"Come and kiss me," said Theodora, "sweet and twenty."
She knows, thought Eleanor wildly. How does she know? "Honestly," she said aloud. "Theodora. You know perfectly well that I am thirty-two years old."
"It's a pretty song, isn't it," said Theodora. "I suppose I must have heard you singing it before." She was lying back in the big double bed they had made by pushing their two beds together, her lovely hair all wreathed about her face. The pale blue covers were drawn snugly up, and Eleanor was lying with her, their hands clasped together over the crack in the sheets. Every light in the room was burning bright.
It was the night after they had seen the picnic in the garden.
"'Would you have a love song, or a song of good life?'" asked Theodora. "I always did like Twelfth Night, you know. And of course, we are already almost entirely twins, so it could hardly be much more appropriate, don't you think? Which one of us should be Viola, do you suppose?" She was speaking quickly and lightly, and holding Eleanor's hand very tight under the covers. Around them, Hill House hung weightless and waiting, its ugly angles pitched above them and its great spread of glassy black sitting, plump and secure, under the night-light on the stairs. "I myself," said Theodora, "have always rather wanted both."
"I think I would like a song of good life," said Eleanor. What did Theodora see behind us in the garden? she asked herself. What did she see that made her so afraid?
"With your stone lions and your white curtains and your cup of stars, of course," said Theodora. "Oh, Eleanor," she said lightly, "you little fibber."
"What do you mean?" asked Eleanor. She will never tell me what she saw, she thought, feeling her hair dry and prickly matted up behind her, clutching at her neck. In the morning, the pillow will leave creases on my cheek, and she will never tell me what she saw. I hate her, she thought, clutching Theodora's hand. I want to see her burn to pieces.
Theodora turned herself to face Eleanor, her breath warming her cheek. "You said before that you were thirty-four," she said. "Whatever else have you lied about, Eleanor?"
I hate her, thought Eleanor. She's only here because she can see the backs of cards. Here she is all clean, with my own clothes still warm from her, when she should be as dirty as me. "You know the person you live with, Theodora?" she asked in turn. "The person you're not married to? What's her name?"
Theodora's breath caught, just a little. "That hardly matters here, Eleanor," she said sweetly. "Why, would you like to come on a picnic with us? You could bring your cup of stars."
"That would be simply lovely, Theodora," said Eleanor. "You could come to the garden under my little apartment, and we could roast marshmallows over the campfire on twigs from the oleander bushes."
"How perfectly charming, Eleanor," said Theodora. They were very close together now, their legs tangling. Under the covers, it was almost warm. "How long would it take for the poison to work, do you imagine?"
"Oleanders are very poisonous indeed, I believe," said Eleanor. "So not very long at all, I like to think." I am here, she thought to herself. I am quite entirely Eleanor, and I am here lying in this bed with Theodora, who has at home a person she is not married to. I am here and so is Theodora, and I will make her quite as dirty as me. She brought up her free hand and held Theodora with it, where she was real and warm. I have been here since the world begun, she told herself, and so has Hill House. With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, she thought, moving closer. Theodora's breath on her face was hot and damp, and coming quick. For the rain it raineth every day. Theodora was biting at her lower lip, Eleanor realised. The bite was a kiss.
"I love my love with a V," said Theodora, whispering into Eleanor's cheek, "because it is like that. That's Gertrude Stein."
The rain it raineth every day, thought Eleanor dizzily. Theodora's hand was between her legs, under her nightclothes. But Hill House, she thought, is very dry. Little swimming curls of pleasure came up under her skin, and she moved her own hand faster, as if through golden paint. All of Theodora should be gold, she thought, quite gold and glowing. For Hill House is very dry. "Is this what they taught you in boarding school?" she whispered, breathless and wicked. "Was there a strapping games mistress, with muscles just as good as a man's?"
"Is there anyone who comes to your little apartment, Eleanor?" asked Theodora, holding above her a perfect golden smile. "Is there even a little apartment, my lovely Nell?"
Eleanor looked up at Theodora and felt a wide and gleaming smile spread over her own face. I am happy, she thought, I am brimming with joy. If only, she thought, it was not Theodora's hand. "I love my love with an H," she said, smiling. "That's from Alice, you know. Through the Looking Glass." She saw again the white trees glowing in the garden, and above the black and ghastly sky. And she saw Theodora beneath her, golden, smiling, rich as children's laughter or a bright round fruit. And for a moment, hooked and hung on Theodora's fingers, she felt time unhinge and start again, and Hill House fall away beneath her, small and black. A great while ago the world begun, she thought. Hill House was born, and it can die. What eats, Eleanor thought, looking at Theodora lying, ripe with sweet slick gold, can be eaten.
Then Theodora brought her hands up from under the covers, and laughed a little uneasily. "You might have told me, Eleanor," she said pettishly. "Or perhaps, I suppose, you didn't know." Her hands were riddled and dripping with scarlet, red as the stuff that had stained and spoilt her clothes. Sticky and smelling.
Eleanor could hear, quite clearly, what her mother would say. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words would come.
"If you ask me, that mother of yours has a lot to answer for," said Theodora a little later, running the bath. Neither of them looked at the connecting door to her old bedroom.
"I'm sorry," said Eleanor. She was washing her hands in the basin, watching her face before her in the mirror, caught in the grainy night-time electric light as if under clear water, or held in thick cold air. "I should never have said that about your school."
"Come to that, I should never have said that about your apartment," said Theodora briskly. She paused, testing the water. "You could sell that car of yours, you know," she said. "You'd get a few months rent out of that, I should think. To get you moving, as they say."
No, thought Eleanor. No, I am coming to live with you above your shop with your red and white walls and the table with the marble top. We will find out wonderful things and keep them clean. We will fold up that other person and put them away, beautifully, in a cedar-wood box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. No, she thought again, her thoughts dimly lunging, moving like a great golden fish in deep black water. No, you will never let me come. I will never know what scared you so, out in the garden.
Then, with a kind of rush and thrill of lightness, a glowing fall, Eleanor saw Theodora moving behind her in the mirror, the pale flesh of her arm still streaked with red, and saw the face before her in the mirror start to smile. Which one of us should be Viola, I wonder? she thought. Now that we are both as dirty as each other?
"One thing I did learn at boarding school," said Theodora, "is that we'll match up, if we stay here long enough, that is. Though I'm not due for a week or so. And I suppose you know that, living with your sister."
"Practically twins," said Eleanor. When did I tell her that, I wonder, she said to herself. About my sister? Just now, I suppose, on the bed. It's not as if she didn't know most of it already. "For the rain it raineth every day," she said softly, swallowing the words. Always, somewhere, she thought. It is always raining, because there are so very many places in the world.
"On the just and the unjust alike," said Theodora, "and even I suppose on Hill House." She stepped into the bath, splashing, and the blood wicked away from her arm in tiny curling tendrils and was lost in the water. "Do hurry up, Eleanor. I can think of a great many things I wouldn't much like to do in Hill House in the night, and taking a bath is certainly on the list."
"The sheets will be dirty," said Eleanor peaceably, climbing into the great white bathtub. She saw everything, she thought, or at least a great deal, and she doesn't care. She won't even take me home with her. Theodora stood up beside her, dripping warm clear droplets onto her face like spots of molten gold. There's blood in the water, she thought, but you'd never know.
"We'll deal with it in the morning," said Theodora, "or let the dread Mrs. Dudley at them, rather. And serve her right. For the moment, I couldn't care less." She was towelling herself dry, all of her pale and beautiful and mine, Eleanor thought, mine for just that moment. She really, truly was. What other things could you lie about, Eleanor? She looked up at Theodora, for an instant, with real pity. The house doesn't even know her name, she thought. It doesn't care about her in the slightest.
"The house is having one of its quiet nights, in any case," said Eleanor. She trailed her hand through the water, looking for the slightest scarlet grain. Really, she thought, one could never tell.
"What a perfectly awful thing to say, Nell," said Theodora. "And I don't even like to say knock on wood, given the circumstances." She paused, shivering slightly. "Do you remember what the professor said about poltergeists?" she asked.
"As many as seventeen spontaneous fires in one day," said Eleanor, getting out of the bath. "In a manor in Scotland."
"Bad ghosts drive out good," said Theodora. "Though I don't suppose the professor is much for economics, I wonder if there's something in it, myself." She looked with distaste at Eleanor's old-fashioned pad, with the belt that buckled around her waist and elasticated straps worn and grayish as greasy old snakeskin. "You can borrow one of my Pursettes, you know," she said.
"Maybe later," said Eleanor. She looked up at Theodora, at the draggled ends of her hair sticking a little to her shoulders, at her pretty face with laugh-lines at the mouth. She is afraid, she thought, she is almost as afraid as she was in the garden. "You mean, you wonder if there's something in me, that is," she said. "Talking of knocking on wood. Talking of bad ghosts."
"Well," said Theodora, "when you were young, as the professor said, there were the stones. The falling stones ..."
Theodora had trailed off, her face gone stiff and white. Eleanor, following her gaze, saw with what she would have liked to be surprise the bath lying behind her, brimful with something red that moved like blood.
"And now it looks quite clean," said Theodora, a little wildly, the next morning. "My clothes are as well, you know. I went and checked. They're all entirely fine. Like new."
"At least you won't have to borrow mine any more," said Eleanor. "That must be a relief."
"I'll change now, of course," said Theodora, plucking at her slacks. "Thank you for the loan."
"You can keep the red sweater," said Eleanor. "It looks good on you."
"It doesn't look too shabby on you either, you know," said Theodora. "Nothing does, in fact. You do know that, Nell?"
"I suppose I do," said Eleanor. She saw again the face in the glass, looking back at her, shining and pale and self-possessed, as if under fresh red water. The rain it raineth every day, she though, and when that I was a little tiny girl - well, I suppose some small bad things once did come down, like banging stones. But that was long ago, she thought, a long time ago when the world begun. I am old now, older than the trees and the hills and Hill House itself, although it knows my name.
She bent forwards, touching Theodora's cheek. It isn't so hard at all, she thought. Being dirtied all over with glorious gold. I suppose I might even, she thought, sell that car. It is, after all, half mine. It is a pity I could not steal the gold-trimmed plates.
"Eleanor?" asked Theodora. "Eleanor, what is it? Eleanor?"
"Come and kiss me," Eleanor whispered. "Sweet and twenty." She lifted herself up, tiptoe in her bright red sandals, and spoke in Theodora's ear. "Hill House," she said, "is very dry. And soon it will be searching for someone, someone in a red sweater, perhaps, to call its own. I'd get out of here, Theodora, and call up your love you love with a V, my love, if you ever want to go home to your marble-topped table and your lovely red walls." She felt herself laugh, just a little. Theodora jerked under her hands. "Seventeen fires," she said softly, "in one day." Eleanor laughed again, and kissed Theodora, lightly, on her dry lips. After all, she thought joyfully, I am still stealing gold, of a kind. And twins can share a lot of things, whether they know it or not.
Theodora stumbled back, shaking. Her eyes were very wide, and around them Hill House moved, unbearable and undecided, slow, and balked, perhaps, of its ripe prey.
Hill House was filling up with smoke like icy breath. Inside its green gardens, inside its walls, inside its great rooms and the small rooms they enclosed, inside its glossy rounds of precious stuff, small flames came up like naughty little mouths, nipping and laughing. Hill House was changing like a girl before a mirror, drawing on pretty new lips in glossy red.
Theodora turned on her heel and began to run.
"I'd tell the others," Eleanor called after her. "But I suppose they'll smell the smoke." Small, chuckling flames were whisking up around her, bringing up the blue wallpaper in bright new seams of bubbles, running up and down the heavy curtains, down the dry veins of the house, caressing with light little touches the spun sugar egg and melting the wax flowers. They were chasing over the thick carpets, sending long shivering cracks through the glass domes and the silver mirrors, opening out the velvet tassels into soft and gorgeous red and orange blooms.
Eleanor walked forwards like Theodora, like a dancer, and the house danced with her, all around her, warm and red. Hill House, she knew, would like her very much to stay.
"I'm dirty, you know," she told it aloud. "You wouldn't like the taste of me." And, tying Theodora's pretty scarf around her neck, Eleanor Vance made slowly for the stairs. I have been wanted, she told herself firmly as she went. I will be wanted again. And, more importantly, I myself may want.
Brushing past the sooty, shouting figures in the driveway, she settled herself slowly and with decision at the wheel of her car. I must make content with my fortunes fit, she told herself, starting the engine. For the rain it raineth every day. She saw the rich summer green of the gardens unfold before her as she started down the drive, her dirtied hands clasping the wheel. Although she had spent very little time in the burning house, the rims of her nails were quite, quite black. I suppose the fire may burn itself out, now that I am gone, she thought to herself. I suppose some of them, she thought again, may have still been inside.
"I love my love with an H," she said experimentally, "because I am happy." She passed the great iron gates, under the tall green trees. The road uncurled before her, wide and black. "I love my love with a T," she continued, more confident now, "because I am Theodora." She swung her car round a curve in the high hill road and felt weight fall away from her, for a moment, as if she had stepped off a tower. "I am Theodora," she said again, louder.
Behind her, in a golden house, a little thing called Eleanor withered and vanished like burnt paper, like a little slub of melted wax. "I am called Theodora," she told the black road before her, "and I am happy." Around her small, slow-moving car, the great hills rolled, their trees high as the sky and burning white. While overhead, and on the road, her new name belled and rang, solid and true, and stolen, and, like the sky itself, entirely black.