustomed to have happen in the present day."

"I don't like it. It was a place I had been, a place I had memories of. My friends lived there."

The Major frowned at his footprints in the snow. The houses on either side of them, numbers 30 and 32, had many intersecting footprints leading up to and away from them. But in front of where, until the spring before, number 31 had been, there was only one set; one neat path line of prints up and back.

Segundus was about to suggest that they return to Mrs Strange's, when he felt a familiar sensation, one of the increase of magic around him. He just managed to say Major Grant's name before the head of a gray cat appeared in the emptiness in front of them, and then the rest of him, just as though he had done nothing more interesting than walk out from under a bed. The cat sat in the snow and lifted a paw to clean himself, but found it cold and wet, and the next he tried was the same. He noticed the men standing on the street in front of him and walked up, adding his paw prints to the marks Major Grant's boots had already made in the snow. He approached Grant first and then turned to Segundus and meowed at him. Segundus picked the cat up.

"Major Grant, meet Bullfinch."

Major Grant scratched the cat behind the ears and the cat rubbed against his gloved hand.

"It's a fine cat, as far as cats go."

"He is," said Segundus. "I feel we've gotten to know each other well."

"Do you think that it is able to go where they are? It is that where the cat is when it goes-"

Grant titled his head toward the vacant space.

"I'm afraid you're going to get very tired of all the things I don't quite know about magic, Major Grant."

Grant thought about this statement for several seconds.

"I will ask one more question, if you don't mind."

"I don't."

"Do you think he'll come back? Do you think they'll come back?"

Bullfinch lifted a paw and gently touched the front of Segundus' coat. Segundus opened a few buttons and tucked the cat inside.

"Thankfully, you've asked a question I might be able to answer. I asked it myself, a few months ago. John Childermass- I have mentioned him, I think- he believes they will not return, at least in this generation."

"And this John Childermass. He knows what he's talking about?"

"If anyone does, it is he."

The cat in Segundus' coat meowed at them and turned his head to look up at Segundus before blinking himself into a nap.

"Even the cat is cold and tired," he said.

"Yes," said Major Grant. “It’s late, now, isn't it? Let's get a ride back if we can, shall we?"

Segundus followed Major Grant as he walked from the quiet and towards the better lit space further up the street, where a bit of movement and the sound of hooves on stone indicated they might have luck with hiring a hackney.

"Not in this generation?" asked Grant as they walked.

"Excuse me?"

"Your friend says they won't come back in this generation. But your children or grandchildren, perhaps they will meet them."

"I don't think I will marry, Major Grant. But it's a nice thing to think, isn't it?"

"It is," said Major Grant.

They did have luck in the end and the presence of an army officer was enough to allow entry of a cat into the cab along with the human passengers.

Bullfinch, after a few minutes in transit, crawled from Segundus coat onto Grant's lap and following a stretch, curled up and went back to sleep. Grant raised an eyebrow at the cat at first, but then rested a hand on Bullfinch's head and was rewarded with a purr. Grant stared out onto the street as they as they made their way through the town. Segundus could see that the visit to the disappeared house of Jonathan Strange had weighed on him. There was no way propriety would allow Segundus to ask what he had some of suspicion of, why it was that Grant was so affected.

"Miss Flora Greysteel was a guest of Mrs Strange's when I first arrived," said Segundus. "And she told me a story about a woman of Venice who could speak the language of cats."

"Is that so?"

"Yes. She has disappeared, apparently. Maybe one day we will find a translator and we can learn what Bullfinch knows, if he sees Mr Strange and Mr Norrell at all when he travels. We could send messages, as well, in theory, though who would translate them for the magicians I don't know."

Segundus was babbling now and he knew it, but the Major was so obviously sad that he was eager to offer any sort of comfort. It seemed to work. Major Grant smiled weakly down at the cat.

"Well, Bullfinch. You may turn out to be the most useful cat in England. One day."

The rest of the ride was quiet. When they arrived back to Mrs Strange's, Major Colquhoun Grant and John Segundus took Bullfinch the cat to the kitchen, where they gave him a saucer filled with water and a piece of ham they found in the larder. The potential most useful cat in England had that between his teeth when the two men left to go their rooms.

They said good evening to each other and commented on what a pleasant evening it had been.

Having now said their good evenings, the men realized that they had the same destination: the upstairs of Mrs Strange's home, where their rooms were. Major Grant was the first to move up the stairs, Segundus close behind.

"Major Grant," said Segundus, and Grant stopped. "I hope you weren't disappointed by the evening, or saddened. I wish I could tell you for sure that your friend is somewhere where he is happy and safe. John Childermass-"

"You have mentioned him."

"He says that they are where all magicians used to go. It might be that though he misses his loved ones and aches to return home to them, that Mr Strange has found some contentment where he is. And his memory will live on in England. "

"Yes," said Grant. "He was a prolific writer and magician."

"And through those who loved him as well, Major Grant." Segundus, having said what he needed to, quickly relieved them of the quiet that followed. "I am keeping you from your bed, and me from mine. My apologies."

Though it was very late, John Segundus found that once he was in his room, he was not tired after all and sat down to write down his thoughts on the evening and a letter to Mr Honeyfoot and perhaps, if he had the energy, to Childermass.

Grant lay awake in his bed though he too was very tired, listening for true stillness to overtake the house. Sleep overcame him eventually and though he was a light sleeper, not even a solider would have been alerted to the sound of a cat coming up the stairs and falling asleep in the hallway near his door.